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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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