Thursday, December 31, 2009

By the numbers, part II

Since I'm now 12 weeks in (one quarter of the way through!) to my RTW trip (and since it was requested), I figured it was time for more stats. If you missed part one, you can find it here.

* Ridden on a motorcycle in two countries (Athens and India)
* 1 pickpocket scare (just a scare - the guy behind me was very close behind me, shuffling with his money, and I thought he was going after mine - I checked, though, and all was good)
* 20 nights paid accommodations
* 9 countries and 6 different currencies
* I've learned how to say "go away" in one language (jao, it's Hindi and it rhymes with how)
* 2 random meetings of people I'd met in other places (1st: I ran into a guy I met at the airport in Dubai in Mumbai - a city of 20 million, how is that even possible?! 2nd: I ran into Miguel from Khaj in Agra.)
* 3 offers by strangers for me to stay with them (Do you remember all of them? The last two are recent, so you probably do.)
* 2580 pages read (4 novels, plus 45 pages or so into the 5th)
* 1 bus accident
* Met people from 29 different countries (Should I list them all?)

* 11 flights taken, who even knows how many countless trains, buses, taxis, metro, and rickshaw rides

* 8 CS hosts

* 1080 pictures taken, but probably more by the time this posts

* Longest train ride: 29 hours

* Longest bus ride: 12 hours

* 0 major itinerary changes in India, although there were a couple of places I stayed a day longer because I couldn't get the train or bus that I wanted
* Visited 8 cities in 4 different countries that weren't on my original itinerary

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Didn't I say where I was going?

ToadMama commented on my last post that although I said I was leaving Mysore early, I didn't say where I was leaving for. I totally thought I'd mentioned where I was going to be for New Year's, but I guess it's possible that I didn't.

In any case, I'm here now and here is in Cochin. Cochin is in the Indian state of Kerala and it's kind of the anti-Goa. A lot of non-locals know about Goa and what they know is that it's a hard-partying beach town. That's not really my scene on a normal day, but for New Year's Eve? Hells no. I really have no desire to overpay for the luxury of spending time with drunk foreigners. Besides, most people I'd talked to said Kerala is better than Goa anyway, so here I am.

Also, as it turns out, I'll have company in southern India for awhile. My friend Amiri was looking to go away for the holiday, but his visa options as an Egyptian are somewhat limited. He'd been thinking about Vietnam, but when he talked to me and found out that I'd be in warm, sunny, beach-town-filled southern India. . .Well. Remember my open invitation? Amiri decided to take me up on it. He's not the only one, either. One friend may join me in Thailand next month. Another friend will be in China on business in March, so it looks like I may be heading there. And I'll meet up with another friend in Australia in June. But the invitation still stands if anyone is interested. Just let me know!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Mysore, yoga central (just not for me)

Prior to arriving in Mysore, I knew two things about it. The first is that Mysore Palace gets lit up on Sunday nights. (Joyce's sister-in-law is from here and she told me that; I arrived on a Sunday.) The second is that it had been suggested to me by Toto when he learned that I was in to yoga. Mysore is certainly not the birthplace of, or even the most popular place for, yoga, but a lot of people come here for it.

Mysore Palace was certainly lit up on Sunday night, so that turned out to be true. I was told that it is lit every Sunday night and that this wasn't a special-for-the-holidays lighting. It's only lit from 7-8pm; I guess tens of thousands of light bulbs can use up a lot of energy and be pretty expensive. The other good thing about the Sunday lighting is that entry is free. Normally it costs Rs 300. Unfortunately, my camera batteries died, so I only got a few shots, but I think the ones I got are pretty good.

As for the yoga. Well. . .people do come here to practice. Classes are available. The problem for me is that yoga is taken VERY seriously here. You don't just take a class or two and call it a day. You go to a studio for a week, a month, or longer and you practice every day. These set ups usually include room and board, too, and some ashrams have strict rules about behavior and diet (for example, some will say no sexual activity or no consumption of eggs, garlic, onion, or meat). Drop-in classes just don't seem to be available. Believe me, I've asked around. Last night my hotel called up a local yoga master to come talk to me about classes he has. I thought I had explained to the front desk that I was leaving Mysore soon and only wanted to take a class or two, but apparently the yoga master hadn't gotten the message. After he realized that I was leaving Mysore within a day and was not interested in a month's worth of classes, he proceeded to tell me that my usual once a week yoga practice was useless and not worth the time. Huh. O-kay. But he still wanted me to come to the studio and watch a class and I just wasn't understanding why. And then I got it. When he realized that I wouldn't be signing up for a month of classes, he switched to salesman mode. Did you know the ashram also has books, oils, etc etc available for purchase so you can continue to practice on your own?

So although yoga was one of the main things I wanted to do in India, I STILL have not taken even a single class. I'm hoping that since I still have about four more cities to visit that I'll get my chance. Fingers crossed.

In other news: I'm leaving Mysore a day earlier than I'd planned (today instead of tomorrow). I'd wanted to take a bus that left on 30 Dec around noon-ish. No such bus exists, so I'm taking the 9:30pm bus tonight instead. I'm not really sure what kind of set up to expect. This trip will be overnight and will take at least 11 hours. I have no idea of how comfortable it's going to be, but I guess I'll find out.

Catching up on Bangalore

Alright. So. Bangalore. Not a lot of sightseeing happened in Bangalore and not a lot of pictures were taken. Maybe you understand that when you're in a new city or country every few days, it can get wearying. Bangalore was a good city to just chill in, though, because as Joyce said, there's not tons to see there. My actual sightseeing was essentially limited to what I saw during my neighborhood walks as I looked for internet access, and a night-time drive-by of the major sights on my first night.

