Join Us In India!

We’ve mentioned several times on this blog that day-to-day touring in India is difficult. What’s it like here? Rather than just tell you, we’ve arranged to teleport you to India for a day. Hang on tight…


Welcome to India.

5:33am – Rise and shine! I know, you were hoping to sleep in, but the [car horns / crowing chickens / howling dogs] make that impossible. Toss and turn for a while, trying to bank a few extra ZZZs.

7:27am – Finally give up and get out of bed. Breakfast is included at this hotel, so enjoy your cold eggs and soggy toast.

8:49am- You’ve read the guidebooks and plotted out your day. Time to experience the best of [Mumbai / Delhi / Jaipur / Agra]. Your first stop is nearby. You step into the hazy morning with a smile on your face and nearly plunge into an open drain. Reminding yourself to be more cautious, you navigate around a pile of construction debris to the nearby busy street. After a prayer to the deity of your choice, walk across at a steady pace and hope no one runs you over.

8:52am- Tread carefully on the sidewalk, as it may be broken, slanted, under construction, or nonexistent at any moment. You hear someone clearing his throat- watch out!- a glob of spit sails past, narrowly missing your foot. The glob is red, and you wonder if your assailant is bleeding. You notice that many people chew tobacco rather than smoking cigarettes, explaining the crimson hues of various globs you see on the sidewalk.

8:53am- Why is that Indian guy staring at you? You keep moving.

9:38am- Near the [garden / monument / fort] of your choice, you soak in the ambience. You are startled out of your reverie by a seller calling out, “Yes [mister / miss]? Come!” You walk briskly away from [him / her], into the waiting grasp of another, then another. Quick, dash down a side alley- dodge the multicolored puddle of toxic liquid!- and escape to the ticket booth. Pay the entrance fee and enjoy your time away from the noise of the city. Good luck finding a toilet while you’re in there- Ken’s next toilet video will say more about that.

11:52am- Was that your stomach growing? Time for lunch. Choose your [fried street food / food stall / sit-down restaurant] carefully, or you’ll regret it later. And avoid the meat. May we suggest unidentifiable vegetables with brown glop? You place your order and wait [5 / 15 / 30] minutes for your meal.

12:39pm: Now you need to get across town to see [Haji Ali / Ghandhi Smriti / Jantar Mantar]. You hail a rickshaw, but you know roughly what the fare should be and the driver insists on a vastly inflated sum. You walk away. You hail a taxi, but the trip is too short and he refuses to take you and drives away. Aww, heck, you need the exercise. You walk across town.

12:40pm- Another Indian staring at you. You pretend not to notice.

12:42pm- A stray dog crosses your path. Awww, he has the [floppy ears / curly tail / fuzzy fur] you adore… but he also has mange. You decide not to pet him.

1:04pm- “You want weed? Hash? Good weed?” You brush off the unshaven twentysomething who is violating your personal space.

1:42pm- Your exploration of [Haji Ali / Ghandhi Smriti / Jantar Mantar] is interrupted by a giggling Indian asking to take a photo with you. You ask why, to a chorus of more giggling. You smile for a photo just to get it over with.

4:08pm- It’s been a long day- time for a snack. There are no chain convenience stores like 7-Eleven around, so keep your eyes peeled for a locally-run shop. You find one, grab a packet of [Hide & Seek cookies (our favorites) / Lay’s “American Style” potato chips / Parle-G biscuits]. Next in line, you patiently wait for grandpa to finish paying. What’s this, a teenager has butted in before you… now an older woman is asking the clerk for help… now someone else is laying down their money. Remember: you are larger than 99.9% of Indians. Use your formidable frame to block the next interloper and pay for your goddamn junk food already.

4:17pm- Emerging from the store, you see a man peeing on the wall of a building. At least he turned his back to the street.

4:18pm- Really, what is it with these Indians starting at you?

4:19pm- A holy cow munches on garbage as you walk past.

