Pushkar Camel Fair

While we were staying with K.P.’s lovely family in Jaipur, Ryan, Charleli and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to take a day trip to the famous Pushkar Camel Fair. The Pushkar Camel Fair is one of the world’s largest camel fairs, an annual five-day event that includes not only the buying and selling of livestock but also competitions such as “who has the longest moustache?”

As always, getting to our destination was an adventure in itself. Our first autorickshaw took us to the train station rather than the bus station and was gone with another customer before we realized our mistake. Our next ride was marginally more helpful. Instead of taking us to the public bus station, he took us to a private bus company where he would be paid commission. Fair enough, but the bus didn’t leave for 2 hours! We then insisted he take us to the public bus station, at which point he told us “oh no! No bus to Pushkar. Pushkar very very problem!” Somehow we eventually arrived at the station, and mistakenly paid the driver twice. Woops! Stupid tourists. The bus was squishy and full and just barely made it over the hill, but finally we had arrived in Pushkar!

Pushkar is beautifully located on the shores of Pushkar Lake and is one of the oldest existing cities in India. Like a mini (though MUCH cleaner) Varanasi, there are ghats located all along the lake shore peopled with women and children in bright saris every color of the rainbow bathing, washing and drying clothes against the light blue backdrop of the city’s buildings. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed along the ghats and so to be respectful, I obeyed (I know – shocking!).

The bus station.

The bus station.

Chilling out before camelling.

Chilling out at “Sixth Sense” over breakfast before camelling.

Market near Pushkar Lake.

Market near Pushkar Lake.

Entrance to the ghats.

Entrance to the ghats.

Selling leis.

Selling leis.

Making leis.

Making leis.

Probably not.

Probably not.

It's like they knew we were coming.

It’s like they knew we were coming.

Market near the ghats.

Market near the ghats.

You’d think that it would be quite easy to find thousands of camels and a fair, but if you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that Ryan, Charleli and I become dumber when we are together, at least when it comes to finding things. We must have walked down every street in every direction before we finally found the GINORMOUS fair. I’ve never seen so many camels in my life! Let alone camels with brightly colored tassels, camels with dangling bells, camels with designs shaved into their fur, camels camels camels! You could pay for a ride on a camel or a ride on a wagon pulled by a camel. There were endless numbers of camels dotting the landscape, their owners sitting nearby, chatting with other camel owners, discussing camel-y things. If you’ve ever heard the strange noises a camel makes, imagine thousands of camels making thousands of weird, and often very rude, camel noises. At one point we heard what sounded like a very painful camel-y scream and discovered a camel being held by about 5 men, having its nose pierced. YOWZA! His nose ring was slightly bigger than mine, but still, come on camel, suck it up and be a man. There were also dozens, if not hundreds of gorgeous horses being bought, sold and traded. All except the dead one we passed in the middle of the path. Hopefully that guy got his money back.

Camel-y-ness.

Camel-y-ness.

Naptime!

Naptime!

Discussing camel-y things.

Discussing camel-y things.

Camel owners taking a load off.

Camel owners taking a load off.

More camels.

More camels.

Camel wagon rides!

Camel wagon rides!

Guess what? Camels!

Guess what? Camels!

Spot the camels.

Spot the camels.

Not a camel.

Not a camel.

Check out the camel bum moustache.

Check out the camel bum moustache.

Smells nice.

Smells nice.

Now that's a good shave!

Now that’s a good shave!

Nose ring piercing. What a wuss. I only needed 3 guys to hold ME down.

Nose ring piercing. What a wuss. I only needed 3 guys to hold ME down.

Doobeedoobeedoo pullin' a wagon.

Doobeedoobeedoo pullin’ a wagon.

Camel or giraffe?

Camel or giraffe?

In need of camel oral hygienist.

In need of camel oral hygienist.

Check out those curly ears!

Check out those curly ears! Also, not a camel.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

Proud camel parents.

Proud camel parents.

Readying the hay.

Readying the hay.

Weee!

Weee!

Camel friend.

Camel friend.

How YOU doin'?

How YOU doin’?

Happy camel owners.

Happy camel owners.

Yo camels! Peeeace. Photo by C. Labrousse.

Yo camels! Peeeace. Photo by C. Labrousse.

Carrying goods.

Carrying goods.

So hungry.

So hungry.

Tassel-y

Tassel-y

Charleli and the camels.

Charleli and the camels.

Cames as far as the eye can see!

Cames as far as the eye can see!

The human part of the camel fair was just as interesting, if not quite a bit more annoying. Men following us around playing some sort of violin type thing and then demanding payment. Heck no, I did not ask for my own theme music and if I had, they would have been playing “The Final Countdown” or “Eye of the Tiger” or some other such epic tune. Women and children in lovely saris were often walking up to us and asking us to take their photo for a fee “Rajasthani photo?” No, thanks little lady. There were also snake charmers randomly placed amongst the camels and a wandering vet providing his services. Despite these varied and amazing sights, the three of us were still stared at constantly and asked to be in photos. One of my favorite moments was when a group of young men asked to take a photo of Ryan and I, but then at the last moment, they asked Ryan to get out of the photo. Bahahahahaha. Too funny. Ryan says I’m probably “in a relationship with” dozens of Indian men on Facebook now.

In addition to the livestock and people-watching, there was a huge mid-way being set up, complete with a very large Ferris wheel. Judging solely from my travelling midway experience in Canada, I’d think twice or three times about riding a Zipper in India. There were also endless stalls of goods to buy, including tassels of every colour for your camel’s best fair outfit.

Waiting for a customer.

Waiting for a customer.

I wish I could do this.

I wish I could do this.

You know you want some.

You know you want some.

Mid-way.

Mid-way.

Festival goers.

Festival goers.

Delicious food seller.

Delicious food seller.

Chattin' on my scooter.

Chattin’ on my scooter.

Typically painted bus.

Typically painted bus.

Serious discussion.

Serious discussion.

Cookin' up some grub.

Cookin’ up some grub.

So much healthier than our snacks!

So much healthier than our snacks!

Hallo! I'm blue.

Hallo! I’m blue.

Amazing balance.

Amazing balance.

I always look for a panoramic view of nature and a roof top grassy in my Milk Man Guest House.

I always look for a panoramic view of nature and a roof top grassy in my Milk Man Guest House.

Nom nom nom.

Nom nom nom.

Going about business.

Going about business.

In a rush!

In a rush!

Ryan, Charleli, women and a cow.

Ryan, Charleli, women and a cow.

Making a call.

Colourful call.

Heading to the fair.

Heading to the fair.

Super awesome creepy window.

Super awesome creepy window.

Tweet!

Tweet!

Alas, as evening started to descend upon us, it was time to head home (as it were) to Jaipur and the delicious home cooking of K.P. and his family. The Pushkar Camel Fair was definitely a highlight of our India adventure, even if we missed the moustache contest!

Categories: India | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

Ra-Ra-Rajasthan!

Our night train to Jaipur in 3AC was mostly uneventful (thank goodness!), punctuated only by a devastated young man crying on the phone to the girlfriend he just said goodbye to and a massive pounding in my head. At 7:30am we arrived at our destination and luckily were swooped away out of the chaos that is every Indian train station by the family at whose guesthouse we would stay at.

This family guesthouse was the best of all our travels so far. The family was so genuine and welcoming you couldn’t help but fall in love with them straight away. Scandalous daughter Pritti started the guesthouse, but after shocking her parents by having an affair with a married man and running away with him to Delhi, her brother K.P. moved home to take over the business. K.P. lives at home with Momma, Papa (an 81 year old retired typewriter mechanic) and Vinisha, his unmarried sister. Monisha, his other sister, runs another guesthouse in Bikaner, and still another sister lives and works in Dubai. We learned all of this and much more while alternately sipping chai and rum in the sitting room and watching a hilarious Indian soap opera about various gods and goddesses. The women of the house are also top notch cooks who served us a mouth-watering home-cooked dinner of palak paneer, stuffed green peppers with cumin/turmeric/raisin potatoes, another curry, endless chapatti and pappadoms, rice, gulab jamun, barfi and of course, chai! After stuffing us with deliciousness, Vinisha decided to dress me up in one of her momma’s saris and Ryan in a “safa” turban, and do an impromptu photo shoot. HI-larious.

K.P.

K.P. (Photo by C. Labrousse)

Papa

Papa (Photo by C. Labrousse)

Momma

Momma (Photo by C. Labrousse)

Me!

Me! (Photo by C. Labrousse)

Ryan

Ryan (Photo by C. Labrousse)

Don't mind if I do!

Don’t mind if I do!

Sup K.P.?

Sup K.P.?

Hey Daddio!

Hey Daddio!

Hanging in the living room.

Hanging in the living room.

Nom nom home-cooked dinner.

Nom nom home-cooked dinner.

Gulab jamun.

Gulab jamun.

Dress up time!

Dress up time! (Photo by C. Labrousse)

Ready...vogue.

Ready…vogue. (Photo by C. Labrousse)

Vinisha and I

Vinisha and I (Photo by C. Labrousse)

The turban wouldn't fit on Ryan's big head!

The turban wouldn’t fit on Ryan’s big head! (Photo by C. Labrousse)

One big happy K.P. family!

One big happy K.P. family!

Ryan, Charleli and I explored the city the next day in a combination of autorickshaws and local buses. Our first stop was a Jaipur Institution, the Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar (LMB) Bakery, where we stuffed our faces with Indian sweets and savoury dishes in preparation for a full day of touristing. Jaipur, “the Pink City” is actually very picturesque with fantastic architecture (a lot of it pink) and excellent shopping (although we didn’t indulge). It’s also extremely busy and simply trying to cross the street was a somewhat – no, no COMPLETELY – terrifying experience.

Happy bakers at LMB bakery.

Happy bakers at LMB bakery.

LMB Bakery paraphernalia.

LMB Bakery paraphernalia.

Nom noms from LMB Bakery.

Nom noms from LMB Bakery.

Aloo tikki from LMB Bakery.

