Sunday, November 30, 2008

All Peoples Home Going

The remaining Butt Busters are whiling away a quiet Sunday afternoon before heading to the airport at 2000 (we are going to the airport earlier than usual due to reports of increased security at all international airports in India). RA and I will be departing at 0055 tomorrow morning while Ross and Jean leave at 0655. We’ve just gone for a leisurely walk in “our neighborhood” with a stop at McDonald's for lunch. We still have a couple of Kingfisher beers in the kitchen fridge to drink with dinner tonight before we leave the White House Hotel for the third and final time. We have survived Incredible India without too many scars (mostly mental) and will attempt a summary of our journey when we get home. See you on the other side................................

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lazing at the Lagoon

11-21/27-08

The Lazy Lagoon boutique resort was our home for six nights as we continued our R&R in the south of India. The days melted away in the heat and humidity of tropical Goa, a Portuguese enclave on the Indian sub-continent until 1961.

Goa’s pace is not as hectic as other places we have been in India with less aggressive drivers, less horn honking and people with a good sense of humor. When we weren’t sleeping, eating, or swimming in the pool, we managed a little low key sightseeing. The Saturday night flea market was quite impressive and we discovered where many of the British hippies have been all these years--living in Goa selling jewelry, crafts and tatooing the white tourists from northern climes. We also visited Old Goa and its fine collection of Portuguese churches, basilicas and the desiccated body of St. Francis Xavier. On Wednesday morning we did our last bit of shopping at the huge weekly flea market in Anjuna. If you want it, they have it there in spades. RA is still sporting some henna faux-tattoos and a few more bangles for her wrist. It is here that Ross and I had an impromptu competition. Men would approach us and tell us we had some soap in our ear and then offer to clean the wax out of our ears; Ross won with seven offers to my three!!

On Sunday night we went to a restaurant that that touted the music of Dr. Andy and his friends from England. Little did we know that we were attending the weekly “Gathering of the Clans”--all the Brit ex-pats in the area. The music was eclectic and enjoyable as was the people watching, The smell of ganja was thick in the air as we left the party around 2200.

A few days later Ross decided to check out the local Haircutting Saloon/Barbour Shop; haircut IR80 (US$1.60) and beard trim IR50 (US$1.00). It sounded like a good idea so RA and I walked down to the shop and were soon sitting in the chairs. RA got a hair trim and a head massage while I ended up with a haircut, beard trim and an Ayurvedic head and back massage with who knows what kind of oils and other liquids poured on my head. Total bill (with tip) for both of us: IR750 (US$15.00)!

Ravi, our room wallah, surprised us each day with some very innovative “towel art”--swans, palm trees, flowers, a tortoise. The Lazy Lagoon was the perfect place for decompressing--good food, comfortable digs, and a very friendly and accommodating staff.

Our last night/morning in Goa was tempered by the reports of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. We left a little early for the airport assuming stepped up security, but everything went smoothly and we were soon winging our way back to Delhi.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

In Delhi

We have arrived safely in Delhi--flight on IndiGo was fine on an Airbus 320A. We will be leaving on the 1st--RA and I straight to Chicago and Jean and Ross to Toronto via London. We'll be lying low here and repacking for the trip home.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Update

Just a quick note to let you know that we are in Goa which is about 650 km south of Mumbai and are flying to Delhi today so we are out of the line of fire.

Flight home is scheduled for December 1st so will be keeping a low profile till then.

Can't help thinking that after surviving the perils of motorcycling, food poisoning and being crushed by crowds, it would be a real b.....ch to be blown up on the last day here!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Whew!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sorry for the posts being out of chronilogical order but we haven't had Internet for a few days and Steve is ahead of me on writing.

We made it! After five weeks, one day and four hours, we parked the four remaining bikes in front of the White House Hotel in Delhi where it had all began. A huge sigh of relief could be heard around the globe and particularly in the bar that evening.

Jim Shaw had been right. India is not a place for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. It is also not a place to ride 3,744 kilometers on a motorcycle. But we did have a most excellent adventure with enough stories and pictures to bore you folks to tears for years.

Here’s some of the oddities/highlights:

Road Signs:
If married, divorce speed
Caution and care make accidents rare
No race, no rally. Enjoy our beautiful valley.
Kill time, save life.
This in the most dangerous country in the world for driving!

