Yesterday morning I arrived to Bhagsu. It’s a tiny place in the outskirts of Dharamshala on an altitude of proximately 2000 metres. This is another world compared to New Delhi. The only thing I hear is silence and the water from the steam originating from up these stately mountains.
I see eagles flying just a few meters above me, circling around looking for prey, and I hear their characteristic sound. This cought me in my core in a way I never expected. These free, beautiful and powerful creatures being so close to me.
Humans have always had this urge to cage free animals. To own their freedom.
So here I am, early morning, having my dose of coffee, listening to the eagle’s cry and contemplating life. I’m thinking of friends, family and love. I’m thinking about how some restrain the ones they love, how they cage them in the name of love. I don’t want you to go because I want or need you.
Love is when I give a person the freedom of choosing to stay with me.
I look at the eagles circling above me. It’s a peaceful place where eagles thrive. They thrive because the environment is providing them everything they need to stay.
As you already know, I am a female single traveler. A middle-aged female single traveler, traveling the way most young travelers do. Backpacking. I try to interact with locals as much as possible, having conversations and asking questions. Asking questions is the only way to get answers and with that get knowledge you can’t get from reading books or magazines. The consequence of that is that I also get a lot of questions back. The first and most common one is of course ‘which is your country’. Where am I from. Second next common is
Where is your husband.
There are a lot of surprised faces when I tell them I don’t have a husband. Then I get the safety talk. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Be careful. It’s always men telling me to be careful, hold my bag tight or not exposing my mobile because there are so many crooks in that specific area. But you are a good guy, I usually ask back. Then they get a bit confused. My point is, how do I know that the man warning me from other men is the good guy.
The other day I had one of my morning walks in a business area. It was early, shops closed, few people around. And from nowhere a man approaches me from behind, closes in and starts asking me the standard questions. Usually that’s how it starts and usually it ends by them telling me that they have something to sell or can offer transportation. But this one asks me if I have a paper map. How would I otherwise find my way. Thank you, I’m fine, I know where I’m going I reply. But he is not convinced and tells me again I should get a paper map. Finally I tell him I’ve got one in my mobile so I’ll be fine. Then he urged my very strongly not to use my mobile while walking the streets of New Delhi but to get a paper map at the tourist office, and he points towards a tiny alley. Considering everything was closed I assumed the tourist office also was. So I had to stop and tell him with a sharp voice that I’m fine and that I want him to continue walking ahead of me where I could see him and not to approach me again. This whole scenario is a bit disturbing and in a way also very kind of him to care about my safety. But! There is a big but.
From my perspective, walking the streets in India carrying a paper map is screaming out the message: Here comes a single female tourist that doesn’t know where she’s going. So I’m holding tight to my phone, head held high, walk in a confident way, looking forward not making eye contact as if I know where I’m going. Here in New Delhi there is one safe place to stop and look at the my mobile. Outside any bank. For the simple reason that there are always armed security outside.
On the other hand, considering the many hours these guards sit outside the banks and inside the many ATM booths, considering how bored and sleepy they are, I’m now sure any of them would be of any use is something actually did happened.
Let’s get back to the husband topic. Isn’t it interesting that so many people still think that the safest way to travel for a woman is together with a man. Even though husbands and boyfriends and ex-ditto are the reason so many women around the world are killed or attacked or abused.
Staying safe as a woman is not about staying away from traveling, getting a husband for protection or not doing normal things any man would do. But until the world is different from now, it is about keep on doing what we love and believe in with a clear and sharp mind. Without paper maps.
I’m staying in a quite rough area in New Delhi. Don’t take me wrong, it’s not that I am scared or feel unsafe, but it is rough. Good thing is that the hostel is extremely cheap and I’ve found the Madan Cafe which has become my second home. The owner is nice, the food is amazing and I’ve met a lot of co-travelers with whom I’ve had interesting conversations. But above all, sitting looking out at the street is like watching a movie. People, dogs, cats, rickshaws, tuctucs, carriages, motorcycles. Everything and the constant honking. Observing life happening on the street.
Couple of days ago I needed to go to the bank so I took a tuctuc, told the driver my destination and we took off. He was very kind and helpful, a very calm young man. Yesterday I met him just outside the hostel on my way to buy chai. I bought two chai and offered him one of them. And we talked.
His name is Vicky, he is 26 years old and he is from a small village up north. He would have to change bus 4 times, and the last part there is no public transportation, to get there. He hasn’t been back home for 6 months now. Making a living is hard. Until 2 months ago he used to work as a shoe polisher. That corner over there, he points across the street, that used to be my spot he says.
He has moved forward in life, he drives the tuctuc now. Renting it from the owner, whos name also i Vicky, he pays 400 rupees a day. But he tries to stay close to this area he says. It’s because he doesn’t have a drivers license. A bit problematic if the police stops him. Then he would have to pay a fine reducing his savings. Some policemen are nice he says, they understand how difficult it is to make a living so the only charge him a small amount which they put in their own pocket. But if they decide to write a report he would be in big trouble.
