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Tag Archives: India
December 30-31: Varkala
Unfortunately, our visit to Munnar ended with some misinformation, which kept us waiting at a bus station for several hours at 6am, hungry, cold, and very unhappy. The subsequent bus ride was several more hours of continued hunger, and unhappiness at the fact that the bus was 120% full the entire time, squeezing us three to a seat with various large Indian men. Another long wait at a dingy train station, and then a train ride finally got us to Varkala Beach in the evening. And there was no better place to melt away the frustration of travel.
Our guesthouse was bright, with tie-dyed linens and a large garden, and was a short walk from the cliffs overlooking the beach. Hugging the cliffs were cafes, restaurants,bars, souvenir shops, and art galleries. Bob Marley and Jack Johnson music wafted through the air, and a relaxed, hippie, vibe infused every inch of the place. Slightly more revealing clothing and beer with dinner were much more acceptable and laid-back tourists were abound. So many of the travelers we met said that they had come to Varkala intending to stay for a day and had been there for weeks or even months now. If we hadn’t already had return tickets back, I would have been sorely tempted to do the same. It was the perfect final stop in India and demonstrated the range of contrast that existed in the country–from dodging cows, to cold weather, to tea covered mountains, to a hippie beach town.
For our only full day in Varkala, New Year’s Eve, we whiled away the hours reading on the beach, shopping for art, and indulging in Western foods. That evening, we decided to send off 2010 at the party that our guesthouse. The eclectic mix of guests gathered in the garden for food, drinks, and entertainment. Kingfisher beer was aplenty, along with a homemade punch that was hidden prohibition-style in the bushes, because of the strict liquor licensing laws in the state. We all ate thalis around a long table, and watched an interesting collection of performances, which included a glass-eater, fire breathers, kids dressed in sparkly costumes doing Michael Jackson numbers, and Bollywood dancing that involved cross-dressing. The other people provided equal entertainment, including dreadlocked backpackers who had started living at the guesthouse, a bearded man from Brooklyn who built musical instruments for fun and moved to India to make a sitar, and an Israeli yogi who led everyone in a spiritual ceremony around the bonfire.
So 2010, a year that began in Italy, and included graduation, moving to a totally unexpected country at the last minute, beginning to teach, surviving dengue fever, and going to Bali and Thailand (side note: I managed to visit all 3 Eat, Pray, Love countries in 2010) ended at a bohemian garden party in southern India.
Before the first sunrise of the New Year, before many of the parties had ended, and before my American friends had even celebrated, we groggily got in a cab to the Trivandrum airport, where the final trial of India was a labyrinth of disorder, no airconditioning, and impatient line-cutters with oversized baggage. By 8:30am, we were in the air, leaving the subcontinent. Though the India portion of my trip was over, visions of bushy moustaches, litter-strewn alleys, head bobbles, autorickshaws, and rotis would continue to linger in my mind long after.
Several hours later, I was in an orderly queue at the Singapore airport, waiting for the next fresh-smelling, metered cab to take us to the PiA apartments. I can think of few greater contrasts to India than Singapore, land of cleanliness, efficiency, and modernity, where I would spend the next few days.
December 28-29: Munnar
For four hours, our windowless bus careened around the winding mountain roads, taking hairpin turns in the wrong lane, using the horn to repel other cars. We were lucky that we got on at the first stop and got to sit the whole time, but were unlucky to sit right behind the driver, where the impossibly annoying horn vibrated the seat with its constant blast. In India, the horn was never just used to signal others to get out of the way, but was used constantly, as long as there were other cars in the same general area. I’m inclined to believe that there is some complex system of echolocation going on, since people drive literally all over the road, and seemingly only miraculously avoid one another.
