Category Archives: My Trip To India

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 15: Final thoughts)

I guess one way to tell that your trip to India is over is that you stop having to take malaria pills, and for me that happened over a month ago. But in fact my trip did not feel “over” until I finished writing about it. And now that I have done that too, I long to call the whole experience back to the present, but I am also eager to start thinking about my next writing projects, and my next adventures.

This post is a summary of some lingering thoughts I’ve had while reflecting on my three weeks in India, which was also my first major solo trip abroad – thoughts that I didn’t really cover in the previous posts, but ones that are too brief and transitory to merit their own posts.

The Best Part

A few people have asked me what was the “best part” of my trip to India, and I honestly can’t give an answer to that question. Instead of disparate memories of different locations – Delhi, the Taj Mahal, Pushkar, the wildlife reserve in the Arivalli Hills – it all merges together in my head to become one big wonderful thing called “India.” Or, more specifically, “Some of Northwestern India.” It’s a feeling. And a good one. I want to go back.

Where Next?

A few people have also asked me where I’m going next – now that clearly I’ve  been bitten by the travel bug. For a while I was thinking “Spain,” because I’ve been longing to go to Spain (and France, and Germany, and Italy, and Greece) since I was in university, or even before that. I studied French and Spanish In school and keep trying to brush up on those languages in case I get a chance to use them.

But now I’m thinking that if I’m going to be more flexible (mentally as well as physically) in the next thirty years than I will be in the thirty years after that, and since travelling through Europe (and Australia and New Zealand) is likely to be easier on an older person than travelling through other parts of the world, maybe I should go to the more challenging places first. So I think Peru is my answer at the moment. Or Cambodia.

Jet Lag

I didn’t have jet lag on the way to India: when I got to Delhi, I was ready to hit the pavement. That may  have been because I was in a new place and was full of curiosity, excitement, and a bit of fear. Or maybe it was because after travelling for 36 hours, I arrived just in time to go to bed. I just got up the next morning and started going. And kept going. And going.

On the way back, I arrived in Toronto at noon after about the same number of hours of travel time – and in the same direction, by the way: I’d gone to India via Hong Kong but I came back via Brussels. I tried to stay awake until night arrived when I got home but it was impossible. I fell asleep against my will at about 4 p.m. and I was totally messed up for about a week.

I have since read that jet lag may be as much related to digestion as to sleeping patterns. That makes some sense to me because when I’d wake up in the middle of the night during that week after my return, I was ravenous.

The pundits with the food-and-jet-lag theory suggest eating nothing while in transit. That would certainly be a variation on this trip, where I felt as though I were eating constantly while I was getting to India and getting home again. As soon as I’d board a plane I’d get dinner, and then four hours later I’d get breakfast: two planes each way. And on the layovers between flights (seven hours in Hong Kong and four in Brussels), I ate. What else was there to do?

I guess it couldn’t hurt to try to fast while flying. Consuming lots of water also seems to be a good idea.

Of course, if I go to Peru next time, jet lag won’t be a problem: Peru is in the same time zone as Toronto. And I think I can use some of my Spanish there.

How long should a trip to one country be?

Three week feels like about the minimum amount of time it takes to start to get a sense of a new place – longer would be better, but may not be possible if you have a real life underway back home and aren’t able to just become permanently itinerant.

I think you need to stay in a new place for long enough that what looks really strange when you arrive starts to look normal: for me, in India, this included the sight of cattle wandering the roadways, and of women in saris riding side-saddle on the backs of motorcycles with their arms wrapped around the drivers (I saw this everywhere, from the centre of the city to the middle of the desert). I got so used to these things that I barely noticed them by the time we left.

Ongoing effects of my trip to India

I could go on for pages on this subject, but I can also summarize fairly briefly my sense of what has changed in me as a result of my visit to India.

Elephant bathing ghat at Sahakari Spice Farm, Goa

I have always been attracted to the multifaceted “idea” of India but now I feel as though the country is a part of me. Granted, it’s a small part; in three short weeks I was only able to nibble at the edges of that vast empire. But India is with me now in a way it never was before, and as long as my brain is still functional, I will never have to let it go. When someone says the word “Mumbai” to me, it has a personal meaning now. When they say “chai-wallah,” I can see one in my mind’s eye. The word “ghat” has a physical representation in my mind that no photograph can give me – I’ve seen several, including one reserved for a family of elephants, and walked down one in Pushkar in bare feet. I know how to pronounce “Udaipur” properly, and I know what really great fish vindaloo tastes like at an outside table in Baga.

I also find myself far more interested in Indian news than I was before. I have followed with interest an excellent series on caste and women in India in the Globe and Mail. I was intrigued by the story of a man named Anna Hazare who went on a hunger strike to protest corruption in India’s government. I reflected on how similar were the frustration of speakers of the Konkani language in Goa at the increasing influence of English to the dismay expressed by aboriginals and Quebecois in Canada. When I see the word “India” in the news,  I read.

This blog

Yes, did name this blog to echo the title of Eat. Pray. Love. I wanted to stress that I was not going to India to try to find anything inside myself — I was going there to learn about India. And I did.

Here are links to the earlier posts on my India travel blog, in case you missed them:

Then there were the posts about


This is only the first, I hope, of many travel blogs. When I’m not travelling (which is, obviously, most of the time), I do write about other things that catch my interest here at I’m All Write, so subscribe if you think you might be interested. And I write about writing-related things at The Militant Writer.

Until the next post, नमस्ते (namaste).

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Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 14: Shopping)

The travel challenges of a Not-a-Shop-A-Holic

I am not a good shopper at the best of times. I dither and dither and then make impetuous decisions that I later regret. As a result, I often need to take back things I’ve bought.

I don’t like returning things, either – especially to smaller stores. Returning something requires me to summon all of my courage because I feel as though taking something back to a store is tantamount to criticizing one of the salesperson’s offspring, or at least impugning his or her tastes. I therefore usually end up buying something else I don’t want while I’m there, just to cheer up him or her. Logically I know that the salesperson is an employee of the store and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the fact that the handbag I’m returning turned out to be too small for my purposes, but for me, logic has nothing to do with the shopping experience.

In short, I am the Ultimate Non-Shopaholic – and that is true even in a country where the prices of things are clearly marked, where I have time to think about what I’m doing, and where the staff speak the same language I do and are generally nowhere to be found (which is just where I like them). It turns out that I am much worse at shopping in foreign countries where I need to bargain about prices with salesclerks who hover and hover and respond to the words “No, thank you,” by bringing out a dozen other things they are sure I’ll want to look at – salesclerks who implore customers who walk away empty-handed by saying, “You come back tomorrow, Lady?” and when you answer, “Yes, tomorrow,” respond, as though their hearts will break, “You promise?”

After my trip to India (and yes. It’s true: I do have the nerve to travel by myself half way around the world to see a country I’ve never been to, but not the courage to return a leaking mug to Starbucks. Go figure), I have decided that I am never again going to try to bring anything back from anywhere with me. I have learned my lessons. I think.

The Albatross

As those of you who have been reading earlier posts will know, my first shopping misadventure in India occurred in Jaipur, where I was not intending to buy anything at all. But the tuk-tuk driver who took me to the Amber Fort, which I ended up accidentally climbing past in favour of the Jaigarh Fort, thereby totally wearing myself out, was a very good guy. First he told me how to avoid being ripped off by other drivers and souvenir sellers. Then he waited for me even though I was gone for at least three hours, and he didn’t charge me any extra for the wait. In short, I was as grateful to him by the end of my adventure, which had been undertaken for the most part in hot sun, without water, and on an upward incline, as I would have been if he’d just donated his left kidney to me. And all the dear man asked in return was that I spend fifteen minutes looking at the goods his friend sold. How could I refuse?

He drove me to a textile shop, a really classy place, where the vendor served me chai masala and showed me how the textile makers put vegetable dye marks on fabric and how they wove rugs– and then showed me around his massive showroom.

I felt no pressure as the owner showed me bedspread after bedspread, starting with the cheapest one first, asking his assistant to fling open one after another of increasing quality and opulence atop its predecessor. I worried about how they could ever sell all the fabrics that they had on display there: walls and walls of shelves full of folded beautiful fabrics. I fell in love with everything he showed me, and—thinking of all the people who had had to work so hard for mere pennies a day to create these lovely pieces (true, although on reflection I doubt any of them was related to the owner)–I did not negotiate much.

I bought a beautiful bedspread with hundreds of tiny reflective spangles, each one sewn in separately, and a spectacular wall hanging pieced together by hand from stiff pieces of aged fabric to create the image of an elephant – in my favourite colours, deep red and green. It is true that these items would have cost much more in Canada, if they were available here—but they might have cost far less in any other store in India, and could have cost even less if I had offered less. In addition, I was on a budget and could not afford them, even at the prices I paid. So although I was delighted with my purchases as the vendor had them plastic-wrapped and taped and then sewn into a cotton sack for me so I could ship them home, by the time I got back to my hotel I was feeling guilty. That’s why I called the sack “The Albatross “– because of my guilt (which was, admittedly, slightly smaller than that endured by the Ancient Mariner, as were the repercussions) and embarrassment that I had not argued for a better price. With further echoes of Coleridge, since it was at least a week before I found a post office to mail the package from, I had to drag this 6.7 kg reminder of my shopping stupidity around with me everywhere I went.

