Thursday, November 26, 2015


“Incredible India” is what the tourism campaign says.  And it’s truly incredible… incredible how one place can be so disgusting.  India is a fascinating place – full of interesting history and some amazing monuments – but for me, a lot of that was overshadowed by just how gross things were.  Traffic is horrendous and the drivers could give even an adventure seeker a heart attack.  The worst part is the honking.  Indians honk their horns incessantly and for any and every reason.  There is never silence in India – even when all other noise goes quiet, there’s always the constant hum of a million car horns honking.  The air is smoggy and hazy and everything is dusty.  There is little colour and little green to be seen because of the pollution.  Trash litters the streets, the sidewalks, the alleyways, and just about everywhere else you can think of.  Cows are also everywhere.  EVERYWHERE.  Roaming around and shitting all over the place.  Pepsi is ubiquitous – much more so than Coca-Cola – which is a major indicator that a place sucks.  But the worst part, and I hate to say this, are the people.  I know many Indian people outside of India and they are so lovely.  Our local tour guide, Shivraj, was also so lovely – one of my best tour guides ever.  But the general population – at least the part that interacts with tourists – seems to be full of terrible touts, hawkers, and scammers.  Beggars fill the streets and would often come up to me with dirty hands and touch me while they asked for a handout.  These were usually women who had a naked, crying baby in their arms.  At first I felt bad, but after the first few, I just was annoyed.  Shop owners constantly and aggressively try to pull you in to their shops.  Random people on the street will start talking to you – pretending to be genuinely interested in you as a tourist – but it always quickly turns into an offer to take you somewhere – likely a store, restaurant, or hotel owned by their mate.  It was always a scam.  They all just want to cheat tourists out of money.

I know India isn’t all bad.  My tour took us to the main tourist cities, so I imagine it would be less in-your-face elsewhere.  I definitely want to go to back one day – India is a big country and there’s a lot to be explored, particularly in the south of India.  But for now, I’m happy my trip was only 8 days.  And I feel like I don’t need to ever go back to the places I’ve already been.

A few highlights of my time in India:

I had a half-day only in Delhi and our group pretty much only saw the India Gate – a big war monument.  That was enough for me.  It was a big, disgusting, crazy city and I was pleased to move on.

Jaipur was much more pleasant than Delhi, but that’s not saying too much.  Our group strolled around some markets, went to a gem making workshop, explored the old City Palace, and visited the UNESCO-listed Amber Fort.  The fort is a huge palace with ornate decoration in a small town outside Jaipur.  This was definitely a highlight.  The two bigger highlights from Jaipur, however, were Jantar Mantar and seeing a Bollywood film.  Jantar Mantar is/was the royal astronomical observatory and (allegedly) holds the biggest sundial in the world along with various other sundials and devices that tell not only time, but also advise on the constellations, the zodiac, and more.  The largest sundial was accurate to two seconds!  It was fantastic.  That night, we saw a Bollywood film – the debut movie of one of India’s most famous stand-up comedians.  In the film, he accidentally married three women but was trying to marry a fourth – the one he actually loved.  Most of it was in Hindi, but we could ascertain quite a bit despite there being no subtitles.  The audience was super engaged with the movie and it created a great atmosphere!  

Our first stop in Agra was the Agra Fort, another of India’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.  The fort was built by and home to several Mughal rulers – the Muslim invaders that ruled the Indian sub-continent for over 300 years starting in the early 16th century.  Different rulers added on different palaces to the fort.  One of the more interesting sections was the gorgeous prison room where the sixth Mughal ruler kept the fifth Mughal ruler, his father, after he deposed him (and killed his three brothers so they couldn’t take the throne).  The Agra Fort also gave great views of the Taj Mahal, Agra’s (and India’s) most famous tourist attraction.  The Taj Mahal was built by the fifth Mughal ruler (before he was imprisoned) as a mausoleum for his favourite wife.  Their story, as we were told it, is one of the greatest love stories recorded in history.  I would tell you all about it here, but you can just read it on Wikipedia instead.  The Taj Mahal was gorgeous – a stunning building on the outside (and surprisingly small on the inside).   The gardens were well-maintained and everything was delightful despite the mass of tourists there.  Then you walked out the main gate back to the real world full of touts, cows, and dirt.

Aside from the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, which was definitely the highlight of India, there’s absolutely nothing else to do in Agra.

