india.rickbradley.com - our trip to India
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Thought I'd fill you in on the north Kerala drinking experience, such as it is. After all, if we're going to take a 5 1/2 month trip to India and only write a handful of posts about it, one of them might as well be about booze.
So, various places in India have 0 legal drinking. Gujarat, where we stayed for a month is one of those places. There are coolers in the restaurants (like what you'd find juices in in a coffee shop in the US, say by the register) with, of course, juices, and some soft drinks (like Coca-Cola, e.g.) in them. Then the bottom 1/3rd will have things that look very much like malt liquor or alcoholic beverages: big "40" or 22oz. looking bottles, big labels with big type, maybe really dark glass, etc. The names will be things like "9pm", "5500", "Strong" or whatever. But they're all non-alcoholic. Some of them even go so far as to say things like (tiny print) "not" (huge print) "ALCOHOLIC" (tiny print) "at all", to give the impression from a distance that one might be drinking booze.
That's one end of the spectrum. Somehow there there is a way to get booze, either via some "permit" process I have never remotely understood (and I continue to persist in blaming the British for all Byzantine administrative bureaucracies extant in the former Raj), or presumably smuggled across the border from a neighboring state (such as Rajasthan, home of the infamous "Godfather" beer; Maharastra (Mumbai), etc.). The kids down the road from Kukma village where we were staying on New Year's Eve were so schlitzed they started screaming at 11:45 and didn't let up until 2:30am. Good times. Even the burgeoning population of cur dogs shut up and cowered down for that one.
Much of India subscribes to the "it ain't forbidden but we're trying to pretend like we don't have a problem" philosophy. Hooch is not available in restaurants, but rather only through barred-windows / big-metal doored liquor stalls. You don't walk in, you walk up to the front, and they get it for you. None of this browsing in the ails bidness. It's big guys at the window, and seedy guys milling about on the sidewalk.
Which also means that at dusk in such a locale you're likely to find some rode-hard-and-put-away-wet mean looking hobo (or saddhi, aka purported Indian holy-man wearing orange so you know he's not just a homebum) fuckers staggering and strung out, distributed in a Gaussian from these alcoholic medians. Berinag, up in Uttarakhand, was just another piss-smelling concrete-shacked mountain village with a serious litter problem during the day, but come 5:30pm you'd better get your gingham-totin' wife back on the stage coach before she got a grope and a chaw-stain from the local outlaws (reader is invited to apply all relevant cultural translations at his leisure). We meandered back in the evening a few times and the transformation was distinct once they let the drunks loose. It strikes me as odd now that they didn't ring a five-minute warning bell.
But, just like no state in India has a problem with litter -- while in reality the US litter peak in the mid-70s, before the proliferation of single-teared (ahem) Indian ads and "adopt-a-highway" advertising-cum-altruism (did I mention they use the X-cum-Y construction a lot here?) campaigns was a bio-degradable big mac container, quickly picked up from the roadside brush of life, in comparison to the vast fields, gulleys, and hillsides of half-incinerated-and-urine-doused plastic refuse smearing the subcontinent -- so does no state in India have a drinking problem. Which of course makes things 5 times worse and infinitely more interesting.
Where it really gets good, however, is at the other end of the spectrum, where India's contact with "the West", and its desire, nay, need, to pander to the international tourist market produces such extravagances as Indian-interpreted multi-cuisine shacks, Givson guitar dealers, western-toilet-populated beach huts, and, lo and behold, sales of beer and other alcoholic beverages in bars and even restaurants.
Goa is, without a doubt, the endpoint of the spectrum: Anjuna beach is arguably the birthing ground of Goa trance (still eking out the occasional rave), every restaurant worth its salt in Calungate or Baga has a variety of Kingfisher products on ice, and the main drag has a number of bars with all the rip-offs and inconveniences you'd find in upper-end Mumbai. But, even here, some places will serve your beer in a teapot; or you will find your waiter coming around to put your Kingfisher bottle on the floor so it's not visible from a distance. No matter how many bikinis (an utter scandal in 98% of India) are walking the beach, no matter what % of the nightly take is from the booze trade, it's arguably still not legal by the letter of the law, and the police in Goa, like anywhere else over here, don't miss a good opportunity for a shakedown.
But, Kovalam beach in Trivandrum, Pondicherry (up until post-independence still a French colony, now its own oddball "Union Territory" rather than part of Tamil Nadu, though sometimes good luck getting a beer in a restaurant, due to observance of "Tamil holiday") / Auroville (think hippie time-capsule from the late 60s replete with massive bucky-ball containing the world's largest crystal), the outskirts of Dharamsala, and islands of expats from Bangalore to Mumbai to Delhi, they all have bubbles of varying strength containing western debauchery in the sea of Indian traditionalism (whatever that is, uniform only in its variety).
Fort Cochin, just outside of Ernakulam, is another small little tourist enclave, pretty busy, lots of white folks. Just north of that, a 10-minute ($0.04 per person) ferry ride away is Vypeen Island, mistakenly designated on its wikipedia page as having the highest population density of any island in the world (that would supposedly include consideration of Taiwan, Manhattan, etc. -- it's always fun to find a wikipedia error in the wild). Another $0.10 will get you an hour-long bus ride where you can have a 60-year-old Indian man sleep on you while being thankful you have a rather huge backpack in your lap instead being defenseless, without even the pidgin Malayalam necessary to excuse yourself and your new paramour; ultimately ending up at Cherai, just a few miles walk from Cherai Beach. Somehow even when the most-carried Indian travel guide in the Western world (Lonely Planet) says it's "one of the best kept secrets [yada yada]" it has still managed to be an underpopulated and quiet experience here. Beautiful, nearly empty beaches, clean air (finally curing what I presumed was an intractable case of bronchitis, tuberculosis, and a touch of dropsy), and a distinct lack of people trying to hijack you to their "cousin"'s "spice shop"/"tailor shop"/"gift shop".
Here they have a couple of "beer parlours" which seem to be deserted (perhaps defunct), a number of restaurants sporting Kingfisher paraphernalia, and at least one place designated as a "toddy parlour".
We sampled the fare at some of the Kingfishered restaurants. These are under-the-radar joints: the beer is not on the menu, you can order it and it will usually appear, but not without some risk. The first night we were at one of these places it wasn't clear that beer was on the menu. We noticed an older British couple getting a very large Kingfisher and I began to toy with the idea (one of the major downsides being that it is only Kingfisher, after all -- imagine getting worked up over a Corona, but a Corona without that hint of Mexico (sweat?), and sans limes) of perhaps ordering one myself. Shortly thereafter the waiter breezed through and hijacked the beer, with ensuing confusion and consternation. Some rumblings soon after to the effect that "the S.S. is making rounds", and maybe 45 minutes later, on our way out, "the S. S." (about six 40- to 50-ish Indian men with tucked in shirts clearly looking for a bit of the graft) themselves busted into the place and were seen looking behind buildings, etc. On walking outside we realized they'd even brought a paddy wagon along, with enough room to haul off 30-40 people (granted, the design was for about a dozen captives, but folks travel differently over here).
