Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Singing the praises of Singapore

We have been in Singapore for four surreal days. I am sitting on our really comfy king sized bed, with two huge feather pillows behind my head. There is a glass of cold Tiger beer on the nightstand beside me. Marc is out at a museum and I have spent the morning booking our bus tickets to Melaka Malaysia tomorrow afternoon, booking a hotel for the next couple of nights and looking into package tours from Kuala Lampur to Taman Negara National Park.

Internet works perfectly and I can ask the front desk for anything I want and it will arrive immediately. The sky is blue and you could eat off the floor of the subway. The skyscrapers are so tall and shiny; I need sunglasses just to look at them. I have no idea what I am eating but it all tastes good. There is food virtually everywhere and it seems like everyone eats all day non-stop. At the hawkers markets all over town, you get a plate full of food for $2-$8. At a sit down restaurant the same plate costs $200. A coke is $6 and Sunday brunch at the Ritz Carlton is $250.

Toto, we’re not in India anymore …

But just in case we need a reminder, there is a little India here as well; full of all of the same food and fabrics bangles and temples we left behind just a few short days ago.

Singapore has to be on the list of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is beautiful like Vancouver is beautiful. Clean air, beautifully green all year round, modern slick architecture and great weather. It has been the perfect place to relax and regroup after months of non-stop moving around almost every day. I think we have both showered on an average of three times a day just to enjoy a shower that works with hot water at any time you want.

The posh hotels, restaurants and shopping malls are as opulent as it gets. And there are no crowds and everything is orderly. Even at the street food outlets, everyone waits their turn and you never hear any shouting. Can this place be real?

But not everything is easy in Singapore. It took us almost the whole visit to find a self-serve laundromat. We were determined to wash every trace of India off our clothes, travel bags and shoes. After three tries with the front desk, and a visit to the main tourist information office failed to offer positive results, a morning on the Internet scouring message boards finally gave us an address. As luck would have it, the purple rapid transit line, that happened to be the one nearest to our hotel, would take us right to the street where the Laundromat was located. A couple hours later we were all clean and ready to get covered in South East Asian smutz!

It has also been hard to get used to the people here. In India, everyone stared at us, pushed and shoved us, and urinated in the street right beside us. Someone was always spiting or taking a public bath in front of us. In Singapore, they all seem like robots in comparison. No one cares at all that we are here. It is kind of a nice change of pace! Surprisingly no one seems to know anything about anything here. If you ask a question, they are polite, but they don’t know the answer. In India, there was always an answer. Usually the wrong one, but you could be sure to get an answer. Everyone knew everything about everything.

It may have taken us a long time to get used to roughing it, but it certainly takes only an instant to get used to clean sheets, hot water and good food. Now that I am in charge of our accommodations, you can be sure I will be spending all my spare time looking for every boutique hotel for the budget traveler from here to all points in South East Asia. Wish me luck!

Next stop Melaka!

Monday, February 27, 2012


About a month ago, Marc began jotting down the recollections that could only be categorized as typically Indian experiences. At some point soon after he began writing, he came up with the brilliant name for them — Indiosyncracies. For the remainder of the trip, he continued to document the hysterical and sometimes maddening experiences that made our trip so memorable. He admits it is long and that you may not have the patience to read it all in one go, but for anyone that has been here, we know it will hit a chord. For those that have not been on a trip yet to India, please realize that these maddening moments are actually quite endearing in a perfectly Indiosyncratic way!

Take it away Marc ...

Our very good friends, Yossi and Sara, spent two years in Hyderabad, India. They moved there when their two children, Brenna and Isaac, were relatively young. During our last visit with them after they returned to the States, they gave us a preview of Indian life and reminisced as we viewed their photos. They told us many stories that evening. One story that I consider a classic, especially after winding up our own 78 day epic journey of India, was told by Sara and occurred the day following their move to their Hyderabad home which was located in a gated community located near the city. After Yossi traveled to work, Sara decided to get some errands done. Holding her two children in each hand, they walked to the front of their complex and attempted to cross the busy street. Being a responsible mother, Sara patiently waited until it was safe to cross. After what seemed like hours later she, Brenna, and Isaac turned around from the same spot where they had been standing and returned home. That day, Sara had learned the first of many lessons that were to follow throughout their India sojourn. The anecdotes that they shared with us that evening likely provided the seed for recording the "Indiosyncrasies" Naomi and I have experienced during our journey through India. I suspect that many of these experiences will sound familiar to Yossi and Sara as well as many other visitors and residents of India. I invite readers to contribute comments as well as any personal "Indiosyncrasies" that they have experienced during travels to this country, which never ceases to amaze in so many different ways.

There was an old TV series in the late '50s and early '60s called "The Naked City". It was an early cop show whose weekly drama featured stories taken from San Francisco police case files. The introduction to each episode ended with the narrator saying: "There are a million stories in the naked city. This is just one of them." I think that is an appropriate beginning to the real life experiences we have had in India during the past 78 days: There are a billion daily stories in this vast and diverse country. This is only a small sample of them.

Background: We attended our first tour group meeting. Al, our group's leader, introduced himself and proceeded to provide an orientation.

To all our surprise, he announced that the truck we expected to travel in was stuck in Indian customs near Mumbai. It had been held there for the past three months. Instead, we would be traveling in a hired bus.

The tour company had been trying everything humanly possible to release it from customs, including hiring local third party professional agents to break through bureaucratic entanglements to no avail. Beside the additional expenses of hiring third party buses, drivers, and driver assistants, paying for hotels when our original itinerary called for camping (the tour's camping equipment was with the truck), etc. to allow our trip to happen on schedule, it was paying $200/day 'storage' fees to the Customs Authority throughout this period. Al seemed hopeful that the truck would be released sometime before the end of our 82 day trip around India and that we would be able to experience how Dragoman travel is intended to happen.

Lesson learned: This was our first portent that all may not operate like clockwork when traveling on the Indian subcontinent....

Background: We moved to a new hotel when joining our tour group. That afternoon, we decided to eat at a recommended pizza restaurant called Fire and Ice from our new location. We followed the directions given to us, but stopped to ask for further guidance when we thought we were near the restaurant. We asked a local if they knew where the restaurant was located.

Indiosyncrasy (sic-actually a Nepali Folly): The person we asked assured us he was familiar with the restaurant and knew exactly where it was. He suggested that we follow him as he was going in that direction. We did so...for quite some time. While walking, he informed us that he worked in an establishment that offered massage and other therapies and suggested that we drop by “just to take a look” at his enterprise. We gently declined his kind offer and he gave us his business card in case we changed our mind. Not so coincidentally, we ended up in front of his business. After declining his offer to enter yet another time, he told us that Fire and Ice was located just around the corner. It wasn't.

Resolution: After making further inquiries, we ended up walking nearly back to the same spot where we had met the massage therapy person and found the restaurant about a block away from there.

Lesson Learned: There may be ulterior motives to what at first appears to be friendly and kind offers of help. This applies especially in areas that tourists tend to frequent. It's advisable to ask for second opinions when requesting directions.

Indian border town immediately adjacent to Nepal
Background: Al suggested that we have our first ‘road lunch’ immediately upon crossing the border into India.

