first_tout, 22Jan98, Kandy, Sri Lanka
By this time we had been travelling for 4 days and thought we were somewhat experienced in the ways of the touts. We knew how to handle "touts", but we were not ready for a really slick one. We had been travelling since the early AM by train to the town of Kandy in Sri Lanka. Upon arrival we checked into an old colonial hotel and went for a short walk to find a place for a late lunch. We walked by a large boa tree. We read in our book that it was grown from a sprig of the original boa tree under which Buddha found enlightenment. The tree was surrounded by a large white wall with a variety of statues on the four sides. As we walked past it a gentlemen carrying a book and headed in the same direction as us, but at a faster pace slows back down and asks where we are from. The discussion rolls into "Ive got time, let me show you the Boa tree". He proceeds to take us into the walled area, past the holy man guarding the gate. We get a great explanation of all the symbology surrounding the tree. But, at the end of the experience we are led back to the holy man at the entrance and shown a "donation" book. The minimum which has been given is 20 dollars. We follow suit and give 20 dollars. It is not until it is over that we all agreed we thought it was way to much, but nobody said anything. We were still to green and not yet hard enough to just say NO. But, Sri Lanka was a training ground for India, land of the real touts.
arrival_india, 23Jan98, Madras, India
India, GMT + 5.5 hrs (yes, thats 5 ½) They say you never forget your first site, smell, experience with India. Well, they arent joking. It is a sensual overload that you will never forget. After dealing with the hot, over crowded airport arrivals hall we made our way to the entrance. Outside the glass doors leading outside the airport we were faced with several thousand Indians, all packed into a mass that was awaiting people to exit the airport. Some people where there awaiting family, some awaiting "opportunity". We were hesitant about exiting the airport and trying to find our way to a "safe" taxi (it was after 10pm). We found the pre-paid taxi booth inside the airport and attempted to book a taxi into town where we had made a reservation at a medium level hotel. We waited for 30 minutes while being told over and over again "no regular taxis available but we do have air conditioned taxis available" (at almost three times the price for a regular one). We agreed to the price for the air conditioned taxi and were escorted out of the hotel by 2 people from the taxi booth. As soon as we exited the airport the touts hit, "need taxi?", "carry your bag?", "need a hotel?", and a barrage of others as well. We load into our air conditioned taxi and off we went (we notice the large taxi rank as we load into our overpriced one). The pavement soon turns into a dirt road. On the sides of the road we see the people, walking around, sleeping on the sidewalks. There are piles of rubbish on the sides of the road. The smell is of rot and sewage. As we turn into a alley we notice burnt out cars, more rubbish, more people. We pull up in front of our hotel. I go in and verify its the right place while John and Krisztina stay in the taxi with out backpacks. We check into the hotel, 2 rooms. My room is smaller than a dorm room, but it will do. No air conditioning, just a ceiling fan. I open the shutters and let some air into the room. The windows have bars over them, which I give a good shake to test their sturdiness. I decide I dont trust the bars, so close the shutters. After a quick shower I crawl into bed under my mosquito net. It quickly gets to hot to bear in the room so I open the shutters to let some air into the room. After a dose of Nytol (sleeping pill), I finally get to sleep. At 5:18am I discover Im next door to a mosque. The call to prayer is blasted into my room at full volume. What a way to wake up!! I soon rise and shower again. Day one begins.
temple_bomb, 26Jan98, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Following our visit of the town of Kandy in Sri Lanka to see the Temple of the Tooth, we railed back down to Sri Lanka and then to the Columbo airport. We boarded a plane and after a period of delay we take off for Madras, India. We spent a couple of days in Madras and then railed it to Mysore. While on the train we had time to look through and English language newspaper. One of the international headlines was a car bombing of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, on the 25th! We visited the temple on the 22 and 23rd! Thats about close enough.
