Move to Ho Chi Minh City

On February 7th I got up and flew to Ho Chi Minh City. I had a visa on arrival waiting for me at the airport and lucky for me, there were no flights that arrived just before mine so the wait wasn’t too bad. I found the kiosk where everyone was queuing to get their visas and couldn’t help but chuckle at how unorganized it all seemed. I gave an official my passport, and in return they gave me a form to fill out all the information from my passport on it. Fortunately I have that all memorized from my trip with Will when we had to fill that in almost every two weeks. After filling in that form, people just butted to the front of the line to hand it back to an official as opposed to getting back into the queue. I did overhear some people panicking about how they were going to fill in the form without having their passports on hand.

After getting my visa, I made my way out of the airport, passing the many non-registered taxi drivers who approach you when you’re foreign. Generally they try to scam you by saying the meter doesn’t work, or if it does, they take you on a bit of a roundabout ride to your final destination to run the meter. Instead I used the airport service which you pay a flat fee for depending on how far you’re going. I was a little skeptical paying beforehand and getting a receipt to give a driver, but it all worked out just fine.

On arrival, I had made plans to stay with Sam and Charis, good friends of Auntie Mae and Uncle Ken from their church in Bangkok. They’re a wonderful couple from Malaysia and have two young kids, so it was very generous for them to take me in! They made me feel very welcome and were incredibly helpful for me while getting my feet on the ground here. I stayed with Sam and Charis for about 10 days, setting up interviews, exploring District (Quận) 7, and looking online for places to live.

Tết Nguyên Đán 2015 – Year of the Goat

Tết is the Vietnamese New Year, celebrated on the Lunar New Year at the same time as the Chinese New Year. It is the biggest holiday for the Vietnamese people, so many people were off from work for over a full week. Traditionally, people will leave the city to go back to their hometowns to spend time with their family, which left Ho Chi Minh City very quiet relative to how it normally is. There are many decorations set up all over, incredible displays of organized flowers and lights, and special food that’s only available during Tết.

Tet2

One of many displays showing some of the crops grown in Vietnam. This scarecrow is in a simulated paddy field growing rice. Incredible how quickly they set it up and took it down in a popular area!

Tet1

In addition to the decorations, there was a festival going on in Quận 7 that had food, rides, and many shops selling a variety of things. There was a large section devoted to selling plants, which are supposed to bring luck to the family in the new year. The most popular were yellow flowers and kumquat plants.

Farm display

Farm display

Food prepped for a quick deep fry at the fair.

Food prepped for a quick deep fry at the fair.

On the eve of the new year, fireworks were set off in various districts, the most popular display being in Quận 1. By that point, I had moved to Quận Bình Thạnh which is north of Quận 1. That night I was able to see the fireworks from the rooftop deck of the house I’ve moved into.

Job & House Search

On arrival to HCMC, I immediately began shooting my resume out to many different international schools and education centers around the city. Quick note about the resume, the format here is very different. You’re expected to put your picture at the top, as well as your birthdate, sex, and nationality. Two-pages is also more than acceptable. Anyway, international schools tended to have more requirements for employment, so I wasn’t too enthusiastic that I would get a job with one, but it didn’t hurt to try. The education centers just teach English and tend to be after school programs, so their requirements aren’t as stringent and my TESOL Certification + Bachelor’s were what most were looking for. I managed to set up several interviews in a short period of time, but many companies told me they would get back to me after Tết. Not ideal for someone needing a source of income!

One day while killing time before an interview in the afternoon, I went to a Phở restaurant that Sam and Charis enjoy. While waiting for my food, a guy across the restaurant named Abe initiated a conversation with me to find out what I was doing in HCMC. I told him I was an English teacher looking for a job, and he asked what I majored in. “Biology,” I said, to which he responded, “Oh, so you can teach Biology too!” He told me he ran a school teaching International Baccalaureate (IB) courses as well as English courses for Korean expats in Quận 7. I was a little nervous about that idea, but I asked him what level and he said High School. I figured I could at least give it a shot if he asked, so we exchanged contact information and I sent him my resume, thinking that my lack of experience would deter him from asking me to come teach Biology. I was wrong. Abe texted me the next week, asking me to teach a two-hour Biology lesson that Saturday. I picked up the material from him the following day and brushed up on my genetics, which was the content of the first lesson. I have to say that those may be easier lessons to do than teaching English as a second language. Not having a language barrier is nice! Abe called me after I left and told me that I was one of the best Biology teachers they had at the school, so I was hired. Lucky me!

My second job I got through yet another connection of Auntie Mae and Uncle Ken. They got me in touch with a girl named Stephanie who has been teaching English here for the last year. Steph had two part-time jobs, and recently one of the two asked her to come on full-time. As a result, the other school she worked at was looking for a quick replacement to step in. When I arrived in HCMC, I texted Steph and she filled me in on the situation, saying that I could pick up a few hours per week at a kindergarten/preschool. It was going to give me more experience, which is always a good thing. I shadowed Steph for her two last days there, and on the second day some of the students were already greeting me with hugs. That’s a really nice way to start the day, relative to talking to some angry people about their money.

The last job I got, which I start tomorrow, is for a company called British Education Partnership (BEP). BEP is associated with Apollo, which is the oldest foreign owned chain of education centers in Vietnam. My interview was at the very beginning of Tết, so the school was pretty much shut down. I arrived a little early and met the interviewer, Will, who was very friendly and informative off the bat. When we sat down to begin the interview, he said, “Well, first of all, UM YA YA!” (A Saint Olaf cheer) Needless to say, I was shocked. Running into another Ole randomly on the other side of the globe isn’t something I was expecting at all, but I guess we’re all over the place. He graduated four years before me and has been teaching in Asia since then. After the interview he told me they could hire me for a 6-month, part-time contract during which I would be sent to local public schools teaching Vietnamese students. Exactly what I was hoping to do.

At this point in time, Sam and Charis’ driver, Nguyen, was taking me from place to place during the day while Sam was at work and Charis was with the kids. We got to know each other during that time and he is now someone I consider a friend here in HCMC. He is very kind and helpful, and he introduced me to some of his friends who are also drivers for businessmen. He has a degree in Electrical Engineering, but the job he had was boring so he has since found other work.

Nguyen and I (middle) with his friends

Nguyen and I with his friends

When Sam and Charis left to spend the Lunar New Year in Malaysia, Nguyen took me out to eat and drink beer with his friends at an authentic Vietnamese restaurant (pictured above). We had all sorts of snails, mussels, and clams which were probably not the best idea for me to eat, but man were they delicious. I figured I didn’t have work yet, so if I got sick, there was nothing going on I would be missing. Fortunately everything sat fine and my body has adjusted to the bacteria here.

At one point when we were driving around, Nguyen asked me what my budget was for a living space. From my research online, I had seen many serviced apartments for around $300/mo, so I told him that’s what I was thinking, but I was hoping for something better if I could find it. He informed me that his aunt and uncle have a home in which they rent out rooms to foreigners only. He thought it would be cheaper than what I had budgeted, maybe by even $100. Sounded good to me, so we arranged to check out the room.

