Trekking North India

Hello Friends and Family, and welcome to my India blog. This is where you will be able to find info on me and what's going down with me while I trek across the North of India and the Indian Himalayas. Although I probably won't be able to update this site very often, I hope to do so at least a couple of times during my trip.

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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Environmental Studies and Communication grad, public servant slut, music lover, intermittent DJ, avid cyclist, intrepid Earth enthusiast, and life warrior.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Manali to Agra; Chillin with the Taj; Agra Cantonment Train Station; Tough times in Delhi

Back in Canada!

And the task I've been avoiding for a few days is now finally upon me... I'm updating the blog!! And because I've been feeling so tired and lazy since I got back, I'm supplementing this entry with some journal entries that I was taking by hand during the trip. Ha!

So the last part of our journey was quite the adventure. Due to the length of this entry, I decided to break it down into sections! :P

Manali to Agra:

Due to differences in agendas and so on, the group split up. Yvan and myself had pretty much the exact same plan for the last 8 days of our trip, and were leaving on the same flight, so we decided to travel together. Julie and Patrick were staying for another 5 months, and FĂ©lix was staying for another couple of weeks, so they took off to Dharamsala the same morning we left for Agra. Nat was staying for three extra days, but decided to spend a couple of extra days in Manali. I believe her and Sarju were tagging along together for the last leg of the journey.

After saying our goodbye's to the family in who's hotel we were staying, we took off for the bus station. Such nice people! If you're ever in Manali, go to the Manali Continental Hotel. Amazing rooms with hot water, room service, decent views, and super friendly people. I can't say enough about them.

About buses in India. There not always the easiest things to catch. Sometimes the time on your ticket isn't actually the time the bus shows up. And I'm talking differences of hours! We only showed up on time because of what the ticket guy said. I asked about the time on the ticket and he just shook his head. *shrug*

So after our expected loooong 23 hr bus ride from Manali to Agra we finally got to see the Taj Mahal in all it's beauty and splendour. I'm sure I've said it somewhere else in this blog, but it takes incredibly long to travel anywhere by bus in India. To figure out how long it'll take you, calculate the time it would take to travel the same distance in Canada, then times that by about 4 or 5 - depending on if you're in the mountains or not and what kind of bus you paid for. I recommend paying the extra rupees for the semi-deluxe or deluxe buses. But I also recommend taking the lowest fare state-run buses for the experience! ;)

We had to take two buses, one to Delhi, then another to Agra. We arrived in Delhi and had to change bus terminals to get to our next bus and had an important lesson affirmed: always get a pre-paid taxi if they are available.

Our very first day in India, Sarju had instructed us to grab pre-paid taxis whenever possible, and in Delhi we put that lesson into practice ourselves. As soon as you get out of the bus you're inevitably swarmed by taxi drivers. But just ignore them, and don't let them touch your bags; because they'll grab them and take them towards their taxis and then it'll be harder to get out of not paying them or accepting their fares. For example, this one particularly incistant guy wanted 250 rupees to the other bus station. It seemed absurd, so we proceeded to try and find the nearest pre-paid taxi stand. It turned out to be quite far, but that one guy and his buddies kept hounding us and dropping the price until it became obvious we'd found the prepaid taxi stand. Then they disappeared. The price at the pre-paid taxi stand? 60 rupees!! And the rickshaw drivers hanging out over there were jumping to get that fare!

And there was another important side lesson in there that we already knew: the best way to barter is to truly and honestly NOT be interested in buying whatever it is people are selling. They'll chase you and drop the price to a fraction of what they said originally. I could never take advantage of that fact though. I guess I'm just TOO honest... and I'm a bad actor!

Once in Agra we got ourselves a room at Hotel Kamal - nice place - and got some food. Then we went to get our train tickets. Then we came back to the Shanti Lodge next door to our hotel for some more food. And I think it was at Shanti Lodge that we made our biggest mistake of the trip. More on that later.

Shanti Lodge was a four storey hotel with a restaurant on the roof in the Taj Ganj area of Agra. Taj Ganj is the area directly south of the Taj Mahal where, during the time of its construction, the labourers lived. So this area of Agra was particularly dense, with its windy roads and many shops.

