The road to Delhi

17
Jan
2015

…from Haridwar by private car sounds rather glamorous, and by Indian standards, it kind of is. After reviewing our options (train, bus, and car) we decided to splurge on the private car because it seemed like it would be the fastest, at an estimated 4 hours. And the cost to hire a private car and driver to take us to Delhi was by our standards quite a good deal at about 50 bucks, so we decided to go for it. As for the 4 hour estimate, all I can say after the fact is Ha. Ha. HA. The journey took about 7.5 hours total, as there were a shit-ton of obstacles in our way. For much of the journey, there was a pea soup level fog surrounding us. There was also all manner of badly constructed road, missing pavement, potholes, piles of dirt and stray pieces of metal, wood, and what-have-you. On top of that, there was crazy traffic. At various times we were stuck behind people walking or auto rickshaws or families of 5 on a single scooter or tractors pulling giant bails of sugarcane to market or just run of the mill traffic jams. And of course, the occasional single cow or herds that were leisurely crossing the highway. And then there was the driving itself, which is quite interesting in this part of the world. Drivers here have a pathological need to be in front of the person in front of them, and will risk any amount of danger to get there. This usually involves crossing to the side of oncoming traffic to zoom ahead of whatever is in front of us. This results in a series of quite near misses in an epic game of chicken, since of course the drivers on the other side are all trying to do the exact same thing. You can imagine how the thick fog added an even greater element of delightful surprise to this little game, as sometimes headlights would emerge directly in front of you with only seconds to spare. Fortunately for me, I am used to the culture of driving in India, but I am afraid that for poor Ken (who was sitting in the front seat) it was a bit more harrowing. I tried to explain that while incredibly stressful at first, once you have made peace with the fact that any drive in India could be your last, you kind of just relax into it and hope for the best.

Once we arrived in Delhi and peeled Ken off the ceiling of the cab, we were warmly welcomed by Meeta and Digraj, and into their lovely home. And after a few stiff drinks in a local bar, Ken and I were much restored from the day’s travel. I am looking forward to spending a few days in Delhi, showing Ken around and getting caught up with my friends.

Change of plans

16
Jan
2015

This round-the-world trip has been pretty spectacular so far. But I have decided for a number of reasons to cut it short by about 15 days and take a different route back to New York. In the first place, I have some work piling up that is a little difficult to do properly from the road (although I have been working some). Second, I have exceeded my budget by a bit and need to cut back. And third, after spending close to 4 months on the road already, I am a just a little bit homesick for NYC.

So my new plan is to stay in India a little bit longer, and to return for a week to Mumbai where I will do some work, then to fly on to Istanbul and spend time with some dear friends who live there. After that, I will go to Portugal (where I have never been before), before finally returning to NYC on the 15th or so of February.

But before I get to Mumbai, Ken and I will travel tomorrow to Agra to see (what else) the Taj Mahal, and the following day we will be in Delhi. Ken will fly back to the US the day after, while I will stay on for a few days visiting friends and catching up.

UPDATE: In yet another change of plans, Ken and I realized that by the time we reached Agra tomorrow by train, the Taj would only be open for about another hour. Our original plan was to see the Taj by night, but it is only open on near or full moon nights, which leaves us out alas. So we are heading straight to Delhi instead, a 4 hour trip vs the almost 10 hour trip to Agra.

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Calming walk around Rishikesh

15
Jan
2015

Ken is fortunately feeling a bit better (if not 100%) so we took a walk around Rishikesh. The weather could not be more beautiful today (it is 70 and sunny), and Rishikesh is a super cute mountain town. This is close to where the Ganges begins (and that is what makes it a holy place to Hindus), and so the water is much much nicer than what you see by the time it gets to Varanasi. And the air in Rishikesh is fresh, and the pace generally calm for an Indian city. We walked up the Ganges a bit to the next foot bridge, then down the other side to the bridge closest to our hotel, back across and back to our room. There is a bit too much Western inspired tourist crap on sale here, but whatever. We had originally planned to stay 3 days in the ashram while here, but with Ken being sick it just did not make sense to stay in a place where the bathroom was both public and some distance from the sleeping quarters. We will go to see the evening aarti ceremony there this evening, and possibly go for some drop-in yoga, but the Rishikesh ashram residence experience will have to wait for another time alas. And that is fine with me, really.

