Tag 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.


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)


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:


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).


I had started questioning myself after Cochin, the backwaters, and Munnar… is India really that intense? As crazy as everyone says it is? Am I misremembering our honeymoon and actually this is a very chill country? Well, Madurai quickly reminded us of the cacophony that so much of India provides. These parts of India offer near-constant sensorial stimulation: 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).

By now I’m used to not having the luxuries at our hotels (a top sheet, a shower separate from the toilet, a safe, air conditioning, a hairdryer, etc.). But Hotel Padmam took it to a new level: none of the above, and no soap, no towels, no toilet paper. Though they do provide the dirtiest looking walls you’ve ever seen. Oh and the toilet leaks and it rotates smelling like piss, vom, and I’ll let you guess the third scent. You can also hear your neighbors retching. Loveliest sounds to wake up to, I tell you. Alan tells me I’m overreacting; it’s not that bad. But hey, I didn’t make us move, I’m just venting about it and resolving to try and bring in a little income somehow so we can avoid the no-TP style hotels in the future. (To be fair, we asked (twice) for TP, soap and towels and we received. I guess it’s just an ask-and-ye-shall-receive only policy. Also, we bought a top sheet for a few dollars from a shop down the street. It helped me sleep, and the pink really brightened up the room). Oh, also for $20 a night they threw in breakfast. We tried the South Indian breakfast the first morning, definitely the worst food we’ve had to date in India. Also, I’m pretty sure they tried to give us a used plastic bottle that was refilled with tap water. (Must be careful of this some places in India.)  The next day we opted for the “continental breakfast” – three pieces of toast. It was much better at least.

Alas, we didn’t come to Madurai for the magnificent lodging (though I think there are one or two nicer places, if you go, by all means, stay at those), we came for the same reason everyone comes: the Meenakshi Temple. And it is truly a stunning piece of work. By the temple the street is quieter and a little more relaxing. You can wander around and everyone tries to get you to go in their shops, which do, to their credit, offer nice rooftop views of the temple. They of course want you to buy things from their stores though. Luckily, we met a not overly pushy guy who made us cinnamon cardamom tea and let us enjoy the views without too much of a sales pitch, provided we tell our friends to go there. So friends, go to Miya’s store and buy some elephants statues, or jewelry, or textiles.

The temple itself is really quite impressive. A bit confusing getting in – but to sum it up for you: full pants required, no hats, no shoes, no cameras, but mobile cameras are fine so long as you pay Rs 50. (Don’t ask me why… one of the stranger rules we’ve come across so far. Also, I just have to say that while so much of what India has to offer is beautiful and cheap to see, it’s a total bummer that you aren’t allowed to photograph a lot of it.) Foreigners must pay Rs 50 each to get in, and there are a handful of places that only Hindus are allowed within the temple itself (and the lines for these are impressively long). There is also an art museum within the temple and the entrance fee is covered by the Rs 50 paid to enter the building. Quite a bargain – for less than a dollar a person you get a full day’s access to this impressive site.

We watched for a while an elephant who would take money from patrons using his trunk, then bop them on the head and pass the buck back to his owner. Pretty neat.

After wandering and soaking in the place for a few hours, we enjoyed sitting and people watching. Alan lay down on the floor for a bit to gaze up at the temple towers and the sky and people thought this was quite amusing. That or just that we were white. (Also, one woman thought he was sleeping, which is apparently offensive, and so he got yelled at). One boy pointed and laughed at us and his Mom told him to come over and say hello. Next thing I knew I was shaking hands with 10 kids who liked to say “Hello! Hello!” It’s cute how much they like to shake hands and talk to us white-folk. (There are certainly other non-Indian tourists, but not all that many. Still, I’m surprised how often we get stared at in India. I would have thought people would be more used to seeing tourists by now.) We also ran into a few kids outside the temple who wanted “one pen, please” and loved seeing photos of themselves. These kids are hilarious and adorable.

