I’ll get straight to the point. After spending the Best part of a month travelling the North of India with a dabble of the South, our primary aim for Goa was to achieve as little as possible. For those of you that know me well though, I’m not very good at doing nothing…
Goa is a funny place, where you can literally go from a beach paradise to a psy trance and neon fuelled rave within about a 10minute walk down the beach. Dependent on what part of Goa you stay in though, you can also have either/or if you read up on what’s going on. Either way, it’s the smallest state by a Country mile, the wealthiest, and the most relaxed on alcohol taxation, horray! After a bit of research (and somewhat governed by pre booked train tickets to Goa) we decided to rent an apartment in North Goa in an area called Vagator.
From what we read up about Goa, the North has a little bit more life to it, and the South is pure chill. Because we were hitting Goa in the shoulder season (so half the bars and restaurants aren’t open or even built), we thought we should probably explore the north where there’s likely to be a little more going on. This was probably a very sensible recommendation from Kelly as I probably would have lost my shit in the south doing absolutely nothing for a week… Vagator is a short drive down the coast from Anjuna, a popular stop for party goers and is synonymous for its beautiful coastline. We ended up hiring an Airbnb as we’d managed to save a bit of our budget in Kerala not getting a massive houseboat. It was so nice to have our own place for the best part of a week!
So, before we could achieve nothing, we needed to scope out the surrounding area. We ended up hiring a scooter for 3 days which was AWESOME! The public transport in Goa isn’t as good as other areas we’ve been, and to be honest having the freedom to just go for a ride was rather refreshing. DON’T WORRY PARENTS, WE BOTH WORE HELMETS!
We spent day 1 driving around Vagator, Anjuna, and Chapora, checking out the sights, beaches, bars, and hopefully party venues. We kinda lucked out to be honest, our local beach (a very casual ten minute stroll from our apartment) was beautiful, and at low tide opened up to uncover some really secluded areas of coastline that made you think you had the whole place to yourself!
Alongside this, we discovered a quality venue called Curlies on a private beach between at the end of Anjuna. We ended up falling in love with this place a little as it literally offered everything we wanted, so went back probably 4 times over the week!
We again lucked out; a five minute stroll in the same direction to the local beach was a bar called mango tree, that sold a decent array of cocktails and large kingfisher for 120INR (so all of a quid, dependent on how the Brexit barometer is swinging).
All in all, a good find. As you can see, day one consisted of a distinct lack of doing nothing..
Day 2 of doing nothing consisted of riding to the local city called Panjim. This was kinda my fault as I got a little excited when filling up the bike and ended up filling it completely! Our first day of driving around used a grand total of about £1 of fuel so we still had a full tank left which I was reluctant to just donate to someone else.
What I quickly realised is when people said Goa moves slow, they meant in every way! Yes, the whole attitude is very chilled, but it took us an hour to drive 20km; when you’re riding on roads they are riddled without holes, there are large chunks of dirt tracks, and obviously, the roads are very busy Around the city. I must say, riding into a city in India on a moped is an experience Kelly and I won’t forget anytime soon.
We spent the day exploring the old quarter of Panjim; renowned for its Portuguese architecture and traditional vibes, alongside it’s strongly Christian heritage. I must say, it didn’t disappoint. This part of Goa really stood out as feeling different to everywhere else we’d seen. The whole area could have been in Portugal to be honest: the architecture really did make it stand out. I was determined to find the perfect vindaloo (I’ll write a separate blog about this), and the quest started at a wonderful hotel in the old quarter called Hotel Venite. I was somewhat apprehensive as this was highly recommend by lonely planet which sadly has let me down on other occasions, but this place absolutely delivered! If you’re in Panjim, just find it and go, you won’t be disappointed. Kelly and I both had traditional Goan meals and didn’t leave a drop on our plates.
The rest of the day was spent driving along the coastline to Aguada, another coastal area with a coastal fort. To be honest, I would have been happy riding along the coastal roads all day; the sights were truly stunning.
Again, another failure at doing nothing.
Day 3 we decided to actually do nothing, including spending money! We went to the local beach and just read, all day, achieving nothing apart from reducing the impact of my terrible tank top tan lines. Work in progress…
We went out for lunch and dinner again furthering our quest to find the perfect vindaloo. Unfortunately my attempt this day resulted in a perfect example of how NOT to make one. Can’t win them all I guess…
Day 4 We really achieved nothing. Sadly Kelly and I got ill again, and spent the day in bed trying to not feel sorry for ourselves. I blame the vindaloo from the day before 😭
Fortunately on day 5 we were feeling human again!
We decided to hire a bike again, and went to Curlies early. By about 11 we were both on the beach, Kindles in hand, listening to the sea. Bliss! The reason we loved this place so much is it offered everything. All day long they played chilled Hed Kandi style chillout tunes, with awesome and friendly staff, great food, a great array of drinks, and all enclosed in a very cool venue with stuff to keep everyone happy: add a private beach to that and we were laughing!
We ended up staying there till about 930pm as we thought there was a Psy Trance night on (plus I’ve wanted to see the sunset over the ocean this whole trip). Apparently we were wrong sadly; as everyone lines up for Diwali the party for the week was shifted to the following night when we’d be on a sleeper train to Bombay. Neither of us were amused, but as we still didn’t feel 100% we got over this quickly.
To finish off our Goan experience we spent the last day at our local beach just taking in the sights before heading off on our sleeper to Bombay. It was such a lovely beach it felt like a great way to end our beach bum life for a bit…
I really wish we had booked two weeks in Goa to be honest. The beauty of the beaches was astounding, and the relaxed atmosphere was a breath of fresh air for us both, but we just want a little bit more. Even though we failed at achieving nothing the whole time, we got the level about right to manage my sanity levels. Obviously being sick in the middle didn’t help, but you can’t win them all….