We arrived in Munnar late and immediately caught a rickshaw to the guesthouse that we had just barely managed to reserve while on the bus. An older Indian man, Joseph, met us with a flashlight at the gate and invited us in to his living room, which was adorned with maps and dusty heads of antelopes and other little fanged deer. He heated us a pot of tea, and as we enjoyed our first cups of famous Munnar tea, he began a good-natured monologue about how lucky we were to get a room because, “I am in 14 guidebooks: Lonely Planet, Let’s Go, Frommer’s, Rough Guide, Guide Routarde, Fodor’s…”
The next morning, we finally got a glimpse of our surroundings, and realized that the view from our balcony was actually breathtaking. As Joseph explained to us over morning tea, Munnar is the largest tea-growing area in the world, and some of the thousands of acres formed a spectacular panorama around his house. Though it is a popular vacation spot, especially for Indian tourists, the area surrounding Munnar is very quiet, and we basked in the tranquility after our experiences with Indian city life.
During the first day we took some walks that Joseph recommended, perfected by his years of experience directing travelers. We climbed the paths through the tea-covered hills to the top of the tallest nearby peak and were stunned at the top to see a 360 degree view of tea-covered hills and valleys that disappeared into a low-hanging morning mist. This was perhaps my favorite single moment of India–emerging from the the brush that we walked through to get to the top, unsure if we were going the right way, and bring rewarded with this vista. On the way there and back, we met some colorful tea-picking ladies who were on their lunch break, and curiously stopped to ask our names and nationalities. In the afternoon, we took a second walk, following an intricately hand-drawn map that Joseph made us, that took us in the other direction out of town, past hillside resorts, through a small village, and by cardamom, coffee, and pepper plantations.
The next day, we had big plans to set out early to go to a hilltop station, which was supposed to be another beautiful overlook on the border of Tamil Nadu. “Have you heard about the strike?” Joseph said, when we arrived for tea. It was 7am, so of course we hadn’t. “There is an autorickshaw and taxi driver strike,” he explained. “So no one will take you.” Without a ride, our day would pretty much be shot, and we had stayed in Munnar an extra day to do this, so we were a little upset. “Okay, I know one who may take you. They call him ‘The Black Sheep.’ He does his own thing.” 30 minutes later we were shaking hand with Kumar, “The Black Sheep,” who had agreed to drive us to the hill station despite the fact that no one else in the state was driving. The catch was that he only used the engine when absolutely necessary, and thus it took about 2 hours to go 40 kilometers. He would cut the engine and coast until we puttered to a stop, then hit the gas just long enough to creep up the next hill. Though the driving left a bit to be desired, Kumar was a good tour guide. He stopped so we could get milk tea, to check out some lakes, to show us a tree covered in bee hives (where we caught a glimpse of the local rare and endangered grizzled giant squirrel), and to demonstrate an echo point. The visit to Top Station was entirely uneventful, as the fog was now so bad that were were basically standing on a hill in the middle of a cloud. To make up for this disappointment, we decided to stop at an elephant riding camp on the way back. I was excited to get to interact with a pachyderm, but in retrospect I feel guilty for paying for the novelty of riding an elephant around, and not taking into consideration the quality of the place and treatment of the animals beforehand. I don’t think it was a particularly bad place, but I also don’t think it was particularly good, and the elephants still had to spend all day walking the same loop through the forest to entertain tourists. That said, I still enjoyed my elephant interactions, especially getting to feed and pet our elephant as a reward at the end.
In the afternoon, the strike having lifted, we got a real car to drive us two hours to the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, in hopes of seeing some non-captive animals. As soon as we arrived to meet our guide we were surrounded by greedy monkeys, which hung out near the entry point to try to pilfer food from tourists. Our guide was an incredibly tiny man, with little to no English skills, a machete, and flip flops. He took us on a brisk walk through the preserve, exchanging few words, and using leaves to stop his bleeding when the brambles that we were hiking through cut his (practically) bare feet. He was very good at tracking elephants, and after telling us to stop and wait while he ran ahead a few times, we got some rewarding glimpses of a wild herd in the distance, that was making its way through the underbrush.
