Disappointing India: 26 – 27.08.13

Early to rise at around 4:15am, I was ready to curl back into bed and sleep all day and ignore the 6am train to Ajmer… but we didn’t, and instead, we packed our packs onto our backs, walked down the 70 stairs of our guest house and walked out into the cool darkness of a still quiet, sleeping Udaipur.

We got a tuk tuk to the station, bought a ticket from the counter (after being pushed in front of by countless people – yep; still trying to work out how queues in India actually work) and then took one look at the general 2nd class carriages, already brimming with people. How were we and our packs meant to even get on, let alone sit for five or so hours, was beyond me.
Thankfully, some reserved 2nd class seats were empty and we paid a few rupee extra for a seat of our own each. Anything is possible in India, as we keep finding out.

We spent an uncomfortable 5 hours being stared at by hundreds of pairs of unrelenting eyes, packed in to our seats along with 4 other boys who spent a decent portion of their time staring at my chest, pretending to look elsewhere when I caught them and gave them the eye.

We arrived in Ajmer and sunk a couple of chai whilst people photographed us, pretending to take photos of the train station – subtlety isn’t so well performed here, it seems. The stares kept coming, as well as a few smiles and laughs every now and again, as we made our way out of the station and were immediately pounced on by drivers. We decided to go straight to Pushkar, not too far from Ajmer.

Arriving into Pushkar, our driver was stopped by authorities and we were made to pay a “tourist toll” before we could enter the town. Fantastic, being extorted already. hmmm….what’s that sudden bitter taste in my mouth?

We found a cool guest house packed with travelers and bartered a room down from 600 to 400. Nice.
We soon discovered the travelers were a large group of Israelis who were intent on talking to only each other and no one else. Not so nice.
Regardless, we were here, and – albeit exhausted – we were ready to explore a new place.
Pushkar is a holy city, the central lake it’s beating heart. One of the few Brama temples in the world is located in Pushkar, and pilgrims come here from all over India and the world to bathe in the holy lake and visit the temple. Whilst heavily steeped in ancient tradition, rich in culture and religion, this place is also a buzzing tourist destination. We’d read, and been warned, about the touters in Pushkar, and we were well prepared… or were we?

Walking into town, we dodged cows and piglets (and Jake stepped in a massive cow shit) as we passed beautiful architecture with peeling paint and fine detailing. This beauty was set against touristic shops and touters begging for us to “yes come look here now come, you buy, what you want, come look, I have, good price, come look, what you want?” At one point a man shoved his hand into our face with some wilted tiny flowers and tried, aggressively, to get us to come to the lake to receive a blessing (which refused; we were well aware that would then be followed with a forced 1000 rupee “donation”). Women selling jewellery crowded me and cut me off, grabbing my arms from all angles and demanding me to buy. The main bazaar road was packed to the brim with pilgrims who stared at us hard, almost causing accidents when they continued to stare at us when they should’ve been concentrating on what was ahead of them, not behind. Children with babies on their hips asked us for money and put their fingers to their mouths, motioning for food. People dressed in orange cloaks and turbans demanded ten rupees from us, promising to not ask again if we gave them money. As we walked past, almost every shop keeper would attempt to lure us in; some simply demanded “you come here now.”
Aaah, no thanks.
Amongst all this craziness was an ocean of pilgrims and cows who filled the road, walking slowly towards the lake ghats and the temple.
Pushkar at a first glance seems beautiful, but it was exhausting within a few minutes.

For lunch, we’d heard great things about a health food place that served wholesome organix meals, and we ordered amazing sounding vegetable and tofu dishes that, when they came out more than an hour later, and more than half an hour apart, were very unappetizing. Disappointing.

The sun is hot here, and as we took our shoes off to walk down to the lake, the soles of our feet were burning within seconds. Hobbling towards the lake and ghats where people were bathing, the scene was spectacular but short lived; our feet were burned.

Exhausted and not at all in the mood to be stared at any longer, we’ve retreated to our guest house, away from the sellers and the shops and tourist tricksters. We ventured out later this evening to see if things are a bit calmer, which they were not.
We ate “falafels” with strange ingredients that were oddly delicious and watched pilgrims dressed in gold and glitter walk bare footed along the streets. We drank lots of chai and averted eye contact with the hundreds of people staring at us.

At the end of our first evening I was a little put off but keen to give Pushkar more of a chance; I was hoping my first impression of Pushkar won’t be my last..

Day two in Pushkar and I’ve gone from the whole “I love India and all it’s hecticness” to “I hate India; can someone direct me to the nearest International Airport – Departure lounge please.” That may be a slight over exaggeration, but it didn’t feel too drastic today when I was almost in tears.

We were keen to give Pushkar a second chance; it’s been said this place is a fantastic town to get some relaxation hours and some “shanti shanti” as they call it, but  it ended up that I felt nothing but stressed and uncomfortable in this town.

Planning to stay another night here, we ventured out and made a chai stop, where a greasy top-balding man with curly hair past his buttocks and a very tight tank top was pulling chai. Two chai thanks.
Sitting down, a lovely local began spontaneously performing a musical concert for us, whilst Jake sat smiling and I sat wondering how many rupees he was going to demand once he was finished playing.
He finished, demanded money, and I was forced to leave my chai and pay to escape – Jake still sitting there smiling and me hissing for him to move away before we get robbed. I wasn’t so much pissed off at the fact he’d demanded money as I was that someone had come between me and my chai!

Good morning Pushkar…

We headed to a roof top restaurant, the Laughing Buddha, where we met a fellow traveler and were harassed by a staff member who sure as shit did not seem like a laughing Buddha. He demanded we decide what we wanted to eat as soon as we sat down and hovered over us until we ordered, bot not before scowling at us to remove our shoes. He then served us horrible food and then charged us 100 rupees extra with no real reason and exclaimed he’d explained the extra cost at the start of our meal – which he had not. Furious, we were forced to pay and left – not laughing. Someone’s getting a very bad Trip Advisor review, that’s for sure.

Back in the street, dodging cow shit, beggars dressed as monkeys and people rattling cans in our faces and demanding money, Jake and I watched through our sun glasses lenses as every man stopped to stare at me in a very uncomfortable way. Suddenly, I felt very unsafe and insecure in this town, and the crowds who turned their heads to pierce me with their glare made me want to escape.

It was around the same time that the hundredth person demanded cash from us and shook metal canisters in our faces, and when Jake watched men openly staring at my breasts, that we decided it was time to leave Pushkar. We’d had enough of this place.

We booked through a travel agent and paid for a deluxe air conditioned bus – leaving at 5pm this evening from Ajmer – and had a quick meal at a falafel street eatery that ended up being the best meal we had in this town. We also booked a taxi to take us there, so we would be spared the hassle of trying to negotiate another bus with no luggage space and 300 people crammed in. That was the last thing we wanted to do… Oh, if only we’d known what was about to come…

Back at our guest house, they charged us the full room rate for tonight because we checked-out a couple of hours late, and we were sent off to Ajmer with not even a goodbye. They were lovely when we arrived, but very rude when we decided to leave earlier. Nice.

As we left Pushkar, with piglets playing in mounds of cow shit and the wafting smell of urine filling our nostrils, I realised this is a place I am never going to visit ever again… and I was completely fine with it. I felt sad that our experience here had not been positive, but I guess that goes with traveling.

At Ajmer bus station, we were more than an hour early for our 5pm bus. We checked with enquirys about which platform we needed to go to, and spent a happy hour and a half trying to avoid hundreds of beggars who constantly asked us for money, and the thousands of men staring at me; two things that have started to become a daily struggle. We sat in the filthy station at platform one while cows trotted about freely and eight million flies swarmed a half-dead stray dog who was sprawled below my feet; all the while feeling guilty about the poor beggars and saddened by our bad experience in Pushkar.

Our bus pulled up, the driver and then the conductor checked our tickets, we were waved onto the bus, our luggage was shoved into the luggage compartment, and then 10 rupees was demanded for a luggage fee that oddly, no local seemed to be handing over. So I stood there like a spoiled tourist, demanding to know why we deserve to be treated differently and shouting that this is extortion!

On the bus, our seats 12 and 13 were taken by locals who had tickets to prove it, and we were forced to sit at the front of the bus with a rising suspicion that something bad was about to happen.
The conductor checked our tickets again, and then again, and then again, and then again. He then spent a good hour discussing something about us in Hindi with the driver, before checking our tickets again, then again, and then acquiring the help of a local who spoke English and soon became our translator whilst I yelled and the local passengers stared.

English translator man ended up calling our travel agent, who gave him a bull shit story that he didn’t know who we were and that he lived in Jaipur. Lying travel agent man later called back and tried to accuse us of lying and taking a deluxe bus when we should’ve taken a government bus – even though we had a ticket saying we’d booked the deluxe.
Turns out our travel agent had cheated to us, given us a fake ticket, charged us a ridiculous price, and sent us on our way to deal with the fall out of getting on a deluxe air conditioned bus without actually having a valid ticket. Translator man spent his time translating my anger and yelling, which was mainly because the driver and conductor had both checked our tickets prior to boarding and told us to board, and were now trying to kick us off on a main stretch of highway somewhere in India at dusk. When I said it’s not our fault we got on and that we were told to by the conductor this was our bus, the response was “they are only human and they make mistake.”

