Out of India – fortunately not by train

Location: Indira Ghandi International Airport gate 17

You know that feeling when you aren’t feeling well and you are cranky and everything is annoying?  Now imagine that happening and you are in India where everything is over the top.  Now imagine you are in India but you are in New Delhi where it is even more over the top.

So I wasn’t in a good mood today.  I had many hours to kill so I thought a movie would be fun.  But getting there…normally the noise and traffic and smell of stale urine and everything else doesn’t bother me.  Today it was all super annoying and I couldn’t wait to get to the airport.

But I did go to a movie.  I thought I was seeing Tum Bin II, the fact that it averages 1.5/5 stars reviews added to the allure.  However all that was on was Force² an action movie dedicated to Indian spies languishing in foreign jails.

Despite it being 99℅ Hindi, even I could work out that the dedication was nothing more than a cynical marketing ploy.

But I did get to see a movie audience get excited every time the hero flexed his considerable muscles, but I was disappointed there was no singing and dancing.  I’ll make up for it with the really bad R40 DVD I bought in Pushkar.

It’s always comforting to have astute wait staff that anticipate your every need.  Despite not feeling well, last night I felt like something to eat but didn’t want to put much effort into it.  The hotel doesn’t have a restaurant so I went to one over the road. Just me.  Alone.  By myself.  Without anyone else.

I order a Paneer Butter Masala and 2 chapatti.  The waiter writes it down and stands there looking at me.  Eventually he says “just one?”. Reminder: I wasn’t feeling well.  I look around me, under the table and then say “yes,just me, one meal” and he looks disappointed before heading to the kitchen.

I had left my bag at the hotel for the day and while heading back to get it I had to cross the railway station over bridge.  I noticed a really crowded platform and quietly wished the train would arrive right then.

Bag retrieved I headed back and my wish had come true.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I never travel cattle class (general seating) on a train.

Note the fight toward the middle.  I have watched a couple of times and can’t pick why they all got stuck into one guy.

And in case the whole situation might have gotten out of hand, the police stepped in and in an even handed way restored order.  This is really worth watching a couple of times for him hitting people trying to get off and on, tossing luggage both on and off the train and why you should avoid a cop swinging a lathi.

There are no cops with lathis, just soldiers with submachine guns so I’m going to sit back, enjoy the ambiance of the airport before I arrive in KL at 0700 for a 16 hour layover before flying home.

I have pre-ordered pizza for Tuesday dinner

A day in Delhi

Location: Delhi

Hotel: Surya

In my post yesterday I said I was tired.  Turns out I am sick.  Not Delhi Belly type of sick from food, more some sort of bug that has given me a headache and a temperature (I think).  Fortunately a paracetamol relieves the symptoms.

At a guess I walked 15 – 20km today.  From the hotel to Old Delhi and around the markets and then most of the way back before I realised it was another 5km so caught a rickshaw.

In the morning I stopped for a while to watch some sort of display/ceremony/meeting that was related to Indira Gandhi.  The reason the description is so vague is because I have no idea what was happening.  There was a stage and some seating and well dressed men.  Ironic that given it was something to do with a woman there wasn’t a woman in sight. The stage had a backdrop with a big photo of Ghandi and they placed a garland below it and it was all in Hindi.

The only reason I am telling about this is that after watching in puzzlement for a while I wandered off, heading down alleys and anywhere that looked interesting.  I’m not sure if anyone saw me laugh out loud when an hour later I ended up back at Indira Gandhi.  I would have sworn I was heading in one general direction.

I think it is an old tea urn.

I think it is an old tea urn.

The traffic in Old Delhi is a mess.  A mix of tuk tuks, cars, rickshaws, ox drawn carts, human pushed carts, pedestrians and more.  It is much faster to walk than use any sort of vehicle.  The situation was made worse by long lines outside every bank and ATM forcing the few pedestrians who chose not to walk in the street, to walk in the street.  There was a plan to make money changing today restricted to seniors, it didn’t look like it was working.

