Fanefjord Church on a Really Windy Day! #Berlin2Copenhagen

As I have mentioned earlier in my Berlin to Copenhagen cycle story that from Stubbekobing to Stege was the maddest day in the entire cycling trip! I wanted to cycle 70-80 km that day but managed a very hard 25 km. It was too windy! Later when I checked the weather, I figured the winds had been 45km/hr that day. This windy meant that if I put my cycle on the stand it will topple, if I am cycling at the side of the road I get pushed into the middle of the road, when going downhill I need to peddle, peddle hard!

At all times the wind was pushing at me from every direction. There are no glass windows like in a car or a strong helmet with a screen in a motorbike. It is just me and my cycle. #Phew that was one hard day but also awesome –  I had never experienced nature in all its magnanimity. 🙂Continue reading

Cycling Berlin to Copenhagen Day 1: Leaving the Roost

Quite a while and I haven’t written much about my Europe trip. Lot of posts need to be written, a lot of people want to know about my expenses and budget and all that. Today I am more in the mood for prose, so writing about Day 1: Cycling Berlin to Copenhagen….

This was the day I was slated to leave my Berlin AirBnB homestay and cycle away! 😉

My home stay hostess was away traveling so I had the place to myself, we hadn’t fixed any time to leave, I wanted to be away as soon as I could, but I knew it will not be so easy. Because the 12 days I had in Berlin to buy all my gear and stuff were a bit less. So much so that, I had bought my camping gear just couple of days earlier and just the night before I had fixed the front pannier rack all by myself (beejesus!)Continue reading

Meeting a Cyclist: Shayl Majithia cycling from UK to India

Cyclists seem to come from every profession. Today morning I met a Math teacher from Oxford UK, Shayl Majithia who cycled from UK to India. From Mumbai he plans to head to Myanmar but probably via a long route as he still has many months in hand. He has already been on the road for about 9 months. This is just his 2nd long distance cycling! The first one being a quick 2 week, 2000 km from London to Rome.

We chatted about various stuff from Cycle touring, other cyclists to Indian politics, women rights and so on over breakfast along with avid Mumbai cyclist friend Mehul Ved. Here I will share some interesting excerpts.

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In order: Me, Shayl & Mehul 🙂  We all three are Gujarati. Shayl is British with Indian roots – he can actually read and write Gujarati! Sadly it means he can understand all the rude comments Indian hotel staff hurl his way in Hindi. 😀

Pakistan

Every Indian will probably cock up his ears when there is a Pakistan related discussion taking place. I recently read a book “From Karachi to Kathmandu” – an English lady cycles solo from Karachi to Kathmandu in the 1980s! Yea pretty crazy & gutsy. She made it through Pakistan with help from the Christian minority community there… so her account of it had already made me curious about Pakistan.

Shayl cycled from Pakistan into India via the Wagah border. It was one of the most beautiful countries he had ever visited. Apparently in the area he covered there are a lot of high Himalayas with some stunning landscapes. The people were very friendly and helpful even when he told them about his Indian origins (He is British with Indian roots). And it is cleaner, waaaaay cleaner!

It seems to me that India is a singularly dirty country where people simply don’t have a basic sense of cleanliness at all. It is a really sad matter and I am glad that PM Modi has at least put the issue up on center stage and now we are even paying a special tax for it – still I just don’t find that the common litterer cares 🙁

The -istans

Apart from that it was interesting to know about the awesome hospitality in all the other countries like Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Krygystan….. Apparently it is part of the religious culture as muslims to extend hospitality to guests. Women weren’t in the hijab everywhere. They had their head covered in most countries but no hijab is what I understood.

Apart from Turkey all these other -istans are just names on the map for me. Uzbekistan is now growing in popularity with the avid travelers of India but still not at all mainstream. I always figured these countries may not be safe but now I am wondering about it. More and more I speak to real travellers (not tourists) I am realizing how wrong most of the usual ‘Indian’ perception about our neighbours are.

My travel friend Snigdha visited China a while back and it turns out that our Big Neighbour isn’t actually mired in Communistic problems and poverty – but has amazing infrastructure and health provision for the entire population. There really was no abject poverty anywhere she saw even really offbeat places. Surprise?!

These places will have their own shortcomings and problems to deal with but they are often very different from the common perceptions.

I had a good time chatting with Shayl and his experiences. It is really brilliant to explore the world as a traveler and especially a cyclist. I cannot wait for my next cycling expedition. 🙂

I had a few specific queries related to long distance cycling,

Q: What do you do with luggage stuff once the cycle trip ends? Because you don’t have a backpack there …

“Good question, unfortunately you just drag it around or take a taxi with it. Depends what you are doing at the end of your cycle trip.”

