Sikkim – a different way

Sikkim is an anomaly in India, at least that I’ve seen so far. There seems to be people who look like they’re from all over who come in all shapes and colors with facial features from all the way down south to Eastern Asia. I slept the entire bus ride and woke up a little before Siliguri. There, I caught a jeep ride to Gangtok. It was a stuffed ride – with 3 people in the back, back seat, 4 of us in the back seat, and 4 in the front seat. This is all through twisty, bumpy, sometimes narrow, roads without a siderail to prevent you from falling to your doom. This was something I used to be really scared of, but for some reason, (thankfully) I was ok this time. Foreigners need to get a stamp and permit to enter Sikkim. The driver joked that at the border I should just speak Hindi and not say anything at all. The woman next to me laughed with me but then said, no really, you should get the stamp. When the time came he was happily frustrated saying it would take an hour to get all the paperwork done. It took a half hour, but as we were getting it done I spoke with him a bit and he became much nicer. Once you speak Hindi, things get better. I’m now invited to his tea plantation in Siliguiri on my way back. He called a cab for me that would take me from the bus stop to look around for a hotel. It was kind of far off so that was helpful.
I don’t have much patience, so I settled on the third place, cheapest, but still expensive, and pretty crappy. I took the day to wander around the city and figure out next steps. Problem: I’m alone, and foreigners need at least two to travel around for permits and for groups. Problem 2: it’s raining and wet and cold. This isn’t supposed to be like this right now, but it is. What to do? Kya karoo?
Today, while unsuccessfully trying to get a van to Yoksum, I ran into a kind of travel agent who I spoke to yesterday. He has no work so we sat in a café, walked up to the two monasteries, and had a local food lunch. He’s thinking of going to Ruksom tomorrow as well so maybe he’ll join and we’ll trek together. Trekking is little to none because of the weather, but that’s ok. This gives me the opportunity to travel my style, meet people, locals mostly, and just relax. Pune, and then New York will be quite a big change and quite hectic.
I had to buy a jacket and poncho. If I go trekking I’ll have to buy shoes too. The food has been amazing as well. Tonight I went to a Tibetan restaurant and ate Bhathuk. The manager, who is probably no more than 22 asked where I was from and we had a small talk. He barely knew English but I’m not sure how much of my Hindi he understood. He showed me a newspaper after telling me that it rained and snowed here a few days ago. Lunch I have no idea what I ate, but it was super yum. I’ve been spending time in cafes and trying to figure out other options; there aren’t many. In the Tibetan place I used my Hindi to help out some Thai folks who wanted to eat the food they saw in the photos on their way up the stairs. An American woman from Ithaca joined them later. Apparently they had been traveling to the fun tourist destinations for trekking and said it’s been cold and rainy the entire time. While feeling bad for them it made me feel a little better about being in Gangtok for a day longer than desired. This is definitely not what I imagined it would be, however, it’s not bad. I had to remind myself of that today while feeling sad, lonely and sorry for myself. It’s still pretty amazing, and somewhere where I never thought I’d be; at the Indian China border in the middle of the mountains – I can’t really complain!
After spending almost 3 hours in one café writing (every time I thought I would leave it started pouring again), I went to get my computer, to the Tibetan restaurant, and then to another café to continue writing. I met the sweetest boy, who was the waiter who spoke way too fast in Hindi. His wife was waiting for him and he kept cracking jokes about working hard and how cute his wife was. I couldn’t really imagine that happening in any other part of India, especially because he’s 22 and she’s 27. He definitely knew how to make a lady smile by saying I looked no more than 25. He finally got to leave and then a few minutes later the management regretfully kicked me out as they all had to go home and were hungry. Back in my room, I write, and wait for tomorrow.

Kerala end, Bangalore, Kolkata…

So much has happened since Kerala that it seems like weeks ago. It seems silly, but it’s true. I spent the weekend in Karnataka with my friend and we decided to go to Coorg. It was an interesting adventure because our bus got us there at 4:30am. We didn’t have a hotel and hopped in a rickshaw only to find that two hotels were completely booked. We wanted to stay a little out side of the city, so we opted to go to the middle of nowhere and see if there was a hotel there. Luckily we met a really nice hotel owner who let us sleep inside the house, after a while of wondering what else we could do or where else we could go. We ended up sleeping inside their house for the rest of the night and in the morning, got a proper room. We wandered around and did a bit of nothing the entire weekend. It was a perfect pause to the rest of this crazy traveling. There’s more to write, but no time to write and too much to tell.
Monday morning was the flight to Kolkata. I stayed at this crazy guest house that consisted of shacks on the top of the roofs. Rupak, the owner took me around for a bit, we saw a movie to hound off the afternoon heat (Calcutta is super duper hot and humid) and then made our way back to the hotel. I wish I could have spent a little more time with him and Ruth, the British girl who showed up later that day. We had the most amazing dahi (curds) from a roadside place. Everyone knows him in that neighborhood. It was fascinating. The first night, because I was alone in the city, a friend of my friends called me to invite me out with his friends. It was nice to meet folks from the city, and experience a different part of the city.
In general Kolkata was a whirlwind trip that I probably should have extended for a day, but couldn’t seem to do it. I really wanted to be where I am now, Sikkim, in the mountains. I got to see one of my friends for the day who came into the city to tour around with me. We went to a couple temples and Rabindranath Tagore’s house. He’s one of my favourite writers and heroes in general. So I was super happy to get there. It was beyond super, super hot and humid and poor Indro and I were melting away in the city. It was rushed and I should probably have spent at least one more day there. I didn’t get a real feel of the city except that the traffic is horrific and makes Pune and Mumbai look like amateurs. That evening I managed to get an egg roll with Indro and a photo for my permit to Sikkim, with enough time to rush back through the traffic and metro to the hotel, pop a quick shower, and then another cab ride to the bus stop. The metro in Kolkata is pretty awesome. It goes far and fast. The way back was great because we got an AC car, not all of the trains are AC.
I had to change bus stops where I was going to get on. I had to call the website which I booked the bus on, the bus company, and then the conductor. I managed the whole thing in Hindi, which was completely awesome. I know it’s karab (broken) but it works and that makes me happy. After so much rush, I got to the bus early and sat.

