Myanmar Eats: 1 – 2.11.2013

Our share taxi arrived on time this morning – and by on time, I mean on Myanmar time – just half an hour or so later than organised. Nice! Earlier than we’d been expecting!

I’d been trying to work out exactly what a “share taxi” would involve – it always seems to differ in every Asian country and after seeing so many different types of rust-buckets and packed full of people transportation zipping about on the roads, I was apprehensive. Jacob was betting on a mini-van, I was betting on a more pick-up truck style vehicle. Turns out, a share taxi is just a normal rusty shell of a car packed full of parcels to be delivered along the way to the final destination – which in our case, is Pyin Oo Lwin.

Our driver packed both Jacob and I, our backpacks, a heap of golf clubs, a few large boxes, two Burmese women and their belongings and a few more parcels into the tiny hatchback before lead-footing it for an entire two hours up massive hills, around hair-pin bend and tight curves and over taking anyone and every vehicle within sight.

We stopped twice (besides the several times the driver parked, leaving the car running, to deliver a parcel): once when the engine got too hot and our driver had to hose it down and again to get petrol. The petrol station was very oddly more like a small party – about twenty or thirty staff in blue tee-shirts and bare feet stood around just chatting and waiting for a car to re-fuel, music pumping in the background to keep them entertained. When we arrived, they all went wild for these two whities jammed into the back of the car, faces almost smeared against the window glass. Whilst our car was re-fuelled, five or ten people stood outside our car door smiling the BIGGEST smiles at us and laughing uncontrollably whenever one of them tried to speak English with us. All we could do was laugh and smile back. Momentarily one of the smiling women left, returning with about fifteen cups of raspberry cordial for us to drink. We took two. We told them we were going to Pyin Oo Lwin and they started hand gesturing a “shivering” motion, explaining to us it would be very cold. I wondered what the Burmese considered to be “very cold…”
Once our car was filled with fuel and ready to roar again, we waved goodbye to several massive smiles and sipped on our cordial as our driver put his lead foot back down.

The drive was wonderful though, beautiful scenery and pretty quick – just a couple of hours and we were absolutely a world away from hectic Mandalay. On arrival, we dumped our bags at our very fancy guest house and headed out to explore the town…

Pyin Oo Lwin was colonised by the British way back in the day and the old weathered buildings and Purcel Clock Tower (the wanna-be Big Ben of Myanmar) had a distinctly British look and feel – a charm that certainly seems to exist throughout this cute, welcoming, dusty town.
We admired the surroundings as we strolled up the main street looking for a place to get some local food for lunch. We discovered what we thought was a local place and had some average noodles there – later we realised what a touristic eatery this actually was. Jacob spied a local curd shop – he’s got a nose for this sort of thing now – and we ended up there sipping thick yoghurt through curly straws, watching the locals around us and the interesting street scenes continually unfolding. Horse drawn carts with wooden Cindarella-style coaches (although not as glamourous – think weathered wooden boxes, filthier, tackier and with sick looking horses) trotted past and locals roasted peanuts by the side of the road. Men huddled around betel nut stands, buying leaves and spitting massive glugs of burgundy goo onto the road and pavement. Women could be seen in their shop fronts, knitting hats and jumpers whilst waiting for their next customer. Children were playing, tea shops were busy, the air was fresh(ish) and it felt really nice to be here.

We took a stroll through the big Central Market area – it was filled with all sorts of goods and bits and pieces. There was cooking items, house hold items, clothing, shoes, underwear, food items and lots of knit wear that was oddly enough, exactly the same at every shop – besides one lady we found who was crocheting gorgeous little beanies. Moving away from this area of the market, we found ourselves out in the open-air produce market where all sorts of fresh foods were being sold. Deep fried insects, scary meats, unidentifiable items and lots of beautifully coloured fruits and vegetables dotted the ground and small tables. Women were fanning fresh fish that were displayed in metal bowls under the heat of the sun, right next to whole dead chickens, fried birds and little quail eggs. I think I’ve said it before, but I adore these types of wet Asian markets, and I never tire of looking through them; there is always something new to find that we didn’t see the last time we looked..

People were smiling at us, babies were being taught to wave and blow kisses and smiled when they saw us, the women kept telling me I was beautiful and pointing to my skin… People here were friendly and no one was touting or trying to sell us anything. It felt like a place where we would be really able to experience the local life style in an honest, non-touristic manner.

Evening time and we were hungry for some street food. We heard there was a night market here that sold “Myanmar snacks” but what we found was an entire street filled with tents and plastic chairs, metal tables and wonderful smells. Smoke and steam was rising from the hundreds of hot pots, woks, stove tops, barbeques, grill plates, coal fires and steel pots at every different street stall. Men and women and children were all busy – either cooking or eating – everyone seemed to be there. There was so much to choose from, so many different foods being cooked and prepared, boiled, chopped, fried and stirred. The organs and pig heads being cut into bite size pieces with house-hold scissors may have been immediately scrapped from our list of choices, but the vegetarian options were in abundance and there was certainly no threat of going hungry. We strolled by each stall looking and choosing what we might want to try. We ended up at a little noodle tent, slurping Shan Noodles and enjoying being amongst it all. Moving on, we found a place that was jam packed with people and with a queue forming for take away. The staff were under the pump and we decided this was the place to be. We enjoyed a clay pot of steamed vegetables, tofu and various noodles mixed with chilli and other spices and sauces. $1.50 bought us an incredible dinner; one of the highlight meals of this entire trip to date, and we were definitely coming back tomorrow night.

Taking advantage of the fast internet back at our hotel, our evening was spent watching one of my favourite movies of all time and drinking hot 3-in-1 milo. A tiny bit of normality for us; it felt a bit like home.

I really like this place, it’s quiet and calm and slower paced – I’m not missing the overwhelming honking and pollution that we found in Mandalay and Yangon. However, we’ve found this ‘quieter’ pace to be the case since arriving in Myanmar and it’s been olldy enough a little difficult for us to adjust to.
Maybe we were expecting something completely different? Although, I don’t actually know what we were expecting – or if we had any specific expectations at all.
It’s certainly a country I want to know more about, but at the same time, I wonder if it’s possible for tourists to get a real insight into what’s been happening and what is currently happening. We feel very much like outsiders – very much tourists – with no way of getting closer to the locals.
Furthermore, our budget is quite limiting – due to such high accommodation costs we can afford little more than accommodation, some transport and food/drink each day for about $50 – 55 (a lot more than the $35 we’d planned on spending). I guess Mandalay, for example, could’ve been completely different for us had we been able to afford more.

I’m hoping that as we move away from the big cities – now in Pyin Oo Lwin and into Hsipaw and Inle Lake – we’ll be more mesmerised and captivated by this country. We feel it has a lot of noticeable similarities to other countries we’ve visited – we keep being reminded of Laos and Thailand – and we hope Myanmar offers us something wildly different and makes us fall in love with her. No doubt there is immense beauty and a fascinating culture and history to be discovered here if we take the time to find them.
I think maybe I had this picture of what Myanmar would be and besides the temples of Bagan, I haven’t quite found it yet…

Our second day in Pyin Oo Lwin turned out to be pretty awesome and left us feeling way more motivated and back in “travel mode” than the previous day (and this morning).

We ended up organising a tuk tuk to take us out to the starting point of the Ani Sakan Waterfall hike early this morning; whilst we knew it would be spectactular and feeling as though “we should absolutely go,”  for some reason we were feeling unmotivated. I guess, as I’ve learned during this trip, “the scariest moment is just before it starts” – aka, “the hardest part is getting out the door.”  As soon as we jumped into the back of the rust bucket open-air tuk tuk and began hurtling down the bumpy, dusty roads, we were loving it. The cool breeze was beautiful against our faces and we enjoyed watching life whizz past us – often in the form of men hanging out of or clinging onto the side of pick up trucks whilst they waved and called out to us.

Arriving at the start of the short trek, we grabbed a couple of chewy lychee drinks and set off downhill. Instantly a group of very young Burmese girls began following us without saying a word and expected payment to walk with us down to the falls and back. I wished they were at school instead. We declined their service and continued down the path that almost instantly became steep and windy and continued that way for the next 40 minutes or so as we made our way down, down, down. The path was steep and often muddy or covered in loose stones and rocks. Images of my ass getting covered in mud from a potential (hilarious) slip often crossed my mind…
The scenery was breath taking and we often paused to marvel at the sheer cliff faces, forest, waterfalls and mountainous backdrop before us.

By the time we reached the bottom we could hear the massive falls so close and see the mist rising through the forest. The track turned to watery mud and we inched our way closer, trying even harder not to slip. When we made it up a small muddy incline the falls came into view: roaring and massive, they fell from a huge height and the mist almost instantly covered us in a fine layer of water. So refreshing.

Climbing down from the falls we passed smiling monks who greeted us with “mingalaba” and laughed as we all slid around in the mud and slush beneath our feet. The only difference was we were kitted out in hiking boots and they were barefoot. I think we were at more risk of slipping.

