With our busy schedule and touch-and-go internet access, it’s been harder than we thought to keep up with a blog!! I’m going to use this post as a way to keep track of the places we’ve been and the things we’ve done there. Hopefully we’ll get around to posting more detailed entries on a lot of these places later!
Delhi was our first glimpse of India, and it took us a while to adjust to the hussle! We were also both dealing with “Delhi Belly” pretty much the entire time we were here. The things we visited in Delhi included the Red Fort, Jantar Mantar, Delhi National Museum, Jama Masjid, the Delhi Zoo, Purana Qila, and Mitch’s mother’s friend Sharon.
We didn’t originally have Rishikesh on our schedule, but after Delhi we needed to go somewhere peaceful to relax for a few days. Rishikesh was a good choice – it’s a small, quiet town along the banks of the Ganges in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Ganges is pretty clean up there near its source, so we waded around in the river a bit (BRR!). Unfortunately Emily had to spend a lot of time in the hotel room due to a sinus infection caused by an ice cold bus ride, but we did make it to the Dussehra celebration where kids set off TONS of fireworks (often into the crowd) and they burn (“explode” is actually a more fitting verb) an effigy of the demon Ravan.
While in Rishikesh, we heard about a jeep safari in the nearby town of Haridwar that takes you out to look for wild elephants – obviously we had to go. Unfortunately, the tour operators failed to mention that the park where the elephants live is actually closed this time of year, and they just took us around the outside of the park. It was still a beautiful drive in an interesting area, and we got to visit a mountain top temple and a remote ‘village’ (I don’t know if you could really call it that, there were only a few people living there) where they grew some kind of rice, but we were still bummed about the dishonesty and lack of elephants.
We came to Agra to see, obviously, the Taj Mahal, but we also found a lot of other neat things to visit – the “Baby Taj“, the Red Fort, and Mitch finally found an antique shop to poke around in. My favorite place we visited there was actually about 20 minutes outside of the city – a slothbear rescue run by an organization called Wildlife SOS. The group rescues “Dancing Bears“, who are horribly mistreated (taken from their mothers in the wild at the age of about 15 days, teeth and claws ripped out, a needle and rope run up through their noses as a method of control). Not only does the organization rescue the bears, but they also help the bear trainers and their families. The bear trainers sign a form that says they will never work with wild animals again, and in return they are given a fairly large chunk of money to use to start a new career. In addition, their wives and daughters are trained in jobs like jewelry making or sewing so that they can help bring income into the family, and their children are sent to school. This way, the former bear trainers won’t be forced to go capture new bears to make a living. The organization believes that it has rescued all the dancing bears, and currently has around 250 bears at their facility.
The only thing that makes Fatehpur Sikri worth a trip is the abandoned Moghul city that rises above the town. Most people come here as a day trip from Agra, but we decided to spend 3 days in the town and relax. We had fun poking around the massive Moghul complex, but Emily also got the worst food poisoning of her life.
Bharatpur is world famous in the bird-watching community for Keoladeo National Park. The park is one of the most important nesting sites in the world for a lot of rare migratory birds, such as Sarus Cranes, Painted Storks, White Spoonbills, and many more – there are over 370 species of birds in the park. We went into the park twice – once with a guide on a cycle rickshaw, and once by ourselves on rented bikes.
Ranthambore National Park is a Tiger Reserve located near the small town of Sawai Madhopur. The only way to go into the park and (if you’re lucky) see the tigers is to go on a government run safari in a Jeep or Canter (kind of like a really big jeep that holds around 40 people). Due to some scalping issues they’ve had with tickets in the past, it is a PAIN to get tickets. To go on the morning safari, we had to be awake at 3:30am and in line at the ticket office by around 4:15am – the safari didn’t leave until 9am. There was a lot of pushing and shoving and fist fights almost broke out numerous times over people cutting in line. We didn’t see a tiger on our first safari and went on a second one in the afternoon – no such luck then either. We were bummed about not seeing any tigers, but Ranthambore is quite possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life and we really enjoyed the safaris despite the lack of big cats.
There is also a large fort on the jungle mountaintop just outside the park which was so amazing the we also visited it twice.
In the town, there was a small, abandoned temple just a couple hundred yards from the main street that Mitch was itching to go photograph. However, when we asked some locals about it, they said that tigers often visit the temple and that going there was a BAD idea.
We also stayed one night in Ranthambore in permanent tent built on a hotel roof – probably the most unique place we’ve stayed in India so far.
