Tag Archives: train

Backpacking India: Crazy Transportation Day

India - Train from Varanasi to Siliguri
So many of our memorable moments in India have occured while traveling between cities. We often travel cheap, so that means a lot of time in shared jeeps, buses, and trains, and a lot of interesting interactions with locals. Our day traveling from the Makaibari Tea Estate to Kolkata was one of the wilder days.

To start, we didn’t have a confirmed train tickets to Kolkata. A week ago we decided to prepone our visit to Kolkata by 2 days when our trek was cut short, but the trains were all sold out. Most trains have a few seats reserved for foreigners like us who plan their trip last minute, but you can only buy them in person at big train stations and Darjeeling doesn’t qualify. Without white privilege on our side, we had to take our chances on the wait list with everyone else. We weren’t sure what our chances were of getting seats. We started out in position 18 and 19 and had moved up to 11 and 12 on the day of the train. We had hoped we would find out the night before if we got tickets, giving us time to execute a backup plan if we were unlucky, but we didn’t find out until 3 pm, a few hours before the train departed. When we got the email and text message notifying us we had seats, we were standing in line at the station trying desperately to book an alternative. We were extremely lucky to get tickets. Our seats were in carriage BEX, a special carriage added to the train for the Eastern Railway Trekking Club but with a few extra seats given to wait list passengers.

Getting to the train station was a bigger adventure than getting the train tickets. After lunch at the tea estate, we flagged down a passing shared jeep heading to Siliguri. There was only one seat left in the back benches, but the money collector jumped out and rode outside, one foot on the bumper and one on the spare tire, with his hands clutched to the roof rack for the rest of the twisting, bumping ride down the mountain. I was worried about him whenever we hit a bump or swerved to avoid another vehicle, but he seemed to be enjoying himself. Shortly after we took the last two seats (facing sideways in the back benches), we picked up two more men who found a way to squeeze in the back next to Emily and I, and firmly sardine us in. It was the most uncomfortable 90 minute ride of my life. We picked up a few more passengers, but luckily they sat on the roof and hung from the back instead of climbing onto our laps. At one point I counted 18 people in/on our jeep, which is normally full and cozy with 10.

In Siliguri, we extracted ourselves from the human compression chamber and climbed into the back of a shared rickshaw to the train station. It was surprisingly comfortable by comparison, with only 6 passengers squeezing in. Every time someone left our driver would wait and troll around for someone new to take her place. Standard practice in India, but I think one of the passengers got annoyed with the frequent delays. At least I assume that was the gist of the 30 minute angry Hindi yelling match that ensued between him and the driver. The passenger was literally frothing at the mouth and spitting red beetlenut on my pants. The driver was freaking out and spent more time looking back at us then at the road ahead. The other passengers were either amused or annoyed by the argument, but didn’t say much. Eventually the irate passenger jumped out of our moving rickshaw and our angry driver swerved over to confront him. I assumed it was going to turn into a fist fight, but they just yelled at each other for another few minutes and shockingly the irate passenger paid the 20 rupee fair and we drove off, our driver still cursing, but with no one responding.

Train to Calcutta
Good thing we had five hours to sit around in the train station and calm down after all that excitement. Just another day traveling in India.

Backpacking India: One Month In

India - Chennai
We’re one month into our 4-month trip through India and we’re getting into a good routine. We’ve figured out how to order South Indian food and eat it with our hands and how to walk down the street without being hit by a bus or stepping in cow shit. We’re used to sleeping on the hard beds and ignoring the aggressive rickshaw drivers and touts. And I’m getting better at walking by cows and monkeys without having to snap a picture, but it’s not easy – they’re so cute.

India - Bangalore
Our daily routine has been pretty relaxed. It may look like we’re doing a lot, but it is much slower pace than we’re used to. Our days start with a leisurely morning with an Indian breakfast. After that we will check out one sight or neighborhood and then grab lunch. Often we’ll retreat from the heat back to our hotel in the afternoon for a rest. After that we might check out another attraction before grabbing a late dinner. Indians tend to eat their meals later than Canadians and we’re starting to do the same.

India - Chennai
We eat Indian food for most meals. Our favourite breakfasts are dosas or idlies with sambar. I’ve lost count how many dosas we’ve had – easily over 50 (including 6 today between the two of us). For lunch we often get thalis – cheap, vegetarian combo meals involving rice, bread, rassam, sambar, curries, and a sweet served in small silver bowls that waiters will often refill as you empty them. For dinner, we’ll either have more dosas or get something adventurous. North Indian food is easy to find the south and very tasty. It is also the closest to what you would find in Canada, but much better. You can’t go wrong with dal (lentil), aloo (potato), bhindi (okra), bharta (eggplant), or gobi (cauliflower) dishes. We’ve also discovered gobi 65 (a deep fried cauliflower dish) and gobi manchurian (like cauliflower buffalo wings), sambar vadai (donuts in a savory sauce), stuffed paratha (like an Indian quesadilla), and chana bhatura (chickpea curry with puffy bread). There’s enough variety within vegetarian Indian food that we’ve rarely felt the desire to eat Western food, although we did enjoy a burrito and falafel while we were in Bangalore. In most cities it is common to find reasonable facsimiles of Chinese, Italian, and American fast food (minus the beef).