The room was fully furnished, had a TV on the wall, a walk in closet, and a private bathroom. Nga, Nguyen’s aunt, confirmed that the price for renting was $200 per month, but having the maid clean my room and do my laundry would cost slightly more. Works for me! I haven’t done my own laundry since leaving the States, no reason to start now. In addition there is some common space on the top floor for karaoke and a rooftop deck attached, as well as a nice kitchen on the first floor. I jumped on the opportunity and it is where I am currently living. My housemates are all French (aside from Nga and her husband) and everyone living here is very friendly. Occasionally Nga will cook food which she sends up via the maid to my room, and she knows how to cook. She runs a restaurant nearby that I have yet to go to. Maybe I can have her teach me how to make some Vietnamese dishes…

As I moved into the house during Tết, I got to experience one of the family Tết parties here with Nguyen and Nga’s family. One night there were probably about 25 people or so in the house and Nga formally invited me to the party. One of my housemates, Alexis, was also there and we had a phenomenal time chatting with the family members. Over the course of the holiday, a family will have a series of parties at different family member’s homes.

Alexis, Nguyen, me, and his uncle

Alexis, Nguyen, me, and his uncle

Random Tidbits

On one of the days while I was still living in Quận 7, I went with Charis to Bến Thành Market, a large market in Quận 1. Will and I had gone the last time we were here accompanied by a local who thought we needed to see it before we left. It’s a pretty cool market, but it can be overwhelming if it’s the first time you go because nearly everyone is trying to get you to purchase something from their store if you linger at all. You have to walk with determination from point A to point B if you don’t want to be bothered. I didn’t mind much, just laughed and said, “no, thank you,” constantly while I walked through. It was here that I had my first Banh Mi sandwich and Vietnamese iced coffee. Delicious, but can’t make a habit of having the coffee all the time as it has a fair amount of sweetened condensed milk in it.

The wet market at Benh Thanh

The wet market at Benh Thanh

Inside Benh Thanh Market

Inside Benh Thanh Market

BanhMi1 CafeSuaDa1

Now that I am officially on my own in HCMC, it’s been a bit strange adjusting to the lack of a social life. In Bangkok I was incredibly busy with my course, so I didn’t mind. That and Auntie Mae and Uncle Ken brought me many places and introduced me to many people, so I had a good amount of interaction when I wasn’t studying. Tết slowing things down didn’t help either as most people had plans and things to do during the holiday. Fortunately I have a meeting tomorrow morning with my new coworkers at BEP so I’m looking forward to making new friends there. More of a social life will come with time!

Over the last few days I got a little sick and I’m pretty sure it’s the kids’ fault at the preschool/kindergarten. I wouldn’t mind much, however I lost my voice as a result and had to teach a two-hour Chemistry lesson for Abe’s school yesterday! That was a bit of a disaster as my voice just got worse and worse as the lesson went on. It’s still a little hoarse, but I’m really hoping that tomorrow when I start for BEP it’s better. I’m hoping for the best as I drank lots of tea and rested my voice today. Until next time!

[Shoutout to my sister Mica: Happy Birthday! Have a great day!]

Bangkok

What a month! I’m now officially a TESOL Certified English Teacher, which is pretty exciting. It’s also slightly nerve racking that the next time I’ll be teaching it’s going to be for work and not for my own class, but that’s what I came here to do!

I should start from the move over here, when I flew from O’Hare to Hong Kong. The move to Southeast Asia got more daunting as I got closer to the departure date, obviously, but I was extremely excited to leave the frigid winter behind. When I arrived at O’Hare airport a few hours before my flight, I didn’t have a solid departure date from Thailand to Vietnam. The woman at the check-in counter was really nervous, thinking that I wouldn’t be allowed into Thailand, so in a moment of panic I bought a ticket to Ho Chi Minh City for February 7th, the day after my course was scheduled to end. Love technology and being able to do that on a phone. I got to the gate and the cold weather caused a two hour delay, which made me miss my connection in Hong Kong to Bangkok. The airline put me up for the night at a hotel I wouldn’t have chosen myself for budget reasons, which was pretty nice. I took advantage of the free breakfast the next morning and then I was off to Bangkok.

The flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok was a breeze relative to the 15 hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong. When I got in and got through customs Uncle Ken was waiting for me to bring me back to his and Auntie Mae’s condo where Will and I stayed on our previous trip. It was wonderful seeing them again. The next day was jam packed, starting with church at the International Church of Bangkok where their pastor was getting ready to move to the States after 10 years of serving there. After the service there was a big going away lunch party with more food than I could hope to try. I was introduced to many of Uncle Ken and Auntie Mae’s friends from church before the end of the meal. One of their friends even wanted me to come teach English at her orphanage outside of Bangkok. Off to a good start!

After lunch, I headed home with Auntie Mae to get ready for a wedding reception for one of their close friends. Uncle Ken and Auntie Mae told me there would be about 800 people there, and everyone took pictures with the couple when they arrived. This was the most intense wedding reception I’ve ever been to.  After you took your picture with the couple, there was a little walk through some pictures they had taken together, followed by food galore. There were about 20-25 different food stalls set up in a ballroom as well as outside the ballroom, all serving different kinds of food. There were stations for bread, Hainese Chicken Rice, sushi, lobster ravioli, foie gras, duck, dumplings, and a noodle soup just to name a few. At one of the sushi stands they had a whole tuna on display that they were gradually cutting into as the night went on. In addition there were waitresses walking around serving other appetizers, champagne, and wine. It honestly felt like I was at a reception for royalty. Eventually, a little animated short was shown depicting how the couple had met, followed by people coming up to give toasts and advise the newlywed couple. There was even a translator saying some of the things in English.

Uncle Ken, Auntie Mae and I at the wedding

Uncle Ken, Auntie Mae and I at the reception

TESOL Certification

The next day was my first day of class. I took the BTS (skytrain) to get there and on arrival my teacher Luke told me that I was the only student after two others decided not to take it at the last minute. I was given the option to wait until the course next month, or to take it solo. As I was already in Bangkok and had made arrangements with Uncle Ken and Auntie Mae, I opted for going solo. Kind of nice getting tutoring level attention without having to pay for it!

Over the course of the next month, my schedule consisted of school from around 8:00 am – 1:30 pm, with Wednesdays ending a bit earlier so Luke and I could go to teach at Fatima Orphanage until 5:00 pm. After school I would come back to Uncle Ken and Auntie Mae’s condo to study for the rest of the evening. Every day I had class, the accountant for UEC Thai (where I took my class), Noi, cooked us delicious Thai lunches for 50 THB, about $1.50. She introduced me to my new favorite Thai dish, Som Tum, which is a spicy papaya salad that anyone who likes spicy food needs to try. It’s incredibly refreshing in warm weather, generally served with sticky rice to dip in the tomato/garlic/lime/chili dressing when you’re done with the bulk of the salad. I’m going to miss it if I’m not able to find it in Vietnam.

The first Wednesday at Fatima I observed Luke teaching to get a good idea of how things go there. I was scheduled to teach two of the classes the following week. Coming from America, I have to say that I had never seen teaching quite like this. The classes were full immersion regardless of the level of the student, and Luke used only the words necessary to convey the subject matter. That combined with gestures and media is the only way I think you could teach with a significant language barrier. I was nervous about using too many words the following week and confusing the students during my lesson.

