Addendum

I realised I left out a couple of important things along the way, so like all plans, the plan to not add any more to this blog was flexible.  And I just found this in drafts ages later, still worth publishing.

Something has popped up on social media the last couple of days and I can’t believe I didn’t mention it at the time.  In Agra, the location of the Taj Mahal, we visited Sheroes restaurant – twice.  Rather than me explain, read this.  Incredibly brave women with horrific injuries.

Sheroes restaurant. It is actually a bit tricky to spot and is not well known. Use google maps to find it.

 

Namaste

That’s all folks.  The actual adventure is over but the memories will linger…which is why we do such things.

There are a lot of beliefs and myths and stuff about India that you hear, this is my annotated list of things I wish I had known before I went.

  • India is amazing – it is everything you do and don’t expect and more.  India is an assault on all your senses.  It is colourful, friendly, frustrating, noisy, crowded, spectacular, religious, smelly, funny, not punctual (mostly – but who cares) and absolutely fantastic.IMG_0714(1)
  • Pack light – if I ever go again my entire wardrobe would be 1 pair long pants, 1 pair shorts, 2 cotton shirts, 1 pair sandals/thongs.  That’s it.  You do not need shoes, I carried a pair for 7 weeks that I only wore on the plane over.  If you go north in the winter you might need a jacket.  Obviously this doesn’t count for women, you will still need your entire wardrobe.
  • Water is not such a hassle – I didn’t intentionally drink tap water but I am sure I ingested it many times in drinks, food and the like.  I likely brushed my teeth in tap water out of habit. Don’t freak out about it especially after you have been there a while and gotten accustomed to the flora.  Drinking water is available everywhere, absolutely everywhere, for Rs20 (40c) for a 1 litre bottle

.Sunrise, the red tinge is caused by air pollution which is awful right across India

  • Not everyone speaks English – this was a bit of a surprise as I had assumed they did, even if not well.  Also, not everyone speaks Hindi, especially in Tamil Naidu.  I learned a handful of Hindi words and could count and then couldn’t use any of it the last week in the South.  Speak in simple sentences even to English speakers.  Don’t say “Can you tell me the way to the railway station please” say “Which way railway station?”.  More often than not people will go out of their way to help you.  Those that don’t will simply point in the general direction or give you a head waggle.
  • Head Waggle – yes it is endemic, here is what it means:

    waggle

    See that little golden spot where all the circles intersect? THAT is the meaning of the head waggle…I think

  • Money is easy – get yourself a Citibank debit card.  No fees, they do a straight 3% loading on currency conversion, it can be used in ATMs everywhere to get local currency (watch for those that charge a transaction fee).  The only problem was some online booking won’t accept a foreign debit card, shop elsewhere, there is always an alternative to buy exactly the same thing.
  • Trains are the best way to travel – install the Cleartrip app, easily the best way to book trains.  If you are travelling overnight get yourself a 2AC seat this is 2nd class Air Conditioned.  You get a bed and linen including a small towel. If you are not that fussy get a sleeper class, reserved bed but that’s all you get.  Avoid general seating at all costs.   Don’t freak out if a train is full a couple of days before and you are wait listed with up to 10 in front of you. In the whole time I was only not confirmed once, that was with The Sheila (she was confirmed) and we both travelled anyway. For trips to the airport and the like Uber and a local version, Ola, also work well.  If you get an overnight bus, be sure to get a sleeper, they are pretty good.IMG_0687(1)
  • Buy a local SIM – cheap as and even if just for using Google maps it is well worth it, especially since they don’t make station announcements on trains so you can check where you are.  You will also get SMS notification about train bookings and the status of your ticket.  I used Airtel, would likely choose another company next time, it was pretty slow internet.
  • You will get sick – maybe not very sick, I didn’t.  But I definitely (and still) had stomach upsets that were more an inconvenience because you need to be aware of the nearest convenience.  I took an arsenal of antibiotics for every ailment you could think of.  Probably better to be prepared than need to go looking for it when you are feeling awful, but I do feel it was overkill.  You can buy any drug over the counter at Medical Stores, even down to asking for how many tablets you want and they will be cut off the strip.IMG_1355(1)
  • Eat street food – obviously not everything you see, but if it looks good, there are lots of people eating i.e. it is fresh and you are hungry, go for it.  Street samosas are the best, don’t be surprised to see someone in front of you feeling them to make sure they are hot.  I really enjoyed fresh sugar cane juice too, very refreshing and a bit of an energy boost.  When you buy street food it is expected that you stand and eat and drink it before you pay for it.  Also, if you need more sauce on your samosa, just ask.food
  • Hotels are mostly good – this is a no brainer, you generally get what you pay for.  Anything over about Rs700 will be reasonable, feel free to check the room first, don’t forget to feel the mattress, they can be very hard, a light pad over a board.  Also check the hot water, don’t take their word for it that there is hot water – not that it matters really, the weather was so hot most of the time a cool shower was welcome.  Towels are rare, take your own travel towel, one of those light ones that dries quickly. Every room has a ceiling fan that you will welcome for the air movement and the speed with which your washed clothes dry. The included Wifi will nearly always be dodgy.  Sometimes a hotel will include breakfast which will sometimes be really good and other times just a piece of white toast with jam.
  • Have a theme – this time my theme was finding stepwells.  It didn’t dominate my trip or distract from anything else, but it was fun to track them down and they are so cool.  Your theme might be bird watching or temple visiting or seeing concerts.  No matter what, it gives you some detective work to do in each location and you never know what it all leads to.  This is where the adventure lies.IMG_0860(1)
  • Go with the toilet flow – I think that washing rather than wiping is cleaner and embraced it.  Finding toilet paper in a hotel is rare, anywhere else it is almost unheard of.  Get used to it, likely 6 billion people in the world do not use TP.
  • Say yes! – this has been an onging theme of the blog because it was my philosophy for the trip.  Saying yes to things I would normally balk at led to some of the most incredible and unique experiences I had.  Obviously you need to make a quick decision on whether it isn’t such a good idea, but I don’t think I had more than a couple of times I knocked back an offer.  Do be aware of people hustling, almost everyone wants something in return for helping you.  But if you are offered a meal or somewhere to stay take it.  The guest is god in India, people are honoured to have you in their homes and treat you unbelievably well.

    I was invited into a Hindu festival celebration. I said yes, it was fantastic.

    I was invited into a Hindu festival celebration. I said yes, it was fantastic.

That’s it.  I have nothing more to say.  I hope you have enjoyed my ramblings and maybe are inspired to have an adventure of your own.  If you have been lurking and gotten this far without commenting, say “hi” in the comments.

IndiaNamaste

Not quite done…

If you get confused about times in this post it is because I am going to compress 4 days into one and use the first person present for the whole thing.  No, it doesn’t make sense to me either.

