The Bay of Bengal

Fisherman's boat on the Bay of Bengal - Mahabalipuram
Fisherman’s boat on the Bay of Bengal – Mahabalipuram

Once at Kolkata International Airport, I started to mentally reboot and restart my mindset. To make the leap from always having pals and a tour leader around you to traveling 100% alone is an intimidating thing in India. But, it was time. I was ready to head south and get off the “nutella pancake trail” for awhile. While I’d been happy to spend the past few weeks following along like a little duckling it felt time to dive into the deep on my own.

I’m not sure why I was so hell bent on traveling to the state of Tamil Nadu (TN) and spending a little time on the Bay of Bengal. Perhaps I read a novel once with a connection to TN that stuck in my mind. Or maybe a fellow VSO/CUSO volunteer had been placed in this region that sparked my curiosity.

To start my journey through TN, I took a quick flight down to Chennai, formally known as Madras and from there made my way down the coast with stops in Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. I really didn’t know what to expect from Chennai. It’s in the top 10 Indian cities by population and I saw it referred to as the “Detroit of India.” Hmmm. When I went to TripAdvisor the top 2-3 recommended activities were movie theaters, which apparently they take very seriously here. Given that, my visit only included 1 full day and I spent a good portion of that day just relaxing at the hotel and catching up on some zzzs.

But, anxious to get out to the Bay of Bengal I did make an afternoon quick journey to check out a small bit of the city and walk along a portion of Marina Beach, an area very popular in the evenings to cool off.

Marina Beach at nightfall.  A very wide beach with a carnaval-like feel in the evenings.
Marina Beach at nightfall. A very wide beach with a carnaval-like feel in the evenings.
Lots of food stands pop up along Marina Beach.  I went for some classic fried rice but with calamari now that I'm in seafood territory.
Lots of food stands pop up along Marina Beach. I went for some classic fried rice but with calamari now that I’m in seafood territory.
The Marina Beach boardwalk lined with food and drinks for sale
The Marina Beach boardwalk lined with food and drinks for sale
Chennai's tribute to Gandhi, along the Bay
Chennai’s tribute to Gandhi, along the Bay

As I made my way down the coast I recognized some pretty distinct differences from the north. For one, it was a culture that felt very familiar to me. Across the Bay lies the western Burmese state of Rakhaine/Arakan, where many of my pals from my Thailand days are from.  I could see such a strong resemblance in facial features, clothing styles and in the quantity of paan chewed and spit by the men (beetle nut – kind of like our chewing tobacco).  Food, music, clothing all is a bit different.  The language is no longer Hindi, and most people here don’t even understand Hindi, only Tamil.

This is also the area of India that bore the brunt of the damage and casualties caused by the 2004 Tsunami. The town of Mahabalipuram looked weathered and old with many of the structures just left damaged after the tsunami ravaged the small town.

Fisherman dominate the beaches of Mahabalipuram
Fisherman dominate the beaches of Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram, with the Shore Temple in the distance
Mahabalipuram, with the Shore Temple in the distance
The Tsunami tore through here and swept most of the trash out to sea, but dirty, abandoned areas like this still dot the coast.
The Tsunami tore through here and swept most of the trash out to sea, but dirty, abandoned areas like this still dot the coast.

 

A bit further down the coast in the town of Pondicherry, everything had been cleaned up and fixed up and no trace of the tsunami could be seen, at least not by an outsider. Again, people really took advantage of their beautiful boardwalk and coming out in the evening to enjoy the cool air and get a little exercise was a family and friendly affair!

The Pondicherry Boardwalk starts with a fun piece of art made from upcycled trash.
The Pondicherry Boardwalk starts with a fun piece of art made from upcycled trash.
Pineapple just tastes better when eating here on the rocky coast of the Bay - Pondicherry
Pineapple just tastes better when eating here on the rocky coast of the Bay – Pondicherry
The main drag along the coast in Pondicherry is closed to vehicles in the evening, so that everyone can sit, stroll or jog in peace.
The main drag along the coast in Pondicherry is closed to vehicles in the evening, so that everyone can sit, stroll or jog in peace.
Pondicherry's tribute to Gandhi
Pondicherry’s tribute to Gandhi

The world’s largest bay did not disappoint this solo traveler and was a good place to start my visit to the southern portion of this massive country.

