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I just returned from a week long trip to Central America – Belize and Guatemala. Initially I wanted to go to Key West, but a friend went to Belize last year and loved it, so we decided to use Christmas time for a trip. Things were booked up and flight prices were high, so we booked everything quickly. I was able to get flight through Dallas, business (same price as economy) while going and economy while returning on Expedia with American Airlines. Dallas transit was my first choice since people had indicated that Miami would be a nightmare with the number of people.

Here is my itinerary:

  • Dec 24: Leave NY, land in Ambergris Caye, night in Ramon’s
  • Dec 25, 26: Stay in Ambergris Caye, snorkel, laze around on the beach, stay in Ramon’s
  • Dec 27: Leave for San Ignacio, possibly visit Belize Zoo on the way, stay in Midas
  • Dec 28: ATM caves, stay in Midas
  • Dec 29: Leave for Tikal, stay at Tikal Inn
  • Dec 30: Tikal morning tour, leave for Guatemala city, stay in Barcelo
  • Dec 31: Visit Antigua, stay in Barcelo
  • Jan 1: Fly back to NY

We left NY for Belize city in a 6am flight on Dec 24. Business class was very comfortable with more legroom and food. Transfer from Dallas was easy. We landed in Belize city around noon; Dallas and Central America are 1 hour ahead of NY. At the 11th hour I remembered to download books on my iPhone Kindle app, and downloaded the Secret series by Pseudonymous Bosch – wonderfully entertaining and hilarious. I was looking for books similar to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, some mindless fun and fantasy.

I had booked a Maya Island Air flight to Ambergris Caye. The flight was 30 mins late, and we finally landed in Ambergris Caye at 5pm. Tropic Air also runs flights to Ambergris Caye from the Belize City airport. The bank was closed so we could not withdraw Belize currency, but pretty much everyone accepted USD. Overall prices in Belize were high to match American and European prices, so there was no benefit from the exchange rate (2:1 for USD). It was so good being in warm weather, away from cold rainy NY. When I landed in Belize, I felt like I was in my own country, India, the weather and people felt exactly like India.

I booked a beachfront room in Ramon’s Village, it was amazing. The view was really good, and of all the places along that stretch of the beach, Ramon’s had the best beach to just lay around. The food was quite good too. Ramon’s had a very “village-like” feel with traditional-looking huts. It was wonderful waking up to the sounds of birds every morning, I even heard an owl one night, and saw an Iguana among the trees. The sun rose at 6am and set at 6pm – I was surprised at the early sunset. By 10am it felt like noon.

We were hungry and explored the area for restaurants. We picked Blue Water Hill, it was full of people. We ordered pizza, AM had chicken on his pizza (very bad choice), he spent the entire night suffering and throwing up, and the entire day on Dec 25 recovering from that chicken – or was it Barbecue sauce on the pizza? I rated Blue Water Grill poorly on Trip Advisor. The next day since AM was unwell, I spent the day lazing around. Later at noon when he was a bit better, we rented a golf cart from Moncho’s, walking distance from Ramon’s, and drove to the northernmost and southernmost parts of the Caye. In the north, we crossed the bridge to a more well developed and posh part of the town, but the road was very bumpy. There was nothing much to see or do other than lay on the beach, swim, or snorkel and dive. It was very difficult to get a golf cart rental – they were completely booked for days, finally we found one for 3 hours. It wasn’t necessary anyway since there was nothing to see or do. We decided to eat at Ramon’s and avoid outside places for health reasons. The next morning we went snorkeling with Ramon’s at 9am. It was awesome, snorkeling feels like such a blur now. We went to Hol Chan and watched fish and coral, it all felt so fast but really amazing. Then we went to Shark Ray Alley and saw nurse sharks of all sizes and Sting Rays. The guide caught one large nurse shark for photos. We stayed close to the guide, they pointed out fish names, I wish it was more informative but it would have been uncomfortable coming in and out of water to learn. We were back by 12.

After lunch I got a nice massage on the beach. As soon as I returned to the room, I fell sick, as did AM again. We spent the rest of the day and night and the next day sick. Not sure if it was the food or snorkeling water which was quite dirty. We have travelled to several places and are originally from India, I always have street food when I go back, but never have we fallen as ill as we did here. It was a terrible way to spend 3 days, totally sick of being sick. On a positive note, I finished the Secret series and downloaded more books.

On Dec 27 we had to leave for San Ignacio, I had recovered by 2pm and we booked a last-minute Tropic Air flight to San Ignacio. While waiting at the airport we saw a family of 5 from Texas; they had big mosquito bites on their legs, clearly the mosquitoes were used to feasts and didn’t leave a single family member.