Translator man laughed; I’m not sure what was so funny but I was on the brink of tears. I was mentally viewing a map of Asia and planning where we were going to escape to instead of staying in this country. Translator man told us we’d have to get off at the next station, and would have a 99% chance of getting another bus the rest of the way to Jodhpur. Awesome. Thoughts of having to sleep head to dirty foot with locals in an isolated bus station were starting to scare me, and I was not keen to get off.
This then lead to me yelling that how dare they think its okay to kick two foreigners off a bus in a country where we don’t speak the language, know no one, have no phone, and furthermore have no idea where we are.
I don’t think they actually gave a shit, as we were kicked off at some random station and shoved onto a Government bus; translator man gave us his business card and wished us well. Thanks…I guess?

The government bus was something out of my night mare, I was begging the translator man to let us pay to get back on the deluxe air conditioned bus. Surely this was a joke, right? Whilst trying not to get trampled by a cow or hit by one of the thirty buses that were reversing, we were grabbed and pulled onto a bus that was already moving and full to the brim and overflowing with people. People were yelling at us to sit, and I was yelling back “Where!?” Every possible seat was taken – some two seat sections had three people sitting – and the isles were so full of people every part of me was touching someone else. And this, I did not like. My backpack was smashing people in the face, and my front pack rubbing against others. Jake was weighed down with both big packs, so 40-odd kgs was resting on his shoulders and no doubt smashing a few more people about as we were pushed, shoved, pulled, squeezed and forced into two seats that were cleared for us two whities. Oh, the stares we got.

Finally in our seats, we were forced to spend the next four hours watching the clock, our packs, and the terrifying traffic whilst we sat, numb-bummed and cramped with 20kgs of bags across our laps and a man sleeping soundly on my shoulder. Oh, the stares we continued to get.

Hours passed and slowly the bus thinned out a little – enough to remove Jake’s pack and store it at the front of the bus. We passed strange sights and music blaring, the occasional urine smell, countless road-dwelling cows, sleeping bodies sprawled over news paper and thousands of people walking along the roadside wearing white and carrying massive flags.

Arriving into Jodhpur – still alive – was a feat on its own, and as we clambered off the bus in the dark with our packs heavy on our backs, we were in no mood for bull shit and scams. Especially me.
Foolish would be anyone who thought they could trick me right now.

But foolish was the tuk tuk driver who thought he could get 80 rupees out of me for a 35 rupee trip, by telling me it was “local India price.” He seemed a little shocked when the white girl calmly told him straight to stop lying – I’m not stupid and I’m not paying any more than 40 rupees, and if you even try to charge more you’ll lose your sale completely. Done. Yesssss. India may have been well in the lead, but I was now on the score board with a whopping one point. Things were looking up already in Jodhpur.

Alhough I asked for us to be taken to the clock tower in the central area of Jodhpur, foolish tuk tuk man made a phone call to someone which involved the words “Australian” and “Clock tower.” I immediately demanded, over and over, for him to stop driving right now, to which he responded “you married?”  over and over. Eventually, my screams for him to STOP THE TUK TUK RIGHT NOW! were taken into consideration, but not before he spat out of his tuk tuk and it landed on my arm, for which he then received another telling off from me.
We were taken to his brothers guest house (everyone with a guest house or a tuk tuk seems to be someone’s brother, or cousin, or uncle, or brother’s uncle, or brother’s uncle’s cousin here).
Shockingly, the room was nice and we were able to get a good price.
Of course, we had to argue with the driver to then give us change, and then, finally, before I could stop arguing with every Indian in my sight, I had to demand – at 11pm at night – for someone to please clean our toilet that was wee sodden and lined with a very large poo.

Oh India…

As I lay back on the rock that was our bed, I smiled to myself. The loathing India feelings were fleeting and I was starting to feel happy again.
Goodnight Jodhpur, here’s hoping tomorrow is going to be better.

Chit Chat India: Udaipur: 21 – 25.08.2013

Our first day in Udaipur was fantastic; relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable, and already we’re in love with this place.

We woke late and spent the morning on the roof top balcony overlooking the city and lake, sipping lassi and doing nothing much else.

We put away our guide book and maps for the day and instead, wandered into town without plans or restrictions to simply get lost amongst the tiny lane ways and streets.

We wandered through art galleries and little shops, chatting for a while with each artist and shop owner. We browsed through book stores and purchased some Hindi language and books about Indian culture, and ended up at an awesome little street side juice bar, where the owner proudly presented me with his best juice. We stopped for frequent cups of chai and chatted with the vendors as they pulled our tea, dodged sleepy cows wandering the streets, and met camera-happy children who were desperate to be photographed so they could see themselves on the digital screen.
We passed over the Pichola Lake by bridge, and wandered through little laneways and past very friendly faces and more lazy cows.
Our day was filled up by simply looking and chatting with the locals – everywhere we went we found ourselves being told to “sit, sit,” while we were asked the standards “From you where?”, “She your wife?,” “Children?”, “What you age?”, “What job you?”…

Udaipur Old Town is SO touristic, filled with shop after shop selling camel leather bags and journals, hippie pants and pashmina scarves, perfumes in strange bottles, books, handicrafts, and miniature paintings. A chorus of “yes come look my shop”, “Come yes please sir, only looking is free” and “hello where from?” rings out from the touters that line the street, and it never ceases to amaze me the odd words and phrases that spill out of their mouths when we refuse to go into their shops. One man asked me in an odd ‘Australian accent’, after I refused his offer for “free looking” – “Okay…you going get some tuk-kah!?” (“tucker”: Australian slang for food – where he picked up that phrase, I have no idea… seriously, who even uses the word tucker!?…) I blame Crocodile Dundee for atrocities such as this.

The traffic here is heavy and the streets are narrow – foot paths are hard to find – it gets difficult to stick together and usually we end up walking single file. At one point, Jake walked ahead and I got stuck between a tuk tuk, a motorbike, a car and a group of school students, which must’ve seemed like the perfect opportunity for an Indian boy to strike up a conversation, grab my hand and propose to me. Yep. First marriage proposal of the trip. The conversation continued – very briefly – whilst I tried to escape between the wheels of various moving vehicles, hobbling street dogs and a group of school boys fighting with each other.
Miss, what name you?” Shiiiiiiit…. Jake! Jake!
“Miss, you so very beautiful, can I kiss you?” Absolutely not.
“Miss, leave that man, he too old for you, I nineteen, right age for you.” Please leave me alone.
“Miss, you leave him and I show you all of Udaipur.” Tempting, but no.
“Miss, you perfect for me, leave him.” Goodbye.
“Miss!… Miss!… Leave him, come with me!” Jaaaaaakkkkkkkeeeeeee!!!

Safely away from the nineteen year old Indian Fabio, we had lunch at an organic vegan restaurant, sitting bare footed on cushions overlooking the surrounding buildings that were covered in peeling paint and complete with beautifully carved windows.

We found a musical instrument shop where I finally bought myself a ukulele, and strummed away in the shop with the talkative owner, whilst Jake took it upon himself to destroy one (accidentally, of course).

Our afternoon involved more chit-chatting to locals, avoiding stray dogs with serious health concerns, more chai, a lake side walk and exploring the lane ways. We were invited to dinner at the local chai vendors home for the following evening, Jake was offered free Hindi lessons by the vendor’s son, and I booked myself into an art class with a local artist.

The evening was spent strumming my ukulele on the roof top balcony whilst Jake jotted down new Hindi phrases from his book.

Oh India, how we absolutely adore you….

Udaipur quickly became one of these places we feel very at home in; as though we’d been here for ages.
We spent more time here than we intended, not doing all too much other than simply wandering, observing and chatting with people. The days spent here have become a bit of a blur – we’ve been wandering about, eating healthily, drinking lassis and chai, exploring, meeting new people, learning bits and pieces of Hindi, getting a feel for the place, and I’ve been painting. Yes, painting.

We spend our days waving hello to locals as though they’re old friends and stopping for frequent chai at our usual chai guy’s stall. He and his sons invited us to dinne and treated us as though the king and queen had just walked into their humble home. They served us dinner and we enjoyed their company and generosity; it was a real joy.

The local musician who sold me my shiny new ukulele checked each day to see how we were doing, and told us about a fantastic evening concert featuring famous Goan musicians playing the tabla, drum and sitar, complete with incredible singing and traditional dancing, down by the lake. We spent a happy evening listening to beautiful Indian music and watching colourful, glittered women dance with incredible precision and grace.

We ate at our local breakfast joint – Pap’s Juices – every morning for delicious freshly made muesli, yoghurt, fruits and honey; one of the healthiest thing we’ve probably eaten since arriving in India. He teaches us one new phrase in Hindi each morning.

Lunch was spent at the Indian vegetarian and vegan health restaurant, where we filled our stomachs with millets, fresh vegetables and delicious healthy oil-free foods.

A couple of local artists invited us into their shops each day for a chai and a chit chat, and we’ve been learning Hindi – especially Jacob – from every local, at every possible opportunity. I joined a painting class, and each day for three days attended ‘art class’ for four or five hours with a talented local artist named Rakesh, who was especially excited by the word “cool” and had an entire head worth of hair sprouting from each of his ears.
I thoroughly enjoyed spending my afternoons and evenings sitting out side the front of Rakesh’s little shop front, painting in the sun watching the hectic traffic and many cows negotiate the tiny road. I did not enjoy, however, being sprayed with shit when a passing cow let loose, flicking his tail – and poo – all over me. Yes, that was me that you could hear screaming.

