Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Cambodia's Killing Fields

I would like to start this post by saying that I have not brushed over any of the facts that I learned today in order to make them more palatable.  It is a grotesque story but deserves to be told correctly and in full.  My apologies- it was just as hard to write as I assume it will be to read.

I didn't really have time to prepare myself for what I was about to see.  And I'm not sure that more time would have strengthened my resiliency.  The Cambodian "Killing Fields" are only 15 km southeast of Phnom Penh; we were there before I expected us to be.

The conversation with an expat from the previous night was playing through my head as we made our way to the site where horrible atrocities occurred against the Cambodian people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.  The expat had said that he found it in bad taste that this site had been made a tourist attraction.  While I don't think tourists enter this site like they would an amusement park or a water park- I do understand on some level where he's coming from.  My view though is that it is very important that we understand our history, as well as our mistakes so that we can better understand how we can prevent the same errors from occurring again.  Perhaps more importantly, we shouldn't allow ourselves the convenient option of forgetting the people who suffered so terribly.  It was with this mindset that I prepared myself; I would try not shy away from the victims' photos, stories, or bones.  It is also with this reasoning that I want to share what I learned.

Pol Pot and his party, the Khumer Rouge came into power in 1975.  The priority of his Communist party was to reform the county's agrarian system.  He forcibly removed people from the cities and into farming collectives where forced farming and mass labor projects took place.  Schools thought to be of no use, thus were closed and instead used for storage or as in the case of S-21, where a school was converted to a jail that was used for torture before sending the prisoners to their execution.  His goal was to become a self-sufficient country- removing the need for imported goods.  To eradicate possible dissidents- such as teachers, doctors, those who spoke other languages, or anyone who spoke out against the party, the Khmer Rouge pulled these people from the farming collectives.  These keepers of knowledge were then tortured for information against other perceived dissidents and/or killed.  In Pol Pot's four years of rule, it is estimated that between 1-3 million people (25% of the population) died of either starvation in the fields or execution.  

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center provides an excellent audio tour while you walk through the Killing Fields.  I also appreciated the silence as we each listened to our own audio or were deep in our own thoughts as we tried to understand the unimaginable cruelty that took place just 35 years ago.  

Choeung Ek is the most well known of the 300+ killing fields throughout Cambodia.  Many of the mass graves at Choeung Ek have been excavated and documented in detail.  Several have been left in peace.  We saw mass grave sites that once contained 450 victims, another of 166 headless remains, and another of just women and children.  Bullets were too expensive so the killings were done with whatever tools were available, often farming tools or perhaps the most cruel of ways, by swinging children against a tree.  Children were brutally murdered in front of their parents and vice versa.  People had starved during their forced farming, then were starved and beaten in jail.  It is told that some were thankful when their time came, as so to put an end to their own suffering.  

I am unsure why but the Khmer Rouge recorded excessive levels of detail in their documentation of the prisoners.  After the tour of the Killing Fields, we visited S-21, the jail and torture site that was housed within a converted school building.  The classrooms- turned cells- are now full of hundreds upon hundreds of photos of those who were detained.  There are photos of Children, Elderly, Men, Women, Mothers with their young- some Bruised, Starved, Angry, or some seemingly Empty of any remaining life force.  The balconies of S-21 still are covered in barbed wire.  It was not to stop anyone from escaping but rather to prevent the attempted suicide of the detainees who would prefer to jump to their own death.  

By 1979, the party's strength had collapsed and the party was ousted.  It was at that time that the Choeung Ek Killing Field and S-21 were discovered.  

A memorial stupa was completed in 1989 on the grounds of Choeung Ek.  The skulls of more than of 8,000 victims have been laid to rest within the memorial.  

For information on the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, visit- or the Khmer Rouge International Tribunal at and or Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Program at 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sri Lanka!