Souvenir Shopping

When I finally did divest myself of The Albatross in Mumbai, I still faced other shopping obligations, which I’d need to do in Goa.

It wasn’t a long list. I wanted to get a few souvenirs for my kids and grandkids and a couple of small things for myself. But having avoided shops everywhere else I went in India, I’d left souvenir shopping to the last minute,  and that was a mistake.  By then I had perfected the skill of avoiding the pleading eyes and  the hawking calls of shop-owners who came out in the street to try to draw me in by telling me of the remarkable quality and range of wares they had on sale, and who were not easily discouraged by any word except “Tomorrow.” On the day when I was carrying The Albatross back from the post office to my hotel in Udaipur, after finding that the post office was closed on Sunday, even then retailer after retailer begged me to stop and shop with them as I struggled down the street. I indicated my arms and my burden – “How could I carry any more?” I asked them, but they just smiled and said, “Okay, then. You come back tomorrow. You promise.” (They were friendly. All of them were friendly. But they were hard to refuse.)

(I had also been taught my lesson about crafty sales pitches for a second time in Udaipur when a friendly man at the Jagdish Temple invited me to see his art school [he was small. I could have squashed him. Stop worrying, my sons] and I learned it was another store front—this time for expensive works of art. This time after looking at the wares in his classy little store, I just said “No, thanks,” and left.)

The upshot was that I knew I would actually have to look a vendor in the eye if I were going to get any shopping done, and I would need to actually enter a shop of my own free will. I chose my shop by skimming my eyes across the available alternatives along the main street of Calangute, as though I weren’t actually interested in any of them. Once I stepped inside, I knew I would be sunk.

And I was. I either picked the wrong shop or there were no right shops anywhere because once I got in there, there was nothing I wanted, and yet I bought and bought and bought. T-shirts. Handbags. Leggings. A dress or two. The kitchen sink. I knew the same things were available elsewhere, and I knew I should not pay more than half of what the shopkeeper was asking, and I even wondered if maybe some of the things I was looking at might not be for sale back in Toronto. But it was all so cheap that I filled my backpack and did not dicker very much because the woman had so much less than I do (another kind of guilt that comes into play when shopping in places like India), and then when I got back to my room I realized that most of the clothes I’d purchased for myself were never going to fit me because I’m twice the size of your average Indian woman, and so most of it was heading for the Goodwill. Also, by then I was hot and aggravated. I’d spent about $30 on about $5 worth of salvageable merchandise that would have cost me hundreds in Canada except that I’d never have bought it in Canada. I’d have honestly been happier (much happier) if I had been able to just give the $30 to the woman who sold me all these things, without having to actually take any of her products away with me.

So that was that.

Resolutions for Future Travels

Next time I go travelling, I am going to relieve the pressure on myself by purchasing only postcards.

At least that’s what I think now. Because the problem is that now it has arrived, I’m pretty happy with the bedspread and the wall hanging. And I find myself quite attached to a small carved wood Ganesh that I bought at a five-and-dime type place for about 25 rupees (50 cents). The kids seem to like the tea I gave them. And if I hadn’t gone into any stores at all, I wouldn’t have those things, either.

The funny thing is that I had promised my children I would bring them back each an elephant from India to put in their living rooms so they could have something not to talk about. The central image on my wall hanging, when I finally find a living room large enough to hang it in, is going to make me laugh.

This is what my wall hanging looks like, but the colours on mine are quite different (see below). I took this photo of a similar hanging after mine was already wrapped. Now all I need is the right wall.

Inner wrapping, Albatross

Unwrapping The Albatross


Detail: Wall hanging

A portion of my elephant wall hanging

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 13: My Travel Buddies)

In Praise of Travelling With Younger People

(This post is dedicated to Beth, Gemma, Liam, Jenny, Emma, Mark, Terri, Kelly, Naj, Antonia, Alyx, Janine, Ricky and Abhi)

I was sixty years old when I started to book my trip to India, and I was going to be leaving Canada on my own. Aside from England and Mexico, which I’d visited in the company of other people, and the USA, which is mostly like staying with the neighbours, I’d never gone on this kind of adventure before. My inexperience in international travel has not been caused by a lack of wishing: I’ve always longed to go everywhere. I’ve just never had the money or the time. Now I am determined to see as much of the world as I can before I drop dead – which I hope doesn’t happen for a long time, because there’s a lot I need to see.

As keen as I was for a solo adventure, I knew that going to India all by myself was not a good idea. So I signed up for a tour. On the recommendation of my elder son and his wife, who are interested in sustainable travel and had just returned from a wonderful trip to Morocco, I used the Responsible Travel network (“Travel Like A Local”). I settled on a Gap Adventures tour because the price was very reasonable, it went where I wanted to go when I wanted to go there, and it was billed as a “small group adventure.”

I knew from the company’s name that its primary market was the “gap” age group—those kids who are taking a year off between high school and university (although very recently the company has been renamed “G Adventures,” so maybe it wants to expand its reach). [*Update – I was wrong in my assumption about the name of GAP Adventures — see first comment below — but since I’m sure I’m not the only one who made the mistake, I’ll not editing it out.*] Still, the photo of the woman with the elephant on the page where my tour was described (Delhi to Goa) reassured me that not everyone was going to be a teenager. As did the agents when I called to ask, and with whom I ultimately booked the tour.

Although I knew that the majority of my travelling companions would be younger than I am, it was still a bit of a shock to discover at our first meeting in Delhi that all 12 of them were well under forty, most were less than thirty, and some were still not yet twenty. The closest fellow traveller in age to me was about the same age as my older son. The group leader was 29, and the group-leader-in-training who accompanied us was younger than that.

Despite still being glad to have companions and a group leader, I was now quite apprehensive, because I felt that these people were not going to want to have an old lady hanging around with them. Amazing as it seems to me – because I feel about the same as I ever did, and I know I am slower than I used to be but I certainly do not feel “old” – I have begun to run into ageism here and there. So I was wary. And sympathetic: I do remember from my own younger years that hanging around with people thirty or forty years older than I am was  – with a few exceptions – not my idea of a good time. I always figured they would need to be spoken to slowly and clearly, and/or taken care of when they came apart at the joints.

In addition to the age thing, aside from two people in their thirties and one cheerful 19-year-old, everyone was already travelling with somebody else with whom they’d come from home, so they didn’t really need a third wheel tagging along with them. And the two people in their thirties soon enough started travelling together too.

My strategy at the outset was to stay away from the others in the group except for meals and other group activities. I guess I dealt with them the way I do other people’s pets or children–I do my own thing, and leave it to them to come to me if they should wish to do so.

This approach was not difficult: in fact, it suited me just fine. I am a (sociable) solitaire – a writer, an observer. I normally prefer to be alone. So I booked optional tours for one, and wandered around by myself (which is one of the reasons I ended up at Jaigarh instead of Amber Fort).

I have no idea what the other members of the group thought of me, dragging along my suitcase on its little wheels as they lofted huge, heavy packs onto their backs and exchanged notes about their trips to Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, Africa, Europe, South America. But gradually over the first week or so we got to know one another a bit better, and they separated themselves from one another in my mind. A couple of them were veteran solo travellers who’d been to dozens of places. A few had been travelling with their families since they were infants, and were on their first adult adventures. Others were somewhere on the continuum between well travelled and untravelled.  Some were great partiers, others were less inclined to stay out half the night. Some were vegetarians, three were health professionals (hi, Gemma, Beth, and Naj!). Most were just starting out their adult lives. All of us were on our first trip to India, and all of us had to make adjustments to the unfamiliar aspects of that country. We were such a diverse group that I doubt we’d have ever come together – especially every day for more than two weeks – in any other context, but we had India in common. And that was plenty.

Side note: I was totally delighted to see that almost every last one of them had brought a book or two along with them – mostly novels, and literate ones at that. I wanted to drag all the doom-and-gloomers from the writing and publishing communities out of their internet caves to show them that the need for good writers is not dead: there are young people out there who still can – and do – read entire books!

As time went on, I found my fellow travellers to be as distinct in their travel interests, goals, and approaches from one another as I was from them. But all of them were resilient and friendly –  game to go anywhere and do anything (except when they were doubled up from food poisonings, hangovers, or both) and more than willing to include me in their activities. They came from Ireland, Australia, Sweden, and England (Ricky – group leader in training –  and Abhi – group leader extraordinaire – came from India, of course), and we talked to one another about our home countries as well as other places we had visited. They were open-minded and tolerant, and loved to laugh.

I have so many wonderful memories of them – Emma reading the future in others’ palms at dinner in Pushkar, Liam looking ready to adopt the subcontinent as his second home as he happily settled into the saddle of his camel, Naj joining in a Hindu wedding procession in the streets of Jaipur, Mark begging Terri to stop sharing her impressions of the Kama Sutra so loudly on the plane to Goa, Antonia and Janine cheerfully setting off to buy food from a road-side stand while the rest of us panicked that the bus would leave before they got back on board, Abhi counting heads in Hindi everywhere we went.

