A Little Adventure… Rafting & Spirituality on the Mother Ganges

things to do in rishikesh, indiaIs any trip to India complete without a trip to see the sacred Mother Ganges? This famous river winds through the country, giving life to northern towns and accepting life at Varanasi, where the ghats sit on the banks of India’s holy Ganges River. After nearly two months in India, it was time to make the pilgrimage and find the sacred waters. I had relaxed in McLeod Ganj learning more about the Tibetan culture, and now — with my flight to Kathmandu just a week away — I spent for days in Rishikesh. The plan was to raft the river, bend and twist in a yoga class, meander the many ashrams, and to enjoy my last week of Indian cuisine.

Rishikesh is a strange town; it’s unlike the other Indian towns I have visited these past two months. It’s a tourist hotspot, but for foreigners and locals alike. Some Indians travel to Rishikesh on vacation, while others see it as a pilgrimage — a chance to stay at an ashram on the holy river and soak in the divinity of temples and religions. Getting to Rishikesh from McLeod Ganj was brutal. It was a taxi to a bus to an overnight train. And while that’s not uncommon for backpacking India, I had eaten questionable street veggies in Dharamsala and then spent the next 15 hours becoming reacquainted with said veggies. I don’t often get sick on the road, but when I do, it takes a toll. It was a long night. But by morning I was determined to shake off the weak achy feeling and explore this new spot.

The fantastically blue-green waters of the Ganges River greeted me when I exited the train station. Most stories of the Ganges River are largely negative. And it’s not just the banter around town. Even Indian literature portrays the Ganges River as a festering gray slush with feces, filth, and the ashes of dead bodies clogging the banks of the river. With those images embedded in my brain, seeing the heart of Rishikesh on the far side sun-glinted blue river surprised me. I crossed the rushing clean river on a large pedestrian bridge and landed in an area of town where motorbikes and push carts are the only transportation options clogging the streets. The place has tons of places to stay, from ashrams to boutique hotels to hostels. I was on a budget so I went with the Shiv Shakti Hostel — highly recommended.

rishikesh river shiva statue

Rishikesh is essentially the first place that the sacred Ganges River exits the mountains and enters the plains of India. In the high mountains, the water travels through forests and remains in clear glory. At this part of the river, nothing of the slush to come is visible. The Ganges’ poor reputation is well deserved once it reaches Varanasi, where riverside cremations and funeral pyres create a thick, polluted river that flows into the rest of the country.

Rishikesh has a lot to offer, but for many backpackers, it’s best known as the Yoga capital of India. I eased into the yoga scene with a free meditation class offered by the Cultural Center. The class is led by a Yogi guru and assisted by a team of pubescent girls who circle the room like vultures over a kill. The girls adjust your position and patiently shove your body deeper into the postures. The girls’ flawless execution of the deep bends and twists intimidated me, a newbie. But yoga is about honoring your own pace so I followed the flow and postures as best as possible. The free class was an excellent way to ensure a gentle evening workout. Plus, it stretched out the kinks from all those hours of buses and trains.

And even more than the kinks from train rides, I really looked forward to that nightly yoga class after whitewater rafting down the Ganges River. Because the river is so clean this far north, the Ganges is a viable rafting spot. It draws adventurists to the area since the this section of the river offers three to four grade rapids this time of year. Even more, it was pretty budget-friendly to take a morning rafting trip down the river. I am not one to pinch pennies if it’s a memorable trip, but this was both memorable and affordable so it became a must-do.

what it's like to whitewater raft in rishikesh should you go rafting in rishikesh

My cousin and I arrived early and met the four other tourists in our raft — a group of Indian twenty-somethings from Delhi who were vacationing in Rishikesh for the weekend. They were jazzed for the weekend vacation from the city and they were a lot of fun, but they were not the best paddlers. There were times on the river when my cousin and I were the only two paddling in the boat! Two of the others, Deepak and his friend, sat at the helm chatting. Meanwhile, our guide would shout for us to paddle and they wouldn’t even listen. It got to the point where the chubbier guy was relieved of his paddling duties and instead asked to splay himself across the front of the boat to act as a weight. That turned out to incite the others into guffaws because he was traveling face first through the rapids. He must have swallowed bucket-loads of the Ganges River!

My cousin and I are adding to our arsenal of Hindi phrases. In addition to knowing how to say “please dance” in Hindi, we can also say “dude, paddle harder!”  It’s not the handiest of phrases (when could I possible need this in the future?!) but it’s a fun parlor trick now.

This was my first rafting trip and while my arm muscles ached that evening, I’d love to try rafting again. There’s this fun adrenaline high that comes with adventure sports like rafting, climbing, and diving.  And while I am not an adrenaline junky, rafting is good fun!

Beyond the rafting and yoga, Rishikesh is a spiritual center where people come for weeks and months to live at an ashram, meditate, and practice yoga. This wasn’t my plan for now (I will be taking a ten-day Vipassana meditation course in Nepal), so my cousin and I enjoyed exploring Rishikesh and we walked the sandy white shoreline of the Ganges River.

black cow in india

Fun and random anecdote: I spotted this black cow and decided to do a mini photo-shoot of the cow on the beach. He stood so tall and proud and he stood out against the white sand. Unfortunately, one of the nearby cows was less impressed by my presence and intentions. While I was consumed with the task of framing the perfect picture, my cousin snapped a very brief video of our scramble to avoid the charge of the lighter colored and oddly huge cow. How ridiculous is it that neither of us realized the cow was charging us until he was very close!


[flickr video=3565218647]

Besides the rafting, yoga, and relaxed pace of it all, Rishikesh was just quietly lovely. I loved this gorgeous fruit salad and curd (you know how I love curd!) served at one of the hippy tourist restaurants. It was the tastiest of the entire trip. It’s as if India put its best foot forward during my final days in the country. I hadn’t seen a snake charmer before. Is it cheesy and cliché? Totally. But it was cool nonetheless. :)

fruit salad with curd and honey snake charmer on the banks of the Ganges River in Rishikesh

Quick Tips: Visiting Rishikesh, India

Where to Stay: Shiv Shakti is the best hostel in town, and it’s in the backpacker area, Lakshman Jhula, so you will find affordable eats nearby. Although many people come for the ashrams, if you’re passing through you can still practice yoga and meditate from the many hotels. Rishikesh Valley Hotel is the eco-friendly option with wooden huts and great sustainable choice. Atali Ganga Cottages has the best views in town, and Ganga Kinare Boutique Hotel is the best all-around mid-range and convenient option.

Activities:

  • Adventure. Besides rafting — which I highly recommend — this is a hotspot for the adventurous. You can bungee jump, rappel, cliff jump, rock climb, and kayak.
  • Yoga. The largest ashram in town is Parmarth Niketan, this would make a good starting point for those serious about yoga. There are dozens of yoga programs in Rishikesh, however, so you can certainly find other options, too. (The yoga section of this guide lists out all the options along with contact details.
  • Daytrips. Head to Kunjapuri Temple, an easy day trip from Rishikesh. And don’t miss Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram, which is the abandoned ashram that the Beatles visited in 1968 to learn transcendental meditation.

Best Guidebook: I can’t imagine backpacking India without the newest Lonely Planet India. Although some of the hotel recommendations and restaurants become lower quality once listed (because of the influx of travelers), the transportation and activity recommendations were spot on and I wouldn’t have explored half of the neat places without the guidebook there to recommend towns and activities off the beaten path a bit. To keep the weight down, I ripped out the sections that I no longer needed as I traveled.


