India

Goodbye India…Hello Nepal

Sarah and I have long awaited our trip to Nepal. The biggest reason being the great trekking that the country has to offer. I’m not talking about the crazy mountaineering that involves hiking to extremely high elevations, for instance, climbing Mt. Everest. Nepal is well suited for amateur hikers as well and provides relatively easy access to the amazing Himalayan mountains. Beyond trekking, Nepal is known for its great people and other natural attractions like low land wildlife and forests. The other reason we were so keen to get to Nepal was because we’d grown a little road weary from our two months of travel through India. Don’t get me wrong, India is AMAZING! But, it’s also an exhausting place to travel. We’ve related some of the challenges in previous posts.

Before heading to Nepal we spent our last couple of days in India in its capital city, Delhi. We’d already been to Delhi briefly in order to catch a train east to Agra (Taj Mahal), but had to make our way back in order to catch another train that would take us close to the Nepal border. We didn’t do anything noteworthy with the rest of our time in Delhi except for some minor sightseeing, eating some of the tasty street food and lounging around in one of the city’s parks.

We've seen these open barber shop stalls all over India.

We’ve seen these open barber shop stalls all over India.

Shot from outside the gates of this Fort on a very hazy day.

Shot from outside the gates of this Fort on a very hazy day.

This guy was repairing and ironing money. Does this count as money laundering?

This guy was repairing and ironing money. Does this count as money laundering?

There was a Valentine's Day promotion going on. If you buy one Love Nut donut you get the second for free. Sweet. By the way, the coffee tastes just like it does in the U.S.

There was a Valentine’s Day promotion going on. If you buy one Love Nut donut you get the second for free. Sweet. By the way, the coffee tastes just like it does in the U.S.

Lounging in the park. This is where all of the love birds hang out. Here is where we saw the most contact between the opposite sex. In this case they were all young, mid 20's or so.

Lounging in the park. This is where all of the love birds hang out. Here is where we saw the most contact between the opposite sexes. In this case they were all young, mid 20’s or so.

There aren't many green places to hangout so the park gets pretty crowded. This the security checkpoint to enter.

There aren’t many green places to hangout so the park gets pretty crowded. This is the security checkpoint to enter.

The line to enter the park.

The line to enter the park.

Yummy street food. Potato sandwich with a side of potatoes.

Yummy street food. Potato sandwich with a side of potatoes.

The potato chef at work.

The potato chef at work.

The omelette chef at work.

The omelette chef at work.

Happy customer with her bread omelette in hand.

Happy customer with her bread omelette in hand.

Though we didn’t take in many of the sites during either of our visits we did enjoy a couple of fun conversations, one of them with a group of touts “working” the New Delhi train station. I decided to interview them to better understand the scams they try to run with tourists. Surprisingly, though slightly reluctant at first, they were willing to share, and even let us observe, as long as we didn’t warn the unassuming tourist.

Here’s what they shared. A group of about eight of them work two shifts during the day. They stand as a group at the entrance to the parking lot of the train station, perched on the highest platform they can find in order to spot their prey as he or she approaches (prey being anyone that looks like a tourist). One of them leaves the group and starts walking in pace with the tourist, almost as if they are stalking them like predator with prey, and eventually meets them at their side to tell them one of many lies in order to divert them from their intended task of either buying tickets or entering the train station to board their train.

If the tourist is trying to buy tickets the tout will pretend to be someone official or just a friendly citizen and tell them that the foreign tourist ticket office is closed or provide some other reason why they can’t purchase tickets at the station. The tout’s goal is to take the tourist to one of the many private ticket reservation offices nearby to purchase their ticket there. If the tout is successful in this endeavor he will share a portion of the profit made from the tourist buying their ticket. This profit is then shared with the rest of the touts working that shift. So it’s both fair and unfair at the same time, I guess. I wanted to stay longer to ask more questions and observe a few more hunts but one of the touts was being a little to “friendly” with Sarah so we had to move on.

