Monthly Archives: February 2011

South Korea: Year One (Part II of II)

About Jeju Island > Work > Year One Impressions: The Good, The Bad, The Compromise > Looking Forward

About Jeju Island

Cherry blossom season in April.

Ah, Jeju. You’re like a cute, sweet girlfriend who doesn’t understand why I wouldn’t want garlic in my cornflakes every morning. That’s pretty much literal and a metaphor at the same time.

You can read the basic facts about Jeju here. This was our first impression before living here. The island has a long history, and a lot of rich local culture that is better explained on that page.

Jeju is widely known throughout Asia as a “honeymoon island.” Also sometimes called “The Hawaii of Korea,” though Hawaiians who live here tend to disagree. It is a frequent destination for newlyweds or vacationers from Japan and China, not only because of its scenery, but also because of its large golf culture and many courses. Jeju considers itself international, but they’re not quite there yet. I’ll elaborate later. Because of its status as a destination for honeymooners, there are many tourist-related museums, many of which are merely elaborate shops that call themselves museums. They range in everything from chocolate to film to teddy bears to sex. Jeju Loveland, a walk-through theme park, is famous for its suggestive statues and sexual imagery, and is a stark contrast to the otherwise extremely conservative Korean culture where showing even a little cleavage is frowned upon. From what younger locals tell me, this conservatism is especially predominant here on the island, and may change in a generation. Which rings true for locations the rest of the world over; areas more isolated from major cities tend to be more conservative and behind in ever-changing social customs.

If I had to compare Jeju to anywhere I’ve lived, I would say the closest fit is St. John’s, Newfoundland. Although there are more differences than similarities, both are on an island, both have fishing communities, and both are small enough to be comfortable, but small enough to lack certain things as well.

Maria and I live in Jeju-si, which means Jeju City. It is the main city on the island, and there is a smaller city on the south coast called Seogwipo (pronounced ‘soggy-poh’.) Both cities have their charm, though Seogwipo is considerably smaller. Jeju City has about 400,000 people, and Seogwipo has about 150,000. There are other smaller towns scattered around the island, notably in the East and West.

A foggy day on one of the island’s many hiking trails, near Seogwipo.

The island itself can be driven around easily in a day. The culture – language and food- varies from east to west, north to south, and there are even some places on the island where people live traditional lives, not unlike the Amish. We hope to visit this village sometime this summer if we get our own transportation.

The city of Jeju is broken into two parts (link to Jeju City on Google Maps) – the old city (“Gu-Jeju,”) and the new city (“Shin-Jeju.”) We live in Shin-Jeju, though most of the nightlife occurs in Gu-Jeju. To take a taxi from one to the other costs about the equivalent of 5 Canadian dollars. The cost of the same ride in Toronto would be about 15 dollars.

In the city there are a few places that foreigners like to hang out. The first, without question, is The Factory. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s NYC Factory art loft, the walls are decorated with Warhol-inspired artistic themes. The owner is a Korean woman about my age, who is originally from Jeju but has spent a considerable time off the island. Her English is great and she has no problem mingling with the many foreigners who hang out at The Factory. It’s a good venue for live music or DJ’s, and it’s always a good time. The only drawback, as anywhere, is the thick smoke that concentrates in the room by midnight.

Maria rockstars it up at The Factory

There is also a newer place called Jane’s Groove (we call it Zain’s Groove, after Zain the guitarist in Dangerpants.) It’s also a cozy second-story bar/dance club with an owner that speaks great English. Equipped also with good sound and good DJ gear, the only problem (other than the smoke) is that the same DJ is always there, and he tends to play the same set night after night.

That reminds me of St. John’s.

Also, like in St. John’s, Koreans love to hear the songs that they know. They will listen to other things, but they won’t be that interested. If they hear fist-pumping pop jams like “Sex on the Beach” or that “I Got A Feeling” Black Eyed Peas song, or worst yet – Korean pop – they all jump up and dance. If you play anything just as dance worthy that they’re not familiar with, they don’t respond. It’s a challenge for any DJ to play anything other than the stock dozen songs that are popular at any given time.

Other hang outs include Club Ai, a proper all-night club in Shin-Jeju. Philip DJ’s there frequently, but it has been closed down for over a month now due to a landlord dispute. Bad, bad news for an island with little in the way of all-night dance clubs.

There is also a place right on the water called Haebyon Concert, which is an incredibly comfortable place with many couches, a stage, and a proper sound set up. It’s the most ideal place for live shows and we (the foreigners) have open mic shows there every couple of months. Due to its location on the coastal road, it’s not an “all-the-time” place to hang out. But I love going there, because when you’re onstage you have, behind the audience, a fully windowed wall that reveals the well-lit shoreline , and you can watch the tide crashing in on the black volcanic rocks while you’re rocking out onstage. It’s also fantastic because for some reason, everyone goes outside to smoke. The inside almost never gets too smoky.

There are also a couple of other bars that foreigners frequent, but I almost never go there. They are underground, so they are just about as polluted with cigarette smoke as you can possibly imagine.


Jeju is brilliant for its beaches. With about 13 main beaches around the island, you can take your pick on any given day where you might like to go. The closest one is about ten minutes away by cab (or an hour on foot,) but is still within the city and is known by Koreans as “the dirty beach.” Still, it’s nice enough visit for its proximity and it’s not that dirty by any standard. If anything, it’s just not as picturesque as the other beaches Jeju has to offer. Our favourite beach is about an hour away by bus, but if we get a scooter this year, that should cut the time in half.

Jungmun Beach near Seogwipo – May
Sangria on the beach? No problem.

Squid boats line the horizon

The south side has surf beaches, though the surfing is heavily monitored and you can’t take too many chances. During beach season, Korean lifeguards are incessantly vigilant about not letting people go too far out into the water. Perhaps they know something about the currents that we don’t, but at some beaches, if the waves are hitting your waist, you’re in too deep and will get called out.

At our favourite beach, swimming is not a problem. The bottom tapers out for a long distance, so it’s often enjoyed by many families during beach season, which is basically July and part of August. Koreans will not go to the beach unless it is within the given weeks of beach season. And when it’s not designated beach season, why would anyone go to the beach? They also cover themselves head to toe, and will swim in wide visors and long-sleeved shirts to avoid even the slightest bit of a sun tan. Where in the West we want to be tanned, it is generally ideal all across Asia to be white as porcelain.

At many of the beaches you can snorkel and see many exotic fish. We haven’t done that yet, but will do it this summer. For a reasonable annual price you can also join the boating club, and use small 2-person boats or a catamaran to hang out with your friends all day on the water.

Maria, trying to drown me as usual, off a friend’s catamaran
Enjoying the icey cold mountain spring water of Donnaeko

Hallasan (Mt. Halla)

Hallasan is the central peak of Jeju island. It’s the tallest peak in South Korea. It’s also a dead volcano. Jeju Island is a volcanic island about 2 million years old, so just about anywhere you go you can find the distinct bubble rock (porous basalt) associated with volcanoes. Most things here are made from this rock, just as many things in Greece are made from local marble. Sidewalks, street curbs, bricks, stone fences.

Hallasan has an elevation of almost 2,000 meters. It is a ubiquitous specter anywhere you go on the island, rising up in the haze or disappearing into thick layers of clouds. Last year during Cheusok (the Koran equivalent to Thanksgiving,) we decided to climb Halla. Knowing it would take a full day, we set out in the morning and took the eastern route up.

We got to the top by lunch time. It had only taken three hours. At this elevation, what had been a warm fall day below had turned into a cold, misty breeze up in the clouds. At times the fog was thick, making it almost impossible to catch a view of the crater and the lake that sits atop it. At one point we heard a massive rush and “AAAHHHS!” as the crowd sitting at the top ran to the fence to look down on the crater as the fog cleared for just a quick moment. Long enough to see the lake (er, pond,) but not long enough to get a photo.

The monk who lives atop the mountain.
Justin, Philip, Kent, Maria

After an hour or so we headed back down via the northern path. With much bravado and recalling regular jaunts up Signal Hill, I had tried to take Halla like it was just another 2,000 meter climb (I think Signal Hill might be a couple of hundred meters in comparison.) So the last quarter of the climb had become grueling. The descent was easier, but every step down send a jolt through my legs that kept me from going at any enthusiastic pace. What had taken a few hours to go up took another five hours to go down.

When we got back to the base we saw the last bus of the day sitting across the lot. We walked about as fast as we could, and I’m pretty sure the driver saw us. But then, as we got to about ten meters from the bus, he closed the door and drove off.

Dol hareubang (Stone Grandfathers)

Another thing that makes Jeju special are the stone statues that you will find all over the island. Exclusive to Jeju, they mean many things and you can read about them here.


Yes, they deserve caps. Because Jeju grows a lot of the food that you can get here, much of what is available in the market is seasonal. My favourite food season is orange season! It starts just before Christmas and goes up to the early spring.

Jeju has long been known for its native oranges, and most common are the delicious tangerines. You can buy about a dozen for two dollars Canadian, and the peel comes right off them like the wrapper off a candy. As you can also imagine, the local orange juice is inexpensive and way better than even Tropicana. I love the oranges here, and am currently in the process of trying to get all the ingredients to jar some for marmalade. It comes and goes too quickly, and Maria and I were hankering for them all last summer when the season ended.

Orange trees are everywhere

Gotjawal Forest

Something else that should be noted that I have not a lot of time exploring is the Gotjawal Forest. Ever since one of the adults in my English class, a doctor, told me about a breed of venomous snakes on Jeju (she had to treat a bite once, the guy lost his leg,) I have been hesitant to go exploring the forest. People assure me that there are not many of these snakes left, but knowing my track record with dangerous animals, I’m not taking that chance.


In year one I have worked in two completely different settings. My first placement was at the Foreign Language Center, mentioned in the previous post. According to Ms. Kang, there was a lot to look forward to. In her words, “I think it’s better than working in a public school.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but was soon to find out.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I was teaching kids in grades 1-3, 7-8, and an advanced adult class at night. I had three classes most days, with the adult class two nights a week. Mondays there were no classes, and they could be used to prepare lesson plans. Even on the days where I did have classes, we didn’t see any kids until 3pm, and were done by 6. That meant six hours of waiting for students to show up, so there was a lot of prep time, and a lot of nice, quiet privacy in my own classroom.

The prep time was great because each class had different skill levels. That meant even though I was only teaching about 14 hours a week (we are contracted for 22,) I still had to have about 14 lessons prepared per week. A lot of these lessons consisted of using games around a central lesson, but there was no set curriculum to be taught. For experienced teachers, that might have been a great deal, but at first it left me lost as to what I should even teach. There were some loose guidelines as to what each level should know, so I used those until I got to know the kids, and got a little more creative with my lessons.

During that time I made a few short videos.

Vocabulary Game (video)

Any teacher of children can tell you that they usually have the class trained to respond to some sort of key phrase or chant in case of too much talking, so that you can get the class back in order. In my case…

Blah blah (video)

And although the educational value is questionable, it’s fun to sometimes teach them things just for your own amusement.

Can I get a what what? (video)

Some class assignments:

Students made English-speaking sock puppets
Older students got to make a class English word mosaic of our Language Center

The job wasn’t without its headaches. When Kathryn and Jane left, we were short of teachers for some time, which meant that the other teachers had to pick up the slack. It was also a challenge at times to work with the administration in a logical manner. I won’t get into those details because it frustrates me recall them, but I remember one particular thing that sort of sealed my desire to switch positions.

Maria, being at a public school, had specific times to take her vacation, which unfortunately didn’t coincide with my schedule, since I worked at a special language center that didn’t adhere to the regular school schedule. So there was never a time that she and I could take vacation together. (Which baffled me as to why they’d do this. Maria and I applied together, as a couple on the same application, so it didn’t require any amount of thought to surmise that we might want a similar vacation schedule.) For so many weeks of the summer I was not permitted to take a week off because of something that was going on at the Center (even when there were no classes scheduled,) and quite often that something was having to show my face in an assembly for 15 minutes so that all the parents could get a brief look at the foreign teachers. On at least two occasions I had to sit in an empty classroom for 8 hours a day, all week, only to show my face for 15 minutes on a Friday morning. That’s why I couldn’t take vacation.

In the end, Maria and I got three days out of eight off together in the summer, so we went to Seoul because that’s about as far as we could go with the time.

Surprise! The Summer Contract Shakeup

In July we found out that due to the type of work visa each of us was working under, we were legally supposed to be working with a co-teacher. There were no co-teachers in our classrooms at the Center. So as a result, we would have to renew our contract immediately if we wanted to stay at the Language Center, and under the new contract, the administrative head would be serving as a “co-teacher.” It was just administrative hokey-pokey.

Since this was my first contract (as it was for the majority of those being given this ultimatum,) we would lose out on 6 months worth of severance pay (about $1000) and switch our annual contract period from March – February to September – August. This posed a few problems. In short:

– I would lose out on severance pay by abandoning any recognition of the first 6 months I had worked.

-It would put me on a completely alternate contract period from Maria, and effectively a different vacation schedule.

-I still had no guarantees (based on our previous ‘vacation’) that I was going to ever get time off with Maria if I stayed.

There is a lot more detail to what went on at this time, but I won’t bore you with it. At the end of the day, it was a messed up situation that offered the teachers nothing for all that they had to give, except for the ability to continue on in the same job. Despite having settled in, it hardly seemed worth it.

As it turned out, the decision to switch schools was the best decision I could have ever made.

It’s her initials

Jung Ang Middle School

Any apprehension I may have felt about switching schools was quickly thrown aside. As I began to think about switching, I received word that a teacher was leaving (remember Maria’s capoeira instructor who left?) and that he had really enjoyed his school and working relationships. It sounded like a hot lead. I put the request in, and the POE graciously helped me get the position. I was one out of only two teachers who had decided to not take the new contract offer. All of the other teachers working at Foreign Language Centers around the island had just accepted the deal for the ease of staying in the same place.

I ended up with a better deal by all accounts. My new co-teacher had worked at the POE and the Foreign Language Center, and knew her way around the administrations. Her English was great and she was incredibly reasonable. (In the last year I have found and learned from many others that reason and logic cannot be taken for granted in the work setting.) Having a great co-teacher in these positions can really make or break your experience. They can make your life pleasant, or they make your life very inconvenient. It is a huge factor when entering a new job, as most foreign teachers in Korea will agree.

By going to this new school, I only had to work in one school (many teachers work in 2 or 3 or more, and have to travel a lot.) The new school was a Middle School, meaning the kids were a little older and a little more relatable than the smaller kids I’d been teaching. And the icing on the cake; it was ten minutes walk from my apartment.


Almost every teacher working in Korea works with a co-teacher. And that can mean many different things.

Every co-teacher is different. Some want to share the teaching duties evenly. Some want to dominate the class and occasionally have you repeat something in your ‘ideal’ foreign English.

Some, as in my case, are happy with being present in the class while you do the instructing.

I had one main (takes care of the administration) co-teacher who was also named Ms. Kang, but could not be more different than the previous Ms. Kang. Same name, much different game. I really cannot give enough praise to adequately tell you how amazing she has been. My time at the new school has been fantastic thanks to her. She is reasonable, understanding, and takes foreign teachers’ needs and concerns into actual consideration. Not only that, she will actually give you what you need or want if it’s remotely possible, instead of just giving you some malarkey about how it’s just not possible to have vacation because… you have to show your face for 15 minutes on Friday morning or something.

The job of the co-teacher is to manage the class, to oversee the room and to provide any discipline necessary. It can be extremely helpful in classes that have 40+ students. And when they are young teenagers as in my classes, co-teachers can stem a lot of general chaos that can easily ensue. Until this year, teachers carried large wooden sticks, and might bash misbehaving students on the hand or backside. I have seen whole rows of boys be lined up and smacked down. You might think “what? That’s so arcane!” But if you have an image of Korean students being quiet and studious, you can forget it. A lot of the boys are extremely cocky and disrespectful, qualities that Korean teachers say have only become problems in recent years. I also work at a somewhat affluent school, so it’s possible that a lot of the boys are spoiled at home. Not all of them are misbehaved, but a surprising number are. (One student mistakenly said “Fuck You!” in my presence. The class quickly learned why it was a giant mistake.) In my opinion, it seems that a lot of it has to do with class size. There are 43 boys in one room, when you have 45 minutes to teach a lesson. Ten of them are five or more minutes late. Ten of them can’t say a word of English except “hello” (though they have been taught English in school for at least five years by this point.) Most of them have no interest in English. Many will not understand most things you say. You can see where the problems might start. It can be daunting until you get used to it, and teaching Middle School boys is not a job for the weak.

A portion of the first and second year Middle School boys. I taught 90% of them.

Middle School talent show – band (video)

Middle School talent show – don’t ask what this is because I have no idea (video)

For the most part, co-teachers are great. They are more like co-managers and can be a huge asset to the class if they are good teachers. I am very lucky. I have six (yes six) co-teachers, and there are only a couple of teachers for whom the students don’t seem to have respect or regard, and those classes can get way out of control. The two factors that control these large classes seem to be respect or fear. And while I always try to get their respect, I haven’t been afraid to use my lion voice when a certain contingent try to derail the class. You get to know the bad students pretty quickly, and I’ve gotten to simply removing them from the room and placing them in the main office when they get problematic. I don’t take guff from 14 year-olds.

It was always a challenge. Students and one co-teacher complained that my material was “too hard” (again I did not have a set curriculum, but could follow the text book to get some ideas,) and at times it was hard to tell what was too hard for students, and what was a general laziness or disinterest on their part. The first “too hard” lesson I had taught had come straight out of a bonus activity from the text book. When dealing with 43 boys, most things are going to be “too hard” for some. Some things will be “too easy” for a few. So continually creating lessons and materials that will be well suited for an entire class is a challenge. I lean toward not making things “too easy,” because I don’t want to play Power Point games every week and re-teach them everything they’ve been learning since the third grade. They expect simple “listen and repeat,” phrases, and to give one word answers. I expect more.

A New School Year

I have just found out that I will be splitting my time between the boy’s school and a girl’s Middle School this year. I found out from a little birdie, but the POE hasn’t actually yet told me. They will likely tell me on Monday morning, when I am supposed to be there. That’s how they often do things. Either way, I welcome the variety. Unfortunately, Ms. Kang is moving to third year (where I don’t teach) and so I will have a new administrative co-teacher. Things cannot get better than they have been, so I only hope they don’t get worse. The co-teacher that is replacing her has not been very talkative with me in the past.

I can tell you one thing, this job certainly keeps me on my toes. Trying to find creative ways to get kids interested in learning English never gets dull. In that sense, I really have a great job.

Here’s an entertaining video from Maria’s school:

Hey kids it’s Sports Day

This photo is from the Saturday school we both took on for a while (they got gingerbread men after reading the Gingerbread Man story):

The Gingerbread Man game (that’s a pretty damned cute video)

Year One Impressions: The Good, The Bad, The Compromise

Let’s try to keep this section simple. I could elaborate on a lot of what I will post here, but for the sake of brevity (ha!) I will try to keep it to point form.

The Good

-Starting a new career as a teacher. I love it.

-Being able to experience living in a foreign culture.

-Having a job during a global depression.

-Being able to save money.

-The new friends that we’ve made.

-The new interests we’ve developed.

-Being able to visit any number of beautiful beaches on the weekends, or even after work.

-Living on a sub-tropical island and everything that entails from mild winters to local fruit to beautiful summers.

-Fastest internet in the world.

-Restaurant food (though I can’t eat most of it due to garlic.) They bring you the raw, fresh food and grill it all in front of you. So delicious.

-Jeju pork. Sorry vegetarians, the black pig here is to die for.

-Jeju fish. Some of them are deeeeelicious.

-Being able to vacation twice (or three times) a year anywhere in Asia.

-Six weeks paid vacation a year.

-Contract finishing AND renewal bonuses.

-Rent is paid for by the government.

-Seoul’s subway system and price system makes Toronto’s an embarrassment.

-The cost of living is much lower than Canada:

Goods/Service Cost in Canada Cost in Korea
Transit fare (Toronto) $3 when we left 90 cents*
Cab fare (Toronto) $20 $7** (no tipping in Korea)
Restaurant Meal $20 (including tip?) $10 (no tipping in Korea)
Haircut $25 – $50 $7 – $11
Dry cleaning (pants) $5 – $7 $2
Monthly internet $60 (what I was paying) $30 (unlimited bandwidth)
Monthly mobile phone $50 – $60 (what I was paying) $25

*And you can use that fare for up to an hour in any direction.

**$2 start fee lasts for several km’s before it starts to rise in 10 cent increments.

Mmm grilled pork (they love the salty fat)

Would you like some fresh octopus? (fish market video)

The Bad

-Being a foreigner in a place that hasn’t quite adjusted to having foreigners yet. Jeju touts itself as an international tourist destination, but I don’t think they’re quite ready for the international community yet. Maybe in the next generation. English is not a problem in Seoul.

-Not speaking Korean (I will try to learn more this year. Though Jeju’s dialect is different than anywhere else in Korea.)

-As a result of both of the above, not receiving a lot of help or cooperation when you might need it in everyday life. Where can I get pectin to make some orange marmalade?!?! eBay I guess.

-Nothing really fits me or Maria on this island. We have to go to Seoul twice a year to shop.

-Garlic in everything, even breakfast. I went for dinner last night and out of every dish on the table, I could eat two. Even if you love garlic, that has to be a lot of garlic. And since it’s an oil and the smell of it comes out of your skin, Koreans frequently smell strongly of garlic. When I take the bus or walk into class it’s all I can smell, so much that sometimes my nostrils burn. What you might think is a lot of garlic there is only a little garlic here.

-The cost of luxury items. Koreans pay a lot for cell phones, TV’s, and hobby items (such as musical instruments.) These things can easily cost a minimum of 50% more than in Canada. If you thought, like me, Asia would be great for cheap electronics, you are wrong.

-Smoking in bars and just about everywhere else.

-Monoculture and the belief that the Korean way is the best way. This can lead to the rejection of outside influences, even if those influences are good. I also suspect it also has an effect on students’ ability/desire to learn English.

-K-Pop or Korean pop music. They have modeled the industry on the worst of Western pop music, and manage it tightly so that songs get a certain shelf life before the next songs and pop acts are brought in. This industry completely dominates the Korean music scene. And it is terrible.

The Compromise

-Missing the everyday things from home. Multiculturalism, movies, concerts, English, good beer. Korean beer tastes mainly like Coors Light, God help us all.

-Missing friends from home.

-Not being able to stream many CBC shows because I’m outside of the country. (I love my CBC, okay?)

-Not being able to read any of the features on my cell phone. I just want a decent ringtone!