I’m almost certain India is out to break us!
Now, our final stop in India is in Bombay (Mumbai). We’ve booked to stay with a family in Versova beach to get a proper experience of Diwali, which starts tomorrow. If we make it out of here alive, we leave India on the 2nd and head to Vietnam. I’ll be writing about Diwali on the plane I’m sure, but also a separate blog about India overall. It’s such a magical place I kinda want to reflect on it in its entirety.
Exec summary: Kerala is cool, the backwaters are a must do, Indian hospitals are really good, we don’t like rabid dogs, and everywhere is different.
After the ordeal Kelly and I had experienced at the end of our North Indian adventures, we were looking forward to exploring the South more than ever! Everything I’ve read over the pre-travel period made Kerala (and the rest of the south) sound like a totally different experience to anything in the North of India: to be honest, everything I read was right! Over a week we managed to explore Trivandum, Alleppey and Kerala, 3 of the major points of interest in this absolutely vast state, yet we still managed to miss so much. Probably should have planned longer in India methinks….
Kerala is a rather unique area of India; the Portuguese colonised the area hundreds of years back alongside Goa, and many parts of Kerala were key trade routes for the Chinese, British, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish, and you can really tell in so many areas! The architecture around is again, totally different to what we’ve seen before, and again is really beautiful. But what I found more varied from the other areas we’ve been are the people. Literally everyone I met and spoke to was lovely, accommodating, thoughtful and welcoming. Kelly and I have spent the last three weeks getting some rather interesting looks in some areas, and whilst this still continued to a point it was far less threatening, and instead of pointing or giggling the kids tended to actually talk to us! Kerala on the whole is also a much more Christian and Catholic area than the more traditional Hindu population of the north , with quirkily designed churches all over the place. Just like in Varanasi you can really feel the impact that religion has on the whole area, and in a really good way.
Another big change is the climate. It is humid AF down here! The climate is much more akin to that of a tropical island, and it really shows, with a fantastic array of fruit trees growing all over the place, and palm trees everywhere you look! I think this is a key reason why I loved Kerala so much to be honest; everything felt so much more chilled (apart from the climate obviously) and the general scenery was so much greener and vibrant than other places we’ve visited, a total paradigm shift you may say.
Each area of Kerala was totally different from the other, so I’m going to write about each one separately.
Trivandum is the capital city of Kerala. It’s known more by backpackers as a port of call rather than a must see destination. We flew into Trivandum straight from Delhi, where we were greeted by our latest Couchsurfing host, Rahul.
I got chatting to Rahul via CS months ago as we were both new to it, and had a shared love of music and some very specific musicians (i.e. Guthrie Govan). From the moment he picked us up I felt like I was linking up with a friend I hadn’t seen for years. He took us straight to coconut stall to try tender coconut (TOTALLY different from the coconut you’ll eat in the UK, the flesh is more slimy with a texture like squid). The coconut was so fresh from the tree the liquid inside was still warm! Following this we went to a toddy shop to try the local Keralan booze, a coconut beer (toddy). Kelly and I both surprisingly really liked this; It’s somewhere in between a beer and cider coconut drink which is made from the sap of the coconut tree (not the fruit as many people think).
The Keralan government are trying to curtail the rampant alcoholism that is found across Kerala so have actually closed most bars and a huge proportion of toddy shops so I was really privileged to get to try this. After this we went to explore the local and famous Kollam beach, which was absolutely stunning, I’ve never seen waves like it!
Following this we went back to his to meet his family, sample some more local food including tapioca which was different but damn tasty, before heading out for dinner. Unfortunately I started to feel unwell again so couldn’t really eat, but I’m informed the food was awesome.
Sadly that night both Kelly and I took a turn for the worse and ended up barely sleeping. The next morning we were due to go and explore the city very early but we had to bail. Rahul persuaded us that we should go to hospital due to the duration of our illness. At this point I had images of spending days in a squalid cess pit of a hospital and getting sicker rather than better, but this couldn’t have been further from the truth!
Rahul kindly drove us to the hospital, where we registered and had seen a doctor within 90mins. He diagnosed us with a parasite called Giardiasis; nasty little fecker! Within another 90 mins we were both hooked up to an IV and being pumped with fluids to combat our severe dehydration. Two hours later we were out, armed with a barrage of powerful antibiotics and other drugs to kill this pesky bug once and for all. The experience at this hospital was outstanding from start to finish and I can’t thank Rahul enough for all his help. The whole trip also cost us about £30 so didn’t cripple the budget (well, it didn’t help it that’s for sure)! We weren’t feeling 100% still so went back to the house and basically went to bed: another day ruined 😦
The following day we braved the outdoors and ventured out to finally see the sites around the city. We started by going to Poonar beach which was stunning. I even got involved helping the locals pull in the MAHOOOOOOOOSIVE fishing nets, NOT an easy thing to do with the fierce strength of the tide there. The beach was impressively clean and sat next to mangroves and a small estuary, both riddled with a gorgeous array of wildlife and in particular birds. Following this we ventured north to the wildlife sanctuary, about a 70km drive. Unfortunately when we arrived the centre was closed (you learn to get used to the random closing times and days here) so we just enjoyed the tranquil scenery of rolling mountains and forest land. We did manage to get a boat around the sanctuary (based on an island to stop the big cats escaping) but sadly managed to see absolutely nothing! Regardless it was a lovely day out and Rahul again earned legendary status.
