India

India

Agra

Agra-3

We spent 3 days in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and that was 3 too many. Besides the Taj Mahal, there really isn’t too much else to do. If we did it over we would’ve only spent a night, or even just done a daytrip from Delhi. Sadly, Agra felt like the most rundown city in India we visited. After reading other people’s blogs as well, it looks like lots of people have the same opinion. The hostel we stayed at was also the worst we’d seen in our entire trip so far. Paying less than $10 a night, you might think ‘well you shouldn’t expect it to be nice.’ That saying was also posted on the walls of the hostel, telling us not to expect luxury and to be happy with what it was. Well…we’ve stayed at a good number of hostels so far that have been around the same price point and none where we felt we might catch something until we got to Agra. The only plus side was that the owner was nice enough, and that we were within walking distance of the Taj Mahal.

We had read in in multiple blogs that the line to get into the Taj Mahal starts building at 6am and to get there as early as possible. We got there around 8ish and there was no line – probably since it was off season. There were more people inside but still not a ton. The Taj Mahal itself was pretty spectacular. We had been looking up the history of it and seeing it in person and knowing it was built in between 1631 and 1648 was pretty amazing to see. It was built by order of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife. The grounds were huge and the actual Taj Mahal was even bigger than we imagined up close. We walked around for a while seeing the tomb from different angles and being stopped and asked to take pictures with other Indian tourists. We left when we couldn’t stand the heat anymore but it was definitely worth seeing.

On our last night, we ventured out to find a restaurant that looked cute and had good reviews. They served burgers and sandwiches and we figured it would be nice to get something different from the usual Indian food we’d been constantly eating. After wandering down countless side roads (maps.me on our phone always seems to lead us down strange alleys) we got to the main road that the restaurant was on. Since sidewalks are basically nonexistent in India, we continued forward along the dirt beside the pavement. After a few minutes, the winds started picking up and blowing dust into our faces. We could barely see anything and really weren’t sure what to do from there. To make it worse, it was getting dark and we began to feel raindrops as well. Our map told us that the restaurant was somewhere close, so with nowhere to go but forward, we trekked onwards. After a few minutes of struggling forwards, we glanced across the road and saw the sign for the restaurant beckoning us over. We crossed the street, dodging cars, and ran into the restaurant. After ordering, it started storming heavily, and the power promptly went out. Thankfully, after it eventually came back on we were able to get dinner at least. We hung out there until the rain let up, and thankfully found a tuk tuk driver to take us back to the hostel.

Overall, India was an intense experience that was far different from anywhere we’ve been (aside from Nepal, which was good preparation for it). It was dirty, loud, and chaotic. There were scores of animals wandering around the streets (dogs, cats, goats, cows, monkeys) and defecating where they pleased, and usually eating out of trash bags lining the streets. There were loads of people out to make a buck off of foreigners who didn’t know the value of what they were paying for. It seemed like everyone was a salesman and had a brother, sister, father, mother, uncle with a store or hostel they’d like us to go to. And of course…the temperature. We were told India only has a few; hot, hotter, and hottest. Unfortunately, we really only experienced the “hotter” and “hottest”. With it regularly going up to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, we were almost forced to spend afternoons in our hostel room (usually with a fan; no A/C) trying to keep from overheating. This, coupled with the haze of pollution over each city, made spending long periods of time outside difficult. By the time we got to Agra, and then Delhi, we were exhausted and ready to leave. Realistically April/May wasn’t the best time to visit, but it fit with our timeline and places were less crowded since it was the off season.

All that being said, India was also a beautiful country with loads to see, amazing food, and kind people. All of the palaces and forts were saw were amazing, and worth dealing with the heat. The food was great as well, no matter where we went we had good meals. Chana masala, aloo ghobi, and sev puri are new favorites! People would come up to us here more than any other place just to say hello and chat for a bit. Schoolchildren would wave to us on the streets, or out of windows, or passing by on motorbikes. While some of them may have only been trying to sell us something, we met loads of friendly people on the streets that wanted nothing more than to have a small conversation or practice their English. Everyone at the guesthouses we stayed at were also instrumental in figuring out the railway and bus system, as well as giving us general insight on India. Looking back now after having moved on, we remember our time there fondly and are happy to have experienced it. While it’s not on the top of our list of places to go again, we are glad we went.

