Monday, November 28, 2011

Kerala Backwaters

So my last message - wherein I complained about booking a train ticket and the post office - was written from Fort Cochin, a former Portuguese colony on the south-western coast of India.  It's right below Goa, which is where I am now (just overnight, on my way to Hampi).

Kerala has become a popular tourist destination because of the backwaters.  I went on a one-day cruise and the pictures turned out so well it was painful to pick just a couple.  It was seriously jaw-dropping scenery.

Otherwise, it was a pretty quiet stay.  Kochi/Fort Cochin is a nice place to relax and chill out for a while.  Lots of Western-style cafes, Western-style food, that sort of thing.  Pasta salads, gaspacho.  I found a place to get amazing banana cream pies and kept going back.  

I also got an ayurvedic massage which was...interesting.  Ayurvedic massage appears to be about oils and scents as much as anything else.  Oils that remove toxins, maybe?  All I know is that my massage consisted of lying down on a wooden table while two ladies rubbed oil all over me while wearing nothing but a tiny little loincloth.  They started with my head, which was nice - a nice scalp rub, but with oil - but then moved onto my chest, which was weird.  Hard to compartmentalize, shall I say?  Because they weren't doing that sort of deep-tissue kneading that I associate with massage.  They were just rubbing the oil around.  It was a full body massage so they moved along to the different parts.  Arms.  Legs.  Back. No room for prudery at all, but I admit that by the end I was pretty relaxed.  I'd just come back from the train station, too, so that's no small feat.

The oil smelled a bit like tamarind.  Somewhere along the way I've sampled a tamarind fruit straight from the tree and it has a sort of citrus bite that smelled right.  But I'm not sure.  After the massage I got into a steam box for fifteen minutes...which just reminded me of I Love Lucy.  Anyone else remember that episode?  Where Lucy gets into that weight-loss box that's supposed to steam away all her fat and then disasters ensue?  That was weird too, though less so than the massage.  

Ok, I'm going to go hunt down dinner before it's totally dark out.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Showed up at the Post Office yesterday.  I had a big white box with a print I'm sending home and a small shopping bag.  Waited for twenty minutes to get to the front of the line.

The guy behind the counter looks at my box and my bag and says, "You can't send a box like that.  You have to have it covered in white cloth."

Me: "Ok.  How do I do that?"
Post Office Guy: "Take it to a tailor."
Me: "What about this bag?  Do you sell boxes?"
Post Office Guy: "Yes.  I'll go get one."

...ten minutes pass...

Post Office Guy: "We're out of boxes.  Ask the tailor."

I go to the tailor.  They find a box.  I put my small items in and wait half an hour for them to sew up the two boxes.  They give me a marker and I add my address.  I go back to the Post Office and wait in line for another twenty minutes.

Me: "I'd like to send these two parcels, wrapped in white cloth."
Post Office Guy: "Your 'from' address needs to be in India."
Me: "I don't have an Indian address."
Post Office Guy: "Do you have any Indian friends?"
Me: "No."
Post Office Guy: "Talk to that lady."
Me: "Okay."
That Lady: "Just put an Indian address."
Me: "But I don't want these items returned to India if there is a problem."
That Lady: "The rule is that the address is from India."

I put the address of my hotel.  I wait another twenty minutes in line.  I send my parcels.

That was yesterday.  Today I tried to figure out how to get from here in Kochi to Hampi.  I approached the receptionist at my hotel, which is also supposed to function as a travel agency.

Me: "Can you help me book a ticket from here to Hampi?"
Receptionist: "This month?"
Me: "Yes."
Receptionist: "There are no tickets.  Go to the train station."

Okay.  I get into a rickshaw and go to the train station.  I find the main ticket window at the station.  I wait in line until I get to the teller.

Me: "I would like to book a ticket to Hampi."
Teller: "Talk to that other teller."
Me: "Okay."

I wait in line.

Me: "I would like to book a ticket to Hampi."
Other Teller: "Go to the reservation office across the street."
Me: "Okay."

I go to the reservation office across the street.  I wait in line until I get to the teller.

Me: "I would like to book a ticket to Hampi."
New Teller: "You have to go to Bangalore first."
Me: "Okay."
New Teller: "What date?"
Me: "As soon as you can get me into an AC car."

