India

In order to tell the full story of our trip to India I need to start at the very beginning, before we even left New York.
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 the the course of two days to get from Kathmandu to Varanasi. We didn't want to lose so much time traveling so Bishnu at Nature Trail (see 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 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 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 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, washer men 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 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 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 cancelled 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 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 found a seat up from at the ceremony.
The ceremony was for three people who had died. We were expecting it to be weird or maybe morbid but we both thought it was fascinating and a wonderful way to say goodbye to those who've passed away and we really enjoyed it. We were so happy we got to experience it.

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 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 different 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 some place 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 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 for 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 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. In the midst of 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 battle field 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.
That night we had vegetarian Indian food for Thanksgiving dinner in the hotel restaurant/lobby decorated with a poster of Britney Spears. The bathroom in our room was so filthy that we chose not to shower for fear we'd catch an infectious disease. We woke at 4:30 the next morning to catch strain back to Delhi. Our flight to Goa was leaving that night so if the train was late again we were in trouble. It was still dark out and cold at that time of the morning. On our way to the train station we saw a boy of about 4 years old wandering the streets alone. He was naked from the waste down. We were one block from the Taj Mahal which cost 32 million Indian rupees to build -the equivalent of roughly 1,062,834,089 US dollars if it were to be built today. It's gates are surrounded by poverty. Sixty percent of the population lives on the equivalent of $1.25 a day.

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 an 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. There are hawkers that 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.
After two nights we checked out and began our long journey to Bangalore. We checked out at noon but our train wasn't leaving until 9:25 pm so we had about 7 hours to kill until we needed to leave for the train station. We wandered around trying to find air conditioned places because it was a scorching hot outside. By the time we left for the train station we were sweaty and gross and wouldn't have access to a shower until we got to Vietnam in two days. Who can complain about such things though in a country where most people don't have access to running water? We took an hour long taxi ride to the train where we discovered the travel agency had booked us into a 3rd class sleeper car with no air conditioning, no sheets, no lights. Our carriage companions were 12 rowdy boys and we were initially upset that we'd have to spend the next 12 hours with them. It turned out that they were college students from Nepal. It was their first time ever leaving Nepal and they were so sweet and excited. We felt bad because they had been having similar travel frustrations to us and had been scammed out of some money. We practiced speaking to them in Nepali. Their trip to Goa was their first time ever seeing the ocean. The beaches in Goa don't have seashells so we gave them the rest of the shells we'd collected in South Africa. One of them gave Darren 10 Nepali rupees. Darren didn't want to take his money but he said he wanted him to have it to remember him by.

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 a 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.

Nepal

Holy hand sanitizer! We're in Nepal. What a stark contrast this place is compared to Abu Dhabi. I've been in third-world countries several times before but the state of this country was shocking. Our expectation was that Nepal would be this untouched, pristine, Sacred and spiritual place. The river was black and filled with garbage. The streets were filled with so much garbage it looked like a city built on top of a landfill. There was so much dirt and debris in the air that many people wear surgical masks when walking outside.

Darren and I believe that Nepal has the most adorable children in the world but it's upsetting to see how filthy they are. I read in the local paper, "The Himalayan" that 6.5 million people in Nepal still do not have access to clean running water and 11 million people do not have toilets and still defecate in the open. This was also shocking to see and we saw a lot of people using the street as a toilet. There seems to be no standards for hygiene, safety, or sanitation here whatsoever. What we discovered is that the people have had no education in these areas but there have been volunteer programs developed where villagers can take classes on health and hygiene. Nepal has been blessed with beautiful landscape and it's a shame to see it destroyed by pollution.


