Sunday, 2 December 2007

A Long Overdue Update

Seems like it's been exactly one month since I got back from India, but it seems like a lifetime ago... (Hinduism reference! Get it? LOL) Seriously though, I totally didn't mean to just abandon this completely, there were tons of things I neglected to mention in my hurried internet café bloggings, and I was also going to do a summary, but once we got back it was so easy just to fall back into the grind.

Anyway, I know someone who's going to India soon so it's as good an excuse as any to dispense my invaluable advice for anyone game enough for such an undertaking... Okay, it's not that bad, but some of the pointers below could help. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so I'll probably come back and add/amend it later on. Also, most of them are probably already in your Lonely Planet, but it's good to stress how important some of it is...

Food & Drink

Water - only drink bottled mineral water and ensure that you're the person cracking open the seal for the first time when you get it. Good brands to look out for and stick to are Kinley (made by Coke), Aquafina (Pepsi) and Bisleri (also a big brand). However, the dodgier looking local water brands turned out to be alright anyway, just make sure it's sealed...

Chai - if you've ever had a chai latté in Starbucks, you'll soon realise that it's miles apart from the real chai in India, which is an entirely different experience altogether! We drank it everywhere and didn't really have any major stomach problems (or maybe we did, but we couldn't trace it back to one particular thing...). It's generally boiled pretty well though so should be alright. If you're on the Sleeper class carriage in the train it's fun to get fresh chai in clay cups which you can throw out the window afterwards.

Maximum Retail Price (MRP) - a lot of manufactured/processed items will have somewhere printed on it a 'MRP' which indicates Maximum Retail Price, but if you're in a restaurant or just a dodgy roadside stall they're almost certainly going to charge you twice or more. Unfortunately there's not a huge amount you can do about this, but it's good to know what it should cost. Sometimes the MRP is unsubtly rubbed off... Generally a 1L bottle of mineral water should only be 12Rs.

Chocolate in Ooty - this is a bit random but if you're ever in Ooty make sure you don't buy the local 'handmade' chocolate. It may look delicious in the shop window, but trust me, it tastes nothing like what chocolate should.

How to Deal with Dodgy, Deserted Restaurants - if you're forced to eat somewhere which looks a bit dodgy and you're the first patron there in weeks, or even the rest stop restaurants along the highway, it's a much safer bet to stick to vegetarian food. Paneer Butter Masala is just like Butter Chicken but with cubes of tofu-like cheese instead of chicken and a nice stand-in for real meat.

Breakfast - Indian breakfasts are sorely lacking in variety, so I would highly recommend any Kiwis/Aussies to take some Vegemite/Nutella/Peanut Butter with them. I mean, depends on what you like. Generally you can get access to (under/overdone) toast, but they only give you butter and a sickly sweet jam to go with it. Parantha is kind of like a roti (flat bread) with a curried potato stuffing which doesn't taste too bad, but you can get tired of that pretty quickly.

Seafood - I would stay away from seafood anywhere inland because it's not likely to be fresh... However, in Goa you should definitely try the pomfret fish! It may be a bit more expensive than the other stuff, but it was delicious... Be wary of waiters trying to sell you lobsters though, they may well show you one thing and serve you another, but that's a hazard all over Asia I suppose. The crab I had in Mamallapuram was really good, so I would also recommend that!


Pesky Street Hawkers - everywhere you go, if you look non-Indian then you will be inundated with people trying to sell you crap. The best and I've found quickest way to get rid of them is just to pretend they're invisible and don't even acknowledge their presence. Same goes for beggars. It might be difficult at first, but all they're trying to do is guilt-trip you into buying their stuff, don't be fooled! Trust me, after a week of trying to be polite and saying 'no thanks' to a million people a day, the ignoring option will start being easier to do. Unless you're genuinely interested in their wares (but they're probably ripping you off anyway), better just to ignore them.

Bargaining - this is an essential skill if you want to be doing any kind of shopping (or even for payment of services) because most people have some ridiculous 500% markup on their prices. Depending on what kind of thing it is, you should generally offer at least a third of what they said the price was. As you haggle, make sure you don't end up settling for something which is only, say, 10% off the original price... A surefire way to speed things up is just to start walking away, at which point most people will start shouting lower prices at you. I must admit I wasn't great at this, especially when it was something I knew I wanted to buy...

Regional Specialities - try to find out from your guidebook what your destination is famous for and only stick to buying that, because otherwise the likelihood of being ripped off is considerably heightened.

Show-and-Guilt-Trip Sales Presentations - if you're on a tour it's certain to happen, and even if you're on your own you're likely to be pulled into one of these stores with empty promises of 'just looking, no buying'. It generally goes like this - they show you how they make what they have, what they have in store, and then shrewdly manipulate you into spending a fortune in their shop using mainly guilt tripping. It's best just to avoid these situations altogether by not going into those shops, but when you end up in one, just be firm and rude, if necessary. I mean, it's entirely possible you might want to buy some of their stuff, but depending on what it is, there's probably a way to get it cheaper. For example we bought a load of tea in Jodhpur, but when we were in a supermarket in Ooty we saw the same thing but heaps cheaper... It's helpful to shop around if you have time. Use your discretion and be careful, basically!

Travel & Transport

Travel Agencies - I have mixed feelings about these because even though I know they take a ridiculous amount of margin, it can take a lot of the hassle out of things. However, given the choice again I definitely wouldn't have chosen one for the beginning of our trip. It's especially important to avoid travel agencies when booking one off things like train or bus tickets because they're totally going to cream it, and speaking of which...