Sanjay and Mukesh Dictionary:
They spoke better English then we spoke Hindi but we were often amused by the literal translations.
Jumping road - bumpy
Good looking - nice view
Bad speaking - rude
Mad talking - angry
All peoples - everybody
Feeded - having eaten
King house - palace
Money house - bank
Shirted people - Ruth Ann, the retired English teacher, used this term one day when taking a picture of us all in our new custom-made Buttbuster
t-shirts.

Update:

Brian & Harlene flew back to Canada where Brian is receiving further treatment in an Ottawa hospital.
Bill & Helmut flew to southern India to see a paper machine from Domtar and will be flying home via Calcutta near the end of November.
Steve, Ruth Ann, Ross and I flew down to Cochin in the south for some r & r in two beautiful villas in the Backwaters then took an overnight train to Goa for some sightseeing and tanning before flying back to Delhi then home on December 1st.

Last Gasp

After visiting the Taj Mahal, which will always be one of the highlights of the trip, we took in the Agra Fort built in 1573 by Moghul conquerer Akbar the Great. It is another huge edifice with many buildings housing the treasury, the emperor and the harem of 5000!. The Peacock Throne, encrusted in diamonds, rubies and emeralds and famous from the Shahs era in Iran, was created here and ended up in Persia when the fort was sacked in 1739. Next rock stop was the Baby Taj, another tomb of an Akbar follower. This one is unique as it was designed and built by the interred resident’s daughter and therefore is quite feminine with a pavilion on its roof rather than a dome.

From Agra, we headed south to Jaipur, the Pink City and last stop on our itinerary. Bill and Helmut had headed back to Delhi and from there were flying south to see a paper mill so now we were four. To our surprise and amazement, we found ourselves on a paved road! It was actually a four lane highway! Delighted, we promptly twisted the throttles up to a heady 90 kph (55 mph) and blasted down the road only to be met shortly by a truck coming towards us in our lane! Yikes! All that asphalt euphoria had temporarily blinded us to the fact we were still in India where it’s much easier to go the wrong way down a divided highway than to have to go all the way over to the other lane and cross over again later.

Jaipur was another really pleasant surprise. More modern in many respects such as sidewalks and glass fronted stores; more civilized traffic with signal lights and road signs; and McDonalds! Naturally, we had to visit the obligatory rocks: Hawa Mahal, know as the Palace of the Winds, a five story high but only one room deep palace built to allow the ladies of the court watch street processions behind the 593 screened windows without being seen. It has been beautifully maintained with pink domes frosted in white plaster which make them look like giant ice cream scoops. The principal palace is still inhabited by the royal family and so is beautifully maintained with a museum open to the public. It houses such diverse objects as sedan chairs and the largest silver urns in the world which were used to transport water from the Ganges to England in 1901 when the maharajah went for the coronation of King Edward VII. Adjacent to the palace is an astronomical observatory built in 1728 which functions to this day tracking the movement of stars and planets and telling time with a 27 meter high sun dial! This while we were still in loin cloths in North America! What happened?!

While definitely more modern, we still encountered camels hauling huge loads down the main streets and elephant caravans lumbering along with their handlers high atop on a wooden platform. Of course, we had to check out the local market and it was there that Ruth Ann and I found beautiful embroidered and appliqu├ęd fabrics. After a few trips up and down the stalls casing the joint, we settled on a shop with a beautiful table runner embroidered with elephants to begin negotiations. Most shops in India have benches or places for the women to squat (which is the normal position) as purchasing is a lengthy affair. It starts with inquiring as to your country of origin, progresses to the extreme high quality of their goods, followed by their exceptional low price (which is only available to you because you are the first customer of the day regardless of what time you're there), and ending with a sale and pictures being taken, business cards exchanged and the fear that someday they will wind up on our doorstep in Tweed! This was our last stop and so with cautious anticipation, we turned north to Delhi.

The Adventure Continues--we Goa

11-20/21-08

We’ve been on two-wheelers, in rickshaws, tuk tuks, cars, vans, small SUVs, and planes on this trip, so that left trains as an unused form of transportation. An overnight journey from Cochin to Goa would get us started on the way back to
Delhi and take care of a night’s lodging at the same time. The Indian Railways employ 1.6 million people and is the world’s largest single employer; it was time to check it out.

