India The Second

Rebecca and I spent 4 months in Thailand. Neither of us realized how much the country spoiled us.

Alongside its post-card perfect beaches, Thailand has clean and comfortable cities with all the stuff that a Westerner could want. That makes it quite different from India.

In my first post about India, I mentioned that my travelling friends all warned me beforehand how intense moving through India can be.

That trip turned out to be absurdly comfortable, so I came away thinking that my travelling friends were full of crap. After all, I had seen Jiuzhaigou during a major Chinese holiday. I was ready for anything.

Oh how I’m blushing now.

After five weeks of touring India, I now wholeheartedly agree with the people who warned me.  I had more confused, exhausted, and unhealthy moments in India than I’ve had anywhere else.

That’s not to say I had a bad time. India deserves its place among the top tourist destinations on Earth. But it is not for amateurs.

Our very train-centric journey (frantically planned about a week in advance from a hostel in Penang) took us on a circuit starting in Mumbai and winding around north India’s tourist highlights.

After all that, we capped off the trip with a nice long stay in Goa, a favorite from two years ago.

MUMBAI

We had a smooth Malindo Airlines flight from Bangkok to Mumbai. It dropped us down late at night, and we struggled a little to find a non-scammy taxi to our hotel.

For the first time we saw what might be my favorite thing about travelling here – the Public Court of Opinion on every street.

If you ever find yourself getting swindled in India, draw attention to yourself. People here seem to take a lot of pleasure in calling out cheats, and you’ll get to watch them shout down the guy who’s ripping you off.

In this case, our taxi-driver tried to rip us off to the tune of 10x what our cabfare should cost. An airport employee intervened out of the blue, chastising the con-artist and pointing us to the cheap prepaid taxis.

After that little headache we found Anjali Homestay, and despaired. A worker showed us to our room, and it was easily the worst room of any kind I’ve ever stayed in anywhere.

Our “private triple” was two thin mattresses on a cement floor, and one flopped on a countertop, with one end of it dangling into a sink.

I opened a drawer and found a pile of used Q-tips. Worst of all, someone had recently painted the walls, so we spent the night breathing in fumes. descrip Satisfied customer! descrip Pretty comfortable bed if you don’t turn on its faucet.

Not a promising start. But it was 2AM, so we just had to suck it up.

The next morning we checked out at 7 and rushed to our next hotel, Hotel KumKum. The room was basic, but after Anjali we rejoiced to have it.

We spent a few days in Mumbai, exploring our immediate surroundings and getting ourselves prepped for the rest of our journey. We didn’t see many sites, except for the Gateway to India:

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And of course we took in a Bollywood movie. We saw Action Jackson, and loved it. No need to understand Hindi at all.

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Although I guess it’s one of Bollywood’s worst-reviewed movies of 2014.

Most of our time we spent at Vegland, an unbelievably good restaurant near our hotel that offered our South Indian favorites like dosa, vada, idly, and sambhar.

We did all of this under a cloud of suspense and anxiety, however, because of India’s system for distributing train tickets.

Our whole itinerary hinged on us catching a train from Mumbai to Jaipur, but even on the day of departure we were still on India Railway’s “waiting list”. Up until 3 hours before we had to catch the train, in fact, we didn’t know if we could get on board.

But it came through! And we caught our train from Bombay Central Station to Jaipur Junction.

The ride went smoothly, but we did have a hilariously dishonest attendant waiting on us. We ordered some food from him, and when we paid for it he blatantly pocketed our change.

Then, at the end of the trip, he asked us for a tip. We handed him a 100 rupee note (which an Indian friend told me is way too much), and he took that too.

Then he smiled and said, “Okay, one more,” and hovered in the doorway. We said no. He smiled again, “Okay, okay. One more.” It was a long stand-off but we didn’t budge.

Oh well. Credit to the guy for trying. I’m sure it works often enough.

JAIPUR

Called “The Pink City” because of the faded sandstone masonry on its buildings, Jaipur is the capital of the state of Rajasthan, and it had a lot of cool historical stuff on offer.

From our hotel we hired a guy to drive us around. He took us to see the Amber Fort, which was stunning. Muslim / Indian architecture set in the desert landscape:

descrip Complete with gorgeous gardens: descrip Ornate gateways: descrip And ceilings inlaid with blue glass: descrip

Easily up there among the coolest sites I’ve ever visited.

From there we saw Royal Gatore, a subdued garden full of marble pagodas: descrip And after that the Water Palace, which nobody is allowed to set foot in: descrip

And then we ate and rested. The next day we got out the door early-ish to check out the Hawa Mahal, an old palace with cool stained-glass windows:

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And then Jantar Mantar, a compound of gigantic, old astronomical instruments.

