January 29, 2013

A "Shitty" New Year's Eve

Our New Year's Eve revolved around poop. That's right...poop. We had a great time...It wasn't...um....crappy in that sense of the word, but there was a very strange recurring theme of crap.

To begin with - dealing with poop is a daily battle in India. Walking down the sidewalk, you will find yourself dodging piles left by dogs, cows, goats, monkeys, camels and, sometimes, even people. You may remember back in October when I blogged about Tom stepping in cow doody, and that wasn't the last time. So, by New Year's Eve and having been in India for 10 weeks, we thought we had dealt with the full gamut of poop-related obstacles and activities. We were wrong!

We have wanted to go on a camel safari since we first planned to come to India, and we thought we would make that happen on an eventual visit to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. However - somewhere around Amritsar, we realized we didn't have the energy to spend our last month in India bouncing all over, spending 2-3 nights in each place. And really, we don't enjoy our time as much when we do that. Unfortunately, that meant that we had to start crossing places off our list and Jaisalmer got the axe. Fortunately, while we were in Pushkar (read here), we found out that you can do a camel trek from there. So, after meeting Alex and Hollie (Australians) at our guest house (Hotel Everest), we decided to head out into the great big desert on New Year's Eve for an unforgettable evening. (It's illegal to drink in Pushkar anyway, so it's not like we were going to have a wild night on the town.)

On New Year's Eve, around 3pm, Tom, Alex, Hollie, Helge (Germany), and I were picked up and driven to be introduced to our camels. I had a super nice camel named Romeo and Tom had a psycho moody camel named Rama.
Romeo, smiling and being friendly

Rama, being mean and trying to eat us. Also, I think he has gingivitis.

January 28, 2013

Pushkar - A "Special" Place (Pushkar, Rajasthan, India)

You can find a variety of "special" things in Pushkar. Special pizzas. Special lassis. Special chocolates. But "special" doesn't mean it's the day's unique offering. In Pushkar, "special" is code for "loaded with marijuana" (which is called 'bhang' in India), so order carefully and never eat anything a hippie hands you. What you won't find in Pushkar: alcohol and meat. Pushkar is a very holy Hindu town, and these two things are strictly prohibited. Of course, I was still sick (beginning with the train ride from hell and continuing with the Best Guesthouse EVER), so I was happy to do without beer and chicken. We had heard about Pushkar from a few different people, all of whom had said it was a great place to spend a few days and that it was some of the best shopping in all of India. (crazy, crowded, chaotic Delhi markets excepted...except, who wants to mess with that?!?!) So, as December was nearing an end, we decided that "Christmas in Pushkar" had a nice ring to it and we took the train from Jaipur to Ajmer, and then a bus from Ajmer to Pushkar. As a Christmas treat, we decided to splurge a bit on a room, and we spent our first 2 nights in Pushkar at the beautiful Inn Seventh Heaven ($36/night). Click to read about our Christmas celebration.

Pushkar Sneak Peek!

The inside lobby of Inn Seventh Heaven

January 25, 2013

The Best Guest House in India (Jaipur, Rajasthan, India)

If you haven't read about our train trip from Amritsar (read here) to Jaipur, you should. It's a doozy. (read here for the story). While the 14 hour overnight train was horrific for Steph we couldn't have picked a better guesthouse for her recovery. When we arrived in Jaipur, the pink city, we headed to Rajputana Paying Guest House, where we were greeted by Papa, the father of the house, and one of his daughters. We were whisked off to our gorgeous, clean room and crashed for the rest of the morning. Later that morning they brought toast, bananas, and tea up to our room for breakfast. I went down and chatted with Mama and Papa. They have four grown kids (two of which help with the guesthouse) and are some of the kindest people we have met. Papa is a tiny man who fixed typewriters for 50 years to support his family. I would run into him on the roof when I would go there to read. He would be up there smoking his beedis (Indian cigarette) and through minimal English he would give little insights on his life, and give me suggestions. Papa was obviously very well respected by his kids but they also ribbed him about not knowing his age. Papa was born in Ajmer, a much smaller town a few hours from Jaipur, and when he was born his family didn't get a birth certificate for him. It became obvious that an ongoing family joke was making fun of Papa that he didn't know his age. He would get worked up and then smile, shrug and give a little head bobble. He was very sweet and when I think of the Indian the head bobble, I will picture Papa and his bobble.
Not the family at Rajputana...but some smiling women at Hawa Mahal

January 24, 2013

Pure Punjabi (Amritsar, Punjab, India)

I had literally never heard of Amritsar (in the state of Punjab) until we were in India. In truth, we really hadn't researched much about north India at all until we got here. When we left SF, it seemed so far away (in both time and distance), that we didn't really read much. But, as we neared the 2 month mark in India, we had heard tons of backpackers recommending Amritsar, so we started reading about it.

Amritsar is the center of Sikhism, a religion unfamiliar to most Westerners. I had once heard it described as a combination of Islam and HInduism and, while there may be some truth to that, it's probably unfair to the religion to compare it to other religions when describing it. It is, of course, its own thing and, while I still don't know much about the religion, know that it's a very peaceful community and that we enjoyed the Sikh people in Amritsar a great deal.

