Anuradhapura

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Marshall had told us that it would take us all day to get to Anuradhapura.
“If you leave really early, you may get there by 3. Then you can see the city the next day”
Well we didn’t have two days, so we were determined to do it all in one.
Well, where there’s a will there’s a way!
We woke up with the sun, grabbed some crackers and water at the bus station and set out. The train that Marshall had told us to take didn’t leave until 9:30. From there we had to stop in a city half way up, and take a bus to Anuradhapura.
“We have to get out on the road earlier than that. Let’s take the bus and figure it out from there.” We decided.
Everyone at the bus station (all bus stations in fact) were so helpful. Their chaotic, rapid yelling of destinations and gridlock mess of moving busses seemed daunting. But their state bus system is actually incredible. We never had to wait more than a few minutes to catch a bus heading in the right direction.
The bus operators found us a bus heading half way to our destination.
“From there, you change busses and go straight to Anuradhapura!”
Perfect! We hopped on the bus heading off to the middle of nowhere. Let’s hope for the best!
Our bus transition was effortless and we were on a second bus within minutes of arriving at the station. Just a few hours later we found ourselves at a guesthouse in Anuradhapura, with a juice in hand, organizing a tour of the ancient city for that afternoon: it was 1:30. Where there’s a will there’s a way!
By 2:00 we were on a whirlwind, 4 hour tour of the best sites in Anuradhapura.
Anuradhapura was the royal capital of Sri Lanka over 2200 years ago. For nearly 1000 years, Sinhalese monarchs ruled from the palaces of this ancient city. Today, a network of ruins exists. The ancient city is full of history, and as a tourist you are free to explore the palaces, gardens and ancient monasteries in the area.
Kelsi and I were lucky enough to have a young guide take us around the area. He was wonderful at bringing the ruins back to life by telling stories.
“This is where the king and his concubines bathed” he would start, “this place was full of running water, it rushed over the rock walls and created private rooms.”
The whole place slowly came to life as we passed through sleeping quarters and bathing ghats and bathrooms. The area was interspersed with ancient monasteries where monks would come to meditate. The whole place was full of lush green trees and big lakes; it was a stunning place to put a palace.
Still today there are working temples in the area. Large domed temples dedicated to Buddha, and monasteries built around sacred rocks or trees. The Bo tree found in Anuradhapura is considered the oldest tree on earth. It is supposedly 2000 years old. We arrived at the tree just before 6:00, when all the women and men came to pray at the temple. For some reason, I had expected the oldest tree on Earth to be massive: but it wasn’t. It was actually surprisingly unclimactic as we realized it was just a normal looking tree, half shrouded by the walls of its encircling temple. In the end it was the rituals of the people that were most interesting. Women crowded their way up one staircase, while the men did the same on the other. They all prayed at each of the four altars, and then somehow ended up in a procession line that circled around the grounds. Kelsi and I were as much a spectacle there as we were in India, but it was more curiosity. The school girls giggled and waved and shyly came up to shake our hands before running off to tell their friends. Parents would point us out to their small children and get them to wave to us. Our guide said the school girls would be gossiping about us in class for weeks to come. The whole afternoon was incredible. Our guide had wonderful insights into the Buddhist religion and was happy to share his beliefs with us. There’s something about the Buddhist culture that I really like; it seems like everyone is so at peace with the world, no matter their situation.
The day was busy, but in the end successful. We had made it half way across the country and seen the ancient capital all in a single day. It was home to eat and off to bed early. Another long day ahead of us tomorrow…

