Friday, November 30, 2007

Day 13 -- Mumbai and beyond

Today we took it easy! We got up later than we had been (no 6am trains this morning), left our luggage at the hotel and explored the suburbs of Mumbai.

Santacruz (where our hotel is located) is a fun place to hang out with many markets to explore, but today we headed for a coffee shop. We read some local newspapers and had some caffeine. We decided to go see a movie, which was more difficult than one might think, since the newspaper listings didn't match one website with movie times which didn't match a second website. Fairly confident that there'd be a 4:55 movie in English, whatever it may be, we took an autorickshaw north to Juhu beach. We had a nice lunch and ended up seeing a Disney film starring The Rock of wrestling fame. It wasn't the greatest movie ever, but it was in English, and we enjoyed having a nice place to sit and relax. Before the movie, we had to stand as they played the Indian National Anthem.

Then, it was back to the hotel to get our bags and head for the airport. Traffic in Mumbai is awful (yes, even worse than Seattle!), but we eventually made our way to the International terminal. One man offered to help us get around the long line waiting to enter the terminal. He was helpful in getting us in, but then he requested money! We were down to our last 10 rupees, so I handed him that, and he suggested I could pay him in dollars instead when I told him that was the last of my rupees! I explained that my wallet had been stolen, and he went on his way.

The airport check-in process didn't take too long, but it did involve quite a few lines and security stops along the way to the gate. I wasn't feeling too well, but we boarded the plane for our 15 hour ride back to the states!

We got through immigration and customs at Newark, and the flight to Seattle was uneventful.

Thankful to be home, we took a cab home from the airport which cost us more than all of our cab rides in India put together!

I'd say our trip to India was a great experience and quite different from what I expected. It's a beautiful country with very friendly people, and I think we're lucky to have had the chance to visit!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Day 12 -- Mumbai

This morning, we got up early and flew to Mumbai. The flight on Jet Airways was great, and we even got breakfast!

After checking into our hotel, Jon and I took the commuter train 20km from our hotel into the city. What an experience! Getting on and off requires shoving, and when we had to change trains, it took us a few tries to actually board one! Jon found a car with plenty of room and was about to jump on when I pointed out to him that it was for ladies only. Whoops!

We saw the Gateway to India monument and took a boat to Elephanta island with its amazing cave carvings in the stone walls.
Mumbai feels much more like a western city than Delhi did, so we took a walk by Chowpatty beach (similar to Lakeshore Drive in Chicago), ate some pizza and ice cream, and enjoyed the warm evening. Then it was back to the commuter train (still just as crowded) back north. It's been an exhausting day!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Day 11 -- Udaipur

Today, we attended our cooking class. It was a lot of fun, and there were some other tourists there to talk to. The teacher was excellent, and despite a few power outages, we learned how to make a few of the local dishes we've been eating for the past few weeks. We'll see if we can duplicate them at home!

Some of our fellow students were from Australia and Europe, and as we had found before, most of the other travelers we encountered were touring for a month or more! That must be nice!

Later, we explored some fancy hotels and bought some artwork. Unfortunately, somebody had stolen $20 from Jon's travel wallet while we were out cooking. He brought it to the manager's attention, since some other articles in his bag had been moved around, but nothing really came of it. Luckily, it wasn't too much cash.

That night we went to a nearby rooftop for a Udaipur tradition: a screening of "Octopussy" which was filmed there back in the 80s! It was fun to watch and see the landmarks. I have to say that Udaipur was probably the best place we've visited in India!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Day 10 -- Udaipur

As the sun rose, we awoke and arrived a Udaipur.

Immediately, Udaipur felt friendlier. Our rickshaw driver to the hotel was particularly friendly, and we really only had to say "no" twice to most people who asked us to by things (in every other place, it had been at least 4 or 5 times). Our hotel had a good view out over the city's lake palace, and the breakfast we had there was a nice way to start the day. We did some exploring around the neighborhood and lined up dinner for that night at a nice restaurant (it was Jon's birthday) and a cooking class for the next day...all within a few steps from our hotel! We rented a paddle boat out on the lake and just took it easy.

We tried to navigate to a restaurant across the lake for lunch but ended up going a little bit out of our way. Eventually we gave up and hired an autorickshaw! Udaipur doesn't have very many street signs! The restaurant was on a peninsula overlooking some local women doing laundry. As we were eating, an elephant strolled by to snack on a nearby tree!

