Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mumbai Heat and Faloodas

Our four days in Diu were immensely soothing to our travel-worn minds. One day, 4PM rolled around, and I sat on the beach asking what we did that day. Oh yeah, we woke up, had breakfast, chatted with people, went to the ice cream shop, and took a tuktuk to the beach. A very eventful day indeed. That's about how it went. There were a few other travellers staying at our lovely church hostel and we ended up having a couple of profound conversations. We did also have some strange Indian people experiences. One day an old guy in sunglasses followed us around the beach, so we started blabbing off in vaguely Cantonese-sounding gibberish with angry words inserted. On the way to the bus stop, Eman called our travel agency to double check our bus time. She must have asked, "So the bus to Mumbai leaves at 10:30?" about 5 times in the course of the conversations and was answered each time with a confused "What?!?" and the obligatory "yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. . ." I think the guy couldn't really understand, but it was pretty amusing to listen too.

We got on our bus to Mumbai at 10AM. Our little sleeper cabin was a box about 6'x4'x3' that we shared for 24 hours. It actually went by really fast, though the toilet breaks were a little yucky. Since when does a tile floor with a drain count as a toilet? You just squat and go wherever. yum. We got into Mumbai around 9:30AM the next day, passing by a few poverty-sticken areas on the way.

We easily found the Salvation Army hostel ($4 for a bed and breakfast) and went for a wander around town that encompassed cricket fields, the gateway of India, lots of old victorian buildings, a supermarket, and of course some snacks. We went to one place where Eman got the South Indian specialty masala dosa. It's kind of like a crepe that's crispy and you dip it into a nice masala sauce. I got an awesome thali (set meal with about 10 different things) for about 80 cents. Walking around made us really tired and hot, so we stopped in about an hour later for falooda, a Mumbai specialty. It is sweet syrup, milk, and ice cream with noodles. Very odd but very delicious.

Tomorrow we have a date for Slumgdog Millionare in a nearby theater.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Beach detox

After 16 hours of travelling, we made it to Diu and the Arabian Sea. The town is really small and chill, kind of like Goa, but without crowds of Russians. We are staying in a little shack in the roof of an old Portugese church with great views of the town and the ocean. It's very charming. But hot. It gets up to 90 or 100 every day and most places in town close for a 2-4PM siesta. And this is their February, I couldn't imagine July. For better or for worse, we have also discovered the delights of cold coffee with ice cream and indulge in it altogether too often.

We took a cooking class our last night in Udaipur and had the best Indian food yet. We learned three basic curries that can be used with a lot of things and also chapati, chai, and galub jamun (deep fried balls of milky goodness soaked in sugar syrup). The class included our friends from Holland, Spain, and Argentina who we'd been on the same schedule with for about a week.

I went for a run today for the first time in about 2 months. Yay! By going in the morning near the beach, I avoided a lot of staring, but still got some. Wearing shorts in India is tantamount to asking to be groped and harrassed it seems. The sea breeze is soothing on our frayed nerves and we are really happy to be spending time here before catching a 24 hour bus to Mumbai and continuing the madness.

The most sobering thing about India is the kids. I've always taken for granted that almost every kid in America has the opportunity to go to school for free and the chance (however slim) to get into University. There are so many kids here that just have no chance. They're parents can't afford the school fees; their family is from the wrong caste; their labour is needed elsewhere; there is no school nearby. For every smart kid in America who suceeds to do something significant and acheive their happines, there are dozens of smarter kids somewhere else who will spend their lives ripping off tourists or dealing drugs or doing some mindless work. It's just amazing. I've really realized how incredibly lucky I am to have had all the opportunities in the world. Scary.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Udaipur Octopusses

We are in Udaipur, the City of Lakes (though they are much more green and skinky than those in Minneapolis). People here are much more laid-back, the streets are cleaner, and the place is much more pleasant and the other cities we've been to. After some miserably cold nights on the night trains, we've opted towards bus for our future travels. They are pretty nice and have much fewer random people walking by and staring at you and sitting on your bed. We have a cooking class in hald an hour. We've joined up with a couple of med students from Holland/Spain and have been spending a lot time with them, as their schedule aligns with ours. Last night, we went up to a palace on a hill for a lovely sunset view over misty mountains and patchwork farm fields.

