A Travellerspoint blog

India

A tale of two cities (Old Delhi and New Delhi)

…plus a wedding and the Taj

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Our final days in India were spent in Delhi, which was aptly described to us as India’s Washington D.C. (as compared to Mumbai, which is its New York). I had fairly low expectations of Delhi – primarily because I’d heard that there was a lot of poverty and begging – but I really enjoyed our time there. It was particularly interesting the see the vast contrast between the Old Delhi part of the city and the New Delhi part of the city. Old Delhi is a congested maze of bumpy dirt roads and colorful shops, CRAMMED with cycle rickshaws, motorcycles, pedestrians, and shopkeepers. In comparison, New Delhi seemed almost like a European capital! The streets are wide and well-paved, with fairly minimal traffic; there are lots of green spaces; and there is a general sense of order and planning to the layout of the area. I think the best way to express the contrast between Old Delhi and New Delhi is to share the highlights of our time in both areas.

Old Delhi

One of the highlights of our day in Old Delhi was going for a cycle rickshaw ride through the markets; it was exhilarating and little terrifying (I can’t believe we didn’t collide with anything!). We got stuck in traffic at an intersection with a broken water main, but our industrious driver managed to negotiate a path through oncoming traffic (physically picking up and moving empty rickshaws and getting motorcycles to pull to the side of the path) to get us on our way. Talk about service!

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Old Delhi Street Scene
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Public Works in Chandni Chowk Market
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Taking our Rickshaw for a Testdrive

One of our top meals of the trip was also in Old Delhi, at Karim’s, a restaurant that has been around since 1913. We feasted on a lamb leg, a whole fish, mutton (goat) curry, and tandoori chicken, all of which were cooked in a clay oven. It was a meat lover’s dream!!! The fact that the bill was only about $8 per person was also greatly appreciated.

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Quite possibly the world's best lamb

New Delhi

We didn’t have much time to explore New Delhi, but Jake and I managed to fit in a quick trip to the Modern Art Museum, which was having an exhibition of work by Anish Kapoor. It was a great exhibit, and a nice break from visiting temples and forts. On our last day, we also drove over to the Lodi Colony area for a delicious lunch at Ploof (thanks for the tip, Jevon!) and some shopping. All in all, very civilized and not-at-all like our time in the rest of India.

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New Delhi's Green Streets (courtesy of http://indianghar.com/)

Wedding!

As we’ve mentioned before, the impetus for our trip to India was our friend Nupur’s wedding. The wedding festivities were fantastic, and we felt very lucky to have been invited. The absolute highlight of the wedding was the groom’s (Rizi’s) processional. It was out-of-this-world! I kid you not: there were about twenty live musicians (mostly drummers and trumpeters), people carrying lamps on their shoulders, 80 or so people decked out and dancing down the streets of Delhi….and oh yeah, the groom riding behind it all on a HORSE! Although the processional only covered a distance of about one-quarter of a mile, it took about an hour, so I was happy to arrive at the wedding venue, where we enjoyed a delicious Indian buffet and tried to figure out what was going on. Unfortunately, we had an early train to Agra the next morning, so we had to leave before the actual ceremony began (at about 1AM apparently!).

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Taj

Finally, I have to mention the Taj Mahal, and just how amazing it really is. We visited in the late morning and returned later that day to watch the sunset. The second visit was in some ways even better than the first: I think we all felt a little like, “Wow! It really IS as amazing as I first thought it was!” It’s not my favorite site ever (the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia still take the cake), but it really was awesomely huge and beautiful. And it’s amazing that it took only 22 years to build, given the detail of the marble inlay work and the fact that it's solid white marble.

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To sum up, our time in India was really special and so much fun! We’ve already started talking about where we’d like to go when we come back, which I think says a lot about how much we enjoyed our time here.

Thanks for joining us and please do come again!

Posted by jkirsch 05:17 Archived in India Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises food markets india monuments delhi agra Comments (1)

Riding the Indian Rails

The lite version...

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Nicole will be following soon with a final update on our time in India, but as I've got some time to kill in the airport, I wanted to make a brief aside on our experience with trains in India yesterday. I caveated this post with "lite" as trains can vary quite a bit and we were riding on the most modern Shatabdi express from Delhi to Agra for the day to see the Taj Mahal.
We went into the experience with pretty low expectations. But hey, $15 for a first-class ticket ain't bad and 2 hours on any train certainly beats 4+ hours in a car. However, the trip was actually great. The seats were big and comfortable and the food was pretty good (in fact, I think some of the better Dal we've had) and was even served alongside butterscotch ice cream and a rose.

