A Week in Delhi, India, Part 1: 16 – 20.09.2013

Arriving into Delhi four hours later than we were expecting, thanks to train delays, I’d endured all the staring I felt I possibly could have and was grateful when the train finally pulled up in New Delhi station.  Packs heavy on our backs, we queued up (an Indian style queue, of course, which naturally involved cutting-in, pushing, shoving and no real order) and paid to leave our backpacks with the very inefficient and disinterested cloak room man.

Free of our packs, and still with no idea of what the hell our plan was now that we were here, we really needed to sort ourselves out. Firstly, we needed to post off the bag of stuff we’d accumulated in India and no longer wanted to carry around nor throw/give away, secondly, we needed to phone the Myanmar Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal, and find out if we could apply for our visa there or if we’d have to do it here in India, and finally, we needed to call our couch surfing host and see if it was still okay for us to come along to her home. I was starting to question whether or not we should even bother couch surfing; I was ready to leave India and we contemplated just booking ourselves a flight to Nepal for tomorrow. However, we decided we needed to give Delhi a chance and both of us wanted to meet our couch surfing host, so we persevered.

Fighting our way through the crowds of touters and people obviously lying to our faces, we managed to find a public phone and call the Myanmar Embassy in Nepal, which promised we could organize our visas there within three working days. Done. I was in no mood to deal with anything in India that I didn’t have to at that moment. With the visa concern now resolved, we headed to Connaught’s Place –  a very rich area of Delhi filled with fancy shops and cafes and restaurants and well-dressed locals. We took solace briefly in a cafe and made a basic plan for what our next move would be; how much longer would we stay in India, when would we go to Nepal, should we get another iced coffee? All those sorts of difficult decisions that needed to be made.

With a bulging bag weighing me down, we decided out next priority was to post this bag of crap home. The post office was very near by, but of course that didn’t mean that the act of posting some items home was going to be a simple, stress-free, pain-free, hassle-free or quick process. But then again, by now I have learned that the above mentioned processes do not often exist here.

After I had gone to three counters, found myself a man who would wrap and sew my parcel together with calico and a needle and thread, found a pen, gone back to another two counters to get the correct piece of paper, gone back to the parcel sewing man, paid him and waited patiently whilst he sewed my already well-wrapped parcel shut, gone to another counter to attempt to find a felt-tip marker, found a marker, written the address, struggled to meet the requirements for a sender address in India (seeing as I am a tourist!), written a fake sender address, waited a bit more, filled out a form, waited in line a bit more, got told to fill in another form, waited a bit more, and then finally got told I had to go and get my visa and passport photocopied before the parcel could be sent, I realised that this whole “send my goods home to Australia thing” would not be so simple.
Down a few lane ways, in a shack under a leaking, damaged roof, a tiny Indian guy gladly photocopied my passport and visa for a whopping 10 rupees. Strutting back towards the counter with my documents, I was thinking this might actually be the end of the procedure and after more than an hour, my parcel might actually get processed, but no. It was then some cutting, some gluing (similar to primary school when the teachers give you the shitty, cheap glue that doesn’t stick to anything, except for the fact that in India they don’t even offer you a paint brush); I was forced to use my hands as a glue brush in an attempt to stick my very important documents to the material coating of my parcel that was about to travel across the world.
Handing over a parcel wrapped in calico that looked more like a kindergarten paper-mache/patchwork art work, I paid for the ‘slow service’ and watched as the staff member typed some information into a computer and then hurled my belongings over his shoulder onto the ground. My Indian post office ordeal was over… but who knows if that parcel will ever make it back to Australia.

Parcel sent, it was already mid afternoon and time to head out to our host’s home; a 50 minute train ride away. We were worried how we’d handle packed peak hour trains with our backpacks, especially after experiencing Mumbai’s metro madness…And then, after purchasing a ticket in a normal sort of way, we hopped onto a train that was not only modern, but also fast, clean and air conditioned; it very much reminded me of trains in Japan. For a second, I wondered if we were still in India, but then I saw a pile of men – one picking his nose – sitting all over each other on the designated ladies seat whilst three elderly women stood, and I was bought right back to reality.