To finish up the North: Calcutta

Oh! Calcutta was a really great restaurant, where we had our "goodbye dinner".  Bengali food is great and I wish I'd had more chances to eat it.  There is a branch of this place in the south, and I hope to find it!
Oh! Calcutta was a really great restaurant, where we had our “goodbye dinner”. Bengali food is great and I wish I’d had more chances to eat it. There is a branch of this place in the south, and I hope to find it!

I have long since loved reading a novel set in India, or at least partially set in India.  It seems many authors choose Calcutta as a backdrop for their stories.  With their help I’d developed a very clear visual image of Calcutta – one that was not at all reality!

I was looking forward to having Calcutta as the ending point for our tour, even if only for a quick day stop.  Pulling into the train station, I immediately could see that the image I’d created in my mind for Calcutta was very antiquated.  The train station was brightly lit and while extremely busy, still seemed orderly.  It was early morning so traffic was very light but the roads were well taken care of, well marked and vehicles kept to their side of the road.  I’ve since found this article in the Telegraph that helped me understand why my vision for what I’d find was off.  “Indian fiction writers in English, when writing about Calcutta, are interested in the city’s past but not in its present.”

Kolkata, as it is now called, surprised me as being incredibly modern, clean and cultural.  Granted, I was only there for about 36 hours and it was challenging to really get out and explore as it was either raining, or difficult to move around due to a transportation strike.  But the portions of the city I saw, mostly in the old city center, made me wonder if I shouldn’t have planned for more time in this city.

Working traffic lights!  Sidewalks actually exist and can even be walked on!  I didn’t see nearly as many men urinating wherever the urge struck.  There were loads of book stores and the parks were clean.  All in all, a grand place to end what has been a remarkable tour.  My tour mates were leaving at staggering times but we were able to make one final group visit, to Mother Theresa’s Home where she lived, worked and is buried.  An afternoon walk to the Victoria Monument was a nice way to round out the few hours of the afternoon that weren’t rainy and our dinner out and visit to a nearby bar gave a fun view of the nightlife that I hadn’t yet experienced.

I hardly took any photos in Kolkata, as there are just days when I want to be camera free but I can share a couple.

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From here, a quick flight south!

The Ganges

 

Rituals on the Ganges
Rituals on the Ganges

One of the holiest bodies of water and one of the most polluted rivers in the world. This dual personality can be seen everywhere you look in the city of Varanasi, on the riverbanks of the Ganges. For me this has been the craziest, nuttiest place so far. The traffic is beyond comprehension. The noise is outrageous. The crowds induce hyperventilation. And its mystery and uniqueness raise it high to the top for most visitors to India, including me.

Traffic, oh so crazy!
Traffic, oh so crazy!

Every evening, year round, thousands of people stream down to the riverbanks to participate in a ceremony to essentially say good night to the Goddess Ganga. This ritual is so that there will not be any devastating floods. This happens Every. Single. Night. Hindus and Buddhists from all over the world save for years or a lifetime to make a trip to the Ganges. People get dressed up in their finest and camp out along the ghats. It’s a happenin’ place. Because the river is so holy to its believers, people also perform their own more private rituals, lighting candles, taking a dunk or fully bathing in the river to cleanse themselves.

 

Women performing a ritual to bless their children.
Women performing a ritual to bless their children.
Ceremony items for sale.
Ceremony items for sale.
The first night we watched the Ganga ritual from the water.
The first night we watched the Ganga ritual from the water.
The following night we watched the same ceremony, but from behind.
The following night we watched the same ceremony, but from behind.