The teller searched around on her computer.

New Teller: "You can go on the 30th."
Me: "Okay.  Now what about going from Bangalore to Hampi?"
New Teller: "Go find a reservation form.  They're at window number nine."
Me: "Okay."

I go to window number nine.  I get a reservation form.  I fill out my personal info and wait in line again.

Me: "Here's my form."
New Teller: "You didn't fill it out."
Me: "I need your help to know which trains I want, and which dates.  I thought you said I could get a seat to Bangalore on the 30th."

The teller searched around in her computer for a bit.

New Teller: "Yes, Bangalore on the 30th."
Me: "So what about going from Bangalore to Hampi?"
New Teller: "Go talk to the people at the inquiry office."
Me: "Why do I have to go talk to the people at the inquiry office?"

The teller shrugged and stopped answering my questions.  This is a skill anyone who is in India picks up (I do it to rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers all the time.  They say, "Just look!" and I pretend I didn't hear).  So I go to the inquiry office.  Guess what comes next?  Guess.  No.  Really.  Guess.  This is an easy one.  I waited in line for a while.

Me: "I need to go from here to Hampi."
Inquiry Office Guy: "There are no tickets."
Me: "Ever?"
Inquiry Office Guy: "No tickets."
Me: "There must be tickets available at some point.  When's the soonest I can go?"
Inquiry Office Guy: "You can buy a waiting list ticket."
Me: "Waiting list tickets are worthless.  I want a confirmed seat."
Inquiry Office Guy: "No tickets."

At this point, all the other people waiting in line jumped into the conversation.  They babbled on for a while saying things that I did not understand.

Guy Behind Me In Line: "You need to talk to the teller at the main station."
Me: "I have already been there.  They sent me here."
Guy Behind Me In Line: "You should talk to the teller at the ticket window."
Me: "She sent me to this guy."

Further discussion with the Inquiry Office Guy ensues.

Guy Behind Me In Line: "You should go to the next office over, to talk to the area manager."
Me: "There's another office?"
GBMIL: "Yes, I'll show you."

We go to the next office over.  We find a room where a bunch of people all listen to GBMIL explain that I need to get a train and then finally a lady says to me:

Lady: "You should come back tomorrow."
Me: "Tomorrow?"
Lady: "Take your chance tomorrow.  Then if you don't get a ticket, the morning after that."
Me: "I don't want to keep coming to the train station every morning.  I'd like to know how to get a confirmed ticket to Hampi."

More consultation.

Dude: "Well, we can't get you a confirmed ticket, but if you buy a not-confirmed ticket we promise that tomorrow we'll make it a confirmed ticket."
Me: "To Hampi?"
Dude: "No, to Bangalore."
Me: "But I'm going to Hampi."
Dude: "We can't help you with that ticket.  We can only help you with a ticket to Bangalore.  You'd have to get off the train and go find someone else to help you there."

I imagined repeating the rigamarole I'd just been through in Bangalore and started thinking to myself that there had to be a better way.  A bus maybe.  I don't know.  Anything.  So I left the train station and took a rickshaw back to the tourist part of town.  I went to about ten different travel agencies.  All of them with big signs in their windows saying, "TRAIN!  BUS!  CAR!  FLIGHT!"  I said, "I need to get to Hampi," to each one.  They all replied, "Take the train."  I said, "There are no tickets.  Is there another way?"  They all said, "No."

At that point I went to lie down for a while.  I'd had enough.  Tomorrow I'm going to see what else I can think of.  I need to get out of here and apparently that's going to be hard.  It's stuff like this that keeps people on the beaten path...try to step away from it and the hassles multiply so fast.  Hampi isn't even that far off the beaten path.  Far enough though.

Seriously.  India needs to buy more trains.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Shimmer of Bubbles

I've just come back from a week on the Andaman Islands - all of which I spent on Havelock Island, where the best scuba diving in India is to be found.  These islands are far off the eastern coast of India, sort of equadistant from India and Thailand, and they're more or less little tropical paradises.  I don't know if you can see in this picture, but there are hundreds of purple trumpet flowers blooming in in the carpet of greenery bordering that white powdery beach, next to the clear turquoise sea:

But I spent most of my time under the water, like this: 

Scuba diving.  The first day I did a refresher course, since I've only done a handful of dives and none in the past few years, in shallow water that looked like a coral graveyard - all the coral gray and shattered, the whole landscape colorless.  Apparently about a year and a half there was a massive, two-month-long heat wave during the hottest months of the year.  All the divemasters had left the islands, closing up shop during the low season, and when they came back the coral was dead.  Two months of unbroken heat had warmed the ocean enough to kill it.  

