Archive for the Category ◊ India ◊

20 Jun 2009 Kolkata, India
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Talk about culture shock…India is like another world!  You would never believe how different it is until you actually experience it yourself!  We arrived late at night and luckily had arranged for our hotel to pick us up.  On the drive there it was astonishing to see how many people were sleeping in the trash covered streets.  We were eager to arrive to the safety of our hotel.  The last Lonely Planet writer to visit the hotel had described it as “sparkling clean”, however, they must have a different idea of what is sparkling clean or they never went past the lobby.  The walls of our room were covered with dirty foot and hand prints, the curtains had a thick layer of dust, the sheets were definitely dirty (we slept in our sleep sacks) and the water barely trickled out of the shower head.  When we asked the guy at the front desk for two bottled waters, he gave us bottles with caps that had been opened.  When I told him that we could not drink the water if they had already been opened, he said that they were filled with filtered water.  We decided to not take any chances and finally used the water filter my Dad had given me.  Welcome to India!

India during the day was even more overwhelming than at night.  We had heard that the men in India will stare at you, but we weren’t prepared for the full on staring contest with every man we passed. We were on the defensive because we had also heard that Indian men were known for groping women in public, which made me want to shoot every guy a “don’t even think about it” look, but apparently women in India don’t look men in the eye unless they’re prostitutes. So I was a little torn between looking them in the eye and not looking them in the eye, because I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t paying attention in case they wanted to try something, but I also didn’t want them thinking that I was a prostitute. I usually went for the “looking them in the eye” tactic…it made me feel safer and most easterners have a view of western women being “easy” anyways. You would not believe how many men asked us if we were married…we heard it almost as often as “hello” because in their culture it is rare for a woman to be seen without a man. We didn’t talk to many women because there were never any around. Almost every job was performed by a man and walking down the street you saw about 95% men. It was so weird, almost like they were all in hiding.

We stayed in Kolkata 3 different times while in India. The first time we only stayed on day and then made a quick trip to Varanasi and back before my brother, David, arrived. The next day after he arrived we took the night train north to Darjeeling. Then after traveling around for about 2 weeks, we came back to Kolkata to fly to our next destination, Kenya. This time we stayed in a nice luxury hotel, thanks to our friend who works for a hotel chain and was able to get us a great discount. It was a wonderful way to end our stay in smelly, loud, dirty, scamming, intense India!

17 Jun 2009 Delhi, India
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While in the prepaid taxi line at the Delhi airport, a girl behind me asked which hotel we were going to. Since she was going to the same area of town we invited her to join us in our taxi. Her name is Helen and she turned out to be a very cool girl. She’s from England and had been traveling all over India for 5 months and had gotten her yoga certificate during that time. We spent the entire hour long taxi ride chatting about our travels. When we got to the Hotel Grand Godwin it was beautiful, but twice as expensive as it was listed in Lonely Planet. I asked if we could get a discount and he agreed to 15% off and suggested that we could save money if all three of us shared a room. It sounded like a good idea to us so we checked out the room and loved it. It was seriously the nicest hotel room we’d stayed in on this trip. We went back down stairs to check into the room and Helen discovered that when she had exchanged money at the airport they had forgotten to give her passport back. Luckily the hotel called the money exchange counter and they confirmed that they still had her passport. While she went back to the airport, David and I headed out for dinner. We went to a rooftop restaurant on Main Bazaar St., which is one of the big shopping market areas in Delhi. We met three girls from Europe at the table next to us, who had been living in Delhi for a few months doing volunteer work with underprivileged children. They were a lot of fun and great story tellers.

