The Beginning of the End

I’ve entered the final chapter in my around the world trip.  However, I now find myself in a situation where I don’t have regular internet access, or the time to do updates on this blog.  I really am motivated again to write stories about my adventures, but it’s almost impossible.  I’m going to try and do an update once a week once I can find faster internet access, but I may not be able to upload as many photos as I have in the past.  Perhaps I’ll just upload lesser quality photos in order to get around my current bandwidth limitations.

However, before that, I want to catch up on the last couple months of my travels.  I kind of hate summarizing two months of travel in a single blog post, but honestly, there isn’t much to report.  I wrapped up India in early February with a three day stay in Rishikesh.  This is the city the Beatles visited in the 60’s and got their inspiration for the Sergeant Pepper album, so that’s pretty cool.  Rishikesh is a very holy place in India due to the Ganges River which passes through it.IMG_5743IMG_5741IMG_5749

My time in India was one of the most unique experiences of not just this trip, but also my life.  I saw extremes of riches and poverty.  I saw magnificent and beautiful temples which were almost right along side utter filth and garbage.  I ate great food, and the best part was, I didn’t get sick.  Honestly, after Paris, the food in India was the best I’ve had on the whole trip.  I made some new friends who I still stay in touch with.  I was pleased with my decision to hire guides because it made for a much better experience.  When I add it up, I probably spent $300-$400 more than if I had not hired guides and drivers.  In the grand scheme of things, that’s obviously nothing for what I got in return for three weeks of adventures.  To my new friends in India, I owe you guys a big thanks.  I’m pleased to have met you, and hope to see you again someday.IMG_5844

After India, I flew into Bangkok, Thailand.  I felt ready for another developing country after India.  I figured Thailand would be very similar to India, and I was eager to challenge myself to get around without guides.  However, when I arrived in Bangkok, I found a very modern city.  It didn’t feel at all like India in any way.  Yes, you have to know how to handle the taxi drivers, but I was ready for that.  What I wasn’t ready for were clean streets, and the ability to walk around without getting hounded by touts like I was in India.  Bangkok was a vacation compared to India.  I ate the street food, and went to the major temples.  I had never seen a Buddhist temple before, and these certainly didn’t disappoint.IMG_6190IMG_5869

After Bangkok, I took a train to the city of Chiang Mai which is in the North.  Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, but a lot less developed.  For one, there’s no metro.  Also, there aren’t air-conditioned taxis like in Bangkok, but the drivers are actually easier to deal with.

In Bangkok, you really have to know how to handle the taxi drivers or you’ll get seriously ripped-off.  The way to avoid this is when you flag down an available cab and tell the driver where you want to go, you have to make sure to say you want say “meter” to the driver.  A lot of drivers want to charge you a fixed price which is five to ten times more than what you should pay.  If the driver says “no” to the meter, you simply don’t get in the cab and wave the driver off.  There are so many taxis in Bangkok, another one is bound to come along with a minute.  It may take three or four tries, but eventually, you’ll get an honest driver.  For example, this one time when I wanted to go the train station from my hostel, the first taxi I flagged down wanted to charge me 300 baht, which is around $9.  I knew this was nuts.  Once I had an honest driver, the metered trip only cost 60 baht which is about $1.80.  The difference of $7.20 may not sound like much, but it’s really the principle, and those differences add up over the course of a week of getting around the city.

Chiang Mai was fun.  I took a Thai food cooking class and made some of the best food I had in the country.  Chiang Mai also had some really beautiful scenery, and I went on a nice hike through an area known as the “Monk’s Trail”.  It’s been a while since I’ve done any serious trekking, and when I found out about a jungle trek offered by a local tour company, I jumped at the chance.  For only $45 dollars, I got to be a part of a group that explored a jungle area in Northern Thailand for three days.  The price included all meals and accommodation, plus our guide.  We stayed in villages, and had some locals make our meals.  We slept in bamboo huts, and enjoyed campfires in the evenings.  During the day we went on some incredible treks through dense forests and mountain terrain.  Great three days of explorations.IMG_6264

After the jungle trek, I had four more days before my flight out of Thailand and into Australia.  I was still hungry for one more adventure in Thailand, and got my chance for something new.  I met some people at my hostel who were planning to ride motorbikes to the city of Pai which is even further North into Thailand.  Pai is known as a really chill place with great views.  There are regular buses that run between Chiang Mai and Pai everyday.  But where’s the fun in that?  There are a lot of cool things to see along the way to Pai such as some awesome waterfalls and temples.  You miss all that on a bus.  Now, I’ve never ridden a motorbike in my entire life.  I don’t have a license for one, and I’ve never had a lesson.  None of this matters in Thailand, and I was able to rent a motorbike for only $5 for the entire day.  Now, when I say motorbike, we’re actually talking about a scooter with an automatic transmission.  The more experienced riders in our group gave me a quick tutorial, and off we went into the busy city traffic of Chiang Mai.