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Reeling and Retching in Rishikesh

14
Jan
2015

Before Ken came to India, I tried to warn him that it was an intense place. I told him if one has never been to India, one should try to spend at least a month, and know that the first week or two will be spent on adjusting and getting over the westerner’s freakout that almost always happens when one first arrives. I remember well how disorienting everything was to me when I first came to India. The chaos, the crush of people, the smells, the poverty, the built environment — all of it an assault on the senses. Add to that the traffic, the dirt, the shit, and the noise. I think it is almost impossible to enjoy India and all it has to offer if one has only been here for a week or two. And I have never met a single person in my life who came to India for less than a month and enjoyed it. The only people who might possibly think just a week or two is ok are traveling in 5-star luxury, and have not really seen India at all, only some glossy, gauzy, carefully edited fantasy cooked up by greedy travel agents.

Our day started out well enough. We woke up, got packed and went downstairs to check out, which went smoothly. The hotel had helpfully arranged transport for us to the train station in the form of an auto rickshaw (known in other places as a tuk tuk), which was good since it was raining. Ken had never been in one of these, so I thought great, a new experience, but they can be a bit wobbly, especially on the uneven streets of an Indian town. We made it to the train station after about 20 minutes, and then went to find our train, which we did with the help of a nice local man. Since we had some time to spare, we walked to the station restaurant and ordered some breakfast and sat down, when suddenly the power went out. We sat in pitch darkness until they brought out a battery powered lantern, and they apologized that our coffees would be a bit delayed. Ken took a look outside on the platform, with all the sleeping people and others hanging about, and told me it looked kinda creepy out there. The lights came back on and we finished our meal and got on our train, which departed the station at 7:13 am, a very reasonable delay of only 18 minutes.

In India I book first class on trains whenever possible, because it is quite inexpensive and while not as nice as second class in most places, is certainly the best thing on offer. Alas, the train to Haridwar has no first class available, so I booked something called AC Chair Class. Our seats were pretty uncomfortable and I had to stand for part of the trip because my ass and back were so sore. Ken said much the same and seemed to be dealing with it well, but I think the 7 hours in that position must have worn him down a bit. When we finally made it to Haridwar, we were both pretty hungry, so decided the first thing we would do would be to search for food. As we descended the train, we were naturally assaulted by a variety of touts, most of whom were looking to taxi us up to Rishikesh. I have a lot of experience with this and so just ignored them or politely said no thanks as I calmly made my way with my bags to the exit and out to find a restaurant. But Ken became a bit agitated and then I think had a bit of a panic attack, because he started wandering off without me and seemed really out of it. I found him and we made our way to a restaurant and got a bite to eat, and he seemed a little bit better after that. But then we went out and I negotiated a taxi for us to Rishikesh, doing the back and forth that one does when trying to pay the correct amount to go somewhere. We actually ended up paying a little more than we should have, but I wanted to get to the ashram we were going to sooner rather than later so I tried to wrap it up. We got in the taxi and started to make our way through the chaotic traffic, past people and a wild boar, and some monkeys, stray dogs and cows of course, and all manner of cart being pulled by people or animals, and blaring horns and near head-on collisions, and drivers all trying to pass each other, and swerving and potholes and bumps and diesel fumes all around — you know, a normal drive in an Indian town.

By this time Ken was really looking queasy, holding his head in his hands, and at one point told us to stop the car, at which point he got out and threw up. He then got back in and was shaking a bit and telling me he felt terrible and sleepy and light-headed and just wanted some peace and quiet. Knowing we were about to head to an ashram that might provide still more strangeness, I told Ken that we could just go to a hotel instead. That seemed to cheer him a bit and so we picked one of the ones he had seen in his guidebook and decided to go there. The driver we had made a deal with had taken a slightly easier route (for him) to the ashram, letting us off across the river (Ganges btw) from the ashram, about a 10-minute walk across a footbridge and down a street. Fortunately, the hotel Ken had picked was quite close on the map to the ashram, so we thought it would be just as easy to get to. It was anything but.

Once we got out of the taxi, it immediately started to rain of course, and we made our way with our bags down a perilous and slippery staircase to get to the footbridge to cross the river. Once across, we had to follow quite a winding path that google gave us to get to the hotel. And this path was uphill part of the way, and not very suitable for rolling bags as it was only paved in places and even along those I have almost never seen as much wet dung to avoid as I did today. Along the way, Ken saw a guy selling oranges and decided he needed to buy some, so he did, and on we continued. As we got closer to the suburb where the hotel was, we noticed even more cattle and mangy stray dogs in the road and several monkeys. Apparently Ken’s clear plastic sack of oranges really got the monkeys’ attention, and they started following him trying to grab them. He ultimately stopped to put them in his sack, and we finally made it to our hotel, which is brand spanking new and clean and nice. I think this place saved Ken’s sanity today, and he is sleeping now and will hopefully be feeling better in a few hours.

