Our passage to India

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Note: For the next couple of weeks we will have a special guest writer in addition to the usual "he said, she said". Kristen, a good friend from the US is joining us for our travels in southern India and some sightseeing in the north.

Kristen Said: 

Wahoo!  I made it onto the travelogue!  When preparing for this trip I only had one real concern - not about the travel, the time changes or the challenging sights I was going to see - no, my only concern was whether or not I was going to actually get to make an appearance on Katie & Todd's site.  I had only really dreamed of being one of the photos that got posted...never did I dream of actually getting to be a guest writer! :-) 

Needless to say, I am so excited to be here (Hi Mom and Dad!  Hi Brian!  Hi Vinnie!). 
Arrived safe and sound a couple of days back after a quick, but great, stopover in London to see another friend of mine.  The time here so far in India has been great - warm weather (I think it hit 90+ degrees today), nice beaches, and relaxation all around.  I have thoroughly enjoyed our long days at the beach - what could be better than getting up late, having a leisurely breakfast/lunch then rolling to the beach for the rest of the day, people watching (you almost would think we were on a European beach with the overabundance of white people and very few Indians - this is a big tourist destination and it's high tourist season), and listening to my Man Down tunes on the iPod as the sun begins its descent.  So nice!  I know this will change shortly as we begin our trek north to the more crowded cities so am trying to
adjust my perspective now to prepare.  But we have one more night here along the cliffside resort so we are shortly off to eat more curry, do more shopping (so many great things here at
such good prices!) and get to bed early before our early morning departure.  Before I close, thought I'd share some of the things I've learned so far so here is my own version of a top

Top Ten Things I've Learned So Far:

10. It's great to reunite with good friends...doesn't matter how long it's been or where you are, it's so easy to pick up where you left off and have a great time.

9. A whining kid, in ANY language, on a long flight is an ANNOYING kid.

8. Katie and Todd are great - yes, they are still very much getting along, no, they don't go without their moments, yes, they are still very cute together!

7. An India rupee goes a REALLY long way

6. Apparently American Idol CAN be seen from anywhere in the world...it's premiering on the cable TV here in Varkala, India - crazy.

5. There is no limit to how many times one can be asked during a day at the beach "Hello...HELLO MADAM.  Coconut??  Watermelon??  Pineapple??"

4. An Arabian Seaside resort is a GREAT way to ease into travel in India - I highly recommend

3. Uh, yeah, don't be fooled by the other travelogues...K & T are SO NOT roughing it!

2. I have no problem shopping in any country, with any currency, at any time of day...

1. This is the life!

He Said:

A short flight from Sri Lanka brought us to India. We landed in the completely unpronounceable city of Thiruvananthapuram (mercifully known as Trivandrum). After an overnight stay in the city and some hassle making a few logistical arrangements with a local travel agent we were off to the beach. Having been to India before, I was familiar with the cultural idiosyncrasies, how systems worked, and the general gist of traveling here, Katie on the other hand had a little bit of adjusting..

Just the quick history blurb:

India's past goes back far into prehistory, but the first really large-scale civilization didn't arise until around 320 BC.  Without going into all the small details, suffice it to say that over the next two centuries, a number of empires came and went and gave rise to the religion of Hinduism and its offshoots, Buddhism and Sikhism. In the 1100's the Muslim rulers took over the northern portion of the country and eventually were able to rule the entire Indian Subcontinent in the 1500's initiating what became known as the Mughal Empire. It is during this time that many of India's most famous landmarks were constructed, most prominent being the Taj Mahal. 

In the intervening centuries occasionally there was some European influence, primarily British with Portuguese colonies in Goa, and French in Pondicherry being the major exceptions. By the 1800's with the decline of the Mughals, and rising trade, India effectively came entirely under British control. British rule brought many mixed blessings, better infrastructure, economic development, and the creation of an organized governmental systems. But along with that development, most Indians were forced into becoming impoverished and landless peasants with no say in their government. Since India has hundreds of languages, the British imposed English as the language of government, and it remains is very widely spoken now.

Mohandas Gandhi was certainly not the first Indian to object to British rule, but he was the first to bring the diverse groups of Indian society together in order to effect a real change in the system. His techniques of massive nonviolent resistance done on a nationwide scale throughout the 1930's and 1940's eventually led the British to hand over control to Indians in 1947. Over its history there had always been tension between the nations' two largest religious groups, Hindus and Muslims. In the years running up to independence, the Muslims began to realize that in an independent India, the Hindu majority would rule over them so they began pressing for the creation of a separate Muslim state. Soon after independence, the subcontinent was partitioned according to who held the religious majority. Areas that were majority Hindu were India, and areas that were majority Muslim became Pakistan and East Pakistan (which eventually became the independent nation of Bangladesh). The Academy Award winning film, "Gandhi" explores these many of these issues and the personalities involved. It is one of the greatest films I have ever seen is well worth the four hours it takes to watch, regardless of whether you ever plan on coming to India or have any interest in Indian history.   

