cave

Time for South India: Mumbai

I’m going to breeze over Agra and our return to New Delhi. Basically after the Taj we got back to Delhi as fast as possible. Agra is another busy North Indian city that we’d been told wasn’t worth spending much time in, so taking into consideration our exhaustion from the past week and Kwaz’s lingering illness we decided to just get the hell out of there. It was the right move. We enjoyed a relaxing night at the wonderfully modern Madpackers Hostel – we ordered in Lebanese food, I did some “work,” and Kwaz got a ton of sleep to finally get healthy – before our flight down to Mumbai the next morning.

In the two weeks Kwaz and I traveled India together we had inadvertently split them down the middle: one week North, one week South. Mumbai was the beginning of our South India chapter, and we had high hopes for how this week would go.

Mumbai was a breath of fresh air. It revived and reinvigorated us.

Starting with our lovely AirIndia flight, complete with Bollywood movie and veg or non-veg food options, and the well-signed airport, to the very kind man who helped us find the AirBnb apartment we would be staying in, even calling the owner himself to get accurate directions and giving us his number in case we needed anything, things were looking up.

We sprung for an AirBnb in the chic Bandra West neighborhood. We spent the afternoon wandering up and down the oceanside walk past the apartment complexes where all the rich and famous live – Mumbai’s Hollywood Hills – and tasting local street snacks of pani puri. We were shocked to get 6 per order for just 45 Rs, and even more shocked when we expressed how we didn’t realize we got so many and we should have split an order and they actually tried to give us our money back. People were so kind in Mumbai! After a bottle of wine in the apartment and a couple of hours in a dive bar that felt like home, Tito’s Garage, we were declaring our love for South India.

Our only full day in Mumabi was dedicated to one thing: Elephanta. Elephanta to Kwaz was like the Taj Mahal to me. This is the number one thing that she wanted to see on this trip and after going there I totally get why.

But first, we had breakfast at a bagel place. BAGELS. Sure they were no Jersey bagels but still, a little taste of home. Especially since we got one with avocado on it. Then we took an UBER to the ferry terminal. Were we really in India? The terminal was in the colonial part of town so the surrounding architecture was a mixture of European styles. The whole morning was a jarring difference from the India we had seen in the previous week.

An hour boat ride – always an enjoyable way to travel – and a 30 minute uphill climb brought us to the main cave on Elephanta Island. Standing in front of the row of pillars carved into a rock face imbued me with a sense of anticipation. “There’s something amazing through there.” And there was.

Art and Architecture of India came to life around me. We entered a hall of columns, rows of them carved into the cave as if they were holding up the whole mountain above us. Off to the right was the shrine for the linga, with its protectors carved into the walls around it. Images from class came rushing back to me and I smiled in the realization that I was actually there, seeing this in person. All around the cave were reliefs depicting Hindu scenes, most revolving around Shiva, and even though they were in various states of ruin I could still see the immense detail and care that went into creating them. We read the little guide Kwaz picked up and played “find the detail” with each one. At the center of it all was the impressive and emotive sculpture of the three heads of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector, and Shiva the Destroyer. We stared at it for a long time, and no matter where we were in the cave, my eyes kept going back to this amazing piece. It commanded attention in its scale but allowed contemplation in its expression.

We explored the secondary caves but felt like we’d already seen everything we came for in the main one. Elephanta was the experience that was missing from the Taj Mahal; actually being there was a level above seeing the pictures. It was like Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu – places that I knew would be stunning but the reality of walking around far exceeded the expectation. And for Kwaz, it was a life dream come true. I felt honored to be there with her for such an emotional moment, and seeing her reaction to this place only made me appreciate it even more.

The return ferry dropped us off somewhere else in Mumbai. It smelled rank of fish and with barely any taxis in sight we totally overpaid just to get out of there. The ride back to our area was a surprise, and fascinating in its own way; it was the other Mumbai. We drove through slums like I’ve never seen before. I felt almost guilty looking out the windows of the taxi, knowing this was a part of the city I wouldn’t have purposefully gone to but oddly happy (happy isn’t the right word, but I don’t know if I could ever find a right one) to have accidentally passed through it. Structures that can only be described as shacks were piled one on top of the other, with dirt paths weaving into and through them, hovering over the edge of a river or pushed up to the sidewalk of the main thoroughfare. People were everywhere, and so was garbage. It was overload in every way, literal and sensory.

