When You’re Down, Someone Will Rescue You

I’m going to die here. Perish in a steamy room that smells like an open sewer, in a city planned by schizophrenics, in a hotel where the only scenery next door is a junkyard for defunct cars.

I opened my eyes, staring at the ceiling fan whirring above.

I survived SARS in Vietnam.

I emerged unscathed from a dengue fever outbreak in Brazil.

H1N1 never came knocking.

I can’t shake this.

After my birthday, it reappeared. The burning hotness on the back of my neck. The fissures forming on my arm.  Dammit, it was time to do something.

But when you’re alone in an unknown country, sometimes you freeze.

I didn’t know what to do.  I come off brazen, an impulsive adventurer who gets on that boat with no lifejacket or hang-glides even though she gets vertigo.

Nah, this time I was scared.

Nothing was right.  By now, I should be in Rishikesh, not waffling in Agra.  By April, I wanted to be in either Sri Lanka or Thailand.  It’s now March 31.

The blog is suffering.  Who has time to craft words under duress?  Shit, no.

Back to panic mode, I did what I know how to do best.  Decided to leave.

I was supposed to stay at a Mystique Moments in Delhi earlier in March, but that got nixed because my Scottish travel companion convinced me to stay in the horrible Pahar Ganji area.  Sure, it’s central.  If you can endure tout after tout badgering you non-stop.

I remember the owner of Mystique oozing with niceness from his previous emails.  I recall his guesthouse being far, far away from skinny Indian boys trying to sell me stuffed tigers.

I emailed him, begging for a room that day, saying I was in pain and needed some medical care in Delhi. Oh, and could you answer in the next half hour before check-out closes in on me?

He replied with only having a queen available and the cost is 1,200 rupees.

My heart plummeted.

I typed: 600 is the most I can do.

He replied back.  No problem.  What matters is getting you healthy.  I know some good doctors here.

And you know why he does?  He is one.  Retired.  And Hostel World gives Dr. Malik’s former practice, now guesthouse an 80% rating.

Tears came.  Maybe it was relief.  Just a reaction to the stinging on my neck or side effects from those weak ass antibiotics I’ve been popping.

I packed up lightening fast, paid my standing hotel bill, lined up a driver to Delhi, because dealing with the train was out of the question.

Just when I felt cornered on all sides, wondering if I paid too much for the car, sucking back worry, my driver turned to me.

“You need anything. Tea, water.. I will stop and we can take our time. “ He is a man of girth, so was his smile.  Broad and welcoming.

When we did stop, he paid for my tea, refusing to take payment when I pressed some rupees into his hand.

He weaved seamlessly, skimming past tractors pushing us against medians, even illegal oncoming cars – our headlights nearly dancing with theirs.  He showed me acres of farmland with thatch huts. A Sikh temple.  A Hindu temple the color of snow, so grand it was tempting to snap pictures. My angry body advised against it.

He handed me a ratty notebook, I didn’t know why.  Inside were glowing reviews from travelers all over the world.  Handwritten, wishing him a happy life, many thanks, with email address tagged on.  This one-man show has driven people as far as Varnasi, as close as Agra.

His name is Balbir and I like him.

I grew drowsy, relaxing a little. The last images before drifting off was the transparency of the blue sky, how impressed I was with the attractive landscaping planted in the median.  This is what runs through an ill person’s mind. Skies and concrete.

Four hours on the Agra-Delhi highway, one hour getting through the city and some mobile calls for directions, we finally found Mystique tucked in Pitampura.

A guesthouse employee stood on the street waiting to take my stupidly large backpack.  I almost crumbled against him with gratitude.

My driver offered his number in case I needed him in a pinch.  I took it happily.  We parted, shaking hands.

By now, my bloody neck was fully throbbing and I was dog-tired.

I climbed a steep staircase and entered Dr. Malik’s office.  He’s a compact man with gray hair, glasses and a rotund belly.  Not the grotesque kind, where your instinct is to censure or look away.  I wanted to poke it affectionately.  A cell phone hung from his neck, which you could easily mistake for a toy.  His smooth, round face lacked any tension. A face you can rely on.

