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.

Loving Lauzun…we don’t want to leave…

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We’re staying an extra week in Lauzun and then booting it up to the border in a car so that we don’t overstay our Schengen visa and potentially mess up coming back (remote chance but we are so in love with France we don’t want to risk it).

Yep. We are both in love with this area and we are plotting and scheming to figure out how we might make it a part of our lives on some kind of regular basis.

The cheese is fabulous and during the summer it arrives in a cheese truck that parks outside our house so that I can wave to the cheese lady on Saturday mornings. Aside from various tommes and chevres (including the local cabecou) she sells crème fraiche. What’s not to love…

The bakery is less than 100 metres away around the corner. The croissants, pain au raisin and baguettes are fresh every morning. We have restrained ourselves and only bought dessert once – a pomme tarte with almond pastry crust to eat with vanilla ice cream and the sauterne style wine (sweet white dessert) from Montbaillac, the 15th century chateau and vineyards 20 kms from here.

There is another guy who sells right in front of our house on Saturday mornings. Wanda discovered his smoked duck. It was so good we looked up regulations on bringing food back to Canada. (Sorry John, it would have had to have been in a can. I hope you enjoy the foie gras instead).

The skinny capris are struggling to keep up. We are cycling on average every second day and the rides are hilly and we usually do more than 20 km. However, I believe I need to pump up the volume and try for longer rides and average 5 times a week for next two weeks. Oh yeah. The wine lady also sets up in front of our house on Saturdays and sells 5 litres of decent rose (really) for 10 euros (14 dollars). Ok maybe I need to ride six times a week…

When we do ride, no matter which way we go, the scenery is pastoral and lovely – fields of wheat or sunflowers, sometimes vineyards, rolling hills with patchwork quilt fields and the odd chateau for visual interest.

The villages are quaint and charming and most of them host street markets and festivals throughout the summer.

Real estate is cheap.

The people are friendly. The people are so friendly in this village we are thinking our love affair with France may be somewhat the result of their influence. Ian will be singing with a local folk group here one night next week and we were invited to and attended a local birthday party last week. They couldn’t be more welcoming.

From Lauzun as a base, we can drive to Bordeaux in an hour. We can be in Spain in 5 hours.

I’ve always wanted to learn French….

Four Visits later and France is still Fabulous.

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Pisa to Bastia Corsica (ferry)
Toulon to Sanary sur Mer 18 km
Sanary sur Mer to Cassis 32 km
Cassis to Marseille 23 km
Marseille to Montpellier (train)
Montpellier to Sete 39 km
Sete to Villeneuve les Beziers 56 km
Villeneuve les Beziers to Capestang 30 km
Capestang to Le Somail 19 km
Le Somail to Carcassonne 63 km
Carcassonne to Castelnaudary 45 km
Castelnaudary to Avignoet-Lauragais 20 km
Avignoet-Lauragais to Toulouse 45 km

When Ian and I were cycling in Vietnam we spent a lot of time analyzing why we were struggling with it. Ian finally summed it up by saying there just wasn’t enough yin for the yang – like when you are cycling somewhere and the traffic is busy but the food is amazing –more yin than yang so it is ok. Or, the food sucks and the traffic is bad in places but the people are amazing. In Vietnam, the scenery was amazing – some of the time. That was all the yin there was.

So here we are on the canal du midi trail with a few hundred kilometres of cycling on our France trip odometers. The people are terrific (I don’t get that stereotype about snotty French people. I have been here four times now and very rarely experience anything but friendly no matter how badly I butcher their language). The food ranges from mediocre to astonishing and this is in the cheap places. The scenery is often breathtaking. The cycling is fabulous and people’s attitude towards cyclists is heart warming.

Yep. It’s love. I don’t think I could ever get tired of France.

So our recent travels: We took a ferry from Livorno Italy to Corsica and stayed for a couple of days without cycling as I caught yet another cold. Our first morning we enjoyed the Sunday market and despite being sick I was giddy at my first sight of all the old French favourites: astonishing cheese that is worlds apart from what we get at home generally (and this makes me want to declare war on the Canadian Dairy board because of the insane prices we pay and the ban on raw milk cheeses); fresh fruit that tastes just as it should: tree-ripened and lush; and baked goods that inspire exclamation (oh oh ohhh). And in Corsica, a kind of throw back to France in the fifties, we strolled the streets alongside old men in white shoes and old ladies in prim skirts on their way home from church, church bells chiming through the ancient, narrow streets.

