Although Nick and I were having a hoot in India, after 2 months we were beginning to feel exhausted. We crossed into Nepal by land and the difference was night and day. Nepalis smiled at us and helped us cross the border. They made sure we got on the right bus and pointed out their favorite momo hut. Nick thought it was all a trick or maybe we were getting scammed but I assured him that Nepalis were the kindest of them all. The 11 hour bus ride from the Indian border to Kathmandu was exciting to say the least. We were surprised by how undeveloped the only road into the capital was and we followed a deep gorge the entire way. We saw vehicles teetering off the edge and although our bus driver drove like a lunatic (like all bus drivers in Asia) we were thankful when we arrived safely.
I was elated to be back in Nepal and although Kathmandu was dusty and touristed I was excited to return. The affects from the 2015 earthquake were very present and Kathmandu reminded both Nick and I of the soviet era capital of Mongolia (Ulan Batar). We appreciated the law against unnecessary honking. We watched people line the street and march for their favored party in the upcoming election. The election was a big deal as this was the first local election in 20 years. Nick and I spent a few days running errands and arranging our trek to Dolpo before picking up Larry and Kaitlin (our friends from Hawaii) from the airport. Before trek we spent a few days exploring the city.
We spent Buddha’s birthday at Boudhanath Stupa
Durbar Square (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Pashupatinath Temple (Hindu)
Garden of Dreams
My highlight was spending time with Sri and Tsewang, friends I met in Nepal in 2012 and later worked with when I worked for an adventure travel company, Above the Clouds. We had many meals together and gained local knowledge on the election, Mustang, politics, and climate change.
After our 20+ day on trek (Dolpo Trek blog post), Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I were excited to head to Pokhara, mostly looking forward to bathing and eating. I remembered Pokhara as a small lakeside city with lychee trees and ping pong. However, the amount of development and construction in the past 5 years was astonishing. It felt like any college town from the states plopped into the rainforest. There were hundreds of hotels and I was surprised to see fast food chains and box stores.
Before leaving Kathmandu we were thrilled to find lychee season begun! We prompty ate 4 pounds of lychee and many mangos before boarding our flight for Indonesia!
Momo Hut- palak paneer momos, palak and peanuts, garlic and cheese chilimomos
Utse- a Tibetan restaurant that offers great hot pots and Tongba (hot water poured over fermented millet)
Fren’s Kitchen- great tofu steak and best wifi in Thamel
Fire & Ice- a delicious pizza place for Western cravings after trek
Rosemary- Western breakfast
Lassi- a delicious local lassi stand on Thamel Marg (40 R for a small, 70 R for a large)
Roads- 5 years ago I had a remarkable experience in Mustang, Nepal. Nick and I knew that we wanted to travel in a remote area (specifically in Western Nepal), however heard that Mustang changed due to a newly built road. We wanted to experience a culture not yet impacted by connectivity and decided to trek in Dolpo, Nepal. We were thrilled that Nick’s childhood best friend Larry and his partner Kaitlin would be joining us from Hawaii.
During our 20+ days on trek, we noticed that there seemed to be no thought that went into the development of roads, specifically around how it would impact the local culture. People seem to come into remote areas and build roads before there is even access to vehicles (we saw this in the canyon to Nawwapani). Our guide told us that locals expect there to be a road connecting Dolpo in 3-4 years. People want development and access, however it doesn’t seem like there is enough thought in the planning, only considering immediate economic impacts. On our travels, we found that roads in Darjeeling were well planned. Locals had access to the road, however it was about a half-hour walk and it not only preserved the environment, but also the culture.
Money- When trekking, most tourists give all of their money to a large company in Kathmandu to plan and arrange their entire trip. We found that although this approach is more encompassing, it is more expensive and only supports some local staff. We found that it was hard to arrange a trek in remote areas without strong contacts. In Mongolia, Nick and I got lucky with a local recommendation from Lonely Planet, however in Nepal, we compromised with using a company to find our guide and help with permits and flights. We decided to pay for food and shelter as we went. We were surprised to learn that during our guide’s 16 years of guiding, this was the first time he had lead a trip like this in Dolpo.
We were happy with our decision as we felt we were paying more to the local community in comparison to a big trekking group. In many small villages, we were able to stay with a family in a teahouse, while another group (the only trekking group we saw in 21 days) camped outside and ate food brought from Kathmandu. We feel our approach allowed for a more authentic experience, however was more difficult as we carried our own gear, ate 28 dhal bhat meals (lentils and rice), and got cold and wet. Later, we did discover that our guide and 2 porters were not getting paid what we were told, however tried to compensate this by providing them with a nice tip at the end.
Yartsa Gunbu- This fungus grows on insects found above 13,000 ft. in mountainous regions of Nepal and Tibet. In Tibet, it is literally translated to “winter worm, summer grass.” It is valued in China as an herbal remedy and 1 kg is valued at $20,000. Yartsa Gunbu is predominately found in the Dolpo region of Nepal. The Chinese created this economy and most families in Dolpo earn their yearly income in 3-4 weeks of collecting, then focus on sustenance farming the rest of the year. Every year, less and less Yartsa Gunbu is found. It’s a double edge sword because it provides an economic opportunity, however there is no regulation on how collectors treat the environment. Trash, feces and make shift tents litter mountain passes. Camps run on a Yartsa Gunbu economy and locals trade one piece ($5) for a beer. Police are sent to the mountains and monitor remote areas for security. Collectors seem to treat each other well, they look together and families send their children up to collect in order to make money.
