Looking Back: India

Although we’ve been sharing a lot of our experiences from the road, there are so many details about the places we’re visiting that aren’t captured in articles specific to places or activities. We decided to start a new project, “Looking Back“, which will be a series of articles that address some of the random things we’ve learned about each place, including our overall impressions and favorite moments. Hopefully this will fill in some gaps for our readers and help us remember the unique aspects of each country before they start running together in our memory. World travel has a way of making the last city a blur, let alone things that happened months ago!

We’ve written a lot about India but at times it’s difficult to be completely honest about our experiences without sounding overly negative. India truly has a lot to offer the traveler who is willing to venture far outside his or her comfort zone. But before considering a trip to India the following should be kept in mind. (Note: Yes, there is some ranting below and yes, I realize no destination is perfect.)

India at a Glance

  • Gross National Income (GNI) Per Capita: $1,530 – Lower middle income
  • Our Daily Budget (for two people): $42.23
  • Size: 1,222,559 square miles (about one-third the size of the USA)
  • Population: 1.21 billion people (about 3 times the population of the USA)
  • Population Density: 954 people per square mile
  • Government Type: Constitutional Republic
  • Ranking on the Global Gender Gap Report: #105 of 135 countries surveyed, scoring very low in Political Empowerment and Economic Participation and Opportunity
  • What Did We Learn?

    Lodging

    There are many levels of hotels in India, but if you’re a budget traveler you can expect conditions a bit below what you may consider reasonable at home. Hot showers are luxuries that most budget hotels do not provide. Luckily, much of the year India is HOT and it’s hardly necessary to have a hot shower. In super-budget places the plumbing is often laughably bad with toilets that are barely operational and sinks that drain directly onto the floor. Electricity is available most of the time, although considering the quality of some electrical work we saw, a surge protector is probably a good investment. Cleanliness is variable but we rarely had issues with bugs and most linens and pillows fell under the “clean enough” category. If a place was questionable we just used our sleep sheets.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”KannurView.jpg” title=”Arabian Sea” caption=”For a few dollars more” position=”center”]

    As Sam discussed in our budget article, lodging in India can be extremely affordable if you don’t mind the issues mentioned above. Prices and quality do go up rather quickly if you want a more comfortable level of accommodation.

    People

    As travelers, most of the locals you deal with on a regular basis are hotel owners, shopkeepers, servers at restaurants, transportation workers, beggars, and scammers – many of whom have little interest in you outside of getting as much money as possible. Some of them have no issues with scamming you or charging you well above the going rate for their services, and they may bug you endlessly when you clearly have no intention of doing business with them. Needless to say, these relationships don’t last long.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”IndiaChild.jpg” title=”India Child” caption=”I made a new friend.” position=”center”]

    Most other people you come in contact with on a typical day are Indian men. As a man myself I am usually ignored, but Sam gets quite a bit of unwanted stares – and occasionally more, as Sam wrote about in her post describing our Holi experience.

    If you want to meet genuine people who want nothing from you, try striking up a conversation while taking public transportation. Many Indians were interested in learning all about us and were open with sharing their stories and photographs. They’re not afraid to ask questions about your religion and relationships that Westerners might consider personal. Sometimes they wouldn’t leave us alone because they wanted to keep the conversation going, but in general we really enjoyed these interactions. It can be difficult to know at first whether people are being genuinely nice, but this is something you have to deal with in any developing country you visit.

    Safety

    Those overly concerned with safety will probably want to skip India. Leaving your hotel room can be terrifying. It’s hard to feel safe walking down the road when you have to balance between looking up at what’s coming and looking down at what you’re stepping in. We witnessed a number of accidents, most notably when I was hit by a rickshaw on a crosswalk while crossing the street. Traffic laws are almost completely ignored. You’re sure to see stray cats, dogs, cows, and even monkeys that will sometimes attack without warning. You’re probably not much safer in your hotel room as there are no fire alarms anywhere, nor emergency exits, nor, from what we could tell, building codes of any sort.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”DelhiElephant.jpg” title=”Delhi elephant” caption=”It’s all fun and games until someone gets trampled.” position=”center”]

    The good news is that we don’t think food safety is as big of an issue as people often say. Sure, there’s a good chance you’ll get sick, but most food poisoning passes rather quickly. Drinking only bottled water and going to restaurants that have a lot of customers will go a long way in helping you avoid the worst. And your stomach will toughen up if you stay long enough.

