Category Archives: India

A Fiery Finale to India

You know what makes Varanasi feel so refreshing? There are puppies and women. Puppies and women! What’s not to love? I knew something was amiss after all this time in India, and it was too many Y-chromosomes in the air. Finally, the ladies are back. And they brought with them puppies. Well no, I guess it’s just “puppy season,” as Ananya, the daughter of our Homestay owner Harish, told us. (Now that should be in the guidebooks under “when to visit.”) But seriously, there are women everywhere, which is not the case in all (most) other parts of India we visited. Especially at night. And here we saw lots of women out, young and old, day and night, in groups and alone. Which makes me feel safe, and happy. Also, Ananya took us out for an alley walking/food tour one day, and the company of another young woman all day was so welcome and refreshing to me. I forgot how comforting the presence of other ovaries can be.  (Alan says:  This is our first post together on the combined blog, and I bet you can guess who wrote this paragraph.  Though I do love me some ovaries.)

Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest living cities and one of the holiest places for Hindus.  It sits on the banks of the River Ganges and the stone ghats leading down to the water are the epicenter for both ritual ablutions and cremations atop wood-fueled pyres.

We expected Varanasi to be a highlight. When we began our trip we knew we were going to spend 25 nights in India, and the only places we knew for sure we had to see were Kerala and Varanasi. And so we booked flights into Kerala and out of Varanasi. The rest of the stuff in between was planned as we went. But Varanasi we’d known was a must-do. In fact, it’s the one place in India I’ve been talking about going since I started talking about going to India. The only reason we skipped it on our first trip was that the idea of watching people burn the bodies of their loved ones seemed even more antithetical to the idea of honeymooning than did the risk of Delhi Belly that everyone felt inclined to warn us about when we revealed our plans to spend our post-nuptials in such a locale.

Well, we came in prepared for intensity, for emotions to be tugged, eyes opened, cultures experienced. And that it was, but what was perhaps most intriguing was the experience of joyful emotions in Varanasi. It does not feel like a sad place.  The contrast of extreme happiness – people going on pilgrimage to one of the holiest places – and extreme grief – burning the bodies of their loved ones – is fascinating. We learned from Harish that death at a relatively normal age (e.g. not a child or young person whose children have not yet been married) is not so much a cause for mourning as it is for celebration of a life well-lived. After the friends and family of the loved one carry the body to the river and it’s been cremated, the family (if not poor) of the deceased provides food and sweets to thank those who came. Interestingly, the cremation is generally to happen immediately, but if family members need to travel to attend and see the body, the local members might keep the body warm (in winter, or cold in summer), as Harish did with his mother, by rubbing ghee on the body until the rest of the family can come pay their final respects. It was an emotionally powerful story and an experience difficult to imagine.

We saw the cremation ghats from a handful of different vantage points: the first time on a sunset boat trip up the river, seeing a few cremations from a distance, where the impact is somewhat diffused. (Though you do get a pretty up-front view of the nightly pooja ceremony, which to be honest felt like a show for the tourists). The next morning we woke early to see the ghats by sunrise, and while it was quite foggy, it was still a special experience, seeing all those people up at the crack of dawn to bathe in the freezing cold waters of the Ganges on a winter day. And let me tell you, it was cold. Alan was wearing long underwear! Most moving by far was witnessing the cremations on our last day when we walked to the main cremation ghat of Manikarnika. We went in expecting an intense experience, and intense it was, in some ways expected, others surprisingly so. Of course, it’s a moving experience to see the bodies carried to the river on bamboo stretchers, dipped in the water and then placed on a pile of logs to be burnt while dozens of people crowd around. I was somewhat surprised, though it makes perfect sense when you think about it, to see how many animals congregate by the main cremation ghat. They come seeking warmth, and next to the eight burning bodies are a mix of cows, dogs and goats, everywhere. It can be hard to watch, to see slowly the cloth wrapping the bodies consumed by flame and evaporating into ash to reveal the soft beige of a human skull, and to see the still intact feet poking out of a fire in which the legs and torso have all but disintegrated already.

While the cremations were impactful and emotional, they weren’t necessarily disturbing to us.  What was quite so, however, were a handful of young men and boys around the ghat. We’d been warned in advance, like so many tourist destinations in India, that unsanctioned “guides” will try to sell you tours for money. Here, of all places, seemed to us a disgraceful place to do such a thing, and to top it off, they lie about the money, claiming that they only request donations to provide firewood for the destitute, where in reality they are keeping it themselves. This is one of the holiest places in the world for Hindus, yet this disgusting dishonesty is taking place for personal benefit.

Armed with the knowledge of where this money actually goes, we refused any tours from these boys, one of which was quite pushy. When we told him we didn’t want a tour he stormed off saying, “fine, go away then.” We stayed on, observing quietly and respectfully (no photographs), for a while after. As we were walking away the boy called out after us “good, leave and don’t ever come back here.” In some bit of shock we turned around to confirm he was directing this towards us, and to our dismay he was. Trying to avoid confrontation Alan gave a pitied laugh at him, and this flared the boy up, trying to start a fight I suppose, yelling after us things like “don’t laugh at me, I don’t like your laugh. You stayed here a long time and did nothing.” As opposed to this boy? Who stands there while people return their loved one’s bodies to the earth and scams tourists so he can go buy himself some cigarettes? I am quite an emotional person, and had expected to be moved to tears at the sight of the cremations, but ultimately it wasn’t the cremation but these shameful boys that made me lose my emotions.

By the way – I read recently an article on NPR about how people can send in the ashes of their loved ones to companies that will compress them into diamonds that you can wear as keepsakes. Clearly Varanasi is not the market for these companies as the ashes are going into the Ganges, but I thought it fascinating. Apparently the diamonds usually come out blue, though some are yellow or black. Does that mean you have a dark soul?

Another highlight of our time in Varanasi was the walking tour we took with Ananya. We ate LOTS of food on this tour, starting with a plethora of pakoras. We learned that anything fried in graham flour can be a pakora. We tried tomato, eggplant, cauliflower and a few others.  And we had some terrific chai. I’ll miss Indian chai, I will. That sweet, spiced goodness. Here, Ananya threw in a Kit-Kat as well. Chocolate, as she says, is not a dessert in India. What is it then? A snack. Meandering through tight alleyways packed with people, mopeds, cows, dogs, goats and Bengali style houses with peaceful little courtyards, we stopped a man pushing a food cart full of peas to try “Indian peas.” These looked to us like regular old, get ‘em at your local grocery store snap peas and so we stuck them in our mouths, pod and all, and took a bite. Ananya turned around when she saw a man laughing at us and quickly informed us that you aren’t to eat the outsides, but just pull the peas out from inside. I don’t know, tasted fine to me. But she sure got a kick out of it. Next on the culinary tour was lassis at Spicy Bites. According to Ananya they are the best lassis in Varanasi. They definitely aren’t the best lassis in India, but they did have some of the most unusual flavors I’d seen. We went with a tried and true classic: chocolate banana coconut and chopped nuts, and a newbie: blueberry. Stick with the classics. That said, the best lassis we’ve had in all of India were probably the saffron lassis at Raas hotel in Jodphur. After “whetting” our appetites we went for a South Indian lunch at Dosa Café. We shared the masala dosa and veg uttapam, which is kind of like a pizza with a polenta crust. Both were heavy on the coriander for my taste, but Alan seemed to enjoy.

Onto dessert! Varanasi is well known for its desserts. And Malaiyo is one of its showcase sweets. It’s a special treat that’s only made in Varanasi and only during the coldest winter months (this, also, should be in the guidebooks under “when to visit”). It’s made from milk, which is boiled for a long time until it turns into an airy foam. It’s also got some cardamom in there, and I believe a bit of rose water. We’re told they place big pots of this on the roofs at night so that they chill.  Served in clay cups that are thrown away after a single use, they look like mounds of yellowy fluff. And they taste like an airy, lighter than mousse creamy cup of goodness. Make sure they pour a little condensed milk over top of it for the full effect. Ayo for Malaiyo.

Of course, this was only the teaser, and we went next to a sweet shop for a gulab jamun (basically fried dough soaked in honey and rose water, oh god), and a couple other sweet balls of rose water/cardamom/pistachio based goodness. They all taste similar, but vaguely different. Some of them have silver foil atop them, which you eat. It’s hard to fight the urge to peel off what looks like tin foil.

The alleyways range from fairly deserted and pleasant to walk around (albeit you always have to dodge the occasional pile o poop), to crazy and hectic.  The difficulty level of crossing the street doesn’t quite rival Mumbai but is made none the easier by mopeds driving on the wrong side of the divider. The environment feels ironically happier here than so many places we visited in India. It’s strange to find that in a place most strongly associated with death. Especially when you have to step aside on occasion as groups of men pass by with dead bodies hoisted on their shoulders.

Especially near the mosque where lines of locals wait eagerly for their turn inside, there is a large security presence. I never did quite adjust to the number of weapons that the officials carried here with such cavalier indifference to where they’re pointing.

We passed a number of music shops where the hippie variety tourists toted sitars around.

Ananya told us how from December 14 through January 14 it is not a time for weddings, but instead Hindus eat only bland food (rice with this daal type stuff) and grieve for ancestors lost. After the 14th there is a celebration with lots of kite flying. A friend I met while studying abroad also told me about the same festival, which is celebrated with more flair in Gujarat beginning January 14. We unfortunately missed it but it sounds worth checking out.

We usually cover accommodation in the “Practical Info” section below and we added some advice there, but we are including here our thoughts on TripAdvisor ratings and a lengthier discussion because in Varanasi our lodging was a more integral part of our experience than usual.  We stayed at a homestay, named, aptly, Homestay.  It’s the number one rated spot on TripAdvisor and people really rave about it. We’re coming to the realization that ratings on TripAdvisor can seem inflated, perhaps because people give ratings on different scales in different locations.  For instance, we’d rate our hotel in Cochin to be a “5,” for India and for the price. It was one of the best places we stayed, with a nice location, large room, functioning WiFi and A/C, but it’s no way a “5” compared to say, where we stayed on our honeymoon in the Maldives (for 28x the cost). You begin to notice in India especially people raving about things like “water actually got hot!” Also, a hostel might be a “5” for a hostel, but it can be difficult to know whether something is a “5 for a hostel cheaper than your morning latte in New York City for dirty backpackers with ridiculously lowered standards” or a “5 for a charming experience if less than luxurious spot” or the “5 for anything in the world at any budget.” So, take your “5” ratings with a grain of salt.