Downhill had been “easy” in comparison to going uphill and it took us just over 50 minutes to climb the steep incline and arrive back at our starting point; puffed out, we were happy to get back into the tuk tuk and ride through the cool breeze. I love sitting in these open air tuk tuks watching the scenery and the life going by. Firstly, the scenery is beautiful and secondly, there is always someone hanging out of their car/truck/van/tuk-tuk/pick up/motorbike/bicycle waving and smiling and laughing at us foreigners. At one point a man on a motorbike drove past carrying hundreds of dead chickens all hanging off the back. Oh Asia…

Back in Pyin Oo Lwin, we took another stroll through the streets and found ourselves back at the “night market” which, at 3pm…wasn’t so night-y. It was never the less full of street food stalls with smoking woks and boiling pots, cooking smells wafting and people everywhere eating and cooking and sitting at metal tables on TINY plastic chairs under tents. People were hard at work – and then there were those hard at eating. Last night it had been a bit dark and overwhelming when we came here and we’d chosen the sorts of meals we knew were ‘safe’. Today that was not happening – we wanted to try everything these little Myanmar food stalls had to offer. Most snacks and meals cost us between 100 – 300 kyat, (10 – 30 cents) which meant that we could hop from vendor to vendor, try every new delicious food, end up extremely full and with only the equivalent of .80c less in our wallet.
We had noodle soups, deep fried tofu, grilled fruits, rice paper pancakes, takoyaki-type rice balls, coconutty things, vegetable bits, salads, some sort of nut thing…

We returned late that night to the night market for another snack (or five) and the best cup of Burmese milk tea we’ve had. It amazed me that this night market was absolutely tourist-free, the three times we have visited this central place in the past two days we’ve not seen one other tourist – and there are a lot of tourists here. The Chinese restaurant down the road, however, seemed to be brimming with them. I wonder how much longer this market will remain a local-only type of place, souvenir and tout-free.

Back at our room we followed our standard ‘the night before we leave this place’ routine: we acknowledged we needed to pack our cases, we procrastinated for a good hour (or three) and then finally – way too late at night to have the energy or motivation to do so – we got our things together and packed our packs.

After today’s little trekking adventure and the joyous experience of trying new things and eating with all the locals, I feel my excitement about travel and being here in Myanmar start to heighten a lot more; I feel so much more motivated and excited to be here than I was feeling when we were in the big cities.
Tomorrow we’re taking the scenic train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw. I think the distance is something like 200km and takes around… oh, you know, between 4 and 11 hours by train! It’s been described as one of the 50 “must-do” train travel routes in the world, but also, as being “painfully slow.” I’m a little apprehensive about what a train trip involves in Myanmar, but at the same time I of course want to experience it. If it’s anything like some of the scenery we’ve seen else where in Asia, no doubt it will be stunningly beautiful… if it’s anything like the crowded, jam packed trains we’ve seen else where in Asia, 4 – 11 hours may end up feeling a lot longer. We shall see.

From what I have read, Hsipaw is a pretty magnificent place and I am looking forward to getting there and seeing what’s on offer. It sounds like a place you can really start to ‘feel’ and take your time in – I love those sorts of places. I much prefer to travel and just get a feel for a place rather than hop from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, so Hsipaw sounds like it will  be perfect…

For now, Pyin Oo Lwin – you’ve been pretty great.

Visas, Saris and Nepalese Fun: 27 – 29.09.2013

Our morning was spent lazily wandering the area in and around Durbar Square, Bhaktapur. We enjoyed more vegetable and buff momos from the Tibetan Momo Shop, along with milky chai before I bartered a taxi down and we traveled from Bhaktapur to the Myanmar Embassy. We planned to pick up our passports there and meet Sarah, one of our couch surfing hosts for the next three nights.
Arriving at the embassy, we collected our visas and were overjoyed: a whole page of our precious passports was now covered with a beautiful looking Myanmar visa, ready to use! Relief – it’s now finally done.

Meeting Sarah at the embassy proved difficult; again she had the same trouble as we originally did with trying to actually find it. Eventually we took a taxi to near-by her home and met her there. We dropped off our bags and met the new addition to her family: one very cute and tiny puppy! Sarah then took us for our first “Nepali Bus Experience” – we took a “micro-bus” (a mini van type vehicle, often overflowing out the door with people) to an area for a late lunch.
From there, we walked to Patan’s Durbar Square, where we all attempted to ‘sneak’ in through a back way so we wouldn’t have to pay the expensive entrance fee. We were stopped however, and only had a few minutes to view the historic area. It was indeed beautiful; similar to the Durbar Square in Bhaktapur.

Patan Square

Patan Square

Patan area was bustling and hectic and crowded with life and activity, people, motorists, dogs and street stalls. Shops lined the street, and our entire surroundings were filled with busy people selling and buying and trying to move about. Bag sellers stood wearing twenty or thirty backpacks over their bodies, strolling up and down the street. Fruit sellers weighed their goods, motorbikes honked, children squealed and men with giant wooden sticks covered in colorful balloons for sale moved about the hectic crowds without a single one bursting.

So exciting!

So exciting!

Bag Sellers... Efficient!

Bag Sellers… Efficient!

Sarah mentioned that tomorrow night (we’re going to a party her gym is throwing for an upcoming festival) all the women will be wearing saris. Having packed for 7 months of travel, a sari was not one of the items currently stuffed somewhere in my backpack, however, I wanted to wear one. I’d been wanting to try one on since we arrived in Sri Lanka to see women dressed beautifully, covered in colour. That want had continued throughout our travels in India, and into Nepal. Amazed at how cheaply they could be purchased for, and at how quickly they could be tailored, Sarah and I enjoyed browsing through the various beautifully coloured materials to find a sari material I liked. Jacob took a seat on the “mans seat.” I chose a light grey material with pink flowers on it; it reminded me of Japanese cherry blossom. Upstairs, a man picked from a big range of coloured materials, a colour that perfectly matched the flowers on my sari and would be soon measured, cut and stitched to make my blouse. With my sari and blouse material and a petticoat for underneath, we moved to the next room where a woman measured me with such speed and precision I knew she’d been doing this for a long time. I paid for my sari ($11 AU) and for my blouse material and petticoat ($4.50 AU) and was given a receipt; tomorrow it would be completely tailored ($3) and ready for me to collect! We left the shop and I felt really excited to be able to not only finally wear my very own tailor made sari, but also to have the opportunity to dress up for something! Hiking boots, worn-in thongs/flip-flops, travel pants, faded t-shirts and ‘quick-dry’ tops might be convenient, but after months of travel they are ingrained with swat, filth and dirt; it was exciting to look a bit pretty instead.

Sari Shopping!

Sari Shopping!

Our evening was spent with our hosts; we enjoyed an amazing dinner – real Nepalese food – lots of rice, veggies and dahl bat, along with good conversation and new friends. I really enjoy couchsurfing; every time we’ve meet new people it has felt as though we’re just meeting old friends again. It’s such a warm way to be welcomed in and travel through a country, and a brilliant way to share cultures, experiences, food and our lives. I get excited every time we meet a new host – and a little nervous – and it’s an exciting prospect that now we have more than a month straight of couch surfing, including both here in Kathmandu and in Japan.

Tomorrow is Saturday – our host’s only day off; we don’t have a lot of plans and that is fine by us. Tomorrow evening is the party, and more importantly, us girls are wearing saris. I’m excited – like a child before a birthday – about something so simple.
Tomorrow is also our second-to-last day in Nepal – already! – I can’t believe how quickly the time is going here, but then I guess I never expected one week to go slowly.

Saturday – aka “the day of the party” was a relaxing but a thoroughly enjoyable day! I like the idea of experiencing Nepal through couch surfing, rather than blindly hopping from one sight-seeing tourist destination to the next.
We all had a leisurely morning just chatting and sitting around, then Sarah and I went shopping whilst Jake stayed back and did our washing. Who got the better deal?

After shopping, we headed back to Patan to the material shop where my sari was being made. We arrived an hour earlier than we were told to; at that point it had not even been started. Lucky we did go early – I’m learning that “Nepali time” is a lot like “Laos time” – things and people tend to run on their own time and schedule, meaning “pick up the sari at 1 o’clock” might actually mean something like… “the sari will be ready by… 2 or 3 o’clock… maybe later, maybe earlier, who’s to say?”

We came back at 1 o’clock, after strolling around, eating an ice cream and getting caught in a small rainstorm. My beautiful sari and newly-made blouse was presented to me and I went to try it on. After first putting it on the wrong way, I eventually squeezed into the tiny blouse that didn’t cover much more than my breasts, shoulders and a tiny part of my upper arm. I’ve never been one to reveal my stomach – not a part of my body I particularly like – so staring back at my reflection, I was both a bit intimidated and some how liberated by this very ‘small thing’…

I asked Sarah to just see that it all looked right, and as soon as I got the okay from her, one of the woman in the shop barged in to my little change room, stared me up and down, smiled, laughed, dragged me out of the change room and stroked my bare back whilst she exclaimed to everyone in the room how beautiful and white I was (in Nepalese), to which everyone else was replying, oh yes, so beautiful and white. Sarah laughed and interpreted this all for me; it was both a funny and odd experience.

Sari in hand, we headed back through the crowds and bag-wearing bag sellers, street stalls and fruit sellers, back home to prepare for the party and get ready. Exciiiiiting….! Saris are complicated and take a lot of practice to get ‘right’, it appears; Sarah and I spent some time watching ridiculously fast and over dramatic youtube clips of how to put on and wear a sari correctly, before Sarah helped dress me in my sari; together we tucked and folded and pleated and adjusted the meters of fabric, layering it and holding it, moving and pulling it to try and get it to look right. It felt really exciting to be wearing it; it sounds so odd and childish to say but I had a lot of fun.
In our saris, we took a heap of photos and strutted about, unable to sit down for fear of messing up or ruining the work that had gone into putting out outfits on.

