Long distance (night) trains and the impossible slumber 

I arrived in Varanasi the ancient city, the sacred city after a bumpy, cold and sleepless night ride.  It seems I’m not getting much sleep anywhere these days. As usual the bus stopped in the most unlikely place and from there we had to find our way into the city.  Of course there were plenty of tuktuks waiting for us but I tried to book a Ola cab (the Indian version of Uber).  When it works Ola works pretty well but when it doesn’t…. Well you can imagine.  I booked three times a cab and one of them cancelled on me,  the other two didn’t show up.  In India money is apparently not an issue.  If you feel like working you do,  otherwise you don’t.  So in the end I had to resign myself to share a tuk tuk with a guy from Belgium that was in my same bus.  We agreed on a price but arrived in the city the tuk tuk driver told us to get off as he “couldn’t go any further “. There is apparently a restricted area in Varanasi,  but from where we were many tuk tuk went further… Anyways… So me and Belgian guy had to take a rickshaw,  that dropped us 5 minutes away… 

We got off pretty angry and parted our ways.  I had booked at Chatter box hostel and he was going some place else.  I started to walk and found out that there is a “pedestrian area” in Varanasi where cars and the likes cannot enter as the alleys are very narrow.  But motorbikes are of course more than welcome honking their way through the maze.  And cows of course are welcome (gigantic cows),  and stray dogs and their puppies are welcome so you have to walk your way skipping motorbikes,  cows and their enormous  dumps, dogs and vendors.  

The entrance to Chatter box is pretty dodgy and there’s no sign to indicate that the hostel is there but then the place is pretty neat and very quiet and I was,  at least for a few hours,  alone in the dorm. As I was tired from the previous sleepless night I took a nap and then decided to go out for lunch.  Following the directions and suggestions of “Happy cow” and went to Nyiati cafe.  The place is very small therefore usually full but the food is very good,  fresh and inexpensive. 

Satisfied with my lunch I went back to the hostel to find out that I had a roommate, Angel from Madrid.  We started chatting and had a good connection straight away so we decided to stick together for a few days. In the evening we had dinner next door , in this pretty famous place called Brown Bread Bakery (not to be mistaken with the one of the same name located close to Golden Temple,  pretty horrible place).  I had enough of thali,  rice and fried food by then so I tried my luck and ordered a pasta with walnut sauce and a salad to share with Angel.  The salad was OK,  the pasta not so much but hey,  this is India,  you’re not supposed to eat pasta!!! After dinner we went to the banks of Gange river to assist to a very strange ceremony of dances,  songs and fire.  Very complicated and really interesting.  They perform a lot of acts of devotion to whatever god they have and then in the end they wash their heads with the river waters…. when in the meantime a few blocks down they wash and burn dead bodies or else in some case they drown them with a stone tied to their feet. 

The following morning we went again back down the river banks to assist at the washing ceremony when people take a plunge in the Gange before going to work and so use the same plunge to wash themselves.

  

The following day Angel and I boarded a train,  my first train!!! headed to Khajuraho to visit the “Kama Sutra temple“.

While walking around the city I realize how good it was to have Angel on my side as he was showing off his muscles – he’s a PE teacher – and so people,  men to be precise,  were intent to check out his body and I was the invisible side kick.  

The night ride on the train was far better than the one on the bus but I still couldn’t really rest.  Indians can be very noisy, many snore (I’m not being racist,  it’s a fact confirmed by locals) and the berth are not extremely comfortable.  Moreover as it happened in the bus,  I got frozen by the gusts of cold night air coming in from everywhere.  On the train,  thanks to his “good body,  good muscles” Angel made friends with this local guy who at some point got stuck something in his teeth.  As he was trying to get it out with a piece of paper I offered him my dental floss only to discover that he had no idea what that was. So I told Angel to teach him how to use it… and Angel told me he had no idea either!!! 

Arrived in Khajuraho we took a tuk tuk to our hostel called Prem’s home stay that a girl from our Varanasi hostel had talked about with much enthusiasm.  Prem’s place is a bit far out of the city but it is a very pleasant place,  quiet and peaceful.  The room we got was nice and clean and Prem is extremely helpful and friendly.

  

The morning after our arrival we rented  bicycles and went visiting the famous Kama Sutra temple.  The complex is pretty impressive,  in the very center of the city,  clean and well maintained.  In the area is possible to visit some 6 or 7 beautifully decorated temples and some of them have on their walls some pretty explicit sex scenes which is very curious considering the fact that Indians are not open about sex affairs and naked bodies. 