 No matter where we went, people were keen to talk and were very friendly, and the feel of the town was really lovely. Evenings were cool and the town became quiet, and from our roof top balcony we looked over the city to see an ocean of colourful lights dancing on the lake. One evening, several travelers congregated on the rooftop and together we spent hours laughing and singing and chatting.
The guest house we stayed in – Kesar Palace Hotel – was fantastic, and probably contributed to our decision for a “lengthy” stay.

We decided not to visit the main attraction of Udaipur – the Grand Palace – instead, we enjoyed its exterior beauty from afar, and just spent our time getting a feel for the place. On our last day we spent a few hours in the New Town area – looking through the markets and stalls and getting drenched during a downpour of rain. The muddy ground and muck and waste everywhere made walking around a little more challenging (and disgusting) but we enjoyed chai, thali and the pure joy of something new; away from hippie pants, camel leather bags and fancy coffee shops.

Although the main streets often got clogged with traffic , cows and an orchestra of horns and petrol fumes, and the touters were always keen to sell us something we didn’t want, we found Udaipur relaxing and rejuvenating. We absolutely loved this place, and didn’t really want to leave. Reluctantly, we packed our backpacks and spent our last evening on the rooftop overlooking the lights.

We know this is a place we’ll come back to some day; for now we head to Pushkar at the lovely hour of 6am.

From Mumbai to Udaipur: 20 -21.08.13

It’s funny how India has a way of making you love her one minute, and then curse her the next, only to forgive her moments later, and then suddenly be reminded of why you were cursing her earlier!

We woke early and spent some time this morning with our couch surfing host before we said goodbye and left her home. Saying goodbye felt as though we were saying goodbye to an old friend, and driving away in our tuk tuk was bittersweet. Amazing.

Stopped in heavy traffic, a young girl who couldn’t have been more than eight leaned into our open tuk tuk, waving a distressed and malnourished looking baby in our face, demanding money and food. The traffic did not move, and the young girl continued to poke and scratch hard at my leg while the baby wailed. It was awful, and I just felt so helpless. A few rupees was not going to change anything, and we spent the rest of the trip in silence feeling helpless and saddened.

We arrived at Andheri station, and with our bulging packs on back and front, we wondered how the hell we were meant to get into one of the carriages without being crushed by the crowds. The train station was brimming with people of all sorts, and every train ride was an experience in itself. Every time, we met people who were kind and willing to help, and others who enjoyed spending the journey staring at us with avid curiosity.

Two trains arrived, thousands of people went mad throwing themselves either into or out of the packed carriages, and we were still standing on the platform considering the option of a taxi. As a third train pulled in and I saw the ladies kicking and scratching their way on and off the carriage, and I walked over to Jake and said “not happening.” Instead, we climbed onto the normal carriage and stood pack to pack, surrounded by a hundred plus men and their staring eyes.

We took a taxi from Churchgate to Victoria Station, after struggling to find a driver who would turn on his meter. We’ve gotten good at this now.
Our plan was to drop our packs at VT Station and spend the day exploring before our train late tonight. Our train tickets from Mumbai to Udaipur still hadn’t been delivered by the tourist company that we’d paid a substantial sum to, and we were getting anxious.

As we walked towards the cloak room, I had the thought that “how fantastic, things seem to be actually running smoothly today! India is working in our favour today… something surely must be about to go wrong…” and then things turned to shit.
At VT we were not allowed to store our packs without a ticket in hand. Trudging around the area trying to find an internet café, we were almost crushed by a group of market stall holders who all of a sudden stopped what they were doing, madly rushed to pack everything they were selling into tarps, tied their goods together, grabbed their cart handles and got moving! “Police” said one local when we saw us obviously wondering what going on.
We stopped for seconds too long and touters tried to get us to go to their hotels – I guess our packs made us look like we’d just arrived, and our disheveled looks made us seem like easy targets.

Well after 1pm, checking our email at a cyber café, the tickets we were meant to have received on Sunday, and then on Monday, and now by 12pm today were still not sitting in our inbox. A quick call to the tourist company infuriated me. This morning they’d said the tickets would be emailed by 12pm, but on the phone they said we needed to come into the shop to collect them. When I asked why they’d said this only now, they ummed and aah, and then made up all these ridiculous contradicting excuses. When I asked why they had not been sent yesterday when they were meant to be, more contradicting excuses. I was furious, knowing now we would have to spend more time and more money to get the tickets. The response was uncaring and my anger was ignored.

We then spent forever trying to find a taxi driver who would not only take us to Colaba to get the tickets, but would also use the meter. Dropped off in Colaba centre, it took us ages to find the place again; no taxi driver knew where to go, so we’d had to walk – getting lost along the way.

Looking over our tickets that were finally in our hands, we saw we weren’t even booked from VT station! We were leaving from Bandra Terminus, at 11:25pm. We had a lot of time to kill.

We found a taxi who took us to Chowpatty beach along Marine Drive, where we stood eating delicious kulfi (Indian-style, frozen-hard ice cream that melts in your mouth) from a stand-up outside eatery that was ‘famous’ amongst locals. Bulging packs on back and front, we used our front packs as our table whilst the locals stared and laughed, and we came to the realization that these packs will be sitting on our shoulders for the next 8 hours or so. There was no cloak room to leave them and we were too far from Bandra, with little time left to see the things we wanted; it was going to be a long day.

We walked, buzzing from the kulfi, to the once home of Ghandi, to learn more about this incredible man who was and is SO important to India and its people. The museum/home was wonderful and we gained a great deal of understanding and insight. Yep; we’ve been to Ghandi’s house.

Walking out of the station, our packs were feeling heavier and heavier. A man on the street greeted us and as per usual, an offer to help immediately arose suspicion in us. We hate that we feel this way but so frequently we are offered “help” in return for a fee, or a lot of inconvenience. He was, however, very helpful and explained to us the best way to get to the dhobi ghats – the 140 year old open laundry which is a famous sight in Mumbai. Hailing a taxi for us he told us the driver would use the meter, but when he walked away the driver tried to make us pay a ridiculous luggage fee – bull shit! We’d taken enough taxis in the last few hours alone to know he was just trying to get some more money, and we walked away. The helpful man returned and told us not to pay anything more than what the meter read, and said something in Hindi to the driver which included “Ghandi House” – I can only assume what he said, but the driver immediately dropped the luggage fee completely and was very kind to us from there on in. Awesome.

Dhobi Ghat was not what we expected, but was fascinating none the less. A sight that, in this world, is one of a kind. Over a 1000 open troughs are used daily to wash tons of dirty Mumbai laundry, and it takes some serious strength to wash, scrub, beat and rinse by hand.

We had grand plans to visit Mahalaxmi temple and the Haji Ali Mosque in the sea, but the weight bearing down on our backs, shoulders, knees and ankles from a day of wearing our pack almost non-stop was too much. We trudged back along the path whilst a man followed us only inches away, continually asking us to please pay him 50 rupees so he could take us to some place. He kept saying “50 rupee I take you there”. We ended up stopping in the hope he would go away, seeing as our harmony of “no, no, no thanks, no, no, we don’t want to go there, no, no, we are just walking, no, please go away, no, stop following us, no, we don’t need a tuk tuk, no, no, no, what do you actually want!?” had not previously worked. He hung around asking for money and to take us with him, but eventually got tired when we started asking passers by to get him to leave us alone.
We ended up taking a train from Mahalaxmi back to Churchgate.
The train ride was an experience in itself, in particular when a hijra with a 5 o’clock shadow, dressed in a sari, boarded the train and demanded money from every passenger on board. Hijras are transgendered individuals who are apparently considered to be of low class in Indian society, and supposedly carry a magic power; they often make their money from begging or demanding money from people on trains and public spaces in return for a blessing of fertility, and curse those who refuse to cough up. As a hijra boarded, we watched as every passenger immediately fetched some rupees and immediately paid for a ‘blessing.’ We refused to pay, and had to put up with a lot of mumbling, poking, prodding, stares and finally, a hand clap – which we believe to be our curse – before the hijra moved away. The look from the locals was one of absolute shock and disbelief. Mums, if you’re reading – sorry, you can no longer expect  grandchildren from us in the future: we’ve been cursed by a man in a sari and are apparently now infertile.

Freshly cursed, we thought we deserved to treat ourselves to dinner at a place we’d been wanting to visit – Samrat – where we were told we could find the most amazing Gujurati Thali.
350 rupee thali was a real splurge for our backpacker budget, but we treated ourselves and we were not disappointed; the meal was incredible and the constant filling of each little silver dish was a thrill for our senses. We literally rolled out of the restaurant, our pack belts tight, making it hard for us to breathe.

The train from Churchgate to Bandra Station was jam packed and with our bulging packs, I think we may have knocked a few people out as we shoved our way to the doorway as we reached our destination.
Jumping off a moving train: tick.
We didn’t jump off so much as get pushed off by the surge of commuters. I had barely enough time to grab my packs, let alone put them onto my back, and a young boy showed concern that my day pack was behind me and not in front. I love Indian trains, and the people – those who aren’t trying to scam you – are incredibly helpful.