Another ritual that takes place here is the cremation of bodies in a couple of designated areas along the riverbanks. Families bring their dearly departed, again sometimes from other parts of the world, for their final resting place to be the river Ganges. The ritual is quite interesting as well as the economy that surrounds this tradition. One afternoon while we were waiting for some rain showers to pass we watched a documentary called The Children of the Pyres. It is about the kids who build the fires and cremate the bodies, sometimes for next to nothing. It is their livelihood since a very young age (5 or 6) and for them there is no education, no other way of life. It was a heartbreaking view of things but offered us a more balanced understanding. On an afternoon walk I came upon one of the smaller cremation ghats and watched as 3 bodies were brought through the streets, almost in a parade fashion, to be cremated. Death is not a terrible thing for a Hindu as they believe in reincarnation and each time you die you have the chance to do better next time. The air is full of ashes and smoke is everywhere. Even though there were only 2 cremations in progress, it was a little too much for me.

Piles of wood piled up to make the cremation pyres.
Piles of wood piled up to make the cremation pyres.

Ashes are mostly scattered into the river, as well as any remains that didn’t burn or the entire body if a family doesn’t have the money for a cremation. Adding in tons of sewage plus and who knows what else, the river is incredibly polluted. Lots of half hearted efforts seemed to be in play to clean up the river but it seems daunting and impossible. The craziest though was to see hundreds of people happily bathing in the river, kids doing flips into the river and playing, brushing their teeth in the river, and doing their laundry in the river. Intense!

Bath time
Bath time
yum.
yum.

So far this is the city that has had me running back to my hotel room for a short break and required some deep breathing exercises to make it through the crowds. But it’s also the place that has peaked all of my senses the most.

A few more images:

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The Taj

“Better to see something once than hear about it a thousand times” – Asian Proverb

And so, we reached the Taj.  I feel kind of stupid saying that the Taj wasn’t really what I expected to be a highlight of th.  I was happy the tour went through Agra to see it while here, but it wasn’t really a priority.  But once we arrived and climbed up to the rooftop terrace at our hotel and saw the majestic domes in the distance, I felt gratitude that someone else had given importance to what I had not.

I don’t think I have to say much about the Taj.  One of the 7 wonders of the world.  An incredible masterpiece for what is essentially a pile of bones.  A beautiful dedication from a man who loved his ladyfriend.  Etc, Etc.

We got up early to go for the sunrise and avoid the mid day crowds. We had some folks in rough shape but come hell or high water they were still going.  One gal was with a severe bout of delhi belly and another had fallen off a curb the night before and sprained her ankle, but we gotter done and nearly cried as we entered the monument:

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Lessons From Rajasthan

I suspect these lessons apply to all of India but since I can’t yet confirm or deny, I’ll call them local lessons for now.

Such talented artisans all over the state of Rajasthan.  Miniature Painting - in this case it was a detailed elephant on a thumb nail.
Such talented artisans all over the state of Rajasthan. Miniature Painting – in this case it was a detailed elephant on a thumb nail.

FAVORITES

I truly enjoyed our 15 days in the state of Rajasthan, but some places were better than others.

1. Jaisalmer
2. Jaipur
3. Udaipur
4. Pushkar
5. Jodhpur

MORE

That said, there will always be places left unseen and things for next time. Rajasthan is just one of those places where I don’t think there would ever be enough time. There are a few national parks that would be great to explore, when timed correctly to see the flora and fauna. I read about another fort that captured my attention. Chittaugarh would have been interesting to visit, not because I was disappointed with the forts and palaces we did see, but rather because it’s a bit off the beaten path and could probably be visited without so many people around. Other people talked about doing a true camel trek. 3-4 days, or longer, where you start in one place and end in another. I enjoyed our quick overnight camel “safari” but it was a little silly as we were probably only a 1/2 mile from a road. And lastly, I also read about a “city-free” route through Rajasthan that takes you through the Aravalli Hills. It’s possible that “city-free” could mean less horn honking. That alone would be worth it.

