Warning: this is about two weeks of writing in one post so it is very long!
Gorakhpur to Delhi
Everybody was right about Gorakhpur being a (for lack of better words) shithole! It was filthy, it stunk and we were hoping that this was not a true representation of the India we were about to encounter. However, we had a massive meal from the station canteen and it cost the equivalent of just under £1.00 each! So one thing we were happy about was the price of the food and drink at train stations (and later, the price of food in general)
After waiting around for something gruesome like three hours and meeting a curious medical student who insisted on adding us to Facebook (but we don't think he will find us as we gave him vague info) and giving us hugs and kisses, we headed to our platform. We thought there was some sort of riot going on as a massive crowd was formed around one area of the train and a policeman was threatening everybody with a baton. We soon found out that it was not a riot, but a scrum for the "Sleeper" class passengers. Wow were we happy that we did not choose to cheap out too much on the trains. Perry would like to add: "anyone going to India, I can not stress enough how much you should avoid Sleeper class!"
Basically, "Sleeper" class is all unreserved seating, not air conditioned and it has bars on the windows which makes it look like a prison. It is basically a "sit wherever you find a surface" situation. We were lucky enough that our first train was the "2AC" class which is one below first class and air conditioned. There are 6 people in each compartment, each having their own bed (three top bunks, three bottom). There was a lovely couple from Hyderabad in our compartment which made us feel 100% better about India after what we had seen up to that point. The train ride was generally quite pleasant and we even managed to get some shut eye.
We arrived in Delhi at 6am on Monday (February 25th) and made it to our Couchsurfer Vidhi's place. We freshened up and then Vidhi took us, along with another "surfer" named Elizabeth from Austria to try some local street food. The street food scene here is pretty amazing and CHEAP. We never really seem to know what we are eating apart from the fact that it is vegetarian (we hope) and it always seems to taste delicious! The merchants never seem to really speak too much English, especially in non touristy areas so we just point and receive a surprise.
On Mondays, most attractions are closed so most of the items on our to-do list were undoable but we managed to get a lot in anyways. We started at Qutab Minar which was a beautiful complex. We were shocked at how many people wanted to take photos of Perry and I. It's like they had never seen a "white" person. We then went to Tughlaqabad Fort which provided a juxtaposition of old and new and after lunch we visited Lodhi Garden. Perry, Elizabeth and I decided to try and see a Bollywood film so we headed to a busy area and found a theatre playing one. At the Box office, the cashier and the other theatre goers seemed to all laugh at us and confirm multiple times that it is in Hindi and not English. In the cinema itself we received even more laughs and chuckles as we sat down. We really enjoyed the film (especially Perry as it had a "cricket" theme) and managed to understand a majority of it even though there was no English (except for a word here and a word there). At times we got so into it that we forgot it wasn't in English. We are hoping to catch some more films in our remaining time in India.
One thing that surprised us about Delhi is how modern it is and that it was not as "crazy" as everyone was warning us. That is, until we got to Old Delhi. Now that was very crazy. Tons of people, tons of rickshaws, tons of merchants, tons of honking, tons of street food, and not much space. It was a great experience but we could only handle so much of the chaos before moving on. We visited the Red Fort (which is also where Perry's great grandfather was stationed for the British Army) and then the markets and decided to get out!
We decided to head to Gandhi Smrti which is the residence that Gandhi lived in and was assassinated in. What a difference from Old Delhi. This was such a peaceful and serene sight and they have done a fantastic job with converting it into a museum and educating the public on every aspect of Gandhi and his life. It was very interesting and we were very satisfied and happy with visiting it. Oh, it was also free to enter (bonus!). This was one of the highlights of Delhi for us.
We then got some street food (mmmm) and headed to something completely unusual: Swaminarayan Akshardam. This is a very new site which was completed in 2005. It is referred to as a "Hindu temple complex" but the best way we like to describe it is: a Hindu Disneyland. Basically there is this beautifully constructed ground with a massive Hindu temple in the middle of it. It is very intricate and ornate. Now, in addition to this temple, they have an Imax show on India (available on DVD), a water and light/music show in the evening (like the Bellagio in Vegas but not as good), food courts AND a ride! Yes, a ride! We were told that our ticket included a boat ride on the river and when we got to it, we were surprised to be led indoors and onto a wooden/log boat that was attached to rails. So basically like a theme park ride. This "boat ride" was a ride through 10,000 years of Indian history in 10 minutes. It was very well done and felt like the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride at Disneyland. The whole thing just seemed so strange to us as it was so modern and incorporated religion with entertainment but in a wide scope. Even getting into the place was strange and added to the theme park feeling. There was a massive cue where we had to go through metal detecters and be searched. Absolutely nothing was allowed in, not even phones or cameras (so we have no photos of this place) and everything had to be checked in. There was a form to fill out (it seemed like a "customs" form) with personal contact details and then a photo was taken of each person with the belongings they were checking in, so it was very secure. It was just quite strange why they allowed nothing to enter since it was such a modern place.