We booked a room at Midas. They sent a car to pick us up from the airport, 1 hour away. The driver was a woman and very friendly, she gave us the lay of the land. Everyone in Belize spoke good English. We had a very nice room at the Midas, it was a 15 mins walk from the town center. Due to Christmas most of the restaurants were closed, but we found a very cheap place and had rice and beans, the food was very tasty and cheap. Overall San Ignacio was cheaper than Belize. We had reserved ATM tour the next day with Pacz Tours. They are located in the town center. We decided to go at 11am, a good choice since it rained the next morning.

Actun Tunichil Muknal was amazing and thrilling. The Mayans used to visit the underground to offer their prayers to the Gods. We drove for 1 hour, hiked for another hour in the jungle and waded through water thrice before we started our journey into the caves. The tour had us carry our lunch while hiking in the jungle; a bad idea since we had to wade through water, my lunch fell in the water obviously, they were kind enough to offer an extra. In hindsight we should have taken a plastic bag to preserve the lunch. The restrooms were absolutely disgusting, but beggars cannot be choosers. After the hike we had lunch and left for the caves. We swam to the other side among tiny fish that dispersed as we hit the water. From then onwards it was very dark, we had lights on our helmets to guide the way. Our guide knew every rock and way and guided us along. We were a group of 8, a family of 6 and the two of us. The family was from Nebraska, a father, grandfather, two daughters, and one boyfriend. They were really nice and we felt like a team. AM had a hard time swimming since he could just do freestyle, so the guides helped him. The entire time we went through rocks submerged at different levels in water for a third of the mile. We also climbed up rocks in between, it looked difficult but with the guide’s help we conquered everything. We climbed up a thin aluminium ladder to a higher point of the cave. Finally we reached a place where we took off our shoes and walked in a spare pair of dry socks. We saw pots of offerings and some skulls and bones from the Mayan times. Along the way we also saw limestone, sparkling quartz, and stalactites. It was amazing to be within the depths of the Mayan underworld, I can only imagine how the Mayans brought offerings along such a tough way when I could not carry a simple lunch across the water! We went through some tough rocks and had to squeeze our way. Finally it was time to go back, returning was much faster and easier, although climbing down the aluminium ladder was scarier than up! When I saw a ray of light seeping in through the entrance, it had the most beautiful view with trees lining both sides of the water, as if I was in elf land or something. We were exhausted after spending 3 hours in the cave and could not wait to hike back. The jungle hike was slippery and muggy since it had rained that morning. Many people had worn Keens with openings for water to pass, but I was grateful for my hardcore Timberland Safety Toe hiking shoes – while they were sloshy and uncomfortable when soaked, my feet were protected from the hard rocks and they had a good grip while hiking. At the end of the trip, my shoes were scraped off in several places around the toe area.

The ATM is very thrilling and a long ride, not for the faint at heart. We saw people in their 60’s climbing down rocks quite easily with some help from the guide and teams. The journey is much better than the destination; all we saw were some pots and bones, but the journey was worth it just to get a thrilling experience. I will never ever forget that experience my whole life!

We reached the hotel at 7pm, a long 8 hour adventurous day! We were exhausted and went to Ko-Ox Han Nah for dinner. It was full of people, I didn’t like the food at all – more expensive than the rice and beans place, but worse food and slow service. I slept very well that night.

On Dec 29 we relaxed and left for Tikal after visiting Xunantunich on the way. Midas booked us a taxi to take us to Xunantunich and drop us off at the Belize border. Xunantunich was worth a visit and we were done in 2 hours. We climbed the highest ruin and had sweeping views of Guatemala highlands on one side and greenery of Belize on the other. It was beautiful, quiet, cool and pleasant at the top. We got a glimpse into how the Mayans lived in the old days and their temples. We had to take a ferry across along with the taxi, it was quite fascinating since we saw tiny tiny fish moving along side the ferry. Imagine the entire day, all the tiny fish in that lake, all moving along side the ferry the whole day, without getting bored. It was funny, fascinating, and curious, why would fish move parallel to the ferry all day long? All of them? There were some shops with pretty jewelry and beautiful carvings on slate, including Belize map.

It took us 30 mins to get through Belize and Guatemala border. We came across several men with Guatemala currency for currency exchange. We decided to use an ATM instead. Tikal Inn sent a taxi to pick us up, it cost 90 USD, too expensive. We kept thinking that we should have asked around since there were many taxis at the border; however, I did read Tripadvisor reports about hijacking of tourist buses, so maybe we took a safer route. On the way we stopped at an ATM and withdrew 1.2K Guatemala currency. It was too low though, Guatemala currency is 7.8:1 USD, and we ran out of cash pretty quickly. We should have withdrawn at least 2K.

The park entrance fee was 150 QTQ per person. Tikal Inn has electricity only during certain hours of the night, at 10pm the lights went off. Mosquitos ate us till we could take it no more, on our hands and ankles, some even got into my back and gave me big itchy bites.

