Donation Spending

I just want to say a huge thank you again to everyone who donated to this cause! Our organization, Refugia’l, managed to raise a total of 6,600€ for the residents, with 1,300€ of that coming directly from my friends, family, and generous acquaintances back home. An extra big thank you to the people at ECOH Inc., who together accounted for a significant portion of the funds raised. You’re all beautiful humans.  Continue reading “Donation Spending”

Meteora

We’ve been working hard, and since arriving, the school has gained 20+ volunteers, so we’re taking the weekend off. I’ve been dreaming of Meteora ever since I saw some fantastic photos a couple years ago. Probably on Instagram, if we’re being honest, but I don’t remember for sure. Continue reading “Meteora”

White Party

Yo. While I think this island is crazy and might as well belong to the UK, I’m here. So I might as well immerse myself and get into the nightlife, right?! DJ MK is playing tonight at some “white only” party (attire, not people) and Abi got us tickets. Continue reading “White Party”

Goa

Goa is a south-western area of India. It’s known for it’s tropical temperature and white sandy beaches, where lots of tourists go to party, lay in the sand, and ride motorbikes around the winding streets.

We wake up at 7:30 in order to pack our bags and get to the airport in time for our flight to Goa, which leaves at 11:30. Karam, our driver, has told us that the Jaipur airport is 2 hours away from our hotel so we decide it’s best to leave by 8:30 at the latest. We order two very exciting free breakfasts to our room, just because they’re free. The only reason I say they are exciting is because the butter for the toast comes very yellow, lumpy and half melted in it’s metal container. Delish.

We get in the car prepared for a 2 hour drive, but 20 minutes later we pass a sign that reads TO AIRPORT… and soon after that, another sign listing the gate numbers. We check with Karam who mentions he has never been to the Jaipur airport before, and doesn’t speak fluent English so I assume somewhere there was a misunderstanding about how far the airport was. We are 2 hours early for our domestic flight in a very small Indian airport so there isn’t much to do. We visit some shops and get a drink and just sit and wait. Finally it comes time to board the plane and we take a little shuttle bus 30 seconds from the airport to the plane. I have never been on a plane that you get to actually walk up too outside, only ever at big airports where the ramp thing is already connected to the building when you board. I like the quaint style of this airport much more. It’s a very small plane that we are taking, and it’s less than half full. Ilona and I sit down and get comfortable but are later asked to move seats so that there would be someone sitting by the emergency exit, just in case. We happily oblige and discover that there is much more leg room at the emergency exit too. Upgrade! (and not the kind that comes with strings attached like smelly bathrooms and icy air).
It’s listed as a 3 hour flight, but 45 minutes later they announce that we are landing and I am instantly concerned that I somehow managed to get on the wrong plane. No such luck, (that would have made for a VERY interesting blog post) there is just a stop over in another Indian city. Ilona and I are frustrated because we had booked this flight through a travel agency in Delhi, (first mistake) and not demanded to see all the details of our itinerary until the day we were leaving to go (second mistake). When we got the ticket there was next to no information, Ilona’s name was misspelled, and only my name was on the return ticket. It’s all very questionable and we try to call our travel agent but the phone number he provided does not exist. Slightly sketchy…
I am so ready to be done with this tour thing that we booked.
Anyway, we’re frustrated that we don’t know anything about the flight we’re on but the stop over isn’t long at all so we sit patiently inside the plane and wait. The second half of the trip from this stop-over Indian city (I totally forget the name and was never given an itinerary to reference) to Goa, is much more popular than the first half. The plane is probably 80% full. It’s about half way through boarding when a woman approaches us and tells us that we are in her seat. Of course, when they asked us to move they did not take into account the other portion of the trip, and neither did we…because we didn’t know it existed. We go back to our original seats and there is a very young boy casually sitting at the window. We tell him that these were our seats and he just responds with “nope it’s mine”. I am too exhausted and frustrated to care, and he’s like 10, so we let him stay and just sit in the seats next to him, forfeiting our window. What I discover 10 seconds after sitting down, is that the rest of his family is across the aisle from me. They start speaking over top of us and the kid is coughing his face off (without covering his mouth as children so often do) beside poor Ilona who is trying to recover from her previous illness. As the plane starts for take off, babies are wailing, people are coughing and hacking, and I am told I am not allowed to use Airplane mode…. On the airplane. It is such a ridiculously frustrating flight but we laugh it off. I mean literally, we laughed uncontrollably for most of the flight. Finally we do arrive in Goa and it’s gorgeous, not what I expected any part of India to ever look like. There’s palm trees and beaches and it’s a much more humid type of heat than what I have grown used to in Delhi.

