Early morning Mumbai

Early morning deserted streets. Colaba, Mumbai.

Early morning deserted streets. Colaba, Mumbai.

Mumbai is not much of an early-morning city. Morning rush hour peaks between 9 and 11am, and we’ve heard that the average work day runs from 10am to 7pm or so. Given my penchant for markets, industrial areas and other infrastructure-related attractions, I scheduled a busy morning visiting a few of the more unusual sights throughout the city. Some of these places are best seen at the crack of dawn.

The first stop, the Sassoon fish docks at 5am, was a little too early and smelly for Eliza’s taste, so I left our hotel in the Colaba neighborhood alone while it was still dark for the short walk to the docks. I quickly joined the throngs of sari-clad women carrying big empty plastic tubs on their heads. I entered the docks through an avenue of ice factories, fishing supply dealers, and tea shops into the early hours of the market.

Ladies heading to the fish market.

Ladies heading to the fish market.

Ice factory near the fish market, Mumbai.

Ice factory near the fish market, Mumbai.

Along the sides of the pier, hulking wooden trawlers were packed nose-in, 2 or 3 boats deep. Med stood on the boat decks buried ankle deep in their catch, sorting it into piles of shrimp, squid, and scaly fish of all shapes and sizes. On the pier, men and women ferried baskets of fish on their heads and on long wooden carts to stalls where they hawk their wares, organized neatly by type and size on the concrete floor.

Due to its proximity to a Naval pier, photos were prohibited so I didn’t bring a camera, but I managed to snap a few mediocre iPhone shots on the walk there. It’s always cool to see the fishing-village roots of an otherwise huge and metropolitan city. It’s a side of Mumbai that most people either don’t know about, or can’t drag themselves out of bed to see.

After stopping for a quick chai at a dockside canteen and swinging by the hotel to pick up Eliza, we caught the commuter train to the suburb of Dadar to see the tail end of the wholesale flower market. The highway underpass just next to the train station is packed with shops and stalls selling flowers, wreaths, and even full grown banana trees for temple offerings. Wandering among the baskets overflowing with bright saffron colored marigolds and sweet smelling jasmine buds was a welcome change in sight and smell from the day’s first venue.

Flower market vendors. Dadar, Mumbai.

Flower market vendors. Dadar, Mumbai.

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Roses for sale. Dadar, Mumbai.

Roses for sale. Dadar, Mumbai.

We hopped back on the train just in time to catch sunrise through the always-open doors of Mumbai’s commuter rail cars. Riding the train in Mumbai is an adventure in and of its self. During peak hours, you literally have to fight your way into the packed cars, through a wall of men (women ride in separate cars and are generally spared the worst of the chaos), and hang out the open doors to avoid the crush. The cars were mercifully empty on a Saturday at 7am, and provided a drive-by tour of the shantytowns and highrises of Mumbai in the orange dawn light.

Our third stop, Mahalaxmi Dobhi ghat, is the most famous of the city’s many clothes washing centers. Spread over a couple of acres, dobhi ghat is lined with small concrete cubicles filled knee deep with water and featuring a smooth stone slab in the center where washer men soap, scrub, and beat the clothes of the entire city. The complex is shaded by endless lines of color sorted uniforms, sheets, jeans, and dress shirts drying in the sun.

On our way out of dhobi ghat, we stumbled upon a street vendor selling pieces of a giant paratha (flaky, chewy and delightfully greasy flat breads), topped with bright orange dhal halwa, a deliciously sweet and sticky confection made of semolina, butter, sugar, and flavored with cardamom. The combination was a totally new treat for us, as was the sheer diameter of the parathas, which were sold by ripped off a handful at a time. Stumbling across unique local snacks, especially sold in the street, is my absolute favorite thing about traveling, so the experience added another awesome note to an already eventful day.

Early morning at dhobi ghat. Mahalaxmi, Mumbai.

Early morning at dhobi ghat. Mahalaxmi, Mumbai.

Paratha and halwa outside of dhobi ghat. Mahalaxmi, Mumbai.

Paratha and halwa outside of dhobi ghat. Mahalaxmi, Mumbai.

