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Classic India: Crossing the Ganges at 5 am

A lot of hilarious and crazy events took place during Kate and I’s week in Rishikesh. We took sitar lessons, I got stopped for a record number of photos with locals, the Ganges flooded (again), and we saw a man slap a cow in the face for eating his chapati. We adopted a dog for a few days with a local shop owner who named it Joy, we made friends with the man we bought water from every day to the point where when we left, he felt so sad he demanded a photo shoot and gave us free Oreos, and once again we spent way too much time drinking chai and talking about things decidedly, un-Indian.

But by far the most undeniably insane and memorable story comes from our first morning in Rishikesh, or rather, our journey there from the train station of Haridwar, when the chain of events that took place was so increasingly unbelievable and stressful the only possible time we could top it was the day Kate got bit by a dog in Jaisalmer and the resulting hospital visits and Googling of “rabies” made for one hell of a four day stay. But we’re not talking about Jaisalmer, we’re talking about Rishikesh. But to get to Rishikesh, we must first journey backward to Varanasi, where Kate and I booked an “overnight” train ride that would take us about 25 hours, in second class sleeper, to the Himalayas we so longed to gaze upon.

So, with our packs stored under our slatted bunks, we happily ate Oreos (the official snack of Kate and Erin in India) and listened to the hustle and bustle of the train car, engaging our bunk mates in talks of arranged marriages and saris and mendhi until they hopped off the train at their stop. New bunk mates joined us, angry, old, man bunk mates, and so Kate and I decided to take turns sleeping so that one of us could alert the other when our trained pulled into the station. Because here’s the thing about Indian trains- they don’t announce what the next stop is. No one tells you when to get off. And 98% of the time there’s not even any labeled signs in the train stations to tell you where you are. This meant Kate and I were (and now that I think back on this the mental image and what the Indian people must have been thinking cracks me up) jumping off the train at every. single. stop., frantically looking around for any sign of where we were, and, if we could not find it, literally just grabbing the closest person and asking, wide eyed, “IS THIS HARIDWAR?! HARIDWAR!?” Most of the time the answer was a resounding, “I don’t speak English”, but after awhile someone would say, “No, it is not,” and we would jump back on the (sometimes already pulling out of the station) train car to wait for the next stop. Cut us some slack, this was our first overnight train ride.

Cut to 3 am. It is my turn to sleep, and I am suddenly awoken by an extremely frantic Kate. “We’re here! Get your stuff, WE GOTTA GO!” So, I throw my backpack on, grab my day pack, pull the iPad out from the thin pillow I’d been hiding it under, and we attempt, unsuccessfully to disembark. Indian men are standing around, drinking chai, not moving from the narrow aisles we need to exit from. We start to ask nicely, then ask sternly, then, as we feel the train start to move again, we start to push. We are screaming, “Move, move, God, how rude!” as we elbow our way off the moving train and into the Haridwar train station.

Another thing about Indian train stations and, really, just India in general: people will sleep anywhere. We were stepping over and around families, all sleeping on the floor of the train station at 3 am, trying to get to the taxi stand. This took about three times as long as it should because when you have a backpack strapped to your back, and a daypack strapped to your front, and are clutching an iPad like an idiot in a third world country, you have a lot of people coming up to you asking if you need a ride, and a lot of people grabbing at you for what seems like inexplicable reasons until you notice the Apple product in your right hand. I quickly stuffed my iPad into my day pack, and we booked it out of there.

We made it off the train, at 3 am, into a strange town, full of people trying to swindle us, and we needed to get 25 miles to Rishikesh by tuk tuk or cab. It seemed like all we needed was to find a decently priced tuk tuk and we’d be home free…and then it started to pour down rain. We argued with a few tuk tuk drivers over what the price should be to Rishikesh, but after a few minutes of standing in the rain we relented and agreed to pay 800 rupees to get to our accommodation, The Green Hotel. So we climbed into the tuk tuk of a seemingly friendly 30-something Pakistani man (read: seemingly), and took off for Rishikesh.

