A Travellerspoint blog

March 2013

Kerala – God’s Own Country

February 11 - February 19, 2013

semi-overcast 31 °C
View World Tour 2012/13 on Elmar123's travel map.

One of the nice things about India is the relatively bargain priced flights you can book between cities. Although we'd pretty much waited until the last minute, we were still able to find a reasonably priced flight from Kolkata to Trivandrum (official name: Thiruvananthapuram) in southern Kerala. I'm not sure why but everyone refers to the state almost as if it's a city. I don't hear people say I'm going to Uttar Pradesh which is where Agra and Varanasi are but people regularly say I'm going to Kerala which is about 550 Km long. Kerala, besides more hyped neighbor Goa, is where you go when you need a break from the intense hard core cities like Mumbai and Delhi. It is lush with palm trees everywhere and has a higher standard of living in every aspect compared to most other states. Literacy in Kerala is impressively in the high 90s (although it's lower for women) and you not only see lavish homes in the country side and cities, you don't see the level of poverty you do elsewhere.

We stayed in Trivandrum for only a few days before moving on because we had to visit the place that Elmar always talks about with delight, Kovalam beach. We'd booked into “Classic Avenue”, a comfortable and not too pricey hotel not too far from the main train station and took the local bus to Kovalam so we could enjoy the view along the way. It was really hot, about 95 degrees and humid and we were glad for the open windows. The bus dropped us off at the intersection that leads to the beach area so we hiked the couple kilometres down. We couldn't wait to see it but we were in for a surprise. Elmar had described the area as tranquil with only a few huts and restaurants right on the beach and where the white sand stretched as far as you could see into the distance, broken only by the headlands that separate the beaches. What we saw were garish buildings thrown up haphazardly along the beach all linked by a concrete walkway. Tourism was down we later learned so at least it wasn't overcrowded. Elmar was visibly shaken and spent the next hour trouncing from one area to the next lamenting the destruction of a beautiful haven and cursing the ignorance of those involved. He knew that time could not stand still but how could this ugly mish mash of blatant commerce be the alternative. DSC04235.jpg (Kovalam beach, once a tranquil backpacker beach)

He was ready to storm off in disgust but while I empathized with him, I was hot and tired and we would now be facing a long walk uphill to catch the bus without even a sip of water. It didn't take long for me to coax him into having a drink and we spent the next couple hours talking about why it was that India was not achieving the predicted growth rates when there was no lack of talent, resources or opportunity. We'd read a recent article that described China as cramming 50 years of progress into 10 and India as stretching 10 over 50. We were certainly witnessing this every day and juxtaposed to it, places like Kovalam that seemed to be a victim of commercial attempts rather than any real strategy for sustained economic progress. We wondered if they would truly be a super power and how long it would take. We eventually had to check ourselves and think about what we do next. There was a travel agent close by so we decided to check out what he had on offer. We got pretty excited initially because it looked as if he could get us to the Maldives. We had not been able to find anything in our budget in our searches but it turned out to be a tease as nothing in our price range was available. He did however book us on a backwater tour, which is something I had been anxious to do for quite some time. Rather than the typical travel through the backwaters of Alleppey, we would be touring the backwaters of Kollam, which is usually considered the transit point for Alleppey. That took care of our agenda for the next 2 days so we headed back to Trivandrum and had dinner at a very local restaurant called Ariya Nivaas where we enjoyed our typical thalis (one plate with several different curries and bread) and some really good sweet lassi. The next morning after a hearty breakfast we took the train to Kollam and met with the tour operator who would get us to our boat. We had to wait about an hour so we wandered around the town and spontaneously decided to stop at an optician to see if we could replace Elmar' sunglasses which had been lost. We had checked in Kolkata but the wait period was too long. When we asked, the optician said he could have it ready in hours. We told him we weren't in that much of a rush and the next day would be fine when we returned from our boat trip. We were prepared to pay quite a bit for the rush job and couldn't believe when he offered Elmar two pairs of prescription sun glasses for less than $70.00. Being no fool I grabbed a pair for myself and the final price for all three was US$110.00.

The backwater tour was a little slice of heaven. We had the large houseboat boat all to ourselves and in a short while after pushing from shore we sat down to a freshly cooked meal that was very tasty. The rest of the afternoon we did nothing but veg and take in the intense green and calm waters all around us. DSC04237.jpgDSC04243.jpgDSC04260.jpg (Just the two of us on the houseboat in Kollam)

After the late lunch I was sure we would not be ready for anything else to eat but I guess watching a beautiful sunset must be the type of thing that works up a healthy appetite because we certainly did the evening meal justice.
DSC04299.jpg (Sunset in the Kerala backwaters)
DSC04311.jpg (...and more delicious Indian delicacies on the houseboat)

The rest of the evening we sat in the near darkness gazing at the sky and absorbing every bit of the peaceful surroundings. Not surprisingly we slept like logs and the next morning were fed breakfast that had to be intended for a party of 8 there was so much food. DSC04329.jpg (...food didn't stop coming)

After breakfast we were collected by a very nice man named Kennedy in his tiny canoe who took us further into the backwaters and we got a chance to see different villages and how they coped with the marshy environment. This time there wasn't even a motor to mar the silence so we just soaked it all in only breaking the silence to ask a few questions or respond when he said duck, because we were passing a low bridge that required us to bend in half in the canoe to navigate it clearly. DSC04364.jpgDSC04376.jpg (Exploring the small backwater canals and villages)

On the trip back, we passed again a beautiful hotel that the captain told us was 5 star and we could see was very lovely. Elmar decided to check out availability immediately on his phone and low and behold not only was it available but very, very reasonable. We booked it immediately via his phone so by the time we landed and picked up our sunglasses we could direct the taxi to our next destination. DSC04412.jpg

The Raviz is a beautiful property that's set right on the river. The owner took 12 years to complete the construction because he was determined to use the best mostly local products and make it as environmentally compatible as possible. He hit a home run and we again decided to stay a few days. DSC04514.jpg (The Raviz, our 5-star refuge for a couple of days)

Our first two days was a bit of rough going, well rough is an exaggeration but let's say could have been better. It turned out that the hotel really didn't have any rooms available as the entire hotel had been booked by a wedding party. The bride's father in typical tradition was funding the entire wedding and had decided that he would fly his 200 + guests from Mumbai to Kollam, host a 4 day celebration and then fly them back to Mumbai for a final party at another elaborate destination. We had arrived on day 3. The hotel staff were in a panic because the new groom who was not contributing a penny to the festivities insisted that no one else could have a room even if they were not using them. The hotel just happended to have a couple of luxury wooden boats that they use for backwater tours so they put us in one for the night. The next day they moved us into a regular room although I'm not sure what they told the groom. We watched from our window as the pool area was turned into a play ground of water slides, bars, food stalls with American top 40 music blaring from speakers. We were witnessing the affluent Indian life style that other than the many days of celebrations looked very Western. The food on offer was all western, hamburger, french fries and fried chicken. The girls were all skimpily clad and we saw nothing of what we'd been witnessing to date which was girls dressed demurely with definitely no legs or upper body parts showing. The hotel also dedicated a nearby island to them. Everyone was having a good time with activities geared toward the different age groups. India is the world's largest buyer of gold and only spends more money on oil. People hoard it and every decent parent makes sure that for her wedding, their daughter is dripping with gold they've collected over the years. This is true for the poorest farmer. Also, since the traditional dowry goes to the new husband, the gold is her security for a rainy day. We definitely could see the evidence all around us and breathed a sigh of relief that these customs did not exist in the west since we have two daughters who haven't taken the marriage plunge. DSC04520.jpg (Anna with one of the lovely staff at the Raviz)

We decided to make this hotel our home base and visit the mountain areas for a few days. We chose Thekaddy as it had the nice combination of spice farms and national park. We also decided to travel by bus. Confirming an ideal travel route can be a real challenge in India. We made the mistake of listening to an official at the train station without double checking his advice. He insisted that the best way to get to Thekaddy was to go past Cochin then travel across state. It turned out that was the most circuitous way to get there and we ended up riding for 12 hours on different buses for what should be a 7 hour journey. We found out later that there is actually a bus that travels directly to Kollam but it's a private vs public run company and does not pick up or drop passengers off at the central bus station. I'm not sure how you find this out but I guess you have to keep asking questions and always confirm several times. The drive itself took us through beautiful mountain areas and allowed us to see the how different the poor here lived vs in Rajasthan and other northern states. However, keep in mind that these buses are not air conditioned, and the bench type seats are narrow with very little leg room. During peak times as well the numbers will swell beyond what the buses should comfortably hold and you will be tightly sandwiched between tired funky bodies that can't help but lean on you as the bus careens from one sharp curve to the next up and down winding mountains. We were very relieved and very hungry when we finally reached our destination late that evening. On these buses, there is very little communication so if the bus stops and the driver leaves, you get the idea it could be a food and bathroom break but you have no idea for how long. Plus, if you leave your seat you lose it, there are no reservations. We had booked accommodations in a home stay place called Periyar Villa but since it was so late we decided to grab a quick bite right next to the bus station. It was raining and there seemed to be a rally of some sort as we could hear music and a voice yelling through a megaphone. We were to learn later that the communist party, which has a strong following in Kerala in general was running a massive campaign in the area and were targeting the young people in particular. Kerala is one of the very few states in India that has a long history of communist local leaders. We just made it to a restaurant before they closed and ate quickly as we were concerned about finding transportation. It wasn't easy as most tuk tuks didn't seem interested in passengers but eventually we found one who didn't know exactly where it was but was diligent in asking. Elmar is always amazing with directions and logistics and despite it being pitch dark, he recalled what the house was supposed to look like and using a flash light could identify it from the street. The couple were thankfully still awake and warmly welcomed us. It was a lovely home, bright and spotless. Our room was very spacious with a little balcony. One very good thing in India is no matter if you stay at a hotel or in a bed and breakfast or homestay, breakfast is always included. We got to know the family a little better next morning. We didn't eat with them but as they served us we met their cute and friendly little son named Farhan which means ‘joy’ and heard about their lives and dreams. They owned a spice shop as well and while she was taking college courses her heart wasn't really in it because she loved their businesses and wanted to dedicate her time to that. DSC04627.jpg (Our host and little Farhan at Periyar Villa)

