Thursday, March 30, 2006

More Kolkata AKA Calcutta

Okay, for the past few days we've been enjoying the welcoming atmosphere on Sudder street. Arriving here for the second time, almost 5 months later, we enjoyed seeing so many familiar faces. It's like a miniature version of coming home to all our friends. Who could forget the cook, the lassi guys, Mr. Paragon, the cheery little old man selling bags and postcards, the simple man who has an obsession with feet, the rickshaw man on the block, the expressive mutes, the same beggars and most importantly, Bhavna!! It's such a friendly and relaxed place to spend some time. When I say relaxed, I mean a different relaxed from sitting on the beach eating shrimp. Sudder street is the place to sit around and visit old friends while drinking pineapple lassis and ice mochas in the tiny shops or on the curb, go shopping in expensive stores (to escape the heat of the day in A/C) of course never buying anything, muahhah or spending hours on MSN mostly with Grandma, Sandra, Terri and my favorite, Grady. Any one else is very welcome to join in on the conversation!
This morning everyone went out alone and did their own thing. I had a good day starting off with a banana pancake for only 13 rupees and a 10 rupee (25 cents) popsicle while chatting, or should I say miming, with the two mutes. What great entertainment! It's amazing how well you can get a message through with just actions. Great conversation! They were telling me that my nose ring was on the wrong side, that my face looks like Ammons (the tall man with a moustache), telling me what was in the news (since I can't read the Hindi), and some how I managed to understand when they were telling me who the punks on the street are that I should avoid, etc etc.
Another nice thing here is the way we can go out and do our separate things with no worries. We seem to be able to find each other quite easily in the day by asking anyone standing around where Ammon, mom or Bre are. They are always keeping track of us to make sure we're safe. I think they like the family aspect of it all.....though I'm not quite sure I do, hahaha.
All in all it will be a bit sad to leave on Sunday with no plan of return!

Sunday, March 26, 2006


For those of you that HAVEN'T already looked, we have new pictures up as of today!

Shean: You must be telling me about how you're feeling yourself, right, haha? I know that I am 2 months older than you but I feel as good as I did 30 years ago! I'm looking just as good too (I wish), hehehe!! Thanks for the comment we love it!!

We're currently in Kolkata (Calcutta) after our overnight train from Puri. We're all feeling good but it's SCORCHING hot out here!!!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Bodhgaya and Puri

