Saturday, November 30, 2013

Days 126, 127, & 128: Jaipur

Arriving in Jaipur was much more relaxing than Agra, even though we were told to get off at the wrong stop. We were able to arrange an auto from the pre paid ticket window and found our hotel without too much trouble. The traffic was the wildest we'd seen so far in India, and perhaps all trip, with the exception of Addis, but Pearl Palace was set on a quaint little side street. Our third floor room was quiet from traffic, and the home of a delightful family of pigeons who cooed loudly each morning and likely spread dander throughout our stuff. The rooftop was serene and served up the best food in town.

With two days to spend here we were able to take it easy with two full mornings of sightseeing and the hot afternoons left for relaxation and planning. The first morning we set out for the Pink City, the old part of Jaipur where laws dictate that all buildings are pink.

The first stop was another Jantar Mantar, built by the same man, Jai Singh, as the one in Delhi (plus three others); Jaipur's is the biggest and best preserved site for cosmic calculation. We discovered that the tall tower is built so that the shadow from the sun moves one millimeter per second. It was neat to watch plants get enveloped so quickly in shadow and we mourned the loss of our video camera's time-lapse feauture.

Next, it was on to the City Palace. Far from falling apart, this ancient building is still in use and the home of the descendants of Jaipur's royal family. We marveled at the Mubarak Mahal, or Welcome Palace, and its beautifully carved archways. We saw the two largest silver objects in the world, 1.6 m tall vessels that the Maharaja Singh II took to England with him, full of the water from the Ganges. Then we passed under the great peacock gate (autumn), and those of the other three seasons that adorn the palace's inner courtyard. In each art gallery we found ourselves looking more at the lavish decor and painted/carved ceilings than any of the paintings. On the way out we caught a puppet show and a snake charmer charming some lethargic cobras.

The second morning we started at the Royal Gaitor, where many great maharajas are honoured through impressively carved marble cenotaphs. We strolled through the three sections, all void of other tourists and had a bit of a scare from a protective mother monkey who obviously wasn't used to humans visiting this off-the-beaten-track attraction. The carvings were exquisite throughout depicting elephants, lions, and horses. It was here that we got our first views of the "Great Wall of India" as our driver called it that wound its way through the hills connecting all the sites we would visit that day.

Next, we headed outside Jaipur proper to the original capital of Jaipur state, Amber, to see the fort and palace. We chose to walk rather than ride one of the unfortunate elephants, though we still got a 'too-close-for-comfort' experience when trying to enter the main courtyard from the same gate.

Inside, Erin was most intrigued with the veiled marble screens upstairs, where the women could watch the happenings away from prying eyes. Craig appreciated the sheer height of the fort walls rising out of the rocky hillside.

We also spent some time gazing at the Hall of Victory's mirrored walls and ceiling.

Up the windy hill that our auto driver took with impressive, body-jarring speed, was the Nahargarh Fort, or 'Tiger Fort.' It seemed connected to Amber Fort by a wall reminiscent of China's. It was mainly falling apart, but offered views of the new and old city from its roof.

On our way back down the hill we stopped to admire the view of the Water Palace, built as a vacation spot for one of Jaipur's kings (he would notably come here without his family for some debauchery). It is no longer in use but we noticed some boats taking people over to tour it. While looking out over the hillside, something drew our attention away from the palace... a peacock came gliding down the mountain just above the treeline. Its regal body soaring, stunning wings trailing behind, was an astonishing sight, and made for the perfect ending of our day!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Days 124 & 125: The Taj

Our bus to Agra arrived in the evening after a leisurely drive down deserted highways. When we arrived the buses near-empty interior clashed with the throngs of people lining the roads and the menagerie of different forms of transport competing for precious space. We found an 'auto' and sped through the streets weaving between rickshaws, cars, cute minibuses, horse-drawn carriages, camels, and people.

As the eye saw it.
Our hotel boasted a rooftop restaurant with great views of 'The Taj' but as it's not lit up at night, it was nowhere to be seen. That is until the lights in the hotel went out for a few minutes as we ate, and in that time, our eyes adjusted to the darkness and we caught a glimpse of its mystical outline towering over the mist. Erin quickly hid her eyes because she hadn't wanted to see it until we walked through the gates the next morning at sunrise, but admitted giddily that the momentary view had been exhilarating.  Craig, on the other hand, managed to get a few shots that showed it almost 'too well' that he hid from Erin.

We were out the door at 6, and made our way to the south gate, supposedly the most dramatic, as when you enter, you're staring directly at the taj head-on. But our guidebook neglected to mention that this is the only gate that opens at 8, instead of sunrise. So we unfortunately walked all the way to the west gate instead (the furthest from our hotel), to enter there, the busiest gate. After an incredibly frustrating, gender-biased line-up, where we lost two of our precious gluten-free granola bars, we were in. Putting aside our negativity, we took a deep breath and looked onwards.