But, the toddy parlour was pretty open about their wares, and one must presume that the S.S. justifies its crusade in the name of the downtrodden -- i.e., those who have bothered to cough up in advance the loot and favors necessary to secure an actual legal license to sell whatever it is that they're selling. Ali, in a move so outside her normal mien as to prompt later note, was hell-bent on "us" partaking of some "toddy".
As the internet will tell you, "toddy" here is a palm wine. The shit ferments to high gumption in a matter of hours. There are palms everywhere here. Regulating the brewing of toddy is an incomprehensibility here in India, a country where every law on the books is open by all parties to interpretation, the most strict enforcement amounts to a negotiation, and the court system is fundamentally useless. That's not to say the government (those with an incentive, presumably, to carve out some take from the regulatory coffer) hasn't tried various tacks in the past. But, ultimately, they've limited themselves to licensing "parlours", restricting transit of the hooch over state borders, and letting some folks set up as legitimate "brewers".
Of course, palm wine seems to be "brewed" about as much as prison wine is. I can only presume that the incorporated breweries are most concerned with getting the fermentation process to halt prior to producing a thick mealy vinegar or, seemingly more likely, sulfuric acid, than they are with attaining a hoppy finish or a subtle "mouth feel". The only secondary considerations are making sure the bottles don't explode and that the labels point back to their coffers and not someone else's.
All this being said, yesterday, noon-ish (because noon is always a good time for some drinking), we hiked it down the road in 85+ degree high humidity heat (because drinking when it's hot is also not a bad idea) about a mile or so to our local "toddy parlour". The sign faces town, not out in the boondocks where we're staying, because we need the kids to support the regulars, obviously (in fact, I'm pretty sure, having thumbed through a copy briefly at the now-defunct Shirley Street Station, that this is in the international franchising manual for dive bars). Walking down the drive you reach what looks like yet another (though longish) concrete house, and we for a moment wondered if this joint was shuttered like many of the rest. Seeing a few plastic tables in the unlit interior I decided this is probably the place and went in. The saloon metaphors from earlier in the tale should come to mind again: dank, dirty, dark; swarthy men, not particularly pleased, hands mucking about in small plates of something unidentifiable, "getting the job done" -- the job being to soothe the slow burn of not having whatever it was they were pouring over the burning parts.
The proprietor, of sorts, came out of the kitchen after some noises from a patron, and, seeing that we didn't fall into the swarthy (much less 100% male) nor domestic category, ushered us outside to a concrete hut with more light and a larger table (and presumably fewer potential international diplomatic concerns). After some negotiation it was revealed that our vegetarian options are fish, prawns, some other fish, and maybe tapioca (???), which I presumed actually meant "tilapia" though I haven't encountered tilapia on a menu in 6 months. We ordered the tilapioca and a bottle of toddy.
We got a plate with a fish on it, a plate with manioc on it, and a big-ass bottle purporting to be "Sand Piper" "beer", at some elevated alcohol %age. From a cursory inspection it was obvious that (a) the liquid inside was potent, (b) homemade, and (c) put in this bottle as a handy carrying and dispensing device, but without any connection to the provenance labeled.
A slight ruckus outside keyed us in to the fact that 3 of the patrons of the big house were ambling towards the main road. One of them was dialing in his walk to a setting somewhere between "no sidewards stability" and "possessed of the inclination to take a few dance-ish motivated back-steps with every 4 or 5 front-steps". He adjusted his ballast by urinating on the concrete wall along the driveway, and then proceeded to amble at a more respectable "dedicated stumble" down the road.
Ali jumped on the fish plate with relish, helped herself heartily to the toddy, and even found herself trying to take pictures of the interesting rat climbing in the corner of our shack (the combination of which evoked a word of surprise from me and a positive appraisal of the palm wine). The wine itself was hearty: it was a white-ish color, filled with a silt of the yeasts at work in its production. The taste was very much akin to a home-made ginger beer, but with a very strong kick and none of the "heat" of ginger. I'd give the taste maybe a 6 out of 10 -- which is a great score from me for a bucket-"brewed" 3rd world concoction without hops. Trying to estimate the alcohol content I'd put it at 10% perhaps up to 13% or 14% -- definitely a kick. The bottle was 650ml, so about a 22oz. beer size. Upon standing I had a minor sway happening, and we were acting a bit shitty for the next 90 minutes or so.
Final tab: 55Rs., or about $1.10. We figured the toddy was $0.80, so not bad at all for a good buzz.
So, I thought I’d take a moment to write down some of what we’ve learned so far about traveling around India. Though the story recounted so far is only up to talking about Delhi (in our first week of the trip), in reality we’ve been here for almost 2 months and have travelled a bit more. The real traveling stint is yet to come, but we’ve learned a few things already that might be helpful.
India has an extensive rail system, covering both local trains and subways in major cities and long-distance trains running thousand of miles connecting all the points of interest. The definitive print compendium of train information is a book called Trains at a Glance, which can be found in some hotels, at various rail stations, etc. It is a bit overwhelming, at some 230 pages of girth, but the information is in there. Be sure, if you’re using Trains at a Glance that you have a very recent copy, as schedules change periodically.
Being addicted to the internets, however, I’m a big fan of trying to get train information online, and, preferably booking there. There is an Indian Railways website, which actually has a lot of information on the trains, routes, times, etc. It is, however, a complete 1995-era nightmare of disusability. Whenever you feel inclined to complain about how bad some website you have to use is, go over to the Indian Railways site and try to accomplish some fact-finding mission, something crazy like answering the question, “Are there any Thursday night trains from Mumbai to Goa?” or, “Is it possible to ride first class from Kolkata to New Delhi?” However, I will say that I thoroughly condone their use of multiple marquee tags per page for side-scrolling goodness.
So, to address some of the problems with the marketability and profitability of Indian Railways, a spin-off company was set up, called the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Company Limited which, of course has its own, improved, website for train information and bookings. If the original site was 1995 then the new site is partying like it’s 1999. You can actually search for trains and find availability, and there’s even a fast-track option where, if you know the various arcana of the reservation process (trust me, if you’re hearing about this for the first time, you don’t have the necessary information to ride the fast-track), you can fill them in all on one page and attempt to make your booking.