The last town was Jodhpur. We spent a lot of time there just reading and chilling out as Eman was struggling to get rid of the last vestiges of her head cold. The town's market area was really nice with a wide assortment of produce, spices, saris, shoes, fabric, and street food. There was also a nice fort where you could get a view of the old city with it's blue-washed buildings (apparently indigo was thought to repel insects) . We had a lovely experience with street food and t potato chaat (fried potato cakes with chickpea curry, spices and fresh onions), spinach pakora (deep fried with curd, and two relishes) and pani puri (little fried hollow balls willed with a sweet and sour liquid) . Now that our tummies have had some time to adjust, we'll probably try some more street food as we go. It's so much tastier than restaurants. I think a lot of them cater to tourists who have weak bellies and don't like spicy/tasty foods.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Warming up to India

We had the best day today. We were tired of all the tourist stuff, so opted out of the palace tour, and wandered around to old town/fort area of Jaisalmer. The town is a desert town, and all the buildings are made from golden sandstone. Most of the windows and doors are beautifully carved. And the people hassle you so much less than in the cities. They understand the word "no" and don't continue to bug you. We wandered around the shops looking at things and joking with the sales people. We bought some pretty anklets that we used on our wrists and people kept looking at them and giggling, cause we were wearing them wrong. Also, the people selling them kept trying toget us to buy more even though we insisted we already had some and waved them in their faces. One little girl was really cute and we proposed selling ours back to her, and joked around with prices of 3000 and 5000 rupees (one is about 10 really). And whenever someone wants to take a picture with us, Eman says "100 rupees!"

Towards the end of the day, we were tired and stopped in a shop where they gave us tea and kept unfolding piles and piles of pashmina scarfs for us to look at. They call the reversible ones "Sunday-Monday" because you wear one color the next day and another the next.

As we were walking back to the hotel filled with yummy pasta, we saw some girls playing badminton on the street and went to talk to them. We ended up meeting their whole family of 11 and having tea and talking and playing for about an hour and a half. We have finally found the nice Indian people. Lesson: small towns rock.

Yesterday, we went on a camel safari (riding around for a couple of hours and stopping on a sand dune for a while). The dune areas were really pretty, with endless sand and pretty designs. Camel riding really sucks though. It's super bumpy. I thought that maybe once they started running fast, it would get smoother, like a horse, but definitely not. My guide kept trying to get me to do a long 21 day camel safari, but I don't think I ever need to get on a camel again.

We finally have returned to Indian food after a 3-day hiatus. The awful food the first couple of days put us off, but we're following the trusty lonely planet and doing ok. It's funny, every store and restaurant has signs saying "recommended by Lonely Planet" even if they're not. And if they are, there are 3 with the same name in one block, so you never know anyway.

The next two weeks are going to be ok. I swear we spend at least an hour each day talking about home or food at home, but we really are having a blast.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

More insanity

For more information about our oncoming insanity, visit Eman's blog at

All the Indian food we've had here has been awful. Westernized, oily, sickness-causing. How ironic. I'd give a lot for some EP India Palace food right now. We did go to McDonalds today. Though I should have realized this, there is no beef burger here. Chicken and veggie burgers, even Chapati McAloo Tikka, which really amused me.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

India is nuts.

Oh. Man. This place is so freakin crazy. I think the Delhi Belly refers more to the mad frustration you get whenever you try to do something useful in the city than to the food bugs you get, though we have had experience with both now. We got into Dehli at night on the 7th and luckily, our hotel pick-up had waited around for our flight, which was 2.5 hours late. Unfortunately, he took us to a different hotel which was supposedly affiliated with the one we booked, but we paid the same price anyway. Seems like whenever you get into a cab or autorickshaw here trying to get to a hotel or tourist information place, they take you to their favorite hotel or travel agent and get a hefty cut of your spendings there.

It seems like you have to hassle your way through everything as everyone expects to squeeze something out of our gullible American-looking faces. We have taken to saying that we are Iranian and Chinese, respectively, which is fun. Actually people ask so many ridiculous and nosy questions that I've decided to answer with ridiculous answers. Like where did you stay, how much did you pay, where are you from, what is your dad's name, are you married, what did you eat last night, where are you going, and can I take you to my friend's travel agency.

We had hoped to obtain our bus tickets once we arrived in Delhi, but the bus station was such chaos and only booking for Indian nationals. While trying to get to the Tourist information Bureau, we were led into a travel agency that claimed to be the bureau, then an agency representing the bureau, then an agency certified by the bureau, then a place with a guy certified by the bureau working there, in succession. They guy was really smooth and good at his stuff. We ended up buying a package deal with trains and hotels for the next 2 weeks for a price that we knew was a scam, but were willing to pay to avoid having to go through all the hassle in every city we go to. We got out with about $40 a day. Livable I suppose.

