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.

A Brief Update

For those who may wonder what’s going on here is a 10 point outline:

  1. We are fine.
  2. We are in Harar, Ethiopia.
  3. Elections here result in security concerns which in turn result in major schedule changes. The elections are over and nothing happened other than our visit was re-scheduled and therefore our entire itinerary outside of Addis was shortened and altered.
  4. Internet here sucks. Really, really sucks, so email, facebook, and wordpress are largely out of reach.
  5. Tomorrow we will head to Dire Dawa for two days then fly back to Addis where we will be visiting our sponsor child for two days. On the 5th of June we will be in South Africa.
  6. Africa is really cool … and challenging … and not at all what we were expecting.
  7. Yesterday we saw half the cast of the lion king including elephants (from afar), warthogs, baboons, and a little gazelle like thing. Also about a million different birds.
  8. Today we learned that “laundry service” in Harar does not include ladies’ undergarments – they just won’t wash them. We were never able to get an explanation.
  9. Hyenas can be scary and also friendly … especially up close at night.
  10. It’s the start of the rainy season here. We spend a fair bit of time rather wet.

A Haircut and a Cultural Lesson – And Other Excerpts From Our Time In Aurangabad

As discussed in the previous post, we recently spent two weeks volunteering in Aurangabad. The details of the project can be found in that post, but there were a lot of other things that happened that were not really a part of that project so we thought we would touch on a few of them here.

Most of what we did took place in the afternoon and so one morning we had a few free hours and decided that Blake would get a much needed haircut at a barber shop a short walk away while Tamara worked on uploading photos etc. at an internet cafe around the corner from the shop. We had two hours so we figured we would have lots of time for Blake to join her and get a bit of work done as well.

Not the case. We stuck our heads in the barber shop to find one younger guy in the chair and a bunch of youths with one older guy sitting in the chairs along the wall. As soon as our heads came around the door, half of them were on their feet offering us their chairs and welcoming us to the shop. We then spent the better part of the next two hours talking with everyone in there, answer questions about us and about Canada, and drinking the chai that they so kindly provided for us.

Probably the most surprising question that we got was “love marriage or arranged marriage?” We had never put any thought into it, but most marriages here are arranged and, as one of the gentlemen pointed out when our answer was love marriage – arranged marriages are seen as more stable and more likely to last beyond two years. The most surprising statement was that India is safe – much safer than Canada – because men look after women and any man that touches a woman will immediately go to prison. We refrained from mentioning the recent high profile cases suggesting the contrary. It was also a rather incongruous statement in light of the fact that we had learned that the older gentleman was a bodyguard accompanying one of the students whose father was a higher up in the state apparatus. But in the end they were incredibly polite and kind and as we started to run out of time and it was still the same guy in the chair – both he and the barber kept getting distracted by wanting to participate in the conversation – the guy who was next in line insisted that Blake take his spot. And that is the sort of kindness and hospitality that we encountered constantly during our time in Aurangabad specifically and, thus far, in India as a whole.

All the people that we met through volunteering were amazingly kind. Kerron ensured that we were well taken care of and even brought things over for us when Tamara was sick. He arranged dinners and went with us to them to help with translation. Our fellow cast members were also helpful. Every day, Rohit, and sometimes another student, would pick us up from the apartment on their motorbikes and take us to rehearsal or to the meeting point to leave for the villages. We came to really enjoy these morning rides.

We have no photos from the morning rides, but Shubham came with us in a rickshaw on our way back from the market and was then kind enough to have us in his house for melon.

We have no photos from the morning rides, but Shubham came with us in a rickshaw on our way back from the market and was then kind enough to have us in his house for melon.

One day three of them, Shubham, Samarth, and Nisha all took us to the old part of town for some shopping. Tamara needed a few more scarves to ensure that she is able to stay covered to the degree India requires and also wanted to get an Indian style outfit called a salwar kameez. The trip was a resounding success with all items searched for acquired along with a bunch of other incidentals.

We were also invited to the house of one of the management team for a dinner. He had initially invited the room at large during rehearsal (about 35 people), but some of the other managers reduced the list to just the management team from the studio, Kerron, and the two of us. Tamara’s first reaction was to inform Blake that if he ever invited 35 people to the house for dinner without checking and with only one day’s notice she’d kill him. When we inquired, we were told that this is just a normal part of the household duties for Indian wives.

