Angkor What? The Ancient Temples of Siem Riep

Thirty-six hours of bus travel later, John and Cat said goodbye to Thailand and hello to Cambodia where our first stop was Siem Riep, home of the famous Angkor Wat. We were excited to see the famous temple of Angkor Wat, but what we didn’t realize is that the Angkor complex consists of over twenty temples each unique and built for a specific purpose. We spent two days seeing as much as we could and dodging countless selfie sticks in the process.

From viewing the sunset among the haunting stone faces at Bayon Temple, to starting the day with the sunrise over the incredible Angkor Wat to climbing around the Ta Prohm (often called the Tomb Raider Temple as it has been overtaken by the jungle growth that surrounds it), the temples, while crowded with tourists, were incredible beautiful. One of our favorite temples was Banteay Srei which is actually 30 kilometers away from Angkor Wat. This temple is renowed for its beautiful carvings that are said to be so meticulously carved that they could only have been done by the delicate hands of a lady. Unfortunately, the heavy crowds of tourists – many of which were wielding more than one camera – made it sometimes difficult to appreciate the serenity of these thousand year old places of worship.

Siem Riep is also home to Pub Street, a small outpost of traveller decadence in an otherwise pretty buttoned up tourist scene. Cat and John danced their faces off at the landmark Angkor What? over a plastic pail of frozen punch and the sweaty dancefloor and neon painted walls made for a wild night after a day spent temple gazing. Short of playing Freedom ’98 on repeat, the scene on the dancefloor was as close as these two had been to a Chi Gam dance party since our last Dartmouth Homecoming weekend.

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One More Island: Koh Samui

After our time in Koh Tao was up, we didn’t want to say goodbye to our new friends, so we headed to another island in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Samui, where we shared a bungalow near Fisherman’s Wharf. The lazy days on the beach were much appreciated after the early morning wake up calls on diving days. The highlight of our time on Samui was an afternoon hike to a waterfall where we were lounged and swan in beautiful pool below. After a few days of R&R on Samui, it was time to say a bittersweet goodbye to our new friends and head on to our next country and new adventures.

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Scuba, Sand and New Friends: Our Trip to Koh Tao

After eight months on the road, it was finally time to spend some time on the beach and what better place to do that then the Thai islands! And, conveniently for us, Koh Tao is also one of the cheapest places to scuba dive in the world and Cat was eager to learn to dive and catch up with John who was already an certified diver.

Four days after arriving, Cat was a certified diver and ready to take on the “big blue” with John. While learning to dive, Cat met a lovely German couple, Catharina and Sebastian, who quickly became our fast friends and diving buddies. After Cat was certified, John wanted to join in on the diving adventures and so we decided to do our advanced open water course together to keep the fun going in Koh Tao. Our days started out with diving in the morning, a lazy lunch in the afternoon, an hour of yoga as the sun set and then – no surprise here – a great dinner and a few beers at our favorite Thai restaurant Ying Yang. The diving was beautiful and we saw some incredible marine life under the water. After finishing four days of diving, the foursome decided to hit up the best beaches Koh Tao had to offer and every morning piled into the back of a pickup truck to check another beach off our list.

Also, hats off to our incredible dive instructor Jo and the whole team at Ocean Sound Diving & Yoga. We had a blast in Koh Tao – from great dives every day, to relaxing yoga each night, to a night of pizza and beers to cap off a great stay on the island.

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Hello Bangkok

With Cat back in Asia, it was time to kick off the Southeast Asia chapter of our trip. First stop: Bangkok, Thailand.

After three months of Indian curries, we were ready to take on a new culinary adventure. Between seeing the famous sites in Bangkok, we ensured that our few days spent in the capital of Thailand were filled with delicious noodles, the occasional mystery meat, and lots of mango sticky rice. We were huge fans of the famous Thip Samai Pad Thai – the original and perhaps best in all of Thailand. Krua Apsorn had the most incredible green mussels with chillies and basil and Auntie Tim at Chote Chitr could be counted on to make you something delicious every time we stopped in after a day of seeing the sights (or a night out on Khao San Road).

Our favorite site in Bangkok was the famous Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, a gold Buddha measuring 46 metres long and is covered in gold leaf. It was truly breathtaking and in a city known for incredible sites this one was our hands down favorite – not only for its impressive scale, but also the serene grounds that surrounded the temple.

