From Australia to India

18 Apr

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April 11, 2012 – April 12, 2012

Our day began at 6am as we said our goodbyes and our thank yous to Kiera and Dave and squeezed ourselves into a small cab to head to the airport. Even at 6:30am Sydney traffic is no fun! As we pulled into the airport we had a sinking feeling as we saw the news crews from a number of different stations setting up – the last time we saw news crews was in Peru when a number of flights experienced significant delays and cancellations. Because of the traffic leading up to the departures doors we had time to roll down the window and ask one of the news crews what was going on only to find out that there was some boy band that would be arriving shortly (we never found out who the boy band was).

When we got inside Sydney airport we were first in line for China Eastern Air. We hadn’t been able to check in online the night before and because it was a 10 hour flight to Shanghai we wanted to make sure we would be sitting together. Standing behind us in line was a Chinese man and we got to chatting. He’d lived in Sydney for the past 10 or so years and was on his way to visit family in Shanghai with his wife and daughter. Somehow it came up that he found that a lot of Israeli’s like to travel which led to Jonny saying that he was Jewish. What was the Chinese man’s response to Jonny, you ask? “You speak Jew?” Amazing.

We arrived in Shanghai on time and at the airport proceeded to go through the most inefficient process to transfer onto our next flight. Despite having our boarding passes for our flight from Shanghai to New Delhi, we were forced to line up and check in again, after which we were told to wait in this little roped off area until everyone from our flight with international connecting flights had checked in and someone from the airline came to get us. We were led through multiple small corridors and every 20 feet or so were made to stop and wait for 5 or so minutes before we could continue. Next we had to go through security again before we could sit and wait at our gate.

We boarded the plane late and then were made to sit on the tarmac for 3 – 4 hours, so long in fact that they served dinner to the passengers on the tarmac. The only funny part about this delay was when one of the flight attendants came on the loudspeaker after about 2 hours of sitting on the plane without moving, and in a thick Chinese accent and said, “Ladies and gentlemen…the Captain has confirmed…there is a delay.” As Tal would say, thanks tips!

30 hours of travel time later we finally touched down in New Delhi. None of us had given any thought as to what we expected the ground to look like when we arrived and we all thought the same thing: we could have been in Australia.

We got our bags, found the driver from our hotel and started our 40-minute journey through the city to the Ivory Palace. We noticed a few things over the course of the drive:

–          Drivers in New Delhi have no regard for lanes. It’s perfectly fine, apparently, to straddle 2 lanes and nearly hit trucks, vans, cars, motorcyclists and cyclists alike as long as the driver makes good use of the horn.

–          The poverty we passed along the side of the road was heartbreaking. Families living in small tents made of tarps, relieving themselves along the side of the road and laundry hanging to dry on roadside trees.

–          Construction takes place across the entire road and the backhoe we encountered only moved out of the way when impatient drivers begin to play chicken.

We arrived at our hotel (sometimes they’re called hostels but more often are called hotels), checked in and as soon as I’d dropped my bags on the floor I knocked on my sister, Shelagh’s, hotel room door that she was sharing with her friend Pete, to begin our reunion. She looked thinner than when I’d left and was dressed head to toe in local Indian clothing, mostly because she’d left everything she owned behind in Goa after experiencing bed bugs twice in the 2 weeks she’s been in India. Poor thing! After giving her the clean new clothes and daypack I’d picked up for her in Australia we made a plan to get dressed and head out in search of the government tourist information office.

We asked the front desk to call us a cab big enough for 6 people and when our driver, Lol, showed up in a sedan the size of a Honda Civic he assured us we could all fit. 3 guys, 3 girls and Lol in a Civic – I could almost hear the circus clown car music playing but then thought back to Tal and my high school days when we put 8 people in our friend Clegger’s Hyundai Accent.

Once we were all jammed in the car Lol chatted pleasantly to us as he began to drive us to what we thought was the government travel agency. Our experience with this taxi was textbook, it was exactly what Lonely Planet warns you about in terms of taxi drivers in India. Lol stopped the car, got out and walked us into a travel agency, only it wasn’t the government travel agency, it was clearly one for which he received commission for bringing in foreigners. We repeatedly told him this was not where we wanted to go and resorted to telling him we were meeting friends at the government travel agency (not true).

Once again we squished ourselves back into Lol’s car and he took us to another travel agency, also not the government travel agency. He insisted that this was a branch of the government travel agency and that the location we’d asked to go to was closed. After much calm arguing Lol finally got that we weren’t going to take no for an answer and reluctantly dropped us off at the government travel agency, but not before nearly driving off with Pete’s bag in the trunk. He also didn’t accept the fare we were prepared to pay him.

After a brief visit to the government travel agency they directed us to another travel agency that they endorsed, Destination !ndia (that’s the correct spelling) where we could actually book drivers, trains, tours, etc. We made our way there and had an amazing experience. We booked a driver for the 6 of us for the following day to go to Agra as well as booking a train ticket for 4 of us (Shelagh, Pete, J.J. and I) to Varanasi. The people working at Destination !ndia even pointed us in the direction of an awesome little lunch spot called Anand where we enjoyed some fairly spicy lunch – I had something in with rice AND curry and actually liked it, so basically I’ve learned that I only like Indian food in India.

Next we walked through a local market, on our way passing bicycles rigged up to carry at least 3 propane tanks, tuk tuks zipping by inches from running over our toes, cars zig zagging in organized chaos to the soundtrack of horns honking and people calling out to one another in the street. The smells wafting out of the restaurants were potent, smelling predominantly of curry with hints of other less recognizable spices.

We didn’t buy anything at the market and continued on to the United Buddy Bears exhibit in a nearby park. Buddy Bears stand together hand-in hand signifying the future vision of a peaceful world. The bear statues are uniquely painted by an artist from the country they represent and are positioned in a circle in the centre of the park. Sadly, we were pretty disappointed with the Canada Bear (see above photo).

We decided to hang out in the park and make a plan for the rest of the day. There we were stared at and asked to be in a number of photos, often being called the names of Western celebrities. J.J. was called Michael Jackson, Shelagh and Tal were both called Lady Gaga and I was referred to as Maria (we wagered some guesses as to who Maria might be and came up pretty empty).

We decided to walk the 5km to India Gate and take some photos – mostly with locals – before trying to find a taxi back to our hotel. When we couldn’t find one, we decided to split up into groups of 3 and take tuk tuks, against many recommendations to avoid this mode of transportation. However, we had a great experience, our drivers racing one another the whole way back. We decided to take tuk tuks from then on.

We agreed to nap/rest for an hour in our respective rooms before meeting up again to do a quick grocery shop, find someplace to eat dinner at Spicy by Nature (delicious and close to our hotel) and make our way to Red Fort to watch the nightly light show. Unfortunately dinner took us longer than expected and by the time we had finished we realized we’d likely miss most of the light show and instead opted to hang out on our hotel rooftop and have a night cap.

The rooftop was just that: a rooftop, with nothing more than crumbling brick and concrete, a tiny little rundown room where the bartender sat and kept the one kind of beer that was available for purchase at our hotel and a few tables and chairs. As soon as we’d finished our drinks it began to rain and we took it as a sign that it was time for bed. We were getting up at 5am to meet our driver for our daytrip to Agra in the morning.

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