Kovalam and Kunakumari

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Lighthouse beach in Kovalam seems to have two sides: a local beach and a tourist beach. The two are not distinctly defined, and you can find a mix of everyone at both spots, but the tourist beach is patrolled by tourist lifeguards… And they make for some incredible people watching!
I doubt any one of the tourist lifeguards could actually save a life. They are dressed in full clothes, sometimes even jeans, and most look as though they are beached whales themselves. If you find yourself drowning at Lighthouse Beach then you better hope one of the many talented (or untalented) surfers pick you up on their next wave in, because these lifeguards are probably useless in that department. These lifeguards are paid to whistle. They blow their whistle to push along any creepy locals who stray too close to a scantily clad female tourist. They blow the whistle if a pack of young local men stare too long at the bathing beauties sunning themselves in the sand. And they blow these whistles ALL. THE. TIME.
Myles and my favorite pass time was sitting in one of the many restaurants of Kovalam with a pot of coffee and our morning breakfast and watching the debacle of whistle-touting lifeguards all afternoon. We watched as a group of boys snuck towards a couple unsuspecting women to try to chat with them. Then the whistle! We made bets on how close a guy could get before getting caught. Then the whistle! And we laughed every time a wave crashed into a guy, accidentally pushing him towards a tourist. Then the whistle! Even innocent mistakes were cause for whistle blowing. The sounds began long before we woke up, and continued until the sun set behind the smog and the beach lay deserted. It was hilarious.
Kovalam beach was an amazing escape from the dusty, overcrowded streets of landlocked India. The beach was stunning, the vibe more relaxed, and the people more friendly. We had heard that Kerala was a different world and the rumors didn’t disappoint!
Myles and I moved into a slow routine right away. Long breakfasts with lots of coffee then an afternoon beach activity. A stroll into the local parts of town for the cheapest lunch we could find, then a late dinner with luke warm beers and games of rummy well into the night. We had no word from Kelsi about when she could return.
“All I want to see is the backwaters!” She said to me in an email a day earlier. “Other than that, you guys see whatever you’d like!”
The backwaters were just a couple hours North of Kovalam, so we waited and relaxed and for the first time in 3 months, took it slow.
One day we decided to go on an adventure to Kunakumari, the Southernmost tip of India, where you can see three seas converge! We had no guidebook, 5 dollars in our pockets, and could only occasionally remember the name “Kunakumari”. (Very well prepared, yes I know).
The two cities are not that far apart. Probably no more than 60km or so. An hour and a half each way and we’d be back for dinner! Or so we thought…
Unfortunately, even though there is a direct bus from Kovalam to Kunakumari, there is not a direct ROUTE. Our bus ended up backtracking to Trivandrum and then stopping in every tiny village between there and the southern tip. The trip took 4.5 hours. Each way. Kill me now.
What was supposed to be a three hour round trip turned out to be 9 straight hours of bussing! Luckily, we DID get to see the three oceans converge. And do you know what three oceans all converging at one focal point looks like?
Well I’ll tell you.
It looks like ONE ocean! It looks like any other ocean or sea or large body of water that I’ve ever seen. Yes, okay, it’s neat to be able to say that I saw the meeting point of the Indian seas, but it may not have been worth 9 hours of public transport.
What was worth it, was our local lunch stop that afternoon. We stopped in at a hole-in-the-wall Thali joint that was packed with locals. The owner must have thought we were lost when we sat down.
“Only thali!” He announced to us.
“We will have two please” we said back, much to his astonishment.
Thali’s are a delicious way to eat in India. They are served at most restaurants, from the grubbiest dive to the classiest joint, thali’s can differ in a million ways. But essentially they are all the same. It’s an all you can eat meal, with a base of rice, that comes with sauces. Sometimes there are curries or naan bread, desserts, aloo gobi, paneer masala, butter chicken and all sorts of wonderful cuisine. Other times there is a huge helping of rice with three sauces that could be anything. At this place it was red, yellow and green. The green dish had an okra base, and the okra was so tough you couldn’t chew through it. The rest we just guessed on; but any guess was as good as ours! The place had no napkins and no utensils. Perfect! (And I don’t mean that sarcastically for once).
We had been looking for a place to eat with our hands for a while. This was the first place that didn’t have some sort of food that could also be used as a scoop. It was just rice and sauce. A truly authentic hand eating experience!
Turns out, eating rice with your hands is more difficult than I had anticipated. It really takes skill! We tried a number of techniques: holding the rice if your hand like a bowl and hoovering it out. Taking the rice in your fingers and using a shoveling effect. Or pinching the rice and dropping it into your upturned head like a crane. I preferred the crane: Myles the shovel. We still both looked like idiots. C’est la vie!
When Kunakumari was all said and done we decided against day trips out of the city. When 60 kilometers turns into nearly 5 hours, it’s difficult to find places to visit nearby. So instead we learned to surf!
Let me just start by saying this. What were we thinking?! Or maybe more appropriately, what was I thinking?! We started out in the morning trying to find boards. We wanted ones as long as possible, for better balance. This was a problem right at the start. Nearly all the boards were short. Great.
When we’d finally found some longer ones at a decent price, it was mid afternoon. This meant big waves. Who the Hell learns to surf in 6-8 foot waves?! Myles and I do! That’s who.
We got out to beyond the breakers fairly fast. (Retrospectively I’m amazed by this). I could hardly even sit on my board without falling off, but a young local guy and his girlfriend gave us some pointers. Our first wave in was a fail. Obviously. As were the next couple. Although Myles was getting much closer. After that, it was 20 minutes of being beaten and thrown around by waves much bigger than us. We got spun around and knocked in the head by our boards. We came up spewing salty brine from our noses and mouths and trying to wipe the stinging from our already reddened eyes.
At one point, closer to shore I looked back to see Myles finally catch a wave! The thing was massive. I don’t even think he realized its size. He was paddling hard towards the shore as the wave lifted him. The wave loomed large and dark and blue behind him. He had a massive grin on his face as he started to push himself up.
“Oh my god,” I thought “he’s going to do it!”
Then, right as I thought, that the wave came crashing down on top of him. His expression turned to a muddled shock and fear as his face disappeared into the wave. Then I saw feet. Then head. Then feet. Then board. Then wave. Then nothing. Then feet again. And finally Myles came up spurting water again.
I couldn’t stop laughing. We decided to take a break. I thought we’d been out on the water for hours. It had been twenty minutes. We contemplated going out for a round two, but the waves just kept getting bigger. So we went for a beer. We’re much better at drinking beer. Maybe next time we should stick to what we’re good at.
Surfing: 1
Myles and Hilary: 0
You win this round Kovalam!

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3 Packs, 3 Buses, and 1 Hell of a Day