Aside from the two who left early, no one seemed fazed by the dirt, the crowds, or the ailments we all came down with. They were an absolutely fabulous group to travel with. Every single one was a good sport, friendly and eager to see, learn and do. They were energetic, curious and (for the most part) sensible.

I began to appreciate them soon after we arrived in India, even before I really got to know them. We were in Agra in our various tuk-tuks, bumping knees with motorcycle riders, swerving around cattle and bicycles, pedestrians and trucks, catching our breaths and holding them as once again we came within whiffing distance of an open sewer. At some point near the Taj Mahal, I looked up to see an air-conditioned bus going by, all sealed off from the air, the noise and the dirt, filled with people who, on the basis of age, it would have been more appropriate for me to travel with than the group of “kidlets” I was with. And I knew that I did not want to be on that bus.

It turned out that my concerns about fitting in were all in my head and not in the heads of my travelling companions. In fact, it was two of them, Mark and Naj (thanks, guys) who insisted that I cancel my plans to return to Mumbai at the end of the journey and join them at the Presa di Goa for my last three days in India.

Next time I go travelling, I will try to find a group that includes a few people who are closer to my age, but the only other adjustment I plan to make is to bring my backpack instead of a suitcase. I don’t mind being older in the least, but I don’t want anyone thinking that I should be riding on that bus.

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 12: Goa)

Nov. 17-22, 2011

Goa: the India-Portugal Connection, and the End of my trip

Goa – about 600 miles south of Mumbai on the west coast of India and about 15 degrees north of the equator  (approximately the same latitude as the Caribbean, by the way) – is a popular tropical tourist destination with two different personalities. I experienced the first for two days, and the second for three, and I’m glad I didn’t do it the other way around. Doing it the other way around would have been like starting our tour of India in Goa and ending up in Delhi, which all of us agreed would have been a trek in the wrong direction: we’d have reached more challenging and less familiar (less Western) environments at a time when we were tired from travelling, and less patient.

The first Goa I encountered was at the crowded major beach towns of Calangute and Baga. They were hot, rough-edged, garbage-littered, packed with bars, shops and hawkers (of drugs as well as t-shirts, from what I understood, although for some reason none of the drug-purveyors seemed to think I would be interested). This is party town, and I think this area must also be the tattoo-parlour-capital of the universe, although who might have the nerve to get a tattoo in India is beyond me. The streets here are tricky to navigate, thanks to speeding motorcycles and taxis, and the normally droll Rough Guide cautions readers about the state’s “notoriously corrupt traffic cops.”

We were told that Western women and even men are wise not to walk on the main beaches at night, even in groups. During the day Westerners who stroll down the crowded garbage- (and who-knows-what-else-) strewn sand toward the bath-warm Arabian Sea are pestered at every step to rent a motorboat, have a picture taken, go kite-sailing. “Please, lady. You will like.”

On the Other Hand

The other Goa is a relaxed, quiet resort area, hilly and green with bursts of bright colour from huge banks of flowers, and splendid ocean views. There we found reasonably priced accommodations that extended to luxury standards, friendly and hard-working people (fishing and mining are big industries here, along with tourism), and all kinds of delicious Goan food.

Local taxi drivers and hotel staff are eager to point out that Goa should not be judged on the basis of the main beach areas, which they say have fallen under the influence of unsavoury and greedy types from other parts of India and other countries, particularly Russia. They say that there are lovely deserted beaches away from the more populated areas, and that even a few kilometers inland from the beaches, peace and harmony prevail.

I found this to be true.

The State of Goa

Goa is not a city, as I had thought until I got there: it is a state. There are 28 states in India, plus seven union territories, and during my three weeks in India I visited four states: Uttar Pradesh (where Agra is located); Rajasthan (Jaipur, Pushkar, Udaipur and Ranakpur); Maharashtra (Mumbai); and Goa. Delhi is a union territory.

Goa was occupied by the Portuguese in the 1500s, and Portugal continued to run the show until Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent in troops to “liberate” the state in 1961. Thanks to the influence of the Portuguese arm of the Roman Catholic Church, more than one quarter of the population here is Christian (compare to about 2.3% for India as a whole). The colonial influence is visible in the design and architecture of many of the homes and commercial buildings, and particularly in the baroque facades in the churches in the town of Old Goa.

When Portugal’s fortunes fell, there was a lot of unrest in Goa, and it continued from the 1800s until Independence. During this time, the state built up its relationships with other countries, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Goa is almost inaccessible by land, and all of this close contact with other nations helps to explain why its culture is so different from that of other parts of India. Its food is different too: Goan food is generally hotter (i.e., spicier) than that of the North, but no less diverse and tasty. The world-famous “vindaloo” originated here, and one of the best Goan dishes is fish curry.

The water's great – once you get to it!

Goa has been a tourist destination, particularly for the British, for centuries. During the late 1960s and 1970s, the state was inundated with hippies from all over the world; ever since, officials have been working to eradicate its reputation as the perfect place for young stoned Westerners to gather on the beach to witness the miracles that occur there almost every day, such as sunsets. Now, an estimated two million visitors of all ages come to Goa annually, particularly from Europe and Russia (although the taxi drivers said the number of tourists was down considerably this year, no doubt because of Europe’s economic problems.)

On the Beach

After a one-hour flight from Mumbai, our group arrived in Goa for our last two days together. We stayed at the Hotel Alor in Calangute, another basic but secure and friendly hotel. (The first photo in this blog post was taken from my balcony there, facing west toward the sea.) Many of our group members did spend these final days “on the beach”: sipping drinks under beach umbrellas during the day, going bar-hopping at night, taking yoga classes, having manicures, and just generally recovering from the crazy travel schedule of the previous fifteen days.

I had decided to stay in Goa an additional three days so I spent some time checking out alternative accommodation, sorting out flight changes, and cancelling the hotel in Mumbai that I had previously booked. Now relieved of the Albatross, I also attempted to do a bit of shopping before I returned to Canada.

Our group had two wonderful last dinners together in Goa and we parted with many hugs on the morning of November 19. About half of us stuck around the area for a few days after the tour ended – most moving to other beaches. At the suggestion of Mark, a travelling companion who was also going there, three of us went ten or fifteen minutes farther south to Nagoa, away from the water, to the beautiful resort of Presa di Goa.

Lazy Days

At the Presa di Goa, especially compared to all of our previous accommodation in India, I’d have felt as though I were staying at the Ritz even if I had not been upgraded to a larger room due to some minor renovations. Presa di Goa is a restored country house that has been furnished in antiques in the Portuguese style. It features manicured gardens, swaying palm trees, a stone swimming pool, a spectacular range of meals prepared with talent and artistry (available as room service or outside, at the thatch-roofed dining pavilion), a four-postered bed with lots of pillows and clean sheets, a balcony with a table and wi-fi reception, newspapers delivered to the door each morning, and water that was clean enough to drink right from the tap. Although, of course, I didn’t. All this for about Cdn $60/night (excluding meals, which were also very reasonable).

Lunch, at Presa di Goa

I sank onto a lounge chair beside the pool with a book, and decided I didn’t ever want to move again.

Churches and Spices

Despite our reluctance to stir, the three of us who were staying at the resort did rouse ourselves enough one day to take a couple of tours, since we knew we’d likely never get another chance. The first was to Old Goa, where St. Francis Xavier founded a Jesuit Mission in 1542, and where he is entombed.

Thanks to the religious leaders of the Portuguese occupation, for more than 200 years the Inquisition wreaked havoc on Goa, during which time many Hindu temples were destroyed, and all faiths aside from Catholicism were banned. When the Portuguese left, many beautiful churches (not to mention a lot of Christians, and families who’d renamed themselves “D’Sousa,” “Rodrigues,” “Carvalho,” etc.) remained, and several of the old churches have been preserved. We could have spent days just touring the churches of old Goa, but the pool at the Presa di Goa called to us.

On the way back to Nagoa, Naj and I popped into the Sahakari Spice Farm near Ponda for a tasty lunch and a most interesting tour of a plantation that grows a lot of things I’d only ever seen before in tiny bottles on a spice rack – including allspice, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, vanilla, nutmeg, turmeric, and pepper.

Mary and Naj do lunch at the spice farm. Photo: Najla Chatila

Bananas, guava, papaya, mango and pineapple, as well as betelnut and coconut palms are also cultivated there. I understand that the plantation is a haven for many species of birds (84, the brochure says) and I know that there is at least one major spider there because I took a photo of it, as well as a family of elephants.

I spent the final two days of my trip resting up for the return flight to Mumbai, Brussels and Toronto, reading and relaxing, eating and swimming, and resolving that whenever I go anywhere again, I will always again seek out all the adventures I can find, but then I will again also try to spend two days at the end of my trip in quietness and comfort.

There couldn’t have been a better way to conclude my (first) trip to India.


