After so much over-stimulation in India (noise, smells, etc.), we decided it was time for a break: Guy decided to head for Thailand, while Jen and Dom went to a South-India beach in the province of Kerala. We found a guesthouse on an isolated stretch of beach with a view of the back waters that Kerala is known for. The only thing we did for that week was some reading, a massage, and take daily sunset strolls on the beach.
We then went 15km south to Fort Cochi, where we spent our last days before leaving India. We did a one day house boating trip through the backwaters where we learned about life of the locals as well as the various vegetation in the area.
Since Fort Cochi is such a nice relaxed town, we also spent some time exploring the area. Jen tried out the Chinese Fishing nets, and we did a cooking class to learn how to make some of the wonderful dishes we've been eating here.
The road from Jaisalmer back to Delhi is about 780km, which roughly translates to about 15 hours in Indian time. We broke up the drive by overnighting in a couple of small towns (Bikaner and Mandawa) along the way, neither of which had major attractions, so we just relaxed. But, we did still see a couple of things worth noting…
After Bikaner, we requested a short detour to the town of Deshnok to see the Rat Temple. One might think it rather odd to worship rats, but here it is quite apparent that they are considered sacred. The temple does not have rat images or carved idols from simple materials like wood, stone, or marble - in fact the Hindu temple (uniquely) does not contain any images or idols at all. Hindus come to this temple for blessings, and as with other temples they bring offerings of sweets. But the sweets are for the rats.. the sacred rats.. the sacred black rats that are all very much alive and hungry!!
According to legend, a goddess (Karni Mata) asked the god of death to bring back her drowned sun. When he refused, she decreed that all of her descendants would reincarnate as rats, and that these rats would return to this temple to be part of her family.
They feed off the milk and sweets offered by the visitors and, in return, they scamper across the feet of visitors as an auspicious sign of good luck. Their excrement is scattered all over the floors of the temple, and all Hindu temples require shoes to be removed before entering. Fortunately for us, they offer free slippers for tourists to wear. We asked our driver Rana, if he wanted a pair of slippers too - he scoffs and valiantly exclaims "No! I am HINDU!!".
The 20,000 sacred rats are given protection and roam freely throughout the temple. Rana noted that there weren't many rats running around while we were there.. apparently he usually goes to the temple later in the day and there's WAY more. In the temple courtyard, Rana pointed out a mesh barrier ceiling that they installed because eagles were diving into the courtyard to eat the poor little sacred rats… don't worry, the mesh keeps them all safe now.
One last thing we wanted to mention from the Rajasthan trip was all of the tipped over tractors transporting massive bags of dried grass, that we saw on the drive back to Delhi. The first one we saw was torn open and blocking traffic.. we thought it was pretty crazy! Within a couple of hours we saw the next 2.. or 3..? ..bewildering. After the 9th or 10th.. we were dumbfounded - you'd think that there must be a better way to transport a bunch of dried grass..!!
Our next stop was a city called Jaisalmer where we visited... yet another fort.. yaay! At least this one was a bit different - inside the walls, the restaurants and shops are still open for business and people still live within the fort. Sadly, there were huge amounts of garbage littered along the path just inside of the wall so you can't really walk along it due to the dumping ground that it has become… we even saw a dead dog there. It's now a little too clear to us why, back in the medieval days, the cramped quarters within fortress walls were such a major health problem.
Dom decided to get a Rajasthani moustache for Movember, and Guy got a really special henna tattoo - "I Love Mom". We went to explore inside the fort city and had a fun time posing for silly photos…. Dom's moustache got a lot of attention and praise from the locals :).
And thanks again to the pollution for yet another beautiful sunset!
On our way to a small town called Khuri, we passed a bunch of military vehicles with tanks on them. Our driver, Rana, casually mentions that he was watching the news last night and that a war between India and Pakistan is supposed to start at 4pm tonight. He then tells us that we should probably head back to Delhi. Rana jokes around with us a lot, but he was so convincing we weren't entirely sure… after several questions and 20mins later, he finally admits that it's just a joke… so we suppose that the tanks were just heading for the military base near Jaisalmer.