On our third day in Delhi, we began at India Gate and Rajpath which is the area of the presidents residence. It looks very "British" with what looked like Victorian style buildings. Perry's great grandfather worked in this area for the last Viceroy of India so it was neat to imagine him walking the same streets back in the day.
We then decided to make the trek to the "Sulabh international Museum of Toilets". Now, sadly enough, this was one of the musts on our Delhi to-do list as it just sounded so quirky and has amazing reviews on TripAdviser. We were warned that is quite a journey to get there but we didn't think that meant a 3 hour round trip!!! It was absolutely worth it though!! Sulabh is a sanitation organization and the curator of the toilet museum is so passionate about the subject of toilets and waste that he gave us possibly one of the best tours we have been on. He was such a delightful character and we wanted to pack him in our suitcase. We saw very intricate toilets, very practical toilets, some very modern advances in toilet and water conservation technology AND we saw cement made from human excrement (and we touched it!!). It was definitely another highlight of Delhi! Definitely worth the long journey!
Since it took so long to get to the museum, we were in a hurry back to catch our train to Agra. Vidhi wanted to take us somewhere special for lunch and we submitted to his control even though we had only one hour til our train departed! You can probably all imagine how panicked we were but we attempted to just go with the flow.
We arrived in a building and followed some "canteen" signs and ended up in what seemed like an auction! We had no idea what was going on but it seemed pretty chaotic! There was a man calling out numbers and then it all began to make sense. All these people that were crowded at the entrance were waiting for a table...or should we say seats at a shared table. The man in charge was calling out ticket numbers but priority seemed to go to any party who required the number of seats available. If you were a foreign girl this also seemed to hold sway so Vidhi pushed me to the front and we had seats within minutes! We were still not prepared for what our 100 rupee tickets had in store for us. We received a tray with a little rice, some sort of desert and a cup with yoghurt. Then suddenly we were surrounded by servers who offered us various curry dishes, rice and naan breads. When we had finished eating the food, more came, and when we finished eating that, even more came. It was all you can eat without leaving your seat, and the service was so quick we never had an empty tray. What at first seemed like chaos was actually one of the best organized eateries we have been to. The man who was calling out ticket numbers was also directing the servers wherever there was a need. If we were low on rice, he would call for the rice guy and so on. Now that's multi-tasking!! We soon found out that was the canteen at the embassy for the Andrah Pradesh province and that each Indian provincial embassy has a canteen like this that offers the cuisine of that province...and the one we went to was apparently one of the more expensive ones! 100 rupees?? That is the equivalent to £1.20 or less than $2.00 for delicious, amazing, effortless Indian food! Such a great place to discover and we wouldn't have experienced it without our awesome host...the best thing is, we were in and out in less than half an hour which meant that we were hopeful of catching our train! Funny enough, when we arrived at the station, we found out our train was 1:20 delayed. This was a sign as Vidhi was shocked that we had not visited the most important sight in Delhi: Humayun's Tomb which just so happened to be around the corner from the station. So off we went to explore one more sight in Delhi before heading to Agra. This was a great ending as it is one of the inspirations for the Taj Mahal so it seemed fitting that it would be the last thing to see before heading to Agra.
Again, we thought we would miss our now delayed train but we made it with about 7 minutes to spare. This time we had booked the "3AC" class which is similar to "2AC" but has 8 people in a compartment instead of 6 (with middle bunks between the upper and lower). We met a law student named Naman that we conversed with for the entire three hour journey. He gave us heaps of information about Jaipur as that is where he is from (and where we are headed after Agra). We look forward to keeping in touch with him as he will be a great source of information for future visits to India as he has travelled to most parts.
We arrived in Agra at around 8pm. Unfortunately we missed the sunset over the Taj Mahal. Our hotel had a view of it from the rooftop restaurant so we went up there to see what we could see. To our surprise, there were no floodlights or any fancy light work to illuminate it. All you could see was a black outline of it in the distance but this was perfect as it added to the mysteriousness of it and allowed us to see it for the first time at sunrise.
We were out the door by 6am and joined the tourists for the sunrise view of the Taj Mahal. It is very well designed in that you can't see the actual Taj Mahal until you are through the ornate entrance gates so the first glimpse you see of the actual Taj Mahal makes your hair stand up. It really is a true work of art. We couldn't believe we were there. We spent about 2.5 hours wandering around and taking a million photos. We could have spent all day there but unfortunately we had booked a tuk tuk driver to take us on a tour. Big mistake!
