Adventures in the Subcontinent...
Kolkata

May 15: My train ride to Kolkata was uneventful, once I actually got on the train that is, and after paying way too much for a cab (a whole $3) I arrived at my hotel unscathed from the journey. I found myself some cheap and very tasty Bengali food for lunch then headed to the Indian Museum which is HUGE! I wandered around bizarre exhibits for the better part of two hours before heading to the Victoria Memorial…

"Sitting inside the Victoria Memorial park, reading my book in a bit of shade, the last thing I expected to hear was bagpipes! And yet, here they are, playing a well-known tune (quite badly I might add) that speaks of Scotland, no India. I like Kolkata. Wide, clean streets lined with trees, Bengali food, and old colonial buildings. Yellow colonial era cabs and hand-pulled rickshaws compete with the modern and efficient metro line.

"Couples sit in the Victoria Memorial park on this Sunday afternoon. Some snuggle, others hold hands. Some simply lean close together. It’s nice to see these displays of affection, so uncommon everywhere but in the largest of India’s cities…"

After a while two fat ladies and their fat kids sit down next to me. They each eat about 5 individually wrapped toffee candies and throw the papers all around them, sullying this otherwise immaculate park, even though there’s a garbage can not 20 feet away. Sometimes it’s enough to make me sick. Meanwhile, a homeless boy huffing gasoline on a rag is shooed away when he asks for a candy. I let him take some pictures with my camera, he seemed to really enjoy it. He couldn’t have been older than 8 or 9.

A couple of girls came and sat next to me as the afternoon turned to early evening. They had very little English but enough to exchange names and find out that I’m a student and come from Canada. They walked me about the park and called friends and relatives to have me say an awkward hello on the phone, proving I existed, showing me off. I don’t mind the attention from the girls.

I ate dinner in stages on my walk back to my hotel. I love street food! Only one more full day remains before I start my journey homeward. It feels so strange to be leaving. Excitement and melancholy mingle together like old friends in my heart.

I’m enjoying this solitude again.

Varanasi

May 11: As predicted being with the group completely drained me of the energy and the inspiration to write. Delhi was not what I expected though. I actually quite enjoyed the vibe of the city and I wish I’d had a couple days to explore it one my own. One whole day was spent being ferried around from shopping center to shopping center which was very disappointing, but that’s the way it is with these pre-arranged tours I suppose. We did have a lovely evening at the tour company owner’s house on our last night in Delhi. Tasty home cooking and plenty of rum and coke. Yum. Agra was also much better than anticipated. We saw two forts and the Taj as a group. The Taj was absolutely stunning. Breathtakingly beautiful and so big! Pictures do not do it justice. After the group left I spent alone afternoon by myself in Agra. I saw another mausoleum dubbed the “Baby Taj” as well as a view of the Taj from across the Yamuna River. I think I could just sit and stare at that monument for hours. I caught my train without incident and arrived in Varanasi a few hours ago. I just came in from the balcony where I looked at the Ganges, Mother Ganga, for the first time. It is an impressive river, even in the middle of the dry season when it’s at its lowest. I am excited to be here, in the heart of Hinduism. It’s 46 degrees Celsius right now.

May 12, 8:14am: Well… would you believe I’ve been up for 3 hours already? It doesn’t really feel like it, the time on the boat flew by. I don’t really know how to begin to describe the experience of floating slowly down the Ganges at dawn.

I sweated through the night, waking up at weird intervals and so, stepping out into the fresh morning air was a relief. A light breeze blew on the river and I watched, hardly able to absorb all that I saw. People were in the water praying, swimming, bathing, washing clothes. Children screeched as they lept from the steps, splashing into the waters below. Women stood on the steps with long saris held up between them to dry in the breeze. Everywhere there is colour and sound. Prayers roll out from a loudspeaker and drums and flutes float by on the air.

We passed two burning ghats. The larger of the two cremates 200-250 people a day, it is the most auspicious place in the world for a Hindu to be cremated. I didn’t actually see any bodies on the pyres, but there were flames and so there must have been bodies… wood is a precious, and expensive, resource. There was an electric crematorium at the smaller of the two burning ghats “for poor people,” my boatman informed me, “only 500 rupees.” We passed one unfortunate soul who must have been too poor even for the electric crematorium. His limbs were stiffened at odd angles and he was bloated with river water. Small gashes on the exposed flesh of his arms showed evidence of birds. His face was thankfully covered. We passed him twice and on the way back the day had become warm enough and the breeze had turned slightly so that I had the unpleasant experience of smelling the decaying flesh… not much different than bad chicken… hard to think about. Before coming to India I had never seen a dead human body. Since arriving I have seen them from far off, in funeral processions. This was the closest I have come to the reality of death, it was almost surreal.

11:54am: Waves of excitement and sadness keep washing over me as I count down the days before I leave this country. Yesterday, as I rode in a rickshaw with a pumping sound system, it was sadness. A Hindi song, followed by some Dixie Chicks, followed by what I think was the theme music from the Pirates of the Caribbean blasted forth, almost managing to drown the noise of horns and vehicles around us. The chaos of people, cows, bicycles, autos, bicycle-rickshaws, motorbikes cars… a riot of sound and colour. India is a constant stream of organized chaos and while I sometimes hate it for that, usually it is what makes me love it. I’m afraid that home may seem a little dull after the constant stimulation of all my senses that India so happily provides. And Varanasi is where that chaos all comes together and collides. I am looking forward to an evening stroll along the Ganges, for now I’m hibernating inside… it’s bloody hot!

Only 5 more sleeps before my journey home begins. Just as I was in a state of disbelief before coming to India, it is the same leaving it. I have been here for so long now that it feels surreal to thin that I will not be here anymore. I’ll have to come back, there’s no question in my mind about that.

