Monday, November 23, 2009

Agra - It's Totally 'Taj'

Q: How many Indian men does it take to change a bus tyre?
Approximately 26 (one doing the work, and 25 standing around discussing it).

This scene of Indian masculinity was something we witnessed when our bus to Agra got a flat tyre.

Q: How do you avoid paying commission to a rickshaw driver for taking you to a hotel?
A: We don't know... we've tried many tactics (with various degrees of failure), but the most promising method we tried was in Agra... We directed the rickshaw driver to a cafe nearby a hotel we wanted to stay in (thank you Lonely Planet for your helpful map). We then sat and had a chai hoping the driver would get sick of waiting and go look for another fare. When this didn't work, we split up, with Claire staying at the cafe with our luggage, while Paul and Amy snuck off in search for the hotel. A few minutes down the road, Paul and Amy were congratulating themselves on outsmarting the rickshaw driver when, out of nowhere, he popped up out of the shadows and followed us to the hotel - no doubt to collect his commission... turns out he outsmarted us

Q: Are you lacking a calculator and hate doing mental addition? Does your job require you to do many sums in one day?
A: If you answered 'Yes' to this question, you need... THE HUMAN CALCULATOR!!! (Who also doubles up as an amusing, elderly, tip-requesting waiter).
Here's how he works; Your customers come to pay, you write up their bill but you can't be bothered working out the total yourself, so you call on your Human Calculator, who ambles arthritically downstairs to do the dirty work for you! Simply yell out the numbers you want added, and the Human Calculator will do the math in his head and give you a speedy total. Brilliant! And way more amusing than a regular calculator...

Q: Ever wondered what a tomato salad looks like in India?
A: Probably not, but just in case you ever attempt to order one in India, you should know that all you're in for is a tomato sliced up on a plate with a wedge of lime. Generally the food we've had in India has been amazing, but, like this tomato salad, all the food in Agra was pretty crap.

Q: Wondering why we haven't mentioned the Taj Mahal yet?
A: We're about to...
For the most visited sight in India, the Taj is surrounded by some whopping big lies. Yes, it is every bit as amazing as you've heard, BUT we were told a few porkers that were a little saddening...
First of all, many of the hotels and restaurants around Agra claim to have "Taj views"... well, as we discovered, what they actually mean is that from their rooftop, if you look at a specific angle through other buildings, you can see portions of the Taj, but not enough to take a photo... oh, and ignore the restaurants that try to lure you in for dinner with these "Taj view" claims... it's not lit up at night, so you won't see much.

The second (and most hurtful) lie we were told about the Taj, is that you can sit and watch the sunrise over this magnificent piece of architecture. Now, this isn't entirely a lie, because you can line up at the ticket window and wait for it to open at sunrise and then, as the sun is rising, you can stand in line at both the ticket window and then the gates of the Taj waiting to be let inside. Once the sun has well and truly risen, THEN you'll be let into the complex. Thanks for stealing our beauty sleep for no reason, Agra.

The final lie we were told in Agra (not actually, Taj related though), was that our train to Delhi would leave Agra station at 10 am... 5 hours later, when we were still sitting at the platform waiting for our train to arrive (despite the computer screens telling us it was still due to arrive at 10am), we wondered if our train was ever coming at all. Annoying, but made completely worth it when our train actually arrived AND we got to see an old naked man picking up rubbish on the tracks! Awesome!

Khajuraho (or if you're Paul, Khajaroo)

To get to Khajuraho from Varanasi we had to take a train to Satna the transfer to a bus... simple, right? But this being India, the buses had, of course, stopped running, leaving us with the choice of staying in the shit-hole-satna for a night, or continuing onto Khajuraho by Taxi. Knowing this, a mob of delighted (read, desperate) taxi drivers were waiting for us as we disembarked the train. A bidding war broke out. It was us versus them. We listened to their pleas in turn as each of them explained to us that they were the only one with the requisite car/permit/license/reckless Indian driving style to get us to our destination. Before we knew it, we, the only foreigners in sight, were surrounded by 50 or so taxi drivers and keen observers. We'd like to say we opted for the best qualified driver, but in reality we settled for the old dude who offered us the cheapest price. 2 hours later, we sat down for dinner in a Khajuraho hotel where Paul was repeatedly molested by the resident "massage man" who, over the course of 2 days, engaged in an unrequited relationship with Paul's scalp, shoulders and, most awkwardly, his knees. It was pretty weird, but given the 'sexy' nature of Khajuraho, we figured it was par for the course. Yes, you may notice that we just described an Indian town as 'sexy'... let us elaborate... the whole reason people go to Khajuraho is to see the 'sexy temples', that is, temples with 'sexy' scenes from the Karma Sutra engraved on them - by curious people who obviously had way too much time on their hands 1,000 years ago. It's risque, it's raunchy, it's quite hilarious, and, well worth the detour from Varanasi. Aside from the temples and some very Indian public toilets, Khajuraho has little to offer tourists, so after purchasing a range of 'sexy' karma sutra souvenirs, we busted a move onto Agra.