Kerala pt 3 – final

            I have 20 minutes before the rickshaw gets here. I slept so much last night and instead of feeling well rested this morning I feel like I have to have my guard up. For some reason I feel like I’m being ripped off left and right again, between the hotel and the rickshaw. For the hotel they keep asking me my program and what I’m doing and how much I’m paying for xyz. I know they’re just curious, but still, I just don’t like being asked.

            Today, Top Station, some stops along the way, and then to Kochin.

 

            It was OK. I don’t think I made it to Top Station exactly, but he dropped me somewhere close and in the middle of a tea plantation where I walked and sat down in a quiet shady area. Before that we stopped at a few locations, a dam, echo point (where I whistled my all mighty finger whistle and a man asks me, “madam again”). I almost caught myself getting on an elephant ride and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The afternoon was quiet and perfect though. Afterwards I got back in the rickshaw in order to begin my decent back down the mountain to Kochi Fort. It was a longer journey than I was hoping, but that’s what it is. About an hour and a half to getting to Cochin, the conductor asked me where I was going, even though he already knew, and made sure to direct me to the correct bus when we reached the station. The bus ride was nice, no one bothered, no one stared. I watched a lovely courtship by the conductor of a passenger who I assume he knows and sees every day. It was very sweet.

            When getting off the bus I was just going to walk around and hope to find a hotel when some kid (early 20s ) walked up to me and asked where I was going. I knew he wasn’t an agent or hawker by the way he approached me, and he said he knew a cheap place. I took a chance, followed him, and found a great cheap (very cheap and not so luxurious either) place for the night. We even went out for a beer and some food. The guys in the hotel, which they were renovating, invited me up for a bit as well, but tiredness overtook and I really waned to see the Chinese fishing nets in action so I went to sleep.

            Later than desired but early enough, I rose to take a walk to the nets. I had the best morning ever. While walking by the second set of nets, one of the fishermen yelled out to me to come on the doc with them. I joined and ended up spending the next few hours learning about fishing from them (although quite minimally). Johnson, the ring leader introduced me to everyone, told me when to pull up on the rope, and how they know when to catch the fish. I messaged my friends how I was adopted by the fishermen for the day. When men came over to look at me, they would tell me to go to the other side. We had chai three times that morning, twice with a banana dish (fried banana or like a muffin type thing). It was awesome. They asked minimal questions, and Johnson seemed to like to show off when his friends came around. Johnson looked like an Indian Chinese man if that’s possible. Each of the friends had a specific role, a specific rope to pull, and was unique in his own way. Some of them spoke to me, some just smiled. They never seemed to pull up the net without at least one of them having a beadie (type of cigarette) or actual cigarette in their mouth. I learned to pull enough so that my hands became a bit sore from the ropes. Eventually I knew it was time, said I was going, and Johnson said, “Good bye,” we shook hands and I walked away, just like that.

            I wanted to check out the Synagogue, but only managed to see the outside because it was Friday. On the way back after noticing the time I got nervous, took a rickshaw, who was super honest and nice, showered at my hotel, and ricked it to the airport for Bangalore.

            Kerala, as a state, as a whole, is definitely one of my favourite places in India. It’s a shame I couldn’t have spent more time there. Pictures to come soon…

Kerala pt 2

            I’m burnt on my face and right hand and forearm. This is what happens when people aren’t around to remind me of stuff. I was a little unaware of what I was getting myself into today, in my defense. Breakfast came late, so when Muni came in the rickshaw, he ended up waiting a good 40 minutes for me to come out. We went to Chokramudi, the tallest mountain in the region, or so I was told. I’m relatively in shape, so wheezing was a big shock to me. I only remembered around twenty minute into the trek and at our first break that we’re at a high altitude. My friend said that high altitudes don’t affect everyone. It’s my kryptonite I guess. It was very hard for me to breathe, I wasn’t tired; it also wasn’t a super easy trek as it was very uphill 80% of the time, but I couldn’t breathe. We took frequent breaks and Muni never said anything except once to say that I was tired. I tried to explain the altitude thing but he didn’t seem to understand.