9:01pm: Well…what a day! I really love Varanasi; it certainly does have that “holy” vibe, very chill.

At about 4pm I started my stroll down the ghats. There was very little hassle and aside from two friendly young men who wanted to have full-blown conversations (but were easy to get rid of) I was left pretty much alone. I ventured into the streets behind Dasaswamedh Ghat (the “main” ghat) to find an ATM and it was chaotic but still pleasant. I bout myself a Shiva lingam on that strip, I needed some sort of Hindu paraphernalia from Varanasi. I stayed down by Dasaswamedh Ghat for the evening puja and my-oh-my was it ever quite the affair! Lots of chanting and clapping while 6 young Brahmins waved various implements and flames around in front of them and hundreds of candles wreathed in marigolds were set afloat in the Ganges by devotees. And this happens every single day!

May 14: My last day in Varanasi, I leave on the night train to Kolkata at 4:30 this afternoon. Time for one more apple pie at the pizzeria on the Ganges. Yesterday I met a girl from Quebec travelling on her own and we spent a lazy day together, eating way too much. This morning we took another boat ride down the river which was a lovely way to finish off my stay in this city. I am getting very very excited about coming home. Only 3 more sleeps in this country for me! See you all soon :)

Jaisalmer

May 3: We arrived early today to Jaisalmer after a relatively comfortable overnight bus ride (not counting the gum). Hotel Renuka is lovely. Our room is spacious and cool with an attached bathroom, fan, windows, and balcony, all for only Rs. 400/night! Not bad, not bad.

Today we went out to wander the streets and explore a few of the city’s grander havelis. Haveli means “air” and these incredibly ornate, multi-story sandstone buildings have a breeze flowing through every room and plenty of natural light from the central courtyards.  We learned about old desert practices of conserving water. Each month women would cover themselves in mud during menstruation, a sign of their unclean state to warn the men (ahem). At the end of menstruation the woman would shower with collected and saved rainwater, washing off the mud. The water and mud from the shower were collected in a bucket and the mud filtered out, sinking to the bottom. The water was then used to wash clothes, collected again and used to wash the floor, then collected a final time and used to wash the toilet. The mud was also put into the toilet for two reasons. One, mixed with the human waste it could be spread on agricultural fields as compost. Two, due to the women’s practice of wearing of scented oils all over their bodies for the weeks while they were not menstruation, the mud acquired some of that perfume and would help to mask the odour of the toilet.

In the desert we leaned another excellent water conservation tip for cleaning dishes. Pour a little water on the dirty dish to rinse, then fill it with dry sand and scrub. The sand scours away any food and also dries the plates and pots better than any rag could ever do. So clever.

Jaisalmer is super peaceful. So tiny and, being off-season, very quiet. Tomorrow we will explore the fort and take a trip out to some real dunes for sunset!

May 4: Today we took a jeep out to the Sam Sand Dunes to watch the sunset. During the day we explored a little of the old city in the fort. The Maharaja’s palace was very impressive and it was amazing how almost every building inside the fort was covered in exquisite carvings. The fort is made out of yellow sandstone and from the outside looks just like a sand castle. It’s bastions resemble nothing so much as those conical buckets of sand, packed firmly and dumped upside down quick so as to maintain their integrity that any childhood trip to the beach involved. From the inside though, twisting lanes open into grander squares and the stone carvings are like lace strewn carelessly across all the buildings.

The dunes…

I love driving in this country… or rather, being driven. Our ride in the jeep out to the sand dunes was really nice. We sped through scrub-land along a bumpy, curving road. Huddles of brick and mud houses squatted beside the road, their thatched roofs made them look cozy and inviting. The mud walls are made of a mixture of cow dung, sand, and water. Some people whitewash these walls, others paint designs on them, still others are plain or have small patterned indentations on them for added aesthetic appeal. I like the smooth rounded shapes of the mud walls. They are evocative of a simpler time and place.

As we drove on we encountered herds of cattle, bullocks, goats, horses, and camels. I’m really growing rather fond of camels. They are ungainly and goofy looking, but there’s something appealing in their calm demeanor and their heavily lashed eyes.

At one small village a cluster of women stood atop a large cement water storage tank. Their colourful saris flapping in the evening breeze as they hauled bucket after bucket of water up to fill their waiting vessels.

Once we reached the dunes we were greeted by a press of camel drivers wanting to give us a ride out onto the dunes and while I was tempted, my seat bones were telling me it was not a good idea, and I know Marcy didn’t want to. Instead we walked across the dunes. I took off my shoes and we set out to find a spot to watch the sun go down. The dunes are beautiful and quite impressive, but they are also littered with hundreds of chip bags and other debris. Evidence of a steady stream of tourists. By the time 6:30 rolled around (the sun would set at 7:15) we were sharing the dunes with at least 75 tourists, both Indian and foreign… and this is solidly into off-season! Luckily we’d walked far enough into the dunes that we weren’t sharing our specific dune with anyone. We watched awkward tourists bump along on trotting camels as the sun slowly sunk lower in the sky, turning the dunes gold in the fading light, shadows stretching long.

Tomorrow we will leave Jaisalmer and head for Delhi. The end is so near I can taste it.

May 6: We’re headed to Delhi for one last hurrah with the gang. I am looking forward to being taken care of for a few days… this country is exhausting. It’s only 7 am but already the heat is draining. While not nearly as bad as the south, Delhi is going to be humid. I am not looking forward to muggy, polluted air for the next 5 days. Oh well.

Last night as I sat gazing out at the desert rolling by us I saw a peacock! Then another, another… I lost count but I think I saw about 10 or so in all! They looked almost absurd in the flat barren landscape. Big jewels of colour with their ostentatious displays. Pretty amazing though, I must say… I squealed like a little girl, several times. Lol!