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Negombo Beach

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Our first stop in Sri Lanka was a city called Negombo. Only 16km from the airport, Negombo is a two part city: town and beach. We opted for beach: clearly. At the bus stop we paid less than a dollar to catch a Tuk Tuk to a guesthouse at Negombo Beach.
The beach was beautiful! White sand, palm trees, warm water: it was paradise. There were little fishing boats with huge sails scattered across the horizon and locals and tourists swimming in the waves (in bathing suits might I add. Completely opposite to India). We headed immediately to the beach to lie out on the sand as relax in the late sunshine. We’d been in the country only a couple hours and I was already in love.
The guesthouse we stayed at was called Marshall’s Beach Guesthouse. Marshall, the owner, was so lovely. He was also a tour guide around Sri Lanka, so he had a million suggestions on places to visit and stay for the night. When I asked him about guesthouse recommendations for Anuradhapura, he gladly flipped open a huge binder with guesthouse business cards all in alphabetical order according to city. So helpful.
But although Marshall himself could not have been any nicer, the man that ran the guesthouse when Marshall was away wins as my favourite person in Sri Lanka. Although his English wasn’t perfect, his hospitality and his constant concern about our happiness made him the sweetest person we had met in ages!
“You happy?” He would ask us with a huge grin. “You happy then I am VERY happy!” He would genuinely ask us this after every meal, or showing us our room, or after we’d come home from the beach. We wanted to stay forever!
The town of Negombo Beach was small but lovely. It was a single street with a mix of restaurants, souvenir shops and beach guesthouses. All the restaurants served delicious fish curries or traditional Sri Lankan cuisine. Everyone in town wanted to say “Hello” but no one seemed pushy about coming into shops and buying their wares.
“Do you hear that?” Asked Kelsi when we were walking down the street.
“No, hear what?” I asked.
“Exactly.” there were no honking, screeching, deafening car sounds. It was amazing. I don’t understand how two countries, right next to each other can be so different! But I’m not complaining.
We wandered the town, relaxed on the beach, and spent a whole lot of time doing nothing. It was great.
That night I met an English guy named Max that had been traveling Sri Lanka by motorbike for three months already. By luck, he was able to offer us the best places to see in Sri Lanka. With his suggestions, we tweaked our original plan and had an epic 5 days ahead of us. Next stop: the ancient ruins of Anuradhapura!

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Sri Lanka

Kelsi and I had absolutely zero expectations about Sri Lanka. Until the night before we arrived, in fact, the only thing we knew about the country was that Colombo was the capital and it has tea. Yes, we’re ridiculous. We had expected Sri Lanka to be our relaxing vacation time. Check out Colombo for a day or two, then lie on the beach for 5 days and unwind. Then we googled it…
Sri Lanka has SO much to offer. It has pristine beaches, ancient ruins and abandoned palaces, a rich history of Buddhism, and some of the most incredible tea plantations in the world. It has the most Unesco World Heritage sites for a country of it’s size (8 in total) and is home to the ancient fortress Sigiriya, that is considered by many to be the 8th Wonder of the World. On top of that, Lonely Planet has rated it as one of the top ten places to visit in 2013. For a place that was wrapped up in a brutal civil war until 2009, the country is still off the beaten track to most tourists. Wow.
This meant both good and bad news. The good thing was that we were about to see most, if not all, of these things. The bad news was, our relaxing five-day beach holiday was going to have to be put on hold.
In only a few hours we put together a 14 day sightseeing tour of our own. The problem was, we only had 5 and a half days, and a small budget. What to do?
Wen it came to our week in Sri Lanka, I think the phrase should be “where there’s a will, there’s a way!” We were not about to let limited time and money get in our way. We would wake up at the crack of dawn, figure out the local bus systems, eat the cheapest street food we could find, and make it work!
Our first hour in the country was almost discouraging. We stopped at a tourist office in the airport to ask directions to the bus.
“Why would you take a bus? I can organize a taxi for you to Colombo no problem: 1600. Or we can organize a whole tour for you! What’s your budget?”
“$25 a day!” we replied with a smile.
“$25 a day?!” The two tour agents laughed and laughed at us. “That’s impossible. The entrance fees to
Anuradhapura and Sigiriya are $25 and $30 alone! You can’t have that low of a budget!” They laughed until finally pointing us in the direction of the bus stop. We were going to do it! We didn’t have any more money, and we weren’t going to miss out on anything.
And in the end, we came back 6 days later having spent $28 a day and we managed to visit BOTH Anuradhapura and Sigiriya! It could have been $25 if we hadn’t spoiled ourselves with beer and seafood on the last night! As I said, where there’s a will, there’s a way! Sri Lanka, here we come!

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!