To decompress from the day, the overwhelming traffic, and the intensity of what we just saw, we went to endless sangria happy hour before our flight. It was a quick trip to Mumbai but one that left us wanting more. We agreed that the next trip to India we would fly directly to Mumbai and move South from there.

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Khao Sok: A Perfect Place to Escape Christmas (and Sort of Celebrate it)

Within the first fifteen minutes of meeting Chris and Pascal we figured out that we would all be in Thailand for Christmas. We said we should meet up again there so we wouldn’t have to spend Christmas alone. It was a nice idea, but considering I had barely even learned their names, who knew if I’d actually want to see them again for the holidays.

Then we spent Whitsundays, Fraser Island and Byron Bay together, and to avoid actually saying goodbye when I left Byron we made real our first impression plan to meet up for Christmas in Thailand.

They were coming from Phuket on their way to Koh Phangan and I was coming from Cambodia on my way to Krabi, so we picked a location in between: Khao Lak. We’d never heard of it either… I knew I wanted to try to get to Khao Sok National Park, a can’t-miss recommendation from Josi (whose recommendations have never steered me wrong), and they wanted to do some beach time and snorkeling, and Khao Lak is the launching point for Similan Islands trips, supposedly some of the best underwater scenery in the area.

We met in Khao Lak and decided the order of events (partly decided for us by weather conditions): we would spend one night there, then do two days/one night in Khao Sok, then a snorkeling day trip to the Similan Islands, and still have a final day to chill in Khao Lak before going our separate ways.

This meant we were in Khao Sok for Christmas Eve night and Christmas morning. We were all united in our lack of care for how we spent Christmas. When you’re traveling holidays are just another day. I completely took this perspective to heart with Christmas. Why does a calendar have to tell me when I need to see family? Just because I was out of the country on December 25th doesn’t mean I miss them any more or less. I got to spend three weeks at home with my parents before I left and saw more family at a great going away party. To me that was more important time spent with family than a day someone centuries ago declared should be the family day of all family days.

Still though, there was something special about being in such a scenic place on the pinnacle of Christmas for both of us – the Germans celebrate on the evening of the 24th and the Americans on the morning of the 25th. We toasted to Christmas with our cheap red wine. And our next bottle of red wine. And all those beers. We toasted and played cards until they shut the power off on us and forced us to go to sleep, before 11 pm.

Khao Sok is gorgeous. We met up with the other 6 people doing the two day one night tour at an office near the park and were driven out to the dock, where we all crammed into a long tail boat and set out into the wide open lake. Karst rock formations rose out of the water all around us, more densely than I’d seen in Halong Bay but no less majestic. The water was a deep turquoise blue, a color I didn’t know a lake could be. Long tail boats sit low in the water and we were a lot of people in our little boat, so we got a little wet. This is why, about 20 minutes into the ride, our guide flagged down a passing bigger long tail boat and informed us we would be switching boats. There was no pier in site. We pulled into a little inlet where the water was calmer shielded by the mountain and jumped from the front of our boat into the new boat that was pulled up alongside us, and its former passengers did the reverse. Somehow this worked out and we were back on our way. I got to lay up front and watch the mountains pass by in the sky above. Not much longer and we saw where we would be spending the night: our floating bungalows.

The image in my mind of floating bungalows did not do them justice. In the middle of this expansive landscape of mountains and water, a small row of half a dozen traditional bamboo huts were latched together in a row, hovering on floating barrels. They were loosely attached to a permanently wet plank walkway in front (which I was terrified of falling off of in the dark after the wine) that connected to the most intact structure, the bathrooms, which linked to a few more substantial houses, lashed to the dining area, which was then attached to the staff area. When we arrived the dining to staff areas were in an L shape, when we woke up the next morning they were in a straight line. They’d made some adjustments.

