Udaipur is oozed charm and I found it delightful. The streets maze through the city, towering buildings blotting out the sun. We found a gorgeous guesthouse, a new friend at the shop next door, and a good pace of life. I loved it enough to spend several extra days in the city, spending a week to relax, eat, and enjoy. It’s also been an effective way to both cut the travel fatigue and to keep a low budget. It’s the transportation and travel days adding extra costs. Although, I also admit that the dollar is quite strong, so even on a splurge day I am often below my anticipated budget. I know that will change when I reach places with the larger tourist attractions — the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple — but right now the focus is on soaking in Indian food, culture, and the pace of life.
The hotels here sport gorgeous rooftop restaurants. It’s a city with a lake, and that makes for prime sunrise, sunset viewings, and afternoons on the patio with a lassi and a breeze. There are three main palaces here too, each one interesting with a stor and history: Lake Palace, City Palace and Monsoon Palace.
The Lake Palace, as the name would suggest is the palace surrounded by Udaipur’s partly natural, partly man-made Lake Pichola. Although you can take a boat out to the Lake Palace Hotel, the lake was low since it’s the tail end of India’s dry season. Instead, my cousin and I chose a new restaurant each night and watched the moon rise over the lake and Palace while we gorged on the flavorful spread of Indian dishes.
The town is beautiful. I’m not on a high budget for this trip, but in Udaipur there are no bad views. Every window of the hotel, the restaurants, the shops — they afford the chance to gaze at mountains, lake, and palaces. It’s stunning and I understood quickly why every rooftop functions as a restaurant, cafe, or hotel. Udaipur is a place where you want to linger and soak in the atmosphere.
The City Palace sits on the edge of Lake Pichola, it’s the largest palace in Rajasthan, which is India’s arguably most tourism-heavy one of the states. The City Palace museum is interesting too, and I don’t usually love museums. My cousin and I considered saving the 100 rupee entry fee and skipping the museum, but that would have been silly. Both of us were happy to have spent the $2 fee to see everything up close and learn more about the city’s history.
Plus, the views of the Lake Palace and two islands in the lake is beautiful from this spot — dozens of terraces and cupolas within the palace offer views of the surrounding mountains and palaces. I ended up taking way more pictures than I had anticipated, and I enjoyed it more than I anticipated as well!
The museum showcases some of the oddest and random arrangements of well, stuff. From a room highlighting olden-time fans (this picture is for my dad since he collects and restores antique fans!) to a peek into the old-style throne-room, it was bizarre. The peacock is the state bird of Rajasthan; dozens of intricate peacock mosaics adorned the structure.
With two of the three palaces explored, my cousin and I packed a few snacks and used a rickshaw for the 30 minute ride to the Monsoon Palace. The thing is, the Monsoon Palace is nothing to write home about in and of itself — when I visited in 2009, the state government was still restoring the palace. It was empty inside, which has me curious about what it will become. But! The Monsoon Palace is built on a mountain, and views of Udaipur on one side and the rolling hills and mountains on the other. Locals had advised that we stay for sunset, so we had packed a few snacks for primo seats and views.
The Monsoon Palace was peaceful. It was a lovely way to end our visit to Udaipur. And even though a dozen or so other tourists had the same idea, everyone was there to relax. It’s a quiet, tranquil setting. One Indian man near my perch meditated on a ledge for the 45 minutes before sunset.
Once the sun dipped over the horizon, we used our waiting rickshaw for a moonlit dinner on the lake. After the frenetic pace of India in my first days in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, life is pretty darn good right now. I always try to remember how lucky I am to have online work that has allowed me to take this trip. It’s a charmed life, and one I am grateful for every day. :)
This short video shows the local temple playing the call to prayer — it happens several times a day, every day:
My time in India didn’t start on the right foot. I landed in a massive city, Mumbai, and I didn’t have my wits about me enough to understand where I needed to be cautious. From there, Ahmedabad lacked charm but it was nice to visit Gandhi’s ashram and learn more about his life. When I first told other travelers of my plans to backpack India, they had one common refrain: you have to stay for longer than three weeks. The theory goes, once you pass the three-week mark, your brain and body overcomes the seeming absurd and instead embraces the orchestrated chaos and charm. If you leave on your first impression, you may very well hate the experience and never return.
I rolled my eyes at the time. It just seemed incomprehensible to understand why time would make a difference. I was in Laos for just a few hours when I knew it was a special place I would return to for the rest of my life. But with India, they were right. It took me weeks to shake off the tension and anxiety. It’s hard to understand India, and my brain was desperate to make sense of it all. But given enough time to abandon the idea that I would ever figure it out, one day I woke and realized that I was enjoying myself, the country, and my interactions with the Indian culture.
Udaipur was my first stop in a smaller and more charming area of India. Located in Rajasthan and known for its lakes and palaces, the city is tailored for the tourism. By that I mean there is a lot less staring, and it’s easy to navigate without being hassled. I loved my guesthouse; the Lakeview Guest House is centrally located, decently priced, and the room had an beautiful balcony overlooking the hills, mountains, and lakes surrounding the city. Each morning, my cousin and I ate breakfast while watching the light move across the lake.
Our first night in Udaipur, we hunted for an internet café that would allow us to use our laptops. It’s been a bit of a pain finding internet here in India, but I need it for my online work — luck was on my side and I found a solid connection at Masala Restaurant. But on the way, the adventures began. I stopped to poke through a small art shop and met Sanju, a local artist. Udaipur is famous for its miniature artists, and Sanju snatched my ring finger and began sketching on my fingernail. After just one minute of rapid, mini, strokes he had painted an elephant on my nail. My cousin received a peacock on hers, and we were both delighted with the intricate detail in the design.