He immediately asked if I was alright.  I blubbered, finally sobbing out the last breath of my tale.

He told me to relax, taking his toy mobile, using a magnifying glass to punch in the numbers.  It was beyond cute.

Within two hours, I had a bed to sleep in, a doctor’s appointment with his med school buddy, and stronger, smarter drugs at a chemist stall down the street.

Yes!  I made it.

But, I couldn’t do it alone.

Solo travelers always gotta prove something.  That we’re indestructible.  That, golly gee, we don’t need anyone.

Sometimes we do.

It’s okay to ask for help.  To let a hand reach out or a smile reassure you.

It’s that feeling of being taken care of.

We all need it.  It shows keenly the interconnectedness of everyone on this planet, bucking culture or the strangeness of a place.

The world is truly small, the human heart big.

By |March 31st, 2011 |Categories: Life, New Delhi |50 Comments

Cultural Idiocy – Water 101 in India

Water is water, correct?  Think again.  Water protocol can vary from country to country.  Find out India’s methodology:

If you want to view this video on YouTube, or watch other Nomadic Chick videos, access my channel directly.

By |March 27th, 2011 |Categories: Travel Tips |12 Comments

The Taj, Agra Fort and Birthdays

Yesterday was my birthday, a significant one, too.

I’ve never actually revealed my age on this site, mainly because it pains me to be pigeonholed.  I do act stupidly young or stupid at times; why not leave the age question blank?

March 21, 2011, marks a turning point in my life.

Ready?  This chick just turned 40.  Gasp!!

40 is ancient.  To a 20 year old.  40 means I forget more years than I remember.  Supposedly.

Categorize me now.  Love it, I hope.  Or maybe you knew all along?  I fooled nobody.

On this auspicious birthday, I treated myself to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort.  Seeing the Taj has been a dream of mine for over ten years. Did it measure up to this birthday girl’s expectations?

Taj Mahal

I woke at an ungodly hour to touch the spiritual.  4:30!  I complain about sleep a lot, yet you’ve got to understand.  Cougars need their rest to prowl young boys at night.

I was the first tourist to arrive at the west gate, vaguely wondering if there weren’t many coming.  Agra is a confused city.  A jaunt down the street will tell you how.  Merchant stalls, abandoned cars, a pile of tires, then a HOTEL!  Off to the side, in an alley, usually fashioned from a smelly apartment building about to be condemned.  That’s Agra.

So, I hadn’t seen any foreigners.

Only thing worth snapping before dawn

By 6:15, the ticket window opened.  I peered behind me and there they were. Foreigners multiplying like a locust hive.

Ticket prices are not budget-minded.  750 rupees for foreigner entry, equals to $16.00 CDN.  The ticket window guy will also sell you entry to Agra Fort, 50 rupees off!  That sounded good, so I agreed. Somehow 50 rupees off amounts to paying a final 1,000 for both.

Uh, think I was just duped.  I wore my salwar that day, but this pushed me to picture stripping it off and yelling in protest!  I come to your country, wear your clothes, and you rip me off??! Truth was this great Indian couple I spent Holi with encouraged me to scam back, by standing in the ‘Indians only line’.  Apparently, I look very similar to north-eastern Indians.  This explains the salwar.  When it came to buying though, I chickened out.  My Hindi is far too non-existent to pull a ruse of this magnitude.

Taj in background, birthday girl up front

It was pushing towards dawn by the time staff let us through what I call cow gates.  I had forgotten there would be security and a search through people’s bags.  Being second in line, for sure I would score a shot without pesky people in the way.

A security woman in a faded brown uniform stirred the contents of my bag, pulling out two items that were a no-no.  A whistle and my Swiss army knife.  Okay, fair call on the knife, but a whistle?  Did not understand that one.  Maybe she was afraid I would blow it at rude travelers.  And she would be right.  She demanded I venture outside the gate and submit them to a deposit locker.  My place in line just dwindled.  No way. I wanted that shot.

