Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My India Travels and Eats, Day 4

On day 4 in India, we woke up before sunrise to see the Taj Mahal. The easten gate was maybe 1km, if that, from our hotel. We sunscreened up, ate a small snack from our bag, and left. We walked out and followed another group of white people. That must mean we're headed in the right direction, right? We had a rickshaw driver tell us over and over that the ticketing office was in the opposite direction. We didn't believe him. We kept walking and he kept telling us. We just figured he was trying to sell us his services. Turns out we were both right -- he was trying to sell us his services but the ticketing office WAS in the opposite direction. We sure felt stupid! He walked his rickshaw alongside us, trying to get us to ride the entire way to the ticketing office. You know who else talked to us during the walk to the ticketing office? A LOT Indian vendors. Every shop wanted to sell us their "high quality but inexpensive" marble. Yeah, right. Every guy came up to us and told us to come into his shop after our visit to the Taj Mahal. Everyone tried to sell us clothing, shoes, food. The homeless begged for money. This was NON STOP. The persistence of the rickshaw driver combined with the nagging of every vendor near the eastern gate made us feeling like we wanted to punch someone. We were hating Agra and we had only been out in it for maybe 30 minutes.

When we came out after purchasing tickets, he was still there waiting for us. Ok, we'll take it. The guy was persistent after all. And nice! We talked him down and paid him equivalent to maybe $2 so it wasn't too bad.

Rickshaws are tiiiiny. Michael didn't fit.

We arrived at the eastern gate, again, but this time with tickets in hand. Unfortunately the line into the Taj was no different than any other place in India -- the men and women had separate lines. Michael waved goodbye and headed to his short line.

After going through metal detectors, we were in!

The sun was rising beautifully over the exterior walls of the compound.

Our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal from inside the estate. It blended right into the sky, didn't it? Almost looked like a backdrop.

We've seen pictures, obviously, of the Taj Mahal but we never imagined how it would look in person. Honestly, it's majestic. It's just so... grand. We couldn't believe its beauty. We walked around and hung out in the garden for a while. We couldn't take pictures inside the Taj Mahal but it was stunning. Shah Jahan and Mumatz Mahal are buried inside and surrounded by such ornate details in marble and various gemstones. The exterior walls and land were perfectly built around the Taj Mahal -- everything was made with precision (the Taj Mahal is actually as wide as it tall). There are mausoleums surrounding the Taj Mahal so it took us a while to get through everything.

During our exploration, we ran into an Austrian photographer who was intrigued by me and my "art", as he referred to my tattoos. He kept calling me beautiful and even took a few photos of me in front of the Taj. I just sent him an email and am hoping to get copies soon!

I'm standing next to it for scale.

Sitting on the backside of the Taj Mahal, looking out over the river.

Michael standing next to the entrance to the Taj Mahal for scale.

 We took one last photo before we left to see the variation in color of the sky. Didn't look so much like a backdrop here.

After sightseeing, we head back to our hotel. Of course we were hassled and followed on the way back as well. Damn you, Agra. Since it's still morning we head for the free buffet breakfast before we check out. Luckily almost all of the Indian options are vegan. Score! We stocked up on vada, rice, and some dish that I can't remember. This breakfast was delicious. We ate a LOT of it. We were hungry and about to fly out to Khajuraho so we made sure to stuff our bellies.

As we are checking out, we run into a young Chinese couple. We don't think anything about it until we get into the Agra airport and see them there as well. Hm, coincidence I guess. We fly into Khajuraho and are greeted at the airport by our "hotel representative" and our driver. We were wondering what the heck a hotel representative was. He's almost like a concierge, always keeping in contact with us and helping us with our travels. He takes us back to the hotel, hands us flowers, and checks us in. He shows us to our room and tells us he plans on showing us around Khajuraho (for a price, of course). Temples and folk dancing at night and in the morning go see some more temples! Sounds great! The prices weren't too bad (I think everything was around $20 total) so we agreed to it.