Kuala Lumpur…hmmm…it is…actually I am not sure the word to describe KL, maybe I will come up with it by the end of the post.  The initial word that comes to mind is clean.  This is definitely a soft landing for returning to Australia from India.  Still in Asia but people mostly obey traffic laws, there are no cows, no rubbish, streets are well maintained, they use machines such as excavators instead of human labour and no visible poverty – at least in our part of town.

We have found a shoebox of a room in Chinatown at Suzie’s Guest House.  Given that we are only sleeping in it, being small doesn’t matter too much, but there isn’t a lot of space for the bucket to catch the condensating water dripping from the AC.  It also got a bit cramped when guy had to come and climb up to the switchboard and reset the electrical switch for the whole place after something I plugged in tripped it.

Post in Chinese Temple, Kuala Lumpur

Post in Chinese Temple, Kuala Lumpur

But it was in an interesting part of town and only a 2 minute walk from the railway station when you knew the way or 15 minutes the first time you walked there.  A few doors down from the hotel was a wonderful Chinese temple, very different to all the Hindu temples in India.

Loved these hanging coils of joss.

Loved these hanging coils of joss.

 

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Packets of joss sticks

Packets of joss sticks

It was right opposite a Hindu temple just like all the Hindu temples in India.  But this being marriage season it was inevitable that one time we walked past we would see love, if not actually present, at least appear to be being consecrated.

We had seen a few pre-marriage celebrations, but this was the first actual ceremony

We had seen a few pre-marriage celebrations, but this was the first actual ceremony

One block over is Petaling Street which I think might be one of the main street markets in the city.  This is the best place to come if you like shoes and watches and handbags and t-shirts multiplied by 50.  By that I mean there were about 50 stalls selling fake designer bags.  Another 50 selling fake brand watches.  Another 50 selling t-shirts.  All selling the same shit.  It is crowded and all the stall holders hassle you to come into their stall which sells the same shit as 49 other stalls you have just passed.  We couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Transformer! Motorcycle converts into street stall. Very clever these Asians

Transformer! Motorcycle converts into street stall. Very clever these Asians

Are you ready for a different currency?  Three Malaysian Ringitt (RM) to the Australian dollar.  I actually found myself converting to Rupees a couple of times since I was so used to them.

The better shopping was behind the market stalls in the shops at the base of the buildings. If you are willing to be a tough haggler and really stick to your guns and go to walk away you will generally get something for about half the original price.   Sometimes the prices are stupid, one place a crappy little wooden Buddha carvings that were worth about RM10 and he was asking RM70, I involuntarily laughed out loud and he immediately said “OK, 50” which means I likely could have gotten it for about 25.  Another place something mediocre was on sale for RM40 and I offered RM20 but wasn’t getting very far.  We eventually got to him saying adamantly “best price is RM25” so I walked out of the shop, he came running “OK 20” but it was too late.   My attitude hardened with this lot, if they are treating us like a soft touch and trying to take advantage I am not that interested in giving them my money.

Next day we decided to head on a big walking loop through the Central Market (more shops selling more of the same shit and some even worse shit) where Sheila finally found her dream sarongs.  But of course by this time there was a hitch with finances.  I hadn’t thought far enough ahead to transfer funds to the debit card I could use to pull cash from ATMs, you know how your money goes into that banking black hole for a couple of days?  So for a day we were watching our Ringits, exchanging some $US and wondering if it was worth cashing in our Rupees.  Fortunately the next day the funds arrived and we could eat, more importantly, Sheila could shop.

The walk took us to the KL Bird Park which is touted as the world’s largest free flight aviary on one sign and SE Asia’s largest on another.  Either way, it was big and as much as I hate birds in cages, this was a mighty big cage to the point of not really being one.  Except where the birds were in small cages for some reason.

The peafowl must be happy, there is a lot of them and they seem to be breeding quite happily.

The peafowl must be happy, there is a lot of them and they seem to be breeding quite happily.

 

Spotted this snake stalking a gecko that was desperately trying to not be lunch.

Spotted this beautiful snake stalking a gecko that was desperately trying to not be lunch.

 

Koi feeding frenzy

Koi feeding frenzy

KL also has a free bus that does a loop around the city so we jumped on and off that a few times, heading to the the famed Lo Yat Plaza, the huge technology building.  It wasn’t long before I had a feeling of deja vu, as though I had been there before.  This was because I realised I had actually been there before a few years ago and in fact nothing had changed apart from the iphone model number.  Six floors of nothing but computers and phones and IT stuff.  Unless you are after something specific and know the price this place is just too big and overwhelming and like the market, too many shops selling exactly the same shit at too high a price.

Lo Yat Plaza

Lo Yat Plaza

From there we wound our way to the famous Petronas Towers via a network of confusing underground tunnels that lead to the ground floor of the towers and, you guessed it, more shops.  But these were not just ordinary shops, they were extra ordinary and I don’t mean extraordinary. Pick a brand name and the shop will be there, we could have been in any shopping mall in any city in the world.  We couldn’t wait to get out…again.

At least on the outside you can get a sense of the scale of the buildings that were apparently built as a beacon to lead people to the shops and a celebration of fossil fuels (Petronas is an oil company).  They are big and impressive for sure and the walkway that bridges them gives a sense of strength to the buildings.

Petronas Towers KL

Petronas Towers KL

 

IMG_1556 (Medium)

Opposite the towers

Heading back to the hotel we walk through a park and there is a big marquee set up.  I suggest we go in and check it out, Sheila is reluctant but in we go where it is a bit cooler and a bit confusing what it is all about.  As we are leaving a guy comes up to me and asks if I speak English.  He explains that the event is a regional promotional expo for Terengannu and their stand is promoting English languages courses, could they interview me.  Yes! of course and I give what I hope is a good talk about English being useful but to be sure to hang on to their native language and culture, that making a connection with the person is more important than having perfect language and I am generally very profound and insightful.  Most unlike me and I realise it.

He asks for a final general endorsement of the programme, about which I actually know absolutely nothing.  This is my monologue as best I can remember and abbreviated a bit, you’ll get the idea.

“Thank you for the opportunity of addressing you and endorsing your wonderful programme.  As the Prime Minister of Australia I want to tell you how excited I am to see such programmes blossoming in our region.  I fully endorse the programme and promise to send billions of dollars in Australian aid to support it.  We will also send food, clothes and beer.  It is been my honour attending your expo today, as the Prime Minister I thank you for the invitation.”

They laughed a lot and loved it.  Whether or not it will be useful is debatable.  As usual, honoured guests had to appear in a photo.

Prime Minister of Australia and Ms Prime Minister pose with the locals.

Prime Minister of Australia and Ms Prime Minister pose with the locals.

Speaking of saying Yes!, it can be tricky getting The Sheila to do something she thinks is a bit silly, but witha bit of coaxing…  This was also at the expo, such fun.

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They are trying to make this an iconic KL sculpture, we'll help by including it in a blog that is read by a handful of people.