I didn't want to spend a week staring at dead coral so I did the Advanced Open Water course, which dook me immediately down into the deeper waters, up to 100 feet, where the water had stayed cool during the heat wave and there was plenty to see.  Like this, from Dixon's Point:

Or this school of Moorish Idols: 

Or how about this lionfish: 

 After each dive, we'd sit down and list the fish we'd saw in our logbooks and it would fill a whole page, and we'd still not even begin to cover what we'd seen.  Huge schools of barracuda.  Giant moray eels.  We swam up to one poking his head out into the water, little tiny orange fish swimming in and out of his open mouth.  Seven foot long white-tipped sharks, which we chased around the sea floor for about ten minutes.  Angelfish, anemonefish, butterflyfish, pipefish...pustular varicose slugs and harlequin shrimp.  Fans of purple coral.  We'd be swimming in the middle of five or six schools of fish at any given moment.  It was amazing.

I spent five days diving.  The dive days went like this: wake up at six in the morning, eat breakfast, tug on a wetsuit and get on a boat sometime around seven am.  Take the boat out into the blue blue water, sea spray on either side and wind in our hair, for half an hour, an hour, until we arrived at the dive site.  Put on the rest of the scuba gear, which is clunky and heavy.  Jump in the water.  We tended to have pretty strong currents so the descent and ascent were always the hardest part, stretched out like little underwater supermen while holding onto an anchor line and pulling ourselves down foot by foot.  Then we'd get far enough down for the current to die off and we'd have fifteen, twenty minutes to really look around and enjoy the sights before we had to ascend again.

Another hour in the boat, to get rid of all the nitrogen we'd built up from the first dive, and then we'd go down for the second.  Same deal as before.  At the end of it, despite the fact that we'd mostly been sitting around on a boat and like, flipping our fins every second or two, we'd all be exhausted.  I usually went to bed at eight or eight-thirty, too tired to talk or see straight.

I did one night dive but there was strong current at the site and it was a shallow dive, so there wasn't a whole lot to see.  Sea snakes and crabs.  Well.  One gigantic hermit crab that filled a whole conch shell, which was kind of cool, and the terror of it was interesting.  A lot of people are very calm about these things but I had to force myself into the pitch-dark water with only a single flashlight to see by.  On the way up, near the surface, the three of us turned our flashlights off and waved our fins, making all the plankton flouresce, little firefly glows, which almost made up for the fact that they were stinging plankton and I have little red lashes all over my arms and legs from swimming past them.

Havelock Island also boasts a beach that's in the running for "most beautiful beach in Asia" and I spent my one day above water there.  It was pretty nice, I admit:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

stupid red tape

I'm at the Calcutta International Airport.  It looks kind of like a small regional airport in a town you've never heard of.  I'm going to the Andaman Islands, so I have to fly, and I admit I'd begun looking forward to my flight as an isolated incident of luxury travel against a sea of more or less inconvenient train rides.

I will never, ever let my expectations run away with me like that again.

My flight leaves at 8:30am.  I'm paranoid, so I arrived at the airport at around 5:45am (it's no coincidence that I'm cranky - third day in a row that I've had to get up early for the sake of onward travel).  Indians seem to be even more afraid of terrorism than Americans, probably because they have more incidents than we do, and like Americans they've responded with a whole lot of mostly ridiculous red tape.

Example number one: I have a multiple-entry visa but I can't leave the country.  If I cross the border into any other country (I'd hoped to visit Nepal), I have to wait two months before I re-enter India.  No thanks.

Example number two: I showed up at the airport to check-in only to be told by a gun-toting soldier at the sliding glass entry doors that I couldn't enter the airport without a printed ticket.  The GoAir ticket counter sits inside these glass doors, thus, I couldn't go check-in to get a printout or ticket.  I booted up my computer and used my USB dongle to call up the e-ticket I'd been sent via email but the soldiers all said no, no, that didn't count.  Upon further questioning it became clear that if I could print out the screen I was showing them, it would count.  But just looking at my email wouldn't suffice.