Indiosyncrasy: It was our group’s first experience with ‘street food’. Al chose a shack that was dispensing samosas and dhal. Upon sitting on stools while being served, we couldn’t help but notice the server’s samosa dispensing routine: first place the samosa on the plate with his hand, then proceed to crush the top of the samosa with his thumb, then pour hot dhal on top.

Resolution: As this was my initiation into what would become a normal street food for lunch lifestyle, but yet still quite hungry after a long drive through Nepal, I attempted to reach a discrete compromise between my hygienic principles and appetite: I asked (actually more motioned than verbally asked) the server as politely as I could to please refrain from crushing my samosa.

Lesson Learned: As part of his response to my subsequent query to Al on whether this type of food was going to be our regular fare for the duration of our 82-day trip, Al responded affirmatively. He provided the following as an explanation as to why I had little to fear. According to Al, we have less to worry about from street food than conventional restaurant prepared food while in India. Basically, it boils down to the fact that “what you see is what you get”. The street food vender’s food preparation methods are in the open for anyone to inspect. Second, one can easily ascertain whether the food is hot, thereby decreasing the chances for undesirable microbes to survive. Third, given the usual modest dimensions of the vendor’s ‘infrastructure’, one can more easily conduct an (albeit cursory) inspection of the premises (yes, we have had the experience of moving to another vendor after having spotted rodents on the food preparation counter of one of these places). Indeed, while some of our group’s members did get sick off and on during the duration of the trip, I don’t believe that any of these illnesses can be traced to the ‘fast food’ places that we ate at.

Background: Due to the driving distance that our group needed to cover from our last stay in Nepal and Varanasi, we were informed by our group’s leaders that we had no choice but to overnight in Gorakpuhr.

Indiosyncrasy: With no tourist attractions, Gorakpuhr may be fairly described as a more typical India town. In our consequent walking ‘tour’ of the town after settling into its premier hotel, we came to the conclusion that the town also lacked practically any other redeeming features:
  • When removing our luggage from the bus to take to the hotel, it was difficult to find an area that was clear of rubbish or excrement on which to set the luggage down. Later, we also discovered that we had similar difficulties in walking the streets due to similar conditions.
  • Our hotel bed had visible evidence of recently being used. (‘nough said.)
  • Our hotel washroom had a squat toilet. This feature would certainly not normally be considered a true “Indiosyncrasy”, except for the fact that the hotel staff had not cleaned the previous occupants’ misdirected excretory artifacts.
  • Our hotel was situated opposite the train station. As a result, there was a constant din of train arrival and departure announcements that were so loud that they could be clearly heard as they continued throughout the night.
  •  Some of our group members were denied dining seating by some restaurant establishments. (Apparently, the restaurant owners were concerned about the number of gawkers our group would attract.)
  • Indeed, wherever we appeared around town, there were a number of local people who would follow and/or simply stare. (In fact, several of our female group members were asked for autographs. Apparently, some locals were convinced that they were either western movie stars or soon would be.)
Resolution: Interestingly, all our group’s members appeared at our bus early the next morning. We all apparently had the same thing on our minds: get out of town as quickly as possible.

Lesson Learned: As our first night’s stay in India, our experiences at Gorakpuhr constituted what could be described as ‘culture shock’ to some of our group members. However, hindsight analysis of the situation provides some more positive outcomes of the conditions that we encountered there.
  1. It provided a microcosm of India and enabled us to better prepare for the gamut of experiences that were to follow.
  2. It provided us with a sense of perspective when comparing other subsequent sketchy experiences. Simply by being able to reflect on our stay at Gorakpuhr, we would always quickly arrive at the realization that, by comparison, they weren’t that bad after all. 

    Background: One waiter takes food orders and a second delivers the food.

    Indiosyncrasy: Since the second waiter wasn't present when menu items were being ordered, he generally has no clue regarding which customer ordered which entree.

    Resolution: This often results in the occurrence of one or both of the following:
    • The second waiter places the entree in front of a person who didn't order it; or
    • The second waiter simply places the entree randomly on the table to allow the customers to sort out to whom the entree belongs.
    Lesson Learned: Ordering from one restaurant server and having it delivered by a second is not all that uncommon in western restaurants. The critical difference between the India and western systems seems to be that the western system normally works: there is a method for identifying what the customer ordered and their sitting location in the restaurant. To remedy the guesswork that is prevalent in India restaurants, one simply needs to be attentive to what others ordered and be prepared to help direct the food to its proper source when it arrives.

    Bandhavgarh National Park
    Background: We were on our way to Khajuraho after leaving Bandhavgarh National Park where we stayed at a resort where we were hosted by its Maharajah owner. While in transit, Al received several phone calls from the resort’s manager requesting that our tour pay additional money for our stay there. Al explained that he had paid the agreed sum and a receipt to that effect had been provided by the resort just prior to our departure.

    Indiosyncrasy: The resort manager acknowledged Al's version of the financial transaction. However, he explained, the sum charged was not enough. He was directed to request that more money be paid.

    Resolution: Al reviewed the process of commonly accepted business practices with the resort manager: once an agreed price is accepted and paid, the transaction is complete. Vendors normally do not then return to their customers and ask for more money. Apparently, that explanation was not satisfactory to the resort manager. At the next state border crossing, police prevented our bus from proceeding unless Al paid the additional sum. With a bus full of tourists and a tight itinerary to complete, Al paid the requested sum.

    Lesson Learned:
    1. Seems that Indian maharajahs are still able to wield considerable political influence with the state police.
    2. So much for maintaining the sanctity of business contracts while the police force is in your back pocket.

      Background: We arrive at our hotel, given our room key, and traipse up 3 flights of stairs carrying our luggage. We proceed to fiddle with our room key to open the door.

      Indiosyncrasy: A hotel staff person appears from nowhere, asks for our room key, and proceeds to open the door. We walk into our room carrying our luggage. The hotel staff person continues to stand by the door, obviously expecting a tip.

      Resolution: I proceed to the door, wish the gentleman standing there a warm good-bye and close the door.

      Lesson Learned: Some hotel staff will take extraordinary measures to place themselves in a position to accept a tip. Personally, I don't believe this behaviour should always be rewarded.

      Background: We arrived at our Agra hotel to be informed that a function was taking place at the hotel restaurant. Therefore, for those interested, dinner could be ordered through room service. After touring the vicinity, Naomi and I came to the conclusion that our best bet for a good dinner that night was to return to the hotel. We ordered our meals through room service as instructed. Our food was delivered to our room by one of the hotel staff. We tipped him for providing this service and inquired about how to pay the bill. He informed us that it would be arriving separately.

      Indiosyncrasy: Sure enough, during the middle of consuming our meal, another hotel staff person arrived with our bill. In examining it, we found that the amount was discrepant with the prices on the menu - in the hotel's favor. We also discovered that the total amount included a hotel service charge, in addition to state and city taxes. When pointing this out, the hotel staff person indicated that he would be back with a corrected bill. By the time we finished our meal the second bill arrived. We proceeded to pay the staff person the entire amount, including the service charge. Despite this, we found this second staff person, too, waited for a tip - for delivering a corrected bill.

      Resolution: We paid the second staff person a tip as well.

