A Travellerspoint blog

Back to the Insanity!

Calcutta (Kolkata), India

Aahh!!

That's how I feel being back in north India...surrounded once again by chaos, crowds, incessantly beeping horns, insane traffic, touts, beggars, homeless children...Calcutta is in-your-face, nonstop! I'm definitely back in India! Everything here has been a bit of an adventure...

I arrived after flying from Kochi to Bangalore to Hyderabad to Calcutta, at midnight, and astonishingly my bag made it AND my airport pickup was waiting for me. He took me to my hotel, where in an email we agreed on a room that cost 350 rupees...but when I got there they said that the room was 500! I was pretty angry...they knew I was stuck, since I was a woman alone with all my luggage and couldn't exactly go out into the streets in the middle of the night to look for another place. Annoying! 150 rupees isn't that much money, but it's the principle of getting ripped off!

The next morning at breakfast I met Dave, a Scottish guy who has been in south India before but had just arrived in north India (Calcutta is definitely NOT the best place to land in India...far too overwhelming!) We spent the day wandering around, checked out the massive, beautiful Victoria Monument, and generally got lost. I had to mail a postcard, something that would take a few minutes at home...but of course, since it's India, it was a whole new adventure! Inside the post office were tons of people, none in any sort of line, and I went to the helpdesk to ask the lady what I should do - she yelled that I needed an envelope, and when I asked where I could get one, she just yelled 'outside! outside!' So out Dave and I went, wandered around looking for some envelope store, and finally found one in a bookstore run by a lovely old man who made me feel much better. We were soon back there - the scary helpdesk lady yelled at me that I needed to seal the envelope (apparently there is no tape at the post office, anywhere). So it was back to the bookstore, then back into the post office, where I had to see the mean lady one more time so she could weigh my envelope. Then it was into another line to get the stamps, but unfortunately the stamp man couldn't understand how many I needed (some other people in the 'line' helped me out) Once the whole process was over, Dave and I met an adorable 88 year old Indian man without a single tooth in his mouth who talked to us a bit about how crazy the post office was, and then went off on his bicycle!

Last night we went to see a Bollywood film staring Shah Rahk Khan (HUGE star here) about a guy with Asperger's in the US post-9/11...very good movie!

This morning we met up early with our new Aussie friend Brook, had a quick breakfast, and then headed to the Hooghly river to see the ghats. We also wanted to head to the Kali temple, the holiest place in the city, but this turned into yet another adventure! As soon as we got there a priest decided to be our guide...never a good thing. After we had left our shoes by the door (something we would REALLY regret later!) we headed into the main part of the temple, a tiny, dark room that was absolute chaos - people were pushing and running, trying to give their flower offering to the Kali Goddess. Our 'guide' grabbed my shoulders and pushed me to the front, while I was slowly starting to panic because of claustrophobia...it was insane! Once we left, he took us to the next building...the sacrifice building (of course we didn't know this in advance!) Apparently every day about 30 goats are sacrificed in the temple, and then sent across the street to the Mother Theresa mission to be fed to the poor...sounds like a nice idea, but horrible up close! Before I knew what was happening, we were standing in a room, and right outside I could see a goat's HEAD lying on the ground, and a giant bucket filled with blood! I turned away, only to realize that the black, sticky stuff all over the floor was not dirt...it was blood...and we weren't wearing shoes!!

And it gets worse! He next lead us through an alleyway, in our bare feet, stepping on what was most likely sewage, to the reflecting pool so we could make an offering to Shiva. By this point Brook and I were laughing hysterically just to keep from crying, we were so traumatized! When it was my turn to pray to Shiva, our guide, who we now noticed had track marks all up his arms (I've seen many people shooting up here...Calcutta has a huge drug problem) informed me that I now had to make a donation to the poor. I was pretty shaken and basically traumatized, and NOT in a generous mood, so I offered 10 rupees, which was turned down! Brook, who went after me, said that next to my name in the guestbook he had written 2000 rupees...very sketchy.

