Archive from March, 2012

I heart Cambodia PART ONE

Mar 12, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cambodia, Cori's blogs, Where two now?

(By Cori) After lounging on Thai beaches for a while, around mid-December we figured a plan was needed for the upcoming holidays and so we decided to head into Cambodia, where prices were bound to be cheaper even in the high season.

Spoiler alert…we loved Cambodia!! We stayed from December 19 to January 6 and could’ve stayed longer, or long-term for that matter. For a country with such a painful past (and a quite recent one at that), we were overwhelmed by the richness of its history and the warmth of its people. We decided on a basic travel route from Bangkok to Siem Reap, then Battambang, Phnom Penh, Kep and on to Vietnam. But more on that later!  Our border crossing story is below, as well as highlights of our time in the first two stops…a part two post will follow shortly.


Bangkok to Siem Reap: a train ride and border scam

There is always a bit of anxiety associated with border crossings, as you never can be quite sure what to believe about how to get to, across, and away from borders. It usually requires several transportation combinations as well as vigilance to not fall prey to phony money changers, bribe-seeking officials, taxi touts, etc. After 10 months on the road, we were confident about crossing from Thailand to Cambodia and well informed/prepared about what we’d need to do. No matter what, I’ve found that border crossings tend to be associated with long days, longer lines, lots of carbs, a bit of frustration, a bit more inefficiency, and ultimately a sense of “there has to be a better way to do this.” That being said, our experience was fairly smooth but in retrospect, is also a sort of funny and typical travel tale. Read on for a taste of what we consistently seem to go through…

We left our guesthouse in Bangkok early enough that we needed to wake the staff member sleeping on the lobby floor and have her unlock the front gate.  We then hailed a taxi off the street to go to the train station, after insisting that the taxi driver use the meter (as they are technically required to do) instead of randomly charging us a high tourist rate. Arriving early, we quickly stocked up on crucial travel snacks like bread, peanut butter and water at the station’s mini-mart and splurged on some DELICIOUS freshly made waffles for breakfast.  Yum. Like fried dough, but it felt way healthier since it was in a waffle shape. I had two. On the train we were crammed into very hard and very straight-backed chair/benches (2 people facing 2 people) with an open window for fresh/hot air. The ride was about 4 hours, which wasn’t too bad but sitting the way we were our backs were killing us by the time it was over.

When we got off the train several tuk tuk drivers swarmed around us, offering to take us to the border for about $2-$3. We had read warnings in our guidebooks and heard from others that tuk tuks often take foreigners to a ‘false border’ where they try to sell you a Cambodian visa at an inflated price, so we were on guard. But our driver (a young woman) seemed sincere and nice and took us to an official looking building with many staff members in uniforms who were helpfully shuttling us into the office to get a visa. My first red flag was when the man inside immediately gave us forms to fill out for our visa and I asked what about the Thailand exit stamp (since that always comes first) and he looked a bit taken aback and then said if we wanted he would take us there first and then come back for the visa. What?! That made no sense. Then I asked how much the Cambodian visa was and he quoted a ridiculous price so we immediately knew that we were in the middle of a scam so we got up, loudly said no way, and walked out, warning others on the way that this was NOT the official border. Obviously no one tried to stop us or deny that this wasn’t the official exit/entry point.  How annoying. We were especially irritated (and a bit impressed) with how comprehensive and slick the scam was with the official uniforms and all. Still felt like suckers for falling for it after all the warnings. Argh.

So we walked 5 min more down the road and found the correct official Thailand exit post and line to wait in. Some Cambodian guy who ‘looked’ official (baseball cap and some sort of nametag worn around his neck) asked us where we were from and made a big deal out of shouting “AMERICA!! I KNOW SOMEONE IN CALIFORNIA!!! GOOD COUNTRY!!” and then insisted on personally walking us across the street to the Cambodian entry point which was highly unnecessary but he was super friendly and seemed to want to help.  Even so, Brandyn and I wanted to ditch him…friendly people near borders are never to be trusted (see how jaded we’ve become!) and we didn’t want to face an awkward situation where he would ask for a tip for walking us across the street and giving us information we already knew.

Anyway, the entry point officials charged us the correct fee for a visa $20 USD each but then stuck on an extra 200 baht (for themselves presumably). No explanation, just a matter-of-fact “this is the fee” even though it wasn’t documented anywhere in the office. Oh well, nothing we could do so we paid it. Visa in hand we waited in yet another line to get our entry stamp and YAY we were legally in Cambodia.

Unsurprisingly, our friendly California-loving-official-looking guy was outside waiting for us and led us to a free shuttle bus to go to the bus station (again, unnecessary because the bus was like 50 feet away and its existence wasn’t exactly a secret). Arriving at the bus station our new friend was chatting away about where to change our Thai baht to US dollars (the currency used in Cambodia), and other helpful tidbits.  To get to Siem Reap our options were to pay $9 each for a bus that would take 4 hours, or pay $12 each for a taxi that would take 2 hours, would leave immediately, and would take us directly to our hotel. Yep, we chose the taxi. We met a nice Australian man and his daughter when we were in one of the lines so we decided to share a taxi with them. When our departure was imminent, our helper (who turned out to be a volunteer at the border who helps tourists get oriented) asked for a tip and when Brandyn gave him a dollar he literally was over the moon. We felt a little bit like jerks for trying to get rid of him earlier and thinking he was trying to con us.  This was our first official introduction to the genuine warmth of the Cambodian people.


Siem Reap: awe-inspiring ancient ruins meet a touristy backpacker haven

We stayed in Siem Reap for 4 nights and really enjoyed our experience. It has a pretty developed tourist infrastructure due to the fact that EVERYONE comes here and uses the town as a base to explore the nearby Angkor temples. Yeah, its touristy…lots of people selling souvenirs in the streets, night markets, “Pub Street” which is filled with bars and restaurants, tuk tuk drivers asking to drive you somewhere every second…but who cares? It was a nice and comfortable base to explore the area and introduce us to Cambodia. Highlights of our stay there include:

The temples of Angkor: So this is the reason everyone goes to Siem Reap. To paraphrase Lonely Planet, Wikipedia and a few other websites, Angkor (which means city) was the capital of the powerful Khmer empire from the 9th to 13th century and ruled a huge territory. Hundreds of temples were built during this time. They were (are) architectural masterpieces and there is immense Cambodian pride in these ruins. The one you may have heard of is Angkor Wat, the principal temple which is HUGE and is like a labyrinth with beautiful towers and it is nearly impossible to believe it was built by hand. Wow. But my favorite was Bayon, which has enormous stone faces on its towers. It also was one of the temples we visited early in the day so we were practically alone crawling all around the temple and exploring. I also loved Ta Prohm which had big old trees that had grown up and over and through the ruins. We had a LONG day of temple viewing – from sunrise to 1pm and after 8 hours of traipsing through temple after temple we started to get cranky and HOT. But they were super impressive and nothing we have seen since (in terms of ruins) even comes close.

Meeting Sam, our tuk tuk driver: We met Sam on our first night in Siem Reap when we were feasting on fresh shrimp spring rolls and 50 cent draft beers at an outdoor restaurant. He was sitting on his tuk tuk waiting for customers and struck up a conversation with us. He was clearly super proud of Cambodia and of his town and told us about Siem Reap and about the temples. He then, unexpectedly, started talking about the Khmer Rouge and how his family was impacted by their terrible regime. How his mother’s family was separated and his aunts are in France but they lost contact and now have no idea where they are or how to find them. He was matter-of-fact, super sincere and seemed to genuinely want to share information about Cambodia with us. Also, he had just about the best wide grin I’d ever seen. We were happy to spend the night chatting with him and then asked him to be our tuk tuk driver to explore the Angkor temples the following day.

