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The REAL last post!

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

So, Claire and I have finally come to the end of the India/Nepal section of our trip.  As these things go, there were times that I thought that the trip would never end, then all of the sudden I look at my journal and realize that our flight out of Delhi is tomorrow!  So as a final post from India I thought that I would give you some preliminary thoughts on the place and the people.  I have to warn you that I am still processing much of what I have learned here so don’t expect too much ground breaking insight.

To start with, how about a description of a typical day in India?  Generally I wake up at about eight o’clock.  Lying in bed I try to think if we had any plans for the day.  It’s likely that Claire had something in mind, but I can’t remember what, and her plans are probably going to change about three times before breakfast anyway.

Getting up I wander to the bathroom and hope that the power has been on long enough that there’s hot water.  Regardless of what I find, Claire and I are both ready for the day at nine and we head out the door. 

The hotels are usually planning on making the majority of their money off of the food you buy, so as we pass through the lobby it takes considerable effort to rebuff the offers of tea, coffee and toast with jam – Claire and I tend to prefer the company of the locals and also find that the street food (omelets, tea and coffee) are frequently better than hotel food anyway.  We step out of the safety of our hotel into the streets.  Before we are 5 steps from the door trail of ‘Hello!’s, and ‘Good morning!’s follow us like a shock wave.  During the first few weeks in India, you feel obligated to reply to all of these advances, however, it doesn’t take long to realize that you will never get anywhere in town when you have to stop and talk to every second person on the road.

Part of the day is spent searching for an acceptable coffee and embarking on whatever we have planned for the afternoon.  There is also a part of the day that is spent looking for a local food vendor that makes thali (a bottomless Indian dish that consists of dal, curry, rice and chipati) and can understand ‘Little salt, little oil, but spicy.’  We tried learning the Hindi for this, but that confused them more than our English…

The evenings are bonding time.  We almost never have TV, even more rarely TV and power together, and when the stars do align, Hindi CNN is never enough to keep our attention anyway.  There is very little in the way of a tourist night life in India.  Claire and I have speculated long and hard about this, and believe that there are a few factors.

1) If you go to a local place, you are the entertainment.  Indians have no qualms about outright staring, and will readily stop what they are doing to watch our funny Western ways and to laugh if Claire is showing more than her neck.

2) Drinking is sacrilege, making bars and hard to find.  And coffee and tea all night just doesn’t do it.

3) The travelers in India are generally older and seeking enlightenment.  Very few people under 30 come here and as a result many are content with just reading, meditating and going to bed.

So what this means is that Claire and I have had about 90 nights of one on one bonding time.  Some might say that that’s too much, and I times I agree with them.  But we have found ways to entertain ourselves and have actually bonded through it all.  And it makes the social life of Vancouver all that much more special.

So that just about wraps up a normal day here.  I also want to comment on the culture and people, as this has been asked about on this blog before.  It is hard to know where to begin.  The couture here is really beyond description.  I have seen it called a ‘functional anarchy’ and think that that’s reasonably accurate.  In public ways I couldn’t imagine a more live and let live environment.  You can spit, throw trash and pee wherever you like and can drive on the wrong side of the road if you like.  Nobody will look twice.  However, in private ways this culture will judge you and damn you before you even know what you did.  They also have very little modesty when talking to travelers, asking questions like ‘Do you have sex together?’ and once, when Claire had her hat in her front hoodie pocket and her money belt below that, she was asked ‘Are you pregnant?’ – always without the slightest look embarrassment or guilt!

Work conditions and poverty are another issue altogether.  It seems that most of the country is self sufficient.  Neither paying taxes or taking advantage of the taxes others pay.  In small towns, those who cannot, or do not farm are generally destitute, and most of those who farm are heavily in debt.  However, they make a living, own their own home, and smile at you as you pass.  The workers who see the hardest work conditions seem to be the ones without property.  You see them hauling cement rail ties from the train, or moving dirt for new roads from the bus.  These people are normally doing long days in dangerous conditions wearing sandals and torn cloths.  They do not smile.

