Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy Journey! or, India: The Awesome List

"Happy Journey" is a thing they say a lot in India. (Well, as much as we say "Bon Voyage", I guess.)

And so it was! A whirlwind tour through 8 cities in 13 days, in 3 parts. First, I met up with Catie in Guwahati and took a taxi to Shillong, where I hung out with her host family in Shillong, their parents in the nearby village of Kharang, and the orphanage she's working at (also in Kharang). Next, Catie and I set off for a quick trip through Kolkata, Bodh Gaya, Varanasi, Sarnath, and Agra, tourist-style. Finally, we ended up in the outskirts of Gurgaon, just south of Delhi, where we spent a few days with her friends there and a couple days in Delhi itself.

India is awesome, gross, enlightening, and confusing. We decided that we'd both be happy if the "awesome" or "confusing" list won, and indeed, the latter did. So I'll share with you the awesome list now, interspersed with the gross and enlightening lists as appropriate. And I'll split it into three parts, so it's a little shorter for you to read, but so I don't have to lose out on completeness.

AWESOME LIST (aka a quick summary of our trip), which I will split into three parts:

PART THE FIRST: Northeast India
  • flying to India. It was nice, even! I had two flights, with a 3 hour layover; total travel time maybe 24 hours? In the first one, they had the little seat-back movie screens, and those make a heck of a lot of difference. You almost want the flight to take longer so you can watch more movies. I watched "Finding Nemo" and "Speed", two movies I had really missed out on. Plus, first flight I've ever had free beer!
  • more interesting travel: taxiing through hilly Assam and Meghalaya (with a stop for tea, of course)
  • staying with the wonderfully kind and hospitable family of Barri and Nangroi, although Nangroi wasn't there; it was sort of the family of Barri, Dari, Khlur, Banjop, and many others who would be there sometimes or not. They were super nice! Apparently I was too tall for their spare bed, so they made me a bed on the floor. I was kinda the tallest person in the entire state.
  • the markets of Shillong. Well, the markets of anywhere, you know? Sprawling webs of narrow alleys, unusual things for sale, uh, fake American goods. Whatever. Markets are neat and Shillong's were no exception.
  • taking a sumo to Kharang. A sumo is a big van-truck that seats about 12, which means it seats about 24. It leaves at 1:00, except it usually doesn't actually leave until 2:00, but once in a while it leaves at 12:00. We got there at 1 and it left at 2. Which gave us time to sample...
  • Indian sweets. It's a thing. Sweet shops are abundant, but instead of stocking prewrapped candy, they sell freshly-made really interesting stuff. And, you know, for like Rs5 each. ($1 = Rs50) We had some ladoo and barfi there, but neither was as good as the soan papdi we had a couple other places. I'm a fan.
  • the countryside around Kharang. It's some really ideal combination of rocks, hills, trees, rivers (or riverbeds), and crops. And the occasional mysterious prehistoric monolithic stone. No lies.
  • the family in Kharang that we stayed with. Mei and Pa, we called them; Nangroi's parents. (or Barri's? I don't know) Again, super nice. Made us food and tea all the time. I felt like a lazy guest in these places, but they insisted they didn't need help with anything.
  • Cell phone internet. Do you have an iphone or something? Can you "tether" it to your computer? (connect your computer to the internet through your phone when your phone gets 'net but your computer doesn't) No, I can't either. But people in rural India can! American phone companies, get on that.
  • Bucket baths. Try it sometime, get a bucket of hot water, a bucket of cool water, and a little dipper cup, and take a bath. It's not hard, and it probably saves water.
  • Tea and biscuits. Or at least tea. We drank tea often, as a thing to do when not doing anything else. It's nice. Relaxing. Downside: the tea was always full of milk and sugar. (or maybe that's an upside, your call.) Upside: tea was always accompanied by "biscuits"... they're sold like cookies, but they're not as sweet; they walk a line between cookie and cracker, and there are tons of varieties. Downside: I mean, these things are just white flour, sugar, and hydrogenated vegetable oils. But you only eat a little bit. This is cognitive dissonance: I hate unhealthy packaged things, but I like things with lots of varieties. Well, tea's good, anyway!
PART THE SECOND: Tourist blatz from Shillong to Delhi
