First Day in Mcleodganj

IMG_5734I started the day off by posting up at a cafe down the street from my guesthouse- Cafe Budan.  I didn’t have much of a clue what I was actually going to research so I used the free wifi on offer to read up on some academic papers to try and develop a theoretical framework for my thesis.  The menu in this place was pretty western- Indian filtered coffee was replaced by espressos and cappuccinos, while gluten-free cakes and chocolate croissants lined the pastry display in the front.  It definitely appeared as though they were catering to a particular kind of customer and I probably wasn’t it.  The guys working the counter spoke English really well and treated most of the foreigners who came in with a warm familiarity which led me to believe they were regulars.  When I walked in, there wasn’t a single Indian customer in sight.  A group of foreigners who spoke English with some sort of European accent sat on one of the tables outside.  Beside me sat two Thai men: one dressed as a monk and the other in plain clothes.  The monk was counting prayer beads on a string with his hand while conversing with his friend.  Across from them a picture of the Dalai Lama hung high on the cafe wall.  I thought that the monk might be on some sort of spiritual pilgrimage or perhaps he lived here now.  The place had a distinct international flavour to it, as did the entire town- you could easily forget that you were in fact in India.   An older foreign man was sitting outside, with a rolled cigarette in his hand, talking to one of the guys who worked in the cafe.  A few of the people walking by shook hands with the cafe workers lounging out front.  There was certainly an aura of community about the place.

I had been to Mcleodganj nearly a decade ago with my older brother when we taught English as volunteers and did odd jobs at the vegan cafe and restaurant we were based out of.  I was sad to see the owners had since sold the place on, and that the incredibly friendly Tibetan who ran the place for them, who became our friend and helped us out immensely, was no longer there.  The few narrow streets that make up the town seem ill-equipped to deal with the influx of traffic to the region.  Cars, taxis, rickshaws, bikes, and scooters seem to pass by in an endless stream, leaving little room for foot traffic.  This was a far cry from the last time I was here when a car passing by was something of a rarity.  As I followed one of the tapering streets down to the main square.  I saw something incredible…Pizza Hut!  I resisted the urge to indulge mainly because I’m quite poor right now and need to save my funds for the necessities aka beer.  I guess the place was getting somewhat globalized the last time I was here, but nothing like this.

The streets were more crowded now than I remembered.  There was hardly a moments silence and the air was filled with car horns blaring, engines roaring, and hordes of stray dogs barking.  There were a lot more Indian tourists walking the streets than the last time I was here.  The language was a bit of an issue in some places.  My Hindi was extremely basic and learned from Bollywood movies I had watched when I was around 10.  In Kerala, where my family is from, the main language is Malayalam and it bears no resemblance to Hindi, which is what most people speak in North India.  North India is like a different country to the south, and Mcleodganj still yet another.  I honestly felt a bit like an alien today.  An Indian, who grew up in Dubai, moved to Canada, worked in Korea, who was now here doing fieldwork for his masters in the Netherlands, with no real idea of what he is actually doing.  I felt more apprehensive trying to engage with strangers here than I did in Holland or Canada.  It was also the first time I was somewhere new just totally on my own.

So I did what any upstanding person would in the circumstances.  I ducked into the nearest bar/ restaurant to get a big bottle of Kingfisher beer- the perfect lubricant for these kinds of situations.  I told myself I was just going in there to jot down some notes and since they had beer, the only logical thing to do was to have one.  At the table beside me sat a Tibetan family made up of what looked like the grandparents, parents, and child.  The young boy was speaking English with a North American accent.  I wondered if they were a family that had once lived here and then moved on to ‘the promised land’ of the good ol’ US of A.  I was still struggling to pin down something really new or interesting that I could say.  I thought about analysing the town using a concept we had learned in our class on mobility: Auge’s concept of places and non-places.  Was this just a place where mobilities passed through one another on the way to somewhere else- some kind of liminal space?  Or was there something more fixed about it?  What kind of threads came to be entangled here and what did the whole mess really look like?