In the years since independence India has had a turbulent and at times violent political history. The nation today is quite the diverse patchwork of the stunning and the squalid, the inspiring and the heartbreaking, ancient and modern, fabulously wealthy and incredibly poor, all existing side by side. I loved it here when I visited five years ago and honestly I couldn't wait to get back to see and experience more of what this amazing nation has to offer. 

Now back to our trip... 

A short but very crowded train ride brought us to the beach town of Varkala, about which our guidebook says,  "Varkala is an idyllic beach town...an Arabian Sea sunset viewed from the cliff top over a fresh fish dinner is a small piece of heaven". I couldn't agree more. Although there is some of the trash, begging, and hawking that goes with anyplace in India, the beach, food, and laid-back vibe of the this place is wonderful. Actually it reminds me a lot of the Sinai town of Dahab, Egypt that we were "stuck" in for a week or so back in September.

Our friend Kristen arrived two days ago and will be traveling with us for the next few weeks. It is really fun to have her with us. We've been on the road for six months now so I find that I don't notice a lot of weird things around me as much. Having Kristen here, I'm tending to look at a lot of our surroundings with fresh eyes and viewing things more as she would see them.  

Anyway, we will be heading north tomorrow to the alluring backwaters of Kerala then on to Delhi and Rajastan in the north.

Katie Said: 

After driving all around Sri Lanka for a week and a half, I had declared myself "India ready."  After all, I was used to the crazy horns honking all the time, drivers swerving every which way, livestock roaming freely along the streets, and piles of trash all around.  All this preparation was apparently not enough...because I still had a mini-meltdown our first day here.

Everything started off seamlessly... our flight was easy and on time.  Our bags were some of the first off the plane, and we flew through passport control with no issue.  A driver met us and took us to our guesthouse in Trivandrum, which was also nice.  After a great dinner there and a good nights sleep, I decided that I was such a seasoned traveler by this point that India was really going to be no big deal.  

Our goals for our first full day in India were really quite simple: find a travel agent to purchase plane tickets to fly to Delhi and get on a train for the short 1 hour ride to the beach.  This whole experience was incredibly frustrating.  Our guidebook maps were wrong at just about every turn, and we never did find any of the three travel agents listed in it.  We finally stumbled
into a place where we were the only customers, and it still took more than one hour to purchase the tickets (lots of paper work!?!?). 

All this time walking around the town was also an experience as it was super hot, we were sweating like crazy, there were no real pedestrian friendly places to walk on the road, it was seriously smoggy and the air felt kind of oppressive to breath, every car was honking simultaneously with the loudest horns you have ever heard.  And every few feet or so was a giant hole in the ground, so you had to keep watching where you were walking so you didn't end up falling down.  

We finally made it to the train station and Todd purchased the only tickets available (in unreserved 2nd class) for the 1-hour ride to the beach.  The tickets were extremely cheap (like $1 each), and now we know why.  Unreserved second class is like a mini version of my personal hell on earth.  Personal space is something that I am learning that I really value, and I like to have at least 1 foot around my entire body without anyone touching me.  People in India don't have the same personal space needs, and are quite comfortable leaning against you.  We got on the train about an hour before it departed to make sure that we had space for our packs, and felt quite lucky to get two of the individual seats near the window, instead of on the long benches which would surely become very crowded as the departure time approached.  Anyway, the train was very hot, and people kept piling on (there is no limit to the number of tickets they sell in second class).  By the time we left, the car was wall to wall people, a woman had asked me to scoot over to share my single seat with her (which was tiny and I said NO!), and another woman stood in between my legs with her arms one inch from my face leaning across me (mental image: stinky armpits in face) to steady herself by holding on to the wall.  Her sari was made of some thick sweaty material that was stuck to my leg for the whole ride. We finally got to the beach, I was a bit exasperated, and we had a difficult time finding a guesthouse that had rooms available (it is high season here).  We finally settled on this place off the beach that had an elephant chained up in the lot across the dirt road. This is the point when I started to have the melt down.... Can you blame me??

All the hassle was worth it because it is so cute here!  For the last 5 days we have been hanging out in the beach town of Varkala, which is really relaxed and feels like a little oasis in all the fray that is India.  The town is on a 100ft cliff above the beach and is dotted with tons of cute cafes, restaurants and shops geared towards the backpacker crowd.  Beach umbrella rental for the whole day is a bargain at $3, and all the fresh fruit you can imagine is offered to you every 10 minutes by nice (but persistent) ladies walking the beach.  

Anyway, I was a bit concerned how Kristen would deal with all of the madness, but so far she seems okay.  Then again, we did pick her up from the airport with a driver and brought her straight to one of the nicer guesthouses at the beach....
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