On to Pushkar to Take a Bath

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If I knew only a little about the other places on our tour, I knew absolutely nothing about Puskar. Except that they host an annual camel fair, the largest in the world – an irrelevant fact given that the fair is held later in the year.

We soon learned that Pushkar is the second holiest place in India. Pushkar Lake is a place of pilgrimage because, after the Ganges, it is the most holy body of water for Hindus. The town is built around the holy lake and there are something like 50 ghats (entrances/stairways) that lead down into the water, where Hindus come to take a holy bath. A few miles away, the second holiest place for Muslims after Mecca is found. So there are lots of pilgrims from both religions roaming around, from all parts of the country and world.

Making our way down one of the ghats
Making our way down one of the ghats
Hanging near the lake.
Hanging near the lake.

Pushkar is also home to the only temple dedicated to the God Brahma. Brahma is worshipped as the creator of this world and is one of the primary Hindu Gods. We were told the tale about how Brahma ended up with only 1 temple in his name, in the whole world…something about curses being thrown back and forth.

Pilgrims flock here year round, and unfortunately so do foreigners who are into the drug scene. It’s a bit of a strange place. Alcohol and consuming meat is extremely forbidden in Pushkar, yet drugs seem to be quite available. I think that some hash or opium is used in some religious ceremonies and the junkies just come to take advantage of the availability. Anyway, it’s a tourist-oriented town – for both national and international visitors.

After a few days in Udaipur, where I felt we were in a bit of a bubble, I was happy to dive into the chaotic streets of Pushkar. It was intense….what I expected India to feel, sound and smell like. It is a small town that centers around the lake but I felt turned around a lot. We visited the Brahma temple, walked down to the lake for a sprinkling of holy water, walked around the markets and enjoyed some time relaxing by the pool of a nice hotel with a good view of the town below.

Living large for a few hours by the palace pool.
Living large for a few hours by the palace pool.

It was a quick stop, but one that I appreciated for some contrast.

Such a colorful place.
Such a colorful place.
Colorful piles of powders.
Colorful piles of powders.
The milk man out about to head out to make his deliveries.
The milk man out about to head out to make his deliveries.
Hindi Temple
Hindi Temple

Flocking to Udaipur

View from our hotel room.
View from our hotel room.

As do most visitors to India, we flocked to Udaipur.

Swinging southeast from Jodhpur a few hours we entered a much hillier area of Rajasthan. Udaipur: The Venice of the East (or so they say). Sometimes also called the City of Lakes. It is known for picture-perfect scenes and a slew of extravagant palaces, many which are now luxury or boutique hotels and restaurants. This was our longest scheduled stop with nearly 3 full days to roam around, which I took to mean it was a good place for such roaming. While the city has nearly a half million people, the tourists area is really only a handful of twisting streets on either side of Lake Pichola. The medieval old town is full of narrow streets and alley ways lined with shops catering towards visitors. Think tour operators, henna shops, yoga centers, silver jewelry shops and lots of tailors and textile stalls.

Udaipur is especially lovely in the nightime:

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The city palace at night…what a view!
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Udaipur becomes magical at night.
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The usual suspects hanging on the waterfront.

This proved to be a great place to wander around, or just sit out on the rooftop deck watching the flurry of activity down below. Our group scattered to take advantage of a cooking class, yoga session, or fittings for tailor made clothing. I surprised myself by opting for a palm reading. I now know my lucky streak might take a dip for a few years, my life partner might be a little crazy (ha!) and I won’t be rich but never have to worry about money. Good to know! :)

While I enjoyed walking around and exploring the area, I also felt that it was a bit fake, a bit too sheltered. We were kept at bay, at India’s doorstep but not quite inside. 100% of the shops and stalls are for visitors, not for Udaipurians(?). We did come through town both on the bus and then on our way to the hotel but once we crossed into the old city, and with no real reason to go out, it’s what we saw. Not a bad thing, just worth mentioning. Fewer cows, more touts.