As we chatted and sampled chai, Sanju invited us to a wedding later that evening. We ran the invitation by our fast friend, a man running the nearby shop, and he said it was legitimate. We gussied ourselves up, but on some jewelry and our kurtahs, and jumped onto the back two motorbikes with Sanju and his best friend. The moment we walked through the door, we were an instant hit with the friends and family of the couple. It seemed completely odd to me that we were invited to a wedding, but Indian’s love celebrations and spread joy with enthusiasm. Plus, Westerners have celebrity status here, especially with the kids. We had a paparazzi style camera shoved into our faces, a portable spotlight shined on us, and then preceded to take no fewer than 30 or 40 photos with the groom, the grooms’ friends, family, uncles, cousins, sisters, etc — it was great!
The women were kitted to the nines in the most beautiful saris I have ever seen. Jewelry adorned their wrists and faces, chains looped across their hair, and around their ankles. And the kids were such hams! As soon as I pulled out my camera, I had their rapt attention. One little boy pimped out his black suit — he strutted around the place with his back as straight as could be and rocked all of his mere four years.
When the wedding ended and we headed back to our side of town, my cousin and I were giddy with the fun, joy, and memories. What a beautiful chance to be a part of a local celebration and learn more about the customs. The wedding was a Muslim celebration, and therefore much more subdued than traditionally Indian weddings, but it was still beautiful and fun. The only weird part of the evening was a entirely confusing and odd situation with his buddy Lucky. In short, they both separately pulled me aside on the rooftop, clasped my hand, and proposed marriage. I kid you not. And they played a good poker face because they seemed hurt when my instinct was to laugh and retreat. India, what a delightfully weird place.
I like to think that I have both a great sense of humor, and a fair amount of tolerance. India is testing those two qualities at every opportunity. My cousin and I arrived in Ahmedabad exhausted from the constant jostling of nine hours in the commuter section of the train — big whoops on booking that seat through a middleman! We were told foreigners usually spring for a different section, but we got had by a ticket agent in Mumbai. The train ride assaulted our senses and gave us a crash course on getting to know India. We were stared at heaps throughout the ride, and even touched by other commuters.not inappropriately, just more in our personal space and some of the women would reach out and stroke our skin or hair.
To be fair, the train ride was really not as bad as I am making it sound. Immersion is the whole point — I want to understand the cultural nuances and facets. It’s more that it wasn’t our choice, we had paid for different seats on a different train. I had left that morning unprepared for such a long train ride — it took many hours longer than the direct one — and we were squished face-to-butt in the cabin. This is a daily reality for Indians, and it was interesting to spend hours watching locals also pass the time with newspapers, kids, and snacks.
But basically, what I’m saying is that the day, the country, and the entire “India”-ness of it all tested us. It’s not a stretch to say that we were the only Westerners on the train that day — probably the only ones taking it on any given day. We caught a tuk-tuk from the train station to Hotel Alka, which did the job as far as accommodation is concerned.
The guy booking our tickets in Mumbai couldn’t fathom why we wanted to go to Ahmedabad, but it was our next planned stop. Plus, my ever-present Lonely Planet described Ahmedabad as having “old-world charm… fabulous night markets… and a pulsating Indian city.”
What a crock. I am not even sure the guidebook writers visited the city. Or perhaps they simply feel that they can’t say anything negative about any location, even when it is totally deserved? It’s not charming, and having seen a good number of charming places these past weeks in India, I don’t think it’s mean to say so.
I’ll be frank, there was little charming to recommend about the city itself — and I’m usually a glass half-full kinda gal! I tried really hard to like Ahmedabad. I swear, I did. But it’s not a tourist city, it’s more a hub of locals getting on living life. Hilariously, our hotel, while quite nice with hot showers and clean sheets, was right across the street from the Indian equivalent of a waste-management system. By day, the garbage from the immediately surrounding area is brought to this dump and then sorted for plastic bottles by a team of Indian women. The plastic is then removed and presumably traded for money is how I understand the system. As evening settles each day, all cows in the vicinity migrate to our trash heap and clean up the scraps of food and paper (yes, cows here frequently munch on loose cardboard and newspaper).
While I thought that, perhaps, this cow-paper-food thing as a means of sanitation was an isolated incident, my subsequent weeks here have indicated that this is, in fact, the way it’s done in many cities and towns. I have yet to see any actual garbage trucks or other landfills, so add this to the growing list of “you learn something new every day” experiences.
Sightseeing in Ahmedabad
There were two parts I enjoyed about visiting Ahmedabad — Satyagraha Ashram (Gandhi’s ashram), and FabIndia.
My cousin and I stopped here mostly so that we could visit Gandhi’s ashram. There are few Indian figures as internationally known and recognizable as Gandhi. Once I learned that this was his home for many years, I wanted to visit.
The Ashram was built in 1915 and Gandhi lived here with his wife for much of his life. This ashram allowed Gandhi and his followers to live by his principles and live away from the hustle and bustle and politics of some Indian cities.
To honor Gandhi, the ashram has a wonderful museum with photos from his life, and posters with some of his philosophy and quotes. One of my favorites comes as a part of the core Ashram policies, XI: Equality of Religions:
The Ashram believes that the principle faiths of the world constitute a revelation of truth but as they have all been outlined by imperfect men they have been affected by the imperfections and alloyed with untruth. One must therefore entertain the same respect for the religious faiths of others as one accords to one’s own.