  • Flights from Catie's magic travel agent from Guwahati to Kolkata, then Kolkata to Gaya. He got us to Gaya relatively quickly. Gaya has a tiny airport. How did we fly there? I'm telling you, magic travel agent. (he wears a turban and makes you feel very much at ease. I liked this guy.)
  • I mean, Kolkata (Calcutta) was cool too. It wasn't on our original itinerary, so we didn't know what to do really, but we spent a good day there.
  • Gross +1: Kolkata was super hot and sticky. Way a lot.
  • Gross +1 more: saw a roach in our hotel room. I note this because it was the only one we saw the whole time we were in India. Even when you're staying pretty cheap, the rooms are generally bug-free. This is nice!
  • Coolest thing in Kolkata: the Kali temple. It was super kinda nightmarish. We got there at night, there were bells ringing, and the center of the temple was surrounded by walls except for one place you could see this sorta evil-looking face. Unfortunately, we were ushered through by a temple scammer, but more on that later.
  • Enlightenment +1: it was a Hindu temple. Only 28943 other religions to go!
  • The Mahabodhi temple. With a descendent of The Actual Bodhi Tree! Where the Buddha reached nirvana! +1 enlightenment for sure!
  • Giant 80-foot statue of Buddha. Partially hollow. Filled with 20000 more Buddha statues. +20000 enlightenment, although I'll settle for +1.
  • Varanasi: home of the Ganges. Enlightenment +1 more.
  • Did I mention how alleys and markets are cool? Varanasi sure has them.
  • At one point we wandered into an ashram. The people welcomed us in, showed us around, gave us some food (a really tasty turmeric rice thing) and a book about yoga. We kept waiting for them to badger us for a donation. They never did! They weren't like everyone else who showed us sudden and surprising kindness! How nice!
  • There's a temple there too that has the Hindi translation of the Ramayana on the walls. That's cool.
  • Night train to Agra. We met a few very friendly Muslim students. They gave us food and we all laughed at our inability to communicate. Good fun for all. An overnight trip on a train: $5 per person.
  • And then okay the Taj Mahal. Yes it is really that big, and yes you should see it. I mean, no religious experience or anything, but it was pretty cool.
  • We spent our day in Agra with a Swedishman named Alexander. I love befriending solo travelers. It makes things more interesting for you and much better for the traveler. I suppose I have a little empathy. (but not like this guy: he was spending a month and a half in India by himself! I don't have that kind of guts...)
  • Und zo... we took the "chair car" on the train to Delhi. (the cheap seats were full.) Apparently "chair car" means you get a comfy chair and they feed you a meal, even on a 2 hour trip.
PART THE THIRD: Delhi and suburbs
  • We spent two and a half days near Gurgaon. It is the new India. Huge fancy swanky new apartment buildings tossed into the desert like big rocks. And then, huge fancy swanky new office buildings. But if you have a place to live and a place to work, where do you hang out? Answer: at the huge fancy swanky new malls. (and I'm serious about these. They're like something from the Jetsons.) Ugh.
  • Catie's friends Hemant and Gaurav, and their mother (whose name I never caught, we just called her "Ama"), lived a bit outside this swank, in an old "colony" built by Maruti-Suzuki for their workers. They were really cool! 20 and 22 years old, they work in call centers. Talking about work was a lot of fun. We're all techies, just on other ends of the globe! Well, maybe not techies: Hemant is sort of an HR manager at a Capital One call center. But Gaurav is a call center guy at Dell and he wants to learn more about server management. That's neat.
  • Holi! Where you put colored powder on people's faces and throw colored water at them! We celebrated in their village, it was really fun. Lots of dancing and ceremony too.
  • In general, a couple days relaxing was well-needed after the long trip.
  • I'm running out of steam here; this is a long post.
  • The Jama Masjid is the biggest mosque in Asia.
  • The Chandni Chowk is a market in Delhi. Again, markets, cool, wish I had spent more time here.
  • The Lotus Temple is a Baha'i temple. And it's pretty like a lotus.
  • Then we went to the ISKCON temple... more about that later.
  • Last on the monuments list: Humayun's Tomb, which was a little like the Taj Mahal, except smaller and brown.
  • Took a cooking class with an Indian lady.
  • Finally, whittled away our last few hours before I had to catch a flight at the Defense Colony Market, which is just like the US.
  • Why did I just list things that I did here? I'm just going to do it again in the photo album I will post... er... later.

1 comment:

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