That evening, we headed out for a great meal. The restaurant was about a quarter of a mile from our hotel, so it was an easy stroll. There were some musicians playing, and we had a great view of the city at night. We walked back to the hotel, spoke to some of the locals out on the street, and called it an early night.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Day 9 -- Ranthambhore National Park

Today, we woke up in our swiss tent to find a third visitor (a giant lizard) in our bathroom. Despite its formidable size, we were not charged for having an extra guest!

Our Jeep picked us up for our tiger safari around 6am. After 4 hours of riding around Ranthambhore National Park, we didn't see any tigers (it's quite a few acres and only 34 tigers, so it's all a matter of luck). We did manage to see quite a bit of wildlife (deer, antelope, various birds), though, and enjoyed chatting with some other tourists along the way.

After breakfast and lunch at the hotel and some exploring, we decided to take a second safari in the afternoon. Certain that this time would be the time, we sat with cameras at the ready for anything remotely striped and cat-like. Alas, we struck out again! Better luck next time, as they say!

It was about 7pm, and we had 4 hours until our night train, so we wandered to one of the local internet shops to kill time. All internet connections are made through cell phones on a GPRS network (think dial-up times 1.5), so we only were able to surf a little bit. Next, we picked a nearby restaurant for dinner (non-veg, which means they serve chicken) and had a nice meal. We still had 2 hours to kill, so we headed to the train station. The walk there was rather scary, since it was pretty dark, and there was road construction going on. Eventually, we found our way to the train platform and staked out a nice place next to the police office there.

Jon complained about a dead rat near where we were sitting. Shortly after, another rat (clearly from the customer service department) came by to carry the dead one away. How helpful! The night train was about 45 minutes late, so by the time we boarded and got into our first-class compartment, we were exhausted!! We shared with two other people, which was a little strange, but soon we were all asleep. One man in our compartment nearly missed his stop, but his friends helpfully came by and banged on the door until I got up to let them in.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Day 8 -- Travel Day

Today was a mad dash back to the Ajmer train station, as our cab got stuck in the sands trying to cut across the desert. It eventually got unstuck but had to stop to fill up its flat tires as Jon and I watched my watch tick closer to our train's departure time. Not to worry, though, as our train was 2.5 hours late :) This ride back to Jaipur was not air-conditioned and was quite uncomfortable. Still, we got to ride with many locals, which is probably a valuable experience. The car was a sleeper, but we weren't really able to find one of our assigned berths. Apparently, there are 3 levels but one had been folded away for daytime travel. We managed to wedge ourselves onto one bed where we played cards and read a little bit.

Jon and I left Jaipur on time for the 2 hour train ride to Sawai Madhopour. Aside from being a railway junction, there isn't much else going on in this sleepy town. A bit exhausted from all the day's travels and eager to get to our swiss tent, we couldn't wait to be picked up and rushed to our lodge. Ah, but it was not to be: nobody came to pick us up, or answered the phone when we called. After about 7 helpful people dialed the phone for us, we hired our own rickshaw to the lodge. It was a little bit frightening just because we had to go out on a deserted road to get there, but the ride went smoothly. We checked in, got settled and had a nice meal with some musicians and dancers for entertainment.

I'm enjoying our time in India, but I am exhausted. The poverty is overwhelming, and as Americans we stick out as having money. It is exhausting to turn down each rickshaw driver's offer of a ride and each vendor's offer of "whatever [I] want" each time we get off the train or walk down a street. Still, traveling here continues to be a valuable experience, and it's definitely one I won't soon forget!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Day 7 -- Pushkar camel festival

Today it was off to see the camels. The festival had reached its climax the night before, so activities were in full swing. We went to the stadium for some tug-of-war and jug-carrying contests as painted camels passed by. One rather ornate camel sat inside the stadium, keeping an eye on the festivities. After that, we wandered down to Puskar lake where locals were bathing in the spiritual waters. Jon and I kept a respected distance and watched from a rooftop restaurant.