The ashram was filled with pieces of wisdom. Other quotes I liked include:
The only drawback to the ashram was the fact that a group of men began to follow us within minutes of entering. They covertly snapped my pictures of their cameras, documenting each moment as my cousin and I looked at the pictures and read the facts. This had happened in Mumbai some too, if we were walking in a certain area of the city we were sure to be stopped, but because it was the city we could just move on once we took a photo with the people.
This was more difficult in the ashram, where we were walking through a set route in the museum and we were trying to focus on the information and experience. The photographers my cousin a lot though, so we confronted the picture-takers. They begged for “just one picture.”
At this point, I wasn’t wise to the fact that “one picture” really means as many as they can talk you into. But we wanted to nicely appease their request and also gain our freedom from the entourage. We agreed, took some pictures, and then thought it would be the end of it all. But the ashram attracts all sorts of visitors, not just foreigners, but Indians from all over the country too. These men were intrigued enough to continue following us. What had started as a small group of four guys morphed into as many as a dozen men slowly following us as we attempted to look through the museum.
The following became so intense that we fled the museum and headed out to the Ashram’s manicured lawns for space. India’s women and children are just as fascinated by our Western-ness, and that’s who we found also having down-time in the green open spaces. My cousin and I took great shots with a large family of women and children out on the lawn — they were all so very sweet. They women are more easily handled and we were less bothered with their requests.
Within a few minutes though, the same group of men hunted us down and continued what I can now only call the slow stalking. Moments later a school group of 60 children joined in with the gawking. We called it a day and took that as our cue to leave. We had already planned to go check out a recommended store, so we grabbed a rickshaw again and headed the driver straight to FabIndia.
Our hopes for FabIndia? That wearing Indian-style dress would be our “incognito clothes” and would hopefully help us blend in more — we were failing the blending test so far. Considering my cousin and I both tower over all of the men and women in the country, and considering that my cousin rocks gorgeous-but-not-inconspicuous red hair, we knew that blending in was a tall order. But we had hopes would help.
We found awesome deals at FabIndia and had a blast searching through the vast colors and styles of kurtas and saris. What fun. With these purchases, we considered our time in Ahmedabad well spent and we both couldn’t wait to go back to the hotel and try them on.
Oh! And on our hunt for a grocery store, we found a vegetarian McDonald’s — cool! We snapped our picture with Ronald and ordered up a Paneer Tikka Pita — kinda awesome, kinda disgusting, but it was an experience nonetheless. Ahmedabad wasn’t the most spectacular spot on the trip, but it did have its own kind of adventure. :)
Arriving in India after backpacking Southeast Asia shocked my senses. Traveling for those weeks gave me a sense of rhythm to the region and I had just begun to figure it out. I knew the cultural nuances, had figured out the lay of the land, and I enjoyed traveling with my friend Laura. Landing in India has changed the name of the game again. It’s a whirl of new ideas, people, languages, smells, and culture.
I’ve talked about the slow pace of the Laos, and also about the faster pace of Cambodia. Even my week in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh left me underprepared for the experience of navigating Mumbai. During my first four months traveling, other travelers bombarded me with stories. They spoke of their rapturous love for the people of India, about the kindness and warmth they encountered. Then they tempered that love with talk of extreme poverty, filth, stomach illnesses, and a new culture bearing resemblance to no other one on earth.
My mind jumbled with the thoughts and stories. It made me cautious and curious about what I would find when I touched down at Mumbai International Airport. When planning this year around the world, it’s been this leg of the trip that worried me the most. After the Laos experience, and I fearful of getting sick — my immune system is still low and I’m still a good 15 pounds underweight. I’ve embraced my frugal, backpacker lifestyle in so many ways, but as I landed in India, I sent up a prayer for safety to all of the Hindu gods. I am traveling with my cousin through India and Nepal, and I hope that we both are able to uncover the joy and welcome that other travelers have shared about their own journeys through India.
Mumbai Airport to Colaba
My cousin had arrived earlier in the day and we agreed to meet at our hotel in the backpacker part of Mumbai, Colaba. The visa that I painstakingly procured in Phnom Penh, Cambodia the previous month, it worked flawlessly at immigration control and I was grateful to have no issues getting into India considering that I didn’t yet have my flight booked out of India. It’s a pretty open-ended few months, with only my volunteering stint in Nepal on the horizon. I found another western couple in the taxi queue and we shared a cab ride to Colaba. Much to my intrigued and horrified gaze, I watched our driver stash our three backpacks in the trunk, then he used a fraying, thinned rope to hold the trunk closed. I was betting my every worldly possession on the hope that the rope would hold for our journey across Mumbai.
Funny side story, my pants ripped their seam as I sat down in the front seat of the taxi. These were cheap fisherman pants I had picked up in Laos, so it wasn’t the greatest tragedy, but it was a conundrum. I sat perfectly still for 30 seconds pondering how in the world I could remedy the situation without offending the modest sensibilities of this culture I had just entered. Since we hadn’t left yet, the woman sharing my cab offered to dig through my backpack for my long scarf. It worked! But I’ll admit I was now acutely self-conscious of the gaping hole in my pants hidden from the world by a thin brown scarf.
Our driver spent a good six minutes bringing to life his sputtering taxi, and after it groaned into life we exited the airport. The airport shinned in the afternoon light, glinting glass and steel. It seemed completely modern and the initial scene could have dropped me at most any airport in the world. And then the line of fancy hotels broke and into the horizon I gazed out at a wall of slums. These rickety buildings stretched far into the distance, a seemingly impenetrable maze of corrugated tin and tape.