Reading: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. This was among my favorite reads so far this year. I am just finishing it up — the narrator’s voice is bizarre, but the story was compelling and it has given me a lot of insight into the Indian culture without reading like a history book. Highly recommend it, and I have a list of other country-based travel reads too. This is one of my favorite ways to learn about the places I am visiting!

Where am I really? Tuscany, I took a bike ride through the wineries outside of Florence!

Things to do in McLeod Ganj, India

A Little Lhasa… 6 Things to Visit in the Tibetan Town of McLeod Ganj, India

The views on a hike outside of McLeod Ganj, India

The bus skirted the mountainside as my cousin and I traveled toward Dharamsala, India. In my many weeks backpacking through India, this past week had begun the tour of subgroups and other cultures strongly present within India. En route to visit Dharamsala—or, more accurately the small town of McLeod Ganj—I stopped for several nights in Amritsar to learn more about the Sikh religion, and to visit the holy Golden Temple. Amritsar is a crowded, congested city and after sitting on the shores of the Temple’s lake, I boarded a bus that would take me further into the Himalayan foothills, and into yet another culture.

Although it’s still technically India, McLeod Ganj is better known as “Little Lhasa” since it’s the seat of power for the exiled Tibetan government. To walk the streets of this small mountain town is like an exit from India. Although there are some ethnic Indians in the city, the bulk of the town is composed of Tibetan refugees. And, the His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls McLeod Ganj home.

Having spent more than a month in Rajasthan, an intensely populated area bustling with tourists and touts and people. This time in India’s far north was a chance to take a step back from the pace of my previous travels. Arriving in McLeod Ganj was a sanctuary from the sensory assault of the past weeks. The weather was cooler, the mountains misted in the mornings, and the tall peaks blotted out the sun early in the day. With a gorgeous guesthouse secured (we stayed at a great budget spot the first few nights but then moved nicer when we got sick), my cousin and I decided to camp out in McLeod Ganj for a week.

Tibetan script on a rock in McLeod Ganj.

I had high hopes that this base would afford me the chance to hike in the mountains around the city. Unfortunately, traveler’s sickness final struck, and it alternated its victim. My cousin and I had done well for five weeks—we avoided even the whiff of sick. But the traveler’s adage proved true—it’s not a matter of if you’re going to get sick in the country, but rather when. I had traveled with a SteriPen for the past weeks in India. This little device was very handy. It saved us money and it also eliminated the assault on the environment that comes from mass consumption of bottled water in a country that has no effective waste management system. The SteriPen never failed us, but instead we were felled by the street dumplings we had craved on arrival. I deeply love Tibetan momos and the chance to eat them all day from every location seemed fortunate. But instead, those dumplings shaved several days from our time in Dharamsala.

Traveling in developing countries has challenges, and now that I am many months into traveling through Asia—first Southeast Asia and now India—I am weary of hugging more toilets. I am also not a huge fan of mega dosing on antibiotics, but it’s a given for long-term travel. Even though I had a huge course of antibiotics to overcome dysentery in Laos, I needed another course for this bout of traveler’s diarrhea. I am stepping up my caution once again. When so many weeks pass, it’s easy to let my guard down and crave fresh fruits even if I have a niggling doubt that they’ve been sterilized.

1. Visit the Tibetan Museum in McLeod Ganj

Anyhow, that took me down for the count for part of my time in McLeod Ganj. But as for actually visiting the area in and around Dharamsala—there’s a lot to offer! The main activities center on either the Tibetan aspects of the down or the hiking. My cousin and I both took this time to learn more about the situation in Tibet. Knowing only the basics about the conflict between the Tibetans and the Chinese, learning the scope of the was sobering. The Tibetan museum is a basic building and exhibits center on rooms full of pictures that tell stories about the many the Tibetan refugees crossing through the snowy mountains to find freedom. It’s harrowing, they faced frostbite, lack of food, and general poverty in their quest to live and find freedom. Once in India, the refugees struggle to rebuild their lives with the support of the Tibetan government in exile.

2. Don’t Miss Clapping Monks at the Tibetan Monastery

tibetan monastery in dharamsalaNear the museum is a large monastery where the Tibetan monks live. Visiting the monastery was a fantastic experience and a real highlight from my time in the city. The older monks were using the open grounds of the monastery to prepare for their final debates. If you have ever seen a roomful of monks debate, it’s not something you are likely to forget! The debating style is unique. They emphatically argue their points to the other person, then make a large slapping/clapping motion at the end to both emphasize the point and throw the focus to the next person. I wrote a bit more on that here.

It was neat to hang out in the courtyard and observe the process. It’s an open and welcoming place, so there was no pressure to do anything other than enjoy and ask the occasional question when I found an English speaker.

The Dalai Lama wasn’t feel well during my visit, so I wasn’t able to see him speak in person. The week before I arrived, the Tibetans rallied against 50 years in exile. Although the event had passed, the general tone of amplifying their message and sharing their struggles was ever-present. Tibetans are a peaceful people, but they wanted to let the world know and remember their struggles and displacement.

[flickr video=3547243098]

3. Hunt Down Tasty Momos & Salted Butter Tea

One of my favorite new finds is a tasty is a salted butter tea. Well, that and the Tibetan brown bread. Oh, and the momos, of course. In fact, all of the Tibetan food was delicious and contained a complexity of flavor within seemingly simple dishes. McLeod Ganj is small too, so no matter which guesthouse you choose, you can visit any of the restaurants on an easy walk. For the first few days, my cousin and I made a point to try a new lunch and dinner spot each day—that was essentially enough time to try them all! Once we had a few stand-out favorites, we spent the rest of the time popping around to each place, chatting with the owners, and downing delicious Tibetan eats.

With so many tasty options, we ate very well. Before a hike, my cousin and I usually packed some brown bread and snacks and hiked around the outskirts of town and into the nearby mountain towns.

4. Stop for a Photo Shoot at the Waterfall

waterfall near mcleod ganj indiaThe Tibetan community is slower paced than the rest of India, but it’s still India. On one of our hikes my cousin and I found ourselves back in the spotlight with the locals. We hiked to the small but pretty Bhagsu Waterfall outside of town and found ourselves a delightful novelty to the Indians also hiking to the waterfall. I had a mini photoshoot with a few hikers, and then laughed my way away from their group.

After the first impromptu photoshoot, I was still surprised when I was accosted for a second photoshoot with a large and boisterous family. There must have been 12 members of the family. They swarmed us, but in a much more fun and interactive way than the slow stalking at Gandhi’s Ashram when I had first arrived. Once my cousin and I agreed to take a picture with family’s children, the mother of the group decided to gather the whole family together. It was so funny. They all jostled us around so that they could be touching some part of us during the  picture. After they snapped a photo on one camera, the mother would grab our arms in a death grip to hold us in place. She wanted to ensure that we didn’t flee before we had posed for a full lineup of photo in various arrangements. The family gave us a good laugh, they were genuine and friendly, but they would have never let us leave, so we did a walking backwards departure after ten minutes. There were lots of hugs, smiles, and waves until we rounded the bend and my cousin and I fast-walked out of there!

photo of an Indian family

photo with a random stranger waterfall in dharamsala

5. Learn Tibetan Cooking

With a good amount of time on our hands in McLeod Ganj, we signed up for a cooking class. I have eaten my weight in Tibetan momos these past weeks in India’s north, so I decided to learn the process with a hope that I can make them myself when I’m back home and longing for the flavors. The class was simple and a fun way to pass the afternoon. Sanji Tashee taught two classes each day with several different lessons. Now, there is a great vegetarian cooking class on offer at Lhamo’s Kitchen that comes highly recommended.