At the station near by our host’s home, we were greeted with hugs and smiles. Her driver took us to her home, where we met her house mate Michiko who squealed with delight when she saw us and gave us a great big hug. Instantly, we felt at home.
Whilst we relaxed and showered – feeling disgusting after two days of not showering and sweating in the Indian heat – Masami and Michiko prepared us an incredible feast of home-cooked Indian curries. They invited their Japanese neighbour from upstairs, and together, the five of us enjoyed the company of new friends and amazing food.

Within just a few hours, the feeling of intense need to get out of India and away to Nepal as soon as possible began to diminish. We still didn’t know when we’d be leaving India, but it wouldn’t be tomorrow.

The following few days were spent in a really relaxed sort of manner, choosing to come and go as we pleased and take things a bit easier. Basically, it felt like we were attempting to recover here.

On our first night with our hosts we discovered their love for Vegemite, so on our first full day in Delhi we made it our mission to find a jar of the stuff for them. This search led us to Kahn Market, a high-end fancy area of Delhi where many diplomats, expats and tourists come to look through nice shops, eat and drink at fancy cafes, scour through book shops and purchase high quality foods from the many international supermarkets and grocery stores. Milka and Ritter Sport chocolate, quality imported cheeses and meats, jams, sauces, beer, and of course, our beloved Vegemite, were just some of the items lining the shelves. It was an interesting place to spend a few hours.

We discovered the INA market area a few stations away from Kahn Market, when we were searching for Dilli Haat – a food and craft market we’d wanted to visit. Missing Dilli Haat completely, we spent time wandering through INA instead, finding much of the same products as we did in Kahn Market – including a LOT of Vegemite – as well as other bits and pieces and other interesting things.

On our second evening with our hosts we had an Okonomiyaki Japanese feast – so much incredible Japanese food that we were all able to cook and eat and share together around their table. We loved being there and felt so welcomed and at home; I could feel our exhaustion starting to ease through new friendship, comfort and good, healthy food. Jacob and I had visited the supermarket earlier in the day with the hope to find ingredients to bake ANZAC buscits, but we had found none of the main ingredients and had instead found sugar, nutella, eggs and pomegranate – enough to make some kick-ass mini-pavalovas; Jacob hand-beating the egg whites and sugar for almost an hour. This dessert was a real winner, and over the next week or so with our hosts and anyone else who joined us for dinner, we all consumed too many mini pavs to count (or think about without feeling guilty and fat).

Soon after arriving in Delhi and meeting our hosts, our plans changed from leaving immediately to staying for a week: it was going to be my birthday on the 21st and why leave before then when we could stay and celebrate!? One of our host’s boyfriend was flying over from Japan and they were going away together for a few days, but she’d be back and all of us could celebrate together. It suddenly made no sense to leave early – we were having such a wonderful time, relaxing and recovering and eating and making new friends. I was also suffering from a horrible cold, and a few days were spent in a very low-key manner whilst I tried to recover; there was no way I was going to Japan in any less than 100% top condition.

Days were filled in easily, we came and went, took the train here and there when and if we chose to, we spent a lot of time cooking and even more time eating, talking late into the night sometimes, sharing music, movies, stories, culture, language and lots of home-made chai, chapatti and food. We were able to do little things we’d been missing, like washing our clothing in an actual washing machine, showering with hot water and cooking our own food. We cooked dinner one evening, and Jacob attempted to bake bread which, we learned the hard way, does not cook well in a convection oven. One evening was spent choking on the smoke coming from a loaf of bread that had cooked from the inside out, and caught fire. Lucky we’d all smelt it quickly, before any damage was caused! He’d prepared two balls of dough, and after the first mishap, a quick google search explained the best method to bake bread in that specific type of oven. The second loaf was more of a success.

We visited very few areas of Delhi during our few days there; often choosing respite over sight-seeing. I drank a lot of bubble cup, Jacob cooked a lot of chapatti and chai, our host cooked incredible foods and the three of us – sometimes four of us when the upstairs neighbour came down for a meal and a chat – had a lot of fun.

