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…..

 

“To Delhi”, she said.

“She was free in her wildness. She was a wanderess, a drop of free water. She belonged to no man and to no city” 

― Roman PayneThe Wanderess

Photo From Twitter Account @mumbaiheritage
Photo From Twitter Account @mumbaiheritage

Today, as I soar across the Pacific Ocean on a quest to search for the untold Indian story inside me, I feel like a wanderess!  It sounds so much more elegant than a wanderer.  Right?

I tend to have outlandish travel dreams.  I don’t just want to go to East Africa, I want to go for at least 6 months and do a north-to-south overland trip.  I don’t want to take a Caribbean 5-day cruise like most normal people, I want to take a 20+ day cruise that takes me around Cape Horn or takes me across a vast expanse of ocean, from one continent to another.  AND, I didn’t just want to stop by India for a few days or on my way to or from some other place…I wanted to wait until I could contrive a 3-4 month journey that would take me throughout the Indian Subcontinent, through Nepal, India & Sri Lanka.

I’m settling for a 6 week starter trip to India.  6 weeks to carve out a journey in one of the world’s most fascinating, and trying, destinations.  45 days to explore a country with remarkable diversity; biological, cultural,  human, etc.   540 hours to try and make heads or tails of this place known as much for its technology & economic growth as for its perverse rural & urban poverty.  32,400 minutes…..You get the point.

Is it enough time to get to all the places I’ve dreamed of?  Absolutely not.  When I first listed out all the places I’d at one point or another bookmarked, I realized the challenge I had on my hands in narrowing down my itinerary. There are monsoons to try and avoid and long, long distances to factor in. There are 29 states and territories in India and I think I’ll only get to 6 or so, but I’m pleased with the tentative plan I have in mind.  I’ll be travelling quite a bit faster than I normally like, but I know this might be a one-time deal and I want experience a good sampling from this multifaceted culture.

As word has spread within my Mexican family and community that I’m off to India I’m hearing a lot of variants of the “Why India?” question.  Didn’t you read “The Jungle Book” when you were young? Isn’t it on every persons list?  I guess not.  India has risen and fallen within my top 10 list, and it wasn’t at the top when I decided to commit to it now, but it’s always been on my list.

I feel impossibly nostalgic about India….nostalgic for an India I couldn’t possibly know.  I wish I could go back in time and visit another version.  Maybe Kipling’s 1890s version for the grand adventures Mowgli had.  Maybe the early 20th century to get a feel for British India.  While I wouldn’t have been pro-British Rule, I can imagine it would be hard to resist the charm of the English Hill Stations, even if I had forfeited the ride in a shoulder carried carriage under the comforts of a lovely parasol! :) Maybe in the 1940s when the independence movement was underway and Gandhi was promoting civil rights movements worldwide.  Maybe the version Martin Luther King Jr experienced in 1959 when India was a young country in the midst of a lot of growing pains as they built their kingdom.  (As an aside, I found this sound recording from MLK’s visit to India on NPR).  Or, maybe the version my father got to explore in the ’70s.

But instead, I get to explore today’s version, in all its glory and confusion.   I get to tour India while its in a boom, on track to become a 21st century superpower.  An India which I expect to leave me floored, awed, frightened, inspired, confused, and on and on….

My husband decided to sit this one out.  India isn’t at the forefront of his own agenda to explore the world, and as I mentioned recently, he is feeling ready for a “stay-put phase” in Chiapas.  He’ll be keeping tabs on my journey from afar, and holding down the fort.  And so begins another solo adventure.

“To Delhi”, she said.

Don’t these old ads, maps and posters make you nostalgic too?

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The Grocer

San Cristobal on a Wednesday morning
San Cristobal on a Wednesday morning

If you were here with me on a Wednesday, I’d bring you along with me to get groceries.  It has quickly become one of my favorites days of the week.  There are larger mercados, with row after row of fruit, veggie & meat stands, along with clothing, household goods and pretty much everything else.  There are also 3-4 big box stores on the outer fringes of town where groceries could be purchased.  But I prefer the small specialty stores in the heart of the city.

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.  In San Cristobal, as in many parts of the world, commerce still functions like this, and I dig it!

If you were here with me, we’d start out by stopping into La Jamoneria for a 1/2 kilo of “The Best Longaniza in Town“- Luis certified!  When we first arrived, I was interested in figuring out some essentials like how to get water delivered to our house, who to call to get rid of the wasp invasion we had and how to get into town with public transport.  Luis was worried about longaniza, and where to get the best.  Longaniza de San Cristobal is a little different than regular longaniza.  It has a different spice profile and can be made a few different ways.  In the beginning we asked around where to find the best and had many taste testings before settling on La Jamoneria.