For my class, of course I only had eyes for the class that took me through the momo process from start to finish. Traditional vegetarian momos have just a handful of flavor combinations. There are: spinach and cheese; cabbage, onions and veggies; mixed vegetables.

cooking class for tibetan momos in mcleod ganj learning how to roll momo dumpling flour vegetarian momos

tibetan momo ingredients cooking class in mcleod ganj, india

The real treat turned out to be my favorite of the three—a chocolate momo! This is definitely not a traditional Tibetan momo, but Tashee knew his audience well. He won my undying affection with the delicious combination of cocoa, sugar, and sesame seeds all steamed in a dumpling shell. Unbelievably good.

And one of the coolest parts was learning how to roll out the momos, stuff them, and then how to fold them into pretty little dumpling shapes.  Between the Laotian cooking class and now with the Tibetan momos, friends and family back home can expect a special international cuisine night when I get home.

boy chasing a tire in India

6. Enjoy the Relaxed Pace of Life

6 Things to Do in McLeod Ganj, IndiaTake time to sit and drink tea at the tiny coffee shops. Browse for souvenirs in the shops and street side stalls. Accept a cuppa chai tea when you’re invited.

In short, McLeod Ganj is not the place to stick to a frenetic pace of life. The Tibetan community brings a calming influence to the city, and a spiritual one too. Many foreigners take classes in yoga and meditation nearby. Others are there for the same reasons I found myself enjoying McLeod Ganj—simply to enjoy the pace of life. It’s a pretty little city, and one unlike anywhere else in India. In the foothills of the Himalayas, it’s the perfect spot to enjoy some hikes


Reading: The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Where Am I Really? Just arrived in Italy after four months in South Asia. I’m indulging in heaps of gelato!

Music: Matchbox 20—listened to three of these albums for the train ride south from Milan.  :)

Visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

A Little Religion… A Gilded Visit to the Holiest Sikh Temple in Amritsar

I left Agra in the dead of night with the promise of a golden temple on the horizon when I awoke in Amritsar, India. My cousin and I had a wild few weeks journeying north from Mumbai. We marveled at the palaces in Udaipur, the camels and monkeys in Pushkar, the colors of celebrating Holi, and the splendor of the Taj Mahal. Most of this adventure took place in the Indian state of Rajasthan. This is a tourist-heavy part of India and, from what I hear, one of the harder regions to travel. The population is dense and tourists are a fascination and a source of wealth. But heading north, my cousin and I hoped to find a different pace of life in the mountains of northern India. And we weren’t wrong, it’s an entirely different part of India both geographically, and culturally.

My cousin and I visited Agra on a fly-by visit, only spending one day in the city to visit the Taj Mahal, and then we planned to sleep on the overnight train to Amritsar. While this is easy in theory, it also meant that we we after spent several hours loitering in the train terminals waiting for the train that was, naturally, late. Before I get into the Golden Temple visit, let’s take a brief detour into what it’s like to use the Indian trains.

bus station amritsar

Indian trains are either exactly on time and you rapidly board the train on your merry way. Or, as if often the case, you to spend several mind-numbingly dull hours staring at the train-tracks while Indians in your vicinity watch your every move. Watching fair-skinned tourists a pastime for locals. It may even be elevated to a sport. They expect a show and a entertained by even the smallest acts — like buying a chai. But, I am an actress and there’s a craving for more drama than just a mere chia. Sometimes, I just read a book. But other times, I’ve started to come up with fun ways to entertain those who watch my every move as I wait.

With the lyrics to a Bollywood dance hit now stashed in my repertoire — thanks to the dance parties at Tulsi Palace in Pushkar — I’ve decided to just dance. When the starring starts to grate, or if I’m bored, I’ve instead treat the platform like a stage, sometimes I grab a toddler, and I bust out my best approximation of the current bollywood-esque dance moves. I jut my hips, pulsate, shimmy, and circle to the sound of my own tone deaf singing and clapping. My cousin is horrified. But it’s a fun and ridiculous chance to break the ice with everyone else on the platform. And not only do I find this wildly amusing, but it’s a smash hit with those around me. It’s like they had been watching me just knowing that I could bust a move at any moment. And when I confirm their suspicions, they are delighted. Just delighted to join in the clapping and send their kids into the dance circle.

So, that’s what I’m doing when I talk about passing time at train stations. Travel is so much about waiting that this dancing has proven a fun diversion. And as we left Agra, I was happy for the bit of exercise because it was a 17 hour train ride into Punjab, a state in the north. The train bypassed Delhi — I have to leave from there to Kathmandu — and headed straight for Amritsar, a town that borders Pakistan.

Visiting The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Amritsar is home to the holiest temple in Sikhism, Harmandir Sahib, literally translated as “the abode of God,” but informally known as the Golden Temple. Completed in 1604, the temple not only embodies the principles of Sikhism in the the design, but is also designed to welcome people of all religious faiths and traditions. More than walking into a church to witness the beautiful frescoes, the Golden Temple is intended as a place where all can feel welcome and feel a part of what is happening. The daily lunch served is open to all, and more than 100,000 people each day pass through to worship and pay respects.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

sacred lake Harmandir Sahib

Throughout my time in India, I am reading many books about India as a way to better understand the culture and country, books about India and books written by Indian authors. By the time I arrived in Amritsar, the history and culture intrigued me. While my Lonely Planet India wrote of the a calm splendor of to the gilded temple, it was the history that also appealed to me. Many of the books I have read these past months tell of the unrest that occurred in the 1980’s in this region. There were violent Sikh-Hindi clashes that led to unrest. And this conflict contributed to the death of India’s former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. She was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards because of the military action she ordered within the holy temple. None of the books, novels, and historical accounts have left out the effect of this conflict on modern India.

The information swam through my head as I took a rickshaw from the train station into town as close as I could get to my guesthouse. The rickshaws are forbidden from entering areas of the old-town near the temple because of air and noise pollution. That mean hoofing into to the hotel, then dropping my bag and heading straight to the temple. It’s a holy place and with just a couple of days in town, I wanted to see the temple, understand the process of visiting, and also just relax by the sacred pool surrounding the Golden Temple.

Even without big vehicles, the area around the temple pulses with a frenetic, overwhelming pace. It’s not my favorite Indian city — in fact, I couldn’t wait to leave. But the temple is beautiful and the setting wonderful. I am still learning about Sikhism, there is much I don’t understand, so I took at stance of watching and learning from those around me. It was interesting to sit along the shore and watch the Sikhs bath in the sacred lake. Sikh children of every age were taken to the water’s edge, stripped of their clothes, and dipped into the waters. Older Sikhs also stripped down to boxers and soaked themselves in the waters. It’s a pilgrimage site for many, and a holy site of worship for all.

Lines form for hours to visit inside the temple, but there’s no rush. The hustle of the city is blocked from sound and view, it’s just a quiet place to respectfully view and witness.