When we arrived with Kerron for dinner we were escorted to one of the back rooms where nine other guests (all men) were seated around a bed which served as a table. There were three generations in the house but we were only introduced to the women of the house very briefly before they returned to the kitchen. For the rest of the time Tamara was the only woman in the room. Our hosts and most of the guests spoke English and made an effort to include us in the conversation. The food was spectacular, although we don’t know what all of it was – there were more than five different elements – we did learn that you should start refusing food before you are actually full. Indian hospitality does not take no for an answer!

Sadly, we took no photos at the dinner, but one of our fellow performers, Smita also had us into her house for some quick refreshments after one of the village trips. She gave Tamara a tour. One of the amazing things in India is the sense of community in each neighborhood. Smita has been really busy with the play as well as being a teacher and a mom. When we arrived, the sense of community was really driven home for us as one of her neighbours had come over and done all of her laundry while we were away. Once they saw the foreigners they also all came over for photo opportunities!

Smita showed Tamara around her house and the tour included this awesome gigantic bear.

Smita showed Tamara around her house and the tour included this awesome gigantic bear.

We also saw this sense of community when Kerron took us for a brief visit to his house. He and his wife both work and the community helps take care of the kids when they are away for the day. Usually his in-laws (who live just one street over) take his son, but if they are not able to then there are several other nearby households where the little guy can be left without any muss or fuss.

So basically Aurangabad was great because of the people. We were too busy to see much of the city itself or the surrounding attractions.

“Jal Yukt Shivar? What is This?”: Wwoofing on a Water Conservation Awareness Campaign

Our second round of volunteering on this trip was in Aurangabad – a city of about a million people northeast of Mumbai. We were volunteering with an NGO -Disha International Foundation Trust – rather than a farm and that  was about all we knew when we rolled into town. Of course the rolling took place after a whole long series of setbacks in our transfer city of Pune where we had disembarked from the train to catch a pre-booked bus … that never showed up necessitating a slightly frantic search for alternatives. We eventually caught a sleeper bus to Aurangabad, but did not arrive until after midnight – far too late to try to contact Kerron (our contact and the chairman of the NGO) so we got a hotel and sorted it out in the morning. Disha rents an apartment in the northeastern part of the city near the major shopping mall, but far from the old parts of town. This is where we stayed for the two weeks were were in Aurangabad. It was sparsely furnished to say the least but it had floor beds so it got the job done. Best of all it was new, so the bathrooms were in good working order. You could even flush tp!

A look at the main room of our apartment.

A look at the main room of our apartment.

Shortly after being taken to the apartment we were informed that, because it was currently summer vacation and during dry season there is not a lot going on with the associated institution and farm, the only major project active at the time was a rainwater conservation awareness project. Disha had partnered with Let’s Act Actors Studio to undertake an education program in 29 villages in regarding a new scheme for rainwater capture. The awareness campaign took the form of a street play. Let’s Act is an institute for training actors and this was one of the assignments that students volunteered for to gain practice and exposure. We were to participate in the play and in the PR campaign surrounding it as foreign guests. So we went straight to the studio and met the actors, most of whom were in their late teens and early twenties. They were incredibly welcoming and made us feel right at home.

We watched for awhile and then they gave us parts. The play was written entirely by the students and so they were adapting and adding things as necessary. This process continued right up until the days we left so we never performed the same play twice. This had the the unfortunate effect that we were never able to absent ourselves from rehearsal as we needed to be on top of all the changes. The entire play was in Marathi – the regional language – and so all of our cues were based on timing, expressions, and actions rather than on the actual dialogue that was taking place. So we practiced most days for a couple hours at least, although Tamara missed several due to a stomach bug – India does have it’s share of gastronomic challenges and we have both had a little trouble now and then. In addition, we met newspapermen and ministers (or in some cases tried to meet ministers without success and instead getting caught in a media scrum) as part of promoting the project and gaining more support for the rainwater harvesting initiative.

One thing that surprised us was how people reacted to the fact that there were two Canadians involved. We expected mild curiosity or perhaps even bewilderment, but our presence seemed to make people actually pay more attention. Aurangabad is not on the main tourist trail (a fact driven home by the hundreds of requests we had to take photos with total strangers) so having foreigners involved seemed to make people curious. To be clear, our parts in the play were minor, designed to be dropped after the first few performances when we had to leave but people seemed to respond well to them, especially the tiny pieces of Marathi we worked – with quite limited success – to memorize and pronounce properly. Ultimately, we performed twice for official government ministers of various levels and visited five villages (although Tamara was sick for three of them). In one performance for a government audience we were in costumes as villagers. For Tamara this meant an orange sari and for Blake white linen pants (which were connected low down in the crotch) and shirt complete with an orange headdress.