During breakfast we also watched from the window as a mahout lovingly bathed his elephant in the forest and prepared him for the tourist rides that are offered. We wanted to do some hiking however so we took off and rather than a hike did a nature walk through Periyar National Forest. It was the perfect thing for us and even though there are lots of offers for car tours, this park can be easily walked. Plus, you are better able to spot the animals and you can get a greater sense of the peaceful atmosphere. DSC04574.jpgDSC04609.jpg (Monkeys in Periyar National Park)

The town is pretty small so we also strolled through just soaking it in. We were not interested in the tourist type events such as kung fu dancing or elephant riding. We also missed out on our tour of a spice farm as it rained all afternoon. Nothing bothered us however as we were feeling pretty mellow after our commune with nature. That evening, we searched for a restaurant highly recommended in our guide book. However, we were intrigued by a little garden restaurant we passed so even after we found the intended restaurant we decided to check out the Cocoanut Garden as it was called. The setting was lovely. They had converted their garden so it tiered and had little nooks that they placed only four tables in. We were very fortunate to get the last table very close to where the cooking was being done. The owners, a German woman and her Indian husband were expanding their tour business with the restaurant. He did the cooking and she did the hosting. She was about 6 months pregnant a looked a bit harried. She was also torn from her hosting duties regularly by their 3 year old son. He was a surprise. He looked very Indian but spoke fluent German. He was very cute, very active and if he didn't get what he wanted right away yelled at the top of his voice over and over until she responded, 'Mamma, Mamma, komm her! We played with him for a while to give her a break but frankly nothing was helping this couple. They are both very hardworking and clearly ambitious but know nothing about the restaurant business. With only four tables to serve, we got our simple meals of curry chicken and rice and curry mutton and rice after two and half hours. Thankfully it was delicious but some of the other guests were not as tolerant as we were. They didn't have beers on hand so they would need to run to a nearby shop to pick up any beer orders. Frankly, they didn’t have a alcohol license, so they asked us to leave the beer bottle under the table in case a nosy law enforcement officer would walk past. They also only bought what was requested so with the long wait, each time a beer was requested, they had to find an opportunity to pause and run to the store. Same was true for the Indian breads as they didn't have a clay oven but offered it on the menu. By the evening's end, she looked even more frazzled and he had taken a few cigarette breaks to help him cope. The final straw was paying the bill. We were leaving at the same time as a very apparent unhappy couple and they had no change for either of us. The shops were now also closed so we stood around looking at each other. We decided to leave a very generous tip and forego our change but the other couple was having none of that. I think they eventually begged some friends for some change as the other couple did not plan to leave any tip and finally left in a huff. We took it all in stride and enjoyed ourselves regardless, but sincerely hope that some of the stereotypical German efficiency will emerge or for sure they wont last long. The next day we said goodbye to our new friends at the homestay and the husband took us to a bus that would take us directly back to Kollam. We enjoyed the ride through the tea and cardamom hills even more and spent most of the time crammed beside a lovely mom and her little girl. DSC04658.jpg (Our bus neighbor for 7 hours)
DSC04660.jpg (Hindu festival along our bus trip back to Kollam)

Our last days in India were spent back at Raviz in lazy luxury. We got massages in their top notch spa and ate most of our meals in their restaurant. The head chef made the best mutton biriyani to date and we had it repeatedly. Our last day, we provided a bit of feedback as with such a top notch place, they had not handled the overbooking with the wedding very well. I've left out quite a few details but a combination of young overconfident managers had led to a mismanagement of the situation and over promising and underdelivering. The hotel manager was stellar. He listened without interrupting and defending – quite unusual for Indians as we learned - and told us he'd heard about the situation as the entire hotel was aware of the dilemma and knew it had not been handled well. He knew we were on our way out as we'd checked out, but he insisted we stay a bit longer since our flight was late that evening and had his chef provide a personal 4 course lunch for us. We appreciated the gesture and recognized a good leader when he promised to make the situation a learning exercise at their regular training sessions so his managers would be all learn from it and be motivated to change and not shamed by the situation.

So now that it was time to leave India, we couldn't help but wonder about the big unknown for us, Africa. We both love India and overall enjoyed our stay but we had also been wearied by it and affected by the relentless poverty, aggression, commercialism but at the same time painfully slow progress throughout the country. Were we ready for Africa?

Posted by Elmar123 10:37 Archived in India Tagged landscapes beaches people animals boats Comments (1)

Agra – Varanasi (Benares) – Kolkata (Calcutta)

January 31 - February 11

sunny 26 °C
View World Tour 2012/13 on Elmar123's travel map.

Agra

We were now leaving the state of Rajasthan and heading toward Uttar Pradesh where our first stop would be Agra. We didn't stop at any villages on the way but when we stopped for a drink late in the afternoon a couple decorated cars packed with men stopped as well. It was a wedding party of the groom and his men on their way to one of the multiple day celebrations customary in weddings. The groom, Bhanu, was very charming and honored us with an invitation to his wedding. I would have loved to attend but we still had quite a bit of driving left and weren't dressed appropriately either so with true regrets we declined. Back on the road we passed numerous wedding processions and they are quite the production. The groom travels on an elephant or in a highly decorated elevated seat, typically with a young boy (similar to ring bearer) seated next to him. He's surrounded by friends and relatives, noise and music makers. Young boys carrying decorated candelabras of lights and the generators for the lights are for hire and are a part of every procession. The noise is tremendous and it completely clogs traffic but no one cares. January is apparently wedding season so every mile or so we'd encounter another procession. The first one we saw we got out of the car to take some pictures and get a closer look especially as traffic had slowed to a halt. Some of the groom's relatives were delighted to see us and begged us to join the groom atop his throne. We were reluctant thinking this would detract from the purpose but they insisted it would be an honor so we gave in and rode with him for a bit. It felt strange, like we were part of a Thanksgiving parade but was kinda fun too. Interestingly, the driver of the truck pulling the wagon started to demand that we give some money to the groom. We were startled by this and secretly disappointed but thought maybe it was the custom so reached into our pockets. Fortunately the groom's man who'd invited us up picked up on what was happening and immediately rebuked the driver and emphatically stated “no money”. The driver who was hired and not a member of the wedding party didn't like it and argued but there wasn't much he could do. Once we got down though we made sure to enjoy the other processions from inside the car.

DSC03671.jpg (Wedding Procession Crashers)

The traffic, dust, noise and chaos is beyond what you can imagine as you get closer to Agra. For many tourists if they only visit one place in the north it’s Agra because it's where the Taj Mahal is located. Elmar had seen it before and I was excited to see if it would live up to expectations. We made it to our hotel late in the evening and made plans for Ajay to introduce us to a local guide later in the evening. When we met Hilal however, he had bad news for us. The Taj as it always is on Fridays, would be closed the next day. The tour operator had not checked the day just made the plan according to dates. We refused to miss it so even though it would create a bit of complication with our train tickets to Varanasi we had them extend the time in Agra. It was well worth it. The Taj lives up to and exceeds every expectation. This rather than Udaipur held true romance. The story goes that Shah Jahan loved his wife Mumtaz Mahal over all other wives and concubines so much that when she died after bearing his 14th! child he built the Taj as a monument and to enshrine her body. Words cannot begin to do it justice and the pictures aren't able to capture enough of what it evokes so best is to put it on your bucket list. The entry fee is steep, over 700Rps. but no one cares even when you know that locals only pay 50 Rps. Your ticket at least allows access through the express line so don't feel bad when you zip pass hundreds of locals in line. It also helps to maintain the Taj and other monuments that are less popular and you get a discount to see a few other sites if you go the same day. It's good to go with a decent guide too as there are lots of interesting details and facts about the construction you might miss otherwise. You'll have to tolerate the hokey poses for pictures but it's well worth it. The Agra Fort is worth a visit too as much of it was built with the same symmetry and translucent marble that marks Shah Jahan's style and it's where he spent his last days in style gazing at the Taj across the river. In reality, he'd been imprisoned by his own son. The day it was closed we viewed the Taj from the gardens across the river and the colours were very different from when we toured it the next day. If you can, try to at least view the Taj at a different time than your proposed tour as the differences will be remarkable. That's if the smog allows. Pollution is terrible in Agra and the haze can be bad enough to spoil any early morning views.
DSC03800.jpgDSC03840.jpg (The Taj Mahal from across the river)
DSC03949.jpgDSC03952.jpg (...and the Taj from the front)

Hilal also took us to a local Dhaba for some simple but delicious local food. Agra's strong Mughlai influence is reflected in the cream and curd based sauces (that I'm partial to, especially cashew cream) as well as the curries and should definitely be sampled. As is the case in much of our trip we paid no more than $10.00 for the four of us.

