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Photo Friday – Bananas in Mysore, India

8 Feb

It’s bananas. B.A.N.A.N.A.S.

For some reason, bananas have been pretty expensive in parts of New Zealand.  It seems like they might grow well here, so it’s a tad confusing.  In any case, it made me think of the time we were walking through this huge market in Mysore, India.  It’s hard to tell just from this picture, but this entire section was filled with bananas, including the three sections behind this, and all the stalls opposite of it.  Seriously, there were millions of them.  I kept thinking, “How can they possibly sell all these before they rot?”

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The India Roundup

9 Oct

The Statistics

Number of days spent in country –  33

Cities/towns visited – Mumbai, Aurangabad, Madgoan, Hampi, Mysore, Bangalore, New Delhi, Jodhpur, Pushkar, Jaipur, Agra

Number of different lodgings – 13

Flights – 1

Bus journeys – 20

Train trips – 10

Boat rides – 6

Taxi  journeys – 2

Rickshaw rides – 23

The Budget

Total US dollar amount spent – $1955 (includes cost of visas – $76 each)

Average cost per day, per person -$29.62

Average lodging cost per night, per person – $10.80 – We generally stayed in hotels with a private bathroom and air conditioning.  You can go much lower than this if you are on a budget, but we found that we couldn’t tolerate the lack of basic sanitation at lower price ranges.  On three occasions we splurged on much nicer rooms than we would normally take, mostly to have access to a nice pool.

Most expensive lodging, per person – $19.25 at the Welcome Hotel in Mumbai – double room with air conditioning, breakfast included, shared bath.  Not the best value, by far.

Least expensive lodging, per person –  $1.80 at the White Elephant in Hampi for a double bed bungalow with fan and private bathroom.

Average food/drink cost per day, per person – $8.18 We ate out for 3 full meals per day, mostly in local, but mid-range restaurants.  It was monsoon season and we were advised to stay away from most of the street food during this time.  We ate like royalty in this price range and you could definitely do it for less if you stuck with super cheap street food.  We had almost no alcohol in India, but if we had it would certainly have doubled our spending.

The Best

Hotel – Devi Bawhan in Jodhpur.  We stayed here for the weekend of our anniversary and while we intended to stay just one night because of the cost ($38 per night, which is a steal by Western standards and slightly cheaper than one of our hotels in Mumbai), it was so lovely that we ended up extending our stay to three days.  The hotel gardens were lovely, the rooms were very well appointed, large and clean with air conditioning that worked very well.  The pool was clean and chlorinated (not always the case with hotel pools).  The staff spoke excellent English and were kind and helpful.  It’s a little far out from the center so you must take a rickshaw to the tourist sites, but that made it a very peaceful stay.

All the food.  Seriously.  We just walked into restaurants that seemed busy and that had a price range we were comfortable with.  We ordered at random from the menu most of the time and generally the food was plentiful and delicious.

The Only Place in Bangalore – If you are craving some good ol’ American grub, this is the place to be.  They have burgers, lasagna, mac and cheese, and good apple pie.  The prices are tourist range, but the portions are big and the flavors will make you feel right at home.

The Mango Tree in Hampi – The view over the river in Hampi makes this spot stand out in our memories.  The food was consistently good, we ate here every day that we were in Hampi.  It’s a 5 minute walk outside of the main village area, but it’s not far, and it’s totally worth it.

Monsoon Mangos – Travelling during the monsoon season can be a pain.  Rain POURS in some places, and it’s hot as hell in other places.  One serious benefit of the monsoon is the abundance of delicious mangos that ripen in this period.  We gorged ourselves in Mumbai and Goa on fresh, juicy mangos that can be bought cheaply all over the place.

Mysore Palace – We’ve seen a lot of tourist sites, but this one is truly awesome.  The price is 300 times higher for tourists than for locals (the norm across India) and this is one time where it was completely worth it.  The palace is in excellent condition (no photography allowed inside, so you’ll have to take my word for it) and truly made us want to go back in time and live like Indian royalty.