The rain pounded down on the tuk tuk and we passed over bridges, through little towns and villages, and as we drove, we noticed hordes of people in orange shirts, walking along the roads, carrying buckets of milk and river water, flower wreaths, and incense sticks, now put out when the skies opened up to soak us to our bones. “Bolba, Bolba, Bolba,” they chanted. And Kate and I, confused, watched them fade behind us in the distance, but more would always be found walking the roads, barefoot and clad in orange, toward the rushing Ganges.

Our tuk tuk came to a stop. “I can take you no further,” our driver said, “the roads are flooded. Get out here and walk ten minutes that way, then you will be at your hotel”. We looked at each other, wide eyed. It was pouring rain, and we knew we were still in Haridwar. We weren’t even close to our hotel, and this man wanted us to get out and walk…where?

“No,” we blatantly refused, “You have to take us further. The roads aren’t flooded.”

“I cannot,” he explained, “but I will take your 800 rupees now.”

It was moments like this I was glad I had Kate as my travel buddy. “No way are we paying you 800 rupees to get dropped in the rain, man. Take us further or we aren’t paying you.”

“I canno-“, he couldn’t even finish before we watched two tuk tuks and a rickety old car speed past us on the road.

“Clearly, you can,” Kate said, and as we watched his face fall, we felt the tuk tuk rev its engine and start back up. We were back on the road, passing more pilgrims in orange, as rain continued to pelt us mercilessly.

About ten minutes later at the edge of Haridwar we came to another stop. “I can take you no further, the roads are flooded,” and this time he meant business. He hopped out of the tuk tuk, grabbed our packs, and threw them out of the tuk tuk and onto the wet, rapidly flooding ground. “Okay, well you’re high if you think we’re paying you 800 rupees,” Kate said, shoving 300 rupees at him.

Furious, the man demanded the price we set. Kate refused to pay, and as I watched them argue it occurred to me I should probably grab the rest of our stuff out of the tuk tuk, as I watched the man’s face grow red with anger. “You said 800 rupees! We agreed!” he was yelling. “I agreed I’d pay you 800 rupees to take us to our hotel. You are dropping us in the middle of nowhere in the rain. You’re lucky I gave you 300,” was Kate’s decidedly awesome response. With both of our 60 L backpacks on me, I handed her my day pack. Then she looked at me and just said, “Run.”

So, with our packs hanging off my weary shoulders and our day packs soaking through with water to destroy any and all electronics, we took off running (well, I was more waddling than anything) as the man yelled at us to come back. But we didn’t even look back, and instead, we disappeared into a huge crowd of orange pilgrims, our blue and grey backpacks the only things differentiating us from the crowd. And just like that, we were free, lost, and wetter than ever.

With absolutely no idea where we were, at 4 am, we began asking people how to get to Rishikesh, how to get to the Green Hotel, how to get some place dry. No one spoke English, and instead, they would grab our arms and lead us forward, chanting “Bolba, Bolba!” until we shook ourselves loose to ask another stranger. Finally, after about half an hour of walking in the rain we found a yoga studio with a man standing outside, and we rushed up to him, begging for help. He let us use his bathroom, dry off with some old rags, and get our rain jackets out to wrap around our day packs. Then, he pointed across the Ganges. “You cross that bridge, you’ll be in Rishikesh.”

Let’s just talk about this bridge: it was small, rickety, swaying in the wind, and absolutely every inch of it was covered in pilgrims. It was a swinging, orange bridge over the massive, rushing, Ganges, which poured at a hundred miles an hour downward from the Himalayas as rain added to it’s mighty flow. We were terrified. It was 4 in the morning. We were wet, cold, and in the middle of the Durga festival. We had no choice. The man told us unless we were going to pay him, we had to go.

So we went. And walked with the pilgrims, chanting Bolba, trying to make light of the day’s events, across the bridge, swinging and swaying and being pushed and prodded and pulled until we reached the other side. The other side, it turns out, was full of cows.

