A Travellerspoint blog

November 2008

India vs Canada

a sobering thought on World Aids Day

rain -3 °C

No, this is not a blog entry about soccer or cricket. Sorry.

December 1 is World Aids Day. Considering how prevalent Aids is in India and considering I'll be on my way there on the 26th I have decided to do my bit to make people aware that we are far from out of the woods.

For everyone who gets tested and insists partners get tested, good for you. For everyone who won't have anything to do with anyone who won't use a condom, good for you.

You should know you represent the tip of the iceberg.

It is estimated that there are approximately 2.4 million men and women in India who are currently living with HIV. Let me put that into perspective for you: Ottawa, Canada's capital and our 4th largest metropolitan area has a population of just over 1 million. So there are more than 2 times the number of people in India who are either HIV Positive or have Aids!

And contrary to what you may be thinking right about now, it's not just the sex trade workers and impoverished who are affected. It now affects all sections of Indian society including housewives and the wealthy -- and a huge number who are under 30 years old.

Here's another way of coming to terms with the severity of the problem:

When I had my consultation with a health care professional at a travel medical clinic as part of my India preparations she told me that under no circumstances should I have a manicure or pedicure while I'm in India. Perplexed, I asked her why. "HIV and Aids" was her short answer. "Do not, I repeat, do not let anyone use any kind of a sharp object that could cut or puncture your skin", she went on. End of conversation.

"But I am staying in 5 and 6-star hotels and heritage palace hotels", I said. "Surely in those kinds of luxurious surroundings there won't be a problem", I countered.

"Under no circumstances" she repeated.


So what about Canada?

The latest statistics I could find are from the end of 2006. At that time 18,560 men were suffering from Aids and 1,866 women -- while 47,523 men were HIV Positive and 9,569 were women. 2,802 of the males with Aids are between 15 and 29. 471 of the females are between 15 and 29. 11,180 of the males who are HIV Positive are between 15 and 29 and 3,513 are female. What's it all add up to?

77,518 in Canada versus 2,400,000 in India!

I think we need a huge, online, worldwide brainstorm to come up with some ideas about how we can get the message about prevention across in a compelling and relevant way. Because the real challenge is, to quote Ratna Gaekwad, outreach co-ordinator with the Delhi NGO Pratyatna 2, "How do you talk HIV/AIDs to someone who does not know the basics about health and hygiene?

Who wants to start the ball rolling?

Posted by a_broad 14:12 Archived in India Tagged educational Comments (0)


to reassure you

overcast 2 °C

Since this tragedy started to unfold yesterday afternoon I have been inundated with emails from all of you. Thank you so much for your concern, your love and support -- how lucky am I to have all of you in my life.

I want to reassure you ...

We are not leaving for a month.

Mumbai is not our first stop. In fact we'll be well into January before we go there.

My travel agent is on top of it and she will not take us anywhere that isn't safe.

It's academic anyway because the government will not let us in if it isn't safe.

Tragically, nowhere is safe. 9/11 certainly brought that message home loud and clear.

Thankfully I have decided to write this blog ...

... and you will know that I'm ok. So if you haven't subscribed yet, please do -- that way you'll be notified every time I post an entry. And if you haven't become a member of travellerspoint yet, please do -- that way you can post comments and I will respond and we can converse (if you have disposed of that email already -- and shame on you if you have -- I will send out another notice soon.)

Let us all pray that this gets resolved as quickly and effectively as possible -- not so I can take my trip, but so those who are already in Mumbai can be safe and secure once again; so those who are injured make speedy and full recoveries and so the souls of those who perished can rest in peace.

Posted by a_broad 10:44 Archived in India Tagged preparation Comments (1)

(My) Passage To India

it's getting close

sunny 2 °C


There are the mixologists who combine all kinds of booze and juice and other non-alcoholic beverages to create fanciful cocktails ... and then there's Rashmi -- who I've decided is also a mixologist -- only she has a real knack for throwing a bunch of people together, and creating a diverse yet compatible group (which makes me think that the next time I want to meet a guy I should put her in charge.)

The dinner at her house was such a great idea. She invited some folks who had been on previous trips with her and those of us going in December who live here (there's a couple coming from Australia who obviously didn't make it to the dinner -- although if we'd known that CNN could make a hologram of someone and import them from one location to another ...).

And we all got to know each other over a wonderful, home-cooked Indian dinner.