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We’d then head on down the street a few blocks to Madre Tierra, one of San Cristobal’s most peculiar establishments.  By night, this place becomes a dirty, sticky-floored, second story club where all the riff-raff tends to hang out until the weeeeee hours of dawn.  I hate this place as a bar.  But in the mornings and early afternoon it is a bakery, and one of the best in town!  They also stock some random Asian products and spices, which comes in handy when I get a hankerin’ to fix a curry or thai stir fry for dinner.

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You and I would then head over to the farmer’s market, which is held on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  It’s pretty small, with only about a dozen vendors but I like to start here to see what veggies they have available and what other goodies might be for sale, as it tends to change frequently. We’d then head another to few blocks to the intersection of Diego Dugelay and Real de Guadalupe, where there are several of my favorite shops within a block of each other.   We’d stock up on a few more veggies that the farmer’s market didn’t have and see who has farm-fresh eggs (huevo de rancho) available.

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San Cris Farmer’s Market
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One of my preferred veggie & fruit shops.

 

Next up is one of my favorites, Casa del Pan. While it’s primarily a bakery (another great one!), it also has some cheeses and fresh handmade tortillas, as well as some other local artisanal products (honey, butters, oils, nuts).  It’s a bit pricier but the tortillas from here, oh man, they are just rockin’ our world!

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If we want a nice bottle of wine for dinner, we’d stop over to the wine shop across the street from Casa del Pan, that has several varieties of wine from Proyecto 125, a Mexican wine label that offers great wine at 125 pesos.

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If I’m running low on any kind of nut, seed, spice or dried fruit, we’d duck into the corner Mercadito (incidentally, it seems every other shop in SanCris is called el mercadito or el mercado).  The owner takes pride in having a wide variety of nuts, seeds and spices in stock.  In fact, when I stopped in one day looking for caraway seeds – which he did not have – he almost seemed insulted that I dare request something he didn’t have.  “What do you need that for?”   Maybe next time he’ll have found a source for caraway seeds, even though I no longer remember why I was looking for them…I think to make sauerkraut.

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For dairy products, I haven’t quite settled yet on which I like better.  There is Lacteos Maya which has fresh milk, yogurt and several kinds of fresh and local cheeses, and there is La Alpujarra which primarily serves the Muslim community with halal foods and has similarly delicious dairy products.  They are conveniently on the same block so I can bounce between the two to see what is available.

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Lastly, we’d go for our meat.  In this case it’s even more specialized than just “the butcher” because I have to go to three different shops.  The first has only pork, the second only beef, and the third chicken and rabbit.

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It may seem complicated, time consuming and too much effort, but it’s not.  With the exception of my first three stops, all the others are within 2 blocks of one another and it is quite quick to bop into each shop, making my way down the street.  I love my market day routine and am still trying new places and new products.  I enjoy supporting the small, family-owned businesses and seeing familiar faces.  Sure, I could drive over to Chedraui or Soriana (our big box stores) and buy apples from Washington or berries from New England (and sometimes we do), but on a regular basis I’d much prefer to get what’s being grown somewhat locally, what’s in season, and keeping our kitchen a bit simpler.

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278 MXN Pesos worth of groceries, or about $20. Not particularly cheap, but for bread fresh out of the oven, blue-corn  tortillas handmade this morning, farm fresh eggs and veggies for the week, not bad!

 

If you were here on a Wednesday and kept me company running around town to fetch our weekly groceries, we’d end our shopping trip with a coffee, my treat, before heading home!  

 

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One in a (20) Million

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Mexico City.  El D.F.  A city of a mere 20 million people.  Getting lost in the masses is one of the joys of living in Mexico.  The pulse of this city is unreal.  With hundreds of neighborhoods and a really great public transportation system to whisk you around, I don’t think we shall ever bore of visiting this city.

Feeling a little stuck in a rut in San Cristobal I decided to hop on an overnight bus to Mexico City recently, and spend a week wandering around.

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Parque Hundido – Sunken Gardens

With no real plan or agenda for the week, I took off each day to check out another neighborhood by foot, met up with an old colleague for dinner one night, crossed a few more museums off my list, continued my quest to find the city’s best pozole, did a little shopping, and sought out fun things to eat.  Luis met up with me at the end of the week and we went to one of Mexico’s most spectacular (and ridiculous) shows:  Lucha Libre.

Museums

Mexico City is one of the world’s forerunners in number of museums per capita.  This time around I checked out 3 museums: Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, el Monumento de la Revolucion, & the Museo del Objeto del Objeto.

There are several museums and cultural centers dedicated to showcasing the life and works of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. This is one that I hadn’t visited yet – their joint homes in Coyoacan. I enjoyed taking a walk through both of their homes and seeing some of their belongings and pieces of work.

