Signed, Sealed… Deported

I sat there with my Chennai newspaper not knowing quite what to say. Kelsi is being deported? That thought had honestly not crossed my mind as a real possibility.
“Okay” I finally stammered and I followed her up the stairs.
When I got up to the immigration room I saw Kelsi coming towards me with the angriest look I’ve ever seen. She just shook her head at me.
“What happened?” I asked
“They are deporting me.”
“I heard, but why?!”
Then came the story…
What every single person we spoke to failed to inform us over the past month was that to get a second visa on arrival you have to have left the country for two months in between. Kelsi’s travel agent, the immigration officer in Delhi, our travel agent in Delhi, the immigration officer in Madurai, all the officials at two airline companies in Sri Lanka, the embassy – BOTH times we called them – and the immigration officers in Sri Lanka: not a single person mentioned a two month delay. The visa stamp you get on arrival is supposed to mention this rule, but the stamp that Kelsi got in Delhi was so smudged that no one, not even four officials in Chennai, could read what it said.
The immigration officer in Chennai told Kelsi her visa was denied and she flipped out at them.
“Do you know how much we’ve gone through to get here?! How come I was never told about this rule?”
She yelled and screamed at the officers so much she was asked to leave the room and sit outside in a chair. The officers came out after a brief discussion alone.
“We can call the head boss,” they said “he makes all the final decisions on these matters and sometimes he makes exceptions.”
But when they called the head hauncho, he was taking an afternoon nap. “Sorry.” they came back with, “We will have to wait until he wakes up.”
40 minutes later they finally woke him. Clearly he wasn’t happy with being disturbed from his beauty sleep, because he immediately denied the request.
“Send her back.”
And that was the final word.
More screaming on Kelsi’s part and then someone was sent to get me. And so there we were, standing there, the two of us and four officials, coming up with a game plan.
“So where does that leave us?” I asked
“She has to go back to Sri Lanka, now. The plane leaves again in 20 minutes” said one official.
“And what do I do?” I asked
“You will carry on with your flight to Madurai” he said.
“Really? You think this is a good idea splitting us up? You think it’s safe for two young white women to travel the country on our own because of a problem with your visa system?”
“It is not our problem, those are the rules” he said.
“We’ll why weren’t we told about them? What is wrong with your officials in Madurai? They never told us we had to leave for two months and they never told us you couldn’t get a visa on arrival there. What is wrong with your staff?”
He did not look happy about that.
“Those are not my staff. That is Madurai, and the visa on arrival rules are new.”
“We’ll then shouldn’t your staff be briefed on these new rules? Or shouldn’t you be able to make an exception considering you are splitting us up and it is unsafe?” Kelsi chimed in.
In the end, the answer was no. They even refused our request to explain our situation to the chief ourselves. Kelsi had to leave.
“Look,” said the official “go to the embassy in Colombo and apply for a visa. It will take two days.”
It was Tuesday. Kelsi couldn’t make it to the embassy until Wednesday morning.
“So I could be back in India by Friday then?”
“Well,” said the guy hesitantly, “Friday is the Sri Lankan New Year. So it’ll be a holiday. Maybe not until Monday.”
We just glared at him silently.
“You can always put in a special request for a rush order” he suggested.
Yeah, because those have been working out SO well for us lately.
“It’s time to go.” Said another man “The flight is leaving now.”
“What are you going to do?” Asked the first man to me.
I looked at Kelsi.
“Do I go with you? Or do I go get our bags and meet you in a couple days?”
“I want you to come with me, but we don’t have the money for more flights. It’s two days, I’ll meet you in Madurai”
“Ok” I said. I took the $40 US dollars we had exchanged for a THIRD time out of my pocket. “You’ll need this more than me. Good luck exchanging it again.” We chuckled, only to stop from screaming or crying.
“I’m at breaking point” Kelsi said to me.
I gave her a half hug as she was pulled away by three officials. “Just in case I never see you again” I said. We smiled goodbye to each other.
If Kelsi can’t make it back to India, then she goes back to Australia. I leave to go to Canada. The possibilities of not seeing each other for years to come is a big one. But then again, we always sucked at goodbyes, this one would definitely make the books for worst parting ever. It would be ironically fitting for our friendship.
And just like that I was alone.
The lady who found me downstairs escorted me through customs.
“Better not be late for your next flight” she said.
I left the terminal and walked towards the domestic terminal. The whole time I had a very uneasy feeling.
This isn’t right. Kelsi is at breaking point and I just LEFT her? To get our bags?! Money is money, I will pay for another flight back to India, I just can’t imagine her having to go through all this visa crap on her own. I’m going back with her, I decided.
I ran back to the arrivals gate. I was sweaty, out of breath and my pink hair (still from the color festival) flailed around me in a matted mess. I was a sight for sore eyes: a wild woman.
I tried to walk back through the door I had just left but was stopped by two guards with rifles.
“You can’t come in here”
“No, no! It’s okay, I’m going on a flight with my friend, I just have to talk to that woman.”
“What woman? Departure gates are that way”
“I know, but I just have to go through here”
“No. No one goes back through here”
“Please!” I begged “You can walk with me, I just need to talk to someone”
“Tell me what the situation is.” Said the guard.
Ya, like I had time to explain all that.
“Look, do you not remember me coming out these doors about three minutes ago?”
“Yes”
“Then please, will you just walk back to customs with me? It’s like 50 meters.”
He hesitated, then finally agreed.
I ran through customs backwards.
“No running!” He shouted at me.
“Okay, okay”
Then I spotted the chief of customs that had been chatting me up for over an hour.
“What’s wrong?” He asked me.
“I want to get on the plane with my friend.”
“But it’s leaving soon.”
“I know. I want to be on it. Can I talk to the woman from before?”
“Uhh, she’s in her office.” He pointed to a room across the whole bottom floor of the airport.
I ran towards it.
“No running!” Said the guard still holding the rifle.
Right, right. I walked briskly towards her door.
“What are you doing here?!” She asked genuinely shocked that I had found my way backwards through armed guards and a whole customs crew.
“I want to get on the plane with my friend!” I just imagined the look on Kelsi’s face when I sat down next to her on the plane. I couldn’t wait.
“We’ll you can’t.”
“Wait, what? Why not? You said, what are you going to do? And I said stay… Well now I want to go!”
“I can’t just deport you for no reason!” She said.
“But before you were going to let me on.” I said confused.
“No. You could have BOUGHT a ticket to go back, but we can’t just send you back for free because you WANT to.”
“Hmm, okay, how much?”
“No! You can’t buy a ticket less than two hours before departure!”
“So what you’re saying is there was no possibility of me EVER being on that flight with her?”
“No!” She said exasperated.
Retrospectively I realize how ridiculous my request seemed. But at the time, probably half in shock, half afraid I’d never see Kelsi again, half unsure of where to go in India on my own with 150 liters worth of bags for three weeks, my request seemed completely logical. I gave up.
“Okay” I said disheartened
“How did you even get in here?” She asked. “We have rules you know! You can’t just come in here like this”
C’mon, I thought. It’s India. Rules shmules (apart from visa entries I suppose).
Defeated I finally gave up. I walked back through customs for a third time and left the building. I ran out the final door just to make a point, then turned back to thank the armed guard for letting me through. He smiled and waved and let me carry on running.
I got to the check out counter of Spice Jet just before closing.
“I’m here!” I announced as I slid, Cramer style, into the check-in counter.
“And where is the second passenger?” The lady asked
I laughed “Being deported back to Sri Lanka” I said matter of factly.
“So she’s not coming?” She asked.
I rolled my eyes “No, not this time.”
She checked me in and sent me through security.
My gate number was M-9. When I spotted the gate the sign read “last call for boarding.” The bus outside the door was already full and the gates were closing. I sprinted across the room to the doorway.
“NO RUNNING!” Three officials shouted at me at the same time.
Gee! What’s with the no running rule? Don’t people always run in airports?!
Turns out my running was all for naught. My plane was delayed by 45 minutes and I was left to stand around in the overcrowded domestic terminal for another hour. I looked around and noticed that I was the only tourist in sight. Thousands of Indians all crowded in the room… and then there was me.
I took a breath in and out.
India round two: here we go!

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Back to India… For real.