Day 1- We flew from Nepalgunj to Juphal and the highlight of the mountainous flight was the scary landing. We hiked 3 hours through green barley fields and a deep dry valley to Dunai. The view was remarkable and the snow capped mountains were a constant reminder we were trekking in the Himalayas. In Dunai, curious kids greeted us and directed us to a teahouse. Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags flew from the top of each home and elders walked around the town spinning prayer wheels and counting mala beads.
Day 2- We hiked 5 hours to Chhepka. We began in the desert, followed a raging blue/ green river, and then hiked in woods. Mossy trees, birds, suspension bridges, and rain. We passed abandoned villages as all of the locals moved to higher elevation to search for Yartsa Gunbu. The woman at the local teahouse made the best Tibetan butter tea. We noticed one of our porters being treated poorly as he was Buddhist and the other porter and guide were Hindu. He carried a heavier load and was responsible for far more tasks in comparison. We read about this phenomenon in The Snow Leopard, which was written in he 70’s and were surprised to see it continuing to happen today.
Day 3- We hiked for 5 hours up and down to Chunnuwaur. We continued to follow the river and eventually exited tree line. We passed many lines of horses and mules, the head animal wore a beautiful bell and headdress made of yak hair.
Day 4- 3 ½ hour hike to Phoksundo Lake. We hiked up to a viewpoint and saw a spectacular waterfall. We were greeted by smiling snot-covered kids in Ringmo, holding their hands together screaming “Namaste.” We played Frisbee near the glistening lake and visited an 800-year-old Bon monastery. Bon is religion that came to Tibet before Buddhism, however buddhist doctrines and rituals have been incorporated making it the sixth branch of Tibetan Buddhism. We walked past stupas, and noticed the auspicious swastika symbol is reversed in Bon (yungdrung).
Day 5- Phoksundo Lake is 3 miles long, ½ mile wide and ½ mile deep. There is no life in or on the fresh water lake; there are no algae, fish, or boats. Today, we took a “rest day” and hiked 4 ½ hours along a ridge above the lake. We had a great view of Upper Dolpo. We listened to wild jackals in the evening and watched mules eat salt. When the man of the teahouse returned from visiting his second wife, he made us a delicious roasted marijuana seed (non psychotropic), tomato and chili paste to eat with our dhal bhat. We learned that the communist party may have won the election and wondered how this would affect Nepal’s political future.
Day 6- 2 ½ hours to Yak Kharka then 3 hours to Bagala basecamp. We had beautiful views overlooking the gorge and looking back at lake. We dropped into a green meadow with glaciers surrounding us. We ate lunch in Yak Kharka, a village that consisted of 1 stone home, covered in drying dung. We ate with a group of 15-year-old girls going to the mountains to collect. They said they would spend 15 days collecting and expected to find 1 Yartsa Gunbu per day. Dark clouds chased us up the valley as we hiked to Bagala base camp. I noticed the running river, brown dirt surrounding the river and green lush grass. Tan desert rocks lined the canyon. Melting ice turned into waterfalls, horses grazed and yaks moved to lower elevation. We set up camp at 4,500m (14,763 ft.) just in time for snow. The pass and glaciers sat in the clouds; we were in a snow globe.
Day 7- We were the first trekkers of the season to hike up and over Bagala Pass 5,169 m (16,958 ft). We crossed an icy river in the morning and saw blue sheep above. I heard rocks move above us as the ice began to melt. We saw big marmots, purple flowers and huge glaciers. We hiked for 6 ½ hours, and along the ridge of a valley at the end. We didn’t need any altitude medications, however felt slow. Our heart rate and breathing increased and we felt nauseous. We slept at the base of Numala Pass.
Day 8- Again, we were the first trekkers of the season to cross over Numala Pass 5,300 m (17,600 ft). Although higher, this pass felt easier than Bagala. We came down into a high and dry environment that reminded me of Mustang, which made sense as I could see upper Mustang behind some mountains. We could see dark storm clouds but were so high we could also see clear baby blue skies above. We walked down mossy meadow humps, saw herds of big furry yaks and followed the river to Dho Tarap. We saw ancient homes, piles of drying dung, green houses and motorbikes (which are walked 2 days from Tibet during an open 1 month trade agreement). We saw tsampa (ground barley) being ground by the power of the river. We visited a school and hiked for a total of 7 hours.
Day 9- Rest day. We visited a 700-year-old Bon Monastery, Ribo Bhompa Gonpa. We watched the locals plow fields with yaks. I spent time playing with a young girl who lived at the teahouse and was fascinated how she imitated her mother. Growing up, I remember pretending to talk on a cell phone or use a credit card but this young girl was pretending to herd goats, grind chilies and carried her doll on her back wrapped in a scarf. Larry, Kaitlin, Nick and I played cards and drank local barely wine.
Day 10- It seems like the landscape changed every 2 days. Today was dry with waterfalls, it reminded me of the Southwest, USA. Nick, Larry and Kaitlin ate blue sheep at lunch, the first time eating meat since we left Kathmandu. Every tea house/ tea house tent seemed to carry Chinese products. Rice bags, soda cans, and ramen wrappers were written in Chinese. Goat and sheep covered the hiking trail and we trekked for 7 hours. I watched a goat/ sheepherder roll wool on a hand spindle while he walked.
Day 11- Kaitlin was sick. We were back in the forest following the river and the grassy mountains resembled Switzerland. The hills were alive with the sound of music. Dhal bhat was getting more expensive at 500 R ($5) per plate while in Kathmandu it was 100 R ($1). We saw enormous 200 ft. trees, it reminded us of Colorado. We camped at a lower elevation and the climate was hot. We slept in a meadow with purple lavender like flowers and horse skeletons. Part of the trail shimmered in the sun and the silver rock looked like glitter. We hiked for 7 hours total.