Link to more photos from Goa:

I will be writing a couple more wrap-up posts to summarize some random thoughts about my trip to India that didn’t seem to fit into any one of the posts so far, but this basically concludes the travelogue. Thanks for following along. 🙂

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 11: Mumbai)

Nov. 16-17, 2011

Sampling a huge city – and The Albatross finally takes wing

There is no way to see Mumbai in 1.5 days. Not even the important bits.

In addition to what I did see (info below. You can skip ahead to that if you like), I wanted to see (and still want to see): the University of Mumbai, the Crawford Market, the Chor Bazaar (“Thieves Market”), the inside of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (“The Taj”), the city’s business district (Nariman Point), the Cuffe Parade (an upscale shopping area), Malabar Hill and the Hanging Gardens. I wanted to see a cricket match (or at least part of one) at the Oval Maidan, walk at sundown on Chowpatty Beach, and visit a museum and an art gallery. After that, I wanted to start in on all the stuff I should see in Mumbai but didn’t even know I wanted to see.

Our train arrived at Mumbai’s Bandra Station on the morning of Wednesday, November 16, and we left again the next afternoon by plane for Goa. The reason our visit was so short was in part because Mumbai is expensive for a group of frugal travellers which meant, among other things, that our accommodation was fairly basic. However we made the best of the few hours we had – a dinner at a restaurant near the Leopold Café (which is now unfortunately famous for being one of the sites – along with the The Taj and the Oberoi Trident hotels, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station and several other buildings – that were targeted in the terrorist attacks in November, 2008, plus it also plays a significant role in the novel Shantaram, which several people have told me I must read) served the tastiest chicken biryani ever, which was a lovely coincidence as on the train I had just read in Arivand Adiga’s new novel about two older men who went out for dinner once a week and always ordered chicken biryani: they were in search of the best rendition in Mumbai. They didn’t know about this place we went to, clearly, or they could have stopped looking.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus)

Because I knew we wouldn’t have enough time in Mumbai to see all the places I wanted to see on the tour, I intended to come back after Goa, and had booked a hotel there for my final three nights in India. Unfortunately, a glitch arose with the company with which I had made preliminary plans to do walking tours of the city: after two exchanges of emails, they did not respond again when I attempted to actually book the tours I wanted. My emails to them must have started going into their spam folder, although at the time, when I heard nothing back in response to my increasingly worried messages, I thought maybe they had gone away from their computers for Dawali or were over-booked or something. I did not want to wander Mumbai on my own, and when I could not get hold of the company, I ended up cancelling my plan to return to Mumbai and stayed in Goa (which turned out very well as you will see in my second-to-final post, which is coming soon, believe it or not). But do I need to go back to Mumbai some day to see some of the many things I missed.

A Bit of History

Mumbai (known as Bombay from the mid-1600s until 1996) is a huge city. Originally an archipelago of seven islands, the main section of the metropolis covers 603 sq. km. or 233 sq. mi., and the population is 12 million – fourth largest of any city in the world, and most dense in population. The extended metropolitan area has 20 million residents, and I have read that 500 newcomers arrive in the city daily from other parts of India.

Mumbai is much more Western than the Indian cities we visited to the north—there are more women in western wear, actual adherence to traffic signs and road markings, more English is spoken, and the streets are cleaner and freer of cattle (I don’t think I saw any cattle in Mumbai, in fact). According to the entry at Wikipedia (from which I also got the population and area stats), Mumbai is the richest city in India, but it seems likely that most of each day’s 500 newcomers end up in the city’s extensive and now world-famous slums. Most of the Indian people I asked cannot imagine how the country’s growing prosperity will ever be of real benefit to its poorest citizens.

"public facilities"

The Mumbai region is believed by archeologists to have been occupied by humans since the Stone Age. Like many other parts of India, it has been ruled by invaders from a whole range of different cultures and nations, from Buddhists through various indigenous dynasties and Muslims to the Mughals and the Portuguese. The British had a significant role in the development of Mumbai as it is today (particularly South Mumbai) between the late 1600s when the British East India Company moved its headquarters to Bombay, until Independence in 1947.

How the other half live: The Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai

The British influence is clear in the Gothic Revival architecture of many of the buildings in the Colaba district of south Mumbai, including the aforementioned Taj Hotel (which I saw only from the outside, but my friends Naj and Mark went in there for a drink and brought back pictures. It looks extraordinarily opulent. You can take a virtual tour here), and the railway station (long known as Victoria Terminus, it is now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), as well as in many other hotels and other buildings in the downtown area.

What We Did See

Gateway of India

After dropping off our luggage at the hotel and eating breakfast, we went as a group on an “orientation tour” of Mumbai near the Gateway of India (completed in 1924, it is made of basalt and concrete and is a magnificent blend of Muslim and Hindu architectural styles). From there, about six of us set off by ferry for the Elephanta Caves, which I wanted to see, and a few others were interested in checking out as well.

The Elephanta Caves on Elephanta Island (named by the Portuguese for a colossal stone elephant found there that was later moved to the Bhau Daji Lad–formerly Victoria & Albert  – Museum in Mumbai) are about an hour by slow boat, churning through some of the most disgusting-looking sea water imaginable – cloudy and slippery-looking, with garbage and dead fish floating around in it, it resembles very bad soup. There was a marvelous view of the Mumbai skyline and the Gateway as we moved away from shore, and we passed some interesting looking ships and off-shore edifices, but those were about the only things to recommend the voyage to a group of people who were hot, tired, and short-tempered after the train ride the night before.

The walk in the hot sun from the arrival dock at Elephanta Island to the caves was long and tiresome – first along a jetty and then across a low dam (you can take a decorative train/shuttle, but we didn’t: it looked hot as well – and again I was thinking, if this is November, what would India in July be like?), then up a very long set of stone steps roofed in blue tarps. The steps were wide and lined along both sides with dozens of vendors who wanted us to buy buy buy . . .  everything from carved wooden and stone Ganeshis and other gods to t-shirts to jewelry to textiles. In addition to being generally irritable due to heat and weariness, most of us by then had just about had it with hawkers, and to add to the aggravation, the wildlife on Elephanta Island seemed to have turned on us—or at least on one member of our group, which unsettled the rest of us as well.

Mean Monkey

At the first snack vendor we came to after the ferry, most of us had bought water and pop and chips—our usual fare when we didn’t have Abhi with us to warn us what was safe to eat and what was not. Before we had even reached the tarp-shaded stairway, a crow had swooped down on Liam, normally an even-tempered and fun-loving song-writer from London, and taken an entire bag of potato chips he’d just opened right out of his hands and flapped away with it. He was not amused. Then, when we emerged  from the blue shade into an open area at the top of the stairway, a colony of aggressive monkeys came at us and one grabbed Liam’s open bottle of pop, not only “stealing” it but also drenching him, and leaving him with no snacks or fluids. By that point we were all worried about the monkeys (there were signs to warn us that they could be nasty), but we carried on.

Fortunately, the Elephanta Caves are both remarkable and cool – and, best of all, the monkeys seemed disinclined to come inside them. The columns and the carvings of gods and humans and animals within the caves date from between the sixth and seventh century, one group of them carved by Buddhists and another by Hindus. Some were damaged when the Portuguese arrived (a perhaps-apocryphal tale says that they fired a canon into the caves to ensure that the structure was stable and destroyed a lot of the carved columns in the process).

After about half an hour of touring the caves, which did not do them justice, we descended again to the docks and returned to the mainland. It was by now late afternoon, but on the way back to our hotel we took a bit of time to check out the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, which—modelled after St. Pancras Station in London—is magnificent, elaborate and huge. Outside, I ran into Naj and Mark and as the three of us stood snapping photos I thought about how interesting it was that all three of us came from countries that had been “colonized” by the British to various extents (they are from Australia and Ireland respectively, and I’m Canadian), and that there we were in India – which has also had more than its share of British rule. Still, the Brits did know how to build a spectacular building (and railway system, for that matter).

I Bid Adieu (but not Farewell) to The Albatross

The Albatross, on arrival in Toronto (I whited out my street address so no one sends me any other albatrosses)

At the General Post Office (GPO) in Mumbai, I finally got rid of the package that so many of us have now come to know as “The Albatross.” I promise the “big reveal” of photos of its contents in the final installment of this blog. (I’m not being coy. I simply can’t bring myself to open it, even though it has now been sitting in my living room for two weeks.)

As I mentioned several months ago, I had read in my Rough Guide: “Sending a parcel from India can be a performance. First take it to a tailor to have it wrapped in cheap cotton cloth, stitched and sealed with wax. Next, take it to the post office, fill in and attach the necessary customs forms, buy your stamps, see them franked and dispatch it. Surface mail is incredibly cheap and takes an average of six months to arrive – it may take half or two times that, however.”

On the morning of the 17th of November, after being told by the front desk staff at the hotel that the small post office down the street would not be able to handle my big bundle, I took a taxi to the GPO downtown. The taxi driver, a man who has been picking up fares from in front of the Hotel Supreme on Panday Road almost every day for 30 years, he told me, took the personal interest in my welfare that I found so frequently in India. He was very kind: he knew exactly what I needed to do to get the Albatross out of my life for a while, and he was going to make sure I got it done. As a bonus, he pointed out local sights as we drove by them.