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Last year I heard about an important Sikh temple here in Delhi, it turns out there is another in Old Delhi, Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib.  The steady flow of people coming and going to this magnificent temple was amazing as was the devotional happenings inside.

And from the upstairs gallery where there were private prayer rooms with outstanding looking Sikh men reading religious texts  – I wasn’t game ask to take a photo.

They feed a lot of people, continuously.  There were three rows like this.

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To produce that much food you need a production line.  This was great to watch.

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I couldn’t get these guys to move so that the light wasn’t behind them.

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There’s lots to see in the markets, areas have their own speciality.  There was the wedding card market and the spice market and the long lines outside banks market.

One thing I have noticed here in Delhi, a city with a population of 18 million! is that people aren’t nearly as friendly and approachable.  A smile elicits a blank look, it’s as though they have seen it all before, and they probably have.

 

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This is an interesting campaign.

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When I arrived at this hotel I asked if there was hot water.  Yes, I am assured, ask for it and it will be provided to your room.  I didn’t quite understand, maybe they have water heaters on each floor or something.

Back from my walk, exhausted and not feeling great, I asked for hot water to my room.  Ten minutes, I am assured.  I figure it takes that long for the heater to kick in.  A while later there is a knock on the door, my hot water is ready.

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Only In India.

I am living a Bollywood version of Alien

Still in Agra at the Bonfire Hostel

So much happens in a day that it is truly hard to know where to begin.  I’ll do this in chronological order and hope I leave room for a punch line.

Although I often wake at 0530 it is a time I regard as stupid o’clock and I wish my body would cut it out.  Today I wake up before stupid o’clock because the plan is sunrise at the Taj Mahal.

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There are very few things that make me uncomfortable in life.  One of them is being locked inside somewhere.  It doesn’t exactly freak me out, but when someone locks a screen door – I am talking with a key – I look for an alternative escape route.  So coming downstairs this morning and finding the door to the street locked from the outside…

Auto driver was there as agreed.  I think he may have slept in his vehicle right out the front 😛  Should I go into the story of how the hostel will pay the auto driver and he still tried to hit me for a fare?  Crap, I just did.  He wanted R50 for a R20 ride!  That is $1, outrageous!

I am actually being generous with drivers and other people.  I will haggle from R50 down to R30 just because I want them to know I know I am being ripped off, then I will give them R50 anyway.

The idea of the Taj at sunrise (0645) is not original.  There is a line for tickets but in true Indian style, no one is selling, they start at about 0600.  It is 1km to the entrance gate and I avoid the overcrowded shuttles and walk.  It is a full moon and I am rewarded with this shot of the East Gate.

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There’s nothing like waiting in line, and there is a pair of lines outside the closed gate. One for men and one for women.  Oh and then there are sub lines for foreigners who have paid R1000 and Indians who have paid R40.  Guess which one moves faster?

The gate finally opens at 0625 and as I approach the Taj I realise that given the smog, sunrise is going to be a very different experience to seeing one in the desert air at Uluru.

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My challenge this visit is to try to take some different photos to last time. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but it actually isn’t easy to find new ways to photograph this incredible building.

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You aren’t allowed to wear shoes in the mausoleum area – you did know that the Taj Mahal was built by the Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife, right?  Premium payers are given a bottle of water and shoe covers (I chose barefoot – why wouldn’t you?).

Indians get to use the free service below and then are badgered into paying a tip after watching their shoes being treated with disdain.

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I liked this guy

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It was lovely being there, spending most of the time sitting, people watching, Taj Mahal staring, crowd avoiding.

On the way out I stopped for breakfast and had a yummy paratha, why isn’t my Indian food ever this good? Sitting watching the world go by, this tractor loaded with women pulled up.

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I may have gotten this wrong, but it seems that only poor women cover their head with their sari.  I guessed correctly that these women were here to work.  Pretty soon they are doing about the most meaningless job I may ever have seen, they were cleaning out some of the dirt between the cobble stones on road!  Not like it is being pulled up or anything like that, just making that space between the stones deeper.  But at least they are earning about R80 a day.  I think this is a good thing.

