Category Archives: India

The Real India?

We spent three nights in Delhi and filled our time with a walk around the old city and a great night out.  Plus one intended work day and one unintended sick/work day.  Driving in from Agra, I was amazed at the amount of construction south of Delhi.  I think this area is called NOIDA.  Less surprising by now was the half hour bathroom and car wash break our driver took at a highway rest stop after we replied “no” when he asked if we wanted to stop.

As we neared our hotel on Main Bazaar in Paharganj, our driver said “this is a very bad place.”  It is tourist central and the touts are quite unpleasant, but I think he exaggerated a bit.  Plus we had internal hallways and didn’t hear our neighbors shitting at all, so it was a marked improvement from Agra.

After dropping our bags, we got quoted many inflated auto-rickshaw fares to the old city but at last found an older gentlemen willing to charge us merely double what a local would probably pay.  Jokes were included free of charge.  He asked if we were married and then if I was happy (maybe it was Jenni’s Agra-induced scowl?), to which of course I replied “yes.”  Then he expressed skepticism and told the tale of an Indian arranged marriage and how the woman leaves her family which can be emotional.  So on the wedding day the groom asks the bride why she is crying, and she replies “I cry only today but you will cry the rest of your life.”

He dropped us a short walk from Karim’s, the legendary kebab etc. spot tucked away in an alley near Jama Masjid (which I think translates as great mosque, hence the same name here as in Agra and I presume elsewhere).  They were out of some items and we figured the leg of lamb might be a bit much for two, so we each got a Karim Roll.  It was pricey given how small it was, but maybe that’s because it’s made with lamb, and anyway it was delicious.

After our late lunch we walked around inside the walls of Jama Masjid which is the largest mosque in India.  It is lovely and affords nice views.  I’m told you can climb up one of the towers for really good views, but we got ushered out for the afternoon prayer time and decided not to stick around until it reopened.

The old city is crazy busy and lively and I would definitely spend at least half a day wandering around here.  We didn’t really do enough else in Delhi for me to opine, but my understanding is that New Delhi can be a tad plain and Old Delhi is where the action is.  The usual jumble of alleys and markets and fruit stands and tons of traffic.  We shared a tasty and jumbo pomegranate on the street.  There were more women and families here than many of the places we’ve been.

We walked a long way down Chandni Chowk and grabbed delicious sweets from Chaina Ram, which ended up being dinner.  It was dark and we weren’t quite sure how far the walk home would be, so after several attempts we settled on our first cycle-rickshaw of the trip.  He took us through the hardware section, and the metal back of the bike provides at least some protection from the madness around.

I’m glad we tried it, but the seat is so uncomfortable and you feel guilty watching the dude struggle mightily.  To ascend the hill over the train tracks he just got off and walked the bike.  I blame all the paratha.

Saturday we considered hitting a coffee shop but ended up doing work all day in the room.  When it was time to go we tried both online cab companies mentioned in my guidebook in hopes of avoiding haggling with a taxi in our touristy area.  Instead of a ride, we got a malfunctioning website, a 15 minute phone call and then a text saying sorry actually there is no car coming from you.  Not to worry, our hotel called a car.  Does the driver know exactly where we want to go?  Don’t worry, you’ll just tell him.  Oh he doesn’t speak English, but I’m sure you’ll sort it out.  I’d say perhaps 10% of the time we get in a car the driver actually takes us directly to where we want to go.  Good stuff.

Then the night got much, much better.  Jenni’s friend from Cornell, Aashica, lives in Delhi and we met her and Adi for dinner at Smokey’s in Greater Kailash II.  The food was great, but much more important the company was even better.  It was comforting to be with friends in the kind of place we’d probably frequent if we lived in Delhi.  The kind of place with a beet and goat cheese salad and a lamb and bacon burger.

It’s funny how I always think of the “real [country X, but I’ll just refer to India for this purpose]” as the part of the country that likely bears least semblance to my (former) life in the US.  I think most people have this tendency but I’ll take the bullet here.  I fully understand the notion that the way the overwhelming majority of the Indian population lives could be called the real India, and that generally it is more interesting to enjoy the contrasts when exploring another country.  But if you are a banker or lawyer or doctor or anyone else in a top income bracket in the US, you probably still feel like your life in the US reflects the real US.  Of course few in the US live the way most Indians do, so I appreciate it is a somewhat different concept.

But it does seem a bit silly for me to have the mindset that passing time in the manner I likely would if I lived here means I am forsaking the real India and substituting some misrepresentation of it.  One could even argue I’m doing just the opposite.  If you can afford a car, insurance and petrol, then you can hire a 24/7 driver for maybe $200-300/month.  So I bet most of you reading this would have a private driver if you lived in India.

Enough sounding off.  The night was awesome.  Aash and Adi hosted us through the hours of darkness and gave us an experience we never could have had on our own.  From Smokey’s we went to some hotel/bar complex (I don’t know the name but I think it was at/near Hotel Samrat in Chanakyapuri) and grabbed a scotch from a half-closed spot, and then went to another side of the area where the doorman ushered us in past multiple closed doors into some after hours back room with Russian girls dancing and further cocktails.  We were dropped back home around 4 am.

And then back to the real India :).  Jenni was sick all the next day (and more) so we never left our room.  At least our hotel had room service and the pizza and butter chicken were pretty good.  On Monday the situation nearly came to a head.  Our Air India flight to Varanasi was delayed 3 hours due to fog but we went to the airport on time anyway because who knows what might happen.  And as it happens the Delhi airport is super nice and is a much more pleasant place to hang out than our $35 hotel room.  We killed time and then I tried to withdraw cash from a Citibank ATM as we walked to our gate to board.  I went through all the steps, input the amount and hit enter, and then the power died and the whole machine went blank.  WTF?!?!?  So we didn’t know whether it was about to turn back on and dispense my cash to some lucky traveler or if Citibank would try to deduct the amount from my account regardless.  And of course we couldn’t sort this out with anyone so we just had to leave to board the flight.  Then we boarded but they had switched aircraft so we had a seat assignment that didn’t exist.  Things got tense and tempers were narrowly maintained, but alas we made it safely to Varanasi.

Practical Info

Transportation: Our drive from Agra took 3.5 hours on the toll road and with light traffic in Agra since it was a Friday and the Taj was closed, and it cost Rs 3,000.  Our auto-rickshaw from Paharganj to Karim’s cost Rs 100.  A car from our hotel to dinner in Greater Kailash II was Rs 500, same as our trip to the airport.

Delhi has a metro that is supposed to be reasonably good.

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel Hari Piorko in Paharganj, fairly near the old city as well as Connaught Place.  Definitely a touristy area.  For $35/night in a big city, I thought it was pretty good.  Delhi has tons of lodging options.  A friend suggested staying somewhere in south Delhi, which is nicer and I think has more open space.  Several years back my family stayed at Master Guesthouse and thought it was great.  And as I write this from Varanasi, I wish we had stayed in more homestay-type properties while in India.  It is hard to overstate the value of an honest and knowledgeable local to assist you.

Food: Karim’s is legendary.  We visited the original location across from Jama Masjid, which actually occupies four spaces next to each other sharing a kitchen.  I think there are now other locations around Delhi.  Perhaps you should go for lunch at a more normal time, because around 3 pm they were out of several items.  The Karim Roll cost Rs 125.

Our one real night out in Delhi began at Smokey’s in Greater Kailash II.  This is a proper Western-style fun restaurant.  As I can’t think of a better comparison right now, I’ll say Houston’s look but a little hipper and a lot livelier.  You can get burgers and wings and cocktails and wine etc.  I thought it was very good.  But beware, we sat down to dinner upstairs at 9:40 pm and soon the music was so loud it was difficult to converse.  The bar area was lively and fun, and cocktail pours were legit.  They played Material Girl and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

Activities: My guidebook says foreigners have to pay Rs 300 to visit the Jama Masjid but we just walked in.  Note that it closes in the afternoon for about half an hour for prayer, and thus we got booted after about 15 minutes.  No shorts.  You can carry your shoes inside.  It has some nice views over the old city and Red Fort, which is one of the top attractions.