I got the feeling that getting to Bandra station would not be the end of our journey – it seemed too easy. And of course, it was not so simple, we had to struggle with our packs past begging and prodding hands to then fight with way too many tuk tuk drivers who refused to use the meter, and wanted to charge us 80 rupees or more for a 1km distance, which we are fully aware costs 15 rupee.

Eventually, a helpful stranger found us one and as we drove past the other rip-off drivers staring blankly at us, we felt super pleased with ourselves that we had not succumbed to their tricks. Yessss.
At Bandra Terminus, the driver handed back 5 rupees change from the 20 rupee note we’d given him! I felt like leaning over and giving the driver a hug when he gave us the correct change and didn’t try to cheat us purely because we’re foreigners. Strangely, it begins to feel like such a success when people don’t try and cheat us out of money simply because they feel they can and because they want to.

Bottles of water purchased and out stomachs full to bursting point, we brushed our teeth and spat onto the rail tracks amongst locals who were taking a shit, hurling rubbish, spitting pan and using the tracks as a urinal.
Our Bandra – Udaipur Express rolled into the station around 11pm, and checking our names against paper charts taped to the carriages, we finally found our berths and walked into our home for the next 16 hours…

Our 8 sleeper berth consisted of two big families with lots of children and one crying baby.
Ear plugs in, I took the top bunk and Jake took the bottom. Backpacks as pillows and day packs chained to the walls, we lay back and fell asleep, waking to the occasional jolt and baby crying.

I woke to Jake offering me a cup of chai, which we continued to order regularly for the rest of the train trip. We spent our day reading, sipping chai and staring out the window into the rolling scenery. The greenery stuck out as the cool air and drizzling rain pricked against our skin. We watched as we passed farmers herding their cattle, men in brightly coloured turbans and women in their saris contrasting against the greenery, and the occasional squatter taking a dump on the railway lines.

We passed areas that were completely covered in rubbish and waste; rats, pigs and dead animals dotted amongst the putrid smelling rubbish. The occasional waft of urine broke through the air that otherwise smelled fresh and cool. Sometimes, it was hard to grasp what we were actually looking at.

A hijra boarded the train this afternoon train and again we were asked for money which we refused to pay; although no clapping this time – maybe he could tell we had already been cursed. I find it astounding that people are so willing to hand money over to a well dressed, bejewelled man in a sari who apparently has magic powers, whilst there are people are suffering and starving on the streets. It’s yet another mystery of India that we will probably never understand.

The family in our berth spent their day eating, hocking and spitting, and throwing rubbish out of my open window. At one point, a man from our berth who was chatting to us saw us finish our chai and encouraged Jake to throw the empty cups out the window. Every time another piece of waste was thrown, my heart skipped a beat and I fought to hide my angst; the litter and pollution here is a hard pill for us to swallow. At the end of our 16 hour journey, we had several little paper cups stuffed in our bags, in the hope that somewhere, somehow, there would be an actual rubbish bin that wasn’t just part of the land scape.

Late afternoon I woke suddenly, and wiping the drool from my mouth, realised the train was empty and still. We were finally in Udaipur, the North of India. The next part of our journey was about to begin; a new place, a new state, a new experience waiting to unfold.

During our train travels we had changed our plans and our travel route, rendering our pre-booked train tickets no longer useful. We decided at Udaipur station, since we were already there, that we should spend some time planning the dates and booking our tickets (and cancelling the one’s we’d already booked). With our route decided we locked in some dates, and it then took us more than two hours to book our tickets.

First we had to find the reservation office which was hidden away, where I joined a queue “for tourists, women alone, people with TB, cancer or disabilities.” Problem was, although the sign said open until 8pm, the staff had somehow disappeared. Instead, the head honcho man told me to go back to the station, “inquire first”, then come back to him. I wasn’t sure what we had to inquire about, but I spent a good half hour trying to fight for the attention of one female staff member whose job it was to deal with a hundred interrupting people at once, who obviously did not understand the concept of a queue or the idea of “wait your turn”. Or, maybe I don’t understand the concept of booking train tickets in India. Actually, the latter is completely true, but then again, so is my first point.
Trying to get her to look at the eight different forms I’d filled out was hard enough, trying to talk to her through the glass and over the voices of several other boys who shoved in front of me was harder, and trying not to get trampled to death was almost impossible. Personal space doesn’t often seem to exist here in India; neither do manners, patience or queues. Indian’s seem to take it to the extreme; it feels like it’s everyone for themselves, and slowly I am learning that if I want to get something done, I need to forget my manners and shove and push my way to the front.

So with my forms filled out and a heap of dates approved, it was back to the reservation office where the head honcho told me to just “go to the front of the queue.” I looked over to the two lines of people (all men) formed in front of two reservation counters, where about 15 or so people were waiting in each line. I couldn’t bring myself to simply shove my way to the front, so I waited and waited whilst the man behind me shoved his motorbike helmet into my back, trying to make the line move quicker.

At the front of the queue finally, I guiltily pushed my seven booking forms and three tickets under the glass towards the ticket man who had one very well styled mustache framing one very obvious scowl. He let out a deep sigh and threw my tickets to the bench, typing what seemed to be the length of a thesis into his computer before speaking.
Eventually he hurled my pre-booked tickets back at me and told me to “write cancel” on them.
So I did.
“Write cancel” he told me again.
“I have.”
“No. Write cancel! Here!” he exclaimed, pointing to where I’d written “cancelled.”

Eventually he pointed me over to the head honcho’s office and out of the queue, where I was forced to beg for assistance.

Eventually I gathered that I needed to fill out a specific cancellation form, which then took another 20 minutes or so because there was no obvious explanation or procedure available.
Walking up to the front of the queue of men, the head honcho was nice enough to get me seen to right away (almost), much to the protests of the men waiting in line. Angry mustache ticket guy snatched my cancellation forms, sighed again, and proceeded to commence writing his thesis again…

3000 odd rupees later and seven tickets in our hands, we were officially booked up until mid-September, and are headed in the direction of Udaipur – Ajmer – Pushkar – Jodhpur – Jaisalmer – Bikaner – Jaipur – Agra – Lucknow… from there, we’ll head to Delhi but we’ll do a bit more planning before we book.

Finally, around 7pm, we departed the station and were quickly greeted by a well spoken tuk tuk driver. He assured us his hotel was the best (as is always the case) and offered to take us for 50 rupees. When I tried to ask for a meter, he explained “You’re in a new world now; forget Mumbai, we don’t use the meter here.” Yes, we are in a new world now.

I bartered with him and got the tuk tuk ride for free, and arriving at his hotel, we immediately decided to stay. 400 rupees has bought us an incredible, spacious and clean room, wifi, kind hosts and the best view I have ever seen.

We spent our evening on the rooftop restaurant eating curry and sipping Kingfisher beer whilst overlooking the old town and the lake of Udaipur under a sea of fairy lights.
It’s moments like these that help to erase any frustrations we’ve had, and remind us how absolutely incredible and beautiful this country is.

Udaipur marks a new ‘chapter’ in our trip, and we are so excited for what is to come.

Big Smoke India: 17 – 19.08.13

We arrived into Mumbai – the big smoke – stuck in a traffic jam, and after stepping off the bus after 10am, rather than the estimated 7:30am arrival time. The bus dropped us on a random street where cars raced past, buildings soared, dogs roamed and taxi drivers circled us.
We had no idea where we were, we had no idea where we were going, we had no idea where we were staying, and we had no idea who to trust. Excellent.

A driver in a camo-cloured doo-rag style hat hearded us into his taxi and drove us across the city to Colaba – the tourist and sight-seeing hub of Mumbai. He hid his meter with a dirty towel “because he has to” (for a reason he did not explain) and continually told me “do not worry about money, you always worrying about money, do not ask me about money, don’t worry, I don’t want any money, I not asking for any money”, which made me worry almost to bursting point. Of course, he wanted money, of course he charged us some ridiculous “luggage fee”, and of course, he took us to the most ridiculously priced, shit-box of a hotel/cell, where we were greeted by possibly the rudest Indian man in the world.
Whilst Jake stayed in the taxi, I went to check the room.The manager grunted at me that the room was 1200, and when I almost died of shock, he told me it was actually now 1500. Mumbai was a lot more expensive than we’d expected.
Back in the taxi, I weighed up our options with Jake, and the driver agreed I could barter the manager down.
Back up in the hotel again, I was now told the price was 1700. I’m still wondering why I didn’t walk away then and there, but instead I bartered to 1300 which was flatly refused, so my very generous driver offered 1400 – was he personally putting in that extra 100 for this cockroach infested cell? I doubted it, but the offer got accepted.
The driver left us with our bags and we trudged up the stairs, feeling as though we were about to enter into a contract we didn’t want to but were somehow unable to get away from.
Of course, without the driver by my side, the manager was even ruder and told us no air conditioning would be included in that price. I argued, and we walked away – and should’ve kept walking – but eventually Mr. Rude manager man had a change of heart and very generously let us stay for 1400… with air conditioning.

It was only after we had paid that we discovered stained sheets, cockroaches, and one single dirty, cigarette smelling towel. When I asked if we could please have a clean towel, and furthermore if we could have two, the manager almost screamed at me telling me it was clean. When I refused his answer, he angrily bought us a “clean” (still stained) towel, and grunted “one room, one towel.” Hmmm.

