Thursday, February 26, 2015

India - Rajasthan

Our next stop was also our first stop in lovely Rajasthan, maybe the most visited state in India after Goa. Jaipur was our first stop that we really enjoyed. We hired a tuk tuk to drive us out to our first Rajasthan fort, the Amer Fort. We grabbed an audio guide (definitely needed it for our first fort, not so necessary by the end). These forts are built to withstand siege and battle. There are walls around walls, steep staircases with sharp turns, spikes sticking out of the walls to gouge elephants, etc. That’s enough about forts for now. 
The Amer Fort

In Jaipur we were also lucky to cross paths with a lovely British couple that we had hung out with for a few days in Myanmar back in November! We met them for dinner and swapped our crazy India stories. The next day we walked around the old city, ate some amazing Indian deep-fried sweet called jelabi, and looked at the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Wind. It was built so the royal ladies could sit and watch the going-ons of the city, without being seen by commoners. It also turned out to be the only thing within our price range (a palace and an observatory were WAY overpriced). 

The Hawa Mahal
That night, we went to see a Bollywood film at this fancy old vintage decorated movie theater with our British friends. Although the movie was in Hindi with no subtitles, we were able to understand most of what was happening, especially with a little help from Wikipedia. Indians, at least the ones in Rajasthan, make a tonne of noise in a movie theatre, whooping, cheering and yelling at the appropriate moments. It was a neat experience! I can’t remember what else we did in Jaipur so it must not have been that amazing, but I do remember getting on our FIRST NIGHT BUS in India. Like the train, we were a little (or a lot) cold due to windows that didn’t quite close, and were additionally kept awake by an insane melodic horn (it sounded like he was playing a keyboard to produce the sounds!). We at least had our own nice little compartment and had some privacy from the rest of the passengers on the bus. It was kind of like sleeping in a coffin for two with windows. Finally, at some point, I was asleep, and when I opened my eyes we were in…

Jaisalmer! Our second Rajasthan stop. This was the desertiest of our stops, and the first thing we saw out of the window was the fort, rising out of the center of the town like a giant magical sandcastle. We lucked out again with our guesthouse, scoring a huge room and private bathroom for very cheap. The owner insisted his name was Aladdin (I say too good to be true) and was super helpful. The main reason we went to Jaisalmer was to do a camel safari out to some real sand dunes. Aladdin arranged this for a great price, and we were off the next day. Conor and I and our guide, Leelu, set off to wander around the desert for a few hours, then we (Leelu) set up our camp and cooked us dinner (it was delicious!). We slept out under the stars, and nothing even tried to eat us, although at one point I thought maybe I had to go pee, but when I peeped out from my blankets there was a dog just standing there investigating us, so I stayed where I was. I slept SOO well I actually missed the sunrise by like an hour and yelled at Conor for not waking me up to see it! Our camels had tried to run away in the night, and this 13 year old kid that was helping Leelu had to go chase them down for us. We rode them back to the village, then jumped in a jeep back to town. Pretty neat. We spent the rest of the day chilling with another cool British couple we met in our guesthouse, and went out for dinner with them at this restaurant with a slightly insane lady hostess, who chatted with us while we ate. The next day we wandered around trying to find these old haveli things until it was time to get on our bus. This was a shorter distance, only like 5 hours and then we were in…

In the desert with our camels
Jodhpur! Jodhpur is famous for, you’ll never guess, a FORT. This fort was impressive. The royal family has maintained it and turned it into an impressive museum. Jodhpur is also known as the blue city, because there are about 20 blue houses clustered together and if you take a photo just right it looks like the whole city is blue. 
blu city?

So the fort was informative. In Jodhpur, we were also able to meet our pal that we met in Varanasi a couple times! Saurabh took us to a fancy thali place where we ate until we were just about to throw up, then tried to have some drinks, but soon realized we were way too painfully full for that nonsense. So the next night we got smart and did the drinking first and the eating second. Conor and I hadn’t eaten much meat for about a month prior to this point, and Saurabh promised us amazing tandoori chicken, and he totally delivered. On our last day in Jodhpur, we decided to try out ziplining beside the fort, mostly because we heard that you get to zip over the opening of the prison that Batman has to climb out of in the latest Batman movie (you know the one with Bane!). It was a total bargain and lots of fun, and, what a coincidence, we were joined by a group of 4 Korean teachers vacationing together. 

