Colorful orange streaks of light began peeking over a neighboring dune and the sun had begun to rise… so I rubbed the cobwebs from my sleepy eyes and stepped barefoot onto the cool sand to climb a nearby dune and watch the morning spectacle… compliments of Mother Nature. It was a sunrise for the books – and Christine from Denmark and I were happy we awoke to see it. Like clockwork, our guides diligently brewed up some fresh hot chia tea which we sipped while wiping ourselves down with baby wipes. The sand was everywhere! Soon enough breakfast was served, handmade chapatti bread and sweet porridge, crackers and jam… which I topped off with a succulent mango I ate with my hands. Yum
After packing up our things and storing our cots in the hut beneath the dunes, it was back on our camels and onto the waiting desert. Today we got to run with the camels! Squeezing my core tight and gripping the saddle beneath my legs, running with the camel was not unlike a horse... not that I’m exactly trained in either. It was so exhilarating… the wind whipping my face as I bounced high on the camel’s back… watching the dunes of sand rush by while listening to my I-Pod. This was really something. We ran for quite a while, our bums screaming, before reaching a desert village that had actual bricks, water, and a bit more civilization.
We sat on our camels while they imbibed at the local watering well (camels can hold up to 70 liters of water at once) and continued on for our last few hours together. I savored that last ride with Bublue… listening to soothing music and enjoying the natural rays of sun tanning my sandy skin. After a final lunch at the outskirts of the desert line, we were sad to say goodbye to our amazing crew of three. A couple of photos and one Jeep ride later, we were back in Jaisalmer and in desperate need of a shower.
Shower I did, and I had no time to waste as I exchanged information with my new international friends, got to the station, and boarded a final train at 5pm which would take me overnight to Jaipur. I couldn’t believe how exhausted I was! Not even one hour on the train and I was fast asleep in my bunker under the florescent lights.
For the Photo Gallery, click here.
(June 12th, 2011) I arrived at the Jaisalmer train station at 11am on a mission: find other backpackers and get them to go on a safari with me. I needed to explore my options of hotels and safaris upon arrival and sift through the countless salesman vying for my rupees. Luckily I put my trust in a familiar face from the overnight train ride, a carefree Austrian name Rudolphi who was on the same mission as me. So ditching my “stick to the plan” attitude, I abandoned my original hotel booking and jumped in a Jeep full of backapckers headed for Hotel Jaisal View. Despite a less-than-sanitary bathroom, my single room was colorful and had A/C… say no more. I had traveled the farthest West I could go, Jaisalmer… a desert town known for its authentic camel safaris into the neighboring Thar Desert.
I spent the morning comparing the safari my hotel was offering to the one I originally booked… my biggest concern that there would be others joining me. After a long negotiation session and a trip into the city center to visit other safari companies, I got the hotel owner to include my room and 2-day, overnight safari in a 1400 rupee package. Can’t beat that! The rest of the day was spent exploring the massive Jaisalmer Fort – another tourist attraction of this sleepy town. I met a local friend who showed me the ins and outs of the never-ending fort made of sandstone, (where families still live and work). The views from the top were beautiful… the small city was an oasis painted gold amongst the unforgiving desert. The havelis and shops inside the fort felt almost uninhabited – locals staying inside to avoid the relentless mid-afternoon heat. It felt like I was brought back in time as I traversed the hidden alleyways, photographing the intricately carved detail on the sandstone outside the windows and doors. Beautiful.
I rested on the hotel rooftop for a few hours with a cold Kingfisher beer and my journal… enjoying the steady wind and views of the fort. I met several friendly staff workers of the hotel, and finally another backpacker… Julie (pronounced Shoo-ly) and her friend Nadege (Nah-desh) from France, who would be joining me on the safari in the morning. Though Julie spoke little to no English and Nadege struggled, we somehow found common ground and were able to communicate. We met bubbly Christine from Denmark as well, and the four of us became instant friends. We took the Austrian Rudolphi with us that evening on a stroll into the city center and found a perfect rooftop restaurant. Our fivesome swapped travel stories and feasted on delicious Indian cuisine while laughing the night away, despite our differing languages. We hit the hay early in the night… us girls had some serious camel trekking to do tomorrow.