The next day we took the train down to Agra for the day to check out the Taj Mahal (see Taj Mahal blog). On our last day we went to see the Red Fort and the stunning Jama Masjid, which is the largest mosque in India and can hold a staggering 25,000 worshippers. There are set hours for when non-Muslims are allowed to enter. Admission is free, but they charge $200 rupees (about $4 USD) to let you bring in your camera. They made David put on a Longhi (like a sarong) and made me wear a frumpy long sleeve gown that covered me from head to toe (even though I was already wearing pants and a long sleeve shirt). The worst part was that they made us take off our shoes and the ground was burning hot. There was a path made of white rugs layed out over the hot stone, but it was still incredibly hot. In the middle of the huge courtyard there was a reflecting pool with stone seats lining all sides where people were sitting and splashing on themselves. I was happy to join in and splash water on my burning feet. I saw one guy brushing his teeth with the water on his finger, which I though was pretty gross considering the water was murky green with algae floating in it. A few kids came over and wanted us to take their picture. Soon we had a crowd of children around us. They loved it when we showed them the picture on the camera screen afterwards.

We had read that there was a tall tower that you could climb that had a great view of the city. We asked our driver, who was with us, where we had to go to climb the tower and he said it was closed, but when I looked up I saw people at the top of the tower. For some reason he wanted to hurry us along. We found the ticket counter and paid $100 rupees (about $2 USD) to go in. We climbed to the top up a stone spiral staircase that reminded me of the one at the Duomo in Florance, Italy. The view at the top was spectacular…you could see all of Delhi. Before we left we tried to get a good picture of us with the mosque behind us, but every Indian we asked could not take a decent shot…it was either crooked or they would cut off the building. When we were about to give up, a nice girl from Canada came up to us and asked us if we would like her to take another picture for us. We laughed and said yes and took a few pictures for her as well.

Next we headed to the Tibetan markets to do a little shopping before heading back to the airport. On the way back to the hotel to pick up our bags our taxi driver hit another taxi. We weren’t going fast because we were stuck in traffic, but the other driver got out and walked back to our taxi and knocked on the window. I became worried that we might miss our flight, but after exchanging a few words, the other driver went back to his taxi and drove away…that’s India!

08 Jun 2009 Darjeeling, India
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Ahhh…what a difference a train makes. After our last two train experiences Sherri and I were kind of dreading the overnight train trip to Darjeeling. Previously we’d traveled in 2nd class, which was ok, but the 17 hour train trip back from Varanasi in sleeper class with no AC and sleeping in shifts was “an experience” to put it mildly. For the trip to Darjeeling we had tickets in 3rd class and Sherri’s brother, David would be traveling us, so we at least felt it would be safer and hoped we could get some sleep on the long overnight train.

We boarded the train and were even shown to our seats by a professionally dressed train employee. As the train pulled away from the station relaxing music played from the speakers overhead…soon a train attendant appeared with a tray of candies, an then another attendant appeared with a tray of sodas, followed by a tray of savory snacks…all complementary, of course! Sherri’s brother David looked at us questioningly, “you guys are crazy, these Indian trains are awesome” he said, but he had no idea what we had been through. This was definitely the train experience we had hoped for…we were served a delicious Indian meal and we were seated with a nice Indian family on their way home to Sikkim. The three children were super sweet, sharing some of their candies with us and Sherri and I taught the father how to play gin rummy, in which he totally beat us in the first round…beginners luck! Even though 3rd class meant there was a little less space (beds are stacked with 3 on each side versus only 2 on each side in 2nd class) we were much more comfortable and happy on this train which we later realized was specially operated by a tour company, hence providing a much higher quality of service.

We arrived in Siliguri by mid-morning and were swarmed by taxi and jeep drivers all clamoring to take us on the three-hour drive up the mountain to Darjeeling. After much negotiation we found a driver with small car that would leave right away and not try to squeeze any additional people into the car.

Darjeeling was such a welcome relief from the hot sticky city. The air was crisp and clean and the views were magnificent! Even the people in Darjeeling were different…a mixed culture of Indian and Tibetan people, whom we found to be much friendlier and happier than the people in the city.

Darjeeling, also known as “Queen of the Hills” is a hillside town located at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet. Darjeeling is well known for its tea and we definitely drank a lot of it! At home Sherri and I are big tea drinkers, so it was really cool visiting a well-known region where it is grown. We visited the Happy Valley Tea Estate where we got to observe them plucking the leaves by hand. We also got a tour of the processing plant to see how the tea is dried, separated and made ready to package and sell. After learning all about tea we went to the Elgin Hotel for a proper afternoon tea, complete with fresh scones, preserves, sandwiches and all sorts of yummy pastries.

