The Biggests Day: Dubai Layover

Taking the cheapest flights you can find often means a lot of inconvenience. Cramped seats, low baggage allowances, no food, obscene departure times, indirect flights and long layovers. But every now and then it really works out in your favour. We took FlyDubai from India to Ethiopia and our itinerary included a ten hour layover in Dubai. As an added bonus it was during the day. Unfortunately, it was also a Friday – Muslim holy day – so the souqs along the river would have been closed while we were there. Usually these older parts of town with atmospheric alleys and busy markets are where we would head, but instead we were forced out of character and headed for the Dubai mall (the biggest mall in the world) and the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building).

It was actually pretty cool. When we arrived, most of the stuff at the mall was closed, but we were able to get tickets to go to the observation deck on the 124th floor of the Burj around 9:00. Apparently, later in the day these are liable to be completely sold out. There is also the option to go higher but that would have cost us a few hundred dollars more and we figured it wasn’t worth it. 124 floors is plenty high enough for great views! We did not spend much time up there. Haze meant that we could not see the artificial palm island, but we were able to see a group of artificial islands called ‘the world’ and the Burj Al Arab hotel.

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After wandering around the outside before the heat really took over we headed in to explore some of the mall. We aren’t big shoppers but there were some pretty cool things inside. On the ice rink junior teams wearing jets and flames jerseys were playing. There is a three story artificial waterfall that is pretty interesting. Blake was able to replace the rain jacket that went MIA in Thailand for a very reasonable price and Tamara got to ride on her first real roller coaster, even though it was a pretty little one.

So overall, not bad for only having six hours away from the airport. For those wondering if it’s worth it to leave the airport on those layovers – do it!

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The Last Curries: Delhi and the End of India

After being delayed in our departure from Agra, our train washed up in Delhi after 1:00 in the morning. We had known that we would get in late, and as the area near the train station did not appeal to us, we had booked ahead at the Pooja Palace in an area called Karol Bagh. Unfortunately, we were rather groggy when we got off the train and headed for the pre-paid taxi area. This led to two poor decisions: first, believing an apparently helpful cabbie that the pre-paid stand was closed and second, taking him at his word when he quoted us 500R for the ride to Karol Bagh claiming that is the pre-paid rate. To be fair we never went back to the station to confirm but given the short duration of the ride it would definitely appear that we were ripped off. However, at that point we were just happy to be in bed before 3:00 AM.

Our first morning in Delhi we got off to a bit of a slow start. Our destination was Old Delhi and the Red Fort and we hoped to cover both of them before lunch. We headed to the metro station and purchased tourist passes for 300R and thirty minutes later we were standing, slightly disoriented, in Old Delhi. Red Fort was our first stop and we didn’t do a very thorough job exploring it. The exterior is impressive and, like Agra Fort, the interior runs mostly to palaces and administrative buildings. We wandered through some of the various courtyards and empty fountains. Because we were a little later than planned arriving, it was starting to get crowded so we cut our visit short to head into the Old Delhi markets.

Old Delhi is chaos! But interesting chaos. The main attractions are the various market areas. We had chosen to explore the cloth market and the spice market, but it’s not as simple as that. Walking meant that we were constantly accosted by rickshaw and cyclo drivers who appeared to be very offended that we did not deign to turn over our money and be driven around the streets. The cloth market was quite interesting and very colourful. There were porters everywhere with bales of raw cloth on their heads. Shops were selling pre-made outfits displayed brightly in their front windows, tailors were trying to rope us into their shops, basically, it is very close to what we imagine it would have been a few hundred years ago. The down side was the press in the narrow alleys could get pretty intense and there were always motorbikes etc. trying to force their way through. At one point, Blake was actually hit by a cyclo, although not hard. The guy didn’t even pause.

Although it was a bit of a walk to locate, the spice market was much quieter and had a more relaxed vibe. It was also, in many ways, more interesting. There were still porters, though they now had bags of spice on their heads, but the narrow alleys had room to move and the spices filled them with (comparatively) pleasant scents. We did not stay long, but bought some raisins and cashews to munch on the metro ride.