Unfortunately, I spent 2 hours one morning trying to book a train to Goa on that site and finally gave up: every other page load fails with a “500 Server Error” message (seriously), when you search for train information you spiral into this black hole of connected pages about that train and only that train, if you use the back arrow or reload a page your session is hosed (so if you go down a wrong path, you must start from the beginning again), and, to top it all off…
You know how you go to some sites (like, say, airline reservations sites) and, if you leave the browser sitting there for like 30 minutes the next time you do something on the site it tells you your “session has timed out”? Well, at the risk of boring you, let me tell you that the way that’s implemented is that when you come to the site a “cookie” is stored with your browser and that’s used by the site to remember who you are, where you are, what you’ve chosen on the site, etc. Since a lot of reservation information is time-sensitive they want to make sure they don’t offer you a flight (for instance), and then if you decide 6 hours later you want that flight to guarantee you the same flight at the same price (or to guarantee that was the cheapest, etc.). So, every time you click on the site they check “hey, when was the last time I saw this person?” and if that’s more than, say, half an hour ago, then they say “been too long, let’s try this again”, but if you’ve been at all active then the time is pretty recent, you get to continue, and the “last time I saw this person” time is updated to now. So, as long as you do something before a half hour is up the clock starts again…
Well, on the “better” Indian rail site, there is, evidently, a 10 minute session timer. Not only that, but it doesn’t reset every time you do something, it starts counting and then you have 10 minutes TO DO EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO DO ON THE SITE(!!!) Good luck! Oh, and this is the same site where 50% of the page loads fail, and if you go down a blind alley you have to start over (no back button! no reload!). So, after 2 hours I actually got to the payment screen a few times. This is so bad-ass:
If booking a train is a video game, that’s the boss at the end of the 3rd level, the payment selection screen. So, with some research (clock’s ticking!) I determined that there were basically two of those options that would possibly work for me. I tried both of them (note that means I had to start all the way at the beginning of the process for the 2nd one) and neither of them actually worked. My card was fine, I was able to use it to buy tickets later, it’s just that on that site, evidently, you can’t actually use the payment gateways that actually process regular credit cards to pay for anything.
So, while the original Indian Railways site is absolutely horrible, it at least doesn’t pretend to be useful for anything. The new site, however, has to qualify as the worst site I’ve ever had to use, mostly because it purports to be The Way to do the one thing I needed to do (book a train), but it’s actually impossible to do it there and mind-bogglingly time-consuming and frustrating to actually figure that out. Yay!
I did have a few go-arounds with their customer support trying to tell them that their payment gateways don’t actually work, but the best I could get was a change in form-letter response after a few queries. Oh well. Good luck to the next guy.
But, I’m just telling you this to save you the few hours you probably don’t have, as I’ve already done it for you. So, it turns out after digging for a bit I found a third website which is capable of booking Indian Railways trains. Not only that, but (a) it usually works, and (b) is from 2009 and feels like it. So, if you go to ClearTrip.com you can plan trips, look up train details (schedules, routes, availability, fares, etc.), book trains, get e-tickets, etc. It even SMS messages you your confirmations, any changes, reminders for when your trip starts, etc. Not only that but they also do airline reservations within India as well. It does all the slick auto-completion on station/airport names, knows which stations are in the same city (“Delhi — All Stations”) which you’d have to just know on the other sites, can search on flexible dates, shows wait-list status, etc. I’ve used it a number of times with great success.
And, as if that weren’t enough, sometimes ClearTrip is also screwed up, because, it is ultimately dependent on information from India Railways to be able to show current availability… which, it turns out, is key to being able to actually book a train. So, sometimes the India Railways servers are so screwed up that you can’t even get the booking done with ClearTrip. Since this recently happened to me I also learned that, since the last time I tried using the site, MakeMyTrip.com now also has the ability to book India Railways train tickets. Recently, when none of the other sites (including ClearTrip) was working, I was still able to get a booking done on MakeMyTrip. So that’s 4 possible sites for your train needs, at least two of which might actually work.
So this brings me to two important concepts about the trains in India: train classes, and quotas. For more info on train classes, there’s already a decent train class primer online. The quick rundown is…
Anyway, 2AC is a good introduction to the train system — decent space, good price, climate controlled, you don’t have to haul around bedding, and there’s food available. On some of the trains (e.g., the “Rajdhani” trains between major cities) you may get food with the journey, on other trains you can often buy food and/or chai. For what it’s worth, the only time I got sick so far on this trip was after eating the provided Rajdhani food on the way from Mumbai to Delhi. My advice is to get some food before the journey and pack it with you. It’ll be better quality, it will be cheaper, and you’ve got a much better selection to choose from.
Also, the guys who bring around food, chai, water, etc., for purchase, will also be looking for a tip at the end of the journey (or at least their shift), which is all well of good. But… a word of warning: some of these guys are absurdly aggressive. I’ve seen them waking up sleeping passengers to shake them down for tips (actually demand tips), and don’t expect to get change from them if you don’t have small amounts handy: they’ll snatch whatever you have in hand and not look back. Caveat ridor.
Obviously, every train obviously has a capacity, as there are only a fixed number of seats. The train system is highly used, and so most trains fill up quickly. Sometimes a month in advance there are no seats available. Indian Railways has a waitlist system (you’ll see this on ClearTrip.com if you book there) and you can play the waitlist game if you need to. If you do that, worst case, you show up to the train station and look on the wall for dot-matrix printouts of who actually got on board which specific trains, and maybe you got a seat and maybe you didn’t. Otherwise, there are some seats that are reserved in a number of “quota” categories that might be available to you. The two I’ve had experience with (and which are most likely to apply to you) are the Foreign Tourist quota and the Tatkal quota.
If you’re a foreign tourist, you can go to certain train stations (Churchgate Station in Mumbai, and the New Delhi train station are two that we’ve had success with) in person and book train tickets under the Foreign Tourist quota. Bring your passport, try to know what you’re booking, and bring sufficient cash to get it done. We’ve had success with this even on highly waitlisted trains. Note that you can’t book Foreign Tourist quota tickets online, and I’ve never found a way to book via phone, travel agent, etc. (though maybe there are travel agents somewhere who can get it done). It seems like travel agents here are armed primarily with an internet browser, and a knowledge of what values to put into which fields — i.e., you’re paying them to deal with the hassle, not because they have any special privileges.
The second quota of interest is the Tatkal quota. This is basically a “last-minute” quota of tickets. Sale of Tatkal tickets happens 2 days before the train departure and runs until the tickets under the quota are used up, which is, evidently, pretty quickly. I believe they go on sale at 8am India time, but you’ll want to check the details to be sure. ClearTrip.com seems to be capable of booking Tatkal quota tickets, if you can score them. The one time we used Tatkal we booked through a “travel agent” (a guy someone knew up in Almora who got on the internet at the right time and bought the tickets for us) and picked up the tickets later.
There are other quotas, but none of them seem to apply to us so far, so these are all we’ve had experience with.