We arrived at our final and favorite destination at 8am, just as life in the city was beginning to pick up. We hoped the odor of the Buleshwar Pandrapole would help us navigate to it, but after a few minutes of fruitless sniffing we came to a grass delivery waiting in the street, and followed a man carrying a bail of hay through alleys. The Pandrapole was opened in the mid 1800’s to shelter pigs and dogs after the British instituted a policy of shooting strays in the street at night. It now houses a variety of creatures, but the majority of space is dedicated to a hundred or so of the fattest and happiest cows, calves, and bulls either Eliza or I had ever met.

We didn’t see any milking operation there, but we assume it is also used as a local dairy. However, the cause for the cows’ excessive girth is the dozens of local Hindu devotees who come each day to feed the cows as an auspicious offering. The facility sells bundles of grass and grain laddus, baseball sized lumps of yeasty smelling oats. We of course couldn’t pass up the opportunity to feed and pet some furry friends, especially the babies, and although photos aren’t allowed, I managed to sneak a quick shot of Eliza in bovine bliss on my phone.

Petting the calves. Pandrapole, Mumbai.

Petting the calves. Pandrapole, Mumbai.

Feeding the cows, Pandrapole, Mumbai.

Feeding the cows, Pandrapole, Mumbai.

We made it back to the hotel before the streets got too hot and hectic, and avoided the mid day heat by relaxing in our room. Compared to the slog and smog of sightseeing in Mumbai during the day, it was an amazingly pleasant and relaxing experience, and an itinerary I’d highly recommend to anyone with a penchant for offbeat attractions and the fortitude for the early hour and occasional strong odor.

Komodo by Boat

The real reason we slogged all the way to Flores was to catch up with my cousin, Mackenzie, who was in the area completing a research project. She was visiting remote villages across Indonesia to interview local villagers, and saw parts of the country that few Westerners ever visit. Having spent a few days recovering from our epic ferry ride to Labuan Bajo, Flores, we met up with Mckenzie and her gang of fellow researchers and hopped on another, much smaller, boat for a three day tour of the Komodo Islands. It was so nice to meet up with family from back home and hearing about her project was fascinating.

Our trusty vessel.

Our trusty vessel.

After getting on the boat and stowing our massive stock of snacks and beer, we motored to Rinca Island, one of the two islands where you can see Komodo dragons, for our first trekking trip. Rinca’s savannah covered hills felt like a scene out of Jurassic Park. Since it was mating season, the Komodo Dragons were busy getting busy in the woods, but we did manage to spot a small one hanging out at a watering hole, and got up close and personal with the gang of elderly dragons that hangs out at the park ranger’s kitchen. We were told that they stopped feeding the dragons in the mid-90’s, but these guys must be senile enough to keep coming back anyway.

A 'small' dragon.

A ‘small’ dragon.

The enormous older dragons, lounging beneath the ranger station.

The enormous older dragons, lounging beneath the ranger’s station.

On day one we also went on the first of many snorkeling trips, where we found a baby bamboo shark sleeping under a rock, and managed to snap our best photo of the trip, of a baby box fish. We’d heard incredible things about the marine life in the Komodos, but neither of us imagined how spectacular it could be until we got there. As a rule of thumb, the crazier the ocean currents, the bigger and better the fish. To say that the ocean surface in many places around the Komodos looked like the agitation cycle of a washing machine wouldn’t be an exaggeration and the abundance of sea life certainly upheld that saying.

An adorable juvenile boxfish.

An adorable juvenile boxfish.

Our captain, Matt, who has been working on tour boats in the islands for nearly 10 years, was truly a jack of all trades. After every snorkeling trip, he welcomed us back onto the boat with a plate of piping hot pisang goreng (battered fried bananas), and prepared delicious dinners with fish purchased from local fisherman who paddled out to our boat in canoes to deliver their fresh catch. We slept on the roof of the boat, under a sky filled with the stars of the southern sky. After half a year in the southern hemisphere we’ve only recently adjusted to the sky with no north star and an upside-down big dipper.DSC_0153