We then headed over to Connaught Place, one of the central locations in New Delhi. This is a planned city and is basically two main circles inside one another with adjoining roads radiating out from the centre. There are lots of rather expensive shops and restaurants in the area and a little further back there is a bazar that is allegedly government run where all kinds of ‘locally made’ stuff can be purchased. For us the draw was the various cafes where Tamara could study. We spent the afternoon there, with Tamara studying and Blake alternately reading and exploring. As a side note, apparently Blake looks shady as he was offered drugs five times in under two hours! He was also apparently a hit with the local university crowd, as he was hit on several times, and not too subtly either.

For our second day in Delhi, and our last day in India, we planned to take the metro into South Delhi and explore two areas that had caught our eye. Suri Fort and Hauz Khas village. We located a cute little cafe inside a gated community – South Delhi is apparently much more affluent than the other areas we had visited – and stayed there relaxing until after lunch.

Not sure how much it costs but they charge you for everything here!

Not sure how much it costs but they charge you for everything here!

From there we headed east into the Suri Fort park area where we got a little turned around. We found two things though. The official, partially restored ruins of the fortified town wall, and a bunch of old ruins hidden away in the bush. Of the two, the ones in the bush were by far the most interesting. We also learned that just because there is a very long path does not mean there will be a gate to let you out at the end of it. As a result we opted to take a rickshaw to Hauz Khas village.

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This is a walking village that is full of restaurants, cafes, and bars. We stopped by the travel cafe for a bit and then discovered the really cool part of the area: the old college and royal pond. Out the back gate of the walking village there are a bunch of different historical buildings including the tomb of a ruler, a restored artificial lake, a mosque, and the ruins of a medieval college. The ruins were by far the most interesting to us and we spent quite some time wandering through the deserted rooms and ruined stairways.

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For dinner we were lucky enough to find a restaurant with great views over the park and we stayed here for our last tandoori and sunset in India. It was a pretty great send-off.

Eventually we had to make our way back to the metro and return to our hotel to collect our bags. The staff were very kind and, when they heard that we would be travelling for the next 24 hours, offered us one of the empty rooms to shower and change in before we departed. We caught one of the last metro trains to the airport at a little after 11:00 and our 4:00 AM flight followed soon after. India was a great part of our trip due mostly to the amazing people that we met. Everyone (almost) was so incredibly friendly, welcoming, and helpful that it really made us want to come back and see the rest of the country someday. But, for now it was onward to Africa!

Logistics

We walked or took the metro to get around Delhi. It is possible to purchase one or three day tourist passes for the metro for 150 and 300 rupees respectively. These are good for an unlimited number of short trips and you get 50R back when you return the card. They must be purchased at the information booth, not the ticket counters.

The above passes are not valid for the airport express metro, which was 100R each, and was the best way to get out to the airport if your hotel is located anywhere near the metro. To catch it from the centre you must go to the New Delhi Station and transfer there. When we were there, only one ticket counter was open so we waited in line for about 20 minutes.

We splurged a bit and stayed at the Pooja Palace in Karol Bagh. It was part of an effort to avoid staying in the main bazar area in front of the train station. We didn’t spend much time in the area, but apparently it’s great for shopping. The hotel was OK, although a little pricey for the actual rooms. However, the front desk staff were incredibly helpful and the hotel is very close to the metro.

We found that touts and various transport drivers were far more annoying in Delhi and Agra than anywhere else in India. Some would be quite rude when we would finally convince them to leave us alone and let us walk. Learn to use the Indian style hand signal for ‘no’. It’s tipping your hand back and forth and usually means ‘maybe’ in the west. It seemed most effective in getting them to leave us be. Not foolproof by any stretch, but a handy trick (no pun intended).

Incidentally, New Delhi is one of the towns that make up the larger metro area collectively known as Delhi.