That said, Homestay was pleasant and we’re not trying to tear them down. It’s just not the BEST. The family who runs it is quite nice. You interact mainly with Harish, who is helpful and friendly, if also a bit long-winded. Our biggest complaint with Harish is that he spends so much time talking about how much his guests love him and how well he treats everyone that you never really get a chance to see it. Maybe it’s just that we spent four nights there and so heard his spiel to each new guest as they arrived. He also likes to opine on things on which he lacks personal knowledge, a bit of a pet peeve of ours. For example, he likes to explain why foreign tourists see certain local acts as irritating, because he apparently understands the psyche of Americans better than, say, the American tourists sitting across from him. And he’ll tell you how a sight in India is the second most impressive in the country, so beautiful, second only to the Taj Mahal. And fifteen minutes later he mentions he’s never actually been there. You can also expect to pay a bit more for transport and tours than you would otherwise. For the most part this is fine, because his guys aren’t going to try to take you around to shops and restaurants where they get a commission (much appreciated), but the tuk-tuk driver we’d hired didn’t speak any English, so if you’re looking for more of a guide, it’s definitely not a bargain (especially compared to what we got for less money in Cochin). Also, his airport shuttle fees are expensive and his argument that he’s saving you money because you aren’t dealing with commission schemes falls short here. Again, though, after a long 3.5 weeks in India we were just so over haggling.

Breakfast (included) and dinner (I can’t recall exactly but I believe dinner cost around Rs 250/person) are served communally. Harish’s wife, Malika, does the cooking. It’s pretty good. We loved her pakoras and the paneer curries. Weirdly, the dish I liked least was her paratha. Breakfasts are quite basic, pretty much toast (though with some fantastic homemade guava jam) and one hot Indian item that’s hit or miss. And when the power goes out (which happens pretty frequently), the toast switches to bread.

It is quite nice to share your meals with the other guests. We met several interesting people over the course of our breakfasts and dinners, including one couple that was also on a long-term round-the-world style trip including extensive travel in India. It was really fun to have people who could relate and discuss in detail with us such exciting matters as obtaining malaria pills and getting diarrhea (which for the record, was the woman’s opening line as we introduced ourselves at dinner. “Hello, we were supposed to arrive two days ago but I’ve had diarrhea for days.” Oh India and the things you learn about those you travel with).

The monkeys in Varanasi are scary little mothers. Our room was on the top floor, and we had to walk outside across the roof a bit to get to our door, which was something we avoided doing when the monkeys were out there. But the good news is that Jenni’s fight or flight instincts are intact. While dining on a rooftop in the old city, some monkeys snuck up there and in an impressively swift motion she jumped and ran inside the building before Alan could even grab the banana lassi and her sunglasses.  Which he sat valiantly protecting.

Other Varanasi Sites

We’d planned for four nights in Varanasi, expecting to have a work day and catch up on blogging/planning for the upcoming countries on our trip. Otherwise, we would not have spent so much time here. Given that we had plenty of time to spare, our first day we visited Sarnath. This was somewhat disappointing. Perhaps if you have a passion for history, Buddhism, or both, this would be more fascinating.  Deja vu to our commentary on Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.  Or if you hired a knowledgeable guide. But as a sightseer with little understanding of the ruins you’re viewing, it’s a bit underwhelming.

However, I was more than pleased to discover an Indian zoo tucked away behind some of the temples. All you culture-ites, please avert your eyes. In lieu of checking out more of the temples… we went to the Indian zoo. And it was awesome. They had a collection of deer-related animals, a host of the most exotic looking birds, crocodiles and these strange-looking incestuous accident of a crocodile’s offspring: the cavial. It’s like a croc, but with a wicked fat tail and a long skinny nose.

After our outing to Sarnath we jetted over to the old city for ayurvedic massages on the uber-cheap. You get what you pay for. Not the best massages I’ve ever received, but possibly the cheapest. And definitely the most invasive. They really got up into the nooks and crannies there.  Alan said no man has touched him that way since his father last bathed him in the late 70’s.

Some final observations on India.

It can be overwhelming, which can be hard to admit. But it’s at times discouragingly difficult to get by, and I’ll tell you it was a great relief to arrive on the beaches of Thailand for a stretch of days with little to plan beyond “should I order a banana daiquiri next? Or a banana colada?” In fact, I write this post while in a lounge chair listening to the waves lapping a few meters below me, while the sweetest dog keeps us company over our mojitos. Sinfully good this bit can be.

Before India I’d mistakenly believed that the Air Hancock is a universal symbol for “check, please.” This one doesn’t translate to Hindi, unlike the universal language for “pot sold here”: Bob Marley music and/or posters.

Another interesting cultural difference that we noticed throughout India: the non-sexual touching of same sex friends. While it’s quite taboo for men and women to engage in PDA, men and men often, how do I say this, cuddle. No, but really. I’ve seen grown men spooning on the street. It strikes me as odd, that in a country so focused on sexual repression and where the rights of homosexuals are pitifully archaic (I read in the newspaper there that during 2013 they reinstated an old law banning “unnatural sex”), the men touch in ways you don’t see much in the western world.

Practical Info

Transportation: We flew to Varanasi from Delhi on Air India.  Our flight was delayed several hours and many were canceled due to fog, which apparently is common at this time of year.  There are flights from Agra at least a couple days each week.

A car to our accommodation (Homestay) was arranged by Homestay and cost Rs 850, which seemed quite expensive.  Since it can be even more difficult to find things in Varanasi than elsewhere in India, especially in the old city, folks often recommend arranging transport directly with your lodging.

The day we visited Sarnath we paid Rs 100/hour for a tuk-tuk.  This also was surprisingly expensive, and that was a theme of services arranged at Homestay.  For comparison, we paid Rs 60/hour in Cochin and that was for a driver who spoke English well and doubled as a guide.

Accommodation:

We stayed at Homestay and covered most of the experience above.  One of the key decisions here is whether to stay in the old city or not.  The old city is near/on the river, closer to most of the attractions and more atmospheric.  However, it is also more crowded and hectic.  Homestay is about 1 mile from the main ghat.  I believe that many of the higher end properties are away from the ghats.

I think I might prefer to stay closer to the ghats.  While this might be less peaceful in some respects, the ghats and surrounding alleys are fascinating and it would be nice to envelop yourself in this world for a couple days.  Unlike Agra, where the Taj Ganj area does not offer much to compensate for increased tout-presence and commotion.

We had lunch one day at Shiva Ganges View and the building and location were nice.

We heard that one or more heritage properties may be opening in the old palaces on the river in the coming years.

Food: We ate most of our meals at Homestay and the food was pretty good (covered above).  Lunch at Aum Cafe near Asi Ghat was quite good.  It is a crunchy place where we had our most Trader Joe’s-esque meal in a long time.  An open faced sandwich with homemade nut butter, honey and coconut, plus a much-needed salad and a rose lassi.  We also had lunches at Dosa Café (South Indian food) and Shiva Ganges View.  The former was good and its owner friendly; the latter was bland albeit with a roof deck perched way above the river offering nice views.

In the old city we had lassis at Spicy Bites.  The special with chocolate, coconut, banana and nuts was far better than the blueberry.

On our way to the airport we stopped at New Rajshree for sweets and samosas.  It appeared clean and orderly, was packed and tasty.  As mentioned above, malaiyo is a unique treat here, and of course street food is ubiquitous.  We ate a lot of tasty pakoras in the old city on our walking tour.

Activities: The most popular and unique activity is to spend time on the ghats by the river observing ritual bathing, cremations and more.  Dashashwamedh is the main ghat where the nightly pooja ceremony takes place.  Manikarnika is the main cremation ghat.  You can walk up and down the river, and a sunrise (and perhaps sunset) boat trip is de rigueur.  We arranged our sunrise and sunset boat trips through Homestay.  Each cost us Rs 300 and began and ended at Kedar Ghat.  Near the river you will be inundated with offers of boat trips, and I think the going rate is in the Rs 150-300 range.

The well-reputed Banaras Hindu University is southwest of the old city and home to the Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum.  The Monkey Temple and Ramnagar Fort are other popular attractions.

Many visitors make the ~10km trip up to Sarnath for half a day.  We found it missable, but if you do go there are ruins and Buddhist temples plus a neat little zoo.  It cost Rs 100 each to enter the ruins and Rs 20 each for the zoo.

January 6-10, 2014 (Monday-Friday)

 

The Real India?

We spent three nights in Delhi and filled our time with a walk around the old city and a great night out.  Plus one intended work day and one unintended sick/work day.  Driving in from Agra, I was amazed at the amount of construction south of Delhi.  I think this area is called NOIDA.  Less surprising by now was the half hour bathroom and car wash break our driver took at a highway rest stop after we replied “no” when he asked if we wanted to stop.

As we neared our hotel on Main Bazaar in Paharganj, our driver said “this is a very bad place.”  It is tourist central and the touts are quite unpleasant, but I think he exaggerated a bit.  Plus we had internal hallways and didn’t hear our neighbors shitting at all, so it was a marked improvement from Agra.

After dropping our bags, we got quoted many inflated auto-rickshaw fares to the old city but at last found an older gentlemen willing to charge us merely double what a local would probably pay.  Jokes were included free of charge.  He asked if we were married and then if I was happy (maybe it was Jenni’s Agra-induced scowl?), to which of course I replied “yes.”  Then he expressed skepticism and told the tale of an Indian arranged marriage and how the woman leaves her family which can be emotional.  So on the wedding day the groom asks the bride why she is crying, and she replies “I cry only today but you will cry the rest of your life.”