Another treat found in Asia are the many massage shops offering foot and body massages for only a few American dollars. We found that there was no better way to recharge after a day of seeing temples or walking through the world’s largest outdoor market than to take advantage of a cheap foot rub.

All in all, we enjoyed the glittering sites of Bangkok and the many flavors afforded by the street vendors set up on every corner of the city and were excited to see what the rest of Asia had in store.

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Our Last Stop in India: The Beaches of Varkala

The last stop on our two-month India tour was the city of Varkala. Varkala is another beach town but what makes this beach special is that it is positioned right next to cliffs, which makes for some spectacular views and some great waves. We had a wonderful last few days here, eating seafood caught fresh that afternoon and relaxing on the beach.

One highlight of our stay was that the owner of our guesthouse, Debra, takes her guests on an early morning, 7-kilometer walk along the cliffs a few times each week. We walked with her one morning and were able to watch the sun come up over the palm trees, see the fisherman getting their boats ready for the day, and walk along the beautiful coastline that makes Varkala so different from the rest of the Indian beaches.

We can’t believe that our ten weeks in India has finally come to an end. After arriving in Delhi, neither of us knew what to think, but now we can confidently say that we both loved India. The people, the food, the sights, the smells, are all so special to this country and we are already planning our next trip back!

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The Beauty of Kerala’s Backwaters: Our Stay Aboard a Houseboat

We were most excited to visit Kerala because of the opportunity to take a houseboat along the backwaters found in this region. This network of backwaters extends half the length of the Kerala state and plays an important part of the region’s culture and history. However, what makes the houseboat tours so special is that along the backwaters there are many little towns and villages and being on a boat allows you an inside peak into the many activities happening on the banks of the backwaters. And lucky for us, Shirley and John (aka The Shirl and JoJo) gave us a three-day, two night stay aboard one of Kerala’s most luxurious houseboats as a Christmas present. It was an incredible way to splurge for a few days after months of budget travel.

We arrived on the first day and were greeted by our private boat’s attentive and friendly staff of three – who invited us aboard with the fresh coconut water (a coconut with the top chopped off and a straw stuck inside). We spent the afternoon relaxing, reading, and watching the incredible scenery go by and were cooked a delicious lunch of Keralan specialties served on a banana leaf. That afternoon we saw everything from a boat-turned-school-bus transporting twenty school girls home, children bathing in the river, and fisherman hard at work setting their nets for the night.

The next day – after an incredible breakfast – we were able to take a tour of a local village where we even got to see an Indian wedding take place inside the village church. After our visit to the village, the crew asked us if we wanted to go swimming in a swimming pool nearby however, after seeing so many people having a blast swimming in the backwaters we decided we wanted to give it a go which was the best decision of the day! We also had the opportunity to take a canoe trip through the smaller canals of the backwaters, which was a fun opportunity to see the backwaters up close. After our activity-filled day, we were fed the most delicious meal of fresh fish curry and fresh water prawns and went to bed very full but very happy!

After breakfast, we headed back to the port where our trip concluded. Although it was only a few days, we were so relaxed we felt like we had been on the boat for a week. It was such a wonderful trip and one of the best Christmas presents. Thanks again Mom & Dad!

 

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Cooking in Kerala

On our day off from hiking and golfing, we took a Keralan cooking lesson with Nimi, who conducts traditional Keralan classes in the back of her home. Not only did we learn how to cook delicious Keralan meals but we also got to hear Nimi’s story and how she followed her dreams and love of cooking – even in a culture that is not always supportive of married women holding a job. We left with very full stomachs and a new appreciation of Keralan cooking.

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Golfing in Munnar

On our first hike into the tea fields, we passed a sign saying “High Ridge Club.” Cat couldn’t believe that a golf course could be found out in the hills of India but our guide for the day confirmed that it was indeed a golf course and that it was built during the British reign as many of the Brits living in India would come to the hills in order to escape the burning heat of summer. Well, the next day, we decided we could not miss the opportunity to golf in India even though John had never played a full round of golf before.