Day 12- Today, we hiked from 6:45 am to 4 pm and gained 1,500 m (4,921 ft.) in elevation. It was a hard day and my legs felt like Jell-O-O. Wild marijuana grew everywhere, Gompa Village sat in the mountains where walnut trees grew. We met a man traveling from Upper Dolpo who had lost his 11 yaks and was on a journey to find them. We stopped by some hot springs (tatopani) and had to bush wack for an hour back to the main trail. Nick had back pain. We walked with the Nepali military sent to monitor the Yartsa Gunbu collecting which began the following day. We were happy when we made it to the top, however the last hour walk in the pouring rain was cold and frustrating. We camped at Jangla Base Camp 4,300 m (14,100 ft).
Day 13- We were surprised with Nepali sweets from Bchandra’s family (one of our porters) who was camping close by to collect. We hiked over Jangla Pass in a cloudy meadow and dreamt of food, as we were getting sick of dhal bhat. Larry made a great discovery of covering your poo with dried yak poo when no rocks could be found. Genius. We had an easy day (4 hours) and napped in the afternoon although breathing was difficult due to the elevation. We played cards in the evening.
Day 14- We woke up to rain, then snow, and waited for an hour in hopes of better weather. Eventually, our guide said, “We must go over the pass or we may have problems.” We trekked over the snowy pass not able to see far in front of us. We came down to a tent camp, where collectors were staying. We left the canyon and were back in a lush forested environment. The landscape reminded Nick and I of Northern Vietnam. Waterfalls, Rhododendron, moss, fallen leaves. Women wore clothing that looked similar to hill tribe clothing in Southeast Asia. It began to rain as we approached Dhule. We hiked for 6 1/2 hours. We spent the evening in Dhule, which was busy with collectors and helped locals clean Yartsa Gunbu with toothbrushes. We hung out with some local kids and ended the evening with dhal bhat, mutton and tongba (warm millet beer).
Day 15- We spent the evening under a leaky roof during a thunderstorm. We had roti (similar naan) for breakfast and were not use to the aspect of chewing, as dhal bhat does not require such strong jaw muscles. We hiked along terraced fields (corn, potatoes, squash, green onion and millet) and honeybee logs. We learned that 1 family of bees live in a log per season and our guide gets 200 kg of honey per year from 20 logs. We hiked through forest. Birds chirped, water rushed and we spent a few hours at hot springs. We hiked for 4 hours through lush forest to Kayam, a village of 2 homes. When the clouds lifted we were surprised with a breathtaking view.
Day 16- Our guide and porters collected wild bamboo shoots for dinner and stole lettuce from gardens. We observed bridges, rain and moss. We stopped in Thakur, where the clay home with a thatched roof provided us with fresh buffalo milk. The home was dark and smoky and we ate dhal bhat for lunch. Goat and buffalo meat hung above the wood stove to dry. We hiked for 3 hours today and camped on an unprotected saddle.
Day 17- We got little sleep due to high winds and rain, and our tent repeatedly collapsed. The next morning we trekked over a small pass. There was a lot of rain and we continued to drink copious amounts of buffalo milk. At lunch I was embarrassed after my new dog friend came running up to me in the woods and ate my waste before I had time to even think.
After 5 hours of trekking, we entered the hunting reserve and the national park pass was 3x what we expected. We spent the afternoon in Dhorpotan where Larry and Kaitlin played Frisbee with kids and Nick washed laundry in the river. I pumped water and had a lovely conversation in attempted Nepali with a local about her kids, siblings and age. The town consisted of scattered huts in a valley and there was no town center. Larry, Kaitlin, Nick and I played cards and ate an abundant amount of Indian snacks we bought from a nearby store. That evening Nick and I began to feel ill.
Day 18- Thankfully today was a rest day in Dhorpotan. Due to overconsumption, food poisoning or a change and diet, Nick and I spent the previous night and early morning projectile vomiting into our camping pot, bags and in the backyard. Hundreds of dogs barked the entire night. The next morning the dog and chickens made sure to clean up our mess. It took 4 days for our (which now included Larry’s) system to get rid of the Indian snacks.
Day 19- Today, the weather was warm and sunny. We crossed suspension bridges, water buffalo roamed the woods and Larry found a leech on him. We were trekking at a lower elevation and walked through a dead forest that was killed by a fire 20 years earlier. The clouds looked so close, I watched them expand and they moved quickly. For the first time on our trip Nick and I mentioned missing home. Maybe because it had been so long since we had talked with our families; we were worried that everything was okay.
We passed snarling Tibetan Mastiffs showing their teeth. By day these dogs were chained but at night they roamed guarding homes. We sat on animal skins and ate dhal bhat for lunch. Nick, Larry and I were still sick from the Indian snacks and beginning to have sharp pain under our rib cage. Good thing we only had a few more days of trek! We camped and the clouds looked bright in the dark sky. We listened to cow bells and jackals in the evening. 4 ½ hours of hiking.
Day 20- We woke up to a clear view of Dhaulagiri. This mountain consists of 5 peaks and is 5 miles tall or 7,900 m (26,810 ft). The clouds moved quickly over Jaljala Pass and our view of Dhaulagiri was quickly obstructed. We trekked 4 hours downhill to a teahouse where we ate candy and explored the town.
