Monday, December 31, 2007

Bonne Annee de Pondicherry

Well friends, here in Pondicherry it is 2008, while most of you are still living in 2007 (although not my family in Newfoundland, they are just a little ahead of everyone else in North America).

Last night we celebrated the New Year early. At 6:45 we heard sounds which we first interpreted as noise from the bar next door to us, but after it had gone on too long we realized we must investigate. We headed out, dressed for the evening and walked over to the seaside promenade where we were in time to see the last few of a 15 minute salvo of fireworks.

Everyone was out celebrating it seemed. There were thousands on the street and on the promenade and when we got down to the Gandhi statue we discovered a live band playing their loudest for us. There were few other tourist faces in sight, this was a show for the locals obviously and they were enjoying the music too. There was a ferris wheel in the background going around at far too fast a pace I thought, but then I find merry-go-rounds fast too, even playground ones. It was the first time the ferris wheel had been in operation so it felt like that much more a celebration of the new year.

We spent at least a half hour watching the large band perform and sing their Hindi Bollywood songs (the band leader said they were!), and then wandered into the streets to find our last dinner of 2007. We found it at Le Rendezvous, a nice roof top place where we were seated right next the stairway and me opposite the waiters so I got lots of entertainment watching them do very little. One of them was a dead ringer for a very young Clark Gable, with the moustache and the sideburns of Gone With the Wind, except for his very dark skin - yes, even his facial features were Clark Gableish.

Dinner was seafood - Geordie had the Silver Pomfret, a whole fish, that looked just a little like a find from the aquarium, while I had Tiger Prawns grilled in garlic butter sauce. We could have had turkey, but somehow I felt that having turkey in India would not be a substitute for turkey at home - I didn't want to risk it.

We enjoyed our meal with a couple of beers, not exactly champagne but it was bubbly - a local Kingfisher for me and an Australian Foster's for Geordie. They were just fine! I even had dessert - a rather vapid chocolate mousse, but it was only 60 rupees, what's to lose?

After our celebratory dinner we went back to our apartment. I know, I know, why weren't we going back to the seawall for the fireworks, the party, the fun, fun, fun? Well, we have read that it is not always wise to hang out with the locals when they are in a party mood, and after our walk this morning I think it may have been wise. Mind you last night just after we arrived we were witness to the arrival of about 50 policemen, armed with their ever-present lathi sticks, a nice bamboo weapon which I would not enjoy raining down on my back (I'm always good, so it wouldn't happen, don't worry.) This morning when we went for our lovely after breakfast walk we discovered that the poor mosquito thingy had taken quite a beating - it's proboscis was no longer in place, and its sides were now bare of their plaster. Something happened to it last night and I guess we might have found out if we had been there for the fireworks.

An explanation of the opening picture is in order now. The decoration you see was created freehand, probably by a local woman who uses first white salt to outline the design she plans and then coloured salts to fill it in. The designs are all over the streets - they seem to be a welcome to guests who arrive at your doorstep and are often painted on the street itself, just as the one illustrating this blog entry is. We saw others being made today, and it was amazing to watch the women creating the complex designs so effortlessly.

Finally, a couple of pictures of Geordie and I which I though you might enjoy seeing. I thought it was a good time to show them off since the camera was still connected to this computer. The first is with Geordie, me and our tour guide Rudy at the Taj Mahal. It was sent by one of our group in England and I couldn't resist including it, but then when the camera was already connected I thought I should include the second one which shows the Taj much more clearly. In both pictures we are seated on what has been labelled Lady Diana's Bench since it was here that she sat for her portrait when she visited the Taj some years ago. As you can imagine it is now a very popular place to be photographed by everyone.

So there you are, friends, our Happy New Year 2008 greeting to all of you. We wish you the best in this new year that is before us. Happy trails, happy days. We hope the New Year brings you all joy and peace. Our thoughts are with all of you while we travel in far flung climes. Thank you all for your greetings and wishes now and in the past year. We are so happy to have friends like you in our world.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bonjour de Pondicherry

We arrived at this French conclave yesterday after a lovely morning drive along roads green with new rice shoots filling the rice paddies. The traffic was very low compared to other trips we have taken and we made it the 98 km in only an hour and a half - that's an average speed of 60 km an hour which is a record I'm sure. The edge of town and through the centre is just like any Indian town, people, traffic, animals, shops, crazy-town, but once we hit the Beach Road, everything had changed.

Here where we are now the streets are wide, the buildings old French colonial style and in their way quite lovely, if moldering quietly in the heat. There are also very few people around the neighbourhood during the day - we have to head across town to find the hordes. Last evening though when we went for a walk on the seawall we were surprised to see how many people had made their way down to the area to walk - just like the passegiata in Spain or Portugal. Or should that be Le Passee in Nice?

French is on many of the signs, the area was only ceded back to India in the late 50's I think, (that's the 1950's) and is now called the Union Territory of Pondicherry. And the restaurants show the French influence with croissants, French bread, dark bitter coffee, and cane furniture (well, maybe that's French-Indian). That's good for us - I do like chocolate croissants and a good cup of coffee.

We are booked for a week here - it's going to be a challenge - since our "hotel" is actually a guest house with four apartments, no common area and no resident staff. The people who run the place are across the street in an antique furniture shop. The four aparments are all rented out, but we've only seen one other couple who are staying here and that's because they walked into our place yesterday afternoon, lookking to book a room. At that point we weren't even sure how things worked so we could only point them off to the shop across the street.