Now the big thing for me was the food I ate that day. I was absolutely desperate to eat proper Keralan cuisine so Rahul took us to his favourite place. I ordered a vegetable thali and the classic Keralan fish masala cooked in a pandan leaf (called Meen Pollichathu). It goes without saying really, this is by far the best thing I’ve eaten in India so far! The closest recipe I’ve found is here, and I WILL be making this back in the UK in a years time alongside all the recipes I got from Rahuls mum (friends, be expected to be my test dummies for weeks)!
Rahul absolutely made this trip. When we felt like shite, he was supportive and helpful. We spent hours talking about the world, the local area, and even more time discussing and sharing music. He’s shown me a whole new world of Indian fusion music that I can’t wait to explore more. Rahul, there’s always a bed at my place for you in the UK, and get your arse to Canada and live the dream!
One word….. BACKWATERS!!!
Upon arriving at our beachside hostel we booked onto a day exploring the backwaters, an apparent must see and India top thing to do. We’d budgeted to book a private boat and an overnight stay, but following conversations with other backpackers we decided to book a day trip on a canoe manned by a local villager, and I am SO GLAD WE LISTENED! We had initially planned to spend a day bartering with every houseboat owner for the best price, but obviously didn’t need to do this, so we went for a walk along the beautiful stretch of beach bordered by coconut trees and not a high-rise hotel in sight. A close encounter with some aggressive dogs soon brought us back to reality with a bang though, so people still be careful around the local wildlife when travelling.
Sadly, the backwater trips are now so world renowned the market has become utterly saturated by bloody great houseboats all choking diesel fumes into the streams, and the average price has skyrocketed to astronomical levels that only westerners can afford. Regardless of the personal ethics I felt around this, exploring the tiny alleys on a canoe I helped paddle, with some awesome people, was a day I’ll never forget. More importantly we managed to get down the narrow avenues in the backwaters to really see the sites and also managed a quick pit stop for fresh coconut and pineapple and another toddy shop. Again, we got to experience some fantastic local food (cooked by our captains wonderfully hospitable wife) and overall had a wonderful day. If you ever go to India, just do one of these trips!
Perhaps what made this day even better were the awesome people in our hostel. We formed a big group and went out for dinner, and spent the rest of the evening just chatting. I’m hoping they are all reading this, and if you are, I feel honoured to have met you all and made such great memories. Good luck on your adventures and I hope our paths cross again.
Our final stop in Kerala, Kochin (Cochi) is a city renowned for its bazaars, love of art, Portuguese architecture and historical Chinese fishing nets. Like many other Keralan cities, Kochin was built on trade with other nations, and this is wholly apparent today. From the other side of the beach is a bloody great port still pulling in goods from across the world. Whilst this killed the beauty somewhat is was Interesting to see that the history lived on somewhat.
Perhaps the best bits for me of Kochin were the unexpected bits. For example we got soaked in a monsoon tail end storm on our first night, which I actually really enjoyed! To escape the rain we ran into a Tibetan restaurant which turned out to be outstanding! Our hostel Namasthe (Fort Cochin) was the best I’ve stayed in by far so far in India and the bazaars were actually nice to walk around without getting aggressively hassled. We may have even bought some jewellery each (i bought a silver bangle for me, and an anklet for Kelly, so we’re both proper Indian travel hipsters now)!
On our last few hours in Kochin, we went on an exploration of the old trade alleys and the Jewish quarters. Seeing the classic areas of a city away from tourist traps is one of my favourite things to do, and this didn’t disappoint. The trade of spices, teas, oils and art is still lively around the city, and it’s really great to see.
A final goodbye to a dear old friend.
Sadly, we ended our Kerala trip with some bad news. Buster, my furry buddy since 2000 had to be put to sleep today. As my mum so eloquently put it, “His farts smelled like mustard gas and there’s not a door frame in the house that doesn’t bare his scars, but he was an absolute legend and we loved him”. Buster was a one in a million dog, and everyone who met him loved him. He’s had a great life and an even better innings. Sleep well buddy! Give them rabbits in the sky some shit, and say hi to Penny, Jazz, and Milly for us xxx
So now, we travel to Goa to chill the f*** out! Because we saved the best part of £200 not booking a houseboat (yep, TWO HUNDRED POUNDS) we’ve decided to get an Airbnb for the week in an awesome part of the state and really close to the beach. I’m not going to lie, be expecting lots of pics of beautiful beaches, and a blog post next week detailing the big pile of nothing that I hopefully end up (not) doing. #sorrynotsorry
Spoiler alert: this post contains tales of shitty woe and misery. There is a happy ending though!
A wise man once said to me “Shit don’t always work out how you planned”.
A bunch of travel bloggers have all said “Expect the unexpected”.
And most of my best mates said “We give it two weeks till you both get Delhi Belly”.
I didn’t expect all to come to fruition within a few days.
Don’t worry, this post isn’t gonna all be about poop, that just seems to be a consistent thread through our recent experience.
Following an awesome few days in Jaipur, we were both really excited about seeing Delhi. We also decided last minute to try and get to Rishikesh, a very northern and very holy city right at the base of the Himalayas. From everything we’d read Rishikesh would be such a paradigm shift from the madness of Northern cities, so we thought we’d head up there for a day, do some yoga, and basically chill out before we head South to Kerala.
We arrived in Delhi and had a great day out with Tim and Steph. Tim is a mate from uni and Steph is his wife who I also get on well with. We had a great day out exploring the bars of Delhi, celebrating the Dusshera festival and polishing off a bottle of rum on the hostel roof. We made a cardinal error in Delhi though with our first stop food/drink stop , where we hadn’t considered the additional taxes on our bill, resulting in a near 5000INR bill due to the numerous drinks we all ordered.