Our room was beautiful. We had a balcony leading out to a grove of papaya and mango trees. We were overlooking one of the villages, too, which was neat.

Here is us on our balcony with the flowers.

Our bed was adorned with flower petals!

Doors leading out to balcony.

This was by far the nicest place we stayed during our entire trip. The entire hotel smelled of fresh flowers (they kept fresh picked flowers in the lobby at all times) and it was made of marble. We hung out for about an hour or so in the room before we headed out with our hotel representative, Veejay. He took us around to see the southern temples. These were neat -- most were located just randomly in the middle of some of the villages. The detail on these temples were incredible, as you can see below. Some of these dated as far back as 10th century.

We ran into this little puppy in one of the villages. He wanted to play with my skirt. I didn't want to touch him, though. I wasn't sure what was crawling on him.

Michael and VJ at one of the southern temples.

I thought these girls looked so cute and took a photo. They ran over to me and hugged me like crazy after I took it.
Chaturbhuj Temple - Lord Vishnu with 3 different bodies (head, torso, legs)

Seeing the temples and getting glimpses of Khajuraho was neat. This city smelled GOOD, unlike Agra. There were villages situated among the temples. Kids played in large grassy areas, women hung up laundry, and most locals waved at us. It was a neat little city and we couldn't wait to see more.

We headed back to the hotel and ran into the CHINESE COUPLE! Say what? Their room was next to ours! That's weird. They were at our hotel in Agra and now Khajuraho! Too funny. We talked with them a bit and discussed what a weird coincidence this was. It gets even weirder later. Trust me. We all leave for the local folk dancing at night. Uh, this was no local folk dancing. Turns out a group of professional Indian dancers were in Khajuraho and that's the show we ended up seeing. The auditorium was located right in the center of Khajuraho. This place was weird. There was astroturf and statues replicating the carvings on the temples EVERYWHERE. It was like we had walked onto a movie set or something. It didn't look real, honestly. The inside of the auditorium was small but cute. We were seated in the front row, by the way. Before the dancing started some weird voice came over the speakers and started to describe what we were about to see -- different styles of dance from all over India! Seemed pretty interesting The dancing started and we were already feeling a little skeptical. One of the guys wouldn't stop making eye contact with all of us in the theater. We ended up moving back a few rows because we couldn't handle being in the front with all the awkwardness of the staring going on. They were also fake playing drums as well as lip syncing the entire performance. In between each style of dance, after the slowest curtain closing I've ever experienced, that voice would come over the speakers and explain the next dance. The whole experience was... odd. There were a few talented dancers that stuck out to us, though. Luckily the tickets only cost us a few bucks so we at least have good stories to tell I guess.

We had dinner on the rooftop of the hotel but we were eating by candlelight so I couldn't get any photos. Seriously, it was by candlelight. I could barely see my own hands let alone my food. It was beautiful up there, though. I still can't believe the stars in India -- the sky is so visible at night there. Anyway, I got baingan bharta and I can't remember what Michael got, both served with roti. My food was sort of bland but Michael seemed to really like his. We headed for bed feeling pretty great about the day and ready to experience more of Khajuraho the next morning.

Monday, April 14, 2014

My India Travels and Eats, Day 3

 Day 3 in India started off an early one. We woke up at 3:30am in Kanha to get ready for our cab ride leaving at 4am for the Jabalpur airport. We were headed to Agra! Woohoo! We head up to the main building with our bags packed and no one is there. Uh oh. After calling the main guy at our resort a bunch of times, finally someone showed up, checked us out, and woke up the driver who was sleeping in the parking lot. We head out for a 4 1/2 hour cab ride in another direction from when we came in. We were able to sleep a little in the cab but it was so hard staying asleep when we passed so many neat looking villages.

