Tag Archives: travel india

The Unfortunate Journey To The Magnificent Taj Mahal

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The Taj Mahal.

An enduringly beautiful, magnificent, and majestic monument that symbolizes India. One of the seven new wonders of the world. Millions flock there every year to see it and there are millions around the world who dream to visit.

But not this guy. I don’t want to see it.

However, I should only see it because I feel like I HAVE to. Otherwise, I would just skip it because who knows if I’ll ever return to dear old India.

The internationally famous Taj Mahal is located in Agra, a city located between Delhi and my current location of Varanasi. I planned on Delhi being my final stop in India before I move onto Nepal, so I figured I would travel to Agra as it’s already on the way. My method of transportation would be via the Indian Railway which I hoped would be my last Indian train for the rest of my life. I’ve done three of them already to get a genuine Indian experience.

Three too many.

The first one was delayed three hours and lasted about 15 hours total. It was an uncomfortable experience, but not as rough as I initially assumed.

The second train was delayed only an hour and lasted about 12 hours total. I slept most of the time and woke up to an almost empty cabin which was absolutely glorious.

The third train was a local train which costed only 10 rupees but I was practically almost squished to death. I was able to find the humor in being stuck in that claustrophobic nightmare.

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Let’s do one more train for the road. It’s the cheapest alternative. (Sometimes I wonder why I put myself in these harrowing situations. I could freely choose to go anywhere in the world, like relaxing on the beaches somewhere in the Caribbean, but instead I choose to ride dingy, poop-filled Indian trains.)

While in Varanasi, I booked a train to Agra which was scheduled to depart at 4:00pm the following day. I’ve noticed every traveller who left Varanasi before me, stayed at the hostel a couple of hours longer because their trains were always and expectedly delayed. There was a website to check the train status, which proved to be convenient instead of waiting around at the actual station to find your train to be delayed.

Well, I checked the start of my train and it showed to be delayed by four hours. Alright, no big deal, we’ll just chill in one of the common rooms of the hostel until then. I wasn’t the only one waiting. Another traveler by the name of Jean (Argentina) was ticketed on the same train as me, also on his way to Agra. I let him know about our delay and so we chilled in the hostel. He made me a veggie sandwich as we waited. What a nice guy. In the mean time I also booked a cheap hostel in Agra, so that way I’d already have my accommodation sorted.

I continuously checked the Indian Railway website throughout the evening to check the status.

Delayed another three hours.

Delayed another two hours.

Our train was delayed from 4pm to 1am the next morning!

Our hostel was kind enough to let us wait inside until midnight, but since we didn’t pay for another night, we had to wait the remaining hour in the outside lobby where it was flippin’ cold.

I nestled onto a bench and tried to keep warm while Jean was covered from head to toe near the front desk. We both decided it would at least be warmer at the train station, so we found a random rickshaw in the middle of the night and were escorted to the train station in Varanasi.

When we arrived, we saw that our train was delayed ANOTHER hour. What the heck man?! I’ve heard the trains in India were notorious for being delayed but I’ve been relatively lucky with the past three…I guess my luck ran out this time. We found a room where other gringos were hanging out to keep warm and so we found a place to sit and wait it out.

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Periodically, Jean and I would take turns to go down to the main floor to check the status of our train.

Delayed two more hours.

Our train that was supposed to leave at 6pm yesterday was now leaving at 4am in the morning.

Afraid to fall asleep in fear of missing my train, I stayed up the entire time. Nearing 4am, there were no other updates, so Jean and I gathered our bags and headed to platform 9 as indicated on our tickets. Our train finally arrived a bit after 5am, but on platform 8. Finally.

This train would only take about 13 hours so we should be there around midday.

I didn’t realize how wrong I was at the time.

I had the lower berth which meant less privacy, but whatever, I was just glad to finally be on the train. It was the middle of the night, so I immediately made myself as comfortable as possible. A family entered my cabin, a grandma, a dad, a mom and their two boys, loud as can be, talking to each other as if there was no one else in the train at all. It took them forever and a day to finally settle in the berths near me. I would have slept, but an onslaught of the most monstrous collections of snores I’ve ever heard happened in my cabin. This will be over soon Daniel.

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Daylight came and people were already up. I woke up to find one of the kids chilling between my legs. Yeah just make yourself comfortable there, kid.

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I opened my water bottle to take a sip and felt the old woman across from me staring. She pulled out a giant empty plastic bottle and motioned it toward me, indicating that she wanted some of my water. I gave her about half my bottle. I needed to ration the rest of my water. I got up to attempt to use the toilet and found this.

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I think they expect me to stand on those two metal islands and attempt possible splash back. All while a piece of poop is already floating in there? Yeah, naw.

The other two toilets had shit all over it too and what was funny was that even the locals on the train refused to use them.

I went back to my lower berth. I was getting hungry but I wasn’t brave enough to get off the train and quickly get food when it made a stop at a station. So I just laid there hungry, dreaming of the day when I can ever eat a giant juicy Big Mac again. I looked down below and saw a rat run along the side of the cabin down below to where my big bag was stored. I didn’t budge. I was not surprised. Go ahead and make yourself cozy in my bag, rat…I don’t care.

