Architecture

Stop over in Zurich and Frankfurt, yes please!

First off, hi again. I’d like to apologize for our HUGE delay in posting anything. As most of you know we went home for April for my sisters wedding. She was a beautiful bride and we all had a great time. Here are some highlights from the wedding.

Chris starting the train.

Chris starting the train.

Dave in his custom made suit from India!

Dave in his custom made suit from India!

The family.

The family.

The lovely couple.

The lovely couple.

On our way home and back to southeast Asia we got to stop in Europe! Both of us knew we could never afford to go to Europe as part of this trip, but lucky us we got a glimpse of it in the few short hours that we had between flights.

Our stop over on the way home in April was in Zurich, Switzerland. Which is rated the most expensive city in the world! They were right with that title. I think we spent $100 in the 7 hours we had between our flights. Eek. That’s why we can only stay the day and not a couple of months.

But, on a refreshing note, we blended in. It was a stark difference from what we had just come from, India and Nepal. In those two countries we stood out like a sore thumb and therefore hassled by rickshaw drivers and touts. There was absolutely zero of that in Zurich. Instead, there was a very punctual, although expensive, train that took you from the airport to downtown in 10 minutes, no rickshaw driver necessary. AHHHH. It was nice to be in a familiar setting again.

IMG_4516 IMG_4517

Unfortunately, Zurich was also going through their early spring and had a very chilly, overcast day. We were suppose to be able to see the Alps, but the clouds were hiding them all day-a huge bummer as we are mountain people-so we decided to do a brief walking tour and then head indoors to the heat and the museum.

IMG_4520 IMG_4540 IMG_4542 IMG_4543 IMG_4545 IMG_4551 IMG_4563 IMG_4566 IMG_4575 IMG_4586 IMG_4599

While we were there, we did get to try some local cuisine; a Swiss chocolate Easter bunny-since it was a couple days after Easter-and a street stall weiner. Both very tasty.

IMG_4603 IMG_4604 IMG_4605

At the end of the day, we were very excited that we were almost home. After 5 months being away from home, 2 and half of those months in India, we were sure glad to be home. There is no place like home.

The month that we spent back in the U.S. was just enough time for us to reset and be excited to travel again. But what made it even more exciting was that a majority of my family was coming with us. My mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law, and my cousin and her boyfriend were all spending their vacation with us in Thailand. We got to share with them the lovely country of Thailand, one of our favorites, and experience the joy of traveling to a new and very different place through their eyes.

On our way over, we had a layover in Frankfurt, Germany. We lucked out with the weather this time, Frankfurt was having a beautiful spring day.

Frankfurt Panoramic_01

We got to do a walking tour, enjoy some local beers, get a coffee or ice cream and enjoy it outdoors, and of course enjoy some curry bratwurst recommended to us by a local. None of us spoke German, so it was a little interesting trying to order. Thankfully the local who recommended us the curry bratwurst, was nice enough to order them for us too. One interesting thing about this food stall was that they had a slicer for the bratwurst, you plop the bratwurst in and out comes perfectly sized slices. It’s amazing what companies come up with when labor costs so much. For most of the other countries we’ve visited, they’d have a one person just slicing the bratwurst by hand. Very cool to see the differences between developing and developed countries.

IMG_4580 IMG_4597 IMG_4600 IMG_4604a IMG_4610

Beer from giant mugs

Beer from giant mugs

IMG_4630

This was a very large wall with all of the people killed during the holocaust.

This was a very large wall with all of the people killed during the holocaust.

IMG_4650

Second honeymoon

Second honeymoon

IMG_4691 IMG_4692 IMG_4693

Still not fully sure how this works. We think the guy on top is sitting on plywood. Still impressive.

Still not fully sure how this works. We think the guy on top is sitting on plywood. Still impressive.

Our time spent in Germany was a lot more enjoyable than our time spent in Zurich. I think it had a lot to do with the freezing weather in Zurich and the added company we had in Germany. Overall both were fun and someday we’ll be able to afford to see more in Europe.

As a last note, since we have some new travel buddies, we will likely have some guest bloggers. Stay tuned!

Categories: Architecture, Cities, Europe, Traveling | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Bandipur, Nepal

Though tempted to spend another long while relaxing in Pokhara after returning from the Annapurna Circuit trek, we decided it was best to check out other areas in Nepal. Additionally, we only had a couple of weeks left in Nepal before our planned departure. We would be flying out of Kathmandu on April 2nd. So, on our way to Kathmandu we decided to check out the town of Bandipur, which is located just off the main road between Pokhara and Kathmandu. No major detours were necessary.

Bandipur is a quaint town with quiet, vehicle-free streets and friendly people to boot. Our guidebook describes it as “a living museum of Newari culture”. Since I’m not an expert on Newari culture I can’t really say whether that statement is true or not, but in terms of a living museum I’d have to agree. Nearly all of the buildings in the main bazaar area are beautiful, multistory brick buildings, many of which have beautifully carved window frames and doors. Their construction supposedly dates back to the 18th-century. The “street” in front of the buildings is more like a patio, since there are no vehicles and much of it is lined in large flat stones.

View of the main bazaar of Bandipur from above.

View of the main bazaar of Bandipur from above.

One of the kids greeting us as we arrived in Bandipur. They usually offer a “Namaste” followed by “Chocolate?”

Lovely old lady doing her own people watching in front of her store.

Lovely old lady doing her own people watching in front of her store.

Main bazaar in Bandipur.

Main bazaar in Bandipur.

Outside of our hotel. A very nice place, though, the beds were a little hard.

Outside of our hotel. A very nice place, though, the beds were a little hard.

We opted for this room because of the views.

We opted for this room because of the views.

One of the kids greeting us as we arrived in Bandipur. They usually offer a "Namaste" followed by "Chocolate?".

Window in our room.

View from our room.

View from our room.

The vibe of the town was very relaxing, allowing Sarah and I to enjoy most of our meals on the front porch area of the local restaurants. This usually isn’t an option since most of the towns we visit have lots of vehicle traffic, usually kicking up dust and making a lot of noise. One of days we took a walk to some of the nearby villages to get a closer look at the terraced fields and farm houses. Though Bandipur sees a lot of tourists, many of the people in the area still work as farmers.

House of one of the local farmers.

House of one of the local farmers.

Common occurrence here. Many people wear face masks to avoid dust and car exhaust.

Common occurrence here. Many people wear face masks to avoid dust and car exhaust.

Another bodhi tree.

Another bodhi tree.

Taking a rest under a bodhi tree.

Taking a rest under a bodhi tree.

Sarah trying to figure out the safest way down to the main trail.

Sarah trying to figure out the safest way down to the main trail.

Sarah making her way through the brush. I think we got a little off course.

Sarah making her way through the brush. I think we got a little off course.

Another panoramic from the hike.

Panoramic from the hike.

Farm terraces below and the snow capped peaks in the background.

Farm terraces below and the snow capped peaks in the background.

Our last day there we had an unexpected treat provided to us by the sister of the hotel owner. She has an interesting hobby of dressing tourists up in local attire. On her day off she invited Sarah to be a part of her dress-up session. Since she didn’t have any mens clothing for me, I documented the process Sarah went through to become an Nepali bride.

IMG_3847 IMG_3851 IMG_3854 IMG_3855 IMG_3858

IMG_3860

IMG_3868

The woman drew blood while forcing these bangles on Sarah’s hand. This didn’t stop her from putting a few more on.

IMG_3867 IMG_3870 IMG_3872 IMG_3873

Our next stop after Bandipur was Daman. It was described as having possibly the best views of the Himalayas. There was no direct bus from Bandipur to Daman, so we took a bus from Bandipur to Dumre (20 minutes) and then hopped on a bus enroute to Kathmandu, but jumped off at the town of Naubise. From there we planned to catch another bus to Daman. After the usual exercise of asking a handful of different people to narrow in on the right answer, in this case where to wait for the bus to Daman, we sat and waited for about an hour.

The first bus came and they said they were full. The second bus came and as I waived them down they waived back and kept driving. The third bus came and told us they didn’t go to Daman, but then told us they did. Just as we were about to board they told us they didn’t go to Daman, but we could take their bus to its final destination and then take a separate bus to Daman tomorrow. At that point we decided against a trip to Daman and instead flagged down a bus to Kathmandu. We’d had our fair share of mountain views by this time, so we were content with skipping this one and moving on.

Categories: Architecture, Nepal, Traveling | Tags: | 2 Comments

The only way to visit the Taj Mahal…Indian Style

The Taj is always worth a visit. We had met many people in India who either had bad experiences at the Taj Mahal or knew someone who had a bad experience and said it wasn’t worth it. So, expectations were set low for us and maybe that’s why it was so great-or maybe it’s so great because it’s so beautiful.

We arrived in Agra, the town where the Taj Mahal is located, on a Friday. The Taj Mahal is closed on Friday, but, thankfully, we did research ahead of time and knew this. Because we arrived Friday, we had time to plan which entrance to arrive at and what time we should arrive. We did this so we could be first in line and potentially get the best shots of the Taj without people in it. We had our plan all sorted out.

