Should I go to India? (Rajasthan)

It’s difficult to imagine a country more diverse than India. With 22 official languages,  6 major religions and countless traditions and cultures, your experiences in India will depend greatly on the areas you visit.  Of the places we visited, Rajasthan was the most flaunting of their customs and traditions, and no matter where you travel there, you get a taste of the individual cultures that make up this desert state.

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Rajasthan is a state located in north-western India.  Although it is mostly famous because of its Thar Desert, Rajasthan has much more going on than just sand.  We visited 5 cities (and could have doubled that number if we’d had the time) and had some pretty awesome experiences.  Here are some of the highlights of Rajesthan.

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Palaces and Forts

Prior to its independence from England in 1947, India didn’t look the way it does today. Although it is now a democratic country, India used to be made up of several small city states, run by kings.  As a result, there is an abundance of history in Rajasthan and if you like seeing antiques and learning about the past, the palaces and forts in Rajasthan are excellent ways to spend your afternoons.

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Rajasthan’s forts speak volumes about India’s past.  The different colours seen here are because these two areas were built in different times and of different materials

The fees to get into some of these palaces were quite high, and from what I heard from other tourists, not always worth the money.  In Udaipur, we opted to skip the palace because of the high camera fee.  We were relieved to hear from a couple later on that it had been wise to skip it; there was little more than a few paintings to see.  In other places, like Jodpur for example, the forts (and attached palaces), are well worth your time and money.

Many of the hotels in Rajasthan are actually old palaces and government buildings from past rulers.  We stayed in several of these buildings, known as Havelis, while in Rajesthan…each had beautiful architecture and interesting rooms.

Architecture

Each city we visited in Rajasthan seemed to have a nickname.  Jaipur is ‘The Pink City’.  Udaipur is ‘The Lake City’, Pushkar is ‘The Pilgrimage City’, Jaisalmer ‘The Golden City’ and Jodpur ‘The Blue City’.  Each of these nicknames comes from the unique architecture and geography in the area.

Jaisalmer impressed me the most with its beautiful sandstone carvings.  Not only is the golden colour of the sandstone beautiful, but the intricate detail found all around the city is a photographer’s dream.

Similarly, Udaipur’s gorgeous hotels built along the lake are a sight to see.  The white buildings reflect on the lake, giving the city a serene atmosphere.

And if the cities themselves aren’t beautiful enough for you, the temples and other landmarks in India are also sights to behold.  After all, the Taj Mahal is just one of India’s famed buildings…there are many, many more!!

Markets

If shopping is your favourite pass-time during travel, Rajasthan is for you!  Every city we visited had markets where you can check out Rajasthan’s unique textiles.  And, for a state famous for its desert, you wouldn’t believe the colour you’ll see in these markets!!

Among the best cities for shopping were Pushkar and Udaipur.  While the shopkeepers in Jodpur and Jaipur were pushy and known to chase you down the street…Pushkar and Udaipur had a much calmer feel to them.  There was an abundance of art and textiles (bedding, scarves, clothing etc…) to see everywhere we visited in Rajesthan, you could only really peacefully visit shops in these two smaller cities.  We bought the majority of our souvenirs in Pushkar, where the prices were fair and where I was given the chance to try things on without people grabbing my arms and trying to drag me into different stores (a frequent experience in Jodpur!)

Of course, you do need to be careful when shopping in Rajasthan.  The prices aren’t nearly as inflated as they are in the Golden Triangle, but you will still be ripped off if someone sees the opportunity.  Pushkar specifically had an interesting scam that involved locals trying to push you into paying for flowers that are originally presented as being free.  A rule of thumb in Pushkar…people are really nice…just DON’T BUY THE FLOWERS!!!!  And, of course, be weary of anyone telling you that their products are 100% Kashmir or Pashmina…they most likely aren’t.  I paid 1000 rupees for a scarf that I saw for 400 rupees only a few days later in one of the smaller cities.  Be skeptical of initial prices and BARGAIN HARD!  (even when they try and make you feel like you’re ripping them off…it’s part of their shtick)

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I saw these table clothes for 500 rupees in the market.  We ended up buying 3 of them from a gentleman in Jaisalmer, who was selling them for some of the women living out of the city.  We paid only 100 rupees each and we knew he was STILL making good money on our purchases.