The village visits were a blast and, at least in some cases, seemed to have some effect as there were decent crowds for the number of inhabitants and they seemed to enjoy the play. For us, visiting the villages was an opportunity that we never would have otherwise had. The people in the villages were incredibly curious about us and extremely hospitable, asking for photos, feeding the entire cast and management team, and in general taking great care of us.

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One downside was the fact that the play was often preceded or followed by a bit of speechifying by the politicians and/or bureaucrats who were involved with the project and that tended to dull the humour of the play. We were not the only ones who were bored and in one instance – after Blake had mentioned to one of the acting students that we don’t have bullock carts in Canada – the arrival of an empty cart resulted in the entire cast, management team, and half the village abandoning the meeting to chase down the cart and pile on for a ride and an ton of photos. There was definitely the sense that the actors, most of whom grew up in the city, were not all that used to seeing/riding in bullock carts either. In fact a few seemed distinctly uneasy around these large animals. Either way it was great fun for everyone.

We also got to experience village food, meet a bunch of different people who communicated with us with the able aid of Kerron’s translations, and Tamara got to have a huge fix of her favourite animal: goats!

This was a totally different volunteering experience from what we had in Thailand and in some ways more exhausting. Although it was made clear that our schedule was relatively free and we could miss rehearsals to visit some of the sights, our own consciences would not allow us to skip when we knew there were changes that would affect our timing. Combined with the fact that both government workers and reporters appear to feel it is completely acceptable to keep people waiting for 4+ hours or cancel on them when they are already an hour late, getting away proved a little tricky. However, it was an amazing chance to get involved in a project that we hope will have a positive long-term impact while seeing some of India we never would have seen otherwise and meeting some amazing people in the process.

Flip-flops and Beach Huts: Agonda Beach

After getting our fill of history and culture in Panaji and Old Goa, we headed to the southern part of the tiny state to soak up some sun. Goa is known for it’s beaches – which have made it both a domestic and international holiday destination – and we were not going to miss out on the chance to see them for ourselves!

We had looked into it and selected Agonda beach as it is known to be less crowded than Palolem, which is slightly further south and much more popular. We had booked a guest house ahead of time through agoda but as it turned out this guest house was very hard to find and, when we finally did locate it, there was nobody there. We checked the booking and there had been an error in the dates so we just went next door and got ourselves a beach hut at Sea Star Resort. It turned out to be a better location anyway.

A view along our

A view along our “street.”

There really isn’t much to say about the next few days. We lounged in the restaurant, drank copious amounts of chai tea, body surfed in the Arabian Sea, and ate great Indian food at the restaurants that were open.

On our second day we set out to walk to Cola Beach, touted as a pristine little cove of sand complete with a blue lagoon and a few beach-side huts. It took us awhile to locate it, and when we did we accidentally took a roundabout route rather than the main road. Our reward was a great view of a secluded little cove. To get down to the main beach we had to take a small trail through the woods and emerge above the southern end of the beach. The ‘blue’ lagoon was actually a pretty gross shade of green with rather a lot of trash floating in it. Service at the beach-front bar left us feeling like an inconvenience and the beach itself had more than its fair share of partially submerged rocks that, in light of our Hinwong Bay experience in Thailand, discouraged us from taking a dip. So, we got a great view and a nice walk but did not discover a hidden paradise.

That evening – our last before heading north to our wwoofing arrangement in Aurangabad – we went in search of a great place to watch the sunset with a good drink. We found one towards the southern end of the beach and it didn’t disappoint.

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The following afternoon we plunked ourselves down in an internet cafe – can’t recall the name, but it was in a yellow building – to discuss our plans. These included taking a rickshaw to the Canacona bus station and buses to Margao from there. Because it was also a travel agency, we asked that the owner arrange a rickshaw or taxi for us for 250R. As our departure time approached he informed us that he had a taxi that would take us to Canacona for 250 or direct to the train station in Margao for 800. By the time we factored everything in the difference was about 300R. However, we were feeling a little stressed about our train reservations given the complications we had experienced in Chennai, so the earlier arrival time appealed to us. We agreed to take the taxi direct to the station.

