Qasim and Jums travels

20th November 2016

Indian Rupee demonetisation

The demonetisation of 500Rs and 1000Rs notes in India has been international news widely being reported in the media, and a hot topic of conversation. Prior to arriving in India we knew what to expect – but we didn’t know to what extent. This drastic government decision has sent shockwaves across the country effecting everyone in their daily lives. Upon arrival at the airport we were limited between the two of us to exchanging a maximum of £100 into rupees. Of this we were given £74.94 in 2000Rs notes and a maximum on £25.06 in smaller notes. Smaller denomination notes are in such short supply that they have become a commodity.

Some stats will help put this into perspective. India is predominantly a cash based economy. Approx 90% of transactions are by exchange of cash. The demonetised 1000Rs and 500Rs notes make up approx 86% of the total currency in circulation. As a result there simply isn’t enough of the smaller denomination notes for people to use.

What this meant for us – from our money exchange at the airport, we had £25.06 to survive on for all small day to day transactions (taxi fares, snacks and drinks, entrance fees, meals etc) for anywhere that didn’t accept card payment (which was most places). Most money exchange places in the city were closed due to lack of valid currency. Our 2000Rs notes from the airport were valuable, but useless, as nobody could accept them as the smaller notes they would have to give us as change were more valuable than any profit gained from the transaction. After a day of cautious expenses, we were worrying to the point that we were unsure how we would get something as simple as a bottle of water once our currency ran out – for a while this was a genuine concern. Fortunately we came across a currency exchanger who changed some pound sterling for us in smaller denomination notes, at a lower than market value exchange rate which was fortunate – and this should see us through until we leave tomorrow.

What this meant for local people – A massive proportion of the Indian population do not have bank accounts, or debit/credit cards. Almost all small local vendors accept only cash as a method of payment. With such few smaller denomination bank notes in circulation, local businesses have become extremely quiet. Yellow taxis are normally high in demand and it can be difficult to get one, however we found it was much easier as people weren’t using them due to not having money to pay with, likewise restaurants/cafes reported being 50% quieter than normal for the same reason.

We could tell from a mile away wherever there was a bank, as there were crowds of people trying to get in, in order to withdraw cash and exchange old invalid notes for new ones. All walks of people queuing up for hours to get in, including the elderly, infirm and disabled. A government limit has been placed on the weekly withdrawal limit of cash. People have been told they have until the end of 2016 to exchange old notes for new ones, in order to tackle corruption and tax evaders, with any high value exchanges to be investigated by the tax authorities. This has been particularly problematic for local economies, businesses of all sizes, and individuals. We’ve been told to expect once the deadline of exchanging old money passes, normality should resume -and so when we return to India, to Kerala in 2017 things should be much more settled – we have however held onto some small denomination rupee notes for later in the trip, just in case!!


18th November 2016

Kolkata

Upon arrival in Kolkata we were immediately immersed in the all so familiar hustle and bustle of busy Indian city life. A constant noise of car horns, busy movements of people in a densely populated metropolis. We could just sit and people watch for hours in fascination. We realised fairly quickly that unlike other cities in India that we’ve visited, Kolkata does not attract quite as much tourism and therefore we were rarely if at all hassled by local people such as tour guides, souvenirs merchants etc. whose livelihoods rely on income from tourists. We found this extremely refreshing, to be able to wander unburdened in a city of this size.

Meeting up with Sharan

It was a pleasure to meet up with and get reacquainted with Sharan, a good friend from university. We met through being flat mates in our first year of study, where we had some great times and hold some great memories during our time at Aston. I am so pleased we had the opportunity to catch up, and fill in the gaps from the last few years in each other’s lives. It was great to reminisce over some of the best moments of student life.

It was nice to have local insight into the city with specific recommendations of things to see and experience – including enjoying the tastiest non home made biriyani I’ve possibly ever eaten, Kolkatas speciality sweets, traditional Bengali food, as well as a driven tour of some of the architectural highlights of the city – both modern and traditional, and recommendations of landmarks noted below.

Sharan, it was great to see your restaurants – we loved the set up of both, if what we saw during just an evening visit was anything to go by then we have no doubt you will have every success with your business ventures in the future. Thanks for all your hospitality. Congratulations once again for your sisters wedding. We look forward to welcoming you to the UK hopefully next year!

Victoria memorial

An impressive large marble building, built in the early 20th century in dedication and memory of queen Victoria. Construction began under British rule, while Calcutta was the capital of India. Before construction was completed, King George V announced the transfer of the capital of India from Calcutta to New Delhi.