The next morning we had booked a sunrise tour with Roxy at 4:30am. I highly recommend her, she is ver knowledgeable and an archeologist herself, hence she shared a lot of the Mayan history and knew all the excavations of Tikal. Our visit would have been futile had we not had her. We went to temple IV to catch the sunrise, it was very dark and we saw a few frogs and a silver fox using flashlights. We were not able to catch the sunrise though due to the mist, very disappointing. Roxy took us through the most efficient ways and we got a good view of the ruins. It was very interesting to see how the Mayans lived back in the day. It also made me appreciate the ruins, palaces, and temples in India much more. Most ancient places are very barren and made of just rocks, in India the beautiful colorful carvings make you want to spend more time admiring the artistry. IMO, bare barren ruins are not worth visiting since they all look the same, and had we not had Roxy the trip would not have been as fruitful since the history behind the bare stones mattered much more. While beautiful carvings you could spend all day seeing them, admiring them. So yes it made me appreciate my country much more.

We heard howler monkeys howling in anger due to spider monkeys encroaching their territory. Roxy took us through the forest to get a good view of the howler monkey, she also showed us an ant-eater. We retuned by 10:30am in time for breakfast. We had an evening flight to Guatemala city, and the hotel had a cheaper shuttle to drop everyone off at the airport. Overall, half a day is enough for Tikal. It is helpful to take a guide to explain the ruins, there is a lot of Mayan history to learn about.

Now for the Tikal Inn – it was amazing how modern the inn was despite being in the jungle. They had Internet access, very slow, but it was there. The rooms were quite nice, and you could hear jungle noises as well. Is it really worth it staying in the jungle? It depends. The biggest benefit is that you can wake up early and visit the jungle before crowds come in; we were done by the time people started coming in. They do charge an additional fee though of 100 QTQ per person for early entry, which is completely ridiculous since you end up double-paying for entry. The biggest con is lack of electricity. The inn has electricity only in mornings and evenings for 2-3 hours each. We didn’t get a chance to shower in hot water since our tour was scheduled at such a time and had to shower in cold water. But the worst was mosquitoes. They bit us a lot at night, and there was nothing we could do about it, no fans to ward them off. I overheard our neighbor throwing up all night, poor guy, in the dark. You also get to hear animals early in the morning or late evening; however, there aren’t that many animals that you get to see, so the benefit is not really that much. Flores is far away so its an hour long drive, but personally I would have preferred to have stayed there and avoided the mosquitoes.

Dec 30 we landed in Guatemala city with Tag Airlines. I had booked two tickets several weeks in advance; the day of the flight I received an email saying they could not accommodate us. I didn’t check my email so went to the airport and they had to accommodate me. The plane was late by an hour. They were over-booked and some people had to be booked on a later flight. They seemed a little disorganized but very friendly and nice. I was happy to see Guatemala city and was amazed at how modern it was, it was refreshing to return to civilization after all the adventures in Belize and Tikal. Our hotel, Barcelo, was the best compared with all others on this trip. They had excellent food, and the breakfast buffet was delicious and sumptuous – we didn’t need to have lunch. We got upgraded and had an amazing room.

The next morning we booked a shuttle at our hotel for Antigua for 30 USD per person round trip. We debated visiting a coffee plantation from 9am for a 2 hours tour, but decided to rest and just visit Antigua. Antigua is a beautiful city, very ancient, and like most ancient cities has cobbled streets and traditional houses. The houses were beautiful and depicted Spanish and Moorish influence. The people in our shuttle asked us to get a guide since we didn’t know Spanish. Few people in Guatemala spoke English. We got a guide and he took us to cathedrals destroyed by earthquakes and being restored, he took us into some hotels to give an idea of houses of ancient times, and a jade museum. Mayans were into jade and it is a big industry in Guatemala; you can find Jade only in Guatemala. It was a beautiful stone but very expensive. I liked the jewelry but it was too pricey. We were done in 3 hours and in hindsight we didn’t need a guide. Every book I read and person I spoke to mentioned crime in Guatemala, so for that reason alone we were glad to have a guide (although completely useless since there wasn’t much history to see), the guide took us through safe lanes. Since it was Dec 31, by evening there was a lot of music and dancing on the streets. The town was very charming. I would have loved to have stayed in one of the traditional hotels, but we had to stay close to the airport in Guatemala city. The markets in Antigua were very colorful and I would have loved to have purchased the handbags, tapestries, paintings, and other artifacts, but I can buy them much cheaper and better in India so I refrained from shopping. By 7pm we left for our hotel and next morning flew back to NY.

I had requested an upgrade and the people at Guatemala were very nice and upgraded us till Dallas since the flight was sold out. US airport is much more strict about upgrades. I really liked Guatemala city and will definitely return to visit Atitlan and Chichi market. It is so similar to India, and I felt so much at home there. The people are also amazingly laid-back and friendly, so different from the hustle and bustle of NY…

There is a lot of poverty in Central America and they depend a lot on tourism, it was heart breaking to see the poverty and reminded me of India where kids don’t even have clothes on, it was a painful reminder of what I have left behind, and imbibed a deep sense of wanting to do something for my own country to eradicate poverty and hunger.