I looked like a crazy person as I walked out of the hotel. I could hardly see over top of Kelsi’s bag that I had strapped to my front. My own bag was balancing me out on my back: my little legs looked like they were about to snap under all the weight. I hobbled sideways down the three stairs to the street level. I hadn’t fallen thus far, which meant I was doing much better than I had visualized while I was strapping myself in!
A Tuk Tuk drove by just as I stumbled into the street.
“Hello Tuk Tuk?”
“Yes, to the bus station please”
He didn’t even rip me off that much. He probably looked at me and thought I was in enough trouble.
“You have a lot of bags!” He yelled back to me while we were en route.
“I needed one for my shoes.” I yelled back.
He looked confused. To this day he probably thinks I’m one of those crazy backpackers that carries 19 pairs of heels and a hair straightener with me.
No big deal. If I have it my way I’ll never be back to Madurai again.
I looked even crazier at the bus station as I put all my packs back on. Not only did I have to walk partially sideways so that I could see, I was also giggling to myself at how ridiculous I must look to everyone.
“I need a bus to Nagarcovil” I said as I reached the bus official’s stand
“Where are you going?” He asked
“To Trivandrum.”
“You can catch this bus to Tirunivelli and catch a transferring bus to Trivandrum” said the bus attendant from a neighboring bus.
“I’d rather not. Buses for Trivandrum from Tirunivelli only leave every three hours, I’d never catch the connecting bus. Plus it’s not a By Pass Rider, so it’ll take twice as long.”
The attendant turned to the officer behind the desk, shocked that I had any opinion on the matter.
“She’s right. Nagarcovil is the best”
I am SO glad I had the full spiel from Muthu the waiter the night before.
“This is the best route. Only use a by-pass rider, they take half the time and cost the same amount. They leave every 20 minutes” he had explained.
I might look like an idiot but I sounded like a pro.
“Go ahead and sit down, a by-pass rider to Nagarcovil will be here in five minutes.
And just like that I caught my first bus!
I majorly lucked out and got the only, single seat at the front of the bus. I attached one pack to the side of the seat next to me and the other in front. I threw my feet up on the bag in front and was set to go! Finding space for our luggage on buses has been the most trying task for us in India. It grieves Kelsi and I each time we drag ourselves on to a crowded state bus. Finding this seat was my equivalent of winning the lottery (well, a small lottery).
The first bus was 5 hours. 5-hour bus rides don’t phase me in the slightest. After traveling South America, where we leaped for joy at any journey less than 14 hours, 5 hours was like taking a nap. I can zone out and stare into nothingness for at least 7 hours before getting restless.
To my surprise, the estimated 5 hour time was spot on. I was dropped of in Nagarcovil almost exactly five hours after leaving Madurai.
It took me a while to stumble off the bus, but when I did I smelled something only a Vancouverite knows well: rain. It was that scent that means you have a five or ten minute window before the skies open up and you and your 150 liters worth of luggage get soaked to the bone.
I ran off to find my next bus. And let’s be honest, by ran, I mean I hobbled my way crookedly to the next bus stand.
Turns out the bus was leaving that exact second. What are the chances?! I hopped on just in time to feel the first few drops of rain hit my face. Good thing I’m under the cover of the bus!
But I should have known better; in India, things are never that easy.
It took a total of 30 seconds of torrential downpour to realize the bus wasn’t waterproof. Water leaked in through every crack, every opening, and every seam on the bus. The floor started to flood, and the bags were soaking up the rain water. The poor man in front of me tried desperately to save my things. I hauled my bag onto my lap, and he pulled Kelsi’s towards him. Water was dripping in on our heads and down his back. Everyone desperately shut their windows in an attempt to stay dry; problem was, this made the windshield fog up.
Indian buses are clearly not cut out for rain. The windshield wiper only covers about 1/10th of the windshield. I’m not joking. Just the upper right hand corner where the bus driver looks out gets wiped. Not that it mattered on this bus really, since the single wiper blade had so many holes and bends that it didn’t work at all.
Even as the window fogged, our driver swerved madly through traffic, honking all the while. He was one of those horn-happy Tamil Nadu drivers… My favorite. He incessantly used the horn at the sight of anything! You know a society has a horn problem when they can actually lock in their horn so that it will go off continuously until you unhook it. Our driver would lock in the horn for a solid ten seconds while he used both hands to weave through cars at speeds way too fast for a bus in rain.
When the window fogged the driver turned to me.
“Getting foggy” he smiled at me.
Oh god. How in the world can you see anything at all?!
From the looks of the bus, there was absolutely no chance of a defroster. The dashboard had wires hanging out of it in all directions, all leading somewhere down by the driver’s feet. The driver leaned back and grabbed his 2-litre water bottle. He unscrewed the cap and tossed it out the window. He then took the two litres of water and began spraying it in front of him wildly. The water splashed against the windshield, dissipating enough fog for the driver to see. The rest of the water soaked down onto the dashboard and onto the wires.
What about this situation is safe?! This is crazy!
All I could do was laugh.
All of a sudden something on the roof opened up and a huge bucket of water came splashing down onto the man in front of me. It soaked both him and the bag that he was carrying… Kelsi’s bag. Goddammit that girl has the worst luck in the world! Even when she’s not here her bag gets a bucket of water poured right down into it.
I sighed. What can I do!
About 20 minutes of driving through the rain later, we finally came out of the cloud. Abruptly, the water all stopped. The streets were dry, the people on the streets unphased: it was like the water had just come out of nowhere!
Another couple hours and a bus change later I made it to Kovalam. I strapped on my 100 lbs of bags and inched my way down the windy road towards lighthouse beach. About a kilometer later, I’d made it to the edge of town.
“Excuse me, do you know where Ganesh Tattoo is? My hotel is next door to it.” I asked a guy on the side of the road.
“Ganesh tattoo?! Looking for a tattoo? Yeah! I know it, follow me!”
By this point I was dying. The sun was scorching, sweat was dripping down my face and my legs were jelly. I was so excited to just sit down. The guy that was helping me wouldn’t stop talking.
“What country are you from? Where are you coming from? You sure do have a lot of bags! Do you need a hotel for the night? Are you going surfing later?”
I could hardly answer I was so out of breath. You think he’d offer to help me with at least a small bag! Everyone could see I was struggling to stay upright. Finally we came around the corner and into a shop.
“Here you go! My friend does the best tattoos!”
“Is this Ganesh tattoo?” I asked.
“No!” He said “This is a way better tattoo parlor. My friend does the best in Kovalam. Here, look through his stuff”
“I don’t want a tattoo!” I exclaimed “I said my HOTEL is next to Ganesh tattoo!” I was exasperated. The entire time I talked about how I already HAD a hotel, and it was next to Ganesh tattoo… He hadn’t listened to a word I said. Who in their right mind gets off an 8 hour bus ride with two huge packs and before even checking into a room decides “hey, I should get a tattoo RIGHT NOW!”
“I’m sorry,” I explained “I am looking for Ganesh tattoo”
Totally unimpressed, the man sighed.
“That way” he said, as he flicked his hand in the general direction of the parlor.
Thanks. You’re so kind.
It was about a five minute walk further before I stumbled across it. I FOUND IT! A young girl outside knew where the tall Canadian guy was staying and pointed me in the right direction.
As I struggled up the stairs I called Myles’ name. I wasn’t half way up the flight of stairs before he poked his head out the door.
“Oh my god!” He exclaimed, looking at the state of me. He grabbed both the bags and helped me inside.
“Guess what? I’ve got beers!” Said Myles excitedly.
I nearly cried. It was the best news I’d heard all day!
The trip was over, the bags were in one place, I wasn’t stranded alone in Madurai, the sun was shining on the beach, and Myles and I had a cool beer on our patio. India round two is looking up!

Here I Go Again On My Own

Back in Madurai. Great.
My flight in was fairly uneventful. To sum up: an old lady stole my window seat and my in-flight magazine. Too tired to fight an octogenarian, I sat down in the middle seat and chatted to the man next to me. Turns out he was one of the lovelier people I’ve met in India and he had his personal driver drop me off at the hotel instead of finding a Tuk Tuk on my own in the dark. Win. We spent the whole ride into town chatting about Indian food and the best places to visit up the coast. It was refreshing talking to a genuinely nice man in India.
When I arrived at the hotel the staff were ecstatic to see me. Everyone came out of their rooms to see that I had returned safely.
“But where is your friend?” They asked.
“She’s not coming back for a few days” I said.
This seemed to be a trend in the city. Apparently we had made an impression during our 24 hour stay. Random people stopped me every hundred meters or so in the streets to ask where my sister had gone!
The owner of the hotel wanted to hear all my stories about Sri Lanka, and he checked me in to a cozy single room for myself. He even went as far as to kill MOST of the cockroaches in my room.
He looked embarrassed as I caught him stepping on one.
“Cockroaches?” I asked as he slid his foot casually across the floor after stomping on one.
“Ahh… Errr..” He stammered, trying to come up with something to say.
“Cockroaches don’t bother me!” I smiled as I dragged myself and all the luggage in behind me. I now had a lot of luggage. Kelsi and I both have 75L packs for the trip. Kelsi’s bag alone weighs 20 kilos. Then I had my purse, which was like hauling around bricks with the lonely planet guide inside. What in the world am I going to do with all this? Not knowing the answer, I just went to bed.
The next day I heard from Kelsi.
“Sorry dude, with the holiday here I can’t even get a response on my visa until the 17th at the earliest.”
That was 8 days away. Screw that. I’m sure Madurai is a lovely city, but it was beginning to be my least favorite in India. I’m not sitting here for a week.
Luckily, Myles was on the coast. He was supposed to meet up with us to travel through Kerala for a couple weeks. When we found out about the visa issue he had already booked flights to Trivandrum. He was hanging out in Kovalam waiting for our next move.
“Okay Kelsi, I’m going to Kerala, I’m bringing our bags and we can meet up there.”
There were daily flights from Colombo to Trivandrum, so it shouldn’t be a problem to fly in that port instead.
I felt bad though, Kelsi was NOT having a good time.
“I’ve been to two Embassy’s, I’m paying three times the amount I should on a closet sized room, I’ve made two women cry today, I had to PAY for my deportation flight back, AND I had to pay for another Sri Lankan visa on arrival since mine had expired.” Worst day ever. Luckily, her plan was to head back to Hikkaduwa and wait it out on the touristy beaches. Not the worst place to be deported to…
After a huge fiasco on my end, I finally figured out my plan. The trains were full for the next three days at least, but the waiter at the only hotel with wifi in Madurai was nice enough to help me out.
“You can take three buses to get to Kovalam. But I’m not sure the best route” he said.
He called all of the bus companies for me. Which is the best route? When do they all leave? How long will this all take?
Before I knew it I had an eight hour day ahead of me. Madurai to Nagarcovil, Nagarcovil to Trivandrum, Trivandrum to Kovalam. I had great instructions from Myles on where he was staying in Kovalam: “It’s near to the lighthouse, by Ganesh tattoo… I don’t know the name. Maybe Seabreeze?” Thanks Myles.
The only concern: I had about 100lbs and 150 litres of luggage to carry. Well, it’s that or I hang out in Madurai forever!
I spent the evening in contemplation back at the hotel. I played hide and seek with the mouse-sized cockroach for a while (it won), watched a movie, and finally sat down to think about what the hell I was doing in India.
I was amazed at how much India had changed in the week I was gone. I went from hating the men, hating getting ripped off, and hating the crazy noise and bustle to having a very welcoming return. I had a safe ride in from the airport, a warm welcome from the hotel staff, my waiter went out of his way to help me with buses and I didn’t even mind the honking. Maybe I needed the break, or maybe my outlook on everything had changed, but for some reason I knew this second journey in India was going to be very different!
“And hey, if you get stuck anywhere at all, give me a call” said the waiter “I have a motorbike and I’ll come pick you and your 3 tonnes of luggage up anywhere you get stuck!”
I laughed. Oh god, please don’t let THAT happen!