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The train made numerous stops in the most random of places. As a matter of fact, due to the crazy fog that was happening, we stopped for hours at a time…waiting…waiting…frustratingly wishing I could just teleport outta there. The family in my area turned my cabin into their own personal living space with their feet bare sticking out hanging all in my face and everything. 

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Did I mention I’m not a fan of feet?

Periodically I would get up and check on Jean who was two cabins over and every time I checked on him, he was dead asleep on his semi-private upper berth. I previously told him that I would let him know when we arrived in Agra, since he had no way of knowing. Before we departed I downloaded a map of our route and was able to use the GPS to track our journey. Whenever I checked, the progress the train made was minimal. The journey already surpassed the estimated time, thanks to the thick fog that took over northeast India.

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After 24 of the longest hours of my life, our train finally arrived in Agra, at 3am in the next morning. Jean, along with another foreign traveler on the train we met named Jiwan (Korea) didn’t have a place booked yet, and so decided to come with me to the hostel that I booked prior. We caught a rickshaw towards my hostel in the thickness of the fog. Barely any other life was present in the middle of the chilly night. We found my hostel in the alleyways and walked inside. Like I imagined, no one was present at first. It was 3am in the morning after all. But like every other hostel in Asia, there is always a guy who “lives there” sleeping behind the desk, in the office, or something along those lines. Low and behold, a sleepy man popped out and I informed him that I had a reservation. Granted, I was half a day late, but still I was hopeful.

“Why did you come so late?” he asked with a blank face.

“Our train was delayed due to fog,” I responded. “There was no way I could contact you.”

“Sorry, we have no beds.”

“But, what about my reservation?”

I proceeded to show him the e-mail confirmation from my phone. He went over it and handed the phone back to me and simply repeated, “We have no beds.”

“So you gave away my reservation?” I said, annoyed as heck.

To be fair, I did rock up extremely late, but seeing how trains in India are always late, I figured there would be some leeway as to when their guests arrived.

I was visibly irked and let him know how it’s not good business to just give away a reservation, especially after I reserved with a credit card. That train took up most of my patience I suppose.

I was irritated and left the hostel back onto the fogged up main streets with Jean and Jiwan following suit.

“What do we do now?” asked Jiwan.

We were alone in the middle of the road. The street lamps created a mysterious haze in the fog. It felt unnatural, especially given it was the middle of the night and I was hungry, thirsty, and tired. Not to mention, I felt grosser than shit from being trapped on that train for 24 hours.

“We look for another place,” I told them. “Fortunately, there are a lot of other places to stay nearby. We just gotta walk to some and find one that will take us.”

Poor Jiwan. He was a nervous nelly. One thing I learned through years of traveling, is that everything is gonna be alright. Freaking out will only escalate things.

We found some places nearby and one of the hostels, Zostel, we recognized because it is a chain in India. We entered the gates and a sleeping man let us in. He informed us that the only space he had was a private double bed room, enough for two people.

“Can we squeeze three people?” I asked.

“Yes, its possible.”

The good news? We finally had a room to sleep in and were able to split the cost of the room three ways. The downside? I had to share a bed with two strangers I literally just met.

How did I end up here?

The next morning, we had breakfast at the hostel and decided to walk to the famous Taj Mahal, which according to Google Maps, was only a 30 minute walk away. But first, we needed to get to an ATM, which proved troublesome.

There is a cash crisis here in the whole country of India (as of early January 2017). There has been a surge of counterfeit 500 and 1000 rupee notes recently, so the Indian government discontinued them and banned any use of those particular notes. The only denomination any ATM would give out were 2000 rupee notes which were equivalent to roughly $30 USD, which is way too much to pay for the daily necessities such as food and transportation. Making change is hard to come by and many shops and restaurants will deny usage of the 2000 rupee note, simply because they don’t have change. Besides that, most ATM’s are always completely wiped out of cash or not in service. It was a huge hassle during the entirety of my Indian trip so far and it’s only gotten worse the further north I got. Here in Agra, it was also a pain.

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We learned the price of admission into the Taj Mahal was 40 rupees…if you were a local. For tourists like me, the jump increased to 1000 rupees. What a jip! Another salt in the wound in the series of unfortunate events leading up to the Taj. But unless I was Indian, or at least looked like one, there was no other way around it.

I handed over my 1000 rupees, feeling like I was getting suckered. And I was. I understood there was a local and tourist price but the difference in value to see the Taj Mahal is a prime example of how countries like India assume that all tourists are rich and it’s not a problem for us to be taken advantage of. Listen India, I saved up for quite a while and spent a boatload just to get over here. I am not made of money!

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Jean, Jiwan, and I continued on inside the Taj Mahal gates and yes, the Taj Mahal was magnificent to look at and just as big as I imagined. We went during the crowded hours of the day, so there were other suckers just like me everywhere. Jean and Jiwan were in good spirits, so we had an amusing time goofing off and exploring. Finally, we were here.

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What an ordeal.

Was it all worth it? Eh…I’m undecided, as I was never too gun ho about seeing the Taj in the first place. That train sucked. That hostel that gave away my reservation sucked. But, I was glad to finally get the Taj Mahal out of the way. It was similar to how I felt about the Eiffel Tower in France. I felt like I HAD to see it.

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Now that I did, I can move onto the less touristy things in the world. Onwards to adventure! Though one can say that the journey getting to the magnificent Taj was an adventure in itself.