Big mistake! Not only was it expensive, but it was also driven by a maniac who looked to be about 12 years old and only deigned it necessary to look at the road when careening around a blind corner in the oncoming lane at breakneck speed (usually on his cellphone or chatting to the other passenger who may have been his friend) and sometimes not even then. Driving in India is a lot more aggressive than anywhere else we have been, but this was over the top. He did not take it well when Tamara told him so (perhaps a little too emphatically), but he did slow down. We caught our train north with no difficulties and said goodbye to Goa. It was a great place to visit and we certainly enjoyed the relaxation after the chaos of Chennai.

Logistics

To get from Panaji to Agonda you must first take a bus to Margao and then catch a bus to Canacona. Altogether this takes about two hours. From the Canacona bus terminal we caught a rickshaw to the northern end of Agonda Beach for 200R. It is possible to take a bus, but we were told you would wash up on the highway. Also, we wanted to get settled in and, as we were travelling on a Sunday, buses were much less frequent than usual.

For a hut that was not beach front, but only 30 metres from the beach we paid 1,400R a night. It was low season so we were able to bargain a bit. There are much better deals if you are willing to be across the road from the beach. During high season there would be more choice but bargaining power would be much less.

Restaurants were one thing that we found a little tricky. Because it was low season a lot of places were simply closed so we often had a bit of a trek. Also, if you happen to be an early riser there is nothing open for breakfast before about 8:00.

A Little Portuguese with our India: Panaji and Old Goa

After our ultimately successful train ride across India, we stepped off the train in Margao, the main transport hub in the tiny state of Goa. We had decided to come to Goa for two reasons. First, it is the beach holiday destination in India for both domestic and international travelers and Tamara does so love beaches. Second, it is the location of the former Portugues colonial presence in India and has some fantastic old colonial buildings and churches to go with that distinction. We had decided to spend our first 24 hours in Goa exploring (getting out of the way for Tamara) the historical side of the state-centered on Old Goa and Panaji.

From the train station we caught a government rate rickshaw to the bus terminal where regular (and cheap) public buses depart for Panaji. We had no pre-booked accommodation and so had chosen a place out of Lonely Planet and headed that way to see if we could dump our bags off and start exploring. Sadly, LPs map of the area is missing a ton of cross-streets so things go confusing pretty fast. But we eventually found Pousada Guest House and got checked in before heading right back to the bus station and catching a bus to Old Goa. These buses are an experience in themselves. They have a driver and a … porter?… who leans out the window at each stop (or any large cluster of people) and hollers the destination of the bus. If people waved, then we stopped. All the buses we were on in Goa operated like this so the timetable was a little questionable and they often got pretty full, pushing passengers up against the window bars.

Old Goa today is largely a collection of old colonial era churches and we rapidly set about exploring some of them. Our first stop was the Chapel of St. Catherine. This is next to the larger and much more popular Church of St. Francis of Assisi, which we opted to only view from the outside. The chapel was deserted and we were free to wander through it undisturbed by the crowds we had seen heading towards St. Francis. It’s tiny in comparison to most of the buildings, but we enjoyed the silence.

Next we headed towards what proved to be our favourite spot in old Goa: the ruins of the Monastery of St.Augustine.

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From the monastery we headed straight to the Church of Our Lady of the Mount, which is known as a great sunset location. Sadly, as we had miscalculated when sunset would be, our rickshaw dropped us off with over an hour to go. Because of this we looked around a bit and took in the view but decided to walk down before sunset. While we were there, someone lit a fire in the brush below us. This in itself is nothing too special as people are always burning things in India, but this rapidly got into the trees and underbrush. We asked a few others about it and they said it is normal, so we left it alone. Sadly, the smoke did nothing to help the already hazy view.

On the way back to catch a bus, we stopped briefly at Basilica of Bom Jesus, said to house the remains of St. Francis Xavier. It is a pretty impressive building from the outside. We did not enter as there was a mass in progress that we did not wish to disturb. The bus back was pretty simple and after a quick dinner we crashed.

We spent our second morning in Goa exploring Panaji. Our guesthouse was located in the old quarter behind The Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, which is the city’s main landmark. It is full of beautiful colonial era buildings painted bright, cheerful colours. We also saw some pretty funny signs. We spent a few hours taking photos before circling around the hill to the front of the church in search of breakfast.

The last thing we did in Panaji was check out the church. It is pretty impressive and really looms over the main street.

This is the view from the main street. It dominates the entire area.

This is the view from the main street. It dominates the entire area.

Up close it is pretty harmless though.