Our epic second day on the boat consisted of two hikes and three snorkeling trips. Although the big game animals, manta rays and Komodo Dragons, had taken the day off, it was still another day of jaw dropping scenery. Our 4 hour trek across Komodo Island began in temperate forests that felt surprisingly similar to our home landscape of the eastern US. Climbing up past the forests through the palm-tree dotted savannah to the top of a ridge provided breathtaking views of the island, all the way back done to the ocean. The paths up and down the hill were steep and dusty and we all took a few spills. Had we not seen dragons the day before on Rinca, the lack of wildlife, heat, and difficulty of the trail would have probably been overwhelming, but we managed to keep our cool and enjoy the view. Our two snorkeling trips to Manta Point were fruitless, but well made up for at our third spot, the Cauldron, where we saw more turtles than you can count (if you can’t count to 5), and a few of our boat-mates even spotted a dugong! To wrap up the day on yet another high-note, Matt lead us up a hill on an uninhabited island to watch the unset over a crystal blue bay.

The temperate forests on Rinca.

The temperate forests on Rinca really reminded us of the Shenandoah in Virginia.

Gorgeous views greeted exhausted hikers.

Gorgeous views, exhausted hikers.

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One of the many turtles we spotted while snorkeling at Cauldron.

A beautiful sunset hike with Mackenzie!

A beautiful sunset hike with Mackenzie!

DSC_0282 DSC_0290DSC_0264After getting off the boat on day three and saying goodbye to Mackenzie and her friends, we met up with friends from Bali who also happened to be in Labuan Bajo. They were heading back out to the islands to spend 2 nights at Seraya Beach Resort, a row of bare bones bungalows along a wide strip of untouched white beach and a bay full of pristine coral. Having no plans other than an eventual hot and crowded 4 hour public bus ride to begin exploring inland Flores, we happily joined them for a few days in a hammock soaking up Komodo’s spectacular scenery.

Beach bungalows on Semaya Island, an amazing little getaway.

Beach bungalows on Semaya Island, an amazing little getaway.

Our bamboo beach shack was also occupied by some kleptomaniac rats.

Our bamboo beach shack was also home to a rambunctious (and prolific) family of kleptomaniac rats who evidently thought Eliza’s shorts would make a great nest. Fortunately they didn’t fit through the rats’ front door.

Singapore, a city of food

Of course we couldn’t visit Singapore and not write about the food! Eliza graciously held off to give me a chance for a guest post.

Food was definitely the impetus for our stopover, which turned out to be a blessing as it was pretty much the only activity we could afford. Singapore is known for its shopping and expensive restaurants but in our book, it’s real claim to fame is hawker centers: open air complexes lined with rows of food stalls, packed with locals grabbing lunch and tourists sampling the local fare. Singaporeans take their food seriously, and it’s not uncommon to wait half an hour at the most popular stalls. I certainly hate lines as much as the next guy, but as the tour books are quick to point out, the long lines are the key to finding the best food!

Endless options at Maxwell hawker center

Endless options at Maxwell hawker center

Similar to Malaysia, Singapore has a mix of Indian, Chinese, and Malay food. Depending on the neighborhood, hawker centers skew toward either Chinese or Indian food, with a smattering of the community’s take on Malay dishes. This ensures you’ll never exhaust Singapore’s bounty of culinary delights, as dishes by the same name are prepared differently depending on where you get them. Char Kway Teow, an “everything but the kitchen sink” sweet and spicy fried noodle dish ranged in color from tandoori-chicken red to soy sauce brown, and we’re still not sure what Rojak is since, as far as we could tell, it was a curry at one stall, and a salad at another!

photo 4Not missing an opportunity to eat biryani and dosas, we stayed in a hostel in Little India, and did much of our eating at the nearby Tekka hawker center. Tekka’s piece de resistance was Tulang Power, mutton marrow bones in a sweet and spicy dye-your fingers red broth. Eliza slurped up the devilishly rich marrow with a straw while I stuck to the few scraps of flaky meat left on the bone, drenched in the tasty sauce. We mopped up the remaining sauce with Murtabak, Malaysia’s take on the culturally ubiquitous stuffed bread. (By the way, if you’re in Singapore¬† and looking for Murtabak, our far and away favorite was ZamZam restaurant in Kampung Glam neighborhood, thanks to a tip from our friend Kim.)

