Wednesday, February 23

Kashi V Express

I am sitting bare footed and cross legged on a bench on an eastward bound Indian train.

We chug along steadily with frequent stops. Boys walk the length of the train back and forth chanting the name of their product. "Chai, chai. Chai, chai." A businessman, sitting across from me with his bare foot resting on my seat, hales a boy and wordlessly acquires a cup of steaming tea from the large tin kettle the boy carries.

We're in a cabin sitting on two facing benches. An elderly and hauntingly handsome woman sits near the window reading through large delicate glasses. She's on her way to an international environmental conference. Across from her, a young woman is gazing out of the window enjoying her own radiance. I can't help but to praise her ornate bangles. She tells me they are from her wedding. We spend some time talking about weddings here and back home. She envies our white gowns and I envy her lavish ceremony of many colours and elaborate jewelry. She is traveling alone to Varanasi to live with her new husband. She shared with us delicious orange food that was blessed.

Early to bed is our middle aged French seatmate. His English is broken and I sense he is more comfortable speaking Hindi. Before sleeping (and snoring) he shared his favorite Indian destinations and struggled through reading part of Sidhartha. He has travelled India more often and has returned to see his lover. Now it is my turn to sleep.

Tuesday, February 22

Site seeing the Sites

The moghul emperors have good Indian names, but I just know there are seven. The first was a descendent of Genghis Khan and defeated the Sultan of Delhi. The second has a sublime persian-style tomb (and a separate one for his barber) built for him by his senior wife. The third was a favorite because he kept three wives, one of each faith: Muslim, Hindi, and Christian. The fourth died naturally on a trip but all his male relatives were murdered by his son and successor who wanted to secure the throne for himself. The murderous fifth built the Taj Mahal for his second wife's tomb, saying it "made the sun and moon shed tears from their eyes," and also built two impressive forts. The sixth overthrew his dad and locked him in one of his forts with a view of the Taj Mahal. The last, a lover of poetry, lost all 10 of his sons as they were executed by the British, who promptly took over ruling India.

Mughal architecture is enchanting. Persian influence and marble contrasted with red sandstone make for breathtaking sites. The Taj Mahal takes the cake with impressive size, symmetry, and intricate details. The ponds cleverly reflect the four-pillared building and emotion is felt in every stone. Rudyard Kipling (author of jungle book) called the Taj Mahal "the embodiment of all things pure."

I learnt this from the combined wisdom of our absolutely ruthless driver, Raj, and our faithful guide book, Lonely Planet India.

Raj spun me, Jen, and Nicole (a Dutch traveler we met) from our hostel in Delhi to the Taj in Agra in five gut wrenching hours. We stopped for nothing on the road, not car nor bus, tuktuk nor rickshaw, camel nor donkey, bicycle nor pedestrian, not even the teenage girl who bounced off our bumper. Of course we came to a respectful halt for the cow wandering through a rush hour traffic jam and to take photos of sheep being herded along the highway. All the while Raj taught us about Indian history and Indian pop music. Jai ho!

Monday, February 21

A Good day for a bright wedding

Only three days since my last report. The grime and dust of Delhi has found its way deep into me. My tolerance for spicy food has increased more in the last 72 hours than throughout the rest of my life. I am at one with the incessant honking and nightly fireworks.

Last night after a peaceful day at the B'hai Lotus Temple and a nerve racking evening at Karim's, Jen and I shared hard-to-find beer with two German travelers on the roof of our hostel.

The lotus temple is an enormous holy place inclusive to all faiths. Designed by a Canadian, it is a lotus-shaped structure made of glistening white marble.

Karim's is a very highly recommended place for food tucked into the maddening bazaar of Chondi Chowk. Before dusk we began our search in one of the tightest traffic congested areas I've ever seen. Within arms reach of at least 50 arms we almost brushed off a friendly tap from our German hostel mates, Mark and Francisca. Our combined mental and physical strength weaved us through the mayhem, past merchants, beggars, and other aggressive navigators of the street. The food was worth it. But we stayed late and discovered a whole new chaos getting home in he dark.

Skipping ahead to later that night, past the near theft, the rickshaw fiasco, and the great separation, we sat on the roof and watched parades dance and fireworks explode all over the city. Turns out, yesterday was a very lucky day to marry. Somehow the full moon and the alignment of the stars resulted in weddings all over Delhi and the rest of India.

Thursday, February 17

Summer of '69

I can't believe I've only been in india for a day. Already so much to share!

Our adventure begun when Jen and I ran full speed out of Starbucks the day before we left. It somehow didn't occur to us until right then that we might need a Visa for our layover in Beijing. We raced to the nearest payphone where I listened to a phone ring into oblivion for 20 very long minutes, while Jen scrambled around the mall looking for a travel agent to put us at ease. Conclusion: you don't need a visa to visit China for layovers of less than 24 hours.

With a gasp of relief we rushed to finish our packing and I threw together a couple applications for summer jobs into the early hours of the morning.