That night we had dinner at Raja’s cafe. The food took a long time to arrive.  I was in the mood for salad and I ordered one with sprouted lentils.  Such a disappointment.  The sauce they used was something weird with a particular unpleasant taste so I had to eat a cookie afterwards to clean my mouth from that horrible taste.  At night Angel had belly issues due to the fact that he had milk for breakfast that morning (having milk is not good for your health, I tell this to everyone!!!).  But he decided that he was willing to travel the following day as planned and at 9.30 am we boarded a train to Udaipur.  Although Khajuraho and Udaipur are only 800km apart,  it took us 21 hours to reach our destination.  The train network in India is pretty complex and not necessarily user friendly. 

Another almost sleepless night and we arrived in Udaipur,  a very nice city on the lake Pichola,  kind of quiet (as quiet as India can get that is) with a very nice Royal Palace to visit.

  

We booked a room in Hotel Lake Star that looked very good in the pictures.  Arrived there we discovered that the place is under a major restructuring so not at all what presented in the pictures.  Still our room was nice and clean and I couldn’t wait to have a good night sleep in my bed!!! The next morning we had breakfast in a cafe nearby called Little Prince restaurant by the lake.  Awesome food and good prices!  

In Udaipur Angel and I decided that out ways were to part.  I wanted to move south to reach asap Goa and some quiet beach.  Angel was going back to Delhi to catch the flight to his next destination. I planned to spend just one night in Udaipur and the second night take the train to Mumbai but I discovered that the direct train to Mumbai doesn’t run on Monday.  Of course… So the option was to spend two days travelling and sleeping on trains or stay one day more in Udaipur and take the train on Tuesday night.  You guessed right.  I stayed one night more and not to pay for a double room all by myself I checked in at Banjara hostel. Not the best place I’ve been,  management is pretty unfriendly and uninterested but the room was OK.  The first day after Angel was gone I took back my role of “stupid tourist with a lot of money ” and I wasn’t invisible anymore. Darn!!! I tried to book my train ticket over internet only to discover that international cards are not accepted so I resolved myself to go to the train station.  Where once again I was the “STWALOM” and I had to pay 100 rupees extra just for being a foreigner.  …

That night for dinner I met with Sanjay a very smart local guy met through Couchsurfing and we had dinner at Dream Heaven where I had a veggie burger with a ton of fries. Yummy! That same night I was back on a train with Valentina and Javier a couple met thanks to Angel.  Some 14 hours later (and another almost sleepless night) we were in Mumbai. 

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Tha Bar Wa

So.  My week as volunteer as come to an end.  Next Monday I will begin my vipassana.  I’m a little worried that I won’t make it but I don’t wanna call it off even before starting it. 

My week in Tha Bar Wa has been interesting.  I’ve met nice people and seen things that I couldn’t even imagine. Volunteering always gives me back the faith in the human race.  In a society where all that matters is money and appearance,  it’s good for the heart to see that there are people ready to work for free,  ready to give something in return for nothing if not in return for some personal satisfaction.  During my time here I’ve been practicing massage on poor people, suffering from hard labour and stroke.  It was good to give and get in return their gratitude.  It made my day. 

Of course not everything is nice and beautiful.  Life here can sometimes be hard,  hygiene is a different concept from what we think.  People are very clean,  they shower at least once a day everyday but then houses are barracks,  trash is everywhere,  animal have free entry wherever they feel like (there are plenty of stray dogs around here – and mostly are sick,  there are 5 cows and they shit everywhere). 

But life has a different rhythm,  people help each other,  nobody goes to bed with hunger.  And our help is very much appreciated. 

I had the chance to participate to the alms and see how people can give just for the sake of it.  There is no shame. You give what you can.  Being money or food.  Or both.  Someone gives an apple,  someone a bag of rice,  some a tube of toothpaste. Nothing is too little.  You give according to your possibilities. 

I also had the chance to see the other side of the mirror.  Monks are not necessarily saints,  they are people and for this reason they’re not perfect.  Far from it I would say.  And they are not necessarily nice persons,  they don’t smile to you,  you don’t feel your life is in good hands when you’re with them.  They live their lives detached from everyone else.  They don’t mingle. The first day I did the alms I was carrying the bowl for the money and the first thing that the “first” monk did after we finished the tour was to snap it out of my hands. And they are bit supposed to use money.  I was a bit shocked.  I would expect that from a priest,  but from a monk…. 

But still.  Even some of my coworkers have been here a long time and think they are “so spiritual” and feel the need to give you advice about meditation and detachment,  it was a good experience.  I like to see things with my own eyes and this time I’ve learnt so much.  On many different levels.  Now comes the hard part.  Vipassana is said to be a magnificent experience although very hard.  Another step to get to know me better I guess…. 

The red shadow 

So I finally arrived in Cambodia.  I had been advised to get the visa online to save time but it takes 3 days to get it processed and by the time I was ready to leave it was too late.  So I got at the airport of Phnom Penh without a visa and was already prepared to have to go through long lines and boring procedures when in the end it all took me about 15 minutes (and I also saved some 10$ comparing to online visa). 