We showed up at the golf course dressed in the best golfing attire we could find and not really knowing what to expect. As soon as we walked in, we were quickly ushered into a clubhouse that felt as if you were stepping back into time – it hadn’t been updated since it was built in the early 1900’s. Luckily, they had one set of clubs for us to rent (who needs two sets of clubs anyways) and some brand new golf balls. After a few warm-up swings we were off. Well, lets just say the technique left a lot to be desired – not to mention a lot of golf balls hit out of bounds – but as one of only three pairs golfing that day, we had an incredible time and enjoyed the opportunity to spend the day golfing surrounded by mountains and tea fields. True to its British legacy, our round ended with tea and finger sandwiches overlooking the 18th green.

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Hiking in Munnar

After visiting Kochi, we headed to Munnar, an inland city known for its lush hills and many tea plantations. While in Munnar we spent two days hiking through the hundreds of acres of tea fields. Our first hike took us up to 2200 meters where we ate breakfast and looked down on the rolling hills of tea that seemed to stretch on forever. Munnar is home to 27 tea plantations. Every season, hundreds of workers, mainly women, come to Munnar to harvest the tea and live on the plantations where they are provided housing, schooling for their children, and medical care to supplement their modest wages. It was amazing to see how the tea we drink every day starts with a single leaf that is cut by hand and we enjoyed seeing the process from start to finish.

On the way back to our guesthouse, we also hiked through a spice plantation where we were able to sample the many different spices – from Nutmeg and Cardamom to the fruit grown outside a coffee bean – found in India which proved useful knowledge the next day at our Keralan cooking class.

On the second hike, we climbed up to 2400 meters, the highest point in the area where the views were even more breathtaking than the day before.

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Sun & Sand in Goa

On Boxing Day we left for Goa, the Indian region known for its long stretch of sandy coastline. We spent two weeks there living beachside and enjoying the surf. We began in North Goa where we lived in a bamboo hut steps from the beach and were surrounded by an international crowd of hippies and fellow travelers. The late night revelry, lively music and laid-back atmosphere was a welcome respite after weeks of busily seeing the sights of India. After getting our fill of hippie life, we headed South to check out the Portugese influenced city of Panjim and Old Goa, the historic center a few kilometers to the east of Panjim. Compared to the rest of India, Goa has a large Christian population and we were able to visit some beautiful churches and cathedrals, including the largest cathedral in Asia. We headed further south to get some more beach time in at the beautiful and serene beaches of Southern Goa. The quiet and calm location was a great place to unwind in the sun with a book and a cold drink. And believe it or not, after two weeks, even Cat began to get a little tan.

 

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Christmas in Mumbai

After five weeks exploring the North of India, it was time to head south.  We arrived in Mumbai, excited to spend the Christmas holiday in India’s most populous city and were happy to spend some time in a cosmopolitan city that reminded us a lot of home in New York.

We took a tour of the city where in a short three hours we were able to see some of the highlights of Mumbai. One of our favorite spots was Dobi Ghat – the largest outdoor laundry in the world. There are over 800 washing stalls and every day, each man there washes over 40 pounds of laundry. Once clean, the clothes get hung in every corner of the laundry area and then returned to their owner the next day. Believe it or not, only a few items of clothing are lost each day as the workers are required to pay for each item lost. On our tour, we also visited the Jain temple, Chowpatty beach, and a local fish market giving us a real flavor of the goings-on in Mumbai. But Mumbai is a city better experienced by walking around, taking in the nightlife, and absorbing the energy of this bustling place and most of our best experiences were had off the tourist path and at local cafes, restaurants and markets.

During our visit, we also had time to visit Elephanta Island – an island nine kilometers from Mumbai and home to temples carved in stone that were thought to have been created between AD 450 and 750. It was amazing to walk through these caves and to try and imagine how they were built thousands of years ago.

A highlight of our time in Mumbai was the chance to experience Christmas India-style. We decked out our hotel room with Santa Claus signs, garland, and even the world’s smallest Christmas tree. We celebrated Christmas Eve with festive high tea at the Taj Hotel (thanks Mama Jane!) where we feasted on local Indian dishes as well as the traditional English scones and finger sandwiches. Later that evening, we headed to Christmas mass at a local church. Given the incredible crowds expected, mass was moved from the church to the schoolyard behind the church – where a stage / altar was erected and rows of chairs for hundreds were assembled. The service was officiated by the Cardinal of Mumbai and the festivities included a choir and orchestra, which made for an incredible experience. It was a beautiful mass and a Christmas we will remember for a long time.