Aloo tikki from LMB Bakery.

Hawa Mahal - "Palace of the Winds"

Hawa Mahal – “Palace of the Winds”

Vendor's outside the City Palace gates.

Vendors

Pigeons! Everywhere.

Pigeons! Everywhere.

Autorickshaws.

Autorickshaws.

We eventually made our way to the City Palace complex in the heart of Jaipur. This massive complex, built between 1729 and 1732 includes the Chandra Mahal and Mubarak Mahal palaces among other buildings. It used to be the seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur, and now houses a museum but most of it is still a royal residence. Snake charmers and puppeteers greeted us as we entered and we spent the rest of our time admiring the beautifully ornate architecture that surrounded us on all sides.

Entrance to the City Palace.

Entrance to the City Palace.

The City Palace.

The City Palace.

Snake charmer

Snake charmer

Musicians.

Musicians.

Inside the City Palace

Inside the City Palace

So ornate!

So ornate!

Beautiful entranceways.

Beautiful entranceways.

The door on the cover of the Lonely Planet India.

The door on the cover of the old Lonely Planet India.

Balcony - I want.

Balcony – I want.

Peek-a-boo, Alice!

Peek-a-boo, Alice!

Our next bus was more like a van, but a tiny van filled with about 45 standing men, women and babies. One of the babies took an instant dislike to me and cried every time he looked at me. He must have been able to tell I was a Ginger and have no soul. The tiny bus took us to the Amer Fort about 11km outside of Jaipur. The fort was built by Raja Man Singh I in 1592 and is of course, dazzling. Before I get to the fort though, I can’t forget to tell you about the ladies out front with scales! Scales to weigh yourself! For money! I can’t imagine why I would feel the urge to pay someone to tell me how heavy I am while touring an Indian Palace. But to each their own!

Ryan chillin' with his peeps outside the Amer Fort.

Ryan chillin’ with his peeps outside the Amer Fort.

Goat? Yes, please.

Goat? Yes, please.

The Amer Fort from below.

The Amer Fort from below.

Ryan being cheeky.

Ryan being cheeky.

The fort was a total maze! Thank goodness one of the maintenance crew showed us the route or else we would have been lost in its depths for all eternity, at least until we found the bright red Café Coffee Day randomly placed in one of its dark corners. On our way out of the main palace area, and after getting our photo taken by Indian tourists a couple dozen times, I had to turn the tables and ask to take a photo with a group of about 12 girls when they passed us wearing blue “Winter is Coming” shirts. Turns out they were a part of a school group of 130 kids touring the fort. I don’t think they even knew the significance of the phrase! There must have been a sale on Game of Thrones paraphernalia.

Elephant tours.

Elephant tours.

Parrot goodness.

Parrot goodness.

Amer Fort.

Amer Fort.

Looking out from the fort.

Looking out from the fort.

Amer Fort.

Amer Fort.

Entrance to the fort.

Entrance to the fort.

Fort gate.

Fort gate.

Chillin' on the steps.

Chillin’ on the steps.

Courtyard.

Courtyard.

Pillars!

Pillars!

Amer Fort.

Amer Fort.

Details.

Details.

Maintenance women taking a break.

Maintenance women taking a break.

Through the window.

Through the window.

Help! We're lost.

Help! We’re lost.

The fort from above.

The fort from above.

Snake charmers

Snake charmers

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

Pointy.

Pointy.

Poser.

Poser.

Taking a break.

Taking a break.

The Winter is Coming girls!

The Winter is Coming girls!

As the sun started to set, we walked up the steep hill like suckers (we were passed by others resting their legs as a golf cart drove them to the top) to the nearby Jai Agarh Fort, still part of the Amer Fort complex. and with an awesome view of the fort below. The place was overrun with langurs, which I didn’t mind, but also with annoying young men who kept following and trying to touch me, which I did mind. At the prime photo spot, Ryan was complimented by a guy on his growing beard and also asked if the man could put his arm around me for a photo. Oddly enough, I can’t remember what his answer was!

From above.

From above.

Us at the top!

Us at the top!

Langurs everywhere!

Langurs everywhere!

Cafe Coffee Day in the maze!

Cafe Coffee Day in the maze!

Langurs.

Langurs.

Hi!

Hi!

Boing!

Boing!

Momma and baby.

Momma and baby.

Nom nom nom.

Nom nom nom.

Sunset at the fort.

Sunset at the fort.

Sometimes we love each other.

Sometimes we love each other.

Ta da!

Ta da!

Another shot.

Another shot.

The lake at sunset.

The lake at sunset.

Back in Jaipur City, we ate dinner at the Lonely Planet recommended, but highly disappointing Ganesh rooftop restaurant, and then, to satisfy our extremely strong ice cream craving, hired an autorickshaw driver named Bundu to take us to the not even remotely close McDonald’s for a McFlurry. Bundu must mean rally car driver in Hindu because Holy Jeebus was that the fastest, most terrifyingly awesome and fun in a crazy scary way rickshaw ride. He even had handles on the roof that came in very handy and which Ryan christened “Holy Shit Handles”. As fitting an experience as any for our last night in Jaipur!

Categories: India | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Silly Walks, 100 000 Chapattis & Punjabi Facial Hair

After delaying the inevitable leaving of our little getaway from India, without actually leaving India, the time had come to board our bus out of McLead Ganj. This time was 4am, and our bus driver literally just woke up and started driving the bus while still brushing his teeth. The 6 hour bus trip to Amritsar in the Punjab wasn’t too bad, although it may have had something to do with the fact that as soon as I got on the bus I took a Gravol and was in La La Land the rest of the trip.

Like most other Indian cities, Amritsar was an assault on our senses. In the span of only 5 minutes, our ears were full of the sounds of blaring horns, trains whistles, sirens and even fireworks; our nose was bombarded with the smells of exhaust, burning rubber, garbage of various scents, and the ever present dust; and our eyes darted from uncountable cows sleeping in the middle of the road, a dog pooping in the centre of a busy intersection, ponies galore, neon-coloured dyed chicks in cardboard boxes, and men in every colour of turban we could imagine. And oh the beards and moustaches! I’ve never seen such amazingness in facial hair.

Beardy goodness.

Beardy goodness.

Turbans galore.

Turbans galore.

Oh those beards!

Oh those beards!

Colourful passersby.

Colourful passersby.

Nice 'stache.

Nice ‘stache.

First stop was the famous Golden Temple, or Harmandir Sahib, which translates to “House of God”. The Golden Temple is the holiest Sikh gurdwara and one of the main reasons to visit Amritsar. Since the Golden Temple is a place of pilgrimage, there is cheap/free accommodation provided and so we thought we’d try our luck finding a couple of beds here. Not so much. Foreigners are crammed into one small dark and dingy section and there was certainly no room for us. There wasn’t even any space on the floor. Every inch of space was taken up by a dirty backpacker, just like ourselves. Instead we rickshawed our way to the marginally better “Tourist Guest House”, where we discovered our train friend Richard was also staying. The guesthouse debuted in the Lonely Planet in 1991 and I don’t think it has changed or even been cleaned since. We slept in our clothes in our silk liners on top of the bed and used our backpack rain covers to create a barrier between the pillowcases and our skin. We thought even bedbugs would be disgusted at the state of the cleanliness (or lack thereof), but I guess not since I woke up the next day with strange red dots on my face (in addition to my freckles)!

Our scary bed.

Our scary bed.

Ryan shielding himself from the dirty grossness of our room.

Ryan shielding himself from the dirty grossness of our room.

The other big tourist attraction about an hour from Amritsar (I recommend NOT taking an autorickshaw on the highway for an hour – holy fumes!) in the village of Wagah is the elaborate (and I mean elaborate) Wagah border ceremony that takes place everyday 2 hours before sunset at the Attari Check Post when the Indian Border Security Force and Pakistan Rangers close the border gates for the evening. Thousands of Indians and foreigners pack the bleachers every evening to watch the hilarity that has been likened to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks and described by Michael Palin as “carefully choreographed contempt.” Upon our arrival, boys and girls had to line up separately for a security check and once we were through, everyone started running. Naturally, we followed suit only to discover that since we arrived quite late, there was absolutely nowhere to sit or even see anything. Somehow though, in the confusion, Richard and I were separated from the others and stumbled upon the VIP and foreigners section where we were treated to front row seats! Nailed it! Ryan and Charleli weren’t so lucky, unfortunately, and were only able to hear, not see, the show. Good thing I took a thousand photos. The ceremony consisted of each country trying to outdo the other with more pomp and ridiculous walking while they lowered their respective country’s flag and closed the border gates, all the while being cheered on by thousands of spectators as if it were a sporting match. After the ceremony was finished, the guards hung about and took photos with the fans, like moviestars. What a spectacle!

I have an idea! Let's ride for an hour in a rickshaw on a highway!

I have an idea! Let’s ride for an hour in a rickshaw on a highway!

Lined up in the women's security queue.

Lined up in the women’s security queue.

The Wagah border closing ceremony has begun!

The Wagah border closing ceremony has begun!

Commence silly walking (with silly hats!).

Commence silly walking (with silly hats!).

Indian Border Security

Indian Border Security

Spectators enjoying the spectacle.

Spectators enjoying the spectacle.

Extravagantly silly walking.

Extravagantly silly walking.

Thousands of spectators enjoying the show.

Thousands of spectators enjoying the show.

Enjoying the ceremony.

Enjoying the ceremony.

Lowering the flag.

Lowering the flag.

Folding the flag.

Folding the flag.

Pakistani spectators.

Pakistani spectators.

Getting ready to close the border.

Getting ready to close the border.

Closing the gate.

Closing the gate.

The coolest man I've ever seen.

The coolest man I’ve ever seen.

This man must have been 7 feet tall even without his silly hat.

This man must have been 7 feet tall even without his silly hat.

Snapping a quick pic.

He must feel so silly in that hat standing next to Mr. Cool guy.

Signing autographs for the fans.

Signing autographs for the fans.