train_booking, 30Jan98, Delhi, India
Delhi is the center of arrivals for most travelers. At the central train station is a tourist booking office where reserved train tickets on many of the trains can be purchased. These reserved seats allow you a chance at getting on the overcrowded rail system. Without this reservation system many of the trains would not be accessible to the tourists. Some of the same train reservations can be made by a travel agency, but at inflated prices. But, the journey to find the booking office is a journey all its own. The Lonely Planet travel book directs us to the second floor in the central booking office. As we approach the train station touts show up. The first one points at the "booking office" for locals, then points at another booking office on the other side of the building "this one for foreigners, it is closed today". He tries to take us to a travel agency that can get the tickets for us, but we know this is wrong, its just a question of finding the right place. We ask a policeman and unfortunately he tells us the same story as the tout. No, this is not right. We head toward the main part of the train station. Several touts try to direct us along the way to their travel agencies. But, we shrug them off and continue on. Finally, not far from the entrance a man shows up, he as a rail office badge, looks all official, but he once again tries to steer us to a travel agency. No thanks. We finally get inside the building and find the booking office. We get the forms and wait in line to make our reservations.
shit_shoe, 30Jan98, Delhi, India
We had read about a "shit tout" story in the Lonely Planet travel book and found it quite humorous. While walking along a street in Delhi late one afternoon a very grimy man comes up to me. He points out that I have something on my shoe. I look down to see a blob of shit on my shoe. He offers to wipe it off for a fee! I remember the story I had read earlier in which they guy realizes this is the guy who put it on his shoe and when he refuses to pay the fee, ends up with something on the other shoe as well! So, I shout at this guy and tell him is the one who put it on my shoe and I am not going to pay him to wipe it off. Then, I retreat into a store entrance so he cant put anything on my other shoe. After the shouting ends and he leaves I pull out some toilet paper and wipe off the shit. What a gimmick to make money.
your_stop, 31Jan98, to Agra, India
One of the major tourists routes is the train from Delhi to the town of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. It is only a couple of hours by train. We purchased cattle class train tickets and pack in with the locals in the hard seat section of the train. When we are still 1 stop from Agra a couple of touts jump on board the train before it is stopped. They come on board and try to convince us to get off at this stop, Agra Candll. This is not Agra City stop. They continue to try to convince us to get off, we just laugh them off. They then try on 2 other westerners, but we assure them that its the next stop. The power of information. We had a rail guide with all the stops listed. As the train starts to pull out most of the touts jump back off the train. But, some have stayed on the train. The ones that stayed on board now try to sell us on their hotel choice. As we pull into the Agra City station more touts jump on board to try to get us to go to their choice of hotel (if a tout brings you to a hotel, in general the price becomes "standard room rate" + "tout fee"). If you go yourself, no tout fee means a cheaper room. Outside the train station the next set of touts to deal with - taxis and rickshaws. We get fed up and choose to walk part of the way. It turns into a humorous parade down the street as we are followed by several motor and pedal rickshaws. They are persistent, following us for more than 30 minutes!
photo_please, 1Feb98, India
One of the things that made us last laugh more than once was the phrase "photo please?". In more than one instance we would be asked to pose for a photo with an Indian. This happened when we ran into Indians on holiday. We may have been the first westerners they had seen but most times we were not. But, they wanted to get a picture with you to show relatives who had never seen a westerner before. With me being 6 ft 2 in tall, I had a bit of a novelty effect. Thank goodness I was not blonde as well - a real novelty.
my_shoes, 1Feb98, India
I did not pack any sandals on this journey. I expected to buy some cheap ones in India and use them and then throw them away when they were not needed any more. But, a size 12 does not exist in a land of small frame people. I had been looking for sandals for a couple of weeks now and began to realize that a size 12 really did not exist, in any type of shoe! If I loose my one pair of shoes I could really be in trouble. At temple entrances we were required to remove our shoes and leave them at the entrance. Leaving my shoes some place safe became a concern. If they were stolen I could be in trouble. I developed a way to lock them up with one of the cables I had brought along. It wasnt pretty, but I felt a bit better. Trying to get a custom made pair of shoes in India would have been a challenge. I began to see my clothing and shoes as one of my most valuable possessions.
