Watching Octopussy in Rajasthan

Pushkar was the next town on our checklist of Rajasthani destinations. Its another Hindu pilgrimage town, with a Holy Lake surrounded by bathing ghats, but it only has about 15,000 inhabitants and a reputation for being ultra laid back despite being a major backpacker draw. Before Pushkar though, we felt we should pay a visit to the nearby town of Ajmer, home to the holiest Muslim site in India, the Dargah.

Ajmer is a relatively big city, with half a million inhabitants and we met nothing but hassles for the entire morning trying to send a package home (we finally managed to do so, but I got into a heated discussion with the postal worker who wouldn't serve us, despite us having been there much longer than any of the other clients, so we are unsure that our package will ever make it home). Earlier, upon arrival at the bus station we witness a man being beaten violently with a stick as people looked on, including the bus station security guard (who we realised later had lent his stick for the beating). After what felt like minutes, Yann and I yelled out at the assailant to stop. The crowd turned to us and stopped momentarily, looking confused, then the beating resumed. As we walked away I heard people make fun of my high pitched womanly voice. We heard afterwards that the man was being beaten for having attempted to sell tea in the bus station without a permit. After the stick incident and the post office debacle we hailed a rickshaw to the Dargah.

The Dargah is not particularly extravagant, one would never guess that it was such an important site other than the constant stream of Muslim pilgrims entering the front gates and the hundreds of pairs of shoes piled up outside. We sped through the site, with no one to guide us we weren't to certain of what we were allowed and not allowed to do, so we refrained from entering any of the buildings. No one seemed bothered by our presence, we watched silently as the faithful recited their prayers. The most interesting feature of the Dargah are two enormous vats, probably 12 feet in height which used to hold food to serve the poor. Men dressed in special suits were lowered into the vats and scooped out food from inside. Now they are used to hold donations, people toss food and rupees into the massive vessels. Pushkar, in contrast to Ajmer is quiet and hassle free, but there isn't much to do there other than shop and eat. I managed to loosen Yann's tight grip on his wallet for a few moments in order to get myself a new outfit. We made a short trek uphill to get a view of Pushkar from a nearby temple while passing through the city's outskirts and meeting some amazingly dressed locals. Two days of relaxing was enough for us and we headed south to Udaipur on an overnight sleeper bus (which was much more comfortable than the Chinese version, made for slightly bigger people). We arrived in Udaipur at the extremely convenient hour of 4:30 AM. We avoided walking down pitch black alleys, thus getting ourselves completely lost on our way to the tourist district. Luckily we stumbled upon a little old lady saying her very early morning prayers who enthusiastically led us to a local guest house where she furiously knocked on the doors and rang the bell until the owner woke up and found us a room.

Udaipur sits on Lake Pichola and is an elegant city packed with really expensive hotels. The most famous of these, the Lake Palace Hotel is a beautiful white building right in the middle of the lake, visible from most rooftop restaurants, but not accessible to budget tourists (even for a brief visit). The city was the setting of the Roger Moore Bond Film Octopussy and most restaurants have a showing every night. We took advantage of the low season and had a private screening along with dinner. The weeks in conservative India had affected us more than we thought, as we laughed hysterically anytime a member of the all-female Octopussy crew found a way to shed a piece of clothing. The owner of the restaurant recounted how he had played the movie every night for 14 years, now that's a much worse punishment than being beaten with a stick.

The Pink City

After leaving Agra we spent one night in a nearby town of Fatehpur Sikri, which has a beautiful palace complex erected by Akbar the Great. The town was plagued by water shortages and thus abandoned shortly after Akbar's death. The site is impressive, but what makes the trip worthwhile is the enormous gate leading to the Jama Masjid mosque, if it weren't for all the postcard sellers we would have spent the whole day sitting on the stairs watching people climb up to the mosque. We left Fatehpur Sikri early in the morning and actually hailed a bus from the side of the highway to Jaipur, and, more importantly, paid the correct fare! Jaipur, the Pink City, was our first stop in Rajasthan. It is known as the Pink City because every single building in the city was painted that colour by order of the Maharaja in order to welcome the Prince of Wales on his visit. Not much of the pink remains today other than the older buildings, and to be picky I think its more coral than pink.
Jaipur's big draw is its shopping potential, apparently it draws buyers from all over the world. The big three: jewelry, textiles, pottery, are all incredibly difficult to resist, what makes resisting easier are the constant calls from vendors asking you to "just look" at their shop. We spent most of the time in the shopping district with our eyes firmly fixed on the ground and Yann muttering underneath his breath "don't do it, don't look up". We (inadvertently) avoided much of the trouble by visiting the city in the early morning, when none of the tourist shops were open.