Note that if you’re booking in person that the reservation facilities may be at the train station, they may be at another train station in the same city, or they may be in a different building altogether. Be sure to ask someone in a position to both know and not direct you to a for-pay travel agent, and be sure to get clear directions: often what sounds like an easy jaunt to the next corner becomes an hour-long exercise in futility (hi, Delhi!).
A few random notes about train travel to finish up with:
Sometimes a 41 hour train ride (wait-listed at that) is a bit too daunting and/or time-consuming. At that point, if you need to move a long distance, it’s worth considering whether you should fly. There are a bunch of airlines that offer Indian domestic flights. Some of them have a fleet of 10 planes, others have hundreds — even some of the “discount” carriers. So, in arranging a trip from Uttarakhand down to Goa & Trivandrum and points south, I ultimately booked a few flights. I tried ClearTrip again and was pleased with the process. I think you might be able to find a cheaper flight using another site, including MakeMyTrip.
My process of booking a flight was to do the searching on ClearTrip, then for each airline I was considering flying, pull that airline up in Wikipedia. I pretty much convinced myself that all of the airlines that were coming up (GoAir, SpiceJet, Kingfisher, IndiGo, etc.) weren’t overly likely to face-plant a Boeing into the jungle, so I just went with the cheapest flights with good times. You can print out your e-ticket, get to the airport, check in and get a boarding pass, go through security, board, etc. If you got to India you probably know the drill.
The only bits of interest so far (Delhi Airport, Trivandrum Airport, Goa Airport) were that they will gladly let you carry a big-ass bottle of water through security (in the U.S. they’ll try to keelhaul you for such a subversive terrorist plot), they wouldn’t even let people into the airport at all without a valid ticket, and rather than having boarding areas with seats by the gates the domestic terminals have big seating areas, shopping areas, and food courts (depending on the size of the airport, obviously), with small gate areas with just enough room to line up people to board the shuttles that drive out to the planes on the tarmac. A more efficient use of space, in my opinion.
Also, airport prices are still airport prices. Books in the bookstores were selling at American prices, though denominated in rupees. And, shitty import beers?
I wouldn’t pay that at a Cincinnati Reds game (it’s over $5), I sure as hell wouldn’t pay it in India.
I’ll be damned if I can find anything useful online about buses between cities in India. They exist, they are very useful, run very frequently, and are one of the cheapest ways to travel some of the long- and back-roads in India. I took a bus from Tripuradevi, Uttarakhand down to Almora at the start of the Goa trip. I spent 85 rupees (about $1.70) for a four-hour drive through the mountains. I don’t think it’s possible to beat that cost and still get there within a week. But, the way I caught the bus was asking the people we’ve been living with in Tripuradevi when the buses come, and when the bus came they made sure the bus was going to the right place. Maybe after a few more months I’ll divine the ways of the bus system, but for now I’m in “ask someone if there’s a good bus” mode.
For what it’s worth, the Almora bus was pretty bumpy, because the driver was screaming down the hills like a bat out of hell, but it was fun and I had no real complaints.
I was also able to catch buses from Trivandrum to and from Nagercoil and to and from Kanyakumari (the southernmost point on the Indian subcontinent). These were no-frills all-metal affairs being used for in-town and between-town transport. I think I spent about 40 rupees (~$0.80) for 3-4 hours of travel. The biggest problem with the buses down in Kerala and Tamil Nadu is that the signs (as well as all the writing on the buses) are a bit hard to read:
… and that was the readable sign.
My Malayalam (basically Tamil, but just different enough not to be Tamil) is basically non-existent. My Hindi’s awful but at least I can sound out the characters and figure out place names. With Malayalam I had nothing. So I resorted to pestering the nicest and/or most official-looking people asking which bus is headed to Kanyakumari, (or back) and when. Complicating matters was the fact that bus drivers (about as official a source for bus info as I could think of) and taxi/rickshaw drivers were wearing basically identical garb — and those latter guys have a definite interest in getting you to pay them rather than some bus company. On the plus side, if you do make it into a bus and are worried about missing your stop, you need not worry. While the extra $0.03 you’d be “stealing” by staying on longer than planned may not seem like much to you, the bus conductor is ready to throw your ass off over it. Good times.
At least some of your time is going to be spent in cities. Presuming you weren’t born in India and you’re not riding a donkey in from the Khyber Pass, you’re almost certainly flying into one of the metro areas. You’re going to have to get from your preferred inbound transit mode to either your metro destination, or to your next conveyance the hell out of the city. There are a lot of ways to go about this, each with its own pluses and minuses.
Taxis: They’re not yellow here, they’re typically green and black. You’ll see them at the airports, around the train stations, driving up and down busy streets, etc. In the bigger cities it is not hard to find a taxi, and, often there are way more taxis than the demand seems to warrant. First off, you will be approached by taxi drivers or purported taxi drivers whenever you emerge from airports, train stations, bus stations, metro stations, bazaars, shopping centers, hotels, etc. The more confused, tired, nervous, hurried, etc., that you feel, the more likely you are to hook up with someone who is going to charge you more than you should be paying, or worse (like taking your money and dropping you off somewhere you didn’t want to be). Taxis are a great way to get from one place to another, they are more expensive than other means, but a good taxi driver can save you time, get you to hard-to-reach places, enlighten you on the scenery around you, get your errands streamlined, etc. It’s just hard to get a good taxi driver sometimes… If you find one, ask them if they have a mobile number — it might come in handy later.
A few bits of advice:
So when I say “taxi” I’ve been meaning regular 4-wheeled car-style vehicles (or jeep/van-style vehicles), but the term applies to a much wider range of transportation options than we have in the States:
Delhi is the only city we’ve visited so far that has a subway system (creatively dubbed “The Metro”). It’s a very clean system, and very nice, where it goes. The downside is that many of the places one might want to go in New Delhi don’t yet have Metro lines. There is a fairly ambitious plan for expansion that covers much of New Delhi, but it’s still very much underway. This also includes an under-construction Airport Link that purportedly will be completed “maximum” (my taxi driver’s characterization) 2011. Also, note that the Metro doesn’t run overnight. We encountered a shut down station entrance at around 9pm(?) in Old Delhi (and it was very sketch, with wild dogs inside the entrance behind the gate and some “helpful” locals who gave us the creeps, and in hindsight were clearly up to way the hell no good). The station entrance at the Old Delhi railway station opens around 5:30 am, though the official metro opening is at 6am. You can check when the last trains run from your entry station, typically sometime between 11 and 11:20pm.
Metro pricing in Delhi is based on distance — you use a card or a token when you enter, and then also when you leave. Tokens are cheap, and there are 3 types of cards: smart cards, 1-day tourist cards, and 3-day tourist cards. For the tourist cards you pay a 50 rupee deposit (which you get back whenever you surrender or convert the card) and it’s 70 rupees for 24 hours, or 200 rupees for 3 days. Those are “all you can ride” rates. The smart card is just a similar card that you have a balance on, which is deducted against on every trip. To get cards you go to the (very visible) Customer Care booth at the station, and tokens are available at token windows.