Had we done more, we might have visited Humayun’s Tomb, walked around the Rajpath, perhaps Connaught Place and more.  There are a number of museums in Delhi.  One thing I was bummed to miss is strolling around Hauz Khas, which Anish suggested (and Aash and Adi agreed).  This is a bohemian neighborhood with cafes, galleries and restaurants.

January 3-6, 2014 (Friday-Monday)

Great Sights, Crappy City

If you come to India, chances are very high that you will visit Agra.  The Taj Mahal is one of the most famous attractions in the world, and deservedly so.  There is also Agra Fort plus a couple smaller local sights, and Fatehpur Sikri is about an hour away.

By all means, do come to Agra.  But get out quickly, or stay at one of the nicer hotels outside the Taj Ganj area.

I think 15 nights of independent travel in India and some marginal accommodation started to catch up with us, because the “h” word was uttered quite a few times during our stay in Agra.  If I had to summarize my non-sightseeing impression of this place, I would say Night of the Living Dead with zombies coming at me from obscured positions.  Other than that, it was awesome.

We arrived on New Year’s Eve and wandered around the alleys briefly, peeping some camels and a rat and endless touts.  Where are you going?  Um, I don’t know, but do you want my social security number, too?

We considered one of the rooftop buffets/parties but it was way colder than we realized (in the 40s, so do not pay extra for an air conditioned room this time of year!) and they didn’t look so great.  Instead we had delicious shahi paneer and an amazing banana lassi at Shankara Vegis restaurant, where we would end up spending most of our non-sightseeing time in Agra.

It was a sensationally undignified close to a momentous 2013 for us.  The highlight was that our room had a TV, and I found Predator.  Things deteriorated quickly though when I heard our neighbors grunting and dropping turds in the middle of the night since our lovely hotel room has a bathroom with a large square near the ceiling open to the next bathroom.  I would’ve complained to the manager, but by now I know it wouldn’t have done any good.  Like when you show up and the WiFi is out of service, there is no apology or recompense.

You are probably thinking what the #$@ am I doing staying in places like this?  And I am wondering that, too!  I think for most of the rest of the trip we’ll find better places.  We also could afford to spend more, but we set a budget and we’re trying to stick to it.  So it would be nice to make a few bucks while we travel and expand the expense-side guilt free.  If you have any consulting gigs let me know!

New Year’s Day was quite a lot better as we visited the Taj Mahal.  We woke early and were in line for the open.  Apparently the weather is frequently foggy this time of year, and we encountered some of that.  Travelers we met in Mumbai said they couldn’t even see the Taj until around 11 am.  We could see it fine the whole time, it just wasn’t sunny.  Hence all the flat light photos.  Nonetheless, it was definitely worthwhile to arrive first thing in the morning because it was not crowded and many times more visitors were there when we left around 10:15 am.

After clearing security we emerged into the Chowk-i-Jilo Khana which itself leads to the stunning main entrance to the gardens and Taj.  Once through the gateway you see the Taj at the end of the gardens, and if you come before the fountains start (around 10 am when we visited) and at the right time of year (?) you should see its reflection in the waterways.  Magnificent from afar, one does not appreciate the scale nor detail until much closer.  It really is an exquisite monument.

We admired it a while and then visited the onsite museum for several minutes.  Nearby is a tree loaded with lovely green birds with long tails.  The sun never did emerge and we left a few hours later.

Do you know about gulab jamun?  It is so freakin good.  It is basically a fried ball of dough soaked in rose water syrup.  We had one with our thali lunch at…Shankara Vegis.

Then we hit Agra Fort for a couple hours.  It features gorgeous carving and inlay work and some views of the Taj and river, plus a few more green birds.  At both the Taj and the Fort, Indian tourists greatly outnumbered foreigners.

From the Fort, we took a rickshaw across the river for sunset views of the Taj.  Good call, Kenny.  Ask to be taken to Mehtab Bagh, but you do not need to pay to enter the gardens if you just want to enjoy the view.  Instead, walk right past that entrance and down to the river.  The only discernible difference I noticed was that the free view comes without eye-level barbed wire.

This is a great vantage point not only for the view but the relative calm and silence.  You see thousands of tourists marching like ants around the mausoleum, but hear only birds and music.  Perhaps the water level was unusually low for our visit as we did not see the reflection that Kenny mentioned.

I also enjoyed the calmer and friendlier feel to this side of the river.  Much more peaceful, and of course additional goats wearing sweaters.

Instead of massive log-droppings and grunts, Thursday we were woken by some man incessantly making a karate kid “haayyaaaa” sound followed by loud banging.  I thought of Miyagi, of course, then Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam.

The sun came out and we enjoyed marvelous views of the Taj during breakfast on hotel Kamal’s rooftop.  And we saw more monkeys.  And an Indian man working on his roof who ran inside when he saw the monkeys running along the rooftops his way and shrieking.

Most people here seem fazed by nothing, but this man was terrified.  Which made us uneasy about these aggressive monkeys all around.  We escaped unscathed.  Oh, and Jenni named baby monkeys “bonkeys.”  That makes so much more sense than wasting two syllables.

In the afternoon we drove about an hour to Fatehpur Sikri, the former imperial capital (briefly) of the Mughal emperor Akbar.  As our cabbie from the airport said, seat belts are not allowed in Agra.  We think he meant required, but the effect is the same.

It is funny how often drivers do things like stop on the way to pick up a personal item, or just get out of the car to use the bathroom without saying a word.  And today’s guy sucked just like our Sri Lanka driver.  More on his dishonesty in Practical Info.

Fatehpur Sikri, though, was quite lovely.  The palace has some alluring sandstone buildings with splendid carvings.  Apparently Akbar was religiously tolerant but he sounds like quite a dirty bird.  Rumor has it he used to play pachisi in the courtyard with slave girls in costumes for live pieces.  And his harem was legendary.  We’re talking Wilt numbers.  He had a super wide bed raised about 7 feet off the ground with no attached stairs, i.e. his servants had to bring the stairs as necessary.  Yeah.

The palace contains three different areas, one each for his Turkish wife, his Christian wife (?) and the Hindu wife who bore his first child as prophesied by Sheikh Salim Chishti, which sheikh got a white marble tomb inside the Jama Masjid that we visited right after the palace.  Jenni beamed with Turkish pride at the fact that such wife did not care about a big house but got the finest carvings, gems and art work.

The Jama Masjid (mosque) might have been even more impressive than the palace.  We initially entered the square a different way, but the Buland Darwaza (great gate) is breathtaking.  The square itself is bustling with activity.  The prayer hall facing Mecca has its own grand gateway and Sheik Salim’s white tomb marks a brilliant contrast against its sandstone surroundings.

Inside the tomb there is a steady stream of visitors making wishes and tying cloth around the lattice marble screen window.  Check out the insane bee clusters on the gateway ceiling in one of the photos below.

We were hustled a while by this adorable kid who said he spoke five languages, and his introductory Francais, Deutsch and Espanol were solid.  Another of those kids who might be a star in the US, as I mentioned in my Mumbai post.

Back in Taj Ganj we had dinner at Joney’s but I was hit with something like a 24-hour virus so I could barely eat and spent the rest of the night shivering.  And we watched Wild Things 2 which only made it worse.

Practical Info

Transportation: A pre-paid taxi from the airport cost Rs 400 but it could be 600 depending on your destination.  A rickshaw from Taj Ganj to Agra Fort cost Rs 100.  From Agra Fort to Mehtab Bagh and back to Taj Ganj we paid Rs 250 in a rickshaw.  Our return trip by car to Fatehpur Sikri cost Rs 1100.

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel Siddhartha near the West Gate of the Taj Mahal.  It is conveniently located for Taj visits and some of the cheap food options on Chowk Kagzi, and at least slightly removed from the noise and hassle of Chowk Kagzi.  I could almost have recommended it as a budget option, but hearing so clearly your neighbor shitting is an offense I cannot forgive.