They are trying to make this an iconic KL sculpture, we’ll help by including it in a blog that is read by a handful of people.

And then we were at the airport heading for home.  A huge hat tip to Air Asia for what is the worst check-in experience I have had in my life.  KL airport is huge and a bit confusing at the best of times.  We find Air Asia and there are hundreds of people standing in lines at four areas, each area has maybe 5 check-in desks working.  There is no indication of which area or which line you should be in, they all just say “Baggage Drop” so we get in one line that moves very slowly.  It isn’t like we have chosen the wrong line, they are all moving very slowly.

Unfortunately the hands on the clock are moving quite quickly and about 20 minutes before the flight closes I estimate that we are still over 30 minutes from the front of the line.  We lose our position to find a better line or somewhere to queue jump and completely fail.  I ask an Air Asia guy what we should do, the flight closes in 10 minutes now.  He says “get on the back of any line” and I again explain that the flight is closing and we will not make it.  Again he says to just get on a line.  I say “Mate, I don’t want to fight with you, but you are not helping me one bit, we will miss our flight”.  Perhaps he thinks this is Australian for “I am going to biff you” because he then suggests just pushing to the front of one of the very long lines.  Great!

But I see it as the solution, so I grab the one bag we are checking and brazenly walk past all the patient people in one of the lines, up to the desk and tell the bloke “if you don’t check this bag now we are going to miss the flight” and bugger me, he does.  The people I push in front of are even helpful and pass the bag to the scales and we finally breathe a sigh of relief…well I do.  I don’t freak out often but this had me worried, it is like Air Asia have never done this before…completely useless.

We are on the plane heading home.  I offer some gastri-stop that we thankfully never had to use to the woman sitting in my row who needs it and then, just when you think nothing else serendipitous can happen, as I am filling out my immigration card,her husband sitting next to me points something out.

Imagine how confusing this would have been indentifying body parts

Imagine how confusing this would have been identifying body parts

And now we are home, I have finished this post and I haven’t come up with the word to describe KL.

Tomorrow I will do one more post, it might be a best of, it could be a warning, it might be encouragement.  I’ll sleep on it.

When we left India, despite my encouraging her to get some henna design on her hand, Sheila regretted not doing it. In KL someone was doing some at (believe it or not) Backpackers Day.       Thanks to Google photos for the auto awesome animation.

 

The final result looks even better a couple of days later

This is the final result, it looks even better a couple of days later.

Could it be the end?

It seems like months ago that I arrived in India, in fact it was 7 weeks.  The Sheila met me in Delhi 2 weeks ago and here we are, about to leave.

We have arrived back in Chennai for a flight to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow morning and had an auto driver take us to a hotel near the airport so we didn’t have to travel far at 0600hrs.

Of course the last night in India is true Indian style.  The overpriced hotel is in one of the worst streets I have seen in a while and the promised wifi has been limited because, as the manager put it ‘someone had many movies downloaded’.  So we move to their ‘annexure’, same hotel but a couple of doors down the same bad street and the wifi works.

By bad street I do not mean unsafe, just that it was muddy and wet and crowded and grotty with no decent shops.  But there was a cool market just around the corner that had some fantastic stuff like this:

IMG_1463(1)

This delightful piece is a backpack that I think is meant to be kind of like but not quite Mickey Mouse so that it doesn’t infringe copyright. Not intentionally of course. Who buys this shit?

We did find one veg restaurant after a bit of searching and after much comedic mime and signing trying to figure out what was on the menu we settled on an Aloo Mutter Paneer (Potato and pea with cottage cheese) curry with a couple of naan.  The total price was about Rs150 ($3) and it was one of the tastiest meals I had eaten.

Served on banana leaves on the plastic plates with no cutlery. This is not tourist stuff, this is a non-descript restaurant in a back street in Chennai.

Served on banana leaves on the plastic plates with no cutlery. This is not tourist stuff, this is a non-descript restaurant in a back street in Chennai.

This was an overnight transit stop so apart from bad backpacks and good food, we move on to Kulala Lumpur.

Farewell India!

Halloween, you're doing it wrong. In fact it is a religious thing, unlikely they have heard of Halloween, lucky buggers.

Halloween, you’re doing it wrong. In fact it is a religious thing, unlikely they have heard of Halloween, lucky buggers.

 

She was being milked at the time and had the biggest horns of any water buffalo I had seen.

She was being milked at the time and had the biggest horns of any water buffalo I had seen.  Not a great photo, it was pretty dark and I didn’t want to flash it.

 

I loved the incredible range of doors, especially on temples.

I loved the incredible range of doors, especially on temples.

 

Wandered into a toy store back in Kolkatta and they had the most incredible collection of old kids cars as well as other old toys.

Wandered into a toy store back in Kolkatta and they had the most incredible collection of old kids cars as well as other old toys.

Refusing to use ‘Pi’ in blog title

We woke up to a miracle of well being on the day we planned to leave for Puducherry from Mahabalipuram.  Perhaps it was because we have visited so many temples, maybe because I have patted so many cows, it could be modern medicine, who knows?

Sheila was feeling so back to normal, despite my suggestion we catch another taxi, she was happy to go by local bus.

The super deluxe coach from Mahabalipuram to Puducherry, this means it has decent seats.

The ultra deluxe coach from Mahabalipuram to Puducherry, this means it has decent seats.

Overnight train trips get you to your destination overnight, but you don’t get to see a lot. Daytime bus trips through rural India are another story.  Salt harvesting, rice paddies, other unidentified crops, countless shrines and temples and on this trip, a real thrill to see wild flamingoes in a lake we passed.

Flamingo at Kuala Lumpur bird park for illustration purposes only

Flamingo at Kuala Lumpur bird park for illustration purposes only

Lonely Planet had another win with the Park Guest House where every room has a balcony overlooking the Bay of Bengal.  This place is run by the Sri Aurobindo ashram and the grounds are full of simple but beautiful pieces of art some of which are going to be replicated at home.

All over the place are posters of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, a French woman who became his collaborator.  There are lots of rules and even a curfew, but it was a great place to stay and see if Puducherry would scratch Sheila’s itch.IMG_1378(1)

Of we set on foot in search of French influence.  We didn’t get far before we fell victim to the ice cream shop just down the street at Alliance Francais.  This was a good start.

The old map had lots of streets with French names.  A newer map, and the streets themselves, had Indian names.  The good start was tarnished a bit.

Before long Sheila was so well and in such rapture that she was salivating at all the Frenchiness ranging from buildings to food to faux gendarmes with non-faux firearms.

Puducherry police

Puducherry police

There is a French embassy and to ice the cake of expectation, people actually speak French here.  Sheila is in heaven and I have to conceded that I was wrong about Puducherry being as French as Nouméa I.e. not at all.

There was a rehearsal for a parade and the military guys were happy to pose, just look at the excitement on their faces

There was a rehearsal for a parade and the military guys were happy to pose, just look at the excitement on their faces

The cherry on top of the croissant was a wonderful meal in an almost French restaurant.  My how the appetite has returned.