One morning we got up before dawn to watch the sunrise over Tiger Hill. It was awe-inspiring watching as the sun slowly rose. Lighting up the clouds, its rays reached the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Kanchandzonga and the surrounding Himalayan mountains. We spent the morning walking back to Darjeeling stopping to explore the various monasteries along the way. The Santen Choling Monastery was by far my favorite! We stopped there to have chai in the courtyard and you could hear the monks chanting from within the temple. We were invited to go inside, sit and observe as a young group of monks (probably around the ages of 7-10) chanted their scriptures. It was a very cool experience!

Darjeeling is a great place to visit for anyone that is in the West Bengal region. It is especially a great place to escape the heat if you happen to be visiting India during their scorching hot summers. We stayed at the Lunar Hotel, which is centrally located, has very nice rooms with great views and the Lunar restaurant inside the hotel is known as the best vegetarian restaurant in Darjeeling. We loved the food! It was the best hot and sour soup I’ve ever had! The room rates they first quoted us were a bit high, but they are willing to negotiate cheaper rates if you ask!

03 Jun 2009 Varanasi, India
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Sherri and I had heard so much about train travel in India…how it is a wonderful way to get around the country, how relatively cheap it is to travel and that some trains are quite luxurious. Loving to travel by rail we were excited for our 1st Indian train experience. We had hoped for 1AC (first class with air conditioning) but it was unavailable so we booked 2AC (second class with air conditioning) which was supposed to still be quite nice. Train travel in India is really affordable, our 2nd class tickets were only 1200 rupees ($25 USD) for an overnight train trip.

Sherri in her 2nd class bunk

Sherri in her 2nd class bunk

Arriving at the train station was pure maddness…our taxi driver zigged and zagged like a madman in and out of traffic, nearly running over multiple pedestrians in the process. The station was packed with people…it was crazy. We boarded the train and found our seats/beds. Much to our dismay it was not what we were expecting. While all sleeper trains we have been on in the past throughout Europe and even in Vietnam consisted of a cabin with either 4 bunks (2 on each side) or 6 bunks (3 on each side) this configuration was much different. There was no cabin…just the 4 bunks separated from the aisle with only a curtain…and then in the aisle were two more bunks running alongside the aisle with only a curtain. There was no privacy or security. Luckily we had bought chains and locks to secure our luggage…but sleeping on the train was a bit sketchy as Sherri and I were separated…her sleeping across the aisle in one bunk and me sleeping on the other side of the aisle behind the curtain in the 4 bunk configuration with a grumpy Indian man who snored very loudly all night. Normally I sleep really well on trains but this was not the most restful night.

We were very happy to arrive in Varanasi, but little did we realize we still had quite a journey ahead. We were swarmed by drivers upon exiting the train station. After much negotiation, where we even got in and out of a few means of transportation we finally settled with a tuk-tuk…it was quite a ride (see video clip below)! The tuk-tuk was unable to take us all the way to the hotel (supposedly motorized vehicles were not allowed to drive any farther down the road…first rule of the road we’ve ever seen followed in India) so he dropped us off in the middle of the busy dusty street. Still far from our hotel, unsure which way to go and sweating profusely, we next got into a bicycle powered carriage who promised to take us to the door of the hotel, but he didn’t so we ended up walking down many skinny twisting alleyways while dripping sweat and narrowly avoiding the cow poop that littered the streets. The guesthouse was located right on the ghats (steps) of the Ganges River and our room had a nice view…the room was a bit dirty, but it was cleaner then the one in Kolkata!

