India - 2007


These are the e-mails we wrote home to family during our trip (slightly edited for clarity)

14th September 2007

We got on the flight out of O'Hare with no troubles, and boy business class is nice (we flew using Janet’s dad’s American Airlines employee passes, so it was dirt cheap – pretty much how we traveled all summer)!  We felt like imposters and tried to watch everyone else with how to behave.  It was just strange to be given a menu for the three meals and have the attendants be so attentive!  The 15 hours went by surprisingly quickly (and comfortably).  The airport in Delhi was also no hassle, as our hotel (Namaskar) sent a driver to pick us up (for the exorbitant (ha!) sum of $10 for a thirty minute ride) so we didn't have to deal with the crowds. 

The taxi driver asked outright for a tip, and we told him we didn't have any small change (we got rupees at an ATM at the airport).  He said US cash was fine, so I gave him a buck.  He almost talked me out of another one saying "this is not much money in your rich country", but Janet stepped in and reminded me that $1 was a huge tip here. Phew!  The hotel is nice enough (especially for the price of 300 rupees (Rs) or ~$7), has a fan and flush toilet.  We killed off the current inhabitants (a couple of small cockroaches - not nearly as large as the Mexican ones, so they don't really bother Janet).  After sending this e-mail, we are going to walk the 3km to the Red Fort in Old Delhi.  Jetlag is hitting us pretty hard, so we are trying to stay active. 

Tomorrow (Sat) we get on a 16 hour overnight bus ride to Manali - can't wait to see what that's like (and Janet is wondering how many bathroom breaks there will be, rumor is 4 :)  From there we plan to head into the mountains to a town called Leh. That will only happen if the roads are still open as it is at 3500 meters (~12,000 feet) so there is a lot of snow at times.  We'll update you guys when we can.

16th September 2007

Well we've had an adventuresome 48hrs or so.  Janet has now been headbutted twice by random cows (they literally are all over the roads, it's pretty weird), but no injuries :)  That 16hr bus ride turned into nearly 24hrs, with VERY few stops. Fortunately we rationed our fluid intake accordingly.  We haven't met any other Americans, but there were four Spanish tourists and a Russian family from Israel and a handful of other folks speaking Hebrew (we think).  The only ways the bus ride could have been more hellish is if there were livestock aboard (a la Tanzania) or if the bus had broken down.  Fortunately, we did get a "sleeper" on the bus, which is pretty much a bench on the bus a tad bigger than a twin bed, so we were not TOO uncomfortable.  So we are now in Manali, and looking into ways to get to Leh in the next day or so - after we rest up from the sometimes torturous bus ride.  

On Friday, in Delhi, we went to the National Museum which was a treat.  Not very crowded at all and very nice presentation of artifacts from at least 2000 BC to present. We saw Indian textiles, coins, musical instruments, and old relics from the ancient Indus Valley civilization (contemporary to the Babylonians, or perhaps earlier), and more Hindu gods than you can shake a stick at.  Actually I think there is a Hindu god of shaking sticks at things. . . 

Yesterday, our 3km walk to the fort was trial by fire.  We got a map from our hotel guy (when I asked if we could walk to the fort, he responded that we could walk to Agra (which is over 120 miles!), so of course we could walk there).  Anyway, the walk was pretty easy, except for the lack of road signs and the people on the street.  Rickshaw drivers kept coming up to us asking where we were going.  When we responded we were walking, they said it was dangerous.  When I said “If it’s dangerous, why are there so many people walking here – maybe you should go warn them” they just shook their heads and asked us again if we wanted a ride.  We knew it was safe, because we had asked several policemen directions and they were all very nice, friendly, and said that it was an easy walk.  It was quite frustrating to get hassled the entire 3km, which otherwise would have been a pleasant walk.

We've taken taxi rides in both bicycle and motorized rickshaws, quite the bargaining experience!  A dollar to get across town, and we haggle for every last cent (rupee). Unscrupulous taxi drivers try to take you to their friends’ shops so you buy overpriced trinkets.  We have so far avoided this scam by being extremely firm in our refusal to go anywhere other than our destination (surprisingly difficult actually).