Wildlife and Landscape

Rajasthan is THE place to visit if you are interested in diverse landscapes and wildlife. From monkeys to cows, there won’t be a day you don’t see an animal while in India.  And because Rajasthan covers such a large area, the landscapes change a great deal as you travel around the state.

The farm life within the cities is astounding.  Not only cows roam the streets of Jaipur and Jaisalmer, but also goats, sheep, pigs and chickens…

There are monkeys all over the place in Rajasthan!  I’m always afraid of being bitten because monkeys can be so aggressive, but the zoom on my camera made it easy to get some good close ups of these cool little dudes…

 

And of course, I can’t forget about the friends we made in the desert

The most remarkable animals we saw in Rajasthan were the famed Demoiselle Cranes we saw outside of Udaipur.  These cranes are famous because they have the most difficult migration of any bird on earth.  Not only do they need to fly over the Himalayan mountains to get to their breeding grounds in India…but they get attacked and eaten by Golden Eagles along the way!  Don’t believe me?  Watch Planet Earth!   We watched the episode about Mountain Landscapes after we got home, just to see the cranes that we’d been lucky enough to see up close in Rajasthan!

Some Cautionary Tales

There are far more ups than downs visiting Rajasthan.  For Dave and I, the biggest downer was our driver, who was strange and actually pretty terrible at his job.  Look around for drivers that have good reviews before booking because you’ll be spending 35+ hours in a car with that person…and trust me…you don’t want a guy who plays the same 5 minute Ohm on repeat the entire time!  It can really ruin a trip!

Additionally…it’s a good idea to book ahead of time.  While it’s often better to book tours once you’re IN a country, you will be overwhelmed with the number of tour guides trying to sell you packages once you’re in New Delhi.  Many of them will lie to you to get your business (ours assured us that they were government run…they were not!) and they will all try and rip you off.  Check Trip Adviser before you get tied in with anyone in India.

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Also…make sure you’ll be being driven around in a decent car.  This was our driver and car…the driver was ok…the car was nice.  I can’t imagine how horrible it would have been to spend 35 hours in something without proper suspension!

Aside from drivers…make sure to look around before buying things so you get a feel for what prices are in markets.  Don’t believe anyone who tells you their scarves are 100% anything…they are lovely, and I wouldn’t discourage you from buying 1 (or 3…), but I would caution you to limit how much you spend.  Most of the time, the Kashmir or Pashmina scarf they’re selling you is mostly silk or even polyester.

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And, of course, I highly recommend that you make purchases at places like Belissima…shops that specialize in art and textiles being made by people in need…This particular shop helps women who have been widowed or who were never married.  (it’s located in Jaisalmer fort…there are signs everywhere so it shouldn’t take long to find!!)

So there you have it…Rajasthan is chalk full of things for every type of tourist.  From gorgeous landscapes to intricate architecture, you’ll find something interesting at every stop you make.  If I could do things differently, I would have taken 3 of the days we had in New Delhi and added them to our time in Rajasthan so we could have seen Bikaner or Rathambore.  Perhaps some day I’ll get the chance…

Should I go to India? The Golden Triangle

It’s been over a month now, since Dave and I returned from our 29 days in India.  I’ve written 12 blog posts about our trip and have spent countless hours going through photos and videos.  I filled a journal with anecdotes and airplane tickets and have reminisced a great deal about our time in that crazy country.  So now, before my memory gets too fuzzy on the details, is the perfect time to dole out some advice for my fellow travelers.  Is India worth the trip?  Let’s take a look at the facts (according to my own experiences anyway!)

Golden Triangle Tours

Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle is THE tourist circuit in India.   Tours typically begin in New Delhi, then head to Agra and finish in Jaipur.  These 3 stops can  be done in a short amount of time (3 days is easily doable), making them popular for foreigners who don’t have a long stay in India.  And, because the Golden Triangle covers so many of India’s ‘must-sees’ (The Taj Mahal, The Pink City, etc…), you will not have difficulty finding tour operators or drivers for a trip around India’s most popular tourist circuit.

Let’s break it down…

The Good

Beginning in New Delhi, you will experience the country’s capital, for better or for worse.  There is a great deal of history there, which is great if you’re interested in India’s past (both modern and ancient).

In addition to the historical sights in Delhi, the Zoo was surprisingly impressive.  The animals seemed to be well cared-for and the park where the Zoo is located is a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Agra has a great deal to offer tourists as well.  The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort alone are enough reason to make the 4 hour drive from New Delhi.  Best of all, if you leave New Delhi early enough and are okay with a long day, you can see Agra’s most famous sights and then head onto Jaipur for dinner.