At 6:30am sharp, I was woken by a banging on my door yelling I had 30 minutes to be downstairs for the safari. I relished in a cold shower knowing I would not have such respite for the next 48 hours, and crammed into an open-aired Jeep with five others as we sped off towards the white sand dunes calling our names. The Jeep traversed dirt roads and rocky humps at insane speeds… my knuckles turned white from gripping the seat. We stopped briefly at an abandoned temple, and then a small gypsy village along the road. The children of the village (consisting of about 3 mud buildings and a water well) ran towards us in fascination, stroking my blonde hair with curiosity.
Before I knew it we were in the outskirts of the sandy desert, waiting for our modes of transport to arrive… the quirky hump-backed camels. Arrive they did, and in stellar fashion. Tiny dots in the distance approached quickly over a towering hill, soon turning into three guides and seven gorgeous camels draped in colorful blankets and necessary supplies. It looked like something out of a blockbuster film… this was going to be amazing! We were assigned our camels (me, Julie, Nadege, Christine, and two girls from South Korea who did not speak a word)… and taught how to “board”. Swinging my leg confidently over the laying camel’s back, I was happy to be tall as this was no easy task. A couple of clicks with my mouth and the camel obediently stood up, front legs first – pushing all my weight backwards, then clumsily gaining its hind legs… gripping the harness is necessary to avoid spilling to the sand… it was so fun! I was equally excited each time we got to mount and dismount our camels throughout the journey.
As we began walking into the open desert I realized riding a camel was not too different from a horse, just much higher to the ground and a bit bumpier. I quickly got the hang of it and soon couldn’t get enough. The desert terrain changed as we pressed on, the grains of sand getting finer and the foliage getting less. Soon we were surrounded by desert and there was no conception of time, direction, or space. The views of golden sand, lonely trees, and shadows of our majestic camels was truly picturesque, (hence all the pictures I took). Me and my fellow riders donned bright orange turbans as we rode, the wind whipping from all sides which kept us cool despite the rising temperatures. It was a perfect day. I should mention that after about two hours one of the girls from South Korea got sick – so one of the guides took her and her friend back… leaving us with the original four.
We stopped for lunch under the shadow of a tree where our camels were let loose and roamed about as our guides diligently cooked up an authentic, albeit gourmet, meal. They dug a hole in the mud and started a fire by hand with small branches that had fallen from the tree. A young goat was caught roaming around and it was milked on the spot… the fresh goat’s milk was brewed to perfection into a milky chia tea… the best I have had in all my life. The guides (led by trusty Barria) boiled some oil and the tasty fried snack “munga” was made, boiling noodles into flaky chips. We snacked on munga and chia as they continued to make homemade chapatti bread rolled by hand and a fresh vegetable dish of potatoes, onions, and peppers prepared with a delicious mix of Indian spices. We sat on a blanket and enjoyed this amazing meal with our hands, after which we washed the tin dishes using the grainy sand itself. This methodical process was followed each time we had a meal… each one better than the next. This was truly authentic desert living.
Back on our trusty camels (mine named “Bublue”), we ventured far into the desert for a few hours, stopping only to let the camels drink at a local watering hole. Another notable stop was at a hut village surrounded by nothing but sand. Upon seeing our camels the village children swarmed our group like bees. I cannot fathom how people lived in these little huts made of mud and sand… it really gave a different perspective on how people can live. We walked through the village in awe, finally realizing it was time to go when the children got aggressive and began asking for everything we were wearing. A while longer on the camels and we arrived at the beautiful dunes of the Thar Desert. We trekked over the rolling dunes and admired the patterns in the untouched sand, shadowed by the setting sun. We had arrived at a small hut protected by the surrounding dunes, where our sleeping bags and “beds” were stored. The four of us played in the sand barefoot and enjoyed some tasty cold beers, watching the sun set from the edge of the highest dune. The soft sand felt like a foot massage on my tired gams.
Darkness brought a comfortable cool air and a warm batch of chia tea went down smooth. Of course we were treated to another amazing meal which we enjoyed with our hands, with only the moonlight as our guide amidst the darkness. The four of us and our friendly guides stayed up late exchanging stories about our differing ways of life. It was beyond interesting to hear how the desert men lived versus the Europeans, and me – the American. We discussed everything from politics, school (and medical school as the Nadege and Julie were studying to be doctors), travel, religion, and culture. It was a learning experience you cannot get in school. We culminated the evening taking turns singing our national anthems, and I fell asleep on my little cot outside… no blanket necessary… enjoying the cool desert breeze and staring at thousands of stars and the biggest moon I had ever seen. It was hard to conceptualize where I was in the world at that moment, just 20 kilometers outside Pakistan, so far away from home. I was on this great adventure and I felt so small. It was one of those magical moments I get in travel where I feel overwhelming gratitude for the gift of life, and the endless possibilities our world has to offer. I was overjoyed to be living in this moment, breathing in the Indian desert air.