MONSOON

 

A soggy trip through a soggy market
A soggy trip through a soggy market

When the guide book says that the monsoon for northern India runs through August 30th, it would be best not to take that literally. Turns out, there isn’t a switch that just turns it off….and it’s possible you will get still caught in a downpour when you least expect it, even into September.

Down right disgusting.  Can't count the number of times we had to drag ourselves through sludge like this.
Down right disgusting. Can’t count the number of times we had to drag ourselves through sludge like this.

 

ROOFTOPS

Rooftop sunset from our hotel in Udaipur.
Rooftop sunset from our hotel in Udaipur.
Hotel across the way had a fun rooftop. Look closely and you'll see the monkeys enjoying the view too!
Hotel across the way had a fun rooftop. Look closely and you’ll see the monkeys enjoying the view too!

 

It really doesn’t matter what your hotel room looks like, if you have to take a shower with a bucket or if the power goes out multiple times each day – as long as your hotel has a rooftop terrace, it’s all good. The rooftop culture and lifestyle for both travelers and residents is a great part of the Rajasthan experience. In the early morning you can watch what seems like the whole city up on their rooftops. People stretching, stringing up clothes to dry, still sleeping on mattresses pulled out into the cool evening air, and kids playing. Almost all restaurants worth visiting have either a rooftop terrace or an open seating area. With a few fans, it remains surprisingly cool and is a great way to get up and out of the noise and bustle but still be able to feel a part of it.

This rooftop in Jaisalmer was a gem. We had fun evenings up here enjoying the cool night air and good view.
This rooftop in Jaisalmer was a gem. We had fun evenings up here enjoying the cool night air and good view.
Watching the city of Jaisalmer come alive in the morning.  Daily life starts up above, on the roof.
Watching the city of Jaisalmer come alive in the morning. Daily life starts up above, on the roof.

GET UP TO DATE

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Things quickly get confusing in this region and lots of terminology and history gets thrown around. There are the Mughals, Rajputs, Maranthas, Maharajas, Maharanas, Rajputanas, etc, etc. Each district in Rajasthan had its own nobility and palaces and princely traditions. There are palaces and havelis and forts. Centuries of wars that changed the hands of power back and forth over time and from an independent kingdom to part of a nation. Architecture and culture uniquely Rajasthani. Turbans are worn and tied 100s of different ways to identify what group they belong to. It’s also in the tribal belt of India with tribes and ethnic groups that have not mixed and have remained homogenous, each with it’s own colorful traditions and culture. Phew, it’s a beast to even begin to understand. Then there are so many Gods & Deities that are referenced as stories are told about a particular place or historical time period. A lot of religious migration has gone on over the years in this region. We visited places of worship for Jains, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. All of these pieces of the puzzle are commonly referenced by tour guides and written information and it can be quite overwhelming to sort it out all out. A little research before hand could go along way.

BE A WARRIOR

India can be trying.  This is after a few too many motorbikes and tuk tuks tried to run me over.
India can be trying. This is after a few too many motorbikes and tuk tuks tried to run me over.

We heard a lot about the 4 different castes, one of which is the warrior caste. As a tourist to Rajasthan, especially as an India first-timer, it sometimes takes being a warrior to push through the unpleasant and find some peace in this colorful land. It’s filthy, grimy, dusty and the hawkers, tourist touts and excessive horn honking and noise can really put some stress on the nerves. For me, the noise was the most difficult for me to take in. Lots of time outs and retreating up to a rooftop helped. Unfortunately all of that negative stuff is right in your face and it can be hard to look past it….but Rajasthan is such a fascinating place, you just have to find a way to make it open up its magic for you!

Finding a few moments of silence and escaping the noise.
Finding a few moments of silence and escaping the noise.

Jaipur – the not Pink City

Jaipur is advertised as the Pink City, but it’s not. The Old City is full of terracotta colored buildings and they say that when the sun is setting and hits the Old City walls just right, it takes on a pinkish hue – but we didn’t see it. Jaipur is the most hectic city in Rajasthan and the bustling commercial capitol of the state. It has a couple of impressive tourist attractions but I was primarily looking forward to this stop because it is also the city where our tour leader grew up and where his parents live. He’s been a phenomenal leader throughout the trip but having that extra hometown knowledge was great.

