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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

Kodaikanal

11 Feb

There isn’t a lot to say about Kodaikanal or “Kodai” as it is known by most people here, except that it is a world away from the stifling heat of the plains. In fact, the high temperatures here are only in the 20s° Celsius. It gets cold at night- very cold for southern India- around 9-10° Celsius.  And it has rained a little every day that we have been here save one.

There are hills everywhere in the town and you get an amazing workout as you walk around- which is the easiest way to explore. Astrid and I took a “walk” yesterday to Silver Falls, about 7km out of town. Our hotel concierge told us that it was an easy walk to take a shortcut through the town. And it was..until we reached the end of the path and realized we had to climb down the side of the mountain on a single track dirt path to get to the falls- in sandals. We finally made it…and the falls weren’t that nice, garbage everywhere, interstate tourists clamoring for a photo, clothes hanging from the branches of nearby trees as if they were swept down the river that feeds the falls. So we stayed for a little bit, ate a pomegranate and walked back- this time by the main road…uphill…very uphill. We figured that we walked about 14 km yesterday- around 9 miles.

That isn’t the only place to walk in Kodai though. A huge attraction is the man-made lake just below town. We have walked it everyday since we got here and it is beautiful- watching the mists roll in over the hills while families paddle around the lake in pedal boats, red and blue kingfishers search for food and purple and yellow Lotus’ float in the water. The lake circuit is 5km and it has been great to be able to get some exercise while we’ve been here- something that you can’t do in most places in India.

I’d definitely recommend coming here, but only for a few days, it can get tedious after that with frequent blackouts and restaurants that close at strange times. Check out Cloud Street Cafe, the best coffee in town, Pastry Corner for a mean brownie, and the Royal Tibet Restaurant which serves up good Chowmein and Momos. Hotel Hilltop Towers has been our address here for a week and the people are really nice and have been good to us. The rooms are clean and it is close to everything.

We leave tomorrow morning to Coimbatore to fly to Mumbai tomorrow afternoon where we’ll meet our friend Hana and check out the most expensive city in India.

Cheers until then!

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!

What We’ll Miss Most About India…

8 Feb

With less than a week left on our trip we find ourselves both happy to be returning home and sad to be leaving. India is such a big country and we have seen and experienced so much of it. I assume that a lot of things will continue to hit me as we reintegrate into the world. There are so many things to miss about India that we don’t quite know where to begin…

We will miss freshly cooked and (more or less) healthy food. Particularly Dosas and Sambar (a South Indian specialty) in the morning, organic/ biodynamic coffee from Auroville, freshly squeezed juices like pomegranate, lime, pineapple, coconut, apple, mango and tangerine for Rs. 40 or less, and grilled tandoori specialties like Chicken Tikka and Nan from REAL tandoors.

We will miss the land; from the tall peaks of the Himalaya, the fresh air of hill stations, the warmth of the plains, the holy rivers, the sparkling waters of the Arabian Sea, the lush tropical jungles of Tamil Nadu, hills that look like piles of stones, coconut palms, beaches, temples, and monuments.

We will miss getting on a train on one side of the country and waking up on the other side of the subcontinent to the calls of, “ChaiCoffeeChaiCoffeeCoffeeChai.” and offers of breakfast and other assorted sundries. Drinking chai on a train is an experience in and of itself-nothing like a shot of sugar and caffeine to get you going in the morning as you chug past farm fields, villages and towns, and waving children.

We will miss the people, travellers with whom we shared time and other travellers who live in India who love their country with pride and are so excited to talk about it. We will miss the hearts and smiles of the Tamil people- by far the nicest people we have come across. As well as the wisdom and persistence of the Tibetan people that now make India home. Most of all we will miss the head wobble- there is no other gesture that is more appropriate for this country.

We will miss screaming down the road on a motorbike…horn blaring- dodging trucks, buses, rickshaws, people, and cows while the wind blows through our hair and the sun warms our skin. There is no other place in India where you can feel as free as you do on a motorbike exploring the world around you.

We will miss warmth by day, cool by night, being able to leave your windows open-as long as you have screens or mosquito netting, and wearing light clothing. We’ll miss the intoxicating smells of India from the fragrant jasmine, to the earthy sandalwood, the smell of burning wood fires, the lighting of incense morning and evening and the odors of spices like cumin, turmeric, chillies, ginger, garlic and curry wafting through the air.

Most of all, we’ll miss the chaos that is India.  The 1.1 billion people who get up every morning and work their butts off in taxis, hotels, farm fields, factories, and schools to make a living and to make their country better.  My hat is off to you.

India, you have entranced us- we will definitely be back.

    Fort Cochin and the Backwaters

    2 Feb

    I can see that Ft. Cochin is a nice place. Relaxed, laid-back, easy-going…you know sleepy. The influences of the spice seekers is plain in the architecture, Chinese fishing nets, Jewish synagogues, Portuguese houses, the Dutch Palace all on a little island that faces out into the Arabian Sea. It really is quite beautiful and although we had a annoying experience at our guest house, there were some things that really stood out. Lunch and coffee at the Kashi-Art-Cafe, walking by the Chinese fishing nets at sunset, tea and dessert at the Teapot, and spice and antique shopping in Jewtown. I totally recommend going to Kochi, but it really is a two-day stop, any more and it gets REALLY boring.

    While in Kochi, we took the opportunity to take a backwater tour that was a combination of a short tour in a “country boat,” read canoe that took on water, and a longer tour of the backwaters in a houseboat that is designed like a kettuvallam, or rice barge. These boats are made of wood and then a frame of bamboo and reed is attached on top. Throw on a few chairs, two boatmen, and 16 or 17 of your closest friends and you’ve got yourself a tour on the Keralan backwaters. It was long, but it was also beautiful. Small islands dotting the waters, pink and yellow lotus flowers growing out of the mud, villages in the middle of nowhere, and gorgeous kingfishers (the bird, not the beer) flying around you.

    We took off early this morning heading to Coimbatore in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu on our way to Kodaikanal, a hill station nearby to do some trekking and get some fresh air.

    Less than two weeks to go! 😦

    Our Last Night in Varkala

    29 Jan

    Last night was our last night in Varkala before heading off on the 6:55 a.m train to Fort Cochin (Kochi) 165 km north early this morning.

    We were treated to a beautiful sunset over the Arabian Sea, the best one since we have been here (see photo at left)– with deep reds and purples over a HUGE fleet of fishing boats that came out like the stars every night. and a great dinner with Chris, a really good friend that we met in Auroville and then met up with again in Varkala. We realized last night that we had hung out almost everyday for the last one and a half months! Chris owns a backpacker’s camp in Kabak Valley, Turkey called Reflections Camp that purportedly has the finest toilet in the Kabak Valley, let alone the entire country. We may take a little time next year to go check out Turkey.

    Here is a picture of Me, Astrid and Chris in Varkala:

    Here’s to good friends! It’s nice traveling with good people.

    Cheers!

    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!