December 23-27: Delhi–>Fort Cochin–>Allepey
I saw Delhi during daylight for all of the 10 minutes it took for me to stumble, miserable and bleary-eyed, from the train station to the hotel. The rest of my time in Delhi, while my friends were visiting sights, I slept the day away with the curtains drawn.
The next day, Christmas Eve, I had to emerge from hibernation to catch a flight south to Kerala, where we were to spend the last week of the trip. Kerala is a state on the far southwest corner of India, bordering Tamil Nadu, which is the state where I was originally supposed to be teaching. Arriving here from Delhi almost felt like arriving in a different country–a warm, sunny, place where men wore lunghis (a sarong-style skirt), people spoke a different language (Malayam), and the pace of life seemed much more relaxed. Before we could enjoy this new laidback lifestyle, however, we had to leave the airport. When our flight arrived, late at night, all of the taxi stands at the airport were swarmed with people, and one endlessly long line was arbitrarily diverted to a different long line. Then a new line would open, and somehow we would still end up at the back of it. It was over an hour before we managed to get a taxi. In the meantime, Mark was feeling increasingly ill. While in the cab, hurtling through the warm southern night, he suddenly yelled for the car to pull over, and reenacted my roadside sickness of a few days earlier, except on a bridge. Points for style.
We were staying in Fort Cochin, the old colonial town that is part of the city of Kochi. Many places in India have two names–a colonial version and a national, local-language version–and they are used interchangeably. So Cochin, Kochi–it depends on who you ask. Once we finally arrived, the relief was instant. We were staying in the Taj Mahal Homestay, and were welcomed by such a friendly family that we immediately felt comfortable and at home. We arrived thinking we might only stay one night, and ended up staying for three just because it was so pleasant. That first night, we left to walk to find somewhere for dinner, and the night felt so different from northern India. It felt very safe, the weather was pleasant, and even though my stomach wasn’t ready for Indian food again yet, I felt much better. As we were walking to dinner, a man called out to us. “Excuse me?” We walked faster, sick of all of the attention from people trying to sell us things. He approached us anyway. “Excuse me? Mass is in English at 10am tomorrow morning,” he pointed to the cathedral we were walking past. “Merry Christmas!” The small downtown streets were strung with paper star lights, whose colorful glow reminded us for the first time that it was the holiday season.
On Christmas Day, we went on a relaxed walk around Fort Cochin. Mark was feeling very sick, and I was still feeling weak from my own food poisoning experience, so we took it slow, enjoying the warm weather and the feeling of walking down the streets without an overwhelming amount of attention. Not to say that we didn’t get any. A few tenacious autorickshaw drivers did laps around the small downtown, asking us each time they passed us if we had changed our mind about getting a ride. Fort Cochin used to be a Portuguese, then a Dutch, colony, which was still evident from the colonial architecture and Christianity that remain in the area. All of the sights were in walking distance: the old Dutch Cemetary, several basilicas, old Chinese-style fishing nets, which are still operational, the Dutch Palace (now a museum), and the Paradesi Synagogue (located off of “Jew-Town Road”), which is the oldest synagogue in India (and in fact in the whole Commonwealth). The highlight of food in the south is the ubiquitous thali, a banana leaf with dollops various sauces and curry dishes that are absorbed with bread. Unfortunately, I didn’t taste the best thalis in Kochi, since my stomach was still in a toast and jam phase, but they certainly looked good. One of the highlights of Christmas was seeing a snakecharmer who was entertaining passersby outside a church with his four dancing cobras.
The day after Christmas, we got a car to take us to Allepey, a nearby city that is best known as the entrance to the backwaters of Kerala, described by some as the “Venice of India.” We hired a slow-moving, covered motorboat for 5 hours to take us around the surrounding backwaters, which are basically villages connected by thin and tranquil waterways. Once we got out of town and into the network of canals, there was nothing more peaceful. We passed charming houses that hugged the canals, with women out washing their laundry, and children playing and bathing in the water.