The walls of each hut were constructed from scraps of plastic, discarded bars of metal, and rusted tin. From each column hung a raft of worldly possessions greying in the harsh Indian sun. And while it seems trite to related to the world through movies, they also can provide a different perspective on a situation. Without a reason to visit the slums, I have no knowledge of the inner workings. And yet, I can imagine a life behind the dappled sunshine that must pass through the cracks. I watched Slumdog Millionaire a few days after arriving in India. Apart from being in incredible story —well scripted, beautifully acted, scored, and filmed — it gave me a window into these lives. It’s a Hollywood-ized version yes, but even the spruced up movie version was disturbing enough to point to darker truths about the lives of India’s slum dwellers. (In the years since, I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a haunting nonfiction account of the lives of those living in the Annawadi slum — that very slum I passed leaving the airport. It will forever change your outlook on poverty, humanity, and culture. I highly recommend anyone visiting India read that book.)
Within seconds, however, we had zipped past the slum and then came to an abrupt halt in Mumbai’s gridlocked traffic. It took an hour to reach Colaba and as we pulled to the curb I spotted my cousin and darted from the cab (careful of my scarf), to wrap her up in a huge bear hug. It’d had been a long time since I had last seen family.
After laughing at my ridiculous pants situation, my cousin hauled me off to our hotel and up four flights of narrow, steep stairs. Our room was exceedingly plain, but clean. And claiming near-starvation, I dropped my bags, changed my pants, and pulled her back onto the streets of Colaba in search of food.
With my mood balanced by tasty food, I took stock of my first impressions this country I would call home for the next two months. Utter chaos. The noise, people, crowds, smalls — everything rolled into a single assault on my senses. Even my thoughts banged loudly around my head, they seemed to race to keep up with the frenetic energy.
And let’s talk a moment about the smells. Wow this is a smelly place, both good and bad. Like Southeast Asia, street food is popular and small restaurants spill into the street. These scents of fresh food waft through the air. I am giddy at the memory of so many amazing vegetarian foods cooking in every stall.
And yet, the spicy scent of Indian food competes with sun-heated cow dung, ripe sweat, the stringent smell of old urine. And overtop all of that, the heady perfume from incense permeating every open space.
Beyond the scent though, the other sense are assaulted too. I navigated through curtains of Crayola-colored saris. Each one more elaborate than the last, my only thought was: Holy smokes, Indian women are gorgeous! My cousin and I dodged cars, cows, kids, beggars, and fruit vendors on our way to the restaurant we had picked out from our Lonely Planet India.
I am jazzed about the vegetarian food in India. I opted for an ice-cold sweet lassi, and my cousin and I split the south-Indian thali and a masala dosa. In the few weeks since I landed in India, the thali has become my go-to dish. It’s a sample platter of the restaurant’s dishes, and many times it’s free refills! This first one had four different curries and gravy dishes served with a huge piece of chapatti bread. Another favorite part? The huge plate of possible condiments and compliments to the dish: coconut paste, onions and lemon added a bit of pep to each of the meals. It was delicious.
As a vegetarian, there is no other country in the world so suited to my diet. It’s an entire food culture shaped around making vegetarian food flavorful and delicious.
With few things we wanted to see in Mumbai (I am not a big city person), my cousin and I began our journey north. From the guidebook’s description, we had decided that a few nights in Ahmedabad would break up our journey north, while also allowing us to visit Gandhi’s ashram.
In booking our tickets, I learned the first of many lessons in India — don’t take shortcuts! Instead of journeying across town like our guesthouse recommended, my cousin and I chose a hole-in-the-wall spot that we had passed on our walk. That decision came back to bite us in the ass. But we didn’t yet know the folly of our choice, and we had just one afternoon left in the city. We didn’t have firm plans, and that would become the second lesson: don’t look lost or easy prey. Within a few minutes a pair of charming street hustlers realized that my cousin and I didn’t have our India wits honed. Without that savvy, we followed along and agreed to share a cup of chai and a bit of conversation.
An hour later, we saw the first hints of ulterior motives. It was a soft hustle though, and we sort of went with the flow for a while, gently letting them know that we weren’t interested in buying things. But they led us to a small bazaar and began a hard sell on the saris. Although we both actually wanted saris so we could better blend, we niether wanted these, nor did we appreciate the pressure. The situation spiked my anxiety and I started caving just to make the situation stop. My cousin stayed level-headed, however, and just grabbed my arm and pulled me away. She marched us right out of that situation and wouldn’t acknowledge them calling us back with threats and cajoling.
We found out our train surprise the next morning when we boarded. After navigating the throngs of locals staring gaped-mouthed at our whiteness, we located our assigned seats on the train. They were in the commuter section of a local train running to Ahmedabad. The good news was, we’d get there. The bad news was, we payed more money for the right to smashed butt-to- face with for nine hours. It was a hilarious introduction to India, and I suppose we could have had much worse lessons than the two we faced.
Listening to: Gorillaz — new to me, I’m thinking I like them!
Thought of the day: There is a dignified poverty amidst the other begging, scamming, and abject poverty. There are families who don’t want your pity or your money, they simply want to offer you a chai and chat. With so many near-misses on scamming so far, I’m reminding myself that not all people have ulterior motives counter to my own well-being.
It was a little painful to wake up at 5:00am, but we had no choice but to catch the morning train out of Jaipur after the Holi Festival of Colors revelry. My cousin and I dragged ourselves out of bed, slung our pre-packed backpacks onto our shoulders, and trudged to the train station — it was early. It also hadn’t quite hit either of us yet that we were on our way to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal.