A line to enter the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

bus station in Amritsar, India A Sikh man with sword in traditional clothing

traffic in Amritsar streets of Amritsar, India sikh man on a bicycle

Amritsar was a quick stop on the trip on our way north to Dharamshala. We only took two days to visit the temple and sample the Punjabi food. It was a welcome change from the pace in Rajasthan. I hadn’t yet realized how different I would find the culture, food, and religion in different parts of India. Amritsar is a welcome place to taste the Punjabi food and culture. It’s intriguing to witness how one change — a religion — alters everything from how they worship to how they dress. Everyone, even small children, cover their heads in some fashion. This has spawned an entire line of fashion too as we saw turbans of every color and then found internet and studied how the turban color can change the meaning.

A video from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India:

[flickr video=3462723070]

View of Pushkar and Sacred Lake from Brahma's Temple

A Little Sunset… Hiking to Brahma’s Temple & Battling Monkeys

Monkeys in India are unkind. In fact, as cute as they may look from afar, they are downright nasty. Monkeys don’t wander the mountains and towns back home in Florida, so I didn’t realize that it’s not fun and quirky to encounter a monkey while traveling, it can be harrowing. What would have been a challenging but meditative hike to the top of one of the hills surrounding Pushkar became an obstacle course fraught with lunging monkeys with bared teeth and booming cannons.

On my camel safari into the desert around Pushkar, I spotted a towering hill outside of town. A temple peered from the mountaintop. My curiosity was piqued and I questioned my camel guide. Local Indians (and spiritual seeking goras  — white people) hike the hill to Brahma’s Temple in the late afternoon. It’s a pilgrimage for some, and a chance to watch the sun set over Pushkar. Exercise has been hard to come by these past few weeks, so my cousin and I pulled on our hiking boots, filled our water bottles, and headed out. I am an unenthusiastic hiker. I like the idea of hiking, and I generally have favorable things to say about a hike after it’s over, but during the hike my face turns an alarming shade of splotchy-red and I start wheezing as soon as the incline gets too steep.

View of Pushkar and Sacred Lake from Brahma's Temple

No amount of conditioning has ever increased my stamina, so I accept the blotch-red look and just go with it. But it’s rarely an issue since I generally manage to make it to the top of whatever hill I may be hiking, and I’m in high spirits too — after all, it’s downhill at that point. But in India, everything is worth a remark. Especially a white woman heaving for her breath. My meditative hike became a parade of vicious monkeys and overly supportive Indian women with the vicious monkeys. It was a long, long way to Brahma’s Temple.

There path to the temple is straightforward — one steep path snakes up the hillside. My cousin and I started hiking later than many of the locals, which meant a parade of people descended as I huffed and wheezed my way up. My cousin’s in better shape, so she left me after I took too many “contemplative breaks” to look out at the pretty scenery. It was a nice view, and I photographed the desert while the blood slowed its pulsing and throbbing in my temples.

To be clear, this is a normal hike for me. I don’t fuss or make an issue, and I always keep one foot in front of the other. But the unofficial hiking motto of India must be something close to “just keep going. Every single Indian woman passing me as they hiked down the hill had to weigh in on my situation. Every. Single. One. As I rested, the woman would pause long enough to bodily push me into a standing position, and then propel my body higher up the hill. Few spoke English, so it was all physical with a lot of smiling and encouraging hand motions. And I am not over-exaggerating when I say that my face turned all shades of splotchy, blotted, pinky-white-red. At times, I thought I might hurl. And the closer I got to the top, the less they let me rest.

It was just one older woman who realized that — perhaps —  I did, in fact, need a rest. I was panting so hard that she showed genuine concern that I was breathing ok. She couldn’t speak a lick of English, but she crouched beside me and demonstrated a Lamaze-style breathing technique I suppose was designed to help me catch my breath. It was sweet, although also unwelcome. Especially when she ended the breathing session by gripping my arm. She looked at me with a serious expression. And she had true conviction too when she chastised me with something in Hindi, and then shooed me up the hill, with waving arms and a big smile.

India is a wacky country.

The whole way up the hill I felt claustrophobic will the attention and touching. But then all I could do was laugh. Those women were bound and determined to get me to the top of the hill by sunset. Instead of letting the bubbling frustration win, I surrendered to the absurdity. Even as I huffed, I kept a steady pace on the final stretch, whispering out enthusiastic and breathless Namaste greetings to everyone making their way downhill.

Monkeys at Brahma's Temple, Pushkar monkey at pushkar brahma's temple  Brahma's Temple monkeys

pushkar sunset hike to brahma's temple pushkar india

But then there were the monkeys. Let’s talk about the monkeys on this stretch of mountain. Because some people bring food donations, the monkeys have learned that the steps are a prime area for pilfering food. As I climbed closer to the top of the hill, more black and white monkeys dotted the path. I am always looking for a picture opportunity, so the first time I saw a cute one I whipped out the camera and started snapping some shots. At about that moment, I heard a distinct shriek from higher up the hill. My cousin was alarmed by something. I put oomph in my step and rapidly ascended to find my cousin clutching a rock in her hand and guarding herself from an aggressive monkey that had just charged her.

Once she bent down to pick up the rock, the monkey scampered back. But that was the beginning, we could see clusters of the monkeys on the rest of the path. And you would think that the monkeys would suffice with the food offerings left in the temple, but they are smart creatures — they know that the people carry that food in the bags they carry up the hill. With so many monkeys on the path, we decided there was safety in numbers and continued the climb together. Naturally though, the whole thing couldn’t be that easy. A mother, father and baby monkey were hanging out on the steps right by the entrance to the temple. We had dropped our rocks, so we approached slowly, hoping that they would scamper off.

Wishful thinking. The father monkey charged us and we swung our purses at him to keep him from attacking us. Just as we thought all hope might be lost, one of the temple employees set off a loud fire-cracker. The sound reverberated across the hillside and echoed into the desert. The monkeys wigged out and scattered quickly.

We earned the chance to plop down in the wicker chairs to admire the view. It’s a spectacular viewpoint on Pushkar and the sacred lake. The sunset was hazy, monsoon season hasn’t arrived yet, which leaves the air think and heaving with dust that filtered the light into a faint orange glow. The temple bells ring on the hour, and my cousin and I relaxed in the lazy breeze ruffling the mountaintop.

Makhania Lassi ingredients pushkarI recommend doing this hike if you are in Pushkar. It’s about moderate difficulty. Little old ladies passed me coming down the mountain, so it’s possible for most people. It’s also a nice afternoon break from the touts, scams, and bustle of Pushkar. Once back in town we stopped at our favorite restaurant, Rainbow Restaurant, and ordered our two favorite lassi. They are the best we’ve had in all of India. The Makhania lassi is curd mixed with saffron extract, almond extract, cardamom, and rose extract, then topped with cashews, pistachios, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and a sprinkling of coconut. I know, ah-mazing. It was a well-deserved treat after the strenuous hike. And there’s always something fun happening in Pushkar, so we caught a random parade in the streets on our way back to Tulsi Palace (my hands-down favorite hotel in Pushkar). I am not sure what they were celebrating, but it was loud, noisy, colorful and chaotic — perfectly Indian really!

Video from Brahma’s Temple in Pushkar, India:

[flickr video=3458619321]

Avoiding the scams in Pushkar, India

A Little Learning… Henna, Dancing, and Avoiding Scams in Pushkar, India

street market vegetables puskar, indiaOne of my wide-sweeping goals for this trip is to learn new things. Not just the intangible knowledge of these new cultures and religions, but also tangible skills and crafts specialized to the people and flavors of each new place. At every stage so far, I’ve tried my hand at new local skills and crafts. It was a cooking class in Laos that taught me a few basic dishes from that region. Before I even arrived in India, I hoped to find an opportunity to take both dance classes and henna.