Other than shopping, the huge Amber Fort outside the city is the most interesting of its sites. We timed our visit perfectly arriving at high noon in 40+ weather. Consequently we moved extremely slowly and drank lots of water, but were alone for most of the visit (other than Indian tourists who seem immune to the heat). One afternoon in Jaipur we fell victim to a tout, actually I shouldn't say we fell victim, because its my own damn fault for getting into situations like this one. Leaving the City Palace, we were approached by a jovial rickshaw driver who offered us a ride to a nearby village, luring us with the prospect of watching elephants bathe in the sunset at the Lake Palace. Once he mentioned elephants bathing, I was sold, even though Yann questioned the accuracy of my mental picture. Our tour consisted first of driving to the Lake Palace, which was comletely under construction, covered in scaffolding and, since its the dry season, the Palace, usually completely submerged in water was sitting in a pile of mud. Where were the elephants promised? Upon returning to the rickshaw I asked that we be brought to see the elephants. We were lead to a warehouse where a few elephants were tied up (three our of four legs shackled), looking fairly miserable. When we left the elephant keeper demanded money from us, for the "special experience". Next, our tour of the village consisted of being brought to a textile "factory" where a smooth talker tried to told us some story about being a "cooperative with all the money going back to the community", while trying to sell us overpriced goods. To make our tour even more fantastic the rickshaw driver made sexual comments about women including describing Swedish womens' breasts and laughing at Indian prostitutes. He then stopped for a shave before dropping us off at our hotel. Yann had his "I told you so" moment yet again. Our third day in Jaipur, Friday night, Yann promised to take me on a date, Indian style. We got tickets to see Vivah, a popular Bollywood new release. Before our movie, we splurged on dinner, opted to forgo our usual thalis and order a la carte. Our dinner included our new favourite Indian dish: paneer butter masala, the poor man's butter chicken, where the pieces of chicken are replaced with huge chunks of cheese. If that wasn't enough, we went to an ice cream parlour and ordered chocolate sundaes. It was then that we noticed a young street girl who sat outside the parlour watching children enter and exit with their families. She watched our sundaes until we finished the last mouthful. Whether it was strategic or not, she got herself a large strawberry ice cream. We were grateful for her presence, it brought us back down to planet Earth.

We waited outside the giant Raj Mandir Cinema for the doors to open. I found a 100 rupees note on the ground which covered the cost of our tickets. As we waited we were of course swarmed by little street boys who found us very entertaining and more potentially profitable than non-tourists. If they had been a little bit earlier then they might have picked up the rupees instead of me. They left us after about half an hour when another group of tourists showed up for the movie.

I will now give you a plot summary for the movie, from the internet movie database, followed by my own plot summary. One should note that Yann and I only made it to the intermission (after almost two hours of movie watching) and we may have missed some plots subtleties due to the fact that the movie was in Hindi, but I seriously doubt it.

Vivah Plot Summary
Pooja is an orphan, having come into her uncle Krishna Kant's household after her parents' death. He considers her a "gift", speaking of his aim in life being to nurture this daughter and to marry her off. Pooja lives with her Chacha(uncle) and Chachi(aunt) and their daughter Choti. The aunt doesn't love Pooja much, because Pooja is prettier than Choti. However the loving Chacha arranges a match for Pooja with the son of a wealthy, industrialist family from Delhi. Where Prem is the magnanimous bride-groom, who decides that he will spend a month of each year at his wife's parents' home, well-brought up Pooja is the perfect shudh Hindi speaking addition to the clan. The marriage day draws closer, but a fire in Krishna Kant's house will put Pooja and Prem's well-behaved love to the test