24th September 2007

We are in Leh now and will be here 'till the end of the week.  I've been a bit sick (flu - no birds involved!) but am finally feeling better.  Janet is going on a guided trek tomorrow, staying the night with a homestay family and will be back the next day.  I've decided to take it easy and make sure I'm 100% before we fly back to Delhi on Friday.  The road trip (click here for a clip of a passing truck on the road) from Manali was two days (6hrs one day and 14hrs the next) and is the second highest navigable road in the world.  We both had to stop a couple times to "feed the cows", but that was more due to the windy road than anything else.  It was a beautiful trip, but one I don't think I'd make again (hence the flying to Delhi!)  Janet has really enjoyed checking out Manali and Leh while taking care of me, but we are looking forward to our next stop - wherever that may be.  We'll keep you informed!

28th September 2007

Janet made it safely back from her trek.  It started at 11,500 feet and went up to 13,800 feet.  She spent the night as the only resident with a homestay family in a village called Rumbak that only had about ten houses.  We'll post all the pictures on our website when we get home.   Homestay video 1; Homestay video 2 (with singing)

from Janet: My guide's name was Jeekmad and he was about 25.  He told me most people get married by that age so I asked him what his plans were.  He said arranged marriages are not very common these days, but he will let his mom pick a wife for him, because if his mom is happy then he is happy!  My homestay family consisted of Mamma (Dolkat), Pappa (Solom), and eight kids.  Only the two youngest (daughters) were still around. There was also a laborer staying at the house whose job it was to make mud bricks. They told me he makes about 50 bricks a day for 2 rupees each, so he makes about $2.50 a day, but also gets room and board with that.  The hike itself was not very difficult, except for the altitude, which made it tiring.  The mountain scenery was truly amazing! 

Now I'm (Eric) fully recovered from my illness and tomorrow (Friday) morning we fly to Delhi and then hopefully head out on a train to somewhere new.  We'll give all the dirty details when we get to our next destination.

29th September 2007

It's hard to believe we were so cold only 24hrs ago!  Janet bought a winter coat in Manali for about 400 rupees and managed to sell it in Leh for 200 (really good price, just for you only today!!!!!!!) to a guy on the street.  It was quite the bargaining experience, but for the first time we were SELLING instead of buying.  Yesterday (Friday) we flew from Leh to Delhi (two hours) and then hopped on a 3hr train to Agra.  The airport in Leh was really strange.  We each got searched about four times before boarding and had to move our luggage around several times and then finally "claim" it before it went on the plane. They did feed us on the flight and it was actually pretty good for airplane food.   

We made the train to Agra by about 2 minutes (literally!). Fortunately we got our tickets online, which is a surprisingly easy way to do things, once you figure out where on their website to go.  We booked a cheap crappy hotel near the train station (worst place we've stayed BY FAR - I don't think we'll be staying near train stations in the future without a recommendation) and headed to the Agra fort.  The fort is beautiful and reminded us a lot of the Red Fort in Delhi, but this one is much better maintained (and a lot more tourists).

The Mughal architecture is pretty cool and all of it reminds us a lot of Alhambra in Granada, Spain.  The Taj Mahal is here in Agra, but is closed on Fridays and there are VIPs there today (Saturday) so we are going to stay an extra day in order to see it on the inside.  Last night we whiled away several hours drinking beer at a rooftop restaurant with a beautiful view of the Taj.  Today we got a rickshaw driver to take us around town all day for 300 rupees (40 to the US dollar) which should be pretty cool. This rickshaw driver has been very entertaining so far.  He lived in Australia for awhile and wanted to marry a non-Indian.  His parents and friends, however, had a different plan for him and so he had an arranged marriage about 13 years ago.  He said the first five years were rough, but he is happy now as you have to be happy (his words) in life - it just takes work!  Our next stop is Jaipur and we'll write more from there.

