Sunday, March 20, 2011

Italy - Milan, Venice, Florence

Time to check in from Europe. I'll spend a few minutes highlighting what we've done over the last week or so as we begin this portion of our trip.

First country on our European adventure is the country of Italy. Our first stop within Italy was up north in the city of Milan. We chose Milan because it was either Milan or Barcelona based on the cost of airfare on the day that we wanted to leave India. Milan pretty much lived up to its billing as being a more modern and different city than the rest of Italy. Milan suffered a lot of damage in World War II. A large part of the city is only around 60 years old. We ended up spending three nights in Milan. We originally were only going to spend two nights but Alethea was still trying to shake a nasty head cold and sinus congestion so we decided to extend by one day. Due to Alethea being under the weather we spent the first day resting while catching up on trip activities such as planning, picture editing, and blogging.

We did one day of sightseeing in Milan. We started out by going to St. Ambrose's Church. It was pretty neat but simple and contained the relics of St. Ambrose himself who died in the 4th century. Our next stop after walking a few blocks in the cold and light rain was the church St. Mary of the Graces. St. Mary houses the original Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci. To see the painting you have to reserve tickets months in advance since they only let in 25 people every 15 minutes during the day. They do have no show or cancellation tickets that they sell each day. We tried to get one of these tickets but there were none available. We next continued on to Castello Sforzesco briefly before deciding to pass on its museums before going to Pinacoteca di Brera. Brera is a popular art musuem. I thought it was pretty decent for the price. We continued on after lunch to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele which is a large 19th century mall with modern shops in it. It pretty much looks like an giant arcade. We immediately walked through the mall before arriving at the The Duomo or Milan Cathedral. The Duomo was started in 1386 and wasn't pronounced completed until 1965. The Duomo is the 2nd largest catholic church in the world next to St. Peter's in Rome. The cathedral was massive and impressive. Since it was raining we decided no to hike to the top of the cathedral since it cost I believe 5 euros a piece for the privilege. We then hopped on the metro and then the tram back to our hotel for the evening.

Milan Cathedral (1386 to 1965)

The second stop on our Italy tour was Venice. Venice was just a 3 hour train ride from Milan. There is actually a faster train but we decided to save some money by taking a slower one which was just fine. We arrived in Venice around 4:15 pm. Once we located our hotel we decided to get out and walk around for a little bit since it was still daylight. Our hotel was only a couple blocks from St. Mark's Square. We walked to the square and around it to the Grand Canal. We then walked around the Bridge of Sighs before wandering our way back to a grocery store and then a restaurant before heading back to our hotel for the evening.

St. Mark's Square in Venice

Our first full day in Venice was spent in churches. We decided to purchase a Chorus pass and spend the day touring various churches. Many of the popular churches charge entrance fees so it makes sense to purchase the Chorus Pass if you visit more than 4 churches. We visited 7 churches on the first day and 2 more on the second day. The churches were small for the most part but had some pretty good art work on display inside plus the architecture of the churches was pretty good too. The most impressive church that was a part of our pass was the Frari church. Many of the churches were built in the 14th and 15th centuries with one going back to the 9th century. I was glad we did this instead of going to the Doge's Palace which was the administrative headquarters of Venice. It gets good reviews but was more expensive and only covered a couple other side attractions.

Canal in Venice

Our second day of sightseeing in Venice didn't turn out so well. It rained continuously and was somewhat cool. Our clothes were completely soaked through by mid-day. I even decided to buy a rain proof jacket from REI since the one I'm carrying isn't holding up that well plus we have more of Europe to travel through. We did visit St. Mark's Basilica which is the most famous and probably most spectacular church in Venice. We toured the church with the help of Rick Steves. We downloaded a podcast of the church (along with many others for Italy) that he narrated and listened to it on our cell phones. It came in pretty handy. We did visit two additional churches that were a part of our pass and walked through the Jewish Ghetto before calling it quits half way through the day. We needed a full day to allow our clothes to dry.

San Stae - Venice (14th century)

Overall I really liked Venice. My first observation is that St. Mark's square and some of the sights aren't as big as I thought they would be but they were still impressive. Venice is a nice walking city that isn't large but isn't really small either. It would take you about a hour to walk from one end to another. I am glad we stopped there. It is a city I've wanted to see for quite some time. The only thing that could have been better was the weather but there isn't much you can do about that.

Next stop for us was the city of Florence. Florence was just a 3 hour train ride from Venice. We spent 4 nights in Florence. On the first day we followed the Rick Steves Florence Renaissance walking tour. We started at the Santa Maria Del Fiore which is the large main church of Florence. We toured the inside and coughed up the 8 euros a piece to hike the 463 steps to the top of the dome. The view from dome were fantastic. The weather cooperated this time by being sunny and clear. After the church we stopped at various spots before making our way to Santa Croce. Santa Croce is both a large church but also a burial spot for some famous Italians including Michaelangelo, Machivelli, Dante, and others. On our second day of sightseeing we toured the world famous Uffizi art musuem. Only bad part was that we spent as much time in line as we did in the museum itself. It was still worth it in my opinion. The admission fee was also more since they had some additional drawings on display. There wasn't an option to pay a lower fee and avoid the extra art. On our last full day in Florence we roamed around the neighborhood we were staying in and visited a couple of old churches. 

Santa Maria Del Fiore - Florence

One other thing to note about Florence is that we were able to stay with the brother of a friend from high school Devang Naik. He was very gracious and allowed us to stay for 4 nights and even gave up his bed for us. This helped out our budget since we had a free place to stay. We also were able to do our laundry and cook some of out meals. We actually finally used up our laundry powder that we purchased in New Zealand several months ago. Thanks so much Devang (and Jenny)!