bus_flat, 4Feb98, to Jaipur, India
We caught a bus from Agra to Jaipur as there was not a good route via train. There were buses leaving every hour for most of the morning. We got on the 7:30am bus. We hardly got out of town when the bus pulls off onto a parking area. The bus has a flat - it becomes obvious that it was flat when we left the station. They just did not tell us. As I watch them go to work on this flat tire I have to laugh. First, they try to turn the nuts the wrong way to loosen them up. A British backpacker points this out to them. They get the nuts loose and want to jack up the bus, but the jack wont go short enough to fit under the axle. No problem. One guy wedges the jack at an angle and holds it while the other one drives the bus forward, putting it up on the jack. They finish taking the tire off and put the new one on. They expect to now drive the bus off the jack, but with one wheel up in the air, the other wheel just spins. As they ponder how to get it off, the 8:30 bus honks its horn as it goes by! We could have stayed in bed another hour and still got there sooner! Finally, all the passengers get off the bus and begin rocking the bus, but no success. They pack stones under the free wheeling tire while we push. It rolls off! All aboard.
bull_bang, 9Feb98, Jaisalmer, India
We had been in India long enough to get used to having cattle around us. In the Rajasthan desert city of Jaisalmer we often passed them in the very narrow alley ways. I had observed how the locals in many cities would move cattle out of the way by giving them a little slap on the skin. So, one day when the alley way was blocked by a horned bull, I gave him a smack to get him to move to the side. He responded by throwing his head back and slamming me against the wall. Luckily the horns missed me! I quickly retreated. I soon learned the cattle in Jaisalmer were much more aggressive then those of other cities. We gave them a wide berth and right of way from then on. A close call.
pakistan_smuggler, 10Feb98, Jaisalmer, India
One of the "must dos" when out in the desert is to go on a camel ride. We were running on a tight schedule so decided to only do a one day ride instead of the traditional 3 day ride. After a days ride in the desert we stop at sand dunes to watch a sunset. After a fabulous sunset we were supposed to be picked up by a jeep to take us back to town. The sun set at 6:30pm. We began our wait. As the desert night began to chill the air we started a fire to keep us warm. In the distance we saw the headlights of a vehicle. Our guide borrows a flashlight that and uses it to flash and wave at the jeep. But, the jeep turns and goes off into the desert another direction. After a time another jeep appears in the distance. Our guide flashes the light at them. The jeep flashes back. Must be ours. Finally, at 8pm the jeep arrives and we load up. The jeep driver says he was late because he had a flat along the way. After a drive on a sandy road we reach the pavement. Its the 4 tourists, our guide, and 3 locals in the front seat. As we drive along another jeep comes up behind us. Our driver slows down and puts his arm out the window and waves the jeep to pass. This goes on for several minutes until the jeep finally passes us. As he goes past a shout goes out from the front seat and a clear liter bottle goes sailing out of the passenger window into the desert. The jeep in front of us slows down and signals us to stop. As both jeeps stop soldiers pile out of the lead jeep and surround ours, guns raised and pointing at us! The driver gets out and lots of raised voices ensue. After several minutes of tension it calms down, the soldiers all get back in the lead jeep and it pulls away. Our driver tells us "no problem, misunderstanding". As the soldiers drive off in the distance one of the front seat guys gets out and goes out into the desert and retrieves the liter bottle and stuffs it under the front seat. We begin our journey towards home. When I ask whats in the liter bottle I get "what liter bottle, no liter bottle". I let it slide and we continue on into town. The next morning we inquired of the tour operator what was going on. He tells us the soldiers saw the lights flashing in the desert and thought we were Pakistan arms smugglers. The driver convinced them we were not smugglers, but the tour operator still had to report to the area commander and explain what was going on (and pay him a bribe to make him happy). As to the liter bottle he said he had no knowledge but speculated it contained alcohol, a forbidden evil for them to posses. Fun in the desert!