            We made a few big stops at places with extraordinary views. Often we were stuck in the middle of a cloud that was coming from below us. It was beautiful. It was good to have him around and worth getting a bit ripped off. He saved us twice; we almost walked into a beehive in the ground and he stopped us, then later he picked up a rock and threw it ahead. Apparently there was a small snake. I also would have never found this place to trek. On one side of the mountain there was the rumble from machinery that we could hear even at a higher altitude, on the other side, silence. So when we got to a comfortable place on the other side, we stopped for a while. It was really nice. He also took out two small packages of chips. At the top he asked me about lunch and I said I’d figure something out. He whipped out a tiffin of rice, fish, and curry sauce to put on it. He was very sweet. His sister in law made it. Apparently his brother got the fish yesterday from the lake. I only brought oranges and the one I gave him was no good so I felt bad. A few times we were smack in the middle of a cloud. It was awesome.

            Figuring out my weakness has made me very fearful of Sikkim, which I think, is at a much higher altitude. My abs will at least be strong from breathing so hard. After a long rest and relaxation at the top to enjoy the air, silence, view, and feeling of being at the top, we descended. I kept slipping on the dirt and we started keeping track and laughing about it. By the end my legs felt a bit like putty.

            He had to change into his rickshaw clothing when we got back so he made me walk ahead. It was a really nice trek. We assumed a slightly different relationship, more of driver and passenger once we got back. Next we went to Hydel Park where I moseyed around while he napped in the rickshaw. It was nice and some young girls who were quite sweet questioned me. It’s hard not having email or phone access, so I spent the time with reception texting friends trying to help me figure out next steps.

            There was a brief trip to some tea and cardamom fields where I saw a nice big snake who ran away before I could even react. Then he dropped me into the town where I went back to the same tea stall from yesterday and then went to another. I wanted to see if there were any differences in the tea. Here people also have milk-less tea. I didn’t have that and also didn’t find much difference in the teas either. Here they say chaiya not chai. I had a deflated but very yummy samose as well. At the second stall I was joined by a rowdy group of drivers, one of whom asked my good name asked if I wanted a cab and then proceeded to peer over my shoulder to eavesdrop on my writing. All of the men he was with had moustaches.

            At 5 I went to a Kathakali and Kallaripaittu performance. The Kathakali was difficult to watch because they showed only bits and pieces. It was good because they spent a half hour explaining what all the different emotions and motions were, but then we only saw a piece of an actual program. The Kallari was amazing! There were four younger men who performed. One of the Vipins (there were 2 Vipin, Atul, and one boy whose name I couldn’t pronounce or remember) asked if I could do a bit of capoeira for them so I showed them two moves. They were super sweet.

            After a quick call I headed back in the rickshaw to the hotel. As promised, Muni asked if it was my turn to drive. So I drove! It was pretty awesome, but then just like normal driving after a few times. The gear shifts are in your left hand, but that’s the only difference. I felt a bit like a rock star. A quick dinner later I’m passed out.

 

Yay Kerala – pt 1

            Yay Kerala! Woo hoo. Do I fully convey my excitement? Like I said before, while landing I got so excited to see so much green and trees and nature at its best. I took photos from the airplane and couldn’t stop smiling. The uncle sitting next to me must have thought I was crazy. He smiled back but I don’t think he could have understood my excitement.

            People smile and are super friendly. Coming from Rajasthan where people only seem to be trying to look for money out of you, their friendliness is exacerbated in my head. Small disclaimer – I have friends who are Rajasthani, friends who love Rajasthan. I do not want to convey that Rajasthan is a bad place; I had a great time meeting the more down to earth people while I was there, however, being a tourist there was very difficult for all of us. It seems like the place thrives off tourism and everyone knows that they can get money from the tourists, so they take advantage. It was just a bit much. If I were to go back, I’d only go with a friend who is from there and stay with them, most probably away from tourists destinations. As soon as I got my baggage I went to the tourist help counter and with a smile told me my options of getting to Alleppey. I opted for a local bus to Kochi and a second bus to Alleppey. The first bus was nice and AC. Kerela is HOT! Right before the doors of the bus closed an older woman sat next to me. We smiled. She didn’t speak much English. Her first words to me were, “Who is your husband?” It took a lot for me not to start snickering. She asked a few questions throughout like where I’m from in broken English. She kept pointing out her son. When I finally realized who he was I was happy to see that he was young. She seemed very proud of him.

            On the second bus I found myself in the last row sitting next to two college kids. After a few minutes one of them spoke to me, starting off with the where are you from and name, etc. Raj and Akil are both from Kollam (spelling wrong I know). Akil speaks English and is studying mechanical engineering, Akil doesn’t speak English and studies commerce. Raj took at 3 hour bus ride with his friend to accompany him to a small conference for the day. In their opinion, Alleppey is the best place in Kerala. I could tell that Akil was asking questions that Raj didn’t feel like asking. He did tell me he wanted to study in Florida; he has friends there. They were super sweet. I couldn’t help notice that people did a double take of me ,and when they caught my eye, I would smile, and they smiled back. At first impression, I would say that Keralans are super, duper nice and happy people.