Night Buses - definitely avoid night buses when there is a night train alternative!! We went on two, and both turned very badly. Plus the fact that whoever's selling it to you is probably making heaps of profit. Unless you'e super strapped for cash (buses are cheaper than trains), it's just not worth the pain.

Trains - it pays to book in advance because they can often be sold out, especially in high season, but always book at the official ticket office (which should be in your guidebook). When you're waiting in the line random people might come up and tell you the train is full, then sell you a bus ticket with a hefty commission attached, but just ignore people who isn't the one sitting behind the window. Generally you have to fill out a booking form before you go up to the window to actually book/pay, so to avoid queuing twice, when you first get to the ticket office push towards the counter and grab a form first. Some train stations also have tourist-dedicated booking offices which helps a lot. On the train itself, 3AC (an air-conditioned car with 3-tier bunks) is the best option for most foreigners, especially on overnight trains. On a short or daytime-only journey it can be fun to go on Sleeper class a few times just to get the 'real' experience though, you'll get tons of stares and people trying to talk to you though.

Auto-rickshaws & Taxis - one of the most important things you'll learn in India is never trust a rickshaw driver, which also applies to taxi drivers. They will always be trying to take you to their hotel (to get comission) or tell you some tourist attraction is closed so they can take you somewhere further away, or take you to their travel agent friend to rip you off even more. Always agree on a fare before you start the journey, which should hopefully match what the guidebook says. Unfortunately you won't always know what's a fair fare, but if there are several taxis around it helps to ask around first to see if someone else has a better offer. However in many tourist attractions they seem to have formed a price-fixing alliance against tourists which won't help much.

Government Buses - we actually found these fantastic value for money when we were travelling around the south of India. At least they pretty much always stop at a bus station which is on the guidebook's map, and buses between major centres are so frequent that it doesn't matter if you miss one, just hop on the following vehicle... Of course the only downside is that they can be a tad uncomfortable, especially when going over the ubiquitous potholes on the highways or up the winding roads towards Ooty (very sore bum afterwards).

Local Flights - if you can, definitely arrange this yourself online at an internet café, because it'll be cheaper than through an agency (of course!). We went with Air Deccan/Kingfisher for our Delhi to Mumbai flight, and booking was pretty smooth, you just need your credit card, they give you a confirmation number, and when you show up at the airport you just quote them the number, and show them your passport about a dozen times and it's all sorted! Being in an air-conditioned guarded airport (only passengers can even enter the terminal) is a refreshing change from being in a noisy, crowded train station.


Booking Ahead vs. Turning Up? - Of course there's pros and cons to both. The pro of booking ahead is of course that you're ensuring you have somewhere to stay, which is super helpful for when you first arrive in the country, if you know you're going to be arriving in a town quite late at night, or there's a big festival happening and all the hotels fill up super fast. Booking ahead will also eliminate the worry of people rightly or wrongly telling you a particular place is full and leading you somewhere else for their commission. The con is that you may well get a better price if you just turn up somewhere and start asking about prices. But again, if you're wandering around with your 15kg packs people are going to start asking if 'you want see nice room?' which means they are going to get commission if you decide to stay there... Of course a problem arises if you're wanting to go where they want to show you anyway, and when you stay there they will demand a commission from the hotel, which equals a higher room rate for you... Turning up can also allow you to stay somewhere not mentioned in the guidebook which may also end up being cheaper and/or nicer. I wouldn't recommend that during high tourist season or if there's a festival though. Then again, sometimes you can get totally caught off-guard, such as the unavailability of a decent hotels room in the hole known as Coimbatore...

AC or Non-AC? - Sometimes a non-airconditioned room is perfectly adequate for cooler places as long as they still have a ceiling fan to keep the air circulating and drive away mosquitoes.

Tipping - of course this depends on how generous you are and what kind of thing the person's done for you. Quite often as soon as you arrive at a hotel there will be people jostling to grab your bags in the hope of a monetary reward at the end. If they're the kind who stands around and waits for you to tip them before they leave you alone, give them 10 or 20 Rs and that's about the fair amount. If they ask for more, they're just guilt tripping you so it depends on how firm you can put your foot down I suppose. In some tourist attractions such as the elephant ride in Jaipur they try to force you to give some exorbitantly high tip, but again, a tip is a tip which is up to the giver, if they pressure you too much just start threatening to call for the authorities and they should leave you alone...

Useful Things to Have

A Local Simcard - I don't know what I would've done without my Indian simcard, because we used it all the time. I mean, we would have managed, but it would've been way more of a hassle trying to borrow phones from everywhere. You can use it to book a guest house at your next stop, ask about bus or train times, or track down a missing camera... Of course it depends on how long you're spending there, but a prepay doesn't cost that much and it's always good to know you have something to fall back on!

Some Laundry Powder and Travel Clothesline - since washing machines are more costly than just hiring manual labourers, there's no such thing as laundromats where you can just put in a $2 coin for the machine and wash all your clothes at once. No, they have to be taken away by either the hotel or the laundry service shop and charge you per item of clothing, down to the last sock. As you can see this ends up being pretty expensive after a while... I would recommend washing at least your own underwear and socks in the hotel room each night as you go. Shower gel can also help if you don't have laundry powder.

Okay, I think I'll leave it there for now, more later!