Part II of the safari will be coming next! (For more photos of this journey... visit the Photos Page)
I had eighteen hours in Jaipur – and so much to do! When Bunty’s friend, (my taxi friend in the previous city), named Ramzan picked me up from my early train arrival as promised, I was relieved to avoid the incessant amount of drivers hoping for fares. Atithi Guest House was just minutes away… it was a pleasant oasis on the outskirts of the busy city, offering a spacious and cheap room. Aware of the ticking clock and the exciting metropolis to see, I quickly checked in and readied for my day in Jaipur. This time Ramzan’s brother, “Lucky”, would be my driver for the day. A free-spirited, charismatic 22-year old, Lucky was eager to show me around even though he wasn’t technically an auto rickshaw driver.
Our first stop was the famed Amber Fort where I hiked up the golden walls into the massive fort perched high above the city. The beating sun lit up the centuries-old walls, glowing a bright yellow hue. Amber Fort was large and overwhelming. The place was silent and the corridors wound on and on… I probably only scratched the surface in my self-guided tour. After exploring the four sections of the Fort with the help of my handy Lonely Planet guidebook, it was time for the main event… Lucky was taking me to an elephant orphanage!
Visiting an elephant farm and riding atop one of the majestic
beasts was what I was admittedly most excited for in visiting Jaipur… so this was quite the treat. I was happy to hear Lucky knew of a nearby elephant sanctuary where the elephants are treated very well and not over-worked. (There
is an option to ride an elephant up to the top of Jaipur’s Amber Fort. Please avoid this option as the elephants are mistreated and the tourist trap is over-priced and not worth the money. Just a short ride up the Fort will set you
back the same amount of Rupees which I gladly donated to the workers of the farm after getting an incredible and priceless one-on-one experience). Back to my visit… the second we pulled up to the orphanage I saw a gorgeous grey creature standing in the entranceway. I visited with “Moti”, stroking her wrinkly skin and feeding her sticks of bamboo. I was in awe of her calmness despite her massive size. She seemed content and happy – I immediately liked this place. Next, I was brought to the bathing pond where some of the sanctuary workers were trying desperately to get one stubborn elephant back onshore… he was enjoying his cool respite in the pond far too much to abide. One by one, the local men tried mounting the naked back of the over-sized elephant, swimming neck-deep in the water, thrashing around trying to get him to exit the pool. No such luck. Everyone was laughing at the spectacle.
After a while of this, it was time for the best part – I got to ride Moti! Some locals strapped on a wooden “chair” made up of dried bamboo sticks roped together and some rusty metal, with a pillow to sit on adorning the elephant’s back. I was hoisted some fifteen feet in the air onto my cushioned place where I gripped the sides of my chair and let the fun begin. Lead by a worker sitting on her neck, Moti brought us all around a local mud village. We traipsed through the rocky terrain with ease, my rickety chair swaying back and forth with each thundering step. I couldn’t stop smiling! As if that wasn’t enough, the caretakers let me step carefully from my little chair to sit directly on Moti’s head! I was worried my sharp gym shoes and my weight itself would be too much for the elephant to handle, but was laughed off as I don’t think Moti blinked an eye. I rode the whole way back on Moti’s head and then neck, my legs draped behind her flapping ears. WOW. When we got back to the orphanage I thanked Moti with a kiss on her trunk. She lifted her leg signaling for me to board – so I grasped her neck and stepped on her foot. She hoisted me up onto her back all by myself… and it was incredible.
I was sad to leave this elephant playhouse, but it was time to move on. Lucky brought me to a pretty lake with a mini palace in the center, which reminded me of Udaipur. We met some local children and helped them feed the
fish before venturing back to the city center. Jaipur is called the Pink City – for obvious reasons once you are there. Building after building is painted bright pink – opening its unique goods to the street passersby. The whole town is a blur of pink when riding through at hefty speeds. I explored the over-rated Hawa Mahal, and then the Jantar Mantar Observatory which houses astronomical machines and sun dials built in 1727 – the astronomical knowledge from so long ago was very impressive. The sun dials display the time to absolute perfection. Read more here. Next I visited a textile where I was kindly shown the intricate process of ink-stamping on silky canvasses. Layers of ink are stamped meticulously over one another in patterns to form the detailed silk scarves often found as a trademark of Indian culture. I bought two of the handmade masterpieces for myself… still favorites in my wardrobe.