After lunch while walking in the huge crowds, my wallet was stolen. I knew it had happened immediately, but by the time I turned around, I'm sure the thief was long gone. Luckily, I only lost a few things: about $30 in rupees, my debit card, my Visa, driver's license, and insurance card. After wandering around town seeking the only Internet cafe, I was able to cancel the cards in short order and get some replacements sent to our home (Luckily, this Internet cafe had Skype on its computers, making calling the US easy). The lady at the computer next to me was from San Francisco, and she was canceling her credit cards as well, since her wallet had been stolen. As I always do when traveling internationally, most of my Indian money, all my US money, an emergency credit card, and my passport were tucked safely in my money belt worn under my shirt. Thank goodness!

One person told us about a lost and found area where I might be able to recover my lost wallet, but a police officer who was new on the job and not familiar with the area led us on a wild goose chase before finding the right office. It was difficult to keep up with him and make our way through the crowds, but we did manage to see quite a bit of the festival!

Back at the hotel, we managed to catch the latest episode of The Amazing Race on AXN quite by accident (the same way and on the same network we found it in Thailand), which was a nice surprise. It was followed by an episode of TAR Asia complete with its own counterfeit Phil!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Day 6 -- Jaipur, Ajmer, and Pushkar

Today allowed us just enough time to see The Palace Of the Winds in the Pink City portion of Jaipur before heading to the train station. This train, which originated in Jaipur was only about an hour late and was nearly empty. Jon and I enjoyed the air-conditioned comfort on our way to the edge of the desert. Then, things got crazy!

The Ajmer rickshaw drivers are known for being quite aggressive, and the only way to escape them was to dart into the nearby market with streets too narrow for them to come down! After boarding a packed bus to cross the mountains, we arrived in Pushkar. The town is quite small, but the population swells to about 200,000 during the camel festival. Our first order of business was getting to our hotel (about 3.5km from town). We went to check in, but they had no record of our reservation! They did have a room available, but the rate was about twice what Travelocity had quoted us. I'm hoping Travelocity's guarantee will help us recoup some of the loss, but even at the higher price, it was a lovely setting, and the value of staying far away from the craziness of the festival was worth every rupee!

That night, we hung out at the hotel. Somebody from the corporate office in Delhi was visiting to shoot some promotional photos, and so Jon and I took some time out of our vacation to model for some pictures! It was certainly a bizarre experience, to say the least. Despite his promise that he'd drive us across the dunes to see the camel festival at night, he had to cancel. There was a large group of guests having a banquet at the hotel, so we checked out their festivities which included quite a few decorated camels.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Day 5 -- Jaipur

After our visit to the Taj Mahal, we encountered our first snag in our plans: a 4.5 hour train delay in Agra at 6 in the morning. It was a nice enough station to spend the time, watching the groups of monkeys come and go as well as dogs, cattle, etc. About halfway through the delay, a school group on a field trip to the Taj Mahal came by to get our autographs. They were very friendly and enjoyed trying out their English greetings as well as shaking our hands. The teachers explained that they rarely see Americans in their neck of the woods, so it was a nice treat for them. We offered them some American coinage to look at and take back to their classrooms. There were also a few other train passengers who wanted to say hello to us, and we had interesting conversations with them. One man asked about the 2008 election, and his awareness of world affairs was impressive to me. How many Americans would be able to engage in a conversations about the Indian political system?

Our accommodations on the train were in a sleeper car (air conditioned), so I took a nap while Jon got some reading done. The berths were not in compartments, but there were curtains to provide some privacy. Stations aren't announced, so you kind of have to pay attention to the time to ensure you don't miss your stop! With our train running behind schedule, it somehow managed to make up 45 minutes in transit. Jon and I were a little surprised when our stop arrived!

We arrived in Jaipur just in time for most of the tourist attractions to be closed, so we went straight to our hotel to relax. Our hotel this time was a former palace with very pleasant grounds and a nice restaurant. We spent a little time just relaxing, very much enjoying the peaceful setting.

At night, we took a walk to the local cinema (a major hotspot) and watched half a film. Although it was not in English, it was a Disney film, so the plot didn't seem too complicated. Jon and I compared interpretations afterwards. Jaipur felt much more western to me with a main drag filled with shops and restaurants, but we didn't venture too far into the old city.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Day 4 -- Agra

Today we took an early train to Agra. Again, chaos confronted us at the train station, but we were able to find our seats and get settled. Apparently the pushing is not just limited to the Metro! There was some confusion as we approached the ticket window as to the validity of our Internet-purchased tickets, but a quick trip to the government tourist office proved that they were fine.