            In Alleppey I had the pleasure of staying with my friend Minto’s family. I was nervous to stay with someone’s family without the direct connection to them, but it was amazing. His family was super sweet. For all the food I didn’t eat in Rajasthan, I doubled up on in Alleppey. His mom is an amazing cook. It was also good to have home cooked food after a week of eating out. Everything had coconut oil, coconut, and rice in it. After a quick shower – I really needed it – I got some fried bananas (of course in coconut oil) and tea. Tea there was more like flavoured milk – not what I expected, but it was yum. After a brief look through of Minto’s wedding album Joiet and I went to the beach to watch the sunset.

            The beach was full of people! Everyone goes there for the sunset he said. People looked at me and smiled. At one point someone spit (no paan, but just probably sea water or water) and looked up and apologized. People are so polite! Families were there in full laughing and playing with the tide. It was like I stepped into some sort of happy play land.

            We went home for dinner. I abandoned my vegetarianism for Alleppey. We had fish (Kherimi, which is local to Alleppey), chicken, and a coconut sauce thing. It was so much food, but it was so yummy. On Sunday nights the power goes from 9:00 – 9:30, every other day from 9:30 – 10:00. We took a walk through their front yard. I walked with Auntie and we tried to communicate as much as possible.

            For dessert we had mini kelas (mini bananas) from their back yard. They were fat and super sweet.

            We retired early but I wanted to write and speak with friends. I should have slept earlier though. The next day was my backwaters trip! When we woke up breakfast was some sort of egg curry with appam noodles with coconut shavings. Appam, what I was used to is a rice patty type thing, but these were noodles. After Joiet dropped me to the boat where I got a small two-person boat and an older uncle who operated. We specifically both thought that a rowboat was better than a motor. First of all it’s quieter and more personal, and it doesn’t pollute the water. The uncle’s name was Ballape and he, as Joiet told me later, was probably not a boat operator usually, but probably a fisherman who did this in the off season in order to pick up some extra cash. Joiet also worked magic by dropping me of a few metres away from the loading point in order to get a better price. While waiting, a man asked me if I wanted a ride, I said no, kindly and he just walked away. It was amazing, no haggling, no pressure, just that. Joiet came back and I plopped into the boat and my smile only grew. Every time Ballape wanted to get my attention he would say Hello quite loudly. Most of the time it was to point out a mango tree. Everyone does everything in the water. Everywhere Ballape spoke with the locals who were either bathing, washing clothes, washing vessels, playing or working by the water. I  saw snakes (apparently these river snakes don’t bite) and so many different kinds of birds including hawks and a kingfisher. When we were rounding a bend Ballape picked a flower and said, “Hello, hello” and threw it at me. He took my photo and then I took his. We got into a small canal, which was super beautiful, but there was where I saw the affects of tourism and people on the water. There was some trash, specifically plastic bottles, scattered throughout. He took me to a tiny, tiny pass where he had to back out from. When he backed out he hit the bottom of the canal and the mud that came up was black and smelled really, really bad. Joiet said that it was originally just rowboats, then became external motors, then the houseboats came. It’s really taking a toll on the river, it’s sad.

            The three hour journey came to an end as we passed through the Nehru Pavilion which was in the middle of the water. During boat races, this is the finishing point. I wanted to walk around the town before calling to get picked up. I made it maybe 200 metres and was dying of heat and humidity. I was melting actually. I looked around and noticed that I was alone in my melting feeling. I was amazed at the lack of sweat coming from everyone else. It was like a sauna. Happily Joiet came back and we went home for lunch and a nap. I ate a lot, again. And after the nap I had tea with a rice flower jaggery coconut lugdu type thing. It was so yum.

            We took a trip to the light house, back to the beach, and I got to walk a bit around town. At the beach, there were almost as many people as the night before, but we were a lot earlier and it was a weekday. A group of women came, in sarees, and they played with the tide, finally submitting to getting wet. It’s so much fabric to get wet!

            We went home for dinner and we had chicken curry. I got twice as much rice as anyone else. I eat slower too. They gave up on waiting for me, as they should. It was nice because they allowed me to help out, although minimally, in the kitchen. I finished just in time for the power cut and we took our walk.

            I learned a lot of interesting facts about Kerala; coolest few include they’re super communistic and every four years the communist party takes over and then the next Congress takes over. I think that’s a good balance. Because it’s communist, day labourers make a lot more money (as in more than four times the amount) than day labourers in other states. After the power cut we went to sleep. The options for getting to Munnar included a 4am bus ride direct but windy through various villages along the way, or taking a bus to Kochi and switching. I did the latter and it was a very, very long journey. I left by 9 and only reached a little past 4. I guess the only good part was the first bus was AC, and finally getting to Munnar. It’s absolutely amazing. It’s cooler, and completely green.

            I had a hotel reservation in the city, but decided to take Manoj’s advice and just ask a rickshaw driver to find me a hotel that’s in my budget. Very nervous, I finally stepped up to the task and found myself with Muni.