Fish foot massage: Okay, so this is a kinda silly Cambodian memory since it could’ve happened in any other country I suppose. What’s the fish foot massage? A big tank filled with tiny fish (like fat goldfish sized) and cushioned benches around the tank where you sit and dangle your feet in and let the fish eat your dead skin. Sounds fun, right? Our feet were disgusting after so much sandal-wearing on dusty roads and we were in serious need of some foot treatment so after dinner one night when we were walking back to our guesthouse we finally said YES to one of the kids on the street trying to get our business at the massage place. The first second putting your foot in the water is a bit weird since you don’t know quite what to expect and then the fish just swarm around you and start nibbling! It felt ticklish for sure, but once you got over that it felt like tiny, rough (sandpaper rough), pinches and it didn’t feel bad or good. It just was. It was fun to watch them though and to see what part of your foot they went for (seemed to prefer toes, not so much into the calluses on our heels). Half hour massage for $3 and lots of fun pictures was a pretty decent way to end our night.

Silk farm tour: One day we visited Artisans d’Angkor, an artisan vocational training institution, that was originally founded to support and promote Khmer art and culture, and provide jobs to rural youth who were interested in traditional crafts. The grounds are filled with workshops where you can see the artisans in action with their wood carvings, stonework, silk painting, and other crafts. The showroom was GORGEOUS and filled with beautiful textiles and statues and amazingly beautiful and high quality art, nothing of which was appropriate to buy on our backpacker budget. They offered a free shuttle bus to a nearby silk farm where they make their silk for their products. I jumped at the opportunity, leaving Brandyn behind since he had zero interest. Long story short, I was blown away by the tour. The guide walked us through the whole silk making process which was incredibly interesting and gave me an even deeper appreciation for the work that goes into making natural-dyed handwoven silk products. I know that cloth doesn’t come out of thin air, but to actually see the process is eye-opening. I saw silk worms, and learned that they are fed mulberry tree leaves and then spin (silk) cocoons and then are put in the sun to dry out and then the cocoons are put in hot water and strands are pulled off the cocoons with some contraption to make thread and then they are dyed and then woven into gorgeous scarves, shirts, etc. It is such a manual and detail-oriented process and watching the men and women working in the silk factory was just amazing.  Seeing a finished product in the showroom and knowing it started with an ugly worm making its cocoon was a great souvenir for me to take with me.

Discovering fish amok: This is a classic Cambodian dish that we randomly ordered one night in a Khmer restaurant, figuring we had to try it, and it was, happily, DELICIOUS! Fish amok is made from chunks of white fish (or you can get prawns or chicken instead) that are cooked with coconut milk, kaffir lime, chilies, galangal (like ginger) lemongrass, and a few other things and then served in a bowl made of banana leaves. The taste is rich and creamy and so good and unlike any combination of flavors I’ve ever had. Such a great find.

Battambang: a boat ride and a Christmas celebration

You can get to Battambang from Siem Reap by bus (4 hours) or by boat (8 hours). We chose the boat. AHHHH! WHYYY?? Well, it was supposed to be a very scenic ride through narrow waterways and floating villages so we thought it would be interesting. Brandyn is much more into boats than I am, I tend to get bored of them after an hour, but I figured it wasn’t too big of a deal. We had heard that the boats uphold ZERO international safety standards so I was a bit nervous about overcrowding and drowning and those fun things, but we made it through okay. It actually was an okay ride. Good points – passing through floating villages, literally boats and structures that were houses and schools and stores and waving at the little kids along the way. Oh, and the little baby sitting next to us was super cute. Bad points – the hard wooden benches we were sitting on, our proximity to the engine so the noise and smell was overpowering, the man near us that had not one, but TWO seizures while on the boat so we had to helplessly watch his wife and other locals try to revive him by scratching him with their nails and then rubbing tiger balm in the cuts.

Arriving in Battambang we met a nice tuk tuk driver who spoke excellent English.  (“Call me Tea like the drink” he said when we asked what his name was, but I think its spelled Ty). He took us to Lux Guesthouse, a Cambodian owned/run place that had large, lovely rooms for only $11 a night. Yay! We immediately liked the vibe in Battambang. Though its Cambodia’s second largest city it has the feel of a sleepy little town.  There were lots of restaurants around and everything within walking distance, so we felt comfortable.

What did we do in Battambang? A lot centered around things we saw while with Ty, who on two separate days rode us around in his tuk tuk to local places of interest, made all the more interesting by his commentary and explanations, and the beautiful countryside filled with rice paddies, and small villages with houses on stilts. Notable standouts include…

Riding the bamboo train: This literally was a bamboo platform with a small engine on it that runs along the railroad tracks and can quickly be stopped and dismantled and moved if a real train is coming (or another bamboo train) from the opposite direction. Apparently it was ingeniously invented by locals to get to places faster while using existing train track infrastructure. Riding on it was SO FAST so bumpy, even though we were only going like 30 km/hr it felt faster since we were so close to the rails, and each break in the tracks made it feel like we were going to go flying off into the nearby rice paddies.

Learning how rice paper and rice noodles are made: Ty stopped the tuk tuk at a few seemingly random houses that he knew of where the families made rice paper and rice noodles. So cool to see in person how they make the foods we’ve been eating nearly every day and it was yet another reminder of how important rice is to the lives of Cambodians. Rice paper is made from a ground rice/water mixture that is the consistency of thin pancake batter that is spread in a thin circle onto a piece of fabric stretched tight over a boiling water pot, and then once cooked (just a few seconds) is quickly taken off and placed onto a woven bamboo rack and left to dry. It dries hard and with a neat criss-cross pattern, but then you just dip it in water quickly to get it to be soft again (like if you want to make spring rolls). Rice noodles are similar. The rice dough is pressed through some ancient looking lever machine and comes out in spaghetti-ish shapes and then are quickly put in cool water.

Visiting the Killing Caves: This was a solemn experience, but a very important one in terms of introducing us to the terrors of the Khmer Rouge and helping us slowly begin to see what the country had been through. Ty took us to a hill called Phnom Sampeau which we climbed up and first admired several temples (as well as fed bananas to some hungry and friendly monkeys). The hill is also the home of the killing caves, where thousands of innocent Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge. It was extremely gruesome, people were brought to the top of the caves, and then bludgeoned to death or had their throats slit and were pushed down the skylight into a deep cave. A few memorials were set up, with skulls and bones displayed in glass cases, and there were still some small pieces of bone and clothing in the area. So horrible to think about and just standing there and picturing the atrocities that had occurred there literally made our stomachs turn. Barbaric. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that all of this had happened after I had been born. Did my parents know about it? Did the world know?  This was just the beginning lesson to a lot of education about the Khmer Rouge during our time in Cambodia.

Seeing an amazing acrobatic performance: So we wanted to go to this “circus” in Battambang that I think is misnamed/mismarketed. The actual Cambodian name is Phare Ponleu Selpak and it is an NGO that helps disadvantaged Cambodian youth learn a range of artistic skills such as painting, acrobatics, theater, music, etc. as well as traditional educational subjects. The organization is quite renowned and has sent several of its students on to Cirque du Soleil. They put on performances a few times a week to raise money for the organization (and hone their skills) and the one we went to blew us away!! Not exactly the dancing bear circus that the name suggests. The performers were ages 16-24 and so talented…there was a 3-student band providing a musical background to a high-energy, well choreographed acrobatics show. These kids were juggling, balancing, and doing crazy acrobatics literally just like Cirque de Soleil. Great showmanship and just fantastic entertainment.  After a tiring and mentally exhausting day at the Killing Caves, it was quite a contrast and very inspiring to see young Cambodians with so much energy and talent and clearly living life to the fullest.