-Coffee shops are gaining popularity here, but the cost is about $3.00 for an Americano. And then you are rolling the dice because a lot of the coffee is pure crap.

-Sugar is in most foods and snacks except for…dessert.

-Being stared at, though I know it’s far worse for the foreign women than the men.

-No cheese! Well they have “cheese” but it’s all processed and usually contains sugar. They think real cheese is horrible.

Would you like some real cheese with your plastic? Too bad.

Looking Forward

Two weeks ago we signed our new contracts, and so we are here for at least one more year. I know the current plan is to stay for at least two more years, and who knows, maybe more. Life here gets easier with time, and they say that the second year is always much easier. We have some friends who have been here for 8 years, and plan to start their family here. Korea really is the place for children. Everybody has them, and everyone else is having them. Koreans who are not married or are without children can be looked at as social outsiders. Although things are changing, even today many young Koreans are under a lot of pressure to get married and have children.

The EPIK program for whom we work has started to phase out the hire of foreign English teachers. There are likely a couple of reasons for that – the first being that on the mainland, robots have been introduced to classrooms to teach the kids English. Yes, robots. I don’t know how effective that will be in teaching an entire nation of children functional English, but that’s not up to me. Will “Listen and Repeat” teach a nation how to speak English? It should be an interesting experiment.

The second reason, as word has it, is that some in the administration feel that Korean teachers are now qualified and bilingual enough to teach English without a foreign teacher. I have mixed feelings. While some teachers truly are exceptional English speakers, the majority are questionable. Most foreign teachers will tell you that their co-teachers are coming to them with questions about English grammar and rules on a daily basis, and cannot rely entirely on what they know or what they are expected to be teaching from the text books. Which brings me to another thing – the text books. I have no idea what they think these books are teaching kids, but they seem to lack a focused, comprehensible and tangible approach to English. They focus intensely on some things (“Listen” and “Repeat” again,) but completely ignore more tactile approaches to the English language. Maybe this is why so many of them do not learn English, and don’t like it. Time will tell how effective this is, and how much of a lasting impression it makes. But ultimately, I’m not in control of Korea’s English program, and am in fact just along for the ride. I try to get away from that text book and teach them practical, survivable English in as many engaging ways as I can.

If for any reason the EPIK jobs disappear, there are always Hagwan jobs. Hagwans are private English institutions that run after-school programs, and many of our friends work at them.

This summer we are planning to travel to Indonesia, and next winter we are considering Thailand. If we get split vacations (the two separate weeks for renewing our contracts) then it’s possible we may use that to head to Russia to visit Maria’s grandmother. I keep encouraging her to visit, since I still think about my own grandparents frequently, years after they have passed on.

I would love to visit Canada again, but the distance and cost are considerable factors. If everything stays on course, the earliest I see myself visiting is the winter of early 2013. I don’t really want to visit Canada in the winter, but it is the only conceivable time that I will have any stretch of days to make such a journey worthwhile. Our summer vacations are too short to make the trip, since the Korean school year is opposite of the Western one, and summer is right in the middle of the school year.

In the meantime, I miss everyone and everything back there. I do not miss the political climate and am greatly saddened and annoyed by what has been going on since we left. I watch CBC’s The National daily, and still read Canadian news every morning and night. Based on what Stephen Harper is saying, the Canadian economy is the world’s example of success. Based on what my friends tell me, they are struggling for work and looking for any path they can take, and don’t feel like they have a lot of prospects. Where is this disparity coming from?

Stephen Harper is riding an economy that is afloat on a giant oil bubble. He champions the business of Alberta oil because it looks great on paper and masquerades his shrouded economy as a giant success. It keeps the Canadian dollar artificially high as it’s attached to oil rates, and enables him to keep his foot on the neck of serious and immediate environmental concerns. He flaunts employment rates as though his government has mended everything, when in fact full-time jobs are dying and Tim Horton’s in Alberta is hiring. I can’t even continue on the politics of Stephen Harper and what he has been up to without making an entirely different post about it. But what I see is that there is nothing for me (or many) at this moment in Canada. So here I stay with steady employment for now.

And that concludes my lengthy entry. I have many other things to be working on (another children’s story is forming in the back of the head, and I still mean to get started on the novel form of City of Necropolis,) so I am not likely to make another entry until our trip to Indonesia this summer. You can always reach me by Facebook or email… so bye for now.

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Posted by on February 25, 2011 in Life Abroad


South Korea: Year One (Part I of II)

In the last year I’ve been asked many questions about various aspects of our lives in Korea. These posts will try to serve as a reflection of the first year.

The most profound experiences I’ve had here are not at all related to work or Korean culture. That stuff seems incidental. What sticks with me most is the people I’ve met and the things that we’ve done. So I will start off these two entries with some of these experiences, followed by a second entry that will focus on the more sober lifestyle – work and cultural experiences that we’ve had here on Jeju island.

Note: In many posts, I might refer to “we” or “our.” I use these pronouns in place of “I” or “my” because although I generally speak from my own perspective, there are times when Maria and I feel the same way. On occasion, I might borrow from Maria’s comments or perspective, appropriating them here when the sentiment is mutual. So “our impressions” is an overall reflection that is generally mine, though doesn’t entirely exclude Maria’s. Or at least my impressions of them.

First impressions

The second, third and fourth entries about Korea in this blog account for our first impressions of Korea. We had left our home to live in another country, and in our first ten days of arriving we were more or less shepherded through long days of the EPIK training program. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore on our own or make a day trip anywhere. In those first ten days we were:

-Spending several hours of the day in a classroom, learning everything from how to teach to how to handle cultural differences. Our classes went from 9am to 9pm, with breaks.

-Trying to get a grasp of this new country that we had decided to call home.

-Dealing with jet lag (Seoul was 11 hours ahead of Vancouver from where we had flown.)

In a turbulent and jarring transitional state, it was great to have had EPIK taking care of everything right down to our bedroom slippers. It was the kind of structure that didn’t leave much room for panic or disorientation, and I was thoroughly impressed with Koreans’ seeming ability to organize and take care of every detail imaginable. It’s all in the previous posts. As are many photos that were taken during our first two weeks in Korea.

In a year, a lot of those first impressions have… matured. But I’ll get to that.

From here I will start as if picking up from the last entry about Korea, beginning with a bit about the people who have made some kind of impact on my sojourn so far.


I had learned that one of my neighbours was a woman who also worked at the Centre where I had been placed. The morning after we arrived, I knocked on her door to introduce myself and to bombard her with questions, but she had been sleeping. “Oh my God I was out last night”. Woops. I said I’d come back later.

In the evening we got together and talked about work and the social scene on Jeju-do. There were over a hundred foreign teachers living here, and a seemingly active social scene where they often came together at one or two of a few popular locations. I learned a lot about the new position from her, including some of the ins and outs. She gave me her impressions of our other co-workers, then asked not to let her impressions affect my judgment before meeting them.

As time went on and I started to see more of Kathryn at work and outside of work, the more I realized that she seemed to be struggling with something that I wasn’t comprehending. Her behaviour was often self-conscious, sometimes paranoid, and on occasion frantic. She was frequently involved in some kind of drama at work (she did not have a good relationship with Ms. Kang) and I politely tried to side-step involvement whenever she would talk to me about it. It didn’t stop me from being friendly with her or trying to help her with keeping things in perspective, but Kathryn’s problems were coming from some other place.

I did make it clear early on that I did not want to take part in any drama. I didn’t come here for drama, I came here to work. But as it turned out with Kathryn, there was no side-stepping the drama. She had been in Korea for three months but had made it sound like twenty years. Conflict seemed to follow her everywhere she went. She was late for work. She was sick and couldn’t come in. She had to leave work early. One time Maria came to meet me for dinner before a night class, and had asked me if Kathryn had been drinking. How could she be drinking? She’d had classes all afternoon. And yet her eyes were glassy, her speech was slurred, and she smelled like alcohol. What?

Within days the drama between Kathryn and Ms. Kang reached a critical point. Then overnight, Kathryn disappeared, hastily taking what she could from her apartment before heading back to the U.S. I was later questioned by the administration about what I knew about the situation, and since I had made efforts to stay out of the drama, there was really little for me to report. I’d had no indication that she was going to take the midnight express, and to be truthful, I didn’t care that she left. The whirlwind of drama was getting to be too much, and I never quite understood where the drama was coming from in the first place. The job wasn’t that stressful. Dealing with the co-workers was not as challenging as she’d made it out to be. I’d later heard a story that she had been on some kind of medication that was having an incredible effect on her health, but I’ll never know what really happened with Kathryn. She deleted us from her Facebook friends before we even had a chance to realize she was gone, and no one I know ever heard from her again, except that she was at home recovering. Wherever she is now, I hope that her life is better.

The good thing about Kathryn’s departure was that she left an empty apartment. Maria wasted no time getting on that, and within the week, she was moved into Jinho Castle, just two doors from me. It is otherwise forbidden for unmarried couples (even foreigners) to live together in Korea, so this was a best-case scenario. Most adult Koreans live at home with their families until they turn 30, get married, then move in with their spouse and have babies.

Now we had twice the space, and two stove elements!


Jane is not her real name. But what happened to her is real, so I’m just going to use a different name out of courtesy. I thought twice about posting this, but it was a significant event from the last year that made an impact on many people on the island. It also helps to set the tone for some of the cultural differences I will highlight in the second post.

Jane came in with us off the EPIK training boat. I’d always liked her, and remembered that I was sitting next to her when we’d received the results of our medical tests back at orientation. “Phew, I don’t have AIDS.” I muttered. She said “Phew, me either.” It was our way of laughing off the invasive medical tests that EPIK had made us take, and still make us take whenever we sign a new contract. None of the Korean teachers have to submit complete medical reports to the government every year. Just the foreign teachers.

Jane came to work at the Centre after an administrative shuffling, and took the classroom directly across from me. We worked together and got a little better acquainted than we had been, since I can be a little stand-offish and she’s fairly subdued. But we’d had plenty of quiet days sitting in our classrooms before the kids showed up at 3pm, and plenty of chances to chat and kill time together. The more I got to know her, the more I liked her. She was a sweet, funny, all American girl. I know how much of a cliché that is, but it’s an appealing one. We hung around the same people and usually ended up at the same social events.

As it was on the evenings we had to stay to teach night classes, we all ate dinner at a restaurant across the road from the Language Centre. One night we were all collecting in the restaurant when we noticed Jane was not with us. Another co-worker had mentioned that he had gone to get her after class to go to the restaurant, but was stopped by a group of men that were in her classroom with her. They sent the co-worker away.

“There she is” he said, and we all looked out the restaurant window to see her being escorted into the back of a large SUV. Several men in suits accompanied her, and they drove off.

“What the hell was that?” No one had any idea.

After dinner, we went to the office to enquire about what was going on. Ms. Kang said “I can’t talk about it.” The ‘head teacher’ Mike reasoned with her, saying “come on, she’s our co-worker and friend. We should know what’s going on here.”

“It has to do with drugs.” Ms. Kang replied. Oh. Great.

We later found out through a co-worker that Jane had been toying with the idea of having ‘something’ sent from home. Koreans LOVE their booze, and will drink until they are puking in the street. You will frequently see puke splatter on any street from men who have gone drinking after work, gotten trashed, then puked their way home. But as much as they love their soju, they do not tolerate any notion of drugs. Drugs is a blanket term for anything not including cigarettes or alcohol, so the notion of casual marijuana use in Korea is strictly a no-no. It’s classified as bad as the baddest drugs. Alcohol and cigarettes though – no problem. And ironically, an amazing 43 percent of Korean men smoke cigarettes, and do it everywhere, all of the time. Restaurants, airports, hospitals. Many Korean women (at least the ones I taught) also complain that the men drink too much.

So indeed, Jane had gone through with her idea of having someone make magic brownies and ship them in the mail. My best guess is that sniffer dogs surveying the mail gave the payload away, and when the delivery came they didn’t leave it at the front desk like all of our other mail. The delivery person took it to her classroom and made her sign for it. Once they had her signature, she was guilty as sin. A few hours later, they arrested her.

Word travelled quickly as it does on a small island. A teacher was caught trying to import drugs. The second teacher in just a few months. It didn’t do much to help the pervasive stereotypes that foreign teachers face. We’re immoral. We might give AIDS to Koreans. We’re on drugs. So the next few weeks were a little delicate in the types of questions that the rest of us would face. Did we know that Jane was on drugs? What do we think of drugs? Did we ever try drugs? It was like being grilled by your parents because they saw someone your age smoking a joint outside the 7/11.

Not long after the arrest we had all gone to a Noraebang (karaoke) with many of our Korean Language Centre staff. It was a good chance to drink and sing terribly. And it didn’t take long after the soju started flowing for the questions to start.

It was tough for me. I wasn’t going to judge Jane, although I did think she’d made an incredibly bad decision. I didn’t want to defend her in the eyes of these people and indict my own seeming lack of morals. But I didn’t think it was right that she was being so demonized as some foreign junkie who might have been corrupting people’s kids. All right, that’s probably an exaggeration, but that was certainly the kind of tone I was feeling.

The best I could explain what happened was that Western society is different to Korea in many ways. We had been hammered in cultural class with how Korea is different. I wondered if it would work in reverse. I tried to explain the climate of the marijuana debate going on in California at the time (there had been a pending vote to decide upon legalization in the State of California, where Jane was from,) and the Western view of marijuana compared to harder drugs such as cocaine or heroine. I tried to explain that it had to have been a lapse in cultural understanding of marijuana use, and that although it was a REALLY BAD mistake, it wasn’t one that was guided by ill-intent. “Look, where she comes from it’s really not that big of a deal. They are actually voting right now to make it legal. She’s new here so I just don’t think she understood how serious it is, compared to where she is from.”

I don’t know what I was trying to explain without making me look like an advocate myself, but I really just wanted them to understand that Jane was a good person who made a bad judgment. I still believe that, and still hold her in the highest regard.

She spent the summer in prison before she was deported back to the U.S. As far as I know, the charges were eventually dropped, but sadly she had already broken the conditions of her contract (do not break Korean law, no drugs, maintain your role model status.) We had visited her in prison during her stay there, and I was so relieved to see her looking so lively and happy. She maintained a great attitude during the whole ordeal, and looked forward to getting home and getting on with her life. And she has. And we all still miss her like crazy.

Lincoln Ortega

Here on Jeju Island we have something that in English is called “The Five-Day Market”. It’s named that because it’s open at given locations on a rotation of every five days. In the city here, it’s dates ending in 2 and 7. On other days the market travels to other locations on the island. It consists of fresh foods picked by local growers, many of them old ladies or “Adjummas” as they are referred to here. (“Adjumma” means “married woman”, and is used as a term of endearment or respect.) The market also has a section for bed ware, house wares, clothes, trinkets, a fish market, and even live animals such as cats, dogs (that I would never buy – sickly things,) rabbits, chickens, gerbils, hamsters, and fish. We head down as often as we can to get our groceries, since it’s a lot fresher and cheaper than the large box stores here.

Some images from the Five-Day Market

So on one of these early visits to the Five-Day Market, we were browsing through some pottery when we heard “Hello” from behind us. Ah, English. We turn around to find an unassuming man holding a few bags of his own and smiling like a salesman. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went since it was almost a year ago now, but it turned out his name was Scott, and he was also an English teacher from Canada (another East Coaster!) living on the island. We wandered with him, making small talk, and he offered us a ride home.

I didn’t feel entirely comfortable at first. Many years of living in a big city and a built-in wariness to friendly strangers was tingling my spidey-sense. We just met this overtly friendly loner who wanted us to get in his car. I had done that before in one of my travels and had later ended up in a motel room with the stranger who incessantly tried to convince me to go skinny dipping in a whirlpool.

So we took the ride anyway and the first thing he asked me in the car was “do you play drums?” I hadn’t. Well, I had, many years before as a teenager, but had to sell my set since drums are not a welcome instrument in most urban settings. I had since bought a djembe, which I played on occasion but was a far cry from making me a drummer.

“Yeah I play drums.” I said. “Well, I used to, many years ago, but I could.” It wasn’t exactly a lie…

“I’m looking for a drummer for my band.”

“What kind of music is it?”


That wasn’t exactly advanced drumming.

“I like honkytonk.”

“All you need is a snare really.”

I told him I’d think about it. And I did. After relocating, I was short of hobbies, and music sounded like a great idea. So we started playing together as Lincoln Ortega and His Halla Mountain Boys. I met the third member of the band, Kent, a friendly guy and another fellow Canadian. We had our first show in just a couple of weeks.

When we started out, I just used whatever snare drum the bar had in house. For our practices, I found a cardboard box actually produced a really great snap when used with wire brushes, and didn’t make excessive noise. It was honkytonk, so who cared? One venue we even played had such a shitty sounding snare that I commandeered an empty Corona box to use for the show. Over the mic, no one could believe I was playing a beer box with steel brushes.

Things were getting fun. The shows were getting better, so I ordered my own drum. A Gretsch maple snare, sent over from Texas. I had tried to buy locally, but it’s nearly impossible to buy anything of decent quality on this island. The music stores generally buy mediocre gear and price it at a premium. If you have the option of actually getting something of good quality, the price is twice as much as anywhere else. It’s frustrating. I often find myself ordering quality items from eBay and even with the shipping costs, it’s still far cheaper than what I might pay here. If I can find it here at all.

The snare came a couple of weeks later, and we were ready for the floor. We played an outdoor beach venue, and it was one of our best shows. We played an outdoor International Music Festival, which was not my favourite show. The set up was rushed and despite having giant monitors on the stage, they weren’t turned even turned on. I couldn’t hear anything except for what was ricocheting off the buildings in front of me. Terrible.

Beach Show
International Festival

One of our last and best shows was a place we’d been invited to play, an underground concert hall somewhere near the city centre. The place was specially designed for concerts and though small, had a great set up. The show was video-recorded, which was great because we got a copy of what we agreed was probably the best show we had done. (Not sure what happened with the video editing, but here are some songs.)

Video 1:
Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
That’s All Right Mama – Arthur Crudup

Video 2:
I Can’t Think of You Anymore – Lincoln Ortega

Goddamn smokers

The mask I am wearing in the video (if you can see it) was an idea I had come up with after our first show. Koreans wear these cotton mouth and nose guards whenever they are not feeling well (to avoid spreading germs,) or don’t want to breathe in crap in the air (like yellow dust season, which creates lung irritations.) It’s quite common to see people walking around town with them on their face. And since, I had quickly discovered that for all its advances, Korea still allowed smoking in bars. Some places in Seoul are making the move to ban it, but it’s a slow transition. That was a huge let down. For years I had enjoyed smoke-free environments in Canada, only to take this step backwards in Korea. And not only did they smoke in bars, they REALLY smoked in bars. Chain smokers, all of them. Even the foreigners who, at home, could not smoke in bars, were puffing their brains out in Korea. It pissed me off, because the foreigners knew it was more considerate, and had become accustomed to going outside to smoke, but in Korea they decided to just smoke inside anyway because they could. Fuck everyone, I’m smoking in here because I can and everyone else is doing it.

It’s the one thing in Korea that truly annoys me.

I started to wear the mask because of the thick smoke in bars. They say in a fire that you’re supposed to put a wet cloth over your mouth to avoid smoke inhalation. So I adopted wearing the mask (dampened) to avoid breathing all of that shit in. I’m not sure of its effectiveness, but it has to help to some degree. And then it became a sort of gimmick where I just wore it even when it wasn’t in a smoky bar. Maria painted the bottom two.

Along with the Lincoln Ortega repertoire, we had met a Filipino woman at the International Music Festival who had pipes that could belt out a tune through the whole city centre. Lincoln had seen her sing before, and she was certainly catching our attention then. Her name was Dew, and she had been living in Korea with her husband, working as a singer in a restaurant. She was interested in playing some music with us. So with limited time, we were able to get together for a few songs on a few occasions.

100 Day, 100 Nights – Bosco Mann

Sadly, Scott aka Lincoln Ortega departed Korea at the end of summer. We disbanded, and now that I was getting back into the comfort of banging a drum, was developing advanced aspirations. The island was lacking a good dance music band. I wanted to move toward in filling that gap.

Philip A\V

Before Lincoln left, he introduced an old friend, Philip, to Jeju. Philip was also a musician from the East Coast, who had wandered into a teaching job in Korea in search of new experience. After a short period of orienting himself, he started to emerge as exactly the kind of person I might have hung around with back in Toronto. An electro DJ, musician, adventurer, and all around awesome crazy man who was close to my own age.

we never said we were role models

Philip (or ‘A\V‘ by his stage name) had bought a guitar and had originally intended to fill a gap in the Lincoln Ortega band. But as time went on and he was reacquainting himself with guitar (he had more lately become a synth/composer type of guy,) Philip’s addition to the Lincoln Ortega band never came to be. Except that he had this guitar kicking around now, and a desire to play music.

I wanted to play dance music. Kent, though stretched over other musical projects, was also interested. So we talked about a new band, and I developed a plan to take the drums to the next level. As I had learned years before and had re-learned recently after a noise complaint, drums and urban dwelling don’t mix well. I needed a drum kit that I could bang on without pissing anyone off. For all the years I had given up drums for accommodation, I had never considered turning to electronic drums that can be used with headphones. I started to investigate. Roland captured my imagination.

After much thought and even more saving, I finally committed to the cost of a Roland electronic kit. Remember how I previously wrote about how much MORE things of good quality cost in Korea? Well, I was going to have to make the purchase of these top-notch electronic drums truly worth it.

I finally got the drums in late October.

The Roland TDK4
small drums, big sound

In November, Dangerpants was born.


There is not much to say yet about Dangerpants, since we’re still developing the project. We did play a New Year’s Eve show that was a lot of fun. The first stage of it consisted of myself on v-drums, A\V on guitar, Zain (yet another Canadian) on guitar, Kent on bass, and Jun (one funky Korean we’ve been hanging around with) and Maria alternating on vocals. Zain has recently left the island, so we are refocusing on a different musical arrangement that will hopefully include synth and a lot more madness. More to come on that.

Desk Warming Sucks by Dangerpants

Maria keeps herself busy, too

Maria did eventually order a portable oven, and has taken up quite a bit of cooking and baking since we got here. No complaints from me, since she has proven to be a far better cook than me! On the baking side though, she still has some catching up to do. 😉

For a while she had been involved with Capoeira, which I still don’t understand but can be read about here. Unfortunately the instructor left the island, so she started doing pilates.

She also did some modeling for a woman who does her hair:

Most recently we’re trying to appropriate her for the band, since she sang with us at our New Year’s show and did a pretty good job. We’ll see where that goes!