There are a bunch of other budget options in the Taj Ganj area and some nicer places outside.  Being in Taj Ganj was not a fraction as appealing as I thought it would be, so if you can afford it I would probably stay elsewhere.  Unless there is some home stay with excellent reviews.  If you stay in Taj Ganj, I cannot speak to any other qualities but Kamal’s rooftop has amazing views of the Taj.  While many multiples of our budget on this trip, I hear the Oberoi Amarvilas is worth a splurge.

Food: A number of the restaurants recommended in my guidebook are outside Taj Ganj, and it was generally just not that nice around Agra and dealing with the touts was unpleasant so we did not venture out.  Shankara Vegis on Chowk Kagzi was tasty and cozy with nice owners and reasonably good WiFi.  We also ate at Joney’s one night and it is very cheap and good, but I was sick that night so I can’t fully judge it.  Jenni didn’t love the malai kafta which is one of their signature dishes, but the banana and honey paratha was mighty tasty.  We had breakfast at The Stuff Maker atop Kamal (hotel) and the food was OK but the views of the Taj are stupendous.  The best rooftop views we saw.

Sights: The Taj Mahal opens at sunrise and closes at sunset, I believe.  It is CLOSED ON FRIDAYS.  Someone told us it opened at 6 am, so we showed up around 6:40 am but in fact they didn’t let in anyone until sunrise.  Perhaps it is the ticket window that opens at 6 am.  Foreigners pay Rs 750 and you get a 0.5 liter water bottle and some shoe covers to use when in/around the actual mausoleum.  Keep your ticket stub as it will give you a Rs 50 discount on admission to Agra Fort the same day, and I think some other same-day sights/discounts.  There are separate lines for men and women and for Indians and foreigners.  They will pat you down and search bags, but the rules for what you can bring were not clear to me.  We were told that neither phones nor guidebooks are allowed, but we saw plenty of each.  I did see someone forced to get rid of their cigarettes and lighter to enter.  The museum opens at 9 am.

Agra Fort is the second most famous attraction in the area.  We spent a couple hours there and I recommend you do the same.  Admission is Rs 300, or 250 with a same-day Taj ticket stub.  There is a sound and light show after sunset.

Fatehpur Sikri is about an hour’s drive from Agra.  Beware the guide scam.  Our driver brought us to a parking lot where guides produced official department of tourism I.D. cards and insisted we must pay Rs 600 for a guide and that cars are not allowed any farther etc.  In fact, official guides are available at the entrance to the palace (we used the Diwan-i-Am entrance) for Rs 250 and cars are allowed to continue a little farther.  It is true that cars are not allowed to drive up to the entrance, so you can either walk from the car park as we did or take a CNG bus for Rs 5/each.  If you walk, either retrace and take the paved road up or continue down the same road and opposite the UPTDC Gulistan Tourist Complex turn right up a dirt path.  Entry tickets cost Rs 260.  Visiting the Jama Masjid is free though you are expected to tip the shoe guard and can expect pitches on buying cloth and flowers for an offering at the Tomb of Islam Khan.

December 31, 2013 – Jaunary 3, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday)

Intoxicating, Infuriating, Inimical, Inimitable India

India holds well-earned legendary status among the world’s travelers.  It is an extraordinary place, but I am now going to commence a little public venting and a small call to action.  Nearly everything I have posted so far covers the details of our experience in each location and attempts to offer helpful information should you visit.  I want to write a little about our more personal experience and what life on the road has been like, at least in India.  I feel guilty complaining about anything when I know many think I am living a dream.  But since I am not yet a famous blogger with hordes of followers, there’s a good chance that if you’re reading this it’s because you know and care about me.  And thus you probably want to know how I’m really doing.  Which is: very well, but a little beaten down by this country!  So then I guess this post will be partly about India and partly about our life on the road…and I feel some run-on sentences coming.

There really is no place like India.  I heard that for so many years and always questioned the hype, but having now visited twice and spent a cumulative 25+ days here, I can opine with at least some degree of authority.

Some say India is more a continent than a country.  The diversity of landscapes may have peers, but I don’t think the energy and intensity do.  Or maybe there is a peer for India on a number of elements, but it’s the combination of all that is present in India that sets it so far apart.

For all its glory, India can be a truly maddening place.  I find myself thinking often about the distinction between an experience you are glad to have had and an experience that you actually enjoy.  My preliminary conclusion for this trip to India (and we still have four nights in Varanasi) is that it has been filled with specific experiences I have actually enjoyed, but the overall experience is one I will be glad to have had.

Let me be clear about a couple key points that might distinguish my current trip with one you may take.  First and foremost is budget and independence.  We have stayed in a few places for $20-30/night and only our hotel in Mumbai reached triple digits.  When we visited for our honeymoon, we had a private guide and driver and stayed in 5-star properties.  This was a very different experience.  Another extremely important point is that you will probably visit India on a stand alone vacation, which is an entirely different animal because you focus only on enjoying your brief time here.

We, on the other hand, are blogging, planning the next parts of our trip and dealing with the vagaries of life.  Like when you can’t keep your old insurance plan due to the Affordable Care Act and log on to find your premium has nearly doubled and you have no way of paying it without making a phone call to the US.  Which isn’t perfectly easy due to time changes, WiFi that works a small percentage of the time and SIM cards that apparently are roaming in every state other than where you bought them.  And you can’t just walk into a store and buy a new SIM card because you have to fill out forms and submit passport and visa copies then wait several hours or more.  And the higher roaming rates actually matter when you figure you’ll sit on hold for an hour trying to speak with someone at the insurance company.

So while “down time” in a country where it’s most needed should be filled with relaxation, for us it’s often filled with stress and frustration that nothing works as it should and WiFi cuts in and out.  In fact, just getting anything done is harder and takes more time.  Last week I had to add a “payee” to my online bank account, but I can’t receive a call or text on my US mobile which is how they always validate the action.  So that leads to an online chat session (which sometimes gets disconnected) and takes half an hour.  Most of this isn’t that big a deal on its own, but when over and over there are obstructions to accomplishing simple tasks, it becomes frustrating.  And at times infuriating.

Which leads me to a theme: it is hard for someone who usually feels very capable and in control to feel helpless.  When you can’t really communicate due to the language barrier and your taxi stops at Mumbai’s international airport and then you find out you’re at the wrong place but nobody is really sure and your taxi already left and the taxis and rickshaws pulling up refuse to turn on the meter and want to charge us the same amount to drive 15 minutes to the domestic “airport” as we paid for the hour+ drive from our hotel to the airport…then you finally get in a rickshaw with two backpacks and rolling duffels hoping your knee doesn’t stick out the side since there is zero margin for error and that driver doesn’t really know where he’s going and then the security guards at the domestic airport ask for tickets but we don’t have a printer so I only have e-tickets and then he takes my iPhone and walks away with it and tries to tell our driver that we actually are supposed to be at the international airport but fortunately our driver doesn’t go there and drops us at what eventually turns out to be the right place…and then it becomes clear that what they call two “airports” we would call two “terminals”, albeit really far apart, which explains some of the confusion I had when using airport codes to look into this before…anyway, while all that is happening you wonder if you’re going to make your flight and you can’t communicate and you feel helpless.  It kind of sucks.

Then there is the whole “just part of the experience” topic.  This tagline should be applied often, but I think it also can be overused to justify dishonest behavior that should be frowned upon and not tolerated.  I would say that the power going out when you’re in the middle of doing something is part of the experience.  Or having touts call to you when you walk past their storefront.  Or getting quoted obviously inflated prices constantly because you’re a tourist.  There is a market, and either someone will provide it cheaper or I don’t really need it, or I have to pay the market price at that time.  Fine, I get it.  That doesn’t mean I enjoy it, but I can accept it.

But I draw the line at blatant dishonesty and behavior that is simply rude.  Explaining this away as part of the culture or the experience perpetuates activities that do not help a country, tourism industry or culture in the long run.  It’s acceptable for a driver to take me to a restaurant that pays him a commission if I can’t specifically request a different restaurant of my choosing.  But it’s not OK to obviously collude with the restaurant to charge me more than what the menu says and bring me things I didn’t ask for, then use the language barrier to bullshit your way through why the bill is correct (which for the record happened in Sri Lanka, not India).  It’s not OK to grab me as I walk by, or to cut off my wife to better position yourself to continue to harass me.  And it’s not OK when I pay for transport to a sight for you to take me to a parking area with scamming guides who share commission with you instead of just taking me to the right place.