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Delighted at our ‘French’ dinner, this makes me happy and life easier.

There was also a certain amount of wistfulness starting to creep in because  our trip is ending .  Puducherry is our last stop before heading back to Chennai for our flight to Malaysia.  So we were lapping it up.

More Park Guest House art, broken terracotta pots.

More Park Guest House art, pieces from broken terracotta pots.

Of course there were Hindu temples, one particularly spectacular and another with what can only be described as an endearing performing elephant.

Hindu temple Puducherry

Hindu temple Puducherry

Temple ceiling

Temple ceiling

Place some money at the end of its trunk and it will touch you on the head to “bless” you.  This is important enough to people to have them lining up and the elephant receiving enough coins to keep it supplied in croissants.

Elephant blessing

Elephant blessing

You can take the girl out of the Catholic Church but you can’t totally remove the church from the girl.  So we visited some old churches and I scratched my head as Sheila, who had been a bit puzzled by the overt devotion of Hindus, crossed herself entering and leaving.  Or maybe the scratching was from the elephant blessing.

Happy face electrical box bathing in rainbow

Happy face Catholic electrical box bathing in rainbow

 

Who knew that baby Jesus had male-pattern baldness, obviously inherited

Who knew that baby Jesus had male-pattern baldness, obviously inherited.

 

Continuing the series of military male models

Continuing the series of military male models

I think you get the drift: there never was a Pondicherry zoo, but the French really were there and their influence remains.  We had a lovely time and the truth is, there’s not a lot to write about, but plenty of pics of a relaxing couple of days.

Cutting firewood for the restaurant cooker, with an electric saw

Cutting firewood for the restaurant cooker, with an electric saw

Doctor doctor give me the news…

Although I am generally writing posts a few days after the event I try to write it as though it is a live blog, hopefully you feel you are right here with us at Suradeep Hospital, Mamallpuram.

Suradeep Hospital, Mamallapuram

Suradeep Hospital, Mamallapuram

But before I get to the gory details let me back up, because the journey is as much fun as the destination, sometimes.

Although she wasn’t up to walking, eating or much else, The Sheila was so looking forward to heading south to Puducherry she worked out an itinerary that included a place I hadn’t heard of, Mamallapuram or Mahabalipuram as it is also known.

Digression: there is a trend to change all the colonial names back to either their original or to an Indian name e.g.  Mumbai was Bombay, Chennai was Madras.  This can be very confusing when you have two maps of a place and the streets have different names on each map.

We flew into Chennai early afternoon from Kolkata with The Sheila as sick as ever, if not worse.  This being her part of the holiday I am saying “yes” to almost everything including “taxi, I am too sick for a bus”.  Fair enough, it was Rs1,200 ($25) which is quite expensive by Indian standards but a) it was over an hour b) AC and c) random foreign tourist rate.

Research included finding a hotel in an inherited (and since passed on) Lonely Planet guide book. Our experience has been mixed with LP suggestions.  Varanasi hotel was great, this one not so much.  Huge room with AC, quite clean, quiet, but no screens on the windows and the bathroom was pretty grotty.  This is especially important when you aren’t feeling well already.

You can see what a joyous event an Indian marriage is. This was at the celebration and photo shoot the night before the ceremony We were invited to attend the ceremony the next morning, unfortunately Sheila was too sick.

You can see what a joyous event an Indian marriage is. This was at the celebration and photo shoot the night before the ceremony We were invited to attend the ceremony the next morning, unfortunately Sheila was too sick.

Sheila spent all that afternoon and evening in bed while I wandered what turned out to be quite a nice place.  I’d say it started as a fishing village, but they have adapted to tourism really well.  The streets are the cleanest I have seen in India, they hustle the itinerant touts and sellers out of the area and the shop keepers are quite friendly.  Though behind their relaxed friendliness lurks the desire to hustle you into their shop.

The difference was that there wasn’t so much pressure to buy, just having a look was acceptable to many of them and I had some great conversations, especially with the owner of the first music shop I have seen.  I kind of wanted a tabla, but they are so big to carry.

My uke meets its bigger and watt more complicated cousins

My uke meets its bigger and way more complicated cousins

By now Sheila hadn’t eaten for 3 days and she wasn’t responding to any treatment I found on the internet when searching for “sick in India”.  While walking home that night I passed a hospital/clinic and we decided to go there in the morning.

Entrance to the hospital

Entrance to the hospital

As the parent of a doctor and a pseudo doctor myself I have an idea about the western standard of medical facilities, Suradeep Hospital didn’t come close, except by name.  For once being foreign tourists worked to our advantage and we queue jumped lots of sick  locals. A sweet woman doctor was seeing a steady stream of patients as well as handling the money and giving instructions to five or so nurses and assistants.

This photo gives an idea of the sad state of everything, patient included

This photo gives an idea of the sad state of everything, patient included

She wants to do blood tests and rehydrate Sheila.  Foreign Tourist advantage: some bloke, likely dying of malaria or worse, is kicked out of a small room and Sheila is put on a Sodium Lactate drip in the back streets of an Indian fishing village.

The beginning of a happy ending

The beginning of a happy ending

It is almost as bad as you are imagining.  No change of sheets on the bed between patients though a pillow is found (no pillowcase) and put under the sheet.  They do use antiseptic but no gloves.  There is a fan in the windowless room, but power has been erratic all morning.  None of the staff speak English. And not a working Clown Doctor in sight.

Ummm...

Ummm…

Leaving her to her fate I am sent on a mission to find a better hotel. Though I don’t want to bore you with details, I will share the criteria so that I can get some of the sympathy you are feeling for Sheila.

  • Clean
  • Sea breeze
  • AC
  • Soft bed
  • Screened windows
  • WiFi
  • Reasonable price
  • Quiet
  • Hot water
  • Ground floor

This is pretty much mission impossible, but I say “yes” and head out.  A couple of hours later, having checked out every hotel in town (10+) I am able to report back that from the list of requirements she can choose any 4 and a hotel would fit the bill.  The only happy ending happening this day was that one hotel, Siva Guest House, just around the corner from our original, won the day.  Oh how I wish I had noted the names of all the hotels in all my posts…sigh.

As they hook Sheila up to a second bottle, this time Sodium Chloride, I am despatched to move house.  This place, though on the 3rd floor, has screens, wonderful breezes and a balcony.  The promised WiFi is disappointing.  Geeky friends, have you ever heard of a WiFi access point being visible to some devices but not others? I couldn’t figure it out. Didn’t matter, it was slow anyway.

Just before the hospital visit, doesn't she look great?

Just before the hospital visit, doesn’t she look great? Nice beach though, cows included.

Just as I finish the final trip from the original hotel with all our luggage and am ready for a shower and a nap my phone rings, possibly the second time in India.  Sheila is finished and while I am tempted to try my luck with some humour and say “just walk back to the old hotel, you’ll see me” I don’t tempt fate and instead say “see you in 5 minutes”.