He dropped us a short walk from Karim’s, the legendary kebab etc. spot tucked away in an alley near Jama Masjid (which I think translates as great mosque, hence the same name here as in Agra and I presume elsewhere).  They were out of some items and we figured the leg of lamb might be a bit much for two, so we each got a Karim Roll.  It was pricey given how small it was, but maybe that’s because it’s made with lamb, and anyway it was delicious.

After our late lunch we walked around inside the walls of Jama Masjid which is the largest mosque in India.  It is lovely and affords nice views.  I’m told you can climb up one of the towers for really good views, but we got ushered out for the afternoon prayer time and decided not to stick around until it reopened.

The old city is crazy busy and lively and I would definitely spend at least half a day wandering around here.  We didn’t really do enough else in Delhi for me to opine, but my understanding is that New Delhi can be a tad plain and Old Delhi is where the action is.  The usual jumble of alleys and markets and fruit stands and tons of traffic.  We shared a tasty and jumbo pomegranate on the street.  There were more women and families here than many of the places we’ve been.

We walked a long way down Chandni Chowk and grabbed delicious sweets from Chaina Ram, which ended up being dinner.  It was dark and we weren’t quite sure how far the walk home would be, so after several attempts we settled on our first cycle-rickshaw of the trip.  He took us through the hardware section, and the metal back of the bike provides at least some protection from the madness around.

I’m glad we tried it, but the seat is so uncomfortable and you feel guilty watching the dude struggle mightily.  To ascend the hill over the train tracks he just got off and walked the bike.  I blame all the paratha.

Saturday we considered hitting a coffee shop but ended up doing work all day in the room.  When it was time to go we tried both online cab companies mentioned in my guidebook in hopes of avoiding haggling with a taxi in our touristy area.  Instead of a ride, we got a malfunctioning website, a 15 minute phone call and then a text saying sorry actually there is no car coming from you.  Not to worry, our hotel called a car.  Does the driver know exactly where we want to go?  Don’t worry, you’ll just tell him.  Oh he doesn’t speak English, but I’m sure you’ll sort it out.  I’d say perhaps 10% of the time we get in a car the driver actually takes us directly to where we want to go.  Good stuff.

Then the night got much, much better.  Jenni’s friend from Cornell, Aashica, lives in Delhi and we met her and Adi for dinner at Smokey’s in Greater Kailash II.  The food was great, but much more important the company was even better.  It was comforting to be with friends in the kind of place we’d probably frequent if we lived in Delhi.  The kind of place with a beet and goat cheese salad and a lamb and bacon burger.

It’s funny how I always think of the “real [country X, but I’ll just refer to India for this purpose]” as the part of the country that likely bears least semblance to my (former) life in the US.  I think most people have this tendency but I’ll take the bullet here.  I fully understand the notion that the way the overwhelming majority of the Indian population lives could be called the real India, and that generally it is more interesting to enjoy the contrasts when exploring another country.  But if you are a banker or lawyer or doctor or anyone else in a top income bracket in the US, you probably still feel like your life in the US reflects the real US.  Of course few in the US live the way most Indians do, so I appreciate it is a somewhat different concept.

But it does seem a bit silly for me to have the mindset that passing time in the manner I likely would if I lived here means I am forsaking the real India and substituting some misrepresentation of it.  One could even argue I’m doing just the opposite.  If you can afford a car, insurance and petrol, then you can hire a 24/7 driver for maybe $200-300/month.  So I bet most of you reading this would have a private driver if you lived in India.

Enough sounding off.  The night was awesome.  Aash and Adi hosted us through the hours of darkness and gave us an experience we never could have had on our own.  From Smokey’s we went to some hotel/bar complex (I don’t know the name but I think it was at/near Hotel Samrat in Chanakyapuri) and grabbed a scotch from a half-closed spot, and then went to another side of the area where the doorman ushered us in past multiple closed doors into some after hours back room with Russian girls dancing and further cocktails.  We were dropped back home around 4 am.

And then back to the real India :).  Jenni was sick all the next day (and more) so we never left our room.  At least our hotel had room service and the pizza and butter chicken were pretty good.  On Monday the situation nearly came to a head.  Our Air India flight to Varanasi was delayed 3 hours due to fog but we went to the airport on time anyway because who knows what might happen.  And as it happens the Delhi airport is super nice and is a much more pleasant place to hang out than our $35 hotel room.  We killed time and then I tried to withdraw cash from a Citibank ATM as we walked to our gate to board.  I went through all the steps, input the amount and hit enter, and then the power died and the whole machine went blank.  WTF?!?!?  So we didn’t know whether it was about to turn back on and dispense my cash to some lucky traveler or if Citibank would try to deduct the amount from my account regardless.  And of course we couldn’t sort this out with anyone so we just had to leave to board the flight.  Then we boarded but they had switched aircraft so we had a seat assignment that didn’t exist.  Things got tense and tempers were narrowly maintained, but alas we made it safely to Varanasi.

Practical Info

Transportation: Our drive from Agra took 3.5 hours on the toll road and with light traffic in Agra since it was a Friday and the Taj was closed, and it cost Rs 3,000.  Our auto-rickshaw from Paharganj to Karim’s cost Rs 100.  A car from our hotel to dinner in Greater Kailash II was Rs 500, same as our trip to the airport.

Delhi has a metro that is supposed to be reasonably good.

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel Hari Piorko in Paharganj, fairly near the old city as well as Connaught Place.  Definitely a touristy area.  For $35/night in a big city, I thought it was pretty good.  Delhi has tons of lodging options.  A friend suggested staying somewhere in south Delhi, which is nicer and I think has more open space.  Several years back my family stayed at Master Guesthouse and thought it was great.  And as I write this from Varanasi, I wish we had stayed in more homestay-type properties while in India.  It is hard to overstate the value of an honest and knowledgeable local to assist you.

Food: Karim’s is legendary.  We visited the original location across from Jama Masjid, which actually occupies four spaces next to each other sharing a kitchen.  I think there are now other locations around Delhi.  Perhaps you should go for lunch at a more normal time, because around 3 pm they were out of several items.  The Karim Roll cost Rs 125.

Our one real night out in Delhi began at Smokey’s in Greater Kailash II.  This is a proper Western-style fun restaurant.  As I can’t think of a better comparison right now, I’ll say Houston’s look but a little hipper and a lot livelier.  You can get burgers and wings and cocktails and wine etc.  I thought it was very good.  But beware, we sat down to dinner upstairs at 9:40 pm and soon the music was so loud it was difficult to converse.  The bar area was lively and fun, and cocktail pours were legit.  They played Material Girl and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

Activities: My guidebook says foreigners have to pay Rs 300 to visit the Jama Masjid but we just walked in.  Note that it closes in the afternoon for about half an hour for prayer, and thus we got booted after about 15 minutes.  No shorts.  You can carry your shoes inside.  It has some nice views over the old city and Red Fort, which is one of the top attractions.

Had we done more, we might have visited Humayun’s Tomb, walked around the Rajpath, perhaps Connaught Place and more.  There are a number of museums in Delhi.  One thing I was bummed to miss is strolling around Hauz Khas, which Anish suggested (and Aash and Adi agreed).  This is a bohemian neighborhood with cafes, galleries and restaurants.

January 3-6, 2014 (Friday-Monday)

(the tiniest bit of) Delhi

It’s a good thing we paid up for 10-year multiple entry visas for India, because we didn’t get out and about to see nearly as much of Delhi as we’d like. We spent three nights in Delhi, though we basically didn’t go out during either of the two full days. Saturday day we spent in our hotel room doing research for our upcoming adventures in Thailand, Malaysia and Laos (we leave India so soon!). (But we did get out in the evening for a super fun night, see below!) And Sunday.. well, it was here that my streak of luck with avoiding a foodborne illness ended. At least I made it a cumulative four weeks in the country before it happened. And anyway, I think getting sick in India is a right of passage.

We had hired a driver in Agra to take us to Delhi, and much of the drive was actually incredibly pleasant. We paid extra to take the expressway (the tolls are over Rs 500), and it’s definitely worth it, as you travel on a nice modern highway with unbelievably little traffic. There is hardly anything around for much of the drive, which I found somewhat surprising as well.

I was amused by our driver (he is from Delhi) who asked our opinion on the people of Agra, saying that he thought they were not nice. Much nicer in Delhi we asked? No, he said. Only in the South. And when we pulled onto the street where our hotel was he made sure to tell us “this is a bad place.”

Despite that warm welcome, we really enjoyed (what we saw of) Delhi. Our hotel (Hari Piorko) was not amazing, but it was many many steps up from the accommodation we had in Madurai and Agra. I was pleasantly surprised that for about $30 a night in the capital city we could get a spacious, somewhat modern room with blankets, toilet paper and hot water. Each room also has a fish tank built into the wall. The water in them is practically black, and it’s a wonder the fish in there are still living, but it felt like this place might have been the bee’s knees back in, like, 1981. When the fish tanks were last cleaned. Anyway, I think it was the only place we’ve stayed in India that offered room service, and this came in quite handy since we spent so much time in that room.

After arriving Friday in the afternoon we stepped outside our hotel door and into the madness that is Paharganj (hawkers galore) and negotiated with a few tuk-tuk drivers before getting a ride over to famed Karim’s for some middle-eastern-ish Indian food. The place is absolutely packed, and I think there was even a security guard manning the entrance. Get there early, as they were sold out of a few things we’d contemplated trying. We ordered Karim rolls (lamb, and a delicious spice combo), which were fantastic, but quite small, especially at the price tag of Rs 125 each.

Our tuk-tuk driver was hilarious. Example: he asked, are we married? To Alan, are you happy? And then he tells us that when a woman cries on her wedding day (for arranged marriages it’s often emotional for the bride and her family since she is leaving her family to live with the husband’s etc.) and when the man asks why, she explains, I cry for only one day, you cry for every day after. Oh, ball and chain jokes. They translate everywhere.