    Costs

    Prices are very low by western standards. In most cities we spent less than $10 a night for a hotel and maybe $20 a day for food, and it certainly can be done for less if you are on a tighter budget. With that said, prices for everything are about double what was listed in our 2007 Lonely Planet guide book and the price of major attractions is comparatively high for foreigners. Nevertheless, this really is one of the least expensive countries to travel.

    Do be aware that prices are not fixed for anything except food and trains. If you want a good deal on gifts, clothing, hotel rooms, taxis or really anything else, be prepared to bargain hard for it. When purchasing things the best strategy we learned was to never show interest in the item you intend to buy, but rather one right next to it. Find a reason you can “settle” on the item you want if they’ll take less money for it. Bargaining isn’t so much about making sure both sides are happy with the deal (which almost never happens), but rather making it appear that you didn’t get exactly what you wanted. In the end, try not to be one of those people that bargains down to the last twenty cents. It’s easy to get caught up in the process, but we always try to keep in mind that our very presence in their country means we’re probably better off.

    Sights

    Hopefully we’ve covered enough of the sights and activities in our articles that there’s no doubt you won’t be bored here. From temples to beaches, India has it all, but some of the best experiences come from just watching people go about their daily lives. India is extremely colorful and is full of interesting characters.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”India576.jpg” title=”Udaipur Ghat” caption=”Along the river in Udaipur” position=”center”]

    Food

    In general food is very good and varied in India. If you need meat with every meal, you may run into problems since it’s not always available. But India does have some of the most flavorful vegetarian food in the world. Despite its reputation, we didn’t find the food extremely spicy (full of spices, yes, but not all that hot), but I’m sure some will disagree. You do need to go to more local restaurants if you want good food though. Without fail, food served in hotels and more touristy towns ranged from bad to awful.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”IndianFood.jpg” title=”Kochi meal” caption=”Mmm, we miss Indian food” position=”center”]

    Noise

    Yes, I’m giving noise it’s own heading. Trust me when I say it is well deserved. India is an extremely noisy place. I’ve mentioned this before, but there is an epidemic of horn use there. The video below is of a relatively uncrowded street in Jaipur. The traffic flow is interesting to say the least, but make sure you watch with the sound on. The constant sound of horns blaring is commonplace, as practically every road in India is like this. At first it’s humorous how people honk at everything and at nothing at all. Eventually it does get to you. On more than one occasion I found myself yelling at the drivers who felt it necessary to honk continuously and without cause as they passed.

    It’s not just the traffic noise though, Indians themselves are generally just very noisy people. There doesn’t seem to be a concept of an indoor voice. People shout even if you’re standing two feet away. There’s no concept of entering a train quietly at three in the morning.

    One of the last places we visited in India was a hotel that was known for its quiet gardens. We visited hoping to get away from noise for a few days. The owner told us that Indians often complain when they stay there because it’s too quiet. I suppose if you lived your whole life with constant noise, dead silence might be unsettling.

    Our Best Memory

    One of our favorite memories from India is the morning we woke up early and saw the ghats in Varanasi. That experience really can change your views on how interconnected we all are, as well as what constitutes beauty.

    Would We Return? (aka, What Did We Miss?)

    We would certainly return to India after some recovery time. This time we’d focus our travels on far southern India and the northern area near Pakistan and the Himalayas (if safe). We’d also take some cooking classes to gain a better understanding of regional Indian cuisine.

    Should You Go?