It is too late to cut a long story short, but some tablets were handed over, blood results analysed (minor infection) and we chatted to the doctor who owns the clinic.  She hadn’t had a break in over 25 years or so and treats poor people for free.  Our bill came to Rs2,600 ($55) and we gave her Rs3,000 to pay for some medicine for someone who couldn’t afford it.

I am going to kill this tale by saying that Sheila ate something that night, first food in 4 days, and by the next morning she was almost back to normal having risen from what she was convinced was her death bed.

I knew she was better, we went shopping!!!  We went walking!!!  We continued shopping!!!  We ate!!!!  We went shopping some more!!!

Random photo to fill page: I found the burial site of Australia's fast broadband network.

Random photo to fill page: I found the burial site of Australia’s fast broadband network, outsourced of course.

Having bought some cushion covers the next mission was to find a matching textile for the back of the couch and we did.  It was Rs2,500 according to the shop keeper.  I have mentioned that Sheila is uncomfortable with me haggling.  She figures we earn enough to pay full price and I suspect she is also worried about me offending people.  But to me, and I think to the shop keepers it is a game that while there is an edge, can be loads of fun.

And so it was with this guy.  We spent about half an hour bantering and batting back and forth and bemoaning the fact that our children wouldn’t be able to eat and we laughed and the price was coming down slowly.  In fact we really wanted this piece but I knew better than to let on, we were going to leave and go and think about it…but if he gave it to us for our spending limit of Rs1,000 we would buy now.

The Rs1,000 spending limit was something I invented when I got a sniff he might sell for that.  Back and forth we went, he even offered us chai, he acknowledged was enjoying the game, I was honoured but knew it was a ploy to weaken me.  Fortuitously I had exactly Rs1,000 in my top pocket, I whipped it out, handed it to him and he laughed “better than nothing” and we had a deal.  Not bad from a Rs2,500 start.  Sheila softened the blow by not haggling for a pair of earrings.

Incredible some masons start with this and in about 6 weeks truth it into...

Incredible stone mason starts with this and in about 6 weeks turns it into…

 

The final result of the carver's handiwork. I was truly in awe.

The final result of the carver’s handiwork. I was truly in awe.

Rather than take a taxi, we head 100km to Puducherry by local bus.  Rs60 Vs Rs2,000. This has been a long post, so that tale is still to come.

Sick as one of the many dogs

With only a week left before we leave India we decided that rather than spend a couple of days in Kolkata, we would just stay overnight.

The plan was to catch the 2130hrs train from Gaya arriving in Kolkata at 0700hrs, that gave us a full day to at least check out some of the colonial architecture.

Advice: In India, always write your plans in pencil.

You can see what a joyous event an Indian marriage is. This was at the celebration and photo shoot the night before the ceremony We were invited to attend the ceremony the next morning, unfortunately Sheila was too sick.

You can see what a joyous event an Indian marriage is. This was at the celebration and photo shoot the night before the ceremony We were invited to attend the ceremony the next morning, unfortunately Sheila was too sick.

By this time Sheila was decidedly unwell and had been for a couple of days.  I decided to join her in the land of unwell and was feeling pretty dodgy too.  We both had to keep the location if the nearest washroom (as they are known) in mind – too much information?

Out comes the plan eraser: train is 3.5 hours late, it is now leaving at 0100hrs – joy! – we have taken to sleeping on the platform like everyone else.  At least once the train arrives we get our beds and I get a good nights sleep.  Her?  Not so good.  By the time we get to Kolkata, somehow another hour has vanished into the Indian time hole so we now only have the afternoon instead of all day.

Have we been in India too long when we start sleeping on the train platform?

Have we been in India too long when we start sleeping on the train platform with the locals?

It is a moot point, because by now the notion of colonial architecture and anything else Kolkata has to offer has been completely erased from the plan given physical condition and capabilities.

Getting ready for an evening of festivities.

Getting ready for an evening of festivities.

Stupidly I hadn’t organised a hotel in Kolkata.  Normally this is OK, but when one member of the expedition is sick and tired and cranky it isn’t such a great idea.  I had worked out the area we wanted to stay so into a taxi we jump and head to Park St with me having increased the cranky level by standing in line for 20 minutes for a taxi ticket instead of paying double and just getting a taxi.

There had been much festivities this day the final day of a festival, these guys were drummed out.

There had been much festivities this day the final day of a festival, these guys were drummed out.

 Unusually, taxi driver has no idea of hotels in what is the sort of tourist part of town and we effectively run in the door of the first one we see.  It has AC, a bed and a toilet, it’s all we need.

Food has been the suspected culprit and I suddenly had the thought that perhaps this was more of a bug than just cultural wars.  After all, I caught it a couple of days later and we have been sharing water bottles.

We rummaged through the medical kit, consulted a holy man, read chai leaves and decided which antibiotic Sheila would take.  She’s asleep right now so I can’t ask if it helped, but I am not sure it did, she hasn’t eaten for a day and a half.   Having said that, she does seem a little bit better today. Don’t worry about me though, my appetite hasn’t been affected at all.

New contender for 'bottom of the traffic pecking order'. Hadn't seen a hand pulled rickshaw in India before.

New contender for ‘bottom of the traffic pecking order’. Hadn’t seen a hand pulled rickshaw in India before.

I am not sure Sheila remembers Kolkata at all.  The next morning we have to get to the airport and fly to Chennai.  The guy behind the desk has been pressuring me to take the hotel car for Rs500 or Rs600 with AC, I am not impressed and the more someone insists I do something they want rather than what I want, the digger my heels get in.

I had added the Uber app the previous day and this was the time to go for it.  I book a car and no shit, it arrives in less than 1 minute and that includes driving past the hotel and backing up.

Sheila is weak and sick and I am making sure she is OK and getting to the car, the guy still wants me to take the hotel car, the porters are being very helpful carrying my bags despite me asking them not to, the Uber driver is making sure we are us, it is frenetic and crazy.  We get in the car and the porter sticks his head in and says “please, a tip?”, the last thing I needed right then. I shove a whopping Rs10 (20c) into his hand and pull the door shut to wipe the shocked look off his face.  I wasn’t kind, as Sheila constantly reminds me we make more in a year than they see in a lifetime, but they are so fucking insistent and persistent.

There really is colonial architecture in Kolkata, maybe we will see more of it next time

There really is colonial architecture in Kolkata, maybe we will see more of it next time

My first ever Uber booking is a dream.  The guy drops us at the airport door, the total is Rs216 we are out of Kolkata and on our way to Chennai for a few days before flying home via KL.  Since seeing Life of Pi after the germination of the India trip idea, Sheila had in the back of her mind visiting Puducherry, the home of the (emphasising this) mythical Pondicherry zoo.