India

Jaipur

Jaipur-29

Jaipur is known as the pink city, and we could see why right away. Pretty much every building in the old town was the same orange/pink color. Our first day there we went to see the City Palace, and we were easily able to get a tuk tuk driver right outside our guest house to take us to the palace. He offered to take us to the other main attractions around the city but we just wanted to do the palace today and decided to do the tour tomorrow. The palace is a popular tourist attraction and we were excited to see it. The whole thing was so pretty and had lots of good spots for pictures. It was interesting seeing how palaces differed from city to city and seeing what made them unique. We walked around the palace for a while and then went to see the Hawa Mahal, or ‘Palace of the Winds’, which was right up the street. It was built in 1799 and was originally intended to allow royal ladies to be able to observe everyday life in the street below without being seen. Back then, they had to obey the strict rules of ‘purdah’ which forbade them from being seen in public without their face being covered. We walked through the whole building and the top had amazing views of the city; we could really see how pink everything was.

We met our tuk tuk driver early the next morning. We told our guest house owner that we had hired our driver for the day and he said he knows him and that he’s a good guy (makes sense since he was parked right outside our guest house) but it made us feel more comfortable. The main thing to see in Jaipur (even more popular than the City Palace) is the Amer Fort. When we were driving up to it we stopped on the side of the road to take a picture from afar. While stopped, a man carrying a basket approached us. He smiled and set it down and took the cover off revealing a snake! He started to play his flute (‘pungi’) and the snake rose up and started swaying. We watched for a quick minute but then hopped back into the tuk tuk and drove off. We arrived at the fort and looking up at it, it was huge! It was really cool to walk through and see where people hundreds of years ago would live and hang out. We walked around for a while and came across one guard who let us go behind a barrier and take a couple pictures in a closed off area. We weren’t sure if it was actually closed off or if he just wanted a tip – but either way it was fun to explore.

The last stop on the tour was the ‘shopping’ portion of the trip. We were taken to a textile factory run by a friend of our driver. We were a little hesitant since we didn’t plan to buy anything, but it was actually really interesting to see the work that goes on behind the scenes and was worth a stop. A lot of the patterns on the cloth are made by hand using a stamp that is pressed onto the cloth over and over again. The owner wanted to show us his shop after, and of course he was a little pushy for us to buy something (not bad though compared to other shops we went into). He made us chai tea to get us to sit down with him (which was a sales tactic we loved since the tea was always delicious). He showed us loads of tapestries, blankets, rugs, pillow cases, etc. and each was delicately placed on the floor in front of us. After laying down twenty pieces or so, he started asking us about individual ones and if we would buy any. Every time we said no, he would grab it and throw it across the room into a pile. We nearly spit our tea out the first time he did it; so much for the gentle presentation earlier! After saying no to everything, we walked around his showroom a bit longer and actually did end up buying a pillowcase. You could tell it was hand-made and it looked nice!

After our shopping trip, our driver brought us to an amazing lunch spot that we definitely wouldn’t have found, or even known that it was a restaurant. We were led up to the 2nd floor of a nondescript rundown building and given a menu of vegetarian options. We had some of our (now) favorite Indian dishes – chana masala and aloo ghobi. Overall, our tour was probably one of our favorite days in India.

India

Jodhpur

Jodhpur-33

The main attraction in Jodphur is Mehrangarh Fort, which is one of the largest forts in India. It was built in 1460 and stands tall 410 feet above the city. We tried to leave our hotel room as early as possible to avoid the strong afternoon heat and this also meant we beat most of the crowds for attractions. The fort itself was really cool. We could walk through a lot of the rooms and they had a lot of paintings and old tools/weapons on display. You could get a feel of what it life was like in the fort back then. The best parts were the rooms that still had the elaborate paintings all over the floors and ceilings.