We visited Dilli Haat again one day where the momos were average and the crafts the same as everywhere else except much more expensive, and ventured into New Delhi station very briefly to check out the touristic area of Paraganj – which we very quickly left, but not before more foolish touters tried to mess with us and tell us we were apparently going the wrong way and should absolutely follow them as they are experts in this area (and no doubt at scamming money from naïve foreigners too). There’s no fooling these two whities any more!

Amazing how in just a few days of being away from the intensity of pollution, heavy traffic, touters, scammers, people harassing us and hoards of people, entering back into the sprawl of craziness left us overwhelmed, frustrated and impatient.

We went shopping nearby to where we were staying one day; I bought a pair of jeans and a jumper in preparation for Japan. Our clothing has become embedded with so much dirt to the point it can not be removed, and I refuse to walk around Japan in brown trekking pants that were once a light beige colour, and a streaky light-blue faded t-shirt that was once a dark navy colour. Besides, how could I pass up brand new Levi jeans for $25 AUD, when back home they’d cost me more than $100.

We arrived in Delhi on a Monday, the start of the working week, and by Friday evening, the end of the working week, Jacob and I had become quite at home with our host. Our second host was still away with her boyfriend, due back on Sunday. Saturday is my birthdayi, and Sunday is my non-birthday birthday; our host will be back with her boyfriend and we’re having a party. The details are being kept top secret, but I am so excited to be here with our little Japanese family in Delhi. It’s funny how things have a way of turning out. We needed this – we needed to end our time in India on a high with good people, healthy food and respite from the intensity and overload that India so often offers. I certainly feel that’s how things are happening here, and it was just so much luck that our paths crossed.

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.

Recovery India: 28 – 31.08.2013

We were woken abruptly at around 7:30am on our first morning in Jodhpur by a group of men in the guest house talking/yelling/arguing in a loud and aggressive tone. This lasted for two whole hours, and as soon as I felt it was “safe” to leave, we checked-out and headed for Baba Haveli – the guest house we’d planned to stay in whilst here (but had unfortunately forgotten the name of last night when we arrived late the previous night).

In the heat of the morning, packs strapped to our backs, we walked through the streets and narrow lanes of Jodhpur – Rajisthan’s blue city – past old buildings with peeling paint, hues of blues and whites, decorated with beautiful architecture and shrines to various gods.
We passed cows and rickshaws, stopping for chai before finally entering the Sadar Market area and the stunning clock tower; the centre point of the old city. We passed market bazaars and people selling fruits and bangles, men polishing shoes and women in colourful saris. It was busy, but there were very few tourists and little touting compared to Pushkar, and we felt instantly more relaxed, even with our packs on our backs drawing attention.

Arriving at Baba Haveli, we were greeted by a young guy, Imran, and taken to the roof top, which over looked the blue city towards the mighty Mehrangarh Fort. It was so incredibly beautiful and impressive; we were captivated immediately by Jodhpur.

We were just as captivated by the food served; we ordered vegetarian dishes with paneer and watched as the chef, Tek, cooked up beautiful, fresh food with the softest paneer.
Food here at Baba Haveli is incredible, and we were welcome to watch it being prepared. Once we had ordered, the ingredients for our meals were then bought from the market – fresh – to be prepared with fine attention to detail. Watching as Tek made naan in a pot covering an open flame was amazing.

Baba Haveli very soon became “our Jodhpur home” – we were exhausted by Pushkar and hadn’t really taken a “break” to do not much all day since we’d arrived in India. Even though I feel guilty wasting a precious day of travel by not “traveling,” we really needed the break to recover and eat something not oily.

We spent our first day in Jodhpur in the guest house relaxing, chatting with Imran, playing the ukulele and sitting on the roof top in the shade of Jodhpur’s heat.
We were invited Imran’s family to watch them making Indian sweets, in which the whole family was involved. We got to try them and were instantly welcomed to the home as if we were old friends or family; it was wonderful.

We ventured out briefly to the clock tower area, taking in the sights and sounds of the Sadar Market area, but mostly just hung about enjoying ourselves and being full from all this good, fresh, not-so-oily food. This pretty much set the pace for our four days here, and we loved ever minute of it.

