If you're wondering how to book a train in India, this is the post for you! It contains everything you need to know, from signing up to Indian Railways (IRCTC) from your homeland, the right platforms to book through, how to book last-minute tickets, and what class to choose.
Travelling India has been a strange and grounding experience, and celebrating Holi Festival in India was no exception.
Something that has really surprised me over my time in India is that Indian men will not swear or talk about the thing that happens when men and women hug each other in a very special way, in front of women.
Often people will look at Chris when a swear word or something to do with sex is about to be mentioned and say, "I can’t say it in front of her, but, you know…", and sometimes when we’re in temples, I’m told to go elsewhere while the guide shows Chris ‘man carvings’.
Given the way childbirth works, it's safe to assume women are pretty aware of the ways of the world.
Nevertheless, that's the way it is in India. Of course, this isn't the case with everyone, but my experience has been that men run the show, and women are secondary. The Hindu Holi festival is the perfect example.
Also known as The Festival of Colour, Holi celebrates the triumph of good over evil. The tradition of throwing coloured powder and water is believed to originate with Krishna, the Hindu god depicted with dark blue skin. The story goes that he complained to his mother about his girlfriend's (Radha's) fair skin, so his mother suggested he smear her skin with paint, so now there's a tradition of smearing your loved ones with paint.
And folks, that's what happens. Only it's not just loved ones that get smeared with paint. It's absolutely everyone. You can’t walk down the street without people throwing fists of of dye in all directions, and you'll probably find yourself in the middle of a water-bomb battalion, getting drenched by children with water buckets on rooftops, and running from people who are running for your face – arms outstretched, hands full of dye.
Men roam the streets with gold and silver faces, little boys scream and sprint at anyone and everyone –armed with water pistols loaded with blue. Alcohol, bhang, and opium is quickly consumed, in vast quantities, behind closed doors. Women are nowhere in sight.
After being told the festival was potentially dangerous for tourists in Varanasi, we met up with a few people staying at our hotel, and decided to spend the festival with them. Having stocked up on dye the day before, we armed ourselves with our own festive weaponry, and stepped outside.
After about 10-minutes, it was clear tourists were the primary targets.
Men ran from far and wide to cover the eight of us in colour, mash our faces with pink, scream ‘Happy Holi!’, and turn handshakes in to hugs. This became too popular, and we ran towards the ghats, bumping in to an impromptu water-side rave.
There were large speakers in the middle of the street blasting out the latest Hindi hits, with silver and gold-faced men and boys thrashing to the heavy bass lines, squirting dye at no one in particular, and throwing dye into the air like they just didn’t care.
We ran on, hoping to avoid more crowds, until we bumped in to three more tourists our festival companions had arranged to meet. They had organised to spend the festival with an Indian family who had a place overlooking the ghats, and so we waited. In the open.
Again, we were surrounded by hoards of silver faces, unidentifiable men, shaking our hands, hugging us, trying their darndest to isolate the women of the group.
I want to look back at this experience as some wonderful event where I had the greatest time dancing around to music I didn’t understand with locals, tourists, booze, and loads of dye.
And for the most part, I did.
But I can’t shake the feeling that some things were a bit off. No matter how much fun I had, or how differently I try to think about it, it doesn’t change that the festival isn’t safe for women.
It’s not like the crowds hide their intentions –rules go out the window for Holi and the police can’t intervene because: "it’s Holi festival, where everyone is equal".
But they’re not. There are just no consequences for anything that happens.
The Indian family we’d been waiting for showed up pretty soon after and whisk us away to their rooftop terrace.
From there, we had a great time. It was a large family: two young kids (ruthlessly throwing dye at everyone from the rooftop), two older girls (around 18), three older boys (16-24), and a few cousins.
From their rooftop we were able to properly partake in the festival. We hurled water bombs to the ground floor, tipped buckets on everyone, narrowly avoided being bombed by freakishly strong children on an adjacent rooftop, and watched the festivities unfold. The family blasted some tunes, sprayed everyone with colours, threw water buckets around, and danced Bollywood-style in to the afternoon.
Then we looked out from the roof again, and things were looking pretty different. Too much alcohol, no food shops open for business, no corner stores selling water, and no one with any kind of authority to relieve the situation.
It was just hoards and hoards of drunk men fighting each other. That’s why there were no women in the streets. That’s why those sisters the family we spent the festival with weren’t able to celebrate equality and the triumph of good over evil.
Had this been Australia, people would have celebrated in to the night (or tried to – looking at you Sydney!). In India, the drunken festivities were over by 2pm.
Aside from loads of dye, abandoned t-shirts, piles of rubbish and the usual cow faeces, the streets were empty, and the shops had reopened. So we took that opportunity to have breakfast/lunch/dinner (we hadn’t had a meal all day), bought some beer, and headed back to the hotel with our Holi companions to rid ourselves of festival remnants, and generally debrief, before Chris and I jumped on a train at 2am to Nepal, and spent the next 17-hours travelling on various modes of transport.
Aside from being exhausted after a whole day dancing and escaping, the issue was not only that dye wasn’t really designed to come off skin, but that we didn’t want to get changed for fear of being attacked again and ruining another set of clothes.
So off to the station we went, festival clothes and all. The thing to remember is that while there are lots of bright colours being thrown around, the immense amount of water being tossed about lifts the dirt and excrement from the ground, so you’re not only covered in dye.
By the time we got to the border of India and Nepal, we looked like haggard lepers. Had I been at border control, I wouldn’t have let us in to the country for fear of some contagious tropical plague. But they did, and we caught another bus to Lumbini, before finally washing my hair and making bets with myself as to when my back and face would finally lose their pink and blue hues.
All photos (except the feature and the last four) courtesy of Ruth Anna Photography.
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When I left for India, I had all these images in my mind of people sitting on top of trains, hanging out of buses, and piling in to cars – navigating that as a tourist sounded like a nightmare I wasn't prepared to face, so it was a huge surprise to get there and realise that getting around India is actually pretty easy.