The area of the country between Varanasi and Calcutta is supposed to be one of the more disorganized and lawless in the country. It's therefore not a big surprise that suddenly every train that we wanted to take was hours and hours late. From Varanasi we went 5 hrs east to Gaya. Our train was 4 hrs late so we were stuck at the station waiting forever, then finally got to Gaya at 1:30am. We'd intended to do Gaya as a one-day stop over and leave the following night so we crashed at a cheap place right by the station.
There is nothing to see or do in Gaya but just south of it is Bodhgaya, the number one Buddhist pilgramage site in the world. It is a small village that has the Buddhist temple marking the location of the spot where Buddha was first enlightened under the Bodhi tree. There is still a tree there, it's apparently a descendent of the original tree. (A sapling of the original was taken to Sri Lanka and a sapling of that was brought back later.) In addition to the main temple, almost every country with a large Buddhist population has built a temple there in their own style. It was interesting to be able to walk around and compare Japanese, Tibetan and Thai Buddhist temples. There's a huge difference between them. In our trip's first case of successful theft, Paul had his sandals stolen while we were in the main temple. Damn, he's just not liking India very much.
We couldn't catch our train that night either as we had been on a waiting list and there was no room. The following night we barely got beds reserved to get to Puri. The train was late again so we finally got on at 2 am and it was the most packed I've ever seen on sleeper class. There were the beds and people sleeping on them and then people sitting on the edges too. We initially had only 3 spots to share between 6 people (I was supposed to be with a stranger, which turned out to be 3 others). By 3:30 am the ticket guy had finally sorted out the mess and we all had our own beds and everyone else was SOL. By the time I "woke up" in the morning, my constant cough that I'd picked up back in Orchha the week before had turned into pleurisy and I could barely move. Somehow we managed to check into a quiet place in Puri, where we've been for the last 12 days.
Puri is a holy town on the east coast of India southwest of Calcutta. While this side of India is not known for it's beaches, Puri's aren't supposed to be too bad and are probably the most popular with tourists in the area. The beach is nothing like others we've seen but then I've been too wrecked to make the two minute walk to go see them more than twice. It's hot (high 30s) and humid here but really quiet. The town is small, it's the offseason and there are almost no touts (and those that exist are easy to avoid). In fact, these people are so laid back that it is really hard to even get any service at the restaurants and the shop owners are just as likely to get up and sell you water as they are to send you next door to get it! Not like India at all.... We need that kind of break, especially as it seems we have all been at various stages of mild illness these last two weeks. Definately burn out and pollution related.
On March 15th it was Holi. Holi is a very popular Indian festival in which people (mostly young men) run around throwing dye on anyone they can. Nothing and no one is exempted, not even the cows and dogs! As the dye is quite permanent, there are a lot of ruined clothes by the end of the day so we were practically locked into our guest house compound for our own protection. We just watched the mess from the roof or the gates. Paul decided to be adventurous and walk outside with only his shorts on. Within literally 5 seconds he was completely covered in green and purple dye and his shorts were ruined. As it doesn't wash off skin very easily either it was possible to see people with purple faces and hands for days after the event.
Today we went to Konark (a nearby town) to see the Sun temple. Beautiful gardens around it but in the end much like the rest. The coolest part were the carved wheels that are built around the base as the temple is supposed to be a chariot for the sun God Surya. Mostly we have just been eating, reading, resting and healing these last 2 weeks.
I know you are wondering what we are doing in India still. Well, we are trying to figure that out still. I only planned this trip as far as India originally and was going to work on the rest after I got this far. We are waiting for Bre's renewed passport and are leaving tomorrow for Calcutta where we will pick it up. We'll be in Calcutta a week before heading back to Delhi to pick up visas and hopefully get moving on to new and exciting things.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Like a great behemoth they pull into the station. When I first saw the engines, it felt like they belonged in a time far removed from my own. Pulling about 20 passanger cars, this is the most convenient means of travel within this country. But man, life on a train...
The crowds, people with luggage, the constant calls for, "Chai." I can hardly believe the smells on some of the tracks. Piles of crap that gather when passangers decide to cut loose at the stations. (not supposed to do that) The fat rats that crawl around.
Beggars that climb aboard and go up and down the cars, hoping for a handout. They always think foreiners will be more giving. The boys with brooms or rags, that will sweep the floor by your feet. Then they stick out their hands, expecting payment for a service you really didn't want. The blind men that come aboard. Usually singing and chiming off a tune with their metal staffs. And I can never forget the old man with a can around his neck, because he didn't have any hands to beg with.
Only on the trains, do I ever feel safe seeing military guys, armed with rifles. They walk up and down the cars at night, watchful for any trouble. Many people lock their bags with chains to the trainseats. Not having that luxary I remain vigilant during most of the night. Only when I see them patrolling at 2am do I allow myself rest.
And none will forget the noise. The constant shaking and 'clacking' of the tracks. The low tembre of an approching train's whistle, gradually growing into a torrent as it races by. And at every stop, the vendors that jump aboard, calling out their wares in a tounge I do not understand. One can hardly sleep with so many sounds bombarding the senses.
But one can not give it any faults. It is the best way to move around in this country. One can see it all by simply looking out the windows, while the ever changing landscapes rolls by.