Dress Ups

Dress Ups

It was pouring with rain up until minutes before we had to leave, so Sudaman – Sarah’s husband – went out to hail a taxi and arrange a fair price (before the driver could see three white people and hike up the price). To get to the taxi, the four of us had to walk down the muddy path first, with me hiking up my sari to my knees to avoid the mud.

The party was a mix of people and everyone seemed to be eating and chatting and having fun; most people spoke English and we were able to chat and feel very much welcome, which was nice. Even more awesome was that most of the women wore saris – together everyone looked really beautiful and elegant (this party was the most elegant I had been in the last few months of travel, and no doubt the most elegant I would be for the next four).

We spent our evening dancing to Hindi music and Bollywood hits remixed, and eating way too many deep-friend cheese balls and steamed momos. It was great fun, and I had the realization that this was all possible  because we chose to interact with locals and had the opportunity to meet these people through couch surfing. I thought, how lucky we are to experience this, rather than wandering through the crowded and overpriced touristy area of Thamel; what we would’ve probably ended up doing had we not couch surfed. I feel so happy that when we travel, we are making the effort to get deeper than just “the number one attraction on trip advisor” or the “top pick” in Lonely Planet; these experiences and moments are far more memorable and enjoyable in my opinion.

I’m grateful to be here in Nepal; really, I’m just so grateful to be traveling. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to be doing what we’re doing – we’re so used packing and unpacking and moving, choosing where to go next and what we’ll do and see there, bargaining for this and that, checking that the food is vegetarian and that our water bottle seals are secure – it can become a blur of what has become our lifestyle, mixed with how amazing our lifestyle really is right now. Traveling has certainly, for me at least, become my normal and whilst I adore it, sometimes I forget to step back and make a point of acknowledging that right now, in this moment, I am doing what I love the most. I am exactly where I want to be.

I’m still amazed at how quickly our time in Nepal has come to an end, and both Jacob and I certainly don’t feel ready to leave this country; perhaps it’s because we saw just the tiniest snippet – enough to make us want to see more. This is a country that I want to come back to for a lot longer next time.

On our final day in Kathmandu – and Nepal! – we woke up early and were out the door before 7am, walking down the dirt path towards the bus stop ready for a full day of exploring and enjoying. Sarah and Sudaman helped us to negotiate the buses, which are a bit confusing and a little bit difficult for a foreigner to negotiate (okay, okay, a little bit difficult is an understatement in my case!). It took two buses (with a chai stop in between) to get to Boudanath; a famous holy sight where we were meeting Anjan – Sarah’s friend. We arrived just after 8am, and already the place was buzzing with pilgrims and holy men, monks and tourists. Shops were open selling all the usual touristy trinkets, the smells of coffee poured out of the many cafes and the sound of prayers could be heard from the surrounding temples.

Good morning Kathmandu

Good morning Kathmandu

Boudnath Stupa

Boudanath Stupa

Anjan was so generous to spend his morning with us; he guided us through Boudanath Stupa and around the area which was really interesting, and he spent time taking us into temples and showing us different areas and view points. At one point we were able to see the monks chanting inside the temple, and listen to the beautiful melodies they were creating – this sound is indescribable and I could’ve listened to it for hours; it’s encapsulating and enchanting; almost hypnotic.
We stopped for a cup of milky tea at a coffee stand that was crowded with monks having their daily caffeine hit; it was a really cool sight to see and be amongst – watching the religious practices amongst a mix of with tourists and locals, and lots of pigeons.

IMG_1015

Anjan then led us towards Pashnupathi – a large area classed as a world heritage sight, filled with temples and also used as a cremation sight; similar to Varanasi in many respects. The entrance fee was 1000 NR each, and we didn’t want to pay that to see bodies being burned, so rather, Jacob, Anjan and myself walked around the entire area, looking in from the gates as we walked through colourful stalls, past palm readers and open-air butcher shops, over hills and down to a point where we were able to view the cremations from a distance.

Jake and I had a wonderful time with Anjan and were so glad to have spent some time with him. He saw us off on the main road, where we boarded a public-style tuk tuk (driven by a female! Our first ever public transport ride with a female driver – woohoo!!) and squished in for a bumpy ride to Kathmandu Mall, nearby Thamel – our next destination.

In Thamel, we explored the shops a little more and stumbled upon a tiny momo shop selling delicious plates of steamed veggie momos for 40 rupees! Bargain – lunch for both of us cost 80 cents!… We chilled out for a while in the same place we’d found on our first day in Thamel, using the wifi and drinking cup after cup of lemon tea. Soothing.

We left Thamel around 4:30pm and planned to go back to Sarah and Sudaman’s home to cook them dinner as a ‘thank you’ for having both of us. As it turns out, we greatly overestimated our ability to find the bus, and underestimated the time it would take to get back to their home… After struggling to find the right micro bus for about an hour, we were about to hail a taxi when we found the right bus and even got a seat! Success! Little did we know that shortly after boarding the 12-seater micro bus (mini van) at 25 rupees a person, we’d be wishing we paid the exorbitant amount for a taxi.

We counted more than 45 bodies at one point inside this tiny van – images of clown after clown climbing out of a mini came to mind, but instead, the reality was lots of Nepalese people pushing and shoving and cramming into and out of the van at every stop. More than once, the driver got out and opened up the back door, shoving more people into the back of the van behind the seats in a space I didn’t know was even possible to stand in. In Nepal, it’s possible.

The sky got dark quickly, the traffic on the roads started to thin out (by Kathmandu standards) and it started to rain. The micro bus, however, didn’t thin out and our legs were soon numb from being so tightly jammed into our seats. I started to worry after we’d been on the bus for more than an hour, and didn’t seem to be anywhere near where we had to be.

Eventually we recognized the area that we had to get off at, and went straight to the nearest convenience store to ask for directions. We ended up calling Sarah from there, buying a heap of drinks, eggs for dinner, biscuits and bread, and walking back to the house feeling terrible we’d run out of time to cook anything spectacular.

Sarah was out when we got home – she was meeting a guy from the UK who was interested in teaching in Nepal – but Sudaman and their beautiful puppy were there to greet us. Sarah had bought buffalo mince meat so we were able to cook a spin on “Australian-style Rissoles” (more ‘The Castle’ quotes spring to mind).

Sarah came home, along with Howard, the UK guy,  who bought a bottle of South Australian wine and stayed for dinner. The power cut out so the three of us – Jacob, Sarah and myself – cooked in the dark by torch and head-torch light; an experience I enjoyed – we won’t get that anywhere else during our travels! Dinner was great – good conversation and great food; it was an unexpected but enjoyable way to spend our last evening with our couch surfing hosts and our last evening in Nepal, and I went to bed with mixed feelings: happy about how we’ve spent our time here, sad that we have to leave so soon, excited to be going to Japan tomorrow, and both ready and not quite ready to leave this area of the continent. Japan in a way is acting as an unofficial ‘breaker’ in our travels: we have been traveling in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal – prior to Japan, and after, we’ll be in South-East Asia.

We’ve got so much to be excited about, and so much to look forward to. Tomorrow we leave a country, board a plane, fly to another country, board another plane, and touch down in Japan – my ‘spiritual homeland’ as I call it. It’s a new part of our travels, a new part of our journey, a new adventure and a new experience. I’m just so excited.

Nepal has been absolutely wonderful – incredibly beautiful and hospitable – and I am looking forward to coming back here again some day in the not-too-distant future.

Agra-essive India: 10.09.2013

What a full on day we’ve had here in Agra; I can safely say that after what we experienced – rather, endured – today, I am never coming back here in my lifetime. The Taj Mahal really will be a once-in-a-lifetime for me.

Our day started wonderfully, we took a tuk tuk to the station (after one ridiculous driver tried to charge us 300 rupees for a 15 rupee ride!) and boarded the one train I have been waiting enthusiastically to take in India! The Shatabdi Express! – once described to me as “luxurious, by India standards.”  It was pretty awesome; we had comfortable upholstered seats, leg rests and the train was clean and spacious. We had room to store our bags above us, a tray table, and staff who served us with a news paper, water, tea, breakfast, candy, buiscuits and chai. Very luxurious, I’ll say. I felt like I was on India’s version of the Japanese Shinkansen, and I was almost a little disappointed that the train ride was to be only three and a half hours – it was so lovely!

On the train, I sat admiring my surroundings and wondering if I’d made the right decision to book us flights to Japan… then I heard a little voice say “Ah-gu-ra?” I turned around instantly, recognising that cute accent. A little Japanese man sat down in the seat behind us, and I had to smile. By the time we exited the train, we had an offer from the Japanese man to show us around Osaka when we arrived, and I was feeling 100% sure we’d made the right decision.Thank you, to who ever sent me that little sign of confirmation.

Stepping into Agra Fort train station, we dumped our bags in the cloak room and were immediately preyed upon by a rickshaw driver. We were cautious – evidently not cautious enough – and tried to shake him, however, he oddly seemed like maybe, just maybe he was being a little less schemey than the rest of them… We took him up on his offer for a days sight seeing, and hopped into the rickshaw where his son was very helpful in telling us what scams to look out for in Agra. He forgot to mention the one him and his dad were running.

We arrived near the South Entrance to the Taj, and proceeded to walk through a lane way packed with shops and touters, all begging and pleading and trying their hardest to hassle us into their shops. I kept my backpack on my front, with my arms hugging it tightly.

