A Travellerspoint blog

The Return

McLeod Ganj to Canada

overcast 10 °C

Home sweet home.

I can't believe you can be in a country, in a northern (somewhat remote) town and within hours be able to travel half way around the world and be back home. Still boggles my mind it's possible. But that's what we did!

Our last few days in McLeod Ganj were so nice. Unfortunately for us, Marlee and Huw headed off to their next travel location, Manali (even further into the mountains) so we had our last night together which included dinner at the Common Ground Cafe (of course!) followed by some drinks at a local bar and headed back to the hotel where I crashed early and the other three hung out on the roof of our building.

The next day, Derek and I ended up doing another cooking class with our friend Olga from Germany and her friend, Kabir. It was amazing - we did the cooking class out of a little restaurant in the town at around 2pm, when business had slowed down for the afternoon. We were actually in the restaurant kitchen and it fit 4 of us perfectly. The owner of the restaurant has been cooking for 15 years and his family also works at the restaurant. We made dal fry (lentil curry), chana masala (chickpea curry) and paneer curry (cottage cheese curry although their cottage cheese is homemade and has the texture and consistency of firm tofu). We got to eat the 3 dishes and the owner gave us chapati and rice - total cost of the class was $4/each (crazy). He could absolutely charge more. They were among the best Indian dishes we've had on the trip and we now have the recipes! After the class, we met up with Marlee and Huw one last time at an Italian restaurant (Nick's Italian Kitchen) and they had dinner while Derek and I had our much deserved brownie sundae dessert. Then they left on their bus and Derek and I were solo!

Those last two days were definitely not stressful - we did some last minute gift buying, hit up Common Ground Cafe again for lunch with Olga and Kabir, then went for a drink with Kabir at another restaurant. Honestly, we received more of an education talking to Kabir. He is our age, from Mumbai (they call it Bombay because no one wanted the name changed), was a lawyer and quit his job because he was so unhappy. He was so realistic about life in India. There were definitely more cons than pros to establishing a life here. The corruption, poverty, cultural and religious pressures absolutely made him feel hopeless. He has a rare mindset here... he was told by another backpacker friend that he was born in the wrong country and he agrees. He comes from a mostly atheist upbringing (although his mother is Hindu but tends to be more Liberal in her ideals) so it was very interesting to hear his perspective on his life here. For example, he went through 5 years of law school to graduate, get a job with an American corporate company and guess what his salary is to start. $200/month. Now I know people always say "well, it's all relative". Trust me it's not. India has almost the same cost for gas, food costs, clothing costs and rental fees for apartments. No wonder the majority of the population exist in extreme poverty. Now, he told us he can't move out of his parents house because he isn't married and needs a marriage certificate to secure an apartment. Basically, life here is MUCH easier if you're married. There are apartments he could rent for a bachelor but he needs a $3000 (Canadian dollars) security deposit upfront. Tell me how you can afford to save ANYTHING on $200/month let alone something like that? So like I said... life is somewhat hopeless even for those who have a good education. As for his job, well corporate law is not 'fulfilling' in terms of life goals and after 3 years he was threatened by the company to be laid off (they laid off several employees for cutbacks). They told him that if he produced 100% accuracy on all his work (keep in mind it's in English and is his second language) that they might consider not laying him off. He got to the end of the two weeks... they said even though he produced perfect work they were going to lay him off in two days. So he spoke with his father and decided to quit before having his dignity compromised by a lay off. So now he travels. The kicker is, his girlfriend is also a lawyer at the same firm and because she went to a 'better' school than him, she wasn't on the list to be laid off.

Another fascinating thing he told us was that in India, only 1/3 of the country pays income taxes (of the 1.2 billion people so about 400 million pay income tax). He said that if a man makes less than 180,000 rupees/year ($3600 Canadian) or a woman makes less than 200,000 rupees/year ($4000 Canadian) that you don't pay income tax. Well if the majority of the population makes about $1-2/day max, you do the math... (keep in mind they pay basically the same for food, gas, clothing, etc.). He also said because of the massive corruption that exists, there are many people who are very wealthy and don't pay income taxes because of the 'under the table' transactions. So. Without income taxes being paid what happens? Lack of and poor services for healthcare, education, development, safety practices, proper policies/protocols, the list goes on. How can you have a functioning economy without income taxes paying for fundamental services which are safe and effective? We are so lucky in North America. I can't even explain how lucky we are.

Recently a building collapsed in a neighbourhood outside Mumbai killing over 70 people... well turns out that the land was bought illegally by the developer because they paid off the government officials and not even an architect or engineer designed the building. It was just built by someone who has no qualifications to build a structure. The land was only supposed to hold a 3 story building and they made it 8 stories. Then they took rent money from people who lived in slums and rented them rooms in this building. Then it collapsed and killed most of them. Did anyone hear about this story? It happens ALL the time... actually I was talking to my friend's father about this the other day and how some countries 'sensationalize' horrible events and other countries like India the news is never even heard in Canada. He made a good point and said 'it just goes to show the value of human life' and I couldn't agree with him more. Human life is not valued the same way in developing countries as it is in developed countries. It's heartbreaking. If something like that happened in Canada (which it wouldn't because we have strict protocols which eliminate 'most' of the corruption that would exist to build a building), it would be international news. Yet in developing countries with war, corruption, poverty which leads to death and horrible conditions, we seem to accept it as 'normal' in some strange way but if it happens in a developed country then all hell breaks loose. And it should.