Vivah Plot Summary/Review (Emilie)
Pooja is an orphan, but luckily for her she is damn pretty and also extremely subservient. Her adopted sister Choti actually has a personality, she is funny and independant but she is damn ugly and thus an unlikeable character. Prem is a cool dude from Delhi who likes to speak in both Hindi and English as well as play racket ball, he is also unnaturally beautiful. Did I mention he is also extremely rich. Pooja and Prem are to be married, Prem doesn't seem too excited about this, until he is given Pooja's photo, she is hot. Prem's family arrives to Pooja's village driving a Mercedes. Prem and Pooj are both attractive so all goes well and they agree to be married after their ten minute exchange. For the next hour and half of the movie they exchange glances and try to sneak moments together while vacationing with their families, never would they exchange a kiss though, Pooja is well raised! They are so in love and Pooja is such a good woman, she serves tea extremely well and doesn't speak up too much, unlike Choti, she is just too loud if you asked me.
Moral of the story: it sucks to be ugly, it rocks to be rich. You might scoff at this, but really when you think about it, its pretty true in the world we live in. Bollywood has got it right, the underdog never wins unlike what Hollywood would like you to believe.

Note: Take a look at the reviews of this movie, it seems extremely well-liked, we even met a man in line who told us he had seen Vivah 7 times and that it was a "social commentary". Yann and I obviously missed something.

Best (and Worst) of Cambodia

Here we have some of our best and worst moments of our 16 days in Cambodia, we've also put together a gallery of our favourite photos which you can visit if you don't feel like ploughing through our gazillion photos. The gallery is available here.

According to Yann:
1- Bokor (should of stayed a night in Bokor National Park)
2- Kampot and Kep
3- Angkor Temples (Big Circuit)
According to Emilie:
1- Kampot and Kep
2- Angkor Temples (Big Circuit)
3- Otres Beach, Sihanoukville
According to Margaux:
1- Otres Beach, Sihanoukville
2- More rural places in general
3- Market in Phnom Penh

Most DISSAPOINTING Places/Activities
According to Yann:
1- The town of Kompong Chhnang
2- The town of Battambang
According to Emilie:
1- Our 4WD ride through Bokor National Park
2- Angkor Wat at sunrise
According to Margaux:
1- Slow internet cafes

FUNNEST Activities
According to Yann:
1- Our 4WD ride through Bokor National Park
2- Riding a motorbike around Kampot and Kep
3- Visiting with locals in Kompong Phhluk
According to Emilie:
1- Riding a motorbike around Kampot and Kep
2- Lying in a hammock at Otres Beach
3- Visiting with locals in Kompong Phhluk
4- Cooking class in Battambang (minus the getting sick afterwards)
According to Margaux:
1- Swimming in the ocean and lying in hammocks in Otres Beach
2- Trip to and from Kompong Phhluk
3- Watching and participating in Chinese New Year festivities, Phnom Penh

According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Fish Amok (fish in rich curry coconut sauce)
2- Fresh Kep and Sihanoukville crabs
3- Pancakes with egg and condensed milk
According to Margaux:
1- Chicken Amok
2- Pancakes with egg and condensed milk
3- Coffee milkshakes on the beach

LEAST Delicious Foods
According to Emilie and Yann:
1- Fried grubs (crispy on the outside juicy on the inside)
According to Margaux:
1- Insects, although the tarantula was quite good

THINGS about Cambodia That Stand Out
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Children: selling, begging, anywhere there might be a tourist
2- Checkered scarves: as a sarong (for men only), or a headdress (for women)
3- Harsh climate: the driest, flattest, scorched land we've seen. Along with the skinniest livestock
According to Margaux:
1- The warmth and friendliness of people

For those interested in our expenses, we have updated our homepage with our financial information for Cambodia, it is available here