I spent most of my time hanging out with the Sams - Joyce, h
usband Georgy, and daughters Simi (short for Simone who's 10) and Rahael (rhymes with Raquel, she's 16 months) - and their families. Simi is an absolute doll. She's a very sweet, good girl who seems like she's a huge help with her little sister. She and I played games, talked about where she'd like to travel to one day, and I taught her and her cousins how to shuffle cards to make a bridge. Rahael is a cutie and a bit of a troublemaker, that one. (Joyce says so herself. :-) ) I suppose all kids that age can be, but she still manages to win you over with her cuteness. She can even say my name, which isn't the easiest for kids to say, but although she could say it, she mostly just called me Aunty (in Indian culture, kids are taught to call adults either Aunty or Uncle as a term of respect; their first name is never used). On Christmas Day we went to church in the morning and then to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. How very Jewish American of us lol! The rest of the day was spent lolling around, playing games, and visiting with family.

The day after Christmas was m
ore of the same except for one thing. The Sams had a wedding to go to in the evening and I was expecting a package from my parents that day. After much hand-wringing and delay due to weather on the US east coast, we decided to just go pick up the package from the local facility rather than risk it not being delivered before I left for Mysore. My parents had said that they were just sending "something small," so imagine my surprise when I saw a HUGE box. I couldn't think what could possibly be in that box, but the Sams gave me some privacy to open it and I went at it. Inside the box were LOTS of wrapped gifts, cards, and (something I spotted right away) a tin that I just knew would contain Christmas cookies. (For the record - it did! Chocolate chip. Yum! Thanks, Grandma!) I was getting a little sad and teary as I opened and read, thinking about how much I missed my family. But I was laughing, too. As I read one card about a snowman who ate too many burritos, I knew it was from my brother Eric and was literally laughing out loud when I turned out to be right. Besides the cards and cookies, there was also gum, mints, mini Oreo cookies, Take 5 (my fav candy bar), a combo French press/coffee mug, coffee and creamer (my parents had been listening when I said that Nescafe instant coffee wasn't cutting it and I really missed regular ol' American coffee). All of these things were much appreciated - small and edible travels well! - but two things were even better. The first was that new pictures were enclosed that I could add to my collection. The second was a card from ToadMama. It's kind of personal, so I won't go into what she said, but it was very touching and sweet.

I guess there was a third thing, too. Through my laughter and tears, I opened a package to find a Barbie doll. Huh?! I thought, "why in the world would my parents send me this?!" It was then that I realized th
at not all of the gifts were for me, some of them were for the Sams. Thank god, because I was really starting to wonder how I was gonna fit it all in my pack! I cleaned up my face and went out to the living room to tell the Sams that they were gonna have to wait to leave for the wedding because they had gifts to open. I got to play Santa and that was SO much fun. They don't really do Santa and presents here (at least not with this particular family), so it was a real treat. The girls got a couple of toys each - Simi was WAY excited about the Crayola crayons; they are either too expensive or not available in India. Joyce and Georgy got a digital picture frame keychain, Christmas tree ornaments, and a whole bunch of edible types of things that also aren't available here - Hershey's chocolate, maple syrup, peanut butter, tattoo band-aids, Pez, that kind of thing. Georgy was doing the opening and he kept saying "There's still more in here!" He and Joyce were kind of overwhelmed because it was unexpected, but they thought it was really cool. In fact, when more family arrived so the whole clan could go to the wedding, they got to see each and every thing that Joyce and Georgy had received. Then, when they returned, they said they were still so surprised by the gifts and they'd been talking about it and telling everyone all night long!

That's pretty much Bangalore in a nutshell. The next day, 27 December, I left for Mysore. And that just about brings me
current with my posts - finally!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Backtracking: Jaipur and Delhi

Jaipur and Delhi were both kind of a blur. I stuck around in Agra long enough to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise and then I caught the first bus I could to Jaipur. Since I'd had an early start that day, I was exhausted and didn't do much once I arrived, even though it was only late afternoon. I just kind of took it easy and hung out in my room.

For my first (and, as it turns out, only) full day in Jaipur, I did some sightseeing via a VERY long walk to City Palace. I have no idea how long the walk actually was, but it felt like it took me forever to get there. The City Palace was interesting enough, I guess, but I honestly didn't think it was all that great, and I definitely wished I hadn't spent the Rs 300 entrance fee. I also got pretty lost walking back to my hotel, so it made for a long day of walking and (in my opinion) boring sightseeing.

The next day I'd planned to take a train to Delhi in the evening, but my host there requested that I arrive during the day instead. Since it's a 5 1/2 hour bus ride from Jaipur to Delhi, my time in Jaipur was definitely cut short. I spent my last morning running around like crazy, trying to add credit to my SIM card and take (another) cash advance out on my credit card. (This should, hopefully, be the last time I have to do that; things with my bank seem to finally be worked out.) The 5 1/2 hour bus ride ended up taking almost two hours longer than it was supposed to, so I arrived after dark anyway. I met up with my host and we had dinner before we headed back to her apartment.

This brings us up to 22 December. I attempted to do some sightseeing, but my host's house was a bit outside of Delhi so I had a hard time convincing a rickshaw driver to drive me to Old Delhi. I decided that I wasn't really in a sightseeing kind of mood anyway and would use the time to catch up on email, blogging, and picture uploading. (Can you see how very far behind I am with it that it's almost a week after I was in Delhi and I still haven't blogged about it?) After my host got home from work, we went shopping. I was very excited about this because it was my first opportunity to hang out with an Indian woman and I wanted her expertise and help with buying a salwar-kameez. Shopping was a success and as soon as I have pictures taken of me wearing it, I'll be sure to post it.