30th September 2007

Yesterday (Sat) we had a driver, Ahmed, take us all around Agra in a motor rickshaw, as the Taj Mahal was closed for VIPs (the 53rd Commonwealth Parliamentary Delegation, according to one sign).  He seemed to be a pretty decent fellow (most are touts) and told us he would drive us around all day (including waiting for us at sights, restaurants, etc) for 300 rupees (40 to the dollar).  The first thing we saw was the "baby Taj", which was built several years before the Taj Mahal and is much smaller, but still pretty stunning.   

He also took us to a place where they weave rugs by hand.  Initially we were reluctant to go, because usually this is the beginning of a scam or at least hard sell and jacked up prices. Ahmed assured us that there would be NO hard sell (he says his role is more of an ambassador to his country, not just a rickshaw driver and that he hates hard sell places). We had a couple hours to kill, so we decided to risk it.  The rug making process was fascinating to see and we got to see people performing all the steps, from designing the rugs, to weaving them, to cutting them, and cleaning them.  We were then led into a showroom, which might be the nicest room in India we have seen (A/C and totally clean!).  There was no hard sell, which was nice! 

After the rug place, Ahmed took us to a place where they make marble pieces with semi-precious stones inlaid into it (just like the Taj Mahal has all over the outside and inside). Some of the creations included lovely tables, plates, bowls, platters, coasters, jewelry boxes, etc.  There we also got to see the entire process from cutting the marble, to inlaying the stones, and polishing.  Then we also were led into a showroom and the pieces there were stunning!  Also, no hard sell - which was good because I probably would have bought something if there was!!  If we ever have a nice house, we may just have to come back to India to furnish it! You'll know what we mean when we get the photos up of these places.  

The reason there is this rug weaving and marble making in Agra is that they have shut down all big industry here to keep the pollution / acid rain from ruining the Taj Mahal.  In support of these activities, the Indian government subsidizes all out-of-country shipping for the rugs and marble.  We saw packages at both places ready to go to England, the States, Israel, etc.  Though Janet is pretty sure they are "plants" to convince us to buy. . . 

We spent sunset at Mehtab Bagh park (across the river from the Taj) and watched a beautiful sunset and the changing colors on the Taj as the sun set.  There were lots of kids greeting us with "hellogivebottle" "helloschoolpen" "hellochocolate" and they were extremely persistent, but didn't know any other English besides those terms.  Following the park, we managed to get rid of Ahmed (he wanted to set up something for the next day) and enjoyed a few beers at a different rooftop restaurant.  Funny thing is that alcohol (including beer) can be pretty difficult to get, but some restaurants manage to go buy it and serve it in teapots and others just serve you.  It's really strange and we haven't figured it out yet, except to ask first if they have beer! 

Today (Sunday) we finally got to see the inside of the Taj Mahal, and it was truly breathtaking.  In the complex there was also a large Mosque and a museum.  The pictures do not really give it justice, something you have to see to believe its beauty.  Which is probably why they charge ~$20 US a head for foreigners (by far the most expensive tourist attraction we have been to, by about 10x, and we could get about a weeks lodging for $40!)  In contrast, Indians pay ~$0.50.  I don't mind paying a little more than locals, but this seems a bit ridiculous.  Though I do have to say it was worth it - simply an amazing place.  We are now getting ready to head back to our (crappy) hotel, pack, and hop on a train to Jaipur.  We hope to write more from there. . .

1st October 2007

Namaste (Hello in Hindi)!  We made it to Jaipur, also known as the Pink City.  Our train got in about an hour late last night (about 11:30pm) and we got a rickshaw to two hotels listed in our Lonely Planet travel book, but both were full.  For no extra charge the driver took us to a hotel that he recommended.  We were hesitant to go there, because a classic scam is for these drivers to take you to a place where they get a commission. However, this guy took us to a nice hotel, nice rooms, clean bathroom (!), A/C, and hot water and it was the same price as the piece of *&^@ that we had in Agra (and other places - 300 rupees a night).  So even if he is getting a commission, we are pretty happy! 