Our train did not leave until 2235 and the hotel had a check-out time of 1100, so we had a lot of time to fill. The resort was nice enough to offer us a comfortable room and place to freshen up before heading for the train station. We did a lot of reading, spent some time on the internet and had a leisurely lunch before heading into town. As there was not a safe place to store our luggage at the station, we paid the driver an extra $3 to keep our belongings in his car while we had a long dinner at Pizza Hut.

The station was packed with travelers coming and going, especially hundreds of bare-foot pilgrims all dressed in dark blue clothing. There were few places to sit, but we managed to snag four seats that we had to defend whenever any one of us left for a few minutes. The Rajdhani Express pulled into the station at 2230 as advertised; we quickly boarded and were moving by 2238; the express trains do not stop a lot, and when they do, they spend minimal time in the station.

We were traveling second class and did not know exactly what to expect regarding our accommodations so were very pleased to feel the cool air in the car when we boarded. The coaches are set up with a four berth cabin on one side and an open two bed berth (upper and lower) across the aisle. RA and Jean took the top bunks while Ross and I converted the seats into our beds. There was a small fold down table between us and we all had reading lights, blankets, pillows, and sheets. Cozy but comfortable with a sliding door that locked, we all felt quite secure as we rocked and swayed our way to Goa through the coastal darkness.

We missed the 0600 tea/coffee serving, but were up and about for the 0800 breakfast omelet with bread, butter and jam, mango juice and hot water for tea (Ross had his own instant coffee packet, so got his caffeine fix).

The washrooms were at the ends of the car and had a western toilet on one side and squat toilet on the other (straight shot from both to the tracks below). There was running water in the sink along with soft soap and a paper towel dispenser that never was empty; we did have to bring our own toilet paper.

We met a very engaging young artist from Rajasthan who bunked across the aisle from us and spent a couple of hours talking to him. He seemed to represent the new face of India with his laptop, iPhone (he was talking to his Swiss girlfriend on Skype), and excellent English.

Upon debarking from the train, Jean stood in line and got a pre-paid taxi for us (at less than half the price the hotel quoted us) and we were off to for our six day sojourn at a boutique hotel in North Goa. Our taxi driver was borderline insane and with no working horn brought back memories of our time on two wheels just a few short weeks ago. I sat in the front with the driver and soon discovered that my seat was not attached to the floor! When I went to buckle my seat belt there was only an eight inch remnant of the belt that threatened to blow in my face so RA grabbed it. Soon, during a particularly violent maneuver, she was left with that bit of belt in her hand! Incredible India is still doing its thing as we near the end of our nine weeks here.

Southern Comfort

11-13-08

Today was the beginning of our journey south for a little R&R before heading home to a North American winter.

It was about a thirty minute drive to the domestic airport in Delhi and not knowing what to expect we went out a little early to make sure everything went well. The procedures are a little different than they are back home. After getting our boarding passes, we proceeded to security screening for our checked baggage. After going through the x-ray machine each of the checked bags had a plastic band cinched tight around it by a machine on the conveyor belt. This was to show that the bags had been screened and also helped to secure them from petty thievery. It was welcome to us as we had no way to lock our duffle bags. From there we proceeded to personal and carry-on screening. Each carry-on bag had to have a tag on it that was then stamped to show it had been screened.

The three hour flight on jetlite’s Boeing 737 was uneventful and we landed to hot and humid weather¬¬¬ in Kochi (Cochin) in Kerala state, the area once know as the Malabar Coast.

11-14-08

After over an hour of walking around Ernakulam we took the ferry to Fort Cochin (fare was INR 2.5=US$0.05)! We visited the Dutch cemetery, the St. Francis Church (where was Vasco da Gama was buried for 14 years after his death in Kochi), and the Chinese fishing nets. These are tall spindly looking devices that drop a net into the water just off shore by rotating a framework that is controlled by balancing against large stones on ropes that act as counterweights. The Chinese introduced them here in the 1400s and they are still being used at high tide by the locals.

This coast has been home to Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British, Jews, Muslims, and Syrian Christians. There are mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples scattered around this part of southern India.

11-15-08

Market day--we spent several hours wandering the large market area where everything imaginable is for sale. We found the vegetable area probably the most interesting--lots of hustle and bustle as produce was being unloaded and put on display.

11-16-08

Back to Fort Cochin to visit two places that were closed on Friday: the Pardesi Synagogue in Jew Town and the nearby Mattancherry Palace. We also stopped and removed our shoes in order to visit a large Jain temple where hundreds of pigeons were being fed by the monks.

