It's time for another round-up of videos we took that didn't quite make it into our posts. This one will cover India and Nepal. Enjoy!
First, from our first stop in India, an aerial view of the madness at the Howrah flower market in Kolkata
Next, some young Nepali men on the street rocking out on traditional fiddles in Darjeeling, India
Then a few peaceful moments of Tibetan Prayer Flags flying above Pelling, Sikkim, India
And a few more peaceful moments from our pre-dawn boat ride on the Ganges River in Varanasi
Moving on to Nepal, a panorama from the best viewpoint on our five-day trek
And finally, some rather inebriated gentlemen dancing in the street at Holi in Pokhara.
Some things you should know:
Cows. There are cows everywhere. Big ones. They're in narrow alleys, blocking your way. There are herds of them crossing the highway, ignorant to all approaching traffic. They're eating huge piles of smelly trash off the sidewalk of a busy street. And they're treating the entire country like their toilet.
Shoewear. Don't wear flip flops in India. Just don't. See above.
Poverty. You will probably see some of the poorest, saddest people on Earth in India. There are children who are dirtier than stray cats roaming the streets, begging incessantly for something to eat. It is heartbreaking, impossible to avoid, and sometimes, it is so constant that it admittedly becomes annoying.
Dress. Indians dress formally. Women wear beautiful, embroidered saris while digging trenches on the side of the highway. You will never see an adult wearing shorts. Women are expected to cover themselves appropriately- do not expose too much of your shoulders, legs, or chest. Yes, saris expose the entire tummy. No, we Westerners don't understand why they can show their tummy and we can't show our shoulders. It's just the way it is.
Staring. Some Indian men stare at Western women. Cover up and ignore them. Or stare back, sometimes that can be fun!
Just say no. Indians can't. The closest you'll ever get is an "it is not possible." But in more cases than not, you will get a run around answer to a question instead of the person simply telling you "no." Try not to ask yes/no questions if you really want to get to the bottom of something.
PDA. Men and women should not touch each other in public. Touching, even just holding hands, is considered part of sexual relations and should only happen behind closed doors. However, men (and to a lesser extent women) can be affectionate with each other, and you'll often find two Indian men walking down the street holding hands; it's a sign of friendship.
Public Urination. If you're a man, go ahead and drop trou wherever you want. Seriously, don't hold back. The world is your toilet in India!
Adjectives. India likes prepending adjectives where they're not necessary or otherwise redundant. They say "Self Driving" when they really mean "Driving": as in driving yourself; maybe your driver is on vacation. They also say "Lane Driving" when we would just say "Driving": although there are lanes painted on most roads, they're more of a suggestion. They say "Love Marriage" when we would just say "Marriage": to distinguish from arranged marriages, which are still quite common. We even saw a university advertisement listing degree programs for "Engineer" and "Girl Engineer"!
One Photo, Please. We're still not sure why we appear picture-worthy to droves of adolescent Indian men, but such is the case. As a Westerner, you'll be asked more times than you may have patience for whether your photo can be taken. Then each young man in the group will have his friends take a photo of him with you on his cell phone. Grin and bear it!
Spitting and Hacking. The clearing of orifices that Westerns would only do in the bathroom-- spitting, hocking a loogie, and blowing snot rockets-- is a common public habit in India. You'll wake up and fall asleep to these lovely sounds.
Horn Please. Indians drive with one hand on the horn and the other on the gear shift. The driving in insane, and apparently no other vehicles/cows/people/rickshaws will know you are approaching unless you honk incessantly. Pack earplugs.
The Train Ticket Mystery. Buying a train ticket in India is like going to the DMV, but with rules that are 100 times harder to understand, and without the "take a number" system: your fellow patrons absolutely will not form a line, opting instead to mob the ticket window, everyone trying to push to the front and shove his form through the glass window to the ticket agent (these ticket agents must be the most patient bureaucrats in the world; they are friendly, efficient, and helpful in the midst of total chaos). But I digress.
The real issue is that there are boatloads of different ways to buy tickets: at least three online systems, separate ticket quotas for every stop along the train's route, plus a special one for tourists, something called TATKAL (a reserved block of tickets that only gets released the day before the train leaves) plus every travel agent seems to have access to a different ticket block. And if one of those options is sold out, it says nothing about availability through the others. In our five weeks in India it took us until buying our last set of tickets to have just the faintest grasp of this arcane system.