Alethea on top of Santa Maria Del Fiore in Florence

This wraps up my first post from Europe. I am glad we're here. The weather has been about what we expected meaning cool and damp but not too bad. Only negative is what we also expected and that is just the overall cost of traveling in Europe. We're doing pretty good by limiting our sightseeing\museum visits and eating basic meals. I am glad that I am getting to see parts of Italy and Europe that I haven't seen before. Our next stop after Florence is Siena for a couple days as we try to mix in small cities and the countryside with the large cities. After a quick stop in Siena we'll spend one week in Rome. We've decided to rent an apartment for a week since it is cheaper than staying in a hotel or hostel plus we'll be able to cook and do laundry in addition to living out and away from the city center a little bit. That's all for now. ….Yes I know UT lost in the 1st round of the men's NCAA basketball tournament :-).

Link to photo albums:

Daily Log

Friday March 11th
Stayed in room and rested up.
Caught up on online activities.
Plotted out what we wanted to do in Milan
Went to grocery store to get food

Saturday March 12th
Alethea is still not feeling well. Decided to stay inside and rest versus sightseeing.
Extended our stay in Milan by another night.
Booked train tickets to Venice,
Reserved a hotel room in Venice.
Bought more groceries for breakfast and dinner.
Ate out at local somewhat cheap place. Had language barrier issues. Italians often don't speak another language than Italian is my experience.
Called home this evening and spoke to mom and dad. Nothing too much new. Might be able to sell my car.

Sunday March 13th
Cold wet rainy day in Milan with a temp around 9 C.
Went sightseeing.
Visited St. Ambrose (large Byzantic\Roman church), Saint Mary of the Graces (home of the Last Super), Castello Sforzesco, Pinacoteca di Brera (art museum), Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, The Duomo (started in 1386).
Tried to see the Last Supper by Leonardo but it was book with no cancellations.
The Duomo was impressive and massive. It was started in 1386 and completed in 1965. 2nd largest catholic cathedral in the world. 8th largest church building in the world per Wikipedia.
Came back to our hotel by around 5:15 pm.

Monday March 14th
Travel day sort of..
Checked out of hotel around 11:30 am.
Caught tram to Milan Central train station.
Waited for about a hour for train.
Train left right on time @ 13:05. Train arrived in Venice right on time at 15:40.
Glad we took cheaper 2nd class train. It was nice and comfortable. Only real issue was that a woman put her suitcase in our seating area. I told her to move it once the train left.
Took waterbus to Rioldi bridge stop. Walked to hotel. Checked in. We are staying in an annex 100 meters from the main hotel. Room is nice. Wi-fi in the bedroom and shower.
Decided to get out and walk around. Walked around St. Mark's Square, Doge Palace. Found grocery store and bought cheap $3.50 bottle of wine.
Splurged and ate a full dinner with pre-fix menus.
Got a little lost but walked back to our hotel room to enjoy our cheap wine.

Tuesday March 15th
Purchased a Chorus pass for 20 euros total and toured numerous churches. Churches in Venice charge a entrance fee of around 2.50 euros each. The art work was impressive inside.
We went to the following churches in order: San Stae, San Giacomo dall'Orio, San Polo, S.M.G. Dei Frari, San Sebastiano, Santo Stefano, S.ta M. del Giglio. Frari was the most impressive.
Stopped and had a glass wine at a cheap place.
Both ate pizzas at Crazy Bar.
Came back to hotel.

Wednesday March 16th
Visited the following churches – Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria Formosa
Weather was nasty. Rainy and cold. Decided to come back to hotel by 1:30 pm.
Worked on itinerary planning. I booked airfare from Rome to Lisbon.
Researched Siena accommodations and booked an apartment for Rome.
Researched overnight trains from Lisbon to Madrid and Madrid to Barcelona.
Researched Florence admission prices to museums.
Ordered new rain jacket from REI to be shipped to Ronnie and Diane's. Plan is to bring it to Spain. My black REI jacket is not waterproof and was soaked through today.

Thursday March 17th
Travel day from Venice to Florence.
Took train that left 13:07 for 3 hours to Florence. Arrived at 16:15. Took intercity train to FSM one stop.
Met Devang Naik who we'll be staying with for the next 4 nights. Walked to his apartment. It was quite a ways away with a large backpack.
Went out and bought groceries.
Ate dinner. Popular thing at bars is to buy one drink then eat at their buffet. Total cost was 11 euros for 2 drinks and dinner. Total cost was $15.
Bought two bottles of wine.
Came back to Devang's and settled in for the evening.

Friday March 18th
Full day of sightseeing in Florence
1st hike back to train station to try to purchase Spain (Madrid to Barcelona) tickets. Unable to buy them. Tried at a travel agency but couldn't.
Walked across the Ponto Vecciho.
Listened to the Rick Steves Florence Renaissance Walk throughout the day.
Visited the Santa Maria Del Fiore. Church is somewhat bare on the inside.
Ate lunch at a Turkish place.
Waited in line to go to dome. Paid 8 euros a piece to hike 463 steps to the top. Very beautiful scenery. Alethea's height issue kicked in and didn't do so well.
Listened to rest of Rick Steves podcast.
Ate some Gelato on the way to Santa Groce. I had cookies and Alethea has pistachio.
Toured Santa Groce after paying 5 euros a piece. Saw the tombs of Michaelangelo, Dante, Machieveli, and others.
Stopped at two grocery stores on the way back to Devang's

Saturday March 19th
Toured the Uffizi art museum. I thought it was pretty good overall. We did have to wait two hours to enter first though. Also, the admission price has been raised from 6.50 euros to 11 euros because there are some additional drawings included throughout the museum. After the museum we figured we had had enough for the day and stopped at a grocery store before going back to the apartment.
We ate lunch then took showers so we could do a load of laundry.