Shanti Lodge had a much better view of the Taj from the rooftop than the rooftop of our hotel. Hotel Kamal had a good view too, but part of it was blocked off by a tree. That, and it wasn't as high, so didn't have as commanding a view.

Our mistake came when we decided to order food. But we had dropped our guards somewhat I think. The long road coupled with the heat and humidity of Agra had weakened us and dulled our wits. That, and it was impossible to get any kind of really cold drink. Everything was either coolish-warm or warmish-cool. Nothing cold. So in that heat, and without anything cold to drink, and being as tired as we were, the sight of the cucumber salad on the menu had us sold. The thought of those wet, dripping slices of cucumber basking in their own juices was just too irresistible. We had to order it!

It was the cucumber salad that would come to haunt us later, I'm sure of it.

But for the time being Agra was amazing!

Chillin with the Taj:

The next morning we woke up early and went to go see the Taj. I can't really describe it. That thing is so beautiful! And to think it's a monument to love. It was so peaceful and calming walking bare foot around the Taj; sitting and lying down on it. That whole morning was one of those rare times where I could feel completely at peace and at ease with everything around me. I was sad to leave, but had to because we hadn't eaten breakfast and food isn't allowed inside the compound where the Taj is situated.

You just have to go see it.

Here's one little piece of advice though: hire a guide, but do so with caution. You'll need a guide to access the inside of the tomb (you can't enter without a guide). But if you've done your research beforehand, there's little new information they can tell you. Most of the stuff you won't read about they'll show you inside the tomb. Also, lookout for public (state-hired) or private guides. The private guy was 250 rupees flat rate, the public guy was 500 rupees/hr!! What we didn't realize was that you can do the tour in just about an hour and can drop the guide after for some alone time with the Taj.

However, beware if you hire a private guy, because his lower price may be compensated for later. The private guys will try to lure to nearby shops where they, in return for bringing you, get a commission of anything sold in the shop. This would be OK, except for the fact that the shop owners inflate the prices like crazy in order to give this commission.

After finishing the tour, the guide took his leave from us and said he'd be waiting outside the East Gate (where we entered) to show us one final thing. He told us to take our time, and we did. In fact, we didn't even think we were going to see him again. We hung out for a few hours, and after our bellies couldn't take it anymore we finally took off. Yet as we left via the East Gate, we noticed that the guide was actually waiting for us!! I couldn't believe it! He greeted us, and reminded us that he still had something to show us (as part of the tour). He showed us some trivial thing that he could have showed us from inside the compound, and then he took us down the street, over to some people carving marble at a storefront. Motioning, he said: "And you see these people, these are the descendants of the marble workers who worked on the Taj. And you see this guy over here," he motioned to someone who was, at that moment, emerging from the store, "This guy will tell you all about how they make the marble." Right. The guide immediately turned around and left, and the new guy motioned for us to follow him into the store which was selling all sorts of marble gifts. I actually didn't mind being taken inside, because I wanted to buy some marble souvenirs anyway. What I didn't realize was how much our tour guide's commission would affect the prices! The prices we payed were inflated about 3 times what other shops were selling at.

After hanging with the Taj and buying some marble souvenirs, we went back to Shanti Lodge to hang out on the roof were we could still enjoy the Taj from afar. There we drank tonnes of Coke (because it was the coldest drink we could find for some reason) and met this really nice German girl, Helen. We chatted for a while, and discovered that she had the same plan for the afternoon as we did, which was to go check out Agra Fort, then head back to Delhi on the evening train. So we all tagged along together! Below is the view from Shanti Lodge.

Agra Fort was nice, even beautiful, but after the Taj it seemed pretty ordinary. For some reason at both the Taj and Agra Fort the Indian tourists kept asking to have pictures taken with us. It was kinda strange, but fun at the same time!

The rickshaw ride to the fort was the highlight of that little excursion for sure. We hopped such a sweet ride! Mofo had JUST souped up his rickshaw. The thing was SHINING!! Complete with brand new paint job, hot pink latex seats, tassles, a horn that rivaled some cars/buses, and a decent sound system blaring Indian techno - the perfect soundtrack for the chaos of Indian streets!! Check that thing!...