Saturday, March 18, 2006


Ok, so I'm getting a little behind on the writing. I'll try and catch up but break it into parts so it's not such a torture to read. I already said I liked the Golden temple but didn't mention the India/Pakistan border closing ceremony up there too. It is the only open border crossing between the two countries and every evening at sunset there is a very theatrical ceremony put on by both sides that people come to watch. They have the whole thing set up with special uniforms and stands set up for the spectators/participants. It's a huge hit with Indian tourists as they can run around flag waving and chanting through the whole thing. I don't know why but I've always found such displays of patriotism by people and countries amusing in that "watching an absurd little kid" kind of way. Needless to say I just sat back and shook my head and laughed as Indian and Pakistani border guards did a little chicken dance battle with each other across the gate. I hate getting so close to a border and not being able to cross it though. We were all itching to go.
From Amritsar it was down southeast of Delhi to a small village named Orchha, known for it's ruined palace and temple area on an island in the nearby river. Very picturesque, quite quiet compared to what we'd been through recently, we were there for a few days. From Orchha it was an overnight train to Varanasi.
What do I say about Varanasi? For those that don't know about it, let me just say that it is a huge tourist destination and everyone says you have to go. The site is thousands of years old and is one of the holiest places on earth with thousands of Hindu pilgrims coming everyday to the ghats to bathe in the river Ganges. It's also known as an auspicious place to die so people come to die and get cremated on the riverfront, though apparently it's not uncommon to see the odd dead body floating down the river too. The old town is narrow alleys, small shops, holy men, cows, cows and more cows. In short , it's supposed to be the place to see Hindu life and religion in the raw. On the down side, it's horribly dirty and is notorious for having the worst touts, scams and theives. For new tourists in India, it's one of the lower levels of hell and we intentionally routed our trip so that we would come toward the end of our time in India. Having spent nearly 4 months in India now, we figured we were ready for whatever it could throw at us. As it turned out we really didn't have to contend with much.
We arrived on the morning after the Varanasi bombings. One of the places hit was the train station we arrived at. Tons of guards and sections taped off and the building a mess but we had no idea what had happened. Everyone tried to tell us as once but it was pretty obvious from the phalanx of guards and a bunch of damaged area being roped off. As a result of the bombing, everything in Varanasi was super toned down. That first day the town was dead with most of the shops closed in protest. We only stayed in Varanasi two days (too short by most people's standards) but it was enough to get the idea. It wasn't going to be the full-on experience while we were there. The number of people at the riverfront was way down but we did watch the ceremonies and holy men. The cremation ghats were really interesting as we could see all the stages, from bringing the wrapped body to the river (different colour cloth for different ages and sexes), dunking it and putting it on the fire, poking unburnt legs into the center, to cleaning up the ashes and setting up the next wood pile. Then, to add to the misery of Varanasi, it poured on our last day. First time we've had heavy rain since early december and first time in India at all really. Wow! We really hadn't thought about it before but the garbage mess that is streets of India become a lethal mud slick in the rain. It's so gross, especially with people lying in the mud, major splash damage from vehicles or just walking around in sandals when the mud comes up to your ankles. I'm definately not sticking around for the monsoons......

Getting a Rickshaw

Yeah, I'll admit it, I tried to strangle a tout in Varanasi. They are such persistent, interfering people. I wasn't really mad, it was more of a "these people are annoying so I need to kill one now to set an example" kind of thing. You tell them no, I don't want a tuk-tuk and then they mess with your negotiations with a cycle-rickshaw nearby. Honestly, the biggest problem with touts and rickshaw drivers is that they are too busy talking to you to listen to your reply. Once you realize this and stop trying to talk to them, everything becomes much simpler. Only because these people are so small and non-violent have I developed a more confrontational approach to the worst of them (don't worry I won't use it outside of India). Maybe I've been thinking of Sky too much lately but I honestly believe I can fight 10 of them at a time if I have to. Thus I've found that the quickest and most effective way of dealing with a group of touts that have surrounded you and are all shouting at once, is to feign anger, start screaming at them and maybe shove one or two. They quickly get the idea. As an example of what I have to deal with here, in Jhansi we had to get a half hour ride from the train station to Orchha. The tuk-tuks were out there waiting. They started at 200 rupees (double the real rate). I say "no (I always do the negotiations), I'll find someone more reasonable", and they quickly go down to 150 when they see I'm not totally stupid. By then I am surrounded by a dozen guys all shouting the same thing and grabbing you by the arm and trying to pull you to their tuk-tuk past the other guys. So I say no, 125 max. They do their mocking laugh like I am completely unreasonable and say it is impossible. Ok, fine, I'll leave and look somewhere else. As I start to turn away one of the guys that was just laughing suddenly yells "ok, 100!". What the hell? I offer 125, they laugh at me and then I get it for 100? Somebody should explain math to these people. Of course he was a hotel commission tout and tried to make up the difference by taking us to an overpriced hotel but we are totally onto that trick and know how to avoid it no problem.
Then, a few days later, in Gaya, we are negotiating for a ride to Bodhgaya and I am telling them I will pay 50 rupees total for the ride. They wanted 100 of course so we walk and talk to those that stop to try us out. Then to one guy I say "50", he says "no, 10 rupees each". What the hell? There are 5 of us!
If that doesn't prove that they don't listen, I don't know what does. Really there's just no way to tolerate people that are that unpredicatably stupid. I'm not as mad as I pretend to be (most of the time) and I'm still enjoying the experience that is India. We laugh about it a lot afterward. I can see why all the long-term tourists in India don't move around as much so they don't have to deal with the hassle every few days. We have done way more than everyone else travelling this country and keep blowing them away with how much we've covered in India.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Sikh Lesson

