Nosh and Nostalgia — Last Days in India

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Cycling Stats
Panjiim to Povorim 7 km
Panjiim to Vasco De Gama 25 km
Day trips around Goa beaches 25 km
Train Station to Hotel in Bangalore 5 km

As planned, we haven’t done much cycling since we put our bikes on the roof rack of the big white taxi. And that’s ok – we needed to spend some non-road time in India and did not want to do a lot more beach time.

We found the solution in Panjiim (capital of Goa) where we stayed for ten days at two separate guesthouses broken up by a week at Angel’s Resort, in Povarim (only 5 or so km from Panjiim). Panjiim was a great way to get a city fix, where we walked around in the old section (the latin quarter) looking at the old Portuguese architecture. We took in a city-wide street photography exhibit and rejoiced in finding a pedestrian friendly (relatively speaking) Indian city with lots of restaurants (Goan, Indian and western) and ate back any possible weight loss. With gusto — as we usually do (oh sigh).

We took the overnight train (15 hours) from Panjiim to Bangalore the night before last and we’re now getting bike boxes, packing up and arranging transport to Chennai.

The last few days of a trip are always marked with nostalgia for me, largely I think because we travel for so long our time away becomes large episodes in our lives. This morning Ian and I braved the Bangalore traffic to walk to a bike store for our bike boxes and as we negotiated our way home through the cows, goats and auto rickshaws I felt a huge affection for Ian as I recalled other similar walks, struggling to walk with the empty bike box, in many cities around the world. I feel grateful that we are both so happy to be going home to France and our friends there.

Today that nostalgic feeling is particularly poignant because last night I met up with Anu, the documentation manager that displaced me and the Vancouver-based technical writers I managed for Pivotal back in 2003. During that tumultuous time, Anu spent three month in Vancouver and then I spent three weeks in Bangalore, setting up the ‘remote office’ which eventually, unknown to Anu and I at the time, was to displace the Vancouver office entirely. (There was an astonishing lack of integrity happening at the executive/board level where Vancouver employees were given endless assurances so they would keep working while in reality the board’s only concern was ensuring that the company was well positioned for sale so that majority shareholders could maintain their places in the 1% — (people who earn over 300,000 a year) at the expense of the entire Vancouver team.)

I can’t say I am not bitter about the experience, but I never blamed the Indian team or Anu. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about seeing her again, but having worked that closely with her, I had gotten to know her very well and liked her. I’m happy to say that it was wonderful to meet up with her last night — she lived up to my memories of her. She was the same Anu I had remembered: smart, kind, highly ethical. Her integrity particularly struck me last night as it is in such contrast to the people who were pulling our puppet strings behind the scenes back in the day.

So last night she met Ian for the first time and then took us on a Bangalore romp to a favourite store of mine that specializes in Indian fabric (a favourite from my stay here so many years ago) and to a wonderful fast food Indian stall with terrific coffee and dosas, a favourite neighborhood market of hers, and then to a brew pub for some real beer. We talked about how crazy Bangalore had become in the last decade, her mixed feelings about it – on the one hand there is great opportunity for her daughter here – on the other – it has become expensive and is now a rat race for her and her husband as they work to pay off the mortgage. Now that India has become more expensive for outsourcing, the high tech sector here is no longer immune to the swings in the global economy and most middle managers can now add being laid off at some point to their career experience.

And we joked and reminisced and walked away vowing to keep in touch.

Yep, it is such a small world.

In Panjiim, we headed out of our guesthouse which was situated in the ‘latin quarter,’ a whole neighborhood of old Portuguese houses, many of which have been renovated, and ran into Ulrike, a woman Ian knew back in Vancouver. She was about to deliver a talk on cycling in Goa at a near-by venue and invited us to join her. We spent a fun-filled hour listening to Ulrike talk about her cycling experiences around the world, to an audience of Indian women who were intrigued by the cycling and I think especially, the freedom of her lifestyle (no marriage, no children, lots of travel). We then headed out for a night on the town, cycling to a couple of bars and restaurants. We had a great sharing of stories about cycling trips around the world as well as learning about Ulrike’s most recent project, editing the memoirs of her Goan uncle. Her uncle is from a Goan family that moved to Burma to work for the colonials before World War ll and this is where her father was born. Ulrike is housesitting for her uncle (who lives in Bombay) and having been in Goa for a number of months was a great bike tour guide, taking us a long a number of beach roads so we could get the flavor of Goan beaches.

And so it all comes to an end the day after tomorrow when we hunker down in the car for 8 hours to get to Chennai. Then its 12 hours on Saudi Airlines to Paris (with a stop in Jeddah) and then an 8 hour drive to Lauzun. A bit of a marathon….

In the end, I can’t say India is my favourite place although I think that may be the result of our having bitten off more than we could comfortably chew in terms of roughing it for as long as we did. Despite taking cars a few times, we did end up cycling 1000 kilometres and there is a great feeling of accomplishment around that. We also enjoyed cycling the back roads in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and I am grateful that we ran into Ulrike who gave us a chance to experience that again in Goa, giving us some nice cycling experience at the end of our trip. We also enjoyed Goa, the beaches and backwaters of Kerala and our short time here in Bangalore. We have seen huge slices of Indian life most tourists never see and when I see a map of India in the future I will feel intimately acquainted with the whole southern coast.

The trip has also given me a lot of time to think about globalization and how it has been a big force in my life in the last decade. I’m feeling inspired to take on a writing project with globalization as a central theme and have some ideas about how to redesign this blog and the French blog I have been writing – expansions and new directions. When I come home from a trip that has inspired any writing or other creative project I feel its been time well spent and so I’m happy to say this is the case with India despite the ups and downs along the way.

And so, I guess that would be a wrap (or a maybe a dosa ):-).

Big White Taxi

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Cycling Stats

Kochi to Cherai Beach 26
Cherai Beach to Guruvayur 61.68
Guruvayur to Tirur 59
Tirur to Calicut 57
Calicut to Thottaya beach 89
Thottada beach to payyanur 51
Big white tax to Gokarnum Beach 353

We’ve been at Om Beach for eight days now, chilling out at the Nirvana Café. Yep, really, I’m not making up these names. The beach is lovely. Someone picks up the garbage everyday and aside from cigarette butts, cow and dog shit, it is pristine. Remember this is India…Our hippie hut is very reasonable for the price, the restaurant is good by hippie hut beach standards and the geography is outstanding. Plus we have seen dolphins everyday and have enjoyed making friends with the beach dogs, including the one that insists on stealing people’s towels. (He likes to play chase. Stealing towels works.)

It has been a great way to unwind from our cycling adventure that has now come to an end after 900 kilometres.