We lined up for our tickets, which cost us 750 rupees each (just a little more than the 20 rupees that the locals pay for their entrance tickets) but absolutely worth it.
We were then waved through to the front of the security line, passing through and being patted down by officers before they went through every section of my bag, wallet and possessions. They accepted my bulging pack, but declined my lap top, a tiny torch and a deck of UNO cards entrance into the Taj, so it was back to the cloak room to store my goods. I’m not sure what was so dangerous about my UNO cards, but it was all made clear to me when they said gruffly “Government Policy.”

Stepping into the Taj was exciting! It was crowded with people, but it didn’t matter, we were here and it was incredible! The entrance gate was magnificent in its own right, and walking through gave us a glimpse of what was to come, with the Taj coming more and more into view with every step towards it. I had butterflies!

We stepped through the entrance gate to see the Taj in full view, and it was really exciting! People were everywhere, lots of domestic tourists taking hilarious photos of themselves in strange poses. It was a big competition to get a photograph without several men posing with borrowed sun glasses and arms folded, but we succeeded eventually; I guess everyone wanted a piece of the Taj.

We spent a good hour or so wandering about the grounds, around the Taj and inside it, where we were speechless. It was beautiful, spectacular and just so massive! How amazing it was to be here…
I was left speechless again when I watched a man very obviously and intentionally grab a female tourist’s bottom. Not good.

It was very special to be there, but eventually we left and wandered back through the lane of touters, where I had to yell at a small child to leave me alone, after he followed me for way too long trying to drag me into his 1-rupee per-post-card shop, grabbed my arm and harassed me aggressively almost to breaking point. The Taj Mahal was indeed beautiful, but stepping back out was simply walking into a feeding frenzy.

Back in our tuk tuk, the drivers took us to see the Agra Fort, which we decided not to enter and instead, marveled at from the outside. Seeing as 75% of the fort is inaccessible to tourists and is used by the military, the Red Fort was pretty impressive from the outside without the hefty foreigner entrance fee.

Tuk tuk driver then took us to a chai shop where he assumed we would pay for his drinks, and spent a lengthy amount of time explaining to us in detail, with lots of “true stories” to back up whatever he said, that apparently every guest house with a restaurant in Agra has a network with tuk tuk drivers, doctors and the local hospital, and intentionally poisons tourists in order to get commission from each of their networks, and earn more money from sick tourists who are forced to pay use a tuk tuk to go to the doctors, then to the hospital, then pay to stay extra nights in their guest house recovering… Whilst we’re not sure how true this is, he was very persistent about just one restaurant in Agra being safe to eat at, and ensured us it was in our guide book (it was not). Driving past the place to “just show us,” I was pretty sure that if any restaurant in Agra was actually out to make tourists sick, it was that one, and we gladly declined his ‘generous’ offer.

After originally promising not to, and then attempting to lure us to a Government shop , which I flatly and continually refused, tuk tuk driver must’ve realised we were in no mood to “shop” just so he could get commission. I think he got a bit shitty, as he then declined my request to take us to an orphanage I wanted to pay a visit to, to donate some stationary and colouring books for the little children. He had originally agreed to take us there, but suddenly 5km was “too far,” and just like that, our “seven hour tour of Agra” with the tuk tuk driver was over – just two hours later… Furthermore, when I asked for my 100 rupees change, he refused and basically shoved us out of his tuk tuk, telling me how wonderful his shit service had been and that he deserved that extra 100 on top of the already ridiculous fee, simply for doing not a whole lot.

That bitter taste in my mouth was becoming unbearable, and it was only 1pm. We still had 10 hours to spend in Agra, in the heat, with the thousands of sharks (touters), before our train to Lucknow arrived.

We decided to walk through the train station to cross over to the local bazaar, hoping it would entertain us for a while. Fending off monkeys with my backpack, we crossed over and through a filthy area where dozens of men were urinating and shitting on piles of filth. The bazaar was jam packed and traffic was heavy, congested and dangerous. Wandering about was difficult, and it wasn’t long before we made the attempt to walk back to the near- by fort area, passing cows, dodging rubbish, poo and touters and dogs mating in the street.

By the time we walked to the top of the road, we were hot, stressed and sick of having to duck and weave and dodge hectic traffic and constant touting. We attempted to hail a rickshaw, but no one wanted to use their meter (of course not), let alone give us a price anywhere even near reasonable. 300 rupees for a 1km distance was out of the question. Declining one driver who refused to use the meter, he quickly changed his tune and immediately tried to repair two very obviously severed wires. Whilst doing so, we were suddenly surrounded by at least 20 men who all wanted to know what was happening, and why we hadn’t chosen their rickshaw. One man was particularly aggressive, and demanded we get into his tuk tuk for 100 rupees. Declining him politely, he quickly dropped to 80 telling us that this was the local price. Then again dropping to 70, all whilst I was politely saying no thanks, no that’s too much, that’s not a fair price, no, no, no, please – no, listen – no!…NO!”  He continued to yell “70! Okay! Get in! 70!”, and we were stuck in a circle of men who seemed to be really enjoying the show whilst I tried to escape. I thought it had ended with me screaming at them and pushing through the crowd… but then the aggressive man got into his tuk tuk, drove after us and screamed at us to get in. It officially ended with Jacob screaming – and I mean, screaming (never had I heard him scream before!) at the driver in Hindi to leave us alone. It was an awful experience and left me almost in tears from sheer exhaustion; I was sick of this bull shit and we’d both had enough of the horrible treatment we were receiving from everyone we came into contact with. We walked away in silence, feeling rotten and wanting to get out of this city as quickly as possible, yet knowing we still had hours to go.

Eventually, we found a tuk tuk driver who finally agreed to a price that was only a reasonablye rip-off, rather than just simply ridiculous, but before we could get in to his vehicle, we witnessed a hit and run accident; a tuk tuk on the wrong side of the road smashed into a young boy on a bike and immediately sped off at a ridiculous speed, leaving locals chasing after the driver and running to the boy’s aid. He was fine, but after seeing that and the distress written all over that poor boys face, I was now at almost breaking point.

Our driver took us to a café – but not the one we’d requested; one much closer and more convenient for him. We argued that we did not want to go to this cafe, and a passing cycle rickshaw driver told him where to take us, but not before offering us some “very good weed,” which we declined angrily. I was expecting to have to fight with our driver to get our agreed price, after he drove for several minutes more to take us to the correct café, but it came as a sheer relief when he accepted what we had agreeed upon.

Entering Café Coffee Day – the Indian version of Gloria Jeans or Hudson’s Coffee – we simply needed respite. It was just 4pm, and we still had 7 and a half hours until our train arrived. We dragged our packs up the steps, dumped them by an empty table, slumped into our seats, and did not move from there for another seven hours. Yep. That’s right, we, along with many other tourists, bunkered down and hid from Agra for seven whole hours until our night train arrived.

Whilst whittling away the hours, we spoke with a girl who’d just come from Lucknow – our next destination. Jake and I had heard great things about Lucknow, and were looking forward to a less touristy area with great food! However, had left her with memories that were obviously less than perfect; she’d been quite distressed by her experience there, and she really put fear into me about our next destination… after today’s events, I didn’t feel I could handle anything else distressing… This meant our last few hours in Agra were spent with me worrying about what was to come, and wishing we could just go to Delhi and fly away.

Still cautious about the possibility of food poising, we hadn’t eaten all day, besides our bits of bread, biscuits and tea on the Indian Shinkansen at 7am. Outside the café, still within the distance of our safety net, was a vegetarian street stall cooking up great food and packed with locals. Food we could trust; Jake had some sort of Indian street food, and I ate a piece of naan. That would do.

Around 11pm, we braved the streets and I bartered a tuk tuk driver down from 200 to 50, my first (little) win in Agra. He took us down  narrow bumpy streets and dropped us at the station, just as another tourist got out; another Japanese boy.

On the platform, surrounded by thousands of staring eyes, we and the Japanese boy found another pair of tourists and congregated near them. Then another few tourists found us, and soon we were one big group on a platform surrounded by families on blankets eating and drinking and staring and sleeping and pooing over the rail tracks.

We had sleeper class tickets to Lucknow; we’d taken a few sleeper class trains when we first arrived in India, but had switched to taking  3AC class berths after discovering they were a little safer and nicer, and not packed with people on waiting lists for a seat. This train was really dirty,  the worst we’d come across, and I missed the luxury of having a sheet to protect me from the grime and several sets of staring eyes. I lay awake for ages thinking about India and Japan, whilst attempting to block out the strange noises coming from the train.

I really hoped Lucknow would be as great as we’d originally hoped.

Confirmed India: 7 – 9.09.2013

Arriving into Jaipur, we were exhausted from a nights broken sleep, thanks to one very loud crying baby. We had pre-booked accommodation (more so, Vijay had contacted his friend who owned a more luxurious hotel and basically guilted him into offering us a room there at a very discounted price), and I’d spoken with the manager the night before to organise pick-up for this morning, but no one bothered to turn up. As a result, we were hounded by auto drivers wanting a sale and spent more than an hour driving around from guest house to guest house with a tuk tuk driver who constantly spun bull-shit about how he was so honest and fair and how we could trust him, but said nothing and made a very guilty face when I pulled him up on a very clear lie.

Welcome to Jaipur.

Eventually, after visiting guest house after guest house and turning down ridiculous priced rooms with either very rude owners or dirty sheets, and getting tired of tuk tuk mans attempts to make us book a tour of Jaipur with him, we finally demanded to be taken to the hotel we’d originally booked.

In our room, we spent some time abusing the free wi-fi, like all good travelers would, before heading out around 9:30am to see what Jaipur had to offer. We caught a cycle-rickshaw into town, which was a nice and different experience; traffic is certainly hectic in this big, big city.