I really can’t get into the poverty issue right now as my feelings are not solidified.  I will say that it is more extreme that I ever planned to see and – to make it ever worse – includes many, many children.  To some extent you really have to keep it at an arms length while here, for when I let my guard down, I am struck with such remorse that India loses all appeal and adventure and takes on the visage of an open air prison.  This is one aspect that will impact me over the course of my life in ways that I cannot even speculate on.

As a final note, I must not leave out the beauty of the culture and customs.  The desire of the people to know everything about you.  The hustle and bustle in streets, the open markets in the shadow of the Himalayas.  The men and women selling coconuts from baskets on their heads and the joy and majesty of beholding wonders like the Taj Mahal make India an all round positive and unforgettable experience.

Now to find out about Southeast Asia!

Last post from India – rats, camels, and power lines on fire!

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Well, first things first.  We finally got around to taking a picture of the brilliant powerlines system they have in India.  It pretty much consists of a rat’s nest of wires supported just above our heads, sort of an ‘each for their own’ type of arrangement.  People steal power, frequently lose power, and we’ve even seen power lines on fire, with no one seeming to take much notice! The other pic is for my dad, who loves taking photos of limes and chiles, and would be interested to know that they are considered a good luck charm here, and strings of them are found on every shop and car!  The picture is sideways, but you get the idea.

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Since Hampi, we’ve hit up some big cities – Delhi and Jaipur, and have some assorted pics.  The first one is the Grand Bazaar in Delhi, a crazy little strip of humanity!  The second is the largest single piece of silver in the world, used to hold Ganga water for some Indian dignitary while he visited England, so he could cleanse himself even while abroad.  The third if from the huge astrological observatory in Jaipur, where the instruments are the size of apartment buildings.  This one is Seth in front of the sundial, which is accurate to 2 seconds.  The final one is Pushkar, where we are hanging out and relaxing until the 18th, when we head to Bangkok.  If you look really closely, you will see the hundreds of kites in the air, as we were here for the annual kite festival yesterday, where kite flying, drumming, and dancing filled the streets!

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The highlight of our last two weeks was the ‘camel safari’ we did just outside of Bikaner.  Two Swedish girls, a guy from Boston, Seth and myself went off for two days into the desert, equipped with 6 camels, 7 camel drivers, guides, and cooks, and two large carts to haul all of the blankets, food, and beer.  Just a casual little expedition!

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The camel trek was lots of fun, as we enjoyed getting to know the funny guides (constantly getting really high), having some local boys play music by our campfire, and getting to know the three other travellers.  But we also rode through some of the poorest villages in all of India, isolated in the desert, accessible only by 4WD and camel cart, with very little water and food after the drought this season.  These towns were the most untouched by tourism that we have seen, and the children would run after our camels, yelling ‘Tata!’ (hello) and asking for our empty waterbottles, a very valuable commodity, apparently.  We wanted to get to know them better but their poverty created a huge barrier, as they were only begging from us, seeing us as bearers of vast amounts of wealth.  Even at night, our campfire was ringed by a group of small children hoping for a handout.  At one point, a boy was begging for what seemed like a beer, but it turned out he only wanted the can, for use as a lantern.  At the end, we were left with the impression that the desert is a majestic and beautiful landscape, but harsh and inhospitable to live in.  We have a high respect for those who can survive in it, and I can’t even begin to understand how they could grow any crops at all in the hot, dry sand.

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The trek finished up in a town famous for its ‘Rat Temple’.  Not sure how this all started, but someone must have started feeding the rats, and the temple became infested with hundreds of them.  Now, they are billing it as the “Eighth wonder of the world” all because of these resident rats, which are now very well fed and NOT afraid of the light or the tourists.  It was not our favorite sight, especially as no shoes are allowed inside the temple.  Perhaps it might be the 1,987,789th wonder of the world, but it ISN’T in the top 10.   

Chocolate IS a major food group! (we tested it..)