P.S. – The inside of the Taj Mahal absolutely sucked. There was nothing, and I mean nothing inside there. Just a crowded line of eager patrons that went in one direction and came out ten minutes later disappointed by the time they just wasted. I would show you the inside but no pictures were allowed to be taken, probably because the people who ran the place doesn’t want the world to know how lackluster it is inside the Taj Mahal.

 

Daniel Adventure Born and the River of Death

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Manish told us he had a friend who could take us on a boat up the River Ganges to see the body burning rituals and the Evening Ganga Aarti ritual performed nightly here in Varanasi, also known as the spiritual capital and the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism.

Also, probably one of the most obscure places I’ve been in a long while.

Body burning? Yes, that’s right. Varanasi is famous in India for Indians to make their pilgrimage to burn their loved ones and brush their ashes in the River Ganges. They come all the way here because they believe that death in Varanasi will bring salvation to their recently deceased loved ones. The body burnings are public and numerous. But only the men are burned to cleanse them of any impurities. Pregnant women and children are usually salvaged and instead their corpses are usually thrown into the river.

I met Manish, along with a few other backpackers while staying at Stops Hostel in Varanasi. I was recommended to go there from a scruffy Australian backpacker I met in Mumbai after deciding where to go next. It looks like India really wore him down, but he was still packed with tons of info.

“I want to go somewhere cool for New Year’s,” I said to the scruffy backpacker. “Not the party scene of Goa.”

“Definitely check out Varanasi then,” he proclaimed and began to describe his experience.

I looked it up and it seemed interesting enough. I’ll go there.

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I’ve done three trains already and decided to save the hassle and fly over from Mumbai to Varanasi this time. The flight was a short hour and ten minutes. The traffic getting to Stops Hostel from the airport was horrendous and fume inducing. I’ve been noticing that the further north in India I get, the more hectic it seems.


I entered Varanasi under a gloomy fog that never went away. But thankfully, the travelers I met at the hostel lifted spirits. They were a neat assortment of individuals from all sorts of places coming through India from all different directions. My 14-bed dorm was spacious and easy to settle in. Surprisingly, I had a bit of privacy in my little corner of the room.

One of the traveller’s staying at the hostel was Manish, an Indian man from Delhi who came down to Varanasi for a holiday, who resembled a modern-day Ghandi. He had the completely bald head, long goatee, and perfectly round glasses and kept a ‘shaman’ demeanor about himself. After going over some chai tea the hostel served to us daily, Manish invited three of us along with him down on a boat through the Ganges, just before New Year’s Eve. It’s easy to get a boat down the river but I thought it would be neat to go with Manish and his friend to get more of an unfiltered experience.

The fog hasn’t cleared, so we bundled up and set off to the Ganges which was only a short tuk-tuk ride east from where we were.

The riverfront was depressing as all heck.

 

As holy as this city was supposed to be, nothing about it felt “holy”. It felt more like the gateway to freakin’ Hades than an actual spiritual site. Hundreds of people, trudging along, with the most unhappiest faces ever as they walked by. I guess it didn’t help that they probably just burned their loved ones to a crisp. I’d see people carrying dead bodies wrapped in sheets and covered with typical Indian floral down from the alleys toward the burning stacks of wood near the river. Trash was littered everywhere and beat up dogs roamed the ghats. It was a sight to behold. The dim fog and nippy weather just added to the gloominess of it all.


We found Manish’s friend on a small wooden rowboat near one of the ghats. He spoke zero English, so Manish served as our middle man. The four of us got on his boat and almost immediately he took off.

If I were to rename this river, I would call it misery, because that’s the vibe I got from it. The overcast was a dull brown. BROWN! Not like an appetizing chocolatey brown, but more like a “death is near ” brown. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place that reeked of gloom more than here on the River Ganges. Most of it had to be due to the weather because the images on Google didn’t look like this. This was like an Indian version of The Mist.

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His wooden boat was just one among hundreds of small boats going up and down the motionless river. We were able to get close to one of the burning bodies as we glided closer. Photography is forbidden, but the rower gave us brief permission at that moment. The body, one of dozens burned daily, burning down to ashes which would take nearly three hours to do so.

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The water appeared numbing, but still I stuck my hand in it to feel for myself. It was surprisingly warm to the touch. Warm enough for locals to bathe in the corpse-filled river because of it’s holy properties. It’s believed than anyone who does so will be rinsed of sins and blessed.

I don’t know man… I saw a bunch of headless goats, dogs, and human limbs floating in there, not to mention garbage. It was anything but heavenly.

Some minutes later, night began to fall and the Varanasi river front began to dazzle with lights and colorful works of art that were hidden during the day.

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Boats of all shapes and sizes, filled with locals and tourists alike, began to congregate near Dashashwamedh, one of the many ghats of the river front. This area is where the Evening Ganga Aarti was held. Our guy rowed closer to where ritual site and tethered our boat to a few others lined up against the docks. There were five individuals, all priests at this particular ghat, holding a variety of candles, performing movements and chants in a rhythmic fashion as the crowd and devotees on land and the ones on the river watched as they performed a commitment to their Lord Shiva.

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I jumped across neighboring boats to get on land, closer to where the action was.