Lesson no.1. Delhi add on 32% of taxes to bills. Factor this in!
All sounds good so far yeah? I’d have to agree! Bring on the beauty of Rishikesh….
The problems started on the train. Out 6 hour train turned into an 8.5 hr train. We had literally eaten daal and naan before this enduring journey and so caved, and bought a pizza from the train. BIG MISTAKE!!! There was naive little me, thinking a vegetarian pizza would be fine, even though I’d been warned countless times to avoid all train food. Following this, we arrived late at Haridwar, a station over an hour from Rishikesh and decided to get some station snacks. I’m almost certain this didn’t help…
Lesson learned no.2. AVOID ALL FOOD THAT HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH TRAINS IN INDIA!!!
After finally getting to the hostel at about 11pm, all hell broke loose. Without being graphic, I barely slept, developed a fever, made frequent trips to the little white porcelain seat, and Kelly followed about 6am onwards. We finally got to Rishikesh and spent 80% of the bloody day on the crapper or in the bedroom. We did manage to make our way out to walk about the city for a couple of hours which was stunning. We realised very quickly though we needed so much longer in this place regardless of the illness, and especially considering the travel time.
Lesson learned no.3. Don’t travel to a place for less time than it takes to travel there/back. You’ll only regret it.
The place itself though is truly stunning. The hills encapsulate every corner of your view, and the spirituality all around oozes out of every shop and tree just like in Varanasi (just with way less hassle). I was more than happy sitting on the edge of the Ganges with my feet in the cool water; you can’t pay for this kind of stuff!
Later in the day I managed to sneak out again to watch the sunset over the Ganges, another amazing experience. I shared the ghat with a number of tourists just sitting there, smoking joints,playing guitar, being all hipster and shit, loving life and being care free, whilst I just covertly figured out where I could do an emergency poop. Don’t worry, it didn’t come to that…
So after the somewhat disappointing trip to the north we had a bus journey back to Delhi, as we had a flight the next day. Dosing up on Imodium we well and truly clogged ourselves up and endured a bumpy and chaotic 6 hour bus ride to Delhi. This also ended up being way longer than the projected 6 hours, and didn’t actually stop at the station as planned (apparently the driver lost interest to pulled up on the highway) which as you can Imarine just added to our woes. At this point I think we both felt okay, so endured the journey before staying with our next host, Rishabh and Rocky. By this stage I was in a bit of a kill or cure state of mind, so ended up eating curry and drinking beer with the hosts all night. Another big mistake.
Lesson learned no.4. Don’t take Imodium If you have Delhi Belly. It’s a crap idea and it won’t end well.
Lesson learned no.5. Taking on board point 4, also don’t drink a shit load of beer and eat spicy food if you have any thought of Delhi belly festering in your gut.
I’m currently writing this from Kerala. After all this fun and games we had to get a flight from Delhi to Trivandrum before staying with our next host, Rahul. We were still very ill and actually got worse, and ended up in hospital after his and his families insistence. 2 hours after arriving we had a consultation, an IV in our arms, a bunch of antibiotics and some amazing (and cheap) medical treatment we are finally on the mend. Turns out we both caught some kind of parasite which could have been quite nasty. Rahul our Couchsurfing host has been an absolute hero from the moment we got here, so I’ll be writing a post about Kerala and him separately. Now I’m going to enjoy the next week off grid, experiencing the total shift in culture and experience between north and south. Be expecting lots of posts about beaches and amazing fishy/coconut based curries. I’ll end this rather crappy post with a photo from today which started with an early morning walk down the beach.
Jaipur was a city I have been really looking forward to since we got to this wonderful country. I’ve been fortunate to have a number of friends also travelling at this time, and many have either just done or have recently done a few days here. Jaipur was destined to be a unique experience for us as well, because we were using Couchsurfing.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Couchsurfing (CS) it’s an online community for people who love to travel and meet new people. You can use it just to hang out with local people, or to stay with locals at their place. We used CS in Kolkata where we met Shekhar and had a great night, but this was the first time we stayed with a family. The idea is that surfers return the favour basically, so you offer to share a room at your place. For this trip, we were staying with Ganesh and his family.
I’ve spoken to some people who seem to think CS is just a way to get a free room for a night. I need to stress this is so not the idea. After buying the kids stuff and buying things for my family from Ganesh’s shop I probably spent the same I would on accommodation anyway. Likewise I need to stress this isn’t a way for creeps to just get people into their house, there’s a diligent verification system and the platform is built on references and user feedback.
Ganesh and his family lived in an area called Jhotwara, a suburb about 3mi from Jaipur centre. Many people would turn their noses up at this distance, but it was a very simple 20rupee (for the both of us) bus ride away that was an experience in itself! We were very fortunate and were given our own room, shower, and western toilet too, which I must say I wasn’t expecting. Ganesh’s home was shared with his sisters family, the mother and two children, alongside his wife and two sons.
We arrived at his house around 10pm and went straight to bed, but the next day we were straight up meeting his family, and going out the door to see the sights. Ganesh drove us around Jaipur for the whole day, taking us to the Monkey Temple (AMAZING, apart from a rogue monkey getting greedy and biting Kelly on the back of her leg, resulting in a pretty nasty bruise), the Amber Fort (again, amazing scenery and some truly stunning views), followed by the floating palace, two wonderful and unique Hindu temples (old and new, great to see the contrast on the architecture) and a great local place for lunch.