Up close it is pretty harmless though.

Once we had satisfied our (read Blake’s) history craving, we headed south for the other thing Goa is known for: beaches!

Logistics

Getting around Goa was not all that difficult once we got a handle on the bus system. From the train station, take a pre-paid taxi or rickshaw to the Kadamba bus stand. All fares are posted, but this will be the most expensive part of the journey. Once there, walk along the rows of buses looking at the signs above each bay that tell you the final destination of each bus. If you are headed for a smaller point or a place located in the middle of the route you may have to ask. We found the porters were all very helpful. Be aware that for Panaji there are express buses – those that (theoretically) don’t stop between the two and therefore take only 45 minutes – and there are local ones that stop frequently and take well over an hour. The latter are just over half the cost at 25R. The only buses you may have to pay for ahead of time are the express ones. For the others just get on board and they will collect your fare once the bus starts moving. Be sure to get a receipt lest they try to charge a little extra.

Getting to Old Goa from Panaji is also relatively simple. Return to the Kadamba bus stand and ask for Old Goa at the information stand. It is a stop on the way to several different final destinations and you will be pointed to the next one that is departing. It will cost 10-15R. Be sure to tell the porter that you want to stop at Old Goa. They will boot you out at the round-about by the two main churches. Catch the bus back at the same spot on the other side of the street.

We paid 700R for a decent room with a fan and no AC but in a great location. There appeared to be quite a few options and we recommend those visiting try to stay in the older part of Panaji. It’s much more interesting.

When budgeting, recall that Goa is a tourist area so everything costs a bit more than many other places in India and many vendors/drivers will try to gouge you. We were told that the best thing to do is shake your head, say it’s not your first time here and cut the initial ask in half.

Big Cities and Better Trains: Our Arrival in India and the Train to Goa

India was a bit of a shock. We landed in the evening and breezed through immigration and customs and out to the pre-paid taxi stand. We had read that the only way to get a fair price from the Chennai airport is to use the fixed price taxis at the government stand. Our cab was a neat older vehicle that looked to be from maybe the 1960s, but we did not have much time to admire it as we were immediately swept up in chaos and noise of Chennai traffic. Don’t try to drive in this city. After a white-knuckle hour we were dropped in an alleyway because “no parking paradise” and directed to walk a few hundred meters to our guesthouse. In order to have an address for the immigration forms we had chosen one of the cheap guesthouses out of the lonely planet. After a full day of travel the reality of the heat in the building and how much the rows of tiny rooms with big bolts reminded us of a prison was a bit of a shock. Given how badly we had slept the previous two nights and how chaotic the city seemed, we figured that sleep was the best options and crashed out.

We were up relatively early and in the process of inquiring about laundry were promptly offered relatively cheap room service so our first meal in India was coffee, toast, and jam. Not quite the culinary delights we were looking forward to, but a solid start to the day.

Our first breakfast in India.

Our first breakfast in India.

Then it was exploring time. We had only one full day in Chennai and figured we wanted to see the old British Fort St. George that started the town, the adjacent old market area, and have a look at the beach. As soon as we left the room we learned that Chennai is hot. Really, really, hot! We caught and autorickshaw and to central station – because non of the drivers knew where the fort was – and walked from there. The drivers here will really try to rip you off, so bargain hard and don’t be afraid to walk away. There are rickshaws everywhere. They all refuse to use the meter though. After figuring out how to walk to the fort from the train station we were informed by the large number of armed guards that we were early and should spend some time relaxing the park across the way.

Fort St. George from the park. Note the drab government buildings now enclosed within the traditional walls.

Fort St. George from the park. Note the drab government buildings now enclosed within the traditional walls.

What we hadn’t banked on was that the historic site would still be a working government and military area so we had to be searched and the areas that you can actually visit are really limited. Basically, you can visit the fort museum (100 rupees each) and that’s about it. The museum is worth a look though.

Photos were note allowed in the museum, but this lock, complete with wax seal, was being used to shut up an area on one of the landings so we figured it didn't count.

Photos were note allowed in the museum, but this lock, complete with wax seal, was being used to shut up an area on one of the landings so we figured it didn’t count.

From there we walked north into the St. Geroge area. This is the location of the original town that grew up around the fort and is still the site of some pretty large open markets. We found a restaurant and had lentil soup with a sort of fermented rice cake called idyls, which was delicious, before heading into some of the streets. We apparently went through the flower bazaar, which was total chaos, but certainly a look into how the markets likely operated over the last hundred years. So busy! A bit too much for us really.