Sunday March 20th
Roamed around Florence in the afternoon.
Visited two churches in addition to walking around. 1st was St. Maria Del Carmine (8 euros 2 pax) and San Spirito. Both were nice. We watched a 40 minute video at Carmine.
Walked around market close to our apartment.
Went to grocery store.

Friday, March 11, 2011

India Part 2 – The Northern Adventure

The second half of our stay in India was spent in the northern section of the country. I'll pick up with where I left off in Goa then highlight our time in the north followed by some final thoughts on India.

We ended up spending a total of 4 nights in Goa. We stayed in the Panaji area about 10 km from what is known as Old Goa. We decided to stay in this area versus the beach areas since we had just spent so much time on the beaches in Thailand. In Panaji you can get a sense of the Portuguese architectural influence that is quite different than in other parts of India. The Goa area was a Portuguese colony. The Portuguese were actually the last European power to leave India after the British. Portugal still occupied Goa after India gained independence from Britain in 1947 until 1961 when they were sort of force out by the Indian army.

We realized once we got to Goa that we were going to be in need of a travel agent. This was primarily because internet access in general is of poor quality and hard to come by at times. wi-fi is virtually non existent. Even with internet access it is a challenge to travel independently through India. We spent one day looking for open travel agencies before finding one near our hotel. We spent several hours with a travel agent going over our options. We finally had to leave for the day and discuss our options that evening before going back the next day to negotiate the final deal. We ended up cutting out about half of our shortened itinerary for northern India due to the budget that we had set for ourselves. About the only sightseeing that we did on Goa besides stroll around the downtown area looking for internet cafes with wi-fi or open travel agents was on the last day and that was on the way to the airport. We negotiated with the taxi to take us to Old Goa to tour some of the old churches in the area before heading to the airport. The churches were pretty neat and free! Many of the churches were around 400 to 500 years old and were built in the Portuguese architectural style. We did see the tomb of the St. Xavier who is buried in Bom Jesus (baby Jesus) church. The only real negative was that I got sick in Goa and was offline for a full day which cut into our ability to go sightseeing in some of the surrounding areas. We probably would have toured a spice plantation and visited some other sights close by. I probably contracted some type of 24 hour virus. It wasn't too bad but could have been worse. I'll spare everyone the precise details.

Now that I had recovered from my first India illness and that we had a tour of northern India booked we headed up north to start in New Delhi. For our northern itinerary we booked a driver to take us between cities and guides in 3 different cities. This was a much better option than booking trains which we were having difficulty doing along with going through the hassle of finding an guide in each city. We landed in Delhi in the evening of March 2nd and were met at the airport by a representative of the travel agency we were using. He took us to our hotel and we sat down and went over the itinerary. Once we ironed out a couple issues I did what we did in Egypt and that was pay in cash up front for our week of activities to someone I would never see again. I handed over approximately 47,000 Rupees (~$840 US). Nothing like handing over a wad of cash to someone you'll never see again. The representative who was new at the company (that gave me even more confidence) said he had never had that much money on him before.

India Gate in New Delhi - memorial to Indian WW1 servicemen

We ended up spending just one full day sightseeing in New Delhi. We started out at 9 am and visited multiple sights. We went to the Jama Masjid (15th century) mosque, India Gate (India's Arc de Triumph), Gandhi's Cremation spot, Presidential Palace, Humayun's Tomb, and the Qatab Minar. My favorite was Humayun's Tomb which is a large complex for the 17th century ruler Humayun. We also got suckered into a shopping excursion where some gentlemen tried their best to get us to buy all sorts of Kashmir carpets and clothes. We specifically said up front when we booked the tour in Goa that we didn't want any side shopping trips. Alethea emailed the New Delhi travel agent to provide some feedback. They were aggressive but not too bad. Unfortunately, this is a common tactic. It almost happened again in Agra but we headed it off and went back to our hotel early. Even though we only spent one full day in Delhi I felt like we hit all the main attractions and weren't too rushed. We were back in our hotel by around 6 pm. One funny thing about our hotel is that hot water only works during certain times of the day and they were having trouble with the boiler on our floor. It took multiple trips of people to get it to work. They got the boiler started and we just had to let the water run for several minutes before hot water came out. This is actually pretty common in India.

Humayun's Tomb in New Delhi

Next stop on our northern Indian circuit was the mountain town of Shimla. We drove I believe 6 hours north with our driver to Shimla from New Delhi. Shimla is located at about 6,800 feet elevation above sea level. It was the summer home of the British government when they were in charge and served as a summer residence for the Indian President after independence. I liked Shimla. It definitely provided a contrast to southern India and Delhi. It was also much cooler at the higher elevations. We went from sweating in southern India to bundling up with our thermal underwear within a couple days.

We spent one full day sightseeing in Shimla as well. First place we came to was Kufri about 20 km outside of town. There wasn't too much to see but we did stop and get a pretty decent view of the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains or least one small section of them. The area of Kufri is actually somewhat of a disputed territory between China and India. They fought a small war in 1961 over this and other areas. Our tour guide even mentioned that Kufri still shows up on Chinese maps as a part of China and not India and occasionally Chinese troops cross the line of control. China primarily wants this area for the water produced by the mountain snow. We did have clear weather so the views were pretty good. Other sights we saw included the Viceregal house that was built in 1888 to be the capital of the British government and Indian President's Palace. We saw Christ Church and a Hindu temple which was actually the 1st and only Hindu temple we visited in India. We did spend time walking up and down the Mall area which is lined with shops and is a place where locals hang out. We continuously had people staring at us as there were few westerners around.

foothills of the Himalayan Mountains in Kufri outside of Shimla, includes the Chinese border

