Ok, so it's been about a month since my last post... I know blogger's faux pas number one. However, in my defense, I embarked on an intense India tour during the hottest season. To make up for my lack of posts this past month here is blogger faux pas number two: an extremely long post about the awesome adventure I had with Mr. Michael Shea! As a special treat Shea agreed to help out and guest write about our West to East journey across this incredible country. Enjoy!
My first stop in India was the city of Delhi, and it was there that I first noticed many features of India that I became used to (or at least not terrified by) over the next two weeks.
First of all – India is full of people! So many people, everywhere, all the time! All of them want to look at you, although the staring isn’t as bad for men as it is for women. If I stared back at a man looking at me, he would usually drop his gaze before too long. Lots of them also want to talk to you. I must have said No (or the Hindi equivalent, “Nah / Nahi”) more times during my stay in India than I ever have before in my life. Adults are very talkative – sometimes they’re trying to sell you something, or convince you to go visit a store that they get a commission from, and sometimes they just want to know where you’re from, or to take a picture of themselves with you. Children yell hello at you, and are entertained if you yell it back.
Secondly, India is full of smells both good and bad (maybe a bit more bad than good, though) and garbage. There is garbage everywhere! At first I tried to find receptacles to put my trash in, but after the first day or so, I generally settled for finding pre-existing piles of garbage. Cows and dogs eating garbage is a common sight.
Delhi’s traffic is, in a word, chaotic. This is the case everywhere, but I think it was worse in Delhi than anywhere else. Rickshaw drivers in Delhi were extremely lazy – they would often just refuse to go where you wanted to, without even discussing the price.
Highlights of my visit to Delhi:
· Parawthe Wala. The paranthas at this place were the tastiest food I had in India and, therefore, the tastiest food I have ever had. As far as I can tell, a parantha is some sort of fried dough with “stuff” cooked into it... like, bananas or tomatoes or onions or whatever. And they give you some other stuff to dip the parantha into. Mmmm.
Paranthas: 1 cashew and 1 tomato.
· The ear cleaning guys in Cannaught Place. These guys wander around the park and strike up conversations with foreigners. They show you their little book containing testimonials from all of the other folks who have undergone ear-cleaning. Then they offer to just take a look in your ear. Do not allow them to do this, unless you are willing to actually have the full cleaning - it is very hard to say no to a person who has a sharp metal stick stuck in your ear. Anyway – the guy pulled all sorts of gross muck out of my ear, and then wiped it on his hand and showed it to me, to demonstrate just how gross my ears really were. While this was going on, a shoe cleaner guy, presumably smelling blood in the air, came by and cleaned my shoes for me. Since I still had the sharp stick in my ear, I was also unable to protest this vigorously enough, and ended up paying for a completely useless shoe cleaning as well. All told I think the experience cost me about 5 bucks.
· Seeing my lovely fiancée, AnnMarie, for the first time in over 5 months!
Touring Old Delhi via cycle richshaw.
Jaipur aka The Pink City
We woke up early to board our AC bus to Jaipur and, after our driver circled a few times, we found the bus stand. We also showed up empty-handed after the internet said that we didn't need to print our tickets... this created a slight problem but luckily I asked the staff at the bus stop to check the manifest for our names, and they let us board. It took about 6 hours to reach Jaipur but we were kept company by a friend, Vijay, that we made on the bus. He also helped negotiate a rickshaw to our hotel, Umaid Bhawan which was really lovely. We began and ended our days in Jaipur in the great pool at our hotel which neglected to post a "no diving sign" that we took full advantage of. The breakfast buffet was served on the roof and was really tasty. Shea and I both loved our stay at the Umaid and so I feel the need to advise future travelers to stay there too! (book with Expedia and your breakfast and internet are included!)
View from our balcony.
Elephant wall paintings in our room.
The heat in Jaipur was intense so we hired a driver in an AC car to tour the city. He took us to various temples and mahals. My favourites being Hawa Mahal and City Palace. The architecture of the city is amazing and colourful! At the end of our tour our driver took us to his uncle's silver jewelry shop where we purchased some lovely bracelets for our sisters. I want to add that I considered cutting Jaipur out of our tour to save some time but I am glad we did not. I found the city to really have a unique look and feel.
Albert Hall Museum.