Exhausted, I headed back to my Guesthouse where I showered, ate
some American cuisine for the first time (penne pasta and grilled cheese), and
took a much-needed nap. Once I felt rested enough, Lucky picked me up to bring me about 25 kilometers south of Jaipur to Choki Dhani, a magical place I had read about while planning my journey. Choki Dhani is a family-friendly carnival of
sorts, where children enjoy an amusement park based on Rajasthani traditions.
The nighttime outdoor park is reminiscent of the Mughal era; it is a well-groomed area with dirt roads lit up by lanterns, lined with traditional
huts directing its guests from one amusement to the next. Shops line a manmade river that winds through the little carnival town, and nearly every type of Indian enjoyment is offered. There are ferris wheel rides, fortune tellers, magicians, dancers, henna painters, and rides on elephants, camels, and donkeys. There are boat rides, puppet shows, and music all around. I really enjoyed
perusing around with an ice-shaved snow cone, watching the families enjoy themselves. I braved a ride on the rickety old ferris wheel which is powered by two men jumping and throwing the iron beams so they spin as fast as possible around the center. (Safe to say this would not pass any sort of safety regulations in the US).
To cap my night took a seat on the floor of a large Rajasthani hut amongst locals for an included meal of assorted meats and curries.
Everything was going just fine, and I felt one with the culture, until I felt something crawling up my back and onto my head… I screeched and jumped up, directing attention on myself from the curious faces enjoying their meals. Not
wanting to cause any more of a scene, I sat back down, my appetite sufficiently gone. Moments later, a woman sitting next to me jumped to her feet in fear – claiming something had scurried on her leg. She laughed off the incident, assuring me it was “only a rat”. WHAT!? There was a RAT on my HEAD?!? I left immediately with plans to spend the evening in the shower.
After saying goodbye to Lucky and showering at the hotel, I packed up my things for another evening train. I had to pay the Guesthouse in cash, so frantically ran around Jaipur looking for an ATM which I found just in time – and paid the place angry at their lack of communication. I made it to the train station to find my ride was thirty minutes delayed. It was just enough time for me to decompress and take in the bevy of the long day’s events.
Just another day in India…
For PHOTOS of Jaipur, visit the Photos page or click here.
I swiftly arrived at the Udaipur train station in the wee hours of the morning where I was quickly approached by a sociable auto-rickshaw driver, Bunty, who would later become a friend. Kankarwa Haveli, my slightly pricier hotel on the lake… was just what I needed. Silent, tranquil, and gorgeous, I was upgraded to a deluxe room with its own meditation center, comfortable queen bed, strong A/C unit, window views overlooking Lake Pichola, and a very clean bathroom. I promptly showered and headed up 4 flights of stairs to the highly anticipated rooftop views!
The view from atop the hotel did not disappoint. I had traveled from scorching weather and jam-packed cities to an oasis on a picturesque lake.
The sun rose over the calm blue waters dotted with palaces of creamy custards and milky whites, flowers of vivid magenta and gold lined the view – this was a
heavenly place! I enjoyed a long breakfast overlooking the views where I feasted on deliciously fresh fruit, eggs, toast, jam, and tea… all included in the price of my room.
After making friends with my waiter Shika, I stepped down from the terrace to sightsee. I found Udaipur to be a charming small town which is walkable and quaint. The many hills winding up and down marked by tight alleyways offering stalls of handcrafted goods add further character to this city on the lake. I was not near as bothered by touts or locals trying to sell things to me – and barely anyone asked to take my picture. Though mopeds and rickshaws still fly through town at unnecessary speeds, I found the people of Udaipur to be a calmer, more content kind.
I began my sightseeing with Jagdish Temple, the largest mosque in Udaipur, just steps from my haveli. Traditional prayers and song were in full gear, and I felt like an idiot standing there watching. I continued to explore some shops, buying souvenirs for friends back home, and made my way to City Palace - the large and impressive museum where I spent 2 hours exploring the many corridors and rooms lined with Rajasthani artwork, stained glass walls, and stories to tell.