One real neat thing we did the following morning was to take what is called the Toy Train. The Toy Train is a scenic old small train line that goes up and down the mountain. A lot of tourist take it but so did Indians as well. It was built in the beginning of the 20th century by the British. The trip took a little over 4 hours. The entire route goes through a little over 100 tunnels and over 800 bridges. One funny side note is that we couldn't go all the way to the terminus in Kalka because our driver is from Delhi driving a car with Delhi license plates. The taxi union of Kalka will not let non-local taxis pick up passengers so we got off one stop earlier to meet our driver. Other than that one issue it was a neat thing to do that I enjoyed even if the seats were a little small. Only other interesting thing about our time in Shimla is that our hotel didn't come with heat despite it being close to freezing at night so we rented a heater for $4.50 a night to go along with our two blankets and for me thermal underwear. Interesting but we said we wanted only 1-2 star hotels. I think heat comes with 3 stars and up.

riding the Toy Train in Shimla

We finished our travel day after the train ride by visiting a less than impressive garden before retiring
for the evening outside of the city of Chandigarh. One funny thing about the places we stayed in Chandigarh was that our voucher for our hotel didn't have the address or phone number of our hotel so our driver would stop, roll down his window, and ask strangers for directions. I actually saw the sign first and we eventually found the hotel. The next day we left at 6 am for what was supposed to be a 12 hour driver day to Agra but only took 8 hours. You never know with India traffic.

Agra was our last tourist stop in northern India. The main purpose for Agra was to see the Taj Mahal. We got up at 6 am and went when it first opened in order to beat the crowds and see it in good lighting. It is a beautiful piece of work. I was impressed by it. It is hard to describe in words. It is simple but very intricately designed and built. There isn't too much to say about it other than it is well worth the visit to Agra to see it. The pictures will hopefully do the talking. I've wanted to visit the Taj Mahal for a long time and it was the one absolute thing I wanted to do in India. We ended staying for about 2 hours total.

Taj Mahal

The other attractions we saw in Agra was the Agra Fort which is a large complex where India rulers lived starting in the 16th century. It was ok but we could only see about 20% of it since the rest is occupied by the Indian army. I believe we were only there about 30 minutes or so. We had the option of seeing a facility about 40 km away but since we both had very nasty head colds we decided to skip that item. Instead we used the services of our guide to go to the India post office and negotiate a way for us to mail back to the states about 2.5 kg worth of stuff we no longer need in order to make our backpacks lighter. It would have been difficult to talk our way through all the steps needed to get it done. During the process we ended up giving a woman an extra 50 rupees (~$1 USD) extra to wrap our package a little better. Technically, this may have constituted a bribe. She wasn't shy about asking for it. We also stopped at an electronics store to get Alethea another mouse for her computer. We also stopped at a pharmacy to get some more medications. Our guide was getting ready to steer us to a craft sales opportunity before we talked him out of it and told him we would go back to the hotel. We spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on online activities since our hotel actually had wi-fi. One of the very few places to have it in India.

Qatab Minar - New Delhi

This concludes the second half and northern tour of India. I was satisfied with the time we spent up north and with our overall time in India. I felt like I got to see some different parts of the country. I think we made the right call by switching from traveling independently to using a travel agent. I am also glad we drove around the northern part of the country for a week versus taking trains. We took one overnight train from Kochi to Goa. It wasn't bad but it didn't have much privacy. Having a car and driver gave us so much more flexibility and comfort which are helpful in India. It isn't all that expensive to hire a car and driver either.

Here are some of my final thoughts on India. To start with I would say it wasn't as bad I feared. I would also have to say that it wasn't exactly pleasant all the time either. I was impressed with the all the diversity within the country which I wasn't fully aware of before we arrived in India. Different states within India speak completely different languages than other states. People in the north can barely understand a word of those from the south. I was somewhat disappointed with how challenging travel can be within the country. I had expected a little better infrastructure including better roads and an easier time with trains. China's infrastructure is better from what I've experienced. Oddly enough this came up in discussion with Indians who had not been to China before. They would often ask how the roads and trains were in China. Of course the lack of infrastructure in no way made the driving any better or safer. India drivers are probably worse meaning more aggressive with no thought of following any traffic laws than their counterparts in China and Egypt. A 4 hour car ride can make you feel pretty worn out if you look out the front window while riding. I am getting used it to it after all the travel abroad but I would sometimes think to myself from time to time there is only so many times you can cheat death on the roads of India. We made so many close calls passing trucks, tuktuks, and other cars that just a slight mistake could have serious consequences. Also, just to add to the excitement drivers are frequently on their cell phones too. Our driver was pretty good about this even pulling off the road sort of to make some calls.

monkeys grooming themselves in public in Shimla

I mentioned this in my previous post but another thing I didn't like was all the trash just scattered everywhere. It seemed about everywhere you looked there was trash laying around . An another activity that got to me were men urinating in public. It was very common to see men using the bathroom in broad daylight by the road while traveling. Toilets aren't exactly common everywhere but still I think there should be some more discretion.

I would say that India would be worth another trip. We only stayed 18 nights but had originally planned on staying about 4-6 weeks. As mentioned earlier transport logistics, money, and the grind of India traveling had us cut our trip short. We have 10 year multi-entry visas so we can go back multiple times up until 2020 as long as we have blank pages in our passport. I might as well since our India visas were the most expensive on our trip. They were $150 a piece and you have to go to a 3rd party to get one. You cannot go directly to an Indian embassy anymore to get one. We could have obtained 6 month visas that were a little cheaper but they would have expired when we were there based on our original itinerary. The 5 & 10 year tourist visas are the same price so we opted for the 10 year visa just for the heck of it. If you're interested other expensive visa countries are China ($130 US), Tanzania ($100 USD), and Vietnam ($50 plus $16 for entrance letter). If I should go back I would like to go to the Rajastan area along with the northeast part of India up to Darjeeling and into Nepal and Bangladesh.