A little-known small town that’s fairly new on the tourist circuit, tiny Orchha was a great break from the big cities of India.  A convenient stop between Agra and Varanasi, Orchha boasts a big palace complex known as the Raja Mahal (and the attached Jahangir Mahal) which was first constructed in 1531.  There’s a lot of history to this palace, but the most important thing for us was that THERE WAS A BOLLYWOOD TV SHOW BEING FILMED THERE DURING OUR VISIT!  It was a random awesome happening:  stars, cameras, make-up, props, extra, and more.  We were able to walk around and take pictures with the props and selfies with some of the extras – all local boys who were paid a little to stand there in gladiator style attire.  The other big draws of Orchha are two temples:  the large Chaturbhuj Temple, where a wacky guide took us on a fantastic tour up random staircases to the roof for a photo shoot, and the Ram Raja Temple, where we attended an evening prayer ceremony.  The Ram Raja Temple was interesting in that it didn’t look at all like a temple.  Turns out it was part of a palace but became a temple when a statue of the god Rama was temporarily placed there and was unable to be moved.  Ha!

Elsewhere in Orchha, we explored fifteen old cenotaphs dedicated to some old kings, took a cooking class (which was more of a demonstration but was still delicious), and visited a unique paper factory where old cotton clothes picked out of the trash are turned into high quality paper.  The factory is a government initiative to employ people.

Everyone who speaks of Varanasi always raves about it, but to be blunt, I thought it was pretty shitty.  After our overnight train, we visited silk workshops in the Muslim area of the city and navigated our way through aggressive touts every three feet.  We took our first and only cycle rickshaws (and certainly my last cycle rickshaw ever) through heavy Varanasi traffic.  The big ticket items in Varanasi were an evening boat trip and a sunrise boat trip on the Ganges River.  As with all of India, the pollution was thick so the air was too hazy to actually see the sunrise but we did see evening and morning prayer ceremonies as well as locals bathing and doing laundry in the river.  Cremations were taking place in two spots along the river with ashes later to be dumped in.  Overall, I just didn’t think Varanasi had much to offer aside from the Ganges, and the traffic, noise, pollution, and aggressive locals really made getting around the city rather unpleasant.  The highlight of Varanasi, however, was a delicious lassi shop called Blue Lassi.  That brings me to…

Indian food:
Indian food is fucking delicious and I’ll argue with anyone who disagrees.  Blue Lassi above serves all sorts of lassis – Indian yogurt drinks often flavoured with fruit – which I had two of each day.  There were the breads (naan, cheese naan, garlic naan, paneer naan, roti, puri, chapatti, and more) and, of course, the curries.  I had butter chicken every other meal, along with plenty of chana masala (chickpeas), paneer (Indian cheese) in a variety of different dishes, and a new one that I had never heard of before:  murgh kali mirch – a chicken dish cooked in an almond and yogurt sauce.  I had samosas, drank plenty of masala chai, and only strayed from Indian food once in eight days (I had to get Mexican food at least once, right?)

Overall, the food (and the Taj Mahal) were the highlights of India.  I was excited to be done with India – for now – and was curious to see what Nepal would look like.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in India, follow this link:

Friday, November 20, 2015


My flight from Mauritius to India had a layover in Dubai, so I decided to extend my layover from a few hours to four days.  Dubai (the city) is the capital of Dubai (the emirate) – one of seven emirates (sort of like states) that make up the United Arab Emirates.  Dubai is not the largest, nor the most populous, nor the richest of the emirates (that honour goes to Abu Dhabi), but it certainly is the most cosmopolitan of the cities/emirates.  Dubai is a wonderland for travellers: fancy hotels, fancy restaurants, fancy shopping, gorgeous beaches, and tons of sights and activities – all at price which I really couldn’t afford.  Given the intense heat (it was hovering around 40 degrees C for my stay), the city is super air conditioned – so much that it was actually freezing, especially when walking inside drenched in sweat after even just a short walk outside.  There were some marvels to be seen: reclaimed land in the shape of giant palm trees (and even the world!), driverless metro trains (I got to sit in the front and look out the window at where we were going… little things like this excite the kid in me), and of course the world’s tallest building.  And then there were some not-so-marvels – just remnants of the old Dubai in the historic quarters and markets.