Those who had travelled with Rashmi before couldn't stop raving about her and the trips she'd organized for them. All we heard, over and over again, was what a great time we were going to have. And they all had fabulous and interesting stories to share with us: how challenging it is to get up on a camel, let alone to ride one ... how much the kids in the villages loved the little gifts they brought them ... how blown away we'd be by the opulance of the palace hotels ... how moved we'd be during the evening Aarti prayer on the Ganges in Varanasi, and on and on it went.

One minute we were strangers -- and the next we were united by our common interest in India. It was truly amazing.

I had a chance to talk to everyone going on our trip, too. There's an incredibly bright woman who owns her own IT company and commutes between North Carolina and Toronto ... her cousin who was a teacher and just bubbles over with enthusiasm and energy ... a soft-spoken, really well-travelled bridge instructor ... me ... and Haidee -- a photographer who's originally from South Africa.

It's a great group and I can't wait to really get to know them. I am very glad I decided against going alone. It will be so much better to have people to share these experiences with.

But it gets even better.

Haidee and I have decided to collaborate on a book of this trip --

with her being a photographer and me being a writer it's a natural! In talking to her that night we realized how much we had in common. It's unreal -- and all good!

Now the time is starting to fly by and it's time to decide what I'm taking on the trip. I pare it down and pare it down because I know I plan to shop. I am definitely buying a sari and I know I want several salwar kameez -- and that's just the beginning -- yes, I will be stashing an extra piece of luggage that folds up into a sack in my luggage.

I've done just about everything I can to prepare for this trip. All that's left to do is get my prescriptions ... last minute stuff from the drugstore ... socks ... an extra memory card and a spare battery for my camera ... money ... and, pack.

Even our itinerary is now cast in stone:

We fly to Delhi (through Brussels and spend a couple of days there. Then we go to Agra (Taj Mahal) ... Samode (where we stay in the most beautiful palace hotel -- Samode Palace -- and celebrate New Years -- albeit 10 1/2 hours before you do here) ... Jaipur (pink city and also where we get to ride elephants) ... Bikaner (where we begin our desert adventure) ... Jaisalmer (camel ride) ... Manvar (where we get to stay in tents and watch the sunset over the dunes) ... Jodhpur (yes, maybe I'll even buy some) ... Deogarh ... Udaipur (where we stay in a floating hotel) ... Varanasi ... Khajuraho (think Kama Sutra) ... Mumbai (where the couple from Australia leave us to go home) ... and then on to a week in the South, in Kerala -- we start with an overnight houseboat cruise of the backwaters ... go to Munnar (tea and spice plantations) ... on to Thekkedy (where there is a wild animal reserve, a wonderful Auryvedic Spa and we'll also get some cooking lessons) ... Cochin -- then back to Mumbai for our flight home.

Yes, we will be covering a lot of ground, but I can't wait. There will be lots and lots of pictures -- some you'll see on this blog -- for the rest you will have to endure a slide presentation when I get back home. Maybe I'll bribe you by inviting you to a beautiful Indian meal I will cook for you, with spices I bring home from India!

To those of you who have endured my endless dissertations on India and descriptions of every event that has led up to this journey, thank you for your patience. I can't wait to share my experiences with you -- on this blog and then again "in the flesh".

I hope you enjoy travelling vicariously with me -- and I hope I inspire you to make the journey yourself one day. The next time you hear from me I will be at the airport -- or better yet, in my pod on the plane.

Namaste ...

Posted by a_broad 12:59 Archived in India Tagged preparation Comments (0)

Desperately Seeking Ganesha

the faith to remove all obstacles

semi-overcast 14 °C


Daunted? Me? Oh ye of little faith! I thought you knew me better than that. A couple of little setbacks aren't going to dissuade me from going to India. All it's made me do is go out and buy a second guide book -- Frommer's Guide -- and spend even more time on the Internet -- and start talking to everyone I know who's been there.

India was definitely in my immediate future and one way or the other I was going to organize the trip of my dreams. Truth be told, I was enjoying the challenges. I was loving the research because, in the process, I was learning a lot about India and I know that when I finally get there, it will be a lot more familiar to me than it would be if everything had gone smoothly and quickly. There's no question that the preparation is almost as much fun as the participation. What's that saying? 90% Perspiration and 10% Inspiration?

First stop? I spoke to Allison, who used to work for me, who has been to India a couple of times. It was a wonderful conversation and I came away with tons of useful information and tips:

For instance ...