Private Viewing of the Taj Mahal

We arrived in Agra early in the morning after another night train, this time a more relaxed ride, although our bunk mates played cards well into the night. After fierce negotiation, with the help of our Canadian friend Josh (we had met in Sikkim), who just happened to be on the same train as us, we zoomed away in autorickshaws, most likely paying twice as much as we should be. After being dropped off at the "West Gate" (we vowed to no longer tell our rickshaw drivers a specific hotel name), we settled in a decent guest house only a few hundred metres from the Taj Mahal. I spent the next two days in bed, this seems to be a common trend after taking overnight transportation. Yann visited the city without me, crossing the river to get the free view of the back of the Taj Mahal. Despite the entrance fee, 38 times that of an Indian Admission ticket, we decided we couldn't be in India without entering the grounds of the Taj Mahal. Although the entrance fee, 750 rupees, is only about 20$, to put it into perspective the most we have paid for a hotel room in India has been 200 rupees and we usually eat dinner for less than 50 rupees each. The owner of a local restaurant nostagically complained to us that since the rise in price, tourists don't stay in Agra very long and are reluctant to spend their money. He complained that most people only stay one night. What he failed to take into consideration was Agra's terrible reputation among tourists. Some years ago tourists died after being poisoned by a local restaurant, the scam involved sending sick people to a clinic that would then charge exhorbitant medical fees. It is, however, sad for the many honest businessmen in the city who have witnessed the possible demise of a lovely tourist destination. Despite having the country's most recognizable attraction, the city seemed empty and gloomy, but Yann and I were surprisingly upbeat (in my case, I think its because Yann bought me a bag of potato chips and a chocolate bar when I was sick).

On our third day in Agra, our alarms woke us up at 5a.m. We prepared to fight the crowds for the Taj Mahal sunrise. We walked, in the dark for two minutes before arriving at the ticket office, it was manned by grumpy man who informed us that tickets weren't sold until 6a.m. We waited patiently while grumpy man slipped tickets to the guides in charge of tour groups. Although we were by far the first to arrive at the gates, we lined up at security behind two bus loads of tourists who had arrived right before opening. But justice would be ours! As they were held back by the explanations of the entrance gate and courtyards we raced to the Taj Mahal ahead of them. We stood in awe of the magnificent structure, but more of the fact that there wasn't a single person on the sight. We had the Taj Mahal to ourselves! We snapped away furiously for about 7 seconds before the tour groups crowded in. For the rest of the morning, we managed to mostly stay ahead of the crowds and we visited each part of the Taj Mahal relatively alone with very few people ever crossing in the path of our photos. We even scared the resident monkeys who retreated (angrily and scarily) to the trees upon arrival the first guests. Our experience was calm and even mayble a little bit romantic (Yann will never admit that though) and we didn't regret for a second having forked over 1500 rupees for it.

Finding Inner Peace in Varanasi

The most convenient and comfortable way to get to Varanasi from Darjeeling is the train. Unlike Kolkata, Darjeeling doesn't offer the luxury of the tourist booking office, so we joined the masses and queued up for our tickets. With the help of our trusty Indian Railways schedule, which I mocked Yann for purchasing, we had looked up our train number, kilometrage and calculated the subsequent fare for our journey. Yann muscled his way to the front of the enquiries counter to find out that every sleeper in every train heading to Varanasi was booked for at least one week. After a few more trip to the enquiries counter, we were informed that there were special "emergency tickets" (read: overpriced tickets for panicking foreigners), that we could purchase. To get one of these tickets you have to pay the fee for the full kilometrage of the train journey (in our case more than twice the distance), plus a 100 rupees "service charge". We forked over the money (three times the regular fare) instead of buying an unreserved ticket and possibly standing for the entire 16 hours (although I think that would have been extremely unlikely). We arrived at the train station well in advance and found our sleepers and settled in. All seemed fine until we arrived at one of the next stops. Dozens of people poured into our cabin, many settling on Yann's bed. I thought they would clear out once the train took off again and people found their seats, but I was wrong. At one point we had twelve people in our cabin (that sleeps eight) but the cabins next to ours had even more people packed in. People with unreserved tickets headed into the sleeper cabins and claimed any inch of space they could. On later trains we witnessed this happening to locals, who promptly waved their tickets and kicked out the intruders, but we weren't quite sure what to do. After a few hours, it was now late and the number of passengers in our cabin seemed to have grown. I climbed down from my bunk and searched for the conductor. When I finally found one, he pronounced that he was the "air condition class conductor" and he didn't deal with sleeper class. Thanks for your help! I returned to my lower class and found the conductor who roared back to our cabin and chased everyone off Yann's bed. Yann and I both felt embarassed as the two men just squeezed onto someone else's already crowded bed.

