Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Great Challenge - 'Incredible' India

(It's a long one so grab a coffee and make yourself comfortable)

It's been a long two weeks here in India. Regardless of all the helpful advice and warnings of India from fellow travellers, there was no way we could be prepared for what we encountered in India. India is completely overwhelming. It's smelly and dirty yet full of happy smiling men holding hands, laughing and enjoying life.Previously we would never have imagined there was a place like this on earth, where cars, mopeds, auto-rickshaws and trucks only stop for cows. Where Chai (tea) is sweeter than hot chocolate. Where the entire country is one big toilet. And finally, where religion is life. When we first arrived in the south of India in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) we had no set plans, no reserved hotel and no idea what we were doing. We managed a pre-paid taxi to the hotel we hoped to stay at, found it was full and moved on to the next. We were happy we survived our first night but not happy that we left The Maldives for this!

We were in good spirits on day 2. We were determined to make it in India. Our first mission was to figure out how to buy a train ticket. The process is quite stressful and similar to taking a test in school. We located the reservation desk and then the ticket request sheet and did the best we could to figure out which train we wanted. There's very little help or information available at the reservation offices yet, somehow you're supposed to determine which train you want even though there's millions of trains that travel all over India everyday. We filled out the sheet as best we could with our names, age, gender, address and train number then stood in the pushy line to the teller. The catch is, if you didn't pick the right train, or the train you picked was full, you're sent back to fill out another form and stand in line all over again. With our fingers crossed we succeeded and bought our first 2AC (second class, air conditioned) train tickets departing that same evening.

After switching trains in Mangalore to reach Goa, we learned that we would be doing a lot of waiting in India. We were on the train for almost 24 hours. On our second train we were pleasantly surprised to be seated in a birth with a fellow traveller, Jenn from Chicago, currently residing in Beijing, who's travelled to India multiple times. We chatted lots and later determined that Jenn was an angel sent to us to help us cope with India. We had lots of laughs and Jenn passed on a book to Nicole called Holy Cow. The book accounts a women's spiritual travels across India and kept Nicole laughing for the remainder of our stay. The three of us shared a taxi as Jenn was travelling even further than our final destination of Panaji, the old capital of Goa. For the second time, our taxi driver had no idea where he was going and all three of us became very agitated by the driver, however he was determined to get us right to the doorstep of the hotel we had requested. After calling in another cabbie for directions we arrived where we had requested and Jenn sped off hoping to make it to her hotel in time. Again, the hotel we wanted was full, so we found a terrible but cheap room in a nearby hotel. The next day we moved to the hotel we wanted before breakfast.
Panaji was much easier to enjoy. We were either getting used to India or the old Portuguese city had a great calming effect on us. We ate breakfast and dinner at a cute little restaurant on the second floor of a hotel and spent most of the day walking around. Now walking in India is not simple. There are few sidewalks and even if there are sidewalks, stalls and booths usually take up most of the walking space. Pedestrians use the road along with everything else that moves. We are now professionals of real life frogger. We can dodge cow dung while maneuvering around other pedestrians and jump out of the way of oncoming cars and mopeds like any casual stroll around town. We visited a beautiful white-washed Portuguese church. Few, if any, Portuguese reside in Panaji any more yet their religious followers still visit the church. Later, we found a place to use the internet and tried to get ourselves a little more organized before heading off to Mumbai the next day.
Mumbia (Bombay) was nothing special, however we didn't attempt to find any Bollywood sets. Jason wasn't feeling well and Nicole didn't feel comfortable walking around on her own, the 'Hey Babe' and kissing noises were enough for her while Jason was beside her, she wasn't prepared to find out what would happen by herself. We stayed 3 nights in the area beside the old Victoria Terminus and walked from there to check out the other colonial buildings in the area including the High Court Building and those on the Mumbai University campus.It felt similar to walking around the University of Toronto campus minus any girls as only university boys littered the streets playing cricket that day. We made sure to check out a movie and saw August Rush. We really enjoyed it, despite it being from Hollywood and not Bollywood. Standing for the India National Anthem made us giggle too. :) On our last day in Mumbai we walked down to the harbourfront to check out the Gateway to India and the grand Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

We unfortunately found it impossible to book a train to Jodhpur or Jaipur from Mumbai without more than a week's notice, so we were forced to fly to Jaipur. At least we were able to find a reasonably fared flight on one of India's discount airlines, SpiceJet. It of course ended up being delayed though so we ended up arriving in Jaipur at night and our taxi again had a very hard time finding our guest house. We eventually found it with the help of another local rickshaw driver. The guest house was very nice and had very friendly staff. Definitely our favourite accommodation choice in India.