    This is not an easy question to answer. India is huge and is quite different from one region to another. The urban areas are usually dirty (on the verge of disgusting), loud (on the verge of mind-splitting), and overwhelming (on the verge…or rather…completely tear-inducing). But it has such beauty and charm it’s very hard to write it off completely. India is not a place for all travelers, but if you are strong enough, traveling there can be a very rewarding experience.

    A Weekend in Darjeeling: Day Two

    Depending on how late you stayed out at Joey’s last night, you may need some caffeine today. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. We can’t write about Darjeeling without recommending breakfast and tea at Glenary’s. It’s a backpacker staple and perhaps the best place in town for fast Wi-Fi and a fantastic spot to gaze out of large, bright windows onto the Himalayan views. If you’re lucky you’ll see Kangchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world and a technical beast for climbers, many of whom die while trying to reach its summit. All of this can be pondered over pots of Darjeeling and Assam tea, assorted pastries (try the chocolate “heavy cake” for a treat), and western-style breakfasts. Glenary’s also has a good, but somewhat pricey, restaurant on the second floor.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Glenarys.jpg” title=”Glenarys” caption=”The most popular place in town” position=”center”]

    As you probably know, Darjeeling is all about tea. The Happy Valley Tea Estate is only a short walk from town, and a visit there will have you well on your way to understanding what all the hubbub is about. When you get there, make sure to head directly to the factory to ask for a free tour. There’s a teahouse on the grounds that isn’t associated with the estate, and a “tour guide” (she’s actually the night guard’s wife) may offer to take you around and tell you the factory is closed. They know about this but don’t stop her from offering unofficial tours. We started by walking through the tea fields after she showed us which way to go. The fields consist of big, hilly groves of tea bushes, and spring is a good time to watch the pickers at work.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”HappyValley.jpg” title=”Happy Valley” caption=”Happy Valley” position=”center”]

    After scrambling through the steep hills of the tea field, head into Happy Valley, which operates one of the highest tea factories in the world. They’ve used organic farming techniques since 2007, although the factory has been around since 1854, making it the oldest in Darjeeling. This is a good place to acquire a basic understanding of how tea is made, and to learn key terms like “first flush” (spring harvest) and “second flush” (summer harvest).

    [ptcPhoto filename=”TeaGlasses.jpg” title=”A tea rainbow” caption=”A tea rainbow” position=”center”]

    Happy Valley manufactures traditional black tea in addition to green and white varieties. Their principal buyer is Harrods and they don’t package their products for sale in Darjeeling or anywhere in India. But there is a shop on site if you’d like to pick up a small package to take home.

    Time for my favorite meal in Darjeeling! For lunch, go down to Hasty Tasty for tomato soup and a south Indian thali. The entire meal will cost you around $3, and it’s enough for two. The play on tangy and spicy south Indian flavors is delightful.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”SIndianThali.jpg” title=”Hasty Tasty thali” caption=”The photo may not do it justice, but trust me on this one” position=”center”]

    After lunch, the tea odyssey continues at Nathmulls in the square. They offer a staggering collection of tea and you can choose which varieties to sample in their Sunset Lounge.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Nathmulls.jpg” title=”Nathmulls” caption=”Nathmulls in the square, and the ubiquitous Darjeeling dogs” position=”center”]

    Nathmulls has been in business selling Darjeeling tea since 1931, and Mr. Sarda will walk you through the whole shebang, showcasing his vast knowledge of Darjeeling teas, and great patience for any questions you may have.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”TeaGuy.jpg” title=”Tea Guy” caption=”The world’s foremost expert on Darjeeling tea” position=”center”]

    It costs Rs.300 ($6) to try five types of black tea – we chose two first flushes, two second flushes, and an autumn selection.

