Varanasi, India to Kathmandu, Nepal

Posted Posted in India, Round The World Trip

Much Ado About Nothing

Our flight to Kathmandu was scheduled to leave at 11:55, so we left for the airport at 10:00.  Raju met us at the hotel with a driver.  But, before we got to the airport, Raju had to stop at the travel office for some reason and then we had to get gas just outside of town.  This was a bit annoying because we were worried the flight was overbooked and wanted to get to the airport early because we have heard horror stories about not making the flight because your seat was given away.  Little did we know how unnecessary our concern was.

We checked into our flight with no problem, and then sat in the little airport waiting room – for two more hours.  At around 12:15, they opened the doors for the security check and we all lined up to go in.  And we stood in line for a good half hour as they were only letting through two people at a time every few minutes.  When we finally got through, it was to get our boarding passes stamped again and to identify our luggage.

Then we stood in line again for another 45 minutes.  And – again – they let through two people at a time to have our carry-on bags hand-searched.  We also had to pass our carry-ons through the X-Ray machine and pass through a hand-held metal detector check.

Finally, we made it into the waiting area at the gate.  By this time, it was 1:30.  I noticed that a guard was taking people outside one by one, so I went up to him to see what more we needed to do.  It turns out that we had to identify our luggage again, so he took me out and around the corner.  I ID’ed our luggage, but one of the ID tags on our bags had fallen off so I had to wait for the airline agents to get another tag.  While I waited, I sat on one of the bags and chatted with the agent who was helping me.  He was very friendly, and wants to visit DC next year because he has “relations” there.

I went back inside and we all waited for the plane to arrive and board.  Finally, at about 3:00, they started boarding the flight.  This, however, required waiting in line again for another hand-search through the carry-ons and another hand-held metal detector check.  As we were standing and standing and standing in line I said to Jon, “Why are we waiting just to sit on the plane while all these other people get checked?  Why not just be the last people in line and we can sit for a while longer?”  He didn’t really like this idea, but I was tired of standing.  So I told him I would see him on the plane and sat back down until I was one of the last 3 people in the waiting room and the guards made us all get in line.  But I passed through the security check in 5 minutes, got on the plane, and we took off 10 minutes later!

Kathmandu

The flight was 45 minutes, and we cruised through customs because we already had our visas.  We shared a taxi to the Thamel area of town with a nice couple from Argentina who were very happy to leave India.  Kathmandu is much, much cleaner than India and already we can feel ourselves relaxing.  We checked into our hotel – the Kathmandu Prince – which is cute and very clean.   We relaxed for a little while and then went exploring.

Kathmandu is wonderful!  We think it’s much like what a ski resort would look like during the summer – only much less up-scale.  There are many “trekking” stores with sleeping bags, hiking books, coats, etc, and Jon and I are looking forward to getting some new Tevas.  We also stopped into a book store to find some Lonely Planets for the next few countries of our trip.

Dinner was at a precious Thai restaurant called Ying Yang.  We ate outside at a wrought-iron table beneath trees with little lights strung all over them.  There was a CD store across the way playing some pleasant music and – for the first time in weeks – we had a beer!  We were SO happy.  Dinner was delicious and the staff was very, very nice.  Nomaste!

After dinner, we went to the Pheasant Lodge to find the couple from Argentina because they gave us too much money for the taxi ride today.  They weren’t there, but a precious little puppy dog was so we played with it for a while and then were on our way.  We walked around for a little while longer and then went back to our hotel.

There are no street lights around the narrow little streets, so it’s understandable how we got lost.  We weren’t terribly, terribly lost, but we definitely weren’t on the right road.  But we ducked into an Internet Cafe to get our bearings and then found our way back again.

India: Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Posted Posted in India, Round The World Trip

Sunrise Ganges Boat Ride

This morning, we went for a sunrise ride along the Ganges River.  This is an important time of day for Hindus in Varanasi, because it is when they come to the Holy Ganges to bathe before going to temple.  All the Ghats along the riverfront were crowded with men, women and children bathing and swimming.  I wonder if it’s strange to them that a bunch of tourists pile into boats to watch their daily ritual, but then again they stare at us all the time so what goes around comes around, right?  (At least, that’s the basis of the Hindu religion).

It was very interesting to see the process of bathing in this muddy river.  The people generally bring special sarongs or wraps which they wrap around themselves just for the purpose of getting in the water.  Most of the ghats are for public bathing.  However, there are some ghats that are privately owned by various Maharajas, and others are solely for the burning of bodies.  After the bodies are burned, the remains are wrapped in linen and sent down the holy river.  Here’s an example:

Yep, that’s a dead body in a linen bag floating in the water

After the boat ride, we walked through the narrow windy alleyways of the Old City to get to the Golden Temple – Varanasi’s holiest temple.  We were not allowed inside as we are not Hindu, and we were not allowed to take pictures, either.  But we climbed up the stairs of the house across the street to look into it.  It’s very small, but has tall, detailed domes that are covered in 900 kg of gold.  Very beautiful!

Palace of the Maharaja

It was around 8:00AM and we went back to the hotel and relaxed for a while.  Then we met Raju and our driver to go to some waterfalls a few hours outside of town.  On our way there, we stopped by the palace of the Maharaja of Benares.  It was quite run-down, actually.  It wasn’t much of a palace, the paint was peeling off, weeds were growing everywhere, and the people who were living there used all the balconies to dry their laundry.  We went into the “museum” which is really just a bunch of hallways with some carriages, moth-eaten clothing, and some weapons.  But we’re getting used to the museums in developing countries.  They’re never air-conditioned, the items are tossed indiscriminately onto shelves and the signs for each article are usually hand-written in ball point pen.  It makes me appreciate the Smithsonian, which I used to take for granted having lived in DC for so many years.