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We stuck around for a bit before the ceremony ended. We released our boat and headed back down stream. We were greeted by another headless corpse of a goat floating next to us. What’s with all these headless goats?

That whole experience was…weird.

I felt as if I were in some purgatory, trying to figure out life or something. Also, one of the most bizarre places I ever spent New Years.

I closed out the New Year with the rest of the traveler’s back at Stops. Drinking isn’t a big thing here and neither is partying, two essentials that are almost a necessity for ringing in the New Year. However, different and unique is exactly what I wanted this time around. I got to spend it with a bunch of brave individuals who didn’t mind being away from family and friends and I also got to see a bunch of dead stuff to boot!

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2017 and Beyond

2017 will mark the first time in my travels that I won’t step foot back on US soil for the year’s entirety. At least, that’s the plan unless something unforeseen happens. 2017 will likely see The Quest to the Seven Continents take me deeper into Asia, further into Europe and down into Africa.

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But my plans are absolutely flexible and loose, so things may change. Especially given as how unpredictable this quest has been, particularly here in India so far.

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How I Spent My Christmas Completely Lost In The Mountains

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As much as I love Christmas, I felt a lot of pressure about where to spend my holidays while in India. I wanted to be somewhere cool and special for it, but I had no clue where. I found Mumbai not to be too celebratory in those regards.

I’ll just chill at the hostel and let something fall into my lap.

Thus entered Navneeth, who delivered an unexpected adventure right onto my lap!

Navneeth is an Indian on travel in Mumbai from Hyderabad. I saw him over a couple of days at the hostel, but never spoke to him until the 22 of December, just two days before Christmas Eve. We made general, friendly chit-chat. Then he popped the question.

“Would you like to go on a hike with me and a friend over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?” he asked.

“Where at?” I asked.

“A place called Fort Torne, just outside of Mumbai.”

Never heard of it. I already had my laptop open and google image searched Fort Torne. The photos were amazing!

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My answer to him was a definite “heck yeah!”

“But I don’t have any gear…” I began to tell him. “I have a pair of hiking shoes, but no camping equipment.”

“My friend who lives near there will have extra stuff for you,” he said.

Perfect.

The plan was to bus it over to Pune, just three hours east of Mumbai during the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Then, his friend will meet us there and drive us over to the start of the Fort Torne trail. From there, we will hike in the evening to the summit and spend the night under the open stars and wake up on Christmas Day to one of the best sunrises one could ever witness.

The only issue I had was my rumbly tummy. The food in India has been great but I’ve been having to run to go number #2 a lot more than usual lately. As soon as my stomach unexpectedly began to grumble, I literally had two minutes to find somewhere to “drop the kids off” otherwise I’d soil my pants. Luckily, the bus ride to Pune was rumble free.

We arrived in Pune much later than planned. Navneeth was busy running errands before our bus trip which delayed us by a few hours.

“We just have to wait for my friend to meet us,” Navneeth said.

Good, because my stomach began to rumble again. I needed to find somewhere quick but there was no toilet in sight! It was night-time, so I snuck in someone’s backyard and popped a squat under the cover of darkness. Whoever wakes up and comes in this yard tomorrow is gonna find a very unwelcoming surprise. I had to do what I had to do. Besides, there is shit all over the place in India from all the stray dogs and cows anyway.

When I walked back to find Navneeth, he was already joined by his friend.

“Hi!” I said to him. “I’m Daniel.”

“Hello, I’m Bop-It,” he said.

Like…Bop-It?

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“No!” he laughed. “Bapat.”

Bapat indicated that we had a problem. Since we arrived later than planned, he warned us that it was too dangerous to hike at this hour (Midnight) because of leopards.

“Leopards!” I said in somewhat disbelief. “Really, leopards??”

He wasn’t kidding. The highest concentration of wild leopards in the world are right here, just outside of Mumbai.

“We’ll have to sleep a couple of hours in the temples at the bottom of the mountain and then start the trek at 3am,” he said to us. “Just to be safe.”

Leopards? Temples? This sounds like something straight outta Indiana Jones  🙂

He wasn’t kidding about the temple part either. Down at the base of the mountain was a community of temples and shrines we could dwell in. They weren’t exactly made for sleeping but it provided the cover we needed I suppose. Bapat pulled out a few thin mats and laid them on the floor of a small and suitable temple we found. He then opened up a few thin blankets for us to use. Thankfully I brought my travel pillow. We set our alarms for 3am and tried to get some shut-eye.


But it was just too cold.

I barely got a wink as I shivered in my cocoon of shirts and jacket layers. Navneeth barely got any sleep either. 3am came faster than we wanted, but not before a group of ten other trekkers came and disturbed us.

Ten local Indian men, all suited and ready for a hike found us sleeping, woke us up, and suggested we hike with them. Larger numbers means lesser chances of leopards mistaking us for food. Plus, at least one of them had to know the correct way up.

We gathered our belongings and followed the group of ten out of the temple grounds into the foot of the mountain. A stray dog found us and began to follow our pack. It was completely dark but we all had torches at our disposal. Bapat, who’s been to this mountain years before looked confused.

“I don’t think this is the way,” he said. “None of this looks familiar.”