We planned our visit to Jaipur around the Indian holiday of Diwali, as Jaipur is said to be the city which does the most celebrating on this day. Diwali is huge in India, basically Christmas and the 4th of July rolled into one bright, loud celebration. It is officially the “Festival of Lights”, so everyone puts up lots of Christmas light style lights. The other major parallel that Diwali shares with Christmas is the shopping! Being out in the Bazaar on the day before Diwali was just like being at the mall the day before Christmas. Diwali is also an excuse for everyone to set off never-ending supplies of Indian fireworks. There were hundreds of temporary firework shops around the city, and they’d sell to anyone (I think there were more children setting off explosives than adults). They seem to have a lot of fireworks here that aren’t legal in the US – mainly very LOUD ones. Mitch looked up the ingredients from a fireworks box he found and it was basically a fertilizer bomb. If you ever visit Jaipur for Diwali, don’t plan on getting much sleep.
While in Jaipur, we also did a “Jaipur by Night” tour, visited the Prince Albert Hall Museum, and the Amber Fort (very impressive).
Bikaner has all sorts of exciting spots to visit if you’re an animal lover! The number one place that Mitch and I have been looking forward to going to in Bikaner since long before leaving the US is the Rat Temple. Most people have heard of this through Nat Geo – a temple filled with thousands of worshiped rats. Maybe more than thousands. People come from far and wide to feed the rats Indian sweets and rice, and it’s considered lucky if a rat runs over your feet (and VERY lucky if you see one of the rare white rats). About an hour tuk-tuk ride from Bikaner, we realized that Nat Geo and all the guide books fail to mention one minor detail – since this is an active temple, you have to go in barefoot. And, as it turns out, most of these overcrowded rats are quite sickly. Still (Mom and Dad, you may want to skip this sentence!), we’d been looking forward to this for a long time and had traveled a long way to get there, so we did go in.
Next on our Bikaner list was the ‘National Research Center on Camel‘. They do all sorts of interesting research here, and have attractions such as camel rides, a camel museum, a camel milk parlor, and a couple of gift shops which feature items made from camel leather and bone (from camels at the facility who have died of natural causes). They also have a herd of a couple hundred camels from three species.
We also went on a Camel Safari in the desert surrounding the town. The man who owns the hotel we stayed in is also an expert on the surrounding desert plants and animals, and a herpetologist PhD candidate. He took us out in his car to show us some desert life, then dropped us in a small mud hut village where we got on our camels. We opted for the 5 hour safari rather than an overnight trip – this turned out to be for the better as we were both VERY sore after a few hours on the camels!
Before leaving Bikaner, we also visited Junagarh Fort.
Jodhpur is home to another attraction which we’ve been looking forward to for a very long time – a series of six zip lines over the hugely impressive Mehrangarh Fort. This was just as awesome as it sounds like it should be. Emily took video on her GoPro, but it’s still hard to get a sense for what it felt like to be flying over the fort and surrounding scenic gorges!
There is so much to see in Jodhpur and we felt like we barely scratched the surface, so we decided to come back again later in our trip.
Pushkar was, once again, another big stop that we’d been looking forward to. Specifically, the Pushkar Camel Fair! The fair is the largest gathering of camels on the planet and a VERY fun time. Thousands of camels everywhere, most decorated to the nines (we sent home some decorative camel-tack in hopes of a future pet-Halloween-costume), ‘camel-taxis’ (big 2-wheeled carts being towed by camels), shoddy Indian carnival rides (we rode a ferris wheel that moved at about 35 MPH – WHEE!), fried street food, camel and horse dancing competitions, a mustache competition, turban tying competition, etc etc etc.
Pushkar also happens to be a holy site, with the whole town clustered around a holy lake. Our hotel was right along the edge of the lake… this translated to LOTS of noise at all hours. Men spoke in Hindi on megaphones late into the night and started again (often with fireworks) around 5:30am every morning. At certain hours during the day, thousands of people gathered on the ghats (stairs leading into the water) to bathe in the holy water.
We had a blast at the Camel Fair, but felt that we didn’t get much of a feel for the town itself, and decided that we would also come back to Pushkar at a later date.
We weren’t originally planning to go as far west in Rajasthan as Jaisalmer, but we heard so many good things about it that we tweaked our schedule to fit it in! Most of the city is within an old fort on a hill. The fort and most of the city is made of beautiful golden sandstone, so the whole place ends up looking like a giant sand castle! One of the main tourist activities in Jaisalmer is riding camels at Sam’s Sand Dunes. EVERYONE and their mother has a camel business and promises to take you to ‘a special non-tourist spot where you won’t see anyone else’. We couldn’t go 10 feet in Jaisalmer without someone trying to sell us a tourist package! We decided not to ride any camels while we were there, since we’d already done that in Bikaner, but we did have to go check out the famous Sam’s Sand Dunes. They were very crowded with camels and tourists, but still a gorgeous spot to watch the sun set!