Toilet anyone?

Far away the karma temples look quite innocent

Up close 'sexy-time' can involve animals...

But you can also have fun without horses

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Varanassi is VARA-NASTY

Varanassi may or may not have been the best introduction to India because even now, 1 month later it still is the most overwhelming place we have visited in the country. It's filthy, smelly the streets are full of cow shit and the rickshaw drivers and street sellers are relentless. It probably didn't help that we managed to pick a guesthouse with staff who we suspect had been recently released from a mental institution... and who should probably be sent back. Immediately. In the 3 days that we stayed there, not one conversation with the staff made sense, which was partly due to the fact that the manager answered questions with questions or a cat's meow... no joke. The closest one to somewhat sanity was the owner, he repeatedly told us "India is funky" and unfortunately he had produced a giant half Indian / Japanese baby with the ugliest head we had ever seen and who we believe would be the sole survivor of a nuclear winter (along with the cockroaches). The meowing manager did impart one pearl of wisdom on us when he said, "India is not polite - I'd rather you kill me than bore me" It turns out, in a number of situations, we've found this to be true.

In Varanassi, we gained a wonderful travel companion, our dear British friend we met in Korea, Paul.... woo hoo! After just a few days as two girls in traveling in India we realised having a male around would be somewhat of an asset in deterring Indian men.

The three of us - in our Korea days... and in Paul's defense at the end of Movember

Set on the banks of the Ganges, Varanassi is one of India's holiest cities and many Indians make their final journey here to be cremated at the burning ghats. Dead bodies wrapped in colourful fabric are paraded down the street to the river where they are publicly cremated. Walking along the Ganges we witnessed a few of these ceremonies and we were surprised at the contrast between the Indian attitudes towards death, compared to our own... exemplified by a kid drying his undies in the heat coming from the cremation fire and the fact that no one seemed concerned by the pair of legs sticking out of said fire... or when one of these legs fell off. We weren't allowed to take photos, but that's kind of irrelevant, given those images are forever burned into our minds - pun intended.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of Varanassi for us, was the sunrise boat cruise along the Ghats. The early morning light really added to the vibrancy of the women's saris, the buildings and what seemed like the entire cities laundry being washed and dried along the banks. More than anything, these scenes demonstrated that every facet of Inidian life can be (and often is) played out in public - bathing, laundry, funerals, praying, sleeping, and even going to the toilet are common place public events.

Aside from this boat trip and a pleasant afternoon exploring the backstreets of the old city, Varanassi was a confronting, overwhelming and chaotic place that everyone going to India should see, but we're certainly not in a hurry to re-visit.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What to do outside of Kathmandu

Many people who travel to Nepal do so with one thing in mind: to go trekking. Why they would want to subject themselves to 15 days of torture is beyond us, but apparently it's the 'thing to do' in Nepal... Anyway, due to this trekking frenzy, we've come across so many people who only venture out of Kathmandu to climb Everest base camp or walk the Annapurna circuit. Given our shared dislike of physical exertion, we decided to see what else Nepal had on offer. So here's a list of things to do outside of Kathmandu:

(OK, we just made this name up, but it aptly describes what we're talking about.) Buses in Nepal get full very quickly and as that wise old Asian adage goes; "if you're going to drive somewhere, you might as well cram as many people as possible into and on the vehicle... and then add a few more." Because of this, seeing people riding on the roof tops of buses, is about as common as spotting a goat on Nepal's city streets (which is pretty common). It was only a matter of time until it was us on top of one of those buses holding on for dear life... actually in 10 days, we clocked up 7 hrs of rooftop riding, or as we like to call it, bus surfing.

Nepal has some of the best (and cheapest) white water rafting in the world, so we could hardly pass up on an opportunity to spend 2 days honing our rafting skills on the Lower Seti river. Turns out that although we'd never done this before, we were better prepared for it than our 16 year old safety kayaker... our advantage was that, unlike her, we can swim. This discovery was made when, on the 1st day, her kayak flipped in an rapid and she nearly drowned... with this in mind we made valiant attempts not to fall out of our raft from then on. Aquatically challenged safety kayaker aside, we had an awesome time raging down the rapids and camping overnight on a riverside beach... we just wish we'd booked a longer trip!!

After Tibet, we figured we'd used the worst toilets on Earth... and we had, but Nepal brought a new toilet style into the mix that rivals those of Tibet. Introducing, the squat with no hole. Yes, that's right folks, it's pretty much a concrete slab. As a user, it's by far the easiest toilet going round - if you don't mind standing in a puddle of someone elses pee, that is. We're not sure what really happens with number 2's, and we don't really want to find out.