Savannah is right, I loved the Golden temple in Amritsar. Not only because it's free (though I do like the fact that I spent 50 cents a day there), but for how I felt and what I learned through the experience. The Golden temple is the holiest place for Sikhs and I guess you don't know much about them so I'll give you a quick lesson.
The Sikh religion was founded in the late 15th century by a guy who is now known as Guru Nanak Dev, the 1st Sikh Guru. It developed largely as a reaction against Islam and Hinduism at a time when the Hindu population (by far the majority) was ruled by a muslim emperor. Everything was very segregated, with a priveledged Muslim class and a very strictly adhered to Hindu caste system. Sikhism tried to fuse the best of the 2 religions and break down the barriers between the different groups. Sikhs believe (among other things) in one God (though he created all the other ones, which are not supposed to be worshipped), reincarnation, they are not allowed to worship any idols, pictures, statues, etc. and they have a free kitchen system (langar) in which all people are welcome to eat together, treated as equals. This was their way of breaking down the barriers between the groups. To this day, any person can go to any Sikh temple and eat at the langar. Try it sometime.
What followed was a rapid regional conversion and an attempt by the various ruling groups, Muslims and later the British (in a way the Sikhs were really the leaders in the independence movement), to destroy them. Consequently they became quite militant, with a long history of bloody battles and long list of martyrs. There were 10 Gurus (one of the later ones introduced the 5 symbols Sikhs are known by namely the uncut hair, ceremonial dagger, bangle, comb and loose underwear) with the last Guru declaring that there would be no more Gurus but their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is considered to be the current and last Guru with everything needed to know inside. It is a collection of writings from the 10 Gurus as well as a bunch of others at the time. The Sikhs as a whole are "ruled" by a "parliament" located at the Golden temple now too.
The Golden temple is a large complex and must be the cleanest spot in India. The central "holy" area (around it are pilgrim resthouses and stuff) is a group of white buildings outlining a large inner square. To get to this area everyone must have their heads covered, be barefoot, and walk through water pools to wash their feet. The inner square is a ~40 ft wide marble walkway that surrounds an inner pool of water. In the center of the water stands the 3 level Golden temple, with a bridge from one side leading to it. During the day the Guru Granth Sahib is housed in the Golden temple and is constantly being read from. The writings are actually "hymns" and there are musicians that continuously sing the hymns for all to hear over the loudspeakers around the complex. Of course it is in a different language but the sound of it I found very soothing. Also, despite the thousands of people that come there every day (50,000 free meals of chapati and dal are served in the free kitchen daily) it does not feel crowded or rushed, and I never felt out of place, a sharp change from everyday India. People leave you alone to do as you like so long as you are respectful. Oddly enough, of all the holy places, temples, churches, etc. that I've been to, I felt this one to be the most peaceful, relaxing and holy. So much for the Dalai Lama and Buddhists in India that everyone else goes to see, haha.
The Sikhs traditional areas were in Punjab and at the partition into Pakistan and India, the Sikh area was split right down the middle, despite calls for the creation of their own free state. Over the years there have been a number of more militant fundamentalists that have wanted their own land (Khalistan) and have been more violent in trying to arrange it, thus giving them a bad name. The 80s we particularly bad (think of the Air India bombing back home).
Who says we aren't learning out here?