With a little liquid courage, I finally worked up the nerve to ask the family beside me where they were from.  The lady at the table replied that her parents had moved here from Tibet, when they lost their country and that she herself had moved on to San Francisco around 6 years ago.  She said she was back here to visit her family.  I was an idiot, though, because I didn’t push the conversation further and ask her what I really wanted to know: did this place feel like home to her?  I still needed to warm up my ability to interview strangers.  The questions didn’t seem to form in my mouth because I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for.  I remembered a quote from Lincoln above my seat on the train from Calicut to Kochi on my way here:  “A goal properly set is halfway reached.”  Mine was evidently not yet properly set.  I’m not usually one for inspiring quotations but I think Abe was onto something there.

I walked town temple road to the main Tibetan temple in the town, hoping for some divine inspiration.  The place was definitely calming.  It was being prepared for a conference directed towards the Dalai Lama, wherein he would listen to different members of the scientific community who would present their findings to him.  I had met someone on the plane, on the way here who worked for the NGO that was organizing the conference and ran into him again at the temple.  The temple was brimming with tourists, both Indian and foreign, snapping away their selfies, as well as the monks that populated it.  I spent a few moments hypnotized by the turning prayer wheels with the mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum,  inscribed on them.  The temple and the town itself felt a bit sleepy, maybe it was the fact that today was the anniversary of the Tibetan uprising day.  I myself felt a bit sleepy and decided to make my way back to the guest house for a nap.



Part 5: The Passage to Cambodia 1

The following morning was not the easiest of times to say the least.  We both struggled to get up and clean ourselves up.  But we had to be up and out of there to meet the guide who would take us to the bus.  He met us outside the hostel and led us towards the main road, herding other passengers on the way, as is customary on any bus journey here.  Every step was a struggle in the heat, and the idea of being on a bus for an unknown amount of time wasn’t the most attractive of prospects.

We were at the head of the pack of bus goers, and once we got to the main street the guide shouted out to me, “bah led cala!” as he climbed on to the back of a scooter and took off.  I have to admit I had a hard time understanding most people in Thailand and Madonna served as the interpreter of the group even when people were speaking in English.  I thought oh he wants us to go to a street named “baht led cala”- that sounds quite Thai and plausible.  As I was surveying the street signs, Madonna looked at me and said, “You idiot.  He said bus red colour.  It’s right there!”  Oh he meant that huge red bus right in front of us.  I see.

As is the norm in these parts it’s hard to actually get someone to tell you what bus is going where and if the one standing right in front of you is actually going where you need it to go.  The decals on the bus spelling out every city from Chang Mai to Pattaya aren’t exactly helpful either.  I saw a few tourists who I thought were from some Andean region, owing to their facial structure and use of Spanish.  I’ll interject here and say that I am obsessed with the idea that I can tell where a person is from simply from the bone structure of their face.  It may or may not be real, but I’m going to keep on pretending that it’s my superpower.  For the record they were Chilean- a fact I learned from peeking at their passports later.


Part 4: One Night in Bangkok

That night we wandered into a large open restaurant, parallel to Khaosan, which seemed to be full of foreigners and had a huge menu.  We both ordered several dishes to try as we are both quite fond of Thai food.  To start with we had those delicious spring rolls that seem to taste so much better here.  And for the main we had a spicy green curry and some crispy fired shrimp.  Thai food has a great aroma and spice to it which makes you want to just keep eating more.  The smell of basil, lemongrass and all their other aromatics filled the air.  Everything that everyone around us ordered just looked and smelled absolutely delectable, and being the definition of a glutton, it was quite hard for me to abstain from continuously ordering more food and icy cold tiger beers.  Come to think of it ‘icy’ may be a bit of an exageration- I don’t think Southeast Asia has quite yet got the concept of adequately chilled drinks.  But hey, who’s going to complain about a one dollar beer?  Definitely not me.

We made our way back to the main street and the night time festivities had kicked off.  The street was packed to the brim with travellers looking for a good time and locals looking to service and likely exploit their every whim.  Bars spill out on to the street in Khaosan and a trusty Sangsom bucket is never too far away.  We were looking to make it an early night because the bus was quite early the next morning, but how often does that ever really happen here.  The two of us were feeling quite mellow but that magic mixture of Thai whiskey/maybe rum?, red bull, and coke got us going again.  We ended up at a rooftop balcony place with live music which I had frequented the last time I was here under similar circumstances.