All in all, we were happy to be back home, there is truly no place like home no matter where we go!

Some travelling tips:

  • Pack shorts, light T’s, and flip flops for Belize, it is very hot.
  • Lots of sunscreen – it is hot!!
  • Some medicine for the stomach, you may need it!
  • Insect repellent – you will definitely need this every single night, and during the day in Tikal
  • A pair of hiking shoes or Keens or sneakers for ATM and Tikal. AM wore running shoes and he was fine. The shoes are a big pain to dry, so you may want to pack an extra pair if you plan to wear them again. AM packed 2 pairs, I stayed with one and wore the wet shoes to Tikal.
  • In ATM, while most women wore short shorts, I wore capris and was glad since I didn’t have any scrapes from the rocks, although they were soaked. Take a plastic bag to preserve lunch, and an extra pair of dry socks to put on when going inside the cave, wet socks can be slippery. Sports socks are better than trouser socks. Also, a 2-piece swimsuit is more practical than 1 under the outfit. Bring a towel.
  • In Tikal, its best to wear a pair of pants if you do the early morning or late evening tours to keep away mosquitoes.
  • Book all trips and golf carts in advance since they get full very soon.
  • Ideally, I would have liked to end my trip in Ambergris Caye had the flight price differential not been as huge, since it was very relaxing at the beach minus stomach issues – flying out of Belize on Jan 1 was ridiculously more expensive!
  • Guatemala has a lot of crime, so its best to take hotel recommendations on what to visit, where and how to go, and keep the wallet in the front pocket, remove all expensive jewelry. I didn’t even wear my watch.
  • Central America has American plug system, so no need for an adapter.
  • Be prepared for plane delays; the planes are very local and run at their own time.
  • Few hotel rooms had a TV – Ramon’s and Tikal Inn don’t have one.
  • I always buy a travel guide, but Lonely Planet’s Central America was very disappointing. I loved LP’s Iceland because it included a lot of history; the Central America is bare without much insight into history, top recommendations, and why one should visit a place, and no proper itinerary recommendations. Their website is much better. I recommend skipping this book and buying another guide.
  • Guatemala is colder than Belize in the evenings, so do pack a light jacket and possibly jeans/pants.
  • If your hair is as frizzy as mine, don’t bother taking a flat iron – it will get even frizzier in Belize, and its completely useless to flat iron since it will get frizzy again from the weather and activities. Here is how mine looked throughout: 
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I changed jobs recently and took a week off for a short 4 days trip to Canada. It was an amazing trip, and I felt so relaxed and well-rested in these 4 days — more than I have ever been these last 2 years! I got a list of top 10 places in Canada, and decided to go to Montreal and Quebec City since they were within driving distance. We left Friday and drove 7.5 hours to Montreal. It was surprising that even on a Friday there was very little traffic and the drive was a lot of fun. I bought something from Apple where if I connect it to my iPhone, I could listen to the music on the car’s stereo on channels that had no signal. It took a while to get proper connection, and it was a lot of fun listening to our favorite songs on the way.

We stayed in Old City which had cobbled streets, street entertainers, and a park. I loved walking around everyday. We visited the Archeological museum – there was a very interesting exhibit on the Rapa Nui. We also visited the Basilica. When AM and I had gone to Spain, I was so sick of seeing Basilicas but AM made me visit every single Basilica in and around the towns we visited. So he made me visit this one too!

We stayed at Intercontinental Montreal. It was a decent hotel and at the heart of Old City, walking distance from everything. There were very charming art galleries around that area, and we found my favorite restaurant, Eggspectation (containing creatively named and cooked eggs items on the menu). We tried other restaurants but the food was very bad – I end up falling sick from the food.

After two days we left for Quebec City, 3 hours away. I loved the place! It was extremely charming and more like Europe than Canada. Very very green and rainy. It rained on and off all day. AM and I slept a lot and felt very relaxed. There was not much to do other than walk around. It had sloping roads similar to San Francisco. The old city was completely fortified all around. We did a city bus tour and learned about its history. I wanted to catch a French show in the park but it rained all day. We stayed at the Loews De Concorde which was close to the old city. I found my favorite place for brunch, Cosmos. A very cool restaurant with a delicious menu. I loved the fruits they served – sweet and delicious.

We spent a day driving outside the city and covered an entire island with charming houses. We also visited a nearby basilica and waterfall. It was just so nice to sit quietly, relaxed, enjoying the cool breeze. The weather was cool and pleasant. I did not want to come back to the craziness of NY. At that moment, I hated NY. People outside live so quietly and relaxed, and in NY everyone keeps running around and sometimes people are so bitchy and stressed. The drive back took 10 hours and seemed so long. I could have easily spent another 2 days in Quebec City doing nothing.

