28 February 2009

We HATE Mosquitos

I am writing from Fort Cochin, Kerala. We arrived 2 days ago at the Ernakulum train station and took a 20 minute ferry ride to the island of Fort Cochin. It is a laid back town, mostly thrives on tourism, with some fishing industry as well. The architechture is all Dutch influenced, so it is very quaint and cozy.
We are staying at a homestay. Our hosts live on the bottom floor and rent out a few rooms upstairs. This is very common in this town, and Kerala, in general.
We have been taking it easy and planning our next moves for Kerala.
Yesterday we went to a Kathakali performance. It is a traditional dance/drama style for Kerala, with elaborate make-up and costumes. The stories are conveyed with facial expressions and hand sign language. We didn't really know what was going on, but it was interesting to watch.
This morning, we met with some Couch Surfing hosts, who were booked with another surfer for our time here, but wanted to get together. We had breakfast with them (Mr. Q and Priya) and their couch surfer, Kay (a middle aged Canadian lady from Greece). We had a great time. It is amazing how, through CS, you feel automatically connected to total strangers who have got your back.
We rode with them to Ernakulum to go shopping for Kay and for me to look for something to wear in the change to hot, humid weather. I don't know how these Indian ladies do it with their layers of clothes and not a bead of sweat!
Mr. Q helped us with the details of our further travels in Kerala and dropped us off at the ferry to head back to Fort Cohin.
Tomorrow we will take a 7 hour bus South East, to Kumily, where we will go check out the Periyar Wildlife Preserve. I want to see elephants (although we have seen many) and Riley wants to see a tiger...although, the chances are slim.
Hope all is well back home!
Love you all.

25 February 2009

Leaving Goa / The Food Report

Our time in Goa has come to an end. We have spent ten days on the beach and it has been very tiring. The water is emerald green and warm. The Arabian Sea has been good to us.
Tonight we head for Cochin in Kerala on an over night train. We are killing some time before our 11:20 p.m. departure and we thought we would talk a little about food. As you may imagine the food in India is very interesting. Indian food is similar to Indian food in the States but slightly different. The most noticeable difference is the use of fresh spice. We have had a chance to sample home made Indian cuisine, lots of restaurant cuisine, and some street food as well.
The homemade Indian cuisine we have eaten was in the north when we were staying in Jaipur.
Breakfast was white toast, jam and masala tea (chai). Other meals consisted of chapati (flour tortillas), dal (a brothy lentil dish), and fresh curd (from the cow that lived in the house entry way). Our homemade experience was quite limited because we only had three meals with our hosts.
Eating out in restaurants has been the majority of our food experience. In Udaipur and Goa, eating out has been most interesting due to the large amount of tourist traffic. In the touristy areas most menus are separated into the categories of Indian (veg and non-veg), Italian, Chinese, and Continental (whatever that means). Most menus stick to this formula with the occasional "theme" restaurants and the offering of fresh juices. In Goa , seafood is very popular. Also, every menu is about eight pages long, with literally dozens of entrees to choose from. We have eaten Indian mostly, but also some Italian when the thought of another curry turns the stomach. Our favorite Indian items have been palak paneer (spinach and cheese), chana masala (chickpea mixed spice), mushroom masala, and the ever present dal (lentils all kinds of different ways) with naan or rice. We have been told by Indians that naan is not a staple of an Indian diet. It is "party food" reserved for special occasions. We have also had some good "tikka", which are kebabs roasted in a tandoor oven.
The Italian food is okay. We have had some very nice pastas. Pizzas get lost in translation a bit. We had one that was described on a menu as a pizza with tomato sauce, cheese, onion, fresh basil, oregano, and herbs. This translated to three onion pizza. I swear there was more onion than sauce and cheese combined. Also, the chance of actually receiving fresh basil when mentioned on a menu has been slim in general. We have been told basil is a holy herb. Maybe this has something to do with it. Pizzas here also lack a decent crust.
Entrees usually cost between 70 and 250 rupees, which is about 1.40-5.00 dollars. We have had some very nice meals in the three dollar range. Sodas cost 40 cents, beer 1.00, and bottled water is 20 cents per liter.
Tipping just doesn't happen. We usually leave 20-40 cents. This amount is acceptable. Once we tipped twenty percent which probably was a couple bucks. Two days later we went to the same restaurant to eat and when the bill was returned to us there was extra change. We think it was the tip from before. When eating out, if you are finished with your meal the appropriate custom is to look around for your waiter, make eye contact, and make the "sign the check" scribble in the air. Until you do this the server will only stand by anticipating this move. I still think I may be slapped for making this motion, since I consider it unacceptable from my tables.
The street food has been very good. We have had chutney sandwiches. These are grilled vegetable sandwiches made with white bread, beet, onion, cucumber, potato, and a spicy green chutney. They are really popular in Mumbai. The vendors crank them out too. We also had roasted flattened chickpeas that looked like cornflakes. These were served in a cone shaped piece of newspaper and garnished with lemon juice and sprinkled with red pepper (very nice, Karen even liked it). Fresh sugar cane juice is popular all over yet we have not tried it yet. There are also all kinds of road side stands with large woks and hot oil that fry up different concoctions. I tried a fried puff pastry that was flattened into a bowl made out of dried leaves. A warm liquid gravy concoction was poured over the pastry and then I ate it with my fingers. I don't know what it was but it was good. I also tried a flaky turnover that had a spicy potato filling.
Overall the food has tasted good and been good to us. We have not gotten sick, thank you very much.
p.s. Karen is doing very well with spices even though she usually asks for "no spice/chiles".
p.s.s. We spent three hours today trying to add some photos, unsuccessfully. Maybe later.

