13 Essential Tips for Indian Train Travel

Before you go

  1. Plan on delays. When putting together your itinerary, give yourself plenty of time. Our trains were delayed anything from 3 to 13 hours each. It helps if you are aware of potential breaks in your plan if the journey takes double the scheduled time. Remember delays multiply if you are meeting the train en route. The farther along the line the train is from its starting destination the more likely delays become.
  2. Trade up. You will not regret booking first class – it doesn’t cost much more and the extra privacy is well worth it. If first class isn’t available book the highest class you can. Do not be tempted to book sleeper class just because you believe nothing travel throws at you can phase you. This just might.
  3. Book in advance. We used cleartrip which was the only site at the time accepting non Indian credit card payments without needing an Indian mobile phone number (though this appears to have changed recently to match requirements by IRCTC). The cleartrip site is often down but do persevere, with patience we were able to book all our required journeys. Do not expect much in the way of customer service, our enquiries to the customer service team were met with excuses or silence.

  4. Cancelling is easy. One of the reasons for over booking is the ease of canceling a ticket, you can cancel up to 24 hours in advance for the maximum refund. For this reason many people have multiple tickets and then just take the best tickets they have on the day and cancel the rest. It’s a handy option.

  5. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. If you can’t find availability on the route you are looking for, try playing around by looking for a destination further along the route than you plan to get off. These often show up as available. Remember you can get off a train earlier than you have paid for but its a lot more difficult to get on it later than you intended to. Also useful is to cross check cleartrip with IRCTC – this site can be easier to navigate to find the information you need.

  6. RAC versus waitlist. If you don’t succeed in getting a confirmed reservation then you are often left with an RAC or waitlist reservation. If you take an RAC reservation you can board the train (although you are not guaranteed a berth to sleep in). With a waitlist ticket you have to wait until it becomes an RAC or confirmed seat before you can board the train. The PNR number is the key. Each reservation has its own 10 digit PNR number which you will need to check the status of your reservation, easiest on the IRCTC website. Here’s the rub. If you are wait-listed 2 or 10 (as high as we were although you can be wait-listed in the 100+) your status doesn’t move as your trip approaches. You don’t get a good sense of how likely you are to get a confirmed seat. The movement all happens 24 hours before the scheduled departure or even the day of, when the seats being saved for a variety of officials I.e. military, dignitary personnel are given up if not used and added to the pool. Suddenly your reservation jumps from its original booking slot as far up the list as it is going to go. If our experience is any indication we got confirmed seats for all our reservations – the highest wait-list reservation we had was WL10.

On the ground

  1. Use local agents. These can be a good way to avoid the booking chaos at the railway station. Most local travel agents charge 75R per ticket to make reservations. While this is 50R more than cleartrip charges it can be cheaper than the taxi fare to the station and it helps reduce the communication issues at the station. If you do go to the station, my top tip is to write the key information down i.e. the train number, departing station and destination, time, number of tickets and which class – this tends to help with the language barrier.

  2. The first class waiting room. Once you get to the station you will most likely have a decent wait. The station can be a mayhem with people all over the place, stacks of luggage and food and drink vendors hawking their wares. Every station we went to had a first class waiting room – often no more than a few chairs but they tended to be the least busy parts of the station to park yourselves and wait.

On the train itself

  1. Ignore the departure board. More often than not the departure board would not update or was just plain wrong. Listen to the announcements as these are the only reliable source of information at the station. They give you due warning when the train is expected. Beware though if you follow tip 8 as the announcements are often not piped into the first class waiting room. As the time approaches, you may need to stand outside under the loud speaker.

  2. Take provisions. Given the long unreliable delays, take enough food and water to last you the entire journey and then an extra 5 hours. In some trains people came though the carriage all day and night selling chai (sweet milky tea), samosas and pani (bottles of water). In others there was nothing. In some instances the train attendants came around taking dinner and lunch orders (at a cost of about 50R), but again this wasn’t reliable. They would come at odd hours and their was a hefty wait between ordering food and getting it. It is easier to take your own dry food.