IMG_6390This whole thing may sound a bit insane, especially if you know me.  However, I’ve become more daring in my travels, and take on challenges I wouldn’t have dreamed of when I started traveling.  Riding a motorbike for the first time in a foreign country seemed like a good idea at the time.  To make a really long story short, it was only a good idea for the first 150 km of our 200 km journey.  I ended up having a wreak on the curvy mountain roads of Northern Thailand and ended up in the hospital.  Yada, yada, yada, two weeks later I was able to finally walk again and went to Australia.  Perhaps someday I’ll write about those two weeks and everything that went down.  It’s perhaps one of my best stories, and the look on people’s faces when I tell it and show them my scars is priceless.  I just don’t have time to write it all down at the moment.  Buy me a beer when I’m back in Columbus, and you’ll get all the details 🙂

I arrived in Melbourne, Australia in mid March, and unfortunately due to my little incident in Thailand, only had five days for Australia’s coolest city.  The plus side was that I met up with a friend who I had met in Budapest, and she gave me an awesome tour of her hometown.  I finally got to try this famous Melbourne coffee I kept hearing about.  It is really good in just about any coffee shop you find.  Melbourne also has tons of really incredible graffiti art.  The city is famous for it, and I took plenty of photos.  Sorry I only have the one below for you to seIMG_6462

The other highlight of my Aussie trip was that I went to an animal sanctuary and got to see all of the land down under’s famous creatures in one day.

After my short stay in Australia, I had a two day journey back to New York City.  Part of that trip involved a flight that arrived in LA.  For me, the moment I reached LA, I had officially gone “around the world”.  I was in LA for a day over the summer last year, and I gradually made my way over land to NYC before flying to Europe.  After Europe, it was Turkey, India, Thailand, and Australia.  I thought the moment I actually went around the Earth would have been overwhelming, but it wasn’t.  I was exhausted, hungry and still healing from my accident.  My final flight from LA to NYC was overnight, and I arrived in NYC on an extremely cold and snowy day.  It kind of sucked actually, but I was in NYC, and would soon see my brother.  To make another long story short, I was making my way back to the US for my brother’s bachelor party and wedding.  After spending one day back in the United States, I got in the car with my brother and the other groomsmen for a fun weekend in Montreal.  After that, I decided to stay in French Canada and explore.  I think I saw just about everything there is to see in Montreal and Quebec City.  Quebec City in particular is really cool.  It’s basically like a small city in France… all the signs are in French.  The people speak French.  The buildings are two to three hundred years old, and really remind you of Europe.

After French Canada, I made my way back to NYC via two bus rides.  There’s actually another really good story about the bus ride from Quebec City to Montreal that I’ll have to share over a beer.  I arrived back in New York for my brother’s wedding.  It was a really beautiful ceremony, and a great weekend of catching up with family and celebrating.  I’m really happy for my brother.  He and his wife are a perfect fit for one another, and their storybook wedding is something our families will remember for years to come.  After the wedding, the happy couple went honeymooning in Hawaii.  Being the travel bum that I am, I asked if I could crash at their place for a few more days since they weren’t going to be there.  It gave me a chance to have another cheap NYC experience.  Man, I love that city.  I don’t even feel like a tourist there anymore.  However, I did do some new things this time around.  I rode the Staten Island ferry, saw Times Square at night, and even went to Coney Island.  I also did a day trip to Connecticut to catch up with some really good friends of mine.

The time between arriving back in the US through my post-wedding explorations of NYC lasted about three weeks, and actually felt like a break.  I saw family members I hadn’t seen in months, I got to celebrate my brother’s wedding, I ate great food, got drunk, and actually slept on a real bed.  I couldn’t ask for a better time, and I missed it the instant it was over.  However, a new adventure awaited.  One that I’ll hopefully be able to talk about if I can find reliable internet.

India Part 7: The Holy City of Pushkar

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My trek through India’s Golden Triangle continued with something extra… a stop to the holy city of Pushkar.  As with Jaipur, Pushkar is in the state of Rajasthan.  It’s one of the five sacred pilgrimage sites for devout hindus.  The legend goes that when Lord Shiva (one of the major gods of hinduism) lost his wife, he cried so much that it formed the holy pond all of the worshipers visit in Pushkar.  There’s also a temple to Brahma, another major hindu god located within Pushkar.  Such temples are rare, and I’m sure makes the city even more popular with hindus.  For some reason, non-hindu tourists are attracted to the area in relatively large numbers.  This was the first city in India where I saw almost as many westerners as Indians.

It’s kind of rare when one of the highlights of a city I visit is the place I stayed in, but this hotel is definitely worth a mention.  It was about 2 kilometeres from the city center with all the vendors, shops and cafes.  That meant it was far enough away from the noise, but still within walking distance when I wanted to be around everything.  There were these big hills surrounding the area as well, and made for some awesome views.