Alethea in our cold room in Shimla

There were some highlights of our trip. For me the number one highlight of all of India was the Taj Mahal. It is just a marvelous structure that should be a part of any India trip. I also enjoyed Shimla quiet a bit too. I kind of liked being up in the mountains with the beautiful views of the mountains and what I think was clean fresh air. The Toy Train trip was enjoyable as well. In the southern part of India I enjoyed the backwaters overnight cruise that we did although it was a little hot.

Overall I would recommend India as a place to visit. It is a remarkable country with plenty to see. A lot of it will probably stun your sense but it would be worth it. I would have some cautions depending on how one is traveling. It would be challenging for someone with not much experience traveling outside the US in my opinion.

Now that India is over we are done with Asia. We now fly in to Europe. Originally, we had planned on taking a Delta flight to Amsterdam but we ran into issues with not being able to accurately predict when we could fly on our standby passes so we purchased a confirmed ticket to Milan, Italy. We had multiple options but this one was the best fit of locations, price, and schedule of the flight. We'll fly from Mumbai to Amman, Jordan then on to Milan. We had an option to fly in to Cairo on Egypt Air but decided against it considering all the issues going on there. Cairo airport is a zoo anyway under normal conditions. We have put together an itinerary and budget for Europe. We'll take it country by country and see how we are doing before deciding when we will be coming back to the US. Hope all is doing well. Time to get a bite to eat here in Amman airport.

Link to photo albums:

Daily Log

Thursday March 3rd
First full in New Delhi after flying up from Goa yesterday.
Visited all of the following sights: Red Fort from road, Jama Masjid mosque, India Gate, Gandhi Cremation spot, Humayun's Tomb, Qatab Minar. I though Humayun's Tomb was the best. Large and pretty. Kind of disappointed in Jama Masjid mosque. India Gate was pretty neat too.
Saw the above sights from 9:00 am to 5 pm. Had expensive lunch and was taken to a Kashmir shop for a sell that wasn't planned.
Came back to hotel and got caught up online on expenses, pics uploading, and trip research.
New Delhi is a big messy city. Kinda of crazy.

Friday March 4th
Long drive to Shimla. Left hotel around 8:30 am. Arrived in Shimla around 5:30 pm.
Saw some neat scenery.
Shimla is pretty but compact. Has a Gatlinburg feel to it.
During the drive we spent a couple hours going over our cost options for flying into Europe. Sometimes a little painful but we got on the same plan.
After we checked in we walked to an internet cafe about 15 mins from our hotel and researched flights for a hour before booking a flight from Mumbai to Milan, Italy via Amman, Jordan. It came down to not being able to trust the numbers for the Amsterdam flight since the Mumbai crew is using KLM\Air France's system and not Delta's. The confirm tickets on Royal Jordan weren't that expensive considering it is only a few days out. I believe they were around $440 and it puts us into a city and country we planned on visiting. If we flew in to Amsterdam we would have taken a train to Brussels to start our Europe portion of the trip.
To celebrate we stopped at one of the few alcohol stores and bought some whiskey and 2 beers.
Didn't eat dinner until 9 pm. It was included in our room rate. Our room doesn't have heat. It does have two warm blankets and you can rent a heater for 200 R a night ($4.50). I decided to rent the heater. It works pretty well.

Saturday March 5th
Sightseeing day of the Shimla area.
Drive 17 km to Kufri. Saw the foothills of the Himalayas. To the north was Tibet. China actually claims Kufri on their maps but we were clearly inside India by several km. We were around 300 km from Pakistan. Weather was clear and we got good views.
Drove to Viceregal House. Built in 1888 by British. Was summer home of the British govt. India used it after independence for a little bit. 1945 conference regarding India independence was held here. Gandhi was in attendance.
Went to mall. Had lunch and walked around mall.
Had tea with guide.
Visited Hindu Temple. Guide educated us on Hinduism.
Bought another new pair of sunglasses.
Very good day. Good weather. I like Shimla. It's like Gatlinburg but with 2 million Indians.
Came back to room and drank beers we bought the previous night.
Restocked on toiletries.
Went to internet cafe and researched hotels in Milan. Booked one but it is expensive. Ok for 1st European one since we will have a long travel day to get to there.

Sunday March 6th
Rode Toy Train down from Shimla. Train is very scenic. It is a narrow gauge old train. There are a little over 100 tunnels and over 800 bridges. We rode for 4.25 hours from 10:30 am to 2:45 pm. Seats were pretty cramped but otherwise it was a very enjoyable trip.
Shbu picked us up from station. We drove a hour to Kalka where the train actually ends but we got off early because their taxi union will not allow taxis from outside their area to pick up passengers from the Kalka train station.
Went to Pinjore Gardens. They were built in the 16th century by one of the Mogul Emperors. It is a 7 terraces set of gardens inside a walled compound. It is nice but 50% of it is being refurbished plus people are living inside of it. This was for something we paid for even it was only 40 R total.
Had the option of going to the Rock Garden but passed.
Eventually found hotel. Our voucher had the name of the hotel but no addresses or phone number. Our driver would drive around a general area and roll down his window to ask people in Hindi.
Checked in and discussed Europe itinerary.
Ate dinner.
A very loud party is going on next door that we can hear very loud. It is outdoors and is probably an Indian wedding celebration.

Monday March 7th
Long day of driving from Chandigarh to Agra. Left at 6:00 am and arrived at 4:30.
Driving was crazy as always.
Hotel actually has wi-fi.
Booked hotel in Mumbai.
Have nasty head cold.