A few highlights of my time in Dubai:

Dubai Mall:
The Dubai Mall is FUCKING AMAZING.  It was beyond my wildest dreams.  Growing up in the suburbs of Miami, I was all about mall culture (because there is nothing else to do in the suburbs of Miami), but that all but died when I moved to Australia.  It was reignited here.  The Dubai Mall is massive.  MASSIVE.  It’s the biggest mall in the world (well, technically there’s a larger one in China, but as with so many things in China, it’s pretty much completely empty).  It has over 1,200 stores.  I walked around for over an hour and finally made it back to my starting point.  Then I realized that I had three more levels to explore.  I spent about eight hours in total at the Dubai Mall.

The Dubai Mall has everything:  every American restaurant you can imagine (I got an Auntie Anne’s pretzel and a Magnolia Bakery cupcake!), every American shop you can imagine, and then all of the Asian and European ones too (I had my first experience at a Waitrose!)  There’s an Olympic-sized ice skating rink.  There are three Starbucks.  There are dinosaur fossils and a waterfall.  There’s a huge aquarium, an A380 flight simulator, and a rather disappointing fountain and light show outside.  Sure, the nearby Mall of the Emirates was the original big mall in Dubai, and sure it has a winter wonderland complete with a ridiculous ski slope, but Dubai Mall still wins on every metric.  I was in awe.  The Dubai Mall also has the entrance to the…

Burj Khalifa:
The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa has two observation decks. The first, for the poor people, spans levels 124 and 125 and is 456 metres above the ground.  This is nowhere near the top of the building despite the observation deck being called “At the Top”.  Then, a building in China opened a higher observation deck so the Burj opened another one on level 148 and charges what amounts to about two years of wages to go up there for a half-hour (but it includes all-you-can-eat dates and all-you-can-drink coffee for the half-hour you’re allowed up there so start guzzling!)  I opted not to splurge as the cheap ticket was already over $50 and it would have cost at least six times that to get higher up.  The views were, as expected, fantastic.  The Burj charges a lot more for entrance at sunset time, so I opted to buy the last cheap ticket around 4pm.  I stayed up there for several hours to get daytime pictures, sunset pictures, and night pictures.  There’s no seating up there (so that people won’t do what I did), so it was quite uncomfortable after a while, but it was worth it anyway.

Old Dubai:
The old section of Dubai was quite a treat – a bit of respite from the glitz and glam of the rest of the tourist areas.  I walked around the gold and spice souqs (markets), walked through the Bastakia Quarter (an old, well-preserved heritage area), and took a little boat ride across the Dubai Creek.  Unfortunately, my visit to Dubai coincided with Eid (which is sort of like the Islamic version of Christmas but obviously not like Christmas at all) so a lot of things were closed – including most of the museums.  The exception was the super excellent Dubai Museum.  The museum went through the history of Dubai and also included displays on Emirati culture, archeology, and more.  The information panels were full of interesting information but were still quite concise.  I give this museum an A+.  After my successful museum visit, I opted for a middle-eastern lunch of falafel and pita and hummus and happiness.

Vinod’s apartment:
Accommodation is super expensive in Dubai.  The city seems to have only one hostel and it was $80 per night (WTF?).  Hotels were obviously worse.  So I logged onto Airbnb and found a room to rent.  At just under $70 per night (AUD), this turned out to be one of the cheapest options on Airbnb in Dubai and my most expensive accommodation of the entire trip to date.  The room was in the apartment of a man named Vinod.  Vinod and his wife are originally from India (nearly everyone in Dubai is an expat of some sort and India seems to be the biggest place of origin – nearly half the population is from South Asia).  Their son has gone off to university in Canada, so to keep occupied, they rent out his bedroom to tourists.  They were super chatty and super accommodating.  They took me on a driving tour, made me some breakfast in the morning, took me out to dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, and introduced me to a delicious Indian ice cream-like dessert called kulfi malai.  I even watched a ridiculous Bollywood film with Vinod’s wife.  Their apartment was in a real neighbourhood far from the tourist zones (but near a metro stop!) so this was a great way to have a different, more authentic, and more affordable Dubai experience!