We headed straight for the Lassiwala; a hole-in-the-wall famous for it’s fresh lassis that are served in large ceramic cups. Delicious.

After breakfast, most of the shops along the main road were still shut, so we walked to the Raj Mandir cinema – a famous attraction because of its beauty and grand details – and booked ourselves a ticket each for a latest release Bollywood movie that opened just yesterday. We adore the Indian Bollywood movies, and it was a must to experience Bollywood at this very grand place.

With a few hours to enjoy before our movie started, we walked to Old City – also known as the Pink City (even though the buildings are more of an orangey-red colour). We walked through the bazaars; past textile shops, shoes, jewelery and bits and pieces galore; touters trying to sell us things constantly, frequently purposely blocking our path and attempting to physically push me into their store; it got to the point where I had to force them out of my way. Regardless, I really enjoyed the short time we spent there, and we planned to go back and take more time.

In the cinema waiting are, we were in awe of the buildings interior and beautiful detailing. It was stunning! Entering the actual cinema, we were blown away by how massive it was; it must’ve seated more than a thousand people!
Once the lights dimmed and the curtain lifted, the trailers began and, almost instantly, the crowd went WILD – screaming, laughing, whistling, cheering, shouting. This happened continuously throughout the movie; when the tough guy performed a stunt, when the bad guy got caught, when the beautiful girl entered the room, a first kiss… it was hilarious! We loved the experience as much as the movie, and the dancing and singing  scenes were pretty awesome! Everyone seemed to be in the cinema; from the very young (babies and toddlers who loved to cry) to the elderly, and plenty of people in between; many who seemed to be taking phone call after phone call or holding important conversations during the movie.

On exiting, having stuffed our bodies with too much pop corn and not having slept much during the overnight train ride, we were exhausted. It was late afternoon, and we decided to head back to the room for a rest, but were intercepted by a man selling hand-made Jaipur puppets. He was eager to sell one, as he hadn’t made a sale today and needed some good luck, apparently. He was pushy, trying to get us to buy these terrifying puppets that we did not want nor need, dropping his price almost instantly from 300 rupees for one, to 100 rupees for two. After continuously saying no, he dropped his price again to 80 rupees and performed briefly with the puppets, whilst we continued to say no and tried to get away. He dropped his price again to 50 rupees for the two (less than a dollar) and folded them up and shoved them into my hands; I was ready to simply give him some money to leave us alone. After more pleading from him to buy, and more nos from me and Jacob, he finally gave up on me and asked Jacob one more time – to which he was met with another no. With that, puppet man gave a growl, screwed up his face in anger and flicked his hand at us with such ferocity and aggression, before furiously walking away. It was an oddly distressing experience.

We took solace in our hotel room, and made plans to go to a popular Indian grill/kebab restaurant this evening, but tuk tuk drivers refused to take us there and back for less than 800 rupees (almost half our daily budget!) We decided instead to go into town and eat at a kebab restaurant there, but once there, we found prices were way out of our backpacker’s budget, and we had to leave. This happened again, and again, and we were losing all interest in eating. There were a few street kebab places, but I refused to let Jacob eat there for fear of death by Delhi Belly.

Instead, we spent ages walking along the main road, avoiding the drunk men and beggars who sat, screaming very aggressively  at us. Traffic was hectic, and the dusty, dark footpaths made me feel very unsafe. It became a really stressful experience, and by the time we got a tuk tuk to the hotel (with a driver who surprisingly used the meter, and then refused to give us change when he saw where we were staying) it suddenly, after more than a month here in India, all became a bit too overwhelming…

I was genuinely starting to wonder if I wanted to stay here another two months, and we spent our evening chatting about possible options, and hoping tomorrow would be a different story.

Waking late and strolling into town, we declined every tuk tuk driver who refused to use the meter; we knew now after using a metered tuk tuk yesterday, that they absolutely do work and do get used here in Jaipur, and we are sick of being ripped off. We chose to walk, which led us to a little street food stall selling delicious Aloo Tikkia; the first meal I’ve had in a while that didn’t make me feel unwell the moment I ate it. It was there we met Firoj; a tuk tuk driver with a big smile who “would love to take us to Amer Fort”… We got him to take us to Anokhi instead; a beautiful textile and gift shop which, more importantly, had a café selling organic salads, coffee, fair trade teas and amazing carrot cake.

Jake and I spent a good two hours in Anokhi café, drinking coffee and devouring salad whilst we talked about how we were feeling regarding our travels in India.  I don’t know exactly what the plans are, or if any plans are made at all yet, but the idea of cutting our India travels short and heading to Japan for a couple of weeks is certainly being entertained.

With our stomachs full of coffee and salad, we moved away from Anokhi to our waiting tuk tuk driver, who was ready to show us some of Jaipur’s beauty.

We visited an area of Maharaja tombs which were stunningly beautiful, before moving on to Amer Fort, some 13 odd kilometers away. This was the first fort we actually went right into, rather than staring at it from a distance (with the exception of Jodhpur, where we almost went in). The papping wasn’t too extreme here, to my surprise, and together we were able to enjoy the climb up to the fort. Inside, a film shoot was taking place and lights and cameras were everywhere; every one seemed to want to get in on the action and the crowds around the film sets were huge. Lots of props and colourful cloths filled the massive open area, and it was all a bit exciting, and very, very beautiful.

Amer Fort was magnificent, that’s for sure, and those who lived here once upon a time would’ve had a pretty sweet life. We spent a while here, and it was incredibly beautiful, but one thing will stand out in my memory of our visit here.
This fort had a pool room. Yes, a pool (Billiard) room. Thoughts of “This is goin’ straight to the pool room” were echoing in our heads (any Aussie should know what I’m referring to), and made us smile.

Climbing stairs that lead to the unknown, we explored the hallways and lanes of the fort as though it was a maze. We were stopped at one point by an Indian man who was delighted two whities had found their way to him, and forced both his hesitant wife and us to pose for “just one photo” (which is never, and was not just one!) with him.

On exiting the fort, we were met again by our driver who drove us all the way back to Jaipur’s Old Pink City, where we stopped for chai before heading back to the same Aloo Tikkia street food stall we started at this morning. We had another 40 rupee dinner there, then stopped at the near by convenience store for some bottles of water before heading back to the hotel for the evening…

Late at night, when Jake opened one of the bottles of water we purchased, a foul smell filled the air. On closer inspection, the water was a murky colour and filled with inconsistant specks of stuff, which had not been visible when the water had come straight from the fridge covered in condenstaion. We’d checked the seal at the time of purchase, which had been perfect, but hadn’t ever thought to check the bottom of the bottle, which in this case, had been punctured, re-filled with toxic water, then sealed with a dollop of glue. We’d heard of this type of thing happening, and had been cautious to always check seals the whole time we’d been here in India, but seeing this in our own hands put a knot in my stomach. It made me angry that there could be such a sheer disregard for the health of others, and that we’d come very close to getting very sick.

We hoped our last day in Jaipur tomorrow would be better; we had no set plans, but another trip to Anokhi for salads, coffee and carrot cake was definitely on the cards.

 …

We woke early on our last day in Jaipur and spent a few hours discussing and researching flights, countries, budget options and places to visit in Asia that could be possible options if we did actually decided to leave India earlier than planned.

Eventually deciding we needed to leave the hotel at some point, we walked down around 10am to the same Aloo Tikkia place for breakfast again, where Jake ate dodgy looking panni puri and my food was luke-warm. Hmmm… we were definitely getting a coke to kill any nasty lurking bacteria.

We arranged a tuk tuk driver to take us to Anokhi, but I guess he got impatient after a few minutes and drove off. Instead, we flagged down another tuk tuk driver who agreed to take us to Anokhi, and even better, agreed to use his meter that actually, we discovered, didn’t work. When we gave him 50 rupees for the short drive (way more than it should’ve cost), he demanded more and we got out of the tuk tuk and simply walked away whilst he yelled at us for more money. Sigh… coffee will cure this deflated feeling, surely?

More coffee, more carrot cake and a brie, tomato and basil baguette was enjoyed whilst we talked more and more about what the next couple of months of travel would mean for us.

Buzzing from caffeine, we headed to Old City – Pink City – to explore a little more of the bazaar area. It was hot, crowded and noisy; we discovered it is Ganesh’s birthday today – Happy Birthday Ganesh! – which meant lots of people were busy preparing for celebrations and the sights and sounds were really interesting! We explored for a while, but by mid afternoon we were eager to look into our travel options, make some sort of decision about what we were going to do (and possibly where else we were going to go) and also start planning for Nepal – if we are leaving India early, Nepal will be coming up very soon.

Well after midnight and just hours before we need to wake up to take the train from Jaipur to Agra, we booked our flights. We are going to Japan. We are leaving India early, and welcoming a new country into our Asian Adventure.

After seeing our flights confirmed on the screen, I felt oddly relieved to know that we would be leaving India soon, and at the same time a bit ‘shocked’ by the idea that our time here was now only going to be a few days more. Our route would no longer include the very North of India; instead, we would travel from Jaipur – Agra – Lucknow as planned, then from Lucknow to Varanasi, then either fly from Varanasi to Nepal, or to Delhi by train, then fly from there….

For now, tomorrow we’re off to Agra at 7am: the Taj Mahal is in our sights! To make things even more exciting, we are traveling there on the Shatabdi Express – apparently a very nice Indian train indeed…

Let’s see what Agra has in store for us.