For my last day in Delhi, I left in the morning with my host. She is a teacher and Humayun's Tomb is within walking distance of her school. It was a beautiful day and I spent a couple of hours meandering around, enjoying the weather, and taking pictures. The tomb was no Taj Mahal, but it was pretty interesting. My favorite shot of the day (and, actually, my favorite moment of the day) happened when a group of schoolboys walked past and asked me to take their picture:

(Cute bunch, aren't they?)

After Humayun's Tomb, I had just enough time to check email and figure out the details of my trip to Bangalore before I had to head back to meet my host. She is a Hindi teacher in a Muslim school and she'd gotten permission from the principal to show me around. It was very neat to see the classrooms and get an idea of what an Indian child's school day must be like. I particularly liked this bulletin board that I saw in the primary school:

(The more English you speak, the better it is for your career.)

Next we went to India Gate, a war memorial, and then out for a bite to eat. I'd asked her what a street vendor was selling and she insisted that we didn't want to eat it from a vendor, but rather we'd go to a restaurant. It turns out that food is called pani puri and it's the most unusually delicious stuff ever. (Although, I was told that it would be sweet and, uh, it's definitely not. It's kind of on the spicy side, actually.) From there we were initially going to go back to the house to rest so that we could go back out again, but we were both too tired. As it turned out, the early morning flight the next morning was as good a reason as any to make it an early night.

* * * * *
By the way, the story of how I was connected to my hosts in Jaipur and Delhi is kind of crazy cool. DSH has a colleague, Vijayshree, who'd told him to let him know if he ever decided to go to India because she would make sure that her family and friends took care of him. When I emailed him that I was here and would she put me in touch with those people, she actually did. So in Jaipur I stayed with Vijayshree's uncle, Dig Vijay, at a hotel that he runs, and in Delhi I stayed with her mom, Deepak.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Don't worry. . .

Internet connections (and power supplies in general) are touch and go in India sometimes. I know I haven't been posting as regularly as I had been, but please know that I am safe and okay.

For now, I am in Mysore and will be here until the morning of 30 December. My only agenda while I'm here is yoga,
so hopefully all of the catching up and backtracking posts (complete with pictures) that I've been working on will be available in the next couple of days.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

The advantage of being on the other side of the planet from most of your friends and family is that you're hours ahead of them and you can be the first to wish them a

very Merry Christmas

I know I won't have the chance to talk to or email everyone back home, but I miss and love all of you. I hope you have a safe and relaxing holiday season.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

4am alarms stink

Last night I got a text message that my 6:55am flight from Delhi to Bangalore had been pre-poned - yah, I didn't know such a thing existed, either. Even blogger thinks it's a misspelled word! - and my flight had been moved up to 6:40am. No big deal, it's only 15 minutes, right? A minute or so later I got another text suggesting that passengers arrive two hours prior to flight time due to expected delays at the airport. It's a domestic flight, not an international one. I should've only needed to be there 30 minutes or so before departure.

Considering it was going to take at least an hour to get to the airport, I knew there was no way I was going to make it there by 4:40am. I wasn't even gonna try. But I figured getting there a little earlier than I'd originally planned might not be a bad idea, especially since it's Christmas eve and all.

Hence the 4am alarm that I got this morning. Yuck. My brain wouldn't turn off last night, so I didn't even fall asleep until after 1am. I'm sure I'll crash and burn later, but for now, I'm surprisingly awake. All of this is to say that I'm in Bangalore now! :-)

Perhaps you already read about it here, but here's the lowdown if you didn't. ToadMama has a colleague in Bangalore, where I am currently. After a flurry of emails that I only came into at the tail end of, it came to be that Joyce (the colleague) invited me to spend the Christmas holiday with her, her husband, and her two daughters. Pretty amazingly awesome of them, right? The girls (and the whole extended family, actually) were very excited that I was on my way. Even the 16 month old was apparently saying my name all morning before I arrived; she turned into a shy one once I actually got here, though. :-) I am more than thrilled that I get to spend Christmas with a family that has children in it. Now that I'm an adult, kids are what make the holiday for me.

So, I'm in Bangalore. I still have to give a Jaipur and Delhi update, but that will come later. For now I'm going to go see what help I can offer in the kitchen because I smelled some awfully good smells coming out of there earlier!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Birthday. . .

to my niece, Brianna. She turns 9 today! She'll never read this on her own, but maybe her mom will show it to her and let her know that Aunt Shannon wished her a happy birthday all the way from India. :-)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas at the Taj Mahal

My second day in Agra was a Friday and the Taj Mahal is closed to visitors on Fridays. I didn't end up doing a whole lot that day. I slept in because I hadn't had a whole lot of sleep the two previous nights. I also spent hours dealing with getting my Indian SIM card (that I'd purchased the day before) straightened out because it wasn't working properly. So it was a lazy kind of day.

The following day, Saturday, I planned to visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise. Sunset on one day and sunrise on another. :-) My rickshaw driver (not Munna) knocked on my door at the ungodly hour of 5:30am, a half hour early. I quickly got ready and after a very cold ride (I guesstimate it was only about 9-10 C that morning), I was at the Taj with a line of other people also waiting for the sunrise.

I slowly made my way to the entrance and when I finally saw it that morning, it was amazing.The sun wasn't quite up yet and it was cold and, even with all the people there, it was oddly quiet and serene. As I made my way closer and closer to the Taj, and as the sunrise was more and more imminent, I popped in the earbuds of my ipod. It just seemed right, in that moment, for me to listen to Christmas music. Date close to Christmas? Check. It was the 19th. Cold weather? Check. (Although nothing like what they're getting back home.) In the Christmas spirit? Check. So while it wasn't officially Christmas at the Taj Mahal, it was pretty darn close.I love how you can see the Taj Mahal change colors as the sun rises and the angle of light changes.

Backtracking: More Khaj and a little Agra

Now that I'm in Delhi, I seem to have a reliable (and cheap) internet connection. Hallelujah because there's a LOT of catching up to do!