    Coming from Denver our palates are fine-tuned for beer tasting, so the nuances of fine teas may be lost on us. But even if it’s not quite as awesome as beer, tea tasting is still a fun activity. Two hours and five pots of tea later, you’re sure to be wired.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”HyperEric.jpg” title=”Hyper Eric” caption=”This pretty much sums up our experience” position=”center”]

    Chiave d’cosmos near Sonam’s is a snug but pleasant dinner place with good barbeque roasted chicken, potatoes and strong chai. A few games of Connect Four will keep you entertained while you wait for your meal to be prepared. If you’d like a nightcap, visit the wine shop in Chowrastra for MRP-priced drinks, which are always nice to find.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”WineShop.jpg” title=”Wine shop” caption=”Wine shop in the square” position=”center”]

    Thus concludes your visit to Darjeeling, and our time in India. Next up, Nepal!

    A Weekend in Darjeeling: Day One

    [ptcPhoto filename=”DarjeelingMap.png” title=”Darjeeling” caption=”Darjeeling, India” position=”right”]

    After the searing heat in Varanasi, we sought refuge in the Queen of the Hills, tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas. We hid out there for almost two weeks of resting, exploring the town, and waiting for a clear day so we could get our first glimpse of the Himalayas. We never did catch a break on that one, but we had a chance to enjoy a lot of the other things Darjeeling has to offer. The highlights can be explored in a weekend, so we’ve put this handy guide together in case you visit West Bengal anytime soon.

    First, a little about Darjeeling. The town was founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a British colonial post that consisted of a sanatorium and a military depot. Before long they began planting the tea for which the region has become so famous. Today Darjeeling is a popular vacation spot for domestic and foreign tourists alike, the former keeping the food quality high and the prices low. In this city of industry, horns still blare on the roads unless you’re staying up near Chowrastra (also called the Mall), the square at the top of town. As with the rest of India, electricity can be spotty. Sometimes it’s down for most of the day, so make sure to charge your electronics at night.

    There are large populations of Tibetan refugees and Nepali porters here, so the faces change along with the landscape. Tibetan handicrafts are abundant, and porters schlep huge items up the hill with almost superhuman strength.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”DarjPorter.jpg” title=”Superman” caption=”We actually saw one guy carry a refrigerator up this way.” position=”center”]

    We tried four different hotels in this town but couldn’t find the winning combination of heat, hot water, Internet, and electricity without spending upwards of $100 a night. You know us, we weren’t going to do that. We did find a decent place called Omni Lodge that had Wi-Fi and a great view, although we spent some cold nights there.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”DarjeelingView.jpg” title=”The view from our hotel room” caption=”Way in the distance, you’re supposed to be able to see Everest on clear days” position=”center”]

    Before Day One begins, try to book a seat on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway , aka the “Toy Train”. Built in the late nineteenth century, the train operates on a two-foot narrow gauge track and is headed by a historic steam locomotive. Landslides took out much of the original track in recent years, so at the moment it’s not possible to journey all the way up from New Jalpaiguri. The sections that do remain open from Darjeeling are still popular with tourists, and seats need to be booked in advance if you want to experience this bit of history. Somehow I’ve been to Darjeeling twice now and I failed at riding the Toy Train both times.

    On to Day One. If you’ve been kept up all night by the cold (central heating is nonexistent in Darjeeling), head straight to Sonam’s Café , where they offer “real” coffee and the best hashbrowns in Asia. The restaurant is vegetarian, so if you’re of the meaty persuasion instead go down the hill to Keventers across from the first taxi stand. Here you can order a gigantic plate of delightful porkiness – easily enough for two. The also have really good coffee, although it’s a sweet Nescafe instead of the terrific engine oil black they have up at Sonam’s.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Keventers.jpg” title=”Breakfast at Keventers” caption=”Now’s a good time to refresh your CPR skills” position=”center”]

    If you feel like doing any shopping, make a quick trip down to Hayden Hall for some locally made hats, gloves and carpets. As a non-profit relief and development association, they employ local women to make the products and the profits directly benefit them. Peek in the back room to see women weaving on traditional looms. For other responsible shopping opportunities, visit the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center – I understand that if you purchase a rug from them, they’ll ship it home for you.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”HaydenHall.jpg” title=”Hayden Hall” caption=”It’s easy to justify shopping when it benefits local women” position=”center”]

    Now that you’re warm and full, walk past the square to Observatory Hill , which is topped off by a temple, thousands of Tibetan prayer flags, and many wily monkeys.

