06-10-10

068 / King Kong

068 / King Kong

When I used to think about Hong Kong, images of eye patched pirates would blend with those of British colonials who drink their gin & tonic, showing tanned forearms in shirts full of sweat.  After a couple of days in this metropolis who benefits from the Chinese “One country – Two systems” policy, my adventurous vision needed some updating (which Hong Kong can provide via Wifi, Bluetooth, ESPN :-), 2G, 3G+, UMTS, SMTP and a selection of another 29 digital protocols).

 Travelling is often about experiencing changes, and contrast, and maybe because I was arriving from India there was a slight perception bias, but Hong Kong has a service level that high that it makes you believe that ‘they’ have put a spy chip into your brain that reads your thoughts, even before you do. By the time you actually think “I need to go to the loo”, “I’m lost, where’s a map” or “Frozen Yoghurt would be soooo good now!”, they already come up with a service, a sign or a yoghurt that matches exactly what you were dreaming of . I did produce a couple of thoughts that were not followed up by an automatic solution, some of them involving the Pope promoting birth control measures or Belgium forming a workable government.

 

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Hong Kong was also my first Couchsurfing-experience as a surfer (after the numerous times I was hosting people in Paris). I was lucky enough to meet Margot, a media professional/writer/polyglot/host/cat-lover/energy guru/sales director/gastronome… She received me brilliantly in her 15m² flat in Chanwai, in the heart of the city. The 1st of October, more than 20% of the world population celebrates her national holiday, and this is done with massive fireworks orchestrated by the master-creators in person. Front row seats. A lucky traveler moment.

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On the second day, when I thought for a second, “it’s cool this city on the water side, too bad there is no place for a decent beach at this hot temperatures”… Hong Kong immediately came up with Stanley Beach, just across the big hill… You feel really on holiday, not aware of the 8 million people that live only a decent stone throw away. It’s Victoria Peak that divides the skyscrapers from the green beaches. The view from up there alone is worth a stop in Hong Kong. After a visit to the night market in Kawloon, with some very local dishes (the most remarkable is an omelet with oysters baked inside…), I was ready to discover Macau.



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Macau has been described as the Las Vegas of the East, but in my opinion, this is like saying that Donatella Versace is the Italian Sharon Stone… I found the place as ugly as it’s landmark casino (The Grand Lisboa), where overweight Chinese with golden watches lose money and chainsmoke cigarettes… Even the misleading veil of darkness could not hide the emptiness. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, even the art of making an artificial, plastic city worth visiting.

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When I was all alone and sad around midnight in a karaoke bar, Johnnie spoke to me in very clear terms : Keep walking. An that’s exactely the action plan for the rest of the trip.

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Direction Java & Bali.

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01-10-10

067 / Octopussy's Udaipur

067 / Octopussy's Udaipur

The last stop in the mighty subcontinent was Udaipur, India’s most romantic city in a lake district with a somewhat Mediterranean feeling. We went there to wind down and to recover from the exciting trilogy “night train – night in the desert – night bus” of the past days. I checked in in a tidy quality hotel with a stunning view over the Water palace where Octopussy was filmed starring a legendary Roger Moore as OO7.

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The food was good, the people smiling, prices sweet, laundry fresh and talks generous. Vehicle-maniac Adam had the cool idea to rent an old school motorbike (A Royal Enfield Bullet 350) and to cruise around the hills and lakes surrounding the city. After the years of cruising through Paris, it was my turn now to be the passenger…

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 The nice thing with a bike is that you can go to places where normally it’s really hard to come. We discovered an amazing lake side and drove through some very local villages where the young children had smiles the size of a kite when we passed by, waving our hands. A pair or Ray Ban’s, a dusty old bike, a bit of cash and some time on your hands… One day I’ll be ready for my midlife crisis!

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At night, we went to the daily sunset showing of Octopussy (it’s been 30 years that the hotels show the same VHS every night… talking about a winning business concept). We celebrated the global presence of beer by offering a little piece of our liver to Kingfisher (the local beergod). For some unexplained reason, Adam could not remember the name of the city: Upadour Odupur Podudoor…

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In the morning, I left a bit emotional the first leg of my big trip. When I arrived in Mumbai, there was a siege-like, tense atmosphere. A highly symbolic conflict between Muslims and Hindus has been going on for 60 years, disputing the ownership of a holy side. Today, the Supreme Court has made a ruling, and the Indian government was alerted for potential riots in the big cities. Result: I’m for 12 hours in Mumbai, with all shops closed, public transport disturbed, a zero tolerance alcohol policy, a prohibition to stay for more than 4 hours in the airport, hotels in the neighborhood who adapt their prices accordingly and topped off with a late monsoon rain and 90% humidity. Oh traveler in India, if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere...