We had dinner at a Pizza place with a wood burning oven - they made a valiant effort and in fact the pizza was close to the real Italian style, except that the cheese was not quite mozzarella and the flavour of Italian herbs was missing too. But the crust was thin and the topping was tomatoes and mushrooms. Breakfast this morning was at a place recommended in Lonely Planet that didn't quite live up to its potential. The food was fine but the odd woman trailing red scarves and bumming smokes from one of the customers was a little off-putting - she walked by at least five times, once carrying her toothbrush, once her comb - which she did not seem to have put to good use and then plonked herself at a table to finish the cigarette she'd cadged. The good news is that we did get a generous amount of toasted baguette with our omelet which is what I was hoping for.

On another tack totally unrelated, we got a message from one of our fellow travellers this morning, Joanna from Australia, to let us and the whole group know that her illness, which started while she was on our trip was in fact Dengue Fever. We are fine, honest and if we had contracted dengue we would have known it by now. It runs its course in about two to three weeks, and since we have been just fine it's obvious we have not contracted it too.

Mind you, right on the beach there is a big humonguous insect-like thing that is displaying information about another disease which is obviously of concern. It is Filiariasis and the display is promoting the drugs which one can take to combat it. I am thinking we need to go in and see if we are at risk and to see if they are passing out the three pills required to keep the disease at bay. We do have insect repellent and there are good fans in our place, as well as an insect repellent electrical thing that puts repellent into the air - but, there was a mosquito or two, let's hope they didn't land on us last night.

Oh, one final note which is a correction. I got updated by friend Terry in Calgary that the planet I saw on Christmas Eve was Mars not Jupiter. I suppose for posterity I have to go in and correct the information in my post, so I will, later. In the meantime, I can explain that what I remember from the newspaper was that the planets Jupiter and Mars were aligned with Earth, or the moon, so I got the wrong planet up there in the sky. I didn't want to leave everyone with the wrong info. And has justice would have it, Terry learned the correct information from The Times of India when he googled for the facts.

Nuff for now. Hugs to all as we count down to New Year's.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas India

Last night was Christmas Eve and we ate at a restaurant on the beach. The moon was full and Jupiter was hanging high above it - I know that because it was described in the paper yesterday. The meal was nothing like a Christmas meal at home - Geordie ordered grilled red snapper and I had Tandoori prawns, two big ones that cost twice as much as Geordie's whole fish. With that we were served a large plate of vegetable fried rice and a large plate of "finger chips" (French fries to the uninitiated), as well as two of the huge beers on offer here. The breeze of the Andaman Sea (or the Bay of Bengal as it says in some guide book or other) was fresh - fresh enough to cool the rice and french fries quickly. The fish was delicious but the prawns were over-flavoured with the tandoori paste and spicy hot, so the sweet taste that might have been was overwhelmed. No matter. We enjoyed our evening on the beach.

Today we are going to go for a walk on the beach again. We'll wander along enjoying the sight of the waves and the bawling of the cows who are hanging out there too. It sounds like the right thing to do here in Mamallapuram. We discovered a couple of days ago that once one gets past the edge of town along the beach, going north, the beach gets much cleaner. There's also a very fancy hotel up there which is probably far beyond our budget. But maybe we'll drop in for a coffee, or a cool drink on our walk. This morning we had coffee at the nice place we discovered earlier this week - I thought you might appreciate its name - "The Freshly and Hot Cafe".

Mamallapuram has put on the dog for Christmas mind you. Our little resort has a tree out front decorated with little presents wrapped in shiny foil paper - I noticed that one of the children of the resort had unwrapped one this morning - I'm afraid she was quite disappointed. Last night outside the Seashore Restaurant where we ate our Christmas Eve dinner there was a large tree in the sand with lights draping it as well as red tinsel garland. And on top a large three dimensional star - there are lots of these around town decorating many of the shops and restaurants.

On the streets themselves there are lovely chalk decorations; some of these are made by rolling a tube of chalk across the pavement or sidewalk leaving an intricate design; the tubes are for sale. Others appear to be labours of love, drawn in coloured chalk in entrance ways and on the sidewalks in front of people's businesses. These beautiful designs lend an exotic air that makes them for us the Indian spirit of Christmas.

One sad note that should not be forgotten - I wished the manager of our hotel a Merry Christmas this morning and he replied that the pleasure of Christmas was destroyed for him by the tsunami of 2004. He was not morose about it, but obviously for the people who live here, it is a painful memory that is brought back every year by the tourists celebrating Christmas while the locals live with their pain.

It's obvious that Mamallapuram has bounced back from the disaster and it is certainly now thriving again as a tourist haunt; we hear many voices from foreign climes, many of them European, German, Norse or Swedish, French, but few English voices, and there may be other Canadians here but if so they don't stick out. We have heard few people with the accents of home, and the locals who ask where we are from guess more that we are Australian or English than that we are from North America.

