Friday, March 30, 2012

Rajasthan #1 - Jaipur



Now that my time in India is nearly over, I suppose i should write about my first few days here. After a hectic first day in Delhi, the German boys and I learned that, while the trains were nearly impossible to book (leading to fears we would never be able to leave Delhi), buses to Rajasthan were much easier.

The journey from Delhi to Jaipur the next day was about seven hours. Despite my familiarity with chaotic London commutes, I was not prepared for the way they drive here. Not only do the buses swerve in and out of traffic with a fearlessness parallel only to that of teenage boys on speed bikes, they do it while constantly blaring their horns. I've learned in my time here it is best not to look at the road in front of you. Take in the views to the side, read a book, attempt to chat with your friendly-but-non-english-speaking neighbor - who may or may not take your postcard thinking it is a gift lol! - but just don't watch the driving. Consider yourself warned!

video

Our hotel owner - the same guy who, the following day, would lead one of the most bizarre yoga classes I've ever witnessed - picked us up at the station, which felt like quite the treat. The rooms were incredibly luxurious. Most definitelly out of my price range but for one night I made an exception. Mostly I was just too tired after the journey to go searching for a place. It worked out well though as the next day they let me put an extra bed in the boys' room for less than 1/3 of my price the first night. Win!!

Highlights of Jaipur included our rooftop restaurant and Jantar Mantar. We arrived absolutely starving the first night and were blessed with the presence of a perfect rooftop where I devoured a massive pile of fresh fruit and a bowl of chickpea salad - dressed with nothing but salt and lemon juice - fantastic!!! The Germans were great company and we stayed up on the roof for a couple of hours- mostly the dark as the restaurant people shut down around us - and had a grand time teaching each other words and phrases in our respective languages and laughing about our India experiences. The following night on the same rooftop we met a big group of foreigners who had all met in India to take a crash course in English. We also met two British boys who I would run into again multiple times in Udaipur.

The next day, after an eye opening visit to the railway station for me and an unintentionally long walk to the city center for the boys, we met at Jantar Mantar - India's (and they may have said even the world's) biggest sundial. Well actually it is a collection of massive solar instruments used for all sorts of measurements. It was fascinating to see how, by shadow alone, you can tell the time on any day of the year accurate to 20 seconds (ok, ok, only the sunny days of the year), the altitude and angle of the sun, and the current astrological period. Twelve of the instruments are used in a complicated fashion involving several readings, measures of degrees, a big book, and a star reading at night to generate horoscopes specific to individuals based on the minute of their birth. Not only an intellectually fascinating place, but one that is quite aesthetically pleasing. The brightly colored sundials rise from the ground in beautiful arcs as they catch the sun. The astrological tools scoop into the ground in giant fans of white marble. And most importantly the star sign instruments provide a place to take cheesy tourist photos :) - bonus points: the current sign was still mine, Pisces.








As with everywhere in India, the peace and tranquility of these places is heightened by the stark contrast of the hectic streets surrounding them. These oases provide a much needed break from the constant stream of rickshaws and pushy stall vendors. To be fair, these are some massively touristy places which are inherently chaotic and irritating. If you can learn to convincingly and yet kindly say no over and over and over without succumbing to the relentless appeals to lighten your wallet, you have arrived in real India. My biggest wish here is that I wasn't white and blonde so I could blend in with the crowd to observe life rather than have it thrust at me. But I digress. There will be time for reflections on India as a whole in a few days. Now onto Udaipur!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Taj Mahal

It seems a little ridiculous to write a post about my experience at the Taj Mahal without including any photos.  Sadly, I don't have the means at the moment to do so, so I will just give you a brief summary and say that it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my life.  I was absolutely blown away by how perfect it is.  I don't remember a famous monument that hasn't let me down at the very least a tiny bit (and in some cases it's been downright heartbreaking) when I have actually seen it in person.  The Taj Mahal is more stunning, more breathtaking, more awe-inspiring, more gorgeous than I could even have imagined.  From the second we walked through the gate until the second we left, I could not get enough of it.  Around every corner, I wanted to take another picture to try to capture its beauty (resulting in dozens of essentially the same shot haha!).  With every change of light I fell in love again.  I sat and stared at it for hours, trying not only to remember every possible detail about the moment, but attempting to convince myself that I was actually in the presence of something so transcendent.  One of the most incredible experiences of my life!!!