      Lesson Learned: From our experiences when staying in hotels as well as eating in restaurants, we began to realize that 'service charges' might not be returned to hotel or restaurant staff. We usually ended up leaving a tip on top of these 'service' charges with this assumption in mind. However, we also concluded that this particular hotel's staff was notorious for attempting to maximize tipping situations (see above).

      New Delhi
      Background: As is often the case, 10 to 18 members of our tour group sit together at one table at a restaurant.

      Indiosyncrasy: The tendency of nearly all restaurants we frequent is to provide a combined bill for all sitting at one table, rather than present separate bills to each customer.

      Resolution: Unless you learn the lesson first (see immediately below), be prepared to sit an extra half hour at the table computing and collecting the costs of each person's order, including taxes and tip. (This could get even more complicated when taxes are added only up to a specified sum.)

      Lesson Learned: Remember to ask for separate bills at the outset when ordering your meals. In most cases (but certainly not all), the restaurant's staff will oblige.

      Background: Al went to the post office to mail some Dragoman materials back to the home office in England.

      Indiosyncrasy: The post office employee informed him that shipping these materials to England would be very expensive. However, the postal clerk pointed out, if Al chose to ship them to Australia instead, the cost would be much less.

      Resolution: I'll leave this one to the astute reader as to how it was resolved.

      Lesson Learned: Most Indians' desire to please sometimes may lead to exaggerated 'out of the (letter) box' solutions.

      Background: Naomi and I enter an Air Tel store and ask to purchase a 'dongle' (a USB device that includes a SIM card) and a month's subscription to a computer Internet data plan.

      Indiosyncrasy: The store's salesperson informs Naomi that there are no dongles currently available in the store. However, if Naomi would return in 2 hours (at 4 o'clock) a new dongle will have been delivered to their store. We return to the store at the agreed hour. The same sales agent now informs Naomi that the dongle will take yet another two hours to arrive. Naomi decides to make use of the additional waiting time by shopping in the area of the Air Tel store.

      Resolution: Upon Naomi returning to the Air Tel store for the third time that day, she indeed received the dongle as well as the month's Internet subscription.

      Lesson Learned: In this case, being persistent paid off. However, when following a busy tourist itinerary, there may be time constraints that prevent you from reaching the desired goal. So, when making plans, be sure to factor in unanticipated contingencies that may significantly lengthen the time needed to accomplish what at first appear to be routine objectives.

      Background: From its exterior, our Cochin hotel appears modern and clean. However, upon entering our room, we recognize an all too familiar malodorous smell.

      Indiosyncrasy: We come to the conclusion that the smell likely originates from bug and cockroach spray that is used to keep these populations at bay within rooms. Hotel management may sometimes unsuccessfully attempt to mask the smell of these poisons by combining them with "air freshener" spray. It's been our experience that the combination rarely works:
      1. The bug poison smell inevitably overpowers the air freshener; and
      2. The realization that we are enveloped in and breathing stagnant air that is thick with strong poisons is, to us, intolerable.

      Resolution: What we should have done: Move to a different hotel. What we actually did: Opened the hotel room's windows wide and turned on the ceiling fan to full blast. We then left the room and hoped the situation would improve by the time we returned.

      Lesson Learned: There are certain compromises that one must make in India simply because they are beyond personal control. However, when a healthier alternative is within reach (in this case, moving to another hotel), go for it. You'll live longer.

      Background: As we approached our destination in Alleppey, Al phoned our Alleppey 'fixer' to be sure that he would meet us as planned upon our arrival. The 'fixer' assured Al that he was a mere ten minutes away from our designated meeting point and would actually be there even before our arrival.

      Indiosyncrasy: As we neared our meeting point, Al again called our 'fixer'. The ‘fixer’ this time replied that he was twenty minutes away. (That’s right, he reported being further away from our mutual destination than he did during the previous call.) We arrived at our destination only to wait an additional hour for our 'fixer' to arrive.

      Resolution: We waited.

      Lesson Learned: To slightly bastardize Einstein's theorem and apply it to our India context: Time is relative.

      Background: After a nice relaxing day on a riverboat, we anchored to spend the night. A second boat joined us to provide sleeping accommodations for the 'overflow' of tour group members who could not be accommodated in the first boat. Naomi and I were assigned to the more decrepit looking second boat that joined us that evening. Although the smell in our assigned room was not at all welcoming (despite Al saying that 'air freshener' was sprayed - which is code for liberal amounts of rat and cockroach poisons have been applied), we had no choice but to open the door, turn on the fan, set up our bed sheets (we didn't trust those on the bed), and settle in for the night.

      Indiosyncrasy: (No, the above description is not the targeted Indiosyncrasy.) Not unusually, Naomi woke in the middle of the night with a full bladder. Upon turning on the bathroom light, but fortunately before entering, she looked inside to see the bathroom floor swarming with cockroaches.

      Resolution: Switch off the bathroom light to erase the horrible scene just witnessed, return to your bed sheet, and 'hold it in' for the duration of the night. (Given our situation, i.e., anchored in the middle of a river, and with all other rooms occupied, there was really nothing else to do. Needless to say, we were the first ones up and out of our room in the morning.)

      Lesson Learned:
      1. Indian cockroaches seem to have become resilient to the poisons Indians use to kill them.
      2. There may be some circumstances that overcome even the strongest of biological urges. 

        Background: Not finding a beauty parlor in the vicinity of our hotel and beginning to feel somewhat desperate, Naomi decides to get her hair coloured at a men's barbershop. After being interrogated by Naomi, the barber manages to more or less convince Naomi that he's done this before and knows exactly what to do. Naomi reluctantly provides him with the hair dye she had recently purchased with which to do the job.

        Indiosyncrasy: As hair colouring is a relatively long procedure, I take occasional walk breaks from waiting in the shop. Each time I check in on Naomi's progress at the barber’s I receive her sneer in return. It's clear that any credibility that the barber may have had in Naomi's mind has been totally shattered. Worse, the process has gone beyond the point of return.

        Resolution: With no other alternative, Naomi allows the barber to complete the job he had started. She then immediately rushes home to shower and inspect the extent of the 'damage'. She discovers (after her hair dries) that while there are still some gray roots showing in certain sections of her hair. However, the two-tone hair colour job that she was expecting to see is not too obviously visible.

        Lesson Learned: Rather simple really: India has many, many beauty parlors. Sometimes they may not be located in the immediate vicinity of your hotel. If you want to save a great deal of anxiety when coloring your hair, take your time and find them.

        Tiruchirapalli (Trichy)
        Background: To return to our hotel from the town's bazaar, I flag a passing tuk tuk. I show the driver our hotel's business card to provide him with the address. We agree on a negotiated price to get from the bazaar back to our hotel. However, it's soon clear that he is not familiar with the hotel's location as he stops several times to ask directions.

        Indiosyncrasy: Once out of the bazaar, the driver stops the tuk tuk and demands more money to get us to our destination. We refuse and remind him of our agreement. He then suggests we disembark from the tuk tuk, but demands to be partially compensated for the distance he has taken us. We also refuse this request. He proceeds to take us to our hotel, but just before arriving, he again demands more money (twice as much as originally agreed). He enters our hotel, goes to the receptionist, and complains (in Hindi) that we have not paid him the agreed price.