Our trip to Nepal was the only part of our around-the-world adventure that we actually planned in advance. My friend Tricia highly recommended a tour company that she used called "Nature Trail" so I contacted the owner Bishnu and he put together a trekking itinerary just for us. They picked us up and dropped us off at the bus station and airport, booked hotels, and got trekking permits for us. They also helped us book our flight from Nepal to India. We didn't have to plan a thing. They took care of everything for us.
This was our itinerary:
Ghorepani Poon Hill Trekking – 5 days:
Day 01: Fly from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Drive to Nayapul then trek to Ulleri (1960 m.). Overnight stay at tea house.
Day 02: Trek Ulleri to Ghorepani (2750 m.) – 8 hrs. Overnight stay at tea house.
Day 03: Explore the Poon hill (3193m) / back to Ghorepani and trek to Tadapani (2590m) – 7 hrs walk (1190 m.) Overnight stay at tea house.
Day 04: Tadapani to Ghandruk (1940 m.) 4 / 5 hours. Overnight stay at tea house.
Day 05: Ghandruk to Pokhara – 7 / 8 hours walk + 45 minutes drive. Overnight stay in Pokhara hotel.
Day 06: Drive to Kathmandu by Greenline tourist coach. 8 hours

All meals and flight were included, plus we had our own English speaking guide and a porter. We spent a day in Kathmandu before we left for our trek so we got to see some sights before we left. First we took a rickshaw to Durbar Square. The rickshaw ride was a bit scary since the roads are not paved and there are seemingly no traffic rules. Cars, bikes, motorcycles, cows and pedestrians whiz by in in all different directions. Nepal was quite a culture shock for us but we feel like it's preparing us for our trip to India. We like to call it "India lite".

Hanuman-Chola Durbar Square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has 43 monuments, shrines, museums and temples. Most of them were built between the 12th and 18th centuries, in the pagoda style embellished with intricately carved exteriors. Until the early 20th century the Durbar Square was the King's residence. It is now a living open museum of Nepal.

Our next stop was to Swoyambunath or "Monkey Temple"  which it's more commonly referred to. There was what felt like a million steps to the top. The Nepalis really adore their steps. At the top there were prayer wheels and monks, prayer flags, music and men giving blessings, a panoramic view of Kathmandu, and monkeys everywhere.

Saturday November 12th-Day 1 of our trek. As I mentioned, Nepal was the only part of our trip that we planned in advance. Nature trail took care of everything except for the only things we can't plan which are the weather and natural disasters. November is supposed to be the best time of year to go trekking in Nepal because of the clear skies and 0.00" of rainfall.

We got up at 5:30 am to go to the airport to catch our flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara. The airport was just one small filthy room with one small and even filthier bathroom (with a woman vomiting). All flights out were delayed because Pokhara airport was closed due to heavy fog. Hundreds of people were crammed into this one room and no flights were leaving. Just the week before 3,500 people were stranded at Mt. Everest base camp due to the fog. It was too dangerous to hike out and the guest houses ran out of food. Helicopters had to fly in to rescue people and violent fights broke out. People paid between $750-$1500 to get on the helicopters. We were starting to become concerned about the fog situation but after 5 memorable hours we were finally on a tiny prop-plane which still has imprints of my fingernails in the arm rest. It was a bumpy ride and a not-so-soft landing. There was so much fog we couldn't see anything out the window. The Himalayas were out there somewhere.

Pokhara airport was just a landing strip and our bags were taken off the plane and put on a cart which was considered "baggage claim". Our guide, Dharma and our porter, Daya had been waiting for us the entire 5 hours. Dharma had a Masters Degree in Education and spoke Nepali, English, Japanese, and Korean. He was sweet, and kind, and had a really great sense of humor. Daya was shy and quiet. He barely spoke to us for the first few days but eventually came out of his shell. He was also very sweet and gentle as we found most Nepali people to be. His caste was Sherpa so that was his name, Daya Sherpa, and it was also his job as was everyone in his family. Every single day the Sherpas carry 20-50 pounds on their backs up and down the steep mountains. Some of them wear only flip-flops and some are little old women. We didn't like the idea of someone carrying our things but it was explained to us that the porters made good money and wouldn't be able to feed their families otherwise. We packed only a few things that we needed into one backpack so he wouldn't have to carry such a heavy load. Daya never took a drink of water or even broke a sweat and he was carrying at least three times the weight of the rest of us. I cant believe I ever thought that living in a 4th floor apartment was a pain. The only way these people can get what they need is if the porters carry it in for them. There are no roads here so everything must be carried by people or donkeys and the villages are 6-8 hours walk away from each other. Tourists come here to trek for fun but these people do it every day out of necessity.