We take a taxi to Baga Beach which is what The Lonely Planet describes as the young person’s beach area for tourists like ourselves. We have not chosen or booked a hostel/hotel yet so we get our taxi driver to take us to a near by place to stay. The first one he takes us to is 7000 rupees ($140) a night and has a children’s playground at the front entrance. Not what we’re looking for. We tell him we’d like something much cheaper and he takes us to another spot with private beach huts, a mere 4000 rupees ($80). We tell him we can’t pay more than 1000 or 1500 at the most and he calls his friend who owns a hotel near by. We go see these accommodations and they’re very decent, but still 2000 rupees a night. It’s getting dark and we are running low on time so we agree to stay at this place (after bargaining him down to 1500 rupees) for just one night and then leave the next morning. Once we bring our bags to the room, we decide to run out quickly and grab Ilona a bug net which she is desperately in need of, especially now in the more humid climate. On our way we stumble upon this really cute little hotel called The Indian Kitchen. Their rooms are much cheaper (880 rupees) and have a very unique, colourful charm so we decide that we will definitely be leaving our current location as soon as the sun rises.
We find Ilona a bug net and go back to our room.

As we are sitting watching Twilight on my iPad, this absolutely terrifying, very loud sound of gun shots on metal starts abruptly. I am literally petrified with fear and don’t want to move. Ilona and I are both sitting there motionless looking at each other in horror when it happens again. And again. And again. We manage to find the courage to move to our beds and lock the door behind us. We notice that it’s the same pattern of sound each time, and it isn’t exactly the sound of a gunshot, no one is screaming, so we rule out the fact that someone is running around shooting people.
The noise stop after about 15 minutes of consistent on and off intervals of the mystery sound, so we manage to fall asleep.
I have one of the worst sleeps of my life because I wake up to every little bump in the night, paranoid and no peace of mind due to the fact that we never actually figured out what the noise was. It is the only night on my travels so far where I have felt unsafe, and it is awful to feel that way when you are in a foreign country and don’t even know which way the beach is yet let alone where to find help. But hey! We survived.

Alone in the Pink City

Today Ilona and I have arranged to go to Pushkar (1.5 hours from Jaipur) to ride camels in the dessert. Very unfortunately, Ilona has become very sick and cannot get out of bed let alone ride a camel, so we stay in Jaipur for the day. We call a doctor to our hotel to give her some medicine, because I am concerned it is more than a common cold, and clearly have no idea what to do in medical situations at the best of times, and definitely not in the middle of India. He comes and brings her some medication that should help but he suggests that she rest all day as well. I feel awful that she is ill, BUT I only have 7 more days in India and cannot afford to spend a full day in the hotel so I go out into Jaipur on my own.

I visit the Amber Fort, The Palace of Winds, and the Jantar Mantar Observatory.
I am lucky because my driver, Karam, is awesome and suggests that he call a tour guide to show me all of the sights. At first I feel ambivalent about it, because I don’t want to be such a tourist, like those people that wear floral print shirts, ridiculously large sunglasses and sun-hats with cameras hung from their necks, snapping photos of all the sites while following a tour guide.
I would die before I would do that, but I did ultimately decide that having a tour guide would be beneficial because, well, I have no idea what I’m doing.