We had a filling lunch at the Brunton Boatyard Hotel’s outdoor waterside restaurant. We enjoyed watching the busy waterway traffic while enjoying the cool breeze off Vembanad Lake.

The ferry trip back to the mainland was a little disconcerting as the passenger load definitely exceeded the maximum by probably at least 50%. It looked like a subway car in NYC at rush hour.

11-17/20-08

An hour’s drive from the hustle and bustle of Ernakulam brought us to the Cherai Beach Resort on Vypeen Island. Upon arrival we each received a fresh coconut with a straw sticking out of it so we could have a refreshing welcome drink. The resort is made up of individual cottages scattered around small lagoons connected by narrow foot bridges. Hammocks and swings dot the grounds for the guests use and enjoyment. Most of the cottages are built over the water and have thatched roofs. Our particular units were newer than some of the others and had a/c in the bedroom while the bathroom was not air conditioned and a bit more open to nature. We met a British couple whose dwelling had a palm tree growing through the roof of their patio with another sprouting up through the middle of their bathroom!

The resort is on a narrow stretch of land between the Arabian Sea and the local backwaters that are dotted with Chinese fishing nets and canals connecting the rivers and lakes of this Venice-like area of the southwestern Indian coast state of Kerala. We could watch the sunrise from our front patio and then walk across the three meter wide blacktop road to the beach and watch the sunset. The waters of the Arabian Sea are quite warm and made for a pleasant swimming experience as we bobbed on the swells before they broke on to the beautiful sandy beach. We spent four hours one morning on a backwater boat trip in a large wooden canoe complete with plastic chairs for our seating comfort and punters fore and aft for a smooth, quiet tour. We visited a small village complete with an impressive Catholic church, Dutch chapel, ruins of a Portuguese church, and the remnants of the oldest European building in India--a Portuguese fort. It seemed a bit strange to see women in saris genuflecting in front of Christ on the cross.

Our favorite dining experience at the resort was the nightly barbeque served alfresco. Every water glass had protruding from it a napkin folded to resemble a peacock. When RA tried to replicate the origami in starched cotton, one of the waiters deftly demonstrated the art. The menu was simple with a choice of chicken, fish or tiger prawns--or a mixture of your choice. The marinades they used made everything absolutely yummy and the grilled veggies topped it all off nicely. An interesting note about the alcoholic beverages served there; beer appeared on the bill as “Special Juice” and a bottle of wine as “Candlelight Dinner.” Huh!?

Our three nights there were probably the most laid back of this Indian adventure and will not soon be forgotten.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Canadian Special

The smallest gesture can soothe spirits. In Jaipur we were on a “Steve” walking tour of the city encountering the usual merchants who wanted to sell of their wares. In front of one of the city gates, we came upon two men and a woman stringing rose and marigold garlands. Locals buy these garlands to offer to the deities of shrines scattered throughout the city. It was late morning and these three were nearly through stringing for the day. One of the men turned toward Jean and me, picked up two rose buds, and, smiling, handed one to each of us. He expected nothing: Roses never smelled so sweet!

With lightened hearts, we continued our walk through the bazaar and came upon some table runners we were sure would be great for our tables. The bargaining and smart talk began. When Ross and Steve finally determined where we were, we had already sealed the deal with Pepsis. As we drank our sodas, Dev, the merchant, began to tell us all of the special crafts in India: cloth, silver, inlay, and the list went on. He turned to Jean and asked her what was special about Canada. Jean looked at me, flummoxed--unusual for her. I was no help since I was a poseur--a USAer posing as a Canadian. But Ross, always in the game and never at a loss for anything replied, “Special about Canada? Ground beef, 99 cents a pound!”

P.S. Please, S & M, would you identify yourselves more specifically. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Two Gandhis

11--11-08

Today we spent several hours touring two Gandhi museums: the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum and the Gandhi Smriti.

The first is located in Indira Gandhi’s former home in a lovely section of Delhi near the seat of government. In addition to hundreds of well-captioned photographs, newspaper clippings, and gifts from foreign dignitaries, we saw the blood stained sari she was wearing when she was gunned down by her bodyguards in her garden in 1984. The path she was walking down is now covered with a crystal surface with a clear glass portion showing where she fell.

Part of the museum is devoted to her son Rajiv who became prime minister after his mother was assassinated. He too lost his life in a terrorist bombing in 1991 and the remains of the clothes and shoes he was wearing is on display. Very sobering stuff.