We had read and heard plenty of stories of taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers and the various ways they try and scam you. For example, you ask them to take you somewhere and then they stop somewhere "along the way" such as a friend's shop and try to get you to buy things as they earn commission. So we completely expected this but we thought we would just add it to the experience as he offered a good price to take us around for the day. He first took us to the "Baby Taj" which was also a very nice sight and we even thought the gardens of the Baby Taj were much more impressive than the actual Taj Mahal. We were then taken to the opposite side of the river from the Taj Mahal so we could get another look at it from a different angle. Then all the commission work began as we were taken to a few merchants to try and spend money. We felt quite uncomfortable at times but stuck to our guns and refused to buy anything (except one top for me at a textile shop). Even the restaurant experience was horrible. We said we wanted street food yet the driver took us to a restaurant and when we looked at the menu with astronomical prices and began to walk out as it was more than a fine dining restaurant that we went to just a couple days before (and this was anything but fine dining), the waiter brought us the "Indian menu" (ie non tourist menu) where the prices were less than half. We should have walked out there and then just at the fact that they try and scam the tourists so badly but we didn't feel like arguing so just ordered the cheapest thing on the menu so we could get the heck out of there.
After lunch, we told the driver that we now wanted to see something special that we came to Agra for. Perry's great grandmother grew up in Agra and eventually married and had children there as well so we wanted to see some buildings that had some family history behind them. One of them was the school/convent that his great grandmother and some of her children attended. We had agreed with the driver the night before that he would take us there and when we told him to take us there, he ended up taking us to one of Mother Theresa's charity homes. We weren't stupid. We told him that this is not where we asked to go and after conversing with other rickshaw drivers and finding out where the place we wanted to go actually was, he told us that he couldn't take us there because rickshaws weren't allowed there. After some arguing, we told him to take us back to the hotel, which he did and it was nice to be in control in the sense that we paid him less than half of what we said we would pay him for the day. We tried not to let it get us down as we sort of expected this to happen. Luckily the hotel agent found us a nice taxi driver to take us to the school. The caretaker of the school offered to give us a tour and it was a very impressive school complete with a massive football pitch and even a skateboard park. It was quite neat thinking of Perry's great grandmother and great uncles walking through the courtyards and playing in the playground so long ago.
After we visited the school, we got dropped off at the train station where we had a couple of hours to kill until our train arrived. It seemed like the quietest station in India but it wasn't the main station in Agra, just a small one with two platforms. We people watched people watching us (they really like to stare at us) and watched the world go by.
Our train was nearly an hour delayed so we arrived in Jaipur around midnight. We took a rickshaw to the hotel and again, the driver tried to offer us a day tour for the following day. We weren't falling for that again so we refused.
We found a tour the next day that is operated it by the tourism department and went to most of the places we wanted to see in Jaipur. We only had one full day so it seemed like a decent tour to do. The sights were quite impressive but our absolute favorite was the one that everyone goes to Jaipur for: the Amber Fort/Amer Fort. It was a great way to end the tour. Unfortunately, we didnt get to go to the Nahargarh Fort as a truck broke down on the road leading to it meaning that our bus couldn't squeeze through. This fort is supposed to provide a fantastic view of Jaipur so we were a bit annoyed to miss it but it wasn't the end of the world! Just another reason to return!
I managed to screw up when booking our train from Jaipur to Jodhpur. I had it booked for midnight but silly me booked it for the day before (I guess the midnight thing confused me when searching for trains) so we managed to find a bus instead which was actually air conditioned with a massive amount of leg room so it was fine.
Jodhpur was truly amazing. Perry and I had been saying that India didn't seem to have the "magical" quality that we were expecting but we found that in Jodhpur and later on in Jaisalmer. Jodhpur has a very busy street market scene and it was just as you see in the movies. Lots of colorful saris, tons of cows roaming around, merchants trying to sell various goods. We could have walked through the markets for days. We booked a cooking class that had amazing reviews online and this was such an amazing experience. The class lasted about 5 hours and the husband and wife (Anil and Rykka) that run it are absolutely delightful and so deserving of their success. Anil's father was an Ayurvedic doctor and has passed on his secrets to Anil, who specializes in spices. We learned all about the benefits of Ayurvedic spices, herbs and seeds and used plenty of them in the cooking. The food we cooked was so delicious and we also received a recipe book with it so are looking forward to recreating many of the dishes in the future.