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Vaishno devi

I decided to post my Vaishno devi trip report here. Its an old one, but my memories are still very fresh.

Vaishno devi is one of the most popular temples in India. It is located in the mountains 13 kilometers from Katra in Jammu & Kashmir. My mom had been talking about going there for years, and finally she and my dad decided to make the trip and asked me along. There is a special train for Sindhis that departs from Surat and goes all the way to Katra. Several Sindhis have donated to run this train, and cost of the trip (including food) is only Rs. 3,000 plus accommodation. A bargain!! The only problem was the timing – it took us almost 2 days to reach because the train was not on a regular schedule – rather, it went ahead only if it received a signal. The enthusiasm of the organizers is admirable – imagine the time it took to hire people, get donors in line, work with government for permissions, cook and provide good food on the train and in Katra. Amazing! The train runs twice a year, and this time there were 2,000 people in the train, most of them Sindhis but some Gujaratis as well.

Day 1

We took a bus for a 3 hours trip and planned to board the train in Baroda. My cousin Lokesh came to meet us at the station and we had dinner – Pau Bhaji (yummy!). My mom’s sister, Daya masi, joined us there. My mom’s other sister, Rami masi, had boarded the train in Surat and we joined her at the Baroda station. Her husband Anand jijaji was there as well, along with his sister-in-law, cousin brother and the brother’s wife and sister. The cousin brother’s sister brought along her grandson who was in engineering college. Lets call the cousin sister fat cow, the cousin brother N and his wife K, sister-in-law SIL. A completely useless bunch. Jijaji’s other brother and sister-in-law had changed their minds about coming, so he requested N and K to come along using their tickets.

The train was late, and we boarded it at 1:30am. The train was cold. In our compartment there were pockets that had air coming in. The organizers had blocked it using cellotape but it was still very cold. I told (boasted, rather) my parents that I wouldn’t feel cold (NY harsh weather skin and all), but I froze my butt off. I shivered a lot but the considerate person that I am I did not wake my mom to ask her for a shawl. And the lazy bum that I am I did not venture down to look for it either. I slept in the middle section. I always find it hard to sleep at the top. Rami masi slept at the top – her section had a large speaker, so her shorter self would accommodate it better. It was a feat getting her up because the speaker was right over the steps. Mom kept telling jijaji to haul her up. They are like Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan – in height! Jijaji had to sleep with bent knees in the corner section. Mom kept telling him to go to a section where his long legs would be better off, but he refused. Mom and he have a thing going on where they keep fighting all the time – in fun of course. Jijaji does not feel cold probably because he does a lot of yoga. But he did not even cover himself with a bedsheet, and his section was the coldest as I found out the next night.

Day 2

My mom’s annoying alarm rang punctually at 5am. By 6, the helpers were serving tea. There was sweetened tea, unsweetened tea, and milk. Everyone started waking up. I asked my mom for a shawl, and she told me not to wake up since I slept lightly shivering most of the night. Fat cow woke up along with K and N. K is fat cow’s chamchi because the cow is her sis-in-law. Cow is a millionaire and expects everyone to give her a red carpet treatment. I was going to continue to sleep in the middle section above hers, but since it would be uncomfy for her highness who had decided to grace the world with her wakefulness, I was asked to move to the opposite section. Which I did. I just wanted to sleep. Fat cow complained about my sleeping, and mom yelled in front of everyone saying let my daughter sleep – nobody disturb her. Lol. Anyway their talking kept me up and I woke up by 7.

K and cow were complaining that our luggage was in the way. They had tons of luggage and put it all in our place, and were now complaining because there was no room for ours. Mom told them “we have 5 pieces between the 3 of us, and you have 5 between the 2 of you. OMG why so much luggage”. I said, “where do you expect us to keep our luggage – there is no space”.

For some reason I was very cold and kept myself covered the entire morning. I had 2 cups of tea. I always have so much tea in India – its like a household staple. People have headaches if they don’t have tea every morning and evening. I have 3-4 cups everyday – of course the cups are very small and 3 cups cover 1 tall Starbucks coffee. Since there was nothing else to do, I drank tons of tea and read my Sookie Stackhouse series – I was on the 7th book.

At 10 we had breakfast – something sweet, upma, a few other delicacies and tea. The tea was too sweet for my taste. Upma was delicious! One thing I knew we would have is good food – a Sindhi trademark.

I was back to my book. Mid-morning bananas were distributed. Jijaji made me eat one – he insisted so much that I ate a small one just so he would leave me in peace. Afternoon we had lunch at 2pm, then mid-evening snack, and finally dinner. The food was very very good. We had kadi every night – I love kadi! They did go overboard with the food – we had dal and kadi, and every evening we had at least 2-3 snacks. Too much food!