I continued on down the steep hills to the bottom of Lake Pichola’s edge, where the boat tour I was looking to do had just pulled away from the harbor. I had one hour to kill and did so at a nearby internet café where I had just enough time to update family and friends on my travel experiences thus far. Of course when I got back to the boat, a gathering of backpackers was just departing – so I was once again solo. I enjoyed the tour
nonetheless – basking in the cool breeze off the water’s edge and taking in the magical views. The boat stopped at a fancy island called Jagmandir – where I snapped photos of the perfectly groomed landscape and its high end hotel. Back on shore, I nearly had a heat stroke climbing back up the hilly landscape amidst the beating afternoon sun. I found relief in an air-conditioned hotel
bathroom for twenty minutes where I cooled down and swore off India’s dress code – how do people wear long dresses and covered shoulders in 100 degrees Fahrenheit!?
One much-needed nap in my hotel later, I woke up to my alarm so I could catch the sunset… I definitely didn’t want to miss that! They call Udaipur “the Venice of India” – a spot where many honeymooners venture to relax, and I know why. As the fiery sun dropped over the huge Monsoon Palace perched high atop a mountain in the distance, beams of lights lit up the colorful sky and
endlessly rolling Aveli mountains. The domed palaces surrounding Lake Pichola glowed in the distance. This was a moment to remember. I treated myself to a lovely dinner at the famed Sunset Terrace restaurant and dined on a delicious
chicken dish in red sauce with rice and naan, washed down with some cold, half-priced Kingfisher beers. I was in heaven!
The evening only improved as I met Jo from London and her fiancé Matt from Australia, fellow backpackers – finally. The flowing conversation and laughs turned into a somewhat tipsy and fun walk back to our hotels where we
exchanged numbers and planned to meet up for the following evening’s sunset.
Day two in Udaipur was a busy one. I had another great breakfast on my hotel rooftop and ventured into town looking for Akosha Arts. Here I partook in a divine three hour painting class where my instructor basically just
told me which colors to paint when, and to copy the painting at hand. Good thing I can draw!
Creating my little traditional Rajasthani painting of an elephant on a silk canvas – full of minute patterns and details – was so unique. I must say I was quite pleased with my design in the end.
Next I decided to call Bunty and arrange a day tour of New Udaipur via his rickshaw, ending at Monsoon Palace amid the mountains for sunset. Bunty was great! I took a cable car up the mountain to Sunset Point and saw stunning views of all of Udaipur. I toured the spice market where I blended in with local shoppers and was overcome by the titillating and competing smells. We stopped at Royal Memorial where I photographed the countless rows of beautiful domed tombs housing the spirits of deceased royals. We stopped at a garden where I was unpleasantly hassled by intrigued tourists, and saw a second lake, the sun glistening over its waves. I even saw some traditionally garbed camels and got a picture – and later saw my first elephant in India! We were driving down a busy street when the colorfully-painted and costumed gigantic creature caught my eye. The tourist in me screamed for Bunty to pull over so I could feed, touch, and photograph the majestic beast.
Finally, we had circled the lake and arrived at the foot of the mountain range where I would need to wait for a proper car to carry me to the top, the home of Monsoon Palace. I flagged down a taxi I saw carrying two backpackers and they let me ride along for free. The ride up the mountain was insane to me, and our driver’s speed was even more so… 360 degree turns every 10 meters, beeping, rode bumps, tunnels – the pace had me laughing the whole way up. Once we got to the top I explored the “palace” which looks more impressive from the bottom of the lake, but the views were well worth the visit. Udaipur city and its two lakes on one side, pure Aveli mountain ranges on the other. I sat on a bench watching the sun drop over the gorgeous landscape – then Jo and Matt finally made it in a pinch just in time to see the sun disappear.
The three of us got back into town and set out for a good restaurant. The one recommended in my guidebook was closed, but we found an adorable rooftop place lined with red and green lights calling our names. Seating in a private tiki hut atop the restaurant fitting just us three, we feasted on a gluttonous amount of chicken tandoori, veggie thali, paneer, and Kingfishers, all the while exchanging stories and some good laughs. When Jo looked at her watch and informed me it was 9:20pm, I had no time to waste to get back, change, and catch my train! Bunty charged me just 400 Rupees for the entire day so I gave him 500 (just ten bucks!). I was happy to make the train in time which would move overnight to my next city, Jaipur. Though I was excited for what was ahead, I was sad to leave the city on the lake… it had made quite an impression.
For Photos of this trip - click here!