The train was about 45 minutes late, and during that time, we stood on the train platform listening to the nonstop train arrival and departure announcements first in Hindi and then in English. Each one was punctuated with a sound effect from Windows 95, which got on my nerves after a while!

The two hour train ride was lovely. We got to our hotel without any trouble and set off to the Taj Mahal. Here in Agra, with fewer people wandering around (I'm assuming most people just visit as part of a bus tour) the cab drivers and street sellers are much more aggressive. It's best to adopt a firm but polite stance of "no, thank you" and then no longer engaging in discussion despite what they might say. It is difficult, because all of the Indian people we spoke to on the street were so polite and helpful that you don't want to be rude. Still, it can be exhausting to turn down a cab ride from the same driver for nearly a mile. Navigating on our own seemed the best way to ensure we'd get where we wanted to go, as some cab rides end up at gem shops or other places at which the driver will make a commission for bringing you in.

We made it on foot to the Taj Mahal. What an amazing site! I've seen many pictures, but to see it up close is quite a humbling experience. You really only see one side in photos, but all the sides are identical, so it's basically 4 times as ornate as what you expect to see. Jon and I took zillions of pictures and enjoyed wandering around the expansive grounds. We went to a nearby luxury hotel for lunch, and spent about $55 for a very fancy Indian meal. For contrast, yesterday's lunch was about $5 for both of us! I think the key to me for dealing with the chaos on the streets was to find places to duck out of the crowds for meals.

After lunch we walked along a nature path for a different view of the Taj Mahal. Then we took a spin through the local market streets complete with goats, cows, monkeys, etc on our way back to the hotel. We headed out later for a glimpse of the Taj at night, but apparently it's not lit so we settled in to our hotel and went to bed early.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Day 3 -- Delhi's Old Fort area

Our second day in New Delhi was another wonderful experience. As seasoned users of the Delhi metro, we were able to again commute at rush hour up to the Red Fort area. This was no easy feat as it involved changing trains at the central-most station. Still, after only getting pushed off once, we made our way to the historic northeast portion of town. The Red Fort and Old Delhi were both very intense experiences: the number of people asking for money, to sell us goods, give us rickshaw rides, etc only increased the closer we got to these tourist attractions. The Red Fort is an interesting mix of local architecture and British influence. It offered some lovely views off to the east: an area we hadn't been able to see most of our wanderings had been to the south. Then, it was off down the main street to a restaurant we'd heard good things about on Chowhound. Its dining room was set off from the street quite a bit, and we certainly appreciated the opportunity to get away from the traffic and noise. After lunch, it was off to the Gandhi memorial. Although the building is small (there are actually quite a few Gandhi memorials in Delhi), the artifacts housed there were quite impressive: one of the bullets from his fatal shooting as well as the garments he wore that day. His message of working to support the local economy was an interesting counterpoint to the American idea of outsourcing to India! Had he been alive today, I wonder how he might have felt about that. Next, we took an autorickshaw to the city's largest mosque. It was immense and offered us an opportunity to climb one of the towers for a view of the city. Despite the pollution, you could really get a sense of how large and sprawling Delhi is.

The next few hours were spent making our way through the local shopping markets. What an experience! I don't really know hot to relate how disorienting it can be to walk down such crowded streets with cars/motorbikes zooming by and honking while salespeople try to shout over each other for your attention. The best way to make it through is to try and follow the locals and watch out for all moving vehicles! One street we went down was a spice market, and the sheer aroma of the place was enough to really bowl you over!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Day 2 -- Delhi sightseeing

This morning, we decided to pound the pavement. Our first adventure was riding the subway (at my insistence!). It was rush hour, so the train was full when we got on and only got more crowded as we headed towards the center of town. At the transfer point between the two lines, we were pushed out of the train and had to re-board. Luckily, a nice local man informed us that it would be OK if we got pushed off before it actually happened. There was just no way to stand our ground while people surged on and off the train. At the end of the line, we walked down a major road past some very poor tenements. The poverty here is difficult to witness: when people ask for money, Jon and I had decided in advance not to offer any, since there are usually large groups of children. Giving money to one would mean we'd have to give some to everybody. Nobody has been rude or mean to us, but it is a bit heartbreaking to see so many people who probably go to bed hungry each night.