Day 21- We took an adventurous 7 hour bus to Beni where we drove past snow covered peaks on a “road” that was carved into the mountain side. We ate some local plums, which were the first fruit we’d had in almost a month. At a bus stop we ate samosas and jalebis then boarded another bus headed for Pokhara. We reflected on our remarkable trek and looked forward to bathing.
Dhal Bhat- 28 meals
Days camping- 11
Days in tea houses- 10
Other foreigners’ spotted- 6 (an anthropologist, linguist, trekkers and a runner)
Varanasi is 1 of the world’s oldest continuously inhibited cities and 1 of Hinduisms 7 holy cities. Pilgrims come to wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges River and families come to cremate their deceased, liberating them from the cycle of birth and death.
Varanasi was intense and like most of India was aggressive, polluted and dirty. Military presence was high and angry bulls filled the tiny alleyways. I was pleased that it took almost 2 months before a bull rammed me, as a fear of cows would have been inconvenient. However, the culture and tradition that filled the city was unique and spiritual.
Nick and I spent the majority of our time along the river observing the 80 plus ghats. During the day the weather was hot and there were only a handful of locals on the banks. We hung out with wandering cows and fed some paper from our guidebook to hungry goats. We watched men paint tar on boats with their bare hands as we had previously seen locals painting fences in Kolkata without brushes. We people watched then continued to the burning ghats.
We approached a burning ghat where we saw 20 bodies burning and 10 soaking in the river before being cremated. We could walk within 10 feet of the fires. We observed and were curious. We had many questions that were later answered by some generous locals.
Bodies come to Varanasi within 1-2 days of dying. They are wrapped in cloth, white for men, orange for women and red for young women. Children, pregnant women, lepers and Brahmin (priests) are not cremated as children are innocent, leopards will transfer their disease and priests are pure. Instead, a large rock is attached to their bodies and they are sunk in the river.
Untouchables, individuals in the lowest caste, wrap their bodies and carry them on decorated bamboo stretchers down busy alleyways to the ghats. The most popular ghat is Manikarnika Ghat where 200-300 people are burned per day and they work 24 hours. The deceased families, identifiable as they have shaved heads, splash water from the Ganges River on their deceased and let their body soak.
The body is placed on a prepared pile of wood and a calculated number of logs are placed on top as the cost of the cremation depends on the weight of the wood and type (sandalwood being the most expensive). Cremations cost on average $12- $71, however families who cannot afford this often place whole bodies in the Ganges. We were told that where the body is burned, closer to the river, on a platform, etc. all depends on your caste. Various spices and ghee are sprinkled over of the pile before being lit. It takes approximately 3-4 hours for a single body to burn. We watched over 15 cremations in various stages. Near the end, the worker rearranges the burning logs, ash and body with a long bamboo stick. It’s easy to identify the body being jabbed, as it’s soft and almost blubbery in comparison to the incinerating wood. The final ceremony includes breaking the burning skull with the bamboo stick, in order to let the spirit escape. After the body is fully burned, the ash is collected in a large pile on the bank. We were told that workers go through the pile searching for jewelry to keep or sell before the ash is washed into the river.
Nick and I sat and observed for hours. Myself and 1 other tourist were the only women among many men. Women are forbidden to attend Hindu funerals as they may cry, which as bodily fluid is viewed as a pollutant. We could hear the bodies burn; they didn’t crackle like the wood, but sizzled and popped. Clouds of smoke overtook the area with ash afloat.
Nick and I also explored the city and visited Vishwanath Temple. This temple was of the highest security we’ve visited and took multiple security checks and documentation our passports before we gaining entry. A local fished a lay of flowers out of a holy pool of sour milk and placed it around nicks neck. They then took a handful of the coagulated milk and mud (clay texture) and rubbed it across both Nick and my forehead. This brought good luck and smelliness to our families.
We took an evening boat ride along the river. At night, the ghats were full of Indians enjoying music music and spotting a famous Bollywood actress. On the boat, we watched the glowing flames on the banks, pilgrims bathing, children at swim practice and youth playing cricket and other games on the steps of the ghats. We lit a lotus candle and watched it drift through the river.
Varanasi was by far the most touristed placed we have visited in India, however we understood the draw. Westerners are so removed from the process of death. Between practicing yoga and meditation or contemplating death and culture, Varanasi was a though provoking place full of magical energy.
Kashi Chat Bhandar- this busy local spot is delectable! We enjoyed the aloo tikka (potato chat), tamatar chat, pani puri and kulfi fadoola for desert.
Dosa Cafe – great dosas, idly, vadas and other South Indian specialties
Nick and I went to the Bengaluru Train Station and stood in line to buy tickets. Of course, the line was chaotic with cutting locals and unnecessary merging. In addition, needless to say, our tickets were never checked on the train. However, as we stood on the platform we watched the sweeper women who were sweeping all of the human fecal matter off of the tracks. Life in a India is hard and there were constant reminders, like cows with split hoofs searching the streets for garbage, differently abled folks crawling on the floor of the trains begging for money or hungry street kids with eyes full of tears.