After lunch/dinner/dunch we wandered over to Jama Masjid and explored the mosque for a few minutes before being kicked out for the afternoon prayers. It would have been nice to climb the tower for a better view of the city, but we kept on and bought a pomegranate from a street cart for our first dessert of the day. So good.

And then we ventured into the Chandni Chowk area. There are tons of shops selling textiles, clothes, food, everything. And there are tons of people and vehicles, of course. Holy mother of crowdedness. Each time I think I’ve experienced the on-top-of-eachother-ness of India, it’s one-upped. But I think Delhi truly takes the cake. At one point I literally had to crawl over a man’s push-cart to finish crossing a crowded road we were stuck in the middle of. That really is an awesome experience, if only when you reach a breaking point and confirm you are still in one piece.

We fought our way up to Chaina Ram, legendary for their desserts, and bought a nice big box of assorted sweets that we picked out based pretty much solely on how delicious they looked, though we had essentially no idea what was in any of them. And after eating them all I still couldn’t really tell you, except that I think pistachio, coconut, rose water, milk and cardamom(?) play big roles.

We hired a rickshaw driver to take us back to our hotel, and while he agreed to a price of Rs 80 we wound up giving him 100 because it looked like such hard work.

After a full day’s worth of trip-planning on Saturday we were rewarded with a fun night out with my college friend, Aash, who lives in Delhi. She and Adi took us to a happening spot (Smokey’s Bar and Grill) for dinner in Greater Kailash 2. I was very happy to have arrived at a place where we could drink the ice cubes and order salad. And even happier to reminisce on college days, share great conversation and get the locals’ perspective on all things India. They were fantastic and very generous hosts, and it was refreshing to see the “real” India as we might experience it if we were living in Delhi, rather than as tourists hopping from one sight seeing spot to another. We went big, closing down Smokey’s, venturing to another bar for a drink before last call, and last a sneaky, hidden bar that’s only allowed (I use that word loosely) open late because you can’t hear it from outside (it’s tucked far into the middle of a huge hotel). The crowd here was captivating. There were a handful of men being entertained by some Russian ladies, and one very drunk American who was super excited to see fellow Americans. When we arrived back at our hotel at around 3:30am I wasn’t sure if we were at the right place because I didn’t think it possible the packed street full of hawkers could ever be so barren.

After our experience trying to find the correct airport/terminal in Mumbai, we’d asked an Air India employee which airport we would go to in Delhi to fly to Varanasi. She assured us there was only one. Feeling smart, we hop in a car to take us to the airport on our way out and the first thing out of his mouth is “which airport?” Oh god, here we go again. Luckily, whichever one he took us to was the correct one.

Examples of things I by now find a comical part of the India experience: (1) We attempted to use an organized cab service that you call in advance so we could avoid haggling over price, though after 15 minutes on the phone trying to explain where we were and where we wanted to go all we ended up with was a text message saying “sorry, we can’t provide you a cab.” (2) Feeling not so hot myself, overheard in the Delhi airport bathroom: an American boy in the next stall puking up a storm and between sobs and retching crying to his mother, “I hate India.” (3) When we tried to use the airport ATM it shut off right after we entered the amount of cash to dispense. The helpful folks at the airport offered essentially no assistance, leaving us to figure out whether our cash came spewing out for a stranger once we’d boarded our flight. (4) Getting on the plane we discover that we were assigned seats that fail to exist. Mass confusion ensues while everyone stands around in the aisles until finally someone figures out that they switched the planes so our seat assignments don’t match, and tell us to sit wherever there’s an open spot.

Intoxicating, Infuriating, Inimical, Inimitable India

India holds well-earned legendary status among the world’s travelers.  It is an extraordinary place, but I am now going to commence a little public venting and a small call to action.  Nearly everything I have posted so far covers the details of our experience in each location and attempts to offer helpful information should you visit.  I want to write a little about our more personal experience and what life on the road has been like, at least in India.  I feel guilty complaining about anything when I know many think I am living a dream.  But since I am not yet a famous blogger with hordes of followers, there’s a good chance that if you’re reading this it’s because you know and care about me.  And thus you probably want to know how I’m really doing.  Which is: very well, but a little beaten down by this country!  So then I guess this post will be partly about India and partly about our life on the road…and I feel some run-on sentences coming.

There really is no place like India.  I heard that for so many years and always questioned the hype, but having now visited twice and spent a cumulative 25+ days here, I can opine with at least some degree of authority.

Some say India is more a continent than a country.  The diversity of landscapes may have peers, but I don’t think the energy and intensity do.  Or maybe there is a peer for India on a number of elements, but it’s the combination of all that is present in India that sets it so far apart.

For all its glory, India can be a truly maddening place.  I find myself thinking often about the distinction between an experience you are glad to have had and an experience that you actually enjoy.  My preliminary conclusion for this trip to India (and we still have four nights in Varanasi) is that it has been filled with specific experiences I have actually enjoyed, but the overall experience is one I will be glad to have had.

Let me be clear about a couple key points that might distinguish my current trip with one you may take.  First and foremost is budget and independence.  We have stayed in a few places for $20-30/night and only our hotel in Mumbai reached triple digits.  When we visited for our honeymoon, we had a private guide and driver and stayed in 5-star properties.  This was a very different experience.  Another extremely important point is that you will probably visit India on a stand alone vacation, which is an entirely different animal because you focus only on enjoying your brief time here.

We, on the other hand, are blogging, planning the next parts of our trip and dealing with the vagaries of life.  Like when you can’t keep your old insurance plan due to the Affordable Care Act and log on to find your premium has nearly doubled and you have no way of paying it without making a phone call to the US.  Which isn’t perfectly easy due to time changes, WiFi that works a small percentage of the time and SIM cards that apparently are roaming in every state other than where you bought them.  And you can’t just walk into a store and buy a new SIM card because you have to fill out forms and submit passport and visa copies then wait several hours or more.  And the higher roaming rates actually matter when you figure you’ll sit on hold for an hour trying to speak with someone at the insurance company.

So while “down time” in a country where it’s most needed should be filled with relaxation, for us it’s often filled with stress and frustration that nothing works as it should and WiFi cuts in and out.  In fact, just getting anything done is harder and takes more time.  Last week I had to add a “payee” to my online bank account, but I can’t receive a call or text on my US mobile which is how they always validate the action.  So that leads to an online chat session (which sometimes gets disconnected) and takes half an hour.  Most of this isn’t that big a deal on its own, but when over and over there are obstructions to accomplishing simple tasks, it becomes frustrating.  And at times infuriating.

Which leads me to a theme: it is hard for someone who usually feels very capable and in control to feel helpless.  When you can’t really communicate due to the language barrier and your taxi stops at Mumbai’s international airport and then you find out you’re at the wrong place but nobody is really sure and your taxi already left and the taxis and rickshaws pulling up refuse to turn on the meter and want to charge us the same amount to drive 15 minutes to the domestic “airport” as we paid for the hour+ drive from our hotel to the airport…then you finally get in a rickshaw with two backpacks and rolling duffels hoping your knee doesn’t stick out the side since there is zero margin for error and that driver doesn’t really know where he’s going and then the security guards at the domestic airport ask for tickets but we don’t have a printer so I only have e-tickets and then he takes my iPhone and walks away with it and tries to tell our driver that we actually are supposed to be at the international airport but fortunately our driver doesn’t go there and drops us at what eventually turns out to be the right place…and then it becomes clear that what they call two “airports” we would call two “terminals”, albeit really far apart, which explains some of the confusion I had when using airport codes to look into this before…anyway, while all that is happening you wonder if you’re going to make your flight and you can’t communicate and you feel helpless.  It kind of sucks.

Then there is the whole “just part of the experience” topic.  This tagline should be applied often, but I think it also can be overused to justify dishonest behavior that should be frowned upon and not tolerated.  I would say that the power going out when you’re in the middle of doing something is part of the experience.  Or having touts call to you when you walk past their storefront.  Or getting quoted obviously inflated prices constantly because you’re a tourist.  There is a market, and either someone will provide it cheaper or I don’t really need it, or I have to pay the market price at that time.  Fine, I get it.  That doesn’t mean I enjoy it, but I can accept it.

But I draw the line at blatant dishonesty and behavior that is simply rude.  Explaining this away as part of the culture or the experience perpetuates activities that do not help a country, tourism industry or culture in the long run.  It’s acceptable for a driver to take me to a restaurant that pays him a commission if I can’t specifically request a different restaurant of my choosing.  But it’s not OK to obviously collude with the restaurant to charge me more than what the menu says and bring me things I didn’t ask for, then use the language barrier to bullshit your way through why the bill is correct (which for the record happened in Sri Lanka, not India).  It’s not OK to grab me as I walk by, or to cut off my wife to better position yourself to continue to harass me.  And it’s not OK when I pay for transport to a sight for you to take me to a parking area with scamming guides who share commission with you instead of just taking me to the right place.

This behavior should be condemned, and frankly when fellow countrymen see it happening they should intervene.  I would like to think if I were in the US and heard somebody trying to scam a traveler that I would help them, either immediately or at least right after if I were concerned about the confrontation.  But in India this behavior seems so ingrained and such a part of the culture that the assistance almost never happens.  Obviously I don’t mean this is the case for Indians as a whole, but those in and around the tourism industry certainly seem to abide by it.

I keep thinking, as well, about the broken windows theory that Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point.  It’s been a while since I read it, but I believe he talks about William Bratton implementing this criminological philosophy as police commissioner in New York.  If you don’t know it you can read all about it elsewhere, but the basic concept is that removing the petty crime and indicia of lawlessness or vandalism etc. ends up having a major impact on reducing overall crime and improving well-being.

I understand how difficult it will be to implement this in India for countless reasons.  But the way you see people litter with such little apparent regard for its impact is sad.  And a thousand other things that might contribute to better quality of life.

India is endowed with truly phenomenal assets.  It has natural beauty and history that few countries can compare with.  The food is great.  The culture and accessibility and breadth of religions I believe are incomparable.  The US has religious diversity, but it’s not as though you witness it on a daily basis or feel like it’s a prominent part of your experience unless you make it so for yourself.  Here you see Jain and Hindu and other temples and mosques and constant prayers and processions and festivals.