On my previous cycle trip, in Copenhagen I sold my cycle and then was left with two big panniers and all the camping stuff. My backpack was back in Berlin. So I made three bundles and pretty much dragged them around – it was pretty tedious.

Q: What do you suggest with regards the cycle when I plan to do trips in different continents – keep one cycle and then fly with it everywhere or buy/rent one at the location or something else.

He said that good cycles may be available in a lot of places. Depends on where I want to cycle. So most of the places I listed out – Taiwan, Australia – apparently have really good cycles available quite easily. Taking a cycle in a flight might be an expensive option.

So currently I am just researching countries and their cycling culture. I have some places in mind but nothing concrete about my next trip. Need to figure out where I would procure a cycle from first.

All in all a fun time discussing different things with a cyclist 🙂

Solo Travel & My Extended Indian Family #2

Earlier I wrote about How I manage solo traveling with happy parents. Parents typically tend to be worry warts regards their off-springs, especially their single child. Such is the case with my parents too. So a combination of assuring explanations and spending time helps keep them calm and satisfied. I am also in touch with them during my trips which helps them remain relaxed.

With extended family the situation changes. They simply do not get the time nor mind share that my parents (and other near family) get.

Small detour here especially for any non-Indians reading this blog to understand the context of this Great Big Indian Family. When I say extended family I mean all my mother & father’s siblings, their kids. Grand-parents and their sibling’s families. It also includes a lot of other branches of family, for eg, the in-law family of my married cousins. It also includes a much wider range of relatives who become part via grapevine. So quite a huge number of people.

Obviously not a lot of time or thought will be given to all of them when I plan a trip. So typically, they will come to know of the trip once I have embarked  or they would be informed earlier on but without any explanations. So this leads to all sorts of reactions.

“Don’t take unnecessary risks & don’t waste time”

I got a phone call from my aunt who lectured me about why my cycling trip was not a good idea. This was after I had briefly told them that I am planning to go to Europe and cycle for most part of my trip. And cycling is much slower which means I will be visiting only two cities. It was a very brisk manner of telling them my travel plans and no wonder I got the customary cautionary phone call from them. I had anticipated it.

With my parents I had taken the conversation much slower. I first introduced them to the idea of ‘Slow Travel’ and how I loved it. Later on I eased them into the European Cycling Culture & Camping bit and then told them what I was thinking about my Europe trip. It was a very planned way to let my parents understand why I was doing this. Also why it is totally safe. Because it is important that they are okay with the whole trip idea. Surprisingly though, they thought so highly of Europe that they were really excited about it and didn’t need much coaxing. 🙂

My extended family of course didn’t get any such planned speeches. With them it was more of “Ohh, yes I am going to Europe and plan to cycle most of the time”

Solo travel
Europe on Bike 🙂
Oh yea just two big cities in a month!

Typically the conversation would go like,

“Yes, I am planning to go to Europe for a month or so”

“So which all cities are you going to?”

“Two – Berlin & Copenhagen and other smaller towns”

“Two??!! What will you do in these two cities for such a long time?”

“Well, I plan to cycle from one to the other, so that is why just two.”

Shit has hit the fan 😉

“What?! how can you do that?” “How far are these cities?” “Where will you stay at night” “It is typical of you to think such a mad idea” “I don’t know anyone who has done such a thing” …… and it went on.

Hehe

But anyway after a bit of time the excitement got to them as well. Because obviously no one in family had done something like this, let alone a solo girl. So for this trip by public demand I made a Whatsapp group with everyone in it. And I kept them all updated as I got a chance with random updates from the road. It was something they all really enjoyed. Many of them said they felt like they had traveled European countryside with me 🙂

So this Europe trip was a different level of involvement with my extended family. And probably now that I have been understood to be a different genre of traveller I guess they will respond to my travels differently.

The thing that helps me a lot is that my parents are totally okay with what I am doing at the end of day. It is true that at times they will say “Oh we have no say into what she does” but the fact is they are quite okay with it. So most of the times when my extended family raises questions, my parents usually just go like “Oh, kids now a days do what ever they like and why should anybody impose on them? They are smart enough to decide what they want” This really saves my ass, cause usually no relative goes beyond this.

Only one time I remember I had a relative who really gave me a big lecture. He was clearly a very dominant type and despite me taking his “lot of advice” in jest he just kept going on in front of the whole family – how I need to get married and stop traveling. Solo traveling is so risky. It was one time I felt bummed. So I came back to Mumbai and organized a travel meetup. 4 of us met at Bandra and once again I was back in the element. 😀

So a lot of crazy incidents with extended family. At times relatives would think that I had run away from home… it is difficult for them to conceptualize that I just like traveling solo.