First off, Sri Lanka is beautiful!  If you've been debating going- lay the decision to rest and do it.  It's very easy to travel the country by train and if you're not picky about where you sit- transportation can be very cheap.  We found accommodations to be more expensive than what we are used to but affordable by US standards. We paid about $30 a night- and that was during high season. We prebooked our rooms several days in advance so you can likely get a better deal by arriving and negotiating the price.  The only downside is the number and size of the mosquitos- it was a constant battle after 5pm.  

We had two weeks on the island, so we decided to see as much as we could in the southern half of the country. 

The travel gods smiled down on us as we left India.  Sri Lankan Airlines bumped us up to First Class seats!  It wasn't until we saw the seats, that I actually believed that we'd be flying first class.  Unfortunately, it was only an hour flight but somehow in that short time, we were given hot face cloths, fresh mango juice, and a beautiful meal before landing.

Ngombo Beach
Colombo is quite far from the airport so we had read that it was easier and cheaper to go to Ngombo beach.  Our hotel was just a block from the beach so after indulging in the free Sri Lankan Ceylon tea- we set off to visit the beach before the looming storm descended.

Negombo was the least touristy of the beaches that we visited (perhaps for good reason) so the local fishing boats were lining the beach rather than lounge chairs and sunshades. 

We started to grow concerned that we'd be pummeled by the approaching storm so we ducked into a little street cafe where we both had amazing meals.  From that point on, we began to expect a lot from Sri Lankan food- and were rarely disappointed.  The variety of seafood, spices and options were consistently mouthwatering.  In fact, I can't recall one meal that I wasn't impressed by.  Except I should say that the breakfasts are the weak link- and completely unimaginitive.  Every hotel/hostel/guesthouse that includes breakfast in the room cost- serves the same thing- cup of tea/coffee, a gigantic pile of sliced white bread, butter and jam.  If you're lucky, you might get a juice, fruit and an egg- cooked to you preference of omelet or fried.  

On our second day, after filling up again on the free tea- we took a bus inland to Kandy.  We had a room at a guesthouse up on the hill which overlooked the city and the sourounding hills.  

From our guesthouse, it was a 20 minute walk down to the city's central lake.  

At the lake's edge is the Buddhist Temple Sri Dalada Maligawa, Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Buddha's tooth).  According to the Temple's history, the tooth was taken from Buddha's cremation pyre in India and is now housed at this temple.  We visited twice while we were there.  The first time was in the afternoon when the temple was fairly empty of tourists.  Buddha's tooth is kept within a locked chamber with an ornate metal door which is hidden behind an equally ornate red fabric.

Three times a day (dawn, noon and sunset), there is a ceremony that takes place to give offerings to Buddha.  We returned again later that day for the evening ritual.  In the last photo below, you'll see that the red door covering is pulled aside and that the monks are entering the chamber with their blessings.

There are two cultural centers located near the lake that offer evening performances.  From what I read, both were similar in style and cost so we chose the one that was at a good time for us.  Generally, I wasn't that impressed with the dancing.  The performers and musicians seemed bored with the routine and it showed- but what did get our attention was the final act- fire breathing and walking on hot coals!

Nuwara Eliya
From Kandy, we took a train to Nuwara Eliya.  We got third class reserved seats and were surprised to see how crowded the train car was (even after India, Sri Lankans get the award for cramming as many people as possible on public transport).  We worked our way past a large group of guys who were singing and drumming in the isle.  For the next 4-5 hours, we had a live performance just behind our seats, it we wanted it or not :)  Scenery of the surrounding tea plantations kept my eyes busy as my ears wondered if the drummer behind us knew any of the songs that he was accompanying.  