The morning after our day from Hell did look better. A nice sleep in, a beautiful, sunny morning, what could be better?
We wandered down the main strip to find breakfast. We sat at a little mom and pop owned restaurant. The place was empty apart from the lady who owned it and one young waiter.
We ordered poached eggs on toast and some fruit juice.
The waiter came out with a tumbler glass half full of whiskey.
“We have to get rid of the last of the bottle,” he said “so here you go!”
Whiskey? It was not even 9:00am. You know it’s going to be a weird day when you get served whiskey first thing in the morning. We took a sip and nearly gagged. This was the last thing on earth that I wanted right now.
The lady who owned the place was setting up flowers on all the tables.
“You like yellow?” She asked as she placed a flower down on ours.
“Yes, we love yellow!” We said as we admired the pretty yellow flower on the table.
“Hmmm, I like purple” she said in a sad voice. “My husband liked blue… But he died”
We looked up as if we hadn’t quite understood what she said.
“I’m so sorry” I said to her
She continued as if she hadn’t heard me, “Electric shock.” She said “He was holding a metal pole, and was in water. Just died of electric shock”
We sat there, unsure of what to say. I took the glass of whiskey and took another excruciating sip. I’m gunna need this if this conversation continues.
“You see my hand?” She said pointing to her hand. There was a lump on the side of it. “Can’t move it anymore” she motioned how her thumb no longer moves. “I crushed it. With wood. Now it doesn’t work.”
We looked at each other. What’s going on? The lady wandered off as we mumbled confused apologies.
I shouldn’t be surprised, I often have random people coming up to me and telling me intimate or horrific details about their life out of nowhere. But sitting in Sri Lanka, having a glass of Whiskey at 8:30am and an old lady telling me all the sad details of her life was strangely surreal.
So we just sat and waited for our breakfast, politely sipping on our whiskey.
Breakfast took an hour to show up. Maybe they were waiting for the chickens to lay the eggs, I’m not sure. Either way, that made us late for our Tuk Tuk to the airport. Not this again!
We showed up to the airport late once again. Other than the Vancouver Airport, I am pretty sure I’ve now been to the Colombo airport more than any other airport in the world. We rocked up like pro’s: through two security checks, exchanged money with the same exchange guy and up to the Sri Lankan airways desk.
“Two to Chennai!” We said with smiles as we handed over our passports and day packs.
The ticket lady checked me in first, them she turned to Kelsi.
“Where is your Indian visa?” She asked.
“I am getting one on arrival” said Kelsi.
“India doesn’t give visa’s on arrival” she said, staring at us blankly.
Hmmm, I’m having a sense of déjà vu.
We sighed. “They do for New Zealanders arriving in Chennai. Trust us. We went through this all yesterday, we talked with the embassy twice and we’ve gone through a huge process to rebook flights. They will give us a visa on arrival.”
She stared blankly some more then turned to a lady next to her. They discussed and shrugged, then brought over a supervisor.
“I have to call the embassy” said the supervisor.
“No problem” we said.
While she called, we looked at each other with ‘oh please, let’s NOT go through this again’ looks on our faces. A couple minutes on the phone and the lady turned back to us.
“No problem, they can do visa’s on arrival.”
Thank god!
They processed our tickets and sent us on our way. We had no problem with immigration and then hopped on our plane with no issues.
While we were on the plane we laughed at the ridiculousness of the past 24 hours. Only in retrospect can a situation like that be funny. Sri Lanka was incredible, but it was time to continue on in India. Kelsi had a list of 21 cities she wanted to see in the three weeks we had left until Mumbai. Oh god. We were already one day late, so we couldn’t waste a second!
Our plane landed after an hour and a half and we safely cruised into the Chennai airport for a second time that month.
Side note: Sri Lankan Airways, SO much nicer than Spice Jet.
When we pulled up to immigration we saw a big sign on the wall that read: Visas on Arrival for the following countries… New Zealand was one of them.
We looked at each other with giddy joy.
“Yaaaaaaa!!!” We cheered. We even went as far as to do a little happy dance. I went through immigration first.
“What’s going on with your friend?” He asked as he watched Kelsi leave the line and walk towards the visa on arrival room.
“She’s getting a visa on arrival” I said.
“Oh. Hold on a minute!” He yelled to Kelsi “I’ll be over to process your visa when I’m finished with this line.”
“No problem” she said with a smile.
“Kels” I yelled to her “ill meet you at customs downstairs with our bags!”
“No worries”
I went down to find our bags. When they didn’t show up right away I chuckled to myself. That would be the icing on the cake, we finally make it to India but our bags don’t!
In the end, they both showed up, and I sat down against a pillar on the floor to wait for Kelsi.
Everyone collected their bags and moved along through customs. I was left on my own, sitting on the dirty airport floor. The airport staff kept looking over at me and laughing.
“Can I ask, what you are doing here?” Asked an official looking lady finally asked on her way past.
“I’m just waiting for my friend to get her visa.
“Oh okay” she said, as she went to tell the rest of the staff who were probably making bets about what was going on.
Twenty minutes later my ass fell asleep and I moved to a chair I found next to the Chief of Customs office. The chief himself made sure to come over and hit on me.
I was sitting reading a local Indian newspaper
“You like reading the newspaper?” He asked
“Yes,” I said “when I get the chance. I haven’t seen many newspapers in English here” I replied
“You are smart. I like smart women”
Great. I put in my headphones and ignored his smiles and waves from the corner. He came over a few more times to ask me what kind of music I liked to listen to and if my husband listened to the same kind of tunes. I rolled my eyes.
“Can I go back up to Immigration to see if my friend is okay?” I asked
“No” he said, all of a sudden serious “once you pass through you can’t go back. Your friend will be down soon, I promise”
“Okay” I said as I put my headphones back in and went back to reading.
Side note again: the Chennai newspaper is probably the most interesting newspaper you will ever read. Albeit depressing, every article is full of murders, suicides, fatal car accidents and all that horrific stuff that the media is full of. On top of that, they don’t have any censorship, so all the gruesome details are explained in full. It’s terrible of me to enjoy that, but reading “police incident: details confidential” in all our newspapers at home drives me crazy. I want to know what happened, or don’t mention it at all!
Before I knew it I’d been reading the paper for over an hour. And waiting with our bags for an hour and a half. Okay guys, our ticket counter closes in 45 minutes for our flight to Madurai. What’s going on?
I was almost starting to get worried when the lady that I spoke to before came up to me.
“Hilary?” She said calmly “Your friend is being deported from the country, if you’d like to say goodbye, come with me now please.”
My heart sunk again. Shit.

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Spice Jet and the Madurai Airport

Flying to Sri Lanka meant our second time flying with Spice Jet. Spice Jet is just one of the few bargain airlines that India has to offer. What you get is dirt cheap flights and a wild ride…
For two people who have never been afraid of flying, Spice Jet flights were a whole new ball game. Normal airline rules are apparently just guidelines here: welcome to India. On our first flight down to Chennai, we had zero safety procedures. The plane just started rolling down the runway towards take off. No one was in their seats: kids ran around and mothers had children in their laps (I’m talking eight year olds, not babies). When the flight attendants started rolling the food cart down the aisle, instead of waiting until they moved through the rows, people just ran up and bombarded the stewardess.
“Two juices!”
“A coke! A coke!”
“Bring me some water please”
The stewardesses had money shoved in their faces, while people grabbed at the pop cans on the top of the cart. Meanwhile, they were still trying to move through the rows in an orderly fashion, so the swarms of people were slowly pushed toward the back of the plane. Absolute madness. Kelsi and I watched, appalled, as all this went on. Is this really happening?
As we neared Chennai we spent about five solid minutes in turbulence. People were still out of their seats, moving around. We finally came out of a group of clouds right over top of the city.
“Oh my god it feels like we’re going to hit those buildings!” Kelsi said in horror. We were right up next to some of the taller buildings in the city. Luckily for us all, we didn’t hit any of them.
Before we even touched the ground, yet again, people were out of their seats, grabbing their bags from the overhead compartment, and waiting to get down the aisle and off the plane. Cool it folks! We aren’t even on the ground yet! Once off we all piled into a bus that waited ten minutes before driving us 100 feet to the front door. We could have walked it in less than a minute. Welcome to Spice Jet, have a good flight.
Sitting in the Madurai airport we remembered back to that first flight.
“Are you equally as nervous to fly with Spice Jet again?”
“Yup!” We giggled nervously.
Then all of a sudden two young pilots with Spice Jet uniforms on came in. They had collars popped, hair styled and they were wearing dark, reflective aviator glasses… INSIDE!
“Oh my god,” said Kels, “are those our pilots?! They look like they’re actors in a Bollywood version of Top Gun!”
They strutted through the airport towards security. This is crazy.
We had a lot of time to sit and contemplate our demise in the airport. We’d arrived almost three hours early for our international flight. We gave ourselves extra time, so we could grab breakfast and hopefully catch some wifi while we waited at the gates. To our disappointment, there was no wifi, there was no food (apart from some guy selling old chicken sandwiches behind a glass compartment) and our check-in counter didn’t open until an hour and a half before the flight. Fail.
So we just sat around, watching our crazed Spice Jet employees strut their stuff around the airport waiting room.
At one point, I looked up and out the front window of the airport to see a crowd of about 100 people. Considering up to this point there were only 7 people, this was quite a shock. People flooded through the front gates with chairs and cameras and lights. They set up more rows of chairs in the waiting room, everyone sat down to fill the seats, our pilots perked up and walked over to talk to an official looking woman in a red suit. The camera crews moved around the room, setting up lights and screens and moving people around… What’s going on?
Turns out they were a film crew. Our Top Gun, Bollywood pilots were ACTUALLY actors (thank God) and the people were there to film a movie? Commercial? Documentary on how safe Spice Jet flying is? Who knows… But man were we confused.
We removed ourselves from the film chaos and sat on the other side of the airport. We’d had our fill of being photographed in India. At this point, we had already checked in; however, we had to continue waiting in the front of the airport until immigration opened. It opened only 45 minutes before our flight, and 15 minutes after our check-in gate closed. This is the most bizarre airport system. While we were waiting, the immigration officer walked over to us and sat down right next to me.
“Hi” he said “where are you from?”
“Canada” I said.
“Oh, Canada, very nice.” He pointed to my immigration form. “Have you filled out your form yet?”
“Yup!”
“Oh, but you haven’t written down your address and phone number.” He said.
“Oh!” I looked back down at the paper. I wouldn’t put it past me to forget a line on my immigration form. “I don’t see a line for address and phone number” I said confused.
“On the other side” said the officer
I flipped it over. How silly, I should have checked the other side. But when I turned it over I was even more confused. There was nothing to fill out, it was just the front of the form with a logo that read “Indian Immigration Form”
“Where do I put it?” I asked
“Oh just anywhere” he said as he smiled at me.
I looked at Kelsi. This is weird. Why would I have to just write my address and phone number on the front. That doesn’t make sense. I looked back up at the immigration desks across the room. The officers were all standing there giving the guy sitting next to me a thumbs up. Oh my god, is he just hitting on me for my address and phone number? I didn’t want to lie on an immigration card, but I did want to be accepted into Sri Lanka. So I cut my losses and wrote a fake address.
“And phone number?” He asked
“Sorry, don’t have one”
“But your phone is sitting in your lap” he said as he pointed to my iPhone.
“Nope, not my phone!” I smiled back at him, daring him to challenge me. He looked confused and had no way else to argue, so he got up and walked back to immigration.
“Immigration is open” he said to us.
When we got up to the line, a man at the front divided everyone into different lines. Hmm, I wonder which officer I’m going to get. Creepy phone number guy was at booth 4.
“Just down to number five please” he said to me. Then he panicked. “No wait! Number 4! Number 4!”
I rolled my eyes. Fantastic. Two other lines were totally empty but I had to wait in line for desk number 4! When I got up I got all the stupid lines. He passed my passport photo around to his friends, gave me the thumbs up looking through all my visa photos and after a few questions about nothing official I grabbed my passport back and walked through to security. And guess what? No one else had to give their address or phone number. Pretty sure people have been fired for that in every other country in the world. At this point, I was looking forward to getting out of India and into somewhere new. Just had to survive my Spice Jet flight to Colombo!
Sri Lanka, here we come!