On our final day in Kochi the group parted ways. Lisa was on her way back to the US and Mark had to return to work in Singapore, leaving just Andrew and I to continue the exploration of Kerala. After saying our goodbyes, we boarded a local bus to take us five hours inland to Munnar.
December 21-22: Varanasi
Arrival in Varanasi will stick with me as one of the most vivid and powerful memories of India. Feeling “fresh” after a good night’s sleep curled up on the rocklike third bunk of the sleeper car, I stepped out to face a full-on assault of the senses and immediate immersion in Varanasi’s intensity: Straight ahead–a woman was kneeling to wash her laundry in the concrete sink on the train platform. She was wringing and beating her clothes, oblivious to the swarm of people surging past her, carrying children, suitcases, bags of rice, massive wrapped parcels. We forced our way through this crowd, past buckets of laundry, grizzled stray animals, and wafts of masala and urine. My eyes caught flashes of bright saris, and the indiscreetly staring eyes of Indian men. We followed the stream of people up some stairs to cross the tracks, getting pushed in every direction by people jostling to get ahead, who were nearly stepping on a disabled boy, literally crawling up the stairs. The mass of people parted around him only very slightly in the rush to move forward. Once we were able to exit the station we faced what looked like a battlefield–a concrete expanse strewn with prostrate bodies in various forms of discomfort, some sleeping, some gathered around fires, some arranging plastic bags over their feet. We were swarmed with rickshaw drivers jostling one another out of the way. “No, no, hotel pick-up,” we tried to say over their cries of “Cheap price for you!”
We safely found the hotel’s drivers, but the madness was only to continue on the road. At breakneck speed, our little autorickshaws careened through the most ridiculous traffic I’ve seen. My description will sound like an exaggeration, but in reality it doesn’t even come close to capturing the chaos. The lanes were mere suggestions, and accelerating into oncoming or stopped traffic was the norm. We entered what is best described as a cyclone of vehicles. Cars slammed on their brakes to miss cows, which ambled into the street, cutting off rickshaws, which swerved to avoid cyclists, who were coming dangerously close to pedestrians, who were trying to sell their prayer beads to passersby on motorbikes, who almost ran over stray dogs, that were magically sleeping unharmed in the middle of the road. Suddenly, our rickshaw stopped. Now we had to walk, because the streets were too narrow. We followed the driver through a maze of alleys, with no names, just elaborate signs painted on the walls pointing to hotels. The ground was covered in a slew of cow dung, paan spit, wastewater, and discarded food. Huge cows (and bulls) nibbled on trash bags, nearly blocking the alleys. Open storefronts sold chai, spices, jewelry, dyes, and yoga lessons. Finally the alleys opened up onto the ghats, giving us our first view of the holy Ganges River. While we were admiring the view we nearly got charged by a particularly territorial bull, and quickly continued on our way to our hotel. The Scindhia Guesthouse was an incredibly pleasant experience, offering much needed showers, and a nice view of life along the river below–although we were warned to keep this balcony door closed at all times to keep out the street monkeys, which we could see squabbling on nearby rooftops.
After we had rested enough to handle venturing back into the chaos below, we set out to explore the city. Varanasi is the holiest city in the world for Hindus, and its identity and daily life is closely tied to the holy Ganges River. Along the river are a series of ghats, steps leading to the water that form a central part of the city for tourists and residents alike. Despite the fact that it is a highly touristed city, life continues to go on, unsanitized and uncompromising, on the ghats. Closest to where we were staying was the “burning ghat,” the area where bodies are continuously cremated day and night. Because it is such a holy place, Varanasi is seen as an auspicious place to die and be cremated. Even as we were squeezing our way through the alleys, men carrying shrouded bodies passed by. Standing just above the burning ghats, the air was filled with floating ashes, which settled on spectators like snow, as bodies were set ablaze below, with the exact amount of wood necessary to burn entirely.