Nuwara Eliya is a small town with not much to do.  We found a pub that served good food and beer at local prices- I think aptly called a The Pub.  The next day after the standard toast and butter breakfast, we wandered off in search of the local bus station for a lift to the area's tea plantations.  We first went to Blue Field Tea Plantation, where we had a nice lunch followed by a tour of the drying process at the factory.  In a quick summary, the women pick an average of 20 kilos (45 lbs) of leaves a day.  The leaves are weighed and then laid out on mesh drying racks for 12-16 hours where they are hand turned.  They are then dropped into a shredder to chop the leaves into a variety of sizes- course to fine, depending on the final purpose.  Black tea is then set aside to ferment (this process only happens to black tea which is what gives the leaves a darker color). Blue Fields then uses wood-fired heat to do the final drying of the leaves.  The temperature is kept around 120 degrees F while a woman feeds the leaves through the oven.  The leaves are then put in large bags and then shipped to the tea auction in Colombo where the leaves will be tasted and bid on by large tea companies.

After our tour, we didn't really feel the need to take another tour at Mackwoods Tea Factory, so instead sat in their beautiful gardens where we read while drinking pots of their free tea :). 


It was a relatively short bus ride to Haputale.  Haputale, like Nuwara Eliya, is not a tourist town.  It's draw is that it's within an hour of Lipton's Seat view point.  We had arranged a tuk tuk to pick us up from our guesthouse the following morning at 7.  On our way out the door, the guesthouse handed us a breakfast-to-go to eat at the view point.  

Sir Thomas Lipton owned the surrounding tea plantation and his favorite lookout spot is what is now known as Lipton's Seat.  It's a beautiful view of the surrounding tea plantations and provinces but only if you get there before the mid-morning clouds impede the view.  The tuk tuk dropped us off at the view point where we watched the morning mist roll over the tea plants below.  Then, we walked a meandering 6km down through the tea plantation to the Dambatenne Tea Factory before another tour. By the time, we finished the tour- the thick rain clouds had rolled in.  We had just enough time to jump on a local bus before the rain began to fall.  

We caught the train through more rain on one of it's last legs through the high country.  We stayed at a guesthouse that had been recommended to us by some friends that we had met in India.  I negotiated down to the rate my friends had paid but hadn't realized that I had negotiated us right out of the included breakfast.  Oh well, it was a welcomed excuse to sleep in after all of our early mornings. 

The view from the guesthouse overlooked the gap in the mountains ("Ella's Gap") as well as the nearby waterfall.  We were interested in getting out for a walk and hopefully getting a closer look of the waterfall.   

We were told the way there was easy- just hike up the steep slope to the train tracks and follow them to the left.  Walking the tracks is a common practice in Sri Lanka.  The trains run incredibly slowly at only 15 km/hr, so there's plenty of time to step out of the way!  

The train line ends near Ella and the only way to the coast is by private car or the local bus.  Our bus ride to Marissa was one of the most uncomfortable rides of our life.  I knew it was going to be bad, but it was so awful that it was more comical than anything else.  When we boarded, the bus was already over crowded.  I had gotten on first, then Nate and then another traveller.  The buses in Sri Lanka all travel with the doors open so that passengers can hop on and off without the bus coming to a full stop.  So, as we were all standing in the isle, the guy who got on after Nate was in a precarious position of hanging on for dear life next to an open door.  At that point, we begun what could best be described as Mr. Toad's Wild Bus Ride for the next 4 of the 6 hours where we clung to the overhead pole and surrounding seats as we raced around other buses on the blind corners, often having to slam on the breaks causing my feet to lift off the bus as I dangled like an ape from the life saving hand grip.  It wasn't long before I took note of how many passengers had their windows open as they got sick.  I felt a splash on my face but didn't have a hand free to clean myself until we came to a rolling stop for a weary passenger to exit the wild ride.  When we took a mid-ride rest stop, I mentioned the people getting sick and the splash back to Nate.  He hadn't noticed the number of sick passengers which is good since we was feeling a bit sick himself.  It was then that we looked at the bus, that we saw several green passengers who's heads were still hanging out of the windows getting sick.  That's when Nate looked down at his leg, remembering that he had felt something wet hit him there earlier.  So, after a solid 4 hours of hairpin turns and fighting for our life, we got a seat that we alternated sitting in for the final two hours.  We were feeling pretty bruised and battered, but at a cost of less than $2- I felt it was a lesson in - "you get what you pay for"!