The honking horns and kamikaze buses are now a distant memory. There were many good bits though: the back roads through Tamil Nadu rice fields and the back roads in Kerala that took us along the beach and through small villages and coconut groves. And there was the lovely man who invited us to his home somewhere in northern Kerala where his wife made us a local drink – buttermilk and herbs — and we met their kids and their new baby goats. This would not have happened if we hadn’t been on our bikes.

But as we cycled further north we began to run out of back roads and the traffic seemed heavier. The ride to Calicut was a tough one, mostly on the national highway. As we got close to the city we were increasingly frustrated by terrible drivers (Indians are the worst drivers in the world – absolutely no question about it.) I gave into a kind of cycling psychotic road rage that had me yelling a running commentary on the drivers around me (‘brilliant move asshole’ as I watched an auto rickshaw pass a stopped school bus, narrowly avoiding hitting children and cutting me off in the process) and which sometimes just deteriorated into me yelling fuck off at the top of my lungs to a bus, two inches from my mirror and honking as though he was trying deafen me. Of course no one could hear me above the din and they couldn’t understand me if they did…when Ian started experiencing the same psychosis we realized we might be coming to the end of our time on the road.

We left Calicut and did our longest day, 90 kilometres. We ended up at a lovely beach (Thottada) and stayed at a homestay (really a guesthouse) for four days, recuperating from the road. We miscalculated the distance ahead of us, thinking we were closer to Goa than we actually were. When we realized we might have to ride another five days in crazy traffic staying in crappy Indian hotels in crappy Indian towns we re-evaluated.

Our tolerance for Indian towns had already begun to deteriorate before Calicut but it took a big dive there, perhaps because we had higher expectations of it than the countless number of smaller cities and towns we had stayed in and it disappointed us. We kept hoping that we might find an Indian town that had a few street cafes or restaurants that looked out onto a street, or a park with a few picnic tables and a guy selling pop. We have learned finally that this kind of street life only exists in towns or cities where there are foreigners. We’ve learned that Indians, regardless of what religion they practice, are quite conservative by western standards and there seems to be little social life that does not involve family. This is particularly true for women – we never see them out at night on their own and when we do see them out and about they are shopping.

This was driven home to us when we stayed at the Beach Hotel in Calicut. The hotel was built in 1890 as a British club and the Indian owners have kept up the Victorian buildings that make up the hotel and its three restaurants and bar. The first night, thrilled with our room (the best value so far on the trip and lovely) we anticipated a cold beer (I actually hoped for a gin and tonic) in the hotel bar as we got out of our street weary and dirty bike clothes and luxuriated in a cold shower (well apparently there is never hot water even when you pay 60 bucks a night). We imagined a bar with big ceiling fans and hardwood furniture and a view looking out onto the small garden and courtyard just outside the bar. We walked in and noticed that although the place was full there were no women. All the blinds were pulled down and the lighting dim. It brought back descriptions of Canadian taverns in the fifties when women could only enter some bars with escorts and drinking in public was a dirty sin.

So we walked into the city center, yelling over the honking horns so we could hear each other, sidestepping garbage, and carefully picking our way to avoid broken sidewalks and motorcycles parked in all the pedestrian areas. We looked for charm but any old buildings that might have had something architecturally pleasant were run down and covered in shop signs. We finally found a park and sat on a bench — there was no café or picnic table — and wondered how many more Indian towns we really wanted to see.

Payyanur was the last straw. Another dirty town with no street life, noisy traffic, bad drivers and another hotel restaurant with dirty walls where a guy delivers thali on a metal plate and then slops sambar (a kind of breakfast vegetable curry made with tamarind) out of a big metal pail with a soup ladle. Sigh. (Although we do like dosas and sambar and ate kilos of both at places just like this.) At dinner we tried to do better and walked about until we found a posh (ish) looking hotel. They advertised a ‘family restaurant’ aka no booze and women are welcomed. It turned out there wasn’t one. There was a bar with food…we peaked in…The room was clean and modern with imitation leather upholstered chairs in good shape. But all heads turned when we opened the door, and they were all male and they were all getting loaded. We found a less posh family restaurant and were happy to get an English menu. The friendly enthusiastic owner asked us how we liked India, and with some guilt we lied. Lovely we said. Wonderful people (well that’s true for the most part). Very beautiful (read it might be if you guys would quit throwing garbage everywhere and pay even the remotest attention to architecture and regulating building signs and possibly reserving a little green space and understanding that ultimately urban living means more than women staying at home with the kids while men go out and get pissed in dark caverns).

Ok that’s all probably very culturally biased and spoiled westerner but that’s how I feel after cycling 900 kilometres. However, I’m glad we have done it because it has given me a view of India I couldn’t possibly have seen if we had cherry picked each destination, only choosing the ones that cater to westerners. We think this is how most tourists survive India. It has been interesting in a lot of ways and really we are just burned out which is not that unusual. We’ve heard of many people who get tired of India and fly to Thailand for a break…

So, it has been interesting to see how most of the world’s population lives. I read a Forbes report while I was here that said that 90% of the world’s population has less than 10,000 dollars in assets. In India that means almost a billion people as the middle class is around 400 million (so I assume they are not part of the 90%) and then of course there is the 1% (people who make over 300,000 dollars a year). Why is this important? Because we always think we don’t have enough. I know people in the 1% who insist they could not live on less than 120,000 dollars a year – that’s their poverty standard. Once we have convinced ourselves that we can’t live on less, then we feel we are entitled to it and we become self-centered and start making political choices based on what we think we are entitled to. This is why the 1% keeps getting richer… and the gap keeps widening. So, yes, it is good to be reminded about what it really means to be wealthy and what it really means to be poor. Stable, safe and productive democratic societies ultimately depend on us making educated political choices that are not completely selfish.

It has also been interesting watching a society that is still very gender-segregated. I don’t expect India can realize its great potential until women have the same freedom as men. It seems to me that family values, in the west as well, always seems to mean that women get to work and look after the house while men are free to go out with their friends, drink too much and act like little boys. In my experience, in the west, where men and women can drink in the same bars, I see less drunkenness and less leering. This is at least partly because everyone has a better chance of meeting a potential romantic partner when they aren’t leering like lewd idiots and getting shit-faced – it’s just not an attractive look…

So, the cycling in India and visiting crap Indian towns is now a wrap. From now on we will be cherry picking our Indian destinations from the comfort of our big white taxi.

On to Goa!