We drove about 45 minutes to our starting point and began trekking right away. We lost a lot of time and we had to find a tea house (Nepali guest lodge) before it got dark. We found a house that had a room for us. We climbed up a ladder and there was a 5'x7 room built out of plywood with 2 cots. There was an outhouse and they boiled some water so we could take a bucket shower before we went to sleep. At about 5:00 am we awoke suddenly. The house was shaking and I could hear rumbling. It was an earthquake. The house was just a brick shack built on the side of the mountain. I was afraid it crumble and fall right into the river. Darren said it felt like the house was on springs. The roosters were crowing and the cows and goats were all freaking out and making noise. A half hour later we felt another earthquake. We weren't sure what to think and without phone, Internet or any form of contact with the outside world, we had no way of knowing the extent of the damage. If there is an emergency in this area there are two ways in which people can be brought to the hospital. They can be carried out on a stretcher, which would be 3-5 days depending on where you live, or they have to be rescued by helicopter. We were worried the news of a quake would reach home and people would panic if they didn't hear word that we were alright but we were five days walk away from a phone or email so there was nothing we could do but hope no one heard about it and continue trekking.

Day 2 we trekked up the mountains for 8 hours. This was a seriously challenging trek today but we wouldn't complain when the porters were carrying bags of flour, gas tanks, live chickens, and mattresses on their backs. There was more fog. We were hiking in the Himalayas and couldn't even see them. All that exhausting work and no reward. Dharma entertained us with songs and taught us to speak some Nepali. Everywhere we went people were so nice and welcoming. Everyone greets each other with, "Namaste" and the little children come flying up the mountain with big smiles, " Namaste! Do you have sweets?!" Life here is as basic as it gets. The children have nothing and yet they seem to be the happiest children in the world.

The next morning we woke up at 4:45 to trek up Poon Hill to watch the sun rise on Annapurna. I look back on this trek and refer to it fondly as, "The Death March". It was freezing cold and we began hiking uphill just 10 minutes after waking. It was pitch black and we were following a line of flashlights. I was suffering from altitude sickness and the cold air was making it worse. I couldn't get air into my lungs and despite the freezing cold, I was drenched in sweat. We hiked uphill for an hour. Steps, steps and more endless steps and all the time it was like breathing through a straw. My doctor back home had done a trek in Nepal and warned me about this and so she gave me extra Asthma inhalers. She said everyone on her trek was borrowing her inhaler whether they had Asthma or not. Asthma and altitude sickness are not a good mix so I took puffs of my inhaler the whole way and I pushed myself to the top just as the sun came up and there they finally were. The fog had lifted and we were staring at the Himalayas.

We hiked back down, ate breakfast and learned that Dharma, with his Masters Degree had never heard of McDonald's. There is a wonderful innocence about the people here. He had also never even seen the ocean so we gave him and Daya some seashells we collected in South Africa. They didn't even know what seashells were. We had given them to some children one day when we didn't have any candy for them. They were so excited and tried to blow in them like they were horns. Dharma tried to blow in his too. His amazement and appreciation for the little gift was so genuine. In fact, Everyone we came across was so genuine and grateful for everything.

We started out again on another 6 hours of trekking. A half hour into it the fog came back and stayed for the rest of the day. That night was even colder than the last. The teahouses don't have heat and there's no electricity until after 5 pm. Even then,there are rolling blackouts so we were all sitting in one room where they were burning coal for warmth and the power went out so we just sat there in the dark. The food is really basic too. All they really have to offer is fried rice or fried noodles. They have some other stuff on the menu but if you order it they say they don't have it or it will take too long to make.

The next morning Dharma was excitedly knocking on our door. The fog had lifted and the mountains could be seen again. He didn't want us to miss it. We ate breakfast outside overlooking the mountain sunrise. It had been a rough and freezing cold night and there was a woman staying at the tea house who was really sick. There were no pharmacies or doctors and she had to keep trekking despite being miserably ill. I had some cold medicine and lozenges that I gave her and it was like I handed her a million dollars. The people who live here don't have access to the most basic necessities and at home we can just run across the street to the store and get anything we need. We are so lucky.