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Back to the Future

Here we are at KLIA, where there's free wifi, beef noodles, clean toilets, people who all understand English properly and don't do a useless head-wobble as an answer, no cows wandering around the terminal, no stench of poo and rubbish everywhere, no beggars, no hawkers, etc, etc... Wow!
Our last experience with the Indian public transport system didn't exactly leave a glowing impression, either. Basically a bus journey from Mamallapuram to Chennai Airport which should've taken two hours ended up taking three and a bit, there was some horrendous traffic jam and for a while we thought we might even miss the plane, but fortunately it didn't come to that.
Okay, we may have been a bit harsh on India, but it is what it is - a developing country, and we've still really enjoyed our trip in its entirety, but we're definitely glad to be back in civilisation! Now we have another ten hours to wait in this airport before our connecting flight to Auckland, fortunately we have internet and power so we should be set! There are still tons of things I want to write about the trip, which I'll probably continue to on this blog even after we get back to NZ. 

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Cheap != Best

Sea Shore Restaurant, Mamallapuram (a.k.a. Mahabalipuram)
Here we are at the beach again, kind of reminiscent of Goa, except with slightly less polluted skies (thanks to the recent rains) and maybe a bit more amenities such as shops, restaurants and guest houses more conveniently located in a cluster.
It poured with rain basically the entire time we were in Pondicherry (cleared up the day we left) but it didn't really dampen our spirits much, since there wasn't much to see there anyway. Much of the time was spent hanging around in, and talking to Davide, our new Italian friend. Other highlights included seeing giant sewer rats, one dead, and later another live one which had a body about a foot long. When we saw it, Davide exclaimed 'Incredible India!', lol.
Yesterday at the Pondicherry bus station we encountered a bunch of unhelpful people in the effort to get to Mamallapuram, and also a fragrant drunk who had puke all down his arm. A security guard squirted a whole bottle of water at him, after which he stumbled away, barfing periodically on the ground. Classy.
When we got to the guest house I'd booked over the phone, I immediately got a sinking feeling when I saw the sign outside that said 'cheap and best', because that usually translates to 'crap hole', and we were proven right once again. All the dogs barking, people chipping away at rocks, the nearby mosque with its prayer calls and some idiots yelling at each other throughout the night didn't really help either. In the morning a monkey nonchalantly wandered onto the landing outside our room and started tipping over bins to look for food. Fortunately we've found a much nicer place now closer to the beach, hopefully it should be a bit quieter as well...
Today we visited the main two tourist attractions in Mamallapuram, the Shore Temple and Five Rathas, which were very underwhelming. It also didn't help that every time you got close to either of them you had to pass through a gauntlet of hawkers, beggars, and people offering to be your guide. I totally don't care about being rude anymore though, any semblance of politeness is only used by those people as an opening for pushing you even harder for their own purposes, so it's better to just ignore them completely, which we're very skilled at doing now.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Bonjour Pondicherry!

Ram Guest House, Pondicherry
Here we are on the home stretch! Only about five days to go before we head back home, and fortunately there's only a four hour bus trip now between here and Chennai (Madras), where we're flying out of. The day before yesterday we left Ooty on the World Heritage 'toy' train thing, which was actually a bit underwhelming... Not as cool as the train from Dunedin, but I guess different enough for Indian standards. It was fortunate we got a seat in the first class cabin, because there was a bunch of idiots in the normal cabin who kept hooting when we went through tunnels...
The last stop was Mettupalayam, which we'd been strongly advised against staying in since it was such a hole, so we caught a bus to Coimbatore, another hole, but this one had the population of Auckland and many more accommodation choices. For some reason though pretty much everywhere was full, so we ended up at a pretty dodgy place with an over-friendly attendant who kept coming into our room to talk to us. I guess just for novelty value since not many foreigners would stay there.
The next morning, after much misinformation from various unhelpful people, we finally ended up on a bus to Salem, where we could then transit to Pondicherry. I'm surprised that 1) there's a town called Salem in the middle of Tamil Nadu, and 2) they haven't changed it to some other thing like they have with Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, etc, to rid itself of any signs of colonialism.
We were on those buses for nine hours, and since they were cheap government buses there were plenty of locals using them as well. We got to watch some great Tamil movies onboard, including the Indian version of Mrs. Doubtfire. In the south it seems that the ideal look for male actors is to be short, fat, sport that John Travolta Grease hairstyle, and of course have a great big moustache. You can tell that they don't have nearly as much of a budget as Bollywood because all the movies look like they were taken with some home video camera, with the fast zooming and panning etc.
The other fun thing about being on public buses were the stares - we sat by the rear door (well, door frame, there wasn't usually an actual door there) and whenever we slowly passed through a town, it was funny to see people's reactions as they noticed we were foreigners, their mouth would go agape and then they would nudge their friends and point us out to them. It wasn't much better on the bus itself, once there was this woman who just stared continuously at us (mostly James) the entire time she was there - about an hour. We should be used to it by now, but it's still quite disconcerting...
So far what we've experienced of Pondicherry is that, sure, there are some French buildings, street names, and plenty of French tourists, but it's still just like anywhere else in India - too many rickshaws, rubbish everywhere, and traffic chaos. We had lunch at a place called (but their website is which was almost like being in another country! The western food actually tasted good, and it has wifi, so that's actually where we're going to upload this from.
The place we're staying at is called 'Ram Guest House', except they mark everything as just 'Ram Guest', which is funny because seems like they're using it as a verb... Anyway, we mostly chose this place because the other budget accommodation are ashrams, which cater to hippies wanting to explore their spirituality... not really what we're after! The owner here asked where we were from, and then said he had been to the Pacific with the French military in the 70s during the nuclear testing, lol. There's quite a few French people staying here and we heard him talking to them in French, which was a bit unusual because he's Indian.
Last night we had dinner at this local place near our guest house, one dosa, a fried rice, and two drinks, very nice, filling, and only costing NZ$2 all together! Tonight we'll probably splash out on some French cuisine (well, I guess an Indian version of French cuisine) and the tax-free alcohol, but it'll still be much cheaper than NZ I'm sure. We'll meet up withDavide, an Italian guy we first met in Hampi, and bumped into again in Ooty, so that should be good. Actually we've talked to quite a few other backpackers in the past week or so, hopefully we'll actually see a few of them again in NZ as well.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

New photos!