Bikaner and the Thar Desert

April 29: I’ve been too exhausted at the end of the last two days to feel like writing, but I’ve got some time now. We are currently stopped for lnch and a siesta on the first of a three day camel safari. So far it is most excellent. We have two camels, one that we switch off riding and one to pull the cart with all our suplies, our two guides, and whichever of us is not riding the other camel. It is really windy out and already I feel there’s sand in places I didn’t know existed on my body! Lunch also had a certain crunch about it, but it was so tasty. Our guides prepared everything from scratch, including the delicious chapati/roti. I can’t wait to sleep under the stars…

Yesterday we explored Bikaner with a British girl named Phoebe that we met in our guesthouse over tasty breakfast of porridge with milk. We went to an impressive fort then wandered through the bazaars into the old city. The old city was rteally neat. Small houses clustered down tiny alleys, then huge European style buildings taking up entire blocks, all shuttered and locked. We watched boys flying and fighting kites rom rooftops all accross the neighbourhood as the sun went down.

The wind is picking up out here in the desert. I hope it will calm down by this evening, I want to be able to watch the stars.

April 30: Morning in the desert is very peaceful, xcept for the crowd of boys and men that have materialized out of the nearby village to watch us. So many eyes, all the time.

Yesterday, at the place whee we had our siesta, a farmer came out to see us and his son, and his elderly mother…twice. I particularly liked the old woman, who had quite a lot to say about us, I’m not sure what though. On her second visit she tried on my sunglasses and decided I should send her a pair, along with prints of the photos that Marcy took.

After siesta we carried on for a couple more hours to our campsite for the night, this time with me on the cart. It’s going to be rough getting back up on that camel today, my seatbones are incredibly bruised. I imagine though that the pain will numb after not too long. I slept fairly poorly. The sand is hard and there was a wedding in the nearby village and music and tyemple worship came rolling out over the dunes on the loudspeakers until the wee hours of the morning. But I’m in a good mood.

I like the desert. The calm, the slow pace of camels. I don’t even mind the sand that gives our food an added crunch and gets in everywhere! Last night I pulled out my lip balm, which had been closed, inside my zipped backpack all day, not having been opened and there was sand inside it!

Camel milk chai and food cooked over the tiny fire have been divine. I’d like to come back some day and do a longer trek. A week in the desert to clean the mind and rejuvinate the soul. I could get used to this. I’d like it if I could help make the food too, but I’m pretty sure our guide would have none of that it’s his job after all and they take these roles pretty seriously here.

All in all I’m glad we have this full day before heading back. A day to wake in the desert and fall asleep under the stars again. Good life.

May 1: I’m in a rickshaw right now…

Today we rose with chai and porridge in the cool clean air of the desert morning. Har Phool (our guide) would leave us after breakfast to catch a train to Haridwar, honouring the passing of a younger sister one year ago. I was sad to see him go, but unconcerned. A feeling of unease settled, however, when the elder camel herder also jumped down from the cart, disappearing into the village behind us. Both Marcy and I shared the distinct feeling of a not so wholesome vibe from the younger camel herder, but so long as either of the to elder men had been around we hadn’t felt uncomfortable.

As we rode on, he asked was I married. I liked and said yes… it’s almost true at least. He asked if I had children and told me that he had one son. His english is nearly non-existent so actual conversation was liited but I thought perhaps I had misjudged him. I soon thought otherwise.

It seemed early when we stopped for lunch. We had been cutting across fields instead of sticking to the roads and I thought perhaps he was merely being lazy not wanting to take more time than necessary out under the hot sun. I still don’t know if this was the case. The older man rejoined us about an hour later. Was it just my imagination, or did he seem surprised to see we’d been there long ernough to have eaten already?

We were stopped at an old abandoned cement house that had obviously been used as a lunch stop before. We set up our blanket in the shade opf the porch. When he st at my feet I was a little surprised. After all he was to be making lunch and he obviously couldn’t sit and chat before setting in to work as Har Phool often did. Then he offered, “Massage? No problem.” and started sqeezin my calf at which point I brusquely pulled my leg away and firmly said “No massage, no”, shaking my head for emphasis. He then proceeded to scan my whole body from ankle to neck and back again. That look made me feel more violated than many unwelcome hand has ever done.

After a moment he began to prepare lunch but came back over soon enough with a folded piece of paper in his hand and a thoughtful look on his face. He squatted at my feet bleated “Aalee”, (his approximation of my name), unfolded the paper and pointed to me and to it. As I looked my mind went blank with shock. I’m not sure if he said anything else, for an instant all I could do was stare in revulsion at the images… Western porn, graphic and demeaning.

I’m not sure what he was impying or aiming for, but I felt deeply violated and insulted. I’m pretty sure I managed the words “gross, no, get away, and bad” before retreating to a glowering silence and brushing angrily at the tears that I found suddenly in my eyes. Vulnerable.

When the old man came back I felt safe again, but it had botched the end of what had been up to that point an incredible and rejuvenation experience.

I a so excited to go back to a country where my strength and independence as a woman do not make me a target.

May 2: I told Vino, the safari organizer of the incident and he assured me he would take care of the issue. I feel much better having slept and distanced myself from the situation. Only 16 days till I am home and it all feels a little surreal… until next time.

P.S. Mom, don’t worry, I never felt unsafe with two of us there, only really grossed out. Love you all!                                                                                          

Jaipur

April 23: And so it begins. Marcy and I are settled on our train and in 25 minutes we will commence ouir 34 hour journey north to Delhi. There are some positives and some negatives to our placement on the train. On the plus side, we have one top bunch, unfortunately not two though. We are also the last berth section before the toilets… it smells something aweful, but already I am becoming desensitized to it. Also unfotunate is the fact that so far we are sharing our berth with only men. Two passengers left to come though… hopefully at least one of them will be a woman. If not, it won’t be the end of the world, but it would certainly be nice.