The tour guide proves to be very helpful. Primarily because beggars and vendors are much less bothersome today. I look like less of an easy target with a local Indian man next I me. Thank god, because the amount of time I spend in a day attempting to figure out just how hard someone is trying to rip me off, is extreme.
I do a quick view of the Palace of Winds from the outside. It is located right on the main stretch of The Pink City, and is a tall structure (in comparison to the 1-3 story buildings lining the rest of streets) with many very small windows carved out along in rows.

He also teaches me tons about the history of Jaipur, Indian gods and goddesses, architecture and so many other things. He tells me a lot about the Amber Fort, but to be honest I don’t retain any of the information because I am so blown away by how beautiful the view is. Amber Fort is located on top of a mountain and was built close to 300 years ago. When I climb to the top floor and look out over the water and into the city, it’s impossible to think of anything else. The view is incredible and I take pictures, but I know they will never depict just how beautiful it really is to see with your own eyes.

My mama suggested that I go see the Jantar Mantar Observatory, which is probably the most interesting to me of the three sites that I visit, probably because it was way over my head. Basically, a Maharaja (King) from 300 years ago made these huge stone sculptures which are actually sundials, and can tell time accurately based solely on shadows. He also built structures that can tell you the time based on moonlight, the Astrological Zodiac for that day, and which exact latitude the city is on. It is absolutely unbelievable, and I can’t wrap my head around ever coming up with something that elaborate and so exact before electricity was even available. Again, it is helpful to have the tour guide take me through this, because I have a million questions, and everything is in Hindi.

The tour guide clearly knows what he is doing, and saves the best for last by bringing me to a textile shop before going back to the hotel. I am in heaven as I am toured around by one of the employees of the shop, who teaches me how to print fabrics with vegetable dyes and stamps, while I watch women weaving carpets in the distance. In true Indian style, I am lead into the shop after my tour where I am shown beautiful silks, embroidered cottons, and lovely traditional Rajasthani clothing. They pull out dozens of silk bed sheets for me to touch and unfold onto large tables. They are all stunning, but I find one that is teal blue with silver printed along the edges, I can’t resist. I also find an absolutely gorgeous ultraviolet blue silk with gold prints. I find out that they can tailor make any of the fabrics into clothing and I decide to go for it, I am in India. They take my measurements and sew me a Sari from new, which will take a few hours so they arrange to have it delivered to my hotel. It arrives at 9:30pm to my door and I am elated. I cannot wait to find an occasion appropriate to wear such a beautiful dress.

I return back to the hotel in time to receive Ilona’s medical results from the doctor and it looks like she will be all better in a couple of days with some medication, which is good because we leave for the sandy beaches of Southern India tomorrow morning!

Mother suggested I add something about what foods I am eating and the people I am meeting to my blog. They were not included in this entry for the following reasons:
1. I made no friends while I was following my tour guide around all day snapping photos of Indian tourist attractions.
2. My breakfast was another free breakfast that came with the hotel, and consisted of toast, and “omelette” (a plain fried egg) and masala tea. I ate no lunch because I was busy following my tour guide around all day snapping photos of Indian tourist attractions. And 3. I had dinner inside our room with Ilona because she was still too sick to get out of bed. She had a chicken broth soup which I specifically asked (so kindly) to come without any pieces of chicken in it, and instead it was 90% pieces of chicken. Basically just chicken in a brothy sauce. I ordered chicken korma for myself, and the reason I did not write about this meal, is because I have yet to order a korma in India that isn’t a mysterious green colour. When I find one, I will let you know because it will be the happiest day of my life.
That is all.

Taj Mahal, Monkeys, and Elephants

I wake up at 4:30am for two reasons;
Primarily because I am being eaten alive by mosquitos, and secondly because we are going to see the Taj Mahal at 6am. During the morning the sun is not as hot and we hope to catch the Taj with the sunrise, and with less tourists. Unfortunately there are so many tourists that we have to wait in line until the sunrise is finished. While we are waiting, we meet two girls who are also from Canada but have been travelling much longer than we have. We finally get into the Taj and take turns taking pictures of each other in front of this spectacular monument. It’s challenging to get photos with no other random tourists in the pictures with you, but I hardly care because it’s the Taj! It’s just so beautiful and I’m happy just to be here.

