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What We Won’t Miss About India…

9 Feb

So, the post from yesterday is the highly romanticized version of the most memorable experiences of our trip. Just to be totally unbiased, here are the things that we won’t miss.

Let’s start with mosquitoes, not your average mosquitoes, but ginormous ones that carry blood-born pathogens like Dengue Fever, Chikunyunga, Malaria…We personally find mosquitoes to be the most pointless insect in the world. Tell us some reason why they must exist!

We definitely will not miss the pollution, smoke, lack of sanitation, lack of infrastructure, pot-holed roads, garbage all over the place and standing ponds of sewage and urine.

We won’t miss the Indian man’s fascination with the vehicle horn. From strange French-style horns on autorickshaws with a squeeze bulb at one end that sound like a rabid band of clowns rolling down the street to high-powered, high-decibel, ear-shattering air horns that seem to be on every vehicle- including motorbikes. I understand using a horn to warn traffic that you are coming around a blind corner, or that you are overtaking another car, and even as a thank you for letting you pass, but often, there is no discernible reason people use horns in India, it seems as though it is merely to prove they exist. We both swear that we have lost at least a little of our hearing here in India.

We won’t miss the starving, abused and generally neglected street dogs that roam around almost every city and village in India. Will someone please feed and home them or put them out of their misery? If you are looking for a good NGO to give your money to, let it be one of the animal welfare organizations here in India.

We can’t wait to leave behind rickshaw and taxi drivers who are desperate enough for work that you will get asked 17 times in the space of ten minutes whether you want a taxi or not. They don’t take no for an answer, as they rattle off all of the destinations, observation points, temples, etc. that they can take you as if it is some deranged compulsion for them to finish their sentences.

We won’t miss hawkers, especially those on the beaches with their god-forsaken drums, maps, stickers and magnets that hassle you every day even though you have told them, “No!” 493 times…that day. Who buys maps and stickers while they are on the beach anyway? We also will not miss the ever popular hawker patter, “Yes, have a look my shop?”

Last but not least, we won’t miss the hippie tourists that invade India- with their skanky dreadlocks, dirty clothes, smelly body odor, and their vacant stares into space. India is a spiritual country only if you engage in something- not just sit around and bang on your newly purchased drum from the beach hawker.

Cheers!

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Varkala, life on the edge

24 Jan
Well we arrived here in Varkala almost a week ago and I find it a very nice change from the normal beach scene in India. The imposing cliffs (see photo at left of sunset from the cliffs) stop the buildings from pouring onto the beaches like most resort towns and that makes the air and environment a little cleaner and more relaxed. The state of Kerala understands that the beaches here are an important resource and they take care of them and their tourists accordingly. There are teams of women in olive-drab sari uniforms that come and clean the beach daily, lifeguards that actually make sure people are not drowning and police that chase off the ever popular gawking Indian males and drum salesmen.

They fail on one area however and that is what to do with the massive amounts of garbage that accumulate on the cliffs. There does not seem to be a dump anywhere around so garbage ends up being swept off the cliff onto the cliff sides on the approach to the beaches. The cleaners only clean the beach itself and will not clean the cliff sides. The result is very sad; potato chip bags, plastic water bottles, leaflets, and lots of other garbage end up on the cliff sides everyday- and nobody does anything about it. The prevailing theory is that as long as it is not on the cliff top, it doesn’t exist.

But aside from that Varkala is a beautiful place. Watching from the cliffs as the waves and swells on the Arabian Sea roll in while fishermen in small boats along with their helpers bobbing up and down in the blue-green waters, pulling in the days catch is something that can take up hours. The sightings of dolphins in the area are frequent and amazing- the sight of them gliding and jumping through the water stop people on the cliffs dead in their tracks.