I did what any girl would.  Use sympathy.

“Can’t you just keep it here?  Please???  It’s my birthday today.”

She softened.  “I keep for you.  Have a nice birthday.”  Whee!  I’m in.

Speechless

I did lose, because a few visitors already sprinted ahead of me to catch a silent Taj.  Guidebooks say you have 10 to 20 seconds to catch that shot.

With that near disaster, I managed to get some decent shots.  What angered me is how long staff delayed entry.  Sunrise was already upon us and I longed to see it as the day began.

The Taj is downright breathtaking.  The exterior, that is.   As a commoner all her life, I was propelled into the past.  I became a peasant girl hauling potatoes on an overworked donkey who took a wrong turn and discovered paradise on earth.  This harkens back to fantasies of a peasant girl meeting her prince.  It could happen right there.  On the lawn of the Taj.

One of four minarets

The marble shimmered from salmon to gold to eggshell white as the last vestiges of night gave way to daylight.  As you witness it come alive, you don’t feel anything negative.  You drink in perfection, which is what so many of us strive for, sometimes all our lives.

Then I realized, hey, this is a mausoleum.  Princes don’t fall in love with peasant girls; they are buried here.  It’s that kind of paradise.

On the birthday side, the irony is not lost one me, entering a dead king’s tomb.  Many guidebooks revealed that Shah Jahan was actually a vain man who feared the afterlife more than he loved ol’ Mumtaz Mahal.

Mosque or masjid

Maybe this is what Shah hoped to capture.  His immortality in a single, impenetrable structure that has stood much longer than he lived.  We chase down aging, afraid of growing soft.

Not me.  40 means it’s never too late.

The detail as you walk towards the building is astounding to the naked eye.  A patchwork of intricate marble work, delicate lines of calligraphy by Abd ul-Haq is song through words.  The scale left me drowning in wonder, quiet and breathless.

Full frontal view

Honestly, the gravity of Taj is staggering; sometimes it’s best to close your eyes momentarily before devouring more.

I met a lovely French Canadian guy who joined me on this birthday expedition.  He pinned me at 27.  I almost kissed him.  As standard, we couldn’t snap photos inside, but Google can satiate your curiosity.  Some tourists did break that rule, clicking away near the exit.  One even caressed the Pietra dura jali inlay in quite an erotic manner.  Yikes.

Close-up of exterior

The interior is what disappointed me. I know how silly that sounds.  Obviously, the main attraction are the tombs. I was sad that many of the other corridors were cut off.  There is a basement entrance that has been sealed since 2000 due to security reasons.  The minarets are closed to the public.  I know this is about preservation, blah, blah, blah.

I wanted more.  And came up with an uneven octagon that goes around in a circle.  As suddenly as you enter, you have to leave.

Golden light

Not sure what I expected inside, the inlay work stuns you, the tombs elevate a resting place to the highest aesthetic ideal.

Just more meat, I suppose.

Correct me if I’m wrong, at one time a ticket entry would allow multiple visits, it also use to be free on Fridays.

These days you have a limited amount of time to explore a powerful place.

Gateway to the Taj Mahal

I’m grateful to have seen it, but overall the interior and ticket price takes away from the experience.  And the stickler fact that I was denied a sunrise viewing did not impress me.

Nupur, my Holi friend said her father grew up in Agra and use to play cricket on the grounds in his youth.  Back then, the Taj was not surrounded by stone walls, but open to all.  Imagine that?  I wish some of that spirit still existed.

Now, I’m speaking as a regular traveler.  For my birthday?  It was just the right kind of gift.

Agra Fort

After a rest at my hotel, Agra Fort was next.  It hadn’t dawned on me that Agra Fort served an array of functions.  Security, home, vault, and a gathering place for the Moghul court.  I wound through palace after palace, and every single one would trump the last one.

