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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Reflection of the Victoria Memorial.
Statues and crows on the rooftop of the Victoria Memorial
Old Ambassador car at Victoria Memorial Park.
Horses and ponies in the maidan.
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 dhal man!
Dhal (lentil) and rhoti deliciousness.
Goofy times with the Crazy Wanderers crew on our last night.
Rupak, Jina, Ryan and Gary.
Doing the gawking sleazy Indian man look. Rupak’s got it nailed.