Jaipur is the final stop in the Golden Triangle, and it’s a nice little introduction to the state of Rajasthan.  Dubbed ‘The Pink City’, Jaipur is full of markets, historical sites and, of course, several forts.  It’s a lovely place to spend a day or two, especially if you’re tight on time and want to see Rajesthan, but can’t make it to one of the other cities I’ll be writing about later on this list.

New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur can surely offer you some insight into the rest of the country and are a great place to start if you have limited time to spend in India.  I can see what attracts people to these 3 places, but if I’m going to be honest, there were a lot more drawbacks than selling-points for me during my time in the Golden Triangle…

The Bad

I’ll begin with the most trivial problem on my list, though it IS the most relevant for the average traveler.  If you are traveling to New Delhi, prepare yourself for scammers!  There are an unbelievable number of people out on the streets at any given time trying to get into your pockets and take you for as much as they can.  Some of my favourites:

  • Taxi drivers who tell you that your hotel is closed/full/doesn’t exist, who offer to take you to a hotel that their cousin/brother/friend owns.  The hotel they bring you to is invariably be cheap and dirty but the prices for the room will be jacked up, because the taxi driver is making commission.  You will face this type of scam right at the airport, so beware!
  • Travel agents who claim to be ‘government owned’.  They might give you a tour, but I estimate we paid about 30%-40% more than we should have when we signed up for our tour.  That’s nothing compared to what some people face…
  • Tuk Tuk drivers who charge 5, 10 or 50X the price they should for taking you places.
  • Tuk Tuk drivers who say they’ve met you…and then try to make you feel bad for not remembering them.  These guys will guilt you into letting them take you to an ’emporium’, where everything is massively over priced and where they are given a commission.
  • Counterfeit everything!  Don’t buy scarves, or anything for that matter, from any emporium.  Once you get out of Delhi, the ‘hand painted post cards’ that the nice painter made in the Emporium go from 350 rupees to 35 rupees…you also discover pretty quickly that they aren’t hand painted…Silk is another big one…most people can’t tell the difference between Cashmere, silk and polyester, so do yourself a favour and skip buying any expensive scarves.
  • You will be told all sorts of things about how you can tell that a person’s scarves are ‘the real deal’….the one I fell for was the ‘burning hair’ routine.   They will tell you that burning cashmere smells like burning hair…it does…but so does any silk (low-grade or high-grade), which is a MUCH cheaper material

These are just some of the scams Dave and I experienced (and in most cases…evaded) while in Delhi.  It’s honestly an exhausting experience being in Delhi, because you feel as though you can’t ever trust anyone; a feeling I really dislike.  Furthermore, Delhi isn’t the only place where you’ll experience these scams.  India’s tourism industry is filled with dishonesty, and you’ll deal with this in all of the big tourist destinations (Delhi, Agra, Mumbai and Varanasi are the worst)

The next problem on my list:  the pollution!!  New Delhi holds the record for being the most polluted city in the world.  While everyone talks about Beijing’s pollution problems, China’s capital got to about 500 points on the Air Quality Index this winter (making big news!), whereas in New Delhi, this has been happening for years.  They had to actually expand their AQI scale because the city was so often blowing past the highest number ON the scale!   New Delhi’s pollution is estimated to cause 1.5 million deaths every year and is causing massive issues for the country’s healthcare system.

From a tourist’s perspective, the pollution is little more than an inconvenience.  Staying in New Delhi for a few days isn’t going to kill you, but it WILL make you appreciate the clean air back home!

In addition to the air pollution, New Delhi is also very dirty.  You’re told by everyone who’s ever been to India to expect it…but there’s really no way to prepare for some of the things you see.  The garbage bins that exist hardly seem to be in use, and people mostly just throw their trash onto the ground.  Later on, a cow or dog will come along and eat anything edible…everything else gets burned at the end of the day.  Sadly, from what I saw, burning garbage isn’t solely done to eliminate trash…it’s also done for warmth…

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Not taken by me….but we saw things like this often.  There are countless stray dogs roaming the streets of New Delhi, and they rely on garbage for survival.  