The bar didn’t seem as lively as usual at first, save for a few Japanese tourists going mental in the back.  Trust them to have a good time anywhere.  Their energy was infectious- it even got us going regardless of how spent we were feeling earlier.  Then came the band that totally blew the lid off the place.  A stunning Thai girl and her accompaniment broke out into Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and the whole venue went crazy.  Everyone was dancing with everyone- even me with my two left feet- and all the faces had one look- pure unbridled bliss.  Every song from then on was perfect, and every man in the place was enamoured by that beautiful singer and her incredible voice.  The little else I can remember from that night is eating two pad thais back to back off the street and being asked to clean up by an angry security guard, which seemed a bit unnecessary, seeing as the entire street was covered in garbage.  Those street pad thais on Khaosan are positively heavenly when you’re sober, and when you’re a little drunk, they’re even better.  Funnily enough if you’re interested in the history of Pad Thai, I wrote what I consider a work of art on the topic, that’s probably somewhere on this site.


Part 3: Khaosan

We had both been to Thailand before on our own trips and weren’t keen on spending too much time there, especially in Bangkok.  Of course Khaosan has its way of making you stay which I had become well aware of the last time I was there.  Madonna said she had stayed in a pretty nice hostel there the last time she was in town and, they had a vacancy.  We booked a couple of dorm beds online and made our way to Khaosan in a taxi.

It was reasonably early in the day when we got there and as soon as we stepped out of our taxi an on to the street, all the memories or lack there of came flooding back to me.  Here we were in the centre of the backpacking universe on a street like no other- littered with travellers from all over the world (in particular Europeans), street stalls, staffed by the burmese and nepalese, selling everything from Oakley’s and beats to Harvard diplomas, and the aroma of all sorts of delicious and exciting things to eat and drink.

I was anxious though.  The beast within  me had been brewing since friday night and I had to find refuge.  We checked into the hostel, which was expensive by Bangkok standards but likely reasonable for anywhere else.  None of this mattered to me though, because the toilet was absolutely pristine and I had rarely before felt such sweet relief.  The both of us took a bit of a nap and decided to hit the street later for a bit of food and drink.  Nothing too excessive we hoped as we planned to head for Cambodia in the morning.

First things first though, as we left the hostel, we had to book the bus to Cambodia and I had to get some passport photos for the visas.  I got the pictures from a combination tattoo parlour and passport photo studio because those definitely exist all over the world, and we set off on a bit of a food tour of Khaosan and the surrounding area.


Part 2: Arriving in Thailand

Once we arrived at Don Mueang airport, that familiar combination of heat and humidity hit us like a rogue wave, confirming that yes we had in fact made it to Southeast Asia.  Thailand had a familiar feel to me, it always reminded me of Kerala, and I felt instantly comfortable there.  The familiar hordes of Chinese tourists, interspersed with weathered backpackers, sporting dreads and elephant pants, made for interesting people watching, while we spent what felt like an eternity in the immigration line.

It was interesting for me to look these backpackers up and down.  Were they weeks, and maybe even months into their trips?  Or did they just always look like that?  Like every subculture, they have their uniform- unkept yet purposefully so, bearing trinkets acquired along the way- with the more well off ones sporting Fjallraven bags and Patagonia outerwear.  I have to admit I harbored an immediate distaste for them for no apparent reason other than that I felt that they had this air of superiority and judgement around them.  To them it would have been obvious that we were just beginning our trip, and definitely weren’t backpackers by trade (at least I wasn’t), looking very much like we were setting off together on our first high school field trip.  But, you know what fuck them.  I was happy in my BB8 t-shirt. Although I did wonder how different would we look on our return.  Would I become…ONE of THEM??