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The most interesting part of the experience was definitely off the train. On the return, the train was delayed for about 40 minutes and we were stuck waiting on the Agra platform as the night fog rolled in. I tried to capture the mood in the pictures below, but I'm not sure they quite do it justice. Needless to say, we met some interesting locals, I'm sure in large part because it's such a tourist destination. Also interesting was watching passengers (even one on crutches) clamber off the platform and across four pairs of tracks rather than walk the short distance to the overpass. Nothing too surprising by this point, but seemed like it was worth mentioning.

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Thanks for reading and stay tuned for our last and final India update!

Posted by jkirsch 09:39 Archived in India Tagged trains india Comments (0)

Elephants, Long Walks, and Sunsets...

Kerala Part 2

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We had a slightly more relaxed end to our time in Kerala. I say only slightly because our time in Periyar started off with a dawn-to-dusk excursion through the tiger preserve there. We didn’t manage to see any tigers (an incredibly rare occurrence), but we were fortunate enough to spot a group of elephants (we’d ridden a “domesticated” one the day before, but this was way cooler), a pack of wild dogs, some boar, and a bison. We were on foot, so thankfully there was a bit of distance each time – apparently bison can be particularly ornery. The scenery in the park provided quite a backdrop for the day, especially with the preserve almost entirely closed off to humans.

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Riding.jpgA Little cheesy perhaps, but hey who knows when we'll get another chance?

After Periyar, we were off to a homestay at Philipkutty's farm in the Kerala backwaters, a 4-hour drive along winding two lane roads.

Road_to_Kumarakom.jpgRoad to Kumarakom

At this point, it’s probably worth spending a moment to talk about the driving experience in Kerala (and I’m guessing India more generally). Most roads in Kerala are no more than two lanes, and often times only one. I say lanes quite liberally as at any time, all manner of vehicles from large buses to auto-rickshaws and motorbikes are using shoulder, the middle of the road, or the oncoming lane to constantly overtake slower cars, passing inches from other vehicles and people. All this is orchestrated by what seems to be a special language of horns and maneuvers. I would’ve liked to get photos that somehow captured this, but alas I was worried that if I spent to long looking at the tiny screen on my camera, I might lose my lunch. Apparently, starting today some new traffic laws are due to go into effect that will bring errant drivers into line, but I’d say the jury’s out on any lasting impact.

So, back on track… We spent our first night in the backwaters at the working Philipkutty's farm on an island in lake Vembamad (the second largest inland lake in India). Besides coconut and cacao, the farm also features six traditional cottages for guests as well as two dachshunds and a Great Dane. The small size gave us a nice opportunity to meet some of the other guests over wonderful meals prepared by the owner’s mother. Overall, the laid back atmosphere at Philipskutty was a welcome change of pace.

Dachshund.jpgOn the Move at Philipkutty's

We wrapped up our time in Kerala on an overnight houseboat cruise through the backwaters. My only past experience houseboatin’ was a bachelor party weekend spent on lake Shasta, so this was a decidedly different experience. We spent the afternoon cruising through the canals, stopping off at a village to visit a 500-year old church. We did feel a little silly as there was a crew of three aboard to pilot the boat and prepare food, but they were all low-key and made for a great experience. To top off the cruise, we moored for the evening in a more isolated spot and caught a gorgeous sunset.

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As long as our SpiceJet flight isn’t delayed any more, stay tuned for the next update from Delhi. Thanks for reading!

Posted by jkirsch 22:10 Archived in India Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises lakes animals boats nature india kerala Comments (0)

Masala Chai Tahr Time!

Kerala Part 1

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Our first few days in Kerala have been VERY busy (up by 8am every day, which is pretty much blasphemy for Jake and I when we’re on vacation), but well worth it. Here’s a quick recap of Days 1-3.

Day 1: Kochin (Cochi), one of the major cities in Kerala. We spent the morning touring the major historical sites of the Fort Cochin area of the city. The architecture in Fort Cochin is beautiful, as are the views, but overall we were a little underwhelmed by the city. Pretty much every building is a hotel or restaurant catering to tourists, so it was hard to get a feel for the place. Plus, there were way too many dreadlocked twenty-something Euro hippies and retiree-tour groups hanging around for our tastes.

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Fishing Nets in Kochi
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Traditional Manual Laundry in Kochi

Far more interesting to write about was our afternoon activity: “enjoying” an ayurvedic massage. Note that the word “enjoying” is in quotation marks. That is because I don’t think I actually enjoyed it. Here’s what happened: we show up for our massages, and I (Nicole) am escorted into a room by a young Indian woman who promptly asks me to undress. (“Everything?” “Everything.” “Naked?” “Naked.”) I’m not that uncomfortable with nudity, but I’ve never taken off all of my clothes while a total stranger watches. Next, the woman ties a sort of loincloth made of gauze around me, has me lay down on a table, and proceeds to pour and rub about half a gallon of coconut oil on me. I think it was supposed to be relaxing, but it really wasn’t. I think it was the excessive breast massaging that put me a little on edge. (Incidentally, I had to take two showers and use two small bars of soap to get all that oil off of me.) So, a bizarre experience that I will never repeat again, but interesting nonetheless.