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Navigating the Varanasi Ghats

Following the Ganges River as it moves East, we headed to Varanasi which is considered to be one of the oldest and holiest cities in India. Every day, pilgrims come to the Varanasi ghats from all over the world to wash away their sins or to cremate loved ones in the sacred fires that continuously burn along the ghats. It is a unique place as these cremations (300-400 occur daily) happen right before your eyes in a crowd of people, smoke, colors, and smells.

We spent most of our time in Varanasi walking along the steps and market stalls that line the western bank of the Ganges. Here, we saw everything from bathers getting ready for the day and laundry being washed against a rock to the evening worship ceremonies, funeral processions and open cremations.  One evening, we attended Aarti, a large ceremony performed to worship the Mother Ganga where we sat among hundreds of Indian families coming from all over the country and around the world to watch the elaborate ceremony unfold.

A trip to Varanasi would not be complete without taking an early morning boat ride down the river where we were able to see the ghats come alive with activity as the sun rose overhead.  Another highlight of the trip to this one-of-a-kind city was our visit to the Vishwanath Temple, more commonly known as the Golden Temple because of the 800kg of gold plating that covers the temple’s large dome. To get inside, you must navigate a maze of winding streets filled with security guards and then leave all your belongings in a locker outside. Although non-Hindus are generally not allowed inside, we were able to demonstrate our appreciation for the religion and were let inside to watch the lines of faithful worshippers visit the shrine. Aside from John getting into a minor scuffle with a monkey trying to steal the flowers we brought to lay down at the temple (the monkey won), the visit was wonderful and we felt very lucky to experience it.

On our final day in Varanasi, we headed to Sarnath, a town 10 kilometers away. This city is where Buddha came to preach his message after obtaining enlightenment and the ruins there are thousands of years old. We wrapped up our Varanasi trip with a visit to Blue Lassi, home to a third generation, family-run shop offering the best lassis in India. They did not disappoint and it was great hearing about the family that runs the business from the kind and welcoming grandson of the business’ founder.

Although we didn’t know what to expect when we arrived in Varanasi, it ended up being one of our favorite cities in India and a visit we will never forget.

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Life in an Ashram

Back in New York, we had enjoyed our routine of Friday night yoga at a studio in the East Village as a way to unwind after a long week of work and we thought we would be remiss to come to India and not experience yoga the way it is practiced here. We knew that it would be different, but were not sure of what exactly to expect. So to learn more, we boarded a train to Rishikesh, a city in northern India and known as the yoga capital of the world.

We had decided to spend two weeks living and studying at an ashram to really become immersed in the yogic lifestyle and pace of life. Our home for the two weeks was Parmarth Niketan ashram, a beautiful place located on the banks of the holy Ganges River, where we were two among a group of thirty students. Each day we rose around 5:30 am to get dressed – in all white,of course – and get ready for our first class, where we practiced pranayama cleansing practices, followed by stretching and then more formal, Hatha yoga practice. After class we ate a vegetarian breakfast in silence and then before we knew it we were back in the yoga hall learning Vedic mantras.  Afterwards,we had the opportunity to have our yoga questions answered by our teacher. After a short break, we had lunch and then spent a few hours relaxing or wandering Rishikesh. At 3 pm we had another yoga class followed by meditation and then headed to Aarti, the nightly fire ceremony on the Ganges. Sitting among a crowd of the faithful, we chanted songs of devotion and committed our sins and worries to the cleansing fire burning on the bank of the river. After the closing songs of the ceremony, we would follow the spiritual leader of the ashram, Pujya Swamiji, to a small courtyard in the ashram for satsang, where we could pose questions on any topic and hear his wisdom.

We had a wonderful two weeks at the ashram and came away from the program with not only greater flexibility and a wide knowledge of yoga poses, but also a deep understanding of yoga as a union of body, mind, and soul and a path to self-realization.

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Riding Camels into the Sunset

One thing that was high on our India bucket list was spending a few nights in the desert and riding camels. The capital of Indian camel safaris is the city of Jaisalmer, located in Western Rajasthan in the Thar Desert.

We arranged a local guide and planned to spend three days living in the desert and sleeping under the stars. Bringing only the essentials, we were ready to set out on our adventure. Our twenty-two year old guide, Haro, had grown up in a desert village and knew the sand dunes and network of remote villages the way we know the streets near our childhood homes. On the morning we were set to depart, we loaded a few days worth of food and water onto our camels and climbed aboard. Surprisingly, once you get up and going, camels are easy to ride and we enjoyed slowly meandering through the desert.