Taking a cooking class: On Christmas morning we took a cooking class offered at a nearby restaurant called “The Smokin’ Pot”. There were 8 of us in total and we first went with the chef to the local market to buy fresh ingredients, which was such fun. The market is run by women, all of whom have small stalls on the inside or designated areas on the ground outside where they squat and sell their wares. The chef explained all of the ingredients (some of which didn’t look the way I had pictured them – like lemongrass), and we got to see him bargaining with all of the women for what he wanted. Definitely an experience! We got back to the restaurant and were quickly put to work chopping veggies, grinding spices and such in a giant mortar and pestle and then we moved on to individual work stations/stoves to cook up (and eat) three yummy dishes. We made fish amok, and two other spicy ones that I forget the names of but will remember soon enough since they gave us a recipe book which I sent home.  After our disastrous cooking ‘class’ in India we finally felt redeemed, and got a little bit excited about future dinner parties once we get back to Brooklyn.

Exchanging ‘secret Santa’ gifts: Since it was Christmas after all, we decided to do our own version of “secret Santa” and gave ourselves a $5 and 30 minute limit to buy each other a Christmas gift which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Battambang isn’t a very tourist-oriented town so there weren’t any souvenir shops and the dozens of hardware, electronics and clothing stores didn’t quite have anything appropriate. FINALLY I found a small handicrafts place and bought a pair of bamboo wood chopsticks (which we had been admiring in several restaurants), a loofah made of Cambodian natural products (Brandyn loves them), and then as a final touch, I bought an Angry Birds keychain from a street vendor (we’ve become obsessed with the game on this trip). I was pretty happy with myself! I got back to the hotel and Brandyn was grinning, saying that he got a great gift for me but it wouldn’t be ready for him to pick up until 5pm. Hmmmmm. So that night we went to happy hour at a nearby restaurant and began the gift exchange. I had wrapped my gifts in plastic bags (classy) and Brandyn loved them. Yay! Then he handed me his gift, wrapped in his scarf. It was rectangular and hard…I had no idea what it could be. Then I took off the scarf and saw the back of a picture frame. Oh cool, I thought, he bought some art! I flipped the frame around and couldn’t believe it…I was staring at a professional totally air-brushed photo of Brandyn wearing his bright red Kingfisher beer muscle shirt, doing a double thumbs-up, and standing in front of a wrought iron balcony with fake smoke all around. At the bottom of the photo were the words “Merry Christ Mas 2011 Battambang Cambodia”. LOVED IT!!! We had been passing by tons of photo shops in Cambodia and all of them had these ridiculously posed and overly airbrushed photos of couples and individuals in front of outrageous backgrounds. Like a senior high school photo gone wrong. So Brandyn had played along and gotten a portrait and although it was all really was a big joke to him, he and the staff at the photo store had taken it very seriously  and took about 30 shots of him. Brandyn doesn’t want me to post a big picture of him but I DO have a digital copy so if you want to see it let me know and I’ll share it.

India part 1 of 2

Mar 12, 2012 by     2 Comments    Posted under: Brandyn's blogs, India, Uncategorized, Where two now?, Where we've been

This is India

Leaving Zanzibar
Hello Delhi
Jaipur, the Pink City
Udaipur, home of the Octopussy
Jodhpur, The Blue City
Buying Train Tickets 101
Jalgaon and the Ajanta Caves
The Ellora Caves and Aurangabad

Leaving Zanzibar

Leaving Zanzibar has to be difficult for anyone. I was gutted to be leaving. It had been the best place we’d visited on the trip so far. Jambiani was quiet, peaceful, clean, and the people were lovely. We were leaving on an Oman Airlines flight that went to New Delhi via Dar es Salaam with a healthy layover in Muscat, Oman. The airport in Zanzibar was not much more than a few runways with a ramshackle building out front. Our ticket, fortunately, included the $30 departure tax from Zanzibar. In total the flight was around $420 per person.

I had read that Oman Airlines was supposed to be one of the nicest in the world. Maybe it was the planes that we were on, but I couldn’t see why Oman Airlines had such a great reputation. There was very little leg room and the airplane didn’t have screens on the seatbacks in front of us. The airport in Muscat has got to be one of the most beautiful airports in the world. It was modern and very luxurious. I was reading the in flight magazine and it said that Oman has one of the strongest currencies in the world. It is called the Rial and is around $2.5USD for 1 Rial. When we were in the airport the prices stunned me, the Rial is split into thousands rather than hundreds. So a magazine on the shelf cost 2.125 Rials. I couldn’t see how a currency which is split into thousandths could be stronger than other currencies, but…

India is a massive country it roughly 1/3 the size of the United States with almost four times the population. You can see from the map below where we visited in seven weeks. I will do my best in this blog to not generalize too much about a country we only visited for a brief time in which we barely scratched the surface. In this blog I’m sure that I will switch back and forth between Rupees and Dollars. 50 Rupees is approximately USD$1.

View Where we’ve been in a larger map

Hello Delhi

We arrived to the last of the monsoon rains on an early September morning. We booked a hotel room that had free airport pickup (which I’d highly recommend to anyone entering though Delhi). The driver was waiting for us past the customs gate on time. The bags were stuffed behind us between the backseat and the hatchback. About 3 minutes into the drive and five minutes into our trip to India we were rear-ended. Glass shattered all over us and spilled into the miniature Tata. We drifted into the intersection while our driver got out had a few words to the man who hit us; which was a large military vehicle with a uniformed man behind the wheel. The military man shoved some Rupees in the hands of our driver and motioned for him to bugger off.

The whole ordeal was done in maybe one minute. Rain was drenching us from the hole where the rear window had just been. Cori and I were like baboons grooming, peeling glass shards from our clothes and hair. The weird thing about it was that no one seemed to care. We didn’t get an ‘are you okay?’ which I thought was standard anywhere in the world after a car accident. It was around a 30 minute drive to the hotel. The men at the desk were lovely and we checked into a windowless with aircon, hot water, and cable television for $20 a night. When we told the front desk men about our accident he simply said, ‘I heard, the driver must do ten more pickups today.’

We napped a bit. Waking and feeling hungover from lack of sleep and sore from the accident we ordered some room service. Behind Mexican food, Indian food comes in a very close second. Mexican food has a huge advantage over Indian food in that bad Mexican food is never that bad, bad Indian food can ruin days. We finally had enough energy and courage to leave the room.

We established a rule within the first few days in India that we would have to try everything and not just get sick of the same Indian food that we already knew. The menus in India were different from those in the states. There was no translation and for the first few days we’d just go with what sounded good. I remember thinking Vegetable Jalfrezi sounds fun to say. It has to be fun to eat. It was awesome. We stayed vegetarian in India and didn’t eat anything raw to prevent getting food poisoning aka ‘the Delhi belly.’

Our hotel was either affiliated with or was owned by a travel agency; which made it awkward to not book anything with them. We were shuffled across the street to the tourism office to have a glass of welcome chai. The men who operated the tourist office were smooth. They told us that because we were tired and hadn’t slept well on the plane, it seemed like a good idea for us to get an aircon taxi to take us to a few sites around the city; not wasting the day entirely. They knew their routine a little too well.

We saw Humayun Tomb, the Presidential Palace, the India Gate, and our first Hindu temple. We paid around 200 Rupees for a driver and the taxi for three hours. The first thing that I couldn’t get over was the heat. It was so hot and so sticky. I felt like I was wearing a sweat suit while a hot shower was running. I was dripping sweat. When I looked around me, I couldn’t believe that no one else seemed to be sweating. Indian families were dressed in long pants and button down shirts without a drop of sweat on them. I was and still am amazed that no one sweat.

The entrance fee for foreigners is 250 Rupees while for Indians it is 10 Rupees. I don’t have a problem with paying more to see heritage sights, but the mentality of a lot of people goes beyond tourist attractions. A lot of people we would later encounter seemed to think that we, being foreign, were made of money and that we should pay more for everything.