Getting out of Jaipur was an experience. We had booked a bus to Agra only to get to the bus stand at 8am and find out it was cancelled due to some sort of road closure. This was stressful, as we were booked on a train out of Agra that night. We headed for the train station, where we found that none of the trains would fit our schedule... meaning they wouldn't leave us enough time to see Taj. So, feeling defeated and a little distraught we started walking away from the train station to find an ATM because we were light on cash. After walking for about ten minutes we came upon a man at a table with an umbrella and signs with pictures of buses. I asked him if he could get us to Agra and he informed us that the bus was leaving in 1/2 an hour. We purchased our tickets and grabbed a rickshaw to the bus in plenty of time. This bus was very local and had no AC. So we embarked on our slow moving journey through the back roads to Agra in the sweltering heat for seven and a half hours. We were basically trapped in a metal box in the middle of the desert in 45+ weather. I started to feel very panicked about the heat half way through the journey but there was nothing I could do. Luckily we made it to Agra without me breaking down. Shea was a trooper!
I don’t know much about Agra. Frankly, we didn’t see very much of the city. We heard that there isn’t much to do there other than visit the Taj Mahal. So, we got in, we saw the Taj, we ate at the local Dasaprakash, and we got out.
We arrived in the city around 4:00pm, I think, and got to the Taj around 5:00, arriving at the West gate. We checked our bags at a nearby bag-checking place (they don’t allow you to bring large bags into the grounds of the Taj Mahal). The lineup at the West gate was enormous. We paid some guy 150 rupees to bring us to a different gate, where we skipped the line. I don’t think we needed to do this, though... There didn’t seem to be a lineup at the East gate, so we probably could have just walked over there and gotten in quickly, if we had known.
The Taj Mahal itself was amazing, and is the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t seem real when you see it – the lines are so perfect, the curves are so smooth, it looks like it’s painted on the sky. We took the obligatory picture of me “dangling” the Taj from my grip. There are signs up saying that you shouldn’t take pictures inside the Taj itself. We chose to respect Indian culture, but most of the Indians there were snapping photos left and right anyway. The inside is okay, but nothing to write home about. Sadly, not even the grounds of the Taj Mahal were completely free of garbage, but they were at least cleaner than anywhere else I saw in India that wasn’t inside of a hotel.
Mighty Shea is so strong!
Leaving Agra, I got to experience my first overnight train ride in India. We booked two berths in “3AC” (third class, air-conditioned). This is the way to travel! They really blast the AC in there. Each car manages to actually fairly comfortably seat (or sleep) 8 people – 3 bunks on two walls, 2 bunks on a third wall. The upper bunks fold up, allowing the lowest bunk to be used as a seat during waking hours. I slept like a baby as the motion of the train rocked me to sleep. Somehow, it reminded me of camping.
Shea getting comfy in his berth on the train to Varanasi.
Family that we befriended on the train. The kids loved watching Avatar: The Last Airbender on our laptop... actually the adults did too.
If not for the poor quality of the air here, I would really have liked this city. The streets are chaotic, especially in the old city by the ghats, but they’re more pedestrian-friendly. They don’t allow motorized vehicles into the old city.
Veggie "burger" from "Burger King".
Varanasi sits on the west bank of the Ganges. They have two “burning ghats” in the city (fyi: a ghat is something like a dock – it is a broad set of steps leading down to the river). The burning ghats are where they burn the bodies of the deceased. We heard all about the ghats repeatedly, from two different sources – one at each ghat. Naturally, each of these sources first informed us that they didn’t want any money and just liked talking to people, and then asked for something when the story was done (the first asked us to visit the shop he worked at, and the second asked us for a “donation” to his hospice).
The residents of Varanasi bathe in the Ganges, but I certainly would not want to do this. In addition to the standard pollution, this river is also full of whatever bits of people don’t get completely burned up in the funeral pyres.
Every night in Varanasi, there is a celebration at the ghats. I’m not sure why they have this celebration, but hey, it seemed like a good time the one night we checked it out. We also took a boat tour after dark, to see the ghats from the river. That was fun. Oh, and we managed to get up early enough to see the sun rise one morning. Unfortunately, the smog interfered with the view, and we weren’t really able to see the sun until after it had risen.
Sunrise through the smog.
Boat tour. (notice cremation happening in the background)
View of the nightly puja at the ghats from our boat.
There is far too much burning going on in Varanasi. Burning ghats. Burning piles of garbage in alleyways. Furthermore, people there seem to do some sort of burning paper ritual when they open their stores. They need to stop burning so much stuff. The air there was so thick with smoke all the time that you can see it in the air if you take a picture with the flash on at night.