            Muni is from Chennai, has 2 brothers, one of whom works here in Munnar and who brought him here. He’s quite charismatic and won me over while driving quite a distance to find random hotels. We finally found a good one within my price range and made a deal on how I would be getting around tomorrow – including quite a hefty fee. I took it just because for one, I don’t really have any other options, and I also want to do the things he offered like trekking through the tea and spice plantations while going to the tallest peak in Munnar.

            After settling in (without internet or a phone connection) I took a walk, met a small girl name Sneha who just kept waving at me and saying hi, everyone else smiled and some said hi. At a tea stall I met Augustine who is from Munnar itself and was partaking in adventure training with other young adults from around Kerala. Everyone is so friendly!

            And now, here I am, finally up to date, sitting in my hotel, unable to post this due to lack of internet. But it’s written. Tomorrow Muni is picking me up at 8 to start the day. I’m excited.

the last days in Rajasthan

            Oh Jaipur! There’s so much to say and I don’t really feel like going through the details. It was a very, very long day – arriving early in the morning, touring about and then sleeping late for a very early flight the next morning. The best was getting on the train. We arrived at the station really early because we didn’t have a ticket – once they print the seating chart, even if there are seats left, you can’t purchase a ticket on line. So we got there early for a ticket and sat in the station for almost an hour. An old uncle who occupied the seat between Gayatri and I (Aaron got a single seat a few metres away) commented to his family, who were sitting on the seats behind us, that I’m writing. Then we proceeded to have a conversation on why I was writing and why I write in general. They took a photo of me with their cell phone and showed it to him. He didn’t seem to care all that much and emphasized that by telling me, “Who cares, they’re crazy.”  He spoke a mix between Hindi and Marwadi so it was difficult to understand him. The girls giggling towards our side belonged to him, I’m assuming his granddaughters. They’ll get married he said.

            We got on the train only to get into another argument because a seat was double booked and the other guy, a tour guide for some French group, wasn’t sharing the responsibility. When we got to the hotel, they tried to tell us that we should have two separate rooms because Aaron is a boy. Apparently the law also says that an Indian woman cannot share a room with a man.

            At the hotel we had parathas. They were amazing. Kalayan, the chef, got the ingredients and cooked everything from scratch. He was the highlight of our trip. While leaving we made sure to say goodbye to him and he made Gayatri and I sign his book. He was always with a smile and his food was amazing. As Gayatri said, there are very few people like him in the world still. We appreciate him.

           All the rickshaw rivers definitely overcharged and tried to shoo them off but we got one finally who only wanted to take us to different markets for shopping even though we told him we wanted to go to the fort and the Palace. By the end of the day when he finally understood we didn’t want to go anywhere for shopping he finally shut his mouth (before that he kept talking about if we want this or that, and he knows where to go, etc). Gayatri wanted to get some sweets for her coworkers and then he wouldn’t stop and went on and on about how we said we didn’t want to stop. It was a mess.

            As for Jaipur, it was fine. The Fort was awesome and huge and had fun tunnels in and around it. We went to Jantar Mandar afterwards. I was done, fort-ed out, touristed out, done. It was interesting but complicated – an astrological observatory – the mechanisms were amazing, huge, and complicated. It was hot and I was done, so after about 10 minutes I found a nice shady spot and zoned out. We decided to skip the Palace and go back for a longer dinner and relaxation. We stopped to get some cachori and sat in our hotel room to just relax. The early morning flight loomed in our heads and I got to read a bit of my Chhota Rajkumar (The Little Prince) in Hindi with Gayatri before napping. In Bombay I got to hang with Aaron and our friends for a bit before heading off to Kerala.

            Kerala is amazing in every way. Landing in the plane I was so excited to see so much green; the smile wouldn’t come off my face. More on that later though. 

Jaisalmer and Jodhpur

            There’s so much to write that I might just have to skimp out on some, if not most of the details. Last we left off we were leaving the desert in Jaisalmer. The camel ride back was not necessarily necessary, but it was fun nonetheless. Ganpat and I spoke a bit more while Gayatri (and one other tourists –there were 3 older Austrian women with us as well) were at the front speaking with Harish and Bhati. Gayatri has the ability to strike up conversation with any and everyone. It’s always interesting. Our half was separated by our slower camels and towards the middle we did a little trot to catch up. I loved it but one of the Austrian women, who was having difficulty in the wilderness, was not a fan. The gap grew and grew and at one point, handing me the reins, Ganpat said go fast, so I did. It was awesome! Everyone should try trotting on a camel.