Pushkar is a small town in Rajasthan, a Western state in India. I had spent a week in Udaipur, which is lovely but large. Pushkar, by comparison, is quite navigable. Landing here was even more of a respite than the time in Udaipur because small towns in Rajasthan are uncommon. It’s a well populated and well touristed Indian state. Several fellow travelers passing in the opposite direction had warned me that I might hate Pushkar — one friend left after just one day in town. My Lonely Planet India only cautiously touted it’s charms. Strangely, I felt an affinity for the town. Even in the most touristy of towns, authenticity is just a state of mind and a style of travel. In Pushkar, the shopping was plentiful, there is just one main road to learn and navigate, and the family at Tulsi Palace Hotel was so welcoming and friendly. In fact, this is my favorite guesthouse experience to date, bar none. It’s the family at Tulsi Palace that have made me so enjoy my time in Pushkar. Plus there was delicious food, Rainbow RestaurantHoney & Spice, and Honey Dew get shout-outs. The sum total was good, despite a few rough patches along the way.

For other travelers, I do understand that there are a few off-putting aspects of traveling Pushkar. Undoubtedly, they were scammed or pressured by the “priests” who surround the holy lake. It’s a big racket and the priests pressure tourists for donations nearly every single moment as you walk by that are of the tourist strip. It’s a drag, but I was able to bypass that section and find other delightful gems in town. But really, you have to be aware of the scams and avoid it at all costs when in town.

How to Avoid the Scams in Pushkar

Pushkar is built around the holy lake and it’s really quite pretty. The restaurants and many hotels offer views of this lake and it’s lovely. But as a new tourist in the city, it’s surprising that it’s impossible to make a quiet pilgrimage to the lakeside. Locals take the pilgrimage to the water’s edge, then they pray and dip themselves in the water. It would be a beautiful ritual to witness and partake in. The priests make that impossible for tourists. They are dressed in white kurta-pajamas and they have perfected the solemn, holy look. They nab new and unsuspecting tourists by shoving small fragrant flowers in the palms of their hands. Never, ever accept a flower into your hand as this then gives them power to demand exorbitant sums. Once you’re holding their flower, they usher you down the steps and encourage you to sit near the water while they chant a prayer.

All of this is fine and dandy, it’s fun and interesting to witness. For about four minutes the “priests” — I use this term loosely since this is mostly a scam — invoked all of the Hindu gods and goddess to pray for my family members, for my health, my wealth, my success in career, success in love, and all manner of positive things that I could bring into my life. Then they splash lake water on your head, grab your hand, and ask you for a donation.

scams in Pushkar, india cow at a temple in India

I’m not heartless either, this sort of ritual and small acts have been a constant part of traveling India these past week. And the man did bless my family and perform a very enthusiastic ritual. The issue is the high pressure for large sums of money. I offered the man 50 rupees (about $1) for his puja and prayers. But he had immediate and aggressive righteous indignation at the amount. He then requested as much as USD $100 and tried to intimidate us with threats. My cousin was standing nearby with another priest and we linked hands and fled. The men followed in rapid pursuit and they had multiplied. As we shoved our shoes back onto our feet, we had to physically push between the men thronging us and trying to intimidate us into paying up. It’s unpleasant and can be a little scary as some of the priests even threaten police action. It’s a total scam and it’s best to keep your hands in a fist and don’t make eye contact. Even at the nearby temple, I have heard that the scam plays out similarly. Just don’t accept any flowers, nor strings and ribbons tied to your wrists.

That first innocent trip Pushkar’s lake illustrated that it’s impossible to fully avoid the scam, you just have to be alert and never give into the pressure to participate. Beyond that scam, which is the biggest racket in town and gets the most people, there’s also begging related scams that play out all over the world too. Women begging for milk or diapers have a deal with the shopkeepers and tourists are charged large sums for the purchase, which the women later return and split profits with the shopkeeper. This is a popular one in Siem Reap, Cambodia. too.

The Best Sights & Activities in Pushkar

But there is more to Pushkar than the scam. It’s a cute little town with a lot of tourist-friendly activities. My cousin and I arranged a camel ride in the desert through our hotel, and then we also found some classes too. On our wanderings, my cousin and I found signs for a music and art school. This school is located in the heart of town and down small, smelly winding lanes where the children shout out hearty”hello’s” at the top of their lungs. That’s where we found the School for Music and Art.

Within a few hours, my dream of learning henna had come through. The school had a henna artist on staff, Deepa. Deepa showed us printouts of different styles of henna and then she quoted us a ridiculous sum of money for six hours of henna lessons. Everything is negotiable in India, however, and the price seemed steep. We agreed to pay half of the money upfront because we wanted to see how the initial classes panned out.

We spent our first lesson practicing specific leaf designs that are used in Rajasthani henna — we drew these with precision and uniformity down the lengths of our pages. Deepa watched throughout, correcting the funny looking leaves, but mostly she sat near us and chatted with her sister-in-law. At the end of the class, Deepa drew a hand into our notebooks and then filled the hand henna artwork — we were underwhelmed.

pushkar, india henna classes in Pushkar

The first class disappointed us — we had learned six basic leaf designs and our homework was to practice drawing these leaves late into the night. We went home that evening but instead pow-wowed about our next class. Although I was still eager to learn henna, this wasn’t panning out well. Neither my cousin nor I enjoyed the class overly much. Having paid for three classes upfront, mass confusion ensued when we expressed our underwhelm.

Deepa’s didn’t speak strong English, so she summoned her brother to act as translator. I tried to be tactful about it, but subtlety isn’t well-understood here. Direct works better, which is a stark contrast to my months in Southeast Asia before arriving in India. My cousin and I had to lay it out on the table in plain — there were no circumstances under the sun in which we would pay for more classes.

They understood that. We were both disappointed that the classes were a bust, and after the priest scam I felt a bit defeated. But I guess I learned a valuable lesson: Locals will agree to anything you ask. If you’re lost, they’ll offer directions even if they don’t know the destination. Everything is met with an eagerness and willingness to help, even if it’s not helping in the way we would consider. The priests are an outright scam, but this fuzzier idea of saying “yes” to everything is more of a cultural nuance, at least it seems that way. It’s not a “gotcha” moment, and sometimes no money is exchanged.

I’ve been in Asia for nearly three months now and the bargaining culture has begun to wear me down and stomp on my soul. I find myself haggling with rickshaw drivers over what amounts to US $0.30 because they just blatantly try to inflate the prices to whatever they think I will willingly pay. It’s frustrating and it’s not bringing out the best parts of my personality.

A sense of humor helps, on a good day I can keep a sense of humor when they gravely look at me and say:

“No, no madam. Very, very good price. I give you local price. Indian price for you. So very good price, madam, I promise for you.”

And then they cap it off with a shrugging head bobble and a dead earnest stare.

It’s so frustrating I can only take a deep breath and chalk it up to cultural exchange.

And it’s not just me finding the humor in this absurdity. One day, a 17-year-old Indian boy walked by as the tuk-tuk driver delivered this line to us and they boy laughed so hard he had to clutch his side. Wiping tears from his face, he informed us that the rate was more than double what he would pay, but that we were unlikely to get it lower.