I think the combination of jet-lag and unfamiliarity and non-stop activity made Ken feel sick, freak out, and shut down a bit. I got a little bit worried about him today in fact, but hopefully this rest in luxury (we are paying THIRTY dollars for this hotel) will help him relax and replenish himself so that we can explore Rishikesh tomorrow.

I hope it is not terrible to say, but this experience with Ken has made me feel a bit better about my own coping skills. I think I had a few concerns on returning to India, but it has been a bit like riding a bike. I certainly can note the differences with the US in terms of the way things work, but I have not grown so distant from my experience here all those years ago to find it overwhelming. I am actually really enjoying seeing the new places and reliving some of the old chaos, in addition to meeting up with old friends I had made here. I still find India to be an incredible place with so much to offer. I hope that the shortness of this trip will not turn my dear friend Ken off from a place that can be so magical when viewed from a certain perspective.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: As I was finishing this blog post, Ken woke up, ran to the bathroom and heartily puked a few times. Now that I think about it, and after having reviewed what we had eaten today, I believe Ken has a simple case of food poisoning. This was most likely caused by the Biryani he ate this morning at the station restaurant, since it is the only thing he ate today that I did not. These things usually last about 24 hours, so he will hopefully be right as rain tomorrow. And ready to bask in the glory of India after all.

Amritsar and Golden Temple

13
Jan
2015

I think we figured out that the cacophony of annoying music today was actually much more pronounced than it would otherwise be because there was a festival happening today. A lot of places were closed, and children were flying kites everywhere throughout the city. During the day Ken and I walked around the city and spent a fair amount of time trying to find out if we would ever see our luggage again. Just as I had made peace with the fact that I would have to buy all new clothing in some local stores (and wondering what the chic young sikh is wearing these days), I finally got a call through to Air India and they said they had located our bags. Mine was being sent from the airport by taxi to our hotel, but Ken’s was still in Delhi and they would be sending that along later tonight. At least, we hope they will, because we have an early morning train to catch. After the chaos of the city and our day, we finally got up the courage to visit the main attraction, the famous Golden Temple. It was really spectacular, and a fantastic contrast to the city and the day. It was a profoundly peaceful and welcoming place, and I was very happy we saved it for last and saw it by night, lit up as it was and casting beautiful reflections in the water that it sits in. My previous and current experiences among the Sikhs have always been warm, and I am impressed by many tenets of their faith and practice and their treatment of others.

It is 9pm at the moment, and about an hour ago, Ken and I noticed the sound of nothing in the air. All is quiet in Amritsar at the moment and we are relieved and at peace with all the world. Except Air India, that is.

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Silence is not golden

13
Jan
2015

So, no huge surprise, Amritsar is cold in winter. But I didn’t think it would be this damp. Everything is wet, and a thick fog pervades the city. And then there is the competing (from several sources at once), extremely loud, thumping music everywhere. This is the polar opposite of Japan, where Ken and I last were together. There, we were a bit weirded out by how silent it always was, even in large groups of people. But here, the opposite it true, there is loud noise of all kinds coming from every corner, and I think it says something interesting about the two cultures. In Japan, it seems that the silence is about a longing for order and simplicity in a crowded culture. Whereas here, I think that people are discomfited and disturbed by quiet. I think it makes them feel cut off, lonely, adrift and unmoored to the world, to the community, to the family.

To give you just a small taste of what we hear non-stop here:


Because the fog is so thick, Ken and I are waiting to go to the Golden Temple until a little later, we were told that it should lift by noon. We did take a short walk around this morning, and I could see from Ken’s face that he is a little shell-shocked by the experience of being here, so I am trying to be supportive. One of the great things about having been in India for so many months 7 years ago is that I am more or less prepared for how different things are here from the US, and I warned Ken that this was going to be a bit of a shocking experience for him, which it is. I just hope he doesn’t crack up before leaving the country a week from now.

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666

12
Jan
2015

I really don’t know where to begin describing how fucked up this travel day was, so I will begin at the beginning of our travels. Ken and I were traveling to Amritsar today, to see the Golden Temple. Since there are no direct flights to Amritsar from Mumbai, we had to fly through Delhi to change planes. As fate would have it, the flight number of our Air India flight to Delhi was 666. This was clearly an omen that we ignored at our peril.