This behavior should be condemned, and frankly when fellow countrymen see it happening they should intervene.  I would like to think if I were in the US and heard somebody trying to scam a traveler that I would help them, either immediately or at least right after if I were concerned about the confrontation.  But in India this behavior seems so ingrained and such a part of the culture that the assistance almost never happens.  Obviously I don’t mean this is the case for Indians as a whole, but those in and around the tourism industry certainly seem to abide by it.

I keep thinking, as well, about the broken windows theory that Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point.  It’s been a while since I read it, but I believe he talks about William Bratton implementing this criminological philosophy as police commissioner in New York.  If you don’t know it you can read all about it elsewhere, but the basic concept is that removing the petty crime and indicia of lawlessness or vandalism etc. ends up having a major impact on reducing overall crime and improving well-being.

I understand how difficult it will be to implement this in India for countless reasons.  But the way you see people litter with such little apparent regard for its impact is sad.  And a thousand other things that might contribute to better quality of life.

India is endowed with truly phenomenal assets.  It has natural beauty and history that few countries can compare with.  The food is great.  The culture and accessibility and breadth of religions I believe are incomparable.  The US has religious diversity, but it’s not as though you witness it on a daily basis or feel like it’s a prominent part of your experience unless you make it so for yourself.  Here you see Jain and Hindu and other temples and mosques and constant prayers and processions and festivals.

Of course India is exceedingly diverse, so as I wrote in earlier posts the south was much more mellow and relaxing than the rest of our trip has been.  If I write that India is like life on speed, clearly it only seems that way in some areas.  Not on the backwaters, in fact just the opposite.  Not in Munnar, and probably not in many other areas.

India is often described as an assault on the senses, and I fully agree.  Jenni summarizes it nicely in her Madurai post: “sights (colors, people, animals, things everywhere), sounds (essentially continuous honking along with the myriad of other city noises you hear), smells (yeah, lots of those… by the time you realize you smell sweet flowers and think to inhale deeply, it’s been replaced by some other foul smell and you regret taking that deep breath), touch (lots of people and stuff, not so much space), and tastes (obviously you know by now from reading my blog that I love me some paratha, and India has a hell of a lot to offer in the culinary department).”

I’ve been baffled by the “market” and thought process of some of the drivers and others with whom we interact.  It seems hard to find the middle ground between a total rip-off and full fairness.  I expected negotiation to be more effective.  Like in the Mumbai airport example above, when the driver quotes Rs 350 and I counter at Rs 100, that ends it.  The guy who ends up taking us got paid Rs 75.  Is the first driver so confident that another tourist he can hoodwink will come by in the next 30 minutes that it’s not even worth it for him to take me for Rs 200?  It is a personality trait of mine that I get hugely upset at things that make no sense to me.  India is not gentle on my head that way.

It has distressed me that I’ve adjusted my habits in a way I didn’t aspire to.  I am so tired of the misleading info and touts that I sometimes refrain from asking a question, even if it might lead to interesting conversation or enhanced knowledge.  I do this because often I don’t trust the response any more, and because I strongly suspect it will just lead to a sales-push or other self-serving answer.  Me: What are your favorite places to go?  Him: Yes I can take you there what time should I pick you up do you have a pen so I can give you my number is that your friend or your wife…

Our honeymoon was fantastic, though at times I felt like I was missing out on the “real India” experience while we were cocooned in a fancy hotel and always accompanied by a guide.  On this trip I wish we had a bit more of that!  Perhaps the appealing middle ground to me would be staying at some nicer hotels (even if not top of the line and/or not every night), more assistance with the transport and some guided days, while still allowing some time for exploration and the sensation of uncertainty and wonder that is intoxicating in moderate doses but exhausting in excess.

Some assert that the more high-end trip is always better.  Others argue the point of travel is to immerse yourself in the culture and live like the majority of locals do, and that high-end travel can be antithetical to these goals.  There is no right answer.  And I think the relative merits and enhanced comfort that comes with spending more varies depending on location.  But after the amount and degree of frustration we’ve experienced so far in India (which I’ve obviously covered only a fraction of in detail), if you can afford it then I’d opt for more luxury and comfort!  And I don’t recall thinking this mattered much in Thailand or Cambodia, for example.  I’m eager to see how I feel about the budget/luxury/independent/guided balance in Thailand, Laos and elsewhere.

So, there, I said it.  I have prided myself always on my ability to adapt and my comfort with traveling.  It is hard to admit it has been challenging, but that’s the truth.  I am tired of nothing ever working right and constant harassment.  I am excited for Varanasi, and I fully expect to return to India many more times.  Just hopefully with some combo of a bigger budget, (more) local friends or an acceptance that I won’t try to complete any tasks like blog posts or bill paying.  Right now, I am so ready for 8 nights on the beaches of Thailand!

Whatever its name, it’s big

Mumbai (or Bombay, depending on who you ask) is huge, both in terms of population and area.  It could overpower you, at least if you try to cover a broad section of its geography.  There are some interesting sights and countless nice restaurants and nooks for quietude.  The weather was great with warm days and cool nights, like Los Angeles.

This was our first time in a really big Indian city, and we actually found it less overwhelming than some of the smaller cities.  I think this is because it has that rhythm of a major metropolis with nice, more Western escape zones and the anonymity that comes with being two of 20 million.  I felt safe here, and our friends in Delhi opined that Mumbai is a good bit safer than Delhi.

Highlights included Chowpatty Beach on a Sunday afternoon, wandering some alleys off the Colaba Causeway and the Dharavi slum tour.

We got our first taste of trying to cross a Mumbai street while walking to a delicious dinner at Khyber on Friday night.  It is not easy.  There are multiple lanes of traffic in each direction and green seems to mean go while red is maybe I’ll go or maybe I’ll stop.  But if I tell you that’d be cheating.  It can help to follow a local whose body doesn’t display obvious motor vehicle-inflicted damage.

So crossing the street is challenging, but then you might find a nice, wide sidewalk with only humans using it.  A major change from somewhere like Madurai or Agra.  And again this felt less challenging to me, perhaps because I am more accustomed to busy streets and aggressive drivers (a la New York) than to dodging mopeds, touts, cows, goats, monkeys and piles of feces.

Saturday we had our first masala dosas for breakfast and a cappuccino!  On the list of things I miss, good (and usually iced) coffee features prominently.  We wandered around and passed a little park with Ghandi’s statue before realizing we took a circuitous path to end up back at the Oval Maidan, quite near our hotel.

The Oval Maidan is a large green space surrounded by 19th century Gothic buildings on one side and 1930s Art Deco on the other.  There were several cricket games being played and some of the teams had uniforms.  By luck we stumbled upon the Jewish synagogue and I snapped a shot of this gorgeous robin’s egg blue structure before being told that no photos are allowed.

After a generally peaceful stroll we arrived at the Gateway of India and thrust ourselves into its madness.  It is beautiful but so crowded and hectic, and I did not want to buy a photo of us printed on the spot nor an enormous balloon.

Then we continued to Colaba Causeway which was slightly calmer and decided to eat lunch at Olympia Coffee House.  It is an Irani cafe where the waiters all don Peshawari caps and only men are allowed on the ground floor with the mezzanine for women and their families.

We split a “mutton masala spicy” and this was our only meal of the trip so far where the heat made me pull back towards the end.  I’ve been impressed with Jenni’s consumption strength.  They brought fennel seeds with the bill, which is common here.  We were only the white folks in a packed place; it must not be in Lonely Planet.  And with a generous tip it cost $4.

We continued south and wandered east onto some side streets (near the “Pasta” lanes, if you’re looking) with no other tourists but plenty of fruits, veggies and goats.  Then we crossed back west to a slum by the ocean with an intense fish smell and much harsher odors by the bathrooms.  Real strong stuff.

There are a lot of government and administrative buildings and generally a stronger security presence than I anticipated.  One of my least favorite things is the abundance of stands with a rifle propped facing outwards near head level.  But I guess everything works flawlessly in India so what could possibly go wrong?