So here are some tips with regards managing the Extended Indian Family with regards Solo Travel,

1) MAKe it Cool with your Parents & Near Family:

These folks are important and ones who care most about you. Spend the time, make effort as needed to keep them cool about it. Once they are cool about it they will support you in face of other relatives

2) Update Extended Family:

I have added a lot of my extended family to this blog newsletter – so they get emails about new blogs. In fact they may be reading this.. “Hellos – extended family!” Also now with all of us being connected on Facebook – they see my travel updates there as well. This sort of keeps them on the same page. So I would always suggest that if you plan to solo travel seriously, don’t lie to your extended family, instead be transparent and authentic. Start a blog or even write a column in the paper and keep them on the same page. Writing a newspaper column will also give you pseudo celeb status 😉

3) Meet other Travellers:

Sometimes like I shared above, you might feel bummed out because relatives keep advising you that it is too risky, you will never get married and so on. The best thing is to meet your travel friends and talk. It will help. You won’t feel isolated when you have like minded people around you.

4) Anticipate:

Relatives depending on their age and personality will be a certain way. Learn to anticipate with out being prejudiced. For eg: I know that when I share my travel adventures with many of the older relatives (and some friends) they will naturally keep giving me safety precautions. It is the first reaction. So once I anticipate this, it gets easy.

5) There is a Time to Lie:

So yea, I always advise being transparent over lying, but there is a time to lie. With really old relatives or major worry-warts – I just lie to them blatantly because I know if I told them the truth they will not be able to sleep. They will go pretty much, literally crazy until I don’t even know, maybe I would have to cancel my trip or something. It is sort of funny because my solo travel interviews and such have come in the Gujarati newspaper and they have read it but that they are able to digest. Just the idea of me going off on my own though, they will just not be able to accept.

So recently I heard that the antidote to Fear is Understanding. So help your extended family understand why you are doing what you are doing. Typically you may not have the time to explain to all of them, well just send them a blog article. Hell, just send them some of my blog articles if that works. 😉

Travel Friends: How I made a German friend Conversing via Google translate

Leaving Berlin to be on the road solo-cycling was a crazy feeling. The most unusual feeling was of not having a specific accommodation booked for the end of day. I was really thrilled but also curious how this trip would pan out. I cycled away chatting with strangers and getting attention as not only a solo cyclist but also an Indian one. Most people even in the most obscure towns recognized that I was Indian – I still don’t understand how considering they had never seen a solo Indian girl cycling. At many of the campsites that I stayed at, I was told that I was the first Indian to do so.

My first campsite Oranienberg Harbor was a beautiful, award winning camp site. It was on the banks of river Havel and this is the view across the bridge.
My first campsite Oranienberg Harbor was a beautiful, award winning camp site. It was on the banks of river Havel and this is the view across the bridge.

So as I reached my first award winning, heritage campsite – Oranienberg Harbor – I asked a German couple how to enter the campsite. I could see the site but there was a gate barring my way and I needed a card to enter it. The couple didn’t speak English. I anyway pursued the conversation by sign language. The lady was really affected and she started responding in sign language. It was not that tough. Basically I had to go to an office a little way away – I understood that I had to go in that direction. 🙂

There was a whole drama at the office because the harbor master was out and the auto-card-machine wasn’t working but finally I sorted all that out. I went back to the campsite and entered. I saw that couple relaxing outside their caravan. Looking around, I decided to put up my tent near them as the lady was really helpful and it was a good location.

So as I was setting up my tent nearby, the lady came around to ask if everything was fine. I didn’t understand much. I was really tired, smiled, sad ‘gut, gut’ and went to sleep. Snoooze.

Travel Friends
This is how I camped my first night. It was really a sticky, warm weather. I checked the weather forecast and since there were no rains didn’t put the plastic cover.

I figured the lady found me quite an enigma – Indian, solo, doesn’t speak German – what is she doing out here! But since we didn’t know each others language, I thought it would be an end of it. But not so. The other day the lady beckoned me and starting asking me questions. I tried to answer cause I understand a bit of German. Since English & German have similar roots there are words that overlap….. but definitely not enough to actually converse. Anyway, she managed to find out that this was my first trip to Europe. I had solo traveled a lot in India which is very difficult but Europe is easy so I was doing this Berlin-Copenhagen cycling trip. She was really struck. She told me she respected me a lot. And then obviously she really wanted to talk.

So finally I decided to drop my reticence and get into this. This lady wants to talk German with me, well this is the 20th Century and I have the technology for this. I dug out my smart phone, known as “handy” in Germany and opened up Google translate. Yes, I had not researched any better app.

So out comes Google Translate – I started typing in English, translated in German and put it on audio so she could actually listen to it. She found it all quite interesting. It was then her turn to type – so she typed in German and translated to English. She wasn’t savvy with the phone but she managed.