By the time we got out of there and escaped some pretty heated pressure sales from a clothing store we were ready for a break so we engaged in some pretty serious haggling for a rickshaw back to Triplicane High Street – the location of our guest house – and wandered that area for a while. On the way we learned that the whole cows in the street thing is actually true. They were wandering around the streets, browsing on garbage or sometimes harnessed and pulling carts.

Bullock carts, while in decline are still a regular sight in the cities here.

Bullock carts, while in decline are still a regular sight in the cities here.

Eventually, we made our way to the beach. All day we had been noticing how much trash there was, augmented by the cow’s contribution to the soil, but we had hoped the beach might be different. How wrong we were. There was almost as much trash as sand. That was about enough for us. Between the dirt, trash, cow shit, terrible smells, heat, pressure sales, and astronomically priced rickshaws we were pretty well finished with Chennai. We grabbed dinner and headed back to our room a little after 9:00.

Chennai's beach/trash dump.

Chennai’s beach/trash dump.

The next day we had a train to Goa and we got to the train station a little early as we were not sure about the process. We had spent a long time the previous day trying to locate a place to print our tickets and with the printed ticket it was pretty simple to get our berth number. Unfortunately, there had been a mix up and our berths were at opposite ends of the second class sleeper car rather than one above the other as we had booked. We were informed that they could do nothing to fix this and we would have to try and deal with it on the train. Not an auspicious start to our journey.

Chennai's train station is a bit intense. Also, taking photos of 'strategic' points is frowned upon here so we had to try and be quick.

Chennai’s train station is a bit intense. Also, taking photos of ‘strategic’ points is frowned upon here so we had to try and be quick.

However, from there things got better pretty much as fast as possible. A nice man sitting next to Tamara, who happened to work for the railway, discovered what was wrong, spoke to other passengers and railway staff, took it upon himself to take Blake’s bunk, and had us in side berths one above the other before the ride was ten minutes old. For the remainder of the ride he would often stop to chat and check on us. His name was Taj and he was heading for Goa for a veterans track meet where he would run the 800m and 1500m. He was incredibly kind and really helped us out.

This is a look at a side berth in 2AC, which is what we ended up with after the switch.

This is a look at a side berth in 2AC, which is what we ended up with after the switch.

We also met a great young family with an adorable little boy. Early on in the trip they saw Tamara making faces at him and came and dropped him on our bunk for a few minutes. Throughout the trip they would frequently stop by to let us play with him or to chat. They gave us some great advice on places to go in Goa and Mumbai, what areas to stay in and what things should cost. They even gave us their phone number and said to call them if we ever run into any trouble. Amazingly kind!

For the train itself it was a huge improvement over any of the train rides we had taken in S. E. Asia. It was much cleaner and much smoother for one. People would come through on a regular basis with chai, coffee, snacks, or to take dinner/breakfast orders and most of the food was a reasonable price. For anyone planning on taking a train, we suggest take a few snacks along, but be sure to have lots of smaller bills, less than 100R is preferable, to purchase these things. You are also free to move around the train, including standing at the doors in at the ends of the carriage. This is a lot of fun, but be aware that they do clean out the cars and when this happens things are tossed from the doors – trash, dirty cleaning water, etc. and zips back along the train.

So by the time we arrived in Goa at noon the next day we had made some friends and were really starting to find our feet in India.

10 Things We Resolve Never Again to Take For Granted After Visiting India

We are currently in India and have been for several weeks, but we have run into a problem finding internet cafes have a sufficiently fast connection for uploading the photos necessary for keeping updated. So here is a little snapshot of ten things that we will really appreciated after our time in India.

10. Silence. India, like much of Asia, has proven very loud for our Canadian ears. We never knew Canada was so quiet.

9. Toilet paper. Enough said.

8. Furniture. It’s a long story.

7. Refrigerators. You simply don’t realize how important they are until you find yourself without one.

6. Clean air. There is nothing like the scent of burning garbage to deter you from a leisurely urban walk (okay, possibly the threat of being run over but it’s actually easier to get over that one).

5. Hygiene. Lord please have mercy on our bellies in the meantime.

4. Clarity. That head wobble is only the beginning of our confusion.

3. Schedules and routines! (That are both set and adhered to.)

2. Salads! Oh how we miss you…

1. Cold, clean drinking water. Again, we had no idea just how fortunate we were to get this straight out of the tap back home.