Agra and the Taj Mahal

Our train ride from Mumbai to Agra was 23 hours. Not a record for us – hopefully our Myanmar journey will forever hold that record – but certainly long enough. Of course our train was delayed, so it was close to 19:00 by the time we actually arrived in Agra. We had booked ahead with the Saniya Palace hotel – located very near the Taj south gate – which included pickup from the train station. There was a bit of confusion, but eventually we were picked up and taken to our hotel in the Taj Ganj. It was chaos! The Taj Ganj area at the south gate to the Taj is the area where the workers lived for the 22 years of construction and, in a complete contrast to what they were building, this neighbourhood has almost zero order and arriving after dark only added to our disorientation. For extra fun, the power went out at our hotel just as we were completing the check-process. (We experienced a power outage on average about every other day we were in India, often multiple ones in a single day). Having no power killed our plans to eat at the hotel’s¬†restaurant so we ventured out to explore our surroundings and seek sustenance. We found it, or something that resembled it, at a¬†nearby hotel, before hunting down the south gate entrance – which we were told would not open until 9:00 when the other gates open at sunrise – and beginning to get our bearings in the maze. Of course all of this was done while warding off touts, pushers, rickshaw drivers and all the other unpleasantness we had heard of but had largely avoided until our arrival in Agra.

Our first morning in Agra we were up to catch sunrise from our hotel’s rooftop restaurant, which has a fantastic view of the Taj. It was a pretty great way to start the day. As we watched we noticed the number of tourists wandering the grounds of the palace increasing pretty quickly so we opted to try to¬†find our way around to the west gate immediately rather than wait for the south gate to open. As it turned out, it was actually really easy and really close.

Taj tickets cost 750 R for foreigners, and while we were purchasing them we encountered a guide who offered his services. Mostly because he was pretty funny, not pushy, showed his government license complete with set rates, and we had not done as much reading as we should have, we took him up on his offer. In the end, we were really glad we did as he was not only a great source of information, but also knew when to quietly leave us to ourselves and where all the good photo spots were.

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The Taj really is amazing! It is almost perfectly symmetrical in all aspects and the craftsmanship is incredible. They even built a second mosque on the east side of the central palace – currently called the guest house – that is not used at all but was built strictly to balance the one on the west side. Paints were not used and all the fine work is either relief carving or precious stone inlaid into the white marble. Inside the Taj there is a replica of the tombs on the main floor – the real ones are buried underneath – surrounded by spectacular precious stone inlays. The building is designed to admit moonlight and our guide used a flashlight to show us how the inlay and marble glow when exposed to certain lights. It is possible to get tickets to visit the Taj on the full moon and having seen how those designs light up, we wish that we had arranged to be there for the full moon. It would have been expensive and hectic, but if it all glows that way it would be worth it. Sadly we were not allowed to take photos inside. We won’t bore you with all the details, but it was definitely worth the journey.

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After our morning at the Taj, we stopped briefly by our hotel and then headed out to visit Agra Fort. Despite being told by several people that it was ‘way too far’ to walk we arrived at the fort less than 30 minutes after leaving the Taj Ganj area. (For those who are interested and are not in a hurry, we would say that most of Agra is walkable with the exception of the train station). Agra Fort was also definitely worth the visit. Although most people seem to go for the views of the Taj, the Fort itself is a really neat piece of work. From the outside it presents a very militaristic appearance, but inside it runs more to palaces and comfortable living spaces. Apparently, there are 16 palaces inside. There are guides available, but we chose to simply wander and we are not sorry we did.

From the Fort, we headed into the downtown area of Agra for some lunch, coffee and study/reading time. Between lunch and coffee we were offered a ride in a cyclo by an older gentleman who was just a little too persistent and had too convincing a hard luck story to turn down. Since Vietnam we had been saying we should try one of those – there was a version in each country we visited – and now seemed as good a time as any. It turned out to be a bit of a disheartening experience. Two people is a heavy load and his bike had only one gear, so we felt guilty for the amount of work we were putting him through. He didn’t help matters when he started trying to convince us to let him take us to a souvenir shop where he would get a commission even if we did not purchase anything – at least he was open about it. Overall, not a great experience and we were really thankful it was a short ride.

