Category Archives: In India

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.











Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 5: “On Dirt”)

Some thoughts on dirt (a confused and meandering aside) —

Two of our group left today for home, halfway through the tour. The rest of us are disappointed that they didn’t love India as much as we did.

In fact, I think they hated it.

Both of the two who left had been suffering from stomach ailments off and on for several days. It’s been hot and there have been long bus trips, and am sure that experiencing that when you’re unwell is no fun. But they complained that India was too dirty and too crowded, and that they didn’t like it.

I am now feeling badly for complaining about the dirt myself for I have been wondering what those two thought they were going to find in India. Certainly the dirt has been no surprise to me, and certainly the open sewers and poverty are hard to handle. But anyone who has read about India and is planning to visit here must surely know what to expect. The dirt I complain about in the hotel rooms and buses is caused by the dirt in the air which gets on everything. It is caused by ancient crumbling cities and dry topsoil being blown around, and all the pollution and industry that relate to a developing nation. It is not that the people are dirty: those who can afford to be are very clean.

Indian innkeepers are learning the expectations of westerners, but slowly. We are on a budget tour, and a “sustainable communities” tour, and the hotels we are staying in are cheap. They are old and run down, don’t always have hot water and lose their electricity regularly. This is not Toronto. But the hotels have been secure, the staff helpful, the food excellent, and the prices right.

There is certainly garbage everywhere — in the streets, in the fields, by the highway, near the beach. But this speaks more of hundreds of years of inadequate or non-existent municipal garbage systems than it does of intent. I also have to admit that I have never in my life seen so many men peeing outside as I did in India, and I gather that teaching people to use bathrooms for defecation in the slum areas is a challenge. There are certainly cleanliness problems to deal with here, and it is going to take a lot of work.

The other day I used some soap and water and cleaned off the faceplates on the light switches in my hotel room here in Udaipur — the light switches have been black from ages of use in many of the hotels we’ve stayed in. With clean switchplates, suddenly the whole room looked much better.

All of the care-taking staff everywhere have been men and it has long been my opinion that men do not see dirt, so that probably explains everything.

And yes, it is crowded here: it’s India. But there are quiet places too.

And besides, as I told our tour guide (who was feeling very badly that two of our number had disliked his country so much that they had bailed mid-tour — first time in five years it’s happened to him, and certainly not his fault), when I visited London, that city seemed pretty dirty and overcrowded to me too — compared to Canada.

So it’s all a matter of perspective.

Sunday, November 13, Udaipur

Garbage on the beach, Goa

(Update: November 29, 2011, Toronto — I keep editing and re-editing this post and the more I think about the subject, the more I realize that I don’t know what I think about the subject. India is dirty. That is a given. It may always be dirty. And maybe that matters in the big picture [because it spreads disease and signifies poverty], and maybe the whole world needs to do what we can to help address this situation. But in the meantime, if you want to go to India, just accept it, try to avoid stepping in it if you can, but don’t let it spoil your trip. If you can’t hack dirt, don’t go to India.)

Another update: Just noticed this article: ‘Ugly Indians’ Clean Up Bangalore





Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 4: Jaipur)

Nov. 7-8, 2011, Jaipur

In which I take a wrong turn and visit a fort atop a mountain rather than one that is far more accessible and elaborate and therefore the usual destination of tourists.

Agra to Jaipur

We took a local bus from Agra to Jaipur at noon on November 8. Our group had 17 seats in the middle of the dirtiest bus I have ever seen in my life (not surprising, as the air is full of dust and dirt — and since the fans that are positioned over the seats every few rows don’t work, the bus travels with the windows open). There is no bathroom on the bus: an ongoing concern for those members of our group who have been coming down with various stomach ailments, although the drivers have been quite agreeable to stopping by the side of the road when we feeble-bellied foreigners absolutely need them to.

“This is India,” we keep reminding one another when something or other is not up to our usual standards. At least the bus was running….

Famous last words.

After we’d travelled for about ten minutes (we were still in the madness of Agra traffic), the bus rolled to a stop. I thought perhaps we were taking on a few more passengers, but the driver stood up, turned to those already on the bus, and yelled something at us in Hindi. Our guide translated: the bus needed a push. So all the men got off (clambering over a few suitcases in the aisles on the way) and pushed. The engine caught almost right away and we were off again, without further incident in that department.

The highway traffic was like city traffic except more spread out: there were trucks, other buses, motorcycles, tractors, a few SUVs, pedestrians, camels (mostly led by their owners) and cows and bulls (not apparently owned by anyone). The vehicles’ horns are used as frequently and as with as much purpose on the highway as they are in the city, and the traffic lines are ignored as often. The only real difference on the highway is that everyone is going faster. It is important not to try to watch the traffic coming toward you when you are a passenger on the bus any more than when you’re in a tuk-tuk: you have no control over what is going to happen to you, so there is no point in looking.