There are really only 2 reasons why tourists visit Amritsar; 1-to visit the Golden Temple, an important pilgrimage site for all Sikhs, and 2-to visit the India/Pakistan border at Wagah and see the daily ceremony there with guards, military, and spectators on both sides putting on an elaborate show. So, as we wrapped up our time in McLeod Ganj (read here and here), we started making plans for a visit to Amritsar.

Amritsar Sneak Peek

January 22, 2013

Loose of Limits Stands in Solidarity with Tibet

I didn't really know much about Tibet before we visited McLeod Ganj. I knew that China had forcibly occupied Tibet and that, many years ago, people plastered Free Tibet bumper stickers to their cars and boycotted Chinese products, following celebrities like the Beastie Boys and Richard Gere (I'd follow Gere anywhere) in a rant against China. But that's all I really knew. Traveling is such a wonderful thing because you see how the rest of the world lives, both good and bad, and that knowledge is humbling. We were fortunate to have this exposure and education on the Tibetan people while in India, and we learned a lot about Tibet, Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama while in McLeod Ganj. Before you read this post, it might help if you read a little about the Tibet/China situation by reading this or watching the quick video below (Warning: Parts of the video are graphic.)

January 21, 2013

McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, India - A Love Story

Remember when we fell in love with Hampi? (read here) Something similar happened in McLeod Ganj. From the moment we arrived, I was in love. Maybe even in more love (does that make sense? in loverer? in lovest?) with McLeod Ganj.
This is me, in love with McLeod Ganj
Before we came to India, we hadn't planned on going to McLeod Ganj or the region at all but, while talking with a long-term traveller in Hampi, we told him our plans to go to Darjeeling. He said that Darjeeling is great, but it's difficult to get to and the weather is cold this time of year. With those things in mind, we realized we really only wanted to head that direction if we were planning on spending a good chunk of time there. He suggested, instead, that we head to Dharamsala if we wanted the feel of the Indian mountain town. We were familiar with the Dharamsala area and the small town of Dharamkot because the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre is based there, which is the organization we studied yoga with, but in Goa (read here). (Unfortunately, that location closes for the winter, so we knew we wouldn't be able to take any Iyengar yoga courses while we were there.) After a bit of research, we chose McLeod Ganj as the village in the area we most wanted to visit. And, while our immediate plans after Delhi was to head to Varanasi, we knew we needed a break from the city after our chaotic visit (read here) so, instead decided to change our route entirely and head straight to McLeod Ganj from Delhi. So the 3 of us boarded a semi-sleeper "deluxe" bus for the 12 hour ride from Delhi to McLeod Ganj, in the Dharamsala region of the state of Uttar Pradesh.

January 20, 2013

"Holy Cow! Do You Use Toilet Paper?" And other reader questions...

We've been on the road now for about 4.5 months, and we've had a lot of questions from our friends and family - so we thought we'd write a post answering some of the more common questions. If you have others, send them to us at stephanieswain2010@gmail.com
"Do you miss cozy bedding?" - Question from Lauren Funk
You have no idea. Honestly, this must rank with one of the top things we miss. But it's less about "cozy" and more about "clean." We use our sleep sheet almost every night because the sheets and beds don't meet our Western standards of cleanliness. 

Incredible India! (Delhi, India)

We knew that when we decided to stay in Arambol a second week (read here) and fly to Delhi, India's capitol, we were going be in both ends of the India spectrum in the same day. It was very surreal to spend the morning doing yoga in Arambol and have a comfortable day among hippies and then arrive that late afternoon in the madness of Delhi. We met my mother at the airport, who had just arrived from North Carolina- she has always wanted to come India and decided to join us for a few weeks before heading off to Thailand and Australia. We had decided to stay in a few nicer places in Delhi because the cities can be intense and because we wanted my mom's first exposure to India to be comfortable, so we hopped in a taxi and headed to our home stay, K-One-One, in a nice neighborhood called the Defence Colony. After a good night's sleep, we ventured out into Delhi to explore. Since we were attending Nakul and Kunjan's wedding in a two days we knew this first day in India would be spent getting clothes for the wedding. While the neighborhood and the guest house were nice, the metro station is on the other side of an 8-lane highway that had to crosswalk/subway/overpass, so we had to make a terrifying trip across two four lane highways to get to the subway station. It was a real life game of Frogger. Going forward one lane while a rickshaw zooms by and stopping in the road because we didn't know if a motorcycle bearing down on us was going to going in front of us or behind us. This first day, a young Indian man saw our confusion and fear and stepped out in the street to and helped my mother cross the chaos of the street. We made it across, sighed in relief and then headed for the subway into downtown. Everything in Delhi is draining- crossing the street, haggling with a shop keeper, getting on the subway, getting OFF the subway, waiting in line for a restaurant, shirking beggars. As a tourist - it is all so overwhelming. 

