Chuck Hillig's Travel Blog

Well, I'm going to be doing a lot of traveling over the next 6-7 months so I thought that I'd better re-activate my travel blog. The last time I posted anything here was way back in 2006 when I was traveling through SE Asia. Feel free to read my entries back then about my earlier adventures through India,Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines and Hong Kong. This time (at least for the next six weeks), I'll be traveling through Greece and Turkey.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

On the beach in Cambodia...

After Mohan and Giriji drove me to the airport on Tuesday evening, I caught the short flight over to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and hung around at their very modern airport for the 2:20 A.M. flight up to Bangkok and beyond. Sri Lankan airlines is really quite nice and they feed you a full meal..even on short flights. On the 3.5 hour trip to Bangkok, they even gave us a choice of about 8 movies to pick from plus many other audio and game channels. This plane also showed the takeoff and landing from a camera that was mounted beneath the plane. Very cool. We arrived at 6:30 A.M. at the huge and very modern international terminal in Bangkok. Very glitzy with hundreds of duty-free shops to spend your money in. After another hour, I took a Thai Airline flight to Phnom Penh.
Getting my Cambodian visa was quite interesting. You have to fill out this one-page sheet of the ususal information. However, it's then passed through (I'm not kidding) eight other official-looking military people, sitting side by side, who take their turn looking it over and signing off. Finally, it arrives at the last guy in the row who collects the $20 tourist visa for a one-month stay.
By the time I got outside of the terminal, I was getting pretty tired and so I didn't spend too much time bargaining for a taxi to take me to Serendipity Beach...about a 3.5 hour ride on a fairly decent road that had been built by the Americans. Although I saw pockets of trash alongside the road on our trip to the beach, I'd guess that Cambodia looked about 90% cleaner than India. The people are all very friendly and my driver spoke enough English to give me a tour. At the beach, I located the House of Malibu and checked in to an air-conditioned room about 50 feet from the water's edge. All along the beach in both directions are little beachside restaurant-bars with tables beneath thatched roofs and stretching several levels down onto the sand. Everything is open-aired so there's a great feeling of expansiveness. Lots of Europeans (Germans, Austrians and, of course, Brits) and only a sprinkling of Americans. I met some friendly Brits and had a few beers to mellow out. Immediately, as the new arrival, I was surrounded by 4-5 young girls who were hawking their bracelet-making abilities. Very persistent so I had them make one for each of my grandchildren. By 5 P.M., I was ready to sleep for a few hours. I awoke at 10 and decided to walk down to the water. The weather is warm, humid and clear. When the sun goes down, all of the little restaurants on the beach have colored lights and candles on all of the tables. Very beautiful in a fantasyland sort of way. Lots of folks at night partake in the local ganja weed so everyone is pretty mellow. Today (Thursday) I treated myself to an excellent massage on the beach...along with a pedicure and a manicure...all for US$8. Beer is only a buck here and you can get a full meal for around US$3.50. I'm taking a taxi over the main part of town this afternoon to check it out. More as it unfolds...

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Off to Cambodia...

Yesterday (which was Monday), I took a ferry boat over to Fort Cochin, and, as expected, we passed by the Taj Malabar Resort where we had all eaten dinner the day before. As it turned out, the second largest cruise ship in the world...the well-known QE-2 (owned by Cunard)...was also docked in the Cochin harbor for the day. After our ferry pulled next the dock, I headed south from the wharf and quickly managed to hook up with some of the English-speaking Europeans from the cruise ship who were on a land tour of the area around "Jew Town." Since they were all thoroughly white, I managed to blend right on in and simply "piggy-backed" onto the tour that they were taking of the Dutch Palace and the Jewish Synagogue. It was extremely hot and humid and everyone from the ship looked decidedly uncomfortable and even distressed. Obviously, these folks had been used to staying in their steel cocoon of relative comfort and safety. After being driven around town in ultra-modern (and very air-conditioned) buses that served to both isolate and insulate them from the smells, sounds and vibrations that are experienced down here at street level, they were periodically released from their mini-mothership in order to bargain with the locals for their wares and to, I suppose, then be able to accurately say to their friends back in London that they had, indeed, "been to southern India." (OK, OK. Enough of this rambling pseudo-cynicism. Let's move on.) Tonight I'm pulling an all-nighter. After first flying to Sri Lanka (Colombo), I have to handle a 3.5 hour wait at the airport before finally getting on the plane for Bangkok at 2:30 A.M. After that, there's another flight over to Cambodia, and if all goes as expected, I'll be landing in Phnom Penh around 9:30 A.M. local time. At that point, I'll be 15 hours aread of California time. See you next on Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Marking time in Cochin...