It was time to say goodbye to Ajay as we would be continuing our trip by train. He was a really careful and thoughtful driver/guide and we'd been lucky to get him. The big question was how to tip. There were some guidelines on the internet that were helpful in sharing typical daily rates which are about $10 - 20 per day. Ultimately, you choose what you feel is right based on the service you received and that's what we did.

The train ride from Agra to Varanasi is best described as an adventure. India has the largest train system in the world and you can travel for days or for short hops between cities. There are luxury trains such as Palace on wheels where you can travel in lavish style on specific routes for about US$ 1000 per day and your standard commuters with sleeping compartments for the price of a cheap meal in the US or Europe. Many have not been updated since built by the British and not all have air conditioning available. When you book you select the class of seating. Typically each train will have about 4 -5 classes ranging from first class/air conditioned to 3rd class unreserved no air con or sleeping facilities. A train journey is an essential part of the experience here if you want a taste of daily life, but I would not recommend the unreserved third class for anyone on their first trip and definitely not if you're travelling overnight unless you enjoy feeling like a packed sardine. Tickets are very affordable when you consider the extensive distances they travel so opt for the reserved section and keep in mind that it's better to use a reputable booking agent rather than try to do it yourself on line. Once booked however, there's an APP that tracks the progress of every train and can let you know if your train is delayed or not and if so, will provide progress updates as it nears your pick up station. We did not have this App for our first train trip and ended up waiting 6 hours for our train and arriving at our final destination with a 12 hour delay. The waiting room, which was designated as 'first class' was a sight to behold. I should state that we were not at the main station in Agra but had travelled to Tundla, which is about 25 Km outside of Agra. Avoid this station if at all possible. The first class waiting room had a few metal seats stretching against the wall leaving a wide area in the middle. This was soon to be filled with tired of waiting passengers who laid on the floor surrounded by their luggage and promptly fell sound asleep. Huge, and I mean huge rats darted in and out of the room scurrying through holes near the doorway. I refused to go to the ladies' room which was in another room after Elmar told me that the men's room which was through an open arch right off the room where we sat, had more feces on the walls than in the toilets.
Ajay, bless his heart, had arranged for a porter, or kuli how they are called in India, to tell us when our train was close and take us to the correct platform. This at least allowed us to relax since we couldn't understand the updates, which were only provided in Hindi. The food available in the snack bar looked dubious at best and to be frank, when you stood outside the door of the waiting room you can only breathe through your mouth or turn blue trying to hold your breath because of the stench. The tracks serve as a dumping ground for every bit of garbage generated by the thousands that transit the station. Many of the trains also don't have a waste disposal so the toilets all flush directly on to the tracks. Hence the very healthy rats who enjoy a sumptious daily buffet. DSC04127.jpg (Rats having a feast)

This station was also home to a million starlings who roosted in the eaves and wires above. They also added their perfume and if you tried to stand near the door of the waiting room to view oncoming trains or ease your boredom, you were guaranteed a bird dropping or two. Finally the porter came and got us and we huddled our freezing toes unto the platform only to wait there for another 90 minutes as it took the train that long to get it's turn to pull into the station. Once we found the right compartment which you do by reading the car numbers and letters on the outside of the coach to match your reservation ticket, the adventure became more positive. We had two top bunks as we agreed to swap our bottom bunk with an older couple who were sharing one bunk bed. We both slept quite well and found the ride fairly smooth and rhythmic. After what we'd just experienced it felt like luxury. There were sheets, blanket and pillow, a reading light by each bunk, a small night stand and pouch for water. DSC03994.jpg (Travelling in cozy 2nd class A/C)

The next morning hawkers came by selling chai and omelets and they were pretty tasty. It's a bit of a strange environment sharing intimacies with strangers in the small compartment. It might have been that they didn't speak English, we didn't know as somehow they and us enveloped ourselves in a little private world where we avoided looking at or talking to each other. All in all, while I never want to go back to Tundla, I was glad to have my first train experience. The next time I watch Slumdog Millionaire I will for sure have a great frame of reference.

Varanasi

The oldest living city known and also called the city of light by the many devotees who travel here to be cleansed and get in touch with the divine. The city is considered to be so holy that if you die here you achieve instant Moksha or enlightment, which is the zenith of Hindu faith and means you won't need to be reincarnated. It draws pilgrims from all over the world, the devout as well as the curious. Everything centers on the Ganges river or the Ganga as the Indians call it. The access to the Ganga lies via the Ghats which are concrete steps leading right into the river. It is here that you will see some of the most bizarre looking people in search of and performing all kinds of rituals to purify themselves. Because the Hindus believe that salvation can be obtained after death, it's also the ultimate burial place. Every day between 100-150 bodies are cremated by dedicated cremators called the untouchables. The ashes are then scattered into the river in hope of achieving salvation. Our first evening here we took a walk down a series of the many alleyways that make up the city and fought our way through the thick throng of people heading to or away from the ghats. DSC04009.jpg (Devotees taking a bath in the holy Ganges)

There are about a hundred ghats here and each has significance and is visited for different reasons. The most popular are those where the live cremations take place and where elaborate celebrations occur. We could see the smoke from the funeral pyres but our new local guide took us to one where we could view the evening celebratory performance. We hopped unto a long boat and joined the many other tourist filled boats on the river. You typically have to haggle over boat prices but ours had been secured by the tour group so we just paid as we were directed. You are typically given an offering of a floating candle surrounded by a few petals that you light and set in the river with whatever prayer you're inspired to mutter or simply to follow the custom. As the sun sets all the boats begin to cluster around the main ghat where the daily celebration of life which they believe comes from the river, occurs. Around seven young monks dressed in vibrant orange and yellow robes, perform a ritual of chanting and coordinated low key dancing while playing a series of percussion instruments, burning and throwing incense. It lasts about 30-40 minutes and is the type of thing you get out of it what you put in. We could see some boats trying to get out after about 10 mins while others held people riveted and some even crying. DSC04020.jpg (The daily 'celebration of life' ritual on the Ganges in Varanasi)

The next day we visited Sarnath, which is about 15 Km north of Varanassi. It's not as popular a destination but it's here that Budha gave his very first sermon and began to record the main tenets of the Buddhist faith; then just a philosophical concept. DSC04056.jpg (Buddha's first sermon to five followers)

The atmosphere here is as one would expect for a Buddhist center, quiet and peaceful. There are museums close by that house a lot of relics but aren't a must see from my perspective. Our guide was really interesting, he was a devout Hindu who studied philosophy. When we asked a question, unlike many others we'd met, he refused to pretend knowledge if he didn't know. He provided a very simple explanation of the main tenets of Buddhism and shared other basic beliefs of Hinduism. It was amazing how similar they are to Christianity in many ways. There is a consistent theme of the first man and woman, the need for holiness or purity and the sacrifice of One who took on human form. It's his belief that there is only one God even though he may have different names and people chose different paths for worship. It left me wondering why we spend so much time majoring on the minor differences rather than respecting each others preferences.DSC04062.jpg (The stupa in Sarnath where remains of Buddha Sidharta are buried)

On our own later that afternoon, Elmar and I decided to visit some of the other ghats. We loved the narrow quaint little alleyways that meander through the old city on the way there. They look more like what I imagine an old city to look like. It seems I'm not alone in my preference as there are a number of German bakeries and restaurants offering Korean Japanese and Syrian dishes among others so they are well frequented by tourists. It was about then that I made a discovery. There is a rhythm that you develop from wandering the streets in India. Your eyes constantly roam taking in as much as you can of the life teeming by. At the same time, you have to keep an eye on the road as cow dung, sink holes rubble and refuse abound. You also begin to get a feel for when cyclists, rickshaws or cars are on your tail and you're soon bobbing, dodging and weaving with the general flow. When you get to this point you really begin to relax and enjoy yourself and you realise you've finally adapted. The cacophony of hawkers, horns, and animals are not necessarily soothing but they are no longer bombarding your senses and you can absorb more fluidly key focal points. Before then, you're just a piece of flotsam being dragged along with the rush of human tide and you're only grasping at what's around you in surges. You look and think you've taken in an entire vista, which you did, but the intensity of the next distracting wave makes it difficult to sort it all and you desperately hope that you're remembering what you want. But back to our walk to river banks and ghats. We got a bit lost through the alleyways but we didn't mind at all and eventually they all lead to a ghat so it was just a longer route. This is where the very mellow spiritualists hang out and we were asked several times if we wanted some weed. Some were strumming guitars and singing Bob Marley tunes while others bathed in the river and even drank a bit of it. DSC04099.jpgDSC04105.jpgDSC04106.jpg (Holy men, saddhus and other enlightened cats in Agra)

This is the fascination of this city, that the familiar and alien and often what we would consider private are on public display. We wandered from one ghat to the next and were having such a good time that we were almost late for our pick up at the hotel. We would be taking the train for the final destination of the tour then we would be on our own.