On another note, we made sure to spend a lot of time on the internet to plan and book the remainder of our trains through India online. This was a frustrating task, especially for a professional website developer like Jason. It took us three attempts, each taking 15 minutes, to book each train ticket as the site crashed or resulted in a 'communication failure'. Our patience was put to the test over and over again and we found ourselves crossing our fingers and praying to whichever Indian god was in control of the site that our purchase would go through. We were even double charged for two tickets but luckily have already been reimbursed.
Jaipur is hectic and busy, but incredible. The old walled section of the city consists entirely of pink buildings. The streets are lined with small stores and booths and as usual, people, mopeds, rickshaws, and cars all jostle their way to their destinations. We visited the City Palace and the distinctive Hawa Mahal in the centre of town before calling it a day now that Nicole was also not feeling well. The highlight of Jaipur was visiting the Amber Fort on our second day. It's a magnificently huge fort on a rocky hillside just north of the city. It yields great views of the surrounding hills and has some fantastic fort architecture. We really enjoyed exploring the corridors from courtyard to courtyard. Our pictures are awesome from our trip to the Amber Fort and we highly suggest checking them out.
Later that afternoon, we took a 5-hour train to Jodhpur. We again arrived late, but this time our hotel was an easy walk from the train station and an employee greeted us off the train. Being on the edge of the Great Thar Desert makes the city dry and dusty and made our coughs even worse. Nevertheless we were ready to explore the blue city and Meherangarh Fort via foot. We set out in the early morning determined to find our own way through the twisted narrow streets. After discovering that even our compass couldn't help us we began asking for directions, "past the cow and to the left", we couldn't have asked for any better help.
Eventually we reached the top of the hill and rose up over the urine soaked streets and entered the Fort. The Lonely Planet highly recommended the audio tour and since it was included in the price of entry, we couldn't refuse. It was highly entertaining and educational. Atop the fort are spectacular views over the indigo blue city. We had a late lunch at the Fort's restaurant and again experienced 'Indian' service. For a country that is competing for the highest population in the world, nobody seems to get anything done. Every Indian airport, restaurant and hotel we've visited has been way over-staffed yet nobody is really doing anything. Sitting and waiting to be served lunch that day was excruciatingly painful. We watched as three waiters served one table and two people ran to get change for another table. This went on for about half an hour until we finally had enough and demanded some service. It seems in India, everyone wants your money but nobody wants to do anything for it.

On the way back to the hotel, Nicole decided it was time to tackle some tourist shopping in India. We headed for the clock tower and surrounding market. After about two minutes and refusing to buy incense 5 times, we were done. We turned right around and left the crowded market selling everything we didn't need. On exit, Nicole spotted a man and his son working quietly at a shawl/blanket shop. Their small shop was more our speed and after a little bargaining with our China shopping skills, we walked away with a beautiful blanket for $4 Cdn.

Jason's birthday was spent on a 14 hour train ride from Jodhpur to Agra. We expected, as usual, for people to be serving food and drinks for the duration of trip, but just our luck, there was no food! We had prepared ourselves with backup Parle-G cookies (similar to animal crackers) however there was no way they could sustain us for 14 hours. The two foreigners sharing our birth offered us some of their Lays chips (another customary back-up food) but we didn't feel right taking their only snacks. Jason hopped off at a couple stations re-stocking our water and chip supply but our morale was down. Poor Jason at least needed some kind of birthday dinner :( Finally someone came around with dinner and we could have cared less what was being served. We each grabbed a tray and dug in. We're not fond of Indian food and we've been mostly managing on plane rice and naan or roti since trips to the bathrooms have not been fun for either of us.

