Posts Tagged ‘Trains’

North Tour: Jaipur: A pretty cool place

April 17, 2011

Tuesday, 1 March

JAIPUR: The thing that everyone seems to forget about deserts is that at night, they get really, really cold.

Falling asleep at 1 a.m. without a second of sleep debt is harder than you’d think. So when that sleep is interrupted by chai-wallahs a mere three hours later, it’s a disorienting and disgruntling experience.

My first thought when I woke up this morning: “Why am I awake?”

My second thought: “Wow, it’s really cold.”

You don’t need air conditioning in this weather, but at least AC Sleeper cars come with blankets. Most of us having forgotten our own, we used scarves, hats, jackets and each other’s body heat to help out our metabolic systems. The chai actually warmed us adequately, but in doing so it became impossible for us to sleep. By 4:30 or so, we realized any attempt to fall back asleep would be fruitless, so we kept each other company until arriving in Jaipur around 6.

I guess we got off to a pretty good start in acquiring sleep debt.

But who needs a full night of sleep with the first day of sightseeing ahead?

From camels to snake charmers, Jaipur is the kind of city that makes you think of Indian stereotypes. Perhaps it’s because of them that so many foreigners are attracted to Jaipur. There’s no scarcity of outsiders here, either in the monuments we visited or on the streets we’ve driven by. We sprinted to the back of our bus and gawked the first time we spotted a non-Indian walking the Jaipur streets. (Our reactions to seeing foreigners are no better than those of Indians, na?) It didn’t take long, however, for us to realize spotting them would not be a rare occurrence.

Actually, Jaipur probably attracts so many foreigners because there’s so much to see here. Our sightseeing began with a huge wind palace – not as monumental or large as Mysore’s, but impressive in its own right. We found an assortment of impressively accurate astrological equipment at one site, including the world’s largest sundial (adorned with about 100 live pigeons).

At night, we ate a traditional Rajasthani meal and watched several performances – including dances and puppet shows. Once, I was called on stage to dance. I flailed my arms and shook my body in the least awkward dance I could muster. At the very least, it was an outlet for some of my dance-frustration.

Our tour was not off to a bad start.

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North Tour: It begins

April 14, 2011

Monday, 28 Feb

NAGPUR TO JAIPUR: It’s 10:47 p.m., and no one on this train is awake but us.

Actually, that’s not true. In Car No. 8 of the Chennai-Jaipur Express, the lights are still on in some compartments. One man is standing idle by an outlet, charging his phone. The Indians in neighboring compartments are covered in blankets and look like they’re sleeping. But every so often someone’s covers will ruffle in a telltale sign of failed sleep. A baby is crying. Someone’s cell phone just rang. A chai-wallah is calling into the silence, his day of sales continuing through the night.

But I think we’re actually the reason everyone is still awake.

Yes, the RYE students’ 26-day tour of North India is underway, and thus far, nothing could be better (save Franzi’s ankle, which has left her on crutches). The internal chemistry – so good during the South Tour and at Christmas – has picked up right where it left off. There was no need for group introductions this time. We’ve been able to jump right into the stories of our two months apart.

Our group is smaller this time. Sebastian and Sabrina have since gone back to their home countries. Aafreen is busy with exams in Yavatmal. Dascha, Jakob and Michelle, for various reasons, are staying back in Nagpur. New to our group is Samantha, a student from the American state of Virginia being hosted in Hyderabad. Having had seven months to get used to each others’ quirks, and more tightly knit than ever, I anticipate we’ll all get along quite well.

For probably the last time this year, I enjoyed nice weather in Nagpur today. While the climates in our homes across various ponds will go from bad to better, that of Nagpur will go from better to worse. But weather is nothing to worry about. In fact, thanks to the people I’ll be spending the next month with, there’s really nothing to worry about.

Will I sleep well tonight? Probably not.

But I could care less. I’m with the right people. All is well.

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South Tour: Goa – The beginning of the end

January 2, 2011

11 Dec – 14 Dec

NAGPUR: In the three days since boarding a Nagpur-bound train in Mumbai, I’ve spent more time asleep than I have awake.