So, we woke up early Saturday morning, which was right about 5:30 am. We got some chai and cookies on our way to the entrance for our breakfast. We arrived at the entrance around 6 am where there was one group of French guys and a Chinese family. The French guys recommended that one of us wait in the Taj Mahal entrance line while the other waits in the entrance ticket line. Yes, they are at different spots and you can’t be in both at the same time if you’re one person. So, Dave got in the ticket line while I waited at the entrance.

Chai and cookies

Chai and cookies

The ticket booth opens at 6:30 am and the entrance doors open at 7 am. So we had 30 minutes for Dave to get back before the doors opened. And, surprisingly, it worked. Dave got the entrance tickets and came back to the entrance line, where I was waiting, and essentially cut everyone. It was perfect because the line was huge by 6:45 am.

Dave getting back into line after getting our entrance tickets.

Dave getting back into line after getting our entrance tickets.

The very long line at 6:45 am.

The very long line at 6:45 am.

Then, slowly they added more railings to keep the lines in check and each time they added more people inched closer and closer to the door. I was in the ladies line, which was shorter than the gents line. So Dave and I decided that I wouldn’t wait for him and I would just go to try and get the best shots. At some point, not sure if it was 7 am or not, they told the people to go ahead.

I was the first woman through the security and started walking briskly towards the Taj along with the French guys who were also briskly walking toward the Taj. At some point shortly after starting to walk briskly-like .2 seconds after- I decided “what the hell, I’m in India” and started a full out run. I sprinted ahead of the French guys yelling “Indian Style!” (Side note-for reasons unknown to us sometimes Indians run or sprint to everything.) With my lead, the French guys started running also. The both of us got there about the same time, but it did give us a couple of minutes before everyone else arrived.

Worth it.

Worth it.

The fruits of my labor.

The fruits of my labor.

IMG_2240

IMG_2248

We decided to stay a couple of hours and see how the light changes on the Taj and then we had our fill and say our goodbyes. The place is very beautiful and ALWAYS worth a visit. We didn’t have any bad experience with touts at all-which might have been the only place in India where we didn’t have tout problems.

I would recommend to anyone to stay the night before, get up early and enjoy it for 30-60 seconds before anyone else. Completely worth it.

IMG_2263 IMG_2268 IMG_2277 IMG_2290 IMG_2292 IMG_2294 IMG_2298 IMG_2304 IMG_2305 IMG_2308 IMG_2310 IMG_2312 IMG_2323 IMG_2329 IMG_2343 IMG_2350 IMG_2351 IMG_2361 IMG_2366 IMG_2368

Categories: Architecture, India | Tags: , , , | 10 Comments

The Blue City: Jodhpur

The last city we visited in Rajasthan was Jodhpur, also known as the “Blue City” because of the many blue painted homes. The blue color is historically indicative of the Brahmin caste of the Hindu society, but the use of the color in modern times has spread to, well, anyone that wants to paint their house blue. Whatever the reason, it looks really cool, especially in contrast to the brown sandstone fort set high above the city.

Blue houses of Jodhpur

Blue houses of Jodhpur

During our brief two day visit we decided to finally do a proper tour of a fort. There are quite a few forts in the Indian state of Rajasthan but up until visiting the fort in Jodhpur we’d simply done a walk through on our own without a hired guide or audio-guide. As part of the admission fee in the Mehrangarh Fort an audio-guide was included. The information provided in the guide was great. It was very informative and professionally narrated. Later in our travels we found out from a fellow traveler that most of the audio tours in Rajasthan are well done. Oh well, at least we were able to experience one.

Unlike the fort in Jaisalmer, which had hotels, restaurants, and stores inside, the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur could only be seen from the inside by paying an entrance fee. The fort was more of a museum. We were able to walk through the old living quarters and meeting chambers as well as view the city below from the many balconies and walls around the fort. Because the fort sits so high up from the rest of the area there are views as far as the eye can see and the haze surrounding the city will allow. As with theme parks in the U.S. there were a few actors and musicians placed throughout the grounds of the fort to help replicate the atmosphere of old. Though, the musicians would only squeak out a handful of notes in an attempt to get a donation and then stop if no donation was given.

View of the fort from the city below.

View of the fort from the city below.

Jodhpur Panoramic_04

View from one of the balconies of the fort.

Enjoying the audio tour. Those circles behind me on the wall mark the spot where cannon balls hit during battle. The fort was never penetrated in its history.

Enjoying the audio tour. Those circles behind me on the wall mark the spot where cannon balls hit during battle. The fort was never penetrated in its history.

Supposedly the spot where wives of a previous ruler left their hand prints with orange paint as they left the fort to commit suicide in response to the ruler's (their husband) death.

Supposedly the spot where wives of a previous ruler left their hand prints with orange paint as they left the fort to commit suicide in response to the ruler’s (their husband) death.

Nice turban.

Nice turban.

One of the courtyards inside of the fort.

One of the courtyards inside of the fort.

Actor pretending to smoke opium from a hookah.

Actor pretending to smoke opium from a hookah.

One of several balconies used by the aristocracy to look down on the city.

One of several balconies used by the aristocracy to look down on the city.

Beautifully decorated hall.

Beautifully decorated hall.

Assembly room for the emperor and his guests.

Assembly room for the emperor and his guests.

Another courtyard. I really like the sandstone carving, especially the awnings over the windows.

Another courtyard. I really like the sandstone carving, especially the awnings over the windows.

A handful of examples of different turban rapping styles and colors.

A handful of examples of different turban rapping styles and colors.

One of the cannons collected by the army during a victory.

One of the cannons collected by the army during a victory.

Looking down on the blue city from the fort walls.

Looking down on the blue city from the fort walls.

Another cannon collected from a victorious battle.

Another cannon collected from a victorious battle.

One of the musicians squeaking out a few notes for a donation.

One of the musicians squeaking out a few notes for a donation.

Flag flying on the fort wall.

Flag flying on the fort wall.

Near the fort was the Jaswant Thada mausoleum dedicated to the past rulers of Jodhpur. On our second full day in the city we took the slightly longer walk from our hotel to the mausoleum. The main building on the premises is made of a white translucent marble. At first I thought the marble was thin enough to allow light to pass through but it turns out that the marble is pretty thick and just naturally translucent. The main building is surrounded by individual sealed chambers housing the remains of past rulers as well as a few large grassy areas. Unlike the bustling Mehrangarh Fort we’d visited the day before, the mausoleum had a fraction of the visitors. Because of this we decided to seize on the opportunity and take a rare break from the usual hustle and bustle of India and perch ourselves under a tree on the lawn outside the mausoleum.

Statue of a man and horse near the Jaswant Thada mausoleum pointing to the Mehrangarh Fort.

Statue of a man and horse near the Jaswant Thada mausoleum pointing to the Mehrangarh Fort.

Jaswant Thada mausoleum.

Jaswant Thada mausoleum.

A painting of one of the many emperors inside of the Jaswant Thada. There was a painting of each emperor from as far back as the middle of the 13th century. Interestingly, all of the images were pretty much the same.

A painting of one of the many emperors inside of the Jaswant Thada. There was a painting of each emperor from as far back as the middle of the 13th century. Interestingly, all of the images were pretty much the same.

Front of the Jaswant Thada mausoleum.

Front of the Jaswant Thada mausoleum.

Front of the Jaswant Thada mausoleum

Front of the Jaswant Thada mausoleum

Tombs outside of the Jaswant Thada mausoleum.

Tombs outside of the Jaswant Thada mausoleum.

Relaxing on the grass outside of the Jaswant Thada mausoleum

Relaxing on the grass outside of the Jaswant Thada mausoleum

View of the city and fort from near the Jaswant Thada mausoleum.

View of the city and fort from near the Jaswant Thada mausoleum.

Jaswant Thada mausoleum.

Jaswant Thada mausoleum and protective fort wall surrounding it.

The rest of our time was spent walking through the market near our hotel searching for foods we haven’t tried yet, shopping for blankets to keep us warm during train travel and just good old people watching.

I hope Sarah and I are traveling when we're the age of this couple.

I hope Sarah and I are traveling when we’re the age of this couple.

Clock tower in the center of the market in Jodhpur.

Clock tower in the center of the market in Jodhpur.

Night shot of the clock tower in Jodhpur.

Night shot of the clock tower in Jodhpur.

Famous Makhania Lassi drink. Not too bad but doesn't live up to the hype.

Famous Makhania Lassi drink. Not too bad but doesn’t live up to the hype.

Yummy omelette sandwiches for breakfast. The guy running this stand started it when he was 11, so he says, and now he's 22. He was a very happy dude.

Yummy omelette sandwiches for breakfast. The guy running this stand started it when he was 11, so he says, and now he’s 22. He was a very happy dude.

I love seeing these vendors. They remind me of the images I see of old markets in the U.S.