The Water Falls

The falls were about and hour and half’s drive outside of Varanasi, and Raju told us the name of the falls but neither of us can recall the name now.  The drive was lovely – lush green rice fields, cows, hills, people.  It was nice to get out of the congestion of the city for a while.  I forgot to mention that – in Varanasi – the only rule of the road is that there are NO rules of the road.  Where ever one feels like driving, one drives.  This includes – if one side of the road is backed up – crossing the median and driving on the other side of the road.  So we often found ourselves driving against traffic.  And the largest vehicle on the road always  has the right-of-way – this means that in our car we usually have to pull of the road when a truck or bus drives by and sometimes for other cars, but pedestrians and rickshaws almost always have to pull over when we drive by (usually on the wrong side of the street, based on the premise that the wrong side of the street has the least amount of potholes!).  We’ve become quite used to it, actually.

Sorry – on to the falls.  They weren’t overly large, but they were definitely pretty.  And they were crowded with people doing their laundry and bathing.  All of whom stopped whatever they were doing in order to watch us (the tall white people) walk around the falls.  We stopped for a while and took pictures, and walked around for a while more.  But it was very hot, and we were starting to feel very uncomfortable with the crowd that had gathered to watch us.  So after about 30 minutes, we left.  A two-hour drive and we only stayed for 30 minutes.

We drove back into town, having to stop once for two trains to pass the tracks in front of us.

Website Class

We had a parcel to mail through the Post Office, but left it at The Shweta Travel Office because Deepak said he would help us post it.  We had put our stuff in a box and taped it up, but it turns out that all parcels from India must be wrapped and sewn in linen.  And Deepak thought the box was a bad idea because it just makes the parcel heavier.  So Deepak sent one of his staff to get linen and some thread.  While we were waiting, Deepak realized that we knew about websites and we started talking about why Deepak didn’t have a website.

Deepak has taught himself everything he knows about computers, and has recently learned Power Point and has designed a Home Page in it.  So he wanted to know what else he needed to do to make the website a reality.  So Jon and I tag-teamed teaching him what more he needed to do to get his site up and running.  Surprisingly, Deepak had an amazing grasp of good design and website processing, so it was pretty easy to explain to him.  I guess we’ll see when he gets it running.

Post Office

By this time, our parcel had been wrapped and sewn in linen and was ready to go to the Post Office.  So Raju gave us a ride to the Post Office, where we had the funniest experience.  We had to get a man to put wax seals over the seams of the parcel, so the customs agents would know that it hadn’t been tampered with; we decided he was sort of like the Customer Service representative for this branch of the Post Office.  Next he took us into the customs office to get the parcel weighed, stamped, and for us to fill out the customs form.

This took much longer than it sounds, and we ended up sitting in some chairs in the cramped, crowded office entertaining ourselves by watching the customs officers rip open each package and look through the items being sent.  The officers enjoyed talking to us about things such as the Bush/Gore election, India, America, etc.  All the while, they’re ripping open packages and searching through peoples’ belongings.  At one point, they found a package of chocolates which they opened and distributed among the other officers (and us).  It was quite funny.

They couldn’t find a customs form for us to fill out, so they put a carbon paper between two other sheets of paper and asked us to make our own.  And this is our official customs form through India’s Customs Office.  When we finished, we gave them our “form”, tipped everyone we could (including the unofficial customer service representative, who doesn’t work for the Post Office and the Customs supervisor) and walked back to the hotel which was a few minutes away.

We spent the evening at the hotel’s internet cafe and packing up our stuff.  We had dinner at the hotel restaurant because we were so exhausted and the food is good (even though the service is not).

India: Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Posted Posted in India, Round The World Trip

Today was our “City Tour” day.  We met Raju and driver in the lobby of the hotel at 9:00 and hit the road from there.

Temple Visits

First, we visited a bunch of temples which were interesting but not as brilliant or as beautiful as I’d expected.  We couldn’t take pictures of them and most of them we couldn’t go inside because we’re not Hindu.  (Hindus, by the way, are born into their religion.  One cannot convert to Hinduism.)

  • Bharat Mata Temple – opened by Mahatma Gandhi, has a large relief map of India on the floor
  • New Vishwanath Temple in Benares Hindu University – planned by Pandit Malaviya, who wished to see Hinduism revived without its caste distinctions and prejudices as it is in other temples.
  • Hanuman Temple – Called the “monkey temple” because Hanuman is the god of the monkeys.  We couldn’t go inside because we aren’t Hindu.
  • Durga Temple – Built in the 18th century and stained red with ochre.  Sometimes goats are sacrificed here.  Again, we couldn’t go inside but walked up some stairs and around the perimeter of a second story.

These are some of the monkeys at the Hanuman Temple

We stopped for lunch at a place called Poonam Restaurant in a hotel nearby.  Jon and I both ordered Chinese food because our stomachs need a break from all the Indian Food we’ve been eating.

Muslim Area – Silks

After lunch, we went into the Muslim Quarter of the city where they make beautiful silks.  We’ve decided that this is one of our favorite parts of this trip: to be able to see the skills and trades in different parts of the world.  So our tour through the Muslim area was especially nice because we got to see how silk is woven by hand.  Click here to see the details.  We spent a while in the man’s shop seeing some of the most beautiful silk weaves – bedspreads, pillow covers, scarves, etc.  We resisted the urge to buy a duvet cover and bought some gifts instead.  I guess the Crate & Barrel bedspread will have to last a while longer.

