Friday, October 29, 2010

Durga & Darjeeling

After a brief personal battle with food poisoning, our week long trip to Darjeeling, India was absolutely wonderful! Before taking off for the adventure, we spent the two prior nights enjoying the festivities of Durga Puja in Agartala. Durga Puja is the largest Hindu festival of the year and for five nights, the Hindu goddess, Durga, is worshiped inside incredible man-made structures called, pandals. On a normal night in Agartala, this city is completely shutdown and silent by the hours of 9 or 10pm. However, during Durga Puja, the city never sleeps. The pandals are continuously open and welcoming of visitors at every hour of the day. To better envision what the celebrations of Durga Puja entail, imagine a combination of an American carnival, a Christmas light show, an art gallery, a music festival, and a townie fall fair. It is rather difficult to describe, but after the first night, Aja, Ellen and I felt it vaguely resembled an American gathering (minus the alcohol, but with the addition of continuous perplexed stares from local Indian civilians). We were intrigued and therefore, found it essential to attend the festivities for one additional night. During the second night, we became a bit braver and indulged into some tasty, yet spicy, street food. Lesson learned in India: Do not experiment with foreign street food the night before a much anticipated vacation involving a flight followed by an overnight train. My body was not prepared for the shock of spicy (and possibly contaminated) Agartala vendor food. The plane ride and train were pretty miserable along with the first day in Darjeeling being spent in bed, but hey, I became a professional at the use of Turkish toilets.

Andy's Guest House, our accommodations for the week, turned out to be extremely homey and welcoming. Upon arriving, the adorable Tibetan owner realized I was not feeling well after I quickly asked directions to the nearest bathroom. She immediately prepared our rooms and took the place of Moukta by ordering rest and the consumption of plenty of liquids. Andy's Guest House proved to be a perfect place to stay and I would highly recommend it to anyone who happens to stumble into this corner of the world. Warm comforters, comfortable mattresses, an actual shower head, and western toilets all made this budget hotel seem like paradise. In addition, the rooftop view of Andy's was a stunning sight to awake to in the morning. On a clear day, we had a perfect view of Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. Although it did rain quite a bit, which inhibited us from actually catching a glimpse of Mount Everest, I have no complaints because being able to experience the sight of one of the highest peaks in world is an unbelievable opportunity.

The illness quickly passed and the next morning I awoke and was ready to explore Darjeeling with the rest of the group. We ate breakfast at Sonam's Kitchen, an amazing little restaurant that we revisited each morning. Fresh bread toasted with butter, vegetable omelettes, grilled tomatoes, banana and nut porridge, hash browns, real coffee, and CHEESE really made our mornings heavenly since we lack the majority of those items in Agartala. Restaurant owners and nearby tourists must have thought that the four of us had completely lost our minds because everything that we tasted was loudly, overly, and maybe even a bit, obnoxiously appreciated. The rest of our meals consisted of delicious restaurants full of pizzas, pastas, pastries, and various other “healthy” American foods. Nothing was quite comparable to foods back home, but it certainly was a nice change of pace from Indian white rice, chapati, and boiled vegetables.

As for the sightseeing, Darjeeling has gorgeous tea gardens, Buddhist monasteries situated in the clouds, beautiful temples, a busy market full of hand woven woolen goods (perfect for souvenir shopping), a welcoming and friendly Tibetan Refugee Center, and the most stunning landscapes that I have ever seen. On our last day, we rode the famous Darjeeling Toy Train back down the mountains. If it hadn't been down-pouring outside, then we would have witnessed some amazing views, but it was still a great experience and we did catch a few glimpses of the nearby scenery when we weren't completely immersed in the clouds.

Darjeeling, check!... and onto the next adventure. We are now in the process of booking our next backpacking excursion which will consist of traveling around the country for a little over one month. This will occur while the students are on their annual winter break throughout December and January. We are planning to visit about ten different cities throughout the many states of India. All four of us have now officially adjusted to the Indian way of life and feel 100% comfortable with being independent (an absolutely fantastic feeling!). I have posted many pictures of both Durga Puja and Darjeeling on facebook and you are more than welcome to check them out. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Road Rage

Cars, trucks, buses, public jeeps, auto-rickshaws, bicycle-rickshaws, bicycles, mopeds, cows, goats, dogs, cats, chickens and people are the various components of the chaotic streets in India. At first glance, it is pure mayhem. A little over two months ago, the experience of having a driver chauffeur us through the streets of downtown Agartala was frightening, exciting, and adrenaline-producing. Now that I have adjusted, this chaotic way of life seems absolutely normal to me. I am afraid that upon returning to America, I may lose my license on account of forgetting that Massachusetts actually has road rules.

The major difference between driving in India and in the U.S. is that everything is completely opposite. As in England, here, the driver sits on the right, while the passenger is seated on the left, and the car is navigated on the left-hand side of the road. When the four of us first landed in Kolkata, Manish was waiting for his car along with a taxi. Ellen, Ben, and Aja rode in the taxi while I rode in the passenger seat of Manish's car. As Manish was loading my luggage into his car, out of habit, I immediately opened the front right door, as any American passenger would have, and took a seat. Upon seeing the steering wheel directly in front of me and the pedals at my feet, I quickly shot around to the other side of the car. Manish thought this was quite funny. Awareness of the fact that a passenger is seated on the left was probably a piece of information that I should have researched before arriving in India, but my lack of knowledge definitely provided some humorous entertainment for a few minutes.

Other than the one rule of driving along the left-hand side of the road (which at times is ignored), the only other glimpse that I can provide into the experience of driving along Indian streets is that it is truly every man (or animal) for himself. The only way to get from one destination to the next in any vehicle is based on the effectiveness of one's horn. The concept of honking a vehicle's horn in India is very different than at home. In America, the horn is only honked if the driver has a feeling of pure anger and frustration for another nearby driver. In India, the horn is multifunctional and may mean, “I am turning left.”, “I am turning right”, “I am stopping.”, “I am reversing.”, “I am passing you”, “I am approaching a curve in the road.”, “I am crossing a bridge.”, “Open the gate.”, “Get out of my way, cow/goat/dog/cat/chicken/human being!”. If the horn on an Indian vehicle is broken, it would most likely be classified as useless in this country. The sound of honking vehicles is my alarm clock every morning and could very well be the most commonly heard noise in India.

Everything is still going very well for all of us in Agartala! We are extremely excited to depart for our first independent excursion and head to Darjeeling in three days. Since it is still in the 90's here everyday, it will be quite a shock to be thrown into 40 degree weather and be at an elevation that it just about two times the height of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Although I would prefer 95 degrees over 40 degree weather, I am anxious to see more of India and look forward to our trip!