The next Wednesday I had prepared a lesson for the Intermediate Adults class as well as the Beginning Girls class. For the adults I taught musical instruments and the nouns and verbs associated with them (e.g.: guitar, guitarist, strum). That was pretty simple, mostly introducing a fair amount of vocabulary and drilling the pronunciation of words. The adult class was small with three students the first time I taught them and only two the second time.

20150128_131655

The Beginning Girls class was slightly more difficult. In Thailand it’s not as socially acceptable to show negative emotions outwardly, so that can be covered up with laughter. Confused? Laugh about it. Angry? Laugh it off. Etc. As a teacher, that can be a little daunting when a class of young girls are giggling with possible confusion and can’t express their question to you. I taught them patterns and clothing, drilling on pronunciation and having them identify the patterns before combining the pattern followed by the clothing to make a phrase (e.g.: a striped vest).

The following week I taught the adults as well as the Intermediate Girls class, a much smaller class than the Beginning Girls class. That was a bit easier, however the topic I chose I didn’t convey as well as I would have liked. We went over Present Perfect which they didn’t understand when it would be used, so in the time I had I drilled them on the structure and they were able to put together sentences without assistance by the end.

Intermediate girls class

By the end of the course, I had eight hours of teaching experience in a classroom setting instead of the usual six. It was nice getting the extra time because I know I will only feel more comfortable with it the more I do it.

Thainess Parade

On one of the Wednesdays after teaching at Fatima, I met Auntie Mae and Uncle Ken at the Siam BTS stop to observe a “Thainess” parade. One of Uncle Ken’s friends, Sadru Patel, was in town and met us there as well. He is a professional photographer who was kind enough to allow me to use his pictures from the parade here. You can see more pictures on his website. In the parade they had a version of the King’s ceremonial boat which is only brought out a few times per year. It was quite intricate and cool to see up close.

The traditional outfits worn by some of the people in the parade were incredible also.

Other Experiences

A definite highlight of my time in Bangkok were the massages. I only got one Thai massage while I was there, but it was a phenomenal 90-minute stretching, relaxing experience. Those massages can beat you up, nothing like a massage in the States. They put your body into positions close to the point of pain (maybe painful for some) and afterwards you’re all loosened up and ready to take a nap. It’s kind of funny how much the masseuses crawl over you to move you how they want to as well.

At one point I needed to get a haircut, so I went with Uncle Ken to his favorite place to go. I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell them to cut my hair, but I trusted it would all work out. I waited for a few minutes until I was called to get my hair washed. The woman who washed my hair also gave me a very soothing scalp and neck massage with the shampoo, which was the best way I’ve ever had a haircut start. Talk about relaxing and good customer service. I think that lasted about 10-15 minutes, but I’m not sure. Completely lost myself in it.

When I sat down she massaged my back a bit as well before giving me a binder filled with male celebrities for me to pick out a haircut. I went with the Mark Wahlberg as it was the closest to what I had before leaving. When they were done cutting my hair and styling it slightly higher than I anticipated, the woman who massaged my head and the woman who cut my hair both said, “WOW!” and insisted on taking a selfie with me. I left and had to go back to get a copy of the selfie a few days later. Very glad I did.

Left: hair stylist, right: head massager

Left: hair stylist, right: hair washer / massager

Shortly before I left Bangkok, Uncle Ken retired. There were several events in honor of his retirement, one of which was an incredible dinner at a Japanese restaurant near their home. Auntie Mimi, Auntie Mae’s sister, took us all out with her children and grandchildren and I don’t think I’ve had better sushi in my life. It was all very fresh and delicious, including red snapper, scallops, fatty tuna, and more things that I’d never ordered or tried before.

IMG-20150215-WA0000

Poor quality photo of the sashimi platter, but it’s all I have!

I have to say that the highlight of the meal though was the Wagyu beef, which I’d never tasted. The meat was seared on the outside leaving the middle nice and red, and with the amount of marbling in the meat it actually melted in my mouth. It was served on a piece of bread which soaked up the juices from the meat. I thought that was kind of strange, until they took the bread away when the meat was finished, toasted it, and brought it back. It was just a nice reminder of what we had already enjoyed having been saturated with the Wagyu juices.

After Uncle Ken’s retirement, he and Auntie Mae headed to the States to see their family there. They were so kind as to let me stay in their home after they had left, and Uncle Ken got me in touch with some of his former employees as I was staying in Bangkok for one more week. One of the former employees, Winston, gave me a call and invited me out to lunch and then a costume party the next day for Bumrumgrad Hospital, where they work. It was a pretty hilarious time, I haven’t been to a costume party like that for someone’s work ever. People were dressed up as all sorts of things, and Winston and his friend May were able to get me some scrubs from the hospital so I went as a surgeon. Pretty comfortable to wear at a party. Everyone was very welcoming as usual and quick to include me in their festivities.

Me, Joe, and May

Me, Joe, and May

Me and Winston

Winston and I at the party

Overall my time in Bangkok was great. I met wonderful people, ate delicious food, and was welcomed into Auntie Mae and Uncle Ken’s group of friends and family there. I will miss it, but fortunately I’ll be close enough to visit relatively spur of the moment. There’s always more to see though, so I don’t plan on going back so soon. I’m now safely in Ho Chi Minh City where I’ve been job searching for the last week. I’ve had several interviews, taught a few lessons already, but that will all be for the next post. It’s currently Tet, the Lunar New Year, so maybe that will allow me the time to get a post up sooner. We’ll see what happens!

Catching Up

Hello everyone!

It’s been a while since I posted on here, but I wanted to start writing again as I decided to move to Vietnam to teach English. I’m currently in Bangkok with Uncle Ken and Auntie Mae who graciously offered to let me stay with them while I get a TESOL Certification over the course of the next month. Classes started today, but I feel the need to fill in some gaps.

After Israel and Jordan, Will and I traveled to Istanbul where we met up with my Dad. It was great to see him after being on the road for so long. We spent a few days in Istanbul, as well as a few days in Cappadocia. As my journals are somewhere in my parents’ house on the other side of the planet, that’s about all the detail I can provide. Highlights I remember were a boat ride on the Bosphorus River, smoking hookah while watching a whirling dervish, and riding a hot air balloon over the caves of Cappadocia.

Dad Jake Bosphorus

My dad and I on the Bosphorus River boat tour

HotAirBalloon

Hot air balloon view over Cappadocia

HotAirBalloon2

After Turkey, Will and I parted ways. He went on to Budapest to visit his cousin while I went to Lisbon to meet up with my sister Mica and another good friend, Kevin Mason. The three of us traveled around Europe together and had a wonderful time, spending a few days in Madrid, seeing the beaches in Nice, visiting Eric and Remco in the Netherlands, and eventually making our way to Ireland.

JakeMicaNice

My sister and I in Nice

Kevin

Kevin in Lisbon

After traveling, I moved to Minneapolis for a year and a half where I lived with Will and another St. Olaf graduate. It was a great time, but after working at a desk I started to get the travel itch again and desperately wanted to go back to Asia. I quit my job in July, moved back to Chicago with my parents and that pretty much brings us to where I am now, sitting in shorts and a t-shirt instead of bundled up in blankets! Life is good, and I’ll get another post up here about the big move soon!