Tuesday March 8th
Slept really bad due to nasty head cold
Got up at 5:45 to see the Taj Mahal at the opening.
Left hotel at 6:20 am and drove the 1 km to the Taj. Had to take an electric vehicle about a km to the entrance after purchasing tickets. There were separate lines for women and men.
Toured the Taj Mahal from around 7 am to 8:30 am. It is very spectacular building. It was well built and looks to be in good condition. I've seen buildings of nearly the same size from the same time period that do not look as good. The guide mentioned they wash it every 3-4 years with mud 1st then water.
Came back to hotel to eat breakfast by 9 am.
Didn't leave for 2nd half of day until 10:30. It was good to have the break since we are both not feeling well. I took some medication and washed up.
Went to Agra Fort from 10:30 until 11:30. The fort was the home of several India Mogul rulers. The army still occupies 80% of it. It was Ok but not all that spectacular. It was worth it though.
Decided to not go to the place that was 40 km outside of the city that is a walled in city. Alethea had been before but we didn't feel like driving and sightseeing for 4-5 hours.
We gathered up excess stuff we ever accumulated or had but no longer feel we need and with the help of our guide we shipped it back to the US. It was 2.65 kg of stuff that should help. It cost $27.95 including paying 100 R instead of 50 R to a woman who said she would wrap it a little better. This may have technically been a bribe :-). It would have been a real challenge for us to negotiate our way with the India post office.
Went to ATM machine to pull out more money.
Stopped by pharmacy to by some medical supplies since they are much cheaper in India versus Europe.
Alethea and the guide stopped by an electronics store to buy a new mouse.
Guide try to take us to a craft type store but we said no and went back to the hotel since we were tired and not feeling. Back in hotel by around 1:30 pm.
Spent the afternoon in the lobby of our hotel getting caught up on pictures, expense tracking, blogging, and other misc internet related tasks

Wednesday March 9th
Checked out of hotel around 8 am and drove to New Delhi
Tipped driver 2500 R which was more than we expected but was probably more in range with what the norm is.
Flight to Delhi was 1 hour late leaving with no announcement as to why.
Driver wasn't at airport to pick us up. Had to talk my way back into arrival area past security to have hotel desk call our hotel and have them come get us. They said the flight # was wrong but that was bull.
Found driver 15-20 minutes later. Drove to hotel.
Checked in. Arranged for transport the next morning. Ordered dinner to our room.
Took shower – no hot water despite letting it run for 10 minutes.
Read a little bit then slept for about 4 hours. Hotel cost $43 for 7 hours use. Glad we did it vs sleeping in the airport.

Thursday March 10th
Wake up call at 2:35 am instead of 2:45 am.
Left hotel around 3:05 am. Arrived at airport by 3:25. Was told it would take 45 minutes. Barely took 20.
Checked in and went through immigration and security.
Spent my last 60 rupees on a green tea at 4:15 am.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

India - First Impressions

Note: Little delayed in getting this posted. Internet access has not been that good in India.

Purpose of this post is to put down in words my first thoughts on India. I haven't really been shocked by anything yet. It has pretty much been as I expected. Based on previous countries we have been to on this trip I would say that India reminds me of a mixture between China and Egypt. It reminds me of China because of the way people drive which means there are pretty much no traffic laws. It is every vehicle for itself. I am getting pretty much used to this type of driving since we saw this somewhat in other parts of Southeast Asia but not as aggressive as in China. Other China characteristics are there is sprawl in a sense of just people and stuff everywhere with little to no real organization. The Egypt resemblances come from some of the touts constantly offering to sell us various things plus I have a little but not quite as strong feeling that you need to be on guard at all times. I feel like people are staring at us and not always in a good way. I had this gut feeling in Egypt. I feel safe but I also feel the need to be on constant alert. For the last two months in Southeast Asia I didn't really feel that way. It was much more relaxed. Some other first impressions are is that I haven't seen the absolute grinding poverty yet like I had expected but we haven't been in an urban slum area or way out in the countryside yet. We've pretty much been in a tourist corridor. Don't get me wrong I've seen a lot of people that didn't look too well off but had expected things to be worse.

Santa Cruz Basilica in Kochi, India

As I mentioned earlier nothing has really shocked me but some things have disappointed me. I would say this is mainly because I've seen so much over the last six months that I am really kind of getting used to it. One disappointing thing about India so far is that apparently there are no trash cans. It seems like everywhere you look there is trash. Small bits of trash are burned which I've seen in many other countries but here there are fields of it with goats, cows, water buffalo, and dogs eating their way through it. Another disappointment is the lack of quality internet access. This is something that Alethea and I rely on. The primary purpose is to do trip research and stay in touch with friends and family. Only one place in Kochi had wi-fi and on our first day here in Panaji in the Goa area not even the internet cafes have wi-fi. They have heard of it but just don't have it. We've had to switch to offline mode meaning we've had to rely on old guidebooks at hotels and notes we've taken. We are writing and editing all of our stuff offline so we can post things once we get back to a place with good internet access. I am kind of surprised because of all the hi-tech industry over here but I guess internet infrastructure is confined to tech hubs cities like Bangalore, Delhi, and Hydrebad, etc. One other issue is that we are having some significant challenges with transportation. We had planned to move around the country by train but have discovered that many of the trains are booked when and where we want to take them. Apparently, the trains are booked up in advance more so than we expected. We have found out a couple ways to get stand by type tickets and last minute emergency tickets. We may have to fly once or twice in country which is still pretty cheap depending on where we want to go but it does add up. Train tickets on overnight trains that cover long distances are usually 1/3rd the price of a similar airfare. We'll be going over our itinerary here in the next day or so and see what we can come up with. I think we'll probably have to reduce the time spent in India by a little bit before heading to Europe but we'll see.