4:22pm- Boy, are you tired from all this walking. You just want to get back to the hotel and rest, but you got turned around and aren’t quite sure which direction to go. You would gladly pay an inflated price for a taxi or rickshaw… but it’s rush hour and they’re all full. You walk. And walk. And walk.

4:56pm- Finally, you’re back at the hotel. Sure, you’re sweaty and tired, but there’s still time to [see a movie / take some night photos / go shopping] tonight.

You know, it’s time for you to start thinking for yourself: go ahead, consider the rest of the evening free time. Just let us know when you want to teleport back home. What’s that? You’d just as well go now?

Thought so.



Holy Cows!

Hindus consider the cow holy. Their highest-ranking god (out of 30 million), Shiva, used the mighty bull as his mode of transportation. Worship the god, worship his vehicle.

The streets of Delhi are said to have 40,000 cows roaming about, and we saw many of them. Quite docile compared to Wisconsin’s farm-locked cows, they stand alongside traffic-clogged streets, munching away on piles of garbage. Yes, the animal whose sole diet should be grass can be found chewing meat bones, plastic bags and their favorite: cardboard boxes.

Those Hindus looking to improve their merit for reincarnation can be found approaching the street cows and feeding them various grasses and weeds. And while most Indians drive like maniacs, they will do everything they can to never hit a cow. Those who do could face jail time, not to mention a screwed-up reincarnation assignment.

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One scholar argues that the cow was never holy and should not be. Considering the poor treatment most receive, I too think it may be best to lower their status and start feeding the masses who are starving in India.

Holy or not, the waste from cows is a widely-used resource: cow patties are dried for use as fuel.


City of Death

Varanasi is all about death. Hindus pilgrimage here to die, believing that cremation in this ancient city breaks the reincarnation cycle and allows the soul to finally be at peace. It also keeps a strong firewood industry going.

We arrived in Varanasi after our somewhat pointless journey down the Ganges. Navin took us on a walking tour one evening, a boat tour the next morning, and yet another boat tour that evening. The shore is lined with ghats, series of steps leading down to the water. Some are places to worship and bathe, others are crematoria. Piles of ash smolder day and night, filling the air with a choking haze.

Some individuals are not cremated (those of certain castes and those who were bitten by snakes, among others), so their bodies are weighed down and sunk in the river. A sea of corpses rotting beneath our boat was a repulsive notion.

Perhaps I’m being too sensitive here. Many Indians were contentedly bathing and doing laundry in the river. Then we saw it: a dead body floating past our boat. Nope, I’m not being too sensitive. Navin thought he might be a suicide, since he was in street clothes rather than funereal finery. All I know is that an hour later, the body was floating within a few meters of a man brushing his teeth with river water. Does this not raise a red flag for anyone?!

Well, yeah, it does. The Ganges is dying. Our Lonely Planet guidebook says:

The Ganges River is so heavily polluted at Varanasi that the water is septic – no dissolved oxygen exists… Samples from the river show the water has 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 100mL of water. In water that is safe for bathing this figure should be less than 500!

According to the local newspaper, a scholar named K Chandramouli is preparing a study of Ganges pollution. He notes that 43% of India’s population lives along the Ganges and relies on it for water, yet untreated sewage and industrial water is discharged into it every day. Advocates say that cleanup is needed immediately, before the Ganges reaches a critical stage. (Wait a minute, people are brushing their teeth in corpse-infused water, and it’s not at a critical stage?)

On our nighttime boat ride, Navin led us in a puja, a Hindu expression of worship and respect. Each person floats a candle into the river while remembering departed family members or making a wish for the future. This is one of those things that could seem crassly staged for our tour group (6:00 – feel spiritual, 6:15PM – dinner buffet), but I chose to embrace it.

India has been testing Karen and me, and it can’t hurt to push a few happy wishes into the winds. I just hope the candles, in their dried-leaf rafts, are less environmentally destructive than, you know, rotting dead bodies.


Brotherly Love

We saw it everywhere in India. Men holding hands. A guy walking down the street with his arm around another guy. I noticed it, and it surprised me- funny how ingrained that Puritanical American attitude can be.