We found chains and locks to buy last minute before we got on the train which has made me feel a whole lot better. I’ve got veg biriyani (with egg) for dinner, yum. Hopefully the people on my side don’t want to stay up too late, I’ve given Marcy the top bunk, so I’ll have to wait to lie down. At least we can alternate afternoon naps if we want to. I am excited to be heading out. The next 25 days are going to just fly by!

April 24: This morning I cracked. After a night of no sleep and unpleasant “accidental” pokes and bumps to get me up this morning so my bed could be put down, I just couldn’t handle the stares. What gets you more stares than being a white woman on an Indian train?? Being a white, crying woman on an Indian train, that’s what. I pulled my scarf over my head to cover my face and that helped. I could still see them but they soon lost interest in staring a the pink blob of my covered head.

And now the beggars begin. The sheer number of people who come down the isle asking for money is really astounding when I stop to think about it. I can’t even sit staring out the window because I’m on the isle. Marcy doesn’t even have room to come down from her bed and sit at all because there’s four people on the bench where her seat is technically reserved and the two women sitting beside me are preparing some sort of food on the seat. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up that our berth mates would be like the men on the way to Hyderabad. There are 13 people sharing this space that’s only meant to hold 8. I love this country, I hate this country.

April 25: We arrived safe and sound to our oasis in Jaipur. In Delhi we quickly talked a rickshaw driver down to a reasonable price and when we got to the bus stand the very first thing a kindly old man in white shouted at us was “Jaipur, non-AC!”. Within 10 Indian munutes we were on our way. The ride was long and hot, but not uncomfortable. There was hardly anyone on the bus so Marcvy and I spread out. I dozed, read, and gazed out the window at this altered landscape.

Men and women walk with heads covered, some out of religious duty, some as shelter from the sun. Bullocks have been replaced by camels as the chosen beast of burden. No paddy in the fields here, they are scorched and brown in the dry unrelenting heat. Overhead the sun beats down mercilessly. The lush fertility of the South has been replaced by a clinging will to survive. Rajasthan.

Already my lips are beginning to dry. As we snaked our way north, the lush vegetation I had grown accustomed to slowly changed, getting drier. Deciduous trees, mostly barren in this last month before the monsoon, gave an air of fall, but with none of it’s crisp freshness or bright colours. Just dry, brown leaves.

Jaipur has a good vibe to it so far. Our hotel is adorable and I wish we could be staying here a little longer. But we must move on to Bikaner and the camels. We’ll enjoy it while it lasts and see as much of the city as we can. Tonight, we visit the Monkey Temple!

April 26: Jaipur is restoring my confidence in India. Last night we visited the temple complex at Galta (the Monkey Temple) which was quite beautiful. There were plenty of monkeys, relatively few hassles, some beautiful views and lovely architecture. Our rickshaw driver warned us about “helpful boys” and told us how to say “go away” in Hindi, challo. There was also a sun temple called Surya Mandir at the top of the hill/mountain we climbed that was quite lovely. After the temples we had dinner at our hotel  inthe gorgeous rooftop restaurant called peacock roof. The ambiance was slightly tainted by too many foreigners showing too much skin… but we’ve hit the tourist trail so I’d better get used to it I suppose.

Today we had breakfast of yoghurt, muesli, and honey! How I have missed that most delicious of breakfasts! Yum! Then we set off on foot for the Lonely Planet’s walking tour. I have to mention the incredible number of cycle rickshaws here. It’s so nice to see that they are still widely used. We headed for the old city and wandered our way through the bazaars to the Iswani Minar Swarga Sal (Heaven Piercing Minaret) where we had a lovely guide who took many pictures for us and didn’t even ask for baksheesh (tip). Just before getting to the minaret we were stopped by a sweet vendor in the bazaars. He was our age and studying pharmacology, working in his father’s sweet shop to help out. He showed us how many of the sweets are made, then put together a tasty variety box for us. There was a time I could barely handle Indian sweets because of their sweetness and richness… gone are the days!

After visiting the minaret we headed to the Jaipur palace, stopping along the way at the Jantar Mantar, an observatory started by Jai Singh in 1728 which has crazy time, sun degree, horoscope, and other neat measuring devices. One of the sundials was massive and accurate to 2 seconds! We discovered that our residency cards work beautifully for getting us the Indian entrance prices for tourist attractions. This is awesome as the tourist price is sometimes as much as ten or fifteen times the price of Indian admission.

After leaving the palace we got some henna done and during this provess were approached by a rickshaw driver. We greeted him with the usual unease but soon found we liked the guy and decided to go with him to visit the floating temple/palace which was cool, but the hassle of vendors and beggars wasn’t so cool. After that came my downfall. Amar (our driver) took us to see a factory where they do block printing, embroidery, and carpet weaving by hand.

The man who showed us all this then took us to his show room. I fully expected to not buy anything… but he wasn’t pushy at all, so logically that makes me want to buy things right?! I bought… well let’s just say I added a pretty heavy bag to my load and spent a little too much money, but hey! Who knows when I’ll be back in India again right?

April 27: Today we got up bright and early, checked out of our hotel and hopped in to Amar’s rickshaw for a trip to Amber Palace and Jaigarh Fort. Both were incredibly impressive and we spent 5 hours exploring. Amar actually called us to make sure we were still okay! In the evening we dined at Peacock Roof one last time and then headed to our train to Bikaner… onwards!

Anticipation and Trepidation

The last morning in Pondicherry. It’s a very strange feeling to know that in two hours I’ll leave and chances are I will never see this place again.

The air is blissfully cool this morning. It rained last night, a farewell blessing. Already it feels less like home base here. Yesterday John, Austin, and Caroline left for the North. Only Caroline will be joining us in Delhi and it was hard to say goodbye. Will I ever see John and Austin again? Chances are, no. We had our farewell party two nights ago. Drinks and dancing on the roof. At about midnight is poured rain… so much fun! A good way to say goodbye.