Alethea with a welcome drink for our Kerala backwaters trip

I don't want to go an entire post and not mention anything positive. One thing I did enjoy was a side trip that we took while in Kochi. We spent a night on a private boat cruising the backwaters of Kerala. There was some pretty scenery plus we saw how a lot of locals live in this area. The backwaters area of Kerala goes on for several hundred kilometers and has been used for trade for centuries. We cruised a small little portion of it and spent the night on our own private boat. We actually had a crew of three with only us two passengers. It can be kind of crowded on the backwaters since there are now more than 500 boats that do these tours but it is still relatively new to tourist since it just opened up about 10 years ago.

we had some company on the backwaters of Kerala

Another positive for me as been the food and not just because I haven't become sick yet. The food has been a wide variety and of good quality. I like the different curries and vegetarian and non vegetarian meals we've had. I'm sure I'll probably switch to a US meal within a day or so especially with there being a Dominoes just down the street but for now I'm really enjoying the food.

Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church - Goa, India

That is all for now. Nearly one week down as I type this up. Not sure when it will get posted since we've had poor internet access since we've been here. We'll be spending three nights in the Goa region which is located on the central west coast. I guess to sum it up is that I'm kind of neutral on India. Nothing real bad to speak of but nothing great either. Hopefully, things will get more interesting in a good way from here on out.

Link to photo album:

Daily Log

Sunday February 20th
Made it to India with no real issues.
Slept most of the flight to Mumbai. Alethea went to a lounge while I hung out by the gate. To get online you had to send a SMS text to a certain address.
Had my toothpaste confiscated in Bangkok. Packed a large toothpaste and forgot how big it was. A lot of countries don't check this.
India flights board either on time or early and depart early too based on the flights we took yesterday.
Had to go back through security in Bangalore for some odd reason. Airport is much smaller than I anticipated.
Taxi driver met us at airport and drove us 40 km to our hotel.
Hotel is called Bounty Yatra. Not impressed but it is only $20 a night. Breakfast isn't included, no internet access as their website advertised, no real shower, no hot water, helpers speak little to no English.
Took cold or really room temp shower and went to bed.

Monday February 21st
Got up around 8:30.
Ate breakfast at hotel. Had large pot of coffee, toast, and omlette. It was pretty good.
Walked around town for a couple hours to orient ourselves. Walked to the water front and saw the large Chinese fishing nets. A few offers for sightseeing and tuk tuks.
Bought small replacement toothpaste.
Found out that only a couple places serve alcohol and you have to go to govt. controlled stores to buy. Hiked 10 minutes past turn off for hotel for a coupe 640 ml (100 R total) of beer. It was hot with little shade. Probably wont be doing that much often.
Walked back to hotel. Took showers around 1 pm and drank beer and ate potato chips. Too hot to eat a formal meal.
Came back to hotel. Tried to read Southern India Lonely Planet books but kept getting bit by mosquitos. Came back to room and read but was tired and took a nap. Slept for at least 90 minutes.
Did some more reading. Alethea got online. Internet access is slow. Read email and got on Twitter. Facebook wouldn't load.
Went to dinner. Nice local place. Wasn't too expensive.
Came back to hotel room. Took another shower. Read some more Lonely Planet before talking with Alethea.
So far so good. Initial thoughts are that I thought Kochi would be a little nicer. It isn't bad just thought it would be nice. Kochi is supposed to be the nice relaxing part of India which should make the north very interesting.

Tuesday February 22nd
Spent hours in the morning until around 1:30 pm researching and putting together an itinerary for India. Went out for lunch. Ate a decent vegetarian place next to Princess Street.
Spoke to person about train tickets.
Checked out menus at a couple restaurants including the only one that sells alcohol in Fort Kochi.
Walked around until we located a restaurant that Alethea wants to go to except it is closed on Tuesdays.
Alethea got a haircut. I walked back to hotel. Took a shower since I was soaked in sweat. Read in the India Lonely Planet book about Varanassi, Goa, Argra. Took brief nap.
Went downstairs and researched trains for 90 minutes until we lost internet connection.
Rained quit heavily for a little bit.
Went into town for dinner. Ate at a place called Salt and Pepper after passing on an Italian place that was too expensive.
Definitely running into issue with transport options. Trains are booked solid in many locations. Waking up at 8 am tomorrow when they release emergency last minute tickets. May end up flying across country which would cut our time in India short.

Wednesday February 23rd
Spent a hour getting an overnight train ticket to Goa.
Took Tuk Tuk over to Pernasi Synagogue. Oldest in Kochi. Built in 1568. No longer in use.
Walked around Jew Town. Took tuk tuk to St. Francis Church
Walked around St. Francis Church. 1st European built church in India. Built in 1502. Vasco de Gama was buried in the church for 14 years before being taken back to Portugal.
Went down the street to Santa Cruz Basilica. It was built in 1505. Toured it and saw a just married Indian Catholic couple getting their picture made inside the church.
Ate lunch.
Came back to hotel to do some more trip planning. Electricity went out.
Went around corner to internet cafe which was just a hotel with wi-fi. No charge just sat outside and used the internet. We saw goats, ducks, crows, and a chipmunk. Booked hotel for Panaji (Goa).
Walked to restaurant for dinner but it didn't open until 6:30 pm. Went down to the water front for about 30 minutes. Arrived at restaurant and there were already a few people waiting outside. Owner opened the gate at 6:30. Very good dinner. Dal Roti was the name of the restaurant.
Walked back to hotel.

Thursday February 24th
Kerala Backwater cruise. We booked an overnight Kerala Backwaters cruise thru our hotel. The name of the company they use is Welcome Cruises.
Left hotel @ 10 am. Drove 2 hours (weaving in and out of traffic on congested roads) to boat dock
Walked through 4 boats to get to ours.
We had 1 driver, 1 cook, and 1 other person.
Cruised for 2 hours then tied up for lunch. Good lunch. Fish was the meat. Not sure what the veggies were exactly.
Ate lunch then walked around a little bit.
After a hour or so we cruised until about 5:30 around the different canals. It was pretty.
Tied up at overnight spot. Purchased two 650 ml beers for 150 R a piece (close to $4 and 3x the price on land). Drank 1 beer
Got online to blog.
Pretty relaxing trip. Glad we got to do it. Alethea has talked about it for some time. Not impressed with the drive down here. Pretty sobering the way people live both on the way down here and on the water.