We are staying in an interesting place- I don’t know if I would recommend it or not, but the name in itself is something to write about. You see we are staying at Santa Claus’ All Seasons Village and Ayurvedic Resort. Yes, you read that correctly because as we all know when he is not making tiny elves slave over toys in the North Pole, Santa and Mrs. Claus spend all their free time in Varkala, India having Ayurvedic Panchakarma treatments and eating continental food. The room is cheap at Rs. 500 per night and there is a “swimming pool” of which I use the term loosely as it is more a place to wash off the sand from the beaches nearby. The lock broke on our door the other day, and in typical Indian fashion a man came to oil the lock with lavender-scented Odonil, a room freshener. That lasted for a half day and then the lock went out again. Luckily there is another door that leads out to the pool which we can use. The coconut palms around the property are painted with all kinds of interesting scenes including traditional Keralan Kathakali dancers and St. Nicholas. It kind of makes you scratch your head and wonder…

Getting past the hawkers on the cliffs is another story- every shop owner lurks outside their business which looks EXACTLY like the one next door imploring you to “Yes, have a look my shop?” Some are more aggressive than others and I simply try to ignore them. The restraunts on the cliff are very similar- as the dinner hour approaches the workers lay out the days catch to try to entice you. When that doesn’t work they get in front of you while you are walking and lure you with promises of “strong drinks and chilled beer.” When that doesn’t work they ask you questions like; “You walk by here every night and you never come eat here, why not?” Last night a man asked me this question and I turned to him and said with a smile, “I only eat in restaurants where people don’t attack me as I walk by.” He seemed so confused by this statement as if people enjoyed being hounded by restauranteurs as they take an evening stroll.

There are a few good restaurants where they won’t attack you- check out Kerala Coffee House, which doesn’t serve very good coffee, but has great food, Clafouti- who boasts Thai food and a Pumpernickel Bakery-which doesn’t serve pumpernickel bread, and Trattorias (notice the random plural)- which also serves Thai food and has- you guessed it– a German bakery- that only sells croissants and other French pastries.

We are trying to decide what to do with only three weeks left in our trip- do we want to continue travelling or do we want to take it easy? We’ll let you know.

Cheers!

Tiruvannamalai and Gingee

11 Jan

Yesterday Astrid and I took a taxi from Auroville to Tiruvannamalai to check out the Arunachaleswar Temple and see the Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram. The trip was excellent, leaving in the early morning mists, driving through farm lands and seeing people getting their day started. We passed schoolchildren in their uniforms riding bikes and talking, farmers working in the rice paddies, herders moving goats and cows off the road, toward the cattle market, and vegetable sellers readying their stands for the day. We passed through frenetic bazaar towns where traffic came to a screeching halt while horns honked, people haggled and laughed, and dogs barked. The land changed from fertile, super neon green fields, to rough rocky terrain that looked like someone just picked up a pile of boulders and set them down on the landscape to form a mountain.

We arrived in Tiruvannamalai at 9:3o am and went straight to the Arunachaleswar Temple that covers 10 hectares and is one of the largest temple complexes in India. It dates from the 11th century, though much of the structure was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. It boasts the second tallest gopuram in India (pictured at the right) at 13 stories. From the minute we entered the temple you could feel the peacefulness of the place, there were few beggars, few people trying to tout their guide services, and no priests trying to lure you into a puja that you didn’t want. It was wonderful, we were able to walk around totally unmolested and just drink in the beauty of the Technicolor shrines (below), the chanting of the Vedas over the loudspeaker, and the overall serenity of the spot. We sat on the steps of the main temple and watched as the Indian elephant that blesses devotees was led out for the temple closing at 11 am and then watched as the two sacred relics were carried out on a temple chariot by fifteen men (moving to a raucous tune of a horn and drum) to be ceremoniously locked away until the temple reopened later that afternoon.

After the temple we took a short drive to the Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram set at the base of the beautiful Mount Arunachala. As we arrived, the ashram was in the process of feeding about 100 sadhus and other poor people in its parking lot- something they do everyday at 11 a.m. and walked around the site and visited the shrine where Sri Ramana achieved samadhi or conscious exit from the body. The feeling there was incredibly serene and very relaxing.