The lingering remains of the monsoon have been following us around so our first afternoon was a wet one, keeping us indoors for most of it. We had the chance to go to our leaders home for chai and to get an inside look at middle class comfort. His home has been in the family for many generations and is one of the largest still intact in the Old City. Knick knacks and decor alluded to a well to do past of hunting tigers and playing polo in a family from the warrior class. We also got to take advantage of the family’s on-call barber and henna artists. While one of the gentlemen in our group got a shave, I went for my first henna.

my henna
my henna

 

having chai and looking at the family relics
having chai and looking at the family relics

 

just a few tigers in the bedroom
just a few tigers in the bedroom

The Bapu Bazaar was another intense experience, wading through stalls selling colorful saris, clothes, flowers, copper pots and pretty much anything and everything needed for daily Rajasthani life.

the sari section
the sari section
ladies buying their flowers
ladies buying their flowers

The main sight in Jaipur is the Amber Fort. It’s really more of a palace surrounded by a larger Fort and connected to the mostly-intact city wall. It was absolutely stunning! The palaces and forts in Rajasthan have been unreal and having this one as the grand finale leaves a permanent footprint in my memory. We started with a guide and then had a few hours to just wander the halls, pavilions, and gardens.

the massive Amber Fort/Palace complex up in the distance
the massive Amber Fort/Palace complex up in the distance
Amber Fort. The red dots are elephants, adding to the romantic princely feeling of being in the Rajput era.
Amber Fort. The red dots are elephants, adding to the romantic princely feeling of being in the Rajput era.
the massive city wall, mostly intact off in the distance.  I think they said it is 19km long.
the massive city wall, mostly intact off in the distance. I think they said it is 19km long.
passage ways full of mirrors and mosaics. So fun!
passage ways full of mirrors and mosaics. So fun!
the inlay work from this region is beautiful. I think this is black onyx in marble.
the inlay work from this region is beautiful. I think this is black onyx in marble.
beautiful spot for a coffee, wouldn't you say?!?   I sure enjoyed it!
beautiful spot for a coffee, wouldn’t you say?!? I sure enjoyed it!

It had started as a cloudy day and I thought we wouldn’t be able to go to Jantar Mantar, an observatory, but the sun came out to play and within minutes it was beating down on us. Perfect to go have a look at this medieval observatory from the 1720s, albeit hotter than hot. We hired an animated tour guide and were led through the various instruments and sundials, amazed at the genius behind each of them. Predictions are made here regarding the moon, the monsoon, summer, astrology etc. Some of the sun dials got to within 10 seconds of actual time and the main one we experimented with was within 13 minutes.

largest sundial in the world and other instruments
largest sundial in the world and other instruments
calculating current time to within a few minutes
calculating current time to within a few minutes

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As a final stop, I went for a browse through Hawa Mahal, also known as the Palace of the Winds. The most prominent feature of this Old City structure are all the latticed windows, allowing women to see but not be seen – a practice brought to this land by the Mughals.

Palace of the Winds
Palace of the Winds
Lovely view from the top balconies of the Palace of the Winds.  You can see bit sundial in the distance.
Lovely view from the top balconies of the Palace of the Winds. You can see bit sundial in the distance.

The Not Pink City was a good one and our last urban stop in Rajasthan. Our biggest disappointment was not getting to go to a polo match, as it got cancelled due to the rain.  From here we traveled a few hours to the Bharatpur-Keoladeo Ghana National Park – a bird sanctuary. Given that it was not the right time of year to see any of the more interesting birds out in the wild (peacocks!) I decided to pass on the park outing and just enjoyed about 18 hours holed up in our hotel. It was also our “rest stop” so the hotel was nicer than usual with a pool, good food and lots of outdoor seating to lounge and read and rest up for another mack daddy stop – the Taj Mahal.

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

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

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