She convinced me that, considering that I couldn't go for months on end, as charming as Pondicherry sounded I should go to Varanasi instead. Of course after I'd left her and did my homework I quickly realized she was absolutely right. It is, after all, the spiritual essence of India -- an absolute must-see. Challenging to be sure -- I would see things that would be difficult to handle -- but pushing my boundaries is one of the many reasons I want to go to India in the first place.

Varanasi is where Indians go to die -- and bodies are cremated along the banks of the sacred Ganges 24 hours a day. It is believed that if you die in Varanasi your soul can finally rest in peace.

Allison also warned me about the trains in India and suggested that, because I was traveling alone, I avoid them altogether. I took this suggestion very seriously because Allison is someone who goes confidently where others fear to tread. So if she was warning me about something -- anything actually -- I was going to listen.

She had been to some of the hotels I had decided I'd like to stay at, so that gave me some confidence. She told me I would love the people -- and if I met a local who invited me home for a meal I should definitely go -- it would be a fabulous experience. She told me over and over again how terrific the people are -- how warm, how friendly, how generous, how kind.

She told me not to be afraid of getting delhi-belly -- that she'd never had a problem -- that I should just use common sense.

I walked away from my time with her with pages and pages of notes. It was great --and it reminded me that there is tremendous value in talking to people who have spent time in far away or exotic places you want to visit. Guidebooks are great, the Internet is great, but you can't overlook the recommendations, suggestions and watch-out-fors from people you know and trust.

Which is why I also talked to another friend of mine, Daryl. She'd spent 3 months in India on business and her advice was also invaluable -- not to mention her shopping tips -- like wait to buy a sari in Varanasi, where they are known for silk. And she would know because she told me she shopped so much she had to buy another suitcase and still she had to ship things home!

All my homework certainly paid off:

By now I knew exactly where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go, what I wanted to see, how long I wanted to stay and which hotels I wanted to stay in. It was time to find the right travel agent; and just when I was thinking I might try an agent in the U.K. (with the Internet geography doesn't matter) serendipity took over.

While talking to John, another friend, I mentioned I was planning a trip to India. "OMG", he said. "I have a friend who went to India recently and LOVES his travel agent. Do you want me to get her name for you?"

"Please" was my answer.

I spoke with John's friend Richard that night -- or more to the point, I listened to him rave about his trip and his agent for the better part of an hour. The next morning I called Rashmi Brahmbhatt, the owner of Crossways Travel & Tours. I trusted her immediately. I loved her immediately. And it took her about 5 minutes to convince me to join her on a very small group (8 people in total) trip -- to exactly the places I wanted to see -- that she was leading at the end of the year -- Delhi, Rajasthan, Varanasi, Mumbai and Kerala.

First off, it was Rashmi's passion that got to me.

Rashmi is someone who loves her country ... who is proud of where she comes from ... who revels in its history and customs and pagentry; and wants nothing more than to share it with you. She wants to give you an experience you will cherish forever, and turns herself inside out to deliver.

She understood what I wanted to get out of this trip in a nano-second -- and in about the same amount of time I knew I couldn't be in better hands.

We talked for about a half an hour -- the first of many, many, many wonderful and interesting conversations we've had about her homeland and our trip.

I have never seen anyone work so hard. To say she aims to please is an understatement. But the better I've gotten to know her during the months we've been planning this trip the more I have come to realize that Rashmi gets pleasure from giving pleasure.

Over and over again she refined the trip -- like a craftsman who is working on a piece of marble or fine wood -- constantly polishing and sanding and polishing some more. Re-plotting the course we would take and how long we would stay ... adding in a train journey so we could add that to the many experiences we would bring home with us ... allowing enough time to rest and to shop ... making sure we would have enough time on our own ... breaking up long stretches of driving by stopping and enjoying historical sites, or meeting village people, or simply having a leisurely lunch ... giving us a taste not only of the typical tourist attractions but how the real people live as well ... making sure we see not only the splendour but the spirituality and even the squalor -- the real India.

She was never satisfied. Each time she said she was finished, she would start again.

And she was just as committed to finding people to join us who would be compatible.

What would have been easy would have been for Rashmi to simply advertise the trip. But that's not how she does things. Like a matchmaker, she wants to make sure the chemistry will be right ... that we'll be willing to compromise so everyone gets to see and do what they want ... that we'll roll with the punches when reality sets in and we're dealt the odd surprise -- which is bound to happen no matter how well everything is planned. Like with everything else concerning this trip, she refused to compromise -- even if it meant we'd be a smaller group than she'd hoped for.