Of course India is exceedingly diverse, so as I wrote in earlier posts the south was much more mellow and relaxing than the rest of our trip has been.  If I write that India is like life on speed, clearly it only seems that way in some areas.  Not on the backwaters, in fact just the opposite.  Not in Munnar, and probably not in many other areas.

India is often described as an assault on the senses, and I fully agree.  Jenni summarizes it nicely in her Madurai post: “sights (colors, people, animals, things everywhere), sounds (essentially continuous honking along with the myriad of other city noises you hear), smells (yeah, lots of those… by the time you realize you smell sweet flowers and think to inhale deeply, it’s been replaced by some other foul smell and you regret taking that deep breath), touch (lots of people and stuff, not so much space), and tastes (obviously you know by now from reading my blog that I love me some paratha, and India has a hell of a lot to offer in the culinary department).”

I’ve been baffled by the “market” and thought process of some of the drivers and others with whom we interact.  It seems hard to find the middle ground between a total rip-off and full fairness.  I expected negotiation to be more effective.  Like in the Mumbai airport example above, when the driver quotes Rs 350 and I counter at Rs 100, that ends it.  The guy who ends up taking us got paid Rs 75.  Is the first driver so confident that another tourist he can hoodwink will come by in the next 30 minutes that it’s not even worth it for him to take me for Rs 200?  It is a personality trait of mine that I get hugely upset at things that make no sense to me.  India is not gentle on my head that way.

It has distressed me that I’ve adjusted my habits in a way I didn’t aspire to.  I am so tired of the misleading info and touts that I sometimes refrain from asking a question, even if it might lead to interesting conversation or enhanced knowledge.  I do this because often I don’t trust the response any more, and because I strongly suspect it will just lead to a sales-push or other self-serving answer.  Me: What are your favorite places to go?  Him: Yes I can take you there what time should I pick you up do you have a pen so I can give you my number is that your friend or your wife…

Our honeymoon was fantastic, though at times I felt like I was missing out on the “real India” experience while we were cocooned in a fancy hotel and always accompanied by a guide.  On this trip I wish we had a bit more of that!  Perhaps the appealing middle ground to me would be staying at some nicer hotels (even if not top of the line and/or not every night), more assistance with the transport and some guided days, while still allowing some time for exploration and the sensation of uncertainty and wonder that is intoxicating in moderate doses but exhausting in excess.

Some assert that the more high-end trip is always better.  Others argue the point of travel is to immerse yourself in the culture and live like the majority of locals do, and that high-end travel can be antithetical to these goals.  There is no right answer.  And I think the relative merits and enhanced comfort that comes with spending more varies depending on location.  But after the amount and degree of frustration we’ve experienced so far in India (which I’ve obviously covered only a fraction of in detail), if you can afford it then I’d opt for more luxury and comfort!  And I don’t recall thinking this mattered much in Thailand or Cambodia, for example.  I’m eager to see how I feel about the budget/luxury/independent/guided balance in Thailand, Laos and elsewhere.

So, there, I said it.  I have prided myself always on my ability to adapt and my comfort with traveling.  It is hard to admit it has been challenging, but that’s the truth.  I am tired of nothing ever working right and constant harassment.  I am excited for Varanasi, and I fully expect to return to India many more times.  Just hopefully with some combo of a bigger budget, (more) local friends or an acceptance that I won’t try to complete any tasks like blog posts or bill paying.  Right now, I am so ready for 8 nights on the beaches of Thailand!

Great Sights, Crappy City

If you come to India, chances are very high that you will visit Agra.  The Taj Mahal is one of the most famous attractions in the world, and deservedly so.  There is also Agra Fort plus a couple smaller local sights, and Fatehpur Sikri is about an hour away.

By all means, do come to Agra.  But get out quickly, or stay at one of the nicer hotels outside the Taj Ganj area.

I think 15 nights of independent travel in India and some marginal accommodation started to catch up with us, because the “h” word was uttered quite a few times during our stay in Agra.  If I had to summarize my non-sightseeing impression of this place, I would say Night of the Living Dead with zombies coming at me from obscured positions.  Other than that, it was awesome.

We arrived on New Year’s Eve and wandered around the alleys briefly, peeping some camels and a rat and endless touts.  Where are you going?  Um, I don’t know, but do you want my social security number, too?

We considered one of the rooftop buffets/parties but it was way colder than we realized (in the 40s, so do not pay extra for an air conditioned room this time of year!) and they didn’t look so great.  Instead we had delicious shahi paneer and an amazing banana lassi at Shankara Vegis restaurant, where we would end up spending most of our non-sightseeing time in Agra.

It was a sensationally undignified close to a momentous 2013 for us.  The highlight was that our room had a TV, and I found Predator.  Things deteriorated quickly though when I heard our neighbors grunting and dropping turds in the middle of the night since our lovely hotel room has a bathroom with a large square near the ceiling open to the next bathroom.  I would’ve complained to the manager, but by now I know it wouldn’t have done any good.  Like when you show up and the WiFi is out of service, there is no apology or recompense.

You are probably thinking what the #$@ am I doing staying in places like this?  And I am wondering that, too!  I think for most of the rest of the trip we’ll find better places.  We also could afford to spend more, but we set a budget and we’re trying to stick to it.  So it would be nice to make a few bucks while we travel and expand the expense-side guilt free.  If you have any consulting gigs let me know!

New Year’s Day was quite a lot better as we visited the Taj Mahal.  We woke early and were in line for the open.  Apparently the weather is frequently foggy this time of year, and we encountered some of that.  Travelers we met in Mumbai said they couldn’t even see the Taj until around 11 am.  We could see it fine the whole time, it just wasn’t sunny.  Hence all the flat light photos.  Nonetheless, it was definitely worthwhile to arrive first thing in the morning because it was not crowded and many times more visitors were there when we left around 10:15 am.

After clearing security we emerged into the Chowk-i-Jilo Khana which itself leads to the stunning main entrance to the gardens and Taj.  Once through the gateway you see the Taj at the end of the gardens, and if you come before the fountains start (around 10 am when we visited) and at the right time of year (?) you should see its reflection in the waterways.  Magnificent from afar, one does not appreciate the scale nor detail until much closer.  It really is an exquisite monument.

We admired it a while and then visited the onsite museum for several minutes.  Nearby is a tree loaded with lovely green birds with long tails.  The sun never did emerge and we left a few hours later.

Do you know about gulab jamun?  It is so freakin good.  It is basically a fried ball of dough soaked in rose water syrup.  We had one with our thali lunch at…Shankara Vegis.

Then we hit Agra Fort for a couple hours.  It features gorgeous carving and inlay work and some views of the Taj and river, plus a few more green birds.  At both the Taj and the Fort, Indian tourists greatly outnumbered foreigners.

From the Fort, we took a rickshaw across the river for sunset views of the Taj.  Good call, Kenny.  Ask to be taken to Mehtab Bagh, but you do not need to pay to enter the gardens if you just want to enjoy the view.  Instead, walk right past that entrance and down to the river.  The only discernible difference I noticed was that the free view comes without eye-level barbed wire.

This is a great vantage point not only for the view but the relative calm and silence.  You see thousands of tourists marching like ants around the mausoleum, but hear only birds and music.  Perhaps the water level was unusually low for our visit as we did not see the reflection that Kenny mentioned.

I also enjoyed the calmer and friendlier feel to this side of the river.  Much more peaceful, and of course additional goats wearing sweaters.

Instead of massive log-droppings and grunts, Thursday we were woken by some man incessantly making a karate kid “haayyaaaa” sound followed by loud banging.  I thought of Miyagi, of course, then Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam.

The sun came out and we enjoyed marvelous views of the Taj during breakfast on hotel Kamal’s rooftop.  And we saw more monkeys.  And an Indian man working on his roof who ran inside when he saw the monkeys running along the rooftops his way and shrieking.

Most people here seem fazed by nothing, but this man was terrified.  Which made us uneasy about these aggressive monkeys all around.  We escaped unscathed.  Oh, and Jenni named baby monkeys “bonkeys.”  That makes so much more sense than wasting two syllables.

In the afternoon we drove about an hour to Fatehpur Sikri, the former imperial capital (briefly) of the Mughal emperor Akbar.  As our cabbie from the airport said, seat belts are not allowed in Agra.  We think he meant required, but the effect is the same.

It is funny how often drivers do things like stop on the way to pick up a personal item, or just get out of the car to use the bathroom without saying a word.  And today’s guy sucked just like our Sri Lanka driver.  More on his dishonesty in Practical Info.

Fatehpur Sikri, though, was quite lovely.  The palace has some alluring sandstone buildings with splendid carvings.  Apparently Akbar was religiously tolerant but he sounds like quite a dirty bird.  Rumor has it he used to play pachisi in the courtyard with slave girls in costumes for live pieces.  And his harem was legendary.  We’re talking Wilt numbers.  He had a super wide bed raised about 7 feet off the ground with no attached stairs, i.e. his servants had to bring the stairs as necessary.  Yeah.

The palace contains three different areas, one each for his Turkish wife, his Christian wife (?) and the Hindu wife who bore his first child as prophesied by Sheikh Salim Chishti, which sheikh got a white marble tomb inside the Jama Masjid that we visited right after the palace.  Jenni beamed with Turkish pride at the fact that such wife did not care about a big house but got the finest carvings, gems and art work.

The Jama Masjid (mosque) might have been even more impressive than the palace.  We initially entered the square a different way, but the Buland Darwaza (great gate) is breathtaking.  The square itself is bustling with activity.  The prayer hall facing Mecca has its own grand gateway and Sheik Salim’s white tomb marks a brilliant contrast against its sandstone surroundings.

Inside the tomb there is a steady stream of visitors making wishes and tying cloth around the lattice marble screen window.  Check out the insane bee clusters on the gateway ceiling in one of the photos below.

We were hustled a while by this adorable kid who said he spoke five languages, and his introductory Francais, Deutsch and Espanol were solid.  Another of those kids who might be a star in the US, as I mentioned in my Mumbai post.