During our first night, we took a sunset walk along the ghats, enjoying watching people do yoga along the water, perform prayers and other ceremonies, and play cricket. Cows and goats (some wearing sweaters) ambled along beside us. We were constantly shooing overeager and pesky touts, who would not give us a moment’s peace from repeated offers of boat rides or tours or the best silk shop in town. Here more than anywhere else we went to, people would not take no for an answer, and would try to follow for a bit to bother you into taking their offer. During our second day, one boy inexplicably followed us for over 45 minutes through the labyrinthine alleys, at first to get us to come to his shop, then to try to get us to hire him for directions, then seemingly just to hassle us.
Most of our time in Varanasi was spent this way–avoiding salesmen, walking along the ghats and observing the endless parade of humanity, taking detours through the fragrant, overcrowded alleys. On our second morning, we participated in perhaps the most common tourist tradition in the town: a sunrise boat ride. We woke up while it was dark, and only had to walk a few meters along the ghats before numerous rowboat-owners offered us rides. We bundled up as best we could (if I haven’t mentioned it yet, northern India was chilly!), and set off for two hours to watch the Ganges wake up. To our right, people were slowly coming to the river for their daily rituals. Some were doing laundry, most were praying, and many were brushing their teeth and bathing in the very cold, very polluted, water. To our left, the sun epically peaked over the horizon, silhouetting the many boats making their way along.
That afternoon, we enjoyed both the best and the worst meal in India. We found an incredible, very local place, where everything on the menu cost around 25 rupees or less (that’s around $0.50) and ordered an overflowing smorgasbord of curries, chickpeas, potatoes, onions, spinach, naan… We were all dazed and stuffed when we left.
Fast-forward 4 hours.
I had been feeling queasy for a little while and was looking forward to getting on the sleeper train back to Delhi so I could relax and escape the bombardment. We got in the rickshaws to take us to the station, and I was feeling increasingly bad. We rocketed through the mayhem of the streets, with horns blasting (most Indian drivers use the horn as if to say simply “I am driving”), and our driver singing some off-key tune. Things were rapidly plummeting downhill. Acute nausea, foul smells, obnoxious noises, it was like some undiscovered circle of hell. Suddenly, there was no more waiting. “I think…I’m gonna be…” I couldn’t finish the sentence because I had to put a hand over my mouth, while Mark yelled at the driver to pull over, and I jumped out and spewed all over the sidewalk. Indian ladies looked out at my suffering of their nearby shops with only mild curiosity.
Once at the station, I thought the worst was over. Feeling mildly heroic for my roadside adventure, I boarded the train ready for a much-needed 12-hour rest. I laid down on the top bunk, but instead of drifting off to sleep, 20 minutes later I was trying to scramble down the ladder with one hand over my mouth and racing to the bathroom. Indian train bathrooms are not places you want to linger in, even in the best of times. Unfortunately, for the next 12 hours, I would have to become very, very familiar with them.
December 18-20: Vientiane–>Bangkok–>Delhi–>Agra
On December 18th, I boarded the comically short Lao National Railway, which is 3.5 km crossing the Friendship Bridge to Nong Khai, Thailand (a similar experience to riding the Princeton dinky), and began my journey to India. The next two weeks were an adventure, and a lesson in patience, in the world’s second-most populous nation. Contrast was perhaps the most prevalent theme, as almost any traveler in India would agree. Hopefully my anecdotes and photos can somewhat do justice to this incredible experience.
After a day of enjoying Western comforts, like English movie theaters, Christmas music, and public transportation, in Bangkok, I arrived in Delhi on a late night flight. I was met at the airport by two of my three traveling companions: Andrew, a fellow Princeton grad and PiA Singapore fellow (who went on the floating restaurant bike ride of death with me back in September), and Mark, a PiA Singapore fellow (whose version of the India story can be seen here). We almost missed each other, because in India you have to buy tickets to actually enter the airport if you’re not flying (which at first seemed absurd, but later made sense after witnessing the insanity at train stations), so I was searching for them in the lobby while they watched through the window in frustration. We rode into Delhi for a few nights sleep in our hotel in the Paharganj neighborhood, known as a run-down backpacker area. The streets at night were vacant except some meandering cows, and occasional piles of burning trash that people were gathered around for warmth. Delhi was cold, especially coming from southeast Asia, and considering that many buildings in India are barely insulated, if at all.