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Our group of thirteen scattered about for a bit trying to find the correct path, but with no success. It seemed like each guy found what they thought was the correct route, but no one could agree on which. Navneeth and I stuck with Bapat.

“Let’s go this way,” he said to us.

We split from the confused group of ten and separated ourselves from them, going forth on our own as originally planned. However, the stray dog decided it was best to follow us as well.

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Bapat led us through the thick of the night along half-assed trails. I mean, they were barely trails that guided us through overgrown grass and quick jaunts of forest. Then the trail would disappear and we’d have to find another route. At least it wasn’t cold for the time being. Hiking up and down warmed me up.

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We tracked and backtracked on a consistent basis. It was pitch dark outside and we couldn’t see anything more than a few yards in front of us. We wandered for two hours going every which direction until we came to a few trapped dead ends. Where the heck do we go?

Bapat was growing a bit frustrated but no one blamed him. It was way too dark and there was no visible path. The dog continued to follow us without hesitation.

We stumbled upon what appeared to be a small farm, kept by one tiny home just on the forefront. Bapat paused and we decided it’s best we find a place to rest and wait for some daylight, otherwise we’d continue to wander around aimlessly in the dark. We found some hay and soft dirt scattered on the ground just outside the tiny home. We fell on top of it and tried to get comfortable. We stuck together, in the rare chance a leopard did appear. This was gonna be a cold night.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Suddenly my tummy went rumbly. Not right now!

I didn’t make aware of my situation to Navneeth and Bapat but instead, I grabbed the toilet paper out of my bag and casually excused myself for a bit. I walked among the farm field to a log I found where I could pop a squat. To say it was the creepiest poop of my life would be an understatement. My mind went crazy and heard crunching leaves and weird noises as I was doing my business. This would be the perfect opportunity for a leopard to come get me. I quickly buried my toilet paper and went back to the others to fall asleep.

Not much longer after, we heard footsteps nearby.

Was it that group of ten? No, the footsteps we were hearing was the work of one being.

Was it our dog? No, he was right here huddled beside my right leg, loyal as ever.

It turned out to be a very old lady, who spoke a language only Bapat could understand. I couldn’t comprehend what they were saying to each other, but it was in a tone of the utmost formality. I noticed Bapat occasionally referring to her as “maushi”, whatever that meant. The elderly woman would often point to a pile of rubble out in the middle of her crops as she spoke to Bapat. Then she disappeared back into her home.

Bapat told us that in that rubble, underneath the tarp was a pile of old wool and blankets we can rest on until daylight. Then in the morning, Maushi would point us in the direction to the summit of Fort Torne. It’s too risky to continue during the night. We were way off path.

We pulled the tarp off the pile of wool and blankets and plopped down onto its softness. Yes, this was perfect and a lot more comfortable than the temples down below. Maushi came back out to us with a few blankets she brought from inside her home to help keep us warm through the chilly night. We set our alarms for 7am.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

It’s Christmas morning and I’m lost in the mountains, sleeping outside on a pile of wool and hay, on some elderly woman’s farm, with a couple of random Indians I barely know along with a stray dog who won’t leave my side.

I couldn’t imagine myself being anywhere nearly as interesting at that moment.

The sun began to show itself, but the three of us were too lazy to budge. We’ve been trekking all night. We awoke, covered in random debris of straw, dirt, and dead leaves.

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Maushi was already wide awake, working on clearing some dried bush near crops just down below us. She pointed Bapat in the direction we should be going. Thank you Maushi for your kindness.

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At this point we realized we wouldn’t make it to the summit of Fort Torne in time. Navneeth had a flight to catch later in the day to Hyderabad. Bapat estimated we only had a couple of hours of trekking before we had to turn around, in order to catch the bus back in time for Navneeth’s scheduled flight. So we proceeded to ascend as much as we could, as time allotted.

Fort Torne Trek

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Although we weren’t near the summit, the views surrounding us were absolutely stunning! The early sun cast a gradient of pinks, oranges, and blues in the distance, showcasing the perfect backdrop to the valley of mountains that circled us.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

The creepy hike at night turned into a delight during the day. Sunil Wakde followed us along playfully. Who is Sunil Wakde? It’s the name Navneeth and Bapat decided to give the dog who remained loyal to us. I’m not sure where they got that name from but whatever. He must be really hungry and thirsty.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

We ventured upwards for about an hour and spotted a motorbike just beyond the tall grass.

“What is that?”

A few more parked motorbikes popped up on a perfectly paved road. Turns out this is the road that we began on last night but went on an alternate route because it wasn’t familiar to the others. Why wasn’t it familiar? Because this road was newly paved just recently. Before, one had to hike their way all the way up to the top but now with this new road, two-thirds of the hike can be driven up to.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

We laughed at our mistake. Our alternate course turned out to be interesting at the least. Still, we continued up, hiking to around 11:30am. We came to a halt and decided we should turn around, in order not to get to the base too late. On the way down, just a few meters below, were a mother and daughter who lived on Torne, in what appeared to be the most beat-up lemonade stand in the universe.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

“We gotta try some,” Navneeth said.

“What is it?” I asked. “Lemonade?”

“It’s Limbu Paani.”