Back in Taj Ganj we had dinner at Joney’s but I was hit with something like a 24-hour virus so I could barely eat and spent the rest of the night shivering.  And we watched Wild Things 2 which only made it worse.

Practical Info

Transportation: A pre-paid taxi from the airport cost Rs 400 but it could be 600 depending on your destination.  A rickshaw from Taj Ganj to Agra Fort cost Rs 100.  From Agra Fort to Mehtab Bagh and back to Taj Ganj we paid Rs 250 in a rickshaw.  Our return trip by car to Fatehpur Sikri cost Rs 1100.

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel Siddhartha near the West Gate of the Taj Mahal.  It is conveniently located for Taj visits and some of the cheap food options on Chowk Kagzi, and at least slightly removed from the noise and hassle of Chowk Kagzi.  I could almost have recommended it as a budget option, but hearing so clearly your neighbor shitting is an offense I cannot forgive.

There are a bunch of other budget options in the Taj Ganj area and some nicer places outside.  Being in Taj Ganj was not a fraction as appealing as I thought it would be, so if you can afford it I would probably stay elsewhere.  Unless there is some home stay with excellent reviews.  If you stay in Taj Ganj, I cannot speak to any other qualities but Kamal’s rooftop has amazing views of the Taj.  While many multiples of our budget on this trip, I hear the Oberoi Amarvilas is worth a splurge.

Food: A number of the restaurants recommended in my guidebook are outside Taj Ganj, and it was generally just not that nice around Agra and dealing with the touts was unpleasant so we did not venture out.  Shankara Vegis on Chowk Kagzi was tasty and cozy with nice owners and reasonably good WiFi.  We also ate at Joney’s one night and it is very cheap and good, but I was sick that night so I can’t fully judge it.  Jenni didn’t love the malai kafta which is one of their signature dishes, but the banana and honey paratha was mighty tasty.  We had breakfast at The Stuff Maker atop Kamal (hotel) and the food was OK but the views of the Taj are stupendous.  The best rooftop views we saw.

Sights: The Taj Mahal opens at sunrise and closes at sunset, I believe.  It is CLOSED ON FRIDAYS.  Someone told us it opened at 6 am, so we showed up around 6:40 am but in fact they didn’t let in anyone until sunrise.  Perhaps it is the ticket window that opens at 6 am.  Foreigners pay Rs 750 and you get a 0.5 liter water bottle and some shoe covers to use when in/around the actual mausoleum.  Keep your ticket stub as it will give you a Rs 50 discount on admission to Agra Fort the same day, and I think some other same-day sights/discounts.  There are separate lines for men and women and for Indians and foreigners.  They will pat you down and search bags, but the rules for what you can bring were not clear to me.  We were told that neither phones nor guidebooks are allowed, but we saw plenty of each.  I did see someone forced to get rid of their cigarettes and lighter to enter.  The museum opens at 9 am.

Agra Fort is the second most famous attraction in the area.  We spent a couple hours there and I recommend you do the same.  Admission is Rs 300, or 250 with a same-day Taj ticket stub.  There is a sound and light show after sunset.

Fatehpur Sikri is about an hour’s drive from Agra.  Beware the guide scam.  Our driver brought us to a parking lot where guides produced official department of tourism I.D. cards and insisted we must pay Rs 600 for a guide and that cars are not allowed any farther etc.  In fact, official guides are available at the entrance to the palace (we used the Diwan-i-Am entrance) for Rs 250 and cars are allowed to continue a little farther.  It is true that cars are not allowed to drive up to the entrance, so you can either walk from the car park as we did or take a CNG bus for Rs 5/each.  If you walk, either retrace and take the paved road up or continue down the same road and opposite the UPTDC Gulistan Tourist Complex turn right up a dirt path.  Entry tickets cost Rs 260.  Visiting the Jama Masjid is free though you are expected to tip the shoe guard and can expect pitches on buying cloth and flowers for an offering at the Tomb of Islam Khan.

December 31, 2013 – Jaunary 3, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday)

Agra

I’ll start with the positive because this post is going to get a little graphic. You were warned.

The good: the Taj Mahal! It really is incredible. I had my doubts. Can it live up to the hype? Can it really be that impressive? Yeah, it’s pretty awe-inspiring. Can you imagine someone building something like this today? Let alone in the 1600s without the benefit of modern machinery? Wow. And to be able to start 2014 at such an iconic and remarkable site, I felt really lucky. Much of the rest of our time in Agra, we weren’t feeling quite as lucky.

We stayed at Hotel Siddhartha, which is a moderate improvement over Hotel Padmam (as you’ll recall reading about in my Madurai post). Here we were provided no toilet paper or soap, but we were provided one towel. For the two of us. But again, it’s an ask-only policy. If requested, they’ll provide you with the world’s smallest TP roll. I don’t understand this. Do most people not ask and this is how they save money? Is toilet paper really that expensive? (No, it’s not. We went out and bought our own supply). It is such a strange policy. The toilet again leaked, though this time I was more certain than not that it was not sewage (hooray!). And it was freezing cold in Agra! I had not realized or anticipated just how cold it would be, and while we were provided a sheet and a gnarly looking blanket, it was cold enough that we slept in fleece jackets, hats and socks. Also, the promised wifi was non-existent and no apology or accommodation was offered in this respect.

But the true downside of this hotel did not hit me until 2014. Do you know what my very first experience of 2014 was? Waking up at 4am to the devastating realization that you can hear in full stereo all the noises from the neighbor’s bathroom. You don’t know disappointment until you’ve listened to a man do his business and realize that that was just a courtesy flush. Does this mean 2014 is going to be a shitty year?

I learned my lesson and wore earplugs the last two nights. Which is not to say I was immune from hearing the plethora of other strange and loud noises. Oh, India and your hodgepodge of sound.

I don’t really understand the relative value of things in India. I’m constantly surprised by how cheap certain items/services are versus others. Our hotel in Delhi is no five-star, but in India’s capital city and at $30 a night it has crown molding, room service and a built in fish tank (that hasn’t been cleaned since probably 1982, but still, it’s a fish tank with a few living fish). In Agra, a city that offers little other than the Taj and a handful of other sites, we spent $20 a night for a complete shit hole.

We arrived in Agra in the early evening of New Years Eve. First impressions: it’s cold here! Holy winter hats batman. (So don’t be foolish like we were and pay extra for the room with A/C. Although I don’t think the non-A/C rooms had hot water. Not that it mattered; I couldn’t bring myself to shower at that place.) It would be really nice to have ever entered a building with heat. At least I could put down my now greyed white linen pants for a few days as I jaunted around in jeans, a fleece and scarf. After checking into our hotel, we wandered around Agra and checked out a few of the rooftop bars and restaurants where music was blaring, lights were strung, and buffets were set up in anticipation of the New Years Eve festivities. Some looked promising, but tired, weary and cold, we opted for the ground floor enclosed restaurant of Shankara Vegis, which practically became our second home for our stay in Agra. We ordered the Shahi Paneer with paratha and it was divine. In fact, we ordered it again the next day! Also, their banana lassis are top notch. And it’s all super cheap. Highly recommend this place – the owners are friendly and nice, it’s cheap and delicious, and it’s just about the only place in Taj Ganj where you can access wifi from a restaurant indoors (we found one other place that had wifi but only on the roof). What’s not to love?

After dinner we shared a chocolate bar at the hotel and fell asleep before midnight to crappy (I should be careful with this word now..) movies on TV. Not the best New Years Eve of my life, but I got to wake up and see the Taj Mahal first thing in 2014 (well, second after hearing a man strenuously pass stool). Here, forget I said that and look at this picture of me at the Taj enjoying the less jarring noises of India:

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The intensity level in Agra is high. We stayed in the Taj Ganj area, adjacent to the Taj. Here the streets are quite narrow and also crowded, which means lots of narrowly missed accidents. It’s also full of hawkers, cows, dogs, monkeys (though mostly they stay on the rooftops) and rats. As we were paying for a bottle of water and a chocolate bar on New Years Eve we noticed a rat at the shop owner’s foot. My biggest pet peeve was that you have to walk single file to even attempt to not get hit by bikes, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, cows, dogs, push carts, people etc, and so I’d follow behind Alan and someone would cut me off to have some version of the following conversation with Alan: “where you going? You need tuk-tuk? Money exchange? Battery?” [Alan walks away after saying no thank you the first time and then ignoring him] “Yes? OK” Meanwhile I have to pass around the guy, which is not an easy task on those roads. It got serious. I may have been throwing some ‘bows to block these guys out by the end of our time in Agra.

On New Years Day, after the traumatic events of 4am, we dragged ourselves out of bed to get to the Taj at sunrise. While we’d read that it opens at 6am, I think that refers only to the ticket counter, because they didn’t open the doors to start passing people through security until a little bit after 7am. Note that there are separate lines for Indians and foreigners (though they call it the high-value ticket holders line, because we pay about 10 times as much), and each is separated by sex. The Indian men’s line was by far the longest, so you wouldn’t want to get stuck in there and miss the good views before it gets super crowded. It’s one of India’s pricier attractions, but for good reason, and it’s still quite cheap (around $12 a person, and you are provided a bottle of water and shoe covers). There are also a bunch of rules about what you can and can’t take in, guidebooks and mobile phones being among the things you’re not supposed to have. So being the good, square rule-followers that we are, we left these things behind and of course saw tons of people carrying them around and using them. Also, you’re not supposed to take pictures inside the mausoleum, but I saw a handful of people doing just that with no consequence.

The sunrise itself was not worth coming early for as it was quite foggy and the lighting was sadly not the best, but it was definitely worth it to see the Taj before the crowds really amass. There is quite a big difference in the number of people there at 7am versus 10am. We stuck around for about three hours hoping the sun would come out and we’d get some shots in better light, but it didn’t change all that much. Still, it was really enjoyable to walk around the grounds, explore the museum for a little bit, and watch these beautiful green birds darting in and out of the trees.