Tamil Nadu

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After the Holi Festival, we trained to Delhi and flew down to Chennai in the far South of India. The state of Tamil Nadu is an extreme off shoot from the rest of India; they honk and screech to a deafening degree, they refuse to speak the national language of Hindi and they express their religion with even more colour than Rajasthan (if that’s even possible). We spent five whirlwind days in the Tamil Nadu state and it’s all a blur to me. Up early, on a bus, next city, quick tour, back to sleep, up early, repeat. By the time we hit Madurai Kelsi and I were walking zombies.
Chennai was just another big city. Most backpackers skip the city all together, but the idea of flying across the country and figuring the bus system all on the same day seemed daunting. So we spent the night.
Despite it’s noisy city core, Marina beach, which lines the city in a 16km stretch of white sand, is a beautiful escape. It is where I fully rediscovered my love for street food. The beach is loaded with food vendors selling anything under the sun! Gobi pakoras, deep fried plantain chips, fresh fruit, popcorn made right there from fresh corn cobs. You could buy barbecued fish caught that day, rice dishes, noodles, chickpeas with chilli and fresh mango slices… I was in heaven. It makes me sad that Kelsi gets sick off of 95% of the food here in India, because I would eat street food for every meal if I could! We spent the afternoon trying the various vendor foods before wandering up the sand to George Town. However, when we found ourselves lost in the slums as the sun went down we decided to grab a Tuk Tuk home.
Our second day we moved along to Mamalapuram: a quaint little backpackers beach town with some unique rock temples and some great seafood. We were ripped off and lied to by five different people on five different occasions before noon that day. I wanted to rip someone’s throat out by the time we cruised up to the city hours later than scheduled and out three times the money. I’m not even going to go into details because it will just put me back into a rage.
But the laid back, friendly locals in Mamalapuram changed us back into positive people. Despite the whole town not having power for most of the day, we had a great time. Mamalapuram is the first place we realized how lax copyright laws are here in the country. We realized that most of the Lonely Planet recommended restaurants coincidentally have doubles. The popular “Moonraker’s” restaurant now has a rival location directly across the street. Or when looking for “Gecko’s”restaurant, you can also find “Little Gecko’s” right next door. It amazes me how there are not lawsuits.
We ended up eating at Gecko’s (the original) and had the best Keralan style coconut fish curry I’ve ever eaten. The staff were so friendly and the rooftop restaurant overlooked a small lake in the middle of town. Definitely my top choice for places to eat in town.
By the third morning we were off to Pondicherry. Pondicherry (or Pondi) is a beautiful, French colonial meets Tamil Nadu style city. The East part of the city has a wonderful boardwalk that fills up with people and food vendors as the evening approaches. We stayed at the end of the walk in a gorgeous ashram. Although it had rules and a 10:30 curfew, the Ashram is still the cheapest and most sought after location in Pondi. We had a third floor room overlooking the meditation garden and the ocean. Big palm trees lined the shore and we sat our on the balcony watching the daylight disappear. It was calm and relaxing (unlike anything else in India) and a wonderful way to relax for a couple hours after such a whirlwind trek through the state.
The relaxing was short lived, however, since we were up and back on the road to Trichy. By the time we hit Trichy, we had scoped out our bank accounts and realized we’d need to budget if we wanted to last our final month. We found the most dilapidated looking hotel in the area, figured out the local bus system to explore the city, and ate at a restaurant that had no menu and no English. The waiter just kept bringing us stuff, and in the end our meal cos us less than a dollar each. We had done well.
The temples we saw in Trichy were neat. They were colourful and detailed and we had to hike up 500 stairs just to get to one. Unfortunately, in Tamil Nadu there are few temples that foreigners can go into. So after all our hiking, we just had to take a photo from outside and then climb back down. Even worse, the views weren’t worth it…
Our final stop was Madurai. Five days, five cities, a good chunk of a state complete. We were exhausted. Finding a hotel in Madurai was a trying experience. When we realized that all the pricing in our guide book had more than DOUBLED since its publication (6 months ago) we were unimpressed. The hotel we stopped at was nice enough to point us in the direction of a cheaper place around the corner. When we walked outside to go find it a man came up to chat to us in the street.
“Hello! I am a tailor are you looking for some clothes?” He asked
“No, we’re just looking for our hotel now thanks, maybe later”
“Which hotel?” He inquired
Kelsi showed him the scrap of paper with the name on it.
“Ahh, yes, I know where it is, ill show you” he snatched the paper from Kelsi’s hand and put it in his short pocket. “Follow me”
When we’d walked down the street and around the corner we found the place.
“This is it!” I said, “let’s go in”
“Why would you want to stay here?” The man asked. “I know a much better place for the same price. It has Internet and power, come see it, it’s right here. Just looking! If you don’t like it, you can come right back” he smiled and pointed just down the street.
” I’m going to check on this place” I said. But he grabbed Kelsi by the arm and dragged her to see the other hotel. I ran in to check on prices in the recommended one and would catch up with them in a second.
“How much for a room for two people?” I asked.
“200” said the man behind the desk.
“And do you have one available for tonight?”
“Of course!”
“Ok, I’ll be right back, I just have to grab my friend.
I walked out on the street and saw Kelsi just down a ways. I yelle her name but she couldn’t hear me. So I ran off to get her. I was bombarded by guys all asking if I wanted a room for the night.
“No thanks, not now” I said as I ran past them to catch up. I met up with them as she was walking into the hotel.
“How much for a room?” We asked
“Come see first then you can see if you like it”
“No, we honestly don’t care what the room looks like, as long as it has a bed. How much?”
“Just look first”
“No, how much?”
“600”
“I’m sorry, that’s three times the price as the other one, I’m sure the rooms are nice but we can’t afford that”
We left to head back to the other hotel, the tailor followed us…
“You should stay here, very cheap! Good room!”
“No, I’m sorry, the other is only 200”
He laughed. “They won’t give you a room for 200. If they do, I will pay for it, if they don’t, you owe me 300 rupees”
“No, leave us alone”
We walked up the steps of the first hotel.
“No!” The man at the counter shouted to us. Another man came up and started waving his hands in a dismissing motion at us.
“No room for you, go!”
“What?” We said, startled. “But I JUST asked you, you said I could have a room for 200”
“Rooms full!” He said. We stared at the wall of keys behind him. Glared at him and stormed out angry.
The tailor laughed at us. “See! You owe me 300 rupees now! Come back to the other hotel.
“NO!” We both shouted.
We walked into the hotel next door where men had been beckoning for me to come get a room.
“Room full. Go away.” They said.
The next hotel was the same, and the one after that. Finally we entered one hotel and when they were about to say how much a room was they looked out the front window. The tailor was standing there shaking his head at them.
“Sorry, no room!”
We were exhausted and tired of carrying our packs and now we were furious.
We rushed outside and faced the tailor.
“STOP FOLLOWING US!! GO AWAY!” I shouted at him.
We stormed off one direction and he followed, then we doubled back the other way and he followed until we yelled at him again. Finally he slinked away into the crowds. The next hotel we walked into was only a slight improvement.
“How much for a room?” We asked
They stopped and turned to each other, then in Tamil, discussed how much they should charge us. When they kept discussing we spoke up.
“It’s simple, how much are the rooms here?”
They kept discussing so we stormed out of the building. “Never mind” we said. Then we saw two old guys beckoning us across the street at the Neethi Lodge.
“Room?” They beckoned us towards the place.
We walked in.
“How much?” We asked.
The old man sitting down behind reception gave us a big smile.
“475.” He said immediately. Finally a no bullshit answer. He seemed nice, the place looked clean and we were so furious we didn’t care anymore.
“We’ll take it”
The place had no power during the day, but the staff were so lovely it didn’t matter. Nonetheless, Madurai was not turning out to be a favourite destination of mine.
We spent the afternoon and evening checking out the one and only big temple in the city. After that it was dinner and off to bed. Our final morning of getting up early (we thought) to head to the airport and fly to Sri Lanka!

