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Category Archives: India

Most of the time I visit places it’s not with a particular goal in mind, but occasionally I go somewhere seeking a specific experience. When I first went to Southeast Asia, I sought out an epic elephant trek through the jungle and found what I was looking for in Mondulkiri. For Rajasthan it was a desert camel safari. Tucked into the heart of the Thar Desert near the Pakistan border, Jaisalmer has emerged as a popular destination for people seeking such a trip.

A small, charming city built on sandstone that was once a fort, “The Golden City” of Jaisalmer is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to shops selling camel leather goods and textiles, there are a number of companies aggressively soliciting travelers for a desert trek. Through a tepid recommendation from an excellent host in Jaipur, I ended up with one of the less scrupulous agents. My companion and I were able to negotiate the price down from highway robbery to a mere ripoff and ended up going with a 4 day 3 night desert trek.

The day before leaving town, I made sure to stop by the famous Dr. Bhang for a lassi and some cookies for the upcoming journey. A familiar face was prominently displayed on the wall, someone who had been following me throughout my journey. I didn’t see the episode of No Reservations until after I got back home, but Anthony Bourdain had also made a pit stop at the Doctor’s office before heading to the Thar.

My notion of a desert was a giant beach without the ocean, but the portions of the Thar we covered were more wasteland dotted with a few large sand dunes. It was arid, harsh, and beautiful. Despite the scumbags that ran the operation, our two guides were friendly and delivered a great desert experience.

Most meals consisted of a simple curry and fresh chapati. Everything was delicious. We stopped by a few small villages along the way where children sold beer and opium. Houses were constructed out of mud brick and had thatched roofs. A female goat was giving birth as we entered one village and I got to witness the miracle of life several times over. It was slimy.

Campfires took the chill from the star-filled desert nights. We drank whiskey and talked story with the guides as the camels ventured off into the darkness to pursue camelly matters. A year before, the same story played out in the jungle outside of Mondulkiri, with elephants filling in for the camels.

Aside from the lack of sand, the desert trek was everything I hoped it would be and more. It was definitely worth the trip to Jaisalmer and I highly recommend trying it for yourself.

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Having just 5 weeks in India, I opted to visit fewer places and spend more time in each rather than burn travel time trying to see as much of the subcontinent as possible. The area I wanted to spend the most time in was the “Land of Kings” Rajasthan. Coming from Varanasi, logistics made it most convenient to start my Rajasthani experience in the capital, Jaipur.

A ginger guy from Copenhagan was on the train with me from Varanasi and told tales of the wonderland that is Christiania. We had similar intentions for Rajasthan and joined forces for the next leg of our journeys. Resisting solicitations for lodging from “helpful” locals aboard the train, we ended up at Tony’s Guest House; it turned out to be a great home base to make the most out of Jaipur.

Tony is an older man with a big heart and hospitality at his core. The accommodations were standard for India, but the atmosphere was world class. Outside of the iconic Hawa Mahal, The Pink City isn’t teaming with things to see and do. The guest house had a hammock-equipped rooftop lounge that offered a prime view of the bustling city in the middle of nowhere, as well as free morning yoga.

Whether Hindu or Muslim, religion dominates India. Tony does not buy into the mainstream and introduced me to his spiritual leader, Baba Ji. One evening, we loaded into Tony’s van and made the trek to Baba Ji’s compound nearly an hour out of town. It was something out of a Hollywood studio. Set on a hilltop overlooking an arid wasteland, I felt as if I had arrived at a Southwest Asian tribal leader’s fiefdom; in a way, I had.

The new Lexus SUV in the driveway was a stark contrast to its bare, rugged surroundings. It was Baba Ji’s new ride and intended to lift his spirits after recent heart trouble. Apparently, Baba Ji has a penchant for smoke, drink, and unhealthy food that led to his decline in wellness. He was confined to his room and there was a host of followers who attended to him and facilitated visits. We were offered a bhang beverage while meeting the people occupying the compound in wait of our visit with their leader.

