Thursday, March 16, 2017

Cello, cello - beep, beep

The word for 'go' in Indian is 'chale' but it sounds like cello. Happy would go 'cello, cello' and I would match with 'beep beep' for the scooters and tuk-tuks outside.

I will try to offer some advice based on my observations and this blog entry may be updated from time to time.

Which tour is right for me?

Obviously only you can answer that. Work out how long you are able to go for and plan from there. If this time would be your first time in India, you might want to plan a shorter rather than a longer journey. I must admit that towards the end of the trip the thought of yet another Indian meal, no matter how delicious, was starting to pall. My regular diet is much more varied and I remember I was tired of SE Asian food a few years ago after eating it for a few weeks.

I think you can do any of the trips and you will see a lot of unforgettable sights. India is not just the Golden Triangle. I found Intrepid's North India Revealed to be a good match for me. Others might suit you better.

The other parameter is comfort level. My tour was basic and for the most part I was happy with the accommodation. I always compare my bed to a United flight from LAX to Sydney so I am easily pleased. Most of the accommodation exceeded my expectations. The rooms can vary in a hotel so you can be lucky or unlucky.

I expect the 'original' and 'comfort' levels will be more luxurious and probably with a better chance of getting a really good shower.

The main benefit of the 'basic' tour are that it is inexpensive and more likely to attract young people as well as old codgers like me. My tour finished up with a wonderful mix of youth, energy, enthusiasm, wisdom and fun. Hopefully you will be lucky as well and you will meet a bunch of really interesting people.

However I do wish Intrepid would charge a bit more and put us in better carriages on the train.

When to go?

My trip started on February 15 and lasted until March 8. Like much of the planet, India is suffering from global warming so temperatures were higher than normal. It was more than hot enough for me and if I did the trip again I would have picked an earlier date.

The transfers from the airport to the hotel.

My experience was good and it was very helpful of the driver to make sure I was inside the hotel and somebody was aware I was there. Some others tried taxis but their experiences were not great. Since I had no Indian money on me, the transfer got rid of the problem of getting a taxi. Remember the ATMs in India are not reliable and the ATM at the airport was not working.

Luggage.

Intrepid recommends using a back-pack and I went with their recommendation over my usual carry-on roll-around. I wish I had ignored them because the roll-arounds that other other people used worked fine. The important thing is to bring a small carry-on size case. A big heavy bag is awful to maneuver and lift. The other thing to remember is that it really helps to be able to slide your suitcase / backpack under the seat in your train carriage. You have perhaps 8". The lock and chain to secure it from theft is also a good idea though most people do not use one.

What to Bring.

Less. If you are only going to use an item a couple of times, think twice about bringing it. Don't bring your entire wardrobe and remember it is allowable to wear clothes more that one day. Washing facilities are available at every hotel and are very inexpensive. Just pick a hotel where you will be two or more nights and hand it over at the beginning of the day. You can pick it up in the evening. You could easily get by on three shirts plus the one you are wearing.

I don't pack extra shoes except for a pair of thongs or flip-flops. This reduces the weight load in your pack a lot. I noticed at least half the group were wearing water-proof shoes by Keen, including me. They work well, they are super comfortable and you can stride through virtually anything with confidence. By the way you will be removing your shoes a lot to enter temples and houses.

An extremely light weight jacket could be useful. Those with light skin will find a hat essential.

Electronics.

Because of my blogging I carry my 2.5 pound laptop along with associated charging wires and adapters. Others did very well with various sized Ipads and tablets. Internet connectivity can be an issue at a lot of hotels so bringing a device that can take an Indian SIM card is a good idea. SIM cards are inexpensive in India so get one that comes with a fair amount of data.

Camera

I used my Lumix  ZS-50 and it performed well again. I love being able to shoot one handed and within a second or so of seeing the photo develop in my mind. Bruce had a later model and seemed to like it. Of course larger cameras can produce a better shot but I think my small camera does pretty well for a quick point and shoot and cropping.

Make sure you have an extra battery and keep it charged. You will be taking a lots of photos.

Some used their IPads and appeared to be getting excellent results, but it is not the camera for a quick snap.