Kolkata

The train from Varnassi to Kolkata was not as smooth a ride as Agra to Varanasi but thankfully the train station wasn't as bad as Tundla. There were no birds with their horrible droppings and rats were not as visible and numerous. We were running a bit late and thought the train would be similarly delayed but we only had a 2 hr wait. At this station just outside of Varanasi, male and female waiting rooms were strictly separated so we couldn’t sit together in the waiting room. DSC04118.jpg (Female 'VIP' waiting room)

We ate a simple meal bought from the train service rather than an independent provider and this proved to be a mistake for Elmar. The next couple days would be pretty miserable for him. Lesson learnt, be wary of food provided by the Rail service, use the independent vendors. We also had an interesting experience that exposed us to another side of train behaviours. When we boarded the train, our compartment had only one bunk available. We started to question the gentleman occupying our bunk and he in stilted broken English kept repeating number. 11. Our seats were 1 A and B. After a few moments where we checked and confirmed our reservation, we finally understood that he wanted us to switch one of our seats because he and his wife had separate seats and wanted to stay together. The thing is, he wasn't asking but was telling us to take his wife's bunk, which was down the corridor at number 11. We politely said no but it became clear he wasn't interested in that answer and was shooing us away. Elmar decided the nice guy route wasn't working so he stood taller, got closer, looked directly in his eyes and in a quiet voice said 'No, get out!'. That got his attention and all of a sudden the arrogant demeanour disappeared and without another word he grabbed his luggage sheet and blanket and scampered from the compartment. During all this commotion the other passenger who was in the bunk above his wife slept the sleep of death. We'd noticed this before that so many people here could sleep soundly at the drop of a hat regardless of the location, discomfort or noise level. It's quite a gift and if we could figure it out we could make a killing on the thousands of insomniacs in the west. The rest of the trip was uneventful and we arrived in Kolkata not too far from our scheduled time and were taken to the lovely ‘Peerless Inn’ hotel which is very close to the Esplanade and the main city center as well as Sudder street, which is one of the main backpacker areas in town. We had given an ultimatum to the tour operators as the quality of the hotels had been steadily slipping as we travelled. We would arrive in a city to a different and sometimes inferior one than had been promised. They responded to the feedback and we not only had a decent hotel but were upgraded to a suite. The service was good which is often a hit and miss even in some of the finer hotels and especially in restaurants. Often when eating out, we couldn't help but notice that the wait staff would get totally engrossed in clearing a table or diligently doing something useful like shining the silverware and seem to studiously avoid looking in a customer's direction. It wouldn't matter if the place was empty or packed to the gills. This place was a noticeable exception and was such a boon after our constant pack and go mode we decided to extend our stay. That wasn't the only reason however, the other is, we were really enjoying Kolkata. In contrast to the many hyped cities we'd visited, Kolkata was quite clean, traffic was manageable, the pace was less frenetic and people were polite and left you alone if that's what you wanted. Most of the taxi and rickshaw drivers would turn their engines off if waiting, something we had not seen anywhere else. DSC04136.jpg ("Human Horses" in Kolkata, hand pulled rickshaws, the only city in India where you still find them)

There were also lovely gardens donated by corporations or legacies of the British with enforced no trash rules. We were curious as to the difference and as we read the newspapers we discovered the reason. Mamata Banerje is the current chief minister of West Bengal, with Kolkata as its capital, and definitely controversial. Each day we spent in Kolkata there was a new expose in the papers of how she yelled at her bodyguard or some hapless staff member or made some inappropriate comment about an ethnic group. On the other hand, we also discovered that she had initiated a 'clean city' campaign that was obviously working and was a strong promoter of the arts being an artist herself. The streets in the city are wider and better constructed than others we'd seen, thanks again to the Brits who had made this their capital in former years but Mamata was also ensuring proper maintenance and continuation. This was the first city we visited that even the smallest side street was paved, swept daily and repairs in evidence. We enjoyed reading the daily stories about her and despite the negative comments applauded her efforts. Kolkata has a bad reputation for being a really dirty, poor and unsafe city but we found the exact opposite. Every day we took the metro, which is Russian designed and runs from Dum Dum near the airport to Kavi Nazrul in the south, and found it clean (you could be fined if caught spitting), safe, efficient and cheap. We walked the streets for fairly long distances late at night and never once felt unsafe. The city actually shuts down pretty early so by 10pm all the street stalls are closed and only the street and sidewalk cleaners are about. The variety and quality of food offered in the city was also a nice surprise. While we still enjoyed meals at local joints we also tried out some more upscale restaurants. Our favourite places were Peter Cat DSC04217.jpg DSC04218.jpg (Peter Cat, our favorite eating jaunt), Tangerine DSC04213.jpg (Late dinner at Tangerine) and Bar-B-Q, all on or close to Park street. Peter Cat is a fusion of middle eastern and Indian and is not to be missed. There's always a long queue for dinner but it's worth the wait. We would definitely recommend the Chello kebab - mutton and chicken kebabs on a bed of buttered rice, which is the most popular dish and is flavourfilled melt in your mouth good. At Tangerine the service is great. They listen, know about the different dishes on offer and are not reluctant to offer recommendations. We enjoyed the mutton biryani a lot. Bar-B-Q, a Chinese restaurant right on Park street where most of the well frequented restaurants are, is pretty decent too but the servings are huge so best to go with a group and get less dishes than number of guests. You will still have leftovers. At all of these places we still did not pay more than US$ 25 including wine/beer for our meals so while not daily fare for your typical back packer they are not exorbitant.
Besides food there are some nice places to visit here as well and lots of cultural events. The Victoria Memorial is absolutely lovely and saved from looking too manicured by families picnicking and romping in the many gardens. DSC04195.jpgDSC04182.jpg (Victoria Memorial)

Not too far away is St Paul's cathedral and the Academy of Fine Arts. Another surprise for us here is the tolerance for public affection. We visited Maidan gardens and were amazed as every bench and shady tree was occupied by young Indian couples nuzzling, cuddling and kissing with open abandon. We'd been told this was taboo in India so were delighted to see people expressing affections so openly.

Elmar had also been here on his trip 20 years ago and saw much more advancement than he had in Delhi or any other place he visited for that matter. We visited Mother Theresa's (Sisters of Charity) mother house where he'd spent significant time on his previous trip helping to take care of the indigent and he noticed that the building had been given a face lift. He also saw a huge difference in terms of less poor sleeping in the streets. We found the city sophisticated and easy to wander through and most of all, very relaxing. It was hard to leave Kolkata and we promised ourselves to return and spend more time there, but it was time to move on.

Posted by Elmar123 14:41 Archived in India Tagged people city sites historic Comments (0)

In the Land of Kings and Hawkers - Rajasthan

January 22 - 31 Delhi – Jaipur – Jodhpur – Udaipur – Pushkar – Ranthambore Nationial Park

sunny 23 °C
View World Tour 2012/13 on Elmar123's travel map.

Fear not, I'm not planning on doing a step-by-step recounting of our tour. Instead I'll let the pictures do most of the talking and share some additional thoughts of each city and anything interesting on the way. The plan is one full day of travel as it's often several hundred km between these cities. We will have an evening and one full day in each city. Pretty much, the days will be filled with driving or wandering around forts, temples, mosques, palaces, shops and tombs.

Jaipur, the Pink City. Youngest city named after Jah Singh II. Known for textiles and jewellery.

One of the things we feared is that our tour would resemble 'see India's Golden Triangle in 12 days', similar to the busloads of tourists who see 'Europe' in 7 days. So we told our driver who had his list of tourist attractions for each city, that we didn't want to be just passive observers of India's past but also wanted to interact with people and find out what's on their mind, and we preferred to eat at local jaunts that every day people visit rather than the tourist approved places. We hoped our message was getting across because we were noticing that often people don't wait for you to complete your thought but are so eager to take action, tell you what they think you're going to say and hurry off to do it. Our driver, Ajay Sony with the A pronounced like apple vs able, was supposedly fluent in English but we were struggling to understand him and weren't sure that he always understood us. Our first stop however let us know that he understood perfectly. We stopped right off the highway at a little 'dhaba', which is Hindi for food place selling local food. I hesitate to say restaurant as that might set the wrong expectations. This place, which was a typical roadside dhaba is basically a very simple concrete space that served as a kitchen. It has an open clay oven for making parathas, naan and the like, counter space and a single burner hot plate. Nothing was in English. The plastic tables and chairs were set out in the dirt and were open to the elements. We could see a covered building close by but when we glanced inside it was empty and we figured only used when the weather was prohibitive. Ajay rattled of the options and very shortly we had a wonderful fresh cooked meal of chapatti (bread), vegetables and various sauces. The sun was hot and felt very good as we enjoyed our meal with near by guests staring unabashedly at us. We ended the meal with freshly made tea or chai as they call it. The cooks graciously allowed me to observe them at work and to also try my hand at making the chapatti. I was marginally successful in mimicking them; whipping the dough from hand to hand then flinging it along the wall of the cone shaped oven, but they were encouraging. It's amazing sometimes how much can be communicated without words. 43DC6DAD2219AC6817E0F83F5FB01DCC.jpg43DB80122219AC6817E4F84F58A1D906.jpg43DE06B02219AC68174371FFE06B8CDC.jpg (At a roadside dhaba on the way to Jaipur)