Rat India: 5 – 6.09.2013

The train ride from Jaisalmer to Bikaner was tiring; overwhelmingly loud noises, the incredible speed of the train and the fact that I frequently had to hold onto the rails to stop myself falling off the top bunk had me wide-awake for most of the journey, fretting that our train was going to de-rail. Maybe a tad over dramatic – who’s to say?

We had planned to Couch Surf here in Bikaner,  however, when we got off the train, some random guy by the name of Ali was there waiting for us; turns out his friend from the hotel we stayed at in Jaisalmer had made a call to him to say we were coming, and Ali was well prepared at 6am to take us to his friend’s hotel he was sure we’d prefer. Oh, India.
It’s not like we were difficult to spot on the Bikaner train platform either; two whities amongst a crowd of thousands of Indians: not one other tourist stepped off the train…

Our couch surfing plans fell through, and we headed instead to a guest house I’d read great things about: Vijay Guest House (around 4km out of town). Vijay, the man himself, wearing a full set of white Kurta Pyjamas and bright orange crocks, with a curly Rajisthani mustache and a big smile welcomed us.
He was generous and kind, and knew how to treat tourists. What a relief. He offered to take us into town with him around 11am, when he was going in to the market area. We took him up on his offer, and traveled by car to the old town area.

Bikaner is a desert city – right in the middle of the Thar Desert – but its jam packed with people; it’s not such a big place, but it’s damn busy and has a population of around 600,000. Once you take into account the number of cows, camels and dogs walking the streets, that number probably doubles or triples.
It is hot here; so hot that the heat exhausted us quickly. We found solace in a very local-only sweet shop, Chotu Motu Joshi Hotel, and filled our empty stomachs with delicious lassis, puris with potato and the apparently “must have here because it’s the best in town” rasgulla – another Indian sweet we couldn’t stomach.

We had an hour and a half to enjoy before meeting Vijay, but the heat, the constant hard staring from people, the photo photo going on and the hectic traffic made us feel the need to retreat. It felt as if this place had never seen a tourist before; we were something everyone needed to get a very good, long look at: something that is really starting to exhaust me.

Back at Vijay’s, we slept the afternoon away, emerging eventually to get chai from the vendor outside the guest house. The many men drinking there were fascinated by us, and every time we went there we had a crowd of people wanting to talk to us, stare at us, call their friends over to see us, shake our hands… Funny.

We spent our one night in Bikaner in our safety bubble – choosing to eat dinner at our guest house and watch the night fall over the town whilst I strummed my ukulele and looked back on our travels in India to-date.

I’m beginning to have mixed feelings towards India, and I’m starting to find traveling here more of a challenge each day. There are so many factors that make each day in India incredible, interesting and lively, yet at the same time unbelievably challenging, frustrating and distressing. I have found myself becoming less patient with those who try to take advantage of us, try to rip us off, those who stare and photograph us, those who try to cheat us. At the beginning of this trip I was able to accept it, laugh it off and say – Oh well, I guess we have to expect that here! – but now, I don’t feel like I have to accept it. I’m growing a bit tired of having to argue with people to treat us fairly, and argue with people to leave us alone. It’s exhausting to feel so skeptical and not be able to trust people around us. It can be stressful worrying about our safety every time we get into a tuk tuk, walk the streets, meet someone new, travel by train overnight, eat anything….
It’s upsetting to feel that I can’t trust those around me; even more so those who may be genuinely nice (it can be very hard to differentiate between genuine and not-so-genuine offers of “may I help you?”). I find myself having to talk to people aggressively, or sternly, simply because I feel here it is necessary at times. I don’t go around yelling at everyone, of course, but I’m starting to find it difficult not to get angry when people feel they can harass us to almost-breaking point, and take advantage of us simply because we are white, and therefore, must be rich and happy to hand over our hard earned money.

I still love India, that’s for sure – it’s a country I want to come back to, explore more of, become captivated by over and over. We were like children in a candy store when we arrived here; the chaos and traffic and people and sounds, light, colours all captivated our attention. Now, trying to constantly dodge shit, pot holes, deadly traffic, cheating touters and upturned or missing pavement isn’t so wonderful. Perhaps what I am trying to say is simply, whilst this country is truly incredible, and never ceases to amaze me, I’m starting to get a bit tired…

I think it’s quite common for people traveling in India to feel this way; I hear and read a lot about this whole “loving India – hating India stage” process that people seem to go through; maybe I’ve reached a new “stage?”

On our second morning in Bikaner, we walked from Vijay’s guest house to the bus stop, which was about a 50 minute walk down the road. Tuk tuks offered us many ridiculously priced rides which we declined on pure principal; preferring to walk in the extreme heat on the road and dust (no footpaths), rather than be ripped off.

We took a bus (after Rock, Paper, Scissoring whether or not we actually wanted to make the trip) out to Deshnoke, a town about a 40 minute bus ride away through dusty, sleepy desert towns. Apparently when people come to Bikaner, it is rare that they don’t make a trip out here, simply to visit one place: Karni Mata Temple: The Rat Temple. I guess Rock, Paper, Scissor was right – we had to visit.

The idea of a temple full of thousands of rats, for me, does not bring about the most pleaseant thoughts. However, it does intrigue me…just a little.
Karni Mata is worshiped as the incarnation of the goddess Durga; she was a Hindu woman who lived a very elegant and revered life, and is known for her temple in Deshnoke, for which she laid the foundation stone.
Karni Mata temple is not like any other temple we’ve visited, for the fact that it is home to around 20 thousand-odd (very sick looking) rats, which are considered to be sacred animals and highly respected by the thousands of pilgrims (and curious tourists like ourselves) who visit this temple daily.
The story behind this temple goes something like this: Karni Mata’s son, Laxman, died, so she asked Yama – the god of death – to bring him back to life. Refusing to do so, Yama instead allowed Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children (she must’ve had a lot of them…) to be reincarnated as rats.
The rats here are fed daily by the thousands of worshiping visitors, who bring with them bowls upon bowls of India sweets and milk for the rats to enjoy.

On arrival, we got off the bus to be greeted with touters, tuk tuk drivers, beggars, dust and dirt and a LOT of staring. Covering my head with my scarf barely made a difference.
We walked over to the area where we had to deposit – very unwillingly – our shoes, and demanded some sort of material slipper; there’s no way I was walking bare footed through a temple where thousands of rats live, eat, poo and die.

Looking like absolutely ridiculous tourists, with material bags covering our feet, a thousand people stared as we lined up to enter the temple. Staring back at the thousands of bare feet around me, I felt sick already by the sheer thought of what we – and they – were about to stand on. I’d love to see the results of a bacteria swab of the temple floor; or maybe, I wouldn’t…

On entering the temple, we saw a rat.

Then two…
Then a thousand. Oh, fuck, get me out of here now.

Apparently it’s good luck if you see a white (albino) rat, or if a rat runs directly over your foot. Even more so, it’s considered to be a prestigious honour to eat food nibbled by the rats themselves. Oh, I’m about to be sick.
I was more concerned about what diseases I may contract during my five minutes inside the temple than I was spotting a white rat, and someone help me if one even so much as came near my foot!

Whilst bare footed pilgrims fed the diseased looking rats bowls of sugar and Indian sweets, I tried to stand as still as possible for fear of stepping on any more grainy rat poo. I watched as two women scraped the grey-black dusty, oily rat-germ infested grime from the floor and touched it to their foreheads, leaving a greasy grey mark. I almost vomited, but then stopped myself for fear of attracting rats.

We wandered around the temple, avoiding the rat poo and many cameras shoved in our faces, to see a group of pilgrims touching their hand to every rat-waste-covered step as they ascended to another rat-infested area. So many rituals seemed to be taking place, none of which we could comprehend, and we were shocked by all of what we saw, to say the least.
The fascination and shock that India offers us never seems to end.

After the eight hundredth person had photographed us – instead of the temple they had come to visit – and a rat came remotely close to me, it was time to leave. We escaped into the sun light, unscathed and without an albino rat sighting. No eternal good luck for us, I guess.

What an experience.

At the shoe stand, it was almost impossible to get our shoes back, let alone put them onto our feet, which were now thankfully free of the bacteria-sodden slippers. A massive crowd had forgotten they were meant to be visiting the rats, and instead was more fascinated with these two terrified whities. The crowd formed around us while the shoe guy demanded we pay him, right underneath the sign that said “free service.” Whilst I argued that no, actually, this is a free service and just because we are white-skinned doesn’t mean you can rip us off  (a rant I am getting very well versed in, and a little bit sick of having to repeat), a screaming baby was shoved into Jacob’s arms. I tried to escape from the pappping, but it was no use; still trying to put my shoes onto my feet, a plump woman grabbed my arm with such a grip she left a bruise. I was forced into the photo with Jake, standing a few steps up from everyone else, feeling like some sort of mistaken celebrity on a podium. The huge crowd had doubled – all with cameras out – as Jake and I made ugly faces and the baby cried some more. It was a very weird experience, to add to what we’d already just seen, and I continue to wonder how many hideous photographs are now floating around Indian Facebook of these two Aussie tourists.

Escaping the crowds, we emptied an entire bottle of hand sanitizer onto our hands and ran to the nearest Bikaner-bound bus. We were safe.