After a late breakfast, which then turned into lunch at Shankara Vegis we ventured out to see Agra Fort. We’d asked our friends at Shankara how much a tuk-tuk should cost, and they said Rs 50. Getting a tuk-tuk driver to negotiate on price or come below Rs 100, however, was an impossible feat. It’s a bit weird that people don’t even counter; they’ll just drive off. While the case is not so extreme when its Rs 100 vs. 50, it has become a constant theme in our attempts to obtain transport. So many drivers just try to blatantly rip you off. Even when it’s clear you know how much it should cost they don’t try to save face. They don’t need the money that bad? Think they can find someone else to make it worth their while? Highly doubt it. Another thing that confuses me about India. Also, when you finally find a driver, they surprisingly often stop to do things of their own accord while you’re paying for their service. We’ve had numerous drivers pull over with no explanation, until we deduce that they’ve stopped to use a loo (OK on that one, I get it), or pick up a painting from a shop, or go out of the way to get gas on a short ride, or – the best – stop to wash you car! With a bottle of water and a rag! While we sat in the car looking confused for twenty minutes. I will never understand why this struck him as the appropriate time to do such a task.

Anyway, I digress. The Agra Fort was pretty cool to see. The carvings are intricate and beautiful, and you get to see the inlaid precious stone work up close, which is rather difficult to do at the Taj, so I really appreciated that aspect. (Most of the inlaid work at the Taj is inside the Mausoleum which is not well-lit (though maybe if you visit later in the day/on a sunny day).

After the Fort we hired a tuk-tuk to take us to the river to watch the sunset from behind the Taj. Seeing the visitors at the Taj move in opposite directions of the two levels around the Taj was pretty neat. They looked like swift currents of ants from our vantage point. The sunset itself was not super exciting, again because of the fog (there is a lot of fog in the area this time of year, so maybe plan your visit to the Taj sometime when it’s warmer and clearer out!). But we did discover this metallic green version of a ladybug. The drive into this area was fun too. Lots of monkeys, a cool little village, and lots of goats in sweaters. I’m so obsessed. The goats wear nicer sweaters than many of the people here! So sweet. I wish I could have captured a snapshot of some of the goats in knit Cosby-type sweaters. Alas, these were the best shots we got. You still get the idea.

Guess where we went for dinner? Shankara vegis! 🙂 But we did switch it up for breakfast the next morning. We checked out “Stuff-Maker” (yes, that’s the name of the restaurant) on the rooftop of Hotel Kamal. The Taj had been completely socked in when we checked out the rooftops on New Years Eve, so it was a very pleasant surprise to see the stunning views on a clear morning. Plus, you get to watch the monkeys run and jump around the rooftops while you eat. These are some badass monkeys though. I’ve seen a lot of Indian people get nearly hit by moving vehicles, yet I’d never seen an Indian person express fear. Until today. When I saw a man run in absolute terror down the stairs from his roof at the sight of two of those monkeys shrieking and running towards him. Oh and guys, can we all agree that baby monkeys should be called bonkeys?

Later we arranged a car to take us to Fatehpur Sikri (about an hour away from Agra). Of course, rather than taking us to the entrance, our driver took us to a tour guide place where they show us their “official government ID cards” and proceed to try and charge us more than twice the rate of the actual official government tour guides. After arguing with them and the driver for a minute, we walked ourselves up to the entrance and hired a proper guide. I know there’s a lot of venting in this post, but seriously it gets so tiring. Everything is more difficult than it needs to be! Why can’t anyone just be honest and not solely interested in getting a commission off of us? Why can’t anything just work as expected!? Gah. Three weeks of trying to navigate our way through India has started to take its toll on us. (I know, I know, call the WAHmbulance. But I’m giving it to you real, guys… the good, the bad and the ugly. Lord knows we hit all three on this stop.)

The place itself is awesome. The first part – Fatehpur Sikri – is a palace where the king and his three wives lived. The Turk in me was pretty stoked to see the Turkish wife’s palace in comparison to the others. It may have been the smallest, but it was closest to the King’s, and the most expensive and beautiful – full of jewels in its heyday. You go girl. The Christian wife’s was mid-sized and the Hindu wife who bore him a child was massive. All three, and the common areas, had impressive carvings. There was also a giant Chinese Checkers board that the King used to play with naked women as the playing pieces. This guy was a character.

Not far away is Jama Masjid, which is an impressive mosque with some really extraordinary gates, and an all white marble tomb where people give tapestries and tie a string to the walls while making three wishes. Cute. But be forewarned that they’ll try to sell you tapestries for a “charitable donation” of Rs 500-1500. It was after we refused this and the other tchotchkes for sale that we noticed our guide’s service declined and our tour quickly wrapped up.

The drive to and from Fatehpur Sikri is long, but I think worth it. Mostly because of the site itself, but also party because you get to see a lot of peacocks and really cute piglets on the way (I find it amusing how pigs really do flock to piles of trash). You also see lots of men peeing. But this is true all over Agra.  I saw more men peeing in Agra than I ever thought I’d see in a lifetime.

Back in Taj Ganj we checked out Joney’s for dinner, which is highly reviewed on TripAdvisor, and tourists seem to love it, as evidenced by the guest book they place in front of you when you wait for your food. Their star dishes are the malai kofta and banana lassis, both of which underwhelmed me (and Shankara’s banana lassis are way better!). The banana and honey paratha though? Mmmm, dessert paratha. Need I say more?

Overall, I’d say Agra is worth it because the Taj Mahal is so spectacular, and it’s nice to go see the fort and Fatehpur Sikri as well, but the city itself is most certainly not a highlight and I wouldn’t stay more than two nights. I’d also suggest paying up for a driver so you don’t have to negotiate constantly with tuk-tuk drivers or tourist agencies (which are essentially men with storefronts, a mobile phone and a few friends who drive cars).

Whatever its name, it’s big

Mumbai (or Bombay, depending on who you ask) is huge, both in terms of population and area.  It could overpower you, at least if you try to cover a broad section of its geography.  There are some interesting sights and countless nice restaurants and nooks for quietude.  The weather was great with warm days and cool nights, like Los Angeles.

This was our first time in a really big Indian city, and we actually found it less overwhelming than some of the smaller cities.  I think this is because it has that rhythm of a major metropolis with nice, more Western escape zones and the anonymity that comes with being two of 20 million.  I felt safe here, and our friends in Delhi opined that Mumbai is a good bit safer than Delhi.

Highlights included Chowpatty Beach on a Sunday afternoon, wandering some alleys off the Colaba Causeway and the Dharavi slum tour.

We got our first taste of trying to cross a Mumbai street while walking to a delicious dinner at Khyber on Friday night.  It is not easy.  There are multiple lanes of traffic in each direction and green seems to mean go while red is maybe I’ll go or maybe I’ll stop.  But if I tell you that’d be cheating.  It can help to follow a local whose body doesn’t display obvious motor vehicle-inflicted damage.

So crossing the street is challenging, but then you might find a nice, wide sidewalk with only humans using it.  A major change from somewhere like Madurai or Agra.  And again this felt less challenging to me, perhaps because I am more accustomed to busy streets and aggressive drivers (a la New York) than to dodging mopeds, touts, cows, goats, monkeys and piles of feces.

Saturday we had our first masala dosas for breakfast and a cappuccino!  On the list of things I miss, good (and usually iced) coffee features prominently.  We wandered around and passed a little park with Ghandi’s statue before realizing we took a circuitous path to end up back at the Oval Maidan, quite near our hotel.

The Oval Maidan is a large green space surrounded by 19th century Gothic buildings on one side and 1930s Art Deco on the other.  There were several cricket games being played and some of the teams had uniforms.  By luck we stumbled upon the Jewish synagogue and I snapped a shot of this gorgeous robin’s egg blue structure before being told that no photos are allowed.

After a generally peaceful stroll we arrived at the Gateway of India and thrust ourselves into its madness.  It is beautiful but so crowded and hectic, and I did not want to buy a photo of us printed on the spot nor an enormous balloon.

Then we continued to Colaba Causeway which was slightly calmer and decided to eat lunch at Olympia Coffee House.  It is an Irani cafe where the waiters all don Peshawari caps and only men are allowed on the ground floor with the mezzanine for women and their families.

We split a “mutton masala spicy” and this was our only meal of the trip so far where the heat made me pull back towards the end.  I’ve been impressed with Jenni’s consumption strength.  They brought fennel seeds with the bill, which is common here.  We were only the white folks in a packed place; it must not be in Lonely Planet.  And with a generous tip it cost $4.

We continued south and wandered east onto some side streets (near the “Pasta” lanes, if you’re looking) with no other tourists but plenty of fruits, veggies and goats.  Then we crossed back west to a slum by the ocean with an intense fish smell and much harsher odors by the bathrooms.  Real strong stuff.

There are a lot of government and administrative buildings and generally a stronger security presence than I anticipated.  One of my least favorite things is the abundance of stands with a rifle propped facing outwards near head level.  But I guess everything works flawlessly in India so what could possibly go wrong?

Dinner was our first real break from local ethnic cuisine and half a night out.  We had a corner window table at Pizza by the Bay with great views of Marine Drive and the Queen’s Necklace.  After this we had drinks at Dome on the roof of the Intercontinental hotel around the corner.

A little girl selling flowers relentlessly pitched us the whole way.  Some of the kids hawking here are so cute and personable.  If they were in the US they might be child stars, or at least have the most profitable lemonade stand on the block…instead of hustling for their next meal.

To enter the Intercontinental you get the metal detector wand scan.  It is a pretty swanky place and the roof bar was very nice with great views, albeit about $20/drink.  Oh, when you see that Oban single malt for only $13, don’t get excited.  That’s for a 30ml pour, so double it for a drink you’d accept in the US.  It felt nice to have a taste of our former lives hanging out with fancy people.

Sunday we walked around the Fort area and markets but you should do so on a different day because a lot of it was closed.  There were so many people sleeping on the street or some kind of stand today, I think more than usual because it was Sunday.  It was fun watching kids play cricket in the streets.