Today we've seen the City Palace (where the current Raj / king lives) which was pretty cool and a minaret tower where we could see great views of the whole city.  It was like a circular staircase, but with no stairs only a ramp.  My guess is it was at least 300 steps up to the top.  The Palace had a room full of cool armory and weapons and there was a place that had the king&queen's clothing worn on special occasions.  Tomorrow we plan on seeing an Indian film and then jumping on an overnight train to Udaipur where there is this palace that was in the James Bond film Octopussy.  Our internet time is about to run out!

2nd October 2007

Last night was quite an adventure!  We had planned to see sunset from the top of Nahargarh fort.  Our guidebook mentions that there is a 2km footpath up to the fort and amazing sunset spot.  So we ask a rickshaw driver to take us to the bottom of the path. He wanted 200 rupees, which is WAY too much.  We finally talked him down to 60, but still felt this was too much and also it took a long time. We had another guy help translate for us as he didn't know much English.  Janet wanted to go with a different driver since this one wanted to screw us so bad, but I didn't want to waste any more time and miss the sunset.   

I should have listened to my wife!  He took us to the wrong place.  By wrong place, it was several miles the wrong direction and at the bottom of a road that he said was 8km to the fort (in reality, it was closer to 20km, as we found out later).  We really started arguing with the guy and told him we were not going to pay him. Then the police came by and the driver went to go talk to them, so we got out of the rickshaw and told the police OUR story.  The cops were obviously on our side (they were all speaking Hindi, but it was pretty easy get the gist of the conversation).  After about 20 minutes or so, the cops told us that the driver would take us to the top in the rickshaw for 100 rupees.  That would have been fine with us at this point, but as soon as the cops left, the driver said he wanted 200.  That's when I lost it.  I started yelling at him that HE made a mistake and so he had two choices.  1) No money and we'll just walk or 2) 100 rupees and he takes us to the top.  He wasn't going for this so I yelled at him even louder about the cops and his mistake (a car stopped to watch us all, I guess it was pretty entertaining for them).  In the end, we just stormed off without paying and started what we thought would be an 8km hike.   

A few minutes later, a car with three guys in their 30s pulled over and offered us a ride. That was when we found out it was 20km to the top!!  They laughed really hard about our story and in gratitude for the ride, we bought them all beer at the restaurant at the top (funny thing is each beer was 100 rupees, so we ended up paying a lot more than if we had just paid the driver - but this way we had a LOT more fun!)  The views from the top were amazing and we could see the whole city. Don't worry we took pictures!  The guys nicknames were Situ (C2?), Manu, and Zaggi.  They told us their real names, but it was hard enough remembering the nicknames.  We ended up spending the whole evening with them.  They really liked dancing and would stop the car every so often, blast the music, and dance in the street.  They even made us dance with them - fun!  They then bought us dinner (we got one more round of beer) and at the end of the night took us back to our hotel.  We had a blast!!   

Two of the three guys were married with one kid each.  One marriage was arranged, the other a "love marriage" as they say.  The arranged marriage guy's wife called during one of the car rides and we all had to be quiet.  The other two guys would then make fun of him (we joined in).  Now we are off to a Bollywood movie and then the overnight train to Udaipur.

3rd October 2007

Wow, our 10th e-mail about India and we still have a touch over a week left here!  We saw the movie "Chakde India" at the famous movie theater in Jaipur (shaped like a giant cream puff).  The movie was about a women's field hockey team in India (but, due to the male nature of this culture, it was really about the guy coach!).  The coach was played by the Indian "Tom Cruise", or so that's what we were told.  The theater was PACKED (and they have assigned seats).  There were only three other Tourists in the theater (out of 800 or so) that we could see.   

