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!!

The end of the Rajasthani Road

I have fallen very behind in my writing because although Goa is beautiful and relaxing, the internet there is the worst we’ve seen.  Still, tonight it was behaving for a while so I began the process of uploading pictures into wordpress…whether or not the internet holds out well enough for me to actually finish my post tonight, is another affair entirely… (it didn’t…I’m now in Mumbai, finishing the post!)

We finished our time in Rajesthan in the city of Jodpur.  Nicknamed ‘The Blue City”, Jodpur is famous for the massive fort that sits above the city.  We stayed in a gorgeous old Haveli-turned-hotel and had a stunning view of it.  As I wrote my last post (Jaisalmer), this was the view I had to admire while I worked.

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We were pretty shopped-out by the time we reached Jodpur, so the markets were of no interest to us.  Still, we wound up in one, only to buy some water and be asked at least 20 times where we’re from.  We’ve realized, over the course of our stay in India, that people here think Canada is made up of 2 parts:  The French Part and The English Part.  They’re always very confused when I say that we live in the ‘English Part where many people also speak French…and German…’.

I’ve realized, since we left our driver behind, that Prama is like wine…he got better as the trip progressed (not a lot better…but better…).  Because the fort was so far from our hotel, we weren’t able to get around on foot and were sort of at Prama’s mercy when it came to what we would see.  But, instead of bringing us to Emporiums (where he’d make commission off of any of our purchases)…he brought us to a lovely (free!) park!  We saw monkeys, beautiful gardens and eventually stumbled upon some beautiful old temples that reminded me of Ayuttaya in Thailand.

This is where I’m going to make note of something I realized while walking along the temples in this park.  In many temples (especially active ones), you must remove your shoes if you wish to enter.  In warmer places this isn’t an issue, but in Delhi it drove me nuts because the stone was so cold under my feet that my legs were cramping.  We missed out on a lot of temples because I just couldn’t deal with the pain in my leg (my leg is doing much better these days…but it still has its limits).  In Rajesthan it wasn’t too bad so we took off our shoes and toured the old buildings.  When we were on our way back through the park though, we saw this….

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That’s all garbage…

I took this picture about 5 minutes away from the temple where we took off our shoes to show respect and to avoid tracking dirt into Hindu sacred space.  Seeing yet more garbage in a beautiful park made me wish that Indians treated their country the way they treat their temples.  For people who are so profoundly religious and deligent in their duties to the gods (not eating beef, treating animals with respect, the most devout are vegetarian or vegan), they completely ignore their duties to nature.  The number of times we’ve seen garbage like this has been depressing!  India’s current president, Narendra Modi, is putting a lot of effort into cleaning up the country, but he has a long road ahead.  It’s a good thing he works 18 hours a day, because I can’t imagine how he’d get anything done if he didn’t!! (Jay, from Jaisalmer, is a big Modi fan.  We learned all sorts of things about him!  I have hope for this president!).

Ok…I digress…

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A worthy digression if ever there was one…

Our next stop was to the big site to see in Jodpur:  The fort!  We’ve seen several in Rajesthan and it seems like every city has both a fortress and a palace to tour, but Lonely Planet spoke especially well of this one, so we paid the 500 rupees each (50 for locals) and the extra 100 rupees for our camera (free for locals) and we took the tour.  It was honestly worth the money…There was lots to see and the audio tour was very well done.  My only complaint was the hoards of Indian tour guides that all insisted on shouting above one another and pushing anyone who wasn’t paying them out of the way…I was nearly knocked over at one exibit, while looking at the ornate elephant seats from Jodpur’s history.

The audio tour was awesome…it told us the history of the fort.  I learned that it has never been taken by an enemy and I even heard the stories behind the cannon holes in the walls.  There was a lot of battling between the Kings of the different Rajesthani settlements back in the day.  It was neat learning their history.

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The red circle is around a hole caused by Jaipur canons.  The king of Jodpur had been offended by the neighboring royalty, so he ordered a carivan of wedding gifts to be seized on its way to Jaipur.  Jaipur retaliated by (unsuccessfully) trying to take Jodpur fort.

Also interesting were some of the artifacts in the museum part of the fort.  In addition to the elephant seats, there were also carriages that carried the kings and queens of Jodpur.  You can tell which carriages were womens’ because they hid the women away behind curtains and stained glass.  In the past, women in India lived in Purdah…only to be seen by their immediate family.  Women often hid in seperate rooms when guests came to the house, to keep themselves from the ‘prying and lustful eyes of men’ (my favorite line from the audio tour).  This particular carriage was of significance, because it belonged to the queen that was alive during the Brittish take-over of the country.  The Brittish were very interested in the royal families and wanted to know what the women looked like, but all they ever got to see was a flash of the queen’s ankle as she walked up the steps of her carriage.