Over the course of the evening, several passing men deemed it appropriate to touch my legs or any piece of exposed skin around my hips as they passed by. Not only was this extremely violating, it was keeping me awake and after multiple incidents I cracked and began yelling at people to get their hands off me. The offenders wouldn't make eye contact with me, but I got most of the cabin's attention and the touching stopped for the rest of the night. Upon exiting the train the next morning I noticed the large sign near the bathroom announcing that "harassing female passengers is a punishable offence". I didn't think people had to be told this.

We were greeted at the train station in Varanasi by a tout who followed us to the exit and offered us a ride to "any hotel we wanted". Its hard to believe we had been travelling for so long as we excepted a ride with him. Not much to our surprise he pulled over nowhere near our hotel and asked us to get out. I let Yann followed him and I stayed behind making sure to take down the number of the autorickshaw in front of him. To make a long story short, here is what the situation degenerated to:
Emilie: you are a liar
Driver: you are a liar
Emilie: no you are a liar
Driver: no you are a liar
Emilie: you are a liar
Driver: liar liar!
Emilie: liar liar!
Yann: ok that's enough

After ducking around corners and pausing at cafes to have drinks, we finally managed to evade our driver who was determined to bring us to a commission paying hotel. We settled in a lovely family guest house with only a few rooms and we had the whole rooftop to ourselves with a view of the city's Golden Temple and instructions from the owner not to leave anything on the clothes lines or the monkeys would get them. Our hotel was right in the middle of the Old City, narrow lanes, crowds of people and large cows taking up most of the room. Not a second goes by without an offer to buy scarves, or cold water, or a massage, or a rickshaw ride. The city's main attraction is its dozens of ghats lining the Ganges river. The ghats are the sites of non-stop holy action. People bathing, washing clothes, boating, playing cricket, making offerings from sunrise to sunset. Every evening a puja ceremony, an offering to the Ganges is performed at the main ghat for crowds of pilgrims and tourists. We made sure to wake up before dawn one morning and hire a local boatman to paddle us along the ghats for two hours. The minute the sun rises the temperature rises, and by early morning it is almost unbearable to walk along the ghats. Every square inch of shade is occupied by a vendor, a Saddhu (wandering Hindu holy man), or a beggar, for they have long days of work along the ghats. Burning ghats sit on either end of the strip of ghats. These are where bodies end up after being paraded through the Old City's narrow lanes in a spiritual procession. Huge piles of wood (the cost of the ceremony is determined by how much wood is used for the cremation), charred building and rising smoke indicate the presence of the burning ghats, but neither Yann or I felt like encroaching a ceremony, especially since touts hover around hoping to make money by demanding a "viewing fee".

Not only the Saddhus roam around the ghats barefooted and spaced out. Foreigners on a search for spirituality, dreadlocks, inner peace, foot freedom, seem to congregate here for yoga or tabla lessons or just to soak up the spiritual atmosphere. I guess Yann and I aren't so mellow, the only inner peace we found was when consuming copious amounts of Indian food at local eateries, we left the meditating to others.

Monastic/Marathon Trek in Sikkim Province

We departed from Pelling early in the morning, after two days of damp cloudy weather, the skies cleared and the Himalayas made an appearance, just in time for our trek. We had planned a four day trek/walk throuth Western Sikkim, taking in most of the regions monasteries. Our first day was slated as a 19km hike from Pelling to Khecheopalri Lake, a Holy lake to both Buddhists and Hindus. Pelling and Khecheopalri lie directly accross from each other, on either side of a deep valley. According to our guidebook we could follow "an obvious trail" right outside Pelling that would lead us to the lake, or we could follow the road. Not spotting the obvious trail, we chose to follow the road, passing through all the small villages on the way. We had a lovely morning, downhill all the way to the river. According to the trailblazers we had travelled about 15km. We stopped for samosas and cold drinks and headed off to finish the last 4km. We walked about an hour waiting for the "fork in the road leading to the lake", we asked for directions a few times, feeling that the 19km mark was definetely approaching with a seemingly huge distance between us and the top of the valley. When we finally got to the fork, the sign indicated we had another 10km to go. It may not seem like much, but we hadn't done much in the way of long distance walking since I stormed off at the motorcycle drivers back in Vietnam, costing us a 4 hour trek.