It was probably a rash decision to move to a foreign country together only a few months after meeting, but it has been the best experience imaginable. I had been pretty down on relationships for years before meeting her, and threw caution to the wind when a good thing came along. I have never regretted it once. It’s been great to have her to share every experience, good and bad, since we’ve arrived here. That move would have made or broken the relationship, and now I don’t even know that I would have lasted without her here. In another month we’ll celebrate two years together, and I look forward to many more.

Part II of II
Work > About Jeju Island > Year One Impressions: The Good, The Bad, The Compromise > Looking Forward

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Posted by on February 23, 2011 in Life Abroad


Hey Maybe We Should Go to India: Epilogue

Ernakulam > Delhi > Kuala Lumpur > Seoul

In the outset I was going to end these blog entries at our stay in Allepey, but I wanted to mention a few things that happened on the way out.

We left Allepey by bus to Ernakulam, where we took a rickshaw to the airport. The drive was further than I had thought, and the rickshaw ride was a rough one.

The arrival into Delhi was a little early, though it was still after 11pm when we finally reached the hotel. Our cab driver, like our previous airport cab driver, had no idea where our hotel was. It always struck me in India that the people who should know the hotel districts (since they handle airport pick-ups) never seem to know where the hotels are. Both times we had stayed in Delhi, we had stayed in districts that were well known for their hotels and shopping districts.

Our laundry had been forgotten in Goa and Faiez had left them at the hotel where he’d stayed in Delhi. It was late and we wanted our laundry (Maria’s jeans were in the bag and she had nothing else to wear in the much-cooler city) so we decided to stay there, at the O’Delhi Hotel. It was a nice place, but again at the top end of what we had been paying for accommodation. We didn’t care. We had been staying in the beach hut all week and several sketchy places before that, so the comfort of a modernized, clean hotel was looking pretty great to both of us at that moment. We checked in and I had an epic long hot shower (YES!) and we ordered some room service while plunked down in front of the Discovery Channel. Ah yes, comfort.

We had two days until our flight out. The only things we had planned were to pick up my carpet and a few items we hadn’t wanted to carry around with us in our travels. Mostly gifts for other people.

Day 1 of Delhi Part II

With a full day and not having seen much in New Delhi on our first pass through, it seemed like a good idea to do something cultural. I left that to Maria. She suggested we see the India Gate, and after some map correlating, we took the metro train to the exit nearest to the Delhi Gate. The road leading to the gate was closed due to preparation for Republic Day the next day, and we had to view the gate from a distance through the fog/smog. We walked for a few minutes toward the Parliament buildings instead, but lost interest and returned to the Metro.

There had been a place on the map called the “Bengali Market”. What was that? How was it different to other markets? Thinking it might have revealed something about North Eastern Indian culture that we wouldn’t get on this trip, I thought it would be a good idea to check it out. After some further map correlating (we had a poor tourist street map and a map of the Metro that we were trying to align,) we decided New Delhi Station – a sort of central station – would be the closest bet.

When we got there we did some looking around, and after asking a few people we decided to just walk in a general direction and hope for the best. We found nothing, except ourselves in some random part of town where nothing seemed to be happening. There was a group of shacks where clothes were hung out to dry. Some uniformed school kids made their way up a small road, and a rickshaw driver who asked us if we wanted a ride. I showed him where we were going (we had accepted defeat; we wanted to go back to the hotel,) but he had no idea where we wanted to go and just waved us on. So we walked further.

And further. Over a bridge. Some men played cricket in a park.

One of the perfect ironies in life is the endless amount of cabs that will honk at you, slow down and stare at you, or ask if you need a ride somewhere. Especially in India. And the one time you need that cab, whether it be when you’re standing wasted and freezing in the middle of a Toronto winter night, or hungry and exhausted on some busy and obscure Delhi Road, you can wait forever for an empty cab that never seems to come. As we stood there, rickshaw after rickshaw streamed by in the rush hour traffic, but even after twenty minutes not one was empty. But we did finally get one, and we did finally get back to the hotel, where we dared to venture out again in search of food.

We made the acquaintance of another driver who took us everywhere except where we needed to go (anticipating it doesn’t make it less frustrating or disappointing,) and we ended back up in our hotel neighbourhood after riding around pointlessly for half an hour. The sun was going down and we had ventured into the shopping district of Karol Bagh. McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut. Chains that you see everywhere, making you second guess your standards as you starve for real food. We checked in on half a dozen restaurants. This one was vegetarian, this one didn’t serve beer. I just wanted a nice cold beer and some great food. Not that the vegetarian food in India isn’t great. It is. I just wanted butter chicken since I had been in India for three weeks and hadn’t tried it yet.

We finally found what we were looking for. Well not exactly. They didn’t serve beer. But we ate and headed back to the hotel, and on the way I found a sketchy little booze cellar where they sell everything from hard liquor to cold beer. All the men stared at Maria as I bought a couple of beers for us. Oh right, women don’t normally go in there.

We’d also found a Western-style bakery with the most decadent of desserts in Karol Bagh, so with small apple and chocolate pies, a giant rum ball and a double chocolate slab of cake in tow, we snuck back with our beer to the retreat of our comfortable hotel room and laid low for another night of Discovery and indulgence. This was our last night in India. What can I say, we were all adventured-out.

Day 2 of Delhi Part II

Our flight left the next evening, and the hotel agreed to hold our back packs for the day.  A good part of the city was closed for the first half of the day to celebrate Republic Day, so we wandered for a bit and bought some last minute items (incense, some more spices, gifts.) We were mostly killing time because the Open Hand Café wasn’t open for coffee yet. And it was really all about getting that coffee.

In the time we waited for the café to open, two things happened. The first was that we had happened upon a large Catholic cemetery in the middle of the city. I’d had no problem wandering through the sprawling Necropolis in Havana, photographing the complexly ornate grave sculptures, but this cemetery was the complete opposite. Most of the plots were marked with modest headstones or small wood grave markers. Some of the graves were fresh, a mound of dirt that didn’t seem to be marked at all. Chipmunks dashed throughout the cemetery, in and out of the shade of the crooked trees while overhead, countless hawks circled and bided their time for the right moment.

So many of the graves marked short lives. Teenagers, young adults. “Wow this guy died young too.” I muttered. He had been my age. “That’s not too young” Maria responded. Ouch.

The oldest age I could find was someone who had died in their early sixties. Life seemed hard and short for many of these people. The best we could surmise was that disease had a foothold amongst the young and poor living in India.

The second thing we found as we wandered through the dark maze of alleys was something we weren’t meant to find. For all the shop-filled streets of Delhi, there are little dark alleys that twist off into obscurity. We had seen them on our first pass-through weeks before, but our apprehension and the fog advised us against getting too adventurous in this sketchy place. But now, with a little more familiarity and time to kill, we decided to wander into one alley way to see where it might take us. There were shops and people passing through, so we figured it would be something worth investigating.

In the tall, narrow passages, little light made its way down to the street level store fronts, making the inside of the shops too dark to see unless they had some kind of lighting. Most didn’t. As you passed through, many lonely vendors sat by candle-light, waiting for someone to step in. It’s possible, as we had seen many times before, that once you stepped in they would get up and turn on all the lights, but for now they sat quietly waiting for something to happen. Hand-crafted leather shops. Paper and stationary. Trinkets. We stepped into the alley deeper and deeper when a big chicken caught our attention. A tall, ugly fowl.

We venture further in and saw some kids playing in the narrow passage. A man in a collared shirt passed by with a brief case and said something to an old woman in Hindi. She nodded and he stepped over, examining her face. He’s a doctor, wandering through the alleys of the poor, checking in on the residents. We continued on.

Through a dark underpass we came to a square. A dead end. A stack of apartments where people were getting on with their lives. Someone was doing laundry and hanging it. Another person was carrying eggs. Chickens clucked somewhere nearby. Some women who were chatting stopped to look at the foreigners standing below. I take a picture of the general scene.

Some kids on the stairs enthusiastically summoned me up. I looked back at Maria and she shrugged, so I stepped up. I waved my camera in the quest for permission, and they pointed me toward a couple of bird cages where some kids were staring, while their mother crouched nearby and washed laundry in a plastic bin. I hold up my camera again in a request for permission and she starts to yell at me, waving me away. That’s the way it goes. You don’t get every shot. Especially when you don’t belong there.

I took a moment atop the stairs to survey the scene around me. Taking a momentary glace, a photograph with my mind, of the lives happening around me. Clothes flapped in the breeze. A baby cried somewhere. The kids behind me were laughing. I didn’t belong there, and that woman knew it. I smiled at the kids who had invited me, then descend the stairs. Time to go.

We wound our way back out to the main street slowly, and the doctor still examined the old woman in the alley. A boy bought sweet potatoes from a man. I scrambled to get the photo, fumbling with the manual focus, and realize for the hundredth time on this trip that it’s time to invest in a digital camera.

A near miss with pickpockets

Maria had made it clear that there was a specific street in this part of town that she did not like. It ended the street where the dogs had come very close to getting a chomp on me. The street itself was wide and crammed with traffic, and had nothing for any tourist. Both times we had walked it we had felt like we were walking meat, sensing something could happen at any time. I felt more on guard than usual on that street, but it didn’t stop a couple of opportunists from attempting to get the better of us.

Of course I had read everywhere to beware of pickpockets and to be careful of valuables. Of value, I carried our passports, cards and cash in a money belt secured halfway up my torso under my shirt, and of course, my camera bag was worn crossed over one shoulder to the front of my opposite hip, where I could keep both hands resting on it most of the time. For the most part, Maria carried nothing of value, except this day she wore a back pack that we had just bought to use as carry-on, and to hold some of the gifts we had been collecting.

As we walked up this sketchy road, I saw a man look up as we approached. His eyes fixed on Maria and he rushed past me. I turned to make sure she was right behind me when he passed, and saw him block her between a pole and the corner of a building. He was standing on the street in front of her, pretending to be looking off something. It had been very deliberate and just as I suspected something was up, Maria gave him a good shove, jolting him out of her way.

“Sorry, sorry!” he said, acting as though he hadn’t seen her there. She passed him with a scowl on her face and I looked at her, perplexed.

“He tried to get into my bag.” She said, and got up to me and turned to show the pack on her back. Sure enough, the top zipper was wide open. It had taken them all of two seconds.

I looked back to the corner but they were already gone.

“I saw him see you, then walk right up to you and stand in front of you.”

“Yeah he blocked me in and his friend got me from behind.”

“You reacted pretty quickly. Did you feel the bag open?”

“No, all I could feel was them pressing against me.”

Fuckers. The only thing they would have gotten was a bag of tea that was sitting on top, but they didn’t even get a chance to root around in the bag thanks to Maria’s reaction.

So there you go. Take no chances. Keep nothing of value in any accessible place. If people (especially kids) are rubbing against you, check your things. Where possible, don’t give anyone your back.

So done

The flat hotel taxi rate to the airport was 500 Ruppees. The actual metered fare was about 350. When we got back to the hotel I requested that our host call a meter taxi for us.

“I’m sorry sir, that will take about 45 minutes.”

As it turns out, the hotel taxi at a flat rate of 500 was immediately available. Of course it was. I figured this was the last chance anyone was going to have to gouge us, so we took it. And as that driver hauled ass to get to the airport, Maria and I both got car sick. We had taken cars, rickshaws, bike rickshaws, planes, trains, boats, camel and horse, but that cab ride to the airport had been the worst of them all. He went faster than I think I have ever gone in a car. He took turns with warnings to slow down as a challenge to speed up, and I wondered if we might actually flip. Never on the whole trip had I felt so close to death.

When we arrived at the airport and he asked me for a tip, I almost threw up when I laughed.

Three weeks ago we had been told in this airport that our currency was useless in India. Three weeks ago we had no idea what adventures we were about to embark upon. And now, three weeks later, after such a sprawling journey, we were so ready to leave. Perhaps not so much ready to leave India as we were completely ready to leave New Delhi. Two more days of Delhi had been exhausting. Fortunately, we had many other great experiences to draw upon as we said goodbye from the sky.

One more stop: Kuala Lumpur

Anyone who has travelled overnight on plane and can’t sleep knows what it’s like to face the next morning in a new city. A certain unclean grogginess, a general disinterest in negotiating the logistics of getting where you need to go. Especially considering this was just a six hour stop over, and that we had another six hour flight to go.

Neither of us had a lot of ambition for Kuala Lumpur this time around. Our stop over was shorter than the last time, and the humidity that met us when we got off the plane robbed us of any bare enthusiasm we might have had. The bus from the airport to the city centre got stuck in morning rush hour traffic, so by the time we actually arrived downtown, nothing at all seemed appealing.

Lacking the ability to make decisions of any good judgment, I suggested we go to Times Square. It was supposed to have electronics shops, and when any guy has a few hours to kill, electronics shops in any Asian country sound like a goldmine.

It turns out that what I thought might be a nerd’s dream was my worst nightmare. Times Square was not a square as much as it was a skyscraper mall. Something like ten floors of shopping that wrapped a foyer, where most stores were not even open at 10am. The height made me dizzier and groggier than I already was. This was exactly the type of hellish mall I had written about in City of Necropolis, and now was not the time to discover the worst thingl I could have imagined and written about.

The place was so massive it had an indoor roller coaster.

After making the mistake of climbing all the way up, we went back down to ground level. And it was time to go.

Back in Seoul

I never would have imagined being so glad to be back in Korea. Immigration was a breeze. No line-up, no questions. Stamp stamp thank you sir. Train from the airport: 3000 Won (less than three dollars). Airport and surrounding area: spotless. Temperature: -6. Damn it! I guess it couldn’t all be perfect.


There are no profound thoughts or insights to share about the trip now that I’ve been back for a few weeks. It was great. You should go to India. Nothing I have written or could write now will reflect on your own experiences there, because your experiences will differ vastly from ours.

I will reiterate a few points though:

-Get a guide book but don’t live by it. If you get the Lonely Planet like every other person out there, be prepared to leave it in your bag sometimes. Not only does it make you look like a total newb, but you could miss out on some great things because you’re too busy trying to connect dots. Plus, their information is frequently outdated and can lead to some frustration. And every recommendation in there will be full of tourists with the same book. Don’t be afraid to wing it sometimes.

-Watch your back. Goes without saying. It’s better to travel with someone who can do this for you. This obviously goes double for a woman. Be skeptical of friendly people. I know it’s not news, but there are some happy-go-lucky travelers who could benefit from a little cynicism.

-If you are going to shop, haggle hard. Or as hard as you want to. Make sure you walk around a bit and get a sense of the realistic going rates.

-Get out of the city. Cities are cities. There’s much more to see outside of them.

That’s about it. I have written far more than I would have expected in these entries, so if you’ve actually read all of it, thanks! If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment.

Now I can finally go back to my normal (non-blog) writing projects. Namaste!


Posted by on February 16, 2011 in Life Abroad


Hey Maybe We Should Go to India Part IV: Kerala > Allepey


Sunset over the Laccadive Sea

We stayed in Allepey for a week, and I don’t see a point in writing a day-by-day synopsis of how we did nothing. This will be just a general overview of what happened during that week.

We took the bus from Cochin, which was a 2-hour roller coaster of riding the aisle and holding on for dear life. I thought Korean bus drivers were crazy. Indians just drive with reckless abandon and let their horns do the warning.

We were met at the station by homestay hosts who made finding a place to stay conveniently easy. We wanted a place on the beach, and we met a young man name Saji who had a place on the beach. We piled into a rickshaw and were on our way.

His place was a series of small shacks and huts that were about as low-key as you get. The rooms were not sealed where the roof met the walls, so the first thing I thought was “uh oh mosquitos.” The rest of the room was pretty much as low end as anything else we saw on the trip. But it was on the beach, and the prices was right at 400 Rupees. We had brought our own mosquito net to enclose the bed, and it looked like it was finally going to get some use.

Our place, named “Mandela”, was in the middle of beach between the long stretch of public beach where the locals liked to visit, and the far end where the fishermen grounded their boats and hung around gambling on the down-low. Our host Saji told us that the police had often given the fishermen a hard time for gambling, and they were always trying to find new ways to keep it a secret.

We took a walk along the beach and found the fishermen, who let us take pictures.

These assholes would wake me up every morning

We also met some kids who, of course, wanted Rupees.

Then we went to the public beach, where we found locals. The beach was busiest on Sunday, when all kinds of families came down to hang out.

This guy insisted we take a picture with him.

We saw some small pups with their mother.

We ate some DELICIOUS deep fried peppers.

Even though Maria never got to ride an elephant, she did ride this camel:

These are the testicles.

This is the horse I got to ride:

This is their owner. I thought he looked like an Indian movie star:

Thaipusam (Wikipedia link)

I am certain that my following description is not exactly accurate, since as you will see from the videos, there was so much going on around us that it was hard to get the full story about each thing that was going on. That is why I provided the link above. As best as I can describe it, here is what we witnessed:

Saji told us of a ceremony that would be going on one night, an annual festival where devout Hindus are pierced with metal rods through their cheeks and tongues by holy men, then dance through the streets for 4 kilometers before entering a temple to have the rods removed.

Preceding them were hundreds of people that appeared to be possessed, screaming, thrashing and running through the street, carrying some kind of semi-circular object to the temple where they went through some kind of blessing.

Preceding that was the opening ceremony, which began just as we showed up. We were wandering through the street in the waning daylight, wondering where everything would be happening. Everyone was going about their business as usual, except police were monitoring traffic at one particular intersection. As we walked by, something caught Maria’s eye. There were some very large decorated elephants approaching from up the road.

Elephants on Parade (video)

They took their positions in front of the temple, and different bands of musicians played to them, worshipping, until the sun went down.

Music for Ganesha

Darkness grows, more music.

The men who seemed to be in charge had spotted Maria and I from the outset and brought us right in. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A man at the side pulled us over and explained everything we were seeing and everything that would happen over the course of the evening, but it was impossible to understand everything he said. He did give us a crucial warning about timing though, that if we stayed in this very spot after the people started their approach from the road, we would not be able to move out for hours.

When the sun was down we heard a scream approaching from the road behind us. A young teenage girl came running through, clutching her head and screaming. She was emaciated and had oiled hair. She seemed possessed. Several others followed, just as frenzied, and just as urgent. Their behavior was wildly unpredictable, and some were held onto at the waist by guardians, guided toward the temple.

We moved away.

The Ceremony Begins

After hundreds of these people came through the temple to relinquish the semi-circular articles they carried, the men with the pierced faces began to appear.

Thaipusam Men

They made their ways to the temple to have their piercings removed and a blessed lime placed in their mouths.

Removal of the Rods

The scene was overwhelming. There were people everywhere. Fathers propped children up on their shoulders to watch the action. In the middle of the intersection, heaps of elephant shit sat stinking while the masses tried to avoid stepping in it. I saw one woman step right into it with bare feet before realizing what she had done.

Creepy Men in India

At one point Maria was getting creeped out by a guy standing next to her. Indian men were often creeping on her, and at the worst of times it became necessary for me to make eye contact to discourage it. The worst was on the beach, when a few times I had to confront men who would sit near us to blatantly stare at her. Some would even shamelessly start taking photos. At one point our hotel host got into a fight with a drunken idiot who was staring down another female guest. The audacity of some of the men, even when the woman is accompanied by another man, is incredible.

She was getting the creeps from one particular guy who was standing next to her at this Thaipusam ceremony, when she turned to me suddenly to say “I think he took one of my hairs!” She had felt him actually pull a hair out of her head. I turned quickly to look at him, and he was standing there with his arms crossed like nothing happened. Then he made a quick exit.

A short while later as we were walking up the road to leave, the crowd had thinned out and we were on the hunt for a taxi. Two young men were walking toward us and Maria trailed slightly behind me. As they passed her, one man conveniently lost his balance and shoved his hand into her crotch. I saw over my shoulder that he had walked into her, and when I saw her reaction I stopped. She was turned back, glaring at him. He was staring back at her.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” She blasted.
“I’m sorry” he said, with a smirk. She continued to glare. He apologized again like he was innocent, and she continued on. I asked her what happened and she told me. I couldn’t believe the nerve. I started to go back but she discouraged me. They were already leaving on a moped.

Another time we were sitting on our deck at the Allepey hotel (we had upgraded from the outback shack to the “beach house”) when Maria noted a teenager on the beach taking a piss. I looked over and he was facing us, shaking off his bird. I laughed at the disregard Indian men generally have for pissing in public.

A few minutes later she says “oh my god, is he jerking off?” I look over again and the kid is still standing there, shaking the bird. I stare over at him, thinking that might discourage him, and it did seem that he was just standing there on the beach, jerking it. Wow. He could even see me staring right at him and he was totally un-phased. I waved him off with my hand and only then did he leave.

Based on some of the things that happened to her in my presence, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a woman traveling alone in India. Some might say “ah don’t worry, India is fine!” and maybe it has been for them. But there are some men who seem to think that women are there for their enjoyment, and the view of foreign women (especially white women) is often that they’re all loose and ready to party. I had heard this straight from the mouths of some of our hosts. So women, be warned if you feel like traveling alone in India.


Anu was awesome. He was a rickshaw driver we hailed one day and he actually used the meter, so I took his phone number and called him a few times over the course of the week when we needed a cab. At one point we went by his house, so we stopped to meet his wife and daughter, and to take a photo.

I’m gonna mail him that photo. He even let me drive the rickshaw.

Rickshaw yeehaw!

Masala Chai Store Lady

Saji had told me I could get masala chai from the little store up the laneway. In the morning I ventured up the road and found it, where some fishermen lingered, drinking their tea and buying their little pouch of tobacco for the day. It was a hand-mixed variation of chewing tobacco and some kinds of spices that she sprinkled on top, then wrapped in a small fresh leaf and handed it to them. Indian men mostly chewed tobacco rather than smoking it.

The little shack would open at 3 in the morning so the fishermen could get their tea and tobacco. And every morning (much later in the morning) she made us our masala chai in the little juice glasses it is often served in, and I would carry them back to our patio overlooking the beach. We would sit there and sip it, watching the waves, with little to no aspirations for the whole day. Maybe we’d walk over to the other beach and see what was what. Or maybe not.

It was the best masala chai we had anywhere in India, and I was sad to say good-bye to her.

Chai Chai Chai Coffee Coffee (The Indian Train Song)

We also met some young Indian guys who were friendly and seemed to be on the nightly look out for foreign ladies. We sat down at a fire with them and one of them, Sebastian, shared a song he wrote with us about riding on the Indian train.

Song on the Beach (not much to see, but you can hear it)

Backwater Tour

Kerala is famous for its network of backwaters, where communities stretch infinitely throughout the State. We wanted to take a tour, and apparently there are currently over 900 boats that do tours of the backwaters. Some were giant houseboats where you could stay for a night or two, but the prices were astronomical and I wasn’t sure what the point of two days on the backwaters would be. One day was plenty for us.