Days 2 and 3: Munnar. Munnar, about 100-km away from Kochin, is a tea-growing region in Kerala. I was actually on the fence about visiting it, but I am so glad that we did. The views are absolutely spectacular; Jake’s pictures will probably do a better job than my words can at expressing just how beautiful and other-worldly this place truly is. Most of the land is covered by tea estates, originally established in the 19th century by the English, but now owned and operated by the workers themselves (the tea estates became a cooperative in 2005).

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Munnar Tea Estates
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Chai Walla in Munnar Market

In Munnar, we were lucky enough to have a fantastic guide name Suri-raj who taught us about tea-making and showed us some of the local wildlife. Did you know that all tea comes from the same plant? You probably did, but Jake and I didn’t. We both thought that there were green-tea plants, black-tea plants, etc., but in fact the differences are just in the way the leaves are processed.

Before leaving Munnar, Suri-raj took us to the Eravikulam National Park, which is probably most famous as being the home to the endangered tahr mountain goat, which only lives in the Western Ghats (the mountain range in Kerala), the Himalayas, and Oman. It was a good thing we had Suri-raj along to teach us about the goats, because during our visit we were asked by the local TV news channel to give a short interview about the goat. Yes, you read that right: Jake and I were interviewed for TV about the tahr mountain goat on a scenic view point at a national park in India. I think our segment was going to be broadcast tonight, but our hotel doesn’t have a TV so we’ll never know. As if that weren’t enough to inflate our egos, we also ended up starring in a photo shoot with a school group from Andra Pradesh. It was totally bizarre….and yet really fun.

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Jake gives his expert opinion on the tahr goat.
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Is that Brangelina?!?!
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Chillin' with the Nilgiri Tahr

Those were the highlights so far. Time for bed now; we have to get up early for a rafting and hiking trip in the Periyar Tiger Preserve! Until then….

Posted by jkirsch 20:16 Archived in India Tagged mountains fishing nature tea kerala munnar massage kochi Comments (1)

Jet lagged and traffic jammed...

Mumbai (Bombay), India

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After 24+ hours of travel and a short overnight in Delhi, we spent most of our first day in Mumbai recovering. Of course this had to include some eating and we enjoyed a fantastic late lunch at Mahesh Lunch Home, a seafood restaurant in the relaxed northern suburb of Juhu. Unfortunately, after some large-format Kingfishers and a large meal, we succumbed to jetlag and a 2-hour nap.

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Delicious Chili Garlic Prawns at Mahesh Lunch Home

We were, however, determined to make the most of our next 36 hours in the city.

We stayed at the intimate Juhu Residency Hotel just down the street from Mahesh. The area was great, but lay about 12 miles north of the city's epicenter on Nariman Point. This, combined with Mumbai's notorious traffic meant that we spent a significant portion of Thursday – our second day – traversing the city in taxis. At least they're incredibly cheap, and even our hour-plus ride home from dinner in the south that evening only rang up at $5.50.

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In spite of the long transits, we still had a great day and highlights included an auto-rickshaw ride to Bandra to pick up traditional outfits for the coming nuptials (photos will definitely follow), enjoying a snack in the Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Palace, and meeting up with our friend Annie for a beer at Leopold's (a tourist and backpacker favorite), a walk through central Mumbai and dinner.

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Gateway to India (with the Taj on the left side)

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Leopold's Cafe in Colaba

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Mumbai at Night

We headed north on our final morning in Mumbai in the company of Amin – a wonderful guide recommended by Gary Leff on his blog A View from the Wing. Amin’s story is worth a bit of a digression. He had run away from home in one of the city’s slums after his father passed away and lived on the streets between the ages of 5 and 8. Jesuits spotted him in a train station and brought him to live in one of their orphanages. Later, their support would lead to jobs and his purchase of a used car to start his tour business. Amin had an incredibly warm and kind personality reflected in his current sponsorship of several orphans and offer to accompany us in Mumbai should we return, even if we couldn’t afford to pay.

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Amin brought us to the Kaheri Caves, a 2000-year old Buddhist site set in a nature preserve a world apart from the chaos of the city just a few miles away, especially as we were left to explore it almost alone (though hordes of young schoolchildren appeared just as we were leaving). The caves had been carved into volcanic rock and served as residences and a center for learning and meditation. They were remarkably well preserved, with ornate carvings and several frescoes remaining inside the caves.

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The site also featured monkeys, which we’re always suckers for.

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After the caves, it was back into the Mumbai traffic for a ride to the airport. Next stop, Kochi and Kerala!

NB: Amin Sheikh can be reached through his website http://www.snehatravels.in/

Posted by jkirsch 23:30 Archived in India Tagged traffic food india city mumbai Comments (1)

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