One of the central reasons anyone should come to India is for the food. It's rich, creamy, spiced, and complex – Indian food is like nothing else on Earth, and you haven’t tried it until you’ve eaten it in India. Someone said to me ‘Indians love sugar and spice’, and it’s absolutely true. When ordering coffee, I’ve had to start asking for sugar on the side because I literally cannot fathom how or why you would/could put that much sugar in a single cup of coffee.
The desserts are basically cardamom and turmeric-infused lumps of sugar – both amazing, and mind-blowingly sweet. Gulab Jamun (one of their national desserts) is a sugar/curd ball that is both deep-fried in, and served with, sugar syrup. They don’t care about waistlines, cholesterol, or portion control, here it’s all about the taste, and if that means putting a lump of ghee in with a lump of oil, so be it. You’ll grow fat, but you’ll do it with relish. If it feels like there’s an earthquake in Sydney on 15 May, don’t stress, I’ve just re-entered the country.
For the time being, our culinary adventures have taken us from Jaisalmer to Amritsar: The hectic Sikh city of the north. This place has everything. Free accommodation, free food*, dagger shops, gun shops, shoe shops, female turban wearing Anglo-Saxon Sikhs, Punjabi thali, an extravagant amount of cycle rickshaws, and the incredible Golden Temple.
While Amritsar had some amazing qualities, and the Golden Temple was fabulous and beautiful and everything you think it’ll be and more, a major highlight was the Indian/Pakistani boarder ceremony. According to Lonely Planet, 'the purpose of the ceremony is to lower the national flag and formally close the border for the night' – but it is so, so much more than that. First of all, the whole thing’s done across two amphitheaters with a large gate dividing the two countries in the centre. We got there and a huge crowd of Indian women were dancing Bollywood-style in front of the masses, who were cheering raucously as the fifth chorus of Jai Ho exploded from the speakers. If you look left, you can kind of see the gate at the boarder, and Pakistan side of things.
This went on for a while, as more and more people entered the venue and scrambled to find seats, until an Indian MC started chanting crowd-pleasing chants with a megaphone, and a Pakistani MC started chanting crowd-pleasing chants with a megaphone, and I realised there were hoards of people on both sides of the boarder, patriotically yelling 'Hindustan!', 'Pakistan!' while a bunch of soldiers (oiled moustaches, flourished turbans, and starched uniforms galore) march theatrically, with comical seriousness, towards the border, stomping with such rigor you find yourself checking that the heels of their shoes are still in tact.
They put ballerinas to shame with the magnitude of their high-kicks, as each side tries to outdo each other in cheers, marches, and chants.
Having grown up hearing about the tensions between India and Pakistan, it’s kind of surreal to see such a cohesive and uplifting display between the two nations – this happens every evening.
The next day we moved on to the Golden Temple, which was pretty spectacular. You can’t enter with shoes, or without a scarf of some kind covering your head, and there is an hour-long wait to get in to the temple itself, but it really is worth it, and it’s not like you get bored.
There are some killer-tunes playing through the loudspeakers (coming live to you from a band inside the temple), the crowd sporadically burst in to song, and since people only abide by the queuing method here because they are surrounded by water and physically cannot go beyond the limitations of land, someone behind you will almost definitely poke you in the back for the duration of your wait, so it’s best to think of this as a free massage.
From Amritsar we jumped on three state buses to McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala – official residence of the Dalai Lama at the foot of the Himalayas. It was beautiful and freezing. I had to buy another sweater, Chris got some super-socks, we drank beer, ate pizza and momo (Tibetan dumplings), chatted to other tourists, and generally wondered around thoroughly enjoying the place, wishing we could stay all week. The Dalai Lama himself wasn’t there, but we went to the monastery where he resides, spun the prayer wheels the man himself has spun, watched a ceremony, and wandered the grounds.
As great as the monastery was, the highlight was the Tibetan museum, located in the complex. Dharamsala is a refuge for Tibetans who have fled their homeland due to the Chinese occupation. I don’t know what I expected from that museum, it seems ridiculous to expect anything else in hindsight, but I didn’t expect it to detail the horrors of the Chinese invasion.
There are huge boards with photographs, names, ages, occupations, and dying words of a lot of the people who have set themselves on fire in protest of the destruction of both their country, and their people. There are maps, diagrams, and photographs of what Tibet used to look like, how big the country was prior to invasion, and details of how the people have been dispossessed, oppressed, tortured, starved, and how their culture is being destroyed.
I knew of the Chinese occupation, and the Free Tibet movement, but not in detail. If you’re up there, it’s definitely worth a visit, and generally getting involved in the movement regardless of where you are.
From Dharamsala we took a particularly awful overnight bus to Rishikesh: Yoga land.
After trying to sleep sitting up from 7:30pm to 6:30am, and wandering around for an hour trying to find a hotel with a vacancy, it’s very difficult to listen to porridge-eating, sitar-playing, ‘spiritually enlightened’ tourists go on about how in to new age healing they are, and how they reached the deepest form of meditation ('for five-minutes I was there, deep in meditation, I was really there and it was amazing') without face-planting my food.
But after a night of solid sleep, we grew to enjoy it. Rishikesh is situated around the Ganges with some great cafes, massage centres, and people – we could have stayed there for a while. It’s extremely touristy, but endearing. Everyone there is very pro-life and active, it’s kind of contagious, and to be honest, it is nice to eat porridge for breakfast instead of dal and naan.
As our time in India draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the things we’ve learned, and the most prominent day-to-day thing has been that impatience truly is a way of life.
No one waits in line, drives with caution, or cares what is fair and who’s been waiting longer. It’s every soul for themselves. I used to be apologetic but, as we travel, I’m finding that I increasingly don’t give a damn. For reasons I can’t begin to comprehend, a lot of Indian people try to get sneaky photos of us at temples and general tourist attractions. It actually happens frequently, and I used to ignore it, but when it happened today I found myself saying ‘what are you doing?!’ loudly. With feeling.
Last week we were in a blanket/scarf/trinket shop full of tourists, and this (tourist) woman had some of those small music symbols (the ones played in movies by busking monkeys in red vests) and she just kept clanging them together. Shamelessly. She didn't even care. She didn’t work there, she wasn’t selling anything, there was no rhythm to it, she was just banging them together, until I said ‘I’m going to break her hands in a second’.