Today is Monday, the 27th, and I'm all set to fly to Cambodia tomorrow night. Last Saturday, Mohan and his wife, Giuriji, and I were invited to attend the formal opening of a friend's new dancing school. We were considered to be honored guests and both Mohan and Giriji were on the printed program and expected to address the crowd of about 50 attendees. We were all seated at a special table across the front of the room. Quite unexpectedly, though, the Host also asked me to address the crowd. Since there was a large statue of Dancing Shiva in the middle of the floor, I used it as a metaphor for how to live out our life: fully participating in the dance-of-life every single moment by resisting the temptation to assume that its purpose was to arrive at the final postion of the dancer, himself. In short, the purpose of "The Dance" is in the dancing of it. Anyway, it seemed to work and everyone applauded politely. After a few more speeches, we listened for an hour to three excellent musicians (violin, tabla and a female singer) who sang some traditional south Indian music. Giriji said that it was common for the dancing teacher to have his house on the ground floor and then to use the flat roof above it as a dance studio. The tiled area itself (about 25' X 50') was covered with a slanting metal roof that had been mounted above the dance floor with about an 8 feet open space all of the way around for ventilation. Very practical.
On Sunday, they gave their cooks a day off so we all went out for lunch buffet at a local hotel. In the evening, however, we went for a dinner and drinks at the Taj Malabar...a well-established old world charm resort on Willingdon Island with a spectacular view of the harbor. It had been built in 1935 and was, I'm sure, a favorite haunt of the long-gone Raj. Very proper and appropriately stuffy with a full bar, wood paneled ceilings, and lots of white European faces. The music, both piped and live, however, was decidedly American. (e.g. Simon & Garfunkel and Jethro Tull) They have lavish parties on the lawn in front of the dining area, and we saw some women performing traditional Indian dances for some of the folks out near the water. When the sun goes down around here, I've noticed that, for a few minutes, there is an extraordinary yellow light that seems to make everything glow and shimmer. It's almost as if a special filter had been placed on the sun to make it all very mystical. But, who knows? Maybe it's just from the pollution. Still, it's really quite exceptional, and I wish that I could capture it on film. More later...

Friday, March 24, 2006

Planning the tour...

Another fairly lazy day. We had a brief thunderstorm yesterday evening but, according to my publisher, Mohan, the real monsoons won't begin hitting this area until around June 1st before continuing on to the north. Mohan and his wife, Giriji, are putting together a fairly extensive book-signing tour that's shaping up to include talks at several dozen cities throughout India...including as many as six bookstores in the New Delhi area alone. Once this tour gets launched, we're all going to be pretty busy.
However, since they're not quite ready with the books yet, I've now scheduled myself to go on a roundtrip (and open-ended flight) from Cochin to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Tuesday evening. I was going to fly out of Chennai (Madras) but I've decided to forego the long 13.5 hour drive across the south with my friends and, instead, to move directly into the other phase of the purpose of my journey over here. i.e. a side-trip to Cambodia. Since I can't get a direct flight to Cambodia from Cochin, I'll have to switch planes in Bangkok. In order to get a fantastic roundtrip rate, (thanks to Mohan's connections with a local travel agency), I'm also being routed through Colombo on Sri Lanka. More later as it unfolds...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Hanging out in Cochin...