There are several museums and cultural centers dedicated to showcasing the life and works of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.  This is one that I hadn't visited yet - their joint homes in Coyoacan. I enjoyed taking a walk through both of their homes and seeing some of their belongings and pieces of work.

The Monument of the Revolution visit included a trip up into the dome, which had great views but was a bit claustrophobic and lit up a little fear of heights. An interesting aspect to the tour was a visit down into the foundation work of the monument, not a view you get to see everyday.

Monumento a la Revolución

 

Up into the dome of the Revolution Monument.
Up into the dome of the Revolution Monument.
Down in the foundation
Down in the foundation

 

Neighborhood Patrol

Just like everywhere else, I like to the play the “if we move here where should we live?” game in Mexico City.  This game entails walking through different neighborhoods, rating them on their character and stopping someplace for a bite to eat, a coffee, a drink, a haircut, etc – anything to pretend I live there.  Mexico City is dense and chaotic and oftentimes thick with smog, but there are a surprising number of parks, plazas and green spaces to enjoy.

random fountain in a random park.  Bonus points:  whatever this neighborhood is called has an El Deposito - an artisanal brew shop.
random fountain in a random park. Bonus points: whatever this neighborhood is called has an El Deposito – an artisanal brew shop.
I had read about there being a Colombian neighborhood and set out to find it - loved, loved, loved Mercado Medellin!
I had read about there being a Colombian neighborhood and set out to find it – loved, loved, loved Mercado Medellin!
A walk in the historic city center found me in front of this vertical garden.
A walk in the historic city center found me in front of this vertical garden.
Parque Mexico had some interesting fountains and walkways.
Parque Mexico had some interesting fountains and walkways.
Pedal Power on Avenida Amsterdam near Parque España
Pedal/Petal Power on Avenida Amsterdam near Parque España

 

Double the Fun

Once Luis met up with me we had two days to enjoy the city together.  Mostly, it was more of the same as what I’d spent my week doing…only double the fun!  We quickly decided there was only one right answer for our Friday night: Lucha Libre.   The evening was so entertaining I shall write another post just about this freestyle wrestling show, but for now, will share a photo of the famed Arena Mexico, where the best of the best Luchadores show up to fight/perform.

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And lastly, no trip to Mexico City would be complete without furthering my obsession with pozole – the delicious, droolworthy slow cooked pork shoulder & hominy stew that is hands down, the dish I’m taking with me to my desert island!

This bowl is yet another solid contender in the running for BEST POZOLE ON EARTH:

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Mexico, version 5.0

16056_167459939557_1476163_n  Today marks 5 months officially living in Mexico.  Roughly 150 nights that I’ve called Mexico home.  We’ve come and gone from our new home several times – a few weeks in Uruguay, some time spent in Mexico City and in Oaxaca, a week in Guadalajara, and 2 weeks Stateside….but the key has been having a home base, and one that suits us well.  I can’t yet say that our cabañita in San Cristobal fits us like a glove (the mice & the mold can take credit for that).  I can’t yet say that we never question setting up shop elsewhere (Mexico City is magnetic!).  But I can say that  San Cristobal continues to be the best choice for us right now.

Coming from a place where you are what you produce, I’ve had some moments of self-guilt that I don’t have more to show for my 5 months here (some people have Catholic-guilt, I have Mason-guilt). There are moments I’ve felt underwhelmed, questioned how slowly and cautiously I’ve approached my new home.  But mostly, I’m filled with appreciation for the time and space to focus on our quality of life and the creature comforts, for having time to spend with my brother and Luis’s family, for having the freedom to create my days, for getting to know this town at my own pace and for waking up to the sounds of birds (or squirrels running on the roof like elephants).  I’ve not yet felt bored, but I think that is because I’ve redefined what a fulfilling day can mean to me. I wonder if I’m over thinking things, if I’m focused on the wrong things or the right things or irreversibly off track. But I have not even once wondered if moving to Mexico was the right thing.  It has been the perfect thing.  The details of the plot may not be clear to me yet, but the setting is correct. Mexico querido y lindo.

When I was in Denver last week, numerous times I was asked how I was liking living abroad, or if I was happy to be home.  What should have been a simple response felt a little awkward. Mostly, I think, because it doesn’t feel like I’m living abroad. I felt abroad in my little house out in the sticks of Northern Thailand.  I felt abroad when I camped out in the Peruvian Amazon for a few months.  I’ve felt abroad on vacations….but this does not feel abroad. It just feels like a different version of a place that feels like home.  Sure, some things are different and some things are unfamiliar but more often everything feels like my kind of normal. It may seem chaotic to many, but to me it’s a comfortable chaos.  My Latina-self is thriving!  And Denver didn’t really feel like home anymore….just a place we love dearly that was home for a long time and a place that will likely be home again one day.