At 11:00pm that night we were more then happy to arrive in Agra. For the first time we agreed to a taxi from one of the hawkers outside the train station. Nicole felt confident with the calm yet slick driver and she didn't care the cost as it was late and poor Jason's birthday needed salvaging. Little did we know, there was a festival in Agra (celebrating Jason's birthday no doubt) and the road leading to our hotel was completely blocked off. The taxi driver gave us walking directions and sent us on our way. We were almost certain we'd been scammed, the one time we trust a hawker, however 5 minutes down the road we found our hotel and they had our reservation and we were tucked into bed by midnight fighting to sleep through the noise and fireworks of the festival.

Agra is the home of the famous Taj Mahal and we were very excited to visit the 'love' mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal, the second wife of Emporer Shah Jahan, who died giving birth to their 14th child. The Taj is the most extravagant monument ever built for love and it is something out of a fairy tale. The morning was foggy so we visited Agra Fort before making our way to the Taj. The fort was interesting, however much too crowded for us and we didn't hang around for long. We had more fun watching the monkeys and parakeets than touring the grounds.We had taken a cycle rickshaw to the fort and our driver waited for us and returned us closer to our hotel where we stopped for lunch. Finally, with our bellies full of plain pasta in hopes of settling our stomachs, we headed to the east gate of the Taj Mahal. We paid the very inflated 'tourist' entry fee of 750 rupees each which is close to $40cdn for the two of us, quite shocking for India where two night's accommodation is less than that. Regardless, we were in and ready to see the magnificent Taj Mahal along with hundreds of other tourists.

Our first glimpse of the Taj was through the bordering gateway that perfectly frames the famous building. Seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time was quite the experience. It doesn't seem real. The Taj floats in front of you like a dream come to life. The mausoleum is built completely of marble and sits above everyone's heads like a live painting. After we came to terms with the splendor and beauty of the building we started taking pictures that we knew would never properly represent the impact this building has. We left in awe and believing that there are truly some beautiful things in India besides the smiling faces of the people.
Our stay in Agra was short and to keep with our plans we headed out via train to Varanasi the next day. We had debated for some time whether we would actually make it to Varanasi, one of the oldest living cities in the world, but Nicole finally made the decision to go after reading about the holy city in her book. Lonely Planet has many warnings about visiting Varanasi as crime is high for the holiest place in the world but we felt okay with our hotel already booked and our train arriving in the early evening. We didn't feel so confident later when our train rolled into the station around 11:00pm and some Indian locals told us how unsafe the area was, kidnappings and such they said. Before we even got off the train, Nicole was shaking and regretting our decision to come.

Just when we had made the decision to stay in one of the retiring rooms at the station for the night instead of heading out into the unknown, we were surprised to find an auto-rickshaw driver was waiting with our names and was prepared to drive us 45min into Varanasi. We were quite hesitant but made it very clear that we wouldn't pay him unless we arrived safe and at the correct hotel. It was highly likely that our hotel had sold our names to the driver and it would have been beneficial to the driver to take us to a hotel that paid commission, but our driver knew we were serious. There'd be no pushing us around that night! Anyway, we arrived safe after passing numerous wedding celebrations and again tucked ourselves into bed and did our best to sleep through the fireworks and street bands.