Israel and Jordan

Bigger delay than I expected! I’ve been back in the States since July 28th, but have my journals which I will finish the blog with. Adjusting to life at home again has been strange and I plan to do a follow up post after writing about the last few months of the trip.

Wadi Musa, Jordan

On May 28th we arrived in Tel Aviv and took a bus to Eilat. We wanted to get to Petra in Wadi Musa as soon as possible and then make our way back to Tel Aviv during the short time that we had in the area. We spent a day in Eilat catching up on sleep after our long day of travel from Mumbai and then on the 30th took a bus to Wadi Musa.

We got to our hostel in Wadi Musa by 10:00 am and were at Petra by 10:30. We walked along an open gravel road by buildings carved out of the stone made in 1 or 2 AD.

Road leading into Petra

Water transport carved into the stone.

The road sloped downhill and soon we were in a stone crevice with old carvings fading away in its walls. The road twisted and turned as we got closer to where we knew the treasury was that was made famous in the Indiana Jones movie. We’d been walking for a little while when we came around a turn and we were standing at the base of the treasury. Incredible to see in person and again something that pictures can’t quite do justice.

Narrow passageway leading to the Treasury

Will and I in front of the Treasury

After looking at the treasury and taking pictures for a while, we went to see if we could ride a camel through Petra. We had read about it online and in several books and decided it was something that Will and I both wanted to do. We found some guys who would take us from the treasury to the base of the steps going to the monastery a little less than a kilometer away. We hopped on and rode for the short time through Petra, towering over everyone there. Camels are pretty huge and you sit a full head and shoulders above people on horses. You get on the saddle while it’s sitting down and then as it stands you feel like you’re about to fall off, the camel straightening only its back legs before straightening the front legs. The only slight downside was the fact that there were no stirrups on the saddle, making it a little uncomfortable. Can’t imagine riding one of those things if it ran! I was happy to get on and happy to get off.

We then began the 840 step climb up to the monastery which took about 40 minutes. Quite a hike in the heat and we were exhausted when we got to the top, but it was without a doubt worth it. The monastery was carved out of more stone than most buildings in Petra, including its large courtyard in front.

En route to the Monastery

The Monastery

We explored the top for a while and rehydrated before we began the climb back down. When we got to the bottom we looked at a few more of the buildings before calling it a day.

Jerusalem

On the 31st we got up early and went back to Eilat. Crossing the border back into Israel was intense and my entire bag got unpacked by security there. Kind of annoying, but they’re keeping people safe so that’s a good thing. We were planning on going to Masada so we bought tickets there without worrying about where we would stay. We planned on using the free wifi on the bus to book a place only to discover that the cheapest place available was $70/night. No good for our budget! Fortunately the bus was going all the way to Jerusalem so we bought Masada – Jerusalem tickets at a stop and were good to go.

We arrived in Jerusalem and found a hostel much more in our budget located just a five minute walk away from the Damascus Gate of the old city.

Damascus Gate

On June 1st we went into the old city of Jerusalem and explored. We found a cheap map of the Via Dolorosa, way of suffering, which is the path Jesus walked to be crucified. We followed the map and went to the fourteen stations of the cross, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The stone it is believed Jesus was laid on after his crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

It was strange being in a place that is holy to so many people of several different religions and interesting hearing about some of the history of the interactions between groups. That evening was the beginning of the Sabbath, so we decided to go see the Western Wall where many Jews of different backgrounds would go to worship, sing, and dance. The reason it is called the Western Wall (or the Wailing wall) is because the wall used to be the western wall of the holiest temple to Judaism. The temple was destroyed during religious battles and the only thing that remained was the western wall. The Jewish people were told by their rabbis not to go where the temple used to stand as there was still holy ground they were not allowed to step on, and Muslim people built the Dome of the Rock near where the temple stood. The Jews use the Western Wall as a marker for where this temple used to be and still go there to worship and pray.

On the 2nd Will and I did a fair amount of walking as public transportation doesn’t run on the Sabbath. We decided to walk to Mount Olives and climb up to get a better view of Jerusalem. It was a hot day so the climb was pretty rough, but the views we had from the top were incredible.

The seemingly endless stairway going up Mt. Olives

A great view of the Old City

Countless graves for people who believed in the physical reincarnation of the body, which is supposed to start here.

From Mount Olives we walked to the garden of Gethsemane before going to the tomb of Mary Magdeline. There were several tours going on crowding the tomb, so we didn’t stay for very long.

Garden of Gethsemane

The spot it is believed where Jesus prayed before his crucifixion

After exploring Mount Olives and the area surrounding it we headed back into the old city to find some food. We stopped and ate outside along Via Dolorosa across the street from the IV station of the cross. At some point during our meal, a large group of people turned the corner carrying a cross singing in Portugese. They stopped at station IV and read from the Bible before carrying on to the next station. I got the impression that every Sunday this church has a service visiting each station of the cross. I wonder if the people there take for granted that they’re in a place so many consider holy!

On the 3rd Will and I got up to go on a tour of Masada and the Dead Sea with a phenomenal tour guide, Kupi, who took my parents around when they visited. Kupi picked us up at 8:30 am and explained the history of Masada on the way there. In the last century BC King Herod built a palace on the northern side of a mountain as a refuge for himself during troubled times. The mountain he chose is isolated from surrounding mountains, making it an ideal location for defending and hiding. He filled it with tons of food, wine, had cisterns for water, a bath house, and a palace so he could stay for extended periods of time if necessary.

The ascent to Masada

Herod’s storage compartments

Original tiles in Herod’s bath house

Cisterns

In 75 AD a group of jews took refuge from Romans on Masada, living off of what Herod had left behind. After two years, Roman soldiers had built encampments surrounding the mountain, preventing the jews from going anywhere. Roman soldiers attempted to scale the mountain only to be knocked down with boulders or hot oil. The Romans then built a stone ramp up to the top so they could smash a hole in the wall of the fortress in order to capture the jews. Eventually, the jews knew there was no way out and instead of being tortured by the Romans they decided to commit mass suicide. Men killed their families and then cast lots to decide who would have to kill the rest of the group and eventually themselves. Before everyone had died, the jews moved large jars containing food into a courtyard, showing the Romans they would rather kill themselves than be captured.

After the tour of Masada we went to the Dead Sea nearby to a spa where we could swim in the incredibly salty water. When swimming in the sea we were advised to bring water shoes of some sort as salt deposits form on the sea floor that hurt to walk on. The salt deposits only matter when getting into the water, after which you float like a cork.

Bethlehem

On the 4th we got up early and went to see the Dome of the Rock in the Temple Mount before going to Bethlehem. It took a while to find the non-Muslim entrance and when we did there was a fair amount of security to go through. Temple Mount takes up a large portion of the Old City of Jerusalem, which was immediately apparent with the large open space in the Old City.

From the Temple Mount we caught a bus to Bethlehem. When we arrived, we were in a Palestinian territory and were greeted by several taxi drivers offering us tours. We negotiated with one driver and were taken to see famous graffiti done by Banksy.

The first stop in Bethlehem we were taken to was Shepard’s Garden, where it is written angels descended and sang of Jesus’ birth.