We make it to the Jabalpur airport and I am huuungry at this point. Luckily we bring snacks -- fig bars, granola bars, and of course Starbursts. Let me just say a little about this airport. Oh man, this is the sketchiest airport I've ever been to. It's TINY with only one or two airlines leaving out of it. There was one gate with a set of double doors leading out to the runway.... that were left open. Security seemed a bit lax here but no one was acting out of line or anything. We end up boarding our flight right out on the runway (this was common for us in India) and left for Mumbai. Here we have a little bit of a layover before we leave for Agra so we have a little snack in the airport. Airport food isn't always the greatest but this was fairly good.

Masala dosa, samosas, and a vegetable puff.

We arrived in Agra around 6:00pm and took a cab to our hotel which is located right down the street from the eastern gate to the Taj Mahal. We finally got a glimpse of Agra! It's busy and some buildings are a bit modern which was nice to see. So much was going on in the city so it was a fun little ride to the hotel. We checked in, headed up to our room, and relaxed a bit. We had planned on seeing the city a little bit but went against it when we realized how tired we were. You'll see on the next post how we were definitely glad we didn't go out into the city.

I don't know what the deal was with that window but we sure had fun with it! We ended up on the rooftop of our hotel for dinner. It was lovely up there -- a view of the Taj with sitar and tabla players serenading the diners.

Honestly I can't even remember what we ordered. We ordered two different dishes off their vegetarian menu with roti and I also got a cup of daal on the side.

Both dishes were super tasty! Michael's had cashews and pineapple. Yum. We ate these pretty fast and headed to sleep. This was a very busy day of traveling and we were going to get up early to see the Taj the next morning. We couldn't wait! Not much action going on on day 3 here in India but day 4 is much more action packed. Keep an eye out for the next post!

Friday, April 11, 2014

My India Travels and Eats, Day 2

We woke up before the sunrise on the second day in India to make sure we were able to get into the park by sunrise. We hopped in a jeep (which they called a gypsy) at our resort and headed out. We expected another few people to get in our car with us but it turned out everyone got their own. Awesome! We stopped at the entrance of Kanha to make sure we were cleared to go in. Since this is a tiger reserve they had to check our passports and put us with a guide.

We were put with a very sweet girl whose name I can't remember. She didn't speak very good English so we only got some bits of information out of her. We drove around and were introduced to the different animals in the park and got to see the landscaping there. So beautiful!

 Asian elephant. These guys are not wild - they're actually used by locals to clear out trees to build roads.

 Langur monkeys were all over the place. How cute are these two?

 We also saw a lot of these spotted deer. This guy had a bleeding wound.

This park, Kanha, is known for having one of the most populations of Bengal Tigers per capita. We were hoping to see one but at this point we didn't have any luck. We stopped somewhere in the middle of the jungle and our guide and driver set up a lunch for us. It was so nice of them and so unexpected! We ate a bunch and realized... oh crap! They weren't eating! We invited them in and shared our meal with them. We got vegetable sandwiches (with cucumber and tomatoes) as well as savory paratha, water, tea (with milk, which we didn't drink), bananas, and apples (which we also didn't eat). This is where I had my first experience with a bidet (without toilet paper!). Good thing I only had to go #1.

We had a nice chat with some older English folks during lunch then headed out. Our guide told us we were headed to a spot where a tiger was spotted. Awesome! When we arrived, there were probably 15 other vehicles there. They were all staring into this brush very patiently. We waited there for a while. And waited some more. It felt like forever! Finally everyone sees a tiger way out in the distance. Of course Michael and I are completely oblivious at this point. Honestly all we can see is brush. Another guide lends us his binoculars and I see an ear! YEAH, AN EAR! The tiger stands up for a split second and I hand Michael the binoculars and he says he sees it (after the trip he told me he only saw the shadow, ha). Really, it wasn't a very climatic part of our day. We had more excitement seeing the monkeys!

The sleeping tiger everyone was waiting on was out there, somewhere...

Since we waited at this brush area for so long, we had to get back (this safari ended up being 5 1/2 hours, actually). The drive back to the lodge was a bumpy one. The villagers had started digging up rice paddies for the day. Turns out when they dig up the ground, they dump the remains in the street. This isn't so terrible in a car but in a jeep without seat belts it's especially bumpy. It was neat to see how they worked, though. The women would dig into the ground with large bowls, carry the heavy bowls on their head to spots with piles of dirt, and dump the contents there.