Saturday, January 6th, 2007

Well we somehow survived our 37 hour, 2000+ km train ride from Hampi back to the north, and arrived in Delhi for the second time.  However, two and a half months in India really prepared us for busy cities, and Delhi seems a lot more calm, pleasant, and manageable than back in October.  For example, arriving at the train station, we were barely hassled at all.  When we were last at that station, we were surrounded by touts and beggars all yelling at us and trying to head us off in their preferred direction.  I think we have perfected the ‘icy look of death’…!

Thankfully all that traveling was not in vain!  Hampi was easily one of the coolest sights that we have seen in India. It is unfortunate that such a nice place has a name that reminds me of a friend’s hampster, also with the same name, but nonetheless it managed to rise above my prejudice.   Not only did it have the impact of ancient Rome’s ruins, but one tenth the people (and the price)!  Hampi is the town which sits amidst the remains of a huge empire which ruled most of South India until it was sacked in the 16th Century.  What remains is a 27km square protected historical site with hundreds of temples and carvings spread out among huge boulder fields and banana plantations.  The town is peaceful and friendly, (except for the mosquitos) and the landscape is vast and powerful, with huge rocks that seem to be precariously balanced on each other (for those of you who know Wyoming, notice the striking resemblence to Veedawoo – except for the banana plantations and the river).

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Although every single person told us it was “NOT possible” to cover the area on foot, we found that the roads didn’t really access everything we wanted to see, and walking was a much better pace anyway.  And less breathing in of exhaust.  So not only did we get some exercise, but we also got an in-depth tour of the plantation when we got lost and had to scale the palm tree and climb across the river to get back to the road.  After that we still felt like an adventure so we climbed to the top of the tallest mountain that we could find and took photo panoramas.

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The rest of our time in Hampi was spent preparing for our marathon train ride.  After getting sick so many times we decided to try and take all our food with us.  The only problem was that the only food that could last in the heat was from the bakery and came prepackaged.  We have now proved that Snickers, chips and cake are all it really takes to survive in India.

Goodbye Paradise…

Monday, January 1st, 2007

After 6 days on Panolem Beach, we headed for Candolim, just north, to spend Christmas at a guesthouse we had reserved in advance…

Things didn’t work out quite the way we had envisioned, considering we walked into the garden and thought we had accidentally ended up in a retirement home.  And the blasting Christmas tunes didn’t improve our mood.  5 minutes later we had already had our first fight with the owner, amazed that her ‘free breakfast’ included only watery nescafe and two pieces of white toast.  All this for ten times what we normally pay for accomodation.  We ended up winning the battle for some fried eggs but the next day we set off to find some new, greener pastures.  The last ‘kick in the pants’ was when she served us the hard-won eggs and toast but denied us the butter until we had completed another argument.  Good times!

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Our Christmas day was 6 hot, dusty hours looking for the perfect spot in the hippie beach town of Anjuna.  Our search finally paid off 5 hours in, when a restauranteur called up his friend, who luckily had a suite in her place available.  As soon as we saw the brand-new house with green marbled floors, 15-foot coved ceilings, and our own private porch, and realized that it was half the price of our other place, we knew we were home!

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With the money we saved, we rented a motorcycle for the week (if you happen to be our mothers you can go ahead and skip the next paragraph…) and spent the next 6 days tootling around town and daytripping up the coast.  Claire learned how to drive the little ‘Red Rocket’ and it was hard to get the driver seat back after that! One day we ended up at a beach near Arambol, with a freshwater lagoon just 30 feet from the ocean, and a hike through the jungle brought us to fresh mud baths and a huge, sacred Banyon tree with a 50M canopy span.  Pictures do not do it justice! Note in the last picture on the line that Claire is wearing her ‘water safety’ gear, a thoughtful Christmas gift from Seth.  Even on holiday, safety first!

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Probably the highlight of the week was our night out on the town at Club Cubana, an open-air, three tiered club high up on a hill overlooking the Goan coast.  We had prepared for our big night out with an afternoon in the Anjuna markets and a few beers at a beach bar afterwards, listening to an aging hippie band that consisted of a sitar player, two drummers, a didge player, a guest accordian brought up rather randomly from the audience, and the star of the show, a mick jagger lookalike wearing skintight black pants two sizes too small, with a hairy belly hanging over the belt.  By this time we were PUMPED for our night out!  

