Tag Archives: India

85 days in India; or, Peculiar travel suggestions

(2010-12-08: Updated.)

On 27 December I will depart the States for India. On 23 March I will return. The chronologically curious will note: that's 87 days. (Subtract one day in a plane on each end for 85 days.) It's not quite a geologic age, but it is a long time.

For the purposes of this post, I will leave out the why [1]. Instead I will outline the trip, and ask for your advice. Some dates and places, e.g., the Mumbai Marathon, are firmly fixed; those items are noted in bold. However, all other items are quite flexible and represent only a notional itinerary that can be abandoned for better notions.

Like any first draft, there will be a number of mistakes, I'm sure, so don't be bashful about saying that something is stupid. Ready, aim...

Phase 1: Kolkata

  • 29-30 Dec: New Delhi
  • 31 Dec-3 Jan: Kolkata

Phase 2: Chandigarh

Here I could use some advice on places to stay in Chandigarh or Delhi.

  • 4 Jan: Kolkata to Delhi (by plane)
  • 5-6 Jan: Haridwar? Or Delhi?
  • 7-10 Jan: Chandigarh

Phase 3: Mumbai

The basic idea here: spend some time in Mumbai, then go on a loop through Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, then return to Mumbai.

  • 11 Jan: Chandigarh to Mumbai (by plane)
  • 11-19 Jan: Mumbai
  • 20-28 Jan: Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, Burhanpur
  • 29-31 Jan: Mumbai

Phase 4: Mumbai to Pondicherry

At the least, I want to stop at Hampi, as one of my Kannadiga friends says I must. Anything else via buses and trains on the way to Bangalore is a bonus.

  • 31 Jan-9 Feb: Bijapur, Badami, Hampi
  • 10 Feb: Bangalore
  • 11 Feb: Bangalore to Pondicherry (by train)
  • 12 Feb: Pondicherry
  • 13 Feb: Auroville Marathon

Phase 5: Tamil Nadu

After the marathon on 13 Feb and until the India vs. Netherlands cricket match on 9 Mar, all plans can be changed. I can go anywhere and can do anything with anyone and anytime. It doesn't have to be in the south,--I could fly to Ahmedabad and cruise around Gujarat, what the hell?--it's just a first go at an itinerary.

  • 14-16 Feb: Pondicherry
  • 17-23 Feb: Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur, Rameswaram
  • 24-26 Feb: Chennai
  • 27 Feb-1 Mar: Bangalore
  • 1 Mar: Bangalore to Delhi (by plane)

Phase 6: Delhi

  • 2-7 Mar: North India?
  • 8-11 Mar: Delhi
    • 9 Mar: Delhi, Cricket World Cup, India vs. Netherlands
  • 12-14 Mar: Khajuraho
  • 15-18 Mar: Agra
  • 19-22 Mar: Delhi
  • 23 Mar: Delhi to Chicago to St. Louis

To get a flavor of what that looks like on a map, go here: India 2011.

I have left out the timing of various bus and train journeys--it made the itinerary above, which is already jumbled, look like something that could only be understood with the help of heavy pharmaceuticals. Let's just say that I know that it will take the better part of a day to travel, for example, from Delhi to Khajuraho, and I have accounted for that in each trip. Probably.


When it comes to travel, the best places I've ever visited have been recommended by friends. This takes a variety of forms. For example, in 2006 it led to me going to dinner at [we drank a lot of wine and I don't remember] in Cadaques, Spain, with Alvin and Jorge. And Jorge pointed me to Turronería Sirvent in Barcelona for ice cream. Both were fabulous--the former, especially.

The point is: although I will mention some things below that are interesting to me, my first priority is to meet friends that I know and friends that I don't yet know, and try the things they like. I don't have a bucket list or 1001 things to see before I die; I'm here for the ride.

What would I like to see?

  • I like books--especially libraries and secondhand bookstores. (Via email I just received some absolutely and outstandingly thoughtful advice on bookstores to visit in Mumbai.)
  • I like sports. When I'm not running one of the two-and-a-half marathons I've signed up for, I'd run with anyone from a Delhi or Bangalore or wherever running club that wants to go for a run. Also, I know nothing about cricket--there is a bat and a ball, but apparently it is different than baseball?--and I'd like to learn to play, or watch a real game, whichever.
  • I like music--especially music that isn't popular music. First person to take me to an Indian version of Morphine or the Dismemberment Plan wins.
  • I like history--which is to say I could amuse myself for days walking in and around old things. It is no accident that I live in a museum in a National Historical Park.
  • I like wandering in hills and mountains--but this is not something I will allow to be rushed, so I'll save it for another trip.

What do you think? Where should I go?

You don't need to suggest something grand. I don't need 85 days of Taj Mahals. Listen: if you came from India to Illinois, I could take you to Chicago to the top of the Sears Tower--I guess they call it the Willis Tower now, don't they? Ridiculous.--but I'd rather take you to Fulton County, to the Cedar Creek. Never heard of it? It's a secret, and it's not great by any absolute measure, but let me tell you: my enthusiasm would infect you, and it would be the best damned stream you've ever seen.