Our first night, we travelled deep into the desert – around 50 km from Pakistan, or as close as foreign nationals are allowed to get before risking an international incident – and spent the night sleeping on a large sand dune. Haro cooked us a delicious dinner of local foods over the campfire and we spent hours looking at the stars in the crystal clear night sky overhead. We had been impressed by the quality of the stars in New Hampshire and Montana but were not prepared for the incredible sights the desert offered – from shooting stars to comets.

The next morning we rose at dawn, gently roused from slumber by the sun coming up over the dunes. We had some chai and breakfast before packing up our camp and setting out on our camels again. We ventured to a local village in the desert where we were welcomed into the home of one of the kind local families we met. We spent some time in their Spartan, yet welcoming one-room home and chatted over tea with the help of the eldest son who was able to serve as a translator between the rest of the family and us. After our time in the village and a stop to feed the camels, we got back to our desert trail. After a few more hours atop the camels, we stopped under a big tree for another delicious homemade lunch and then rode a bit more before reaching our campsite for that night. We watched the sunset over the dunes and then sat down to one of our most memorable, if most unusual Thanksgiving dinners yet. We explained the tradition of Thanksgiving to Haro and although our meal of daal (lentils) and aloo gobi (cauliflower and potatoes) was very far from the traditional turkey dinner we were used to, we enjoyed being able to sit under the stars and appreciate everything we have to be thankful for in the quietness of the desert. While we missed our families and friends celebrating back home, this was certainly a thanksgiving to remember.

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The Spice Girls of India: Cooking School in Jodhpur

After reading about a famous spice shop in Jodhpur, we knew we wanted to swing by and maybe buy a few spices to ship home. After bypassing the many imitator shops, we finally found the right one, MV Spices. We were warmly greeted by Neelam, who offered us a delicious cup of masala chai tea and sat us down to show us the wide selection of spices and teas on offer. We knew that we couldn’t leave without the ingredients to make Indian masala chai tea – our favorite drink in India consisting of black tea, milk, and an array of delicious spices (trust us, the Starbucks version has nothing on the real thing).

Neelam was a wonderful host and, over tea, she began to tell us about the history of her shop.  Her father opened the shop twenty-five years ago to sell spices and spice blends in Jodhpur’s main market. We learned that what Westerner’s would likely call curry or masala are actually blends of many different spices. The shop aimed to educate tourists and offer them a chance to take home the tastes of India along with recipes and ways to take the Indian cuisine home with them. When the family patriarch suddenly passed away ten years ago, the business passed to his wife and seven daughters. Because they were women, they faced intense resistance from the male owners of other market stalls and even from male family members. To make matters worse, past employees took the family recipes and opened competing shops just steps from the original. Refusing to bow to such pressure and steadfast in their resolve to honor their husband and father’s legacy, the women persevered. After years of hard work and strength of character, the eight women kept their shop and opened several new locations. Still a family business, the mother and sisters share in the responsibilities of the running the network of shops across the city.

Lucky for us, they have even extended their offering to include cooking classes. They put together a special class for Cat and I on short notice and we were taught how to make aloo ghobi, vegetable biryani and fresh chapattis. It was a fun and delicious way to learn about another side of Indian culture. We also bought (too) many local spices and are excited to be able to bring a little bit of India home with us.

You can learn more about the story of the Spice Girls of India here:

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/Celebrating-womanhood-through-spices/articleshow/31626987.cms

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Go Fort Yourself: The Top Forts of India

We know that by now, our most loyal readers are probably bored of seeing the Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture found in the European churches we have been posting about. With churches harder to come by in this part of the world, we would like to introduce the Forts of India.

In order of our highly subjective, personal preferences, the forts we have seen are:

Fort #1: The Golden Fort in Jaisalmer. This is the only “living fort” on the list with 3,000 inhabitants living within the fort’s 99 bastions. Due to a late train arrival, we only had a few hours to visit the giant sandcastle-like structure that was once a major stop on the ancient camel trade routes. We visited the palatial museum, which housed many historical items including rugs, beds and clothing and showcased the well-preserved paintings on the walls. After our visit, we wandered the streets, bargaining with the many street vendors selling everything a tourist could want before catching the sunset from the top of the fort.