Motor Biking Through the Countryside

We woke up early on our second day in Khajuraho to meet up with Baia -our 18 year old guide from the day earlier – who wanted to show us all the local spots. We figured Ali would be with us as well and the four of us would cruise around in Ali’s Tuk Tuk… Except that’s not exactly how it happened.
We walked outside right on time and couldn’t see Baia. We decided to grab a couple waters across the street while we waited.
“Hey! Girls! Your motorcycle man said he would be here in one minute and that I should wait with you!” This young guy we didn’t recognize walked towards us.
Motorcycle man? We’d had a few guys the day before beg to take us out on their motorbikes, but couldn’t think of who he was talking about. He must have realized from the blank expressions on our faces that we were confused.
“Baia,” he explained further “he said he’d be here in just a minute.”
“Oh! Okay, no problem.” We said, still confused about the motorbike part.
Just as we finished buying waters Baia pulled up on a motorcycle.
“You girls ready?” He asked.
“Uhhhh, we thought we were going in Ali’s Tuk Tuk.” We said confused.
He laughed “You can’t see the mountains in a Tuk Tuk! It would be so uncomfortable! Trust me, a motorbike is much better. Plus I brought my friend so we can each take one of you” he pointed to the guy who found us earlier. He was standing there grinning at us.
“My name is Mohan Singh. But my friends call me Momo. Should we go then?” We hesitated. We didn’t expect this. We all know my fear and hesitation towards two wheeled vehicles, but other than that, I guess it wasn’t much different than going in a Tuk Tuk. We looked at each other and stared blankly like idiots. What do we do now?
Screw it. The whole plan is ridiculous anyways. Riding off into the countryside with two young boys. Might as well go all out and get on a motorcycle.
“Okay, Chello” I said and hopped on the back of Baia’s bike. Kelsi laughed, then got on the back of Momo’s. And just like that, we drove out of Khajuraho and off to… Who knows where. Just because it’s a bad idea, doesn’t mean it’s not going to be a good time!
The town of Khajuraho is small, so in no time we were out of the bustling core and into the countryside. The Indian countryside around Madha Pradesh is beautiful: open fields, mango and cherry trees, gorgeous, brightly-coloured blossoms in oranges and pinks scattered throughout the area. Most of the people in the surrounding areas of Khajuraho are farmers. They work with cattle and goats, and they grow wheat or lentils among other popular crops.
“When you greet farmers you should not say Namaste” said Baia as we drove by a village. “Namaste is more for business. If you say Ram Ram, they will treat you with more respect.” With all these little tips, we’ll be fluent in Hindi in no time!
The ride through the area was fabulous. Even though I am less than comfortable riding on the back of a motorcycle, I felt strangely at ease letting an 18 year old boy drive me around… Yes, completely flawed logic, I know. But I told Baia I’d kill him if he showed off, so he promised to drive slow.
“Never hurry, hurry chicken curry; don’t worry, be happy!” He said with a laugh. And within a few minutes I was just enjoying the scenery.
Baia didn’t stop talking the entire trip. He kept telling jokes and coming up with more of his hilarious expressions, many if which he messed up.
“Yesterday is history,” he would say, “tomorrow is a mystery and today is a gift…that’s why you give gifts to each other, because it is a present” I would laugh at how ridiculous it sounded and he looked proud to have made such a funny joke… And thus the day continued like that. At one point Baia pulled over on the road and stopped.
“Okay, your turn!” He said.
“My turn what?” I asked.
“To drive! Tick Tock, time to rock. Chello!”
I laughed “There’s no way you will trust me to drive your bike, Baia”
“Of course I trust you. Here I will teach you”
Yup. I had an 18 year old boy teach me how to drive a motorcycle in the back country roads of India…
Within a few minutes I had the hang of it and we raced along the roads to catch up to Kelsi and Momo. Kelsi just about peed herself when she saw me coming.
“Shut up! Are you driving a motorcycle?!”
“I can’t look at you!” I yelled “I’m too focused on the road!” We laughed and drove on until the road turned to dirt and potholes again.
“Okay, my turn again” said Baia. Yup. Don’t blame him. I would have killed us on those roads.
The boys asked us where we wanted to go that day. We said we didn’t know what was around the area, so just surprise us. They did well; our first stop was amazing.
We pulled over at this little spot by the river. It was just a short minute walk until we came upon this giant tree house, spiraling up into the tree tops. Apparently it is private property, but so many locals started to come hang out there that they just turned it into a restaurant, charged people $1 to enter and offered them free chai tea in exchange.
We climbed to the top level of the restaurant and sat down on cushions around some low tables. Momo ordered us some tea and the four of us sat around drinking afternoon tea, laughing at stories and watching Bollywood music videos on Momo’s phone. Our cultures and backgrounds are so different it was incredible to hear stories about growing up in India. They were equally as amazed at the westernized world. Number one fascinating topic of the afternoon: dating in India. The topic was so hilarious and odd, it might need it’s own blog post. Momo had us in stitches for over an hour talking about all the dating habits of young and in love Indians. Then we got to hear all the gossip of Khajuraho: like who got pregnant and eloped with a guy from a different caste. Scandalous!
When tea was over it was back in the bikes and off to the dam. On our way, we came across this little boy, about 7 or 8 years old that looked lost. Momo stopped to see if he was okay.
The kid’s name was Rau, and apparently he needed to get to a town just next to Khajuraho that was 35 km away. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any money. Rau thought the bus might take him, but it wouldn’t, so he just began walking the 35km to the village anyways.
“That’s crazy!” Said Momo.
He asked the kid to hop on the bike with him and Kelsi. He gave him 10 rupees and drove off to the dam to wait for the next bus…which was an hour and a half away! Rau was really thankful, but had no way to repay him for the money.
“How about, while you’re waiting, you watch my bike?” Said Momo. “We are going down to hang out by the water, so you’d be helping me out!”
The chances of anyone stealing Momo’s bike were next to nothing, but it made Rau feel better about the situation. So the four of us walked down to the river to hang out.
We found a shady spot to sit while Momo went swimming and spent another hour or so lounging by the water. It was peaceful and relaxing. Perhaps the first truly peaceful moment we’d had in India. I forgot how much I missed silence. When we finally grew tired of the rocks we walked back to the bikes to find a distressed looking Rau.
“What’s wrong?! Why didn’t you catch the bus?” We asked him.
“But the bus left!” He exclaimed in a worried tone. “I couldn’t get on it because I had to watch your bike! So I watched it leave without me.” He admitted sadly.
Probably one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. This little, adorable looking kid with a dirty face, just trying to run an errand and he can’t catch a break. Poor thing! It was getting late in the afternoon so he decided to give up on his day’s big mission. He asked Momo if he could drive him back to his village, which was just the next town over. So he hopped back on with Kelsi and the five of us drove off. We stopped at a corner shop with a bunch of people standing by it. People were all smiling at Kelsi and I and talking in Hindi about us (aaas usual). We kept seeing people pointing at us and then turning to talk, then laughing, then smiling and waving over to us. We didn’t know what was going on, so we just smiled back politely. When we left with Baia and Momo again we asked what that was all about.
Apparently Rau had asked to be dropped off by all his friends so they could see him get off a bike with a beautiful lady. It was bragging rights for a year for sure! We laughed; I guess his day wasn’t a total loss after all!
Our next stop was Baia and Momo’s village. We had noticed from the start that they got approving looks from all the locals that they passed. Two beautiful blondes out for a ride with them: luckiest guys on earth. Every village we passed the children came out to wave and yell at us excitedly.
“They are yelling about you girls” said Momo to Kelsi. “They never just wave to me!”
We kept hearing shouts of “gora!” which means white person, so I have a feeling Momo was telling the truth and not just flattering us.
As soon as we hit the outskirts of the village our bikes went separate ways.
“Uhhh, aren’t we following them?” I asked Baia.
“We are taking a shortcut!” He said.
“Hmm, okay”
By shortcut, he meant an excuse to run me by his uncle’s farm to say hello. Kelsi had the same experience and was driven past all of Momo’s friends’ places… Oh right, bragging rights.
In the end, Baia’s uncle’s place was really great. We filled a bag of cherries from the tree outside, met some of the men that worked in the fields, and walked through all the different fields of crops: huge wheat and bean fields, then a mango grove and a bunch of henna trees. Not to mention a bunch of cows. When we’d filled up on cherries, we took our bag of collected goodies and drove off to Momo’s family’s farm.
Kelsi was sitting on a wooden platform with Momo and his whole family. There were a bunch of older women there and about 6 or 7 kids. One of the men had lit a brush fire and was cooking up some lentils from the fields. Kelsi and I played with a screaming baby on the ground, pulling weird faces at her until she calmed down. The women just sat against the house and laughed at us. No one spoke English, but calming down a crying baby is a universal dilemma: they understood. Eventually one of the older ladies came by and dropped a bunch of blackened lentils on the bamboo mat next to me. We all ate the food together as a big group, watching the kids’ faces turn black as they smeared the charcoal from the beans onto their cheeks by accident.
When snack time was over we fed the fish in Momo’s watering hole with a couple of the smaller kids.
“Would you girls like to stay for dinner?” He asked. “We can make pasta or anything you’d like!”
We were flattered, but exhausted. We had been out in the scorching sun most of the day and still had a night train to catch that evening.
“I think we should head back to the hotel for dinner. We still have some things to organize before we leave”
“Okay, no problem.” They looked disappointed, but it was too exhausting for us. So the boys drove us the last 20km or so back to Khajuraho.
“Okay, when dinner is over, do you want to get chai? Or maybe some Indian wine? Or we can hang out by the lake?” The boys asked us as they dropped us off. They genuinely just liked to hang out with us I think. After all, we had had a pretty fun day!
“We were going to check out the carnival after dinner” we said.
“Perfect! See you at 8 then, we will all go together”
We laughed. Okay, why not.
The carnival was only in town for a few days. It was a shanti town of tents, food markets, clothing and trinket stalls along with the usual carnival rides. When we were at lunch the day before we spotted the giant ferris wheel.
“Holy crap, do you see how fast that thing is going?” Kelsi said to me.
I looked up. There was a massive, sketchy-as-hell looking ferris wheel that was spinning about 5 times faster than I’ve ever seen a ferris wheel go.
“That’s it. New mission. Ride the sketchy ferris wheel!” I said.
So that’s what we did.
The boys were back as promised at 8:00 and we all walked the few minutes to the fair. The place was nuts! Not a single tourist was in sight, but local kids and adults alike swarmed the area.
Momo went to buy tickets for the ferris wheel so we wouldn’t be ripped off with the price. He and Momo got on first, while Kelsi and I waited for the next round in line.
The thing was terrifying looking. All the bolts were rusted, the belt that turned the ride was violently shaking it was moving so fast, and the carts were disastrous. When we finally got on we got a closer look. The floor had completely rusted through and you could see through holes in the bottom. The bolts holding the cart up were reddish brown from year and years of wear. Yup, this thing would NOT meet the safety regulations of Canada.
“Oh my god, we’re going to die” we said.
I’m sure the ride was only a few minutes long, but I felt like we were on there for an eternity. We screamed bloody murder every time we flew over the top and back down. My stomach was in my throat one second, then on the floor the next. There was a massive crowd lined up along side the ride. We thought at first that it was just a popular ride, then we realized everyone was there to watch the two whitey’s ride the ferris wheel. They took photos and laughed at our fear, pointing, smiling and waving at us each time we flew by at warp speed. What a way to end the day!
We stumbled off the ride in a giggling fit. Yup, that was fun! Which one next?
We decided to cool off and escape the prying eyes of the crowd by walking around the fair grounds. It was similar to other carnivals, but with more shops than games. Lots of places to buy saris or bangles, or toys. When we had done a full circuit of the grounds we met Anye.
Anye was a deaf and mute young guy from Baia and Momo’s village. He was probably one of the nicest people we’d met as well. He had seen us on the ferris wheel and wanted to go on another ride with Kelsi and I. Anye spoke to us in his own, made up sign language and we tried our best to understand what he meant. Turns out he just wanted to have a good time at the fair, so we went on the scrambler as our next attraction.
We spun around so fast both Kelsi and I nearly lost our sunglasses. Two extremely rude boys sat in the cart next to us and mocked Anye for being deaf and mute. Then they tried to hit on Kelsi and I. We were livid. We ignored them and signed to Anye instead, giving him high five’s every time our carts flew by each other. When the ride was over we glared at the two boys before we walked off, dragging Anye by the hand as we went. They looked stunned.
After that we decided we were finished with the fair. We sat by the lake with Momo and Baia for the last half hour of the day before finally heading to the train station.
It was refreshing meeting some locals who finally weren’t ripping us off. They never asked for any money from us, but we gave them some money for gas anyways. I told them I’d do the same for any of my friends at home. Sometimes you just have to go with your your gut and trust the people you meet. I can’t say I’d feel the same with many people I’ve met here, but Baia and Momo turned out to be pretty stand up guys.
We felt a little better about India as we hopped on the train and headed to Varanasi.