To say that Delhi is poor is a gross understatement.  More than 50% of the population lives in the slums.  For those of you who have had the fortune of being born in a 1st world country, where slums of this degree don’t exist, I will paint a picture…

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An Indian man sleeps on the roof of his house at a shanty area in New Delhi, India, Monday, April 20, 2015. . (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Slums are basically groups of makeshift houses,  built in areas that can’t technically hold buildings (near rivers that are prone to flooding, for example).   The poorest of the poor live here, where there is often no electricity or running wate, and therefore, no toilets. People mostly defecate in the streets, creating sanitary issues.  Without clean water, children and adults both die of parasites and something as common as a bad case of diarrhea is a death sentence for many of these people.

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Once more, I cannot make claim to this picture, but Dave and I did see countless naked children running around the streets of New Delhi.  His belly is most definitely not large because he’s full…parasites are a big problem in India.  

It sickens me to say that you can actually pay people to go on tours of these slums, in both Delhi and Mumbai.  The idea of gawking at the poor, who already live with so little dignity, bothers me a lot.  There are many organizations out there that are trying to help these people, but it’s too big of a problem to be going away any time soon…

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People filling jugs with clean water brought to them by a relief group.  This clean water is vital for their survival

So…if I’m going to sum it up…I wouldn’t visit the Golden Triangle again.  The Taj Mahal was VERY cool and I highly recommend a visit, but if I were planning our trip again, I would be spending as little time in New Delhi as possible.  There are plenty of other places in India that ARE worth a visit, and next I’ll be outlining the pros and cons of travel in Rajasthan.  Thanks for checking in!

 

Awesome Agra

Often, when it comes to traveling, I am underwhelmed by ‘must see’ sights that everyone else seems to love.  At Yellow Stone, I didn’t find Old Faithful to be particularly punctual or impressive.  In Cambodia, I preferred several temples over Angkor Wat.  Even in Thailand, I preferred Elephant Nature Park and Ayuttaya over the crowded beaches.  Agra, however, was the exception to that rule…Although I arrived at the Taj Mahal expecting to be underwhelmed, within minutes, I realized I had underestimated India’s most iconic building.

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We traveled for hours in a thick fog and Dave and I were both very worried that the visibility was so bad that we wouldn’t even be able to see the building.  Luckily, as the sun climbed in the sky, the fog dissipated and we arrived at Taj Mahal’s front gate with beautiful blue sky above us.

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India’s pollution problems + Winter fog = poor visibility for some tourists!
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We were so glad the sky cleared by the time we made it to the front gate.

We were provided with a tour guide while we were in Agra.  I don’t typically like guides, because they can take so much away from the experience (I hate being shuttled around) but this one was pretty good.  He offered a lot of information about the structures themselves, although we did find out later that some of his facts weren’t exactly true (more on that later).   The things that were true, though, made it worthwhile having a guide at this particular attraction.

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I doubt he liked us very much, though.  He learned quickly that we weren’t big spenders when we opted out of the 1/2 km carriage ride to the Taj Mahal.  The weather was nice and so was the walk 🙂

Now, about the the building and grounds themselves…

In 1631, the Mughal emperor of India, Shah Jahan, lost his beloved wife during the birth of their 14th child.  After spending a year in secluded mourning, the emperor hired an architect to design a beautiful building both to commemorate his late wife, and to act as her final resting place.   The architect did his job well and today, thousands of tourists flock to the Taj Mahal to visit the burial sight of Emperor Jehan and his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Now that you have some history, I should explain why this UNESCO World Heritage Sight is so renown.   I like lists, so let’s do it that way…

#1 – The Optical Illusions

When you are (finally) done with security and have bought your tickets and paid for your camera fees, you make it through the front entrance.  This is when you first see the Taj Mahal.  It looks enormous and very close, and you can’t quite figure out why you hadn’t seen it behind the front gate.

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When you first see the building, you realize that photos could never possibly do it justice.

But as soon as you step through that doorway, you realize that there is quite a bit more walking to do before you actually get TO the building itself.  The doorway just makes it look closer than it really is.

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The view from the other side of the gate

There are also optical illusions on the building itself.  For example:

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This pillar does not actually have points everywhere.  It only looks like it is because of the way the stones are inlay-ed (we’ll get to that…)

 

More interesting yet, depending which time of day you visit the hall, it changes colours!  I had always seen the Taj Mahal in pictures during sun sets, so it surprised me a lot when I saw that it is white!  The entire building is made of high quality marble.  The material is actually partially translucent, so it reflects light in some very interesting ways.