Humanyun Tomb was pretty magnificent. It is nearly as big as the Taj Mahal and was built within a century of Machu Picchu but was incredibly well maintained. A cleverly named building, the tomb houses the body of Humanyun, a mogul emperor. The most interesting piece of architecture which I’d first seen in Zanzibar but would see throughout India was the presence of lattice work. These reflect the story of the Prophet Mohammed escaping the holy city of Mecca to go to Medina. Spiders had cast webs in front of a cave in which Mohammed was hiding; their enemies thought there was no way that they could be inside. The lattice work is tribute to this story and is on many buildings whom have an association with Islam.

The India gate was built after World War Two and is reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe on a street much like the Champs de Elysee ending in the Presidential Palace. Food vendors, balloon salesmen, and toy hawkers all vied for our attention and our Rupees. Indian children played with one another while Indian couples walked within a few meters of one another. The sun had begun to set on our first day in Delhi. I wanted to hug and kiss Cori and congratulate her on a new chapter of our adventure, but respecting local customs, I gave her a pat on the back instead. A pat on the back would be my way of showing her public affection that day and for the weeks to come.

The next day we decided that we were going to take the New Delhi Metro around and see some of the sites in the old city. The guys from our hotel’s tourist office told us not to trust anyone. They didn’t try to sell us a tour through the old city so that made me trust them more. It is never comforting to be told not to trust some anyone by someone you don’t trust. We took the immaculately clean metro a few stops and managed to transfer trains without any trouble at all. The maps were very well detailed, the speakers were audible, and the system made sense (all the things the New York Metro does not, and if we can master that, Delhi was a cake walk). The old part of town we emerged at was absolutely maddening. The air was frothing with heat and stench. We had walked from the cleanest part of Delhi (the metro) to one that until then we’d only read about. After walking a few hundred meters to the Red Fort, we stood on the side of the road waiting to cross. We stood for few minutes waiting for some kind of a break in traffic. There was no way that we were going make it across. A man with his hair dyed bright orange helped us to cross the street. He wasn’t the Good Samaritan that we hoped, but a cycle rickshaw driver who was poaching us for business.

After the magnificence of Humayun’s Tomb the Red Fort was mildly disappointing. Visiting old buildings which have little to no historical significance for me feels mundane. I should have really done much more homework before visiting the sights. I’m sure would have made them much more memorable for me. I’ve always appreciated natural beauty far more than any building could ever offer. I knew that we were going to visit Nepal after India we’d get our fix for natural beauty soon enough.

When we exited, the orange haired man was waiting for us. He showed us a bunch of business cards with recommendations written on them. He wanted for us to ‘not pay until the end, and only pay if we were happy.’ We knew better and settled on a price of 150 Rupees for the two of us for 1-2 hours. For anyone thinking that this was an exploitative rate and that we should have paid more figure this: we booked an air-conditioned taxi from a tourist agency for 4 hours for 200 Rupees with no negotiating. We felt 150 was a very fair price. It was really cool weaving in and out of the old city on the rickshaw.

Our first stop was to the Muslim area of town. We were going to visit the largest mosque in India but decided against it when they wouldn’t let us in with our camera. We took a few pictures from the entrance of the mosque at the city below. It was absolute insanity to see. We dined at the world famous Karim’s which was incredible. Watching everyone else eat was the best part of the meal. There were no utensils and eating with your left hand is taboo. We watched a man eat gracefully with his right hand tearing the naan (bread) and scooping the gravy. We now had a model of how we should be eating. Over time eating with our hands grew on us. I still love eating Indian food with my hands and was more than happy to demonstrate my skill to any local who watched me eat.

Our new orange haired friend was winding us through some of the narrowest roads I’d ever seen. We passed through the wedding dress district the spice district and got to see a city block in which a man housed over 300 of his harem. I was happy that we’d hired the man, there was no way I would have wanted to walk through any of those streets. He took us to his ‘friend’s’ spice shop. After being shown every kind of spice in the place we felt like we had to buy some overpriced cashews, so the orange man could get his commission.

Everything in India comes back to commission. It is such an ugly system in India and made us skittish against anyone. It seemed like everyone had a friend who was selling something that they wanted to introduce us to. Rickshaw drivers would intentionally lie to us to bring us to stores instead of our intended destination. They would tell us that the hotel we were staying at were thieves and that we should go with them. All the while it just made us want to do shopping on our own to find a much better deal.

We asked to be let off by the metro station and paid the man. He looked shocked that we would have only given him the amount that we agreed on. Orange head told me that it was 150 per person not for the two of us. We had him tell us three times before we got in the rickshaw that it was for the two of us. I knew that even the smallest of confrontations would result in a number of onlookers. I started shouting at him and trying to make him lose face as a crowd gathered. I told him that he wasn’t a man and that we shook on our agreement. After a minute or two of this I threw another 50 Rupees at his face and walked away. This was how 90% of our trip in India went. I wanted to start recording our negotiations with anyone before agreeing to anything, but for some reason only recorded one such negotiation. Watching it in hindsight is ridiculous.

It was our second anniversary, so we decided to go out for a nice dinner at Qba (pronounced Cuba). I got a vegetarian Middle Eastern dish and Cori got a chicken dish. Her chicken was raw on the inside. They offered no apologies, no refund, or exchange. We spend $34 on a fancy dinner that was worth about $3.

One thing that is really terrible about every sales person that we encountered in India was that they were your best friend until you bought something. We were offered tea many times from the travel agency at our hotel. The guys were super nice and were tried to convince us that for just $50 per day we could have a personal driver take us all around Rajasthan. After doing the math for one minute we decided that sounded like the worst thing we’d ever heard. We very kindly told him that we were not interested but would book a train ticket from them to Jaipur instead. The guy who was trying to sell us the tickets just vanished and started watching television in the back. We didn’t have any idea what to do next so we sat there for a minute or two until I asked someone else working what we were supposed to do. They told us to come back at six that afternoon. A few days later in Jaipur, I bought Cori a purse; I bargained and joked with the man for about 5 minutes until he reluctantly agreed to part with the purse for a more than fair price. Before I even got out the money, he stopped giving me eye contact and started texting on the phone. When we said thank you and goodbye, we got nothing in return.

For pictures from Delhi please click HERE

Jaipur, the Pink City

The train ride to Jaipur was a surprisingly nice, uneventful, and nearly empty this ride unfortunately set the train travel bar high for us. It seems like every city in India has a nickname and Jaipur’s nickname is ‘The Pink City.’ It is called this because the majority of the city was painted pink in 1876 to welcome Prince Albert. We stayed at a very simple guesthouse which online said that they do not pay commissions to rickshaw drivers. Because no commissions were paid the rickshaw drivers didn’t like the place; online stated that drivers would say that it had burned down or that it was sold out. Upon arrival we got a rickshaw and when we were leaving the driver told us, ‘don’t trust the people there, they are bad people,’ ‘okay rickshaw guy’. We had a family room that was massive and built for four. The people at the guesthouse were really friendly and we were happy to stay there.

Jaipur was supposed to be a shopper’s heaven which inevitably meant that I would be going to ‘stores’ with Cori. Shopping in India is not much different than in the rest of Asia. There is usually a street lined with shops where the proprietors live above. Entire streets will be selling the same thing. If you want a carburetor for your motorbike, you would go to Carburetor Street. Then if you need a lock for your backpack, you’d go to Lock Street. There are literally dozens of places selling the exact same things right next to one another. The streets will be named what the people are selling (in Hindi).

We managed to get a rickshaw driver to take us to the Monkey Temple then into the city center for around $3. The walk to the Monkey Temple was really neat. The temple itself was nothing special but the view from the top was pretty incredible. On our walk down men with bags of bananas were whistling and calling to the monkeys. The monkeys gently took the bananas and ran to the side of the road. This put my mind at ease with monkeys. All my previous experience had been anxiety filled and worrisome.