I'm not sure why I liked the movie so much.  Maybe it was the constant chattering with people's neighbors, perhaps it was the multitude of cell phone rings and conversations, likely it was due to the screaming children a few seats away, and had nothing to do with the movie being all in Hindi.  Anyway, it followed every single movie/storey cliché I can think of, but was still enjoyable.  It didn't have the singing and dancing that Bollywood movies are known for, but did include a pretty cool fight scene of the women's field hockey team kicking ass of some rude dudes at a McDonalds (a beefless Mickey-Ds, just to be clear).   

We then took an overnight train to Udaipur and people say that is the fastest way to travel in India, as you are asleep for the trip.  It was surprisingly comfortable and it's kinda cool to wake up in a new city.  On the train was an Irish couple that is circling the world in 1.5 years.  They have just started their trip and have been in India for a month or so.  They are much more casual than us about their India plans, and we have already seen more than they have.  There was also a Chinese guy from Shanghai on our train.  He is traveling alone and so was very talkative.  I told him I have a friend teaching in Shanghai (Dan Dusel, grew up across the street from me) and he said there were many Americans there teaching.   

The way the train works, is that there are six bunks to a door-less cabin.  So it was us, the Irish couple, and an Indian couple.  The Indians had a few friends on the train with them before it left and the one guy was VERY talkative (after claiming to know no English, the joker).  After he finished talking to the Chinese dude (sorry, but we didn't get any names) I joked that those two countries were going to take over the world with their large populations.  He told me that's exactly what they were just planning :)   

The Udaipur palace that we toured today was, by far, the most impressive palace we have seen here.  It also was the best organized and had the most expensive food/drink.  Can't wait to get some pictures on line for ya'll to see!  Udaipur has the "famous" island palace from the James Bond movie Octopussy and there are several places here that show the movie EVERY SINGLE NIGHT.  We are going to miss out on the movie though, because we want to see some traditional Rajasthani dancing (that is the state we are in) and then will catch an overnight BUS to Jodhpur (the blue city - the last one we were in, Jaipur, is pink and this one, Udaipur, is white - everybody straight on this?)   

We also took a boat tour of the lake palaces, but for the James Bond one, you have to have dinner or hotel reservations and they are pretty expensive so we didn't get to go ashore there.  We hope to write again from Jodhpur!

6th October 2007

I am sitting in a rooftop restaurant at our hotel in Jaisalmer writing this update.  Kinda funny to find the computer on the roof, but it is covered!  After we last wrote in Udaipur, we went to see some traditional Rajasthani (Rajasthan is the state we are currently in - and have been in since Jaipur) dancing.  It was incredible.  As the guide book states, "they can whirl better than most dervishes!"  The audience was a mix of Indians and Tourists and the venue was just some mats thrown on the floor in a cement courtyard of some old palace.  We took photos and a few short movies with our camera, so we hope to put those on the website as well, when we get back to the States - find links to the movies here.   

At the dancing we ran into the Irish couple traveling the world and they invited us to join them for dinner.  There ended up being about 8 tourists (including us) all together.  We had another great chat with them (Finbar and Sharon) and exchanged e-mail addresses.  We had to leave dinner early to catch our overnight bus to Jodhpur. If there is one thing I would never like to do again, it is to ride an overnight bus in India!!  We were the only tourists in the crowded bus station (and on the bus) and all the signs were in Hindi (which is totally illegible to us!)   

There was a nice police man who told us when our bus arrived and which one to get on. The bus left around 11pm and got into Jodhpur about 5am.  Luckily it stopped several times for Janet to pee, but she almost got left behind trying to buy bananas (not really, but I like to give her a hard time about it)! Fortunately, I was awake and one of our Indian neighbors also noticed that Janet was not on the bus. The reason we didn't like the bus is that with all the stopping it was nearly impossible to sleep in more than 30 minute increments and was pretty uncomfortable overall!   