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Holi Festival: Mathura

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The Holi Festival is one of the craziest holidays in India. It is a celebration that marks the coming of spring and the demise of the wicked spirit Holika. Otherwise known as “The Colour Festival,” during Holi, men and women gather to throw coloured powders at each other and hug in the streets. The celebrations usually start a couple days before the Holi date, with vendors selling powders in the streets and a few hardcore fans wandering around looking very pink for a few days prior.
This festival has been on my bucket list for years. I have been trying to celebrate every major world festival in its original place. The Holi Festival, which 1.6 billion Indians celebrate every year, had to make the cut. It is the reason we flew to India during the hottest time of the year and it is the reason we ended up in the city of Mathura.
Mathura is considered the birthplace of Krishna. Usually just a nothing little city, Mathura hosts the largest and craziest version of Holi. Masses of locals come from around the country to celebrate the festival here. We had been told for months that Mathura was “the place to be” if we wanted to experience the festival in full force… Who could turn that down?
We stayed at a place called the Hotel Sheel Gopal just a 15 minute walk from the main Krishna temple in Mathura. The men who worked there were a little strange (and that’s being polite). Their English was almost non-existent and their sense of appropriate social queues and situations was even worse. They stared and gawked and awkwardly watched as we ate lunch and dinner in the restaurant. A few of the men stood next to us, holding out an empty cup when we sat out on the patio wanting a glass of our whiskey. It was like a battle to see who could outlast the other: the staff members pointing at their empty glass and our bottle of whiskey or us shaking our heads and telling them to leave. By the third night we found putting the whiskey in a water bottle and telling them we were just drinking coke worked the best (who knew high school tactics still fooled people). The staff drank our booze, on the job, well into the night and then decided to do housecleaning at ridiculous times of the day. The first night, Kelsi and I forgot to lock our door. We woke up to Lurch (the nickname we gave one guy) standing over our bed with fresh towels: it was 6:00am. We kicked him out only for him to come barging in 5 minutes later with soap. In the end he exchanged our two towels for one and our one bar of soap with eleven. Dealing with these people was like dealing with children on drugs. I had no idea what was going on, but our door stayed permanently locked from the inside from that point forward; yet even that didn’t stop them from trying. At all times of the day they would ring the buzzer and try to open the door handle to get in. It nearly drove me mental.
Luckily however, we had friends for Holi Festival! My friend Myles and his mother came to join us for the festival and on the second night, Myles’ friend Ian found his way up from the South to join us on the final day of celebrations.
The first day of pre-Holi celebrations was on the 26th. We dressed in our newly purchased white outfits and hit the road in search of trouble. Before we’d even made it around the corner we were met with the first Holi celebrators.
“Happy Holi!” They shouted to us. A couple old, blue men came up to us, smeared blue paint on our faces and gave us a hug. It is apparently the tradition here to do this. Coloured powder (although this was mixed with water which makes a staining paint that never comes off your skin… Thanks a lot guys) a handshake, and a double embracing hug: first to the right, then the left. Side note: it’s weird to hug to the right… I never noticed until Kelsi pointed it out, but the whole world hugs to the left. Of course India would be backwards.
Now blue, we wandered down to the ghats for a big thali breakfast at the Agra Hotel. The ghats were beautiful and a lot quieter than the ones at Varanasi. We hopped on a boat that would take us up and down the river for an hour. The ride would have been peaceful if it weren’t for this blabbering idiot that jumped on the boat last second. He wanted to act as our tour guide (probably for a tip) along the way. He didn’t stop talking snapping and clapping for the entire 40 minutes.
“Look over there!” He would say “Look! Look! Look!” he snapped his fingers in our faces until we turned to see. “Very famous temple.” He would explain. We ignored him as much as we could. He ruined the otherwise beautiful and calm boat ride down the river. The driver dropped us 20 minutes early claiming it had been the full hour. (Everyone will rip you off here). Even though we knew it wasn’t time, we wanted off the boat.
When we arrived back on land, the celebrations had begun. We bought some coloured powder from a vendor and joined in. Everyone was pretty careful about not throwing powder on people who were dressed nicely. But if you already had colour on you, then watch out! We tried to stay as clean as we could until we made it to the hotel to drop off our cameras and valuables. Nothing was making it out alive in this chaos. Still, by the time we reached our hotel my hair was neon pink, and all four of us were 50 shades of Holi. When cameras were dropped it was time for the big guns. We filled up litre bottles and added powder to colour the water. We cut a small hole in the lid so we could squirt the stuff out the top. We bought a shade of colour each and then went to town. Kids were excited to see us tourists in full Holi mode. They threw powder but then ran away giggling, as if afraid of our retaliation. Within blocks we were covered. We were the biggest spectacle in the city. Four white people (there were zero tourists in the city. We maybe saw 6 other people over three days, but they never walked the streets of Mathura covered in colour) loaded up with ammo and completely destroyed with coloured powder. We not only had photos taken of us, we had professional photographers and video cameras following us at one point ( I can only imagine what newspaper or television program we ended up on). We were so exhausted by the time we hit the city center, that we needed to take a break. Along the main stretch of road we came across a group of young hooligans throwing paint in the streets. They were a completely dark blue mess of wet when we found them. They didn’t just throw coloured powder and shake hands, these were the hardcore guys. They tossed 10 litre buckets of blue-black water on top of each other’s heads. Their hair, clothes, face, arms and teeth were all stained by the colouring. They danced around as the water was poured over them, probably high on the popular Bhang lassis that are so common around Holi Festival.
We tiptoed around them. No one wants to be fully blue on Holi. That would stain your skin for weeks. No thank you. We managed to escape with only one large bucket being sprayed across us. If it weren’t for the fence going down the middle of the street, we would have been annihilated. We grabbed a cold drink and sat on the steps overlooking a small water tank. Although we drew a crowd of stares and beggars asking for money, it was still somehow relaxing.
When we were ready to go again, we grabbed a cycle rickshaw to head to the parade. We had no idea what “the parade” meant, but we were willing to check it out. The rickshaw drove us back towards the ghats that we had been at earlier. But this time the city streets had transformed. Huge parade floats full of people with coloured water and foam and powder moved in procession down the streets. Music blared, people yelled, cars honked, and a giant camel strolled down the street, covered in pink and blue. We jumped in with both feet and started throwing powder. Immediately we were attacked from all sides. The people on the floats poured down onto us, and groups of men in the streets crowded around to spray us. People from their homes in apartments above soaked us with buckets of water, powder, water balloons and squirt guns full of colour. It was madness. The powder got into your eyes and blinded you. I had a huge chunk of it go into my ear and I couldn’t hear out of my right side for ten minutes. People rammed into you at all sides, yelling and shouting “Happy Holi” in celebration. We moved off to the side of the road for a breather. People came to shake our hands, but otherwise the worst of the attack subsided. It was crazy, but we were having a great time!
Unfortunately, as the parade continued, people started getting rowdier. I went to take a group photo of Myles, Liz and Kelsi when five more boys jumped in the shot. As they posed the boys started grabbing at Kelsi and Liz. We shouted at them to stop, but it only provoked their mob mentality more. More people joined in the inappropriate groping until we decided to leave the parade. We were having so much fun until some guys began to ruin it. We needed a drink.
Unfortunately, all the liquor stores closed and none of the restaurants sell booze. So we left for dinner in the main square to wait for Ian to arrive.
We had a quiet night playing cards and trying to wash all the colour out of our hair and skin. We looked ridiculous by the time we came home. Not a square inch of our bodies was white anymore. My hair was a rock hard matted mess of caked on powder and paint. You couldn’t even feel my head under the mess of it all. I can’t believe this was just the beginning… Pre Holi celebrations complete: real Holi celebrations commence.
The next morning Kelsi and I wandered downstairs for breakfast in our now dyed pink outfits from the day before. It was about 9:00 and we were unaware of the outside world. We ordered food and watched 5 mice skitter around on the floor as we waited for our meals. Great.
Before the food came out we saw Myles poke his head in the restaurant door. He and Ian had apparently gone to the train station to book tickets for the following day. The masses of Holi celebrators had already began and they were mobbed with colour on their way there and back.
Myles was covered in a pink dust.
“Oh my god” he said “today is a totally different day. It’s insane out there! Everyone is already in full force.”
Then Ian walked in and Kelsi and I burst out laughing. We was about 10 times worse off than Myles. You couldn’t even tell what colour his shirt and shorts originally were. In fact, you could hardly tell he had a beard with the amount of powder that covered his face. Welcome to Holi.
We all sat down to eat as we mentally prepared for the day. It was going to be carnage. Ian had managed to steal a potato sack full of pink powder off some kids that attacked him in the streets (All’s fair in love and war and Holi) so we had sufficient ammo for a little while.
When breakfast was over we braved the outdoors. We hadn’t made it half a block when we came across our first batch of hooligans: a group of young men throwing colour at each others’ faces just around the corner. When they saw us they all stopped: fresh blood. They came running at us with colour. Throwing it in our faces and blinding us. Ian and Myles went in full-fledged with water bottles and the sack of powder. They entertained a few of the boys while the rest came after Kelsi, Liz and I. The difference between boys and girls at Holi is simple. When the men see Myles and Ian, they see it as a challenge: throw powder on them more than they can throw back. Beat the white men! They laugh and fight as boys do. When they see us women, however, the men see it as an opportunity to grope and grab at our chest, pinch our asses while blinding us with colour. That’s when we realized that there are no women at Holi festival. Occasionally there is a woman or a young girl standing by the door of her house with a handful of colour, but never in the streets. Probably because they know something we don’t… Like Holi in Mathura is dangerous for females. Well thanks for letting us know.
The groups of men we ran into in the streets weren’t huge. Usually it was three or four people, and occasionally we would see a group of ten or so together. But five white tourists wandering the streets of Mathura was like dragging a magnet through lead filings.
We would pass three guys, then they would start following us. Four more would go by, then change direction to follow the previous three. Soon enough we had a mob of fifty or sixty men behind us… There was no going back.
The smaller groups were easier to handle.
“Happy Holi!” They would shout coming towards us. They shook hands, put powder on our faces, gave us a hug, then dragged their hands across our chest grabbing at us as we pulled away. Sometimes people would come at us from behind and do the same thing. Myles and Ian stood beside us like brotherly figures watching each guy as he hugged us. When they were there, men behaved, but as soon as they turned their heads the grabbing began again. This infuriated us.
Kelsi and I don’t get shy and upset about things like this; we get angry. If some guy things he can get away with that, he’s in for a surprise. We called out the perverts, shouting and swearing at them. I grabbed hands that pinched at my ass and twisted their arms around at a violent angle. The most infuriating thing was that they didn’t care. They grabbed at us, then walked next to us with a blank expression like nothing happened.
Larger groups were worse. The boys couldn’t watch all three of us at the same time. At any given time, one of the three of us was being grabbed at. As a mob formed around us, Kelsi and I started fighting back. Kelsi cracked some guy in the jaw with her elbow while I yanked one guys hair until he smashed heads painfully with another guy. Our following was getting larger, and we couldn’t stop at the side of the road for a break this time. I was blinded by paint, and flailing my fists at anyone that came by. One guy saw how angry I was, and pulled out a cane to fend off the hoards of men. Then all of a sudden litres if cold water came splashing over my head from an apartment above. My clothes became so waterlogged, that I had to hold up my pant to keep them on. My sandals were so slippery from the wet, that I couldn’t move out of the crowd. Ian and Myles were literally throwing people around, as well as the random local guy with the cane. Kelsi and Liz ran ahead but were attacked by young guys with blue paint. Liz got the paint in the eye and couldn’t see. When I had finally made it up to join them, a guy in a motorcycle stopped to talk to us “hey, don’t go that way” he warned “people heard you guys were here and they are so many of them coming this direction.”
All of a sudden the police showed up. Liz still couldn’t see and we all looked like drowned purple and brown rats. They called us a Tuk Tuk and sent us out of the city.
“No! We just want to go to our hotel” no one spoke English and no one seemed to have heard of the Sheel Gopal hotel either. Eventually, we made our point and directed the Tuk Tuk driver back home. Exhausted, angry and violated we went to our rooms for showers. We had lasted one hour in the streets. It was the longest hour of my life.
Kelsi and I were still furious. We’d fought back, but no one can take on 100 men against 5. We spent the afternoon recovering then ventured out when the festivities had finished to grab dinner. Hours later Liz still couldn’t see out of her eye. Myles grabbed her some food from a vendor while Ian, Kelsi and I wandered around some festival in the park nearby. We walked around a little looped path in a large garden. One young boy came up to us, “happy Holi!” He said and hugged us. We flinched, but hugged him anyways. Then everyone saw us. People came running from across the garden, leaping over bushes to see us.
“Happy Holi”
“Happy Holi”
“Happy Holi”
The ringing of that phrase will forever be burned into my memory. Boys came rushing towards us in a hoard, shaking hands, pulling us in for hugs and asking for kisses.
“Go away” we shouted “no kisses”
Then it started all over, the boys started grabbing at our chests as we walked past. Even all covered up in traditional clothing we were targets. We ran out of the crowd while Ian held back as many as he could.
“Screw Holi”
We stuck to quiet streets and avoided crowds are we made our way towards the much needed liquor store. Kelsi and I walked around like abused dogs, jumping at every “Happy Holi” cry we heard in the streets. We made it to the bottle shop and bought ourselves enough whiskey and beer to forget about the days events. We went back to the hotel and drank away our anger well into the night.
All in all the Holi Festival has been my least favourite of the world festivals, which is really unfortunate. The first day was so much fun! Throwing colour and getting into the spirit of it was all amazing. It is the men here that ruined the experience. We ran into a couple other tourists that had celebrated the festival in Mathura. All the girls we talked to gave us the same story: they ended up running away in tears from the groups of men.
Fortunately, not everywhere in India has a Holi festival like this. Even Vrindavan, the neighboring town, had a much more family oriented celebration. An Irish couple we met at the hotel said they celebrated it there and had a wonderful time.
So my recommendation as a woman: don’t go to Mathura. Celebrate Holi somewhere else, or avoid India all together and celebrate in Los Angeles. Their version looks exactly like how I was expecting Mathura to be.
Either way, mission complete, and another world festival down! Thank you India.