Holy Shit

It's such an interesting subject. If cows are holy then so is their sh*t. Therefore I must be very blessed now! To start off with, it should be everywhere! With the number of cows roaming about we should be at least knee deep in it by now! Thank goodness that cow crap has many useful purposes. If it wasn't important to everyday life out here we would be slipping and falling on our butts (like I did) constantly! As it is, someone collects the pies quite quickly and there isn't all that much around considering. Although, I did manage to find a fresh pile while walking with my 45lbs back pack on. I slipped and fell (my vision being blocked by my front pack) on my knee (which I hurt) then because of the weight on my back I landed on my butt right in the slimey ooze! There was nowhere to wash at that moment so I had to continue, with my butt, pack and in between my toes covered in shit other than my own, down the street with the others to find a hotel. It was gross!
Now as far as uses for the stuff (other than embarrassing tourists) there are many. The most important one being for burning. This in itself is kind of yucky! People collect the dung then mix it (with bare hands) with straw and form it into large pancakes and lay it out to dry! Now this form of cow crap IS everywhere, in fancy piles and on the walls in neat rows but thank the man upstairs that it doesn't smell! But seriously this is important because there aren't that many trees around to burn and there are the cows that eat the garbage, and there's a LOT of that around here! So the world goes round!!
P.s. Sorry mom, parden my french but poopy just wasn't going to cut it!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Quick update

I guess we last left you off when we were all in Delhi. From there we have taken an 11 hour overnight train to Amritsar, stayed a couple nights before taking another overnight train for 22 hours to Jhansi then a 45 minute tuk-tuk drive to Orchha and called it home for a few days, from there we took a 14 hour overnight train from Jhansi to Varansasi where we are now! Now to fill in the gaps......
Amritsar is a very holy town in India, it's most famous attraction is the holiest temple, the Golden Temple, for Sikhs. This temple is the equivalent of going to Bethlahem if you're a Christian! The people (98% of which were Sikhs) were extremely friendly and welcoming to everyone. I would love to elaborate but I'm going to let Ammon go into detail since it seems to be his favourite spot in India so far! Keep in mind though, everything in Amritsar is free or practically free so you can't blame him. I mean, it is Ammon after all, haha! For an evening trip we drove 45 minutes out to the Pakistan border to see a"ceremony" they put on every night. It was actually quite the entertainment! They had a dozen or so soldiers in their whole fancy get-ups. It consisted of yelling at the other side and cheering for your own (ours being India), people running up to the gates dividing the two countries and waving the flag around at the Pakistani people, and soldiers marching to the gate and mocking each other! Looking through at the other side made me so anxious to get a visa and see more.....I have to know what's on the other side!!! It truly is a terrible thing to go to a border and not cross over. After Amritsar we enjoyed the ruins in the small town of Orchha. We also got to celebrate our 10 month anniversary there. Can you guys believe we've actually made it this far and for so long!?!? Crazy! As quiet as it was in Orchha, we still managed to draw a huge crowd of guys when we sat down to play a few rounds of cards! Paul and Ammon have been good protectors for their three innocent girls. They have had to stand between us and perverted guys (all ages) with their cameras a few times and Ammon even had to lean out of the tuk-tuk and spit right in some guys face as they finally passed us!!! I know it sounds harsh but they DO deserve it!! It truly feels like having the Papperazzi on your case 24/7 and I've decided I never want to become famous!!
Yesterday as we arrived in Varanasi we had to fight through the expected crowds of tuk-tuk, cycle rickshaws and taxi drivers and the worst......commitioners (people who "help" you find a ride or hotel and expect a percentage and ALWAYS get in the way)!! Either we've been in India too long and it's beginning to get to us or the harrassment is getting worse! Yet again Ammon had to grab somebody by the neck, strangling and threaten him for following us and getting in the way of our bargaining (You don't have to worry Sky! Ammon and Paul are doing a fine job.)!! Because of the 3 bombs here yesterday there were tons of police and military around. I don't think they really cared but they had to beat a few guys to get them off of us! Haha, I thought they only had sticks for a scare tactic but I guess they really DO use them. Ouch! One victim even said "Oh, oh thank you!" after getting a good whack or two on his back and arms. It was like being in the middle of a riot.......that we started. Gotta love India!!