We return to our hotel to catch the free included breakfast, before we head out to Jaipur. This “breakfast” consists of 3 pieces of white toast and a banana. We have a 5 hour drive ahead of us to Jaipur so we eat quickly and go, eager to go Elephant riding as soon as we arrive in The Pink City.

As we approach Jaipur it becomes apparent to me that the neon is trendy here. Many women wear traditional sari’s in greens, blues, and dark pinks, but instead of the usual matching scarf, they wear neon orange with gold jewels draped over their shoulders and around their faces. I see vibrant yellow and neon pink scarves as well, but it’s clear that orange is the popular choice in this area of India.

We drive up and around a mountain filled with wild cows and missing chunks of road for 10 minutes arrive at “Monkey Temple”. I have absolutely no idea what to expect, but I know there will be monkeys everywhere, so I am pleased. I walk in and have to pay a fee of 150 rupees ($2.75) to get in, as well as a donation. I leave 50 rupees. They call it a donation, but I’m pretty sure it’s just money in their pockets. I never know, and still haven’t gotten used to tipping everyone for everything all the time.
I walk up a sandy pathway between two beautiful mountains to a large stone gate. There is no line up of tourists which I am thankful for, I couldn’t wait in another line after this morning at the Taj. Once on the other side of the gate I can see a long, very tall staircase to the top of the mountain and, as predicted, monkeys all over the place. I begin to walk through the temple, still unsure of what one does at a monkey temple, but excited to find out. I follow the other visitors and start climbing the steps up towards the top of the mountain. On the way, there are numerous pools of water where I watch monkeys playing together and even some people bathing. Many visitors get tired and stop climbing to the top of the temple to take pictures, but I keep climbing as I am still curious as to what this monkey temple is all about. A small group of indian women climb to the top with me, all the while asking me questions in Hindi that I cannot understand. They see a man who works at the temple (do people work at temples?) who speaks English and he translates all their questions for me. They, like many other people I have encountered in India, are intrigued by my white skin and blonde hair and mostly just wanted to know where I come from. I tell them I am from Canada and I hear the man translate to them that I am from America. Close enough…
When they are done asking me questions they walk into another portion of the temple, and the English speaking man continues chatting with me.
He takes me into a section of the temple where I must remove my shoes to enter. I do so, and walk in to see a large altar filled with photographs and statues all centred around one large painting on a rock which is emerging out of the wall of the mountain. I am the only person in this part of the temple.
He goes on to tell me about the god Hanuman and why the people come to the temple. He tells me that if you stand and pray to Hanuman, (who is painted on the rock) he will help you fix a problem in your life, whatever you ask him for. So I do. Yes, I, anti-religion Naomi, am praying to a rock.

Afterwards the man utters a mantra and wraps a protection bracelet around my right wrist. He tells me it will keep me safe as long as I have it on, and finally he paints a small orange dot on my forehead, and puts a necklace made of carnations (I think they were carnations) around my neck. He tells me to stop at one of the pools of water on my way back down the mountain and wash my hands and face, because it’s holy Ganges water, and I do it.
For the first time in my life, I actually prayed. I didn’t just stand there with my hands together to be polite, I prayed. It was one of the strangest and most spiritual things I have ever done, and I loved every minute of it.
After the temple Ilona and I go to our long awaited Elephant ride! Unfortunately, it’s not what we’ve anticipated. The elephant ride consists of us getting on a very old elephant in a field full of cows and walking around in a small circle for 5 minutes. I feel like a small child on a pony at the fair. It was less than satisfying, but at least I can say I’ve done it. We make plans to go on a REAL elephant ride when we are in Thailand. We also lower our expectations for tomorrow, when we are supposed to be riding camels.

On Route to Agra

Today we leave to start traveling south through India. We wake up early and pack our bags, stuffing them full of newly purchased comfy pants from the day before. I’m already running out of space in my bag. Not a good sign. We eat breakfast on the rooftop patio and try for round two to order a tomato and cheese omelette, and also order a chocolate crêpe. It takes 45 minutes and we are the only people on the roof so I will never understand how that is possible, but at least our omelette comes with tomatoes this time! The crêpe not so much, we get a banana crêpe instead. So close.