Jaipur was in no way the poorest place that we would visit in India it was the first time that poverty threw itself at us. It isn’t the poverty that is bothersome to me. A number of the people in South America were poor, but, they were smiling and almost always clean; in Africa and Asia the same. But looking down at the city of Jaipur was the first time of many that we’d get a bird’s eye view of appalling conditions that were normal there. People were living too close to their own filth. On every street corner men were pissing, and the whole place reeked of human waste.

A reoccurring and unfortunate happenstance was the begging. When we would be sitting in rickshaws, women would touch our arms and pull on our shirts. Children would tell us that their parents were dead (although one time the rickshaw driver called the kid out on it and he smiled and walked away). Everyone would make the same motion. They would put their four fingers and thumb together like they were squeezing something small with the tips of each digit, make a super sad face, and motion for the hand to the mouth; on many occasions it would be followed with the beggar saying chipati chipati (which means unleavened flat bread unleavened flat bread).

Our driver said that for an extra 50 Rupees we could go and see the elephants and the Water Temple. We agreed and told our driver before agreeing to go with him that we weren’t going to do any shopping and not to take us anywhere to buy us anything, so we thought we had nothing to worry about. Along the way we stopped at a few ‘factories’. The first was at a jewelry store which made their own goods off site but had a few craftsmen outside to demonstrate how it was done. There was little pressure (by Indian standards) to buy. We had them give us their card and told them that our rickshaw driver didn’t tell us that we were going shopping so we didn’t bring any money (of course loud enough for him to hear), and that if we wanted anything that we’d come back later. Next we went to a block print ‘factory’ which was a multi-storied building with extremely pushy salespeople. After not asking, but being shown, about 15 different bed-sheets I again said to the salesmen, ‘I didn’t want to go shopping, talk my rickshaw driver about wasting your time.’ We were yelled at by multiple people for walking out of the store instead of walking all of the way through it. The elephants were tied up on the side of the highway so we opted not to visit them. The water temple was incomplete and was surrounded by swarming with children performing magic for Rupees.

I know that I previously said that I didn’t really like seeing old buildings, but the Amer Fort was an exception. I was blown away by how huge it was. This was the first sight that we were able to see in India without having to hire a driver. We got on the local bus, paid something like 60 Rupees for the two of us and were there in less than an hour. One thing we experienced everywhere we went which is really funny is that people stare. It isn’t a subtle check you out kind of a thing; it is a full on stare. If we were to look back at the people doing the staring, they wouldn’t look away bashfully like you’d expect; they would continue staring. It wasn’t at all threatening, but weird and uncomfortable. We really lucked out at the Fort that day; it wasn’t at all busy so we were able to get some great pictures.

Another thing that is vastly different between North America and Europe versus the rest of the world is the freedom to roam. At almost any historical landmark it was possible to wander freely wherever we’d like without any kind of safety railing or warning signs. Inside the Fort we wandered freely, while meandering about without any kind of direction or warning at all. The Fort itself was the highlight of Jaipur for me (which was because I’m sure because there weren’t many people there).

We visited Iswari Minar Swarga Sal otherwise known as the Heaven Piercing Minaret. The nicest person we’d met on our trip so far offered to walk us up to the top and give us some history about it. I retained very little about the history of the Minaret because Cori and I kept on whispering back and forth to one another worrying that we’d have to pay the man. It was not a nice feeling to worry about having to pay someone a dollar or two when in hindsight it was a really nice and passionate man showing us around.

While we were in Jaipur we met up with our friends Richard and Linda. We’d met them on our Africa trip. The first time Linda wasn’t feeling well and had gotten sick in Varanasi. The next time all four of us met up for dinner we were served beer in a teapot. Many of the restaurants serve beer this way because they’re legally not supposed to be selling. It was really great getting to talk with them about India and how they felt about it. They’d been in country for a week or so longer than us. We spoke about the head bobble, the staring, and pushy people. They had described things perfectly when they said that it at times felt ‘assaulting.’

For pictures from Jaipur please click HERE


We took a bus from Jaipur to Pushkar. It was supposed to be around 4 hours but ended up being around 6.5. The road conditions were appalling. It was a flat road that wasn’t too busy and didn’t gain much in altitude. Like most of the roads we traveled on, road maintenance was simply ignored until it was in a state of disrepair. Pushkar has visitors from all around the world who bathe from the lake’s ghats (steps into the water) to cleanse sins and cure skin diseases. We arrived in Pushkar and my first observation was the amount of flies everywhere. This town had the most amount of flies I’d ever seen, anywhere. Luckily we stayed at a hotel with a swimming pool and could avoid the flies by being in the water.

We did some walking around the city. It was quant, but most of the people trying to hawk things on the street were very pushy. As a rule, I avoid the pushy ones and go directly to the people who are more like people. The first rule to being a good sales person is to first gain trust then sell. I bought a really cool Ganesha notebook from a great guy named Pradeep who had the sales technique I liked. We’re still Facebook friends today.

One night in Pushkar, Cori and I decided that we’d go on a date to try to try and make up for our bogus anniversary. I said that we’d have a 250 Rupee ($5) budget for new outfits for us both before going out. It was a fun challenge and an opportunity for Cori to venture out on her own and not be ignored (more on her being invisible later). I bought a cool hand screened shirt and a pair of green linen pants while Cori bought a couple of nice dresses. We’d heard from a couple staying at our hotel that ‘The Hard Rock Café’ was a good place for dinner, so we checked it out. The food was mediocre and the proprietor decided to sit down with us for most of the meal. It would have been a cool experience had the conversation not seemed rehearsed, had it not been our second chance at an anniversary, and we got some time to respond to what the guy was saying instead of just listening to the guy ramble for a long time. We’re really going to have to have a big third anniversary celebration to make up for the last two failed attempts.

After dinner on our way back to the hotel, I managed to step in a hot, fresh, steaming pile of cow shit, so fresh flies hadn’t begun to swarm yet. My foot melted into the hot pie and my mood with it. A local guy starting singing in the loudest of voices, ‘ONLYYYYY IN INDIAAAAAA.’ I remembered when we were in Ecuador we’d met a couple who said that it takes three weeks for you to forget everything and realize that you’re in India. It had been only a week and a half and I’d had it. I remember telling Cori something along the lines of, ‘India has stolen my smile from me and taken away my happiness.’ I was ready to, at that point, cut my losses and get out of there. I think in my rage even suggested that I just leave India and meet up with Cori later. I was in a blackout from disappointment and rage.

The next day before leaving Cori wanted to stop by the shop that she’d purchased her outfit the night before to see if there was anything else she wanted. We were immediately sat down inside of the shop for chai. By this time we’d grown mildly addicted to chai. It is an outstanding mix of spices, tea, milk, and ginger. If you’ve had the chai from Starbuck’s, you have no idea what I’m talking about; that is an over-Americanized flavor combination that is good for people with a sweet tooth. After the cup of tea and before it was time for Cori to shop the plastic cups were tossed into the street right in front of the store. It is impossible for me to try and describe what it is like, being from the West, to see someone litter, especially in such close proximity to they’re store; is insanity. The entire time I had a scrap of plastic from a water bottle I opened two days ago in my pocket that was waiting for a garbage can I couldn’t find. We have a crass expression where I’m from which goes, ‘do not shit where you eat.’ This was the perfect example of just that. I have hundreds of littering stories on this trip and will tell only a few in this blog. In exchange for the hospitality, Cori bought another dress that fits quite well.