I had intended to say it quietly, but it didn’t come out quietly. It actually came out with more vigour that I thought I had at that point I time. She stopped. We left. I wasn’t sorry. I’m still not. After four months of being ruthless and giving no damns, I’m going to get back and make enemies with the whole of Sydney. I apologise in advance for all the innocent people I’m yet to elbow.
*One of the great things about Amritsar is that despite all the expensive accommodation around the Golden Temple, the venue offers free accommodation and food for pilgrims and tourists – people come from all over just to be here, even if it means they have to sleep on the floor outside. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The rooms are very basic, but the beds are comfortable and warm, and you can stay for up to two nights.
Free. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are in a large hall where you sit on the floor, hold out your plate, and people come around with giant vats of curry and whack it on your plate, and you can have as much as you like. Then you go outside and get steaming hot chai out of these enormous metal tanks. This place serves 60,000 to 80,000 people per day. It’s all vegetarian, and it’s all great.
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If you ever go to India, Rajasthan is where you want to be.
It’s vibrant, colourful, and totally absorbing with bright textiles, sunshine, smiles, and coffee lining the streets. The abundance of rooftop cafes, beautiful hotels, food, and markets will have you transfixed, and if that isn’t enough, the amount of ancient temples and palaces is almost enough to make you want to abandon your plans and live there for the rest of your trip.
While Udaipur was my favourite place because it's so unique and great and I just loved it, the rest of Rajasthan has also been unforgettable.
Over the last week, we’ve gone from jumping around the monkey-infested ruins of Bundi Palace channeling Mogali, seeing the Ghats of Pushkar, and taking a tour around Jodhpur’s incredible Mehrangarh fort (often described as the most magnificent in India), to drinking the world famous Makhaniya lassi at the Mishrilal Hotel, to staying inside Jaisalmer fort, and riding out in to the sunrise on an overnight camel safaris. Rajasthan is where it’s at.
But of all those experiences, I’d have to say the camel safari was the most exciting. Not because the trip included riding camels out into the Thar desert by sunrise, roasting chapattis over the fire, watching the sun set over sand dunes, or sleeping under the stars of Rajasthan, but because it all went wrong.
It was all booked and paid for, and we did spend about 14-hours trekking out into the desert on camels while eating amazing food, getting sore legs, watching deer sprint in all directions, battling hungry sheep, drinking Kingfisher from a 15-year-old beer monger (who just so happened to pop in...in the middle of the desert...), listening to the guides sing to the beat of a water drum, watching fighter jets patrol the Indian boarder, and setting up camp 70km from Pakistan – so that part went well, but there was a solid decline in the mood when some army guys showed up.
I would actually go as far as to say it killed the mood.
They were all speaking Hindi, so it was difficult to discern what was actually going on, particularly because the guides kept telling us it was fine, and the Indian tourist doing the safari with us was saying it was pretty far from fine. Turns out that part of the desert is a sanctuary that requires both an entry and a camping permit.
The guides were saying they had permits, while the army guys were all like ‘you don’t so we’re going to fine you’, the guides were going ‘if we pay the fine can we stay?’, and army guys said ‘not unless you pay a bigger fine’, and the guides said ‘that’s ridiculous, we have a permit’, and then the army guys were saying something about a hunting permit and we got confused.
I'm unsure as to what actually happened, but I thought it was odd that they were saying the Lonely Planet-recommended safari company had been doing their dealings illegally for 23-years. The manager of the company also said they deposit their permit fees every month without fail, and the temporary permits the army gave us after we paid the fines were actually hunting permits – written in Hindi so we couldn’t read them.
It all looked pretty suss from the outside – official-looking guys show up demanding money and saying the word ‘court’ a lot, even though the company had permits. As a group, we decided to leave.
Since that was our accommodation for the night, we went back to the guesthouse attached to the safari tours hoping they’d give us a place to stay, and the manager was very accommodating and apologetic. He gave us a room and water free of charge, and said he’d give us a refund for the safari if we wanted.
Despite what happened, the guides were really fantastic, and the camel ride through the sand dunes was something we’ll never forget, so it was well worth it, and today my legs, back muscles and stomach muscles have decided they don’t want to function normally, so riding camels the next day probably would have been less enjoyable anyway. We woke up, asked for half our money back, and decided to spend the day eating cake.
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Three weeks backpacking India...
From Kanyakumari we finally moved out of Tamil Nadu and in to Kerala: the land of many beaches. The beaches are picturesque, the beer is flowing, the water is warm, and that all would have been great if I wasn't sick, but it was great nonetheless.
We stayed there for two-days sipping juice in this massive (massively cheap) two-room apartment, staring at the beach while eating fish, before catching the bus to Alleppey: houseboat land.
A valid attempt to get on a houseboat was made, but at the end of the day it was 6,000 rupees for one night on a boat, or 6,000 rupees for six-nights elsewhere, so after speaking to some French tourists at our hotel (Cherukara Nest: I highly recommend it), we did a canoe tour of the famed Kerala backwaters instead, which is organised by Cherukara Nest.
The tour involved breakfast and lunch at a family home containing possibly the most confident, intelligent, and forth coming 11-year-old I’ve ever met. Sanjeev aspires to be a women’s Ayurvedic doctor, likes to sing, and has spent the last seven-years speaking to tourists and subsequently learning nine languages.
Straight after the canoe tour we were on a bus to Fort Kochi: a small fishing town full of home stays and Christian festivals. Our main introduction to Kochi involved being stuck in a bus behind two giant parades, and witnessing many religious celebrations in brightly-lit churches on the side of the road, which seemed to attract hundreds.
It was here that we stayed with two Swiss girls (who had crazy eyes – crazy eyes are a thing, and they had them), saw giant Chinese fishing nets, and had a truly amazing curry while being eaten to death by mosquitoes.