When last I left off, I told of my tentative plans for the following day in Khaj. I missed the yoga class because of a mix up at the hostel with renting a bike, but I was already up and it was ear
ly (about 7am), so I went ahead and got started with my day. I ran into Miguel and Yacob and the three of us decided to grab a breakfast of banana pancakes and coffee before renting bikes. For Rs 20, we had the bikes for the whole day. I'd say we saw about eight temples, six in the eastern group and two in the southern group. Not all of the temples had the erotic images that the western temples are known for, but a lot of them did. At some temples, you really had to search for the images because they weren't always so obvious. This image to the right does NOT have an erotic image in it, so don't strain your eyes trying to find it. :-) I did take a number of pictures that included the erotic images; they are on my Flickr page, if you're so inclined to check them out.

In all, I guess we probably biked about 7km. The weather was beautiful and it was nice getting even a little bit away from the crowds and touts that are focused in the center of town. We rode through a couple of tiny little villages which were very interesting. The homes were all whitewashed or pastel colored giving them a totally different feel to any other houses I'd seen in India up until that point. In each village, whole crowds of kids greeted us with big smiles and shouts of hello. The majority of them then asked for chocolates, school pens, or rupees, but they were still super cute.

By this time we were getting hungry, so we headed back to town. As we ate, Miguel and Yacob were trying to decide if they wanted to spend the Rs 250 on the western temples. I was leaving on a train for Agra that night and was pretty well templed out, so my plan was to (try to) check email and pack my bags. They went for it, with mixed results. Yacob said it was "same-same, but different" and not worth the money; Miguel said it was pretty cool, but would've been even better if it hadn't cost so much. So I made the right decision, I think. :-)

My train to Agra left at 6:15pm and was scheduled to arrive in Agra at 2:20am. There was a delay and I knew it was going to be late, but I wasn't sure how late. I asked the attendant to wake me (the train went all the way to Delhi and I didn't want to end up there!) and went to sleep. To boil the story down to it's essence, the attendant forgot about me and I had to get off at a later stop and backtrack to Agra. This included an hour long wait in Mathura and I ended up getting to Agra many hours after I'd planned to, but all's well that ends well. (This is also the train where I met Ranjeet who, you may have noticed, has commented a few times. He helped me in my train mix-up. Hi Ranjeet!)

So finally I arrive at my hostel, Hotel Central Inn, which was recommended to me by a CSer who wasn't availabl
e to host me. After a hot shower, breakfast, and chai, I met Munna who is essentially the owner/manager of the hostel. (Munna, by the way, has quite the life story. I'll have to share it at some point.) I ended up spending my first day in Agra with Munna as my personal rickshaw driver. First we went to Agra Fort, a tiny portion of which is shown at the left. The Fort is a massive compound. Only a section of it is open to tourists and I still managed to wander around it for an hour and a half. It's the kind of place that, just when you think you've seen all there is to see, a whole other area is in front of you waiting to be explored. It was pretty cool and I can't imagine what the people of 1565 (the year it was built) must've thought of it.

Next, Munna took me to a great, cheap restaurant that I never would've found on my own before we headed to the Baby Taj, as it's called (official name Itimad-Ud-Daulah, something unpronounceable to me). I wandered here for awhile and then went to Chini-Ka-Rauza, the tomb of a poet that is apparently not really known about by tourists. By this time, it was just about time for the sunset, so Munna directed us and his rickshaw to the other side of the river so that I'd have a view of the Taj Mahal. It was kind of an overcast day, so I'm not sure that I got the best view, but it was still pretty incredible.

You'd think that would be enough to make a pretty full day, but no. We went to a factory of sorts where they make carpets and I got to see the whole process, from start to finish. We also went to a marble shop and I was able to see how marble is inlaid using the same steps taken at the Taj. Dinner was another not-in-the-tourist-guide place, and was the first time that I'd been "allowed" the real deal when it came to spice level. I'd asked for spicy before, but I think most people assumed that I couldn't handle it. The waiter at this restaurant asked if I was sure, but then had my food prepared the way it would've been prepared for Indians. My nose was running with spicy goodness! :-) Finally, my day with Munna ended with a bit of shopping. My pair of pants were pretty well destroyed in two separate food and drink incidents in India, so I got another pair. I also bought myself a ring as an early Christmas present.

Speaking of Christmas. . .Ah, well, that's another post.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Still alive

I know, I know. My posting in the last week has been nonexistent. It's not that I haven't wanted to post or that I haven't had a lot to tell about, it's just that my internet connection in Khajuraho, Agra, and now Jaipur have been really bad. Like log-on-and-get-kicked-off-right-away bad.

I have a lot of catching up to do (and tons of pictures to upload), but it's going to have to wait just a little bit longer. I'm heading to Delhi, where I'll be for the next couple of days, in the next hour or so. Hopefully my connection is better there. I also hope there's laundry facilities available because I'm in desperate need of clean clothes!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What a surreal trip it's been

I'm in Khajuraho. And it's been a. . .strange trip. But I mean that in a good (and yet still very bizarrre) way.