As the train approached there was a fight to get on. Nick was able to push himself on about 10 people before myself. As he sat, a 65-year-old man from outside poked him and began yelling, “I put my handkerchief on that seat so you better move!” Obviously Nick was on the train first so the seat should belong to him. I sat down next to him and he warned me we might have an interesting encounter. The man got on and was screaming! “Move now! Get up! This is my seat!” We looked around at all of the staring locals to see whether or not this was the practice and if we should give up our seat. Of course, no one helped, as in most scenes. We have been told that many Indians fear of getting involved and raising a voice as it could turn on them. Nick told him we’d wait for the conductor but we all knew the conductor would never come. Nonetheless, he started grabbing my bag and I asked him to stop touching my things. He bounced into a boxing stance with his fists in the air saying, “Touch me see what happens! Touch me!” Nick and I looked at each other; touching him was the opposite of what we had asked. I had had it. I yelled, “Maybe if you were more kind, people would do what you asked!” Zing. I told him haha. I exasperatedly rearranged some bags on the bunk above and squished myself above, while Nick awkwardly sat next to him for the next 3 hours. This is just one of the many interesting and unpredictable encounters we’ve had in India.
We arrived to Mysuru, home to Ashtanga Yoga, incense, essential oils, beedi (Indian cigarettes), and woodcarving. The tourist town was empty of foreigners but full of local tourists as it was a holiday weekend. We explored the Mysore Palace, grandest of India’s royal buildings. It was originally built in 1897 then rebuilt in 1912 after being destroyed by a fire. It reminded me of a palace from Beauty and the Beast or Anastasia. It was full of mirrors, stained glass, chandeliers, and gold and blue archways. At night it was decorated with 100,000 glowing lights.
The next day, Nick and I took a series of buses to Coorg, stopping in Bylakuppe. Bylakuppe was the first ever Tibetan refugee camp established after the 1959 Chinese invasion. Within the 6km tuktuk drive we notice a difference in physical attributes, attitude, architecture and dress. We visited the Namdroling Monastery, ate some momos and thenthuk before continuing to Coorg.
After passing through Coorg, we took a bus (the cheapest and most dangerous rollercoaster ride we’ve ever been on) to Mukkodlu. where we expected to meet our trekking guide. Due to some miscommunication, there was no guide and we wandered until we found an inviting homestay. We hiked 8 miles to the highest peak and got some great views. The landscape was lush and green with rolling mountains. It was nice to escape the hectic cities and spend some time in nature.
Hotel RRR – queue for tables like at ski resorts and wait to be served veg thalis served on banana leaves (always eat with your right hand and your left is reserved for the toilet)
Vinayaka Mylari – queue and eat masala dosas with coconut coriander chutney (no utensils will be found here)
McDonalds – We may or may not have tried McDonalds McVeg and Aloo (potato) Tikka meals.
Known for its booming IT industry, Bangaluru offers green space, craft breweries, and indoor bouldering gyms. This city was the most progressive, clean, and at times Nick and I forgot that we were in India. We noticed a change from the north to south, the food became spicier and the aggressive personalities became more rare.
We spent time walking around Cubbon Park, Lalbagh Botanical Gardens and MG Road. However, we most enjoyed spending time with our wonderful CouchSurfing host. She lived in a quiet old neighborhood and the second we walked into her home it felt comfortable. It smelt of essential oils and we spent hours with our feet up on her coffee table discussing gender inequality, demonetization, GMOs and labor conditions in the Middle East (as she previously lived in Saudi Arabia).
GM Train Station
Her views were extremely progressive and she helped explain to us why conservative Indians view women of rape as stained or adopted kids as less. Being the first single female local willing to discuss these deep topics with me we were able to laugh about how ironic it is that in India you end up apologizing for having something stolen or your body sexualized. Perpetrators play it off so casually you question weather or not you are yelling or accusing someone of nothing. She answered some of our questions, like why transgendered woman clap in your face on the train asking for money. She told us that transgendered kids are taken away from their families at a young age to live in communities. They are believed to have a sort of “magic” where they can bless you (for a fee) or curse you. It is common for Hindu men to give as many fear this magic.
Our CouchSurfer took us to a local theatre to see a documentary, we ordered late night take out and ran errands. Nick and I have been to uncountable markets, however exploring the Krishnarajendra Market with her was a treat. We picked up cottons and silks for her dressmaking, jewelry, vegetables, and kitchenware. We were thankful for this experience so our host but also thankful for our passport. As we have been constantly reminded by CouchSurfers how lucky we are to be from a country that has valued currency and access to visas. However, we are also reminded how much fear our current administration is creating worldwide.
Indira Darshini- try the paper masala dosa (curried vegetables in a large crisp crepe), kesari bhath (sweet polenta like texture with nuts and raisin) and filtered coffee
Sweets – between fadoola, curd, sweet balls, jalabis and vermicelli noodles soaked in saffron milk, anyone with a sweet tooth will go nuts
Sajjan Rao Circle – street food
Toit Brewpub – 5 microbrews on tap
Ice apple – an asian fruit with a texture similar to lychee, rambothan or longan, this palm fruit is now one of my favorites
Nick and I spent 4 days and 3 nights in Goa. Our guidebook described the beaches we visited; Palolem, Agonda and Patnem as hippie backpacker chill outs with cheap bungalows, drugs, and silent (headphone) dance parties. That is the definition of what Nick and I try to avoid, however everyone talks about Goa and we figured we should go.
We arrived in April and to our pleasant surprise it was dead. Visiting during off-season we enjoyed abandoned towns, quiet beaches and spending time doing absolutely nothing. We hadn’t realized it had been months since we just stopped and relaxed, and it was needed. We met up with our friends form Angola and spent our time eating mediocre tourist food, playing Uno, setting off fireworks, swimming in the ocean and just hanging out.
After taking a sleeper bus to Hampi it reaffirmed our love for India’s rail transit. In the 2 months we’ve spent in India we will have spent 6 overnights on trains. The system is cheap (subsidized), efficient, and comfortable. We’ve met so many wonderful people on the trains and at the stations. Nick and I have a blast arriving to a city and figuring out the train, tuktuk, Uber, plane and bus systems.