Our first stop was the India Gate, which is a military monument. Getting there required crossing about 8 lanes of traffic. We went to the nearest crosswalk, but that seems to mean little to the drivers! Following the locals, we crossed "Frogger-style" going one lane at a time. As we reached the other side, a police officer was chuckling at us as we celebrated our accomplishment. Next we took off on foot for Lodi Gardens, which was a nice place to sit down, rest, and take in the lovely plants. After that, we headed for a local marketplace for lunch.

Then, we took an autorickshaw (picture a lawn mower with wheels!) across the south side of Delhi to a few shrines. One was a beautiful one in honor of a leader, and it was the prototype for the Taj Mahal. It was amazing!

Next, we crossed the street to a local Islam shrine. What a different experience! Where the first shrine had lush, sprawling grounds, this one was at the end of a network of narrowing streets. It was extremely disorienting , and it made me a tad nervous. Still, we pushed through and saw a beautiful shrine with quite a few people praying. It was quite an sensory overload: ornate beauty, strong incense, etc.

After that we took a walk back to the India Gate and down a grass strip to the subway station. As we headed back north, we encountered a new problem: we weren't able to get off! Our stop was the same one we had trouble with earlier, but this time, so many people were boarding the train that we couldn't fight our way to the door! Luckily, a kind police officer offered us some assistance in disembarking. After a informal dinner, we're resting up from about 6 miles of walking today. Delhi has such strange contradictions: there's quite a divide between the haves and have-nots, and while some streets are beautiful green shaded boulevards, others are little more that dusty trails clogged with traffic.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Day 1 -- Arriving in Delhi

Our flight landed on time, and Jon and I rushed through the customs/immigration process. We had carried on all our luggage, so it didn't take long before we found ourselves in the arrivals hall. There were many people waiting with signs, and we easily found the one waiting for us.

We waited off to the side until the other people going to our hotel made their way through. As I took in the scene at the airport, I was thinking Delhi wasn't too crazy: it was the standard amount of chaos you'd expect at a large airport.

Then, we went outside.

Despite the late hour, there was quite a bit of activity going on at the airport. Cab drivers and autorickshaws were looking for passengers while those already filled zipped by to their destinations. We followed our hosts out to the gravel parking lot and into some very tiny cars. We were off to our hotel!

I guess now would be a good time to mention driving in India. It's not for the faint of heart! The first rule seems to be that lane markings are not particularly important: as long as you're on pavement or the immediate shoulder, it's ok. Also, there's a lot of honking involved. Mostly, it's used when passing people, but it's also blown intermittently for some purpose I don't understand. Cars seem to have the right of way, but rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, goats, etc make their way through weaving between 4-wheeled vehicles. It's a system that I'd never be able to master (and would never try!), but since we saw no accidents during our entire 2 week stay, it's clear that the system works!

Our driver took us safely to our hotel just north of central Delhi where we checked in. It was interesting to see livestock (goats, cows, donkeys) wandering around inside the city limits, and that was certainly not something I had expected to experience.

The hotel was comfortable but not particularly lavish. At that point, we were just happy to see a nice bed to sleep in as opposed to an airplane seat!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

33 hours with Continental Airlines

Jon and I took off on the red eye from Seattle to Cleveland to Newark, landing on the east coast on Saturday morning. We had 10 hours to kill, but luckily for us, C had graciously offered to pick us up and host us while we were in New Jersey.

We enjoyed checking out her new apartment near the shores of Lake Parsippany. Not only was the setting quite nice, but C has done a great job with the decorating! After a few hours there, we met up with A for dinner in Chester, NJ. It's a nice little town with a walkable main street of all sorts of shops.

As much as we enjoyed our stay, it was time to get back to the airport for the 14 hour flight to Delhi! C dropped us off, and we had a little time to make a few last minute "Happy Thanksgiving!" calls before settling in to seats 25 A and B and making ourselves comfortable.

The flight to Delhi was very comfortable aboard the Boeing 777, and I appreciated Continental's selection of about 50 movies.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Pick a country...any country...

So it was that time of year again: Jon and I were deciding where to go for our annual international trip! With the dollar not particularly strong in Europe and having been to Italy last year, we decided to look elsewhere. Where could we go for an awesome vacation where we could still get some bang for our buck?

And that's when it came to us: India!

After quite a bit of planning, scouring our friends and the Internet for suggestions, and many trips to the India railway webpage, we were ready to go. We printed out all of our travel documents and packed up everything we thought we'd need.

We were off!