After this, it was around 3:00 and we went to Shweta Travel (the travel company here) to figure out what we were doing for the next few days.  Since we bought our own plane tickets but paid for the bus tickets as part of our package in Delhi, we wanted see if it was possible to substitute the bus tickets for a night’s stay in Kathmandu.  Deepak, who owns Shweta, was very nice and we got everything all worked out with no problem.  Deepak was also very excited to show us pictures of his “famous Hollywood movie star client”, Mario Van Peebles.  Mario was in Varanasi last year with his family and did a lot of business with Deepak, who invited him to his house for dinner.

Jon’s Haircut

Jon is way overdue for a haircut, so one of Deepak’s employees took us to a non-descript barber shop nearby.  It was a small but clean shop with one barber, 7 chairs, and 3-4 loitering friends.  On the TV in the shop they turned on the equivalent of Indian MTV.  So I sat and watched cheesy Indian Music Videos while Jon got a haircut, a shave, a long-needed beard trim, and a massage for $2.00.  They took forever doing it, but it looks good!

Sunset Ride on the Ganges

We went back to the hotel for an hour to relax, and then went on a boat ride along the Ganges at sunset.  While sunset is not as important as sunrise to the Hindu religion, there were many people taking their evening baths and doing their laundry in the river.  We also saw the burnings at some of the Ghats, which is where they burn the bodies in a ceremony before putting them into the river.  Very different from our culture, but I didn’t get any pictures because it’s considered rude to take pictures of this ceremony.

Along the way, a little boat attached itself to ours selling little boats made of a leaf with flowers and candles inside; Jon and I both bought one and sent it down the Ganges for good luck.

Pooja Ceremony on Ganges Riverfront

We returned to the shore just as the sun went down, and settled in on some steps to watch the evening’s Pooja Ceremony.  This is a nightly Hindu ceremony to pray to Shiva and offer flowers and oils to the Ganges.  There were 6 Brahmans (priests) there with a variety of candles, flowers, drums, horns, and oils, and who performed a prayer vigil with beautiful choreography and movements.  The ritual is lovely, and lasts about an hour.  The Brahmans wave their arms about with each different offering, singing and praying.  The worst part about the ceremony was the groups of tour buses who trampled through the middle of it to get pictures!

India: Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh to Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Posted Posted in India, Round The World Trip

Today wasn’t very exciting – it was a travel day.  We slept in at the Greenwood in Khajuraho, ordered room service and packed up our stuff.  We’re feeling much better than we have for days, although I’m sure the staff here thinks we’re a bit loony for coming all this way just to sleep.  But – as Jon says – “Who cares?  We’ll never see them again!”

Our ride to the airport came at 2:45, and we piled our stuff in.  This was a funny ride, because the airport is – quite literally – down the lane and across the street.  But we’d arranged an airport transfer from Delhi and By God we were going to use it.  The airport is very, very, VERY small and receives two flights a day at the most.  There was an India Airlines office there, so Jon stopped in just to see if there were any openings in the flights from Varanasi to Kathmandu.  We’re not at all looking forward to the two-day bus ride, and we’re more upset about wasting two days in travel.  Especially after having been bed-ridden for 3 days.  Good luck is on our side today, because there are seats available on the 9th of August.  The agent told us that we would need to book it out of Varanasi, because he didn’t have the facilities to ticket us.

So we hopped on the plane at 3:45, which touched down for the 20 minutes it took for us to get on and then we were off!  We landed in Varanasi an hour later at 4:45 and Jon bolted to the India Airlines office to get tickets before it closed at 5:00.   Apparently, the staff there wasn’t in any hurry to get home because it took them 15 minutes per ticket to complete our transaction.  But we’re booked and happy because now we don’t have to take the bus.

Varanasi

Our guide, Raju, was very happy to see us and is quite a cheery guy.  He quizzed us on what we knew about Varanasi as we drove the 30 minutes from the airport into town.  Varanasi is considered one of the holiest places in India.  Hindu pilgrims come to the sacred Ganges to bathe, a ritual which washes away all sins (and all sanitization – a recent faecal count was measured at 250,000 times the World Health Organization safe permitted maximum!).  The city has a number of names, including the City of Shiva, Benares, and Kashi.  Among Hindu pilgrims, this is the best place to die since it ensures release from the cycle of rebirths and an instant passport to heaven.  These rituals of washing and death apparently take place on the city’s famous ghats, which we are to see tomorrow.

Varanasi claims to be one of the oldest cities in the world at 2000 years old.  Mark Twain once said about it “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, order even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”  I might agree with him.

We checked into the India Hotel in the Cantonment area.  The hotel is relatively nice, but we’re used to the sterile cleanliness of the Hotel Greenwood in Khajuraho.  We weren’t that excited about getting back into the “older” hotels where the room smells old and musty.  But the rooms were nice and cold, and the beds comfortable.  The restaurant in the hotel – the Palm Springs – was very yummy too.

After dinner, we walked outside to find an Internet Cafe.  Unfortunately, it IS monsoon season and it just so happened to be monsooning at that particular time.  So we went back to the room to wait out the downpour.  While we were waiting, the lights went out.  Completely.  But the rain had stopped so we headed out on the dark, wet streets.  It seems that the lights were out all over the place, and this is not an unusual occurrence.  All the shopkeepers and vendors had their candles out and it was business as usual.  Except for the Internet Cafes, of course.  So we bought water and headed back to the hotel.  There, the lights came back on and then went out again.  It’s inexplicable, but quite normal.

India: Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

Posted Posted in India, Round The World Trip

When we were in Delhi, we arranged for a driver to come to get us today.  (Remember that we weren’t supposed to arrive until today because we should have been in Orchha for the past 2 days).  So Sacco came to pick us up at 10:00 this morning.  We are feeling better, but definitely not 100% yet.  Regardless, we’re going to hit the town and see the sights in Khajuraho.

