India Part 2 of 2

Apr 2, 2012 by     1 Comment     Posted under: Brandyn's blogs, India, Uncategorized, Where two now?, Where we've been

Check out my first blog about India click here

More India

Contents
Going South
Goa
Hello Kerala
The Kerala Backwaters
Munnar
Trivandrum
My Open Letter to King Fisher Airlines
Agra and the Taj Mahal
Varanasi
India Wrap Up and Stats

It is funny to read what I write at the time that something happened versus what I write months later. Maybe it is true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. In all honesty I did not like India all that much and to date it was my least favorite place that we had traveled. Looking back at emails and short journals it seems so trivial why.


Going South

After visiting over 50 caves in two days it was time for the beach. We’d managed to book tickets for a 3AC train to Goa. We’d read that the Panaji, the capital of Goa was supposed to be great. The Lonely Planet mentions it as a place that we cannot miss and the Google image search made it look lovely. But in order to get there we’d have to leave Aurangabad at 6AM arrive in Manmad Junction at 7:45AM and wait until the 19 hour express train would leave at 10:20AM.

I purchased these train tickets with the help of our friendly and trustworthy rickshaw driver in Aurangabad. We had managed to get the tourist quota seats and were ready for some beach! The walk from our guest house in Aurangabad to the train station during the day was around 20 minutes of dodging and weaving cows, motorbikes, and potholes. But, at 5:30 AM it was a leisurely and brisk 10 minute walk with the obligatory stop for chai along the way.

One bizarre thing about Asia is that the hotel workers sleep everywhere. The night before we left, we informed the front desk workers that we were checking out very early in the morning and that we would be happy to check out and pay that evening. They politely declined and told us that they would be happy to check us out in the morning. When we got down stairs there were two women sleeping on the floor and another three men sleeping behind the counter. They were unavoidable and we now understood why we would checkout in the morning. It would be impossible for us to reach the front door without stepping over a few bodies along the way.

This was the case in most of the hotels that we’d stayed at. In Nepal, a friend of ours had a late night snack attack and tripped over someone sleeping in the kitchen. In Vietnam, we checked into a hotel at 4AM and a woman fully dressed crawled out of a closet and registered us. 24 hour reception undoubtedly means that someone will be sleeping fully clothed behind the desk and will get you checked in at a moment’s notice.

We took a non-aircon seating car to Manmad Junction. The trip was brief and the early morning air felt good streaming through the windows.It was much more refreshing than the recycled aircon in some of the other train cars we’d ridden in. Manmad, to that point, had been the dirtiest place I’d ever seen in my life. It was appalling. Cori and I played ‘count the human shit’ with this picture (WARNING DO NOT CLICK IF YOU’RE SQUEAMISH). We’d planned on just hanging around the train station and getting a bite while waiting for our connecting train. The plans had changed; we had to get the hell away from Feces Junction.

We took a short walk around the station and it seemed like it was just as dirty as the station itself. Hanging over the busy street, we saw an advertisement for a three star hotel in town. We got the first rickshaw we saw to take us there. It was heaven in comparison to the train station. It was immaculately clean; the hotel workers were extremely friendly and enjoyed a chat. This was home for the next two and a half hours.

We got back to Manmad Junction and boarded our train which was surprisingly on time. The train that we joined with was on a 38 hour journey from Delhi. We picked it up right at halfway through its voyage. We boarded and found our seats. The train was a smorgasbord of curious children and overtired parents. We took our seats which were supposed to house 6 people, but we were assaulted by everyone’s children and the seats were now stuffed with 12 people. I was hoping that we’d get an opportunity to rest on the trip, but I was wrong. Cori’s bunk was on the top there were two kids eating up there staring down at us and my bunk was on the bottom, so we couldn’t rightly just put the bunk in position and force everyone to lie down. We were stuck being awake and had to converse with everyone.

At first the curiosity and questions were fun. It was interesting to interact with the families. One child asked me one of the best questions I have ever been asked, ‘what do you do when you get angry.’(SPOILER ALERT: he was going to find out the next morning) I had no idea how to respond. Come to think of it, and after thinking about this question for months, I still don’t know how to answer. I said that I yell as loudly as possible into something so people can’t hear. He said that he quickly drinks something very cold.

Some of the pictures from the train ride are pretty good.

We found out that the car that we were on there were 108 families from Delhi that were all on their way to Goa for a holiday. They were all on the same 38 hour journey together and were going to visit Goa for three days. Here’s the math: 76 hours of train ride for 72 hours of holiday. We had 10 long hours before it was time to sleep. Those hours were filled answering tons of questions. One of my favorite was, ‘are you on effbee?’ my response, ‘am I angry?’ his response, ‘no, no, no, on FB, Facebook’ ‘yes, I am.’ ‘My father won’t let me join effbee, he says it is not for children.’ His father at that point put his hand on my knee saying, ‘We will become friends on effbee.’
“Have you seen a giraffe?’ yes, many
‘What do you think of India?’ it is a lovely country
‘Where else have you been’’ Africa and South America
‘Everyone in America is rich, you are rich, no?’ No, I am not rich
‘Have you seen the movie The Bodyguard?’ with Kevin Kostner? ‘Who? No, with Salman Khan of course.’
‘Who is your favorite Bollywood actor?’ Aamir Khan (because it sounds like American)
‘What kind of work do you do?’ (this is my favorite, because anywhere I’ve been, an acceptable response is simply) I’m a businessman.
‘How long have you been married?’ two years
‘Why don’t you have children?’ shoulder shrug
We shared some photos from the safari we went on in Africa which the kids loved. After a while it seemed like we were becoming baby sitters to the children. They kept bombarding our compartment and were throwing their wrappers and garbage on our floor. After many more tedious hours it was finally time to go to bed. I reached up to the top bunk to grab my blanket. It was where the children had been sitting and it was a crumpled mess of crumbs, wrappers, mud, and garbage. I asked nicely if the parents would please swap me their sheets because their kids ruined ours. I got the head bobble in return. I swept up their crap from the bottom bunk and discovered that my sheet had a piece of candy stuck to it. I discarded my sheet and slept on the bare bed. I was so livid I couldn’t easily fall asleep. I played Angry Birds until I was finally tired enough to sleep.