We opted for the less expensive canoe tour, which seemed in many ways to have advantages over the huge houseboat tours. Not only in the price, but the fact that he canoes could go anywhere. The houseboats were stuck in the main rivers, but couldn’t make it under the many small bridges that cross the waters in the quieter communities. Even a mid-sized tour boat we saw got blocked from passing under a bridge, so they turned around and went back the way they had come. By the time we got off the main waterways and into the smaller canals, we barely saw any other boats except for locals going about their business. The tour felt very low-key and personal.

The day started with breakfast at our hosts house:

hooray, food!

boo, no more food

After the morning tour, we came to a place deep into the backwaters. We had a traditional “Kerala-style lunch” at someone’s house, which is exactly as pictures below, served on a banana leaf.

The cloudy liquid in the glass was coconut toddy. It wasn’t very exciting. Maria says it tasted like birch juice (one of those Russian things, I guess.) In Goa I had also tried the coconut fenny, which I’m sure you could use as engine fuel.

The lunch was not bad, but overall I wasn’t very impressed with Kerala-style food. It was surprisingly subdued in flavor, seemingly bland compared to the other Indian food we had. Perhaps the climate demanded less-spicy food. Many of the dishes were coconut based (curries), but even considering how much I love coconut, I didn’t get that excited about it. And of course, Kerala-style is eating with your right hand. I gave it a try. I still prefer a fork.

I should also note as an after fact that two other people took the tour with us – a young French couple. They were pretty easy going and mild-mannered. They redeemed the other French tourists that we had previously met.

Taking the river taxi back into town


Our host, Saji, took us for another Kerala-style lunch on another day. His friend’s family owns the restaurant and it’s only open three hours a day for lunch.

When we went in, the place was full of locals. Saji introduced us to his friend, who was originally from Allepey but had moved to Belgium. His wife was Flemmish with ivory white skin and flaming red hair, and I thought man, she must really stand out around here. They were here on vacation with their daughter.

They had a three-year old daughter named Vaiga who came with us when we left. Saji wanted to take her to the beach, so she spent the afternoon and early evening hanging out at the beach. At one point Saji drifted off and left Vaiga with us, who didn’t seem to have any problem with hanging out with random strangers. She didn’t speak any English, but she did speak the language of ice cream.

Overall, we had a great time in Allepey. The first two parts of our trip had been a rush of making decisions and getting to the next place, so we had intended for the final week of our trip to be far less ambitious. Allepey was great not only because it allowed us to do that, but also because it really hadn’t been overrun by tourists yet. There were only four small hotels along the entire beach strip, and none of them had the “resort” feeling to them.

There was one place a little further up the beach that had rooms for longer-term rental, and we happened up there a few times for breakfast or dinner. There was one guy in particular who always seemed to be there when we were there, an older British guy who had trickled down from Goa.

He sat down with us and told us that the first time he’d been to India was in the late 70’s, when he stayed as the guest of a Kashmiri Prince. He said that foreigners were so uncommon back then that the kids would get out of school and chase him down the street, throwing stones. He had to time his day to avoid these kids.

Then he said that he had gone to Goa for the millennium party. I had been hearing about the epic millennium party at Goa here and there, but this was the first time I had spoken to someone who had been there. It’s best if I tell it in his words:

“It was great. As the week went on, more and more people showed up. It was these parties that went on and on, one over here, one over there. You just went back and forth. As the week went on it just kept building and building, and I started to run into people that I had lost contact for years. They had all come back for the millennium party. People from South America, people from Europe, you name it, it was great to see them again after all those years. The parties built and built until it was just one massive thing, and it started spinning and spinning until the whole spaceship took off with all of us on it.”

Man. Why didn’t I go there?

It was 11 years later and here he was, just a little further down the coast. He had ducked out of the commercial Goan scene and had found a nice quiet place for a long-term stay down in Allepey. If I ever go back one day, I only hope that it hasn’t turned into the same as every other overrun Indian beach town we had visited.

Last Night

On our last night, there was something going on at one of the other hotels. We went over to check it out, and there was a gathering of many of the foreigners we had been seeing around or along the beach.

We had been talking with someone and the matter of working in Korea came up, and some guy who was standing nearby stepped closer. “Korea hey?”
He sat down beside me.
“So what’s that like?”
“It’s pretty good.”
“So how long have you been travelling?”
“A few weeks now.”
“Oh, I see.”
“How about you?”
“Six months. How do you like it?”
“I love it. I only wish I could stay longer.”
“Yeah three weeks really isn’t long enough.”
“I know.”
“Do you like the food?”
“Love it. I wasn’t sure what to think before I got here but it’s been amazing.”
“Have you tried the street food?”
“No. I’ve been told to avoid street food by friends who’ve gotten sick from it.”
“That’s funny. I get sick from the restaurant food.”
“Is that right.”
“You haven’t really experienced India if you don’t eat the street food. I mean what are you going to do, use mineral water to brush your teeth too?”
We had been, because we had been advised to. You know, parasites suck and all that.
“Well, if you’re on a short term vacation like us, you can’t really afford to get sick and miss two days of travel. But if you want to brush your teeth with the tap water, that’s up to you.”
“Oh so you actually do brush your teeth with mineral water?”
“Well I don’t want to get sick.”
He nodded as if he was making some concession for our differences.
“So you’ve been travelling for three weeks. Where else have you been?”
“Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Goa, Cochin.”
“You didn’t get to Hampi?”
“It was out of our way and we just didn’t have the time.”
He bowed his head in disappointment.

I can’t remember what else he said after, but he was already getting on my nerves. Maybe part of the reason I don’t like talking to other travelers is because I don’t want it to turn into some pissing contest about who has had the most genuine travel experiences. I don’t mind getting good stories or tips from people, but I don’t need to compare stories to see who has reached a higher level of enlightenment.

You haven’t really experienced India if you don’t eat the street food. Yep. I guess we hadn’t really experienced India because we hadn’t had explosive diarrhea once. Come to think of it, maybe we shouldn’t have been taking the malaria medication either.

The moon moves quickly

Next (and final):
Delhi > Kuala Lumpur > Seoul

Getting the real Indian experience

These assholes would wake me up every morning

1 Comment

Posted by on February 11, 2011 in Life Abroad


Hey Maybe We Should Go to India Part IV: Kerala > Cochin


On the train bound for Ernakulam, there was some confusion with our French bunkmates.

The compartment we had booked into was a three-tier, meaning that there were three bunks stacked on either side of the compartment. I had been booked into the top and Maria had been booked into the bottom. I wasn’t sure where the other French had been booked, but one had been booked into the other top bunk. We also shared the rest of the compartment with a young Serbian couple (as best as Maria could ascertain from their language.) We were trying to figure out how to arrange the bunks when the French man said something to us in part English, mostly French. Years of in-school French have left me able to comprehend some things to this day, except for whatever he was saying now. Something about maintaining symmetry so something something the top bunk. Maria and I understood it as us taking the top bunk, and I wasn’t in the mood to ask for clarification. I put our belongings up on the top bunk so there was no ambiguity in the communication, and his wife started to throw a bit of a hissy fit. Finally he turned to me and said “Are you American? Do you speak English?”

‘Do I speak English’ he asked with a slight condescension, as if I was stupid for not understanding what he was trying to say in French. Haha.

“Yes, I speak English.” I said.

“My wife and I will take the top, you will take the bottom.”

I looked at Maria. I was in a fighting mood. I could tell she wasn’t.

“Let them take the top bunk, and you two can take the two others on that side, and we’ll take these two on this side” the Serbian woman said. I said nothing. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to let this sit. For me the benefit to being on top was the difference between having a toe or foot hang off the end of the bed (they’re very short) and not get whacked or trip someone up in the middle of the night. I also don’t prefer to have anyone sleeping above me. When I was a kid, I had the top bunk. I’m just a top bunk kind of guy.

“The top bunk usually gets cold anyway” she said, quietly. “That’s where AC comes from. They’re supposed to turn it off later I think.”

I looked at Maria again and decided not to argue about it. But I wanted to! I didn’t want to give that old annoying bitch her way. But the thought of her on the top bunk freezing her ass off night was a nice consideration so I let it go.

I was tired. It had been a long day and there wasn’t a lot to do on the train. It was an expected 16 hour ride so I thought it best to just sleep through as much of it as possible. Unfortunately, I didn’t get into a good sleep until a few hours later, when the French stopped ‘parce que le pain c’est dans la baggage’ing and all that shit. God I quietly hated them.

Their third friend, who I will call Maurice (actually I think that really was his name,) was bunking in the next compartment over. He had sat chatting with them for a while in our compartment because it was obvious I needed a French lullaby.

Naturally it was hard to sleep. The beds are small and confined, you’re held in by two chains that secure the bunk on its hinge (I was in the middle bunk,) and you’re at the mercy of ambient conversation and temperature. They do provide pillows and blankets which were a big help, but at one point I was so hot I had to take the blankets off. At least until they blasted the air conditioning and evened things out. Ha.

I was back into some round of sleep when I was woken sharply again (as was Maria, as was the whole train car I’m sure) when Maurice came bursting through the curtain of our compartment crying “mon sac! Mon sac! Blah blah blah mon sac!” Poor Maurice had lost his bag and was certain they had taken it. Indeed, he whined like a man who had lost his sack. As fast as he had burst into our compartment he had gone again, wailing up and down the train car about his lost sack.

When he finally came back, when the news bulletins were out and the entire train had banded together to help him (haha), he came back into our compartment and moaned his melodrama to Sophie up on the top bunk. She pointed down at the foot of the bed where he stood, at a bag that wasn’t even concealed, and asked if it was his. He clutched it and ran back to his compartment, and I imagined him holding it near to himself and weeping. The mystery was solved. Maurice had not been the victim of some roving band of gypsies. He was just an idiot. I might have laughed.

Finally there

Everything we’d read about the southern State of Kerala seemed to be the opposite of what we had found in Goa. Quiet, isolated communities situated on a network of backwater rivers. When I had mentioned to a friend who is extremely well traveled that I would visit Goa, she discouraged me from wasting my time and visiting Kerala instead. I was curious.

We didn’t know where to start, and were completely foreign to the layout of the State so we decided to head for the main city of Cochin (or Kochi). Cochin is the outer island of two islands that sidle the mainland, and to get there we had to take a rickshaw from the train station, over two bridges, and through the town. We were staying in Fort Cochin, where all of the hotels- er, homestays, were situated.

We had looked a place up online before we had arrived, and asked the driver to bring us there. When we pulled up, it didn’t appear quite as new or as colourful as it had in the pictures. I wasn’t really surprised.

“Do you have vacancies?”
“Oh yes sir, we have vacancies.” Four people were checking out.

We had a look at the room and it was as standard as anywhere else. Well, maybe the low-end of standard. I just couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it and we checked in.

We were hungry, so we decided to wander. There were historical sites to see, and despite the tour offers from rickshaw drivers we wanted to see it on foot. One guy hit us on the way out of the hotel. “Can I give you a tour?” And so on. I smiled and said the customary “not now. Maybe later.” We walked up the road a bit and ducked into a clothing shop. I was in the market for some light pants. All I had left were one pair of jeans because someone had left our laundry bag in Goa, which was subsequently rescued by Faiez and brought back to Delhi for pick up later. We were both out about half our clothes. And it was now far too hot for jeans.

When we emerged from the clothing shop (nothing fit me) the rickshaw driver was still standing there. “Would you like a tour now?” I was annoyed. We had been dogged by persistent rickshaw drivers several times before, and with the heat I wasn’t in the mood.

“I already told you no.”
“Maybe later?”
“I have your phone number, and I will call you if we need you. Now, if you ask me one more time today I’m not going to call you.” I don’t know if it was my tone, my snarkiness, or both, but his eyes got really big and he backed off.

Looking for Jewtown

And as it happens in the land of karma, we wandered around the centre of the island looking for Jewtown, but never seemed able to find it. The mid-day sun was blasting down on us and where Goa had been hot, Kerala’s heat was approaching stifling. Maria had already been burning from the last few days in the sun, so it was a good idea to keep her in the shade as much as possible.

Soon we could smell something that reminded me of my childhood. In Fogo, my hometown in Newfoundland, Canada, I remember when toilets were installed in the early 80’s. (It’s fairly remote.) Before that, sewage was often put into a bucket, which was then dumped in a small gulch next to the cove. Coming within a certain distance of that gulch had the very distinctive smell of sedimentary sewage, and as we wandered through the street in Kochi, that tell-tale smell hit us. We had come to a small bridge, and under the bridge was a very slow moving river of sewage. Shit river. This whole part of town featured a lattice of small bridges and rivers, all built for the purpose of moving sewage that mostly just sat stationary in the heat. We kept moving, looking for shade, and looking for Jewtown.

We tried to stay in the shadows, but that was risky business. To do that we had to walk under the tree-line on the sidewalk, but the sidewalks were often draped with random pieces of wire that swooped down from above and ended mid-air. It was impossible to know if any of them were live or not, but after seeing this video of an Indian man being electrocuted by exposed wire, I didn’t want to take any chances. WARNING: This video is graphic.

We had waited until arriving in the South to do our spice shopping. We thought that since many of them grow in the south, it would be best to just buy them there. And as we walked around the streets of Kochi, we came upon an organic spice shop with a great display in the entrance.

The smells inside were glorious, and we wandered through, whiffing everything that we found. It was here we returned the next day to spend a small fortune on spices. As we shopped, a tourist van pulled up out front, and half a dozen senior tourists breezed into the shop. Just as Maria was reaching for a canister, an old woman pushed in front of her to grab something, assuming a spot right where Maria was standing. She started jabbering in French and demanded a price, throwing the bag down like a turd when she heard it. Seriously, what is it with French tourists anyway?

We also found a fabric shop, where I bought some white linen for beach pants. I’d had no luck finding pants in that style that fit anywhere, in India or Korea. Long legs, see. So Maria had suggested going the custom route. In the end, the fabric cost about 12 dollars, and the tailoring about 8 (and was great quality). If I lived in India, I would have all of my clothes custom made!

After we had returned to the street, the heat and our lack of direction won, and I hailed a rickshaw driver. We asked him how much it would be to get to Jewtown, and he said “I will take you there and you pay me what you think it’s worth.” Huh? I was skeptical and impatient.

“Seriously. How much?”
“Thirty rupees.”

We got in and he began his tourism pitch. Of course. We told him we just needed a restaurant, by this point we were starved. He suggested one place that we had already checked out, but it seemed very soup-kitchen and sparse so we had passed over it. He suggested a restaurant in Jewtown called Ginger, and we said ‘sure’. We wanted to go to Jewtown anyway.

It’s called Jewtown because it was settled by a community of Jews at one point, who were likely fleeing persecution somewhere else. Although they’d had a history in this town there were only a few left. Approximately 7 according to our guide book. As far as I could tell upon our arrival, the only things there now were a synagogue, tourists and shops.

The rickshaw driver was still trying to make his case for a tour. I just wasn’t in the mood, and I’m sure my impatience was very clear. When I asked him again what the fare was for the ride, he said “twenty rupees.” He was trying to make a point. I agreed to call him later when we wanted a ride.

Jewtown Letdown

The restaurant “Ginger” turned out to be a very high end place for high end tourists. It was a beautiful building, built on the back of an antique warehouse (you have to walk through the antique showroom to get to the restaurant) and located out back on the water. Very beautiful. I was so hungry I would have paid the Western prices, but something about the touristy aspect of it didn’t sit with Maria so we left. We wandered through Jewtown trying to find her a hat, but the vendors were expecting ridiculous prices. We kept moving.

Then our rickshaw driver saw us leaving as he sat blocked in traffic, and gave me the sad dog eyes for not re-employing his services. Aw come on man seriously. We just want a restaurant and you haven’t been much help. Rickshaw drivers always assume tourists want the flashy tourist restaurants. I wrote it before – it can be disappointing to ask rickshaw drivers for anything, because often when you ask, you don’t get what you want, or you get the glitzed-up expensive tourist version of what you might want. Because we all love spending large sums of money everywhere we go. From what I understood there were two perceptions of foreigners: hippies and people with money. We were wearing sunglasses and I had shaved, so it was perceived that we had money.

As far as tourist traps go, we had found the perfect example. It reminded me more of Victoria, BC than Southern India. We passed jewellery, spice and clothing shops. All of them looked like a giant waste of time. White-haired package tourists loaded off buses and flooded the street, ushered into the shops and sauntering across people’s paths. We headed expressly away from area.

The flashy store fronts soon switched back to broken doorways and mysterious entrances.

Then we met the pepper ladies.

They captivated us. They were sifting pepper and said I could take photos. Then they politely explained that they make no money, and asked if I could give them some. It was the most charming and sincere appeal I’d had for payment since we had arrived in the country, so I gave them some bills and they seemed pretty happy. Where appropriate I like to pay people for allowing me to take pictures.

We walked a little longer, still looking for something to eat, and decided to just go back to the hotel for this coconut curry we had seen listed. Coconut curry! I go cuckoo for coconut. Kerela’s dishes were supposed to be frequented with coconut, and I was excited.

Excited until the lunch came. It was Indian terrible meal #2. And by terrible I mean completely bland. There were no spices in it. What? We joked that it should be considered a crime in India to cook without spices. Who does that?

Come to think of it, nothing about the Padikkal Residence was good. The food was crap, the room was average, the washroom was full of mosquitoes. I killed seven or so in five minutes. As much as I talk in these notes about hot water being a huge factor for me, another huge factor is mosquitoes. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The hotel took no care to keep them out, it was full of them. If the windows had screens and there was repellent plugged in, they were generally not there. I didn’t like the hotel at all, and after having seen dozens of other places during our walkabout, we decided to move to a new place for a better price on the second day. It was a homestay around the corner. The family lived upstairs in the house and there were a series of rooms on the first floor. It was clean and comfortable. If you ever go to Cochin, stay there. It was called the Vintage Inn.

Later in the day we found the Fort Cochin tourist area, a few crisscrossing streets with hometay hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. There was “Idiom,” an English bookstore charging Western prices. There was a “Coffee Day”, a Western-style coffee shop we had visited in other cities, except this one had no coffee. They were out.

It was early afternoon. Maria wanted to see the beach, I was indecisive. To get to the beach we had to get a ten-minute ferry, then get a rickshaw. So we took the boat and crammed into the small deck area with the cars, rickshaws, scooters, and other foot passengers. When we got there we asked a rickshaw driver how much to get to the beach, only to find out the beach was still almost an hour away.

Near our hotel, there was an evening dance/theatre show that featured an abridged version of Kerala’s traditional story-telling and dancing. I wanted to see that, having been referred to it by another traveler, and having seen posters for it all over town. If we were to make the evening show, we had to be back in time and a trip to the beach would effectively cancel that plan. So we walked around for a bit, then took the ferry back. As we waited for the boat, I photographed some of the marine traffic.

We walked around the tourist centre of Fort Kochi where we bought our theatre tickets, and where we decided to buy a tour of the elephant sanctuary the next day. Maria’s dream was to ride an elephant in India. We asked the booking agents if this would be possible, but no one could give a definitive answer, since no one could ever be sure whether or not the elephant caretakers would be in the mood to let people ride them on any given day. We hoped for the best and bought tickets for a tour the next morning.

The Killing of Baka

The theatre show was great. Even though it was only an abridged, tourist-adapted version of what the men do annually as part of a large festival, it was still amazing to see the process of the make-up (they do it all on-stage for an hour before the show), and the costumes, music, and performance. As they did their make-up onstage, I thought ‘aren’t they breaking one of the laws of theatre?’ They seemed to be dismantling the drama and surprise of the make-up by showing us its application. Maria took some pictures.

But I was wrong. We hadn’t seen the costumes yet, and with the music the drama was intense. The story goes like this: A violent, murderous forest-dwelling demon named Baka (red face and beard) terrorizes a village. A hero named Bhima (green face,) a Pandava Prince, must save his people from Baka. In this scene at the end of the performance, Bhima kills Baka.

The Death of Baka (video)

And you know despite the sign next to the stage that said “no flash photography during the performance” there were dozens of flashes during the whole show (as you can partly see in the video) Just like the Taj Mahal all over again. Ugh, tourists can be so inconsiderate.

After the show we wandered along the boardwalk, and found fisherman trying to sell fresh fish. You could buy the fish from them for around five or six dollars, then take it to the affiliated restaurant that would serve it to you for another five or so bucks. We found the strip of restaurants that were serving the fish and decided to give it a try.

Once again the power was out. We ate outside by candlelight, but even in the darkness I could tell that the fish had been undercooked. It looked raw inside, and was far too soft and fleshy. We sent it back. When it returned, it was crispy, but still totally unimpressive. Two bad meals in one day. Seriously Cochin.

We had our elephant tour at 7am so we had to get back to the hotel. We had found a place to have a beer (one of only three places in the town where you could,) and we got lost on the way home. We took a wrong turn down some outer road that was lined with a barbwire fence. I wasn’t sure if it was a jail or a military base. We walked and walked, trying to see something familiar, but found nothing. Finally we cut through a narrow catwalk toward the centre, where we saw a huge house built in the shape of castle behind a large wall. There was a plaque with an English name on the front. Someone came here with money. As we passed the gate a large dog burst to life and started barking, scaring the life out of Maria. Suddenly the narrow, poorly lit passage didn’t seem so inviting. She didn’t want to go further, but we didn’t really have a choice.

A lonely dog stood staring at us from down the path, barking in response to the bigger dog. Maria didn’t want to approach it, fearing a pack of stray dogs might be waiting a corner. I laughed. It was a lone little bitch with swollen teats just wondering what the hell was going on with all the barking. She side-stepped us as we passed. If anyone was going to be afraid of dogs at this point it would be me!

We found a guy walking down the street and he put us back on track. In the end, we hadn’t strayed far from our hotel, we had just taken a wrong road.

Bathing Elephants

We were up early for our elephant tour the next day. Our driver was supposed to arrive at 7:30. There was some travel time required, and the elephants were only bathed for a certain amount of time each morning. This was what we had paid to see.

I was getting impatient when the driver didn’t show up on time. He finally showed up twenty minutes late, and insisted that there was no problem with the time. That’s twenty more minutes I could have slept. And as it turned out in the end, twenty more minutes that we could have actually seen elephants.

He drove us through the dusty city of Ernakulam where we had originally arrived by train, then further out onto some semi-rural road. He didn’t have a very good idea of where he was going, and I wondered if he had even done this before. He was stopping to ask people who just waved him further up the road. Periodically you could see signs that indicated that we still had further to go yet.