Are we heading to the disappointment of an unfulfilled expectation (as I suspect)? Can it be anything like the movie?  Is the French influence still there?  After all Noumea was so disappointing.

I still have to write that up, after Mamallapuram.

Guys playing a game that is sort of drafts crossed with snooker.

Guys playing a game that is sort of drafts crossed with snooker.

 

Under the bodhi tree

 

Many months ago I started reading a book that turned out to effectively be Buddha’s biography.  It was pretty dry reading “and then he…and then he…and then he…” none the less I found it really interesting.  At about the same time I was forming a plan for this trip and thought “wouldn’t it be cool to visit Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha attained enlightenment?” and here we are.

Unfinished temple, is going to be most spectacular when done.

Unfinished temple, is going to be most spectacular when done.

After many big cities Bodhgaya is quite a bit more relaxed.  It is not very big and there are rice paddies about 50m from our hotel.  There are, as you might expect lots of Buddhists coming to visit Mahabodhi Temple, the site of the wondrous event and the location of a descendant of the original Bodhi tree under which Buddha was sitting.

Mahbodhi Temple in the location where Buddha attained enlightenment.  Likely the most holy place for Buddhists.

Mahabodhi Temple in the location where Buddha attained enlightenment. Likely the most holy place for Buddhists.

Many countries have built monasteries and temples here; Vietnam, Japan, China Bhutan to name a few and while they may not be intentionally trying to outdo each other (are Buddhists competitive?) there are some spectacular buildings, all within walking distance.  There are also many, many monks and nuns walking, riding bicycles, motor bikes and autos.

30 metre high Buddha built by the Japanese

30 metre high Buddha built by the Japanese

The Mahabodhi Temple is a very peaceful place with lots of people praying and meditating.  Some walk, some sit, some prostrate themselves.  We sat for about an hour just watching people around the tree which seems to be the focus for pilgrims.

Meditating monk passing bodhi tree at Mahbodhi Temple

Meditating monk passing bodhi tree at Mahabodhi Temple.  I love this photo.  We sat for a long time and this guy was walking slowly around and around the temple, occasionally he would pick up a little train of 3 or 4 followers then they would drop off and he would keep going.  We made eye contact a couple of times and he had a lovely gentle smile.  I also love that to the left of him is people sitting meditating, to the right of him is people walking, western clothes.  For me the photo is a story that I am not sure conveys well if you weren’t there.

There is another focus and that is catching the occasional leaf that flutters to the ground.  I had spotted a couple and each time was beaten to them by someone else.  It wouldn’t be good form to elbow an elderly nun out of the way over a leaf.  Eventually I told a monk I was after one and when he saw one hit the ground he grabbed it and gave it to me.  I have a plan for framing it when we get back.  Sitting again I saw another come down and this time I was quickest and now had my second leaf, but I had beaten an older monk to it so I gave it to him and the look of excitement on his face was worth it.

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Not the same monk ;o)

Neither of us has been 100% well here, Sheila especially so, so on our last day, after she faded badly out in the streets we came back to the hotel where she slept much of the afternoon and I borrowed a bicycle to head into town.  Using the road in India at all is quite an interesting exercise, riding a bike when you haven’t been on one for a few years what could possibly go wrong?

In fact nothing went wrong, but unlike me, I did forget the golden rule for getting services of any sort;  Negotiate a price first.  The seat on the bike was a little high so I stopped at a “bike repair shop” i.e. a spot by the road where someone fixed bikes, and asked the guy to lower the seat about 2cm.  At home a 3 minute job like this, mechanic would just say “don’t worry about any money” but this is India so I reckon it would be a Rs5 or Rs10 job.  Like I said, I didn’t fix a price up front and the guy wanted Rs50!  OK, this is only $1 but that’s beside the point, I had been well and truly cheated and despite him not speaking English, he got my message very clearly and one of the blokes standing around who could speak a little English also passed on my displeasure.  I ought to add that the blokes standing around had wry smiles on their faces that I read as “you got done mate, it wasn’t fair, but what did you expect?”.  But the bike was more comfortable.

[EDIT] Days later again finally some decent wifi.  Jump to photos to fill out the story.

Sheila under the bodhi tree

Sheila under the bodhi tree

 

The main Buddah idol inside the Mahabodhi temple

The main Buddah idol inside the Mahabodhi temple

 

IMG_1301(1)

I was on my bike and noticed all the banners and bunting hiding the street seller stalls. Kept riding, somehow I was unwittingly through barricades and right alongside the Governor of Bihar’s car. No one panicked but they did move me back pretty quick ;o). Then they removed the decorations and the non-existent stalls that the Governor surely knew about anyway magically reappeared.

Cow dung pats used for cooking drying on a wall.  This is a really common sight.  I am sure the cooking fires are a major contributor to the poor quality of Indian air.

This is a really common sight, cow dung pats used for cooking drying on a wall.  I am sure the cooking fires are a major contributor to the poor quality of Indian air.

Tergar Monastry - there a loads of monastries in bodhgaya

Tergar Monastry – there a loads of monastries in bodhgaya

Dragon staircase at the unfinished temple above.

Dragon staircase at the unfinished temple above.

 

 

We’re here to help…

Were you eagle eyed enough to spot the (uncorrected because I can’t be bothered) mistake in the last post?  Red Fort was actually in Delhi, in Agra is Agra Fort, so mentally move that part of the post to the previous one.

The exciting news is that this gives me the opportunity to include a shot of yet another baoli!  It’s a pretty boring one, with a steel grating over it, though marked as a baoli. And quite tricky to find despite asking at least 10 staff, it is more of a well, unless maybe the steps were filled in some time in the past.

Agra Fort baoli

Agra Fort baoli

Generally railway stations, though busy, bustling crowded places, are quite sedate – if that is not a contradiction.  There are families sitting, eating, sleeping waiting patiently for their train.  A wave of people leaves on a train, the station fills up again and the cycle repeats.

Agra station was different.  For a start, every other station I have boarded a train has illuminated signs along the platform that tell you where your carriage is, but not in Agra.  More than that, there was a lot of young men, some of them standing blatantly staring at Sheila, while not threatening, it was decidedly creepy.

Suddenly we have some people attach themselves to us, but instead of the touts and hasslers it is Nicola from the UK and Eddie from Scotland. With all the creepy, but apparently harmless, openly staring men they felt more comfortable in a “safety in numbers” situation, we all got on well and shared stories and they told us about the hotel they were heading to in Varanasi, so it was a fortuitous meeting.

Then the train arrived.  I have seen some mad moments and this was one of them.  All the young men were in general seating i.e. no reserved seats, so there was an insane rush for the train with about 20 guys at each door jostling and pushing tying to get into an already crowded carriage that people were likely trying to get out of.