IMG_5639IMG_5685 Perhaps I’ve become so accustomed to low budget accommodations and dorm rooms to know any better.  But to me, this place was a palatial tropical paradise.  India doesn’t really have the dorm style hostel places I usually stay in.  It’s mostly guesthouses, and this was one of them.  At $10 a night, I couldn’t believe the price.  It was kind of warm in Pushkar, and the open air guesthouse with the evening breezes created a relaxing vibe.IMG_5687 IMG_5669 IMG_5683

Vicky (same guide from the other cities) warned me about a common scam I needed to be aware of in Pushkar.  There are a number of these guys called “babas” who pretend to be holy men.  They try to pass out flowers to passers by.  If you accept, then they want a donation.  You can’t just give them a few rupees either.  They apparently harass you for hundreds of rupees and can become extremely aggressive very quickly.  I learned to just ignore them completely and never take anything from them.  This worked, and I never had an issue.  On a related note, Vicky and I were also approached by a group of women in saris who I’m guessing were asking for money.  Vicky said something in hindi that made them leave us alone.  I asked him about it, and he told me that he told them I was a police officer from the US on assignment in India to protect American tourists.  I laughed, but Vicky told me they totally believed it.  I have a shaved head and a military style cap I usually wear, so I guess it’s plausible.  I never had anyone approach me after that little white lie, so perhaps it worked.  Vicky started referring to us as the “Crazy Cops”.  I loved it, and it became our perpetual inside joke.

Cosmic Head Massage

If you’re familiar with some of the viral videos on YouTube, you might have heard of the Baba Head Massage.  Here it is in case you haven’t seen it.  The video features an Indian man giving a “cosmic” head massage to a tourist.  Many commenters of the three minute clip claim the music, in combination with imagining getting the massage themselves, puts them in a relaxed state of mind.  I saw this clip years ago, and I thought about it while I was in India.  It turns out that Baba is actually in Pushkar.  Since it’s such a small city, I felt if I just walked around, I could find his shop.  I was right…IMG_5663I was kind of interested in experiencing this cosmic head massage for myself, but figured if Baba knew about his internet celebrity, he probably charged a huge sum to tourists.  Baba wasn’t there on my first day, but Vicky talked with the guy filling his place in the shop.  He said he was Baba’s brother, and that Baba was away cutting the hair of a man about to get married.  We were told to come back the next day, and Baba would be there.  I set a price in my head of 500 rupees ($10) as my max for one of these epic treatments, and was hoping Baba didn’t demand more.  Sadly, upon returning the next day, we were told Baba was still away, but we should come and wait anyway.  I got the feeling he wasn’t going to show, so we left.  So I didn’t get to meet Baba himself, but I did get his business card.  I also got confirmation that he’s well aware of his YouTube celebrity.IMG_5716

Pushkar is filled with little shops selling mostly stuff to tourists… pashminas, scarves, clothes, shoes and cheap jewelry.  Still, there’s a certain charm to it.  There are also a lot of very odd people walking around trying to handout flowers and begging for spare change.  One older, bearded Indian guy in particular was the strangest of all.  He was wearing nothing but a long suit jacket that just barely kept him from exposing himself.  He would march up and down the streets barefoot, his legs covered in sores.  He wouldn’t say a word or harass anyone, but just stop in the middle of his march, stare blankly into space, and then march on after a minute or so.  No, I didn’t get a photo of that dude.  But here are a bunch of photos of the streets of Pushkar.IMG_5661IMG_5656 Unfortunately, a very common site in India is rubbish all over the street.  There’s usually animals sifting through the larger piles looking for scraps of food.  It’s sad really.IMG_5689 IMG_5695 IMG_5697Holy Waters

Here are the holy waters that are the reason devout hindus make the pilgrimage to Pushkar for.  You have to remove your shoes before getting anywhere near the water’s edge.  As long as they abide by this rule, and show respect, non-hindus are welcome to visit the temples as well.  However, as with any temple in India, no photos are allowed inside.
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Food and Treats

I probably look silly taking photos of my food all the time, but it’s such a big part of my travel experience.  I had a familiar breakfast in Pushkar… Paratha with curd.  This is the same meal I had every morning in Shimla when I did my homestay.  It’s a flatbread cooked in oil, and is served with a yogurt curd, and spicy pickles.  It’s so filling, and a good way to start the day if you might not have time for lunch.