By the time we got to Khecheopalri Village, I was cursing myself for not having taken the jeep ride offered to us near the beginning of our climb. We collapsed in the first guest house we found, despite it being damp, dirty and not overly friendly. Under other circumstances we would have explored other options. Yann raced to see the lake and I lay on my dorm bed with my boots still on. I was dragged out of bed to see the lake for sunset (less than an hour from our arrival, our trek took 7 hours), with Yann warning me that the lake wasn't exactly what he had expected. Our image of an emerald green glacier lake was slightly off (I guess we hadn't hiked to such a high altitude after all) but the Tibetan prayer flags and the surrounding forest make the lake/pond a worthwhile visit. The next morning a woke up to the chatter of our Canadian, Krishna worshipping, slightly nutty roommate. My legs were stiff, Yann's stinky foot smell had returned after months of absence and I was still tired. We decided to climb even higher to the village with a view of the lake, we heard there was nice, unadvertised accomodation there. After about an hour of climbing (it probably should have been 30 minutes), we arrived at the small village and were greeted by a group of children who pointed us to one of the village homes. Its owner, showed us a double room, complete with a lightbulb and newspaper wallpaper. For 500 rupees (about 15$) we had the room, hot showers, unlimited tea and three homecooked meals. It was more expensive than the city, but not more than the last night's trekkers' hut where we were charged 14 rupees for a cup of hot water with lemon. The scenery was beautiful, the village peaceful and friendly and we were content to take one more day before heading off. We spent most of the day lying in the sun and playing with the village children (it was Sunday, no school). We ate three gigantic meals and enjoyed the company of a Canadian and two Americans with whom we shared our various travel stories and discussed the Albertan oil industry. The next morning, both Yann and Josh (the other Canadian) woke up not feeling well, possibly from the last night's Yak meat? Yann decided he was good to go, and we only had a 9km trek to Yuksom. It proved to be an extremely difficult 9km (that turned into 15), in the sun the entire way and mostly uphill. We didn't pack enough water and Yann was moving at a snail's pace. We attempted, unsuccessfully to wave down passing jeeps. With only a few kilometers to go, we had nearly given up, deciding to wait for a jeep, when we spotted a small shack selling something. Its main item appeared to be home brew, but it had a few dusty bottles of water on its back shelves and we were saved! We pained through the last hour of climbing and again collapsed in Yuksom, Yann too exhausted to even eat dinner. Again, we took another day in Yuksom, mainly for Yann to sleep off his stomach bug (with no complaints from me). Yuksom is a tiny village, that is the starting point for most high altitude treks. Most tourists there are either returning of heading off on a trek, you can tell by how happy they look. After two days in Yuksom, Yann was still not really eating and we decided that we should catch a jeep to Tashiding. A few weeks earlier a bridge had been knocked down by a landslide, so the ride to Tashiding includes catching one jeep to the bridge then walking across the river and catching a second one to Tashiding. We got to the bridge early in the morning and there were at least five jeeps waiting across the river, not one of them was going to Tashiding. Yann felt healthy enough to finish the trek (we had cut off the 5km of downhill), rather than cough up more money to try to reroute the jeeps. It was an easy walk and we were in Tashiding by 10a.m. due to our early morning jeep ride.

Tashiding is a sleepy little town and is visited for its monastery that sits perched atop the village, a 2km hike completely uphill. We climbed up just in time to catch the wind and rain on the way down. The monastery itself is quite small, but what makes it impressive are its location and its collection of white chortens buried in Tibetan prayer flags and mana stones. We made Tashiding the last stop on our monastic trek, although with more energy we would have completed the last 40km to check out one more monastery in Ravengla. We instead opted for a jeep ride back to Darjeeling, where we planned four days of relaxing. In contrast with Sikkim, Darjeeling felt like a roaringly busy town, we almost forgot how quaint it had felt arriving from Kolkata just a few days earlier.