Whilst a busy day travelling around was at, my favourite thing of the day (possibly even the trip) was playing Cricket with his kids and the per local kids (who turned out to also be cousins etc). We ended up playing street cricket on two nights until the sun set which was a fantastic experience.
For me this just galvanised my thoughts that the best experiences don’t always need to have a monetary value, or require a queue to experience! This is exactly why we signed up for Couchsurfing, and this kind of experience isn’t something you can pay for at a hotel. I know there will be people reading this who would have loved an experience like that!
The following day we headed into the city minus our host. We decided to start the day exploring the Pink City, the oldest part of Jaipur and riddled with Bazaars and synonymous with high quality jewellery and fabrics. It’s called the pink city because, well, all the buildings are pink (I’d say more salmon personally), And it’s now law that this consistent colour much be maintained throughout the old districts. Unfortunately we were exploring the area rather early in the day, and at the start of a Hindu Festival so many shops were shut, but to be honest we weren’t going to buy anything anyway, so no biggie. Following the 3 odd hours exploring the area, we went to the City Palace. As you’d expect from the name, it’s a palace, part open to the public showing historic weaponry and clothing from the Maharaja ages. The history of this area or India (Rajastan) is absolutely fascinating to be honest. I really enjoyed reading about the battles for power, both internally and externally. The palace is still inhabited by the King too, although we didn’t get to say hello or get invited in for chai (how rude).
Sadly I think Kelly and I both managed to overcook ourselves whilst walking around the city. It’s quite hard to keep track of how much water were each drinking, and in temperatures around 35c and walking around most of the day (over 10k most days I reckon) we were clearly both dehydrated at points. Careful kids, stay hydrated! However, we persevered and continued to soak up the sights of Jaipur, which there are a number!
We were very fortunate to meet a lovely couple in Varanasi, Matt and Charlie, who happened to be in Jaipur the same time as us. We got on great in Varanasi so agree to link up here too. That night we went to a lovely rooftop restaurant for dinner and chatted rubbish for hours whilst overlooking the city. We actually ended up doing exactly the same the following day which was great. It’s really nice to meet new people you just click with especially on the road, and resulted in literally doing nothing for the last day in the city, and bloody loving it! I’ve also now got a bunch more movies for trip to watch (thanks Matt).
Jaipur was wonderful, but not necessarily for the reasons you’d expect. Yes the sights were cool and I’m glad we did them, but the highlight was definitely everything around Couchsurfing. Everything from being out of the touristy party of the city and having to get the bus in, to eating local and traditional Rajastahni food (that I wouldn’t have found if we’d been in the city), to sharing the experience of Hindu festivals with a local family and community to playing cricket on the street in the rain. This kind of stuff is simply unforgettable.
We’ve now had a day in Delhi with Tim and Steph, two mates from England (I went to uni with Tim) which was ace, albeit slightly more fuelled on beer and rum than I’ve been used to this past two weeks. We’re heading up to Rishikesh to see the Himalayas, Hindu temples and ashrams today, so I’ll be on radio silence for a few days I suspect.
Edit: I have no wifi and WordPress is uploading my pics to the start of this blog only, so I’ll upload pics here later when I have wifi. I have some stunners so check back to see them soon
It’s one of the things you have to do if you go to India; go see the Taj Mahal. Everyone knows about it, everyone has seen the famous Process Diana photo, and now the famous William and Kate replication. Everyone I know who goes to India goes to see the Taj, has their photo taken in the centre point, probably a perspective matched shot of them holding the brass tip, and about a quintillion photos of the whole site (yep, that’s a number). I can’t blame anyone for this; it’s such a breathtaking site and it really is a once in a lifetime experience.
Sorry Kelly, as much as I love you, I don’t think I’ll be able to top the Taj..
The second must see is Agra Fort..
Agra Fort has adopted a number of roles over the years, and is now 80% a military base. It’s quite nice it’s still used for government purposes I guess. It was a shame we couldn’t see it all, but what was open to the public was pretty awesome. There are so many layers of the fort that offer difference architectural design changes as the fort was built up and modernised by different leaders over hundreds of years. My favourite part though was overlooking the Taj and the surrounding greenery. I could have spent hours just looking over the horizon to be honest, and for those that know me personally I’m not too good at just sitting. I really loved the contrast of designs and colours around the whole site, and to be honest I liked the contrast against the almost perfectly kept Taj. This fort has seen better days in parts…
Once we did these two sites, we decided to head to Mehtab Bagh ( the Black Taj) and its’s gardens on the other side of the river from the Taj for a different view. The gardens are lovely, tranquil, quiet, and well worth a visit to escape the all round carnage. The Black Taj was meant to be a palace for the King directly opposite that of his love, so he could watch over her but sadly only the foundations were completed before his third sun overthrew him, imprisoned him at Agra Fort and killed his two elder brothers to become king. The ruins of the foundations are still present today. We had hoped to stay until after sunset but security had a different opinion. Still, it was great to see the Taj from a different angle and chat with other tourists.
Then, there’s the inconvenient truth.
I’m just going to say it…
Agra is a shit hole.
I know many of you are probably thinking I’m just saying this because of the opulence we are used to in the UK in contrast to India, but seriously, look past the Taj and the red fort, it really is a shit hole. This is comparing against what I’ve seen so far in this truly wonderful country.