Out in Mumbai at last, we walked through Colaba and towards the gateway to India monument, past the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The architecture is incredibly beautiful here, absolutely stunning – our heads were in a constant craning state as we looked at the architecture towering above us, mouths open in awe.

We walked towards Leopold’s Café – one of the hard-hit locations in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and also the once local hang-out of the author of Shantaram  – I was keen to see if this establishment lived up to my imagination… On the way, we dropped into Reality Tours office, to book a tour of the Daravhi Slums. A few minutes later, we were walking briskly towards Churchgate Station to meet for our tour of the biggest slum in Asia, to see what “the real Mumbai is like” – apparently.

I still can’t quite work out how I feel bout visiting a slum as a tourist, but the tour company we went with pours a huge portion of it’s money back into the NGO it runs within the slum, which we were able to see in action. We went as a group of 6 along with a guide who met us at the station and took us on the local Mumbai train towards the slums. He explained to us “three stops before we need to prepare to get off the train. Lots of eople will be getting on and off very quickly and the train will only halt for 15, maybe 20 seconds.” … Oh, shit.

Surviving our first local Mumbai train, we walked over the bridge and down into what looked like a very normal, very action packed street going about daily business. Chai and food stalls and vendors, shops, businesses, buyers and sellers, traffic and people about everywhere… We were in the business district, and it is here that several huge export and import, as well as nation-wide products are made, cooked, sewn, created and recycled, turning over a profit of around $650 million USD annually.

We walked through the business district, and the recycling area first, where plastic comes from all over India – and the world! – to be recycled. The absolute sprawl and mounds of plastic that could be seen from the ground and from the roof top stretched so far and covered every surface, and I was in absolute shock at the…mess, maybe? I can’t even decribe what we saw. These incredible people work tirelessly, in very difficult conditions, and their business is non-stop.
We passed tailors and men dying materials to make saris and clothing – for men in one section, and for women in another.
We passed welders and people building machinery, working with metals and welders, barefooted and shirtless – without any sort of safety precautions or protection.
We passed bakers rolling tons of pastry dough, and women drying poppadoms on the slum floors that, eventually, will be exported world wide.
We passed leather workers who dry, treat and cure the leathers they receive and turn them into bags, wallets and everything else that will then eventually be stamped with Gucci and Prada stamps, exported, and sold for thousands in fancy shops.
We passed through the pottery area where thousands of clay pots were being turned and sitting to dry in the sun.
We walked through tiny, tiny alleyways with holes in the ground and electrical wires dangling dangerously low. The stench was sometimes overwhelming.
We worked our way through to the residential area, where children were keen to follow us – and put their hands in our pockets! The slums are alive with people; the tiny area of around 1.75square km is home to more than a million people! There is a Muslim section, and a Hindu section, and somehow, people manage to live together in such compact space like one big community.
The residential area made me both happy and sad – I think – I haven’t quite worked it out yet. People live in absolute mess – the smells are overwhelming in some parts, and we walked out into an open area where children were playing and walking bare footed amongst an absolute rubbish tip. The toilet block was making it hard for me to breathe, and the smell stung my eyes.
We spent the entire time we were there staring at our feet, watching each and every step – ensuring we did not stand in the muck and mess, the holes and putrid contents that continually covered the ground.
The tiny slum hut, one of which we were able to see empty, was smaller than my bedroom; a bathroom, a kitchen, a TV area, a living area, a bedroom, storage space… and five, six, seven people might occupy that area! No privacy, no space. Astounding.
But the people seem happy, and busy, and hard-working. Most of all, it feels like a community, even from an outsider perspective – you can simply see and observe it. I’m still trying to work out how I feel about it all, and what my thoughts are, but I’m happy we were able to take the opportunity to learn a bit more about a part of this world and the people in it.

The six of us on the tour took the train back to Churchgate Station together and spent the evening at Leopold’s. The bullet holes still fresh in the walls was a stark reminder of what happened here just a few years ago, and my head full of the words of Shantaram bought me right back to the dodgy wheelings and dealings that would’ve once happened, right there.

Having used our air conditioner to the maximum and after surviving the hoards of cockroaches, we checked out early and, like sleepy turtles, carried our backpack shells heavy on our backs. We wern’t allowed to leave them with Mr. Rude Guest House Manager.

Today, India and I clashed. It’s true. It was a build up, I think, of three weeks of (amongst a million other positive things) being frequently cheated, lied to, tricked, scammed, harassed, begged, and  ripped off.

Our morning was spent being lied to by various street touters and people offering “free tourist information.” After hours or messing around, being told one thing and then another, and then something else entirely, we ended up handing over a wad of cash for two train tickets to Udaipur which were then never given to us – instead, we’d receive them via e-mail apparently on Monday, the day before our train.

I was so upset at the fact that nothing seemed to be working here for us today; we’d been ripped off and harassed and furthermore, lied to continually, and booking tickets for trains seemed impossible. We left with no ticket, no receipt, a lighter wallet and the words of the tourist information guy saying “anything is possible in India if you put money under the table” ringing in our heads.  On the street, continually we were harassed by people wanting money, wanting to show us their hotel rooms, offers for weed, offers for taxis, offers to “help” us find a “nice something to wear”, shoe shining, ear cleaning, and more people claiming their office was the real tourist information centre. I was ready to scream. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the ‘process’ that we go through every day here in India, fighting off touts and tricksters, and sifting through lies to find the truth. I was tired of the fact that we have to be suspicious of everyone, and when a stranger happens to help us, we find it hard to believe they’re being genuine.
I was overwhelmed that to book a train took hours after hours, too many mixed messages and stories, and that people were happy to go above and beyond to hide important information and trick us. After three weeks of it almost continually, I was sick of this maddening bull shit.

Eventually, we ended up at VT station – apparently the biggest train station in Asia – the incredible station that we should’ve gone to first thing this morning. First floor, counter 52, a few forms and I was able to book our train tickets. Just. Like. That. No bull shit, no lies, no stories of why they will have to change the price, no poor treatment, rude comments or jumbled facts. The man just booked the dates and trains that I had written down and printed out the tickets for us. So this is the way to do it, hey?… Lesson finally learned.

From VT station, we booked a pre-paid taxi out to Andheri, where we were staying for the next 3 nights with a Couch Surfing Host. Our poor taxi driver then spent the next two or more hours dodging, weaving, or sitting motionless amongst a chaos of horns and impatient drivers. At one point I tried to count the number of ‘lanes’ of traffic: pointless – the traffic sprawled so far around our car that I had to give up, it was utter madness and it was a real thrill. Hello to the Mumbai I had imagined.

Eventually, we arrived at our Couch Surfing host’s home, where she welcomed us warmly and gave us a delicious home cooked Indian dinner. We took a tuk tuk later to a local shopping mall and she introduced us to Kulfi, a delicious Indian dessert.

Our second day in Mumbai was spent in fits of exhaustion and frustration, feeling as though we couldn’t handle – didn’t want to handle – India’s complexities any longer – but then it ended on a high. We knew that tomorrow could only be better.

Our third day in Mumbai was spent exploring Colaba a little bit further. Being Sunday, the trains were “not so busy” – meaning I was able to breathe slightly more easily, didn’t have to share the roof handle with another hand and didn’t have to fight with people in order to exit the train. The Mumbai trains are madness, but oddly enough we love them.

Arriving into Churchgate Station, we stepped out into the street to be immediately greeted by the bare bottom of a woman who’d just taken a decent sized poo in the middle of a busy main road. As if proud of her achievement, she stood – bare bummed – next to the pile of waste for way too long whilst I struggled to re-gain my composure.
We watched, sipping chai, as a Bollywood scene was being filmed in the street, and ignored the hassling touts – one of whom invited us to his cousin’s best friend’s sisters’ niece’s wedding somewhere in Rajisthan some time next month.
We admired art in a gallery, and even more outside where local artists were selling their paintings and were proud to show us their work. I adore moments like these.
We explored various shops and walked through the city area, visiting the local Colaba Market and avoiding another tout who was sure we’d love the clothing at his best friend’s wholesale shop.We had a fancy lunch at Delhi Dohbar, where I broke my vegetarian diet and ate some mutton.
Our afternoon was spent walking along Marine Drive, looking out over the Mumbai city scape and sky line. Chai vendors offered us chai and a woman with a monkey on a leash tried to get us to pay her for a dancing monkey show – which we very flatly refused.

Late evening we took another local Mumbai train back to Andheri, where we visited the local shopping mall. Tuk tuk drivers outside tried to charge us 150 rupees for the 20 rupee ride back to our host’s home, and refused to turn on the meter even though they have to normally. It was infuriating to be treated so unfairly, and I felt that frustrated feeling from the previous day returning. Eventually though, we found a driver who was happy to turn on his meter and took us safely home to our wonderful host and her handsome cat.

Our third day in Mumbai was a nice, easy going day; we didn’t really rush this morning, and spent our day in the outer suburbs away from the tourists. We’re so used to being the only whities these days; it’s starting to not phase us so much. Outside of the tourist area of Colaba, the people who spoke with us were friendlier and more interested in simply talking to us, rather than trying to take our money however possible.