Another scam we were not told about but encountered on our way to Agra during our first stop in Delhi went down like this. Our train was scheduled to depart very early in the morning. So early that there weren’t the usually crowds of people hanging out near the train station. We entered the parking lot without encountering any touts–we assumed that they didn’t start “working” until later. But upon entering the train station through the security checkpoint a man greeted us with a clip board and pen, reviewed our tickets, and then told us that the tickets were not valid and that we would have to purchase new ones. Sarah and I immediately realized what was happening, took our tickets back and entered the station. As we passed the man Sarah yelled, “you suck!”. After determining which platform our train was located at we made our way towards the raised walkway that would take us there. To our delight there was yet another official looking guy with a clip board and pen in hand ready to check our tickets. This time we didn’t bother handing him our ticket and walked right passed him, again, sharing our disdain for him. We were slightly concerned that this guy did actually work at the train station. But it turned out we were correct in assuming that he was a tout.

Aside from the touts, the other fun conversation we had was with a retired U.S. citizen that was born in the northwest region of India, near the modern day states of Kashmir and Ladakh. Ifty is his name. We ran into him while trying to buy grapes from a fruit stand at the market near our hotel. He had been traveling through India for a few months at that point. We exchanged stories of our experiences in India and he shared what he knew of the history of India and his opinion about the changes taking place in the country. He loves India and is proud of the progress the country is making. Because he can speak Hindi so well he was able to ask for recommendations on where to get the best masala chai. It turned out that the best place was at the market where we met. Sure enough, it was most definitely the finest masala chai we had in all of India. We spent another 30 minutes or so with him chatting before we parted ways.

Best masala chai in India!

Best masala chai in India!

Our friend Ifty and us. Great guy!

Our friend Ifty and us. Great guy!

The master at work. Really, this was the best masala chai we had. He would change the intensity of the flame from time to time and watch the foam on top. Though I tried, I couldn't figure out his secret. Guess we'll have to go back some day.

The master at work. Really, this was the best masala chai we had. He would change the intensity of the flame from time to time and watch the foam on top. Though I tried, I couldn’t figure out his secret. Guess we’ll have to go back some day.

Later that night we caught the last train we’d take in India on our way to Gorakhpur, the nearest train station to the India/Nepal border crossing location where we chose to cross. During that trip we met a fellow long term traveler from Brazil, Jorge (George). He was also on his way to Nepal and after a couple hours of chatting we all decided to make the trip across the border together. Little did we know that we’d run into him again in Kathmandu, Nepal and travel with him for a few more weeks still. More on that in later posts.

To see a funny video of people frantically trying to board the train to Gorakhpur, click on this link or the image below to be taken to the YouTube video.

Mad dash to get a seat.

Mad dash to get a seat.

After arriving in Gorakhpur we had to take a bus to the border town of Sunauli. The experience boarding the bus was one last reminder of the joys of travel in India. When boarding a bus in India with no assigned seats you have to get on the bus as soon as possible to try to procure decent seats, i.e. not over the tires or in the back of the bus. So Sarah and I agreed that I would take the luggage to the back of the bus while she got in line to board the bus and save our seats. As the bus pulled into the pickup location it had to turn around. But a moving bus does not deter people from boarding. Sarah knows this and attempted to board the bus but was stopped by the attendant who asked her to wait until the bus was fully parked. Sarah being the polite person she is obliged and waited at the door of the bus, being sure to stick close to the door as the bus moved in order to save her spot in line.

The request of the attendant may have been followed by Sarah but fell on the deaf ears of the rest of the passengers trying to board the bus. So after returning from the rear of the bus where I had stored our luggage, I found Sarah physically pushing people away from the door to defend her place in line. While pushing them she was also yelling at them to stay back, all the while her mouth was full of samosa, which she had just taken a bite of moments before. With samosa flying through the air and Sarah continuing to push the assailants away, I approached her to lend a hand. Before I could get there another attendant jumped in to save Sarah by forcefully pushing the crowd behind her aside. Thanks to this guy and Sarah’s bravery we were secured four seats, two for us and two for our friend Jorge and his friend Giselle. Too bad I didn’t have the camera handy to capture all of this.

Last train in India. So sad. We love the trains.

Last train in India. So sad. We love the trains.

Sarah soaking up her last ride.

Sarah soaking up her last ride.

The last bus to the border was a little tight. Good thing Sarah fought for our seats.

The last bus to the border was a little tight. Good thing Sarah fought for our seats.

Hello Nepal!

Hello Nepal!