From Khuri, we were suppose to go on a 3 day / 2 night camel safari into the desert, but due to all of the tourists for Diwali, they couldn't get enough camels for us to do a full safari so it turned out to be more like a set of camel rides. But, we still had a great time - we rode camels, literally slept under the stars in the desert with no tents (just a bunch of blankets), and played around in the sand dunes :)
Here is more detail account of our adventures.
On our first day, we arrived in Khuri around 2PM, had lunch, and prepared for our outing. We left the compound around 4:30PM and rode camels for 45 minutes to the nearest dunes to see the sunset. Jen sorta got to "drive" the first camel, but we learned that they generally do not let you control the camels as they are really stubborn animals, so the other camels were strung and pulled behind one another. Riding camels turned out to be a pretty bumpy ride! It was fun, but for some of us it was also rather painful on the back and butt :). The sunset over the dunes was really pretty too - it was just unfortunate that this section of the dunes was really touristy and dirty with plastic bottles and other various bags/wrappers littered everywhere.
After returning from our sunset trip, we enjoyed dinner and a local music and dance performance. Oh.. and speaking of dinner.. on our drive to Khuri, our driver Rana ran over a bird. He actually stopped the car, backed it up, picked the dead bird up from the middle of the road, and threw it in the trunk with our bags. We found at dinner that he decided to cook and eat the road kill. He offered us a taste buuut.. well... we've been playing it safe and stick to a veggy diet while in India :).
Our second outing was by far more interesting than the first. After breakfast, we set out for a 3 hours ride to another set of dunes where we let the camels rest while we had a blast frolicking in the sand.
Let's just say that Guy was really entertaining... If you want to see a more elaborate version of his stunts, watch the video to get a glimpse:
Here is the video we of Guy:
We then returned to the compound for lunch and a nap. We were awoken suddenly with the manager who, without telling us what to bring, rushed us out to the camels to head out for a sleepover on the sand dunes. We "setup camp" an hour away, which basically involved laying blankets out on the sand.
Then our guides left with the camels (they had to go back to bring more tourists to see the sunset). While we were waiting, we played in the sand (again) and happened to pass by a group of tourists taking a photography course… they had hired some camels and riders as models for their course, so we took the opportunity to snap a few shots of our own :)
Here are some more fun sunset pics.
When the sun disappeared, our guides returned with dinner. We laid in our bed and watched the stars (wishing the manager had taken the time to tell us to bring warmer clothes..!) before falling asleep to a not so warm night.
The next morning, we woke up for sunrise and returned to the compound before driving to our next destination: Jaisalmer.
Lastly, if you ask Jen about what she liked best about this excustion, she will definitely say: "The baby camel!! It was sooo cute when it was following us around."…it was. You can't tell from the pictures, but that baby camel (the camel without a saddle) was only 3 months old. She followed us everywhere because one of the camels that we were riding was her mom :).
Just 2 hours from Udaipur, in the middle of nowhere, our driver stopped at the Ranakpur Jain temple. From the outside, it looked like a normal temple and at first, Jen was feeling too car sick to bother going inside, especially since it seemed like "just another temple". However, the real beauty of shocked us as it unfolded as we entered the temple. Everything is ornately carved marble - steps, walls, pillars, ceiling… not an inch is left un-carved. It was definitely not "just another temple" and was definitely a stop worth doing (even if the drive there was a bit swervy and chaotic).
It's also worth noting: "menstruating women are not allowed inside the temple".
Next we proceeded to the city Jodhpur. We arrived late but got to spend 2 nights at a superb hotel with a balcony view of the fortress. We took the 1.5hour audio tour of the fortress and palace, which was really well done and quite interesting. From the battlements, we got a clear view of why Jodhpur is known as "the blue city": A majority of the houses are painted blue, apparently to keep the temperature down and help deter bugs.
Dom also got his last (of 3) rabies shots here… for those who haven't heard this story already: In Varanasi, a bat flew in Dom's mouth. Alberta Health Services recommended that any exposure to bats requires post Rabies exposure treatment… Conclusion: do not french-kiss bats.