We only had 2 days/1 night in Varanasi but we definitely made the most of it. It was fun exploring the tiny twisting alleys, that sometimes lead to a dead end…we just wandered around taking tons of pictures. Varanasi is known as the cultural capital of India, famous for its religious and spiritual lifestyle. It is one of the most important pilgrimage spots for Jains, Buddhists and especially Hindus. It is situated on the banks of Holy Ganges River, which plays an important role in day-to-day lives of the people of Varanasi. We took a sunset cruise along the Ganges where we got to see the burning ghats where you can actually see them burning the bodies and tons of people bathing in the river. We even went across the river and got out on the sandy bank along the opposite shore to walk around amongst the cows and people. The Indian culture is very, very different. The women wear traditional clothing such as saris or salwar kameez and even when bathing in the river the women remain covered, while the men bathe in the river wearing practically nothing.

After sunset we strolled along the ghats and watched part of a religious ceremony. We had planned to go out somewhere for dinner but the electricity went out (which it often does in India) so we decided to eat by candlelight at the guesthouse rooftop restaurant. They had a generator that worked some of the time and powered the lights and the fan (but not the AC) in our room…we called it an early night.

We got up to watch the sunrise and go on another boat ride along the river…it was really cool to see people along the ghats performing their morning rituals and prayers. We spent the rest of the morning wandering the street exploring, taking photos and just taking it all in…there is so much color and culture in India, especially in Varanasi. While roaming around we noticed that a young teenage boy (he was probably 12 or 13) seemed to be following us. He kept appearing either in front or behind us as we zigged and zagged down the narrow alleyways. At one point he tried starting up a conversation but we told him we didn’t want to talk and to please leave us alone. He continued to magically appear wherever we were…he then came up & asked each of us for a hug which we both of course declined. Repeatedly we kept telling him to go away. We tried ignoring him but then he walked up to Sherri, started unzipping his pants and asked for sex! She ran past me as she was running away from him and he ran between her and I, blocking my path with his dick out. I lost it…I yelled & screamed at him and then he quickly ran away. Good thing too, because a knee to the groin was the next step. Some nerve! Being a female in India is not easy…we had been forewarned by fellow female travelers and the guidebook that women traveling in India need to be especially careful. Unfortunately it is quite common for some Indian men to try groping women (especially western women) in public. We even purchased traditional Indian salwar kameez outfits, which hide the shape of your body, to try and discourage any attention, but with our light skin and my blonde hair we still stand out.

Me, trying to get some sleep while people hover nearby

Me, trying to get some sleep while people hover nearby

For the night train back to Kolkata we were in sleeper class…we had thought 2nd class was a bit rough around the edges, but we had no idea! The bunk configuration in sleeper class was similar to 2nd class, however in sleeper class the bunks were stacked 3 high, there were no curtains, no privacy, no sheets or pillows, no AC and it was sticky hot! To top it off no one seemed to be checking tickets and there were way more people than there were seats…people were sitting everywhere and the aisles were packed! Sherri and I had the upper and lower bunk that ran lengthwise along the aisle. We both sat together on the lower bunk and didn’t slide the upper bunk down so that we had space to sit up. Several times we had people come by and try to unhatch the bunk above our heads. We had to explain over and over that we had paid for both bunks and just because we weren’t currently occupying one did not mean we were giving it up…we got a lot of blank stares but we stood our ground. Due to the openness of the bunks, our location right on the aisle, our experience with the teenage boy earlier that day and the constant flow of people getting on and off the train we decided it wasn’t safe to sleep as we could easily be groped or robbed. But we were too tired to stay up all night so we decided to sleep in shifts…I went to sleep first but woke up when a fight broke out right next to us…one guy totally beat two guys up! He was slamming one guys head into the bathroom wall and shouting…it was crazy. Eventually things settled back down and I tried to get some sleep.

Around 3am Sherri woke me up…it was my turn to stand guard so she could try to get some sleep. I wrote in my journal and stared out the window as dawn began to break. The chai vendors would jump on the train at each stop, stepping over people in the aisle calling out “chai, chai, chai”. For only 5 rupees (about 12 cents) you get a little plastic shot glass of chai. It tastes sooo good and helped me to stay awake. The train was supposed to arrive in Kolkata around 8am, however we didn’t arrive until 11:30am! It was so hot by that time and the journey ended up being over 17 hours! We were soooooooo happy to get off that train! Sleeper class should be renamed, as one actually gets very little sleep on it.