Sept 2, 2012:
Finally getting some pics up!!!


Stonework detail just outside the mausoleum entrance.

Amritsar - The Golden Temple

I arrived in Amritsar around 10:30pm last night after one of the more interesting train rides to date.  A kind woman from the train made sure to coordinate the cheapest possible transport for me to the Temple where they have free rooms (for a small donation - very very small, as in just about $1) and free food.  As the last person to show up, there was only room for me on the floor but it was fine by me! I slept the best I have in the last several days of non-stop train travel.  Tonight I even have my own bed.  Perfection!

*My own bed.  Five star compared to sleeping on the floor on a thin duvet the night before. A pretty sweet deal for $1, no? 

This morning I began the day with free breakfast.  The machine that is the free kitchen is not only a sight to behold but provides one of the most interesting soundtracks I've witnessed so far.  Hundreds of people volunteer to help prepare and serve the food, wash the dishes, and clean the floors.  Metal plates, bowls and spoons are constantly in motion, water is always splashing somewhere, onions are being chopped, tea is being served, and amongst all these noises is the chatter of hundreds of people speaking and children laughing.  A fascinating place!

Preparing onions

Eating in the dining hall.

Deeeeeelicious FREE food and chai at the temple.  The first serving freaked me out a bit as it is delivered from a ladle out of what looks like a not-so-recently-cleaned slop bucket.  Despite appearances, it was actually incredibly tasty!  I was more than mildly addicted to the white stuff.  It was a kind of thin rice pudding with coconut bits and almond flakes.  What I wouldn't give for some of that right now! 

Thousands of people = thousands of dishes


video


Three Cheers for the Sheraton!!!

In the last six weeks I have slept:
  • sideways across two beds with Aby and Yafit in Bangkok
  • sitting up on a bus on the way Koh Tao
  • squished into a seat, my knees pushing against the chair in front of me, on a boat still on the way to Koh Tao
  • in a puddle of my own sweat on Koh Phangan
  • in a village hut in Northwest Thailand
  • in a very much open-to-the-elephants hut next to a river in Thailand
  • in a mosquito swarmed hotel in Chiang Mai
  • on a rock hard (yet respectably comfortable - or perhaps I was just exhausted) bed in a slightly sketchy (in a kitsch and homey way) guest house in Pai
  • on a very 70's porn circular bed with grease stained sheets and the lingering smell of stale cigarette smoke in Delhi
  • on the verge of heatstroke in a stuffy room in Udaipur
  • in the tiny, drafty, glass cupboard that is the sleeper seat on a bus to Jaisalmer
  • on a sand dune covered with stars and surrounded by belching camels near the India / Pakistan border
  • on the fly-covered roof of a guest house in Jaisalmer
  • on the floor of the free guest house at the Golden Temple in Amritsar
I haven't had a warm shower since March 12th.  Since Februrary 17th:
  • I haven't showered under anything that wasn't just a showerhead in the wall over a toilet. 
  • my feet have not been clean
  • toilet paper has been a luxury in any bathroom
For these and other reasons, I am happy to share the fantastic news that on April 6th, I am officially collecting on my parents birthday gift of a swanky hotel room for one night.  My day will include the following in some as of yet undetermined order:
  • a HOT shower
  • a nap in a big, clean, fluffy bed
  • a bath
  • reading a book in a big, clean, fluffy bed
  • a pedicure
  • writing in a big, clean, fluffy bed
  • a manicure
  • watching TV in a big, clean, fluffy bed
  • blissfully melting into happiness in a big, clean, fluffy bed
I. Can't. Wait!!!!!!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

India!!!

Hello from India!

It's proved more difficult to get online here so my greetings are about ten days delayed. I arrived last Wednesday, March 14th and have been basically on the move since. I have many posts to share but only have time for a quick one now!

The first night in Delhi was far different than I expected! The adventure started within my first hour on the ground when my taxi driver repeatedly fell asleep on the journey to the city. Because of the already erratic driving behavior here, it took me a while to figure out he was actually dozing off. For the remainder of the trip I found reasons to make small talk to keep him awake, despite him knowing approximately one word of English. I will skip the story of my first hotel lest it put you off India entirely and just say that I quickly saw I would need to adjust my travel technique for my new locale.