Once in Sunauli the border crossing was pretty straight forward. We got our exit stamps from India and paid for our tourist visa for Nepal and were free to roam. But we weren’t yet at our final destination. We had two more buses to catch before we could settle in for the night. Jorge took the lead on finding the next bus and also securing our seats. Thanks to him we got a bus and the best seats we’d gotten thus far on any bus we’d taken. For the short right to the next bus station we were given the privilege of riding on the top of the bus. It was a great welcome to Nepal and a fun experience to share with our new Brazilian friends.

On top of the world/bus in Nepal with Jorge, Sarah and Giselle (hiding behind me). Oh yeah, the sun was in my face. Give me a break.

On top of the world/bus in Nepal with Jorge, Sarah and Giselle (hiding behind me). Oh yeah, the sun was in my face. Give me a break.

Jorge and Giselle were off to Kathmandu and Sarah and I were off to Chitwan National Park, so we split ways at the bus station–or so we thought. It turns out that Nepal is fifteen minutes ahead of India, so Jorge and Giselle missed their bus due to the time discrepancy. Because of this we all ended up on the same bus one more time, though, they were dropped off an hour or so later at another bus station to find a bus to Kathmandu. Sarah and I continued on with what turned out to be a less than desirable bus ride to Chitwan that arrived at around midnight. The bus stopped and the attendant told us that this was our stop. Seeing no one on the streets and no hotel signs we were hesitant to exit the bus before he showed us where the hotels were. We spotted a hotel sign and reluctantly left the bus, hoping that someone would open up for us. We stopped at the nearest hotel we could find, banged on the door until someone answered and finally settled in.

Welcome to Nepal!

Categories: Cities, India, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Camel Safari and Living in an Old Fort

We had done some research ahead of time and decided that it’s going to be cheaper to do a camel safari from a small village outside of Jaisalmer called Khuri, so we decided to head there first. Jaisalmer and Khuri are the farthest west most tourist will go in India. It’s very close to the Pakistan border. Because it is so far west, you have to back track when heading anywhere else in India. So we decided to book it out west and we’ll see the things we passed on the way back. Because of this decision, we had a very long travel time.

It started with a bus from Udaipur to Jodhpur. This bus was suppose to leave around 2pm and ended up leaving around 3pm. This is completely normal, we were just concerned because we had train tickets from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer that we didn’t want to miss. The bus was in rough shape. We had fought with the guy to not get the back of the bus, but of course we ended up there. So the whole ride was bumpy and the seats were broken in the partially reclined state. Our poor necks got so sore holding our heads out for 5 hours. Anyway, the ride was long and uncomfortable to Jodhpur. We arrived pretty late there, got on a rickshaw and headed to the train station where we boarded an overnight train to Jaisalmer. We arrived 6 hours later at 5:30 am. We decided to wait inside the train station until it was day light for safety reasons. So, we left the station on foot for the bus stand to Khuri around 7 am. We never found the bus stand, but we did meet plenty of people who told us where to stand for the bus to Khuri and we got a rough estimate that the bus will arrive around 9 am. Nine came and went and someone told us it was actually 9:30 am. Well, 9:30 came and went and someone told us it was coming in 5 minutes at 9:40. The bus actually came around 10:30. We stood in the middle of no where for about 3 hours. It was great to watch all of the cars, rickshaws, cows, and people go by…

Waiting for our bus.

Waiting for our bus.

One of the many interesting things to pass us.

One of the many interesting things to pass us.

We also met a guy at the bus stop who owned a hotel in Khuri who set up camel safaris. He told us the price was the cheapest there and convinced us to get picked up by his brother and check the place out. No promises of staying there if we didn’t like it. We arrived an hour later in Khuri and were welcomed with his brother. It was a quick 5 minute walk and after looking at his place and other places we decided to stick with his place and do the camel safari that night so we wouldn’t have to sleep on the far from perfect mattresses they had there. So, after a long 24+ hour of travel we got on the back of a camel.

Camel relaxing in Khuri

Camel relaxing in Khuri

Camel drawn cart

Camel drawn cart

Kids playing in the little village of Khuri.

Kids playing in the little village of Khuri.

