Saturday, March 14, 2015

Jaisalmer: A Desert Mirage

From the moment I set my two-week travel itinerary with India Someday, I was most excited to visit the desert in Jaisalmer.  I’d heard other adventurers mention a camping trip to the Thar Desert, and I couldn’t wait to experience it for myself. 

When I arrived in Jaisalmer (after a freezing cold 14-hour overnight bus from Jaipur), I went straight to Mystic Jaisalmer Hotel and repacked my bag for a journey to the desert. 

Coldest night of my life!

Jaisalmer from the roof of Mystic Jaisalmer

I was lucky enough to be joined by a lovely family from New Zealand on the desert safari.  They were just like my family growing up -- Mom, Dad, two sisters, one brother -- except they all got along so well!  I couldn’t have asked for a more delightful group of people to spend the next 24 hours with.

Our first stop on the drive out into the Thar Desert was a small Hindu Gypsy village.  A local family invited us into their home and showed us around the village.  

Hindu Gypsy Village
Thar Desert

The daughters brought out their henna ink and started painting the hands of the Kiwi sisters.  When they finished, one of the Hindu girls turned to offer me some henna, but then stopped, grabbed my hand, and said it looked like my skin was already covered in henna. 

*Le sigh*

I rarely go more than three days in Asia without educating someone about freckles.

The next leg of the journey was not in the van, but on camels!  The Kiwis and I climbed up on the humps of our trusty steeds and held on for dear life.  Just so you know, camels do NOT make for a smooth ride!  

Mattais, my ride through the desert

Bumpy ride

My camel, Mattais, was not very fond of me.  He kept making a sound I can only describe as the dirty belch of an old drunk man.  

As we bumped and humped through the desert, we caught sight of herds of goats, cows, and sheep, as well as the tiniest little deer I’ve ever seen.  The landscape was breathtaking, with rising and falling sand dunes spotted with craggy trees and brush.  I’d never been to a proper desert before, and I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough to take it all in.

Thar Desert
Rajasthan, India

Thar Desert
Rajasthan, India

Thar Desert
Rajasthan, India

Thar Desert
Rajasthan, India

Thar Desert
Rajasthan, India

We arrived at camp just in time to climb atop a sand dune and watch the sunset in the distance.  Life is good!

Thar Desert
Rajasthan, India

Thar Desert
Rajasthan, India

Thar Desert
Rajasthan, India

Come on!!!  What more could you want?

As the darkness rolled in, our guides started the fire and cooked us dinner.  We bundled up under blankets and sang songs around the campfire.  I could have done with a few beers, but I guess you can’t have it all!

It was so incredibly dark in the desert.  The stars were out in all their glory, and we slept on mats right out in the open, no tents.  The air was dry and cold, and I didn’t want to close my eyes for fear of missing out on one more second of the beautiful desert sky.  So magical.

In the morning, we woke up with the sun and climbed back up the dune, faced the opposite direction, and watched the sunrise.  The tin cup of masala chai was the perfect pairing to the wonderful view.

Sunrise over the dunes
Thar Desert
Rajasthan, India

Our campsite

After breakfast, we loaded up the camels and headed back towards civilization.  

Packing up

Sittin.... waitin...

Camel Convoy


Back in Jaisalmer, I said goodbye to my Kiwi family and set off to explore the Jaisalmer Fort.  Jaisalmer is known as the Golden City because of the straw-colored sandstone fort rising out of the desert.  It’s an impressive sight!

Jaisalmer Fort

Inside the fort, I felt like I had stepped back in time to a Medieval castle village.  The fort was buzzing with commerce and daily life.  The other forts I had visited in India were empty, more like museums.  But Jaisalmer is a living fort, and it made for such a fantastic afternoon of wandering around honeycomb streets and alleys, visiting havelis, sipping chai on the rooftops, and watching life go by from the steps of Jain temples.

Entering Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer Fort

Haveli view
Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer Fort

The Golden City sprawling below Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer is quite a distance out of the way from the rest of the usual Rajasthan tourist stops, but I’m so happy I made the journey.  It was one of my favorite cities and a place I’ll never forget!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Fear and Fog at the Taj Mahal

I woke up before dawn to see the sunrise at the Taj Mahal.  The guidebooks all said this was the most divine time to see the Taj, with the bonus of fewer crowds vying for a glimpse and a selfie.  Never one to miss out on the best, I set my alarm and bundled up for the chilly Agra air.