  3. Hustle for space. Indian train passengers are masters of acquiring space. Don’t expect the luggage space under your berth not to be used by others when you arrive or find people sitting on your bed throughout the day. Embrace it, but don’t be a wallflower. Hustle for your own spot. It is also good to have a piece of chain and a lock on hand to secure your bags (sold at kiosks in every town).

  4. Have a map. Information about where you are on the route or how long each stop is is very hard to come by – mostly involving rumors from other passengers. It is very helpful to bring a map of the area you are in so you have a sense of the distance traveled and the size of the town at each stop. The larger the town the longer the stop tends to be. If you get out of the train to stretch your legs do not stray too far but equally don’t worry if the train starts to move, you can outrun it easily!

  5. WC in AC1. Perhaps the most useful tip of all. The toilet facilities are squat toilets onto the tracks which can get fairly unsanitary by the end of a 20+ hour train journey. The toilet in the first class carriage (AC1) is European style (has a seat) and was generally much cleaner than those elsewhere. You are free to walk up and down the train so find AC1 and use the WC there. You will still need toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

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Whiling away the day in Havana, Cuba

I had long harbored a desire to visit Cuba which grew more and more urgent as rumours of impending regime change swirled. I didn’t want to miss a chance to see Cuba as I imagined it, captured in time.

Havana was everything you imagine it to be; from the old vintage cars, the windy cobbled streets framed by pastel coloured buildings to the salsa music which drifts along the cigar smoke filled streets. It feels like you stepped into a black and white movie. Certainly nothing looks new.

   

Havana is best appreciated ambling around the central squares and streets. Pass one of the many old book stalls stacked with Hemingway novels and linger at leisure. Stop often for the coffee, one of Cuba’s best exports.

      

Once you have explored the centre, take a stroll along the Malecon, the sea wall which lines the city’s edge. The Malecon is the city’s social focal point. Its where the elder Cubans come to fish, the kids come to swim, and groups of young friends meet up. At dusk young couples stroll atop the wall arm in arm. I would highly recommend a late afternoon stroll from Old Havana along the wall to La Nacional to get you there just in time for sundown mojitos on the terrace. With its old colonial architecture and marble halls, it belongs in a James Bond movie. This makes for a much better option that either La Bodeguita del medio or El Floridita which lacked genuine charm.

 

The best meal in Cuba is found at La Guarida. It is the type of place you only find because you really trust the friend that recommended it. The restaurant is tucked away in a residential area of town in an ordinary looking town house. You even pass airing laundry as you ascend the large stone staircase to the entrance. Persevere, it is well worth it. Stepping through the doors it feels like you have entered a forbidden Cuba, how you imagine feeling at discovering a hidden speakeasy. You can’t help feel the infectious glow of those in the know. The room is warm, painted yellow, and busy, adorned with photos frames of all the many people who have passed through the doors. If only those walls could speak! The food is exceptional – inventive and flavorful – and has all the ingredients of an unforgettable dining experience. It is not the type of restaurant where you drop in even if you somehow stumbled across it by accident. Reservations are a necessity if you don’t want to miss out.

Outside of Havana, Cuba loses some of its romanticism and the realities and frustrations of Cuban life are all too evident. The dual system, one for tourists and one for locals is frustrating and steeped in rules.  My advice is to stop the clock here in Havana, settle in and enjoy being stuck in time.

This is an excerpt of an article published in full by Vagabundo Magazine – check it out here.

 

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Incredible India! Video Highlights

The video of trip highlights from the Delaney Xmas 2011 tour of Incredible India! is now live…

Check out more photos here.

 

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Destination Cuba @Vagabundo Magazine

Check out my article on Cuba in this week’s Vagabundo Magazine for the highs and lows of traveling to a country captured in time. http://www.vagabundomagazine.com/destination-cuba/.

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Browse the magazine for plenty more wonderful articles and tips wherever your destination!

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Recorrido a pie por la ciudad de México

La ciudad de México (D.F.) no es una ciudad muy conocida por los turistas. Pero vale la pena descubrirla. Hay muchos edificios importantes en el centro y es muy fácil caminar entre los lugares de interés. Esta es la ruta que les recomiendo.