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This carriage

A photographer managed to get a picture of that ankle and a story was suppose to be published the following day in Brittish newspapers but the royal family intereceded and the pictures never went to print.  A little different from our culture, where Kim Kardashian can ‘break the internet’

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The only picture in the shoot where she was still wearing any clothes….

Our final stop in Jodpur was at the ‘mini Taj Mahal of Jodpur’.  A king had it built for his queen, when he heard of the Taj Mahal being built.  He thought it was a beautiful act, so he wished to do the same.  It isn’t as grand or as semetrical as the Taj Mahal (more on that in the future!), but it was beautiful in its own way!

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I’ll leave you now with some pictures of our hotel/Palace!  This was probably our favorite hotel in all of Rajesthan, not only because of the great restaurant, but also because of the gorgeous view and the beautiful rooms.  For anyone reading this and looking for a great place to stay…Krishna Prakash Heritage Hevali is where it’s at!

And the grounds were beautiful too!!

Next up will be Goa!  We seem to have better internet in Mumbai, so  I should be able to post again tomorrow! (Unless we are out exploring…)

Thanks for stopping by!!   Anyone visiting my blog with questions regarding any of the places we have been can feel free to leave me comments in the questions section!  I will do my best to answer any and all that are asked!

 

Jaisalmer: The Crown Jewel of Rajesthan

Before I begin writing about Jaisalmer, I should explain why I have not yet written about the Taj Mahal or about our night in the desert.  I have realized that keeping up with writing everything is extremely difficult, so I’m saving my very specaial posts (such as the ones listed above) for when we’re back in China, and I have access to my laptop for proper editing and such…

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Discalaimer:  If you do not enjoy pictures of camels, my post about the desert may not be your cup of tea…

But until then, I have plenty of other things to write about!  So don’t worry, I haven’t given up yet!!

We spent 3 nights in Jaisalmer, making it the longest stay of our trip so far.  This is fortunate, because it happened to be the highlight of our Rajesthan tour!  In addition to our fabulous night in the desert, we also got to tour the city itself, and Jaisalmer Fort, which were both spectacular places to tour!

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A view of the Golden City rom its famed fort

The city of Jaisalmer is nicknamed ‘The Golden City’.  The reason: most of the buildings there are built of sandstone.  So, like the desert surrounding it, Jaisalmer has a golden glow for tourists to admire.

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Sandstone is also quite soft, as far as stones are concerned, so artists are able to carve intricate patterns into the walls of all the buildings.

The markets here are similar to all the others we’ve seen in India so far.  Here though, we were able to see the highly prestigious ‘National Egg Center’ and view a handicraft that has made Jaisalmer famous:  camel-leather bags.  The leather comes from camels that have died of natural causes, and there were a wide range of them to see.  Some were quite pretty.   I don’t know why I never thought to take any pictures…

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See here:  The National Egg Center

The fort was my favourite part of the city though, because it’s different from many others that we’ve seen.  This towering fortress is home to about 4000 people who own livestock (we saw cows goats and chickens…all within the fort walls) and set up all sorts of shops and restaurants for the tourists who visit.  One local business owner told us that Jaisalmer’s tourism industry is vital for about 70% of the population.  This fort is a big part of that industry.

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A view of the fort from the city

 

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citizens set up shop

We met some really fantastic people in Jaisalmer.  One man asked us if we needed directions and before we knew it, we were up in his inherited Haveli, which is a sort of mini-palace where royalty once lived.  For 6 generations, his family has had this haveli, and instead of charging tourists to come see it (which many locals do), he offers free tours and shows us the handicrafts that he sells for the women in small villages that surround Jaisalmer.  He sells everything at such a great price we bought some things we hadn’t planned on both for ourselves and as gifts.

Another woman was a true inspiration…

Many women in India lead difficult lives.  Traditionally, women were expected to throw themselves on their deceased husbands’ cremation fires because they could not be expected to live without them.  Today, this practice is banned, but widows are still very badly treated.  Because women are expected to stay home with children and to cook and clean, when their husbands (who are typically older than they are) die, they are left without the means to survive.  Bellisima is a company that helps those women as well as many other womens’ groups.  

They sell textiles, jewelery, scarves, trinkets and other souvenires to help women who are in need.  They also empower women to make their own income…even if that means using their limited free time to do so.