Motor Biking Through the Countryside

We woke up early on our second day in Khajuraho to meet up with Baia -our 18 year old guide from the day earlier – who wanted to show us all the local spots. We figured Ali would be with us as well and the four of us would cruise around in Ali’s Tuk Tuk… Except that’s not exactly how it happened.
We walked outside right on time and couldn’t see Baia. We decided to grab a couple waters across the street while we waited.
“Hey! Girls! Your motorcycle man said he would be here in one minute and that I should wait with you!” This young guy we didn’t recognize walked towards us.
Motorcycle man? We’d had a few guys the day before beg to take us out on their motorbikes, but couldn’t think of who he was talking about. He must have realized from the blank expressions on our faces that we were confused.
“Baia,” he explained further “he said he’d be here in just a minute.”
“Oh! Okay, no problem.” We said, still confused about the motorbike part.
Just as we finished buying waters Baia pulled up on a motorcycle.
“You girls ready?” He asked.
“Uhhhh, we thought we were going in Ali’s Tuk Tuk.” We said confused.
He laughed “You can’t see the mountains in a Tuk Tuk! It would be so uncomfortable! Trust me, a motorbike is much better. Plus I brought my friend so we can each take one of you” he pointed to the guy who found us earlier. He was standing there grinning at us.
“My name is Mohan Singh. But my friends call me Momo. Should we go then?” We hesitated. We didn’t expect this. We all know my fear and hesitation towards two wheeled vehicles, but other than that, I guess it wasn’t much different than going in a Tuk Tuk. We looked at each other and stared blankly like idiots. What do we do now?
Screw it. The whole plan is ridiculous anyways. Riding off into the countryside with two young boys. Might as well go all out and get on a motorcycle.
“Okay, Chello” I said and hopped on the back of Baia’s bike. Kelsi laughed, then got on the back of Momo’s. And just like that, we drove out of Khajuraho and off to… Who knows where. Just because it’s a bad idea, doesn’t mean it’s not going to be a good time!
The town of Khajuraho is small, so in no time we were out of the bustling core and into the countryside. The Indian countryside around Madha Pradesh is beautiful: open fields, mango and cherry trees, gorgeous, brightly-coloured blossoms in oranges and pinks scattered throughout the area. Most of the people in the surrounding areas of Khajuraho are farmers. They work with cattle and goats, and they grow wheat or lentils among other popular crops.
“When you greet farmers you should not say Namaste” said Baia as we drove by a village. “Namaste is more for business. If you say Ram Ram, they will treat you with more respect.” With all these little tips, we’ll be fluent in Hindi in no time!
The ride through the area was fabulous. Even though I am less than comfortable riding on the back of a motorcycle, I felt strangely at ease letting an 18 year old boy drive me around… Yes, completely flawed logic, I know. But I told Baia I’d kill him if he showed off, so he promised to drive slow.
“Never hurry, hurry chicken curry; don’t worry, be happy!” He said with a laugh. And within a few minutes I was just enjoying the scenery.
Baia didn’t stop talking the entire trip. He kept telling jokes and coming up with more of his hilarious expressions, many if which he messed up.
“Yesterday is history,” he would say, “tomorrow is a mystery and today is a gift…that’s why you give gifts to each other, because it is a present” I would laugh at how ridiculous it sounded and he looked proud to have made such a funny joke… And thus the day continued like that. At one point Baia pulled over on the road and stopped.
“Okay, your turn!” He said.
“My turn what?” I asked.
“To drive! Tick Tock, time to rock. Chello!”
I laughed “There’s no way you will trust me to drive your bike, Baia”
“Of course I trust you. Here I will teach you”
Yup. I had an 18 year old boy teach me how to drive a motorcycle in the back country roads of India…
Within a few minutes I had the hang of it and we raced along the roads to catch up to Kelsi and Momo. Kelsi just about peed herself when she saw me coming.
“Shut up! Are you driving a motorcycle?!”
“I can’t look at you!” I yelled “I’m too focused on the road!” We laughed and drove on until the road turned to dirt and potholes again.
“Okay, my turn again” said Baia. Yup. Don’t blame him. I would have killed us on those roads.
The boys asked us where we wanted to go that day. We said we didn’t know what was around the area, so just surprise us. They did well; our first stop was amazing.
We pulled over at this little spot by the river. It was just a short minute walk until we came upon this giant tree house, spiraling up into the tree tops. Apparently it is private property, but so many locals started to come hang out there that they just turned it into a restaurant, charged people $1 to enter and offered them free chai tea in exchange.