Three things stand out from our visit to Udaipur. The Ganesha Festival, a cultural dance performance and City Palace

City Palace
What Jodhpur’s Meharanja Fort had in grandiosity (large size and scale), Udaipur’s City Palace had in elegance and detail. Nestled right up on the shores of Lake Pichola, it is complex with more marble and granite than I could ever have imagined. It is beautifully decorated and has been maintained to show off the lavish lifestyles of the royalty from this area. The palace itself was like a maze, which we explored with our eyes wide open and cameras snapping right and left. The mosaics are what I’ll remember most.

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Mosaics and tiles everywhere
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The peacock mosaics were my favorite, by far.
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More city palace
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One of the many balconies at City Palace
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The majestic Peacock Gallery, from above.

Ganesha Festival
Ganesha, one of the many, MANY gods in Hindu Religion, is the God of wisdom and remover of obstacles. There is a 10 day celebration of Ganesha, which happened to end on our third day in Udaipur. After spending 10 days worshiping and celebrating Ganesha in their homes, believers bring their statue of Ganesha to the nearest holy body of water and immerse her (him?). We were happy to catch a festival, even if a small one by Indian standards. Our tour leader explained that it is a newer celebration and custom and one which is quite environmentally damaging and toxic as all of the statues are left in the water, causing pollution from the dyes and plaster of paris. Fish die, the water gets murky, but Ganesha is guaranteed to come back to bless the believer the following year. In the early morning, we saw the quieter version as families and couples come to leave their Ganesha in the lake with prayer, song and lots of offerings. The process was pretty much the same for everyone: Dress up the Ganesha, lay out some offerings and share some with those around you (it seems Ganesha likes coconuts and sweets), do some chanting or pay some boys to play a short round on their drums, snap a picture of the family and Ganesha, and submerse. As the day wore on the celebrating got rowdier, the Ganeshas got larger, some requiring tractors to transport and things got even more colorful.

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Preparing Ganesha with colorful items
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Young boys were on hand to take the Ganesha further out into the lake if people wanted, for a small tip.
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The bigger the Ganesha, the larger the mode of transportation.
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Larger and larger

 

 

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Things get colorful. My tour-mate Andrew, took this foto. My version ended up blurry.
Getting wild in Udaipur.
Getting wild in Udaipur.

Traditional Dance
On our first evening in Udaipur, our tour leader suggested we attend a cultural dance performance. It sounded kind of lame and given that it only cost $1 in admission I thought that to be indicative of the quality. How wrong I was! A lesson I’m quickly learning is that our tour leader is the best and I should just do whatever he tells me!

For one hour we got to watch a performance featuring several traditional dances with beautiful costumes and interesting music. What appears as simple in concept, was amazingly difficult in execution. Such mastery, we were told, is rare and is slowly dying out. What a shame!!

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I had a hard time getting a still shot. The bells along her leg were used to make a beautiful sound and she worked quickly!
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such elegance and poise
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This woman was amazing….she kept adding another clay pot, all while dancing and picking things up off the floor.
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More bells on shins.

Next, to Pushkar – the second holiest place in India.

Underwhelmed in Jodhpur

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Arriving into a new city on a public bus is never going to result in a positive first impression.  Bus stations are always in the crappiest part of town, if there is one.  In the case of Jodhpur, not only were we dropped off at a gas station in an ugly part of town, but it was raining.  Tired from our previous night’s sleep out under the stars and the 5 hour bus ride we ventured out for dinner, but that was about it.

Waking to a sunny morning I hoped that I could get a new start with Jodhpur and overcome that first impression.  But it really never happened.  I found this city, famed as The Blue City, to be too dirty, loud, and dusty to embrace.

That said, the main attraction definitely deserves a visit as it is extremely impressive.  The Mehrangarh Fort – biggest fort in all of Rajasthan.  It sits overlooking the city on a hill and was worth every penny in the admission fee.  A lovely audio tour guided me through the various rooms, courtyards and gardens, each carefully and beautifully decorated.  Listening to some of the history in a beautiful Indian English voice, I was transported to medieval Jodhpur. Somewhere between 500 & 600 years old, with several rulers adding on – it is massive.