Exterior

I’ve always been partial to architecture of this nature, be it Moghul or Byzantine.  The domes, minarets, all capture that sensation of being close to creation, which is the intention.

Simply put, Agra Fort was stunning.  I saw more examples of Moghul architecture than I probably ever will.

3-D example of Moghul architecture

At 94 acres I only saw a fraction of the property and what I did see was beyond satisfactory.

You get a sense of how they lived.  A world filled with debaucheries, holy tenets and ostentatious demands give birth in your imagination as you tour each palace.  There are mosques, halls for the odd harem or two, bedrooms overlooking pools, and a moat.

Princess for the day: Throne of Jaha

Once you reach the upper areas, a clear view of the Yamuna river and the Taj Mahal materialize.  The Yamuna was once considered holy waters.  Today it is dried up, taken over by swampy sludge.  Use your cognitive powers: half-shut your eyes, concentrate, and you will see the water gushing past.  Even hear it.

My ticket cost 250 rupees and thankfully, security was lax.  No hinderance this time.

Moat overlooking Yamuna River

I may be stoned for this, Agra Fort stretches and delivers a bit more than the Taj Mahal, giving the average commoner a glimpse into royalty at it’s most genius.

Go! It is worth weaving through aggressive touts and the crowds.

Shah Jahan’s bedroom. Gold!

That was one hell of a birthday.  Wonder where I should celebrate number 41?

Where was the best place you spent your birthday?  Exotic locale or not!

By |March 22nd, 2011 |Categories: Agra |31 Comments

Holi is About People, Not Place

Holi started with an invitation and ended with a laugh.

I knew there was something special about Viral and Nupur when I observed them on the train to Agra.

At first, they fooled me; he wore western clothes, a typical t-shirt and pants that an avid hiker might choose.  Her salwar sung with earth tones, an array of colors for the human eye to feast on.  I filed them away as Indian status quo.

Nupur, her father & Virul (camera smudged with Holi goodness)

Then they touched, a tender caress that only two people in love could conjure, a rarity between husband and wife in India.  They laughed, gently teasing each other.  What I saw were two equals in intelligence and mutual respect.

We shared stories during the three-hour train journey, allowing time to melt to nothing.

This primed me up – nothing is more fun than learning about someone in a certain place or time.

They married last June – arranged — yet discovered kindred spirits, falling for each other quickly.  She kept her last name.  Both work for international American companies, live in Bengaluru, and traveled to Russia last year for part business, part honeymoon.

More importantly, they invited me to spend Holi with them.  Agra is Nupur’s childhood home.  Double score.

I’ll admit it, Agra was the last place I wanted to spend Holi.  It seemed a lonely place to mark a festival.  Since volunteering, I’ve felt spent.  Even slightly lost on what to do with myself; life itself.

But a smile, an invitation can alter your feelings about wandering for the sake of wandering.

Holi smiles

I knew I found some friends.

Today I woke to see what Holi held.  I called from the front desk exclaiming ‘Happy Holi’ into Nupur’s ear.  She gave directions to her home and urged me to hurry, for they were waiting for me.

The rickshaw ride there buzzed with citizens on their scooters covered in tribal colors.  All the stores were closed.  A grinning boy threw colored water at the rickshaw’s front window.  We yelped, laughing in surprise.  I poked my head out to snap pics.

A rainbow

I had little clue what my driver said as he spoke excitedly in Hindi, only that he was enjoying the day.

In this dusty, nonsensical town of crumbling construction, electronics stores where cows take naps, location played no part.  People did.

Took us a while to find Nupur’s house, but when we did, I entered the gate wearing something completely impractical, late as usual.

Hee.. me

Instead of disapproval, a mixture of blue, green, and red powder met my face.  It’s easy to crack a smile through war paint of happiness.  A sensation of baking powder tickled my skin, then a small sting trying to open my eyes to the noonday sun.

I was promptly lent a ginormous salwar, because a wet t-shirt contest was on the agenda.