So this way I found myself having some quite deep conversation with this German speaking lady using Google translate. It was pretty crazy. I was telling her about how the British occupation of India had caused so many changes in our cultural fabric that it was getting so tough to really gets things back on track. The fact that we need to know English – which is a foreign language for our economic growth creates a lot of challenges. Because the language of the person influences his/her thinking and so inevitably there is a conflict. Because in our culture and heart we are Indian while via Language and thoughts we are getting ‘Westernized’… this is probably because for many days I was tackling with this issue within myself. That how can Indian culture and the Western influence in urban areas be sorted out? She did find it a little intriguing…. as she didn’t understand such a thing. The German people have no issue of corroding culture as in most of those European countries their own language Rules!

Anyway the conversation just went to all sorts of topics. And yes, Google translate was quite a limited tool I wish I could have found a better one but it was a really worthwhile effort. This lady who would have been just a helpful German lady became a Travel Friend.

Next couple of days we didn’t get much chance to sit down and talk again because she fell sick, probably got a sun stroke but she always watched out for me. Just before I was leaving she came to meet me and gave me a shopping bag to take with me. In case I wanted to shop anything. 🙂

Travel Friends
German lady gave me a small bag for shopping as a parting gift 🙂
I in turn told her I will write to her from India so share her email. This is a big thing for Germans as they are paranoid about giving out personal information.

I asked her if she had an email id I could write to, so we can keep in touch. She went to ask her husband for one, but he got completely freaked out. I was just mildly curious – what’s this now?! I thought it was standard to exchange contact info with friends on the road 🙂

Anyway she came back some time later and got me her address. So I will be writing her a letter now… but I wanted to blog this story before that. I meet so many people on my road… I would like to keep such stories to read through later on. Hope you also enjoy reading. 🙂

I later found out after meeting more German people that they are completely paranoid about giving personal information – in fact that is why a lot of them are not on Facebook or any other social network. So this is why her husband freaked out when I asked his email. Hehe.

And in case you are wondering – no I didn’t get any photo with her. I am a very reticent photographer and I really don’t click selfies.

the Refugee Space at Keleti Station, Budapest #SyrianRefugees

What is happening at Keleti (Background):

With the ongoing 4 year civil war and the push from ISIS-islamic terror group from neighbouring Iraq, there is a huge flow of normal people wanting peace in Syria moving towards Europe. They are trying to get a bit of decent life for themselves and their families. Almost 4,000 are crossing into Hungary daily – in the hopes of  getting to Germany or further and applying there for asylum.

The rules regarding applying for asylum is tricky. Europe’s Schengen – no border control zone – had a Dublin convention for refugees but the sheer numbers now have made it useless. So Hungary is in a frontline position taking in refugees – but then what?

When I was in Budapest, I went down to the Keleti station. This is where most of the refugees in Budapest amass – in the hopes of taking a train to their desired country. It is not that simple because they do not have the necessary visas obviously. The government has as yet failed to clarify any humane process for these people to follow. So Keleti station becomes a choking point every few days with thousands of refugees. The government has been making stop gap measures like sending buses to transport them to the border and so on.

Currently the Hungary-Austria-German border is open and Germany is taking in refugees but this cannot go on indefinitely.

Here I am quickly jotting down my observations of a quick visit to the Keleti train station in Budapest while I was there two days back. This is on 7th September, around 6.30pm to maybe 7.00pm. I don’t know whether it may actually help anyone but to a lot of people following the news – this may provide a glimpse into the place.

The time I visited was one of the lull phases. Most refugees had moved out and the other lot had not yet come. So this will mostly be a look at the place – some photos and little story.

Keleti station has an impressive facade and yet minimal when you enter.

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The refugee area is one level lower than street level. And you can stand on the street and look down into it. Many people standing about and looking down.
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I don’t know whether they were refugees or Hungary onlookers or homeless – guess a mix of all. There were also curious (and concerned) visitors like myself. Media vans and its crew added to the mix. A steady stream of public moving into the station to board trains, walking across, hanging out and also coming in with donations for the camp.

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These three seemed to be translators

 

I saw these bunch of kids playing with a volunteer. They looked quite entertained and happy. It was good to see. There were also a few kids standing a bit away and they were being approached by friendly people to chat. It was nice.

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Volunteer playing with kids. 

 

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Kids drawings – Notice the one on top corner with bold text ‘I heat you life’.