I’m counting to hours to board for another hyperkinetic destination : Hong Kong…

You’re coming?

wwwouter

 

 

 

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29-09-10

066 / Hello Safari

 

IMG_0186.JPG066 / Hello Safari

After a short stay in Jaipur, Adam and I took of with the night train to Bikaner, a rather non-touristic place (the proof: we spend 2 hours trying to find an internet connection) on the edge of the Rajasthani desert. Via Pankaj, whome I met in Mumbai, we were hosted by Mr and Mrs B L Sharma. We had the address and the name of the people, but the address didn’t lit evocate much interest of the local people when we asked for instructions. However, when we mentioned the name Hari Babu, everybody became curious and overly friendly. We found out soon that the man is one of the well known people in town. The couple were the owners of, a.o., a movie theatre that offers place to more than a thousand people. Their house was a big, beautiful oasis of green and quietness in a city that felt a bit like the inside of a vacuum cleaner to me. Their food (and associated explanations) were true discoveries of the local cuisine, with the finest herbs and the best ingredients. Their devotion to letting us experience the best of what Rajasthan has to offer was limitless. A remarkable stay. 

Adam, the New Zealand pilot who works in Papua (Indonesia) for the moment, has a funny habit of using unusual adjectives to comment things. He calls a dish beautiful, a beer nice,... all this to the occasional confusion of the local people who are less conceptual users of the English language. It’s interesting and fun to travel some days together. He also geared me up with seasoned action plans for my future stays in Bali and New Zealand. No problem.

The reason why we came to Bikaner, and the highlight of this stay was an overnight camel safari (technically, it dromedary safari, but that doesn’t ring very well…). We left around 4PM and by 4.11PM we realized that riding a camel is about a comfortable as driving a bicycle backwards without a saddle… A little pain, a lot of laughter. Around 5PM, the pain/laughter balance shifted dangerously to the pain side, but miraculously the sour butt feeling goes away when the huge evening sun start to kiss the horizon. Drenched a welcome silence (after some 10 days of bamboozling noise), this produces views that easily outclass the pictures. We arrived at our camping place. The sand was warm and inviting, and the thai hot and sweet. After playing with the children, trying to get the perfect sunset picture of Manman (my camel) and a long chat about “let’s call it man stuff”, we sent to sleep by 10PM. I woke up once because a dog had way to much affection for my cheek and once because a desert beetle passed my ear with so much noise it actually woke me. A wild peacock announced sunrise at 5.30AM. After a basic breakfast and once the dished done (with sand), we were ready to go, each of us with their own blisters and thoughts.  

 

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065 / People Posing

 

065 / People Posing

If Agra would not be the host of the Incredible Taj Mahal, it would possible be as famous as Hasselt or Saint Denis. One hit is enough to become a global star. The Taj has been named by many the most beautiful building on the planet, and unless my eyes rest on a more mind-blowing construction in the future, I join their camp. It’s a sight that only exists on postcards and computer desktops for years on end. On television you see famous people posing before it’s delicate fountains since childhood. Until that very moment you walk throught the red colored entrance gate and you feel an excitement that you can not easily explain. It’s a bit like the minute before you would meet Nelson Mandela in person I guess.

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When you arrive in front of schrine, the only thing you can do is try not to blink you eyes. It has the force of a USS aircraft carrier but the subtleness of a cello player…   The hundreds of people who are there at the same time dissolve in the air for a minute. Your postcard comes alive. As you walk closer, it’s sheer size humbles. “Should I touch it, if only once…?”. When I walked back from the monument, passed the crowds that noisily come and go like the waves on a rocky coast, it struck me how funny everybody acts when posing in front of a monument. I decided to take some pictures of random people posing…

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My motoricksaw wallah drove me around sunset to the other, more intimate side of the Taj Mahal, just across the river. There, I entirely understood the magic on India for the first time. I felt even ready to write the introduction of the Lonely Planet 2011 Edition… A group of youngsters were celebrating the end of the Ganesha festival in a ritual that consists of putting a big elephant like Ganesha god floating into the river. Their joyful moves blended perfectly in the peaceful scenery. A bunch of local women and children could not get enough of having their picture taken and looking at it on the little screen of my amazing camera.