The World's Largest Democracy. Related to the Train Ticket Mystery, Indians pride themselves on having the world's largest democracy, and enjoy sharing this fact with those of us from the birthplace of democracy. For the tourist, what this means is that you're visiting the world's largest bureaucracy: be prepared for lines, forms, permits, "official" stamps, unnecessary rules, five-step processes that could have easily been accomplished in one step, and providing every last bit of your personal information in triplicate every time you check into a hotel.
Now you're slightly more ready for the most insane place you will probably ever (willingly) visit! Have fun, and remember: expect the unexpected.
The thali was probably our favorite Indian meal, or at least the one we had the most times. Present on nearly every menu in India, and differing a bit from region to region, it's generally a generous portion of rice, another carb like the crispy, fried papad cracker or a flatbread such as roti or chapatti, and three or four savory sauces--usually lentils and potatoes, a spicy, pickled vegetable, often a veg curry, and sometimes meat, curd (yogurt), salad, soup, or a sweet. They're a very traditional staple dish of most Indians, and if you get away from the tourist restaurants, your host will keep offering to refill any dish you finish until you're completely stuffed.
And those are just the ones we took pictures of!
Jodhpur is in western Rajasthan and is known as the "Blue City" due to the large number of light blue painted houses in its old city section. The color was originally reserved for homes of high-caste Brahmins but others started painting their houses the same color, eventually resulting in beautiful splashes of blue all over the city. Jodhpur's main attraction is the Meherangarh Fort, which is visible from everywhere and dominates the city from high above. Like other cities in India, the Blue City thankfully understands the value of the rooftop restaurant, and we spent a good chunk of our time sitting on rooftops and gazing at the Fort above and the streets of the old city below. I cannot emphasize how important the rooftop experience is in an Indian city: it allows you to observe what is going on down below from a safe distance, letting you take it all in without subjecting yourself to the constant and often overwhelming smells, sounds, and general chaos at street level.
Apart from taking it easy on the roofs and visiting the fort, we also took advantage of the great shopping in Jodhpur. As with other cities in Rajasthan, the Blue City has a great selection of embroidered and beaded leather shoes, tons of colorful bangles, textiles galore, and plenty of tailors ready to make you whatever you want out of their huge selection of fabrics.
We also took a cultural tour of the Bishnoi villages. The Bishnoi are literally a tree-hugging religious sect. During a drought in 1485 that was caused by deforestation, a guru formulated 29 rules for living in harmony with nature, and his followers are named Bishnoi after the local language's word for "twenty-nine". They are strict vegetarians, do not kill animals for any reason, and are particularly protective of the khejri tree. So protective, in fact, that in 1730, when several workers sent by the local ruler to cut down some trees began to carry out their orders, 363 Bishnoi lost their lives by decapitation when they hugged the trees and declared that the workers would have to cut their heads off first. The ruler, affected by the commitment of the Bishnoi, called off the felling of the trees, and ever since this incident, the Bishnoi and their trees have been respected and protected by law. While our tour of the villages was a bit touristy, we gained a window into the Bishnoi lifestyle by seeing how they cook, eat, and make beautiful block-printed fabric and pottery by hand.
After three nights in Jodhpur, it was back to Delhi for one final night before taking off to Nepal!
- Make sure to try a mekhania lassi while in Jodhpur. It's made with saffron, cardamom, and thick, delicious yogurt. Sounds weird, but it's absolutely the best lassi we had in India!
- Yes, they can be super lame, but we found the audio tour at Meherangarh Fort to be engaging and well worth the price.
One of the pleasures of visiting India is the street food. We quickly put aside our fears regarding hygiene and indulged in many of these ubiquitous snacks. Among our favorite were jalebi, bhel puri, and golgappa.
Jalebi can best be described as a sweeter, smaller, crunchier, and more syrupy version of American funnel cake. We saw it available alongside samosas and other savory fried treats at breakfast time, but we also saw it holding its own at sweet stands. It's also a pleasure to watch an experienced hand making these treats. They're made by pouring the liquid dough through a small hole in a sort of pastry bag, directly into hot oil. The best artists of this trade make beautiful concentric and intersecting circular patterns with the batter. After frying, it's into a sugar-syrup soak for a few minutes, and then they should be eaten as fresh as possible.