After Jodhpur, we headed to Jaisalamer where we were booked in to do a 1.5 day/1 night camel safari in the Thar Desert. This is one experience we were really looking forward to but it ended up being a bit disappointing. The camel ride was not comfortable at all. Our thighs and stomach muscles were aching. The novelty only lasted so long. When we got to the dunes though, it was a pretty spectacular sunset and sleeping under the stars was pretty amazing. But in the middle of the night, I awoke with some terrible food poisoning and it was not pleasant, especially in the middle of the desert. I just wanted to go back into the city but after about an hour of cleaning out my system, I felt a bit better and went to sleep, where the bugs insisted on crawling all over us and biting us. We had about an hour and a half of riding the following day to get us back to where the jeep would pick us up to return us to Jaislamer. We walked for a portion of it as we were really sore. An evening of this experience would have been enough. During the day it felt as it was about 40 degrees Celsius and just really uncomfortable (which may have added to me being sick) so we would recommend just an evening safari to the dunes to watch the sunset and that's it!
When we returned to Jaisalmer from the safari, we headed towards the fort which was really neat as it is a living fort with many shops, restaurant and hotels operating within it. Unfortunately, I was still feeling quite ill so had to sit for a while. When I felt a bit better we explored more of the fort and then headed towards the lake where we sat and relaxed for a bit. We were going to take a boat ride at sunset but when we saw someone feeding the fish, we realized how filthy the water was and decided against it.
We wandered around some more and found a rooftop restaurant with a view of the fort where we decided to relax before heading on the night train back to Jodhpur.
Back to Jodhpur
We returned to Jodhpur as our train to Allahabad departed from here so we had almost another full day which we were happy about as we really like Jodhpur.
We decided to go up to the fort and partake in a zip line tour of the fort. I was really excited as I've never zip lined before but when we got strapped up and I saw that we would be hanging by just a caribiner clip, I got very scared! The course had 6 lines plus one practice one. The setting was absolutely beautiful and we learned a lot about the fort along the way. It was also where they filmed a scene for The Dark Knight Rises. I managed to be the only screamer and I was amazed at how Perry and the two others on our tour could not scream when zipping across the fort! By about the third zip line, I felt a lot calmer and started to really enjoy it. The longest one was 320metres which seemed very long. It was a great thrill and we both loved the experience. Just wish it lasted longer!!
We then wandered around the market where we bargained for bangles and some more shoes and eventually ended up at Spice Paradise where we did our cooking class a few days before and stocked up on some spices. Jaisalmer and Jodhpur were definitely 2 of my favorite places thus far.
Allahabad is known for Sangam which is the confluence of three holy rivers (Ganges, Yamuna and the invisible Sarasvati) and is a really spiritual location for Hindus. It is also the sight of the Kumbh Mela which is a mass Hindu pilgrimage that occurs once every twelve years. And this year happened to be one of the years that it was running. Unfortunately for us, we didn't look into this before pre booking our trains so we missed it by about a week! There was still about 10% of the camps and attractions left but it wasn't really anything to boast about. I believe it is the world's largest gathering having 30 million recorded visitors (but was probably more like 50 million). This is in a 40 square km space. The population of Canada is 30 million, the population of England is 60 million! So imagine nearly this vast amount of people in a 40 sq. km space!!! We really wished we had planned it better to allow us to experience this. Maybe we will have to return in 12 years!
We did get to see an amazing sunset over the Sangam and people taking holy baths in the rivers which was quite neat! Allahabad was also very memorable as we had a lovely host. We were there for only one evening but would love to return to visit Nitin and his family again!
Where do we begin with Varanasi. It is one of the world's oldest cities and quite chaotic. The streets are very narrow so the traffic jams allow for an over abundance of car horns to be heard at all times of day. The honking got me very annoyed as a lot of the times it is unnecessary and exaggerated in the sense that people don't just tap the horn and release, they literally slam their hand into it and hold it there for what seems like 20 minutes!
The main attraction for us was the Ganges and seeing the various ghats in which Hindus prepare themselves for bathing in the Ganges. The water is quite filthy as many people spread ashes in this water and bodies are also burnt at two different ghats in which the remains are then placed in the same water so Perry and I were not keen on bathing in it. We walked up and down the ghats (over 200 of them), some more interesting than others. As mentioned, a couple of them are meant for burning bodies and many old people go to Varanasi to die so there are constantly bodies being burnt. We stumbled upon the burning ghats and it was quite a shocking sight. It felt as though after seeing bodies burning, nothing could shock us now. Some were well into being turned into ashes, others freshly placed in the flames and some just arriving from a procession to the river and being prepared for the ritual. I won't get into details but it was quite graphic.
In the evenings, some ghats have "entertainment" in the form of an Aarti which is like a religious offering. The one we saw was quite large scale and we heard it is done like that to attract the tourists, both Indian and non-Indian. Our host Ashish (a Varanasi local) mentioned that it seems a lot of what happens at the ghats is put on for show and to attract tourists. He said it is nothing like it used to be and so filthy now. There was also an older man that we spoke with who had been there something like 30 years ago and revisiting it now he said he just wanted to leave and that it was not as it used to be.