Next we went to the Church of the Nativity where they believe Jesus was born. Inside the church they have a 14-point star on the floor in a room underneath the altar where they believe Jesus was born.

After our tour we caught the bus back to Jerusalem. Mid-way through our bus ride, the bus stopped at a checkpoint and we were all asked to get off the bus. Israeli soldiers searched the bus and checked everyone’s passports before allowing us to go back on the bus.

Tel Aviv

On the 5th we headed to Tel Aviv. The hostel we chose to stay at was very crowded and as a result we met tons of people over the course of the next few days. It was fun socializing with the people who would come and go and making friends I hope to see in the future.

After a few days of figuring out what to do about Will’s passport with a few countries left to visit and not enough space, the 8th quickly rolled around and we joined nearly the entire hostel in going to the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade. There were thousands of people crowding the streets, blasting music from trucks and dancing en route to the beach, where it ended. It was a blast! I ended up getting separated from Will and then eventually two friends we had made from the hostel, but still had a great time walking around looking at all the people enjoying themselves.

On the 9th we checked out of the hostel and hung out saying our farewells to everyone we had gotten to know during our stay. We left and headed to the airport to head to Istanbul where we were meeting my Dad! Needless to say, I was quite excited.

India: Part 3

Udaipur

On the morning of May 19th we arrived in Udaipur. Will and I got to a hotel on a lake recommended by Lonely Planet and ate breakfast on the roof with a gorgeous view. As we hadn’t gotten much sleep on the train, we napped a bit before wandering around getting familiar with our surroundings.

When we arrived back at the hotel we met a German staying there named Mikao. He’d been traveling through India for four months and had some crazy stories to tell about his time there. He said that traveling alone in India was a little rough and he had been approached by supposed gem smugglers asking him to bring things to Germany. After saying no, men followed him around and a few came into his room at the hotel he was staying at. Needless to say, he got out of there ASAP the next morning.

Mikao invited us to do a geo-cache with him the next day a little bit outside of Udaipur. For people who are unaware of what geo-caching is (as I was), it is basically a scavenger hunt that people post hints for online. I think that most (if not all) of the time you start with a GPS location and work from there. You search for a box of some sort, write your name in a journal kept in the box and switch out the “treasure” with something of your own. The next day we got up early for breakfast before taking an auto to Tiger Lake. The scenery when we arrived was incredible.

Mikao and I walking to the geo-cache

We found the starting point with Mikao’s GPS and started climbing up a hill, looking for a tree. The climb was a little steep and I was not dressed appropriately, wearing my fisherman shorts from Cambodia, a T-shirt, and Teva sandals. My legs, arms, and feet got a little torn up by cacti and thorns as we climbed, but when we got to the top we saw the tree the geo-cache was referring to. When we got closer to the tree we found that it was filled with decent sized monkeys. As we approached, they jumped around the tree to make it shake while hooting, trying to scare us off I’d guess, but when we got closer they ran off.

The lone tree at the top of the hill

Monkeys in the tree

We continued walking along the top of the hill, trying to find the box. We reread the hints Mikao saved on his phone and figured out that it was hidden near a cliff, so we decided it wasn’t worth the risk trying to find it. Instead we sat at the top for a while taking in the scenery and watched the people in a small village near a river.

We were taking a different, less difficult route back through a valley when we realized that we were going to have to go up and over the hill again. We climbed up to the top and had some significant difficulties getting down as cacti and thorn bushes blocked our way. We made it down and walked along the road trying to hitch hike our way back to town. It was hot, sunny, and there was no shade. Poor planing on our part, but we managed to wave a motorcycle down who led an auto to us which was very kind and saved us from more dehydration.

On the 21st, as we were drained from the geo-cache the day before, we relaxed at the hotel rehydrating and reading until a few hours before sunset. We took an auto to the Monsoon Palace where you’re supposed to go to see the sunset. It was built on a hill during the mid 1800s as a home for royalty during the monsoon season. Needless to say, the view of the sunset from the high point of the palace is incredible.

On our last day in Udaipur we went to see the City Palace and a local temple in Udaipur. The palace was interesting, but as we’d gotten spoiled with what we’ve been able to see in India we didn’t spend much time there.

When we got to the temple we were told that god was sleeping, so we would have to come back later to go inside. Unfortunately we had scheduled a cooking class, so we weren’t able to go back, but we got to look at the sculptures outside on the walls.

At 5:00 pm we went to Shashi’s Cooking Class to add another style of food to our repertoire. At the beginning of the class, Shashi explained to us why she started teaching the class. Her husband had passed away a decade ago and unfortunately his family somewhat disowned her when they are expected to look after their widowed daughter-in-law. She needed a way to make money and people told her she made delicious food, so she decided to start a cooking class. All of the English she knew she learned during her classes teaching westerners how to cook Indian food. The class was a lot of fun and we were given a recipe packet after we left. We learned how to make naan, paneer, and a few chutneys to name a few, all of which were delicious.

Shashi

Shashi’s pets that she went out to feed during our class

The kitchen we learned to cook in

Unfortunately, we had to leave the class a little early to catch our overnight train to Mumbai. Shashi was sad to see us go and packed up food for us to take with us on the train. She is an incredibly kind woman and I’m glad that she has found success in her cooking class.

Mumbai

On May 23rd we arrived in Mumbai and got to a friends home in Powai. Rajesh and Diane are from Naperville, Illinois, and Rajesh’s sister works with my Dad. Rajesh has been doing work for a large communications company in India and as a result he, Diane, and their children have been living in Mumbai for several months. They greeted us with open arms and talked with us about our travels so far. It was a very welcome change of pace from finding hotels when we arrived in a city and negotiating a price! As they had been living in Mumbai for several months before our arrival, they were great resources and gave us suggestions as to what we should see and do while in Mumbai.

As there was a screaming baby on our overnight ride from Udaipur to Mumbai, we spent the next day catching up on rest and checking out Powai. On the 25th we got up earlier to go to the Gateway of India and Elephanta Island. Due to traffic we got to the Gateway around 10:00 am and after taking some pictures we got tickets to Elephanta Island.

Gateway of India

The boat ride to Elephanta took about an hour. It gave us a great view of the coast of Mumbai and another perspective as to how massive the city truly is. We got to Elephanta and then had to climb many stairs to get up to where the caves were. The caves were carved directly into stone and were old Hindu temples and homes for priests. Very cool to walk in and around. There were about seven caves altogether that were all relatively similar although I’m sure they were used for different things.

Carvings in a cave

After we finished with the caves we headed back to Mumbai and walked around downtown. We were approached by a guy who asked us to be extras in a Bollywood movie because we’re white. He said that they’d pay $10 for the day and they would feed us breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The filming was supposed to take place in a 5-star hotel cafe, so we were told that we would pretend to be talking and sitting with other extras for the day. Sounded good to us, and we’d read about it being an interesting experience. We signed up and planned on being downtown by 8:00 am the next day.

On the 26th we got up early to be downtown in time for filming. A different guy than the day before came and picked up a few other white foreigners and told us to come with. We asked if he was with the company we signed up with the day before and showed him their card, to which he just nodded and led us along. We hopped on a bus and were taken to a set as opposed to a hotel, so we felt a little bad that we weren’t picked up by the company we committed to.