IMG_5681 Here was another foray into street food… the street sugar cane drink.  The raw sugar cane is fed through a press that is powered by foot.  The guy below would feed the cane through multiple times in order to squeeze out every last bit of liquid.  A touch of salt is added, and you get a nice sweet treat.  I’ll admit, the flies that were attracted to the machinery were a little off-putting.  As with a lot of things in India, you kind of just look the other way and pretend you didn’t see it.IMG_5649 IMG_5651Thali… this is a mix of different items served with chipati bread.  There’s usually a veggie, some daal (lentils), rice and curd.  Nothing particularly special, but pretty good.  By the way, 60 rupees is $1.20 for the meal.  Love prices in India.IMG_5707 IMG_5679 And, of couse, what visit to an Indian city would be complete without a stop to a sweet shop.  I really miss these places, but it’s probably best for my health.  I was unable to resist stopping whenever I saw one.  A small bag of treats would be around 75 cents, so hard to pass up.IMG_5703

There’s not much else to report as far as Pushkar goes.  It’s a really small city, mainly known for the pilgrimages Indians make there, as well as all the tourist trap shops and babas.  Pushkar was a great place to visit after dealing with all the hectic mess of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur.  The place was basically like a vacation within my adventure.  The guesthouse was super relaxed and had a very chill feel.  I enjoyed cheap lassi’s, pots of chai, thali and treats.  After two nights there, our driver Victor got us back to Delhi safely.  That guy was an amazing driver.  I would have gone insane if I had to navigate the highways and busy urban streets of India.  Victor never seemed phased, and said he had been driving those streets for twenty years and it was just another day.  We finished the day back in Delhi with a final photo of the group.  Vicky is on the left with Victor in the middle.  Thanks guys, I had a great week doing the Golden Triangle with you.  It’s no exaggeration to say it was an experience I’ll be telling people about for the rest of my life.

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The Moon

moon1Holy crap, this latest stop was something I never thought would happen when I started my travels… The Moon!!  First off was the whole question of “How do I even get there?”  I mean, don’t you need some sort of spacecraft and a rocket to get you there?  Also, “How do I breathe and eat while up there”?  These were but details that just needed to be resolved, and after months on the road, I was ready to tackle the challenges.

Unfortunately, I can’t go into too many details as to how I made this trek happen.  Let’s just say it involved finding an experimental travel program and signing away all my rights as a human being for the duration of the trip.  Who wouldn’t agree to that if given the chance?  I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves…

Here’s a cool shot I got while on a hike up a nearby mountain.  I almost climbed up that tiny hill you see below, but figured it would be a better picture if I climbed to the top of the big mountain and took a photo of the smaller one.

moon2A few guys from the moon hostel joined me for a trek across the moon one afternoon.  It was cool getting a few people to go since we could split the cost of the moon rover below.  We’re all backpackers on a budget, so it’s nice to balance out the cost of an awesome experience with affordable travel.moon3One thing I was curious about was if we could find the original lunar module left behind from the Apollo missions of the 1970’s.  I asked the front desk at the moon hostel, and I tried googling it as well, and came up empty handed.  We had a general idea, but nothing specific.

Luckily the group I was with that day were all hardcore adventurers, so we stuck it out through miles and miles of trekking.  We were finally rewarded with the shot below.moon4

I know… crazy right?  I thought about all those moon landing conspiracy theorists who say the whole thing was done in a Hollywood studio.  Nonsense, it was right there in front of me.  I kind of wanted to go inside of it, but one of the guys in our group convinced me that I might damage it, and that would be unfair to future moon adventures.  I agreed, and was satisfied with the photo.

My time on the moon was epic.  I’d have to rank it up there with my month in Spain and the nine days I spent in Budapest as the most memorable of the trip.  Definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity.

India Part 6: More of Jaipur

IMG_5354I talked about the Amber Fort in Jaipur in my last update.  I actually spent three days in Jaipur, so I saw more of the famous palace/fortress complexes in Rajasthan.

Jaipur City Palace

City Palace was built by the Mughal ruler of the region almost 300 years ago.  As with Amber Fort, it contains a few palaces, courtyards and temples surrounded by walls that would have provided protection.  It’s actually still in use for some sort of ceremonial purpose, so I found it to be more preserved than Amber Fort.  However, it was much smaller.IMG_5508IMG_5514 IMG_5515 The photo below is of the largest object made out of silver in the world.  There are two of these in City Palace.  No joke, they’re actually in Guinness.  They’re jugs made from around 14,000 melted silver coins.  I didn’t see anything indicating what might have been put in the jars, but one story I found said they were once used to carry water from the Ganges River (very holy river in India).  You can see the reflection of me taking a photo in the one below.IMG_5519 IMG_5523IMG_5524 IMG_5525 IMG_5527 There was some kind of ceremony going on that day in City Palace.  Vicky said it looked like a foreign dignitary was in town and visiting the palace based on the various outfits and pageantry going on.IMG_5533IMG_5541 IMG_5543 IMG_5538

Jaigarh Fort

This fort rested on a hill even higher than the Amber Fort.  It wasn’t as elaborately decorated as Amber and City Palace, but a description of the place read that it was designed solely for defensive purposes, so lacked any aesthetically pleasing characteristics.  In all the centuries it was used as a fort, it was never taken by an invading army, so the design seems to have fulfilled its purpose.