Derek and I ended up having our 'last meal' at Common Ground Cafe and bought two pottery pieces - a sugar bowl and creamer. They were made by a local potter who teaches youth how to make pottery and then they sell it to local organizations. They're so cute! We hired a taxi and drove the 7 (very car sick) hours to Amritsar to catch our flight at 2:30am the next day to Delhi and then to Mumbai. Once we arrived in Mumbai, we spent a night there and the next day hung out at the mall, went to a movie and had some dinner before going to the airport. I don't know what it is but we always get lost right before we need to catch a big flight. Our tuk tuk driver taking us back from the mall couldn't find our hostel so we ended up getting out in the area and walking around before we found out the address we had was for their sister hostel. Thank goodness ours was close, before we knew it we were at the airport and boarding our plane to come back to Canada! It was a long few days but so worth it. Now we are getting rid of our jet lag and spending lots of time with friends and family before we take off on our next leg(s) of our 6 months of travel.

Stay tuned! More to come mid May when we head off for Europe!


Posted by lcmichael 02:43 Archived in Canada Comments (1)

Northern Living

Still in McLeod Ganj

sunny 25 °C

I want to move here. Or at least stay here for an extended period of time.

This part of India is just spectacular. I don't know how else to describe it but besides my favorite Canadian cities/towns, this part of the world is the next place I could see myself living, working and just thriving. You are so connected to nature, have access to some amazing food and people, the atmosphere is so friendly, the community issues are things I could see myself pursuing work in (i.e. Tibetan refugee services). We were reading in the paper the other day that there is a soup kitchen that opened in 2011 nearby and they offer low cost or free meals to anyone, every day. What I loved about this soup kitchen is that they also provide education and training services for refugees to obtain work in the restaurant or service industry. I find soup kitchens are a great resource but they only provide a band aid solution to a huge issue... without the community development aspect of it, people don't have the opportunity to escape their situation and I felt this was such a great use of resources. Hmm... future idea maybe?

So while Derek was off on his 2 day trek with Huw, I bummed around town for the day and met up with Marlee for dinner back at the Italian restaurant. After buying a doughnut from the local bakery, it was back to our hotel for an evening of relaxing (because I really needed it). The next day, the fellas were back by around noon - exhausted, sore and burnt to a crisp. Well, Derek was burnt anyway. He didn't have his neck covered and completed roasted the back of his neck and arms which is apparently pretty painful. So he popped some meds (to the rescue again!) and has become very happy that I brought along my scarves, they work wonders for covering up a burnt neck. We headed into town with Marlee and Huw, grabbed a late lunch at Nick's Italian restaurant (again - Derek said he needed to 'carb load' after the big hike haha) and ended up back at our hotel as Derek was exhausted. We didn't need to go too quickly though before buying some homemade brownies from the restaurant to have later with tea... I cannot say no to chocolate.

The next day we were up to have breakfast with Huw and Marlee, headed into town for noonish for our momo making class. Momos are a Tibetan specialty and are just delicious. They are like wontons or dumplings but slightly different. Our class was taught by this very nice man out of a little room with a tiny kitchen (if you could call it that). He had all the veggies prepped for us and showed us how to make the momo dough, then we learned to roll it our ourselves, fill them (4 different fillings - potato/onion, spinach/cheese, veggie - cabbage/carrot/onion, and chocolate. YES. Chocolate) and the 4 different ways to pinch/shape the momos. The pinching part I had down with my love for perogies and wontons but I had no idea you could shape them completely differently - 'normal' shaped or perogy style, little circles, banana shaped and leaf shaped. The class was great except for the other students... unfortunately we ended up with some pretty ignorant/rude foreigners in our class (I'm not going to say where they're from!) who were loud, mocked the instructor and basically had no manners. It really took away from our experience but hey - we only had to spend 2 hours with them, at least it's not a lifetime inside their own heads! After our momo class, Derek and I headed to a cafe nearby and shared a chocolate tart and lemongrass tea (seriously - make it, just get lemongrass, cut it up and pour boiling water over it! Delicious!). We read our books for a little while, met up with Huw and Marlee and headed to get some Indian food at a nearby restaurant. We haven't had actual Indian food for some time - we just ate so much over the 2 months that the taste/texture fatigue is still present. Dinner was really good but we both have cravings for Tibetan food now, hence our frequent visits to the Common Ground Cafe. After dinner we headed back to the hotel and crashed.

That brings us to yesterday. We woke up to our amazing view as usual and took off for the day. First stop, drop our laundry off at the next town, Baghsu, for some urgent cleaning. Derek's clothes smelled like we had a bonfire in our room for the past week. Next, Derek wanted to take me to this mountain side cafe about 30 minutes away so we started the hike (uphill) and apparently missed the shortcut through the woods because we ended up walking on a road for about 40 minutes. We ended up turning around because we hadn't had breakfast yet and were feeling a little weak (the brownie did NOT tide us over from the night before). We found out later that if we had continued another 20 minutes or so, we would've stumbled across this cafe (we ended up going there this AM). So we hiked back down towards our hotel and kept walking to McLeod Ganj town, bought some road side momo's on the way and hunkered down at the Common Ground Cafe for some delicious dishes - one was a bok choy and vermicelli noodle stir fry and the other was a tofu veggie 'sizzler' with a honey sauce. They use cabbage in a lot of Tibetan dishes which I've never thought to add but when it's grilled/sauteed a bit, it's so good! I'm going to start adding it at home for sure. Naturally came dessert which was tea, coffee and a 'Monk's rum ball' (hey, everyone needs a sense of humor!) with ice cream and chocolate sauce.