When we arrived at the post office – yet another enormous, impressive building  (why did I choose that day to leave my camera at the hotel? The whole experience was fascinating and photo-worthy. Now I need to go back to Mumbai so can I mail something else, and take pictures), my driver led me across the street (St. George, I think) to a row of booths where men were arranging the complex preparation of parcels for shipment for a few hundred rupees per parcel (about $5)  prior to their being taken to the post office.  One of the specialties of these packagers (I shall call them parcel wallahs, although I’m not sure if this term is correct or not) is the sewing of cloth wrappers for parcels to be mailed, and they weren’t impressed that I’d brought my own cloth wrapper, which had been quickly sewn together for me in Jaipur when I bought the things inside it. They felt their cloth would have been superior, and I am sure it would: I promised to use their system next time.

A senior parcel wallah then set to work with a very long needle and thick white thread to sew the package more securely so that the corners did not flap as they had when I handed it to him, when the parcel had been more like a small pillow inside a large closed pillow-case, which made the whole thing easier to carry around India because I could make a knot of the top of it. (I have read online that the sewing of packages is primarily to prevent pilfering, but it also makes them smooth and taut for shipping). After that, the parcel wallah filled out part of a customs form and then got me to fill in the rest of the information. He also gave me a felt pen so I could put my “return” address in India on one side of the package, and my home address on the other.

Then he got up from behind his bench and took me across the street (where my taxi was parked, its driver patiently waiting). He came into the post office with me and led me up to a wicket at the far end of the enormous main foyer of the GPO (25,000 served a day), where we waited together for at least ten minutes for a postal worker’s computer to start working again. (No one ever seems to charge for waiting in India, which is amazing because there is so much of it.) Finally the system came back on-line and the postal worker weighed my package and determined the cost of shipping.

It turned out I did not have enough rupees with me to pay the postage, and the post office took neither American money or VISA. So the parcel wallah patiently led me back out of the post office, back across the busy street, and returned me to the packaging area, where he sent one of his coworkers away with the $50 U.S. I had given him. (Interestingly, I felt no concern – I knew he’d come back with the change, and he did, within a few minutes, having even managed to get a good exchange rate for me.) The parcel wallah then led me back to the postal wicket where, at last, to my utter amazement, the Albatross was taken from me and tossed into a big bin. I actually didn’t care if it took six months to get back to Canada. I gave the parcel wallah a big tip. Well, “big” by Indian standards: another couple of hundred rupees.

My grandson and me with the Albatross - so you can see the size of it

(Note: As it turned out, it was only two weeks after I returned from India before the Albatross came back to me. When it arrived at my apartment, I missed the Canada Post delivery worker because I was in the shower. This meant that I had to walk five blocks to the postal outlet and carry the damned parcel home through the streets of Toronto with my arms wrapped around it. Seemed inevitable somehow that it should end that way.)

Despite the long wait, my taxi driver charged me no more than his original quote to get me back to the hotel (and when we arrived, I gave him a tip as well). As we drove back—with me feeling like I’d been released from some sort of bondage—he explained to me at some length why arranged marriages are a good thing. I thought he made some excellent points.

More photos from Mumbai can be found by clicking here

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 10: Ranakpur to Mumbai)

Nov. 15-16, 2011

Night Train to Mumbai

The 13-hour journey between Ranakpur and Mumbai comprised the longest and most challenging night of all the nights I spent in India, but in recollection it is a perfect example of why I am happy that I could not afford too many luxuries on that three-week trip. The overnight train ride was an experience I would not have missed for the world – although I will happily go some distance out of my way in future never to have to repeat it.

Just outside the Ranakpur train station

Our group of fifteen arrived by jeep at the train station in Ranakpur at sundown, about ninety minutes before our train was due to depart. We spent most of the intervening time buying food and water and using the bathroom, aware that such activities were going to be more challenging once we had embarked.

The highlight of the wait – and yes, there was at least one highlight for me no matter where I went in India – was that I saw a chai-wallah pushing his cart along the platform and knew what he was called because of all the India-based books I’ve read. Like the moment at the Red Fort in Agra that stirred to life through all my senses Jodha, the favourite (albeit imaginary) wife of Akbar, as Salman Rushdie had created her in The Enchantress of Florence, the sight of the chai-wallah evoked scenes in several other novels: most recently, Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower.


A “wallah” is a person who performs a certain task or is involved in a specific field – so a rickshaw-wallah or an auto-wallah drives an auto rickshaw, a dhobi-wallah is a laundry worker, and a chai-wallah serves chai tea.

We Embark

Our guide Abhi had gathered us together in the area on the platform where our sleeping car would stop. He warned us that our train would be in the station for only ten minutes and we’d need to get ourselves and our luggage on board within that time. Our experience getting onto another train in Delhi and then off again in Agra had taught us to trust his words: we knew we would need to move quickly. I was burdened not only with my short, full backpack and my suitcase (the others just had full-length backpacks, which was an advantage in situations like this, although the wheels on my suitcase were an advantage when we had to walk any distance), plus I was still carrying The Albatross ­­­­­­­­­–– a pillow-sized object that contained a couple of ill-conceived purchases weighing 6.7 kg.

I was near the front of our group and from the moment I stepped aboard the train I was worrying about those at the back. The train car was jam-packed with travellers and their belongings, train attendants, and vendors and their wares, and the aisle was narrow. It was impossible to move forward without literally pushing ahead – and even doing that I feared we would leave someone behind on the platform. But then to my relief I saw that some of our group had gone to the front of the car and were now pressing their way down the aisle toward the bunks between us to which we’d been assigned. Each bunk had a number, and each of us had been told which bunk number would be ours.

I had booked private rooms throughout my stay (one of the few aforementioned luxuries in which I had indulged) but I had known from the beginning that I would not have my own compartment on this train. What I had not known was that there would be no compartments on the train at all. We would have a fold-out bunk in a crowded public car, and that was it.

Let me describe our third-class air-conditioned sleeping car. Down one wall against the windows closest to the platform were eight or ten ten sets of bunks, each three bunks high. The two top bunks in each set were strapped up against the wall, and before bed, all the people from the two bunks that were above the bench seat (which ultimately became the lower bunk) sat together on the seat with the person who would ultimately sleep on it. Many times, more than one person – often a mother and child – were slated to sleep on one of the bunks, which meant that there could be quite a few people sitting on the lower bench pre-bedtime. They passed the time by tapping or talking on cell phones, watching other people – the “locals” found foreigners particularly interesting to watch, probably for good reason – and eating their dinners: the families having brought food from home.

Photo: Antonia and Janine

Across from these bunks set parallel to the tracks on one side of the car, there were crosswise banks of bunks, two per track-parallel set. There were three levels of bunks on each side there as well, facing one another, so that on the lower bunk/bench before bedtime, there could have been three or four or five people on each side, facing one another. Beneath their seats was their luggage and what didn’t fit there, they carried on their laps or jammed down into any available space on the seat.

In summary, each train car accommodated maybe 100 passengers plus their children and belongings, and all of their sleeping quarters, not to mention the attendants and the vendors who wandered up and down the narrow aisle offering food and chai and other merchandise for sale. The system worked perfectly when all the passengers had stowed themselves into their bunks at night, but before the bunks were let down, it was chaotic.

Our Compartment

When I got to my assigned seat—which was a lower bunk—with two others from our group (Antonia and Janine, young Swedish women who were assigned to the lower and middle bunks opposite me), we found an extended family taking up all of the bench space on both sides of the compartment that we were to share with them. They included an older woman (50s?) and a younger woman (30s), both in saris, doling out food, the husband of the younger woman, their two children, and an elderly man in white. I jammed myself as best I could onto the end of the bench that would ultimately be my bed, with my backpack on the floor between my feet and The Albatross jammed between me and the aisle. Antonia and Janine sat down opposite me. There was, however, no room for our luggage, which blocked the aisle between us and the row of bunks along the window opposite. There, a lovely woman with her child watched us with kindness and amusement.

It seemed impossible that we should travel even two hours under such cramped conditions, much less thirteen, but at that point our guide Abhi suddenly appeared and executed one of his magic tricks. He assessed the situation carefully for a long moment, then started asking our seat companions questions in Hindi. They answered him by bending down to indicate certain items of luggage that were stowed beneath our benches. What Abhi was doing was asking them to point out which pieces of luggage belonged to them. Only one stowable item was permitted per bunk and it came to light during Abhi’s investigation that a couple of the baggage items under our bench did not belong to the people on our bunks. Abhi hauled these out and started wandering around the train car until he found their owners, leaving it to them to figure out what they were going to do with them next.

He then helped us stow our luggage underneath our seats. When he was finished, we were all seated where we were supposed to be, our luggage was all stowed where it was supposed to be, and miraculously, there was room for everything. I use the term “room” loosely: I still had my backpack between my knees and my Albatross stowed at my hip and I was jammed up against the young father. But still I was impressed and my heart filled with delight: yet again, India had showed me how it made order out of chaos.