Adoring fans.

Adoring fans.

Attari Check Post.

Attari Check Post.

Welcome to Punjab!

Welcome to Punjab!

Posing with one of the stars.

Posing with one of the stars.

Having ticked that experience off the list, it was time to head back to the Golden Temple. As with most temples, there are strict rules, such as no shoes and the necessity to cover the head. Orange scarves are given out for free, so don’t be taken in by the hoards of men selling them outside the gates. Inside the complex, it was quiet and peaceful. Men and women could be found praying or reading prayers in every corner, others were sleeping, and still others were bathing in the holy water. The Golden Temple itself is surrounded by a large lake, known as the Sarovar, which consists of Amrit (“holy water” or “immortal nectar”) and is fed by the Ravi River (so says Wikipedia). You must line up in order to enter the Golden Temple proper and photography is strictly prohibited once inside. The temple is small but beautiful and intricately decorated. Inside, musicians playing tabla drums and chanting created such beautiful sounds broadcast throughout the entire complex that at first I thought it was a recording. Inside it was jam packed with Sikhs praying, chanting and making offerings. The atmosphere was so magical in the complex I really didn’t want to leave. But alas we eventually did, much to Ryan’s delight. Following around four amateur photographers taking photographs of pillars and moustaches with big DSLR cameras was wearing a little thin for him I think.

Entrance to the Golden Temple complex.

Entrance to the Golden Temple complex.

Entrance to the Golden Temple.

Entrance to the Golden Temple.

The boys wearing their headscarves.

The boys wearing their headscarves.

The Golden Temple in all its glory.

The Golden Temple in all its glory.

And closer.

And closer.

A bad-ass temple guard.

A bad-ass temple guard.

Reading prayers in a corner.

Reading prayers in a corner.

Offerings.

Offerings.

Taking a nap.

Taking a nap.

Getting my photo taken with a random while Ryan stands by.

Getting my photo taken with a random while Ryan stands by.

Bathing in the holy water.

Bathing in the holy water.

Our next stop was dinner at the temple’s famous kitchen. One of the largest free kitchens in the world, they serve an average of 100,000 people daily. Now that’s a LOT of dhal and chapatti! They weren’t stingy either. It was run like an assembly line and the servers were constantly coming back to give you second, third, even fourth helpings. And the most surprising part was that it was delicious!

Dinner is served!

Dinner is served!

Kitchen cleanup.

Kitchen cleanup.

We returned to the temple the next day to experience its beauty and get a couple hundred more photographs of it in full daylight.

The Golden Temple by day.

The Golden Temple by day.

Beautiful in the day too!

Beautiful in the day too!

Please do not throw eatable in the Holy pool and sit by folding legs.

Please do not throw eatable in the Holy pool and sit by folding legs.

Bathing in the Holy water.

Bathing in the Holy water.

The temple complex.

The temple complex.

Bathing in the Holy water.

Bathing in the Holy water.

Praying.

Praying.

Now that's a turban!

Now that’s a turban!

Temple guard.

Temple guard.

Sitting by the Holy water.

Sitting by the Holy water.

Rockin' the scarf.

Rockin’ the scarf.

Musicians.

Musicians.

Chatting by the Holy water.

Chatting by the Holy water.

Praying.

Praying.

Beautiful bangles.

Beautiful bangles.

Crowds outside the Golden Temple.

Crowds outside the Golden Temple.

Selling his wares.

Selling his wares.

We also toured the nearby Jalianwala Bagh, a beautiful public garden that houses a memorial established in 1951 to commemorate the massacre by British occupying forces of peaceful celebrators on Punjabi New Year, 1919. Seeing the bulletholes in the walls was sobering. The number of casualties is unknown, but some think it may have been over 1500 people.

Jallianwala Bagh.

Jallianwala Bagh.

Nicholas Cage impersonator, Dr. Dilbag.

Nicholas Cage impersonator, Dr. Dilbag.

And those were the highlights of our time in the Punjab! Next stop – Jaipur.

Categories: India | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

A Little Piece of Tibet

We reluctantly left Manali in the early morning, but luckily we had 9 hours of bus ride hell to get used to the idea. Ryan, Charleli and I squished 3 to a small uncomfortable seat while the driver drove like a maniac (ever seen the “I’m a busssss, I’m a bussss, -pardon my language- suck my dick, I’m a busssss” GIF?), stopping (barely) every 5 minutes to let people on/off. The bus driver and the ticket taker, who stood at the back door of the bus, had an ingenious whistle system to determine when the driver should stop and go, since the driver could really not see any of the goings on behind him.  Having popped a gravol at the beginning of the ride, I was passed out next to the window for most of the insanity, but poor Charleli on the edge had a few bums in his face for about half of the extremely crowded ride! After finally arriving in Dharamsala, it was another 20 minutes up an extremely twisty road before we reached our final destination, a suburb of Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama – McLeod Ganj!

We love buses.

We love buses. Photo by C. Labrousse.

McLeod Ganj, like, Manali, doesn’t feel like the “real” India, or at least, the India we had experienced up until this point. It’s a mountainous, forested, peaceful town filled with peaceful Tibetan monks and prayer flags galore. We felt instantly comfortable here, although the hordes of dreadlocked pretend hippies attempting to “find themselves” did get a little tiresome.

After waking up early and watching the sunrise over the mountains from our balcony at the Ashoka Guesthouse, we spent the morning wandering the winding streets and devouring delicious momos (new favourite thing in the entire world – essentially a Tibetan/Nepalese version of Japanese gyoza, Korean mandu, Chinese dumplings or what have you). We also accidentally stumbled upon a small unassuming bakery stall that we would frequent at least once, sometimes twice every day for the next 4 days. I’m talking big ass brownies, yak cheese cake, and Nanaimo bars, yes, Nanaimo bars! To name a few.

Sunrise over McLeod Ganj.

Sunrise over McLeod Ganj.

McLeod Ganj

McLeod Ganj

Fabulous chocolate bakery man!

Fabulous chocolate bakery man!

Nanaimo bars in Northern India! Gobsmacked!

Nanaimo bars in Northern India! Gobsmacked!

Monks need to eat too.

Monks need to eat too.

Later on, we visited the temple of the Dalai Lama, and the heart-wrenching Tibetan museum. Outside the museum a table was set up with photos of monks in Tibet who recently died through self-immolation in protest of the Chinese occupation. Almost every evening we were there, there was a candle light vigil of monks and others walking through town and chanting in response to the recent self-immolations that have occurred. Beautiful and haunting.

Prayer wheels at Tsuglagkhang Temple.

Prayer wheels at Tsuglagkhang Temple.

Gotta love him.

Gotta love him.

Spinning the prayer wheels. Photo by C.Labrousse.

Spinning the prayer wheels. Photo by C.Labrousse.

Self-immolation awareness table.

Self-immolation petition table.

On the advice of our Delhi friend, Jessie, we ventured even further past McLeod Ganj to a small village called Bhagsu. Although we were prepared for a steep climb to find the guesthouse she recommended, it seems that Jessie understated the sheer length of the steepness. Or she was just really really fit. After a good attempt at following her directions, I left my bag with the boys and darted up the steep steps searching for the right house. I didn’t find it in the end, but a young man named Amit with a guesthouse of his own found me instead and soon we were hopping from rooftop to rooftop back down (and up!) the steep hill to retrieve the boys.

Although the view from the guesthouse was great, the concrete mattresses were less so. Thank goodness the random posters with inspirational quotes, deer, babies and fancy cars made up for it. There are some shops and restaurants in Bhagsu, but as we were nearing the off season, most things were closed. At the two that were open, we found the chef at Skye Pie just returned from the dentist and was in too much pain to cook, and the chef at the German Bakery just couldn’t be fussed! Ha! It worked out great though as we ended up having a lovely dinner with the family at the guesthouse on the floor of their kitchen. The mother made a fantastic chilli sauce for the rice and dhal (dhal bat) from rhododendron flowers.

Our guesthouse in Bhagsu.

Our guesthouse in Bhagsu.

I swear that's Moraine Lake in the background, but I don't remember the gazebo or the manicured gardens.

I swear that’s Moraine Lake in the background, but I don’t remember the gazebo or the manicured gardens.

Family's shrine to one of the Hindu goddesses.

Family’s shrine to one of the Hindu goddesses.

Charleli and Ryan at dinner with Amit's parents in the kitchen.

Charleli and Ryan at dinner with Amit’s parents in the kitchen.

Sunrise over Bhagsu.

Sunset over Bhagsu.

Moonrise over Bhagsu.

Moonrise over Bhagsu.

The next morning we were awakened by barking dogs, as seems to be the norm here, and headed straight up the mountain to a hike called Triund, normally accessed directly from McLeod Ganj. Amit’s friend Parvinder lead us part way up through a shortcut he uses everyday to his stall on the trail where he sells chocolate bars and drinks to tourists. As soon as we reached the main trail, Parvinder sped away. This guy is a mountain goat. About 30 minutes later, Ryan, Charleli and I finally arrived at Parvinder’s shop to find him relaxing in the sun, having already set up his shop in the time it took us to reach him. After a quick chai, we continued to the top, a 3 hour trek in all. The views from the top of the Dhauladhar mountain range were stunning to say the least. We spent a couple of hours up here exploring the grassy open fields, snacking on fried rice and chapati, and lapping up the warm sun before reluctantly descending back into the smog that is India and making our way by taxi back into McLeod Ganj.

Parvinder chillaxin' at his shop.

Parvinder chillaxin’ at his shop.

The way up.

The way up.

Ever present Tibetan prayer flags.

Ever present Tibetan prayer flags.

Heading to the ridge below Dhauladhar peak.

Heading to the ridge below Dhauladhar peak.

Enjoying the view with some livestock.

Enjoying the view with some livestock.

Ryan on top of the world (sort of).

Ryan on top of the world (sort of).

Himalayan griffon, I believe.

Himalayan griffon, I believe.

FInding himself.

Finding himself.

Wonderful location for a guesthouse (in the right season!)