The bathrooms in the train were disgusting. After living in the US, I expected lower tolerance of the bathrooms. I should have followed my instincts and packed 2-3 rolls of toilet paper.

The seating arrangement was less than ideal. Cow plopped her fat ass in the center of one seat occupying most of it. You could squeeze in if you liked proximity to her highness. She put her purse near the window. So she pretty much had the whole seat to herself. Her grandson was in the upper section listening to his iPod, but cow still saved a seat for him at the opposite window. K and SIL sat in the remaining of the grandson’s saved seat. N sat in the narrow aisle seat. My mom, Rami masi, Daya masi, and I squeezed together in the adjacent aisle seat huddled close together. The great thing about that was that I got to hear unending juicy gossip about every family member. Large Indian families are like a company – you will find “office” politics and protocol galore. Rami masi has 25 members in her house (started with 4), and when they have just 5 people in the house, they don’t feel like cooking thinking “oh who is going to cook for just 5 people”! My dad sat in the seat opposite us, with jijaji there sometimes. To add fuel to the fire, whenever K wanted anything she said “call Rami, Rami will do it. She is very nice. Call her”. So my masi was now their servant. Anytime they needed anything from their bags, she removed them.

My mom and I were angry because we had to accommodate fat cow – she hoarded our entire compartment and yet we did not tell her to move. I kept saying why can’t we sit where our seat numbers are, and my parents kept pacifying me saying that you cannot do that in India to older people. Later on we found out that cow and her grandson had booked seats elsewhere and just came and sat in our compartment. We were huddled during the entire trip, trading places with people in the opposite seat.

There was a holy man in the train, so we went to visit him. We touched his feet and got chocolates (Eclairs, used to be my fav). There was another compartment where Durga maa’s idol was arranged in the form of a temple. It was in 16, and we were in 10. It was very crowded, and every time we tried to go to another compartment it took at least 30-40 mins because everyone was moving around. Everyone had visited the temple except for jijaji and I. The train stopped and we decided to go into 16 from outside the train. The train started moving mid-way and we along with others ran inside. There were so many of us trying to get in that I got in but jijaji was hanging by the door squeezed by people getting in. I pulled his arm and got him in. We decided to stay inside and visit the temple. Jijaji loves to dance, and he danced and danced in the temple. It was so funny!! There was music and dancing, and bells ringing. At every large station we had band baja too, and people got out and started dancing.

The day passed with my books. I read the whole day. People kept coming and going. Everyone knew someone who was related to someone. I met my mom’s brother’s wife’s brother. I met my grandfather’s brother’s son’s in-laws. And so on and so forth. I have no idea how people (my parents) keep track of relatives. You don’t need to go to Facebook for 6 degrees of separation – just come to India, among the 1 billion people.

In the afternoon mehndi cones were distributed. Many years back I learned to apply mehndi. I did a nice peacock design which my mom liked. I started applying for Daya masi but the moving train ruined it, plus I have never applied it for someone else. Rami masi was less-than-impressed with my design. I told her to try herself to get a design like mine. She got hers done by someone else which was not as nice as mine though, despite what she thought. People say that mehndi color is an indication of how much your husband loves you. I am competitive that way and wanted to make sure my color was good. I kept the mehndi on for many hours and did not wash that hand the entire day. I wanted to make sure AM’s love came through. Cheating, I know, but whatever.

At night jijaji asked me to trade sleeping places with him because the small place hurt his legs. Knowing jijaji he would not rest if I was uncomfortable. He kept asking me whether I was comfy, and even woke me up from my sleep to ask about my comfort!! I told him I am fine, just go to sleep (and let me sleep). I wore socks and covered myself with two shawls, thick ones, plus wore a jacket. Yet I froze! It was cold, and the outside air kept coming in through the cellotape. Our compartment was the only cold one.

I missed AM. I wanted to talk to him, and part of me was upset that he had not called me. I know I told him that we would have roaming charges. A part of me was upset, and a part of me felt that since he knew me well he would know that I expect a call and he would call.

Day 3

Next morning we followed the same routine, and reached Jammu after lunchtime. I was on the 8th book in the series. We took the bus to Katra – a 3 hours drive. I had not slept well the last 2 nights and was very tired and sleepy. The organizers had arranged for music and dance and we went there. It was fun, but I was so tired. For the first time I did not join in the dance – I usually never miss Indian dancing, but I was just so tired and sleepy. We had dinner and went shopping – funny because 5 of us sat in one rickshaw. Mom in an extra side seat at the edge, Rami masi in my lap, Daya masi near me, and Dad in the front with the driver. I bought 2 shawls. I was in love with one shawl with gorgeous Kashmir embroidery but it was expensive. My mom and masis bought many many dresses as gifts – they were gorgeous and cheap. On the way back, the driver tried to arrange us. Rami masi sat in the extra side edge seat, mom, Daya masi, and I at the regular seat, and dad in the front with the driver. It was funny because I had to almost stand to accommodate all 4 of us at the back. Daya masi’s knee got stuck, and she could not get out of the rickshaw. We all waited for her to get out, and I burst out laughing so badly. It was hilarious! Mom kept saying “Kick Daya out”. After a few attempts she got out and so did we.

