Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Trains, Planes, & Rickshaws

India was an adventure to say the least. Kayla, Cassie, Jen, Ben, Dan and I planned an independent trip to go to Agra and Varanasi in the 6 days we had. We pre-purchased plane and train tickets, had our plan set and were ready to go by the morning of port.

As per tradition, Amanda and I woke up for the Indian sunrise at 6:30 and it was beautiful. We then went to breakfast with our group before heading off the ship. We were docked in Kochi, about an hour outside of Cochin where our flight was supposed to leave at 7:30. Since we had the day to explore, we hired a rickshaw driver to take us to the markets. One thing to know about rickshaw drivers is that they get commission of government owned shops, and you need to be very careful when specifying where you want to go. We were unaware of this, so before we could actually get to the street markets, he first took us to many other shops about an hour in the opposite direction. Along the way, he stopped at the local “laundry mat” which consisted of a lot of 3-sided nooks with a faucet. Because this was for public use, there were lines of drying clothes in the back.

Running off basically no sleep, we arrived at the Agra train station at 8 am. On our train ride, we saw the tracks covered in feet of trash, wild pigs and cows rummaged through it looking for food, and naked men went to the bathroom on it freely. The few buildings lining the tracks were crumbling and in terrible shape. When we finally arrived at the station, we were immediately swarmed by cab drivers, pulling us in opposite directions to their vehicles. I have never felt so out of my comfort zone as I did at that moment. It was terrifying to have to navigate our way through and finally settle of a driver who could take us.
We hadn’t really had a plan other than the Taj Mahal, so we asked the cab driver to drive us to a McDonalds close by so we could freshen up since we were still in the clothes from the day before and hadn’t slept at all. When we got there, it was still closed so our cabbie offered to be our guide for the day and take us to Agra Fort- the home of the king who had built the Taj- before taking us back to the McDonalds. It ended up working out because we were able to keep our bags in his car when we were anticipating having to carry them all day. We had about an hour and a half to walk around the fort at our leisure before we met our driver back at the front gates. 

After the fort, we were able to go the McDonalds to eat a late breakfast/lunch (healthy, I know) and get cleaned up. We came fully prepared, knowing we weren’t going to shower, so we had wet wipes and clean clothes at the ready. Once we were done, our driver took us around to some markets. We saw a carpet school, textile factory and marble shop. Just like the cab drivers in Kochi, I am sure that our driver was getting commission off of these shops as well. However, we had nothing else to do, and had heard it was best to go to the Taj at sunset.  

Finally, it was time to see the Taj, and it was well worth the wait! It was incredible and the entire time we were walking around, we were dumbfounded. None of us could believe it was actually true that we could be walking around such a famous, iconic, and magnificent place.
After the Taj, we found a small henna shop inside a young girl’s house. She was very talented and able to freehand all of ours in about 5 minutes. After getting our henna, we went to a restaurant for dinner and had our first taste of authentic Indian food, and it was spicy! Naan is a type of bread that is served with Masala (a spice dish with either chicken or lamb). We were then off to the train station for our next leg of the adventure!

We arrived at the train station at around 10:30 in order to catch our midnight train. We had planned to take an overnight train from Agra to Varanasi, but as we learned from our flight, Indian transportation changes. When we arrived at the ticket counter and presented them with our tickets, the man in the booth looked at the ticket, shocked that we even had one (you have to be Indian to buy train tickets and we were lucky enough to have an Indian friend on the ship who purchased them) and was even more surprised that we were there. The train had been cancelled for two months. At this point, we hadn’t slept in 2 days, so we couldn’t do anything but laugh. So now, we were stuck in Agra at 11:30 with no place to stay, no way of getting to Varanasi, and no plan B.

