Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Meat, wine, meat, wine, Buenos Aires, meat and wine.

Quality steak, colorful graffiti scattered throughout the city, palatable wine, fun to watch tango, and incredibly nice people. Welcome to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

I was pretty excited for our flight from Delhi to Buenos Aires, mostly because international flights give me the opportunity to catch up on my movie watching and also wine is usually included. During our six hour flight to Qatar I watched two movies I had really wanted to see. Perfect. Then, we arrived in Qatar, and we thought the airline would put us up in a hotel like they were doing for many people around us since our layover was more than 12 hours. We found out since we could have taken a flight the day after that only required a two hour layover in Qatar, they wouldn’t put us up in a hotel. We told them this was not an option when we booked it, and they kept saying it was on option on their website. At this point, we decided we would never fly with them again and we ended up being in the airport from 11 am to 7am the following day.
After a 19 hour flight from Qatar to Buenos Aires, we finally made it to our fifth continent. Since we arrived at 11pm at night, we had our bed and breakfast arrange a taxi to pick us up from the airport for the first time ever. I admit, I could get used to this sort of travel. We booked a bed and breakfast that was out of our budget for the first three nights in order to have a nice place to recover from jet lag. The owners, Elana and Mike, were wonderful and the place was exactly what we needed. Also, there was hot water. In Northern India it was pretty cold, so taking a “shower” meant filling up an extra large bucket of cold water and using a small pitcher to poor it on yourself. I confess, I didn’t shower much in Varanasi, Agra, and Delhi (shhh, don’t tell anyone). At our bed and breakfast, there was a shower AND hot water. Oh the luxuries.
Our first day saw us explore the city with the subway. Our goal was to find a “South America on a Shoestring” lonely planet, however, this was astonishingly difficult. Also, to our shock, Argentina is much more expensive than we were hoping. Importing goods to Argentina is expensive, and as a result, finding English lonely planets was not only hard but once we found one it was twice the cover price. Instead of paying $30, every bookstore was charging $60. We ended up buying a 2007 edition at a used bookstore a couple days later for $7. After an exhausting day of trying to locate this book, we finally made it to the recommended and relatively cheap steakhouse called Las Cabras. It might have been considered a budget option in Buenos Aires, but was quite expensive compared to India. I hadn’t seen Bryan so happy in quite awhile, and he savored that steak like it would be his last.
Bryan was pretty excited to have to go to the US Embassy because he needed more pages in his Passport. Go, Bryan! This took up half the day, but he now has enough pages to travel the world for another year. So, it looks like we won’t be back home until 2014.
Just kidding.
Buenos Aires has several nice parks scattered around the city, and we found a really nice sculpture park we explored after the Embassy. Then, it was time for more steak. This time we found a restaurant that was Buenos Aires version of an American diner. Basically, it was filled with a lot of single men…and pretty good steak. After steak, we went back to our room mostly because we had a living room and a couch. A couch has become quite the luxury, as they’re not common in hostels. During the rare times when there was a couch, it was usually pretty gross. When we get home, I will never take a couch for granted again, but at the moment, I have to make some sacrifices in order to see the world. I live such a hard life.
So far, traveling in South America has been quite different from traveling in Asia. It was usually easy to find someone who speaks English in Asia as it was the common language for backpackers around the world and for anyone who needs to communicate with foreigners. Thais who want to communicate with Cambodians generally speak English. Vietnamese who need to speak to Malaysians generally speak English. In South America, everyone speaks Spanish and almost all of the backpackers we’ve met have been Argentinians. I think we’ve met two people who speak proper English. Deciphering the food menu has also been entertaining mostly because we don’t know what anything is. We’re getting better though, and have started writing words down for later instead of having to look at our Spanish/English dictionary every time. Although, we’ve heard that food is very different from country to country in South America, so we’ll see what happens when we make it to Bolivia. Our Spanish is getting better, especially Bryan. Bryan’s pretty good at forming sentences, which is something I need to work on. I understand a lot of words, but I’m having a hard time (and get a bit nervous) speaking in complete sentences. Hopefully this will change with time.
The next couple days in Buenos Aires were spent taking pictures of all the awesome graffiti, visiting La Recoleta cemetery, and spending a bit of time in La Boca district.
Graffiti is one of the many things that make Argentina (and probably most of South America) different from the rest of the world. It is everywhere and considered to be artistic, and I agree. The beautiful colors and interesting pictures and words make for an entertaining walk. One could take thousands of pictures of graffiti art and still not see it all. It’s rare that the graffiti in Argentina is just the basic tagging like you would usually find in the US.