Dinner was our first real break from local ethnic cuisine and half a night out.  We had a corner window table at Pizza by the Bay with great views of Marine Drive and the Queen’s Necklace.  After this we had drinks at Dome on the roof of the Intercontinental hotel around the corner.

A little girl selling flowers relentlessly pitched us the whole way.  Some of the kids hawking here are so cute and personable.  If they were in the US they might be child stars, or at least have the most profitable lemonade stand on the block…instead of hustling for their next meal.

To enter the Intercontinental you get the metal detector wand scan.  It is a pretty swanky place and the roof bar was very nice with great views, albeit about $20/drink.  Oh, when you see that Oban single malt for only $13, don’t get excited.  That’s for a 30ml pour, so double it for a drink you’d accept in the US.  It felt nice to have a taste of our former lives hanging out with fancy people.

Sunday we walked around the Fort area and markets but you should do so on a different day because a lot of it was closed.  There were so many people sleeping on the street or some kind of stand today, I think more than usual because it was Sunday.  It was fun watching kids play cricket in the streets.

Mumbai is probably India’s most cosmopolitan city and there is some real wealth here.  It is fascinating to see some of this alongside cows on the road and guys sharpening knives with a bicycle-powered wheel.

The post office occupies an impressive building just by Victoria Terminus (now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus but most still refer to it as Victoria or V.T.), a beautiful and lively structure.  You can’t enter the main part of the station as you typically would in Europe, but it’s worth seeing.  Plus you can grab an Indian guava with chili salt.

Crawford Market was a shadow of its regular self but we found some spicy cashews and candied fennel and there were still lots of puppies, birds, fruits, veggies and men sleeping.  As I write this from Delhi, those spicy cashews are the chief suspect in the moderate stomach problem case.

We walked a long way and had a hard time finding a cab, so we were quite pleased to reach Marine Drive and catch the sea breeze.  A little bit farther and we hit the sand at Chowpatty Beach.

What a great scene on a Sunday afternoon!  The area is known for street food and snacks, we were wusses and just got some ice cream bars.  There is a small section on the south end with permanent F&B structures and then a big beach packed with families and people grilling up corn and making Indian snacks.  Guys rent little mats (and get pretty territorial with each other) and others have these pimped out big-wheels for kids that play electronic music.

I had a delicious channa bhatura for dinner at Cream Centre across the street.  It’s like a puffed up piece of fried dough that you puncture and then eat with a spicy mixture of chickpeas, potatoes and onions.  My meal came with a view of the Chowpatty crowds and lots of guys looking in through the window to watch cricket on the restaurant wall’s HDTV.

A block or two down is Bachelorr’s, famous for its fresh fruit juices and creams.  We got chocolate milkshakes because that always sounds right, but they were so-so and I’d go for the fruit drinks.  Speaking of drinks, when you walk around Mumbai all day, it is hard to figure out the right balance of staying hydrated but not having to pee.  Because good luck finding a bathroom that’s not the sidewalk.

Monday we met our Reality Tours & Travel guide at the Churchgate station for the ride up to Dharavi.  They were pretty alarmist about how hard it would be to get off the train at the right stop, but it was easier than the New York subway (though more on this in Practical Info).  The slum tour was very neat and I recommend doing one.  They strongly request you do not take any pictures once the tour begins, so the ones I have included are from their own library (which you can access after taking the tour).

This is one of many slums in Mumbai, but perhaps the most famous due to its size and Slumdog Millionaire.  There is a heavy industry section and a residential section where they also have enterprises making things like soap, leather, pottery and papadum.  The heavy industry section is dedicated largely to recycling, mostly plastic with some aluminum.  The working conditions are pretty rough with some closed spaces and toxic gases.  The population density is astronomical.

Dharavi functions like its own city.  There are schools and some stores and an economy estimated at several hundred million dollars.  It is estimated that 1,500 people might share one public toilet.  I haven’t researched it extensively and the workings are complex, so I won’t try to get into all the details of life in the slums and the “law”  and controversy surrounding them and forcible eviction that takes place from time to time etc.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers won the National Book Award and I mention it on my Books post.  It takes place in a different slum but the tales of corruption are so mind-boggling and heinous.  Our tour makes an effort to focus on the happiness of the residents.  It is true that we saw a lot of kids smiling and in general the feel was not of desperation and horror but rather contentedness. My guess is the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  That the lives of most are not as dreadful as the main characters of Katherine Boo’s book but that there is extensive crime and corruption that Reality Tours omits from the story.

Interestingly, Reality Tours is itself quite the operation.  There must have been 30+ people in small groups that day, and the tour operates every day.  They give 80% of the profits to their sister-NGO…but I wonder what even 20% of those profits amounts to?!  I don’t mean to suggest they’re doing anything wrong, but it’s an interesting new business.  I actually just came upon this article from yesterday, quite timely.

We met some nice fellow travelers, including an Aussie couple on a six-week trip with three young kids.  Nice to get a little inspiration in advance 🙂

We stopped by the Dhobi Ghat on the way home.  The one we visited in Kochi offered a more up-close view and was more quaint, but this was another interesting juxtaposition of an old tradition in the middle of a mega-city with big buildings in the background.

Trishna is a famous seafood restaurant and dinner that night was a moderate splurge.  It was good but I can’t say I was blown away.  I was more excited to find this Indian kid wearing a “that’s what she said” t-shirt.

Getting to the airport on Tuesday was a bit of a fiasco but alas we made it with plenty of time for our flight to Agra.  And I got some more inspiration for a planned post on some of the things that make India incredible yet also infuriating!

Practical Info

Transportation: A prepaid taxi from the airport to our hotel in Churchgate cost Rs 480.  If you take the Sea Link bridge, the toll is an additional Rs 55.  Traffic is usually bad, so plan for 60-90 minutes.  To return to the airport, our hotel called a taxi and insisted he use the meter so the trip was less than Rs 400.

We walked around much of the city and this may suffice for Colaba, Fort, Marine Drive, etc.  But not if you want to visit areas further afield.  Taxis and auto-rickshaws are reluctant to use the meter, but your hotel or a guide may be able to convince them.  The amounts are pretty small so it hardly matters, but e.g. we paid Rs 100 to go the same distance as a trip four times as far would have cost on the meter.

Our only experience with the train was the day we did the Dharavi slum tour, when we met the guide inside Churchgate station and he purchased return tickets.  Since we traveled counter to the daily commute (i.e. we were heading north around 9:30 am when most commuters were coming from the north to Churchgate and surrounding areas), the train was not that crowded and it was pretty simple.  Same for our ride back on the train from the Dhobi Ghat to Churchgate.  And since Churchgate is the end of the line, it removes some of the stress that would be present if the train were crowded and you tried to enter or exit during the handful of seconds the train rests at the platform.

Make sure you know which airport you need.  I won’t get into the details here, but we had an unpleasant experience sorting out where to go for our departing flight to Agra.

Accommodation: Many tourists stay in the Colaba area (this is where the famous Taj Mahal Palace hotel and Gateway of India sight are located, among others), and this seemed like a fine option.  We stayed at Hotel Astoria in Churchgate.  The room was spacious with good AC for just over $100/night.  Breakfast with fresh omelets was included.  WiFi is available free in the lobby but in the room you pay Rs 107/215 for 12/24 hours, and this is per device.

The location was very good.  One long block from Marine Drive, right at an entrance to Churchgate train station, a 10 minute walk to the Fort area, etc.  The Intercontinental and its popular Dome rooftop bar are a five minute walk.  I do not know where Churchgate ends and Nariman Point begins, but the Oberoi is also in this general area.

Activities: We spent a couple days just wandering Colaba, Fort and some markets.  We did not realize that the Mangaldas cloth market and Zaveri Bazaar jewelry markets are closed on Sunday, and I think Crawford Market was a fraction of its normal self.

Chowpatty Beach on Sunday afternoon was a highlight, covered above.  We also thought our Dharavi slum tour with Reality Tours and Travel was a neat experience, covered above.  This cost Rs 750 each (or Rs 700 if you meet there instead of at Churchgate).  Reality offers slightly different versions of this tour as well as market, street food and other tours.  Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (still referred to by most as Victoria Terminus or V.T.) is worth a visit for its beautiful building, though you cannot enter the main area as you would in a typical European train station.