We ended up staying there at the cafe for about 3 hours in total - talking yet again. This time our discussion revolved around 'what we have learned/ideas confirmed while in India'. We wrote out a list of about 20 points each (some overlap of course but include things like living simply, reduce waste/environmental impact, stop watching so much tv and a few other enlightened points!) and was such a great way to rehash our whole trip. Our discussion also took us to the glaringly obvious poverty that exists here... I started reading a book at a cafe by Mark Tully from 1990 (he was a BBC correspondent that lived in Delhi) and the first page of his book, he had written that people who visited him here would ask, "How do you cope with the poverty?" and he would reply, "I don't have to, the poor do". I really liked that statement... it's very true. We aren't coping with the poverty here whatsoever, we're just being exposed to a certain degree of it but in no way do we live it. Derek had a great way to sum it up - he said, "Someone sure had to suffer in order for us to be able to pay $20/night or less for a really nice hotel/hostel" and he's so right. The costs are so low here and we pay them. In fact, most foreigners bargain people out of a profit. I felt some guilt over this although we weren't too bad but still participated. When it comes down to it, what we're bargaining down is the difference of $0.50 - $1.00... not much of a deal for us and definitely not for the person selling the product/service. It puts it all into perspective, we think we bargain them because they can go lower but in fact, the person selling has no other choice but to accept our pitiful offer because it's better than nothing. I read in a newspaper one day that there was a company boasting about how they had the best daily pay for their employees (I don't remember the company or what they were selling) but they paid 214 rupees/day which equals approximately $4.00/day Canadian dollars. That makes my stomach churn... the price of gas is the same as in Canada (and more expensive than in the US!) and look at the wages. Of course other costs would be lower but we learned quickly that the majority of Indian people do not own homes but live in 'shacks' or other temporary housing which turns out to be for long term. So. What have I learned? Let the bargaining go. Unless you see someone trying to take advantage of you and rip you off, then bargain to what the cost is standardized at but otherwise, let it go. Reducing the cost of a tuk tuk to your hotel by 10 rupees is about $0.20 - let it go. We've really tried to tip wherever we go. It's no skin off our backs but at least the tips go into the pocket of the worker, not the employer (we hope so anyway).

Tangent. Again.

After our wonderful few hours at the cafe, we headed down the streets to go volunteer a couple hours at an English exchange class for Tibetan refugees and ran into a friend (Olga) we met in Goa who is from Germany! The 3 of us headed to the school together and had a great time working with the refugees. I was paired with a Tibetan monk who was my age (27) and had a 5 year degree in Buddhist studies, he has lived in McLeod Ganj for the past 7 years and enjoys his life thoroughly. Derek was paired with a refugee who he said was quite shy and not very confident with his English but soon opened up to Derek and they had a great couple of hours as well. After the class, the 3 of us went to a Korean restaurant for a delicious meal and one of Olga's friend's from Mumbai met up with us there. He was a lawyer who quit his job to figure out what he really wants to do with his life, he felt unfulfilled so decided to travel around his own country for inspiration. It just goes to show, it doesn't matter what profession you are in, you can be unhappy and unfulfilled. It's funny though that Derek has applied for law school and this man (same age as us) was realizing it wasn't for him. Derek's in a different part of his life though where he has done several things which haven't made him as happy as he realizes practicing law will make him. Plus, the Mumbai lawyer was working for a US company and on a computer all day, every day - that is not Derek. After dinner it was raining so we grabbed a tuk tuk and headed back to our hotel! A perfect day.

This morning we made the hike to the Eagle's Nest Cafe in the mountains and the 30 minute hike was actually 50-60 minutes, but it was worth it. Just amazing views with valleys and mountains all around us while we enjoyed some honey/lemon and mint tea. Then we headed back down to McLeod Ganj, had lunch at a Tibetan restaurant, did some shopping and are now here! We are meeting Huw and Marlee for dinner at... where else but Common Ground Cafe for dinner! They leave tomorrow for Manali which is about 11 hours by car further into the Himalayas.

That's all for now! I keep going back to review the posts because I can't stand spelling mistakes but I know I'm making them... just ignore it for now. haha


Posted by lcmichael 02:14 Archived in India Comments (1)

A Taste of Tibet.

Shimla - McLeod Ganj

sunny 20 °C

NOW we are in a heavenly place. McLeod Ganj has possibly topped Shimla although they are quite different places. Maybe it's because this is exactly what we're looking for at the end of these 2 months... cafes, (consistently) amazing food, great people and further cultural differences.

Let me start by explaining how we made it here. We finished up our incredible time in Shimla with another trip back to Cafe Sol (so worth it!) and our last nights at the YMCA. I would definitely stay there again, cheap (~$14/night with breakfast included) and forced exercise because you have to climb a bunch of steps to get up to the hostel. So... we were fed, relaxed and have probably the best legs around. Derek might have me beat... he's got some pretty great legs. Anyway, our second last day in Shimla we decided to take the infamous 'toy train' about 5 hours south from there to Kalka and then hired a taxi to drive us back. The toy train chugs along the mountains at about 20km/hour max so it maximizes the scenery and would not be considered a transportation method to take if you're in a rush. The point of the toy trains years and years ago was to make these hill stations/mountain areas accessible by train so they created smaller versions of regular trains. Unfortunately for us, we booked the 'basic' toy train and not the one that gave a little more of the romantic experience.

We headed to the station to catch the train and when we jumped on board, we realized it was not quite the romantic, tiny train experience we were expecting. Yes, it was smaller than a regular train but not as small as we thought it would be. Plus, instead of dividers between sections of seats, the entire car was open... this will affect our experience a little later. So we find our seats and unfortunately Huw and Marlee weren't sitting in seats facing us, but were right behind us so we couldn't really talk on the train. As we are leaving the station, the 'romantic' toy train rolls by and we sigh just a little bit. The seat in front of Derek and I was accommodated by a local family of a thousand (seemingly) - no, more like 6 people. There was a mother with her 1 year old baby (Victoria) and 4-5 other small children up to the ages of 11 years. The bench seats on the other side of the isle included the remainder of the family, the woman's 2 sister in laws, her husband and a brother in law along with a few other children. So here we go... starting on our 5 hour journey. The family starts asking us tons of questions (because we're foreign), including "How do you like India?", "Are you married?", "How old are you?", "How much money do you make in Canada?", "Will you please come with us to our house?", "Why don't you have a nose ring?", etc. You know... the usual questions from strangers.