After ziplining we were off on another bus, a bus which ended up taking approximately forever it turned out, toooo:

Pushkar! We arrived in Pushkar after like 8 hours on a bumpy local bus. It was dark, we were the only people still on the bus, it was EXHAUSTING. Luckily, our guesthouse was very easy to find and we were able to eat dinner and go straight to sleep. Pushkar is home to a holy lake, and has drawn all the kinds of tourists who feel the “vibrations” that always elude me. The very positive side of being in a town full of hippies was that Pushkar was full of AMAZING restaurants serving unique and flavourful dishes with fresh ingredients. We had already designated Pushkar as a do nothing place, where we would relax and recharge. We didn’t end up doing anything special, just walking around the town and planning out the rest of our time in South India. Our visit did coincidentally coincide with a holiday (Kite day? New year? Both??) which let us see lots of kite flying, some colourful processions through the streets to the holy lake, some extremely loud music, and a booze-less rooftop rave for teenage boys. All very interesting. When it was time to go, we easily made our way into the next town over to catch a local bus, which was much less painful than the previous one. We arrived with plenty of daylight left to go, in…

The holy lake at Pushkar
Bundi! Our smallest and least touristy stop of the entire country had a fort, but an old, abandoned, ruiny kind. We arrived and immediately asked advice about a good place to get chai, not realizing the gravity of our question. Within minutes, we were off, accompanied by the guesthouse owner, his brother, and 3 other guests, because getting chai is an event in a small town like Bundi. We arrived at Krishna’s, where we were told we would be drinking the BEST chai in India. Bold claim. It was, however, VERY delicious and unique, with a bouquet of flavours exploding in your mouth. Unfortunately for me, one of these flavours was black pepper, one of my kryptonite foods. :( So I didn’t get to drink all of mine. After tea, the guesthouse owner, Shivam, decided to send his brother to get us all some butter chicken while he built a fire,a nd we sat around the fire eating chicken with our hands. Good start! The next day, we walked up to the old Palace and Fort. The palace was REALLY cool, very ruiny and crumbly, but with a few rooms in amazing condition. Apparently it was never conquered by the Mughals, and the British also left it alone because they were on good terms with the royal family here. So it wasn’t RUINED, per se, it was just disused. A lot of fun to explore. 

room in the palace at Bundi
We also walked up to see the fort, which was a little less exciting, and a lot more terrifying due to a monkey family siege in which we both decided the best course of action was to run away. After Indiana Jonesing in the ruins, we decided to have a beer by the lake. It was a good day. I’m pretty sure the next way we walked around and saw a few more of the town’s monuments, including a much better than expected Queen’s Bath. 

The Queen's bath
Then we relaxed and drank some rum by a campfire. Early in the morning, we set off early in the morning, a little apprehensive about our instructions for getting to Udaipur. We caught a train at a totally different time than what we were told it would come at, but apparently it was ok, and then we got off the train and caught a bus the rest of the way. We must have been pretty pro at this point, because everything went exactly as planned, and by the evening we were in:

Udaipur! Our last stop in Rajasthan. Udaipur’s pop culture claim to fame is that the James Bond film Octopussy was shot there, and you can watch the film in dozens of restaurants in the main tourist streets. It is also known is the “Venice of the East” but if you’ve been to Asia you know there are like 50 Venice of the Easts and none of them are much like Venice at all. (I’m looking at you Tai O Hong Kong!) It DID have a nice lake, with a palace by the lake and TWO palaces on the lake. We went to see the palace, which is still VERY intact, with many rooms still fully decorated in what I’m calling “colonial-chic” style.
indo colonial chic

There was also a tree growing up of the second floor balcony. SECOND floor. Because Kings do what they want.  After the palace, we looked around a nearby temple with some very intricate carving. 
large temple in Udaipur

The next day, we checked out a vintage car museum that houses the old royal cars AND horse carriages. The next day we took a boat ride on the lake and got a really nice view of the palace from the water. The last thing we did here was watch a cultural performances that was pretty mind blowing. An older woman balanced like 10 jugs on her head and performed tricks like stepping on glass and balancing on a pan. It was pretty memorable. That night, we jumped on a train heading south, and in the morning we were in Mumbai!

