Thursday, September 30, 2010

"I just wanna DANCE!"

The men of India are incredibly ambiguous. In Mumbai, a city with a burgeoning gay scene, all of the hand holding, embracing and nipple pinching makes it hard to tell where cultural norms end and homosexuality begins.

Regardless of the reason, these guys are a real hoot in the nightclubs. Resembling a raucous bachelorette party, they go absolutely nuts on the dancefloor. Girls, oddly, sit at nearby tables sipping their drinks timidly, while their male friends in slacks and button-down shirts are the stars of the show.

Screaming in delight when their favorite song comes on. Throwing their arms in the air and jumping into a frenetic, gyrating circle. Grabbing one another by the arm and swinging aggressively across the dancefloor. Breaking into spontaneous conga lines. The out of control booty shaking could put Shakira to shame, IF it coincided with anything that even resembled the beat.

Actually, scratch that bachelorette party thing. A 'Sweet 16' is a much more accurate comparison. Watching grown, Indian men behave like ecstatic teenage girls is definitely one of the most entertaining moments of this trip. When the sweatiest of the bunch insisted that I join their Bollywood dance party, it made for an awkwardly hilarious good time. And I am sure Reece is still disappointed that we didn't have the flipcam.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Big City Livin' (and Eatin'!)

Just when I started to miss sidewalks and streetlamps.  Mumbai.  Wow!  Who knew? 

Apparently we have departed India and landed somewhere near SF's tenderloin.  Yup.  A little rough around the edges, but with some grade A bars and restaurants.  A cool glass of Zinfandel Rosé and some crusty baked goat cheese bruschetta with tomato and basil confit.  Now THIS is the dining experience I have been missing. 

Unfortunately, the prices make us feel right at home too.  Ahh well.  You better believe I will be opening up the wallet wide for some eggs benedict in the morning.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Varanasi, India

Most of the things you see in Varanasi sorta make you feel inappropriate whipping out a camera. It's definitely more about the people watching here than any 'sights'. And with so much of their lives shrouded in deep-rooted tradition and religious significance, it's often difficult to tell what's too personal to photograph. Thus, my Varanasi album is pretty incomplete.

Most of what you'll find are shots from a riverfront prayer ceremony that we managed to catch twice, once from the ghats among the people and again from a boat docked right in front.

For Vanarasi pics, click HERE.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Life & Death Decision

After finishing our visit to Agra, we were toiling over a few options moving forward...

Rishikesh - Hard core hippy haven made famous by the Beatles decades ago, and the world capital of all things yoga and meditation related.

Varanasi - Arguably the holiest of all places in India, set along the sacred River Ganges and home to ritual activities one could only imagine.

Goa - Beachfront party paradise and maximum chill-out destination on the Arabian Sea.

I had my hesitations about Rishikesh. It has the makings of a really cool place to settle down for a while, but also has the potential of drawing one of our least favorite types of travelers. I worried that our vegan dinner conversations would be littered with musings such as "Oh my god, you haven't had your shakras aligned yet??" from wannabe hippies in poofy pants with newly developed dreadlocks. As it turned out, recent monsoon rains had began to flood the region and folks were being evacuated, so that made our decision pretty easy.

Goa sounds like a great spot to decompress after experiencing the more cultural aspects of India. So, while on our list, it can definitely wait. And with that, we were on a 13-hour overnight train to 'The City of Life'.

Nothing can really prepare you for a visit to Varanasi. It exudes an intensity unlike any place we have visited yet. Spirituality, poverty, generosity, aggression, compassion, celebration and mourning. The vibrant soul of this, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, is palpable.

Dozens of ghats, broad stairways leading into the water, line the river's edge. Many with their own unique purpose, this is where the city's dwellers come to pray, bathe, brush their teeth, wash their buffalos, launder their clothes, defecate. No joke. It is believed to be the provider of life, the grantor of salvation, the Mother and protector, divine in every sense of the word. It is also a particularly privileged place to be cremated.

Manikarnika. Varanasi's main 'burning ghat'. At any time of day or night, funeral processions are making their way towards this sacred spot. Wrapped in muslin and covered by colorful cloth, bodies are carried by their (male) loved ones to Mankiarnika to be burned and released into the river. (Females aren't allowed to join the ceremony, as their crying would inhibit a "peaceful transition".)

Warning: This gets graphic.

Reece and I had the opportunity to watch the intimate scene unfold from a nearby rooftop balcony. On a cement platform at the river's edge, bodies were simply lined up awaiting their turn. Piles of wood were assembled, the deceased were placed on top, and after a few more logs were carefully in place, it was lit aflame. No less than eight people would be burning at one time, while smoke billowed thick and clusters of relatives stood somberly by.