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I was observing when a young guy started talking to me. He seemed to be one of the refugee folk. I asked him where he was from. And it turns out he was a Pakistani refugee from Peshawar. And he claimed he wasn’t happy that I was the second Indian girl he ended up talking to today. He didn’t like India and hates Modi. I was somewhat amused and feeling weird about the situation. Of all people to meet, a Pakistani refugee and talk about India. 😀

Anyway, I asked him about his plans and he wanted to go to London. Considering the stand UK has on the refugee matter, I told him that seems quite tough, better Germany or Sweden. So far they are the only two countries who seem to be taking in refugees. Amid conversation, (what do you know!) another London born – Pakistani origin person joined our conversation. He was also just looking around like me. Anyway it was too quick a conversation to gauge exact details but it gave me an idea about how these Afghans and Pakistani refugees would be feeling marginalized considering all the attention is only on the Syrians. He had spent quite some time in Hungary – a few months I think. Already applied for asylum somewhere and gotten kicked out. Not entirely sure why he didn’t go off to Germany when the borders were open, but I sensed some more story there. But I didn’t get into a detailed conversation considering I would not really be following up or anything but I got a glimpse into complications and issues involved.

We had a light banter about how India & Pakistan were separated on a very political agenda. The London boy seemed to be telling this guy that India wasn’t bad but the politicians do a negative propaganda just so the citizens don’t look at their lapses.

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Some arabic text & ‘Love is Easy’…..

 

In the background some heated argument broke out between a railway staff (I presume as they were wearing fluorescent vests) and an olderly man. One old fellow with some dried blood on his nose was roaming around and came and asked a cigarette from that London boy.

The children were laughing and playing in the background. And volunteers were moving about with some tasks here and there. So overall a lively scene. I liked that. A fair bit of chaos and some safety – was a good mix I felt at the time. But I think even with another 500 people the place would be packed. So thousands over there would be really chaotic. Let’s see what the government is planning, otherwise can be the beginning of a ghetto-situation. For now I felt good after seeing this place, there is a warmth created by the volunteers and friendly people who are there.

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Many clothes…. less considering there are thousands of refugees passing through

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Sleeping area… that portion has a bit of roof so it makes sense…
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Free wifi for Refugees zone. I read that McDs and other restaurants blocked their wifi after this refugee wave. So greenpeace and other volunteers have set up wifi centers, which are crucial for refugees.
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The blackboard for information. Refugees have written some messages there….
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Information and timetables looks like in arabic….

Cycling Berlin-Copenhagen – The Almost forgotten Umbracke Concentration Camp Story #Germany

This was the most poignant moment in the entire cycle tour. Berlin to Copenhagen. 550 km in 17 days.

I was cycling as usual, in one of my initial days. Absorbing the experience, fresh and truly enjoying the solitude. Coasting down a small dirt road through German forest.

Green trees on either side and every now and then a field to break the monotony. In the middle of the dirt road were wooden spokes as dividers – demarcating the right and left.

All of a sudden an information board. I stopped to read – about the nature – flora and fauna maybe?

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It mentioned how just a little distance away in the forest used to be the concentration camp for young women. The place was called Umbracke and the concentration camp was said to be a “youth welfare camp for young women”, but it was a concentration camp.

It was almost forgotten in the shambles of war and then the soviet mess. But later remembered and confirmed as a concentration camp.

For the length of the camp all the wooden spokes – road dividers – had a bright red dot on them.

I cycled on and kept passing these dots. Too many. So long , so big the camp area must have been.

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Alone in the forest. The story of the once forgotten but then found and commemorated – Umbracke concentration camp for young women.

Near Furstenberg Havel.

This Ravensbrück concentration camp also has an official memorial and the guards building has been converted into a youth hostel – so now it really serves the youth! But the impact of suddenly coming across such a memorial – red dots on the road dividers – so subtle, but so poignant.

Solo Traveller & Need a Schengen Visa? Ditch the Travel agents! #Mumbai

The last year and half have been a high speed, roller coaster ride in my work area. A lot of learning, growing and results. I even wrote a post about “Not on the Road but always a Traveller” – because I simply haven’t been able to travel much the last year.

Finally situations changed and I find myself planning for some hard core solo travelling in Europe! A place which I have always thought of as the mecca for solo travellers – 1 visa, 27 countries, 1st world safety and so on.

I scoured online sites and blogs, because I wanted to plan something different. Europe, especially for a first trip is a mind boggling destination. So after looking at lot of things, figuring out vague budget estimates, I had a trip sketch in mind. Now, considering that this is my first solo international trip, I thought of getting a travel agent to smooth out the entire planning.

Imagine my utter dismay, when 3 well recommended travel agents told me that I would never get the schengen visa. Two of them gave me a 100% guarantee that I will never get one. Here is why,

Solo Travel

“Solo travellers can just go to another country and marry there”

The first Big reason they gave was because this was solo travel. Imagine after all my years of solo travelling and having this travel blog and all. Someone tells me ‘Oh, you are a solo traveller, you will never get schengen visa’

Trip Duration

“If you are going there for a month, you might just work there illegally”

The second Big reason they gave was because the trip I was planning was longer than the “usual” 15 – 20 days. Even though the official websites state that the term for a short term tourist visa is 90 days, these travel agents insisted that I will never get a visa for more than 20 days.