The train was due to arrive at 5:40 in the morning. Around 4AM I awoke to my feet being pushed aside and the father of the candy kids was now sitting on my bed. I lost my head. My immediate response was, ‘what are you doing sitting on my bed? Wake your wife up, don’t wake me up, sit next to her, not next to me. What is your problem, what the hell is your problem? You have no respect for me or for my wife…I asked you a question, what is your problem?’ His response head bobble, head bobble, head bobble. Our train arrived just after 6:30 and we sat in an awkward groggy silence for the next few hours while waiting to arrive in Goa.

Looking back, I feel like I overreacted a little bit, but his actions were completely uncalled for. He should have sat down next to his wife instead of moving my legs at 4AM to sit next to me while I was sleeping. You know what, after writing this I feel like I under-reacted, f- him. Regretfully, I did not receive his friend request on ‘effbee.’


Goa

Panaji wasn’t a hectic city like most of the others we’ve visited, but it certainly didn’t have any drawing power either. Panaji at one point was crucial to the Portuguese trade routes. The Portuguese would leave Portugal, going south to the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of the horn of Africa. They would then stop in Angola, Cape Town, Mozambique, Zanzibar, and finally to Goa. The architecture of the city was pretty cool and a lot of the old buildings reminded me of Zanzibar. It was the first time that we’d seen any Christian churches in India and because of the Portuguese influence there were many. We planned on taking a sunset river boat cruise and eating some seafood before heading south to the beaches in Palolem.

We arrived so early in the city that nothing was open. We had a difficult time getting our bearings and had to walk all over the city to find a guest house in our budget that wasn’t a complete and total dump. We finally found a windowless room that wanted payment up front. After another 20 minutes of walking we found the one ATM that was working and were able to put our bags down and finally relax. It is a craps shoot when you book an overnight train / bus if we’re actually going to be well rested or not. This trip was in the ‘or not’ category.

We took a nap and woke up shortly after lunch time and decided to run around and see the town. We were having a hard time narrowing down which sunset cruise we would take between one with karaoke, one with a balloon tying clown, and another with a dance party on board. We opted for the dance party boat and purchased the tickets.

One thing that I despise it is are towns that don’t serve food between 2 and 5PM; Panaji was one of these towns. Unless your Spain siestas aren’t part of your culture. Please serve food. It was impossible to find anything to eat anywhere. We went to at least 10 restaurants that were all closed. I think I settled on a bag of chips and boarded the dance party boat. We were less than politely pushed to the back of the boat to make room for enthusiastic party goers. Cori and I were about the only two non-Indians on the boat. Everyone was on vacation and gearing up to party.

The entertainment for the evening was provided by an emcee and a few dancers. The emcee was speaking in Hindglish which really threw us off. He’d say half a sentence in English then finish in Hindi. It was impossible to follow. The first form of entertainment was a traditional Goan dance. The next was a dance where three people tied a giant knot on stage by what looked like three people running around in circles. To this point I felt like we wasted money. What happened next was pure insanity. The emcee announced that it was time for the women to come up on stage and dance. They played a song and the women very politely danced with one another and it was very calm. The men meanwhile were frothing at the mouth, not watching the women dance, but waiting for their turn to get up there and shake their things.

When it was the men’s turn insanity ensued. It was as if Bollywood had taken smoked angel dust and swallowed a whole bottle of Viagra. The men gyrated their hips and vigorously humped the air. They seemed to be out doing one another’s ridiculous dance moves not to impress any of the women in the audience but to impress one another. It was literally one of the most bizarre displays of machismo that I have ever seen. I would place bets that it will be the most bizarre display for quite some time to come. The music was also really bad, it sounded like electro that may have been listened to in Russia 15 years ago. Towards the end a few of the men started hopping on the backs of one another and riding each other around. Just as quickly as it started it was over and the boat was docking for the next round of insanity.

I’d made friends in Africa and held other men’s hands as a way of showing friendship. Nothing seemed too weird until I would see Cori snickering to herself and realized that I was walking down the street holding another guy’s hand; when in Rome. The handholding in India looks like it goes beyond friends holding hands. Sometimes it looked more intimate, gentle, and caressing. We were instructed by and had read that showing any kind of affection between a man and a woman was frowned upon and disrespectful to their culture. Cori and I had developed a system for showing affection in public; we would give each other a good strong pat on the back like the other person was choking rather than kiss or hold hands. I found it peculiar that when the women had the stage they were very calm and danced alone but together. The men on the other hand were all dancing with one another. At no point did the sexes intermingle.

In no way is it uncomfortable for me to see two men that are in some kind of a relationship to show affection for one another by holding hands or having an arm around one another. I don’t find it wrong nor do I condemn anything that they may do in the bedroom. The young men in India seem starved for some kind of human interaction. It is socially acceptable for men to hold hands, caress thighs, spoon while waiting for the train, and for groups of men to intertwine their legs while laying down in public. I think that because it is such a sexually repressed society that the young men would just reach out for one another rather than wait until their parents found them a wife. It was an interesting topic of conversation between us and other travelers as well.

The next morning after having Goan curried crab for dinner we took the public bus to Palolem. This is the same beach that they filmed the opening scene from the Borne Supremacy before Jason Borne’s girlfriend gets shot in the head and drives her dead body off the bridge. The scene from the movie pretty well sums of Palolem, we didn’t see the scene until a few weeks later when we were back in Delhi saying, ‘holy cow, that’s Palolem!’

I am married to a self proclaimed ‘beach snob.’ Every single beach we go to is compared with the north of Venezuela where they apparently have nice beaches. Zanzibar was acceptable to her, but I could tell that Palolem was not going to cut it. It was nice but not very nice. The water wasn’t inviting and the sand wasn’t white. One nice thing was that beer in Goa was much cheaper than in the rest of India. We ended up paying 700 Rupees for a bungalow on the beach with no AC. It was a terrific view but we wouldn’t be staying long.

The stores along the stretch of road behind the beach were nice and the restaurants served a variety of foods. I tried Mexican food one night and couldn’t believe how good it was. We actually had refried beans with our fajitas. I tried to buy train tickets from one of the many travel agencies but found out that to get to Kerala the next available train was the following week. If I wanted to try to get the tourist quota or last minute deal, I would have to go to the station in person about 45 minutes north of Palolem in Panaji first thing in the morning in order to purchase them.