I mean at least fifty cows in a quarter mile radius. All of them horned, and stressed out, and running us into corners. It was still raining, we were still lost, and the sound of “Bolba!” was still ringing in our ears. We asked a police officer where to go and he pointed up a hill. So we walked up the hill only to find a dead end and no Green Hotel. We asked an old man where to go and he pointed left, so we went left, only to find another dead end and no Green Hotel, only more pilgrims, and more cows. We must have looked desperate, because a young man came up to us with his wife and asked if we were okay. We were absolutely not okay, we told him, and we needed to get to the Green Hotel, or be sacrificed to the Ganges, whichever was easier.

The Green Hotel? That was his cousins place! He would take us there right away. And in a moment of weakness, Kate and I trusted yet another stranger to get us there safely. And, in a moment of rare fortune, he and his wife took us to an alley way, and said, at the end of this street, you will be there.

We walked, expecting another dead end, but found, instead, The Green Hotel.

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ASIAN SENSATION PHOTO RECAP PART DEUX: Elephant Splash Fight

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Guys, I love elephants.

Like, I really, really love them a lot. And let me just tell you they don’t feel the same. They wanted me OFF of their backs immediately if not sooner. Luckily they’re easily swayed to your favor with a bunch of sugar cane or a bushel of bananas. The way to an elephant’s heart is the same way as to a man’s: through their stomachs. So with a hand full of kip I tried to buy an elephant’s love for an afternoon. But it would take more than a few bananas to make these elephants love a human.

When we first got to the Elephant Camp outside Luang Prabang, down a dusty road, around a mountainside, and across a muddy bridge, we were taught elephant commands, introduced to a bevy of wrinkly, grey beauties, and told that the elephant’s favorite part of the day was bath time because they love cooling off in the water.

I can’t speak for the elephant’s but I think they just hate everyone at the Elephant Camp in general. Southeast Asian people don’t treat their animals well, domestic and non, and the elephants, it seems, were no exception. It was less awkward than Tiger Temple, but that’s another story entirely. (See how I foreshadow like that? Damn I’m good.)

The elephants are large. I know this. You know this. They’re gigantic. They could sit on us and murder us, but they choose not to because they are docile, gentle giants. And so they let us, tiny predators, jump on their backs, strap literal benches to them, ride on their heads, prod them with poles. I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable. But the mahouts (Laotian elephant trainers) have absolutely no problem yelling, kicking, pinching, poking, and, in the case of the river, literally jumping on top of them to get them to perform for the white tourists who come to see them in hordes.

So, we rode them, fed them, laughed and took photos and then it came time for bathing. I had to put on that gorgeous navy blue men’s shirt because my bathing suit was too sexy (I know it wasn’t meant as a compliment, but I took it as one), and we headed down to the river to wash our elephants. We walked down a steep hill into the river and the elephants, every single one, immediately took giant dumps in the water. Turds the size of a baby, just floating past your legs, brushing up against your thighs. Lovely.

And then I became the most uncomfortable I was all day: my mahout asked me if I wanted to get wet. I mean, I’m in the water aren’t I? I’m in my bathing suit? “Yeah,” I said, “Sure. Go for it.” And then he literally started jumping on top of my elephant, jumping up and down, slamming his feet down into her little adorable wrinkles yelling, “SHOWAAAAAAHHHH! SHOWAAAHHHH!” And shower me she did. After some light coaxing (this is blatant sarcasm), she splashed me again and again, I’m assuming to avoid more jumping.

“Whoa!” I said, alarmed. “Don’t hurt her! It’s okay. I don’t need a shower,” I said to the mahout. “It’s okay,” he assured me, “she likes it”. Forgive me, but I don’t know anyone or anything that loves being jumped up and down on being screamed at to perform for some asshole white girl with a Facebook album agenda. I felt really bad. Really, really bad. Because these elephants really are so cute. So gentle. So nice. They don’t deserve that.