We enjoyed a long afternoon walk around the gardens and grounds of this slice of history, Kolkatas very own smaller Taj Mahal equivalent – it was a delight to visit this gem that the city is proud to house. The experience was peaceful and tranquil, enjoyed in the finest of Indian weather.

New Market

New market is a lively and busy market shopping district of the city. It took us a while to soak up the vibrancy of colours and constant flurry of people around the market consisting of over 2000 densely placed stalls, selling everything from clothing, crafts, electronics, fresh food including raw meat, fish, vegetables, fruits and spices to more specific food specialities. The market houses some renowned stalls which have been established for more than 100 years.

We regret that our backpacks aren’t larger and therefore mostly we had to look but unfortunately not buy. Wandering around this district simply whet our appetite for shopping that we’ll do in the latter stages of our trip, but in itself was a great experience.

Mother house

Mother house is the headquarters of the missionaries of charity. It houses the tomb of Mother Teresa. The building has a museum in her dedication, and upstairs preserved in all its simplicity is the room where she slept and worked from 1953 onwards – all open for public viewing. The sight is certainly worth seeing as Mother Teresa was such an influential figure in modern world history, and especially within Calcutta.

We learned about her life and works which we found fascinating and inspiring. She was a figure that we’d certainly heard of by name, with regards to her charity works, but otherwise actually knew very little about.

Kalighat temple

In order to include some culture and local religious tradition, we were keen to visit Kalighat temple. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali. The name Calcutta is said to be derived from the word Kalighat. Sitting just within the entrance grounds of the temple was a peaceful experience as we watched upon the evening pooja and religious prayer – the overall experience unfortunately was not quite so peaceful, as this was the only place during our entire time in Kolkata where we were hassled due to being tourists. A local tourist scam is where some people trying to make money lure tourists into thinking that’s its disrespectful and not allowed to wear shoes around the outside streets leading to the temple, and so offer to store them securely for you, at the same time selling sweets, coconuts and flowers to take into the temple, then leading people to the temple asking for false entrance fees as well as sizeable ‘donations’. We managed to shake off at least 8 people who tried to catch us out this way, but their persistence made the experience memorable for the wrong reasons.

Howrah bridge

This iconic symbol of Kolkata and West Bengal is a cantilever bridge suspended over the Hooghly river commissioned in 1943. During our research prior to arrival, this was one landmark Jum was particularly keen on seeing, especially by boat during sunset – although we didn’t know if this was possible at the time.

This is the biggest of four bridges, connecting Kolkata to Howrah. It carries daily traffic of around 100,000 vehicles and over 150,000 pedestrians – easily making it the busiest cantilever bridge in the world.

To view, this bridge is a great sight both at day and by night – we were fortunate to see both. Initially by night, Sharan and his brother Nikhil kindly took us on a driven tour of Kolkata by night, which included a great view of the bridge and a drive over it, as well as some historical buildings worth seeing, notably Kolkata town hall, the writers building, the general post office, Calcutta high court, and the 42 skyscraper still under construction.

The following afternoon we set off on a walk through the city, taking in the sights heading through various districts, along the way passing through the famous flower market, heading for a boat on the river Hooghly, to satisfy Jums desire to see the Howrah bridge during sunset. During the walk we found that shops of specific trades were clustered all together particular roads – not the first time we’ve seen this in India, but we found that their ability to compete with each other and maintain successful business fascinating. This included hardware, handicrafts, clothing, amongst others, but most notably (for us) – opticians. On one of the areas we passed, we counted no less than 45–55 opticians all side by side on the same road, all seemingly busy trading.

Upon reaching a boating pier, after some 3 hours walking through the afternoon sun, we realised we’d perhaps ended up at the wrong place, and instead of a quiet small private hired boat, we boarded a large people carrier which transported people across the Hooghly – at 5.00 rupees a ticket, it was an experience. Fortunately not a bad one. We saw what we set out to see. Jum got some great pics. Alls well that ends well.

Food in Kolkata

Before arriving in Kolkata, Sharan had advised us that the two things the city is known and famous for, are the historic architecture, and the food. And he was right, it did not disappoint. We enjoyed good Indian food, as well as some speciality Bengali dishes which are specific to the area.

We dared to venture and try street food, something I’ve always been over cautious about in India previously, due to risk of adverse effects or intolerance to local preparations of food. We enjoyed veg rolls, and puri cooked and prepared on the street, washed down with sweet sugar cane juice.

Sharan also made a point of taking us to a famous local sweet shop chain, Gupta brothers, where we tasted a few specialties originating from Kolkata.