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That night in the rooftop bar (with mandatory Taj view) a quick talk with a rather pale looking guy from New Zealand about the quality of the local beer evolved into a Rajasthan discovery trip for the days to come.  

 

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064 / Delhi Mirror

064 / Delhi Mirror


After three days in Mumbai, I’m bound for Delhi, the rebellious capital of the mighty subcontinent, that was at the time of my arrival struggling with the organization of a chaotic Commonwealth Games, one of the heaviest monsoons of the century and a latent terrorist threat. Welcome.


I was greatly hosted by Jishnu and his lovely wife in DLF Phase One (Gurgaon), a brand new satellite city of Delhi, an urban jungle of metal, steel and the world’s famous brands that combines state of the art office buildings with potholes in the road big enough to make record breaking size paellas…


IMG_2879.JPGThe first day was a cocktail of some highlight visits, like Qutb Minar which goes back to the onset of Islamic culture in India and the renowned Bahai Lotus Temple, a recent construction (1986) celebrating a type of meta-religion founded on the base of the acceptance of all religions in the world before making my way through the eternal traffic jam Delhi is. 

 

 

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At night, I discovered both the bright and dark site of Ol’ Monk (the local strong alcohol, close to whiskey). After the rediscovery of Skype, the A/C zoomed me into a short but profound sleep.

Delhi Day Two was dedicated to it’s historic Red Fort and the father of the Indian Nation (Mahatma Ghandi). A hard hearing but soft spoken guide in The Red Fort brought me some insights into the today’s India by telling me about its past. He defended that Indian glory is eternal ( in contrast to the Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures) because India is a master in the art of assimilation. Indian culture doesn’t oppose to but rather absorbs whatever hostile cultures that conquer the country. Therefore, the Indian culture is destined to continue forever following Darwin’s evolution theory applied to nations (The very different groups of people living in India is the exemplary byproduct). The rest of the afternoon I passed on the Ghandi Memorial which is erected on the place the great father of the nation was shot in 1957. What a life story, it reads like a dramatic, adventurous thriller with a predictable but even so shocking plot…IMG_2935.JPG


The most local Indian experience I’d had so far was the New Delhi train station and the tireless efforts I spend to order a regular train ticket. The first class was fully booked, so I booked a second class ticket (1€ for 300km) to Agra in the early morning…

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21-09-10

063 / Dabangg

003 / Dabangg

IMG_2852.JPGTravelling solo is a bit like debuting in horseback riding. You have to get on the horse without hesitation, even after an occassional fall, and you need to get used to the different speeds of the horse (standing, walking, trot, gallop). You also have to start feeling comfortable with the idea that you depend on others (a horse, restaurant keepers, taxi drivers…) for your well being. The same as one cannot question every step of the horse while moving, one cannot have doubts by all micro-decisions you take along the road.  

The third day in Mumbai (and in my trip in general) was one of relative leap of faith. Gone Indian friends to negotiate, gone prepaid taxis who wait for you where they drop you off. As I was walking toward Juhu beach, I decided to leave the main road for a secondary road, through  an even smaller street, passing by some dodgy alleys. The idea is not to go and look for trouble, but to get at ease with the different degrees of public safety (for now, I still prefer everything bigger than the small streets…).

When I arrived at the beach (don’t consider skinny dipping, because the water is rathIMG_2830.JPGer toxic), there were a lot of pushy vendors and curious children who give me the “Sir, sir, my friend, where are you from? First time in India? My business is going very bad”-treatment. I’m developing some techniques to polity, even playfully create the necessary distance. I will have to foolproof these skills in Delhi and Rajastan. I'll keep you posted. As far as food is concerned, I have a new policy as well : I systematically order a safe dish (fried noodles) and the free style dish (an order without knowing what is going to show up on the plate whatsoever). Yesterday, this bought me a sort of deep-fried pancakes you dip in pickles sauce and eat with raw onions (they looooove onions here…).