I love seeing these vendors. They remind me of the images I see of old markets in the U.S.

This guy was making bangles by hand to sell in his store. So much is still made by hand in India.

This guy was making bangles by hand to sell in his store. So much is still made by hand in India.

We’d traveled around India for nearly two months by the time we’d reached Jodhpur and along the way have witnessed quite a few funny animals. We’ve included some of the images in previous posts. While in Jodhpur we came across more funny animals and animal related situations than normal and captured many of them. So I decided to include them in this post for no other reason than to add a bit of humor.

Curly eared horse of Rajasthan.

Curly eared horse of Rajasthan.

Not sure how he got up there. Maybe the wall to the right. Not the safest resting place though.

Not sure how he got up there. Maybe the wall to the right. Not the safest resting place though.

This feisty goat was butting heads with the cow. The dog was observing from a safe distance.

This feisty goat was butting heads with the cow. The dog was observing from a safe distance.

It gets a little chilly in Jodhpur. By the look on his face I think the goat feels a little ridiculous.

It gets a little chilly in Jodhpur. By the look on his face I think the goat feels a little ridiculous in that sweater.

Local pack of dogs soaking up the afternoon sun.

Local pack of dogs simultaneously soaking up and hiding from the afternoon sun.

————-

Continuing with the theme of a previous post of mine (Ellora Caves), I will include another fun travel experience we had while in Jodhpur. Before heading to the heart of the city to find a hotel we decided to stick around the train station we’d just arrived at to try to buy train tickets for future travel.

It's hard to tell but there are two separate lines.

It’s hard to tell but there are two separate lines at the window where Sarah is standing. More people joined the line a few minutes later.

A relatively orderly looking ticket reservation area. The group to the far left was having problems creating an orderly line.

A relatively orderly looking ticket reservation area. Though, the group to the far left was having problems creating an orderly line.

Some stations have foreign ticket sales windows or even altogether separate rooms for foreign tourists. Jodhpur has a window, but that same window is for women and elderly people as well. Whenever possible we try to use the window for women because it usually has the shortest line. In this case the one window actually had two lines, one for women and the other for foreign men and elderly men, though, the two lines were not visibly distinguishable. So Sarah waited in the women’s line while I hovered behind her to defend our place in line. Defending your place in line is serious business. There are always people trying to find even the smallest space to squeeze their bodies into. My tactic usual involves making obvious gestures with my body to claim our space or even physically putting my arms between me and the window to prevent anyone from sneaking in. It’s really a fun game to play and the line cutting-perpetrators usually don’t put up a fuss if you thwart their attempts to cut into the line. I said “usually”.

While slowly making our way to the window and waiting in the somewhat orderly mixed women’s, foreign tourist’s, and elder person’s line an elderly Indian man appeared just to our side, cutting in front of everyone behind us in line. I wasn’t too concerned because Sarah was waiting in the women’s line and was clearly the next to be served at the ticket window. Nonetheless I still kept an eye on the old guy to make sure he didn’t cut in front of us. It turned out that the old man was indeed trying to not only cut in front of us but also in front of the two old men who were already at the window being served. He physically wedged his body in between the two of them but was quickly pushed back by one of the men. At first the two men began to argue with a little physical contact in the process. A little physical contact escalated to a lot with the two old men pushing and pulling one another accompanied by even more heated arguing. We obviously didn’t understand what they were saying but could tell that it wasn’t good.

We and everyone witnessing the event nearby began laughing at the absurdity of these two old guys going at it. Soon the third old dude joined the scuffle helping his partner push the line-cutting old dude back. I don’t understand how this guy thought that cutting in front of people already being helped at the window was a good idea. Did he think that the ticket teller was going to stop in the middle of serving the two men that were already there to help this other guy. On one hand, yes, because we’ve seen somewhat similar situations in India where the teller (or who ever is providing the service) helps the person who is the most assertive in a given situation. Anyway, the three men continued pushing and arguing while we continued laughing, and maintaining our place in the line of course.

After a few minutes of this they all calmed down, though, the line-cutting perp still held is ground behind them. They also came to an agreement without our involvement that Sarah would still be next in line, but the line-cutting perp did cut in front of everyone else behind us. Oh well, it’s dog eat dog at the railway ticket office I guess.

Though we were unsuccessful at getting the tickets we wanted, we were happy to have witnessed the absurd situation of the three old guys going at it. There you have it, another travel adventure from India.

Categories: Architecture, Cities, India, Ruins, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cooking Class and a Suit in Udaipur

Udaipur was our introduction to what is probably India’s most popular state for travelers, Rajasthan. Here is where you’ll find women wearing beautiful jewelry on nearly every part of their bodies not covered by sarees, men wearing colorful turbans, camels, deserts and beautiful stone palaces and forts. Before heading to Udaipur we hadn’t done much research and made our decision to visit partly out of necessity. Our goal was to head straight to Jodhpur, which would have had us skipping Udaipur. Fortunately for us there are no buses directly from Mumbai to Jodhpur. So a stop in Udaipur was necessary at least to make onward travel to Jodhpur. We figured we’d give the city at least a day to impress us and move on quickly if it didn’t. And well, it turned out that Udaipur was definitely worth more than just a day’s visit.

Udaipur Panoramic_03

Udaipur Panoramic_02

The narrow winding streets and proximity to water reminded me a bit of Varanasi. It’s referred to in our guidebook as the Venice of India because of the many buildings built right on the water’s edge. In fact, at least two palaces were built on two separate islands completely covering every square inch of them, to the extent that the walls of the palaces are in the water. Despite it’s similarities with other places in India we’d been to we observed it to be a much friendlier place to visit. Not that we’d encountered unfriendly people elsewhere, we just had far more friendly and genuine conversations with people in Udaipur than elsewhere up to that point. This characteristic seemed to hold true for every place we visited in Rajasthan after Udaipur.

After deciding to spend more time in Udaipur we then decided to partake in a couple of fun experiences beyond the usual sightseeing, though, we still did our share of sightseeing. We decided to finally take a long anticipated cooking class so that we could bring some our favorite Indian food recipes home. The other experience involved no forethought at all and only came about because, well, it was just such a good deal I had to do it. While walking around the city we saw several custom clothing shops and decided to stop in to see just what kind of service they could provide. We were quickly impressed by their craftsmanship and I decided that this was a good opportunity to get a suit custom made to fit my lanky frame. Only other skinny fellas can appreciate just how difficult it is to get a suit that fits properly. And having one made in India meant I’d pay far less than for the same thing back home. Plus, India is full of skilled craftsman hand making many of the things we’ve long outsourced in the U.S. So I had some faith that the quality would meet my satisfaction.

Here are some pictures of the sightseeing we did in Udaipur, including a boat tour.

Sarah found the cooking class offered by a woman named Shashi by researching reviews on TripAdvisor (TripAdvisor has turned out to be a great resource for reviewing all kinds of traveler oriented needs, e.g. hotels and tours) and recommendations in the guidebook. The good reviews turned out to be true and Shashi delivered a great experience. She was a confident, feisty woman in her early to mid 50’s. Hearing the story of how offering these classes has drastically improved her quality of life by providing a stable and good source of income compared to her limited options beforehand made the experience even better. She also shared how the idea to create the class came from a tourist she made meals for and hosted at her home a few years back. And since then other tourists have helped her draft an easy to understand recipe book (which is included with each class) in multiple languages and one tourist even built her a website. She loves what she does and genuinely appreciates the help she’s been given by tourists. She was proud to announce that she is the number one ranked activity/attraction in Udaipur on TripAdvisor, outranking even the city’s architectural attractions, including the City Palace.

The class lasted about 4 hours. In the class with us were a young German couple. Together we all helped Shashi make a full dinner including, masala chai (tea with spices), vegetable and cheese pakora (battered and deep fried fritters), Aloo Ghobi masala (sautéed potatoes and cauliflower with a mix of spices), Vegetable Pulao (sautéed rice and mixed veggies with cashews and raisins), a few types of breads called Chapati, Paratha and Naan (minus a tandoori oven), and mint and mango chutni (dipping sauces). At the end of the cooking course we overindulged in the fruits of our labor and even had enough to take home to eat for breakfast the next day.

Below is a gallery of the cooking class.

The purchase of the suit was not an easy decision to make. Doing so would involve spending a bit more money than I had planned spending on any kind of souvenir for myself and also meant I’d either have to ship it home or carry the rest of the trip with me. Despite these concerns I decided to go for it and have a custom suit made. Besides, this will likely be the only time in my life that I have a custom suit made.

The turnaround time for the suit was impressive. After the initial measurements it only took the tailor a little over a full day to produce a finished suit and jacket. Upon first trying it on I was very happy. So happy that I overlooked slight fitting issue with the jacket. Thankfully Sarah saw it and pointed it out to me. The shop owner guaranteed that I would be happy with the fit even if it meant making some changes to the suit. So the owner, Sarah and I jumped on his scooter and drove to his brother’s shop a few minutes away. The brother checked out the issue and promised to deliver the suit the next evening. This was good because we needed to catch a bus the following morning.