I mean, can I just repeat this one more time: the TAJ MAHAL! Once we arrived at the train station, I sipped my milky masala chai with wafers of steam floating into the space in front of my face. A maelstrom of thoughts raged wondering what the day would bring.
Arriving in Agra by Train
On the recommendation of our fantastic travel agent in Udaipur (he hooked us up with some amazing deals on trains and flights) we were not going to spend the night in Agra. Instead, our four hour train from Jaipur to Agra would put us into the city around 10am.
Then the plan was to check our bags in the luggage room at the train station and then wander the city for 14 hours until our next train at 12:18am — we weren’t thrilled at the prospect of staying in the city without a place to hunker down and rest, but other travelers had concurred with the travel guide that you just don’t need to stay in that tourist-trap of a city for more than a day.
So, a bit groggy and a whole lot of hungry we landed at the Agra Fort train station all prepared to check our bags. We caught a lucky break at this point. The luggage storage man asked to see our onward ticket and informed us that our midnight train departed from the other train station. Yeah, ok. Another train station, we knew that. … With that we caught a rickshaw to the other station and were saddened to discover that this luggage room was way more sketch than the previous one. With that in mind we found an empty room, closed the door, and began a massive reorganization of our packs.
One of the downsides of carrying a computer is that I always have to be super cautious of where I am leaving my backpacks. Normally, in this situation Helen and I would have just carried them for the day, but as luck would have it you are forbidden to carry electronics into the Taj (or books for that matter — how ridiculous is that).
With a clear picture of the questionably safe luggage room in mind we pulled out my Pacsafe. This contraption is a steel mesh net that fits over my big pack, and then I chain it with its cord to stationary object. I haven’t used it very often on this trip, but it has been priceless the half-a-dozen times I have had to use it. I put both mine and Helen’s laptops in my big backpack, repacked, and then headed to the luggage room to check our bags and get on with our day.
The two guys I used as protection for Holi in Jaipur gave us a stellar recommendation for a rooftop restaurant with views of the Taj and a relaxed atmosphere where we could hang out for several hours when we needed to recharge. The Saniya Guesthouse and Restaurant (which may not be the best place to sleep, but has a really decent rooftop restaurant) gave us our first glimpses of the Taj standing proud and gleaming in the bright mid-day sun. We had a delicious lunch of vegetable jalfrezi, naan, and some sweet lassis to prepare ourselves for the touring of Agra Fort and the Taj.
Exploring Agra Fort & the Taj Mahal
Agra Fort is one of the best Mughal forts in India. This spot is a UNESCO World Heritage site in its own right even though it’s hard to pay attention to the Fort with the Taj Mahal visible just in the distance from nearly every corner. The Fort channels the look of the Tah and much of the Fort is built in vibrantly red sandstone but later additions were done in the same white marble that makes the Taj look so magnificent.
The Taj Mahal itself was built by the Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his wife who died in childbirth. That must have been some intense love, right! He built her one of the most spectacular monuments on the face of the earth. The entirety of the Taj is built in symmetry and the wife’s body lies at the very center.
We took a guide around the Taj and were able to learn a lot about the history of how it was built as well as some of the neat optical illusions that were built into the design. I really don’t know how to describe the Taj so I will concur with the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, he poetically describes the structure as “a teardrop on the face of eternity.”
As a sad part of the whole story, Jahan, the emperor who had the Taj commissioned and patiently waited the 22 years for its completion, was imprisoned in Agra Fort by his son shortly after it was completed. Jahan was forced to spend the last eight years of his life looking at the masterpiece from across the river and through the Fort’s windows: his view until the day he died and was then put to rest beside his wife.
Our guide spoke great English and wasn’t pushy at all like so many of the others we had encountered and, in the end, I was really glad we forked over the five bucks for him. Although it’s spectacular on its own accord, it’s doubly spectacular if you understand the architecture and special peculiarities.
One of the things he pointed out was a discrepancy. All of the dozens of columns around the Taj are in an angular design, but although the Taj is designed with perfect symmetry in mind, the creator felt that nothing can acheive perfection except for Allah (God) so he made one round column at the back:
Also, having a guide made my cousin and me less of a spectacle while we were guided about. As soon as we wandered alone, we were immediately and frequently accosted by groups of Indians begging for “just one picture.” They invariably are never satisfied with one picture. Many a time we were stuck taking pictures for several minutes as we posed with each member of the family.
To counter some of this attention whenever groups of young guys would approach us we requested that they dance for the picture. Some charming kids we met in one of the early towns taught us the phrase “tom naacho” (will you dance) and we used it often and much to the hilarity of all those who heard Hindi words coming out of our very, very white selves.
It worked a couple of times, and one enthusiastic Indian guy began the popular, one hand in the air, one hand on the hip thrusting and hip jutting moves from his favorite Bollywood hit. My stomach hurt from the giggling. It was hilarious, and my I happily clapped along and then smiled big for his picture; he earned it!
I also took a bunch of shots with this family — the little boy was seriously cute! And they had all never really seen a white person before.
For a while, as we wandered about and relaxed on some shady benches we were pretty much convinced that we had the worst luck ever. We had been at the Taj for hours and the sun didn’t even make a sneak peek from behind the clouds!
I had heard so much clamour about the changing colors of the Taj’s white marble and as we were walking back across the extensive grounds, resigned to have dinner at Saniya, the sun peaked out from the clouds and we were fortunate to watch the white marble of the Taj turn impossible shades of peach, tangerine, and golden yellow. Spectacular.
We capped it with dinner overlooking the Taj and then headed back to the train station to wait out the remaining three hours. Up next is the longest train ride yet, 17 hours on the 2nd class sleeper section of the train. You don’t know intensity until you’re the only Westerner in the commuter section of an Indian train.