Western Group of Temples

The population of Khajuraho is only 10,000 people, and the only thing to see here are the temples.  But they are truly a sight to see!  The Western Group is the main group of temples, and are arranged in an enclosed park-like structure.  Within the park, there are 9 different temples, most made of sandstone with gorgeous carvings and each devoted to different Hindu Gods.  The interesting mystery about these temples is why they were built here in Khajuraho in the first place.  It’s never been near anything, and there has never been a large population in the area to worship at the temples.  However, its remoteness prevented Muslim invaders from desecrating the temples long ago, and this is why Khajuraho is such a wonderful place to visit now.

We had to remove our shoes before going into each temple, because it’s considered inappropriate to wear shoes inside a holy place.  The interior of the temples were not as exciting as their outsides, and we got tired of climbing steps in our bare feet so we only went into about half of them.  Also, the bats that sleep in the inside of the temples make them smell very badly.

The nine temples in the Western Group are:

Lakshmi Temple – dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty and fortune

Lakshmana Temple – dedicated to Vishnu, the god of “right action”

Kandariya Mahadev Temple

Mahadeva Temple

Devi Jagadamba Temple – dedicated to Vishnu

Chitragupta Temple – dedicated to Surya, the sun god

Parvati Temple – dedicated to Parvati (or Vishna)

Vishvanath Temple – dedicated to Shiva, “the destroyer”

Nandi – Shiva’s vehicle, the bull.

In front of Kandariya Mahadev, Mahadeva, and Devi Jagadamba Temples

Every detail of these temples was beautiful.  The carvings on the side of each structure were so intricate and detailed, and they all celebrated the joy of day-to-day life.  This includes the simple acts of putting on make-up, playing with children, picking thorns out of their feet, and – yes – sex.  Khajuraho is apparently a place where the Kama Sutra was studied and practiced.  What’s interesting, though, is that the society was clearly unhindered by the conservativeness and morality of the Old Testament, and how this affected the temples.  It’s hardly pornography, but rather a way that these people enjoyed life.  And the fact that they carved these figures into sandstone – along with other activities of daily life – means that they celebrated it openly rather than the “hidden” way we Westerners are taught to.

Sorry.  I’ll get off my soapbox, now.  I just love observing the difference in cultures.  Each of us is so sure that our own culture has dictated the “correct” way of doing things, and yet each culture has such fascinating ways of looking at life.  Here’s an example of the beautiful carvings, and you’ll notice that most of them are just normal activities:

But for those of you who are really wondering, here’s one of the erotica.  Some of them got a lot more explicit, but it’s not for the faint of heart nor for our PG-rated (now PG13-rated) website.

Eastern Group of Temples

We were incredibly exhausted and hot by the time we’d completed the Western Group of Temples.  Our coughs are so bad that we fell out of breath every time we climbed up the steps to each temple.  But since we were out, we decided to take a quick trip to the group of eastern temples.  These were a bit newer, and not nearly as intricate or exquisite as the western group.  But we walked around for a little while, looking at the difference in the Jain temples versus the Hindu temples.  The Jain temples have more elaborate interiors than the Hindu temples, and have sculptures of Mahavira (I believe) who is much like Buddha.

Interior of the Jainism temple of Adinath

After the eastern group of temples, we also visited the Temple of Dunladeo but we were all “templed out” by this time so it was a quick visit.

We had lunch at Mediterraneo, a cute little Italian restaurant, and stopped by buy more water and some soap.  Then we went back to the hotel and crashed for the rest of the day.  We’ve seen all there is to see in Khajuraho in just a few hours.  So was it worth the 4 1/2 hour bus ride from Hell?  Absolutely!

India: Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

Posted Posted in India, Round The World Trip

Today we had another Day of Rest.  We both woke up feeling like hell, and Jon was running a fever last night.  So we woke up around 8:00, then fell asleep until 10:30.  We lay around in bed, coughing, sneezing, and passing the tissues back and forth.  Then Jon motivated for us to get out and go to lunch.  We also needed to stop by the American Express here to get traveler’s cheques.

Khajuraho

So we got a taxi from the front of the hotel, and went in search for the AmEx office.  Khajuraho is a little, itty-bitty town, but the AmEx directory listed an office in one of the hotels.  Unfortunately, it’s not there anymore.  After a bit more searching, we found the office and it was only a travel office and did not have travelers cheques.  So we went to lunch at a restaurant called Delhi, which overlooked some of Khajuraho’s beautiful temples.

Our Rooftop Lunch

After lunch, it was about 2:00 and we toyed with the idea of crossing the street and visiting the temples.  But we were quite drained from the outing and the heat.  We went back to the hotel and slept for about 3 hours.  Then we spent the rest of the time playing Gin Rummy and ordered room service for dinner. We also ate chocolate chip cookies, which Jon says we’re allowed to eat because we’re sick.  If we were in the U.S., we would eat chocolate-covered doughnuts from D’Agostinos but there seems to be a shortage of them here in India.  So we’ve settled for choc-chip cookies.

Greenwood Hotel

We’re staying at a hotel called the Greenwood Hotel, and it’s practically brand new.  It’s right across from the Khajuraho Airport, which is really a one-strip airstrip from where our flight leaves on Monday.  The hotel is about 6km outside of Khajuraho, but it’s very, very clean, the air conditioning works like a charm, and I’m pretty sure we’re the only clients here.  So the entire staff is devoted to our well-being and they are quite concerned that we’re not well.  Ravi, at the front desk, has already called and offered to fetch a doctor for us.  But we said that we’ll be fine, we just need to sleep.