We made it to the coast!  I didn't take any pictures here since we spent all of our time in and out of the water- and I didn't want my camera snagged.  We were staying at the southern end of the beach where there were fewer restaurants and hotels.  Our budget place was right across the street from the beach and a nice hotel with great food.  Our first full day on the beach was our one year travel anniversary!  We spent the day reading under a sunshade and alternating making runs for beer or snacks.  Unfortunately, in the short time that we spent away from the protection of the sun shade, we both got sunburns.   It wasn't until we were at a beach restaurant avoiding a rain shower that we realized how red we were.  From that point on, we remained fearful of the power of the sky's bright orb.

Unawatuna is just an hour north of Marissa.  It's noticably more touristy and expensive but the colors at the beach are stunning.  Since we were still nursing our burn, we spent our two days there avoiding the sun- hitting the beach and town only in the evenings.  

Galle Fort
We spent our last full day in Galle Fort, 6k north of Unawatuna.  It was a nice and quick tuk tuk ride there where we checked into our charismatic guesthouse, Travelers Tree, full of colorful art and antiques.  It was the same price as getting two hostel beds in a 4-person dorm room- so we were happy.    

The fort has a long history but the site itself goes back much further as a trading port, first recorded between 125-150 AD in Plotemy's world map.  The Portuguese first claimed the spot in the 16th century.  The Dutch claimed it as their own in the 1640 only to lose it a little over a century later to the British.  

We are now in Cambodia!  It's another whirlwind 2 week tour...  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

India- Part 3- Goa and Kerala's Beaches!

We'd heard the hype about Goa and wanted to check it out for ourselves so we said our goodbyes to Rajasthan and flew into Goa several days before Christmas.  Our first stop was Panjim (also called Panaji), near Old Goa.  It was hot, steamy and had a distinctive Portuguese flair.  As we had hoped, Christmas was also the air.  South India has a higher number of Christians than elsewhere in India, in part based on Portuguese and Dutch occupation in the 17th Century.  The city was decorated with Santas and Christmas trees while festive music flowed from inns and parades.  I was surprised and touched by how much I enjoyed experiencing these holiday icons- it definitely made me feel more connected to the holiday that family and friends were celebrating at home.  

We spent our first day exploring our local area in Panjim.  There is a stunning Baroque era church in the town center called Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception which is one of the oldest churches in Goa.  Unfortunately, it wasn't open - not that that stopped me from trying to go in.  Apparently, churches of this caliber have security guards...  Photo from the outside only will have to suffice.

From there, we wandered toward the river and found Fontainhas, the historic Portuguese quarter of the city where we found a fantastic Porteguese Bistro that we visited both nights that we were in the area. They even had a nativity scene which made me love it all the more.   

After exploring Panjim, we set out to see Old Goa which was just a half-hour bus ride away.  We both felt like we were a million miles away from India.  There were enormous churches which were built by the Portuguese in the 17th century.  Old Goa has numerous churches, including the largest in Asia- the Se Cathedral as well as the UNESCO World Heritage listed, Basilica of Bom Jesus.  

Basilica of Bom Jesus

The heat was uncomfortable, so we spent a good while relaxing in the shade at the bank of the Mandovi River- at the original entrance of the city, marked by Viceroy's Arch.  Built in 1599, the arch commemorates the explorer, Vasco de Gama's Christian infiltration of the area.  The close up of the Arch's statue shows Vasco de Gama triumphantly standing on the native Indian.  Awkward.