We had one other fun experience in Jaisalmer. We were walking back to our hotel after dinner one night, and spotted a van with “SnakeCell.org” on the side. Of course, Mitch had to go introduce himself and find out what the van had to do with snakes! The van turned out to belong to a man who called himself ‘Captain’ and did snake education (teaching people which snakes were poisonous and how to deal with them without killing them on site). Captain offered to take us out in his van the next day to search for soft scaled vipers and do some photography in the country side. We didn’t find any snakes, but we did have an awesome day seeing scenery that not many tourists get to see!
We were excited to get to Udaipur because there was SO much to do there! We didn’t end up getting to do as much as we wanted to because we got terrible food poisening part way through our stay, but we did fit a lot in! The town is in the hills around a gorgeous lake. We visited the palace museum right on the lake which had lots of neat stained glass, old furniture, and gorgeous views of the lake! We also visited a place called the Monsoon Palace, which is WAAAAYYY up on the top of a very tall hill. The palace itself was a little disappointing but the view was incredible. On our way back from the Monsoon Palace, we found a hungry, sickly puppy. The locals in the area said her mother and siblings had been hit by a car and died a while back. Since Udaipur is one of the rare places in India with an animal rescue (Animal Aid Unlimited), we decided to help her. We named her Tuk Tuk and dropped her off at the resuce. The next day, Emily and two friends we met in Udaipur, Grim and Lauren, spent the day volunteering there. Sadly, Tuk Tuk did not survive, but we were there with her when she passed away. We were glad that we could at least make her more comfortable towards the end!
Our hotel offered both Mogul Miniature Painting classes and henna, so we took advantage of both! We both did a pretty good job in the painting class. We also took a cooking class which was recommended to us – Shanti’s Cooking Class. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a class in Udaipur! It was amazing (even though we couldn’t actually eat much of it since we were recovering from food poisoning).
After Udaipur, we traveled briefly back through Pushkar, then back to Agra. In Agra, we spent one month volunteering with Wildlife SOS at their Sloth Bear Rescue Center. We had an amazing time, and by the end we were officially half way through our trip! We’ll be posting a whole blog entry just about this month. After our month in Agra, we went back up Delhi to catch a flight south!
While we were volunteering in Agra, we heard about an Earthship workshop going on down in south India. The timing worked out well, so even though we were not originally planning on going south, we decided to go for it. We had to cover a long distance in a short period of time, so we decided to fly instead of doing the 30+ hour train ride. Flying into Bangalore was like arriving in another country! Everything was so tropical and so CLEAN!!! South India also tends to be more expensive than the north. We found a sale on an expensive hotel in Bangalore so we decided to treat ourselves for the two nights we were there. Mitch really enjoyed having a bath tub for the first time in India, but that hotel turned out to be a lesson that even the fanciest hotels can have bedbugs! =(
The most exciting thing to happen in Bangalore happened at the airport when we arrived. We were getting coffee and snacks at a place called Cafe Coffee Day (this is a huge chain in India, kind of like their version of Starbucks). Cafe Coffee Day’s motto is “A Lot Can Happen Over Coffee!” – this turned out to be true. We met a man there who was an author who writes about mogul history in India. He turned out to be a bestselling author who wrote Mitch’s most recent favorite book, White Moguls! He invited us to come to a talk he was giving that evening, and Mitch got the book signed by him.
Our Earthship workshop was in a small town called Puttaparthi, about two hours north of Bangalore. For some reason I imagined that doing an Earthship workshop would mean roughing it in tents or something for the week, but we actually ended up in a nice hotel! The build site was about a 10 minute ride outside of town in a small, man-made forest called Ananda – what a gorgeous place! The workshop was fun and we learned a lot, and it was great to be able to make some friends! Most of our interactions with fellow travelers only last for a day or two, so it was nice to be able to make longer connections with people that week. The town of Puttaparthi is an interesting place. It was a very tiny town until the rise of a guru named Sai Baba. Thousands and thousands of people flocked there to be near him and the whole town boomed. Sai Baba died last year, but this whole city sprang up around his precense there which gave the whole town a strange, cult-ish feel.