The wet look

Viral’s brother from Delhi joined in, head hoser for the main event.  He sprayed us, unleashing the giggles in me.

We took cups of water, flicking it at each other.  We smeared colors on Nupur’s father, a respected radiologist.  Near the end, soaking, jaw muscles slack from laughter, I remembered what Holi means for Hindus.

When Prahlad showed unwavering devotion to Lord Vishnu, he emerged from the fire-trap set by Holika unscathed,this meant the defeat of good over evil.

Warriors of happiness

That’s the official story; I liked Viral’s explanation.  It has been said Krishna was the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu and relished in pranks on the village girls.  Soon these pranks spread to all the villagers.

Viral pared it down, calling these pranks ‘joy’.

Fun is not overrated

After a sound scrubbing, lunch was served with my faves, puri and a homemade pickle mix.  I also tried fermented beet juice for the first time.  It’s a sour concoction, but full of the salty goodness I adore.

There we were, gathered together.  Foreigner and Indian family.  For one day, I was part of them.

You know what?  Joy rocks the house.

You can also click my flickr stream to check out the full Holi gallery.

By |March 20th, 2011 |Categories: Agra, Culture |15 Comments

Avoiding Scams at an Indian Railway Station

I sailed into Delhi two days ago to finally escape my Goa misery, and ended up sharing a pasable room in Pahar Ganji, across from the New Delhi Railway Station.

Delhi swelled with Holi madness as female foreigners got doused with plastic bag water balloons yesterday.  For some reason, many were aimed at my arse.  Dirty birds.

It was time to get outta the hotbed of Delhi and onto Agra.  I hauled my packs to the New Delhi Station at a sobering hour when the only humans awake were chai wallahs.

You always prepare yourself for who might hoodwink you, but I was still surprised.

Let me give you the lowdown:

They Lie

I decided to compare train ticket prices from New Delhi to Agra at the travel agent attached to my hotel.  The proprietor seemed like a decent guy, offering my Scottish friend and I a clean room with a scalding hot shower for 600 per night.  When it came to booking a train ticket, he balked and claimed there were no trains to Agra, citing some demonstration was blocking the lines.  He then slid across a receipt for a bus ticket to the tune of 500 RS, a signal for me to pay up.

Truth: Agra trains leave every hour from Delhi and lines are never blocked unless a major disaster happens.  Take note of distance when booking trains or buses.  There is no way Delhi to Agra would cost 500 RS, more like 140 to 250 RS (depends on method of travel).  I found out after there is a demonstration at one of the lines, but not the one I wanted.  I’d call his methodology sprinkling the truth with lies.

They Lie Again

After dinner one night we walked back to our hotel and got stopped by a man hovering in front of the train ticket reservation center.  He tried to put the scare into us by stating we should book tickets now because the booking office will be closed during Holi.

Truth: Indian Railways never closes on holidays.  People depend on them to be running in order to visit family during holidays.

Misdirection

I had filled out my reservation request, was about to join the line to buy a ticket when two touts approached.  They pointed to an area around the building and said that’s where I had to buy my tickets, not where I was standing.  “Oh yes miss, you need to buy at windows 65 and 66.”  Hmmm.. around the building??  I sure wondered why the window in front of my face said “reservation”.

Truth: After hassling me twice, I promptly told them to piss off, that I wasn’t born yesterday, and know they don’t work for Indian Railways.  This scam is a tout trying to get you to their office and separate a good chunk of rupees from your money belt.  Don’t fall for it!

Traveler’s Reservation Center

Indian Railways created a tourist quota, setting aside a certain number of tickets for foreigners to purchase.  This area is a usually a separate office upstairs or downstairs at a train station.  Forigners aren’t charged extra for tickets, unless you go through a travel agent, but the ques are excessively long and the procedure complicated.  Not to mention segregating you from the fascinating process of buying a train ticket.