Camels are much larger than I thought. They are much taller than horses, for some reason this never came to mind when I wanted to get on the back of one. The height wasn’t that bad, it was the getting on and off that was a little creepy. The camels have to kneel and then lay on their legs in order for their passengers to board. They can only go up and down one side at a time, the back legs are first up and then the front. So you’re at a steep angle for the duration of the camel going up and down. Some camels are faster than others and sometimes the camel your on is tired and slower.

Camels waiting to be mounted.

Camels waiting to be mounted.

Anyway, we bumped along the back of the camel for a good 2-3 hours into the desert. Some people had the camel drivers on the back with them and others didn’t. Dave and I both had drivers with us. At one point, my driver left me alone with my camel to drive myself. Thankfully my camel was the nicest, best behaved, and thoroughly trained camel there and I had no problems. We have a funny video of me being stuck on my camel. The only thing I wasn’t taught was how to do the up and down commands to get on and off. So when we arrived at camp, everyone else is off their camel and I’m just sitting there waiting for one of the drivers to help me. We actually put this one on Youtube so you’ll all be able to laugh at me as Dave did. Click here.

Dave on his camel

Dave on his camel

Some of the local women carrying water back to their homes.

Some of the local women carrying water back to their homes.

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Camel drivers ride in the back. Apparently camels can carry 3 people no problem as long as they are healthy.

Camel drivers ride in the back. Apparently camels can carry 3 people no problem as long as they are healthy.

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This camel driver owned both of these camels.

This camel driver owned both of these camels.

He was peeing, that is why I was standing so far away.

He was peeing, that is why I was standing so far away.

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They sure are goofy looking. The camels only, I mean...

They sure are goofy looking. The camels only, I mean…

Wild mom and baby camel.

Wild mom and baby camel.

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At camp, the drivers made two separate fires, one for the tourists and one for them to do most of the cooking on. We got to relax and watch the sunset while the drivers prepared dinner. Some of the people on the safari with us had paid extra for chicken. The chicken was thoroughly cooked over our fire with bonus seasoning of sand and coals, I’m glad Dave and I didn’t pay extra for that. The food was good considering we were in the middle of a desert-we had chapati, rice, vegetable curry and a lentil curry. Very tasty. We had some good conversation with the other tourists on the safari over the camp fire. We talked for many hours then we decided to hit the sand. Literally. We slept on a blanket on the sand with another blanket over us. It was a good experience. We were mostly freaked out that the camels would walked over us during the night since they were free to roam and did so very close to our fires and beds prior to us being in them.

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Hungry camel

Hungry camel

Our camp.

Our camp.

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Drivers getting ready to cook.

Drivers getting ready to cook.

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Chicken.

Chicken.

The bedroom at camp.

The bedroom at camp.

Sunset and sunrise!

Sunset and sunrise!

Chilly morning, didn't want to get out of bed.

Chilly morning, didn’t want to get out of bed.

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Good news, no one got trampled over the night. The drivers cooked breakfast for us, which was pretty pathetic. It consisted of tea and chapati. Not very filling. Dave and I brought cookies we didn’t eat the day before so we had cookies for breakfast too. Not sure why mom doesn’t think that’s a good breakfast…

Anyway, another short bump back to the hotel and the whole thing was done. Short and sweet. It was a perfect amount of time on a camel as they are not the most comfortable things to ride and sleeping in the sand is also not the most comfortable thing.

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This guy was not part of our group. Check out his sweet turbine.

This guy was not part of our group. Check out his sweet turban.

Another big reason it was the perfect amount of time for me was because one of the camels was in heat. I know heat isn’t the correct term because it was a male camel, but he was in the mind set of attracting and finding a female camel to mate with. This consisted of foaming at the mouth and ballooning this large and very disgusting sac from the side of the camel mouth. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but the camel belonged to the same camel driver as my camel. So the mate attracting camel rode right next to my face the whole time. Anytime the camel needed to move away from a tree the foamy, stinky mouth was inches from my face. Also, at one point, the gross sac that comes out the side of the mouth ballooned inches from my face. I winced and the camel driver put his hand between my face and the sac until the camel decided to suck it back in. But, “don’t worry Sarah, he won’t bite” was my assurance from the camel driver. HA. Like I was concerned with that. I was focused on not getting foam on my clothes or in my mouth and to not get slapped in the face with a mating sac. Yup, definitely the perfect amount of time.