The next evening we returned to the shop to check to see if the fit had improved. Much to our disappointed it had not changed much at all. Sarah and I, and the owner as well were a little flustered by the whole thing. For us it meant spending at least an extra morning in Udaipur. For the shop owner it meant having the tailor do another costly alteration to the suit causing delays in other work he had promised to do for other customers. After another drive and a lot of insisting on my and Sarah’s part that the change be made, the tailor reluctantly to make the changes that night and have the jacket ready to pick up the follow morning in time for us to catch the afternoon bus. The owner promised to return my deposit if the jacket did not fit properly.

The next morning we arrived expecting to not see much difference because the first alteration the tailor made didn’t produce much change in the fit of the jacket. Thankfully we were wrong. The fit was improved and we were finally satisfied with the suit. With the thirty minutes we had left before having to leave to catch our bus we helped the shop owner create a business profile on TripAdvisor as a little special extra thanks for doing what needed to be done to make sure we were happy with the suit. And then off to Jodhpur we headed.

Sarah waiting for our late night train to Jaisalmer.

Sarah waiting for our late night train to Jaisalmer.

Sleeping attendant at the train station waiting room.

Sleeping attendant at the train station waiting room.

IMG_1439

Train station in Jodhpur.

Train station in Jodhpur.

Not so comfortable bus to Jodhpur.

Not so comfortable bus to Jodhpur.

Categories: Architecture, Cities, India, Traveling | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Mumbai

Mumbai is only a short bus ride from Pune, so it was an obvious stop for us on our way to Rajasthan. We’ve met many people who’ve been to Mumbai and who live in Mumbai and say the traffic is bad and all these things which made us think that Mumbai was going to be crazy and over whelming like Kolkata. Our expectations might also have been influenced by reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts which is based in the city of Mumbai in the 1980’s. But, we were wrong, again.

Leopolds! This restaurant was one of the main settings in the book.

Leopolds! This restaurant was one of the main settings in the book.

Mumbai is the cleanest metropolitan city we’ve been to in India. There were not many touts and we could walk around so we avoided all rickshaw drivers. We were both very surprised. I guess, we’ve learned to set our expectations low and that way we can only be surprised and positive about the place when it’s better than our expectations. Ahh, the things you learn when traveling.

Early morning with no cars.

Early morning with no cars.

It is also very foggy in Mumbai. All of the mornings and days looked like this.

It is also very foggy in Mumbai. All of the mornings and days looked like this.

Big cities tend to be comfortable places for us. We can always find a place that is similar to home-for example, we’ve spent a good day in Starbucks using the free WIFI to catch up on blog posting, you’re welcome-and every time we find a place like that, it’s like we’ve teleported back to the states. It’s good because it reminds us of home and all of the wonderful comforts we have back there, but it can be bad as well. Since we stay in those places so long, we venture out into the real location less often. It’s all about balance. Places like home refresh us enough to keep on experiencing all of the great things these other countries have to offer.

Mumbai was great. It is full of really old, beautiful buildings and landmarks and we got to see how people spend their Sundays playing cricket in the streets.

Night shot of the gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Hotel

Night shot of the gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Hotel

Taj Mahal hotel

Taj Mahal hotel

Gateway of India

Gateway of India

Taj Mahal Hotel

Taj Mahal Hotel

Dusk shot of the Gateway of India.

Dusk shot of the Gateway of India.

Flora Fountain

Flora Fountain

IMG_0966 IMG_0965 IMG_0959

University of Mumbai

University of Mumbai

Keneseth Eilyahoo Synagogue

Keneseth Eilyahoo Synagogue

University of Mumbai

University of Mumbai

University of Mumbai

University of Mumbai

IMG_1003 IMG_1049

I think this was the foreigners Regional Registration Office.

I think this was the foreigners Regional Registration Office.

Victoria Railway Station stop

Victoria Railway Station stop

Top of victoria station

Top of victoria station

Another one of the victoria station. it was big and beautiful.

Another one of the victoria station. it was big and beautiful.

Perfect skies.

Perfect skies.

Dave in front of our hotel. It was much nicer inside. I promise.

Dave in front of our hotel. It was much nicer inside. I promise.

Crazy wires running every which way.

Crazy wires running every which way.

Cricket in the streets.

Cricket in the streets.

Endless ocean.

Endless ocean.

Yummy, but spicy, samosas.

Yummy, but spicy, samosas.

This nice guy told his friend to wait for him while he led us to the tourist office. Also, he didn't want anything from us! It was awesome.

This nice guy told his friend to wait for him while he led us to the tourist office. Also, he didn’t want anything from us! It was awesome.

Dave enjoying coffee at the Indian chain Cafe Coffee Day. We tried to get WIFI there first, but it didn't work well and was only for an hour. Starbucks worked well and was for 24 hours. Thank you Starbucks.

Dave enjoying coffee at the Indian chain Cafe Coffee Day. We tried to get WIFI there first, but it didn’t work well and was only for an hour. Starbucks worked well and was for 24 hours. Thank you Starbucks.

We also used Mumbai as a place to try to obtain train tickets to our next destination, Udaipur, but there were none available. So we decided on another sleeper bus. The sleeper bus we took didn’t start at an official office or bus stand, it also didn’t start in the center of Mumbai. We had to take a train from Mumbai to the out skirts of Mumbai to catch the bus.

The train we took was PACKED! I think it was the most packed we’ve been in all of India. It was so packed we couldn’t move and therefore we couldn’t see the names of the stops. A kind Indian saw our lost faces and asked which stop we were looking for. He told us how many stops we had. He also encouraged us to get up before our stop-by encouraged he said “get up” and started tapping Dave frantically-he then motioned with a concerned look on his face for us to move closer to to the door. He knew that if we didn’t do this, we would miss our stop because we wouldn’t be able to push to the door. We knew what his look meant, and we also knew from experience that this was the best option for us. So I pushed as far forward as I could, that was two body positions closer to the door, with 10 body positions still between me and the door. Thankfully, there were many other people getting off the same stop, so I was pushed from behind and forced off the train without much effort on my part.

Now that we were off the very busy train we had to find the hotel where the bus would pick us up. After a couple of minutes searching we found the hotel on a very congested and busy street. We asked multiple times to multiple people if we were in the correct location on the correct side of the street. We got both sides of the street for answers, but one side was answered more than the other and it was our original spot, so we went with that side. We were so concerned with being in the correct location because this wasn’t a bus stand. The bus was arriving in the traffic and expected its passengers to board the bus while it was slowly moving in traffic. If we were on the wrong side the bus would move along in traffic and leave us behind without us ever knowing.

Also, these buses didn’t have any sign on the front indicating where they were going. We had met some very helpful rickshaw drivers that seemed to know the bus to Udaipur and assured us we were in the correct location and could indicate which bus it was. We had no other choice but to trust them. Thirty minutes or so after our expected departure time our bus, as indicated by the rickshaw drivers, arrives in the traffic and opens the doors for us. We head out into the traffic with all of our packs on and confirm it’s our bus before jumping aboard. Phew, we made it on.

But, because we boarded the bus while it was moving, we had to keep all of our luggage with us in the sleeper berth. We got creative with our luggage stacking and made it work so we could both sleep “comfortably.” Here’s to our last sleeper bus, we hope.

Waiting for our bus to arrive in all of this traffic.

Waiting for our bus to arrive in all of this traffic.

Might not look pretty, but it worked.

Might not look pretty, but it worked.

Categories: Architecture, Cities, India, Traveling | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Ellora Caves

During our visit with Preeti and Pramod in Pune (refer to previous post for more on that) they encouraged us several times to make a trip to Aurangabad in order to view the nearby Ellora Caves. Neither the city of Aurangabad nor the caves were a place we planned to visit. We hadn’t heard of them during our travels or read about them in our guide book. So after Preeti and Pramod first mentioned them we had to looked up both places and did indeed find short mention of them in our Lonely Planet guidebook. But there was little mentioned and not enough to convince us to deviate from our plan to head to Mumbai.

But after a little more encouragement by Preeti and Pramod and a bit more research on our part, we decided to take their advice and head to Aurangabad to check out the Ellora caves. A big reason for deciding to go was because going would also allow us to spend more time with Preeti and Pramod. Pramod’s company closes their office on Thursdays as opposed to the weekend and we would be returning to Pune from Aurangabad Wednesday evening, allowing us to spend a full day with the two of them on Thursday. Sarah described the fun we had with them in the previous post.

Panoramic shot of the Jain caves.

Panoramic shot of the Jain caves.

We took a five hour bus from Pune to Aurangabad and woke early the next morning to catch a another bus to the Ellora Caves. They were only about 45 minutes away from Aurangabad and we arrived just after sunrise before the crowds. There are 34 caves total: 12 Buddhist, 17 Hindu, and 5 Jain. I’ve read only a little about each of those religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism) since being in India and the relationship and history between them seem to be very intertwined. Supposedly, both Buddhism and Jainism are offshoots and reactions against some of the beliefs of Hinduism. I won’t attempt to explain the details of these interrelations because I’ll surely get it wrong. The caves were carved over a period of five centuries and consist of monasteries, temples and more functional spaces like granaries. Many were carved around the same time, implying religious tolerance. Nice.