Sleep debt is the reason I’ve waited three days to write my end-of-tour recap, which I’d planned to write on the final leg of our journey, and the reason I penciled nothing in Mumbai or Goa – two destinations which gave me much to say and little time in which to write. I could have taken out my laptop to finish these entries, but it seems more prudent and appropriate for me to write these by hand first.

Now that I’m back in Nagpur, well-rested, well-fed, and more comfortable than I’ve been in weeks, here’s what I did before I got here.

–

Our train from Kochi to Madgaon arrived before sunrise on Sunday – the only time of day, in retrospect, when Goa actually seems to sleep.

I think it’s safe to call Goa the beach and party capital of India. Nowhere else on the tour – save perhaps the hill stations – can match the natural beauty of the beaches we visited. From the cliffs where we parked our bus, the beach looked just as it was billed beforehand: relaxing and beautiful.

As we made our way down from those cliffs, however, relaxing didn’t seem an appropriate word anymore. Unlike the beach at Mahabalipuram, tourists clogged the shores of Goa – especially after morning turned into afternoon. Rather than lying underneath a palm tree sipping coconut juice, I took an active approach to enjoying the beaches we visited: tossing around a small ball that Amanda [Washington, USA] had been “given”, taking a brief but exhilarating ride on a jetski, and attempting (and failing) to bodysurf the gentle waves that rarely came in higher than my head. Goa was the setting for a lot of great memories that day – and that night. I fell asleep before we could finish watching Scream together – at 4:30 a.m.

I woke up late Monday morning, and the day seemed much more relaxing than the day before. It was late afternoon before we drove to the beach and buried Jakob in the warm Goa sand. Our attempts at bodysurfing failed once again.

Mostly what I’ll remember from this day is the sunset.

Having missed it the day before, and having not seen a true sunset since the Golkunda Fort in Hyderabad, I was eager to watch the sun set over the Arabian Sea. After half a day enjoying the beach, I stood facing west with my arms crossed and my shirt over my shoulder as the others gathered their things, ready to head back to the hotel for the night. The sun crept lower in the sky.

“What are you doing, Chris?” someone asked me.

I’m brought back now to a lecture we had at the Grand Rapids conference in July. The speaker cited a survey wherein adults were asked an interesting question. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the jist of it was: How much time in your life have you spent really enjoying life – blissful, exhilarated, and purely happy?

The average response: ten minutes

For about ten minutes, I watched the sun fade into the clouds just over the horizon. It was a dull orange sunset, the kind that brightens the nearby clouds and makes them glow in multicolored streaks and puffs of light. The sun grew darker and darker as it went down, to the point that I could stare at it without holes being burned through my eyes. As we walked back along the beach, it grew fainter against the clouds until it nearly blended into them. I plucked my eyes away for a second, looked back, and it was gone.

What was I doing for those ten minutes? Just enjoying life – amidst some of the best friends I’ll ever have. Some were snapping pictures of the moment, some were chatting with each other, and some stood like I was, just looking, caught in the world’s best timepass. It was just one of many moments from this tour where I could put my happiness atop the scale from 1 to 10.

I feel bad for the people who’ve only been happy like this for ten minutes – not because they’ve never seen the sun set in Goa – but because moments like this aren’t about where you are in the world, they’re about who you’re with when you have them.

–

By our third and final day in Goa, it was becoming clear our time together was coming to a close.

Even for a tourist destination, Goa seems less like India than anywhere else on this tour. We found items we hadn’t found anywhere else in India – Oreos and Pringles for some, Gatorade and a Frisbee for me. Combined with the chips and pizza we so frequently consumed on the tour, we may as well have been in a different country.

The highlights of our third day in Goa were the two cavernous churches we visited in Old Goa that dwarfed the one we’d seen in Kochi. In a cathedral large enough to hold several houses, it was hard not to feel a sense of awe, however out of place a building seems amidst rickshaws and palm trees. Seeing this, combined with the imminence of our departure, was too much for some of us to stay composed. It was just too much like home.

I don’t remember much from our train ride to Mumbai except the arrangement of our seats. Normally when we traveled by train, our compartments were separated, sometimes even on different cars. This time, however, our three compartments sat next to each other, and we spent our last train ride together closer than ever before.