        Resolution: I split the difference between his desired price and our agreed price and hand him the cash. He immediately breaks out in a self-satisfied grin, looks at the hotel staff as if to say "I told you so" and leaves.

        Lesson Learned: [Naomi is quick to remind me that…] Sometimes engaging in these type of arguments, even if only to stand on principle, is not worth the hassle, especially when considering the insignificant sums of money that are at stake.

        Background: Al visits a recommended restaurant known for the quality of their steaks to make reservations for our large group of 18. While there, he attempts to verify that they have sufficient quantities of steaks to satisfy our potential menu selections. He is assured that the restaurant's kitchen is well stocked.

        Indiosyncrasy: Our group arrives at the restaurant at the designated time. As each person selects a steak from the menu, each is informed by the waiter that the item is not available. Once noticing this pattern, we query the waiter on the actual availability of the meats that we were assured existed just a couple of hours before. The waiter acknowledges that the restaurant has, in fact, run out of steaks. He cannot explain the discrepancy between what was told to Al two hours before and the reality of their current steak supply.

        Resolution: Al took a vote to democratically determine what our group would like to do: stay or leave. He then called another steak restaurant only to learn that they were full and would not be able to accommodate our group that evening. Driven by hunger and the late hour, the majority ruled to stay and order largely from the restaurant's vegetarian entrees.

        Lesson Learned: Compromise, especially when contingency or back-up plans prove unavailable and hunger strikes.

        Background: Al arranged with the local 'fixer' for three vehicles to transport our group members and their luggage from the train station to our hotel.

        Indiosyncrasy: After waiting for half an hour for the vehicles to arrive, Al called the Dragoman 'fixer' in Tirupati who organized the pickup. Two of the three pre-ordered cars arrived. Al phoned again to explain that three vehicles had been ordered because two vehicles were insufficient to carry all our group members and their gear.

        Resolution: Al was advised to load up the two vehicles, proceed to the hotel, and have one return to the station to pick up who and what remained. Protests that this plan would result in discomfort and delays as well as not conforming to the agreed arrangement (and the price paid) ultimately fell on deaf ears.

        Lesson Learned: From that point forward we ceased to rely on prearranged vehicles for commuting between hotel and train stations (and vice-versa). Instead, we relied on arranging the ubiquitous tuk tuks for transport. Although requiring more vehicles and resulting in more crowding to fit both passengers and their luggage, spontaneously arranging tuk tuks proved far more reliable than relying on prearranged transport. So, from Tirupati onward, when traveling by rail, we would travel with a procession of tuk tuks to and from the train stations.

        Background: We made an early morning arrival at the train station. There was a longish wait on the train platform for our train to arrive.

        Indiosyncrasy: While waiting, my peripheral vision caught things scurrying below us on the train tracks. On closer inspection these movements turned out to be rats.

        Resolution: Try not to look.

        Lesson Learned: Train stations in India seem to often house not only passengers in transit, but also some of the town's homeless. Arriving at the station in the early morning, one will normally find many 'lumps' of blankets on the train station floors and platforms. These are actually people sleeping. As is expected, these people need to perform essential living functions: eating, urinating, and defecating. Their byproducts are often dumped onto the tracks. Not surprisingly, these normal human activities tend to attract very grateful rodents.

         Background: We arrived at our hotel around lunchtime and decided to satisfy our hunger at the hotel vegetarian restaurant. I attempted to separately order kulcha or naan (types of Indian breads) from the menu to accompany the vegetable biryani dish I ordered.

        Indiosyncrasy: I was informed that the restaurant would not allow any bread to be served with biryani. Breads could only be ordered to accompany a special list of Indian dishes.

        Resolution: I asked Naomi if I could share some of the papadam that came with the meal that she ordered.

        Lesson Learned: First let's review: Naan was a separate menu item. It was clear that it could normally be ordered separately. However, it could only be ordered if it accompanied by an Indian meal. The only ‘lesson’ I can come up with is that, in his professional judgment, the hotel chef thought that the customer's culinary enjoyment might be compromised if having Indian naan with a non-Indian meal. I remain puzzled by this one and invite readers' suggested explanations

        Background: I ordered a 'roasted fish' from the menu of the non-veg hotel restaurant (many hotels have separate vegetarian and non-vegetarian restaurants).

        Indiosyncrasy: The fish served turned out to be fried (not roasted) and extraordinarily thin.

        Resolution: I ate the fish without complaint.

        Lesson Learned: Ordering food is sometimes a crapshoot: you win some, you lose some.

        Background: Our waiter seated us for our complementary breakfast at 7:00 AM. We ordered the 'continental' breakfast as we were under the impression that this was the complementary breakfast that came with our hotel room. The waiter accepted this order. We waited a half hour to be served.

        Indiosyncrasy: Rather than arrive with our food, the same waiter reappeared with our complementary breakfast hotel vouchers in hand and informed us that we needed to order an Indian (not continental) breakfast. We wondered why he couldn't tell us that when he had take our order one half hour before.

        Resolution: To our pleasant surprise, he indicated that he would provide continental breakfasts regardless of the hotel’s restaurant policy.

        Lesson Learned: There is always a measure of anxiety when ordering any meal: Will I receive what I ordered? Will it arrive in a timely manner? Will the order be sequenced properly so that a starter will actually arrive prior to the main entree? Will the meals that others ordered arrive at approximately the same time? Will cooked food be hot or cold? How long will it take for the bill to arrive after requesting it? How long will the change take to arrive after paying the bill? Etc. Sometimes, however, you may be confronted with a completely unexpected restaurant contingency (for example, learning the restrictions for ordering a complementary breakfast after the fact). When the unexpected does occur, simply roll with the punches.

        Visakhapatnam (Hotel Athidi Inn) (sic):
        Background: The shower in our hotel room had a hose that extended from one of two taps to a hook up located just above head high on the bathroom wall.

        Indiosyncrasy: Unfortunately, the shower was designed so that the hose attached only from the cold-water pipe and tap. It was impossible to take an overhead hot shower.

        Resolution: Naomi became my designated 'shower maid'. We filled up a large bucket of hot water from the second tap and used a dipper to pour the hot water over me as I soaped and rinsed.

        Lesson Learned: This type of shower plumbing proved to be not uncommon in other hotel rooms as well. I assume that it was installed to replicate the traditional way that Indians bathe, namely filling a bucket with water and taking a 'sponge bath' by using a dipper to pour water from the bucket over you. We adapted by choosing to take hot water 'sponge baths' using the bucket provided (as Indians presumably do), rather than taking cold-water overhead showers.

        Background: We arrived at our hotel room thinking that we had clean sheets.

        Indiosyncrasy: Upon lifting our bed covers when about to go to sleep we noted telltale 'spotting' on the sheets. I notified our floor's bellboy of the problem. He indicated that clean sheets would be delivered to our room shortly. We waited a half hour with no sheets being brought to our room.

        Resolution: I went to the open and unoccupied linen room and helped myself to the sheets we required, returned to our room and made our bed with them. It's a good thing that I did. The bellboy never appeared to deliver his promised linens.

        Lesson Learned: There may be occasions when you simply may have to "take" matters into your own hands.