We are planning our onward trip now. Geordie has been on the Internet several times, attempting to make reservations for trains beyond Pondicherry which we head to on the 27th of December. He managed to reserve an overnight train to the tip of India from Trichy which is inland, but wasn't able to get us from Pondicherry to Trichy by train, so it looks like we may finally have to figure out how the buses work. I don't think a car from Pondicherry to Trichy is reasonable so we will have to work it out. Two of our fellow travellers on our Rajahstan tour wrote that they had taken buses on the second leg of their tour and that it wasn't so bad, so we are going to do our research and make our way to Trichy by hook or by crook since we do need to make that train.

It's beaching time for us now. We've enjoyed our week here in Mamallapuram, with sea breezes to cool our food, the pleasure of not being hassled continuously as we walk the streets, the relative calm of the streets, the amazing rock carvings which are within a stone's throw of town. After inland Trichy which will be hot and steamy we imagine, we will be keeping to the coast as much as possible. Unlike Rajahstan there's no need for a scarf here to keep the ears warm so those sea breezes will be essential.

So it's Merry Christmas to all. We have enjoyed the Christmas wishes we have recieved from folks and wish you all the pleasure of the season, whether you are at home with family, on the beach in Mexico or Hawaii or anywhere else in the world you have chosen for this holiday time. Now is the countdown to 2008 - get yourselves ready for a Happy New Year. Love and peace from Geordie and Nigel.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mamallapuram - Stoned at the Beach

We seem to be travelling just ahead of trouble as I've already said. And so it continues. Because of the potential for traffic disruptions from the Maoists in Kolkata and because our guide book said it took two hours to get to the Kolkata Airport (affectionately? known as DumDum because it's where the British developed the DumDum bullet), we left our hotel by taxi at 10:00 am three days ago.

The trip took all of 45 minutes (the people from the guide book must have been travelling by human powered rickshaw, of which there are lots in Kolkata) so there we were, over 8 hours ahead of boarding time of our plane - in an airport that didn't look that friendly to waiting passengers, noisy, not many places to sit down, and very few places to get any sustenance.

Geordie sent me off to find out what might be done, and I finally talked to the check-in counter for our airline, Deccan Air, who, after consultation told me I might be able to get into the fancy first class lounge. I was guided there and found out to my joy that because I have a Gold MasterCard, I qualified to hang out with the hoi polloi. What a pleasure it was - I wasn't there too long when I began to feel like a rich person, annoyed when someone left the door of the lounge open to let in the gabble of noise outside. (How snooty!)

Really though it was a little bit of heaven for our 8 hour wait. I must remember this again when I am at foreign airports, and maybe I should check my credit card plans more closely. We got lovely cappuchino's, free food (pizza would you believe and ginger cookies), comfortable seating, peace and quiet, all because of a little plastic. Just to pass the time we actually dared go out into the airport a few times just to mingle.

Our flight left exactly on time to Chennai and we passed from the turbulent north of India to the more relaxed south. Like Kolkata, we have really not been hassled over much at all, there are few beggars, we have found a place that does a wonderful expresso right across the street from our "resort", and we are quite happy being here over Christmas.

Arriving was a bit of an adventure though. Our flight got in at 9:40 pm and we were met outside the airport by our driver whom we requested to get us to the Resort here in Mamallapuram. We are so thankful for that. It felt so much more comfortable to know that our driver knew where he was going and we could leave the worry to him.

But it was raining and there was construction on the road we took to get out of Chennai - it took a half hour just to get away from the incredible traffic tie up - here it was, 10:00 pm and from the airport we had a half four of four-lane, bumper to bumper traffic. Incredible. And it was another hour in pouring rain to Mammalla.. When we arrived the rain was coming down even harder and we were shown to our room by flashlight since there was no power. The kind guys who led us there did light a candle for us, and got us a bunch of the sweetest small bananas and two bottles of water to slake our hunger and thirst.

The beds were a little clammy too, but we managed to fall asleep, to be awakened about 3 am by the most incredibly noisy thunder and brilliant lightning. If it's true that you count seconds between lightning and thunder to find out how many miles away the storm is, we were in the midst of it, because they were nearly simultaneous. It didn't last too long though, and we did get back to sleep, even if we were awakened again when the power came on with all the lights that had been left with the switches in the on position.

This morning we discovered from the paper that this unseasonable weather (monsoon weather) has caused much grief in the state of Tamil Nadhu. Thousands of hectares of ready-to-be-harvested crops are underwater, hundreds of homes have flooded and many people in the state are without a place to live - a little Hurricane Katrina-like since they have been placed in schools and gymnasiums to wait out the relief efforts. We are fine, there is little concern here although we did pass by a house today in an alley that had indeed been flooded, as we were making our way to the ruins of Mamma... We had to backtrack at one point because we couldn't wade the street of water without getting our feet soaked. It must be very difficult for the people of the state although it does sound like relief efforts are taking place. By the way, this area was also damaged by the 2004 tsunami with much loss of life, so I'm sure they don't need more trouble.

The reason for our trek through the partially flooded streets under the midday sun, was to see the ruins of some fine sculpted temples here in Mamma... This is a world heritage site and with good reason. Check out the pictures on this website to get a good idea of what we have seen or will see tomorrow when we go off again.

The first site is called the Shore Temples and I would have great pictures if my batteries had not decided to die after I took two photos. And it was a one time visit only ticket of course which cost 250 rupees for foreigners like us. You can content yourselves with knowing that someone has already done the work of recording the sites in the website I mentioned and I don't have to spend ages uploading photos for you. (I must do this more often, really - I know you don't get to see pictures of the two of us that way, but you at least get the flavour of the place.) I did buy new batteries to continue on to the second site included in our day ticket, so I do have good photos of that area.