PS. 2 weeks later and my hair still has bright pink streaks through it.

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Varanasi: Cremations on the Ganges

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Varanasi is crazy. It’s bustling, large and has a deeply rooted culture. It is also considered one of the least changed cities on earth; so it’s like walking back in time a thousand years. Lonely planet describes it as “one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on Earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners.”
This is most noticeable down by the shores of the Ganges. There are over 80 ghats along the river in Varanasi. The steps are filled with people at sunrise, when pilgrims come to pay respect to the sun, and again in the evening when cremation rituals are performed along the waters edge.
Varanasi is one of the holy cities of Hinduism. It is one of the longest, continually inhabited cities on Earth, and is aptly named the “beating heart of the Hindu Universe”. It is an honour to die and be cremated in Varanasi. People migrate from all over India to have their loved ones burned at the funeral pyres on the Ganges river. Hindu’s believe that cremation on the steps of the Manikarnika Ghat offers Moshka (liberation from the cycle of reincarnation). The entire city is ominous and magical and eerie; it is unlike any other city in India.
We grabbed a cycle Rickshaw and took the painfully (literally with all the potholes and the tiny seat) long 20 minute journey to the Assi Ghat. The ghats are beautiful in their own unique way. They are bustling with people, strewn with litter and they ominously emerge from the Ganges river. From the water, the ghats look like they should be part of a horror film. Tall, rustic and almost gothic style buildings loom over the ghat steps. It is the perfect setting for a Sherlock Holmes murder to take place, in the dead of night, shrouded in the mist of the river and covered by the shadows of brown brick buildings.
But the ghats are never quiet. People, boats, stray dogs and cows constantly exist along the rivers edge. It’s where Varanasi comes to life.
We walked about a kilometer, up and down the steps of the ghats towards Old Town. The atmosphere was chaotic and full of anticipation. Men got their boats ready for the evening surge of visitors, funeral pyres were made, bodies were swathed in cloth and set on wooden stretchers and people of all ages swarmed the riverside.
We came across hoards of old, bearded medicine men. They were stark naked and painted white with a chalky powder. They wandered around with walking sticks, their beards and hair in dreadlocked tatters as they prepared for the evenings events. With them, walked religious men in the bright orange robes that seem to be so popular here. They huddle in groups under makeshift shanti tents and drink chai tea in the heat of the day. If you’re ever looking for quiet contemplation by the river, Varanasi is not the place…
We hopped on a boat in the early evening, with two lovely Indian couples from the South. Boating along the river is definitely the best way to see the full beauty of the Varanasi ghats. Although still noisy, being in a boat left us with a slight sense of serenity in an otherwise busy world. The old man slowly paddled us along the river towards two of the cremation ghats. The burnings had already begun.
Apparently there is a precise art to a perfect cremation. Each piece of wood is weighed and measured according to the size of the body. Each block of wood costs money (all depending on the type and size of the wood). There has to be an exact right amount to completely cremate a body without going overboard. The pyres are all set up accordingly during the day, then the bodies are carried down the steps at 6:00 for the ceremony. At the second ghat we saw three bodies, all swathed in cloth, dipped in the sacred Ganges river before being placed upon the fire. It’s an eerily beautiful sight.
From there we watched the nightly ceremony. Rows of men stand in a line to perform the ritual for the dead. They are all lit up in golden lights and surrounded by a fiery glow. The beating of drums and bells echoes across the river and children hand out small candles to all the spectators below. The candle is surrounded by flowers and, once lit, is placed in the river to float away. If your candle floats a long way, it means you will have a long life. Both Kelsi and my candles went far, although Kelsi’s had a near escape with a boat oar on the way (sounds like Kelsi’s life). The river was beautiful when it was all lit up with floating candles and crammed full of row boats. I have to admit though, the ceremony was just too long. They performed the same dance over and over again with different object in their hands. What at first was awe-inspiring to see, soon became just an uncomfortable boat bench and a crowd of people. After 2 and a half hours, our boat began to slowly sink and so we cruised back to the shore to go home. We walked the ghats to see the final cleanup of the ceremony before grabbing dinner in old town and heading home.
The following day we only had the morning to explore. We checked out the bustling markets of old town and stopped in for a lassi in the afternoon. The markets in Varanasi are crazy. All of them spread out into an eternal maze of thin alleyways and hoards of people. You could get lost in a second in the market streets, but you are bound to end up at the ghats eventually to find your way home. We wandered around the labyrinth of markets until we found the Blue Lassi.
The Blue Lassi is a Lonely Planet recommended lassi shop that is said to make the best lassis in India. The shop has been in the same location, selling lassis for over 70 years. The grandson of the original owner still sits in the shop front whipping up homemade lassis right in front of your eyes. It is quite a process to make yoghurt, believe me. It took a little while for him to make them, but the wait was worth it when Kelsi and I had two huge bowls of food in front of us. I had a banana one and Kelsi an apple flavored. Both had huge chunks of puréed and sliced fruit in them which made them irresistible. Finding the Blue Lassi: greatest decision ever.
After our afternoon treat, it was off to the train. It was too short of a time in Varanasi, but an experience I’ll never forget. Probably my favourite city in India so far, Varanasi was a magical city to visit on the trip!