The next stop was a wonderful family whose home was again right off the ‘highway’, deep in Rajasthan’s countryside. They were farmers and were delighted to welcome us. The family included the standard mother father and several children and also several aunts uncles numerous cousins grandparents I guess anyone remotely related to them. They crowded around us and one daughter acted as the spokesperson mainly because she was the clear extrovert in the family. She was delightful. Her English was pretty limited but she didn't let that stop her. She led the tour of the sparse but neat room she shared with her sister and the couple other spots where several people slept. 43DEF9132219AC6817A6D090F3FFDBB2.jpg 43E0C6EB2219AC68170E595B20716BE9.jpgA5A422C92219AC681701E1BE067A8907.jpg

The new litter of puppies, how they harvested crop, carried firewood and in general what life is like for them. The children all go to school but also work very hard alongside the adults to maintain the home and farm. There is no running water in the house but they do have a well with a pump close enough to the house. We were offered chai, which we of course accepted and then watched as the older sister milked the cow then built up the open fire on the ground and cooked our chai, which is a mix of cardamom, ginger, masala, cinnamon and other spices. It was delicious and I guess they could read our delight because the mother joined us and insisted that she wanted to make us another cup and enjoy it with us. It was wonderful to see the family interacting, vying for our attention like typical kids and also how everyone contributed. It was especially nice to see the younger boys taking care of the babies. When we left, we felt privileged that they allowed us into their home. With Ajay's help we could ask and answer questions but he mostly left us on our own with them. He was probably relieved not to have to translate the question about “if I was black”. It's not a stupid question because I've been told since arrival I look Indian and since my mother is half Indian I figured they were noticing things that typical westerners wouldn't. At the end of the visit I wanted to show my appreciation but didn't want to insult their kindness by offering money so I pretty much emptied my back pack of every pen lotion sweet and gum that I had and the kids went crazy fighting for each piece. Despite the short time, we somehow felt we'd made a connection and I know we'll never forget them. A5B2F3BC2219AC68172438B8D2B7F49B.jpg43DFCB882219AC6817851E50E3F7BB09.jpg A5AF5FDB2219AC6817D6EAA46AC3501B.jpg

Our hotel Shahpura House was as lovely as advertised and alleviated some concerns re us being scammed. Many of these tours offer different categories to fit your budget and it's difficult to judge what you're getting if you don't have the opportunity to speak with fellow travelers. DSC02734.jpgDSC02730.jpg (One of several 'Heritage Hotels' we stayed at)

I've promised not to provide excessive details but bear with me as this experience is worth sharing. Each morning we met, Ajay would have some local sweet, or blessing from the temple he visited, in the form of a finger touch of colour between the eyes and a stick of incense burning in the car. The morning of our tour of Jaipur he had a lei of red roses for me and wouldn't you know it, it matched my outfit perfectly so I decided to keep it on. We visited a simple yet peaceful Hindu temple where we witnessed a Brahman, (the highest caste in India) bathing in the open as he calmly sat on the ground across from the temple. I didn't want to stare but the whole time Ajay was talking about the temple I watched him out the corner of my eye. How could he be so comfortable I wondered knowing that I was there. I was to learn that bathing in public is a common practice and is done gracefully and efficientlly. He kept his groin covered with his dhoti which is an ankle length piece of cloth that men wear and often pull up to tie at their waste and hitch between their legs to make walking or climbing or in this case bathing easier. He had a bucket of water and soap and he lathered every, I mean every part of his body from head to toe vigorously. I saw nothing exposed that shouldn't be and that wasn't because I was watching indirectly but because I wasn't meant to. That isn't the point of my story but apparently I can't help the digression. I'll just say he was not unpleasant to look at, nope, not at all.

But back to the real story I want to tell. We then went to the imposing Nahargarh or Tiger Fort north of the city and were amused by the many Macacques playing around the parking lot. DSC02809.jpgDSC02758.jpg (At Nahargar/"Tiger" Fort - notice the flowers around our necks...)

Elmar was busily taking pictures and I was watching the antics of a couple of them right in front of me while waiting for the driver. Suddenly, a mamma macaque some distance away raced across the lot, her little baby hanging on to her belly, and before I could blink she jumped up on me and grabbed at my neck. I've always thought in these situations I'd be like Sydney Bristow from Alias, you know, reacting decisively and effectively, well, I didn't disappoint. I flung my hands up and yelled immediately and quite effectively I might add -"Elmar!" He raced toward me waving his hands and kicking at the macaque who was far too fast to be touched and scampered away. I couldn't figure out why she had attacked me but then someone explained she wanted my lei and Elmar added that she had a baby with her. It was unnerving but thankfully only my dignity hurt. Lesson learned, no flowers or fruit around macaques. Those sharp teeth and human like hands are no fun up close and personal. DSC03251.jpg (Macaques everywhere)
Our outstanding impression is that Jaipur is even more chaotic and dirty than Delhi and the vendors took aggressive pursuit to a new level. If you choose this city to visit, you should gear up mentally and physically, it's not for the faint of heart. We enjoyed what we saw tremendously but were more than ready to move on.

A5BA1DD42219AC6817943DE3114E1939.jpg (At the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur; marble structures that tell the time with a +/-10 sec. error)
DSC02726.jpg43E4B7462219AC6817EA48599374B1B8.jpg43EC362C2219AC681732ADE873D14D1E.jpg (Lake Palace and Palace of Winds in Jaipur)
DSC02870.jpg (City Palace in Jaipur)

One other thing I want to mention that doesn't show up in the pictures is that we made sure to contribute to the economy with a few purchases here. We haggled, and for sure you would not be respected if you don't, and got decent prices but not dirt cheap. I learned Asian haggling from a dear Indian friend who I watched with amazement when she visited me in China. I could not believe when she offered 50% of asking price and got away with it repeatedly. Her arguments and strategies varied but her favourite in China was based on making multiple purchases and not being afraid to walk away and not look back. In India, I learned over time that I had to literally not care whether I got the item or not because they are astute readers of emotions, a bored look works, and not be affected by the vendors subtle hurt feelings to manipulate you into feeling bad. The stories of how your purchase will help are designed to tug at the coldest heart. Even if you don't intend to purchase anything you must be prepared as part of any tour, whether planned or spontaneous will always include a stop at a gem store or someplace equal. You won't see it on the itinerary but clearly the drivers get some kind of kick back. After a torturous hour at a gem store because Ajay really wanted us to stop there, we were specific with him re what we were interested in and serious about buying and asked him to not take us to the other places. 43E745CA2219AC6817BCDCDBAD9131F5.jpg (Which vehicle has more horsepower?)

Jodhpur: The Blue City. 15th C named after chief Rao Jodha.

With relief I noted that Ajay didn't bring flowers the next morning. We set out for Jodhpur, the city where the well known riding trousers (sorry, 'pants' didn't feel right, guess I'm still under UK influence) gets its name.
We stopped for lunch at a truck stop and ate a hearty and very tasty lunch. The price for all three of us was $5.00. Elmar amazed the locals who watched in wonder as he mixed his rice, veggies and several sauces together, topped it off with some curd then smoothly and naturally proceeded to shovel it into his mouth with his hands despite being provided with a spoon. Ajay himself was amazed and forgot his lunch so he could take several pictures and a video. Eating with his hands is surprising enough but knowing how to mix the food together is something very few foreigners know how or desire to do. After lunch we walked around and I got to chew on the leaf of the Neem tree growing in the back of the property. It's famous for its use in Ayurveda to make lotions, treat acne, and nourish the hair and as tooth paste. Apparently I was hoping for the full benefits in chewing the leaf. I have a real soft spot for kids and there were some really sweet ones here. Hard working well behaved and gracious. We didn't leave money but we bought them some treats. It was funny to see something so small such a thrill for them and what a relief for us that they were completely satisfied and never hinted at wanting money from us.DSC02943.jpgDSC02941.jpg

Our next stop was a village and it was refreshing to finally see some green farmland instead of the arid and rocky landscape we crossed during the last couple of days. The journey so far had been dusty and bumpy and the landscape boringly flat and filled with either manufacturing plants or other unmemorable buildings. Here, the red soil was reflected in the brick homes, many of them with intricate designs. We met a number of the townfolk as the longer we stayed, the larger the crowd grew. The kids were very polite and orderly (we had treats and they waited their turn and didn’t fight each other or grab), the men flirty and the women shy. It took a little coaxing to get the women to share with me. As usual many were startlingly pretty and their clothes a vibrant kaleidoscope of colours. Every girl wore an ankle bracelet and even the babies had their eyes rimmed with kohl. We had noticed before but even more so as we travelled through the country side that there's an innate grace to the women. People recognize it from the bollywood dances but it was evident even when we saw them walking down the streets with stacks of wood on their heads. We were curious about daily life and what we heard and witnessed soon became a pattern as we stopped at various villages. The women start their day around 5:00am gathering sticks for the fire then heading to the closest pump for water which may be miles away and will again be carried on their heads. They plant, harvest, take care off the animals, children and prepare meals. Basically it's non stop back breaking work for them. DSC02986.jpg (A group of women getting water at a nearby well; often they have to walk for miles at a time)