        Background: While in transit to another destination, we arrive in the relatively non-tourist town of Jeypore at mid-day and stop for lunch. Our group heads to a local restaurant and we divide ourselves into two tables. All group members at one table order a local dish called thali, which is known to be popular, especially in this area. Our group situated at a second table, after noticing a prominent sign on the restaurant's wall, order pizza. To be more precise, we all order the "Maharajah Pizza" which is twice the price of any other pizza featured on the sign.

        Indiosyncrasy: We then wait. We wait long enough to see the other table composed of our group's members being served their thali. We wait while seeing them enjoy eating their meals. And we continue waiting, while we observe them paying for their meals and leaving the restaurant. We grow increasingly conscious of holding up the group's departure from Jeypore. In the interim, we make several inquiries re the status of our pizza order. Finally, the super deluxe "Maharajah Pizza" is delivered to each of us. We quickly realize the rationale behind it costing double the price: it is actually a double decker - two pizzas served one on top of the other. However, the rationale for the doubling its price completely falls apart immediately thereafter: the pizza arrives cold, the ingredients not fresh, the cheese is the dreaded Indian paneer, rather than the hoped for mozzarella, and the dough exactly that - doughy. Suddenly, the notion that being able to consume twice the quantity of this pizza becomes an unbearable burden and not the royal privilege each of us had hoped for.

        Resolution: Needless to say, we declined this 'privilege'. After taking a bite or two from the top layer, we decide that this pizza is not worth delaying our departure from Jeypore a moment longer.

        Lesson Learned: When eating in non-tourist locations, avoid tourist type cuisine. Instead, use the opportunity to enjoy local tried and true favorites.

        Background: Our hotel receptionist informed Al that, due to our group's size, we were required to pre-order our dinners. Al faithfully gathered all our dinner orders and submitted them as instructed. We were to meet at the hotel restaurant an hour later, at 7:30, to have our pre-ordered meals.

        Indiosyncrasy: Upon arrival at the hotel restaurant at the designated time, I was asked to confirm my order. Upon doing so, I asked when it would be ready. I was informed that it would take another 20 minutes. In the meanwhile, others from our group arrived. Some were informed that they needed to change their order as the kitchen was apparently not equipped with some ingredients (despite Al being assured that we could order anything on the menu). By 8:50 everyone but me had been served, and most had completed their meals.

        Resolution: I went to the waiter to inquire about my meal and was informed that it was still being prepared. I informed him to cancel my meal as he had indicated that it should have been ready nearly an hour before.

        Lesson Learned: Thinking about this episode the next day, it occurred to me that I should put the onus of food decision making on the restaurant rather than myself. After all, they knew better than me what ingredients were available as well as the type of dishes that are favoured.That evening, when the same waiter approached to ask for my order (BTW, he was very apologetic about the [lack of] service I received the night before), I asked him what he might recommend for me to have. I ended up with an excellent meal that was served within 15 minutes of my order.

        Background: I requested wash prices for my clothing items from the hotel receptionist. I jotted these prices on a piece of paper along with the number of articles of each type and then submitted the listed items for washing. I

        Indiosyncrasy: Upon receiving the washing bill that evening I discovered that all the prices I was quoted, except one, were incorrect.

        Resolution: I returned to the same clerk at hotel reception to inquire about the price discrepancies. He admitted his errors and apologized. I suggested that he use this experience to help him remember laundry prices in the future. I paid the entire amount of the invoice and gave a tip to the person who delivered my laundry.

        Lesson Learned: Indians have a tendency to want to please, even when uncertain of the answer to the question being asked. While their intentions may be good, it oftentimes leads to unexpected consequences.

        Background: Upon entering our hotel room we have come to realize that we first must conduct an inspection: Is there a top sheet? A second towel? Soap? Toilet paper? We then approach hotel staff to request the missing item(s). Our hotel at Gopalpur was no exception. We quickly discovered that we were missing all of the above items. The hotel's staff person indicated he would deliver these missing items to our room.

        Indiosyncrasy: Indeed, the hotel staff person did diligently deliver the items to our room in a timely manner. However, he did so by attempting to open the door to our room without first warning that he was entering.

        Resolution: Fortunately, our room door was bolted and locked. When I opened it to let him in, I explained that the normal procedure is to knock before entering. (In relaying this episode to others in our group, I discovered that this was not an uncommon experience.) In case there was a language difficulty, I then demonstrated the procedure of knocking. He seemed to understand and agree with the reasonableness of the protocol that I was trying to impart.

        Lesson Learned: I'm uncertain of why some hotel staff persons choose to barge into hotel rooms that are obviously occupied. Several theories come to mind:
        • First, giving the maximum benefit of doubt, the Indian hotel staff is so eager to please that they may think that the only thing that the hotel guest is doing is patiently sitting and waiting for the requested articles. Therefore, they assume that by walking into the room without wasting time knocking, they're actually providing a faster service and provide the guest with more immediate satisfaction.
        • Second, making some cultural assumptions, Indian hotel staff may have a sense of ownership regarding hotel room access and feel justified in entering a hotel room at their discretion since, after all, the room ultimately belongs to them.
        • Third, attributing more prurient motives to this action, hotel staff may think that they may have a chance to satisfy latent voyeuristic inclinations.
        I'll leave it to the reader's imagination as to whether any of these theories or another (I welcome your suggestions) may help to explain intruding into a guest's hotel room unannounced.

        Background: I was with Naomi at the market just outside the Hindi Temple in the centre of town.

        Indiosyncrasy: As is fairly common in our travels throughout India, two young Indians approached us and asked if we would agree to be photographed with them. As we sometimes request interesting looking Indians if we can photograph them, we obliged their request. However, not unusually, it soon became clear that they were more interested in placing themselves in pictures with Naomi then being photographed me.

        Resolution: Although asking to photograph me was clearly a ruse, who can blame them for wanting pictures of themselves with Naomi? I readily obliged.

        Lesson Learned: I have quite an attractive wife.

        Background: After paying the 250 Rupees entrance fee for Konark Temple, Naomi decided to use the facilities.

        Indiosyncrasy: She entered the group of washrooms labeled "Tourist Toilets". Upon entering she described the following scene: She first saw a long trough where women were expected to squat and openly urinate. The toilets for more serious matters were located opposite this trough and had no doors. The one "tourist toilet" (that included a toilet seat) that actually had a door, according to her description, had not been cleaned for months and had no flushing water, nor any working tap for dispensing water.

        Resolution: (Unlike at the houseboat in Alleppey) Naomi plunged ahead and completed her mission disregarding the toilet's conditions.

        Lesson Learned: There appear to be different degrees for determining whether to answer nature's call. Sometimes when you gotta go, you gotta go.

        Background: Bob, a tour group member reports to hotel staff that he has no toilet paper in his room.

        Indiosyncrasy: The hotel staff person returns with a toilet roll, but charges him 12 Rupees.

        Resolution: Bob paid the staff person AND gave him a tip for the toilet paper's delivery.

        Lesson Learned: The hotel's policy clearly expects guests to follow Indian custom and use their left hand to perform certain hygienic functions. Aware of the potential for just such an occurrence Naomi and I always travel with spare toilet paper.

        Background: A fellow tour group couple takes showers upon arriving at their hotel room.

        Indiosyncrasy: They discover a nest with two young birds living below the bathroom fan.