After our time in Jodhpur we are starting to get the hang of India. After going into countless shops, we pieced together some of the tricks (that are obvious now looking back at it) that everyone from shopkeepers to rickshaw drivers use to get as much money as possible off you. Almost all Indians we met asked us some standard questions: Where are you from? How long in India? Where are you coming from/where are you going to after? Where are you staying? What is your job? These seemed like innocent questions and about half the time they were. The other half was people gauging how much money we had. At the beginning we would say we were from the USA and travelling India for a few weeks, then heading home to our jobs as a marketing specialist in insurance and factory supervisor. We didn’t always care to get into the fact that we were travelling long term. Some comments tipped us off that maybe we shouldn’t say these things though. “Oh, marketing insurance? Oh, big paying job, yes?” Whoops. From there we decided to say we were both working in restaurants, as a waitress and waiter. The reactions we got were much better, with shopkeepers going lower on price from the get-go without us even negotiating. We told them we aren’t staying in fancy hotels either (which is true), so that followed along that we were on a budget.

We saw a sign in our guesthouse offering camel safaris, and we knew we had to go for it. We were picked up at 2pm and off we went into the Thar desert. Our driver didn’t seem to speak any English, but he received a few phone calls during the drive from his boss, the guy running the safaris. He handed the phone to us and we spoke with the owner, who would then get back on the phone with the driver and translate whatever we said. He asked us if we’d like to stop at Mandora Gardens, which was along the way anyways. We said sure and were dropped off to walk around. The gardens were filled with Indian families and looked like a nice spot to have a picnic. The ruins were cool, but since we didn’t have anyone speaking English with us we really didn’t know too much about what we were looking at. The gardens were also filled with pretty big monkeys, leaping around and looking for anyone who had food. We walked by a couple pulling cucumbers out of a bag and handing them out to the monkeys. It was pretty funny seeing them walk up and grabbing one, then proceeding to chomp away at it. It was all fun and games until one monkey came out of nowhere running up to us and jumped onto Cory’s chest and leaped away. Thankfully that was all it did, but it was still a little scary.

We continued on to Osian, a desert town where we would begin our journey. We passed right through the town and kept going however, and soon enough we came across a camel on the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. We pulled over and our driver motioned that this was where we get out. We saw another man leading a second camel down to us as well, so we hopped out of the car and onto some camels. The camels were way taller than we expected, and when they stood up with us on their backs it was a little frightening! Once atop them, we took off across the desert and were led by our guide Omar to his family’s home. The ride itself was fun – the camels walked slowly, and we didn’t ride long enough to become uncomfortable. When we got there we were introduced to his brother, Raj, who owned and operated the camel safaris. We chilled for a bit in their house, had some Chai tea, then went off for another ride on the camels. After that we hopped into Raj’s jeep and took off toward a different set of sand dunes to watch the sunset. The sand was so soft to walk on and it was the best sunset we saw in all of India. Once we were back at the house we were served a traditional dinner. We weren’t exactly sure what it was, but it was actually really good. It was definitely a different lifestyle out here; we ate on the floor and everything was made from scratch right then. It seemed like more and more people from the house kept coming in the room to talk to us while we were eating. Eventually we headed back to our hotel but overall it was a really fun experience.

India

Udaipur

Udaipur-19

Deciding to pass on the 16 hr train ride from Mumbai, we flew to our next destination of Udaipur. As soon as we got the hotel we decided we liked this place. Udaipur is known as the “City of Lakes” due to the man-made lakes that surround the area. Our hotel was right next to Lake Pichola. Besides the lakes, Udaipur is also home to some historic forts and palaces. Udaipur was a nice change of pace from the craziness of Mumbai, and the city felt more manageable to navigate.

