Blog #12 - Can we have a Chaat? I'm feeling a bit Barfi!

Well we made it!  After 22 days on our own in India with no major issues or permanent trauma we made it back to Delhi and met up with our good friends Ritu, Jay and their two boys Soheil and Akul.

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In total contrast to how we’d been traveling, from this point forward we were going to taken care of in 4-star style inside the wonderful framework of a set vacation.  We met them in Delhi just a day after we left Varanasi, and we still had images of chalked naked men burning in our brains.  It was wonderful to see their familiar faces in the hotel lobby in Delhi.  From that point forward we’d have friends with us who speak the language who could take on locals who cut in line, or insist on taking photos with ‘the blonde’… thanks Ritu for being Steph’s bodyguard!

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Starting from Delhi all six of us were set to go on a five-day “golden triangle tour” of Agra and Jaipur where we’d be chauffeured around in a fantastic white minibus with beautiful fake hardwood floors.  It was heaven.  This would be followed by several nights in Jay’s and Ritu’s ancestral town in Punjab.

Important for us, this would be the first time we took a road trip with children (Ages 8 & 10): a very good test of parenthood for us, no?  Now, do you think we passed?  We think we did, but truth be told we were more like an aunt and uncle on the trip so it was an easy test to pass.  Also, Soheil and Akul are both very well behaved boys, and quite the interesting conversationalists.  Overall it was a ball of joy.  The kids were so much fun and many immature laughs were had.  Mainly by Steph, of course: she will never grow up!

On the first day we toured Old Delhi and ate like people were chasing us.  Food was everywhere and certainly the theme of the next eight days.  We ate with reckless abandon as we were now traveling with a former local (Jay, also a chef).  Jay knew exactly what to order, and from where.  And so we tried everything. 

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Just counting the desserts alone we had Jalebi (like a syrupy funnel cake – see photo), Gulab Jamun (think of a heavy TimBit soaking in syrup), Ras Malai (so very hard to explain well: texture is that of a thin kitchen sponge and it has a flavor of sweet milk), and lastly Barfi (not what you think) and Chaat (Golgappe, technically…and super-nasty (I mean, it’s an acquired taste…)).  It was all very yummy, as well as very fattening.  The only ‘gastro’ issue we had the whole time was from some tainted ice cubes we believe a certain restaurant served us.  It knocked out half of us but mostly Vince who became very close friends with every loo around the golden triangle.

On day two we headed to Agra to see the magical Taj Mahal.  Chalk up another landmark destination for us on this crazy world tour!  It was wonderful, so beautiful and big, and pristine, and most definitely the highlight of our trip to India.  We just loved it, as did the Parhars.

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Day three we ventured to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, and explored its labyrinth palaces, and took both an elephant ride, and a camel ride.  At dinner we watched Rajasthani traditional dancing while we ate.  What a treat!  We even had some time to get our shop on, well only Steph and Ritu did, and as a result everyone got a new set of genie pants.

After two nights in Jaipur and a total of five on the road it was time to wrap up the golden triangle and head back to Delhi for our train to Punjab.  We were booked on the famous ‘superfast’ Shatabadi Express, that would have us arriving in Punjab around 11 p.m.  Neither of us have ever been served this much food on any kind of vehicle before.   And between the main course and dessert, someone went up and down the aisle with bananas.  It was a long day of travel, and was tough on the boys, but after twelve hours of recuperative sleep at Jay’s parents house in their village outside of Jalandhar, we woke up with water buffalos, goats and stray dogs all around.  We think we may have been the first westerners ever to stay in this village.

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It was a very restful three days, and a great experience to be folded into small village life, and see, up close, how it operates and lives.  Many Canadians of Indian descent are from Punjab and our stay with Ritu and Jay allowed us a privileged look into their history and motherland.  We spent the three days visiting relatives, learning their homemade recipes (yum!), eating our faces off (of course), setting off fireworks (local pastime), and touring (principally we went to see the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar). Our driver, Sona was amazing and a ton of fun with his crazy Bungra tunes, and fast driving.   

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It was a wonderful time, and we felt privileged to be welcomed by Jay's folks and Ritu's relatives over the duration of our stay.  These are memories we will cherish for years.

We returned to Delhi by overnight train from Jalandhar, and boarded a flight later that day back to Thailand.  Our plan is to sit on a beach and ‘detox’ from India until April 5, before we head toward Australia and New Zealand.  We are going to take a break from everything for the next two weeks.  To keep you amused in the meantime, we have put together a list we like to call "Vince & Steph's India Reflections".

Now we hope we don’t sound too “complainy” about India.  Just a week after leaving our memories have already begun to soften and we’re just laughing at all of the below.

India can be simultaneously wonderful and horrible, and there is simply no place like it.   Listen!  If you can travel to India, you can travel anywhere.

#1 – Staring – Steph is a total circus attraction in India.  If people aren’t asking for a photo, they are staring at her.  The Indian stare, delivered from either a man or woman, is a true examination.  They are curious and want to know more, without asking.  And it doesn’t matter if you stare back.  For fun, one day we put a camera on Steph’s shoulder during a minute rickshaw in traffic and we captured the following photos.  See how many eyeballs you can count!  ;)

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#2 – Language - the good news is almost all Indians speak English.  The bad news is Indians don’t really speak English the way you do.  There is an entire book on this phenomenon titled “Speaking of India”, which goes into detail.  For example, a simple “yes” from an Indian doesn’t really mean what you think it does – many Indians say yes when most other English speakers would say “sure”, “uh-huh”, or “OK”.  It just means they heard you – it doesn’t really mean “yes”!  On more than one occasion Vince threw up his hands and declared that this country would be easier to travel if nobody spoke English – that way it would be impossible to be misled!

#3 – Signs – a “hotel” is often just a restaurant.  Roadside restaurants looking to increase their profile just call themselves hotels.  There are no rooms and you wouldn’t want to stay in them even if there was.

#4 – Amenities – will often disappoint.  Swimming pools won’t be chlorinated (i.e. will feel like slimy lakewater); gyms will be closed; TVs will broadcast the static channel; and WiFi, if offered, will be in the lobby only and may or may not actually even work.  You learn not to take anything for granted.

#5 – Spitting – all men and some women seem to think that the ground is their own personal hanky for letting go of a multitutude of different bodily fluids, anywhere, anytime and no matter who is around.  They ceremoniously hork and make noises to inform you of this action before they do it (at least there is a warning) and then they lauch as far as they can.  We wonder why it took us so long to discern that the red marks all over the road pavement are the offings of Paan, which is basically Indian chewing tobacco, but flavoured (sometimes like roses…).  Yummy!

 #6 – Public Urination – related to #5, above.  When you gotta go, you gotta go right?  Well in India, for men at least, anywhere you won’t be hit by a car can serve as a urinal.  On a related note, most roadside restaurants don’t have bathrooms.

 #7 – Cutting line – we’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating.  It does not matter how long you have been waiting, of if you’re actually talking to the person on the other side of the counter, desk, or other paperwork-barrier.  Persons arriving after you will almost always jump in and take over with the clerk without regard to your presence.  And if you blink, they will cut and they will get in front of you.  Steph tried (or maybe she is at the end of her rope) to teach folks some manners about how to queue.  It didn't work.  But it was fun to watch them squirm when confronted/corrected. 

Hey, did you hear the one about the Indian guy who took the train to his anger management class?  He never made it.  :)