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Monkeys, Mosques, Money and the Dreaded Paparazzi

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Monkeys, Mosques, Money and the Dreade
On our way to Agra, we had a few stops. First, was the monkey temple.
Just on the outskirts of Jaipur, we were expecting the monkey temple to be on a semi-equal excitement level as the rat temple. Sadly, it was not.
The place LOOKS amazing! It is set in between two beautiful mountains and has gorgeous man made bathing ponds on different levels of the temple. There were a lot of monkeys. They were climbing the temple walls and chillin’ out in the stairs; they roamed by the ponds and were curious around people (probably because so many tourists feed them), but they were not nearly on a similar scale to the rats.
There were a plethora of men, both inside and out, that claimed to be professional monkey handlers. If you hired them, you would be safe from the dangerous monkeys. Throughout the whole temple they kept repeating “Careful! They are so dangerous! Please, let me be your monkey tamer.”
I have no doubt that these monkeys could be dangerous. Having been bit by a monkey in Laos and having my finger ache for days, I can attest to not wanting a monkey to attack you. But as long as you’re not a stupid tourist, these monkeys didn’t seem that bad. They are clearly used to human contact (there were loads of tour buses outside when we arrived) and they seemed content to just chill out. We took photos, but the setting was actually more interesting than the monkeys we saw. We realized they were much less unusual than the rats of Deshnok, and so we moved on fairly quickly.
Our second stop was lunch. Raju pulled up to his usual commission driven restaurant and dropped us off for lunch.
“It’s the last one!” I said to Kelsi as she looked at me and gave me an eye rolling groan. This was our last travel day with Raju, then we were on our own. I figured we could suck up one last touristy restaurant for lunch… But I was wrong.
We were already used to the more expensive places for meals. We pay at least twice what we should at every place we eat. This restaurant, however, was on a whole other level. Where we pay the already expensive price of 30 rupees for a plain naan, this place asked 120. Our vegetarian meals of 100 were now 350 rupees. When converted into dollars I could get a cheaper meal at home for the two of us! Additionally, only tourist restaurants pay taxes here. That’s an additional 14% tax and the expected 10% tip. Hell no!
For some reason I was cranky that day. Not over anything in particular, but little things were sending me into a rage. The prices at this restaurant were one of them.
“This is outrageous!” I said, probably a little too loud. Kelsi agreed.
“In not paying $6 for a plain cheese toasty!” She exclaimed.
We’d had enough of being told where to eat and what to do. We wanted to be on our own and not on this confining, tour-like schedule. We got out of our seats and stormed out the restaurant. The whole staff followed us in a frenzy.
“Wait! Madam! No, please! We give you a discount.” It sounds ridiculous to say it, but I was actually disgusted at how much a place can rip people off. Yes, I’m a tourist. Yes, I expect to pay more than the average local. But when we can go to any restaurant in town and order a 50 rupee thali, which is all you can eat, and this restaurant wants to charge between 350 and 700 for a single curry, even a discount is an insult. We ignored the staff and went to the car.
When Raju arrived we explained to him we couldn’t afford the food. He understood and took us to a local place a couple doors down. The price was 1/5 the cost and most likely more delicious. This is the last day, I had to keep reminding myself.
Next we stopped off at Fatehpur Sikkri. Fatehpur Sikkri is an ancient city about 40km outside Agra. It was once the capital of the Mughal empire back in the mid 1500’s. There are two parts to the city: the palaces and the mosque. The palaces cost 300 rupees for tourists so we opted to visit the mosque instead. We hadn’t been to many mosques yet, so the place was less monotonous than visiting yet another fort.
It didn’t matter what we did though, we were still constantly ripped off. One man showed me where the toilets were “It only costs 2 rupees!” He said with a smile.
“I only have ten.” I replied.
“Not to worry, they will give you change.”
However, when I gave the man the ten he just grunted and pointed towards the toilet.
“Do you have any change?” I asked.
“No change.”
“I was told it only costs 2 rupees.”
“No change. 10 for you.”
This was not the day to say this to me. I snatched the bill back in a rage and turned around after giving him my angriest glare. I refuse to use your toilets.
Before we even arrived at the mosque we were the main focus for photos. I tried to move out of people’s camera angles, but they’d just follow us anyways with the screen. Most of them weren’t even trying to be subtle; they’d just turn around in front of us with camera phones in our faces. It was the first day I nearly went Jackie Chan on their asses.
Then there was the shoes. We stopped taking my purse into tourist sites because it was like holding up a sign that says “I have money”. Unfortunately, that meant we had to leave our shoes outside the temple. We left them far away from the crowd, but when we came back, they had been moved into a pile that some guy was watching. We had to tip him to get them back. *sigh*
Inside, the mosque was lovely. But I could hardly enjoy the serenity of it with people trying to guide us around. Kelsi and I are so stubborn that we walked zig zag across the mosque just to avoid doing what people said.
“Yes, this way to see the mosque.” So we’d walk the other direction.
“Right in here and you can see the tomb!” Even though we were already on our way in, we’d turn around and walk the other direction. It took us four times as long to see the tomb as it normally would. Take that!
In the end, it didn’t matter what we did. We had a young kid follow us around, telling us facts about the place and had to give him money.
Young children came up to us periodically and just demanded money.
“You give me 10 rupees!” One young girl shouted at Kelsi.
“No!” You aren’t doing anything! Why would I just hand over money to you? I wanted to shout back at her, “Get a job! You’re 8! I saw a 4 year old laying bricks two days ago, what’s your problem?!” (Side note: I actually DID see a four year old laying bricks, and had I had my camera ready I would have added yet another photo to my newest “only in India” album)
At this point, there were still more cameras taking photos of us than there were of the mosque and all of a sudden I just wanted to leave. Normally it doesn’t bother me as much, but that day I think both Kelsi and I were at our breaking points.
When some young guy on the bus ride back asked to have his photo taken with us he was met with death glares from the two of us.
“No!” we snapped “We’ve had too many photos taken of us today, thank you!”
He looked mortifyingly embarrassed as he sat back down. He never turned around in his seat again. I almost felt bad. At least he asked! As I said… Breaking point.
We were quiet and exhausted for the rest of the drive to Agra. I finally turned my head from looking out the car window to avoid the stares, winks and eyebrow raises from people driving past us. When we got to the hotel, we just wanted to lie down.
We were shown to our room and the place was lovely. As a bonus, the restaurant had the cheapest prices we’d seen so far! We looked through the menu in our room and picked out exactly what we were going to order. A rest and some cheap food and we’d be right as rain!
We lay down for a few, and just as I was about to feel relaxed Raju came bursting into the room.
“We are leaving!!” He announced as he threw us our passport photocopy that he must have grabbed from the front desk. “Grab your things!” He was shaking with anger and wandering around the room, picking up bags and looking for things we might leave behind.
“Chello! Chello!”
“Woah, Raju, what’s wrong with this place?” We asked.
“It is no good! Not good people here! Chello!”
We rolled our eyes. “Okay” we sighed. I didn’t want to argue because he looked so upset. I assumed that he had just gotten in an argument with the hotel manager and was leaving on a point of pride. But if he was this shaken, then why argue.
All of a sudden, Kelsi and I looked at each other and had the exact same thought. The food! Just our luck that we’d have to leave after finding the ONLY cheap hotel to eat at in two weeks! We just laughed at the ridiculousness of it all and walked out with our bags on, only 40 minutes after we had checked in.