We climbed to the top level of the restaurant and sat down on cushions around some low tables. Momo ordered us some tea and the four of us sat around drinking afternoon tea, laughing at stories and watching Bollywood music videos on Momo’s phone. Our cultures and backgrounds are so different it was incredible to hear stories about growing up in India. They were equally as amazed at the westernized world. Number one fascinating topic of the afternoon: dating in India. The topic was so hilarious and odd, it might need it’s own blog post. Momo had us in stitches for over an hour talking about all the dating habits of young and in love Indians. Then we got to hear all the gossip of Khajuraho: like who got pregnant and eloped with a guy from a different caste. Scandalous!
When tea was over it was back in the bikes and off to the dam. On our way, we came across this little boy, about 7 or 8 years old that looked lost. Momo stopped to see if he was okay.
The kid’s name was Rau, and apparently he needed to get to a town just next to Khajuraho that was 35 km away. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any money. Rau thought the bus might take him, but it wouldn’t, so he just began walking the 35km to the village anyways.
“That’s crazy!” Said Momo.
He asked the kid to hop on the bike with him and Kelsi. He gave him 10 rupees and drove off to the dam to wait for the next bus…which was an hour and a half away! Rau was really thankful, but had no way to repay him for the money.
“How about, while you’re waiting, you watch my bike?” Said Momo. “We are going down to hang out by the water, so you’d be helping me out!”
The chances of anyone stealing Momo’s bike were next to nothing, but it made Rau feel better about the situation. So the four of us walked down to the river to hang out.
We found a shady spot to sit while Momo went swimming and spent another hour or so lounging by the water. It was peaceful and relaxing. Perhaps the first truly peaceful moment we’d had in India. I forgot how much I missed silence. When we finally grew tired of the rocks we walked back to the bikes to find a distressed looking Rau.
“What’s wrong?! Why didn’t you catch the bus?” We asked him.
“But the bus left!” He exclaimed in a worried tone. “I couldn’t get on it because I had to watch your bike! So I watched it leave without me.” He admitted sadly.
Probably one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. This little, adorable looking kid with a dirty face, just trying to run an errand and he can’t catch a break. Poor thing! It was getting late in the afternoon so he decided to give up on his day’s big mission. He asked Momo if he could drive him back to his village, which was just the next town over. So he hopped back on with Kelsi and the five of us drove off. We stopped at a corner shop with a bunch of people standing by it. People were all smiling at Kelsi and I and talking in Hindi about us (aaas usual). We kept seeing people pointing at us and then turning to talk, then laughing, then smiling and waving over to us. We didn’t know what was going on, so we just smiled back politely. When we left with Baia and Momo again we asked what that was all about.
Apparently Rau had asked to be dropped off by all his friends so they could see him get off a bike with a beautiful lady. It was bragging rights for a year for sure! We laughed; I guess his day wasn’t a total loss after all!
Our next stop was Baia and Momo’s village. We had noticed from the start that they got approving looks from all the locals that they passed. Two beautiful blondes out for a ride with them: luckiest guys on earth. Every village we passed the children came out to wave and yell at us excitedly.
“They are yelling about you girls” said Momo to Kelsi. “They never just wave to me!”
We kept hearing shouts of “gora!” which means white person, so I have a feeling Momo was telling the truth and not just flattering us.
As soon as we hit the outskirts of the village our bikes went separate ways.
“Uhhh, aren’t we following them?” I asked Baia.
“We are taking a shortcut!” He said.
“Hmm, okay”
By shortcut, he meant an excuse to run me by his uncle’s farm to say hello. Kelsi had the same experience and was driven past all of Momo’s friends’ places… Oh right, bragging rights.
In the end, Baia’s uncle’s place was really great. We filled a bag of cherries from the tree outside, met some of the men that worked in the fields, and walked through all the different fields of crops: huge wheat and bean fields, then a mango grove and a bunch of henna trees. Not to mention a bunch of cows. When we’d filled up on cherries, we took our bag of collected goodies and drove off to Momo’s family’s farm.
Kelsi was sitting on a wooden platform with Momo and his whole family. There were a bunch of older women there and about 6 or 7 kids. One of the men had lit a brush fire and was cooking up some lentils from the fields. Kelsi and I played with a screaming baby on the ground, pulling weird faces at her until she calmed down. The women just sat against the house and laughed at us. No one spoke English, but calming down a crying baby is a universal dilemma: they understood. Eventually one of the older ladies came by and dropped a bunch of blackened lentils on the bamboo mat next to me. We all ate the food together as a big group, watching the kids’ faces turn black as they smeared the charcoal from the beans onto their cheeks by accident.