So anyway, I’m still in “travel mode” and am more than content with the movement I’m creating. Luis has thrown in the towel, the-always-on-the-move-towel. But we are both happy to have San Cristobal as the place to hang our hats.  Another 2 months or so and then I think I’ll join him in a nesting phase and will be eager to stay in Chiapas for a solid chunk of time before I want to go, go, go again (or so he hopes!).

Until then, the wanderlust wins…

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The murals of Guadalajara

What perhaps struck me most from our week in Guadalajara – yes, even more than the pozole – were the murals! Oh, the murals!!  Jose Clemente Orozco was one of Mexico’s most famous muralists who painted politically charged pieces in several cities, including Guadalajara.  One of our “must dos” while in Guadalajara was to visit and admire his work in two prominent locations:  the Governmental Palace and Hospicio Cabañas.

Our first visit was to Hospicio Cabañas, which is a complex built in the 1790s to serve as a hospital, orphanage, and home for the elderly.  It is an impressive complex in and of itself and has both permanent and rotating exhibits within its walls.  The most impressive feature though, are the series of frescoes on large walls and curved ceilings.  The centerpiece is his piece Man on Fire, painted into the dome.  As we toured the muraled chambers of the building, we had someone explain to us how he was a master of tricking the eye through different perspectives and was a master of geometry and mathematics.  From different vantage points, the same mural can look quite a bit different.  What a beautiful place to spend a bit of time!

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From there, the “mural tour” led us Jalisco’s Governmental Palace.  Here Orozco has two impressive murals, one in the main stairway and the other on the ceiling of the senate chambers.  The fresco within the stairwell is of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a leader from Mexico’s Independence.  No photo can do it justice as it fills up the space in a way that is hard to describe.  His piece within the senate chambers depicts one of his favorite themes or topics:  human suffering and social injustice.

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Both of these locations are easy to visit when in Guadalajara. Hospicio Cabañas is only 40 pesos admission (free day on Tuesday) and has a lot to see outside the murals. I went twice! :)  The Governmental Palace is free and also has 2 small museums that can be visited outside of the murals, although the murals are the real gem in this building.

A quick public service announcement – GDL Airport Transfer

This post will be completely uninteresting and irrelevant to all except for those traveling to Guadalajara on a budget.  

We had a hard time finding information on how to get from the GDL airport, which is about 30 minutes south of the city, into downtown inexpensively.  Before flying up to GDL I’d seen a WikiTravel reference that said: “There is also a bus that stops at the bottom of Terminal 1 which goes to the Central Camionera Vieja close to the historic centre and costs $6.”  I didn’t see this option listed elsewhere and wasn’t sure how current the information was, which is why I’m posting this “public service announcement.” Once arriving at the airport and pricing out the taxis which would have cost $35+ USD or more to get to our hotel, which was on the far north side of the city, we decided to explore the public bus route.

This info is accurate as of June, 2014.

Sure enough, it is possible to get to the downtown old bus terminal for 6 MXN, which is about 50 cents USD.  For the reverse trip, the same goes, get yourself to the Central Vieja, about 12 blocks south of downtown and you can take the bus back out to the airport.  It takes a little more time (about 45 minutes) and this probably wouldn’t be an option for late night or early morning arrivals/departures as the Central Vieja Terminal is a little seedy but if you’re a budget traveler who travels light, like us, then it’s a solid option.  The bus seems to run about every 20 minutes.  From Central Vieja you can then walk if you are staying downtown or take an inner-city taxi for 40-80 pesos to your hotel.  We were able to get to our hotel for 102 pesos, instead of the 400 the taxi wanted to charge.  (aka – saving our money for more pozole!)

Location of the old bus terminal, about 12 blocks south of downtown.
Location of the old bus terminal, about 12 blocks south of downtown.

 

Upon walking out of Terminal 1, look off to your right for the sign that says “Terminal Terrestre” and follow the covered sidewalk. It’s no more than a 5 minute walk.  Actually, you wouldn’t even need to walk all the way to the terminal as the same bus swings through the airport on it’s way downtown, but in order to get a seat for the 45 minute ride into town it’s best to get on at the terminal as a lot of airport workers hop on and stand.    Just make sure to get on the bus going the right way – the bus also goes to Lake Chapala, which is in the other direction.

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For your return trip to the airport, head to the Central Vieja and find the bus that says “Chapala” on the side and confirm with the driver that it’s heading for the airport.  they leave every 20-30 minutes.  Pay your 6 pesos and off you go.

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Easy, peasy!

Notes to self from a dedicated wanderess….Inspiring my community to get out and explore the world.

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