Quatro Formaggi Pizza, Cappuccino and other Guilty Pleasure

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Cycling Stats
Varkala to Kollam 40 km
Kollam to Alleppey (100 km by boat)
Alleppey to Cochin 60 km

I always laugh a little bit when we meet travellers who feel that the only way to really experience a developing country is to go local. In Kovalam I remember seeing a white guy wearing a dhoti making his way down to the beach through the town without anything on his feet – walking gingerly around the broken glass, goat shit, and the sharp edges of broken sidewalks, a cut foot waiting for a place to happen. Many poorer Indians don’t wear shoes and it is impolite not to remove them at temples and inside businesses and houses, but I am guessing that any Indian who can afford them wears them. It was a little hard not to cringe watching our western compatriot carefully picking his path, lots of Indians and westerners rolling their eyes as they watched him go by.

However, I do understand the desire for an authentic experience, as difficult as it is to nail down what that really means. If you want to experience other cultures and understand how people really live you are not going to get that at five star resorts – those are reserved for tourists whose fantasies of India are to do with pretending to be maharajas or perhaps big cheeses in colonial India (and that is really very unpc and probably not something you want to admit to.) But is it necessary to not eat with cutlery (Indians eat with their hands in the south) even when cutlery is offered? Or forego toilet paper for the toilet hose? (Aka bum hoser – something my husband actually prefers to loo paper but that is another story.)

Given that we will spend about 35 percent of our total trip days on the bikes in India, cycling through some small towns where we don’t have much choice but to be in the ‘real’ India, when we do stop and have lazy days I only feel minor guilt at our western indulgences. And I get a little kick out of watching westerners decked out in Indian duds watching us with some disdain as we chow down on grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries when we could be eating masala dosas. If they only knew that we’ve been eating masala thali three times a day for two weeks straight…

There have been a lot of indulgences recently, including hiring drivers, taking auto rickshaws and boats instead of using our bikes exclusively. In Kollam, we stopped at Ashtamudi Villas for three days, and enjoyed our small cabin overlooking a tropical garden filled with banana, coconut, papaya and mango trees on the shore of Lake Ashtamudi. When we weren’t lazing around the garden drinking beer we took an auto rickshaw and ferry to get to Lake Monroe where we were shown around the beautiful mangrove canals by canoe.

We travelled from Kollam to Alleppey by private ferry, a hundred kilometer trip that started at the dock from Ashtamudi Villas. This was a terrific way to see the larger backwaters of Kerala and we could not have experienced it the same way by bike.

From Alleppey we cycled to Kochi (old name was Cochin), the large port where Vasco da Gama first landed in India, claiming this part of the Indian coast for the Portuguese. The city retains some of the old colonial architecture and it is a nice break from jam-packed Indian streets where there is typically nowhere to sit (no sidewalk cafes or benches or parks). In Fort Cochin (an old colonial seaside neighborhood), we have found an Italian café that serves fantastic cappuccino and quatro formaggi pizza, with a few Indian twists (one of the four cheeses is paneer and the pesto is made with cashews instead of pine nuts and was delicious).

We were back to Indian food three times a day at Munnar, a hill station, which we got to via a hired car and driver. We relaxed for the four hour drive that wound 125 km up a narrow and winding mountain highway. We were a little less lazy once we arrived and spent three hours on a guided tour walking up to a tea plantation and then back down through a spice garden where our guide pointed out cardamom, pepper, coffee and cocoa plants.

Back in Fort Cochin, we headed right to the Italian café for a last hit of pizza and some café lattes. On the road again we will eat what is available and take our breaks in bus shelters in various states of disrepair. In the less touristed areas we will stay in local Indian hotels and take our chances with my toilet brush rating system (a hotel in Thondi set the lowest bar so far and defined the one toilet brush rating — a room with no hot water, a bucket instead of a shower, no toilet hose, no loo paper, dirty sheets and a sink that looked like it had never been washed).

And so, when we reach Goa and a lot of western tourists again, I will feel less guilt about living it up, drinking beer (I hope – Kerala is pretty dry in that regard) and thinking about our complicated reactions to the standard of living in India. I think the desire to go local sometimes is a guilt reaction – we should cut our bare feet on the dirt roads to make up for the fact that we don’t have to. Or maybe we just hope that there is something valuable about being poor that makes it less awful – a romantic notion that the poor people in India are spiritually richer than there richer western counterparts.

But feeling guilty is ok; it’s good to stay aware of the disparity between the rich and poor for a number of reasons, including our own spiritual growth. The guilt we feel about having more can make us remember to be grateful. And as we think about any possible benefits to being poor, we can remember that the all-pervasiveness of western consumerism ultimately needs mediation so that we don’t use up all our resources and pollute the planet beyond repair.

I think it’s important to analyze the guilt and other feelings that the awareness of disparity conjures so that our experience has depth and authenticity and the potential to change or fortify political points of view that might ultimately lessen the wealth gap…something I believe walking around barefoot when you can afford shoes probably isn’t going to do.

If you smile at me…

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If you smile at me I will understand…cause that’s something everybody everywhere does in the same language…. (Crosby, Stills and Nash – Wooden Ships)

This post is dedicated to the World Kindness Movement

Cycling Stats since Kumbakonan
Kumbakonan to Managurdi 40 km
Managurdi to Pattukkotai 34 km
Pattukkotai to Mimisal 68 km
Mimisal to Thondi (26 km in car)
Thondi to Ramanathapuram 49 km
Ramanathapurm to Kanyakamuri (270 km car)
Kanyakamuri to Colachel 38 km
Colachel to Kovalam 58 km
Kovalam to Verkala 61 km

One of the joys of cycling touring is the perfect speed of it. It is much faster than walking so you get the thrill of moving from town to town in the space of a day. Yet, unlike being in car, it is slow enough that you can interact with the people you meet along the way.

In India, that means kids waving at you from school buses and guys on motorcycles slowing down to chat with you as you both move along. It means passing women carrying water jugs on their heads and stopping for goat herders moving their goats across the road. At the end of a day of cycling here, I feel like I have been witness to a kaleidoscope of images in slow motion: villages with arches covered in bright colored paper celebrating a wedding, the hub bub of a market, a small lake with boys jumping gleefully into the water.

And flashing throughout this movie are a lot of smiling faces.

When we do get off our bikes and get to meet with people, our conversation is often limited because we don’t speak the local language and although English is the language of commerce here, there are a lot of people, especially poorer people, who don’t speak it. Yet, I am amazed at the richness of our communication.

After cycling in many developing countries where we know that the average wage of the people we are meeting is much lower than ours, we find that, despite the disparity between us, and especially in rural areas, we are met with nothing but smiles and kindness.