Not that there weren't men working but every village we passed or stopped at we saw several groups of them playing cards and drinking chai. Ajay confirmed that this pattern was pretty normal and acceptable. DSC02969.jpgDSC02963.jpg

When we got to the city it was more of the same - chaos and lots of garbage everywhere but we found that we kinda enjoyed the blue city. If you visit, stay at a hotel with a roof top as the view is great especially as the sun is setting. We stayed at Pal Haveli, which is definitely not back packer price and is a lovely old red stone noble home with a great roof top restaurant. DSC03000.jpg (View from the rooftop terrace at our hotel Pal Haveli)

There are no elevators so be prepared for unusually steep steps. The rooms can be a little dark and as with most old buildings the plumbing is an adventure. We had to take our shower squatting under the 3 foot high faucet as there wasn't a tub and the water couldn't make it up to the shower head. Wish I could share a picture of 6 foot 4 Elmar doing his 'shower' moves, I call it the chicken squat. Another reason we like the city is we were already tired of being led around by Ajay as nice as he was, so we took off on our own and just wandered around. We ended up in the more residential area away from the tourists and touts and discovered quieter and cleaner streets. People were genuinely helpful when we asked for directions and no one tried to sell us anything. We met two lovely very articulate young girls who stopped us asking the same questions, where are you from, what's your name, but they were just wondering if we had any simple coins from our country they could have. It was great just having a normal conversation without a hidden agenda and to hear their passion for school and curiosity of the world. They also stirred my curiosity because I've been noticing how self assured young girls are here regardless of status. I have no research to base it on but I also noticed that many fathers are more nurturing toward their children here. They frequently hug and nuzzle, carry around and play with boys and girls alike and I wonder if that with the high emphasis on education in many states are factors. Would be interesting to explore further. DSC03157.jpg (That's why Jodhpur is called the 'blue city')

There are many Muslims in the northern cities of India and it’s been that way for centuries. Mughals conquered the Rajasthan region during medieval times but were fairly lenient in some aspects because they often allowed the Maharajas in different cities to continue ruling independently as long as they were allies and paid their dues.Today, the Mughal influence can be seen everywhere in the architecture of many of the sites and Islam is a choice religion for many Indians. We saw so many women with their saris covering their entire faces and were often woken at 5:00 am with the call to prayer blaring through loudspeakers. I deeply admire the Indians' tolerance. They have no problems with existing peaceable with other faiths and in fact, in the Hindu belief the ‘guru’ Sai Baba teaches to accept and reflect all others.

Our favourite site here is the Meherangarh fort and is not to be missed. It rises majestically and imposingly right from the mountains. There are several options to get to the entry gate from the road including a ride on a decorated elephant; however, we went with the mundane car and driver. Most of the sites have audio guide tours and while we would say bypass most of them, the one at this fort was pretty decent. DSC03065.jpgDSC03083.jpg (Meherangarh Fort)

The other must experiences are two food delights. Right at the base of the town clock in the main town square is a very tiny stall where the renowned ‘Omelette Man’ cooks up a mean fare. He started out cooking a variety of dishes but after the Lonely Planet, which seems to be the bible of guide books these days, can make or break your business, extolled his omelets, he now only specializes in omelet making and is much richer and happier for it. You can believe the hype, they are delish and cheap. We tried the masala and the cheese and it was finger lickin’ good. Despite his increased wealth he refuses to change anything about his winning approach so each day he stands all day from 10:00 am to 10:00 pm in a little area of no more than 1 by 1 meter and with one omelet pan churns out each order. DSC03011.jpg (The 'Omelet Man' in Jodhpur)
His son who is very proud of his dad takes the orders and tries to get you to visit his little souvenir business down the street and also plans to open up another restaurant. It's always nice to see passion and honest hard work paying off and we wish them luck. The other food delight is the lassis from a little sweet shop right around the corner from the omelet man, right underneath the clock tower and called ‘Mishrilal Hotel’. Lassi is a yogurt drink that is a staple in the local diet and can be bought anywhere on the street either salty or flavoured with spices or fruit. I have heard that there is a version flavoured with cannabis but I can't speak to that. This guy's is the gourmet version. His drink has added spices to the unfruited version and is more like a super thick milk shake that you eat with a spoon vs drink it. Believe me it was addictive. So much so we couldn't resist making one last stop on our way out of the city.DSC03274.jpgDSC03277.jpg (Easily the best lassi and sweets in India)

Udaipur - Southern Rajisthan estab mid 16th C by Udai Singh II of Sisodia royal family. Probbably one of oldest surviving dynasties in the world

Rather than via highway, our guide took us through the back roads to Udaipur. We discovered a much greener India and at times much cleaner. It was Republic day and we stopped on the way to experience some of the celebrations. He chose a village school and we joined the program already in progress that was put on by the students. As with all things with kids, the performance was endearing. We met and took pics with the Maharajah of the region. We were allowed to sit up front with what looked like the dignitaries and I felt slightly awkward as I noticed that there was only one other woman there. The others stood around or sat on the ground with the children. They treated us very graciously and included us in the meal after the program. I was encouraged to see a booth in cooperation with one of the UN agencies educating all on the importance of nutrition, education and care of infants to toddlers. It was simple but effective and run by a woman who seemed to love and was proud of what she was doing. DSC03294.jpg (Celebrations on Republic Day)

The next stop seemed random. Ajay noticed a man through a doorway right off the street who appeared to be churning something. He backed up and as he explained it that he was making mustard seed decided to get out the car and join the man for a closer look. Pretty soon other villagers poured in and were warmly welcoming. They always want to share something with us, usually water or chai. The chai we can drink but the water which is so precious to them we always have to refuse which I hate doing. We met a couple college students who were best friends and the proud father who shared his story and delight in sending all his children to school. The girls, dressed alike, both wanted to be teachers and seemed determined to achieve their dreams together. They were both fluent in English so our conversation flowed easily. The woman in charge of the mustard seed churning shared a horrible tasting sweet made from the mustard seed and we could tell she was very proud to share with us. I really tried to get down a couple bites but it was tough. I was able to palm it off to Elmar to finish to avoid any embarassment. Mustard seed oil is apparently good for skin, hair, cooking and massage oils. We would have bought some but this was the raw manufacturing stored in clay pots and we didn't have a bottle or anything handy. It's always hard to leave the villages as they enjoy us as much as we enjoy them but it was time to push on.

We next stopped at an extraordinarily beautiful marble temple and learned it was built by the followers of the Jain religion. We did the tour with the temple priest/guide who said its no wall, 1,400 column structure was built by illiterates. The religion sounded weirdly interesting. They don't believe in the caste system and promote non violence to the extent that they won't eat root vegetables because harvesting them means killing bugs. Pilgrims can stay there free of cost and I was beginning to think, hmm pretty good until the priest made it clear that what he initially offered as a no additional charge tour really meant not just a tip of our choosing but a tip that he approved of. We had already intended to leave a gift and still did but somehow I'm still taken aback at the blatant begging and leaching of tourists especially when it comes from people you don't expect it from or after you think you're connecting with someone on a different level. DSC03323.jpg

I'm not going to say much about the city of Udaipur except that I was disappointed on many levels. It's touted in the guidebooks as THE romantic destination as the city cradles what's referred to as beautiful Lake Pichola and is overlooked by towering mountains. I found the lake dirty and smelly and while the palace we visited was lovely, we were disappointed that the current royal family lived in California and received not only the profits from the tours, but anyone who did business in the palace, such as selling souvenirs or running a little cafe had to fork over 50% of their earnings. I wouldn't care about this except that there didn't seem to be any giving back to the city. Poverty is rampant here with many in shantys or sleeping on the street. The roads are terrible, clean water a problem and buildings in poor condition. Accommodations were severely over priced especially if you opted for any of the hotels on the lake but in general as well. It was hard for me to feel romantic or that I wanted to spend anymore money here.DSC03362.jpgDSC03387.jpg (City Palace in Udaipur)