It started at the train station in Varanasi last night. The train was late, so I had more than an hour to hang out in the station and study the wildlife. And I'm not talking about the people, although, in more ways than one, the comparison would be fitting. No, I'm talking about the actual animals in the station. There were a couple of cows planted right outside the station doors, but once I made my way through the hoards of people sleeping on nearly every square inch of floor space, I saw that there was a cow inside, too. Kind of strange for me, but no one else even seemed to notice. Later I was at the platform and a cow walked right by me, on the track-side of the platform. When it turned back a little while later, people just moved out of the way again. Eventually I sat down on a sack that was filled with. . .something. . .and was able to look up for the first time. To see a family a monkeys sleeping in the rafters above me. Long story short, I thought there was going to be a monkey brawl right over my head, but the mama monkey shook her head no at the approaching male monkey hard enough that he gave up and retreated. The train ride itself was mostly uneventful since everyone was sleeping. I was asked to switch to a middle berth instead of the lower berth I had (and had requested) because a man was traveling with his 70 year old parents and he wanted both of them to have a lower berth, but that was no problem. The train was to arrive at Satna at 6:45am, but I figured it would be later than that since we were late setting off. Oddly enough, I woke up at 6:45am and noticed the train stopped and people moving around, but when I saw the time I laid down to go back to sleep. I figured that couldn't be my stop. After all, how could the train be on time after leaving an hour late? And wouldn't someone wake me up if it was my stop?

I realized with a mild panic that it was my train and I had to get off before I ended up somewhere I didn't want to be. With sleep still in my eyes and panic still in my chest, I walked outside to find myself in a crowd of touts wanting to take me to Khajuraho or the bus station (for a bus that would eventually take me to Khajuraho). I knew I was taking the bus (for Rs 80), so I had to laugh when I was offered a taxi ride for Rs 800. Sure, the taxi would've gotten me there a bit sooner (not really all that much sooner), but it would've cost TEN times as much! Anyway, to the bus station for me and that's where I met Yacob and Miguel. You'd be surprised how easy it is for all of the English speaking people to find each other, even in a country of more than a billion! :-) Yacob is from Denmark and Miguel is from Mexico and, since we had about 2 hours until our bus departed, the three of us ended up hanging out together.

And then the bus ride. Ah, the bus ride. (Important side note that happened before the actual bus ride: there are NO toilets at the bus station. No toilets! At the bus station! Yacob ended up keeping watch for me while I went where all the other locals seem to go. Behind a building.) The three of us all had seats, but the same can't be said for people at later stops. I don't know how many people were on the bus, but they just kept squeezing in. It wasn't that bad, though, since I had a seat! As the bus got out of the city and into the countryside more, that's when it got interesting. Yacob sat behind me and Miguel and he had quite the chatterbox for a seatmate. The roads got narrower and narrower, but the traffic was still going in both directions and there was still livestock crossing the road. Then there was a bus accident and then we saw two wild peacocks on the side of the road. Wait. What was that? A bus accident? Yes, indeed, but it was a minor one, so no one was hurt and all is well. I'm not sure exactly what happened since I was trying to read at the time, but apparently our bus and another bus (or large truck) had a sideview mirror collision. The bus driver barely slowed down to check the damage. (But I have pictures as proof! Not uploaded yet, but they will be.) The other interesting thing about the bus ride is that people were sharing food. This doesn't sound all that interesting, but people were sharing food with strangers. (Which is odd to me, but happens regularly in India.) The bus stops for a break, some people get off to buy snacks or whatever, and then when the snack buyers get back on the bus, they offer some of their snack to all the people around them. I had people offer me cookies, chips, soda, everything. Towards the end of the trip, one of the men who worked for the bus company broke apart pieces of a coconut and passed it to everyone left on the bus. Crazy.

After a three hour bus ride, we finally arrived at Khajuraho. What a scene it was! The three obvious foreigners who got off the bus were immediately in a throng of touts offering rickshaw rides and hotel information. The three of us could barely hear ourselves think. Luckily, I had mentioned earlier that I was going to the Yogi Lodge and I guess when it came to the point when we were surrounded and had people yelling and tugging at us to get our attention, Yacob and Miguel decided that that sounded like a fine place, too, let's just get outta here! The touts didn't get that much better once we were at the hostel, but I think that's going to be my only complaint about Khaj (I don't think anyone calls it that, but I'm tired of typing out the whole word.) I haven't been here long enough to really say, but from what I've seen so far, it's a million times cleaner and quieter here than anywhere else I've been in India so far.

One last thing to add (even though it wasn't officially part of the trip since we'd already arrived, but it kind of wrapped up the day nicely): After checking in to the hostel and showering, Miguel and I went in search of food. We ended up finding this place that essentially looked like this family's backyard. We were escorted by a boy who we later found out had the job of bringing people into the restaurant. He was 14 and just the most adorable thing. He's learning English and you can tell he's nervous about speaking it because he stutters (not when he speaks Hindi, though). He had an unusual way of saying things and had us cracking up when he commented that we "were absolutely right." Not a funny comment on it's own, but he said it just so. We didn't want him to hate us, though, so we were quick to explain that we weren't laughing at him. At one point he was just chatting away and being very informative, actually, when right in the middle of the conversation he made a comment about how "every once in awhile smoking hash or a joint is nice." Then he offered some to us and Miguel and I looked at each other like, "is this kid actually offering us drugs in a public place?!" Then he went over to the family and got ganja from them to show to us. We passed and took that opportunity to head back to the hotel for the night.

Well, until I decided to come post about my day, that is. :-) Tomorrow I'm going to try to start my day with an early morning yoga class before I hit some of the temples. Khajuraho is famous for their temples with erotic images and there's quite a few of them. My decision will be whether to go to the western temples where the entrance fee is Rs 250 (for foreigners). Or to rent a bike for Rs 20 and go to the southern and eastern temples that are free. I'm leaning towards the latter because I think the bike ride will be nice.

So what do you think? Was it a trip worthy of the words surreal, strange, and biazarre?