We took a tuk tuk to the Andheri train station, where peak hour meant we were caught up amongst thousands of frantic commuters. The first train we attempted to board was so packed (to the point where people were hanging out the doors and along the side of the train!) we were not able to board. A young woman told me to get in the ladies carriage, and never attempt to take the men’s carriage… that meant Jake and I would be separated, and that worried me when we were about to attempt to get on – and would consequently have to eventually get off – the local Mumbai train.

As the train we needed pulled into the station, it was a sight to be seen – one I have difficulty describing. It was, simply put, a manic mess of chaos and crowds. Before the train can even completely stop, people are jumping off and attempting to jump on. As the train slows and finally stops, masses of people at every door have already started shoving, pushing, kicking and pulling; fighting their way into and out of the carriage. No order, no rules, every man for himself. It was madness, and the facial expressions and the way people behaved was shocking, to say the least. I was pushed, shoved and hearded into the ladies carriage by the kind young woman who then checked to make sure Jake was safely in the men’s compartment. So kind. Within the confines of the female carriage, I observed as every woman assessed the other – including many stares directed at me – often staring each other down in a manner that, more than once, made me feel self conscious.
When the train finally pulled into my destination, I was quick to learn I’d need to fight my way off. Along with every other woman pushing and kicking and shoving to get on – and off – I elbowed and shoved and escaped, free at last.

More help from locals saved us the hassle of trying to negotiate with trick tuk tuk drivers, and eventually we found one who was happy to use the meter to take us to the ferry landing, so we could head across the ‘creek’ (more like a massive lake!) to the Global Pagoda – a golden beautiful structure that was really impressive to see. People come here for 10 day meditation work shops which are apparently really highly regarded.
Arriving, I think we were just as impressed by the structure as we were by the fact that it was free to enter.
The area was beautiful and really impressive, and it was well worth the visit out there.
After slipping in the mud and falling hard on my bum, checking to see if anyone saw, then laughing about it for way too long, we took an empty ferry back over the creek and a tuk tuk back to the station, before catching a train back to Andheri.

This evening we were meeting our host at the local plaza to see a Bollywood movie, but arriving early, we decided we’d and spend some time in what turned out to the the worst (and most hilarious) excuse for an arcade.
We wanted to have a game of 10 pin bowling but only one of the 6 lanes was working. The other lanes were “maintenance,” according to the staff. We put 100 odd rupees onto an arcade game card and went to swipe a game for some good old fashioned fun… but quickly realised the game we had selected was “undergoing maintenance.” This was the same for the next game, and the next, and the next, and the next, and this went on throughout the entire arcade for all except one game – the basketball hoopy game. So, whilst laughing like lunaticks, we spent a happy few minutes playing the same one game; shooting flat basket balls into a hoop, cackling the entire time. At the end, we had acquired a whole 6 tickets, and seeing as there were only three different ‘prizes’ behind the massive glass counter for 50, 200 and 5000 tickets, we fortunately didn’t get any sort of tacky plastic souvenir.
Oh India, you make us smile.

We met our host and went up to the level our cinema was on, only to find it had been moved to another cinema. So, down two levels, we bought popcorn and prepared for our movie to start, only to find out it had been re-scheduled for an hour later… So instead, we sat, talked and ate way too much popcorn. It was brilliant.

The movie was excellent but quite difficult for us to follow – lucky we had our host there to explain a little of the plot. After a late finish, she took us to a fantastic Punjabi restaurant where we enjoyed an absolutely amazing meal together. Tandoori chicken with lime and yoghurt, beautifully steamed rice, a bean dahl and a specialty of fried garlic cloves, along with an incredible traditional Indian sweet and a betel nut drink to freshen our mouths once we were done. Dinner at midnight, and this place was still packed. The food was one of the best meals we’ve had in Mumbai, and our beautiful host was so generous to take us out.

It honestly was such a wonderful way to celebrate our short time spent with her, and we are so grateful to have found such a wonderful person here in Mumbai. Tomorrow was to be our final day in Mumbai before heading off on a train journey away from the West and into the North to Rajisthan: first stop, Udaipur.

Bed Bug and Papping India: 15 – 16.08.13

We pulled into Hampi in the early hours of the morning, the sky still black with only the faintest silhouettes of rocks in the distance.
Before we could even step off the bus, touters boarded and the eager faces of four or five Indian men peered through the corridor, asking where we go and offering to take us to nice room. They swarmed around us whities as we tried to get our soaking wet, muddy packs organised and onto our backs. The smell of cow shit – lots of it – filled the air, and our nostrils.

We decided to walk into town; the Hampi bazaar is tiny an easily managed by foot; crowded with guest houses and restaurants, cows and the inevitable poo that they drop at every turn. We stopped for chai whilst the touters and tuk tuk drivers begged and pleaded with us to let them take us to different rooms for just 10 rupees (they forgot to mention the commission they’d make, at our expense, if we took a room). We’re cottoning on to their little tricks and games – thankfully – and we declined.

In the bazaar it took ages to find a room, we hopped from guest house to guest house, checking prices, cleanliness and wifi availability. It was light by the time we found a room that was basic, cheap, reasonably clean, and had a strong wifi connection.

We sunk a pot of masala chai at an eatery, and managed to have 100 rupees removed from our wallets by a pair of shifty “holy men” – learned our lesson there! We had breakfast with the locals at a little open air eatery that was cooking idlys and dosas, and took in the vast scenery surrounding us.

Hampi is a town like nothing we’ve before seen. The bazaar itself is a little maze of sprawling streets, souvenir shops, guest houses, restaurants, roof top cafes, hippie shops, book stores and travel agencies. Red dirt, puddles of water and mounds of cow shit make up the roads and pathways, where children run bare footed and cows block every corner. The women walk through with baskets and pots of water on their heads, and every second corner shack is filled with convenience items like toilet rolls, biscuits and necessities like shampoo and trashy magazines. Monkeys jump from roof top to roof top, children who should be in school try to sell post cards and books, people are touting, and every restaurant wants to sell the tourists a cup of the “ best coffee.”
The cows spend their days lazily; strutting the streets and forcing their heads into any crevice that may return food. We watched them frequently enjoying pieces of cardboard and news paper from the ground, posters from walls, and occasionally offered them an indulgent banana skin treat.

Outside the bazaar, a small market area and group of street stall eateries, chai stands, produce carts and tacky souvenir shacks surrounds the bus station, which is more a large area of dirty and gravel overlooking mountains and boulders, ancient ruined monuments and one massive temple.

The ruins of Hampi are sprawled out over a large area; mountains, hills, piles of enormous rock and palm trees line every view. Still exhausted, we hired a tuk tuk to take us around the main sights for five or so hours.
The temples and monuments were amazing; spectacular architecture, carvings and scenery. At the main temple, we hired a guide for a short tour of the place which gave us great insight into the significance and meaning of certain structures, buildings, carvings and history.

Throughout the day, we were continually in awe of how empty these tourist attractions were; most of the time we had the monuments, temples and areas to ourselves, or only had to ‘share’ them with a few other people. When we were not alone, we spent the time being harassed by locals wanting to take our photo. I had a small baby shoved into my arms and posed for a family photo-shoot with a child who was obviously not comfortable. The family photograph features me pulling an unimpressed face, along with the child.
Local men continued to whip cameras and phones out at the sight of us, papping at the most inopportune moments. How many hideous photographs of me are now on facebook, I hate to think.
At the last temple we were bombarded by an Indian family, which consisted of about fifty people, who wanted photo after photo with different people in the shot, in different poses, with different family members, standing on different sides of Jake and I, and then in front, and then behind, and then with babies in the shot, and then without, and then some more. I began to get irritated by the 80th odd photograph, and when they started shoving cameras into our faces to take close ups of just Jake and I, I just walked off. They continued papping, and I continued pulling faces that would make any image delete-worthy. The photograph thing got exhausting fast.

We decided we’d leave tomorrow night for Mumbai, rather than spend a second night here in Hampi. We seem to be moving through places a lot quicker than expected, but it’s a good thing; we’re able to add in more places to visit in India which is exciting! Whilst a bus takes around 12 hours to reach Mumbai, a train takes around 25 hours and would involve a lot more hassle. We’d been keen to take a train for the sheer experience it would offer, but ended up booking a sleeper bus leaving from Hospet – a 30 minute bus ride from Hampi. We;re excited to move on to Mumbai and to spend a little while there.

A man at one of the many booking agents called us in through the window, and when we said “what’s up?” he responded with “nothing man, I’ve been waiting for you!” … Oh India, how you make us laugh.
He explained to us the sleeper bus he could book us on was “very beautiful” and would have a TV all to ourselves with English sub titles. The thought of trying to sleep on a bus with 32 separate TV units was terrifying, and furthermore, the smell of weed from his cigarette was a little off putting and we left.
We booked a non-tv sleeper bus at a different agency, and so it was official: tomorrow we’re off to Mumbai.

Well after 10pm, laying on our beds exhausted, Jake spotted a tiny bug on my pillow which was instantly recogniseable as a bed bug. Uuuuuugh! We can’t be bothered with this shit!
This was the start of a long night.
Luckily a little convenience shack was still open, and selling – of all things – fly spray. Pulling the beds apart, the mattresses off the bed frames, the sheets and pillow slips away and moving our belongings and bags as far way as possible, we coated every surface with the spray. Wondering the streets late at night, we dodged cows and goats, tiny children still awake, women carrying pots on their heads and finally found some locals playing soccer, who let us use their phone to contact the no-where-to-be-seen guest house owner. He came, didn’t seem to think that it was that big of a deal, and eventually dragged the infested mattresses out and a couple of filthy, thin, wheat packed mattresses in. We refused to sleep on the infested wooden beds, and instead were given no option but to sleep on the thin mattresses on the tiles without pillows or blankets. Our hopes for a decent night sleep were crushed.