India: Gwalior to Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

Posted Posted in India, Round The World Trip

Change in Plans

Jon has given me his cold, and now we are both miserable.  We woke up this morning sneezing, coughing, and sniffling and began to pack for our train ride to Jhansi.  This is what we were going to do for the next few days:

  1. Take a train to Jhansi, and then a rickshaw to the nearby small-town of Orchha
  2. Stay in Orchha for two nights
  3. Get up at 4:00AM to take a riskshaw back to Jhansi, and catch the 6:00AM bus to Khajuraho
  4. Stay in Khajuraho for one night

We really didn’t feel like doing a whirlwind tour of Orchha, although it’s supposed to be a beautiful city, and we didn’t want to get up early one morning for the trek back to Jhansi.  We really felt like going to a nice hotel and sleeping for 3 days.  But we had train tickets for this morning’s train so we had to leave.  So as we were sitting on the platform waiting for the Shatabdi Express to arrive, we decided to change our plans: Skip Orchha and try to catch an afternoon bus to Khajuraho.

Now this is no easy decision.  The bus ride to Khajuraho is 4 1/2 hours in a non air-conditioned bus and we’re both sick and miserable.  But our rationale is this: either we can feel like crap and lay around in a hotel room, or we can feel like crap and get a terrible travel day out of the way.  We opted for the latter and hauled our sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy-head, feverish selves onto the 11:00 bus to Khajuraho.

Special guest appearance by Jon:

The Bus Ride

So we traveled India-style today.  The bus is sort of a combination of a luxury motor coach, only without the air conditioning and assorted other luxuries, and the matatu that we took from Arusha to Moshi (click here for the matatu experience we had in Tanzania!).  Actually, the bus we took was really just a bigger version of a matatu with about 50 or 60 actual seats. So we manage to get ourselves and our backpacks onto the bus with no real problems (backpacks went into the ‘trunk’ of the bus) and get to our assigned seats thinking, “Assigned seats?  Maybe this won’t be so bad”.  In the next 10 minutes the bus became more and more crowded, with the conductor standing near the door.  Once every seat seems to be taken we get underway.

The bus that we are taking is the 11am bus from Jhansi to Khajaraho and is the ‘Super Fast Express’, meaning minimal stops along the way (as opposed to a Local bus which can take over 6 hours, our ride should only be 4 1/2 hours).  After navigating the busy and crowded streets of Jhansi for about 15 minutes, the bus makes its first stop…at the bus station.  Since it’s nearly lunchtime now and we didn’t have a bite to eat for breakfast, I decide to beat back the throngs of people trying to get onto the bus and run to the nearest vendor selling bananas (we have found that bananas make a nice substitute for either breakfast or lunch, and are always available at the train and bus stations), leaving Heidi to guard my precious seat.  In the less than 5 minutes that it took me to purchase 6 bananas for 6 Rs ($.08) the bus has filled beyond capacity.  Nobody seems to have gotten off of the bus so there are more and more people filling the aisle of the bus, starting in the back.  I manage to get back to my seat just as the the 4th or 5th person asks Heidi if anyone is sitting next to her, thinking that with every seat on the bus taken and the aisle seemingly filled to capacity there is no way more people are getting on this bus.

Random Bus Stops

The bus drives for about 5 minutes, and once we are sufficiently out of town and in the middle of nowhere the conductor yells for the driver to stop the bus.  Once stopped, the conductor begins to check peoples’ tickets.  It seems that the more efficient method of performing this 10 minute exercise while the bus is moving (and thus creating some form of wind in the bus!) isn’t an option.  Once everyone is soaked with sweat, and has also soaked the person sitting next to them, the bus gets underway again.  We proceed for another 45 minutes until we get to some remote backwater village whose only claim to fame seems to be that it is located at the crossroads between BFE and the middle of nowhere, and is apparently a prime location for a bus stop.  The bus comes to a halt, the driver gets out and we assume that we’ve stopped because he needed to relieve himself or something because there is no way more people are getting on this bus!

More people manage to stuff themselves into the bus, about 10 more to be exact.  When we get underway the only way that everyone can fit onto the bus is for the door to be left open so that 4 people can hang outside of the bus for the remainder of the trip.

Then it starts to rain.  Remember that this is monsoon season in India, and thus far we have been blessed with no real rain to speak of (fingers are still crossed).  It doesn’t just rain, it pours.  Being in the front row we also have a good view out of the front windshield and can readily observe that the windshield wipers are making a pathetic attempt at wiping the rain away; perhaps they might be more successful if they actually made contact with at least a small portion of the window they are supposed to be cleaning!  I decide not to look through the windshield anymore…

Communitay Propertere

The bus ride also reacquainted us with a concept that one of my old roommates taught us after college (I have managed to work PJ into the journal entry!):  “Communitay Propertere”.  The concept was applied to beer that was left over after the end of the weekend; any beer left in the refrigerator on Monday was considered Communitay Propertere and was thus available to anyone that wanted to partake.  It was an interesting concept apparently loosely translated from the Latin phrase for ‘community property’ and we all adopted it shortly thereafter, even applying it to food in the refrigerator, rented videos that had not yet been returned, practically anything that was left lying around and had some sort of value.

Apparently they are well acquainted with the phrase in India!  Heidi and I both were reading our books during the bus ride when the person sitting next to Heidi made a motion toward her papyrus bookmark that we had picked up in Egypt, so Heidi handed it to him.  Next he made a comment about her book so she handed it to him thinking that he wanted to read the back cover.  It turns out that he actually wanted to read the book to perhaps see if he would like it!  After 15 or 20 minutes he handed the book back to her, apparently satisfied in whatever it was that he read.  A few minutes later the person standing in the aisle/practically sitting in my lap motions to her bookmark as well…having learned her lesson, Heidi gave him the bookmark and then buried her nose in her book trying to look as serious as possible.  He never got the chance to ask her if he could read it too.