Fort #2: Agra Fort in Agra. Located in the same city as the Taj Majal, the Agra Fort is generally overlooked. Luckily, time is on our side and we had the pleasure of visiting both. Here, we enjoyed beautiful marble work and stunning views of the Taj Majal, but our favorite part was getting a backstage tour of the Palace of Mirrors. Currently, this section is closed to tourists but luckily our guide knew someone who knew someone who had the keys and for 400 rupees (about $6.40), we were let inside. These rooms were used as the royal baths and the tile walls and ceiling were filled with inlaid mirrors. This feature reflected the image of the emperor’s many wives, other “guests”, and of course, the king himself. It also created an incredible glow when candle-lit. Luckilly, the guy with the keys also had candles and put on quite a show as we walked around in awe of the place. It was easy to appreciate the grandeur and luxury of the place when it was in use several hundred years ago.

Fort #3: Mehrangarh in Jodhpur.  This fort is built into the rocky hillside 120 meters above the city and is still run by the Jodhpur royal family. In addition to the beautiful stone-work, the fort is packed with history and artifacts adding to the allure of the many rooms and columns found here.

Fort #4: The Amber Fort in Jaipur. A few kilometers outside of Jaipur, lies the Amber Fort – a majestic fort built to commemorate a major military victory. Our first stop with our guide – who had been giving tours for fifty-four years – was the Hindu temple where we made a wish, rang a bell, and were blessed with red bindis placed on our forehead. He then took us around the rest of the fort, showing us some of the many secrets and mysteries found here. One feature of note was the series of hallways that allowed one of the emperor’s wives (or one of over two hundred concubines housed in the complex) to pass through the palace to the royal bedroom without alerting the other wives to the visit.

Fort #5: The Red Fort in Delhi. This large, sandstone fort sits above Old Delhi. While the remaining buildings are only a shadow of their one-time grandeur, they provide a sense of the former glory of imperial India and it’s grounds provide a brief respite from the chaos that sits just outside the Lahore Gate in Old Delhi’s crowded streets.

Golden Fort, Jaisalmer.

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Agra Fort, Agra. 

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Mehrangarh Fort,  Jodhpur.

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Amber Fort, Jaipur.

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The Red Fort, Delhi. 

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Agra & The Taj Mahal

After a week spent in Delhi, we awoke at the crack of dawn to head south to Agra, home of the incredible Taj Mahal.

The spectacle was simply breathtaking.  Walking through the gates and seeing the building rise off of the ground as if floating in the sky, one quickly understands why people travel across the world to see it up close.  Built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 as a monument to his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth, this palace dedicated to love is perfect in its symmetry, mathematical precision, and symbolism.  The sites creator is said to have described it as being so beautiful as to make, “the sun and moon shed tears from their eyes.”  It did not disappoint.

That evening at our homestay, we met a lovely woman from England who invited us to come with her and her guide the next day to Fatehpur Sikri – a fortified ancient city about 40km from Agra.

Our favorite part of this trip was visiting the mosque and taking part in one of the most famous traditions there.  As the city’s founding story goes, the childless Emperor Akbar came from Agra to consult the Sufi saint who resided there and during his visit, the saint predicted a male heir to the Mughal throne.  When the prophecy proved true, the overjoyed emperor moved his capital city from Agra to the saint’s burial place and built a grand palace there.  According to legend, visitors can tie a string to the marble screen in the shrine built for the monk in three knots and with each knot make a wish.  If the wishes come true, the person is supposed to return to the site before they die to pay their respects and offer their gratitude for having their wish granted. If you see us back there someday, you will know why!

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Salaam Balaak Trust: Providing Hope to the Street Children of Delhi

One of our most memorable experiences in Delhi was a day we spent with the Salaam Balaak Trust. The organization works to rescue children living on the street, offer them a safe place to live and, when possible, reunite them with their families. It is an incredible place and the work they do is inspiring. We took a tour they offer to see where the street children live, provide some context to their plight and offer a chance to visit one of their shelter homes to meet and play with the kids.

Our tour guides were former street children themselves, and their stories were nothing short of incredible. Leaving homes where abuse was a part of daily life in hope of finding a better life in the big city, these young boys (now young men) were abandoned to a life of want, hunger, and further abuse. They eventually found their way into a Salaam Balaak Trust rescue home and were provided with hot meals, a place to sleep and informal education as they got their lives back on track. Many are bound for college or careers and full lives not possible without the intervention of this great organization.