        Resolution: Following their own and our tour company's travel principle to be eco-friendly, they do not report this discovery to hotel staff and leave the nest and young birds unmolested. They proceed to take their showers.

        Lesson Learned:

        Either this hotel's:
        1. Cleaning staff is not very observant when cleaning bathrooms;
        2. Occupancy rate is very low, allowing rooms to go for days or weeks without their being used and, therefore, without having been cleaned;
        3. Policy is equally as concerned about preserving the environment and animal welfare as our tour operator and group members.

        Background: We traveled in our 2nd class air-conditioned coach from Puri to Calcutta.

        Indiosyncrasy: Just before our breakfasts were to be delivered to our seats, a train porter systematically circulated through our car to spray the surroundings of each seat with sprays from two cans: one contained bug spray, the second air freshener.

        Resolution: Given the public constraints of this situation, our solution could only be partial at best. While the Indian passengers in our car treated the matter quite routinely and allowed their seats and surroundings to be sprayed, we declined this 'courtesy'. (Too hungry to say 'no', we chose not to decline our breakfasts that came soon after.)

        Lesson Learned: Actually, a more appropriate label for this section may be "lesson not yet learned" and apply it to the Indian population rather than Indian tourists: if sanitary methods for food consumption and disposal were more commonly adhered to, then the need for cockroach spray and other poisons could be reduced or eliminated along with its casual acceptance.

        Background: Same train ride.

        Indiosyncrasy: A passenger two seats back played Indian music on his mp3 player using his device’s loudspeaker rather than privately listening using his earphones.

        Resolution: Naomi would not allow me to actualize my solution, which was to turn on the music from my Blackberry for all to hear as well. Denied the opportunity for engaging in "dueling mp3s", I (and all the rest of the passengers in our car) simply had to grin and bear it.

        Lesson Learned: Always bring your earphones with you on the train. In this way, you not only won't have to subject others to have to listen to your musical tastes, you can use them to block out the music of others who want to take on the role of train car disc jockey.

        Background: Our tour group members were pleasantly surprised to learn that our train tickets included complementary meals. We were treated to being served both breakfast and lunch at our seats on the train.

        Indiosyncrasy: Toward the end of the train journey, the train porters who served us these meals came around to collect their tip. We were pleased to oblige. However, rather than accepting the tip amounts being offered by passengers, they displayed only 100 Rupee notes and hid any lesser denominations they received. They used hand gestures to indicate that this was the acceptable tip amount. (This was followed by other train personnel who went from passenger to passenger requesting remuneration for the service they provided by using similar methods.)

        Resolution: I have no problem in providing a tip for good service rendered. However, I do have a problem when tipping amounts are being manipulated and/or dictated.

        Lesson Learned: Tip what is reasonable and affordable. Do not encourage chutzpani behaviour.

        Background: The ticket booth agent at the Victoria Memorial seemed to arbitrarily decide to close the wicket at his booth.

        Indiosyncrasy: The decision occurred when a long line of people (including us) were waiting to enter the museum and its grounds.

        Resolution: As we weren't clear on the reason for the closure, nor when the booth would reopen, and as we had other attractions to see, we decided to leave.

        Lesson Learned: "Shit happens".

        Background: We visited the Marble Palace where we were guided through an opulent (bordering on gaudy) 18th century mansion. The home was filled floor to ceiling with sculptures and paintings. Many were obvious reproductions. Others appeared to be original and seemingly very precious/valuable works of art.

        Indiosyncrasy: It was clear that all these many pieces of art as well as the home’s furnishings were in danger of being destroyed and/or vandalized through either neglect and/or lack of sufficient security to ensure their well being. It seemed a very odd juxtaposition to be walking through what once was a well furnished and decorated household and witness its negligent decay due to a complete lack of regard for its preservation.

        Resolution: On the one hand, we felt privileged to have the opportunity for a close, intimate visit in what obviously once was a very opulent environment. On the other hand, we also recognized that we were likely contributing to its decay exactly because we were allowed such an up close and personal presence.

        Lesson Learned: The Indian tourist must often feel like a type of voyeur. Life is (too) often literally lived out on the street for all to observe. The visit to the Marble Palace turned the typical Indian voyeuristic experience literally inside out: We left feeling as if we intruded in someone's abandoned and decaying home. We knew we shouldn't be in there, but nonetheless, we were completely mesmerized and unable to stop gawking at the same time.

        Background: Arriving at the Calcutta train station, I attempted to disembark from the train car with my travel bag and backpack.

        Indiosyncrasy: A long line of Indians was attempting to simultaneously enter the train car. Due to the narrow aisle, we quickly reached an impasse: they could not progress to their seats located further into the car until they first allowed me to leave.

        Resolution: After a silent standoff lasting a few minutes, the above realization finally hit home. Embarking passengers backed off the train to allow me and my luggage to pass.

        Lesson Learned: Even in India, it may take a while, but practical logic will often win out.

        Background: I attempted to pay for a Coke with a crisp 50 Rupee note.

        Indiosyncrasy: Pointing to a small cut on the top centre of the bill, the vendor refused to accept my money.

        Resolution: I didn't buy the Coke.

        Lesson Learned: There are at least two:
        1. Inspect your bills upon receipt to be sure they are completely intact. Otherwise, you'll most certainly leave India 'holding the bag' (of torn bills).
        2. Use every excuse possible not to buy sugary soft drinks. It's much healthier that way. 

        Background: Our tour group composed of 15 people is seated in a restaurant.

        Indiosyncrasy: Only one or two of our table's occupants are provided with menus. Those without menus either must wait until a menu is free or look over the shoulder of the person next to them who is holding the menu. This results in significant delays in the food ordering process and adds to the already time consuming process of going out to eat.

        Resolution: Normally the solution is quite simple: ask the waiter for more menus. Yes, restaurants usually do have additional menus. However, they all seem to either want to save these additional menus in case another hoard of tourists materialize (which rarely happens), or they may be making the assumption that only one or two individuals from our table will take responsibility to order food for all others (which may be the case when large Indian families order food and the head of the household assumes this responsibility).

        Lesson Learned: It may be necessary to take the initiative to counter this phenomenon (regardless of whether its due to restaurant oversight or it being a cultural phenomenon) and immediately ask for more menus upon being seated. This action will result in some very practical outcomes, including everyone more quickly being able to satiate their hunger.

        Background: We are now on day 78 of our circumnavigation of India tour. We are still driving though India in our hired vehicles (we have switched from buses to jeeps to better handle the rough mountainous roads of Sikkim) with our hired drivers. Al had flown to New Delhi when we were in Calcutta because he received word from the head office that the company's truck would soon be released from customs where is has now been held for nearly 6 months. Al's mission was to oversee it's release and then drive it to the Nepalese border where he would pick up the tour members and drive them back to Kathmandu, the final destination of the tour. If all went well, we would experience the feel of how this tour was intended to operate during the three days it would take to make the journey with the truck to Kathmandu.

