Varkala - Alleppey - Delhi - Agra - Jodphur - Jaipur
19.03.2013 - 24.03.2013
It is much more difficult to find a good internet cafe here than in SE Asia! But here I am. Need to catch up so I don't forget everything we've done!
After our interesting beach experience in Varkala, we grabbed a (crazy/fast) taxi ride to Alleppey which is a few hours north of Varkala. This is where the backwater houseboat excursion will commence (thanks to mom again for treating us!). Apparently in Alleppey, there is a huge network of backwater 'roads' which have been used for years and years for transit. It's so neat - think regular neighborhoods but the roads are rivers. The four of us land and go to pick out our boat - we chose a 2 bedroom with AC and a really great crew (including Bernie, our captain). Derek went into town with the man who owned the boat on his motorcycle to buy necessities (a few celebratory drinks) and they were pulled over by the police because the driver wasn't wearing a helmet (the law here is the driver has to but anyone else on the bike doesn't... makes no sense). Anyway, apparently that's no problem because the driver sweet talked his way out of any fine and off they were. We cast off for the next 24 hours, floating down these river roadways, into larger lake areas, all with rice fields, palm trees and houses surrounding us. The people watching was incredible - you just realize that life can be very different for people in these parts of the world. Washing clothes, dishes and bathing is all done in the river right on their front steps, running water and plumbing (and electricity) is a luxury and it's very obvious we (of the Western world) take it all for granted. We take so much for granted actually. Those things we could 'never do' such as bathing in water which is obviously unclean and used by hundreds of others is just the way life goes - we are spoiled... so spoiled.
Bernie docked our boat about an hour in and the crew made lunch for us - local grilled fish, curry, Keralan rice, chapati and Thoran. Off we went again and spent our time lazing around our sitting area which was open to the air, reading, having tea - it was so relaxing! The crew made us banana fritters mid afternoon (delicious) and then we docked a few hours later to have dinner (similar to lunch) following by some 'celebration beverages' and card games while a lightening storm entertained us across the sky. After a good sleep, we were up for breakfast and then it was time to dock. From Alleppey we hired a taxi to take us to the Kochin airport for our flight to Delhi to start our travels in the north. The airport was great - had some biryani (like a rice mixed curry dish) and did some reading before our flight took off.
They have newspapers in English in most if not all states so we've had the opportunity to read up on what's going on - the sad thing is, the regular news articles revolve around domestic violence and rape against women. There are at least 2-3 articles on women/young girls attacked and raped regularly... it's so sad and just leaves a pit of anguish in your stomach. We've talked about why some men feel they can treat women this way, we sort of came to the conclusion that it's the culture surrounding sexuality. Movies portray women as 'helpless', 'shy' and luring men in coy ways, on tv there are words bleeped out that we would never think as sexual such as 'underwear'. Maybe it's because of the taboo nature of sex and also the media's portrayal of women in movies and on tv? Just a few thoughts... if I did some research I'm sure I'd find a lot more. That being said, not all Indian men are like the men we read about - in fact the majority are just great men who are standing up for the rights of women in this country. It's unfortunate that the whole country is painted with the same brush. The system needs to change though - apparently it takes 15-20 years for a rape case to go through the court system, there is something like 15 judges to 1 million people which means India has the lowest ratio of judges to population in the world. That just does not work. Hopefully change is coming. There are a lot of advocacy groups and politicians trying to change how things work here. A great book I read that I would recommended to anyone who is interested in India is called 'What Young Indians Want' by Chetan Bhegat. Fantastic overview of the issues present in India and possible solutions.
I'm getting off track again... not surprising.
Ok so we flew to Delhi, had a horrible cab ride to our hostel nearby (the driver tried to rip us off), then the hostel owner was quite strange/creepy so we steered clear. The area we were staying was really grimy and a little terrifying. As soon as we stepped out into Delhi air, we inhaled the most concentrated breath of sewage, pollution, garbage - you name it. We haven't coughed so much as we have here. A lot of people walk around with scarves covering their faces. I guess that's what you get when you live in a city of 14 million... ew. We didn't do much that night except book our taxi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal the next day at 2:30am. Yes, 2:30am. We got about 4 hours of sleep and made our way to see one of the most significant temples in the world. It was so worth the 4 hour drive, the Taj is AMAZING and beautiful. We got there just in time for sunrise and spent about 2 hours exploring the grounds before heading to a rooftop restaurant for Indian breakfast (Derek and Neil) and homemade walnut bread with jam and tea (Tracy and me) before we headed back to Delhi. We almost wished we had stayed in Agra as we read in the Lonely Planet that it was 2 hours to Agra. Definitely not. It was really cool though - camels everywhere used to pull carts which is something you don't see every day! Finally we headed back to Delhi and our poor taxi driver was exhausted, we got in around 2:30pm to our hostel and headed downtown to give the city another chance to impress. It wasn't too bad... well not until we hit up Pizza Hut. So needed. Eating curry, rice and bread everyday for 2 meals/day is great but you definitely get texture fatigue. Also, you miss being able to eat the things you make at home. We were craving some Western food for sure. After our fix, we walked around Connaught Circle dodging traffic and people selling things on the street and went to a cafe before heading to the hostel.