Then the photos started. I swear Derek and I posed for pictures with every member of that family. Then we were told that they were so happy and these pictures were going to be put up in their homes. They were a pretty great family though... all on a family vacation together for their summer break and the kids were adorable. Derek and I were invited to 'break fast' with them (I declined as my stomach was a little iffy from the train ride) and Derek sat with about 10 locals as they unwrapped a big newspaper package with potato parantha (it's kind of like a pancake with potato-spice filling) and they tore bits off and ate together. I knew it would be a matter of time before the parantha made it to me so I obliged and took a few pieces and dipped it in some curd (like cottage cheese). Our ride continued... Derek escaped to the door of the train to watch the scenery and chatted with a 15 year old local boy about his love for American style wrestling. They played Uno for a while as well. Derek said it reminded him of spending time with his younger brother who's almost the same age (I think he really misses him!).

My time, however, wasn't spent so much taking in the views of the lush, green mountains but 'entertaining' the families in our neighboring seats. We played some games, I showed them the 'FaceFusion' app on my iPod which was pretty hilarious and was asked over and over to come with them to their homes for dinner. How many ways can you refuse something nicely? Apparently there are many ways! Huw, Marlee, Derek and I decided we couldn't do the 5 hour trek and ended it at a station after about 2-3 hours. Our taxi picked us up there and we drove back to Shimla which left us pretty tired from our very eventful train ride. I think maybe taking this train instead of the other option gave us more of the local perspective so it worked out well! I met a great family and was reminded how exhausting children are. Hah.

With the 4 of us travelling together, it makes transportation more affordable when deciding to book a taxi. We could leave whenever we wanted, the travel time was less and we got dropped off right at our new hotel in McLeod Ganj! The drive was about 8-9 hours and seemed to go by quickly. We were dropped at our hotel about 1km from the main town, at a place called Greenwood's Inn, and were so happy with the decision to stay here. It's by a monastery off the beaten path and backs onto a valley with the Himalayas within view. The snow capped mountain peaks are a sight to see! Then there's the town of McLeod Ganj... full of Tibetan, Indian and foreign people, monks, cafes, NGO's, restaurants and lots of shopping. There are tuk tuks here which is a change from Shimla but still not very many. Marlee has unfortunately been sick and has had to stay in the room (we all have had colds over the past few weeks), so Huw, Derek and I went our first day into town to walk around and check things out. There is a Cafe Coffee Day here but when you see the other incredible cafes, you quickly forget about our tried and true spot! For lunch, we went to a place called 'The Common Ground' which is a not for profit restaurant that provides the community with services to 'connect' people and organizations. They have meeting spaces as well. The food is cheap and out of this world. It serves Tibetan cuisine and our meal made it to our top 3 list in terms of best meals to date. Derek and I had cold peanut noodles with a sesame sauce, steamed spinach/tofu with garlic/butter (best spinach ever!), cabbage pillows which has a filling of rice noodles, tofu, garlic, ginger and other spices and it's wrapped up in cabbage and steamed. Huw ordered a few meat dishes along with steamed pork buns. So. Our meat-free streak may have ended here. It was SO worth it. We had 1 each and they were absolutely delicious - plus there was no vegetarian option so I mean we HAD to try it... right? Hah. No meat since then! But I am glad we indulged. Top the meal off with homemade lemon iced teas to drink (India makes the best iced tea - it's pretty standard on menus!) and we were happy campers. It doesn't end there though... we felt that because of our really difficult day of lounging, we probably deserved dessert. So the chocolate almond square with ice cream and caramel was ordered and split between us. So good. The rest of the day we spent walking around and checking out the amazing shopping. Tibetan crafts/trades are quite impressive, a lot of metal works, intricate needlework, handmade statues - it's a lot to take in! Then it was back to our hotel where we had dinner there, Derek and I watched a movie on tv (Twister) and to sleep it was! The next day, we switched rooms to across the hall because of the incredible view off our balcony... such a great call. I think we're going to be staying here for the rest of our time in India we just love it so much!

Yesterday, Derek and I got up and headed town, hit up a cafe right away to read the newspaper and have a little caffeine. We were there for over an hour just talking... it was so nice. I love how travelling allows you to clear your mind of 'clutter' so you can have those moments of self reflection and realization. They happen quite a bit with us - our 'heart to heart' chats are quite common and we just grow closer every day. That sounds cheesy but it's true! I realize while getting older that it takes a lot more than having a career, a house, children, etc. to keep a relationship strong. You need those other life experiences so you can both connect long term on a deeper level. I have seen too many people separate/divorce (or stay together and be miserable!) because they 'don't know each other anymore' or 'don't have anything in common' after so many years. The connection has unfortunately faded. My mom always had good advice with regards to a keeping a good relationship strong, she told me to make sure that the conversations between me and my partner include the 'big things', not just talk about the 'little things' which are insignificant in the long term success of a relationship. She told me to have those heart to heart conversations and keep the common interests about 'bigger things' alive as those create a solid fundamental base.

Derek and I have been told on several occasions that we're 'lucky' we can do these things like travel - and it's true, we're lucky we can choose to leave our jobs to pursue our passions and find out what life is really like in order to be truly happy. But. That didn't come without sacrifice. We had to move away from our families a long time ago, change provinces/countries several times in order to work in jobs that allow us to make these decisions. It's tough. We miss our families so much. We just know these are things we need to do in order to be fulfilled in all areas of our lives. Moving out of our comfort zones and taking big chances are difficult but they are so important. Luckily we have amazing families who support us and understand why we do the things we do. We couldn't thank them enough... it has meant the world (literally!).

Hmm... off on a tangent again huh?

Last night, Derek and I went to an Italian restaurant called 'Nick's Italian Kitchen'. Let me paint this picture for you... cute little restaurant with homemade baked goods on display... homemade pasta, gnocchi, pasta sauces. Derek got the apple iced tea and I got the peach iced tea - of course it was delicious! Then we ordered the homemade ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and cheese in a homemade tomato sauce and fresh baked garlic bread. I ordered the homemade gnocchi in a butter/garlic sauce with mushrooms. Holy jeez it was delicious. Actually, talking about it right now may inspire me to head there for lunch again today!