The thin layer of muslin, of course, incinerates quickly. So before long, feet and sometimes heads would be exposed. At one point we watched a man probe the pyre with a stick of bamboo to keep the fire going, then flip two charred calves over into the fresh flames. Images from this day will undoubtedly haunt me for the rest of my life. I walked away from the experience not knowing exactly how to feel.

Reece found it peaceful. A "born from ashes, returning to ashes" sort of thing. In his opinion, it was so much more natural than burying you family member six feet below ground. And this, I can agree with. The experience was definitely defined by more of a spiritual silence than a grotesque voyeurism. But I just couldn't get past the idea of seeing my loved one in that way. I shudder at the thought. I guess that's why they don't allow women in there.

What we both found incredibly disturbing, were the men wading in the waters below with large shallow pans. That's right, "panning" through the dirt and ashes in their underwear in search of valuable jewelry that the corpses may have been adorned with. If that doesn't bring you bad karma, I don't know what does.

For obvious reasons, it is considered incredbily offensive to take photos at the burning ghats. It is considered slightly less offensive to google an image that some other shmuck took.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fatehpur Sikri, India

About an hour outside of Agra lies the magnificently well-preserved ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri.  During the 1500s, it became the beautiful capital of the Mughal empire.  But apparently Mughal city planners didn't do their homework.  The lack of a sufficient water supply to the region caused the city to be completely abandoned after just 14 years (directly following the emporer's death).

We made a visit to the massive Jama Masjid mosque, and took a quiet walk around the expansive ruins.  I found especially interesting the three palaces built by the emperor for each of his three favorite wives - one Hindu, one Muslim, and one Christian.  How very progressive.

Our favorite part of the trip was that we didn't have a driver anxiously waiting for us outside, so we really got to take our time soaking it in.  We climbed up to a perfect rooftop perch where we could watch people, birds, and clouds lazily rolling by as the sun sank below the horizon.

"Move outta my picture!!" - "What? Do a little dance in front of your picture??"

For photos of Fatehpur Sikri and the really big pig that lives there, click HERE.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sweet, Adorable Baby Monkeys


And their big, bad, aggressive Momma Monkey.

Traveler's Tip: When you are taking pictures and your boyfriend is videotaping, nobody is watching either of your backs.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Agra, India

The Taj Mahal is kind of an attention hog.  Ask anybody what they plan to see in India, and you can pretty much guarantee the Taj in on their itinerary.  In fact, I would bet most folks wouldn't even go to Agra if it wasn't for Mr. Mahal. 

What you probably don't know (I didn't), is that there are quite a few other things to see in Agra.  The Taj Mahal may be the star of the show, but some of his co-stars are real lookers too.

The chock full o' monkeys Agra Fort.

The arguably more intricately detailed 'Baby Taj'.

And of course, various interesting and alternative views of the big cheese.

For a comprehensive album of our visit to Agra (they were so hard to narrow down!) click HERE.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

That Big Mausoleum in Agra

The Taj Majal. One of the most recognizable structures in the world. Considered by many to be the most beautiful building ever built. VERY high on my list of things I was excited to see on this trip.

They say sunrise is a particularly magical time to visit the Taj. Bathed in golden, early morning light, it promised to be a breathtaking sight. We rose at 5:00am for the short walk to the west gate entrance. Still dark out, we could not tell what a grey, overcast day lie ahead. It began to get light while we were still lined up for our tickets. It also began to drizzle.

I was devastated, and faced with two options:
1) Go in now and hope it gets better / risk it getting worse.
2) Wait till tomorrow day and hope it gets better / risk it getting worse.

The decision weighed heavily on me and Reece didn't have a preference either way. I followed my gut and we walked back to our hotel, tails between our legs, and went back to bed. The rest of the day brought torrential downpours. Good decision.

Another disgustingly early morning. More grey skies. Some said the rain was coming to an end. Some said it was just getting started. I didn't know how many days I was willing to waste waiting for sunshine. So, we considered ourselves lucky that it wasn't physically raining, and bit the bullet.

Maybe now is a good time for a drum roll? Here it is. The TAJ MAHAL.

Are you blown away? Has your breath been taken?? Mine wasn't.

I've learned that these world renowned, highly anticipated sites seem to fall into two categories. Those that absolutely floor you the moment you lay eyes on them. And those that make you think, "Well, yeah, it pretty much looks like it does in the postcards". I REALLY wanted to feel more. But the gloomy skies put a huge damper on what could have been a much more marvelous moment.

We walked around. We took a bunch of pictures. We sat and soaked it in. Eventually, the time came for us to wrap it up and go eat some breakfast.