The Gandhi Smriti is a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, the father of independent India. It was here that he spent the last 144 days of his life before being shot to death as he walked to pray with many of his followers. We followed a path of concrete footsteps to the spot where he lost his life in 1948. The extensive and detailed museum finally gave us Gandhi overload (four hours of museums will do that to you) before we headed back to the hotel. It was interesting and informative day.

Monday, November 10, 2008

FWIW II

Gas stations usually have a diesel pump in one part of the station and the petrol pump elsewhere. The bikes swarm around the petrol pump while the chase vehicle does its thing with Jean checking to make sure that the pump has been zeroed and then doling out the money from the fuel kitty we all contribute to. On two occasions all operations at the station came to a halt. The diesel powered generator that powers everything has run out of fuel. One time a little diesel was hand pumped into a can to get things going again; another time, a little diesel fuel was siphoned from a tractor that was sitting there.

Fog lines. Some of the roads have fog lines painted along the edge of the driving surface to aid in night driving and in times of reduced visibility. Two times on this trip my observations of the fog lines made me chuckle inside my helmet. The first time happened when we were in the mountains. Part of the road had caved away down the mountain side so most of our lane was gone. The fog line painter faithfully followed the edge of the road
giving us a lane that was about two feet wide at the caved in area! The second incident occurred at a spot where there was a three foot wide pot hole on the edge of the pavement. The fog line painter here decided to include the pot hole inside his line so painted around the outside of the hole to give the road a nice rounded extension. About a kilometer down the road he repeated his artistry.

War and Peace

Here is my take on the last several days…………..

11-1-08
It should have been a walk in the park--only 125 km from Gwalior to Agra on a four lane road. First of all, the four lane looked as though it had been under construction for several years and the traveling surface kept switching from one side to other, depending on where the pavement was. Eventually the road became a bona fide four lane highway along with the previously mentioned subsets of traffic coming towards us in both the passing lane and the left shoulder. No time to relax!

About 30 km south of Agra the scariest event of the trip happened. The traffic was blocked in both directions on the four lane--in our lane was a farm tractor with large trailer parked across the road. The traffic on the other side of the median was also blocked and there was a large crowd of people on the other side of the road block. RA saw a stone fly and we all rode off the road to make an end run around the trailer. I muttered under my breath, “Let’s get out of here!” I’ve heard too much about crowds and what can happen here or anywhere when mob mentality takes over. Ross got ahead of Jean and followed a car over the obstruction, a large fire hose stretched completely across the highway, but not before someone threw a hand full of dirt in his face. As I came around the end of the trailer I saw several people pulling Jean off her bike and begin pummeling her, after she too had dirt thrown in her face. I stopped my bike and got off as quickly as I could and was prepared to rush into the fray to rescue Jean. Ross was coming back from the other direction and the unruly mob melted back into the rest of the crowd on the road. Ross and I are bigger than the average Indian and I am sure we looked formidable with our helmets and riding gear. As Ross and I got Jean’s bike up and running, RA was calming Jean and we all remounted bounced over the hose despite some telling us we could not pass. I think we were all prepared to run over anyone who got it our way.

In retrospect we think we know what happened. We are not sure about the purpose of the hose--probably as simple as someone wanting to water his field with a four lane road in between his field and the water source. We think some vehicles had crossed the hose and either actually damaged it or made the people think it had been damaged; at the point we crossed it, part of the hose was fully “inflated” and part of it was flat. We also think that the trouble had started on the other side of the road and spilled over to our side. We will never know exactly what happened, but to see the mob mentality take over and attack an innocent by- passer will be forever etched into my mind. The image of Jean being dragged off her bike into the dirt is the darkest of this trip.

The Howard Park Avenue was our refuge from the afternoon’s happenings and from the rooftop we got our first glimpse of the Taj--the main dome and couple of the minarets. Looking down on the rooftop of the school below us we saw several brown monkeys making their way towards the hotel and the swimming pool on the ground floor. We also saw a man with another monkey on a leash (larger and lankier with long legs and a long prehensile tail) climbing up the metal grill work near the pool and onto the rooftop. It was the monkey guard!! The leashed monkey ran off the intruders and while he was eating his reward the human biped took potshots with a sling shot at the invaders.