So I asked around more and discovered that the domestic terminal of the airport has an internet cafe, where I could call up my ticket and print it out.  I hike all the way to the domestic terminal, where I find out that the same security measures that kept me out of the international terminal remain in place: I can't get in without a printed ticket.  However, says the new gun-toting soldier, I could go buy a visitor's pass, and that would let me in.

So I find the "airport manager's" office, where I pay 30 rupees (about $0.75) for a visitor's pass.  This is not striking me as fancy security but I don't care, I just want to get a printout of my ticket before my plane takes off.

I roll my luggage back to the main entry and show the soldier my pass.  He nods but then tells me that I can't bring my luggage inside the airport.  This is annoying but, at this point, more logical than any of the other hassles I've had to deal with.  I start to chain my luggage to a guard rail when a pair of soldiers approach and tell me that I can't leave my luggage outside.  I have to give it to someone.  I point out that I'm alone and have nobody to give my luggage to and they shrug.

I go back to the airport manager's office and talk to the woman who sold me the visitor's pass.  I look, at that point, like I'm about to panic and the woman is very kind.  She gets up, goes to the main entryway, and convinces the soldiers to let me inside with my luggage.  I feel equal amounts of gratitude and frustration: I am pleased for myself and the increased likelihood of catching my flight; I am displeased by the fact that their security measures are so flimsy.  If there's one thing worse than inconveniencing lots of people for a good reason, it would be inconveniencing lots of people for no reason.

I print out my ticket.  The exact same page that I showed the first gun-toting soldier.  I wheel my way out of the domestic terminal back to the international terminal.  I show the gun-toting soldier my printout.  He waves me through (he does not, by the way, have to collect the printouts).  I check in.

I haven't even gotten on the plane yet, people.  I still have to get to the Andaman Islands, get some sort of a permit on arrival (it's a restricted territory), and then find and take a government ferry to Havelock Island.  I am not looking forward to the rest of the day.

A quick coda: After checking in, I had plenty of time to spare (that's the upside of being paranoid) and I wanted to grab a coffee.  There's one chain of stores here called "Cafe Coffee Day" that brews a decent espresso and I saw one in front of the domestic terminal.  But when I try to leave the airport, I can't.  The gun-toting soldiers won't let me.  No going in and out.

I say I just want to go grab a coffee and come back, and they reply that I should try the coffee shop deeper in the international section of the airport, past immigration.  I say, "Oh, ok," and get in line, only to remember my first example of stupid red tape: if I leave the country, I can't get back in.  Given everything I know of India, walking upstairs to get a cup of coffee would count as leaving the country and I'd be stuck, my trip brought to a premature end.  I decided I didn't need breakfast that badly.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Khajuraho is probably my favorite of the places I've visited in India.  It was clean, peaceful, and the temples - famous for their erotic carvings - are well-tended and more exquisite than I had expected, a true feast for the eyes.  

I took pictures of some sculptures for their sheer brazen raciness, but these were my favorite scenes.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Just pictures this time.  I spent three days in Orchha - a little one-road town between Gwalior and Khajuraho, sleepy and charming and full of tourists.  Plugged my earbuds in and wandered around, which was a lot of fun, and spent a whole day sitting by the river reading.  I wondered at the time if that was the best way to spend a whole day here, but, in retrospect, it absolutely was.  The only downside were the two guys who sat on a rail across from me for several hours, trying to peek up my skirt, but they did give up and go away eventually.

 I have since learned, at my vist to the Darjeeling zoo, that this is an Alexandrine parakeet.  I also saw (and took pictures of) the much rarer white vulture which inhabits the fort.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


If there is one thing I have learned about the Indian rail system, it's this: book in advance.  The country is densely gridded with tracks, but there aren't nearly as many trains as there are people wanting to get on them.

My first trip took me between Delhi and Gwalior.  I bought a waitlisted ticket, 11 on the list, and actually got a seat.  I've since realized that most waitlisted tickets aren't worth the paper that they're printed on.  And it was in 1st class ("AC class"), so I had a whole berth to myself in a nice quiet car. I really had no idea how lucky I was.