Jijaji had booked 4 rooms – we wanted 2 rooms – one for my parents and one for me to share with Daya masi. But cow and her grandson had booked tickets without anybody’s knowledge at the last minute and did not book her room. Jijaji gave her one room, one to K and N. So we had to adjust which was annoying. My dad had arthritis pain in his arm and needed space, so he and jijaji were in one room, and mom, Daya masi, Rami masi, and I shared a bed. It was nice because after years we all were in one room. I was very sleepy, but they kept chatting and making fun. I burst out laughing at their jokes. Finally I told mom that I needed to sleep. We woke up at 5am, and I was so tired and sleepy. By 6am we had a light breakfast and were on our way to the temple. We started early to avoid crowds. The way was very very steep. Mom started on her way and walked fast. She was excited and I admire her faith and desire to walk all the way up 11 kilometers. It was a tough way. I walked 1 km, but I was so tired and sleepy and decided to go on a horse. Since Mom left me behind, I asked Rami masi for money. I had not withdrawn cash from the bank. I went up on the horse. I passed my mom and she passed some taunts as to how I should be walking since I am younger. She kept telling me that I was committing a sin by putting the horse through the trouble of dealing with my weight on his back. But better me than someone else – I insisted that my horse-guy did not beat my horse who was a female named Rani BTW. Oh well. I stopped on the way for the horse to eat and rest, and realized Rami masi had not given me enough money. If I told the horse guy this, he would probably not take me all the way so I kept mum. I reached up at 9:30am and decided to wait for my Dad who had an 11am helicopter ride to the temple. The helicopter was 3 hours late! My mom got there by 11am. We went into the temple. We met a nice couple from Amritsar who go there every year, and they explained what to expect. Usually the cave inside the temple is closed, but since there were relatively fewer crowds, the cave was open. It was very exciting to walk in the cave – no easy feat. There was no statue, just 3 rocks (called pindis, to me they looked like rocks) to commemorate the place where the Goddess was seen. Each rock represented Saraswati, Vaishno devi, and Kali maa. I looked at the rocks and I felt a huge adrenalin rush and felt very very emotional. It was very overwhelming. I felt as if there was a God here, there was something powerful – and I am not even a religious person by nature. I felt like standing there, the feeling was so intense. For some reason I felt like crying and was choked. I felt that way for a long time after. I had to move out due to the crowds. It reminded me of my intense Art of living sessions where every emotion came out of you in breathing sessions and emptied you of every negative emotion. The whole experience ignited a faith in me, a religious faith. I had thought of what to ask God for – peace and happiness for my parents, happiness for me and AM, or fulfill my career aspirations. At the end it felt petty to ask for something. God knows everything, so why cheapen the experience by asking for something? So I didn’t ask for anything. I just felt grateful that nothing negative happened, and that I was able to pay my respects.

Outside, there were several people taking a bath in water than ran in the temple through the rocks. The water was supposed to be pure since it touched the feet of the Gods. It was cold. Men are shameless – they were changing in front of everyone – who wants to see their netherlands? Some Indian men are disgusting hairy gorillas, nothing to see there.

By the time we were done, we met jijaji, Rami masi, and Daya masi. We wanted to have dinner and leave for Bharavnath mandir, but jijaji insisted that we wait for them. They had forgotten to bring Prasad, so mom sent me all the way back to get Prasad. I thought, since I didn’t walk up, God wanted me to go through the trouble of getting Prasad. People nearby asked me to get for them as well. I brought so many bags of Prasad, and it was hard walking back with all of it. People were staring.

We had lunch and waited for everyone for an hour. Finally we decided to leave.

Bhairavnath was a demon who knew that Vaishno devi wanted to kill him, so he decided to take matters into his own hands and kill her. When he went to kill her, she cut off his head which fell 3 kilometers away. So every Vaishno devi temple has a Bhairavnath temple 3 kms away. Mom and I decided to go on a horse. The way was very very steep and 20 mins away. We got there soon, but my mom was so terrified of the horse who slipped twice. We decided to walk back. She wanted to go back in a palki with 4 men carrying it, but it was too expensive. I truly admired my mom’s ability to walk to and from – it was a long long and tough walk. I walked back with her 13 kms. We walked and walked and were very tired, and it felt as if there would be no end to the road. There were shortcuts in the form of steps, but after a while my mom couldn’t take steps because it hurt our knees. I told her that the hotel provided massages for only Rs 50 to Rs 100. We kept going and each time I thought “here it is” but it never was the end. My mom was exhausted but made her way very slowly down. There were so many couples, many newly married, and I felt a pang. I missed AM. Some people were walking barefoot in the cold all the way up, and even some kids were bare foot. One man was limping with his crutch, and still he walked. I was embarrassed at having taken the horse. But to be fair, the horse was not a bed of roses. My butt and legs hurt bad, especially my calves. It was very uncomfortable, and I realized only after I got down from the horse. The next day my calves felt like lead – walking contributed to that as well.