We've seen at least 10 forms of transportation side by side on the roads here: Car, truck, rickshaw, autorickshaw, bike, motorbike, horse-back, pony wagons, camel wagons, oxen wagons, walking, mule-back, and probably some others. In short, the roads are complete chaos. They do have traffic lights (absent in Nepal) but the sheer mass of traffic keeps the chaos intact. It was really stressful being on the streets the first couple of days, and we are very glad to have our own hotel rooms to relax and chill out in. I'm usually all for dorms, but here, I really need some "goodbye, India" time. And the people, oh man. When we got out of our car at the Taj Mahal parking lot, there were at least 6 people pouncing on us to sell cart rides, rickshaw rides, necklaces, snow globes, random pins and all sorts of stuff we didn't want. And they sure are insistent.

Despite sounding miserable, we acutally are having a grand time. The key is to not take anything to seriously and never expect anything to be done in a reasonable time period. Patience is the key. It's fun to play around with the people bugging you and try to get them to crack a smile. Making an effort to learn Hindi really helps and they get excited about that and (for a while) forget about getting money from you. Eman once tried to offer her empty 7UP bottle for something and the guy went away really quickly. Today, there was a cute, smart little 8-yr old kid who spoke really good English and was selling something or another. Eman gave him some gum and later, when another kid asked for gum, he shouted, "She's no having and chewing gum!" We cracked up.

We have had a driver for the past two days, which is really nice. After spending about 5 hours finding/deliberating/finalizing our travel deal, we went to Old Delhi, but Eman had gotten really sick (Delhi belly type 2) and I did a quick run around Chandni chowk and we hurried to the hotel, where they insisted we give them an extra 10 rupees for the fee for photocopying our passports. We politely refused. Prices are more based on what they think a sucker like you would pay than on how much something is worth.

Day 2, we drove to Agra, stopping at a few temples in between. The Taj Mahal was actually really gorgeous. An elegant white marble edifice against a blue sky with a foreground of red stone, green lawn, and silver fountains. It was also huge. The inside has intricate carvings and semiprecious stones inlaid into the marble. It was flanked by two beautiful red and white mosques. We got cool little shoe booties that reminded me of parade of homes.

Today, we went to Fatephur Sikri, which was capital of the Mughals for 15 years and is now a fascinating collection of ruins and old palaces. The mosque there was also huge and lovely. Many things around here are made with a really pretty red sandstone. Now we're in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan for a couple of days.

I love lassis, but my tummy does not.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Last Days in Nepal

Today we leave Nepal for India. I've been here about a month, and I think I may have to come back someday. The scenery is lovely, and the people are super friendly. When you get out of the touristy areas of course. On returning from Pokhara mountain area, we did some much needed laundry (in the room against rules. were such rebels.) and went to the Monkey temple high above the city. The long stairs were a little rough on our tired legs but the view of the valley was worth it. Not as many monkeys as expected, but the ones there were very cute.

Yesterday, we went to Bhaktapur, a very old town in the valley which was really beautiful. They head really good local curd in locally made pots. yum, and had dinner with my co-volunteers before they head off to a 10-day tour. It was good to see them again.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Eman and I survived our 5-day trek in the Himalayan foothills. It was so gorgeous. Mountains are tall. The tallest we say was about 22,000 ft, though we didn't get above 10,000. I still managed to get miserably altitude sick for one evening, but quickly recovered. Strangely enough, it's still green and 60 degrees in the day at that elevation in January. There were really pretty terraced fields everywhere at the lower elevations and a really wide variety of vegitation wherever we went. We walked for a few days with a nice Vancouverite girl who grew up in Victoria, and all three of us liked to talk about food. Our guide was great and really sweet. We were glad to not have gone thru a travel agent. Probably could have gotten by on our own, but was way easier with someone who knew the language and how to get around. And we stopped in interesting places. Like today in some random people's home (a one room mud building with corrogated steel roofing and three walls) for some fresh hot buffalo milk.

Nepal is really great (though bothersome for someone with already loose stools) and I can't believe I've been here a month already. we go to India on the 7th and plan to go to Dehli, Agra (Taj Mahal), Mumbai, and various places in the provinces of Rajasthan and Gujarat. It should be really fun, but I'm not sure what to expect. Maybe a mix of Nepal and China but with something more.