11-2-08

A day off for most of us as we relaxed, napped and swam in the pool. Harlene came down from Delhi on the train and she and Helmut and Bill visited the Taj Mahal. RuthAnn and I walked over to the Taj to get the lay of the land and check out the entry gates. The whole complex is surrounded by tall stone walls so no close view of the main reason for our trip to India.

11-3-08

It was about a 15 minute walk to the ticket window and the lines that were quickly forming just before sunrise. After paying a little over $16/person and passing through strict security, we were on the grounds. Our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal in the early morning light was breathtaking. After two hours of wandering the grounds, taking pictures from every possible angle, and watching the complex grow whiter and whiter with the rising sun, we headed back to the hotel for a much needed breakfast.

11-04-08
A full day of sight seeing visiting the tomb if Itimad-ud-Daulah (the Baby Taj), the Agra Fort and viewing the back side of the Taj Mahal from the Yamuna River.

11-05-08

Our last full day in Agra was actually spent in Fatehpur Sikri, a walled city built in the late 1500’s out of red sandstone by the Emperor Akbar. It was abandoned soon after its construction due to a lack of water at the site. We also visited the impressive Jami Masjid, a huge mosque just outside the walls of Fatehpur Sikri.

11-6/8-08

Jaipur, the Pink City, was our home for three days while we got a taste of another Indian state, that of Rajasthan. We did a self guided tour of parts of the old city. Climbing to the top of the Ishwar Lat, a tall minaret, gave us a great view of the old city and some of the other sites we would visit in the next two days including the City Palace Museum, the Jantar Mantar ( an incredible array of astronomical instruments made of stone and brick), and the Hawa Mahal ( a five story high structure, but only one room deep) full of peep holes that allowed the ladies of the harem to see what was going on in the street below without being seen by the public. The “Palace of Winds” is the current icon for the city and appears on virtually any tourist publication touting Jaipur. Many camels and decorated elephants plied the streets of Jaipur. It is here that Ross and I “lost” our wives to a fabric vendor in one of the bazaars. When we discovered them, they were knee deep in piles of fabric bargaining like mad. As the price came down to about a dollar separating the two sides, a round of Pepsi-Colas sealed the deal.

11-9-08

This was our last day on the bikes as we scooted up the four-lane (sustained speeds of 70-80 km/h!!) toll road to Delhi. The smog was very thick (we did not envy the runners in the Delhi half-marathon that day) and we find ourselves back at the familiar White House Hotel.

We rode approximately 2300 miles in India and Nepal in the last five weeks and are very happy to be back safely. We could have kept the bikes for two more weeks, but felt that our biking adventure should come to an end at this time.

What will we do with our remaining time? On the 13th we are flying to the south of India to Kochi (Cochin) where we will spend about a week exploring the beaches, back waters, and tea plantations there. An overnight train ride will take us north to Goa where we have booked a week in a resort. We will then fly back to Delhi before ending our India adventure on December first.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Beauty After the Beasts

They say time heals and so does a five star hotel, a hot shower, and good wishes from friends. Thanks for all the inspiration. So as I left off, the adventure continues .......in Agra.

The Taj Mahal was one of the primary reasons for coming back to India, as we couldn't get this far north on our last trip, and we weren't disappointed. We had been advised to go at sunrise as the marble takes on the hues of the early morning light so off we trekked at 6:00AM. Even at that early hour, there was quite a long line already formed of both tourists and touts so we had to run the gauntlet of goods and services.

Security was extremely tight as In this country of poverty and filth, they are trying to blow up one of the most beautiful buildings in the world that draws the most tourist revenue. I just don't get it. They confiscated our local newspaper, my banana, Ross beaded seat cover (which we had hoped to take a picture of for advertising purposes) and Mr. HAPPY. They probably thought he was a terrorist from some puppet regime. So stripped of all our weapons, we went through the massive gates, crossed a courtyard, went through a portal and there was the most incredibly beautiful Taj.

What strikes you first is the perfect symmetry of the architecture and grounds. Everything is masterfully balanced: the large dome in the middle, the two matching minarets on each side, the mosque and matching guest house off to each side and the beautiful waterway, separating perfectly placed junipers on either side, and reflecting the mausoleum. And everything is so clean! It really is breathtaking. We just stood in awe and watched the facade change from a warm golden glow to a bright white shine as the sun rose in the sky. Naturally we had to do the photo thing and took turns posing on the bench (famous for Princess Diana) with the Taj in the background.