IMG_5551The langur monkeys were all over the grounds of Jaigarh Fort.   I mentioned in my last post how these guys are more friendly and safer to be around then the rhesus or red faced monkeys.  They also had more humanlike body language and facial expressions which made them a little more creepy to me.IMG_5557IMG_5559 IMG_5549Random Jaipur Sites

When I was in France, I visited a city called Toulouse that was nicknamed the Pink City.  Jaipur is also referred to the Pink City as you can see from the photos below why this is.

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Sun Temple

At one end of the main road in Jaipur was this other big hill with an active hindu temple situated at the top called the Sun Temple.  Here was the main gate at the bottom of the hill.

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The hike up the hill was kind of funny.  There were tons of red face monkeys everywhere.  They were climbing the walls, walking along the path, sitting on the backs of goats.  It was hilarious.  Vicky warned me to be very careful with so many monkeys around, and not to have my phone out or carry anything else in my hands.  At one point, this older western couple in front of us stopped to take photos.  The monkeys began to gather around them thinking they had food.  There was a commotion of some kind, and then the monkeys went a little crazy.  The monkeys started screaming and attacking each other.  I thought to myself, “crap, I’m getting rabies today”.  I was honestly a little freaked out.  They were running all around us, but seemed to be avoiding us as well which was a relief.  We calmly just walked out of there, and Vicky warned the couple not to stop for too long and take photos since it made the monkeys believe they had food for them.  I wish I had some photos of that scene, but it’s probably better I didn’t have my phone out.

We finally reached the top of the hill, and here’s what awaited us.

IMG_5602IMG_5611We were rewarded with some great views of Jaipur from the Sun Temple area.IMG_5607Jaipur Eats

I loved the food in India, and Jaipur was no exception.  One side benefit of having a guide was that I worried less about trying street food.  I really didn’t want to miss out on the Indian street food despite all the warnings I read about.  I trusted Vicky to guide me through the options, and he didn’t steer me wrong.  He and Victor had been to these cities we were visiting numerous times, and between them, they knew of all the good spots to eat.  Vicky also said he could tell by the smell of the oil being used to cook the food if it was going to make him sick.  I think the main key is just to make sure the street food you’re eating is at a place with high turnover, and looks popular with locals.  I think most Americans with our Western sensabilities would have a problem eating at some of the places in the photos below.  But in India, they’re all pretty normal and standard.  Check them out:

Street lassi… A lot of people in the States have probably tried mango lassi.  In India, you can find lassi being served in these tiny ceramic clay cups on the side of the road.  They’re a nice refreshing treat on a warm day.  The downside to them is that everyone throws the cups away when done.  Seems like a huge waste.

IMG_5347 One of the things that I noticed early on in our week long trek through the Golden Triangle was that Victor, our driver, would stop at these restaurants where I would go in one door and eat.  Then he and Vicky would go through another door to a different part of the same building to eat.  I soon realized I was going into the tourist part of the restaurant with the nice clean floor, surfaces, well dressed servers, and overpriced food.  They thought I would want a more Western style restaurant, and not be able to handle a typical hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant just off the street.  Seriously, the prices in these tourist places were near what I would pay in the States for the same food.  Grant it, still relatively cheap, something like $6-$7 for a meal.  But in India, you should be getting meals for around $1.50.  I complained, and Victor started taking me to the real places where we could all eat together, and still get the traditional Indian food.  It wasn’t about the money for me.  I wanted to eat the same food as everyone else.  Honestly, despite the warnings I had about how spicy the food could be, I was totally fine.  I also never got the infamous Delhi belly 🙂IMG_5499IMG_5497More street lassi, although, this time in a bag.IMG_5613

IMG_5620I wish I could remember the name of the dish below.  It was like a potato cake with chic peas and spices.  Really, really, good.  Wow, India had the best street food of any place I’ve ever been on my whole trip.IMG_5619The stainless steel plates and bowls you see in Indian restaurants in the States are the norm here as well.
IMG_5628Jaipur Textiles

This next part is going to seem like I’m losing my mind, but one of the items on my India agenda was to buy a nice rug.  Jaipur is known for its textiles, and I was kind of curious to see what might be available for a cheap price.  I don’t have a place to call home at the moment.  I sold my house last June before I left for my trip.  I also went through a lot to unload most of my possessions.  I would never spend thousands of dollars back home for a hand sewn rug, but in India, such goods can be purchased for hundreds of dollars.  I liked the idea of having something in my future home decor to remind me of my travels, and a cool Indian rug seemed appropriate.