Wonderful location for a guesthouse.

Pew pew! Pew pew pew! Photo by C.Labrousse.

Pew pew! Pew pew pew! Photo by C.Labrousse.

The smog from whence we came.

The smog from whence we came.

The next two days were spent soaking up the sights and sounds of McLeod Ganj, shopping, eating, touristing and watching Australia’s Junior Masterchef marathons before breakfast. We were  supposed to leave earlier, but somehow found ourselves staying for another day, then another! One of the wonderful places we were told to visit was the Norbulingka Institute (http://www.norbulingka.org/) in Dharamsala proper, an institute for the preservation of Tibetan Culture where you can see artisans at work statue making, thangka painting, screen-printing, applique and tailoring, woodcarving, wood painting, papermaking, and wood and metal crafting. What are the odds that the hour we hired the taxi for would be the lunch hour for all the artisans!? On the way back we took a shared jeep and found out from one of the local Tibetans that Ryan looks suspiciously like the Tibetan version of Santa Claus. Bald with a big beard!

Charleli photographing dumpster monkeys.

Charleli photographing dumpster monkeys.

Chapati-loving monkey.

Chapati-loving monkey.

Mmmm garbage.

Mmmm garbage.

The beautiful and empty Norbulingka Institute.

The beautiful and empty Norbulingka Institute.

Thangka paintings in process.

Thangka paintings in process.

We also visited the underwhelming but cute Bhagsu waterfall. While we were there, we were solicited for photos at least three times, a common occurrence that has happened all over Asia, but especially India. In this particular instance, the guy who wanted his photo taken with Ryan and I stepped directly in front of Ryan at the last second, so it ended up being  just myself and the guy in the photo! Ha! I wonder how many people he has shown the photo to and described me as his girlfriend or the girl he hooked up with on vacation. Another occurrence of some hilariousness happened on the street when a seedy looking guy in a trench coat opened it up to reveal…..wait for it……pounds of saffron! This guy was not selling guns, not weed, not hash, not even his birthday suit…but saffron!

Oh, India, you kill me.

Charleli and Ryan resting by the waterfall.

Charleli and Ryan resting by the waterfall.

All that to say "Use Dustbin"!

All that to say “Use Dustbin”!

Nom nom noms.

Nom nom noms.

Now that's a pretty sign.

Now that’s a pretty sign.

What a tree!

What a tree!

I have curly horns!

I have curly horns!

Various forest products.

Various forest products.

Categories: India | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Diwali in Manali

Our journey to Dharamsala began with a cycle rickshaw (OK first we had a McFlurry) and an insane ride on the Delhi metro to take us to the bus “depot”. The “women only” carriage is a godsend, but for some silly reason I decided I wanted to stay with Ryan and so we packed like sardines into a regular carriage, made all the more difficult due to our ginormous backpacks. Simply getting onto the metro was quite the task! We let a few pass us by before we got our nerves up enough to join the gazillions of people trying to push through the doors at the exact same time. It’s pure chaos! With this many people, the concept of an orderly queue is utterly lost and it becomes one huge free-for-all. I managed to get a seat (don’t ask me how) next to a lovely woman whose son lives in Toronto and she was kind enough to guide us through the procedure for exiting the sardine tin. When the doors opened at our destination and the tides of people began pouring out, she stopped me with her arm when I began to leave and said “Wait…Wait…Waaaaaaaaiiiiit………..OK GO!”  She had the timing down to an art! And hence we were able to survive our ride on the Delhi metro.

The bus “depot” was really just a long line of fancy Volvo busses next to a long wall used exclusively for peeing on. Volvo busses are really the only way to go in India. Brand new, plastic still on, very comfortable. Unfortunately, despite the comfiness of our transport, we didn’t get much sleep during the 12 hour ride because the road was much too twisty. The first leg of our journey ended in a small mountain town called Manali, where we decided to spend a few days before heading on to Dharamsala. The town is so hilly that our autorickshaw couldn’t even make it to our hostel and we had to get out and walk the rest of the way. Yes, WALK. With our feet. Unbelievable.

The hostel, called “Drifter’s Inn”, was recommended by a patient of Ryan’s, who stayed there for a month while filming a documentary and became friends with the owner, Nishant. Nishant didn’t disappoint. Extremely friendly and welcoming and runs a damn fine establishment complete with a great cozy cafe and yummy food. Best hostel in Manali and almost the only one open at this time of year! Manali is very much a seasonal town and when winter hits, virtually all the hostel owners, restaurant owners and shop owners pack up shop and follow the tourists to the beaches of Goa, not returning until the following spring. Hence, the town that is bustling with party-loving Israeli tourists in the summer was ghost town-esque while we were there (just how we like it!).

View from Old Manali across the valley.

View from Old Manali across the valley.

Essential footwear.

Essential footwear.

Drying clothes in the Autumn sun.

Drying clothes in the Autumn sun.

Typical house in Old Manali.

Typical house in Old Manali.

Main street.

Men playing cards on main street.

I'm not so confident in those stairs.

I’m not so confident in those stairs.

House in Old Manali.

House in Old Manali.

Sifting and sorting.

Sifting and sorting.

Woof.

Woof.

View over the valley.

View over the valley.

Manali isn't ready for Blue Steel yet.

Manali isn’t ready for Blue Steel yet.

Old Manali house.

Old Manali house.

A trio of woofers.

A trio of woofers.

Moooo I'm cute

Moooo I’m cute

Pretty place for a temple.

Pretty place for a temple.

Bringing the cows home for the night.

Bringing the cows home for the night.

After snatching a few hours of much needed sleep, we decided to wander the streets and check out the village in the crisp Autumn air. We were drawn to the sound of revelry and music and before long we came upon a small temple overlooking the valley where a wedding was in full swing. Excellent. For about an hour we joined the onlookers watching the wedding guests as they sang, danced, drummed, horned and fluted. Yes, fluted. Meanwhile, the bride and groom looked as if they were at a funeral as they performed the wedding ritual nearby. What a fabulous thing to stumble upon!

"Priest", groom and bride.

“Priest”, groom and bride.

Happy family members.

Happy family members.

Wedding drummers and dancers.

Wedding drummers and dancers.

Wedding dancers.

Wedding dancers.

Getting into it!

Getting into it!

The horner.

The horner.

The fluter.

The drummers.

Circle dance!

Circle dance!

Happy women!

Happy women!

When the wedding festivities ended we continued our walk and met a young French guy who would make us a trio for the next few weeks and became a great friend. I’m talking about you, Charleli! Charleli is a 23 year old with a fabulous camera and a great eye for photography who chose Delhi as the first place he ever travelled to outside of France. Talk about jumping into the deep end! Not surprisingly he spent a few days overwhelmed and hiding in his hostel before deciding to escape to the mountains, sort of like we did. Back at the hostel, we met a great Indian couple from Chandigarh who had lived in the States for many years. They had escaped to Manali for Diwali, but for the benefit of their black lab, Hobbes (yes, as in Calvin & Hobbes), who is extremely afraid of fireworks, which could already be heard throughout the valley.

Moo.

Moo.

Ryan and Charleli enjoying the walk.

Ryan and Charleli enjoying the walk.

On the morning of Diwali, Nishant presented all the hostel guests with a box of chocolates (talk about knowing your customer!) and we ventured out for a walk with Hobbes and the rest of our newfound friends, to the village of Vashisht, where there is a temple with a sacred hot spring. As tends to happen, our walk turned into a bit an adventure. Hobbes and his parents turned back 1/2 way, while Charleli, Ryan and I continued on. On our way, we walked through beautiful villages, crossed a roaring river, and hiked to a sacred waterfall, called Jogni falls. The views of the mountains and the valley were fabulous. Eventually we came to a great village full of countless winding narrow pathways. At this point, the path we were meant to follow to reach the temple in Vashisht (according to our hand-drawn map from Nishant) became a tad confusing.

The beginning of our adventure to Vashisht.

The beginning of our adventure to Vashisht.

Walking with Hobbes dog.

Walking with Hobbes dog.

A village we passed through on the way to Vashisht.

A village we passed through on the way to Vashisht.

Happy roadworkers.

Happy roadworkers.

Village in the valley.

Village in the valley.

Stockpile of hay for the winter.

Stockpile of hay for the winter.

The women really do all the work around here.

The women really do all the work around here.

Crossing the river.

Crossing the river.

Up the other side of the valley we go!

Up the other side of the valley we go!

Jogni Falls sacred area.

Jogni Falls sacred area.

Jogni Falls

Jogni Falls

A shepherd and his sheeps.

A shepherd and his sheeps.

A pretty swell view.

A pretty swell view.

Down through the forest.

Down through the forest.

Colorful couple!

Colorful couple!

Mules!

Mules!

Vashisht village.

Vashisht village.

After reaching many dead-ends we ended up choosing a path that took us down the hill to the main road. Of course we then walked in the wrong direction for about 20min (no thanks to the poor directions we got from some passersby), before we turned around and walked 4km the other way along the gravel road, eating the dust of passing trucks and getting a lot of odd looks. It wasn’t all bad, though, because we would have missed out on these great signs:

But rum power is more fun!

But rum power is more fun!

"Heaven or hell or mother earth choice is yours". Which would you choose?

“Heaven or hell or mother earth choice is yours”. Which would you choose?

Guys, it's not rally. Enjoy the vally.

Guys, it’s not rally. Enjoy the vally.

Read the sign, bro. Let me know if it makes sense to you.

Read the sign, bro. Let me know if it makes sense to you.

Yeah, think about THAT.

Yeah, think about THAT.

Bro! We found Vashisht!!

Bro! We found Vashisht!!

Shacks on the roadside.

Shacks on the roadside.

Finally we began seeing signs for our destination, which led us back up the mountain we had just descended from. The village of Vashisht was bustling with autorickshaws and tourists there to experience the hot springs. Following the throngs of primarily Indian tourists, we found the hot springs at last, but they were not as picturesque as we had hoped and mostly consisted of people washing their clothes in hot water coming out of pipes. However, as we were exploring the little square around the hot springs, we discovered, to our dismay, that the point where we had decided to head down the hill to the dusty main road and walk for an hour and a half was literally 20 meters up a narrow path from the hot springs. Idiots. On a positive note, we saw a couple of yaks on the way home!