This isn’t necessarily a homosexual thing- it’s just another way that buddies hang out, and we even saw older men casually clasping hands as they meandered. For us, it’s a relief after our travels in Central and South America, where machismo is alive and well and so much behavior is prescribed (just ask our Central American friend, who took an hour to nervously come out to us, only to realize that we were completely supportive of him).

With arranged marriages still a part of Indian life, the taboo in India is showing affection to the opposite sex. Public displays of affection are frowned upon, and the guidebooks warn us tourists to keep the public smooching to a minimum. Supposedly, saving oneself for an arranged marriage leads a high percentage of Indians to have homosexual experiences, although I’m not sure how reliable that information is.

It seems to me that the healthiest way of life for a human being is to show affection to those you feel affection for. It was great to see some Indian guys shake things up and do just that.


The Din of Dinner

India isn’t exactly known for its peace and quiet.

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Orchha to the Ganges

Mumbai, Jaipur, Delhi, Agra. We have been traveling India’s well-worn tourist trail. Until now. Our itinerary includes some intriguing, out-of-the-way stops: the small town of Orchha, followed by two days of boating down the Ganges.

Orchha, often fought-over in the 1500s and 1600s, is now best known for its Mughal structures. The Mughal emperors celebrated their control of most of the Indian subcontinent by designing some really cool buildings (the Taj Mahal among them).

We toured the fort that dominates one end of town. It is actually two connected palaces- the somewhat plain Raj Mahal and the more ornate Jahangir Mahal- with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. In the afternoon, we toured a factory that makes paper from scrap cotton. It’s part of an effort to create jobs for locals, though we had to wonder how successful it is. The workers who weren’t demonstrating the process for us pretty much stood around or yelled at each other the whole time.

That evening, we were invited into a local woman’s home for an Indian cooking class. It started well, with the preparation of tea and explanations of ingredients, but then things got, well, boring as we sat in relative silence watching her prepare dishes. As a personal chef, Karen has taught many a cooking class and knows how to keep things interesting (prepare some ingredients ahead of time, keep up a lively conversation, etc.). This one wasn’t quite up to her standards. At least we got to eat the food at the end, and it was delicious.

The next day, we had a day off in Orchha, which left us scratching our heads. We had already spent a day and a half here- what more was there to do? I ventured over to the cenotaphs honoring a handful of Budela Kings. There was a tourist there, walking around with his son, but when I showed up he snapped to attention and turned out to be the guard. He checked my ticket and let me in. After exploring the chhatries and playing paparazzi to the resident vultures, I exited to find the guard long gone and the front gate closed. I let myself out.

Besides that, we couldn’t find much to do. Several people in our group agreed that we would rather have spent an extra day in Delhi or Agra. Karen summed up our malaise when, sitting on Orchha’s main street, she said, “If the world comes to an end, it’s going to look something like this.”

We needed to re-energize, to wake up… so we took an 8-hour overnight train ride. Some people swear by the overnight train or bus (“No need to book a hotel room!”), and while I’m not usually a fan, I slept well this time around.

Arriving in Allahabad, we transferred by car to one of the more romantic-sounding items on our itinerary: boating on the Ganges. Floating in the wakes of kings. I guess. Our guide unceremoniously plopped us into three boats, with no explanation of, well, why we were boating on the Ganges. Is this area historically significant? Is there anything special we should look for on shore? One person in the group asked Navin these questions, but got no answer. So we read our books. The three boats hooked up for lunch- an impressive variety of Indian food prepared while afloat.

We camped for a night on a patch of desert, tossing and turning on thin mattress pads. The next day, more aimless drifting.

Both stops- an ancient town and a sacred river- sounded romantic. While both had their interesting moments, both went on a bit too long.


Just One Photo?

It started in Thailand. Giggly school kids would approach us and ask, “One photo?” At first I thought they were asking us to take a photo of them. When I answered yes, the kid would rush to my side and one of their friends would snap away (usually on a cell phone). Once permission was granted to one, all the kids would want their picture taken with the tall, white farang (foreigner). It happened a few times in Thailand and was cute… for a while.