The End of the Road

About 3 1/2 hours after we started, the bus finally makes its first stop that results in a net reduction of the occupants.  The bus has seats for maybe 50 or 60 but there must have been at least 75 or 85 people on the bus.  Gear that had been on the roof (in the rain) can come into the bus now, and the owner of at least one wet bag now has the chance to determine the wetness of his belongings.  I guess it pays to be early, at least that way your gear makes it into the trunk!

A little over 4 1/2 hours after we started, we make it into the bus station in Khajaraho.  Once off of the bus we regain sensation in our legs again just as the touts overwhelm us with “Rickshaw to any hotel, 10Rs”, “Taxi to any hotel, 20Rs”, and of course, “Come stay at xxx hotel or yyy hotel, come look at the pictures that I have right here!”.  Well, we already have a reservation for one night at the Hotel Greenwood but it’s not for 2 nights from now so we decide to start there first and see if we can get a good rate for the 2 nights that we don’t already have arranged.  We shield ourselves from the hotel and rickshaw touts by negotiating the fare for a taxi (supply is high and demand is relatively low so the consumer prevails in this instance) and get out of the bus station.

The hotel, as it turns out, is quite new and very nice looking from the outside – two things that usually translate to mean ‘expensive’.  But it’s the low season, and again, there is a tremendous supply of hotels and not a lot of people clamoring to visit India during the hot summer monsoon months.  A quick negotiation ensues and an agreement is reached.  (By this time, of course, we feel like such crap that we would have paid a premium to stay anywhere).  We head to our room, shower and nap for several hours and try to plan the next couple of days.

India: Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh

Posted Posted in India, Round The World Trip

Indian Work Ethic

We woke up this morning in Agra – all of us very tired (Jon, myself, and Vinod).  I neglected to mention in yesterday’s journal that – last night at 7:00 – we made a quick stop at a leather store to see about getting some leather pants (I’ve been wanting some for the last year).  Of course, we could get some.  And of course, they’re custom-made.  Makkesh, the shop-owner, told me that they would be ready at 10:15 that night.  Yes, this means that the tailor guys were sewing their hearts out to make my leather pants in 3 hours.

OK.  Don’t start.  This was not at my insistence, and has nothing to do with “high-maintenance New Yorkers”.  (Geez.  I can hear you rolling your eyes!)  This is the work ethic here!  Their attitude is that they would rather work late and get paid than not work at all.  Makkesh told me to come back to the shop at 10:15 and it would be done.

Vinod insisted on driving me, even though I told him I would take a taxi.  And Jon also insisted on coming, despite being in the beginning stages of a head cold.  The pants weren’t quite ready because the leather was apparently stuck in traffic for a half-hour.  But I tried on the main part, adjustments were made, and Chaco The Tailor went back to work.  Vinod, Jon, Makkesh, and I sat out front in the parking lot sipping Orange Fantas and talking about Pakistan-India-US relations.  Makkesh, by the way, made a trench coat for Clinton last year.  He has the letter from the Protocol Office framed on the wall.  Indians LOVE Bill Clinton, but I’m not going to waste time in my journal for that.

Anyway, little by little my beautiful pants were finished, and we made it back to the hotel by 11:00.  The A/C in our room didn’t work very well last night.  It reduced the heat in the room from a whopping 100° to a cool 85°.  So I didn’t sleep well last night, and Jon’s cold has gotten worse.  (I knew that he was sick when he wasn’t hungry yesterday!).  We were quite an exhausted pair on the way to the train station this morning – Jon especially!

Trains in India

We said good-bye to Vinod – our wonderful, wonderful driver – at the train station, and put our bags down on the platform to wait for our 8:00AM train.  Everything you’ve ever heard about trains in India is true.  They are much like cattle-cars, but with people.  The regular passenger trains only have open-windows and are packed with people.  And “upper class” is sitting on the roof of the car which is not unusual at all.

Our tickets were for air-conditioned cars, which is what the Bourgeoisie Indians and tourists ride in.  The cars aren’t that nice at all (compared to Egypt, that is) but they are air-conditioned so we’re not complaining!  Besides, the ride from Agra to Gwalior is only an hour and a half.

We arrived in Gwalior at 9:30, and needed to buy a ticket for tomorrow to Jhansi so we can then get to Orchha.  This ordeal took 45 minutes.  30 minutes to find the right ticket booth after standing the the wrong line 3 times, and 15 minutes to buy the ticket.  We did anything we could to avoid the touts that circled in on us, but we finally settled on one of them to show us the right way and in return we took his rickshaw to the hotel and gave him a nice tip.  He offered to stick around to take us to the Gwalior Fort, but all we wanted to do was check in to the hotel and sleep.

This is where the journal gets boring.

Day of Rest

Jon’s cold has drained him of all energy, and he passed out for 2 1/2 hours.  I napped and read on-and-off, happy to at least be horizontal for a while.  The air in the room was cool, but not cold, and the room kind of smelled.  But as long as Jon was getting some sleep, I was fine.  He woke up at around 2:00 and we decided to stay in until dinner, and then we would catch the Sound And Light Show at the Gwalior Fort – which is really the only thing to see in Gwalior.  So we laid around and played cards until 5:30 when we left for dinner.  We stopped by the front desk (we’re staying at a placed called “Hotel Regency”) and asked to confirm the Light Show time.  Well… it turns out that there is no light show during the summer and that the Fort has already closed for the evening.