The high-end rugs in Jaipur are hand sewn by two rug makers over a period of six months.  Another person then spends a month trimming the rug fibers down by hand to produce the finished pattern you see.  I fourth person then burns the bottom of the rug in a very delicate way to rough up the bottom.  The effect of this is that you don’t need a rug pad underneath to keep it in place.  The rug shops even have slick marble floors and challenge you to pull the rug.  The weight of the hand sewn material and the roughed up bottom make it very difficult.IMG_5501

I ended up getting a hand sewn camel wool rug for $800.  It cost another $100 to ship home.  I admit, I regretted buying it the next day. In the end, I rationalized it by telling myself that I was buying it for future-me.  Present-me thinks it’s stupid to buy something for a home you don’t have.  But future-me will enjoy it someday when he’s done being a vagabond and has an awesome rug that will remind him of his travels abroad.  Check it out…

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So that wraps up Jaipur.  Although not as crowded or noisy as Delhi, Jaipur is still pretty huge and can get crazy.  It’s home to three million people which is more than the population of Chicago.  Jaipur is only the 10th largest city in India too, which is staggering to think of.  Our group spent three nights there, the longest of any city on our trek through the Golden Triangle.  The palaces, fortress complexes, good food and textiles made there make it a must stop for any tourist in Northern India.

India Part 5: Jaipur and the Amber Fort

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After just one night in Agra, and a day exploring the Taj Mahal and Agra Gate, our group of three (myself, driver and guide) headed to the state of Rajasthan and its capital, Jaipur.

Rajasthan is a state in the Northwest region of India.  In Hindi, Raj means the rule or king, and “sthan” means land.  So Rajasthan is the land of the rulers or kings.  It’s where all the great palaces of the old rulers are located.  The region is really popular with foreign and domestic tourists, so wherever you go, you’ll find guides speaking English, Spanish, French, Chinese and Japanese.  It occurred to me that I don’t really know anything about the history of this part of the world.  I don’t recall learning anything I might have been taught about the Mughal Empire or any of the numerous tribes that helped found what is present day Rajasthan.  Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and has some of the best of the palace fortress complexes in the region.

It was in Jaipur that I visited my favorite site in all of India… the Amber Fort.  I actually liked exploring this more than the Taj Mahal.  The fort was built by a general of the Mughal empire in the early 1600’s.  It contains several courtyards, palaces, temples and living quarters for the ruling class.  Although left in a state of disrepair for over a century, preservation efforts in the last couple decades are working to keep the fort open to the public.

IMG_5374IMG_5384IMG_5387There were animals just roaming around the former palace grounds.IMG_5371I can’t recall every being so close to an elephant before.  Perhaps in a zoo?  But this was different as it was right in front of me.  I didn’t notice the sign saying “no photos of elephants” until after I had taken a few.  No one said anything.  You could ride an elephant down the hill for 900 rupees which is $18.  It’s a short ride, and honestly didn’t appeal to me, so I didn’t do it.  $18 is a lot in India.  You can get a hotel room for less than that price.IMG_5389This place is just massive.  I think I like walking around places like this more than the Taj since you get more of a sense of daily life of the people.IMG_5392IMG_5398There were langur monkey’s just hanging out in the window ledges.  Vicky, my guide, told me the black face monkeys are safer to be around and are natural enemies of the red face monkeys… the rhesus macaques.  They’re seen as being an important control tactic in India to keeping the red face monkeys in check.  IMG_5401IMG_5403IMG_5407IMG_5408 IMG_5410 IMG_5413It was a little warm that day, and the marbled floors of these giant rooms were nice and cool in the shade.  Marble has that effect of staying cool, and I’d imagine lounging there on a hot summer day was an ideal place to be a few hundred years ago. IMG_5415 IMG_5419 IMG_5426 IMG_5438 IMG_5446 IMG_5458IMG_5449 IMG_5393

I had a really good day exploring the Amber Fort.  That place is something I would definitely go back to.  If I do, I would hire a guide who specializes in that location, as I was really curious as to what all the halls, rooms and courtyards would have been used for.  At this point, it was starting to hit me that I can’t recall ever learning the history of this part of the world.  I remember Ghengis Khan, but I don’t remember the Gergers, the Rajput, or the Mughals.  It would become a common theme that popped up in my Asian travels.

India Part 4: Agra and The Taj Mahal

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So after Shimla and getting my suit made, I spent a day and night chilling back in Delhi.  I really missed Shimla.  I enjoyed the mountains and incredible views of the valley below from my host family’s home.  Delhi is kind of a mess and it was dissappointing to be back in the noise and filth.  All the constant honking of horns, and the overwhelming traffic and people is really crazy.  Anytime I walked the streets alone in Delhi, locals would approach me wanting to talk, asking me where I was going, where I was from, and how long I had been in the country.  It was entertaining at first, but got old fast.  In India, locals will commonly ask if this is your first time to India, and how long you’ve been in the country to gage how experienced you are to scams.  I learned to ignore them, and pretend they weren’t there.