It’s been a lot of learning, and a lot of practicing patience as I begin to find a rhythm here. To avoid more situations like Deepa’s poor henna lessons, and to keep my cool with the rickshaws, I just need to remember that this is all within the realm of why I am traveling: to even have the reference point and understanding that people live life differently elsewhere.

learning henna in Pushkar tulsi palace hotel review

tulsi palace learning henna henna design

Finding the Good in Pushkar

Anyway, I think all of this ridiculousness is part of the reason why my cousin and I enjoyed the kids at Hotel Tulsi Palace. I cannot imagine my time in Pushkar without having stayed there. There was no artifice with the kids, nor with the family. They all just wanted to chat and show us an enjoyable time in the city. I felt welcomed, taken care of, and I enjoyed all of their kids. And life has a way of coming around full circle. The 13-year-old daughter at our guesthouse was a talented henna artist.

Pooja enthusiastically proffered her hand-drawn sketches and she was delighted to draw on me. I picked out one of her designs, gave her money to run and buy a solid supply of henna she could use even after I left, and then I gave her free reign on my inner arm and palm. She did pretty well — she was careful and methodical, and she won extra points in my book for being humble and so very sweet.

Pooja and her siblings were beyond friendly — shy is not a word they comprehend. Within minutes of arriving back in our hotel room we would hear a faint knock at the door. If the door was unlocked, my cousin and I would take a quick guess of which small head was about to pop through the door. My favorite of the five was the littlest, Poonam, and her huge grinning face would pop around the door frame and politely ask for permission to enter.

tulsi palace grandma kids from the Tulsi Palace Hotel

Once we allowed one into the room, the rest soon followed. Most days we would have the five kids sprawled on the beds and draped in the doorway. The oldest, Pooja’s brother Deepak, brought a CD of Bollywood hits and, since I was jonesing for some ridiculous Indian dancing accompanied by cheesy Hindi music, we started a mini-dance party throughout Tulsi Palace. It’s through these daily dance parties that the phrase tom nacho (will you dance) made it into our vocabulary.

Here is a silly little video with the annoyingly catchy chorus playing for your pleasure:

[flickr video=3443877969]

The best part about our Tulsi dance party? Even grandma Tulsi — 92 and still spunky — joined with solid Bollywood moves.  The song playing on this silly video is extremely popular in India right now as we travel. The kids at Tulsi Palace were obsessed and they shouted the chorus as it played. Those kids brought the joy and together we danced our hearts out. As the weeks have passed since then, my cousin and I hear this song blare out from the radio everywhere we venture. It’s always played at top volume, usually someone is belting out the chorus, and it often starts as early as 7 am. If it wasn’t such a happy memory I might find it annoying, but now it just reminds me of Tulsi Palace singalong dance parties.

 


Reading: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris. This is a funny book and it’s the first book of his that I have read. It’s an easy read but it had me clutching my stomach in horrified laughter at times. I traded this at a bookstore in town and am happy with the trade — it’s worth reading.

Music: Bollywood pop songs on the radio in the internet cafe while I upload on a dialup connection. I wish I was kidding.

Where am I Really: Volunteering in Nepal. Today is Nepali New Year and we had good fun and a three hour hike!

Taking a camel safari in Pushkar, India

A Little Adventure… Taking a Camel Safari into Pushkar’s Desert

taking the bus to pushkarThe dilapidated bus that was to be our next means of transportation was my next “welcome to India moment.” The first was the commuter train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. In this case, the bus has seen more days on this earth than I have, and the last paint job was administered around the time I weaned from a bottle. It was a piece of work, let me tell you! I often have to cover my arm and shoulder to protect myself from the slanting sunrays, but in this case, I didn’t wish for tinted windows because the windows were already so dirty and cloudy that light could only seep through.

With no direct trains between Udaipur to Pushkar, my cousin and I de-trained in Ajmer, a heaving, hot city. Navigating the clogged streets was like a game of Pac-Man, at every corner a cow, cart, rickshaw, or car to mow us down. From the bus station — which we made it to unscathed — we took the local bus into Pushkar, about 40 kilometers away. My cousin shared with me  stories of the dilapidated chicken buses she encountered during her time in Guatemala with the Peace Corps, but this sketchy, shuddering bus was first for me. As the only foreigners on the bus, they locals gave us a bit more space than the others. And that doesn’t mean we could sprawl, it just meant that no one else leveraged their bodies onto our two-person bus seat. We’re both tall and had belongings too, which also afforded us the courtesy of “private” seats. So, for that bus ride we sat squished thigh to thigh with both of our packs perched precariously on our laps as we navigated the winding roads.But even the blatant stares of curiosity couldn’t distract me from the sheer dropoffs that fell away from one side of the road.

As I pondered my death by way of ricocheting from a cliff, several men and women on the bus settled into their seats and locked their gazes to my every move. I talked about the staring in Ahmedabad. At the ashram museum it was coupled with people following us, which wasn’t tolerable, but as time passes I am used to this custom on unabashedly staring at foreigners. For the locals, there is no shame or awkwardness. And so, they marveled as I applied chapstick. And the women were tickled when we had a moment of re-arranging the bags, everyone’s eyes goggled when I removed my jacket and showed a peek of my now-naked forearm.

Alas though, all good things must come to an end, and so did the “Shannon and Helen Two Bag Circus Show.”  We shot smiles to everyone on the bus, shouldered our bags when the bus driver unloaded them for us, and we hoofed it for the ten-minute walk into the center of Pushkar.

Arriving in Pushkar is into the Indian version of what tourists want, all concentrated on one street, but tinged by a hippy, alternative tourism vibe reminiscent of 70s nostalgia. The town thrives on one main street of colorful shops selling enough scarves, skirts, and shirts to clothe a small nation. The range of overpowering smells is becoming customary to each new town now, and I took at deep breath of the happy mix of incense and humanity.

Our first order of business was to unload our bags in a guesthouse. But we hadn’t booked one ahead of time. We had arrived in early afternoon and we knew we could easily find a place to sleep with just a short wander. The touts were ready as we walked into town, and although we often bypass this cluster, we both accepted a card from a young boy. He assured us that we would love Hotel Tulsi Palace if we followed him. We had picked out a few places in our Lonely Planet, which we love for transportation and overviews, but the accommodation has been hit or miss. So, we shooed him a bit and went in search of the recommended hotels. What a bust! They weren’t nice and were overpriced — likely exactly because they are listed in the guidebook.  We returned to the touts, found the boy and followed him through a maze of side streets until we finally arrived at a clean hotel off of the bustling tourist road.

tulsi palace kids

Fast forward ten minutes and we are cozied up with a cup of chai from the owner of the hotel, a mom of several adorable kids who filed past us. She settled us into a super clean room with two beds and hot showers for precisely the price we wanted to pay. My cousin and I had decided to take a camel safari and she was happy to help us pick one out. We choose anywhere between one hour camel adventures and multi-day camel safaris. Although I know multi-day trips are popular, and it’s gorgeous to sleep in the desert, but neither my cousin nor I wanted to ride for more than a couple of hours. With the mom’s help, we booked ourselves on a two-hour ride that would take us out of the city and into the surrounding desert.