            As soon as we cleaned up at the hotel we were off again through the city to the fort. Jaisalmer fort is awesome. There are still 3000 residents living in the fort and they maintain the Brahmin/Rajput boundaries. There is a side for each; Brahmins maintain pure veg on their side. At the entrance we were haggled again by tour guides, but this time submitted and got a guide for Rs50. Little did we know, we were in for a whole day and loads of information, and of course shopping, from our guide. Sadly, we don’t remember his name. He was awesome. There are five things that Rajasthan is famous for: stone, embroidery, jewelry, miniature paintings, and sweets. The coolest thing about the forts were the stone balcony/windows. They’re amazing! See below for pictures.ImageImage

            The guide took us through smaller streets, gave us information on some havelis without actually entering them to pay a fee. Of course he took us to some shops where he got some sort of commission. He knew our names after a few minutes and made it a very personal trip. He enjoyed speaking with Gayatri and I very much and was very sweet. Gayatri and Aaron stopped a few times, but then so did I, especially to buy a saree. We went to a jeweler who was his friend and Gayatri and I had a ball until they definitely tried to more than triple the price. We went to all the view points and could see the beautiful city with the havelis interspersed with smaller buildings.

            During lunch we tried to teach Aaron how to eat with his hands. More than anything else he did a lot of research on etiquette. We took his research and made him a proper Indian hand eater. He did in an hour what it took me a few months to learn. After a stop at the textile store, teaching Aaron how to bargain a little better, we ended up with wall hangings and going back to the jeweler to purchase one item each. At the end of the day we were exhausted and plopped down for a few minutes before going to the train station to get to a train that would take us to Jodhpur.ImageImageImage

            I love overnight trains. It didn’t take us long to start passing out though. Overnight trains are like a big cradle rocking you to sleep. Jhodpur isn’t very touristy and it was definitely a nice break from the haggling – or so we thought. We stayed at a guest house a little outside of the city. After a nap and shower we headed to the Mehanghar Fort. We hired a rickshaw for the day. We take time, as in, we looked at everything and absorbed the fort completely. I didn’t believe that it would take us around 4 hours to complete the fort, but it did. It was the most informative and well laid out museum I’ve been to in India so far.  We each had an audio guide. In its 500 year history, the fort was never breached, it was built in 1459. It explained the jalis, windows for women. It enabled them to look out of the window without anyone looking in at them. They had something called chicks too, which were cane screens and they put them in the window and wet them so that when a hot breeze came in it was cooled down and moist while coming in. There are so many other cool things that I want to share, but I’m so in love with Kerala right now that I want to finish all this so I can write about here.

            Our rickshaw wala was angry, as in really angry, and shouted at us for a long time saying how long we took. Everyone told us it would take that long in the fort. We were helpless to say anything but refute his anger. Quickly he took us to the Umaid Bhawan Palace, which is the last of India’s palaces and one of the largest in the world. The guard had fun with Aaron, looking over his shoulder at his ipad. It was a small museum.

            Our angry rickshaw driver took us back to the hotel and caused a big scene which included throwing our money back at Gayatri’s back. She’s an amazing person who stands up for how she thinks things should be. It was not our fault and we told him we’d take the day. It was just a bad scene. Immediately we walked down the road to find some food and sat in that restaurant for a good two hours. We hadn’t eaten yet. We spent the rest of the night in the restaurant with a very cute pubescent boy whose voice kept cracking. Then ordered takeout for later in the evening, showered, ate, and slept. Early the next morning we were off to Jaipur on a 6:00 train.

Jaisalmer pt 1

            We’ve been to two different cities since last writing as well as one more day in Udaipur. It’s hard to keep up with all that’s been going on and everywhere we’ve been. The last day in Udaipur we went around to temples in the city. First we went to the City Palace, Bagore ki Haveli, to the tourist part of the city for some shopping, with an amazing lunch at this place Santosh where we had dal bhati (a food typical of Rajasthan). The Palace was awesome, and involved various rooms that had many different motifs. I love Indian Palaces because they’re party still in use and many of them were built quite recently. There was one room with tiles from Portugal and China. The Udaipur City Palaces belongs to the oldest serving dynasty in the world as well. All the palaces, so far, have these things called jails, which are windows with tiny tiny (and very intricately designed) holes for women to look out from; people from the outside can’t see in though.

After the Palace, haggling over a bottle of water for which we were overcharged, we took a rickshaw to Santhosh’s where we indulged in an amazing thali, Rajasthani style. For once no one made a big fuss over Aaron or his hair – at one point Gayatri had to tell a man off for saying something in Hindi about Aaron and his hair. Aaron is a very good sport and it’s hard to explain that many people might never have seen a black man before, on top of that a black man with long dreadlocks. The food was amazing and we had the dal bhatis which were made in the fire and rotis that were exquisite. The kitchen is just attached to the room where we ate and we allowed ourselves to be touristy enough to take pictures as well.

From there we went to the Bagore ki Haveli which was originally a house and has been converted into a museum. We allowed ourselves time to be absolutely ridiculous and silly on the roof of the building, which had an excellent view of the river and the Lake Palace Hotel. It was a fun museum besides that. We took a quick round of the touristy area for a little shopping and ventured right back to the Haveli to watch a typical Rajasthani dancing show. There was a show of six different kinds of dancing (including one with puppets). All of it was so well performed and for certain ones I wanted to cry because it was so beautiful. Afterwards, while speaking with the MC (because of course we were the last ones to leave and had to converse with everyone (I love us!)) he said that he saw how invovlved in the dances we were and that it happens with a lot of people – dance evokes emotion. It was beyond beautiful.