Empieza en el Zócalo, la plaza principal del centro. Es una plaza enorme, la única mas grande es la plaza roja en Moscú. El palacio nacional esta por un lado y la catedral por el otro. La mejor vista de la catedral desde afuera. Para ver los murales enormes de Diego Rivera hay que entrar al palacio nacional por las escaleras.  Si se hace el camino al revés, traten de llegar al Zócalo al atardecer cuando bajan la bandera. Es un gran espectáculo.

  

A la misma vez, el Zócalo es el centro de la ciudad actual y también de la ciudad de pasado. La ciudad fue construida directamente encima de la ciudad antigua, que fue descubierta por accidente. Todavía están excavando el Templo Mayor que ofrece una ventana a la historia intrincada y a la cultura rica que existe en el país, allí en el centro de la ciudad. Después vayan al museo de antropología.

­Probablemente es la hora de comer. Hay algunos cafés típicos en el centro, o el favorito mio es “la casa de azul lejos”, un edificio muy bello. Pueden sentarse y comer en el atrio tranquilo y la comida es rica.

  

 

Después de comer, visiten la torre latinoamericana donde hay una vista maravillosa desde el ultimo piso. Cruzen la calle y encuentren el Palacio de Bellas Artes, para mi el edificio mas bello en la ciudad. Si prestan atención, pueden ver una entrada del metro en el estilo de París. Terminen su tour del centro con una caminata por la Alameda central. Siéntense en el parque y miren los paseantes.

De allí tomen un bus o un taxi en dirección de Chapultepec. Los dos van por la avenida Reforma, la calle mas amplia de la ciudad. Hay mucho para mirar incluyendo los flores y las instalaciones de arte moderno. No te pierdas la estatua famosa “El Angel”. Si prefieren tomen el metro, bajen en Chapultepec. El metro es seguro, rápido y barato.

Visiten al museo de antropología. Es un museo increíble, con una colección enorme de obras y artículos que representan toda la historia de Mexico. Uno siente que es realmente una tierra muy antigua.

Después de caminar todo el día, crucen la calle y entren al parque Chapultepec. Es un lugar muy tranquilo durante la semana pero lleno de gente en el fin de semana. Es enorme, así que caminen sin prisa y observen todo. Los mangos con chile son riquísimas.

Este artículo también está disponible en Inglés.

 

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Mexico City Part II – Full of surprises

If you have more than a day in the city then you will need a place to stay. The wonderfully relaxing and well kept Casa Gonzalez comes highly recommended. Its tranquil with a lovely terrace and walking distance to Reforma, Zona Rosa and transport options. Better yet its reasonable and the staff are very helpful. 

Mexico City has a a diverse array of neighborhoods. Here are a few of my favorites;

Coyoacan

First stop, the town square. It is market day often and the square is surrounded by restaurants to stop in and watch the action. My suggestion is grab a cup of cafe de olla,  coffee brewed with cloves and cinnamon, and take it to go for your wandering. Next stop is the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera residence. Two houses, one for each of them, and an intricate maze through the rooms, their art and their lives. Symbolizing how they lived, surviving neither too far apart nor too close to one another.

San Angel

San Angel is home to a great arts market and is a good spot to pick up gifts. Goods come from all over the country so you have a good selection but you need to bargain hard as it is a tourist haven, especially at weekends. Wander into the many buildings and shops which open up into leafy courtyards for some reprieve.

Condesa

Condesa is the hip area of the city – full of young professionals, free wifi and bars and restaurants of all genres. An area you find in all cities but it is home to my favourite restaurant in Mexico City, Rojo Bistrot, which happens to be French.

For the truly authentic Mexican experience try the Arroyo on a weekend – its full of Mexican families feasting on an array of delights. Their barbacoa may just change your life.

  

Xochimilco

The riverboat world of Mexico City. Canals filled with hundreds of brightly decorated waterboats. It makes for a wonderous afternoon but do beware as there are plenty of scams for tourists on the river. Negotiate your price by the hour and bargain hard, and know that your price does not include the extras – the food, beer or music you will enjoy. Your riverboat will pull up alongside a cooking boat or a mariachi boat or a beer boat and the two boats will be tied together as you peruse whats for sale and make your purchases. If you go on Saturday? Be sure to see the flower market – which against the riverboats adds to the cacophony of colours feeding the senses.