On our second day in Hampi, which happened to be Indian Independence Day – we checked out and watched our bed bug infested mattresses get dragged back onto the bed frames, ready to welcome the next sleeping body.

Today happened to be Indian Independence Day – a holiday for all – and a not much of a day for us.

We strolled down to the street food stalls next to the bus station; the place was jam packed with people, food vendors, chai stalls; the place was buzzing. Hampi was going to be busy today; 8:30am and the area was packed with colour and life. People had Indian Flags painted on their cheeks, and a colourful image made from salt was spread out on the ground, surrounded by people cooking and eating and selling and buying.

Back at what had quickly become our “Old Faithful” in Hampi, we ordered a pot of chai and simply sat. We chatted with the owner, and about our trip. It’s moving so quickly it seems; or have we just been moving quickly? Traveling at night makes a real difference, that’s for sure.

We decided to visit another big temple today, we hadn’t been yesterday and we were keen to go today… but, it was an ocean of people – people from surrounding villages made the trip to Hampi today for the public holiday celebrations – and we were very quickly overwhelmed.
People all around us were photographing us with their phones and cameras, and tour guides hassled us to hire them. We didn’t want to leave our shoes with the “shoe guard” at the temple – and further more pay for that – and the touting tour guide didn’t console my fears by saying “yes, you know why people is wanting them is for that they are the good leather.” After several hundred photographs were taken of us from several hundred different, bad angles – with me making several hundred ugly faces for the photographers – we didn’t even enter the temple. It was irritating to not be able to move without being photographed, and we were worried about our shoes being stolen by the several lurkers near the thousands of pairs of shoes.

As we wandered away towards the river and ghats we were continually photographed as we walked, and parents forced their tiny children – and us – to shake hands. At the river, hundreds, if not thousands of Indian locals were mingling. I was getting really irritated by the number of cameras in our face, and people everywhere around us pretending to be photographing something else when they were obviously aiming their cameras at us – then looking away when I gave them the eye.

Sitting on the wall leading down the steps to the river, people surrounded us to get photos with the whities. I refused to face them, so I can only assume there will now be several hundred photos of my back all over Indian Facebook. A boy grabbed me by the arm and asked for a photo “just one madame” he said. I know this game well already – just one photo means just one with this specific camera, and no doubt there will be several cameras floating about – and I flatly refused. So, taking my answer in his stride, the boy directed his mates with their cameras around me, grabbed me and put his arm around me. He now has several photographs on his camera of me scowling, yelling at him and running away swearing. I can just imagine the photo of my screwed up face, downturned brow, curled bottom lip and two front teeth forming a “Fff….” will make a great story when he returns back home.

Running up the stairs away from the papping locals, I was harassed by several boys making kissing sounds and yelling “Hello madame, where you from?” “Hello madame, where you go?” “Hello madame, how are you?” Pissed off that I was unable to enjoy anything at the present moment without the harassment of local men, Jake and I retreated to a rooftop café where we spent hours drinking masala chai and stealing wifi.

Eventually, having spent a good portion of our day in a café, it was time to head to the bus stop, to travel to Hospet where our bus for Mumbai would depart at 6:30pm. However, we were stopped by a tuk tuk driver who offered to take us for 200 rupees – what is actually a very reasonable fair considering it was a) a holiday, b) we’re tourists, and c) it’s a 30 minute drive or more to Hospet. Not wanting to bother with the jam-packed, holiday maker buses, we took the tuk tuk, and it proved to be a better choice!
Prince, the driver, was the same age as Jake, and keen to get some advice on how to pick up Western girls; I think he may be a little confused about the process. He was asking what the maximum amount of time we thought it should take for him to be able to ‘woo’ a Western girl into marrying him in. As in, how many days – not years – mere days, for him to be able to meet, date and become engaged. Furthermore, his western bride must be prepared to move away and live in India, because he believes he cannot get Indian food anywhere else in the world, where as westerners can absolutely get western food here in India… Finally, he believes if he is married to a Western girl, he can absolutely do what he wants – go away whenever he wants, where ever he wants, with who ever he wants, and his western wife wont care – supposedly, this is the opposite of what Indian women are like, according to Prince. We shared some good laughs, tried to teach him what NOT to do (eg. DON’T make ridiculous kissing noises and behave in a ridiculous manner) and he was a genuinely nice guy.

Traffic jams nearby Hospet meant wandering hands had the opportunity to find their way into our tuk tuk, and men stared at me from every angle and viewpoint. Prince ended up having to drive a different way; 5 extra kilometers through muddy tracks and over rough road to get us to Hospet. Once there, he spent time chatting and talking, took us to our bus company stand, showed us where to get food and use a bathroom, and didn’t once ask for more than the 200 rupees he originally asked for. What a guy! We tipped him anyway.

Using a bathroom in Hospet was an ordeal; the men surrounding our tuk tuk as we got out were intimidating as they stared blatantly at me, and there just didn’t seem to be any women around, anywhere! They stared and stared, and when we finally made it to the bathroom to pay the 5 rupee charge, the man there tried to tell us it was a 5 dollar charge – in whatever currency ours was. Ridiculous.

Sigh. I think today was just one of those ‘off days’…

Finally on the bus, we joined forces with a Spanish girl and spent our evening eating Hide and Seek biscuits and chatting. Laying back in our double bed berth as the bus rolled towards Mumbai, we were able to relax and let today’s frustrations and stressors wash away.
We feel nothing but excited for what this new part of our travels will bring.

 

Scary Toilets and The Luxury Hampi Express

Pretty much as soon as we arrived in Goa – or at least in Agonda – we’d unexpectedly ended up planning to leave. The tiny section we have seen of Goa has been breath-takingly beautiful: green, lush, misty, rice paddy fields and hills that climb into the clouds. Farmers and dirt roads, palm trees and oceans…

We packed and left Agona early in the morning, bleary eyed and still utterly exhausted; still trying to catch up on the lost nights sleep from the sleeper train. We took another overpriced tuk tuk to the bus station near by, then an hour long bus to Maragoado. From there, we sunk a couple of chai (oh, the withdrawals we were already suffering!) before taking another one hour long bus journey to Panji – Goa’s main city.

We dumped our backpacks with another sweaty man at the cloak room, which happened to be situated between the ladies and the men’s toilets: instead of praying that our bags would still be there when we returned, I prayed they wouldn’t absorb the smell of stale piss within the next 8 or so hours.

We’d been keen to go to an Organic Farm – Savoi Spice Plantation – to take a tour and see what organic farming is like in India; particularly in beautiful Goa. However, it was a 35km trip out there, and we didn’t want to spend 1000+ rupees on a taxi or tuk tuk, so we tried to find a bus. It was foolish; we’d just come off two hours on two separate buses that were packed so tightly it was difficult to move, and further more, we were both exhausted and hungry. But we persevered; asking one bus conductor after another for assistance in finding the right bus. We were sent to one side of the massive station, then back again, then back again, then back to a smaller section of buses, then told there was no bus, then told there was several buses, then told we had to pre-purchase a ticket, then told after we’d lined up for the ticket we didn’t need a ticket and to go “over there”, then we were “over there” we were told that bus didn’t go to the plantation, and it was around about then that I said “Fuck it I don’t even care!”, and we decided we’d just go and stuff our faces with North Indian thali and drink lassi instead.

We were so exhausted, we struggled to get up after eating, which had consequently made us even more fatigued. We had the good intention of visiting Old Goa – 9km away – which was filled with old Portuguese churches… The thought of visiting Churches today however, felt like the biggest chore, and we were much more inclined to find a chilled out café and waste away the hours until our sleeper bus departed. As we wandered about like a couple of sloths, we found a ‘Nescafe’ café – which would do for a few minutes at best – and then suddenly, I had a fantastic idea.

Let’s go and see a movie at the cinema. Not just any movie. A Bollywood movie.

Arriving at INOX Cinema, we booked tickets for Bollywood Blockbuster “Chennai Express.”
The next three hours were amazing; we don’t understand any Hindi, but we followed along easily enough, thanks to Bollywood’s ridiculously dramatic over-acting, spontaneous singing and dancing numbers and a good dose of imagination. We loved it – definitely going to see more Bollywood. We came to beautiful, beachy Goa expecting to spend our time mostly outdoors, but instead we spent our best hours there inside the cinema complex, and came out singing the catchy tune “Chen-ai-ai-ai-ai, ai-ai-ai, Chen- aiii expresssssssssssssss” – a tune that has stayed with us ever since.

We didn’t have to wait long between our movie finishing and our bus departure; enough time to get a drink, walk to the bus station, collect our bags, buy some food, and for me to use the bus station bathroom. It was the scariest Indian toilet I was yet to see; you know it’s going to be a horrifying experience when you – the white forigener – walk in, only to meet an Indian woman warning you “dirty! So very dirty! Do not go!” with a horrified expression on her face as she rushes out. Still, I had a 10 hour bus ride ahead, and no choice. I picked the least scary squat toilet, rolled up my pant legs, held my breath… I thought the worst was over… and then I went to wash my hands in the sink which was filled with ricey vomit. Uuuuuugh.