Camping

“They will not believe this. The consulate staff don’t understand these kind of things”

Camping is a common culture in many European countries and I plan to camp for few days in Europe. This I also agree was a bit tricky, as we need to give a well planned & booked itinerary while applying for visa while camping is random. However the travel agents did not see this as such a big reason Because the above two are enough for a 100% rejection of your visa application anyway.

It all turned out to be Big Bull Shit.

I spent a lot of time worried and disgruntled. Because if the above reasons were true, I didn’t want to go to Europe. I have been travelling happily across India, with numerous month long trips and now when I am getting to go to Europe – I have to do a 15 day, non-solo trip!!?? No chance!

So I spoke to my friend & fellow travel blogger who has travelled some gazillion countries across the world – Snigdha Jain. She was the force behind what I did next.

She told me to “Just Apply”.

And within my family we also discussed the same. The fact was that I didn’t want to go to Europe for 15 days & that too non-solo. I would rather then just travel somewhere else. More over we just could not believe that a solo traveller would not get a visa to Europe! It is bizarre.

So I compiled everything needed from flight tickets to cover letter to stay bookings to travel insurance and so on. It was not that difficult, just very, very time consuming. And I was worried about doing something wrong. Also weighed down by all the dire warnings that the ‘well-recommended’ travel agents gave me.

Finally applied on 29/06/2015.

I had my visa on 3/07/2015.

No questions asked. No hassles. All the days I wanted.

Thanks Deutschland <3

My faith in Euroland intact.

And as to my travel plans and travelogues… well they will follow. I may not be able to blog so much while on the road, but I will be updating my personal Twitter & Facebook page with quick updates. I also have a Whatsapp group for close associates, in case you are really keen then share your number. 🙂

Oh, and if you have any suggestions on what all to do in Europe do share in comments.

Schengen Visa
Did you know that this is the official flag for Europe? I didn’t know there was a flag for the European Union until just a while back!

Solo in Uttar Pradesh: Vrindavan – Agra – Varanasi

You may recall I had earlier written about how the hospitality and caring culture of Himachal Pradesh SHOCKED me. It was my first experience of random strangers going completely out of their way to help and make me – solo on the road – feel at home! I am remembering that experience as I write this article. So unusual and intriguing it is to find friendliness, awesomeness and helping hands when I am randomly traveling on my own. You would think that by now I would start getting used to it, but not really.

I went on a short 1 week trip in September, 2014 to Vrindavan – Agra – Varanasi. As I was planning for it, I decided to be extra cautious as this is Uttar Pradesh. Many of these north Indian states like Utter Pradesh and Bihar are quite infamous as an uncouth culture. e-Commerce sites like Flipkart don’t deliver high value products here because there have been cases where the courier delivery boy is kidnapped or his delivery is robbed at gun point! Yeah, this is true story.

So anyway I felt confident enough because I have been solo traveling for a while… and now I can travel even UP. I was in for a real surprise……. pleasantly,

The people turned out to be Sweet. Yea, that is the word I would use. From a conversation with a cycle rickshaw chachu (uncle) about how he should buy a motorcycle and stop cycling in Agra to the most helpful airport attendant at Varanasi airport – I met some amazingly helpful, friendly and sweet people in this land of red stained teeth and paan.

I spent half a day in Vrindavan, with a private car and driver. Generally I don’t take a private car – as I usually travel budget and because I think public transport is safer. But this transpired because,

I was traveling in train from Mumbai to Mathura. As usual the people around me started with ‘You are alone…where you are going and yadi yadi yada…..’. Most of the times unless I feel suspicious, I tell the truth. So I plunged into “Yes, I travel alone… I want to see the world and experience the culture and all so I just took off on my own… blah blah… I am really keen to see the ghats of Varanasi….. ” So once they got over the unusual-ness of the situation- they all pitched in with what all I should do in Mathura, once I get off this train. One of the uncles actually was getting down with me at Mathura so he insisted that I should take a private taxi… and he even picked out a ‘proper’ person for me and bargained a good rate.

Earlier I may have been very wary and not gone with this uncle. But I have experienced a lot of such cultures where the people will take charge and ensure I have a good time like I am their daughter. So I kept my eyes and ears open … saw the taxi guy was legit, took his card and all. Asked the driver for the car number which I sent out as SMS in front of him. So all the various formalities taken care off…. had a good time driving around Mathura and Vrindavan with this local chap.

The driver was decent. I went to couple of usual temples around this holy twin-towns – Mathura & Vrindavan. Nice experience. The Banke Bihari temple especially had a real charm – with a quaint little post office inside. Rows of sadhu-beggars kept begging with ‘Ram-Ram’ and priests from nearby temples asked for offerings. Calls of “Shanivaar, shani ka dhaar” – offer to Shani dev! Sweets shops were many, and I kept wondering whether to try out some delicacies. It was actually more like what I expected Varanasi to be.