Mike told us at the beginning that La Recoleta cemetery is worth seeing, so we made our way over via subway to the Palermo district in order to see where Presidents of Argentina, Evita, and thousands of other notable figures have graves. Instead of being buried, their mausoleums are placed in immaculate large stone structures all above ground for everyone to see. I have never seen a cemetery like this. Unfortunately, we didn’t find Evita’s mausoleum because the cemetery was huge and we were hungry.
According to US Department of State, one should not visit La Boca at night due to violent robberies, but what do they know? No, we only went during the day and we wished we would have spent more time here. Tango, colorful handicraft work, and leather were just of the few things we enjoyed in La Boca.
The day before we left Argentina, we ate some of the best steak ever. Steak in Argentina means you can get a huge steak for half the price it would be in the States. The best “lomo” should be able to be cut with a spoon. As you can imagine, Bryan was having the time of his life. I’m hoping I will be able to find healthier foods in other countries in South America, but according to Miguel (a nice Colombian guy we met), it is even worse in Bolivia and Peru. Yay.
Next stop, back to hostels, probably no couch, and Argentinian wine country. Here’s to the adventures of traveling and learning about new cultures.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Blog Dump – Catching up!

Okay, so we’re far behind now. I’m going to try and make a timeline to catch us up quick.

  • 1/5/13, Varanasi, India – 10pm – Going to bed, its cold. Get one more blanket.
  • 1/6/13, Varanasi, India – 10pm – Slept our first night in Varanasi. It was cold. Got two more blankets.
  • 1/6/13, Varanasi, India – 11pm – Take bike-rickshaw to Varanasi train station. We’re excited to get two overnight Sleeper-class tickets to Agra, site of the Taj Mahal.
  • 1/7/13, Varanasi, India – 9 am – Learn from other travelers at breakfast that the fog has delayed trains by up to 20 hours. Sleeper-class has no heating. Windows don’t close.
  • 1/7/13, Varanasi, India – 9pm – Going to bed, its cold. Got two more blankets. Six total now.
  • 1/7/13, Varanasi, India – 10 am – Take bike-rickshaw to Varanasi train station. Try to upgrade to 2nd or 3rd class sleeper. Booked up. Learn of “Totcol” tickets, which open for last-minute travelers the day before the trip. None left for tomorrow.
  • 1/7/13, Varanasi, India – 9 pm – Still cold. Got two more blankets. Extend with hotel for one more day, have to switch rooms.
  • 1/8/13, Varanasi, India – 8am – We’re the first people in line for Tetcol tickets. Get two 2nd class tickets to Agra for the Taj.
  • 1/8/13, Varanasi, India – 10am – Lose blankets in room switch. New room cold. 2 more blankets.
  • 1/9/13, Varanasi, India – 6pm – Arrive at station for overnight train. Learn its delayed five hours. Hang out in couch laden, heated tourist room.
  • 1/9/13, Varanasi, India – 7:45 pm – Guy running tourist room announces they’re closing. Tells us to watch our bags, don’t trust anybody, don’t pet the dogs, there is no heated place and good luck.
  • 1/9/13, Varanasi, India – 8pm – Head to waiting room with Grace and Fergol from Ireland, a couple from China and Kieren from New Zealand.  People are sleeping on the floor EVERYWHERE.  Locals came prepared with sleeping bags, blankets and pillows.
  • 1/9/13, Varanasi, India – 9pm – Indian Man becomes Man Asleep in Corner. Meet Shen To, a Chinese woman who knows almost no English.
  • 1/9/13, Varanasi, India – 10pm – Mouse runs behind Bryan and Leslie, around the benches behind the Irishmen and tucks itself in with Man Asleep in Corner. Mouse crawls in with him. We discuss whether or not to wake him up. Decide he probably doesn’t care.
  • 1/9/13, Varanasi, India – 10:15pm – Kieren becomes Man Asleep in Corner II.
  • 1/9/13, Varanasi, India – 10:30pm – Train delayed three more hours.
  • 1/9/13, Varanasi, India – 11:00pm– Its cold. No extra blankets. Put on all extra pants, shirts, sweater, gloves etc.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 11:15 – Kieren awakes.
  • 1/9/13, Varanasi, India – 11:30pm – Kieren, Leslie, Bryan and Shen-to decide to go find food. Cross the crazy street.
  • 1/9/13, Varanasi, India – 11:45pm – Buy nuts, chocolate, water and cookies.