Visiting India during the off-season has been wonderful, however the heat was hard. It’s been on average 105-110 degrees and we haven’t had ac in 3 weeks. We wake up in the middle of night sweating; try taking a cold shower, only to find that the water is turned off. It feels like my clothes are consistently damp, however the perks of the off-season outweigh the heat by a hundred fold.
We spent time in Hampi exploring the ancient ruins dating from the 11th – 13th century. In the 16th century, this now World Heritage Site was once a thriving capital home to 500,000 individuals. My favorite artifact was a large granite Ganesh, while nick liked the elephant stables in the Zenana Enclosure. We saw many young females with shaved heads and learned that it’s common when traveling to Hampi to offer your hair to the temples. The town was quant, empty, meatless and alcohols free. Every morning locals painted the street in front of their home with cow feces and water to welcome guests. We were told that Hindus believe cows resemble their mothers as their provide nourishment to their fields, thus cow fertilizer is sacred.
The ruins were thought provoking but what I thought made Hampi magical was its landscape. A sea of round granite boulders with beautiful cracks engulfed yellow planes with palm trees. It resembled a scene from Jurassic park. Nick and I spent 2 days bouldering, as it is world famous for its problems. However, since we seem to have lost most of our climbing strength and the blistering sun made it difficult, we didn’t spend too much time on the rocks. It is obvious why travelers (climbers specifically) could spend months in Hampi.
We met our friends from Angola again and it had been nice seeing familiar faces throughout India. We rented bicycles and were told to bike 3 km along the river to spend the afternoon swimming in waterfalls. Needless to say, the next few hours we wandered around banana plantations, got lost in the desert, cooled off in a lagoon (thankfully no crocodiles were spotted) and we reached the falls only to find rocks. It seemed like the bike rental shop and all of the locals along the way forgot to mention the water dries up during the spring. After flipping over the handlebars of my bike and scrapping up my hands we ended the evening with some Uno before taking a sleeper train to Bangaluru.
The Cafe – set veg breakfast, amazing.
New world – expensive organic/veg restaurant, we enjoyed a delectable paneer steak
Little world – cheap tourist food
Feni (cashew liquor) – try the local cashew nuts, cachew fruit or alcohol made from the fruit
Hospet (Hosapete) Eats:
Udupi Sri Krishna Bhavan (across from the bus stand) – impeccable. The set dosa cost 45 R (70 cents) or try some idlis (spongy round fermented rice cake) and vada (fried dough) for breakfast.
Mango Tree – the special thali is huge (130 R)
Laughing Buddha – great hangout overlooking the river
Mumbai sits on a narrow peninsula that juts into the Arabian Sea. This congested and densely populated city is home to 25 million people. The public transit system is poor, however the business district is booming and many famous Bollywood actors and actresses live here.
Nick and I spent 3 days Couchsurfing in Mumbai. Our host took us out for late night rides to the beach, kulfi ice cream, paan (refreshment leaf) and tours of Bollywood homes. I particularly had an interesting experience as his views of women made for a unique experience. However, not negative as I was excluded from conversations and actives. Nonetheless, it was a cultural experience and we were thankful for the hospitality.
We spent time wandering the south and taking in the old architecture: High Court, Gateway of India, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (awesome train station), Taj Mahal Palace (high end hotel), Chhatrapti Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, and Rajabai Clock Tower.
We explored the bazaar district and loved the variety of fruit sold at the Crawford Market, the largest market in Mumbai. We were lucky to be there during the beginning of Alphonso mango season. We paid 400 R ($6) for 12 delicious locally grown mangos and drooled over beautiful papayas, pomegranates, cashews, dried fruits, spices, and figs.
Dharavi slum- Nick and I decided to visit the Dharavi Slum, as 53% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. This slum is home to 1 million people and stretches over 432 acres. Parts of the movie “Slum dog millionaire” were filmed in Dharavi. There are over 10,000 government registered businesses located in the slum, mostly in the leather, recycling (plastics), and pottery industry.
We were torn whether or not visiting was ethical, however decided that in order to address issues within our society we need to educate ourselves in every way possible. In addition, by booking a tour through Reality Tours & Travel, 80% of the proceeds went to community centers educating youth. Nick and I found the experience fascinating as it didn’t feel like we were in a “slum”. It felt like we were in any other part of India, walking through back alleys to a bus station. The word “slum” simply means a settlement residing on government land. The degree of poverty within slums vary, however the West puts such a negative connotation on the word. This community had shops and did the work that others would not. The jobs were dangerous (burning paint, melting aluminum and recycling plastics) and takes years off of the local’s lifespan. Since photography was prohibited (rightly so) check out the great photos we were provided.- read more on slum tourism
Marine Drive – Here, Nick and I watched the sunset over the Arabian Sea. The twinkling night-lights of Mumbai were nicknamed, ‘the queens necklace’, and hundreds of locals gathered for the evening. Unfortunately, we couldn’t actually see the sun set due to the dense air pollution.
Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat- This 140 year old area is known as the largest human powered washing machine. Thousands of kilograms of clothes are cleaned a day and there are over 1,026 open air troughs.
Bombay Panjrapole- 300 homeless cows are located in the middle of the city. Goats, donkeys and dogs can be found and they are all provided shelter and fed.The Mumbai Wall Project – Nick and I wandered parallel from Bandra to Colaba train stations. The 2 km wall of street art addressed issues regarding pollution, gender equality, aborting females, and child abuse. Although the majority of the wall seemed to be repainted, the murals left were thoughts provoking and beautiful.