Teotihuacan

No trip to Mexico City is complete without a trip to Teotihuacan. The pyramids tower above you and climbing to the top, of both, is well well worth it. The enormity of the site and the seeming order with which is was constructed can’t help but impress. Instead of taking a tour you can easily get there on public transport. Take the metro to Indios Verdes and then one of the many combi vans that go to “las pyramides”.

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A walking tour of Mexico City

Mexico City might just be one of the most underrated city break destinations. Downtown is laden with grand buildings, and wide avenues. Its pretty tourist free allowing you to see the city in its true groove. It is also a great city to explore on foot and this is my route of choice.

Begin in the Zocalo – the huge square in the centre of downtown, second in the worldwide rankings only to red square in Moscow. Flanked on all sides by dominating buildings, the Palacio Nacional on one side and the cathedral on the other. While the cathedral is best enjoyed from the outside, you really should enter the Palacio Nacional to enjoy the Diego Rivera murals lining the stairs. If you do the walk in reverse try to hit the square for 6pm when the enormous Mexican flag is reeled in. It is quite the ritual.

The Zocalo isnt just the city’s present focal point, but also of cities past. The city was built literally on top of an earlier settlement and when digging around the Zocalo the locals stumbled upon remnants of the city’s earlier existence. The Templo Mayor, still being excavated, is a window into the extraordinary history and cultural treasure to be found all over Mexico., right here in the heart of Mexico City. Follow it up with a trip to the Anthropology Museum.

­If you get hungry at this point there are a number of good traditional coffee spots around downtown, else a personal favourite is breakfast at the casa de azul lejos – a beautifully ornate blue tiled building. It is run by a chain restaurant (Sanborns) but the food is good and sitting in the atrium well worth it.

Refueled, stop in at the torre latinamerica which offers wonderful views from the top. Then cross the street to the Palacio Belles Artes – arguably the most beautiful of Mexico City’s buildings. Keep an eye out for the Parisian Belles Artes metro sign (amazing where they crop up isnt it!). End your downtown tour with a stroll through the Almeda Central, a great place to pull up a pew and watch Mexico city go by.

  

From here I would catch a bus or taxi going towards Chapultepec. Both have the advantage of offering you a trip along Reforma avenue, the main road through the centre of the city which having been spruced up a few years ago is lined with trees, flowers and new art installations. Else take the metro from Hidalgo to Chapultepec – in my experience a safe, fast and cheap way to get around.

Alight in front of the Anthropology museum. Its a world class institution, home to a vast collection of artifacts from through Mexico’s ages. You get the sense that Mexico lives in another time.

Exhausted from all the walking and history, take a rest from the hubbub and cross the street into Chapultepec park. Its an oasis during the week and a flurry of activity at the weekend. Its big so wander aimlessly and marvel at the delights on offer. The mangoes on a stick with chilli make for a rejuvenating afternoon snack.

This post is also available in Spanish.

 

 

 

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Step back in time in Cold Spring

Cold Spring makes a great weekend getaway from NY only an hour north of the city by train. Since its close many people flock here for hiking and biking but mostly as day trippers. Stay the night and you have the place to yourself, and you’ll feel miles, and years, away from home.

We stayed at the Hudson House Inn which is an old homely place right on the water. It is very tranquil as everything else in the town is on the other side of the train tracks. The Inn could be straight out of a historical adaptation with its period wallpaper, freshly baked chocolate cookies in the hall and stacks of local charm. Breakfast was another plus,  setting us up for the day ahead.

  

An advantage of having stayed the night is you can get a jump start on the trails before the day hikers arrive. Pick up a trail map before you leave so you don’t have to rely on the free ones at the trail head. Though the trails are wide and well marked you still need to know which color to take! There are a number of different hikes you can do which range in difficulty. Breakneck Ridge is the most arduous but it does offer the best views of the Hudson as reward. Bull Hill is an easier climb, even though you end up higher. A 3-4 hour hike will leave you with plenty of time, and hopefully energy, to explore the town.