Varanasi on the Ganges River, as the Lonely Planet puts it, "is the beating heart of the Hindu universe, a crossing place between the physical and spiritual worlds, and the Ganges is viewed as a river of salvation, an everlasting, ever flowing symbol of hope to past present and future generations", or as Jenn from Chicago puts it, 'VeryNasty'. Varanasi is where the Hindu go to die as it's said dying here ends the cycle of re-birth. All along the shore of Varanasi, the Ganges River is lined with ghats and here is where the city comes to life and death. The Ganges is extremely polluted yet people bathe, swim, launder, dip their dead and spread ashes all in the same place where their cows, goats and dogs drink.It is truly unbelievable what happens on this water's edge. The beginning of our walk along the ghats led us to men bathing and washing their clothes. Further along a movie crew filmed and five minutes beyond that the dead were being dipped, burned and spread into the water. The more we think about it, the crazier it is. The two of us stood for some time watching the business of death. All the wood for burning bodies is carefully weighed for costs and very few women seem to come watch the scene. It's all very systematic and where we were there was probably 5 people being cremated at once, ash was thick in the air. We still can't imagine that being the way to go.
On the walk back we passed through different markets and were really unimpressed with the way tourism and religion have come together in Varanasi. We do have to give them credit for their creativity though, selling t-shirts reading 'Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die'. It was amazing how unholy this holy place felt and we were glad to be leaving.
Our first class train (Not pictured above) out of Varanasi to New Delhi was wonderful and we enjoyed our mobile sleep. We were hoping New Delhi would be a break from the rest of India, but so far it seems the same. We won't truly find out until we return from Napal which is where we head tomorrow morning bright and early. For now we say goodbye to India where Saris, bell-bottem jeans, sweater-vests and mustaches are all more common than shoes and utensils.

Pics: Trivandrum & South | Panaji (Goa) | Mumbai | Jaipur | Jodhpur | Agra | Varanasi | Delhi

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Magnificent Maldives

We've had a fabulous time in The Maldives which is the world's most romantic destination. A group of atolls off the southern tip of India, The Maldives are an escape from reality and there's no place on earth quite like it. The clear tropical waters littered with vibrant fish and healthy coral only add to the already breathtaking white sand beaches and laid back island resorts.

We arrived via sea plane (Twin Otter) to White Sands Resort on Wednesday morning and were immediately given the royal treatment and escorted to our private water bungalow. The room was stunning and a perfect retreat from the dorm beds and nightmare bed bug accommodation we were getting used to. Our back deck and staircase lead straight out into the crystal blue Indian Ocean that we would quickly learn was heaven for snorkeling.

We opted for full-board privileges when we initially booked so all our meals were inclusive and Jason was awfully happy with the all-you-can-eat buffets. The food, service and atmosphere was great at the resort. However, the prices for things over and above our full-board privileges were too much for us. We decided on sun and relaxation instead of overpriced action adventure.

We spent the first couple of days pretty much doing nothing but eating, sleeping, swimming and reading, but eventually we had to explore this beautiful place. East of the resort there was a long sand bar that curved and snaked its way to the neighboring island. We headed out during low tide to follow the broken sand bar. As we made our way further from the resort the tide began to rise. That coupled with us knowing we weren't allowed to stumble onto other islands gave the cue to turn back. We had lots of fun goofing around out in the middle of the sand bar far away from everyone else.

The only free excursion included in our package was a short snorkeling trip 500 meters from the resort dock. Our guide said that the conditions weren't great and that usually there were more fish. We couldn't believe it, we saw so many brilliant fish and other aquatic life that we couldn't even begin to imagine MORE fish. After that, we caught the snorkeling bug and spent a couple afternoons off our back deck exploring our coral-filled backyard.

If we weren't reading or swimming you would usually find us up near the bar hogging the foosball table. We're pretty evenly matched so the competition was on all week. We played after almost every meal to help digest our over stuffed bellies.

Our second last night we decided it was time to splurge and we treated ourselves to a couple beers and a bottle of wine with dinner. It's been a while since we've had more then one beer each and we had fun laughing into the late evening. We knew our escape in the Maldives was drawing to an end and we both secretly wished we were flying straight home instead of moving on to India. We're still very excited to see India, we've just been forewarned by other travelers of many dangers and annoyances there.

Our last night in The Maldives was spent on the main island of Male. The little town is a bustling city of hotels and motels. The streets are small and curve every which way making it almost impossible to drive anywhere. We leave our less romantic Male hotel in an hour and head to the neighboring airport island to depart. A quick stopover in Sri Lanka and we should arrive in Trivandrum, India in the early evening. We'll be back to normal budget travelling in no time but we'll never forget The Maldives.
Maldives Pics

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Singapore & Malaysia

Well, we settled into Singapore with no problems. It's clean, multicultural and reminds us of Toronto. The subway system is pretty extensive so we were able to make it from the airport to our hostel with ease. Along with its other similarities to home, the prices here are a little higher. To save money, we booked dorm beds for the first time in a while, but then we decided to treat ourselves to a movie! We saw Rambo IV and were pleasantly surprised to find that movies cost less than half the price of tickets at home.