After Agra Fort, we decided to hang at Shanti Lodge until it was time to catch the train. There we drank more Coke, ate more cucumber salad, looked at the Taj as the day progressed, and laughed at the monkey that was hanging out on nearby rooftops. Fuckin monkey was probably laughing at US eating all that cucumber salad. MAN we got sick the next couple of days!

Agra Cantonment Train Station:

The train back to Delhi was space age compared to every other mode of transport we'd experienced in India up until that point. It took only 2 hrs to get to Delhi by train compared to the 5 hrs by bus! It was like Star Trek in India and we were being teleported to our next destination. But no, it was the Shatabdi Express yo! If you've earned it by trying every other mode and class of transportation, I'd spend the extra rupees to check it out. For 400 rupees we had super-comfy reclining space seats, a complementary bottle of mineral water, bread sticks and butter, a meal with dahl, naan, potatoes, salad, and curd, an ice cream dessert, waiters that were RUNNING up and down that train to serve us, and two intimidating guards with guns that did the rounds periodically. All for 400 rupees. That's $10!! It blew my mind.

To think that if $10 can get you that in India, imagine what a little bit of cash injected into the infrastructure of that country would do... especially the waste management infrastructure. I bet you'd see some outstanding progress in that respect. Maybe the topic of a Master's thesis??? ;)

Anyway, that space train especially blew my mind in contrast to what was right outside the window. The train station was really hard for me to deal with for some reason. I mean, we'd seen poverty everywhere - it's unavoidable. But at the train station it was just so in your face that it was really tough to take. It was shocking. I was definitely not prepared to see what I was to see there.

While we were trying to find the platform for our train, I asked these girls if we were at the right place. They didn't really know, so I thanked them. As I walked away, a man approached me and said that I was to go down about 20m to the next area. He said he would take me there, so I thanked him and after letting Yvan know, followed. He didn't have anything in his hands, so I figured he wasn't selling anything. The man took us to an area where there were much less people than the previous platform we were just at. However, Helen was there so I figured we were at the right spot (she couldn't fit in our rickshaw with all of our baggages, so she came earlier). I thanked the man again and he disappeared.

Then the onslaught began, as wave after wave of beggars approached us asking for money.

It turned out the man who helped us was not just helping us for the sake of helping. The man came back with one of those shoe-shine kits and practically begged me to clean my shoes. I refused, and after quite a while he left. Yvan wasn't so lucky.

And that instance affirmed another lesson I'd learned in India (I should list them): don't trust anyone who approaches you offering help. And I think this applies everywhere, not just in India. I've trusted people who have approached me time and again, and every time I'm disappointed. You can ask for help (best to ask women or shop vendors/workers though), but don't accept help from some random person that offers it seemingly out of the goodness of their heart - they'll always want something in return... and its usually your rupees.

The problem with bus or train stations is that you're stuck in one spot until what you're waiting for arrives. You can't just keep walking and ignore them. It makes it much harder to shake these people.

I had mastered the art of ignoring hecklers in the street. Simply don't make eye contact, don't even affirm their advances with an answer, and keep walking. End result is that they stop following after a few paces. But at a bus or train stop, they just take up a seat with you - usually on the ground right in front of you. They hold their hands out, begging with the most pitiful, pleading looks on their faces. And at Agra Cantonment Train Station, it seemed as though they were actually cursing at us in Hindi after begging for a while without receiving anything. I can't be sure, but words spoken in such a tone in any language can't be kind.

So as we waited for the train, wave after wave of beggars kept approaching us. One group would try for a while, then another, then another. And they actually tried to look as downtrodden as possible, so as to invoke more sympathy from us. If you can imagine these people, who already had nothing, actually trying to look worse. It was horrible. I was quite shaken by the time the train came.