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With a really beautiful sunrise or sunset, the building actually turns pink

This marble is very valuable and delicate, so India has come up with an interesting cleaning regiment for their famous landmark.  Instead of washing dust and dirt off with a pressure washer (or a harsh equivalent) they cover parts of the building with mud, and then gently wipe it away by hand.   The mud helps to delicately scrub away any built up pollutants on the Taj Mahal’s pristine facade.  They were working on 2 of the towers when we were visiting.

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#2 – The Symmetry

Every aspect of this building is symmetrical genius.  From the trees, to the pools to the mausoleums that stand on either side of the main building, the Taj Mahal is balanced.  As you walk through the gate, you are met by a long pool that leads up to the Taj Mahal itself.  The line in the middle of that pool runs directly to the center of the main building, making for perfect picture taking.  Even the most amateur photographer can get a straight picture if they know where to look.

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And everything from the trees to the stone steps to the pools on either side are mirrors of themselves.  It’s really quite impressive because as long as we were with our guide, he never seemed to run out of things to show us that were perfect mirrors of one another.   Both inside and outside of the building, everything from the art to the pillars to the shape of each room is a perfect reflection of the other side.

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Obviously I didn’t take this picture, but it shows that no matter which side of the Taj Mahal you are standing on…you see the same thing!
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Similarly, the pools are designed to reflect the Taj Mahal perfectly and there is a mosque built on either side of the main building.  Each of those mosques are also perfectly balanced.

But wait!  I’ve saved the best for last!!!

#3 – The Inlay Art

What impressed me the most about this incredible structure wasn’t the symmetry or the marble.  It was actually the art and how that art was made.

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A close up of one of the entrances.

Now, the Islamic writing around the arches is painted on…but all of the other art you see…the flowers and vines…that’s not paint!

Every piece of those flowers and vines are actually made of precious and semi-precious gems.  Here’s how it’s done…

The high quality marble that was used to make the Taj Mahal was carved into by artists.  The designs were chosen ahead of time, and gems were brought from as far away as China and Egypt to complete the task.  The gems were sanded down to fit into the holes in the marble and then glued into place.  So instead of having paint all over the Taj Mahal…you have incredibly detailed inlay work.

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All symmetrical and all inlay-ed precious stones

We went to a factory where this form of art is still being practiced.

This form of art is called Parchin Kari in India or Pietra Dura elsewhere.  In order to decorate the Taj Mahal, Emperor Jahan had Jade brought from China, Sapphire brought from Sri Lanka and even Turquoise from Tibet.  The results are magnificent.  Not only is the art beautiful, but when the light hits certain gems just right…the whole building sparkles!!!

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It is a bit difficult to catch on camera, but you can sort of see it in a few places here.

Sadly, because this building is so famous, it gets a lot of attention from thieves.  Repair work is almost always being done on the building because tourists try and remove stones and are sometimes even successful!

 

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Myth vs Facts

India has worked hard to protect this  building, and during the second world war and wars with Pakistan special measures were taken to keep the building from being bombed.

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Although only partially covered in bamboo here, it is believed that India covered the entire building during WW2, to keep the Nazi and Japanese forces from recognizing and bombing their most famous landmark.

Of course, this is one of the more interesting TRUE stories about the Taj Mahal.  I learned later on that some of the other interesting stories our guide told us are completely fabricated.  For example, there were never plans to build a second BLACK Taj Mahal across the river.  It is a myth being perpetuated by tour guides in India.

Another myth that has added interest in the Taj Mahal states that the Indian Government had plans to demolish the building and to sell the marble.  This story has no more truth to it than the black Taj story does, but it continues to be told because it increases interest in the famous landmark.

To me, I think the building is fascinating enough WITHOUT fabricating additional stories.  But hey…I suppose they know what they’re doing…there’s no such thing as bad press, right?

After visiting the Taj Mahal we also went down to Agra Fort, which was built during the same period for the same emperor’s family.  It wasn’t as interesting as the Taj Mahal itself, but it was still pretty neat and definitely worth some photos!  (click on the photos for captions and explanations)

I have 1 last post that I’m still working on for India.  I hope to have it up soon!