On the way back to Auroville, we stopped in Gingee (pronounced ‘shin-gee’) to visit the ruins of the Krishnagiri Fort that dates from the 13th century and has been held by many armies including the Vijayanagars, the Marathas, the Mughals, the French, and the British. The only armies that were here yesterday however were an army of goats that were climbing the 500 misshapen granite steps to the top and eating leaves from the bushes in the process. From the top of Krishnagiri, you can look out over the surrounding countryside for miles and miles away from (most) of the traffic noise and people. We could have also visited the Rajagiri Fort across the valley, neither of us felt like walking the 1560 steps to the top of that one!

After a month here in beautiful Tamil Nadu and Auroville, we leave on Tuesday to take the overnight train to Trivandrum in Kerala and begin to work our way north to Mumbai to leave on 14 Feb.

Cheers!

Palolem, Goa

22 Nov

Hey all, just a quick note to let you all know we haven’t dropped off the face of the earth! We moved down south to Palolem Beach on Monday and it is like a slice of heaven. Sure, there’s as many taxis, shops, and dolphin watching boat trips as you want to take…and as many touts trying to get their commission as soon as the whities step off the bus, but AHHHH…it really is paradise. I can imagine what it must have been like twenty or thirty years ago when the hippies happened upon the beach for the first time. Pristine jungle with swaying coconut palms, huge green mountains in the background, blue-green sea and blue skies that go on forever.

It is really beautiful here, the water and the beach is cleaner, there is more wildlife- like the hermit crab pictured to the left, and if you don’t want to, you never have to step foot in a polluting vehicle, everything is right there on the beach for you…as long as you want the ubiquitous “multi-cuisine” restaurants, (which we don’t) because while they may do multi-cuisine, they hardly ever do any of them well. Me, I much prefer a good curry and rice or for a real treat here in Palolem, walk off the beach and into the main part of town to go to either of the two health food restaurants there. Both Brown Bread and Blue Planet serve up tasty salads and GASP, tofu dishes like tofu with mushroom sauce, mashed potatos with grilled onions, carrot orange salad, and bread with cashew butter for $120 Rs., a totally fair price! Now I never thought I would say this, but give me a good grilled tofu with brown rice, steamed vegetables and peanut sauce any day of the week.

We are staying in a beach-front shack toward the north end of Palolem Beach called Brendon’s, it’s pretty good although a little over priced for what you get. I mean, it really is a shack, plywood walls, sloping floors, it rattles and creaks when you walk in it, but hey, look where you are, it’s freakin’ beautiful! If you stay out of the room all day as we do and close your eyes when you do come in, then everything is alright. Besides, the staff are the best bunch of guys we have met anywhere. Bobby, Kumar, and John are our favorites, but everyone is very nice. To the right is a view from our front porch watching the sunset over Green Island and the Arabian Sea.

We’ll be here until Thursday and then off to Chennai and Tamil Nadu.

Cheers!

You know you’re getting used to India when…

22 Nov

You know you’re getting used to India when…

  • …you’re in a shop and you laugh out loud at the first price a hawker gives you for their crap.
  • …you understand why people wear sweaters and woolen hats when it is 26.5°C (80°F.)
  • …there’s a huge explosion nearby and you roll over and go back to sleep.
  • …you no longer say to yourself, “What’s that smell?”
  • …you’re perfectly fine with the shopkeeper giving you four wrapped candies as change.
  • …shouts of, “Hello friend, yes sir, taxi, maybe tomorrow…” are just background noise.
  • …your sense of “personal space” gets tossed out the window. Now you’re just happy if there is enough room for you on the bus and the guy next to you doesn’t stank of body odor.
  • …the layer of dust and grime on EVERYTHING (including yourself) doesn’t make you cringe anymore.

If you have any others, feel free to add them to the comment section!

Cheers!

Puri and Konark

5 Nov

Well, its no beautiful beach town, in fact, part of the town reminds me of this beach ghost town that Astrid and I happened upon in Sicily a few years ago. But what Puri lacks in ambiance, it makes up for with a laid-back relaxed vibe that makes it really easy to be here.