Part 1: The Beginning

My trip began in Bangkok.  Well really it began the night before in Ori.  I hadn’t got much sleep since we had spent the night and quite a bit of the ensuing morning at a chicken and beer place indulging one last time in Korea’s favourite fast food past time.  I had eaten a lot of chicken and drank a lot of beer, so my stomach wasn’t exactly in the best of conditions.  I knew I was leaving Korea, so I wanted to get one last fill of delicious fried chicken and watered down shitty beer.  I may have gone a bit overboard.  This, coupled with the anxiety of leaving the ROK once and for all, was perhaps more than my body could handle at the time.   Odorous vapors emanated from me at frequent intervals and I’m sure everyone around me was well aware of my gaseous state.

I didn’t want to use the toilet at Yaz and Keira’s place in order to spare them the terror that was brewing inside of me.  I was really missing my apartment and my bathroom at this point, but alas it was no longer mine.  As a result I didn’t sleep much that night and resorted to just laying on the floor with my eyes closed for about an hour.

When it came time to head to the airport bus I was totally out of it, and Yaz had decided to go into full on concerned parent mode.  He was scouring through our bags ridding them of anything that he deemed was unnecessary, as well as making sure that we had what we really needed.  Admittedly I may have over packed, deciding to bring around eight pairs of shorts for a trip that was only a little over a month.  With gritted teeth I watched as most of them were pulled out among the cry, “these are going in the donation box!”

Yaz walked us to the bus stop in the light of the early hours and the trip to Incheon was fairly uneventful…I think- it definitely wasn’t one of the most lucid of journeys.  Even the airport and the flight over to Thailand seemed a daze.  When I finally came to I was in Bangkok, on my way to that black hole of all things sacred- Khaosan road.




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Akihabara is the living embodiment of every video game nerd and Japanophile’s wet dream- it is flowing over the brim  with electronic stores: brandishing everything from memory cards to time machines; as well as novelties as the Maid and Gundam cafes; and of course it is home to the highest concentration of video game arcades in the entire city of Tokyo.  Sega, a fading icon in the west still dominates Japan when it comes to the gaming scene and almost every corner of Akihabara is marked by one kind of Club Sega or another.  Going into these places is like cutting yourself off entirely from the outside world and entering an entirely new one.  The bottom floors of Club Sega are usually reserved for those, more often than not, incredibly frustrating claw games.  Here you can usually find girls of all ages vying for that elusive stuffed toy that they simply must add to their collection.  I have to admit I’ve never seen the appeal of these toys or these games, but it seems like a great place to bring a date and impress her with those crane skills you’ve honed at the local construction yard. The upper floors house the machines targeted towards more of the hardcore gamer crowd.  One or two floors usually serve as a shrine to the ever popular Japanese fighting games.  Here one can find school boys, salary workers, and even old men battling it out for supremacy.  Machines range from the latest Tekken and Street Fighter games to the now almost archaic Virtua Fighter, among others.  Herein lies what I believe to be one of the most beautiful things about Japan- no one cares that Virtua Fighter is so old- to them it is a well designed game with great entertainment value and they will always be lining up to play it.  I spent most of my time on the fighting game floors (because the language of punching and kicking people in the face for entertainment is universal) trying to button mash my way to some victories– and they did come, just few and far between. I could’ve spent hours there drinking the Asahis I’d brought in, but there was still more to explore.  The highest floors of Club Sega are where the real gamers reside, and I was completely out of my depth here.  All the games here were in the vein of mobile suit Gundam, where the player takes control of a robotic suit and guns down other robot suits and miscellaneous aliens.  Some of the machines here even had pods that the player enters to further heighten the experience.  Other games on these floors are the music ones where players tap different buttons to the beat of music that seems supersonically fast.  The hand speed I witnessed here was beyond what I though was humanly possible- these people have obviously dedicated a good part of their lives to honing their craft (something evident in every facet of Japanese life).  It was almost surreal, scratch that it was surreal.  The whole place was surreal.  It’s obvious that in Japanese society video games are an integral thread in the fabric of life.  The most beautiful part of it all, is that people from all walks of life enjoy themselves in a way that isn’t childish, but rather is a way where fun is the only thing that matters, and any other idiotic invisibilities that we have thought up to make our lives less fun, are totally absent.  In Japan it seems people are not afraid to commit themselves entirely to hobbies that we in the west would consider abnormal or outside the realm of ordinary society, and Akihabara serves as a showcase for just one of those varied interests.