Our path back to our hotel – we walked again – took us through the southern part of the Taj Ganj: a section that we had never been through and we got the sense that most tourists don’t see. It is a bit of a maze and is definitely an area wracked by poverty. Just walking through the streets, some of the social issues were obvious, and some of the images will truly never leave us. We were heading for the east side of the Taj where there is a path to the river which provides a view of the sunset over the Taj and Agra Fort. This turned out to be a lovely spot … or it would have been if it weren’t for the fact that the river and the landing site seem to serve as the city trash heap. It was so bad that we didn’t even stay for the entire sunset. The sight of turtles surfacing among the plastic bags was enough to turn our stomachs and send us packing.

Taj and trash sunset.

Taj and trash sunset.

Our train to Delhi did not leave until the following evening, but we spent most of the day lounging around the Taj Ganj area, enjoying Taj views while sorting out some onward travel issues. We did catch a great sunset over the Taj though.

Two things of note did occur before we left Agra. First, there was a fault on the tracks so our train was delayed over three hours – it’s only a two hour train ride. Second, while we were waiting on the platform a guy who was drunk, high, or slightly unbalanced attached himself to Blake. Because we always try to be polite, we responded when he spoke to us, but then he would not leave us alone, kept getting into Blake’s personal space (even by Asian standards) and even followed us to the bathroom. Eventually we had to be very firm and quite rude to get him to leave us alone. It was an unfortunate way to end our time in Agra, but, with a few notable exceptions such as our hotel staff, we found that the people in Agra were much more aggressive and less friendly than elsewhere in India. Agra has some great sites, but the touts and other hassles make it a place that we are glad we only stayed a couple nights in.

A Little Time in the Big City: Aurangabad to Mumbai

Ok, yes, we are currently in Africa. Yes, the stuff in this post is nearly a month old. Yes, we are still going to try and post things in the order they happened regardless of internet issues. So, back to India.

After two weeks volunteering in Aurangabad and around we got back on the road for our last week in India. Our first stop: Mumbai. Coming to India, it was Mumbai as much as anywhere else that really intrigued us. We can’t even really put our fingers on why, but there is a draw to this historic city. The afternoon train from Aurangabad washed us up at the terminus station a bit late, but we had booked ahead at the Seashore Hotel so we were able to take a pre-paid taxi there from the station pretty quickly. We were staying in Colaba on the advice of the young family we had met on the train from Chennai to Goa as it is sort of the centre of things to do. The Seashore Hotel is just off the harbour-front road that runs past the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel – two major landmarks/attractions in Mumbai.

Our first full day in Mumbai we opted to do a bit of architectural exploration and, after a delicious, if slightly pricey, breakfast at Theobroma cafe we headed north up the causeway towards the CST train station (formerly Victoria Terminus). Colaba has more than its share of beautiful old colonial buildings and charming looking side streets.

But even in the heart of the largest city in India the farm is still alive and well.

But even in the heart of the largest city in India the farm is still alive and well.

We wandered through all kinds of backstreets and past a plethora of interesting buildings until we eventually ended up beside St. Thomas Cathedral on a small sort of square with a bunch of small shops and street vendors. Because Tamara was and is taking two correspondence courses while we travel – and it was starting to heat up – we headed over to Starbucks for a writing and studying session. Now we know that Starbucks is not adventurous or in keeping with the idea of sampling local drinks and cuisine; however, it does have two very valuable things when it’s hot outside and your stomach and India are having a disagreement: air conditioning and a clean bathroom with western toilets, soap, and paper towels. Bathrooms like this are a little bit like unicorns in this part of the world: you don’t pass them up! While there we also learned that Starbucks is apparently a legitimate place to hold some sort of government event complete with a massive flood of media. We don’t know what it was about, but the place turned into a madhouse when we were about halfway through our coffees.

Gotta love those random street wanders!

Gotta love those random street wanders!

Following our break, we headed across the street to St. Thomas’s to have a look around then headed the rest of the way to the train station.