After we had spent a couple of days seeing the historical sites, it was time to hit the beach.  We were off to Mandrem Beach in North Goa for our one week holiday vacation from our travels.  We needed a break from our travels as well as the general intensity of India.  The goal was to be somewhere where life was easy, where we could walk any place we needed to go, where we could spend our days lazing about the beach reading the stack of used books we had purchased/traded just for this lazy occasion and most importantly, we needed several days where we didn't need to research or book anything for our travels.  It had been months since we had a day off, much less a week.  

Our hotel was on a little dirt road, only a short walk on a sandy path to Mandrem Beach- which is a long, quiet, undeveloped beach with only a few rustic restaurants scattered along the beach's edge.  The water was clean (or at least lacked the usual trash we'd seen elsewhere), cool and a welcoming respite from the hot Indian sun.  

We spent the week bobbing up and down in the perfect waves of the nearly empty beach, eating seafood curry and relaxing with our books.  

From Goa, we flew to Kerala on 28 Dec.  The taxi arrived on time- just before 5 am.  Since we hadn't left the beach, we had missed the amazing Christmas light displays within the local community.  Thankfully, they were all still up and brightly lit in the early morning hours.

This next bit is pulled from my travel journal about our flight experience to Kerala- 
What should have been an easy flight to the southern state of Kerala was anything but that.  We arrived at the domestic terminal for our flight to Kerala but were told to go to the International terminal.  Understanding that there is rarely a sensible reason for things in India- we nod and drag our sleep-deprived selves to the other terminal.  Our concern increases ten-fold as we join the back of the huge line.  After cursing our situation, we hear the English words "Air India" stand out from the Hindi that the staff person is speaking to the line of travelers.  The passengers on our domestic flight were being pulled from the international passengers.  We are shuffled to the front of the line for our security check and somehow still manage to check in for our flight on time.  We had a long layover in Channai- thankfully- because we were also flown into the International terminal.  There were no signs for baggage claim and for some reason our entire flight was heading towards Immigration.  We again shrug and followed- we had hours until our next flight, plenty of time to run in circles, if need be.  None of it made sense and the lines for Immigration were already exceedingly long, so we asked the security officer what to do.  He said that there was line on the far right for the domestic passengers who arrived within the International terminal (as if it happened often).  From what we could tell, there was only a line for diplomats and just as we were about to stop and ask again- I saw people funneling to the right of the diplomat arrival line.  There was no counter or sign and apparently all we had to do was wave our boarding passes at the counter.  Relieved that we had so much time before our next flight, I still found myself astounded that we had to go through another security check before we grabbed our bags to leave the airport.  Who cares what's in your bag as you're leaving the airport?  India, that's who.  It was hot and muggy outside as we started to walk to the Domestic terminal to check in for our next flight.  Once we got there and made our way to the front of the waiting line- we learned that we were once again flying out of the International Terminal.  By the time we walk back, I'm caked with sweat and have blue dye running down my legs from my new dress.  Upon re-entering the terminal, we're told that once we enter, we can't leave again.  That was fine until after entering, we see that there's very limited food and chairs and we still have a 7 hour wait.  We spent a good deal of that time contemplating why we remain frustrated in country that we've been in for more than a month- knowing full well that nothing makes sense and we need to just let things go.  Yet, I found myself craving more order, rational thought, and reliable information...  It's clear that I'm not ever going to give in to accept the chaos or laugh when I want to scream, as I've been told to do when traveling in India.  While I've come a long way- I still expect more.  Instead, I do an Indian head wobble and suggest to Nate we go to Switzerland next...

Ahhh, yes, we do eventually arrive in Kerala.  Oh, but wait, let me back up.  The holidays in both Goa and Kerala are expensive.  There's High Season which is 3-4x the low season cost, which falls in Dec-Jan in the popular tourist spots, like, ummm, Goa and Kerala.  But, then there's "Peak Season" which includes Christmas and New Years Eve plus a week on both ends.  This happened to be exactly when we were there; we had hit Christmas in Goa and New Years Eve in Varkala.  The increased costs were uncomfortable to stomach on our budget- but we had heard good things about Varkala, so decided to splurge at a place called Rendezvous Beach Resort.  For a small fortune ($65/night not including taxes), we would bring in the New Year with a pool, yoga classes, a spa and a coffee shop on site.  It made the cost seem more palatable, so we were especially pained to find out on arrival that Rendezvous has none of the advertised extras- other than the pool.  When I enquired, I was told that there was a spa down the street, yoga at another hotel nearby and well, I didn't even bother to ask about the coffee shop.  Another lesson in patience and realistic expectations perhaps?  