If for no other reason than symbolism, it was a nice arrangement.

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South Tour: Chennai, Mahabalipuram & Kanchipuram – More enjoyable in retrospect

December 20, 2010

18 Nov

Mahabalipuram’s Hotel Sea Breeze, one of the many excellent hotels at which we stayed.

MAHABALIPURAM: On a tour like this, I hate to write of anything that isn’t going well. But I feel more comfortable telling uncomfortable truths than leaving out parts that seem integral – or seem so at the time, at least.

All of us got 4-6 hours of uncomfortable, oft-interrupted sleep as the train rolled towards Chennai. At least three times the train stopped at brightly lit platforms – more a problem when you’re on the bottom bunk and the window by your head won’t close. Old Hindi music from someone’s cell phone woke me before sunrise, although given the noise we’d made the night before, we had no right to complain.

These were all minor troubles though – likely products of our inexperience with train travel.

The Chennai railway station, though modern, was hot, crowded, and an exhausting station to run through. Our free breakfast, however, was large and appetizing.

The bus ride was worse than our train ride. Several bags, including mine, were placed on the roof, and we stopped at least twice for string and tarp. (We’d soon get used to this placement of our bags, and mine arrived in Nagpur unharmed and intact.) The stops were unwelcome, since without AC, we relied on the breeze from the windows to keep us cool.

By the time we arrived at a crocodile park, we were hot, sweaty, stiff, and barely awake. I was in no mood to pay the additional camera fee to take pictures inside.

All this did was make the beaches of Mahabalipuram much more welcome.

After checking in at our hotel, most of us went straight to the beach, which was devoid of almost anyone but our group. The waves were the highest I’d ever swum in, but as the tallest contingent in the water, I didn’t struggle as much as the other to stay afloat. Save the taste of saltwater in my mouth as we left, the beach and our ensuing trip to the hotel pool were the highlights of the day.

The rest of the day – for the first time on the tour – was free.

We spent much of the evening shopping in small groups – although bartering proved to be a challenge for some of us. In the hotel, Sebastian [Colombia] somehow managed to lock a bathroom door from the outside, providing an entertaining attempt by the hotel staff to ram it open. We decided to cap our day by building a campfire with assorted sticks and logs by the beach.

In retrospect, we definitely chose the wrong materials for building our fire.

The campfire itself was fun once it actually grew large enough to become a fire. Starting it was a challenge, but once we had enough sticks, branches, newspapers and nail polish remover, the small sparks grew into a blazing fire in spite of the persistent sea breeze. It took a lot of effort to keep the fire going, but we enjoyed it.

A small group of fisherman, however, did not. As we prepared to leave, we were cornered, and they demanded we apologize and pay them.

Apologize for what? Pay for what?

We’d taken three large logs for our fire, each apparently abandoned and unused. Two we’d used as benches, but one was crossed over the fire, where it failed to burn, but blackened considerably. That “damage” was enough for them to demand Rs. 3000 from RK, our tour guide the next morning, despite serious questions about the validity of their claim on the logs. They settled on Rs 1000. (Getting us out of that “fishy” situation was just one of the many things RK did on this tour to help us out.)

The mood was unusually somber that night as we shuttled back to the hotel.

19 Nov

The Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram, a beautiful temple on the shore of the Bay of Bengal

CHENNAI-BANGALORE: Most of today followed this pattern:

1- Take bus to tourist destination.
2- Take pictures.
3- Return to bus.
4- Repeat.

My camera, at 125 pictures, has no memory left. That seems like a lot until considering many of the others snap about that many each day. I guess I need a better memory card.

(Kudos to Jordan [Oregon, USA] for giving me a 4 MB memory card the next day, which more than satisfied my picture requirements for the remainder of the tour.)

It’s odd being a foreigner who doesn’t stand out in a crowd. Mahabalipuram (more so than Kanchipuram) is a tourist town, and we found foreigners on every street, snapping pictures of the same stone carvings we were.