I woke up at 6:30 to get out on the 7am bus so that I could be the first in line when the office opened at 8am. I sat next to a gentleman from Lumbini, Nepal; the birthplace of Lord Buddha. He gave me a number of tips on Nepal and answered tons of my questions. When I arrived at the station, I was first in line. I asked for the tickets that I wanted either the last minute deal or the tourist quota. We had given up completely on taking any more 3AC trains after the last two fiascos. He told me that there were two seats available heading south the day after next. I told him to please book it. His phone rang and he answered it. He talked for about two minutes. When he hung up the phone the seats were no longer available. I booked the tickets for the night train leaving three nights from then at 10PM.

Cori took a yoga class which was pretty consistent with the last one we took in Udaipur. She returned to our bungalow unsatisfied and I think she even said something close to, ‘maybe I’m just not a yoga person.’

We had an uneventful and relaxing stay. We took a ton of pictures of cows on the beach and did a lot of walking around. It was nice to try Goan dishes. They’re very distinct but reminiscent of Zanzibarian food. A lot of the spices were close to that in Zanzibar but with more Indian flavor. I had seafood for every meal and loved most of it. The curries were a menagerie of tastes that were similar but not quite the same, tastes that could place me somewhere familiar but I couldn’t remember where, and tastes that would made me wish I could eat like that everywhere.

The internet was consistent, fast, and the cafes were always in aircon. We used it frequently to plot our next destinations so that we wouldn’t get marooned like we had in the past. We decided where we’d stay in the backwaters of Kerala and which B&B we’d go to in the southern highlands. We also booked a flight back up north . This was the first time in our travels that we’d actually planned ahead.

After buying some souvenirs, eating like champs, and enjoying the scenery we departed to make the journey to Southern India. Our train was scheduled to depart at 10PM so we decided to have a few sundowners to make time roll by. The sunset was incredible. It officially closed the chapter on Northern India for us. We were going to a more tranquil India than we had known up to then.

We took a taxi to the train station and arrived around 30 minutes early at the advice of everyone. The train we were taking going from the far north in Armristar and arriving in Trivandrum at the far south west of the 63 hours later. We were both eager to be taking this train as it was the first time that we’d be in the 2AC car. Meaning that there’d only be 4 of us to a compartment instead of the circus act we’d experienced before. Upon arriving at the station we saw that our train was delayed by three hours. Fortunately, there was an internet café that we ducked into and waited for an hour and a half or so. The internet wasn’t working and despite telling the man running the place, he felt a cultural obligation to attempt extortion. We gave him a few Rupees for loitering and decided to meander.

We wandered the platform pacing entire length of the platform back and forth in the ocean cooled air. We again were so curious seeing men who looked as if they had fallen asleep playing twister with one another. One thing that I admire and am jealous of is that Indians seem to be able to sleep anywhere. Women will lay down a sarong or scarf and be asleep in minutes. Whole families will doze on a single sheet and be wide awake at a moment’s notice. It is like napping in war.

By the time that our train arrived, we were beyond tired as well as being jittery from the beginnings of a hangover as well as the stress to stay awake and wait for the train. Boarding the 2AC train was a pleasant experience. I was surprised by how much cleaner the inhabitants kept it and that there weren’t any stowaways sleeping in our bunks waiting for us to ask them to leave. The sheets were clean and nicely folded awaiting our arrival. This was a pleasant and very welcome surprise.

For pictures from Goa please click HERE


Hello Kerala

I blinked and found myself nine hours in the future and a few hundred kilometers closer to Ernakulam. Ernakulam is one of the largest cities in the state of Kerala and is a transportation hub to get anywhere else in the state. Kerala is interesting because it was the first place in the world to have a democratic election which elected a communist government. It was a jumping off point for us to bathe with elephants, visit the famous Kerala backwaters, and go up into the mountains into Munnar, tea country.

We were bunked with a couple from Ernakulam who were on their way back home after doing some business in the north. The woman didn’t say a word and the man didn’t acknowledge Cori’s existence; nevertheless he was the first Indian person I could candidly ask questions about India to. One story was particularly interesting. His father worked for the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited (India Railway) and was a higher up. He told me about a time when he was going home on the train 32 hours from Delhi to Ernakulam. His father had given him a free ticket to travel 2AC. He missed his train and took the following train. There was only unreserved coach available. He said that by the time that he arrived there was only standing room and he was forced to stand for the entirety of the journey. What was interesting about the story was that he said that it was the first time in his life that he’d interacted with people from the lower castes and the first time he’d ever felt entitled.

I asked him about the train’s infrastructure. Being that we’d only been on one train that had been on time, I thought that I would try to get to the bottom of it and solve all of India’s transportation problems in one simple abstract conversation. He blamed it on the infrastructure the British left behind, saying that in sections of the country there was only one track so you would have to wait for another train to pass before being able to go yourself. I have no idea and won’t bother to Google any of this; all I can say is that if you need to be on time, fly.

Ernakulam was a blip in the guide book. Arriving already felt like we were in an entirely different country. The pace seemed less frantic, the people were smiling more, and it was incredibly clean (in comparison). We were impressed to say the very least. We’d eventually come to Ernakulam three times and stay on the same street twice. We found a room for 400 Rupees and booked a taxi for the morning so that we could bathe with elephants.

I know that I went on and on about elephants in my blog about Africa, but I have another opportunity to write about how magnificent these creatures are. I find it utterly amazing that something so big can be so fragile. Their skin is around 3cms thick and yet if you ride one that isn’t clean the dirt on it’s back will hurt the elephant. They have a gestation period of almost two years. Elephants can live up to 80 years and only sleep four hours a day. They can eat over 100kgs of food a day (and poop that amount too).

We woke up at 6AM and took the taxi around 45 minutes outside of town to a small village where we had a few cups of chai and a samosa while waiting for the elephants to arrive. When they finally did come, they walked down the street sharing the road with cars and strolled right past us to an alleyway that led to the river. Behind flapping ears mahouts sat with their legs straddled around their necks. Typically a mahout has no days off and is assigned to a single elephant and will watch after that elephant until they or the elephant retire. In comparison to the mahouts in Nepal these guys were much gentler with their elephants.

