Not for wimps

This is Olga writing, I am from Russia, Ukraine or Poland, depending on who I am talking to. Johan can’t stop laughing and thought that I should be called Olga by now, after so many people thinking I am from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Olga writes the filthy stuff, so be prepared and make sure you had breakfast already or don’t have a sensitive stomach, otherwise just skip this update.

The positive thing about having so much time here is that we are also able to get our visas sorted out for our ongoing journey to the Far East. Having checked the websites of both Thailand and Vietnam we decided to get our Thailand visa first, since it seemed to be more complicated. And we were so right. Over the last weekend we collected all our paperwork that was required as per the Thai’s embassy website and fully equipped we took an early morning metro into Delhi. We were happily surprised by this mode of transportation: a very modern train, departing every 5 minutes, getting into the city in about 40 minutes with no spitting since it is prohibited and gets fined in the station, which made us enjoy the ride even more, since for about one hour we didn’t hear any strange and disgusting noises. And even better, we wouldn’t have to look at their spitting. I am really not prudish, but I’ve never been so often so close to vomiting.

But I knew it already when we entered the clean and spit-free station that we would have to pay for it. Our joy didn’t even last one hour. We had to take a tuk tuk to get to the visa office and not even two minutes later at a traffic light, the door of a car in front of us opened, an Indian head sticks out and spits out  a stream of two liters of pinkish orange liquid. And as if that wasn’t enough punishment for the spit-free station today, it continued as soon as we entered the visa office, a small, 35-degree warm waiting room with at least 100 people in there. We pulled our number and were hardly sitting when we heard a very familiar noise: loud burping. First I thought that must have happened by mistake but it continued for the next 10 minutes, very loud and long burps that even the other Indians looked at the guy with surprise. I’ve never ever heard such burping in my whole life. Johan and I looked very annoyed at this guy and stated very clearly how disgusted we were about him, but he only shrugged and said he couldn’t help it. I’ll soon wear my short trousers again!

To add to the above people don’t only spit and burp, they also pee whenever they have to pee. Men would stop on 6-lane highways for a pee, behind every bush you will find someone standing and peeing. Some don’t even have the time to hide, once they step out of their car they start opening the belt, unzip their trousers and can’t wait to relieve themselves. And I’ve seen women just sitting down and doing the same thing. Nobody seems to be ashamed, even if you are looking at them – coincidentally of course. On the other hand couples are not allowed to touch each other in public including holding hands let alone kissing, which I would find much more attractive to look at than peeing men and women (it also doesn’t stink). But that’s the beauty of learning new cultures.

If you by now think there are only filthy and strange people in India, don’t worry too much. We’ve met others as well, but they are less fun to write about. What I like very much is people offering their seats in the metro for the elderly, mothers with children or even for me (not sure if it is because I am Olga or considered an old woman :)). Then there is of course my new love, the food boy from the hospital, the many nice tuk tuk drivers who don’t try to screw us and just ask normal prices and drive us where we want to go to, the boys of our guesthouse, the vegetable sellers on the market with their children and the many others we meet on the streets, in our guesthouse or in the city.

With regards to our visas, by now we have our Vietnam visa and found out that we only need a visa upon arrival for Thailand, since we will not stay longer than 30 days at the beginning and can re-enter the country as often as we wish. But we are still very grateful for the wonderful experience in their offices.

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Smog, shorts and privacy policies

Before we started our doctor’s tour on Monday afternoon we spent an hour around the Gate of India, I in shorts and T-shirt, knowing that this is actually a no-go in India for women, but I had no choice since I had to get my only pair of long trousers washed that day. By the end of the day I felt so embarrassed that I now rather wear dirty or wet trousers, people even took pictures of us!!!

Extremely irritating is the smog in Delhi. We’ve never experienced anything like this and by now we try to avoid being outside. We hardly see the sun and the ten days we’ve been in Delhi now we had only one full day we could see blue sky. The smog is very smelly because it is not only caused by car and industry exhaust, but by burnt garbage. Johan keeps asking me if we will breathe fresh morning air in India as we were used to during our short stay in Empfingen :). I doubt it. And from the newspapers we learned that this year’s smog is the worst ever and that the different governments of the surrounding states blame each other for causing the smog – instead of acting!