Gradually, we made our way up the walkway to the mausoleum itself and now we can see the beautiful marble inlaid with semi precious stones like lapis lazuli, mother of pearl, onyx, etc. to make vases of flowers. Around the actual sarcophagi, is a marble lattice screen on top of a marble wall with bas relief flowers which are translucent under the guides penlight. No wonder it took 20,000 men over twenty years to build it for Mumtaz Mahal, favourite wife of Shah Jahan who died shortly after giving birth to her fourteenth child in 1631. I'd say she earned it! And we've certainly worked hard to get here but it was worth it.

Ruth Ann had fun with a group of sari ladies, admiring their unusual earrings which wound around the back of their ears. They're equally curious about her and openly stare at her Packers cap, short hair, and giant husband. We have so many great pictures of these hardy women wrapped up in bright, beautiful fabrics, sporting lots of dark gold jewelery and with painted feet, hair parts and the obligatory dot. They are our bright spot.

Updates

Brian is doing better and he and Harlene will probably be flying back to Canada within the week.
Harlene came down by train to Agra for the day to see the Taj.
Bill wanted to visit a paper mill in southern India so he and Helmut are in Delhi waiting to fly out.
Steve, Ruth Ann, Ross & I are on our way to Jaipur, the pink city to see some more rocks.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Hosers!

Where do I begin to tell the story of the last 10 days? There have been some incredible highs but also some really bad lows-so low in fact, that I could not find any inspiration to write. So for those who wrote wondering “What’s up?” here goes.

From Varanasi and the Ganges, the roads were terrible! Large sections of payment were missing, the air was thick with desert dust, the villages were horribly congested and the stench of burning garbage filled the air. The narrower roads meant that it was even more treacherous trying to pass lumbering trucks because just as you would pull out to pass them, they would move over to pass some animal or cart and now you're almost forced off the road on the opposite side! Or you pass quickly, only to find some massive pothole waiting as you pull back in. The rough surface is also bone jarring. These bikes are fairly comfortable, but even my ample padding doesn't cushion the constant impacts.

Our next attraction is in Khajuraho-erotic temple sculptures inspired by the Indian Kama Sutra although based on the current battered state of our bodies, we won’t be emulating them for awhile! The temples are beautifully situated and well preserved in a huge park-like setting. As always though, we are constantly pestered by pushy peddlers, beggars and drivers who are drawn to our white skin like magnets and who often follow us for ages repeating their pitch over and over again. It is very wearing.

Dave McQueeney asked if we had found any truth in the statement that India had 10 races, 100 languages and 1000 gods and we certainly have. The predominant religion is Hindu, practiced by about 85% of the people including Sanjay and Mukesh (which means we avoid stopping in Muslim areas). They recently celebrated Diwaili, the festival of lights, commemorating the return of Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu and star of some of the erotic sculptures. Candles were everywhere including in and around the hotel swimming pool, firecrackers exploded with abandon and strings of lights hung from rooftops. It is a time for family and sweets and we felt sorry that our guys couldn't be home so we invited them to join us for the celebration.

Two hundred kilometres west and a full days ride, brought us to Gwalior, the site of a very imposing pile of rocks, as Bill fondly refers to them. It’s a fort that sprawls over 3 kilometres on a hilltop overlooking the city. It houses 6 palaces, 3 temples, cisterns and more recently, a public school. It is fascinating, with tales of Moghul emperors and their many wives; of British domination; and maharajah dynasties. The next day, we visited the palace of one of the oldest ruling maharajahs, and were amused by the over-the-top opulence on display: chandeliers weighing tons; a toy train on the dining table used to deliver cigars and liquors to guests; and a crystal staircase-all of which were in need of a good cleaning (like everything else here!).

We were looking forward to the next stop-Agra and the Taj Mahal. The day didn't start well. As I passed a bus, several passengers threw their garbage (banana peels, etc.) out the window landing in my lap. The four lane we had been promised turned out to be another work in progress and we had to do it in the dirt.