The highlight of our day was the time we spent with the young kids living there. The house we visited is home to about fifty boys ranging in age from six to twelve. The facility is modest but sufficient, and the boys were excited to have visitors. In particular, they were excited to have their pictures taken, dance, sing and be silly – as boys that age tend to do. After feeling sorry for ourselves for having to deal with the stressfulness of travel, this provided a welcome wake-up call to how blessed we both are.

If you want to learn more about the work the trust does, their website is: http://www.salaambaalaktrust.com/.

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Getting our Sea Legs in India

India posed some of the first real challenges we faced as travelers. Delhi is a city notorious for its scams, aggressive touts, and unsympathetic, tourist pricing. While walking down the streets of the city, we would be approached constantly by seemingly helpful and friendly locals, eager to offer directions or advice. These men were, in our experience, always trying to lead us to a shop, restaurant or travel agent where they earned a commission on goods that were often over priced and of poor quality.  After dealing with this for days, it wore on us. Embarrassingly, we took the bait more than once but luckily we came to our senses before we lost any money or became too dispirited.  We learned to be suspicious of people who approached us on the street, but did not let it make us too cynical – we still met plenty of friendly locals and interesting fellow travelers.

Another feature of India we came to learn about is the necessity of bargaining – for everything! For a ride that should cost 30 or 40 rupees, the driver would start the bidding at 250 rupees. We learned what was a fair price for things from trusted locals, we honed our bargaining skills and often walked away only to be followed down the street by the same driver who moments earlier asked for 250 rupees now happy to take 20 rupees (the so-called “Indian” price vs. the tourist price we were quoted). It was a fun feature when bargaining for a scarf at a bazaar, or chai tea on the street but less fun when you were in an unfamiliar part of town and needed to get back to your hotel in a tuk-tuk.

All in all, Delhi is a crazy, chaotic and incredible place. We learned a lot, got our sea legs, and are better travelers for having had the experience.

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Welcome to India: Our Week in Delhi

When we arrived in India, we had been on the road for about three and a half months, making us seasoned travelers, or so we thought. We arrived at the Delhi Airport, and with only a small queue for customs and relatively quiet terminal we thought the cautions about the chaos of India was surely overblown. “We lived in New York, now that’s a busy city. The warnings must not apply to us,” we thought. But our arrival in India provided a healthy dose of humility as little can prepare you for the sensory assault that is day one in Delhi. We quickly learned that there was an adventure in store for us.

The traffic, smog and noise were like nothing we had seen before. Throngs of people everywhere we looked. Cows and goats roamed about freely. Cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuks (three-wheeled autorickshaws, that serve as taxis) and bikes crowded the streets, weaving in and out of traffic with complete abandon for rights of way or even lanes. The blaring horns were the only constant. One of our favorite taxi drivers told us in order to drive in India you need three things: a good horn, good brakes and good luck! Hot, crowded, loud, and teeming with life – this was the India we had come to see.

We spent our first few days touring the sights of Old Delhi: the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid (India’s largest mosque, with room for 30,000 faithful for Friday prayers), and toured the many Bazaars. The sights were beautiful and the energy of the city palpable. From the smells – both good and bad – to the tastes to the loud hum of car horns, shouting, and work being done that surrounded you, India was all that it promised and more. A fun feature of visiting these sights, is that domestic tourists, unaccustomed to seeing Western tourists in their home cities and villages, were eager to snap a picture of themselves with their new American “friends.” Catherine was quite popular – from families giggling as the youngest children excitedly posed for a picture with her to full-on family photos in which Cat was handed a baby to pose with for shots to show family members back at home. It was good fun and the pictures were typically hilarious, and in some cases, quite adorable.

We visited the many other parks, monuments and sights around Delhi and feasted on the food at the city’s many restaurants and dhabas (street-side food stalls). John’s favorite experience was a visit to the Dargah – a shrine to a Muslim Sufi saint in Hazrat Nizamuddin, this place of pilgrimage is where many locals come each night after evening prayers to pay a visit, and hear the Sufis playing music and singing prayers on the marble courtyard. We were the only westerners present in a sea of locals here to pray. Donning head covers and leaving our shoes outside, we walked barefoot into the crowd and found a place to sit among the faithful. After days in the chaos of Delhi, this place felt peaceful and safe and we were glad to be a part of it.

 

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