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Dealing with Train Stations

Arriving in the Varanai train station was a less than pleasant experience. Looking back, it makes me upset that such an incredible city gave me such a terrible first impression.
Kelsi and I had pre booked an onward train ticket from Varanasi to Mathura weeks earlier in Delhi. Unfortunately, when the ticket finally got to us it had no departure time. There was a train number, and class and berth and date, just no departure time. No problem. When we arrived in Varanasi we’d just ask at the counter when the train left… If only it was that easy.
While Kelsi watched the bags, I waited in three different counter lines. It was jam packed, people pressing up against me from all angles. No one actually waits in lines here, they just shove and push aggressively to get to the window. As a Canadian, I could wait in line forever; but I didn’t have time for that. I pushed my way to the front of the lines only to get waved to the next counter. By the third line I was exhausted, cranky from not having slept properly on the over night train, hungry from not eating breakfast and ready to kill the next person that grabbed me in line. I pushed my way to the front of the line to get to the window.
“Hi. I have a train ticket to Mathura tomorrow, but it doesn’t have a departure time. Can you help me out?”
“No.” Said the man behind the counter without looking up at me.
“Look, I just want to know when it leaves. What time is the train to Mathura tomorrow?”
“No.”
At this point I was getting pressed to the side, other people were pushing their hands in the ticket window and getting their tickets. I put my ticket down, took a deep breath and pushed myself back in.
“Okay. I would like to purchase a ticket to Mathura tomorrow please” I said in my most polite voice, trying a slightly new tactic. “What time do they leave at?”
“No.” He said again.
“Why? I want to BUY a ticket!” I said, not so politely.
“No.”
“Why won’t you help me?!?” I yelled at him through the glass.
For the first time he turned up to face me, he looked me in the eyes and said “Because you’re a woman!”
I stood there dumbfounded, not knowing what to say. I was pushed aside by the rest of the men in line and the man behind the counter continued printing out tickets.
I was livid: beyond furious! I stormed back to Kelsi in a rage and grabbed my bag.
“Let’s go” I said
“What time does it leave?”
“He won’t tell me” I snapped and walked outside. We walked into a throng of Tuk Tuk drivers.
“Hello madam!”
“Tuk Tuk?”
“Where you going?”
We walked past four of them before talking to one guy. “How much to the Siddartha hotel?”
“100 rupees” he smiled.
I was insulted. Kelsi and I both knew we should pay about 30 rupees to get there. I didn’t even dignify him with a response, we just pushed him aside and kept walking.
The prepaid Tuk tuks were all charging 55 rupees so we walked outside. When I told Kelsi about
why we still didn’t know the train time she was equally as upset. We pushed our way past Tuk Tuk drivers that quoted anything above 60. Finally one guy came up to us with a slightly better price.
“Hello madam. I will take you there for 50 rupees” he said with a smile.
“THIRTY!” I shouted at him. He hadn’t done anything wrong to me, but if you’d told me that then I would have bit your head off.
“Okay 40” he said.
“30!” And I walked away. I would have kept waking all the way to the hotel if I had to.
“Okay, okay.” He grabbed my arm “30 rupees.” He walked us to his Tuk Tuk and helped Kelsi with her bag on the other side. My bag is huge. It’s a fight every time I have to get in a tiny Tuk Tuk. This time was no exception. Two guys stood next to me with their arms crossed staring down my shirt every time my scarf moved while I struggled with the bag. When I got it half in I turned to them.
“Well aren’t you two gentlemen!” I snapped in the most sarcastic tone possible. “Please! Just go ahead and stare at me while I struggle with my bag! Thank you so much!” They didn’t even seem phased as I glared them down and pushed my way into the Tuk Tuk. They just kept on staring. I felt like killing someone.
As the Tuk Tuk drove away, I watched our driver in the side mirror. He was an old man and looked like he had some sort of tourettes. He couldn’t keep his eyes open for longer than a half second, then he twitched and bit his lip and squinted and licked the side of his mouth. Something was definitely going on with him. But he was the nicest person ever.
“Hello! My name Samesh! This is my license and this is my story!”
He handed me his license and a little scrap piece of paper. Obviously some tourist that he had driven around wrote about how nice he had been as a driver and gave it to him. He had laminated it and proudly showed it to us. It broke my heart.
“See! Samesh! That’s me!” He smiled as he twitched and blinked wildly. I was slightly concerned about how in the world Samesh was driving through this crazy city with his eyes closed, and then I remembered how I yelled at him over 20 rupees difference in price.
20 rupees is 40 cents. I just about snapped his head off over 40 cents. He was driving us all the way to our hotel for 60 cents. And this is his living, the way he survives and feeds himself. I sat quietly in the back of the Tuk Tuk on the brink of tears. Breaking point!
When we got to the hotel I couldn’t handle life. I let Kelsi pay Samesh as he smiled and waved goodbye to us, yelling about how much we were going to enjoy this hotel. We checked in and I went straight to bed to lie down.
It was silent and cold in our room. Two things that I hadn’t experienced in ages. We both recovered for an hour before walking back out into the crazy world.
It turns out, nearly all train stations have different lines for men and women. The Varanasi train station didn’t have an open line for women, it was only men that were dealt with. As a foreign woman I had to go to the tourist office on the other side of the terminal if I wanted to be helped.
Still, the reason why they have a separate women’s line is because women are groped and grabbed in lineups. I’d managed to fight my way through three lines, and not a single person told me where I needed to go. You’d think, after all that trouble, the guy could just look at his computer screen and tell me when the goddamn train left.
All of my train station experiences since have been equally as frustrating. It took us over two hours to book a train in the Mathura station and about 6 different lineups to push through. Kelsi tapped out after one guy grabbed her in line, and had I not met two very lovely gentlemen in my line I probably would have done the same. I think we’re going to stick with buses when we hit the South. No one wants to be around when we finally snap and kill someone, right?
Good thing Varanasi was worth the trip…

Young and in Love: The unusual and complicated practices of dating in small town India