  • 1/9/13, Varanasi, India – 12:00pm – Cross back. Kieren almost gets run over by a rickshaw.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 12:30am – Get in line for Dosa and sandwiches. Leslie feels liquid on her head and Shen-to starts waving her hands like a mad-woman.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 12:31am – Realize Leslie got peed on by a monkey.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 12:35am – Bryan eats dosa, tries not to laugh about monkey pee. Fails. Leslie removes monkey-pee sweater and hat. Grace gives Leslie sweater.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 12:40am – Sandwich tastes like feet.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 1:00am – Kieren, with horn rimmed glasses, sitting on his knees in a moment of silence looks up at Leslie and says, “I’m sorry you got peed on by a monkey.”
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 1:15am – Train delayed until 5:15.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 1:30am – Kieren becomes Man Asleep in Other Corner.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 2:00am Kieren awakes
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 2:15am – Kieren becomes Man Asleep on Floor.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 2:30am – We become Group Asleep in Corner
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 4:00am – Everyone but Kieren awakens.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 4:15am – Kieren’s bag starts to move.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 4:20am – Kieren awakens and Grace says, “We have reason to believe that their may be a mouse in your bag.”
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 4:30am – Kieren opens bag, mouse flees.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 5:00am – Train arrives, 11 hours behind schedule. Dash to platform. We lose track of the gang, fail to get Facebook contact and never see them again. Leslie steals sweatshirt.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 5:15am – Train departs for Agra. Fall asleep in heated sleeper-bunks.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 9am – Awaken. Bryan reads Lord of the Flies in one sitting. Good book.
  • 1/10/13, Varanasi, India – 11am – Train stops. Hop off to get water and more cookies.
  • 1/10/13, Train to Agra– 1pm – Guys come on the train to sell lunch. Leslie wisely orders Vegetarian Thali. Bryan unwisely orders Chicken Briyani. Chicken is cold.
  • 1/10/13, Train to Agra – 1:08pm – Leslie looks at chicken and says, “Urgh”. Bryan says, “Leave me alone, I’m hungry.”
  • 1/10/13, Train to Agra – 1:10pm – Bryan order Vegi Thali. The guy says he’ll be back with change.
  • 1/10/13, Train to Agra – 1:10pm – Train leaves station. Guy steals $4. A POX on that guy!
  • 1/10/13, Train to Agra – 5pm – Fall back asleep.
  • 1/10/13, Train to Agra – 5:30pm – Bryan gets “Bad Chicken Briyani” Belly.
  • 1/10/13, Agra – 11pm – Wake up in Agra. Find auto-rickshaw to hostel.
  • 1/11/13, Agra – 10am – Awaken, get breakfast on room. Awesome view of Taj.
  • 1/11/13, Agra – 10:30am – Realize we cannot go to Taj tomorrow, closed on Fridays. Have to go today.
  • 1/11/13, Agra – 12:00pm – Go see Taj Mahal. It rocks. Completely made out of white marble. The grounds are as impressive as the Mausoleum. Surprising about of hawks circling the Taj.
  • 1/12/13, Agra – 12:00pm – Refuse to let auto-rickshaw driver take us to commission-generating 3 hour tourist bus to Delhi. Want to save money on the local bus.
  • 1/12/13, Agra – 1:10pm – Save six bucks by taking the local bus.
  • 1/12/13, Onabus – 1:40pm – Seven hour bus ride to Delhi.
  • 1/12/13, Dehli – 7:30pm – Guy wants 750 rupee to take us from station to Paharganj district. Leslie confronts him about trying to rip us off.
  • 1/12/13, Dehli – 7:35pm – Find another guy who wants 150 rupee. We tell him the first guy said it was 22km. He answers in broken English, “that is because he lie”.
  • 1/12/13, Dehli – 10pm – Bryan eats awesome mutton and cream sauce dish. Adds “Delhi Belly” to “Briyani Belly”. Not as bad.
  • 1/13/13, Dehli – 11am – Visit Ghandi Srimi, where Ghandi lived his last days and was assassinated. Interesting.
  • 1/13/13, Dehli – 1pm – Visit Kola Market. Very expensive, not so interesting.
  • 1/13/13, Dehli – 2pm – Nathus for thali and samosas. Samosas rock.
  • 1/13/13, Dehli – 4pm – Humuyun Tomb. Awesome white marble and red sandstone mausoleum that was the model for the Taj.
  • 1/14/13, Dehli – 9pm – Breakfast at Ajay Guesthouse. Witness slapfight between owner and possibly-drugged streetwalker.