The giant elephant was my favourite carving. From what we can gather, these monuments were carved from the living rock, so have not been moved here (which would have been a monumental task in itself.) So that fine elephant used to be just a boulder and the huge temples were other even bigger boulders. These carvings were carved sometime in the 600 to 700 AD period I think, so the work must have been a long time in the making.

The whole area is still alive with stone carvers although now they are more aimed at the tourist trade. There are still some big carvings done of course, including a wondeful hippopotamus we saw at one shop that must weigh half a ton - we decided it would not fit in the back pack to be brought back to delight our hippo loving friend Midge in Kamloops - she'll have to be content with the photo when its downloaded to send to her.

We are staying in Mamma.. for a week - we will explore more of the carved ruins tomorrow and maybe I'll be able to post a picture or two later. Again, these old fashioned computers have the USB ports at the back. I may do a little searching to see if I can find another place where they are more up to date. The speed is fine though so I'm not complaining.

What we won't be doing much of it I think, is walking along the beach or swimming in the Indian sea. The waves are quite rough for one thing and the beach leaves a lot to be desired in the cleanliness category. What a wonderful world it would be if someone had not invented the plastic bag or any other disposable plastic object. The beach is littered with the stuff and we imagine it comes from garbage being tossed or even deliberately disposed of into the sea. It makes one feel the need to begin ta campaign to eliminate the plastic bag. I think we should do our part here and refuse any bag we are offered. It's easy enough and I've certainly done it, but here it is brought home with such force, that it becomes essential to be part of the solution.

Nuff for now, I'm climbing down off my podium and finishing off this message. Christmas is a-coming, and no doubt many of you will be enjoying your Christmas turkey soon. We'll miss it, which is always one of the saddest things for me about our being away at this time of year - so we must remember to have a nice Christmas feast when we get back in March. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, turnip, gravy, Christmas pud with my mother's recipe, oh my, I'm missing it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Frosty the Snowman (in Kolkata?)

It's hard to think about snow when we are in Kolkata, although lots of the men around here wrap scarves around their heads and necks to keep warm in the cool temperatures of the area. What, about 20 degrees Celsius at the coolest? They obviously find it cold. I even saw a pair of wool gloves today at a department store we wandered around in.

However, we have been reminded of snow and Christmas today with a message from our daughter Holli and Grandson Devan. First we have a picture drawn by Devan showing the three of us, (Gramps Facey, Poppy Pottle and Devan) at the Taj Mahal. It's a work of art and it's nice to know we are thought of.

Art by Devan

And then there is snow. Seems it did a little of that in Vancouver early in the month and Devan got to do a little playing around. Think of this as our Christmas card. The last photo is of some mini snowmen with carrot noses that Devan made. Wow, an artist and a sculptor!

Please note the hat Devan is wearing. It's the skull hat I made for his birthday and I'm glad to see it's come in useful in snow. (It's a skull hat because Devan's birthday celebration had a pirate theme.)

Meanwhile in Kolkata:

Kolkata or Calcutta as we have known it has obviously gotten a bad rap. I'd been dreading it for some time because of that and the fact that we have had less than wonderful experiences in the other cities we have visited. The beggars, the touts, the crowds, the cow dung, nothing is like home! However the area we are in Kolkata is definitely not like the horrifying images we saw in the film City of Joy. Instead it has been one of the most hassle free places we've been so far.

We are staying in the Sudder Street area which is a bit of backpacker central, and as you know, we moved hotels after our first day here. But even on Sudder
Street the hassle's are few and I have yet to see a cow anywhere. It's funny though to see the goats and sheep being herded across busy intersections where the humans take their lives in their hands - that's one big problem - the pedestrian is definitely low on the totem pole here. Unlike places like Bangkok or Rome, the drivers make no effort to give way to pedestrians. In those other places you can do a dance with the drivers and get across the street by making eye contact and moving from lane to lane watching around you. Here the drivers just honk their horns to get you out of the way. They have all the right of way there is.

But otherwise, this is almost a sane city, with busy people on their way to work, or working on the streets. There's very little begging - a few women with children asking for money for "milk for babee". I had two rupee coins in my pocket which I gave to one of them, but she didn't think it was enough and kept begging. However, if we gave money to every begger who asked we'd be penniless soon enough. The other annoyance is the touting at the New Market. It's a big market and looks very interesting - an architectural point of interest, but the touts won't leave you alone outside the building. As new blood they latch on to keep telling us that there are craft shops inside. If we went in, they would get a commission so they are really aggressive and don't take lightly to "NO", so we have yet to venture inside because it's so annoying.

We went off to the Victoria Memorial today. Seems we weren't the only ones with that idea. We walked which took at least 45 minutes (we went the long way around the building to find the entrance) and when we got to the front door we were faced with a huge line up - all local, all looking less than prosperous. Their entry fee was 4 rupees, we got to pay 150 rupees each! We waited diligently in line while it snaked to the front door (there have to have been a thousand people ahead of us) until we were almost at the steps when one of the guards told us we could jump the line - 150 rupees has its privileges it seems.