We just uploaded a bunch more photos, so go have a look if you're interested!
This afternoon we're taking the toy train (another World Heritage thing) down to Mettupalayam, and then staying the night in Coimbatore, before heading to Pondicherry, so will probably update again in a day or two. =)

Back to Plan A

Reflections Guest House, Ooty
We went on the trek after all, and it would've been a lot better if the weather had been clear and our guide had been replaced by a trained monkey (since he hardly said anything the entire time and walked super slowly). We walked through some farms and tea plantations, and then to a top of a hill where we were supposed to get a great view over the valley, but we just got a great view of clouds instead. Ah well, I guess it was still good exercise!
Since it doesn't seem like the weather's going to improve for the entire region (apparently the monsoon has come back for a second hit), we're now thinking about flagging the whole Kodaikanal/Madurai idea, and going back to our original plan of heading straight to Pondicherry from Ooty, go to Mamallapuram, maybe lie on the beach for a few days, and then go to Chennai the day of our flight back to NZ - only a week away now! We're definitely ready to come home, though I don't know if I'm ready to go back to work, haha. Got to fund the next trip somehow though...

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Fun with Buses

Reflections Guest House, Ooty
We're currently in Ooty, and it's wet and miserable outside, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to catch up in my entries, especially since quite a bit has happened since my last one... This is the first time that rain has really interfered with our sightseeing plans, but James says he almost doesn't mind because it reminds him of Auckland.
When we first boarded the bus that would take us from Hospet to Bangalore (where we would then take another bus to Mysore), we were initially pleasantly surprised to find the sleeping berth quite wide and, to James' delight, even long enough for Caucasian statures! There was a sturdy rack for shoes, and even a power point for recharging your mobile. We both thought these were good omens for our journey, but alas, it was not to be smooth sailing for us.
On all the long-distance buses we've been on, they usually make stops along the way to let people on/off, for the driver to take tea breaks, and for hawkers to jump on and push their wares in your face. So at around 4am when our bus stopped, we sort of both assumed it was just another one of those stops. However, after an inordinately long time I thought something might be up, and when I drew aside the curtain and peered around, the bus was practially empty. When we asked what was going on, some guy just kept saying 'change bus, change bus', so we groggily got our stuff (I couldn't even see cause I didn't have my contacts or glasses on), grabbed our big bags from the luggage compartment as well, and then got shoved onto another bus which was waiting behind us. There was also one other foreigner behind us as well, who had also no idea what was going on. Turns out our original bus had broken down, and we were being transferred to one which had left Hospet a bit later. Of course, nobody had told us what was going on, and even now I wonder if maybe they would've just left without us... I'm glad we didn't have to find out.
That already had us cursing the dodgy travel agent guy in Hampi who lied about the train being full, booking us on that bus instead and ripping us off by about 300Rs in the process, but our troubles weren't over yet, because it turns out our bus didn't even stop at the central bus station. It dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, where we had to take a rickshaw to get to the actual bus station. Once we got there though, things went relatively smoothly. I know I've complained a bit about dodgy people in India leading us astray, but for every five of these there's at least one nice, helpful person!
According to the Lonely Planet, Bangalore has a 'huge, well-organised Central Bus Stand'. I was expecting something akin to Britomart, maybe with helpful maps and signs, but this is India - what was I thinking?! It was absolute chaos, but I guess some sort of organised chaos... We asked some random person where the bus to Mysore was, and he actually sent us to exactly the right place! Once we got there, there were two or three buses with guys leaning out of it calling 'Mysore-Mysore-Mysore-Mysore' etc, we just chose the one which looked the least like it was falling apart, and off we went! Well, kind of. The buses all chose to depart at the same time and there were no lanes or anything. It was like a herd of cows all trying to get through the same narrow gate simultaneously.
We got to Mysore without incident, which was teeming with people due to it being the last day of the Dussehra festival. Seems there were a lot of local tourists in town to see the big parade, which was a bit like the Santa parade, except for with about ten times as many people, many of them drunken youths... The police were on hand to beat back the crowd, and of course there were people precariously perched on every high thing such as power posts, signs, trees, rubbish skips... There was a local who started talking to us (and some other foreign tourists), explaining what was going on etc, he was really helpful actually - at the end I half expected him to ask for some sort of tip, but miraculously he thanked us (for letting him practise English on us?) and just left! Wow. The parade itself wasn't that spectacular, I mean there were guys on horses and elephants and floats, but the whole thing had a fairly budget feel to it. Ah well, I guess we were lucky to have caught at least one big festival parade on our trip!
In the evening we went to the Mysore Palace, which was lit up at 7pm with 97,000 lightbulbs (they weren't even the energy-saving ones!). There were tons and tons of people around (due to it being the festival) and we really did feel like some sort of walking freak show. Everyone would stare and stare at us - I mean, that's happened everywhere we've gone in India, but it was especially bad in Mysore because of the sheer number of people around, and most of them were probably from the countryside as well and not that used to seeing foreign tourists. The hawkers were annoying too, there was one particular kid trying to sell us pens who followed us for about five or ten minutes, even after we repeatedly said 'no' and even walked really far away from where he first accosted us.
The next morning we went back to the palace to see the inside, which was very interesting because of the mix of European and Indian artwork, but was altogether a bit too gaudy and over-the-top. We decided to skip the 'famous' silk factories of Mysore given we'd both seen the ones in China and had no intention of buying any silk, and boarded a 2pm bus to Ooty, the most famous hill station in southern India.
What should've been a five hour journey turned out to be seven hours long, with lots of fun bumpy bits on the way. James and I were in the back row and in some bits I think my bum levitated about a foot above the seat! By the time we'd dropped our bags off at this guest house and went off to look for dinner, it was 9.30pm and the restaurants were closed, so we went without dinner last night - but I guess we hadn't exactly done much either, so it wasn't too bad.
Today we just wandered around Ooty, booked our train ticket away from here, visited St Stephen's church where a nice caretaker guy turned on the lights just for us (and didn't even demand a tip! wow), and then bought a ton of books at a shop called Higginbothams. We got Dante's Inferno, Treasure Island, Frankenstein, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland(the original by Lewis Carroll), Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, The Man Who Was Thursday, King Solomon's Mines and The Lost World. I'm sure we won't get through all of them on the trip, but we both getting more into the classic sort of books, and they were just so cheap compared to Borders, that we thought we might as well! They're the proper versions too, not the pirated books they sell on the streets.
Tomorrow we're planning to do a full day trek with a guide, but I'm not sure if that will go ahead if the weather continues to be like this, so we shall see...

