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Holy India - holy cow

How many contrasts can there be in one subcontinent ? Go there and find out for yourself (blog co-written by Simon)

sunny 35 °C
View Year Off 2007 on Lejla's travel map.

Mumbai (4 nights): Virgin Atlantic London H’row to Mumbai International is a good 9 hour flight. The flight wasn’t too impressive – probably because it was our first Virgin Atlantic flight and we must have hoped for a spacecraft which beams us from one place to the other. In the taxi and off to the tourist area …. on the footsteps of Shantaram. Choose the Bentley’s hostel (quite pricey here in Mumbai with 20 quid the night). Spread over different buildings on different streets, it was very close to our new local Leopold’s and included breakfast in the room. Nice toast and nice tea. Yummie ! We ended up fairly jetlegged, slept many hours before venturing into the chaos called India, Bombay. From various walks (impressive Victoria Terminus train station), the Haji Ali mosque built into the sea, Chowpatti Beach munching on bhelpuri, the Hanging Gardens (nothing hanging there though), Marina Drive with the gorgeous Saltwater Grill – a real oasis in the hectic loud beeping metropolis. To give us the energy I couldn’t deny myself the first chicken tikka masala, but very quickly turned all vegetarian as the food is just too delicious. Normally, I crave for western food after more or less 2 days, but hey – still after 2 weeks we are going strong on indian food. Highlight of our Mumbai trip weren’t the sights though, but the people. On our last day but 1 after walking the city for many many hours we returned really sweaty and exhausted in our quarter and crossing the street an older Indian asked Simon where we were from. This is obviously the one and only question you get asked absolutely permanently and everywhere in India. A question you do answer too many many times a day, what followed was an invite to have a drink together. Simon was to my surprise very open and we mentioned that we like the Leopold’s bar which was trashed as being to expensive from his side. This “mad professor” was a genius and will probably stay in my head forever. His was so clever and intelligent, knew every answer to every question, but also had a mad element to himself in particular after his second kingfisher. We probably spent 2 hours with him. He persuaded the waiters to be allowed to even take with him the empty beer bottles we consumed for his cleaning lady who would get 1 rupee per bottle. After beers and nice food, paying the bill and giving him some change for his bus journey back, our paths parted. What an experience ! India here we come!
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Matheran (2 nights) is just under 2 hours out of Mumbai, a short train ride from the VT train station. This hill station was discovered, established and the roads paved by the British and with just under 1000m above sea level, this is the perfect break from the noise, traffic and dirt in Bombay as the place is vehicle free. To get to Matheran you actually need to take 2 trains. The second one is the real tourist - a so called toy train but hasn’t reopened since a huge mud slide in 2005, hence we caught a cab and walked it. Our luggage was taken care of by porters. Thank god ! These guys (male and female) are so strong. They can still walk faster with my backpack on their head than me on my feet and without any luggage. Life can be so embarassing - in particular as their combined aged exceeded easily 100+. I learned from the first part of our trip and haven’t completely filled up my 70l rucksack, so it is much easier travelling now with only around 16kg on you back. Also, the laptop has been worth the hassle. There is hardly any wifi around, but still allows to watch some movies and playing around in the evenings as some of these places are fairly quite in the evening. OK, Matheran was all about a nice hostel with gorgeous food. We thought the day rate was a little bit ambitious, only to be told that this included all food (4 course lunch + dinner, afternoon tea and breakfast) which made this a splendid deal. We even tried out their swimming pool, managed to put Simon on a horse again – after Italy I wasn’t sure whether this would ever be happening again and went on a tour to see some stunning and beautiful view points in the area. ..and then there were the naughty monkeys stealing our afternoon tea....

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Pune (2 nights): Lejla really wanted to go to this place for the Osho ashram. You needed a HIV test to stay there or visit. It was expensive to stay so we retired to the hotel next door which was much cheaper; then decided to pop in and go for the day. Problem was you need to wear these ridiculous maroon robes around the place. We managed to procure some from a market vendor for half the price. 2 maroon and one white as Lejla wanted to go for the big bash that evening at 6. I decided we should hang around the pool despite looking like a wan*** in this robe. To swim you can only wear maroon trunks so I decided to use my red ones and nobody said anything so fair enough. That night we went back to the hotel and Lejla decided to go to the 6 o’clock whatever. She came back 2 hours later saying it was all bol*****. Thankfully not indoctrinated yet. The next morning was the obligatory welcome meeting which she attended. I slept ! It was actually quite good she said and discusses a lot of the reasoning behind the bollo***. I stayed by the pool most of the day while she met with some of her welcome buddies. We decided to attend one of the day events the one that seemed the least ludicrous. 15mins of leg wobbling, 15mins of crazy dancing, 15mins of sitting stationary and finally 15mins of lying still. I could waste my time doing other things but enough people seemed to be into it so fair enough. After this we binned our robes and headed outta there leaving Osho’s sect to go find themselves up their own ars** !
Lejla says: unfortunately i am not allowed to put this one and only picture up which shows Simon in a maroon robe. It is so funny and would make everybody laugh and turn any kind of bad day you might have into a great one. BUT, not allowed. 5 weeks down the line, i actually really like my Osho experience and might go back, one day !