Mumbai is probably India’s most cosmopolitan city and there is some real wealth here.  It is fascinating to see some of this alongside cows on the road and guys sharpening knives with a bicycle-powered wheel.

The post office occupies an impressive building just by Victoria Terminus (now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus but most still refer to it as Victoria or V.T.), a beautiful and lively structure.  You can’t enter the main part of the station as you typically would in Europe, but it’s worth seeing.  Plus you can grab an Indian guava with chili salt.

Crawford Market was a shadow of its regular self but we found some spicy cashews and candied fennel and there were still lots of puppies, birds, fruits, veggies and men sleeping.  As I write this from Delhi, those spicy cashews are the chief suspect in the moderate stomach problem case.

We walked a long way and had a hard time finding a cab, so we were quite pleased to reach Marine Drive and catch the sea breeze.  A little bit farther and we hit the sand at Chowpatty Beach.

What a great scene on a Sunday afternoon!  The area is known for street food and snacks, we were wusses and just got some ice cream bars.  There is a small section on the south end with permanent F&B structures and then a big beach packed with families and people grilling up corn and making Indian snacks.  Guys rent little mats (and get pretty territorial with each other) and others have these pimped out big-wheels for kids that play electronic music.

I had a delicious channa bhatura for dinner at Cream Centre across the street.  It’s like a puffed up piece of fried dough that you puncture and then eat with a spicy mixture of chickpeas, potatoes and onions.  My meal came with a view of the Chowpatty crowds and lots of guys looking in through the window to watch cricket on the restaurant wall’s HDTV.

A block or two down is Bachelorr’s, famous for its fresh fruit juices and creams.  We got chocolate milkshakes because that always sounds right, but they were so-so and I’d go for the fruit drinks.  Speaking of drinks, when you walk around Mumbai all day, it is hard to figure out the right balance of staying hydrated but not having to pee.  Because good luck finding a bathroom that’s not the sidewalk.

Monday we met our Reality Tours & Travel guide at the Churchgate station for the ride up to Dharavi.  They were pretty alarmist about how hard it would be to get off the train at the right stop, but it was easier than the New York subway (though more on this in Practical Info).  The slum tour was very neat and I recommend doing one.  They strongly request you do not take any pictures once the tour begins, so the ones I have included are from their own library (which you can access after taking the tour).

This is one of many slums in Mumbai, but perhaps the most famous due to its size and Slumdog Millionaire.  There is a heavy industry section and a residential section where they also have enterprises making things like soap, leather, pottery and papadum.  The heavy industry section is dedicated largely to recycling, mostly plastic with some aluminum.  The working conditions are pretty rough with some closed spaces and toxic gases.  The population density is astronomical.

Dharavi functions like its own city.  There are schools and some stores and an economy estimated at several hundred million dollars.  It is estimated that 1,500 people might share one public toilet.  I haven’t researched it extensively and the workings are complex, so I won’t try to get into all the details of life in the slums and the “law”  and controversy surrounding them and forcible eviction that takes place from time to time etc.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers won the National Book Award and I mention it on my Books post.  It takes place in a different slum but the tales of corruption are so mind-boggling and heinous.  Our tour makes an effort to focus on the happiness of the residents.  It is true that we saw a lot of kids smiling and in general the feel was not of desperation and horror but rather contentedness. My guess is the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  That the lives of most are not as dreadful as the main characters of Katherine Boo’s book but that there is extensive crime and corruption that Reality Tours omits from the story.

Interestingly, Reality Tours is itself quite the operation.  There must have been 30+ people in small groups that day, and the tour operates every day.  They give 80% of the profits to their sister-NGO…but I wonder what even 20% of those profits amounts to?!  I don’t mean to suggest they’re doing anything wrong, but it’s an interesting new business.  I actually just came upon this article from yesterday, quite timely.

We met some nice fellow travelers, including an Aussie couple on a six-week trip with three young kids.  Nice to get a little inspiration in advance 🙂

We stopped by the Dhobi Ghat on the way home.  The one we visited in Kochi offered a more up-close view and was more quaint, but this was another interesting juxtaposition of an old tradition in the middle of a mega-city with big buildings in the background.

Trishna is a famous seafood restaurant and dinner that night was a moderate splurge.  It was good but I can’t say I was blown away.  I was more excited to find this Indian kid wearing a “that’s what she said” t-shirt.

Getting to the airport on Tuesday was a bit of a fiasco but alas we made it with plenty of time for our flight to Agra.  And I got some more inspiration for a planned post on some of the things that make India incredible yet also infuriating!

Practical Info

Transportation: A prepaid taxi from the airport to our hotel in Churchgate cost Rs 480.  If you take the Sea Link bridge, the toll is an additional Rs 55.  Traffic is usually bad, so plan for 60-90 minutes.  To return to the airport, our hotel called a taxi and insisted he use the meter so the trip was less than Rs 400.

We walked around much of the city and this may suffice for Colaba, Fort, Marine Drive, etc.  But not if you want to visit areas further afield.  Taxis and auto-rickshaws are reluctant to use the meter, but your hotel or a guide may be able to convince them.  The amounts are pretty small so it hardly matters, but e.g. we paid Rs 100 to go the same distance as a trip four times as far would have cost on the meter.

Our only experience with the train was the day we did the Dharavi slum tour, when we met the guide inside Churchgate station and he purchased return tickets.  Since we traveled counter to the daily commute (i.e. we were heading north around 9:30 am when most commuters were coming from the north to Churchgate and surrounding areas), the train was not that crowded and it was pretty simple.  Same for our ride back on the train from the Dhobi Ghat to Churchgate.  And since Churchgate is the end of the line, it removes some of the stress that would be present if the train were crowded and you tried to enter or exit during the handful of seconds the train rests at the platform.

Make sure you know which airport you need.  I won’t get into the details here, but we had an unpleasant experience sorting out where to go for our departing flight to Agra.

Accommodation: Many tourists stay in the Colaba area (this is where the famous Taj Mahal Palace hotel and Gateway of India sight are located, among others), and this seemed like a fine option.  We stayed at Hotel Astoria in Churchgate.  The room was spacious with good AC for just over $100/night.  Breakfast with fresh omelets was included.  WiFi is available free in the lobby but in the room you pay Rs 107/215 for 12/24 hours, and this is per device.

The location was very good.  One long block from Marine Drive, right at an entrance to Churchgate train station, a 10 minute walk to the Fort area, etc.  The Intercontinental and its popular Dome rooftop bar are a five minute walk.  I do not know where Churchgate ends and Nariman Point begins, but the Oberoi is also in this general area.

Activities: We spent a couple days just wandering Colaba, Fort and some markets.  We did not realize that the Mangaldas cloth market and Zaveri Bazaar jewelry markets are closed on Sunday, and I think Crawford Market was a fraction of its normal self.

Chowpatty Beach on Sunday afternoon was a highlight, covered above.  We also thought our Dharavi slum tour with Reality Tours and Travel was a neat experience, covered above.  This cost Rs 750 each (or Rs 700 if you meet there instead of at Churchgate).  Reality offers slightly different versions of this tour as well as market, street food and other tours.  Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (still referred to by most as Victoria Terminus or V.T.) is worth a visit for its beautiful building, though you cannot enter the main area as you would in a typical European train station.

I might not go far out of my way, but if you are nearby then viewing the Mahalakshmi Dhobi Ghat is kind of neat.  I think you can descend and get closer to the action, but most seem to observe from the road bridge above.

Some popular activities we missed include visiting the island tomb of Haji Ali, and Elephanta Island.

Food: We had some good meals in Mumbai.  I’ll cover the dinners first…

Khyber (Fort) is somewhat romantic with marble floors and rough wooden beams, and our mutton rara was excellent.  I was offended by Rs 315 for plain rice, but enjoyed my cocktail and the waiters speak English well.  BEWARE: many nicer restaurants do not include taxes in the prices shown on the menu, and these can add up to 25% without even including a tip.  Also, if you want to drink non-Indian wine, be prepared to pay 5x mark ups.  We saw a bottle of Yellowtail on more than one menu priced around $50.  Someone should import two-buck Chuck and sell it for $25.

Pizza by the Bay (Churchgate/Marine Drive) serves quite good pizza (certainly by Indian standards) and has other Italian and American standards.  Our corner window table on a Saturday night included a lovely breeze and Queen’s Necklace views.

Creamy Centre (Chowpatty Beach) is clean and bright and one of those places with a touristy feel but mostly Indian clientele.  My channa bhatura was very filling and delicious.  It is a chain with other locations in India and even one in Dubai.  After we got milkshakes at Bachelorr’s a couple blocks south.  These were nothing special, perhaps the fruit juices for which it is more famous are better.

Trishna (Fort) is a legendary seafood restaurant that filled up quickly after we sat at 7:45 pm on a Monday.  We split a large portion of the signature butter pepper garlic crab (out of the shell) as well as squid with chili and garlic and some garlic naan.  I used a chit for Jenni to forego paratha as the bread of choice.  The kesar pista kulfi dessert is like a cross between regular and astronaut ice cream and comes as a disc cut into triangles.  Minimal points for atmosphere.  The meal was very good, though frankly if you put a lot of butter and garlic on just about anything it’s tasty.

We really had only one proper lunch, as Sunday we snacked on spicy cashews at Crawford Market before some ice cream at Chowpatty and an early dinner, and Monday was a late margarita pizza at Markiv’s (a clean and corporate type place with mediocre pizza) next to our hotel.  But that one proper lunch at Olympia Coffee House was a highlight, which I covered above.  It cost Rs 250 with a generous tip.

Drink: We have been going out very little on this trip, but did enjoy a brief reminder of the high life at Dome (Intercontinental, Marine Drive) on Saturday night.  Aer at The Four Seasons is well-reviewed.  I believe there are some pubs and of course hotel bars in Colaba, and I read that many of the hipper/edgier venues are north of the main tourist neighborhoods.  Time Out covers Mumbai and might be a good resource.

December 27-31, 2013 (Friday-Tuesday)