Needless to say, we were all VERY happy to be safe in a taxi after that experience! After a nice de-stress over lunch, we headed to the main market, only to have to walk through a long entrance of chickens kept in tiny cages and open sewage, topped off right at the end by a line of urinals...definitely a day of sensory overload!!

Once inside the market we made a beeline to the first sari shop we saw, and had a lovely time trying on saris. I bought a super pretty green and red one, which I'm sure I'll make lots of excuses to wear at home!

The past few days here in Calcutta have been absolutely exhausting...all the harassment and constant assault on the senses that is just not the same in the south. It's definitely been full of ups and downs...I'm looking forward to heading to Varanasi tomorrow and getting out of such a big city!

Varanasi is supposed to be full of hassle and touts as well...I guess I won't really have any peace until I head up into the mountains!!! (or until I head to London!)

xxx
meg

Posted by meggiep 06:05 Comments (0)

Ahh beach living...

Varkala, Kerala

Namaste all,

Oh how I love Varkala! It's a beautiful little beach town perched above the ocean on cliffs. All the shops, restaurants and guesthouses sit precariously close to the cliff, meaning that you can hear the ocean from your room, and watch the sunset from the roof (or your dinner table!)

Getting here, of course, was not so sublimely calm. I met up with a nice French couple headed the same way and we sat together on the train, along with a large, loud, very entertaining group of older Italian travelers, each with at least 2 very large pieces of luggage. The train only stops in Varkala for 1 minute (exactly 60 seconds!) even though most of the tourists get off there, so before the train pulled into the station, me, the French couple, all the Italians, and ALL of our luggage were crammed into the narrow doorway, ready to dash off. I managed to get off quickly, the French girl had to rush off as the train started moving, and as it pulled away, we realized that three of the Italians, and their massive suitcases, were still on the train! A hilarious few minutes of jumping Italians, tossed suitcases, and lots of laughter ensued. Once we were all safely off the train, we quickly made our way through the town of Varkala to the cliffside, where I found a cute little guesthouse run by a very sweet, very enthusiastic Indian woman who made sure I had everything I needed.

I spent all my time in Varkala lying on the beach with my new friend, Cath, a teacher from South Africa. We spent the entire time lying on the beach under an umbrella with copious amounts of spf 50 sunscreen on; because of some ozone thing, the sun in Varkala is VERY strong and even with sunscreen AND an umbrella, you can still get burnt. We went swimming a lot - the surf was nice and big and the weather was over 40 degrees each day, so we needed the cool down!

I managed to control myself with the shopping, only stepping into a few little stores, all run by Tibetans for some reason, for small items. I'm saving my big shop for Calcutta and Delhi, where things are cheap if you bargain hard (which I love to do!)

South India has been lovely...so laid back and relaxed compared with north India. It's been lovely to see the backwaters and get in some quality beach time, since I won't be at a beach again for a long time! Today I caught a train back up to Kochi, and tomorrow I have a flight (with 2 stopovers of course) up to Calcutta. I'm excited to get back to the chaos and craziness of northern India...my break in the south has been very rejuvenating. After a few days in Calcutta I head to Varanasi, where I'm meeting up with my friend Ash and then heading into the Himalayas!

I can't believe that I head to London 3 weeks from today, and head to Toronto in exactly 6 weeks! The past 8 months have been so incredible and have flown by...I feel like it should still be August!!

Here are the rest of my Kerala pictures...such a beautiful state! It's no wonder they call it "God's Own Country"
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2358840&id=13604534&l=8670c3530f

xxx
meg

Posted by meggiep 02:22 Comments (0)

Lesson Learned - India calls the shots!

Goa and Kochi, Kerala

Namaste!

Just when I thought I was confident with the Indian train system, I was reminded once again that travel plans in India always need to be flexible!

The night I was supposed to leave Goa for Kochi, I went to the train station nice and early, and waited around for my train. The train station by Palolem is very small and I was the only woman and the only tourist there for a long time...not the most comfortable situation. Plus, the power kept cutting off! Anyway 5 minutes before my train (late of course) was supposed to arrive I was told that it was coming by the station manager. I didn't know where my coach would be so I stood in the middle of the platform. As the train pulled in, there was another power cut in the station, so I was confused and couldn't see very well...the first door I tried was locked, so I started walking towards the next car, and the train whistled and started moving! I tried running beside it but had too much stuff...so I stood there, at 1am, alone on this train platform, watching my train disappear into the night!!