When we got to the set we were ushered to a foreigner tent where we were sat down and fed some breakfast. After we ate we were taken into a building to get our costumes and we asked other people if they knew what was going on. No one was 100% sure as to what the movie was about, but we pieced together that we were supposed to be in some sort of biker bar after we were all given black shirts, pants, shoes, and pleather jackets. Not the most comfortable outfit to be wearing in India’s heat.

We then went back to the foreigner tent and waited there for a few hours talking to a few guys from Denmark and a few from the UK. None of us had been Bollywood extras before, so we didn’t know what to expect. We found out the movie is going to be called Son of Sardaar mid morning and were curious as to who this Sardaar was supposed to be. At about 12:30 pm, an Indian worker came into the tent and clapped his hands before saying, “Break!” That made me laugh as we’d been sitting there for several hours already. They then served us lunch and we waited some more.

At 2:30 pm we were finally taken to the set. It didn’t exactly look like a biker bar. There were bright neon lights everywhere, motorcycles everywhere, and a road running into the background with a tractor on it. We were all ushered to the back of the road behind many Indian men dressed similarly to us and discovered that we were going to be in a Bollywood dance scene. Just a little bit different than sitting in a cafe in a 5-star hotel. The lights came on, the director started shouting, and then the music came on that we would be hearing for the next seven hours nonstop. We tried our best to imitate the dancers in front of us but I think that the expectations for the extras was extraordinarily low.

We soon found out that the story was something along the lines of Sardaar moving to London and starting a Harley Davidson club there. To that, all of our friends we’d made from the UK just laughed, saying that you couldn’t find anything remotely similar to the set in London.

The whole process of moving us around and having us dance for 30 minutes to the same few seconds of music repeated until 9:30 pm, 30 minutes after we were told we could leave. All of the extras were sick and tired of the process, so people started trying to get out. Some people working for the movie closed the door on us as we were trying to escape and forced us back to the set. Hilarious in retrospect, infuriating at the time. My shoes were breaking, I was sweating from the jacket, and wanted to get out of the costume. When we finally did get out a worker came and asked if we would go in for “one more scene,” which is what he said when we asked him shortly after 9:00 pm. None of the extras agreed to it, so we were given our $10 and taken back to town. We grabbed a beer with the other extras before catching a cab back to Powai. By the time we got back to Rajesh and Diane’s it was 2:30 am. Quite a long day.

On the 27th we slept in and tried to get ahold of Shantha and Rajan, two of my grandparents’ friends who came to Chicago for some time in the 1960s. Shantha babysat my dad, aunt, and uncle while Rajan took courses and I was really hoping to meet them before leaving India. After emailing Shantha and Rajan I got a quick response from their son, Suresh. He came and picked Will and I up from Rajesh and Diane’s to meet Shantha and Rajan.

It was amazing hearing stories about how Shantha and Rajan and my grandparents met. My grandpa saw them walking on the street in Chicago looking for some building and offered to drive them there even though it was the opposite direction he was heading. He asked them about who they were and where they were from, exchanged contact information, and said he would come and pick them up for dinner on the weekend. They didn’t think that he’d follow through and were shocked when he did, but it lead to a lifelong friendship between two families. They continued to see each other and help each other whenever they could even after Shantha and Rajan moved back to India.

Suresh’s wife, Suresh, Will, Shantha, and me

Rajan, Shantha, me, and Will

After talking with Shantha, Rajan, Suresh, and his wife for a while, Suresh and his wife took us on a tour of Mumbai, showing us many buildings along the coast and telling us about some of the history.

Oldest church in Mumbai

After our last tour of Mumbai, Suresh took us back to Rajesh and Diane’s where we were taken out for one last dinner. We went to a Chinese restaurant they recommended and talked about India some more and the future plans for the trip. After dinner we headed back to pack up and nap a bit as we needed to leave at 2:30 am to get to our flight to Israel on time.

India: Part 2

Varanasi

At 8:00 pm on May 11th we got on our train from New Delhi to Varanasi. We booked a first class A/C sleeper to see what it was like for one ride and met two nice Indian men who worked in Saudi Arabia. They had recently gone to Mecca and were bringing water from there to their father who lives in Varanasi. When the ticket checker came into our cabin after checking the other guys’ tickets they started arguing. We found out that they had booked their tickets three months in advance as required for Indian citizens before there had been a budget increase for the trains and the ticket checker was asking for 400 more rupees. They said it wasn’t fair to spring the price on them on the train as they were coming from Saudi Arabia and didn’t have any rupees on them.

After talking for an hour or so the ticket checker came back with another train worker and things got more heated. We couldn’t understand them as they were speaking Hindi but we could tell by the volume and body language that both sides were getting angry. The ticket checker left without collecting money and we went to bed.

Around 4:00 am on the 12th I woke up to shouting in the cabin and saw four policemen in addition to the ticket checker. They explained that they had no rupees and the policemen then motioned to Will saying that we should pay the difference for them. This made our cabin mates really angry and the policemen started moving their bags out of the car. They then said that they could pay Will back when we got to Varanasi so we covered the difference. As soon as we arrived in Varanasi they had a friend waiting for them with the money they borrowed.

When we arrived in Varanasi, we got safely to our guest house near the Burning Ghat after being led through the narrow winding streets of Varanasi. As we had a guide to get there the price for the room was raised in order to cover the hotel’s commission they pay to anyone bringing foreigners to the guest house.

A Brahmin in Varanasi asking for money

After getting some much needed coffee, we headed out to explore Varanasi. First we headed to the large burning ghat (steps) where bodies are wrapped and cremated in the open. We learned that men are wrapped in orange cloth and women in red before being dipped in the river Ganges, a very holy river according to Hinduism. They believe that if they bathe in the river all of their life’s sins are washed away, so many elderly Hindus come to Varanasi to live in hospice care waiting to die. After the body is dipped in the river, they are then placed in a large bonfire next to the river. It was a very humbling experience visiting the site considered holy by so many. After the bodies are burned, the ashes are then put in the river so the person will escape reincarnation.

After the burning ghat we walked along the Ganges checking out some of the other ghats in Varanasi. There are over 80 ghats lining the river and they are quite diverse. The colors and designs were interesting to see and take pictures of. When our caffeine began to wear off we found Brown Bread Bakery, a NGO that supports local schools with some of its profits. It was a little hard to find with many bakeries trying to trick tourists into going to their shop instead, but we managed and had a snack and more coffee there.

After fueling back up we went to our guest house and booked a two hour boat tour of the Ganges through our hotel. We left at 6:00 pm and were first taken to the burning ghat. Our tour guide then took us down the river giving us great views of the ghats we’d walked by.

One of the burning ghats

After seeing many ghats, we headed back to a larger one to watch a ceremony that happens nightly at 7:00 pm. Apparently the same ceremony has been performed for thousands of years, so it was really cool that we were able to see it. It involved the continuous ringing of bells, incense, and synchronized lantern waving for the entire time. The river and the ghat were both packed with people who seem to be incredibly devout.

Agra

On the 14th we checked out of our guest house and wandered Varanasi a bit more before heading to the train station to go to Agra. We switched over to the two tier A/C sleeper that had a significant difference in cost from the first class A/C. Makes sense I guess, but it also seems to be another method for keeping the rich and poor separate.