We landed in Toulon after taking a ferry from Bastia (Corsica) and hit some traffic and a few hills when we started cycling but I didn’t care, especially when we arrived in Sanary sur Mer and found yet another market and a beautiful harbor filled with restored wooden boats on display for a summer festival.

The ride to Cassis was hilly but we found a bakery that made me want not only to learn to bake the French way but also to paint…the cherry galette looked that good. I didn’t taste it though as we were being a little careful (there are bakeries in every French town) and stuck to a ham and brie baguette and fresh peaches.

We descended to Cassis and then climbed again to a non-descript campground that was packed and a reminder that French campgrounds are not usually something to write home about (a little yang for our yin). However, this one did have a bar and we enjoyed a glass of rose while we watched the camp workers playing boules after shift. This was also where we had an impromptu French language lesson on the various uses of bon (versus bien which always confuses us). Our neighbors were only a metre away in their tent when they opted for some morning amour and we distinctly heard the woman exclaiming bon (not bien) a number of times…

The ride to Marseille was painful for me on a hot day and still sick but once again stunning and the French, bless them, have made this D road highway into a bike route, providing well-marked bike lanes on both sides of the highway despite it being narrow. The descent into Marseille was nothing short of magical and the highway section ended on a bike route right through town leaving us only a couple of blocks in real traffic which was, as it turned out, light around the old port.

Marseille, however, is rough. We appreciated the historic port and surrounding streets but noticed a lot of unsavoury looking people hanging about and the graffiti and smell of piss on some of the side streets not far from the port was not pretty. Studying our maps over morning coffee, we realized that the ride to Montpellier, where we planned to pick up the canal du midi bike route, was going to be busy and hot and so, on Bastille day, made what turned out to be a wise decision to take the train to Montpellier.

The historic center of Montpellier seemed a bit touristy although we admired the architecture. We were very impressed when the receptionist at our train station hotel told us to follow the tram lines to get to a river and bike route that would then take us along a canal bike route to Sete, the official start of the canal du midi bike route. Following the tram line eventually to the plaza de Europe we were able to appreciate more architecture and pedestrian only spaces before finding the river bike route as promised.

It was once again very hot (no shade and 25 km paralleling the ocean), but we appreciated riding a route with no traffic and ending up in Sete which is a very scenic French Mediterranean town. It was here we discovered beer Monaco (beer with grenadine and lemonade…crazy colour of pink but very refreshing on a hot day). We struggled to find the bike route through Sete and Agde but with the help of tourism offices in both places finally arrived at the canal.

The canal du midi was built in the 1600s for commercial transport. In the old days there were toe paths along either side for donkeys to pull boats along; these paths are now bike routes. The canal is very popular with tourists who rent canal boats for their holidays and home to a number of people who live on the long narrow barge boats tied up to the shore. Both sides are lined with huge, old plane trees which provide shade and in some cases a canopy over the canal. It is beautiful in its own right and a treat to ride without traffic. It is popular with families and we have met friendly people at all the campsites, brave souls cycling with their kids and tenting along the way.

The sad news is that the plane trees have some kind of disease which is forcing the French government to cut them down. A tragedy. We found small sections where this has been done already but this is a minority of the trail. There is a program in place to cut down the diseased trees and replace them – about 3000 euros a tree. Here’s hoping they can stop the spread without having to do further chopping as these trees, aside from providing necessary shade, are also so integral to the southern landscape it would be a shame to lose them all.

The path itself is a bit rough (riding over tree roots) and it gets narrow in places and lacks signage but we have a great map from the tourist office that has kept us on track. There are times where you have to cross a bridge and ride on the opposite shore because of some obstacle or other or to get around locks (which are great places to take a break and watch the lock keepers and boats work to get through the lock). We have seen people with one-wheel trailers which work ok but the two-wheeled versions can be a problem in narrow sections. We met a family whose bike and trailer toppled into the canal – luckily the trailer only held luggage. So travelling with a child in a trailer requires some research as to appropriate sections.

We have been surprised all the way by beautiful French towns and villages that are on the path, most notably Le Somail where upon our approach we were so charmed by the ancient canal bridge and old tower we stopped for lunch. We noticed a small auberge across the street and sure enough got the last room in a restored 17th century house and for 55 euros had petit dejeuner on the poolside terrace with other guests. Oh yeah and our room looked out on the pool and the vineyard.

Carcassonne is also on the trail – and I liked it the second time round (I saw it ten years ago). It is a huge fortified town and castle (with 54 towers). It was stronghold of the Cathars in the 1200s and also the scene of some very horrific Catholic inquisitions. It is now very touristed and full of shops and restaurants but it is so unique and so big it is well worth putting up with the hordes.