Entrance to the Ellora Caves. Only a small crowd at this point.

Entrance to the Ellora Caves. Only a small crowd at this point.

The first cave you encounter after entering the main gate is cave 16, Kailasa Temple, a Hindu temple. It’s the biggest and most impressive of all of the caves. It has many rooms, multiple levels, large carvings of elephants and lions, and a long path around the perimeter with carvings of many of the Hindu gods and goddesses. In a handful of areas there was original paint remaining. The painted surfaces had a white base layer and used other more vibrant colors for the detail work. Most of what you see though is the raw stone. While the remaining 33 caves were not as big as cave 16, many were equally impressive. Even though the caves were a mix of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain they shared similar styles and details. Nevertheless, we enjoyed checking out each one of them.

The first cave you see as you enter is Cave 16.

The first cave you see as you enter is Cave 16.

Entrance to cave 16.

Entrance to cave 16.

Cave 16

Cave 16

View of cave 16 from the top. You can see the scale of the place from this perspective.

View of cave 16 from the top. You can see the scale of the place from this perspective.

Another shot from the top.

Another shot from the top.

Cave 16

Cave 16

Cave 16

Cave 16

Pillar in cave 16. We saw this style of pillar in all the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain caves.

Pillar in cave 16. We saw this style of pillar in all the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain caves.

I like how they carved sections out to make it seem like a collection of separate pieces.

I like how they carved sections out to make it seem like a collection of separate pieces.

You can see some of the remaining paint.

You can see some of the remaining paint.

These little tie-down locations were carved everywhere and seemed randomly placed. We couldn't figure out what they were used for.

These little tie-down locations were carved everywhere and seemed randomly placed. We couldn’t figure out what they were used for.

Hindu Cave

Hindu Cave

This Buddhist temple reminded me of a Catholic church because of the high arched ceiling.

This Buddhist temple reminded me of a Catholic church because of the high arched ceiling.

Photo op with Buddha.

Photo op with Buddha.

We noticed nests like things hanging in a few locations.

We noticed nests like this hanging in a few locations.

Upon closer inspection we found that the bees or wasps (not sure) were covering the outside of the nest. We zoomed in close enough to seem them moving. Gross!

Upon closer inspection we found that the bees or wasps (not sure) were covering the outside of the nest. We zoomed in close enough to see them moving. Gross!

High five! In hindsight maybe not the best way to act in a place like this.

High five! In hindsight maybe not the best way to act in a place like this.

HIndu God.

HIndu God.

Many of the figures carved had very rigid postures. This one seemed the most natural. Also, you can see where most people touch the statues.

Many of the figures carved had very rigid postures. This one seemed the most natural. Also, it’s funny to see where people touch the statues (shiny sections).

In the rainy season there's a waterfall just to the left of  the cave. Pretty sweet location.

In the rainy season there’s a waterfall just to the left of the cave. Pretty sweet location.

This lion reminds me of the lions commonly found in front of ancient Chinese buildings.

This lion reminds me of the lions commonly found in front of ancient Chinese buildings.

Giant doorway.

Giant doorway.

Doing my part to preserve the caves.

Doing my part to preserve the caves.

Sarah and I in a Hindu cave.

Sarah and I in a Hindu cave.

I think I saw him move.

I think I saw him move.

This guy is a little intimidating.

Couldn’t get him to smile for the camera.

Jain cave. This cave had a lot of detail in some places and seemed incomplete in others, specifically the path leading to the cave.

Jain cave. This cave had a lot of detail in some places and seemed incomplete in others, specifically the path leading to the cave.

Jain caves had more fine detail than the others even though they tended to be smaller.

Jain caves had more fine detail than the others but tended to be smaller.

Elephant.

Elephant.

We saw this seam of another type of stone running through the cave and imagined how angry the builders must have been when they found it.

We saw this seam of another type of stone running through the cave and imagined how angry the builders must have been when they found it.

While we were there they were installing metal screens at the entrances of many of the spaces to prevent bats and birds from entering. Bats in particular have been making the caves their homes for sometime, which is evident by the strong smell of guano. There was also a lot of restoration work taking place at the Buddhist caves. The men doing the work were carving the stone with hammer and chisel just as with the original construction.

During our visit we came across yet another school field trip. In previous posts we’ve talked about our fun experiences with school groups. The kids always make you feel like a celebrity when they smile at you, say hello and want to have a photo taken with you. We spotted the kids heading our way near the Buddhist caves and decided to let them go ahead of us to avoid getting caught in the middle of their group. The school groups usually move pretty quick and are very well organized, so our wait wouldn’t be long. While waiting one of the teachers prompted a student to shake our hands. This in turn prompted the entire group of kids, boys and girls, to shake my and Sarah’s hands. Unfortunately, we didn’t anticipate the moment and didn’t have our camera ready. We must have shaken the hands of nearly a 100 students. The entire time we were grinning from ear to ear, as were they. The kids in India are great and consistently put a smile on our faces.

School kids are our biggest fans. We love you guys.

School kids are our biggest fans. We love you guys.

All of the caves, even the less detailed caves, were very impressive. We were so happy that we decided to listen to the advice of Preeti and Pramod to visit the caves. It was well worth the long trip and ranks high on the list of cool sights we’ve visited in India.

————–

At this point in the post I’ll go on a tangent and describe some of the fun we had with a rickshaw driver upon arriving in Aurangabad. Occasionally on the blog we share some of these stories but opt to leave them out most of the time because they can sound repetitive or come across as complaining. But based on a request from one of our blog followers I’ve decided to share a story that helps paint a more complete picture of our experience here. Feel free to not read ahead.

We’ve taken many long journeys in India and the bus ride from Pune to Aurangabad was no exception. The journey took 5 hours. Most of the time we opt for the least expensive mode of transportation, trains whenever possible and buses when we can’t get a train. In this instance we took a government bus. On these buses we rarely see other foreign travelers. The buses aren’t particularly comfortable (sometimes I don’t fit in the seat), don’t have A/C, are old and have rough suspensions, likely don’t meet any kind of safety standards, stop frequently, and involve going to the often times hectic and confusing public bus stand. And after these long and uncomfortable journeys we are always greeted by a traveler’s best friend (not), the rickshaw driver.

It’s semi-entertaining to watch them hunt for potential customers before the buses have even stopped. Sometimes they run alongside the bus and jockey for position to get closest to the door of the bus in an effort to nab customers as they exit. As they follow the bus they’re peaking inside to spot the best candidates. When they spot foreign travelers their eyes light up and they become even more frenzied in their hunt. A foreign traveler can mean they’ll get a larger fare—because foreign travelers are nearly always overcharged compared to local travelers—or they’ll get a commission for taking you to a hotel or travel agent, or best of all you might agree to hire them as your tour guide. Sarah and I don’t ever hire them as a tour guide or allow them to take us to a hotel they’ve recommended. We’ve even gone as far as to tell them not to enter the hotel with us as not to make the hotel staff think that they brought us their for commission. Though we avoid those two scenarios with the rickshaw drivers we still have to use them as the most common source of short distance travel in a city—when walking isn’t an option or we just don’t know where we are.

Combine the frenzied scenario just described with two road weary travelers with sore butts and things can become a bit volatile. So here’s how the rickshaw ride played out in Aurangabad. We were greeted by the rickshaw driver as soon as we exited the bus. He throws out the usual questions like: where are you from?, how long have you been in India?, can I recommend a best, cheap hotel? We say no to the best, cheap hotel and try to politely answer some of the other questions all the time knowing they’re leading up to some sort of sales pitch. We then told him the name of the hotel we wanted to go to and discussed price. The price of a rickshaw ride is not straightforward. If you’re lucky the rickshaw has a digital meter that clearly states the price. This is very uncommon. Most of the time the price has to be negotiated before you agree to the ride. This is challenging because prices are not consistent across India and so you have to learn the going rate in every new place you visit. In this case the rickshaw had an analog meter that tracks the distance but does not display the price. In places that use this type of meter you have to know the cost per kilometer to know what the price will be at the end of the ride. This is the kind of meter we encountered in Pune. The rate in Pune was 10 rupees per km (~ $0.20/km). Armed with this knowledge we insisted that the driver use the meter or we would move onto the next rickshaw. Walking away is the only way to get what you want in negotiations in India.

During the ride the driver again asked if we wanted to see a best, cheap hotel instead of the one we asked him to take us to. We politely said no. The rest of the ride he fed us his sales pitch about the tour service he offered that would take us to all of the sights. We again politely said no. But saying no does little for you in India when you’re talking with touts, beggars and of course rickshaw drivers. We typically let them talk while we repeatedly, and most of the time, politely tell them no thanks. He finally gave up and handed us his business card just in case we changed our mind. “We’ll think about it.”