After all is said and done, we prefer to walk as much as possible — the exercise is good and you definitely get a better sense of where things are. Just be clear on where it is safe to walk, where you’re going, and whether it will be safe after dark if you end up out that late.
There have been some website updates. Now you can see the current time where we are in India by looking at the top of any page. Also, if things are working properly, right below the time you can see the current number of photos from our trip that have been uploaded to the Internets, as well as when the last upload occurred. Finally, I’ve added commenting to the site, so feel free to leave your comments on any post. Also, more pictures (not all of which are labelled as of yet)!
And now back to the story…
Ok, so the guy on the train with all the cans of paint was a tiffin-wallah and all that “paint” was edible. Good times.
Speaking of Indian food, here’s Ali sitting in front of a vegetarian Thali plate we had in some random place along the street in Mumbai…
It was really good, and the price was right too (~$1.10).
We spent the next couple of nights in the Hotel City Palace (not to be confused with the Hotel Metro Palace where we spent our first night in Mumbai … good luck w/ that website, btw). We had originally attempted to stay in another hotel in the Fort district in Mumbai, but no rooms were to be had. Upon inquiring we were told to follow a man from the lobby, who then proceeded to walk us briskly seemingly at random around Mumbai.
We finally arrived at the Hotel City Palace, the very small lobby of which is an upstairs affair. I was taken upstairs by one of the tiniest elevators (complete with elevator operator) I’d ever been in to see a couple of rooms: one “deluxe” and the other not so deluxe, the difference seeming to be that the “deluxe room” had two windows while the non-deluxe had one.
We ultimately decided to go non-deluxe, signed in, arranged things, tipped our guide, etc., and then were confronted with the notion of fitting both of us, a bellhop, an elevator operator, and about 150lbs. worth of gear (worn on our backs in camping backpacks, and our fronts in day packs) into an elevator with about a 3 foot by 6 foot floor area. So some sort of back-channel operation was set up whereby the bellhops ran the bags up some intestine of the building and we rode up in the micro-elevator.
The micro-elevator, by the way, also had a mechanism whereby when it was stopped and/or the door was opened it played some music to let everyone know it’s time to (dis)embark. The first couple of times I heard it I was like “that is REAAALLY familiar”. Then it hit me: “Oh, it’s ‘Jingle Bells’.” “Jingle Bells” starting, always starting, from the “dashing through the snow” part.
We must’ve heard that damned song 50 times while we were there. So many questions: Why that song? Was it just one of many possible songs the elevator can play but noone knew how (or chose to) change the selection? Was it put on for Christmas season and they never got out of the mood, like icicle lights on the front of a Plainview ranch house in July?
By the time we left I realized the guy who always seemed to be manning the elevator, who, from what I was best able to deduce, was sitting in that cramped box from something like 7am until 10pm, must hear snippets of that song close to 5,000 times a day. On our last few rides I was trying to get a good look at him out of the corner of my eyes — “Is he cracking up?”, “Is that a look of anger or something worse?”, “Does he have the patience of the Buddha?” The Jingle Bells Buddha, or the next guy to go on a spree at Victoria Station? We had a pleasant stay at the Hotel City Palace, but ultimately I felt a little more relaxed when we’d left the Jingle Buddha behind.
So, staying in the Fort district was pretty nice, if a bit hectic (at least traffic-wise). I think I was starting to go through a bit of the culture shock: this was the first place we saw people who not only slept on the pavement, but had essentially claimed specific parts of the pavement as their homes. Getting up early in the morning and walking around there was a definite conscious sense of “I’ll walk over this way so I’m not walking through what is basically someone’s bedroom / bathroom”. Also, this was the first opportunity to really think, “Wow, we’re here, completely alone, we don’t know the language, don’t know the customs, don’t even know how to get something to eat, make a phone call, etc.”
But we had a map, a really primitive knowledge of Devanagari script (the script used for Hindi, Marathi, and a number of other common languages in India), and there were a lot of people who understood at least some basic English words.
So we did a lot of exploring. There were lots of shops, lots of places to see, street stalls with lots (including lots of junk) for sale. Our goals were to work out mobile Internet access, get cash, get a mobile phone, get some more suitable clothes for India (as our intent was to pack little and purchase here for what we needed), and arrange our transport to our next stop, Delhi.
Some quick Mumbai tips:
We were looking for a place to eat a bite of lunch while walking around. We passed up a few candidates and then saw a clearly marked vegetarian place on the street. So we went in, which ended up meaning going up to the 2nd floor. There were a number of people eating there, which seemed promising, and a guy sitting at a table near the door. It was pretty clear that he was the owner or manager or some such. So we walked in and pidgined our way into asking him if we could both have lunch. There seemed to be some doubt or reluctance, but ultimately he waved us in, and the wait staff seated us and set about bringing us things.
The food was really good. This was definitely a “we’ll keep bringing the food, just keep eating” sort of affair. It was a confirmation of “yes, people really do just eat with their hands” (which was really “yes, people really do just eat with their right hands”). We did our best, and the entire time, the extended wait staff of like 8-10 guys were walking past looking at us, peeking out from behind the corners, etc. We were definitely the main attraction. At some point I noticed that the restaurant was 100% populated with men — no women. We paid, tipped (there was a metal locked tip box near the door, which was convenient — otherwise, I’d still be wondering if meal tips were a concept that had been envisioned in India, because many times people don’t seem to know what to do with a tip), and headed out. I still think that restaurant was some sort of “gentleman’s club”, hence the reluctance to let a couple in. Being obvious foreigners (and probably harmless at that) probably paved the way. Funtimes, nonetheless.
Mumbai was something of an easy introduction to India. It’s crazy, the traffic is insane, it’s hectic, there are people sleeping on their chunk of sidewalk while people drive Lexuses (Lexii?) to finance jobs, there are large scale livestock hauling agricultural what-nots down major street, guys with baskets of fish on their heads dodging past guys with briefcases, guys hanging out of trains next to 200 lunches clicking along to their destinations. But it’s also somehow Western enough to make sense, it can fit mostly in the American psyche, with bumps, blips, and exceptions, but it has the feeling that you could maybe make sense of it, given enough time (which is probably a misconception, but at least it’s not an obvious culture disconnect from day 1). From what little I’ve seen so far of Delhi, much less our limited exposure to the rest of the country, I’m glad we got introduced via Mumbai.
At some point in the evening of our first night in the Hotel City Palace Ali and I looked at each other and said, “we’ve only been in India 24 hours.” It really seemed like 3 or 4 days by that point. By the time we got to Almora (at which point we’d been in India almost a week) it seemed like 3-4 weeks had passed. This sort of travelling, where everything is new, everything is unknown, everything is difficult, causes an exhausting sort of time dilation (not to mention the normal jet lag that comes with a 16+ hour plane flight).