The food sometimes meses with our digestive system. We’ve been sick a few times, food poisoning and vomiting for me, traveler’s diarrhea for Emily, and a lingering cold for both of us.

India - Cochin
We have a rough itinerary of places we want to visit and have been reserving accommodation and transport about a week in advance. Now that the Christmas/New Year holiday season is over, it has been easier to book trains and hotele on short notice. During Christmas, train reservations are impossible and we had to rely on buses. We found handy websites to book our transport online – trains through cleartrip and buses through redbus.

India - Hampi - Laundry
We have been spending 2-4 days in most cities. Long enough to see all the sights and have some downtime. We often hand wash clothing when we arrive in a new city so it has time to dry. We’ve tried using laundry services, but they charge per item, so it is not worth it for underwear or socks.

India - Mysore
Of course, everything hasn’t gone smoothly. There have been frustrations along the way. Technology tends to break just when we need it. I’m on my second cellphone now. It’s taken a bit of detective work to disable all the cloud syncing on the iPad so it doesn’t grind to a halt. Most of our accommodation has had free WiFi, but the signal is either weak or the connection to slow to use. Google Maps has lead us astray a few times.

India - Pondicherry
Getting around in general has been the most frustrating. We’ve had a number of angry encounters with rickshaw drivers trying to screw us over. The buses are confusing with little English signage. Google maps has transit directions in the big cities, but it has been more detrimental than helpful. We tend to walk a lot, even though there is rarely sidewalks.

India - Hampi Emily and her paparazzi
We don’t understand why Indians want to take their picture with us. The first time it was amusing. But some days we can be asked 50 times for a photo and some of the young men can get aggressive when we say no. It’s annoying, creepy, and borderline racist. It makes sense when it is someone we’ve talked to or had some interaction with, but usually it’s complete strangers. It makes it hard to enjoy some of the more popular sights when you’re being hunted by groups of paparazzis.

We’re slowly learning how to order food, but Emily was often frustrated early in the trip with large menus and no information about what the options are. At pure veg places we knew we could eat everything, but when we tried to order anything beyond the set meals or thalis we rarely had a balanced meal. Asking the waiters never helps because they just nod their heads.

Backpacking India: Settling In

4 days in and we’re slowly getting used to life in India.

We’ve kind of figured out how much the auto-rickshaws should cost and how to bargain a little. We’re comfortable with public transportation (at least the suburban trains, we haven’t braved a bus yet). We’re acclimatizing to the heat and are better at staying hydrated. We acquired a local sim card for my cellphone so we can stay connected. The constant honking is still unbearable but we’re getting used to it. And our sleep schedules are almost normal – we’re still waking up and going to bed early, but we’re at least awake for dinner.

Getting a local sim card was an involved process, but I followed the steps on indiamike and it worked out fine. I took my passport and visa, drivers license, a passport sized photo, and our hotel receipt to a Vodafone store a few blocks from our hotel and within 3 hours my number was activated.

It is surprisingly cheap. For 200 rupees (less than $4), I got a new sim card, lots of talk time, and 400 MB of data.

If you want to send Emily a birthday greeting, you can now call or text us at 011 + 91 +  9962492508. The best time to call is between 8 and 10 am in India. Send texts whenever you want.

Ladies Train

The suburban train system in Chennai is cool. Prices vary depending on how far you go, but the most we’ve paid is 5 rupees each (10 cents). The trains are very gender segregated. They have special cars and sometimes whole trains reserved for ladies. I’m sure it makes the women feel safer in those cars, but the flip side is the women in the mixed cars are even more outnumbered by men.

We managed to switch rooms at our hotel. Now we have a cheaper non-AC room that faces a quiet garden instead of the busy street. It is amazing.

There is enough variety here, that eating Indian food for every meal hasn’t become boring yet. It has caused some mild indegesgtion but nothing too serious.

Long Weekend in Seattle by Train

Seattle King Street Station
I love the Amtrak Cascades line. It’s hands down the best way to travel from Vancouver to Seattle. You have beautiful views of the ocean, no border waits (you pre-clear customs in Vancouver), the seats are roomy, and there’s free wifi and power outlets.

Emily and I took the train down to visit friends in Seattle, try some vegetarian restaurants, and do some shopping. It was great seeing some of the Waterloo crew and hearing about the latest gossip at Microsoft, Amazon, and the Seattle startup world.