Then we went to India. Western tourists have been exploring India for years, yet from the intense stares we got, we thought perhaps we were the only white people some of these Indians had ever seen. Once they snapped out of their stares, they would remember that they had a camera or phone and would ask for a photo. So we obliged. Snap, a shot with a woman in a sparkly, green salwar khameez, in Hawa Mahal, Jaipur.

Click, a photo for the man eyeing me up at the Taj Mahal.

He thought it was cool that I would wear the local dress. Or maybe he was shocked to see my lily white stomach peeking out and had to splash it on his Facebook page.

Some “stole” pictures of us as we passed by. Most asked politely, and while we always joked among ourselves about asking for some rupees, we never said it to them. We asked many people why they wanted our photo. They usually didn’t answer our question with words, just the usual Indian head wobble. When we asked our tour guide Navin about it, he said they like to pretend they have a Western friend and show the photos off to other Indians.

Ken’s perspective on this is, of course, recorded on video:

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We felt funny sometimes having our picture taken. We may have been dirty or sweaty or feeling uninteresting. And those are the times when we remembered that turnabout is fair play. Barely a day has gone by on our world tour without us sneaking a snap of an unsuspecting local. We do it all the time, so why shouldn’t we have our photo taken by a stranger too?

We do have our limits. One boundary that I feel the world really needs to respect is not touching a stranger without permission. We are constantly reading about cultural sensitivities in guidebooks and how we foreigners need to respect local customs. So I was a bit shocked at what happened at the location of Buddha’s first sermon, outside of Varanasi. A few of us were approached by a local who wanted to take a group picture. We lined up for him, and then more budding photographers gathered around us. It was brutally hot that day, with the sun beating down, so I had my sarong wrapped around my head and shoulders. One woman charged at me and forcefully tried to remove my sarong from my head, for a more Westernized look to her picture. I replied gruffly that she shouldn’t be grabbing me like that and scowled for the last picture.

Good thing we’re not looking into becoming politicians, because we have no idea what incriminating photos some of these people may have of us!


The Taj Ma-freakin-hal

The Taj Mahal worried me. How could it possibly live up to its associations with grandeur, romance, awe?

The second day of our guided tour started at Agra Fort, a walled city captured and lost by emperors across the centuries. Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, was imprisoned here by his son, Emperor Aurangzeb, in 1658. For eight years, until his death, Shah Jahan had a view of the Taj Mahal from his marble bedroom.

We got a tantalizing glimpse of the Taj in the hazy distance.

Less haze than a few years ago, apparently, when nearby industrial plants were churning out pollution, turning the Taj’s milky white marble yellow. The Indian government, in an uncharacteristically proactive move, created a zone around the Taj Mahal where strict emission standards are in place and banned exhaust-producing vehicles from the immediate area.

Our bus dropped us off at a roundabout, from which the Taj tourist has a choice of eco-friendly transport: camel, pedal rickshaw, electric tram, or your own two feet. Navin loaded us into a tram for the ride to the entrance.

Romance was in short supply, as throngs of tourists jockeyed for position in various lines: tickets, audio tours, entry. As we waited for Navin to arrange our tickets, we had the privilege of watching a toddler take a dump on the Taj Mahal’s front lawn. The only admonishment from his mother was the Hindi version of “hurry up”.

Tickets in hand, we entered the grounds.

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Yes, it was a noisy mob scene. Yes, the morning’s haze persisted. Yet the Taj Mahal was magnificent. First from afar and then up close, I marveled at this artistic and architectural triumph, a marble mausoleum dedicated to Shah Jahan’s beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

This was also Karen’s debut: she added a dash of color by wearing her newly-purchased sari.

Ankita helps Karen manage her new sari

As she wandered the grounds, she turned quite a few Indian heads and became the star of more than a few photos.