I started to clap at what Abhi had achieved, and Antonia and Janine quickly joined in – and then so did our Indian fellow travellers until all of us in our little corner of the train car were applauding Abhi’s skill, and he was taking bows. I was moved: it was a bonding experience among strangers who spoke different languages. (As I may have said before, most of us in the group agreed that we would have had a whole different – and much worse – experience in India if it had not been for the street-smarts, intelligence, patience and good humour of our G Adventures guide Abhi [Abhishek] Chhetri. We were very lucky to have him, as is his employer).

Photo: Liam O'Brien

Settling In

At that point, across from me, Antonia and Janine sensibly got out their laptop, put on shared headphones, and watched an episode of The OC. I tried to read but it was hard, especially after the young father next to me got his children onto the top bunk (the older man had previously retreated to the opposite top bunk), arranged the women in his life across from him (so there were now four women on the bench across from him and me) and then proceeded to lie down with his stockinged feet pressed up against my left hip. He clearly felt entitled to stretch out — hence the crowded conditions into which he had placed his wife and mother or mother-in-law, as well as Antonia and Janine – and I didn’t want to move because I was determined not to lose another inch or two of what I considered “my” space. The effort not to jockey for position made it hard to get comfortable and read.

Finally, at about 9 p.m., Abhi wandered by on one of his regular patrols and I suggested that he ask my travelling companions if they were ready to go to sleep yet. He did, and everyone seemed agreeable. The straps that held the upper bunks were released, we were each given a sheet, a blanket and a pillow, we sorted ourselves into our bunks, then we went to sleep . . . or at least attempted to do so.

Photo: Mark Allen

I found sleeping almost impossible because the grandmother in our group had gone to bed on the floor between the bottom bunk that I was in and the one containing her son or son-in-law across the narrow opening between us, so there was nowhere to put The Albatross and my over-stuffed backpack except to stow one behind my head and the other under my feet. It was not a comfortable position, especially since the slippery Naugahyde-type bench was not in any kind of sticking relationship with the sheet and blanket. Every which way I turned, it seemed, I rolled onto one of my running shoes or a water bottle, or heard and felt the crunch and crackle of potato chips being squashed into smaller and smaller bits.

Of course, thanks to all the water we were incessantly drinking, I also had to make a coupe of pit stops in the night. This involved extricating myself from my bedclothes, the Albatross, my backpack, my running shoes, water bottles and chip bags while edging my body down the bench and off the end into the aisle where I could get onto my feet, and then making my way either forward or back (past humans sleeping everywhere and in every position including several men upright just outside the bathrooms) to the toilets situated at the rear of each car.

On one side were western toilets; on the other side the Indian toilets, which are essentially flat openings in the floor. By then I had learned that the Indian toilets were usually cleaner than the western ones, so I used them and as usual admired the strength of the upper legs of the people of India, particularly the women who must get from a squatting position to an upright one several times a day. This is an especially challenging maneuver when you are also trying to avoid letting any part of your body or your clothing touch the floor.

Photo: Antonia and Janine


It was during that night that the whole “living close to the ground in India” experience wore a little thin – for the first and almost only time. All I wanted was for there to be enough fewer people that I could stretch out and get to sleep. I could not even bring myself to tell myself that at least I had a reserved bunk to sleep on, that I should be glad there was a bunk at all, and that the car was air-conditioned, that I had not been asked to share the bunk with anyone else, that I had a country like Canada to go home to in a week, or anything else of that nature. But I must eventually have dozed off because when I woke at 5 a.m. to the sound of a man walking down the aisle yelling “Chai,” ”Chai,” “Chai!” the Indian family was gone. Feeling as though I’d just won a lottery of some sort, I put The Albatross on the floor (hoping someone might steal it), hooked my arm through my backpack (so no one would steal it), curled up in a golden light, and sank into a deep, sound sleep.

What seemed a moment later, it was time to get up, get organized, get off the train and walk into fourth largest (pop.: 12 million) and most densely populated (20,640 people per sq km) city in the world – and I found myself restored: both wide awake and eager.

(Check out more photos on Antonia and Janine’s blog. If you speak Swedish, you can check out the text there, too! Thanks also to two other travelling buddies, Liam O’Brien and Mark Allen, for giving me permission to use a few of their photos.)

Mumbai Station, morning

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 9: Ranakpur)

November 14-15, 2011: Ranakpur

Bats, Bees and Black-Faced Monkeys

On our trip to India, our group was treated to a whole range of transportation options, from taxis, through tuk-tuks, to camels, to buses of various shapes and sizes, and later a train and a plane. This time, we travelled between cities by jeep. (A boat ride had been scheduled around the lake palaces of Udaipur but a wedding interfered. November is prime wedding season for Hindus in India; everywhere we went, it seemed, something was either closed or at least complicated by a wedding. A couple of members of our group took to wandering into wedding processions in the street when we came upon them, where they were welcomed by the families and guests and had a lovely time contributing to the celebrations. At the Taj Mahal a newly-wed Australian couple elaborately dressed as a raja and ranee were getting photos taken with their entourage – to the apparent amusement of visitors who looked to me to be far more deeply steeped in Hinduism than did the bride and groom.)

Photo: Liam O'Brien

Travelling by jeep to the Ranakpur region, ninety minutes from Udaipur, allowed us the opportunity to stop along the highway to see a traditional farming enterprise. There, an irrigation system was powered by an elderly blind man, who sat cross-legged on a wagon behind two oxen, which he drove in a circle to raise water from a well. The water was then diverted to different fields as needed. The fields were cultivated by another pair of oxen that pulled a plough behind them.

Click here to see more photos from the Ranakpur/Aranyawas/Jain Temple segment of our trip

Photo: Mark Allen

En route to Ranakpur, we stopped a second time to observe about a hundred flying foxes folded and hanging like paper-wrapped fruit in trees above the highway, sleeping away the day (a real treat for me, as many of you will know). We gradually entered a hilly, jungle area and some of the most beautiful country I have seen in India. Monkeys sat on concrete abutments along the roadway, watching us go by, and we passed a “leopard crossing” sign.

Our accommodation near Ranakpur was at the Aranyawas Resort in the Aravalli Hills. There, instead of the blaring noise of street traffic, we were wakened in the morning by the sounds of monkeys galloping across our balconies and rooftops (they are not dainty, quiet creatures, it turns out). There were lots of langur monkeys in the area, and leopards have indeed been sighted (not by us) at the pool created by the human-made waterfall just below the resort. We all enjoyed the greenery, the calls of birds, the hoots of an alpha male monkey and the honks of geese—quite a contrast to the busy and noisy urban scenes that had surrounded all of our accommodation until now.

The Aranyawas facility was spotless and the food outstanding. Like everywhere we went in India, there were the occasional power outages and here, the water also suddenly went off one afternoon — just as I had finished massaging shampoo into my wet hair in the shower. I stood and waited, wondering what my options might be if it never came back on again (a dip in the leopard pool? Simply allowing my lathered self to dry, and moving on like that?) but after a few minutes I was hit by a blast of cold water and resumed my shower. I was used to cool showers by then, and because it is warm in India even in the winter (usually over 30C), I did not mind.

Jain Temples

We took the same jeeps on a three- or four-hour excursion from the resort to see one of the major temples in the Jain religion.  Jainism is a small religion, but small is relative in India—an estimated 4.2 million people are Jains (compare to estimated 827 million Hindus, 150 million Muslims, 37 million Buddhists, 27 million Christians, 19 million Sikhs, etc.) and the religion has many followers outside of India. It is believed by historians that Jainism grew from the same roots as Hinduism, and had its origins in the Indus Valley several centuries before the Common Era. The principles of Jainism are set out in detail in this Wikipedia entry, and some of the more noticeable practices of the Jains arises from their very comprehensive interpretation of the principle of non-violence. They make every effort to harm no living creature – which means of course that they are vegetarians (to an extreme in some cases, not eating certain vegetables if it will require killing the whole plant), and in some more rigorous communities, they wear no clothes and sweep the path in front of them before they walk in order to avoid harming any insects or even microbes.

Although the specific history of the temple is not known either, it is believed to have been built between the late 14th and mid-15th centuries. Made of a pale marble, it features 1440 individually carved columns – all different – and is constructed in such a way as to admit the most light possible to the interior of the building. It is an amazing sight, and I kept taking more and more pictures until I admitted to myself the impossibility of capturing it.

As I meandered about the temple, I met a couple of kids who were fascinated by my camera, so I took a photo of their small group and showed it to them in the view finder: they seemed surprised and pleased. I told them I would send them a copy of the photo if they sent me an email asking for it, and I wrote down the email address for them, but they spoke no English and had no internet so I doubt I’ll hear from them.

A colony of wild bees

At one point I stuck my head out of the temple to look at the outside of it and discovered an absolutely enormous colony of wild bees. After I’d finished my tour of the temple, I wandered around outside the building and found that there were at least four bee colonies of similar size. Due to the beliefs of the Jains, I suppose these beehives are safe from destruction, but I would not want to be in the area if one of their number gets aggravated with a human. (I have since read on-line blogs from people who have, in fact, been stung and chased by bees here. We were fortunate — but then, we were careful not to go too close.)