When it was my turn, I joined Tony and we were taken to Baba Ji. Lazing on his bed, Baba Ji’s gray dreadlocks reached his feet. He was a true mystic, full of the insight, wisdom, and intensity that fits a person of his role. We had a brief, positive, and cryptic exchange. It seemed like our conversation could easily have taken place in a time long ago, but when he pressed his electronic service button to summon an attendant, I remembered that the 21st century had arrived.

Following our time with their leader, we joined the rest of the men on the roof. In all there were about 20 men there, some of them stay for long stretches of time and others, like Tony, visit frequently. They were gathered in a circle around a fire talking and smoking a chillum. My traveling partner so impressed the group with his chillum hitting abilities that they presented him with one of Baba Ji’s chillums. It was quite the honor. We ate with the group and returned to Tony’s Guest House.

While staying in Jaipur we also made the day trip to Ranthambhore National Park, which is supposed to be one of the best places to see wild tigers. There were no tigers around on the day we were there, but it was worth taking the chance to see my favorite land animal in the wild and a cool wildlife refuge.

Jaipur was culturally different than the India I had seen and felt more like being in neighboring Pakistan. It was a good time and a perfect transition to Rajasthan.

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It was my first time smelling human flesh as it burned. Sorry, I always wanted to start a post that way. It really was, though, and I was surprised people were allowed to walk within 10 feet or so from the bodies as they are burned around the clock, in the place Indians go to die.

Varanasi’s history is as old as that of the subcontinent itself. It is the longest continuously inhabited place in India and one of the oldest in the world.

The sacred city’s largest draw is its continuous cremation ceremonies. Followers believe that being cremated at Varanasi’s Manikarnika Ghat allows them to achieve moksha, where they break free from the cycle of reincarnation and go to heaven. As soon as one body is no more, another instantly takes it place and a new fire is built to free the next soul.

By the time the mighty Ganges flows to this hugely important site, it’s polluted to where its water is of no use whatsoever.  Everything from agricultural runoff to human waste renders the majestic Ganges a murky mess.  The sky-high fecal content doesn’t stop locals – and the more intrepid visitors – from bathing and washing clothes in it.  This was a stark contrast to Rishikesh, where I had just come from, and the great river was clean and pristine.

If the burning flesh, beyond dirty river, and tasty food aren’t enough, Varanasi is a short distance from culturally rich Sarnath, the deer park where Buddha delivered his first message after attaining enlightenment. Sarnath is also home to an Ashoka Pillar, constructed in 250 BCE by the legendary warlord turned benevolent emperor Ashoka. You can haggle with tuk-tuk drivers and get there and back from Varanasi for a few dollars.

The food in Varanasi was really good. Varanasi has quite a few sweets and is known for its betel nut, but I preferred to explore the more savory assortment of chaat. I particularly enjoyed aloo tikki, crisp potato patties served with spicy curry and a compliment of tasty sauces.

I stumbled across a major flower market where many of the funeral flowers come from, not far from the ghats; it was colorful, vibrant, and chaotic. The salespeople were extremely friendly and must be accustomed to visitors. They actually asked me to take their photos and fought with each other to be the subject of my shots – all without asking for money.

There are a number of guesthouses along the river and prices are comparable to other places in India with a single room running around $6 per night. Boat tours are offered each morning to catch the sunrise and provide an alternative angle to view the cremations.

Varanasi’s sites, tastes, and smells make it a deeply enriching destination to take in and is on the tourist map for good reason. Be warned: barbecue will never be the same after your visit.

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“Hello, are you cold?” As I opened my eyes, I found myself shivering on a bench in the front room of a yoga studio that was attached to the guesthouse I planned on staying.  The door was open when I arrived in the middle of the night and no one was there, so I kind of just crashed. The gentle stranger put a blanket on me and instructed me to rest.  Upon waking again a few hours later, I learned that the man who woke me so kindly was the guesthouse’s resident yogi.  This greeting set the stage for my time in Rishikesh.

Transportation in India is efficient in the sense that you can get wherever you’d like to go; how and when you arrive is a different story.  I arrived in Rishikesh from Agra at about 3 a.m.