I scuttled down the foggy, bleak streets towards the famed memorial, keeping one eye out for massive potholes and the other trained on the gangs of teenage boys loitering about.  Oh god. Youths! 

As I walked hurriedly past the many touts and rickshaw drivers, one man shouted to me, “Miss! Buy tickets for the Taj Mahal here!”

Ha ha! You can’t fool me, old man!  I will NOT be tricked into buying your over-priced, fake entrance ticket!  

I kept walking, head down, refusing eye contact, lest I be forced into conversation that would surely (if my brief history in India was any indication) result in my buying loads of souvenirs to carry around the rest of the day.

Feeling savvy after my slick maneuver away from that scheming man and his ticket booth scam, I arrived at the East Gate entrance to the Taj Mahal.

And guess what?

I was refused entry because I hadn’t bought my ticket back at the office.  You know, the one where that kind man tried to help me and save me from walking 1km up to the gate without a ticket?  Arrrrg, my streetwise, seasoned-traveler arrogance backfired!  Must try to trust people sometimes....

Well I certainly couldn’t show my face back at that ticket office after so rudely ignoring the ticket man, throwing a cocky sideways glance as I rushed past.  My pride was the only thing keeping me warm.

So I checked my trusty Google Map and found that the South Gate was “just around the corner” and definitely walkable.  The fog was still thick enough to cut with a knife, so each corner was hidden pretty well, preventing me from seeing what was around any of them.

As I wandered aimlessly down the narrow, winding alleys of Taj Ganj Colony, I quickly realized that there were no signs leading the way to the entrance.  I mean, the Taj Mahal is the ONLY thing to see in the area, and the locals could clearly see that I was a foreigner who did not know where I was going.  But no one offered to help. Not that I would have taken their help (remember that ticket salesman...).  

The fog was hanging so low and thick, and the allies were so dark and narrow, I was beginning to think that THIS was how I was going to die.  Surely at any moment that group of shifty youths would come around the corner, having followed me the whole way, and jump me.  This was what everyone warned me about: “Samantha, be careful! Don’t go anywhere alone! You’ll be robbed!”  I kept wandering, awaiting the inevitable. 

I couldn’t take it anymore.  My heart was pounding.  I kept glancing behind me.  I had one eye on the probable mugger sitting on his stoop and one eye on the would-be murderer drinking hot chai on the corner.  I had to get out of there!

I followed my bread crumbs back out of the Taj Ganj, relinquishing myself to the shame of walking back up the road to that first ticket booth.  At least I’d be alive.

But suddenly my luck changed!  Walking toward me were three Italian med students, heading for the Taj Mahal!  I joined forces with them, and we boldly made our way deeper into the allies, determined to find that elusive South Gate.

Looks like my little dip in The Ganges really paid off.

Finally, I was inside the grounds of the most beautiful building in the world.  Despite the time wasted on my misadventures trying to find the entrance, the sun had not yet risen over the Taj.  Touted as one of the essential views of this Wonder of the World, I was expecting a glorious and breathtaking spectacle.  However...the fog.

Creepy fog!

The fog was STILL beyond murky and I couldn’t see a damn thing more than 10 feet in front of me.  I stood on the spot where the most well-known photos of the Taj are taken, and this is what I got:

Still beautiful, but no Taj!

It was just past 8am, so I figured I’d tool around inside the Taj Mahal, take in some architecture, maybe a little history, and then the fog would have lifted and I’d get my iconic view.

Four hours later, I was still waiting for the fog to lift.  I was shivering, rattled through to my bones, and the security guard inside the main building was starting to get suspicious of me, having circled around at least a dozen times to avoid going back outside to the cold and damp fog.  

At least I had plenty of time to read my notes on Agra provided by the fabulous staff at India Someday and inspect the beautiful and intricate marble and semi-precious stone inlay work.

Semi-translucent white marble inlaid with
semi-precious stones

Marble inlay work

Marble inlay

Hand-carved marble work

Around the time I started to get very nervous that I would miss my bus to Jaipur just waiting to get a look at the Taj Mahal, the sun finally came out and started to chase away the low-hanging cloud.  Within about 20 minutes, the incredible Taj Mahal came into focus.  I will never forget the moments I spent sitting alone on a bench under a tree in India on a chilly morning, watching the Taj Mahal materialize behind a cloud of fog.  So majestic, so magical.