Inches from my face...

Inches from my face…

We couldn’t get a picture of the sac, but i borrowed this one from the web.

After the camel safari, we headed back to Jaisalmer and into the fort. Jaisalmer is one of the few, if not the only, places you can stay inside the fort. It was very awesome to be inside the fort the whole time. We noticed here that the people are more friendly than we’ve experienced in other places of India. We had many conversations with locals who owned shops, hotels, or restaurants and just wanted to talk rather than talk to make the sale. It was nice. We spent a good hour or longer in a jewelry shop talking to the owner sharing stories about the different cultures. He even gave us some of his cadbury chocolate. We didn’t buy the ring his shop is famous for, but he didn’t seem to mind just hanging out. This was our second stop in Rajasthan and we can tell from interacting with the people why it is such a popular tourist area in India. It was a fun place to spend a couple of nights.

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Dave outside our hotel.

Dave outside our hotel.

Inside the fort

Inside the fort

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Mind your head. We come across these all the time. Never stops being funny.

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Washing clothes in a bucket. We hate doing it, but it's a must.

Washing clothes in a bucket. We hate doing it, but it’s a must.

Dave also hates doing it. Travel size washing machine anyone??

Dave also hates doing it. Travel size washing machine anyone??

From the fort looking into the golden city.

From the fort looking over the golden city.

Categories: Cities, India, Nature, Outdoors, 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.

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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.

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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

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University of Mumbai

University of Mumbai

Keneseth Eilyahoo Synagogue

Keneseth Eilyahoo Synagogue

University of Mumbai

University of Mumbai

University of Mumbai

University of Mumbai

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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small doors

small doors

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

View we had while we ate our lunch.

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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.

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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.

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Looking through the gun hole.

Looking through the gun hole.

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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

Hampi

I can’t believe we almost decided not to go to Hampi. Actually, we did decide to skip it but changed our plans at the last minute in favor of going. Initially, we thought that the journey from Mysore to Hampi would be convoluted and take too much time. It turned out to be pretty straight forward and we had no trouble getting train tickets. Hampi is known for its Hindu ruins and climbing scene but we didn’t partake in any climbing while we were there.

Hampi was one of the biggest Hindu empires in Indian history. It was the capital of the kingdom of Vijayanagar and flourished  between the 14th and 16th centuries before its sudden collapse due to attack from outside forces. Evidently, it reached a population of around 500,000 and was a major stop for travelers and traders during its heyday.

We spent a few days there soaking up the plentiful sun and exploring the two major ruin sites, those nearest the Hampi Bazaar where we stayed and those a little further south in an area called the Royal Center. The photos are in Gallery format for better viewing instead of the format we typically use of embedding them in the text. I hope you enjoy the photos.

Categories: India, Ruins, Traveling | Tags: | 4 Comments

Mitraniketan and Mysterious Ooty

Mitraniketan is a small community located in the state of Kerala. It was started on the basis of providing education for village children around Kerala who wouldn’t normally be able to afford schooling. Over the years, it has grown to host over 300 elementary students, a people’s college, an organic farm, a small dairy farm, and a bakery. They also have a large community of people who visit as volunteers, curious tourists, or people on yoga retreat. We visited with the purpose of volunteering.

Morning assembly area. All the students would sing every morning.

Morning assembly area. All the students would sing every morning.

The organic farm was starting to grown coconut trees from the seeds.

The organic farm was starting to grow coconut trees from the seeds.

Organic farm section.

Organic farm section.

Massive bull in the diary farm section.

Massive bull in the dairy farm section.

The people’s college received funding from a group of Mitraniketan enthusiasts from Denmark a year or so ago. The funding went to a project they called “Eco-campus project.” This project was looking at the whole Mitraniketan community-which includes the elementary school, people’s college, farm, bakery, and shared areas-in regards to water conservation. In recent years they have seen a drop in water levels as well as a decrease in the amount of rainfall they receive in a year. The work they are doing should help retain the water in the soil around the campus. Some examples of what they have completed as part of the project include planting of banana trees, coconut trees, and digging various trenches in key locations to trap the water. It was all very interesting and we learned a lot from the staff there during the tours.