It was quite busy also because the Kumb Mela just ended not too long ago and many of the "Naga Babas" have relocated to the ghats. Naga Babas are basically "holy" or "enlightened" beings. Many of them are naked with dreadlocks and have ashes and mud covered all over their body. Perry and I are not too fond of them as from our experience, they seem to constantly try and get money from the tourists and not in a nice way either. Not all, but we've seen many in this fashion. We encountered many tourists talking to them and many of the Naga Babas tried to lure us into their tents but we were not interested.
Being in India, we have become quite cynical, which perhaps is not a good thing. It is hard not to become cynical as it seems most of the time, people are trying to rip us off. It is really unfortunate because we have also met so many lovely people which are the complete opposite. We have started playing games. Like when people are trying to sell us stuff and they ask what country we are from, we say one that they've probably never heard of. Perry's favorite is: the Democratic Republic of Congo! its funny cause the salesmen then has no reply and is unable to try and sweet talk us into spending our rupees on something that we are being ripped off on anyways.
The spectrum of educated vs non educated and of rich and poor is wide ranging and very difficult to adapt to. Seeing so many people peeing on the streets and the constant smell of fesces and urine, the constant horking and spitting of chewing tobacco and the spit patches all over the roads and sidewalks is completely unpleasant.
Waiting for our train to Kolkata in Varanasi, we could not wait for the journey to be over. It was our last train in India and we were so thankful for that but it seemed to be off to a bad start. It was 2 hours delayed. We encountered large rats and mice scampering through the platform (at one point we saw at least six), then a cow roaming through (with no idea how it even got onto the platform), and then monkeys climbing through the steel girders and as we were about to board the train, a Naga Baba was squatting on the platform, a stream of urine building up around him. He wasn't even being discreet about it, he was just squatting in the path of the passengers. We were overly disgusted at this sight and could not understand how these people find it okay to pollute their country like this and are not even embarrassed to do something that seems so uncivilized (to a westerner anyways). The entire scene at the train station was like a circus. This is a whole other culture and a whole other world and the trains and train stations is the one place to experience the wide range of social classes present in India and also the huge difference between "educated" and "uneducated" people in India. The opposites between them really are extreme.
By the time we reached Kolkata, we were not so much interested in ticking anymore sights off our to-do list. It was getting really hot so we were happy enough to relax a bit before the journey to Thailand. What made Kolkata a really memorable stop was our fantastic hosts that we spent two days with sharing stories, eating local foods, seeing sights, eating, watching Bollywood movies, eating, having great conversations and some more eating. If we had stayed in a hotel, we are pretty sure we would not have enjoyed Kolkata. Dwaita and Tito introduced us to an authentic Biryani, kochuri, some local sweets, and Dark Fantasy chocolate biscuits which are so delicious! We learned that the Bengalis are real foodies and this was very obvious when driving through the city and observing the masses of restaurants, food courts and street food. We were happy enough to spend two days eating. Sadly enough, the only major sight we saw was the South Park Street Cemetery which had many interesting tombs and epitaphs. It reminded us of Pere Lachaise in Paris. We literally only spent about an hour seeing sights as it was about 35 degrees and uncomfortable.
We also crossed Howrah Bridge, which is the world's busiest bridge. We also passed by Eden Gardens and the cricket stadium which, at 100,000 seats is one of the world's largest. One thing we found really amusing were the billboards by the Kolkata traffic police that promoted crossing the street safely (ie not j-walking). It was a picture of the Beatles' Abbey Road album cover of them crossing the road at a crosswalk with the caption saying "if they can do it, so can you!" Unfortunately, I didn't get to take a photo of it!
We were also introduced to our first Rajni Khanth film. We have heard lots about this legend of an Indian film actor and the film we saw ("Robot") was so cheesy but awesome at the same time that we definitely want to see more of this guy! He is an absolute legend and there are even websites a la Chuck Norris jokes dedicated to him We definitely want to return to Kolkata and during the Durga Puja festival which looks like one of a kind. Returning for the food wouldn't be a bad idea either! We found many differences between West Bengal and other parts of India but primarily the lack of vegetarians which was surprising considering how vegetarian the rest of the country is. Our host ordered a vegetarian Biryani for me and its like the whole room went silent and stared at him as anything vegetarian seems rare. Kolkata was a great last stop in India and we look forward to returning one day and to explore more of the West Bengal province as well...but for now: it's time for Bangkok!!