Rising early the next morning, my cousin and I donned our dirtiest outfits that we didn’t mind getting stinky and dusty. With traveling, we’re constantly playing a game to assess and keep clean the freshest clothes until we can find a chance to do laundry. We ventured out the front door, and there, in the middle of the paved street with  motorcycles zooming past was our transport for the day: two towering camels named Johnny and Krishna. Each one was accompanied by a super-tanned Indian man attempting to get his camel to lay on the ground so that we could climb onto the camels’ backs.

pushkar camel safari camel adventures in Pushkar

camel safari in india

With a bit of a jolt and some steep angles, we rose into the air and soon towered over everyone on the streets. Once we were up and had our feet securely in the straps, the camel handler clicked his tongue and the Johnny and Krishna started off at a slow and leisurely stroll out of the city. Pushkar is a small city, so it took just a few minutes to reach the outskirts. At that point the guides were done walking so they easily scaled each camel and road in the seat behind us, steering the camels into the open desert.

A camel’s gait is unlike any other animal. At this point I have only really ridden elephants and horses. Instead of the smooth horse gait, or the huge sway of an elephant, this was a more plodding and level gait than the elephant but definitely not anything like the even and measured gait of a horse. The further we rode into the desert, the fewer people and dwellings we passed. Just a handful of people had built homes into the deep sand. It was a rural life just a short walk outside of the city. Our guide explained that these half-naked children running past us would never see the inside of a school-house, and the girls would likely be married off as young as possible. We plodded past them and I felt fleeting moments rush over me. Sadness, pity, humility, empathy. I often try to use my money to support local economies when I travel, but there is a futility to it all when I spot moments like this on the road.

camel reflection in the sand

desert sand

And within a flash we were even past the most remote dwellings and those concerns also passed, they were ruminations to resume another day. In these travels, I see so much that in the moment seems like so simple a problem, that there should be a solution I should help find to affect change. But the moment passes. The thoughts are fleeting and the realization that no solution is as simple as it looks.

Johnny and Krishna plodded on, occasionally trotting, deeper into the desert. A bit later, we took a break under a weak, piddling tree that provided a mere modicum of shade. My cousin and I took pictures with the camels — or at least we tried! These camels proved true all the rumors I had heard about camels being mean and snippy — they really are!

krishna the camel in pushkar camel laying down spitting camel

camel photo!

camel laying in the sand

Our guides asked the camels to lay down and then indicated that we could stand near them for some pictures. Krishna the Camel, however, was in a contrary mood. He whipped his head around and tried to nip at me as I approached. At other times, they bared their teeth and thrashed their head when my cousin and I appeared within in their vision range. Johnny was a character, he let out some very nasty (but entirely funny) belches. Their antics and bad behavior were funny though, the handlers were there to keep us safe. But my cousin and I maintained a constant vigilance because those camels wanted to cause us bodily harm. But only us, of course, they wouldn’t dare do that to their owners and were perfectly sweet to the two camel handlers.

It was a fun day and after the photos we plodded back into town, changed our clothes and sought out a chai to relax — another successful day!

A little video of the camel adventures:

[flickr video=3421013964]

Quick Tips: How to Take a Camel Safari in India

Where: Pushkar is a great spot for a quick ride just to get the experience but most of the multi-day stops leave out of Jaisalmer, India. Both of these are in Rajasthan, and which you choose largely depends on the length of your trip. Are you keen to take an epic adventure and use the camel as your transport to a new town in India? Then head to Jaisalmer. If you’re just interested in taking a camel ride, then Pushkar is one of the most famous spots for camels in the entire country (they have an annual camel fair here each fall.

How Long: A couple hours will satisfy if you have a passing curiosity; the overnight experiences seem ideal with multi-day trips perhaps a bit too long unless you’re a desert and camel enthusiast.

Camel Safari Cost: A few hours shouldn’t cost more than US $15. Price the overnights with several operators to get the best bargain… and always negotiate!


Reading: Alchemy of Desire: Still reading this, I am having a hard time getting through it as there are parts I really enjoy, and others that drag a bit.

Listening: Have I confessed my love for Enya? I used to listen to Irish music, including Enya, a lot in high school and am on a kick right now. Somehow the same 25 Enya songs on my MP3 player just never get old.

Rose garden in Udaipur, India

A Little Pacing… The Art of Taking in Slow in Udaipur

Butterfly at the rose garden in Udaipur, IndiaPacing long-term travel is difficult. It’s not something I anticipated in my many pre-travel worries. I worried about my route, about the culture shock, about a million other tiny details. And yet I didn’t anticipate what it would be like to constantly move. I didn’t realize that being unmoored from a single spot is disorienting. I have no center to which I return each day, or even each week. There is no familiarity to my routine and my senses are constantly assaulted by new experiences, people, cultural norms and foods.

Readers have emailed in the past few weeks about my decision to slow my pace of travel to a week in each new city. India is an enormous country and I could see so many more places if I jumped around every two to three days. It comes down to pacing myself. Traveling for a year is a long time and rushing from place to place is stressful. Although at times it does feel like a vacation, most of the time it’s a lot of work too. Instead of architecting two weeks of fun and racing to enjoy a new place, I have to live life alongside the travel. I am working too, and that also changes the nature of how I can travel. Even without work, I would need at least one “business” day each week, and probably two. In travel terms, business days means hand-washing my underwear (they won’t wash them here in India), calling home to assure the parents I’m alive, blogging, and at this time of year I even have to sort out my taxes from the road.

I wasn’t sure of my pace in India when I first arrived since I was traveling with my cousin. But she was equally keen to slow down and try to venture past the checklist tourist sites in each new place. That meant weird stops like Ahmedabad, which is not a tourist spot but is home to Gandhi’s Ashram. And then it meant visiting more than the palaces of Udaipur. It meant taking all the smaller, quirky local recommendations for Udaipur, like a visit to the city’s rose garden. We walked there from our hotel (a gorgeous spot we love at the Lakeview Guest House), and it was quite a ways! It took us far outside of the tourist quarter, however, and that was fun to see the different pace locals live beyond the tourist-focused shops, cafes, and restaurants.

When we arrived at Udaipur’s rose garden, we found vast rows of every type of rose imaginable. And butterflies flitted around the gardens — hundreds of them — from flower to flower as they did their bee business in bliss. My cousin and I had both brought book, we had hoped to find a spot and read in the shade, but there wasn’t a tall tree in sight, which was a bummer. But it was still a green spot and a pretty slice of nature in the middle of a city with little nature outside of the centerpiece lake.

exploring off the path in Udaipur. how to visit the rose garden udaipur

how to slow down and avoid travel fatigue

butterfly updaipur

In fact, throughout my weeks in India, I’ve noticed precious few lakes and green spaces in the country’s cities and towns. Nature exists on the fringes, I hiked a mountain from Pushkar and took a camel ride through the desert too. But space seems precious here, it’s a country bursting at the seams to hold its billion inhabitants. And perhaps the parks are simply taken over by the poverty. I don’t know enough yet to say whether there is a lack of concern about how people need open spaces, or if open space becomes another opportunity for humanity to push into the cracks and spaces and pace of city life.

Whatever the reasons, the park was lovely. The garden is set off from the main road and provided a respite from the noise, smells, traffic. I welcomed the chance to wander aisles of fragrant roses without worrying a motorcycle might clip my toes, or worrying I might step in a steaming pile of cow manure.