We’ve also done a lot of camping these last few weeks and I am surprised at how much I am appreciating it, despite some crowded conditions at times. It was in the Carcassonne campground that I finally got round to making a campside meal I was very proud of – filet mignon du porc marinated in red wine with garlic and capers (and the pan juices with butter and more wine became the sauce) a green salad with oil and vinegar dressing and local fresh chevre and boiled new potatoes with a bottle of local Corbieres wine. It is possible to live with some luxury in the campgrounds here…many have pools and bars but it is hit and miss as to how crowded they are and what kind of ground is available for the tent.

We’ve also had many happy lock side lunches, munching on rustic Camembert and baguettes while watching the boats go through the locks.

I am writing this from Toulouse, the end of our first canal route ride and the beginning of the Garonne canal route. It looks like we will be able to ride along the second canal route all the way to a town called Marmande, a mere 30 km from our resting destination of Lauzun (where we hang up our helmets for a month). The two canal routes will end up providing us a trail ride all the way from the south in Montpellier to the southwest 100 km from Bordeaux (and if fact we could ride all the way to Bordeaux along the canal). This is about 550 kms of cycling off road on relatively easy path.

I can’t think of a better way to see this beautiful country.

Vive le France — more yin than yang — it is wonderful, even the fourth time round.

If it’s Tuesday it must be Greece…

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It sure went by in a blur. Here we are already in Italy, getting ready to leave for France tomorrow.

Cycling Distances:
Piraeus to campground 30 km east of Korinth 55 km
Camp to Korinth 30 km
Korinth to Akarta Beach 65 km
Akarta Beach to Rio 63 km
Rio to Patras 12 km

Even on a trip of this extended length there are sites we miss and places we’d like to linger but we manage to run out of time. Greece and Italy are getting short shrift this trip as we refuse to change our relaxed pace and we are restricted to 90 days in Europe as a result of the Schengen visa. Given we have rented a place in France for a month and that when we conceived the European part of this trip it was to be about cycling in France, we have missed much of Greece and will miss much of Italy to make sure we get that time in France.

So we are following the first rule of travel – always tell yourself you will be back. “Trip of a lifetime,” a phrase my Mom is very fond of, is great for pumping up the adrenaline about a trip but ultimately relaxed travel is the key to experiencing a destination rather than ‘doing’ it.

So. I loved what little we saw of Greece. We divided our time between Samos and Korinth.

Ian’s suggestion to ‘take a week off’ in Samos met with no argument from me as we wanted to unpack our bags for an entire week, in a place we actually planned to stop (rather than unplanned extensions because I was sick). Samos is one of Greece’s most easterly islands; it is closer to Turkey than it is to the Greek mainland.

We took a 90 minute ferry from Kusadasi and landed in the port of Samos.

We rode a pretty 2 km road out of town and wound our way up a cliff to the Scorpios Apartments. We rolled our bikes through the bougainvillea covered gate and admired the stone floors of the whitewashed lobby and then stopped to admire the pool, and the stunning view of the Aegean from the pool deck. We loved the place even before we entered the apartment and discovered a balcony with the same stunning view and a small kitchen. I noticed a giant rosemary bush on the grounds and after a trip to town to provision I was humming away to music playing on our ipad as I marinated chicken legs in Samos white wine, rosemary and capers and then baked them basting them with honey. We ate them with rosemary and garlic mashed potatoes, drinking white wine on the balcony watching the waves crash onto a cliffside far below. Heaven.

We used booking.com to make our reservation just outside of high season and thought 40 euros a night was an absolute steal. The owner Nansy is an artist and her work is displayed throughout the hotel and we appreciated her artistic touch noticeable throughout the property.

Nansy recommended that we rent a car to tour the island and gave us a great itinerary. We found a car down the road for 28 euros a day including insurance. We drove to Pythagoria (the hometown of Pythagoras — yes responsible for the Pythagorean theorem on right-angled triangles). The town hosts a small boat harbor for people cruising ‘the med’ and we had a nice seaside moussaka lunch watching people back in and do ‘the med tie’ which involves tying up the stern of the boat and throwing an anchor down off the bow. We also drove the narrow winding mountain road up a few hundred metres to the town of Manolatas. The houses and shops are all built on steep slopes on top of the mountain and we enjoyed walking the stone streets and admiring the views and a beautiful little chapel and bell tower.

We spent 9 days on Samos and between our day of touring by car, checking out beautiful beaches, hanging by the pool, visiting Samos town itself (there is a good archaeological museum as well as a wine museum which includes wine tasting – Samos is famous for making great dessert wine using muscat grapes), we were not bored.