Just as we were leaving, the clouds parted and a brilliant sun shone through! My goodness, what a difference it made. I was so, SO happy. Reece leapt for joy. We finally captured the photos we were hoping for, and I could not have been more satisfied with the experience.

I bring you, the New and Improved Taj Majal!!

Of course, the following few days were perfectly sunny and glorious from sun-up to sun-down. Don't get me started.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rajasthan Accommodations

Wow. We have slept in a LOT of beds in the past few weeks. And I have become incredibly inconsistent in documenting them. Probably because nice places are less interesting to write about then shit holes, and our packaged itinerary of Rajasthan found us in much more high class accommodations than we ever would have booked for ourselves.  But with a camper van in our future, we are in the hotel home stretch, so I'd hate to lose count now!

700 Rupees (approx $16)/night
Hotel New King
Delhi, India

I've already detailed our lovely hotel in Delhi.  From here, there was nowhere to go but up!

Hotel Heritage Mandawa
Mandawa, India

Here we had the pleasure of staying in an old haveli mansion that has been converted to a hotel.  It was a great place, even with the dozens of crickets who were determined to seize every opportunity to sneak under the door into our room.

Hotel Sagar
Bikaner, India

Their sign looked like this.  And their food was some of the best we've had in India.

Jaisalmer, India

I can't for the life of me remember the name of this place.  Or think of any distinguishing details about it.

Jaisalmer, India

I bet you thought it couldn't get any worse than the place we stayed in Delhi.  It can.  Our oh-so-romantic sounding camel safari in the desert ended with us sleeping in a damp, mosquito infested hut with a shoddy fan and prison beds.  I would have taken a better photo if the ceiling was high enough for me to back up any further.  The real treat was brushing your teeth in the shared outdoor sink.  Gag.

Jodhpur, India

Another name that escapes me.  We had a great breezy room though on it's own little deck with a tiny blacony overlooking the fort.

Ranakpur, India

The names of these places aren't important anyway, right?  This was a quiet, run-down little hotel in the mountain setting, and this is pretty much the scene we enjoyed during our evening visit here.

Udaipur, India

My crappy photo does not do this place justice.  It was definitely the nicest hotel we stayed in, and we liked it so much that we added an extra night.  Rooftop restaurant, room service, and a perfect location right on the lake in the center of the action.  I would highly recommend it, if I knew what it was called.

Pushkar, India

Wow.  No photos and no name.  Sorry.

Jaipur, India

Last but certainly not least.  Hotel Pink and Yellow Building with Balconies in Jaipur.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I have a confession to make.

I am kinda, sorta, maybe a little bit, burned out.

Not of traveling of course. That would be just plain ungrateful. Just of some of the things that come along with traveling... Stepping in cow / donkey / goat / camel shit. Nearly getting run over by a rickshaw / tuk tuk / walla walla. The contsant threat of food-born illness / disease-carrying mosquitos. It's been a LONG time since these two Californians have stepped foot in a western country, and we are starting to inevitably crave some of the finer things in life. Street lights and sidewalks. Clean air and blue skies. Wine and cheese.

The great thing about foregoing the more economical "round the world ticket", is that there is no strictly defined direction we have to travel in. Just cause the earth didn't kindly and conveniently place its countries in the order we'd like to visit, doesn't mean we have to adhere to its geography. So, we've decided to turn this trip a little upside down in the 3rd quarter.


The idea came randomly, and I'm not sure who first suggested it. But once the words were uttered, we knew it was absolutely the way to go. We've realized that over the past several months, we've done a whole lot of seeing and not a ton of doing. Our memory cards are bursting at the seams, and so are our pants. We miss the days of climbing glaciars and rafting rapids and riding ostriches.

So, we are expediting our India visit a bit, and are off to greener pastures next month. We are going to pack up a camper van with fine wine and real cheese and the last season of Lost, and will hit the paved, uncongested highway in style. This change of plans has given us a renewed energy and enthusiasm for the rest of our trip and we are so, so excited.

Added bonus. Malaysian Airlines is letting us turn our 12-hour Kuala Lumpur layover into a legitimate stopover, free of charge. So we'll spend a week checking out Malaysia and Singapore en-route. So, SO excited.

After New Zealand, we are toying with a few options. Backtrack to do Southeast Asia properly. Go somewhere totally unexpected like the Philippines or Papua New Guinea. Or maybe spend a week totally blowing what's left of our budget with some sushi eating, gadget shopping, and karaoke singing in Tokyo. The world is, as they say, our oyster ;)

Have I mentioned how excited we are??