Currently Reading: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I am loving reading this as I continue to journey through India. Oh, and my India Lonely Planet is pretty much the best purchase possible. It has come in so handy.
India’s Festival of Colors, was tops at my list of travel experiences when I planned my round the world trip. I love festivals, it’s such a beautiful, vibrant way to experience a culture. The rainbow of colors streaking radiantly happy faces during Holi stuck a chord with me. The subcontinent is a huge place though, and there are a lot of places in India to celebrate—each place has their unique take on the festivities. At the end of this post is a guide to celebrating Holi. For me, a little research showed that Jaipur hosts an elephant-filled extravaganza during the annual Jaipur Elephant Festival, which takes place the day before Holi. Sign me up! I planned my whole route and timing around the world so I could make it to see the colorful elephants and the joyous celebration of Spring.
Rajasthan acts as the epicenter of the intense and frenzied Holi action, although the Festival of Colors is celebrated throughout the north India and even into Southern Nepal. There are celebrations in the south as well, but these are more subdued and focused on the religious aspects. The north is where those colorful faces and clouds of powder take place. In celebrating Holi in full, various aspects of the celebrations occur over several days. Holika Dahan involves households all over the country purging darkness and negativity from their homes, they take these items into the streets and burn them in bonfires on the last night of Holi, which is the night before the Festival of Colors.
If you’re planning a trip to India for Holi, or wondering what it’s like to partake in the festival, this Ultimate Guide to Celebrating Holi in India will sort you with everything you need to know for a safe Festival of Colors.
Jaipur Elephant Festival: Elephants Decked Out & On Parade
Jaipur is unique for holding the longest running elephant parade in the country. This parade has run for hundreds of years, and the Elephant Festival is certainly the most colorful elephant event! Energy shoots like electrical current through the Elephant Festival, and crowds from all over the region pour into Jaipur’s Chaugan Stadium the evening before Holi. The entire festival is keeping with what a I have come to love and hate about India—chaos and a touch of mayhem ruled the event. All of that confusion made some parts of the festival a little lackluster in some regards. It was nice, but my guidebook oversold the event a tad by rating it a must see. I am so glad I celebrated Holi, and the Elephant festival is both fun and beautiful. It’s a great option if you are already in Jaipur, but there are other wonderful places to celebrate Holi as well.
The Elephant Festival really was chaos, and sadly that detracted from it. Some of the events on the schedule were delayed or moved to other areas without notice. The general day goes like this: parade of elephants at the Festival, followed by dancers, musicians, and the tourist verses elephant trainer tug-of-war. And though all of this happened, it was an event completely in line with the India-ness of it all: there was no order. The announcer couldn’t get people off of the field for long enough to perform the planned dances. Once the field was cleared, there was still no way you could see what was happening because the crowds refused to stay seated. I took quite a few gentle elbows to my gut with people vying to see it all!
And the funny thing about the manhandling, it’s totally okay in India. There is nothing wrong with pushing someone out of the way, or standing directly in front of someone seated. This is just India, if you want the better view, you have to fight for it. And mind you, this is still the day before Holi, so the festivities were only ramping up!
And unlike in most of the Western world, there is no malevolence when they are doing. They fully anticipate that if you care enough, you’ll push back and also jostle for the better view. The festival was another reminder that in India, ,you can’t rationalize it. You have to go with the flow and surrender to the India-ness of it all.
Speaking of surrendering to the experience, the height of my Elephant Festival activities peaked when I attempted to shove myself through a small four foot gap leading into Chaugan Stadium. Our tuk-tuk driver took the craziest route imaginable, across wildly unpaved streets jostled and bounced me around the backseat. This route was a “quicker” way into the Stadium. That’s the only explanation I was given from the tuk-tuk driver. I think he meant the most “interesting” way into the Stadium.
It’s important to note that the festival is free, which we knew was the case. This was the main reason I was shocked that he wanted me to crawl through a hole in the chain-linked fence at the back of the stadium.
All I could think was, “Why are we sneaking in?” Our rickshaw driver refused to drive us to the entrance, so my cousin and I wedged our much-larger-than-his western bodies through the hole into the “backstage” area where the performers and elephants get ready for the parades and shows. As we climbed through the fence, one hilarious yahoo informed us that the event was over and we should go home. For about 30 seconds, we believed him. Thankfully, we heard cheers, music, and crowds, and realized he was joking.
Entering via the backstage area gave us a gradual view of the stunningly decorated elephants—even without the formal decorations, even the off-duty elephants had delicately drawn mosaics of colors adorning trunks and ears.
The decorations only got more elaborate as we entered the field and the dancers and elephants were decked out in ornate and heavy costumes that must have seemed like lead weights to the performers. The event ended with a bit of police crowd control and chaotic scattering so I slipped back out of my secret fence and caught a rickshaw home to rest up for Holi festivities!
Experiencing Holi: The Festival of Colors
As for Holi itself, we were amply warned by heaps of people that there is absolutely no way that we should venture outside of our hotel during the morning hours of Holi. My cousin and I were traveling as two solo women, and the guesthouse owner just refused to entertain the concept. Instead, our hotel hosted a “safe Holi” for the other travelers at the hotel. Some of the dangers outside of our walls were: drunken men groping tourists, chemical paint spray guns (instead of the safe dyes they provided), and mobs of people who wouldn’t be able to contain their excitement if they saw a Westerner. We were protected by the walls of our hotel for the main hours of Holi, and we had a blast.