Jen and Dan had decided earlier in the day that they wanted to see Delhi for a day or two, so they had already changed their flight from Varanasi to Delhi for a day earlier than ours. If we were to take the 6 am train to Varanasi (which seemed to be our only option of getting there) they would have less than 24 hours in the city, most of it being at night. The two of them decided to find a hotel in Agra and hire a cab driver to take them to Delhi the next day, and they would figure out about cancelling their flight then. Ben, Cassie, Kayla and I still had hope that we could get to Varanasi, so we took a cab to another train station which ended up being sketchier than the last (I wasn’t sure this was even possible).

We were the only white people in the entire station, and were drawing quite a crowd. We decided we needed to leave before we had any more attention, because a circle of men was beginning to form around us. We found a driver, and as we were walking to his cab, 6 or 7 other drivers began following us and arguing with our driver. When we got in the car, things got physical and the cabbie got in a heated fight with another one of the drivers. It was terrifying and I thought at that moment this was the end. Luckily, our driver made it out unscathed and he drove us to the other station where we were told had a train due for Varanasi. 

When we got to this station, we were immediately lost with no one to help us. The majority of the people there were trying to sleep along the walls, and the rest just stared. We finally found the ticket booth at 11:45, but they refused to help us until midnight for some stupid reason. Not sure what else to do, the four of us sat in a circle in the middle of the station floor, and I now know what it feels like to be a zoo animal. The amount of unsubtle and concerning looks we received in the 15 minutes made it the most uncomfortable and prolonged 15 minutes of my life. We were all on edge, and poor Ben was being such a great male of the group and was on guard the whole time. (Make sure to travel with at least one guy if you go anywhere less than touristy. It makes a huge difference!) 

When it was finally midnight, we went back to the ticket counter to find out our options. We could take the 6 am train for 12 hours, arriving at 6 pm. The problem with this was they only had unreserved, non AC cars. This would mean the four of us would be stuffed inside a crowded train car with no guarantee for seats and no AC. Because we would be travelling all day, the car would get extremely hot, we wouldn’t be able to sleep, and would most likely have to stand. What’s worse is the train would only go as far as 40 KM outside of Varanasi, so from there we would need to find someone who could take us to the city. 

We all came to an unspoken agreement and accepted defeat. We found a cab who could take us to the same hotel that Dan and Jen went to (a very touristy one with gates and electricity), and walked in a little after 1. We tried to get away with getting one room for the four of us, but that was against policy and they were being strict. Luckily at this point, none of us really cared where we slept or how much it cost to sleep, so we gladly booked two rooms. Ben and I got to our room and immediately showered and went to bed. This was one of the most exciting parts of the day.
In the morning we decided we should just cancel our flight from Varanasi to Delhi and tag along with Dan and Jen in Delhi. We booked 2 rooms at the Sheraton (Dan works at one back in the states, so we got a nice discount) and we found two drivers who would drive the 4 hours from Agra to Delhi. We left around 12:30, getting into the city at 5. We checked into our two rooms and walked to the mall close by. Because Delhi wasn’t in our original plans, we were all a little lost as to what to do. At the mall, we found a restaurant that looked like a European bistro, but it was available and we were starving. Surprisingly, steak was on the menu. After dinner, we went back to the hotel and hung out in the room, making plans for the next day. 

Dan had a friend from school that was from India and her parents wanted to take him out to lunch. He felt bad asking to bring everyone, so Kayla and I tagged along since we were the most open to trying new food (both Jen and Cassie were less than thrilled with the Indian cuisine, and Ben was being an awesome guy and offered to tag along with them so they wouldn’t be alone.)  They went to the National museum and the equivalent to the White House of India while we were at lunch. 

Our lunch was incredible. We met them at Bukhara, India’s #1 restaurant and one of the top 50 in the world. It was in the lobby of a hotel where Obama, Clinton, and a few other notable figures have stayed. The most surprising part of lunch was that we had to eat with our hands. It took some getting used to, but we managed. The napkins they gave us were actually aprons we were to wear so we wouldn’t spill on our clothes. We had traditional dishes such as baked ricotta cheese, spicy cauliflower, chicken, mint sauce, black lentil sauce and naan. The naan was almost as large as the table, but it was amazing. We also had fresh lime soda and mango lasse, a smoothie like beverage. 