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Jaipur, India

Last but not least. The "Pink City" of Jaipur was our final stop in our chauffered tour of Rajasthan. And I gotta say, we could not be more relieved that the whirwind has come to an end. It was a convenient way to travel, to be sure. It was really easy and relatively hassle free. But, it was also incredibly rushed. Over the course of our travels, we have never really spent less than three or four days in any one place (preferably, at least a week). For the past two weeks, we were onto a new town every day or two.

I can say, traveling with a driver is the ONLY way to do so much in India in such a short amount of time. We are definitely grateful that we had the opportunity to see so many beautiful and interesting places within three weeks of our arrival. We are also happy to be picking up the pace again after two fairly stagnant months in Egypt.
But, we are also really excited to create our own schedule again. Much like our day tour of Delhi, we felt like we were racing around the region taking pictures without really getting a feel for what any single destination was like. Part of me regrets the superficiality of the experience. The other part is just excited to see what's next.

Anyhow, check out our Jaipur photos HERE. You'll find a visit to the Jantar Mantar, an astronomical observatory with massive sculpture-like instruments dating back to the 1700s. And Nahargarh, yet another impressive fort.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pushkar, India

"Brahma dropped a lotus flower on earth, and Pushkar appeared."

Quite a lofty expectation, I'd say, for a place to live up to. Pushkar is both a favorite bohemian town for hippy-type backpackers, and a holy destination drawing countless Hindu pilgrims. It boasts one of the only Brahma temples in the world, and the rows of ghats situated around its small still lake makes for an enchanting place indeed.

Unfortunately, the main road is lined with so many tourist shops and eager touts that it's hard to really soak in the chill vibe. But we did enjoy a hike up to a hilltop temple and a hazy lake front sunset.

For more photos of Pushkar (and our presceding visit to Chittor), click HERE.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Chittorgarh, India

A few hours outside of Updaipur, there lies what is said to be the most important fort complex in the region, Chittorgarh (aka Chittor).  In times of trouble, it was the favorite hangout of the royal family.  The guidebook says that a visit to this spectacular fort is worth reshuffling ones itinerary, so we went out of our way to Pushkar to check it out.  And, sorry Lonely Planet, we were supremely disappointed.  They should probably send a correspondent out to Kumbalgarh before suggesting what to re-route your travel plans for.

Maybe we just caught it on a bad day.  Hot and crowded, it lacked the mystifying, misty landscape of Kumbalgarh's quiet, spread-out grounds.  Maybe we're just moving through the region so fast that everything is starting to look the same.  It was pretty, of course.  But walking around the fort with camera in hand, we both kinda felt like we were just going through the motions.

We didn't really take enough shots to give it its own album, so you'll find more pics of it in our Puskar album to come.  Here are a few of the good ones.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Udaipur, India

We enjoyed Udaipur more than any other city we've visited in the region. Dubbed the "most romantic city in Rajasthan", it's sort of a Venice, Italy meets India. Clustered around placid Lake Pichola, the town oozes a charm and peacefulness that's easy grow fond of.

The displays in the City Palace are stunning.

The romantic lake front accommodation is a plenty.

The traditional dance performances are enchanting.

And some glittering lakeside fireworks are a fine way to wrap up a visit.

For a nice change of pace from the temples and forts, check out my Udaipur album HERE.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kumbalgarh Fort, India

There are a lot of forts in India. Which is fine by me, cause I think they are pretty damn cool (and way more interesting than museums). Kumbalgarh was by far our favorite fort (if not our favorite place, period) that we've visited in India. Our driver added this stop by chance, after our car broke down and he decided we should caravan over the pass with his other driver buddy.

The sheer size of this thing was absolutely awe-inspiring. And the location, perched 1,100 meters skyward with lush valleys in every direction, provided intimidating splendor and breathtaking views.

The main structure was like a fairytale castle, with dark labrynth halls easy to get lost in. The best part was our ascent to the roof for a bird's eye view of the complex. A slim gaurd rail combined with incomprehensible heights resulted in stomach-dropping queasiness, followed by a sense of exhilirating, wind-blown freedom.

If the castle wasn't enough to keep us entertained, hundreds of temples, palaces and gardens dot the forest-like premises. And the magnificent wall surrounding it all is second only to the Great Wall of China in length. You could spend countless hours exploring this beautiful spot, and we wish we had the opportunity to do just that.

Outside the property, the area is surrounded by rolling hills and picturesque lakes. And possibly the most surprising aspect of Kumbalgarh, is that it warrants barely a mention in the 1,244-page Lonely Planet guide. I think that this perhaps little-known location is absolutely not to be missed. It's truly a magical place.

For more exquisite photos of the Kumbalgarh Fort, click HERE.