Surprisingly, my train #12190 headed to Agra was on time and my spot was waiting for me, despite countless rumors on the lack of train efficiency I had heard prior to my time in India. I was pleased upon seeing the conditions of my 2AC train class in person – cool (almost too cold) from the beaming A/C, clean enough, and charming. I had my own upper “berth” – a bunk bed, which offered decent privacy and perfect comfort. After the quick three and a half hour trip, I was sad to leave my little bunk.
Relieved to see I had exited at the proper town, I had arrived in Agra Cantt Train Station just past nine at night. I was a bit flustered and nervous being somewhere totally new after dark, but confidently marched out of the tracks and turned down the many tuk-tuk drivers hoping for my fare so I could get my bearings. The second I put my luggage down, which I had stupidly tied a fresh sack of berries to from the market, it was suddenly attacked! My first thought as I looked up from my map was theft – until I saw the predators… two full-sized, hungry and mean monkeys! Yes, monkeys. Within minutes of my arrival in town, it was safe to say I failed in blending in as the mammals took turns pouncing on my luggage and ripping at the bag of berries until it broke open, fruit flying everywhere. Seconds later they had snatched up as many as they could hold, ran to a nearby stoop, and dug in – giving me evil glances from afar which I read as “you dumb American, we WILL take your food”.
I tried my best to laugh off the incident and mask my total shock and fright, negotiated a price with an auto-rickshaw driver to get me into town, and clenched my mace the entirety of the ride. The ride consisted of seeing a
few more wild monkeys flying from car to car on the street, along with a lot more goats and cows walking in the roads. I had clearly left Delhi for a more rural experience. One auto rickshaw and one cycle rickshaw later (no engines are allowed around the Taj Mahal, only bicycles to prevent pollution fumes tinting the masterpiece), I was brought to my Hotel Sheela – a comforting little oasis just a few steps from the gates of the Taj. I settled in and enjoyed a late night snack of cheese pakora (glorified mozzarella sticks) with a tangy Indian sauce, and a couple of Kingfisher beers outside in the garden. I set my alarm clock for 5am the next morning so I could see the sun rise over the Taj Mahal…
Sound asleep in my pitch black room at the hotel, I am suddenly awaken by a noise. I check my clock: 4am. Only one more hour until I get ready and go to the beckoning gates of the Taj Mahal to see the much-anticipated
sunrise. Naturally, I can’t catch a minute more sleep. I rise and jump in the shower, taking my time. I check the clock again: 5:45am. What?! Now I’m in panic mode. I throw my things together and jog to the East Gate of the monument and am told – no pre-paid ticket, no entry. Shit. No one speaks English.
Suddenly, an angel in the form of a teenage local boy on a moped comes zooming my way – offering to speed me into town to purchase my ticket at the offices and get me back in time for my sunrise… There is no time to ponder – I jump on (side-saddle in a flowing blue dress), gripping my sunhat with one hand and the waist of the stranger with the other… putting my trust in mankind. Even though I felt like I was going to die as we whisked through town at lightening speeds,
I was endlessly grateful for the offer as I arrived back at the Gate just minutes later with
my 750 Rupee ticket in hand.
The sunset was almost indescribable – but I’ll do my best. Being one of the first of a following slew of tourists to arrive, I got to see the Taj Mahal in pure silence, the serene atmosphere feeling almost otherworldly. The Taj appears to be a pink hue in the early morning light, and as the sun rises it becomes bright white. It took my breath away. As I wandered the neatly groomed gardens and reflection pools of the grounds, it felt as if I was the only person there, experiencing this wonder of the world solo.
The slight narcissism in me was begging for a photo shoot – and
one of the Taj workers turned out to be my savior. He followed me around for about an hour, showing me the best view points and spots for photo opportunities, all the while snapping away. He was amazing and the photos are irreplaceable. I later spent about four hours just touring the grounds and staring in amazement at the gorgeous monument… perfectly polished white marble
walls, stoic and grand, executed in perfect symmetry to convey excellence and flawlessness. I replaced my shoes for slippers and walked the terraces of the Taj, amazed at how few people were there. I saw the tombs laying inside and photographed the intricately placed patterns of stones lining the walls. After admiring the ethereal masterpiece from just about every angle, I noticed tourists beginning to pour in. The locals began hounding me, and it got sufficiently out of hand once a line of about twenty began to form, waiting for a picture with the tall American with blonde locks. So I called it quits, deciding I had gotten my fill of the Taj Mahal.