The elephants all knew what they were out to do. As soon as they reached the water, the elephants all rolled on their sides and waited for their mahouts and visitors to start scrubbing. We were all given the outside skin of a coconut around 4cms thick to scrub these amazing creatures. With a command the elephants would lift an individual leg for scrubbing. They’d splash water on themselves to help the bathers. It was incredible. You could see the love the mahouts had for their elephants. Their vocal amber eyes watched us bathe them. We spent around an hour with them taking pictures, scrubbing, and getting to hug the elephants. It was definitely a highlight of India without a doubt.

On the way back we stopped by a place for breakfast and got better acquainted with what is now one of our favorite breakfasts, the dosa. In my first India blog, I previously uploaded a picture of me eating a dosa and had no idea of what to do with it. A dosa is a square, triangle, rectangle, or any other simple shape that is made from a bready mixture and has a large dollop of a potato mixture inside. You can order a dosa with onions, spicy, veggies or with a wet curry potato mixture inside. With your right had you tear a piece of the dosa and grab a bit of the innards dipping it in my favorite part, the coconut chutney. The dosa is a food and a utensil and delicious.

Kerala was my favorite part of India; and for you boneheads who say “Kerala isn’t The Real India,” shut it. It was cleaner and the people seemed much warmer and Kerala is far less densely populated than anywhere else we’d been. Our next destination was the Kerala Backwaters. The list of places to stay in the backwaters is as long as my arm ranging from places with hippies with bedbugs to the highest castes honeymooning. I really give all of the credit to Cori for finding the place we stayed amongst all the other options. We paid around $50 a night which was for full room and board.

For pictures from Ernakulam please click HERE


The Kerala Backwaters

The best way to explain the Kerala backwaters is saying that it resembles a bogged bayou that has been cleaned up, shores created, and the waters covered in leafy vines. After a brief bus and rickshaw ride we settled in and had lunch. The first reaction I had to the food was being underwhelmed. We’d gotten accustomed to the rich thick curries in the north. The curries in Kerala were much more watery. There was however beautiful fish and shrimp galore. The dry curry consisted of vegetables that I was unfamiliar with and was spicy enough to punish the phony brave.

For three days we did little other than reading and relaxing. The view from our room was the finest since Zanzibar. The chairs included leg rests so that you didn’t have to venture more than 5 meters from bed to get comfortable. The family which ran the place was extremely cordial and welcoming. The meals were communal and we shared amongst another American couple who both seemed pretty uptight.

Before heading out on our trip, we toyed with the idea of buying an around the world plane ticket hoping that it would save us money. Going through it over and over again we couldn’t justify spending that kind of money and not having any flexibility. They’d spend over $5,000 for each person (which didn’t include a flight that they had to purchase to Spain) for their around the world flight. Our flights are below and you’ll notice that we’re paying less than $2,000 per person to fly around the world and have ultimate flexibility. Even if we paid for our flight home, we would still be less than $2,700 or roughly half of what they spent.
Flight
New York – Colombia $180
Quito – Galapagos R/T (which the RTW flights don’t cover) $400
Buenos Aires – Cape Town $480
Zanzibar – Delhi $420
Trivandrum – Delhi $45
Kathmandu – Bangkok $195
Bangkok – Krabi $45
Hue – Hanoi $70
Bangkok – NYC $50 + 32,500 miles

If you’re interested in checking it out, here is a link to where we’ve been and each line constitutes a flight.

On one of the days we were there we managed to motivate enough to take a two hour boat ride through the backwaters. Very few of the boats had engines. Most of them were propelled by “polers.” This was the exact same way we got around in the Okavango Delta and the water was the same depth, around one meter at the deepest point. The bottom of the water was sludge like mud with tangles of root. One of the coolest things we saw was a fish trap that was used to get shrimp and other small fish from the water. Here is a picture of the giant contraption. It was constructed from bamboo and the fibers from the coconut tree. There is a base with a pulley system. A weight is latched to one end of the main pole which is connected to two other smaller poles which intersect making an X. The long pole is about ten meters long and the smaller poles are around 7-8 meters. This is a massive enterprise. A net is attached to the four corners of the intersecting poles. The weight is released and the net then becomes submerged. After some time the weight is pulled and the net is pulled up and everything that had settled on top or was swimming above. It was one of the crudest yet spectacular engineering I’d ever seen.

It struck me as odd when we checked into our place at the backwaters that we weren’t asked to show our passports or any information for that matter. On our last night, the police showed up. Cori and I both weren’t at all paranoid, but it is unsettling nonetheless. It seemed like a whole brigade arrived. There were at least 8 officers in the back of a Jeep. We were asked for a copy of our passport. I had one but it was in poor condition and crumbled up in my bag. The only copy I had of Cori’s passport was her old one that had been stolen. We handed over our passports to one of the women of the house. She told me she’d be back in 10-15 minutes with our passports. The police were hovering around for quite some time. None of the conversation was in English so we couldn’t decipher exactly what was happening or the severity of what they hadn’t done by not taking our information. Eventually we got our passports back. The police apologized to us and let us know that we had nothing to worry about; that the owners had to worry. At that point the buzz was killed and we went to bed.

We took a local bus back to Ernakulam. Cori had some interest in seeing a Kathakali performance. The performance was bizarre and borderline tedious. We got to the theatre 45 minutes early to watch the application of the makeup; which was my favorite part. The theater had been running every night for something like the last 70 years. It was started years ago and I think that the old man who hit the symbols way too hard had been the one in the makeup before his son. The old man performed first and was a trip to watch. They briefly explained that everything could be mimicked by facial expressions and dance. We watched the old man “eat honey” and “swim.” It went on for a while. The second performance was done with the man who was getting his makeup done. There was him dancing around in an interpretive dizzying display of flamboyance and confusion. I had no idea what was happening and was pleased when the performance ended 20 minutes early.

After the performance I formed the opinion that Pizza Hut in India is just as bad as Pizza Hut anywhere in the world.