I might not go far out of my way, but if you are nearby then viewing the Mahalakshmi Dhobi Ghat is kind of neat.  I think you can descend and get closer to the action, but most seem to observe from the road bridge above.

Some popular activities we missed include visiting the island tomb of Haji Ali, and Elephanta Island.

Food: We had some good meals in Mumbai.  I’ll cover the dinners first…

Khyber (Fort) is somewhat romantic with marble floors and rough wooden beams, and our mutton rara was excellent.  I was offended by Rs 315 for plain rice, but enjoyed my cocktail and the waiters speak English well.  BEWARE: many nicer restaurants do not include taxes in the prices shown on the menu, and these can add up to 25% without even including a tip.  Also, if you want to drink non-Indian wine, be prepared to pay 5x mark ups.  We saw a bottle of Yellowtail on more than one menu priced around $50.  Someone should import two-buck Chuck and sell it for $25.

Pizza by the Bay (Churchgate/Marine Drive) serves quite good pizza (certainly by Indian standards) and has other Italian and American standards.  Our corner window table on a Saturday night included a lovely breeze and Queen’s Necklace views.

Creamy Centre (Chowpatty Beach) is clean and bright and one of those places with a touristy feel but mostly Indian clientele.  My channa bhatura was very filling and delicious.  It is a chain with other locations in India and even one in Dubai.  After we got milkshakes at Bachelorr’s a couple blocks south.  These were nothing special, perhaps the fruit juices for which it is more famous are better.

Trishna (Fort) is a legendary seafood restaurant that filled up quickly after we sat at 7:45 pm on a Monday.  We split a large portion of the signature butter pepper garlic crab (out of the shell) as well as squid with chili and garlic and some garlic naan.  I used a chit for Jenni to forego paratha as the bread of choice.  The kesar pista kulfi dessert is like a cross between regular and astronaut ice cream and comes as a disc cut into triangles.  Minimal points for atmosphere.  The meal was very good, though frankly if you put a lot of butter and garlic on just about anything it’s tasty.

We really had only one proper lunch, as Sunday we snacked on spicy cashews at Crawford Market before some ice cream at Chowpatty and an early dinner, and Monday was a late margarita pizza at Markiv’s (a clean and corporate type place with mediocre pizza) next to our hotel.  But that one proper lunch at Olympia Coffee House was a highlight, which I covered above.  It cost Rs 250 with a generous tip.

Drink: We have been going out very little on this trip, but did enjoy a brief reminder of the high life at Dome (Intercontinental, Marine Drive) on Saturday night.  Aer at The Four Seasons is well-reviewed.  I believe there are some pubs and of course hotel bars in Colaba, and I read that many of the hipper/edgier venues are north of the main tourist neighborhoods.  Time Out covers Mumbai and might be a good resource.

December 27-31, 2013 (Friday-Tuesday)

Temple and Thali

Madurai is an ancient south Indian city whose main attraction is the massive and bustling Meenakshi temple.  We drove here from Munnar to spend a day and a half and two nights.  If you are considering staying longer, please reconsider.  The temple is remarkable but otherwise the city has little to commend it.  Except for the thali lunch at Aarathy.

Check out the temple gopuras (towers) from a distance for some perspective and then the up close shots to appreciate the detail of each gopura.

We stayed at Hotel Padmam which sports a fine location but I don’t recommend it.  We had to ask twice to get toilet paper, soap and towels (at all, not like refills or anything), and if you want a top sheet walk down the street and buy one for a few bucks.  There is no WiFi in the room and the manager told us it takes 40 minutes to complete the 15 minute trip to the airport and charged us Rs 450 (paid to him not the driver, who he probably paid half that at most) which is nearly the same as the hour and a half journey from the Mumbai airport to our Mumbai hotel costs.  Even for $23/night I expected more.  Like a bathroom that didn’t smell like vomit.  We decided this is slightly below the accommodation level we’re aiming for.

Lunch at Emperor on the roof of Hotel Chentoor was so-so but there is a nice view of the temple gopuras.  Afterwards we walked around the temple to enjoy up-close views and the constant buzz of activity encircling this holy site.  There are women selling jewelry, busy food stands, kids asking for pens and carts packed with dates and large blocks of some jelly-like substance.

In this area you will be approached repeatedly by men suggesting you can go to the top of some building for a view and do not need to buy anything.

While clearly a commission pitch, we figured we had nothing to lose.  So we entered The Museum Company on the west side of the temple, marched straight to the top and then had a peaceful view where Miya offered us some tea with cardamom and cinnamon.

He proffered a long view of business, i.e. it didn’t matter if we bought anything but we could come back someday or tell our friends.  He was soft-spoken and true to his word, granting us leave with minimal earful.  Our true story of “sorry, you have lovely stuff but we have no room in our luggage and no home” has convinced many.

The rooftop rest was welcome.  Our first nine days in India were uber relaxing and Madurai marked a sharp contrast.  This is the kind of place you need to pay attention or you’ll get hit by a moped or goat.  Jenni was carrying a water bottle that took a moto-handlebar beating.  Nobody covers their mouth to cough and we saw multiple men urinating on the side of the road.

And the noise.  Constant.  Auto-rickshaw motors, horns, the rhythmic hand-pumping of water, chanting, negotiation.  If I were a music producer I think I would spend a little time in India for inspiration.

Surprisingly another calm corner in Madurai was this little vegetable alleyway which also had some birds located by the southeast corner of the square where our hotel sits.  We ate dinner at Dhivya Mahal where my aloo mutter masala was quite tasty.  Guess what Jenni got?  Paratha!

Thursday we visited the temple.  It took some effort to figure out the rules and setup (more in Practical Info but NOTE only mobile phone cameras are allowed inside, so if you can tell a difference in the photos that’s why), but alas we entered and the sensorial stimulation did not disappoint.  Aside from the prodigious and intricate gopuras, inside the temple there are vivid paintings, statues of deities, carved columns, tiered candle stands and a whole mess of humanity.  Offerings here, clink-clanking of donated change there, folks prostrating themselves or whispering in the ear of stone creatures.  Only Hindus are allowed in to the shrines, and these all had very long lines.

One section is dedicated to an art museum from where we viewed an elephant in the area between the inner and outer temple walls.  The elephant was trained to extend his trunk and take money, then tap the giver on the noggin and pass the cash back to its master.

On our way out we rested in the shade a bit and I lay down gazing up at clouds drifting over a gopura, listening to Indian music and watching the birds circle.  It is always nice to find moments of serenity amidst the madness.  A little boy walking past pointed at Jenni and laughed, then his mother told him to go say hello.  Which opened the floodgate and soon she had a little greeting line.

By the way, unrelated to Madurai but while I’m writing this Jenni just got a message from an Indian friend she studied with in Melbourne.  He recommends the kite festival in Ahmedabad in mid-January.  We will be in Thailand or Laos but…

After visiting the temple we were hungry, and more so after a long search for Aarathy.  When you approach on the side street and it looks like a dump, do not be alarmed.  Push onward, for the reward is a superb, all you can eat thali veg lunch.  Our man doles out the rice then ghee-ifies it with some powder and liquid butter.  Plus there are ten different bowls of yumminess, papadum, etc.  All for Rs 100.

Madurai is on the south India itinerary of many well-known tour companies.  If you visit alone, my advice is spend one day, do not stay at Hotel Padmam and do have lunch at Aarathy.

Practical Info

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel Padmam which I pretty much covered above.  It seems the city is somewhat divided between the old town south of the river where the temple and action are, and the less exciting but likely nicer area north of the river.  I believe there are a couple nicer hotels there, and since being in the action in Madurai isn’t that great and you really just need to visit the temple, you might want to stay in one of those nicer hotels.