I’m not going to lie. I am pretty ignorant in the ways of arranged marriages. Coming from a western background, the idea of having your parents choose who you are going to marry seems appalling! I am understanding of the fact that all cultures are different, and in the end, it is common values, trust and commitment that make a relationship work rather than a common love for beer and a weekend in Mexico. Still, I was under the impression that arranged marriages were simple and straightforward. Mother and father find a suitable mate for daughter. Suitable meaning in the right caste, and with the right amount of social hierarchy. Daughter goes from parent’s home to husband’s home with no previous experiences in dating, or any glimpses of the westernized fantasies about love… Turns out, I’m pretty off the mark.
“What’s the average age to get married here?” We asked Momo while we were sharing some chai.
“In your twenties. Probably mid twenties or even late.” he said.
“Are all the marriages here arranged?”
“Yup, in Khajuraho pretty much all the marriages are arranged”
“So people just go from being single to married? There’s no dating?”
He laughed. “Oh, there’s dating!” He said. And thus began my little understanding of Indian youth in Khajuraho…
Girls and boys in small town India do date. They just go about it in very absurd ways.
If a girl sees a boy she likes on the street she will tell her friend.
“Hey, you know so and so’s friend with the green eyes and long hair? Well I saw her boyfriend’s friend walking down the street the other day and I really like him.” Says Lovestruck Girl.
“Ya, he’s totally cute.” Her friend agrees. So Lovestruck Girl’s friend gets in touch with so and so. So and so then calls the girl with the green eyes and long hair. She in turn has a chat with her boyfriend who tells his buddy about the girl that’s crushing on him.
“No way! What does she look like?” Cute Boy asks. And one day his friend points her out on the street.
“Ya, she’s really cute! Pass on my number!” So Cute Boy passes his phone number to his buddy, who gives it to his girlfriend with the green eyes and the long hair, who passes it on to her friend so and so who sneaks it to her friend, and finally it makes it back to Lovestruck Girl. *in breath*
Lovestruck Girl then phones Cute Boy: relationship started.
A second way of going about this is as follows: Lover Boy sees girl at school and decided he likes her. He finds excuses to stand outside her home to see if she notices him outside her window. If she does, cute girl will come outside onto the balcony and nonchalantly glance at Lover Boy. Lover Boy decides to write his number on an old piece of newspaper. He holds it up high, just to make sure cute girl sees, then casually drops it on the ground. If cute girl decided she likes Lover Boy, she will go outside and pick up the phone number. If not, Lover Boy comes back the next day and sees his crumpled paper as part of the overall garbage landscape.
“Aw, man!” Better luck next time, Lover Boy.
Then begins the dating. Amazingly, things get even stranger. The girl will alway play coy and hard to get, never wanting to meet up, but keeping an ongoing phone relationship for months.
“You can be dating a girl on the phone for easily four months and never see her in person” explained Momo. “But she’ll act like she’s your wife!”
“Excuse me!” Says Phone Girlfriend, “I SAW you drinking with your friends the other night. Who do you think you are?! You can’t just party with your friends all the time and forget to call me! And quit smoking! I heard you were smoking at the back of the barber shop the other day. I don’t want a boyfriend if he smokes!”
“Well maybe of we met in person I could see you instead of my friends.” replies Doghouse boyfriend.
“NO!”
And so the relationship continues…
“It’s funny” said Momo, “because a boy and a girl can talk every day on the phone, then pass each other in the streets like they don’t even know each other. They just make brief eye contact and then keep walking!”
Seriously, this is the most confusing way to date ever… I am fascinated.
“I can’t believe you can date for so long and never see the person!” I said.
“Yeah, it can get tiring,” said Momo. “That’s why guys have to start playing games!”
Sexually Frustrated Boy calls his girlfriend Hard-to-Get: “Hey honey, I have some bad news. I have to go out of town for a month for work. I’m so sad; I won’t be able to talk to you for so long! I wish I could have seen you in person before I left”
“What?!” Says Hard-to-Get, “You are leaving? When?!”
“Next week.”
“Well maybe we should meet up before you go then! So you don’t forget about me.”
Win! They find some park to meet in and everyone is happy. Especially when a week later Sexually Frustrated Boy’s work plan magically gets cancelled!
This is dating in India.
Finding a suitable husband in India is equally as complex. Yes, parents do choose, but it doesn’t seem to be the definitive decision I thought it was.
At an appropriate age, Soon-to-Wed’s parents go searching for her future husband. They go from household to household, having chai and discussing business with other parents. There are a lot of factors; I feel like it’s a Bollywood version of Pride and Prejudice. Caste is essential. Everyone marries within their own caste in Khajuraho. If a woman marries below her caste her parents shun her. I hate to say it, but sometimes they will go to the extreme of killing her and her husband… Not ideal. Fortunately, it apparently takes a year for things to be forgotten.
“A friend of mine just got pregnant with a boy from a lower caste” said Momo “It just happened two days ago. They ran away the two of them to live in another city.”
“Seriously?! What will happen to them?” We asked, genuinely concerned.
“Their will be a lot of blame pointed around. People will accuse different families to protect their pride, but overall, the family will probably just shun her existence.”
“Forever?”
“Well, yes and no. Most likely they will move back in a year or two after the baby is born. They will live in solitude for a while, but mothers can’t ignore their daughters forever. Her mom will probably start calling her again, or sneaking over to help with the baby. But she has socially disrespected her family, so things will never be exactly the same. In a small town like this, people remember.”
That is usually why parent choose suitable partners. So when matchmaking tea time is over, parents of Soon-to-Wed come home with a list of options. They will have a photo of each suggested partner. On the back of the photo, the boy will have sneakily written his phone number.
Soon-to-Wed and her girlfriends will go through the photos. They will giggle and gossip and judge the same way us western girls do. When they find someone they like, Soon-to-Wed will phone him; the two will agree to find a place to meet.
“Meeting is usually done in a park, or at a temple” explained Momo. “But the couple is rarely alone. Usually, the guy shows up and the girl is already sitting there… With all her girlfriends.”
It then becomes a Spanish Inquisition. Soon-to-Wed sits there quietly while her friends play a 20 questions speed round with Victim Number 1.
“Do you like her?”
“Do you like to take long strolls in the park?”
“What is your job?”
“What is your favourite Bollywood love song?”
If Soon-to-Wed’s crazed posse approves, THEY are the ones to hand out her phone number. It is never done directly. And thus begins the dating…
I’m exhausted. I had no idea dating in India and choosing a husband was so complex and so hilarious.
Momo even explained some of his own trials and tribulations of dating in his 28 years.
“When I was 17 I didn’t know how to talk to girls. My friend was so good though! He was kind of a playboy I guess. So I asked him one day, I said ‘Hey, I like this girl at school, but I don’t know how to talk to her. Can you teach me how to do it?’ My friend agreed and I was so happy, because I really liked her. He told me what to do and exactly what to say… But what he said was kind of dirty. ‘Really? I should say that to a girl?!’ I asked. ‘Ya,’ he said, ‘girls love when you talk dirty to them’. So I worked up the courage and went up to her at school one day. I told her exactly what he had told me. And you know what? She slapped me RIGHT IN THE FACE! But not just her, her friend was there as well and she slapped me too! So I went back to my friend and I told him what happened. He laughed at me and said ‘Yeah, I knew that would happened. You’re going to have to learn how to talk to girls yourself. I’m not telling you MY secrets!'”
I guess in any culture there are trial and tribulations and games to be played when it comes to dating. But listening to Momo explain the bizarre methods of young Indians in Khajuraho left Kelsi and I in stitches for close to an hour. What a strange way to fall in love!