No worries, I would be heading out of Delhi the following day to begin a week long adventure through India’s famous Golden Triangle.  The triangle refers to the three cities of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.  I would be doing an extended tour and also seeing the holy city of Pushkar which is also in Rajasthan.  I mentioned in my first post on India that I went with arranging for tours.  I found ones in my budget, and would have guides with me most of the time.  I still saw this as wimping out a bit, but it would allow me to experience more of the culture and not worry much about running into trouble.  I would also have a driver for this tour… Victor.  He would navigate the crazy roads of India like a zen master.  As for my guide, I would have Mehar’s friend Vicky.  Vicky and I had already hung out in Delhi.  He took me around and showed me all the main temples of New Delhi.

The road trip started when we left Delhi on a Monday morning in late January for city of Agra.  Agra is the home of the Taj, but I would learn it was the location for some other cool places.  On the way to Agra, I got to see how most people get around India… packed full in whatever means of transportation was available.  For example, auto rickshaws…IMG_5104

Trucks…IMG_5111

And motorbikes.  It wasn’t uncommon to see an entire family of four on one motorbike.  Dad driving, older kid right behind, and mom on the back holding a baby.  People would travel for dozens of kilometeres this way.IMG_5128

One of the regions we passed through is famous for its milk.  It’s used to make a number of delicious treats.  Victor, the driver, was eager to stop at this particularly popular place and I got my first taste of Indian sweets.  I don’t really know how to describe them, because we don’t have anything quite like them in the States.  They’re either balls or in cake form, and made with milk, sugar and spices.  In particular, there are several made with the spice cardamom which I found to be a serotonin tripping experience. IMG_5122

On that first day, we reached Agra late in the afternoon, but still had time to explore.  I never visited a zoo in India, but there’s really no need to since exotic animals seem to be everywhere. IMG_5148 IMG_5151 IMG_5155 IMG_5156

Vicky knew the perfect spot to view the Taj.  There’s an area behind the famous wonder that is a dried up lake bed.  There’s a sort of park area beyond that, and it’s actually well guarded by police.  It’s kind of hidden, so there weren’t too many people despite the incredible view of the Taj at sundown.IMG_5162

One one side of the landscape… a beautiful sunset.  On the other, the Taj.  IMG_5163

This might be one of my favorite pictures of the whole trip.  I changed the photo used in the “About Me” page of this blog to match it.IMG_5165

The next morning, we got up early and headed straight to the Taj in an attempt to beat the crowd.  One of things that annoyed me the most with India was the foreigner pricing.  It didn’t bother me that it existed, only the degree to which it manifested itself.  There are two types of foreigner pricing in India… overt and covert.  Covert includes things like taxi and rickshaw drivers overcharging you because as a tourist, you don’t know any better.  If you know what you’re doing, then you can mitigate it a little with haggling.  But there’s the other kind of foreigner pricing that is right in front of your face.  All throughout India, at just about any place charging admission, there’s the Indian citizen price, and the foreigner price which can be up to thirty times the price a local would pay.  For example, entrance into the Taj Mahal.  The ticket above is Vicky’s, and guess whose is below.IMG_5185

750 rupees = $15 USD.  20 rupees = 40 cents.  One plausible argument is that Indian tax dollars go towards maintaining the Taj, so obviously they get in almost for free.  But the difference in this case was pretty bad.  I guess you could also say that’s just the free market at work, but I’ve never seen anything like it in all my travels.  Obviously the ticket price is not a problem, there was a long line, even early in the morning.IMG_5186

This is the main gate to enter the Taj.  IMG_5189

And once you step through that gate, this is what you see…IMG_5191

I kind of forgot about the ticket pricing at that moment.  The Taj was one of those bucket list things, and here it was right in front of me.  I got up closer to get a shot without all the crowds.  It’s packed there everyday as you might imagine.IMG_5196

There’s this haze in the air which creates that ethereal quality of the Taj at a distance.  It’s almost like it’s a mirage and at any moment it will dissolve into the sky.  But as you get closer, it begins to come into focus.IMG_5203IMG_5207 IMG_5209

The scripts below are from the koran, and are wider at the top then the bottom.  This creates the effect of having a uniform appearance when viewed from the ground.IMG_5212

The lattice work below is all hand carved marble.  It’s completely polished smooth and is one of those things that makes you wonder how they even built the Taj in just 22 years.IMG_5213

So what is the Taj Mahal?  A temple?  Perhaps a monument? Maybe a palace or a king’s summer retreat?  I bet the vast majority of people have no idea it’s really a mausoleum.  The Taj Mahal is also a love story.  It was built in the middle 1600’s by the Mughal ruler of the region by the name of Shah Jahan in memory of one of his wives who died during childbirth.  The story goes that Shah Jahan was so inconsolable at the loss of his wife that he went into seclusion for one year.  Immediately afterwards, construction of the Taj Mahal began.  It took 22 years to complete, and in 1983 became a UNESCO World Heritage site.  After the death of Shah Jahan, he was entombed in the Taj as well next to his wife.  It kind of floored me to think that so much money, time and resources would go into something that was essentially a grave.  I guess that’s what makes the love story of the Taj so impressive.