But we did enjoy that pool!

Varkala's beaches are much rougher than those at Mandrem, so much so, that we didn't even get into the water.  We spent our days walking the beaches and eating amazing seafood.

We had a few more days before our flight to Sri Lanka- so we travelled north to Alleppey (a.k.a. Alappuzha)- where street spice vendors and riverboats-for-hire are plentiful.  

It's possible to rent a live-aboard boat for 24-hours which includes meals for between $80-100 a person (again, that might be peak-season costs).  We, instead, chose to hop on a boat for a several-hour tour of the canals for around $8.  It was relaxing to watch the local people and wildlife happen around us- as we slowly glided through the waterways.  

It was a great finale to our 1 1/2 month adventure in India.  Next, we are traveling to Sri Lanka for a quick 2-week tour before heading to Cambodia.  

Friday, January 3, 2014

India- Part 2- Rajasthan! Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Udaipur

India is truly like no other.  I'm still trying to come to terms with how Nepal and India can be so incredibly different from one another.  It's as if when you cross the border, everything changes; you've entered another planet, not just another country.  Everything is extreme here- the heat, traffic, air pollution, noise, trash, hawkers, poverty, gender inequality, and the eerie stares that I get from men...  It was all too much for me at first.  I found myself back in the hotel room after only a few hours out- releived to close India out behind the door as I caught my breath and tried to regain my sanity.  But, the longer we're here- I find that my heart no longer shatters when I see starving children, multilated beggars, dead bodies, or the burnt limbs of cows and dogs from eating the trash while it's still burning.  I'm not sure if I'm losing compassion, in general, or if the shock of it all has worn off.  Or maybe I'm still actively in shock.  Perhaps, it's that there's always so much happening around me- that there's no time to take it all in.  I don't know.  
But I'm finding my rhythm here, finally.  It's a balance of being highly alert as well as very patient.  Everyone is trying to survive here and I'm just another one of the many million people trying to get on with my day.  In the West, I carried much more weight to my ego and the importance of my day.  I had a plan and wouldn't be satisfied until I had done exactly what I set out to do.  Things do t work that way in India (or most of the places we have traveled).  I find that if I'm able to succeed in just one task- it's an accomplishment.  It's not because I've grown lazy as a traveler but it can take all day to do something that at home would have only taken a phone call or an internet reservation.  As soon as I shed that layer of self-importance- I feel like I'm able to have a better understanding of the chaos.  As we near the end of our time in India, I find that I hope to come back (after a good long recovery time).  I'm convinced that life here is an onion and that I'm just starting to uncover what is under the top layer.  There is so much to India- sure, it's difficult- but the sweetest rewards come only after our most difficult challenges.  

We've just spent a couple of weeks in Rajasthan- with it's painted elephants, stunning forts, vibrant colors, great music, colorful cloth lanterns, camels, puppet shows, and men with full Salivador Dali mustaches.