I bought a skirt, we saw a traditional Indian dance, then got on a ‘semi-sleeper’ bus to Mysore at 11:30pm from the side of a highway. It was on this trip that I combated motion sickness with beers and Travelcalm (do it – you’ll sleep for hours), and woke up in what is said to be ‘the soul of the south’.
We saw the famous Palace, went to one of the nicest bazaars we’ve been to yet, I made a stellar stick of incense (“I’ve seen lots of tourists make incense, but never as good as you” – incense-making teacher guy, who totally doesn't say that to everyone), and we drank lots of beer while making important decisions about our trip.
We decided to catch a bus along a pothole-infested road for two-hours (I spent most of the trip in the air. I'm not joking.) to Bylakuppe, seeing the Buddhist Golden Temple (carrying 65L bags), then getting back on that bus to Kushalnagar (interestingly, the road conditions didn't change in those few hours, so again I spent it in the air), changing there for a bus to Hassan (road conditions still didn't improve), and changing there for a bus to Halebid where, again, we were really just paying for airspace because none of it was spent sitting down. We don’t make decisions with beer anymore.
Halebid: don’t get there at night. It’s a tiny, dusty town with not much in the way of streetlights, making it kind of terrifying to arrive in after dark. It’s only real claim to fame is the absolutely spectacular temple in the middle of town which makes it well worth the trip. It’s all made of soapstone, and was constructed using the locking method – without bonding materials like cement – and it’s still standing.
It’s by far the most intricately carved temple we’ve seen to date.
We then caught a bus back to Hassan (don’t sit at the back of the bus or you'll fly), an old lady told me my clothes were too revealing (I was wearing long sleeves…), we visited a tourist office for an hour trying to figure out how to get to Hampi, and took an impromptu trip to Bangalore: India’s technological capital.
We saw palaces, parks, forts, huge doors, went to a rooftop restaurant, looked around, drank $2.50 rum, ate like Maharajas, looked around some more, bought nothing, and got on an overnight train to Hampi with a very inquisitive family of three.
The father had been to the U.S and Europe so had an idea of the kind of place Australia might be (which was a refreshing experience), and told us about Hampi and various other places. The mother didn’t speak much English, the daughter (15?) apparently watched me sleep, and Hampi was lovely. It’s a tourist den, but a nice villagy one surrounded by hundreds of temples and monuments.
They said to see it all in three days. We did it in one. On a motorbike. 'Tired' doesn't even come close. “Climb the mountain with me,” Chris said. “It can be your birthday present to me”, he said.
So we climbed the mountain, met around 13 monkeys, Chris tried to scare the monkey away, the monkey stole my water bottle from Chris’s hand, the monkey started sizing Chris up, we retreated from that part of the mountain, fearless-monkey-passing-warrior-girl (or strange-and-oblivious-laughing-girl who didn't even notice the monkeys, depending on how you look at it) came down the mountain, we stashed away the remaining water bottle, gathered strength and fearlessly passed the monkeys to get to the temple on top of the mountain, watched the sunset from said mountain, climbed down mountain, and I rode a motorbike.
We met Bernadette and Mira – a mother and daughter from Switzerland, chatted to them for a while, ate the best vegetable paratha on planet Earth, and met them again at 5:30 the following morning on the train station en route to Goa – the trip that will forever be remembered as that time Chris’s birthday happened on a train.
He agrees it was a great experience full of late transport, train food vendors, seedy men, lukewarm chai, three-hour bus rides, and the worst samosas to date, but we got to beautiful Palolem to see the sunset and eat whole snapper by the water with $2.50 cocktails.
We stayed in bungalows and wiled the day away with coffee, breakfast, clothes shopping, and hammocks, then left after two nights in an overnight ‘sleeper’ bus to Mumbai: Worst. Trip. Ever. The bus is set out like a set of double bunk beds in the bus, and we were on the upper level. Took Travelcalm too early, sans beer – bad idea.
Felt weirdly tired, out of it, and kind of drunk for the whole 15-hours, and Chris just couldn’t sleep. The roads weren’t great, so you’d wake up to find yourself in mid-air, knowing your back was going to hurt within seconds, and knowing there was nothing you could do to stop it. So we got off the bus feeling exhausted, and in the middle of nowhere.
Turns out the bus didn’t go all the way in to Mumbai, so taxis were conveniently placed at the ‘dropping point’ (the side of a highway) asking for extortionate prices to get into the city. All the hotels on our list were full and/or extremely expensive, so we spent about two-hours walking the streets of Mumbai with huge bags, trying to find a hotel.
Eventually we stumbled across one for 3,000 rupees/night, and decided we could only afford to stay in Mumbai for one night. Everything is supremely expensive in that city. Beautiful, but expensive.
It’s full of old gothic architecture from the days of the British Raj – walking through the city is like stepping through time. We had breakfast/lunch in a cafe swarming with tourists. We were seated up the back in front of a mirror lining the entire back wall – a mirror which we soon noticed had an enormous bullet hole. Turns out we were in Leopolds – a popular tourist den where the 2008 terrorist shoot-out occurred. People died. It was on the news. We sat there and chatted over coffee.
We then headed to the ‘Gateway of India’ where the monolithic Taj Palace Hotel stands looking out onto the horizon. We later found out that’s where the terrorist attacks begun, half the Taj was destroyed, hundreds of people died. That was on the news too. Despite all that, it is beautiful to look at, and they’ve since gone to town with the security.
We spent a large portion of the next morning in one of the many French patisseries Mumbai has to offer, eating cakes, scrambled eggs, and biscuits for Valentines Day, before I went into a shop looking for a descent punjabi to wear around, came out with a Kermit the Frog singlet from the menswear section, and headed off on the train to Aurangabad: the trip where Chris made many, many new friends.
While Indian people pronounce my name as ‘Salad’ without batting an eyelid, they have strange reactions to Chris, or ‘Krish’, as they pronounce it. These reactions range from mildly confused expressions, to loudly vocalising, “What a stupid name”. We originally thought it was because it’s an abbreviation of the Hindu god Krishna, but no. Chris’s train friends informed us ‘Krrish’ is actually an Indian superhero, with shoulder-length dark hair, and pale-ish skin – like Chris. Having a name like 'Krrish' is the Bollywood equivalent of having a name like 'Batman'.