Friday February 25th
Checked out of boat sometime after 9 am.
Driver picked us up went to beach to take a look at an India beach. Pretty wide. Nobody was swimming. Driver said they swim in the evenings.
Driver took us on a tour of a coir factory. Coir is natural fiber rope. I think from palm trees. We went to two factories next to each other. The state pays the workers 200 Rupees ($4 USD) per day for their work.
Drove 2 hours back to hotel.
Went out and ate lunch at place on Princess Street. Hot but good.
Came back to hotel. Took shower then took a 2.5 hour nap.
Got online for about 30 minutes.
Went to dinner at the Sheeva place close to hotel.
Came back to hotel and took another shower (out hotel had no hot water & our room had no AC).
Finished packing and left for train station around 8:30 pm.
Paid our hotel bill. Tried to charge us 400 R to use our room during the day after the boat trip. We thought it would be free. We only paid and extra 145 R to round it up to 15000 but not the full amount he was asking for.
Took 30 plus minutes to get to the train station. Went there early because people at hotel said the waiting room had AC. The waiting room didn't so we sat on some metal chairs. Train was supposed to arrive at 10:30 but arrived at 11:00. Once we boarded train left pretty quickly.

Saturday February 26th
Didn't really sleep that great on the train. My feet hung off the end of the bunk. People ran into my toes when they walked down the aisles. I had to scrunch up in a ball just to sleep.
Sometime around 6 am one man got off but one woman then another family of at least 3 got on in his place. They had the lights on and making noise.
After breakfast train attendant came by and asked for a tip which we weren't expecting at all. We said we didn't know how much to give and he suggested 100 R per person which is more than some lunches. I gave him 40 R which was half of what I had left. He stood there wanting more and I said that is all I had left. He didn't look happy. I asked 3 times for hot water for Alethea for tea and they didn't bring it back.
Arrived at the Goa station for us around 10:30. Another attendant followed us off the train but didn't carry our bag and seemed to be implying that he expected a tip for letting us know where to get off. I didn't tip him.
Walked over to pre-paid taxi stand that we were told about and booked a taxi to our hotel.
Took 35 minutes to drive to hotel. Driver was around 60 and drove like crazy constantly weaving in and out of traffic.
Checked in to hotel. Ate lunch and walked around Panaji where we are staying.
Bought beer. Made an ATM withdrawal.
Worked on India blog post while Alethea napped. She calls it resting :-).
Walked around and found a cheap internet cafe. Still no wi-fi
Found local Indian food restaurant. We were the only people in there but the food was good. Felt odd. Discussed over dinner how we want the rest of the trip to go and what we want to do.

Sunday February 27th
Pretty much spent the day figuring out the rest of our itinerary.
Discovered that the India tourism govt sight and Thomas Cook locations were closed.
Walked multiple kilometers to the Marriott and went to a travel agency next door. Gave them our itinerary.
Took taxi back to a hotel and asked to use their wi-fi. They were going to charge us 100 R per hour but told us to come back soon.
Walked to a local restaurant for lunch. Ate pretty cheaply. Only 150 R
On the way back to hotel notices a travel agency that was open. Alethea spent 2 hours going over our itinerary with an agent.
Went to internet cafe. Access was very slow. Didn't get much accomplished.
Went back to tourist agency for 3 hours but the itinerary was too expensive.
Ordered Dominoes pizza. Walked to liquor store to buy 3 beers while waiting on pizza.
Alethea and I agreed to discuss itinerary 1st before going back the next day.

Monday February 28th
Pretty much spent this day finalizing our travel plans for northern Inida.
After a lot of planning and cutting out half of our plan from yesterday we booked a 8 day trip to the north starting on 3/2. There are some challenges such as it gets us back to Mumbai on 3/9 and the 3/10 flight (just after midnight) doesn't look good from an availability perspective. There is a very good chance we may buy a confirmed ticket either on Delta or some other airline and fly in to somewhere other than Amsterdam.
Booked two tickets on our own at an internet cafe. (Goa to Delhi & Delhi to Mumbai).
Did go to pharmacy to get some more toiletries. Still need to get some sunglasses.
Ate good lunch at Portuguese restaurant.
Dinner was good too but I wasn't feeling well. Just kind of worn out today. Used a lot of mental brain power plus walked around a little bit in the hot direct sun (did have long pants and sun hat on).
Did laundry with no issues.
Read Rick Steve's rail pass document. Pretty confusing.

Tuesday March 1st
Pretty much spent the day sick.
Started to feel a little worn out last night even though I didn't do much.
Had to get up several times during the night to use the bathroom.
Needless to say I didn't sleep well. I didn't really get out of bed until 1:45 pm. I ate some bread. Alethea tried to get me some water but the stores close in the afternoon. I drank the bottle water in the fridge. I think I got sick from eating food but there is a chance my water filter has been used up.
Was able to drink some natural fruit juice that Alethea got me.
At dinner I ate chicken noodle soup and steamed rice. Came back up to the room and drank more juice.

Wednesday March 2nd
Slept in and ate a light breakfast.
Packed and checked out around 11 am.
Taxi took us to Old Goa. Toured 3 churches for 60 minutes. Saw tomb of St. Xavier at Bom Jesus church.
Went to airport.
Flight was about 10 minutes later. Airport is small with no gate. Only buses to planes.
Arrived in Delhi on time.
Picked up at airport drove to hotel. Had to stop to take out money ATM would only let me take out small amounts. Had to take out several small amounts.
Checked in hotel went over itinerary to settle issues. Paid the bill
Ate dinner
Tried to take shower. Hot water not working.
Got online for a little over a hour
Came back and took shower.
Went to bed