18 February 2009

Made it through Mumbai, Relaxing in Goa

Well, we sadly left Udaipur and headed for Mumbai to meet Rachit, our next Couch Surfing host. When we arrived at the train station and found an STD (pay phone) we called Rachit. He was at work, so he gave us the number of his roommate and after some miscommunication and 2 more train rides, Rachit's friend, Amit, picked us up. Amit has traveled all over the world and has lived in Texas, so communicating was very easy and we were very comfortable with him. He and his wife (Ms. Bombay) have hosted and surfed many couches and he was very proud to show us around his city.
That first night, Riley, Amit, Rachit, and I went out for pizza and a stroll on the beach. We learned about "Eunuchs", who are beggar transvestites. We saw one on the beach and were told to watch out for them. Apparently, they will do anything they can to embarrass you until you give them money, including stripping in public. Luckily, we only heard about this and saw a few (fully clothed) on some of the suburban trains we took around Mumbai.
The next day we went to the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival where Amit met up with us. He showed us around, bought us some street food, and we explored the festival. We ended the night at a free concert full of Bollywood artists, who the crowd went crazy for. We had no idea who they were (except for one of the singers of a nominated song from SlumDog Millionaire), but we knew we were watching something special. Amit said, "It would be like, if the Rolling Stones put on a free concert" (Riley thought this was an incorrect comparison).
We only spent a day and a half in Mumbai. We have learned quickly that we don't like the big cities. Even Amit said, "Get out of Bombay. People only come to Mumbai to make money or live a shitty life".
We arrived in Mandrem, North Goa on Feb. 15th and we are enjoying the beach life. First, we stayed at a brand spankin' new place called, Avalon Inn. There were 5 grass huts on the property, and for the 3 nights we stayed we were the only guests there. It was a short stroll to the beach, we could here the waves crashing at night. We were happy to move on though because the strange American woman who ran the place with her native Goan business partner was starting to give us the creeps. We think she is just secluded and lonely at her Inn. No harm because we were at the beach for the majority of our stay.
Today we are just 30 minutes south of Mandrem in a town called Anjuna. The room is not as nice and the beach is further away, but in another day we will be headed to Palolem in South Goa. We hear that although it is not a secret location anymore, it is the best spot in Goa.
Well, gotta get back to relaxing now.
Love you.
ps :\
Riley here. I just had to mention an interesting incident today. We spent the majority of our day at the beach, but also went to the local flea market. While we were at the flea market I encountered a man with an interesting scam. His scam was to rush up on my side and grab my arm. He looked in my ear and mumbled comments about how dirty and disgusting it was. He reassured me that everything was okay and said he was willing to help. I knew there must have been a money catch involved. The next thing I knew the man was cleaning my ear with a long, sharp, metal stick. As he pulled the weapon out of my ear he rubbed some wax on it or something. The wax did not look very natural as he wiped it on his hand to show me. I have also never seen such a substance come from my ear. He wanted to violate my other ear but I tried to politely decline. As I literally started to run away he demanded payment. He continued to follow us saying " Give me money! Sir, give me money." I refused to pay the man who raped my ear.