We stopped regularly in towns to let local people on and off, and we drove by very poor, crowded, stinky semi-urban areas as well as more rural scenes. The image of women crouched in fields at work in their brightly coloured saris will not soon leave me. (Neither will my encounter with an aged woman at the one scheduled lavatory stop we made. She was handing out strips of toilet paper to the tourists, dressed in a bright yellow sari, nearly toothless, wizened, talking cheerfully on a cell phone. I gave her a small amount of money for her efforts. She pocketed it [? Are there pockets in a sari?], gave me a long look and then offered me another piece of toilet paper, which I declined. It is not common practice to say “thank you” if you’re Hindu. So we were cool.) The farming methods I saw were very primitive compared to those I’m used to: I saw one group of people sweeping the grain off stalks of wheat onto tarps, using long poles. Many of the towns have high towers rising from them which are the chimneys of kilns for making bricks.

I was seated next to our guide for this leg of the journey and as we travelled down the highway (it was about a six-hour trip), I asked him questions. From him and a highway sign, I learned that:

  • the reason there are so many unfinished buildings in India is that they are works in progress for practical reasons — the owners only start to get taxed when the buildings are complete;
  • the low stone fences around large sections of fields that have nothing growing or grazing in them are there to keep out squatters;
  • the common myna bird likes to wander around under trucks and other vehicles that are stopped at the regular toll booths on the highway;
  • several of the highways on this route have improved considerably since our group leader started working for G Adventures five years ago — the bus trips used to take much longer; and
  • if you are driving a police vehicle or a funeral van, or are a member of parliament or the winner of a gallantry award, you don’t need to pay a toll fee (see complete list of those who do not need to pay toll fees, and other photos from the bus trip between Agra and Jaipur, here).

I also learned a lot of cool stuff from our guide and my books about the state of Rajasthan and its feisty chiefs, who — unlike those from many other states — fought off or figured out ways to work around or with various would-be conquerors over the years and in 1947, when the country was officially divided into states, they were able to have their state named after them. Here, the rajas also retain stature and respect.

The descendants of Jai Singh II, for example — who built the city of Jaipur starting in the mid-1700s, naming it after himself — are still considered heads of state by the people of the region. The royals maintain a residence at the magnificent City Palace, which I toured, and the Raj’s flag is raised over the palace when the royal family is at home… sort of the same way as the Windsors’ is at Buckingham.

(My photos of Jaipur and area are here, on Picasa)

Jaipur is known as the Pink City, as many of its buildings were painted pink in the late 1800s to reduce the glare from the sun, and many still retain a deep peach-pink cast, but aside from its historic buildings, it is the architecture of the city that is its main claim to fame. Jai Singh II survived being supplanted by the Mughals because Akbar recognized his brains and creativity when he was still a boy — giving him the honorific name “sawai,” meaning “one and a quarter” — and left him to do his thing. Sawai Jai Singh certainly fulfilled his promise, proving not only a wise, kind ruler of his people but also a scientist, mathematician and architect. He built the city of Jaipur according to a very precise set of measurements so that all the streets intersect at exact angles around a central circle. Even the stores on the main streets were built according to strict specifications, and all are exactly the same size.

Other highlights of Jaipur include:

  • Jantar Mantar, one of five observatories built by Jai Singh which contains a fabulous array of huge instruments used during the medieval era for measuring the sun, the planets and the stars (click to see photos here);
  • the Palace of Winds (Hawa Mahal), really only a facade behind which, in the 18th century, the women of the palace were able to see the activity in the city without being seen — an amazing sight when the morning sun is on it;
  • several forts and palaces built by several Rajputs over the centuries, including Jai Mahal in the middle of the Man Sagar Lake; and
  • the Amber Fort and Palace.

I will need to go back to Jaipur to see the Amber Fort and Palace as I missed it completely, having inadvertently had another adventure instead (see below), but I will not complain about this as I loved Jaipur and would be happy to go back any time.

To other prospective travellers to Jaipur, I highly recommend staying at the Jaipur Inn which is almost European in its wide stone hallways, mosaic tiles, screened windows, balconies, and a bar on the rooftop that overlooks the city. It is VERY clean, and friendly: the owner offered to take any of us along who wanted to accompany him on his daily hike to the top of a nearby hill to watch the sun rise over the city. Having done my own hike, I did not join him, but I felt safe and happy in Jaipur and highly recommend a visit there.