  1. I am tempted, here, to say something faux-clever as my reason, perhaps I'll lift a line from Kilgore Trout in Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions:

    To be
    the eyes
    and ears
    and conscience
    of the Creator of the Universe,
    you fool.

    I could pretty much steal lines from Kurt Vonnegut all day long. Bonus points if you can identify the second half of the title. [back to text]

Mapping down the Ganges

Last week at the Pollard Memorial Library I picked up Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby. Usually I pick up books based on recommendation from friends or from Goodreads. This one I just happened to pick up because it was in the travel section of the library where I had gone to pick up Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. The section of Indian travel books at the library is anemic however, which is a pity. Traveling in India is its own adventure.

Having been to India and having always had an interest in geography, I have been mapping the places that Newby visits in the book. This is difficult for the first half of the book because the Ganga travels through rural India. Not all of the village names he mentions are easy to find, whether due to his transliteration of the names or the lack of labeled villages in contemporary online maps.

Here is the map I have created so far with places from Slowly Down the Ganges.

Each of the labeled places represents a passage in the book. If you would like to add something to or correct something on the map, please leave a comment; I doubt it is entirely correct. So far, two-thirds of the way through, I have really enjoyed the book. I'll post my review of it on Goodreads, so look me up there if you want to see my review.

This makes me want to return to India again. I will, however, stick to the roads and rails. I am not much of a river rat.

Mapped: Photos from Chandigarh, India, Jan 2006

The audacious background of the Rock Garden in Chandigarh was just as interesting as the sculptures and the architecture. The Rock Garden is a pile of junk. Nek Chand, the force and vision behind the project, created the garden -- a 40-acre spread of sculptures, waterfalls, towers, and courtyards -- from scrap and waste. Discarded wires, porcelain, industrial materials, broken bangles, pieces of glass bottles -- all pieces of rubbish individually, but part of something whole and substantial when brought together; it is much more than a pile of junk.

The most striking aspect of the Rock Garden, to me, is the dedication -- I mean obsession -- that must have driven Nek Chand to continue working on it. It's not that hard to initiate something small, a few sculptures that can be hidden away with no effort, but to work in secret for nearly 20 years, creating an enormous work of art out of the forest... I can't even imagine it. I can only wonder if, somewhere, in the back of his head, he had an idea that he knew was so incredible that he had to follow through with it. Or maybe he was just passing time, keeping his hands busy and the art created itself.

If you're ever passing through northern India, through Punjab, I highly recommend that you stop at the Rock Garden for a long stroll through Nek Chand's masterpiece. And while you're there, take your time, wander. As a bonus during my trip there, we met Nek Chand for a few minutes in his studio, which is located in the garden itself.

Trains in India

Scratching down ideas...

  • Mumbai to Bagalkot—BCT to UBL (Hubli), UBL to BGK
  • Bagalkot to Vellore—BGK to VLR
  • Vellore to Pondicherry—VLR to PDY
  • Pondicherry to Allahabad—PDY to ALD
  • Allahabad to New Delhi or Calcutta (depending on which flight to the US is cheaper)—PDY to NDLS/HWH

This looks like the probable order of cities I'll visit, and the train connections that I'll use—any suggestions, guys?

Links to use:

Return to Ambala, Part I (draft)

[...first draft of part of the India story...]

Shaggy’s real name was Subeg, but that consisted of a few sounds that might emanate more easily from a Punjabi mouth than mine. Even his friends at home called him Shaggy. He was sixteen years old. And his dad just scared the rolling hell out of me on the bus from New Delhi. There's something about a guy with a knife and a turban shaking you awake that makes it easy to forget where you are.

That I even made it to that bus is an exercise in coincidence that I don’t understand. There I was, partway through my redemptive return to Ambala. I wasn’t scared of anything.

I had flown out of Calcutta that morning with no problems, though I expected plenty. I bought my tickets to New Delhi with help from Palash’s mom; she spoke the Bengali, I made the occasional head nod. To travel on January 12 there were two options. Air Sahara had an early morning flight with a condition—the ticket cost Rs. 4000 for Indian citizens, but Rs. 11000 for others. 11000 rupees is a little rich for me, equivalent to about US$250. Option two, Air Deccan, also had an early morning flight for Rs. 4000, but this flight was frequently cancelled because of the foggy weather conditions.

So these were my choices—the guaranteed flight that could kill my bank account or a flight that might not even happen. Those weren’t great odds, but I was confident—I was going to make this trip happen. I left Ambala as a wretch and I was going to return and be great. I bought the Indian citizen ticket on Air Sahara. When I arrived at the domestic terminal the next morning, two things could happen, either the people at the ticket counter would see that I had an Indian citizen ticket or they wouldn’t.