Bhel Puri is a snack made from pieces of puffed rice, not unlike Rice Crispies, mixed with your choice of freshly-chopped jalapenos, tomatoes, onions, coriander leaves (cilantro), chili powder, oil, lemon juice, and a few other secret ingredients, then mixed vigorously and served in a cone made of newspaper. We even got a version (in Nepal, however) with a quarter of a playing card to be used as a spoon.
Golgappa (aka Panipuri) are another puffed rice snack, these ones hollow, round and a few inches in diameter, sort of shaped like a squashed ping-pong ball. The vendor takes one at a time, pops a hole in one side with his thumb, spoons a thick chick pea sauce into the cavity, then pours a teaspoon or so of a salty cilantro sauce over the whole thing. They're bite-sized, so you just stand there holding your bowl and the vendor will continue to prepare them, one after another, until you tell him you've had enough. It's sort of like a drunk at a bar receiving shots from an overly-attentive bartender.
The best part of Indian street food? It never made us sick! There's something to be said for a kitchen that is completely out in the open...
Our next and last region was the large western state of Rajasthan. Travelers always recommend a visit here; the vivid colors of Rajasthani womens' bright saris and mens' colorful turbans, the famous wide and smiling mustaches, and the plethora of forts, temples, and palaces stay engrained in every visitor's memory.
We arrived in Udaipur, Rajasthan's "White City"-- and one that guidebooks describe as "India at its romantic best"-- early in the morning after an overnight train from Agra. Udaipur is centered around Lake Pichola; old havelis (elaborately decorated mansions) and a palace line the shoreline, two islands sit just offshore, and rolling hills sit in the background, creating a picturesque setting. In fact, the James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed here (and pretty much every restaurant screens it nightly!).
We immediately took a liking to this town's innumerable rooftop restaurants, and enjoyed wandering in and out of the many art shops selling miniature paintings, which Udaipur is famous for. Unfortunately, on our first night there, we ate at a pretty nice restaurant but ended up all getting food poisoning the next day, which put us completely out of commission for two days and feeling not quite right for several more after that. Almost every traveler gets sick at some point in India, but Nick and I were hoping that we'd make it through without incident, after a month of eating street food and not being militant about avoiding fruit and veggies. Of course we should all get sick from a pricey hotel restaurant; it's India: expect the unexpected! We felt awful that Ben and Amy, who were only in India for 12 days, had to spend half of that time under the weather.
In any event, we couldn't stay in our hotel rooms forever, so we stuck to our plan and headed toward Jodhpur, stopping in Kumbalgarh and Ranakpur on the way to see a fort and Jain temples, respectively. Fun fact: Kumbalgarh Fort, which was built in the 15th century, is surrounded by 37 km of ramparts, a wall which is only second in length to the Great Wall of China. Our visit to the fort happened to coincide with a Bollywood filming, so we enjoyed watching the two main characters film a scene on top of the wall. The scene of course involved a cheesy love song, and the director looked like the bad guy in a spaghetti Western. We spent the night at Silent Valley Hotel, which is aptly named, and run by the lovely Inder, who took us on a walk of the nearby villages around sunset while telling us about the culture of the people living there.
The next day we had planned a 16-km hike through Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary to the Jain temples at Ranakpur. I got pretty sick overnight (the beginnings of what turned out to be giardia), so I skipped the hike but Nick, Amy and Ben went ahead and we met at the temples a few hours later. We were all in a sad state of affairs, still feeling weak and dehydrated from whatever it was we were dealing with, but we took a peek into the main temple, which was filled with impressive carved marble pillars, and tons of colorfully dressed pilgrims, who were apparently there in droves because it was a holiday (it's always a holiday in India). Jainism, which accounts for less than 1% of India's population, is a derivative of Hinduism that is based on nonviolence and a respect of nature. Jains avoid doing harm to all souls, which they believe exist not only in humans, but also animals, plants, water, fire, earth, and air. The most orthodox Jains wear white masks to avoid breathing in insects and carry a "fly whisk" to clear their path to avoid stepping on living things. There is also a sect who has renounced clothing and walks around naked.