  • 1/14/13, Dehli – 10pm – Go with Salaam Baalak Trust on a street walk. Former street kids teach about what its like to be a street kid in Delhi.
  • 1/15/13, Dehli – 5am – Taxi to Airport
  • 1/15/13, Dehli – 6am – Last Indian Meal
  • 1/15/13, Dehli – 7:15am – Take of to Qatar
  • 1/15/13, Somewhere in the sky – Realize we have a monstrous layover, airline offers hotel room for more than 8 hours layover
  • 1/15/13, Doha, Qatar – 11am – Learn that they do not offer hotel because there was another flight we could have taken to Qatar closer to our flight to Buenos Aires. We’re stuck in the airport.
  • 1/15/13, Doha, Qatar – 12:30pm – Use our first meal voucher. Bryan gets Qatari Belly. Worst one.
  • 1/15/13, Doha, Qatar – 2pm – Claim reclining chairs by the plug. This is our home for the next bit. Chairs locked at about 45% angle. They look comfortable. They’re not.
  • 1/15/13, Doha, Qatar – 5pm – Leslie gets dinner. Bryan gets water.
  • 1/15/13, Doha, Qatar – 6pm – Try to fall asleep. Sleep poorly.
  • 1/15/13, Doha, Qatar – 10pm – Flight to Washington D.C. appears on the screen.
  • 1/16/13, Doha, Qatar – 7am – Wake, board flight to Buenos Aires.
  • 1/16/13, Somewhere over the pacific, – 18 hours in the air with a layover in Sao Paolo. We don’t disembark.
  • 1/17/13, Buenos Aires, Argentina – We step onto our fifth continent of the trip. Leslie’s jacket still has monkey pee on it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Varanasi, India – Where Hindus Go to Die

We stood on a wooden platform looking over the banks of the Ganges River. I held my blanket close around me, trying to keep warm. Dozens of square kites, about a foot across flew in the sky. People flew them from the rooftops, the small narrow alleys, small boats on the river, and from the ghats, which are staircases running right along the water. A nearby twelve-year-old was flying one, but it took a nose-dive and crashed to the ground right in front of us. He went running towards it, ducked around a wood funeral pyre, hurdled a dead body and picked up his kite. This is Varanasi; where Hindus go to die.

We arrived to Varansi right as it started getting dark. Fortunately, we met a couple Korean guys who were going to the same district we were, and so we shared a taxi. This had to be one of the scariest taxi rides ever. He wasn’t a crazy driver, he was incredibly slow, and then I came to conclusion he was basically blind. He had really thick glasses and would randomly stop in the middle of the road to look around when there was absolutely no one in front of him. He also drove in the middle of the road towards oncoming traffic, and he almost ran over a bicyclist. I really thought this was the end, and so I told Bryan I loved him for the last time. Luckily, we made it, and in the end, I sort of felt bad for the guy. He seemed like a really kind person, and I hope he can fix his glasses or eyes or stop driving taxis.
The first tout we met when we arrived in the Old Town district in Varanasi decided to show us how to get to our guesthouse even though we didn’t need his help. His name was Ravi. He had no desire to listen to me when I told him to leave us alone, and said some pretty rude things to me whenever I spoke my mind. He followed us the entire way, about a 15 minute walk, and never left us alone. For the most part, I received little respect as a woman when I spoke which meant Bryan did most of the talking in all of India.
Our guesthouse was pretty awesome and overlooked the Ganges, the sacred river and one of the most polluted in the world. However, this does not stop Hindus from bathing in it. They believe this river to be spiritually pure and that bathing in it will wipe away their sins. Hindus from all over India also go to Varanasi to die in order to be cremated on the banks of the river in order to be purified and to stop the cycle of reincarnation. There are five kinds of people who are put directly into the river and not cremated: holy men, pregnant women, people bit by cobras, people who had leprosy, and children under 14. This is because these people were already pure or had been purified, except for leprosy. I suppose they don’t want to burn them in the open air. So yes, all this is done in the same river. I decided to bathe myself…no, I’m just kidding. Apparently, many people get sick bathing in it, so I chose to not put my skin anywhere near it. We did see bodies being cremated along the banks. There were two main areas, the big burning ghat and the small one. The body is wrapped decoratively and then carried through the small, winding streets of Varanasi, and down to the ghat on a bamboo stretcher before being placed on big piles of wood. Loved ones are there through the entire process until the body is completely burned, except women. Apparently, women are not allowed because they cry. Hmmm.