The owner at the Krishna Palace Hotel started the event off by smearing my face with the most vibrant shade of pink powder imaginable. Naturally, I was willing to dive right in and give back as good as I got. No amount of photos and stories can prepare you for the chaotic fun of smearing others with sweet-scented colors—ones that may or may not wash out of their skin. Some of the other tourists were shier. They had to be coaxed onto the patio so that we could play Holi on them.
It was all very tame though. The nature of the event is not to tackle the other person and coat them with color, but rather we were always politely asked before color was smeared onto our forehead, faces, arms, necks and into our hair. My cousin protected her naturally gorgeous red hair with a scarf since we were warned the dye is fairly permanent on light colored hair—me though? as a brunette now, I was like: BRING IT ON!
The real fun came when the water-guns and buckets of water were brought out. Once water is added, the color mattes into your skin. The water unified the giant brilliant colored blobs of pink, purple, green, blue, orange, and red powdered dyes.
The hotel owner and his son took particular pleasure in dousing me in a huge bucket full of water no fewer than six times. Then, the five-year-old neighbor boy ventured into our courtyard and similarly went on the attack with a huge water-gun. The whole event was a community celebration, even for those of us stationed in one house. Roving bands of musicians trotted into our courtyard, played rousing tunes, and then headed onward to the next house.
The hotel-owner’s friends came by with baggies of powered color so they could administer Holi smears and hugs to their friends and family. They also were happy to smear all of us now vibrant, multi-colored Westerners. There was a point at which my cousin was sure that the paint was so thick on my face that no more would adhere to my skin. That fear was alleviated. Within a few minutes, a fellow tourist dumped a bucket of water was dumped on me from behind. Perfect, then my face was primed and ready for more pats and smears of powdered dye.
After a few hours, the hotel owner deemed the streets safe-enough for us tourists to venture out. I attached myself to two blokes from England. They acted as my protection should any of the Holi revelers get a little gropey.
To be truthful, 90 percent of the Holi revelers met us with complete joy, and merely giving hugs and smearing untold coats of paint on my face. But there were definitely some drunk on bhang. These few meant I was perpetually on the offensive. Eventually, I decided to no longer give hugs to the men. There were just a few too many unpleasant groping encounters. Even though some Holi revelers were not in the proper spirit of the festival, I had an absolute blast. Why don’t we have a holiday like this?!
I have these hilarious imaginings of kids in the US going completely nuts and busting out the Super Soaker 10,000s (not sure the latest models of these as I haven’t seen one in maybe a decade?) to dose entire neighborhoods in color!
After an hour or so of wandering the town—when I’d had enough of the revelers on motorbikes screeching to a halt by the road to dose me in more color—I headed back to hotel for the lengthiest shower of my life. And, wouldn’t you know, that even after scrubbing myself with five different types of soap, I was gloriously, horrendously pink. My face took on an alarming shade of fuchsia. As luck would have it, then next day my cousin and headed to the Taj Mahal. It’s a bit of a riot that years from now, as I look at pictures of me in front of this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site, I will have the most peculiar pink hue to my skin! My cousin didn’t quite see the humor in this situation. But, she will come around once she realizes that, well, there is pretty much nothing we can do at this point except: pose, smile big, and laugh at the memories.
After all of that revelry, it was time for one last scrub and a good sleep. We had a 6am train to Agra the next day! This was such a great time to be in India. I am truly grateful that I had the opportunity to celebrate this major festival. And what’s more, all knowledge is worth having. I have just that bit more cultural insight thanks to Holi. Boy do the Indians know how to have a party!
Quick Tips: How to Celebrate Holi in India
Where to Celebrate Holi?
The most exuberant celebrations are in the north, and most any of the big capitals in the north will have rollicking festivities. The Elephant Festival is only in Jaipur. Mathura and Vrindavan are the celebrations you most often see in the photos—these are huge, elaborate, and frenetic. Delhi is surely a good option; it has one of the largest and rowdy Holi celebrations. And if you want to be Holi adjacent, West Bengal has very beautiful cultural and spiritual (adn safe) versions of the Holi celebrations. Notable mentions include the lovely Udaipur, Barsana, and the alternative celebrations in Anandpur Saahib—or more ideas, this post compares 10 places to celebrate.
In Delhi, the Paharganj and Karol Bagh areas are both good for travelers and Holi revelers. I recommend staying at Hotel City Star or Wood Castle—and if you are staying for Holi, look up tickets and dates for the truly great Holi Cow music festival that takes place around Holi.
At Basanta Utsav University in Shantiniketan in West Bengal, celebrations may start a day earlier than in other places. I recommend staying at Nayantara or Pubali Homestay.
Always contact whichever hotel you book before you arrive and confirm if they are offering support for Holi activities and/or their recommendations for celebrating the nearby things to do for Holi.
When is Holi?
The exact dates for Holi change a bit every year, but this festival generally takes place in March. In 2009, Holi took place on March 11, and it generally varies two weeks in either direction. Research exact dates for the celebration, and pay careful attention to when the “Festival of Colors” will be held in your town specifically. Some towns celebrate for more than a week with religious festivals and other aspects of the holiday. Holika Dahan always occurs the day before the Festival of Colors. The celebrations are timed to occur the day after the full moon in March. The color festival is held in the morning, so plan to leave early as the throwing of colors finishes in most towns around 1pm.
These tips will help you make the most of your celebration while staying safe and having a wonderful time experiencing Holi.
Celebrate with a group of other expats, especially if you are a solo woman. The social taboos against touching are lowered for Holi, and there is alcohol involved—women will be groped when solo. Always best to do this with friends.