Starting to peak through

Finally, a glimpse!

There she is!
A true wonder!

Requisite Taj Mahal selfie

Still some haze in the air, but a much clearer view than 4 hours earlier!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Christmas on the Ganges

I arrived in Varanasi on Christmas Day, my second stop on a two-week adventure organized just for me by India Someday.  After spending a bit of time in New Delhi, I was ready to see the REAL India.  New Delhi just felt like a big city in Asia.

Well, if India was what I was looking for, India is what I got.  From the moment my taxi left the airport parking lot, I was on sensory overload.  You know when you picture India in your mind, or you see a B-roll clip in a movie?  That’s just what Varanasi was like for me.

In the taxi ride from the airport to my hostel, I saw a dog chasing a pig, cows sleeping in the intersections of ridiculously busy roads, goats in coats (yes!), and a little girl shitting on the roadside.  I was in love.

Varanasi traffic
Look at the napping cow!

As soon as I walked in the gate at Stops Hostel, I was recruited to join the evening Ghats Tour.  I dropped my bags and grabbed my camera, and we set off on a walking tour of Varanasi that lead us down to the Ganges River.

Our tour guide helped us into a boat, and we pushed off into the ‘The Ganga.’  The guide was full of information, and I was soon leaning forward away from any possible splash from the river, as I learned about all the dead bodies floating around in there.  Unlike the East River in New York, where bodies are dumped in hopes of never being found again, the Ganges is a sacred river that is believed to secure salvation for cremated ashes released into its waters.  

The Ganges at dusk

Hindus also believe that a dip in the Ganga will purify them from sin.  That’s why you see men swimming in the river, even though right upstream they are tossing in dead bodies.

We saw a cremation ritual happening along the banks and watched a Puja prayer ceremony at sundown.  I learned that certain dead bodies, such as pregnant women, young children, and people with leprosy, are not cremated.  These bodies are tied to a rock and sunk down to the bottom to reach salvation.  Floating along in our boat, with all those bodies below, I was very careful when I placed my ceremonial candle down into the water to float away in offering.  Unfortunately my depth perception at night has deteriorated and my fingers plunged beneath the surface of the Ganges straight up to the first knuckle.  I may have leprosy, but now I’m holy.

The beautiful ghats of Varanasi

The next morning, I took a stroll through the back alleys of Varanasi, taking in the colors, the people, the smells, the sounds, the cows.

Morning in Varanasi


Varanasi Life

Back down by the banks of the Ganges, there are more than 5km of ghats to walk along.  Ghats are the big sets of stairs leading down to the river from the town on top of the banks.  I spent a couple hours enjoying the holy river and all the life happening on the ghats.

Kedar Ghat

Boats on the Ganges

Ghat games

Ghats of Varanasi

Life on the Ganges
Notice the men bathing in the river (the guy
in pink is about to do a backflip into the water)

Laundry day on the Ganges
The clothes are washed and rinsed in the river.

Ghat life

I loved watching these brothers flying their kite in the wind. 
Fresh one

At the far end of town, there is one special ghat that does very holy cremations.  Only men are allowed to watch the cremations because women used to throw themselves on the fires in grief.  Tourists are allowed to do some gawking, at a respectable distance.  I had a look, and it was an experience I will never forget.  I saw actual dead people being burned in a fire right in front of me.  They use a mix of sandalwood and other fragrant woods, so the smell is not like you would expect.  It’s the visual that really did me in.  As I stood looking at a group of men tending to one fire, I noticed one man using a stick to poke at the fire.  After a few jabs, I realized he was shoving the dead man’s foot back into the blaze.  Then the glass was shattered, and all I could see was limbs and blackened heads sticking out of the fires, being licked by the flames.  I moved on quickly.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering deeper into the alleys and back streets, buying souvenirs, and eating some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had.


These alleys wound all around in a dizzying maze.

Pomegranate banana lassi from Blue Lassi

Kite shop
I bought a few!

Feast! (paid about 2 dollars!)

And to top it off, I took a rickshaw back to the hostel.  The poor guy had to keep getting off this bicycle to get a running start in all the crazy traffic.

I thought rush hour in Saigon was bad....

Varanasi was amazing and made for the most bizarre but wonderful Christmas I’ve had in a while!  (And I’ve spent Christmas lounging outside in hot springs and eating vegan food on a mountain...)