After the rose garden, Sanju — the resident miniature artist who pouts like a sad puppy every time I walked by since I refused his marriage proposal — suggested that my cousin and I visit a nearby cultural show. Fun! I am down. I was a dancer throughout middle and high school and I love seeing the dancing and art in each new place. It turned out that it was a charming evening. The evening cultural show mixed a range of arts and traditions, from Indian dancing to balancing to master puppeteers.

The puppeteer was a bit strange, to be honest, but the women dancers were superb. They wore beautiful, ornate dresses and spun across the stage in an intricate display of timing, precision, and art. My favorite dance was a group dance with six women — they danced in perfect unison and when they twirled in circles their dresses blurred in vibrant colors. Another memorable one was the peacock dance, which was a hoot.

dancing women in udaipur cultural show

donkey construction india

The entire night was capped with a woman doing a balancing act. It sounds a bit silly on the surface, but displayed true feats with her incredible poise and ability. She started with just one big bucket on her head and then slowly stacked as many as 16 buckets! With all that on her head, she twirled, shuffled, and dipped — she swayed to the music but never lost the balance of those things perched on her head.

Her dance showcased the talent of Indian women for balancing large loads on their heads.  This is one of the most impressive things I bear witness to every day. The women use this skill to facilitate every aspect of their lives. They carry buckets of water on their heads from the community well back to their homes. And they are even used on construction sites across the country to clear rubble. The men do the construction while the women carry stones, wood, and debris away from the construction site one plate-full at a time. It’s a large part of the culture. I spotted a woman in town with a team of donkeys who was able to forgo carting the rubble on her head by instead wrangled the donkeys through the town, back and forth, all day long.

a traditional indian thali

Oh! And I discovered the best thalis ever in Udaipur — in my entire trip to India so far, in fact. I could never return to Udaipur without stopping at Natraj Lodge for a $1 thali. The spot is local and well-loved. It’s not remotely near the tourist side of town either, so my cousin and I were the only goras there. This thali was worth the 15 minute rickshaw ride. The the food was flavorful, fresh, and distinctive. I’ve mentioned the thali before — it was my first meal in India when I landed in Mumbai. It’s a never-ending dish of dhal, curries, veggies, rice, naan, and a variety of dips for the food. The servers circulate with trays of the various dishes and scoop a refill onto your plate. To stop the flow of food, you have to cover the dish with your hands. They return a couple more times until they begin to then bypass your table on their rounds. This is one of the best dishes I’ve sampled so far India — incredibly tasty, a bit spicy (our noses were running when we were finished), and contained every element of the flavors I love in Indian food.

indian man drinks chai

A Little History… Here’s Why Indians Drink So Much Chai Tea!

An Indian man sips a chai tea on a break.
An Indian man sips a chai tea on a break.

Landing in Udaipur and staying for a week was a needed treat in these weeks and months of rapid travel and newness every morning when I face the day. I landed in Mumbai and startled at the lessons I had to learn about this complex country. Social norms here are different, expectations, interactions, cultures, and smells—it’s all light-years from my home, and even different from Southeast Asia, where I just left. And so, Udaipur was a relaxing stop and I’m glad that I took the week to learn the town and get used to India’s many peculiarities and quirks. I also had solid wifi at a nearby restaurant and so I spent my days in Udaipur doing client work in the mornings, then taking it slow on the sightseeing. And I drank chai, I drank a lot of chai.

What is Chai Tea?

Chai is a delightful and tasty treat. It’s a spicy tea cooked slowly so the flavors seep out and spill into the hot water. Then it’s milked and sugared and served boiling hot in a tiny glass. Everywhere I look, people sip chai. Locals drink it at least three times a day, and likely many, many more times than that. And chai consumption extends to foreigners too. Shop owners are quick to offer up a cup of steaming-hot, so-sweet, burn-your-mouth chai as I browse their wares. If you agree to a cup they send a chai wallah down the street to their preferred vendor, and in less than two minutes the chai wallah is back with a tea for everyone involved.

Because of this, I’ve had as many as seven cups of chai in a single day. It’s impossible to avoid and it’s a fun dynamic that laces every encounter.

If you head to a vendor to book train tickets, they are thrilled to help—but how about a chai before getting down to the basics?

Having breakfast? I think it needs a bit of chai.

Dinner on the docket—not without a bit of chai time.

Is it 95 degrees outside with a sweltering, humid heat?  Yep, still chai appropriate.

Why Do Indians Drink Chai?

Chai tea in India is entrenched in the culture; it’s a legacy of the British. Only once the British arrive did India begin the cultivation of tea through tea plantations now covering massive swaths of Assam, Darjeeling, and other areas of India—this took off in the 1830s with the arrival of the British East India Company.

That doesn’t mean Indians weren’t drinking tea before the British arrived—herbal teas have long been a part of Ayurvedic medicine and spices and herbs have been used for centuries across India. It’s the commercial production of tea, however, that really changed the way Indians consumed tea. Tea is a massive export for India, and those two tea regions? Assam and Darjeeling are not only regions of India covered in tea plantations, they are two famous types of tea only grown in India.

Why Drink Tea When It’s Hot Outside?

I asked myself why Indians drink chai, not only why it’s a part of the culture, but why sip a hot drink in such sweltering heat? Even once the British left India, the culture of drinking tea did not. Tea is the most popular drink across the subcontinent, not only because of the culture, but it’s affordable to even the poorest.

Tea is grown in India, it’s a major export from regions like Darjeeling, so locals don’t pay import fees. It’s a family business for many as well and in the early days when the plantations began producing, the tea farmers offered samples to Indians to get them hooked.

Recipes vary between vendors and locals find a chai wallah with the perfect mix of spices, ginger, milk, and sugar, and they become lifelong customers. This is a fascinating series of vignettes on chai in India. And what’s more, Indians drink chai because of the heat, not in spite of it. Drinking a piping hot chai—or any hot drink—triggers cooling mechanisms inside of your body. Receptors in your mouth tell your body that you’re hot and your body responds by upping the number of cool mechanisms—sweat among them—and it exceeds the effect of adding a hot liquid into your system.

Plus, a billion people can’t be wrong, the Indians clearly are on to something here.

And so, drinking chai is a part of the Indian culture at every level.

There’s no escaping the fact that chai has a ubiquitous presence in their lives, and there’s no escaping its presence for travelers. Here’s the kicker about the thing—you can’t refuse a chai. It’s just not done. Culturally, you simply have to accept each masala chai offered or risk offense. Trust me, I learned this the hard way. As I searched for a specific boutique recommended in my guidebook, I just couldn’t find it. And that’s when a friendly Indian man in his twenties helped out, he pointed the way and good-naturedly bid me a “good day.” The next day, as I wandered around I passed the same man again! He was pleased to cross paths again and he offered to take me across the road for a cup of chai and conversation. Still getting used to the pace of life in India, and I didn’t realize that a polite refusal is an insult. With a smile and a lighthearted let’s do it next time we cross paths, his response was equally polite but a definitive no, he said, “Oh, but I will not offer again.”

And with that he walked away.

So far the people are overwhelmingly kind and open. I’ve never felt unsafe in accepting these bids for conversation, and usually I do sit for a bit and try to slow down the pace of my life. But in this situation, I just had somewhere I thought I needed to be. The truth is, I could have stopped for the chai. It’s new, this idea of stopping every activity to take a moment for a chat. But it’s fun too, it’s a neat quirk of the culture. And so, the next time I’m asked to chai, I’ll give the only acceptable answer: “Sounds perfect, where should we take our tea?”