His english is very good, I complement him. He thanks me and tells me that he has never gone to school, he can’t read or write in any language. Which makes it even harder for him to get a drivers license.
Home to him is the tuctuc. He sleeps in it, he works in it. But he can not afford ty buy one. It would cost around 4 lak. That is 400 000 rupees, roughly 6500 USD.
Today when I was on my way to have chai I met him again outside my hostel. So I buy us chai and we talk. He has new clothes on he says. He bought them for the brother and sister festival the other day. Also because he needed to wash the ones he’s wearing when driving the tuctuc. That’s the only clothes he had until a tourist gave him some money to buy new. So that’s what he’s doing now, washing his clothes. That plastic container filled with water, the clothes soaking for a while, giving them a proper rub and then hangs them on the fence opposite the street. Knowing they will still be there at 8.30 pm after doing more than 12 hours in the streets of New Delhi. He’s not the only one in this situation here and they all look after each other.
So he will probably continue living his life in that rented tuctuc for a long time. A he is yet quite fortunate when I look at how others make their living.
It is hard to see him and listen to his story without feeling guilt, wanting to help. He may lack a lot of things, but one thing he has is my respect. I’m guessing that the money he makes he doesn’t keep. He’s probably feeding the rest of his family back home in that tiny village. He struggles driving that tuctuc and he does it with dignity.
Arriving to New Delhi straight from Brunei requires a couple of days of rest and to get my bearings around.
Brunei being very organised, quiet and clean, New Delhi is quite the opposite. There is constant honking, people everywhere, busy traffic, litter everywhere, people constantly wanting to sell things or transport and …. a lot more. But there is that other side of India too. The great food, amazing chai, kind people and a lot more.
Since I’m traveling on a budget I chose to stay at a cheep hostel that turned out to be located in a rough area. Locals I’ve talked to shake their heads in … disbelief or perhaps they think I’m crazy choosing that area. It’s dangerous they say, hold tight to your phone, don’t talk to strangers.
It probably is all that. Too. But it is also part of the reality in Delhi. And still this is the backpackers area. I’m not the only foreigner here. And not every person you meet will try to mug you or try to rip you off. There are also all the kind people. But one has to keep the guard up all the time and evaluate every person that passes you by. Using your common sense is essential.
Yesterday afternoon we had heavy rain. The streets were flooded and the hostel lost the power. Just when I was on my way to have a shower. I decided to go and have food instead. At the restaurant next door I was asked to wait until they had cleared the water off the floor and as I was waiting I met Hoa, 29, from Vietnam. We talked, we clicked and decided to go somewhere else. Cafe Madan was the place and the owner, a 49 year old very handsome man, joined the conversation. It turns out Hoa and I are both planing on going to Rishikesh and the man told us to take the train. Not the bus. The train leaves from New Delhi station he say. Good, that’s close, I’ll find where to buy the ticket I said. No, you will not he replied.
The thing is that when you buy the ticket at the railway station you don’t pay commission. So when you get there people will ask you where you are going and if you have a ticket. You will say no, but you are on your way to buy one at the counter for foreigners. The will tell you that counter is closed that day and take you to another place where you will end up paying 600 rupees instead of the 140 the ticket actually costs.
Then he drew an exact map over the station and told me, don’t talk to any one, don’t tell anyone where you are going or that you want to buy a ticket. Tell them you already have one and just proceed to the counter. Don’t trust anyone.
So yes, there is this side of India too. The rich are very rich and the poor are very poor. A cow is more worth than a human life. People are know to be hit by one car and run over by another because the traffic doesn’t stop. Unless you are a cow. Then they stop. But that is another story. But people will do a lot of things to make ends meet. To survive.
And still there is something about this country that is so intriguing. It’s extremely hot and extremely rough and we still visit India. 12 October my visa expires. That gives me 2 months to explore this diverse and interesting country.
Arriving to Brunei wasn’t a very exiting event in terms of being very ordinary. The airport is modern, straight, clean and there is nothing that show I have arrived to a different or special culture. A few months ago a spoke to a man who strongly advised me not to go to Brunei. He himself had been living here for 5 years though. That was the third time a man warned me from going to a country even though they themselves had been there. I didn’t now what to expect. Of course one listens to advice received but I am not going to be stopped unless there is a war going on or the Swedish Foreign Ministry discourages from going. So here I am wondering why I was warned about going here. Just as I did when I came to India.
I arrive to Bandar Seri Begawan airport, Leslie and Andreas from the eco village met up, I withdraw cash and buy a local SIM card before we make our way to the city centre. Still squearish, modern and clean. I see women dressed in a modern way, tight jeans, revealing tops and no head scarves. Considering Brunei is a Muslim country run by the sultan himself and being described in the press as a very conservative country a am a bit puzzled.