Hampi – Filled with ancient temples and surrounded by a crazy landscape full of giant boulders, this turned out to be one of our favorite places in India.  The town is very mellow, the pace is super slow, but there is enough to do to keep you occupied for at least 3-5 days.  When you are all templed-out, you can rent a scooter and go zipping around the countryside to visit lakes and crazy rock formations.

Train travel – If you go to India and don’t travel by train then you are out of your mind. We took trains all over the place, everything from short 2 hour trips to long-haul 27 hour journeys.  For the overnighters we stayed in AC 3rd class, which was just fine, and on shorter trips we just went with the general non-ac standard sitting class, which was usually fine.  The trains were where we met the nicest people we encountered on our trip.  Whole families would strike up conversations, share their meals, and give us advice about where to go and what to see.  In addition, you get to see some gorgeous, and some not-so gorgeous, landscapes along the way.  You can book online using cleartrip.com (also a great resource just for checking schedules etc) but we mostly booked at the train stations using the foreign tourist counters.  In high season seats can book out as far as 3 months in advance, so be prepared to plan ahead.

The Worst

Hotel Empire International in Bengaluru – A decent location, and better priced than most things in the area, but overall a big pile of suck.  The hotel itself is generally run-down, and they lied to us about the type of room we were in – they were charging us for a ‘deluxe’ fan room even though we were placed in a standard fan room. We questioned the charges because the room didn’t seem to match their own description of ‘deluxe’ but we only knew for certain that we had been over-charged when we insisted on a room change after discovering ours had a roach infestation.  They tried to tell us they only had AC rooms left, but when we threatened to leave without paying they reluctantly changed our room to…surprise, surprise, a real ‘deluxe’ fan room.  We hadn’t been so blatantly deceived by a hotel until this point, and it left a very nasty impression.

Photo Friday – The Taj Mahal, India

31 Aug

The Taj Mahal is one of the worlds most well-known pieces of architecture, and seeing it in person is just as impressive as you think it will be.  We certainly took our fair share of the standard straight-on photo from the beginning of the gardens, but we also liked the views you get as you peek out massive doorways of the mosques that sit on either side of the Taj Mahal.

Being Careful in India

31 Jul

Our mantra whenever we get off a bus or a train in India has been,

“Nobody here is trying to help us.  Nobody here is our friend.”

Do I like this mantra?  No, not at all.  Is it true? Yes. Absolutely.

We’ve had to be cautious upon arriving in new cities all around the world, but it’s really been taken to a whole new level in India.  We’ve never been so absolutely inundated by touts and scam artists as we have been here.  From the second we step off the platform, and in some cases even before we’ve done that, we are bombarded with cries of “Where you go?  You have a hotel?  You are going the wrong way! This way sir! Madame! Over here! You need taxi? Come with me! You need rickshaw? Exit this way!”

Rickshaw and taxi drivers will claim your hotel is full, roach-infested or burned down just to get you to go to a place of their choosing.  If you insist on your original destination, they often refuse to take you or double their prices.  On the occasions that we aren’t swarmed by drivers wanting to take us somewhere other than where we intend, we are quoted absurd prices for travel.  We once had a team of men attempting to get us to take a rickshaw to our hotel for 150 rupees.  After a few minutes of searching around, we found a driver willing to take us and use the meter for the rate.  The cost was 21.

At the New Delhi train station, one of India’s major transport hubs that has a fantastic foreign tourist ticketing office, the scams are so thick that the tourist office has signs all over the place warning you to not pay attention to those who attempt to lead you astray.

Scammers will attempt to steer you away from the tourist office and into a travel agency where you will be bamboozled into buying train tickets for far more than the actual ticket cost.  If you are particularly uninformed they may convince you that there is no train to your destination and you might wind up handing over absurd amounts of money for flights, luxury bus services, or totally unnecessary private car transport.  Another common scheme is to try to stop tourists at the security checkpoints and tell them that their train tickets need to be ‘validated’ for a hefty fee or you won’t be allowed to board.  There are dozens more tales of travelers being manipulated as they attempt to board trains – your train has been cancelled, your train is not longer going to this stop, your train is delayed 22 hours…come with me, I can help you make other arrangements!