At the airport we hit our next hurdle. The computers at Air China desk were down. We waited in line for an eternity and our flight was consequently late; although not in the scheme of India running time.

With relief we made our connection to Beijing and even had 90 minutes to spare. At this point we had made friends with other India-bound travelers from the 11 hour flight to China. Two of which napped with Jen and I on the benches in Beijing's shiny new airport. I cleverly set an alarm on my iPod, but I didn't account for the 10 minute shuttle ride passengers take to the plane. When I woke up with Jen all the passengers had already boarded the shuttle and it was shoulder-to-suitcase tight. 'Yikes!' And then 'Oh SHIT.' I forgot the to wake the two girls who were sleeping upstairs on the benches with us. In intense furry I convinced the boarding flight attendant to let me return. I bolted upstairs to find them in plush sleeping bags. I shook them awake and urged them into a hurry. With Godspeed we made it onto the bus, onto the plane, and to the airport in Delhi, but not so easily to the hostel we arranged.

Our arranged driver never came and when we called for another he didn't show either. The date of arrival was miscalculated because we didn't account for the full day we lost to transit. Three and a half hours after arriving off of our 17+ hour flight we finally just hailed a taxi at random and handed him directions and a phone number. He brought us right to the door (impressively, I've learnt as Mystic Moments is not easy to find).

I'm writing you from my hard bed at mystic moments. I highly recommend this hostel; the owner Dr. Malek is wonderful enough to make the trip to India just to meet him.

Today we hit the streets of Delhi, on foot. Or tried. We are several metro stops from the tourist core so we enjoyed a walk through maddening chaos to the metro. We got most of the way walking alongside the road next to aggressive taxi, bus, rickshaw and auto-rickshaw drivers and not-so-aggressive wandering dogs and live stock. We walked on the road, because the sidewalk is reserved for buying street food, pissing, defecating, and occasionally building a lean-to shelter. We met children who gave us directions in Hindi but eventually parted with 50 cents worth of rupees for a rickshaw ride. The walk and rickshaw ride held a important feeling I can't describe yet.

We must have looked more confused than I felt at the metro, which was recently built and looks and feels just like a Vancouver sky train. A gentleman in fluent English adopted us and got us tokens (skipping several people in the token queue). He shoved us into the women's security check and babied us through the token sensitive gates. To keep up with him we had to get crushed by the doors of the metro which closed first on me and then on Jen. Another equally helpful and pleasant Indian from the USA guided us to our metro connection where we discovered a women's cart at the front of the train. In a beautiful sea of saris we pushed and shoved to cram ourselves into the already full cart.

In crowded, noisy, smelly Old Delhi we took in the sites of the Red Fort and India's largest mosque. We listened and snapped photos of a parade and ended up getting pulled into the centre of it where we danced with beautiful women in front of a white horse carrying a small boy and a man. The experience was thrilling, magical, heart warming and more than I could ever expect from a travel experience.

There are significantly less western tourists here than I expected. We seem to carry an almost celebrity-like status. Teenage girls have come up to us and asked to take our photo and we find that when we smile at any of the beautiful girls we send them into fits of giggles. We reciprocate.

There are so many people here it's hard imagining anyone getting away with harassing us. We were followed persistently by one obnoxious teenage boy, but he was harmless and eventually gave up his mission.

Back in Pitampura, the area of our hostel, we followed a Dr. Malek's recommendation to a nice restaurant for curry. This western style restaurant felt just like any place on Scott Road in my home Surrey, but WITHOUT the loud posters and tacky Indian decorations. The food was great and Bryan Adams serenaded us as he was projected from the TV during the World Cricket Cup opening ceremony, held in India. To the displeasure of the other customers, the waiter turned it up loudly after we told him that the singer was Canadian like us.

That concludes day1. 135 more adventures to go!

Saturday, February 12

Trip Summary

4.5 months: Feb-July
7 provinces: Ladahk to Kerala
1 country: India

On Tuesday I'm flying to Beijing and then to Delhi. I will arrive at 1:35am in Delhi. I meant to arrive at 1:35pm. My bad. I'm a little worried about having my big adventure begin at such an early hour, but that's only one worry on a long list.

Getting shot full of vaccines from rabies to Japanese encephalitis was actually not comforting at all. I have become hyper-aware of the many diseases on the menu in India. Plus, to add to my worries, there wasn't a vaccine for the common cold, so I'm trying to balance fighting off a cold, saying farewell to my friends, and throwing together last minute details like purchasing DEET off season.

Tickets booked, visas ready, luggage contents in a laundary basket: 3 days to go!

RETROSPECTIVE: Many vaccines are inexpensive and available by trained doctors in India. Rabies can be treated easily most areas.
For more info on vaccines:

Wednesday, February 2

Travel Buddy

This is me and Jen in Venice on our last overseas adventure. We consumed two entire pizzas on that bench and I didn't notice the guy next to us until now.
Europe 2008.