After a few more stops we finally came to a narrow road. We got out and walked down to the water, where sure enough, two elephants were on their side getting scrubbed down by men, and a third was already on its feet, clambering out of the water. Ten or so tourists were standing around watching. Maria wasted no time, and waded into the water and started helping with the elephant scrub.

One of the elephant keepers asked a man beside me for a donation. The man replied “I’ve already paid for this tour, I don’t see why I should pay more.”

“Please sir, for us.” From what I understood, they didn’t see any of that tour money. It went to the booking agent and the driver. The tourists saw the washing, but when we went to the sanctuary we had to pay the admission and the driver/car entrance fee, and some arbitrary extra fee for having a camera. I doubted that the actual elephant keepers saw much of the money, other than what the sanctuary paid them.

I gave Maria some money and asked her to give it to them. I was still busy taking photos since the elephants were already being prepped for departure from the water. We had been late. I wasn’t impressed.

Soon another trainer asked a German woman for money, who got a little uppity about already having paid for this tour. I suggested that perhaps she could give a small tip since the trainers don’t likely see any of the tour money to which she implied that they had already paid. I let it alone. I don’t know if this was a deciding factor or not, but no surprise and to Maria’s disappointment, no one got to ride any elephants that day.

We followed the elephants up a road and into the sanctuary, where there really wasn’t much more to see. The elephants were being put to work, dragging palm leaves and branches to a feeding ground for a larger, older elephant who remained mostly out of sight. The show was over. It had lasted about 30 or 40 minutes. We had been told by the booking agent to expect 90.

There was a zoo on the sanctuary grounds, so we wandered through. The cages were dirty and seemed unkempt. I felt bad for the animals.

Soon the driver told us it was time to go. I was pretty unimpressed with the whole trip. The best part was the elephant bathing, which had been cut short by our driver’s tardiness. Little did we know that the grandest elephant display we could imagine was yet to come in Allepey.

Back at the hotel, we checked out and were able to leave our bags for a while. We took a tour with a rickshaw driver named Joseph, who described some of the things we had seen over the past day. I took some more pictures, but I was kind of ready to leave Cochin. After about an hour, we took the rickshaw to the bus station. The town had left a strange taste in our mouth and we were restless to get out of the city.

Cochin: Wha happened?

In hindsight, we weren’t sure if Cochin was too much of some things or not enough of others. The old buildings had Dutch and Portuguese influence, since they had historically been the colonial presences there. The massive trees we came across looked like something out of Jurassic Park, and had been brought from Brazil by the Portuguese to thrive to massive proportions in Cochin.

Culturally there was a mash of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews, and though they lived quietly side by side on a small island, (why is this such a big problem everywhere else where real estate is an issue?) we felt a confusion with the cultural identity of the area. I’m sure our short stay didn’t reveal very much to us at all, but from the dull streets to hordes of package tourists, it did ultimately have a rather bland feeling. It was a good trip to Cochin to see some of the local history and buildings of the area, but I can’t say there was much else there that was interesting to us.

Fortunately, the trip ended on a high note with Allepey.

Part IV: Kerala

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Posted by on February 9, 2011 in Life Abroad


Hey Maybe We Should Go to India Part III: Goa


Ever since its heyday as a hippie paradise in the 60’s, then a dance mecca in the 90’s, I had read that Goa’s primetime had passed and that it was now a destination for package tourists and aged hippies. But I felt like I couldn’t just go south and forego Goa altogether. I had dreamed of visiting there since my rave days in the 90’s, and wanted to at least get a glimpse of what it might have been then.

As we walked off the plane and onto the tarmac at Goa’s military base (also used as a commercial airport to manage the tourism demands,) it was evident that we had entered an entirely different region of the country. The air was hot and sticky, and Maria’s eyes widened with excitement. She had been so cold for so many days (excluding Jaipur,) so this was more along the lines of the tropical vacation she’d had in mind. She had never been anywhere like this before, so it was a welcome start to the second leg of our trip.

As we scooped up our luggage an older Brit named Ben asked if anyone was headed to Anjuna. We were. We split the taxi and started the ride through the heart of Central Goa toward the North.

Soon we saw the palm trees, the rice fields and the pockets of colourful Goan houses tucked back off the road. Women walking down the road, balancing baskets on their head stood out starkly on the landscape. Something was different about Goa. It was the colours. I noticed it right away.

Where other urban parts of India might have been dulled by the atmospheric dust and smog, the colours in Goa were popping out in every direction we looked. Some of it could be attributed to the quality of light. We were closer to the equator and given the time of year, perhaps the length of the sun’s rays on this part of the planet lent intensity to the colours. Bright reds, purples, and yellows. The lush tones of the vegetation. I had been excited to take photos like I had never been for a very long time.

Our co-rider, Ben, had been traveling non-stop since London and hadn’t slept. He seemed near the point of delirium and had been visiting Goa for decades, but you could still sense his excitement about being back. He explained many things along the way, and the driver was impressed by Ben’s familiarity with the area. When he took us off the main highway and along the back roads, Ben seemed as excited as we were, since he had never seen this scenic route before.

An example of a Goan style house with Portuguese and Indian influences.

After about thirty minutes of coasting through small towns and jungle scenes the driver dropped him off first, and we were only a few minutes further down the road. Our friend Faiez had reserved a room for us at the Villa Anjuna, which had come on the recommendation of another friend. The best thing about it was that it was steps from the beach. Unfortunately, that’s where the highlights ended.

Villa Anjuna. Don't get too excited about that brown water hot tub.

As for the room, it was entirely typical of low-end accommodation. And for the price, it was clear that we were in Goa and we were going to be paying Goan prices. I was about to find out what that meant.

We walked into the room and it was exactly something I’d expect normally in the 800 Rupee range (20 CAD.) Except this room was twice that. There was no hot water, and not even a piece of soap or toilet paper. I understood that it’s Goa, and near the beach, and you’re going to pay a premium for that (they had a pool… we didn’t use it,) but for crying out loud at least put a piece of soap and a half roll of damned toilet paper in the room. I know they’re making a killing off the high turnover of tourists so I don’t know why this is so difficult. I’m sure they only do it because they know they can get away with cutting the corners. But at a lot of these places, hospitality isn’t the priority as much as expecting the premium is.

It didn’t take long to realize that the Goa we had fallen in love with on the way from the airport was not the Goa we would be staying in. The entire beach front had been developing for the last fifty years, and though there was no modern atrocities such as condos or hotel complexes that reek of nouveau colonialism, the business people here knew they could charge a premium for even the smallest shack. The rickshaw drivers had a market cornered and they knew it; for a drive to nearby restaurants they were charging 150 Rupees. Anywhere else it would have been 20. Anything below 100 would have been reasonable. There was no bartering here; they knew the prices that each of them charged and there was no getting around them. We were going to be paying the premium anywhere in Anjuna.

It’s my own fault really. You don’t go to a place that’s catered to generations of tourists and expect to get deals. But I will say this; if you go to Goa, just avoid Anjuna Beach. Or go and see it, since there’s a lot of history there and it can be fun (if you like partying and/or drugs, though getting caught will get you in deep shit,) but don’t stay. Goa has plenty of other regions and beaches, and though it seems much harder now to find something a little less overrun, it is worth seeing. The chances are if the town or beach is in a guide book, it’s going to be totally overrun. If you see or hear of a place in Goa that’s NOT in the Lonely Planet, go there.

Anjuna Flea Market

I had pushed hard to arrive in Goa by Wednesday, the last day of our first week in India. The Anjuna Flea Market happens once a week, when scores of vendors descend on a large plot off the beach. We took the beach route there, passing cows sprawled out on the sand in the late-day sun, while behind them bar after bar pumped out house, downtempo, reggae, and remixed Indian music. It was exactly what I imagined it would be, complete with the hoards of foreign tourists. We made it to the Anjuna market in time for the “end of day sales,” but it didn’t take long to realize that this market was nothing like what he had grown accustomed to. It seemed that at least half the booths were run by foreigners, aging hippies who had descended upon Goa and had never left. They had spent a lifetime on the beach perfecting their crafts of making pipes, carving bowls, or cutting out leather accessories. The prices were astronomical. For all of the wanting I had felt to see this legendary market, I was finding myself sorely disappointed at what I had found. Every other booth was selling the usual fluorescent alien-emblazoned weed paraphernalia. How much pot did they smoke here, anyway?

We bartered with a few vendors, but ended up not buying anything even when they gave us their prices. Well, Maria bought a dress. The Anjuna Market didn’t have the same spirit as Indian markets, so neither of us had any real desire to buy anything there. It was a tourist trap. The sun was going down and people were packing up, so we left.

I did buy that white shirt from her on a roadside though.

Faiez (aka “The Faiezer”. As in Phaser. Like the gun.)

I hadn’t seen any friends from Toronto since we left for Korea a year ago, and I hadn’t really considered how great it would be to meet up with one in another part of the world. I met Faiez through a mutual friend in Toronto in the winter of early 2007, and we were part of a small clan that partied together almost every weekend. It was a miserable and heavily snowed-in winter, but being part of this group of friends and partying with them until the morning hours of every weekend in a secret placed called “Awesometown” made a terrible winter completely incredible. When I think back to my most recent years in Toronto as I reside now in Korea, it’s mainly that magical winter and those friends that I think about.

Faiez was a big part of that winter. Naturally hilarious and always laid back, I could not think of a better person to be reunited with in a place like Goa. He had been there for a week already, and later admitted that he hadn’t really done or seen anything except hang around the area reading a book and generally being laiiiiid back. It didn’t seem like there was much else you were supposed to do there. It was the beach.

When we returned from the market we called Faiez on the hotel phone. He had been sleeping.

“Where are you?” he asked.
“In the hotel lobby.”
“I’ll be right there.”

After the reunion we decided to take a rickshaw to go check out a Greek restaurant that had been recommended. When we arrived I was excited to find that it was actually like a Greek restaurant that you might find on the Greek Islands. Next to the sea, with a sweet breeze blowing, simple and elegant design, with chill music wafting from ubiquitous speakers. Would the food be as great as Greece’s, too?

“Ouzo?” Faiez was on it.
“Three Ouzo’s please.”
“I’m sorry sir we’re out.”
“Would Sambuca offend you?” Faiez asks us.
“No no.”
“Three Sambuca please.”
They did have that.

When it arrived aflame, someone had the idea to sip it.
Fuck that.

We looked at the menu. It looked Greek. The waiter returned with our drinks.

“Does this have garlic in it?” I ask, pointing to something that read as delicious.
“Yes sir.”
“Hmm… is there anything you can make without garlic?” The ol’ drill.
“Let me check with the kitchen.”
He goes off. I get that familiar feeling. He returns to inform me that most of their dishes are made with garlic and that nothing can be done about it. So then, not exactly like Greece.

“We can go somewhere else and eat, I don’t care.” Faiez says. He was looking forward to this restaurant. I feel bad, but I’m hungry.
“Sure.” I say. Yeah, I’m a killjoy. I hate being a killjoy when this happens, but I never understand why can’t a restaurant just throw down a hunk of chicken or something without smothering it in garlic. Problem solved. But in a great number of restaurants in many places, this is just impossible.

We drink up and head down the road in search of something. We come to a dead end and I’m well aware that I’m the reason we’re still wandering indecisively.

“What about this place?” It’s tucked into the corner of the road, and lists a variety of world foods on its board. Tibetan Food. Hmmm. The ‘Hmmm’ is collective. We venture in.

The place is full of the exact type of people who have seemed to come from elsewhere, but decided to stay long term in Goa. The kind of place the locals and long-termers know about and where tourists might not venture. Jackpot.

We order a traditional Tibetan plate and stare down the menu. I had been hearing about “Special Lassi” in the guide books, specifically with a warning not to drink it. It’s a sort of fruit milkshake that is made “special” by using marijuana, or more likely, hash oil. We don’t see it on the menu. There is a guy sitting at the table next to us by himself, and he looks as though he might have enjoyed a few Special Lassis in his time.

“Do you get Special Lassi here?” Maria asks. Not because she wants it, but because the guide books have warned of it to mythical proportions. The guy laughs and says with an Italian accent “You will not get Special Lassi here. Maybe at a certain time of the year, or in the North, but not here.”

Faiez starts a conversation with him. Faiez could have a conversation with anyone. Shortly after, he is joined by another guy who has undoubtedly also spent some time in Goa. We don’t get the first guy’s name but the new guy is named Pepé, and he takes the conversation over from there. I don’t catch all of it, as most of it seems to be a sort of internal musing that happens to be verbalized through a hazy Italian accent, but I do catch a wisp of something.

“No one is perfect. There WAS a guy that was perfect in Peru, but he died two years ago.”

– Pepé

As it turned out, Pepé was a vendor who made and sold clay chillums. If you’re not familiar with what that is, you can read more about them here. Faiez asked if he could take a picture, and Pepé shook his head briefly and said “no you may not take a picture of me.”

Soon their food came and the chatter died down. Our food came shortly after, and though it had taken close to 45 minutes, it was incredible.

After dinner we rickshawed it back to the hotel and decided to hit the beach strip in search of beer. First we hit “Curlies”, and if you’ve been to Anjuna you know where I’m talking about.

Stepping out of the sand we climbed the wood steps to the second floor, overlooking the beach and the moon-lit ocean. The wood slats were covered in sand, and the low-level tables were sided by cushions on the floor. Go ahead, lay right back and chill out. You’re in Goa. We took a seat and placed an order for beers.

Everyone around us was smoking hash. Par for the course. At the other end of the floor was an enclosed dancing room, where light bounced around and bass pounded on the glass walls. Goa had been the mecca of the 90’s trance scene, and it was back then that I had taken an interest in coming here. A lot had changed since then. Noise bylaws had been passed, and no bar was allowed to play loud music after 10pm. I had always found myself feeling like it was much later than it was, only because everyone had to keep the music so low as though grandma was sleeping one shack over. As a result of the noise bylaw, Curlies had built this encased dance room, where you could go to get your dancing rocks off.

We had been joined by a couple that we had briefly met on the road back by the restaurant. He was from Saudi Arabia, she was from Scotland. They were living in Dubai. They were both completely carefree hippies, and I wondered how that worked for them in conservative Dubai.

Faiez, Maria and the Saudi went to explore the dance room. I sat with his girlfriend chatting for a while. As I did, something crawled under my leg and took a seat.

A white and orange cat. Clean. The cat laid right down and got the attention it wanted.

After petting it for a few minutes, the cat curled right up and went to sleep. Deep, solid sleep.

When we left about a half hour later, I left the cat sleeping soundly. I’d only hoped the next people that came along to take the spot didn’t sit on her.

Next we went to “Lillyput” (again, if you’ve been there, you know it) and took a seat down front, looking at the beach. We ordered some more beers and were savoring the evening when we lost Maria. She was asleep in her chair, head slumped.

At some point I had been talking about the differences between what we’d experienced so far in Goa versus our impressions of the first part of our trip. I asked Faiez “don’t you find it generally expensive here?”

“Maybe, but even if it is expensive, I’m buying.” Good point. Here was the beach. Here was great food. Relatively, it was cheaper than almost any other spot you might visit with a similar setting.

Faiez and I chatted when he started fading as well. I looked over at him and said “you’re falling asleep too, aren’t you?” and he snapped awake “no no, you said blah blah blah” (I can’t remember what I said that he had repeated, but that is a good approximation).

And then he was gone.

Past midnight in Goa with the party animals.

So I sat quietly by myself, sipping my beer until it was finished, then woke up the sleeping beauties and started the beach route back.

The next day we had breakfast up the road in a place Faiez recommended for their coffee. What. Coffee.

Ah! Real coffee!

I knew I didn’t have much time in Goa, and had wanted to see Old Goa before we left. Anjuna is in the North, and next Maria and I would be headed South. Old Goa was somewhere in between and slightly to the East. It was more accessible from the North, so I thought it might be best to see it before we headed South.

Old Goa

Faiez sort-of rued the fact that he hadn’t done much since his arrival, and said “screw it. Let’s go right now.” We finished breakfast and got a rickshaw out to Old Goa for a tour, which was really just four corners featuring some 16th Century Portuguese churches. (Goa was colonized by the Portuguese, who didn’t get kicked out until the 60’s. Then the hippies moved in.) Now if there is more to Old Goa and you know of it, correct me here so I have a reason to go back.

For dinner we went back to the same place we’d had breakfast, where Faiez and I decided on the Chicken Biryani. A classic. Sadly, it was the first of three disappointing meals I had in India. Drat.

We sat next to the outdoor Tandoori oven, marveling at the young man pounding out the naan bread and popping it onto the side of the oven for about 45 seconds. Faiez commended him on his skills and he blushed.

Adeus, Anjuna

We had missed the sunset the night before, having wasted it on wandering through the Anjuna Market. Maria did not want to miss it again, and neither did I. We hadn’t seen a sunset over the Arabian Sea yet, and Goa was supposed to be known for them.

We hit the beach route again to find a place named ‘Tantra’ we had seen the night before.

Strolling along Anjuna Beach (video)

We arrived and got a “bunk” up top on the front right side (of that picture), and hunkered down with a few cold beers to watch the sun go down. Everything was perfect. Completely and utterly perfect. Every once in a while we would feel our bunk shake, an indication that our waiter was climbing our ladder to come check in on us.

“Some more beer?”

“Yes sir, three more beer.”

I loved Kingfisher beer. I had been drinking the same light Korean beer for almost a year, and I was ready for a change. I loved Kingfisher so much I bought a t-shirt with the logo on it. Yes, I am that guy.

That sunset in that bamboo bunk with that company was the highlight of my time in India. And just to make things even sweeter than they already were, when we left after having a couple of beers each, our bill came to about ten bucks.

We’d spent a long day under a hot sun, and we were zonked. Nobody was up for a late night, and once again, Maria and I were headed out the next day. We agreed on breakfast together and called it a night.

Next stop: Colva

We had looked at the map and referred to the guide book, and as best as we could tell, Colva was a good destination. Maria liked its quaint description (it sounded like it wouldn’t be overrun with tourists) and I liked the fact that it was a fishing town. Being from a fishing community myself, I’ll take any chance I get to visit a foreign fishing town to see the differences and similarities.

We spent the morning hanging out with Faiez, wandering around and taking pictures, then said our good-byes around lunch time.

Faiez was leaving Goa later that day for Delhi, where he was meeting his parents to begin an entirely different kind of vacation. We wanted him to come South with us to Kerala and for a short while he entertained the idea, but the reality of his existing plans couldn’t be shaken. So we said our good-byes.

We took a rickshaw to the train station, and headed two hours south to Madgaon Station, where we caught another rickshaw to Colva.


So we arrive in this “quiet fishing village” (thanks again Lonely Planet) and find it overrun with new resorts, all booked up with tourists. The first four hotels we went to had no vacancy.

We found a room near the beach for a more reasonable price than Anjuna, and it was new (surprise!) and clean. In the next parcel of land over, a new resort was being constructed. It seemed as though they can’t get the resorts up fast enough along the coastline in Goa.

We spent the day walking the beach, and I tried to find a fishing boat that wasn’t skirted by tourists hiding out in their shade. I managed to get a few close-ups of the boats, but was unable to find one that was without people. We had some dinner way down the beach, then after sunset we headed back. (I did get this shot earlier the next day after clearing all the beer cans and liquor bottles.)

I really don’t have much to say about Colva other than it was full of Russian families. I was bemused, but by this time Maria was getting tired of what she considered typical Russian tourists. Speedos and mullets, hoorah.

Maybe my aversion to other tourists helped me find what turned out to be the best lunch we had in India. After wandering through some scrub to have a look-see at another room, (“do you have hot water?” “we can bring you a bucket of hot water if you give us notice”) we rounded a swamp and came to this little fenced in dirt square with a shack and some tables out front. Two of the tables were occupied. One by an Indian family, the other by a group of Indian men. Bingo.

“I have a feeling this is a good spot.” I said to Maria. If the locals were eating here, the food must be good.

We had a seat and ordered the fish special “Goan style.” When in Rome. During our time in Anjuna we hadn’t tried (or hadn’t seen?) anything Goan style, so it was time.

When the fish came, it was FREAKING DELICIOUS. There is nothing I can say that this picture doesn’t.

Taken moments before she had food all over her face

We went back for breakfast the next day because that restaurant was the highlight of Colva.

We wanted to book our ticket to Kerala for the next day, but after visiting the train station, were told that the best we could do was be put on a waiting list. It was an overnight train, and sleepers were in high demand. We logged on to the website later to check our status. (The trains might be incredibly outdated, but at least you can check your waiting list status online!) We didn’t have spots on the train.

Maria was disappointed. She wanted to get out of Colva. It was kind of boring, beach and all. I suggested we head a few kilometers down the beach to the next town, Benaulim, since it was the same distance back to the train station anyway and was somewhere different. So there we went.

Some other random images from Colva:




The rickshaw driver dropped us off on the main strip and we stood there trying to figure which way we should go. An old lady sitting outside of her shop said “hello” and waved us over.

“We need a room. Do you have one?”
“Is it available?”
“How much is it?”
“Three fifty.”
Three-fifty? What was it, a hole in her backyard?
“Can we see it?”

She let us into the room around back of the store, and it was as standard as any eight hundred Rupee room in any other town. I could already tell by this that Benaulim wasn’t your usual tourist centre.

“Is there hot water?”
“We’ll take it.”

Perhaps I was growing. Perhaps this is the enlightenment that people go to India for, to learn how to take cold showers. Maybe I’d meditate and do some yoga in there too.

We were really just killing one night so we could book the train the next evening. Already Benaulim seemed better than Colva in that it was smaller, and there were more Indians along the road than white tourists. We went for a walk five minutes up the road to a dead end. We had seen the town centre.

We came back and had some dinner. More fish. Delicious. We were on a roll.

That night we had a visitor in our room.

The next day we got up and were headed out for breakfast and the old lady was still sitting in her spot in front of the shop. Same outfit. Wait a minute. Had she moved? WAS SHE THE FROG WATCHING US ALL NIGHT?

“When are you leaving?” she asked. Not in a friendly curious kind of way like I might have expected from everyone else we had met, but more in an old grouch kind of way.

“Our train is leaving tonight.”
“Three hundred.”
“Excuse me?”
“If you’re not staying for the night then it will just be three hundred to leave your bags.”
“Um… it’s okay. I’ll find a spot for them.” And I would, since the exchange kind of left a bad taste in my mouth.

Head Out on the Highway

Maria had been anxious to rent a scooter since we had arrived in India, and Faiez had urged me to do it in Anjuna. He had done it before our arrival to check out the sites, but the small roads there were overrun with cars and tourists on a lot of tight corners. I’d had some moped experience in Greece, and am not too proud to admit that I almost killed myself a couple of times. Once when I underestimated a turn and skidded sideways into oncoming traffic (fortunately the car saw me with plenty of notice and stopped), and once when I was driving the bike off the lot and hit the accelerator too hard and almost went straight into a wall before I got onto the brake. I had been hesitant about trying it out in India, but Benaulim’s quieter setting got my courage up.