In a bit of a rush we packed up our stuff, ate a quick bite, and went on the bus to Jaisalmer. It was an interesting ride throughout in a non ac sleeper/seating bus. We all opted for the sitting seats because the road can make you go rolling up and down and probably are quite uncomfortable while lying down.  Quickly we all slept. Most of the others on the bus were foreigners as well but they took the sleeper bunks. When we woke up, in the light, many folks kept ascending and descending the bus. Many men with different coloured turbans kept getting on the bus. Each turban indicates a different profession (traditionally). At one stop, a bunch of uncles got on who all smelled really good. Gayatri told me that Rajasthanis are known for being very well put together in terms of presentation. I would have to agree with her.

As soon as we got to the hotel we figured out the rest of our plans with the owner who was very helpful in getting us settled. We decided to chill out for the morning and go for a camel ride safari in the desert while sleeping in the sand dunes and under the stars. This was the best part of the trip so far (with a lot of competition of course).

On the way to the grounds we went to an abandoned village (with a really cool story that basically says one day an entire village disappeared overnight), the Cenotaphs (mausoleum), and a sample house. The climax, of course was the camel ride safari.

We made friends with our safari leaders – the leader I spoke most with is Ganpat, a young boy. He let me lead my camel, Raja by myself later on. ImageImageImageImageImageWe spoke about Rajasthan and his family (between the two rides there and back), and I learned a bit of Marwari as well. Him and the rest of the guides, Bhati (a 27 year old who puts off being married every year, for another) and Harish who will turn 20 in September led us through the desert, through some sand dunes and finally to our resting spot. They made us chai and an amazing dinner, set our sleeping area, and then provided answers to the many questions Gayatri and I tend to ask. After indulging in too much food and chatting too much, we made our way to the beds. This wasn’t before we had fun playing with the thousands of desert beetles; no matter how many times you shooed them away or put them in a box and relocate them, they kept coming back. They didn’t bite, not really, but nibbled a little.

Aaron finally caught a bit of a stomach bug, but not terribly. There was some mirchi sauce that went with the dal and sabjee. Gayatri and I dug into it, but Aaron probably shouldn’t have had it. Although, we both agree he’s doing an amazing job with all of the new food and cultural items.

There was no moon to look up until waking up in the middle of the night. It clouded the stars with its brightness. Until that point, the stars were numerous and glimmering. The night was amazing. We slept without any lights or noise from any part of the world. I don’t remember the last time I was around such silence.

The next day we woke up to a coolish desert, the bright sunrise, chai, and another hour and a half camel ride back to the jeep that would take us back to the hotel.

To be continued…

Udaipur

                  Yesterday was the first leg of our journey. First stop is Udaipur, Rajasthan. We’ll then venture to Jaisalmer, then Jhodpur. We did a lot of running around after arriving at 6:30 am. We never stopped. After a lovely ride to the hotel, we  plopped our stuff down and planned for a cab to take us to Kumbhalgarh fort, Ranakupur Jain Temple and then Shilp Kendra. We stopped on the way for some chai, which the owner of the hotel paid for, as we are his guests, and then a lovely breakfast of cachori. We had the discussion over chai how everyone is out to get you, everyone will swindle, everyone played the oppose of such a view. I can’t get it through my head that everyone will scam you.

After not sleeping for a long time (several days of 3-4 hours) I passed out several times in the car. I woke up several times to hear Gayatri asking many questions to the driver. He obliged and seemed very happy to know that we were very interested. The fort was huge and we leisurely walked up the huge hill to get to the top. At the peak of the fort there were these old women who were coming down the stairs. One of them had a cane, another was crawling down the stairs. It’s amazing to see the dedication of these women to go to a fort. We bumped into them several times along the way, smiling, them smiling without many teeth either. Their payal are not payal either, they’re kadas, which are thick silver anklets; they were very large. It’s not that hot, surprisingly. My friend takes credit for making me come here first as opposed to just going from south to north. It is warm though. The three of us wander around with hats, goggles (sun glasses) and a bit of covering on our arms.

We went for lunch right outside the fort right after. I think something that makes us different, I’d like to think, is that we speak to everyone. Our driver ate with us and we made friendly conversation with the waiter as well. Usually the driver eats separately and doesn’t have much interaction with the tourists. The food was super good, nothing typical Rajasthani, but still yummy. After getting back into the car I slept on and off again, mostly waking up because of the children. Holi just finished, but here, they celebrate it for 10 days. All along the ride there were rocks spread neatly across the road, large enough so that vehicles couldn’t pass. Children covered in colours with water bottles full of colours came to attack everyone who passes through. Our driver, Yussef, was ready with Rs10 each and every time. Some of them were so happy that they didn’t have to haggle. Sometimes, there were adults with them as well. A couple times they asked for more money, most of the time they let us through. On the way back after the fort though, it was clear that the kids were small and just following the lead of their elders. A few times the driver got out and grunted at the kids. The first time by himself, he moved enough rocks so we could pass, the second, Aaron and I got out to assist. He laughed the whole time, so I don’t think he was upset. It was quite amusing actually.