Monday, December 14, 2009

India (so far) in pictures

And there's more to see here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My very first experience with a squat toilet was on a moving train

The train from Mumbai to Varanasi wasn't too bad, but I definitely felt every hour of it. I wiled away the time reading, playing cards, listening to my ipod, sleeping, and chatting with a guy from Varanasi named Prashant who was on his way home for a wedding reception. Upon arrival at the train station in Varanasi, Prashant helped me get a rickshaw to the guesthouse that I wanted to stay at. At first he was just gonna put me on the rick and send me off, but after he realized that the rick couldn't take me directly to the guesthouse and I'd have to walk part of the way, he decided to join me so that he could walk me to where I was going. This was very nice of him and very much appreciated because the galis (alleyways) of Varanasi are truly maze-like and somewhat confusing to navigate. Prashant and I found a guesthouse with a room (not the one I was trying for originally) and we parted ways; he was off to play with his 1 1/2 year old nephew, and I was headed for a nap. Somehow, even after all the sleeping I did on the train, I was still exhausted!

After my nap and bucket shower and gearing up for what the Lonely Planet describes as "unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet," I headed out. My first stop was the Brown Bread Bakery, a place I sought out because 20% of all of their proceeds go to women's and children's charitable foundations, including the school that is right next to my guesthouse. It also happens to be pretty well known in the traveler's community which turned out to be a good thing because I sat myself down next to three guys and we started chatting. Turns out that Denton and Travis are teaching Spanish in southern India and are traveling northern India for five weeks. Their friend Justin used to be college roommates with Denton and was in town to join them. The conversation was good, so I asked if I could pal around with them for the day since we were all planning on doing the same thing - walking, exploring, and checking out the ghats (steps or landings on a river, in this case, the Ganges).

We set out and indeed spent the whole day together, from about 11:30am until about 9pm. I feel like the day I ended up having was "a day in the life of Indians" through and through. We navigated the busy streets, we negotiated rickshaw fares, Travis got a traditional style shave, riverside. We said 'no thank you' to a bajillion boatmen offering boat rides and we stepped around more than a bajillion piles of poo. We saw family members carrying their dead loved ones through town and toward the river for the burning ceremony, which we also saw. I was headbutted by a cow in the street (that Justin had managed to avoid, so it got me instead) and Denton was nearly whacked by a fast moving cricket ball. Travis joined the locals to wash his clothes in the Ganges and then, later when it was dark outside and he stepped with his flip-flopped foot into one of the aforementioned piles of poo, decided to wash his foot in the river, too. Justin, Denton, and I had what was probably one of the more unusual conversations I've had on my trip thus far: deciding whether we'd rather fight off one of the monkeys that hang out on the boys' balcony, or a ginormous wild pig that we'd just passed eating trash in the street.

Throughout the day, there were a number of ways we amused ourselves. 1) We played a game in which the goal was to guess the number of boat rides offered to us during our walk along the river. It was Price-Is-Right style (closest without going over) and Denton won with his guess of 27 (actual number, 30). 2) Denton, Travis, and I incessantly teased Justin about his interactions with the touts, those people who were trying to sell everything from boat rides and hand massages, to bindi colors and lotus flowers. The three of us mostly ignored the touts, but Justin just couldn't NOT talk to them. Conversations would go something like this: Tout - boat ride? Justin - No, thanks. But how many boats do you have? Tout - 50 rupees for one hour. Justin - That's okay, no thanks. So are you from here originally? Oh my god, it was painful to listen to, but also hilarious at the same time. Every time there was a pause in conversation and the tout was just about to (finally) go away, Justin would open his mouth and ask another question. The other guys and I were dying laughing and Justin just looked miserable even though he did it to himself. 3) The last way we amused ourselves was by making up answers to the commonly asked questions of "Where are you from?" and "What's your name?" The name question didn't warrant too many funny answers, but when we started saying things like Uzbekistan, China, and Pakistan when answering where we were from, we got a good laugh. The response back to us was always, "oh, very nice." I'm sure it almost sounds like a callous way to go about things, but if you were here, seeing what we're seeing, smelling what we're smelling, experiencing what we're experiencing, I'm sure you'd eventually find ways to deal with things, too.

The boys and I went our separate ways last night. I was to join them for an early morning boat ride today, but when my alarm went off at 5am, I just couldn't bear to get out of bed. I went to the train station today to try to book a ticket on the 11:20pm train to Satna, but no such luck. :-( I'll have to stay an extra day in Varanasi (the guesthouse is 60 rupees per night) and leave for Satna tomorrow night instead. From there, I'll take a bus to Khajuraho. In the meantime, I'd like to take a yoga class, go on a boat ride, finally finish the book that I've been reading since Athens, and go to an internet cafe a second time (I forgot my camera connection and flash drive this time). I'll have pictures uploaded soon; perhaps they will give you just a peek into the craziness that I've been experiencing over the last two days.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sorry, no news yet

Today I've been running around like an absolute mad woman trying to get things done. I don't have time to give more of an update now because I'm on a (fairly expensive) VERY slow internet connection. I will try to get a better connection later so that I can bring everyone up to speed prior to my **28** hour train ride to Varanasi that leaves tonight at 12:10am (about 9 hours from now).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Catching up on Mumbai, Part II

Yes, so last night I discovered that my bank account had been locked out because my travel notification had expired and my bank didn't know I was in India. India is a high fraud risk area, hence the block. This meant that I was frantically g-chatting with Dad at midnight last night to see if he could call my bank and get my account reinstated. It should have worked, but no such luck this morning when I tried to withdraw money again. I was trying to book my train for my next destination and needed to pay in cash. I could go into all the details and all the hours that I spent running around today, but let's just say that after taking a cash advance on my credit card, I got my money and the ticket and a lesson to never let my cash supply get so low again.

Moving on. . .

Mumbai has been a cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells. It's kind of hard to figure out where to start with describing them all. Since it's all a jumble in my head, let's go with bullet form, shall we?

- The trains and train stations are complete madness. It's the only time I've switched from wearing my day pack on back to my front. People scramble and rush around and if the trains are particularly busy, everyone crams on and then the stragglers leap on as the train is leaving so that they're hanging onto the outside of the train. It's not a bad spot to be, actually, because it's a lot cooler than the being crammed in with everyone in the middle of the train.