Arriving in Kolkata I felt a little nervous having heard about the theft prevalence at Howrah station but I soon learned that the risk is low if you just keep an eye on your stuff. We wanted to buy our tickets out of Kolkata before leaving the station so, after being misguided by many people for about half an hour, we finally found the right line to wait in. It was a long process of line jumping and paper work, but we managed to get our tickets. We grabbed a cab (that was stuck in traffic for a solid hour) to the awesome Oberoi Grand, a swanky 5-star hotel... we felt we needed a treat. This hotel was amazing... so much so we had trouble motivating ourselves to venture outside. The pool was fantastic and every time we swam we were served with water, towels and sunscreen! The food was also amazing. They even had soy milk for the cereal! I had breakfast dosas and cornflakes topped with almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts! Shea had waffles, croissants and donuts!
Fancy Room part 1.
Fancy Room part 2.
Pool lounging at the Oberoi.
We did manage to venture out and see the usual tourist spots like the Victoria Monument, Eden Gardens and Mother Teresa's house. We even braved the subway system to go out to dinner. We tried traditional Bengali food and we loved it! Bring on the sweet rice! We also spent time shopping in New Market which was very close to our hotel and we met up with Joyce (a VSO vol based in Kolkata) at the Blue and Beyond Roof Top Restaurant where we dined with a great view of the city.
View of Kolkata from the Blue and Beyond Rooftop Restaurant.
Children we met in a park while walking home from Mother Teresa's house.
For our last dinner in Kolkata we ate at the fancy Thai restaurant in the Oberoi and it was fantastic! The only restaurants in Orissa are Indian and Indian-Chinese, so it was nice to finally get some different flavours. This restaurant had a Basil Tofu dish and I was all over it! Shea had green veg curry which was also a delight.
To get back to Howrah station, we had the Oberoi staff flag a taxi, and we agreed to pay the driver 100 rupees. We were expecting the ride to take about an hour due to heavy traffic, but our driver was totally insane. He was weaving in and out of traffic, driving on the sidewalk, and at one point got out of the car and bargained with bus drivers to let him cut into lanes. All the while he was blaring what Shea and I assumed was Hindi-Christian rock (this was because of the Jesus pooja he had going on his dashboard... Jesus on the cross all lit up in pink and purple!). We made it to the train station in nine minutes... which meant our driver tried to ask us for more money... we stuck to the agreed upon price though. Nice try!
The last stops on our trek were Puri, followed by Bhubaneswar. I liked both of these cities.
Puri is a sleepy little beach town on the Bay of Bengal. We stayed at the Hans Coco Hotel. This hotel had a sweet pool, but terrible customer service. We had to ask them repeatedly for a “Do Not Disturb” sign for our room, and they were jerks about our second breakfast. We arrived early the first day, and they told us to go ahead and have breakfast. Then the second day (on which we checked out), they told us to once again go and have breakfast, but then tried to charge us for it. They didn’t really seem to understand that, even though they were probably legally correct, they were being dicks and should really just let it go. Eventually I told them that I would pay for the meal and never stay at their hotel again, and then they agreed to remove the charge. Oh, they also charged us 300 rupees when Am’s friend Lucy came to swim in the pool. Boo - cheap behaviour from a hotel that should have been on the classy side.
Other than that, our stay in Puri was very nice. We swam in the pool. We meandered through the town during the day. This was probably the wrong time to do meander, though – the town was mostly closed down during the day, but seemed fairly active in the evening. We played in the surf on the beach – the waves were fierce, though, so we didn’t go out very far. And we met up with Lucy for dinner at Lemon Grass, which was a nice outdoor restaurant.
I also liked Bhubaneswar. We stayed at the Trident hotel there, which was good, but not nearly on the same level as the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata. We visited the OAB, and I got to meet Kalu the dog, and also the random puppy that AnnMarie befriended, and AnnMarie’s office-mate Pragyna.
Dinner with my Indian family. Aka my landlords.
We went out dancing at the HHI club on our one night in Bhubaneswar. That was a blast. I think there were maybe 8 of us, but we still outnumbered all the other clients in the bar. The DJ started out playing mostly retro, but switched to more “continental” music when asked to do so. The French guys that Am and her friends know bought all the drinks (basically, we could just go to the bar and order whatever we wanted, and then they picked up the tab at the end of the night). So if any of your French guys are reading this – thanks!
Shea in the front of the rickshaw where men belong!
Song from title: Rosey and Grey by Lowest of the Low