We spent the next day relaxing by the pool at Aranyawas Resort, which was a good idea as it meant we were rested up before the amazing experience of taking a night train to Mumbai – a method of transportation that allowed none of us to get much sleep.

Picasa photos related to this blog post:

Aranyawas, Ranakpur & a splendid Jain temple

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 8: Travelling With Your Stomach)

At our first meeting on our first day in Delhi, our tour guide Abhi told our group, “It won’t be if you get sick, it will be when.”

He told us cheerfully that “Almost every visitor to India gets sick,” and although he did feel that some of the ailments his charges suffered were more psychologically than physically induced, he was pretty sure that for most of us it was going to be unavoidable that we would come down with something. “You’ll likely feel sick for a day or two,” he said, “but then you will get better.”

I was glad of his reassuring tone, having been advised by just about everyone back in Canada to exercise extreme caution, or risk being flattened by diseases ranging from cholera to dysentery, and symptoms from fever to a prolapsed rectum. (Having a son who serves as the on-air biologist for a series of programs about parasites does not help to reduce your paranoia as you prepare to travel to exotic places.)

However, the problem with feeling as though it is inevitable that some ailment is going to hit you at some point, even if you are assuming it will be mild, is that you spend a lot of time just waiting for that to happen. You do all the reasonable things — like avoiding drinking water out of anything but a bottle you have unsealed yourself, not even brushing your teeth with water from a tap, trying not to let water into your mouth when you take a shower, avoiding any fruits or vegetables you haven’t peeled yourself, and giving a wide berth to food prepared by road-side vendors. Some places where we stayed (such as the “glam-camp” at Pushkar) posted signs to indicate that their fruits and vegetables had been washed in mineral water, but I still wouldn’t eat them. In fact, I didn’t have a fresh vegetable from the time I arrived in India until I reached Goa, where I inadvertently forgot I was still in India and ate a tomato with my scrambled eggs. (Fortunately, it didn’t make me sick, and it tasted great.)

Some of our group avoided meat throughout the trip — and not just the vegetarians. (They didn’t suffer: there are lots and lots of great vegetarian dishes in India.) At times when properly prepared food was not available, mainly on the bus and train trips, we subsisted on pre-packaged products like potato chips (which my British companions referred to as “crisps” so often that it will take me a while to stop thinking of them as that), bottles of pop, and cookies. And lots and lots of bottled water.

But still, a part of me always assumed that nothing I could do was going to prevent my getting an upset stomach somewhere.

As it turned out, the way the stomach ailments went through our group made me think at one point that it could have been a flu bug that someone had brought from home that was being passed from one of us to another — we went down one at a time and then came back up again without much problem. Some people were really sick for 24 to 48 hours — unable to keep anything in their stomachs — while others of us were only mildly inconvenienced. One or two made it all the way through without getting sick at all, while others occasionally exacerbated their problems by enjoying one too many rums the night before: once or twice, imagining what it must be like to have a hangover on a dirty, bumpy crowded bus when it’s about 32 degrees and there’s no air conditioning almost brought on an attack of sympathetic nausea in me.

When the bug (or the bugs) finally did hit me, despite everything I’d done to avoid it/them, I felt almost relieved: now I could stop worrying about getting sick, I thought (although of course I couldn’t let down my guard about what I ate and drank, lest I get something else). When it did happen — somewhere between Udaipur and Ranakpur — I might have got it from a sandwich I bought from a usually reliable coffee chain, or from swallowing water in a swimming pool, or from a restaurant whose meal had caused a few people to feel a bit uneasy — or maybe it was, in fact, just something I’d caught from a fellow traveller. Who knows?

Once you’ve worked your way around travelling with a stomach upset you find that it’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be. You can always ask a driver to stop for you in an emergency — well, of course, unless you are on the train. But what I learned from this trip is that worrying about it ahead of time is almost more hassle than the actual condition.


My tips for those who are travelling to places where they may get sick:

In addition to prescription medications that your travel medical clinic may prescribe, such as ciprofloxacin, bring along Immodium and some kind of nausea-prevention medication. Another way to help your stomach is to consume probiotics, acidolphilus etc. before and during your trip (see first comment below)  

Don’t take the Immodium unless you must — by which I mean because you are travelling in  a public vehicle with no bathroom, or because you need to see some tourist site you’ll never get to see again. It’s better to let whatever is “bugging” you get out. Carry toilet paper in your hand-luggage in case you need to make an unscheduled stop. And bring a rehydration powder that you can add to water if you do lose a lot of fluids in a short period of time. (Add it to bottled water, or you’ll be right back where you started from.)

(Edit: I just remembered that someone in our group brought charcoal pills to stop vomiting. I know nothing about charcoal pills except that once I wrote an article about how some researchers were trying to use a charcoal-based concoction to stop vomiting and diarrhea in kids who had been poisoned with e coli and were getting morbidly dehydrated. I’m not sure how the research turned out, either. I only mention this because I like to be thorough. 😉 )

Rice and bananas are good things to eat if  you have been unwell — stick with them until you get your stomach back for the spices and oily foods. Get extra sleep when you can, but as much as possible, just keep right on trucking….

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 7: Udaipur)

Friday to Sunday, Nov. 11-13, 2011, Udaipur

Dances with water pots, and one with an Albatross

The bus trip to Udaipur (pronounced “You-Dah-Pur” — accent on the first syllable. I kept pronouncing it like “You-Diaper,” and, thankfully, my fellow travellers kept correcting me) was a long one — nine hours — and some people found it quite taxing — especially the few who weren’t feeling well. The bus was crowded and several local families sat on the floor in the aisle with their belongings. Their children looked at us with great curiosity and enough wisdom/caution not to return our smiles. It was the first bus I’ve seen with sleeping compartments above the seats, where the luggage bins usually are.

At one point the driver’s assistant made his way up the aisle, singing out for customers, with a splendidly arranged tray of what looked a bit like trail mix — nuts and coconut flakes — but it delivered the pungent odor of the chiles that were used to decorate the tray. When a passenger requested an order, the seller made a cone from a square of newspaper, filled it with the nut mixture, squeezed fresh lime over the top, and handed it over in exchange for a few rupees. The snack looked delicious but also none-too-sanitary, and the members of our group declined the opportunity to try it.

Highlights of that bus trip were few and far between, although at least we had more leg-room and a bit less dirt than we did on other segments of the journey. However, I was amused by two members of our troupe several rows back from me who sang songs to each other (and to anyone else who would listen) to help to pass the time, and by my seat companion, a young woman whose butt had been rubbed nearly raw by the ornamentation on the saddle of her camel the night before: she rode the last couple of hours with her head hanging off the seat, and her feet up against the neck rest, to give her behind a break. (I have a photo, but I am planning to make some money from repressing it.)

We arrived in Udaipur at about 9 p.m., checked into our hotel (the Vishnupriya — none too clean and the bathroom floor was flooded when I checked into my room; I am not a real fan of that hotel) and we went out immediately again for dinner at a rooftop restaurant with a splendid view of the city all lit up in the darkness. Flying foxes (a fruit bat) swooped over our heads as we ate.

Pretty City

Udaipur has been called the “most romantic city in India,” and it comes by that description honestly. There are several lakes in the area and there are palaces in the lakes, and the town winds uphill and down, revealing intriguing and diverse cityscapes every which way you look. Our guide told us, “People say that when you go to Venice, it is so beautiful it makes you want to die, but they say that Udaipur is so beautiful, it makes you want to live.”

Udaipur is a warm, friendly city with lots of small street-front shops. If you’re up for bargaining, you can find great leather goods, blouses, trousers, art, crafts, shoes, bangles and innumerable other items. The streets are far less crowded than are those of any other city we’ve been to, and they’re cleaner!

We were in Udaipur for three nights and most of us took the opportunity for a bit of R and R — shopping, wandering the streets, and lounging by the hotel pool. We got in a couple of excellent meals, including one at the Whistling Teal — a hookah restaurant — where I had the best tandoori chicken I’ve tasted in my life (but skipped the hookah), and one at The Tiger, where the price fixe menu included papadams, an aubergine-and-tomato-sauce dish with rice, and banana fritters for dessert — delicious, and a great deal at only about $8.00 total for the evening, including the tuk-tuk that got us there. The Tiger is a rooftop restaurant, too, overlooking the bathing ghats of Lake Pichola; in the still, warm night, the reflection of the lights of the temple, palaces and hotels shimmer across the water.

The Pots

A highlight of Udaipur for me was a cultural event I took in with one of our guides, Ricky, on the second night we were there. The Concert de’Indian Cultural Heritage at Bagore Ki Haveli, Gangaur Ghat, included traditional dances and presentations from the states of Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujurat and Goa. It included women dancing while neatly tapping consecutive small castanets attached along their arms and legs and feet with a ball attached to a rope, other women dancing with fire-filled braziers on their heads, an amazingly talented puppeteer and — the crowning glory in more ways than one — a woman who danced with two, then four, then five, then seven, then ten clay pots on her head. She was reconstructing the traditional practices of rural women who, needing to travel long distances to get water, make their heads save their heels by carrying as many pots as possible on top of one another.