On the train after a guy came through and painted on our foreheads

We arrived in Agra at 6:00 am and had an auto take us to another hotel. We got settled, ate, and then headed to see the Taj Mahal. We had an auto take us to the south gate as it’s the least crowded with tour groups tending to use the east and west gates. After getting our tickets and heading through security, the first thing you see is a red gate blocking the Taj Mahal from view. It definitely built the suspense of seeing the Taj Mahal a bit more and lets you get relatively close to it before it is finally in your view.

After passing through the red gate, we saw the massive structure. It’s very impressive and in my slightly sleep deprived state it was hard to believe that I was actually there, seeing so many pictures of it online and in books.

We walked up the pathway towards the Taj Mahal taking in the scenery. We learned that when it was built, it was lifted several feet so as to have only the sky as the background, making it that much more impressive. The detail put into the carvings in the marble walls was insanely uniform. You can clearly see the European influence in the architecture. Inside the Taj is a mausoleum for a king’s wife where we were not allowed to take pictures.

A close up view of the intricate carvings on the Taj Mahal

From the Taj Mahal we headed to the Red Fort which has a great view of the Taj and was huge. We explored it for a little while before it started getting very hot so we decided to rest and find good food.

Throne at the Agra Fort

Jaipur

On the 16th we got up early to catch our train to Jaipur at 5:10 am. When we got into Jaipur we found a reasonable place to stay and relaxed, figuring out the rest of our time in India. On the 17th we got up and out the door by 10:00 am as we had arranged for a half day tour of Jaipur with an auto driver who seemed quite friendly. He picked us up from our hotel and took us to the City Palace in the old, pink city. It was a gorgeous palace with many open areas due to India’s warmer climate. Inside the palace they had the world’s largest two pieces of silver, giant pots that were used to carry holy water from the Ganges to Jaipur.

Will and our auto driver

Will with City Palace guards

Will next to the silver water pots

From the City Palace we walked across the street to Jantar Mantar, a large courtyard that was used to calculate the length of a day, the time of year, time of day, and much more. The instruments that they’d built were huge and permanent installments in Jantar Mantar. We read about the instruments for a while before going to meet with our driver again.

Next we asked the driver to take us to the Amber Fort. While we were on the way there, he told us that it wasn’t a part of the half day so it was going to cost us more. We said that we were still within our half day time as we had only been out for two hours to which he responded that we could pay what was in our hearts at the end of the tour. It was a steep climb up to the fort, so I understood the reasoning and intended to compensate for gas at the end of our tour.

The Elephant Gate at the Amber Fort

When we got to the Amber Fort we climbed the many steps up to the top and had an amazing view of Jaipur. I can’t imagine living in some place as massive as that. We explored the fort and many of its hallways, finding one that was really long but just ended in a dead end. Kind of funny. It must have been used for some sort of storage.

The long, dead end hallway

When we’d finished up with the Amber Fort we headed down to find our driver again. He asked us if we wanted to see how jewelry was made in Jaipur as it is famous there and we thought that’d be interesting so we agreed. We drove by the Water Palace to take some pictures before going to see the jewelry making.

Agra Water Palace

After the water palace our driver took us to a jewelry store instead and seemed to be a little pissed when we came out empty handed. From there things went a little downhill. We asked him to take us to one more place which he stopped by, said, “take picture,” and then drove off when he heard the camera click. A few minutes later his auto seemed to break down and he turned it off, walking around it shaking his head. I felt a little bad and wanted to pay for the gas to get to the Amber Fort, so I paid him 400 rupees, double what we had agreed on for a half day tour. I was hoping he would be appreciative of it, considering we were in the middle of the city, he hadn’t brought us back to our hotel as he said he would, and we didn’t know where we were. I was shocked when he demanded that I pay him 500 rupees and showed no gratitude, so after saying I was being generous we walked away to find another auto back to the hotel.

The Mahal we didn’t get to go in

India: Part 1

Chennai

We got into Chennai last the morning of May 4th at 1:30 am. After getting in we had to get money to pay for a taxi, but no ATMs had money. Interesting start to our experience in India. We had to figure out which taxis were legitimate and which ones weren’t but fortunately I had talked to a friend, Bogi Conrad, a bit when we were in Sri Lanka and he told us to go to a “Pre-Paid Taxi” stand where we’d tell them where we wanted to go. We paid at a booth for a taxi and then we were approached by four other guys and had to figure out which one worked for the company we just paid. We solved the problem by finding the right sign among many others and got in a cab going to the Sudha Inn that Will had booked a few days before via email.

En route to the hotel we discovered that in India, people use their horns very liberally. Depending on who you’re driving with, it can be quite deafening, and certainly wakes you up at any point in the day. When we got to the Sudha Inn we weren’t sure if we were at the right place, but all the signs said Sudha Inn so we figured we would trust the cab driver. The cab driver honked at the gate (at this point it was 2:30 am) and a guy sleeping outside the hotel on the ground came and opened up the gate for us. We paid the cab driver the remaining amount on the receipt from the pre-paid stand and he took off while we tried to get one of three guys sleeping in the lobby to wake up to let us in. We knocked loudly on the door and at one point a guy lifted his head, listened for a second without turning around, and then put his head back down and re-situated himself. The guy who unlocked the gate went over and started shouting their names until one of them came to the door. The guy comes over and asks us (in very broken English) what room we’re in. We say we don’t have one, they say they’re full. “No room.” I’m quite confused, considering Will emailed these guys back and forth and told them we’d be getting in late to which they said they’d have a room for us. That frustrated both of us as we were very tired and didn’t know what to do, so after Will yelled at them a bit we left trying to find another place to stay.

At this point its 3:00 am in downtown, not touristy Chennai, we don’t have a map, I don’t have cell phone service, and we have no idea what we’re going to do. Will’s fuming at how rudely we were treated by the Sudha Inn night staff and we’re trying to figure out where we’re going to stay. Fortunately, we saw a light a little bit across the street so we crossed, wandered to it to find another hotel that was $40 a night instead of $15 that took us in.

That day we slept in until around 10:00 am before leaving the hotel to figure out where the right Sudha Inn was. I figured we had to have gone to the wrong one after getting their word that they’d have a room for us, so we both wanted to get there. We ask the guy at our hotel’s front desk where 111 Poonamallee High Road is and he directs us in the opposite direction of the Sudha Inn we were at the night before. We decide to start walking in that direction from 943 Poonamallee High Road and after 10 minutes we only got to 800, so we decided to take an auto-rickshaw. We showed the auto driver the address and guess what? Ended up back at the same Sudha Inn. The cab driver was right. We were frustrated that they didn’t let us in the night before, so we explained what happened as best as we could to the desk after they told us that they had several rooms available. He said that the people working the night were new. Oh well. As we agreed to meet Bogi there we decided to go for it and the prices were the most reasonable we had been able to find. We didn’t see any of the workers from the previous night there.

Guys who wanted Will to take a picture of them. Relatively common.