Think giant calendars: descrip Whatever this thing is  (I think it tracks constellations): descrip Other calendars designed to follow the 12 constellations of the Zodiac… descrip … some having hilarious illustrations: descrip And the centerpiece, an enormous sundial accurate within 2 seconds of the real time: descrip It was here I got mobbed by some private-school boys out on a field trip: descrip The bravest kid in the middle asked where I was from. “Nebraska,” I said. “You heard of it?”

He smirked. “Yeah, my dad works there, I go twice a year”

“Bullshit!” I said, and we all laughed.

After that we went to check out the old royal palace, seat of all of Rajasthan’s rajas. The centerpiece of it, the resplendent royal audience hall, did not allow any photos.

Having seen all that (with still many unseen things city), we went back to the hotel, and the next day got our train out to Jaisalmer.

JAISALMER

Jaisalmer is the “Gold City” to Jaipur’s Pink.

It’s a small town in the extreme northeast, approaching the border with Pakistan.

The town centers around a massive historic fort. But unlike most forts in India, they call this one a “living fort”, meaning people still live and work there.

We stayed at Hotel Shreenath Palace, a bona fide 500 year-old building, owned by a delightful teacher named Omji. As you can see, it was definitely palatial:

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For two days we window-shopped, took long walks, soaked in the city. Nice and pleasant.

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At 1 AM on our last night, we caught an outbound train to Agra. We slept alright, except for an oncoming passenger who woke us up a couple times by turning on the cabin lights.

I also got to talking with our bunkmate, a telecommunications engineer who had just finished up a job near Pakistan.

He had lots of little trivia about Indian companies and India travel – only later I found out that almost none of it was true. But whaddya gonna do?

AGRA

If you’re in India, you need to go to Agra. But you also need to leave after 36 hours.

The city revolves around the Taj Mahal and other monuments like it. And the Taj alone is worth the trip.

The weather wasn’t great. But the palace iteself was bigger than I had imagined, and more beautiful:

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We also saw the Fatehpur Sikri, a massive castle that had been converted into a mosque:

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It was also home to some of India’s more charismatic goats.

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But because the entire city’s economy revolves around these sites, everyone in town is well-prepared to fleece you.

I was especially impressed by one gutsy kid who leapt in front of our taxi, so that he could hop inside and ask us for money when the driver slowed down.

That kind of stuff is no big deal. The major drag about Agra, though, is that there’s not much to do outside of those major monuments.

The food there’s not great and it’s not pleasant to walk around. And we were marooned there for a long time.

I never wanted to stay more than 2 nights, but train-ticket scarcity forced us to stay for 3.

Not only that, but our outbound train was delayed for seven hours. So we had to hang around Agra until the wee hours of the morning on our last night.

It wasn’t such a problem – but we did spend literally 7 hours at one table in a restaurant.

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We got the train without any issue, except for an earth-shakingly loud snorer in the next berth.

Somehow we both slept right through it. 13 unconscious hours later, we arrived in Varanasi.

VARANASI

As an American it’s a little disquieting to think about the maturity of Indian culture. Many Indian cities have buildings much older than my country.

The effect is very pronounced in Varanasi.

It’s a city full of holy sites, and it’s where many Hindus would prefer to die, so that their bodies can be cremated on the bank of the Ganges. The city itself is well over 3000 years old.

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The staircase structures leading to the river are called ghats, and most of the cremations happen at Manikarnika Ghat. Even more than the Taj Mahal, I’d call the experience the most worthwhile thing we did in India.

When you arrive at the ghat you immediately feel like a gawker. It is, after all, someone’s funeral you’re watching.

You’re not quite sure what the decorum is – where you should stand or how loudly you’re allowed to talk, etc. But you’re definitely not allowed to take photos. Here’s what it was like, though:

(If graphic descriptions of the cremation process might upset you, please skip over the next few paragraphs) descrip

There are bodies burning at the ghat 24/7, up to 200 every day. There are different platforms for different castes of people, but their fires are all started from a ‘Mother Fire’ within a shrine. If you believe the locals, that fire has been burning continuously for 3,500 years.

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Typically either the eldest or the youngest son takes charge of the cremation. It’s his job to stoke the wood and to sweep away the ashes afterward.

He also, at a certain point, has to use a stick to crack open the skull, and then smear ghee inside, so that the skull itself will burn.