I am solo at the moment - Derek and Huw decided to do a 2 day hike towards the snow line. They have a guide and they stay at a hostel tonight which is on the way (or in the back of a cafe if they do another route haha). They were so excited! Marlee and I are sticking around here, she's still quite sick and I don't mind the time to relax (because I really haven't done that enough!). We leave from McLeod Ganj next week on the 15th to catch a flight from Amristrar to Mumbai before taking off. We couldn't have asked to end our trip in a better way.

Please come to McLeod Ganj if you ever come to India. I promise you will not regret it. Might even change your life a little!

Also - love getting all those comments! Thanks SueAnn and Bill for your great words of inspiration and reflection. Love/miss you all!


Posted by lcmichael 23:48 Archived in India Comments (3)

Holy Holi!

Jodhpur - Jaipur - Rishikesh - Shimla

overcast 15 °C

Here we go. This will catch me up!

The morning we left Jodhpur, we were up around 5:30am to get a tuk tuk to the train station. Little did we know when we arrived, we were at the wrong train station so in a moment of panic we fortunately hired another tuk tuk to take us to the right spot. But the panic didn't quite subside there, we go to our train and got on the car we thought was ours to find it deserted so Derek took off running down the platform (they are REALLY long trains) until he found our names posted on the list at the correct car. So we grabbed our bags and ran down to find our seats. Derek and I were in the 2AC class (2nd class with AC) and Tracy and Neil were in the 3AC class (3rd class with AC). We couldn't sit together only because of the limited seats they have for foreigners but we lucked out because the train was pretty much empty. Derek and I had 1 other person in the whole car and no one in our little bunk area. Tracy and Neil on the other hand started out in their seats but with a family beside them and shrieking children, then the family would ask them to explain the story of Christmas to them (which might've been a bit of a stretch haha) and gave them cheese (which I think they ate and survived) and then they moved to another cabin to get a little peace and quiet. As Derek and I slept through most of the 8 hour trip, they ended up having some company - a man sat with them who was some type of 'healer' that claims he is able to cure cancer and other illness (there's no way) but he also paints these traditional miniature paintings. Derek went to visit Tracy and Neil and met this man who also spoke French so they talked for a bit before the man awkwardly tried to sell him the paintings... Derek tried to be as polite as possible and said no and came back to our car. There we are, reading quietly with our curtain closed and who comes popping in but this man again! So I met him and he gave me a brochure on his 'healing' practices and also offered to bring his paintings down and I had to say no... always so awkward! Tracy told me after that he read her fortune or something along those lines as well.

We land in Jaipur and get picked up to head to our homestay - All Seasons Guesthouse. I would absolutely recommend it for anyone travelling here. It was a family who ran it and it was connected to their beautiful home. They had 4 rooms they rented out and were just stunning with a little garden in the back. We had our usual 'welcome tea' and then the owner's personal driver dropped us off at this 'fast food' place - the first floor was this awesome bakery, the second floor was the 'fast food' which is really just healthy Asian/Indian foods that can be made quickly, not fast food like how we think of it! Back to the homestay we went and the first night the 4 of us stayed in 1 room together (sleepover!) because there wasn't another room available until the next night. We also had a debate about a certain scene in the Wedding Singer movie which Tracy and I won against Derek when we called Maria to make the call. Haha

The next morning we had an amazing breakfast in the owner's house (chickpea masala with bread, fruit, tea), headed out to the area near the old city to the market to buy Holi powders (the natural dried flower type so it wasn't toxic), headed to the actual old city which was pretty gross and smelly. They were emptying a sewer so it made the whole area stink pretty badly. Before we left, we did get to try this sweet orange desert from a street vendor, looked like a funnel cake in design but was a harder sugary type of food. It was pretty good! Then we were out of there quickly. We ended up meeting up with our friend Rosie (from the UK) and had lunch at this place called Ganesh, did a little shopping, back to our homestay and went to the infamous elephant parade which precedes the Holi festival by 1 day. Unfortunately for the parade, animal rights activists had protested the use of animals in the parade so the decision was made the day before to exclude the elephants. Not saying that I disagree with their decision but it made the parade a little boring. Plus it was difficult to see over everyone standing up in front of you! But they did have some great music and different tribes that represented various regions of India. Also, we ran into Huw and Marlee at the parade (our new friends from Australia) so the 7 of us went to a chocolate shop called Nibbs (delicious!) and indulged in a few things (I had the chocolate brownie shake - ahhh! So good!). Outside of the chocolate shop we noticed that people were building these straw like teepees with different things placed on them, we found out later that for the Holi celebration these are burned at night. I wish we got to see that! That evening the crew of us went to have some dinner and then to our first Bollywood movie - now that was an experience. It was super cheap ($1.00 for a popcorn and drink, tickets were about $1.00) and the theater was so nice with the exception of the massive rat that ran across the floor of the lobby and under the next bench... ughhhh. The rats here are HUGE and disgusting.

We head in the theater (we had assigned seating - amazing) and of course get all the stares of people. It never ends! The staring, taking pictures of us, it's like we're these never seen creatures. I guess there aren't a ton of foreigners that come here compared to other countries but it does get a bit annoying. We joke around about what they do with our pictures - put them in an album to show people that come over about all the white people they've seen? haha. So we start watching this movie which has no English subtitles but you can pretty easily follow along. The difference between watching movies at home and here is that people cheer and clap at different scenes. The men hoot and holler like crazy when women come on the screen. Babies in the audience are crying and it's totally normal because everyone else is talking or cheering. We left at intermission (they have that too!) and asked a local to take our group's photo - big mistake. The man didn't know how to use the camera and we attracted a crowd of men also taking our picture of about 20-25 people. We left before he took our picture and had it taken outside when no one was around. Oh the joys!