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And widows are not the only group of women who need help.  Women aren’t throwing themselves on funeral pyres anymore, but rape victims are often blamed for the crimes committed against them, and family shunning is common.  The woman we spoke to here had been disowned by her husband’s family because she wanted to use her education to help women in India.  Luckily, she married a man who supports her decision, allowing her to work hard and begin to change the mindset that women are second class citizens.

I purchased a scarf and Dave and I chose a beautiful table cloth that was hand stitched by local women.  It was more than we intended to spend that day, but this is the type of place that I want to support.  I can buy a scarf in any bazaar of any city, but to support a movement that is helping change India for the better…that’s a scarf I will wear with pride!

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Why not buy something beautiful and support a good cause all at once?  Above is one of many wall hangings you can purchase at Bellisima.  I didn’t get any photos of my scarf yet because it is still packed up…

This is our last night in Rajesthan, and tomorrow we’ll be heading to the beautiful beaches of Goa!  Before I go though, here’s a funny picture to finish my post with:  there was a cricket match playing in this shop…

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Thanks for stopping by!

Pilgrimage to Pushkar

Oh Rajesthan:  The contrast continues!

I am writing this post from the lobby of our hotel because the internet doesn’t work in our room (it also barely works here…I’ve resorted to typing this up in Wordpad and I plan to copy and paste it later).  The internet on our phones has been working beautifully, but I’m nearly out of data now so Wifi is becoming increasingly important.  It doesn’t seem that the hotels in India care to spend more than they have to on their guests, so the toilet paper provided is minimal, the internet is sketchy if it exists at all and the facilities in the rooms are minimal at best.  For anyone who isn’t well traveled, I can’t imagine India being a very enjoyable place.  For those of us who have stayed in the cockroach infested hostels of southern China though, it’s been bareable enough.  I’m happy to have read many blogs ahead of time and I came prepared with my hair dryer and we’ve been buying toilet paper in town when we start to run low.

 

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This is our 3rd stop in this desert province, and we are so far impressed by both its beauty and also by the unique characteristics that define each city.  Jaipur, the pink city, was buzzing with bazaars that are a clausterphobic’s nightmare.   Udaipur’s peaceful lake gives the city a much calmer feel, but as soon as you enter the street, you are once more overwhelmed by the shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers.  Pushkar, our current destination, is different yet.  It’s a sleepy town (as far as India’s concerned) and the fact that it is a pilgrimage destination gives both its cuisine and its tourists some different traits.

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On the surface, all Bazaars may look the same, but this was one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen.  It was much more relaxed with a lot less traffic than others we’ve seen in India

Pushkar is one of 5 important pilgrimage sights in India (we’ll be visiting a second, Varinasi, later in our trip).  People travel here to see the holy lake where Brahma, a Hindu god, was said to drop a lotus flower (India’s national flower).  Some of Ghandi’s ashes were also scattered in this lake, so it is definitely an interesting little stop

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Pushkar Lake

People are far less pushy in Pushkar and many of the prices in the bazaar are fixed.   Even when prices aren’t stated right upfront, the barganing is way less brutal, so we did some clothes shopping while we were there.  Without rickshaws everywhere, it was a lot less stressfull here than it had been in Udaipur.  I don’t think we’d have wanted to do more than 1 day in Pushkar, but overall, the time we spent there was very much enjoyed.

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One aspect of Pushar though, was not quite to our taste, so to speak.  Because it is such a holy place, meat is non-existant there, and it was even impossible to get eggs.  This wasn’t too big of a deal for me, because my stomach took a turn for the worse in Udaipur and I was mostly just nibbling on french fries, but Dave wasn’t too pleased!  As I write this now, we are in Jaisalmer, and I have to admit that after nearly a week of strict vegetarian diet, Dave and I were very excited to order meat for dinner tonight!!

We did make some animal friends though, so that made up for the lacking diet…

My absolute favorite part of Pushkar though was neither the markets nor the lake.   Our hotel had a very special tenant that made my stay in this small city…

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A Great Dane with floppy ears and a sweet disposition

We called him Frankie because we didn’t know his actual name (or if he even had one…) and not only was he friendly and incredibly sweet, but he was also an excellent judge of character!  While he adored us, leaning up against me and always asking for more scratches… he HATED our driver, Prama.  We don’t like him either, and I think Frankie could sense that because as soon as Prama came near us, this loveable dog would start barking at him until he left.  This dog stole my heart…

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The best part was that Prama was terrified of this goofball!!!  Gawd I love Danes!!!!!

Tomorrow we head out on our desert safari!  I’m very much looking forward to writing about it!  Until then, I’ll leave you with some pictures of the beautiful Rajesthani countryside.