Medicines

Get your shots well before you leave. Bring stuff for diarrhea but you will find everybody is stocked up on everything and will be willing to share if you have forgotten something. Of course you can just go to a local chemist in India. They are fine and will have everything you need and it will be very cheap.

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When in India

Crossing roads and walking.

The constant beeping will initially drive you nuts but eventually you get used to it. The traffic seems quite chaotic and the guiding principle seems to be to get ahead of the next person.

You will eventually get a sense of how to cross the road. Simply wait for a gap or go downwind of a local.

It is usual to walk on the left side of the road with the traffic coming up behind you. The beep - beep is just to let you know somebody is approaching you but has seen you. Try to be predictable with no sudden moves.

I saw very few accidents, none involving pedestrians and the vehicle incidents were minor. Usually the traffic is moving quite slowly because of the congestion.

Cows.

They are everywhere. They vary in size and most are very placid. Just walk past like the locals do and I suspect that is what the cows want you to do as well. Don't freak out.

Touts and beggars.

Your guide will tell you to ignore them and do not make eye contact. I am 6 feet and it is easy to pretend that they are not even there.

ATMs.

This can present a challenge, particularly in Dehli. ATMs are often empty of cash early in the morning but may get some cash later in the day.

The situation is usually better in the country cities.

Always make sure you have a few 10 rupee notes or coins for chai or bathrooms.

At various stages, we all borrowed or lent a few hundred rupees to others in the group. It's not a great amount of money with 100 rupees = US$1.67.

Water

You can only trust water from bottles and you have to use it for everything. You will soon develop your technique for brushing your teeth using only bottled water.

Make sure you never go out without your bottle of water. Bottled water is available everywhere for about 30 rupees  for a litre bottle.

Food.

You guide will know of some trusted food stalls where they use fresh ghee. Some people seem to get away with eating street food, but others are unlucky.

At dinner when eating with the group, it is quite normal to order a dish and share with the others. Three dishes often is sufficient for four people.

I mostly ordered Kingfisher beer in the 600 ml bottle for about $3. Others had white wine, usually a sauvignon blanc from India and they were complimentary about the quality. Wine is quite expensive by comparison.

Your group.

As a traveler used to going solo, the biggest question I had was whether I would fit in with the group. I need not have feared and I had a wonderful time talking to all the others at various occasions. It helped to have a small group of twelve which makes it easier to get to know everybody though it does take a few days to remember everybody's name. It is especially wonderful at meal times since there is always somebody to sit and eat with.

The people who go on these trips are usually very interesting people with interesting backgrounds. All seem to have a great sense of humor.

Your guide.

This is your greatest resource so use him / her. They are there not only to lead the way but to make sure things happen on time and as they should. They resolve problems with hotels, tuk-tuk drivers and all the other people that you now don't have to deal with. They know the correct tip for the correct individual and you can be sure they don't get trapped into overpaying.

Perhaps one of the the nicest things is when you arrive by train in a new city. Your guide makes sure you all made it off the train and then leads you through the exit to the area where your arranged transport will be waiting for you. You and your luggage are loaded aboard, the transport sets off and eventually after a myriad of mystifying turns you arrive at your hotel where you can relax on a sofa. You will hand over your passport and fill out some items on the hotel register. It is all made very easy. No negotiations, no being told your hotel has burned down but there is another even better hotel etc.

And of course, your guide is the one who makes sure you are coping with everything and that you are well. India is stressful and the journey can be tiring especially for old codgers like me.

And once again, our group was very luck to have Happy.

Other blogs
As others from the group send me links to their blogs or photos, I will add them here.

Bruce's blog


Purgatory and the flight home

I came out of the Oxford Bookshop feeling very good and after a short Metro ride arrived back at the Hotel Perfect feeling quite chipper. I had survived all that India could throw at me.


The room was very nice, away from the street and relatively quiet. There was no Dog Chorus the prior night.



Shower.

It was about noon and I was due to leave the hotel that night about 11 pm with Johanna who had arranged transportation to the airport. Her plane left a bit after 3 am and mine at 4:10 am. All I had to do was have a relaxing afternoon in the hotel.

