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Leaving India

15 Feb

Well, after over 150 days in India, we left the same way we came in, with a crooked taxi driver. It seems fitting that it ended this way and we were so used to it that it didn’t even phase us in the least.

We got our taxi from the Bandra area of Mumbai, where we were staying with our friend Hana. Hana’s housekeeper went out and got the taxi herself, telling the driver that we were going to the INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT. He quoted her a price of Rs. 250 which is a rip off, but we didn’t really care, we just wanted to get on the plane and get home. Once we got outside with our bags and the driver saw us, we knew we were in for a long trip. Hana’s housekeeper made sure to repeat that we were going to the INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT and that we shouldn’t pay him more than Rs. 250.

The beginning of the drive was decent enough until we reached the turn off for the DOMESTIC AIRPORT where the driver asked (in broken Hindglish of course) if we were going to the domestic airport or the international airport. We told him again that we were going to the INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT and he mumbled something about the price which I didn’t hear. As we approached the turn to the international airport he again asked if we were going to the international airport. We said, “YES! Challo! Now!” he smiled and made the turn. If you’ve been reading out blog, you know what comes next…He said that he thought the housekeeper said domestic airport and that the trip to the international airport was now going to cost us more. We called his bullshit and said, “No, take us to the International airport NOW. You get no more money.” As we began driving toward the terminals, he suddenly made a right turn and went down another road. We yelled at him to stop and got out of the car and told him, “You get no money now!” As we began walking toward the terminals, the driver backed up against traffic and began following us. He demanded that we get back in the taxi and that we pay him.

Astrid noticed a car full of police driving by and waved them over. I saw them too and did the same. I explained that the driver was playing a game with us and was trying to get more money out of us. The police officer got out of the car and beckoned the driver over. What happened next shocked us, in Hindi, the police officer began yelling at the driver, all I could understand was the word “tourist” and the word “rupees.” The driver taking everything in stride went to lean on the police vehicle and immediately had his arm slapped by the policeman. The policeman began yelling even more loudly and then slapped the driver across the face twice before dragging him by his ear to the taxi so the driver could read the meter to him. The officer then dragged the driver back by the ear and told us that “You pay this man nothing, not one single paisa.” We thought okay great, let us go so we can walk to the terminal. Then the officer told us to get back in the taxi so the driver could take us to the terminal…”WHAT? get back in the taxi…with the man you just beat in front of us?” I said, “Get in this taxi?” and the officer said, “Yes, we will follow you.”

So we piled back into the taxi, the driver wouldn’t even look at us and we got a police escort to the terminal with an officer riding in the front of the taxi. As we left, I offered to pay what we agreed to to get there. The officer just looked at me and shook his head. We got out of there as fast as we could and into the airport. I have no idea what happened to the guy after we left. It’s better to leave it to the imagination.

Feeling some sense of relief that that part of the ordeal was over, we settled in to wait for our plane which ended up being a hour and a half late. We knew as we boarded that we were probably going to miss our connecting fight in Heathrow to JFK. Well, we did and since the flight left from Mumbai, Virgin Atlantic doesn’t take responsibility for late departures. They also don’t put people up for the night in a local hotel nor do they give food vouchers. Our only option was to spend 69£ or $140 USD for a room for the night. We also lost out on a prepaid hotel room in JFK. Well we decided to sleep in the terminal instead and it was cold- really cold, but we found a space heater and huddled around it and got at least a few hours of sleep before the flight out at 9:30 am.

At least we got out of Heathrow in time and we made it back to the US at 12:30 pm. Only a day late…not bad. I called the hotel and they honored our reservation for that day. Now to get used to the Western world again…we’ll let you know how it goes.

Cheers!

Anthony and Astrid

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Kerala

21 Jan

It is known as “God’s Own Country” but it is really just India.  We arrived fresh off the train the other day in Trivandrum and decided to try to go directly to Varkala, about 50 km north of the city.  I tried many different places by telephone, but either could not find anything available or felt like they were being dodgy about prices.  After about 45 minutes of calling guest houses and trying to hear anything over the roar of trains, people, PA announcements, (why do local telephones in India all have to be outside where you can never hear what is being said?) and all other loud things, we decided to stay in Trivandrum for the evening – easier said than done…

You see EVERYTHING affordable near the train station was taken by early afternoon.  I mean EVERYTHING!  We ended up spending way too much at Wild Palms Home Stay which was actually very nice and included a typical Keralan breakfast the next morning which consisted of rice noodle patties with shaved coconut and a coconut curry that was reminiscent of a Thai coconut curry- very delicious.  We tried to go to a movie in Trivandrum and that fell through as well- it just wasn’t our day.  So we had some dinner and went back to the room to go to bed.

On first glance, Trivandrum is a very clean city- full of the normal hustle and bustle of other Indian cities, but somehow different.  People are more educated here and most that I talked to speak at least some English.  Kerala’s government has been Communist since the 50s and that may account for the push for literacy- which is amazing for a developing country at 91%! A strange thing about Kerala that I have notiiced is the absence of street dogs- I mean they are gone in Trivandrum itself.  I think I saw one street dog the entire day.

Next day, we took the state bus from Trivandrum to Varkala- which does not go straight there by the way- just ask at the bus station which bus to get on- people are very helpful in Kerala.

So here we are on the cliffs of Varkala overlooking the Arabian Sea.  I’ll post more about this beautiful place later.

Cheers!

Some Pics from Kolkata

30 Oct

I wanted to post some pictures of the architecture around Kolkata. The Victoria Memorial was kind of like a Taj Mahal for someone alive rather than dead and so strangely out-0f-place, yet so perfect right where it is. When you walk around Kolkata, you really begin to realize HOW invested the British were in this city- they really weren’t planning to leave- EVER. Part of me misses the city, the art, and the architecture, but my lungs do not miss the pollution.