Very funny is the ‘no privacy  policy’ in India. People touch you and if you are queuing the European way someone would just squeeze in between. In supermarkets you never know where the queue ends and who’s turn it is next. And if you are standing at a counter and think there is just space for you, no worries, at least three more Indians fit in there as well :-)). The other day two motorbikes stopped at a traffic light next to our rickshaw, one on the left and one on the right, and they would just stare at us for minutes, and it wasn’t the day when I was wearing my jams. We felt like fish in an aquarium and are really curious if this will get better or worse when we are leaving Delhi for the less touristic areas of the country where they maybe have never seen any tourists. An interesting experience for sure and on the other hand for once I don’t feel bad if I stare at people! We can also easily take people’s pictures, they usually don’t mind, on the contrary, the are often approaching us and want their picture taken, children and adults are posing for us!

Indians are multi-tasking. Everywhere and always. They never can just do one thing at a time. The person at the cashier needs to ‘handle’ three customers at the same time, that’s the least, if possible, more people should come in between. Drivers need to be on the phone while driving (same as in Europe by the way), everybody has to have at least two to three cell phones of which one is ringing and another one is at the ear. Nurses have to explain procedures to the patient and at the same time take instructions from another nurse, the guesthouse manager is talking to you while giving instructions to the laundry man, sharing the WiFi code with another guest and picking up the phone. Unfortunately the multi-tasking doesn’t make them more efficient.

I’ve been to India many times traveling for business which usually meant 5-star hotels, pick-up services and nice colleagues taking care of me all day. I then of course also noticed the extreme contrasts and returned home rather shocked after the first trip, having seen the poverty around the corner in its worst. But it is very different to live the way we do now and just be in the midst of everything.

We have to admit that after more than ten days on the Subcontinent we are still struggling and it is hard for us to get adjusted and used to the unknown. We are working hard on it, really!

Buzzing Istanbul

It has been an exciting experience being in Istanbul, after having avoided cities for the last two months and also, because we didn’t have to leave after two days again (even though we still moved twice, but that’s a different story). Very relaxing despite all the new impressions and tons of things to see and do in this historic place, formerly called Constantinople.

Istanbul has more than 15 million inhabitants and sprawls over an enormous area on both banks of the Bosphorus Strait. We managed to see the most important sites in Istanbul’s old town such as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Small Hagia Sofia, Old Bazaar, Spice Market and Topkapi Palace, crossed the Galata bridge to explore the New District but unfortunately did not make it to the Asian part.

We’ve had wonderful experiences with the locals in Istanbul, they are very hospitable and don’t hesitate to help out, be it the hotel manager or all the others we met. Our hotel manager we called in the end ‘Johan’s PA’ (personal assistant), because he gave us so much valuable advice on so many occasions and always tried to find the best solution for our problem of which we had a few. We enjoyed strolling around in our quarter and discovering all the specialist streets and shops. You won’t believe it, but there are streets only selling chains or buttons or tape or plastic bags or boxes or wedding cards (there are no other greeting cards, only for weddings!), and then there are various shops next to each other selling exactly the same things (seriously!). That’s fantastic to explore and we still wonder how you can make a living from such a specialized business.

And then you see all the salesmen with little two or four-wheel carts selling food: fish, bread, sweets, roasted chestnuts, freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juices, peeled and spiraled apples – we’ve never seen this before, they have a little machine peeling and slicing the apples at the same time and the result is an apple in spirals – it was so much fun looking at it that we couldn’t resist buying a deliciously tasting apple.

The second morning in Istanbul we woke up and Johan told me that it has rained in his face last night. First I thought he is joking, but he was dead serious. We’ve had thunder storms that night and somehow there was a leakage. Johan told me he first dreamed about water dripping into his face, but then he woke up and realized there IS water dripping into his face. What was most hilarious about this was that he started cleaning up the mess and even moved the bed without me noticing a thing!

For coffee lovers, and especially for those who love Turkish coffee, here’s a little secret about it: if a man proposes, he has  to arrange a meeting between his and the woman’s/girl’s families at the girl’s house to come to an agreement. This is also the case for arranged marriages. The tradition asks that after the introductory talks the daughter has to prepare Turkish coffee. If she doesn’t want to marry, she will prepare the coffee for the boy’s family with salt and in most of the cases, the families will not agree! A nice way to say ‘No’!