Our guesthouse, Vinayak Guesthouse, is only a short walk from the train station but the owner told us that we'd never find it because the streets aren't marked.  Even though I knew it was close, the tuk tuk driver said- no, it's not and proceeded to drive us around for 20 minutes while he buttered us up for his bigger plan for us- several days with him as our private driver and tour guide.  When we finally approached our hotel- he told us that he'd take us to some sights like the monkey temple and a camel festival that was only happening that day.  We had already wanted to go to see the monkeys, so we cautiously agreed.  We suggested that he meet us in an hour which we hoped was enough time for us to check in and grab some food.  He agreed that he'd meet and then we'd all go together for food so he could tell us about some other places that he wanted to show us.  We revised the plan again so that only Nate and I would eat and in an hour (we were too travel weary and hungry to socialize), after which we'd all meet up again- then we'd sightsee.  "Okay, sure" he said but wanted to have chai together first.  We weren't in the mood to negotiate all afternoon- we said we'd meet him in an hour and then sightsee, as we grabbed our packs and walked off leaving no room for revisions.  After we ate- we hopped in the tuk tuk and were off to the monkey temple which was on the other end of the old pink city- named for the old city's salmon-pink buildings. As our tuk tuk pulled up to the parking lot- the vehicle was swarmed by youth that were both selling exorbinately priced peanuts to feed the monkeys as well as their expert skills at fending off attack monkeys.  Nate bought two packages of peanuts for around 60 cents (ok, they're not that expensive but compared to the street price; these kids are onto a good business) and then we spent the next ten minutes of our walk declining the expert security services.  As soon as we excitedly spotted a monkey, one of the guys rushed at it with his stick, scaring it off and then proclaimed that he'd saved me.  Thanks kid, I didn't even have a chance to grab my camera.  They told us that their fee was flexible, that we could pay them whatever we wanted.  Nate said good- because he wasn't going to pay them anything because we didn't want their help- as he had said on numberous occasions.  The boy was astounded, not that we thought they were annoying but that we wouldn't pay them.  "Nothing?" he stammered and Nate confirmed it.  With that, they quickly retreated in the hopes of finding less travel-hardened customers.  We have a great time and even caught a beautiful sunset over the pink city as we tossed peanuts to the happy monkeys.  

Next, we went to the Lake Palace, or as close as you can get to it, which is from the lakeside.  Sorry for the fuzzy photo.

Lucky for us, the "camel festival" that was only happening that day was just across the street.  We were surprised because we hadn't seen any camels or activity.  It all made sense as we pulled into a small, crumbling parking lot.  There were three camels that were there for tourists to ride around the parking lot- they're obviously there every day and it's a long stretch from the festival that I had imagined.  We weren't impressed and asked to be taken back.  He must have caught on that we were tired and let down by the "festival".  He launched into planning the rest of our stay- such as he'd pick us up first thing in the morning for a full day of sightseeing and then the following day we would do the same.  It sounded like a waste of money for something we could do on our own.  Since we weren't back at our hotel yet- we were ambiguous in our answers and said that we should talk about it when we got back to our hotel- so as to avoid upsetting him and being left stranded with the camels.  He was reluctant to give us the upper hand, so we once again got in a complicated rally back and forth about the plans.  When we finally convinced him to take us back- we thanked him for the day and told him we would do our own sightseeing in the following days.  It was a bit like a bad break-up.  Our first day in Jaipur gave us a taste for the intensity of the city.  We encountered some of the most persistent sales people there- often jumping in front of you to block your path in an attempt to force you into their shop.  If you travel to Jaipur, be aware that this is at it's worst at the shops across the street from Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Winds.

The following day, we walked through the pink city to the City Palace which remains one of my favorite sights in India.  We spent the day there wandering through the different courtyards and museums.  Photos weren't allowed in the museums, so here are a few from elsewhere.  There's also a lovely cafe in one of the side courtyards so there's no need to rush through the day.

We spent our last day at Amber Fort.  We first walked to the train station to find a bus that the city runs out to the fort but learned that it wasn't running that day.  After trying to find a reasonable rate from a tuk tuk driver without success- we eventually tracked down the local bus that took us there.  Most of our afternoon was spent in logistics but eventually we arrived at the Fort.  (It was then that I understood why one would pay more money for a personal driver in order to avoid starting the day in drenched with sweat and frustrated.)  The Fort was spectacular but we had the most fun watching the monkeys who were playing in the main courtyard.  