Just our luck, right?  Honestly, we didn’t really care.  We hopped in a rickshaw and went to dinner at a restaurant called Dawat.

In the back of an auto-rickshaw on the way to dinner

The view from the front of the auto-rickshaw

Random Ruminations on India

Because our day was so uneventful, I’m going to take this opportunity to expound on some India-facts:

  • We really like the people in this country.  They are honest, respectful, intelligent, and warm-hearted people.  Granted, there are some scam artists who will fleece you without a second thought but most people we’ve met have been very kind.  Jon made the observation that the women all seem so much happier than those we saw in Egypt – they smile and laugh a lot.  And they’re beautiful!
  • All Indian Restaurants here have both Indian food and Chinese food.  I suppose that’s because of our proximity to China, but what a strange combination!  Regardless, we just can’t get enough of the food.  It’s DIVINE!
  • Cows really do hang out all over the city.  In yards, on the sidewalks, in the middle of the roads – they’re free to wander wherever they choose.  Jon was quite amused by this!  We knew that they were considered holy, but cows in the middle of the road?  He didn’t think anyone would believe him so he took a picture:

We had a long discussion over dinner one night regarding a particular cow that – after finishing his dinner in a garbage pile on the side of the road – walked to the middle of the road and proceeded to walk up the center line.  Cars were whizzing by on both sides of him, but he didn’t seem to mind.  Jon thought this was a stupid cow, and that it should have walked along the side of the road.  I thought that the cow was actually very smart – it knew it wouldn’t be injured along the center line.  We’ll let you decide.  Regardless, Vinod said that the cows are a real concern for drivers because – if you hit them – it will cause serious car troubles, which the driver has to pay for as well as having to compensate the owner of the cow for their loss.

  • New York drivers have nothing on the drivers in India.  Here, they weave in and out of the smallest of gaps in traffic and really don’t care about where roads begin and end.  And the horn is used to warn other drivers either that: (1) You’re there, (2) You’re passing them, or (3) You’re going to hit the damn cow/goat/dog in the road.  Trucks and buses paint the back of their vehicles with pretty flowers and designs and with the words, “Blow Horn Please OK”.  This is to get other drivers to honk when they are passing the truck/bus.  This is a good thing because most trucks don’t have rearview mirrors, but the horn-honking tends to get a little excessive.

India: Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Posted Posted in India, Round The World Trip

August 1 – India: Agra, Upper Pradesh

We left Jaipur and our lovely hotel at 7:00 this morning to hit the road for Agra.  The drive was a long one, particularly because we made some stops along the way.

Breakfast – “Redrum?”

After a few hours, Vinod stopped so we could get breakfast.  We stopped at a large hotel – still in Rhajastan – that was clearly built for the bird-watching community.  It was very expansive, with fountains and benches and situated very happily on lake.  The only problem is that there was no one there!  It was just us and the staff.  Winter is world-class birdwatching time in India, but there isn’t that much to see in the summer.  So here we were, in this large beautiful hotel that was completely deserted.  We felt like Jack Nicholson should come running around the corner with an ax yelling, “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!”

Bharatpur

We stopped in Bharatpur, which has a world-reknowned bird sanctuary.  Of course, there are hardly any birds that migrate here in the summer except the birds indigenous to this part of India.  But we decided to take a rickshaw ride in to see it anyway – but just for an hour.  Our rickshaw driver was about 70 and pedaled his heart out so we could see some birds, although he tried to get us to stay longer since he was paid by the hour and we were probably his only fares for the day.  We didn’t see an awful lot, but we did enjoy the scenery and the experience.

Indian Egrets

Fatephur Sikri

Fatephur Sikri’s Palace of Jodh Bai is known as a “ghost city” and was once the capital of the Mughal empire between 1571 – 1585.  It was quickly abandoned later on, but its beautiful sandstone buildings remain in good condition.  I’m sure it was a wonderful city for the 10 years it was at its peak.

Courtyard in Fatephur Sikri

Next to the city is a HUGE mosque called Jama Masjid and also known as Dargah Mosque.  It has some very impressive gates and a lovely view over Fatephur Sikri.  It also has a very large courtyard (at least one football field) that separates the gates and the mosques.  We made our way to the other side of the courtyard by walking along the perimeter in the shade, but we were running late by this time.  So we had to hurry across the courtyard to the main gate.  Of course, we had taken off our shoes because we were in a mosque and the red sandstone of the courtyard had been in the sun all day.  So we started walking… and then skipping.. and then running across the courtyard on feet that were burning.  But we made it out safely.

Agra Fort

Agra Fort is a large fort begun by Emperor Akbar in 1565 and added to by later emperors.  It acted as both a fort and a palace depending on the ruler.  It actually had a moat!  We wandered around the fort for about 45 minutes, but we really wanted to see the piece de resistance of India – so we left to go to…. THE TAJ!

The Taj Mahal

The Indian Government has raised prices to the Taj Mahal to be exorbitantly expensive for any non-resident visitor.  Entrance was a whopping $20 for foreigners.  But when you’ve come all this way, you’re not going to turn down the Taj.  So we arrived at 5:00 and had to battle our way through the throngs of touts selling postcards, pens, anklets, t-shirts, and the kitchen sink.  But it was worth it!  Anyone who ever says that the Taj Mahal is anti-climactic is on drugs.  It was beautiful!

The Taj Mahal!

It was built by the Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, whose death in childbirth in 1631 left him heartbroken.  It’s said that he was so devastated that his hair turned white overnight.  Construction of the Taj began in the same year and wasn’t completed until 1653.  It took 20,000 workers to complete, and it’s said that some later had their hands and fingers amputated so the perfection of the Taj could not be repeated anywhere else.