We spent a lot of our time getting lost in Old Town while wondering through the narrow alley ways filled with chatty merchants, colorful handmade items and warm clothes (it was cold), decadent street food, and cow and dog poop. Thankfully, it is good luck to step in cow poop, or maybe that random guy was just trying to make me feel better. Anyway, I got lucky. This part of Varanasi reminded us a bit of Seville, Spain, only because it was so easy to get lost. It was fun for the most part, but it was not fun getting lost in the dark and then having the power inevitably go out. The power seemed to go off in all of Varanasi (and most other cities in India) every 10 minutes. After the first few times you got used to it. People didn’t even pause their conversations. This was when I really feared getting lucky. We kept meaning to bring our flashlight but always forgot. Also, tripping over a cow during power outage was another fear of mine as they are everywhere and took up the entire narrow alley. Thankfully, this did not happen.
Riding on a bicycle rickshaw was another highlight for me mostly because we were able to sit high up and look down upon the craziness of the roads. Motorbikes, taxis, buses, bicycle rickshaws, cows, dogs, buffalo, pedestrians, bicyclists and merchants with produce carts were mixed together in the non-existent lanes going in all sorts of directions. Crossing the road was rather difficult at times, and I’m not going to lie, I almost died…twice. Oh yeah, and a bicycle rickshaw ran over Bryan’s toes. He got mad and almost smacked a rickshaw. Fortunately, he decided against it, as smacking a metal carriage was more of a punishment for his hand than the rickshaw. The whole experience was quite chaotic to say the least, and eminently entertaining.
A couple days of being in Varanasi, our Dutch friends told us the Dalai Lama was going to be teaching in Sarnath, a city about 20 minutes away, give or take, depending on traffic and how many cows were in the road. How could we miss an opportunity like this? We arrived in Sarnath by auto rickshaw with our passports and a photo ready to fill out the registration paperwork. We received a badge and then made through security and the crowds before finding a place to sit. We bought a radio in order to hear his teachings in English but the radio broke after a minute. 20 minutes later Bryan came back with another, but we really didn’t understand the guy interpreting the speech very well. Oh well, we got to see the Dalai Lama, ya’ll!!
There are a total of 84 Ghats in Varanasi which are stairs that lead down to the banks of the river. Many of them have stories and tales behind them and can also be used for directional purposes. We spent a lot of time going up and down these ghats and walking along the river which was also thoroughly entertaining. The life of Varanasi happens on the ghats. Goats, cows, dogs, children flying kites, bodies being cremated, boat touts, foreigners, bathers, merchants of all kinds, cricket games and so much more. On the last day in Varanasi we decided to find a boat tout and spend an hour on the river to see it from a different point of view. It was just Bryan and me on a canoe-length rowboat, and our boat guy was older and very sweet. What a way to see the holiest and most interesting place in India.
Next, is one of the longest travel days ever and the Taj Mahal.
P.S. Sorry for the lack of pictures. It was nearly impossible to deal with pictures in Laos and India due to internet connection, but hopefully we’ll have some up soon.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hampi – When does a town become a ruin?

So far, India has been like no other place we traveled in the world. Despite the fact that I’ve had strep throat, almost got ran over by a motorbike, and fainted, I am absolutely loving it. There’s just something about the colorful saris, the incredibly spicy food, the thousands of aimless cows, the relentless honking, and Indian and Hindu cultural in your face 24 hours a day. It makes me wish we could stay longer, and Hampi was one of those places where I didn’t want to leave.

After an overnight sleeper bus on horrible bumpy roads and a 30 minute auto-rickshaw ride, we finally made it one of the most incredible places I’ve been. The first thing we noticed when entering Hampi were the thousands of large stone hills scattered throughout the city. The gravity defying stone boulders created by volcanoes looked like they should have rolled to the bottom ages ago. It’s hard to believe that one of the local Indian men I talked to had never seen one fall to the ground. Also, the 500-1300 year ruins scattered around are pretty hard not to notice as well. Hampi is an important cultural center for the Indian people and is a World Heritage site.
Now is the time to see Hampi because at the moment all the guesthouses and restaurants are among the ruins where anyone can roam freely throughout and there is hardly anyone around. However, several organizations are currently trying to kick all the local people, guesthouses, and merchants out of Hampi in order to preserve all the ruins. While I understand the desire to do this, I don’t want this to happen. In the next several years it will be just like another Angkor Wat.