It's weird... You've seen the picture a million times and you know it is the Taj Mahal, but it didn't look like it. Standing behind people who were taking pictures of it, you could see in their viewfinders that that's what it was. But the enormous building in front almost looked out of place without being framed at its sides. The varying colours in the marble, the increasing size in the Sanscrit calligraphy so it looks equal from afar... Every little detail was visible up close. It's symmetry was perfect.

We read many interesting facts and theories, both before and during our visit, i.e. the minarets are outward leaning so as to protect the Taj in the event of an earthquake.

Staring down a guy that just took Erin's
picture. One of the better pictures of us.
The only annoyance of the visit were the photos that some of the young male Indian visitors kept taking of Erin. She stood up to one man, in front of his buddies, and asked him to delete a picture he had blatantly snapped while we were posing together. The stares from the men despite her conservative outfit were also unsettling. She also regretted wearing white that day as Craig told her she didn't stand out enough in front of the building!

With a building that was painstakingly made symmetrical on all four sides,
it is baffling that everyone obsesses over just one of them.

After our fill, we ate breakfast nearby at the hotel with the 'best Taj views in the city,' then returned to ours for a relaxing rest of the day. Near dusk, we moseyed down to the river where we found a polesman to take us out for a unique view of the mausoleum. We couldn't believe we were the only people out there! We've had a lot of bad things to say about Lonely Planet on this trip so far, so it's important to mention that on this occasion it steered us well.

The next morning we grumbled at our early alarm, but managed to pull ourselves out of bed again for sunrise, this time from our own hotel's unobstructed views. Craig had splurged when booking the room for a room with a view, so watching the outline appear in the morning light was the motivation we needed to get the day going. It was a wonderful visit of the most beautiful building in the world!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Days 122 & 123: Delhi

People kept warning us what a culture shock India was going to be... and they were right! We stepped off the plane into the massive and efficient Delhi airport with travelators, sparkling clean bathrooms, and customs agents ready and waiting for us. When picking up our baggage, we realized that the ramp leading up from the baggage transfer area in the depths of the airport basement would stop and start so that the bags were distributed evenly on the baggage claim belt with no luggage sitting on top of another piece.

We were welcomed by Craig's brother's good friend, Sankalp, and his wife Amandra, who took us into the near-empty streets for a calm ride to a nearby mall for a late dinner. Sitting in a cute pub restaurant with americana movie posters and fifties advertisements plastered on the walls while we ate pasta and drank iced tea, it felt like we were back at home. Stepping from the "undeveloped world" to the "developing world," as Sankalp called it, had its surprises (people actually followed traffic lights!).

It was wonderful to feel like we were in a home and part of a family again, and Sankalp, Amandra, and their family did an excellent job making us feel taken care of. Delicious homecooked food and an airport pick-up were a few of the comforts we'd been missing these past four months. We discovered, pleasingly, that a few of our Nepalese phrases transferred over into Hindi, and we gained a few more over dinner.

Other than that, our time in Delhi was spent visiting a few of the sights, such as the Jantar Mantar, that we unfortunately didn't have our camera with us for. Set in a manicured garden were unusually shaped buildings resembling an Escherian skatepark that were actually used to track the movement of celestial bodies. Next, it was on to an atmospheric step well right smack dab in the middle of a residential area. (Photo courtesy of the Internet).

A highlight from the city was the Qutb Minar. It is a 73 m high intricatly carved tower built in 1193. We marvelled at the detail in the design, down to the differently shaped columns and balconies at each level. Set beside the minar was a mosque competing in beauty with its marble screen. Carved pillars held the buildings aloft, and accented the archways. A simple pole in the courtyard presented an interesting feat of engineering, as scientists have not been able to determine how people at the time stopped the iron pole from rusting. We were far from alone, with many school tours giving the children the run of the place.


Our last big attraction was the Lotus Temple, an exquisitely symmetrical Baha'i temple welcome to people of all religions and faith. We queued up to enter the temple, which is meant to be a place of silent reflection and meditation (it mainly was, except for a few kids, and the jerk behind us who made a PHONE CALL from the inside of the temple...), but we did our best to achieve a much needed state of relaxation after the congested Delhi traffic.

We realize that our time in India is just beginning, and was certainly cushioned by the help of our two new friends, but overall we were surprised by the lack of hasseling and agression that we'd been warned about by mutliple travellers. We guess that four months in the world's poorest countries has habituated us to the normal shock westerners feel upon arriving. We'll see how we fare once we hit India independently tomorrow!

Day 121: Nepal's Got it All!

Nepal is a beautiful country with so much to offer travellers. We thoroughly enjoyed the diversity of activities, roaming from cultural cities, to sky-scraping mountains, to the heart of the Asian jungle. People were incredibly friendly, and mild-mannered, for the most part, though not incredibly considerate of how their actions might affect others (mainly in terms of the normal volume in which they speak to each other, even at the early hours of pre-dawn in a teahouse with paper-thin walls). We'd been warned repeatedly to be careful of sanitation, particularly when it came to food. We had zero issues, instead enjoying a plethora of restaurants offering local and international cuisine.