On our first evening at our guesthouse in Varkala (Kerala, India), we met Nawar another guest at our homestay. Nawar, has been in India for three weeks now, having fled Syria, his birthplace. He had asked what our experience was like cycling and we talked about how people who haven’t travelled to India had warned me about it being dangerous. I explained that this was not our experience and related this story: One afternoon we had been cycling through a small village when I braked too hard on a patch of gravel and took a tumble. I wasn’t moving very fast and the injuries were minor: a scraped knee, a bruised toe. I was immediately surrounded – two men picked up my bike and took it across the street to where my husband was standing. Three women escorted me to a seat in a nearby bus shelter. The first poured one of my water bottles over the wound. The other made me drink water. The third offered me food and all three of them fussed over the bandaging of my tiny scrape as though I were an injured child. There was little English spoken but we were made to understand that they were worried about me and offered us a place to stay if need be. When we convinced them I was ok, they gave us candy and waved us off.

I told Nawar that our experience — thanks to cycling in so many remote areas — was that most people in the world are good and kind. He smiled and said, I agree – in fact I run an organization that promotes kindness – the World Kindness Movement (UAE). And then Nawar related his story.

Although he was born in Syria, he grew up in Dubai and became a businessman, eventually forming a partnership and running 14 companies. He enjoyed running the business, but there came a point where he wanted something else and a change in lifestyle. He resigned and became the founder of the World Kindness Movement for the United Emirates in Dubai.

(according to Wikipedia): The World Kindness Movement is an organization with no religious or political affiliation. The WKM’s chief object shall be to foster goodwill among the broad community – local, national and international – by way of kindness and in so doing, create greater understanding and co-operation between all people and all nations throughout the world.

The World Kindness Movement of the UAE developed, political change began in Syria, ultimately developing into the war we are all familiar with. A few years ago Nawar returned to Syria to try and do what he could to help. Since then, the conflict has grown steadily worse and in the end Nawar was forced to leave and is now displaced. He is spending some time in India to think about the next phase of his life, and trying to keep the organization in Dubai running remotely.

Despite the seriousness of his situation, he is positive and committed to the values of the kindness movement. One of the core values is respect for other people’s beliefs and despite his experience in Syria – war obviously being the antithesis of that — this is a theme that filters up in many of our conversations.

It is both heartbreaking and heartwarming to listen to Nawar’s stories. I admire his ability to maintain his optimism after experiencing difficulty most of us in the west can only imagine and I’m inspired by his commitment to such positive values.

Check out the world kindness movement here…
http://www.theworldkindnessmovement.org/member_nation/the-kindness-movement-of-the-uae/

Note on the photos – these are some of Ian’s Indian portraits.

Magical Thinking

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Lakshmi Villas to Kumbakonam 61 km

We had a great ride into Kumbakonam (home to no less than 188 temples). We were happy to be on quiet roads (relatively speaking) and the rural landscape of rice fields and coconut palms was nicely broken up by some large villages where we bought oranges and other snacks (Indian peanut brittle and what I think were deep fried plantain chips with chilies).

As I rode along I couldn’t get Neil Young’s “When you Dance” out of my head. I think it was all the reading I’ve been doing about Shiva, one of Hinduism’s principal deities and a favourite of mine back in the day when I spent a year learning about Vedanta philosophy, meditating and playing Neil Young. Shiva, like all Hindu deities, manifests in many forms. One of the common ones is Shiva as Nataraja, where he is depicted as a dancer performing the cosmic victory dance (our Lonely Planet guide says in this dance Shiva is pacing out the creation and destruction of the cosmos).

I always liked Shiva because of his message that out of every ending there is a beginning. This idea has given me courage when it was time to leave a situation, and consolation when grieving an ending.

In earlier days I was smitten with things Indian, the chanting I heard at sat sang at the ashram I attended in Ottawa when I was 18, the taste of chai with cardamom, purple silk saris with silver threads and the smell of sandalwood incense. Learning that there was more than one way to understand God (I was an atheist by the time I was 12 or 13) was also liberating and heady. There I was at 18, wandering around in Indian cotton skirts, wearing bangles and bells and as I finished my last year of high school (at night as I’d left home), I pulled off 100% in my final economics exam and to this day I know it was partly due to the focus I’d achieved meditating. I stomped around in my small studio apartment doing a victory dance, and there was Neil all raunchy guitar and revolution, exhilarating. “When you dance, do your senses tingle and take a chance…when you dance, I can really love.”

After that I became disillusioned and a little afraid of the ashram as I watched people getting drawn deeper and deeper into a situation that felt cult-like. I talked to a psychologist at the time who warned me that westerners often have a hard time putting eastern religion into context.

His sentiment still rings true decades later. There is something so compelling about India for some of us westerners – there’s such a big romance about it. This is especially true for anyone with a religious yearning who has been left flat by Christianity. The yoga I studied through the ashram was a kind of intellectual practice with the goal of transcending your ego through practicing non-attachment and ultimately becoming enlightened, living in a state free of anxiety. This was so attractive after years of Catholicism where I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to believe in. Literal heaven or symbolic heaven? Literal resurrection or resurrection myth? But then the swami (head of the ashram) turned out to be sleeping with the devotees and on one hell of a big ego trip. So much for transcendence, sexy Sadie. And so I learned all power corrupts and there is a lot of confusion for westerners about how Vedanta philosophy is to be practiced and interpreted outside of Indian culture.

They mystery remains as I visit these wonderful temples. Today we walked through the Nageshwara Temple, the oldest temple in Kumbakonam, founded by the Cholas (an Indian dynasty) in 886. The priest followed us around discreetly blessing everything – I don’t know if we were auspicious or somehow polluting. I watched people making offerings and meditating in front of the statues of various deities. We were the only foreigners there (in fact I haven’t seen a foreigner since we left Lakshmi Villa three days ago). I wondered what people were praying for…enlightenment or perhaps a new pair of shoes.

I am a big fan of Karen Armstrong, the ex-Catholic nun who is a religious scholar, writer and winner of a TED award. In her “Case for God” she talks about how pre-modern people did not take their religious mythologies literally. The myths were understood in a manner similar to the way we (if we are lucky – my thought) understand art. Art is transformative – we learn important things about what it means to be human through metaphor that touches us emotionally, whether it be music, poetry, or visual art. Our religious myths are not meant to be taken literally.

To believe we are going to achieve a permanently altered state of consciousness – some blissed out trance-like devotional state of mind as we flit about in saris sniffing incense – is to engage in magical thinking. A more grown-up and romantic version of the magical thinking that allowed us to believe in Santa Claus, and certainly a lot more fun than the magical thinking that has us believing that we will be resurrected in physical form on Judgement Day.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any magic. There are magical moments, transformative experiences when we are struck dumb by a piece of music, or cry when we read a poem.

Or dance to Neil Young wearing bangles. Rock on :-0

(p.s. Paul – even if I have to learn bar chords I think I should learn how to play this song…)

Practising the India Travel Yoga

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Cycling Stats:
Pondicherry to Chidambaram 68 km (East Coast Road)
Chidambaram to Lakshmi Villas (T. Nedenberry)16 km

Now that we have hit the real India, I am realizing I’ve got a lot to learn about travelling here.