- Luckily, there are ladies only cars on every train. These cars can still get crowded, but usually it's not nearly as bad as the men's cars. And let's be honest. If I have to be pushed up next to a complete stranger, I'd rather it be a woman than a lecherous man.

- Walking the streets of Mumbai is like playing a game of "What's that smell?" This is (usually) not a game that you want to win.

- When a baby no older than about 1 1/2 or 2, naked from the waist down (no diaper or shoes), ran up to me in the street and grabbed my hand, it crushed me a little bit that I actually snatched my hand away.

- Speaking of naked, there's a lot of it here. TONS of people are walking around shoeless. Lots of half-clothed kids. A few kids just pulling their pants down and squatting in the middle of the street when they need to go.

- How the hell is it possible that in a city of 20 million people, I somehow managed to run into the guy that I met and talked to in the Dubai airport (while we were waiting for our delayed flight to finally take off)? No, I'm actually asking. How is it possible?

- The food, oh, the food! So tasty and so cheap! Wraps and rolls filled with spicy chicken, lentils made into pancakes, chutneys and pickles, mutton kebab, potatoes and veggies, biryani, lentils mashed up into a donut shape and fried, Thums Up soda (India's version of Coke), rice, so many varieties of bread, yummy spicy stuff that I probably can't even remember right now. And the list goes on. I don't think I've even tried that much yet.

- Animals. I've seen goats on the railroad tracks, cows in the middle of the city, and last night I was startled by a donkey when we nearly collided as we walked down the street
(don't worry, he was more startled than me!). There are random chickens and roosters everywhere, untold numbers of stray dogs (fewer cats), and today I got to see a crow eating a dead rat. Good times!

- For sale: everything. I've seen nail polish and hair accessories, veggies and herbs, and many other things for sale just on the trains. Other things for sale include trinkets, toys, bananas, socks, watches, saris, pretty much everything you'd ever need (and a lot of stuff you definitely don't need) is for sale somewhere in Mumbai.

- In India, I can actually be described as a tall person. I don't know if it's true, but I certainly feel like I tower over most Indians.

Gosh, I feel like there is SO much that is swimming around in my head, just waiting to be told, but my brain is mush after the day I had today (on top of the fact that I spent yesterday doing pretty much nothing but itinerary planning).

As for the itinerary, the basic plan is that I'll hit north India just in case the weather decides to turn cool. Varanasi is up first (where I'm heading tonight) and then I'll go to Khajuraho, Agra (where the Taj Mahal is), Jaipur, and Delhi. I'll be getting between all of these destinations via train, but none of them are as long as the 28 hour ride to Varanasi. From Delhi I'll head south for Christmas and New Year's. The actual order of things is kind of up in the air, but I'll start in Bangalore, spend Christmas in Mysore, and try to figure out which wildlife sanctuary I'd like to visit. I'll spend NYE in Cochin and then head to Kanyakumari via Trivandrum, Varkala, Allepey, and Chennai. Somewhere in there I will take a backwater cruise. Chennai is my last spot and will really just be a way for me to get to Bangkok.

So that's the itinerary. Please don't hold me to it; you know how I like to make changes!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Catching up on Mumbai, Part I

I've been in Mumbai for three days now, two of them on my own. After my late arrival on Saturday night/Sunday morning, Sunday was kind of a wash. This was in no small part due to the fact that Toto and I were up talking until after 7am! By the time I woke up, it was already 12:30pm and half the day was gone. I went with Toto and his flatmate Pablo to their friends' house and we just kind of hung out for a few hours. We ate and had beer over much conversation about the goings-on in Bollywood.

Yesterday, Monday, I was on my own. I had no plan (of course!), so I just jumped in a rickshaw and then onto a train and went downtown. (Toto lives in Bandra, one of Mumbai's suburbs.) The general destination that I had in mind were the neighborhoods of Churchgate and Colaba. Colaba is essentially travelers central, so I figured being around other travelers and tourists might be the best way to ease into things. That probably would have been a good plan if I didn't always get lost so easily. :-) In any case, I did eventually make it to Colaba. There's a stretch along the Colaba Causeway that has tons of stalls selling all kinds of things - watches, shoes, saris, books, videos, jewelry, maps, trinkets, and the thing I was looking for...a compass! The vendor was asking Rs 350, but I ended up negotiating him down to Rs 100 (just over $2). I essentially spent the day wandering aimlessly and stopping whenever I saw something interesting. I was even asked to be an extra in a Bollywood film! This is something that happens all the time in Colaba. Producers are specifically looking for foreigners to add "international flair" to their films and tv shows. I turned down the Rs 500, though, because filming was happening today at 9am and I would have had to be up super early. Not really what I was looking to do on my birthday anyway, lol. Eventually I decided I was ready to head home, but I wasn't having such an easy time finding my way to the train station in the dark. That's what cabs are for! Turns out I was not very far off course, but I didn't know that and I probably would have headed in the wrong direction anyway.

The super cool thing about last night was that Toto and I were chatting, listening to music, having an adult beverage, that kind of thing. Just after midnight, he brings out a birthday cake for me! He said it was officially my birthday since it was after midnight and that we had to start "my day" out with cake. But that's actually not the super cool thing. The super cool thing is that a little bit later we were somehow talking about Christmas music. I told him that I'd loaded my iPod with Christmas tunes and commented that I tend to like some non-traditional holiday songs, but it's just not Christmas without Bing Crosby's White Christmas. Why? Because I have memories of Dad singing that song during childhood Christmases and, in my head, Bing's voice is really Dad's voice when I hear the song now. All of this roundabout-ness is to say that the next thing I know, Toto is asking me what my father's cell phone number is, he's dialed the phone and handed it to me. "You need to hear your father's voice on your birthday," he said. Dad was so surprised to hear from me that he practically didn't even recognize my voice! It was a pretty nice birthday gift that my host gave me, way better than the cake.