The next day was Holi! The festival of colors! We started with breakfast (amazing yet again - potato paranthas with plain yogurt) and then the family invited us to 'play' with them to celebrate Holi on their front yard before we headed to the group celebration at the government site. Huw and Marlee came over and the host family had all these powders, buckets of water, squirt guns ready for us and we had so much fun! Their son (about 10 years old) played with us too and he was adorable. Then both parents joined in! After about half an hour, the owner brought out trays of snacks and had to feed us because we were covered with water and powders - it was pretty funny. She went around popping these sweet desserts into our mouths. Haha. From here we walked about 15 minutes to the government celebration (which was free!) but en route we quickly realized the downside to these celebrations/festivals (like in any country) - the drunk and high local men/boys that just want to... how do I say it... feel you up while they douse you with powders. Ugh. There were several men who were so nice though and never did anything like that (obviously weren't intoxicated). It was kind of like New Year's celebrations I guess? Anyway, we get to the government celebrations and they have a band playing and tons of people in this little outdoor space - everyone is so happy, throwing powders, taking pictures, dancing! We had a blast! We stayed for a couple hours and then headed back to our homestay to clean up which took a while as you can imagine. Our shirts went in the garbage and we ended up just hanging out the rest of the day (ok I slept... the rest hung out with the host family). That evening we had dinner at the homestay (delicious yet again) and had our last night with Tracy and Neil before they left for Mumbai! The next morning we got up, had breakfast together and walked them to get a tuk tuk... it was so sad to see them leave! We wished they could have stayed for the rest of our time here but apparently they have to work. Hah.

We spent the rest of our last day in Jaipur booking travel tickets to get to Rishikesh (which is heading north towards the Himalayas) with Marlee and Huw. We took off early the next morning (5:30am) on a 4 1/2 hour train to Delhi where we got a taxi to the bus station. This was an experience in itself. The bus stations are all pretty disorganized and you never know where you're supposed to go as there's no actual ticket counter. This man asked where we were going, we said Rishikesh and he took us over this pedestrian bridge, down this random alley (we were wondering if we should turn back at this point) and finally to a tourist bus which would get us there in 7 hours. We jumped on, got our usual stares from locals and made the trek to Rishikesh where we had to take a tuk tuk for about an hour to get to the area where we wanted to stay. As we got in pretty late that evening, we had to settle for whatever was available so found some rooms at this hotel which actually had an amazing view and we bargained the staff down to about $26/night for a double room with bathroom. We really wanted to stay in some of the Swiss cottages around there and then next day spent too much time walking around, going over to the Ashram's via the pedestrian bridge which crosses the Ganges and realized that everything is booked up solid. Didn't realize how busy it was going to be coming north and then were told it's now summer vacation and lots of people in the south come north to get away from the heat. We ended up staying at the hotel for another night and the rest of the day we spent it over in the Ashram part of Rishikesh, went for a swim in the Ganges in this isolated area which was really clean and then went to this area on the river where every evening they have a Hindu ritual and tons of people crowd the stairs to witness everything go down. Not really sure what was happening but lots of prayers, people would light a candle in a little banana leaf boat with flowers and place it in the river. That was pretty neat! Overall though, not a huge fan of Rishikesh... maybe if we had planned it differently (or in advance).

As we couldn't book bus tickets at the tourist places, we had to get up at 5:00am the next day (getting really tired of these early mornings!) to take a tuk tuk the 1 hour to Haridwar to try to get a bus to Shimla. Turns out, there are only government buses available (think the most basic mode of transport for locals) and it's a 10 hour journey. We have no other option... the train would've meant we would be transferring 3 times in one day and we might've missed one transfer... Oh my god. The bus was horrible. The 4 of us got the last seats at the very back of the bus (the worst place to be because of the bumps) and the staring was at a maximum. The man sitting right in front of us literally turned all the way around and just stared at us most of the way. When you stare back, they never look away either. So think about someone staring at you sitting 1-2 feet away and they never lose their gaze when you look at them. CREEPY. When Derek brought out the iPod to play a game, he would lean right over and watch him. Makes you feel so uncomfortable. That wasn't the worst of it though! The first 3 hours of the trip, I swear we were on roads that had potholes every 1/2 foot. It was insane. There were several times when the 4 of us got about 1/2-1 foot of air from being bumped around so much. We were even yelling out a bit because we were being tossed around so much. I kept thinking, I can't do another 7 hours of this... when finally we got onto another road which was a little more decent.

We finally made it to Shimla and had to take a local bus to this area in order to walk to our hotel. It was all uphill which was interesting with our bags but we made it there and had a delicious dinner (it was Easter Sunday) of poached trout with a butter sauce, mashed potatoes, steamed veggies and a homemade brownie with ice cream for dessert. It was so good! The 4 of us shared a room for the next 2 nights before moving closer to the actual town about 2.5kms away (which we walked as there are no tuk tuks and limited taxis here) and now we're at the YMCA! It's a lot cheaper, we get our own room and we are in the middle of this incredible town. It's hands down the best city we've been to yet. It's nestled in the amazing green mountains and we can see the snow capped Himalayas in the distance. It's like a Swiss-Indian town, there is no littering or spitting allowed, there are no tuk tuks, very few cars and the air is just amazing. They actually have garbage collection which they dump in one place instead of literally everywhere in other Indian towns/cities. The people are so well dressed everywhere in India but here is just above and beyond. The men are so distinguished and wear a collared shirt, sweater, blazer, dress pants and nice shoes. All of them. The women are (as usual) in their gorgeous saris although we've seen a lot more Indians wearing 'Western' clothing. We still get stares but not near as much as other places and I haven't noticed people taking our pictures... doesn't mean it doesn't happen but it's much less!