As a part of the guided tour, we were invited into a small chamber for a short listen to a musician playing the santoor – a 100 string instrument.  What beautiful music came from his hands and the instrument!  That alone was the highlight of my day.

Mehrangarh Fort

Mehrangarh Fort

Mehrangarh Fort
Mehrangarh Fort
One of the most interior courtyards, where the maharaja's wives could live without  been seen by any other men.
One of the most interior courtyards, where the maharaja’s wives could live without been seen by any other men.
Craning my neck up to take it all in.
Craning my neck up to take it all in.
Each room is elaborately decorated with different styles, depending on which maharaja built it or last used it.
Each room is elaborately decorated with different styles, depending on which maharaja built it or last used it.

Besides the actual fort, the other gem of this place was the views.  Up until this point I really didn’t get why Jodhpur called itself The Blue City.  Once up on the hill it became clear.  Several neighborhoods are painted indigo blue, to signify that a brahmin, or priest, lives in the home.    For a few moments, looking out at the panorama, the city wall off in the distance and the Umaid Bhawan Palace, one can forget about the dirty and chaotic city down below.

A blue neighborhood can be seen down below.
A blue neighborhood can be seen down below.

The city wall and white palace off in the distance

The city wall and white palace off in the distance

With the fort visit behind us we had an afternoon to kill so we waded through the market, escaped to a nice rooftop restaurant for a saffron lassi and visited the Umaid Bhawan Palace, the last palace built in India and where the Maharaja of Jodhpur currently lives.

Walking through the blue city
Walking through the blue city
Down in the hustle and bustle, dodging cows in our tuk tuk.
Down in the hustle and bustle, dodging cows in our tuk tuk.
The Umaid Bhawan Palace. Part hotel and part home to Jodhpur's Maharaja.
The Umaid Bhawan Palace. Part hotel and part home to Jodhpur’s Maharaja.

I can see why the tour stops here as it is a logical stop between cities and the fort is very much worth the visit- but outside of that, for me, Jodhpur was just – meh.

I also must point out that the day I spent touring Jodhpur I had misplaced my SD card, so I either took pictures with my cell phone or got them from my tour mates. Some of the pictures above are borrowed.

A night in the Thar

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When I was browsing through the various tours Intrepid Travel offers in India, the words “camel” and “desert” jumped out.  I’m a sucker for wide open spaces, for the desolate landscape, for stretches of land that seem to go for miles without variation.  The Great Thar Desert seemed as if it would be just that.  Add in a few camels and I was sold.

This desert, stretching along the Pakistan-India border, was to provide us with an evening of solid tourist entertainment – the camel safari.  I was excited to spend a night under the stars in the dunes.  Our camels were waiting for us near the edge of a road and before long we were making our way, single file, in the direction of some far off dunes.  I had expected much sandier terrain, but it was mostly just arid and flat.  The camels were fun to ride for about 30 minutes before my legs started to ache – how do people do this for days on end?

Before long we found ourselves suddenly in the dunes.  There is so much wind in this desert that the dunes are ever shifting but our little strip of dunes were waiting for us. After a nice sunset and some desert chai, we settled onto our beds and enjoyed a tasty dinner prepared by our camel herders / camp hosts.   I slept like a champ in my cozy little cot and woke up jonesin’ for some camp coffee….but got some more desert chai instead!

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No Evil

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. At Lodi Gardens, New Delhi

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.
At Lodi Gardens, New Delhi

My expectations for Delhi were fairly bleak.  Stopping there was nothing more than a logistical necessity, a necessary evil.  When traveling, and especially when alone, I tend to skip the big urban metropolis in favor for the less populated.  Most traveler’s return from a trip to Delhi saying it was the low light of their visit.  I expect it will also be the low light of my trip as well, but not as low as I thought.