Friday, 19 October 2007

Will We Ever Learn?

Rama Guest House, Hampi
Long (and potentially tedious) story short, we got very sunburnt after our first day on Benaulim Beach, and lied to/ripped off by a travel agency in Hampi. I was going to explain it all in all the gory details, but James said everyone reading this blog must be getting pretty sick of all my whining by now, so instead I'll try to focus on the positives...
It was nice being at a beach where the water was warm enough to comfortably swim in, unlike New Zealand! However, NZ wins in terms of having blue skies, and no hawkers harrassing you the entire time. Well, and the beaches themselves are just much nicer in general. Being in Goa actually made me want to go to the Pacific Islands, because there the water's warm and the sky's not full of pollution. It was nice just to relax for a bit, we got a lot of reading done, though I had to abandon this book on Goa I'd been trying to read due to it being a complete snorefest. On the train from Margao to Hospet I started on Papillon by Henri Charrière, which I'm really enjoying. Basically it's the autobiography of this guy who got falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to life in a penal colony in French Guiana. He repeatedly escapes and gets recaptured, and has tons of adventures on the way. It actually kind of makes me want to watch Prison Break again, though this guy had it a lot tougher than Michael Schofield! I highly recommend this book, might write more of a review later on when I'm done.
Today we explored the Hampi ruins, first by a walking tour and then a bicycle tour, found out more wacky things about Hinduism from our very informative guide, and took a lot of photos (as usual!). We came across this restaurant across the road from our guest house which actually serves Vegemite and Marmite toast!! Wow. James was set. Well, except they didn't actually have any Vegemite, but Marmite was good enough, compared with our usual choice of parantha or jam toast. Actually they made a pretty good pizza too, my fettucine alfredo turned out to be completely sauceless, but otherwise tasted alright. They don't seem to have any good cheeses here though, just this very mild/near-tasteless stuff which is usually serve grated.
As the high-season approaches we're coming across more and more tourists as well, at the Margao train station we even came across the first other Kiwi we've seen in our entire trip! Naturally she asked where in NZ we were from, I said Auckland, and then she, again, quite naturally, asked where in Auckland? I had to pause, and then blurted out 'Ellerslie', because we were both too ashamed to admit that we technically lived in Remmers... After that she said she was from Papatoetoe, so I was quite glad I did that temporary disowning. I dunno, I just imagine that most people have automatic preconceptions of what Remuera people are like, and I don't want them to think I'm some sort of snob, even if I went to Dio... Ah well, I guess that girl will never know the ugly truth!
Not sure if I've mentioned this before, but for the Indian tourists, foreigners seem to be part of the attraction of going to touristy places - numerous times we've had random people go up to us to shake our hand or take photos or videos with/of us. When we were on the beach in Goa, this group of guys came up to ask if they could take a photo with us, we said 'okay', and then they all came up to us and bunched around, the friend who was holding the camera - well, turns out it was actually a camcorder... I assumed it had some sort of still image function and we both waited for some sort of clicking motion, but it never came, so we were just cheesily posing in front of a video... nice! After a while they finally stopped, though they kept shaking our hands, even after one person had shook our hand, they would go away, and then come back for a second helping. Right... At least they're not as bad as people wanting to sell you stuff or beg from you! Actually, you know how I mentioned that in some tourist attractions there's random people asking if you want to take a photo of them, and then if you do, you have to pay? Well, this Italian guy we met on the train said that after this bunch of Indian people took a photo with him, he jokingly said 'that'll be 50Rs', and then the Indian tourists actually gave him the money! LOL. We should try that next time...