Our guesthouse was located right next to a 7th century Hindu temple and was owned by a very nice local family. The first day saw us roam around several ruins and of course, continue as the new Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of India. I now know what it’s like to have people constantly want a picture with you and it is horrible. Since there were so many Indian tourists in Hampi, it seemed like they had all the time in the world to take pictures. Groups of men were probably the worst to deal with as all of them had cell phones and all of them wanted to be in the picture with us. Sometimes we would stand there for15 minutes as they took turns taking pictures. We need to be better at just flat out saying NO, but apparently, we are way to nice.
The first night in Hampi just happened to be an annual spiritual celebration in the temple where the Hindus celebrated the engagement between Pampa and an incarnation Shiva. Pampa was worshipped before Hinduism swept through Hampi. The Pampa-based religion was absorbed by Hinduism and Pampa entered the Brahmanism Pantheon with this wedding. In other words, this is when the local religion (Pampa)and Shiva (Hinduism) merged together. Hinduism is more likely to absorb new ideas into their religion than outright reject them. Both Buddha and Jesus play a role in modern Hinduism.
The celebration started with marching and drums to the temple where thousands of oil candles were lit in the temple and it was absolutely stunning. Of course, hundreds of Indians among us meant there would be more pictures of us and the shaking of our hands. I don’t quite understand why they all want to shake our hands, but that is another thing we deal with on a daily basis in India. My favorite moment had to be when a 17 year old girl approached me and asked all the usual questions before pointing across the temple to her mom, dad, brother, sister, grandma, grandpa, and cousin while telling me their names as if I would remember the incredible difficult pronunciations of the names of people I actually never officially met. She was incredibly sweet though and it was fun, but after an hour, Bryan and I were utterly exhausted. Side note, I’m pretty sure we’re in some travel show or documentary because there was a guy with a very big camera who was interviewing other people and filming part of the celebration, so don’t feel embarrassed if you see me not wanting to eat the handful of rice snacks some random guy was handing out with his bare hand to hundreds of people.
Bryan was recovering from a bit of a cold, so the next day we relaxed in our room for most of the morning and early afternoon before making our way to some more ruins. This was one of my favorite traveling days mostly because we were literally the only ones walking around the ruins that were only a 10 minutes walk from our guesthouse. It was a bit of a surreal moment as we are used to hundreds of people (in Europe) gathered around old ruins such as these. Simply amazing. Monkeys, goats, and cows joined us for a bit of the tour and then we needed to decide what to do for New Years Eve.
Many people in India are very spiritual and religious. In many of the restaurants in India you will not find any meat as the majority of people here are vegetarians. It can also be difficult to find alcohol, especially in the holy cities such as Hampi and Varanasi. Alcohol is actually illegal in Hampi, and as a result, there weren’t a lot of places to hang out at night on New Years Eve. Bryan was still feeling a a bit under the weather anyway, so we went back to the room and watched a movie. It was epic.
I had a bit of a rough start the following morning mostly because I fainted. It was a bit of an embarrassing moment but what the heck, you’ve read this far, so you deserve to know. I was putting the mosquito net up above the bed it didn’t even cross my mind there was a fan in the way and it was on. To my credit, this didn’t cross Bryan’s mind either as he was standing right there watching. I will blame this on morning drowsiness. Well, as you can imagine, the fan hit my right hand as hard as it possibly could. It mostly hit my knuckles on my middle finger and ring finger, and I started bleeding. I rushed to the bathroom to wash it. I don’t know if it was the combination of shock, blood, and the fact that my insides felt like they were vibrating, but I fainted. I don’t remember anything that happened other than telling Bryan in the bathroom “I feel like I’m going to faint,” and then I woke up on the bed with Bryan saying, “I’m going to get a doctor.” Such a weird feeling, and apparently my eyes were open the entire time. I almost fainted again at breakfast but Bryan talked me through it the moment everything turned white and I couldn’t see a thing. He said something like “stay with me,” and I did. I didn’t need a doctor, I just needed Bryan. Fortunately, I am now part of the “I have fainted” group which made this whole experience worth it.
The rest of the day was spent exploring and Bryan getting his sandal fixed by a random cobbler situated in middle of the colorful Hampi bazaar. Those sandals would have lasted maybe another month or two, but he was pretty ready to jettison his favorite sandals; a pair of Reef’s he got when visiting the Boehm’s in Idaho on the way to put Grandpa Wokich’s remains in Great Falls, Montana. As he was walking by the guy noticed they needed to be fixed. Two minutes and 60 cents later, an expensive pair of sandals had been repaired..