If you found this blog post interesting, please feel free to share with your friends.  As always, comments and likes are always appreciated (and make me feel a little less like I’m talking to myself;) )

A Night in the Thar Desert

We arrived in Jaisalmer at the end of January after a long 9 hour drive from Pushkar (all 9 hours were spent listening to a 5 minute ‘Om’ to Shiva….on repeat…) and were greeted by a truly unique city.  Located only  120 kilometers from Pakistan, Jaisalmer is a desert city, existing mostly as a base for people wanting to go on camel safaris in India’s Thar Desert.

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There are countless desert camps to choose from and many hotels in Jaisalmer offer discounted rooms for anyone booking a desert tour through them.  Our tour guide had booked ours ahead of time and I have to say that this was something he did right!   The camp where we stayed was very well run and the owner puts a lot of care into the quality of the experience he offers.  From beginning to end we loved our stay in the Thar desert!

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The Thar Desert

Camel rides to the desert camps are a quintessential part of the experience, and we met our camels (and their owners) on the side of the highway about 40 minutes away from the Pakistan border.  My camel’s name was Michael Jackson (probably because of his awesome hair!) and he was the sweetest thing!  Dave’s camel was a bit grumpy, but MJ loved being pet and he was very careful when letting me on and off, which is the most harrowing part of a camel-riding experience!

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Best desert picture, EVER!!!

We got to watch the sun set over the desert, while our guides laid in the sand.  It really was a beautiful way to spend some time and it exceeded my expectations.  Dave explored a bit and I hung out with Michael Jackson (I was worried I’d turn over a rock and a scorpion would try murdering me….Irrational?  Perhaps…)

We arrived at the camp and were very happy with our accommodations.  The tents were in better shape than a lot of the hotel rooms we’d seen.  It’s obvious that the owner of this camp takes a lot of pride in what he does.  He told us a few times how he built things a certain way so that they’d be made to last…he values quality and that was evident in all aspects of our camp experience!

Our evening was spent watching some traditional dances and listening to traditional Rajesthani music.  Once more, we were impressed!  I expected 2 or 3 songs and then for the musicians to move onto another camp…but they stayed the whole night!  We had hours of entertainment around a bonfire, under the desert sky!  Dinner was served and it was also traditional Rajesthani.  The whole experience felt very cultural, and although a lot of these types of things can sometimes feel a little kitsch,  somehow, this didn’t.

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I also got to put my photography skills to good use!  When they saw that I had a decent camera and that I liked taking photos, they asked if I wouldn’t mind taking some pictures of the camp for their future website.  These guys were so great, I gladly agreed to help out.  I just hope my photos do them justice!

We were sad to go the following morning, but before we left we were served some very tasty Aloo Parantha (a traditional Indian breakfast) and we learned later that the owner had even picked up some fresh fruit for Dave and I, in case we didn’t like the Indian breakfast!  So thoughtful!

We had such a great time in Jaisalmer!  I recommend the trip to anyone visiting Rajesthan!  It might be a bit of a drive but it is WELL worth it!!

Hazardous Banares

Varanasi (also called Banaras or Benares), is easily the craziest place I have ever experienced.  If you take regular India, which is already astoundingly crazy, and add another factor of about 10, you have Banaras!

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This is the closest I got to the river.  I originally had plans to either go in, or to at least touch the water….those plans changed once I arrived and smelled the Ganges…

Located in the North Eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is the holiest sight in all of India.  3 million Indians and 200,000 foreigners flock there every year to see the holy Ganges and the many ceremonies celebrated there.  And it isn’t only the Hindus that find this place holy.  Jainism, Buddhism and Shiekism are all linked to Varanasi as well, and about 25% of the city’s residents are Muslim, so there is a great deal of cultural diversity.  Best of all, is that all these cultures seem to come together in a peaceful way.  That, in of itself, might be a miracle!