Inside was a zoo of course - everyone stayed in line, snaking around looking at the exhibits, but at speed, so it was difficult to stay and admire. We did our best. The Memorial was started in 1906 to celebrate the reign of Queen Victoria. As a very appropriate aside, we read today in the paper, that as of tomorrow, Queen Elizabeth the Second surpasses Victoria and becomes the oldest reigning British Monarch! Not bad, Betty!

We are hazarding a guess that most of the people at the monument are in Kolkata because of the big demonstration planned for tomorrow by a group of Maoists who want a separate state for Assam. We ran into some of them yesterday when we were navigating the Maidan, the huge green space along the river and train tracks. They are marching under their hammer and sickle flags. It seems incongruous for them to hang out at the Vicky Memorial. Another big story in the paper today talked about a group of the Maoists who occupied a train heading to Kolkata, displacing all of the 500 fare-paying passengers who had booked the train. These folks mean business.

Tomorrow we are heading to the airport to fly to Chennai and on to Mamallapuram where we are going to spend our Christmas hols! We may go early since the paper said that the area near us would be jammed with the demonstrators by noon and would cause havoc in the traffic patterns. Our flight is not till 7:30 pm, but we are advised to leave for the airport two hours ahead of when we want to be there if we do it during the day. It only takes an hour at night!

I'm sure we'll make it as usual. We are keeping ahead of the troubles quite well so far. Until the beach...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Oh Kolkata!

We made it. No bombs, no accidents, no unusual events or unexpected things happened on our trip from Bodhgaya to Kolkata. We left the hotel by a great funky, private car to drive to Gaya - our least favorite town in the world this week. Why does driving at 60 km an hour feel like hurtling? My leg was so tired from braking as we did the trip and Geordie says his eyes were closed most of the time. Of course compared to the speed of a bicycle we were hurtling and the trucks are limited to 40 km an hour - honest!

In Gaya we had 12 hours before our train, so we got a hotel room - a different hotel this time. It was called the Hotel Akash and was little different from the other one we took except a little further away from the Hindu temple (which didn't make any noise anyway). The generators were going full tilt of course - turns out that the state of Bihar is one of the poorest in the country and the electricity grid is very poor. The town of Gaya is actually suffering because they get electricity only about four hours a day and two of those are in the middle of the night. Factories are closing down, throwing people out of work because they cannot run their generators enough to support the required power needs.

Bihar is a Dalit state - Dalits are the untouchables and they are definitely the lowest on the totem pole. As well as being poor, they are also the lowest caste of course, and they get very little support from central government - hence the major problems.

Gaya was redeemed by one thing though - we found a hotel with a really good restaurant - the rooms were too expensive for Geordie but the food was cheap. They even had half orders of everything so we didn't waste it. Everything was delicious and the maitre d' (yes, there was sort of one, he was the manager) was very proud of the food he was serving. He gave us very personal attention since we were the only guests. I worried for a bit that our little bill was going to be all they made that evening, but another group came in later, so I felt better.

We left for the train station at 4 in the morning (train scheduled for 4:30), and had to wake the guys at the front desk to unlock the gate for us. They did it graciously and waved goodbye. The train station was full of people - it felt like a homeless shelter, there were so many people wrapped in blankets lying on the floor asleep. We felt a little nervous on the platform while we waited for the train, since we were being eyed by several guys who did not look too trustworthy. We had had experience with a gang of guys who were attempting to steal things while we were on our tour, so we know to keep a close eye and hand on everything. Two of the guys who had been eyeing us got onto a stopped train, and got off again two minutes later, and took off across the tracks in the darkness. We couldn't tell if they had more after they got off than when they got on.

The train was only an hour late - not bad, since we met a guy who told us his train was scheduled for 11:30 pm and had not yet arrived at 5:00 am. We got on and snuggled down pretty quickly although I only got about two hours sleep, Geordie less. The trip was over six hours and included breakfast and a free newspaper, so that was a bonus. In the news was an article about India testing a surface to air missile - it was named the Akash - same as our hotel the night before!

As I said, we had no troubles but during the morning we did go through one station which was all aflutter with Maoist or communist banners and flags. Maybe they were in the neighbourhood of the problems. The train did not stop at the station, either deliberately or inadvertently. We arrived an hour late too, and had to work our way through a mob of taxi touts to get to the prepaid taxi service which was no doubt cheaper than we would have been able to negotiate on our own. The taxi got us through town to the backpacker area pretty efficiently - I have a feeling that's because it's Sunday today.

We went to a hotel recommended in Lonely Planet as a mid-range hotel, which sounded good. I sent Geordie off to check out a room, and after he went back the second time to see if it had a bathroom, we took it. He was tired and wanted to go to the bathroom which explains why he took the place which was just a little over the level of our Gaya hotels. No matter. We did a walk around in the afternoon, and found another hotel which is a lot better (and three times as much money of course) but it will be worth it, not to have to look at the dirty walls and we won't have to avoid taking a shower. The hotel even has a lift - now that's class.

We move tomorrow, although for a minute it sounded like a good idea to just add the price of today's room to the bill and just get out right away, but our economic side took over. Can't waste good money. That done we went off exploring and found the first cup of coffee that was not made from a jar since we arrived in the country. All those flash hotels we have been staying in on the tour offer instant coffee with lots of hot milk (the redeeming feature), so getting a caffe americano was a real treat even if it was strong enough to put hair on our chests. Then we even found a nice bookstore, called the Oxford of all things, and had a good look around - I'll probably go back tomorrow and have a good long look and maybe even buy something - had to leave because the bathroom was calling.