The main attraction here is the City Palace. Construction on this started in 1559 and over the following 400 years several additions were built by the several rulers of the Mewar dynasty. The whole palace was very impressive, and it was very cool to see the architecture. It was interesting to see how royalty lived so long ago.

India

Mumbai

Mumbai-3

We arrived into India after our most stressful flight of the trip so far. Our flight from Kathmandu to Delhi was delayed so that caused us to miss our connection to Mumbai. They were able to put us on the next plane which thankfully was leaving only 2 hours later. This meant however, that we didn’t get into Mumbai until 1am, and our hotel at 2am. The streets were still lively at this time but nothing like what we would experience our first full day there. We thought Kathmandu was crazy, but Mumbai is even more insane! Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) is the most populous city in India and the 4th most in the world, with roughly 22 million residents. To put this into perspective, all of New England has about 14 million residents.

We walked over to the Gateway of India on our first day. This arch monument was built during the 20th century and erected to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary in Bombay in 1911. While we were walking around the square where it’s located, we were approached almost a dozen times by Indian people wanting to take their picture with us. We had actually read that this might happen and we didn’t mind, whether it was with me, with Elly, or with both of us together. Note: this continued to happen through all of India!

We went on a street food tour through Reality Tours our first night there. It was a great tour and all the food we tried was really good! We started in Chowpatty, which is a popular beach, even though the water isn’t safe to swim in due to sewage being dumped into the sea. The first half of the tour was all vegetarian options, while the second half was all meat based. We started with pani puri, a fried crisp (puri) that is hollowed out and filled with flavored water, potato, chickpeas, and masala. It was pretty good! They are meant to be eaten in one bite, so all of the flavor bursts into your mouth. We could easily see how people can just keep eating these snacks. We then had dahi puri, a variation with different chutneys, yogurt and topped with sev (crunchy noodles made from chickpea flour paste). We both liked these better than the regular pani puri’s. The yogurt gave it a nice creamy flavor that took some of the edge off the spice. Next up was sev puri. Introduced to us as “Indian nachos,” this one was Cory’s favorite. It was made up of a puri topped off with diced potatoes, onions, tomatoes, various chutneys, chili, cilantro, raw mango, and sev. Neither of us really loved the next dish, which was pav bhaji. This is basically a thick mashed up vegetable curry served with a bread roll to mop it all up with. This is a popular Indian comfort food dish that children tend to love. After all these dishes, we had an intermission with some kulfi, which is like ice cream but much denser and creamier. This was Elly’s favorite.

Afterwards, we walked through the streets for a bit (narrowly avoiding cars) and then got a cab to our next destination: Mohammed Ali Road. Here we walked through the chaos of people and cars that surrounded us and made our way to some food stalls serving various chicken-based dishes. We can’t remember the actual names, but we had a type of chicken roll, flattened chicken sandwich, and shredded chicken burger. The burger was our favorite; pretty spicy though. We also had some cabbage and onions doused in lime juice and covered in salt which was much better than we thought it would be. To finish off, we went to Taj Ice Cream to try their special 131-year-old recipe. It was delicious! All in all, most of what we tried was really good and we ended up going back later in the week for more!

Another night we ventured across Mumbai to White Owl Brewery for dinner. I heard there were lots of great craft breweries in the city, so we figured we had to try one. We figured out the train system ($0.15 for a ride across the city) and joined the hundreds of locals crammed in the cars like sardines. We finally got to the brewery and were a little early for dinner, so we had the whole place to ourselves. We read some reviews that not all the breweries around have as good food as they do beer, but White Owl definitely delivered on both.

One day while walking down the street we had an interesting encounter. Casually coming down the sidewalk from the other direction was a huge bull (which isn’t out of the ordinary at all for India). Usually they just leave you alone, but we could tell he was sort of looking at us weird. Elly managed to quickly go around but then he trapped Cory and head butted him! Luckily Cory wasn’t hurt and managed to get away a second later, but it was a little scary in the moment. Once we were past the bull we were able to laugh about it with the Indian men behind us who had witnessed the whole thing.