After arriving at the hotel we unloaded our bags and asked the fair. Now this is where I realized we may have made a mistake. I assumed that the rate/km was the same in Aurangabad as we had paid in Pune. If anything it would be cheaper. I mean, Pune is a big city and big cities are always more expensive. The meter read 1km, so I calculated that the rate should be no more than 10 rupees. Not bad. But the driver wouldn’t tell me the cost and instead followed Sarah into the hotel. While on our way to the hotel Sarah and I discussed that she should go into the hotel to inquire about rooms while I stalled the driver by paying him the fare. This would help us avoid having to pay a higher rate for the hotel because of the commission the driver might request from the hotel for bringing us to them, even though we asked him to take us there. And so this is what we did. Sarah went into the hotel and I asked the cost of the ride. To which the driver told me it was going to cost 50 rupees. Wow, that’s way different than my calculation.

I asked the driver how that could be and what the cost was per kilometer. He had no good response and just kept telling me that the ride cost 50 rupees. I refused to pay him and told him that the rate in Pune was 10 rupees/km. How could his price be 50 rupees/km. That’s a huge difference. He couldn’t explain why there was such huge difference or what the actual cost/km was. He just insisted the cost was 50 rupees. Things escalated quickly and both Sarah and I began shouting at him. We told him that we only agreed to take his rickshaw if he used the meter. Now he’s totally discounting the meter and trying to charge us a flat rate. That’s not what we agreed on. We’ve had many bad rickshaw experiences prior to this and unfortunately for this guy he was dealing with two disgruntled tourist. We took all of our frustration from the other experiences out on this one guy. I continually refused to pay him. We asked him why he would lie to us and why he lies to so many other tourists. He had no good answer. We asked him what he would do if he were cheated as he was cheating us. He replied that “he would just deal with it”. Yeah, I don’t think so. So I responded by saying that I only had a portion of the fare and not the 50 he requested and that he’d “have to deal with it”.

In an attempt to learn what the actual fare from the bus stand to the hotel should be we asked the hotel receptionist and another driver and sternly told our driver not to discuss anything with them until they answered our question. He didn’t comply and spoke to them in an language other than English. This just escalated the situation. He then tried to support his case for not using the reading from the meter by wiggling the cable on the meter and then telling us that is was not working. To which we again reminded him that we only took his rickshaw under the agreement that we use a functioning meter. After much yelling and refusal to pay on our part, the hotel receptionist—visibly upset by the act playing out in his lobby—negotiated a slightly lower fare of 40 rupees. We reluctantly paid the fare and shared more unkind words with the driver.

There you have it. A scenario that’s all to common for travelers in India. I should add that we’ve encountered countless helpful people in India. But, as a traveler you deal with touts, drivers and hotel staff so often that your experience can’t help but be shaped by them. And it’s this group of people that we feel are some of the most dishonest and misleading people we’ve met during our travels. That said, the longer we travel here the better we get at dealing with them and the saner we stay.

Categories: Architecture, India, Ruins, Traveling | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Guests are God in Pune

A previous coworker and friend of mine, Neeraj, is from India and when he heard we were traveling there he invited us to stay with his Family in Pune (pronounced poonay or poona). Indians have a saying “guests are god” and we sure felt like this was true when we stayed with Neeraj’s parents, Preeti and Pramod.

Before I get into our experience in Pune, I want to share our first experience on a sleeper bus. Because we couldn’t find a train out of Hampi, we decided to take a sleeper bus. We were familiar with partially reclining chairs from South America and Thailand, which they called semi-sleepers here. The sleeper buses have actual beds. We ended up with an upper bed in the middle of the bus. There was a lot of rolling and bumping from the turns and various potholes or speed bumps in the road, which makes it hard to sleep. It was an experience that we didn’t want to repeat if we could avoid it. The trains are by far the better option-they are both cheaper and more comfortable.

Inside the sleeper bus. Just enough room

Inside the sleeper bus. Just enough room

We had our own little fan and TV. It was luxury.

We had our own little fan and TV. It was luxury.

Ok, back to Pune. When we arrived, they had family staying with them so they offered us our own apartment-Pramod’s sisters apartment who lives in Scotland but needs the apartment when she stays in India for a month or so every year. It surprised us how much we missed having additional space to go to. It actually felt like home having a living room to hang out in. They also had a washing machine, which we jumped at the opportunity to use, it’s one of the things we greatly miss from home.

They play cricket every day all day. It was nice to see people play outside, that's become so rare in the U.S.

They play cricket every day all day. It was nice to see people play outside, that’s become so rare in the U.S.

But, the best part of Pune was hanging out with  Preeti, Pramod and their extended family. They were so welcoming, they made us feel like we were part of the family. We were able to meet Neeraj’s Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, and even his grandmother who told us “learn Hindi” so she could talk with us. We’ll have to learn next time we visit India. We had many interesting and insightful conversations with Preeti, Pramod, and their family. Preeti cooked some very tasty Indian food, a lot we haven’t tried before, and Pramod was excited to share with us all the different types of Indian sweets they had.

They took us to some very fun and interesting restaurants-one was called Grill Nation, where you grill chicken, fruit, paneer (Indian cheese), and various seafood over hot coals right at the table. It was definitely a first for us.

The awesome parking garage with moving parking spaces to maximize the space used.

The awesome parking garage with moving parking spaces to maximize the space used.

Neeraj's Uncle, Aunt, and mother, Preeti

Neeraj’s Uncle, Aunt, and mother, Preeti

Pramod, Neeraj's Uncle, and us

Pramod, Neeraj’s Uncle, and us

The second restaurant was an hour drive outside of Pune into the nearby mountains. It was an old fort that was converted into a hotel and restaurant called Fort Jadhav Gadh. The location was great and so quiet. The food was really tasty as well and we got to enjoy gulab jamun with ice cream. Which Dave and I both agree is the best dessert combination we’ve had in India. We plan to share this experience with everyone back home if we can find gulab jamun somewhere.

IMG_0954

Us outside the museum they had on site.

Us outside the museum they had on site.

Lotus flower

Lotus flower

We even had time to smell the flowers!

We even had time to smell the flowers!

They even have a temple on the grounds where people can get married at.

They have a temple on the grounds where people can get married at.

A picture of the whole fort.

A picture of the whole fort.

Dave trying it, it tasted a little sweet and sour.

Dave trying tamarind, it tasted a little sweet and sour.

Tamarind seed with the outer layer still on.

Tamarind seed with the outer layer still on.

Pramod and Preeti

Pramod and Preeti

IMG_0934

There was a tamarind tree on the grounds and this is a seed with the outer layer off

There was a tamarind tree on the grounds and this is a seed with the outer layer off

IMG_0912

small doors

small doors

View we had while we ate our lunch. Pretty awesome.

View we had while we ate our lunch.

IMG_0903 IMG_0902

They blow this horn and play a drum for every arriving guest.

They blow this horn and play a drum for every arriving guest.

The entrance to the fort.

The entrance to the fort.

Pune also has some interesting places to visit. One was the Ghandi National Memorial, which is also the Aga Khan Palace where Ghandi, his wife, his secretary, and other prominent nationalist leaders were interned by the British. They were held there for two years.

The palace Ghandi was interned in for two years.

The palace Ghandi was interned in for two years.

IMG_0557 IMG_0560

Both Ghandi's wife and secretary died during the two years they were at this palace. Their remains are kept in the back garden at the palace.

Both Ghandi’s wife and secretary died during the two years they were at this palace. Their remains are kept in the back garden at the palace.

We also visited the Shaniwar wada, which includes the ruins of the fortresslike palace build in 1732 and burned down in 1828. This place is huge sitting in the middle of the busy city.

The fort ruins.

The fort ruins.

IMG_0614 IMG_0597 IMG_0587 IMG_0584 IMG_0583

Looking through the gun hole.

Looking through the gun hole.

IMG_0572 IMG_0571 IMG_0569

The entrance to the old fort, the only wood piece that didn't burn down.

The entrance to the old fort, the only wood piece that didn’t burn down.

We also got to meet up with another ex-coworker of mine, Ameya. He moved back to Pune India a few months ago. He took us to a “daba” which he described to us as a truck stop. The food was really good and the atmosphere was cool. The seats they have there are really wide as the truck drivers would typically take a nap after eating.

Ameya and Dave at the daba restaurant

Ameya and Dave at the daba restaurant

We had a really great time hanging out with Preeti and Pramod. We can only hope that they visit Neeraj again in Massachusetts and we can show the same hospitality to them that they showed us. It really was one of the best experiences we had in India. Thank you again Neeraj, Preeti, and Pramod!