The house in Vashisht where we headed to the main road to find our way, only meters from our final destination!

The house in Vashisht where we headed to the main road to find our way, only meters from our final destination!

Finally in Vashisht, the town we had already unknowingly discovered.

Finally in Vashisht, the town we had already unknowingly discovered.

Doing business at the hot springs.

Doing business at the hot springs.

Vashisht village.

Vashisht village.

Back in Manali that evening, we celebrated Diwali with a small group of friends and families staying at the hostel. We sipped hot chai and watched while Nishant lit a stockpile of various types of fireworks that just kept on coming. My favorites were the “bomb” type that always resulted in a scream or a jump three feet in the air.

Fireworks and chai. Nothing better.

Fireworks and chai. Nothing better.

Nishant lighting the fire!

Nishant lighting the fire! Photo by Charleli.

Evil Ryan making evil plans.

Evil Ryan making evil plans.

This little kid should join Hobbes in the closet.

This little kid should join Hobbes in the closet.

Nishant doing his thing.

Nishant doing his thing.

Lighting sparklers.

Lighting sparklers.

Thumbs up for fireworks.

Thumbs up for fireworks.

Happy Diwali!

Happy Diwali!

Manali Diwali friends!

Manali Diwali friends!

Sparkle fun.

Sparkle fun.

Family fireworks fun.

Family fireworks fun.

Happy fireworks fans.

Happy fireworks fans.

Kaboom!

Kaboom!

Fireworks!

Fireworks!

Charleli captures Ryan capturing me.

Charleli captures Ryan capturing me.

While we were outside enjoying the fireworks, Hobbes was hiding in a closet with earphones on. No, you cannot get any cuter than this:

Poor Hobbes hates the fireworks!

Poor Hobbes hates the fireworks!

It was a fantastic and intimate celebration and one we will remember for a long time.

Categories: India | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Traffic in New Delhi

Lotu

At the Lotus Temple.

Lotus Temple for the Baha'i Faith.

Lotus Temple for the Baha’i Faith.

Pink school girls at the Lotus Temple.

Pink school girls at the Lotus Temple.

Our last stop, and the one we were most excited about, was the Jama Masjid, the principal mosque of Old Delhi. It lies at the beginning of the Chawri Bazaar Road,  an extremely busy central street. The whole area is just a madhouse of activity. Cars, animals tied to cars, people, and dirty dirtiness. It was as though everything was covered with a thick layer of dust and grime, and I’m not sure how, but it was strangely beautiful. Just as our luck would have it, though, we arrived at sundown, exactly when the mosque closes, so we had to admire it from the outside. On the upside, Karim’s restaurant, a Delhi institution since 1913, was just up the street, so we drowned our sorrows in scrumptious curries. If you’re looking to lose weight, India is definitely not the place for you.

Steps to the Jama Masjid at sundown.

Steps to the Jama Masjid at sundown.

Chaos near the Jama Masjid.

Chaos near the Jama Masjid.

Delhi craziness.

Delhi craziness.

Streets near the Jama Masjid.

Streets near the Jama Masjid.

A goat tied to a car. Why not?

A goat tied to a car. Why not?

Karim's restaurant. A Delhi institution.

Karim’s restaurant. A Delhi institution.

I'm being watched at Meena Bazaar.

I’m being watched at Meena Bazaar.

Colorful Jessie in the Chaos of Delhi (edited by Jessie Bryant).

Colorful Jessie in the Chaos of Delhi (edited by Jessie Bryant).

Although the sites we saw today were interesting and beautiful, the highlight of the day was definitely the pants-less man we saw strutting his stuff near the Red Fort. “PENIS!!” I yelled as I spotted the man dressed only in a purple wife-beater trying to nonchalantly tug down his shirt to cover his package. What we loved about him was how he acted like his pantslessness was a non-issue, and to be honest, in a place like Delhi, it really was! Sadly, I do not have a picture.

Our view for most of the day.

Our view for most of the day.

A sign for the Commonwealth Games on a bridge to nowhere.

A sign for the Commonwealth Games on a bridge to nowhere.

That evening we met another cool chick in our dorm, named Nam, who was born in Vietnam but grew up in the southern States, so she has a fantastic southern drawl. She regaled us with hilarious tales from the organised tour she just finished, mostly involving a belligerent Indian born Canadian lady who said things like “I’ma stop you right there” and “I think we’re done here”, as well as her obese roommate who slept sitting on the couch and had a bad case of sleep apnea.  Of course, meeting Nam wouldn’t be complete without finding out her Rupak connection. She had been in touch with Rupak via email and was debating staying there, but was having second thoughts after he shot down her idea to volunteer at the Mother Teresa Foundation. Jessie vehemently suggested against staying there as a single female traveller, due to her negative experience there.

After meeting Jessie and Nam, Ryan and I changed our plans to visit Amritsar directly from Delhi and decided to head to the hills and bus it to Dharamsala, specifically, McLeod Ganj, instead, the residence of the Dalai Lama and the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration and the exiled Tibetan Government. It wasn’t originally on our radar, but after hearing Jessie and Nam rave about it, Dr. Malik forgetting to get our train tickets to Amritsar as we had arranged, and our ever-growing need to find some nature, the universe seemed to be telling us to go there! It definitely pays to listen to the universe.

Categories: India | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Agra-licious Times at the Taj Mahal

What better way to begin our time in Agra than by leaving my super important little backpack with all my super important documents, super important ID and super important camera equipment in it at the tourist office in the Agra train station? HOLY MOSES! I’ve never run so fast in my life. Leaving everyone waiting at the taxi stand, our new Korean friend from the train, Won-Il and I blasted back into the train station to find my super important backpack sitting where I left it on a chair in the tourist office. PHEW! Losing that bag would have put a huge damper on our trip. Dealing with the Indian Embassy in New Zealand was bad enough, I can’t imagine having to replace a passport while actually in the chaos that is India!

THINGS CORI (ALMOST) LOST TODAY: her super important little backpack!

So after that little kerfluffle, we shared a pre-paid taxi with Won-Il and a young Israeli guy we also met on the almost empty 10 hour train ride from Khajuraho. That also turned into a kerfluffle of sorts when the taxi driver refused to drive us to the closest gate to our hotel (cars are only allowed so close to the Taj Mahal and after all he already had our money) and despite our rather large amount of pleading and arguing, we finally got out and walked the rest of the way in the dark through the winding streets of Taj Ganj to Hotel Sheela.

The alarm was set for 5:30am to make sure we got to the Taj Mahal for sunrise, but we realized in the morning that it was totally unnecessary since the melodious sounds of the Muslim call to prayer start around 4:30am. Although Hotel Sheela is basically right next to the Taj, we first had to walk 1km in the opposite direction to buy our tickets while trying to ignore the constant touts for cycle rickshaw and pony rides. Luckily, we managed to grab the free shuttle to go back! Waiting in separate male and female queues for the gates to open, I met a Torontonian woman traveling on an eco-tour with her husband. It was interesting to listen to her talk about their luxurious hotels and compare it with the happiness we feel when our hotel room isn’t infested with cockroaches.

So the Taj Mahal…is it as impressive and magical as everyone says (except Gary)? YUP! We spent 2 hours wandering around the grounds admiring the Taj from every different angle, awed by the intricate details and designs in the cool white marble. This is what we saw:

Some building in India

Some building in India

The Great Gate

The Great Gate

Gorgeous couple.

Gorgeous couple.

How about this angle?

How about this angle?

Fun times at the Taj at 7am.

Fun times at the Taj at 7am.

View of the gardens towards the Great Gate.

View of the gardens towards the Great Gate.

That's one tall motha.

That’s one tall motha.

Sunrise over the Mosque.

Sunrise over the Mosque.

The Taj Mahal Mosque.

The Taj Mahal Mosque.

It's rather large.

It’s rather large.

See the beautiful designs?

See the beautiful designs?

Not just plain white marble!

Not just plain white marble!

Tilty.

Tilty.

Some of the embossed designs.

Some of the embossed designs.

Up and up!

Up and up!

Beautiful carvings along the side.

Beautiful carvings along the side.

And some colour!

And some colour!

Marble, marble everywhere!

Marble, marble everywhere!

We must not mix.

We must not mix.

Inside the Taj Mahal Mosque.

Inside the Taj Mahal Mosque.

View of the Taj from the Mosque.

View of the Taj from the Mosque.

Tiny ant people.

Tiny ant people.

Fabulous, no?

Fabulous, no?

Parrots like the Taj, too.

Parrots like the Taj, too.

Monkey school field trip to the Taj.

Monkey school field trip to the Taj.

Ready, set...go!

Ready, set…go!

A wee door...to the tombs underneath?

A wee door…to the tombs underneath?

Framed Taj!

Framed Taj!

What else do you do in Agra when it’s only 9am and you’ve already been awake for 5 hours? You visit the Red Fort, of course! But first you must get scammed by a cycle rickshaw driver who takes you on a slow ride back to the Taj Mahal ticket booth instead of simply telling you that the Red Fort is too far to go to by cycle rickshaw. What a jerkface! The hilarious part is when we got off his rickshaw all angry-like and attempting to then find a proper form of transportation (i.e. autorickshaw), he waved us down and tried to give us another ride! Oh silly silly cycle rickshaw man.

The Red or Agra Fort is about 2.5km away from the Taj and is really better described as a small city. It is absolutely huge and a massive portion of it is off limits as it is still used by the military. The original fort was brick and built before 1080 A.D. So it’s an oldie! There’s a great amount of history regarding the fort, of course, but I’ll leave that to Wikipedia. Here’s what we saw:

Entrance to the Red Fort.

Entrance to the Red Fort.

Yup. It's red!

Yup. It’s red!