Monday, 15 October 2007

Yet another updated itinerary

Some internet cafe in Panaji, Goa
We just added some titles & captions to the photos we've uploaded to Flickr, so have a look if you're interested!
Today was spent wandering around Old Goa, tomorrow we're heading to Benaulim, planning to spend two nights there and then head to Hospet/Hampi. In fact, here's our rough itinerary for the rest of the trip (though of course this is likely to change yet again!)
16-17 Oct - Benaulim Beach, Goa
18-20 Oct - Hospet/Hampi Ruins, then a night train to Bangalore on the 20th
21 Oct - Mysore
22-26 Oct - Hill stations of Southern India, Ooty, Kodaikanal, etc
27 Oct - Madurai
28-29 Oct - Pondicherry
30-31 Oct - Mamallapuram
1 Nov - Depart Chennai
2 Nov - Stay in KL airport for an agonising 16 hours before our flight back to Auckland......
3 Nov - Arrive back in Auckland, eat beef!
We should probably go get some dinner now, actually I saw a restaurant advertising 'steak' but who knows what kind of steak that might be... I'll probably save the beef experience for when I'm back in good ol' 'Kiwiland', as Norbert would say!

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Good Ol' Catholicism

Alfonso Guest House, Panaji, Goa
The term 'sleeper bus' is a bit of an oxymoron in India, what with the way they drive here... Since it's festival time (again - these are turning out to be quite a hassle when travelling), the train from Mumbai to Goa was pretty full, so we decided to opt for an overnight bus instead. We were booked on an 'upper berth', basically kind of like the top bunk of a bunk bed, which was alright for me, but was obviously not designed with Caucasian statures in mind. Also, what with two daypacks with us on the bunk, it was a pretty tight squeeze to even lie still, let alone move around during the night. Ah well, I guess it was still better than that bus trip from Budapest to Prague we had last year, when it was just a bus with normal seats and hardly any leg room.

We got off at Panaji, the capital, and were immediately inundated with people asking if we needed a taxi. This persisted throughout the day, even after we had dropped off our big bags at the guest house and were just wandering around the town. Apart from that though, Goa's been a refreshing change from the rest of India. I have yet to see any cows wandering the streets! I don't have to watch the ground every single step of the way to ensure I don't step in cow poo/someone's spit/etc! In fact, I even saw a store advertising beef...! I probably still wouldn't shop there because who knows how dodgy it might be, but nice to know that it's at least there... And there's not so many beggars! Although there was some lady walking along who suddenly either 1) asked for 5 rupees because her friend was carrying a baby, or 2) offered to sell James her friend's baby for 5 rupees. All we really understood was 'baby' and '5 rupees'. And neither of them looked needy at all... I still don't really understand the whole asking-random-strangers-for-money thing, especially when they don't even look like they need it.

During sunset we went on this river cruise thing where there was an emcee/DJ/singer trying to get people to dance on this stage, complete with flashing disco lights and synthesizer music, it was super camp, I got a few good videos which I'll post online when I get back... The view itself from the boat wasn't that spectacular, but the hilarity factor and the campness of the whole thing made it all worthwhile.

Unfortunately since today's a Sunday, pretty much everything was closed (like ye olde days in New Zealand) but should be back to normal tomorrow, when we plan to explore Old Goa a bit, before heading south to some nice (hopefully not polluted) beaches!