While Rashmi was finalizing the itinerary I started making lists of what I'd need and need to do. For someone who hates needles, I could look forward to becoming a pin cushion.

Never mind ...

So off I trotted to the doctor for polio, dyptheria, tetanus, thyphoid and Twinrix shots. She also convinced me to take a flu shot -- my first ever -- because I'd be on a plane for so long. She sold me when she said, "You don't want to get the flu and ruin your trip do you?" With a sigh I gamely rolled up my sleeve and raised my arm.

If nothing else this experience has cured me of my fear of getting jabbed!

Happily I had no reactions. Two weeks before I leave I will take Dukoral (prevents ecoli) and soon after I will start my anti-malaria pills. Thankfully there is a new one on the market -- Malarone -- which apparently has no side effects.

I will also make sure I have a full list from her of stuff to include in a First Aid Kit. What can I say? I was a Girl Guide when I was a kid. I believe in 'Be Prepared'. Considering the reaction I got to some mosquito bites in Bequia last year let me assure you that I have every intention of making sure I am well stocked with steroid cream and anti-histimines.

Next I took care of my Visa and I was shocked at how quickly I got it -- about a week. Now all I really had to do was think about what clothes I would take ... and stop spending and start saving so I'd actually have some money for the trip.

Now there's a concept ...

And while I was in list Heaven Rashmi was constantly thinking of anything and everything she could do to make sure we all had a spectacular time -- including hosting a dinner party so we could all meet each other -- with the exception of the couple coming from Australia, obviously. And ...? The verdict ...?

Posted by a_broad 13:35 Archived in India Tagged preparation Comments (0)

Salwar Kameez if you Please

going to India at last

rain 11 °C

I have always wanted to go to India -- for as long as I can remember. I've always been fascinated with its history and spiritualiity ... and have also been attracted to its dazzling, over-saturated colour and texture, architecture and treasures, music and films, literature and culture and, yes, food. It is just a sensory feast -- almost more than one can bear actually. It's been there, always in the back of my mind ... until destiny recently took over:

One of my mother's closest friends has a daughter who is married to a man who works for Unicef. Most of their married life has been spent moving from place to place -- Bangladesh, Africa, Viet Nam, Nepal -- and now they are in Delhi.

When my mom died Ellen (the daughter) sent me a lovely note and planted the seed -- "why not come to India while we're here?" she asked. Why not indeed. So, without hesitating for even a minute, I sent back an email saying I was seriously thinking about it.

She then got back to me and said that India could be overwhelming -- there was so much to see and do and learn. She went on to say I needed to think carefully about what I wanted from this trip -- did I want a cultural experience ... a spiritual experience ... an architectural experience etc.

At that particular time of my life, having just lost my mother, this seemed like too big a task. She was right, of course, but I didn't think I had it in me to do that much soul-searching. So I tucked it right back into the back of my mind where it had always been, promising myself that I would get to it in the near future.

But I'd caught the bug.

And although I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it, I did occasionally spend time on the Internet doing some research. Then one Sunday morning in late Winter or early Spring of this year I was plowing through the New York Times over breakfast.

Lo and behold, they had an article in the Travel Section about Pondicherry. Located in the Southeast on the Bay of Bengal, what I found fascinating about Pondicherry is the fact that it consists of 4 former French coastal settlements. So you can walk down one side of a street, order a cafe au lait and speak French and on the other you see men and women in native Indian garb, speaking Hindi.

I was sold!

So back I went on the Internet -- and that's when I discovered Kerala -- otherwise known as "God's Own Country" -- magnificent, lush, verdant, a nature lover's paradise -- and also the birthplace of Ayurvedic treatments.

An itinerary was starting to take shape in my mind: Delhi (lots to see including Ellen) ... Agra (how could I not go to see the Taj Mahal) ... Pondicherry ... Kerala. My mind was made up. I was going to India.

Did some more research online and decided on a December/January timeframe because the weather was the easiest to bear -- dry, relatively cool in the North and tolerable in the South.

Ironically I was going to Montreal for a bar mitzvah and Ellen was there visiting her mother. We met for lunch and talked about my plans. She suggested that I add Jaipur to my itinerary. We agreed that I would come back to Toronto, do more extensive research, complete a thorough itinerary and send it to her for comments and suggestions. My dream was becoming reality.