    It’s a quiet, happy place, and if you walk down the long way (past the temple), there are good views of the valley and tea fields on the way down.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”ObservatoryTemple.jpg” title=”Observatory Temple” caption=”Incense burning at the temple atop Observatory Hill” position=”center”]

    For lunch, stop by the food stalls that line a small street off the square (when coming down the hill, they’ll be to your left). They seem a bit shady at first, but we never came down with anything after eating there. The second stall in was our favorite. It’s owned and operated by a sweet couple that offer up extremely inexpensive chicken buns, eggrolls, and spicy chowmein. Wash it all down with tiny 10-cent cups of chai from the chai guy , who hangs out near the overlook in the square.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”FoodStall.jpg” title=”Food Stall” caption=”They were smiling the rest of the time” position=”center”]

    After lunch, walk around twenty minutes to the Himalayan Zoo and Mountaineering Institute . I’m normally not a huge fan of zoos. But this one only has animals that are from the region, several of which are threatened species, and it seems to be managed well. The big cats don’t look too happy in their cages, and I can’t blame them.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”BigCat.jpg” title=”Leopard” caption=”This guy can take down a deer, no problem” position=”center”]

    But you’ll also see wolves, endangered red pandas, and a Himalayan black bear that paces back and forth all day. I couldn’t tell if he was posing for photos or just going stir crazy.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”DarjWolves.jpg” title=”Wolves” caption=”They have the oldest lineage of any wolf on earth” position=”center”]
    [ptcPhoto filename=”DarjPanda.jpg” title=”Red Panda” caption=”The red panda: so cuddly, but not a pet!” position=”center”]
    [ptcPhoto filename=”DarjBear.jpg” title=”Asiatic Black Bear” caption=”Endangered because their bile is used in Chinese medicine” position=”center”]

    It’s definitely worth the Rs.100 ($2) to go and support a good cause.

    Within the zoo grounds you’ll also find the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which was founded by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Norgay first scaled Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953 on an expedition that set out from Darjeeling. The institute houses all of the gear from the original Everest ascent, along with equipment used on some successive attempts over the next sixty years. It’s really interesting to see the progression from what were essentially leather slippers and fur, on to high-tech fabrics and down, sleeping bag jumpsuits and moonboots. The whole display definitely helped us appreciate all that Norgay and Hillary did with so little, and it fired us up for some (very easy) trekking of our own. Norgay spent his last days in Darjeeling, and was laid to rest on the hill outside the institute.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Norgay.jpg” title=”Another Superman” caption=”They call him the ‘Tiger of the Snows'” position=”center”]

    Now that you’re feeling inspired, go down to Kunga Tibetan Restaurant for momos (fried or steamed dumplings) and a hearty serving of chicken noodle soup. The serving sizes are really large, so bring your appetite.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Momos.jpg” title=”Momos from Kunga” caption=”Lunch at Kunga” position=”center”]

    Finish up your first night by venturing further down the hill to Joey’s Pub . Adjacent to the mall, Joey’s is an English-style tavern with all the usual beer choices (lager or…lager) but a decidedly different ambiance. It’s a nice place to cozy up and talk away an evening, and the bartender is friendly as can be. He has an empty Guinness can that is prized like a trophy, but alas, no Guinness.

    Up next: Tasty food, and tasting tea!