A 15 minute rickshaw ride took me from the bus depot to the town, set on the Ganges in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Most of the guesthouses were located on the other side of the river, which you cross via a high, long and narrow walking bridge.  It was a dark, windy and scary crossing that took me to a magical new age wonderland.

Before getting sidetracked, I had planned on visiting Nepal prior to India and still wanted to take in some Himalayan culture.  I narrowed it down to either Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama, or Rishikesh, “the yoga capital of the planet.”  Since it was December and freezing in Dharamsala, I opted for the latter.

The town is small, quiet and peaceful. Despite being well-established on the tourist map, there isn’t much development and places close early.  The Nepalese population provide visitors with authentic handicrafts and yak cheese.

Rishikesh’s claim to fame is that it is where the Beatles holed up at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram in February of 1968 to expand their consciousness and write the bulk of the White Album.  The Ashram shut down, but you can pay an unofficial guard 50 cents and tour the grounds.  It’s really cool and definitely worth spending hours walking in the footsteps of hippies.  John Lennon stayed in pod 9 (see photo).  In addition to dozens of living pods and funky buildings, there was also a giant warehouse type building that was converted into a semi-church to the Fab Four.

Oh, yeah.  Yoga.  There are ashrams and yoga studios everywhere and you can get a session in for a couple dollars.  It’s an ideal place to meditate, contemplate and elevate your existence; it’s trippy stuff, man.

I took a break from exploring my inner-self and trekked to nearby Neelkantha Mahadev Temple.  This popular Hindu pilgrimage site dedicated to Lord Shiva is where the god is said to have drank poison that turned his throat blue.  The walk there is beautiful and there is another temple to Shiva on the hill overlooking the shrine.  It’s worth the trip.

The food was vegetarian, simple and tasty.  There was no alcohol to be found, but that would only detract from your mind-opening.

Rishikesh was a very Indian experience and I enjoyed my time there.  It was also nice to visit the ganges far enough upstream where the great river is still clean and pristine.

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It’s hard to think of India without the Taj Mahal coming to mind. Like most visitors, I made sure to visit this Wonder of the World while on the subcontinent. Agra, the city that is home to the Taj Mahal, was not like Siem Reap, the affordable oasis of awesomeness that hosts visitors coming to see Ankor Wat.

Essentially just wanting to see the Taj and be on my way, I took an overnight bus from Delhi to Agra and another overnight bus to Rishikesh the following night, giving myself a full day of Agra.

In addition to the Taj, Agra is also home to an impressive fort, which is definitely worth seeing.

There are certain places that achieve iconic status around the world, and the Taj Mahal definitely falls into that category. As for the palace itself…it totally lives up to the hype. The Taj Mahal truly is a site to behold and literally puts the “awe” in “awesome.” After touring as much of the palace and its surrounding structures as allowed, I spent hours sitting on the grass, marveling at the pure splendor that was before me.

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A lot of people say Delhi is a place you fly into, then get out of as fast as you can to experience the real India. While I make it a point NOT to do what a lot of people say, my relatively brief amount of time to spend in India (5 weeks) led me to do just that.

I ended up staying in India’s capital for just three fairly inactive days. My one touristy day was spent in Old Delhi, where I checked out Red Fort and the narrow, winding roads of the ancient city. The fort was pretty cool and I even found my way up a questionable looking ladder to the top of a building that I’m pretty sure visitors are not welcome. The view was amazing.

What wasn’t amazing was the scale and omnipresence of abject poverty. The smells, sounds, sights and smells were everything you’d imagine them to be, and they were everywhere. It was raw. It was real. It was eyeopening.

The food, nearly all vegetarian and served with some sort of bread, was different from any Indian I had prior. The flavors were complex, mouth-warming and delicious. Prices ranged from 20 cents to around a dollar, further enticing me to eat as much as possible. I subsisted entirely on street food and never developed the infamous Delhi Belly.

After a few days of adjusting from an essentially “normal” life in Penang to a traveler’s life in India, I left Delhi to do as so many others do: visit Agra and see the Taj Mahal.

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