We were already running slightly late after a wonderful, whirlwind morning spent with Rittu at the Dhobi Ghats and then at the best thali restaurant I have ever been to. Our flight had already been delayed by 40 minutes, due to leave at 4:15, and we left for the Airport at 2:15. After getting through a few traffic jams, we arrived with about an hour to check our bags and get through security. We made it to the bag drop counter where I foolishly thought this was going to be a breeze. The guy weighed our bags and told us that the allowance was only 15kg, not the 20kg of every other airline in the civilized world I have ever been on, so we would have to pay a supplement. I sent Ken over to pay the supplement while I waited for our boarding passes and bag tags. Ken seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of time, and it turned out their credit card machine was broken and we had to come up with the cash. Once that was dealt with, we ran over to the security screening checkpoint and tried to get through but alas I had forgotten that I had a bottle of whiskey for my friends in Delhi still in my carry on. They obviously weren’t going to allow that through, but they told me I could go back and check it. I didn’t think I had time to wait in that long Air India line again, and I didn’t want to pay for any more baggage, so I told them to just keep it. They refused, and made me go outside the screening area, open and completely pour out that nice bottle of whiskey in the trash can, right in front of them (and a number of horrified onlookers), then made me go through security screening all over again. Slightly exasperated, we made our way to our flight only to find out it had been delayed yet again, this time by another 35 minutes. That meant that we would only have 35 minutes to make our connection in Delhi, and so I asked an Air India guy at the counter what we needed to do. He looked at my tickets and literally scoffed at me that we shouldn’t have been so stupid to buy tickets so close together. When I pointed out to him that we bought them from his employer Air India with nary a warning, and that before this flight was delayed we would have had plenty of time to make the connection, he merely waved his hand and walked away. What a total douche. We got on our flight to Delhi and Ken and I were completely unsure if we would make the connexion, and started playing the “which would you rather” game involving us making it to Amritsar without our luggage vs being stranded in Delhi with our luggage vs Delhi and no luggage at all.

Once we arrived at Delhi, we (and the other nervous passengers heading to Amritsar) were briskly escorted by an Air India official through a kind of obstacle course of doors, hallways, past angry officials that needed to approve of our very existence, and then, strangely, to the International Departures area, where we had to go through customs again as if we were leaving the country, and then had to go through security all over again (but the more stringent international kind. This was really starting to remind me of my trip to Melbourne via the International Terminal in Sydney). The clock was ticking and we thought we would miss our flight to Amritsar, but they were apparently holding the plane for us, which was good because the security area of the Delhi Airport resembles nothing so much as a Keystone Cops film. After our amazing race through the gauntlet of transfer, we finally arrived, sweaty and unhinged, to take our seats on the plane to Amritsar.

We actually made it to Amritsar. Things were looking up and we could not believe our luck. That was until we waited and waited and waited at the baggage claim, until there was no one left but us and the other transfer refugees who had also failed to get their bags. We formed a chaotic line to get a not very believable promise from an Air India representative that they would deliver our bags to our hotel when they arrive on some future flight tomorrow.

So whatever, we left the Air India reps and walked out to find a cab. Days earlier I had emailed our hotel to ask about a pickup from the airport and how much it would cost but they never got back  to me. So we ordered a taxi at the airport and while we were waiting someone came in and said they were from the hotel and waiting for us. So we got what turned out to be a very expensive (about double local costs) ride to our hotel, zooming through what can only be described as a series of sets from the TV show “Homeland”.

We are finally settled in our hotel, and it reminds me of a lot of the places I have stayed in India in the past. That is to say, everything has a stain on it and seems vaguely fungal or carcinogenic. It is also freezing in Amritsar at the moment, but that was to be expected. Tomorrow we will go to see the Golden Temple. We were going to go for the 5am ceremony, but we just found out it is actually at 4am, and after our ordeal today we decided we would be in better shape to see the evening aarti instead.

A walk along Marine Drive

10
Jan
2015

Nik and I decided we would get a little exercise, and so decided to take a walk along Marine Drive. The place is a pretty fascinating microcosm of Bombay culture, where all kinds of people hang out, stroll, canoodle, sell wares or services, and generally enjoy the sea breeze and ever so slightly less air pollution closer to the water. Almost all of the area is built on landfill, which is true to say of much of this southern part of the city. Mumbai used to be 7 separate islands that were filled in over the years, mostly by the British. The quality of much of the architecture along the drive is pretty spectacular, and even if many of the buildings are crumbling or in a state of disrepair, they maintain a majestic presence.