Nevertheless, the guys on the train were fascinated with him. Questions ranged from ‘what is your salary?’ to ‘how long do you bathe for?’, until half the carriage was watching in fascination, as Chris tried to go about explaining the value of the Australian dollar and why we're not all millionaires, and the duration of his showers.
We finally got to Aurangabad, stayed in a less-than-ok hotel, had what I'm pretty sure was the greatest thali ever, the biggest dosa known to human-kind, and visited 12th Century caves the next day in Ellora – a trip which is definitely worth doing. Like Hampi, there are a lot of carvings to see, but you actually can do them in about a day.
From there, we moved north to Udaipur. We were hoping to catch a train straight there, but no, the transport system doesn’t allow for that, so we caught a 14-hour overnight bus to Ahmedabad. Got there at 9:30am, had to catch a train from there to Updaipur at 11pm.
We would have explored Ahmedabad, but we were exhausted, and it took the auto rickshaw driver two-hours to figure out that he didn’t know where the student internet cafe we wanted to go to was, so we ended up at ‘Four Point’ – the very obliging fancy-pants hotel restaurant that let us sit there for 11-hours using power-points and internet. It was great.
After travelling almost everyday for so long, it was great to sit somewhere, order coffees, catch up on whatever was happening in the rest of the world (the Olympics are on?), and not have to rush off anywhere.
The food was also pretty fantastic, and their coffee came with biscuits. Win.
We got to the train station at about 10pm, found our platform, got on the train early to ensure no one took our seats (though the seating is ‘reserved’, it happens frequently), went to sleep and woke up freezing. Multiple times. Everyone else had blankets and we were jealous. We had jumpers, long sleeve things, and socks, but it wasn’t enough so we were just cold until we finally got to Udaipur at 9:30am.
We spent the day eating cake and looking at leather-bound notebooks, leather bags, shoes, jewellery, saris, and buying blankets and clothes (for the next train trip...), before going to this amazing Indian-fusion restaurant (vegan and gluten-free options are on the menu). We had Indian tacos, vegan curry with stuffed potato, garlic wheat chapattis, hyderbadi biryani, and beer. It was amazing. For the first time in two-days, we slept in a bed that wasn’t moving. Nukkad Guest House is the bomb – fork out for the rooms at the top, it's absolutely worth it.
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After realising trains from Madurai to Kanyakumari only left at ridiculous hours of the morning, we visited Madurai's famous Meenakshi Amman Temple at 8pm the night before we left. It was beautifully-carved, with tiny rooms and alcoves where miniature deities stood decorated in fabric and trinkets, with Hindu's gathering around each one to give offerings and worship their gods.
It has been kind of amazing to see just how many Indian tourists are in Tamil Nadu – they come from miles around, with school groups or families, to see these ancient structures and pay tribute. Because they tend to travel for religious reasons, whenever we tell an Indian person we're visiting their country for the sake of tourism, they generally don't understand.
Q: "Why did you come to India?"
A: "We're interested n exploring the country."
Q: "But why did you come?"
A: "Tourism, that kind of thing."
Q: "Do you study here?"
Q: "You don't study here?"
Q: "So...what do you do?"
Tourism for the sake of tourism doesn't appear to be something Indians generally do on an international scale, but none of the functioning temples we've seen so far have any non-Indian tourists, so it was a bit of a surprise when we got to Meenakshi Amman to find a large (Swedish?) group, two Americans, and a few Spaniards. The American pair told us there was some amazing congregation happening at 9pm, so we stuck around, and sure enough, some amazing congregation happened at 9pm.
A very loud instrument started. I'm sure I'm offending millions, but I want to call it an oboe – it looked like one, but sounded like bagpipes...or a kazoo...I'm going to call it 'loud instrument'. Loud instrument was followed by some kind of hand-held chariot adorned with flowers and incense, carried by the priests of the temple.
There were many people following the chariot around the giant stone pillars of the temple, and it would have been incredible to watch, had I not just reached the climax of my illness. I'm unsure as to whether this next part actually happened, or if I passed out, hit my head too hard and dreamed it, but here's how I think it went down:
Loads of people followed loud instrument to an in-temple lake where they started burning and fanning leaves, or incense, or both. I remember an older man seemed to want my head on a pike because, from what I gather, my skin wasn't covered enough (the only skin showing was the very top part of my chest, my neck, face, and fingers... but even so, I had a very obvious fever at that point so, had I been wearing a scarf, it would have come off pretty fast).
Everything got very smoky. I nearly passed out. Chris looked concerned. Loud instrument played on. More things were burned. Whatever was in the chariot was brought out. Hindus and tourists moved around the chariot. I sat down. People smiled at me. Chris looked concerned. I got sicker. There was more smoke. I nearly threw up. Loud instrument stopped. People dispersed. Chris looked concerned.
I threw up.
The temple closed.
The next thing I really remember is checking out of the hotel around 5am, then watching the sunrise on Madurai train station waiting for the 6:35am train to Kanyakumari.
The train trip was long and somehow, amid the screaming babies, mothers, food vendors, and the unforgettably monotone voice of a man shouting "coffee" every five-minutes, I fell asleep and woke up three-hours later to a very inquisitive family of cricket-enthusiasts.
"Where is your place?"
The youngest of the family then started reciting some kind of cricket transcript, as he was coaxed into remembering the English version by his very enthusiastic father.
They seemed to enjoy practising their English on us, and were generally interested in Australia as a place. They were particularly in how much things cost, so we finally managed to effectively communicate to someone in this country how not all Australians are rich, and why that is the case. Saying something as simple as a kilo of rice can be up to 300INR (5.50AUD) put things in perspective, and we kept going until they were kind of bewildered at how simple things (like lunch at 1,000INR) can come at such a great expense.
They gave us some advice on India (beware of liars, thieves, ect), said they'd been on trains since Kolkata to get to Kanyakumari, and how they were planning on venturing around Kerala for two weeks, until the train finally stopped at 11:40am and we parted ways.