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Ganesh's Revenge

We've been kind of making fun of Ganesh every time we've seen him (which is quite often, given he's probably everyone's favourite Hindu god), so the run of bad luck we just went through might have been his revenge on us...
It started during the train from Dehra Dun to Delhi, I didn't feel that great and spent most of the trip lying on the top bunk of the train. When we got to Delhi and found that our hotel had conveniently confused 2pm with 2am and therefore weren't there to pick us up, we had to go through the hassle of getting a taxi which was probably a ripoff...
Once we got to the hotel I rested for a while on the bed feeling horrible, I had been getting some of that lovely diarrhoea and now it turned out I had a fever which reached about 39.1 degrees C, nice! The Lonely Planet Health Guide was no help at all because diarrhoea and fever are symptoms of just about everything including malaria, and it also said you should see a doctor if you had a temperature of above 38 degrees, but given the hassle of that I decided just to take some Nurofen and see what happens... fortunately after about two or three hours (during which time Mark left to go to the airport and head back to New Zealand) my temperature had dropped back to normal, so I took it as a sign I didn't have any life-threatening illness, just a case of eating/drinking something dodgy probably.
At that stage I didn't feel like eating much (and the LP said to stay away from spicy food while experiencing digestion problems - that's easy in India!) so I ordered some 'Chicken Cream Soup' from the hotel restaurant. What arrived was more like bits of very shredded chicken in a corn-starch thickened, clear, salty liquid which could by no means pass for 'cream soup' given the lack of dairy in it, but that's !ncredible India for you, you never get what you expect.
Next day when we went to check out the hotel tried to bill us for a breakfast which was actually supposed to be included in our room price, after much arguing with one guy and then demanding to speak to someone else, we finally got it cleared up... Then our taxi broke down halfway to the airport (seems the water tank was leaking and the engine was over-heating) so we had to swap to a auto-rickshaw.
Checking in was actually a relatively smooth process, we'd made an internet booking with Air Deccan, all we needed to do was give them the confirmation number, show them our passport countless times, and then we were all sorted. In fact it went so smoothly that I even said to James 'I wonder what will go wrong...?' Famous last words...
When we got to Mumbai airport (New! Clean! Modern!) our bags actually came out first on the conveyor (which I don't think has ever happened to me before) and we headed out to the counter inside the terminal that said 'prepaid taxis'. Conveniently they said that the service 'hadn't started' or some nonsense like that, so we just asked them approximately how much it should cost to get into the city. The lady said 'about 500 to 600 rupees'. We went outside, some guy said 750 rupees, so we thought we'd try the main official taxi queue, an official looking guy pointed us to a taxi and we tried to ask how much it would be approximately, but the taxi driver didn't understand English, just kept saying 'no fixed'... I thought even on a meter it should be about what that lady at the counter said, so we got on...
Finally got near our hotel (the guy didn't really know where it was) and the driver revealed that the meter said 1630Rs! We were like '!!!' but couldn't really argue I guess because he never even approximated a price for us... Feeling totally ripped, we paid and started walking towards our hotel (the driver had missed it by a block), when we were immediately accosted by a bunch of guys wanting to show us the way, and of course try and get commission from the hotel for taking us there. We already had a booking though so no such luck to them.
When we had finally settled down in our room, that's when I realised that I didn't have my camera with me.
I totally couldn't believe that I had lost my camera, after all the times of hassling Mark and James to be careful with their stuff, and especially after Mark lost his camera in Europe last year and I told him off for being careless...
Of course, the first thing I did was think about where I last had it. I distinctly remember getting it out to take a video of the plane taking off, and then having no recollection of putting it back in my bag or on my person, so I figured I must've left it on the plane. I called up Air Deccan, and after many many attempts (mostly just hearing it ring and nobody answering, or 'the number you are calling is currently busy'), I finally found out that the camera had reached Goa, nobody claimed it there, so they had sent it back to Mumbai. Of course we didn't really fancy another 1630Rs x2 fare to the airport, but figured it was still worth less than the camera, so we started asking taxis how much to go to the airport and back. The first guy we asked said 700Rs, so we went with him (and started to realise just how ripped off we were on the first trip). When we finally got there it was around 9pm, and after much waiting around it turns out my camera was in the baggage department in Mumbai, unfortunately it was locked and I would have to wait until 10am the following day for the person who could unlock it to come back......... Great! Well, I couldn't really complain because at least I knew where it was.
We were originally planning to go to Elephanta Island the next day and then taking a night bus to Goa at 8pm, but since it takes an hour just to get there, there was no way we were going to fit in retrieving my camera and going to the island. Ah well. We got yet a different taxi to the airport and back, the price seemed to get cheaper every time because it was only 500Rs there and back! At the airport, after asking me a series of questions such as what brand camera it was (Sony), what colour it was (black), and how many megapixels (8.1), they finally seemed convinced I was the real owner. I added a bunch of other details as well, but yeah, I guess it's good that they were making sure! I also had to write and sign a letter saying I was the real owner and I had received the camera back safely before they gave it back to me.
So, as James said, the moral of the story is... I shouldn't get annoyed with other people for being careless and losing their things! Because if it had been James who had lost his Alpha or something like that, I would've been sooo annoyed at him, whereas James didn't get annoyed at me at all. Also sincere apologies to Mark for telling him off in Europe when he lost his camera (though he also got it back that time).
I also seem to have completely recovered my appetite now, so I'm hoping that that was the end of our bad luck for this trip... After all that drama (I think I can memorise the route to and from the Mumbai domestic airport by now!) we finally had a chance to look around the city.
My main impressions of Mumbai (or Bombay, as most locals still seem to refer to it as) is that it's more like a proper city, no cows wandering the streets, more modern buildings, no auto-rickshaws everywhere... But the pollution is just absolutely mind-boggling. Even if you're standing 5 metres away from something you can see the haze, and the sky, as with most other places in India, goes in a gradient from grey to grey-blue from the horizon. The smells are also especially bad, probably because everyone dumps their rubbish into the sea, and it comes back with every incoming tide. There are tons of other foreigners, probably the most we've seen in one area for a while, but it also means a constant gauntlet of people trying to sell to/beg from/harass you. One kid followed us down the road for at least 100m trying to beg from us, of course we ignored him (as we do all beggars), what annoyed me the most is he kept calling me 'sir'!
There are a lot of nice gothic looking buildings around, but they're mostly falling into disrepair, and you can't really see them clearly from closeby anyway... Having been to places like Prague and Vienna, the European architecture here kind of pales in comparison. It could be nicer if they made an effort, but with all their other problems it's probably not their first priority.
It's also very disturbing to see all the children and families living on the pavement, naked toddlers running into the traffic, etc. But it's not like you can do anything to help, so you kind of just have to ignore it and accept that's how things are at the moment, it's really up to the government and the whole country to solve this problem...
Well, this has been pretty long and rambly so I should probably end this entry now... James and I are looking forward to relaxing on the beaches in Goa, hopefully nothing worse happens to us there!
P.S. I really really miss beef and bacon. Since cows are sacred to Hindus and pork is off-limit to Muslims, you can't get any of either here, so I haven't had any for about a month now. The first thing I'm going to eat when I get back to New Zealand is a nice, juicy, medium-rare scotch fillet steak... Cows are meant to be eaten, not revered! Mmm, cow.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Finally got some exercise!

