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Eating like Pigs in Kolkata / Calcutta

This may appear to be sort of a politically incorrect post, considering how little a lot of people have to eat in India, but today we ate a sumptuous buffet lunch at one of the very best hotels in Kolkata - the Oberoi Grand. We really needed it. After a second quite uncomfortable night, especially for Marsha, at the very inexpensive, basic Salvation Army Guest House, we spent our accommodation savings and then quite some on a wonderful wonderful lunch. After which, we felt calm and rested enough to face a browse through a totally busy market on the sidewalk of Kolkata'a main drag. I do not feel guilty at all.

Who should feel guilty is the strange person who decided to change the name of Calcutta to Kolkata. Now, there is a lesson in abstract vanity. People really starve here and the name change cost millions I am sure - all signs, stationery, etc. I gotta wonder.....and they don't have the excuse of being shellshocked travellers.

The Varanasi Eight-Step

Our few days in Varanasi kept to a pretty strict routine.
1) Marvel at the incredible noisy traffic outside the hotel.
2) Hire a rickshaw to take us to the Keshari restaurant in a crazy alley near the Ganges (atlhough from the restaurant, the Ganges was invisible)
3) Eat wonderful vegetarian food.
4) Get hassled by various vendors and 'touts' in the street.
5) Take rickshaw down very crowded road back to hotel.
6) Go online
7) Watch movies on tv in hotel room.
8) Sleep.

Thank God we're in Calcutta

After Varanassi, the rest of India should be a piece of cake...That place was...well we had been forewarned...Like I said all I wanted to do was move forward. We took an overnight train and arrived here early this morning. I find it very interesting that there seemed to be no women in our train car. Arjun was quickly surrounded by 4 men who were up for a discussion on India, Canada and travel. I find it rather lonely when these men greet Arjun in such a friendly way, politely acknowledge my existence and then proceed to talk mainly to Arjun. They offer me food of course, but the discussion seems to be for the men. Once again the harrassment that I expect at some of these train stations just didn't happen as one gentleman very kindly arranged a taxi and accompanied us to our guest house. Calcutta has a different feel to it than the other cities that we've visited - a lot more European, a lot more relaxed. We visited Arjun's aunt's house for lunch and I showed her our guidebook. she knew of and recommended some of the same restaurants. Then we went to our guesthouse and the surrounding shopping area. It really is a relief to see the locals out shopping and eating in the places where the tourists go. Uncle Max, thank you for your words of encouragement...I will the way why in Canada do we use aunt and uncle before a person's name, but here the words aunt and uncle follow the name?

Marsha's thoughts India -two

We are now in Varanassi. This is the dirtiest, noisiest and ugliest city I've ever been to....and if I could think of anymore superlatives I would add them on. It is cooler here now as it is raining...Doesn't matter as we are heading to Calcutta tonight. I like taking the trains. We took an overnight train from Agra to here and were 7hours late getting in. I woke up at about 5 in the morning realizing that we weren't moving and hadn't moved in quite a while. When we finally got going, three children came to talk to us. They wanted to see Canadian coins. I let them take a look at what I had and let each of them choose one that they wanted. All in all it was about 2.50$. The girl gave me a 2 rupee (5 cents) coin which was fine with me. Their mother made sure we had tea and toast. The kids questioned us about all kinds of things. We chatted and laughed. Sure made the time go a lot faster. At the train station, Arjun and I were attacked by all kinds of people who wanted to take us to all kinds of places...This family stood by to make sure we got a taxi to our hotel at a reasonable price. Now that I'm at the hotel and I think back on that long train ride, it turns out I got the better exchange rate in the end.

marsha's first impressions of India

Well I'm not in Kansas anymore that's for sure!!! We've been in India for two weeks now. The first week we spent in Ludhiana visiting Arjun's grandmother and getting fat!!! The food was incredible. For every afternoon tea, Arjun's grandmother had something new for us to try...gulab jaman, jellybi, samosas...Then it was on to Delhi to stay with Manju Aunty. Again we were in luxury and treated like royalty. Reality hit the first day on our own. We headed to Agra. Naveen Uncle picked us up at that trainstation and helped us find our guesthouse. After a rest, we walked through the busy streets to Agra Fort where we met Uncle's driver. We went to Uncle's 500 yr old home for an incredible lunch. 500 yrs here in India isn't much but for those of us from a newly established country...That was it for the day...The next day we went to the Taj Mahal. That place really is something to see...Just getting through the door was a harrassing experience...postcards, guides, can't bring in this or that....During these first days, I was ready to pack up,head to Delhi, book a plane ticket and come home. The heat and humidity alone were enough...add to that the new culture, language barrier, the constant hassle from various "wallahs" for a rickshaw, postcards...ahhhhh.........Since then just been hanging out...I'm getting more acclimatized to everything it seems...I can do more than one or two things a helps that we have had an airconditioned room to retreat to whenever things get too heated. The streets and the bazaars are really something to see. It is the only place in the world (that I know of) where pedestrians, bikes, cars, scooters, cows, dogs, goats, pigs, horses, camels, and even an elephant can move, work and co-exist....The poverty here is shocking...I feel guilty eating when young women with children are standing, watching with their hands out. From the trains, you can see tent towns...literally rows of pup tents along the tracks where people live. Children working during what we consider school time. Even though school only costs 5-10$/month, food is also a huge consideration. We settled our bill this morning 4 days at $50 food, room, phonecalls...A king's ransom to some of these people. Things we take for granted at home. We are heading to Varanassi tonight...considering what I've read in the guide books about this place, I hope I'm really acclimatized. However, I'm determined to move forward and succeed in travelling around India. I've wanted to do this for a long time and I'm not going to give in at this early stage.