Kanyakumari's only real draw cards are:
a) Tt's right on the southern point of India;
b) Gandhi's ashes were kept there, and
c) the sun rises and sets over three seas.
Otherwise, it's just another touristy, rubbish-clad town with overpriced resorts. They could capitalise on spectacular views, but they choose to build resorts behind other resorts with frosted windows...each to their own.
What could be a really beautiful area is covered in rubbish, bell-ringing fairy floss vendors, wildly-persistent counterfeit sunglasses salesmen, and a vast array of stuff you don't want or need.
This one guy was desperate for me to buy a plastic (and not so attractive) necklaces in pastel pink and white.
Man: "Take these <holds three necklaces> 500 rupees."
Me: "No thanks."
Man: "Ok 400."
Man: "Ok 300."
Me: "I'm really not interested."
Man: "Fine, 100."
Me: "Ok, no, I really don't want to."
Man: "100 is cheap."
Me: "Yes, but I'm not interested."
<second necklace vendor approaches>
Other Man: "You should buy the necklaces. Cheap." <nods>
Me: "...No I really don't want to."
Man: "Come on, buy them. One-hundred, how much do you want them for?"
Me: "It's not about price, I just..."
Man: "Then take them, 100."
Me: "I'm sure there are hundreds of other people here who would love some necklaces, but I really don't."
When we got up to leave they (reluctantly) got the picture, and we got back to staring at the three seas, waiting for the sun to set. I know he was really desperate to sell them, and I felt terrible, but if I bought everything because I felt the vendor needed the cash, my funds would dwindle significantly and I'd have no space in my bag.
If you ignore all the people throwing their rubbish into the ocean like it'll just disappear, it was kind of nice. There's something satisfying about making it to the very tip of the country to watch the sun set over The Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean all at the same time, knowing I'll be at the very top of the country in six-weeks time.
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It's day 12 and I'm lying on a bed in a small hotel in Madurai surrounded by juice, muesli bars, and canned fruit, fighting the urge to throw up. Again.
I feel as though this was inevitable, but I didn't think it would happen this soon...it leaves a whole 14-weeks for it to happen again. Well, damn. Chris was violently ill two-days ago, and we did think it was lunch in Kodaikanal (this sweet yogurt thing we accidentally ordered), but since I now seem to have the exact same thing, we're thinking it was the school children we met later that day.
We'd decided to go sightseeing around Kodaikanal and went to this one lookout that was supposed to be particularly impressive. The second we got there we were surrounded by these kids (age 12?) on a class trip from Kerala, and they were fascinated by us. Overtly fascinated. I still can't really tell you what the view looked like.
Chris was immediately surrounded by a thousand boys, and I was fighting my way around a large group of girls, all asking questions like 'what's your father's name?', 'what's your mother's name?', 'do you have sisters or brothers?', 'what are their names?', where is your place?', 'what is your good name?', inching closer and closer with each question until I was right on the edge of the stairs.
Every time I looked up I was surrounded by a hoard of giant brown eyes and big smiling faces beaming at me from all directions, and the teacher seemed just as fascinated. He said they'd never met Australians so it was exciting for all, and asked just as many questions as they did. After a bunch of photographs, he finally shepherded them along, and we tried to leg the two metres to the lookout before being immediately interrupted by a bunch of guys waving their cameras.
"Where are you from?"
That happens a lot, and I can never bring myself to say I'd sooner watch paint dry than a game of cricket, but these guys were really just in it for the photos. I've now starred in more photos in 12-days than I think I have in my entire life.
In Australia, people frequently tell me to get a tan, and it's difficult to explain that I don't keep my Frosty The Snowman shade of paste out of choice. I burn within about five-minutes, and it never ends in a tan. I once got sunburnt on an aeroplane. An aeroplane. Tanning just isn't in my genetics, and at home, that's considered kind of weird.
In India, it's almost considered royalty. They aspire to be whiter. Every skin product in their supermarkets has some form of whitening agent in it, and everyone in the media is an unnatural shade of pale. In short, it's the reason for all these photographs.
And it's not just a 'quick snap' (as they say) and we're on our way, everyone has to get a photograph, so you end up standing there for about 15-minutes before the next group comes along and seizes the opportunity. And you have to shake everyone's hand, which is also possibly how we got sick.
After all that, we finally got to the lookout and there were a bunch of monkeys there.
They look harmless enough, but they steal your stuff, spread rabies, and are generally terrifying, so we had to hang back until they disappeared. In the end, we looked over the edge for two-minutes before deciding to head back for fear of being photographed again.
Two hours later, Chris was sick.
Two days later, I'm sick.
And we're now hanging in Madurai for much longer than necessary because last time I tried to venture outside I suddenly felt so ill and overwhelmed I had to go back to my room and sleep for two-hours. We haven't even managed to get to the temple yet (the focal point of Madurai), and the thought of eating curry again makes me want to rip out my spleen.
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We have decided to shake things up by travelling to another location daily so we can cram more stuff in to this already gargantuan trip, so I haven’t had a huge amount of time to write. I will fill you in on what we’ve been doing over the last few days, but thought I’d start with where we are now, so until then…Greetings from Kodaikanal! The city on top of the hill.
Yesterday was our first real ‘if we don’t get on the connecting bus we may not find another one for an uncomfortably long period of time’ experience. So we left Trichy after some morning temple viewing, uncertain as to exactly how the day would pan out, somehow found a bus to Dindigul, and sat on it for 2.5-hours feeling kind of worried about the next phase of the trip.
We stayed up late the night before figuring out how we’d do the Trichy-Kodaikanal-Mumbai-Kanyakumari journey, and it seemed like the logical option do it in that order, given the accessibility of transport from one place to another, but we’d read loads of different things about how to get to Kodaikanal so we just kind of left and hoped for the best. After getting off at Dindigul bus depot, we raced around asking various conductors where our bus left from, vaguely worried they’d laugh and say something like ‘you can’t get to Kodaikanal from here’, but they were very helpful and pointed to an already moving bus.