Truth: Okay, the traveler’s reservation center is not a scam, but I managed to buy tickets at the general counter.  I simply filled out a form  and stood in line with locals.  I didn’t have to show my passport, be asked insignificant questions or sign a form in blood.  Going early helps to beat the lines if you decide to avoid buying at the reservation center.

  • Read The Planet D’s post on common scams you will encounter.
  • Check the Internet for reports on rail lines closing or bonafide delays.  I ask around.  I usually find shopkeepers are pretty honest.  Check info with a real tourist office, not just a travel agent.
  • Two great sites to check rail times or get advice:  Make My Trip or India Mike.

It seems like all my posts lately on India are negative, but after encountering this I felt awful for those travelers who might get sucked into one of these.  The frustration you swim in afterwards can color your feelings about a country.

Indian rail travel is an experience not to be missed, knowing what to expect is half the battle.

Photo: Wilson Loo

By |March 19th, 2011 |Categories: New Delhi, Travel Tips |18 Comments

Traveler’s Bad Luck in 5 Easy Steps

#1 Sickness

The tally: two bouts of traveler’s diarrhea, one crater on my arm, pestilent boils on the back of my neck and face.  When you own a travel website the worst thing you could do is rant about it zoned out on antibiotics.  Oh wait, it’s me and that’s what I do.

#2 Theft

Do you ever feel trapped in a David Lynch film?  One day I woke to discover a dwarf dancing in the kitchen.  Replace dwarf with a toothless Indian man clutching a cloth saying “I here to clean”.  He sashayed into my room, I shooed him out.  He glided into the spare room thinking we were going to play Catch the Intruder.  Instead of Special Agent Dale Cooper, Christine burst in with a baby on her hip, not a gun, began pointing at him in staccato.  “What are you doing in here?  You’re not supposed to be here.  You can’t just come in here.  Go!!”  Took her two times to make him understand ‘out’.  I channeled Laura Palmer’s homecoming photo, watching this scene with benign detachment.  It wasn’t until the aftermath that I noticed my iPhone had vanished from the kitchen table.  Since then, I eye any toothless, Indian man with suspicion, wondering if he’ll pull out a neon pink iPhone.

#3 Accidents

Back to drugs, really refrain from operating any type of vehicle. It may seem effortless, even cool to zip around on a scooter with glee because you paid 150 rupees instead of the normal 250.  As you smugly enjoy that feeling of fleecing someone, coupled with drugs, bad shit can happen.  In my case, it was a loaned scooter.  I tried to speed through a gate where I’m staying and smashed the housing device for those itty-bitty important things called lights.  You, too, can waste your travel budget by paying 1,600 rupees, plus labor to cover your mistakes.  I now take that whole PSA with the sizzling egg in a pan seriously.

#4 Injury

Spontaneous splits happen when you mop in flip-flops, then step on a polished tile floor and realize that your legs are sliding far, far apart. Not the fun kind of ‘apart’ that involves a naked man and a condom.  The wincing kind.  The inevitable arrives when you yelp in pain the second your big toe crushes against a ridiculously high ledge of a doorway. Blood spurts, cursing, then assessment that the injury is on the side of your toe, leaving you wondering how the hell walking will ever be stable again.  And what is it with those Mount Everest sized curbs between bedrooms and bathrooms in India?

#5 Lost, Not Found

Let’s blame all of this on meds.  Really. My generous hosts lent me mobile broadband Internet free.  Just look after the broadband stick, no problem!   The day I went to Calungate to purchase my own, somehow, my friend’s stick leaped out of my laptop bag and hurled itself into the black hole of Goa.  Price tag for this?  A mere 2,500 rupees later.  Shhh.  I heard something.  Yup, that was the sound of Indian rupees leaving my pocket.

You would think these incidents come in three’s.  My mojo conjures quantum bad luck.  It just grows exponentially.  Go ahead, laugh.  It’s tragic, comedic, and bound to happen to all of us.

What shades of bad luck did you encounter on your travels?

Photo: nyoin

By |March 14th, 2011 |Categories: Goa, Life |37 Comments
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