4. SHARE A BUS RIDE WITH A GOAT... or a rooster... we did. A few times.

We had no idea how big the Annapurna mountains are. They're friken huge. No one has ever reached the top. You can see them from everywhere. And they're amazing. We recommend the views from the tiny hill-side village of Bandipur and Sarangot hill in Pokhara. On a clear day, the views don't disappoint.

We use the word 'trek' lightly, but this 2 hour uphill walk was 'trekking' in our book... and enough to put us off actual trekking for life. The snake that slithered across our path, the billion steps up the mountain and the relentless heat all combined to make it a tough walk, BUT, the views of the Annapurna's (see above) from the top, made it all worth it... plus, we got to experience world peace.

We never thought living in Korea would come in handy on our travels, but boy we were wrong! After meeting two Koreans on our bus to Lumbini (the birthplace of Buddha), they told us about a Korean temple in the area where we could stay and be fed 3 meals a day - for free! Well, for a donation but still... we never got to do a temple stay in Korea, so aside from eating Korean food and brushing up on our Korean language, it was a nice unexpected addition to our trip in Nepal.

"Shalom shalom" was the usual greeting we received from Nepalese shop keepers as we walked down the street. "you from Israel?" was the question we were often asked... we knew there were a lot of Israelis around, but we didn't understand the constant confusion (Claire maybe - at least she has dark skin and curly hair, but Amy doesn't exactly fit the bill). Then one day, after a guy gave us a particularly hearty "shalom", we asked him why he thought we were Israeli... he replied "it's because of your get-up, you know!?" After rewinding our minds to 1976 when the word "get-up" was last used, we realised he was talking about our clothes... Not sure how a t-shirt and shorts qualifies as Israeli 'get-up', but apparently it just does.

Our stay in Nepal was short and sweet but with our flight home booked for late November, we wanted to allow ourselves enough time to explore India... and as we sat in a jeep waiting to cross the Indian border, watching Indian truck drivers punch rickshaw drivers trying to overtake them, we knew we'd be in for an interesting last 6 weeks of our trip.

Monday, November 2, 2009


After the chilled out vibe of Laos, arriving in Kathmandu was pretty full on. First of all, wed travelled 24 hours to get there (apparently the cheap flights aren't always direct), AND, we didn't have quite enough money for our visas (F.Y.I Lonely Planet - visa prices have gone up at least $10 since your time of research). To add to this, we arrived on day 2 of the 15 day Dasain festival (Nepal's biggest national festival) AND a beggar tried to bite us for refusing to give him cookies we didn't even have.. all of this in our first 12 hours!

The contrast compared to S.E Asia was huge, the smells, the sounds, the colours, the scams and the pace of life bore no resemblance to what we'd been used to in the previous months. It was time to wake up and smell the cow shit.

Bodnath stupa, Kathmandu

As you'd expect, we saw all the main sights around Kathmandu and the valley, but the most exciting part about our time in Kathmandu was the Dasain festival. We're still not 100% sure what the festival is all about, but it involved a lot of people shopping and being merry aaannnd... the decapitation of several hundred animals. You probably think we're horrible people, but we were totally excited to see goats and buffaloes being sacrificed to the gods in this way. Watching 30 or so of these scarifies, wasn't nearly as bad as we thought it would be and although they're killing animals, it's done incredibly quickly and none of the animal goes to waste. If this grosses you out, don't look at the next picture and whatever you do, don't ask to see our videos of it!


Once killed, the men run the head and body around a circle

Kathmandu has quite the mix of people walking the streets and we thoroughly enjoyed people watching on a very regular basis - here are our favourites;

The Trekkers: We hate the trekkers. We're not talking about people who climb mountains here, these are the people who feel the need to walk the streets of Kathmandu CITY in their trekking gear. Ummm... despite what you may think, wearing Kathmandu clothing in Kathmandu isn't the epitome of coolness, nor is wearing polar fleece on a 30 degree day. It's not just the clothing that offends us either (but if we see one more quick-dry t-shirt or zip off shorts/trousers, we may scream), it's the unnecessary use of trekking equipment in an urban environment that drives us nuts. Hiking poles on flat bitumen roads and head lamps in restaurants simply are not necessary... we get it, you've walked the Annapurna circuit. Good for you.

We hate trekkers

The Hippies: Hippies and Kathmandu have a historical link.. the city actually has a street called 'Freak St' named after it's long-running hippy community. Thanks to this community, Kathmandu's shops are filled with hippie crap and the young babies of hippie parents are answering to names like "Lark" and "Peace"... seriously cruel... but at least they're not trekkers.

Lark and Peace grown up

The Sadhus: These guys are our favourites... or at least they were until they started stealing our water bottles, attacking us with red dots and asking us for money all the time. Still, their long dreads, body paint and weird walking poles make them a cool novelty in our book!

Two Sadhus kindly posing for our photo... for a few dollars of course

We always seem to like the places that other people hate... and Kathmandu was no exception.