Food in Madurai started out underwhelming: an undercooked chicken dish (Alan pointed out that you would think they could have cooked the chicken all the way through in the hour it took to provide it to us) at Chettanoor’s roof-top restaurant, and then a questionable South Indian breakfast at our hotel. Luckily the tali lunch at Arrathy was phenomenal. They give you about ten little dishes of curries and sauces, a bunch of papadum, and then they pile on a ton of rice, cover it with some golden powder and then drizzle hot liquid ghee over top of it. You aren’t provided silverware (except serving spoons). I attempted to use my fingers as the locals did, mixing the rice, powder and ghee together, but I am just incapable of eating saucy curries and rice with my fingers, so I used my serving spoon to assist. Learning to eat Indian food with your fingers is harder than mastering chopsticks! One of my favorite of the dishes was a sweet rose water and cashew concoction. Still trying to figure out what it was called so that I can order it elsewhere! Do tell if you know 🙂

My general impression of Madurai is that it ain’t that awesome. The food options (that you’d be able to eat at and not get sick from) are not very plentiful or amazing (the tali lunch was great, but other places that come highly recommended… not so much), and it’s just not that cool here. I’m writing this now from Mumbai, which I’d heard mixed reviews on, and it is so much better here. Weirdly, we’ve moved to one of the biggest cities in the world, with incredible population density and insane poverty, yet I saw several people peeing on the side of the road in Madurai and none here. I actually feel much safer walking around Mumbai than I did in Madurai, which is surprising to me. And if there are nice, chill spots with some ambience, we didn’t find them. So I would recommend one night max in Madurai. It’s pretty neat to see the temple, but I wouldn’t waste much time in the city itself.

Each time I’m blown away by the roads we travel to get to our next destination. The drive from Munnar to Madurai was no exception. Coming down the mountain we descended a terrifying series of switchbacks where the road would occasionally be blocked by rocks and/or road work with no warning.

::the road to Madurai::
::the road to Madurai::

One Pen, Please


We planned 3.5 weeks in India, and most of our time was TBD but for two places: Varanasi and the backwaters of Kerala.  I had read that spending time on a boat in the backwaters was a relaxing experience that also offered a glimpse into village life in southwest India.  My expectations were high, and I was not disappointed.

I arrived in Kochi fully intending to arrange a two-night motored houseboat out of Alleppey, about an hour and a half south.  There are many options for a backwater experience including a day trip on a public ferry between Kollam and Alleppey.  My comments on all except the trip we did is from reading and word of mouth, so I will write as though it’s fact but I cannot confirm.

Alleppey is by far the most popular place for booking houseboats, and these days there are hundreds if not more than a thousand.  Many of these are fairly luxurious with air conditioned bedrooms and an upper deck with sofas.  It sounds great, but word is at least at this time of year the Alleppey area has gotten so crowded that you might wait in a line of boats to make a turn.  And the water is oily.

In Kochi we popped into Walton’s Homestay to see if they arranged backwater tours, and Mr. Walton fortuitously directed us a couple doors down to his friend Stanley Wilson.  Stanley told us that he worked for years in Alleppey, but that the original intent of a relaxing float had become a victim of its own success.  As more and more tourists, both domestic and foreign, wanted a houseboat tour, the boats became bigger and more luxurious and the area more crowded and polluted.  He offered a simpler and more eco-friendly alternative.

Stanley arranges punted boat tours from a village about halfway between Kochi and Alleppey, with solar power during the day when the boat is out on the water.  Punted means that men propel the boat by pushing long bamboo poles on the water bottom.  Except when we passed through a canal lined with stone walls, when the boat men disembark and pull the boat using a rope.  They do this because punting is hard work, as Jenni and I both learned when we gave it a try.

There is no air conditioning and no upper deck, but also no noise.  Stanley promised our money back if we saw more than three other boats, and I am happy to say he still has our money.

After an hour drive from Kochi, we arrived in the village and boarded the boat at 10:30 am.  We were accompanied by two boat men and Manu, a great cook who speaks English very well.  The boat is made of wood and bamboo and has a simple kitchen in back, a basic bedroom and toilet with sink, and a front area with a dining table, some comfy lounging chairs and a side table.  The front is covered so you do not roast in the direct sun all day.