The rest of my day was spent driving around the rural town of Agra with my hardworking cycle-rickshaw driver. As the hours passed, the sun strengthened. The heat in India is ever-present, and nearly unbearable at times. It does not relent or apologize – only the strongest survive. At one point my driver and I had to find respite in a man-made hut with some farming locals, sipping cold water until we had the courage to step into the sun yet again. I felt like amongst the farming locals as they milked their goats and their children played cricket outside with a tree branch.
I saw Agra Fort from a distance, ventured across a river to see the Taj from the back side, saw the Baby Taj, watched men hand-make rugs on a threaded loom, and eventually settled in a restaurant for over two hours, desperate for the air conditioning it provided. I spent my time journaling while enjoying the chicken khori, rice, tea, and the after-meal sweet called “peitha”. With nothing else to do or see, I ventured back to my hotel where I no longer had a room (I would be departing that evening so had to check out), but had 3 hours to kill. I tried reading in a hammock in the gardens but couldn’t take the heat – so sat in front of a fan in the kitchen where I met a fellow traveler named Mora, from Germany. We exchanged stories, (she on the first leg of a gap year from school), and our lovely 2 hour chat made the time fly. It is
one of the unfortunate things with backpacking that often times you start to make a new friend, but then off you go on your separate ways. But off I went, and I was glad to see my A/C bunker on an overnight train headed to the next city. I was happy to have my own door, electric outlet, and an extra blanket. The thirteen hours would fly by in what felt like two, and I would wake up in a
new place the next morning at 6am – excited to explore the city on the lake, Udaipur.
To view all of the photos from Agra, visit the Photos Page or click here.
After over 18 hours of travel and one late night taxi, I checked into my budget hotel in the center of the capital city Delhi for some much needed shuteye. I was greeted with a free upgrade to a large suite, and wasted no time in catching some Z’s. The next day was one of the longest of my life – but in a very good way! The day started with me packing up and stepping outside into the complete unknown. As I walked the streets of the backpacker area called Parhaganj, my initial shock felt surreal. Orange dust filled the 100 degree air, shop owners and tuk tuk drivers stared with curious eyes at the 5’10 American roaming the streets with not a tourist in sight. I had truly stepped into adventure! I felt like an eager alien looking into a world completely unknown to me, and I liked it. It wasn’t long before I made a friend in Sahil, a tiny 23-year old from northern India who was happy to swap stories and show me around. He led me to a government-recognized tourist center in the main square Connaught Place where I negotiated an attractive price for a day’s driver.
With all the many attractions to see while in this bustling nation’s capital city, the choice to hire a car was one of my best. For a mere 1200 rupees ($22 USD), my new friend Krishna would take me in a comfortably air
conditioned albeit rundown vehicle to each major site of my choosing – waiting at each for me to roam as long as I pleased. This way I was able to successfully visit all New and Old Dehli have to offer. Each place was better than the next!
The state of these places, most of them built in the 1600s, is hard to believe – the architecture, history, size, artwork, and unique qualities of each took my breathe away. All day I braved the intense climate to visit the gargantuan Red Fort in Old Delhi, Chandni Chowk (the Old Delhi bazaar full of sites, smells, shops, and more stares), the Jain Temples, the Jama Masjid (the largest mosque in all of India – one of my favorite stops), and Raj Ghat (a simple and serene memorial to Mahatma Ghandi who fought for Indian independence). It didn't take long for me to realize I appeared more interesting to some of the Indian tourists than the monuments themselves. At first the approaches for photos with children, men, and women alike were flattering - but after an hour or two I vetoed fame as ever being desirable. I could not walk but 5 minutes without a kind local asking for my photo. All I could do not to be rude was smile. "Say Cheese!"
In between stops (and one short hiccup with a flat tire), Krishna and I would make friends sipping street-brewed chia tea… the best I have ever had by far. I made sure to visit Humayun’s Tomb – one of my favorite places of the day. The towering masterpiece amidst well-groomed gardens was striking and beautiful, but after getting rid of enough memory card space on my camera, I continued on to the notable Lotus Temple. Resembling Australia’s Sydney Opera House, the temple (built in the 1980’s) celebrates the revolutionary Bahai belief which welcomes all religions as one. I could not tear my eyes from the perfect symmetry of the pale blue reflection pools surrounding the crisp white architecture – the pieces of the roof form a lotus flower, the national flower of India. Inside I was overcome by a sense of calm permeating from the scene.