The dancer, a woman of 65 — who, my guide told me, had recently had hip surgery — not only danced with all of those pots on her head, she did so while simultaneously picking up a kerchief with her teeth, then dancing on broken glass, then dancing with one foot on either side of a pie-plate-like metal pan which she banged back and forth in rhythm with the music. I was delighted to give her a small donation in addition to the entry fee,  and to have my picture taken with her.

Others in our group took advantage of a cooking class and learned to make several of the fabulous dishes we’ve been enjoying since we arrived in India. Some of my favourites so far have been:

  • chicken biryani
  • chicken tikka
  • fish curry (from south India, particularly Goa)
  • thali
  • parathas
  • alu ghobi
  • palak paneer
  • bhaji and
  • pickle

The Rise of The Albatross

In Udaipur, several of us toured the Hindu Jagdish temple where the stone carvings are intricate beyond belief. I intended to visit the City Palace too, but I arrived at the entrance to that complex with a large package I wanted to mail home only to discover that the post office (which was located next to the gates of the palace) was closed on Sundays, which is what day it was. Aggravated with myself for not having trusted the tuk-tuk driver who took me up there and warned me that the post office was closed (because of stories I’d heard of tuk-tuk drivers misinforming foreigners of many things in order to divert them to businesses operated by their relatives and friends, and because this tuk-tuk driver had offered an express-post outlet as an alternative, which I’d declined), I stubbornly walked back to the hotel with the cloth-wrapped package in my arms rather than paying for another tuk-tuk.

It took me about half an hour to walk back to the Vishnupriya (I only took a wrong turn once). Since I had carried the package since Jaipur, and since it contained a bedspread and a wall hanging that I should not have bought, I was beginning to think of the heavy, pillow-case-sized object as my albatross. By the time I got The Albatross back to my room, I was too tired and hot to go back up to see the palace. Instead, I sank with great relief into the waters of the hotel swimming pool.

I probably sank into them a little too deeply for my own good, perhaps swallowing some of the water in my eagerness to get cool, for I think it may have been there that I got my one small bout of upset stomach. I consider myself fortunate that I did not have my distressed tummy on the day of the nine-hour bus trip or on the overnight train ride to Mumbai, but only on the day we rode in a jeep for 1.5 hours to a wildlife preserve near Ranakpur, then headed out again for a one-hour trip each way to see the most amazing temple we had yet encountered. As it was, if it had not been for several doses of Imodium, I would not have made it.

(Check out more photos from Udaipur here.)

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 6: Pushkar)

Wed. and Thurs., Nov. 9 and 10, 2011, Pushkar

Why is there never a camel when you need one?

The lake at Pushkar is one of the most sacred Hindu sites in India. It came into being when Lord Brahma, the Creator (Brahma being one of the the top three Hindu gods, along with Vishnu, the Preserver, and Shiva, the Destroyer) dropped a lotus flower to the earth. Where the three petals landed, three lakes appeared in the middle of the desert; of these, Brahma signified that Pushkar would be the most important by convening the entire pantheon of Hindu deities (90,000 at the time) for a meeting there.

But then Brahma made a big mistake. He married a shepherdess instead of Savitri, his intended. It was not entirely his fault: it was augured that he should get married at a certain moment in time and Savitri, busy getting dressed for the wedding, showed up late. He grabbed whomever was available instead. Savitri was beyond enraged, and to punish Brahma, she decreed that henceforward, instead of being worshipped everywhere in the world, he would be worshipped only at Pushkar. This was a big punishment because it means that, in order to worship Brahma, Hindus can’t just build a temple near where they live, as they can for the 3.5 million or so other Hindu deities that now exist: they have to come to Pushkar. And they do: they travel from all corners of the earth to make “Pushkar Puja” — to bathe in Pushkar Lake in order to cleanse their souls. According to my trusty Rough Guide, nearly 500 temples have been built around the lake and the ashes of such famous Hindus as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru have been scattered from its bathing ghats (steps down into the lake).

The most auspicious day of the year to bathe at Pushkar Lake is the day of the full moon of the Kartika month — the exact day that our group arrived in Pushkar.

In addition to the thousands of pilgrims who come from everywhere to have their souls cleansed on this important day, thousands upon thousands more travel there during the week preceding the full moon of Kartika to attend the annual camel sale, during which event up to 18,000 camels and their owners from all over Rajasthan are in town. In short, Pushkar is not its normal peaceful self — the population having swelled from the usual 30,000 mostly devout Hindus to more than 150,000 people, not all of whom have Brahma-worship on their minds. The event is called the Pushkar Fair, and it includes the usual attractions of a regional fair anywhere in the world — cultural and arts displays, ferris wheels (4), rides for the kids, fireworks, hawkers, games of chance, competitions and contests, food vendors in the street, and even a guy demonstrating an amazing gadget that will slice and dice your vegetables “very fine.”

For a western tourist who is neither a Hindu nor a camel trader, this is perhaps not the best time of the year to visit Pushkar. Especially at night, the fair is crowded beyond belief, to the point where pedestrians press against one another and can only inch along, and many of the attendees are young men looking for trouble or “fun” who have never before set eyes on a white person, and — perhaps fuelled by alcohol and drugs — appear to have less than the best intentions when it comes to meeting this strange new race of people — especially its young female variety.

Still, I’m more than delighted that our tour (by a coincidence of time that might have pleased Lord Brahma himself) ended up in Pushkar when we did. It was a great lesson in what it’s like to be a visible minority. When we sat down in the stands at the fairgrounds, which were comfortably outfitted in mattresses, blankets and even sofas, to wait for a cattle competition to start, dozens upon dozens of men stood in the grounds and stared at us, as though we were the entertainment. We felt quite safe and relaxed at this point, and thought this was amusing, but the attention turned scary later as we made our way back on foot from dinner to our campsite after dark. We were unable to flag down a taxi, a tuk-tuk or even return to our camp by camel wagon, which was how we’d come out in the first place, because of all the crowds, which were so thick we needed to push our way through them at some points. The families had gone home, and the young men were out in droves, laughing and shoving and ogling the young women in our group. A few of the women were deliberately bumped and touched. I was glad for their sakes that we were in a group, and that we had such an assertive and diligent — and obviously Indian — leader).

(More photos from the Pushkar Fair are here.)

But there were also many other experiences we would never have had if we’d come during any other week. Three examples:

  • Since hotel rooms are not to be had during the Pushkar Fair, a whole encampment of huge tents with power, running water, toilets, showers, guards and even internet had been set up for us and several other tour groups, and aside from the heat which can be managed only by fans and patience (it gets cooler at night), it is a great way to “rough it.” There is a large dining tent, and wagon-equipped camels depart on request for the town, and to take tourists on tours.
  • As more-than-adequate compensation for the less-than-friendly-looking men at the fair at night, during the day many people, including couples young and old, and families with their children, grinned at us, waved and said, “Hi!” With equal pleasure, we waved and grinned and said “Hi!” back.
  • All night, Hindu worshippers chanted by the lake, their prayers magnified by microphones to carry throughout the town and beyond into the desert: it made a lovely, haunting sound that I found particularly poignant as I fell asleep in my tent in the light of the full moon.

Other once-in-a-lifetime events form part of all the company’s tours to Pushkar, no matter what time of year:

  • A local Hindu priest trusted by our tour guide (there are many fake Hindu priests around who will restore good karma to tourists, for a price) offered those of us who were interested a small Hindu rite of purification on the ghats of Pushkar lake near sunset, following which we were given marks on our foreheads and “Pushkar Passports” — strings tied around our wrists. Hundreds of devout Hindus were bathing in the lake at the time, which increased the sense of gravity of the moment (we did not go into the lake. We are not Hindu, and besides, the waters may be holy but they do not look very clean);
  • We had a one-hour camel ride, each of us on our own camel with our own camel driver, out to a desert site where, just after sunset, we watched a dance performance by a local family, and were fed a most delicious traditional meal in the moonlight, then transported back to our camp by jeep.

The family that danced for us (it included musicians, singers and a fire-eater as well as dancers, plus a baby who crawled around in the dark on the sand and banged on the drums and added to the vocals) used to catch snakes for the snake-charmers, but since snake charming is falling out of favour in India, they now help the universities’ herpetologists catch and manage snakes, and supplement their income by performing traditional dances for tourists.

As far as the camel ride, well… camels are not like horses. They give you a look that says, “I’ve got better things to do than to be carrying you around, and if my owner weren’t right here right now, I would be rolling on the sand and you’d be wherever you landed: your fate is no concern of mine.” Aside from the camel attitude, which made me wary throughout the ride, probably wisely, I had a great time and quite a comfortable trip. And when the camel driver got up on the camel behind me and urged him forward at a near-gallop in an effort to beat another couple of camels ahead of me, I looked down at the red bracelet on my wrist and remembered that my karma was in good order, and decided that it would all turn out okay.

Which it did.