 Of course we saw more cows on the way back.

 We got back to the lodge pretty exhausted but hungry.

We ate lunch at the lodge and it was SO GOOD. They served us aloo gobi, more daal (oh man, that daal), papadum, roti, and rice. 

We took a short rest in our room then went back out for the nighttime safari. We surprisingly got the same driver who was great but were assigned a different guide.  This guy spoke perfect English and was extremely knowledgeable. Right away he started tracking the tiger tracks and assured us that we'd see a tiger. He said a few people had spotted a tiger in this specific area, and since he knew which way the tiger was headed, we might be able to catch it before anyone else. We waited at this particular for maybe 5 minutes when we hear a whistle. Our driver takes off like CRAZY and we're swerving, dodging trees, and inhaling dirt kicked up from multiple jeeps. Our guide tells us that the tiger is close! 

 We are stopped behind a multitude of jeeps. Now before I tell you about the tiger, let me tell you about that Englishman in the teal. See him? He's standing on his seat. He's one of the people we had a conversation with at lunch. Nice guy. Anyway, all of the cars were trying to get a better view of the tiger. I am telling you again, the driving here is INSANE, even in the jungle. Everyone wants a better view of the tiger so the drivers are going into ravines, driving off the trail, and almost hitting each other. It's quite funny. Ok, back to the Englishman. His jeep sees an opening and wants to take it, FAST. Without checking to see how his passengers are doing, the driver just TAKES OFF. Poor Englishman fell backwards, almost out of the jeep. As Michael likes to put it, "his feet went one way and his head went the other.". As soon as this happens, we hear a very English "ooooooh!!!" so loudly everyone forgets about the tiger. Our guide keeps a pretty straight face, as he is a professional after all. Of course I lose my shit. I can't stop laughing. I know this isn't really a laughing matter but with the "oooooh" and the crazy driving, I couldn't help myself. I look over at the guide while laughing and he continues to lose his shit. Oh crap, I'm a bad influence. Our guide and I had a moment there. Ok, Englishman is ok now and there's another spot opening up with enough space for our jeep. Our driver makes sure to check on us and since we're sitting down he dashes to that spot. Well turns out he drove RIGHT over a giant tree root, because next thing I know I am bouncing in the air, no longer touching the car at all, and almost land on Michael. The guide and I are still laughing at what happened moments before and now we are crying from laughter because of how high I just bounced. Good thing I didn't bounce the other way or I would've most definitely landed outside the jeep.

Ok, Englishman and I are both fine now and the tiger comes out from the trees! There he is!

What a big guy. I couldn't believe how close this tiger was. We got a few good looks at him, watched him walk down the trail like we weren't even there, and turned around. Our guide said "ok, we saw male tiger, time to see another one!". Really, dude? We're going to see another tiger? I doubted him. Why did I doubt him? This guy was awesome. Turns out only minutes later, we did see another tiger -- a sleepy girl in a ravine just enjoying herself. We were lucky as there was only one other jeep in this spot. We were able to enjoy the sight of her without worrying about trying to find a front row seat.

She stretched, yawned, and headed out. Girl got some good rest.

We left her and drove through the jungle. We got more glimpses of animals and beautiful landscaping.

 After this 3 hour safari, we went back to the lodge. I tried getting a good picture of the cottage our room was in but it turned out blurry. Cute, isn't it?

Dinner was Chinese this tonight. We wanted Indian but understood that not everyone wants Indian food all the time so we sucked it up.

We were served tomato soup (not pictured), fried rice (without egg! woohoo!), rice balls in some kind of sweet and spicy sauce, and some noodle dish. Surprising to us this food was absolutely delicious. We ate many plates of this, especially the rice balls.

We went to sleep with our bellies full, ready to wake up at 3:30am to head out for another cab ride. Stay tuned for day 3 where we head to Agra!