For pictures from The Backwaters please click HERE


Munnar

Our next destination was Munnar, a beautiful little town in the hills on the border of Tamil Nadu. It from what we learned was a popular spot for Indian newlyweds to honeymoon. Cori again gets an A+ for doing her homework. We arrived in Munnar and made a few phone calls to guesthouses and B&Bs that she’d found online. The third call I made was to Anil at Mystic Rain. He was the most well spoken and polite person I spoke with that morning so we decided that we’d stay with them sight unseen. We waited on the side of the road for a few minutes waiting for a car that he’d sent for us. We had to backtrack 10 kilometers which was terrible because the road summoned sickness in the most rock hard of stomachs.

When we got to the guesthouse we were immediately made to feel at home. Anil and Jeeva were the kindest and most welcoming people we’d met in our 7 months of traveling. Before we were shown our room we had to follow formalities and sign in and have photocopies of our passports taken. The time it took to tip toe through red tape lead into a few cups of chai and some great conversation. I’ll spread the many interesting conversations we had over a few paragraphs. I opened my big mouth about the police showing up at our last place.

Anil asked if we were staying at a guest house or just with a family. Cori and I explained to him that it was a well established place that we had found through tripadvisor.com. He was shocked and explained that every night before a certain time they had to submit their guest list to the local police. He explained to us that this was because of the terrorist threat and because they like to waste paper. He said that he wouldn’t be surprised if they had to pay a 50,000 Rupee ($1,000) fine and could even with their first infraction be shut down. It was serious business. He also said that it was impossible for them not to know the rules and not to feel bad for them.

Our room was basic but very homey. The money we were spending was going for the impeccable graciousness of our hosts, uninterrupted electricity, and the sense of being at a home away from home. Anil took us for a walk around their area. Because of its location and altitude Munnar gets an unbelievable amount of rain and is always shrouded in mist (hence the name Mystic Rain). During the walk I was regretting taking the spice tour we took in Zanzibar, Anil showed us everything from pepper vines to cloves and turmeric. The walk was great until he warned Cori about leeches. One of the millions of reasons I love my wife is that if she is around, I don’t have to worry about anything biting me. If any insect on the planet was given the option to bite me or Cori, they will without fail choose her. We walked for around an hour in that time I picked one leech that thought my pant leg was skin. Meanwhile, I picked at least 10 leeches off of Cori. This of course wouldn’t have been such a big deal had we not just gotten an email from our friend Andy. Andy warned us of leeches in Munnar that would be hungry enough to suck your blood and spit anti-coagulation as they suck to ensure that your boots would fill with blood hours after they were done drinking.

I talked with a local for a few minutes about communism in Kerala. He told me that it worked just fine when they introduced it in 1957. Everyone was being educated and the state quickly advanced. However with the advancement the system slowly started deteriorating. The local government from what he told me started enforcing the caste system to ensure that people wouldn’t rise up too much and over succeed. I’m reminded of a sign I saw when I was younger, ‘the world needs people to flip their burgers.’

We asked Anil to get a rickshaw driver that he knew and trusted to take us to the “Top Station.” The Top Station from my understanding was the highest point in the area and the official border of the next state to the east Tamil Nadu. The Top Station itself wasn’t the highlight of the trip. The best part by far was the journey. It was around 65 kilometers to get there through windy roads which were narrow enough to fit two cows and half a rickshaw on. The drive however was stunning. We passed kilometer after kilometer of serene tea plantations. Hundreds of workers sprinkled the mountainside getting their daily quotas of leaves. Apparently Tata, in addition to being a car company, cable television provider, and steel company, also owns all of the tea in the area. The workers are mostly from the much poorer state of Tamil Nadu and come to work in Munnar because there is work to be done.

Along the way we saw three wild elephants feeding. I found it amazing that there could be wild animals in one of the most densely populated countries on the planet. It still blows my mind to think that over one billion people share their country with wild elephants and an occasional tiger. When we reached the top station we had some of the worst guavas on the planet and a few of the best cups of chai the world has to offer. Following suit and seeing all of the garbage on the side of the trail, I decided to jokingly throw a water bottle on the ground. Cori’s face contorted in the funniest way. It was incredible to watch her squirm and be too shocked to yell at me. I thought it was the funniest things and immediately picked up the bottle laughing knowing that I could get under her skin that easily.

Anil and Jeeva were one of three couples that we’d met on our trip that admitted to us that they had a ‘love marriage.’ It was incredible to me that anyone wouldn’t be in love before getting married, but indeed it is the case. We made arrangements with them to stay at Royal Mist for three nights and then would stay an additional two at a less expensive place for another two nights. We took a walk on the third day looking for another place to stay. We went to one hotel and had some snacks in the afternoon. We peered into the garden and spied on a newlywed couple clearly getting to know one another better. It was bizarre to see them taking pictures of their honeymoon being so timid with one another. I asked to take a picture of the two of them with their camera; they didn’t hold hands or even stand that close to one another. Clearly, I cannot and don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand arranged marriages. It is funny because the three love marriage couples that we met all seemed (in my eyes) far happier on the outside and showed more playful expressions of flirtation and touching. I thought that it was nice to see because it had been so long since we’d seen any couples who acted like they liked one another. I joked with Cori, ‘great honeymoon we’re having, by the way, what do you like to do for fun? What’s your favorite color? Do you like to read?’

On Friday, the afternoon before we were scheduled to leave, Anil and Jeeva insisted that we stay a few more nights. Jeeva had a doctor’s appointment in Ernakulam that weekend so they wouldn’t be there but we could stay in our room without them being home. It was such an honor and funny at the same time. It felt like our parents (who are the same age as us) were leaving for the weekend and trusting us with the keys to the house. We promised to not have any parties, assured them that we could fend for ourselves in the food category, and would not burn down the house. It was one of the nicest things that any of our hosts had done for us to that point. We were and still are incredibly thankful for their generosity.

Like I mentioned above, we were 10 kilometers outside of town, so feeding ourselves proved to be more difficult than anticipated. We walked for as long as we could until we caught the bus one afternoon along the busy one lane street that quadruples as a sidewalk for workers coming and going, a throughway for cargo, an autobahn for motorcycle riders who transform themselves into silent speed demons with their engines off on the decent, and a ribbon dusted with mist that is nearly impossible to see. Being that it is India, everyone sounds their horn giving a sense of security.