Close to sunset it was time to pay my respect to the stars of Bollywood. I took a 2€ ticket  (take this, Paris!!) for the smash hit of the moment : DABANGG!IMG_2837.JPG Literally speaking, this means FEARLESS. The movie is about a police guy with the fighting skills of the Matrix, Zorro, Wall-e, Charlies Angels and Xxx combined all while being a great lover, a devoted son and a huge fan of Ray Ban glasses (this part, I understand). The movie is only shown after a collective rising for the national hymne, brought by a choir of different ambassadors for the Indian people. I watched 2h of movie entierely in Hindi (with the exception of the random English sentence I discovered around the end : “Cast your vote, don’t vote your cast” I’m still figuring out the place of this sentence in a randon action movie). Breaking news: I also discovered where Roger Federer got a second jobIMG_2851.JPG to make ends meet. He’s costarring as the evil guy in epic Hindi stories. Very convincing I have to say.

On the way home, I decided to take a moto rickshaw (three wheels, steer of a scooter, engine of a Phillishave and a driver on speed). For some reason, my driven wasn’t passed by one single vehicule during the 20 min ‘drive’ (flight would be a more appropriate word). I didn’t know he had a tuned AMG 65 Bi-turbo Compressor rickshaw. Dabangg without the option of retake. I can only conclude my driver was either very skilled, very lucky or more likely both.

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After a Kingfisher (local beer) or two on a rooftop bar on the 6th floor, we had dinner with Pankai and Vadya in a great Indian place (no need to go for the noodles with these sweet experts around!). Thank you very much for the great hospitality in a bamboozling city. Good night J!!

 

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19-09-10

062 / Taxi Mumbai

062 / Taxi Mumbai

With an unbeatable army of 50 000 cruising the streets daily, the best way to visit Mumbai is the Black&Yellow, or the regular street taxi. You can rent them for the day for the price of 12 macarons at La Durée in Paris, and they take you wherever you want to go. So it happened that I teamed up with an aged, Hindi man who was silent for long periods of time, but when he talked, he couldn’t stop. Little did he care that I didn’t understand a single word of the entire monologues! At our first stop, I started my daytime visit as glamorous a possible. I got into an argument with a security guy of the Sidhi Vinagate Elephant temple for bringing accidentally a camera into the temple. When I tried a second time to enter the temple without the camera he gave me the evil eye and a speech about obeying the rules. When I answered that the camera was gone and that he was a bit too rigid with the rules, I stepped right into a … dogpoop. I had almost forgotton how fast priorities change when you step into dogpoop.  Discussion closed, the guy smiled, I smelled…

Later, I was driven to the Haji Ali shrine, a moIMG_2783.JPGsque deep in the water with a long pier connecting the city and this sacred place. The walkway is ‘notorious’ for the number of beggers that hope pelgrims will be generous. Everybody who has been in India warns everybody who goes to India to prepare for some unusual shocking sights… Here is where I got my face to face with extreme human tragedy. Some things only live in real confrontation, not in explanations : the smell of bread, the touch of skin, poverty…

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In vast contrast (probably the word that fits Mumbai the best), is the most expensive private residence ever built to date… A 35 story building for… 4 people. I stopped by the Mahalaxmi Temple, who is dedicated to the Goddess of Wealth where I had an explanation of an official about the rituals but I was too intrigued by the thickness of his glasses to pay any attention… After my awakening passage of Haji Ali, I didn’t dare to ask more money or property anyway!

Next up was lunch close to the Victoria Terminal, a train terminal where daily close to 3 million people pass, and where ‘the train is full’ is redefined permanently by keeping pushing people into the compartments (up to 4 times their legal capacity). The vegetarian restaurant was a revealing experience as well. Some people know I care as much about food as about the color of the underpants of Bono. I was ordering blind, and ended up with a dish which comes the closest to French fries that have been drowned in chilly sauce and onions for about an hour. In general the food is bearable, and my stomach is outperforming his provisions.

The day ended in a monsoon rain shower, but not before a quick visit to Dhobi Ghat, the biggest human washing machine on earth. Since 140 years several hundreds of people handwash the clothes worIMG_2816.JPGn in Mumbai. They hit the shirts and sheets with a violence that makes me feel sorry for the little guy in the suit who, in detergent TV commercials, lives in the clothes fibres and pops out surprisingly to say why white is not white enough … I start to understand why he’s always repeating the same, useless message … Brain damage.

 

 

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