Temple: Modest dress is required.  Full pants for men, no hats.  You cannot wear shoes but can check them for free at each entrance.  There is an outside wall where you would check shoes, etc. and then you can enter the space in between for free.  To enter the actual temple, foreigners have to pay Rs 100.  You may not bring a camera inside.  However, you can bring a mobile phone inside, and for Rs 50 you can take pictures with your phone.  This all seems odd and is contrary to what I had thought, so you might double check for yourself even though we asked several people.  When you see the really long line of Indians waiting to enter the temple, walk around it, pay the Rs 100 and walk right in.  Unless you are Hindu, then maybe that line is where the shrine line begins.

Shopping: We went to the roof at The Museum Company at #26, West Chitrai Street, Ph: 0452 2346043, fortroyalmadurai@yahoo.com and our man was Gowhar aka Miya.  I cannot speak to the quality of the product nor how it compares to other stores, but it appeared to have nice wooden art and jewelry.  And he said we could leave our footwear there when we visited the temple.

December 25-27, 2013 (Wednesday-Friday)

Tea with Celine Dion

After Kerala’s backwaters we headed east for the hill country.  Munnar is set in the mountains surrounded by waterfalls and tea and cardamom plantations with cool, fresh air.  It was most pleasant and turned out to be a perfect place to spend Christmas in India.

Munnar is a small town in Kerala, though the surrounding area is generally all referred to as Munnar.  After nearly five hours of driving from the backwaters, much of it rather jarring, we checked into Casa del Fauno, our home for the next four nights.  I have included pictures below and details on the property in the Practical Info section.

Sidebar: near Kochi there was a cop going up to every driver with a little brown box and asking them to blow into it.  Random, low-tech breathalyzer, at 9:15 am.

As I write this we have already visited Madurai and I am now in Mumbai, thus confirming how comparatively relaxing were our first nine nights in India!  In Munnar, we did two half-day activities and spent the rest of the time reading (I finished 4-Hour Workweek and put a nice dent in The Kite Runner), writing, mellowing out and listening to Christmas carols.

Sunday morning we were picked up by a jeep for a half-day tour up to the Kolukkumalai tea estate.  The scenery was gorgeous but the ride was brutal.  Bring Advil, and I think Jenni would advise doubling up on bras.  We rode in a Mahindra, Land-Cruiser style jeep up into the mountains on some path that was a mix of dirt and large stones.  You could not drive this route without a jeep or truck.

Our driver was from the area and knew everybody.  While most conversations I have observed seem to take three times as long as I’d expect, with our man it was the opposite.  He would just quickly shout things out at pretty much every person we passed.  And he LOVED the camera.  He would offer to take a picture of us and then take five more of our surroundings, fidgeting always with the zoom.  He was about making things happen, and I liked him.

After climbing more than an hour, we arrived at a ridge with views across the cloud-covered valleys below.  It looked like we were in an airplane, or Jurassic Park.  Just beyond here is the aptly named Echo Point.  The simple pleasure of a great echo is ageless.

We passed by a few women working the tea plantation seated on the roadside for a food break, and they pointed out a couple nilgiri tahr at the top of the hill above us.  The nilgiri tahr is a rare mountain goat found in these parts (see more in Practical Info, below).  A sprinkling of back damage and touch of sore bum later, and we arrived at the tea factory.

Kolukkumalai claims the title of the highest organic tea estate in the world.  We took a tour of the small factory where the process still involves much manual work supplementing English-built machines dating back 50-100+ years.  Converting tea leaves to tea is a seven-step process.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but these steps are withering, rolling, sieving, fermenting (oxidation), drying, fibre extraction and grading.  The withering takes place in long troughs upstairs where hot and cool air blows the leaves alternatively, after which they are fed into chutes and the remaining steps occur downstairs.

On the way home we stopped for lunch for our umpteenth paratha (I’m sure you’ll read “paratha” many more times) and a little curry sauce.  This cost Rs 75 for two!

The whole tour we did not see any other white folks.  Munnar is a popular destination for middle class Indians looking to escape the heat and enjoy the hills.

After we returned it came up that Jenni and I had each taken a liking to this song but hadn’t said anything because we didn’t think the other would understand.  Jenni did a little internet sleuthing and found a link.  Kind of corny but so soothing…enjoy!  Jenni was ecstatic playing this over and over that afternoon.

That night we made new friends (a man from Thrivandrum living in Beijing, and two of his friends) and a group of locals regaled us with Christmas carols, Indian style.  I knew that Kerala had more Christians than most of the country, but I did not appreciate the extent.  On our backwaters boats were pictures of Jesus, ditto the jeep’s mirror ornament and we have seen many churches.  Casa del Fauno constructed a manger for Christmas Eve.

We also heard “So This is Christmas” by Celine Dion the first few times on Casa’s stereo.  Casa had maybe eight different holiday songs that they kept playing, but none more so than Celine.

Monday we walked the cardamom plantation with Anoop, the kind and soft-spoken property manager.  Cardamom grows in bunches of plants which themselves produce bunches of pods close to the ground.  After harvest the pods are dried before being sold at wholesale.  The property and surrounding area also include bananas, mangos, coconuts, hibiscus, jackfruit, coffee and several flowers.  It is most lush and beautiful.

While on the tour we also saw their lily-graced reservoir, Anoop pointed out a recent elephant footprint that was about the size of four basketballs, and we met some ladies breaking for food who were so warm and friendly.

Anoop told us the workers get paid Rs 250/day plus food, accommodation and school for the children.

We continued down the road and passed a man with his goats speaking on his mobile.  Then we left the pavement and crossed a hillside with ancient pygmy rock houses before ascending some steep rocks to reconnect with a different road.

A handful of smiling kids and kittens later, we returned to the Casa and later enjoyed a perfect sunset over the hills.

I enjoyed the food at our hotel and fell in love with this spicy pickled mango sauce.  Also, there was an endless supply of crisp papadums each lunch and dinner.

Tuesday we relaxed and had a bottle of mediocre Four Seasons shiraz before/with our Christmas Eve dinner.  We met a fun family from England and the mood was jovial with a warm fire (wood and a coconut shell towards the end) and many fireworks.  One of the staff threw those loud poppers until the whole bag was gone.  Jenni had the honor of cutting the fruit cake, and the stars were excellent.

But the highlight was definitely good ole Celine.  After Anoop had played So This is Christmas twice in the span of three or four songs, we eyed him going back to fiddle with the stereo.  I gave Jenni the fist clenched, elbow tucked “yessssss!!!!!” sign and he saw me, then proceeded to play Celine again.  Caught red-handed he came over and smiled and said sheepishly “I like this song very much.”  It was adorable and we had perhaps our best laugh of the trip.

We departed on Christmas and the staff insisted on taking pictures with us.  The drive down to Madurai was beautiful and spirited, on a rough mountain road with many hairpin turns and areas where landslides had covered half the road with rock or simply made half the road disappear.  Plus, an elephant crossing sign.

Munnar was beautiful, lush and relaxing.  Often I had to remind myself I was in India.  If you are looking for a stereotypical Indian cultural experience this is probably not the place, but to see a calm and peaceful side of this amazing country it is a good choice.

Practical Info

Transport: From our backwaters stay a bit south of Kochi, it took four hours by car to reach the town of Munnar and another 45 minutes to Casa del Fauno.  We paid Rs 3,400.  The last 1/3+ of the drive is on winding and often rough roads.  There are buses to Munnar but I do not think a train, and you will need private transportation to get around the area.  As all over India, your hotel or guesthouse can likely arrange tours and local and onward transport.  If given the option, it might be worth having your destination arrange the transport as that increases the likelihood your driver can find the place.

Accommodation: Your first key decision is whether to stay in the town of Munnar or the surrounding areas.  Munnar itself did not appear particularly charming but may have more budget options and offer a convenient base for exploration.  If you want more attractive environs, I recommend staying outside of Munnar.