We’ll be honest, the real draw to the club was that once cover was paid, all drinks were free all night.  And even better, the night we went, ladies cover was free!  So after Seth paid cover, we set off into the club to make sure we drank our money’s worth (not too tough!)  We were amazed by the decadence of the club, with multiple bars, free massages, and a pool with an incredible view of Goa.  We had a great time dancing and meeting all kinds of people and wishing this club existed in Vancouver…although the ski club would DEMOLISH it!

New Years was similarly fun, we got some gin and headed to the beach, where we discovered a bonfire, some good house music, dancing, and fireworks.  All was great until just after midnight when some drunken amateurs were setting fireworks off directly over (and into) the crowd.  After Claire found a spark on her foot, we decided to move along. 


Tomorrow, onto Hampi and then back to the North to check out the Rajasthan desert.

A tropical Christmas!

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

So we may not be decorating a Christmas tree this year, but drinking beer under a palm tree can be pretty festive too!  So after an arduous journey we arrived in heaven!  Goa is pretty amazing.  The food is incredible – the best we’ve had in India – but oddly enough, they can’t seem to make a good Indian dish!  They have, however, mastered fresh fish in the BBQ, thai curries, fruit lassis and cheap beer.

We thought that those of you enjoying the rain in BC, the snow in Colorado, or the wind in Chicago, we would outline a typical day here on Palolem beach, Goa.

As we rise grouchily from slumber to the typical Indian sound of someone horking up a giant spit ball we realize that it is almost 10 and we should be out of bed and embracing the day.  A short wander into town we gather fresh curd, milk, and fruit for our morning muesli and return to our coco-hut on the beach to eat on the portch in the shade.  Next we wander to one of the many restaurants along the beach front for a coffee and sit reading our books, playing Soduko, or writing in our journals.  The rest of the day is spent swimming, playing beach volley ball, sleeping, or having an evening workout in the ocean.

The pinnacle of the day occurs after dark as we spend 30min to an hour finding the perfect dinner spot.  Our criteria is harsh, we look at the menu and first of all judge on price.  No entre should be more than $2 and drinks should be less than $1.  Next is the display of fresh fish.  It should be only an hour or so from alive and be next to a BBQ and ready for cooking!  Last (but not least) is the atmosphere.  There should be good music, a young, English speaking crowd and hopefully a view of the beach (it is kind of escapism, but hey, this is our holiday from our holiday!)  The night is finished off with a beer or two on the beach, or a bit of shopping in the little town, and then back to sleep for a long, deep slumber!

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So for those of you in the colder regions of the planet, rest assured that we are thinking about you (and the great skiing!) and wish you a Merry Christmas and (if you don’t hear from us by then) a Happy New Years!


Gymnastics in Agra

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

So, we never did get a chance to write about Agra, you know, with the fever and the sickness and all.  It can pretty much be summed up by saying that the Taj Mahal is a very worthwhile, but also very expensive tourist attraction.  At 750Rs each it was more than two nights in our incredibly big, deluxe room with TWO queen size beds – and a room big enough to practice our cartwheel skills!

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Checking out the hospital in Mumbai…good times!

Friday, December 15th, 2006


So now that Seth and I are both sick again, sitting in front of our hotel computer is pretty much the only option for after dinner ‘fun’ activities.  So here goes another post…

On the way from Agra, I managed to somehow get sick again (sleeper trains are a curse for me) but luckily this time I was able to walk to a taxi with only two ‘sit down’ breaks.  Seth stayed strong long enough to battle with our taxi driver in the sweltering 35degree heat and get us a direct ride to our hotel (which still took us 1.5 hours in a non-airconditionned car in the middle of the day…it was GREAT for my fever!) 