For the men, the spine never quite burns up. Likewise women’s hip bones. These get swept into the river along with ashes. descrip

The wood stock. They use sandal-wood and banyan. It takes around 250kg of wood to burn a body completely.

According to Hindu custom, if you’re a child or a pregnant woman your body doesn’t need to be purified by fire. Instead it will be wrapped in a shroud and sunk into the river directly. Some of these bodies escape the bundles they’ve been wrapped in, and they wash up on the opposite shore.

We didn’t stay too long because the smoke and heat were hard to tolerate. Thankfully, I couldn’t really detect any distinct odor – the smell of burning wood dominated everything else. (Cremation talk over)

All this was explained to us by a man who offered to show us around. Of course, he asked us for money afterward to support his work at a ‘hospice’, and of course, I learned later that no such hospice exists. Swindled again. But it was worth it for the information.

After exploring a few more of the sites of Varanasi, we roved around and ate stuff at our leisure. But apparently we ate something we shouldn’t have, because on our last night in town I got horrifically ill.

Bed-bound, moaning, constant diarrhea, unable to move kind of ill.

As someone who has had food poisoning perhaps 20 times, I’m no stranger to this stuff. The Varanasi bug, however, whalloped me like nothing I’ve ever felt.

It would also stay with me for a long, long time. Well past our train ride to KOLKATA.

KOLKATA

We loved coming back to a major city again. Varanasi, though fascinating, had the Agra Problem: too many touts trying to shake you down. In Kolkata it was lovely to walk down the street without turning anyone’s head.

The accommodation here also suited us pretty well. We rented an apartment with a kitchen, as opposed to a hotel room. Although it sounds dumb, it was a little thrill to cook for ourselves again.

Not too much happened during our Kolkata stay. For our entire time at the serviced apartment we both had stomach bugs. So we confined ourselves to our beds, and to a regimen of clear fluids.

One night we slipped out to go see a Christmas Fair at a nearby park: descrip descrip

But overall we spent almost as much time watching X-Men movies as we spent outdoors.

Kolkata definitely had its charms, though.

Some of the best and tastiest street food we’ve ever had, and some very reasonable clothes markets. I’m ashamed to say I also enjoyed more than one Subway sandwich.

For Christmas Eve we checked into the Lalit Great Eastern, Kolkata’s oldest hotel.

Christmas is always better with the family, but for festiveness I couldn’t have asked for much more. They did a special dinner buffet, with a Johnny Cash Christmas album for the soundtrack. I forced Rebecca to wear Rudolph antlers, and I fell asleep that night in my Santa hat. descrip

On the day after Christmas we had yet another train to catch. It would be our last one, and by far our longest – 37 hours from Kolkata all the way to Mumbai.

And oh how pleasant it would have been, if we weren’t so, so miserable.

We spent the whole ride clutching our stomachs and glazed with fever sweat. It was a big relief when the train finally rolled to a stop in Mumbai.

MUMBAI, AGAIN

This time around we didn’t have much time here. Less than 24 hours. But by a bizarre stroke of luck a few dear friends of mine from Macalester happened to be there too.

Hiroyuki Miyake was in town for a wedding, and Kabir Sethi followed his hard-workin’ fiancé Anne Johnson (who was there on a research grant) to meet up with family.

The four of us got together at the Leela hotel for our First Mumbai Summit. In the absence of family, these guys definitely did the trick.

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After that brief Mumbai layover, we caught our flight to Goa.

GOA

As with our last trip to Goa, there’s not too much to tell. You get to the beach, you wake up, you eat, you drink, you sleep. That’s all we did for 9 days.

It was great to revisit some of the places we enjoyed in 2013, and to reconfirm our finding that Goa is the best beach we’ve been to yet.

PARTING NOTE

And after a nice lazy spell we caught our flight from Goa back to Mumbai, en route to Tanzania.

Flying in India is interesting, because it has just as much justified fear of terrorism as the US does. It’s the only place I’ve been that rivals the US’s TSA in strictness and inefficiency. But the Mumbai airport is a decent place to finish writing.   

As I mentioned before, India definitely ran me ragged. Looking back, I was at least a little sick for more than 75% of our trip. We had a lot of laid-up days, and we made lots of visits to the pharmacy. It’s hard to feel positive about anything when you’re ill.

But I can’t say that it wasn’t worth it. India has so, so much to offer, and I can certainly understand the culture of backpackers who come here for months at a time. Maybe if I had better microbial luck, I might feel the same way as them.

I don’t imagine that Reba and I will be back – the expense and the challenge might be too much for us later on. So I’m glad we came here while we had the time and energy to do it right. We didn’t see everything, but we saw enough for me!