Red Fort goers.

Red Fort goers.

A romantic spot.

A romantic spot.

If only we built with such detail these days!

If only we built with such detail these days!

I wouldn't mind a window like this!

I wouldn’t mind a window like this!

Or a door like this?

Or a door like this?

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

Stealing a moment.

Stealing a moment.

Heads!

Heads!

Through the window.

Through the window.

School kids checking out the...hole?

School kids checking out the…hole?

Enjoying the view.

Enjoying the view.

Always planning!

Always planning!

Looking over Agra.

Looking over Agra.

White marble room.

White marble room.

Hello, pigeon!

Hello, pigeon!

Nap time in the courtyard.

Nap time in the courtyard.

Happy Won-Il and Ryan.

Happy Won-Il and Ryan.

Bordering the courtyard.

Bordering the courtyard.

Pointy.

Pointy.

I like pillars. Have you noticed?

I like pillars. Have you noticed?

The occasional me shot to show I really was on this trip.

The occasional me shot to show I really was on this trip.

Obligatory beautiful Indian girls shot.

Obligatory beautiful Indian girls shot.

The team.

The team.

Happy bench times!

Happy bench times!

Tired bench times.

Tired bench times.

One big happy family!

One big happy family!

The gardens.

The gardens.

Birdy bird.

Birdy bird.

Flowers!

Flowers!

After a very full morning in Agra, we lunched with Won-Il on the Saniya Palace rooftop restaurant where we could grab one last view of the Taj Mahal and spent the afternoon planning and chilling at Hotel Sheela while watching the resident dog bark at monkeys sneaking onto the property. Onto the next adventure!

Roof top lunch view of the smoggy Taj Mahal.

Roof top lunch view of the smoggy Taj Mahal.

Beautiful Taj and less than mediocre Agra.

Beautiful Taj and less than mediocre Agra.

Thumbs up!

Thumbs up!

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Khajuraho – It’s Sexy Time!

Khajuraho is a small town in Madhya Pradesh famous for its super sexy temples. The Khajuraho Group of Monuments is the largest group of medieval Hindu and Jain temples in India and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We decided to make a pitstop here for a night to break up the journey from Varanasi to Agra, plus who in their right minds would bypass sexy time temples?

A taste of the sexiness

A taste of the sexiness

To get to this sexy town we travelled by night train again, but this time we managed to secure seats on a 3AC car. LUXURY compared to our first train ride! 3AC essentially means 3 tiers with air conditioning. But it’s so much more! There are curtains to draw for privacy and pillows and blankets for comfort. They even provide a cheap meal service for 100R. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us at the time, this would be our first and last ride in a luxurious 3AC train car.

Now each train has a few 3AC cars and each car has multiple berths, but it just so happened that sharing our berth with us was Richard from the U.K. Nothing out of the ordinary about sharing our space with a guy from the U.K., but we found out that, upon conversing with our new friend, he had also stayed with the infamous Rupak in Kolkata, and Rupak had even regaled us with stories about Richard while we were there. In fact, Richard would not be the last person we met in India that had ties to Rupak. The guy really is infamous.

Upon arriving at the Khajuraho train station at 5am, we noted two things: 1) We made the right decision getting our hotel to send us an autorickshaw because it was, as expected, a little chaotic; and 2) It was FREEZING and I was very underdressed. Note to self: WINTER IS COMING and we are in northern India so dress properly, you idiots.

The town of Khajuraho was small, picturesque and (besides the train station), relatively calm and peaceful. A definite contrast to the utter chaos of Varanasi the day before. Our hotel was called Hotel Surya and was a bit more upscale than we normally go for, but still quite cheap. They had a beautiful courtyard and garden with yoga on the roof every morning and evening. The restaurant was pretty tasty, too! We ate a lot of stuffed paranthas here. My new favorite breakfast food.

Stuffed paranthas. Image from www.traiteur-metisse.fr.

Stuffed paranthas. Image from http://www.traiteur-metisse.fr.

After breakfast, we hired an autorickshaw driver to tour us around the outlying temples that couldn’t be reached by foot without a lot of effort. We explored the Eastern, Jain and Southern temples first as we wanted to save the sexy Western temples for last. The temples are extremely intricate and detailed, made almost completely of sandstone. The builders didn’t use mortar, but the stones were put together with mortise and tenon joints instead and they were held in place by gravity. Pretty amazing stuff for thousand year old temples.

Towering and intricate

Towering and intricate

Deity

Deity

A nice touch

A nice touch

Symmetric goodness

Symmetric goodness

Temple ruin

Temple ruin

Open wide!

Open wide!

Gorgeous detail

Gorgeous detail

Elephant sculpture

Elephant sculpture

Landscapes around Khajuraho

Landscapes around Khajuraho

As we drove from temple to temple our autorickshaw driver kept randomly picking up young children that he knew from the neighborhood, taking them for rides and chatting, then dropping them off. It was pretty damn sweet. Apparently the children were from an older low caste village outside of town. In front of every temple were touts trying to sell us the Kama Sutra as well as other moveable toys in the shape of a certain sexual organ. Hi-larious! We laughed but didn’t buy. One penis present for a friend was quite enough (eh, Miriam?). Also hanging out near the temples were children asking for coins from our country. When we told the kids we were from Canada, they always said the same thing: “Cool cool Canada! Hot hot India!” Too funny! We must have heard this on ten separate occasions. They were lovely, though, and didn’t even get annoyed when we didn’t give them coins.

Tuk tuk full of kidlets

Tuk tuk full of kidlets

Purple floweriness

Purple floweriness

Couldn't pass these by!

Couldn’t pass these by!

As with all tuk-tuk drivers, the day wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory stop at their friend’s “insert sellable item here” shop. Today, we got to visit a stonemason (actually very interesting, but I had no room in my backpack for a stone sculpture half my size) and Super Mario’s pashmina shop. Super Mario is a very proud Kashmiri man who must have been schooled by a used car salesman. He’s very good. He quenched our thirst with real Kashmiri green tea (allegedly) while he showed us one of every kind of pashmina in the entire world and made sure we knew how to tell if it’s real pashmina, including a test to see if we were listening. He topped his spiel off by showing us a book of letters previous customers had written him extolling the amazingness of his pashmina shop. We were there almost an hour before we could even think about escaping.

Stone mason

Stone mason – note the use of his toes.

The town of Khajuraho

The town of Khajuraho

The afternoon was all about SEXY TIME. However, before we could enjoy any of the sexiness we had to get some moolah. The Easter, Jain and Southern temples were all free of charge (excepting the cost of the autorickshaw), but because of the sexy sex sculptures, the Western temples are much more popular, and hence, quite pricey. Nothing ever works quite right in India, though, and we soon found out that all 4 ATMs in town were out of order. A little bit of freaking out over what we were going to do and how we were going to get to our next destination later, we remembered we still had American money we could change. MOST USEFUL TRAVEL TIP – carry American cash ALWAYS.

The Western sexy temples certainly did not disappoint with their sexiness. We had a blast circumnavigating the temples scrutinizing the sculptures, giggling and pointing. Hey, we weren’t the only ones! We opted out of paying for the guided tour, but after eavesdropping on a nearby tour group, we realized we shouldn’t have.  “And now we will go to see the homosexuals.” Classic. Our favorite image by far was that of the “man-on-horse” (for lack of a better title). Ryan was pretty excited about this one and had been scouring the temples trying to find it.

Western Group of temples

Western Group of temples – sexy, no?

"Oops, I slipped!"... "I just can't watch!"

“Oops, I slipped!”… “I just can’t watch!”

Sexy embrace

Sexy embrace

An admirer

An admirer

Told you it was sexy!

Told you it was sexy!

Sexy far away shot

Sexy far away shot

Even then, beards were sexy

Even then, beards were sexy

I'll hold yours if you hold mine

I’ll hold yours if you hold mine

Checking out the "homosexuals"

Checking out the “homosexuals”

Sexy times up up up and up!

Sexy times up up up and up!

All together now!

All together now!

Sexy couple in front of a sexy temple

Sexy couple in front of a sexy temple

Ohhhh no he didn't.

Ohhhhhhhh my!

Found it!

Found it!

Just in case you've got bad eyes, here's a close up

Just in case you’ve got bad eyes, here’s a close up

69 - Medieval Indian Style

69 – Medieval Indian Style

Now that's a sexy lady!

Now that’s a sexy lady!

Our sexy day was topped off with a sexy orange sunset and a sexy dinner with Richard at the sexy Raja Cafe, followed by a sexy evening of watching Junior Masterchef Australia, which is played sexy marathon style everyday. Sexy!

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Very Nasty & Very Nice Varanasi

I’d like to start this blog post by pointing out that Indians love to use the phrase “cum”, as in “restaurant cum bar” or “journey cum reservation ticket”. It’s hilarious. That is all.

Our first Indian train ride from Kolkata to Varanasi lasted 14 hours through the night and was shared with a father and his son from Bangladesh, plus a family of about 14 with several adorable little kiddies. We traveled in “sleeper class”, which is the most popular class of train travel in India and also one of the most basic. It’s open plan berths with 3 bunks (upper, middle, lower) on each side, plus 2 more bunks on the other side of the aisle. If you’re on the top bunk or either of the 2 bunks on the sides, you can sleep whenever you want to, but the bottom bunk doubles as a bench and the middle bunk is folded down as a backrest. Train etiquette means if you have either of these bunks you have to wait until about 9pm to change it to a bed. There’s no A/C, just barred windows that can open (or not or get stuck). Since it was early November, travelling by sleeper was pretty comfortable temperature-wise, but would not be fun at all in the summer heat, or (as we found out later) in the pre-winter cold.

Sleeper Class on Indian trains (PIcture by Gabriel Openshaw).

Sleeper Class on Indian trains (Picture by Gabriel Openshaw).