It’s strange to say goodbye to people I have spent so much close time with for three solid months. Especially knowing I’ll likely never see most of them again. It pulls at the heartstrings.

And Pondy too. Leading up to this departure I was elated to be getting out of here, but now I’m not so sure. It has been a home to me. There are still things I haven’t done that I kept telling myself I would do because I had all the time in the world. But now time’s up.

For all its backwardness the South has an innocence that is lacking up North, or so I am told. The stares that feel so unnerving down here are no more than that, while in the North there may be real cause for discomfort (don’t worry mom, I’ll be uber extra careful). This journey at the end of my journey will be exhausting, but I hope it will also be rewarding in equal measure.

Trepidation and Anticipation.

Those are my feeling words for this morning. As I bid farewell to this temporary home and these fleeing friendships, I will mourn a little.

Goodbye Pondy. For all your ups and downs it’s been a blast.

Hyderabad

Last weekend Brittany and I got on a train to the city of Hyderabad, home to beautiful Mughal architecture, tasty kebabs, famous biriyani, and spicy Andrah Pradesh style south Indian cuisine. John, Austin, and Ramat also came along, but were staying with some of Ramat’s friends who are studying in the city.

We left Pondy on Wednesday and travelled to Chennai by bus to catch our train to Hyderabad. We had a late lunch at a restaurant right across from the Chennai Egmore train station that was fantastic! It was the best thali meal I’ve had to date, absolutely delicious. After stuffing myself to the brim we boarded our train and settled in for the journey. We shared our section with a man from Hyderabad, his father, and his brother in law, all of whom work in Chennai and were headed home for the long weekend. We had a pleasant journey and after fighting off the most aggressive (and numerous) auto-rickshaw drivers I’ve encountered yet, managed to find out hotel just down the street from the train station. A quick nap and a shower and we felt mostly refreshed.

After our snooze we walked the 2km to the area we were sightseeing in for the day. First stop was food. After much circling and a few wrongs turns, we finally managed to fight our way through the dust and hectic traffic and into the lovely interior of one of the two places in Hyderabad to eat biriyani. And since biriyani is what Hyderabad is famous for I figured my taste buds were in for a treat! I ordered the mutton biriyani and while it was certainly very good, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. Biryani just isn’t that exciting. Basically a huge bowl of rice with some hunks of meat thrown in there and a little chilli sauce and raita on the side. No variation of flavours, no vegetables… meh.

After lunch we waited in the dust and heat for the guys to come meet up with us. They took quite a while and by the time they arrived we only had time to see one sight. We opted for the Chowmallah Palace, which, in my opinion, was a very good choice. There were lots of exhibits and the buildings were exquisite.

As evening fell we attempted to wander the bazaars. We failed. Either there aren’t really small wandering alley style bazaars (I had my hopes up for something like in Cairo), or we just couldn’t find them. Either way we hopped in a couple of rickshaws and headed to the shore of the huge lake in the center of the city for a light dinner. After a tasty snack called Bombay Frankies we headed off on foot towards a hookah bar the lonely planet mentions. Imagine out disappointment when, after a half hour trudge through the city, we find that hookah bars have been banned in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderbad… alas!

Brittany and I hopped in an auto and zipped back to our hotel and much needed sleep.

Friday was a good day. We began on an unsuccessful bus journey and ended up taking an auto to the Golconda Fort. I would tell you exciting details about the fort’s history, but I lost the Hyderabad section of my Lonely Planet (I cut out the city section for ease of transportation) and quite frankly I don’t feel like wrestling with the internet to google it. If you’re interested, I’m sure you can manage!

Our failure to bus to the fort actually turned out to be a rewarding turn of events. The first driver we approached quickly accepted our offered price and away we went. For a little while we drove behind an auto packed with about 10 or 12 school kids who spotted us and started waving and yelling hello. Our driver seemed to think it was pretty nice because he had a big grin on his face. His auto was a little worse for wear though… lets just say it had character. With every bump our seat slid a little further forward and the horrible screeching of metal on metal came from somewhere behind us. He seemed to have picked the worst of Hyderabad’s awful roads to get us to our destination so the shiver inducing noise was nearly constant.

When we arrived at the fort we prepared ourselves for the hot climb ahead with a delightful and refreshing sugar cane juice. The pastel green drink is one of my favourites (as you’ll know if you read my Mumbai blog) and I hope it’s readily available up north when I go!

The fort was absolutely amazing. I remember that whoever built it managed to hold off a huge army of Mughals for a very long time because of their ingenious design. A huge thick wall in a half moon in front of the door kept elephant charges at bay and a water system of clay pipes and water wheels provided a constant supply of freshwater even to the very top of the fort. There are still pipes in place today and you can see them where walls have fallen. Brittany and I explored for about 3 ½ hours and could easily have spent more time there, but we still had the Qutb Shahi tombs to see.

The tombs were equally impressive in their own right. The coolest part of our exploration was when we discovered an uncovered stairwell inside one tomb that led down to a small, cave-like tomb beneath the main chamber. Sooo creepy, but super cool. It was very damp and hot with tons of bugs and cockroaches skittering away from our lights. Very “raider’s of the lost ark” –esque. We also climbed a stairway up to a really amazing turret on one tomb that I’m pretty sure was off limits, but man what a view!

At about 4:30 we hopped in an auto to go find food. Lunch/pre-dinner was in a very neat little spot. We turned down an alley that had tables up the middle and bikes (of the motor variety) zooming by on either side of the diners. After tasty snacks we had some tea, then some sugar can juice, then we found a bar and bought ourselves some booze. As usual there were no women in the establishment (Indian girls don’t drink or smoke in public, if at all). Even with an entourage of 3 big guys, I felt super uncomfortable under the leering gazes of dark, drunk, sweaty men. Places to avoid item one. But we got what we came for and soon found an auto to take us to Ramat’s friend’s place where the three boys were crashing.