The same group that did our street food tour, Reality Tours, also did loads of other tours around Mumbai, and one in particular caught our eye: Dharavi Slum tour. This is actually the same slum that’s featured in Slumdog Millionaire. We looked up reviews and they were all overwhelmingly positive about the ethicalness of the company and spoke of how the tour was an eye-opening experience. Dharavi is one of the largest slums in the world, with an area less than 1 square mile but having a population of over 1 million. The goal of Reality Tours is to educate people and change their perception on what slums are truly like. 80% of all profits from tours go back directly into the community, through their sister-NGO Reality Gives. Reality Gives runs great quality education programs in areas such as Dharavi. No pictures were allowed on the tour out of respect for the locals. During the tour we walked through both commercial and residential sections of Dharavi. No photography was allowed on the tour out of respect for the residents. We started in the commercial section and saw a wide range of business activities, such as recycling, leather tanning, bakeries, embroidery, garment-making, pottery-making, and more. Metal and plastic come from all over Mumbai (and beyond) to be recycled here and supplied back to manufacturers. We saw people making suitcases and some dress shirts, all of which are sent to manufacturers that put a (fake) brand name label on them and sell them on the streets of Mumbai. They don’t advertise that the goods come out of Dharavi, but if you’ve ever wondered where your fake brands come from, it may be places like this! There are an estimated 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories within Dharavi. Goods made here are exported all over the world, and the total annual turnover of all industries here is estimated to be almost US$1 billion per year. Sadly, this is not reflected in daily wages for workers, who can make roughly 200 to 700 rupees per day (US$3.06 to $10.72) depending on the job. A lot of the workers come from smaller villages in India and come to Dharavi for 10 months or so of the year and send money back home to their families. A lot end up living in the same factories that they work in, giving the owners employees that are on time to work and giving the employees a free place to stay.

We were also taken through the residential section of the slum, where we wandered through maze-like alleyways to see the many houses stacked upon each other. We also saw a few local playgrounds, as well as schools, hospitals, markets, and other stores. It was very much its own city within a city. During the tour we had many local kids come up to us to wave and say hello. We chatted with a few and had simple English conversations such as “how are you” and “what is your name.” One boy said we both had nice names, so we have that going for us. There was tons of diversity here, with temples, mosques, churches and pagodas all strewn throughout the area. Most of the residents have electricity running through their homes, as well as running water (only for 3 hours a day, however). Unfortunately, sanitation is a big problem in the slum, as there are very few private bathrooms and limited public ones, lots of which are dirty and broken down. Many residents resort to going in the streets, which leads to the spread of contagious diseases. The local river is also used, and has trash dumped into it as well. There have been many plans to re-develop Dharavi, but none have fully gone through so far. The latest plan involves constructing housing and resettling residents into 350 sq ft alternate accommodations. Many residents are opposed, especially if they currently have larger accommodations now. Others are concerned that their small informal businesses will not be re-located. This is currently an ongoing conversation in Mumbai. We ended our tour by visiting some of the community centers and seeing the school that Reality Gives set up in Dharavi. There was a variety of classes taught here such as English and Computer skills. It was cool seeing the good that the company is doing in the area; our guide even told us that she had learned English through those same classes. Overall, it was a very interesting experience seeing the slum first-hand and seeing that it wasn’t quite like what one might imagine. Some was definitely accurate to what we thought, such as the cramped housing and unsanitary living conditions. Otherwise, it was fascinating to see the wide-range of business going on and how many people were actively working to improve their lives and conditions. We came across many friendly people and while their living situation is far from great, they are still doing their best with what they have. Despite the conditions, Dharavi didn’t give off a depressing vibe; lots of people smiled and waved and just seemed to be trying to live their lives just like everybody else. The tour was absolutely something that won’t be quickly forgotten.

All photos used here picturing Dharavi are used courtesy of Reality Tours & Travel.

Our Reality Tours guides. For the food tour we had Balaji, Janna, and Rajesh. For the Dharavi tour we had Simran. All were great!