We’re now a little over half-way through our 30-day Indian visa on our year-long sabbatical trip. We love India. We love the food. We love the people and can I just add that Indian women wear the most amazing clothes with the most vibrant colors, enough to make the rest of the world look drab by comparison?
But it’s not an easy place to travel.
We were lucky enough to spend our first five days in India under the protective and generous custody of Pankaj and Retnam Kurup, who are the in-laws of one of John’s former students at Breck. They picked us at the airport, housed us, fed us, took us around town, and found a tailor for John (who took advantage of Indian’s incredibly affordable and excellent suit-makers) They also helped us get new Indian SIM cards for our phones .
This last item is no small thing. Because we are often in countries for three or more weeks, we now get local SIM cards, so we can have data and call each other if we get lost in a crowd. We’ve bought SIM cards in England, France, Spain and Morocco and it’s usually a pretty smooth routine process.
But not in India, land of legendary bureaucracy. In order to purchase a pre-paid SIM card in India, we had to make multiple trips to multiple stores, seeking the right person who could do the right paperwork. We needed copies of our passports, visas, plus new passport photos, plus the full names of our fathers (“But we’re 60 years old and our fathers died years ago,” we protested, but if it’s on the form, it must be filled), plus a local address for India, plus a local name and phone number of someone who can vouch that you are indeed staying at this address.
After you do all this, you have to wait for up to 24 hours to have the SIM card activated. And then you have to buy data and minutes at a separate shop..
But with Pankaj’s help, we were successful and voila, we’ve had working phones! We’ve encountered fellow travelers who went through same long process and their phones never did work, so we felt lucky.
While we were in Bangalore, Pankaj and Retnam also took us on an overnight visit to the famous ruins of Hampi, about a six-hour drive by car. We had been so deep in their protective, all-Indian cocoon that this was the first time we saw other tourists in India!! Guidebooks call it the number two sight to see in all India, and as we write, we’re a couple of blocks from Number One, the Taj Mahal in Agra. Hampi was once a sprawling city, but warring kings demolished it and turned it into a ghost city. See John’s earlier post about Hampi.
After five days with Pankaj and Retnam, it was time to move on and see India on our own. We flew to Kochi, which is in the south on the ocean where it’s very steamy and tropical, full of coconut trees and backwater fish and prawn farming—it reminded me a lot of southern Vietnam in terms of heat and humidity and water, water everywhere.
Kochi is the home-stay capital of India——there are lots of places where people have turned part of their house into a guesthouse. We stayed at the Honolulu Home Stay, which we found on-line and saw that it got good reviews through Trip Advisor.
It was a great place: simple, clean and welcoming. We had an air-conditioned room with a private bath and breakfast for $25 for the two of us. It’s run by Mr. Taris, who spent 20+ years working on big cargo ships before retiring from the sea. His favorite port was Honolulu, so he named his homestay after it. He lives with his extended family on the first floor of his large house and basically runs a seven-room hotel out of the second and third floors. The third floor also has a big terrace where they serve breakfast.
Mr. Taris genuinely seemed to enjoy having guests. If we needed an auto-rickshaw or a lift to the airport, Mr. Taris would call one of his friends or cousins. So you felt like you were part of a family network. In the afternoon or evening, we’d come home all hot and sweaty and find Mr. Taris’ toddler grandchildren, happily playing in the courtyard or running around naked either before or after taking a bath.
I mean, I’d take that welcome over uniformed desk clerks at the fancier hotels any day.
In Kochi, at one point, I tried to get my hair cut and colored. Mr. Taris’ daughters called around, but alas, no one had any blonde hair dye in stock. There’s just no market for it. So I walked around the corner to Seena’s Beauty Shop to look for just a haircut. Seena’s shop was on the third floor of a house. She spoke only a little English and she and her assistant and her 16-year-old daughter, who was just hanging out, seemed taken back to see a foreigner at their door .
“How do you find us?” Seena asked. I said I was staying at the Honolulu Homestay just 50 or so meters away They looked at me blankly. Anyhow, I sat down and through my pantomime and Seema’s limited English, we started doing business
Seena said a haircut would cost 400 rupees, which is about $6. But she insisted I should also have a “hair spa” treatment” which would cost an additional $13.50. When I said, no, I just wanted a haircut, Seena touched my sweat-encrusted head and said, “But your hair, so sad, so dry.”
I looked at her hair. Indian women have the best hair in the world—so thick and shiny and gorgeous. So I thought, what the hell, she’s a professional, just do what she says. We started with the hair spa, which consisted of dumping some kind of oil on my head, massaging it around for a half-hour, then putting another kind of cream in and steaming it for 15 minutes, then a few other things. When it was time for the haircut. I showed Seena some Googled pictures on my Iphone to to try to show her what I wanted. But Seena, now fully in charge, looked at the photos and waved them off with contempt.
“No. Not look good on you,” she said. “I do my way.”