For example, as soon as I got off the train the smell of sulphur stabs you in the nostrils, I can only assume from the polluted river which was abnormally low, thus a huge pile of rubbish sat festering around the banks. I’ve said before in previous blogs I didn’t get when people moaned about the smell bomb of India, but THIS epitomised Ming to me! Unfortunately it didn’t stop there, even some food I had tasted of sulphur (obviously using local unfiltered water) and brushing my teeth using the standard taps overpowered my minty fresh toothpaste with rank egg-like gag inducing taste. Needless to say, and without being too graphic, my body wasn’t a fan (projects ladies, if you’re reading this, your leaving present came in handy!!). I never found out why this was so bad, but my hostel manager said that it is a big problem in Agra, and even locals can’t drink the water; such a shame considering the famine in some areas of India. Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink comes to mind…
Then there’s the bugs. There is a break out of Dengue fever and Chicken Gunia in Agra at present so we had to be careful all the time. Because it’s rained so much over monsoon season there are more mosquitos than usual. No one can help this I appreciate, but I found that most establishments struggled to do much about this, so restaurants and our hostel were covered in bugs, and sitting outside was literally like running the gauntlet with some pretty nasty diseases. I didn’t fancy that at all.
Finally, and possibly the most annoying thing for me was the blatant gentrification that oozed through Agra. Locals can’t drink any water, but a 5* Meridien hotel can build whatever it wants and offer a world class service to its guests whilst people outside live in a box. I went into one of the many top hotels scattering the city to nick some wifi and have a coffee. The coffee cost more than any street food I’ve eaten in all of India! The level of opulence I saw around reminded me of trips to Abu Dhabi, which is quite literally another world and totally adrift from reality for the majority of the human race.
The reason this upset me, is it was obvious many people probably fly into, India and onwards to Agra, see the Taj, and piss off again. The paradox of 5* hotels against the local experience is mind blowing, there are literally people living outside the hotel walls in boxes! I’m not naive to think this wouldn’t happen near a world heritage site and that this is the basic supply and demand economics, it’s just sad the government aren’t doing more to resolve the water issue.
Finally, Agra is the biggest tourist trap imaginable. Everything has a markup, EVERYTHING! We absolutely decimated our budget seeing the must see sites, eating and getting around, and we only had breakfast and dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we saw the sites, but some of the ticket officers were royally taking the piss with their foreigner inflation (not the establishments inflation, which was bad enough, but the officers on the gates themselves). Rickshaw drivers were literally driving down the road next to us walking for hundreds of metres trying to get us in their vehicles, whilst street vendors selling snow globes and other bits of crap followed us on the other side. I even went for a bloody run earlier around Agra and had the same thing happen.
No mate, i don’t want a lift, I’m clearly going for a run. Look at my attire. Getting a taxi down the road somewhat defeats the object of going for a run…..
So I probably sound like a moany little bitch, but I wanted to make the point to our people planning trips to India reading this, when going to Agra, get in, and get out! The good is great, but the bad is bad…
I’m now on my way to Jaipur which I can’t wait for. Everyone I have spoken to says Rajistan is an amazing state to visit and Jaipur is different to anywhere else we’ve visited so far. We are staying with a guy from Couchsurfing too, which will be interesting in itself. The best way to experience the local culture is to stay within it, so let’s hope we really get a chance to see it.
Edit: I have no wifi and WordPress isn’t uploading my pics to the right part of my blog so I’ll upload pics here later when I have wifi.
Well we did it! We finally took the plunge and got on the plane to Kolkata; a place that literally couldn’t be further from anything we know or have experienced before. To be honest, the moment we arrived at our hotel (not really a hotel to be honest, more of an inn and barely able to be called that), I was utterly terrified, and had one of those “oh god, what the hell have we done?” moments. After about 15 hours of travelling, we arrived at our inn after the cabbie took us to some random area of the city, to a room with no AC, no windows, barely any light, and a very unwelcoming check in to the place we’d be staying. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect; we’d ended up booking a bed in the centre of the residential district; a very dark, grotty and overcrowded neighbourhood made up of a labarynth of alleys and passages.
The first day, I think it’s safe to say Kelly and I were somewhat nervous to go out and explore, but the sheer heat of our room drove us out, and I’m so glad it did! Kolkata genuinely has been a smack in the face, mixing all the emotions you can fathom into a melting pot and boiling over until dry, but we knew it would be. Seeing so many people sleeping on the roadside, in particular, children, is very hard to see on arrival, as well as all the stray dogs and puppies, and knowing you can’t really help or change the situation can be hard to deal with. But that’s life here and it’s very much the norm. It didn’t stop us wanting to take all the children and dogs home with us though
I’m writing this on a sleeper train to Varanasi which I’m sure will do exactly the same. Never has the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” rung any truer to me.
I’m going to try and summarise my thoughts in Kolkata in sections that I feel make sense, rather than just a brain fart of conscious thought, so bare with me.
Let’s be clear here, India ain’t the tidiest place in the world, and Kolkata certainly isn’t! Everywhere you look there is so much rubbish and mess around you are literally wading through it at points, particularly around markets, but at the same time people were always sweeping up the streets even when it seemed futile. It was great to see people taking pride even when they had nothing. I literally saw buildings made out of tyres, bamboo, and propped up with plastic mounds. The amazing thing about the city though, is every night you see the majority get cleared away by the residents. It’s incredible to see what you’ve seen so many times on TV, people collecting all the plastic and metal off streets and selling for recycling, just to raise a few rupees. It’s actually quite amazing to see how much can be done with so little.
The city itself is absolute carnage I’m not going to lie. As I expected from many Indian cities, it’s horribly overcrowded and noisy. When people say India is a melting pot of smells, they aren’t lying. There is a constant cocophony of smells from cooking food, tabacco (and as much hash), urine, spices, rotting food and burning out motors (a combination of types, clutch, and diesel smoke), all made more pleasant by the heat and humidity. I only really found the rotting smell offensive, and after eating some fruit I bought from a street vendor, I can tell where the smell originates from. I’d like to think I’m fairly open to foods, but eating over ripe and verging on rotten papaya won’t ever make it to the top of my list I can confirm that!