When snack time was over we fed the fish in Momo’s watering hole with a couple of the smaller kids.
“Would you girls like to stay for dinner?” He asked. “We can make pasta or anything you’d like!”
We were flattered, but exhausted. We had been out in the scorching sun most of the day and still had a night train to catch that evening.
“I think we should head back to the hotel for dinner. We still have some things to organize before we leave”
“Okay, no problem.” They looked disappointed, but it was too exhausting for us. So the boys drove us the last 20km or so back to Khajuraho.
“Okay, when dinner is over, do you want to get chai? Or maybe some Indian wine? Or we can hang out by the lake?” The boys asked us as they dropped us off. They genuinely just liked to hang out with us I think. After all, we had had a pretty fun day!
“We were going to check out the carnival after dinner” we said.
“Perfect! See you at 8 then, we will all go together”
We laughed. Okay, why not.
The carnival was only in town for a few days. It was a shanti town of tents, food markets, clothing and trinket stalls along with the usual carnival rides. When we were at lunch the day before we spotted the giant ferris wheel.
“Holy crap, do you see how fast that thing is going?” Kelsi said to me.
I looked up. There was a massive, sketchy-as-hell looking ferris wheel that was spinning about 5 times faster than I’ve ever seen a ferris wheel go.
“That’s it. New mission. Ride the sketchy ferris wheel!” I said.
So that’s what we did.
The boys were back as promised at 8:00 and we all walked the few minutes to the fair. The place was nuts! Not a single tourist was in sight, but local kids and adults alike swarmed the area.
Momo went to buy tickets for the ferris wheel so we wouldn’t be ripped off with the price. He and Momo got on first, while Kelsi and I waited for the next round in line.
The thing was terrifying looking. All the bolts were rusted, the belt that turned the ride was violently shaking it was moving so fast, and the carts were disastrous. When we finally got on we got a closer look. The floor had completely rusted through and you could see through holes in the bottom. The bolts holding the cart up were reddish brown from year and years of wear. Yup, this thing would NOT meet the safety regulations of Canada.
“Oh my god, we’re going to die” we said.
I’m sure the ride was only a few minutes long, but I felt like we were on there for an eternity. We screamed bloody murder every time we flew over the top and back down. My stomach was in my throat one second, then on the floor the next. There was a massive crowd lined up along side the ride. We thought at first that it was just a popular ride, then we realized everyone was there to watch the two whitey’s ride the ferris wheel. They took photos and laughed at our fear, pointing, smiling and waving at us each time we flew by at warp speed. What a way to end the day!
We stumbled off the ride in a giggling fit. Yup, that was fun! Which one next?
We decided to cool off and escape the prying eyes of the crowd by walking around the fair grounds. It was similar to other carnivals, but with more shops than games. Lots of places to buy saris or bangles, or toys. When we had done a full circuit of the grounds we met Anye.
Anye was a deaf and mute young guy from Baia and Momo’s village. He was probably one of the nicest people we’d met as well. He had seen us on the ferris wheel and wanted to go on another ride with Kelsi and I. Anye spoke to us in his own, made up sign language and we tried our best to understand what he meant. Turns out he just wanted to have a good time at the fair, so we went on the scrambler as our next attraction.
We spun around so fast both Kelsi and I nearly lost our sunglasses. Two extremely rude boys sat in the cart next to us and mocked Anye for being deaf and mute. Then they tried to hit on Kelsi and I. We were livid. We ignored them and signed to Anye instead, giving him high five’s every time our carts flew by each other. When the ride was over we glared at the two boys before we walked off, dragging Anye by the hand as we went. They looked stunned.
After that we decided we were finished with the fair. We sat by the lake with Momo and Baia for the last half hour of the day before finally heading to the train station.
It was refreshing meeting some locals who finally weren’t ripping us off. They never asked for any money from us, but we gave them some money for gas anyways. I told them I’d do the same for any of my friends at home. Sometimes you just have to go with your your gut and trust the people you meet. I can’t say I’d feel the same with many people I’ve met here, but Baia and Momo turned out to be pretty stand up guys.
We felt a little better about India as we hopped on the train and headed to Varanasi.

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