Next, moments after checking in, Seth decided to join the fun ‘delhi belly club’ – personally I think he felt left out, I’m pretty much a lifetime member.  Of course, always trying to ‘outdo’ me, he managed get it worse than me, landing him in the hospital early this morning.  (Luckily by this point I was feeling a bit better so could help him get there!)  But don’t worry, he is definitely on the mend now, after being given a cocktail of antibiotics, rehydration salts, and other undefinable ‘pink pills’.  He had a very high fever all night and when he started to hallucinate/radiate heat from 30cm. away I took him to the hospital.  But his fever is much less now and he is looking much better, and even ate some dinner.   

Taking him to the hospital in the dark at 5am was quite the experience.  Even in obviously desperate times, the taxi drivers still must be haggled with from their exorbitant demands.  We finally arrived, but the guy at hospital reception was fast asleep on the desk, and I wasn’t sure whether to wake him or not – there were a few other patients waiting just down the hall on some chairs.  I plonked Seth down on one, and as he spaced out, went searching for a doctor.  Rather hard to identify since they wear regular Indian clothes, but in all white.  Finally found one, who told us to ‘come back in a few hours’.  I battled with that doctor for awhile, then gave up and found another one who agreed to see him.  After all that, the doctor was brief, and 10 minutes later we were walking out with 5 kinds of medicine, and we didn’t pay a cent – no one ever asked us for money, maybe we missed something…?  By this point we were exhausted, and I wasn’t up to my usual haggling standards, so we caught an overpriced taxi back to the ranch, and slept for a few hours.

The good news, however, is that Mumbai is fabulous when you aren’t deliriously sick.  As Seth slept this afternoon, I took a little wander, and enjoyed finding an air-conditionned cinema playing western movies, a real McDonalds, and many people trying to boost my ego by telling me how great I’d be as an extra in a Bollywood movie.  Probably all crap, but hey, if I was feeling better, I might give it a shot.

We have some more recuperation time here, and as soon as Seth is feeling better, we are heading straight for Goa to relax on the beach and take a holiday from our holidays!


From the city to the country to the city

Tuesday, December 12th, 2006

So we left Varanasi, feeling good that we could still find our way around an Indian city and have fun (and we felt that much holier), and traveled back to the countryside.

An overnight train journey took us to Gwalior where we saw a fort at hyper-speed and were back on the train for Orcha in only 4 hours – and that included lunch!  Needless to say the Gwalior fort wasn’t all that great, mostly due to the screaming hordes of school children that were on a field trip to see the fort and the tourists within.

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Orcha is a 16km tempo-ride (sort of a shared rickshaw) from the train station and we were lucky enough to share it with a fat, happy, bean eating and bean throwing Indian lady!  She made our day forcing us to eat copious amounts of peas and throw the husks at the other tempos!

Orcha was great.  After doing our laundry in the morning (a surprisingly gratifying activity) we visited the fort, went swimming in the river – skinny dipping actually – and then went to the old temple.  We are generally forted and templed out, but the ones in this town were so unpresumptious that we could help but to love them.  And the thing that really made our day was having a swimming-hole just outside of town all to ourselves, to lay in the sun and read.  No staring.  No conversations.  It was heaven!

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The next day our whirlwind schedule took us to Agra.  This trip was one of our more ‘interesting’.  First off, we happened to share a sleeper compartment with the prince of a grand old estate and as we went deeper into conversation we discovered that this French student in Delhi had his own Lamborgini, houses and cars in Australia, Mumbai, and all over the world, as well as a plethora of servants.  Needless to say we got his number in Dehli and secured (hopefully) a place to stay with a train station pickup in a Lamborgini.

This distraction from the outside world caused us to miss our stop and travel an extra 45 min and 60 km past Agra.  Oops!  Thankfully, general tickets were available to get us back, giving Claire a luggage rack seat in the crammed open seating compartment.  For those of you who don’t know what “general ticket” means in India, it gets you a ride on one of 4 cars that contain 90% of the people on any given train.  Cheep and always available, it was our only option, and we were just lucky to be able to get on (and off) at the right times.

When we got to Agra, we took a rickshaw to our hotel, only to find out that they had given our room away.  Apparently reservations are good for a 2 hour window!  Luckily we ended up at a nice place with a view of the Taj Mahal, and a room with 2 double beds and a gymnasium sized floor.  So much space is something we haven’t experienced for awhile in this highly populated country!