As we glided through the backwaters we passed between wider and narrower channels, surrounded by palm trees and many birds including ducks, egrets, cormorants, storks and kingfishers.  We saw tiger prawn farms and men in canoes laying out fishing nets in a circle.  There were lots more Chinese fishing nets like those we saw in Kochi.

The villagers onshore always stared and almost always waived and said hello.  Kids were full of smiles and relentlessly asked for “one pen, please.”  So if you can fit them in your luggage, bring a boatload of pens to throw to these adorable youngins.  And one group of boys who walked alongside our boat for a while said they love Justin Beiber, so maybe bring some Belieber paraphernalia while you’re at it.

While much of India is frenetic, the backwaters epitomize relaxation.  Jenni and I each commented that we could not recall the last time we felt so relaxed…perhaps on the second half of our honeymoon in the Maldives.  The food was delicious and enormously apportioned.  Coffee and tea were offered multiple times.  We had fresh fish with each lunch and dinner plus rice, okra, curries, freshly made chapati or paratha and watermelon, pineapple or banana for dessert.

The first night we drank a bottle of Sula chenin blanc that we purchased in Kochi.  We knew Sula from the bubbly we had the first night of our honeymoon last year in Jodhpur.  The winery is located in Nashik in the state of Maharashtra, India’s burgeoning wine region.  Time may tell, but for now Napa and Bordeaux ought to rest easy.

The one thing about this arrangement that may be better on the Alleppey boats (I am not sure if it is the case or not) is that at night we are anchored yet also docked back at the village.  In other words, the boat is pointed out towards the water so you still get some of the feeling of sleeping out on the water, but it is not the same as being anchored in the middle of a lake.  On the bright side, when docked there is electricity so you can charge devices and you can take their dugout canoe for a spin.

We could also hear music and fireworks both nights, as if to remind us this was still India.  But the noise subsided before bed time.  Some of the fireworks were so loud.  Remember that if you are in India and it sounds like war is breaking out, stay calm.  Most likely it is not.

On our first day before lunch the boat docked across a wide waterway and we walked five minutes to the Arabian Sea.  There were so many colorful wooden fishing boats and I helped push in a new arrival loaded with mackerel and catfish caught in a chicken wire like net.

On the walk over one of the boat men pointed out a fruit tree that looks exactly like mango, only this one he said is poisonous.  Good to know…

We had made arrangements with Stanley to spend the first day and night on the boat and the second day onshore and sleeping in the village home stay.  We so enjoyed being out on the boat that on Saturday morning we called an audible and switched to the one of their three boats that was free that day.

As I wrote above, I have no personal experience with a motored houseboat from Alleppey and I imagine it could be wonderful.  Among other things, two-bedroom houseboats are offered which is not so at Stanley’s village.  These boats might also anchor out in the water, which sounds nice.  If you are interested in going that route, this post from globetrottergirls.com seemed sensible and helpful.

Our taxi from Kochi cost Rs 600 and each night on the boat was Rs 4,000 with all meals included.  Had we stayed in the village that night would have cost Rs 2,500 without AC or 3,000 with AC.

It is worth noting this was a good reminder that sometimes you just have to trust people.  We paid Stanley in full in advance.  This is slightly unusual, but he came recommended from a hotelier who seemed trustworthy and was recommended in my guide book (the hotelier, that is), and Stanley has a permanent office on a busy tourist street in Kochi.

Two nights on the backwaters was perfect for relaxing, reading and writing.  I made it through 500+ pages of Mandela’s book Long Walk to Freedom.  If you want a quintessential south India experience, I highly recommend unwinding here for a couple days.

You can find Stanley at www.wilsontours.co.in, stanley.wilson@rediffmail.com, (+91) 98474 76750, or the old-fashioned way on Princess Street in Fort Cochin

Also, check out these neat aerial photos provided by Kerala Tourism.


December 19-21, 2013 (Thursday-Saturday)


Kochi (or Cochin) is a coastal city in the state of Kerala and a popular destination for tourists.  We spent three nights and two full days here and found it to be a nice mix between city and village feel and a great place for easing into India.