When we got outside, however, we were a little surprised. The manager and all the nice staff that had helped us to our room were standing outside. They were yelling in Hindi and flailing their arms in anger at a police officer. Behind the police officer was about half the police force, all holding guns. There must have been 30 or more policemen standing outside the building. Behind the policemen was half the city of Agra, all watching us walk out of the building and into Raju’s car. What in the world was going on?
Raju was angrily muttering under his breath in Hindi as he opened the trunk and threw our luggage in. Kelsi and I were struggling to hold back giggles. What’s happening!?
When we were a safe distance away I finally asked.
“Raju, what’s wrong? What happened at the hotel?”
It took an excruciatingly long time for him to explain in broken English what was going on. And his incessant habit to say “maybe” between every third word as a filler made it seem like this all “maybe happened”. But in the end, I gathered that some girl had been inappropriately handled during her massage in the hotel spa.
“If you safe, I happy” he ended his explanation. Well okay then, new hotel it is.
Our new hotel was several grades down from the last one, but still well within Kelsi and Hilary standards (which, lets face it, are so low they’re practically non-existent). We threw our bags down and went for dinner in the restaurant downstairs. When we opened the menus, a vegetable curry was back up to 250 rupees. Dammit! We just can’t win…

As a note, this is the BBC news article that came out on the incident at the hotel in Agra just a couple days later.

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Exploring Jaipur

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Jaipur

Jaipur, also known as “The Pink City” is the capital of Rajasthan and the heart of India. It is wild and busy! The old town is a crazed mess of shops and rickshaws and historic monuments all mixed together. The city palace, in its luxurious glory, sits right in the heart of it all. The place is a mess. But it sure made for an interesting walk around!
Our first morning stop was actually in a neighboring city called Amber. Amber is only 11km north of Jaipur and has a beautiful amber colored fort sitting high up on a hill.
With another expensive entrance fee, we did our usual sneak attack and followed closely at the heels of a tour group. With guards at every courtyard entrance, we had to find a new tour group each time we moved locations in the fort. We are crazy, but it kept us happily entertained for the trip!
We started by walking the ten minutes up to the fort. The most popular way of entering the fort is riding an elephant. But at nearly $20 for a ten minute ride, we opted to hike it ourselves. Inside, the fort was beautiful. It had some spectacular views of the mountainous landscape and from the top you could see the zig zagging elephants as they ambled their way up the street. We wandered from place to place with our multitude of tour groups and did a full circle of the fort in just under an hour. Forts are all looking the same to us now. The sandstone structure is beautiful, the carvings are intricate, the throne rooms are elaborate and the views reach all the way out to the smog!
The following fort, just higher up on the hill from the Amber fort, was more of the same. At every corner there was someone waiting to give you an explanation of what you were looking at. We learned early on that after any kind of information you are expected to tip them. We simply do not have the money to tip a different person in each room for information we didn’t ask for! Instead, we spent forever trying to avoid them, going the opposite way from which they pointed and splitting up at parts to confuse them. In the end, people were still taking more photos of Kelsi and I than they were of the building, so we blew through the site as fast as we could.
By our third fort of the morning we asked Raju to just drive by while we took photos. We were finished with forts for a little while. So instead, Raju drove us down to some city gardens to check out.
“You see gardens now?” He half asked us as he dropped us off.
That sounded lovely, and different, and with the number of brightly coloured flowers they have here in India we were bound to get a few good photos. It was only 10 rupees (20 cents) to get in, but I still don’t think the fee was worth it. The place was tiny, had a couple of nicely trimmed shrubs and a few waterways with water spraying up out of them. That was pretty much it.
The only good thing about our stop was that there were street vendors outside. We picked up some juice and pakoras and samosas for about a dollar each for lunch. Raju was unhappy because our next scheduled stop was at another one of his pricey restaurants. Take that!
So instead of a scheduled lunch stop, we went back to the hotel for an afternoon rest.
At 3:30 it was time to pick up my ridiculously over priced skirt. We sat and talked to the uncle of the man who ran the place. He told us all about his morning yoga and meditation routine (no idea why) then proceeded to show us all the yoga techniques we needed to know for good lungs, a good stomach and a good brain. He was very sweet, but he talked non-stop for twenty minutes until my skirt came in. Meanwhile, two young guys behind the counter sat and, mouths open, gaped at Kelsi and I. No shame or embarrassment when we shot them glares from across the room. There’s no winning.
When my skirt arrived it was not what I was hoping for. Even with my measurements, it dragged along the floor, didn’t fit my shape and had enough material to make a dress for an elephant. Fabulous. On top of that, by the end of the day, the colour had bled all over my skin. I eventually soaked it in water, and the thing turned four huge buckets of water dark blue before I finally gave up. I learned the hard way, but it’ll be the last time I trust that any product is superior to others because my driver took us there… Lesson learned.
I left brooding and we had Raju drop us off at the edge of old town for our own walking city tour. We had him pick us up four hours later when we were finished.
We had found the walking tour in our lonely planet guide. It wasn’t bad, but not entirely what I was expecting. I guess I thought we would see a bunch of remarkable city structures and historical monuments around each corner. Instead, it just gave you a look at the busy market life of Jaipur while stopping at only a couple historical sites.
The bazaars were fun to walk through. It seamed like each section of street was dedicated to a different craft. One area would be all textiles, then electronics, then stone carvings or spices or hardware. The markets weren’t very touristy either. Although we saw a couple fellow travelers, the Jaipur bazaars cater mostly towards local needs.
About half way through the tour, Kelsi became very ill again. We left the bustle of old town to try to find a quiet spot in the city park. No such luck.
We hadn’t even sat on the ground before we got harassed by a bunch of young boys. They were only 8 or 9 years old, but there were about 7 of them. “Where from? What is name?” “You are so beautiful!” They giggled and called out to us. They wanted us to play a game of cricket with them. Kelsi could hardly stand, and I was in a skirt: cricket was not in the cards. We told them we’d watch them, but they were having none of it. They grabbed at us and tried to pull us onto the field. It was all funny at first, then when one young boy accidentally touched the side of my boob in an attempt to grab my arm he laughed and told all the boys. Then they all just started grabbing at Kelsi and I. I told one kid I was going to backhand him in the face if he didn’t stop (yes, I threatened to hit a child.) and Kelsi had to shove back another kid by her. Then, just when we’d had enough, some guy came along and started yelling at the boys until they ran away. When they stopped to come back we got up and left. If anything in this country is going to break me, it’s going to be the men here. Photos, staring, grabbing: they even think it’s acceptable at the age of 8. It’s not everyone, but it’s a part of this culture I’m not going to get used to and it’s exhausting.
Kelsi couldn’t handle it anymore and needed to get home. We grabbed a Tuk Tuk and called it early, half way through the city tour. She went to bed while I ate dinner downstairs and watched the singers and dancers entertain. The place may have been pricier than normal, but it did have a fabulous ambiance!
Overall Jaipur had a lot to see, the city palace was nice and the Amber fort was as impressive as any other. But it was the same as the rest in Rajasthan, and after two weeks of forts, I was ready to move on. The next morning we were off to a new province: Uttar Pradesh!