Seattle Freeway Broadway Separated Bike Lane Seattle Big Wheel
I like Seattle but it’s a lot harder to get around without a car. We used a combination of public transit, taxis, and walking and I was amazed by how bad traffic was all weekend long. The good news is there are new light rail lines and cycle tracks under construction.

Marina and Hotel Bellwether Yellow Leaves
On the way back to Vancouver, we spent a day in Bellingham. I was impressed to find the city is more then the malls along the interstate. There are two cute historic downtowns (Fairhaven and Bellingham) with some interesting shops, good restaurants, fancy hotels, and spas. We stayed at Hotel Bellwether on Sunday night, walked around during the day, spent the afternoon The Chrysalis Spa, and had dinner at ‎Keenan’s at the Pier.

Weekend Trip to Portland by Train

I love Portland – the food, the trains, the bicycles, and the general weirdness of everything. It’s an amazing city. Emily and I spent the September long weekend soaking up the city, our second weekend getaway to Portland.

The Train
Relaxing on the Train Amtrak Cascades - Check out the View
We took the Amtrak Cascades train from Vancouver to Portland. I don’t think there’s a better way to travel. There’s plenty of leg-room, you can get up and walk around, there’s free WiFi and electrical plugs, and there’s an excellent view of Puget Sound. Sure, it’s a few hours longer than driving or flying, but there aren’t any border hassles and it’s affordably priced. And with Amtrak’s Rewards program we got 2 one-way tickets for free.

The Bikes
Pedal Bike Tours Duct Tape Wallets - New and Old
We we disappointed that weren’t able to take our bikes on the train this time. Amtrak does take bikes for $5, but each train only has room for 6 and all the spaces were full when we booked our tickets. Bummer, but we were able to rent bikes and go on a guided tour of wine country. It was the first time we’ve explored Oregon outside of Portland.

The Wineries
Oregon Wine Country
Touring Wine Country By Bike Dundee Oregon - Wine Country Erath Winery
Pedal Bike Tours offers a five-hour guided tour of Oregon’s wine region. Five hours seems like a lot, but 2 hours were spent in a van, 2 hours were spent at wineries, and only an hour was spent on the bike. Which was good, because it was over 30 degrees. We didn’t actually visit any wineries by bike. Instead, we did a 10-mile loop through farm roads in Dundee Hills, and then visited the Erath and Four Graces wineries by van. Oregon has excellent Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir wine, and we picked up 4 bottles to bring home.

The Streetcar
Go By Streetcar Streetcar Meet Bike
Without bikes to get around town, we were reliant on public transit. In the core, the trains (light rail and streetcar) are free and convenient. It was a bit frustrating waiting for buses when we were trying to get to the east side and the buses were running on Sunday service frequencies, but for the most part we had no problem getting around. A few times we gave up on the bus or streetcar and just walked, and I was surprised how quickly we got to where we were going. Portland has some of the smallest blocks in North America (just 200′ x 200′), so distances on maps are actually smaller than they seem.

The Food
Live Sampler at Blossoming Lotus Voodoo Doughnut Lineup
A highlight of any trip to Portland is the food. The street food culture is renowned, but we only ate at one food cart, a yummy tamale stand. Apparently most food carts cater to the business crowd because they close on the weekend. We also skipped the uber trendy Voodoo Doughnut, which had a 50 person lineup every time we walked by. We did however discover some new restaurants that had amazing vegetarian food:
Blossoming Lotus – with great raw food options
Hungry Tiger Too – served up the best tofu scramble I’ve ever eaten
Los Gorditos – vegan tacos that you can eat on the giant patio of the neighboring Apex bar.

The Beer
New Belgium Beer and Cider Apex Bar
Portland has an awesome brewpub culture. We were pleasantly surprised when we found ourselves at the Apex bar. We went for the Mexican food at Los Gorditos, and they served it to us at the patio of the bar next door. It looks like they converted a strip mall parking lot into a giant patio (I wish Vancouver would do that more), and you could eat food from the neighboring restaurants. I really liked Apex – it had a funky vibe, 50 beers on tap (most under $5), a room full of pinball machines, and a massive patio with parking for dozens of bikes.

The Culture
Art in the Pearl Nikki McClure Exhibition
We checked out the Nikki McClure exhibit at an art gallery and wandered through the overwhelming number of vendors displaying their wares at the Art in the Pearl festival. We also stumbled upon two spontaneous concerts (not just busking, but 7 piece bands performing and people dancing) on downtown street corners. But the real cultural treat was just watching Portlanders in their natural habitat. After watching most of the Portlandia skits, I have a love for Portland stereotypes. I definitely noticed a lot of tattoos and hipsters. And when we were waiting for our table at the raw food restaurant, there was a punk beside me who had a Vegan patch on his jacket and he was talking about how he might start looking for a job next weekend. Oh Portland, I love you.

Keep Portland Weird