From the many hours of bus travel I’ve done over the last week, I’ve learned that stopping the bus for passengers is more of an irritating formality, so we jumped on that moving bus and continued on to Kodaikanal with a driver who was itching to kamikaze in to pretty much anything. We were swerving to the right hand side of the road around auto rickshaws, motorcycles, vans, trucks, buses, leaving interestingly small gaps between us and the oncoming traffic, and speeding up wherever possible until we got to the mountains where the bus refused to go beyond about 50km/h up the windy hills, so it took about 3.5-hours in total.
It’s been so hot over the last week that I didn’t even consider it might be cold at the hill station. As we ventured further up the hill, as the sun began to set and air got colder, it became pretty clear the people around me were suffering. There were people in giant coats, scarves, and beanies, wringing their hands together for warmth. Growing up on a set of mountains myself, I thought it was kind of funny. I mean it’s cold, but not that cold. It’s like The Blue Mountains in springtime. So we finally reached the top and got a taxi to our hotel: Hotel Mount View, the land mold and mildew. Now that place was cold. It was awful. So, so awful. We also hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I’m fairly sure that made it worse. I knelt on the bed and my leg was damp. There was one thin blanket.
Chris (being highly allergic to mold) started coughing and choking fiercely. We grabbed the owner and pointed out the sheet of mold under the bed and tried to explain how Chris would have difficulty breathing because of it, and he said things like ‘all the rooms are the same’ and ‘it will not affect you’. So we left and ended up in the Hilltop Hotel – where they have big doonas, coffee making facilities in the room, cable TV, giant windows and heating. It’ expensive, but I’m so comfortable it should be illegal.
It’s now morning one of Kodaikanal, so much exploring will be done later today. The air reminds us of home – crisp and clear, but Indians don’t really do serenity. Chris was imagining something like the Blue Mountains (our hometown in Australia) or some old British town where there’d be cottages with big views, fire places – somewhere honking your horn amid such insatiable peace would warrant a scolding.
I was under no illusions.
They’ve basically tried to cram an entire city on to a mountain. Honking your horn every two-minutes to alert people of your existence is still very much a thing, the cars still have Nokia 3315-style music built in that automatically plays when reversing to alert everyone to the fact that you’re reversing, and people are still burning their rubbish everywhere like they seem to do everywhere. I’m yet to find a place that doesn’t smell like burning plastic.
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Apparently Mahabalipuram is one of the biggest temple complexes in the world, and I have to say, it was all kinds of interesting.
We walked up to the Shore Temple to pay the entrance fee when an Indian man came up to us and offered to be our guide for seven different sites. His name was Ali, he was 65, his breath smelled like alcohol, he could speak nine languages, couldn't read or write, said his parents died when he was young so he never went to school, so he picked the languages up from talking to tourists, and his knowledge of the temples was profound.
Ali explained there was a giant tsunami in the 8th Century and many of the temples are still under the sea as a result. In fact, no one had seen them for centuries until the tsunami of 2004 when the tide moved out so far that, not only did they all become visible again, the incoming tide brought missing chunks of ancient, carved statues and shrines to the shore, relics which are now on display at the temple.
We then went to the Five Rathas. Each of the temples was dedicated to a Hindu god, and is now named after the Pandavas – five hero brothers from the epic Mahabharata who shared one wife, Draupadi (find the story here and here). It's way more complicated than this, but basically there was a contest for Draupadi's hand in marriage, Arjuna's mother had forbidden him to enter, but he did anyway, vowing to never disobey his mother again if he won.
There's a longer tale of strength and triumph in the full version, but the in short version (spoilers!) he won. Arjuna got home and said something like 'look what I brought', and his mother told him to share whatever he won with his brothers so, staying true to his vow, he did. The five of them all accepted her as their wife, and they lived that way forever.
Me: "Was she happy about that?"
Ali: "She was married, of course she was happy!"
Though they look like buildings, they were actually all carved from single rocks in the 7th Century, with makeshift cement so strong it survived two natural disasters, and still stands today. The detail in the carvings is really incredible – if you ever have the option of going to Mahabalipuram, it's definitely worth a visit.
We were pretty happy with Ali as a guide, until he took us to his son's shop. Turns out his son is actually a very talented sculptor, and carves elephants, lamps, oil burners and things out of marble. We were, of course, obliged to buy things, which is where things got tense. Indian shopkeepers tend to see tourists as walking dollar signs.
I completely understand why, the dollar is a great deal more valuable than the rupee, but it's the value of each currency in it's designated country that should be noted, and it's just not. After S tried to tell me all Australians are rich in our bus conversation to Mahabalipuram, I explained that one meal in Australia cost the equivalent of 1,000INR (18.40AUD), and she involuntarily whispered, 'Wow'.
Lunch in India is around 100INR (1.80AUD).
In Ali's sons shop, we were told to 'pick anything, we will give you good a price', so picked out a small, carved elephant, and a painting, and were quoted more than 3,000INR.
Saying we couldn't afford it didn't go down too well.
At the end of the day, the items were worth the asking price, and we figured if we couldn't pay the amount deserved, we just wouldn't buy anything. We explained that we didn't want to cheat them out of anything, we even offered just to buy one thing, but they wouldn't let us leave without both items. They reluctantly lowered the cost until it was at 500INR, and we finally agreed.
Ali was bitter after that. I actually think he ended the tour early. If you ever go, make sure you say 'no shopping' beforehand.
That evening there was a dance festival on near the temple, so we went along to see what it was all about. When we arrived, there was a group of about six teenage girls dressed up in traditional Indian dance attire, headpieces and all, dancing to 37-minute long Indian compositions detailing different Hindu tales about the gods Shiva and Vishnu.
If nothing else, it was fascinating because we kept comparing it to our high school dance performances where a bunch of 14-year-olds put on some hot pants, crop tops and bright blue mascara and jumped around to Britney Spears for five-minutes. These girls had clearly been training for years. It was incredible to watch.
Almost everyone I talk to here can speak at least four languages, and studied some kind of engineering. They're incredibly focused, intelligent, and goal oriented, it's been really eye opening. They usually introduce themselves with "Hello, I'm ... , my job is ..., my father's job is..., what is your job?" – it's a big thing. Most people I know can speak English and maybe a bit of something else, in India they're all over it. I feel like I should do more. It's kind of embarrassing to say we only speak English.