So here we are, three nights in Kolkata and then we head for the beach in South India. As we said, we are skipping Chennai - flying there and taking a taxi directly to the beach town which is called Mamallapuram - if you want to search it in your atlas. It's actually got ruins, so if you do a google search you will find very interesting pictures of the things in the area. We are going to spend 8 days there, and will be celebrating Christmas there too. (I wonder what that will be like in Hindu India? This is not the Christian area after all.)

Now to look for a nice place for dinner. Geordie says he's hungry and there's a really nice looking place called the Zurich in the area which is rated highly for backpackers in the Lonely Planet Bible. (It did look very nice - clean even!, although it doesn't have any Swiss food - Indian, Continental, Thai, and Chinese. Maybe a little Italian. And definitely Banana Pancakes!!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Peace with the Buddha

We have finally found a place where it's almost peaceful. Getting here was half the fun. We took a train that left Varanasi at 5:40 pm, an hour and a half late, and arrived in Gaya only an hour late, at 10:30 pm. Of course it was night so we didn't want to move on and decided to pick the nicest looking of the hotels in the neighbourhood.

Big mistake? This was the hotel you all think we stay in. After we were shown a room on the very noisy side of the building (a Hindu temple in full swing and about five generators to provide electricity in the alley), we asked for one on the other side. We were shown one right opposite, which in fact was also opposite the hole that had been chiseled into the wall for a window which someone had obviously forgotten to order. It also had one of the hotel staff in it, enjoying television. Yes, we took it anyway, and then had the bellboy? change the linens on Geordie's bed. His new sheet looked a little better, but mine, although clean, was dingy browny grey. I slept under it anyway and the heavy blanket, which was welcome, but Geordie slept in his clothes because he didn't want to have the smelly blanket on him.

There were no vermin we could see, but the toilet floor was wet from a leak so a nighttime visit to the bathroom meant putting on our shoes. And the clanging cymbals and the loud singing at the nearby temple went on until 3:00 am. I slept through it. Geordie says he only got three hours sleep.

The food in the restaurant was terrible too. I don't even want to describe the chop suey, and the "eggroll" was served in a pool of oil with a fine black patina. Ugh.

We left as soon as possible the next morning - took a taxi which cost almost as much as our room and took a hotel in Bodhgaya which is luxurious in comparison, even if they didn't make the room today and it's cold. It has decent bed linens and only a slight leak from the toilet...

But really, Bodhgaya is peaceful. I wasn't kidding there. This is the holiest Buddhist site in the world, where Buddha found enlightenment under the bodhi tree whose relative now grows on the same spot. The place is full of monks and nuns from all over the Buddhist world with a few Caucasian monks thrown in for good measure. Our hotel in fact seems to have Buddhist monks from Tibet as guests, and us. There is even a wonderful exhibit in the basement of the temple of artifacts from a Buddhist temple which is now in South India, but was of course moved from Tibet. The small bronzes are about 8 centuries old and very lovely. The finale was even better though. The young monk who showed us the photos and talked about his monastery, also took us in to see a sand mandala which had been created by four monks of the monasteray. It took them a week, and is an amazing work of art and religiosity. And after the exhibit is over at the end of January, it will be swept away. We couldn't take pictures of the bronzes but he encouraged me to take photos of the mandala, including pulling up a chair so I could take a photo from above. (Not illustrated here, lol. Old computers again.)

The Mahabodi temple area is a respite though there are no vehicles including bicycles and the upper area is where the devout walk around, clockwise, saying their beads, or in the case of one very elderly man, prostrating himself as he makes his way around. In the lower temple complex there are hundreds of monks and nuns, many of them prostrating themselves too, but in place rather than moving. The monks in some areas are chanting, there is incense, some teaching happening on the grassy areas, and all in all a very peaceful sense of well-being.

Around the area are also many Buddhist temples - Thai, Bhutanese, Chinese, Japanese, Burmese - some of them very beautiful examples of their architecture. The Bhutanese temple is lovely, and the Thai temple is exactly like a wat in Bangkok. The Japanese temple was closed for lunch when we walked by, so we don't know what the interior is like, however someone was ringing one of those huge bells often found in a temple complex. A lovely sound.

We did a bit of a walkaround yesterday and today, and in the afternoon yesterday I even took my pants to a tailor for repair. My Armani pants (really) had the worst sewing job imaginable. But they are nice and sturdy now, and it cost me 20 rupees, about 50 cents. There is also a Tibetan Refugee Market nearby which we explored, but it is full of clothing, warm clothing and not a tourist market at all. I did buy a Tibetan singing bowl from a young boy this morning when we went for our walk to the temples. I paid 250 rupees (from 350) which is about six dollars.

We have another full day here and part of another. We still have to have apple pie at one of the tent restaurants near the Refugee market too. We head for Kolkata in the wee hours of Dec 16 (4:30 am or whenever the train arrives) which means another visit to Gaya. We understand there are railway retiring rooms at the station which one can hire so we are hoping to get one of them, so we can avoid any of the terrible hotels. Sitting on the floor, or sleeping there as many locals seems to do, doesn't appeal quite as much.