Once we made it to the subway our battle had just begun. The subways are packed, and even when an empty subway car pulls up, Indians rush on and off the trains, pushing, elbowing and clawing to be the first on or off the train. Once we had fought our way into the city center we headed to a government emporium for Indian clothes so we could get saris for the ladies and a suit and kurta pyjama for myself. This took most of the afternoon, but the staff was very helpful and got us set up for the wedding. After hours of shopping and struggling with the crowds we decided to head back to the rooftop of the guesthouse (surviving the 8 lane highway again on our return) and drink some of the whiskey my Mom brought from duty free, and prepared to take on Delhi the next day. 
Mom and Steph in a bicycle rickshaw

January 15, 2013

What's in YOUR Wallet?

I keep thinking of that commercial that asked, "What's in your wallet?" I'm pretty sure it was a bank card ad, but it's got me thinking about what Tom and I carry in our bags each day. We're pretty proud of how we've packed - we have less stuff than most long-term backpackers we come across and, when we aren't loaded down with things we've bought, we can fit all of our things into our 2 large packs without even needing to carry a day pack. These days, we're traveling pretty light. The below list is just our essentials, though we do have a lot of other stuff with us. These are the things we use every day and recommend to other travelers. If you're using this list as a packing guide, please note, this list is what we've been carrying in India - in the south in October and November and in the north in December and January. (For a full list of what we brought with us, visit this page, but note that it needs a little updating.)
This is what we started with...

January 9, 2013

Nomadic Goat Herders

This blog is turning into a Hampi blog, isn't it? These are things we wrote about weeks ago, but haven't posted yet and are trying to catch up...so, sorry about the Hampi inundation.

In Hampi, we loved that the town's main road was lined with shops on one side, and with rice fields on the other side. To us, this meant that Hampi had the conveniences we want (restaurants, activities and shopping), but was also full of local charm. (You might remember that we love Hampi. That's still true.)

Because we walked and motorbiked around a lot, we saw most parts of the town and we always noticed the family of farmers in a field with their goats and cows. They lived in tents made of straw and scrap material and plastic and were always working. The animals slept around the family's tents and we would often see the women cooking with propane inside the tents. They wore simple clothes, hauled their water to their tents each day, never wore shoes, and, generally, lived a very basic life. By American standards, they were quite poor. Still, they seemed happy with their simple life and were always kind to us. Their two young kids were usually helping with the work and always looked at us with curiosity, obviously intrigued by our foreignness. Their curiosity surprised me, as Hampi is a pretty popular backpacker destination, so it wouldn't have been strange for a Hampi resident to see foreigners. One day, I asked their father's permission (with rudimentary miming/sign language) if I could take a photo of the kids and he gave me the affirmative head wiggle. The children were fascinated when I showed them their photos on our camera.

Do You Think Babies Grow on Trees, Like Money?

Our love affair with Hampi is no secret (read about it here), and our time there was full of beautiful experiences and wonderful people and we still miss it. And not just in Hampi, but in all of India, we've been so impressed with the practice of religion. Unlike many followers of Western religions, the religious population here is seriously devout, and their religion permeates every part of their lives. While we're not religious at all - largely due to the hypocritical behavior of many so-called "religious" people in our own culture - we have been in awe of the devotion shown by India's religious, including Hindus, Muslims, and even Christians.
A Hindu woman stops to touch a holy cow in the market place of Pushkar

January 8, 2013

Getting Bendy in Goa (Mandrem & Arambol, Goa, India)

After Hampi (read here), we headed back towards Goa to do yoga for a week in Arambol. Before our course started, we stayed just south, in Mandrem, for a few days because it's a much quieter beach. The two different towns are accessible by about a 30 minute walk along the beach where you pass hippies twirling sticks, hawkers, and plenty of beachside shacks where you can order food and drinks while relaxing on a beach chair. We decided to splurge a little for our time in Mandrem because we were both desperate for a hot shower after sweating like crazy for 3 weeks. So, at $30/night at Cuba Retreat, we were looking forward to the royal treatment. Unfortunately, we were a bit disappointed in our room. It had a great, hot shower, but the room was pretty depressing, and it wasn't even on the beach. Still, we both decided it was worth the stay for the shower alone and spent 3 nights there before moving down the beach to Arambol. We spent most of our time in Mandrem lounging on the beach and boogie boarding. It was really hot, and we were pretty lazy. It was great!

January 7, 2013

A Happy Birthday Wish!

We haven't had internet for awhile, so we're going to try to catch up on some posts quickly. A few days ago, my BFF, Ashley, turned 30 on January 4. Her awesome husband, threw her a surprise party and I was so sad not to be a part of the planning and celebration. I became desperate to find a way to participate from long distance. So I made her a video toast with pictures of us growing up together. I'm so lucky that she's been my BFF for nearly 20 years!

Click the image to watch the video!

I spoke to her while she was at her party (after the big surprise), and she sounded SO happy. Her sister, Michelle, flew in from Arizona to surprise her, tons of her friends and family came to the party, and she sounded as giddy as a little girl. It made me think about how much fun we had together when we actually were little girls and I missed her even more! So, a late, but sincere Happy 30th Birthday to my BFF, Ashley!