I don't often set up a shot, but these boys were happy to oblige

I don’t often set up a shot, but these boys were happy to oblige.

Next mission was to hit the ATM, about 1.5km from Bonfire.  Having already walked a long way I decided to get an auto.  One picked up 3 young guys and it often happens that they add more passengers, so they stopped for me.

One guy speaks quite good English and wants to help me by taking me to where there is more than one ATM.  Did you notice I stuck the magic word help in there? I also stuck the word stuck in there because this guy stuck with me as I went from ATM to ATM trying to find one that would cough up.

Of course, he has an auto and would like to take me on a tour… Though if he had an auto, why was he in an auto?  But let’s not get pedantic.  I can shake most people but this guy was like that critter in Alien, nothing could dislodge him from being in my face.

I told him I had no money which was true at that point, hence me looking for an ATM.  At least 5 didn’t work so I could keep the no money line going.  Eventually I struck Rupees, quickly put it in my pocket and came out saying “another one doesn’t work”.

Despite me telling him that he had worn out his welcome, was making me unhappy, was not a good advertisement for Agra, that I have leprosy, he tagged along.

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I was starting to get the shits because he didn’t stop talking the whole time, this has been about 45 minutes by now.  Eventually I realised we were near Sheroes and I concocted a story that I would visit my friend there to borrow money.

As I walked up to the door one of the staff recognised me from the last two days and shook my hand like, you guessed it, a friend. And when I turned around, alien was gone.

I have a yarn about a rug making factory (sorry, couldn’t resist) but this post is long enough already.  Tomorrow is a travel day to Jaipur so I will save it.

It was a long day, and I was happy to end it with a meal on the hostel rooftop. Because I had been to the ATM and thought I deserved a treat, I finished the evening with 500ml of cock.

Should I swallow?

…or a banana spreat.  Same thing?

I should sleep well tonight.

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:

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    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

 

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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.

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.

IMG_1287(1)

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.

 

 

I’m listening…

I have received plenty of advice and I appreciate it.  Especially from those who have ventured to the Indian subcontinent before me.

Information is best shared so this is a collection of advice offered to me *.

  • Travel by train whenever possible and take Sleeper Class
  • Eat vegetarian cooked food , avoid salad.
  • Street food is fine
  • Visit the Taj Mahal as early as possible in the morning. Do this by staying in Agra the night before
  • You will get sick , you will get better.
  • Try not to get bitten by a rabid dog
  • Get over it and stop being such a wuss. What happened to the spirit of Crocodile Dundee?
  • Don’t leave Chaitrali Mahanwar hanging! Let her know if you still want to stay. (Auto response from CouchSurfing)
  • You can basically buy anything in the world at an Indian pharmacy
  • Travelling light – did you hear about the guy a few weeks ago who fainted at the airport because he had like 4 layers on, trying to avoid being overweight with his carry-on?!
  • Allow 1 more working day for receipt of your visa
  • Take care!
  • Remember  – the worst experiences at the time, make the best stories later
  • Wash your hands at every opportunity
  • Don’t forget to view our handy travel insurance claims guide
  • Don’t forget every bank-note is contaminated with all sorts of lurgies. Think about BUYING food then eating it without implements
  • from 18 Nov to 25 Nov there is India‘s biggest tribal fair near to Jaipur at Pushkar.  it would be your life time opportunity to experience this fair.. I am planning to attend this fair. Can help and guide you If you’re interested in it
  • Varanasi has one of my favorite stepwells, hidden in the city, you’ll probably need to keep asking, it’s surrounded by temples: LOLARKA KUND also known as CHARAN GANGA…really amazing.
  • Go to the Red Fort (in Delhi) and hunt for the baoli

This is all very useful information that I have taken to heart.  No doubt you have some advice that isn’t on the list yet.  Please add it as a comment.

I hope this list will benefit not only me, but any one else who stumbles on this blog.  I found the writing of other people useful, I can only do my best to keep the information flowing.

I will add this advice of my own:  Do not pay much attention to the guru in the image 

* These are all genuine.