One thing we'd seen a lot of in India was the poor lady and her baby, or the poor children with their siblings. In the case of the poor lady, their babies were always naked, lying on the pavement, dirty, and not being nurtured or held. The lady would point to the baby with the most pleading look on her face, then put her hands together, then point to the baby again, then hold out her hand, and repeat this.

The children thought of it as a game. One kid had somehow lost the use of his right leg. If you can imagine, he pushed himself along the ground using his arms and pulled himself using his left leg, while his right leg was in the lotus position (had he been sitting with both legs crossed). He laughed while he begged in rudimentary English.

The child must have been somewhat successful because others mimicked his predicament precisely. One older kid came up to us after the first one in the same position, and in the same manner. After it became clear we weren't going to give him anything, he stood up and walked away. And perhaps that first kid may have been mimicking the beggars with no legs. Then there were those missing hands and arms...

At one point I had to take my malaria pills and got some packaged ice cream to wash it down (Helen told us they gave free water on the train so not to buy any). I took two scoops, and by the time I had swallowed the pill, someone was already sitting beside me staring at my ice cream. I gave it to him and as soon as I did two others swarmed him, begging him to share. The three of them devoured the ice cream.

We had a rotating entourage by the time I saw a new display flashing our coach number some way off down the terminal. Then I realized that the first shoe-shine guy had led us to the wrong spot! Probably closer to his shoe-shine gear. Ah well.

Our train came a couple of minutes later, right on time - to the minute.

Tough times in Delhi:

Once in Delhi we said goodbye to Helen who was off to Mumbai the next morning. Then it was the taxi chaos again.

I forced my way to the prepaid booth and just couldn't shake this guy. He was offering 400 rupees for a taxi to Caunnaught Place, which was only a few hundred metres from the train station!! Finally, after I bought my ticket for 3o rupees the guy took off. But then there were mysteriously no rickshaw drivers to be found. Eventually we found a group of what looked to be drivers and approached them with our ticket. They asked where we were headed. When we told them, they said that the hotel we were trying to find was closed. Textbook con line. They tell you your hotel is closed, then take you to another hotel where you pay more, and they get commission. Some random soul who overheard started yelling "Call the police! Call the police!" after a little while of listening to us converse with the drivers. To this day I don't know why he said that. I couldn't understand a word they were saying. After yelling this, he started speaking earnestly in Hindi to the group of rickshaw drivers. The look on his face told me he was sincere and honest.

After some exchange the drivers shoed him off, then I just lost it. Mother fuckers kept trying to touch me and my luggage, all talking at the same time. I lost it on all of them but particularly on the one who seemed to be orchestrating the whole scam. Mother fucker was shady; fuckin wanna be smooth talker. Talking all like "my friend" this and "my friend" that. I told him, "I'm not your friend."
"I'm not your friend."
"I'm your friend -"
"No you're not. Don't touch me." And it went on like that until I flipped a few moments later. Mother fucker just wouldn't listen. Kept trying to touch my shit and I kept having to fuckin tell him.

I broke away from that mob and approached a couple of Sikhs who were a little ways off. The one Sikh was driving a taxi (not subject to prepaid fares in this area), but right away his price told me he was at least a little more honest than those jackals we'd just left behind. Taxis are naturally more expensive than rickshaws, so his price of 100 rupees, although a little inflated, wasn't blatant usery. We started loading our bags up, but as we were doing so, that mother fucker I told off came up trying to touch my shit again. After a final "Get the fuck away from my shit!" he actually got the message. But then he started talking to the Sikh in Hindi and (presumably) trying to get him in on the scam. I was like, whatever, we'll get in the taxi and this fucking guy will finally be gone. However...

We got in the taxi, and lo and behold, so did he!! I asked what the fuck he was doing in the taxi, and the Sikh replied that he was "the cleaner". I told the Sikh I didn't want him in the taxi. The Sikh didn't answer. So I turned to our unwelcome guest and told him to get the fuck out. He didn't move. I turned to the Sikh and at that point I think he knew I was serious, so he told the guy to leave. Mother fucker in the seat beside then threw his hands up almost in desperation at his failed attempt, then got out. Fucker.

I apologize for all thethe swearing. Telling this little tale brings me right back there and it makes my blood boil. That guy reeked of bad vibes, bad karma, and usery. I was glad to get his stench away.