Ramat and his friends are from Afghanistan. We arrived and were promptly served tea. We chatted before dinner which was a delicious Afghani chicken soup/stew. The guys apologized for the simplicity of the meal. Since coming to Hyderabad they have had to learn to cook for themselves. At home, that’s a woman’s job. But they did a fantastic job in my opinion and we cleaned our bowls dry with tasty brown bread.

After dinner we sat down for cards and India’s finest bagpiper whiskey. When Brittany and I reached our hotel at 1am or so we found ourselves locked out. The big gate was padlocked and a guard slept soundly on the other side. We tried calling and clanging the gates but he didn’t wake up. Brittany had made it over the fence and was almost down on the other side when a street sweeper walked up and started screeching for the watchman to wake (for our sake, not because she thought we were busting in). He roused himself sleepily and came over to unlock the gate for me with a bemused grin. Silly white people.

Saturday was rather uneventful. Brittany and I basically just killed time until our train brought us back to Tamil Nadu and we hopped a bus back to Pondy. Home hot/smelly/noisy/dirty home (for a couple more days anyway!).

Things the Cat has brought home…

A list in the spirit of Caroline. I thought it was high time to record all the things the cat has brought home/caught in the hostel for dinner…

Cockroaches

Geckos

Chipmunk

Bat

Snake

Isn’t she cuuutteee! lol!

Stolen Moments

Spring is in full swing on campus… or what passes for spring in a country of two monsoons and unbearable heat in between. As I walk from class a breeze wafts in brief gusts, attempting to cool my sticky skin. In the stillness that falls between the bouts of gentle wind, the heavy scent of blooming flowers, sweet and cloying, drapes itself around me. Underfoot a carpet of yellow blossoms softens the road, an offering from the trees that already give so much relief in their shade. Butterflies dance lazily around my legs as I stroll through campus. It is impossible to move at a pace faster than a lazy saunter, even at this speed I am drenched by the time I reach class. Rivulets of sweat trickling down my back, under arms, between breasts. My hair is wet at the nape of my neck and my temples. It is a state of being here in Pondicherry in April. Just the way it is I suppose…

Today I rode the bus with a lap full of flowers, it made bearable the oppressive heat of sweating human bodies pressed too close in a tin can. The bag of jasmine gave of a scent so sweet and fresh I could barely even smell the stickier sweet smell of Indian sweat.

I have never appreciated shade or a breeze more than I do here. My daily thanks go out to these two elements of nature.

The heat is oppressive. It clouds my thoughts, slows me down, makes me tired. It wipes all other topics from my mind.

Sorry this wasn’t more interesting…

MUMBAI

This blog will be a direct copy of my journal entries for day 1, 2, and 3 of my 4 days in Mumbai, day 4 is remembered…

9:12 pm, March 17, 2011

Bombay, Mumbai!!! Hooray! So happy I’m finally in this city. I love it so much, I loved it from the moment we landed. Or perhaps I’d already begun loving it years ago, when I first read Shantaram.

We left the hostel at 2am and after a tense car ride (alternating between death defying speed and slow weaving in and out of lanes as the driver dozed off) arrived with just the right amount of time to have a snack and board the plane.

By the time we arrived I was exhausted and could think of nothing but bed, but the instant I set foot on the tarmack the excitement of finally being in this city that I had so long anticipated visiting drove all thoughts of sleep from my head.

We decided to take the bus into downtown and hoofed it to the correct bus stand by playing the India game of hot and cold (ask one person, head in the direction they point to for a while, ask another person, adjust course, and so on… hasn’t failed me yet). We waited a long time for our bus but it eventually came and what a ride! It took FOREVER (like 2 ½ hours) to get to where our hotel is and I loved every minute of it! My only complaint was that the window was so dirty that I couldn’t take too many good pictures.

 

We got off the bus one stop too far and walked back which proved to be a good thing as there were some really cool shopping areas to be seen. Our hotel is in a tiny old building, squeezed in beside a large wooden synagogue, on the third (Indian third… read fourth) floor. It’s adorable and the people who run it are super friendly. It’s also in an awesome location.

Back to the bus… watching the city roll by, the initial vibe I’d felt when walking to find the bus stop was reinforced. Something about the air, the streets, the SIDEWALKS!!! That just call me home, put me at ease, and create a great sense of satisfaction and enjoyment in me. I did see some of Bombay’s infamous poverty, people’s home growing out of the sidewalk. Tarps nailed to walls, creating shelter, and cooking fires scattered among them. Naked children ambling about. But the city feels so alive and vibrant, I can’t fault its darker side. I can only absorb and relate it to others, so we can share that burden of knowledge.

 

After getting settled and finding lunch our group split up (necessary to enjoy the city, 8 people is too many for strolling). John and I decided to follow the walking tour laid out in the lonely planet. It started down by the water at the Gateway to India and we extended it to finish at Victoria Terminus. Along the way we saw too many sights to name!

 

This city is amazing!! The architecture is breathtaking and it’s everywhere. There are so many gorgeous buildings I don’t even know where to start. After culling my pictures from today I have 207. I may need to buy another memory card while I’m here.

 

Down by the water there were a ton of men selling giant (and I mean seriously immense) balloons. One tried extra hard to sell us a pack of 10, but what would we do with 10 giant balloons?