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The trip from Chennai to Mahabalipuram involved an auto rickshaw, two state buses, and more people than you would ever want to fit on a bus.
The trip from Triplicane (our hotel) to Parrys (bus depot) was painless enough, finding the right bus was wan't too difficult, and finding a seat was surprisingly easy. As soon as you get on, everyone wants to sell something to you, or ask for money, or in our case, just stare at you – that went for a whole 20-minutes before the driver appeared and we left.
It was warm, and there were people standing from the get go, but the whole trip was made much nicer by the girl sitting behind us who's name I can't pronounce, let alone spell, so I'm going to call her 'S'.
A few minutes in to the trip, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around to find S and her seven-year-old nephew sitting behind us, staring intently, ready to fire any question they ever had about another culture.
Do you wear shorts?, why aren't you wearing a sari?, you don't have any bangles on, you're not wearing any chains (necklaces), do you have shawls?, do you use dollars?, do you like sweet food?, why don't you use your buttons?, for what purpose have you come to India?, D\do you like talking to me?, and at one point, why is your hair everywhere?
At that one I looked around, and compared to Indian women, realised my hair really was everywhere.
They really are immaculately groomed with combed hair pulled tightly back, usually into a braid, decorated with living floral clips and flower chains, gold embroided saris, nose rings, multiple earrings, bangles, necklaces, toe rings, and anklets.
She was thoroughly confused by just about everything I said, so when I replied to the hair question with "Um...I don't really know, it just is." She smiled, wobbled her head, and concocted new questions in an attempt to vaguely understand the strange world I come from.
After meeting her entire family at Kovalam Beach where the line ended (which, according to S, is a place famous for knives.
Chris: 'Oh yeah, like cooking knives?'
S: 'No, like <throat slicing action>').
We said goodbye and jumped on the bus to Mahabalipurum – a very different experience.
That bus was full by the time we arrived, and when an Indian bus is full, people are hanging out the doors while the driver carries on driving. It probably would have been ok if we didn't have bags. I'm certain people were annoyed. Every time we made a stop, about five people would get on and we'd have to move down, with 65L backpacks on, with virtually no ventilation.
We must have passed a school because all these teenage girls got on in relatively similar clothes, started chatting with the conductor in Tamil, and giggling at Chris.
After much giggling, the conductor looked at Chris and said 'these girls are very beautiful', to which Chris replied 'Oh, I'm...married?' and they giggled some more.
It's often much easier just to say you're married. Marriage is generally an aspiration in India and they don't really understand why you wouldn't be married. They look at you with great confusion when you tried to explain the western culture of dating for years and years.
An hour or so later, we arrived in Mahabalipuram and quickly got a taxi to Lakshmi Cottage – the place where hygiene goes to die. Our room was filthy. Dirt and mold encrusted the front door, the pillows were stained brown, the bathroom door had holes in it, there was a giant black mould patch on the roof where the upstairs bathroom must have been, and mosquitos appeared to have taken up residence long before we got there.
By this point, it was 2pm, Chris hadn't had breakfast yet and was so distraught he didn't know what to do. I gathered everything inside necessary to go out and eat something, and found Chris talking to the owner. In the end, we managed to get one of the upstairs rooms (which we initially didn't get because they're about $30/night) for a discounted price, ate something, and all was well with the world again.
The room still smelled a bit like old socks, the pillows were still gross, and there was more dirt around the door and windows than we'd like, but there's free wifi and it's not awful.
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And then we were in India.The plane trip felt like a week-long event. Of the two separate Indian men Chris sat next to on each flight, after hearing all about our virtually plan-less four-month trip, both leaned over and solemnly, with genuine concern, issued the mildly terrifying words of warning: “Be careful”, and proceeded to make it sound as though we were going to be jumped in the street.
Suffice to say, that hasn’t happened. Even after a whole day of fearless meandering. We were stared at a lot, but the only scary thing that happened was the taxi ride from the airport, and that was probably because our driver liked to speed up around cement roadblocks, large vehicles, and pedestrians.
We finally went to sleep at about 1:30am after the terror had worn off (6am Sydney time), woke up at about 6am India time to someone singing very loudly in Hindi, and a ground-breakingly good coffee from the hotel. I don’t know what they used or what they put in it, but it was great. Chris took one sip and said, “It’s like all my breakfasts in one”. So it was probably cocaine.
Then we walked around Chennai for hours. To be honest, it’s a pretty unexciting city. There’s things like museums, temples and the gigantor Marina Beach, but nothing you really feel compelled to stop and look at.
To put it in perspective, we saw some goats chilling in an enclosure near central, and stopped to marvel with the camera. We did see what looked like a mini parade going down the street at one point, complete with music, singing, firecrackers, flowers, and what looked like a giant float.
Turns out it was a funeral and in the ‘float’ was the body.
We stopped marvelling at that one.
It also appears the ‘hotel wifi’ we read about is a myth, so we spent a portion of the day trying to get Chris an Indian sim card – a process which is difficult, to say the least. We were photocopying documents, signing things, getting additional passport photos so officials can approve the pre-paid sim application, which must be submitted with photocopies of all identifying documentation, and passport photos. For Vodafone. After all that we still didn’t have an active sim card because you had to call back at 7pm and quote your address in order for the activation to work.
Security is actually kind of tight. There are armed guards and metal detectors at shopping centres.
Last night, we had our first meal at a random place. We tried to find somewhere locals were eating, and found this tandoori place with a few people in it and decided it would have to do. Turned out to be a great choice – by the time we left locals were piling in. Win.
We’re leaving today for Mahabalipuram, if we can figure out the bus system. We have to catch a public bus to a place called Parrys, and a coach from there to Mahabalipuram. One thing I've learnt is that all times are approximate. Things work, they just won't work quickly, and I think the less annoyed we become things are slow or go wrong, the happier we'll be, so even if this bus thing doesn't work out the way we think it will (my doubts are strong), we'll just have to be ok with it.