The first morning was the day of culture shock. I managed to navigate my way past the many people attempting to "help" me and found one of the few true tourist information centers. There I met two German boys who were just as new to things as I, and we managed to sort through all our questions together. For your future travel enjoyment, some rules for India: have your shit together. You don't have to have it all planned before you arrive but know at least a little about what you want, how much it should cost, how long it takes, whatever, the more info you have up front the easier it is to spot the people trying to dupe you (which also means more quickly identifying those who genuinely want to help - of which there are many!) Rule two: if they come to you, be highly skeptically of their intentions. If you go to them, they will likely give you good information. So you just saved £15 not having to buy a travel guide and can now roam around India in the know.

I've wandered quite a bit thus far so let me give you a snapshot (hopefully followed by more stories in the next day or two - I have about 36 hours of train time ahead of me soon so that should be enough time to compose a post or two!):

•two days in Delhi
•one and a half days in Jaipur - the pink city. Saw Jantar Mantar - very cool.
•three days in Udaipur - such a beautiful city! Great for city strolls, which I love.
•three days in Jaisalmer - incredible architecture! Went on a camel safari for a day and a half in the middle which was quite enjoyable :)

India is a huge place! To see these places over the last ten days my transportation has included approximately:

•3 hours in taxis
•1.5 hours in tuk tuks
•22 hours on buses
•8 hours on a train
•6 hours on a camel
•and many hours walking!

I leave this afternoon for Agra to see the Taj Mahal on Monday. It'll add another 20 hours to the train total but I hear it's a sight to behold ;). I will let you know all about it (if I'm lucky, maybe even with some pics!).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Goodbye Thailand!

And so my time in Thailand has come to a close. It's hard to believe I've been here nearly a month. We covered quite a lot of country in that time!:

Bangkok
Koh Tao
Koh Nang Yuan
Koh Phangan
Bangkok, again
Chiang Mai
Pai
Soppong
and
Chiang Mai, again
Plus all the country/water in between!

For me, the highlights include:

The Jungle Guest House in Soppong - such a lovely place that really felt like home for a few days. The village is friendly and welcoming and the country around it is beautiful.

Freedom Beach on Koh Tao - such a relaxing day in a gorgeous place!

Waterfalls!!! - we found any excuse to jump in the cool, fresh water whenever we could. Soooo fantastic!

Hitchhiking from Soppong to Chiang Mai - don't tell my mom about this one please ;)

Motorbiking - we rented bikes twice and both days were such a great time. It's a perfect way to see the countryside at your own pace (read: fast! lol) and to see what you want to see.

Thai food - incredible! So fresh, so healthy, so cheap!!! I will miss my fresh fruit juices every morning!

Trekking - the hike into the mountains was properly heart pumping and the views (while sadly impeded by smoke) were great. The night in the village was very fun. Reading a book at sunrise then hanging out with one of the local kids while everyone else slept was even more fun. :)

Massages - an experience for sure. Some were amazing, some were ok but the fact that an hour massage is about £3 means you can afford to try out lots of places. A quite enjoyable way to recover after a trek!

In summary, Thailand is really wonderful. We came at the wrong time to see the views of lush, green mountains which was frustrating but I am certain that in the right season it is absolutely gorgeous. It is definitely on my list to come back and see more of the north (as well as venture into some new regions, of course!).

So kop khun kha Thailand! Until next time!

Pi Day (the real one)

This year I am celebrating Pi Day in transit. I am writing this at the Bangkok airport after my flight in this morning from Chiang Mai. From here I go to Kuala Lumpur for a short layover before boarding the last leg of my journey today to Delhi.

I spent several hours yesterday doing research on travel in India and it got me really excited to get there! For now, the plan looks something like:

Delhi - probably just one day, maybe two
Agra - for the Taj Mahal
Rajasthan - visit a couple of the royal cities over the course of a week
Dharamsala - another week in this area, check out the Tibetan section and also make a side trip to the Golden Palace to spend a night
Varanasi - depending on trains i may have a stop over in Delhi for another day on the way here, then a week in this city - from here I will make my way to Nepal for the last month of the trip!