I was a bit more than freaked out...I was shown to the boss's room, and luckily for me she was very sympathetic - it happens often at that tiny station because trains stop there for only 2 minutes! She gave me my options - I could wait for another hour for a train headed only to Mangalore, about halfway to where I wanted to go, and sit in general seating, the classic Indian train car that is so crowded that people are hanging out of the doors and windows (we both agreed this was NOT a safe option for a foreign woman!) or book another train in a few days. So I caught a rickshaw back into Palolem at 2am, managed to find a crappy little place to stay for the night (the only place still open, and I had to basically kick the doorman awake to let me in) and the next morning booked a train for a few days later to Kochi.

Turns it out isn't bad at all being stuck in Goa for an extra two days, and I had a great, relaxing 2 days tanning and doing more yoga. Can't really complain! Sunday I caught my train successfully (although it was 2hours late) and even made a friend at the train station who I've been hanging out with here in Kochi.

Kochi is absolutely lovely - it has a main city on land that is crazy and a typical, bustling Indian city, but Fort Cochin, which is on an island, is calm, quiet, and beautiful. On Monday we wandered around the little town, checking out the Chinese-style fishing nets, Jewish town, palace, and the cute little streets lined with restaurants and shops.

Today we had a fantastic tour of the backwaters, the small canals and rivers lined with village that Kerala is famous for. We were picked up this morning and drove to Kottayam, a few hours south of Kochi, where we were met by our covered boat and very friendly, very enthusiastic guide Tampi. We spent a few hours cruising slowly along the canals - the boat isn't motor powered, it's powered by a man who stands at the front of the boat and pushes us along with a long bamboo stick! Very environmentally friendly!

We visited some small 'factories' - small family businesses, as well. The first factory makes calcium hydroxide from sea shells found in the river - they roast the shells with coal, the add water and presto - the shells turn into powdery white calcium hydroxide! (It happens right before your eyes - Tampi provided a demonstration!) We also visited a family who make coconut husk fibres into strong ropes. Because Kerala is a communist state, all cottage industries, like rope making, are organized into co-ops. The co-ops take the finished product and sell it, and everyone splits the profits. It works really well because the individual family businesses are too small and isolated to make much money by themselves.

After a yummy thali lunch (rice with various other things) we got into smaller, uncovered boats and set off down the smaller canals. We stopped at a family's spice farm, and saw pepper berries, cinnamon trees, nutmeg (my favourite!), pineapples, and jackfruit! We made our way back to the road and were driven back into town.

Tonight we're headed to another little island for a culture festival, and then tomorrow I head south to Varkala and more beach!!

Here are some Kerala pictures...it's an absolutely gorgeous place!
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2358840&id=13604534&l=8670c3530f

xx
meg

Posted by meggiep 04:06 Comments (0)

A vacation from India, in India

Palolem Beach, Goa, India

Namaste!

Wow I love Goa...although it feels like I've left India behind for some lovely Thai island that's filled with Indians! The beach here is so lovely and you can actually wear a bikini on it and not be harassed (although the stares never really stop!)

I've been staying in a little bamboo hut right on the beach. I've met a few cool Danish girls and a delightful gay couple from Germany who constantly reminded us how fabulous we all were! We've been hanging out all week, tanning all day and eating fabulous Indian food at night. We found a really great yoga class - the teacher, Kranti, was REALLY tough and after our first class we were so sore we couldn't walk the next day! It was addictive though, and we kept going back for more!!

It's been really nice to escape from the craziness of India in a way...while I loved traveling through Rajasthan, the harassment from men gets annoying, and I was getting a bit tired of it, but after this week I'm refreshed and ready for more!

Tonight I'm on the overnight train to Kerala, a state right at the bottom of India. Kerala is famous for being the birthplace of aruvedyic massage, so I'll be sure to get lots of massages and facials while I'm there! Kerala is also very well known for it's backwaters - hundreds of tiny canals that snake through the state leading to the Arabian sea, lined with small villages and people living in house boats. While I'm there I'm also going to head down to Varakala, a beach town, for a bit more tanning...I need to make sure to build up my tan before I head back north!