In the end, I actually got a great haircut. It looks pretty much like my usual haircut, but still. And I came away a devout believer in the hair spa. My hair felt so soft, healthy and happy. She was totally right on both counts. Trust the pros!
The Indian Phone Bureaucracy Strikes Back
While we were in Kochi, we got a text message from Airtel, our phone company, saying there was a problem with our Indian government SIM card applications and the government would de-activate our SIM cards within 24 hour unless we went to an Airtel store and sorted it out. So once again, we set off on the pilgrimage, driving in an auto-rickshaw from phone store to phone store, looking for right person authorized to fill out the right forms. We ended up having to drive to a different city, about 30 minutes away.
When we finally found a person who was authorized to help us, she first said it was a Bangalore-issued SIM card, so we needed to return to Bangalore and the store that took our first application. But we’re travelers, we pleaded. Bangalore is a 14-hour train ride from here. Okay, she said, but then she needed the address of the phone store in Bangalore, so she could call and talk to the person who first filled out our application.
Bangalore is a city of 10 million people; we had had to inquire at multiple stores before we found the right one. Furthermore, we weren’t driving–our host Pankaj and the auto-rickshaw driver were always negotiating where to go next in Malayalam, the local language. So we had no idea what the address was.
But we found a receipt from the photo shop which had taken the required new passport photos of us–we remembered we had to walk about a half-kilometer from the Airtel store to find it. Then we Googled descriptions of Airtel stores in area and found one that said the store was crowded, dirty and the staff was rude.
“That’s the one!” I cried triumphantly.
She called the store. But the person who had filled out our application was off for the next few days. Can we just start over and fill out another application? we asked. She wasn’t sure. She also thought the Indian government was just bluffing and would probably not deactivate our phones. But we didn’t want to risk it. We use the data plan on our phone all the time–for Google maps and as a back-up if the wifi fails. It’s our life-line.
After a long conversation by phone with a regional manager, she agreed to start over—no small thing because this involved making multiple copies of our passport, visas and other documents and filling out the extremely long and detailed form. We called Mr. Taris and asked him to tell the phone representative that we were indeed staying at the Honolulu guesthouse. She activated new SIM cards but told us not to use them—just keep them in reserve and wait and see if the government really does deactivate our phones.
The whole visit took about 90 minutes. She had an office filled with other customers. Yet she was so patient and generous to us. Factor in all the driving around and solving our SIM card took about four hours.
One of the advantages of having this long year to travel is that when something goes wrong, it’s not as if we’ve lost a half-day of our precious vacation time. And it’s often in these very mundane tasks that we get a better sense of what it’s really like to live in a country. Plus, we meet such nice people. In addition to the phone store lady, our auto rickshaw driver–who was either a friend or relative of Mr. Taris—was a sweetheart.
By the way, the phone store lady was right—the Indian government has yet to deactivate our phones. But we still hold on to our reserve SIM cards. They’re like a talisman.
Above: Goats on our street near the Honolulu Home-Stay
Varanasi Lodging, In Which We Discover That All Homestays Are Not Created Equal
From Kochi, we flew to Varanasi. After our great experience at the Honolulu Homestay, we booked six nights at The Somit Homestay, which we planned to use as a base while touring the city and doing an overnight side trip. The Somit Homestay also had rooms for about $25 a night, was located about 500 meters from the Ganges River and got wildly enthusiastic reviews on Trip Advisor.
According to the Somit website, the homestay also ran a small Hindu academic tutoring program for poor kids, offered yoga training and walking tours of Varanasi as well. Plus, for a reasonable fee, they would have a driver meet us at the airport and take us directly to the homestay–a huge help, since the place was located in the old section of the city, which is a tangled warren of alleys that can only be reached on foot.
It was dark when the driver dropped us off on a corner. Somit, the owner, who is in his early 30s, met us and we followed him through a labyrinth of alleys and walkways, trying to step over the huge piles of cow manure, which wasn’t easy because it was dark. John stepped right into a particularly gooey pile.
When we arrived at the place, it was an old, narrow, dingy and dimly-lit concrete building. The walls of the narrow reception area were covered with lined notebook paper from previous guests, saying how wonderful their stay had been.
Somit said there would be no official charge for the room, meals, or guided tours. Instead, everything would be a free-will offering for their project with poor kids, which is why their suggested rate was higher than usual. All the money went to the poor. “I can feel your spirit and heart,” Somit said, “so I know this will be fine with you.”
John, a naturally trusting person, seemed to have no problem with this. But I was raised evangelical, so my red flags went up as soon as I heard “free-will offering” and ”I can feel your heart.” Somit also pushed us hard to take their tours; we finally agreed to take one the next day.
An assistant led us up a steep flight of stairs to our room, which was as grim as a prison cell with one dim light bulb from the ceiling and a bed with one very dirty blanket on it. That was it. No chair. No towels. The toilet across the hall had a broken seat, which slid off every time we sat down.