I visited Prem Puri ashram because apparently it is a wonder to see. I found it so-so. Most disturbing is that they have included the idol of their leader as part of the Krishna- Radha-Hanuman team. I have major issues with this and especially considering their leader and disciples are accused (and some found guilty) of Rape I am not even inclined to research their path.

Vrindavan, Prem Puri
Made from marble imported all the way from Italy… whadever…

 

Krishna, Vrindavan
A big complex, lot of space and a picturesque white marble temple. If only the organization had a better rep. The leader has many rape cases on him.. while some of their followers are actually convicted for molestation.

The Iskcon temple on the other hand I thought was decent. Some old lady tried to sell me some books but that is common here. Always trying to convert people – most of these paths. But overall I trust this path… when I go to the temples I feel some good energy and like to do their chanting dance. Hare Rama- Hare Rama – Rama – Hare Hare…

Iskcon, Vrindavan
This is the samadhi structure of Prabhupada – the Iskcon leader. The main temple of Krishna / Rama n all is further inside.

This is the temple where their founder Prabhupada’s samadhi is. I sat there for a bit. Some bhajans were going on there too as in the main temple shrine. A monk tried talking to me here… which I would have enjoyed but I have a karmic response to monks trying to chat with me. I tend to ignore or simple not respond to them. Anyway… that is a whole different story.

Most of these temples have a very interesting canteen. Lot of sweetmeats and foods. So if you go there, do try out some of the foods, sweet-stuff and drinks.

I then went off the beaten path on a little search for a Shaktipeeth. Apparently there is a Mahadev Bhuteshwar Mandir which is a shaktipeeth but I was not able to find it. I searched around, finally made my way to an old looking, slightly dilapidated temple which was part of a chawl type housing complex. They however told me that this is the Bhudev mandir, but this was not the shaktipeeth. They also told me “Hold on to your spectacles otherwise the monkeys will flick them away” :p

Apparently another temple I had already passed was the Shaktipeeth. So much for that. But this search led me to some not so touristy areas and small lanes as well. I enjoyed getting a little inside view of this town.

Then we headed off to Agra. The people here were the biggest surprise for me and probably this is the craziest-somewhat-romantic encounter I have had here,

Solo in Uttar Pradesh
Agra Fort – Apparently you get the best view of Taj Mahal from this fort.

 

Solo in Uttar Pradesh
Welcome to the Taj Mahal…. 🙂

The car dropped me off outside Taj Mahal. Here a lot of rickshaw folks and other ‘guides’ were approaching me which I clearly shrugged off. But there was one good, authoritative chap who befriended me. This guy was the Thekedaar of one of the rickshaw stands. Not entirely clearly what that means but basically he has some kind of authority and clout in the area. His language showed some education and academic sense.

Not sure, maybe he just took a liking to me as I was a solo traveler but he started showing me around. I was little wary of this guy… but then his help was very useful. Usually all tourists & travelers are dropped off at the West Gate of Taj Mahal. Because of this, there is a VERY long line there….. I would have had to stand there for 45 mins or so… but thankfully due to this Thekedaar fellow I got to know about the East gate which is just 5 mins walk from the West Gate!

I bought my Taj Mahal audio guide (I love audio guides) from the West Gate ticket area – which he didn’t like. He wanted to give me a personal tour of the place. Then we went off to the East gate through a market like area. I asked this guy many questions to fathom the local culture and also to gauge whether he was a drug peddler or a kidnapper or some such nefarious sort. At East gate, as he had suggested there was absolutely no line. I was able to buy my entry ticket and enter in a few minutes. Apparently this Thekedaar fellow wouldn’t enter from here but he would catch up with me inside.

I never did meet him inside because I saw no reason to and I really wanted to explore Taj on my own. But this fellow – gave me almost a VIP entry into Taj Mahal. I had told him first thing itself that I am not interested in paying him or any such thing so not entirely sure what the guy wanted. Some traveler friends suggested that they are usually looking out for romantic adventures with the female travelers. First experience of such a kind… and it was not really unpleasant. As long as a decent, well spoken person genuinely helps and befriends me.. then it is a nice encounter… and maybe someone else may even have a nice, memorable romantic encounter with him. I anyway wasn’t enticed… but as you might imagine this was a whole different experience for me.