It's a lot for only a few weeks but I'm hoping I can get it all in and still be able to chill out with some new folk along the way and experience different sides of Indian culture and geography.

I can't believe I've been in Thailand almost a month now (26 days). According to my calculations *sounds of pen, paper, and calculator chattering in the background* as of today my journey is 33.33% over. Crazy! I am excited to see what the remaining two months will have to show me.

PS. For those detail-orient(at)ed people, you can rest assured that while the post date says March 13, it is, in fact, March 14 in Bangkok.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sluuuuuurp!

Delicious noodle soup with chicken accompanied by a pineapple shake.  Mmmmmmm!

From: Rose Guest House, Chiang Mai, Thailand
To: England, UK

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bibliophibian

The best used book store I found in Chiang Mai!

From: Lost Book Store, Chiang Mai, Thailand
To: Utah, USA

A Postcard a Day

I would like to embark on a project for the time I am traveling (and perhaps after if I find it as fun then as now) to write one postcard a day.  This means, however, that I need some addresses from you.  I have a few already but would love to have more people to send to.  I will write you a postcard and post a picture of where I wrote it.  I have been doing this for the last few days already so you can see pics here, here, and here of what I am thinking.  For those who have already received cards, I apologize yours aren't documented lol.  But you might just get another one soon!  Click here to send your address!!

PS Because I love the thought of writing to people I don't know (yet), requests from strangers will be given top priority ;)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Empire of the Sun


Relaxing in the guest house hammock while I finished my book.  The rooster in the distance spent a lot of time rustling around while I was reading/writing.  If I can get it to load, I have a video to add as well!

From: Jungle Guest House, Soppong, Thailand
To: Texas, USA

Friday, March 9, 2012

Tea Time


Enjoying some tasty Chinese Green Tea in the early hours.  While writing this card I was accompanied by a fellow guest jamming on his guitar.

From: Jungle Guest House, Soppong, Thailand
To: Alabama, USA

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Pai Day (a week early)

This week we headed farther north to the town of Pai in the Mae Hong Son district. Our first impressions were not highly optimistic due to the influence of two ubiquitous negatives in the area: throngs of tourists and slash & burn agriculture. On our recent trek (soon to be documented to accommodate your looking-busy-at-work needs) we were a bit heartbroken when we could only see the faintest shadows of what we know are stunning mountains hidden under a thick blanket of heavy smoke. Every year, farmers in the region burn the forest to clear the ground for planting in the rainy season. Through some type of magic we have yet to uncover, only the fallen leaves and low-lying plants burn, everything else stays green and hearty and the fire's path is completely controlled by the farmers.


Our first morning here we worried we might not see any of the north's natural beauty. But that afternoon we rented motorbikes (we've definitely become fans of this form of transport!) to tour around on our own and saw some beautiful country. The first stop was Pai Canyon - a strange series of high cliffs almost Seussian in design. Yafit and I walked, scrambled, and climbed our way across several of them, at one point arriving at what would be a gorgeous, lush vista if not for the smoke!! The beauty is definitely here and I can see why people fall for the north. If you plan to visit, make sure to get here before the fires. You will be rewarded with stacks of green mountains surrounding valleys of rich farmland as far as the eye can see.



After our jaunt across the dry canyon, we fancied a dip in some cold water - and I mean COLD!!! Pam Bok waterfall is by far the chilliest we have jumped in on this trip and it felt incredible! Let me share with you the secret of surviving chilly swims: commit. A two-fold determination is required. First, just get in. Do it. The process of walking in slowly - feeling the cold creep up your legs, your lower back spasming in anticipation of the coming attack - is far too painful. Just jump in and get it over with. Secondly, stay there once you do! Force yourself to stay in for thirty seconds of swimming before running to the nearest towel. Somehow the water just suddenly gets warm (no, not from that) and you can stay in forever. In fact, after I had been swimming for a while, the prospect of getting out into the cold seemed less appealing than staying put.



So after our initial anxieties, we were happily taken with the beauty of some of Pai's natural attractions. This enthusiasm carried on to today when we explored Mae Yen waterfall which you can read about in the next post!