We are staying in Z Hotel on Chakrathirta Rd., also known as CT Rd. Funnily, many people say that CT stands for “Cheat Tourists,” which many of the shops and restaurants are designed to do. The Z however, is a piece of sanity and relaxation away from the chaos of hawkers, touts, and rickshaw drivers. The place used to be the rural get-away house of a Maharaja and the owner keeps it in very good condition. The staff are helpful and the room tariff doesn’t break the bank, which is always good at the end of the month. The sea breezes waft through the room and fill it with salt air, a welcome change from exhaust fumes! To the left is a picture of Puri Beach at sunset just behind the Z Hotel.

Yesterday, Astrid and I rented scooters to go to Konark from Ganesh Tour & Travels, also on CT Rd. He charged me Rs. 150 for each scooter for the ENTIRE day, 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The ride to Konark, which is about 40 km from Puri, was fantastic riding through animal sanctuary lands with green fields, sand dunes, snaking rivers, and incredibly blue sky. It was hot and steamy from the morning rains, but riding on the scooters was so cooling we didn’t even notice the heat. The crowds of crazy drivers that are so ubiquitous in India were also absent, so we were basically on the road by ourselves for most of the journey, passing a bullock cart, a herd of goats, or a bicycle here and there. The cars that were around passed us without incident. This was the first time since we got to India two months ago that we actually had the freedom to do what we wanted to do on our own time schedule. IT WAS FABULOUS! No waiting for a taxi, no waiting for buses, no waiting for anything!

We arrived at Konark around 10:30 a.m. and were immediately dogged by a guide that wanted us to use his services. I had read that this would happen, so we let him show us where to park the scooters and had him show us on the sign board at the entrance to the temple complex that he was in fact a registered guide as there are only 29 registered guides. He showed us his ID and it matched so we accepted his offer. I’m so glad we did, he was very knowledgeable about the temple, the carvings, and the history that we would have been lost without him. It would have just been another ancient temple and we would have missed the intricacies of it without him, as well as the Kama Sutra/ Tantric carvings. BTW, I can’t remember his name, but he was number 20 on the board, just look him up if you are there.

Designed to look like a cosmic chariot of the sun god, Surya drawn by seven horses, which represent the days of the week, the temple sits on 24 stone “wheels” that represent the 24 hours in the day. The temple stands 35 meters high and at one point there was another temple behind it that stood 70 meters high. It is gargantuan! The whole complex was positioned to catch the first rays of morning light that would illuminate the deity inside the temple. For more info, check out the Wikipedia page about Konark and the Sun Temple.

We finished our tour in about an hour and a half and ended up paying the guide for two hours because we were so pleased. This temple is one of those “must-see sights” and you should do it with a guide. It makes if far more interesting.

After getting back to Puri around 3:00 p.m., totally sunburned and hot, we returned our scooters, had a snack and then took a long nap. A totally peaceful day!

Oh, if you ever get to Puri, try Peace Restaurant on CT Road. The food is so fresh and good and they get fresh seafood everyday. Everything we had there over four days was incredible. Try the ten grilled prawns for Rs. 150 or about $3.50 US.

We leave tomorrow for Bhubaneswar and a flight to Mumbai and then Goa to see the Portuguese colonial influence on that side of the country. See you on the beaches!

Cheers!

What I say versus what I want to say:

24 Sep

Over the past couple of weeks I have come to realize there are things that I say to hawkers, autorickshaw drivers and touts when I really want to say something else…

Here is a short list, just for fun: 🙂
Random guy: “Hello my friend, come see my shop/ factory/ restaurant/ massage table/ stall/ you name it.”

What I say: “No thank you.”
What I want to say: “I’m not your friend, get away from me.”

Hotel owner that cheated us in Varanasi: “Did you enjoy your stay in my hotel?”

What I say: “Yes, it was great.”
What I want to say: “Hell no, I’m getting on every travel site as soon as I can and making sure that people are armed with the knowledge that you are cheats and liars.”
(BTW don’t stay at Hotel Haifa in Varanasi…)

Auto/ cycle rickshaw driver: “Hello friend (I have so many friends all of a sudden) come, I’ll take you to **insert ancient monument here**.

What I say: “No thank you.”
What I want to say: “If I wanted an autorickshaw, I would find you, now get fucked.”

There are so many more, but you get the flavor.