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.