We spent one full day in Singapore, walking through Little India and down through the colonial district along the Singapore River. The river has been laid out well with the central business district on the south side of it and the colonial district on the north side. It was a very nice walk. To finish off the day, we saw another movie (27 Dresses). It's just so cheap!
We got up early the next morning and caught the 8:30am bus to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was a 6 hour trip on a comfortable bus. We contemplated going for a walk in the afternoon but then it absolutely POURED with rain. We stayed in, watching Balls Of Fury and Knocked Up in the hostel with other guests. In the morning, we walked to the Patronas Towers (2nd & 3rd tallest buildings in the world) followed by the Menara Tower (4th tallest tower in the world). We went up the Menara Tower to admire the view over the city. The tower sits on a hill surrounded by forest. We enjoyed a nice walk through the forest on the way down. We then walked to the multi-archtectured Merdeka Square, down to the National Mosque and Old Railway Station, and took the monorail back to the hostel. After a short nap, we went out for dinner and another movie (Cloverfield). Nicole had her eyes open for only about 5 minutes of the movie due to handheld camera induced motion sickness...

To make matters worse, we took a 4-hour bus ride to a town called Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands the next day and the last hour or so of the trip was on a VERY windy road and the bus was taking the turns as quickly as possible. Nicole was really not feeling well. It rained from mid afternoon until well into the evening. We relaxed at our hostel, reading, and spending time on the internet. We realized that we had acquired bed bug bites from our hostel in Kuala Lumpur... So now Nicole wasn't feeling well and she was itchy. Grrr...
Nicole was still not feeling great the next day so Jason went on a little hike on his own. He took Trail 9 to Robinson Falls then up the difficult Trail 8 to the top of Berembun Mountain. Lots of scrambling up hills and holding on to tree roots, through the highland jungle. It was quite fun. Only 2.2km up and 2km back down Trail 7, but was still challenging enough to be satisfying. The bottom of Trail 7 went through tomato and strawberry plantations before reaching the town again. Unfortunately, Jason left everything with Nicole, including the spare camera battery... The camera sure enough went dead after the falls but Jason managed to get one last picture out of it at the top. We've found some other photos on the internet that represent what the trail looked like. Nicole enjoyed her peaceful time at the hostel including a nice call home and some online web cam chatting with Jane and Honey :). At 4:30pm, we caught the bus back to Kuala Lumpur then managed to get an overnight bus leaving at midnight back to Singapore. It's Chinese New Year so the buses were all pretty much full. We were lucky to get seats.

We arrived in Singapore at 6am and walked to the hostel by 6:30am. We had to wait an hour before the hostel opened but luckily they had two dorm beds ready for us and we crawled right into bed to get a couple more hours of sleep. We spent the afternoon doing laundry at the hostel and finally writing home and catching up on emails. In the late afternoon, we took the subway down to the harbourfront and took the gondola up to Mount Faber for a view of the city and industrial harbourfront. After dinner, we walked through Chinatown, which was nicely decorated for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations. We spent the evening on the internet and reading.

Today we arrived in Sri Lanka for our one night stopover before carrying on to the Maldives for 5 days! We are a little uncomfortable staying the night here due to conflicts with the LTTE terrorist group and their random civilian attacks throughout the country so we're staying at a hostel in Negombo near the airport and unfortunately not venturing into Colombo. We were happy to find, on arrival to our hostel, that there are still many foreign tourists around and we wonder if they don't know the current situation or if they're happy taking the risk to travel here. We enjoyed a nice sunset on the beach at least. We catch our flight to the Maldives at 7am tomorrow. Hopefully all will be fine and we'll be soaking up the sun from our water bungalow in the Maldives soon enough. Can't wait!

Singapore Pics | Kuala Lumpur Pics | Cameron Highland Pics | Sri Lanka Pics