Recently we had two separate sets of people attempt to tell us we were headed towards the ‘wrong’ exit for the train station upon arriving in Jodhpur, despite the enormous “EXIT” signs we were following, and the fact that literally everyone was headed the same direction.  Justin laughed heartily in the faces of these touts and we kept going our own way.

In another instance, we had gotten off a bus at a fairly large terminal, and I needed to use the bathroom.  As I walked up to the clearly marked women’s restroom, a man ran in front of me carrying a table.  He put it down right in front of me and demanded I pay him to go in.  I refused and walked away.  We’ve had to pay numerous times to use restrooms, but this time just seemed like extortion.  I really did need to go, so I went to the station manager’s office, asked where the bathroom was, and asked if there was a charge.  I was directed back to the bathroom I originally tried to use, and told that no, there was not a charge.  When I went back, the guy was nowhere to be seen so I went in.  As I was closing the stall door the man ran in after me and tried to come into the stall, demanding I pay him.  I yelled “NO! GET OUT!” and pushed back on the door harder than he expected, causing it to slam in his face. Justin came storming in as this was happening and dragged the guy out of there to the station managers office where he confirmed, no, we didn’t have to pay.

*I wrote this post and the next day we went to visit the Amber Fort near Jaipur and the bathroom thing happened AGAIN!  This time though, there was a huge sign right in front that announced it as a free bathroom, and a woman inside still tried to insist I had to pay her to go in.  Unreal. *

This kind of thing is both exhausting, and infuriating.

Hence our mantra.

One way to avoid the hassle of haggling with rickshaw or taxi drivers is to go to the pre-paid stands that are just outside most airports and trains stations.  Even then, you need to stay on your toes as we learned just minutes after arriving in Mumbai.  We had gone to the pre-paid taxi stand at the airport, where we were told it would be 480 Rupees to get where we needed.  It wasn’t until we were out of the terminal and into the taxi that we looked more closely at the receipt and realized it should have been 430.  The woman at the counter had written the ‘3’ so it looked sort of like an 8, and when we added up the charges, sure enough, it was 430.  Lesson learned – pre-paid services can be handy, but check the receipt CAREFULLY before you hand over your cash.

At this point, we try to always have a plan for where we are going before we even begin the journey to our next stop.  We contact local hotels and ask what we should be paying in a taxi or rickshaw to get to them.  When we’re in doubt or need help the ONLY place we go is to the police or the tourist office.  If someone tries to check our tickets, or charge an entrance fee for something, we only allow them to do so if they are in uniform, in an official booth, or if the guidebook says there is a fee.  If those things aren’t in place, we ask a security guard, police officer, or station manager if we should be paying extra.

It can be extremely aggravating, but by following these steps we think we’ve managed to avoid the worst of the scams, at least so far.

Photo Friday – Feeling Blue In Jodhpur, India

27 Jul

We’ve spent the last few days wandering around Jodhpur, India, which is often referred to as the “Blue City” because so many of the buildings in the area around the old fort have been painted blue.  The most common reason people give as to why this particular color was chosen is that it keeps the bugs away.  Whatever the reason, it’s very cool to walk around in a blue neighborhood, and even better to get an expansive view like the one from the top of the fort.

Photo Friday – Ajanta Caves in India

20 Jul

The Ajanta Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are located about 100 kilometers outside of Aurrangabad, India (it takes about 7 hours on a train to get to Aurrangabad from Mumbai) and while the oldest of the caves date back to the 2nd century BCE, they weren’t widely known until 1819 when a British tiger hunting party stumbled across them.  The caves are a series of 30 rock-cut caves that depict Buddhist religious art.   They range from small and very simple to multi-storied ornate spaces.  They’ve been fairly well-preserved, with some of the interior cave paintings still in decent condition.

Photo Friday – Delicious India

13 Jul

We’ve only been in India for a week, but already it feels like we’ve had a million food adventures!  Coming from New York, you’d think we would have more experience with this cuisine, but the truth is we really know almost nothing about Indian food.  As such, we’ve been ordering at random every time we need to eat, and we haven’t been disappointed yet!  This week’s photo is thali, which is like a sampler with all kinds of different flavors.  They have been our favorite because you get to taste a bunch of different things and they usually include something sweet like the honey soaked ball of bread or dough or something you see in this one.  Delicious!

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