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We have seen SO MANY monkeys!  These are Black Monkeys: just 1 of 15 species of monkey found in India
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Our driver made himself useful today and took us to a migration sight for Demoiselle Cranes.  They spend 5 months away from their home, in Russia, and they’ve chosen this spot in Rhajesthan because Jaine Monks were feeding them regularly.  Today we saw about 1000 of these birds.

Internet permitting, I’ll be back upon our return from a night out in the desert!!!

A Country of Contrast

Today was a much better day for my relationship with India.

We are currently in the town of Udaipur.  With a tiny population of only half a million, Udaipur has a small town feel…by Indian standards, anway.  It sits alongside a gorgeous lake and the buildings are well maintained and clean, unlike New Delhi.  The pollution is so much better here and it was actually warm enough for shorts today, so it was bound to be an improvement from our experiences 2 days ago!

However, the biggiest differentiating factor was neither weather nor pollution related.  As is so often the case, our attitudes made all the difference.  Today, instead of lamenting over the price we paid for our tour, and complaining about the cost of every attraction, we walked around absorbing local art and the winding streets of Udaipur.  We stopped in little shops and spoke to artists and even took a time out from the crowds to enjoy some coffees at a cafe.  It gave me time to write in my journal, which is excellent therapy in of itself.

Of course, we weren’t able to escape all of the unpleasant aspects of India.  Poverty is aparent here too and we saw far too many skinny dogs on the streets.  And, as was the case in Jaipur and Delhi, we were always given very inflated prices at the shops.  The difference today, however, was that we weren’t afraid to bargain hard.  We purchased a beautiful painting and got it for less than half the price he originally asked.

Of course, on the other hand, there is also enormous wealth in this city, as is obvious when you see the hotels in the area…

Such contrast..

After days of sight seeing, we decided to skip the city palace (which, we were later told, was a good idea!).  At this point, we’ve seen palaces in several countries and I saw enough Hindu temples in Cambodia to last me a lifetime.  Instead  of spending our money on those sites, we took a sunset cruise which provided me with infinite opportunities for photographing the beautiful city.

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Tomorrow we head to a small, sleepy little city named Pushkar.  I’m excited to see it; we’ve heard from several other tourists that it’s a quiet little place, with set prices and friendly people.

The Problem with People

 

The world is a funny place.  All I have wanted to do, for as long as I can remember, is to travel.  And I have.  In the 29 years I’ve lived so far, I’ve seen 6 Canadian provinces, 5 US states and 9 Chinese Provinces (plus Hong Kong and Macao, which don’t actually count as Chinese provinces but sort of are…).  I’ve  also visited Cuba, Thailand, Cambodia and now India and I’ve gotta say…everywhere I go, people are pretty much the same.

We all basically have the same needs,  no matter what our religion, ideology or race may be.  We all want to feel safe and to have a place that we can call a home.  We all suffer defeats and achieve our goals and feel defiance and pride and a great deal of other emotions.  We all have families and loved ones and we all want what’s best for them.  Everyone you meet is looking for the same basic things you are…but it’s hard to remember that when you are in the face of a strange culture where you are ‘the other’.

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A store selling Indian rugs.  None of them can fly…

I made a new friend in Suzhou recently.   He found a good job as a chemist in China and is currently dealing with Culture Shock.  When he was at our place a few weekends ago with his girlfriend, he mentioned that nobody ever writes about that stuff in blogs.  Everyone writes about how lovely travel is; how rewarding it is to learn about other cultures.  I laughed and said that although some of my posts can be downers, most of the time, i try to put a positive spin on my experiences.  Mostly I do this because I find it helpful to look for a positive when I’m in a negative situation.  But if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, part of me really wants to hang onto that idea that travel is all lollipops and rainbows…

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Nobody talks about the line ups you wait in so that you can go see an overpriced attraction.  And nobody wants to talk about the traveller’s diareha!  It’s real and it’s awful!!!

So let’s be honest for a moment…

Today was one of those rotten travel days.  We’re beginning to realize how much we overpaid for our tour and we’re both getting tired of being treated like walking piggy banks.  We had a group of children follow us through the bazaar today, trying to sell us something (we aren’t sure what) and we’ve had countless people grab our arms and try to bring us into their stores to sell us their goods for 10x the price they’d charge a local.  It’s exhausting knowing that you can’t really trust anyone when you are travelling….being a tourist can really jade you in that way…

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Can you spot the difference?  This isn’t actually very surprising or unfair.  We don’t pay taxes to keep up these beautiful places so it’s only fair that we pay more than the locals.  What’s unfair is that we had been told by our tour operator that all the sights we’d be seeing were free.  This one was the cheapest one we could find today…

Of course, we do have some coping mechanisms.  Sometimes it’s an inappropriate joke (every tourist makes them).  I recognize that it can be culturally inappropriateive or offensive to laugh at Chinese medicine or to make a joke about Ganesh and his giant elephant head, but it’s sort of like laughing at a funeral…sometimes an inappropriate joke is the only thing you can do to relieve the tension that has built up with every encounter you’ve had throughout the day.