Trenches around the trees to trap the water

Trenches around the trees to trap the water

Trenches next to the path to trap all the water that runs down the hill.

Trenches next to the path to trap all the water that runs down the hill.

Planting banana and coconut trees.

Planting banana and coconut trees.

They have other small projects that they want to do but haven’t had time since they have been focused on the water conservation. One of those projects was to look at the types of plastic wastes that is produced on campus and provide containers to sort these from other garbage. Dave and I were in charge of this project for the week that we stayed in the community.

Dave and I decided that to understand the types of plastic wastes and suggest sorting we needed to understand all waste streams coming from the campus. We walked around and took pictures of all the different types of waste we saw and where it was on campus. We had one of the students walk us around the dorms as well. It was amazing the difference we saw between the boys dorm and the girls dorms. Overall we found a variety of different types of waste and suggested they have three different bins-compostable waste, plastic bottles, and waste to be burned or appropriately disposed of. We provided a report and they seemed to be excited with the results. I hope what we did was actually beneficial to them and can be used in the future.

Trash can they use currently.

Trash can they use currently.

Boys dorm.

Boys dorm.

Clean girls dorm with some girls shying away from the camera.

Clean girls dorm with some girls shying away from the camera.

The boy on the far right was the one who helped us with the dorms. His name is Sudeen.

The boy on the far right was the one who helped us with the dorms. His name is Sudeen.

Snapshot of our report. Dave really wanted me to include this.

Snapshot of our report.

Mitraniketan was a blessing for both Dave and I. Before we arrived, we were really frustrated with the issues we were having with the trains, the touts, the rickshaw drivers, along with the stress from finding hotels, the endless beeping, and other exhausting traveling duties. The small community they created was so relaxing, quiet, and welcoming that we didn’t want to leave after the week we were there. We even asked if we could stay longer, but other tourists were coming in and there was no space.

One of the reason it’s so relaxing and stress free is because all of the meals are prepared for you. This is great because you don’t have to find non-spicy restaurants and we got to try a lot of different south Indian dishes. The food we had here was probably some of the best we’ve had in India. My favorite was a jack fruit and coconut dish.

Jack fruit are...

Jack fruit are…

HUGE!

HUGE!

Overall both of us had a great experience visiting the Mitraniketan community. We would recommend it to anyone visiting the south of India. We left refreshed. Thank you Mitraniketan and all the great people that it includes.

They have a pottery making area and this guy is a master.

They have a pottery making area and this guy is a master.

They were digging this very deep well to provide water for locals right next to the campus.

They were digging this very deep well to provide water for locals right next to the campus.

They have an area dedicated to making mats and other things out of coir, which is rope from coconut fibers.

They have an area dedicated to making mats and other things out of coir, which is rope from coconut fibers.

Coir weaving machine.

Coir weaving machine.

They had an engineering section that would produce new equipment to help the locals with a certain task, this one was for sifting.

They had an engineering section that would produce new equipment to help the locals with a certain task, this one was for sifting.

Some boys playing in the park area.

Some boys playing in the park area.

Some of the girls building a wall to help with water conservation

Some of the girls building a wall to help with water conservation

The boys helping out around the campus.

The boys helping out around the campus.

Dave was talking to all of these guys about Soccer, he never got to play with them though.

Dave was talking to all of these guys about Soccer, he never got to play with them though.

Wall building

Wall building

Rubber trees! They were not part of the farm, but right next to it.

Rubber trees! They were not part of the farm, but right next to it.

Our next stop was a hill station called Ooty in the state of Tamil Nadu. They have many tea plantations and Dave and I signed up to do a trek through the tea plantations and local villages. It was a great experience and we had some excellent pictures. Unfortunately, Ooty is also the place where we lost our camera. After 6 months of traveling we didn’t lose one thing, I think that’s pretty awesome on our part. But, I guess it was bound to happen at some point. It’s too bad it was our camera, not because it’s an expensive item, but because it holds pictures we can’t get back. But, we were lucky though because Dave unloaded all our pictures before Ooty so we only lost the pictures from Ooty and a few from Mitraniketan. PHEW! Anyway, we only have memories now of Ooty and a constant vigilance to not lose anything again.

Categories: India, Uncategorized, Volunteering | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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