We slept late and chatted with the locals and tourists, Jake got a cut-throat shave at the local barbers, Imran’s sister painted my hands and feet with beautiful henna designs, we ate good food, ventured out and about around the clock tower area and main bazaar area, drank incredibly sweet-but-delicious lassi from a famous ‘hotel’ here, visited the famous ‘Omelette Man’ for very unique omelets, bought a couple of scarves and some new clothes (for Jake) and a traditional Jodhpur textile piece.

We wandered about the town area and enjoyed just being in and feeling the place, rather than sight seeing. Evenings were spent watching the sun set over the beautiful fort, listening to prayers pulsating through the city and enjoying the kite flying activities which every local seemed to be taking part in on their roof tops; all the while devouring incredible food and pots of chai. I spent one evening doing yoga with Imran’s brother on the roof top with a couple of other guests, and swapped travel stories over naan and curry.

One afternoon, along with two other travelers, Jake and I went with Imran and his cousin to see a Bollywood movie being released that day.

Jake spent an afternoon with Tek drinking beer and buying himself a new, non-Macpac brand travel wardrobe at a local handicraft fixed-price joint where the salesmen continued to tell him nothing would fit. Lots fitted, apparently, because he now prides himself on his “local look.”

We finally, after days of lazing about, make a visit to the fort, but didn’t even go right in! We simply ran out of time, and the entrance fee was too high to pay for just a few minutes inside. That, and there was a lot of “photo photo” going on, and lots of men staring. We promised we’d go back with more time on our final day here, satisfied by the magnificent view from our roof top.

Our last day in Jodhpur was wonderful; we found an art shop “Umaid Heritage Art School”, where I took a painting class – for free!In India!? – for hours on end with a wonderful, very chatty artist, Vijay. Jake Vijay shared supposedly “Rajisthan’s best samosa”  and we drank chai whilst I covered my paper in silver paint. I love Rajisthani paintings; no amount of decoration is “too much” – especially when shiny paint colours like gold and silver are involved. I got so caught up in painting, and Jake was so happy to just wander about and chit chat with locals, that by the time we left it was almost 5pm and the fort was closed.

Back “home” for our final evening, we sat on the roof top looking out at the lit up fort, chatting with travelers and wishing we had more time here to simply be. Unfortunately, we had to leave – our midnight train for Jaisalmer was waiting for us. We left, eventually, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, well-fed, with new friends an invitation to Imran’s wedding.

Jodhpur is a place we’ll come back to, for sure…

Arriving at the train station, after fighting a tuk tuk driver to drop his ridiculous price to something semi-reasonable, I was shocked: sleeping bodies lined every bit of spare ground space in the car park, both outside and inside the train station, as well as on the stairs, along the walk ways and on the platforms. Those that were awake stared unnervingly at us, and those sleeping looked like thin, gaunt dead bodies piled head to foot with each other.
India seems to be always such a contrasting and confronting country.

Our next destination is Jaisalmer – the desert city – where we plan to get our bottoms onto a camel’s back and trot out into the desert for a while.
I seriously can not wait – just call me Desert Girl...

From Mumbai to Udaipur: 20 -21.08.13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Smoke India: 17 – 19.08.13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo, Photo India

Our first full day in India. It’s amazing how quickly we are adapting to such a new and different place and culture – already things seem less hectic than yesterday when we first arrived. We wonder what it would’ve been like for us if we hadn’t had Sri Lanka to ‘warm us up’ to the hustle and bustle of India.

A rest stop

A rest stop

Incredible architecture

Incredible architecture

We spent today exploring and trying to adjust ourselves; trying to navigate our way around a tiny section of this massive city. We walked the streets to just look, people watch, and try and gain a little bit of insight into this extraordinary culture.