There is a lot of cultural richness and diversity in Delhi.  I don’t know if there is anywhere else in the world quite like it. It surprised me,  in a positive way.

My first impression of Delhi lived up (or down) to my expectations as it involved a 2am solo taxi trip from the airport.  I was a bit freaked out and as we sped through the deserted and dark city, images of people curled up on the street sleeping and families digging through trash bins flew by my window.  But in the morning, as I looked out the window of my 11th floor room, the city looked pretty normal.  Busy and loud, but normal.  I saw monkeys jumping around on a roof across the street and most surprisingly, green everywhere.  This is perhaps what caught me off guard the most.  I expected this giant metropolis to have wiped out all of its trees and park to make way for housing and more concrete,  but they haven’t.

View from my hotel room....green space everywhere.
View from my hotel room….green space everywhere.

Emboldened by hunger I decided to brave a walk.  I could see the India Gate from my room, so decided to start there and go for a walk from the gate to the parliament building. The stretch between the two landmarks is a well kept park several blocks long and used by many residents.  From there it looked like I could easily hop on the metro for a couple of stops to an area where I thought I might find some interesting food choices.  Again I had to traverse a beautiful park/gardens full of interesting buildings and monuments in order to get to my destination.  Delhi, you’ve surprised me!

The RajWalk, a strip of parks between the parliament building and India Gate.
The RajWalk, a strip of parks between the parliament building and India Gate.
Lodi Gardens with interesting buildings around nearly every bend in the path.
Lodi Gardens with interesting buildings around nearly every bend in the path.

The metro was clean, well light and had great signage. Sure, it was pretty packed, but no different than NYC or Mexico City on a weekday and they have ‘women only’ cars that make the whole system even friendlier.  I loved riding in the ‘women only’ car as it gave me a chance to check out how the women of Delhi dress and get decked out.

On the evening of my second full day, I transferred hotels and met up with my tour group.  This part of town was certainly more chaotic and noisy and more true to the mental image of Delhi that I’d had, but still quite manageable.  During our orientation, our tour leader warned us of a few things, mostly of all the sketchy men, whom he called “cheeky buggers” who think of themselves as “smart men.”  He also proclaimed “shopping in India is a scam.” Ha!  That’s since been proven.

We nearly made it out without a dousing from the summer monsoon, but it caught us during a walk through Old Delhi.  The streets were instantly transformed into streams of trash, sewage and who knows what else. While it was disgusting to walk through, it also gave an interesting perspective on this insane part of town.

A soggy Old Delhi.
A soggy Old Delhi.
Hard to admire all the wedding trinkets in the bridal section of the bazaar with so much rain.
Hard to admire all the wedding trinkets in the bridal section of the bazaar with so much rain.

I purposefully didn’t go hard in Delhi.  I ventured out for only a few hours at a time and took advantage of my first two nights in a nicer hotel to rest up after my marathon 50 hour trip and reset the clock.  I saw some of the main sights, but also missed some big ones.  In doing so, I was able to protect my desire to fall in love with India and spot some of the good in this city, and avoid some of the bad and evil.  There is certainly poverty here like no other, and having to walk through a security checkpoint to get into your hotel, the metro and many other places gives a sense of insecurity that can be disconcerting.  The contrast between wealth and an extreme urban poverty is drastic and harsh.  I know it’s all there, I could see it out of the corner of my eye.  But I wanted to ease into India and while I didn’t turn a blind eye to Delhi, not entirely, I did walk away, relatively unscathed.

My first of what is sure to be many, many monuments, temples, tombs, etc:  Safdarjung's Tomb. A quiet estate amongst the chaos.
My first of what is sure to be many, many monuments, temples, tombs, etc: Safdarjung’s Tomb. A quiet estate among the chaos.
Visiting the beautiful grounds at Humayun's Tomb - part of what gave inspiration for the building of the Taj Mahal.
Visiting the beautiful grounds at Humayun’s Tomb – part of what gave inspiration for the building of the Taj Mahal.
My visit to Delhi included a stop at the National Gallery of Modern Art - a so-so place but hey, they had aircon. Garden sculpture made from the tinware used to eat in India.
My visit to Delhi included a stop at the National Gallery of Modern Art – a so-so place but hey, they had aircon.
Garden sculpture made from the tinware used to eat in India.