Last Thoughts on India
Many people scolded us for having only two weeks in India, but to us, it is definitely enough to get a taste and as much as we can handle on a first visit. I would definitely like to return one day and visit other parts of the country (especially the south) and maybe some smaller villages rather than cities as I am sure it is not all urine infested and I did enjoy a lot of our experiences but we are looking forward to a bit more of a "relaxing" environment on the beaches in Southeast Asia (although there is no doubt that the unusual sights are far from over). We appreciate that it is a whole other culture, non-western and it is definitely eye-opening. We definitely recommend it but just be aware that you will see plenty of things that you are not used to seeing and it may seem VERY chaotic at times so come with an open mind. Even with an open mind though, there are only so many urine sights and scents you can handle so beware! Hah!
Some more observations about India:
1. there is an abundance of men's toilets/urinals and a big lack of women's. So then why do the men insist on whipping it out on any street or alleyway or train platform and going pee?? There is nothing discreet about it. The stench of pee that fills the cities and the sight of men going pee in the streets is a sight that happens far too often for our liking. We are very careful not to step in any liquid on the street as it is most likely not something we want to be stepping on.
2. The spitting. Oh the spitting. And not just the spitting, but the horking that goes along with it. Not just the men but the women too! This seems to be quite a problem cause even in the Delhi metro and other parts of India there are signs everywhere that say "no spitting" and threaten to fine if you are caught. It is really an unpleasant sight and sound and makes us cringe every time we encounter it. I think a lot of it is because they use a lot of chewing tobacco so sometimes you get all sorts of different colored spits flying by you. Lovely! We even saw a man washing up dishes and he spat in a bowl and continued washing it without soap....the worst part is that it was a public eatery! Even more unpleasant is someone talking to you with a packet of chewing tobacco in their mouth. This is primarily the taxi and rickshaw drivers that we have encountered it with but it makes us cringe as we can see and smell the brown or red liquid in their mouth which in turn gives them brown teeth. Cringe!
3. We constantly see men holding hands with other men. I think it is just a friendship thing but seems so backwards in the sense that public displays of affection are usually frowned upon and we are assuming homosexuality is frowned upon as well so it's interesting that we constantly see men holding hands and that they see it as a friendship thing rather than intimate.
4. It seems as a lot of young babies and toddlers have makeup on! We asked one of our hosts and she said it is because of superstition and that black eyeliner is meant to improve sight.
5. We also constantly see little boys dressed in girls clothing. We see this a lot and found out from a host that it is because of the obsession with the "boy" or male in India. Everybody wants a boy and some are so obsessed, that they kidnap other people's boys so some disguise their boys by dressing them as girls to prevent them from being kidnapped.
6. People are really curious about us. The staring is constant and people are always asking to take photos of us. We are guessing its because of the obvious reason: we are white. It's really funny though because we will be walking down the street and see people's camera phones pointed in our directions. Sometimes it is obvious they are videotaping us as they follow us with their cameras. The thing is, you would think they've never seen a white person before but with the amounts of tourists in some places, they must come across them often. At first we didn't mind having our photos taken and even thought it would be funny to offer them our autographs, but now it seems a bit pervy at times. Perry has started playing a game and if they stare, he stares back. One incident was hilarious! There was a young man staring so Perry stared, following his eyes and even shifting his body to hold the stare. The young man then said "why are you staring" at which we cracked up and replied "YOU'RE staring at US". It's like they don't even realize they're doing it, which is similar to something else in India:
7. The HONKING! First the apparent obsession with honking horns was amusing but after about a week it became REALLY annoying. When we've walked up some side streets with not many cars, one or two will go by and honk for absolutely no reason which made us wonder if they even realize that they are honking. We asked one of our hosts about it and he said that one time his neighbor was driving into their street and honking and our host made him stop and roll down his window and he asked "why are you honking??" In which his neighbor replied "I'm not honking!" So that concludes that, no, they do not realize they are honking their horns because of an apparent overuse so you can just imagine how immense the honking is!
7. They use bamboo tied together with rope for scaffolding! It's crazy seeing construction work being done with bamboo poles leaning against buildings!
It is a super interesting country. Many things we loved and many things we hated but we will definitely return one day to explore more as there is so much more to it. If you plan on visiting you better go soon as there is talks of the Taj Mahal not being accessible to tourists as they are planning on restoring it and this is one sight you do not want to miss!!
We didnt get much sleep last night. The only alarm we have is on my phone and the battery was dead. Simple solution: charge it, right? Wrong! As mentioned before, in Nepal they only have mains powered electricity for about ten hours a day. The time that it goes on never seems consistent and varies from place to place. Well it was 10pm, and still no power. We were absolutely exhausted and were taking turns shutting our eyes as we wanted to make sure we would be up in time for our bus to Lumbini. Well, at midnight (when everybody is already asleep and has no dire need for electricity, except for us), the power finally went on and we were finally able to set an alarm and try and get some sleep. We figured we could sleep on the bus, Right? Boy were we wrong!