        Indiosyncrasy: It has now been more than a week that Al has been continuing to negotiate the release of the truck from New Delhi customs. What once was described as a certainty has obviously bogged down in additional bureaucratic detail. Even if the truck was released today (and no one is holding their breath on that happening), it will not have sufficient time to meet at our Nepali rendezvous point. We have also learned of the conditions India Customs had dictated that Dragoman meet to simply move the truck from Mumbai to New Delhi customs. Among others, a crate had to be built to house the massive truck as it was hauled on its overland journey to New Delhi via semi-trailor. (Given the conditions of the roads, and knowing the habits of Indian drivers, it is difficult to imagine how a semi-trailer truck hauling a load that wide could even make that journey.) Al also subsequently learned that, once at New Delhi customs, the customs warehouse was not able to accommodate the truck's crate size. Apparently, unless it was literally within the warehouse, customs would not be able to clear it. Once this problem was resolved (I'm not sure how), Al further learned that the Mumbai Customs Office had failed to send the paperwork to New Delhi that should have accompanied the truck. And so it continues to go...

        1. Regarding the truck's fate: This is obviously a continuing saga with no resolution in sight
        2. Regarding our own 'fate': It is no longer tied to the Dragoman truck. We left the tour just before it was scheduled to enter back into Nepal. Rather than face a long drive back to Kathmandu (whether by hired bus or Dragoman truck), we decided to fly from Siliguri (West Bengal) through New Delhi and onto Singapore.
        Lesson Learned: Whether we actually manage to arrive at our travel destination (and avoid the same fate as the Dragoman truck) is, we have repeatedly learned, not a ‘slam dunk’. We will continue to expect and accept any sudden challenges that we encounter as we navigate our exit from India.
        Thus far, as we proceed with our final day departure from India, we have encountered the following Indiosyncrasies along the way:
        • After we had been assured that our Bodaghra Airport hotel was able to accept our credit card when we checked in (we intentionally exhausted our Indian Rupees in anticipation of our departure), we learned that the hotel's credit card machine was not operating when we checked out. Fortunately, the hotel accepted the exchange of US cash as payment.
        • Upon entering the taxi that was to drive us to the airport, the driver demanded twice the rate quoted to us by the hotel receptionist. We negotiated a reduced fare (but more than what was originally quoted) and were off - to the gas station that was in the opposite direction to the airport. After 'filling up' with all of 2.8 liters of gas (.75 gal) we proceeded to the airport.
        • Our 9:45 AM flight was delayed to 11:00 A.M.
        • Upon arrival into Singapore Airport, we discovered what could only be our ultimate “Indiosyncrasy” (or so we think): Air India had forgotten to load our luggage onto our plane in New Delhi. We waited till the arrival of the next morning’s flight to receive it while comfortably ensconced in our wonderfully luxurious, clean, air conditioned, bathroom amenities included, bathrobes inclusive, slippers provided, plushy feathered pillowed, flat screen 37 inch TV equipped, Wi-Fi enabled, 24 hour supply of hot water Singapore hotel during the past 24 hours.
        Still, in putting the finishing editing touches on this (very long) “Indiosyncrasies” narrative, I can’t help but think that I’ll miss India. After all, what will I have to write about now?

        Friday, February 24, 2012

        Pelling, Gangtok and Bagdogra — the last three stops on our trip

        We knew when we left Darjeeling, that we were headed back into cold weather, unheated hotels and the possibility of rain or even snow. Yuck! Pelling promised beautiful sunrises and views of mountain peaks, but the weather when we arrived was unforgiving and the town itself had little to offer except the views (which were covered in mist). Gangtok was also cloudy and rainy, but at least there we had a mission.

        Our journey through India (and cold weather) was coming to an end. To lighten our load we planned to make use of the large post office in Gangtok which was conveniently located right across from our hotel (thanks Anja!!!). We also knew that sending a package in India is a three-part process so we needed to allow enough time to complete each of the procedures. On our first attempt at information gathering, the woman behind the counter at the post office informed Marc that we would have to find a cardboard box, and then go to a fabric shop to buy enough white cloth to wrap the box. Then we needed to find a tailor to sew the cloth securely around the box. With this all done, we needed to come back to the post office (between 10:00 am and 3:pm) to have it weighed and shipped.

        OK. So where do we find a fabric shop and a tailor? She motioned in a direction and told us we could find both in the market by the Gandhi statue. It was already evening, but we took a walk to the market to see if we could get a handle on this. We asked several people without getting a clear answer. The number of head wobbles and questionable looks led us to believe that we may be the first people on earth to send a package abroad from this town! The first tailor we found needed 24 hours to do the work (and he was not at all interested), and we still needed to find a box and buy the cloth and figure out if the stuff we were sending was even worth all this bother.

        The next day after doing some touring, we went back to the post office to try to get some more information. After talking to three people (mostly us talking and them listening blankly and directing us to another person), we found someone that could give us an idea of how much it would cost to send 10 kilo to New York. That was surprisingly easy. He sat down at a computer like any post office employee anywhere in the West and plugged in the coordinates and presto there was a price.

        But of course he had no idea how we would get the rest of it done.

        I was exasperated at this point and was ready to leave all of our winter clothes in a pile at the entrance to the post office and be done with it. But I calmed down and we decided to ask our hotel manager if he could help, and of course he could!

        That evening we stuffed our winter clothes into a couple of carry bags and went downstairs to discuss our problem with the hotel manager. He looked at our stuff trying to figure out if he could find a box big enough. After convincing us to keep a few things and eyeballing the weight, he sent us down the street with one of the hotel staff to weigh our stuff on their scale. Once we had made some adjustments and knew that we were within our 10 kilo limit, he took full control of the situation. “Just leave it all with me” he said with a smile. “I will look after finding a box and I have a man who will do the sewing. Tomorrow morning it will be ready.” I put some money in his hand and we were done.

        In the morning as promised, our package was beautifully wrapped and sewn with additional wax seals all the way around. He carefully explained the costs for the cloth and the sewing and gave me back almost half of the money I had given him the night before. I left him with a nice tip, which he gave directly to the young man who had done all the running around. We walked across the street to the post office and within 10 minutes, our travel worn belongings were in the hands of India Post!

        But it was much more than sending off a box of dusty belongings. It signaled the end of the organized part of our travel adventure. No more preplanned itineraries, transportation or tour guides. No more Al and Anja to figure anything and everything out for us. No more shared group experiences. And — no more India.

        When we walked out of the post office, I felt both much lighter and much heavier at the same time. One chapter was ending and another was just about to begin.

        That night was a farewell dinner for us. We spent the rest of the afternoon writing notes to all of our travel companions. I knew I would be a mess after the first farewell hug, and needed to get things down on paper. We had been through so much together and there was a lot to say to each of them.

        close up at one of the Monasteries in Gangtok

        The next day we all drove to the Sikkim border in our jeeps and then to Bagdoghra where Marc and I were dropped off at our hotel. As I had predicted, I was not able to say anything to anyone once the hugs began. My eyes were full of tears and my throat was tight.

        Anja gave us both a hug from Al (who is still stuck in Delhi waiting for the truck to clear customs) and walked us to reception where her last responsibility to us was to check us in. “I promised Al I would make sure you were safely in your hotel before we left”, she said tearing up herself. One last hug and she was on her way with the rest of the group to the Nepalese border and the rest of the tour back to Kathmandu.

        close up at one of the Monasteries in Gangtok

        Our last night in India was in a very pleasant hotel in a small Indian town whose only claim to fame is that there is an army base and an airport there. So we felt just fine doing nothing, regrouping, packing and watching TV. We had an Indian curry for dinner in the hotel restaurant (which was very nice) and just let the last night go by. This morning we were served a very nice complimentary breakfast, got into an airport cab and caught our flight to Delhi. Right now we are camped out in the Delhi airport (which is gorgeous!) until our flight six hours from now. By this time tomorrow we will be in another country at the opposite end of the spectrum.