   

The real treat of the town is in its troves of antiques. Main street is littered with a dozen antique shops and many an hour can be spent perusing the treasure on offer. Its a village of grandmas’ attics which offers a window into past times.  To absorb it all you will need to go to each place more than once.

  

For dining, our favorite meal was at the French bistro Le Bouchon. A relaxed place serving good inexpensive french fare. The old rail depot which is now a converted restaurant is another good option so long as you avoid the long uninteresting menu and opt instead for the fresh clams which they pile straight into the steamer. Afternoon snacks are best supplied at the Moo Moo creamery or the fresh fruit ice lollies at Go Go Pops. Skip the crowded cafes.

If you have more time visit the Julia Butterfield Library, a living example of that village library you wished you had grown up with. It has a planted garden while inside is filled with old wooden stacks and high windows which the light streams through. Cold Spring is also home to the first church founded north of 14th street Manhattan. The Chapel of our Lady Restoration is a modest place right on the water and the perfect spot to soak in the quiet.

In the summer months check the town website for seasonal events. There is a summer film series, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and many a firework display. We were lucky enough to catch the Labor Day celebrations which impressed. Cold spring may make a nice day trip out of the city but it makes for an even more wonderful weekend retreat.

 

 

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Scaling Sand Dunes in Magnificent Mozambique

GoNomad published my article:  “Scaling Sand Dunes in Magnificent Mozambique”. Check it out here!

 

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Belize: A scuba diver’s playground

Sundown beers, sitting on the deck of our wooden cabin which was on stilts over the crystal blue waters and as we watch the orange sun melt into the horizon an eagle ray swims right under our deck, only about a foot deep. Paradise found in Glovers reef, Belize. The locals dive spot of choice where it is still possible to find a deserted island (strictly an atoll) in the middle of the ocean.

The diving is everything diving should be. It was easy – little current, impeccable visibility with plenty of coral and sealife to keep you amused. Colourful coral formations, plenty of fish and the odd turtle, shark and ray. The dive sites were close by, and reasonably shallow so you can go 2-3 times a day with ease. Best of all, you have it to yourselves.

  

It gets better – go around full moon and you get chance to swim with a Whale shark. If you are patient. We drove out to Gladdens Spit jumped in and swam for 40 minutes to see nothing but deep blue. It had to happen on dive #2 – surely everything goes right in paradise? It did. We caught a glimpse of our first whale shark swimming below us, in awe of how big it was even so far away. Then, another whale shark came up out of the deep to get air on the surface. Swimming right by us in the process. Breathe. The diver across from us suddenly looked no more than a speck, as the graceful, enormous, creature claimed the ocean. This atoll was worth that moment alone.

         

Life above water was more low key. The atoll is home to four islands catering for all budgets (Becky’s, a WCS research centre, Slick Rock and for the uber rich even one for sale). We chose the budget option, wooden shacks over the sea which added to the remoteness of it all. You can be as responsible for food as you like, and the cabins come equipped with stoves and a few pots and pans. I would recommend getting an ice box, filling it with ice, beer and a few provisions for lunch and breakfast while taking advantage of getting the fresh catch of the day for dinner. Fresh bread is available twice a week too. Make sure you bring your mozzie warning kit too as mossies are rife on land. Something had to give.

  
If you gave up camping with the boy scouts then there is still plenty of excellent diving in Belize closer to civilization. Caye Caulker is a personal favorite. Its a curious little island – a mile wide and split into two halves after a hurricane passed through. The lazy Lizard bar marks the split and there are a lot worse places to enjoy a cold beer gazing into the ocean. There are plenty of great eating options too. Our favorite was grilled lobster on the beach – you can come close to eating too much lobster on Caye Caulker. The local diving was great and our dive school, Belize Diving Services comes highly recommended. We used their recommendation for a tour company to the Blue Hole who were similarly very professional. The Blue Hole lived up to its promise – free falling to 140ft, surrounded by stalactites and curling around them to climb back to the surface. All while 6 sharks swam above. Unforgettable . Lastly if you have an ‘off’ day – take the Manatees trip sleepy things which completely won us over. Avoid Shark Alley at all costs.

 

 

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