Jumeirah Mosque:
Most mosques around the world are not open to non-Muslims, but the Jumeirah Mosque is one of the few exceptions to the rule.  It is here that the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding hosts the mosque visit including a talk entitled “Open doors. Open minds.” which introduces visitors to Emirati culture and religion.  As most of the normal staff were on holiday for Eid, one of the higher-ups (I think he was some sort of director) hosted the talk on the morning I attended.  It started off great – learning all about Emirati culture.  After a while, however, it started turning into a propaganda machine aimed at convincing westerners to come to Dubai because it has many western values and it’s a great place (to spend your money – hence the name “do buy”).  We were told how Emiratis have no problem with Jews.  We were told how Emiratis have no problem with gays.  We were told how Emirati women are free to wear whatever they want.  We were told how immigrant workers have a great life in Dubai.  But Israelis are banned, being gay is illegal and comes with harsh punishments, I’m pretty sure women don’t exactly choose what they wear, and there has been a lot of press about the poor treatment of many immigrant labourers (though not as bad as in Qatar or Bahrain).  It was at that point that a little voice in my head started screaming “BULLSHIT!” over and over and I sort of zoned out.  The next thing I know is the sheikh dude is bragging about his Ferrari or Lamborghini or whatever mid-life crisis car he drives.

Other activities:
I also checked out Jumeirah Beach – but I didn’t stay for long because it was hot and sunny, and by hot and sunny, I mean comparable to being on the sun.  The Lost Chambers aquarium at the Atlantis resort on the man-made Palm Jumeirah was cool but ridiculously overpriced.  I like the cheap one in Cape Town a whole lot better.  I got some Mexican food, which like many things in Dubai was overpriced (and not that good).  To make up for it, I tried a latte and ice cream made with camel milk!  It was interesting (but again, wayyy overpriced!)

Finally, I got woken up at 4:30 every morning by the fucking call to prayer.  I hate to be insensitive about other religions, but it was seriously loud, seriously early, and seriously ridiculous.  I could hear it through my ear plugs.  Pray all you want as many times per day as you want, but maybe start at 9am?  Ugh.

After Dubai, it was time to go somewhere a lot more affordable.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Dubai, follow this link:

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Gap Year Q1 Summary

Although I’m a few weeks behind in my blogging – I still need to blog about Dubai, India, and Nepal - I thought I’d give a recap of the first quarter of my gap year.  I sort of got bored on my flight from Nepal to Malaysia so I sort of calculated a lot of facts and figures.  If you like statistics and lists, then this blog post is for you.  If not, then maybe you should stop reading and do something else.  Like build a rocket.  Or watch porn.

Total time spent:  91 days and 90 nights
Start:  Morning of Sunday, July 12 at Sydney Airport
End:  Evening of Saturday, October 10 at Kuala Lumpur Airport

Continents visited:  2
1.  Africa:  75%
2.  Asia:  24%
In transit between continents:  1%

Regions visited:  5
1.  Southern Africa:  49%
2.  Mascarene Islands:  26%
3.  South Asia:  15%
4.  Middle East:  4%
5.  Southeast Asia:  4%
In transit between regions:  2%

Countries visited:  12
1.  Mauritius:  23.5 days / 23 nights  (26%)
2.  South Africa:  22 days / 22 nights  (24%)
3.  Namibia:  10.5 days / 11 nights  (12%)
4.  India:  8 days / 8 nights  (9%)
5.  Nepal:  6 days / 6 nights  (7%)
6.  Botswana:  5 days / 5 nights  (6%)
7.  UAE:  4 days / 4 nights  (4%)
8.  Singapore:  3.5 days / 3 nights  (4%)
9.  Zambia:  2 days / 2 nights  (2%)
10.  Lesotho:  2 days / 2 nights  (2%)
11.  Zimbabwe:  1 day / 1 night  (1%)
12.  Swaziland:  1 day / 1 night  (1%)
In transit between countries:  2.5 days / 2 nights  (3%)

And just for fun – time spent in countries that drive on the:
1.  Left side of the road:  96%  (all countries except the UAE)
2.  Right side of the road:  4%  (only the UAE)

This quarter was a milestone because it ended with me visiting my 50th country overall:  Nepal!

Border crossings:  16
-  9 land border crossings including 7 by vehicle, 2 on foot, and 1 by river ferry
-  7 border crossings by air

Airports visited:  10*
Sydney, Singapore, Johannesburg, Victoria Falls, Mauritius, Rodrigues, Dubai, Delhi, Kathmandu, Kuala Lumpur

*One of my flights also landed to re-fuel in Kolkata, but it was unscheduled and I didn’t get off the plane so it doesn’t really count.