Malabar Hill- At the tip of the peninsula, Nick and I roamed around an exclusive and quiet neighborhood. The homes were large and it felt like we escaped the chaos of Mumbai for just a few minutes. Hidden between streets, we visited Banging Tank where kids played and Hindu pilgrims bathed.
-Try a bombil (Bombay Duck) thali, it’s sun dried fish that’s then deep fried.
-Near Marine Drive there is an amazing kulfi shop that serves pre sliced ice cream between wafers.
Nick and I spent 2 days in Jodhpur, the blue city. Traditionally, the highest caste, Brahmins or priests, painted their homes blue. Now, not only Brahmins, but also individuals in other castes paint their homes blue to add to the vibrant hue of the city.
Like in most Rajasthani cities, the prize of the city was the fort. We explored the fort, the clock tower and watched little donkeys carry heavy loads of rocks to and from work sites throughout the city.
We took an 8-hour government bus to the last Rajasthani city on our list, Udaipur. On the ride we noticed a change in dress. Local males wore hot pink or enormous turbans (pagris), which we learned, can tell one’s region, caste and social class. The women wore thick matching plastic bangles from their shoulders to their wrists. Widest near the shoulder then smallest toward the elbow. Then they would start again, the widest at their elbow and smallest at their wrist. No part of their arm was exposed and the funnel of plastic was very unique to this area.
Udaipur is known as the city of (manmade) lakes. The landscape was hilly with bodies of water dispersed throughout. Nick and I CouchSurfed with an extremely friendly family, which included, Raja (King), Rani (Queen) and their daughter. We enjoyed interesting conversations and researched international universities that offer scholarships to Indian citizens for their daughter. The mother and daughter were more than upset to find out I wasn’t carrying any cosmetics on me as they love foreign cosmetics. The mother told us that she felt unlucky to have been born in India, as she was an intelligent and hard working woman, but her currency wasn’t worth anything and because acquiring foreign visas is difficult for Indian residents she will never be able to leave. When her husband, Raja asked us about our new president, Rani interrupted, only to tell us that a famous Bollywood actor (who has god-like status in India) went to visit the U.S. however was either refused or the process took hours, as he was Muslim. Later in Mumbai, we drove past this Bollywood actor’s house, to hear the story again by another CouchSurfer. Exaggerated or not, this was extremely embarrassing and a terrible reflection of our new administration and the travel ban.
On our first evening in Udaipur, Nick and I hiked a small hill to enjoy a sunset point. The next day we visited a famous 18th-century haveli (Bagore-Ki-Haveli) with 138 rooms and the city palace. This palace, built in 1599 was the largest in Rajasthan. It was the most restored and really gave a complete understanding of what it must have been like as a royal family at that time. The palace was enormous and grand and the museum seemed to go on forever. After, Nick got a 40 R ($.62) straight razor shave.
The next day, we visited a Hindu temple at the center of town and Nick worked on applications. The end of our trip is beginning to come into sight and neither of us are ready. We walked around some lakes and experienced a hindu funeral. We saw parade of men walking by us as and they threw flowers onto a deceased man they carried. His face was powdered with colors. We watched as his body slowly turned into a cloud of smoke. We were thankful to experience this tradition. We learned that woman are never allowed to attend funerals, as they are more emotional than men. Some foreign traditions seem strange, however at least wives are no longer being burned with the husbands. We ended our last day by visiting the Monsoon Palace (Sajjan Garh) for a beautiful sunset with psychotic and aggressive food driven monkeys.
Hotel Priya- best lassi ever. Thick yellow custard flavored with saffron topped with dried fruits and nuts. They also have the biggest dosas ever!
Om Juice – right behind the northern gate, serves great mango lassis
Start the morning at an omelet shop at the northern gate and wash it down with some chai
Millets of Mewar – a delicious organic Indian fusion restaurant that offers vegan and gluten free options.
From Pushkar, Nick and I took a bus to Ajmer, a train to Phulera, and another train to Jaisalmer. Although 18 hours of transit and feeling ill we made the best of our situation and made a friend at 2 am in the station. As we approached our destination, we peered from the window of the train and watched as a massive fort emerge from the sand. It resembled a life-sized sand castle sitting in the middle of the desert, overlooking a gold city below. The inside of the fort was extravagant, however different from the many other forts we’ve visited in Rajasthan. Built in 1156, it holds 3,000 residents and resembled more of an ancient city with crumbling infrastructure than a well preserved historic site.
Outside of the fort, Nick and I enjoyed good views and, of course, impeccable food. The streets were more quant in Jaisalmer, however as always, honking motorbikes and cows eating trash roamed the lanes. The desert heat was extreme as temperatures reached 110 F and observing nomadic life in the desert was unfathomable.
The next morning, Nick and I began our camel trek. You may be thinking, a little hypocritical, I often write in my posts to do research before riding elephants. Nick and I have looked into riding camels and with Sahara Travels in Jaisalmer the camels are very well cared for.
Our guide, Napu, Nick, and I rode our camels in a line for a few hours and visited a desert village. The camels had 1 hump and were taller and more slender than the camels we rode in Mongolia. However, this made sense due to their environment. When the sun became too strong, we relaxed under a tree, what seemed like the only shade for miles. A nearby goat herder joined us, and he and our guide must have had a deal as he gave us fresh milk for chai and in exchange we all drank tea and ate lunch together. Providing fresh milk for our tea entailed taking my empty water bottle, squirting milk into it from 3 goats utters and pouring it into our chai.