The architecture is fascinating across the city. You can really tell that British colonial rule played a huge part in the design of the area and the influence over so many areas. The fascinating thing out around the city is the mash of classic British design, with to be honest a total mess of building designs, many that aren’t even remotely attractive. One thing I didn’t notice in Kolkata was any new buildings that looked even a little exciting. Shame really.
We were fortunate to see most of the sites in our 3 days here. We walked over 18miles in two days alone exploring the areas around Victoria park and the Eden Gardens, New Market and Park Street, eating all the street food along the way (see next section) and even managed to to get tickets to the Indios New Zealand 2nd test (for all of a quid a ticket. Bonus!).
Now for any of you who know me, you’ll know I LOVE food, experimenting with new food, and learning new techniques. For me, this was half the reason for starting out trip where we did. Kolkata is known as the Western Bengali capital of street food, and it certainly didn’t disappoint! We literally tried everything we could get our hands on. The majority of the street food was vegetarian and it was without a doubt the most flavoursome and colourful vegetarian food I’ve ever eaten, whilst actually being rather simple. I tried to get recipes along the way but it was rather challenging with the language barrier in most places. What I can say though is the food makes full use of mustard oil (and PROPER mustard oil, not like the limp crap we get in the UK), with citrus used to marinade everything (the local citrus fruit is a perfect mix between lemon and lime), and regardless of the lack of food safety, of health and hygiene regulations, the food on the streets is outstanding. We were living off street food for about £4 a day and nothing was short of excellent. My top food was an egg Kati Roll, a roti heated on a solid top with an egg scrambled on top. Chicken Tikka with fresh onion, chilli and sauce is then fried off and rolled like a burrito; delicious! Definitely something I’ll be playing around with at home in a years time.
I have missed fruit though. Every time I tried to eat any it was either tasting vile from being close to rotten, or I’ve had to avoid because everything is covered in flies. Everything I wanted to eat fell into these categories and I’m doing my best to avoid Delhi belly so had to give fruits a miss.
Basically, street food was amazing, and a great start to what I expected of PROPER Indian cuisine.
There are many things that can be said here. To keep it simple though, I met some absolutely amazing people and some total arse holes. It was tough to remember some things that so many people had said to me about the culture, namely
- People will stare
- They’ll stare a bit more
- They’ll probably try and rip you off
- You’ll hear yes a lot when actually they don’t have a clue what you’re saying
- You’ll find the blatant poverty around difficult to deal with
All of these things happened on at least one occasion..
Kelly had a particularly hard time as she currently has pink hair! I don’t think we ever got further than 100m without some kind of comment either directly or indirectly, and EVERYONE WAS STARING AT US, ALL THE TIME or asking to take photos with us, we were at times like celebrities. In the four days we were in Kolkata, I think I only saw about 5 other white westerners, so it’s fair to say we were the minority, and seeing someone with pink hair certainly isn’t commonplace!
But when we met decent people, they were truly awesome! From the 80 year old at the station today helping reassure us about our tickets and bought us chai even though he could barely speak English, to the Chelsea fan who helped us look for alternative trains at the station, to the wonderful family we sat next to on the sleeper train who fed us. A special shout out goes to Shekhar who we met on couchsurfing, who took us out for dinner and drinks: he was overwhelmingly hospitable and later drove us around the city giving us our own private tour! This kind of genuine hospitality for no personal gain is so alien in England and no natural here, it really makes you think. To all of those I’ve met on this trip so far, thank you.
Like a duck to water
I am writing this whilst on a sleeper train to Varanasi, after a particularly hectic day trying to find an alternative train (first one was delayed by TEN HOURS). This trip has already been a huge eye opener and to be frank, a smack in the face (hence the title), but we’ve got on with it well. Kelly in particular hasn’t let anything phase her at all, and is actually trying to talk me away from taking the opulent route on anything we do (like staying in the station for 15hours to avoid paying a tenner for a hotel, f*** that). Now we have 3-4 days in the holy city over Ghandhi’s birthday, which should be quite amazing. This part of the trip will be equally as difficult though, with the city renowned for its public cremations and poverty. We shall see how we cope!
- Booking trains in India can be a mission but persevere. Read below for tips (after a rant)
- I’ll think twice before moaning about National Rail (which is disgustingly expensive if you really think about it in contrast to Indian Rail!)
We’re mainly using the train in India to get around. The prices are good, and from what i’ve read it’s an integral experience for anyone venturing around India. As we’re doing rather an odd route (starting in Calcutta and finishing in Mumbai, but getting there from Kerala and Goa) we have some serious train journeys to look forward to!
We’ve done quite a bit of reading about booking trains, because they tend to sell out, especially in the classes more suited to us newbie travellers. Indian railways are nationalised, and you need to book online via their national rail equivalent, IRCTC. So, let me guide you through my experience so far.
Registering on IRCTC
This is no trainline.com. I have actually registered 3 times on 3 separate emails because I never got any confirmation emails etc. You also need to have an indian mobile number, which MUST be 10 digits. Obviously I don’t have an indian number but fortunately have a mate in Pune who does (thanks Jay!). On my final and successful account registration I was overjoyed, as I REALLY needed to book some tickets to Mumbai ahead of our Diwali experience. HOWEVER, upon my first login I discovered I needed to confirm my email and mobile number, and didn’t get any comms to either; first hurdle hit. So as you’d normally do in this kind of situation, I emailed their customer support email (email@example.com). I didn’t hear back from 3 emails over two weeks, so resorted to Twitter, which got things moving. After a few back and forth emails I was asked to send a photo of my UK Passport through to sort out verification.