Once inside the mausoleum, no photos are allowed out of respect for the dead.  But I also wonder if it’s because to keep the mystique alive.  Honestly, once inside there isn’t much to see.  You can walk around in it in a minute or two and see everything.  There are upper level walkways that are inaccessible to the public, the ground floor is pretty much it.  I was told there are some underground rooms as well, but those are closed to the public as well.  I have to admit, my initial reaction was that it was underwhelming.  It’s a very impressive structure from the outside.  It’s almost like something from a fairytale brought to life.  Such a massive amount of white marble and incredibly beautiful and intricate carvings make the Taj what it is… a wonder of the world.  Looking back, I’m still glad I went, but I think my massive expectations got the best of me.  I guess it doesn’t really need to be amazing on the inside because it has enough going on outside.IMG_5214

The gardens surrounding the Taj never seem to make it into the photos people assoicate with the tomb.  However, I found them to be pretty impressive as well.IMG_5217 IMG_5216

So that’s the Taj.  It was really cool to finally see it up close.  My expectation of seeing something incredible inside left me feeling less thrilled about the Taj than I imagined.  True, it is unique on this earth, and I can’t think of anything remotely similar to it.  It was really a once in a lifetime sort of thing.

Afterwards, Vicky took me to explore a place called the Agra gate, but is also known by it’s original name… Fatehpur Sikri Palace.  India has several sites like this, and I never got tired of seeing them.IMG_5314IMG_5318IMG_5275IMG_5284IMG_5307

My guide Vicky is below.  Thanks bud, there’s no way I would have seen all of Agra like I did without your help.  So many people told me that the only thing to see in Agra was the Taj, but between the Fort and Gate complexes, and the sweets we had on the way there, I feel like I had the full experience.IMG_5279

India Part 3: My First Tailored Suit

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After settling into Delhi my first day in India, I remembered a very important errand that I wanted to try and get taken care of while there.  My brother is getting married in April, and I need a suit.  All of the groomsmen are getting custom suits made, and my brother gave me a few options for getting mine done.  I could fly back home and get fitted where most of the other guys were… obviously not going to happen.  Or, take advantage of traveling in the developing world where labor is cheap, and get a suit made at a respectable tailor in a country like India.  India, and Delhi in particular, has a good reputation for getting custom suits made for dirt cheap.  I asked my friend Mehar who I met through Couchsurfing for a recommendation since he seemed like an expert on the area.  He took me to a place in the main bazaar of New Delhi.  IMG_5089

I went in and talked about the design.  My brother had sent me a very specific set of instructions about the buttons, lapels and style of jacket, trousers and vest.  I had photos and color swatches as well.  The tailor then had me look at several fabrics, each one of higher quality than the previous one.  As it turned out, the most expensive fabric was the one that seemed to best match the swatch my brother had sent me, so I went with it.  This is my brother’s wedding, and I need to look good.  With all of the data in the hands of the tailor, it was time to talk price.  With Mehar present, I was hoping not to get ripped off.  The total for a completely tailored three piece suit came to 9000 rupees which is about $180.  It sounded like an amazing price to me.  Such a suit would run about $600-$700 in the States.  Mehar concurred it was a good price, and so I accepted the tailor’s offer.  Every inch of me was then measured.  It went way beyond inseam, waist size, and shoulder width.  They measured from my collarbone to my waist to get the vest right.  They measured the circumference of my chest, thighs and upper arms.  This wasn’t going to be a suit off the rack with a couple adjustments .  This thing would fit me, and me only, like a glove.  The tailor said he would make me into a gentlemen with this suit, and I would be very happy.  In return, he hoped I would make him very happy… implying a nice tip.  He told me to come back in four days for an initial fitting, which was perfect because that’s when I would return from Shimla.  So I left, and trusted all would be well.

Fast forward four days…

I got back from Shimla, and was really looking forward to checking back at the tailor’s shop to see the progress.  The suit was just handstiched at that point, and the collar not finished, but the point was to make sure the measurements had been correct, and the suit fit.  So how did it come out?  It looked and felt incredible.  I thought I looked like one of those douchebags on the red carpet with the perfectly fitted suit.  It was so form fitting, but not tight.  I could move my arms and shoulders around, and the suit moved with me.  I think with a white dress shirt and tie it should be up to snuff with what I need.  The crappy photo below really doesn’t do it justice.IMG_5086

I think I tipped the tailor 1000 rupees which is like $20.  I didn’t even catch his name, but here he is with me when I picked up the final suit.  I’ll have to remember to post a photo in a couple months after the wedding.IMG_5098