We enjoyed the cool temperatures, explored the tea plantations and checked out the nearby sites. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is one of Darjeeling's most famous organizations, run by Tenzing Norgay for most of his life, and still organizing expeditions today. In Darjeeling, Tenzing is God of the Himalayas, who the hell is Sir Edmund Hillary anyways? The HMI museum houses loads of Tenzing's old equipment, including jackets and ice picks, my favourite items were the newspaper articles debating whether Tenzing was in fact the first to reach the summit. We relaxed, ate lots of food and did some carpet shopping. Shopping makes me anxious and moody. You have hundreds of pieces in front of you, and everything is "cheap", but you have to decide what you really like or whether you are being lured in by its good-dealness, you only really know when you get home and wonder what you were thinking. When our carpets were bought and mailed I felt great relief. On the subject of parcel mailing, here goes my Indian Postal Services rant. Did you know that in India, each parcel has to be covered in white fabric and sewed shut? Do you have any idea how long this process takes? In Darjeeling, there is one freelance parcel sewer (I don't know if sewer is a word in that sense, anyways no pun intended), overcharging tourists and taking a damn long time to sew up parcels. I waited for 2 hours and there were three parcels in front of me in line. To say the least, the process is absolutely painful. To help identify tampering, wax seals are stamped all the way along the seams, yes wax, melted on with a candle, unbelievable efficiency.

Darjeeling was a lovely place to take it easy even though the clouds prevented us from getting even a single glimpse of the Himalayas unlike our first day there. No, we didn't have a single cup of tea while we were there, we are loyal to our coffee! Our next destination is the holy city of Varanasi, with a reputation for being anything but easy and relaxing.

First Glimpse of the Himalayas

After spending one beautiful afternoon in Darjeeling, including our breathtaking first look at the Himalayas, we carefully assembled our heavy non-essentials and left them at our small guest house then headed off by jeep ride to Sikkim province, whose border sits only 20km from Darjeeling itself. We had planned this trip on a whim, after deciding that some cool weather would be a lovely alternative to the heat that had pounded us in Cambodia and Thailand. To get into Sikkim we had to enter at a security checkpoint, but we were armed with our permits that we had obtained in Kolkata. We easily bought two seats in a jeep heading to the nearest border crossing, Jorethang. The jeep had 5 foreign passengers and 5 Bengali, all of us tourists. Only foreigners need permits. Ten minutes into the ride, I got Yann to make sure that he still had the permit in his wallet. He of course did, and we read the details. We had a permit to enter from either of the Eastern Sikkim entry points. Unfortunately, we had requested (and carelessly assumed we had received) a permit for the Western Sikkim entry point, and thats where we were headed. We had two options, get out of the jeep and forfeit our 140 rupees fare, then we could walk back to Darjeeling and hire a jeep for the 150km east to Gangtok, or we could play dumb, and hope that the border guards didn't notice the discrepancy in our permit or, if they did, hope that they would have pity on us.

When we arrived at the Jorethang border crossing two hours later, we fidgeted nervously as the guard scrutinized our permits and our passports and wrote our names in his log book without taking note of our limited entry points. We eagerly hopped back into the jeep and crossed into Sikkim, happy to have made the decision not to turn back. We had another two hours to get to Pelling, our first Sikkimese destination, and I discovered on the way that riding in the back of a jeep is a rather nauseating experience. I had my first case of carsickness since we began traveling and I desperately kept my lips sealed for the duration of the trip.
Pelling has a spectacular view of the Himalayas, but is nothing special itself. Its main draw, other than the mountain view are its old Buddhist monasteries perched on hilltops on either side of town. Permayangtse Monastery is the most famous and the one we visited first, when we arrived the monks were in prayer so we quietly walked around the grounds and listed to their singing.
Later in the afternoon our 3km walk uphill was rewarded with the Sangnagak Choling Monastery housing only a few monks. The damp grounds were quiet and engulfed in fog. A young boy gave us a tour around the monastery then went back to the communal kitchen that seemed to be the only centre of activity at the monastery. We lingered until darkness had almost fallen, how lucky we were to be the only tourists.

Are we really in India?

I had been dreaming about India for months, but after dire warnings from other travelers I had also been mentally preparing myself for poverty, filthiness and noise. We arrived in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) fairly early and booked a prepaid taxi with two other backpackers that happened to be on our flight (plug for Jet Airways: great service, great food, luxury for a brief two hours). Exiting immigration we weren't greeted by any touts and the man at the exchange counter told us advised us that his rate was terrible and that we should change our money once we get to the city (advice that proved true).