Overall we had a great time experiencing a snapshot of life in this lively city a lot packed into a short space of time. Hopefully we’ll catch up on some rest in the next few days…. then again – next stop, Bangkok!


15th November 2016

A fairly comfortable flight from Birmingham to Kolkata, via Dubai. Good airline food (well…as good as it gets). Not much to report, other than which films did we watch in flight you ask?

Jum watched Now you see me 2, Finding Dory, and Toy story. And I watched Sin City, and 4 episodes of Family Guy.

About to take off – here we go!

Our biggest concern was getting enough sleep in flight, which we did not. Given the time difference, we will arrive in Kolkata and reach our hotel at approx 9:30am local time, ready to begin the day having been awake already for 22hrs! We’re not sure if the buzz and excitement of the beginning of our trip will see us through the first day, or if we’ll crash before we get going – it will be a good test to set the momentum for the rest of the trip, although I’m sure a nap will be squeezed in somewhere.

Head in the clouds

Concerns about Kolkata; various travels guides mention that the city is notorious for traffic, congestion and air pollution. Reading current events, the Indian rupee has been international news over recent days with the immediate discontinuation of 500Rs and 1000Rs bank notes due to corruption. Time wise we’re in Kolkata for just 2nights/3days – so little time to pack in everything the city has to offer.

Feelin’ like a teenage mutant ninja – jums shell is hiding.

Expected highlights; We’ll be meeting up with a good friend, Sharan, who lives in Kolkata. After not seeing each other in approximately 5 years, it will surely be a fond reunion – with lots to catch up on. We’re looking forward to experiencing a new region of India which we otherwise wouldn’t explore. We’ve heard fantastic things from friends who have previously visited – so we’re looking forward to seeing this for ourselves.


14th November 2016

So our travels begin, 10 weeks of exciting adventure, exploring the unknown, time out to think and broaden the mind, experience new things, exercise mind and body, spend quality time together outside of daily routine, and create memories that will last with us for many years to come.

Initial feelings;

Excitement and somewhat pleasant stresses involved in the planning and the building of a complex itinerary after many an hour of research.

Anticipation of a week by week, and then day by day count down for this long awaited trip of a lifetime – growing with each conversation we have with those close to us.

Countdown App

Gratitude – we appreciate how fortunate we are to have such an opportunity to take time out of life, work, and daily routine, at a time that we’re in good health and ability in order to satisfy and fulfil our appetite for adventure. We’re so grateful to those that have supported us, friends and family, employers and work colleagues, and friendly strangers whose paths we’ve crossed and that wish us well.

The last few weeks have been nice meeting up with family and friends before we leave. As we’re going for (just) 10 weeks, we didn’t expect quite the level of emotion and words of support we’ve received. Thanks to our families who have been amazing, including the primaries who’s excitement for this trip has matched our own – thanks also for coming together for the surprise leaving dinner. Thanks to Moiz and Shaina – it still amazes us you drove up from London after work to have dinner with us before we left to drive back the same night. We’re overwhelmed by your efforts and your friendship. It was great catching up with Chris and York – twice in 4 days guys from Hull to Birmingham, we very much look forward to the next one. Thanks to Holly for the farewell pizza and good wishes. Thanks to everyone we’ve seen and spoken to but not named. And thanks to Yus and Lubs for taking care of things back home while we’re away so we can be worry free.

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Suneet – we were touched to receive your poem on WhatsApp this morning as we set off for the airport. Something so thoughtful can’t be kept to ourselves, so we’ve included it below;

‘Happy travels guys! A little something to send you off…

Qas and Jum hit the road.

10 weeks away in backpacker mode.

India will be the first destination today.

Then exploring Thailand in a whole new way!

Indonesia and Sri Lanka will welcome them in.

By which point Qas’s blogging should be in full swing.

We expect photos to be supplied by Jum

Fuelled by tics tacs and haribos…oh yum!

Please keep in touch, staying safe along the way…

and don’t forget skyping on 17th Dec – family xmas day!

We look forward to your return on 23rd Jan.

Seeing qas as a 30 year old man!’

Thanks sunny!

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We hope to experience new things and immerse ourselves within new cultures and foreign customs with an open mind, hoping to learn new things from perspectives that we’re yet to experience. We expect that despite any amount of forward planning, we will find ourselves in situations outside of our comfort zone, and possibly tricky situations such as local scams often encountered by tourists that are caught off guard. The challenge of these excites us as much as every other aspect of this trip.

We hope to keep this blog going throughout our travels, so watch this space for updates on where we are and what we’ve been up to. Thanks for reading.

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