Back in Bikaner, we headed for Chotu Motu Joshi again; we needed a lassi. There was a lot we wanted to see today, the Fort, Old Town, the Havelis… but we ended up simply walking to The Garden Café where we happened to meet Ali, the same guy from yesterday morning who met us at the station. Strangely enough, he knew we did not stay with the couch surfer, and furthermore, he knew where we WERE staying… he proudly told us that he knew exactly how many tourists had and were arriving in Bikaner today, where they were arriving from, where the tourists were staying, and conversely, how many tourists were leaving Bikaner today on the buses and trains. He explained he “has connections, and anyone in India that does business does too.” This makes me incredibly uncomfortable about traveling here , as though we are being constantly watched, followed, observed by those in the tourism industry, and all in a very sinister sort of way. It’s something I’ve started to suspect recently, after noticing sometimes people just seem know things about us, when really it seems impossible… but, Ali confirmed it, explaining the people at the station see the tourists leaving one destination/arriving at the next and make a phone call, then someone makes another phone call, and then another phone call, and then another… “That’s how we do business,” he said.

Chatting with Ali was an experience; he was able to answer our “taboo” questions about India, but I never felt quite sure what his motives were. It’s funny; he was proud to say that if we want to travel well here, we should lie about everything; who we are, what are names are, where we are from, what are jobs are, where we live, how many times we’ve been in India, where we are staying… basically, he explained “anytime someone talks to you, they want to know where you from, how long you be in India, where you come from, where you stay… simply so they can calculate how much money they can get out of you; how badly they can rip you off.” I felt really saddened by this, and my deflated feeling about traveling here was starting to come back.
Of course, I know this is absolutely not true of all Indian people – we have met some incredible people here – but it’s a shame that he was able to confidently – and proudly! – make such a generalized statement like this.

He showed us his shop – of course – but he was adamant he did not want to sell us anything. He then gave us a hand-made bag as a gift, but then explained that every one in town will know where this bag came from – his shop – and made us promise to tell every touter in the street who asked us the price, that we bought it for 600 rupees… Not sure what his intentions were, but when someone did later ask us, we didn’t tell them anything.

We left Ali eventually, feeling still unsure about what our meeting with him had been like; we just never were really able to trust him, even when he was being seemingly generous – or, is it that we just can’t seem to trust anyone here anymore?

We wandered about the old town, taking photographs and dodging cows and touters, looking at the beautiful havelis and old buildings, the market stalls and food being cooked. People all seemed to want a photograph of them taken; funny, how opposite it is for me.
Passing by a women’s clothing shop, I wandered in and ended up buying myself some Indian-style clothing; I’ve been told several times by locals and tourists alike, that wearing Indian clothing will take a little bit of the ‘edge’ off of the unwanted attention I draw in from way too many Indian men. Whilst some times I feel this attention is purely innocent and sheer interest, more often than not I am starting to feel very uncomfortable from the staring.

After my little shopping spree, we ended up walking all the way to the Bikaner Fort, where at night it was lit up and looked quite impressive. We never made it inside, but it was pretty impressive from a distance regardless.

From the fort, we flagged down a tuk tuk who drove us back to Vijay’s Guest house with his neon lights flashing and Hindi music BLEARING. I could barely hear when we stepped out, so naturally, I needed a chai from our favourite chai joint, complete with all the local men who loved to stare and were oddly desperate to know how much a chai would cost in Australia.

Back at the guest house, we were treated to a home cooked meal again before collecting our bags and waiting for our tuk tuk to the train station. Of course, minutes before we needed to be at the station, Jacob had a small accident; smashing a glass bottle accidentally and sending glass flying into his leg. Finally, our enormous medical kit came in handy! A smothering of betadine, some steri-strips and a piece of opsite and we were good to go, Jake a little worse for wear…

We boarded our overnight train – our 3AC sleeper class bunks were both top berths again – and lay under the thick covers whilst the air conditioning pumped full blast.
Bikaner had been an interesting destination, and I wondered what Jaipur would have in store for us.

A note on India:

Have I mentioned how much we love India? Although sometimes it can be challenging here, and some parts of this culture are shocking and saddening, or simply unbelievable, but more often than not its just simply, indescribably amazing. Every day we’re learning a bit more, observing a bit more, trying to make sense of this country, the people, their beliefs and their ways of life. It’s surprising how much we are willing to adjust; not even consciously – just naturally adjusting to our surroundings and relaxing our ‘Western Standards’ – simply by experiencing and being immersed in all of India’s everything. It seems as though you can either flounder or flourish here, in the sense that you can either hate or love India. We are flourishing.

Every day we observe and learn new things; new behaviours, new traditions, what is acceptable here and how things work in often nonsensical and unfathomable ways… Sometimes India is inspiring, sometimes its challenging, sometimes it’s crushingly despairing, but it’s always exciting, always enthralling, always fascinating, and always incredible.

India is testing us, pushing us, confronting us and questioning the way we think and behave. Simple tasks like queuing to buy a ticket or sitting on the bus take on a whole new meaning and procedure here, and it’s an experience to ‘learn’ these things again. Sometimes, we are forced to step out of our comfort zones, but so far that’s never ended in a negative way.

Everything feels intoxicating here in India; the sounds and smells and sights captivate and exhilarate us, and also sometimes repulse us – often at the same time. Either way, India is like an addiction; we just want more and more of what this country has to offer.

Street stalls, tiny shops, markets, bazaars and food vendors feel like the beating heart of India, with everything and everyone working and functioning around these buzzing activities. Everyone has a job to do; the shoe makers, the umbrella fixers, the chai vendors, the touting tuk tuks, the fishmongers, the tailors, the launderers, the hat sellers, the hundreds of fried-goods vendors, the people… somehow they all work around and with each other in invisible unison, amongst honking horns, hectic traffic and an ocean of human bodies on the move.

The sounds! Oh, the sounds of India… Noise is constant here, silence is a rarity. Honking horns, two-stroke engines and buses accelerating set a beating base for the rhythmic Indian tune that never ends. Food vendors can be heard selling their goods, bicycle bells ding, men hock and spit, scraping sounds of brushing and sweeping marble floors grate against the chit-chat of locals. Cats mew and dogs converse, while touters yell their “Hello madams, you come look?” and “Yes, hello Sir you want tuk tuk?” Inquisitive locals yelling “Hello where you go!?” is a chorus we’ve become accustomed to, and sometimes we add to the tune by responding “Just walking.” For some reason, people don’t seem to grasp that concept.

Indian people are lovely. We notice their smiles before anything else (even when they’re trying to scam us) and often, those big smiles with white (or red pan-stained) teeth are infectious, and we end up instantly smiling back. The children love to say hello, and it’s not uncommon for people to come up to us, shake our hands and simply ask us (with those huge smiles) “where from?”
They speak like they are singing, and their spoken English sounds as if each word is dancing on their tongue before it emerges with unique, only-in-India word structure. I never tire of hearing them speak; especially their ‘cute’ descriptions such as “you feel the freeness”, “you eat good taste” and “that is mostly not possible.”
The Indian people (if they’re not trying to get our money – and sometimes even when they are) are welcoming us into their country with the utmost respect and again – the biggest smiles.

Family units seem very strong here and children seem to be the beating, lively pulse of every family. The babies and children are gorgeous – as all babies and children are – but these little ones are stunning; decorated in brightly coloured clothing, materials, shiny beads, henna tattoos, jewelry and lacy dresses. It seems like parents dress their children for every day activities as though they’re participating in a festival or parade of some kind. Children are everywhere, playing, laughing, and sometimes shockingly, working.
Friendship seems just as strong as family; people are connected and work together in big communities. Neighbours are friends,  adult friends hold hands, teenage girls chatter while walking arm in arm, and young boys carry on with their arms around their each others shoulders.

We spend most of our time marveling, smiling and laughing at what we’re experiencing; everything is so new and exciting, and we’re loving every minute. Of course, there are things we find shocking and distressing too; but never the less, we are observing what is happening around us, and we’re learning what life is like in this part of the world. We sometimes have to remind ourselves that this is not our culture, so we must just accept that it is different from our own.

Traffic is so hectic and unstructured at times, we cannot comprehend how it can actually work – but it does, much to our thumping hearts and sweaty palms delight. Watching the chaotic order unfold mesmerizes us, and offers us a glimpse of how these drivers and stretches of road somehow operate. One of the general rules we’ve observed is the attitude of “Fuck you all, I’m a bus – get out of my way now!” in which any sort of traffic – human, bikes and vehicles – disperses madly in every direction to accommodate for buses that rule the roads.

Poverty here is confronting; every day we encounter so many struggling people asking for money and food. People with horrifying disfigurements, disabilities and illnesses and injuries lay begging on the streets, and it’s impossible to not feel extreme sympathy for these people. We sometimes buy food and give it to people in need, but we don’t give money; as heartless as it may seem, how do you choose who to give and not to give to? Furthermore, unfortunately we have to wonder if the money is really even going to these helpless people, or into the pockets of someone else.

The pollution in the air is terrible – I imagine this thick, black cloud clogging the breath of every person, clogging the clouds and the skies and the oceans with its ever-growing filth. Sadly, sometimes I don’t have to imagine – I can literally see that thick black cloud. I breathe it in whilst wincing and gasping, hoping that somehow I’ll be able to catch a breath of fresh air if only I hold my breath a little longer.

We watch as people, over and over, finish with whatever they’re using and then simply throw it to the ground – our Western morals flinch at this littering every time with despair. The streets are lined with filth and waste, plastic, bottles, paper, waste and polystyrene dishes are strewn everywhere; it seems people are comfortable walking through rubbish filled streets, swimming in the ocean along with floating debris, and walking along beaches where pieces of trash outnumber the grains of sand. Bins are hard to come by, but the ones we see are never full; I guess people don’t regard waste management as important.
The other day on a train we watched a group of very well educated people, who all dressed impeccably and spoke fluent English, physically move from their seat to open the window of the train to throw their rubbish out, and it took everything I had not to tell them how disgusting and disappointing that is to see.