Kathakali show
Kathakali show

It did not take long to get our first taste of the brutal Indian traffic when our modern airport public bus took more than two hours to reach Fort Cochin.  Spacious and calm enough to start, the bus quickly became very crowded.  Though nothing like the older, regular public buses.  On the way we passed countless Bollywood billboards and crossed Ernakulam, which is the more modern and big city part of Kochi.  Most visitors stay in Fort Cochin which occupies the western peninsula along with Mattancherry, and I recommend you do the same.  Unless perhaps you stay at the Taj on Willingdon Island.

Rough Guide sums up the peninsula’s appeal nicely: “Spice markets, Chinese fishing nets, a synagogue, a Portuguese palace, India’s first European church and 17th century Dutch homes can all be found within an easy walk.”

Chinese fishing nets
Chinese fishing nets

After checking into our spacious room at Chiramel Residency, we had dinner at Dal Roti, a very popular and cheap restaurant that happened to be next door.  The butter chicken was tasty and we had our first of many parathas, the doughy delicacy we fell in love with on our honeymoon.  Albeit the versions we’ve had in southern India have been a little larger and more fried.

Eager to explore a little, we walked over to a bar and met a few locals and their adorable puppy named Blacky.


Whenever we tell people we are from America, one of the first things they say is “oh, winter, it’s really cold, yes?”  Then we get to chuckle and say “not in Cali.”  And Obama may not be that popular in the US, but he is here.

Tuesday was mainly a work day, planning out some more of our time in India, getting my SIM-switched iPhone to function, etc.  It is shocking how inexpensive medicine is here vs. in the US.  Jenni has had sinus problems for a while so we bought a 3-pack of Zithromax for…$1.  In the early evening we walked over to see the Chinese fishing nets and the area was crowded with locals and tourists.  We split Malabar prawn curry and a great mango lassi for dinner at the Old Courtyard.

Wednesday we planned to walk all day but had barely escaped our hotel when an enterprising tuk-tuk driver scooped us up with promises of a good tour for Rs 60/hour.  Our first stop was Saint Francis Church, the first built by Europeans in India.  It is historically interesting and Vasco da Gama was buried here before his body was later removed to Portugal, but the structure itself is nothing special.

The Santa Cruz Basilica is a far grander church.  Next we saw the pretty Dutch Cemetery before continuing to the dhobi khana where laundry is hand-washed by members of a low caste.

Dutch cemetery
Dutch cemetery

This was a fascinating stop for a glimpse into a long-standing practice that is probably going the way of the dodo in the coming years/decades.  Women and lungi-clad men scrub garments and linens before whipping them onto rock surfaces, the precursor to our spin cycle.  The cloth is then air dried by hanging between rope braids and finally it is ironed, folded and sorted.  While we saw a few jury-rigged electrical irons, many are heated by burning coconut husk.  This method requires more skill to maintain the proper temperature.  Either type weighs about 20 pounds.

From here we crossed to Mattancherry and saw the old Jewish synagogue which was impressive.  It is small but ornately decorated with hand-painted blue and white tiles, colorful lamps and a red and gold Torah ark.  At one time there was a substantial Jewish population here but most emigrated to Israel in the 1940s, when they left behind furniture and other large possessions that ended up in antique shops in the area.

Our guide definitely added value by taking us to the Jain Temple for the 12:15 pm pigeon feeding display.  A guy claps his hands and the pigeons circle and then descend to eat seeds he scatters.  They believe it is good luck for a pigeon to eat from your hand.  Jenni did that while I got crapped on, so we covered our cultural bases.  Also, a woman inside the complex gave us a quick tour where we understood maybe 5% of her words, most of which came at the end when she held out her hand and said clearly “OK tour is done, you tip now.”

For lunch we considered Kayee’s and its Rs 100 chicken biryani but the atmosphere was lacking so we opted for a water-side meal at Seagull.  The chicken biryani there was quite tasty.

After lunch we visited a spice warehouse with turmeric, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon and star anise, and then we saw a ginger seller.  This was neat as our guide pointed out where they dry the ginger a bit before soaking it with chalk and lime (the fruit) then drying it a lot, after which it lasts 7-8 months.  The contrast of the monochromatic ginger pile and art-covered courtyard walls made for a nice scene.