For pictures from Pushkar please click HERE

Udaipur, home of the Octopussy

Our next stop was Udaipur. If you’re thinking, hey isn’t that where the extremely appropriately named James Bond film Octopussy took place, you would be correct. Udaipur was the first place in India that I liked; I felt a mild connection with it for many reasons. The first was that we were staying across the lake where most of the action happened so it was much quieter. Next there were far fewer rickshaw drivers to pester us about where we’re going next and if we wanted to buy narcotics from them. Udaipur was like Venice if Venice was dirty, had cows running all around the place, and if it smelled of curries, sweat, and dung. Lastly it was the first place in India thus far that we could just wander around. There wasn’t anything ‘spectacular’ that we’d have to take a rickshaw out of town to get to, we could simply wander around on our own.

There were only a few things that we wanted to do in our three days in Udaipur. We wanted to take a yoga class, take a cooking class, get happy hour on the water to see the sun set behind the Taj Lake Palace, watch Octopussy, and go to Udaipur’s traditional theater.

We visited the palace on the water and to save money didn’t pay the $5 for a camera permit. It wasn’t too special and I had to run out halfway through because of the Delhi Belly was brewing. After the palace we decided that we’d wander around a bit more. We found ourselves in a piss-soaked alley way completely turned around talking with a nice enough local man. Before we knew it we’d agreed to take a cooking class from him at his home the following day.

Cori found a place that sounded great for yoga, it was for donation only and the proceeds went to animal conservation. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I was happy to go. At the yoga class, an all too typical thing in India happened, which was wearing us both out; the man was completely enthralled with me and disregarded Cori. The yoga class was something that I was not doing for myself, I was accompanying my wife and our conversation with the instructor beforehand we let him know that. The entire time he kept telling me how flexible I was and asking me about previous accidents all the while telling Cori that she needed to stretch more. We gave our donation and went to find the alley where the previous day we’d agreed to do the cooking class with the random guy.

Rather than taking a cooking class with someone that Lonely Planet recommended we decided to do it with this guy for three reasons. The first was his command of English; he spoke well and had confidence. The next was that it was going to be in his home, so we thought that it would be interesting to be invited in to see what was going on behind the closed doors. Last and most important was that we would get to go to the market with him to shop for provisions.

After showing up on time we were quickly whisked away in his brother’s rickshaw to the market. This was the pinnacle of the day. The market was a local’s only onslaught of colors, smells, music, poverty, and crowds; this was the India I was happy to see. The cooking class was costing us 500 Rupees for the day. Our host didn’t introduce himself to us, so from here on out I will call him Chef. Chef frantically bought all kitchen essentials including knives, cups, and a few plates. If at this point of the story it doesn’t sound legit, it is because it wasn’t. We spent around 150 Rupees on the cutlery and 100 on food.

We left the market and on the way to Chef’s house we were told that we should buy some beer and whisky. We reluctantly agreed to buying two beers but refused to buy him any whisky. Chef was greeted by a fuming pissed brother. Even though we didn’t speak Hindi we knew the conversation had to be about not knowing he’d taken his rickshaw. We were brought upstairs through the kitchen and sat down on the floor of the living room and told to finely chop the onions with the new knives on the new plates. One thing that shocked me was that the sink was filled to the brim with dirty dishes that never were cleaned throughout day.

After a while of chopping Chef’s father told us that we had to get out of that room because he had to go through his private things. We stood in the corner of the room watching the old fat man unlock the archaic foot locker and shuffle through papers and old pictures. Now, I felt was as good of time as any, whether or not there were guests, for the father to shuffle through his personal effects. Shortly after the father debacle we went downstairs to get further out of the way. We were greeted by a mob. There were nearly 30 guys in the road demanding money from our hosts for decorations for a city wide festival the following month. They told Chef to give him 500 Rupees. He responded that he hadn’t made that much money that day and instead gave the mob 250. All of his profits from the day were now shot and with it the effort to please his guests went as well. The mother was holding onto a banana peel and as soon as the mob left threw it out into the street, just like our chai friends did in Pushkar.

We went back upstairs hoping that some kind of progress had been made and that we’d soon be eating and getting the hell out of there. Instead, more awkwardness ensued. Chef’s fat younger sister told Cori to give her money so that she could buy Chef’s wife some candy. We less than politely refused and she was scolded loudly in front of us for asking. The ‘cooking class’ became an ‘awkwardly sit there while Chef’s wife cooks for us class’. We were out of beer and chef thought that it would be appropriate to again ask if we’d buy him some whisky. Always willing to turn down the offer to buy someone else whisky I didn’t find myself surprised when I politely refused.

PHOTO ALBUM TME!!! Chef, I don’t know why, maybe he was feeling the beers decided that it was as good of time as any to get out his old photo album from France. Chef had been married in France and was a private chef at a chateau. He showed us all of these pictures from his former life and you couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy. He was married to a good looking French woman. They got divorced. He was self destructive for a period and crashed his motorcycle while drunk. He was forced to move back home to Udaipur where he is now with an unattractive wife and infant son living with his parents cooking for people he can convince as they walk buy his alleyway.

After around 6 hours it was time to eat. The food was great, I don’t feel like I learned much, but was glad that I had the story to take from it. After the food it was, ‘time to see how I (Chef) really make my money, I’m going to take you to my pashmina shop.’ Apparently the cooking classes were a front for Chef’s business of exporting fine scarves from India. We met his ‘cousin’ behind the counter who immediately retrieved around 20 scarves from the shelf ranging from ‘expensive’ to ‘you’ve got to be kidding me in prices.’ He told us of a story woman who had very limited bag space because she was bicycling the length of India. She was so enamored with the quality and beauty of his pashminas that she decided to buy three. The prices for the pashminas were $30-$50. This price was of course before negotiating. Here is the conversation between me and the master sales guy.

MSG: ‘How many do you want?’
Me: ‘zero’
MSG: ‘okay, well hypothetically how many would you want so that we can negotiate a price.’
Me: ‘hypothetically, I would want zero. I don’t wear pashminas and don’t want any.’
MSG: ‘okay, well if you were to buy any for a gift how many would you buy?’
Me: ‘zero, I’m leaving.’

That night we went to one of the many hotels that play Octopussy every night. I tried a ‘special lassi’ after seeing them on the menu at many places. I thought that I would give it a shot, being that it is after all, a holy drink. I handled myself quite well. Octopussy no matter how out of your mind you are is a terrible film. Roger Moore, need I say more? We left halfway through, not even caring about how it ended.

The next day we did a lot of lounging around and went to the traditional theater. Which sounds like pure misery, but, I was pleasantly surprised. The women were incredible, at one point a woman had 10 huge pots on her head while spinning and making us dizzy. It was less than an hour and cost around 50 Rupees. Perfect.

For pictures from Udaipur please click HERE

Jodhpur, The Blue City

From Udaipur we headed to Jodhpur, The Blue City. The guide books all said that this wasn’t much of a town but a base to do some camel riding and visit the fort. We stayed at a guest house within walking distance to the train station. The man who owned the place was nice enough and the walls were littered with postcards from around the world that he’d received from previous guests. We booked a full day trip with him to see a Jain Temple then go out to the dunes for a camel ‘safari.’

The Jain Temple was the most extravagant structure I’ve ever seen in my life. It was difficult to fathom its enormity and its meticulous attention to detail. Every facet of the temple was adorned in beautiful sculpture. We were given a tour by the head of the restoration project whose mentor was American. He showed us all of the restoration efforts and explained to us the painstaking process to create just one unique figure out of millions. It has been his life’s work and I think it to be a life worth spending. We gave a small donation for a small sandstone sculpture of Ganesha; a piece I’m looking forward to putting on our bookshelf at home.