election_day, 16Feb98, Delhi, India
We arrive in Delhi from Udiapur on election day. There were not many taxis and of course they want extra money for working on the election day. We settle on a hotel, the YWCA, and get comfortable. There is a contingent of soldiers in front of the hotel. We run some errands and then later settle into our hotel. On the evenings news we discover it was not a good day to be out and about in the city. There was a bombing and several riots, including one just up the street from us! Luckily our timing never put us in the wrong place at the right time.
taxi_from_hell, 23Feb98, Varanassi, India
To travel from Varanassi to Katmandu we went via taxi. The flights were full and the bus was to long journey. The taxi cost was about the same as a flight plus we thought the overland journey would be scenic. The taxi was a minivan with 2 good tires, and 2 baldies. But, it all seems okay. We arrange a pickup for 5:30am. We are told the drive is about 12 hours. Early the next morning we are waiting at 5:30am for our taxi. We start to get concerned at 5:50 that he has not shown, but at 6am he shows up! We load up then we drive to his house so he can say goodbye to his wife and kids,,,? Where has he been all night that he hasnt already done this? We drive a bit and stop for gas. We agree to pay the first half of the amount due him so he can pay for the gas. Onward we go. After a few hours we stop in a roadside repair shop where he gets his breaks adjusted before we go into the mountains,,, okay, we wait. We finally get moving again. We reach the India / Nepal border where the driver demands passenger tax, 400 rupees from each of us! That adds up to a 25% increase in cost for the trip! Well, we have doubts about this "passenger tax". We take care of the passport stamps - out of India and into Nepal. Then I go with the driver to the booth to see about this tax. I finally find someone to tell me whats going on - its a road tax! We refuse to pay it. We agreed a price to go from Varanassi to Nepal, period. The disagreement reaches a head when the driver finally says "fine, I take you no further". We decide we are half way and we have paid him half the money, lets call his bluff. We start to gather together our bags and make ready to leave. He asks "where you going?". We reply, "going to catch a bus". He gives in, "okay, I take you the rest of the way, but you are getting a really good deal". Onward we go. We reach some foothills and begin our journey into the Himays. At the first down slope we get to much speed up and end up on 2 wheels and out of control! Our driver recovers but we only go a little ways before a flat is noticed. Whether this was the cause or the effect of the curve we will never know. He takes off the flat, bald tire and puts on the bald spare. Its late in the day and we have many miles to go. We drive into the night. The driver gets a bit erratic, weaving, going off the road. We stop at the first town where the driver disappears. He comes back 20 minutes later all powered up to go again. He drives well for a while, but deteriorates and gets erratic again. Next town he stops, disappears, comes back all powered up . the cycle repeats several times. He is obviously going away to do some drugs and or alcohol. We reach Katmandu after 18 hours. We are tired and the driver is shot. He takes us to a hotel. We decide its okay and check in. But, now the desk clerk seems to think we are going to pay for his room! NOT. The driver begs for a big tip, we give him a reasonable tip and retire to our rooms. So ends our dealing with him.
friendship_bridge, 6Mar98, Kodari, Nepal
We arranged for an overland jeep trip from Katmandu to Lhasa. The journey involves two stages. A Nepal based transport to the Nepal / Tibet border then a Tibet based transport to Lhasa. The plan intends for a hand over at the friendship bridge which separates the 2 countries. When we reach the bridge, there is no jeep for us be handed over to. The Nepal transport tells us we have to walk up to Zhangmu where we can spend the night and wait for our jeep to show up. Its 6 miles of steep, muddy uphill road with 60 lbs of backpack! I dont think so. After much shouting and going on, they agree to take us up to Zhangmu. But, we barely go part of the way when the road is to rugged. It will require a jeep to proceed. We put our guide in a jeep going up and tell him to find transport and come down and pick us up. We go back down and wait at the bottom. Going back to Nepal is not an option for us as we had single entry visas. Finally, as the light is fading our guide shows up with a jeep and driver. The jeep was borrowed from the border patrol. We use it to get up. But, unfortunately the border police will not let them use it to go back down so he must walk down. Sorry. The immigration office is closed so the border guard keeps our passports.