I rented the bike for the day (and the guy held our backpacks for us at no extra cost,) but I wanted to give it a few minutes test drive before I dare put Maria on back. The man let me take it around his yard, pointing out the features, and I was sure I could do it. I started slowly, putt putting a few feet, then hitting the break. I had to make a turn to come back around, so I had to give it a bit of gas. So I did. Too much. And in my moment of panic instead of locking the brake I turned my hand more, revving the accelerator. Trying to avoid the parked truck in front of me, I went down sideways, and into the side of the truck. Omg did I really do that AGAIN? Idiot.

The guy comes racing over but I’m already getting up. I’m fine, but the bike has three scratched on the side. Nice one.

He just brushes it off and gives me further instruction, then takes me across the road to a field. I take it around a few times, then I feel ready. I have the hang of it. Bring on the passenger.

Maria gets on back and we take a couple of more rounds in the field. If I did something stupid and break my own face that’s one thing, but I did not want to risk injuring Maria. I would never forgive myself. So after a few problem-free trips around the field with her on back, I feel ready. Still hoping that this was not a giant mistake.

We head out on the road through town. We come to the first turn. First destination: the beach. We take a left. Easy. Indians drive on the left side so it’s a no-brain turn, and from then on it’s a straight cruise down to the beach. We pull into the lot and she hops off with all the Indian men staring. YEAH, THAT’S RIGHT. HOW YOU LIKE ME NOW? I can drive a moped.

After some time on the beach I’m feeling brave, so we get back on the scooter. We pass the main road turn off and venture out of town, out onto the rural roads of the area for a nice ride and some photos.

We returned to the beach for the sunset and some dinner, and to check our standing on the train waiting list. We’re on! We return the bike. I am as shocked and delighted as our guy that we made it back without incident. Hooray! Now I wonder if I should buy a scooter in Korea…

Bye, Goa

Goa was the only place where we had felt like we had left India and entered some sort of parallel resort universe. It was more like an Indian theme park over run with Westerners, and didn’t have the feeling at all of anywhere else we had visited on our trip. Even in our favourite spot, Benaulim, we soon realized that off the main strip there were entire gated communities of foreign retirees. We just never saw many of them because they were too old to go anywhere. (Except for one wheelchair we saw getting pushed up the road.) During one of our days on the beach watching Russians families in speedos to the left, and French retirees sleeping in the shade to the right, we realized that anyone who comes only to Goa before going home has not visited India. There are elements of India in Goa, but it feels distinctly different from India. Fifty years of settlement by Western hippies and tourists has definitely left a long-term impression on the area. I don’t mean to discourage anyone from going there. But if you do, that is what you will find.

When we got back to Madgaon station we check the posted list. Yep, we were still on. Next to us on the seating arrangement were three French names, all in their fifties (they list your age.) Oh yeah, what could possibly go wrong there?

Part IV: Kerala
Kochi > Allepey


Posted by on February 7, 2011 in Life Abroad


Hey Maybe We Should Go to India Part II c: Jaipur


After reading about Jaipur’s markets it seemed there was no point missing this city, known along with Delhi and Agra as “The Golden Triangle”. It was back in the direction we needed to go anyway, and the lively descriptions of the city had piqued my interest. I was not disappointed.

I had booked at the Anuraag Villa based on a quick web search that had some nice pictures, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. The web images are always more impressive than the actual building. After a somewhat aggravating train ride (an American family sat behind us and an old woman hen-pecked her son-in-law and granddaughter for about an hour straight) we arrived in the late morning. It had been another pre-dawn rise for the train, but when we arrived everything started to finally fall into place.

I don’t know if it was becuase our trip had started off on the wrong foot and we had never really been able to synchronize until now, or if we had been getting over jet lag, or that once we arrived in Jaipur the weather was FINALLY warming, but by the time we got to the hotel and saw our room I knew we were getting on the right track. I had asked to see the room before we checked in, and was pleasantly surprised. Here was something that warranted the price. It was still less than twenty dollars CAD, but compared to the other places we had stayed, we had upgraded to palace.

The room had double antique, hand-painted wooden doors with an old fashioned latch, and was spacious with marble floors. It was flooded with sunlight and I opened up the double windows to let the air in. The bathroom was also large, with warm water (not hot – I let it go this time, this room was great) with soap and toilet paper! Wow, an actual hotel. The ceiling of the room had colourful hand-painted designs that bordered the room. This was a great place. I have no idea why I didn’t take a photo of it.

We had breakfast in the back courtyard, a large yard filled with old vegetation and tables set out on the grass/dirt. Omelettes with masala chai. Oh masala chai, I miss you so much. I should tell you about that right now because this tea really was a central part of our trip.

Magical Masala Chai

Anyone who knows me is well aware of my coffee-driven lifestyle. I must have delicious espresso at least two times a day or things just ain’t gonna be right. I’d already had some run-ins with ordering coffee on my trip so far, thinking I would get some blend of exotic Indian coffee, then ending up with a cup of Nescafe. I can drink instant coffee when I have to, but Nescafe is just terrible. It’s the Tim Horton’s of instant coffee.

It didn’t matter when I found masala chai. Like some Calvary of angels as I lay dying face down in a desert of freeze-dried instant coffee granules, masali chai came to me there in that garden and delivered me from my longing. Black tea steeped in milk with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, cardamom, and fennel seeds, it is the most delicious tea ever, and you should try it if you haven’t. Starbucks ripped it off with a lame, over-priced version of it called a “Chai latte” if you can’t get the real thing. I had seen the real deal being prepared and served by street vendors, but hadn’t really considered it until I was hankering for a coffee and Maria suggested I try it. When I did, it quickly because a substitute for my espresso requirements.

Once we had eaten breakfast and basked in the first warmth we’d felt since arriving, we walked toward the centre of town to the “Old City”. It was there in the Old City where Jaipur’s famous bazaars could be found, and there were some items we needed to find for our impending beach destinations in Goa and Kerala.

Soon we were face-deep in traffic and dust as we followed the main road toward the Bazaar. I was trying to keep up with the images I was seeing around me. As early as our arrival in Delhi I had realized that India is the land of a million photographs. You could stand and turn in one spot for an hour and never run out of things to shoot. It can be overwhelming on the senses, so many things going on at once, and so much of it gone in the blink of an eye.

He's busy looking at Maria

construction site

One thing that caught my eye was a young man in a booth brewing chai, stirring the milk furiously as it boiled over a gas flame. Dumping some ingredients in, stirring it, then using the ladle to flick a fine stream of the tea from the pot to his mouth. Complete precision. I watched him do this over and over again, adding something, stirring, flicking a stream of it toward his mouth to give it a quick taste. He wore a pressed dress shirt, and not a spot of tea had hit it anywhere. I tried to get a picture but it was useless. He was just too fast.

Every vendor that we met seemed to have their own magic. Their own method of perfection that they had found, and trying to capture any of its essence in a still photograph seemed like a cheap, shallow effort at grasping something would never be comprehended later.

After wandering for some time we finally found the Main Bazaar. Streets upon streets of booths, selling just about everything you could ever imagine. Not just the usual Indian wares – sandals, shawls, blankets, clothes. It was an everyday market as well. Various sizes of rope, chain, lamps, and dishes- anything you might need for the house. It seemed like a good idea to buy nothing just yet, but to wander around and discover what the market was all about.

women shopping

The next two days mostly consisted of this. For most of the first day we wandered through the streets of the Bazaar, browsing, dodging all of the salesmen who wanted us to “just come in and look”. Wandering down a small side street, I started to witness things that felt like personal moments in everyday lives. The camera came out and I just shot everything I saw.

Jaipur is known for its kites. At any time, you see a half dozen kites flying in any part of the sky. Here a boy watches his family create a spool.

People were bewildered and flattered that I wanted to take their photo, often disappointed when they saw that I was not shooting digital and had no resulting photo to show them. At this point I started using Maria’s camera to take similar photos with it as I had with my film camera, only to have something to show them for their cooperation.

Perhaps one of the most iconic sights I had come upon in all of our time was of Shazwan Singh, who sat next to a small temple in a bright pink shawl. This white-bearded man sat there as though he had always been sitting there. I wanted so badly to capture it, and as I motioned with my camera he gave a slight nod for the go-ahead.

As I started firing off images I was stopped by an excited shop keeper nearby, who insisted that I add another local elder who was currently easing up the street.  Rakesh Tanwaz sat down and I photographed them both.

Soon we had a small crowd around us, and I felt as though we were photographing local celebrities. The shop keepers were excited that we were photographing the men, and the men themselves seemed to be enjoying this moment of popularity.

The attention soon turned to Maria, when the men of the neighbourhood all wanted to be photographed with her. I was humoured endlessly on our trip by this factor- all of the men loved Maria and wanted to be photographed with her, except they always wanted me to take the picture. A picture they would never see again. They all wanted a turn being in a photo with her, and one man even edged his way into the photo as I was shooting her with his friend.

The man gave me his name, and the names of the men I mentioned above so that I could send him the pictures when they were processed. They were all so friendly and inviting, and I left with a great feeling about all of them.

I had found a great photo lab and was able to process all of the film I had shot to that point, for an even better rate than I get in Korea. So when I picked the negatives and CD up the next day, I went straight to the negatives of those men, printed them all twice and headed back to their street. (If I could find it in the maze of the Bazaar!) It didn’t take long. The first thing we saw was old Shazwan Singh easing up the road and I summoned him with the pictures in hand.  There was nothing we could say to each other with language, but when I gave him the ten or so photos he seemed very satisfied. I left him there and continued on to find the other shop owners and give them their photos as well.

As I dropped off the photos at each of the shops, the men were surprised and delighted to see them. They were so grateful, shaking my hand and showing their friends around them. Cameras aren’t completely uncommon anywhere, but you got the impression that these men don’t often take pictures of themselves while they get on with their everyday lives. As I ventured further down the street and gave out more photos, the more it seemed like there was a wave of joyful appreciation rising up around us.  It felt good for once to not just be that tourist that walks through a town, trying to invasively steal moments. It was nice to be able to give some of the images back for once.

As we came back up the road Shazwan Singh was strolling back down, hands behind his back, grinning like the cat that caught the canary. The men greeted him and he revealed the photos that he carried. In return, one of the men gave me two old Indian coins he had been keeping in his wallet.

Modifying the Haggle

Although we didn’t jump right into shopping in Jaipur, we had perfected a system by the time we left.

There were some items that Maria had wanted to buy, and I was becoming all too familiar with how much of a battle each purchase could be. And for the most part, how time consuming. As we started early on the second day I adopted the role of “impatient husband” and Maria the “passive wife”. The salesmen were already out on the stoops trying desperate to get us inside. (“HELLO! First customer of the day I make you a special deal.” Etcetera.) We had a list of things we needed, though we drifted as though we were in need of nothing. If Maria saw a dress she was interested in, she would allow the men to usher her casually in “just for a look”. I would stand outside the shop, sighing, rolling my eyes, muttering “ONE MINUTE Maria.” By doing this the men knew that they couldn’t take all the time they wanted to show their entire inventory.

“Come in sir, come in and sit.”

“I’m fine out here because I am leaving in one minute. Hurry up Maria…”

The men show Maria some things. She shows faint interest. Of course they explain how it’s the finest quality and how it matches her style perfectly. I cross my arms. She asks them the price and they name it. She looks out at me and I shake my head and say “forget it, now let’s go.”

Maria dawdles like she’s disappointed and heads for the door. The men ask her to name her price. She names her price or looks at me and I look at the item like it’s a turd. “I wouldn’t pay more than ____ for that.” Maria shrugs haplessly and steps further toward the door. The men are getting the impression that all of the pressure is coming from me, and so turn to me to close the deal. Except I’m the one who doesn’t want to buy and wants to go. Then we get the price we want and we walk away laughing.

In hindsight it was just as well that we were a bit hard with the haggling because it seemed that nothing we bought was ever really worth what they wanted for it. A dress Maria bought started to lose its thread after a couple of days. An “authentic camel leather” pair of sandals that I bought started to wear down immediately on the soles, inside and out. There were holes in it by the time the trip was over. When the vendors know that there are a hundred others selling the same things as they are and all you have to do is walk down the street, the ball really is in your court.

By the end of the day we were exhausted. I was getting crabby with aggressive salesmen who were trying to pull us off the sidewalk. At one point a man said “excuse me sir!” and I half turned and said “no thanks!” to which he replied “I just want to pass please.” (It was a narrow walkway.) He squeezed through and faced my scowl with a smile, and I had to laugh at myself. You just have to love their laid-back smiles.

Aggressive monkey

It was bound to happen. Not only because there are so many of them lurking above the shops in Jaipur, but because if there’s a dangerous animal that might attack you, I will manage to get too close to it.

As we moved up the sidewalk and came to a tiny road laneway entrance, Maria said “look! Monkey!” Indeed there was a monkey on the low roof right in front of us, looking down. To our immediate right was a large male monkey, sitting on a concrete stoop next to the sidewalk. Above him, a mother and baby monkey looking down at him, as though waiting for him to come up with something for them to eat. Our presence spooked him, and he deftly climbed up the wall to join them on the low roof.

I thought they were just going to hang out up there, so I jumped up on the concrete stoop to get out of the traffic and position myself to get a photo. Nope. Once I got onto his stoop, he leaned down over that wall and showed me his teeth, growling and getting very irritated. Maria said “get off of there!” and a passing man looked at me wide-eyed and shook his head. Okay, that’s enough. The monkey might pounce on me at any moment, and those are big teeth, and I like having two eyes, and I really don’t need rabies right now. I backed off and we left, fast. Oh well, you can’t get every shot.

Aggressive bar guy

Despite Jaipur being the craziest so far for traffic, dirt and dust, we really loved it. On the second day we managed to squeeze in some historical sight-seeing, and of course, enjoy the amazing food. It wasn’t as easy to sit and have a beer somewhere there (at ¾ of the restaurants don’t seem to serve it,) so when I saw a sign that said “BAR” down a small alley, after a long hot day I thought “hey.” Maria followed me down some stairs into this near-bare chamber that had nothing but a counter with two deep freezers behind it, and a half dozen tables were a few clusters of men sat quietly drinking. I made small conversation with the bartender who seemed friendly enough, and was accompanied by a younger man who stood at the side of the bar doing nothing.

I asked the bartender if I could take a photo and he nodded yes, so I began to set up the tripod to get a shot of the bar where they stood. As I did this the other man looked at me and I asked “do you mind being in a photo?” He said

“Who said you could take a photo in here?”

“He did.”

“What makes you think you can take photographs in here?”

“I’m sorry. I asked, I thought it would be okay.”

“You cannot take photos in here. Do not take photos in here.”

I was already putting the tripod away. The feeling of general well-being I had gotten from the bartender was fading away fast.

“I’m not going to take any photos. I’m sorry, it seems to be a misunderstanding.”

We took a table and Maria immediately wanted to go. So did I. The men sitting at the tables were watching us, and it didn’t feel like they wanted friendly conversation. Just to keep an eye on things I glanced over at one of the men who was staring at us and casually nodded. He nodded back. Then they all got up and left. It felt like we had crashed their party.

“So umm, you wanna go?” I asked Maria.


“Okay.” We finished half the beer and got out of there.

Other highlights

Charming snakes and tourists

The Wind Palace. An ancient palace where a Maharaja kept his harem. Each woman had a room with a window where she could watch life in the city without being seen.

Random memories that don’t need any chronology:

-After a delicious and massive dinner, Maria had left at least half her meal untouched. She asked to take it away, and they wrapped it and bagged it for her. As we left the restaurant a beggar woman held her hand out for money, and I suggested to Maria that she give her the food. So she did. Maria said she didn’t seem very impressed at first, but took it anyway.

We went for a short walk to the bar mentioned above, then back to find a rickshaw back to the hotel. As we climbed in, a boy of about eight was asking me for Rupees. I try not to make a habit out of giving panhandlers change, especially kids. I just don’t like the idea of having them rely on that as they get older. I told the boy no a couple of times and as we got in the rickshaw he hit my leg and said “no good!” What? I looked at the boy and laughed. “You’re no good!” I said back to him. “Don’t hit people!”

It turns out the mother was the woman we had give the food to, and when she saw her son calling me no good she came up and smacked him on the head and saying something about “good food.” At least it didn’t go to waste.

-Jaipur is a generally insanely busy city, with tons of traffic and noise. Fortunately our hotel was far off the main roads, but as a result our drivers could never find it. Every hire resulting in a wild goose chase, and we weren’t familiar enough with the city to help with the directions.

One particular driver had no idea where he was going. I tried to show him the business card, I tried to show him on the map, but he wasn’t having any of it. Maria surmised that he likely couldn’t read, and therefore had no interest in seeing anything like that. Every few minutes he’d stop to ask someone where the place was, and no one else seemed to know either.

Although the ride was at least a half hour more than it should have been, we were pretty entertained by his general insanity. As he booted down the road he would sing out, randomly start laughing out loud, whistling, and checking out the ladies as they cut across the road. It’s funny how Indian men seemed to check out the women even more heartily than North American or Korean men in general. It’s like if you have less to see, you spend more time trying to stare and fill in the blanks.

Eventually the man pulled over and decided he was going to take some pictures of us (er, Maria) with his cell phone. So we took his picture too. There really isn’t a point to this story, except that if you go to India (or have been), you’re no doubt going to meet some of the most colourful and charming people in the form of rickshaw drivers.

Next stop: Goa

Our original itinerary had included Mumbai, but we were starting to consider that we had almost eaten through our first of three weeks and we weren’t sure we wanted to commit to the time it would take to travel in and out of there. We had big ambitions to get all the way to the south, and the size of the country and time we had was starting to become a consideration.

During our time in Agra, we had heard from a friend from Toronto who was currently hanging out in Goa. Maria and I had been half on the fence about going to Goa, and had been told by a friend to skip it altogether. But it seemed like a good place to start heading south, and I thought it would be great to hang out with Faiez while stopping through.

The travel time by train would have cut into our short vacation by at least two days (if there were no delays by train. Ha.) So we had decided to just go ahead and fly. We departed from Jaipur airport for a flight to Goa via Mumbai, and for only half a day’s travel, we were finally headed to the start of our tropical vacation.


Part III: Goa
Anjuna > Colva > Benaulim


Posted by on February 6, 2011 in Life Abroad


Hey Maybe We Should Go to India Part II b: Agra


Think Positive.

So we’re on the train to Agra. Five hours to the destination. We hope to get there in time to get to the Taj Mahal and get tickets for the next day. Otherwise we’ll be going on Saturday, and for some reason that doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Maria and I are in the top bunks, and two middle aged Indian men are on the lower bunks. One works busily on a lap top. The other is napping and snoring.

We take a rest, since we’ve been up since 4am freezing, but an hour or so later I’m restless. I’m sitting up in bed and the man on the laptop sees me and invites me to share his seat. There’s lots of room, and he has a great view of the countryside as the train rolls on.

A view from the train (links to youtube)

Maria wakes up shortly after, and she joins us on the lower bunk. We watch a hundred images a minute. Two dogs chasing each other through a rice field. A small boy squeezes his bike under a fence. A woman is doing the laundry. There’s some cows. There’s a small lake of motorcycles waiting to cross the tracks, waiting for our train to finish its pass-through. I wish there was a way to linger in the countryside and just photograph everything.

The man on the laptop has glanced at me a couple of times, since I am looking over his computer screen to see out the window. I don’t pay any mind to him or what he is doing- the world outside is too interesting. Maria and I sit in silence for a very long time, shooting short videos of the world as it passes by. On the train, vendor after vendor passes, selling tea (chaaaaiiii chaiiii chaiiiiiii), coffee (er, Nescafe), cookies, biryani, water, and other things that I can’t identify. The man sleeping in the next bunk snores on.

At some point I glance down at the man’s computer screen without realizing what I’m doing. He’s working on some kind of data sheet in Word.

Glock handguns:         9

Hand grenades:          12

Anti-mine vehicles:     15

Those were the things that I recognized. Whatever else I saw in that glimpse were various other types of military gear or weaponry, and quickly I realized the busy man beside me was a very serious person. I looked back at the window. I didn’t see nothing, I don’t know nothing.

The train is slowing down. We’re approaching a station. A band of monkeys are making their way over a series of shacks, looking for something to pilfer.

“Monkeys!” Maria says.

“Monkeys.” I repeat. Those fuckers are trouble.

“Yes… monkeys.” The military man says. “They are everywhere. You must be careful of them.”

“I haven’t seen monkeys yet.” I say.

“Oh you will see them everywhere. Especially if you are going to Jaipur.”

We will be in Jaipur. I remember we don’t have any rabies shots. We requested them from the Korean doctor, but he said “rabies isn’t a problem. It’s only an issue if you’re coming into contact with mountain animals.”

OR MONKEYS. Who really wants a rabid monkey coming at you when you haven’t had your rabies shots? The last thing I need right now is rabies.

Shortly before we arrive in Agra the man has put his laptop away and strikes up further conversation. “So how do you like India?”

“I love it so far. Never a dull moment.”

“Do you have any problems here?”

“No. Just the usual people trying to confuse you or get something from you.”

The man nods, and pauses. He reaches inside his jacket and pulls out his identification card with his photo. In the photo he’s wearing a uniform and moustache.

“I’m with the police. If you have any problems don’t hesitate to call us. Just dial 100.”

“Okay I will then. Thank you.”

We made some further small talk with him, and before we knew it we had arrived in Agra. The time was about 5pm.

We wanted to go straight to the Taj Mahal gate to get tickets for the next day. We took a taxi at a fixed rate, but there is a law in Agra that motorized vehicles cannot come within half a kilometre of the Taj Mahal, as pollution is degrading the stone of the building. So the car dropped us off and we were still far from the gate. Jumping on a bicycle rickshaw with all of our bags, the poor guy had to work his ass off just to get the bike going with all the weight. It was only a short haul down the road, and hundreds of people were coming from the grounds as they closed.

“Don’t bother, it’s closed!” some men yelled at us.

We got to the gate and tried to find someone. Some men sat behind a stone mesh booth and also told us the Taj Mahal was closed.

“We want tickets for tomorrow. Are we too late?”


“Damnit. Can we get in tomorrow?”

“Yes yes it’s no problem, come early when we open and it will be no problem.” Damn you guide books. Tickets only available one day in advance my ass.

Going early was perfect for me. I wanted to avoid the masses in the hopes of getting some decent photos. They opened at 7pm so we aimed to be there just before.