Speaking of stone carvings, we saw a lot of them today. In Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram alike, we shuttled from monument to monument, shutters clicking at each one. At each destination, peddlers were unafraid to do whatever it took to sell us ornaments, postcards and necklaces, none which I was tempted to buy. For some reason, I didn’t feel as inspired by the carvings as I’d have liked to. I tried to keep myself from growing numb, to stand back and just enjoy the monuments.

Besides visiting the monuments and a silk sari factory, we did little more than travel. We spent at least 6 hours on buses today, and we’re now on an 8-hour train ride to Bangalore. I did, however, eat my first legitimate South Indian meal, and Nikolas and I spent some time further familiarizing ourselves with the Chennai rail station.

I’m glad to be leaving Chennai, even though I didn’t spend enough time there, admittedly, to get an accurate impression. Even in mid-November, the heat is unbearable. Whatever the city has to offer, I didn’t see much of it.

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South Tour: Hyderabad – A place for capturing the moment

December 19, 2010

16 Nov

A view of Hyderabad from the Golkunda Fort

HYDERABAD: Hyderabad is a nice, modern city that presents a nice mixture of the old and new. The roads were well-paved, the traffic moved well, a new mall we visited was exquisitely grandiose, and a few of the sidewalks were actually used for walking.

After checking in and having breakfast at our hotel, we bussed to the Salar Jung Museum – comparable to Chicago’s Art Institute in scope and variety. Museums and tourism attractions in India often charge different rates for foreigners than for Indian citizens. Employees usually distinguish the two groups with a simple test: looking at them. Thus a few of us only had to pay Rs. 10 to enter, whereas the rest of us paid the full price, despite our Indian student IDs.

(When future locations charged two separate entry fees, we decided to remedy the imbalance by totaling the cost for our group and dividing the cost evenly among us. Nonetheless, the practice of charging foreigners extra irked us all.)

For some reason, I was under the impression that Hyderabadis would be used to foreigners. But at every location we visited today, people gawked. Some tried discreetly taking pictures of us. Others put themselves in our own photo shoots. Throughout the day, it was impossible not to stand out.

What we saw, however, more than made up for the attention we received.

The view from the Golkunda Fort was among the most spectacular I’d ever seen. Although the light show we saw after dark was underwhelming, the pictures from this afternoon stand for themselves. Only Sinhagad – a fort I visited in Pune in August – comes close to the view from the top of Golkunda.

Besides the museum, we also visited a temple in the morning which gave us a spectacular view of the city. Sadly, cameras were not allowed inside.

Our sightseeing was capped this evening with a short boat ride in Husain Sagar Lake to a statue of Buddha. Even more impressive than its sheer size was the fact it was carved out of one piece of stone.

My 256 KB memory card will soon be full, on account of the many pictures I took today. There was a lot to see.

17 Nov

The capital of Tollywood cinema seemed to take a lot of cues from another “-ollywood.”

HYDERABAD-CHENNAI: I’ve spent the last 20 minutes or so just looking out the window.

As the train rolls along at about 50 miles an hour, the cool November breeze whips across my face, and one field after another presents itself beyond the paneless window. It’s a nice contrast to the hectic day we had today.

The Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad left me feeling half movie star, half paparazzi. South India’s Hollywood was reminiscent of Southern California in more ways than the Hollywood sign placed amidst bushes high above the city (for which Nikolas’ [Germany] plan to climb up and take a picture failed). The palm trees, balmy weather and American pop music made me forget several times which -ollywood I was visiting.

And there were more pictures today. Many of them. We saw beautifully maintained gardens and two or three shows, watched Jakob [Germany] and Dascha [Oregon, USA] star in a “movie” they weren’t told they were in, went on three carnival rides for the first time in India and drove to the train station having spent a nice day together, our memory cards much fuller than our stomachs.

As for our train ride, I haven’t missed having AC or closed windows. In fact, I’d argue the wind makes it more comfortable than the first Indian train ride I took from Pune to Nagpur earlier this year. 13 of us crammed into a compartment for six people and had a “dance” “party” much to the chagrin of the nearby passengers. We also shared a lot of food. The Rotary kids are awesome – all 18 of us.

I’m going to sleep now –

– Actually no, I didn’t. This train is not a very good place to sleep.

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