Then, just 40 kms. from Agra, we came upon some stopped traffic. There was a large crowd of people on the other side of the road yelling and burning stuff and then suddenly someone drove a tractor across our lane blocking it. We saw a car pull out and around to get away and Ross yelled “Let’s get out of here!” (With all the recent bombings and agitation, we’re a little nervous.) He pulled around and a bunch of men spotted him and threw handfuls of sand in his face. He managed to keep going but I wasn’t as lucky. They ran at me and pulled me and the bike to the ground while some threw sand in my face and others pounded my back (thank goodness for body armour!) It was the scariest moment of my life! I started screaming “I’m a woman! I’m a woman!” (Foolishly thinking chivalry might kick in.) Steve and Ross rushed towards me and they finally took off. Ruth Ann managed to get me focused enough to get up and on my bike and we took off. Talking to Sanjay and Mukesh later, they think they were trying to bring water across the highway by hose and so they blocked the traffic without explanation. The bike suffered some minor damage and I’ve got some colourful bruises but nothing serious. Needless to say, this experience has done nothing to enhance my opinion of this country and that’s why I’ve found it difficult write. Thanks for all your expressions of concern.

The adventure continues.......................

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Holy City to Holy Wow

It’s been over a week since we’ve posted so here goes a summary of the past eight days.

10-24-08

We discovered a McDonald’s next to our hotel in Varanasi and just had to check out the local menu. No beef, but Chicken Maharaja Mac headed the menu along with several other veg and non-veg (chicken) options including Mexican and Chinese. The smell of vegetable oil and the taste of the fries was 100% North American.

10-25-08

It would be a two day drive to Khajuraho (435 km) so we set sights on an overnight in Rewa. The Maharaja Hotel filled the bill with its one star shining brightly in the garish pink back lighted sign across the front of the building. We have a new hotel rating system based on Motel Six with that chain being perfect at a score of 6.0; according to RA the Maharaja was 1.3!

Part of the ride today was on a four lane road which normally would be easier than the one/two lane roads, but that is not always the case. The road surface is usually better on the divided carriageway, but the Indians use it quite differently. For one thing, it is not unusual to meet traffic going the opposite direction in the fast lane! Tractors, motorcycles, cars etc. Whenever the road passes through a town, the town spills out into the road and occupies most of the left lane with tuk-tuks, trucks, market stalls etc. So the top speed on the four lane is still only 80 km/h and sometimes that does not feel safe considering all the stuff on the road and that which may dart out suddenly from either side.

10-26-08

Khajuraho. A small village by Indian standards (pop 20000), but with more than enough temples to go around. Here we see the Kama Sutra in stone as most of the Indo-Aryan structures are loaded with two elements: women and sex. We get a sneak peak the first night we are there by attending the very well done sound and light show. The next morning we enter the grounds again to see the place in m more detail. After a couple of hours of craning our necks and taking lots of pictures we end up in a tree house for lunch at the Blue Sky Restaurant. What a great way to see the temples and eat at the same time. When we want more beer or soda we just pull on the rope that “rings” a wooden bell that beckons our waiter.

We have treated ourselves to a five star resort here in Khajuraho complete with large swimming pool and very attentive staff. Clean towels twice a day, an excellent restaurant, and internet access for 30 rupees/hour. RA has been educating us with her Word-A-Day calendar and one of the young waiters quickly scoops up the word of the day when we leave it at the breakfast table.

Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) is celebrated during our three night stay here. Lights are strung all over the buildings and it reminds us of a snowless Christmas. All the hotels guests are invited to see the fireworks in the garden behind the hotel one night and we oblige. Sweets and sparklers are handed out and we comment on all the butter and oil lamps lining the walls, pool edge, and on small rafts floating in the pool. Soon the fireworks start--what a show!
Glowing embers fall into the crowd, strings of fire crackers explode at our feet, and sometimes the fireworks take a horizontal trajectory instead of a vertical one. We slowly retreat to the other side of the pool feeling safer with a body of water between us and the colorful exploding display. One errant rocket starts a fire in the vegetable garden reminding us of Moses and the burning bush.

10-30-08

Today’s 290 km equals the longest on our Butt Buster adventure and we bed down at the Sun Beam Hotel in Gwalior for a little over US$30/room. We latch on to a wi-fi connection and watch Obama’s thirty minute commercial on You Tube.

10-31-08

The impressive hilltop Gwalior Fort (3 km long) and the Man Singh Palace inside its walls occupies most of the morning before we motored over to the Jai Vilas Palace, home to the Scindia line of maharajas. Tremendous opulence in a land of abject poverty. Incredible India (the current epithet of Indian tourism) never ceases to amaze us; this applies to the historical sites we have seen and to the things we see as we bounce along on our Bullets.

Next stop: Agra and the Taj Mahal.