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Textiles, Castles and More Creepy Men: Jaipur

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It was a quick drive from Pushkar to Jaipur, so we arrived there before lunch. We decided to eat at the hotel restaurant despite its high prices. Kelsi was in no shape to wander the streets in search of food. Plus the hotel had international foods as well as some comfort options like chicken noodle soup. Still feeling ill, Kelsi ordered the chicken noodle soup, and enviously watched me devour my curry. When the soup came out I had to laugh: the thing was FULL of capsicum. Who has ever heard of chicken noodle soup with green peppers floating through it. She sighed and then started picking out the pieces and putting them on my plate. Poor Kels.
Kelsi and I had a million things we wanted to see and do that afternoon so we could have the whole city walking tour planned for the following day. But our plans were quickly squashed by Raju.
“No, no, not possible. Too hot, too far, not good in afternoon” he had a plethora of excuses of why we couldn’t do what we wanted to. He came up with a whole new plan. We tried to argue, but since he still had included everything we wanted to see, we figured we’d just let him win the argument.
First stop was the water palace. We only took photos, but the place looked gorgeous in the afternoon sun, sitting inside a large lake. Up next, the textiles factory.
The bad thing about having a driver, is he takes you to expensive and commission driven places at every stop of the trip. Spices here, silver there, each place claiming to have the best of something and craftsmanship unequalled anywhere else in India. Jaipur’s claim to fame was it’s textiles. This stop was definitely not on our list, but we were obliged to stop anyways at Raju’s wishes. The initial tour was pretty neat. The place makes all it’s own fabric, and was set up by a woman from New Zealand who created the factory to help people in poor and small communities. It is a co-op, and many families come in from the countryside to create their own textiles. They have wonderfully colored sheets of fabric hanging from wooden beams high over head.
“The sun helps set the colours. After drying this way, they will never bleed” said our guide.
The place also offers jobs to the handicapped and widows, who would otherwise be left out on the streets to beg. It was only slightly awkward when we walked inside the building and saw two men at sewing machines.
“This man is handicapped” our guide announced, pointing to one man diligently sewing away. “Show them your leg!”
The man turned around to reveal a crippled looking leg to us. They had altered the sewing machine so he could still work it properly. Next we walked inside.
“This woman, she is a widow” said our guide.
“Namaste” she said to us.
The difference between our cultures is incredible. We are so politically correct that it would have been horrific if we came in and announced someone’s handicap or the fact that a woman’s husband had died. Here, no one seemed to care.
Then came business. What were we going to buy. I hate this part of the tour. At every place, it is inevitable that either Kelsi or I are going to get guilt tripped into buying something. This time, it was my turn.
The prices in the shop were insane. The guy had given the price of $50US for some scarves that Kelsi was looking at. I will admit, the quality was the best we’d seen, but look at us! We were scrubby backpackers wearing 2 dollar pants we’d bought in Delhi and were too afraid to wash because they will undoubtedly disintegrate. A cashmere or silk scarf was not what we were looking for.
I had been looking at skirts however. All through the markets we’d been searching for something that we could wear in India and then use at home as well! Some sort of maxi skirt that was adorable and we could say “yup, got that in India”. The problem was, all the skirts were very cheap. They were see through or falling apart. Most of them were so full of pattern that I’d never wear it back home. Here, they had a great selection of samples.
“We take your measurements and make it for you perfectly!” Said the guide. I got to pick my own fabric and colour and style and everything. Then it took just a couple hours to put it all together.
After having tea and looking at nearly every scarf and cushion cover that they owned I felt obliged to buy something. It was $30US for a skirt. Absolutely unheard of in India! The price was insane, and I knew it. But I figured it was helping poor families, and widows and handicapped people. And the fabric was made there which was pretty neat. Plus, it would be made to fit me, so it would be a great buy for back at home! I picked out a bright teal colour and chose the style of skirt from their selections. They took my measurements and I was told to come back the next day to pick it up… Did I just spend $30 on a skirt? I’m crazy. But it would look amazing, so who cares!
Them came the city palace tour. For 300 rupees (which is fairly expensive for an entrance fee here) we managed to do the most ridiculous whirlwind tour of the place. Two weeks in and we were already over city palaces. We attempted our usual photo mission, where we try our best to make it look like we are the only tourists at each popular landmark. Then we played “man or woman” with the wall paintings. Before a half hour was even up we were back at the car and ready to go. City palace, check.
After, it was back to the hotel to rest for the night. We decided to venture off to find a cheaper place to eat, rather than spend crazy tourist prices at the hotel. We were conveniently out of town again, however, so our choices were limited. We ended up at this sketchy looking place called AC Restaurant just down the street. The place was fairly empty, but we sat down anyways.
When we opened the menus we realized the prices were almost equal to that at the hotel. Fail.
Just after we ordered we heard some commotion outside. Soon after, our waiter and three other guys came rushing into the restaurant. They had come to see us. Fabulous.
The three guys sat at the table next to us and just sat there staring at Kelsi and I. I am so happy my back was turned, because I probably would have gone nuts. Then they started taking photos of us, and giggling at the pictures as they passed them around the table. It took all the effort in the world to just sit, eat, enjoy our beer and ignore them. We ate our meal, then paid and quickly left. What a way to ruin a quiet dinner.
Afterwards we called it a night. Our full day of activities had been thwarted and replaced with buying expensive clothing at a textiles factory, taking a photo of a building in the water, and being mobbed by creepy young men for dinner… Did I mention this was St. Patty’s day?! Probably the most depressing Irish celebration I’ve ever had. Better luck next year!

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Udaipur: Escape from Raju!