The minute I got back I headed to the travel section of my favourite bookstore. Grabbing 6 books on India off the shelf I found an easy chair and started going through them. I must have been there for at least an hour and a half. Finally I settled on one: Fodor's Guide to India. I picked that one because one of the features it had was suggestions on what to see if you only had 3 days, or 5 days or 7 days, etc. -- and, as Ellen had warned me, there was so much to see I was already drowning. The guidebook was helping me make sense of it all and narrow my wish list down. It was definitely the right choice for me to have made.

As I read, I kept turning to the Internet -- to check out hotels and sites ... temples and tours ... shopping and galleries ... cities, towns and villages.

I also decided, along the way, that I wanted to go on this trip alone. Why, I do not know -- or at least I didn't feel like delving into it. I am someone who tends to trust my instincts so I wasn't questioning it. If I wanted to go alone, I'd go alone. My friends, although supportive, tried to suggest that I reconsider this decision. They were concerned -- and I can't say their concerns weren't valid -- I, for some reason, just didn't share them.

And then I discovered The Palace On Wheels.

The Palace on Wheels is a luxury train that is a replica of those once owned by rulers -- to say it's ornate is an understatement. The beauty of it is that because you travel from place to place overnight, in just 8 days you get to see a lot of Rajasthan -- much more than I had thought manageable on my own.

This way I could not only see Agra and Jaipur I would also travel to Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranthambhore, Chittaurgarh, Udaipur and Bharatpur. The price included meals, tours, everything but tips, sundries, alcohol, etc. It made great use of time and my friends were thrilled because at least on this part of the journey I wouldn't be alone.

If I did this at the beginning of my trip I'd get my "sea legs" before setting off on my own.

I checked out their website and the price with a single supplement, for travel in December/January was $3,800.

I also found a travel company online, that came highly recommended.

They had an office in Toronto so I called. They didn't book the Palace on Wheels so I said I could do that myself -- and I asked them to plan the rest of my trip -- including cars, drivers and English speaking guides. I gave the girl I spoke with a rough idea of what I was interested in, and a rough budget.

In less then half an hour I had received an email from her with a suggested itinerary. I must say this surprised me a bit -- I would have thought she might have spent a bit more time thinking about it -- but ...

She was off the mark completely on the hotels -- putting me in American hotels in some places; and the itinerary itself was OK but it wasn't making my heart skip a beat. Personally I think it was right off the shelf -- I didn't feel like she'd listened to me at all. So I called her back and re-briefed her. The follow-up wasn't really that much more exciting. Plus she had me flying everywhere -- which meant I wouldn't see anything of the countryside -- and I would have spent most of my time at airports waiting endlessly for planes.

Back to the drawing board I went ...

The next travel agent I found was, surprisingly enough, right near my office. This time he said he could book the train for me -- and once we'd settled on a date for the train he'd build the rest of the vacation around it. I liked him -- and felt he'd add a lot of value because he is from India himself -- and I figured that the personal knowledge he would bring would be a real benefit.

Within a few hours I got a call from him. He had an available date in December and then he told me the trip would cost me $7,900 -- more than double what I'd found online!

I explained that this couldn't be. He said I couldn't be right -- that I'd looked at the wrong time of year or had forgotten about the single supplement, which is apparently high in India.

Knowing I was right about what I'd found I told him to go to the site I'd been to -- which is the Palace On Wheels site -- and told him what I'd done to get the cost. In minutes he called me back to say I had been right. Not that it did me any good -- they refused to honour that price.

Truth be told, I'd written him and the train off and I was re-thinking my itinerary yet again, when -- days later -- I heard from him.

"I have a great deal for you", he proclaimed!

"I called them directly -- in India -- and here's what they are prepared to do for you: They (Palace on Wheels) will try to find a room mate for you -- maybe a woman -- and, if they cannot you will not have to pay the single supplement."

Giving my head a shake -- because I couldn't believe I'd heard right -- I said, "Are you suggesting that I not only share a stateroom on a train with a complete stranger, but that stranger could very possible be a man?"

Don't get me wrong. I'm no prude. And I am looking for an adventure. But being cooped up in a small space with some strange man isn't my idea of heaven -- unless of course he's George Clooney -- or Barack Obama -- and truth be told, I don't think his wife would let him go.

So ... did this make me give up on India??

Posted by a_broad 09:36 Archived in India Tagged preparation Comments (1)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 6) Page [1] 2 » Next