I lay down for a nap where I started having a very weird and colorful dream where I was walking along a four foot wide spongy path in a very colorful indeterminate atmosphere that I seem to remember was colored orange or red. When I woke up I realized that all was not well. My stomach was feeling nauseous and I was extremely thirsty. Fortunately there was no problem with my bowels but I was concerned. Fortunately I had plenty of water and after a few hours I improved enough to realize that I would be able to take the plane that night.  A shower helped.

At 11 pm I met Johanna and we had an uneventful ride to the airport which was very busy.

To actually get into the airport you have to show your passport and some evidence that you are flying out of there that day. I had forgotten my printout but eventually remembered that I had an email on my cell phone from Etihad that I could show the guard and I was let in. I said goodbye to Johanna who returned to Belgium. She since has been given crutches to help with her ankle.

I checked in and eventually managed to get through Passport Control which had a long line that snaked back and forth. It was quite hot and not comfortable. Eventually I got to my gate and had a cold drink.

The flights home on Etihad were both very crowded but fortunately I managed to change my window seat to an aisle seat near a bathroom. The hostess for my section really took care of me and made sure I had fruit and drinks.

Before boarding the plane to Dulles at Abu Dhabi, your go through US customs and immigration so that you don't have to do this at Dulles itself. Very convenient. The 12 hour flight was otherwise fine and I managed to catch the train from Union Station up to Perryville where I was rescued by Nurse Marianne. I think I fell asleep between each station.

I was quite wrecked for a couple of days and I could not get rid of the feeling of nausea. But here comes the really weird part. I went to bed a few days later about 9 pm and eventually the walking path dream came again only this time the color was a bright luminous green. Somehow I got the sense that I was to be returned to normal life and suddenly the dream stopped. I woke up and my my brain was totally clear and the nausea was gone.

Don't ask me to explain. It must just be India.

Agrasen ki Baoli - a step-well in Delhi

Although Jennifer and Bruce had moved to their palatial digs we arranged to meet up to see the step-well in Delhi. I had hoped to see it on my first day in Delhi but difficulty in getting Indian money made me postpone the visit.


Agrasen ki Baoli is down at the lower right and my Metro stop was at Barakhamba Road towards the top about a third from the right.




This was a Delhi I had not see before with tall prosperous buildings and traffic that actually paid attention to traffic signals.


I turned left onto Hailey Lane and then onto this narrow lane-way leading to the step-well.


This lane-way was obviously used for wash for nearby hotels.




Bruce doing his best to demonstrate why Aussies are a bunch of ruffians who deserve to be behind bars. Jennifer looks on bemused. They had elected not to return to the Hotel Perfect and had upgraded substantially to the Hotel Park. Apparently it was excellent.



Entry is free and it is immediately obvious that this is nothing like the other step-well we had seen.



We gradually started to descend.




The ceiling. We could hear bats up there.




Droppings on the floor. This is where the water would have been when the step-well was in operation.




We climbed out, happy to have visited the place.


Bruce and Jennifer had arrived via another route and I made sure they got to see the street of sheets. Note how they don't use pegs.



We decided to have a late morning tea and went to the Oxford Bookshop cafe which is Connaught Place.


Columns that surround the Connaught buildings.


Bruce and Jennifer had chai from these leaning cups. They said the chai was very good.


I had a couple of mango smoothies and these cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches which tasted fine. We then said our goodbyes and I head back to the hotel.

I had spent quite a deal of time with these Aussies and really enjoyed their company. They are both doctors and stopped practicing in Launceston and went to work with the indigenous population near Alice Springs. Hopefully I can catch up with them again some time.


Train from Varanasi to Delhi

Tuk-tuks took us to the station for our final train journey to Delhi. I suspect most of us were not looking forward too much to the experience.


It is supposed to take about 14 hours. We actually took a more northerly route through Lucknow.


Peter and Anna were in the compartment with me. Peter is quite gregarious and he had soon struck up a conversation with the Indians in the compartment. It turned out they were returning to Delhi from a wedding in Varanasi. The blurred image of a man running outside the window is that of the groom and he had been saying goodbye to his sister and brother-in-law in out compartment. He would make the same journey the next night. And no, his marriage did not include him sitting on a white horse.