We ate in town and decided that we’d take a rickshaw back to Royal Mist. The road on the way home was the first time in months that I was genuinely scared for the safety of my wife and I. The rickshaw driver took his friend with him to ride in the front. I thought at first that maybe it was because he wanted some company. We found out as soon as we got out of town why, the fog. The roads were terrifying. We literally could see nothing in front of us. We couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces if we wanted to. There were no street lights on the way home and it was so foggy that if the lights on the rickshaw were on we would only illuminate the white sky. No one was honking their horns because they didn’t know when they were coming up on turns. A few times we were riding with one wheel off the road so that we’d feel the road rather than have to see it. After an hour we finally arrived to a dark and empty Royal Mist. We went to nearest shop and bought eggs and bread. The eggs we’d boil in the tea maker and the bread we’d eat plain rather than go back on the road at night.

For pictures from Munnar please click HERE


Trivandrum

We left Monday morning shortly after they Anil and Jeeva returned from our destination. We took the local bus which was painless and took much less time to go downhill than it did going to Royal Mist uphill. We had an afternoon train to Trivandrum only 5 hours away.

We had lunch at the train station and boarded our train. An uneventful 5 hours later we arrived in Trivandrum. Trivandrum is the capital of Kerala. We found there no reason to visit. We were there to catch a flight, buy an external hard-drive, eat dosas every morning for breakfast, and maybe see its beach. We arrived after dark with no reservations in the rain. Our rickshaw driver after agreeing to a price, decided to forget where the street we wanted to go was and on the agreed upon price. We jumped out and hoofed it in the rain to a place in the Lonely Planet. It was fully booked. We saw a business style hotel and decided to check on the price. It was more than double of what the book said it was. With our wet shoulders down scratching our heads, the manager pulled us out of the rain and gave it to us for less than half of the price on the wall and we even negotiated to have breakfast included.

On our first day in Trivandrum we decided that we’d just walk around a bit and perhaps head to the beach. We had time to do both. We went to a few book stores, got some of our last southern Indian dishes, and headed to the beach. Neither Cori nor I were at all impressed with the beaches in Goa, but weren’t disappointed at all either. The beach in Trivandrum was within pissing distance of the airport. It was a wide beach which meant that it could hold more garbage than a narrow one. Something on and around the beach smelled of 50% rotting fish and 50% human waste. We saw two dead dogs on the sand and decided that we’d take a rickshaw back to the hotel at once.

Our flight left early the next morning, we were on our way to Nepal via a flight to Delhi, a roundtrip train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, the punctual train to Varanasi to experience the apocalyptic city for ourselves, a hellish train ride to Gorakphur, and a taxi ride that cost TOO MUCH! to the border.

For a few pictures from Trivandrum please click HERE


My Open Letter to King Fisher Airlines

An open letter to King Fisher Airlines,
My wonderfully patient wife and I have flown your airline twice and both times, I’ve been utterly disappointed. Your airline has infuriated me once and driven me to the brink of sanity the second time, both instances have one thing in common, water or the lack there of. I understand your status as a budget airline and your fairs are rather affordable. When we make up our mind whether or not to fly with you again we’ll have to decide what is more important to us a) money b) sanity. It is impossible to have both with King Fisher.
Our first flight with King Fisher was on October 20, 2011 from Trivandrum to Delhi. We cleared through security with little to no hassle. I purchased an extremely over priced bottle water on the other side of security after having to empty my bottle at the security check point. When I went to board the plane, I was told that we’d have to go through another security check point. Now before I could board the plane I was told that I’d have to throw away the bottle of water that I’d purchased from within the airport itself beyond the security checkpoint. This normally wouldn’t have driven me so crazy, however, when I requested a bottle of water on the plane, THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT CHARGED ME FOR WATER. I believe in my heart of hearts that my water coming on the plane was not a security threat but a rouse to increase profits. This is thievery and I feel like I was stolen from by King Fisher.
The second flight my wife and I took was from Kathmandu to Bangkok on December 7, 2011. We booked the flight and didn’t give it a second thought until we postponed our departure by three weeks. The postponement went smoothly and your representative on the phone was very pleasant. The $45 per ticket changing fee still made the ticket very affordable; and being that it is an international flight, water is free!
We received an email that I have pasted below:

Dear Guest,
FLIGHT IT27 DEL BKK IS CANCELLED FOR REAL TIME FLIGHT STATUS UPDATES AND SCHEDULE TIMINGS, LOG ON TO WWW.FLYKINGFISHER.COM
Regards,
Kingfisher Airlines
Fly the good times

This email is the most asinine excuse for customer service I’ve ever experienced. It gives no solutions, link to answer any questions, a phone number to call, or anything. Clearly we had to forgo our sanity for this flight. Again your customer service representative on the phone was chipper and more than willing to help. I would give the person who helped me on the phone a 9.5/10 for resolving the issue. We originally were booked to fly King Fisher from Kathmandu to Delhi then Delhi to Bangkok with a layover in between. The representative on the phone switched my connecting flight to a Cathay Pacific flight to Bangkok with a minimal layover in Delhi.
As you can see if you look up this information, this is not at all what happened. We took our original flight and arrived in Delhi. When we got to the connecting desk, the representative informed us that we weren’t going to be on the scheduled Cathay Pacific flight at all. We were second in line behind another pair of travelers who were being put on a different flight. We were instructed to sit and wait until things were sorted out. We patiently wait for three hours until the people in front of us had their tickets. At this point we handed over our original tickets and our passports and waited. We waited ‘between countries’ in limbo waiting for connecting flights. We did not have any Rupees nor did we have a way of getting Rupees and couldn’t buy water from the vendors as they didn’t want to a credit card for our transaction.
We sat waterless until we had the next leg of our flight confirmed for another two hours. Again your customer service is much better than other airlines but internally I feel your airline has a fundamental problem. This issue should not have even been an issue as I had a printed ticket for the second leg of my journey and at the very least we should have been provided with something even prisoners aren’t denied, water.
In summary, you have an able bodied crew who are extremely helpful, the wait times on the phone are short, and the customer service representatives have an excellent command of English and solve problems efficiently and effectively. There is something however deeper that is wrong with King Fisher Airlines something fundamentally wrong beneath the surface and behind the scenes which makes flying with your organization arduous and painful; perhaps spend less time diversifying between a lackluster beer and a less than subpar airline and do one thing right.
Later dudes,
Brandyn


Agra and the Taj Mahal

We arrived in Delhi in the afternoon and took a taxi straight from the airport to the train station to catch the train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. The taxi ride was fairly uneventful. There was no aircon, so we rode with the windows down and at the stop lights women and children were grabbing our arms making the same pathetic hand to mouth gestures that we’d become desensitized to over the past five and a half weeks of being in India. We were hit by a bouquet of roses when we didn’t buy them. It was funny because one child who was really young and looked like he’d been run over by a dump truck a few times was tugging on my shirt at a stop light telling me that his parents were dead. The driver said, in Hindi something along the lines of, ‘you’re parents aren’t really dead’ to which he started laughing and ran away. It was all a game and we were learning how to play it.