Mysore was another city with a lot to see! We were only there for three days but managed to fit a lot in. The City Palace is hands down one of the most impressive man made places I’ve ever been in my life with unimaginable levels of opulence The zoo was alright, though a little depressing (as many zoos tend to be). The train museum was fun (though tiny) and the wax museum was just weird (really, really weird). We also traveled way up to the top of Chamundi Hill to visit the gorgeous temple with it’s hazy views of Mysore. One of the most striking things about Mysore was the size of some of the trees there. Ancient, enormous trees that 4 people couldn’t get their arms around. Emily put her arms around the side of one along the rode and got busted by a bus full of laughing Indians!
From Mysore we took an overnight bus to Kochi. The ride taught us a very important lesson: never choose seats at the back of the bus. Emily spent the entire night filling barf bags and vowing to never step foot on another bus. We spent our first day in Ernakulam, which is much like any other small Indian city, and we spent the rest of our time in the much more scenic Fort Cochin. Fort Cochin is known for its 400 year old Chinese fishing nets that line the beach front. They’re especially nice to see at sunset! Other highlights in Kochi included some FANTASTIC graffiti, the oldest Synagogue in India, great antique shopping, and more cats than we’ve seen in the rest of India combined.
We decided to make a quick stop between Kochi and Goa for the tiny town of Udupi. The only thing really worth seeing there is St. Mary’s Island, which has both some breathtakingly cool basalt formations, and unbelievably huge piles of garbage. The beach along the mainland was also our first taste of India’s beautiful tropical beaches, spoiled only by having to dodge human feces rolling up in the waves every few steps. We also tried a new fruit that looks like a cross between a coconut and a giant acorn – it was hard inside with 3 edible gel-like sacks that had a sort of nutty flavor. The man who sold them didn’t speak any english so we aren’t sure what it was called and we never saw them anywhere else!
Our first stop in Goa was Panjim, where we happened to arrive just in time for Carnival. Since Panjim is a former Portuguese colony, Carnival is HUGE here. There was a big parade and a 3 night event with live music and food stalls. We also visited a couple of huge old Portuguese churches.
City number two in Goa was Anjuna, where we stayed put for 10 whole days! Anjuna is best known for it’s Psytrance party scene, and there was at least one big loud party every night at one of many big venues on the beach. Emily’s favorite part of these parties was the ladies who set up tables on the beach and sold fresh omelette sandwiches!
Anjuna doesn’t have any cars or rickshaws in the tourist area, so the best way to get around is to rent a scooter or motorcycle, which almost everyone does. We were pretty leery at first but finally caved and rented a scooter which we dubbed “Black Thunder”. We did a ton of driving on Black Thunder and managed never to crash!
One of Mitch’s favorite things we did was the Dr. Fish Foot Spa. A man had a large tank full of fish from Turkey who eat dead skin – for 200 Rupees (about $4), you could put your feet in for 20 minutes and let the fish go to town. Emily thought it just tickled but Mitch is determined to buy some of these fish once we return to the states!
One afternoon we were sitting on the porch of our beach hut and realized that a sound we’d been hearing for a couple hours was a puppy crying. Obviously, we had to go see what was up. We tracked the noise down to a yard a few houses down where a tiny puppy was stuck on top of a 4 foot brick wall. There was no mother dog around and locals said they’d seen her and a sibling (who we never found) wandering around on their own for a few days at least. We took Anjuna, as we named her, on our scooter up to an animal rescue in a neighboring town to be de-wormed and de-flea’d. We seriously considered keeping her and taking her home with us, but at 6 weeks we realized she was just too young to travel. We pre-paid the animal rescue for all of her shots, bought her all the puppy supplies she’d need, and found her a home with a local woman.
We originally planned to head back north through Pune but we waited too long and could only get train tickets to Mumbai. The only tickets available were First Class… we normally travel in Sleeper Class, which probably would have cost around $10 for both of us – First Class cost $100. We had our own little air conditioned cabin with a locking door, a closet, a bed with sheets, and a button that would summon a man to bring us chai whenever we wanted it. It was hard to go back to Sleeper Class after that!!
In Mumbai we visited a history museum, saw the amazing cave temples on Elephanta Island, went on a tour of Dharavi slums, and got a personal tour of the neighborhood all the Bollywood stars live in by a friend from the Earthship workshop in Puttaparthi.
Aurangabad – Ellora and Ajanta Caves
Nagpur (center of india, saw a movie, not much else)
Jabalpur (waterfall and rock gorge boats)
Delhi, Rishikesh, Hardwar, Agra – Mitch’s parents (wild
elephant and leopard at Rajiji National Park)
Mcleodganj (overnight bus, mountains, thunderstorms and
snow in the mountains, tibet, silversmith class, tibet
More to come, as we continue our travels…