We reached our next village, Ghandruk by mid day. The teahouse was particularly nice. By this I mean that the electricity worked and the bathroom was indoors. Since there had been no sun for days, the solar showers could not produce hot water but they were still lukewarm and Dharma made sure to always look after us. He was so intent on making sure that we got the warm shower before the other guests arrived and used it up that he tried to drag Darren into the water with his clothes on! The showers are just a faucet and a drain in the floor next to the toilet and the toilets are usually squat toilets. They don't use toilet paper so you have to carry your own wherever you go. At this teahouse we watched several people brush their teeth in the shower, followed by a woman washing dishes from the dining hall (cold water with no soap) and then another woman brought her little girl into the same shower to urinate. No knowledge of hygiene whatsoever in this part of the world.

That afternoon Dharma took us to the Ghandruk museum. Yay! The museum was basically just a house filled with old Nepali artifacts most of which they still use today. Not much in Nepal has changed in the past 100 years. The museum had some funny diorama style out-of-scale displays with farmers that were five times bigger than the cows. There was a certificate on the wall for "Museumology." I loved it. Dharma then took us to the local monastery and then the Visitors Center. Ghandruk was considered a large village. It had 200 homes, a school, a monastery, and a Visitor Center. The Visitor's Center had information about endangered wildlife, environmental protection, health and hygiene workshops, bridge development and other projects they were trying to undertake in the Annapurna region. Tourism is Nepal's biggest industry and so there was a lot of focus on keeping the Annapurna region clean and safe for visitors. This was really wonderful to see.

We had a really fun day and that night Dharma and Daya finally ate dinner with us. They eat Dal Bhat everyday-a traditional Nepali dish of rice and lentils. All of the porters and guides would usually wait to eat until after the tourists had eaten. We asked them why and they said that tourists are most important. Dharma said that to the Nepali people tourists are Gods. Without the tourists these people would have no livelihood. But we insisted that we were just regular people who were just as important as they are and we wanted them to eat with us. So they finally did and Dharma taught us more Nepali. I'm learning to say, "I'm allergic to garlic" in every language! He taught us Nepali trekking songs and we joked around. We learned about their families and traditions. A little girl about the age of  two entertained us, with funny faces and dancing around. A tourist had given her an orange and she played with it for hours. She looked out the window and pointed to the mountain and said to us, "Annapurna!" She was a little trekking guide in the making.

It rained really hard all night. So much for clear skies and 0.00" of rainfall in November! The next morning we had a 6 hour trek down hill. It was so slippery Dharma had to hold my hand most of the way. But all of us were slipping and each time we slipped we'd turn it into a dance! Even Daya slipped once but just a tiny bit. He lived his whole life in the mountains and this was like taking a stroll for him. When porters or donkeys pass by everyone must step aside for them since they have to carry the heavy loads. But where there are donkeys there is also plenty of donkey dung so another difficult task is trying not to step in it because it is really slippery and you don't want to fall in it!

We passed a woman who lived in one of the villages which consisted of maybe three homes. She had a festering wound on her foot. She was in the woods and a boulder fell on it. It looked horribly painful and she had no medication or any ability to walk to a doctor. All Dharma had for her was a small bandaid and she was thrilled. Our problems are so silly. We are so lucky.

We were almost out and the path was blocked off so we had to take a detour. We came upon an avalanche and had to climb over the rocks that had fallen above. As we trekked down it got warmer and it became easier to breathe. It was our last day of trekking and the sun finally came out. We finally got to see some views and we sang Nepali trekking songs. Our trek was over in the afternoon and then they drove us to our hotel in Pokhara where we would spend the night. Dharma and Daya were taking the local bus back to Kathmandu that night. They would spend a few days with their families before leaving for a 21 day Everest base camp trek. Darren and I had tickets for a bus the following morning. It would take 8 hours to get back to Kathmandu. We took the worlds most amazing hot showers and ate a real meal (with meat!) at the hotel restaurant. They had a performance of traditional Nepali dancing and they were singing Dharma's trekking song! We were so excited that we knew the words.