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We arrived in Udaipur fairly late, so we just had dinner and called it an early night. We had plenty of things planned for the following morning!
Raju had us up and out the door by 9am.
“Go to the left here and you will see city palace, then you go to temple, then back to hotel. After you maybe rest, and I take you to lake 1:00. Okay? And if anyone says ‘you like guide’ or maybe ‘you buy something’ you say Chello!”
Ya, ya. We get it, don’t talk to anyone. So off we went. We made it the whole hundred meters on our own to the city palace. Go us.
What Raju failed to tell us is, that before 10am the cost to enter the city palace goes up EIGHT TIMES it’s usual cost.
“You know if you come back in one hour it will be much cheaper” said a man outside.
No actually, we didn’t know that! But we did now, and we weren’t about to pay that much money to get in. So we turned around and wandered through the markets!
The streets of Udaipur sell EVERYTHING! Clothing, leather bound diaries, hand painted door knobs, puppets, tourist trinkets, and anything you could ever need from a market. What Udaipur is best known for, however, is its miniature paintings.
The city has some incredible artists that paint out intricately designed paintings on small pieces of cloth or camel bone. The work is absolutely exquisite, although you can tell the difference in workmanship between shops. Some are much more skilled at the craft than others and yet every second or third store seemed to sell these paintings. Pictures of elephants, peacocks, camels: each animal symbolized a different attribute, whether it was love, luck or courage. It would take years of experience to perfect the techniques that’s for sure!
Kelsi and I wandered the markets for a few, until we found the temple we were told to check out. It was a gorgeous Jain style temple, sticking up tall and seemingly out of place, in the middle of the bustling marketplace. The white marble work was amazing, but after having seen the massive and elaborately carved pillars of Ranakpur we soon moved back to the markets.
Kelsi bought an anklet from one of the merchant stalls. “What metal is this made from?” She asked the man behind the counter. Nearly everyone promised that their jewelry was 92.5% silver and was of the highest quality.
“White metal” replied the guy. We had to chuckle. An honest vendor! I love it! “It won’t turn your skin green though, and the colour will stay like that”
“Will it break?” Asked Kelsi
“Probably.” He said nonchalantly.
Amazing! All we wanted was some cheap jewelry that looked decent. She didn’t even haggle with the guy. Just handed over the couple dollars he asked for and we all carried on happy! Why couldn’t everyone just be that honest?
We wandered down to the lake front and sat on the stairs, watching the locals come and go. It was relaxing and peaceful by the lake. People came and washed themselves and their clothes in the lake. They drank the water too, although I’m pretty sure that would have made Kelsi and I instantly sick. When 10am came along we strolled back up to the city palace.
The city palace was beautiful, but it had another one of those museums where you entered and then couldn’t leave again. And we realized why it was more expensive early in the morning. At ten, ALL the tourists in the world come to see the city palace. The place is cramped and hot and you can’t take a photo of anything properly if you wanted to! We didn’t have a guide, and so roamed aimlessly through the maze of rooms just trying to find enough space to breathe. In some rooms we were actually the spectacle. We had a woman ditch taking a photo of her boyfriend to instead have her photo taken with Kelsi and I. It’s become so common here that I’m almost used to it. I’m probably going to go home and have a couple ask me to take a photo of them, then I’ll sigh and get into the photo myself. It’ll be awkward to say the least.
About 5 minutes into the palace museum tour we got bored, but we couldn’t escape the throngs of people. We started playing our new favourite game with the artwork on the wall: I call it “man or woman?”.
The artwork that is displayed in the palace, and all of India for that matter, has a lot of gender suspicious paintings of people. Sometimes a man is painted in traditional garb, which looks like a dress. He has long hair pulled into a bun, necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and I even saw nail polish on one! Normally I would go ahead and guess woman, but not here! Sometimes it’s the beard that gives it away, other times its just a shadow of a beard, and other times its the social situation of the painting. “Nope, women weren’t allowed to do that, gotta be a man”. This new game is the only thing that got us through the palace in a sane state!
It took us over an hour of pushing our way from room to room, rushing past important monuments and getting lost trying to find the exits signs out of each room, to finally escape the palace walls.
“Let’s go home” we both agreed, and we went back to the hotel to freshen up.
At 1:00 we went to the lobby to find Raju. When he wasn’t there, we took the opportunity to escape.
“Let’s just leave a note and head out on our own!” We suggested. So we did:
Dear Raju,
We couldn’t find you, so we left for the lake on our own. See you at 5:00 for the sunset drive!
– Sunita and Anita

And we were off on our own again. It felt wonderful finally being able to explore a place without the watchful and protective eyes of Raju. We didn’t need a babysitter, we needed a driver. I know he is just doing his best to look out for us, but never being allowed to talk to anyone, ever, was going to put us in the mad house.
We hopped in a Tuk Tuk and drove off towards the lake. We desperately wanted to go paddle boating so we got the driver to take us to the docks.
Our driver was elated to have two blonde girls sitting in the back of his Tuk Tuk. He couldn’t stop telling us how beautiful we were and staring at us in the side mirrors. Great. We would get the creepiest Rickshaw driver in all of Udaipur.
When we arrived at the docks we were greeted with disappointment. Something to do with the water levels of the lake, but there was no paddle boating for the day. No! Our mission to paddle in a swan boat was crushed!
So we decided to walk along the waterfront instead. We hadn’t made it ten steps before our Rickshaw driver caught up to us.
“I know another place to paddle boat!” He announced excitedly. “It is at a hotel just down the way.” Reluctantly we jumped back in, our love for paddle boating stronger than our drivers lame advances. About 2 minutes down the road another Tuk Tuk pulled up beside us.
“Wooooooaaaah!” Two young guys, about our age, in the Tuk Tuk next to us saw Kelsi and I and started driving along side us. They started shouting at our driver, asking him how he picked up such lovely ladies. Between the two vehicles we were taking up the entire road. Motorbikes and cars were swerving around the two Tuk tuks as they drove side by side.
“Where are you from?!” One guy shouted at us.
“New Zealand and Canada”we answered back.
“Ooooh, New Zealand!” They reached out to shake our hands from one Tuk Tuk to the next. This was so absurd we had to start laughing. 10 minutes away from Raju and look what happened to us!
One guy ended up climbing into the front seat of our Rickshaw to chat with us some more. His English was exemplary and his laugh was so contagious we could hardly contain ourselves. He talked non-stop for the entire way to the paddle boating.
“Let’s party later! Ill give you my number” we took it to be polite and to get him to leave us alone, but had no desire to party with the guys knowing that creepy Tuk Tuk driver would most likely be there.
“How about 7? We can go to Masala restaurant that my friend owns. We can pick you up from the hotel, where are you staying?”
“Can’t remember actually” we lied. “But if we decide to party we will come find you guys at Masala. Bye now!”
We laughed our way to the paddle boating and then laughed some more when we saw where we were. The hotel had a giant fountain outside it and you could paddle boat IN the fountain. This was too funny. So we paid our 40 cents and grabbed a swan. Two guys walking around the park saw us and hopped in a boat as well.
“Who in their right mind, other than us, would ever paddle boat in this thing?” I asked
“Don’t know, but we’ve made this fountain more popular than it’s been in years” said Kelsi as she pointed to the other two random guys.
We actually had a great time in the boat. Apart from the scorching sun, we were full of giggles as we raced around the small pool of water. And 20 minutes later we decided to head back to the markets.
Our favourite Tuk Tuk driver was waiting for us. Fabulous. We got him to drop us off at the edge of town so we could walk our way back to the hotel without him.
Even after hours in the markets in the morning, we couldn’t get enough of walking from shop to shop looking at things to buy. We stopped in at some amazing miniature painting shops and even bought a couple for ourselves. Then it was back to the hotel to find Raju.
For the sunset we drove to a temple at the top of a large hill across the lake. The views from the top were the best I’d seen in India to date. Peaked green hills with crazy looking twisted trees all over. A stunning view of the city of Udaipur and it’s beautiful lake. The sunset was once again a depressing smoggy fail, but we enjoyed the scenery nonetheless.
As we got back to the hotel, standing about 20 meters from the from entrance was the two young guys from the Tuk Tuk earlier.
“Great.” Said Kelsi.
“Did they see us?” We ducked down. How in the world did they FIND us?! We started laughing, wondering how we were going to explain this to Raju after our no talking rule. Instead we just booked it from the car to the front door and ran inside to hide. The boys spotted us and came running down after us. “Girls! Are you coming out?!” They were met with an angry Raju forcing them away from the area “Chello! Chello!” He shouted at them as if they were dogs.
Kelsi and I fell into our bed in fits of laughter. That would happen to us. Now we had to hide away in our room for another half hour before venturing off to dinner! Just our luck.
When sufficient time had passed we left for dinner. But not before getting the Spanish Inquisition from Raju. “Where are you going? When are you coming back? Who are you going with? Why aren’t you eating at the hotel?”
Ay, ay, ay! We just want to get some food! We had scoped out a lovely place by the waterfront and was excited to try it. The place had a busy but small rooftop patio that we sat in to watch the night away. We ordered a couple dishes and a large Kingfisher to share.
“Okay” said our waiter “it will take me a bit to cook the food, but I will bring you the beer now is that okay?”
“Ya sure” we said “that’s perfect” and he ran back down the four flights of stairs to the kitchen.
“Did he say he was MAKING the food?” Asked Kelsi.
“Ya, that’s what I heard, but it must have been a mistake in translation.”
The food came out fairly quickly and it was delicious. We powered through the meal and got the bill right away; we were in a rush to get home for “curfew” or “drinking time” with Raju.
We walked downstairs to find our server. Down and down all the flights of stairs… then we found him in the kitchen.
“Oh my god!” I said “do you COOK the meals too?!”
He looked at me almost a little embarrassed. He was a young guy, probably in his early to mid twenties “Yes, I am here all alone tonight. So it is very busy for me. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry! That’s crazy!”
I counted 11 people on the roof when I left. There was at least one more person sitting down below which made 12. 12 people, 12 different orders, and 12 different meals to cook. Cleaning the tables, getting the bills and the drinks and the beers… I’m never complaining as a server ever again! We tipped the guy very well and ran off to home.
Raju had been wanting us to drink the last of our whiskey every night since the camel trekking.
“You drink tonight?” He would ask, without fail. We were finding it hard to come up with anymore excuses.
“It we just drink the damn whiskey then he won’t ask anymore” Kelsi said.
“Unless he buys another one!” I reminded her.
“Touché”
Either way, we just decided to get it over and done with. We sat in the restaurant with some curried Indian snacks and a bottle of whiskey. Here we go!
I think Raju had a wonderful time getting to hang out with us over a couple drinks. He did seem to just want us to have fun on the trip (as long as that fun didn’t involve anyone else). But by the end, the whiskey was going straight to my head and all I wanted to do was go to sleep. We managed to polish off the bottle and then we walked down two flights of stairs to crash out after a long day.
It was the last time we heard anything about drinking whiskey…