So, we managed to get cash, once we figured out where the bank was (see above). We did not manage to get a mobile phone, nor find a way to pick up the equipment for mobile broadband (this was September 9th, by October 4th we still haven’t worked out mobile broadband, and our mobile phone connection is only possible by a loaned SIM card). We did manage to arrange a tourist-ticket berth on the Rajdani Express, the rather high-end train which is a straight shot from Mumbai to Delhi.
In the morning we headed out to see if we could check out the huge market district north of the Fort. Turns out the place is massive and has anything you could ever want (including things like birds and crickets), but it also isn’t open for business at 10am in the morning (which is when we showed up). We ended up in a nearby shop where Ali picked up some interim Indian clothing for the next stage of our journey, but we’re looking forward to going back to Mumbai to see the market when everything is actually open.
On the way there we did get one other thing — actually two other things. There was a man near the Victoria Station with a blanket with various small books on it. Among them were pocket-sized English-Hindi and Hindi-English dictionaries — for Rs 40 apiece (~$0.80 each). So we grabbed one of each. Later I was to understand for the first time in my life why people use the phrase “and pick up a good [insert language here] dictionary”. Having never actually seen a bad foreign language dictionary, I presume they meant one that had lots of words in it as opposed to one that had a bunch of words in it. No, they actually mean (1) make sure the dictionary is for the correct language, for instance Hindi instead of, say, Marathi; and (2) that the set of words available in the dictionary isn’t a batshit crazy selection. So, now we know.
We went back, checked out of our hotel and grabbed a taxi (a normal car, not a bikeshaw, auto-rickshaw, crazy jeepney thing or otherwise) and headed over to the other big train station, Mumbai Central. We got there plenty early, because we had absolutely no idea what to expect. Our Lonely Planet India guide insisted that there is a supervised “cloak room” where travellers with train tickets can stash their bags. The thing about the larger train stations is that from 200 yards in any direction from the station to everywhere in the interior there are countless people vying for your attention. Some of them are taxi drivers wanting to give you a lift, some are coolies wanting to be paid to carry your luggage, various of them insist on knowing where you’re going, so they can “help” you find your way. We learned pretty quickly that we were better off figuring things out on our own, even if it took a little more time, as then at least the information would be reliable.
So, the cloak room at Mumbai Central was hard to find. At this time of day there weren’t a lot of passengers waiting around, but there weren’t any cloak room signs, and it turned out to be behind a wall that ran the width of the station, in front of which were all manner of freight goods lining up to go onto the platform. The Lonely Planet guide said that all bags should have a lock, and ideally some sort of chain, and that we’d be able to buy such things at or near the station. Once we found the cloak room the signage there seemed to indicate the same. So we stumbled around for a while looking for someplace likely to sell such things and finally just ended up asking at a little candy stand and the guy produced some from underneath the counter. Pretty insubstantial for chains and/or locks, at least they would get us to pass regulations.
So we humped our bags back to the cloak room. It seems to be a general thing (in the small sample set we’ve investigated so far), but the guys who man the train station cloak rooms can be in a 3000 sq. ft. room with only luggage on racks, noone else in the place but themselves and you — standing 3 feet from where they are sitting — and they can steadfastly ignore your presence while doing apparently nothing, so believably that you begin to wonder whether you are actually there or not.
So, once we actually got the attention of the attendants, they took one big backpack (which had lock and chain applied), and while I was rigging up the other they were like “yeah yeah, come on” … i.e., the lock/chain business wasn’t something anyone actually cared about. Which was fine by me as there was no way anyone would get to the bags the way they were stored, and if the attendants wanted to go through them the “lock” and “chain” gear we’d purchased wouldn’t put them off.
Liberated, we decided to check out the platform to make sure we knew where we’d be. We walked past some of the freight towards the doorway to Platform 1. At which point some random guy stopped us to tell us that we couldn’t go that way and indicated that we should follow him. Note that on the other side of the Platform 1 doorway there was a big landing which connected all the other doorways (Platform 2, 3, …, etc.), so it wasn’t like by walking past the piled up freight that we were going anywhere different than if we’d walked through the big open passenger room. So we just ignored the guy, who disappeared never to be seen again. I mean, really? Was that supposed to work for you?
So, we had a few hours to kill, and had fallen off the grid for a bit. We decided to see what we could do about getting some internets, getting some food, maybe some provisions, etc. So we roamed around near the train station. We were advised, repeatedly, that if we wanted a cab we had found our driver. I told him, in all honesty, that if we found that we needed a taxi he’d be the first to know. We roamed around for 7 or 8 blocks in a few different directions and only turned up one internets cafe, where, we were informed “the nets are down”. In India the internets cafes seem to actually be less use for internets than they are for microsoft word, so the place was still pretty packed, regardless.
After a while we decided that if we could somehow make a call home then we’d be fine (still no mobile phone, still no mobile internets). So we began to pidgin-Hindi our way around asking about pay phones or the like. Turns out the 40,000 signs we’d seen around India that said “ISD | STD | PCO” didn’t mean what we thought (“Independent School District w/ Sexually Transmitted Diseases from Prison Corrections Officers”) but actually meant “telephones, you can call anywhere on the planet from”. AHA!
So, we found a well-lit and moderately sanitary stall and figured out how to call the US of A.
Of course, we ended up leaving voicemails, but that’s how that goes.
We ended up eating at a good restaurant, though one that was definitely geared towards making most of its money as a bar in the evening, including various strange British-esque booze ads with scruffy Bollywood stars. The crowd was, as in many places, a bit mysoginistic, but the food was pretty good.
We got back to the train station, de-cloaked our bags, the train arrived (on time, which we were to learn later is not the norm, nor was its on-time departure). We consulted our ticket, found the appropriate car, lugged our bags in, found our berth, and settled in. We were in 2AC (2nd class, air-conditioned). That means that each berth can have 4 people, there are two long seats, whose backs fold down to make bed platforms. Above there are two long bed platforms. You put your bags under the seats, and there’s a little table over by the window. The berth is “sealed” by a set of curtains which cover the end of the berth facing the narrow hallway that runs the length of the train car.
Basically, 1AC (where available) has berths which have a wall and a door. 3AC appears much like 2AC, excecpt there are 6 people per berth instead of 4. There are non-AC classes, which I haven’t looked into closely, other than to note that the windows are not sealed and they, presumably, don’t have air conditioning (the various info I’ve read says to bring your own bedding and warm enough clothing if necessary). The sleeper class appears to be a free-for-all: the long-distance overnight analogue to the Mumbai local trains at 120% capacity. Not as packed but definitely a first-come-first-served defend-your-space affair.