I met two other groups of guests that night—an American couple traveling with two kids for a year and a Danish couple. None of us could figure out the glowing reviews on Trip Advisor. It made no sense.
There are temples everywhere in Varanasi and as luck would have it, there was a small Hindu temple in the alley directly below our room. We later figured out they were celebrating the feast of the goddess of wisdom, Saraswati, although we initially thought it was some kind of bachelor party because it sounded like a bunch of drunken young guys happily shouting about beer and football. Whenever their shouting died down, the temple drums would start up and when the drums stopped, extremely loud Hindu praise music—which turns out to be just as inane, repetitive and annoying as Christian praise music— blasted through the loudspeaker.
How John managed to sleep through most of this. I do not know. On previous travels, I have slept through massive fireworks going off 50 meters away. But this was too much for even me. The festivities went on all night. At some point in the wee hours, as I laid awake, feeling something in the bed bite me (fleas? bed bugs?), I went online and tried to book us into another guesthouse starting the next day.
The only place I could find at that hour in the old city near the Ganges River was the two-star Alka Hotel which was offering its premium room for $75 a night, which is a lot more than we usually spend and pretty expensive for India. The Alka Hotel also got mixed reviews on line and in order to make a reservation I had to pay upfront with no refunds.
I hesitated. Then the recorded Hindu praise music started up again. I clicked on “Book Now.”
At dawn, the Danish couple rose to go scout for another guesthouse. The American family was gone by 7 a.m. Around 8 a.m., I went down to the reception to say we were leaving and found a huge cow in the room.
Apparently the same cow comes by twice a day, and Somit and his family, who are devout Hindus, open their door and let it in. Somit’s mother filled a giant pail of water for the cow who drank it quickly. Getting the cow out of the reception area was tricky—the space was too narrow for the cow to turn around, so the cow had to back out and down two steep steps to the alley. But with our hosts’ gentle encouragement, the cow managed.
That morning, we also watched Somit and his family lead their young students through a ceremony for Saraswati. The kids were adorable and well-behaved, sitting quietly for over an hour while Somit and his family set up an elaborate altar and offered fruit, flowers, incense, school supplies, and more to the goddess of knowledge and study. As a priest, John thought it was cool. As a former Baptist, I remembered sitting as a child through endlessly long services when I just wanted to be outside and running around. Even at age 60, the ceremony made me feel fidgety.
Somit and his family were sad to see us go. All the testimonials on the wall and Trip Advisor reviews aside, I get the impression they are often sad to see guests go. We told his brother, Amit, that we still wanted to take his walking tour—we just wanted the first stop to be our next hotel and he agreed.
Can I just say I have never been so happy to check into a premium $75 room at a two-star hotel? The Alka Hotel is located directly on the Ganges; our room was spacious, bright and airy–it even had its own balcony. The views from the hotel patio were breathtaking; the beer in the hotel restaurant was cold; the staff treated us like family. After a few days, we downgraded to a $38 room. The hotel was close to fully booked all the nights we stayed there and we keep meeting other travelers who had fled bad guesthouses.
Varanasi, One Of The World’s Most Intense Cities
After we checked into the Alka, Amit gave us a tour of Varanasi temples and holy places. He turned out to be a terrific tour guide—great teacher, thoughtful, well-informed and passionate about Hinduism and the city where he has lived his whole life.
Varanasi is one of Hinduism’s most holy cities. It’s full of temples, especially to Shiva, and it is considered an especially auspicious place to die and be cremated. In Varanasi, the Ganges is lined with a six-kilometer series of linked stone boardwalks—they’re called ghats–featuring wide steps down to the river.
The ghats are where people do laundry, ritual washings, meet with Hindu priest for religious ceremonies, play cards, ritually shave their heads, meditate, wash their cows, sell snacks, go boating, cremate their dead, play cricket, fly kites—I mean, it’s all there and it’s all happening in the same space, with a lot of cows, goats, and stray dogs wandering around.
There are two cremation sites on the river, surrounded by big stacks of wood. People do not play cricket on this ghat–they do that at the adjacent boardwalks. Taking photos of the cremation up close is discouraged. But outsiders are allowed to watch and it’s both fascinating and gruesome (you can see and smell various body parts burning at various rates). It’s also moving because it’s done with a lot of ceremony and reverence. Eldest sons and grandsons, clad in white, heads newly-shaved, swing smoldering straw bundles in circles around the pile of wood.
The Lonely Planet Guide, which in India is the independent traveler’s scripture, describes Varanasi like this: “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.”
We’ve got another 10 days to go, so we don’t know whether it’s our favorite stop yet. But once I got to the Hotel Alka, I really did like Varanasi. It’s an intense city, so it was really nice to have an oasis of calm to retreat to. Here’s a photo of the Ganges in the evening, take from the hotel patio.
Next up: Riding the Indian Railway System, In Which We Are Saved By 20-Something Indian Millennials With Cell Phones and Apps.