In the traffic-laden areas, cycling takes pure concentration and becomes a kind of dance — a kind of cycling yoga if you will. Motorcycle slides up beside you on your left? Make sure you don’t swerve into something on your right to avoid him. Bus passing another bus up ahead? Get out of the way – like onto the shoulder or dirt. Horn honking — well there’s always horns honking — learn to figure out if it’s meant for you and move accordingly. Always give trucks the right-of-way. It is a lot like cycling in Vietnam.

We cycled our first day on the road from Pondicherry to Chidambaram, leaving a lot of the western tourists behind. Traveling outside the touristed part of cities like Pondicherry we are learning how the poverty prevents hotel staff from delivering up to western standards. The staff simply don’t know what that means.

In Chidambaram our very basic room (22 Cdn a night) looked out over a temple and the grounds leading up to it – despite this being a reasonably big town, people were getting water from a local well. On our way out to the rural resort where we have spent Christmas (Lakshmi Villas) we were transported back in time to farmers living in thatched bamboo huts, working the land by hand, and tending goats. On our walk through the local village yesterday we were a novelty and were greeted and giggled at. A local potter called us in off the street to show us, with great pride, his manual potters wheel. Many people ask us to take photos of them – this was true in the local village as well as the main temple site (Najarata –a huge temple complex that dates back to the 12th century and worships Siva) in Chidambaram. I had read that we needed to be careful about taking photos of people worshipping but we were asked numerous times.

The living conditions explain why the waiters never wipe the table we eat at with a damp cloth — they simply wipe it with a napkin, leaving a residue that hardens and which I recognize the next meal. The walls have probably never been cleaned despite the enormous number of staff hanging around. Our only real issue with this is we are paying western prices (60 dollars a night nets you a clean motel room these days in North America). However, the staff are charming and genuinely try and feel badly if they feel they haven’t measured up.

Today we had a big issue with trying to pay with a visa card, although the owner had reassured us in Chidambaram (16 km from here) that there wouldn’t be a problem. (If we’d known they needed a cash payment we would have come with the right amount of cash, of course.) I figured out eventually that the staff had not been trained to troubleshoot the visa card reader (I urged the manager to phone the help line on the device and he gave up when he was put on hold – I think he was having problems understanding the English voice recording although I bet if he’d waited he would have been talking to someone in his own dialect in Chennai). Eventually we discovered that there was an ATM in the local village and our problem was solved – but not before a bit of a tussle with the hapless manager who wanted to send us back to Chidambaram in a tuk tuk at our expense. My only issue here is charging western prices for non-western service…something the owner will eventually need to figure out. Once we are out on the rough again (this was a Christmas treat) we will expect grubbiness and haplessness but will be paying less.

On Christmas Eve night we shared the resort with two groups of Western tourists. We had as much fun watching them as we did the dance troupe (which included an acrobat who was quite amazing). One group, the Veggie Voyagers (not kidding) were lovely, sweet, eccentric and in love with all things Indian. One bony elderly lady came back from the temple with garlands in her hair and looped over her ears – she reminded me of a goat festooned for a wedding — but she was thrilled and looked as though she expected a goddess to manifest right in front of her. The other group were Italian and they were a bit bitchy about whatever they perceived was not up to snuff and kept popping out of their rooms in various states of undress asking for extra towels and pillows, and complaining about problems with hot water etc. and so we were treated to the Indian version of Faulty Towers as we sipped our evening beer and giggled a little to ourselves.

Arguing about the lack of (promised) internet for four days was an interesting experience and made me think about the differences between Indian culture and Western culture. We expect to take control and be in control. Indian culture accepts and shrugs. This ability to roll with it and surrender is one of the big attractions for westerners learning yoga and meditation – we are so programmed to be in control we get anxious when we aren’t and learning to let go relieves anxiety. But there is a limit to acceptance as well – non-action isn’t always the right way to go. The caste system here is served well by the fatalism that is inherent in Indian religion and now when the government run visa website doesn’t work, or when the Internet is down in a hotel for two days, the answer is to shrug.

Striking that balance between accepting a situation that can’t be changed (or isn’t worth the hassle) or deciding to stand up for yourself, in as culturally appropriate and polite a way as possible of course, has become our own personal yoga practise — the Indian travel yoga practice.

Bom Shiva

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We’ve finally left our lovely little town of Lauzun to continue our bike trip and flew Paris to Chennai this week to begin a cycle trip we hope takes us to Goa.

Despite all the annoyances and stress of airline travel, I still love the fact that in a mere number of hours I can step from one world into another. One night I am sleeping in an airport hotel in Paris and the next I am standing on the balcony of my Pondicherry hotel, breathing in warm, waterlogged air, watching the crazy traffic on the street below, and falling asleep to the sound of motorcycle engines and horns.

Pondicherry is quite a soft landing as far as India goes. Having travelled a lot in the third world we are finding that we are adjusting very well to the chaos – traffic that obeys few rules and navigates by horns; shops that spill out onto sidewalks that are already crammed with parked motorcycles so that pedestrians share the street with moving traffic, cows, dogs, and other people; narrow tiny shops with big signs that compete with all the other big signs so that it all becomes one big sign; no street names; and bewildered and bemused traffic cops with ineffectual whistles.

We’ve given ourselves five days to get over the jet lag, plan our bike trip, and to buy the odds and sods we have forgotten. (Ian forgot his underwear and is quite amused to find that in India, the men wear underwear with pockets – we guess that this is for the men who wear dhotis and have no other place to put their keys and rupees).

As we have worked down the list (maps of India, mosquito repellant, shoe laces, hair dye, underwear, batteries for bike lights) we have ambled about both the French and Indian parts of town and admired the scenery. We liked the market for its colour and overpowering smells of fish and spice. We walked the boardwalk along the ocean and admired the Bay of Bengal while people watching and dodging the come ons from local sellers (drums, jewelry, wash off tattoos, scarves etc. etc.)

There are a fair number of tourists about, many French given that this was governed by the French until 1954. Many of the tourists are interested in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram right in Pondicherry and the commune, known as Auroville, 10 km outside of town. We were able to pick out a few of these travellers from the airport gate in Paris – girls with yoga mats and yoga pants and hair piled in top knots and wrapped in Indian cotton scarves.