The next day saw us making our way over to the other side of the river where we heard it was a bit more quiet. It was another backpackers district sort of like Don Det, Laos with bungalows looking over rice patties, movies and music nights, unpaved roads, hammocks, and people from all over the world. It would have been a relaxing place to stay for a few days other than the last boat across was at 5:30pm and there was no bridge. We would have missed a lot of the main ruins, temple celebrations, and sunset views if we had stayed over there, but it was a nice day trip. Plus, our side had all the Indian tourists, so it was a much better cultural experience.
Later, we went back across to the main part of Hampi in order to climb up a big stone hill known as Matanga Hill for one of the best sunset views in Hampi and it was stunning. We met a couple British dudes and then all made our way down before it got too dark. Fortunately, no one fell off the rather slippery stone rocks going down. This experience was another example of something one would never find in the US because it would be defined as too dangerous, like the sleeper buses.
The next day we decided to hire a rickshaw guide to take us around to various ruins further away from our guesthouse. The highlight of this day had to be when we came across a group of mostly Indian women, and they invited us over to chat for a bit. Most of them couldn’t speak a lot of English, so it was mostly non-verbal communication, broken English, and a lot of laughs. They were so cute and sweet. Overall, it was a great day, although towards the end we were pretty much done with temples. Fortunately, our desire to not want to visit another ruin happened right as we were about to leave Hampi.
Although, I was sad to leave beautiful Hampi, I was excited to finally see North India and head to one of our most anticipated cities. Next stop, Varanasi. Here are a few teasers to help you also anticipate….Dalai Lama, cremated bodies, and bicycle rickshaws. Varanasi is by far the most interesting place I have ever been to.
Yes, India is incredible.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Mysore, India

Mysore hit our radar for three reasons. Location, location, location.

There have been two places that have consistently come up when we ask other travelers their favorite places in India: Hampi and Varanasi. Hampi is south central, while Varanasi is in the north towards Nepal, we want to hit both. Hampi was our next logical destination from Kodaikanal, the little mountain town in the Western Ghats.
The issue was that getting from Kodaikanal to Hampi was going to be two night buses in a row. This did not sound like fun, so we decided to stop in Mysore for a day or two.
We arrived in Mysore around noon and got off into a city that is clearly India. Nowhere else we have been has so consistently assaulted all five senses. The women are dressed in colorful saris. Bright yellow garlands adorn doors, windows and rear-view mirrors. The savory smell of samosas tickles your fancy, right before the smell of feces tickles your gag reflex. Smog forces its way into your throat and forms a thin film covering your skin. And of course, the honking. Constant, incessant, annoying car horns, motorbike horns, bus horn and truck horns. Then lets throw in some cows horns. Watch where you step.
Our first day saw us check in to Parklane Hotel, which is the most fun establishment we’ve stayed in while in India. It’s a five story building with a rooftop pool located fairly centrally. They’ve worked to make sure that there’s plants all around the lobby and friendly people helping out. The room was clean, comfortable, had a safe and a television. The restaurant on the second floor opened up over the street and they had grown ivy along wire in the roof.
It also had an ingenious roof that would roll back to let sun in which reminded me of the retractable roofs on sports stadiums. At first, I thought this was for the rain, but when a troop of monkeys came overhead they rolled the roof over the top to keep them out. It turns out that they had a retractable monkey roof.
Our first adventure saw us take the local bus up to the top of Chumundi Hill, which holds a holy Hindu temple with a 40 meter “gopurum,” which is a fancy word for entrance. Hindus traditionally walk up the 1000 steps to the temple, which probably takes about a half hour. Halfway up there’s a huge statue of Nandi, who is a bull and the mount of the god Shiva.
I’m not sure whether Hindus are supposed to do the walk barefoot, but many do. I’m very sure that Leslie did not want to walk it barefoot, but her sandal made that decision for her. Those sandals had done well for a pair we got for 13 euro in Italy all those months ago, but they met their end in Mysore and Leslie walked back up the hill with one shoe. I went barefoot to show moral support.
Our budding celebrity amongst the Indians continued on the bus ride back as we struck up a conversation with some eighteen year old boys. Small talk has been very predictable with “Where are you from?”, “What do you do?” and “How old are you?” being very common questions along with “are you married?” With these guys it became more interesting as one of them spoke enough English to share some of his thoughts on marriage.
“Are you a love marriage?” he asked. I explained to him that in the United States they are all love marriages. He seemed a bit flabbergasted as the arranged marriage is still very much the norm in India. They confirmed that they all expect to have marriages arranged for them at age 21. The only exception was one guy who already had a marriage arranged. They teased him about it and he blushed. The next day we went to the local market, which ended up being a great experience. The old market was enclosed inside a large rock wall, with modern stores selling technology, hair products and baked goods attached to the outside.