The next morning we headed to the airport to fly to Jodhpur but not before Tracy got a wake up call from creepy hostel guy at 2:30am asking if we were going to Agra. No, we weren't. We left around 11am and had lunch at the airport (which is probably one of the nicest airports I've seen) and took off for the blue city! We landed and hired 2 tuk tuks (Tracy's first experience) to get to our hostel (cars can't fit down the narrow and windy streets) and made it to Hem Guesthouse which was so nice! It's a historic building that faces the huge fort on top of the hill and had a rooftop restaurant where we had 'welcome tea' and took in the sights of the gorgeous city. We heard that Jodhpur is now called the 'white city' because there aren't as many blue buildings anymore but it interchanges. From our hostel we walked through the local market nearby and realized quickly that Jodhpur might be the most congested city we've been to, it has about 1 million people but it seems everyone concentrates around the markets and clock tower. You had to dodge out of the way of motorbikes and tuk tuks trying to get down the tiny streets, can't believe one of us wasn't hit. I'm sure the locals get annoyed with foreigners because we just don't know how to handle this type of traffic... I would be annoyed too. Hah. The market by the clock tower (different from the local market) had so many spices, fruit, vegetables, etc. but if you stopped even for a moment you were surrounded by mothers with babies begging for money to fill the baby bottles they were holding, small children begging, physically disabled people begging... it's so difficult to keep walking but we know we have to. I hate this part of it but it's also a very big reality - in any country. We made it out of the market in one piece and headed back to our hostel for dinner - an amazing feast prepared by Hem herself, the owner of the guesthouse which was run by her sons. She was the sweetest woman and such a great cook. We had different types of local curries until we were so full we couldn't eat anymore. Something I'm obsessed with over here is mint tea and lemongrass tea - so easy, just boil water and add to mint leaves or chopped up lemongrass. People here tend to use more 'whole foods' to make their teas although loose tea and tea bags are also really common. Chai tea is probably the most popular throughout all of India - basically tea with milk and sometimes spices. It's delicious. It's sold everywhere including on trains, markets, food stalls, etc.
The next day we took the morning to head to the massive Mehrangarh fort on top of the hill. We hired a tuk tuk to drive us there and the whole way the driver blared 'Barbie Girl' and any Michael Jackson song. It was pretty funny and also extremely loud which caused us to attract even more attention from the locals... not like we need the help. The driver was so nice, he just wanted us to feel 'comfortable' and probably thought 'American' music would do that for us. The fort itself was fantastic - there are still people that live inside along with businesses, cafes, restaurants, etc. The views were spectacular and we really got to see why Jodhpur was called the 'Blue City'. After a couple hours there we headed back to our hostel to get ready to head into the desert for our camel safari! We were driven to a local hotel to meet our driver and about 2 hours later were looking at the camels we would be riding for the next 4 hours. You never quite get used to getting on/off a camel - it's not what someone would call effortless or glamorous. I didn't realize there was a stirrup I could put my foot into and tried to jump onto the back of the camel with no success - my guide had a laugh at this which I don't blame him for. Our group was the 4 of us along with an Australian couple (Huw and Marlee) who we are actually currently travelling with! They are fantastic and we get along so well - more to come on that though!
We start our trek into the desert, it was quite different from our safari in Morocco whereas this safari went through the desert towns and we got to see how people lived so far out from the city with limited resources. There were lots of children in the beginning who were following us for a bit and then there was no one. Just silence. It was a great moment... to hear nothing but the wind whip along the sand dunes and the camel hooves pounding the ground. No one spoke for about 30-45 minutes, it was amazing. Then after about 3 hours, we got to this higher dune and watched the sunset - it was beautiful... then we were on our way towards our camp and Marlee and Huw take off another direction to a different site than us, so now it's the 4 of us again. We notice it's really getting dark out... the wind is picking up and a bit of a sandstorm starts around us. Thank goodness for those scarves! But then the lightening starts and our guides start to walk faster. Actually, here's a mental picture for you. I'm leading the pack with my guide and it's really dark, I can only see the outline of the trees. He starts walking faster which means my camel (Hero) starts to trot... well in my mind it was running. Then the guide starts running and my camel really starts running. It was really cool actually, like riding a horse! I yelled back to Derek to see if he could see me running and his camel started running as well. Pretty hilarious. Thank god it wasn't in daylight, I'm sure I'd look completely ridiculous as a foreigner on a running camel in the desert. We get to our 'camp' which we figured were basic accommodations but in fact was like a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Our 'tents' were really gorgeous hotel rooms with tent material for walls. It has a deck, electricity, the best bathroom I've seen yet! Because it was the end of high season, we were the only people in the entire camp so were lucky enough to be treated to a musical performance of local talent for about 1 hour, then we had dinner inside the main building and went to bed. The next morning we got up, had breakfast and our drive came to pick us up to take us back to Jodhpur. Overall great experience! The camel safari was high on Tracy and Neil's list while in India so we were pretty happy it actually happened! The rest of our time spent in Jodhpur was pretty relaxed as we were exhausted and also really sore from hours of being on a camel. We went for lunch at this great spot called Nirvana near the clock tower and then later that afternoon Tracy and I spent some time hanging in her room while Derek and Neil went to the market to pick up some spices. After dinner we were in bed early because we had to be at the train station for 6am for our 8 hour trek to Jaipur to celebrate Holi festival!
As with other posts, this is getting long... will be fully caught up tomorrow when I am up to speed starting with our time in Jaipur!