At the Ranakupur Jain temple, everything is white marble. It’s an amazing structure. Some Jains who were acting as tour guides while at the same time praying greeted us. We made our way around the temple (with one camera because you have to pay per camera). The bhuddhas (many of them) are along the edges behind wood bars. You’re not allowed to take pictures of them. There are over 1444 columns (yes, all marble) all with these beautiful intricate designs of either a bhuddha or flowers. In the middle of each turn there’s a larger structure as well, 2 of them were elephants. They were awesome. We got a tikka of wood (they grind it on a big stone to make it into a paste) and went on our way. Gayatri and I each have a clip in our hair that is a green flower (fake)and the woman outside tried to smell mine as we walked in and as we walked out she gave us a big smile offering us a real flower. It was very sweet. We ran into 2 Canadian girls who were traveling around. It was really nice to get a smile from a fellow firung (foreigner) because in Pune, you don’t get smiles from them. We popped in the car to Shilp Kendra, an artisan market where the artisans get to sit at a stall for a week to sell their items. There were very few left, but we managed to buy something from all three stalls. I did a good job of helping (I hate shopping and mentally check out after 5 minutes) as Aaron and Gayatri looked at all of the different items. We stayed long enough to shut it down, each with some purchases. We attempted to go get some mutton (goat) pulav (a type of rice) but the place had run out. It was a small restaurant in a small alley that Yussef knew about. I would have had to be a non-veg for the evening, but was saved by the rest of the city who decided to eat there and make them run out of food.

After a shower and sitting in the hotel to work out our payments for the day (our friend has an amazing excel sheet that calculates who owes what) we went to the rooftop terrace (because they kept saying we should eat there) for some dinner. It was yummy and fast and then we went fast to sleep.

Pre-vacation weekend

Before talking about the vacation thus far, I have to back up a minute to Saturday night when there was a going away party and Aaron’s arrival. I invited my friends home on Saturday for a kind of farewell. On Friday night I got a surprise from Niddhi, my friend from Bombay who tried to wake me up from my nap. Convinced it was Gayatri, I rolled over only to be pleasantly surprised. She stayed for the weekend. Saturday was a whirlwind day. I packed – it was a very slow and steady process, more slow than steady. I got to go around and about with Niddhi, of course had pani puri (I made sure that I had that as much as possible), went to get a lovely massage, and then cooked food for my friends. It was fun to be able to cook it all. The theme of the party was wine bottles. I took my leftover ones from the house, took off all the stickers, and everyone was responsible for painting one. Everyone obliged as well. It was great. By the time everyone was there, the food was out, the wine was out, and the empty ones were being painted. We all had a great time! As people left I got worried that no one was going to be there to greet Aaron, but a few friends stuck it out, including the “kid” (19 year old who thinks he’s grown up) who invited himself to sleep over as well.

Aaron got home around 2:30, it was a strange mix of worlds but has been working out quite nicely. Aaron is very relaxed and goes with the flow easily. After a while of chatting, I was the first to say good night and get into bed. It was interesting to put the two boys together. I don’t think – and I’m joined by others on this thought – that Virendra, a very open, yet closed minded Marathi boy, would ever find himself sleeping next to a black man with dreadlocks from New York. They got along really well though and I was impressed.

Sunday was sleeping late and throwing away. It was such a great feeling to be able to give all my extra stuff to the watchman. He got a lot of stuff including a mattress, bed items, kitchenware, perfume, some extra clothes, and cleaning supplies. When we left I handed him the last of the stuff and he said how happy he was, what a great day it had been, and thanked me. Apparently his wife and kids had passed through and they were extremely happy as well. It’s not much that I could have done. I think if I were still new to India I would have said something like giving that away has taught me about the value of things, but I know the value of things now, even little things like cleaning supplies or an extra set of silverware. I don’t how to convey the meaning of it though. 

After all of the packing was done, we had home made pani puri at the brothers’ house and then a mango shake at our juice place. These are two things I must take advantage of while I’m still here. As I got home a few friends came over to wish me off. We went upstairs to get rid of the last of the stuff and wait for my landlord. He doesn’t talk to me, but he talks to Manoj. And since Manoj was there, he didn’t really have much to say to me. It’s hysterical. He went through the house making sure everything was working and asked if I used it – like the geyser and washing machine. He’s an adorable old man. I didn’t get to do much before he was chatting up with Manoj and asking him about things like the gas and other incidents.

Before I knew it, it was time to go to the bus station so that Aaron and I could get to Bombay to get on our flight to Udaipur. We stopped to get the best wada pav in the city. He can eat everything. It’s shocking and awesome at the same time. I feel like at some point his stomach is going to explode and hate him for the change in time and food and spice he’s ingesting. Until then, I’ll remain completely impressed. Sucuri greeted us with open arms and him and Aaron spoke about movies as I passed out until it was time to go. We hopped in a riskshaw (I stepped on a rat on the way out of his society and it was the grossest thing ever! – Did you guys know that rats squeal with a gutteral voice?) to the airport, met Gayatri, and went on our way.

Day 1&2 will have to be tomorrow though.