        Singapore here we come!

        Thursday, February 23, 2012

        Our visit to Darjeeling

        Only the newest buds like this one are picked for tea.
        When I was a teenager, there was always a tin of Darjeeling tea in the cupboard, and my friend Sandi and I drank gallons of it, lounging on the couch at my place or hers, listening to Joni Mitchell and contemplating life. Then it was just a tin of loose tealeaves we poured steaming hot water over. I don’t think I could have anticipated then, that I would be spending the better part of a week exploring the town and the area where those tea leaves were (and still are) picked by hand at just the right moment, dried, fermented, graded and prepared to be finally packaged for our enjoyment.

        The town of Darjeeling is built on the side of a mountain and has the appearance of terraced fields when you first look at it, spreading further and further down the mountain. But instead of colourful crops, you see brightly painted buildings and prayer flags wherever you look. Long steep staircases connect different parts of town with small roads weaving their way between staircases. These streets are filled with bustling markets and food stands, which are the lifeblood of this ever-expanding town. The tourist area is much quieter, lined with budget hotels, teashops and bakeries where you can sample any number of graded Darjeeling teas, black, white or green.

        In close proximity to the town, there are a number of very interesting Buddhist Monasteries to visit, one of India’s noteworthy Zoo’s, a mountaineering school, a botanical garden and I am sure many other noteworthy attractions that have not yet made it into the guidebooks. After a visit to the zoo, we spent an afternoon just wandering the streets to the outskirts of town, where we found many local young couples taking scenic walks. On another day we hired a taxi and driver to take us to the Monasteries.


        In between sightseeing we gorged ourselves on the amazingly good street food, freshly prepared in front of our eyes. There were momos (steamed dumplings), fried noodles, rolls (something between a chapatti and a pita cooked on a skillet and filled with various delicious fillings), deep fried pastries filled with vegetables or chicken, French fries, and even a Nepali/Indian version of a hot dog. And of course we sampled Darjeeling tea, black and green, which hit the spot on the misty and cold early mornings and late afternoons of our three-day visit.

        street food in Darjeeling yum!

        After three really enjoyable days in Darjeeling we made our way to Karmi Farms where Andrew, our host met us with a handshake and a warm smile. Andrew, of half Scottish and half Indian heritage grew up on a tea plantation his father managed just up the hill from the house he and his mother now live in which has been converted into a homestay (http://www.karmifarm.com). This visit proved to be one of the highlights of our trip.

        View from Karmi Farm

        This is the veranda and the view if you are sitting on it!

        Karmi Farms is a six hour trek from Darjeeling (5,000 feet downhill and then 3,000 feet up). Marc and I decided to take the easy option and jump into a jeep, but many of our group decided to do at least part of the trek. We met at the bottom for a wonderful packed lunch (provided by Andrew) and four of our group carried on up the hill on foot. We arrived about an hour before them by jeep and had a chance to sit on the veranda, meet Andrew’s mom, sip on freshly brewed Darjeeling tea and enjoy the fantastic view. As soon as everyone arrived we were shown to our rooms.

        The main house.

        The next three days were magical.

        I am not sure where to begin. Shall I start with the fact that Andrew’s family have been caring for the medical welfare of all of the villagers within walking distance since they have lived here and have now opened a real clinic in a new building on their land — or with the fact that he is in the midst of orchestrating the building of a new house for a 21 year old girl who lives three hours by foot away from his farm, crippled in a bridge accident two months ago — or that he got us invited to a local wedding during our visit, where we witnessed the traditions of the local people — or that he and his mom have taken in three boys whose parents can’t afford to feed them and is sending one of them off to school for higher education — or that we were fed the most amazing food imaginable, prepared by Andrew, his mom and their cook and kitchen staff?


        We felt like we were in the middle of a really good movie that makes you laugh and makes you cry and you never forget. It was an unforgettable experience from so many perspectives. Andrew made a choice to move himself back to this place and to give up all of the conveniences of the West to be a part of this life in the jungle dotted with tea plantations (or tea gardens as he calls them). The large comfortable house and adjoining dormitories and suites (room for 20 people max) is beautifully appointed but rustic to be sure. The cooking in the large kitchen is accomplished using a wood burning stove and oven. It is winter here and there is no heating except for the two fireplaces in the sitting rooms at the front of the house. All laundry is done by hand and hung out to dry on the line. Every plank of wood used to build the house has been hand cut and carried here. The nearest hospital is at least four hours by jeep on rough road.

        I think you get the picture. This life is hard and he and his family are nothing short of amazing.

        We walked about an hour through the bush to the wedding. About half way there, we could hear the music and smell the food cooking. This wedding was between a Hindu woman and a Christian man. A love marriage, rather than an arranged one — and a first for Andrew as well. He was as curious as we were as to how it would all come together.

        When we arrived we were welcomed by family and ushered to a seated area where we were given tea to drink and cookies and other treats to eat. There were two other tents set up for food — veg (vegetarian) for the Hindu side of the family and non-veg for everyone else. After much pomp and circumstance the bride and the groom appeared and were seated in a special area set up for them to receive gifts and congratulations from the greater community. With each gift, there was the ceremonial placing of a prayer shawl on the bride and groom, bows and placement of the gifts in a safe place in exchange for a small gift from the bride and groom to the community member. We had no idea what was in the small box, but we hoped it was wedding cake!

        Behind all of the tents, a goat was being cleaned and dressed for cooking. The younger members of the community were washing dishes and the young married women were chopping vegetables. Most of the young men were serving food in the two tents. There was an ongoing procession of people arriving, having tea, eating a meal and congratulating the bride and groom. We left mid afternoon, but the music could be heard from Karmi Farms well into the wee hours of the morning! What an experience!

        Andrew was explaining to us where the new house would be built.

        There were heartbreaking moments as well as we visited the young woman that was crippled by a bridge accident. Andrew has great plans for her though, and hopes to improve her ability to be more independent with the construction of a small house that will be wheelchair accessible.
        the final momos!

        On our last night, the kitchen staff taught us all how to make momos. Not an easy task and we made quite a mess of it, but luckily they tasted the same no matter how they looked. After dinner, the young boys living with the family performed a series of dances for us, which ended with all of us up on the dance floor attempting a Napali folk dance. It was a great way to spend our last night in this incredible place.

        As with our arrival to Karmi farms, there was an option to leave by foot to the Sikkim border — a trek of about three hours. This time we joined the group for an amazingly pleasant walk through villages and tea gardens, which would take us to the Sikkim border and our awaiting jeeps.

        Andrew and his mother and aunt with the young boys and the cook and his helper as well as the tall young man on the right who took us on walks.

        The whole extended family posed for a group photo before we left the farm. And then Andrew and his mom bid us each farewell. We were all amazed at how attached to them we all felt after such a short stay. This place and these people made a very big impression on all of us, and our visit to Karmi Farms ranks as one of the greatest highlights of this trip.