Just when we thought the bus rides couldn't get more interesting, here we are in the most rickety bus to date which doesn't help the bruises on our rear ends from wiping out in the snow during our trek! It is also the most "local" bus we have been on with just us and one English/Bristolian man named Richard being the only tourists. We still managed to get completely ripped off though on our bus tickets even though we knew it at the time we just sucked it up and figured its part of the experience.
So this bus is absolutely packed. There was no room in the trunk of the bus for our backpacks so they are hanging on for dear life on a rack at the top of the bus. My eyes are glued to the window so I can spot them If they fly off. There aren't enough seats for everybody either so the driver pulled out some footstools and put them in the aisle for some passengers to sit on.
In addition to the rickety-ness of the bus not allowing for any shut-eye, there just so happens to be a flat screen TV playing Nepalese music videos (which seem to be heavily influenced by Bollywood). The bus itself may need an update (and maybe some breaks and suspension) but they don't skimp on what sounds like a state of the art sound system that allows for the music to reach all areas of the bus (and not at a low volume either). The TV is also the nicest and most modern TV we have seen in Nepal. Nice to see they have their priorities straight!
The sights from the window are just as interesting as they were from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Again, it's a Saturday but you wouldn't have guessed it because when we left at 6:30am, the lake was the busiest we have seen it with all the locals getting their morning exercise, the cows roaming the streets looking for their breakfast and there were numerous butchers ripping apart animals on the sides of the streets.
We really feel like we are in a movie, with the music videos acting as the soundtrack. Actually it feels exactly like the scene in the "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" when they arrive in India and take the local bus to the hotel, except that we are in Nepal. We can't help but laugh at it all. I would rather the local bus than the tourist bus any day (except for the getting ripped off bit...it's apparently a lot worse in India so we just have to learn to cope with it).
They have now put on a film called "Race 2". I was really enjoying the music so hopefully I will enjoy this film as much, even though it is not in English.
We stop for lunch. These places that we stop at are just little shacks on the side of the roads that are meant for the locals. They do not cater to the tourists (ie, no "western" toilets or food) but the good thing about that is that they offer the local prices! It is not like the places we stopped at on the bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara which were very tourist oriented and had at least one western toilet in addition to the holes in the ground. The ones we stopped at today had no western toilets but that didnt matter as we are getting quite used to squatting.
Suddenly, we reach a patch of road that seems as the paving has been destroyed by a landslide. We are not on a bus anymore but river rafting through fierce rapids. Unfortunately, we seem to be hitting patches like this a lot more constantly and I am wishing I had packed some motion sickness tablets. I am guessing the lady sat in front of me is wishing the same as she projectile vomits out the window. I am very thankful that my window is closed. They must get a lot of passengers with motion sickness on these buses as there is a stash of plastic bags in the first aid kit (yes, believe it or not they have a first aid kit in here).
We are sitting at the very back and it's really amusing watching the bus and all the passengers sway from side to side. I can't see anything ahead because I am in the very corner. I tell Perry it is quite frightening not seeing what is in front especially when it feels like we are going 100 miles an hour in a rickety bus on bumpy roads and all you hear is horns honking every ten seconds and the screeches of the breaks (or lack thereof). Perry is in the aisle seat so he can see out the front window ahead. He says "trust me, it's more frightening being able to see!"
We can't seem to take our eyes off the music videos. They are so cheesy but so catchy and funny. I hope I can find some of these online!
We suddenly stop in the middle of nowhere and about 15 men get out. We look out the window and it looks as though they are all finding a bush to go pee in. I wonder what they would think if I went out there with my "SheeWee"! As we start driving, we see a bus on the opposite side with all the men scattered about, their backs to the road. I guess they had the same idea.
We are nearing our destination of Bhairihawa. Most of the passengers emptied out at the last stop in Butwal so we moved up to the front. The driver has all the windows open...and the door as well. Lets just hope we don't roll out!
Once we reach Bairihawa, a swarm of taxi drivers and cycle rickshaw drivers try to lure us in but we find the local bus to Lumbini....which seemed to move at about 5 miles an hour but I can't say for certain as the speedometer was not working! I was lucky enough to be offered a seat next to the driver and again, it felt like watching a movie from the windshield. The road to Lumbini was one long stretch with lots of locals working on the farms, lots of cows and goats roaming around, and many many many cyclists. The funny thing is, none of them seemed to be in a hurry. They were all cycling as if they were daydreaming.