Because really, at the end of the day….people suck!   We are a sefish group, we really are!  We are destroying the earth because we are too lazy to recycle plastic bags or to walk to the store.  We allow corporations to treat their employees like garbage because it saves us money on our groceries.  We use animals for entertainment when we go to Swim With the Dolphin programs or when we go on an elephant ride.

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Disclaimer:  This animal was tortured for months so that you can ride on its back!!

And for some reason…we (and  I’m referring to all of human kind) think that people from other countries are somehow ‘less’ than we are.  Canadians have the resources and space and jobs (yes jobs!) to take in refugees but many are against it, because they think Canadian lives somehow matter more.  Somehow we have to fix ALL our  problems before we can hep anyone else…why should we all have to be living at 100% happiness before starving children and families fleeing war can be helped?  How are they less important??

It’s the same on this side of the planet.  I’ve been taken advantage of in nearly every country I’ve visited because of my white skin and my accent.  Somehow, because I’m Canadian, it’s ok to take advantage of me because I have ‘so much money’ and I can always make more.   I came here with a budget that I need to stick with….so all our tour guide did by charging us 30% more than he needed to, was to take away from what we would have spent on the second half of our trip.

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This also means that we have less money to tip musicians and artists who are trying to make a living without begging.  These are people I like to support.

And yes, these are trivial problems.  I’m sure some of you at home are rolling your eyes and hating me for ranting about my ‘first world problems’…but there are bigger issues too…

I did a lot of research before coming to India because I knew it would be very easy to get sick here  Disentary is something many travelers suffer from while in India and I did not want to be one of those unlucky travelers.  Basically, the water in India is very contaminated and dirty.  So dirty, in fact, that you are told to brush your teeth with mineral water and not tap water.

This means that all raw fruits and vegetables are off limits to us…because if they were washed with tap water (and they probably were), we will get sick.  And I’m not talking about a tummy ache….many people need to be hospitalized and are on medications for months if they catch something from the water here.  It’s no laughing matter.

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We are also on a vegetarian diet while we’re here, because meat is often unsafe.  We’re only ordering it in top notch restaurants, and even then, I find myself sticking with Dhal (lentils and chickpeas)

So when I learned that you are suppose to crush your empty water bottle when it’s finished, so that scam artists can’t refill it with TAP WATER and resell it in the market place, I wanted to scream.  These aren’t just people who are trying to make an extra buck off of me…I can understand why those people resent me.  I am no better than them…i was just lucky enough to have been born in Canada.  I can forgive them for taking as much as they can… After all, many of them are supporting extended families as well as their own children.

But there are actually people here who are knowingly getting people sick to make a few extra rupees…. That’s a completely new level of behavior.  That goes so far beyond ‘doing what you have to go get by’.

So that’s how it is.  That’s what it can be like to travel in foreign countries.  Tourists aren’t protected by the same laws we have in Canada here, because let’s face it….their government has bigger fish to fry.   The number of homeless people in India is astounding and my tourism dollars can go a very long way to help those people…I just wish so much of that money wasn’t in our tour operator’s pocket…

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The number of stray dogs is astounding…you see them curled up in the boulevard between lanes, trying to sleep like this

But I will leave you on a happy note..

We had a lovely walk today through Old Jaipur.  We set out early and were walking through as everyone was just getting set up for the day.  The crowds weren’t out yet, and we were able to walk along slowly, taking in the Pink City.  And the most wonderful thing, was all the smiling.  We had several people give us the warmest, most genuinely beautiful smiles.   They couldn’t communicate with us verbally (now that we’re out of the capital, fewer people speak English), but they spoke in a way that they could.  Indian people, as a whole, are so wonderfully inviting.  It’s a shame that the bad apples all flock to the tourist industry, where they tarnish the name of a country that is otherwise, welcoming and vibrant.

And we finished our day at Tiger Fort, where we watched the sun go down over the Pink City.

And while today i do feel that people suck….my love for animals remains…

And there is an abundance of them in India…

I will be back soon!