I woke up in the middle of the night feeling very sick. Maybe the meat was bad or maybe I drank bad water. We had an 8 hour bus ride ahead of us and I was dreading it. We thought about staying another day and seeing if we could get a flight back to Kathmandu but the airports were closed again thanks to the never ending fog. We managed to make it through fog, rain, freezing cold, mudslides, an avalanche and an earthquake and then I got sick. I was so nauseous and couldn't eat a thing. The bus was old and rickety. None of the roads were paved and the driver was driving like a lunatic in true Nepali fashion. We stopped for lunch and all I could manage was two forkfuls of rice. At the next stop I managed to make it out of the bus in time to vomit on the side of the road a few times. Nepal wound up being a spiritual place after all because I started praying to God to just let me die rather than get back on the bus again. And then a miracle happened. A girl came up to me and gave me some anti-nausea medication. Now I had just been given a million dollars.

We made it back to Kathmandu without any further incidents. When we arrived we saw wonderful sweet Dharma had come to meet us. He had already been paid and was no longer our guide but he paid for the cab himself and came to make sure we made it safely back. He took us back to the hotel and was insisting that I let him take me to the private clinic but I was so weak that I couldn't do anything but lie in bed and that's where I stayed for the next 16 hours. While I hibernated, Darren and Dharma went to the pharmacy to get me medicine. We were supposed to meet Bishnu and his wife for dinner but that was unfortunately out of the question. The next morning I was feeling a little better and was able to eat my first bit of food in over a day. We had no clean clothes left and desperately needed to find a laundromat but there was no place that would let us wash our clothes ourselves so we had to drop it off. At this point I had no clean underwear or clothes left. I'd like to thank my friend Michele O'Brien for the a brilliant travel tip: a bathing suit can be worn as underwear. So there I was in Kathmandu wearing a winter coat over a bikini and a pair of Darren's pants which were ridiculously big on me. Only in Kathmandu can a person blend right in wearing an outfit like this. It's is a Mecca for dirty hippies. When we finally got our clothes back they were dirtier than when we brought them in and half of them were missing. We had to go back and recover the rest of our clothes minus some socks and underwear but the majority of it was there although it was all now the same shade of dingy gray.

So despite all of our planning, we didn't have the trip we expected but we challenged ourselves to do something we weren't sure we could do, we learned a lot, and pushed ourselves to do things way outside of our comfort zone. We discovered one of the rare places on this planet where people have never heard of McDonald's. We trekked through the magnificent Himalayas and even got to see them from time to time! We met some of the worlds most genuinely nice and happiest people, we made new friends and were reminded of how incredibly fortunate we are.

******
Namaskar=Welcome/Hello
Shuba bihani=Good morning
Shuba Ratri=Good night
Tapai lai kasto chha?= How are you?
Dhanya bad= Thank you
Pheri bhetuela= See you again/goodbye
Tapaiko nam ke ho?= What is your name?
Malai lasun man pardaina= I can't eat garlic

14 hours in Abu Dhabi

We left South Africa on November 9th. We drove five hours to Johannesburg airport and then flew from there to Abu Dhabi. We flew on Etihad Airlines and it was the nicest airline either of us had ever been on. The seats were really comfortable and even in coach they almost fully recline.

They had the most delicious airline food we'd ever tasted and they even gave us real silverware. There were over 85 movies to choose from on our personal television screen plus TV shows, music, and games to play. You could also watch the plane flying in real time from the perspective of the cockpit. We got to watch the plane taxi down the runway and take off! You can also choose to watch an above ground view and see the plane flying over the mountains below.

We arrived in Abu Dhabi around mid-night and our next flight wasn't leaving until 2pm so we had 14 hours to spare. We went to the airport hotel so we could sleep but they were already full. An airport official told us it would be easy to find a hotel close by so we went through customs, got our visas, and entered Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi is pristine. All of the men are dressed in traditional white Kandura's and Ghutrah's (robe and head scarves also known as dishdasha or keffiyeh). The longer the robe, the more wealth a man possesses. We watched the cars driving up to the terminal. Mercedes, Mercedes, Mercedes.

They are all about luxury here. We wished we had more time to see more but what we found out was that since they were currently hosting the Grand Prix, all of the hotels in the area were fully booked (or at least the hotels we could afford!). We had no choice but to go back into the airport and sleep there for the night.

That was basically our entire crazy adventure in Abu Dhabi. We didn't get to see or do much but I did get to ride a camel!