From there we visited another temple where the beginning of a reoccurring event would happen. When we had dinner with Richard, he’s asked us if we had been asked to have our picture taken with anyone. We found the request odd and hadn’t yet experienced it. At the second temple we visited that day, hoards of tweens surrounded us just staring at us until one finally got up enough courage to ask if they can get their photo taken with us. A few times the shyer people would just covertly take photos of us walking by on their camera phones. We’ve since had our picture taken with entire families, and people both old and young. I have no idea where these camera phone snapshots end up, maybe we are tagged in a few Facebook posts. The funniest one was when I was walking down the aisle of a train and a hand with a cell phone in it peered through the curtain and snapped a shot of me.

The camel safari was an experience. To that point, I’d never heard anything good about camels. A friend of mine described them as stupid f-ing creatures that are anything but comfortable. We pulled onto a patch of packed sand and before I knew it I was on top of a camel. Cori’s camel liked to scream and holler and took some coaxing before he’d let her on. Our guides walked us slowly over the terrain. Soon children were greeting us with ‘give us money’ and ‘give us money.’ The ride was great, a little wobbly, but just fine. It felt like being on top of a horse wearing stilts with a wine buzz. I didn’t think it was uncomfortable at all. We took tons of pictures of the surrounding villages and of our trusty steeds. We arrived at our guide’s home and were told to sit and wait for lunch. We were out in the middle of nowhere, at a farmer’s home, who the people in the village had learned over the generations to cultivate on sand, but I’ve got to say, this was probably the only meal in India I didn’t like. They said that it was watermelon curry, it was not watermelon nor was it a curry; it was wet matter.

A reoccurring theme throughout our trip has been the forced relaxing. You’ll book a trip and realize that ‘afternoon tea’ is really another way to say ‘your hosts / guides will disappear to do their own thing for a few hours while you sit around.’ What they didn’t tell us about this trip was that our afternoon tea was to be done in a windowless mud hut that traps heat and flies inside. I didn’t have the patience for forced relaxing or the number of flies landing on my face in the still hot room, so I went for an hour long walk on my own through the village and out to the sand dunes.

When I got back there was another couple who were suiting up for a sunset safari. We thought that this was our queue that forced relaxing was over and it was time to get the show on the road; wrong. We sat around and waited for a bit before it was finally time to go for sunset on the dunes. Unfortunately enough for me, it was the same walk that I’d taken a few minutes earlier.

Chronic throat clearing is perfectly normal and perfectly acceptable; it is not and should not be considered as rude. It is something that you will observe in most Asian count\ries. It is a little shocking at first, but with some time you will get used to it. My camel guide who was behind me on my camel was close enough to have his chest touch my back. HHHHHHHHAAWWWK THEW, one, HHHHHHHHAAWWWK THEW, two. On the tenth throat clear then spit less than 10 centimeters from me, my camel guide hit my arm with his phlegm. I lost it. It took him ten times to hawk up spit and then I finally got spit on. I kept my cool until then. I yelled and yelled and received only a head bobble in return. It was no use, only one of the men spoke rudimentary English but I think that I got the point across when I mimicked the hawking noise and pointed at my arm. I knew from watching Aladdin that camels spit and to watch out for them, but I didn’t think that I’d get spit on by my guide.

The sunset was incredible and we rode the camels back to camp in the dark. Our driver was waiting for us, we tipped our guides and left. Before our guides shook our hands they got out their cell phones to inspect the bills that we’d given them as tips.

Too long; didn’t read: camel safari. Camels weren’t that uncomfortable at all, bad food, hot forced rest, got spit on, saw great sunset, snapped some great pictures, had guide whip out his cell phone to inspect the tip before he didn’t shake our hand goodbye, told hotel man who sold the trip to us about the experience and have him respond with, ‘nothing is perfect, don’t put your expectations too high.’

The head bobble is an amazing phenomenon. Anyone who has been to India knows exactly what I’m talking about but will have difficulty explaining exactly what it is. The mechanics of the head bobble are simple. Look straight ahead and pivot your head side to side. This can be a subtle movement or an excited almost spastic movement. It can mean everything from yes, no, I understand, go to hell, maybe, I don’t understand you, and anything else. It is a code in which deciphering is nearly impossible unless you yourself have been doing the bobble since birth. I found myself after some weeks beginning to bobble when answering questions or as a greeting to the hotel receptionists. It is the most amazingly bizarre thing that absolutely everyone does.

Our train was at 9pm to Jalgaon to see the Ajanta Caves so we visited a few sites around the town to burn time. We went to a palace / hotel on the top of a hill. Our volunteer guide was telling us all about it, but his accent was so thick that Cori kept wandering off to read the signs instead of listening to him. All that I could gather was that it was part royal family home, part museum, and part extravagant hotel. We saw our first albino Indian couple at the museum. We thought that they were chubby Americans from the Midwest that were dressing like Indians. I was an inch away from asking if they’d like to join us for an English speaking guide until we heard them speak perfect Hindi to their guide. After that we went to the Mehrangarh Fort, I was very impressed how well put together the audio guide was. One of the coolest things that I learned which wasn’t about the fort at all but was that Jodhpur was the ‘Blue City.’ It was called that because many of the people from the higher casts had their houses painted blue. It was painted with indigo, which happens to be a natural mosquito repellant.

How to Purchase Train Tickets 101

We’d been previously warned about purchasing train tickets. Train tickets, from our experience weren’t that easy to come by. We had a great deal of difficulty each time we had to buy them. Trying to get to Jalgaon was no exception. The general quota seats were sold out and the foreign quota tickets are not available online or through a travel agent (same for the last minute tickets called ‘Tatkal Tickets’). I had to go to the station in person to purchase them. For each train there are only 2 foreign quota tickets available, so they are not easily attainable. The train station’s ticket office was literally right across the street from our hotel and I made the journey several times before finally getting the tickets. The process was in no way automated.

The trains in India are how everyone gets around, not just the tourists. Each train typically has 20 train cars. From what we noticed 18 of those cars are unreserved cars. This means that they will pack the cars until they’re splitting at the seams. It may be a great way to experience ‘the real India’ but a terrible way to do it with any amount of personal space or comfort. This limits the feasible options to only two cars that are worth traveling on. One car is Three AC / 3AC which is a triple bunk bed option where the top and bottom bunks are static and the middle bunk folds down to be the seat back for the bottom bunk. Three people sit on the bottom bunk until someone decides to go to bed. These three bunks face another three bunks. The luggage goes under the bottom bunk and there are metal rings to lock your luggage. The compartment is separated from the aisle by a sheet which doesn’t stop anyone from poking their head into. The other car is split between Two AC / 2AC and First AC. The 2AC is the same as the 3AC but without the middle bunk. It may not seem like much of a difference, but having 1/3 less people is well worth the extra money. First AC (which we didn’t take) has a real door and only two beds in the room. Because there are so few seats which are worth taking, finding one can be extremely difficult and it is best to plan as far ahead as possible (which isn’t our style of traveling at all).

Buying train tickets in India 101. First you must get the order form to fill out. There is an information line, but they are typically too busy booking tickets to answer any questions. The form must be filled out completely before you stand in any line. But you must get the form from a person behind the counter. This process is usually done by pushing someone aside and making a hand motion like you’re drawing a rectangle. Pushing isn’t considered rude either. So once you’ve pushed your way and have a form you must fill the paper out completely. The most important part of the form is the train number and what day you’d like to go.

Once said form is filled out you can proceed to stand in line. I found it helpful to have a few contingency forms in case the train that you want is sold out. If you are Caucasian, be prepared to have people stare at you. It is not an intimidating stare but a curious stare. Chances are, you will be the only Westerner in the building. Standing in line is another experience altogether. If the person behind you doesn’t have their chest touching your back, someone will squeeze between. Same goes for in front of you. Keep your chest on the back of the person in front of you. God willing you will get to the front of the line. Once you’re in front, do not make the mistake of being nice and assuming that the person who’s pushed you out of the way is looking for forms. They will undoubtedly be cutting in front of you. Keep your cool; do not use all 78 kilos of your mass to push this man out of your way. You will outweigh the vast majority of the population and they will move with much more velocity than you anticipate. It is best to avoid these shoving matches. When you are second or third in line, straddle the man in front of you, bracing your arms on either the counter or the window in front of you. This I can guarantee you will not make the man in front of you uncomfortable. If you are lucky, you will receive ‘the head bobble.’