There are tons of little shops, no one is bothering you to buy things - it's so great! They have great restaurants - Chinese dim sum, European, homemade pizza shops, French fry stands, you name it! Much more Tibetan/Nepalese food here as well because of the vicinity to those countries. Derek and I went to a place yesterday called Wake n' Bake which makes homemade pizzas, hummus/homemade pitas, falafels, quiches, tacos, Shepherd's pie, crepes, etc. and it was delicious. We're meeting Marlee and Huw for lunch today at this spot called Cafe Sol which has lots of Western/European food so should be good! Our first day here we did the hike up to the Monkey Temple which was all uphill and I realized how out of shape I am. Monkeys everywhere and you had to take a stick with you because they are known to attack. It was neat though!

I just love it here... although we didn't expect the temperatures. During the day it's about 15 degrees and at night it's about 5-10 degrees so it's cold when you don't have the proper clothing! We're going to get a sweater today as we head further north (we heard it was snowing there!).

Whew. Finally caught up on everything! Only 2 weeks left in India and back to Canada... can't believe how quickly time has gone by but also looking forward to getting home for a bit before taking off again!


Posted by lcmichael 00:04 Archived in India Comments (2)

Elephant Jam.

Varkala - Alleppey - Delhi - Agra - Jodphur - Jaipur

It is much more difficult to find a good internet cafe here than in SE Asia! But here I am. Need to catch up so I don't forget everything we've done!

After our interesting beach experience in Varkala, we grabbed a (crazy/fast) taxi ride to Alleppey which is a few hours north of Varkala. This is where the backwater houseboat excursion will commence (thanks to mom again for treating us!). Apparently in Alleppey, there is a huge network of backwater 'roads' which have been used for years and years for transit. It's so neat - think regular neighborhoods but the roads are rivers. The four of us land and go to pick out our boat - we chose a 2 bedroom with AC and a really great crew (including Bernie, our captain). Derek went into town with the man who owned the boat on his motorcycle to buy necessities (a few celebratory drinks) and they were pulled over by the police because the driver wasn't wearing a helmet (the law here is the driver has to but anyone else on the bike doesn't... makes no sense). Anyway, apparently that's no problem because the driver sweet talked his way out of any fine and off they were. We cast off for the next 24 hours, floating down these river roadways, into larger lake areas, all with rice fields, palm trees and houses surrounding us. The people watching was incredible - you just realize that life can be very different for people in these parts of the world. Washing clothes, dishes and bathing is all done in the river right on their front steps, running water and plumbing (and electricity) is a luxury and it's very obvious we (of the Western world) take it all for granted. We take so much for granted actually. Those things we could 'never do' such as bathing in water which is obviously unclean and used by hundreds of others is just the way life goes - we are spoiled... so spoiled.

Bernie docked our boat about an hour in and the crew made lunch for us - local grilled fish, curry, Keralan rice, chapati and Thoran. Off we went again and spent our time lazing around our sitting area which was open to the air, reading, having tea - it was so relaxing! The crew made us banana fritters mid afternoon (delicious) and then we docked a few hours later to have dinner (similar to lunch) following by some 'celebration beverages' and card games while a lightening storm entertained us across the sky. After a good sleep, we were up for breakfast and then it was time to dock. From Alleppey we hired a taxi to take us to the Kochin airport for our flight to Delhi to start our travels in the north. The airport was great - had some biryani (like a rice mixed curry dish) and did some reading before our flight took off.

They have newspapers in English in most if not all states so we've had the opportunity to read up on what's going on - the sad thing is, the regular news articles revolve around domestic violence and rape against women. There are at least 2-3 articles on women/young girls attacked and raped regularly... it's so sad and just leaves a pit of anguish in your stomach. We've talked about why some men feel they can treat women this way, we sort of came to the conclusion that it's the culture surrounding sexuality. Movies portray women as 'helpless', 'shy' and luring men in coy ways, on tv there are words bleeped out that we would never think as sexual such as 'underwear'. Maybe it's because of the taboo nature of sex and also the media's portrayal of women in movies and on tv? Just a few thoughts... if I did some research I'm sure I'd find a lot more. That being said, not all Indian men are like the men we read about - in fact the majority are just great men who are standing up for the rights of women in this country. It's unfortunate that the whole country is painted with the same brush. The system needs to change though - apparently it takes 15-20 years for a rape case to go through the court system, there is something like 15 judges to 1 million people which means India has the lowest ratio of judges to population in the world. That just does not work. Hopefully change is coming. There are a lot of advocacy groups and politicians trying to change how things work here. A great book I read that I would recommended to anyone who is interested in India is called 'What Young Indians Want' by Chetan Bhegat. Fantastic overview of the issues present in India and possible solutions.

I'm getting off track again... not surprising.

Ok so we flew to Delhi, had a horrible cab ride to our hostel nearby (the driver tried to rip us off), then the hostel owner was quite strange/creepy so we steered clear. The area we were staying was really grimy and a little terrifying. As soon as we stepped out into Delhi air, we inhaled the most concentrated breath of sewage, pollution, garbage - you name it. We haven't coughed so much as we have here. A lot of people walk around with scarves covering their faces. I guess that's what you get when you live in a city of 14 million... ew. We didn't do much that night except book our taxi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal the next day at 2:30am. Yes, 2:30am. We got about 4 hours of sleep and made our way to see one of the most significant temples in the world. It was so worth the 4 hour drive, the Taj is AMAZING and beautiful. We got there just in time for sunrise and spent about 2 hours exploring the grounds before heading to a rooftop restaurant for Indian breakfast (Derek and Neil) and homemade walnut bread with jam and tea (Tracy and me) before we headed back to Delhi. We almost wished we had stayed in Agra as we read in the Lonely Planet that it was 2 hours to Agra. Definitely not. It was really cool though - camels everywhere used to pull carts which is something you don't see every day! Finally we headed back to Delhi and our poor taxi driver was exhausted, we got in around 2:30pm to our hostel and headed downtown to give the city another chance to impress. It wasn't too bad... well not until we hit up Pizza Hut. So needed. Eating curry, rice and bread everyday for 2 meals/day is great but you definitely get texture fatigue. Also, you miss being able to eat the things you make at home. We were craving some Western food for sure. After our fix, we walked around Connaught Circle dodging traffic and people selling things on the street and went to a cafe before heading to the hostel.