Over lunch, Nick and I had some touching conversations with our guide. As I was reading, Untouchable, I had many questions about India’s caste system, Hinduism, and woman’s role in society. Napu told us that in the villages, the caste system is still very much alive. It determines your job, friends and who you’ll be arranged to marry. Speaking in perfect English, we were shocked to learn that he never attended school. He could not read or write and this seemed to trouble him. Some of the other boys in his village were able to get an education (none of the females) but he began guiding camel trips at the early age of 14 (he is now 20). He had never left Jaisalmer and said that sometimes when he sleeps, he prays that he wasn’t born in India. We asked him why and he said, “Because Indians follow and change isn’t happening quick enough.” He heard that in China, years ago, they had a similar caste system and arranged marriages and that gave him hope because if a China had changed, India too could change. Nick and I often find individuals that work in tourism have it tough as they idealize Western culture, however are stuck in the confinements of their own.
After lunch and some deep discussions, Napu let us “drive” our own camels, although they knew exactly where they were going. We spent the next few hours riding along and enjoying the sandy landscape. A dog that had been following us the entire trek was running ahead of us, laying in shade, then catching back up to us. We were told he was a “wild” dog but had recently began following treks. As we passed through a village, 3 dogs attacked the dog following us and had him pinned to the ground. They were going to kill him. When he finally got away there was blood all over his neck and head. Again, they tried to attack but Napu chased them away on his camel (this was a sight!) The dog was persistent and followed us in the heat and hot sand to the dunes where we camped for the evening. When I tried to give the dog water he was extremely uncomfortable, as he had probably zero positive human interaction. However, he soon let me poor water into his mouth.
That evening, we enjoyed sleeping under the full moon on the sand dunes among the dung beetles and mosquitos. We were only 55 miles from Pakistan but all we could see was desert. I woke up several times just to take in the view, and unconsciously check on the dog. The dog got attached again as he obviously was in another dog’s territory. After that, he slept next to Nick and I. I was so concerned for this dog that it seemed silly. Sure, have compassion for all sentient beings and if you can prevent a death, obviously do so. However, I don’t think I was as fixated on this particular dog, rather what the dog represented.
I felt as if this dog represented all of the street kids in India. I have the ability to give some food and water, enough to survive for x amount of time, however by doing so I habituating a behavior. I am ultimately making the matter worse only to feel like I’ve helped. There are so many people that need help, support and compassion and I don’t have enough for everyone. I felt conflicted. The next morning, I gave the dog a little more water and he patiently waited our group to pack up before eating the scraps we left behind. He had enough energy to hunt a small desert antelope, however was unsuccessful. We rode the camels for a few hours back to Napu’s village where we said goodbye to our guide and the dog.
Nick and I would have loved to do a longer trek, however since we had to buy our train tickets in advance (as they fill up quickly) we were on a constant schedule. India is a large diverse country and 2 months is not nearly enough time to explore it.
Chandan Shree Restaurant – serves spicy Rajasthani, Punjabi, South Indian, Gujarati and Bengali dishes.
Hotel Fort View – cheap and clean rooms (250 R) with friendly staff and zero pressure to book a camel trek.
Sahara Tours – great camel treks, cheaper than other companies in town, ask for Napu.
Try breakfast from a street cart across from Sahara Tours. It’s similar to a large papadam covered in curry with fresh red onion.
Bhang Shop – This government authorized shop sells a variety of bhang lassis, juices, cookies and candies. It also appeared on Anthony Boudain’s tv show and there are photos plastered on the walls to prove it.
We arrived to Jaipur, the pink city (although I thought more peach) by train. We ate delectable masala paneer dosas at the train station before catching a 45 R ($0.69) Uber to our CouchSurfing host’s home. Nick and I love Couchsurfing as we meet local people and learn about a city from the inside. Our host’s wife, a professional cook, made us delicious homemade meals and we enjoyed spending time on the rooftop, watching kites litter the sky.
Our first full day in Jaipur, we visited Jantar Mantar, an observatory built in 1728. This UNESCO World Heritage site included “instruments of calculation” and the world’s largest sundial. After, we visited Hawa Mahal and walked up an ancient tower for a view of the city. Next, we visited Tiger Fort.
On our second day, we woke up, drank creamy lassis and headed to the Amber Fort. This expansive fort with secret alleys and rooms was built in 1599. It was amazing to see how many tourists were interested in riding elephants when there are warnings in our guidebook and on the internet that suggest not to encourage the poor condition in which these animals are kept and treated. When elephants are being jabbed by their owner, ridden along city roads with honking motorbikes, and have open sores, maybe you should considering walking. Outside of the fort, Nick and I walked to an old stepwell. After, we visited the Albert Museum before running some errands and heading back to Joshi’s, our Couchsurfing host. We spent the evening hanging out with a couple from Angola and discussed hip-hop, corruption and exchanged travel stories.
After 3 nights in Jaipur, Nick and I packed our bags and headed to Pushkar. Pushkar is known by locals as a Hindu pilgrimage town with a holy lake and over 52 bathing ghats. No meat, alcohol or eggs were served in this town. It is also a touristed hippie backpacker oasis that offered cheap accommodations and food. The town was extremely friendly and Nick and I found that the western influence seemed to have positive influence on the local culture rather than negative like we’ve seen in other parts of Asia. Most travelers seemed to spend 1 week to 3 months there, when we asked some foreigners how they filled their time, they simply said, “drink chai.” After 2-days of exploring and meeting up with our friends from Angola, Nick and I avoided the tempting trap to relax and continued on our way.