Our last stop on the tour (aside from buying some wine, for our backwater trip, through the bars at a government shop) was the Dutch Palace, which was actually built by the Portuguese though the Dutch augmented it.  It is bland from the outside, but holds some impressive mural paintings along with a smattering of palanquins and old weapons.

Kerala is known for its kathakali theater performances.  We caught a 5 pm show at the Kerala Kathakali Centre.  Though a tad slow at times, overall it was superb and a highlight of our stay.  The main show began at 6 pm, but attendees can arrive at 5 pm to watch the elaborate make-up process.  These gents paint their faces using all natural ingredients, generally different stones grated with coconut oil.  And the emcee was masterful hand-sprinkling sand into geometric shapes on the floor right by our seats.

In Kathakali there are no words, rather elaborate eye and facial expressions along with hand movements are used to communicate.  The pre-show included a demonstration of techniques and live percussion accompanied the show.  Traditional performance in villages can last an entire night, I think we saw the equivalent of one act in a play.  The Kerala Kathakali Centre offers a host of other programs, too, such as yoga, music, martial arts and more.

After the show we ate at Malabar House, an upscale boutique hotel with a courtyard restaurant.  I enjoyed the Lamb Kerala we split.  It is not the best value, but when you can have live music in an appealing setting and pay $11 for a lamb dish it’s hard to get too upset.

Practical Info

The exchange rate was about 62 Indian Rupees per 1 US Dollar.

US citizens require a visa prior to arrival.  It is a fairly cumbersome and expensive process.  We worked with Travisa and paid up for 10-year multiple entry visas so we can come and go as we please.

ATMs are widely available.

Often “hotel” really means a restaurant, not lodging.

Most accommodations double as a travel agent of sorts and can at least arrange local tours and transport if not more.

Communication: India has become much stricter since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks so purchasing a SIM card required a copy of our passports and visas, submission of passport photos and a little waiting.  We had to fill out a lengthy form and provide a local address.  Then we had to dial a number and verify our name, father’s or husband’s name and local address.

We purchased Airtel SIM cards at Shop n Save on Princess Street in Fort Cochin.  They were helpful and made the photocopies for us.  We paid Rs 399 which covered the connection fee plus value on the card, and it was easy to refill the cards there and should be elsewhere, too.

WiFi is widely available though connections have been slow.

Transport: After hearing a pre-paid taxi would cost Rs 990, we took one of the nice, orange AC buses from the airport for Rs 76 each to Fort Cochin.  Once there, we walked or used tuk-tuks which are everywhere in India.  Private cars can usually be arranged with ease and of course are much less expensive than in the US.  For example, getting from the backwaters to our hotel past Munnar we paid Rs 10/km (though at least on this route we had to double the count, i.e. for the driver’s return), which equated to Rs 3,400 for a 5+ hour trip.

There are lots of buses and trains, and conventional wisdom is that the train is a much more pleasant experience.  We also have multiple internal flights planned.  In addition to all the usual sites like Kayak, www.makemytrip.com may be a good resource.

Accommodation: We stayed at Chiramel Residency, an old heritage home stay near the Parade Grounds.  Our room cost Rs 3,000/night and was very large with high ceilings, beautiful hardwood floors and good AC.  A basic American breakfast was included.  The living room was beautiful and the staff friendly and helpful.  I liked the location a lot.  www.chiramelhomestay.com , 1/296 Lilly Street, Fort Cochin

We also considered Delight, Walton’s and Bernard Bungalow.  Around the corner from Chiramel is the Malabar House where we dined one night.  This Relais & Chateaux boutique hotel seemed lovely.  Brunton Boatyard is another more high end option.

Attractions: Check opening times because, e.g., the synagogue is closed daily from 12-3 pm.  Entrance fees were negligible, usually Rs 5-10.  Photos are not allowed inside the synagogue, the indoor parts of the Jain Temple or the Dutch Palace.

Our hotel booked the kathakali show for us and secured seats 7-8 in the front row.  This meant a little neck-craning but was the best vantage point for make-up and the sand painting.  Tickets were Rs 300 each.  There are a few other places in town that also have performances.