Be cautious to the man behind the counter. I found they really enjoy being called sir. Do not let your frustrations from your previous pushing match alter your mood which may cause the man behind the counter to sell you two middle seat bunks. It is important to tell the man that you are married and that Mrs. Sir will be traveling with you all the while smiling and remembering to create a barrier between you and anyone who may try to get in front of the window. Always ask for the tourist quota because they are the same price as general and if those are sold out then ask for Tatkal which are around 20% more.

This concludes our lesson; I appreciate your attention and will get back to the blog.

We bid our hotel man a lovely evening and walked to the train station only a few hundred meters from the hotel. The train had originated in Delhi and when we reached our 3AC compartment people were already very comfortable and we had to squeeze in to where we’d be sitting / sleeping. English is only one of 13 official languages in India. It is not as widely spoken as you may think. We were in 3AC which meant that I had the bottom bunk and across from me was a fat man, above me was Cori, across from her was a skinny woman, above Cori was another skinny woman. Those three were together and spoke no English. On the top across from us was a nice well dressed man who didn’t say much and stayed on the top bunk for the entirety of the journey.

For pictures from Jodhpur please click HERE

Off to Jalgaon

After an hour or so one of the women made the begging hand to mouth motion to Cori. We both looked at each other like what the f- is she doing, is she begging? Apparently it was dinner time. The three of them were sitting where I’d be sleeping divvying up what looked like trail mix, bread, and some kind of liquid. They were spilling everything all over the place. I was starting to lose it. I couldn’t tell them to eat on their own damn bed and to get off of mine. I was just stuck watching them eat. They put the remainder of their food on the communal table and hung up a bag of stinking food next to where my head would lie.

When we were getting settled in for bed and after I scrubbed off the sticky mess from my bunk we noticed the bag with their melon inside of it shuffled slightly. A cockroach had crawled out of their melon and under our beds where our bags were. Cori asked the man on the top bunk who spoke English if they’d kindly wrap the melon up so no more cockroaches would get out and on to us. Grudgingly, they agreed and looked at us like ‘what’s the big deal?’ Finally we were laying down and trying to sleep. Just as I was about to fall asleep their other stinky food bag dripped a drop of sticky mess on my face. It smelled like a chili pepper had farted on me. The rest of the night was about the same. I got terrible sleep because of people peering into our compartment to see if there were open seats. No one on the train that night, despite the hour would whisper. If someone’s phone rang two compartments away, sure enough they would answer and answer loudly they would.

Jalgaon came, but not soon enough. The trains have no speaker systems to warn you of upcoming stops. The conductors do not let you know that your stop is coming next. The only way of knowing is to write down the last two or three stop names and look for them as you’re passing by. The last few hours of any journey are edgy as they’re almost never on time.

Jalgaon didn’t have much in the way of attractions outside of the caves themselves. We stayed at a great guesthouse with one of the friendliest proprietors that we’d met to date. The power was out so he suggested that we eat at one of the nicer hotels that had a generator. We had dinner and on the way back stopped at a stationary store where the man bent over backwards trying to find Cori a blue pen. He finally took the ink from one pen and replaced with another. The process took 10 minutes and cost 15 Rupees. I left him with a huge smile and a fast bobble. He responded back with a bigger smile and a faster bobble. I felt like I was getting a hang of the whole India thing.

I’d read that the Ajanta and Ellora caves were some of the most impressive monolithic structures in the world. I didn’t know what they were talking about and couldn’t fathom why that would be something to brag about. A monolithic structure is something that is carved from one piece of stone.

We rode in the back of a truck to the caves and stored our luggage at the information center. We climbed up some stairs and saw what the caves actually looked like. The caves aren’t really caves at all. They were carved from the side of the mountain. The Ajanta and Ellora caves are one of the few places in the world that are home to Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain temples. The Ajanta caves were discovered in 1819 when a British officer was hunting for tigers and stumbled across them. They’re said to be built in two phases starting around 2,100 years ago. We walked around for hours and hundreds of photos; it was difficult to get good shots inside because we weren’t supposed to use the flash. It was also impossible to encapsulate in the photos was the mass of the caves. They were huge and even the smallest cave could house a football field.

After the caves we stood by the side of the road and waited for the public bus to Aurangabad. The first one was stuffed to the gills with people. We let it go by. The next was overfilled as well, but we had to get on. At first Cori and I were separated until a very nice man was peeling people from their seats and pulling our arms and having us crawl over people until we were finally next to one another. The man spoke no English and our only communication was the bobble and a big smile from Cori and I.

For pictures from Jalgon and the Ajanta Caves please click HERE

The Ellora Caves and Aurangabad

We got to the bus station and had the rickshaw driver take us to a hotel that had positive reviews online. He of course told us that he knew of a much better place that was cheaper and that we should look at his first. We lied and said we already had reservations. Aurangabad doesn’t have much to it but an amazing tourist information center who can give information about all of the states in India and the Ajanta Caves.

We walked to where we thought that the tourist information center was. A rickshaw driver told us that it wasn’t there and that he would take us. After telling him to leave us alone we arrived at a vacant building where the office once was. The rickshaw driver was waiting for us there and was not full of doo-doo like we’d thought. This was our guy; he told us the truth and tried to tell us the truth the entire time. Traveling had stripped me of my trusting nature. Rather than believe anyone, I instead think that they are scammers. It is the same anywhere in the world, taxi and rickshaw drivers feeding you a line for commission, but rather than smile and say you know they’re lying, I began to just ignore everyone. We hired him for the next day to take us around.

Before going to the caves we visited what seemed to be an abandoned fort. We wandered around the place and the only other person we saw was the ticket agent. Again, we got to wander around freely and take pictures. Aurangabad had at one time been the capital of India. The former president had moved the capital and all of its citizens to Aurangabad. No one was exempt from the move. Many elderly and disabled people had perished on the journey. They had realized that they had made a mistake and strategically Jalgaon wasn’t the best location for the capital and made the citizens return to Delhi.

I am very happy that we first visited the Ajanta Caves. The Ellora caves were much more spectacular but had many more visitors as well. Most of the caves were reminiscent of Ajanta and we breezed through them because it was more of the same. There were two caves however that really stood out. The biggest and best was Ellora Kailasanathar Temple and took hundreds of years to complete. This has been to date the most impressive structure I have ever seen. It is incredible to think that it was carved from a mountain. It made Rushmore seem like child’s play in comparison. The next highlight was one of the smaller caves which looked much like Kailasanathar but had much fewer people. There was a security guard who spoke little English that took a liking to Cori and I. He took us into a few places where the paintings were exceptionally well preserved. He showed us a few places we would have surely overlooked with the majority of other people. It was insane to think that we could stand in the same room and touch (if we wanted to) 1,000 year old priceless paintings that depicted Buddha in a number of different scenes. Before we left I had my picture taken at least 10 times with 10 different cell phone cameras with young men.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped by Bibi Ka Maqbara ‘the mini Taj.’ The story goes that a Moghul price built the structure as a loving tribute to his mother. It wasn’t that impressive at seemed to be haphazardly thrown together. We were asked to have our picture taken with a family in front of it. The picture was the highlight of the visit.

For pictures from Aurangabad and the Ellora Caves please click HERE

I’ll continue more about the south of India in part two. This was getting a little long for a single blog post.



March 2012
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