 

A list of things we ate and drank on the street today needs to be included here now. First, sugar-cane juice (see picture above). So excited, first time since Vietnam! I’ve seen I from buses other places but in Pondy it’s all the sweet-lime juice (it’s okay, but not amazing). Here there is sugar-can juice almost on ever block and the clink and whir of the presses can be heard above the passing traffic and (occasional compared to Tamil Nadu) honking of horns. Next we had lime juice, mostly water really. It was tasty though, he added some masala salt and a little sugar and it was delightfully refreshing. Then tea, yum. Then a coconut. They are 20 rupees here! What a rip! But it was delightful nonetheless, perfectly aged for the right balance of water and delightful soft meat. After our coconut we split a cucumber. There are little carts all over where they peel whole cucumbers, then slice them into 4 and rub red salt and lime juice all over them. So refreshing and cooling! Then we had a snack called bhell (see photo below). Not sure all of what went into it, but it came in a paper come with two tasty crackers to use as spoons until finished. De-lightful. And 9if I don’t get at all sick from everything I exposed myself to I will pronounce myself immune to India! Haha.

 

How I wish I were on exchange in this marvelous city instead of Pondy. Alas.

For dinner we strolled down M. G. Road (Mahatma Ghandi road, there seems to be one in every single town/city in India). We wandered into a busy little veg restaurant. Good choice! The food was delightful (I seem to be using that word a lot). I had some stuffed capsicum (stuffed with potatoes, smothered in a light brown curry… capsicum in green pepper) and paneer palak kadai. The latter was exceptionally fantastic, love the palak :)

After dinner we went to Barrista for a hot drink and desert. I wisely stayed away from the caffeine and instead indulged in an “Irish Indulgence,” hot chocolate with irish cream syrup in it. Most satisfactory. Sitting in the ritzy coffee shop was a little strange though. The floor to ceiling windows made me feel like I was in a fish bowl. There were about 5 or 6 Indians all sitting on a low wall out front just watching us. I kind of felt like we were in an episode of Friends. Apparently watching white people in a coffee shop is great entertainment. (I later discovered that there was a second draw, at least for the older people who weren’t also begging at the window… the t.v. at the back of the shop shows cricket games. They are a big deal.)

Tomorrow morning I’m off to Elephant Island and in the aft I’ve planned for the Art Gallery and perhaps sari shopping. Only the day will tell. All I know is that I wish I had time to walk every street of Bombay, soak it ALL in. I guess I’ll have to satisfy myself with just a taste for now and hope that I will be fortunate enough to come back again someday soon! And now I must to bed, until tomorrow…

11:45pm, March 18, 2011

I LOVE THIS CITY!!! –Oh boy do I ever

Today… We went to Elephant Island in the morning. It is home to a huge temple, hewn right into the rock of its hills. It was much more impressive than I’d expected even. Happy surprise!

 

We had intended to tour the Dharavi slum in the afternoon but we got back too late so we go tomorrow morning. I’m not sure what to expect really, but I do know that at least the people who live in the slums have some kind of roof over their heads at night. Somewhere at least semi-permanent to call home. Walking back from the movie theatre tonight we saw too many people lying on the streets to sleep. We passed many men, lying on thin blankets in darkened spaces near their shops. We passed two women, sleeping with four children in the middle of a large median. It’s hard to see. Especially the kids. Nowhere to go… no place to call home.

Before dinner this evening everyone went to the Prince of Whales Museum and the Art Gallery, while I went shopping! I bought too many things and probably spent more money than I should have on all of it, but hey! I’m spendin’ money in Mumbai, I decided I would before I even arrived. The place we happened upon for dinner looked, and felt, kinda like a cafeteria, or a crowded mess hall, but damn! Was it ever delicious! I shared veg vindaloo and palak mutter with John. Soooo good. The waiters wore black vests with bow ties and served out portions of our dishes when they dropped them off. Hot water with line in it was provided to rinse our fingers after. Who’d-a-thunk-it?

The movie we saw was good, but a bit of a let-down in the love story (barely there) and song/dance (pretty much non-existent) department. My highlight was after the movie. John and I (we are the only two of the group up for eating anything and trying everything so we often paired up for eating) went to check out the kebab place mentioned in the Lonely Planet. OMG!!! I could have watched these guys for hours! The street was packed with people. People eating at table lining the sidewalks, people eating off the trunks of cars, in cars, anywhere that provided a surface! A huge crowd was gathered around a large Indian man all in white, the Godfather of Mumbai kebabs! He took orders, instructed servers, greeted guests, posed for photos, all as cool as you please. And the meat. Oh the meat! Sweet succulent chicken thighs and delightful lamb kebab. I’m getting hungry again just thinking about it. Hella-yes!

 

Tomorrow: Dharavi, Chowpatty, Malabar Hills.

10:15 pm, March 19, 2011

Today took us from Dharavi all the way to Malabar Hills. I love this city!

Breakfast and tea in our lovely hotel then off to the train station which was oh so civilized. I expected far more hassle getting out tickets and getting on the train, but it was a piece of cake. The only thing that disturbed our trip was the crazy lade making bird noises and trying to tell us many things in a language that wasn’t English.

 

We disembarked at Mahim Road station and were soon on our way to Dharavi. Covering 1.75 km2, home to over 1 million people, with $650 million US in annual exports from the industries run there, it is a mind-blowing place.

It was overwhelming. No pictures were allowed on the tour, fully understandable, laudable really. I tried to absorb everything with my eyes, we’ll see how I do.

Coming up over the train tracks the slum spread out below us, a sea of corrugated tin roofs. We first entered the industrial section. We walked along narrow lanes, littered with paper and bits of plastic. The first thing we saw was a woodblock printing shop. Swaths of material laid out on long tables. Men with bright paint and geometric stamps carefully stamping the material with monotonous rhythm.

Next we came to the plastics industry. Dharavi is the great recycler of India, and plastic from all over, including ship loads from North America, flow is to the slum. First it is sorted by colour and grade, next it is ground into chips (around the corner the grinding machines are manufactured, some are used in Dharavi, some are sold outside). Then the plastic is washed, dried on the roofs, then melted down and sold in pellet form to plastic manufacturers all over the world.