The Sikh I think was more or less honest. He made a concerted effort to find the place, and within minutes we were there - and yes, the hotel was open. Also, being of the warrior class I instinctively trusted that his heart would lean toward the good. That, and his face. I've noticed that people have a certain look to them if they are or aren't trustworthy. Like the people who say "Hey, friend!" on the street, or the ones that nonchalantly slink to the table next to you at a coffee shop; they've all got a look that, after a while, you can just read. It hits you in the gut first. Something that says, "Don't trust this mofo." At one point, almost to emphasize his trustworthiness (because I had placed it in question when I pulled out my map earlier), the Sikh emphasized: "You are with Sikh people!" proudly and with authority. And after that I knew he had honour - whatever that meant in our predicament at the time. I tipped him good when we arrived and he grasped my hand firmly.

The next two days were hell. It's strange, the day we arrived in Agra I was feeling achy all over. This may been due to me brushing my teeth with non-purified water the last night and morning in Manali. That plus the 23 hr bus ride probably made for the sickly feeling I was having. At the bus stop in Manali we ran into another Canadian who had gotten sick from the same. But who knows really, it can be so many things. Though I think it was the cucumber salad that really did us in. It's the only thing that can account for both Yvan and myself getting sick at the same time.

Anyway, that first night in Delhi, the liquid shits (aka "the squits") started.

After poo #4 I knew something wasn't right. After #7 I started feeling REALLY sick and got the chills. At #13 I was puking and shitting at the same time (good thing the sink was close to the toilet!). At #17 I shit myself. And after #23 I was feeling quite a bit better! I think that was mostly due to the hardcore traveller's diarrhea pills I took right after #18. I think those pills just wiped our intestines clean of all bacteria whatsoever... Whatever they did, they worked!

I don't know why I decided to count. I think it started at #4. When the realization that I was sick struck me.

The realization was slow. Numbers 1 and 2 felt pretty normal compared to the rest during my time in India - different, but nothing special. A new normal had been achieved after about a week. However, #3 that night didn't feel quite right compared to all the rest. At that point I asked myself, "How many shits have I had tonight?" And that was only since we had arrived at the hotel a couple of hours before. So when #4 really didn't feel good, I started counting.

They all got worse from there, building up into a crescendo which was #17 and #18. That's when I said, eff this, and grabbed the bottle of traveler's diarrhea pills. The rest slowly got better, and the next day I was walking around a changed, yet slightly worn, man. Imagine having your bodily fluids violently drained out of you from both ends for roughly 15 to 20 minute intervals every 30 to 45 minutes - not fun!!! Then you take these magic pills and your healed within a few hours.

The more I think about it, the more I think those pills saved my life. I was so weak. Couldn't hold anything down. I really wonder if I would be writing these or similar words had I not taken those pills or not planned ahead and brought them at all.

I always wondered how people died of diarrhea in the old days. After this experience, it was all too clear.


I was so proud of myself up until that point though. Everyone else had gotten sick in our group except for me. I was thinking to myself: "Wow! I've got an excellent constitution!!" And I was feeling great about myself and my ability to adapt physically. But it was bound to happen. I think the majority of the 8 pounds I lost on this trip was those two days and nights of being sick in Delhi and not being able to eat or hold anything in.

The worst part of getting sick was that our washroom wasn't actually attached to our room!! It was private - in that we had a key for it. But it was about 40 ft away from our room, down a hall and past an open air "courtyard" with apartment windows lining the level above us. The courtyard had 4 doors: one on the east wall, which was a room; and the other three on the north wall, which were all locked bathrooms. Our key opened the one on the furthest right. Having to run from our room over to that toilet and fiddle with keys each of those 23 times was hell!

The last two days in Delhi we were feeling good enough to shop. But we stayed away from Indian food. We were lucky enough that Caunnaught Place had the run of American chains (as horrible as they are), such as KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut, Dominos, and McDonald's. So we made the rounds of these places for the last couple of days. They were the only places that guaranteed clean water in their pop and ice.