The photo looks so happy, right? Just a girl and her elephant having the time of their damn lives in the beautiful Laotian countryside. In reality, though I’m smiling, because you could throw hot wax on me and I’d still be all smiles with an adorable elephant showering me in a river, I’m actually very emotionally uncomfortable because I can tell the elephant is physically uncomfortable, as well as probably emotionally ravaged by its circumstances.

So, I decided I was against elephant camps. Why don’t they just free them? Let them run free in the wild where they belong!? Why these horrendous camps?!

And the answer is devastating. The elephants have nowhere else to go. Elephants are with killed when found in the wild, their tusks used for carved ivory, their bodies stuffed and sold to collectors, or they are enslaved and brought to work in the jungles hauling lumber. Elephant camps, as shitty as they are, are the best lives these animals can hope for. How much does that suck?

It’s incredibly sad to me that elephants are kept alive and healthy purely for tourism. If we stopped visiting elephant camps, if we boycotted them or shut them down, the elephants would be killed, or released into the wild to die at the hands of native people or hunters, or be recaptured and brought to haul lumber through the countryside. I really hate that.

And so, I like to think my elephant splash fight wasn’t all bad. At least my elephant got to cool off and take a dump in the river. At least she got all the bananas I could afford. At least she’s relatively safe.

I’d like to urge anyone who visits an elephant camp in the future to make sure it’s as humane as possible. Go somewhere the elephants only work a few hours a day, where they alternate elephants, where the elephants seem unafraid of humans. If the elephants are being forced to work all day, in the heat of the sun, over and over again for the amusement of tourists, don’t be that tourist. Just leave. Go somewhere else. You’ll be glad you did when your elephant splash fight is genuine and organic. You shouldn’t need a mahout jumping and screaming on your back to make your elephant want to play with you. They should feel safe and loved, not scared and abused.

Splash on. But splash responsibly.

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Apologies are in Order…

Oh hey, guys, it’s me, the worst travel blogger ever.

Listen, I have a really valid excuse for not updating you on all my shenanigans. I really do. Ready for it:

I’m having a great life.

And when you’re having a great life, i.e. meeting new people, rejoining old friends in new places, cruising through a monsoon on Ha Long Bay, spending $178 on watered down drinks at a famous hotel in Singapore, trying to figure out how to sneak into the Petronas Towers, getting ripped off time and time again by Cambodian children, you just don’t have time to upkeep a travel blog.

Or maybe you do have time. All other working travel blogs would point to the fact that you do, in fact, have time. But listen, I just don’t.

Traveling is exhausting.

Between waking up early to catch planes, trains, automobiles, and the occasional boat, walking around cities all day, squatting on toilets all night (talkin’ to you Ko Phangan) and debating whether or not to buy 1,000 sticks of incense for four dollars (I did), it’s just been difficult to pull out the ol’ keyboard and clack away about all my adventures and hijinx. And there have been many adventures, and much hijinx.

Now I’m in India, getting cultural on some curries and chais, being swindled in train stations, and just all around being told my safety as at risk by every Indian government employee I talk to. It’s a party, and we’ve got a month more of it. India is as enchanting as I imagined it would be, and I’m so excited to be here.

But for now, I’m off to see the Taj, the Assi Gahts, and get my palm read by an Indian mystic just to see what’s in my future!

PS I made a pact to myself that just for fun I wasn’t going to shave my legs for the entirety of India. I have a feeling my leg hair is going to be deliciously, luxuriously long. Pics to follow?