On the way back, we met jijaji, Rami masi, and Daya  masi on horses. Jijaji is terrified of horses, and Rami masi kept shouting “ae bhai mujhe pakdo” to the horse-guy whenever the horse took a turn. I asked jijaji to take my handbag, and he would not look at me or sideways. He extended his arm and would not even bend down. It was so funny! The horse guys must have a blast with such customers.

Anyway, we spent the night in the hotel. Thankfully the hotel had toilet paper which I pocketed for my train journey back. We were too tired to go out for dinner so ordered room service. The massage person was a guy so we got our half legs massaged. Mom tried and it was good, so I asked him to do me as well. It felt awesome, but he applied too much pressure. Despite my telling him to reduce the pressure he kept telling me that it was important to apply pressure, else how would the pain go away? So Indian! But the massage felt nice.

Then came drama. Daya masi told us that when they were all in line for the temple, N insulted them so much. Their helicopter ride was 3 hrs late and they yelled at Rami masi and jijaji for not making sure that they were inside the helicopter before leaving and for not being there to take care of their whims and fancies. The guy said this in front of everyone in the temple line. My mom and I were very annoyed at listening to this – I mean, jijaji and masi were there on a vacation, not as servants. My mom told N that night that do not expect VIP treatment when you go out – you have to adjust. People took our seats and rooms and still we adjusted. N went to masi and jijaji’s room to put his hand on her head and make up for his aholeness. Jijaji said “he is like my father so he can say anything”. N said to jijaji “you are like Shravan for me”. So why does my masi have to put up with crap? Why not just dump it all on Shravan? Ridiculous!

Day 4

Jijaji and team decided to go to Amritsar and spend the next day there and then take an express train from there to Bombay instead of wasting an extra day in the slow Sindhi train. We wanted to do the same, but we didn’t get train tickets. In any case we would have taken a separate car to avoid traveling with N and K. Cow and grandson flew back to Bombay.

We boarded the bus to Katra in the morning. I wanted to talk to AM. I dialed and dialed at 10pm EST but nobody picked up. I was deeply disappointed. When I don’t talk to AM I get very very irritated. I was also annoyed that he had not called, but there was no service so not his fault. I got more and more annoyed by the minute because I missed him and wanted him to pick up the damn phone. Anyway, we took the train in the afternoon, but since we had 3 hours my parents went shopping and shopped till they ran out of money. Mom wanted me to go with Dad but I refused, so she went. Had I gone my Dad would have returned with his wallet full. Both mom and dad like to shop, so they shopped and shopped. The train decided to leave at 1:30pm instead of 2, and we kept trying to get in touch with them, but no service. Finally they came at 1:10pm and I was so relieved! Of course the train wouldn’t have left without them. The train was “on-demand” sort of. A guy was talking on his phone between compartments when the train had stopped, and his phone fell down. Till his phone was retrieved the train did not move. I had full plans to pull the red chain to stop the train till my parents returned. The organizers were in our compartment anyway so that helped – which is why our compartment was the cleanest section too.

We had the whole compartment to ourselves. I missed Rami masi and jijaji – plus I had finished all the Sookie Stackhouse books and was bored. I bought The Kite Runner, but it wasn’t as interesting as Sookie – it was too serious. I saw more couples in the train and I missed AM sorely. I wanted to just talk to him.

So of course at night AM and I spoke and fought and I was upset. And cold again. I looked for socks but could not find them. Finally I put my feet in a cap and went to sleep.

Day 5

The next day I had some bonding time with my parents. I showed them how to use the digital camera, and we clicked some photos. None of us are avid photographers, so we forgot to carry the camera around. My parents have been through a lot and are more on edge now. My dad scolded me a few times, and I had a few arguments with my mom. But we keep arguing and making up – it’s never serious.

We had so much food everyday, that none of us felt like eating in the train. All I did was drink cups and cups of tea. It was a long and boring journey back. A helper tried to get me to close my book saying that we were not allowed to read, since it ruined the atmosphere. Whatever. I  continued reading.

We got down at Godhra, met Champa masi, and took a taxi back home. I was finally glad to be home. On the way back I was upset several times for a few things, but each time I thought of the feeling I had in the temple, I felt peaceful even if for just a few minutes. In the taxi, I felt a strong desire to go back again, and this time walk all the way up. I want to go back with AM, just the two of us. I feel so strongly about it.

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