We have arranged to meet a family friend of mine, Dolly, at one of her restaurants for lunch. It isn’t too far from our hotel so we decide to take a Rickshaw for the first time ever. I have never been more excited in my life. Rickshaws look SO FUN.

We’ve heard that its best to ask them for a flat rate instead of going by the meter, so we ask the first Rickshaw man we see how much it will cost to go to the Khan Market, and if he knows where Dollys restaurant, The Kitchen, is. He tells us yes, and that it will cost 250 rupees which is less than 5 dollars so we hop in, enthusiastic about our first Rickshaw adventure. It becomes blatantly obvious very quickly that our Rickshaw man is absolutely cray. He keeps saying ” Khan Market, big shopping centre. 10, 15, 20 minutes, no problem! Ok?” and each time we respond with an “Ok”, ” yes”, or “thank you”. This happens about 100 times. This only makes me love my Rickshaw experience even more, I swear I’m smiling so widely my face starts to hurt. He starts adding something about a “lunch box” into his little schpiel. “Big shopping centre. Lunch box. 10, 15, 20 minutes, no problem! Ok?” I disregard it the first few times but then I heard him say “big shopping centre. THEN khan market” somewhere in there, and instantly Ilona and I look at each other in confusion. I ask him if the big shopping centre is in the Khan market…… nope. He has decided that we need to stop at a shopping centre which is “on the way” to the Khan Market, and buy him a lunch box. We tell him no, and that we need to go straight to Khan market for OUR lunch or we will be late. He legitimately sits there for 5 minutes trying to convince us to stop at this mall and buy him lunch. We finally make him agree to take us straight to the Khan market but he tells us that now it will cost another 100 rupees because the price he originally gave us included his lunch. Whatever buddy. I’m just so excited to be there that I don’t care so we agree. We continue to the Khan Market, annoyed with the Rickshaw man. When we finally arrive it turns out he has no idea where The Kitchen is, and suggests that he just let us out in the middle of the market and we walk to find it. I tell him thats cool, but then there is no way we’re paying him 350 rupees. Instead of just lowering the price and letting us out he starts asking people on the street where the The Kitchen is, and finally figures it out and drives us there. We pay him his stupid 350 rupees and asks us for another 50 rupees for his “special service” which consisted of him taking the long way around and into the market to the restaurant. We just do it and we get out. I am over my first Rickshaw experience. Turns out he dropped us a street away from where the restaurant actually is, so we had to ask some people and walk a little bit, (so angry) but we did manage to make it on time to our lunch so whatever.
After we eat our delicious meal with Dolly, we take another Rickshaw back to our hostel. We ask the new Rickshaw man how much it will be to go to the Main Bazar (home), and he tells us it will cost a mere 120 rupees…and drives us there directly, and doesn’t ask us for lunch.
I will forever hate my first Rickshaw man.

We make it back to our hotel, grab our backpacks and get in the car that is taking us to Agra. We drive through farm country where the roads are filled with trucks and vans completely loaded up with people. I mean 20 or sometimes even 30 people crammed into one vehicle. We see more stray cows on the roads, people carrying hay in bundles on their heads, and people who knock on our car windows with cobra snakes in a basket.

When we stop to fill up our tank, at least 5 men who work at the station gather around to help our driver fill up the tank. People in the country are even more intrigued by two white girls than they are in New Delhi.
The country side is beautiful and gives me lots of opportunities to absorb more of the Indian culture. I am in love with the constant stream of surprises this country continues to offer me.

We arrive in Agra at 7:00pm and go straight to our hotel, the Agra Mahal, which is really close to the Taj Mahal (duh), and order beer and butter chicken to our room. We fall asleep soon after. There’s something about the Indian sun, or maybe I am just not used to the time change yet, but I am exhausted. We are eaten alive by mosquitos in our sleep. Thank science for malaria pills.