Tip No.1, email them immediately, say you cant verify your number or email, send them your username and passport as a small JPG.
So then I was in! HUZZAH! I can book tickets finally! Sadly, my second hurdle was hit.
Making sense of the codings and classes
The Class system is pretty simple to comprehend to be honest, and there’s loads of useful websites and blogs about what each bit means. I’ve been advised by a local indian friend (thanks Jay) that I shouldn’t bother with anything lower than 3ac (3rd class with air conditioning), so we took this advice straight away. Every traveller is different, but I don’t particularly fancy being on a 14 hour overnight train without a place to sleep, any AC or maybe even a chair!
Tip No. 2. Book 1-3AC only. Aim for overnight trains to save on hotel costs.
I’ve also been advised to book the side berths wherever possible, and to book overnight trains if possible to avoid wasting days on trains and to save on hotel costs. Seems like a great idea so we’ve done that wherever possible.
So now the real fun starts…
You can’t just say “Mumbai to Goa” as there’s so many stations in each area. You need to really know the names of the individual stations. In places like Mumbai and some of the other major cities you’ll be okay as they are called things like “Mumbai CST” but not in all cases. For example I started searching for Goa and there’s no station with Goa in the title. Uncle Google to the rescue.
Tip No.3. Have a separate Google tab open at all times and hunt out the stations in the main areas you’re travelling to/from
You will probably find that in many cases you won’t get a train you’re looking for. This is very annoying as you have to just search for alternatives. This is a bit of a pain to be honest. For example if in the example below I searched for Agra Fort from Varanasi Junction i’d have been fine.
DO NOT press back in your browser as you’ll have to log in and start again. THIS RULE APPLIES THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE SITE TO BE AWARE.
Tip No.4. Do not use back on your browser. Navigate back through the site via links on the page.
Tip No.5. Have a separate tab with the same page open to speed things like searching up
You then need to figure out what days your train is actually doing that route. You’ll see something like this if you’ve successfully found a train that’s running
Don’t worry about the days where there’s ticks and crosses, just click on your class and you’ll see loads of other options, including alternative trains (if you’re lucky) and the available dates. If you want to see the route, click on the train number in the above screen.
So once i’d got this far, I had to start working out the coding.
Indian Train Coding
When you say where you’re going, there are different statuses of booking availability. Basically they are available, waiting list, and not available. Available is okay as there’s seats/beds available in your class. Anything like the examples on the 8th means tickets are on a waiting list (i.e. all the main tickets are gone), and you’re 15th in the waiting list. There’s also RAC that means ‘reservation against cancellation’. What the actual difference is i’m still not sure. To be honest, we just switched up our classes until we found something that was available. I’ve been advised that on 2AC and 1AC it’s unlikely there will be many cancellations, so unless you’re AL1-3 avoid being on the list.
Tip No.6. Avoid waiting lists, just adjust your class or date of travelling
Now I haven’t even mentioned the GN (General Quota) and FT (Foreign tourist) quotas you’ll see sometimes. Tickets are block booked/reserved for certain guests or travel agents. This is important to be aware of when you’re in India trying to book at a station apparently…
So, you probably think you’re getting there now. Persevere!
You then need to enter all your passport details. THIS IS IMPORTANT as you’ll be showing ID with your ticket so get it right. Alongside this you need to select your bed type. This is very much a personal preference and does vary based on class of ticket, but i’ve had side upper/lower recommended to me by people and in blogs.
You then get to define booking parameters, like the below. Now the fun really started for me.
On a couple of trains I booked, I got to the next stage and then got an error, because for example there weren’t any beds in the same berth left. At this stage I had to start the WHOLE PROCESS AGAIN! This is, to be frank, infuriating, but there’s not much you can do. Back to the start I go….
When you finally get to payment
So after literally an hour of trying to book 2 train tickets from Goa to Mumbai, I got to payment. HUZZAH I AM NEARLY DONE! Sadly, I wasn’t.
The payment options are vast, but for foreign tourists they are limited to one option basically, international card. I used my credit card for security which worked fine on my previous booking. However this time it was declined (because of error code RISK). This happened 4 times on the same train ticket (yes, I started again 3 additional times).
Obviously I contacted IRCTC and my bank and both said nothing was going on.
I then found I had actually been charged for the initial booking, even though I got an error. See no.4 below (payment settled but not booked. WTF!!!). So another email send to IRCTC. Fortunately they were very quick to give me a refund on the failed ticket.
Apparently you can also check your status of refund via the website, but I haven’t had the pleasure of doing this yet (but sure I will).
After all that, what was the damage?
So it’s a faff, but basically, you have to get over it as it’s the only system that’s available. I also had other websites recommended to me, but similarly I had issues because i’m not in India (many don’t take international cards, even credit cards). Stick with this site and just get on with it.
So lets talk figures. Trains in India are known to be cheap comparatively. This is what we’ve paid so far
1AC with a private cabin, Calcutta to Varanassi on a 14 hour sleeper train= £60 for 2 tickets
3AC side berth beds, Goa to Mumbai, 12 hour sleeper= £25 for 2 tickets.
I deduce from this unless you’re a total tart, go for a lower class. The cost difference is pretty vast and obviously you’ll get a more realistic/ less rose tinted experience. I’m yet to actually get on a train in India, so my opinion may change following that, but this is my initial thoughts.
So, to summarise, it’s a faff! I’ll think twice before moaning about National Rail (which is disgustingly expensive if you really think about it in contrast to Indian Rail!)