Midtown Hotel, Mussoorie
Well, we're safely back from our trek, and it turns out I did horribly misspell some of those placenames... We ended up doing the whole thing in reverse order because a landslide prevented us from getting to Ghangaria, so we went to Chopta (2700m) instead, stayed the night there, walked up to Tungnath the next day, went up Chandrashila (4090m), and then stayed at Tungnath that night. It was 3650m above sea level so we all felt a little bit funny due to the altitude, plus it was freezing cold so none of us got much sleep. The next day we went back down to Chopta and then drove to Govindghat, where we stayed the night before heading up to Ghangaria. We ended up going to both Hemkund (a Sikh pilgrimage site, 4329m) and the Valley of Flowers, unfortunately the temple itself was closed since it was the end of the pilgrim season and there were no flowers in the valley, but we still got some beautiful views of the Himalayas (there should be some photos on my flickr page).
One of the hazards of trekking to pilgrimage sites is the mule poo liberally strewn throughout the path, and the smell isn't exactly inviting either. In fact many of the streets in India smells like one giant toilet, in the cities the problem is usually the cows...
We've also noticed a lot of quality workmanship here - in many of the places we stay at, we struggle to lock the door, the doors and windows don't fit their frames, electrical wiring is exposed, etc. Power cuts are also so frequent that we're barely surprised when they happen now. We all agree that we've used the word 'dodgy' more frequently in the past four weeks than we have in four months of being in NZ!
Speaking of the good ol' motherland, we heard about our disappointing rugby defeat via a txt from James' dad... Guess I won't have to worry about trying to catch the final when we're in Goa! James and I are both glad we're not in NZ right now, hopefully the country will have recovered by the time we get back.
This morning we looked around Woodstock, the school that James' dad taught at and that his brothers & sisters attended for a brief period, and just down the road the hospital where James was born. Not that he could remember much... Mark seemed to though, since he was about 10 when their family left India. Their old house was still there as well, we didn't go inside though.
Early tomorrow morning we're going to go back to Dehra Dun to catch a train back to Delhi, and then in the evening Mark will fly to KL and then back to Auckland, while James and I will fly to Mumbai the next day. From there we'll make our way down to Goa (probably on a night train), and then explore South India! Will update again when I can. =)

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Capital City (of Rajasthan)

Hotel Dera Rawatsar
I was going to upload the previous entry (about Pushkar) at this hotel, but turns out it's running on Windows 98 and won't recognise my USB flash drive, so I guess I'll just have to wait for the next place.
We're in Jaipur at the moment, the capital of Rajasthan. We thought it was going to be busy as today, but turns out after the elephant ride and looking around the city palace, that was mainly it in terms of sightseeing... we're now sitting around having a rest until dinnertime - pretty much the same as yesterday (after we arrived from Pushkar). Actually a lot of these cities have seemed not that huge because we don't actually spend time walking around the city itself, just being chauffeured from attraction to attraction, but I guess that's the nature of having a driver and being on a somewhat fixed tour. Ah well, we will have plenty of time to go 'byself, as we like' later on in our trip!
I thought I would mention also that I disliked the elephant ride at the Amber Palace as much as Pushkar, just because of the multitude of people there trying to sell you stuff and/or pick your pocket. From the moment we got out of the car, there were people trying to sell us postcards, silk paintings, turbans, hats, etc, etc. They just push it all in your face (in the case of the hats, they push it onto your head) and then try to get the money off you, and they don't know the meaning of the word 'no'. After a particularly annoying confrontation with a man trying to sell us hats, another tourist (also in the queue) recommended that the best way of getting rid of those guys were just to completely ignore them and pretend they don't exist. It's a bit difficult to do at first because it's so rude and completely against what most people have been brought up to do, but once they engage you in any sort of dialogue, even if you're saying 'no', they just talk and talk until I guess they guilt-trip you into buying something.
As for the elephant ride itself, it was uncomfortable and smelly (there was a river of elephant pee running down the path due to the sheer volume of tourists going up and down), which would have been maybe tolerable if not for the fact that the elephant handler (and a friend on the ground) tried to extort us into giving him a 100Rs tip! This is over and above the 250Rs per person we'd already paid for the ride itself as part of our 'tour'. We have him 30Rs between the two of us (Mark went on a separate elephant) which I think was completely reasonable, given that we gave our camel safari guides about 20Rs each for a much longer and more pleasant experience. I know it's not much NZD but it's the principle of the thing, I hate giving people tips when they've done hardly anything to deserve it and they basically hold you up for it. Eventually this uniformed guy told us to move along, I'm guessing he's part of the 'tourist assistance force' or some sort of official who's supposed to stop this sort of thing from happening, but gets so many bribes from the benefactors of this sort of extortion that he turns a blind eye to most of it, but will still step in if it looks like things may be getting out of hand.
As usual all the junk-sellers would ask where we're from, and of course never get my nationality correct, While we were waiting for Mark to get down from his elephant, this guy asked if I was from Taiwan, I should have just ignored him but I said 'no', then he kept asking me 'where are you from?' and I was pretty pissed off by this stage so I just said 'not Taiwan', and he kept harassing me until Mark got down and we could all leave together. From then on we just pretended everyone else was invisible, which seemed to do the trick. I think I'm going to have to readjust my manners and standards for what is acceptable in driving when I get back to New Zealand.
When we went to the lakeside to take photos of the Water Palace, the first thing we noticed was the overpowering stench of sewage and stagnation at the water's edge. Not long after we stopped of course we were mobbed by people trying to beg/sell us stuff/probably pickpocket us, including this group of kids who tried to get in our photos. I'm sure that if they succeeded, they would've demanded some sort of tip, but I guess it's possible they were also just being friendly. But by the way they just materialised out of thin air and came with the junk-sellers, I somehow doubt that. Anyway, we completely ignored everyone as well there, plus a huge tour bus of French tourists also unloaded at the same vantage point which was a welcome distraction.
The problem with avoiding everyone is that we could easily be snubbing anyone who might be genuinely trying to be friendly to us, but 95% of the time it's someone trying to rip us off, so it's better to be safe than sorry. This is probably the part I least enjoy about travelling through India, but again, probably totally unavoidable until they really clamp down on the corruption which seems to exist in every part of this country.