ZamZam's perfectly crunchy, flakey, and savory Mutton Murtabak

ZamZam’s perfectly crunchy, flakey, and savory Mutton Murtabak

We also made it to the Maxwell hawker center, one of Chinatown’s more popular hawker centers, and used the opportunity to try one of Singapore’s hallmark dish, Chicken Rice. To the unsuspecting observer it may look like a bland chicken breast with plain steamed rice, but it still astounds me how much flavor and texture is packed into such a colorless dish. The chicken is drenched in a sweet and salty sauce that while simple is too tasty not to love, and the seemingly plain-jane rice is in fact cooked in chicken broth. To top it all off, the real masterpiece of the dish is the velvety-ness of the chicken, by far the most moist and tender chicken breast I have ever had.

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Overall, Singapore definitely lived up to its culinary reputation. Our 3 days there were quite a feast, and like any truly great trip, left us with plenty to come back for. We didn’t get a chance to try the famous chili crab and the mystery of Rojak remains unsolved.

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Burmese countryside

Last Wednesday we hired a taxi to take us from Inle Lake to Mandalay, a seven hour drive that we decided we’d rather not spend in one of Burma’s bumpy and sleepless overnight busses. On the way we stopped to visit statue-filed caves in the limestone cliffs above the town of Pindaya. In addition to the thousands of gold Buddha statues filling the caves, the ceilings of the labyrinthine complex are covered in stalactites, and the combination of both man and nature-made features created an almost mystical atmosphere.

The side trip to Pindaya took us away from the mostly-paved main route to Mandalay and onto 7 hours of rural dirt roads through Burmese countryside. Our suspension-less 80’s era Toyota wagon was by far the smallest of the dozen or so cars we saw on the road, but it made the experience all the more authentic. It also kept us eye-level with the periodic herds of cattle with which we shared the road. The region, in Shan state, is one of the most fertile regions of the country, and the ride was filled with scenes of rolling farmland dotted with enormous Banyan trees and the occasional golden hill-top pagoda. As much as anything else, our trip to Burma has been one of gorgeous natural scenery.

We spent most of our 24 hours in Mandalay planning our departure. Mandalay is a sprawling and dusty city that serves as the hub for Burmese and Chinese businesses mining, drilling, and trading in Burma’s resource rich north. Although there are a few ancient palace complexes outside of the city, we opted to forego them to squeeze in two day trekking trip another 7 hours north. There are certain cities that you know will take more time and effort to enjoy than you have, and Mandalay was one of those cities for us.

The trekking trip, based out of a small town called Hsipaw (pronounced see-paw) brought us to more of the same scenery as our Inle-Mandalay car trip, but it was great to enjoy things at a slower pace. We walked through tea plantations, fields of bright yellow sesame flowers, and got to see plenty of ever-fascinating low-tech rural farming contraptions including home built hydro-electric dams, an ox-cart mounted gas-powered corn kernel remover, and a foot-pedal hay chopper consisting of a bent bamboo limb and a 12 inch cleaver.

The trek included a home-stay in a small tribal village. It’s always hard to know what to expect when you’re told you’ll be visiting a community touted by guides and tour books as “untouched”. Despite many experiences otherwise, in my mind I always picture a primitive scene out of a National Geographic documentary. Despite knowing better, this ultimately leads to a slight twang of disappointment upon arriving to find people watching TV, drinking CocaCola, and wearing modern, western clothing.

In Pankam, I certainly had that moment of disappointment. After all, the town is a short, albeit treacherous, motor-bike ride from a well-connected town. The houses have tin roofs, everyone wears machine-made clothing, and many families have motor bikes. Taking a step back though, I realized I was in one of the least connected places I had ever been. In a town of 100 families, only a couple of homes have electricity, in the form of car batteries. People collect their water from a central town well and cook over wood stoves. As with the rest of Burma, there are very few mass produced packaged foods, virtually none of which are western brands. The only formal commerce we saw was at a local stall that sold snacks, cigarettes, and warm sodas. I’ve done trips similar to these in other countries and stayed in towns with no running water and limited electricity. It is always enlightening and refreshing to see a community that lives very differently from my own. However, I think the lack of western influence in Burma really sets my experience in Pankam apart.

It’s taken a few weeks to figure it out what exactly it is about this country that has made it so fascinating to visit. No one feature or experience of Burma has stood out as a single highlight. Rather, the scene of the country and culture as a whole is what really makes this place worth seeing, and seeing sooner rather than later.