    Floating Along the River Ghats of Varanasi

    The sun rose over Varanasi as we boarded a small fishing boat and took to the river, cameras in hand. My excitement to see the Ganges River was palpable, and it contrasted the calmness with which thousands were assembling at the bathing ghats before starting another day.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”GangesYoga.jpg” title=”Yoga” caption=”Morning yoga” position=”center”]

    As a long-time student of religion I had been reading about the Ganges for years, and I finally had the chance to see it for myself. Feeling uncharacteristically reverent, we sent out an offering of candles in tiny bowls made of areca leaves.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”GangesOffering.jpg” title=”Offering” caption=”An offering for Mother Ganga” position=”center”]

    The river is worshipped as the Goddess Ganga, and her waters are considered the embodiment of all sacred waters in Hindu mythology. The Ganges is considered both pure and purifying – it is the ultimate force to reclaim order from disorder, and to wash away the physical and symbolic impurities of those who bathe in the river.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”GangesOldMan640.jpg” title=”Bath time” caption=”Bath time” position=”center”]

    The Taj may be the first image that comes to mind with India, but these – the ghats of the Ganges – are the sight to see. We’d never seen anything like them, and I think in some ways they serve as a microcosm for the complicated, beautiful religion of Hinduism, and of India itself.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”GangesBoats.jpg” title=”Boats” caption=”Boats on the Ganges” position=”center”]

    Our guide and rower started us moving northward up the river, pointing out the various bathing ghats, Rajput palaces and temples along the way. The number of people who ventured into the early morning water was staggering, and the banks were cloaked in the colors of thousands of saris.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”GangesColor.jpg” title=”Colors” caption=”A colorful sight” position=”center”]

    The mundane activities of bathing and doing laundry were set alongside joyous children flipping into the water and the sacred prayers of sadhus, but no one seemed to mind the juxtapositions.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”GangesPrayer.jpg” title=”Praying in the water” caption=”Praying in the water” position=”center”]

    [ptcPhoto filename=”GangesWash.jpg” title=”Washing clothes on the banks” caption=”Washing clothes on the banks” position=”center”]

    It wasn’t long until we drifted alongside the burning ghats where cremations are performed before the ashes (and sometimes partial bodies) are spread into the water. Instead of the cheerful hues and vigor of the bathing ghats, the burning ghats are brushed a dark gray, and the surrounding buildings are dreary with soot. Piles of wood are stacked high in the air, and mounds of smoldering ash dot the embankments that lead down to the water.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”GangesWood.jpg” title=”Piles of wood” caption=”Piles of wood for cremations” position=”center”]

    I asked our guide, “Do they see any problem with bathing right next to the burning ghats?” Meaning, “Do they see how unsanitary it is to swim next to half-burned bodies?” The confused look on his face was answer enough. No, they don’t see anything wrong with it. The river is pure, remember?

    [ptcPhoto filename=”GangesMenBathing.jpg” title=”Communal bathtub” caption=”A communal bathtub” position=”center”]

    The people who have been sent down the Mother Ganga aren’t rotting remains; their souls have been liberated from the cycle of rebirth, and the bodies are just leftover vehicles that will eventually be absorbed back into the earth. Not only is it not disgusting, but the journey into death is occasion for merriment – they no longer have to deal with earthly worries, and they now dwell “honored in heaven”.

    As non-Hindus (and germophobic Americans), we found the proximity of the bathing ghats pretty revolting. Not only because of the bodies, but also because of the vast quantities of trash, fecal matter and other pollutants that find their way into the river.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”GangesBottle.jpg” title=”Reflections” caption=”Reflections” position=”center”]

    What’s unsettling is that some people’s corpses float along here because their families couldn’t afford the hundreds of pounds of wood it takes to fully burn them. So many are put into the river after their fires go out, even though the whole process was insufficient. Others, such as pregnant women and children, are considered unsullied and therefore don’t need to be cremated. In this case, they’re just weighed down with rocks and lowered into the water. Disturbingly, it’s not uncommon for the ropes to break, and for them to float up to the surface and say hello.

    There have been some efforts to remove contaminants in the river near Varanasi. Several sources point to a potential solution for the bodies, anyway: Apparently the local government has bred a special type of snapping turtle that feasts on decomposing human flesh, but steers clear of the live people who bathe in the river. (If the whole topic isn’t too graphic for you, read Environmental Graffiti’s fascinating and informative photo essay, here.)