When we arrived in Jodhpur (Jodh's city) we went directly to a hotel and slept for five hours or so before a late breakfast.  After that, we had big plans to check out the city, but we wanted to make some train ticket arrangements first. Unfortunately, that took hours so we lost most of the day to our nap and train tickets.  We did get a chance to visit the famous clock tower and the markets around it. They were super busy, but pretty interesting, with mostly spices (many of which I didn't recognize) and fabric.  We also got a tour of an art school that seemed more of a front to sell crap, but he did show us how they make different colors from the different rocks found in the area.   

The next day, we got an early start and got to see Meherangarh (a fort and palace that is HUGE).  We also went to a white marble memorial (yet another "mini Taj") and the newest palace in India, built in 1929.  It was very impressive, and since it was built in the traditional style, it was also neat to see what these places look like after LESS than a hundred years!   

The excuse to build this palace was as a job-creation program (3000 people worked for 15 years – it’s a large and imposing place), but is now mainly a hotel and palace for the current Maharaja and so the areas open to tourists is quite small. We hear rooms run ~$500 a night, which is a tad more than the $10 we usually pay, so we decided not to stay there :)  We took the train that night (Friday) to Jaisalmer where we are now. We'll write about today and this town at a later date as this e-mail is getting kinda long.   

A couple of quick anecdotes before we finish:  All throughout Rajasthan people have been giving me a LOT of compliments on my hair. They all think I look like a movie star.  I have also been told several times how "beautiful" I am.  The slightly disturbing fact about these compliments is that ALL of them have been from MEN. Funny country. . .Janet is finding the gender gap a bit disturbing.   

She knew that women were second class citizens here, but it is another thing to actually see it all the time.  For example easily 90% of the people on the street and train (and even more skewed in businesses/shops) are men.  Women just don't seem to have the freedom to be outside very much.  The only exception is that we have seen groups of women (rarely just one or two) at some of the tourist sites, but even in those places it is at least 90% men.  All of the men will only address me (Eric) whether it is "What country are you from, Sir?" or "What is your name, Sir?" or "Where are you going, Sir?" and they even expect me to order Janet's food for her.  She says in general that she feels that women have no voice.


Afterword 1

So the day we arrived into Jaisalmer, we hear that the whole city is closed due to a "strike".  When we tried to ask who was striking, they said everyone.  We eventually figured out it meant that the army showed up and shut down the town for one day.  Why would they do such a thing?  Well this is India and so the simple answer is Cows.  Yes, cows shut down the whole city - well sorta. . . 

The story we heard is that 22-24 cows were poisoned and herded in circles until they dropped dead.  This was allegedly done by some Muslim farmers who discovered that the cows had eaten their crops in a store room.  Since cows are so sacred here, the army showed up (they have a big base nearby, as Pakistan is less than 100km away) and shut down the entire city (except the tourist hotels, whew!) to keep the peace.  We heard that the Muslims in town would be in hiding, and only ventured into parts of town that we were assured would be safe.   

Supposedly, three Muslims were arrested and three beaten up (same ones?  we have no idea) and that was that.  I guess this last happened in 1857 in Jaisalmer, and people died during confrontations between the Muslim “cow-killers” and the Hindi “how-dare-yous”, so everyone seemed relieved that the dead did not include people this time. 

One guy told us that if it was only 1 cow, then no big deal because no one would notice, but 22 (or 24 depending on who you talk to) is a problem.  India is a different place.


Afterword 2

Overall we had a great time during our travels in India.  Check out Janet riding a camel!  (more of this in the photos).  The food was DELICIOUS and I can only remember one or two meals that deviated from that standard (and both were breakfasts, hard to get a good breakfast in a nation without pork).  The places / sights we got to see were breathtaking and the train system is an easy, clean (relatively speaking), cheap way to get around such a large country.  There is a LOT we missed though – Goa, Varanasi, the entire South, etc. and it would be fun to go back someday.  Check out the pictures as they tell a much better story!


Click here for photos of INDIA


BACK to Summer 2007 part 2


Click here for photos of INDIA


BACK to Summer 2007 part 2

Click here for photos of INDIA


BACK to Summer 2007 part 2


Click here for photos of INDIA


BACK to Summer 2007 part 2