When Indian families say goodbye it is done by a brief touch on the leg which I felt quite charming.

The train is very long and very slow taking off so it was only when the train was actually moving that the groom got off the train.


We had a fun time talking to this couple and their little girl.


This was a relatively new carriage and this train was easily the best of the three trains.


Peter and Anna,a lovely couple from near Ottowa. Peter is recently retired and had made a career as an architect.They had joined the tour expecting a higher level of comfort but having discovered their mistake, they made the best of it and I think Peter in particular really enjoyed talking to the locals.

He also likes to sketch with water colours and the next morning he allowed me to look at the sketches he had made during the trip. A very talented bloke.

No photos of the journey this time. Just flat land similar to what we had seen already.

The train was late so it was made to do penance outside Delhi for an hour or so before being admitted to the station. We got into the taxis for the drive to the Perfect Hotel and we were amazed at the quietness and the calm flowing traffic. What seemed awful when we first arrived was absolutely calm compared to the horrors and noise of Varanasi.



Sarnath - where Budha first taught enlightenment

There was a whole day to fill in before we took the overnight train to Delhi so a group of us took tuk-tuks out to Sarnath on the northeast side of the city.


The traffic in downtown Varanasi was possibly some of the worst we had experienced in India. Eventually we left the worst behind and I was able to take some photos.





Sarnath is where Buddha first preached enlightenment. There are numerous temples in Sarnath and the tuk-tuk leader took us to several of the most important. The first was a Chinese temple.
















I get bored with temples fairly quickly so I went outside to gaze at what might have been a school across the way.





It was a short distance to the Mulagandha Kuti Viha temple which you approach via a long path.









You have to take off your shoes to enter.











It was starting to get warm so the cool shadow felt good.


We would visit the big blob soon, but via another entrance.




Prayer wheels.


This Bodhi tree is a second generation from the original Maha Bodhi tree under which Buddha received enlightenment. 





It's all a bit too gaudy for me. I prefer the reflective and restrained.



No we are not visiting the blob. First we stopped at a Jain Temple.





The Jain Temple. To be honest I had had enough of temples by now so I just sat and looked around.



But now it was finally time to see the blob which is actually the Dhamekh Stupa.



We entered into a very large park. The first part contains numerous excavations. I decided to leave the group and stroll around by myself.






A Google Earth image of the park. We entered at the bottom left and I circled clockwise.

Big blob is at the lower right.











It was lovely just strolling quietly by myself just soaking it all in. I did not feel the need to know what I was looking at. Sometimes less knowledge is more.



I could see some of our group had reached the Ashokan Pillar. I never got to see it. Next time.









It was a pleasure  to just stroll around by myself. It has been wonderful to be part of a great group but normally I travel by myself and that day I just needed some 'Ray by himself' time.


It was also a popular area for couples to meet and sit in the shade of small trees or bushes.



The area is famous for deer. Apparently when Buddha came to the area it had lots of deer and the tradition remains. They all seem to have spots.



Yound Indian men excited to see deer. With numerous deer in our neighborhood, I don't get too excited but at least the spots were different.



I sat on a seat under a tree for some time gazing at the blob and reflecting on the trip.


The tree under which Ray did not receive enlightenment.



Eventually I wandered over to the blob and walked around it. It's about 48 meters high and has a 28 meter diameter.


Intricate carvings.





Religious texts on colored sheets of paper.





It was getting close to noon and several people were enjoying benches and shade.


Interesting shades in the hedge.




So we all left the park and returned to our tuk-tuks.



Finally we went to see a Giant Buddha.



It's only a few years old.


It was quite hot now so I just took some photos from a distance.



I found the texture of the wall interesting.



What a dilapidated bicycle.



It was time to return to the hotel and I got a brief glimpse of the Chaukhandi Stupa.


The traffic was atrocious, made worse by lots of school buses.


A poor traffic policeman trying to make the traffic flow. Eventually we through the worst of it and we could see our poor driver relax just a little.



These looked like Cape Gooseberries.

I enjoyed the trip out to Sarnath more than I expected. Towards the end of my trips I start to shut down from touring mode yet I found strolling around the deer park to be just what my soul needed.