    [ptcPhoto filename=”GangesFires.jpg” title=”Cremations at a burning ghat” caption=”Cremations at a burning ghat” position=”center”]

    If you’re curious, it is possible to walk down to any of the ghats in Varanasi and take a closer look. We were both satisfied with seeing them from a distance, and we didn’t want to come across anything that would keep us up at night. Besides, this is a holy place, and we’re always conscious of gawking at something that people hold as sacrosanct.

    Although the whole experience is rather perplexing, witnessing the ghats at Varanasi is actually quite serene, and I think the effect is what some would describe as spiritual. It would be hard to come away from it without sensing the heavy significance that thousands of years of tradition have imparted on the banks of the Ganges.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”GangesMeditate640.jpg” title=”Meditation” caption=”Deep in meditation” position=”center”]

    If you find yourself in India, be sure to put Varanasi at the top of your list. It may be the most intriguing place we’ve seen so far.

    Back to Rajasthan: Udaipur and Pushkar

    [ptcPhoto filename=”UdaipurPushkarMap.png” title=”Udaipur and Pushkar in Rajasthan” caption=”Udaipur and Pushkar in Rajasthan” position=”right”]

    After our quick visit to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, we headed back to the Indian state of Rajasthan to see what else it had to offer apart from Jaipur.

    Udaipur

    Udaipur, also known as the Venice of the East, is home to some of the most beautiful lakes of the region. A relatively relaxing northern Indian town, Udaipur is filled with shops selling tourist goods and cafes playing the James Bond film Octopussy (which was partially filmed here).

    The rooftop of our aptly named hotel, Hotel Panorama, afforded us excellent views of the city. Click here for a large panorama view.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”UdaipurCityPalace.jpg” title=”Udaipur City Palace” caption=”View of City Palace from Hotel Panorama” position=”center”]

    The main tourist attraction in Udaipur is City Palace, a sprawling complex of courtyards, terraces, murals and gardens. While beautiful and vast, we thought it paled in comparison to the Mysore Palace far to the south.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”UdaipurPalaceCarvings.jpg” title=”Carvings at Udaipur City Palace” caption=”Intricate carvings in the palace” position=”center”]

    Pushkar

    Pushkar, a small town surrounded by mountains and famed for its central lake, is considered by Hindus to be one of the most holy cities in India. The legend is that the lake in Pushkar was created from a lotus flower which was dropped by the Hindu creator god Brahma.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”PushkarView.jpg” title=”Pushkar” caption=”Pushkar” position=”center”]

    Being a holy city, Pushkar is devoid of alcohol and animal products. Strangely however, most restaurants feature “special” lassis and chocolate balls that contain sizeable quantities of marijuana.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”ChocolateBall.jpg” title=”Chocolate Ball” caption=”Chocolate Ball” position=”center”]

    [ptcPhoto filename=”PushkarMoto.jpg” title=”Our Transportation” caption=”Transportation for four?” position=”right”]

    One of our primary reasons to visit Rajasthan was to go on a camel safari. We chose what we thought was a reputable company for our evening trek into the desert. But when we were picked up at our hotel by a single motorcycle to take us to the camel facility and told to all get on (with no helmets), better sense told us they might not have our best interests in mind. Since there was no way three of our American bodies could fit on a two-seater motorcycle (in addition to the driver), we requested they take us in two separate trips.

    Camels are amazing creatures. Awkward, cantankerous, and often disobedient, they still have a certain regal character. At over 8 feet tall, riding them is definitely different from riding a horse.

    Our camel safari was exciting, although perhaps more so for our friend Caroline, who received quite a bit of unwanted attention from one of the Indian guides.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”CarolineCamelGuy.jpg” title=”Camel Guide” caption=”An Indian Casanova” position=”center”]

    She was a good sport about it, but I don’t think they exchanged numbers.