Another fun fact: the main Jain temple at Ranakpur, built in 1439, was constructed on the basis of the number 72, the age at which the founder of Jainism, Mahavira, achieved nirvana; the temple sits on a platform measuring 72 yards square, inside the temple there are 72 elaborately carved shrines, and the whole temple is held up by 1440 (72 X 20) pillars. After admiring the exquisite marble carvings, we headed to Jodhpur, stopping at a motorbike temple along the way (don't ask).
We had finally reached the portion of our India trip we were most excited about: meeting up with our friends Amy and Ben, who were coming all the way from Austin, Texas, and staying with friends Bion and Caitlin in Delhi, and then traveling with Ben and Amy to Agra and Rajasthan. Nick and I arrived in Delhi, the huge, bustling capital, a couple days early and stayed in central Connaught Place, where we enjoyed some Western comforts like espresso, Mexican food that wasn't worse than DC's, bookstores, and a shockingly clean and functional subway system. I wasn't in much of a sight-seeing mood, so we only took a walk down New Delhi's Rajpath, which connects the India Gate (a huge arch commemorating fallen soldiers that looks like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris) with Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President's residence), and reminded us a bit of the National Mall in DC.
Our last two days in Delhi were spent with our friends Amy and Ben from the US and Bion and Caitlin, Americans living in Delhi. Bion and Caitlin live in a gorgeous house in the south Delhi neighborhood of Hauz Khas, which is full of artsy shops, big parks, and yummy rooftop cafes and restaurants. After a couple days of relaxation there, Amy, Ben, Nick and I took a train to Agra to do the most touristy thing you can do in India: visit the Taj Mahal.
Everyone says the Taj is incredible, but Agra (India's capital under the Mughals) is not, and once again, common wisdom rings true. We woke up to see the sun rise over the Taj from our hostel's roof, then headed over to see it close up. Luckily the crowds weren't too bad at this time of the day, so we were able to enjoy the Taj hassle-free. The Taj Mahal was built under the direction of Shah Jahan as a shrine to his favorite wife, Mumtaz ("Taj") Mahal, who died in 1631 shortly after giving birth to her 14th child (that's what I call pushing your luck). The Emperor was devasted by her death, and ordered a workforce of about 20,000 men to build the Taj, which took over 20 years to complete. Marble and semi-precious stones were brought to Agra from all over Asia. It really is a magnificent sight: so huge and clean; the white marble exudes a calm and cool peacefulness, and trust me, any Indian sight that is this frequently visited but still manages to exude even a tiny bit of peace is worth mentioning! Personally, I found the inside to be a bit underwhelming-- perhaps I expected the interior to be covered in emeralds and diamonds or the like, but it was actually quite similarly decorated as the exterior.
There are many other sights to see in Agra, but frankly, if you begin with the Taj, the others are going to be disappointing in comparison. Nevertheless, we had several hours until our overnight train, so we headed to the Agra Fort, which we wandered for a couple hours before heading to the nicest hotel in Agra for a vacation from India. The Amarvilas (an Oberoi property) proved to be just the resting spot we needed. After being greeted by a number of overly friendly staff who we were sure were going to ask our scruffy selves to leave, we were shown to the bar and sipped cold beers on the patio while gazing out at the Taj all afternoon. As we've quickly learned, luxurious treats like this are the only way to keep your sanity in the crazy cities of India!
We found ourselves in Delhi with a couple days to kill and not much of a desire to sight-see, so we signed up for a South Indian cooking class. The class was taught in the home of our teacher Jyoti, a fast-talking and down-to-business expert chef.
First, we learned about the main spices and ingredients used in South Indian cooking.
Starting at 1:00, going clockwise and ending in the middle, we have: dried mango powder (a souring agent, dried tamarind or pomegranate seeds can be used as well), salt, ground coriander seeds, a red chili powder similar to paprika and cayenne, turmeric, Kashmiri red chili (for color, not spice), and cumin seeds.
Starting at 1:00, going clockwise and ending in the middle, we have: black cardamom, red chili, cinnamon bark, cloves, nutmeg and mace (the flower around nutmeg), green cardamom, and black pepper.
South Indian cooking involves a lot of lentils, rice, coconut, potatoes, tomatoes, curd (yogurt), and coriander (both the leaves--which we call cilantro-- and the seeds-- which we refer to as coriander). It is lighter and more vegetarian than some of the heavier, more meat-based North Indian cooking, which has assimilated characteristics of many of the cultures that invaded and co-habitated the region. In contrast, South India, being geographically more protected, has remained more insular, and its cuisine is still very much based on what is locally available and fresh.