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Sometimes you get threatened by a Cambodian street gang

Sometimes, on an around the world jaunt, you’ll run into problems. You’ll have to classify these problems after the fact as something that was either totally out of your hands, or, what Kate and I like to call, Kelley and Skye hijinx, i.e. we most likely caused this to happen but are safe now so let’s crack up about it endlessly.
Last night was a slight combination of both. It started out completely out of our hands, but slowly dissolved into the hijinx that would land us using an emergency credit card at a 3 star hotel, drinking instant coffee and using the free internet to write about this very instance. You see, yesterday, Kate and I boarded a rickety old bus to take us to another rickety old bus. On that rickety old bus we stayed, for nine hours. NINE hours to go about 300 kilometers. I know what you’e thinking, “how in the fresh hell is that possible?” and the answer is, that’s typical, and not even the longest bus day we’ve had on this journey. it was, however, the most frustrating. We stopped about every other kilometer for about fifteen minutes to load on people in surgical masks carrying boxes. What was in the boxes, we wondered? Fruit? Clothes? Which quickly turned into talk of drugs? Fake Prada bags? Child slaves? Guns? The fact of the matter is, no one seemed to know but the bus driver and the men getting on and off. So, here are some Dos and Donts about what to do on a Southeast Asian intercity bus ride:

DO bring a sweater, because even though it’s searing hot outside. Like, baking your skin off hot, they WILL attempt to freeze you off of the bus. The a/c vent is a personal one, like on an airplane, only you can’t close it, and it WILL pound you with freezing cold air throughout the entirety of your journey.

But also, DON’T dress only for cold weather because the bus a/c might be broken in which case prepare for the hottest, sweatiest, sick nasty bus ride of your life. There will be B.O. It will mix in the air. But at least you won’t have to pee as much since your body will need all the water it can get. Really, it’s just:

DO prepare for all climates from Everest Base Camp to the Serengeti.

DON’T ask what’s in the boxes or question if it’s okay to bring this many live roosters onto a public bus. You may implicate yourself should your bus be pulled over and searched. Better not to know. Better to try and sleep. But,

DON’T sleep unless you have a fanny pack for your valuables or a friend in the aisle seat who cannot sleep on the buses or airplanes because locals WILL rifle through your shit to find money, cell phones, really anything of value.

DO use the squat toilets at the rest stops because you won’t have another chance. Learn to use them while wearing a backpack and a purse dangling dangerously below your knees. Do bunch your pants up as much as possible but don’t squat too low because then you risk getting your self soaking wet with water from…where? Who knows? Punjabi pants are great for bus rides because you can pull up the elastic around the ankles.

DONT eat the food at the rest stops, even if you have a strong stomach. Trust me implicitly on this. Even though your bus driver will pull over what feels like way too many times to get off the bus and have a full half hour long sit down meal, you shouldn’t.

DO bring Pringles.

DONT get excited when you see GI Joe Retaliation is playing because you won’t be able to hear it. But DO prepare to watch, on full blast, the same Cambodian music video DVD on every single bus ride. You’ll memorize the songs and vampire movie commercial in between. You’ll be an EXPERT at Southeast Asian dance moves. You’ll turn the volume up all the way on your iPod and just be mixing the sounds of the Vaccines with the sounds of a Cambodian karaoke music video superstar and at first you will think it’s hilarious. But slowly, it will drive you to the point of asking the person next to you to knock you out. Just punch you right in your face to avoid this fate.

DO get over your crippling fear of spiders because they will be crawling around in a tray on the floor of the rest stop that doesn’t offer Pringles, but does let you pick out your very own giant spider with a giant stinger on its butt so they can fry it for you on a stick. And you can eat it.

DO get over the fact that the person behind you is eating a giant bag of crickets. Snack with them if you’re adventurous. Yolo.

It probably sounds miserable. It probably sounds like I’m complaining. In actuality, if you have any sense of humor at all, you will find it hilarious. HILARIOUS. The first go around. Then it goes from funny to zany, funny but seriously what is happening, what is life, am I a person, do I have a family, what is my name? These are the stages of intercity bus rides. You will feel them all. And then you will arrive in your destination city, in this case, it’s Phnom Penh. And in a matter of hours you will have been threatened by a Cambodian street gang.
Kate and I had stayed in Phnom Penh before. You may recall, if you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, that we were upgraded at our hostel, MeMates Place from the dorm to a private air conditioned room with an ensuite bathroom and HOLY SHIT it was awesome. When things like that happen, because someone overbooked the dorm, you truly feel your guardian angel kissing your forehead, telling you that you deserve this. You can now not worry once more about top vs bottom bunks, snoring, farting, hard partying roommates who don’t shower, etc.
So we booked for our layover night in Phnom Penh at MeMates because DUH they were a great hostel the first go round and they had a delicious cheap breakfast AND you could book your 30 hour bus ride to Laos through them. And we were SO looking forward to that bus ride. So we got to our hostel, and, here is a copy of the email I sent to my Dad about what happened next, edited to exclude certain details (since this is a public blog and I’m apparently on the run now):