Almost just as shocking as the littering problem, is the fact that some people seem treat India as one big open-air toilet. People find anywhere and everywhere to relieve themselves; people shitting and urinating in the streets, on piles of rubbish, in train and bus stations, in back alleys, in bodies of water and in open fields is not an uncommon sight. An Indian man recently told us that sanitation and toilet facilities in India are “so really bad,” and it’s obvious; trying to find a functional toilet outside of a guest house that is a) in existence and b) not terrifying is no easy feat. The other day I was forced to use a urinal: literally, it was called a “Lady urinal.” I don’t even know how to use the squat toilets properly, let alone a terrifying “Lady Urinal”!

Dangerous driving, poverty, pollution, littering and scary toilets aside; we are so excited and thrilled to be here. We’re learning, we’re observing, we’re [starting to] understand, we’re exploring, and we’re loving every minute.

Ultra-Deluxe India – 04.08.2013

India sometimes keeps me awake for hours at night; her constant hustle and bustle means that often my mind is left racing to try and catch up with and comprehend the overload that is what my eyes have seen. When I finally drift to sleep at night, I’m frequently still thinking about the culture we’re currently immersed in, and my dreams float through scenes of people-packed bazaars and chaotic, colourful street scenes.

I felt unmotivated this morning; lethargic and in a not-so-interested-in-temples mood. We hauled our luggage down to the Trichy Junction Bus Station cloak room early in the morning, and paid 100 rupees for a half-naked man to store our only belongings, alongside his graying-underwear and once-white, sweat-stained shirt that was hung neatly from a wall hook. I prayed our bags would still be there when we returned in 12 hours time.

We found a chai vendor and filled our flask with sugary liquid; what has quickly become our morning routine here in India.

Brunch was a traditional South Indian banana leaf meal from some local joint, served, surprisingly, on a banana leaf. The eighty staff members (or there abouts) were keen to watch these two foreigners attempt to eat with their hands, and the majority of our meal was spent with many, many enquiring eyes studying our every mouthful. We questioned the level of safety in eating this food; it was a little cold and dodgy looking, so we quickly bought a coke after the meal, with the hope that the terrible chemicals in coke would kill any nasties before they had the opportunity to flourish and strike us down. Not sure how effective this method of avoiding Dehli-Belly is, but anything goes in this sort of hygienically challenged environment.

Because we were feeling really lazy today, and because we knew we had a long, 8 hour bus ride ahead of us this evening, we took a Tuk tuk to Trichy Old Town area and the main Bazaar.
We saw a very impressive church… and then proceeded to go shopping. Well, not so much shopping as simply walking through the Bazaar; a crowded, hectic, chaotic, overwhelming, polluted, noisy space full of people buying and selling, clothing, watches, baby clothing, sari material, plastic shit, cooking ware, fruit, shoes – always so many shoes… Amidst the normal human crush and pushy motorbike drivers honking their horns, it was so much to take in.

Flustered, frustrated, unable to find the places we wanted to get to, we left the bazaar in search of the Rock temple, which we did see from a distance, as it sat high above us – something like 400 steps above us. Laziness, feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, the extreme heat and the fact that non-hindus can’t go into the temples were combining factors in the decision not to climb the rock. We considered climbing it just for the view over Trichy, but it wasn’t that much of an argument since from the ground, Trichy looks like a sprawling mass of buildings set on mountains of dirt and red dust, littered with rubbish and crowded with people, cows, goats, dogs and traffic… and no doubt, also a big cloud of pollution. The stench of urine is really strong here too – although you can’t see it, I imagine it to be a big, yellow blanket of stinky invisible-ness. So, we passed on the climb and the view, and instead took a tuk tuk to another temple about 3km further away.

Hindu  temples are impressive with their large, towering entrances of colour and sculpture, statues and depictions… but it’s hard for us to appreciate them any further really, as we can’t comprehend the spiritual and religious traditions and meanings.

The temple was dark, damp, and full of people either sleeping, eating or begging, and the areas were piling up with rubbish. The stone carvings inside the temple were really quite impressive, but there was a temple elephant wondering near the grounds, with paint covering its face and chains on its feet, and I hate that with a passion; poor animal treatment masked under the name of religion is not something I’m impressed by. For me, this temple was nothing spectacular.

Moving on, we had to get out of the heat and sit down. It seems there is a lack of places to actually just sit, drink some chai and relax… we found a small eatery and had an ice cream, and proceeded to make a rough itinerary/plan for the rest of our trip in India… we were there for a while – a concept that obviously was strange for the locals – but we needed the break.

Finally, we decided to visit the biggest temple here in Trichy, that is also supposedly one of the biggest in India – we figured we should make the effort since we are only here once.

We walked there, and it was a nice stroll past children playing cricket, women in coloured saris carrying large parcels and items on their heads, goats sleeping on the road and cows munching on piles of rubbish.

At the entrance, we were stunned by so many people and such a towering, impressive entrance. People were everywhere.

Shops, market stalls, clothing, foods, chai… we walked the streets through what felt like a small enclosed city to the next main entrance and another impressive tower of colour and sculpture, but decided not to go any further in, again; we’re obviously not hindus and we respect that this is a place of worship.

Instead, we watched the people move around us; a couple of motorcyclists had an argument over who would go through a tiny entrance first, children played, and a massive crowd gathered around an eatery that was frying up delicious smelling food – we’ll try whatever they’re eating. A man helped Jake to order, and he was served a couple of green chilli/bell peppers fried in a spiced lentil four batter, and a couple of other fried lentil things. It was too much food, and we ended up giving some food to a couple of locals who were really appreciative. We never throw food away here; it’s always given to someone who needs it, and that simple act today showed us, again, how much we take for granted.

We caught a bus back to town as evening was falling – it was so interesting to see the bazaars packed to the walls with people, every different eatery cooking and preparing different foods, chai stalls crowded with people, and families out together. It’s fascinating, every time, to see India in action; night times are wonderful in this country – at least, in the small area we’ve seen. It’s as though India operates during the day, and lives at night.

We had dinner at a local place that was decent; we tried dosai which we will definitely be eating more often now; another Indian food to add to the ‘safe to eat/I-know-what-that-is’ list.

10pm and we picked our back packs up from the cloak room – they were still there, and so was half-naked man and his dirty underwear. Packs on, we walked through the station – very cleverly right past the massive stretch of urinals – as the thousands of staring eyes fell upon us – we’re starting to find this less unnerving and slightly easier to ignore.

We’d reserved an Ultra Deluxe Class, Air Conditioned bus ahead of our overnight journey and were secretly smug with our out-of-chatacter organisation!… but when we arrived, we were directed to a dilapidated and un-roadworthy looking vehicle, with peeling, faded-green paint, several large rusting sections, broken chairs and stuck windows. The air conditioning didn’t work, unless you count the very economical and eco-friendly open windows – which worked a treat for the duration of our journey – except when it rained.
We sat down, wondering when the ultra deluxe part of our journey would commence, then reminded ourselves to stop being such spoiled Westerners. The Indian music started blaring – the beginning of the sound track for our trip to Ooty – people began reclining their seats to uncomfortable levels, and the driver backed out of the madness that is the Trichy Junction bus stand.

Then the music and lights were turned off – the ultra deluxe part began – and silently, we rolled our way up and up and up to Ooty over a period of 8 hours.

At around 1am we stopped for a break: the lights were turned on and the driver screamed out something, of which I simply understood “chai” and “bat-roum.”  I was up.
All of a sudden all these sleeping bodies had risen, and we were all off the bus; I stood laughing at the hilarity of this nonsensical situation.
In the darkness, men dispersed in every angle to urinate freely (literally) whilst the women lined up to pay the toilet guy 3 rupees. Yes; at 2am there’s a guy sitting at a wooden table outside stench-embedded, urine smelling toilets, waiting for buses to arrive and for people to come and use the toilet…I won’t be complaining about my job again, ever.
Someone else (or maybe the same business-smart man?) obviously thought it would be a profitable idea to have a ripped music and DVD shop open for business at this time of night; therefore, nothing could be heard over the blasting speakers, which sat in the dusty open surrounds, filling the late-night air with loud, bad quality Indian music.
I stood in front of our bus and was overcome with laughter: as screeching treble filled my ears – along with much obligatory hocking and spitting – I stared in awe at the absolute dump of a vehicle that was being masked as a bus, titled at the front with some crooked, rusting letters spelling “U  RA D L X” (what would’ve once said Ultra Deluxe, before half of the letters fell off and it became not so ultra).
More to the point, on the side of this magnificent beast was some painted text, which titled this thing a “Highway Airline.” I was almost in tears at this point from laughing; I’ll blame it on exhaustion.

Still, here we were in the cool night air – Indian men doing double takes as they walked past this laughing white girl – traveling in true style on our bus Highway Airline to the hill country town of Ooty, 2240m above sea level. I’m not going to lie; it wasn’t the most comfortable 8 hours, but we loved every moment of it, and our dodgy Highway Airline too.

In the early hours of the morning, the bus speed slowed to accommodate for the hair-pin bends, curves and turn as we made our way through the hills and the sun began to rise. We watched, bleary eyed, as scenery rolled past our eyes like we had never before seen, and for a fleeting moment, we forgot we were in India.