The large pillar and grounds of the Qtub Minar was next – a photographer’s dream with the endless rows of intricately-carved pillars and eye-catching arches. Lastly I got to briefly see the welcoming India Gate reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
After more than a day’s work amid more than my fair share of sunlight, I was never so happy to see a hotel “shower” which consisted of a cold hose and questionable bucket. After mastering the practice of an Indian shower, I finally got to experience its food for the very first time! Simple buttered naan and Dal Moor – cheese-stuffed potato skins drenched in a delectable tomato gravy, would round out my first of many Indian meals which
never disappointed. The food embodies the spirit of this country, and is some of the best in the world. I enjoyed some more chia tea at a street stall with locals and called it a night.
The next day I slowed my sightseeing and explored on foot for a bit. I tasted fruits from the street stalls and smelled spices of every color. I shopped silk scarves offered in every hue. I rode in an auto rickshaw for my
first heart-stopping ride in the craziness that is India traffic. I enjoyed a tea sampling where I purchased Mango and Masala Chai flavors to bring home, and
observed locals spread flowers in prayer at several of the temples downtown.
Soon enough it was time to head to the train
station, where I purposefully arrived early enough to learn the system and people-watch, snapping photos of typical train life in India while trying to lay low as one of the only white people present. After a while I felt comfortable
enough to stare right back at the train-goers as they stared at me…. In fact, I couldn’t help it. Mothers left toddlers and babies to lay on the repulsive concrete platforms without a care in the world. Families gathered over self-cooked fires roasting meats and eating with their fingers. Train passengers barely fit in the 3rd class compartments so they opted to ride outside the doors and windows, sometimes congregating right on the track. The nonchalance of everyone amazed me. No one cared to wait extra hours for a delayed train, and no one obsessed
over, well, anything. Coming from a nation obsessed with safety, sanitizing, and over protection – where a new baby book on how to raise your infant comes out weekly, it makes me think of necessity. Not that I’d necessarily want to be the one barefoot in the rat-infested train station…
After a couple hours of this meditation, I boarded my first train with ease, and got settled into my top row bunk bed – meticulously strapping my bag to the wall for safety. The cold air conditioning was welcomed as was the
privacy and comfort of my little bed. I had a short ride ahead which would leave the bustling metropolis and bring me to the rural town of Agra –home to none
other than the Taj Mahal…
After my first days in Delhi I felt acclimated and comfortable. Every person I met was as genuinely interested in me as I was them, and while
the constant staring and asking me to pose for photos became a bit of a nuisance, I began to appreciate the warmth and simplicity of these people. Their hospitality and pride for their country was contagious – I continually heard the
phrase “Welcome to my India” upon meeting many families, workers, and colorfully garbed women. Well, I feel incredibly welcome and eager to explore more that this unique place has to offer. Thank you, Delhi. Namaste.
For photos from my time spent in Delhi, visit the Photos Page.
Here we go again. I am sitting at my gate in the airport, waiting to embark on my next international journey, and probably my boldest yet. In eighteen hours, I will be across the globe in a land completely foreign to me… India.
It was India that had consumed my thoughts the last few months, and after countless hours of research and planning I am taking the plunge to quench my
ever-growing thirst for travel.
I have strategically studied blogs, articles and guidebooks for
weeks – trying to plan my journey and the stops I want to make in this colorful yet challenging country. The task was overwhelming – what to see when there is so much to choose from? I can now confidently say I have succeeded… I am ecstatic for the itinerary I have tediously perfected, which will take me to six different cities over the course of 18 days. I will venture to Delhi, Agra, Udaipur, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, and Hyderabad. I will be completely solo and traveling via overnight trains with just my backpack, camera, and thoughts. I will strive to see and do everything India has to offer me… from enjoying exotic spices and tea atop a roof in the “Venice of India” all the way to spending a rugged night under the stars beside a camel in the Thar Desert.
Everything is before me and I couldn’t have more anticipation brewing inside. My nervousness is at a high which I expect to calm after the initial shock of a third world country full of contrasts and chaos all around
me. I hope to handle the inevitable annoyances of touts, scam artists, beggars, uncomfortable stares, and extreme poverty with confidence and care… after which
I can soak in the beauty, contrasting cultures, history, people, food, monuments, and overall life in India.
My eyes are peeled and my heart is open. I am surrendering to adventure and diving into the unknown.
…Here we go.