The trains come into a station quite slowly, perhaps this is not official policy, but I think it is to allow people to jump on and off before it stops with out actually killing themselves.  So we got to see our carriage go past (they are all clearly marked – mostly) and keep going down the platform.  This meant we had to jostle through the already jostlers and work our way down to our carriage.  The train was 45 minutes late and I was a bit concerned it might do a stop and go like the buses, so I was leading the foray past families sitting eating and sleeping with men forming a bit of a barrier to stop them being trampled…not in a dangerous trampling sense, but it would have been not pleasant to have either young guys or us in the middle of their chappatis.

Camouflaged goat. The colouring was actually quite unusual and beautiful.

Camouflaged goat. The colouring was actually quite unusual and beautiful.

I guess on Back to the Future Day I can romanticise and say that we woke up in Varanasi, time and location having changed while we slept.  The usual auto ride through busy streets, this one more fun because we are jammed into an auto with Nicola and Eddie and their backpacks.  I get to sit hang on in the front with the driver – I am reminded of a time when sailing on a big boat Cruz Control and a wrist strap caught on the boom and it swung out over the side of the boat way out in the ocean with me hanging on. Can’t decide which was more dangerous.

The lane outside our hotel one afternoon. Fortunately we were coming in from the other end. The Hindi word for cow is "gai" and I do love most of the cows, they are placid and care free and at the top of the traffic pecking order...and they know it.

The lane outside our hotel one afternoon. Fortunately we were coming in from the other end. The Hindi word for cow is “gai” and I do love most of the cows, they are placid and care free and at the top of the traffic pecking order…and they know it.

The auto can’t get us quite to the Sarai River View Hotel, the last 100m or so is down some narrow lanes, I remind Sheila that at the end of every dingy lane is a surprisingly great hotel.  Up to a room and there in front of us is a balcony with a most wonderful view over Assi Ghat and the Ganges.

The balcony and view from Sahi River View hotel Varanasi. We didn't mind

The balcony and view from Sahi River View hotel Varanasi. We didn’t mind this spot at all.

The story we heard was that The Ganges was formed when the goddess Shiva took a shower and is the holiest of Hindu places, it is likely one of the most polluted of India’s places.  If Shiva is anything like us, she took multiple showers a day to wash off the sweat, the grime and the Ganges water, but I can’t find a reference to that.

Just south of where we were staying was the Assi river, or more appropriately, the Assi cesspool cum drain.  It is the most vile waterway I have seen and it flows directly into the Ganges just upriver from the intake towers for the city’s drinking water.

How are we going with the picture I am trying to paint of the state of The Ganges?  Let me continue…

At monsoon time the river comes up and dumps metres of silt along the ghats.  For the next few months they use high pressure hoses to wash the silt back into the river clearing the ghats… they haven’t finished yet this year and some places were quite treacherous.  The 1984 flood record is marked on some very high walls about a metre or so from the top, can only imagine what it looked like.

Silt on the banks of The Ganges, Varanasi

Silt on the banks of The Ganges, Varanasi

Add to the river the fact that most of India is not sewered.  A Lonely Planet guide statistic from 2009 says that the safe levels of E. coli is 500 parts per million but the water was measured at 1.5 million ppm (the link above says it is far worse).  Doesn’t stop people swimming, washing, bathing and being interred in it.

Sunrise, the red tinge is caused by air pollution which is awful right across India

Sunrise, the red tinge is caused by air pollution which is awful right across India

Which leads to one of the things Varanasi is noted for, the cremation ghats.  We headed to the old city and stopped for a sugar cane juice.  Walla didn’t have any change so bloke standing there helped us out a bit.

The cycle rickshaws are all decorated on the back

The cycle rickshaws are all decorated on the back

It is important that I define “helping out” because it is a recurring theme for the day.  When a person offers to help – and I admit this is only 99.99% of the time – it means they have something to sell.  This guy hooked up with us and wanted to take us to his shop despite me telling him we didn’t want to buy anything.  As we walked he was always just behind our just ahead or just over the road keeping pace.  We ducked into an alley being suddenly interested in sandals, for a while I thought we had lost him, but there he was waiting for us to emerge.  Note to self: next time duck into shop in alley so he can’t see you in alley.

Down a lane pointing to the Vishnawath Temple, our first planned stop.  Helper is still with us.  I can’t remember quite how it happened but he stopped helping us only to be replaced (or was it usurped?) by someone else who helped us when a shopkeeper didn’t understand English. IMG_1149(1)

This helper stuck with us for almost 2 hours.  I made it clear we weren’t interested in buying anything but he hung in there knowing a softie when he spotted Sheila.

In fact he was a pretty good guide, he explained lots of things, took us to the cremation ghats (wait for it…) and the government bhang shop.  This one sells ganga overlooking The Ganga.  And what a range they had, balls, cakes, patties and no doubt other delights.  This is for locals only apparently.

We always try to support the local economy

We always try to support the local economy

It ended up that we couldn’t get into the temple, you need your passport and I don’t carry mine when not heading to a new city.  So we wound our way down to the main cremation ghat and were handed to a guy who specifically told us he didn’t want to help (if you get my drift) but ended up being more helpful than we expected.

Up a couple of flights off stairs to a balcony in the building and we were directly overlooking the cremation fires – we were close enough that it was hot and smoky.  Bodies are wrapped in cloth then covered in a bright outer wrapping of material and carried to the ghat through the alleys on bamboo stretchers with someone walking ahead calling that they are coming through.  We saw this once and as you would, respectfully stepped aside.

Once at the river the body is rinsed briefly in the water, left to dry for a while then placed on a pile of timber which is set alight by a family member.  The flame comes from Shiva’s fire that we were told has been burning continuously for 2,500 years.

Piles of wood ready to cremate people

Piles of wood ready to be taken to the ghat to cremate people. The amount needed per body is surprisingly small.

At any one time there are 8 or so cremations at various points of completion; some just started, some partly burned, some finished.  They burn over 200 bodies a day and it is all very matter of fact with guys using long bamboo poles to stoke the fires and “rearrange” the contents – I will leave the detail at that despite the whole process being quite graphic at times. Obviously no photos allowed and it isn’t something I would have photographed anyway.

We went in fully understanding that a donation towards wood for cremation was expected.  It was explained to us by the guy who was becoming more and more helpful that people come there to die and his organisation helps them at the end of their life.  They are often poor and wood is Rs150/Kg with quite a bit needed each time.

This sounded like a good thing to support so I gave a woman we were introduced to Rs1,000 ($10).  Sheila was then told money had to come directly from her hand so she handed over 100.  Then we were introduced to another woman and were expected to hand over money again.  No way I was funding that much again so we each handed 100 and in return received a WTF withering glare.  Now if the money is going into a slush fund to help the poor, why does it matter who we give it to?  Just sayin’.

Once outside, the helpful guy who assures us he wasn’t helping is suddenly very helpful “something for me and my family and baby daughter?”. Another 200 and while the value isn’t a lot, I hand it over with gritted teeth feeling like we have been spun another story.

Every one has a story.  Another guy the next day told us he has met John Saffran and had been in the Race Around The World series.  Despite assuring us he wasn’t at all helpful he also had something to sell.