To the left, is a street scene from somewhere near BBD Bagh, though you can’t tell from this picture, the traffic was suicidal for pedestrians. Cars absolutely DO NOT stop for anything, even red lights! Add that to the diesel dust, the petrol fumes, the smoke from roadside food vendor’s fires and you can imagine the type of issues you might have walking around in this city- in fact just take a taxi, they’re ubiquitous and cheap, as long as you get them to use their meters.

The highlight of Kolkata though is the Maidan and the grounds around the Victoria Memorial, here you are actually away from the cars, in the trees and shrubbery and grass and you actually feel like you can relax a little. Families walk through the parks surrounding the memorial, bachelor mans and bachelor womans get their exercise, and people just seem to be enjoying their time here. To the right is a photo of the Victoria Memorial at sunset.

We’ll be heading to Bhubaneswar in Orissa on our way to Puri and couple of days at the beach and the Sun Temple at Konark.

See you soon!

A Place to Avoid in Kolkata

25 Oct

So, I just wanted to convey a little story about our first day in Kolkata.  Astrid and I were coming in by airplane because we couldn’t get a train ticket.  Being the end of Durga Puja, many Bengali’s were making their way back from holiday and many of the hotels in Kolkata were still full of tourists, etc.

I frantically tried to call hotel after hotel to get a place to rest our heads, but to no avail.  Either I couldn’t get anyone on the phone, I couldn’t HEAR them once I got them on the phone, or they were fully booked.  Desperately, I finally got through to a place called Capital Guest House near Sudder Street in the Chowringhee area of Kolkata.  They seemed great on the phone, getting us an AC room for Rs. 700 a night and offering to pick us up at the airport for another Rs. 400.  This seemed a little high to me, but beggars can’t be choosers so we decided to take our chances and go with it.

Fast forward to our arrival in Kolkata- everything is smooth, the guy picks us up at the airport as agreed and drives us to the hotel.  The whole time I have this feeling that the place is a dump- it might have been because of the road worthiness of the car which was dubious at best, or the fact that our driver was cross-eyed, greasy, and obviously woke up on the wrong side of the deodorant stick that morning.  Diesel smoke from the cars around us mixed in with the exhaust that was coming into the car from the engine compartment.  Then, without warning the tire popped and we had to wait for the driver to fix it on a busy Kolkata street with buses, cars, and trucks whizzing by all gloriously honking as they went.

After about 20 minutes, we finally got back on the road and made our way to the hotel.  As we pulled in our hearts sank.  The hotel was so shitty from the outside, I wouldn’t want my worst enemy staying there.  I thought “let’s give it a chance and see the inside…” it was no better- tight, scummy hallways with red paan (betel nut wrapped in leaves that WAY too many Indian men chew) stains on the walls, and seedy looking bellhops.  Our bellhop opened the door to our room and I had to stifle a scream. Totally disgusting, dirty, and unkempt, plaster peeling off the walls that were first painted sometime around the partition of India sixty years ago and then left to molder.  The bathroom had a smell that I can’t quite explain with words- kind of that ammonia/ urine smell, but doubled or tripled.  The AC we were promised was barely kicking out cold air.  It was foul- and we were stuck for the night.  When we completed the paperwork, the manager wanted three days rent up front- “No fucking way!,” I thought and agreed to pay for one night and the ripoff pickup from the airport.

After checking in we went straight out to try to find someplace better to stay and have dinner.  After failing to find anything else (but with promise for the next day), we slunk back to our hotel, tails between our legs and went to bed.  Being surprised with dirty sheets and a smorgasboard of bugs that seemed to come from nowhere.

We awoke the next morning VERY early and went straight to the guest house with promise.  We were shown a VERY nice room in a new section of the hotel with a queen size bed, AC that worked, new bathroom, clean, smelled nice, etc.- it was beautiful.  We took it- right then and went back to our hotel to quickly pack and check out.  We sprinted downstairs, threw our room key to the manager at full trot, and ran from the hotel as fast a possible.  As we were leaving, the manager called after us, “Where will you go?”  Without turning around, we both yelled in unison, “SUPER GUEST HOUSE!”

If the story was not explicit enough, DO NOT stay at Capital Guest House in Kolkata- they will rip you off and smile to your face while doing it.  Spend a little extra and stay at Super Guest House.

Cheers!

Kolkata- are we in England or India?

24 Oct

Having just spent the past two days in Kolkata, I have to say that I am impressed.  Yes, it’s expensive, loud, polluted, etc.  But it is a REAL city!  But just when you get used to real taxis, good food, decent people, bookshops, and shopping malls, you turn a corner and run into a squalid slum and realize you are still in India.

That being said, Kolkata is a strange mix of British sensibilities and Indian sluggishness.  Having been the seat of British power in India for over 100 years, you see colonial architecture, well-paved avenues, wide sidewalks, green parks and all the other things that wealthy Brits needed to live in India.

At the same time the streets are lined with indigenous people who have no chance of acheiving any form of the oppulence that surrounds them. These are the same people that were marginalized by the British since they arrived in this land in the 1600’s. In fact at the Victoria Memorial yesterday evening, Astrid and I read that a group of four British Raj paperpushers had a total of 101 servants to everything from getting them dressed in the morning to serving them dinner and wiping their butts. We both realized then what it meant to “never lift a finger.” It is really quite disgusting.

It is difficult to be lower class in this city.  In fact just north of us in what used to be Chinatown (the Chinese have long since left) people are living in slums and lean-tos, or just digging themselves homes in the plentiful garbage heaps.  It is really quite humbling.

We’ll be here for about another week.  I’ll post some pictures later.

Cheers!