The woman poured some water out of her tin canister into a bowl and added what looked to be a squeeze of lemon and some sugar, and poured the contents into three tin cups. We each took one. I watched Navneeth and Bapat chug theirs down. I held mine in my hand, unsure of whether to drink it or not. The water didn’t look boiled or anything. I didn’t know where it came from. I’ve been careful with the water since I arrived in India and this just looked suspect. The others assured me it was fine and so I took a sip.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Limbu Paani is kinda like lemonade except it’s not good. I wasn’t sure what the heck it was and my instincts told me to stop drinking it. I gave it to the others to finish it off. We continued on, but instead of the beaten path, this time we chose to go down the paved road which took as all the way down to the temples and shrines we began at the night before.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

We found an empty restaurant at the base where we decided to get some quick breakfast.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

My goal was to find food and water for Sunil Wakde, who followed us all the way up and down. There wasn’t anything around I could use as a bowl to pour water, so I snuck a cup sitting on one of the empty tables and filled it with some of my water. Sunil nearly drank half my water bottle! The others told me that I shouldn’t use the cups to feed the dogs because the dishes here aren’t washed very well.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

I figured as much already.

We walked back to the car and began our drive back to Pune, completely satisfied with our morning. Goodbye Sunil Wakde.

My stomach began to rumble again and thank goodness it was now instead of while being on the toilet-less bus!

That would have been a horrible way to cap off one of the most unorthodox, yet satisfying Christmas’ I’ve ever had.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

I Gotta Get The Heck Outta Goa!

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The sleeper class train ride up to Goa from Kochi, India was a long and “interesting” 15 hours.

I felt gross by the end of it. The Indian locals stuck their bare feet up in every nook and cranny on the ride, as if they were in the comforts of their own home. I am NOT a foot person. The toilets were the ones you had to squat and aim, like I expected, but the first toilet I found was just a bit ridiculous. I don’t know about you, but the sight of another person’s poop in the toilet I’m about to use can ruin a day.

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The train ran overnight and there was no way of telling of which stop I had to get off unless I looked out the window. Or in this case, unless I hung myself out the door so I could see the station signs because my sleeper bunk had no window. Thank goodness I downloaded an offline map of the area on my phone, which helped me navigate where I should get off. Finally, I arrived in Goa, the party capital of India.

It was early in the morning. I took a cab about an hour north to the hostel I reserved called the Red Door Hostel. There were a bunch to choose from, but this one caught my eye because of its common area, its vicinity to Anjuna Beach, and the relatively modest price. I strolled up to the hostel, to a silence broken by a couple of dogs who barked at me from within the building. I sat outside and waited. It was still too early to check-in and everyone was probably still asleep.

A backpacker who was working at the hostel came out and introduced himself and gave me the low down on the place and from the sounds of it, it seemed real chill and the place to be.

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Soon I was able to check in and was escorted to an 8-bed dorm equipped with an A/C. There I might fellow backpackers from different countries like England, Sudan, and Switzerland. Even a couple of locals from the north and south of India. All of them in the middle of their own trip and in Goa for a few days as well. As soon as I showered from the filth I endured on the train, Pamela (England) invited me to go along with her and a few other backpackers to Anjuna Beach, just a few minutes walk away.

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Ah, yes. This beach had an abundance of chairs and umbrellas. I can never truly enjoy myself unless I was laying under one of these bad boys. I ended up taking a nap while being served mojitos from the bar behind us. Much, much different from the beach I experienced in Kochi.

The vibe in Goa was definitely not what I expected from India. Yes at times the traffic was a bit crazy but nowhere near as hectic as I presumed. As a matter of fact, it was relaxing. Beachgoers everywhere came here from across the world to Goa to drink, beach, hangout, and party. I haven’t partied properly since Fiji so I was game. The neat thing about my hostel at the Red Door, there was a unity among the backpackers who stayed there. If there was a party, we all partied together. We went to the largest night club in all of India called Cubana. Ladies enter and drink for free. Dudes have to pay 1,000 rupees ( approximately $15 USD) to enter which always sucks, but here’s the kicker…everyone drinks anything they want absolutely free. OPEN BAR!

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We took advantage and stayed out until 4am in the morning. I’m not a fan of clubbing anymore, but when there’s an open bar and I’m in a different country, then let’s go!

The money I spent in Goa was mainly on food and let me tell you the food was AMAZING. Every morning when I woke up, I walked about two minutes down the road to get freshly made samosas. They costed 15 rupees (23 cents) each. I always got about four to six of them. I became a regular and the hostel dwellers would always laugh and tell me, “You always have samosas in your hand.” That’s because they’re so damn good and cheap!

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Not just the samosas though. Sometimes a few of us would splurge and when I say splurge, usually spend no more than $6 USD on some local delicacies. Thanks to Ajay, a local who stayed at the hostel, and his recommendations, I had some of the best Indian food I’ve had in my life!

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We’d all order a bunch of stuff and share everything for the most part. I never went hungry in Goa. 

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Wow Goa, you’re too kind to me. Is this even India? A few of us would always venture out into other areas of the regions including ginormous local markets…

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and famous art festivals where we got lost in a few times…

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so instead of trying to find our way, we found sketchy bars with cheap beers.

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Goa is mainly known for its vast beaches that go on for miles. We spent a lot of the time beaching it up as well. There was always a bar nearby with a server that would come and happily serve us drinks.