In Jaipur in addition to the sights, we took in a Bollywood film, which is an adventure in itself, and only INR70 (about $1.50) per head. You get a reserved seat and everyone is let in just before the movie starts. The theatre was huge and ornately decorated, and the film that we saw has had the largest take of any film in Bollywood history, and it’s only been out for a few weeks. It is a science fiction film named Ra-One (for “Random Access Version 1.0”) and it is the story of a video game that goes badly wrong and starts wreaking havoc on the life of its inventor (Shahrukh Khan), his wife (Kareena Kapoor) and their very cute son (Armaan Veena). It was in Hindi without English subtitles, but it was easy enough to follow. The movie was terrific but the audience was the best: they shouted encouragement at the good guys, yelled and booed at the bad guys, cheered the hero, sang along with the songs, calmed their screaming babies when necessary, danced to the music, and talked on their cell phones. It was amazing.

I am going to take in a Bollywood film in Toronto (maybe the same one. Wouldn’t mind seeing the subtitles because I missed a few jokes and other language-based plot points) to check out the atmosphere created by the Indian-Canadians who attend. Now that I’ve seen it, I wish I had attended some of the Bollywood Film Awards festival that was held in Toronto earlier this year.

The Wrong Turn de Jour

So. I took a tuk-tuk to the Amber Palace and Fort, 11 K from Jaipur. The complex, built by a series of rulers over a period of two centuries, is considered a major highlight of a trip to Jaipur. My driver warned me not to buy anything at the Fort because it would be too expensive (“I will take you to a place later where the price is good.” This is a common tout by tuk-tuk drivers: they get a commission if tourists buy from their friends’ shops), and also not to accept the offer of a ride up to the Fort from the road where he dropped me because “It’s easy for you to walk. Ten minutes,” he said. “No more.”

I descended from the tuk-tuk and headed up toward the fort. After a ten-minute walk, I realized that no one had offered me a ride, and only one vendor — whose hopes I’d raised by asking the price of a hat he was selling, then dashed when I decided not to buy it despite the way he cut the price from his original high of 600 rupees to about 200 — had tried to sell me anything. The wide path was essentially deserted.

Thinking that perhaps all the rest of the tourists had been suckered into the offer of a ride, not having access to the wisdom of my tuk-tuk driver (where do I get such crazy ideas, anyway?), I kept going. Fifteen minutes after that, I stopped and looked around me and realized that the palace I had been heading for was now below me. Above was another intriguing looking fort. But it was far, far above, and it was very hot out (about 32 Celsius, I think, and hotter in the direct sun). I had my backpack and no hat. But when I saw the extensive battlements above, and realized that I was half way there, I could not turn back.

Three young people, two European-looking and the other Indian-looking, all three of the age and appearance of university students, were sitting in the road in the shade of a tree. I asked them how much farther it was to the top of the hill and the Indian person said, “Two or three kilometres.”

More???” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. He suggested I walk with them, but I didn’t want to slow them down so I declined.

“Walk slowly,” he advised as they started off. “You’ll get there.”

A few minutes later a trio of teen males came by and also gave me encouraging signs and signals, although they spoke no English. They suggested that I follow them up a rocky shortcut but I acted out how I would tip over if I tried that. They laughed when they realized what I was “saying” and carried on.

Where I ended up was worth the hike but it took me about two and a half hours to ascend to the upper fort, which is called the Jaigarh Fort, and make my way around it, and by then I was worried that if I didn’t go straight down — without a detour to the Amber Fort — my tuk-tuk driver would give up and return to Jaipur without me.

Jaigarh Fort was where the royal family went when there was a threat of war, and according to a pamphlet I read, “is one of the few military structures of medieval India preserved almost intact, containing palaces, gardens, open and closed reservoirs, a granary, an armoury, a well planned cannon foundry, several temples, a tower and a giant mounted cannon — the Jai Ban, which has a twenty feet long barrel” (Go Jaipur). When the Amber Palace below was threatened, drums would sound and the royal family would beat a hasty retreat to Jaigarh Fort.

There, I saw intriguing and amazing artifacts including weapons, farming implements, tools and cooking vessels. I saw:

  • where the servant women cooked and the royal men and women ate (separately, due to their being under seigr when they were at Jaigarh);
  • a royal bedroom that can only be compared in size to an assembly hall;
  • secret passageways to protect the royal family from unwanted intruders;
  • a water system that mainly involved elephants and camels bringing water up the hill from the lake below;
  • a fantastic view of the cities of Amber and Jaipur.

I also astounded the two guides who showed me around when I told them I’d walked up. “That’s a long hike!” one said. “How old are you?” He obviously thought that I must look much older than my age if I had managed to scale that mountain on my own.

It was a long hike and, tired and sun-burnt, I took a tuk-tuk down to my tuk-tuk. As is the usual outcome of my misadventures, I had an experience I’d never have had without my little mistake, got a spectacular view of Jaipur and a great chunk of exercise. And really, I did see the Amber Fort — from a bird’s eye view. It looked fabulous.








Click to see more photos here