When we got there we had lunch and free time before an afternoon hike. It didn’t take long to get our bathing suits on and jump into the water right in front of our bungalow (all three of us shared one bamboo bungalow – guess who got to sleep in the middle with neither of the two blankets). We took the kayaks out for a joy ride around a smallish island, the calm water making it easy to glide around. The jungle hike was more than expected; it was wet in Khao Lak so a lot of the path was just mud. We practiced our balance, jumping from root to root, playing hot lava with the mud; or at least most of us did, Chris gave up pretty easy and just trudged through the mud and water. We saw spiders and crabs and lots of rainforest trees. I even picked up a leech, which the guide quickly tore off of me. It had bitten me through my sock, which was now soaked in blood. I learned that leech bites don’t stop bleeding for a long long time. First a wasp in the Amazon, now a leech in the Thai jungle, it’s like my insect initiation into jungle life. After the hike we did a quick walk through an old cave and saw bats, more spiders, and played the stalagmites like chimes.

The next morning we were out on the boat before breakfast to spot some local wildlife – birds and monkeys – and had more swimming time when we got back before our after-lunch departure home. It was a peaceful two days with lots of down time, swimming time, hanging out time, learning new card games time, and generally disconnecting from reality time. Which I think was a great way to avoid the social media influx of Christmas reminders. I couldn’t be happier with how I spent the holiday and who I was with.

The ride back out was just as picturesque as it was on the way in. The rain flirted with us, it had been on and off all morning but mostly held off for our ride back out, but even in overcast weather Khao Sok was a magical place. As happy as we all were with our time there, more than two days probably would’ve been too much. There’s only so much nothing you can do sometimes, and we had fish to swim with in the Andaman Ocean.

Road Trip North Island: Waitomo Caves

Tuesday morning we picked up Fez, our trusty ride for the next two weeks, and hit the open road. On the left side. I had already been confused when Frank as the driver got in on the right side of the car, so imagine how I felt when we started driving. The soundtrack of our first 15 minutes consisted of me adjusting to exits being on the left, passing lanes on the right, and the fact that cars coming towards us in the lane my mind thought we should be in were not going to crash into us.

Which is all on video. I decided to GoPro video our entire road trip through New Zealand. I’ve been consistently taping the roads we’ve driven and activities we’ve done throughout these two weeks and am so excited to edit together a final video (which may take a while, please be patient). The variety of landscapes we have encountered is mindboggling and I hope it translates well on video.

The scenery in the North Island is satured with color. It’s all vibrant green hills dotted with white sheep underneath a stunningly blue sky. It’s a rolling meadows landscape in technicolor. And it really does look like The Shire. Unfortunately Lord of the Rings references are hard to avoid in NZ nowadays, and when you’re driving through it you can’t help but be amazed that what you saw on film actually looks like that in real life.

When I crowd-sourced recommendations for this month the Waitomo caves were a must-do adventure, so due to their proximity just 2 hours south of Auckland they were our first stop. We booked with a smaller, family-owned company Kiwi Cave Rafting because it gave us a little taste of everything for a reasonable price: we repelled into the cave, trudged up the river to pause underneath a sky of glowworms, tubed back down through a few minor rapids, did some cave trekking with a hot drink and chocolate break, rock climbed back out, and were rewarded for our efforts with a hot shower and tomato soup, all for a reasonable NZ $155. Other companies had wet and dry adventures as separate options and to do both cost at least $100 more. I think we made a great decision; without the combination of experiences it would have felt a little not worth the price, but doing all of it, and with a small group of just four of us and one guide, made for a very fun afternoon.

The caves were a great introduction to the craziness of New Zealand nature. Lit only by headlamps, we wandered past rocky stalagmites and stalactites, half submerged in a cold dark underground river. When we reached a pebble beach we turned off our lights to gaze at the sky of glowworms above us. They glittered like stars, which made for a trippy scene so far underground. We turned our lights back on and went to a section with a lower roof to see what they actually look like close up and their sticky strings that hang down to catch food – not quite as mesmerizing as they were in the dark.

The black water rafting part was pure fun: we got into black inner tubes and sailed down a river in the dark. Most of the trip was fairly calm, but in a few spots it picked up and sent us on an underground waterpark ride. Then our only choice was to hike back up to the cave entrance on, around and through the rocks lining the river. Our guide would send us through very small openings and take pictures of us squeezing our way out. Sorry I don’t have any of those, they cost extra of course (and GoPros were not allowed). We were all so excited with this trip to an underground world and I can see why it was so highly recommended. I would say it’s a worthy North Island stop.

We ended our first road trip day at the local watering hole for trivia night with a couple people from our hostel. It was a low key evening and we didn’t come close to winning, but it was still an entertaining way to toast the beginning of this adventure.