We then cooked a huge meal, starting with potato balls and vada (a type of light, airy, lentil-batter donut), which could both be viewed as snacks or appetizers. Then we made masala dosa. Dosa is a pancake that is often served with a few sides; masala dosa is the classic version, where the dosa pancake is served with masala potatoes, sambar dal (a type of lentil stew), and chutneys, in this case coconut and tomato. The same batter used for dosa can also be used to make idli (spongy, steamed rolls) and uttapam (closer to an American pancake, complete with veggies on top, making it pizza-like). As if this wasn't enough food, we also made yogurt rice and malli char, a coriander-based curry (we made ours with chicken). For dessert, we ate semolina halwa, a thick porridge-like pudding dessert, which we waited too long to eat, so it was more solidified than it should be.
Overall, the class wasn't as hands-on as we had hoped for, but the food was absolutely delicious and we're hoping we can recreate some of the easier dishes back at home!
We had several days to fill between Khajuraho and Delhi, so we headed to Orchha, a riverside town filled with palaces, temples, and chhatris (tombs) built by the Bundela dynasty in the 15th and 16th centuries, but quickly abandoned when the Bundelas had to flee Orchha for safer ground. I won't bore you with too much history, save for this fun fact: the king that commissioned most of the magnificent palaces, Raja Rudra Pratap, died while trying to wrestle a cow from the clutches of a tiger!
While the town sees its share of tourists, most of them only stay for a few hours during the day and are gone by mid-afternoon. We picked a hotel that had nice views of the main palace from its patio and decided to camp out there for three nights. There are an overwhelming number of buildings to see, so we rested up and visited most of them in one long morning and afternoon. The fun thing about Orchha is that besides the most famous palaces, temples, and chattris, there are literally dozens more spread out along the river that are in various stages of disrepair (all of Orchha was pretty much deserted until relatively recently) and seem rarley visited. It's easy to wander around for hours and explore them on your own. The only people we ran into were a few families who lived next to, and sometimes inside, some of these abandoned structures. Aside from temple-hopping, we enjoyed (surprise, surprise) the food, and especially the sweets on offer in Orchha, which is known for kalakand, a huge, dense milk cake that is found at dozens of stalls in the bazaar.
We left Orchha and headed for Delhi, stopping in Datia along the way to check out another palace we had heard of. It ended up being an underwhelming version of the much more impressive palaces we had seen in Orchha, and the fact that the top floors were being restored and therefore off-limits didn't help. However, this town clearly does not see too many tourists, so walking around it while we killed time until our train departure proved to be an adventure; as usual, we received lots of stares and giggles, but also found a great lunchtime spot with a tasty unlimited thali: a classic Indian lunch of a sort of sampler of several vegetable, lentil, and potato dishes, served with rice and fresh-baked chapati. After lunch, Nick got a 10-Rupee ($0.20) straight-razor shave, leaving him with just a mustache and therefore giving him about 500% more street-cred here in India (every month is Movember in Incredible India)!
After Varanasi, we got off the spiritual track and threw ourselves full-force into India's formidable archaeology circuit: the country boasts thousands of palaces, temples, forts, and other historic structures, showing thousands of years of history from dozens of different tribes, kingdoms, and religious sects. We opted to start in Khajuraho, a backwater town famous for the dozen or so medieval stone temples scattered around it. But these aren't your ordinary temples: mixed in with the traditional representations of gods and scenes of everyday life are hundreds of small friezes depicting often graphic sexual themes. The meaning or significance of the scenes is a point of debate: some say they represent an instructional manual, perhaps inspired by the Kama Sutra; others maintain that they were intended to interest the gods, thus diverting their anger; still others claim that they depict the wedding party and consummation of two of the most popular Hindu gods. Whatever the reasons behind the lewd panels, though they embarrassed the Victorian-era British explorers and soldiers who rediscovered it (calling it "extremely indecent and offensive", and "disgustingly obscene"), I think that the kings and priests that commissioned these impressive monuments had the right idea. If they wanted to make sure the temples would not be destroyed (or at least if they wanted to attempt to interest bored Westerners in history), it was true then as it is now: sex sells.