We got a rickshaw and went to our hotel, which was at the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. When we arrived, the sun had just gone down.

And, big surprise, here was another crap hotel overcharging for its rooms. When I say overcharging, I mean they are charging lower rates by Western standards (usually around 40 dollars CAD) but that comes to around three to four times the standard rate for a budget room by Indian standards. The theory was that we would pay a little more to avoid the truly terrible places and the Lonely Planet backpackers, but also avoid the high end places where we’d find the package tourist douche bags.

But when we arrived at the hotel, the room was standard, freezing cold, and had lukewarm shower water in a half-finished bathroom, and of course no toilet paper or soap.  I always ask hotels if they have hot water showers. It is a bare minimum requirement for me. I guess I’m just pampered, but I must have that one thing. And of course they always say that they do, and almost never really do.

Maria hated the place because it was cold. I hated it because of what they were charging for what you get. But it was Agra, and Agra has the Taj Mahal, and everyone wants to see the Taj Mahal. We ate in the hotel restaurant (overpriced, naturally) and made up for the sleep we had missed the night before. We had another early morning ahead of us.

We reached the Taj Mahal entrance at 6:45, and were among the first ten people inside the gate. 750 Rupees for foreigners (about $18 CAD) and 20 Rupees for Indian nationals. Again with the foreigner gouging.

It was either super shitty or super amazing that the Taj was completely enshrined in thick fog. Of every iconic picture that you conjure of the Taj Mahal, I’m sure you can see the one of the building from the end of the reflecting pond. That’s what I was thinking of. But as we stood at the end of the reflecting pond, we could see nothing as it disappeared into the fog. We couldn’t even see the end of the pond. We wandered around the grounds taking photos in the mist, discovering things only as we came within 20 meters of them. Following the paths, we soon came upon the first stairs that led to the building’s foundation.

Maria gasped. The slightest shape of a massive building could be made out before us. To the right, one of the minarets rose into the mist. There was something very enormous right in front of us and we couldn’t quite see what it was.

We donned some discarded shoe covers that had littered the grounds (everything was ghostly white except for the litter of these bright red shoe covers) and climbed the main stairs that lead to the building. More and more we could see, but still nothing of the whole building. As we stood at the base of it, we could only make out the giant arches, but nothing of the domed roof.

More tourists were starting to trickle in. We headed inside the mausoleum and wandered through. It was mostly dark except for the dim lamp that hung all the way down from the centre of the dome, hovering over the two sarcophaguses in the middle of the room. Pigeons loomed above on ledges, and we quietly stepped through the various wings of the building. Photography was strictly forbidden inside, but obnoxious tourists seemed to disregard this and took photos anyway. Some gave themselves away with their flash, and as the employees yelled at them, the massive dome above reverberated their scorn.

We walked out the back. The fog wasn’t lifting, and it was still cold. We had been cold ever since we had arrived in India. So much so far for a warm vacation. There was so much to marvel at with that building that we just wandered around the outside staring at it. You could stare at the details for days. I could only imagine how much more brilliant it must be on a nice day.

meshed marble

An example of the carving and inlaid stone (coloured) on the exterior wall

“Let’s go through again.”


We stepped back in the main entrance and were met by a man who told us some of the building’s secrets. In the dark foyer, he took a small flashlight out of his pocket and held it up to the inlaid stones that made up the hundreds of intricate flower patterns that were laid into the marble. As he did this, the light was locked into an individual stone that made up one small part of the flower, lighting up the particular gem as though it were an electric light itself. “It’s the cut of the stone,” he said “the precision does not allow the light to escape it or travel through the adjacent stones. The marble encasing it was translucent, and as he ran the light over it, it seemed like ice as the light travelled part way through, reflecting off the texture inside the direct vicinity of the stone. It was truly inspiring to realize the craftsmanship that had gone into the entire building. The devotion, the care and planning. I had never seen anything like it in my lifetime and am not sure I ever will again. What a complete and utter devotion that remains to me even now, completely inconceivable.

We lingered a while longer, but the crowd grew and we weren’t getting any warmer. We left and decided to visit the South-gate area, which was supposed to contain a lot of restaurants and cheap accommodation. For the price, I wasn’t at all impressed with the room we had currently booked, so I was certain we could get something in its equal at a more reasonable rate.

The fog was slowly lifting over the course of the morning, but the chill would not let up. As we wandered through Agra’s tiny streets, we walked without worry of rickshaws or motorbikes attacking us from behind. We were still well within the half kilometre radius of the Taj Mahal, so no motor vehicles were allowed. We did see the usual cows and now goats wandering the streets, looking for a morning feed with some of the store vendors and in the gutters. The people were friendly and no one minded having their photo taken.

After posing for this photo, I offered the boy a few rupees for his time and he politely declined it. He said “come with me to my shop”. He had much bigger ambitions.

We entered his shop and the shelves were filled with the usual tourist trinkets. Soapstone carved elephants, small boxes (“made from marble” he says. Which I’m pretty sure was soapstone,) and dozens of other things that had no particular purpose other than to sit on a shelf. He showed us an array of items and because we liked him, we bought some things and didn’t bother to haggle too much. In hindsight, we really paid a premium for his goods, but he was entertaining and still a great salesman. Already at about 12 years old, he was a seasoned salesman who knew the entire pitch and how to haggle with any tourist.

Fran’s Pitch

We got ourselves lost (still the best way to see anything) and took a rickshaw back to the south gate. It was midday and already bustling, and if we were going to change hotels we had to check out soon. As it happens, some guy on some street started talking to us and took us to his friend’s hotel. It really felt no better or worse than the one we were already in, at about half the price. The location was more central, and it had much more of a “villa” feel, with an open courtyard and staircase and rooftop restaurant. He offered us a room with a view of the Taj Mahal, but there really was no view because the fog hadn’t lifted enough. A partial view did come until came later in the day, when as we watched monkeys scavenging, we could barely make out the incredible sight from the roof of the hotel.

“Is there a hot shower?”

“Yes sir, hot shower.”

“We’ll take it.”

Oh there it is (from the roof of our hotel)

Also from the hotel roof

Rooftop videos:

Marauding Monkeys

Call To Prayer

Little Dancers

Our street guy got us a rickshaw so we could go get our things, and of course the rickshaw driver offered us a three hour tour of Agra’s sites for the equivalent of about eight dollars. We decided to try it out.

I should have known better. His three hour tour ended up being a trip to an expensive embroidery and gem shop, followed by a shop selling scarves and blankets. It wasn’t even nice stuff, it was all crappy colours and full of holes. It didn’t take long for me to get annoyed. I told him I did NOT want to shop, and not to bother taking us to stores. He said “sir, you don’t have to shop, I just show you the places and whether or not you buy is up to you.”

I told him to take us back to the hotel and gave him a bit of a lecture about pushing tourists into shopping even when they say they don’t want to shop. He said “you have to understand, our livelihood depends on commission.” I said “you have to understand that if you don’t LISTEN to what someone wants then you are jeopardizing your service altogether. I will not recommend rickshaw drivers as tour guides to anyone.” I don’t know if he saw my point, but at least I said it. We got back to the hotel after two wasted hours of being annoyed, I paid him and thanked him for his time. And not surprisingly, he was still standing there waiting for some kind of tip. Maybe he should have shown us something of cultural or historical value instead of trying to railroad us to shop.

Maria with the "tour" guides

A Shit-Paved Wedding

Cutting back to earlier in the day- as we had wandered through Agra’s quite streets Maria gasped and asked “did you see that?”

“See what?”

“That boy is just standing there taking a shit in the gutter.”

I turned. Yep, there was a boy, about five, straddling the thin stream at the side of the tiny road, pinching a loaf into the gutter. Now that’s freedom. Who knows how long it would before he realized that it was couth to only piss in the street.

A little further up the road some chickens happened by, and in a clearing filled with garbage a few giant black hogs nosed through the garbage. One slept. There was a group of men standing in the shit-caked, slippery street with musical instruments, as though they were about to start a band practice. They let me take some photos, and then encouraged us to go up a small alley, where a thick group of people had gathered and were shouting excitedly.

“What’s going on?” Maria asked me.

“I don’t know. Cockfight?”

We decided to go see, and before we could see anything we were pulled in by the crowd and put in front of the spectacle. It was a wedding, and two grooms were preparing for the ceremony. Their faces were covered in a colourful drape, and one pulled the drape aside to reveal his face. He was covered in ten-Rupee notes, reminding me of bachelorette parties that happen nightly on George Street in St. John’s. Except they cover themselves in lollypops and a sign that says “A buck a suck.”

The excitement (video)

The next thing we knew, there was confetti and suds flying everywhere, accompanied with screams of joy. How did we end up right in the middle of all this? Normally I’m not one for weddings, but these people were truly excited and joyous, and it was hard not to get taken by it all. I really felt fortunate to be right there, right then and share that moment of excitement with them all.

“Okay okay” a man said, waving us away. We squeezed back through the crowd and the procession began to move through the alleyway behind us. Maria and I found a place to stand off to the side (careful not to step into the shit-filled gutter that the pigs, chickens and cows were drinking from) and the grooms mounted horses that started their path through the tiny street. The brilliant colours of their clothes seemed to be a stark contrast to the dull community of bare essentials around us, and I could not tell if it was a slum or just a modest inner city community. It didn’t seem to matter.

The Procession (video)

We followed the procession for a bit and took some more photos, though our presence seemed to cause distraction with the guests. The men and women stared at Maria. The children crowded us in. They wanted to be in photos. They wanted to show us things. They wanted Rupees. It was time for us to make a silent exit and let the festivity continue un-intruded, but half a dozen kids followed us on our escape route. We shook most of them but two, who followed us all the way through the winding streets and toward the other end of town.

Hip guests

“One chocolate one chocolate!” They demanded every time we passed a shop front. They persisted with Maria (who carried no money) then came to me. I looked at Maria. “Should I give them some to get rid of them?”

“No! Don’t encourage them!” She was right. I told them if they wanted money they had to do some work for it. They didn’t know what I was talking about. Eventually we shook them when we went into a restaurant for lunch.

The Food

Delhi was not memorable as far as the food went, because we hardly ate there. We had a hard time finding restaurants so we didn’t really have a chance to start tasting genuine Indian food. It wasn’t until we arrived in Agra that we were able to find tiny, family-owned restaurants with hosts that run out onto the road to summon any tourist who might look in their direction.

The first night we ate at the hotel. After the Taj Mahal, we found a small place filled with people and had some breakfast and of course, the Masala Chai. I will write more on that later. The breakfast was so great we vowed to go back for dinner. For lunch we found another small family-run place, and the man was extremely accommodating with food choices sans garlic. “Sir, we can make anything fresh for you without garlic, just tell me.” It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone ever say that to me. Sweet talker.

For dinner we returned to the breakfast place, and by this time the power in half the city was out. The power had been coming and going for most of the day, and our hotel was running a generator. When we had returned to the restaurant for dinner, the small room was lit only by candlelight, casting a beautiful red-orange glow over the tiny wood interior. Our host was a middle-aged Indian man who managed the room with his older brother, who was dressed in traditional Indian clothing with a white cloth wrapping his head. I admit to not knowing the official names of any of the clothing, but it certainly felt like the real deal as far as the food was going to be concerned.

We sat in the window and watched the city stream by in the scant light, and I don’t think I had felt that relaxed since I had arrived in the country. I don’t know how much the power goes out in Agra or the rest of India (it seemed to happen quite frequently,) but it could not have created a better setting for the food we were about to eat. Although it took some time (it’s frequent that the kitchen will have one person working there, the daughter or wife, and she will be making every plate for every customer from scratch,) it was worth every minute of the wait. I never minded waiting for the food in India, because you knew it would not be disappointing. And it wasn’t. The meal I had there, Mughlai Chicken made with apple curry, was probably the best meal I ate in the entire trip. Maybe it was the candlelight or the company that helped, but I’m certain that I have not had a more memorable meal in the time I have been in Korea.

Ordering beer is a funny thing in many Indian restaurants. When you can even get it in places like Agra or Jaipur, it’s often a secretive affair. At the hotel restaurant hotel I ordered a beer, and the bottle came wrapped in a napkin. When I asked about it, they said it was merely for decoration. When I ordered a beer at the candle-lit restaurant it came with specific instruction to keep it turned away from the window. I did as I was asked, only to have the man’s older brother order me to put the bottle on the floor minutes later. He also commanded the same to some other foreigners in the restaurant. I was asked at several restaurants over the course of the trip to conceal the fact that I had a beer. Perhaps it had something to do with the presence of Islam in these communities. When the time was right and our host was making conversation with us, I asked him about it. He explained it rather vaguely as wanting to hide the beer from the locals, who would then ask for it in restaurants and start fights. I had a feeling it wasn’t quite the reason, but didn’t pursue it further.

When it was time to pay the bill, he man took me aside and fetched his pad of paper. He carefully recounted everything we’d had and wrote it out, listing the price beside it. As if he were carefully justifying the bill he was about to spring upon us.

“Okay sir, is this correct?”


“Okay… [some quick addition] that comes to three hundred and fifty rupees. You can check it yourself if you like.”

Three hundred and fifty rupees. Less than ten dollars for two brilliant dinners and a couple of drinks. I smiled. “no no, it seems right.”

So if you ever go to Agra, make sure to visit “Join Us” restaurant.

Weddings Galore

After dark we wandered the streets a little more. We’d had plans to leave for Jaipur the next day, so we wanted to make the most of our day.

Just outside our hotel, the sound of drums ricocheted off the buildings. We stepped down to see what was happening, and another wedding procession was beginning. This one seemed to marry wealthier families. There were musicians, fireworks, motorized vehicles and fancier clothes. People danced in the street, and Maria went to join them. Everyone was taking pictures. Look! A foreign girl! Let’s take pictures.

As they danced, someone lit off fireworks in the small laneway we stood in. BOOM, the sound echoed through the streets as the colours exploded overhead. Another magical moment that we had just happened upon. The drummers played on, and the dancing continued. Someone lit a second round of fireworks, except this time they hadn’t been set up properly, and the bursts went flying off buildings and cars, and toward the wedding guests themselves. There were some shouts of surprise, but nobody seemed very alarmed by the fact that fireworks were shooting right at them. You know, it’s a wedding. It happens.

Wedding madness (video)

Maria and I headed further down the road, away from the blasts, and as we went, the young men playing in the band followed her. It took a moment to even realize it, as the wedding organizers started yelling at them to come back and play for the guests, not for the foreigners lurking down the road. Ah yes, the Indian men loved Maria everywhere we went.

The wedding is back there, guys

A nice, hot shower.

As it turned out, the nice hot shower I was assured didn’t quite work out the way I would have expected. Due to the fact that “it would take quite some time for the hot water to go up to our room”, the clerk offered another room for us to shower in, on a lower level. I took the offer and froze my ass off getting out of the shower into the cold room. Damnit Northern India was just freezing.

We departed for Jaipur in the morning. Another early, pre-sunrise start. I was packing up my bag and lifted something up when a huge, fat mouse came scurrying out and bounced off the door as it tried to escape. I watched it do a wide circle (man, mice are so dumb) before it squeezed itself through an impossibly small gap under the door. Oh well, better than a cockroach or rat I suppose.

Part II c: Jaipur

A monkey ponders

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Posted by on February 5, 2011 in Life Abroad


Hey Maybe We Should Go to India Part II a: Delhi


Wandering through Delhi

Bike rickshaw

Waiting for scraps

The first impression of Delhi wasn’t much. From the sky we could see the city covered in a haze and I couldn’t tell if it was pollution or fog. The city looked like it had been on fire, and now smouldered as far as the eye could see. As it turns out, Northern India was experiencing record low temperatures and it was a cool three degrees when we landed. A dozen people had already died from exposure to the cold, and it wasn’t hard to feel why. The city’s poorest huddled together with blankets covering their shoulders, their legs and feet bare while they crouched around tiny garbage fires that stank of burning plastic. The atmospheric moisture and the lack of acclimatization to this kind of weather must have been truly miserable for anyone without proper clothing. Our taxi rolled through the fog with visibility of about 20 meters, and from the sides of the roads these fire people could be seen huddling in the mist all the way from the airport to the hotel strip where we had made reservations.

Making roti on coals

The neon lights of the hotel strip cut through the fog in a colourful haze. Still more homeless crouched around tiny fires and though there seemed to be a definite “sketchy” factor, they weren’t bothered with us as we pulled up the hotel. We checked in, I emailed mom right away regarding our currency problem, and then not having slept for about two days we crashed hard.

The Godwin Hotel

Discovering Delhi

Well we didn’t discover Delhi as much as we wandered around and let Delhi happen to us. Which, due to our lack of exposure to India, meant that Delhi would serve as our first taste of “the Indian experience.” For me, there wasn’t any sense of shock or upset at the sight of the poverty, the garbage strewn everywhere, broken things, beggars, or people who ‘just want to be your friend.’ (for a price). Having stayed in Old Havana some years back I had undergone a pretty intense culture shock then, never having witnessed poverty or decay to any serious degree before. In India, while these things are apparent, it seemed more apparent to me that none of it was unusual.

A random family hanging out.

Maria had a more humanitarian approach. She was struck by the filth, the homelessness and largely by the fact that none of the poor were wearing shoes. The streets were strewn not only with garbage, but stray dogs, rats and mice, and of course, cows wandering anywhere there was a place to walk, shitting everywhere and leading an entourage of flies. There was chaos, though somehow it was its own self-sustaining entity. Being an outsider and not understanding the flow of it was initially dizzying. The first day was a complete attack on the senses. The noise, (the honking!) the smells, the fog and smog. We left the hotel in search of the train station, which was said to be nearby. We asked the hotel clerk and got a general direction, and wandered onto the street and into the clutches of dirty, dizzying Delhi.

Cows hanging out in the middle of the Main Bazaar.

“Hello sir! Where from?”


“Hello come look my shop.”

“Maybe later?” (if you say “yes later” it seems to keep them happy)

“Ten Rupees!” Some kid asked. Ten Rupees? Seriously? What happened to one Rupee? I had been told by a friend all the kids will ask for a Rupee. Apparently a Rupee ain’t worth a kid’s time anymore.

To get to the train station we had to pass under a bridge through a large arch where dozens of bicycle rickshaws, street venders, and people seemed to linger.

“Excuse me sir where are you going?”

“This way.”

“Where sir?”

“Over there.”

“Sir you can’t go under that bridge.”

“Why not, the train station is right there.”

“No sir, you can’t go under that bridge. It is very dangerous, there are thieves and pickpockets there. It’s very dangerous for you.”

A moment of self-doubt. That’s exactly what they want. He could see that on my face.

“You must go OVER the bridge. Whatever you do, don’t go under it.”

Maybe he knew something I didn’t. Maybe…

I mutter to Maria “maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt and go over the bridge.” She’s not sure what to make of any of it. We see a large stairwell packed with people going up and down, so I head toward it. We climb the stairs and at the top is two solid lanes of traffic, divided by a concrete and fenced barrier. We cannot cross over the bridge. Foot traffic is headed left to right towards the ends of the bridges, into who-knows-where land. We have been led astray and I can only guess that he was trying to put us off our path, then observe us until we were lost and ripe for exploitation.

“Turn around, let’s go under” I said to Maria. We did, and of course, nothing happened.

It’s not like we were travelling with a lot of cash, or any of it was in our accessible pockets. There really was nothing for them to take, so it was easy not to worry about  pickpockets or scammers. As long as I never gave them another chance to lead me astray like that. It was a good thing to have happen on the first day, because I was sceptical of everything that was said to me from that day forward.

Just another day

Making it just so

A man carries a brickload.

We spent the morning wandering through the Main Bazaar where you could imagine every Indian ware for sale. “Sir! Pashmina! Just touch!” (Pashmina is the type of wool shorn from the underbelly of the sheep and used in scarves. Very soft. Very warm.) “Yes sir, I make very good deal for you today.”

I had some experience with haggling in Greece and Cuba, and I kind of love it. As long as I have the patience for it. I was well prepared for the haggle in India, but I will say I wasn’t quite prepared for the skill and persuasion that Indian salesmen craft over their entire lives. These guys were good. Their MO generally went like this:

Shopping in India (even when you’re not shopping)

  1. If you aren’t in the mood to shop, keep walking, look forward, listen to nothing, acknowledge no one. Otherwise…
  2. “Come look my shop. Looking is free. No buy.”
  3. If you do this, or engage them at all in conversation you are going to find yourself browsing in their store.
  4. Everything is made of the finest quality. By mysterious northern craftsmen. You can’t get this quality anywhere else.
  5. Special price today. You’re the first/last/tallest/luckiest customer of the day, so you get to pay a low price. What price? Oh they don’t tell you that right away. Especially in the case of the carpet salesmen (will come back to that later).
  6. Finally… “for you, [some ridiculously high] Rupees. Finest quality. If you buy two, better price. If you buy ten, best price.”
  7. I think that’s too much money.
  8. “Sir! Finest quality! Okay what’s YOUR price?”
  9. [Offering less than half, or as low as you can go without wasting your time].
  10. “Oh noooo sir, I can’t do. Quality sir! [They offer halfway between your price and their price, leaning toward the high end.]
  11. Now here is where the art of the haggle comes in. You can settle on some price that is in the higher half of the price/counter-price, or you can play the game. I love to play the game.

  12. [They are expecting you to come higher in your price to compromise with them, which is why they start so high. But I’m a bit of a bastard.] Nope. The price that I said is what I’ll pay.
  13. “But sir, feel it, it’s worth much more. [offers slightly lower price, usually in fifty Rupee increments] I can’t go any lower”.
  14. You can’t give me my price? That’s too bad. There’s so many other shops that sell this.
  15. “Sir! This is a good price! (Shakes item for emphasis ) Okay okay [fifty Rupees less].”
  16. My price.
  17. “No sir, make me another price.”
  18. Nope.
  19. “Okay [100 Rupees above your price] your price.” [Places the item in your hand].
  20. Nope, I said THIS price.
  21. “[His price again] sir.”
  22. I put down item and begin to walk out of store.
  23. “Okay okay sir, your price your price.” Item is already in a bag ready for you to take. You pay your price, smile, and leave.

Shopping in India is always a hustle. Everything in India is always a hustle. You can opt for “fixed price” stores. The best sign we saw was “these prices are fixed prices so please do not waste your precious time arguing.” I loved it. Because even though in the end you might get a deal, you have to consider the collective time you will spend haggling with each vendor, even if you’re not necessarily in a mood to shop. It can be tiring after a while. Not all purchases followed the pattern above. It depended on my level of patience and whether or not the price they originally quoted was reasonable, but for the most part that’s how it went. There is a general assumption when shopping that foreigners will pay ridiculous prices for things because you know, they are ALL rich in the vendor’s eyes. That’s why you have to be willing to barter. Guaranteed almost everywhere you go you will be paying a hugely marked up price, even if you are told you are getting a deal.