Airlines flown:  5
Singapore Airlines, British Airways (operated by Comair), Air Mauritius, Emirates, AirAsia X

1.  Camping:  27 nights  (30% - all in Southern Africa)
2.  Hotels:  15 nights  (17% - mostly in South Asia)
3.  Guesthouses:  11 nights  (12% - all in Mauritius)

Other types of accommodation:  Airbnb (Cape Town and Dubai), studio apartments (Mauritius), hostels (Southern Africa), lodges (Southern Africa and Nepal), airplanes (2 overnight flights), a cargo ship (2 nights), with friends (Singapore), and one overnight train (India).

Bathroom situation:
1.  Shared bathroom:  47 nights  (52%)
2.  Private bathroom:  41 nights  (46%)
3.  No bathroom:  2 nights  (2%)

And now, for some less statistical lists…

Top 5 Experiences (in chronological order):
Ok, so I had a hard time narrowing it down to five, so I decided to do six.  It’s an extra three seconds of reading time.  Deal with it.

1.  Game drives – I had some amazing wildlife sightings, particularly in Chobe National Park in Botswana and Kruger National Park in South Africa.
2.  Cape Town – After three weeks of camping, I was in need of some city time, and Cape Town delivered on everything that I needed.
3.  Mauritius factory tours – From sugar, sea salt, and rum, to vanilla, tea, and even gluten-free biscuits, the factory tours of Mauritius offered a unique and nerdy tourism experience.
4.  Rodrigues – I enjoyed everything about this little island:  the beaches, the hiking, the no-stress environment, and my accommodation in particular.
5.  Dubai Mall – If you think it’s dumb to have a mall on this list, then go to Dubai and see for yourself:  this place is jaw-dropping.  I’ll blog more about it soon.
6.  Being in Nepal – I’m not sure I would have liked it as much had I not gone to India first, but Nepal was a breath of fresh air (literally and figuratively) after a bit of time in India.

Bottom 5 Experiences (in chronological order):
1.  Flight over the Okavango Delta – I splurged on a scenic flight over the Okavango Delta in Botswana, but the plane was small, hot, and uncomfortable, and the views were good but not that good.  I was bummed that I had spent so much money on it.
2.  Freezing tent poles – Disassembling metal tent poles in freezing temperatures was not fun.  We had a few mornings of frigidness in Botswana and Namibia, and my hands ended up cracking and getting all nasty.
3.  Quad biking in Namibia – So it turns out I’m just not one for adventure sports.  I already knew this, but this confirmed it. It was fun for a while, but some of the sand dunes were big and some of the angles were just too steep for me to be comfortable with.  I’ll stick to brunch next time.
4.  Getting sick – I got sick for 24 hours in Kruger.  I had a fever and some other symptoms that screamed “food poisoning!” but I’m pretty sure the culprit was actually the somewhat dodgy pool at our campsite in Swaziland the previous day.
5.  Being in India – India is very interesting, but let’s be honest:  it’s a disgusting place.  I’ll be blogging about it soon.

Overall, I had no major mishaps on my travels, so I’m quite pleased with this bottom five list!

Top 3 Places I Could Live (in preferential order):
1.  Cape Town – It reminds me a lot of Australian cities (just cheaper and with more crime…)
2.  Singapore – This could have been first but it’s so expensive and sooooo hot!
3.  Mauritius – I think I would miss Mexican food too much to live here full-time, but it would be a great place for a vacation home (if I could ever afford one…)

Top 3 Places to Visit Again (in preferential order):
1.  Nepal – Six days was not nearly enough.  I’m going to need to go back here on my next gap year.
2.  Cape Town – I would have liked more time in Cape Town, particularly to try more cafes and hit up the wine regions.
3.  Rodrigues – I would like to go back and do more hiking (and eating) around the island.

Top 3 Accommodations (in preferential order):
1.  Villa Mon Tresor (Rodrigues) – I’ve already blogged about my amazing guesthouse in Rodrigues.
2.  Vinod’s apartment (Dubai) – I had a great Airbnb experience in Dubai and I’ll be blogging about it soon.
3.  Drakensville ATKV (South Africa) – This campsite in the Drakensburg region of South Africa had an epic massive indoor heated pool, and it shit all over all of the other campsites that I stayed at.

Are there any other statistics that you’d like to see?  Let me know.  Maybe I’ll calculate them on my next long flight.  But first, let me take a selfie.

Me with Shivraj (my amazing tour guide from India) and Kathleen (a tour-mate from the US) at the Kathmandu Airport as we leave Nepal marking the end of my first quarter of travels.