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Preparing to bathe in the holy river

We walked along the River Ganges several times, people watching, animal watching and enjoying the old buildings and colourful scenery.  Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi is very auspicious (lucky/holy) because it means that you will no longer have to reincarnate, and instead you will find Nirvana.  Many people die and are cremated here and certain Ghats (areas of the river with steps leading into the water) are specifically reserved for that purpose.  We saw several cremations taking place, which was both fascinating and a little horrifying for our sheltered western eyes.  To the locals, this was business as usual, and there were children playing cricket in the neighboring ghat, where the smoke from the cremations blew into…

Walking along the river at night was especially interesting.  In addition to the cremations, there is a ceremony every night where people send out little floating candle offerings.  This year hasn’t been great for tourism in India, so when we were there, there were probably more salesmen than tourists.  The big seller on the banks of the Ganges:  boat rides.  Everywhere you go, people will be asking you a 1 word question:  “boat?”. Depending who you speak to, a boat ride along the Ganges can cost anywhere from 100 rupees to 1000 rupees.   The official price is suppose to be around 250 (according to government regulations), but just like everywhere else in India, the salesmen in Banaras just can’t help but try and soak you for that extra money…

Plenty of people also tried selling us hash, opium and even Colombian cocaine (doubtful).  And of course, there were always beggars around, with various ailments..some real…some badly faked.  It is considered specially good to give money to beggars in Varanasi, but it’s very unwise to do so as a foreigner.  If you give to one…not only are you encouraging a practice that the government condemns, but you’re also opening yourself up to being mobbed by 30 other beggars in the area.  I had it happen to me in China, and it was scary!  It is very hard to give in when you are being asked by children…so hard…but it’s much better that they take on jobs instead of relying on begging.  Especially with India’s growing tourism industry and the jobs that are being created with further focus on sanitation in the country, there will be more and more jobs opening up for these people in the future.

There is also life away from the Ganges’ Ghats.  This densely populated city has a population of about 1.2 million residents.  When you add in tourism, there are some very full roads.  Varanasi is also quite poor, so the infrastructure leaves something to be desired.  In an alley barely wide enough to fit 1 car, you’ll find Tuk Tuk’s, rickshaws and cars all weaving around each other, while pedestrians and people on bikes try to get out of the way.  And of course, there is livestock everywhere as well.  We saw plenty of cows, goats, pigs, chickens and even a few horses walking the roads of Banaras.  Considering that the holy city is larger than the capital of my home province (Winnipeg, Manitoba), the variety of animals in the streets is surprising to anyone just arriving in India.

And if you think I must be exaggerating about the state of Varanasi’s roads, I will provide proof of the mayhem.  This is a combinations of several videos I took while visiting the holy city.

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A picture of the ‘back seat’ mentioned by the tuk tuk driver.  He insisted that he could fit all 3 of our suitcases…us…and him (plus 2 back packs).  Something tells me that wouldn’t have been a pleasant ride…

If markets and the River aren’t what you seek in Varanasi, there are also plenty of temples to see.   According to Wikipedia, there are an estimated 23,000 temples in Varanasi, ranging from small shrines to massive stone structures.  We didn’t go into any this time around  because we’ve seen enough to last us a lifetime.  Instead, we walked the busy streets and spent an afternoon at a small cafe near Assi Ghat.  Open Hand Cafe was wonderful…playing English music (the Dixie Chicks!!) and serving excellent coffee.  Best of all, they sell items made by disabled women and children, who are unable to otherwise create income on their own.  With fixed and fair prices, it’s an excellent place to make purchases.

In short, in Banares you will experience everything from fully visible cremations to near death experiences on the road to people claiming to be selling Colombian cocaine.  No matter what your interests are…Varanasi has something for you!!!

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And always remember…you may think you’re cool…but you’ll never be as cool as these guys!!  (they were probably about 14 years old…)

We’re home now…but don’t worry!  I’m not done writing about India just yet!  Stay tuned for my posts about the Taj Mahal, our night in the desert and our final days in Delhi!

 

Movin’ Mumbai – Bustlin’ Bombay

We are sitting at The Mark Cafe, a 2 minute walk from the River Ganges, and it’s Valentine’s day.  Dave and I have a habit of spending the most romantic day of the year in foreign countries, and although this Valentines day has probably been the furthest thing from Romance that we’ve seen, it’s been interesting in its own right.  I’ll be writing about Varanasi, or Banares, next time though.  For now, I’ll be writing about the mayhem that is Mumbai.

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The Mumbai Skyline

Mumbai, formerly called Bombay (during the Brittish rule of India), is a port city on India’s west coast.  It’s the home of Bollywood, the world’s largest open-air street food market and is also India’s most populous city.  There isn’t a whole lot to do in Mumbai, so we didn’t stay very long, but a day and a half was ample time to see the sights that deserve to be seen.

 

What makes Mumbai so remarkable, as far as I’m concerned anyway, is its architecture.  Because the city has been under both Portuguese and British rule in addition to its Hindu and Muslim history, there are so many interesting buildings to see!