Wonderful Host in Agra - Uncle Naveen

We were very fortunate when we arrived on the train to Agra to be met by a cousin of a close family friends. I expected the hassle of having to arrange a taxi or scooter rickshaw to our accommodation. But there was the smiling, polite person of Uncle Naveen there on the train platform. He was such a wonderful host for us in Agra. The first day, his wife made us all one of the very best meals I have ever had...Marsha agreed. We ate far too much. Oh yes, Uncle Naveen also lives in a house that is over 500 years old. Since 1857, his family has lived in that house (they bought in an auction from the British colonialiasts) High ceilings and very large rooms define the part of the house built in the British period. The downstairs of the house, much older, looks like a mini Taj Mahal. Incredible gold gilded and brightly painted ceilings, marble columns in the Mughal style.

A couple of days after our visit with Uncle and his family at their house, Uncle took us for a little shopping and tour of Agra. He was a huge help in buying Marble curios, getting us half price off the sticker price on the items. He bougt us ice cream and Indian style lemonade (Nimboo Pani), refusing to even entertain the notion that we pay for any of it. He helped us by postcards and a book (again, at a large discount).

Uncle Naveen is in the custom stonework and marble work business. He has worked on some of the most upscale hotels in India, including likely the very best hotel in Agra, the Oberoi Amar Villas. He showed us some of the work he did at this hotel. Huge stone torches that light up the hotel driveway at night, two massive ornate stone elephants that frame the entrance, and intricate stonework around the serene network of pools. His main business is export.

An incredibly hospitable, competent man!

Our Visit to the Taj Mahal

Despite all the trials and tribulations mentioned in the post below, the Taj is certainly certainly worth it. An incredibly majestic structure. Hire a guide who speaks good english or read up on the history and architrecture before visiting. Certainly makes the experience more rich and interesting. Hiring a suitable guide may be a little bit of a problem....we hired ours near the entrance to the Taj and his english was not so good. I might suggest asking a guesthouse or hotel for suggestions. The better hotels may be better equiped to probably don't have to be staying at one to find about good guides. In any case, my two cents.

Hot and Humid in the City of the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful structures on this planet and that is what brought us to this city called Agra from where I currently write this post. But Agra for us has been so much more. This is the 'real' first stop in our travels through India, having been sheltered the first 10 days in India by family and close friends. We actually have a close family friend in Agra but we have not stayed with them. This has been a good thing. The first day in Agra we took a walk through the city which I can only describe as really really chaotic. Cars, people (some so incredibly poor), cows, rickshaws all passing through very narrow, very filthy lanes. The worst part for me was the buses, menacing as they often rumble right at you, horns shrieking in a incredibly high pitch shrill. And the weather. Well, these are the hottest and humidest days I likely have ever seen. I am pretty much drenched still as I sit here now.

What does this all mean for me and Marsha, just as we begin our journey of the next almost 3 months. Marsha was shocked and, for a while, upended by our first day in Agra. In fact, she said she was seriously considering flying home on the next flight. Over the past few days, we have met other travellers at our wonderful guest house, the Tourist Rest House. We have mulled over going North, sort of contrary to our prior plan, to escape the heat and humidity, at least for a while. Finally and in the end, we have come to a decision that makes me quite proud and happy. We are not going to let some of the challenges we have faced in Agra deter us from our plan when we got to Agra. We are going to Varanasi to see the Ganges. We have been discouraged by many.....(big electricity brownout, post continues sometime later) visit Varanasi but it is also some place Marsha has wanted to see. So we go!

A Day in New Delhi

Arrived in New Delhi yesterday morning after a glorious week at my Grandmother's house. What follows is a short summary of our day:

1) Slept in a little due to lack of sleep night before (we had to catch early morning train morning before).
2) Very gracious hosts (very close friends of my mother) offer their driver to us to take us to train booking office nearby.
3) First experience of crazy New Delhi traffic today.
4) Reserved train to Agra to see Taj Mahal and other Agra places of note. No hassle, very quickly done.
5) First Delhi Scooter Rickshaw ride - negotiated partially successfully: 10 rupees less, but still paid a little more than local/ Paid a lot less than North America though.
6) Much crazier traffic experience than in #3. Open sides to rickshaw and rickshaw driver always wanted to beat everyone else.
7) Met an Uncle and Aunt who were contemporaries of my grandparents. Some of the very best people I know in the world - Butalia family. Uncle and Auntie took us for a wonderful lunch at the very longstanding and exclusive Delhi Gymkhana Club. This club originated in 1913 by the British colonials, now social and sporting centre to some of Delhi's most interesting people. Marsha had to go in stocking feet, because they would not let her wear runners.
8) Dropped off at Fab India store so Marsha could buy some Indian style Salvaar Kameez. Very down to earth and comprehensive operation. Lots of imitators but this place is not losing steam. Many shoppers in the store while we were there. Actually, there were three Fab India stores in the same market - each offering different products. Quite amazing, very reasonably priced.
9) Second Delhi scooter ride. This time 50 rupees but driver almost crashed three times. You can say this was a nuch crazier traffic experience than #6. Even still, I somewho knew we would be fine.
10) Back to our host's home. Such great people. Marsha had a shower and I got Auntie's help in booking a guesthoue in Agra.
11) Now, about to log off this computer at a broadband Internet cafe (finally!) in up scale shopping area of New Delhi. Apparently this is a chain all over India and that is a good thing.