I am told about the sultan. A very well liked man by the people who is involved in a very hands on way of running his country. Yes, he is the one and only who makes the decisions but he also listens to what the people have to say. One example was the building of a new market. The old one was run down and he wanted to build a new modern one. So he finds a suitable new spot and informs his citizens. The people have another point of view regarding the location of the new market. So he goes there, talk to the people in person, listens to them and decides to build the new market on the old spot. Just like the people wanted it. He has also been very hands on after catastrophes, visiting the area and helping out, not being afraid of getting dirty.
No wonder why he is so popular, and no wonder everyone here wants to celebrate him on his birthday 15 July. On four different dates he goes to four different places where big celebrations are held. And when I say big I mean really BIG. In every city he is visiting all the hotels are fully booked for the event.
And I have to tell you about his love life. According to Islam men are allowed to have four wives. The sultan almost made it. The first one, the queen, gave birth to his first eight children. With the second one he has three. He has separated from his second wife. That means he is legally still married to her, visits her an cares for her but they don’t live together. Apparently there was a big scandal with the third wife involving a body guard. So he divorced her, banished her from the country and she is not allowed to go back. Since they have two children he personally accompanies them to her for the children to see their mother. The almost forth marriage was cancelled.
Oil is a big thing in Brunei which means petrol is cheap. Very cheap. Every household owns 2-3 cars. People don’t walk, they go by car. But that’s the same thing throughout whole Asia. Public transportations are available. But! There is a big but. At the bus station there is no information to be found. So when I needed to get to the Indian Embassy the one to advise me on how to get there was a taxi driver. Bus 37 he said. Great! I talked to the bus driver and he stopped just a few hundred meters away from my goal. imagine a highway, cars driving very fast and in the middle of nowhere the bus stops and I have to walk on the highway to get to the exit. No sidewalks. Still, that was the easy part. The hard part was to get back. The rout for bus 37 is not the same to the end station as it is back. Tat and not having any bus stops makes it not that easy to know where to wait for the bus. Luckily there was i ‘private taxi’ that offered e a ride. I was very grateful after standing in the sun on the highway so I payed him happily.
Double standards, we have it everywhere, in every country. The main rule here is As long as you are not caught doing something illegal you can go on doing it. Smoking, drinking alcohol, being gay, men going to female salons, cockfighting and a lot of other things are illegal. Everyone smokes, everyone drinks, all men gamble on cockfighting and there is a big gay community. You can get anything illegal you want as long as you know someone who has it. And everyone knows that someone.
Every once in a while people in this area go to Limbang in Malaysia for a good party and shopping. Some of the royal children have a reputation being very good at partying. Scandals being silenced by the sultan.
The gay community is very openly gay. And they stick together. Unless they are married which is quite common amongst the older generation. And as everything else that is illegal, they either meet their lovers in secret or go abroad for meeting up. The younger generation isn’t hiding in that way.
Lifestyle in the countryside is simple. Pretty much the way it has always been but with a modern touch. People still live in longhouses. The one closest to the camp where I’m staying is inhabited by approximately 50 people. The size of a longhouse is measured by the amount of entrance doors. This particular one has 4, even though they all 4 lead to the same common area. Across the common area there are another 4 doors all leading to 4 private areas containing a small living room, bedrooms, kitchen and a toilet each. They are like private apartments for one family each.
It all comes to the fact that people are never on their own here. Constantly surrounded by people from all generations. A consequence of that is that everyone has to make it work. Everyone are very sociable and friendly towards each other. There is a very strong feeling of loyalty towards family members. Kids are raised, looked after and taken care of by the whole community. This is not unique to Brunei but very much a reality throughout the whole Asia. Children are expected to support their entire family and therefor money is constantly an issue. Grown up children are always broke because they give most of their money to their parents.
If you are a citizen of Brunei healthcare and school is for free. Some decades ago houses were provided for the citizens for free by the sultan. Nowadays housing is still provided by the sultan but tenants pay a small fee every month. If you are employed by the state or municipal one retires either after working for 35 years or when one reaches the age of 60. Unless you are a professor, then you have to wait until you are 70. Poor unemployed people do get some financial help from the sultan.
The school system is good but still most young people will end up in non employment. That is for sure a global problem. But in my opinion the biggest problem is what the school system don’t teach students.
Logic and critical thinking. This is a trait missing throughout the whole Asia. Of course that is also a way of controlling people, making them stay put. One of my Malaysian friends and I once talked about why certain countries in the world were so successful while a lot of Asian countries are not. Lack of logic, critical thinking and being afraid of aftermaths if making a mistake is a big obstacle for Asia. And this is also applicable to Brunei from what I have seen.
Being a female single traveler in Brunei is easy. People are very kind and helpful, curiosity is show, people look discretely and sometimes they will approache me with questions. But never once have I been harassed or felt unsafe. Brunei is a safe country for anyone who behaves and follows the law. And the beauty of the country is breathtaking.