We had thought about visiting the ashram and commune but a very unfortunate incident this week has the city tense and the ashram off limits. It seems that the locals resent the fact that the ashram is not governed by any local authority – it reports into the federal government — and there are all kinds of accusations of corruption and mis-management. This week there was a supreme court ruing against a family who had lived in an apartment in Pondicherry which was owned by the ashram. After a decade of fighting eviction for an infraction of ashram rules, they lost in the final ruling and the entire family walked into the ocean to commit suicide. Three of them drowned and four were rescued by local fishermen. This sparked a protest by Pondicherry citizens who want local governance for the ashram and today, a day-long general strike. Felt just like France…

We took the opportunity of a relatively quiet Pondicherry to take our bikes out for their first Indian spins. All was well with them and as soon as we were three kilometres out of town we hit the real India and I quit feeling sorrier for the mangy, hungry dogs than the people (my guilt-ridden reaction to our first few days here where I felt the opposite). Yes, it is still a very poor country for some people and the living conditions are appalling.

But we were both happy to be out on the bikes and meeting people not so used to tourists. Everyone was friendly and when we stopped at intersections more than one person asked if we needed directions, including two lovely children who giggled and charmed and eventually, unable to tell us what road we were on, pointed to the police across the street and very helpfully suggested we could get help there.

We passed loads of garland eating goats and sandy-coloured dogs and happy looking cows as we plotted our route out of town (we leave the day after tomorrow when the real journey begins.)

The extremes of India – the dirt and pollution, the amazing colour (of saris, and of spices in the market and painted temples), the noise, the chaos of traffic and no queuing and hordes of people, the piles of stuff for sale, the fabulous food, the amazing smells of fruit and curry – all the stimulation is what makes it both exciting and exhausting.

I first started thinking of going to India when I was in my late teens. I had become friends with a couple who had recently come back from a trip to India. Bill played guitar with my boyfriend of the time and I thought he was one of the coolest people I’d ever met – he was in the final stage of earning his PhD in biochemistry and liked to smoke hash – this contradiction in itself amazed me — and he was supplementing his student loans by dealing a little. He had a pipe he called a chillum and whenever he would spark up he’d say Bom Shiva. He talked a lot about India and in that small prayer he acknowledged the reality of the world – the bigger world that includes both light and dark, destruction and creation, the extremes of India and our relatively easier lives in the west. And although we westerners may be lucky in many ways I, like many of my kin, can become obsessed with having enough money, especially these days as I try to get advice on taxes as a non-resident, and lose track of the precious present. I like to come to India to be reminded of that.

So, yeah, Bom Shiva.

The Last Hurrah in Tawdry Hua Hin

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Apparently Ian and I are managing to get older without getting any smarter. The night before we had to take our 6 am train from Hua Hin to Bangkok we decided to go out and photograph a girly bar or two and ended up hanging out in one of them instead. (It was too dark to take decent photos without a tripod or being too intrusive so the shots are lousy but I’ve included a few to give a hint of what its like there). An old Londoner with a big cockney accent bought us beer and shortly thereafter he and his ‘thai wife for a week’ and his old fart of a friend and his Thai “wife”, and Ian and I, were all singing and trying to follow the hooker behind the bar who was doing the arm movements to YMCA (as in “I wanna stay at the YMCA”). So too many hours later we got home too late to do anything but tumble into bed. However, we did manage to get up at 4:30 am as planned, pack our panniers and the bikes in suffering silence and cycle out to the train station in the dark only to find, hey deja vu, our 6 am train was delayed by 2.5 hours. Sigh.

Ian caught a few zees on a bench at the station and I amused myself watching a local family sorting out all the stuff they were moving to Bangkok including their rooster who they let out of his box for a bit so he could get some air. We also met a chiuahua whose owners have taught her to put the tips of her paws together and wai (traditional Thai greeting). She was very cute and did her tick many times for us so I shared my cheddar cheese with her. She loved it and would have gobbled down my entire stash if I hadn’t held back as I was worried about her eating too much given her teeny little stomach.

I shared cheese with another little pet we met in Dolphin Bay, 50 km south of Hua Hin. We stayed at the Terraselin (next door to Dolphin Bay Resort, 50 bucks a night including breakfast, double our budget but a nice treat) and the manager there had a six-month old black kitten that Ian nick-named Miss Marnie and who visited us every morning for the 5 days we were there. She purrrrred when she ate cheddar – I have never seen a cat purr and eat at the same time. But I know exactly how she feels. Extra-old New Zealand cheddar.Yum.

We haven’t done much in the last two weeks. We’ve enjoyed our time on the coast but have learned a few things for future trips. First, it is too hot to cycle in Thailand after mid-March and when it starts to get hot, the best place to be cycling is right along the ocean. So, a possible plan for next winter is to fly from India to Malaysia in mid-January and then cycle up to Bangkok along the coast and then home to Canada by the end of March.

Despite the heat we tried to make the best of our 50 km ride to and from Hua Hin to Dolphin Bay a week or so ago. We managed to ride most of it off the highway and a significant chunk on a road paralleling the ocean. Except for the 10 kms on the highway the ride was quiet and we loved the views of ocean and palm trees on one side of the road and, between Hua Hin and Pranburi, all kinds of resorts on the other side of the road. By the time we got to Dolphin Bay, the resorts were fewer and further apart and we loved the peaceful setting and the pool we found ourselves in for a week where I celebrated my 51st birthday and finally got over the flu. On both the ride there and back we put up with 39 degrees with fully loaded bikes and there were moments when that was not a lot of fun.

After our week at Dolphin Bay, we headed back to Hua Hin for another few days of being ocean-side before heading to Bangkok (where we are now). Hua Hin itself is a small city, about 100 kms south of Bangkok, with an eclectic mix of people. We stayed at Bird’s Guesthouse, which we learned has a regular expat following, and we enjoyed the people we met there. The room itself was kind of run down (we paid 23.00 per night) but the location is amazing as it is right on the ocean. The building sits on stilts and we could hear and watch the tide come in under us. There is a large deck which the guests share and in the late afternoon we gathered to drink beer and gin and tonic and watch the fish boats that were anchored directly beside us get ready to go out for night fishing.

Hua Hin is home to a bunch of condo developments for expats, weekend Thais from Bangkok, European family tourists staying next door at the Hilton, and a fair number of sexpats and tourists looking for bar girls. There were days when the bar girl scene got to both of us – it is sleezy and discouraging – and days when we just shrugged as it is commerce as old as humankind and well, there ain’t no fool like an old fool and we saw lots of them every day. Many older white guys are dumb enough to think that they can find themselves a gorgeous girl thirty years younger who will fall in love with them and not their money. Let’s just say that that is a rare event. The other side of the coin is that a lot of these girls are from Issan, a poor area of Thailand, and they are expected to work in the bars and send money home. If a foreign guy does get involved in a long-term thing with a bar girl, he will be expected to support her family (that is her parents and siblings and any children she might already have). So, not a great situation for a lot of the girls either although I think it beats the street-walker level of prostitution we see at home on the downtown east side.