dancing with jars

Friday, February 20, 2015

India #1 Delhi, Varanasi, Agra

I’m just gonna jump right in! We arrived in Delhi on December 23. At first we were like “wow what a nice metro! This isn’t how we pictured Delhi at all!” But that eventually faded after we arrived at the New Delhi railway station and exited onto the street, where we did immediately find what we were expecting from Delhi. People, traffic, garbage, an insane man to woman ratio everywhere you look (think like 20:1), open urinals, etc. To add to the experience we were expecting, we then got into an auto (tuk-tuk, rickshaw, what have you) and were totally ripped off on a ride to our hostel. It wasn’t so bad, because we really were expecting it haha. So, December in Delhi is actually a little cold and I was pretty glad I hadn’t jettisoned my warm clothes from Nepal. On Christmas Eve, we walked  to Connaught Place, a well known shopping area, and were pretty unimpressed, although we found a pretty nice cafe, which is never bad. Our main goal on December 24th was to get tickets for…The Hobbit! This was our only plan for Christmas Day, but it ended up being a little harder than planned. A Bollywood film called PK had just been released, and the director is the same guy who did Three Idiots, and is thus mega famous. He released his film on condition that any theatre showing it could show ONLY it, and no other movie. So, instead of watching it in the commercial district 20 min from our hostel, we had to drive an hour out into the suburbs. Luckily it didn’t matter, because it was Christmas and we both wanted basically nothing to do with India anyway. Later, we both attempted Skype, but the wifi at our hostel was terrible and we were mostly unsuccessful. 

Now, cut to sometime between Dec. 25 and Dec. 26 - Mary is in the shared hostel bathroom, having the most epic food poisoning of her life! Merry Christmas! As you can guess, most of Boxing Day was spent in bed recovering from my epic purge. Luckily, it was the only time I got REALLY sick in India, and it only lasted like 20 hours. I should also point out that I probably got it from some expensive Western restaurant!! Our last day in India, I had mostly recovered, and we managed to squeeze in some sight seeing. Delhi has quite a few historical sites scattered around. We went to Old Delhi to see the Red Fort, our first of like 1 trillion forts. It was nice, but not amazing, and we enjoyed learning about how terrible the British were during their time there. One British prince managed to shoot like 25 tigers in one go during a visit! TWENTY FIVE! Then we checked out the biggest mosque in India, then decided that Old Delhi was way too crowded and crazy and that it was time to GTFO. We jumped on the Metro and whizzed down to see Qutab Minar, a super old Minaret, mosque and ruins complex. It was similar to what happens when you go to Rome and see the field of ruins there. THEN we headed over to Hauz Khas because I heard that’s where all the cool kids go. We watched the cool kids and got some pizza, and I was happy.

Qutab Minar

The next day, we had a train booked to go to Varanasi. We had heard that trains could be late, so we were prepared to wait a few hours. When we got to the train station, our train had been delayed TWELVE hours. As in, the next morning. PANIC! Luckily, the staff at New Delhi station must be used to foreigners freaking out about such things, and several security guards and ticket agents helped us cancel the old tickets and purchase new ones on a train that had also been delated 12 hours that happened to be leaving when we were planning to leave anyway. So we jumped on that (they made us run!! I almost died! We didn’t even need to!). This was our first train journey and India, and we’d heard soo many stories. Because of the delay and reschedule we had landed in sleeper class, which is technically the 4th class of sleeper cars. We had planned on being in one class up, where they provide blankets, pillows, heating, and windows that close properly, so we were totally unprepared for the bare bones conditions on the train. We were probably both going to freeze to death during the night. Then, we met Ravinder, a young Punjabi boxer, traveling to Varanasi for a match (fight?) with his nephew. He was keen to practice his English and told us if anyone messed with us we should just call for him. Then, in an extraordinary act of kindness, he offered us one of their blankets, saying that they were family and could share one bed and one blanket no problem. Any anxiety we had had about taking sleeper class was totally gone. In the morning, the train was moving REAL slow, and what should have been a 12 hour journey turned into a 24 hour journey. Our train car emptied out over the day, until there was only us, Ravinder and his nephew left. We were bored out of our minds and glad to have some language-barrier induced laughs. We FINALLY arrived in Varanasi, cold, hungry, tired, and said goodbye to Ravinder and wished him luck in his fight (he won btw). That night we slept so early!
Another friend we made on the train

Our first day in Varanasi, the guesthouse owner arranged a tuk-tuk tour for us, mostly to temples. It’s difficult to travel through Asia for 6 months and still get excited about a temple, but it’s still something to be done. AND, the driver let us try to drive, and I think we were both pretty good at it. Just like a 3 wheeled motorbike with a box built around it haha. 