We thankfully didn't need one of these for Nepal!

Having also been cautioned against going to a "politically unstable" country, during election time, nonetheless, we were pleased that the election went off with relatively no incidents (to be clear, yes, the strike did affect people, including us, but in all fairness, we knew it was going to happen on that date, so people were prepared). Instead, we tried to embrace the feeling that we were witnessing an important moment in the country's history first-hand. As the second democratic election Nepal has ever had, we hope that it brings further stability to the country, and leads to an improvement in basic quality of life for the future generation. We will certainly be searching for an organization that supports education for children, as we once again saw many children out begging instead of in school. 

Days 118-120: Better Late than Never

Election Readiness Plan
We arrived in Kathmandu and hit up our favourite spot, Funky Buddah, for lunch. We were once again welcomed back with a huge smile from the waiters, and our bacon-wrapped chicken skewers. The next days that followed were relatively simple as we dropped off and picked up our passports at the Indian Embassy (visits 5 and 6!), and otherwise laying low in the event of election protests. They stopped serving alcohol the day before the election, and didn't resume until the day after, presumably to keep tempers in check. As foreigners, it wasn't too hard to subvert this temporary prohibition, but Craig prepared ahead, just in case.

The bustling Thamel that we had experienced previously was replaced with a quiet off-season ski town feel where the majority of shops and restaurants were closed. We decided to spend the election day at the nearby Malla Hotel. We ate a delicate lunch garden side, relaxed by the pool, then treated our aching muscles to a jacuzzi and hour-long massage each.

It was only on our last full day in Nepal (Day 22!) that we finally made it around Kathmandu to do some sight-seeing. Since Craig's knee was still quite sore, we hired a taxi to take us up the winding road to Swayambhunath, more commonly known by tourists as the "Monkey Temple." This gilded Buddhist stupa and temple complex is set on a soaring hilltop with panoramic views of the city. We enjoyed watching the sunrise as the early morning haze wandered through Kathmandu's narrow streets.

After passing many Stupas on our trek that were so isolated and alone in the Himalaya it was a different experience to see the vibrant community that visits the temple on a daily basis. Exercise enthusiasts stretched and squatted having made it up the 500+ stairs; the devote worked their way clockwise around the stupa, praying, and lighting candles; and the many tourists were snapping pictures while trying to stay out of the way of monks, along with the monkey, dog, and pigeon infestations. The air hung with the chanting of pilgrims, interrupted by the clanging of prayer wheels.

In the afternoon, Craig led us on a walking tour from Thamel to Durbar Square. After pouring through the Lonely Planet guide, he successfully found 12/32 marked sites, but many more that seemed worthy enough of a mention to be in the guidebook! Upon arriving at the famous square, we found a rooftop restaurant where we could gaze down at the sites, away from the crowds and touts, to get our bearings. The atmosphere rich with history and culture was disappointingly broken by the restaurant blaring the modern tunes of Keisha.

On our way back to our hotel we picked up one last souvenir: our trip patches. The embroiderists took it upon themselves to change our colour scheme, but we were pleased all the same!

Day 118: Elephants in the Mist

Having already done canoe, walking, and jeep safaris, only an elephant safari was left. We were up early and by 6:20 we were bobbing along on the back of a huge pachyderm by the name Basanti. When she started to wade into the river we were a little worried, not knowing how deep the dark water was and whether this elephant ride would leave us as wet as the previous one. After a quick stop so Basanti could have a drink we continued; the water at its deepest getting waist deep (for an elephant).

It was a very peaceful way to experience the jungle as we made almost no sound, save for when the gap in bushes and trees proved too narrow for us. We saw a few deer and crossed the river again (roughly where we had seen a tiger the previous day). On the opposite bank we passed fresh rhino footprints on a muddy slope. As we worked our way up the hill, a loud slurping sound startled us from below. Looking down we saw that our elephant was sinking down just over a foot into the mud with each step, and more surprisingly the elephant behind us was using the holes already made by Basanti just as we would in fresh snow.

Once back in the jungle, it wasn't long before the elephant rider, or "mahout", spotted a rhino sleeping in a bush. Once we were closer a baby also became visible. They were completely undisturbed by our presence and did little more than lift their heads to get a brief look at us. A little further, we saw another rhino sleeping in a meadow.

We tried our best to enjoy the experience, and it was absolutely magical, but it was difficult to set aside the conditions we'd seen earlier on our trip, and ignore the treatment of the elephant by the rider. His "tools" were grotesque metal hooks for ensuring she went the right direction, and his strategy for getting on was to hold onto her ears and walk up her trunk. Admittedly, it was a real moral struggle for us to decide whether or not to do the ride at all, but it had a real appeal, and we gave in to the idea. It would be difficult to convince Erin to do it again. At any rate, it was something to ponder on our bus ride back to Kathmandu.

Wedding Planning On The Go!