That being said, I think we all sometimes need to be shaken out of our own judgmental points of view and by happenstance Ian and I were drawn into an interesting scene at our night in the girly bars. The old cockney guy and his ancient buddy told us they come to Thailand once a year for a three-week blitz. One of them told us he was married to a Thai woman for a number of years but she had died a few years back and he was on his own now. On this trip, these two old guys had rented a villa and two ‘Thai wives” for their three weeks. As we drank beer and chatted with them, a street vendor came by with lots of slinky looking dresses. Mr. Cockney bought dresses for his ‘wife’ and one of the bar girls who just happened to be sitting on the other side of the bar from us, acting as the disc jockey. There was a lot of laughing and teasing going on and no one seemed to be under any illusions about who felt what for whom in that foursome. It was strictly business and fun. But eventually Ian and I started chatting with the hooker who had been leading the YMCA song. She had watched us talking between ourselves for a long while and then told us rather wistfully that she had a 63 year old Austrian boyfriend she didn’t see very often. She eventually poured out her heart to me telling me she loved him and was waiting for him but it was hard because she missed him (and reading between the lines I could see she was worried about whether he felt the same way about her). She told me she had lots of invites from other foreigners who would set her up and pay her 5000 baht (a week I think) but she said no as her heart belongs to the Austrian farang (foreigner). When we got up to leave she came running around to the outside of the bar to give me a big hug, grateful for having had someone listen to her heartache.

So, judgement suspended…

Given there weren’t a lot of sights to see in Hua Hin and the fact that it was so hot we spent a lot of time on the internet. I have downloaded three books of fiction by Turkish authors from the Vancouver library, found a blog on camp sites in Turkey, have spent hours looking at an interior design website called Houzz (highly recommended), have downloaded a learn French app for my ipad and once again can remember how to conjugate a few basic verbs in a few basic tenses and have been having a lot of fun looking at a site that publishes menus from Michelin starred restaurants and saving them as inspiration for a time when I can cook again. Oh yeah and yesterday morning I found a bunch of DIY sites and learned how to make self-irrigating vegetable planters.

A busy few weeks indeed ☺ I don’t think I have ever been so relaxed.

Recovering by the Beach — Enjoying Hua Hin

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We finally left Chiang Mai last week, opting for a day train to Ayutthaya with a plan to start cycling south from there.

Well, best laid plans and all that…after much running around on our final day in Chiang Mai (mailing parcels home and getting a final dental check up on my new crown and packing after being settled for two months) and yes, I have to admit a wee too much beer the night before that, I came down with a nasty flu. I realized I was in trouble about hour 10 of the 16 hours we spent on the non-air-conditioned train between Chiang Mai and Ayutthaya. I had thought perhaps it was just the heat (somewhere between 35 and 37 degrees Celsius) and smoke particles in the air (farmers are burning fields now getting ready for next crop) that were causing a tickle in my throat up until my nose went into overdrive and I realized I had a fever. Arriving in Ayutthaya at midnight and then having to unload the bikes from the train and ride to a hotel probably didn’t help my situation.

We left our guesthouse in Chiang Mai at 5:15 to catch our 5:45 train. This meant cycling in the dark but I didn’t mind as I knew the trade-off would be no traffic and I was right. We did cycle by a few bars that were still hopping and had a good laugh at those silly people partying until the wee hours, unaware of course, that I was just about to come down with the plague. Karma at work I’d say.

At the train station Ian went to find out where we needed to go with the bikes only to learn that the train would be delayed until 7 am, which actually turned out to be 8 am and that we were to put the bikes into the baggage car ourselves.

We settled onto a bench and enjoyed a quiet couple of hours people watching. I felt remarkably peaceful, so much so that I was moved to reflect on it and I can only say that my decision to sell in Vancouver and to focus my life in some new directions felt very right that morning. I also think it was the degree of familiarity I now feel on the bike and in Thailand and so I was excited about moving on without any of the normal anxiety that often accompanies travelling.

I think also it was the people watching and realizing how much I like Thai culture. That morning I watched a young girl hanging out with her mom for the day, at her mom’s snack kiosk at the train station. The girl had her dog with her, a poodle shaved so she/he had a tutu, and the girl made a little bed for herself and the dog on the floor of the kiosk, maneuvering the dog so he had his head on the pillow beside her. Her mother accepted all this and just stepped over the pair of them as she went about her business in the kiosk. I watched another mom at work, the lady responsible for the power washer used to wash the train. Her son decided he wanted to ride on it. She scolded him the first time he tried to climb on it but then gave up and he sat happily on top of it while she took a break from washing down the cars. I loved that these ladies were able to bring their kids to work.

After being here for two months I really believe we are over-regulated at every level (municipally and provincially at least) and that this interferes with entrepreneurship and contributes to higher anxiety levels – or maybe it’s those higher anxiety levels that make us over-regulated to begin with. I’ve heard of a couple of recent studies in Europe that say we are regulating our children’s lives to such a degree that they are growing up without having ever taken a risk. Google the topic and you’ll see what I mean.

I enjoyed the last week in Chiang Mai, doing some of the touristy things Ian and I hadn’t got around to. We cycled to the zoo and although we both struggle with the idea of animals in captivity I have to admit I enjoyed it. I also spent a great day with Pat, a friend we met through Dave and Debby and we had a blast, visiting the hot springs again and then hitting up some of the artisan shops I’ve been wanting to visit. We then met up with Ian and made a great Mediterranean style dinner back at the guesthouse. Oh and yes I think I mentioned something about too much beer ha ha.

The silk factory is worth a visit – it is one in a whole string of artisan places along San Kampaeng Road and the next time I’m in Chiang Mai I will spend at least another day there (sans Ian who finds all that stuff boring). At the silk factory we got to see the whole silk making process from moth to worm to cocoon and getting the thread from the cocoon and then onto spinning wheel and loom. The silk was gorgeous. We also visited a shop that makes umbrellas and a lacquer ware workshop. Pat had arranged a tuk tuk for the whole day and we got an awesome deal at 500 baht (16.00 dollars Canadian). Photos of the silk factory are courtesy of Pat.

The flu is not fun under any circumstances but it certainly has been a challenge this last week and a half – I finally saw a doctor in Ayutthaya after three days of non-improving symptoms and opted for the whole-meal deal pharmaceutical solution: prescribed cold meds including antibiotics, anti-fever etc., all for 12 bucks including the doctor’s visit. Fortunately, Tony’s Guesthouse in Ayutthaya was a good place to be sick. We had a large air con room and the rest of the guesthouse, an old rambling teak building with some beautiful Thai art on display, had all kinds of cubby holes to sit in so Ian was able to escape the sick room and get some work done. The place is popular with backpackers and despite being ill I enjoyed watching them come and go when I emerged from my room for meals in the guesthouse restaurant.