Solo in Uttar Pradesh
Taj Mahal… just the way it looks in the pictures :p

 

Taj Mahal
How do I take a shot with out the public? ^-^

 

Anyway I didn’t meet him after that. After exiting the Taj, the Rickshaw people kept asking me where I wanted to go. Finally asked one chap ‘How much will it be…’ and he said 15 Rupees. This was crazy, because 15 is so dirt cheap, I would not even bargain! Guess there is lot of poverty here, because all the rickshaw drivers I found in Agra would be more than happy to charge 15/- and would wait for 30 mins just for 5/-

Crazy. Sweet. Inexpensive

Yamuna, Taj Mahal
Serene Yamuna front behind the Taj… .

 

Taj Mahal
Standing at the Taj and clicking the entrance Gate

 

Later in the day I had to take a train from Agra to Varanasi. Stay warned this route is very unreliable for newbies. Many of the trains are very, very late by over 4 hours! So it is very important to research out the better trains like the Ajmer – Sealdah express. My train happened to be one which got delayed by 4 hours, so I was at Agra station at 8 pm without a train connection. I basically hung around the station masters office and kept requesting him… highlighting the fact that I just need one ticket – I am an abla naari (helpless lady) ;D

Finally at 9pm (yea hung around there for an hour or so…) he called me to the other platform and gave me a 2 AC ticket. I was so happy.. .and it was a nice train. Would reach Varanasi next day early in the morning. 🙂

I managed to do my yoga in the train and then even got a veg thali for dinner. 🙂

This was the first time I have managed to get a ticket last minute like this through the station master and pay ‘extra’ and all that. So quite happy with myself. You should know that the Agra – Varanasi railway line is notorious. Trains can be crazy late. Also they often have 100 waitlist which gets confirmed. So just take the best train – like Ajmer- Sealdah express – and book Waitlist. Usually it will get confirmed.

Outside Varanasi
Early morning. Just a bit from Mughal Serai town near Varanasi. Lovely fields and okay weather.

Varanasi gave me a whole different kind of shock… but the people there were also quite sweet.

Agra & Vrindavan both turned out to be really quaint towns, I would like to spend more time here. Vrindavan especially, as there would be many ancient temples to explore and possibly has a lot of stories.

More than that, my entire time in these towns (and Varanasi) really broke down stereotypes about Uttar Pradesh. Solo in Uttar Pradesh and it was completely fine – as good as any other place in India. Women can solo travel here – and pretty well at that. These towns Mathura-Agra-Varanasi are all touristy places so I would also like to go a bit internal to not so touristy places and experience the culture there… but I am hopeful that it would also be pleasant. 🙂

I will write more stories from here including people encounters in Varanasi soon, so stay tuned. 🙂

Solo Travel Myths: Nobody to Click your Photos

(Attempt at humour, beware)

One of the funniest reactions from someone when I told them about solo travel,

“Why would you travel solo, there would be no one to click your pictures!!”

Sorry fellow-who-said-this, but when I met a few travel friends we had a really good laugh over it.

But dispelling this myth…..here are some amazing and highly fulfilling ways to get your photo clicked in the various places you visit solo!

1) The Selfie:

No introduction needed, the hot and happening ‘Selfy’. I don’t particular care to take too many selfies but yea this is one way to take your pictures when solo traveling.

2) Ask a Stranger:

Yea this one may be a little tough 😉 … I mean how do you actually do this? Well, it is really simple… just look around and spot someone who looks tech savvy enough and just hand them your mobile/camera and ask them to click your picture.

A tamil uncle took this picture.... a really good one I say. And it was nice interacting with this tamil group with my broken Tamil....
A tamil uncle took this picture…. a really good one I say. And it was nice interacting with this tamil group with my broken Tamil….

This has an added advantage: the picture is always a surprise. Sometimes this stranger could suck at taking a picture or he may fiddle around with your camera and screw the settings but usually they take pretty good picture. This way, you also exchange few pleasant words with a completely new human being!

3) Don’t Click a Picture:

Yea, this one is the really difficult one. Basically, you just DON’T Click a Picture!! It’s quite easy once you get the hang of it. So you want to record the experience? Why does it have to be a photo? Why not sit and write a poem on your visit. Or just make notes to read later. Record your thoughts of the place on an audio unit.

Just saying, why obsessed with recording how the place LOOKS. How about the other experience – how you feel, what you thought, first impressions and so on….

Pushkar Lake Photo
Barely took any pictures at Pushkar… this is just one of three or so images of the town…. Just experiencing.

4) Solo does not always mean Alone:

Very often you find other awesome travelers or solo traveler and so basically you might actually have some one else to click the photo! So Solo does not mean you are always alone everywhere… apart from the many mostly-friendly strangers you may actually have some friends around.

Solo Travel Myths
Just a friend to click this pic… nice fun we had and I love the giraffes anyway 🙂
Friends on the Road
Another german solo traveler I met on the road…
Nandi, Chamundi Hills
German friend mentioned above took this picture of mine with the Nandi of Chamundi Hills in Mysore 🙂

🙂