Seriously, alcohol is consumed during Holi, usually bhang, and this really changes the environment. Be cautious, particularly women things can get scarily out of hand if you are not careful and in groups.
Pick a guesthouse aimed firmly at tourists as they will help you partake in a safe Holi experience.
Leave your guesthouse early in the morning, this festival is over by mid-day.
Pick up some cheap white clothes as this is traditional Holi wear in many towns so you can then be tinted a million colors by the powder. You could also opt for really bright colors. But know that nothing you wear will survive past Holi.
Wear a scarf over your hair if you don’t want it stained and colored for weeks. Some suggest oiling it beforehand as well.
Do not allow Holi revelers to use the metallic colors on your skin, these are particularly harsh chemicals.
Be cautious in the hours during and after Holi as groups of kids can get out of control and will throw things other than powder and water.
Protect your camera, they will not hold back from water and powder just because you are holding expensive gear. Bring a raincoat for your camera, or shoot images from a high place, then put it away before joining the festivities.
There’s a sense of poetic chaos to the roads of Southeast Asia. At first glance, there seems to be no rhyme or reason. Cars whizz past, motorbikes weave and pedestrians walk with a nonchalant indifference. This frenetic pace to the traffic baffled me in my first days in Southeast Asia. The streets of Bangkok are chaotic compared to those of Ho Chi Minh City, but they’re a far cry from the order and neatness of Orlando, Florida.
In the weeks and months since I first left home, I didn’t anticipate that traffic patterns and transportation would be two of the things most impacting my daily life on the road. And yet, even the streets of Sydney, Australia posed a challenge. And that was before I made it to Asia! Now, my Western sensibilities are assaulted at every turn and I’ve had to embrace a new sense of what order and “rightness” means. Because although it seemed baffling at first glance, there’s a balance and harmony to the streets of Southeast Asia that I find quietly lovely.
Here’s what I first found baffling:
Lines in the road are mere suggestions.
It’s acceptable to cross traffic and drive in the opposite direction, against the grain.
There are no crosswalks and traffic lights are negotiable
Tuk tuks, motorbikes, cars and bicyclists all share the road.
And yet, there is a fluidity underneath the traffic patterns that I liken to the hive mentality of bees. The worst thing you can do here is make an unpredictable move. But on the other hand, if you signal your intent, then most anything is acceptable. In practice, that means you move your car over the line and into oncoming traffic if you’re looking to pass a slower moving vehicle — just let them know your intent. Then, as you move into oncoming traffic, everything just shifts to the left, then to the right. And if you need to make a turn but there’s no turn lane, cross sooner and then hug the curb as you drive against the grain. So long as you do it slowly and show your intent, traffic swims around you.
The same goes for pedestrians. Though it looks nearly impossible to cross the larger roads in cities like Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Hanoi, you just have to know the way the game is played. In my early days in Southeast Asia, I would often wait for a local to begin to cross and follow them. The only way this works, however, is to put your trust in the hive.
Take a first step from the curb and you have now signaled your intent to cross the road. Given the right circumstances and assuming you’re visible, traffic will now adjust and swarm around you, predicting your path and speed. It’s almost like the person or tuk tuk or motorbike travels in an invisible bubble. That other people on the road calculate the trajectory of that bubble and then adjust their traffic pattern to match.
It sounds crazy. It feels crazy. And that’s just the half of it. Because at some point you’re the one doing the swarming around the obstacle and it’s just a wild feeling of chaos. Will it work? Will the traffic smooth out? Usually, it does. That said, this region of the world has among the highest rates of death from traffic accidents, so it pays to be cautious.
Let’s Talk About Types of Transportation
I was tense and white-knuckling it through every drive on my first days in Laos. Now, when riding in a tuk tuk I just sit back marvel at the organized chaos that somehow, you know, it just seems to work.
The tuk-tuk is the quintessential form of transport in Southeast Asia. It’s the easiest way to travel most cities in the region, and each town’s tuk tuk’s tend to have their own flair. These are motorbikes with a bubble on the back, that fits two to three (or a lot more if you have little kids too). Then there are the larger tuk tuks that are small pickup trucks with the back converted into two rows of seats. The first kind is popular in Thailand, and the second in Laos. (Of note, Thailand calls the pickup trucks songthaews and they are usually fully covered on the sides with cushy seats—here’s a rundown of all the both normal and weird forms of transportation in Thailand).
On my first packed ride in a Laos tuk tuk, we squished nine backpackers into the back, and then our driver jetted from the curb and proceeded to weave and dart through traffic. I won’t be overly dramatic and say that visions of my life flashed before my eyes, but it was a close call.
There are even more opportunities to push the boundaries of transportation. Motorcycle taxis run throughout most of the towns. So, if you are in a couple or with bags, you usually take a tuk tuk. But if you’re a brave (or incredibly foolish) soul, I’ve seen backpackers clinging to a motorbike with a 65 pound backpack dangling from their back as they wove through town. And helmets aren’t popular here unless you demand one. Places like Bali, Indonesia enforce the helmets laws (and in Vietnam, too), but most locals in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia seem to ride around the city with their helmet in the basket of their bike.
Motorbikes are the most affordable forms of transport, so it’s not uncommon to see almost anything being carted across town on one. It’s pretty standard to see entire families piled on the family motorbike, but also carts of chickens, massive pieces of furniture, pots of food, and anything else that a local might need to procure and move in their life.
It’s all been an education these past weeks. I head to India soon, and I hear tales of rickshaws and mules and human-powered transport. It should be a continuation of the adventures in transport!
Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia
A download of everything I learned from years backpacking Southeast Asia, and a beginners guide of sorts for anyone traveling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia!