It was Monday, October 17th and we were packing up our apartment and getting everything ready for our around-the-world trip. We were leaving for Turkey that Friday and had gotten all of our visas except for India. We had read on-line that we could go to the Indian Embassy's visa outsourcing office, "Travisa" and get our visas the same day. So we filled out all of our forms and made an appointment for Monday morning. When we got there they told us that they don't do same-day visas anymore (even though it says they do on their website). They also told us that Darren's visa would take longer because he had an Irish passport but they assured us it would be ready before we were leaving the country on Friday. At the very worst they said we could withdraw the application if the visa wasn't ready in time and get the passport back from the embassy so we could leave for Turkey.
The next day I received a text message from Travisa informing me that my visa was ready but received no news of Darren's visa. They don't allow people to call and check on the status and they claim that passports are with the embassy and they have no way of knowing when they will be ready. By Thursday we still hadn't gotten any word on Darren's passport and we were panicked. We had moved everything out of our apartment, all plane tickets had been purchased and Darren's passport was still at the embassy. We called Travisa and they told us that his visa would take up to 2 weeks because he had an Irish passport even though they had assured us on Monday that it would be ready in a couple days. When we told them that we just wanted the passport back they said we had to submit a form and it would take up to 72 hours to release the passport even though on Monday they said we could get it back right away if the visa wasn't ready by Friday. While I tried calling the Indian Embassy and got nowhere but the voicemail black hole, Darren called the Irish Embassy to see if they could help. He spoke to a nice woman named Fiona who said she'd try to call the Indian embassy and see what she could do. In the meantime, we decided to run over to the Indian Embassy ourselves to see if they would hand over Darren's passport. We hopped on the subway and then ran all the way there. There was a long line and clerks working behind bullet-proof glass. Just as we got there Fiona called to say that she spoke to someone at the Indian embassy and Darren's passport would be ready that evening but the visa would not. We stayed on the line anyway to see if they might hand his passport over to us then. By the time we got to the front of the line, I learned why they needed the bullet-proof glass. I was just about ready to break through it when the clerk told us they had his passport and his visa was ready but we had to wait and pick it up from Travisa between 4:30-6:00pm. Good job Fiona! So we waited all day and got to Travisa at 4:15. There was already a long line outside. When we finally got inside they said Darren's passport wasn't there but that it might arrive in the next batch in an hour or two. So we waited and waited and waited.
At 5:57, three minutes before they were to close, my phone rang. It was a woman from Travisa calling to tell Darren that the Irish embassy had pushed his visa through (they were probably thinking he was a Diplomat or something) and asking if he would like to pick it up in the morning. Darren told her that he had been sitting in their lobby for an hour and a half and he was standing right outside. So she came out from behind the counter to personally deliver his passport back to him as if he was the Prince of Ireland. That was our first taste of what traveling through India would be like.
We had originally planned to travel from Nepal to India overland but found out that it would take two buses and a rickshaw over two days to get from Kathmandu to Varanasi. We didn't want to lose so much time traveling so Bishnu at Nature Trail (see the blog post, "Nepal") found us a 45-minute flight from Kathmandu to Varanasi. The only problem was that the flights only left every other day so we didn't get to India until the 19th when we had wanted to get there on the 18th.
When we arrived in Varanasi the first thing we noticed was how much more modern it was compared to Nepal. We had requested an airport pickup by our hotel but no one showed up. When we walked out of the airport we were immediately swarmed by taxi drivers. We went with the one who gave us the lowest price. When we got to our hotel they said they had no reservation for us even though we paid a deposit, had sent two e-mails about the airport pickup, and showed them our confirmation letter. They denied knowing anything about it. We then spent the next two hours with our taxi driver taking us from one hotel to the next. All of them said they were full because it was "wedding season". Finally, we found a place that had just one night available even though we were wanting to stay two nights. We were desperate and they knew it and they charged us triple the rate. We had no other choice but to stay there.
Here's what we know now: It is very common in India to make a reservation and then get to your hotel and find that they have given your room away to someone else. The taxi driver was all too happy to take us around all night because he got a 50% commission from the hotel for bringing us there. Since we already had a reservation with our hotel, he wouldn't have gotten any commission which is why he was prying us with questions about how much we paid for our room and telling us to check the room first to see if we liked it because he knew a lot of other nicer hotels we could stay at. Our driver had the phone number for every hotel in Varanasi programmed into his phone and called our hotel on the way to tell them to lose our reservation. We had no clue because we couldn't understand a word he was saying. Then he took us to other hotels who told us they were full because they didn't want to pay him a commission. The hotel we finally found told us to tell our driver we only paid 2,000 rupees when we actually paid 3,000 so that they didn't have to pay him his full commission. I had never been anywhere in the world where haggling for everything, including hotel rates, was the norm. Welcome to India. It was a major culture shock. Nepal was definitely "India lite". Everything here was much more extreme.
Our taxi driver offered to take us to the Ganges the next day. He said the best time to see it was at 6 am when the sun was rising. We had come to Varanasi to see the Ganges so reluctantly agreed to wake up at the crack of dawn.
He picked us up the next morning at 5:45 but when we got to the Ganges we couldn't see a thing. The fog had followed us all the way from Nepal. He pushed us into going on a boat ride even though there was nothing to see because of the fog. The boat guide wanted 400 rupees per person even though our driver had told us the night before it would only be 98 each. Then he changed his story and told us that was the price only if you were in a large group. We didn't want to pay all that money when there was nothing to see. Finally, we agreed on a price of 150 rupees each (we later found out that we should have only been charged 150 rupees total rather than 300 and that our driver made a commission on that as well). So we rowed down the Ganges and watched the locals bathe in the river before they went into the temple.
In the Hindu religion, it is believed that bathing in the purifying waters of the Ganges will cleanse you of all your sins. Whether you're a believer or not, one has to admire the devotion of people who get up before dawn to bathe in the chilly water filled with the ashes of the dead. When a person dies their ashes must be scattered in the Ganges in order for them to reach the afterlife. All the dead are cremated except for holy men, babies, pregnant women, someone bitten by a cobra, and Lepers. Those people are dropped directly into the Ganges. We drifted along and saw people bathing, washermen beating laundry on rocks, water cobras, and fires burning-cremations in progress.
We spent a couple more hours driving around looking for another hotel. Again, more of the same. Everyone said they were full because of the wedding season and all the while our driver is making money driving us around all day. Finally, we found another hotel. It was absolutely disgusting, located in a slum, and we were way overcharged again but no one else had a room for us. Our driver made another nice commission. Then he drove us back to our previous hotel so we could check out and bring our bags to the new hotel. Then he drove us to the train station so we could get tickets to Delhi for the next day. There's no direct train to Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, so we had to go to Delhi first and then get a train back to Agra. When we got to the train station we were immediately ushered by the "Tourist Police" into a separate room just for tourists. We thought it really strange that tourists were not allowed to even step into the main train station and were kept sequestered in a private room. We later found out it was because the locals will harass the tourists and try to scam them by selling fake tickets. The situation was so bad that there was a need to segregate us and create the Tourist Police to protect us. Nearly two hours and one power outage later, we finally had our tickets.
Then our taxi driver tried to convince us to let him take us on a tour of the city for the afternoon. His proposal included taking us to the Massage Institute and the Silk Factory. We were not interested in getting massages or buying silks but he was insisting. We didn't want to pay someone to drive us to places we didn't want to go and we had heard from another tourist the night before that he was brought to the silk factory and wasn't allowed to leave until he purchased half a dozen silk scarves that he didn't even want. Our driver would get a commission for bringing us to every one of these places but we didn't find this out until later. We told him we'd prefer to do things on our own and he started arguing with us and wouldn't go. Then he doubled the price he had originally quoted us for driving us around all night and all morning. We paid him what we originally told him we would plus a tip but if we had known at the time he was responsible for our hotel reservation being canceled and all the other aggravation of the past day then he wouldn't have gotten anything. He insisted on dropping us at a restaurant saying it was on his way and acting like he was trying to be nice but he brought us there to get another commission. Then he tried to get us to go with a rickshaw driver that we didn't want (another commission for him). After we ate lunch the rickshaw driver wouldn't leave us alone. He chased us down for an entire block.
We found a different rickshaw driver to take us to a temple that we wanted to go to called Bharat Mata. Everyone was trying to charge us double or triple but the tourist police had told us what it should cost to get to all the places we wanted to go. Finally, after a lot of haggling over prices we got to the temple. It was unremarkable from the outside. Inside it had a three-dimensional topographical map of India and Nepal carved from marble which took up the entire room. This was something that was unique for a temple where one would usually expect to see statues of deities.
Frustrated and exhausted from haggling with drivers, we decided to explore the city on foot. The streets in India are insane. There are no stops signs, no traffic lights, and no street signs. Cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, tuk-tuks (these are sort of like motorized rickshaws), bicycles, and cows are all moving in every direction. There are seemingly no traffic rules whatsoever and there are no sidewalks to walk on. Whole families will ride on the back of a motorbike. Dad will be driving and mom will be on the back holding a couple of babies. Crossing the street is a very scary and dangerous experience. Just one of the millions of ways a person can die in India! The cars never stop so you just have to walk out into oncoming traffic and hope they will swerve around you otherwise you'll be standing on the side of the road all day. Since there were no street signs, we got completely lost. Whenever we'd ask for directions someone would send us the wrong way. All the while, we were being followed by rickshaws and tuk-tuks who wouldn't leave us alone. Finally, after two hours we found our hotel.
The whole day was pretty draining but we decided to go back to the Ganges that night to see the ceremony. We hadn't really gotten to see much that morning because of the fog and we had come to Varanasi just for that so we talked another driver down from his ridiculously over-inflated price. We thought we won this one but then he dropped us over a mile away from where we wanted to be. We had no idea which way to go and the streets were packed with crowds of people. We found a nice family who let us walk with them and tried to protect us from the hawkers who kept following us. When we got to the Ganges there was music and lights and fires burning. The scent of incense was in the air. There were boats in the water filled with people. I was taking in the whole scene when I heard Darren call my name. I turned around and an old man had him in a head-lock. He was forcing Darren to let him give him a massage. Darren didn't want to hurt him or offend him as he thought maybe it was some sort of Indian custom to rub a total stranger but he didn't want a massage either. The old man wrestled him to the ground and was massaging his feet, legs, arms, back, head. He wouldn't let him go. When Darren finally got away from him the old man insisted he should be paid 200 rupees even though Darren never asked for nor wanted a massage. We paid him some money so he would leave us alone and then we found a seat at the ceremony.
When we got back to our hotel there was a marching band playing outside our window. That's right. A marching band. There was a wedding party staying at the hotel across the street and they were playing for the bride and groom. Wedding season! Next came the fireworks. What next India?! I covered my dirty pillow with a t-shirt, we slept fully dressed and laughed ourselves to sleep.
The next day we went to the train station to catch our train to Delhi. Our train was delayed an hour and a half. There were no shops to buy food in the area we were staying in so we figured we'd buy food on the train but now we were getting hungry. Darren left the tourist holding a pen in search of food. All he could find was a loaf of white bread, some jam, and some chips. I noticed the bread had a big hole in the bottom. A rat had gotten into it. He had to run back and get a new one. We ate jam sandwiches and potato chips for lunch like we were five years old. Our train finally pulled in. Someone told us which car was ours but it turned out they sent us to the wrong car and we were kicked out. They told us we were in the next car over so we sat there and we were sharing a compartment with two British sisters, Mel and Louise. They had about a 10 or 15 year age difference between them and had been volunteering in India for a few weeks already. They amused us with stories of all the creative ways they had been scammed out of money. So it wasn't just us! They were frustrated because they were here to help disabled children and they were having a rough time traveling around India. It was even worse for them as they were two women. I understood. No one would even speak to me. It was like I was invisible. People only spoke to Darren. Plus they were traveling with huge suitcases full of medical supplies. On top of that, Louise suffered from Narcolepsy so Mel had come on the trip with her to keep her safe. With narcolepsy she could fall asleep on the train and wake up someplace she shouldn't be or she could fall down and hurt herself. Sometimes she would be telling us a story and she'd fall asleep while talking. One of her triggers was laughing so every time we made her laugh she'd doze off and that would make us laugh some more.
Our train ride was only supposed to be 13 hours but wound up being 24 hours. About an hour into the trip the conductor came to check our tickets and told us we were all in the wrong car....again. He made us all get up and move to yet another car. The sleeper car we were in was pretty comfortable and they gave us sheets and pillows which was nice. Traveling on the Indian railway is an authentic Indian experience.
A day later, we finally made it to our hotel in Delhi (after being overcharged by 90 rupees by our tuk-tuk driver and a violent fight between two drivers who wanted our business and one of them physically pulling Darren out of another driver's vehicle) so we chose to walk around on foot. A young man came up to us and made friendly conversation. He told us we should go check out Connaught Square and then helped us get a tuk-tuk for a fair price and sent us to the tourist information office. We went in looking for a metro map and all they did was try to sell us an overpriced taxi tour of the city. We told them we'd go have dinner and think about it because they were not taking no for an answer. Then they had someone escort us to a restaurant (so they could get a commission for taking us there) and he waited outside when we went in. We snuck out another door and then suddenly the young man who put us in the tuk-tuk appeared again. He was following us. Then he made up some story about how the driver took us to the wrong tourist office. He was supposed to take us to the "government tourist office" (they all say they are the government office but it doesn't actually exist) so he got another tuk-tuk for us. It was the same driver again! They were all working together. This was getting really creepy. He insisted it was just a coincidence and the driver pretended he'd never seen us before. He also no longer spoke English when his English was perfect during the first ride. They dropped us at another tourist office and made us pay for another ride. We asked for a map again but all they tried to do was sell us ridiculously priced tours and send us to places we didn't want to go. We wanted to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Gujarat to meet up with our friends Sonal and Dave from New York who were in India for a family wedding. No one would help us book train tickets and we never did get a metro map from any of these "free tourist information offices." We politely declined their tours and the man wouldn't let us leave. We literally had to run out. We were swarmed on the street by young boys trying to bring us into their tourist offices. Everywhere we went we were being followed. This was nuts. We tried to get a tuk-tuk back to our hotel but all of the drivers were asking for triple the price. A local boy tried to help us. None of the drivers would take us. He tried for fifteen minutes and could only get a driver to take us for 40 rupees when it should have been 10. We were so appreciative of his help because we could only get a ride on our own for 150 but in the end, he was apologizing to us because he couldn't get them to take us for a fair price.
The next day was more of the same. We walked to the train station to see if we could get tickets to go to Agra the next day. We couldn't even get into the train station. We'd ask where we needed to go to buy tickets and someone would send us to the wrong place. They'd try to send us to a tourist office so they could get commission and then follow us to make sure we didn't go somewhere else. We asked a railroad employee that we thought we could trust. He showed us his badge, told us not to follow the directions of the locals, and put us in a tuk-tuk and sent us to another "government tourist office". We gave up. We had spent 24 hours on a train to Delhi so that we could see the Taj Mahal and no one would sell us a train ticket to get there. The only way we were getting a train ticket was through this tour company. We just hoped the tickets were legit. Then we tried to see if we could get tickets to Ahmedabad to see Sonal and Dave. The train would get there (if it was on time) Saturday morning and they were flying back to New York Saturday night. We had been looking forward to seeing some friendly faces and we were so frustrated. Our flight from India to Vietnam was leaving out of Bangalore so we needed to work our way down south. We had wanted to go to Kerala as we'd heard it was really beautiful and not as hectic as the north but it would take three days by train to get there leaving us with maybe one day in Kerala and then we'd need to take another train back up to Bangalore. A flight was too expensive so we finally settled on a much cheaper flight to Goa which we had no desire or intention on going to but we felt we had few options and little time. Goa wasn't really the Indian cultural experience we were after but at least it was on the coast and we could stay put for a couple days.
There was a group of Canadian girls in the tour office as well. One was really upset. They couldn't get anywhere either. They had spent their whole trip just trying to book tickets and never getting to see anything. She thought India would be really inexpensive to travel around but had to call her bank because she had been swindled out of all her money. They booked a taxi tour that they didn't even want to go on because no one would sell them tickets for anything else. We had planned on touring the city that day but it took us 5 hours to finally get train tickets and we were $450 poorer! Then we had to find somewhere that had internet so we could find a hotel in Agra. This all took up our entire day.
November 24th Thanksgiving day. We were on a train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It was a Thursday and the Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays. If the train was late there was a possibility we might not make it in time.
Of course, our train got to Agra 3 hours late so we wanted to get to our hotel, drop our bags, and run over to the Taj Mahal. Before the train even pulled into the station a man snuck on to try to get us to go with his taxi company. He pretended to be helping us by telling us the tuk-tuks and rickshaws will overcharge tourists and he would help us by showing us where the "government taxi stand" was located. He followed us off the train and wouldn't leave us alone. We had very little time so just gave in and paid for another overpriced taxi. When we got in, the driver immediately started telling us about nice hotels we could go to and tried to get us to go on a tour. We told him we already booked a hotel and we were leaving the next day and didn't want a tour. He insisted that he let us show us other hotels. He wouldn't leave us alone. Then we got to our hotel and they said they didn't have a room for us even though we made a reservation and paid a deposit. They told us to wait and they would give us a ride to another hotel. We were furious and the Taj Mahal would be closing soon. We got back in the taxi. I informed them we weren't paying for the ride and they took us to another hotel. Both the taxi driver and the hotel owner would get commissions for bringing us to another hotel. They were all working together. We got a room. It was really gross but we were leaving at 4:30 am for a train back to Delhi and would only be sleeping there for a few hours. We had no time to look for another place either. We dropped our bags and sprinted to the Taj Mahal. Tourists have to pay more than double the price of locals to get in but the nice thing is that they have a separate and much shorter line for tourists so we went right in. We made it. It was a Thanksgiving miracle! And the Taj Mahal was incredible. Amid all the filth and chaos of the streets just outside its walls was this pristine and peaceful sanctuary. An amazing feat of architecture that took 22,000 architects, artisans, and laborers 22 years to build by hand.
There are several different versions of the love story about how the Taj came to be. Here's the version I like the best: It is said that Shah Jahan was walking through the market one day and met a peasant girl named Arjumand Bano Begum, selling glass beaded necklaces that she told him were diamonds. It was love at first sight and so of course Shah Jahan bought several of her "diamond" necklaces that day. He wanted to marry her the next day but he was already betrothed to another woman. It took five years but they were finally married. Her name was changed to Mumtaz Mahal. She was his third wife but his one true love and they were inseparable. Even when he was on the battlefield she insisted on being by his side and that is where she died pregnant with his 14th child. Just before she died she made him promise to build a monument that would be a testament to their love. Shah grieved for her so deeply that he gave up all his possessions and became a recluse. None of it mattered without his true love. He commissioned a mausoleum to be built for his wife that's magnificence and grandeur would surpass any other structure in the world. Both of their bodies still lie side by side in marble coffins inside the Taj Mahal today.
This was our third train ride in India. The toilets on the train are just squat toilets and the waste goes directly onto the tracks. There are all types of bodily fluids on the restroom floor and I watched a woman walk in with bare feet. I was looking for a garbage can to throw away some trash and a railroad official told me to just throw it out the window but I couldn't do it. Our train arrived three hours late again but we still had time to get to the airport. We found a taxi-more haggling-and he drove us through the nice part of Delhi which we hadn't seen before. This was the area where the President lived and where all the embassies were located. The streets were paved and there we sidewalks, well-manicured lawns with beautifully landscaped gardens. Ten minutes away people are living in slums surrounded by human waste and garbage.
We arrived in Goa late that night. What a long day! It was different from the north. It was more modern and cleaner with obvious Portuguese influence. The best thing was that tuk-tuks and rickshaws were not allowed at the airport. It was refreshing to see a whole group of school girls at our hotel the next morning. And there were even some women. We had rarely seen any women the whole time we were traveling in India. All the hotels, restaurants and trains were completely employed by men. Mel and Louise think that if they had some women working in the hotels we'd at least have some properly cleaned sheets and towels! I think one of the most beautiful things about India is the women. Indian women are like artwork in their colorful saris with their hennaed hands and feet and their bangles on their arms. India is extremely dry and so there is dirt and dust everywhere. We are baffled at how they stay so clean and perfect.
We spent a couple days at the beach and swam for the first time in the Arabian Sea. Some hawkers will constantly come up to you while you're trying to relax and convince you to buy things like jewelry, clothes, fruit, newspapers, head massagers, blow up pillows, DVDs, drums, flashlights, etc. It was annoying and ridiculous but mild compared to everywhere else we'd been.
The next day the train was rolling through some beautiful countryside that we hadn't seen before. There were mountains and lush landscape. Most of what we saw of India was from the window of a train. After a not-so-good night of not-so-much sleep, we finally arrived in Bangalore the next afternoon. The train was a few hours late again but we had plenty of time to kill before we needed to be at the airport for our flight to Vietnam. We were able to leave our bags at the train station for 10 rupees each and found a taxi that would drop us in the city center for the day.
Bangalore was way more modern than anywhere else we'd been India so far. When you call customer service for a problem with your phone bill, credit card, appliances, etc. you are most likely speaking to someone in Bangalore. We were disappointed that there wasn't anything nearby to see or do. It was mostly a business area. We were extremely hungry though after not having a meal in almost a day so we found an awesome lunch buffet and stuffed ourselves with Indian food for two hours. India has great food and we love Indian food. If you don't like Indian food then you will probably be really hungry if you visit India. And no. Despite all of the warnings from people about food and water-borne illness, neither of us ever got sick. What I also like about India is that they give you ketchup (my favorite condiment) with everything. Even when it makes no sense like with ice cream or salad.
After the two hour binge, we wandered around Bangalore for a while before being stopped by a police officer who told us that we shouldn't be wandering around Bangalore. He said there was some stuff to do but it was too far away and so he sent us to the mall. This was the first we had even seen a real store in India so we were amazed. We found a "Mother Care" store and borrowed a great travel tip from Louise. We bought a crib blanket for covering nasty hotel pillows. It's waterproof on the back and soft fleece on the front. Then we bought some baby wipes. We had to pretend that we had a baby because it was too embarrassing to tell the store clerks that we were using the blanket to cover disgusting pillows and the wipes to wash ourselves when we don't have access to a shower!
We had to get another tuk-tuk back to the train station to get our bags before going to the airport. We agreed on a price with the driver and then when we were halfway there he changed the price. There was more arguing so we got to the train station, got our bags and looked for the bus that would take us directly to the airport. The only problem was that we couldn't find it and nobody would tell us where the bus stop was. We had to get another taxi.
It took us about 34 hours total to get to the airport and when we were going through Immigration they wouldn't let Darren through. They thought it was suspicious that he was an Irish citizen living in America and because he had so many foreign stamps in his passport. I tried to explain to them that I was his wife and I am an American citizen and that's why he was living in America but they wouldn't let me speak. I had three guards yelling at me to step away but I told them I wasn't leaving without my husband. Then everyone felt the need to get involved. People were yelling at me to step back. Everyone took turns looking at Darren's suspicious Irish passport and his suspicious and irate American wife. First, they wouldn't let him into India and now they wouldn't let him out. Where was Fiona when we needed her?! They finally let him go after making him swear that he would never return to India.
If anyone were planning a trip to India I would tell them to get their visa well in advance and not to book their flight until their passport was back in their possession. I'd also recommend that they book every part of the trip in advance. It is not an easy country to travel around. Find a reputable travel agent and book all of your flights, trains, hotels, and tours before you go. Anyone we met who went on a pre-organized tour had fun and hassle-free time. We completely underestimated how long it would take to get to all the places we wanted to go and we spent the majority of our time trying to purchase tickets and we spent four out of nine days just riding trains. It's a huge country so unless you have a month to spare, you will have to choose the places you want to see the most. Know that you will be charged double or triple local prices for everything. If you're not on a backpacker budget then 100 rupees extra times five or six taxi rides a day might not be too much of a bother but it does add up pretty quickly. Also, I'd advise Western travelers to bring lots of toilet paper. They don't use it in India and it can be difficult to find a shop that sells it. It's also the one country where I'd recommend you'd buy a guide book. Read it and then read it again. It will tell you many of the things that we learned the hard way.
My videographer, Darren, took this footage of our ride on a rickshaw in Varanasi. The two of us plus our four backpacks weighing approximately 75 pounds were piled into the back.