The bathrooms are at the end of the car and this train at least had both “western” and “Indian”-style bathrooms. Western bathrooms have a western toilet, while Indian bathrooms have what some have called “a hole in the floor”, but which is more accurately described as a trough-shaped receptacle on the floor, with foot grips, and a hole at one end (if we’re trying to be accurate, at least). It’s a squat toilet as opposed to a seat toilet.
Being fresh off the boat I decided it was a priority for me to do any sitting work in the restrooms while sitting on a seat. The train was a bit bumpy and I didn’t relish learning to use an Indian-style loo while moving at various velocities with random and rapid accelerations. The odds of missing trough and scoring a direct hit on the space between sock and shoe seemed too great for my liking. I did venture into the foreign facilities for more upright tasks and studied the various fixtures and appurtenances supplied. Notable was the lack of toilet paper (we took the sage advice of packing our own for the trip), though, uniquely (looking back) there was a supply of hand soap available. Typically the only accessory to be found is a supply of some sort of running water. You can presumably do the rest of the math.
That particular train ride comes with not only plenty of chai, but also abundant food. The food quality, though, wasn’t as high as we’d gotten accustomed to. Not that we’d been eating gourmet fare, or 4-star restaurant food: we’d been eating meals that cost ~$0.60-$2.00 in total, from random restaurants and shops. But the food was freshly prepared at the time we ordered it or very recently. The train food, as you might imagine, was prepped en masse and wrapped up, or pre-packaged quite some time before. There were a couple of odd bits, like the weird white-bread (as in Wonder White Bread) cheese? sandwich. Ali took a sniff of that and said “hell no”. I don’t have any sense or self-restraint, so I ate that thing and pretty much everything else.
Also, their particular version of the standard Indian post-dinner “breath freshener” was a bit odd.
Anyway, more on the train food later, once we get to the Delhi section of the story.
The ride was fascinating. We were getting to see Mumbai, the countryside north of Mumbai, wetlands, farmland, cities, towns, refineries, plains, hills, etc. I was still jet lagged, and also excited at seeing the countryside of India. So I’d stare out the window as everything went by. Once in the middle of the night (like 2:30am local time) we passed a rural road intersection. I remember seeing a couple of buildings and a light. In the light there was a guy on a motorcycle. The guy was carrying a massive basket on his head — like 3 feet tall and almost as wide — patiently waiting, alongside a dog. I was trying to puzzle out where he was going, what it would look like for him to drive a motorcycle with that huge attachment on his head, is that his dog, what compelled him to do this at 2:30am, and what did our train seem like to him, …?
Other features of the train ride included someone playing Hindi and English news headlines at such a high volume that they were distorted beyond recognition. At some point later we were treated to what I can still only describe as “overly loud shit jazz very loosely acquainted with something to do with a sitar”.
And on the morning of September 10th we pulled into Delhi.
We were able to get the internets to finally do our bidding and I’ve put up a batch of photos. No real descriptions on them yet, but, hey, they’re there :-)
You can find them on flickr here. We’ll keep putting our pictures at that link, so check back in the future.
There are some running jokes in Ali’s (largely Italian) family about the relaxed Italian demeanor, especially in contrast to the efficiency of the German volk. The most-cited yarn ends with the punch-line, “Of course ve vill be on time. This is a GERMAN train now.” Needless to say, Lufthansa got us into Frankfurt an hour early, as well as getting us into Mumbai exactly on schedule with nary a bag lost.
At 1am Indian customs was so laid-back as to be effectively non-existent. Despite the fact that we wrote on our declaration forms that we were importing 6 trash bags of marijuana (I’m lying, fwiw) no eyebrows were raised — we didn’t even get shaken down for a micro-bribe — and we cruised right through.
We had booked a room near the airport in advance, which came with free transportation to the hotel. We had no trouble finding our driver, and he walked us to the parking garage and then left us in a waiting area while he went to fetch the van. We met our first “helper” at that point, when an unidentified man told us a few times that a car was coming and would be here in a moment. It was never 100% clear whether he was talking about the car we obviously already knew was coming, another car that he was somehow affiliated with, or whether he was a bit off kilter and just delusional about cars. When our driver came back this other fellow continued to try to “help” by attempting to assist with the bag loading process. Given that I had no desire to lose our luggage 3 1/2 minutes after clearing customs we managed to decline the assistance. Ultimately our driver shooed the guy off and we took off to the hotel. Was he just shaking us down for the “I helped you, gimme some rupees” deal? Probably, but hard to say. I know for sure, though, that I wasn’t likely to play live action role-playing games at a jet-lagged post-1am new country airport.
On the ride back to the hotel we got our first look at the dynamics of Mumbai traffic. Somehow at 2am there are lots of people out roaming the streets near the airport. One of those people was a guy who found himself in the middle of the street as our driver came around a curve. While still probably 100 feet away from us, he panicked, and sprinted out of the roadway. He wouldn’t have moved any faster had the driver been shooting at him. That pretty much set the tone for what to expect from Mumbai traffic.
Our first hotel in India was nice: a small clean room with a small clean bathroom. The shower was on the wall of the bathroom without a separate stall (we’d seen that in Europe as well). The toilet was “western” style, there was air conditioning, and small on-wall water heater. They even had internet access — via a USB mobile broadband dongle. They charged us 50 rupees an hour for it (about $1/hour). The connection was a bit flaky, but it got the job done. Oh and free breakfast (of Indian food — did I mention that I like Indian food?) – bonus.
The hotel was located in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, not far from the airport. It’s crazy busy, seems very poor, and has an unique smell. My father-in-law recently said about Sheay Stadium, “The smell of Sheay Stadium has a heady combination of urine and beer which noone else has been able to duplicate — Yankee Stadium, Fenway, noone.” I felt much the same about Bandra, only I’m not sure what they used in place of beer. After a couple hours I wondered if I would just get used to the smell, but mostly I just started to get confused and light-headed.
All that said, it was a very interesting place to be. We ended up going to the Bandra train station to try to catch a ride into Mumbai proper. We spent probably half an hour there, first figuring out which trains went to Churchgate station, then fruitlessly trying to figure out how the ticketing system worked, or, actually, if there was a ticketing system. I presume there must be, but given the lack of ticket machines, railway employees, and the sheer impossibility of attempting to regulate riders on the train I’m still highly skeptical.
Each train that would arrive would be 120% full of riders. There was usually a car filled with only women that was a mere 100% full. The remainder of the cars were packed full with men, many hanging out the doorways and/or somehow dangling out into space from the train itself. We saw one car where a guy had what appeared to be maybe 200 small cans of paint, on some sort of jerry-rigged metal carrying harness, lying on the floor from one doorway all the way across to the other doorway. When the train stopped a layer (if you will) of paint cans left the train with someone else, while the others stayed on the train with their ostensible owner. It’s still not crystal clear to me whether this was a planned transaction (and if so, the mind boggles at the logistical arrangements) or even had the consent of the man on the train most associated with the collection of cans.