Anyway, here are some Goa pictures:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2358840&id=13604534&l=8670c3530f

xx

Posted by meggiep 03:00 Comments (0)

Bollywood, Slumdogs, and Delicious Cake

Mumbai (Bombay), India

Namaste!

I'm completely in love with Mumbai...such a pleasant surprise! My first day here I wandered around with my new friend Caroline, who is living in the south near Bangalore volunteering for 9 months. Mumbai is so different than Delhi - beautiful Victorian architecture, lovely tree-lined streets, parks...it doesn't really feel like India! There are also some amazing bakeries we've discovered...we ate breakfast at one two days in a row and couldn't stop sampling their amazing cakes!

Yesterday Caroline and I went to the Chor Bazaar, which is a chaotic mess of streets selling antiques and other random items, located in a very Muslim neighbourhood. This is where we felt like we were back in India - the crazy streets, goats everywhere, shop keepers yelling...plus since it is a Muslim neighbourhood we were pretty much the only women around and got a lot of stares! I find the men less awful here in the south than in the north...the people seem much more relaxed, less aggressive, and then men still stare but don't call out at you as much. It's a nice change! Mumbai is such a city of contrasts - beautiful Victorian architecture, side by side slums that house over 8 million people...tons of Western stores and restaurants, and then neighbourhoods that could be anywhere in India.

Yesterday afternoon we went on a tour of Dharavi slum, the largest slum in Asia, and also the slum where Slumdog Millionaire takes place! (we all got a photo of the water pipes that are used during the first scene of the movie). It was a really amazing tour. First we went to Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai's laundry system - it's a huge network of washing tubs where over 300,000 pieces of clothing get washed each day! It's hard work though - the washers (mostly men) have to stand in the water for 18 hours and only make about 150 rupees a day (around $3.50).

The slum, which is home to over a million people and has a population density 20 times greater than Mumbai, making it the most densely populated 'city' in the world, is like a village within the city. There are wide streets, pharmacies, grocery stores, clothing stores, doctors, hospitals, police, fire fighters, and 15 schools. The slum is not full of people who are depressed and lazy and have no jobs - it's actually an incredibly productive place. Apparently the annual output of commercial goods from Dharavi is around $650 million USD! The first part of the slum is the working area, and we visited several factories, most of them for recycling. They melt down aluminum cans into blocks of aluminum, repair cardboard boxes, oil cans, and paint cans, and recycle plastics from India, as well as plastics shipped there for recycling from China, the US, and Canada! A plastic shredding machine was actually created in Dharavi, and now they make it there and export it around the world! It was incredible how organized and productive the place was. There are also clothing factories and bakeries that supply most of Mumbai.

Then we visited the residential area of the slum. Living conditions definitely aren't optimal - they houses are about 10 square feet, crammed in together and divided by narrow alleyways. There is no real sewage system and people only have water for a few hours a day, but all houses have electricity and apparently 98% also have a television! The families didn't look sad, no one was begging for money or looking at us as if we were rich foreigners - they were all very friendly and smiling! The schools had just let out and groups of children kept coming by and smiling at us and shaking our hands. I thought it was a really interesting tour - seeing slum life in a different light - it's not all bad, it's actually a productive, friendly community. I'm really glad I went on the tour.

Yesterday I hung around with Caroline, eating once again at our favourite bakery, and then took a 15 hour bus south to Goa, where I caught another bus to Palolem beach. It's a tiny village with a beautiful beach - one of the nicest in Goa. I have a very simple bamboo hut right on the beach, and I've already found a yoga class to go to each morning. I think it'll be a really nice change of pace!

Here are my last pictures of Rajasthan, from Jaisalmer and the camel safari:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2356014&id=13604534&l=91ee935fcf

And my Mumbai pictures:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2358840&id=13604534&l=8670c3530f

xxx
meg

Posted by meggiep 21:42 Comments (0)

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