I took a short hop on the unreserved seats between Orchha and Khajuraho.  Those are the cars you see in movies sometimes, with twenty faces bobbing at every open, barred window and five or six people crammed into the little vestibule, probably standing on a sack of onions.  I'd attached myself to a pair of French tourists that I've since crossed paths with in Varanasi and Darjeeling, and we found an ally who bullied the other passengers into making room for us.  For a short, three hour trip, it wasn't so bad.

For a long, twelve-hour trip, however, it was torture.  Because I tried to book a train between Khajuraho and Varanasi and, after my earlier experience, took a chance with a waitlisted ticket.  It was cancelled, there were no seats in any of the other cars, and I ended up in the unreserved cars again.  Alone this time.  I made half the journey in the "family" car, with women and children who were pretty nice, actually.  One of the women moved her baby from where it spawled on the seat so I could sit down, and if I was surrounded by twelve people in a space meant to hold six, well, at least they were nice, polite people.  But then I had to transfer in Allahabad and I got into a general seating car where I sat clutching my purse, surrounded by men, feeling prickly and uncomfortable for four more hours.  I didn't eat or drink the whole time, from sunup past sundown, and the whole experience was pretty hellish.

After that, I decided I'd learned my lesson.  I went back to the station at Varanasi the next morning and booked as many onward tickets as I could.  When I arrived at the station for my trip to Darjeeling I was feeling pretty smug about it, too, thinking that I'd get on a 9pm train, have a nice sleep in my 3AC berth, and wake up in time to freshen up before the train rolled to a stop in New Jalpaiguri, from where I'd have to catch a shared jeep the remaining distance north to Darjeeling.

So, naturally, the train was late.  Not just my train, either.  The whole station filled up with people who laid out blankets and filled up the main booking hall and every waiting area, sleeping and chatting away the hours.  I'd see people tucked against walls, blanketed from head to toes, looking like corpses.  At first the enquiry agents made some attempt to keep everyone posted about the delays, but eventually it got late and they abandoned their posts.

I hooked up with a few other tourists so we could all pool information.  We settled down in the first class waiting room, which was definitely the nicest place to wait in the station, but that wasn't saying much.  It was pretty grubby, attached to a pair of bathrooms that sent out a nice reek every time anyone opened the door - the sink was broken, so no water, and actually, one of the bathrooms wasn't so much a bathroom as a shower that had been rather sloppily converted to its present use - and a pair of rats that would peek out into the waiting room every minute or two through a convenient notch in the bottom of the bathroom door.  They'd creep into the room, someone would wave something or slap their feet against the floor to send the rats scurrying in another direction, and the process would repeat with until the rats retreated to the bathroom to regroup for their next attempt.

I spent six hours in that room.

I've been keeping pretty early hours - traveling alone, as a woman, I'd be unwise to dive into the nightlife - so as the clock crept toward midnight I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open.  A couple of the other tourists fell asleep but a few of us had to remain awake because the only updates we were getting about the trains were through overhead announcements, tinny and hard to understand.  The only thing any of us could ever really decipher from these announcements were the train numbers, a series of four or five digits, and so we had to keep one ear on this constant staticky babble, listening for numbers amidst a stream of indecipherable words, waiting to recognize the code that meant our train was about to arrive.

As a final note about the Mughal Sarai train station: all of the ads on the walls were for undershirts.  So if I were, say, trotting between the waiting room and the enquiry office I'd see the rats, then these pictures of men in wifebeaters, one brand after another, then hundreds of people all asleep in the main hall, then this board telling me my train had been delayed yet again.

So yeah.  The train finally arrived at two-thirty in the morning.  It racked up a few extra hours of delay en route and dropped us in New Jalpaiguri at 8pm instead of 1:30.  We stumbled into Siliguri and had to pay through the nose to get a pair of teenagers - literally, they were both under 18 - to drive us up the steep, twisting roads, in the dark, to Darjeeling.

I spent all of yesterday recovering.  Today too, to be honest.  Luckily, the weather here is bad, cloudy and rainy.  On a clear day, there are points nearby from where you can see Everest.  Until the weather changes, though, I'm not missing anything.  As far as I can tell, there are no mountains here at all.  Just fog.