Pushkar

I unfortunately developed a bad cold after Udaipur which may have also contributed to my blighted view so we didn't make any stops on the way to Pushkar. To be honest, I don't remember a lot other than it being more of the same arid, dirty desert cities we'd been experiencing so far and that we had problems with the hotel not having our booking. We couldn't tell if the booking agent had messed up or the hotel decided they could get a better rate from walk-in guests. Reception was barely polite and his suggestion of coming back the next night unacceptable. This is where a seasoned guide comes in handy because Ajay got on his phone and soon had us booked in a decent place he knew of. Pushkar is a strictly vegetarian city so no eggs, meat or alcohol are allowed but there are around 500 temples dotted all around the lake so I guess you find one if the urge for non veg or a little spirit hits too hard. Apparently too this is the mecca if you're looking to buy a camel or two. It's the largest camel market in the world and we'd just missed the annual event. It sounded interesting in theory but as Ajay described some of the details like thousands of camels and dealers haggling all day I couldn't drum up one bit of regret. More interesting for us is connecting with people and we had an interesting conversation with the owner of the pizza restaurant where we went for dinner. Pizza would not be our choice usually in India but he was a friend of Ajay and invited us to join him around an open fire just as we were leaving. Like so many Indians he was very well educated and had very strong views, particularly about respecting life, which he spoke passionately about. His ultimate point was that he was frustrated that as the most developed of life forms we as humans choose to kill animals for food when we don't have to. It was a lively conversation that we thoroughly enjoyed and left some food for thought as well as he raised some good points. Sadly he also spoke about the rampant corruption in the government that kept too many people trapped in poverty. We spoke long into the evening about what life is really like in India and might have gone longer but we noticed poor Ajay struggling to keep his eyes open. So we quickly said our goodbyes and left with that satisfied feeling you get when you've had a really stimulating conversation with interesting company.DSC03447.jpgDSC03462.jpg (The holy lake in Pushkar) DSC03478.jpg (Impressions from Pushkar) DSC03488.jpg (A local specialty, chapatis soaked in honey)

Ranthambore

Our next stop provided a release from the standard meandering through temples, palaces and tombs. Ranthambore is a small national park and is home to a healthy population of tigers who we were told hunt in the open and are not perturbed by jeep caravans of humans invading their territory. Rather than a hotel, we stayed in a luxury tent that had an ensuite bathroom and a little heater for the cold nights. We were one of five guests staying there so it was very quiet and peaceful. The tents surrounded a nice size lawn area with comfy chairs and tables and individualized wood burning fires to keep you warm. It was very cosy eating then lingering late to talk and gaze up in wonder at the brilliantly star studded sky. I thought of my good friend Craig Smith who is an avid star gazer and how much he would love it here. That's something that you do miss a bit. There are so many times during a trip like this that you think of friends and loved ones you want to share different experiences with because they would love it too. Our wake up call was at 5:30 am so we eventually went to bed and slept very comfortably in our queen size bed. The next morning just as the sun was coming up we had a hot drink then with heavy blankets provided by the hotel we headed out in an open topped jeep. Because of its close proximity to the Golden Triangle stops of Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, this is a popular destination and it can be very difficult to secure a jeep. In fact we had a few tense moments wondering if we did have a reservation but Ajay again made sure we had a jeep with a small group of two other couples rather than the open top buses that hold upwards of 20. It was very cold but exhilarating and we saw lots of antelopes and other wildlife but unfortunately only tiger tracks instead of the real thing. DSC03642.jpgDSC03644.jpg (In Ranthambore)

While we were disappointed we still relished being out in the forest and walking around in designated areas. We often spotted villagers hiding in the forest foraging for wood. At one point two women with huge bundles of firewood on their heads heard our jeep and must have thought we were the rangers. They started running and then ditched the wood to secure a hiding place. Deforestation is a serious concern in many areas throughout India and you wonder who will win the battle, struggling families trying to fill their basic needs or the conservationists. DSC03534.jpg (Our 'luxury' tent in the national park) DSC03554.jpgDSC03595.jpgDSC03610.jpg (Fresh tiger tracks...but no tiger)

The mini safari lasted about 3 hours and we returned to a pretty good breakfast then headed out to Agra. We'd been discussing what we would do after the tour which was nearing it's end, and although we knew we definitely wanted some beach time we couldn't decide exactly where. That's one of the beauties of India, you can climb the Himalayas, tour desert cities or laze on world class beaches. We'd been debating Andaman islands vs Kerala which is a lush southern state. Luckily for us, on our safari we met an Indian from the south and he was very discouraging about the Andaman islands. He was there recently on holidays and was himself appalled at how dirty the beaches were. That cinched it for us and we booked our flight to Kerala where we could do a backwater tour. DSC03471.jpgDSC03523.jpgDSC03527.jpg On the road in Rajasthan)

Posted by Elmar123 00:35 Archived in India Tagged landscapes art buildings people animals city sites historic Comments (1)

A Journey to India - Namaskar, Delhi

January 19 - 22

sunny 23 °C
View World Tour 2012/13 on Elmar123's travel map.

The advertisements all say "Incredible India" and it's true. It's very difficult to describe because if you've never been you just cannot fathom the extremes and intensities of what you see and experience. Even though this was not the first trip for either me or Elmar, entering India after Thailand was a shock. We flew from BKK to Colombo, Sri Lanka and then to New Delhi. We could have paused in Sri Lanka for a day or two but neither of us really wanted to. On the flight to New Delhi our seat partner switched seats to be close to family and we were joined by an Indian bushiness man who later introduced himself as Rajiv. He quickly seized the opportunity to start chatting once I pulled out my Rough Guide to read up on potential cities to visit. I have to confess that we were so content in Thailand living cheaply yet comfortably that we kept procrastinating re our plans for India. We were so reluctant to leave that Elmar actually looked up flights from India to Thailand. They were quite reasonable (i.e., less than 250 US$ pp) so we felt we had an escape.....just in case. So here we were, hours away from landing with no plan other than hotel secured for two nights and a wishlist of cities and a chatty neighbour. Rajiv shared his story with us and soon offered his recommendation of places to go in Rajasthan (a large state in the Northwest, more details to come later) and also sites and restaurants in Delhi where he was from. By the end of the 3 hour flight we had earmarked several cities in our book and we had an invitation to his home for lunch the next day. DSC02426.jpg (Rajiv, our new friend from Delhi).

Even after disembarking, he insisted on waiting until we cleared customs to make sure we got the right kind of taxi, the taxi driver knew exactly where to take us and that we had a reliable driver. Securing the right taxi might seem trivial to most but if you plan to travel to India sans the luxury of business where someone local plans and takes care of your every move, then educating yourself on the public transportation system is a must. India is an emerging country, which means there are still a lot of challenges that you'd find in developing nations. And for sure, transporting more than a billion people plus visitors ranks high on the list of 'gotta do better'. The amount of people owning vehicles has dramatically increased in recent years but this has not alleviated the problem, just created others such as the worse traffic snarls and jams you've ever seen and increased pollution. God bless the Brits for building railroad tracks but the rail system is also inadequate not only because it's limited in it's coverage of the country, but many are outdated, severely overcrowded and accidents take a ridiculous amount of lives every year. It's also very difficult to make advanced train bookings outside of the country as the online system operates on local Indian time and requires steps that can be frustrating and confusing. It's better to wait until you're on the ground and can either go to the train station or a reputable and reliable agent to make your booking. Buses taxis and tuk tuks or rickshaws are the other options to get around. Buses are either govt or private owned and most look as if they are from a different century. They are very simple in construction; many without glass windows only a sheet of hard plastic with folds like a fan at each seat that you can either roll up to let in some fresh air or fold down to keep out the rain. If you do take the bus, and sometimes for long distances they are the only option if you can't afford a private car, be sure to check then double and triple check that you are on the right bus. As we were to learn, saying "I don't know" doesn't seem to be a natural response with most people so they will pretend to know and give you elaborate misinformation. With taxis and tuk tuks, it's a rare occasion when you are quoted the right price particularly in high tourist areas. Strong negotiating skills and having advanced knowledge of general costs for your journey will save you from being scalped so ask your hotel ahead of time or a reliable information centre. At the New Delhi airport there are prepaid and pay as you go taxis. Prepaid are your best bet even if you are approached by a very friendly, kind driver who promises you a good deal. The airport is fairly new and looks very modern and western so you don't anticipate being scammed in such an environment but caution is required. It shouldn't cost more than 350/400 rupees from the airport to the city.

So back to the story of Rajiv now that it's clear how nice he was being especially since he had been away from home for an extended trip and had to wait for us to go through immigration and collect our bags. We didn't know quite what to think, was he too nice to be true? There was no gain for him however so we thanked him sincerely and just stood aside and watched as he led us to he prepaid stand, repeated our hotel name and address to the driver and added some details that of course we couldn't follow. Before he took off in his car we exchanged email addresses and made plans to connect the next day. He thought it would be best if he picked us up rather than us trying to find our way. The attention felt a little strange but we're pretty open people and this is what we wanted, to meet interesting strange and wonderful people. The taxi ride took about 45 minutes to get to the city centre where our hotel was located. It was still light and we noticed that as we got closer to our hotel the surroundings changed and not necessarily for the better. The road surface was deteriorating and cars, rickshaws, buses and motor bikes were honking their horns randomly and constantly while darting to where ever there was a hint of an opening to squeeze forward regardless if they were on the road or not. Women were dressed beautifully in bright coloured sarees and pungent smells, some good others not so much, intermittently grabbed at us as they were carried by the dry but not exactly warm breeze wafting through the windows. The driver needed to call our hotel a couple times but we eventually pulled up to a building that seemed to be at the heart of a bustling street. Not surprising with an address that reads Main Bazaar. The English of the check in staff was flawless and we were soon led to a basic, mostly clean but cold room. As the sun set the temperature dropped significantly and we felt it more keenly after leaving hot and humid Bangkok and because we didn't have winter gear. We decided to go for a walk anyway and I could tell that Elmar was eager to reacquaint himself as it had been 20 years since he was last in Delhi. We wondered down the street next to our hotel and frankly I had to keep reminding myself that this was the capital city of India. The 'road' which I'm being quite generous in calling it so was filled with animals, pedestrians and vehicles jockeying for space between the street vendors shouting their wares. Bangkok isn't a quiet or always clean city so it wasn't as if we were fresh from the western world but we felt as if every sense was being bombarded and while on the outside we seemed cool and in control, in truth we were reeling and frantically trying to assimilate it all. 1E6D18BB2219AC68178B27F4B906C143.jpgDSC02635.jpg (View from our 'Flashpacker' hotel in Delhi, Paharganj/Main Bazaar)