Jake downed five samosas in the time frame it took me to mentally recover from the scary toilet experience, and then along with several other foreigners, we boarded our first ever sleeper bus – a mighty steed – bound for Hampi. We were not sure what to expect; I feared the worst as I’d read about bad experiences, but when we walked through the isle to find our beds 7 and 8, we were surprised to find a double bed – with sheets, a pillow and even a blanket! What luxury. I called this bus, the Luxury Hampi Express.

In the middle of the night, the bus stopped for a refreshments break. I clambered out, bleary eyed, needing to wee. Jake came along to the toilet block to protect me, but waiting outside the piss smelling building, he couldn’t save me from the horrors of the officially scariest toilet I have now seen since arriving in Asia. Use your imagination.
Stifling my screams, I was forced to wee in the open air onto a sloped piece of concrete whilst Jake stood guard to make sure no one else came along for the show.
I guess, when your partner can openly, willingly and comfortably watch you squatting over a piece of piss sodden concrete, and not be at all bothered by the sight, you know you’re the best possible companions.

Back on the bus and with the horrors of the refreshment stop slowly easing, we lay there in the Luxury Hampi Express saying a silent goodbye to Goa, and letting the feeling of excitement for a new place to explore wash over us.

Goin’, Goa, Gone India – 12 – 14.08.13

Here I am, sitting on my bed for the night, the top bunk of a set of three berth bunks, within an 8 berth bunk section of our Sleeper Class train cabin. My face inches away from a set of three very ancient looking, inch-thick with dust fans, the man next to me (only a metal grate between us) doesn’t look so inviting and I think he might be a snorer. From my top bunk view, I can count fourteen – yes fourteen! – pairs of dirty bare feet. Including Jakes. This could possibly become my worst nightmare, very quickly. Ugh.

This morning was spent casually; the lead up to our first-ever Indian railway adventure looming. We needed to prepare. Jake woke early to fetch chai and we spent the morning packing up our backpacks (and locking them twice!), which we’d done a fantastic job of emptying and sprawling over the entire guestroom over the course of the previous two days.
We visited the supermarket to stock up on snacks for the journey, but our options were as followed: about 30 different types of sugary biscuits with not-s-enticing names like “Milky Fresh”, “Fabs”, “Hide and Seeks” and “Velvet Browns” and some savoury crackers that were advertised on the packet as “we’re still very sweet!” … we left the supermarket with, of all things, three post cards and no food four our journey.

We took a bus from the Fort to the mainland of Kochi, with the assistance of a lovely Indian woman who told us which bus to catch and then when we should get off, before attempting to walk to the railway station. We got lost. Hot, sweaty and with our packs making our knees hurt, we caved and hired a tuk tuk to take us the rest of the way, which was 20 rupees well spent, considering we would’ve probably never made it otherwise.

Luckily next to the railway there were several little market stalls, and we were able to stock up on bananas, water and chai to stave off hunger for the next 16 or so hours.

The station was a sprawling mess of chairs, people, little shops and eateries, waiting rooms and signs with no English translation. A couple of king young Indian boys assisted us with finding where to go to catch our train, which we were grateful for – even the officers at the station had not been able to assist us, and the Information Counter looked similar to any sort of Indian ‘queue’ – a mass of people fighting over one another, pushing in front of and around each other to get the attention of the one staff member. Yeah, we were not even going to bother with that.

All sorts of people are traveling on this train, and it’s fascinating to observe how people operate. We walked in to our carriage to find about 4 people crammed into seats 21 and 22 – our seats – all of them staring back at us as if to say “yes?…Why are you looking at us?”
When they find out that someone else has actually paid for these seats, they are forced to scuttle away and find another seat that might possibly, just maybe, somehow be available for them.
At each stop this happens over and over, I’m watching people walk through our carriage scouring for an opening – somewhere, any seat – that might actually not already be occupied. This is our first train trip, of course, and I think there’s a lot more to learn about how this complex system operates.

On the train after having been forced to use the latrine and wee in zig-zagging motion through a little black hole, I suddenly had a flashback to that moment when we booked our tickets and were told “Yes, oh yes, very comfortable and clean, oh yes” by the lovely man who was now obviously very deluded. Lovely and clean – my ass it was! – but I can handle toilets flooded with urine, dirty feet and dusty fans, cramped spaces filled with strange men, sleeping in the same clothes I’ve worn all day and using my backpack as my pillow. This is an experience I’m oddly loving, and furthermore, what better way to people watch and gain a little more insight into the culture, from way up here in my no curtain, fan-only, sleeper berth.

Speeding along, the fans ware spinning, the breeze was nice through the open windows, and the train hummed along the tracks. People were sleeping head to foot with their carriage buddies, people were chatting, drinking chai, reading, listening to music, watching movies, relaxing, playing with their children on these lovely and clean bunks.
Already, I love Indian trains.

Late in the night, we are bombarded by a group of Indian boys – the same ages as both Jake and I – who are also traveling to Goa “for to enjoy the life.” We spent a couple of hours sitting with them in the bunks chatting and laughing, whist they took a hundred-plus photographs of us and the ‘ring leader,’ as I shall call him, spends a good portion of time giving us a personal viewing of the eight thousand photographs of himself on his mobile, “giving pose” – as he described itin eight thousand ridiculous different outfits. Every time he showed us another photograph of himself in unflattering tight pants and a trout pout facial expression, he asked us “How is this, you think?”

We didn’t get much sleep on the train and arrived at the awful hour of 4:10am. What a fucking night mare time that is to arrive into a new destination – learning curve; we won’t be doing that again. Thankfully the rowdy boys were getting off at the same stop and they woke us up. How they knew it was the right stop I have no idea – no announcements, not large signage saying ‘welcome to your destination,’ no obvious anything that might possibly indicate we were there.

Regardless, we got off and walked out of the station into the black night time sky, where just two tuk tuk drivers were waiting. “Where you go?” they asked us… “uuum… we don’t even know!” I responded.

So, we sat there in the open air at 4:30am, alongside a hundred odd sleeping Indian bodies, eating biscuits and reading our guide book, trying to decide where to go. Eventually we decided we’d settle on Agonda, and then tomorrow move along to the next destination, with a plan to spend about 6 nights in Goa then move on to Mumbai by train.

We waited and waited for a more reasonable hour, and eventually at 5:30am, we took a taxi to the bus station with the hope of their being frequent buses, as per what we’d read.
We were wrong. The bus station was still dark and full of sleeping bodies and clusters of men, and no buses were leaving until 7am.Shit.

I turned around and suddenly, like a shining beacon of hope, there it was – a 24/7 coffee house. No matter how bad the coffee is, we’re going there! I was almost skipping with joy – along with the 20kgs of baggage on my back – at the fact that we would not have to endure that dark, dodgy bus station.

We finally caught a bus that was headed for Agonda – an hour or so spent packed in with a hundred odd other bodies; school children, farmers, women with baskets of vegetables and one lady who spent the trip tying long beans together in bunches with string. How foolish I was to think that an early bus would be less crowded. This is India, Emily!

During the bus trip, we were informed that our bus did not go to Agonda as promised, and we would have to catch a very over priced tuk tuk the rest of the way. Seeing as it’s low season, we should have guessed the issues that we were about to face here in Goa.

Arriving into Agonda early morning, we checked in to a cheapy but fine guest house with a view looking out over the swirling ocean waves. Hungry, we walked into town hoping to find a little café in this quiet stretch of coast… and that’s when we began to slowly realize that literally, everything in Agonda is shut. Not just for the morning, not just for the day. For the entire low season. Every shop, restaurant, eatery, book store and touristy place was covered with blue tarp. Monsoon season here meant not one place was in business, besides three tiny convenience stores that were not very convenient. We felt trapped.
 

Our only real option, seeing as we had already handed over all our clothing to be laundered, meant hiring another overpriced tuk tuk to take us to Palolem – the super touristy area that would have a few shops and eateries open at this time of year.
Palolem was okay, but felt more like a Thailand tourist strip – complete with flimsy knock off clothing, bongs and pipes in the window sills of shops and staff sitting lazily outside the doors begging us to come in.

We ate a dodgy meal, wandered the beach aimlessly, saw a motorbike accident, watched several badly injured dogs struggle to walk around the main area, bought a pineapple for dinner (since nothing would be open), wandered through a couple of shops and then, when we’d had enough; more exhausted than I can describe after the train journey, we took another over priced tuk tuk back to empty Agonda.

We spent the afternoon and evening relaxing to the sounds of the ocean and rain, eating delicious pineapple and crackers with vegemite and reading the Classifeds section of The Hindu newspaper – the Wanted adds for Brides and Grooms is an interesting read, to say the least.

We were planning to spend 6 nights exploring Goa, but after realizing today that low season here means basically EMPTY, we booked ourselves a sleeper bus to Hampi – departing from Panji (Goa’s capital) tomorrow night. I’ve read a lot of good things about Hampi and I think it will deliver a lot more than Goa has…I guess, what this simply means is we’ll have to come back to India again. When everything in Goa is open.