As we had to pack our bikes for the flight, we also had to find good packaging material. Our first idea was to go to a bike shop and use real bike boxes, but we couldn’t find any of the shops and Johan decided to just ask in other shops if they had any boxes for us. The first huge and good quality box we got at a UPS store, a used box from one of their customers. A few hundred meters further Johan went into another shop and returns two minutes later with six men – I am not exaggerating. They all inspected our bikes and had funny ideas (such as packing both bikes together in just one box) and in the end decided to escort us to another shop selling packaging materials. We got a few more boxes, but still not enough and continued our search the next day. This time we found a carpet shop that just got a delivery of tapestry which were packed in huge boxes. Johan convinced the shop owner to give us three more boxes – at a length of 2 meters! We then headed off carrying these boxes through busy Istanbul and the most popular sites, drawing a lot of attention on us once again. And here goes another thank you to our wonderful hotel manager: he stored everything behind the door (it is a really tiny hotel and our room is so small, that nothing else would fit in there) and while I was typing this, the lobby was decorated with huge cardboard boxes, bubble wrap and other packaging material, Johan started packing on the terrace in the back of the hotel.

And I also shouldn’t forget to mention Johan’s great negotiation skills. Turkey is a country where you hardly anywhere pay the price they ask for (except maybe in supermarkets and museums). You always have to bargain: in bars to get the beer a few lira cheaper, in restaurants (we once got a 30% discount plus water, tea and dessert for free), in hotels and of course in shops! This is not really my cup of tea, but Johan really loves it!

Johan finally went to the hairdresser for the first time after almost four months to get rid of his hippie look and got a ‘super haircut’ (language of his hairdresser), he finally doesn’t need his headband anymore :-). He also got his ear hair burned away, a face, arm and neck massage, all from the master hairdresser who’s been in the family business for more than 50 years. Great experience!

We also met the British cyclists again. If you’re interested in what they are up to, here is their blog: http://north2northcycletour.wordpress.com. It’s been nice to exchange experiences, tips and other secrets and to get to understand how others are traveling and what challenges they are facing.

There is so much more we experienced and I could continue writing for the next hours or so, but also don’t want to bore you too much with our affairs. We would also like to thank Can and Caroline for their super support with getting a FedEx package cleared and delivered on time! You both saved our India trip and we for sure owe you something!

For those who are more interested in cultural and historic information on the sites we’ve visited in Istanbul, watch out for our next post.

Frequently Asked Questions – Part One

Today I wanted to share a bit more information about our plans and all other things we often get asked by a lot of people. Join in our excitement! And for the insiders following this blog: opinions in below FAQs are solely my own and did not get legally approved!

Enjoy reading and let me know if you have any other questions you would like me to answer!
Baerbel

When do you leave?
Johan’s last working day is 20 July and mine is 3 August. We are currently planning to fine-tune our plans and leave at the end of August/beginning of September.

Where do you live until then?
My brother has kindly offered us an apartment in his house, which is funnily the house I grew up in. Who would have thought that I’ll one day go back to my roots in the South of Germany, very close to the Black Forest (for those who would like to know exactly: the village is called Empfingen, has approx. 3,000 inhabitants and is in the middle of nowhere). And Johan might be the first Dutch having his first address in Empfingen. Even worse, not that he has to really practice his German, he also has to get familiar with the heavy local dialect called ‘Swabian’. That will be real fun.

Where do you go and for how long will you stay away?
My usual answer to this question is that we will bicycle south-east, beginning in Empfingen. Currently we think we”ll cross the Alps in Austria, then travel through Northern Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. From Turkey we will take a flight to India, since by the time we’ll arrive there it will be late fall and we both are nice weather cyclists and don’t want to cycle in the snow and cold. Our journey through Asia isn’t fully thought through, will share more details in part two of the FAQs. In total we plan to travel for about a year, but the future will tell! Maybe we love it and won’t come back or we hate it and will be back much sooner.

Where do you stay while traveling?
In Europe we”ll camp most of the times, there are great campsites everywhere and if not, wild camping will be an option as well. While I have to admit this idea scares me a bit, we only did it once during a vacation. And we’ll for sure reward ourselves with a nice hotel every once in a while (or when it is raining too much – which is actually impossible, since it’s been raining all summer so far). In Asia there are no campsites and you also don’t have much privacy and we will most likely stay in cheap hotels that are available as of approx. 1$ per night.

How much money will you spend?
This we really can’t tell. I’ve read a lot and to be on the safe side everybody recommends to plan with about 50EUR per day and per person. I think this is far too much, given the fact that we’ll cook ourselves and stay on camp grounds most of the times. When in Asia, we won’t need much anymore because both food and hotels are really cheap.

How many kilometers will you cycle per day on average and will you cycle every day?
For the first time in our lives we are not under time pressure, which means, we will stay where we like it and we will cycle when we feel like cycling. However, we are both very sportive and like physical challenges which means we will most likely cycle maybe 60 to 80 km per day on average. This calculation would include about one rest day per week. We’ve travelled with luggage in the past and the longest ride ever for me was about 130km, for Johan 170km.