I don’t know if I’m better for visiting India, but I’m glad I did. I’m a cynic by nature but by India’s nurture I am now extremely desensitized by litter and poverty and madness and more wary of anyone. On the other hand I am so much more appreciative of winning the geographic lottery and happy that I was born where I was. I am also extremely appreciative that I live somewhere where it is socially acceptable to fall in love before I got married and hold hands with my wife in public.

We booked a train giving us three hours between when we were supposed to land and when the train was supposed to leave in order to give us plenty of time for anything unforeseen. Our luggage was the first off the carrousel, there was no line for the taxis, and our taxi driver drove around the city avoiding all rush-hour traffic. We got to the train station with around two and a half hours to spare.

The Delhi train station can be an intimidating place. It is home to the most ridiculous scam I’ve ever heard of and if people fall for it I feel bad because taking advantage of the elderly and mentally retarded people is sickening. It is the scam where some random guy is standing in front of the train station plain clothed and tells you to show your ticket. When you do, they tell you that you didn’t pay the tax and you need to get their signature on the ticket before entering. At least two people tried this scam on us on the way to the entry. It is funny because the Brandyn entering India would have been like, ‘you’ve got some nerve mister scammer, I cannot believe that you’d try to do something that dishonest.’ The Brandyn which had been in India for 40 days was like, ‘nice try buddy, good luck with those other idiots behind us.’

Cori and I found a nice quiet place to wait for the train with no one else around which was very clean. Ironically, it was right next to the only garbage can in sight. The only person who used it in the two hours we sat on the platform was another Westerner. We took another 2AC train and sat next to a lovely couple. This was the second couple that was in a ‘love marriage’ that we’d met in India. It was peculiar to be asked if we were married and then be asked if it was a love marriage. They got really excited that we had something in common. Again the same thing with Anil and Jeeva, they seemed much happier with one another and it was good to see a little affection even if it was just in the tone of their voices. We talked about the economy and how even the upper middle class in India felt the global recession. 2AC is certainly worth the few extra dollars with the comforts and the conversation that we’d had while taking them.

The city of Agra is unimpressive. The pictures of the Taj make it seem like the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge. We expected to be able to see it from anywhere in the city. Our hotel’s website said that we were able to see it from the roof. Two problems with that; first, there were too many bugs to go outside without being swallowed alive and second, there are no lights on it at night. Here’s how it looks after dark.

The next morning we were due to leave at 5am to purchase tickets so that we could arrive at the Taj Mahal as the sun was rising. This was reportedly the best time to go; it is best to avoid the crowds and the sun is supposed to hit the building in an awe inspiring way. The morning we were supposed to visit the Taj the power was out in the entire city of Agra, thus the ATMs weren’t working. I was running around frantically going to every ATM within five kilometers of our hotel hoping that one had a generator. We had no such luck with the ATMs and with the help of a friendly bicycle rickshaw man exchanged some US Dollars for Rupees and ended up paying a 10% commission (around $4).

We stood in line for the entrance for around 3 minutes until we saw that there was a women’s line and a men’s line. I had some chai while waiting in line with an interesting Australian man while Cori waited with his wife in their own separate but equal line. We were both super tired after flying for 3.75 hours and a 3 hour train ride.

So this was the first building, World Heritage Site, or anything of interest that we’d seen pictures of in India before visiting. Every palace or fort we’d seen was a blip in the guidebook and we had a look. The Taj Mahal was something else, a so called Wonder of the World. People describe the Taj Mahal as the most romantic place on earth. It is a place that is meant to reach inside of your soul and drag epiphanies to the surface. For me it was something different.

Don’t get me wrong here. The Taj is truly magnificent. It is one of the most beautiful structures I’ve ever seen. My complaint about it is the hype. I have never heard with the exception of Carl Pilkington anyone say anything negative about it at all, but he’s dubbed as ‘an idiot.’

Everyone’s heard everything there is to say about the Taj and it is all positive. Rather than reiterate jargon that has better prose than this blog, I’ll put a different spin on the Taj and write about everything that was NOT awe inspiring for me personally.

The first thing that is stupid about the Taj Mahal is the women who visit it. Every single guest house, hotel, and hostel in Agra all give out information pamphlets at the front desk. In every pamphlet it states more than one time that it is advised that no one bring a bag because it will be searched and no food or drinks are allowed in. The same warnings even with pictures and no words were on a large sign so that everyone could see while standing in line. The women’s line was about 25% of the men’s line and I still had to wait an extra 15 minutes for Cori (who didn’t bring anything but a smile with her) to clear the security line.

I know that I cannot have the place to myself, but does it really have to be that crowded? The place is swamped; every picture that I took which doesn’t have anyone in it was luck, stupid chance, and waiting forever to get the picture. We’ve all seen the picture of Princess Diana on the seat in front of the Taj with no one else there. It is complete nonsense, we had to wait 20 minutes in line (which was about the same as every other pushy line in India) just to take a picture on the same bench she was.

It in my opinion the Taj Mahal was incredible, but wasn’t worth the hype. We’d been up and down India looking at buildings for 6 weeks. At that point it was another building and I was due for a nap. We left had some breakfast and took a nap. Later that night we had beers on the roof and took a picture of it to show how it is lit up at night. Before going to bed we found out that Giddafi was dead.