The next morning, we got to the train station before sunrise to go to Agra, in hopes of beating many of the afternoon Taj Mahal crowds. This train was only a few hours, but probably the nicest we would take, with some free breakfast snacks. Predictably, as soon as we stepped onto the train platform, we were surrounded by touts, as we would be for the rest of our time in Agra, who all wanted us to get into their cab or horsecart, buy their Taj Mahal postcards/keychains/statues, and everything else possible. Everywhere we walked in Agra, we were called out to or followed, or approached by salesmen, drivers, restaurant owners, begging children, “tour guides.” Everyone desperately wanted as much tourist money as possible, forcing us to coldly ignore and walk by as the only way not to get caught up in the sea of unwanted attention.
Our first stop was obvious: the Taj Mahal. And there is no way to describe the experience of seeing it in person except in cliched and predictable adjectives like stunning and breathtaking. The size and intricacy of detail give it a grandeur that is simply transfixing, and it’s impossible not to keep looking up and snapping the same picture over and over, hoping that just one will do it justice. We easily spent several hours walking all the way around the structure, studying it from every angle and enjoying the respite from the chaos of the streets outside the gates. We still weren’t totally inconspicuous, however. More than one group of Indian tourists (mostly young men), approached us and asked if we pose for a photo with them.
Also at the Taj Mahal, we met our fourth and final traveling companion, Lisa, a former PiA Singapore fellow, who was traveling in India before going back to the States. With the group intact, we proceeded to the Agra Fort, a Mugal fortress that contains what seems like a small village, containing interesting architecture and marble details. Perhaps what was most impressive to me about the fort though was that it overlooks the Taj Mahal allowing us to see the monument from above and behind, making it look entirely different and equally impressive. After the Fort, we checked out the “Baby Taj” (aka. Itmad-ud-Daula’s Tomb), which is a smaller, and more delicate and intricately carved than it’s large counterpart across the river.
After a thorough overdose of Mugal architecture, we enjoyed the final daylight hours with Indian food and Kingfisher beer (and literally the worst coffee I have ever tasted, actually unpalatable) on the rooftop of a restaurant overlooking the Taj Mahal so we could enjoy a final glimpse of it before leaving the city that night. After a hectic day of sightseeing in Agra, the small, hard, bunks on the overnight train were almost a relief. We would wake up in Varanasi.
It’s been 4.5 weeks, 33 days, and 4 countries, and here I am, back in Vientiane and ready to start a new term of teaching.
Since I last wrote, I rode:
7 inter-city buses
2 subway systems
1 bicycle, and
I traveled from Laos to Bangkok, to Northern India, to Southern India, to Singapore, to Northern Thailand, back to Laos, to Hanoi, and back here again. There are countless stories of frustration, fascination, sickness, and festivities to be told soon, but here are some photos as a preview.
On another note, tomorrow is the beginning of Term 1 at Vientiane College, which will surely prove to be another ten weeks of learning for both me and my students. I’ll probably be writing less about my classes and life in Laos for the next few weeks as I try to catch up on the travel adventures, but this term I’m looking forward to teaching five classes–what should be a busy and varied schedule. I have two Young Learners classes: one Elementary class (probably in the age range of 10-14), and one Pre-Intermediate (my teenage students from last term again). I have one adults class at the Intermediate level, and I’ll also be teaching a class called “CORE 1” in the “Diploma” program, for students who have graduated from the general grammar-based English classes to the content and critical thinking classes that work them towards a language certificate. Mine is the first required class in the program, and is loosely current events-based. Finally, I’m teaching a daytime class on study skills for a special program for students working to improve test scores to earn a chance to study abroad in Australia. With this wide variety of classes, I’ll certainly have my hands full for the next few weeks, but will try to update with regular installments on my December-January adventures!