We eventually get to Lumbini and follow Richard to a guesthouse he has booked. Unsurprisingly, they are overbooked so we find a guesthouse next door that we are very happy is only for one night. We quickly change and brave the filthy sheets and flies squashed to the walls and head over to see the birthplace of Buddha.
The grounds that the birthplace is located on is 2.5 square km. We begin by visiting a Buddhist temple and garden dedicated to Buddha and then making our way to the Mayadevi Temple, Ashoka Pillar and Sacred Pond. It is quite a neat and peaceful sight to visit. There are lots of groups from various countries and it is a real pilgrimage for them. We are going to walk around the rest of the grounds but decided we would come back in the morning as it is getting late. I also have quite a headache from the 9 hours of travel and from bumping my head on a very low door frame so we leave to get something to eat.
We feast on Nepalese delicacies since it is our last night in Nepal and also have our first beer of the trip (which seems to go straight to our heads). Richard joins us and we have a nice conversation about Nepal. When it is time to retire to bed, we put our mosquito net to use for the first time! It feels like camping! In the middle of the night, there seem to be all sorts going on! The merchants shutting the garage screen doors in front of their shops is a very unpleasant sound (similar to a dump truck unloading something very heavy) but worse is the barking dogs that are going hysterical. We are actually quite scared as It sounds like packs of wolves and the barking goes on for hours. We did get to bed early though so we have given ourselves time to have our sleep ruined!!
In the morning we went for breakfast and invited a lady we briefly spoke with the night before to join us. Funny enough, she is from Vancouver and her name is Cheryl! She gave us lots of tips about India and if it wasn't for her, we would not have guessed that the bus to Ghorakpur (where we take the train to Delhi) takes 3 hours! It is 70km from the border so we thought it would take about an hour! So we decided to get a move on sooner than expected. This meant that we couldn't return to the gardens where Buddha's birthplace is but we were happy enough to see the main sights the day before.
So we had to take a bus back to Bairahawa in order to take a cycle rickshaw to the Indian border (a bit over 5km from Bairahawa). Just when you think the bus rides can't get any worse or scarier, they do! Our bus to Lumbini seemed to go about 5miles an hour yesterday, this one seemed to go 105! It was VERY scary as the driver swerved us in and out of lanes nearly crashing into every oncoming vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist that we passed. Perry mentioned that it seemed to have a lawn mower engine and we wouldn't be surprised if it did because it seemed to break down for a few minutes at one point. The driver lifted the cushion beside his sit and low and behold: there was the engine! Crazyyyy
We made it to Bairahawa in what seemed a quarter of the time as it did to get to Lumbini the day before. When we got there, we were swarmed by the cycle rickshaw drivers where we bargained one down to 100 rupees to get us to the border. We have no idea if that is a good price but we felt quite bad as we had two heavy backpacks in addition to our body weight and it did not look easy. It was our first rickshaw ride of any kind and it was damn scary. I asked Perry if they call them "rick"shaws because they are rickety! We thought we were going to collapse at any point because they seemed to be made of wood. It was really funny to see other rickshaws and cycles pass us. Ours moved so slowly because of the weight.
We made it to the Indian border and Perry makes a good point when he says we could have walked accross with 20kg of cocaine in our bags and they wouldn't have known. There seemed to be no checks whatsoever. People were just walking through and we could have easily passed right by immigration but luckily we questioned it and found a little hole in a wall with a curtain in front of it in between shops. We sorted out the entry forms and now we are in India! We found a bus to Ghorakpur which is very obvious that its a local bus. Perry says it feels like one of those massage chairs which is very true: except it feels as they are set to the rocket launch setting and with an "ejector seat" capability. Not comfortable in the slightest. The windows are made of plexi glass (which is probably a good thing) and it seems to be the fastest one yet which does not help my bladder in the slightest. Yes folks, all this could be yours for just 80 Indian Rupees!
So far, India seems slightly more busy than Nepal but we have not hit Delhi yet, which apparently is like Kathmandu on steroids. Makes us kind of nervous but really excited as well. Here's to hoping that we don't get Delhi Belly! There also seem to be a lot more cows in India but again, we've only been in the country for about an hour so it it hard to say for sure. A couple of passengers seem to have puked out the window so it's not too different from the buses in Nepal! We've been told that Ghorakpur is very unpleasant and to get in and get out so we are looking forward to getting on our first ever Indian train and the 13.5 hour journey to Delhi (which will probably be longer as there seem to be a lot of delays on the trains in India). But first, what I am (or rather my bladder is) really looking forward to is a toilet! Oh and the fact that this is our last bus for a while as we've got trains booked for the next two weeks! There is only so much "rocket launch" speed setting massage chairs, unstoppable honking and men peeing on the sides of the road (with visible pee streams) I can handle!