Veranasi can be Very Nasty (but generally isn’t)

Sunday, December 10th, 2006

After an incredibly long journey from Kathmandu (11 hours on the bus and 6 on the train), we got the chance not only to check out another night at our FAVORITE town, Gorakpur (see the post involving lots of puking and rudeness) but also we got to meet about 647 new ‘best friends’ on the train.  A milestone – we started saying we were married and pretending we spoke French.  Kind of got busted reading a poster written in English though, oops!  We had a lot more patience our first two months, but after awhile, answering the same 5 question over and over again, and getting stared at for literally HOURS in a row gets to be a bit much. 

So it was with relief that we checked into our lovely family-owned guesthouse overlooking the sacred Ganga in Varanasi, and we had a chance to unpack and relax.  Our first impressions of Varanasi exceeded our expectations, and while it was dusty, hot and busy, it had an incredibly spiritual and holy presence.


We walked down the ghats, which are stairs leading to the river, we were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things happening – people washing clothes, bathing, burning their loved ones’ bodies, and praying.  The incredible thing is that this happens every single day of the year.  Some of the ghats had a very somber tone, while a few felt like we were at a mini-carnaval.  The interesting thing was that the cremation ghats were not somber at all – they had the busy feel of a marketplace as people bartered for the wood and services of the Untouchable caste members to handle the dead bodies.  If we hadn’t known what was in the wrapped cloths, we would not have immediately known that people were saying final goodbyes to their family members.  It really spoke to the power that people here feel is connected to this section of the river.

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At the end of the day, we watched the beautiful sunset from our rooftop, and were entertained by the little boys playing with their kites.  It reminded us very much of scenes from the book ‘The Kiterunner’ as they fought each other and ran after the fallen kites.  However, we WERE in India and soon enough the romantical mood was broken by a bloated cow carcass floating up in the river and being attacked by a pack of ravenous street dogs.  As they tugged off one of its legs, we knew we were at home.  At the end of our stay in Varanasi, we were in love with the city and were well rested for the next ‘leg’ of our journey.


Doing our chores in Kathmandu

Friday, December 8th, 2006

After much anticipation, we arrived in Kathmandu in the middle of rush hour.  We got a good view of the ‘automotive’ area of town while our bus waited in traffic with its engine off.  When it dropped us at the bus station (actually just a dirty street corner) we found a nice hotel and settled in for the evening. 

After our three days there, we had spent two of them doing chores and planning the next month of our trip, and only one day really ‘sightseeing’.  However, we didn’t feel like we missed out on much, in many ways the city disappointed us and we looked forward so much to returning to India.  At the end of a month in Nepal, we felt that the country really seemed to alienate us – in Nepal you are never a traveler, always a tourist.  There are special buses and every restaurant has a tourist menu with inflated prices and dulled down spices.  We did manage to get away from this a bit on our trek but it was never more evident than in the capital.  Kathmandu had some nice sights – we hiked up to a hill for a view of the city (covered in smog and haze), saw some gorgeous temples compete with resident playful monkeys, and stumbled across many hidden religious sites during our wanderings, but we missed the fairness of being able to haggle right alongside the locals and catch whichever bus we want.  Of course, Nepal does a few things the best: incredible bakeries (best chocolate cake ever in kathmandu, we went there every day) and more general politeness.  And it turned out to be quite the competetor with India in the ‘funny signs’ competition – when we entered the park to climb up the hill above the city, the sign announced that we would have to pay 20 rupees to walk on the path.  We felt relieved, because the same sign announced that if we happened to be riding an elephant, we would have had to pay 100 rupees.   


Overall, we did have a relaxing few days in the capital, but recommend the rural areas to the smog and busy nature of the city.  However, it did provide us with all the tools necessary to learn how to book our Indian rail tickets online (2 hours), plan our month and book said rail tickets (8 hours) and begin our search for accomodation in Goa over Christmas and New years (ongoing).