Delhi (4 nights): we finally made it to Delhi which I thought would be pure hell. Actually it wasn’t and we really liked our Hotel Vivek on the main bazar with Sam’s Café sitting on the rooftop - so much about trying different food and restaurants. This one was purely under the motto, stick with what you like - i think we had any meal of the day in this place and discovered our likings for ginger honey lemon teas. Trying to plan our itinerary for the next couple of days (somehow this is what you spend most of your time on traveling), our second day there was our worst so far. What a bunch of scam artists. We wanted to book our train tickets as we already had a return flight from Varanasi to Delhi. We attempted to go to the Delhi train reservation centre only to be misdirected to scam travel agent number 1. He talked us into trying to get a car to go and see Rajasthan which we didn’t really fancy. So we moved onto what we thought was the better agent in the building next door. He seemed completely switched on and told us a better route to take and how he could change our flights. He also tried to talk us into going to Kashmir. The bible says no no no !! Big scam. 3 hours later we had nothing to show for our selected trip and the trains were also booked for the route we wanted. We lit out of there with some false pretense of getting money. We didn’t return. Lejla had good or bad vibes about the place and I think she was right. The final place was a nice spot the guy was totally honest and yet we didn’t get back to him. Feeling guilty we just booked our own flight to Varanasi for 3 days.

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Varanasi - holy city on the holy Ganges (3 nights): we flew there with Spicejet, one of the newer low cost airlines (and good competition for Kingfisher) who had been very good to us up until that point. The taxi ride into town ended up as a little bit of a nightmare due to a festival which meant that the whole population of Varanasi decided to move around. Also, the hotel in the maze of the old town didn't allow for wide streets meaning we had to put the bags back on us and rush behind the taxi driver who parked the car to show us the way to the hotel But I have to say, the Indians although being quite awful to their country in terms of the rubbish they throw all over the place, they are pretty straight. True to his word, we arrived at our nice hotel overlooking the Ganges and we got a room despite our reservation not having gone through. Varanasi is famous for its more than 80 ghats which are basically concrete blocks allowing you to enter the Ganges River, most are used for bathing but there are also several "burning ghats" where bodies are cremated in public with funeral processions threading their way through the backstreets of the ghats. I was very touched by this and kind of felt the spirituality of the place with the morning procession sounds of danglers and prayers staring at 5pm in the mornings.

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Agra - home to the Taj Mahal (1 night): as we are both two lazy little buggers we kind of laughed at our travel agent suggesting a 6am train and preferred the late afternoon train which was the commuter train. Starting with a nearly empty train with lots of space on wooden benches, this changed after one stop and exceeded any cramped tube trains i have ever seen in London. People squeezing in and getting squashed, but all smiles and the guys just being funny. Indian men seem to always behave like little kids when in groups. They hug, hold hands, tease each other, sit on top of each other and just love cleaning their throats (i still can't figure what their problem is in their throat) with the left overs being spat out of the train window with all the additional rubbish they can find in their pockets, alternatively food left overs. BUT back to the reason for our trip: the Taj Mahal - described as nice but overrated to most beautiful, i am definitely supporting the latter. This must be the most beautiful building in the world and is proudly shown as the cover of the newest Lonely Planet Version. Finished in 1653 the mausoleum looks absolutely immaculate in the 21st century and it was a pleasure to just chill and walk around this most impressive place.

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Pushkar (3 nights): I think at this time we starting loving India despite the prospects of a village without meet, eggs and alcohol ((Funny enough we were never offered suspicious teapots - filled up with beer !!!!!)). The guys who opened the seventh heaven in pushkar just did everything right you can possibly think off. An amazing old haveli converted into a chillout cafe del mar meets hostel, rooms with taste and a rooftop restaurant with cool views, fab food, great masala chai and fruit juices and then there was the WIFI in the room which made us addicted to the place. We didn't want to leave, but after 2 nights our dream home was booked and i started wondering about budget and stuff. So, after a superb camel ride in the rajasthani desert it was time to say good bye to another holy village, this time without the Ganges, but a cute pond in the midde of town.

Udaipur (3 nights): voted as one of the most romantic places in the world, this is an amazing beautiful place with a lake in town and 2 palaces in the middle of them One of the palaces has been converted into a posh hotel and Octopussy was filmed here many years ago. The hostels tend to show the movie in the rooftop restaurants. What a boring movie, but the india scenes and the shots in Udaipur made it worth watching again. Fab stuff !!!
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Kerala (10 days): Taking the advice of our friends Iain and Tim, we took the same houseboat that they recommended, we weren't disappointed. We ate, ate oh and ate some more. We learned some new indian card games which were about as clear as the river we were punting on. We also fished a little and both caught a few tiddlers. I had a bash at punting which was pretty tricky but I like to think I taught the captain a few new moves ! Anyway after he pulled me out of the river lejla had a go ! All good fun but we did eat a lot !

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Finally we arrived at Varkala or should I say rolled there. Many a backpacker to behold and seeing as it was November and they were already putting up the lights in London we thought we should get in the spirit and so booked into a hostel called Santa Claus. It overlooked the sea, Varkala is actually on the cliffs and you can walk down to the beach. We ended up staying longer than expected as we enjoyed it so much and there was more fresh sea food than at iceland ! We swam in the sea and chilled and read books and also found a yoga class which we quite enjoyed. Twas the night before Christmas by the time we left, well actually Nov but close enough !!

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Our last two days in India we stayed in nice resort which Lejla had booked on the internet. However despite a comfirmation of payment, we arrived to find the room was not booked and so we had to haggle and bargain before we got a room at a reduced price. The place advertised Wi-Fi (non existent but they did have a dial up phone connection !), Gym (consisted of a rusty old treadmill and some dumbells and a couple of beds where the staff slept !) However it backed onto the backwater canals and had the beach on the otherside so all in all we enjoyed our last couple of nights in India. On the final day we went for a nice massage which was wonderful a great way to say goodbye to india. It was fun in places but boy i think we are ready for Singapore & Vietnam !

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Posted by Lejla 22:29 Archived in India Tagged backpacking

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