We arrived in Varanasi the next morning and were pleasantly surprised by the ease with which we booked our onward train tickets for a few days hence. The foreign tourist office in the middle of the chaotic Varanasi train station is surprisingly efficient (did I just say that!?). The tuk tuk/autorickshaw we took to get to our hostel was less surprisingly inefficient. I mostly have a hate-hate relationship with autorickshaw drivers in India. They rip you off at every turn, refuse to give you the change they deny is in their pocket and rarely take you where you want to go, opting instead to take you to a friend’s/brother’s/uncle’s hostel/restaurant/carpet shop (FYI – same goes for cycle rickshaws!). So, after not taking us to the hostel we wanted to go to, we finally settled on Baba Lolak, near Tulsi Ghat, in a quieter area away from the manic centre. The ginormous fish tank in our room using the T.V. hook ups for power sealed the deal. The 5 taps to control the shower were also a nice touch, as were the super unfriendly young staff. Luckily the older guys, B.K and Babu, were more hospitable and even took us on a tour around the area to Tulsi Ghat to see the Water Temple. This temple is a crazy deep well where women come to bathe and pray for children. The ritual involves taking their clothing off, bathing in the water, putting new clothes on and leaving the old clothes there.

Our pet fish for a night.

Our pet fish for a night.

Rooftop meal at our hostel, looking over the Ganga (Ganges).

Rooftop meal at our hostel, looking over the Ganga (Ganges).

Cycle rickshaw.

Cycle rickshaw.

Playing music in the streets.

Playing music in the street near our hostel.

Chaos in the city centre.

Chaos in the city centre.

Slightly less chaotic near Tulsi Ghat.

Slightly less chaotic near Tulsi Ghat.

Varanasi, Varanasi…so much to say! I should probably start by telling you a bit about what this city is all about. And when I say “I”, I mean “Wikipedia”. Varanasi (a.k.a. Benares or Kashi) is the spiritual capital of India and its oldest city, located on the banks of the Ganges (Ganga) River. The Ganges is the most sacred river to all Hindus and is worshipped as the Goddess Ganga. Hindus consider the waters of the Ganges to be both pure and purifying, bathing in its waters to pay homage to their ancestors and their gods and performing pooja by offering flowers, rose petals and little clay dishes filled with oil and lit with wicks. When a loved one dies, the ashes of the deceased person are brought to the river from afar, or are cremated at one of the burning ghats (ghats are embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform rituals).

The Ganges is also the lifeline for the 400 million people who live along it and depend on it for their daily needs. Bath time, laundry, buffalo washing, you name it, it’s done in the Ganges. Unfortunately, the Ganges is among the 5 most polluted rivers in the world (as of 2007), with fecal coliform levels near Varanasi more than 100x the official government limits. Not a river we would be bathing in soon (let alone even touching) and we were shocked to see tourists, completely unaccustomed to these dirty waters, bathing and frolicking. Hello diarrhea!

Chillin' by the Ganges.

Washin’ my buffalo in the Ganges.

Checkin' out the neighbors.

Checkin’ out the neighborhood.

The clean clean Ganges.

The clean clean Ganges.

Meditation.

Meditation.

Prayer.

Prayer.

Boredom.

Boredom.

Too cool for school.

Cockiness. He thought he was the man.

Single file.

Single file.

Painting on one of the ghats.

Painting on one of the ghats.

Colorful ghat.

Colorful ghat.

In the evening we hired a boat with a young boat-wallah (guy who rows the boat) named Babo. Babo was a super beefy body builder who lifted weights in his free time and won the title of “Mr. Benares” last year. Yeah Babo! He had his work cut out for him because I tried rowing that boat and it was freakishly difficult. He rowed us from Tulsi Ghat to the main burning ghat, Manikarnika, where people are cremated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The smaller burning ghat operates only sunrise to sunset. Buying the proper wood to cremate the entire body is very expensive, so often families will use inferior types of wood, or smaller quantities, and often the bodies aren’t burned completely before they are thrown into the river. Not a nice thought. For very poor families, electric burners are used. The bodies are transported to the burning ghats on wooden stretchers draped in beautiful metallic and colorful sheets and carried by chanting family members. I was almost bowled over by one such procession in a small alley as I attempted to take photos of the talented men who made my delicious lassi, oblivious to the world around me (FYI – go to Blue Lassi for lassi heaven). Photos of the cremation ceremony are prohibited. If you happen to walk through any of the cremation ghats, watch out for overly friendly men who ask you if you want to “get a better look” by taking you up the stairs. It’s a scam and they will eventually ask for money. Those buggers are persistant though!

Mr. Benares!

Mr. Benares!

Boats and boats and boats, oh my!

Boats and boats and boats, oh my!

Boats touring the ghats on the Ganges.

Boats touring the ghats on the Ganges.

Manikarnika, the main cremation ghat.

Manikarnika, the main cremation ghat.

Preparing wood for cremation.

Preparing wood for cremation.

Wood piles at Manikarnika Ghat.

Wood piles at Manikarnika Ghat.

Manikarnika Ghat.

Manikarnika Ghat.

On the way back to Tulsi Ghat, we stopped at Dashashwamedh Ghat, the main and probably oldest ghat in Varanasi. Every evening thousands of people gather by foot and by boat to watch the daily “Agni Pooja” (Worship to Fire) where a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganga, Surya (the sun), Agni (fire) and the whole universe. Vendors sell overpriced chai and little clay dishes to light and float down the river. The sights and sounds of this ceremony are beautiful and almost overwhelming. I loved it.

Agni Pooja at Dashashwamedh Ghat.

Agni Pooja at Dashashwamedh Ghat.

Agni Pooja.

Agni Pooja.

Washing up and making offerings at Dashashwamedh Ghat.

Washing up and making offerings at Dashashwamedh Ghat.

Early the next morning Mr. Benares took us out on the boat again to see the city come to life in the morning light of dawn. Watching the people bathe was beautiful and the river was misty and magical. When the sun rose, the colorful buildings along the ghats came to life and just glowed. Walking along the ghats after our morning boat ride we were blown away by the build up of mud on the steps of the ghats. When the river rises in the rainy season, then falls in the dry season, it leaves behind up to 3 feet of mud that then must be blasted away using high pressure hoses. It was fascinating to watch these men at work. Hanging out near the ghats also means being constantly hassled, but they save the best for Ryan and his beard- “BOAT? BOAT? BOAT? (hash?)”.

Boat in the morning mist.

Boat in the morning mist.

Tourists waiting for sunrise.

Tourists waiting for sunrise.

Here comes the sun!

Here comes the sun!

We weren't the only ones enjoying the view.

We weren’t the only ones enjoying the view.

Dawn in Varanasi.

Dawn in Varanasi.

Sunrise turns the city to gold.

Sunrise turns the city to gold.

Morning ritual.

Morning ritual.

Everyone is awake and at the Ganges.

Everyone is awake and at the Ganges.

Bath time fun!

Bath time fun!

Sweeping the ghat.

Sweeping the ghat.

Sharing smiles with friends.

Sharing smiles with friends.

Drying the laundry.

Drying the laundry.

Scooping.

Scooping.

Seeing the sights.

Seeing the sights.

Washing clothes.

Washing clothes.

Cleansing.

Cleansing.

Close shave.

Close shave.

Morning pooja.

Morning pooja.

Varansi is singularly the most dirty, disgusting, amazing, interesting, mind boggling place I have been to. Rupak liked to refer to it as Very Nasty, and that’s definitely true, but it’s also magical. There are not only cows, but bulls, buffalo, goats, donkeys and dogs (and the occasional pig) absolutely everywhere. The streets are extremely narrow, twisty and maze-like and more than once we found our way blocked by a massive cow (or 2 or 3), necessitating a change to our planned route. Not only is there abundant livestock roaming the streets, there are also monkeys jumping from rooftop to rooftop and pigeons in the hundreds hanging out on the power lines. All these animals in a small area means one thing – you guessed it! POOP. There is poop everywhere you look. Mind you it’s mostly cow poo, but I’m sure there’s other species of poo mingled in. You can try to avoid stepping in it, but mark my words, eventually it will find you. Another thing that will find you is the smell. Or rather smells. While in Varanasi (OK all of India) we were constantly bombarded by alternating smells of cow poo, incense, urine (yes, that’s people urine), and delicious spices. Quite the concoction for our wee noses.

All in all, it’s a city not to be missed. So if you can stand the people, the animals, the sounds and the smells, get your butt to Varanasi.

Buffalo bird bath.

Buffalo bird bath.

Sleepy donkey.

Sleepy donkey.

Birdy friends.

Birdy friends.

I spy with my little eye something that is green.

I spy with my little eye something that is green.

MOOOOOOOO.

MOOOOOOOO.

One of the many temples in Varanasi.

One of the many temples in Varanasi and the pigeons that love them.

Categories: India | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

India ahoy! It begins in Kolkata.

A joint post by Cori and Ryan (but mostly Cori).

If you’re ever in Siem Reap and are considering taking the bus to Bangkok, stop considering, save yourself a day, some sweat, a couple stupid and inefficient dot stickers, and a lot of hassle, and just buy a plane ticket. Unfortunately, by doing this you will also miss seeing a massive monitor lizard/Komodo dragon prowling the side of the highway in the centre of Bangkok. What the eff was that all about!?

November 1st, time to leave SE Asia and head off for our month in India.  This was most likely going to be the toughest and most challenging part of our whole trip.  The idea of India originally was not on my dream itinerary but it was for Cori so it became one of our must see stops.  Everything we had been told about India so far had lead us to believe that it would be a place we would either love or hate. It would be an assault on all our senses – sights, smells, sounds, you name it.

We escaped quickly from our cockroach-infested-holes-in-the-floor guesthouse run by “Jenny”, the lady-boy who, the night before, had an altercation in the stairway with a guest accusing her of stealing some of his laundry. It ended with a bit of shoving, hilarious heated dialogue and Jenny eventually kicking the guy out (not that we were eavesdropping through the door or anything). After stocking up on baby wipes from the local 7-11 (we were warned that it was very dusty and dirty so these would be a necessity), we waited in Bangkok traffic for about an hour before reaching the old dingy airport. Soon after getting in line for check in we were whisked away from the masses of Indian men with their ginormous flat screen TVs (sale on TVs in Bangkok this weekend?) to another check in area by ourselves. Pays to be the only confused and scared white people in a crowd sometimes. One last meal at McDondald’s (don’t judge us) and we were off on our flight to Kolkata. In true Indian fashion the flight was, of course, delayed by 2 hours.