A quiet stretch of street

A quiet stretch of street

It was wonderful to have no specific sightseeing agenda – rather, we just walked. Within the first hour of exploring, we’d been asked by four locals to take a “photo, photo” of them, using our camera. At first we were suspicious – in Sri Lanka the locals had done this in order to get tourists to pay them money. However, it became clear quite quickly that the payment they wanted was simply the opportunity to see themselves on the digital screen. I’m not sure how it is in other parts of the country, but at least here, today, that’s how it was.

Workin' it

Workin’ it

This guy wanted a photo too...

This guy loved the camera

We found a local shopping mall – Spencer Plaza – which was an interesting experience; if you imagine a bazaar with sprawling shops and little alleyways, street food stalls and touters all contained within a building, that’s a better depiction. I ended up buying a few pieces of Indian style clothing with beautiful colours and patterns; our first full day here, and I’m already shopping.

A sugar cane juice vendor

A sugar cane juice vendor

We ate lunch at an Indian vegetarian restaurant that served up incredible meals. The place was full of locals, and Jake ordered “what they’re having” – a set lunch that came out on two enormous silver platters; one dish held four watery curries and poppadoms, the other dish held 10 beautiful varieties of curries, with a savory pancake and noodle-style pancakes (the best way I can describe them) in the centre of the dish. Staff walked around with a massive bowl of rice, and continually piled more fresh white rice into people’s dishes, and the curry is never ending if you wish so. We watched as locals rhythmically mixed their rice and curries between their fingers, pouring the watery curries onto the rice and then adding generous amounts of the other thicker curries to the mix. The locals eat A LOT, it seems:  we watched as they ‘re-filled’ their rice three or four times each, as well as their curry dishes when they ran out.

Just a small part of a very large meal...

Just a small part of a very large meal…

Funniest moment of the day: when taking photographs of a wild street scene, I turned around to see the face of an Indian man with a colourfully painted forehead, smiling a HUGE white toothed smile at me and my camera – he’d been fascinated by the screen and come in for a closer look. Literally an inch or two from my face, he scared the shit out of me! I squealed, and he was delighted.

Another day...

Another day…

Our evening was spent again wondering the area near-by to our guest house, taking in the sights, sounds and smells that are so foreign to us, yet strangely familiar.

Adjusting...

Adjusting…

Stepping over the bodies of sleeping people, around stray dogs and through the small gaps between parked motor bikes, we dodged the traffic as we madly tried to cross the roads. We passed the same sprawl of textile and homeware shops, street food vendors and chai makers, flower garland weavers and men busy working at their sewing machines, through scaffolding and busy streets, past smiling faces and staring eyes. We watched as food was tossed high into the air from boiling woks, and as our naan was prepared in a tandoori oven, before being wrapped up in butchers paper and tied with string. Children asked us to take their “photo, photo” and were overjoyed at the opportunity to see themselves on a digital screen.

Smiley

Smiley

Again, we had to watch our every step and movement to ensure we didn’t get hit by moving traffic, or step somewhere we shouldn’t, but it was easier – it’s getting easier – to manage.

We didn’t venture much further than yesterday this evening – but we didn’t have to – there’s no need. I think we could walk the same area night after night after night, and every time we’d see something new, meet someone new, or discover a laneway we hadn’t before noticed… The thing about this place, it seems, is that there is just always so much happening – so much to see and take in.

YUM!

YUM!

We found a “home ware shop” – a tiny space between two buildings – and bought a metal chai canister. We don’t like contributing to the already horrendous rubbish situation, and with the amount of chai we suspect we will be drinking in the next three months, the 48 rupee investment in a metal, re-useable tea canister is a much more environmentally friendly option than the hundreds of little white paper cups. (Well it will be once I’ve washed and scrubbed it to within an inch of its life.)

The food is all so tempting to eat; the Indian sweets are so bright and colourful, the smells are aromatic and we watch as people effortlessly add more and more spice to whatever they’re cooking. It all looks – and is – so new and foreign, we wouldn’t know what to choose! Jake had read that Chennai, and the South of India, is known for its fabulous ‘Kebabs’; he was keen to try one but… we’re just not sure yet what we can trust, and what our western stomachs can handle.

We ended the night with two cups of chai – each – a perfect way to finish off what has been an enthralling, entertaining and insightful day in India.