11 February 2009

Relaxation In Udaipur

Hello all. We hope this message receives everyone well.
First, here is the real scoop on India: If you have garbage, just throw it on the ground. Driving lanes on the road are merely suggestions. The animals are homeless and eat garbage. Some even eat other animals ( Usually the meal is deceased). People are very friendly and don't necessarily want to rob you, but do want to sell you something, anything, really, really bad. Bear in mind that we have only seen large city life for the most part thus far, and everything isn't all bad, it is actually fantastic.
We are finishing up our stay in Udaipur, Rajasthan and are heading for Mumbai today. We enjoyed Udaipur very much. The stay was very relaxing except for Karen's cold. The pace is slower than Jaipur and Delhi, and we had some good relaxation time.
The train ride to Udaipur was a little stressful. We inadvertently booked tickets on our overnite train in a 3 tiered sleeper class. This means that your bunk is one of three stacked on top of each other, folding down from the wall. I don't know if this creates a visual image for you, but ultimately the quarters are cramped.
There was one man who was acting peculiar on the train in our coach. Karen was asleep, in the bunk above him, and he was walking around her, acting fidgety and awkward. As I was drifting off to sleep I would wake up and look over. The man would stop whatever he was doing, abruptly and suspiciously. At one point he was standing over her. Another time he was touching the bottom of her bunk. Whatever he was doing it seemed suspicious. I decided to stay awake and after awhile the man started talking to me, offering me peanuts, and offering me cigarettes. It seemed like he was trying to save face because I had caught him in suspicious activity. Thankfully the man got off the train at a station before ours so I was able to get some rest.
Once we arrived in Udaipur it was smooth sailing. We stayed in an awesome guesthouse with a rooftop restaurant and a nice view. We even had our own bathroom and shower! We spent our five full days here resting, touring, dining, and even did a little bargain shopping.We toured the city palace and a five hundred year old fort. The treasure was a Jain temple at Ranakpur. The temple is hand carved out of marble and the detail is jaw dropping. Even with all the tourists there we were amazed at how peaceful it was. On the way to the temple we were driven through the country side. We were able to see villages and farmers going about their daily business. Karen also got to see some dogs eating a dead cow! I missed it, but I did see a roadkill of decapitated monkey. It was pretty awesome. I can only hope that there are as many animal anomalys awaiting us in Mumbai.
Namaste! - Riley and Karen

08 February 2009

The Pink City

We have departed from Jaipur unscathed, but not without some stressful moments.
We arrived by train after a 5 hour (or so) ride from Delhi. They don't seem to inform you of approaching stops, so we had to keep our eyes pealed. As soon as we got off the train we were bombarded with auto rickshaw drivers saying, "Hello? Excuse me? You need a ride? I'll take you! Right this way!" We tried our best to ignore them and find our way to the main gate. We were to meet the driver our couch surfing host, Rama, said he would send for us, "At the main gate". We were confused and disoriented and I didn't see any distinguishing signs for the main gate. We started up some steps that led outside the station and the drivers (still following and barking at us) said, "If someone is picking you up it will be this way!" (which happened to be the way we were going) This was a lie.
We made our way out of the station but saw no one with a sign for us, only more rickshaw drivers yelling at us. At this point, we started to consider what we would do if there was no driver waiting for us. We went back the way we came and eventually found the main gate.
We saw a couple of guys holding signs. One sign said, "Tobias", then 6 or more drivers with no signs said to Riley, "Tobias?! Tobias?!", trying to get us to go with them. Creepy. Finally, we saw our driver with our sign and followed him to the rickshaw.
We quickly noticed that the traffic was much more chaotic then Delhi and it was rush hour.
Our driver didn't speak English. We stopped to pick someone up and then dropped him off. Then we stopped again in front of a flower market. A man with a cellphone said to us, "Rama is just down there waiting". I was still nervous and unsure. We drove down the block and waited while some other guys hung around the rickshaw and made small talk with us. Then, Rama pulled up on his motorcycle. Relief.
We followed him to his home in the rickshaw. When we arrived to his home he lead us inside passed some cows and a bull, through a large room with adjacent doors, up a narrow stairway to the rooftop, across the roof to a door, and then to our guest room.
The room was more than we could have asked for, with a king sized bed, bottled water for us, and a balcony looking over the street, with a view of Tiger Fort high on the hill.
Our time with Rama and his family was certainly memorable: my first Indian toilet, first Indian bath (a bucket of warm water with cup), a ride on a motorcycle- whizzing through the busy traffic-, first cup of Indian chai, getting lost at 10pm in a city of 3 million people, and seeing my fill of forts and palaces, probably for the duration of our journey. =) Above all, Rama and his family, gave us more attention and care than we could have ever imagined (including offering Riley a job in his jewellry store and me a housewife position).
We arrived today in Udaipur (I think about 300km sw of Jaipur). After the uncomfortable overnight train ride, it is a breath of fresh air. A population of only 800,000. It is beautiful and much calmer. Our hotel is $10 a night. It is simple, but all we need. I especially like the rooftop restaurant, with views of the lakes, palaces, and mountains. We will be here for another 3 days and then on to the largest city in India, Mumbai, with another couch surfing host, Rachit. We will be ready when we get off the train.