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Mirthful Mumbai

8
Jan
2015

I have to admit to having had a little trepidation about returning to India. Had I changed too much to appreciate it? Would all the things it took me awhile to get used the first time resurface with a vengeance? Would I find the crush of people, the pollution, the poverty, the chaos to be too much? Maybe I had become a different person after all these years, one overly accustomed to my New York life and ways, and I would be bothered by all those things in ways I was not before I left India over seven years ago.

Well, I needn’t have worried, there is something magic about this place. From the moment I stepped off the plane and got in the car to see Nik and Rittu, who I am staying with, I was charmed again. And in the last day we have got caught up a bit, Rittu and I wandered around a little and had a thali, and I met up with Alok and Vikrum and a bunch of their friends last night for dinner down in Colaba. Seeing old friends here has been wonderful, it feels that no time has passed between us.

Although I have only been here a day, so much seems easier than the first time I was here. Getting from place to place seems faster, with traffic flowing much more smoothly than I remember. Taking taxis is much easier, I don’t have to argue about fares at all. Getting train tickets is much easier, you can just order them online now. Even walking on the street is much easier, I just don’t get harassed the way I used to. Is it my beard, or something else? Have I changed or has India? I am almost regretting deciding to spend so little time here on this trip.

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How Suite it is, Part II: in the air

8
Jan
2015

So as you probably remember from part one, I was clutching my purse in the recesses of the first class lounge, waiting for my suites class flight to begin. At the appointed time, I made my way to the gate, where they guided me to a special entrance to the plane that was only for the suites passengers. I got to my cabin (it was a little like a mini train cabin or berth) and was a little surprised to discover that there was no great place to put my bags. The under-seat storage was too small, so I wedged it in an area next to my seat that would need to be vacated if I wanted to recline my seat. I didn’t worry overmuch about it though, as each of the staff came up to introduce themselves, addressing me by name and asking if there was anything I needed, anything at all, they would be happy to oblige.

“Anything?”

I was at this point about to ask for perhaps a hand-job by a Brazilian male model or some cocaine, but they were already pouring me a glass of Dom Pérignon, so I made do with that. At first glance the individual cabins were quite impressive, with very comfortable leather seating with a facing seat with its own seatbelt, which I thought a little odd, especially because there was a sign over it saying it was not to be used during takeoff and landing. I guess that seat is just for when you have other well-heeled visitors (they would never allow the commoners in here) coming to chat with you about yachting or trust funds during the flight.

Then the cabin steward came up to inform me of some very upsetting news: Our flight would only be taking 4 hours and 45 minutes to reach Mumbai. I thought I would at least be getting 30 or 45 more minutes of luxury than that, and I have to admit to being a little disappointed. Much of what makes this class of service so special is the privacy and comfort of the cabin while sleeping, but I clearly wasn’t going to make them setup the whole bed thing for a 20 minute nap, even though the harridan in the berth behind me made them do exactly that. The length of the flight set the tone for a number of disappointments actually. It isn’t really worth setting up the bed, as I said, for one. And flights under 7 hours don’t get the super swank toiletries bag with the nice cologne in it. (I had received one on my previous flight, so really what was I going to do with two of them, but still I was crestfallen).

And even though I hadn’t paid full price for this, I imagined what I would be feeling if I had, and I started noticing everything that was wrong with the suite as my native OCD went into overdrive. There was no good place for my bag storage. The suite had a lot of dings and scratches all around, and some parts that didn’t close properly. The media system and control is positively antiquated. You can’t even connect your ipod/iphone to it to play your own music. The user interface is badly designed and clunky, the screen not very high rez. The usb charger stopped charging my phone about 10 times necessitating unplugging and replugging. The curvature and design of the walls of the suite was kinda clumsy (compare to ANA for example which was clean and elegant), and the veneers showing.

The people and the service was something else though. There is absolutely nothing to reproach, they were without fail wonderful, helpful, and kind. I have rarely experienced service this good anywhere. I have absolutely no reservations about the quality of the service I received from the staff on board.

So to sum up everything:

1. I would not bother with this class of service unless you were going to get a full night’s sleep. It is just not worth it for anything under 8 hours. (Then again, if I had more money than god and a strong desire to waste it, as many of the other passengers must, what the hell.)

2. The suite itself is pretty cool but could use a redesign in the areas of media control, luggage storage, and maintenance/upkeep.

3. People service is impeccable with Singapore Air, but is almost as good in plain old cheapskate first class.

Here are a few pics of the entire experience:

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