Back at the ghat we have emerged into the alleys and of course helpful guy is ready continue the tour.  Because Sheila feels obliged we end up back at his shop which, as I suspected, has nothing that interests us.  I say to helpful guy that we are leaving, we appreciate his help and hand him Rs200.  He looks at me and says “is that all?” and while not exactly snapping, I have had enough, decide to say what is on my mind and tell him “you followed us, we told you we didn’t want you to, be thankful you got that” which – shock horror! – worked and he shut up and walked off.

We now have a code phrase that we say to each other, “I think he is trying to help” which means one of us has realised that here we go again.

The case for witches hats. Guy (with supervisor) had just hand painted this line on a busy railway station platform and walked away jut leaving it to dry.

The case for witches hats. Guy (with supervisor) had just hand painted this line on a busy railway station platform and walked away leaving it to dry.

I could go on and on about Varanasi.  We spent 3 days here and watched evening services, took a sunset ride on the river, did yoga at dawn, ate at great restaurants, bought clothes, had a massage and finished it with Sheila getting Varanasi Assi, but I didn’t – after almost 6 weeks I think I am now immune.

Oh one more thing.  Varanasi also has a baoli and this one was especially cool as it is a working stepwell.  There is an active temple adjoining it and women wash their clothes in the water.  It is the best maintained of all I have seen.

Baoli, Varanasi

Baoli, Varanasi

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You will be either pleased or disappointed to know that I think I have run out of baoli…but we haven’t checked at our next stop, Bodhgaya.

For Taj

Moving quickly now to try to catch up.  Generally, booking trains and buses is really easy using the ClearTrip app on my phone, it will give a range of trips available at a range of prices.  Found the perfect bus from Delhi to Agra but could not make the payment work, maybe because it is an international debit card…sigh…

Day 3 and off we go to Agra

Day 3 and off we go to Agra

But we knew the bus name, from where it left and at what time.  A local bus ride to the Sarai Kale Kahn bus station and as we step off into a dusty field with a bunch of food vendors and a few buses some guys shout “Agra” ad indicate their bus.  It isn’t quite the Uttar Pradesh Transport Company Volvo, but it is clean, looks comfortable, is half the fare and conveniently it is right in front of us so on we get.

The 4 hour trip wasn’t too bad apart from stopping all stations, sometimes in the middle of nowhere along the express way to pick people up or drop them off.  Bizarre thing was that rather than half way, after about 3.5hrs, in sight of Agra they decide to do a food and toilet stop, I can only assume the bus guys get a free feed for bringing in a bus load.

At one point along the way I look out the back window and there it is, the UPTC Volvo, right behind us.  Yes it looked more comfortable but we were doing the Real IndiaTM thing.

The Volvo we didn't catch

The Volvo we didn’t catch

Getting off the bus there was a Rs40 charge for the luggage underneath (they get you coming and going) and the usual bit of a kerfuffle because we didn’t have the exact change.  One bloke steps out of the throng of auto drivers that has surrounded us and offers to front the Rs40, we decline and sort it out, but this guy speaks English, has a lovely smile and his ploy works.  We hire him to recommend and take us to a hotel.  This actually turned out to be a wise move on everybody’s part as after a few laughs along the way and getting into the hotel we book him to do the Agra tourist thing the next day.

Non aggro Agra auto driver.

Non aggro Agra auto driver.

We always try to arrive in a town early morning if going by train, or with a short-ish bus ride like this one early afternoon.  So after settling into the superficially OK but actually mediocre hotel we went for a walk to the railway station on a mission.  Often with train tickets the trains are overbooked and you start out on a waitlist.  I have never missed a train because a waitlist hasn’t been confirmed, but I do like to stack the odds in my favour. I wanted to try to convert our waitlist into an Emergency Quota tickets or Foreign Tourist Quota (haven’t managed this one yet).  The train was booked for our trip to Varanasi, but still not confirmed.

A casual walk along dusty roads, past cows, goats, pigs, dogs, burning rubbish and a kid defecating in the street had us quickly falling in love with Agra.  We failed to upgrade at the station and out the front asked an auto driver if he could take us to somewhere we could have a beer.  Of course he could , for Rs30 – cheap!

It was cheap because we were conned – it was about a 5 minute walk, if that.  The bar was dingy, Sheila was the only woman, but the beer was cold.

Cheers beers

Cheers beers with street peanuts

The auto rickshaws are one thing, the cycle rickshaws are something else.  These poor buggers work hard for less Rupees because they are much slower.  It is not uncommon to see them out and pushing up even the slightest of hills.  We caught one back to the hotel, I helped push and offered to cycle for the driver, but it would cost him Rupees (cue laughter).

Rickshaw driver doing it tough on the hill, I got out to make the load a bit lighter.

Rickshaw driver doing it tough on the hill, I got out to make the load a bit lighter.

Next day was the big day, one of the highlights we were looking forward to, the Taj Mahal.  Everyone who has been there says that the photos, while beautiful don’t do it justice.  We had seen a glimpse of it from a long way off the previous day and it was definitely alluring.

An early start, the heat in the middle of the day is pretty stifling.  There is quite a strong security presence, metal detectors, a quick frisking (my favourite part).  Actually security is apparently strong in lots of places, but it I reckon it is mostly a sham.  You walk through metal detectors that beep, no one cares.  People are half watching the screens on the x-ray machines.  In the streets or at venues police with sub-machine guns are sitting chatting, paying as little attention to the goings on as possible.  If the attack they are there to prevent ever happens, I reckon they will also defecate in the streets.

The Indian cops would win Movember

This cop is good, but we have seen others who would shame him for Movember

Once in, the approach to the Taj Mahal is through the main gate which is awesome in its own right.

IMG_1054(1)

No, this is not the main gate, but I love this shot.

I made sure I didn’t peek until I had the full view and they were right, it is a most beautiful building.  The whole place is very symmetrical, the layout of other buildings, gardens.  Even the Taj Mahal itself is exactly the same height as its width.

As we walked towards it, it dawned on me just how big the building is, something you just don’t get in photos.  And it is white, glaring white marble

Taj Mahal

The main approach to the Taj Mahal – note the size of people standing on the forecourt

It is pretty crowded but not to the point of being annoying.  Given that Indians get in for Rs20 compared to Rs750 for foreign tourists it is no surprise that the place is packed.

From there to the Red Fort.  Please refrain from “not another bloody fort” comments.  Instead you can write “not another bloody baoli” comment because tucked away, behind locked gate but broken fence was this beauty with an octagonal well.

Baoli Red Fort, Agra

Baoli Red Fort, Agra

 

Octagonal well at baoli, Red Fort Agra

Octagonal well at baoli, Red Fort Agra

Next stop, Varanasi

Getting ready for a night time marriage parade. I would love to see this in action.

Getting ready for a night time marriage parade. I would love to see this in action.