A little note of fear here: We read today in a newspaper that the train line that we are going to take was bombed by Maoists yesterday morning. No trains were on the line, but they were held up for about 7 hours while it was repaired. Let's hope they have it out of their systems by now. It was in retaliation for some men who were sentenced for murder of policemen recently. We will presume everything is great.

We've also made a slight change in plans. We are going to Kolkata for the three nights we planned, and then flying to Chennai (Madras). However, instead of staying in Chennai for another three nights we have asked the hotel in the beach town we head to next if they have room for us. If so, we can be picked up by the hotel at the airport and delivered to the hotel without worry. That would make our lives a little easier, and maybe eight nights at the Greenwoods Resort will be what we need to decompress a little from the wild travels. No doubt we'll have an adventure or two to talk about before that. There's lots more to come.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

We have been travelling and finding our way around haphazardly I think. Agra and the Taj Mahal was easy - we had a tour guide then and the hotel was only a few minutes away from the site. And unlike the modern temple in DElhi where we took an hour through security to get in, the security here was simple - just a frisk and a promise not to bring anything on the list of banned objects.

The Taj Mahal was a marvellous site - we arrived in the very early morning with the sun not yet up and the mist from the Yamuna River creating mysterious light everywhere. We waited for the sun before heading in to explore it in detail. The building is a beauty, although how it survives the smog is beyond me. Right now one cannot drive closer than about five minutes away from whence we are whisked to the entrance by electric vehicles - but how that can prevent the smog from all the nearby vehicles, the everpresent smoky fires and heaven knows what else that causes the thick smoggy air is beyond me.

We didn't get the full package either - there was no water in the reflecting pools - under repair, so our photos don't have that unique effect. Not to worry, it was still a great visit. We spent about an hour and a half at the site, marvelling at the marble inlaid with semiprecious stones, taking photos, enjoying the light as the sun slowly rose turning the tomb golden for awhile and then that pearlescent white which marble can have. Lovely. The two temples on either side of the Taj in REd Sandstone and marble are perfect complements to the perfection of the tomb.

The Taj was our last stop on our official tour - lots of sad good byes as we bid adieu to our travel companions - the two of us and two others were heading back to Delhi while the rest of the group continued on to Varanasi. We were getting to Varanasi on our own.

We have one really good pointer from our tour - when you want to know where to stand for the poorly marked train cars, hire a porter. For 50 rupees a bag he will carry them, (on his head), and then put you exactly where you want to be. It worked in Agra where we had help but it also worked in Delhi when we took our first train ride with no help from anyone else. In Delhi, the porter put us under a sign saying B1 even though there was a sign for A1 (our car number) much further up the platform. And the train stopped with A1 right in front of us.

On our trip to Delhi, we had sit up seats, and were two hours late arriving - we got to bed about 1:30 pm after the trip to our hotel from the train station. The trip to Varanasi was only an hour late, but was overnight so we had a sleeper car. We had booked the side berths, up and down, but there were lots of empty places so Geordie got us moved to two lowers side by side with no other companions - except the vermin.

I saw my first cockroaches when I went to get rid of some garbage - they had colonized the sink area, and while we were sitting in our side seats a few more made their presence known. Then a huge one went by scurrying under the curtain - I was awed by its size. Then another, and another and I finally realized that the huge buggers weren't cockroaches, they were mice. You can imagine how much fun it was thinking about whether they could climb and where we would put our shoes when we went to sleep. Luckily there was a nice pouch which was a perfect storage spot and since it was up where we were sleeping, it felt safer. I don't know if any creatures climbed over me in the night but I slept the night through.

In Varanasi we were met by someone from our Guesthouse. A good thing since I can't imagine how we would have found it otherwise. Seems the best way to find anything is to walk along the ghats which are the steps along the holy Ganges where people bathe. The good thing about them is that there's little hassling - a huge contrast to the life in the cities we have been in.

Yesterday we decided to brave the alleys to see if we could find a place called the Bread of Life Cafe. We walked through the narrow spaces, and the kids heading to school in their uniforms and past hundreds of soldiers in Khaki carrying rifles slung over their shoulders. Not modern rifles either - could these be single shot?

We made it to a main street where there was so much traffic it was exhausting being there and after about an hour of walking we decided to give up and go back to the ghats. There we walked and finally rested near a place where some men were having a bath in the river. Note to self, do not swim here - I can't imagine what might be in it, but the locals even drink it - it's holy after all.) We also got to see how the men wear their underwear - they have most unusual underwear which wraps around, ties, then a flap is pulled through the legs tucked in at the front then back betoween the legs and tucked in back. Simple and effective.

After lounging for another half hour we decided to climb back up and look for the restaurant again. We got to the main drag and walked and walked but saw nothing. Finally we decided we would get a cycle rickshaw driver to take us there. Hah! He took us the wrong way and when we got back to near where we had started that morning we paid him off and went to ask at a book store. There we were told it was at least a 20 minute walk back.

This time we hired an auto rickshaw which dropped us at the door - probably about 10 meters from where we had come out earlier, and turned the wrong way. Then after our lunch, we headed back to the ghat - which took less than two minutes and put us right at the spot where we had started our last foray to find the place. Now, can we ever find it again?