We rested in our room some more, exhausted from our first twelve hours in the country combined with our lack of sleep. A bit later we tried to find internet to contact Bogi, which was another adventure. We asked our desk if they knew where an internet cafe was after figuring out that there was no chance of finding wifi anywhere. They told us to go a half kilometer down the road and we’d find one. We started walking and after a few kilometers we decided to ask some other people. No one knew where an internet cafe was, so we asked an auto to take us to get internet. He took us to a small, dirty apartment with a few computers and we were able to get in touch with Bogi. We also looked up tourism in Chennai and discovered that it wasn’t the best place to see things. Malls and movie theaters were recommended and even Lonely Planet started its info on Chennai with something along the lines of, “If you happen to find yourself in Chennai…” Good signs over all.

The next few days we bummed around a bit trying to get over our culture shock. We saw Hugo in 3D at an incredibly nice new mall, which was interesting to go to. The mall itself is surrounded by poverty and pollution, but inside it was immaculate. The movie theater was by far the nicest I’d ever been to with huge seats, all kinds of food, and an elaborately decorated lobby. Talking during a movie isn’t considered rude in India and that took a little getting used to, but for the most part the talkers were further away from us.

Late on the night of the 5th Bogi arrived and met us at Sudha Inn. The next day he helped us order some food at the Sudha Restaurant as he’d been living in southern India for the past nine months. They had the names of food on the menu, but no explanations for what it was. We ended up eating mostly dosa in the south, a thin pancake made with potatoes and filled with potatoes, cheese, or masala and served with a coconut chutney. It was pretty tasty, but eating it with your right had only as you have to in southern India was pretty strange. Difficult to get used to!

Meeting up with Bogi!

After complaining to Bogi a bit about the difficulty we had finding internet in Chennai, he offered us his old USB modem as he was leaving India in one week. We went to a mall to charge it up with data and brought the price sheet with us to show the store how much money we wanted to put onto the USB modem and paid $24. When it didn’t start working after 24 hours, Bogi called the company and found out that the new price was $26, so we asked if we could pay $2 more. As the $24 didn’t show up in the Reliance account it wasn’t possible, so we had to pay the full $26 to get it working. Somewhat frustrating to say the least.

Karigiri & Vellore

On the 7th we took a train with Bogi to Karigiri, which was relatively uneventful. The only interesting thing that happened on the train ride was that a group of three or four transvestites came onto the train asking for money. Bogi explained to me what he could about the transvestites and he said that it’s considered bad luck not to give them money, but none of us were about to give them anything. Before they left, one of them came close to me, pinched my cheek incredibly hard and said, “I like,” before walking on to the next unlucky group of people.

We stayed with Bogi checking out where he was working on his Fulbright at a leprosy clinic for the next two days. Karigiri is a little outside of Vellore in a small town so there wasn’t the continuous honking that we had gotten a little used to in Chennai. It was much easier to get rest in that environment than it had been during the days prior to our visit with Bogi. He showed us around the clinic and explained what it did, telling us that due to the lower numbers of lepers in India their government considers the disease eradicated. As a result, the clinic has lost a significant amount of funding and the leprosy numbers are rising again.

On the 8th Bogi took us to see the Golden Temple in Vellore. We paid a lot more than we should have to get tickets and then had to pay to store our phones, bags, shoes, and cameras, each requiring a separate fee. Will and I wore our long fisherman shorts we picked up in Cambodia that we were told were too short to enter the temple. Fortunately, we were able to lower them enough to cover our shins and we got in without having to pay more money. When we got into the temple, we had to walk around a long pathway lined with pictures and quotations by a holy man who was the man who decided the temple needed to be built. To me it seemed a little narcissistic, but I don’t understand that much about Hinduism so perhaps it was called for and expected. We walked quickly through the temple as the stone floor was incredibly hot and we weren’t wearing shoes. The actual temple was impressive; a gold building surrounded by water with golden carvings in the walls, but the effort to get there took away from the experience and had worn us out. We saw it and continued on, heading out to get our shoes so we could stop walking on what felt like burning coals. From the Golden Temple Bogi took us to walk through the Vellore Fort before heading back to Karigiri where we enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere a bit more before heading to Chennai to fly to New Delhi.

Inside the Vellore Fort

New Delhi

On the 9th we got up early and caught an auto to the airport. Fortunately Bogi told us to print off our boarding passes beforehand because otherwise you aren’t even allowed into the airport. The auto who took us there was incredibly obnoxious, honking every 30 seconds or so for extended periods of time. Good way to start the day, and I could tell that my ears were a little shot when we got to the airport. As we were flying to Delhi, we thought we were supposed to go to the domestic terminal. Makes sense right? We got sent to the international terminal at the other end of the airport. When we got there the guy told us to go to the domestic terminal and we told him we were sent over to him. He looked at a board and then let us in.

Next we went to check our bags and get our tickets. We went up, gave them our bags and were given those tags no one uses to put on your carry on luggage. We headed to go through customs because we were on an “international flight” and then were turned back around because we didn’t get a necessary sheet of paper filled out to go through. We went back to the check in counter, told them we didn’t have the sheet and they handed it to us telling us we needed it. Would’ve been nice to get beforehand. We filled it out and handed it to the person checking them who didn’t even look at it and got through.

Next was a really fun part: security. Firstly, while we were waiting in line one guy just walked to the front and cut everyone. Next, when we got to the front of the line we didn’t have the tag on our carry ons so we were sent back to fill one out. We filled out the tags and got back in line. Then some passenger walked through, bypassing machines and officers alike. Will stared at the man who walked through and motioned to an officer who just shrugged his shoulders. Considering we were in the international terminal, it was kind of ridiculous. We finally got through with a little time to spare and grabbed some breakfast at the airport.

We got to Delhi safely and then found a hotel in a touristy area for $10/night. We unloaded our stuff and then wandered around the area a bit. We picked up a map because it’s really packed and was strange to navigate at first. People confronted us constantly as we walked down the street asking for money or for us to buy something which gets tiring fast.

On the 10th we managed to navigate the Delhi train station and bypass all of the Tourist Office scams that try to get you to pay for a personal driver instead of a train ticket. We were told all sorts of things before we got to the real tourist office by people trying to get our money. We were pretty used to it at this point, so we just kept walking. We figured out our train ticket to Varanasi and then headed to the Lotus Temple using Delhi’s metro system. We made the mistake of not eating before going to the Lotus Temple, assuming that we would find some place to get food nearby. Fortunately we found a street vendor selling chips, but other than that we were out of luck. We got to the temple, took some pictures and after that were too hungry to do anything so we took the metro back to the city center.

After eating, we took the metro back out to try to hear religious Sufi songs at sunset. We got to our metro stop and started walking in the general direction of the shrine, asking a few people on the way if they knew where it was. It started to get windier and dustier as we pressed on towards the shrine which started irritating my allergies, so unfortunately we had to turn around and go back.

On the 11th, we got up early and checked out of our hotel in Delhi. Our train didn’t leave until the evening, so we left our bags with the desk while we went out sight seeing. After breakfast we went to Jama Masjid Mosque. It was an impressive building with a large courtyard flanked by two minarets, one on each side.

One of the Jama Masjid gates

Inside the Jama Masjid Mosque

There was one minaret you could climb so we decided we couldn’t miss the opportunity of going up into it. It was a bit of a hassle getting up there, but when we made it up we had an incredible 360 degree view of Delhi. Later that day we went back to get our bags from the hotel and get on our train to Varanasi.