Khajuraho: The Kama Sutra Temples

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We arrived in Khajuraho with a false sense of freedom; no more being told what to do and when to do it. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. Within minutes of arriving we had a man at the hotel trying to organize a tour for the following morning.
“What time would you like the Tuk Tuk to pick you up at?” He said, as if we had already decided this is what was going to happen. “First we will see the eastern temples, then we will drive up to the waterfalls and then you can rest for a little while before we go to a traditional dancing show, then you see the Western Temples the next morning. Ok? 10:00 okay?”
No. No. No. We are sleeping in, we are doing whatever we want, when we want to, and we are NOT paying hotel booking prices! We thanked him for his offer and politely declined any kind of tour.
“We can book it in the morning, no problem” he said. *sigh* We’ll never escape it!
The next morning as we walked out the door there were already men waiting to take photos of us. Just what you want first thing in the morning when you’ve got a cold.
We walked up to the rooftop to have breakfast alone, but multitudes of people kept finding excuses to come up and look at us before walking back downstairs.
Even our friend was back. “We go on Tuk Tuk now to temples?”
“No thanks, we’re going to check out the markets instead” we said, through mouthfuls of breakfast.
“Ok, later then!” And then he just hung around watching us eat some more. It was awkward.
Outside the hotel was worse. We hadn’t gone five feet from the front door and we had four or five guys walking and talking with us.
“Where from?”
“Auto Rickshaw?”
“Please, see my shop!”
“What is your name beautiful lady”
It was too much.
“We need a Tuk Tuk!” We exclaimed. Within seconds we had 4 Tuk tuks in front of us. We jumped in one with a shy, young driver with a great smile. His name was Ali.
“200 rupees for a half day tour, starting with the Eastern Temples” we told him.
“Okay” he said, and drove off, away from the madness.
As we were driving away, one of the young guys who was chatting with me, jumped in the Tuk Tuk.
“Hello! My name is Baia. I am a guide here, I can tell you all about the temples!” he grinned at us.
Kelsi turned to me and rolled her eyes. “You would pick us up a guide!” She said to me.
“Not me!” I said, “He jumped in here all on his own.”
Well, we really had no choice in the matter. The four of us cruised along in the Tuk Tuk until we reached the first temple. We figured that if we ignored what Baia was saying, maybe he’d go away without having to pay him. But strangely enough, he stayed in the Tuk Tuk and let us explore the first temple alone.
Khajuraho’s temples are some of the most unique and best preserved temples in India. Also named the “Kama Sutra” temples, these massive sandstone structures have erotic and sexual carvings of people, animals and nymphs. To Kelsi and I , this seemed strange in a culture that is so conservative with its sexuality. The eastern temples are much smaller than the western ones (which cost money) but they are equally as detailed in their sculpting. We walked through a couple of them fairly quickly, avoiding any kind of information from Baia. But he seemed to get the hint and just let us walk around on our own.
As we moved through the temples heading south we passed by the Old Village.
“Can we drive through the village?” We asked the boys.
“No. No. Not drive. Let’s walk! It’s much nicer to walk through the village” said Baia. He had Ali meet us on the other side of town while we got out to explore.
“Khajuraho is very caste conscious” explained Baia. “It is the one thing I don’t really like about the Indian culture, but that’s life! In the old village we have strict lines defining each of the castes. They each have their own temple, own watering well, own drinking water, own hospital and own barber shop.”
Wow, I knew there were caste systems in India, but I didn’t realize how separate they all are. From the Brahman priests to the street cleaning Untouchables, smaller towns like Khajuraho are very particular about the different expectations from each caste. They each have their own everything, and it seems like their worlds hardly mix.
“You can always tell which caste area you are in by the colours of the homes. Also the colour of people’s skin: the darker the skin the lower the caste”
In metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai the caste system is slowly being forgotten. But Khajuraho is traditional, and despite their liberalism with the Kama Sutra sexuality, they are still very defined in their old ways.
We wandered through the little village for a while. We’d given up on avoiding Baia and just gave in to his charismatic personality. He was a young guy, only 18, but he spoke 4 languages fluently and seemed to just enjoy his job as a self proclaimed tour guide. Every few minutes or so he would break out with some silly rhyme or expression.
“You know what they say, travel is knowledge without college!” Then he’d grin at us.
“You know why they call it India?” He asked us.
“Why?”
“INDIA: I. Never. Do. It. Again” Then he’d break into laughter. “It’s a joke! Just a joke!”
He was pretty entertaining, I must admit.
Soon we came to the old village school. It was founded by some Europeans who gathered funds to create a school for the children.
“This school is the only place where the castes mix. All levels of children come to learn together! It is very nice!” Explained Baia
The school, grounds and all, was maybe the size of my house, and it held 300 children in two sessions: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. There are six small class rooms: 3 old and 3 new ones. The children get all their uniforms, books, pens and pencils free from the school. We walked around the classrooms on our own, the school children giggling in excitement that we were there. There were no chairs or desks, just some bamboo mats on the floor and a small chalk board. The rest was just concrete walls painted white.
“Desks and chairs are not important. Learning is important.” Said the principal as he walked up behind us. He showed us around the place a little more, explaining some of the rules and practices along the way. It was all pretty amazing.
When we’d left the school, Ali was waiting outside with the Tuk Tuk.
“Okay, next temple!”
But the Tuk Tuk wouldn’t start. We tried pushing it to start it in first gear (this happens to us nearly every time we get into a Tuk Tuk) but it still wouldn’t work. Ali apologized and we agreed to walk with Baia to the next temple and meet him there.
The last temple we went to was the largest of the eastern temples. But much like the others, we just did a quick walk around. We instead found a starving little puppy dog and had more fun playing with it (Yup, refusing rabies shots may have been a mistake. We’re still suckers for puppies).
On our way back to the hotel Baia turned around to face us.
“Have you girls ever driven a Tuk Tuk before?”
“Nope. But we want to!”
He had Ali pull over and Kelsi jumped into the front seat. Baia hopped in the back along with some random local that wanted a ride into town. Ali gave Kelsi the low down and then handed her the reins.
I’m pretty sure I screamed in excitement and fear as we flew down the pothole ridden streets of backcountry Khajuraho. It was a quiet road, but only really big enough for one lane. Every time a car came towards us I closed my eyes. Please don’t run straight into it! A car came up from behind and was honking at us to pull over so it could pass. We could hardly hear it over our shrieks of laughter and excitement. Kelsi pulled over at the edge of town to let Ali take control again, a massive grin on her face. We had just written out a list of random missions to complete while in India: this was one of them. Drive a Tuk Tuk… Check!
Baia and Ali wanted to hang out with us longer.
“How about the waterfalls next? Or we can go into the mountains!”
“No thanks. We are doing our own thing this evening. Probably heading to the Western Temples”
“But the Western Temples are so much better in the morning.” He explained. We were just being stubborn now; we didn’t want anyone deciding our itinerary.
“Nope. We are going tonight. We can see the waterfalls with you tomorrow morning”
They finally agreed and we planned to meet at 9:30 the next morning to go out for the day. They were the nicest locals we’d met since we’d been in India. We figured it’d be fun to hang out with them at the waterfalls than try our luck with a new driver in the morning.
That evening we did go to the Western Temples just like we’d said. And guess what? They’d be so much better in the morning!
The sun sets behind them, which makes for some great silhouette shots, but you can’t see any detailing in the buildings. It didn’t matter, we’d been told what to do for three weeks: It was our turn to make decisions now.
The western temples were significantly larger and much better preserved than the Eastern ones (that’s probably why this group of temples costs 250 rupees while the others are free). They were incredible to wander around. Thousands upon thousands of detailed carvings of naked women, nymphs, gods, and Kama sutra poses were on each temple. It was crazy. At first it seemed like all the carvings were the same, but as you look closer, they are all unique. Some women are wearing clothing, others are coupled together or standing naked and alone. A few of them have scorpions, the symbol of sex, climbing up their thighs. They were beautiful, and erotic and some of the stranger temples we’d seen to date. Kelsi and I wandered around, avoiding the myriad guides that wandered the place looking for a couple bucks. We were on a mission to find the strangest kama sutra carving we could find on all the temples! We had a great time just climbing around all the temples laughing at or contemplating each sculpture as the sun went down.
As we neared the end of the group we came to a temple with a bunch of young Indian guys hanging around. They took one look at us and couldn’t stop staring. We rolled our eyes and tried to ignore them. They were sneakily trying to get a photo of us on their camera phones. They held them up and waited for us to walk past before taking the shot. We decided to play with them; we’d get super close to walking through their shot then we’d abruptly turn around and go the other direction around the temple. As soon as we rounded a corner we could hear them running around the other side to catch us. We laughed and went back the other direction. We stumbled upon them all huddled around the corner of the temple watching for us to come by. We snuck up behind them unawares and just as we passed them said “I wander what they’re looking for” then walked off down the stairs away from them. They all got startled and confused at how we’d eluded them. We just giggled at how funny we thought we were and walked to our final temple.
As we walked out of the last one there were two men about to enter.
“Can I get photo?” He said to me. I hesitated then finally got in the photo with him as his friend stood ready to take the shot. I’m limiting photos taken of me per day; this guy was nice enough to ask and I was in a good mood, so why not.
As his friend was about to take the photo about ten more men came around the corner, cameras out towards us.
“I’m out!” Said Kelsi as she ran off to the exit gate. Thanks buddy.
I got stuck having twenty photos taken of me all at once. I politely declined having a photo taken of me individually with each person. This country is crazy!
I took off running after Kelsi as she stood by the gate laughing at me. Time to go home.

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The Taj Mahal

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Seriously, what do I say about the Taj Mahal. I don’t know if there are even words in the English Dictionary that can properly describe standing in front of the Taj Mahal as the sun rises. It is beyond words.
It has been coined as “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity,” “the embodiment of all things pure” and finally, as having made “the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes”. Standing there, dumbfounded and awestruck in the morning light, it was all those things and more…
We woke up at the crack of dawn, met up with our guide Dave and walked the short distance to the Southern entrance. Even the gate was impressive, with its massive arched doorway, beautifully scrawled Arabic inscriptions and sparkling golden domes.
“11 small domes on this side and 11 more behind those” explained Dave, “That’s 22 domes for the 22 years it took 20 000 workers to build the Taj Mahal”
Oh my Ganesh! That’s ridiculous.
As we passed under the archway and into the Taj Mahal’s beautifully kept garden area, Kelsi and I literally gasped.
“Look!” Kelsi grabbed my arm and pointed.
The Taj Mahal stood there, glistening white in the misty morning. It was spectacular. It didn’t look real. It looked like someone had painted this elaborate backdrop and just hung it in the sky. I couldn’t stop staring at it. For the next hour, I honestly couldn’t take my eyes off it. Hands down, the most beautiful man made structure I have ever seen.
The Taj Mahal also has one of the most beautiful love stories attached to it. The Emperor Shah Jahan had it built for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died giving birth to their 14th child. She was the only wife to bear him any heirs and he loved her with his entire body and soul. Upon her death he vowed to build her a mausoleum unprecedented in elegance, something that would reflect and capture the beauty of the whole world within its walls…and I believe he did.
The Taj Mahal, it’s grounds and the two surrounding buildings are entirely symmetrical. The mausoleum itself is symmetrical in four quadrants, so each of the four sides look identical. The only small details that are different are A. The building to the West is a mosque, with an altar facing towards Mecca, whereas the building to the East, although identical in shape, lacks the Mecca-facing altar. And B. When Shah Jahan died, his son had his body placed in a casket next to his beloved wife’s. His casket had to be placed to the side and so is not part of the symmetry.
Other than that, every inlaid stone, every tile, every detail in carving and structure is absolutely identical on all sides. No wonder it took so long to build!
The thing that amazed me the most, was how white the building is. The perfectly, shell-white marble that was used looks heavenly. It is an earthly shangri-la. As the sun rises, the Taj Mahal glows and the tiny, inlaid stonework sparkles in the changing light. The whole building is imposing and powerful and yet it looks so delicate, as if it could shatter at the slightest touch. And I just couldn’t stop staring…
We walked around the mausoleum for about an hour and a half. I could have stayed there all day, gaping in awe. To be honest, I missed most of the facts that Dave rambled on about. To me, it didn’t matter how tall or wide the building was. I just wanted to sit there and take it all in.
I do, however, remember the totally unimportant, but more gruesome facts of the day. The Taj Mahal has four, tall, surrounding pillars at each of its four corners. Years ago, it was possible to climb the steps to the top to get a different perspective of the grounds. Sites like this, with romantic draws, unfortunately have a downside. Within 2 months, 7 different people decided to climb the towers and throw themselves from the windows in a romanticized act of suicide. After the seventh death, they closed the viewing towers to the public…
When all was said and done, we were dragged back out to the south gate to head home. The magnificence of the morning forever burned into my memory. There are few things in life that can match the awe-inspiring feeling of standing in front of the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It is a monument built out of love and heartbreak, and a structure that is almost unequivocally considered the most beautiful building on Earth…

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