Oil drums are also recycled here. They are thoroughly cleaned before being sold back to manufacturers. Other industries we saw included the salting and cleaning of hides as well as final colouring and processing of leather. There are laws against tanning in the city due to the smell and chemicals, so after salting, the hides are sold to tanners in villages just outside Mumbai, then bought back to turn into high quality leather to be sold to manufacturers.

The residential part of Dharavi was my favourite. Most houses are cement and many are two stories (all the buildings in the industrial area are two-stories). Every house has 24-hour electricity (with meters and electricity bills). If they can’t afford to pay they don’t use it. All houses also have 4 hours of running water each day. While the water runs they fill large blue barrels to use for the rest of the day. Dharavi is unique in its industry, electricity, and water supply. It is a legal slum, but no new dwellings are allowed to be built. 80% of children in Dharavi attend school. As far as slums go, it’s a very good place to live.

The “streets” in the residential area are very poor. They are about 2 or 2 ½ feet wide, with low hanging wires and the top floors of houses leaning into space at about head height. Daylight barely makes its way in, some lanes are pitch black, even at midday. The footing is dangerous. Cement tiles cover the open sewers, some are cracked, there are many gaps in between where children squat to do their business. At one open square at the conjunction of several of these “streets” the sewers were being cleaned. This involves removing every other cement block and scooping out the garbage… you can only imagine the stench that rises off the piles of oozing black excrement and plastic that lies in the street after these “cleanings”. I have no idea what they do with it. Perhaps let it dry and then shovel it away to the garbage square where government workers come only once or twice a week to clean away the refuse of a million people.

One million smiling people. I did not see people with stricken, desperate faces as I see on the street every day. I saw smiling, laughing children, people happy to say hello. People engaged, seemingly happy, with their daily work. Content in productivity. In fact, some Dharavi residents hold white collar jobs but have chosen to stay in the neighbourhood where they were born and raised. It was an eye-opening experience, and an uplifting one overall.

The tour group we went with gives 80% of their profits back into their own NGO’s within Dharavi. They operate a pre-school, a kindergarten, and a school for 18-26 year olds who didn’t finish school, among several other projects. A happy kind of way to spend my money.

After Dharavi we took the train down to Chowpatty Beach. After another delicious lunch (discovered a new dish called dum aloo kashmiri) and a fairly unsuccessful attempt to find the katchiwadi neighbourhood we headed towards Malabar Hills. On the way we stopped for some kulfi. This is firm Indian ice cream. Hard to describe but absolutely phenomenal! After cooling off in the A/C of a nearby coffee joint we headed up the hill, the most exclusive neighbourhood in Mumbai.

 

At the top lies the center of the world (or so the story goes). The neighbourhood transitions from high-rises to smaller houses and finally a set of narrow steps leads down to the Banganga tank, with a wooden pole marking the center of the earth in the middle. The tank was created when Lord Ram pierced the earth with an arrow. It was quite serene up there (although dirtier than I expected the center of the earth to be! Ha!) but there was a hint of madness to come. Large pillars of palm fronds and wood strewn with other combustibles were being built in open squares and near temples. Mischievous children practiced their aim for tomorrow’s festivities. We definitely saw several people (and one dog) who’d been Holi’d somewhere today (we got hit with some water balloons -no powder- in Dharavi too).

 

We wandered down to Chowpatty for sunset and watched the beach filling with people strolling, children playing and enjoying rather decrepit looking fair-rides, and vendors selling balloons, cartwheels, and bubbles. Then we ate. Bhelpuri, panipuri, and one other thing that I can’t remember the name of. Soooooo good!! We took the train back to churchgate and picked up our protein (yummy kebabs again!) before retiring. I can’t wait for tomorrow!

 

Did I mention I love this city?

March 20, 2011   HOLI!!!

I didn’t get a chance to write in my journal on Holi, so this bit’s from memory.

 

We got up, donned our white, packed and checked out before heading out to find the festivities. Holi is the celebration of spring and of Krishna (his birthday I believe?). On this day people smear coloured powder on stranger’s faces and throw water and colour all over everyone!

 

We first headed to see the Haji Ali Mosque. On the way there we began to see hints of the things to come. Dogs and people splashed with colour crossed our paths. While we were walking beside the road a car pulled up at stopped beside us. A middle aged woman got out with a bag of green powder, blessed us, then got in her car and drove away again, good start to the day.

The Haji Ali Mosque sits out on a concrete island a ways off shore. There is a cement causeway (about 12 ft wide) that leads out to it and at high tide this is under about a foot of water, turning the mosque into an island. Unfortunately the tide wasn’t up when we were there, but the waves did wash over the path.

 

After the mosque we headed to the Mahalakshmi temple. It is supposed to be the biggest temple in Mumbai, but I found it very unimpressive. It was very plain, and not very big. We were hoping to find some Holi festivities there, but there was minimal powder throwing happening, although evidence of previous merriment was strewn about the ground.

From here we took a taxi down to Chowpatty beach and were rewarded in our search. We walked about 2 city blocks to find a restaurant and in the process got coated in various colours by 3 or 4 groups of people. It was great! We were warned to avoid the street kids who substitute oil paint for coloured powder. For the most part we were successful, but John got hit across his back near the end of the afternoon.

 

We encountered some roving gangs of overly friendly adolescent and 20 something men when we got right down to the beach and decided to make our way back to the hotel, avoiding encounters with these packs. After washing up we spent an hour in the lovely A/C of a coffee shop before getting back on the train and making out way to the airport. We got back to our hostel at 2 am, tired, but thoroughly happy!

 

In case I didn’t get my point across… I Love Mumbai!!