We touched down and before the plane had even stopped and long before the seat belt sign went off EVERYONE got up and started to push towards the front of the plane….let the games begin!  Of course there was a delay on the tarmac and we had to wait around for about half an hour before we could finally get off.  Getting through customs was a breeze and after we picked up our bags I went outside to use the ATM, since we were Rupee-less.  Upon entering the ATM booth I discovered two guys staring at/trying unsuccessfully to fix the ATM and an explosion of tools and wires all over the place.  They didn’t speak English but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that I wouldn’t be getting any money from there.  I wandered around outside for a bit longer, but it was an ATM fail and the big big man with the machine gun almost don’t get didn’t let me back in to the airport since I left my passport with Cori. Thank God I had my boarding pass.  Plan B – change some American money. That stuff comes in real handy sometimes.

The pre-paid taxis were old, rusty, clunky ambassadors. Love them. After confirming that the driver actually knew where we were going (because our hostel owner pays the taxi drivers not to eff around his customers, we learned later), exchanging a bit of banter about Ryan’s beard (“Hahaha, no I’m not Muslim”), we were off, darting through back alleys and side streets, horn ablazing, attempting to avoid the cows, people and garbage strewn about all around us. Already there was so much to see whizzing past us. One moment, a pack of stray dogs rooting through trash, the next moment a ravishing woman dressed in a sari with colors we didn’t even know existed. The barrage of sights, sounds, and smells (oh, the smells!) was unlike anything either of us had seen before. After 20 mins of auto mayhem we stopped suddenly on the side of the street under a giant expressway and were greeted with chai by our host for the next few days, the (in)famous Rupak Chatterjee, owner of the Crazy Wanderers Hostel, and Jina, a lovely Korean girl also staying at the hostel. The location was fantastic, not because it was located near any amazing sights, but because it was located far away from the dirty yukky gross touristy backpacker area on Sudder Street and where we were absolutely no one hassled us. They simply went about their daily lives.

The main street near our hostel in Kolkata.

The main street near our hostel in Kolkata.

At the hostel, we met another guest, great guy American Gary, who had been travelling for 3 months through India and was ready to just chill for a while. A huge amount of chatting ensued, in which time the extremely energetic Rupak dished out jokes and advice and acted out stories about himself and situations he’s been in. Rupak is the kind of guy you’re not quite sure if you can believe. He told us all about his credentials as a guide, the young girls he rescued from prostitution, his 2 adoptive daughters attending boarding school in Darjeeling, his climb up the corporate ladder and his plans to open hostels all over Europe, among much much more. We’re still not sure which stories were true, which embellished, and which downright made-up, but it was entertaining, nonetheless.

Chillin' and chatting in the living room at the hostel, listening to Rupak's stories.

Chillin’ and chatting in the living room at the hostel, listening to Rupak’s stories.

Staying at Rupak’s Crazy Wanderer’s Hostel turned out to be a fantastic introductory crash-course to India. The first day, Rupak, Jina and Gary basically held our hands and showed us the ropes, the next day we were chaperoned by Gary and by the third day, Ryan and I were on our own. Our first meal in India was Mughlai chicken from a local hole-in-the-wall I’m surprised we all fit in. Delish, of course, and followed by hot, spicy, milky chai. There are several chai vendors on the main street, selling a cup of tea for a whopping 5 rupees (9 cents Canadian). The one we chose hangs out under the expressway and serves his chai in small terracotta cups that are thrown on the ground and smashed when you’re finished drinking. Doing this creates a job for the folks that make the terracotta cups, we’re told.

Paintings inside Crazy Wanderers hostel.

Paintings inside Crazy Wanderers hostel.

Yummy yummy yummy chai in terracotta cups.

Yummy yummy yummy chai in terracotta cups.

After chatting even more while we waited for another guest to arrive from Malaysia, we all hopped on a local bus and held on for dear life as it took us to a local theatre where we armed ourselves with snacks of puffed rice and fried peppers and eggplant in preparation for our first Bollywood film. The 3 hour film was “Student of the Year”, a mix of Hindi and English, complete with catchy songs and groovy dances and even an intermission in the middle. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it and I think even Ryan didn’t mind it! Have a look and listen to one of the numbers, a song I got excited about every time we heard it on the radio for the next month: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2H84qfOBrQc.

Day 2 in India began with a yummo breakfast of chai and puri (round breads served with potato curry), followed by a 6-rupee heart-stopping, nausea-inducing tuk tuk (or autorickshaw) ride with Gary to Dum Dum station where we caught the subway into the city centre. The subway was surprisingly clean and organised, with a special car reserved only for women (and enforced by guards), and mind-boggling signage – “No flammables” (understandable), “No dead bodies” (that would be good), “No dead poultry” (no problem, my chickens are alive), “No skins” (I’m assuming attached are OK), and “No hides” (gotta quit my tannery job or get a car).

Puri breakfast goodness with chai.

Puri breakfast goodness with chai.

The photo I didn't take at the subway.

The photo I didn’t take at the subway.

First stop downtown was the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral. An Anglican church built in 1839. But the real draw was the Victoria Memorial. Dedicated to Queen Victoria, the building is a gorgeous fusion of British and Mughal architecture and slightly resembles the Taj Mahal. The park grounds were full of families who wanted their pictures taken and couples cuddling on the lawns. Across the street from the park, in the maidan (“open field”), we were surprised to see that you could go for pony rides. Cute! Our last stop downtown was the infamous Sudder St. but on our way Gary told us we had to stop at this food stall that sold hot kati rolls, a street food originating from Kolkata. OMG. Heaven. Basically it is paratha bread dipped in egg and fried (that part is optional), then filled with spicy chicken and veggies and dowsed in green chili sauce. I’m drooling just thinking about it. When we arrived at Sudder St., the backpacker area, we were thoroughly disgusted. The entire street smelled of urine and garbage and we were hassled at every turn. After quickly using an internet cafe we were happy to escape back to our hostel on the other end of town. The evening involved more delicious food of course! A delicious snack called pani puri. They are thin spheres of pastry filled one at a time with spiced/herbed mashed potato and dipped in tamarind water. I loved them but Ryan wasn’t a fan. Later on we got to experience a trip to Big Bazaar, India’s answer to Walmart, but a Walmart where you can buy saris. It was surreal being in the shiny new mall, totally cut off from the chaos of the street outside. I bought a purple “kurta” (long shirt). I couldn’t quite justify buying a sari, no matter how much I wanted to!

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral

Victoria Memorial

Victoria Memorial

Reflection of the Victoria Memorial.

Reflection of the Victoria Memorial.

Statues and crows on the rooftop of the Victoria Memorial

Statues and crows on the rooftop of the Victoria Memorial

Old Ambassador car at Victoria Memorial Park.

Old Ambassador car at Victoria Memorial Park.

Horses and ponies in the maidan.

Horses and ponies in the maidan.

Chicken kati rolls. The best food in the universe.

Chicken kati rolls. The best food in the universe.

Our last day in Kolkata was a doozy and we did it all by ourselves. Our first day in India completely on our own. Can we handle this!? The task of the day was to purchase train tickets to Varanasi. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. Train tickets in India should ideally be purchased 3 months ahead of time, at least for popular destinations, and in a country of 1.2 billion people, everywhere is a popular destination. Naturally, backpackers flying by the seat of their (our) pants aren’t nearly organised enough to know where they (OK, we) want to be 3 months in advance. So how does one manage to get a train ticket? Well, they allot a certain number of tickets solely for tourists (“tourist quota”), but when those are also gone, you have to go “under the table” as Rupak says. This means hauling your butt back to stinky Sudder St. (after stuffing yourself with another chicken kati roll) and paying 200 rupees more than the ticket price to get a confirmed seating train ticket from folks at a random clothing shop, buying clothes while you wait and almost spilling all the nice man’s chai on the floor as you try on shirts in the teeny tiny area. Luckily we managed to obtain tickets for later that night, but we couldn’t pick up the tickets until later. Another adventure.

So, that evening, after devouring some delicious dhal and roti, watching an Indian movie called “Barfi” (unfortunate title, fantastic movie – I cried), and saying goodbye to Rupak, Jina and Gary, we headed off in a taxi cab with a driver who spoke no English to attempt to pick up our tickets back at Sudder St. and catch a night train to Varanasi with only 2 hours to spare. Our timing was a bit atrocious as it seemed that all of India was on the road at once. And I thought Calgary traffic was bad. It didn’t help that the lights seemed to stay red for an eternity and turn green for only 2 seconds before flipping back to red. As if that wasn’t bad enough, even after speaking to Rupak in Hindi before we left, our driver had no idea where Sudder St. was, had to ask a guy in the car next to us, then stopped at a gas station to ask for directions again! In the end it was Ryan who managed to direct him! Ryan dashed madly to pick up our tickets from the clothes shop, back to the traffic jam and with only minutes to spare we arrived at the absolutely GINORMOUS train station in the rain and by some absolute miracle, managed to find our train and our seats, that were miraculously empty and ready to cushion our exhausted and relieved derrieres!

Off to Varanasi! Let more adventures begin!

The lentil man!

The dhal man!

Dhal (lentil) and rhoti deliciousness.

Dhal (lentil) and rhoti deliciousness.

Goofy times with the Crazy Wanderers crew.

Goofy times with the Crazy Wanderers crew on our last night.

Rupak, Jina, Ryan and Gary.

Rupak, Jina, Ryan and Gary.

Doing the gawking sleazy Indian man look. Rupak's got it nailed.

Doing the gawking sleazy Indian man look. Rupak’s got it nailed.

Categories: India | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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