Conor driving the tuk tuk

The weather was still cold and grey and not beautiful. Varanasi itself was a little (more than a little) odd. Everybody hypes it up, people say it’s their FAVOURITE place in the country. We found it kind of less interesting, we decided it might be because we don’t feel the “vibrations” all the yoga hippies are always talking about. Varanasi is famous for the Ganges and the cremations taking place by the river. The river WAS an interesting sight, and you can easily walk the length of it in a couple hours and see lots of great stuff, just making sure to dodge the cow poop, beggars and narcotics salesmen. 
The burning ghats

We watched Aarti, the nightly ceremony performed by priests for Lord Shiva:

We were also lucky to meet our second Indian friend, he was staying at the same guesthouse as us. By this time it was New Years Eve, and Varanasi is probably one of the least interesting places to be on Dec. 31! We were lucky to have our friend Saurabh to show us where to go to buy alcohol and what Indian rum to buy that wouldn’t be too expensive or we would have been totally sober on NYE because Varanasi, a holy city, is also a DRY city. Planning fail on our part haha. We drank, walked down by the river and got yelled at because apparently there is a 10:30 pm curfew and went to bed. Next day, We went with Saurabh to see the location of Buddha’s first post-enlightenment lecture. It’s now just a bunch of ruins and a museum, but it was interesting. At this point we were still trying to get a handle on all the different Hindu gods so it was pretty helpful. We had a bit of an issue when we entered the ancient site, as the officials there refused to believe that Saurabh wasn’t our illegally hired tour guide. I jokingly asked if it would be acceptable for use to walk around separately from him and they very seriously responded with “yes that’s fine”. When told “you have no proof that he’s a tour guide” they said “we have no proof that you are not a permit-less tour guide”. Whaaaaaat!? Somehow, eventually, they relented, and we toured the grounds. I’m pretty sure, that day we were supposed to take our next train. Saurabh had not only shown us which rum to buy, he had shown us an app to use to check to see ho late our train would be. Due to human error, I neglected to check this app before leaving for the train station, and when we arrived we discovered that our train was again delayed. This time, every couple of hours the delayed it by a couple more hours, until again, we left 12 hours later than schedule, and our night train turned into a day train. We did FINALLY arrive in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, a fort, and not much else…a Pizza Hut I guess. 
Checking out Buddha with our fake tour guide

We had one full day in Agra. We spent part of it at the Taj Mahal, the most expensive attraction in all of India. Foreigners: 700 rupees. Indians: 20 rupees. But, they get away with it, and they always will, because that thing is totally as beautiful and amazing as everyone says it is. Not overrated one bit, and I was so annoyed. I would have been way more satisfied if I could report that the whole thing is a big scam. It’s not. It takes your breath away, and the sun wasn’t even shining when we were there. You’ve seen the Taj Mahal, I won’t waste my time describing it :). After the Taj Mahal, we walked over to the Agra Fort, which we entered from the wrong direction, and had to jump a fence to get to the main entrance. On principle of being cheapskates, we don’t often hire guides, but this guy gave us a GREAT deal because the weather was bad and he was having a slow day, so we succumbed to his persistence, and I think we’re both glad we did. He was good at his job and the signage wasn’t great so we were able to gain a lot more from it. He made us take some silly perspective illusion photos. I think that’s all of importance that happened in Agra, unless you wanna count Pizza Hut, which I DID, but I doubt you want to hear about my pizza. Tis a silly place, and if the Tah Mahal didn’t happen to be there, it would be a pointless place to visit. Our next train was at 6am, and naturally, of course, even though this train being a few hours late would be LOVELY, it was RIGHT ON TIME, because even though I swear Conor had been building up a TONNE of karma for the month before that, the universe is a jerk.

Stay tuned for Rajasthan next!