Inside, it could have been three hundred years ago. Hawkers sold bengal bracelets at the entrance, while huge piles of different colored powders were for sale by the door. These were for dyes and could be mixed to make paint, dye clothes, create bindis or paint hands. Salesmen tried selling us oils, which seemed okay until we realized the “pure” sandalwood oil they were trying to sell us was about 1/3 of the price the Lonely Planet said it should be. I’m sure it was “pure” something.
Incense makers mixed with people selling cooking utensils and carvings in one half of the bazaar, where shoppers and merchants rubbed shoulders due to the lack of physical space. The other half saw individual sellers standing behind huge piles of fruits or vegetables on the ground, yelling the same thing over and over quite loudly. I’m assuming it was something along the lines of “buy my okra!” or “pinto beans for 50 rupee!”
I then began feeling sick. We had always been warned about getting sick in India, but that was for stomach bugs. I guess our stomachs are pretty strong, because we haven’t had food poisoning, but Leslie got strep throat, and now I’m going down with a cold.
We spent most of the rest of the day down in bed, venturing out only to RR Hotel for a thali dinner of rice and gravies.
The overnight buses have been a mixed blessing. So far, they’ve been cheaper than a hotel here, so we’re actually saving money on travel days, which is the opposite of everywhere else we’ve been. The problem is that if we check out at 11 and don’t leave until 8 we have 9 hours with no room. This is a bit inconvenient, but not a big problem, unless you’re sick. Then it sucks.
Nevertheless, we powered through to get to the last major site in Mysore on our final day.
The Wodeyar Dynasty ruled most of South India from Mysore between 1399 and 1947. Their palace is everything you would expect of a Maharaja. We walked to the north side first because it was next to our hotel. We had to walk around the entire building to the south entrance, which took about half an hour.
A moment of levity came when a large tour bus decided to enter through the exit. An Indian lady in her sixties I was talking to started yelling at them just in time to see the bus driver scrape his left rear corner against the wall surrounding the Maharaja’s Palace. We got a good laugh.
It cost us ten times as much as the locals to get into the palace. After paying the $8 for the two of us we joined rest of the throng inside.
There were some foreigners, but we’re learning that the vast majority of tourism in India is domestic, meaning most of the tourists were Indians. Lots of people from Chennai and Bangalore make it to Mysore along with groups of school children who were all dressed in sky blue shirts with navy blue shorts and collars.
The palace grounds themselves were quite well taken care of, with the grounds within the walls being about five times the size of the palace. Green grass and flower gardens mingled with sculptures of tigers and many hundreds of people. Like almost everywhere in India, the place was packed, forcing us to jettison western standards of personal space.
To top it off, there are no shoes allowed inside the palace, so everyone has to take their shoes off. There is an official place to drop off your shoes for a token, but most people just dumped their shoes by one of the gardens.
The palace itself was quite impressive, exactly as you’d imagine a Maharaja’s palace to be. Huge party rooms built for entertaining royal guests were decorated with large stained glass windows and semi-precious stones. Paintings of scenes from the Ramayana and other Hindu stories covered the walls, along with pictures of the Royal family during festive occasions. Three story pillars held up the roof over large dance halls.
Its too bad that pictures are not allowed inside the palace, but it was still fun to see.
Upon leaving, Leslie’s celebrity had an interesting moment. She sat down to tie her shoes on a bench , a man started watching her. Then a second, then a third. Soon, a dozen people had gathered around to watch Leslie put on her shoe. She hadn’t noticed as she was rather pre-occupied with the laces. I asked her to smile and we ended up with a picture of a dozen people watching Leslie tie her shoe.
Then we were mobbed by the school kids. I don’t know what they said exactly, but after a bunch of handshakes we ducked out and ran back to the restaurant at Parklane Hotel. We still had a few hours before the night bus, but I still wasn’t feeling great so sitting and reading sounded wonderful.
Parklane even had a Western food menu, which is pretty handy when your main goal is to eat something that will allow you an easy 12 hour ride in a bathroom-less bus.
I thought the pepper chicken was a good idea. Then I realized that what I thought was “black pepper” chicken was actually “red spicy peppers ground up into a paste” chicken.
Next stop, Hampi.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone!

We’re in Hampi, which is India’s answer to Angkor Wat and a beautiful place.  ‘net connections have been few and far between recently and we’ll try to get more up about what we’ve been up to when we can find WiFi.  We still wanted to send our love to all our family and friends and wish you a safe, sound and successful 2013.
Much love,
Bryan and Leslie