Categories: Architecture, Cities, India, Ruins, Traveling | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

Holy Varanasi

If you’ve ever seen a documentary about India on, say, The Discovery Channel, then you’ve probably seen images of the city of Varanasi. Images of stairs packed with people bathing in the Ganges river and narrow labyrinth like streets congested with cows, people and motorcycles might ring a bell. It’s seen as one of the holiest places in the Hindu religion and is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, since around 1200 B.C. It was described to me to be as important to Hindus as Mecca is to Muslims. If as a Hindu you die in Varanasi then the cycle of reincarnation—a component of the religion—comes to an end. Varanasi was the third stop on our travels through India.

View of the Ganges river bank from our hotel.

View of the Ganges river bank from our hotel.

Morning bathers outside of our hotel.

Morning bathers outside of our hotel.

Celebrating our first night in Varanasi.

Celebrating our first night in Varanasi.

Man carrying water from Ganges in a pretty impressive golden pot.

Man carrying water from Ganges in a pretty impressive golden pot.

Legit masala chai, as opposed to just tea with milk.
Legit masala chai, as opposed to just tea with milk.
It turns out the masala chai was made in a machine. Still some of the best we've had.

It turns out the masala chai was made in a machine. Still some of the best we’ve had.

P1070470

There were cricket games being played all along the river bank.

There were cricket games being played all along the river bank.

Goats indulging in one of the many trash piles.

Goats indulging in one of the many trash piles.

Our hotel (Alka Hotel). It was in a great location on the bank of the Ganges river. The price was decent too at  Rs 500 ($9) per night.

Our hotel (Alka Hotel). It was in a great location on the bank of the Ganges river. The price was decent too at Rs 500 ($9) per night.

Being a somewhat difficult place to navigate, specifically in the old section of the city, and the fact that we didn’t plan to visit for more than a couple of days, we decided to try out a guided tour. While researching hotels online I read quite a few reviews from travelers raving about the city tours. We don’t usually do tours because they can be a little pricey and most of the time we have no trouble exploring a place on our own. But due to the good reviews and our planned short visit we decided to give it a try. The tour we chose included seeing some of the sights outside of the old city, a walking tour of the old city and a boat ride on the Ganges. The tour was split over two days.

Beautiful lassis and two happy customers.

Beautiful lassis and two happy customers.

Great lassi shop. Evidently it's pretty famous with Koreans, hence the Korean script on the sign.

Great lassi shop. Evidently it’s pretty famous with Koreans, hence the Korean script (I think?) on the sign.

Lass in the making.

Lass in the making.

P1070598

One of the many narrow paths in the old city shared by people, cows and motorbikes.

One of the many narrow paths in the old city shared by people, cows and motorbikes.

Nepalese Hindu temple: cow.

Nepalese Hindu temple: cow.

Wood carving with some naughty Kama Sutra action at the bottom.

Wood carving with some naughty Kama Sutra action at the bottom.

Nepalese Hindu temple

Nepalese Hindu temple

Nepalese Hindu temple: cow.

Crazy stairs leading to the Nepalese Hindu temple.

Nepalese Hindu temple: cow.

Nepalese Hindu temple: cow.

Nightly ceremony on the river bank.

Nightly ceremony on the river bank.

Nightly ceremony on the river bank.

Nightly ceremony on the river bank.

Nightly ceremony on the river bank. We observed the first half from a boat.

Nightly ceremony on the river bank. We observed the first half from a boat.

One of the Ghats we saw during our evening boat ride.

One of the Ghats we saw during our evening boat ride.

A leisurely trip down the river and Sarah's stretched face.

A leisurely trip down the river and Sarah’s stretched face.

Giant Buddha.

Giant Buddha.

This tower marks the spot where Buddha supposedly delivered the First Sermon of Sakyamuni.

This tower marks the spot where Buddha supposedly delivered the First Sermon of Sakyamuni.

Silk weaver.

Silk weaver.

Burger King veggie burger.

Burger King veggie burger.

The other Burger King.

The guide and I at the other Burger King. They served a variety of India dishes but no hamburgers.

A very impressive hand carved marble topographic map of India.

A very impressive hand carved marble topographic map of India.

I love how they decorate the cows at some of the Hindu temples.

I love how they decorate the cows at some of the Hindu temples.

Another shot of one of the lively streets in the old section of the city.

Another shot of one of the lively streets in the old section of the city.

While the tour afforded us the ability to see a lot of places in a short amount of time, we walked away in the end feeling a little disappointed. The first half of the tour was great. Our guide was excited to show us around and seemed pretty knowledgeable about the sights. Then we noticed that his mood changed suddenly during lunch on the first day. After which his excitement waned along with his general involvement in the tour. For the rest of the tour we were simply being shuttled from sight to sight as he attempted to hurry us along and wouldn’t join us at some of the areas to provide guidance, as we witnessed other guides doing.

We think his drastic shift in behavior came about during lunch on the first day when he realized that we weren’t the big spenders he had hoped for and I‘m assuming usually gets on these kinds of tours. He realized this when for lunch he gave us the choice between a “good and expensive” restaurant or a “good and cheap” restaurant and we chose the cheap option. And after seeing the menu at the “cheap” restaurant we explained to him that our idea of cheap was actually about half the price of what this restaurant had to offer. To which he responded, “oh, you’re backpackers”. That’s the point at which we think he realized that we wouldn’t be buying anything from the shops he had planned for us to visit and made the assumption that his tip in the end wouldn’t be as hefty as he’d hoped for. What he didn’t realize was that this tour for us was an excursion from our normal practice as well as our budget. The price of the tour was high enough, so any extras like an expensive lunch or silk fabric from a local factory were out of the question. That aside, we saw a lot of the city and likely more than we would have otherwise.

In addition to the guided tour, we did some sightseeing on our own. One of the most interesting stops being the burning ghat. This is where bodies of deceased Hindus are cremated in the open on the bank of the Ganges river (not sure if non-Hindus can be cremated there as well). This is definitely a sight I never imagined seeing and when I think back on it am still surprised at how tolerant family members are of tourists and others that come simply to watch the ceremonies. While observing you feel like you’re intruding on a very private moment. Though, our experience thus far in India has shown us that there’s a lot done “in public” that we aren’t likely to see back home. I’m not sure if this is purely a cultural characteristic or a reality because of the dense population and the need to share space and resources the come with it, including a crematorium. (You’re not allowed to take pictures of the burning Ghat.)

This area is right behind the burning Ghat. This is only one of the places they store wood to be used in the cremations.

This area is right behind the burning Ghat. This is only one of the places they store wood to be used in the cremations.

This is where the way the wood to be used in the cremations.

This is where the way the wood to be used in the cremations.

Walking around the old city and along the Ganges river bank was in my opinion the richest part of our visit. There is so much energy packed into such a small area. There are temples, shops, people, cows, goats, water buffalo, boats, kites, cricket matches, ceremonies and more people and cows and ceremonies happening all around. All of these things in addition to the extra attention you receive as a tourist in a place like Varanasi can be an in-your-face experience nearly every moment you’re away from the confines of your hotel.

One of the many Ghats.

One of the many Ghats and cows.

Another of the many Ghats along the river.

Another of the many Ghats along the river. This one looks pretty old.

People bathed in here as part of some Hindu ritual. Not an intelligent description I know, but nonetheless a cool photo.

People bathed in here as part of a Hindu ritual (I think). Not an intelligent description I know, but nonetheless a cool photo.

It's hard to tell, but this is a barber shop. The guy in white is shaving the face of the other.

It’s hard to tell, but this is a barber shop. The guy in white is shaving the face of the other.

A popular resting place for both people and cows.

A popular resting place for both people and cows.

Drying cow dung. I think it might be burned. Not sure though.

Drying cow dung. Not sure what it’s used for, maybe burned.

One of many holy guys hanging out.

Religious consultation perhaps?

Sarah looking a little lost in the maze like streets.

Sarah looking a little lost in the maze like streets.

One of my favorite Ghats.

One of my favorite Ghats.

We ended up spending an extra day in the city due to some difficulties buying train tickets to our next destination. As we get further into our trip we’re figuring out more and more about India’s confusing train system. There are many ways to buy tickets and many types of tickets you can buy. To improve our chances of getting from A to B we’ve learned that it’s best to come armed with as much info as possible (e.g. train numbers, stations, etc.) when buying tickets because the ticket offices aren’t always willing to help you figure much out. This was especially the case in Varanasi’s foreign tourist ticket office. Our experience at Kolkata’s foreign tourist ticket office went so well we assumed things would be the same at all tourist offices.

In the end we spent about three and a half hours trying to buy tickets before we were successful. Throughout most of our exchange with the ticket salesman the only assistance he could provide us was telling us repeatedly that a route we had researched and settled on was “NOT POSSIBLE!”. My ineffective response was to tell him that it was his job to figure out what was possible, especially since he has the computer system at his disposal and, well, that’s what he does all day. Sarah’s approach was less confrontational and way more effective in the end. She politely, yet persistently, asked him to check different routes that she had researched until we found one that worked. At the end of it the salesman made sure to tell us that if we miss a train because of delays that “well, it’s not my fault and I won’t be there to help you”. And how is that different than what you’re doing now?