St. Thomas Cathedral

St. Thomas Cathedral

The CST terminus station looks more like a neo-gothic cathedral than a train station. We had arrived there the night before, but it was dark and we were focused on getting to the hotel. To begin with, the station is massive and obviously built to be imposing. Large portions of it are inaccessible for the public – whether due to security or conservation we don’t know – and these include gardens and balconies. The entire thing looks like it fell out of 19th century London.

By the time we got back to the waterfront area it was dark, but the Gateway of India was beautifully lit up along with some of the horse-drawn carriages and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. All in all a pretty great way to wrap up our first day in Mumbai.

In the end we were there for three nights: one more than planned, because we were wait-listed for our train tickets and in the end did not get on. This necessitated changing our plans and cutting Mount Abu in Rajistan out of our itinerary. But it also meant we had an extra day lounging around Mumbai. And that’s basically what we did. Reading, studying and wandering the streets and shops around Colaba.

We also sent some postcards and a small parcel home from the Colaba branch of the post office. It was something of an adventure. The postcards resulted in only a small amount of confusion before we got stamps and were able to send them off. Parcels are a lot more complicated and this was made even more so by the very limited English at the post office. Our plan had been to purchase a box at the post office, wrap it there and send it off. You can’t take a sealed box to the post office in India as it must be searched before it is taped up for customs/security reasons. They didn’t have boxes or tape. We hunted down a nearby store that would sell us both and went back to the post office where they insisted we write the address on the box, then fill out an address form complete with a return address in India. Then they borrowed our tape to tape the form over the address they had insisted we write on the box. We’re not sure these things will ever actually arrive, but who knows.

We also visited the Gateway of India in the daylight when you can actually get close to it. Honestly, it was much prettier at night when it’s all lit up.

A big part of Mumbai, at least for us, was the food. We splurged a bit, going to slightly pricier restaurants because they had, wait for it: salads! Indian food is delicious, but rather light – read non-existent – on the raw veggies front. Finding places where having a salad for dinner was an option was pretty amazing.

This is a rooftop restaurant near our hotel called Koyla. Pretty expensive, but great views and atmosphere. The rooftops are like a whole other world.

This is a rooftop restaurant near our hotel called Koyla. Pretty expensive, but great views and atmosphere. The rooftops are like a whole other world.

Finally, as we were leaving our hotel we witnessed a bit of a cultural difference that we had read about but not had any issues with ourselves as we are married. A young lady was checking in, had seen the room, and was just handing over her passport (not avoidable in India as every hotel requires a copy by law – they will return it in 15 minutes or so) when when she mentioned that her male friend would be taking the other bed in the twin room. The man checking her in simply said no guests. Understandably, she was confused – prices are based on the room not the number of occupants – and asked why that was the case. We noticed earlier at an internet cafe when we were told we were not allowed to upload anything that ‘why’ is not a popular question and can often get a bit of an over the top response. She was told that it’s just a rule. Further questions resulted in a rising temper – which she dealt with well – and eventually her leaving in protest. We had been told that unmarried couples sharing a room might be forbidden by hotels, but having the same last name we had never run into any problems. For those planning on traveling India, be aware that this is something you may run into.

We really enjoyed Mumbai, partly because of the food and the re-captured freedom of being in control of our own schedule, but mostly because it is an interesting city and the part we were in had a relaxed feel to it.

Logistics

Mumbai is huge and getting around can be a challenge. We chose to walk, for the most part, and limited our explorations to the Colaba, Fort, and Churchgate areas, which we found had more than enough to keep us occupied for a couple days.

It is possible to do a slum tour here. We chose not to because we have some ethical issues with it, but we were offered city tours including a slum tour on several occasions.

Tourist quotas are a great thing. For those planning on making use of this the office is at the CST station on on the first floor (second floor for those of us from North America) and is a single window with “tourist” written above it. The reservations hall is off to the right as you enter the station.

In Colaba taxis are cheaper than rickshaws – a very strange situation in India. Even stranger is that we were able to get some of them to actually use their meters. Then it was very reasonable.