As I write this in Hua Hin, whether it’s the meds or just time, I am finally feeling human again although still a day or two away from being able to cycle.

Ian and I had to rent a minivan to get us to Hua Hin with the bikes. I think the distance is a few hundred kms, through Bangkok and it took us about 3 hours. We paid about 100.00 dollars which seems a reasonable deal. I am much better as I write this but there was no way I could deal with trains or buses the day we left Ayutthaya.

We have found a lovely guesthouse in Hua Hin (Byrds). Our guesthouse and the neighbouring ones are old ramshackle places built on stilts out over the water. At night, if we turn air con off, we can hear the tide coming in under the building. We share a patio with the rest of the guesthouse and we’re enjoying the view of the small beach and fish boats so much we are reluctant to leave the property. The room is a little run down but well worth the 700 baht (23.00) a night and I would not trade our proximity to the water nor the sound of the ocean to stay at the Hilton next door. We plan to spend a couple of extra days here before we head south, making sure I am truly well as it is quite hot (35) before I get back on the bike.

Ciao for now.

Home is where the Panniers are — Winding it Down in Chiang Mai

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After months on the road with no more than a week in one place, Chiang Mai felt like home pretty much as soon as we’d unpacked our panniers. That feeling of arriving home was even stronger after leaving our stuff in our room here in the R.C.N. Court and Inn and travelling for a few days up to Chiang Rai, Mae Sai and into Myanmmar to get our Thai visas stamped and then taking the bus back to Chiang Mai. I guess that ability to be home wherever we are and the sale of my condo in Vancouver confirms my nomadic identity – at least for the next 13 or so months.

There is comfort in knowing how adaptable I can be, although it is no particular talent of mine. I think all human beings are amazingly adaptable but I’ve been lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to experience being nomadic and to learn that home is something we create no matter where we are or for how long we stay. Some painful losses have taught me that it is the loss of people we love that hurts, not the loss of our stuff. I don’t see the need for total asceticism but in a society that preaches absolute consumerism, to the degree that we often define the value of an individual according to the value of what that individual owns, I see value in learning not to be too attached to material things when that attachment leads to working at a job you don’t like or fear of change.

That being said, I am looking forward to buying a little house on the Island and I’m enjoying looking at the jewel colors and mirror mosaics on Thai temples and statuary and imagining them somewhat transplanted. I find myself thinking about how I might re-create bits and pieces at home — I see jewel-colored glass door pulls on white cabinets; I see jade-green, ruby red and gold glass mosaic on garden pots and vinegar bottles. I imagine a red lacquer-painted second-hand dresser with a gold naga stenciled on in metallic gold paint. I notice gardens and garden features in all the outdoor cafes we eat in here and make note of what might work in a back yard garden in Ladysmith. I like the creative challenge of defining a new home space.

And when I’m not wandering around looking at the head-dress on a white concrete temple elephant, I’m taking care of business, often in the early hours of the day when Chiang Mai and Vancouver time zones intersect during business hours. After many conversations with realtors, the financial advisor, and friends helping with logistics, and many trips to the photocopy print and scan store, I am happy to say it is almost all done. Still another couple of conversations with the notary in Vancouver and a trip out to a notary here and we can wrap up the condo sale and focus on the boat sale…

I try to take some days entirely off and we’ve had a couple of nice day trips when I do. We went out to the Sankampaeng hot springs with a couple of friends last week. We took a songthaew (a pick up truck with benches in the back) for 1.60 each, each way, about 60 kms round trip. In addition to the geyser, and pool where you can cook eggs (our friend Alyce cooked quail eggs for us) there was a small canal that was almost too hot to soak our feet in and then a large swimming pool which was about 98 degrees. We relaxed for an hour in the pool and had a couple of good water fights with a bunch of school kids who were out on a field trip.

We also managed to get out to meet the Chiang Mai Cycling club which meets every Sunday at 7 am outside the Tapei Gate. The membership director lady was very nice, spoke some English and handed us a microphone to introduce ourselves to the forty or so Thais decked out in spandex and ready to ride. I don’t know how many of them understood us, but they applauded and invited us to ride with them. We were actually there hoping for a swap meet (we read that these happen occasionally) as we had some bike grips that were too big for my handlebars. We were able to sell them for a little money and then declined the invitation to ride as we already had our own itinerary planned.

Then we headed across the street to the Art Cafe, across from the Tapei Gate and between the Starbucks and McDonalds (you really can get anything you want here) and after breakfast headed out of town on the bikes, passing through Chinatown and over the Mae Ping River, along highway 1006 out into the country where we found small concrete paved lanes to ride on amongst the rice fields.

Yesterday I had an early birthday celebration with Mary a new friend I’ve met in Chiang Mai. She wanted to celebrate leaving Chiang Mai and moving onto to her next adventure which is hiking the Santiago do Compostela with her partner Dan. We treated ourselves to a 3.5 hour spa. For 60 bucks including tip we headed out in a tuk tuk to Zabai Thai Massage and Spa and had a Thai massage, a body scrub, an oil/aromatherapy massage and a facial. A terrific deal and a lovely day.

We’ve had some very nice dinners together with another couple we met who live in Powell River, B.C. We got talking to Janet and Wayne in a local Japanese restaurant and discovered that they also have a boat hauled out in Jack’s Boat Yard up in Lund where we left Ian’s boat so many months ago.

I’ve finally gotten around to a little cooking in the communal kitchen and have spent a couple of fun afternoons shopping in our local market and doing a little entertaining. I love markets and Ian and I have agreed that this is something I am better off doing on my own. So I’ve also spent some quality time wandering around the Sunday night market that sets up two blocks from our guesthouse and sells local crafts. On my own I can take my time wandering around the stalls checking out jewelry, textiles and carving. I am practicing good restraint but have decided to get together a bundle of stuff to send home and to Ottawa.

As comfortable as we are we realize we have ten days left here and so we’re beginning to plan our next moves. We’ve got a rough itinerary that has us leaving Chiang Mai on the train and doing some cycling to the southern train line. We may spend a few days in a couple of small towns as we make our way down the peninsula by bike and train and then cycle across to the island we like in the Andaman Sea. We’ve got a tentative guesthouse reservation in Bangkok and our tickets to Instanbul are booked April 13. We are then on the road again in a big way until we stop in France in August. We are happy that we managed to find a place to rent in France as when I began to do a little research we discovered that places were getting booked up for August and realized that we had to make some decisions and commitments to ensure we would find a spot for our next month off the road. We found what looks to be a beautiful townhouse that we we will share with our friend Wanda who is planning a well-deserved extended summer vacation this year.

We are really enjoying a fantastic trip and feel very lucky to have the opportunity to do so much travelling this year.