07 February 2009

Quick Update

Hi again! We have been in Jaipur for the past 3 days. We are staying with our first couch surfing host, Rama, and his wonderful family. He lives with his 2 brothers, their wives and children, his parents, his wife, and 2 kids. We have a private room in his house on the rooftop. We think its amazing. It is a typical middle class family, I think. They are our new Indian family and remind us of this often. They are very disappointed that we are not staying longer and even advised us of how to cancel our train tickets and hotel in Udaipur. I hate to disappoint them, but this city it too big for us, I think.
We are learning a lot about Indian values and practices. Today, we learned that Indians don't have a word for privacy, so the family comes and goes into our room as they please. =) But its okay. I have many stories to share about this town. It is much crazier than Delhi, but we are making our way, with the help of the family auto rickshaw (tuk tuk) driver.
We leave on a 10pm train for Udaipur tonight...an over night...so we get to do our best at sleeping on the train!
I hope to have more time to write in more detail about Jaipur when we get to Udaipur, but now I am using Rama's computer in his jewellry shop, so I don't want to take too much time.
Also, a correction from a former post:
Delhi is not in the state of Rajasthan, as I said, it is its own territory...like Washington DC, it is the capital of India.

03 February 2009

Arriving in India

Riley and I arrived safely in Delhi yesterday around 1pm. Our flight was long and uneventful...mostly slept. We arrived in the airport, exchanged some money, booked some train tickets, and then met the driver that our host, here in Delhi, sent for us. The driver's name is Shampoo (I don't know how to spell it, but that's how it sounds). It was about a 30 minute drive from the airport to the bed and breakfast we are staying at. It was exciting. The roads are everything you hear about. They drive on the left and have no concern for the lines on the road. Our driver was well skilled. The cars drive so close, you could reach your arm out the window and stick it into the car or rickshaw next to you. We did rear end one motorcycle at one point, but no one really seemed to notice. I used the imaginary brakes a few times, but really felt very safe.
When we arrived, the owner of the house, Pervez, showed us to our room and invited us for tea. We sat with him a while and then retired to our room to get settled and have a shower. Then had dinner in the home around 8:30pm. We were joined at dinner by 4 other guests. Two ladies; one from Sacramento and one from San Rafael! The lady from San Rafael works in downtown Santa Rosa, which we thought was pretty amazing. The other couple was from Colorado. It was a very nice meal and it was interesting to hear about the other folks travels and experiences around Delhi and other parts of India.
We went to bed right after dinner, I was so excited to find a king sized memory foam bed in our room. The honking cars from the street went on all night. Shampoo said that rush hour here is from 5pm-9pm!
We slept late and took our time getting ready. We headed out around 12pm. We hired Shampoo again, because we weren't comfortable enough yet to venture out too much on our own. We ate lunch at a place we looked up in our guide book...I have no idea what I was eating, but it was very good and Riley warned me about anything spicy.
Then we went sight seeing. I'm not sure what its called, but we went to the main mosque of the city. It was huge and the architecture was beautiful. Then Shampoo set us up with a bicycle rickshaw who took us into Old Delhi. It was really amazing. I was happy that we hired the guides because there is no way we would have found our way through on our own. We made our way through the narrow streets crammed with vender's and shops and then stopped. We got off the rickshaw and followed the driver through strange side streets and up some dark narrow stairs until we made it to the spice market. We couldn't catch all of what the driver was telling us, but basically they were selling bulk spices. It was very fragrant and hard to breathe with all of the bags of chili's and other spices.
Eventually, the rickshaw driver drove us by several temples of every religion and then dropped us in front of the Red Fort. We wondered through the forts elaborate architecture for an hour or so and then Shampoo picked us up outside.
We do stick out and get a lot of stares, but we aren't uncomfortable. I am becoming very good at ignoring people and not smiling when I make eye contact, like I normally do at home.
Tomorrow, I want to shop a bit for some India appropriate clothing and we are going to Gandhi's memorial museum. Oh, yeah, we saw where he was assassinated and cremated today also.
More later.