Exchanging our shoes for booties, we shuffled into the main building, the tomb. Inside the main chamber lies the exquisite marble sarcophagus of Mumtaz Mahal, and next to it, the final resting place of Shah Jahan (well, their actual graves are underneath this room). The sarcophagi are enclosed by an ornate latticework wall. No photos are allowed but people were snapping away, between admonishments from the guards (also wearing booties). Some beautiful pix show up on wikipedia.

Many of the Taj tourists were Indian, and it was great to see them enjoying their cultural heritage. Signage was forever pointing foreign tourists along one path and Indians along another- why, I wondered? Who was being favored? Just about everyone ignored the signs anyway.

Happily, we were allowed plenty of time here. The idea was to see the sunset turn the Taj pink, but the overcast weather muted the effect. Instead, we had time to sit on a park bench, people watch, birdwatch, and snap more photos. A peaceful evening surrounded by hundreds of people.

Start with the classic view of the Taj Mahal...
... and take two steps backward for this view

Leave it to the Taj Mahal to surprise and delight the weary traveler.


Doing What We’re Told (and Loving It)

Traveling independently takes work. Booking hotels, researching future destinations, and even deciding where to eat three times a day can wear you down. Knowing that India presents extra challenges, we have taken the plunge and signed up for a guided tour. Sure, we have done short excursions, like diving the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and touring the caves of Gulung Mulu in Borneo. This time around, we’re putting ourselves in someone else’s hands for a full 15 days, and we want all of our needs taken care of. No more Internet searches for where to stay. Ta-ta to tuk-tuk drivers and all their hassles. We are ready to be told what time to meet and where to eat.

We signed up for Intrepid Tours’ Delhi to Kathmandu trip. Moving quicker than we normally would, it covers many north Indian highlights, a border crossing, and wild animals in Nepal. Our itinerary takes us from New Delhi to Agra, Orchha, the Ganges River, Varanasi, Lumbini, Chitwan and Kathmandu. India seems like the perfect country to let someone else handle all the logistics.

With Ken struggling to get a taxi in Mumbai and Karen befuddled by booking a train ticket online, it’s time to don the tourist lanyard and follow the guide holding an umbrella in the air. Okay, we don’t think Intrepid is quite like that. However, we are so looking forward to shutting off our brains and going with the flow.

On day one, we met our fellow travelers at the hotel in Delhi. Our group of 12 hails from the UK, Germany, New Zealand, and India, with us being the only Americans. Our guide, Navin (an Indian with Nepali roots), explained the logistics, and then we were off… via a scruffy local bus.

Navin said we had to ride one at least once, and we agree. As long as he pays the fare and tells us where to get off.

We visited the largest mosque in India, Jama Masjid, where the women had to cover up in ridiculously patterned robes.

Then we visited a Sikh temple and learned more about this religion. They believe in a communal approach to helping their worshipers and the community at large. Through a massive volunteer system at their complex, anyone can sleep and eat for free. We enjoyed afternoon tea.

Navin gives us a Sikh briefing. Everyone (men and women) must cover their heads before entering the temple.

Navin led us on a walking tour through the crowded, noisy, dusty streets of Delhi (you didn’t think our Delhi dreamland would last forever, did you?).

Navin negotiating our transport from place to place. THAT's why we signed up for a tour!

Sidewalk stalls sold everything from fireworks to spices. The spices were particularly… sensory.

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For a moment, we found ourselves walking behind some of Delhi’s younger workers, the “scruffy bottle collectors” Ken mentioned in his Mumbai slum post.

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At the end of the day, Navin mercifully whisked us home on the Delhi metro. What will we do tomorrow? Whatever we’re told. Ahhh…


Mainland Madness

We interrupt our India coverage with this China News Update. Today, we left the comforts of Hong Kong behind and hopped to the mainland… a magical place where Facebook and YouTube are blocked. The Facebook workaround that our friend Sherilyn sent doesn’t work either.

Does not compute...

If you know of an alternate way to access FB from China, lay it on us. Otherwise, Karen will just play word games for the next two weeks (Words With Friends still works). Actually, it will be interesting to live in an Facebook-free world for a while.

Stay in touch… by commenting on the blog (we won’t see comments left on FB). Xie xie!