Strawberry milkshake? Yes, please. An ice-cold Kingfisher Beer? Give it to me.

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Even at the hostel, during the day it was cool and okay to just chill, drink, eat, and mingle with everyone else.

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I ended up extending my intended two-day stay to a week!

Then it dawned on me…

Daniel, what are you doing???

This is not what you came to India for!

I was getting too comfortable. I came to India to experience culture and to challenge myself by being as uncomfortable as possible. This was as comfortable as I’ve been on this trip so far. I enjoyed being in the presence of other travelers and everything about Goa but I had to leave.

I was tempted to stay though. Christmas and New Years were just around the corner and Goa is the place to be for both. Some of the other backpackers even tried to convince me to stay in Goa and that anywhere else would be shit.

I guess the “shit” is where I wanted to be, otherwise this challenge would be a complete fail. And so, I booked another train out of Goa for the following day, north to Mumbai, one of the largest and most populated cities in India.

Before I left, I spent some time exploring a bit more of the area and having one last Goa feast with another backpacker before I departed.

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I was happy with my decision to get the heck out, as much as I enjoyed it. This wasn’t a proper representation of India. I booked a 12 hour train to Mumbai, not knowing what I would do there and who I would meet…

and that is exactly why I came to India in the first place.

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I Don’t Want To Go To India…But Here I Go Anyway

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Alright. Here I go.

Forcing myself into India for a month.

India is probably at the very bottom of the barrel of countries I never wanted to visit.

I’ve heard it’s dirty, polluted, way over crowded, hot, sticky, smoggy, muggy, smelly…

I’ve heard the people there are always trying to con you and rip you off. That personal space is non-existent. That falling ill is inevitable. 

I’ve heard to never shake the left hand of an Indian because that’s the hand they use to wipe their butts.

I’ve heard to always buy the most expensive bottle of water because the cheaper ones have been filled with tap water and cleverly resealed.

With all these negative things I’ve heard of, then why am I going?

Simply because I need a challenge. This Quest to the Seven Continents has been way too easy so far. I want to go to a place that will test me like no other country has before and I can’t think of anywhere better for that than by spending a solid month in India. Not only that, I’ll be spending Christmas and New Years in only God knows where there. Also, I’m not allowing myself McDonald’s or any other western restaurants for that matter while I’m in the country. Only Indian food all day every day.

I truly have no idea what I’m doing there…more so than anywhere else I’ve been before on this Earth.

By visiting here I want to learn to love and appreciate the country. I doubt all those negative things I heard of are true, so it’s due time that I investigate for myself.

I will get sick. I will probably lose my mind at times. But I’m expecting it.

So let’s get this over with! How do I even begin to decide where to start my trip in India though?

The country is so huge!

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I  looked at a map of all the major international airports in India, closed my eyes, pointed my finger at a random spot on the screen and opened my eyes to find that my index finger landed near an airport called Cochin International Airport in Kochi, a region in the south of India.

Kochi it is.

The connecting flight from Bali to Kuala Lumpur was a bit bumpy. However the night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kochi was by far the scariest flight of my life! I’ve never experienced so much heavy turbulence on a single journey. The pilot explained we were in a middle of a storm and he was trying to avoid it.

Was this an omen of things to come for me in India?

Upon landing, I had to go through foreign immigration to get my visa stamp. Earlier I applied for an e-visa which grants me exactly 30 days to be in India. The process to get that e-visa was a little weird. I was asked questions that didn’t pertain to anything relevant, like “What is your religion” and “What is your father’s profession?”

Why does it freakin’ matter?

I respectively put my religion as Scientology and my father’s profession as an astronaut. Both of those are entirely incorrect and I did it for my own personal amusement. Just like I suspected, it didn’t matter and I was granted my stamp which officially allowed me into the country.

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Welcome to Kochi

Knowing that I’d be bombarded by taxi drivers wanting me to ride with them, I conveniently booked a cab from inside the airport to save the trouble. I walked outside and noticed the smog in the air, even at night. My taxi guy pulled up and in about an hour’s time, I arrived at the YMCA International Youth Hostel somewhere in the city. There was nothing ‘international’ or ‘youthful’ about this hostel. I was the only foreigner and everyone there seemed to be a lot older. I was shown my room and immediately passed out from the long day of traveling.

I went out into town early the next day. I discovered that India had Uber and that it was stupid cheap to get to the area of Kochi I wanted to go, to a region called Fort Kochi. Fort Kochi is a water-bound area in the southern part of the city involving beaches and lots of historic monuments. I’ll go there and see what’s around.

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The Uber dropped me off smack-dab in the middle of the fort. I was in the center of outdoor food stalls, craft markets, and a line of rickshaws parked on the side of the street. The smell of foul fish and trash was present. I noticed an Indian man eyeing me and he proceeded to come over. He asked me what my name was and what I was doing.

“My name is Daniel and I’m just walking around,” I said with a smile. Smiling is the single best thing you can do when walking around foreign cities. It says to everyone, “Hey I’m foreign, but friendly!”

He said his name is Ashique and that he could give me a tour around the whole fort area from his rickshaw. I wasn’t interested and was okay with exploring on my own for a bit, but he insisted that I come to him once I was finished ‘walking around’.

“Okay,” I said, with no intention on coming to him later.