As for haggling, things got even easier once Maria got on board. As she practiced her haggling skills, she emerged a more ruthless shopper than me! Vendors would quote their price and she would do nothing to hide her disdain for their price, or laugh in their face and walk out without giving them another chance. Soon we crafted a tag-team combination that worked every time. More on that when we get to Jaipur.

So as we spent the morning wandering through the Main Bazaar of Delhi, dodging vendors, honking rickshaws, motorcycles, and wandering cows, we became slowly acclimatized to the chaos. There was a flow. Cars and people were tucked in against each other, moving, stopping, not at all controlled by traffic lights but by some bizarre harmony that kept everything flowing without incident. If you see a car coming, don’t wait for it to pass because you’re disrupting the flow. They see you. Keep moving, they will move around you. You are more likely to die from standing still and interrupting the flow. Keep moving, flow with the chaos. Ride it.

Woops, almost killed by dogs again.

Not one to break with tradition, I was almost killed, yet again, by dogs on this trip. The times I have almost been killed by dogs should be briefly stated here, as a bit of back story.

  1. About ten years ago, I was researching a story in the California desert. I had risen at dawn to get some photos and found some kind of filtration plant down a steep embankment. There was no fence, and I thought it would make for some great City of Necropolis shots. I ventured down the embankment and closer to one of the pools, when three dogs came tearing around a corner and came straight at me. I knew if I ran I was dead. So I remembered what they said to do in case of a bear attack. Make yourself big (hands over head), don’t move, and start making scary noises. What did I have to lose? I was probably going to die anyway. So I tried it, and it worked. The dogs stopped about three meters away and kept barking at me, like the heads of Cerberus. I kept screaming and they kept barking. But slowly I backed up the embankment, and while they kept on me, I kept lurching at them a bit, leaving them second guessing until I was close enough to the road and they backed off. Holy shit.
  2. Paros, Greece. I’m on a motor scooter, riding high on the island road looking down at the light blue beaches below. Oh look, there’s a nice beach with no one on it. I’m going to go there. To access the beach I have to cut across someone’s yard. Doesn’t look like anyone’s home. No problem. I am walking the scooter quietly across the yard, when I see a large dog charging right at me. Holy shit. I have about one second to react. Actually, I have NO time to react before the dog reaches me, diving through the foot-well of the scooter at my leg. Fortunately I was about 1 inch beyond the dog’s lead, which was attached to a wire and a wood post to give him some running length. He had reached the end of the wire and the post, where his leash snapped him back from getting at my leg. 1 inch. I exhaled, saw what had happened, laughed, then got the hell out of there.
  3. Back in the desert in Mojave California. I have to wait for this bus so I think I’ll just go for a walk in the desert, see what happens. I come across this yard full of broken down vintage cars, just sitting there in the desert. There is a shack at the corner of the lot. I knock on the door to be polite and not trespass for wanting to take photos, but there is no answer. There are two dogs barking inside. One small dog, one large dog. I decide to commence with photography. It is extremely hot. It is about noon. The sun is directly overhead and there is no shadow anywhere, except for under the short overhang of the shack’s roof. I am taking pictures, wandering around when I notice the Rottweiler sitting in that small shadow bordering the house. The Rottweiler is not leashed. It’s just sitting there in the shadow, watching me. What are you doing out there, stupid? Is what his face says. I would kill you but I’m black and it’s hot out there in the sun. Soooo I take the long route around the shack instead of the way I came to get out of there. And every time I look at the shack, no matter what side I am rounding from my distance, the dog is sitting there watching me. But I get back to the bus stop in one piece.
  4. Delhi. Aw look at the stray dogs asleep on the construction rubble in the shade. I should take a picture, they’ll never even hear me they’re so asleep. I get myself into position, am about to snap the photo… the foreground dog opens its eye a crack, sees me encroaching and snaps to life, barking, alerting the other dogs, and I have three pissed off, woken up dogs coming at me. I had already taken the shot and jumped back, darting up the street with the dogs in pursuit. They left me alone, but it was another close call for stupid misadventurous reasons.

I am about done with dogs, but I bet I can get almost attacked by a monkey before we leave India…

Sometime after we found a great little place that served delicious, life-saving espresso. We sat in the café and watched the hustle of the street. The bicycle rickshaws, a stray cat, a fruit vendor perfecting his display, some Korean tourists. They’re not hard to spot. They usually wear the cloth masks over their mouth and nose and wide-brimmed hats. They often carry huge expensive cameras around their neck without a case for it. The young ones wear the “ali-baba” genie pants that all the vendors try to sell tourists. And they all look nervous.

The Rickshaw

Then we tried the rickshaw. Perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of India, the little covered yellow and black or yellow and green three-wheeled motored scooter with a driver and just enough room in the back for two or three people. Or four Indians. Or ten Indian school children.

Our first rickshaw ride (links to youtube)

With its open sides, sputtering motor and their driver’s penchant for getting anywhere by any means possible, Maria and I were suddenly plunged right into the tide of the traffic chaos. Riding its choppy waves, bumping along in the symphony of honks, breathing its fumes, and eating the dust it kicked up. Watching as every vehicle virtually scraped the sides of the rickshaw as it squeezed through the crammed streets. To be a rickshaw driver you must need some balance of grace, intuition, and insanity. They are everywhere all of the time. They seem to bite the wheels of motorcyclists, toe right up to the ass of huge trucks, sneak down the smallest of side streets. Like an egg on wheels that bursts recklessly through traffic, the rickshaw (or “tuk tuk” as the Indians call them… perhaps for the sound they make) serve their purpose well. I even got to drive one once we were in the much-quieter south of India.

The thing about rickshaw drivers in the city is that they all have a motive. If they can get you to one of the fancy shops where it becomes a task to NOT buy anything, they are going to make a commission for delivering you there. If you get in a rickshaw in the city, you will almost always have some kind of battle on your hands to just get to where you want to go. Never ask them to take you to “some kind of place” like “we want to go shopping” or “we want to go to a restaurant”. Forget it. You will be taken to an overblown shop where they will “wait for you” (and wait for their commission when you’re bullied into buying shit you don’t want.) They are persistent.  Just tell them exactly where you need to go and don’t let them convince you otherwise. Here is why.

Once such guy in Delhi took us to a shop in Connaught Circle, where all of the expensive shops sit. We just wanted to go to Connaught Circle and wander around, but he heard “we want to shop at an expensive store.” So he brought us to this shop and walked us in, where tiers of salespeople were waiting like spiders in a multi-layered web. First was the shawls. Then came the carpets, then came the clothes. All nice, all ridiculously overpriced. You know, finest quality and all that.

We didn’t stay long much to the dismay of the three salespeople who’d had a go at us. I was starved. Of course the rickshaw driver was still lurking so we asked him to bring us to a restaurant. He brought us down the road to some kind of Indian fast food restaurant, and we took one look inside and said “this is not what we want.”

“This is a [Western style fast food] restaurant.”

“This is fast food. We don’t want that.”

“It’s Indian food.”

“Nevertheless, we don’t want it.”

So we found a little deli counter that served fresh samosas, and we destroyed about eight of them in minutes. We had finally shaken off the rickshaw driver who had been persistent in trying to get us to go shopping again, then offered to give us a tour for a fixed rate, but we had to get rid of him. I was getting tired and my patience was running out.

A final word about rickshaw drivers. Try to get them to use the meter. You will see how cheap the rides actually are. But if they won’t (and most of them won’t for tourists,) you have to haggle your price. I would try to get a rate of about ¾’s of what they’re offering. Even then, they’re still going to make a premium off you.

And even though at the end of the day you might be literally talking about the difference of a few cents, it’s never about the money for me. It’s about not feeling like I’m being taken advantage of because I’m a foreigner. No one likes the feeling that they they’re being duped, so quite often that is what the haggle really comes down to for me, whether it’s with a salesman or a rickshaw driver.

The Eye of Kashmir

As it turns out, I did buy a Kashmiri carpet the next day. We had met a man in a tourist information shop who was extremely friendly and for once, did not have some angle to get money out of us. We wanted directions back to the Main Bazaar (from where we knew how to get back to our hotel) and he still managed to deliver us to the exact same kind of shop where you walk through the door, and the salesmen are waiting to bring you all the way through the web.

I should spare you the details of yet another shopping story, but I have to briefly explain how it happened as such an art form as his shouldn’t be left to a silent afterthought. I ended up buying a hand-made carpet at the hands of a very persuasive (the best that we met, I’m sure) salesman.

We had been browsing some hand carved gifts for family and co-workers. We were probably there for five minutes before we were ushered to the top level back room by a young bald man named Moses. Once we were in the carpet room, Moses closed the door and shut out the distracting noise of the rest of the building. It was Moses and two assistants, and Maria and myself, sitting in a room encased by rolled carpets. The acoustics were warm. He seated us on a bench and ordered one of the men to get us coffee. Or Nescafe, anyway.

I knew what was coming. We’d had a similar carpet presentation the day before, except I hadn’t anticipated that Moses was not the same grade of first floor salesmen that we had encountered. For the next thirty minutes, he had the assistants dramatically roll out an array of rugs of all sizes and colours, explaining the materials that made them, the craftspeople who had spent months building them, the methods, the complexity, the way the light hits it from different angles, and how they just get better looking with everyday use.

Thirty minutes in I interjected “okay how much for that one.” He gave me a side glance that implied I had done something completely uncouth. I had tackily asked a price when he hadn’t even finished the art of his pitch. I was so pedestrian.

“Please, let me finish.”

Another thirty minutes passed. And so began the real drama.

Maria was tired and bored. I was as well, but here Moses had given us so much of his time, his passion, his story. It was the perfect sales pitch. He was not just trying to sell us a carpet. He was selling us the legacy of an ancient art form. As I sat there wondering if I really needed something as extravagant as this, I was also well aware that I had been pulled in by the man’s well constructed pitch. Could I just leave now after sitting here for an hour, being woven through these stories? Could I just say “thanks for your time, but no?” Of course I could. That’s the burden the salesmen who invests such care must carry. Did I want to walk out without buying one of these (admittedly) beautiful rugs? Hell no. Did I want to pay the extraordinary prices he was about to start quoting me? Not a chance.

In the end, as we discussed prices, I told him the fact of the matter was (and would also serve as my justification for not buying, if need be) that I was not a wealthy person whom I was sure he was accustomed to selling to. I told him that I could not pay what he could sell that rug for, and that I could only pay what I could afford, not what seemed to be the true value of the carpet.

Now, who knows what the true value of the carpet really was, or if I was still paying too much. Which, in hindsight, I probably was. At the end of the day, after another half hour haggle, I ended up paying about half of what he was asking, and thought he winced and said with an air of bitterness “I hope you realize you are getting a good deal, and I hope you make lots of money re-selling this.” (huh?) I can’t help but suspect that all of it was still theatre, and that he still made a nice sum off me. But, in hindsight I don’t really care. I got the rug, it’s beautiful, and I ultimately paid what I thought it was worth in relation to what I could spend. And that’s that. And if you’re wondering what I paid the end… I’m not saying. :p

Moses, Maria, and the Eye of Kashmir

Leaving Delhi

It seems that all we did in Delhi was shop or not shop, and for the most part that’s true. We didn’t really seek out the historic sites or aim to do too much. The first two days were exhausting and cold, and our patience was already running thin. They say in India you should just “roll with the experience” and I can see how that’s true, but when you get tired, you get tired and the only place you want to roll is back to the clean hotel bed. So we didn’t do much except wander around taking photos and just familiarizing ourselves with the hustle of India.

We had bought our ticket from the train station to Agra, departing at 5:00am the next morning. And of course, as we went to the train station and tried to find a sign for the ticket booth, half a dozen men tried aggressively to lead us away from the train station to some ticket agent that was off the station grounds. It’s hard to not get angry with these guys who are so clearly trying to take advantage of your disorientation. They present themselves as sincere and helpful, their whole concern wrapped up in making sure you don’t go to the station’s ticket office to get your ticket, and that you go to the right place somewhere over there on the street. One guy, dressed in security clothes, even refused to let a girl we had met through the train gate to the trains. “You cannot go here”. “Why not?” she asked. “Because you have to go over there and buy a ticket.” Indicating the usual sketchy non-specific area outside the station.

In the end, there was a specific office for foreigners buying tickets in the upstairs of the train station. And also, tucked away in the stairwell to that office (out of sight from the main entrance), there’s a sign that warns tourists of listening to people who might try to direct you off the station grounds to unofficial ticketing agents. So, if you ever go to India, always be wary of the hustle. It’s a fine line. Some people are sincere and want to help you. Some don’t have an angle. But most do. Maybe I was a little curt to well-meaning people along the way, but I would have rather erred on the side of caution and not give anyone the benefit of the doubt. Even at the best of times, it can be hard to trust your intuition because even the nicest of people can seem shady, and even the shadiest of people can be nice.

The Train

5am departure. Arrive at the station by 4:30. Be out the door of the hotel by 4. Daaaaamn.

We had changed hotels for the second night in Delhi (the first one didn’t seem like a very good deal for the price. Actually, no hotel we stayed in India anywhere seemed like a very good deal for the price.) Maria detested the second hotel. And with good reason, it was pretty scummy. But it was less than half the price and we really only slept there for about four hours.

We left at 4am and stepped into the fog filled street, stepping by the small plastic fires. The huddled, blanketed bodies barely glimpsed at us as we passed, and I actually envied them for having blankets in the wet cold. Which I know was ridiculous.

Scant streetlight buzzed through the fog and we approached the arched bridge underpass that I was warned explicitly not to enter two days before. The dark fog was foreboding. Maria was apprehensive, as was I. There were some bodies huddles under a layer of blankets, trying to sleep under the bridge and we passed through quietly, without a problem.

Let’s Get Out of Here…?

There was a sea of people huddled under blankets in the train station. To get through you had to step over bodies, around huddled families. The trains were delayed due to heavy fog and striking workers who were occupying the tracks. We half expected that our train might be late on arrival, since it was not originating in Delhi. We were right. The board said that the train was delayed by three hours.

Delhi Train Station, 6am.

It was still dark and cold, we had no jackets, and nothing was open. All we could do was stand and shiver and wait for the sun to come out and hopefully warm things up a little.

With every passing hour, it seemed the board reported further delays. First it was one more extra hour. Then an extra half an hour. By 11am they just started pushing the times back in 15 minute increments. We’d had coffee and come back, waiting with hundreds of other people on the platform for a train that would never seem to arrive.

There were some other foreigners waiting on the platform next to us, and as Maria and I stood quietly against a wall, we saw the flash of a boy, about four years old, come dodging through the crowd and up to the hands of the foreigners. He snapped into a Bollywood-style dance, (right hand to right ear, hips swirling, left hand to left ear, hips swirling, head roll, which resulted in the stringed pompom on his head swirling around like a helicopter blade, back flip, forward flip.) The foreigners hadn’t even noticed the boy. Nevertheless, he finished his routine and was tugging at the man’s hand, demanding payment. Without noticing the boy the man put a Rupee coin into his hand, as did his wife. Our laughter gave Maria and I away, and when he turned and saw us, we could see that someone had used a permanent marker to paint a curled moustache onto his face, and thicker, heavy eyebrows. It was too much. If only we could have caught it on video. I gave the boy a Rupee and he turned to Maria who shrugged. I had been carrying all the money so she had nothing. He stomped and held his hand out firmly and she shrugged again. He walked away glaring at her as though she had robbed him of something. We could only laugh at his moxy.

Waiting for the train that will never come

Brother and sister wait for the train

Finally, sometime after noon, the ghost train to Agra pulled lazily into the station and finally came to a stop. Oh hi train. Nice to see you. We climbed on board and into our reserved bunks. It was not a luxury set up, but it was a bed on the train that was finally going somewhere. We had originally planned to arrive in Agra mid-day, as we had read in one of the stupid guide books that you had to purchase tickets to see the Taj Mahal one day in advance. We wanted to get tickets before the office closed at 5:30, but now we might arrive JUST in time. We’d have to wait and see.


It is what it is

One final note: here is a video of an awesome spice vendor in Delhi who explains everything in five minutes.
You will have to listen carefully over the ambient noise of the city:

The Spice Maker

Part II b: Agra

  1. [They are expecting you to come higher in your price to compromise with them, which is why they start so high. But I’m a bit of a bastard.] Nope. The price that I said is what I’ll pay.

Posted by on February 3, 2011 in Life Abroad


Hey Maybe We Should Go to India Part I

By some miracle, Maria and I had a corresponding three weeks vacation in January of 2011. (In my last teaching position, I could barely get three corresponding days off together.) Both of us had long wanted to visit India but distance and expense had been a barrier. For myself, after having visited Indian restaurants in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area for the rest of the universe not from there) I was led to believe that all Indian food was laced irreversibly with heaps of onion and garlic and that I would never be able to survive a trip to India. (Okay although onions and garlic don’t kill me, they do create a severe form of digestive irritation. To put it simply, a diet consisting of onion, garlic, or both would mean I would not have a lot of time to enjoy traveling at all.) In North American Indian restaurants, it’s impossible to exclude onion or garlic because so many rely on these culinary sledgehammers for flavouring. But as I quickly found out, much to my extreme delight, real Indian food is made fresh and doesn’t rely on such heavy-handedness when there are dozens of much more delicate spices and flavours to work with. Many of the times I had requested “no garlic”, the servers would look at me in confusion and say “sir, we don’t use garlic.” FINALLY, people who know how to spice food.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Garlic-free fish.

Barely Getting There

We’re still in Seoul and it’s early January. The dry, cracking cold reminds me far too much of the chalky winters we left behind in Toronto. The wait for our departure from Seoul was tolerable because there was good coffee, food other than Korean food, and the underlying fact that we were getting out and going somewhere warm. We just had to wait until the next night to get our 11:20pm flight to Kuala Lumpur, then a connecting flight to New Delhi.

Lock in your love. But don't use a cheap lock because if it breaks you're getting dumped.


Seoul in Snow. Taken from the Seoul Tower.


However, having underestimated the amount of time the Seoul subway takes to get to the International Airport, we arrived at 10:40pm to find the airport empty, the gate closed, and not a soul in sight. Exactly like that nightmare where you show up for something important but you’ve missed it. The lights are out, the people are gone, and you’ve missed your big chance. The gate had closed one hour prior to departure, so we had missed it by about twenty minutes.

I was able to get the airline manager on the phone, but he was already at the departure gate in another terminal and could do nothing to help us. What a feeling. So we sat down, dumfounded for about an hour, running every possible scenario and solution through our heads. Go to another country for three weeks. Eat the cost and buy another ticket to India. Buy another flight and try to get to KL in time for our connecting flight. Then, waiting on word from the airline manager, we spent a very uncomfortable evening sleeping on the hard wooden benches in the airport. He had written one digit of my phone number wrong and could not contact us until we visited his office when it opened at 4pm the next day. When we found out after a stressful night and day that he had changed our itineraries and put us on a flight for that night, at no extra cost. Man, what a lifesaver. We thanked him profusely and at the end of the day, the only thing we lost was an extra day in India and a good night’s sleep.

Kuala Lumpur: A Moment of Peace

During a brief stopover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we visited the KL Tower, the Bukit Bintang Mall at the foot of the Petronas Towers, and had some Malaysian curry for lunch. It was hot, sticky, and tropical with giant, swooping vegetation lining every avenue and climbing out over every building. We had a great view as we rode the monorail that circles the city centre, a condensed blend of new and old. Stone and steel annexed by giant trees. Indian, Chinese, Malay, and Indonesian influences everywhere. So much to see. Another time.

In hindsight, our short stopover in KL was much like being in the calm eye of a shit storm.

The Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur. View from the KL Tower.

Good labels for nasty cigs.

The next problem came eight hours later when we stood at the arrivals gate in the New Delhi airport, with 1.5 million Korean Won cash in our pockets. We had read in Lonely Planet or Frommer’s that it was forbidden to take Indian currency into the country, and so never having been there, we believed it.

A short side note about travel books

I will say as a side note that if you ever use travel books such as Lonely Planet or Frommer’s, do not take the information as necessarily current or accurate, or even useful. Frommer’s is absolute yuppy trash. If you ever have to refer to it, it’s a good plan to just do the OPPOSITE of everything it says if you want to avoid rich, douchey package tourists. The same can be said of Lonely Planet if you want to avoid patchouli-doused hippies. Frommer’s will have you believing that the only options for “mid to low” priced accommodation are at resorts and that the only places to eat are upscale restaurants. Establishments pay for their listings in Frommer’s, so the book contains mostly well-to-do businesses who charge premium rates and rely on paid listings like Frommer’s to attract a certain type of clientele. Lonely Planet is slightly better, it can be useful for getting historical and cultural tips on what to see in a certain location. But be warned, if you follow their accommodation tips you’re often going to run into overcrowded places with a bunch of people who have the exact same dog-eared book. The best information I got was from web searches, referrals from other travelers, or doing your own footwork once you are at your destination. Use a guide book to get your bearings, but don’t plan your vacation from it. And if you believe everything you read it in, you might end up like we did, at Indira Gandhi International Airport with Korean currency under the belief that you cannot carry Indian currency into the country.

“I’m sorry sir, [you are fucked again].”

So we have 1.5 million Korean Won (about $1,400 CAD) between us to exchange at the currency exchange booths every airport has. When I asked the man the rate for Korean Won, he responded “I’m sorry sir we don’t buy Korean currency.”

“What? You don’t buy Korean currency?”

“No sir.”

“Well can you recommend a place in the city where I can sell it?”

“No sir. Nobody in India buys Korean currency.”

“Come on. No one?”

“No sir.”

“But I read that it’s illegal to carry Indian currency into the country. How is that supposed to work?”

[A woman who was exchanging currency turned to me.] “I don’t know where you read that but it’s not true.”

Yeah, so fuck you guide books.


Step One: Go to bank machine and withdraw money in Indian Rupees from Korean Account.

DENIED: Korean bank won’t do international withdrawals. Be annoyed but not surprised.

Step Two: Access alternative Korean bank account, where a small balance is kept to pay bills. Enjoy limited success.

Step Three: Access Canadian account, where another small balance is kept for payments. Enjoy another limited success, and having enough money for a couple of days.

Once at the hotel, I emailed my mother who was able to loan us the balance of our Korean currency until we returned to Korea. Mom saves the day, and saves the vacation that seems, so far, destined to fail.


Part II: India – The Golden Triangle.
Delhi > Agra > Jaipur


Posted by on February 2, 2011 in Life Abroad