Hey Dad!
Hope trial is going great! So Kate and I got off of our 9 hour bus ride from Siem Reap and took a tuktuk to Me Mates Place, where we had stayed before, and booked another night, to sleep before catching our bus to Laos. We booked the room two days in advance and got a confirmation email that it would indeed be ready for us.
Upon arrival, they had overbooked us and were acting REALLY weird. Also, the staff we had known before was not the same. It was all strangers, which should have been a warning sign, and kind of was. But they quickly told us they could book us at a hostel up the road (read: in the red light district) if we just gave them $10. It was all sorted! “Great!” we thought as we headed into our free van to drive us to the hostel
So we get there, they have us sign in and take us to a room and I’m not exaggerating, Dad, there was blood and water on the floor, Kate’s pillow was stained with brown, and my sheets had been eaten by a rat. Also, there was poop in the toilet. It was basically a Hungarian torture chamber, or a jail cell. We went and got dinner, thought about it, came back, and there was even more water on the floor. So we decided to NOT stay there.
Because we had already paid $10 to the strangers at Me Mates, we asked the staff of the 11 Happy hostel (the red light one) to please call them so that we could get our $10 back since we weren’t staying at either place. They graciously let us use their phone, and when we called back, we may have incurred the wrath of a Cambodian street gang. I DON’T WANT TO FREAK YOU OUT, and as such, we are checked in (on the emergency credit card) to a nice hotel with 24 hour security filled with Westerners. But back to the story: so we asked the guy for our money back and he said he wouldn’t give it to us because he had had to pay $3 to book us at the other hostel. But it was his mistake that they overbooked. I know what you’re thinking, Dad, “Erin’s it’s $10, let it go”. But when you’ve been ripped off by lazy Cambodians for three weeks, it gets a little old and $10 is a small fortune here, so we insisted they give us our $10 back or we would involve the police because, in essence, what he was doing, was STEALING from us. He then said, “he’d find us” and demanded to know where we were staying, we told him hell no, and hung up, but before we did, he told us he’s find us whether we told him where we were staying or not. The people at 11 Happy hostel told us they didn’t even know this man, they’d never met him before, and they didn’t know what to tell us because THEY WEREN’T EVEN SURE HE WORKED AT MEMATES PLACE! This. is. Cambodia. We then high tailed it to a hotel. HOWEVER, do I feel safe in Phnom Penh now, not really? Are we planning on taking the 30 hour bus ride to Laos? No. Am I sleeping with my knife next to me Fiji style? You betcha. But really, don’t worry. We’ll laugh about this in Hanoi together.
I love you!!!!
EK

Oops! Typical Kelley and Skye hijinx! But don’t worry, y’all. We are leaving Phnom Penh in a matter of hours and headed to new lands, sans any street gangs trying to “find us”, and have learned our lesson about overbooked hostels. If they don’t have your reservation, just go find somewhere else! Also, never stay at MeMates place again! Also, the red light district’s hostels, while affordable, are in fact, scary as hell and could give you an incurable disease, and are therefore, not worth the money. Also, don’t you dare try to get your money ack. Also, rats will eat your sheets here.
Also, don’t threaten scary men with the police. Also, maybe don’t come back to Phnom Penh for awhile, and if you do, wear a disguise.

So there you have it, those have been the last 24 hours for me. How’s everyone else’s week going?

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