The next morning we headed to the airport to fly to Jodhpur but not before Tracy got a wake up call from creepy hostel guy at 2:30am asking if we were going to Agra. No, we weren't. We left around 11am and had lunch at the airport (which is probably one of the nicest airports I've seen) and took off for the blue city! We landed and hired 2 tuk tuks (Tracy's first experience) to get to our hostel (cars can't fit down the narrow and windy streets) and made it to Hem Guesthouse which was so nice! It's a historic building that faces the huge fort on top of the hill and had a rooftop restaurant where we had 'welcome tea' and took in the sights of the gorgeous city. We heard that Jodhpur is now called the 'white city' because there aren't as many blue buildings anymore but it interchanges. From our hostel we walked through the local market nearby and realized quickly that Jodhpur might be the most congested city we've been to, it has about 1 million people but it seems everyone concentrates around the markets and clock tower. You had to dodge out of the way of motorbikes and tuk tuks trying to get down the tiny streets, can't believe one of us wasn't hit. I'm sure the locals get annoyed with foreigners because we just don't know how to handle this type of traffic... I would be annoyed too. Hah. The market by the clock tower (different from the local market) had so many spices, fruit, vegetables, etc. but if you stopped even for a moment you were surrounded by mothers with babies begging for money to fill the baby bottles they were holding, small children begging, physically disabled people begging... it's so difficult to keep walking but we know we have to. I hate this part of it but it's also a very big reality - in any country. We made it out of the market in one piece and headed back to our hostel for dinner - an amazing feast prepared by Hem herself, the owner of the guesthouse which was run by her sons. She was the sweetest woman and such a great cook. We had different types of local curries until we were so full we couldn't eat anymore. Something I'm obsessed with over here is mint tea and lemongrass tea - so easy, just boil water and add to mint leaves or chopped up lemongrass. People here tend to use more 'whole foods' to make their teas although loose tea and tea bags are also really common. Chai tea is probably the most popular throughout all of India - basically tea with milk and sometimes spices. It's delicious. It's sold everywhere including on trains, markets, food stalls, etc.

The next day we took the morning to head to the massive Mehrangarh fort on top of the hill. We hired a tuk tuk to drive us there and the whole way the driver blared 'Barbie Girl' and any Michael Jackson song. It was pretty funny and also extremely loud which caused us to attract even more attention from the locals... not like we need the help. The driver was so nice, he just wanted us to feel 'comfortable' and probably thought 'American' music would do that for us. The fort itself was fantastic - there are still people that live inside along with businesses, cafes, restaurants, etc. The views were spectacular and we really got to see why Jodhpur was called the 'Blue City'. After a couple hours there we headed back to our hostel to get ready to head into the desert for our camel safari! We were driven to a local hotel to meet our driver and about 2 hours later were looking at the camels we would be riding for the next 4 hours. You never quite get used to getting on/off a camel - it's not what someone would call effortless or glamorous. I didn't realize there was a stirrup I could put my foot into and tried to jump onto the back of the camel with no success - my guide had a laugh at this which I don't blame him for. Our group was the 4 of us along with an Australian couple (Huw and Marlee) who we are actually currently travelling with! They are fantastic and we get along so well - more to come on that though!

We start our trek into the desert, it was quite different from our safari in Morocco whereas this safari went through the desert towns and we got to see how people lived so far out from the city with limited resources. There were lots of children in the beginning who were following us for a bit and then there was no one. Just silence. It was a great moment... to hear nothing but the wind whip along the sand dunes and the camel hooves pounding the ground. No one spoke for about 30-45 minutes, it was amazing. Then after about 3 hours, we got to this higher dune and watched the sunset - it was beautiful... then we were on our way towards our camp and Marlee and Huw take off another direction to a different site than us, so now it's the 4 of us again. We notice it's really getting dark out... the wind is picking up and a bit of a sandstorm starts around us. Thank goodness for those scarves! But then the lightening starts and our guides start to walk faster. Actually, here's a mental picture for you. I'm leading the pack with my guide and it's really dark, I can only see the outline of the trees. He starts walking faster which means my camel (Hero) starts to trot... well in my mind it was running. Then the guide starts running and my camel really starts running. It was really cool actually, like riding a horse! I yelled back to Derek to see if he could see me running and his camel started running as well. Pretty hilarious. Thank god it wasn't in daylight, I'm sure I'd look completely ridiculous as a foreigner on a running camel in the desert. We get to our 'camp' which we figured were basic accommodations but in fact was like a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Our 'tents' were really gorgeous hotel rooms with tent material for walls. It has a deck, electricity, the best bathroom I've seen yet! Because it was the end of high season, we were the only people in the entire camp so were lucky enough to be treated to a musical performance of local talent for about 1 hour, then we had dinner inside the main building and went to bed. The next morning we got up, had breakfast and our drive came to pick us up to take us back to Jodhpur. Overall great experience! The camel safari was high on Tracy and Neil's list while in India so we were pretty happy it actually happened! The rest of our time spent in Jodhpur was pretty relaxed as we were exhausted and also really sore from hours of being on a camel. We went for lunch at this great spot called Nirvana near the clock tower and then later that afternoon Tracy and I spent some time hanging in her room while Derek and Neil went to the market to pick up some spices. After dinner we were in bed early because we had to be at the train station for 6am for our 8 hour trek to Jaipur to celebrate Holi festival!

As with other posts, this is getting long... will be fully caught up tomorrow when I am up to speed starting with our time in Jaipur!


Posted by lcmichael 02:45 Archived in India Comments (0)

(Entries 11 - 15 of 23) « Page 1 2 [3] 4 5 »