Well, for the past few days, I've been hanging out at the offices of my publisher in hot (and humid) Cochin. Mohan and Giriji are still busily working on the final touches of my books and have wisely decided to wait to begin the big tour until they have all four of them printed and ready for distribution. Evidently, the turn-around period is remarkably short over here and, once they are ready, all of the books can be printed up in about a week. Amazingly!
I'm still staying at Mohan's Guest House, and we're all taking our meals together. Two nights ago, I used the A/C instead of the overhead fan in my bedroom and, as a consequence, the mosquitoes decided to feast on my arms and face. Unlike the mosquitoes that I'm familiar with in the states, these little guys over here are more into the stealth-mode and they don't make any buzzing sound when they're flying around.
I took an afternoon off a few days ago and took an auto-bus (sometimes called a tuk-tuk) on a 30-minute ride over to Fort Cochin which was built out on the point on the beach. As expected, I've seen relatively few tourists here from the west. Cochin is not exactly a favorite or familiar stop on the "grand tour of India" so the Europeans and Americans who end up visiting the area are few and far between. Once I got to the Fort Cochin, I felt like a good walk and so I hoofed it along the beach for a while and talked briefly to a few young Indians who wanted to know where I had come from. As soon as I said California, they all smiled and said "Ahhhnold." I finally took an auto-bus to "Jew Town." (Yes, that really is its official name.) Lots of great old Indian and Tibetan stuff to buy, and so, as you might expect, there were some tourists buses parked nearby. After hanging out for a while, (and being more into "looking" than "shopping"), I decided to see if I could find my way back to the bridge that we had crossed on our way over here this morning. I made it a point to smile at everyone and, invariably, they all smiled back. Everyone is very friendly here although you need to smile first. However, most of the folks on the street here don't speak English, so I was glad that I brought the business card of my publishers so that I could tell the driver where I wanted to go.
Although India is very noisy (everyone in a vehicle is on their horn a good percentage of the time...mostly to avoid hitting someone or being hit) and extremely dirty (for some reason, there is very little awareness or social concern about the presence of trash absolutely everywhere), this country still pulsates with a robustness of the life force. The energy here is almost palpable. Interestingly, although relatively few people seem to speak English, many of the billboards and signs along the highways are written in that language.
Reality check: Just to put things in perspective, the average middle-class salary in India begins at about 300 rupees a day. That translates into about US$7.50 a day. Hundreds of millions of people survive here on much less than that.
Change of plans: Because of the delays in getting all of the books finally in print, we've all decided that it would be best for me to do the Cambodia part of my trip first before we begin the official tour in India. So, as it stands now, Mohan, Giriji and I will be driving to Chennei (Madras), Tiru and Pondicherry within the next few days to visit their friend who recently lost his wife. I plan to then fly out of Chennei to Penom Penh (undoubtedly, via Bangkok) and to mellow out for a while at one of the southern beaches. Naturally, I'm also planning to go north to visit Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the entire world. Mohan will stay in touch with me via email while I'm in Cambodia and will let me know when they are ready to formally launch the tour. As soon as we're ready to go, I'll then fly back to India and hook up with their group. More later...

Monday, March 20, 2006

Going south...

My publisher, Mohan Nair, his wife, Giriji, and I left New Delhi Sunday morning and flew on Kingfisher Airlines to Cochin with a quick stopover in Bangalore. I wanted to mention the name of the airlines because the last time that I was in India (1988), I had to fly Indian Airlines. I don't know how they are now, but they were pretty bare-bones back then. Kingfisher, however, is definitely a quality airline, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone flying to different cities around India. They're only about 10 months old and are doing quite well.
For the last few weeks, Mohan and Giriji have been escorting some of their authors around India on book-promotion tours and, in fact, had just finished up with author Steven Harrison (from Boulder) the day before they had picked me up in New Delhi. We were supposed to have all gotten together in New Delhi on the 15th (I had met Steven before in Ojai), but, unfortunately, my plane from L.A. had been delayed by 24 hours so I didn't actually land in Delhi until Thursday, March 16th (my own birthday).
Right now, I'm writing this from my publisher's office in the town (city?) of Cochin which is on the west coast of the country a few hours or so north of the southern tip of India. Cochin is the home of Editions India, the folks who will be publishing my books. As it stands now, they'll be distributing them throughout most of the countries in south Asia as well as in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. I'm staying in Mohan's Guest house which is a few blocks away from his own house. Last night, Mohan and Giriji learned that the wife of a close friend had unexpectedly died shortly after childbirth, and so it looks like we're going to be traveling to Pondicherry to pay our respects (about 13.5 hours directly east by car) sometime in the next few days. Road trip??
Since I'm planning to stay in India until around June 1st, there's no real pressure to begin the tour until all of my books are fully available from the printer. Meanwhile, I'm helping them out by writing some copy for their new catalog. They've contracted with some amazing writers in this area.
The food that Mohan's cook prepares for us every day is very typical of this region and quite good. They have their driver, a personal manager and a cook all living at the Guest house.
Although my own cell phone has international capability, Mohan's doesn't so. although I can call him (if I want to spend $2.29 a minute), he can't call me. He solved that problem by buying another cell phone for me to use while I'm in India. He and his wife have both been incredibly supportive. Stay tuned to find out what happens next...

Friday, March 17, 2006

Into the cauldron...

As it was when I visited this country before in 1988, India impacts and assaults your senses at every level. I'm in New Delhi until Sunday and it still has the same intensity of noises and smells that had impressed me some 18 years ago. Very viceral. We're 13.5 hours ahead of California. Much more later.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Leaving for India...and beyond

March 13, 2006 Well, my flight to New Delhi was delayed 24 hours because of a malfunctioning plane. Oh well, c'est la vie . Who can say why things happen as they do? My publisher in India was notified about the change of plans, and I'm now scheduled to land in New Delhi on the 16th, which happens to be my birthday...if you believe in that sort of thing.