One of the difficulties of being in Bombay though, is the security…

There’s some ugly history here.  Some fundamentalist Hindu groups have caused problems for the Muslim population (killing over 1000 Muslims in 1992 and 1993 during riots) and in return, Muslim fundamentalist groups have bombed popular tourist sights and other places of interest in Mumbai.  There has been peace in the city now since 2011, but as precaution, there are metal detectors going into every shopping mall and every tourist sight.  Even going to Starbucks, means having your bag searched, being patted down and walking through a metal detector.  Scary stuff…

But not all of Mumbai was scary…like every city in India, they have an abundance of farm animals running through the streets….Also, the taxis here all have funny designs on their ceilings.  They’re quite nice actually, as far as taxis go.  And everyone uses their meters so HAZZAA!!!  No arguing required!!

My next post will be about the most insane city I have ever visited…stay tuned for my post on Varanasi – Home of the River Ganges.

Gorgeous Goa

Without a doubt, the best part of our trip to date has been our stay in Goa.  Not only were we near the ocean (where I feel my soul should always be…), but you can’t help but relax in Goa.  The palm trees, beautful sunny weather and soft sand always makes you feel like you’re in a bit of a dream.  The sales people aren’t as pushy, the beach is prestine and well maintained and the food is fantastic!  Of course, our stay in Goa didn’t exactly start idealy….

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Goa has a rugged beauty about it…unlike the countries I’ve seen in the Carribean…things aren’t so tame and trimmed here.

We had dinner on the beach and enjoyed some truely fantastic continental food on Patnem beach.  We watched some fire throwers perform and we enjoyed a walk in the water.  Our first night and even the first day weren’t too eventful…actually they were quite enjoyable!  Other than the fact that I couldn’t hear anything out of my right ear, of course….

Honking in India is prolific.  It’s worse than it had been in Guiyang and when you’re walking down the street, that’s bad news for your ears.  It’s especially bad news when you’re walking through a tunnel and someone decides to honk right as they’re passing you…

This happened to us while we were in Jaisalmer.  I felt a lot of pain in my ear for about a day and then forgot about it…until we had to fly.  Flying when you  have a messed up ear is not fun!  As the week in Goa progressed though, my ear started to pop a little bit and my hearing returned.  It’s still incredibly sensitive but Dave doesn’t have to shout for me to be able to hear him anymore, so that’s nice!

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It’s a good thing Goa is so visually stunning…I was able to keep my mind off the weaker of my senses by enjoys views like this!

We also had some difficulties at our first hotel (I woke up with 30 mosquito bites on 1 arm alone….), so we transferred to a resort.  We’ve decided that this trip is already costing us more than expected…we may as well pay a little more and save my sanity!!  The idea of beach huts is great…until you’re actually in one and the mosquito net above your bed doesn’t do a thing!!!

We spent most of our trip doing 2 things:  scooting around the countryside and sitting on the beach.  Both were highly enjoyable!  You wouldn’t believe the colours in India!  Bright colours are very popular here, both in terms of clothing and in terms of paint!

There is a lot of wealth in Goa and nothing shows that more than their houses!  We saw aquamarine mansions…purple mansions…even yellow mansions!  I wish I could have gotten pictures of all of them, but that would have meant pulling over every few minutes for photos, so I just took what I could from the back of our moving scooter.

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This peach coloured mansion extended way into the back as well.

The nice thing about renting a scooter is that you can go out anytime, and go wherever you want.  Because we weren’t at the mercy of a driver, we got to see way more local life in Goa than we did in Rajesthan.  I always say that it isn’t really a vacation until Dave and I rent a scooter!!

My favourite thing about Goa though was the beaches.  It was so great relaxing in the sun and watching the sun go down over the water.   I swear I belong near the ocean…I can’t think of a sound I find more relaxing that waves on the shore.

And of course, it’s always fun playing in the sun too…

 

Our second last night in Goa was spent at a fantastic little restaurant on a the beach called Pedros.  As we were finishing our meal, one of the musicians from the live band came over and asked us if either of us wanted to perform.  Dave quickly volunteered me…I played Mr Jones and then sang while he played Summer of 69!  Great fun!!!

So that was our week in Goa.  We are now in Varanasi…the holy sight of the River Ganges.  There’s a very different vibe here and I find myself  missing the smell of saltwater…