The beaches in the fort was absolute garbage. Literally.

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There was trash everywhere and the smell reeked, but strangely I wasn’t fazed. I expected this and accepted that this was just how it was. People, locals and few tourists walked about, eating ice cream, running along the beach, eating at the food stalls and seemed to all be enjoying themselves. I already had enough of the beach area and decided to walk in the town, but in the hopes of evading Ashique who was persistent as heck. He must have eyes like a hawk because he spotted me from a distance and began to follow me again. Ugh.

He made small talk and I was polite about it. He then asked me to take a tour with him and he proceeded to show me a photo of all the places around he could take me to. Still with no intention on going with him, I asked him “How much?” just to see what he said.

“100 rupees,” he said to me.

“100 rupees?” I said in disbelief. “That’s it?”

“Yes, just 100 rupees and I will take you around.”

Just so you readers are aware, 100 rupees translates to about $1.50 USD. One dollar and fifty cents! Ridiculously cheap.

“You will take me to all of these places for 100 rupees?” I asked him, just to be certain.

“Yes, I will take you in my rickshaw.”

“Psshh, let’s go!”

There had to be a catch, but I figured I’d cross that bridge once I get to it.

I hopped in the back of his rickshaw as he happily climbed into the driver’s seat.

“I will show you everything my friend,” he said.

Just like he said he began to take me to all the temples, museums, and sanctuaries that were indicated on the photo he showed me.

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He then stopped in front of a market which he claimed to be one of the oldest markets in Kochi.

“Have a look inside,” he urged.

This was my first full day in India so I didn’t plan on buying anything yet, but I guess I could look around and see. I ended up coming out with a festive shirt for 500 rupees. I’m not buying anything else today.

Ashique took me immediately to another shop just around the corner.

“This shop is the biggest in Kochi,” he began to say. “Have a look inside.”

Hmm. Okay, I guess I’ll take a look. It is the biggest in Kochi after all.

Inside these shops, merchants would follow me around asking me what I was interested in and things I should buy. I remained with a firm ‘no thank you’ and exited after a few minutes. That shop had the same exact merchandise as the previous shop.

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Halfway through I realized I was starving. I haven’t eaten anything since I arrived in India.

“Hey Ashique,” I began to ask. “Is there any place you can take me to nearby that has good Indian food?”

“Yes I know,” he said.

Three minutes later, he pulled up to a place called ‘B’ For Biriyani.

I didn’t know what biriyani was but I ordered the chicken version of it. Mighty tasty and mighty cheap!

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In addition to a few more historic areas of interests, Ashique proceeded to take me to yet another market but instead this one was a spice market where I was greeted with a cup of ginger tea that costed five rupees (around seven cents).

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The woman inside was persistent to me in buying something but again, I remained a firm ‘no thank you’.

I met up back with Ashique who was waiting outside.

“Hey Ashique,” I began to tell him from the back of the rickshaw. “I don’t need to go to anymore markets.”

He was silent for a moment.

“Okay, but can you help me?” he asked.

“With what?”

“If I take you to a few more shops, then I will receive a fuel ticket.”

I knew there was a catch to this cheap tour around the city. I was baited into this tour with the stipulation of visiting a handful of markets in the hopes of purchasing something, so the rickshaw driver could get a commission. His commission being a fuel ticket, which I assumed was his way of getting petrol for his rickshaw.

Hmm, he has been pretty nice. And he did follow-up on his promise and took me to plenty of places already. I figured I could help him out.

“Yeah I can help you,” I told him. “But do I have to buy anything?”

“No, I just have to show my face bringing a tourist and you only have to stay for a few minutes.”

“I can do that then.”

So off we went to four more shops. All four shops sold the same stuff. And all the merchants in the shop all claimed their goods were the “best” goods. It wasn’t difficult to say no. I’ve gotten plenty of practice in other countries. There is a way to go about it.

Be firm, but polite. I would always say, “No, thank you” with a smile. No matter how many times they pestered me after the fact, I still stuck with it. “No, thank you.” “No, thank you.” “No, I’m okay today.” “No, I am just browsing.” No, but thank you.” I must have said it about a hundred times today. I’ve met other travelers who were rude as heck. These people are just doing their jobs, as annoying as they can be – always remain firm and polite. Give in a little, then they will never leave you alone.

By the time we made it to the last shop of the day, I saw Ashique get his fuel ticket and I got my moneys worth of touring around Fort Kochi, regardless of all the shops I was dragged to, it helped him out.

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The locals I met in Kochi were quite friendly. The traffic wasn’t as horrendous as I was led to believe. But, Kochi was a bit lackluster as far as keeping me entertained, so I decided to take a train up north to Goa the following day, which would turn out to be a 15 hour overnight train ride. I went with the ridiculously cheap sleeper class train (420 rupees) as opposed to the first or second class air-conditioned cabins.

If I’m gonna experience India properly, I will ride where the locals ride.

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Getting a ticket was a pain in the ass, but I finally got one.

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It wasn’t the most comfortable train I’ve been on, but it wasn’t horrible. I actually spent most of the time hanging outside the door because the views on the way up to Goa were pretty neat.

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So far so good India.

(In case you missed any of the previous Quest posts, click here for the archive of stories since the Quest began in August.)