How to Pretend You Are Packing Light

I was hell bent on not bringing more than 25 lbs on this Indian Journey. I failed.

We had some friends visiting us in Chiapas right before I left for India and so about a week prior I decided to get my things mostly in order so that I wouldn’t have to pack rushed the night before. I thought I had things under control and had a shot at my 25 lb goal, but once I added in my toiletries, eletronics and oh-so-annoying chargers/cords/batteries….I was way over. I packed and repacked a few times but still ended up with 35 lbs.

I hate lugging stuff around.  I’m annoyed with myself that I wasn’t able to part ways with a big, clunky mass of electronics. I couldn’t decide if I really needed both my laptop and Nook, but I ended up bringing both. Add in my camera, 2nd lens, smartphone and all the cords and chargers that go with it and I never had a chance. Clothes I can get rid of along the way and toiletries will weigh less as they are used up….but electronics, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

When I’m far off in the Thar Desert, miles and miles from any kind of wifi, you can feel free to laugh at me with my laptop and nook and stuff…..I suspect I’ll be laughing at myself.

Moral of the story, I think of myself as a light packer – but sadly, I’m not.

What my 35 Lbs / 16 Kgs of crap looks like:

All

packaged

final

 

By the way, I know nearly no one gives a hoot what I pack on a trip, however I occasionally seek out other indie traveler packing lists for inspiration on how to do it better each time, so thought I’d post my gear, even if not listed out.

Touring a 67 year old nation

Picture posted on twitter account @ashoklalla
Picture posted on twitter account @ashoklalla on August 15th, India’s Independence Day.

A few weeks ago, India turned 67 years old.  I thought it seemed really young, for a country, until I did a quick Google search and learned that there are roughly 115 countries that are even younger than India. Nearly 60% of the world’s current countries were formed after August 15th, 1947.  I hadn’t really thought about it before.

Anyway, during that time, India has organized itself into 29 states and 7 union territories.  It’s grown into the 2nd most populated country in the world with over 1.2 BILLION people and is currently the 3rd largest economy, in terms of purchasing power.  The primary method of inter-city transportation is by rail and their train network is so mammoth that Indian Railways is the largest employer on the planet!!!

Translation –> intimidating.

And so, I’ve done what to me was the unthinkable.  I booked a tour. Gasp.

I know India can be a tough place to travel, especially by oneself.  I read a lot of  blogs of other like-minded independent travelers and nearly everyone who has visited India has made the comment that the biggest stressor for the indie traveler is simply getting from point A to point B.  I want to set myself up so that I can fall in love with India, if she’ll have me.  Also, I couldn’t make up my dang mind on where to go and how to structure my itinerary.  Taking all of that into consideration, a tour started to seem logical.  Let someone else navigate the bus schedules and train tickets and guesthouse rates and I’ll just focus on what I want to see and do each day and where to eat.  That’s the plan anyway….at least for the first few weeks.

I decided to go with Intrepid Travel because I like the style of travel they do (small group adventure travel).  They limit their tour groups to 10-12 people, allowing for off the beaten track destinations and use local accommodation and transport. They also place a big emphasis on contributing to the local economy and promise a local guide. Also important is that they do not charge an additional fee for a single traveler.  Instead, I can share a room with another single female traveler, and keep costs down.  Most important, they don’t control your days.   Some walking tours and activities are included, but for the most, do and see what you want.

So, for the first 3 weeks of my visit to India, I’ll be following this route:

North India Unplugged Route
“North India Unplugged” Route

Stay tuned…..and keep your fingers and toes crossed for me that I don’t end up bunking with someone who snores…..

 

Notes to self from a dedicated wanderess….Inspired? Join Me!

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