We took the train back to Delhi to wait three days before heading off to Varanasi. Diwali was starting that week and we’d be in Varanasi to see what the heck it actually was. Diwali I think is much like Christmas in that when you ask someone what it is and why you celebrate it, the actuality is much different. We’re celebrating the birth of Christ in a ritual that resembles pagan tradition very close to solstice by singing about a fat white guy who slides down your chimney at night to give children presents. The nice couple that we’d met on our way to Agra told us that Diwali in short, is a festival of light. People will clean their houses, give presents, and wear new outfits, string lights on the streets and light candles in front of their homes. The Diwali we saw had men drinking and gambling on every street corner while everyone from two to 82 were lighting off fireworks (sometimes throwing them at us to laugh while we would run or jump to avoid them).

Our three days in Delhi were uneventful. We had an aircon room with cable and decent internet. We holed up while we waited for our train. The highlight of the three days was my buying a new pair of earphones and getting some of the Delhi Belly.

For pictures from Agra and the Taj Mahal please click HERE


Varanasi

We took the overnight train to Varanasi and arrived early in the morning. We booked a room with a guest house that said that they gave free pickup from the train station. Groggily we’d made the mistake of telling a rickshaw driver where we are staying. He said that he would take us there and that he was sent from the hotel to get us. I asked him then to tell me my name so that we knew that he was who he said that he was. He couldn’t, so we didn’t go with him. Another rickshaw driver heard this nonsense and said that he was too from our guest house and that he would take us there. Neither of the two rickshaw drivers could tell me my name thereby verifying that they were sent from the guesthouse. I at that point had it up to my eyelids in India and was India’d out. Finally one of the two of them called the guest house and shouted BRANDYN! We were at our guesthouse a few minutes later.

Everyone’s a poet in Varanasi. Burning is learning, cremation is education, and all sorts of other crap. Varanasi is a holy city and sits on the bank of the Ganges River; the mother of India. It is said that one’s soul can finally be put to rest by being put into the Ganges after death. It is an honor to come here to die. There are hospices full of communicable diseases that you can visit which are within spitting distances from the pyres where bodies are cremated. The burning goes on 24 hours a day seven days a week. The fires are always ablaze. The entire city has tiny pieces of ashy confetti constantly streaming down. It is possible to at sunrise and sunset stare directly into the sun because of the thickness of the haze blocking the sun’s rays make it possible to do so.

I had an idea of what we were getting ourselves into but because of a sick perversion, I had to see it. Before we had gotten there people told us ‘it is literally the most disgustingly dirty place I’ve ever been’ ‘everyone gets sick in Varanasi because it is so dirty’ ‘it is apocalyptic.’ Every negative thing that has ever been said about Varanasi can’t quiet explain really how bad it is. Dead bodies wrapped up in sheets being carried down the street didn’t warrant a glance from me, the thing that disgusted me and the thing that made me want to vomit every second of every day was the smell. I wish that smell-o-vision had been created or that I could have opened a box, captured the smell, and when I was in a work meeting that was going on too long, I could open said box. It wasn’t the site of Varanasi that got to me.

The city has absolutely zero order to it. The streets are completely mish-mashed and strewn together; the same street will go in three different directions. The streets could be mistaken for hallways they were so narrow. We had to share these slender corridors with rickshaws, other people, and the obligatory cow. There was absolutely no ventilation in these meager passageways so the number of flies hovering over the steaming hot garbage and roasting cow shit outnumbered humans 100 to 1. This was no place to wear flip flops. My gag reflex was tested at least 20 times a day.

We had three days in Varanasi before we had to get our train north to the Nepalese border. The first day we spend lounging around and doing a fair bit of exploring. The second day we walked around even more and went to go see the ghats and burning pyres. The last day we woke up early to take a boat ride on the Ganges to see the city from the water.

Our guest house was nice in that there was a nice rooftop area to escape the insanity and meet other travelers. The majority of people that we met were all coming south from Nepal. I traded some e-books I had for a hard copy of the Nepal Lonely Planet. We also realized that we drastically underestimated the amount of time we were going to spend in Nepal. Everything that everyone had said made me excited to go, but knowing that we would be there in three days made me chomp at the bit.

Wandering the city made me so appreciative that I would never have to come back there for as long as I lived. The word ‘raw’ comes up when other more hippyish travelers describe it. They say things like, ‘oh Varanasi, it is so raw.’ It is raw like a raw piece of stepped in shit is raw.

Nepal, ETA two days. The ghats were covered in mud and garbage from flooding a few months previous to our visit. Clean up crews had better things to do than actually clean up. Every step we took was like stepping on a surprise landmine. It could be a soda bottle, a bone, or a cow turd. We decided that we’d take a rickshaw to a really nice hotel so that we could have one last good clean lunch. In the evening we watched the traditional dance and ceremony on the ghats. That was by far the coolest thing we saw.

The next morning we woke up before sunrise to take a boat ride on the Ganges. It was incredible. According to one source, the river is over 300,000 times filthier than what is acceptable for human consumption. People were doing their daily chores in the river. People were bathing, people were brushing their teeth, and washing their clothes in water where 20 meters away people are being burned and dumped into said water. The river was littered with dead cows and goats that people had just thrown in. For people who cannot afford to be cremated their family members will typically tie a rock to their leg and throw them into the river. Sometimes these bodies break loose and come to the surface.

Out of respect we didn’t take any pictures of the cremations, but Cori’s face kind of says it all.

For pictures from Varanasi please click HERE

Our next train ride was supposed to take a brisk 6 hours and instead took 10. All that we wanted to do was get the hell out of India and everything was keeping us there. When we finally arrived in Gorakhpur we shared a taxi with our new friend from China who negotiated on price better than anyone I’d ever seen. We adopted the phrase TOO MUCH and would walk away in any and all future negotiations.

Swindlers tried their best at the border and we just kept our heads down and breezed right into Nepal.


India Wrap Up and Stats

Here are some India statistics:
Total number of days we spent in India: 51
Number of Unesco World Heritage sites visited: 8
Number of awkward haircuts Brandyn received: 2
Total number of hours on a bus: 32
Total number of hours on a train: 95.25
Number of kilometers traveled on a train: 4,841
Average speed of the train 50.82 kms an hour or roughly 31mph
Number of beers I drank: 9
Number of dead dogs we saw: 2
Amount of pictures we took in total: 2,568
Number of times we were asked if we wanted a rickshaw: 4,000
Number of times we were offered drugs by rickshaw drivers after saying we didn’t want a ride:3,998

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