We stayed at Casa del Fauno which is about 25 km beyond Munnar (coming from Kochi), closer to the town of Chinnakanal.  It was a (modest) splurge as we wanted a comfortable, peaceful environment for the holiday.  Casa del Fauno is a restored bungalow on the Peak Gardens cardamom plantation.  There are three rooms in the main house and some cottages just downhill.  The main house is lovely and cozy with nice hardwood floors and high wood ceilings and a wood-burning fireplace.  It felt like being in a friend’s home.  Our first three nights we stayed in the Deluxe Room in the main house which was spacious and opened to a common patio overlooking the small lawn and valley and mountains beyond.  This had already been booked for our fourth night and we were promised the Elegant Room also in the house but instead (for the same price) we got the honeymoon bungalow.  This was similar to our Deluxe Room but slightly larger, more private and with a large terrace overlooking the hills.  WiFi is only available in the main house, and may only work effectively in the Deluxe Room which is next to the router.  Breakfast is included and freshly made tea or coffee is available throughout the day.  Tasty Keralan lunch is served for Rs 250 and dinner costs Rs 500.  If you want alcohol you need to request it in advance and someone will go to the store to purchase it.  Casa del Fauno does not take credit cards.

We also considered staying at Windermere Estate, Anearangal Camp at Suryanelli, Siena Village and British County (run by the Tourist Desk with offices in Kochi).  Siena Village is well-reviewed though we passed the property and it is more in a town vs. Casa del Fauno which was really set in the forest.  Nearby our hotel are The Wind and Spice Tree.  Our driver also mentioned Club Mahindra.  Stanley Wilson (tour operator out of Kochi who booked our backwaters trip) runs a 3 day / 2 night tour for Rs 11,000 that might be a good option if you want to be efficient and economical with your time.

Activities: Popular activities include tea and spice plantation visits, the tea museum in town, scenic tours (e.g. to Top Station), trekking and visiting one or more of the region’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.  The famed Neelakurunji plant grows on the mountainside here and flowers once every 12 years.  My book says that late 2018 is the next bloom.

Our jeep tour to Kolukkumalai cost Rs 1700.  We had the jeep to ourselves and it could have seated more, though I do not know if the price would differ.  We had to pay Rs 100 for a road maintenance fee on the way, and one can only imagine what the “roads” would be like without maintenance.  At Kolukkumalai, it costs Rs 100 each to tour the factory.

Eravikulam National Park is considered the place to see the nilgiri tahr.  Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary is also in the area.  We read and heard that Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary may be disappointing.  Attukad Waterfalls look impressive, though I think pictures you will see were probably taken in the rainy season.

One Pen, Please

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We planned 3.5 weeks in India, and most of our time was TBD but for two places: Varanasi and the backwaters of Kerala.  I had read that spending time on a boat in the backwaters was a relaxing experience that also offered a glimpse into village life in southwest India.  My expectations were high, and I was not disappointed.

I arrived in Kochi fully intending to arrange a two-night motored houseboat out of Alleppey, about an hour and a half south.  There are many options for a backwater experience including a day trip on a public ferry between Kollam and Alleppey.  My comments on all except the trip we did is from reading and word of mouth, so I will write as though it’s fact but I cannot confirm.

Alleppey is by far the most popular place for booking houseboats, and these days there are hundreds if not more than a thousand.  Many of these are fairly luxurious with air conditioned bedrooms and an upper deck with sofas.  It sounds great, but word is at least at this time of year the Alleppey area has gotten so crowded that you might wait in a line of boats to make a turn.  And the water is oily.

In Kochi we popped into Walton’s Homestay to see if they arranged backwater tours, and Mr. Walton fortuitously directed us a couple doors down to his friend Stanley Wilson.  Stanley told us that he worked for years in Alleppey, but that the original intent of a relaxing float had become a victim of its own success.  As more and more tourists, both domestic and foreign, wanted a houseboat tour, the boats became bigger and more luxurious and the area more crowded and polluted.  He offered a simpler and more eco-friendly alternative.

Stanley arranges punted boat tours from a village about halfway between Kochi and Alleppey, with solar power during the day when the boat is out on the water.  Punted means that men propel the boat by pushing long bamboo poles on the water bottom.  Except when we passed through a canal lined with stone walls, when the boat men disembark and pull the boat using a rope.  They do this because punting is hard work, as Jenni and I both learned when we gave it a try.

There is no air conditioning and no upper deck, but also no noise.  Stanley promised our money back if we saw more than three other boats, and I am happy to say he still has our money.

After an hour drive from Kochi, we arrived in the village and boarded the boat at 10:30 am.  We were accompanied by two boat men and Manu, a great cook who speaks English very well.  The boat is made of wood and bamboo and has a simple kitchen in back, a basic bedroom and toilet with sink, and a front area with a dining table, some comfy lounging chairs and a side table.  The front is covered so you do not roast in the direct sun all day.

As we glided through the backwaters we passed between wider and narrower channels, surrounded by palm trees and many birds including ducks, egrets, cormorants, storks and kingfishers.  We saw tiger prawn farms and men in canoes laying out fishing nets in a circle.  There were lots more Chinese fishing nets like those we saw in Kochi.

The villagers onshore always stared and almost always waived and said hello.  Kids were full of smiles and relentlessly asked for “one pen, please.”  So if you can fit them in your luggage, bring a boatload of pens to throw to these adorable youngins.  And one group of boys who walked alongside our boat for a while said they love Justin Beiber, so maybe bring some Belieber paraphernalia while you’re at it.

While much of India is frenetic, the backwaters epitomize relaxation.  Jenni and I each commented that we could not recall the last time we felt so relaxed…perhaps on the second half of our honeymoon in the Maldives.  The food was delicious and enormously apportioned.  Coffee and tea were offered multiple times.  We had fresh fish with each lunch and dinner plus rice, okra, curries, freshly made chapati or paratha and watermelon, pineapple or banana for dessert.

The first night we drank a bottle of Sula chenin blanc that we purchased in Kochi.  We knew Sula from the bubbly we had the first night of our honeymoon last year in Jodhpur.  The winery is located in Nashik in the state of Maharashtra, India’s burgeoning wine region.  Time may tell, but for now Napa and Bordeaux ought to rest easy.

The one thing about this arrangement that may be better on the Alleppey boats (I am not sure if it is the case or not) is that at night we are anchored yet also docked back at the village.  In other words, the boat is pointed out towards the water so you still get some of the feeling of sleeping out on the water, but it is not the same as being anchored in the middle of a lake.  On the bright side, when docked there is electricity so you can charge devices and you can take their dugout canoe for a spin.

We could also hear music and fireworks both nights, as if to remind us this was still India.  But the noise subsided before bed time.  Some of the fireworks were so loud.  Remember that if you are in India and it sounds like war is breaking out, stay calm.  Most likely it is not.

On our first day before lunch the boat docked across a wide waterway and we walked five minutes to the Arabian Sea.  There were so many colorful wooden fishing boats and I helped push in a new arrival loaded with mackerel and catfish caught in a chicken wire like net.

On the walk over one of the boat men pointed out a fruit tree that looks exactly like mango, only this one he said is poisonous.  Good to know…

We had made arrangements with Stanley to spend the first day and night on the boat and the second day onshore and sleeping in the village home stay.  We so enjoyed being out on the boat that on Saturday morning we called an audible and switched to the one of their three boats that was free that day.

As I wrote above, I have no personal experience with a motored houseboat from Alleppey and I imagine it could be wonderful.  Among other things, two-bedroom houseboats are offered which is not so at Stanley’s village.  These boats might also anchor out in the water, which sounds nice.  If you are interested in going that route, this post from globetrottergirls.com seemed sensible and helpful.

Our taxi from Kochi cost Rs 600 and each night on the boat was Rs 4,000 with all meals included.  Had we stayed in the village that night would have cost Rs 2,500 without AC or 3,000 with AC.

It is worth noting this was a good reminder that sometimes you just have to trust people.  We paid Stanley in full in advance.  This is slightly unusual, but he came recommended from a hotelier who seemed trustworthy and was recommended in my guide book (the hotelier, that is), and Stanley has a permanent office on a busy tourist street in Kochi.

Two nights on the backwaters was perfect for relaxing, reading and writing.  I made it through 500+ pages of Mandela’s book Long Walk to Freedom.  If you want a quintessential south India experience, I highly recommend unwinding here for a couple days.

You can find Stanley at www.wilsontours.co.in, stanley.wilson@rediffmail.com, (+91) 98474 76750, or the old-fashioned way on Princess Street in Fort Cochin

December 19-21, 2013 (Thursday-Saturday)