The hostel I had reserved promised to send someone at the airport to pick me up but when I got there you guess it, nobody was waiting for me.  I bought a SIM card and started to talk with Whitney,  a girl from the US that was on the same plane as me.  We were going in the same direction so we decided to split the cost of a tuk tuk.  

We jumped in and the first thing we were told was to watch our bags.  Snatching bags and mobiles phones is pretty common here in Cambodia and so we were on the know. The traffic was pretty bad,  Thailand style and it took us about an hour to get to our destination.  

At the moment to check in at Billabong hotel and hostel I was preceded by a group of French Chinese and so I had to wait and be patient.  About ten minutes later I finally managed to do my check-in and I was then showed to my room. 

EditDorms here are pretty big and spacious.  I got a lower bunk bed as requested and the locker is so big that my entire backpack fits in.  Fantastic! That night I went for dinner with a couple of very nice Japanese guys that were staying in my dorm.  Walking around the city we managed to find this place where only locals go.  The food was good,  big and cheap.  The day after together with Hiro and So we decided to go to the killing fields

I remember when I was a kid that in the news they talked about the Khmer Rouge but I didn’t know much about the history of Cambodia and what really happened here. So when I decided to go to the killing fields I was not really aware of what I would have found.  We got there in about 30 minutes with rented motorbikes and paid the 5 dollars entry fee.  The audio guide was explaining what every stop was and what happened there.  Shivers were running down my spine and the memory went automatically to my visit to Auschwitz.  The atrocities that human kind can commit are really inexplicable.  I cannot understand or accept that someone in their right mind can do something so terrible to some other human being (or animal for that matter). Violence has no justification or motive in my mind and I really struggle to understand what happened in Cambodia or in Germany/Poland under the Nazis. 

To finish with the horror tour the following day I went to visit the genocide museum aka S21 a former school turned into torture zone during the Khmer Rouge occupation.

Phnom Penh is not a nice city.  It’s chaotic and there are areas where you don’t want to go at night (I almost got my phone stolen one night).  The only positive thing in my opinion is that there are plenty of vegetarian restaurants around the city.  I only had time to visit a few but the food there was very good.  

I went to EVERGREEN for breakfast.  I had a plate of noodles pretty big and then shared a yummy soup with my friend.  For dinner I went to VEGETARIAN 1000 a buffet like place where you can choose from different trays of food and they cost 1000 or 2000 riels (25/50c). The last day I went for breakfast to Surn Yi vegetarian restaurant and had noodles and mock pork.  Although the “pork” was pretty good,  the noodles were very poor, they didn’t taste of anything but maybe it was just my plate.  The choice in this place is pretty big and it is very popular according to Trip Advisor. 

I made it out of Phnom Penh direction Kep because I needed a rest from the chaos and noise of the big city. 

Kep is a small village four hour drive from Phnom Penh,  towards the coast.  I checked in at Kepmandou Lounge a nice and small hostel by the beach built from wood in a cabin style.  Clean and nice,  very quiet at night.  It rained almost all the time during the 2 days I was there but I just needed to rest so I didn’t mind.  I caught up on some movies that I wanted to see and just chilled. 

After Kep it was time to move to Sihanoukville where I was to start my next volunteering period on Sunday.  Sihanoukville is a city known for its tourism.  It’s not interesting in an artistic or historical way but my hostel was a little outside town,  once again by the beach and I was looking forward to enjoy my peaceful time…. Never have I been so wrong. At Footprints the dorm is just upstairs from the bar area.  The place is made of wood and there are no walls.  I went to bed around 11 pm and the music was still full blast (in any other hostel I have been the music stops at 10/10.30pm the latest). I actually had to go downstairs and ask to tone the music down a little.  At 3 am I woke up and there were still people at the bar chatting and laughing as of it was during the day.  The music came from the outside.  Somewhere not far away somebody was playing full blast techno  music.  And they didn’t stop until 8 am. The manager of the hostel apologized to me a thousand time but the damage was done.  I also thought to move to another hostel but I was too lazy and I only had one night left.  The second night was better,  no music from the outside but the bar closed at midnight.  Bu.t that night I was in kinda good mood as I had a very good pizza at Jin’s with Carlos a guy from Barcelona met on the bus from Kep. 

So,  comes Sunday and Roy,  my host comes and pick me up.  We drive for about 30 minutes and we arrive in Ream. He’s a Brit that lived for many years in Thailand and them moved to Cambodia with his Thai wife.  They are getting ready a resort by the river with bungalows and animals, the Ream Yacht club.  They need help with fixing and painting and here I am.  The place is in the middle of nowhere but that’s the charm of it.  The silence here is deafening and nature rules.  I just love it here.