We went inside the tomb on the main floor (which is the only floor that is open) and hired a guide to show us around.  The entire inside is made of marble inlaid with semi-precious stones: ebony, lapis lazuli, tiger eye, and jade – just to name a few.  The marble is all hand-carved, some of it 3 inches thick and made from one stone.  Stunning.

India: Jaipur, Rajasthan – “The Pink City”

Posted Posted in India, Round The World Trip

We woke up and had breakfast at the hotel in a beautiful little room whose walls and ceilings were covered with Indian paintwork.  I would say “stencils” except that you could see the pencil marks where someone had drawn out the designs beforehand.  Quite lovely.  Breakfast, however, was another matter as they didn’t have eggs or anything.  So I had corn flakes and Jon had toast.

Amber Fort

The Old Fort is in Amber, which is the ancient capital of Jaipur State.  The fort-palace was built in 1562 by Maharaja Man Singh.  It was later added to and completed by the Jai Singhs before they moved to Jaipur.  The fort is on the top of a hill overlooking Amber and Jaipur.  To get to the top of the hill, you can either climb up the steps (about a 10 minute climb), or pay a ridiculous amount of money for an elephant ride to the top.  Given our shopping spree of yesterday, Jon and I decided to do the walk.

We got to the fort at around 9:15, and while our climb was a different path than the elephant walk we passed across their path twice.  The morning is elephant rush hour because this is when all the tourists show up.  And the elephant owners are much like taxi drivers – if they go too slow, they miss out on potential fares.  So the funny thing was to sit and watch the elephants pass each other as the “drivers” did whatever they could to get their elephants to speed up.  Some of the elephants seemed to be blissfully oblivious of the need to rush, and their drivers made funny yelling noises to get them to hurry.

In the Palace-Fort we walked around and looked at the beautiful inlaid marble work.  Mirrors and silver are a definite Rhajastan-influenced decoration and we see little mirrors in many of the clothing designs here as well.  There’s also a Hall of Pleasure (Sukh Niwas) that has a channel running right through the room which once carried water naturally cooled by the marble.  Pretty cool to see what they could do without electricity!

Lonely Planet gave us some basic descriptions of the main halls of the Palace-Fort, but we decided to do some of our own exploring.   Of course, we didn’t realize how deep the alleyways and side rooms went as we walked through some very unadorned (and graffitied) parts of the complex.  Next thing we knew, we were in some far unknown part of the fort and hadn’t seen another tourist for about 20 minutes.  It was actually kind of gross – the rooms were strewn with trash and smelled like toilets.  But we finally found our way back after a few harrowing minutes.  We finished up our trip and headed back down the hill to meet Vinod, our driver.

Wonderful View from the Fort

Pick-up Goodies

Vinod took us back to the shops to pick up some items we had made for us – a tablecloth at the textile shop and a charm at the jewelry shop.  They were both wonderful and we were very happy!  (Note my new custom-made sarong in the picture above!)

Royal Gaitor

No, this isn’t an alligator.  These are the cenotaphs, or funeral pyres, of the Majaranis.  They were built solely to burn the remains, and stand as a testament to the greatness of each ruler.  Surprisingly, the Indian Government does not charge for this site (whereas they take money from foreigners every other chance they get) and it’s pleasantly free of the throngs of tour busses we’ve seen everywhere else.  There are, however, throngs of little children asking for money, chocolate, and pens, but we’re getting used to being barraged every time we look around.

The grounds-keeper showed us around the cenotaphs for a few Rupees, and pointed out some very interesting facts about the buildings.  For example, the statues erected in the Maharaja Jia Signh II’s gaitor, which is 300 years old.  One of the statue is of one of the Maharaja’s wife, with 3 children and one on the way.  Literally, the statue is pregnant!  We spent about an hour looking around at the beautiful marble details and then went on our way.

Lunch at Rainbow

Rainbow was a yummy restaurant that specializes in vegetarian dishes, but has other dishes as well.  I had a delicious cashew curry dish, and Jon had a curry rice mixture that was very good.

City Palace

City Palace is still owned by the royal family, and some of the family still resides in part of it.  We wandered around for a while, but were distracted because part of the courtyard was sectioned off for some sort of “festival”.  Actually, it was for the appearance of a guru with “healing hands” and apparently people had been waiting outside all day for him.  We found a place on some steps where we could glance over the separators to see inside, but got tired of waiting and continued on.  We went to the arms museum and saw lots of knives, guns, swords, and other Indian arms.  We also went to the textile museum, which contains different clothing worn by the Maharajas and their wives.  On our way out of the textile museum, we had a good view of the “healing guru” who was touching everyone who lined up to see him.  I hope it worked for someone (if even mentally) as they had clearly been waiting for hours.

Jantar Mantar

The Maharaja Jai Singh II is considered the “father” of Jaipur.  He was also a passionate astronomer.  He sent scholars abroad to study foreign observatories in order to build himself five observatories.   The Jaipur observatory is the largest and best preserved.  Each construction has a specific purpose, such as measuring the positions of the stars, altitudes, and calculating eclipses.  There is a beautiful sundial that’s 27 meters high and is very, very accurate.  We had a great time looking around, but were too hot to stay for very long.

Jantar Mantar Observatory

Dinner at Copper Chimney

We and another couple were literally the only people in this wonderful restaurant.  We sat and looked out the window onto the street below while we ate dinner.  One family of street people saw us and – when they couldn’t get our attention with their yelling – sat down and staked us out until we left.  Vinod dropped us off at an Internet Cafe down the street from our hotel, and then we went to bed.