Indian Market Shopping

We wake up early, because neither of us are used to the time change yet. We hang out in our room and listened to the streets come alive outside our window. Some of the sounds are awful and disgusting like old men spitting on the street, some sounds are loud and obnoxious, like the constant honking of motorbikes, rickshaws, and cars. Pigeons also crowd our window and the hallway outside our room door, cooing all morning. I know that these sounds mean I am really here, and I love it.
Ilona and I go for breakfast on the rooftop patio of our hotel where I have a banana lassi and chai tea to drink, with a tomato and cheese omelette that has absolutely no tomatoes, and only a very small amount of a mystery cheese.

Ilona has already been here for a week without me, and tells me I need to buy a pair of comfy pants so we decide to go out into the market to find some. She has already bought 8 pairs of pants, and lets me wear a pair of hers to go shopping in. I put them on and I wonder why anyone has ever bothered to make any other style of pants at all. They are heaven.
The market is only one street away from our hotel so I am instantly overcome with the sights, smells and sounds of the market. It’s beautiful, in a really dirty and overwhelming way. Comfy pants are only about 150 rupees- which translates to about $2.75. I buy like 5 pairs in all different colours and patterns. The jewelry is another fabulous find in the market place. Of course the cheap stuff is the kind that will turn your hand green, but it’s so fun to shop for anyway that I can’t help myself. My best purchase was a silver coloured bracelet that links to a ring on my finger. Very cool.

After we have shopped for like, 3 hours and I have spent only $30 dollars, we go to a tourist travel agency nearby and plan our way to Agra, Jaipur, and Goa.

We then go to a rooftop bar in the main market area where we have dinner as the giant red sun sets on the city. It’s lovely. By about 8pm I am exhausted and want to sleep. Which I do, until about 3am when I wake up and cannot sleep anymore. Oh, jet-lag.

Departure

A day full of such mixed emotions! Firstly and fore-mostly, I am excited. I have been waiting to do this for what seems like forever now, and I almost can’t believe it’s really happening. I finish packing up my things, and I’m trying my very very best not to bring anything I don’t need. It feels impossible for one to know how many t-shirts they will need in a year. I manage to pack all of my stuff in one bag and it looks like I still have a little bit of space to do some shopping in India, which we all know is going to happen as soon as I get there.

Mom, Dad, and Sev all come with me to the airport to say goodbye. I am the most awkward person in the world when it comes to saying goodbye. I’ve been trying to avoid this subject all day. I always dread this time, the same way I dread the time to open presents, because I get equally awkward for both occasions.
Like every mother, mine is worried, even after casting a travel protection spell on me (twice) the night before, and reading my tarot cards. I don’t want to cry, but I do a little.

I board the plane and I have a deec seat. For like, 10 minutes I was convinced the seat next to me would stay empty. They even closed the plane doors !! So close. But then some lady who decided to be late casually walked on and sat down in my empty seat. Grrr.
There are also crying babies everywhere, classic.
I don’t sleep. I watch Spider-Man: the new one. With the guy from The Social Network and Emma Stone. It’s awful. I write in my travel journal too, because I am keeping multiple forms of documentation of what I’m doing whilst I travel. Or at least trying.

I have nothing exciting to say yet, sorry folks. The plane is hot, smelly, stuffy and the food sucks. What plane ride isn’t like that?

Plane number two, Brussels to Delhi, is better in the sense that I get an aisle seat, and am at the front of the plane so I have lots of leg room. Unfortunately, I learned that “lots of leg room” is just a fancy way of saying “you’re right by the emergency exit so it’s freezing cold, and the bathroom is right in front of you so it’s extra smelly”. I legit have to ask for two blankets just in order to fall asleep because my feet are too numb to do so otherwise. I do finally sleep a little though, and wake up somewhere over Afghanistan. (For those of you who are not map savvy, that is pretty close. About an hour and a half away from India.)

The plane lands, I go through customs, collect my backpack, step outside of the airport to find my ride to the hostel, and holy shit. I am in India.