On our walk we thought we'd also look for someplace to eat as we generally are eager to try truly local food but the choices were few and the places we saw did not look appealing. Eventually we returned to the hotel and joined several other quests on the roof top restaurant. Everyone had their winter coats and hats on but even though we had none we didn't want to go anyplace else and it turned out to be a good decision as the food was very good. We had some of our favourite Indian foods; very spicy mutton Rogan Josh, chicken curry and Paratha (Indian bread) and to drink, Elmar had some very fine Kingfisher premium which is the local brew while I had sweet lassi, a yoghurt drink. Everything was satisfying and even comforting since we were feeling a bit out of our element. We spent a restless night, the room didn't warm up too much and our room felt like we were in the middle of grand central station. By next morning we were eager to do some more exploring and determine our next move. We decided to extend our stay for another night and opted for an upgraded room which was only $10.00 more but was bigger brighter and warmer and had a window that looked right unto the busy street. We also thought maybe things would look better in sunlight but it was pretty much the same; dirty and chaotic and for Elmar, pretty disappointing that in 20 years there didn't seem to be much progress, it was pretty much exactly as he remembered; or even worse. We walked to the train station to check out tickets as we decided we wanted to explore Rajasthan by train and the places Rajiv had recommended. By the way, we didn't get a chance to have lunch with him. He called our hotel and let us know that there was a death in his family. We were sorry to hear this and promised to let him know when we would be back in the area. The train station seemed to be under construction and we couldn't even locate the entrance. All along the way we were bombarded with vendors insisting that we needed to see their stuff, no need to buy, just look, only look. Ragged women with small babies propped on their hips followed us for yards constantly poking us and gesturing with beseeching eyes to give them money for the baby to eat. It felt like everyone wanted a piece of us and it generally started, with "Hi, where are you from, what's your name?" then we would get the hard press. We knew better than to respond to any of these tactics but it's still hard for me sometimes especially when children are involved. We finally reached the train station. Elmar after 20 years could remember where it was because so little had changed. It seemed to be under construction and we couldn't find the entrance so we had to ask for assistance. We chose someone who seemed to be an employee and he took us to a tuk tuk and told the driver where to take us. I'm still not sure why we couldn't have bought our tickets there but he said we needed to go to the DTTC which is the official tourism office for guidance and booking of train tickets. Once we got there, I became suspicious because the set up was more than a booking agent they also booked tours. And wouldn't you know it, no trains were available for the next 8 days. The agent, a tall handsome fast talking fast moving guy recommended that we book a car and driver vs the train as that would be easier and give us greater flexibility. It was actually quite interesting to watch the sales process unfolding right in front of our eyes. In about 10 mins. or so he had provided us with tea and had an itinerary for the next 12 days that would cover what's referred to as the Golden Triangle; Delhi, where we were, Jaipur the Pink City in Rajasthan and Agra, best known for the Taj Mahal. We shared other places we wanted to see and before we could complete the list it seemed, we had costs, hotels and an itinerary that mapped out a 13 day excursion that started with a tour of Delhi then hit the Rajasthan cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Pushkar. Then Ranthambore, which is a National wildlife Park, Agra then via train hit Varanasi the holy city and end with Kolkata formerly known as Calcutta. This would be a total of approx. 4000 km. These are the kinds of offers that can either be legit or a scam so what to do. The price options were not cheap especially if you wanted hotels with decent ratings. We hit the pause button with him and did a bit of checking on the internet. The hotels were within a price range that he'd quoted and received good ratings and positive feedback. We also looked at the booking agent's website and read reviews on trip advisor. It all seemed legit so we booked it, and prayed that we weren't being taken for a different ride. Below is a map of our route through Northern India.

Once we made the decision the tour went into effect immediately with the tour of Delhi. Crowded with 15 million people, it's sprawling, dirty and somehow despite it's touted progress still looks like a city trapped in the past. There are two parts to the city, Old Delhi which is more Islamic, filled with bazaars, and impressive structures like the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid which is India's largest mosque. DSC02453.jpgDSC02472.jpg1E64DA732219AC68175B28EAF089C19E.jpgDSC02456.jpgDSC02477.jpg (The Jama Masjid - the building and its curious visitors)

The city dates back to something like the 17th century and I didn't find it hard to picture life back then. New Delhi is British built and where you'll find wide, fairly clean, nicely paved boulevards, embassies for every major nation as well as the presidential palace. There are a lot of museums and cultural performances and if this will be your one stop in India there's a government sponsored emporium where you can buy anything that you could get elsewhere in India, from rugs from Kashmir to gems from Agra. Our tour that afternoon and the next day felt a bit whirlwind as we raced to each site but hey the time was limited and our driver had a list to cover. We unfortunately didn't get to see the Red Fort as the national holiday Republic Day was upcoming on January 26th and heavy preparations for the celebrations were taking place which closed the Fort to visitors. It was interesting seeing the preparations. We saw decorated camels and soldiers going through their paces and lots of decorations. DSC02558.jpgA592679F2219AC68170379DB2DE98003.jpg (Preparations for Republic Day)
We knew we would be missing an elaborate performance but it couldn't be helped. We enjoyed the other sites however including Oz opera house looking building (Baha’i Temple) DSC02628.jpg

That evening we froze our heinies off again at the roof top restaurant and again it was comforting and delicious after the hectic afternoon. We also slept better. We were much more comfortable and warmer in the upgraded room and it was much quieter too. After a filling and tasty breakfast of French toast and pancakes we headed out the next morning to see more of Old and New Delhi. Our first stop was a Hindu temple, where we heard about so many different gods my head was reeling trying to remember their names and what form they could appear in and what prayers they granted. It was nice to see female gods many who were warriors. One of my favourite has several arms and her name is Durga. In one hand she wields a sword, a head dripping blood in another and one foot crushing another head. I liked the girl power aspects especially as the bodies were unashamedly female as well. The most popular gods were those who represented money, good luck, power and protection from evil and no matter the time of day the temples were regularly visited by young and old. DSC02539.jpg (Hindu temple in Old Delhi)

We walked for hours through tombs of past royalties set in lovely gardens including Mahatma Gandhi’s tomb, even through markets and alleys tasting local snacks, gawking at everything and being gawked at in return. DSC02557.jpg (The 'Great Salt March' memorial in Delhi) DSC02504.jpg (Street vendor selling sweet curd - super cheap and super tasty) DSC02485.jpgDSC02481.jpg (A Muslim festival in Old Delhi; men pounding their chests until they bleed)

The last stop was the government emporium with floor after floor of just about every imaginable souvenir a shopping junkie craves and where quality if not a cheap price is assured. We returned to the hotel exhausted again but as Elmar and I reflected over drinks there were some distinct impressions that Delhi left. One, the people are beautiful, both men and women and you want to cuddle each child including the street urchins because they just pull you in with their dark eyes. There are heartbreaking moments though of seeing some very young children, some as young as 2 years that are wandering the streets with other children learning the fine art of being a persistent beggar. 2nd, is an overwhelming distaste for how very dirty the city is, shockingly so at times for what if not the economic capital (Mumbay is), is supposedly a major metropolis. People seemed to be in the habit of throwing on the ground whatever they didn't want and if there were regular sanitation efforts to deal with refuse we couldn't find signs of it other than where governmental buildings were. Elmar felt that the city had taken a few steps back as he felt the poor infrastructure and magnitude of poverty was at best no better and from his memory actually worse than when he'd been there 20 years ago. 3rd, is the rich history of the city, things like seeing Ghandi's monuments and tomb reminded us of the power of a single voice when you are fully convicted to live your beliefs against all odds. What we were seeing hurt us but we cautioned ourselves not to become too sanctimonious and judgmental in wondering why no one was speaking out and doing 'something!' We'd just arrived and we needed to learn much more. 4th, the emporium which exposed us to more of the skilled selling tactics practiced here heartened us because we felt equally slick leaving there without making one purchase. The key is not to show even a whisper of interest in anything. We soon realized that every eye flicker or even a slight lingering look was a signal that they would pounce on and do everything to keep you listening to their spiel including whipping out 50 variations of whatever caught your eye. We went to bed looking forward to leaving Delhi and hoping that we would see stronger signs of the upcoming super power we know India has the potential to be. DSC02522.jpg (In front of the Red Fort, Delhi) DSC02597.jpgA597B9652219AC6817A416EBCBFE7C96.jpg (At Qutb Minar complex) DSC02535.jpg (I am sure the real estate costs for this barber shop are low)

Posted by Elmar123 12:28 Archived in India Tagged people city sites historic Comments (0)

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