Today's agenda looked a lot like yesterday's. No real plan, just meandering about, but trying to do so in different areas than I'd been before. I was mostly successful in that I saw places I hadn't before, but also unsuccessful in that. . .did you know? Yes, I can actually still be very lost with a map AND a compass! I kept thinking, too bad genes can't be passed on from stepmom to daughter because I could really use some of ToadMama's navigational abilities.

There's SO much more I could say about my experience in India so far. But I haven't uploaded pics yet, which would help with the storytelling, and I'm about to head out to continue the birthday celebration that got started earlier today. I think tomorrow will end up being a travel planning day in which I book train travel and get serious about an itinerary, so I should have time to post again then. Keep an eye out for Part II.

* * * * *

Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who sent me happy birthday wishes (and practically a day early for you since I'm 10 1/2 hours ahead of you)! It's not quite as good as having you all with me here to celebrate, but it means a lot to me.

Monday, December 7, 2009

My pictures in others' places

All of the pictures that I upload to Flickr are viewable by the general public and have a Creative Commons license. Essentially this just means that people can use my pictures as long as they give me credit.

I have about 800 pictures in my collection - really not a lot compared to people who take loads of pictures everyday in their "real" life, and not just when they're traveling like I do - but my pictures are being used in other places now, too, and that's pretty neat.

All of my Burj Dubai shots have been favorited by the Burj Dubai's Flickr page. This is no real accolade as they've favorited about 11,000 other pictures, too. But hey, mine are some of them. Favoriting a picture is different from using a picture with a Creative Commons license, but I'm counting it here because the whole reason the Burj Dubai even has a Flickr page is for marketing.

But cooler than that is that one of my pictures taken at Prague's Old Town Square is being used in a Schmap city guide. (My shot is the first one, upper left.) As it happens, the picture is one of my personal faves, so I'm glad someone else liked it, too. I'm not at all trying to say how awesome I am or how great my pictures are, but it's cool knowing that complete strangers are seeing them and enjoying them.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Why, hello there, India!

Just a quick note to let everyone know that after a little bit of drama at Sharjah airport in Dubai (namely that the flight left 3 1/2 hours after it was supposed to), I've arrived safely in Mumbai. My host, Toto, initially gave me instructions on how to take a pre-paid taxi from the airport to his house, but later convinced me that I should just allow him to pick me up instead. That turned out to be a good move because even at 2:15am the airport was absolute chaos.

So, I made it! I'm going to try to work out an itinerary for India in the next day or so. Since Christmas and New Year's are upon us, trains will start to be booked quickly (if they're not already which would mean taking buses instead) so I'd like to have more of a plan than I've had so far. I'll write more later, but for now - time for brunch!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Website update

If you look over there to the right, you'll notice that I added a link to my Flickr page. It had been suggested to me (waves hi to Amy!) that it would be easier to have a link than to have to search through old posts to find a link. So. . .there you have it. Ask and you shall receive!

Dubai birthday

No, I'm actually not referring to Dubai's birthday, aka National Day, which just occurred on 2 December (Dubai is 38 this year, btw). What I'm referring to is the fact that last night my Dubai friends helped me celebrate MY birthday, even if we did celebrate five days early.

It was quite nice really. We went to Morgan's house for dinner (he made a turkey!) and almost all of my Dubai friends were there - Amiri, Angelique and Tamer, Sharif and Yosra, George and his wife and son, and Morgan, of course. We ate, drank, and were merry. And then there was cake! Tamer and Angel even got me a gift which was very sweet and unexpected.

Everyone in Dubai has been super cool to me and the birthday party was just icing on the cake (pun intended!).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

India visa

Wanna see what the much anticipated and long awaited India visa actually looks like?

It doesn't look like it should have taken weeks and cost Dhs 365 (about $100), does it?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

1244 pages

Any guesses as to what I'm referring to here? 

If you guessed "the India guidebook," give yourself a pat on the back. If you guessed "the Lonely Planet India guidebook," give yourself a gold star, too. :-)

I decided to skip the whole guidebook thing for Athens, Istanbul, Cairo, and Dubai which means I've been without one for about six weeks now. And it's been fine, I've gotten along without it with no trouble at all. (My strategy is to pick up a map at the airport or train station when I arrive and then just go with the flow from there.) But. Dudes, India is huge. India has a population of more than a BILLION people and the city of Mumbai (my first stop) is the WORLD'S largest city. Wowza. Yeah. So, uh, I figured that I might be able to use a guidebook for this particular destination.

I've already started reading (oh, who am I kidding? I started reading before I even left the bookstore!) and I'm getting excited about the culture and the food and yoga classes and elephants and tigers and pretty much all of it. At the same time, well, I don't know how to describe it exactly. Maybe I'd say I'm nervously optimistic? People keep asking me if I'm planning on going to China and I reply that China intimidates me for some reason. They always, always then reply, "And India doesn't?!" And I'd always laugh and say no, it doesn't and they'd shake their heads at the crazy white girl. But now I think maybe Lonely Planet is trying to intimidate me (although they might call it "preparing").

One of the first sentences in the guidebook is: "Nothing can fully prepare you for India, but perhaps the one thing that best encapsulates this extraordinary country is its ability to inspire, frustrate, thrill, and confound all at once." In another paragraph, words like bamboozling, multidimensional, enigma, jostle, love, loathe, feisty, and tranquil all appear. In just one paragraph! I'm not intimidated (yet), Lonely Planet, but I'm sure the preparations are going to be helpful.