As with the the two cities we’d visited prior, Varanasi was full of surprises and unexpected challenges. It’s hard to capture a place like Varanasi in words and images only. Watching a documentary about it doesn’t do it justice either. It’s a place that needs to be seen, smelled and heard to really and truly get the full experience. And with the short time that we were there—in all about three days—we only experienced a sliver of what it has to offer.

Categories: Architecture, Cities, India, Traveling | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Brrrrr…cold Darjeeling

While we were in Kolkata we asked a few Indians where their favorite place to visit in India was and two of them said Darjeeling. So we were off. Darjeeling is an old hill station in the mountains with amazing views of the Himalayas.  And at over 6,500 ft it was COLD in December. For some reason we didn’t think it was going to be as cold as it was, I don’t know what we were thinking.

P1070019

Let me clarify my definition of cold. During the day in the sun it was enjoyable, my guess would be about  low to mid 50’s. Once that sun disappeared though, it went from enjoyable to I don’t want to stop moving or I’ll get frostbite. Which, I guess would translate to right around freezing. The most unexpected part, again, we should have expected this, was there was no heat. It is still so surprising that a location pretty far north of the equator and above 6,000ft does not have central heat during the winter months. There were some people that had portable heaters, but the fuel for them cost a lot so they were not used.

This might be the reason the fuel is so expensive.

This might be the reason the fuel is so expensive.

The first night we were there, we put on all of our layers (undershirt, t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, wool sweater, soft shell jacket, gortex jacket, long underwear, pants, hat and gloves) just to walk around at night. We were not sure if we would be warm enough with the clothes we had and the three blankets they gave us for sleeping. But we did get a surprise right before bed–a hot water bottle. What they do to stay warm at night in Darjeeling (and apparently other cold climates near by) is boil a bunch of water and put them in rubber bags. Each bed gets a rubber bag to put into your bed prior to getting in yourself. This pre-heats your bed and keeps you warm throughout the night. Let me tell you, it works! We were able to sleep in only a couple of layers. Both of us thought this would be a great addition to the cold nights in Maine.

Sitting inside with all my clothes on.

Sitting inside with all my clothes on.

Drinking lots of hot tea to stay warm.

Drinking lots of hot tea to stay warm.

Our heat for the night!

Our heat for the night!

Eating ice cream indoors with all of our winter gear on.

Eating ice cream indoors with all of our winter gear on.

While in Darjeeling we decided to visit a tea plantation. We were told multiple times that the best tea in India comes from here. We got a tour of the highest tea plantation in India and it also happened to be organic. It was called Happy Valley. December is not the picking season so the equipment was not up and running, but we did get a good explanation of what it would be doing when it was running. We both learned a lot of new things about the different types of tea and the tea making process that we didn’t know before. We left with some tea as a souvenir.

The chalk board where they listed which ladies were picking in which locations.

The chalk board where they listed which ladies were picking in which locations.

The beds where the tea leaves are partially air dried.

The beds where the tea leaves are partially air dried.

The fans that move the air into the bottom of the beds.

The fans that move the air into the bottom of the beds.

Location where they roll the tea leaves.

Location where they roll the tea leaves.

Ovens for further drying.

Ovens for further drying.

Sorting room for different types of tea.

Sorting room for different types of tea.

Us with the tour guide.

Us with the tour guide.

View of the tea plants.

View of the tea plants.

View of a portion of the tea plantation.

View of a portion of the tea plantation.

We visited the Zoo as well based on recommendations from other fellow travelers. The zoo did have some cool animals, mostly large cats, and an interesting museum on Himalayan Trekking and Treks to Mt. Everest.

Zoo

Zoo

The bear was sticking his tongue out at us.

The bear was sticking his tongue out at us.

P1070113

The bear didn't have a cage and was really close to us, there was a trench that stops the bear from escaping though.

The bear didn’t have a cage and was really close to us, there was a trench that stops the bear from escaping though.

Mountain goat.

Mountain goat.

Water Buffalo

Water Buffalo

Himalayan Museum

Himalayan Museum

Leopard

Leopard

Panther

Panther

Snow leopard

Snow leopard

Tiger!

Tiger!

This wolf wants to eat you.

This wolf wants to eat you.

Sly fox.

Sly fox.

Sleeping Red Panda

Sleeping Red Panda

Red Panda

Red Panda

Because Darjeeling is a hill station, they have a train system that go up the mountain side. They call these hill station trains toy trains. The toy trains are smaller trains than the regular trains they have in India. They only have a 2ft wide rail width and the cars are about 5ft wide versus a 4-5ft rail width and a 9-10ft car width. We took a toy train joy ride to a lower city and back. The joy rides specifically use a steam engine to power the cars like they did when these were originally built and used.

Toy Train

Toy Train

Steam Engine

Steam Engine

Inside the train.

Inside the train.

We saw this while we were on the train. They were lifting concrete to the top of the wall there. Good team work.

We saw this while we were on the train. They were lifting concrete to the top of the wall there. Good team work.

Adding fuel to the fire.

Adding fuel to the fire.

Removing the ashes.

Removing the ashes.

Someone sorting through the just removed ashes for unused coal.

Someone sorting through the just removed ashes for unused coal.

One of the cooler things we saw in Darjeeling wasn’t a tourist attraction at all. They were repaving some of the streets and we got to see the whole process up close and personal. The roads were not just regular black top either. They get a lot of rain in the monsoon season so they put stones in the black top, we believe these help with tire grip. Almost the whole process is done by hand or man power, even laying and tapping each one of the stones. It was an interesting process we’ve never seen before and will probably never see again. (Link to YouTube video)

That tar (?) chunk gets thrown into that machine which melts and mixes.

That tar (?) chunk gets thrown into that machine which melts and mixes.

Sealing the edges together.

Sealing the edges together.

Placing and banging in the stones.

Placing and banging in the stones.

Laying the black top with wood trowels.

Laying the black top with wood trowels.

Darjeeling was also our first true experience with obtaining railway tickets. We actually ended up getting stuck in Darjeeling because of it. Our first experience in Kolkata was at a Foreign Tourist Office and we were able to get a ticket the same day. Darjeeling is smaller and doesn’t have a special office for tourist so we tried the regular window. With the regular window comes the regular tickets. We found out that the tourist office only gives out tourist quota tickets and a certain amount of tickets are set aside for tourist only. Because there are over a billion people in India, they have different quotas set aside for different ticket types. They have the general, tourist, emergency (Tatkal), women, and more I don’t even know about.

So, if you are trying to purchase regular, non tourist quota, tickets for the day prior to when you want to leave, which we were, you are shit out of luck. Those tickets are sold out days, weeks, and even months in advance. For this reason, they have an emergency quota, or stash of tickets, that can be purchased only the day before at exactly 10 am. Our first attempt at getting general tickets didn’t work because they were all sold out, but we were told about the Tatkal emergency tickets so we decided to try that. It was already past 10 am so we had to return the following day. Which would put us leaving a day after we wanted to.

The Tatkal experience: we arrived at 9 am and didn’t see too many people around. We thought we were smart for coming early and getting in line. Well there is no line. There was a scrap piece of paper that you write your name on to hold your place in line. People were there at 8 am when the train station opened to write their name on the scrap paper. We were number 13 and were thinking we were in good shape. A couple of minutes before 10am, everyone comes back and queues up with their papers. Also, I forgot to mention before that you need to fill out a piece of paper with the train number, name, time, in order to get a ticket and in Kolkata someone was able to help us with that. The paper we had with us was partially filled out, as it was in Kolkata, because we didn’t know the number or name of the train. Well, 10 am comes around, the tellers are working as fast as they can to purchase tickets and move through the line. By the time we got there, got yelled at for not having the train number, and figured out which train number we wanted, there were no tickets left for us. Attempt number two failed.

The tatkal chaos

The tatkal chaos

Later that day, we were told that the general ticket window can purchase tickets from the tourist quota, but you need to specifically ask for that. So, we went back for a third time and tried to get tickets that way. The tickets that were available were two days out and had a connection in the middle. We took it. After two days, three visits, many conversations with the tellers, and lots of frustration, we finally got tickets. We ended up leaving three days after we originally wanted to and, we didn’t know this at the time, it was only the start to our wonderful train ticket purchase experiences. More to come later.

Getting stuck in Darjeeling was not so bad after all. It was quieter and more peaceful than Kolkata, we met many other interesting travelers, and there were some great places to eat western breakfasts, like omelets and pancakes. Also, on the last day, the clouds left long enough for us to see the beautiful, huge mountains that were close by. If we didn’t get stuck, we would have never seen them. Thank you crazy Indian train system.

The mountains that we got to see on the last day!

The mountains that we got to see on the last day!

Glenary's bake shop. They have very yummy desserts.

Glenary’s bake shop. They have very yummy desserts.

Old church at the top of the mountain.

Old church at the top of the mountain.

Dave got this excited about the Indian desserts every time.

Dave got this excited about the Indian desserts every time.

Categories: Architecture, Cities, India, Nature, Outdoors, Traveling | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.