We are off to Bodhgaya in a couple of days but tomorrow we may go off to Sarnath where we will see one of Buddhism's most important sites. More later, I'm sure. Now my fingers are tired.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Camels on Parade

Our tour is nearly over, but I have not been near a computer for ages. Our camel tour is done, we have been to Jaisalmer where we had our best tour guide yet - an audio guide which we could turn off if it went on too long - we spent a day touring villages near another fort/palace, took a train journey overnight on three tiered bunks, and this morning we saw the awe inspiring Taj Mahal.

But back to camels. Yes, Geordie didn't ride on one, but Nigel did. We were driven out to the desert just a few kilometers where we met our camels for the first time, and of course their drivers. There was a camel each, although the drivers did ride on some of the camels.

My handsome camel, (they are all male since it would be problematic for females apparenntly, and would interfere with child rearing?), was named Gangu, which, according to Rudy, our guide, means "the stupidest animal in the world). Very unfair since my camel was certainly smarter than any sheep I've met and it certainly obeyed all the commands without complaint.

Gangu wasn't really smelly either. His coat was rough, and he was damned high when I was in the saddle, but he was as charming as a camel could be. I'm sure we bonded by the time the trek was over.

Getting on a camel is not hard, but when the camel rises one is lifted so high above the ground! I feared for my poor osteoportic bones - if I had fallen off I would have broken my hips, my shoulders and my pelvis too, I'm sure of it. And I worried about my pelvis a lot because on the camel I felt spread-eagled. And I still ached from the stretching my ligaments got from the three hour trek.

And one thing I will tell you now that is not mentioned in any of the literature I have read about camel trekking - it hurts. The worst part was the jogging (versus sedate walking by the camel, I mean). Oh god, bouncing up and down continuously, with my camera bouncing against me, my right hand holding the pommel, my left hand holding the back of the saddle. I felt very unbalanced so hung on for dear life.

For the women reading this, apparently it is not quite so bad. Most of them reported almost enjoying the ride and feeling very secure on the camel. Men must be different because the other man in our tour group had to have his saddle adjusted during our rest stop. One of the women told me she even took pictures while she sat looking around. I wish I could have felt so confident.

Along the way we did see one wonder of nature - a baby goat had been born moments before we arrived. When I saw it, it was bleating, struggling to stand on its legs, still wet from the birth and with its umbilical cord still dangling. Out in the desert with just the mother to make sure it survived. There was a shepherd somewhere, but he wasn't with the mother goat - but it was managing quite nicely on its own.

We stopped again not far from our site because the jeep was there. My driver asked me at least twice if I wanted to ride and I stayed the course - I was not going to be the old man who had to drive, which was good because we only had about 15 minutes more of travel (they could have asked earlier, I thought, but I still wouldn't have transferred to the jeep).

At camp we had gaily coloured tents with comfortable camp cots and very warm blankets. After getting the ligaments working again, we got to enjoy the desert with a gin and tonic in hand, and then enjoyed a lovely dinner with five hot dishes rustled up by the cook tent. We even had dessert - a semolina pudding. And we didn't stay up late either. The stars were beautiful, but we were tired and we had to be up by 7:00 am to go back to town, so we snuggled in early and slept the sleep of the just (or the just worn out).

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In the morning we got hot water delivered to our tent, we had a breakfast with freshly made omelets, toast and thank heaven lots of coffee. It was a nice culmination to our trip. Getting into the jeeps to roar back to town was an anti-climax but I was more than glad not to have to do it on a camel.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

My India Diet Program

This is Geordie for a change. We are in Agra today. The Taj this morning at 6:30 was wonderful but no coffee. We leave the group today and go back to Delhi as originally planned. Tomorrow we jump the over night train to Varanasi alone and are a bit apphensive as we go on for 3 more months.

To my diet program. I have not been eating well since I arrived. I got a cold along with everyone else in the group. That took some time and I still have a bad cough. Then Delhi Belly hit for a number of days so no food. I'm surprized I don't look thinner. Yesterday was my first day of food and the meal was a chicken burger combo at the big M. Sorry. Desert was a cone.

Nigel will bring you up-to-date but I must tell you about my ATV desert experience. It was on the second bad day of Delhi Belly. We drove from Jaisalmer into the desert where we met the ATV's with 4 legs. The group mounted their friendly camels and off they went into the distance. I sat in the front of a jeep and was driven to the camp. The boy there rushed to make a bed for me outside in the shade. I fell asleep. Hours later the group arrived saddle sore and weary. Bruises from cameras and the saddle. Many ached days later. I greeted them and went to bed this time in my tent. I did not get up until dawn to have a piece of dry toast. The jeeps picked us up and back to civilization. Considering that I did not really experience anything I enjoyed being there. I did have to find little bushes to squat behind a number of times.

I am still hopeful for my India Diet Program but not in such a drastic way. Maybe just small veg meals.

Things I've noticed:

Food - good and not too spicy
Camels - smelly and fart a lot
Beds - hard
Noise level - unbelievable
Cows - everywhere
Traffic - more unbelievable
Tour group - great
Tour leader - great
Garbage - everywhere
Hawkers - everywhere and so very persistent
Beggers - "
Deformed beggers - oh dear
Forts - big and always up a steep hill (walking)
Palaces - very plush
Desert - very dry

The Tour has been a good introduction to India for us and I guess we are ready to deal with it ourselves. India is a most interesting place to be, certainly never dull. I am looking forward to all the new experiences.