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Jodhpur

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On our way to Jodhpur we demanded that we stop back in Jaisalmer to see the fort.
“No, no, is much nicer fort in Jodhpur.” Explained Raju.
No! We were exhausted of being told what and where we were going to see things. WE really wanted to see the fort. He said he would, but only because he liked us. Reminding us that he wouldn’t have done it for some other tourists… So much for “you choose the places you want to see!”
In the end, I’m so glad we made the stop. The Jaisalmer fort is bustling with life! Shop merchants and locals and guesthouses: the place was full of tourists and temples and most of all, history. Can you imagine living in this fort so many years ago? Before the city was built up around it? Before the smog rolled in and you could see out forever across the distance? Wow. The place was incredible. We walked the streets for a little while, took some photos of a view point and then headed back to the car. We had only one night in Jodhpur and we weren’t going to miss it.
Our hotel in Jodhpur was incredible, just like all the the others had been; however, I think this was my favourite. It had a swimming pool, very nice rooms, outdoor courtyards and a huge rooftop patio with an outstanding view of the Jodhpur fort.
The Jodhpur fort may have actually been more impressive to look at than the Jaisalmer one, and from right underneath it, the walls looks imposing and impenetrable.
For the afternoon we checked out the markets. Jodhpur is known for its delicious spices, so we spent some time smelling all the different curries and teas that they had to offer. It was hard not to buy everything in the shop! But we did manage to get a few small things to carry with us for the next month and a half (our bags are becoming so full we will soon fall over with the weight of them!). For the next hour or so, we wandered the streets, with Raju as our unnecessary body guard of course, and checked out the markets. The center of the market has a beautiful clock tower right in the middle. Below it is a chaos of motorbikes, horse drawn carriages and a herd of cows, all trying to co-exist with one another. Good luck!
Eventually, we strolled back to the hotel for dinner on the rooftop. Our hotel restaurant just happened to be the number one recommended restaurant in the Lonely Planet guide, so we didn’t have to go very far for a delicious meal.
In the morning we checked out the fort. Unlike the living Jaisalmer fort, the Jodhpur fort, named Mehrangarh, no longer has any permanent residents. The fort does, however, have some outstanding views from its outer ramparts and a museum that snakes it’s way through the inner castle. Once you start in the museum though, there’s no getting out! You have to move through the crowds of people, up stairways and down passages until the end of the tour. We didn’t realize this until it was too late. An hour later we escaped through the exit, exhausted from seeing throne rooms and decorated hallways!
When we finally found Raju back in the parking lot, we drove off to a nearby palace. We opted not to go inside, but had some spectacular views of the palace behind the lake. It didn’t even look real standing there! Finally, we carried on to our next stopover: Ranakpur.

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The Rat Temple

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Legend has it that when Karni Mata’s son drowned she was devastated. In desperation, she went to the death god, Yama, and begged him to resurrect her lost child. Yama refused her pleas for help. So in turn, Karni Mata vowed that, when she died, she would be reincarnated as a rat. She promised that when her entire family died, they too would be reincarnated as rats, for generation after generation after generation. And they did…
About 40km outside Bikaner, in a small village called Deshnok, lies the Karni Mata temple. It’s more colloquial name is “The Rat Temple”. This is where hundred of people come to pray to Karni Mata and her family in their resurrected form. That’s right, thousands upon thousands of rats infest this small temple, and the people of Deshnok are fully devoted to it. They come to the temple to pray, and see, and eat with the rats that live there. It is absolutely insane.
I first heard about the Rat Temple a few months ago when our TV offered us a free monthly subscription to the Oasis channel. One of the only 12 or so shows I’ve ever seen on that channel is called “Wildest India”.
“Hey, I’m going to India” I thought. “Let’s check it out”. The show explained about the unusual traditions of the Deshnok village and their love for the rats of Karni Mata. What the hell, sign me up, this shit is crazy!
When I found out that we would be traveling near Deshnok I was beside myself. “Rat temple? Let’s do this!” And before I knew it, Kelsi and I were standing barefoot outside the small temple in this tiny village in the middle of nowhere.
I braced myself for disappointment. It’s never as cool as it looks on TV, I thought to myself. But I was wrong… It was SO much better.
We stepped over the threshold of the temple and passed our very first rat, right in the doorway.
“Oh my god, there’s one!” We exclaimed in excitement. I almost took a photo, then thought I might see a few more later on and continued walking.
We first entered a large courtyard. There was a mesh covering over the place that tried to keep the pigeons out. Instead, they just sat on the mesh, and filled the courtyard with crap. Between the pigeon shit and the rat food, the marble floors were a mess. The food and pellets stuck to the bottoms of our bare feet as we walked across the courtyard and into the main temple.
Along the walls of the temple, both inside and out, were groups of rats. Not just two or three, but large groups of rats, all crawling over each other, fighting, biting and scratching their way into holes in the walls.
The people that worship the temple of Karni Mata hold the rats in very high esteem. If a rat runs over your feet while you are walking through the temple, it is considered good luck. If you share water with the rats it means good health, and if you eat food with the rats, it is one of the highest honours. Oh my god, are you kidding me?!
Rats don’t scare me. Even a large group of rats don’t scare me. But I was surprised by myself, as I walked through the throngs of tiny, crawling creatures, at how much I did NOT want one running over my feet!
As a kid, my friends had pet rats. They didn’t bother me. Maybe I was expecting these rats to look the same. I was sorely disappointed. These rats were mangled. They had tumors and growths coming out of all sides of their bodies. I saw one that was missing half it’s face. Kelsi and I stumbled upon a group of rats all huddled in a corner, and when we came closer to see what was happening, we saw that the rats were eating away at the rotting corpse of an already dead rat. This place is beyond ridiculous. I was disgusted by it, and yet I loved it!
The rats were everywhere, creeping in corners, climbing railings to hang out at eye level, or sitting on hand railings. Nowhere was safe. We walked into one room that had an alter (covered in rats of course) that was set in a large square pillar in the middle of the room. We watched the locals praying to the idol, then walking along the small passage that went around the pillar. At first I wasn’t sure what it was all about, then it clicked.
The small passage that went around the edge of the room had small rat holes every few inches along the floor. The people prayed to the gods, then walked through the narrow passageway in hopes that a rat would run over them and bless them with good luck. Well, when in Rome!
I followed Kelsi through the passageway in fearful anticipation. Oh my god, do I really want a rat to crawl on me in the dark?! I may have squealed as I saw the shadows of rats running back and forth across the passageway in front of me. I was scared to take a step forward in the off chance that I was the one stepping on a rat, instead of the other way around.
In the end, we both made it out untouched. I don’t care what they say, I consider myself lucky!
If this wasn’t unusual enough, there were more ways than one to be blessed with luck at the temple. All of the rats that can be seen at the Karni Mata temple are black. Thousands of rats, all of them black… Except for 5.
There are 5 pure white rats in Karni Mata. If you are lucky enough to see one on your visit, that is something very special. Good luck and longevity to you and your family!
One man stopped to talk to us when he had finished praying, probably laughing at two white girls light-footedly creeping around all the rats as we walked.
“You should check over there where that crowd of people is standing,” he said “you might get the chance to see a white rat.”
We took his advice and moved over the the small group of people huddled around a gate. Rats scuffled around on the ground by our feet and covered the gate, all the way up to the top. We looked down into a pit a few steps below. Rats swarmed the area. They drank milk out of bowls that had been laid out, crawled along stairways and skittered their way between iron scaffoldings. We looked for a few minutes, but couldn’t see any white rat. Eventually, people began to wander away.
One man offered us some rat food to throw out into the pit.
“Please, please, feed the rats with me” he gestured and handed us huge handfuls of food to throw around as we pleased. Just as we had finished, we looked up and saw a white rat.
“Look! There it is! A white rat!” We shouted.
The mood changed. People were in a frenzy. They shouted at each other in Hindi and rushed back to the gate we had stood at before. An old lady literally pushed me aside with her elbows in an attempt to see the elusive white rat! Men and women held up their children so they could see it too!
This is crazy. Is this really happening? I’m standing in the middle of a pigeon shit covered temple that is infested with thousands of rats. An old lady just bruised me in the ribs in an attempt to see a mangled, and probably disease ridden, white rodent, so that her life and her family’s life will have good fortune. Why did I enjoy this so much?!
All faiths are crazy when you look at them in a literal sense. The fact that these people wholeheartedly believe that these rats are resurrected royalty is beyond me, but I love their enthusiastic fervor! The Karni Mata temple is probably one of the strangest things I’ve witnessed in my 26 years, but I had an incredible time.
Kelsi and I probably spent close to an hour in that little temple. The whole time in awestruck wonder (or maybe it was horror). That’s 4 times longer than we spent in the massive, and beautifully decorated Jungarh Fort back in Bikaner… Man, we really need to get our priorities in order!
Nonetheless, at the end of the day I had something incredible to check off the bucket list, and a story I’ll never forget!

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