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!