Driving through town in our retro yellow taxi we took in the sights, the colors and the sounds as best we could hoping we would quickly arrive at the hotel and have the chance to explore the gigantic city. After checking in at the Salvation Army Guest House on Sudder street, right in the centre of the city's backpacker district, we grabbed our guide book and started a walking tour of the area. Yann and I don't do "walking tours" very well, whoever is in charge of navigating spends most of the time with their head in the guidebook while being berated with "are we going the right way?"s. We have actually never completed a walking tour, inevitably getting lost and too frustrated to retrace our steps. Our first day in Kolkata was no exception, although we had an better excuse than "poor map reading skills" for our exhausting 6 hours of walking. The first ten minutes of our walk went smoothly, we covered about one city block stopping at pretty much every food stall we passed, buying samosas or Indian Party Mix": peanuts, dried peas, fresh onions and coriander mixed with spices wrapped in a piece of newspaper. As we continued down the main street we noticed a huge number of people entering the subway, lined up at the museum, walking along the street. It didn't take long before swarms of red t-shirts, red face paint and red hammer and sickle flags started appearing. We had heard of Kolkata's general strikes, put on by West Bengal province's ruling Marxist Communist Party, and we had just stepped into the middle of one. We joined the crowd, following the flock of sheep dyed red for the occasion. We were quickly surrounded by crowds of mostly men eager to have their photos taken happily waving their fists or their flags. The mood was extremely festive and people stopped to talk to us and invite us to their respective villages (people were busing in from all over the province, we concluded that must be the reason why we were so interesting to people). After spending the entire afternoon with the crowds we finally arrived at Victoria Memorial (the next stop on our walking tour) after closing time, so we paid a few rupees to roam around the beautiful grounds at sunset. We spent out next day in Kolkata arranging for onward travel. The first task was getting our first Indian train tickets, a half-day process. We seemed to only be allowed to buy tickets from the "foreigners ticket office" sitting right next to the regular "Indian ticket office". Although painfully slow, the service is excellent and instead of waiting in queue for 2 hours, you sit on couches in air conditioning and wait for your number to be called, all at no extra charge. The rail network is incredibly huge, but once you have it figured out (with the help of the handy rail handbook) its quite simple. Ticket prices are based entirely on distance and the class in which you travel. Yann and I, as well as most other backpackers, seem to travel long distances in sleeper class, the lowest of the bed classes. We bought two tickets for the "Darjeeling Mail", leaving two days later and heading to the famous British hill station. Our next task was to obtain a travel permit for the province of Sikkim, a small province nestled in between Nepal, China and Bhutan. We got our permit the same day without any hassles.

With a few days in Kolkata we wandered the city streets and of course visited the markets. We sampled lots of food, so much bread, so much oil, so many carbohydrates, so heavenly! We also witnessed some of the worst poverty we have seen throughout our travels in Asia, entire families living in makeshift cardboard homes on the sidewalk, people sifting through garbage for small bits of plastic or metal. The Sudder St. backpacker district appears to be one of the worst areas in the city, more than likely due to the presence of so many foreigners with pockets full of rupees. One crazy morning in Kolkata was spent at its most famous temple, Khalighat. Here, according to our guide/priest over fifty goats a day are ritually beheaded as offerings to the goddess Kali. Anywhere within about a kilometer of the temple, foreigners are quickly scooped up by one of the many "priests". The priests "volunteer" to escort you through the temple, packed with thousands of devout waiting patiently to enter. You are whisked to the front of the queue where you madly try to follow the rituals that are being shouted at you by your guide, including throwing some flowers and yelling out prayers as dozens of people fight for a glimpse of a statue of Kali. You are then blessed and given the opportunity to donate to the temple, which feeds hundreds of needy people everyday, whether we were actually giving money to the temple was impossible for us to figure out. As you leave the temple your volunteer priest stretches out his hand for a "modest tour guide fee". Ours was apparently a little too modest, and we were guilted into coughing up twice what we had originally offered. We also had to leave a small tip for the young boy who guarded our shoes as we wandered through the temple barefoot! We didn't feel cheated though, without our priest we didn't stand a chance of understanding what was going on. We left Kolkata by night train after 3 action packed days. We took off installed cozily in our tourist cabin, comprised of 4 Frenchmen and the two of us. Kolkata felt special to us, not only because it was our first Indian experience, but because it defied almost every preconceived problem we had prepared ourselves for.