Ultimately we started drawing attention by being the only non-Indian folks anywhere on the platforms. It became pretty clear that Ali might find a moderately sane ride in one of the cars full of ladies, but it didn’t even look possible to get on any of the other cars, much less to have a fair chance at making it to Churchgate station intact — completely ignoring any questions of remuneration. That and the fact that getting split up on the Crazy Train on our first day … probably not a great plan.
(yes, that Hindi bit just says “Churchget Churchget” for some reason)
So, we bailed and decided to catch a cab. There were two kinds of cabs available: what I can only describe as a motorized rickshaw (a driver in front, an open rear with room for two passengers in back, but definitely closer to an automobile than a rickshaw), and a conventional, if small, regular car. The auto-rickshaws are evidently only for short distances, as we were rebuffed at the notion of hiring one to go into Mumbai proper. So we commandeered a regular cab, which ended up being not only a great alternative to being shivved and tossed onto the tracks on our first day in India, but also cheap (just a few bucks) and included what turned out to be a guided tour of significant Mumbai landmarks. While we might’ve been “taken for a ride” in the sense that the guy probably charged us for driving us around, we appreciated the tour, had a lot of fun on the ride, and didn’t get any of the “here, come to this hotel” touting funny business. Also, in case you’re wondering, there’s still a bit of the “fuck the British” sentiment lingering in certain quarters. The only time I saw “the finger” flipped so far on this trip was when our cabby worked through making one (like a kid trying to do the “live long and prosper” Vulcan cousin of the Shocker for only the third or fourth time) to give his sentiments about the British that little extra oomph. For what it’s worth, the other international affairs tidbits are that the Pakistanis have calmed down, but that the Chinese are the problem now and, “They are CRAZY.”
For what it’s worth, traffic in Mumbai (and I presume most of the rest of the country from what I’ve read) is a different variety of insane than I’ve ever seen anywhere else. In the US the pedestrian has the right of way, but I wouldn’t push it, and that’s a real city by city thing: what you can get away with in Portland will put you in traction in Nashville, much less Muskogee, OK. In Rome cars will often literally come to a screeching halt if a pedestrian is in the road, and Palermo takes that to the extreme: the way you cross certain streets is to walk out there, because there’s no other way to get a break in the traffic.
In Mumbai, it’s pedestrian beware (it actually seems to be “everyone smaller than me, beware”, but pedestrians lose that numbers game most of the time). The honking is incessant, though noone seems to be getting at all angry about the situation. They honk to say “I’m here”. They honk to say “you’re in the way”. They honk to say “if you stay there I’m going to end up hitting you”. They honk to say “how the hell am I supposed to use this 1/3rd of a lane, you need to move over 2 feet”.I think they even honk to say “word, I see you.” So it’s honk honk honk honk all the time. Even the bicycle riders are jingling their little bells constantly. And if you’re a pedestrian the honking is sometimes the only chance you have to see the car that just whipped around the roundabout bearing down on you at some improbable angle — which means you’d probably better move your ass, just like that guy we saw on the way in from the airport.
btw, that guy in the white shirt came inches from getting creamed by our cabbie
The lanes on the road seem to be pretty much advisory, and some of the traffic patterns are definitely in the “whatever seems like it might work right now” category. Of course, the best thing a city planner (btw, my working theory is that the inability to impose building codes or any sort of effective zoning ordinances in India was the British Empire’s failure write small, er large) could do in such an environment is to run as many high-volume roads together in the same place as possible. Roundabouts, fountains with umpteen impinging roads, “5 spots”, “6 spots”, “I lost count spots”, etc.
We were sitting in a cab today on our way to the train station and there was a point when pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, taxis of both flavors, cars, trucks, buses, and double-decker buses were all faced off in 15 lanes of honking mayhem as they were all seemingly wanting to be in exactly the same 100 square feet of space, just facing in opposite directions. And, yet, it all got untangled cleanly and recreated itself half a mile down the road at the next big intersection. Good times.
So, we did some errands in Mumbai. We had to hunt down a new hotel. We decided to stay in the Fort district, which actually meant we stayed across the street from the Victoria Station, the train station that was host to a major terrorist incident. Someone (Al, help me out with the reference here :-) once said that Victoria Station was to the Raj what the Taj Mahal is to the Mughals. If by that they mean some big-ass crazy architecture mixing 3 completely different styles, and full of trains and passengers, then, yes, I’ll have to agree. But, it is a big confluence point for businessmen, barefoot dudes walking quickly past with baskets of fish on their heads, people looking to sleep on a chunk of dry brick, Sari-wearing women, school kids, and officials in a varying but inscrutable array of military looking garb (with the occasional submachine gun).
That’s not the end of the first 24 hours, by any stretch of the imagination, but even my Steve Yegge style is making the server creak at this point.
One thing I would like to highlight is that the biggest win so far in trip preparation (other than all the mundane things like flights, passports & visas, etc., that you MUST have) was deciding to get a couple of Nalgene bottles and a portable water filter. Stewart’s makes this 4-liter water filtering system with a “million gallon guarantee” on the filter itself. You unscrew a cap on this bag, fill it with water of dubious cleanliness, then reseal the cap. The cap acts as a valve as well, with a connector pipe which leads to the filter and then into the Nagene bottle(s) you have waiting at the end of it. It’s 0.1 micron and is supposed to catch damned near everything that could go through it. Load up Nalgene bottles, strap those to your backpack, and now you have clean water wherever you go, without looking at bottled water caps and thinking about Slumdog Millionaire.
Tune in next time for the explanation to why we heard the melody of “Jingle Bells” about 50 times in a 24 hour span.
Ah, the moment you have all been holding your breath for — the long-anticipated second blog post. Not just any second blog post, but one with dates and times and facts and figures! And maps! And a certain small amount of sassiness.
We’re going to India! And since we have an idea of when we’ll be where, we’d like to let you know too. (*)
View Indiatrip in a larger map
Follow along at home! Or, for even more fun, print this map out and see how closely you can hit our targeted itinerary with darts.
(*) Management does not warrant dates, times, facts, figures, maps, or sass. Management not responsible for any dragons encountered during voyages into uncharted territories. Dates may or may not be double, dutch, blind, or mejdool; time heals all wounds, is thankfully on our side, and keeps on slippin’ (slippin’) into the future. Figures, particularly girlish ones, are likely to deteriorate into something more stocky and middle-aged. All facts liable to change without notice to unfounded opinions, unsubstantiated rumor, lies, damn lies, and/or statistics. Sass is not exchangeable for true wit, wisdom, or even smart talk.