train_tickets, 22Mar98, Yichang, China
How do you go about buying train tickets in a country where the spoken language is tonal and very difficult for the westerner to work with? Simple, write it the message down! To buy train tickets we would look up the Chinese characters for a message. We would figure out the train number from the symbols on the board in the station. We wrote out how many tickets; class we wanted; and overnight bunks we desired. We would then hand the piece of paper to the person behind the ticket counter. They would then nod their heads, punch it up on the computer, issue the tickets, and write the price down on paper using western numbers. Simple as that. This all works fine as long as nothing goes wrong. The first time it happened was in Yichang whilst we were trying to get tickets to Xian. The note was handed back to us with some pointing and verbal information (in Chinese). We just looked perplexed and the ticket person soon understood we did not speak Chinese. So, she assumes that if we wrote in Chinese we must read in Chinese, so she writes down the instructions in Chinese. Well, we step out of the line and try to figure out what was going on. We figured out we were at the wrong window, but were not sure where we were supposed to go next. We tried another window with roughly the same results. But, this time, the ticket person had the patience to work with stick figures and lots of pointing. Okay, we are in the wrong building, there must be another ticket issuing place. Outside we go. As we are standing there trying to figure out where and what a Chinese man comes up and in the queens English tells us that the overnight train tickets are issued down the street in a little building which he points out to us. THANK YOU! We go in the building, hand our original bit of paper to the lady behind the counter, no problem. She issues the tickets and we pay the money. This is not the only time we ran into a language problem and we were not always rescued by a bilingual person. You can survive in a foreign land and not speak the language as long as things dont go to wrong.
bus_tout, 4Apr98, Guilin, China
This was one of those days were the touts proved useful. We were trying to catch a bus from Guilin to Yangshou. The local bus station was a zoo and we could not interpret the symbols to buy bus tickets. So, we have to resort to a tout. A couple of touts had followed us into the station and were trying to get the business but we had not yet given up and used them. At this time this Chinese guy came up to us wearing a camera around his neck carrying a bag. Where are you trying to get to, he asks? Yangshou. Oh, thats where Im going as well, Ill help you out. Let me help you with tickets. He asks for money to buy the tickets which we get suspicious on. But, he hands us his camera to hold while he gets the tickets. We then proceed out into the parking lot where he pays a tout to jump onto an incoming bus and hold 2 seats for the 4 of us. We board happy enough. But the man with the camera says he is leaving now, he will catch a later bus .- we had been touted and not noticed it until to late. Oh well, the price was not to outrageous and he got us seats.
order_food, 7Apr98, Guilin, China
How do you order food in a county where you dont speak the language and the character based writing is note readable (even with a phrase book)? We resorted to 2 techniques. Firstly, we would walk around the restaurant and look at dishes on the tables and point to them if they looked good. Many times people at the tables would really enjoy this and point out dishes they thought were the best. Secondly we would get out the phrase book and point out dishes it had listed. The waitress would either nod yes or no if they had it. We were having a late lunch in Guilin while waiting for a train. As there was not many people in the restaurant for us to copy dishes from we had to resort to technique two. We ordered chicken in soy sauce. A dish that had yielded chicken fried up in vegetables in previous restaurants. The other rule after ordering like this was to check the prices on everything to make sure you have not ordered a dish that is outrageously expensive. But, today we were tired and let our guard down. As the food arrived we got 3 dishes and some rice. We speculated whether we had ordered a 4th dish or not? As we finished the meal a platter came out of the kitchen for us - a whole chicken, fried in soy sauce! This much meat is going to cost us a fortune. Oh well, we sampled it. The chicken was mostly raw and was old and tough. As the bill came the chicken was priced as much as the rest of the meal (including beers). I began to argue with the waitress that I was not going to pay full price for the chicken. This involved using the phrase book and making gestures to indicate how bad the chicken dish was. I was getting now where so showed her the phrase for "please get the manager". Out of the kitchen comes a man in a suit talking on a mobile phone! I start over with my disagreement with him and finally agree half price for the chicken. We pay our bill and leave, wiser for the experience.