From Samos we took a ferry to Piraeus, the main port for the city of Athens. We took NEL lines, a little bit of a rust bucket but very affordable at 80 euros each for a cabin and a 16 hour journey. The cabin was clean and just as nice as the one we had on the more expensive Superfast ferry line which we took from Patras Greece to Ancona Italy – (although the Superfast ship was a very luxurious new boat with a pool).

We landed in Piraeus and it was Ian’s experience from 20 years ago where he cycled the same route in reverse that helped us navigate to the ferry terminal for Salamis island (about 10 kms away from the port). We rode across Salamis Island (12 km) and onto another ferry to get us to the mainland, now the Peloponnesus peninsula. This shaved off a significant chunk of heavy traffic highway riding and the ride across the island was quite lovely. From that ferry landing, we followed Ian’s instincts to get us to highway 8 (the old national road) and then were very happy to follow that all the way along the coast, eventually to Patras.

It took us a few days to get across the peninsula to Patras, with a longish stop at Korinth.

Korinth is home to the Korinth canal (very narrow and steep canal that allows boats to get from the Gulf of Corinth to the Aegean without a big detour around south of Greece.)

We stopped at the canal enroute to the Blue Dolphin campground, close to the ancient city of Corinth. (Corinth is spelled both ways with a C or a K).

We almost gave ancient Corinth a miss – if Ian had not made the connection with Corinthians and St. Paul we may have just kept barreling across Greece. As it was, I spent the night before we checked out the ruins reading up on St. Paul.

This is where slow travel really pays off – exploring the ruin sites at a leisurely pace and cycling to them enhances my experience of actually feeling the history. I walked around that ruin site imagining Paul walking the same ancient road (the road through the old town is still partially intact); in my mind’s eye I watched him eating in one of the restaurants, looking up at the acropolis, buying olives and wine in a shop, (they had rows of shops along the main road through town and there are stone remains of the shop buildings) and writing his epistles to the Corinthians. He became a man for me, a historical figure not so far removed in time as he had been the day before for me, and this took him out of the mythical category he was filed under in my brain. That led to really trying to understand his experience and once again crawl my way through Catholic theology trying to understand what it was I was really supposed to believe when I was a churchgoer as a child.

Sure enough I discovered a contradiction that I am still puzzling over – St. Paul was very clear that he believed in the resurrection of Christ in a literal way. The current pope does not. So here I am feeling vindicated again — all those years in catechism class and hours spent in mass and I could never get a straight answer on theology questions and fought bitterly about being forced to believe in something I could not understand. (I gave up God when I gave up Santa Claus as it was about then that my brain started rejecting imaginary creatures of all kinds and none of the answers I got about what God is made any sense to me at that time.)

I have a much more sophisticated idea about what God is now and in very minor circles might be considered agnostic because I can come up with definitions that allow me to say “I believe under certain definitions.” In most circles I would be considered an atheist because I reject what I have come to believe is the common conception of God and I believe that conception is unsophisticated and wrong. But hey, not to pick on Catholics — they are not the only people confused in their theology – this is true of all major religions but I like to find evidence to back up this theory I have.

And there you have it, what I learned on my summer vacation and I am inspired to read on. Thank you St. Paul and ancient Corinth…

Well. Back to modern-day Greece…and then we cycled back to the campground….We spent four nights at the campground, partly so we could do laundry and take a day to see the ruins, also because we met a British couple there named Ian and Sue and so we had to stay up late and drink gallons of wine with them, delaying our departure by yet another day…

The ride from Corinth to Patras took three days. The first day was beautiful along the old national road which parallels the highway. It was Sunday, there was virtually no traffic and we were treated to ocean views the whole way. The only challenge was a very strong headwind that kept us pedaling hard the entire ride. Then next day we rode from Akarta Beach where we had camped to Rio which is just outside of Patras; there we found a great hotel for 65 Euros a night that included breakfast and had a lovely beachside bar where we could say goodbye to Greece at sunset.

We rode 12 kms to Patras the next morning, found a ferry booking company and two hours later we were on the Superfast ferry to Ancona, a 20 some hour ride that was very luxurious.

Ancona itself is a dirty little port town with nothing to recommend it but we stayed overnight near the train station and then cycled out to the airport the next day to pick up a rental car and then whizzed across the entire country to Pisa, bikes and panniers in the hatchback. We admired Tuscany as we drove through, and reminded ourselves of other times we’d been in Florence and told ourselves we would be back one day as we negotiated out of central Florence in rush hour through a traffic jam…

And here we are in Pisa…whew….off to France tomorrow.

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.