This time, arriving from the train station- we didn't have to deal with a clingy driver.  Our accommodations, the Hem Guesthouse, picked us up from train station.  Bless them.  As we were walking over the ramp from the train- we were hassled by drivers who wanted to take us.  As we were busy evading their offers, a man ran up to Nate.  Nate was already saying no when the man showed him his phone with our names on it.  Amazing- he's the driver for our guesthouse.  We jumped in his tuk tuk and took off through the "blue city" towards our new home.

Just as we were checking in- the owners invited us to a wedding party that was happening that night.  We were again travel weary and hungry so we declined- knowing that we were missing a great opportunity.  Also, I couldn't help but wonder which of my grungy backpacker clothes I'd be forced to wear to the horror of the hosts and their guests.  So, instead, we found a roof top restaurant with a great view of Meherangarth Fort which was also having a wedding party that night.  We spent the evening unwinding and watching the beautiful fireworks that lit up the fort.  

The next day, we had breakfast on the rooftop with it's amazing view of the Fort in the daylight.  You can see from the photo how large the fort is and obviously the towns main focal point.  We agreed that it was time to stop seeing the fort for afar, so we spent the day weaving our way through the tiny alleys of the old city up to the Fort.  From there, we had beautiful views if blue city, a nice lunch, and toured through the detailed architecture of the Fort.

We returned just in time to get dressed for the wedding.  We had accepted their invite to attend the last and final night of the wedding.  I wrote a recent blog about this amazing evening- so please check it out if you're interested.  Wedding festivities in Jodhpur.  

We left Jodhpur at an ungodly hour for a 6 hour bus ride to a Udaipur.  It was what you'd expect from a bus in India- lots of honking, swerving and a driver that was too heavy on the brakes.  I'm prone to motion sickness and spent the ride wishing I hadn't been so anti plastic bags when I refused one offered earlier that morning.  So, instead I tried to sleep through the blaring Bollywood movie that was playing; the entire bus along with Nate were loving it.  I think it actually played twice.  I have yet to see a Bollywood movie while I've been in India (instead we chose The Hobbit while in Udaipur!).  The city's claim to fame is that the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed there so every night at 7, the local restaurants show it.  We caught that as well.  Here's the trailer- the movie itself wasn't worth watching.  

We stayed in a little guesthouse called Udai Haveli Guesthouse which was very close to the Pichola Lake.  It was the perfect place to unwind for a few days.   Everything was a slower pace in lakeside Udaipur.  Even the cows stop to rest on the halfway across the bridge to watch the lake sparkle.  We really loved it- there are lots of places to sit and relax near the lake and watch life go by or even from up above at one of the dozen rooftop restaurants.  We spent our days visiting the City Palace, taking a sunset boat ride, a cultural show of dancing, puppets and music, and wandering aimlessly through the streets.  

We extended our stay for a couple more days to take in take in the serenity before flying to Goa.  It was yet another early morning departure.  According to some website that I looked at- I had read that our place was only 4km from the airport.  Since we had come by bus, we really didn't have any idea where the airport was.  Just as we were going to bed before for our early morning alarm, Nate discovered that we were actually about 40km from the airport!  We weren't sure that a tuk tuk would go that far so Nate headed out at midnight to see if he could find a taxi driver.  The streets were empty except for some sleepy cows.  We had a fitful night of sleep- worried that we'd miss our flight.  At a little before 5am, we left our guesthouse to the still empty streets.  Just as we turned up the hill in our search- a tuk tuk magically appeared.  And not just any tuk tuk but an almost new one with a smartly dressed driver.  Hop in the driver said, and we made an incredibly smooth journey to the airport.  We saw virtually no other tuk tuks out on the roads and felt incredibly blessed for our good fortune.  We had made it to the airport on time for our flight- and were off to celebrate Christmas at the beautiful Goan beaches!