Still no luck uploading photos, but we’ve got tons of great ones ready and waiting!

An unexpected post on an unexpected successful second day at Lake Inle

Sneaking in a quick half hour of internet in the middle of a jam-packed day in Burma.

We woke up early this morning and met Asher – a UPenn law student whom we first met in Yangon, and happen to bump into again last night – for a bike ride around Inle Lake. Based on the Lonely Planet map, we planned to take a 5 mile ride to the In Thein pagoda, a site of 1000+ crumbling 17th and 18th century stupas on the western edge of the lake. They’re usually visited by boat, but we didn’t get a chance to make it there yesterday, and a 5 mile bike ride looked like a piece of cake!

Well, an hour and a half in we chatted with a local on the side of the road who informed us that In Thein was a further 3 hours down the road… After another 45 minutes on our bikes, a stop at a local market, and a lucky tip from the only other westerners visiting the same market, we devised a hair-brained scheme to rent a boat to take us and the bikes to the pagoda, then back home at the end of the day. We managed to hire a reluctant driver and his boat, which was definitely not outfit for tourists and, ended up with a
smashing-success of an off-the-beaten path (i.e. not in Lonely Planet) afternoon. The crumbling stupas at In Thein were really gorgeous and, as seems to be the trend in this country, we were very lucky to get a chance to see the few remaining structures there which have not been restored into to relatively characterless gold-painted plaster mounds.

Our second day cruising the lake on our way back to town was no less scenic than the first, and felt all the more authentic and noteworthy sitting on the floor of our boat totally unfit for tourist use with our new traveling partner. After our return we experienced a beautiful sunset, if not quite a gustatorily (sic) noteworthy experience, tasting wine at the Red Mountain winery, one of Burma’s two vineyards located in the hills surrounding the lake, and are now headed to a traditional puppet show before dinner.

Again, our deepest apologies for the lack of photos, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed for faster internet in Mandalay in a few days.

Burma: a welcome change of pace

5 days without internet is the longest we’ve gone in a quite a while, and although we’re certainly remiss not being able to post more often for you all, being forced to unplug has been one of the many pleasant surprises of Burma.

We spent our first 2 days in Burma in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. Yangon is truly like no city I have ever seen before. Many of the British colonial era buildings in the city are still standing, most of which have undergone virtually no restoration and often seem to
stand moldy and crumbling as modern ruins. However, it’s clear that within the next year or two, this won’t be the case. We’ve heard that investment, trade, and development has skyrocketed tremendously in just the last few months, with trade restrictions from the US and elsewhere being lifted. I’m sure we arrived here just in the nick of time to see one of the last (if not the last) large, relatively stable, and resource rich country not completely tied into modern western trade, technology and culture.

The highlight of our two quick days in Yangoon was sunrise at Shwedagon Pagoda, a giant gold clad Buddhist Stupa capped with a golden Hti (crown) encrusted with thousands of precious stones and topped with a 76 carat diamond (or so we’re told, it was far too high to actually see). We also walked past countless colonial era buildings, sampled highlights of the local fare, and even visited the Yangon synagogue which served a Jewish community of several hundred at the turn of the 20th century, but now is only just a tourist attraction taken care of by one of the dozen or so Jews who have chosen to stay in Burma.

In addition to the multitude of regional ethnic Burmese groups, Burma is home to a large Indian population, most of whom came over as workers or traders during the British colonial period, and Burmese food is greatly influenced by southern Indian cuisine. After 5 weeks of soupy spicy food in China, we’ve been ecstatically chowing down on Burma’s rich and mild curries and chewy chapati breads since we arrived. Indian-style sweet and milky tea is also the centerpiece of Burmese social culture, and the streets are lined with small tea shops full of men sitting at knee-high tables drinking and chatting.

We’re currently at Inle Lake, a magnificently scenic landscape of fishermen in dug-out canoes, water villages of houses on bamboo stilts, and endless acres of tomato farms grown floating on beds of marsh. We took a boat tour of the lake today, and tomorrow will be biking around the edge of the lake to see some local temple ruins.

We’re eager to post all of the beautiful photos we’ve taken of this truly unique country, but don’t have our fingers crossed for fast enough internet any time too soon unfortunately, so stay tuned!