I received my ticket and went back to the security gate to say goodbye to Palash and to tell him that I was an honorary Indian citizen for the day. My confidence was rewarded and the first step to Ambala underway.

The taxi ride from the airport to the bus terminal was an unremarkable hour-long cross-town drive. The excitement of a taxi ride never starts until I emerge; at that time, the sight of a white guy with a backpack sets off a secret siren that calls the bus vendors to tout their services. It’s inevitable. It was easy to avoid some of them. With a move that would have made my old football coach proud I faked left then stepped right, causing the first one to charge left without me.

The second one was more cunning. “Over here, over here,” he exclaimed, pointing in a direction that was not the bus that I wanted to ride, so I gave him a naheeng and headed for the bus stand. It’s never appropriate to answer the calls of “Where are you going?” But this time, against all common sense, and without breaking stride or straight-ahead gaze, I replied dryly, “Ambala.”

“Oh, we have nonstop bus to Ambala. Come this way.” Per usual, “this way” was not in the direction of the buses that were in front of me. Something was different this time, there was an instinct that was called forward from the back of my mind. Something was pushing me to Ambala, and a subtle feeling compelled me to follow “this way.”

We walked briskly into the Inter-State Bus Terminal and then out the other side to his kiosk. Now I had a bad feeling. The bus terminal was my safety zone; everything outside of this was the jungle, the wild—crazy New Delhi and a rush that I couldn't understand.

Inside the kiosk, life is urgent. He must show me the bus, he must have me buy the ticket now for Rs. 280. Here's a funny principle. Rs. 280 is less than US$6 and Ambala is roughly 150km away. In the US, I probably couldn't walk 150km for $6. That, and when I rode the bus from New Delhi to Ambala on January 1 with Megha I paid only Rs. 100. So I told him no and left.

As I left he said, "The bus is ready to leave now." Before I even returned to my seat, I had my wallet out and a Rs. 500 bill ready to go.

I was going to Ambala. Now.

[...to be continued and edited...]

Return from India

This is how we go on: one day at a time, one meal at a time, one pain at a time, one breath at a time.

—Stephen King, Bag of Bones

I returned from India on Wednesday after a three week trip. It was the best trip I've ever taken; it was the worst trip I've ever taken. I'd love to explain it to you; I'd hate to explain it to you. But I'm back—armed with a set of good pictures, amusing experiences, and a new set of emotions that I don't understand yet. I'll be writing about it offline and will drop a few sections here until it all comes together. There's a decent short story in all of this if I can pull it together.

Preparing for India

Now I've completely lost my mind...

Tomorrow morning, I'm driving up to Chicago to stop at the Indian Embassy to pick up my visa for a trip to India. I'm currently at my parents' house in Lewistown, where I spent Thanksgiving. The drive from here to Chicago is typically a three-hour tour, but -- and there's always a but when you're travelling with me -- I first have to drive out of my way to my apartment in Newman to pick up my passport. This will add... about two extra hours to the journey all because I wasn't attentive enough to pick it up as I left on Wednesday. Ah well, as long as I find some coffee early on the trip I'll be OK.

So -- India. Wow. This is the exclamation point to a sincerely crazy 2005 for me, a year-long excursion that started on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, took me to my four-month home in the Mojave Desert of California, and then saw me off to places like Seattle and Missoula and Houston and Boston and DC and Japan. Now -- India.

My itinerary looks something like this... and this is a very rough sketch since I'd rather be in bed right now...

  1. Wed Dec 28: Chicago to New Delhi
  2. Thurs Dec 29: Chicago to New Delhi
  3. Fri Dec 30: New Delhi
  4. Sat Dec 31: Rajasthan
  5. Sun Jan 1: Rajasthan
  6. Mon Jan 2: Rajasthan
  7. Tues Jan 3: Ambala
  8. Wed Jan 4: Shimla
  9. Thurs Jan 5: Shimla
  10. Fri Jan 6: Ambala to Allahabad
  11. Sat Jan 7: Allahabad
  12. Sun Jan 8: Allahabad to Kolkata
  13. Mon Jan 9: Kolkata
  14. Tues Jan 10: Kolkata
  15. Wed Jan 11: Kolkata
  16. Thurs Jan 12: Kolkata to Mumbai
  17. Fri Jan 13: Kolkata to Mumbai
  18. Sat Jan 14: Mumbai
  19. Sun Jan 15: Mumbai
  20. Mon Jan 16: Mumbai to New Delhi
  21. Tues Jan 17: New Delhi
  22. Wed Jan 18: New Delhi to Chicago

I'll have to go into more detail some other time, but not tonight. I need some rest before heading off on my visa adventure tomorrow. It feels so funny to have $150 in cash in my pocket--checks and credit cards are not allowed for the visa purchase. Off to bed... and we'll see if my Indian friends have any comments for me when I check back in here.