At the lunch was the girl’s mother, father and cousin who were very helpful in telling us what to do in Delhi.  They told us of a few markets including the Delhi Haat, and they also told us about Kingdom of Dreams, a Medieval Times type of place that had restaurants from every state of India. They even offered us one of their drivers for the evening. Hoping to catch up with the rest of the group, we took the car back to the hotel to pick them up. When we didn’t see them, we left a note at the front desk and sent them a Facebook message telling them to meet us at Delhi Haat. 

Delhi Haat was a market place that had beautiful scarves, blankets, handicrafts and marble pieces. Kayla and I helped Dan pick out a traditional looking outfit and Kayla bought a few scarves. We then waited for the others who showed up just in time to meet the driver! We all went to Kingdom of Dreams, and Dan and I did a reverse bungee jump, the kind you see at the OC boardwalk. When we went inside, there were different themed areas for the different foods of India. We each decided to order something different from one place and share all the food we had. I ordered from Hyderabad, and since I had no idea what to get, I asked the chef to pick me a traditional dish. It ended up being rice and lamb, and extremely spicy, like everything else we ordered. None of the food ended up being a hit, and we decided to call it quits and go back to the hotel. 

The next morning, we visited to Lotus temple on our way to the airport. We didn’t walk into the temple since there was a service going on and we didn’t want to be rude.  We had originally purchased flights from Varanasi to Delhi and then Delhi to Cochin, so we only had to cancel the first one. We spent some time in the airport before boarding the plane. We had a layover in another city, but we all stayed on the plane. My seat was far away from everyone else, and the first leg I sat in between two Indian men who would not stop staring. The second leg was much better. I sat next to a young Indian business man who I talked to for most of the flight. The most interesting thing he told me: His wife’s grandfather was friends with Gandhi, and Gandhi ended up being killed inside the grandfather’s house. Crazy!
When we got back to Cochin, Kayla, Dan and Cassie all went to dinner with Raj (who is from India and was very excited to show us around). Ben’s flight was different than ours so Jen and I waited for him at the airport for another hour. We all are in the same anthropology class and we had a field lab on the last day, so we figured we should get back to the ship together. 

For our field lab, we went to Kudumbashree, which is basically a non-profit for women empowerment. It was really neat to see an NPO, especially because I want to work in that field. The women are taught skills to use for a job so they can bring in revenue for the family as well. One woman was taught how to design clothes, and she sold them at the local village, and another made spices for food. They cooked us barracuda fish, a traditional Christian dish which was pretty good, but I think I was one of the few who was willing to try it. We also had rice, potatoes and mango salsa. 

I wish that they focused more on the actual operation of the program. The majority of the day was walking around the house through their garden and watching a cultural dance the women put on. Overall, India was not what I was anticipating. It definitely was not my favorite country by any means. There is a lot of deceit, and you can’t fully trust anyone- especially cab drivers because they will have an ulterior motive. They are not discrete when they stare, and it makes you extremely uncomfortable. It is a very dirty country, and while it is still beautiful, the people in it make it hard to like. I am generalizing, because I did meet a few- like the man on the plane, my friend Raj, our driver in Agra- who were extremely nice and willing to help, but overall you couldn’t trust anyone and you had to stay on your toes. When we got back to the ship, I had many friends who had the same reaction that I did overall.

I am sure part of the reason I did not enjoy India as much as I was anticipating is because I had such high expectations for it. I had been told by many people that India was going to be the port that changed me, and leave the most impact. This could also be because I did not see the “typical” India- the slums. Everyone I know who went to Varanasi said it was incredible and they loved India, so it really depends on your experience. I do hope to come back one day so I can go to Varanasi, but in terms of this voyage, I was not as impressed and blown away as I thought I would be. 


ps: Check out the new pictures I have uploaded to my Favorite Photos page!

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