Our next stop was Pushkar, a Brahma (the highest Hindu cast) pilgrimage town that each Hindu is supposed to visit at least once in their lifetime. It is centred around a holy lake where pilgrims come to bathe (a bit like the Ganges, but cleaner). To appreciate the view of the lake, we ate on a rooftop restaurant where we were almost hit by a stray firework (apparently some families continue to light them even after Diwali is over), and then one of the giant monkeys decided to run right across our table before leaping off the building, into the trees.
The next day, we proceeded to a city called Udaipur. We were originally supposed to stay here for 2 nights, but discovered that our hotel reservation had mysteriously disappeared (and all other hotels were fully booked due to the holiday). Rana managed to find us a hotel that was really nice but a bit far from the centre, so we decided to shorten our stay to one night and extend our upcoming Camel Safari to 2 nights.
Udaipur, has some very charming streets, shops, and restaurants, but similar to a lot of cities in India, it is also very noisy, dirty, and full of motorbikes and touters. But... we discovered that you can hide from it all if you enter the magical City Palace grounds for about 50 cents. So we first had an amazing dinner at restaurant called Ambres (which had a beautiful night view of the City Palace) and then entered the palace grounds and quietly wandered the deserted streets. We enjoyed the calm so much that the next morning, we returned to the peaceful palace grounds and simply sat watching the boats pass by, and later went out on our own boat ride.
Jaipur was the second stop on our tour of Rajasthan, and we were just in time for the Indian Festival of Lights known as Diwali (it was one of the reasons why we wanted to come to India in November). In India, Diwali is the biggest holiday. Everyone returns home to spend a few days with their families, exchange gifts, and consume sweets. What makes Diwali special in Jaipur is that every business decorates their shops with lights (a bit like Christmas back home, but on steroids). The city even builds temporary archways in the major intersections, which are also decorated and lit.
For us, the thing that was the most memorable was lighting firecrackers with the kids that lived nearby our hotel!! On the actual Diwali day, every family has a dinner, performs a prayer around 7pm, and from then until 3 or 4am, the air is flooded with a non-stop barrage of lights and explosions from firecrackers (and full on fireworks) being lit everywhere in the streets, back yards, and off rooftops. Some families that we spoke to, told us they spent around $300usd just on fireworks for the night.
Earlier in the day, we visited the Amber Fort - a massive fortification located 11km from Jaipur.
Jen and Dom also checked out some tailor-made clothing shops. After a bit of negotiation, they decided to go for it - Dom got a pair of pants and Jen got a Punjabi shirt.
And while Jen and Dom were shopping, Guy played Cricket with the local kids outside the shop.
The Taj Mahal is one of the New Wonders of the World and this time we can say: "definitely"... It is definitely worth seeing, it is definitely worthy of being called a wonder of the world, and we definitely recommend it. One of the things that makes it unforgettable is the way it presents itself: It's not possible to see the Taj Mahal from outside the grounds, so you have to first enter the outer courtyard and walk along the wall in anticipation, until you reach a gate where the perfect symmetry of the Taj Mahal slowly reveals its splendour through the symmetrical arched gate. We can still remember holding our breaths in anticipation, as we began to catch our first glimpses.
Here are some quick facts:
The Taj Mahal was built by emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife (Mumtaz Mahal), who died in 1631 while giving birth to their 14th child.
Around 20,000 people worked on the Taj Mahal. It took about 8 years to finish the main temple, but the entire complex was not finish until 1653.
The emperor was overthrown and imprisoned by his own son shortly after the mausoleum was completed. After the emperor died, he was buried next to his wife in the Taj Mahal, thus breaking the prefect symmetry of the temple.
Today, the Taj Mahal has around 20,000 visitors per day.
Since we wanted to spend Diwali (India's biggest holiday, the "festival of lights") in a city called Jaipur, we had very limited time in Agra. We only visited the Taj Mahal during sunrise (for about 3 hours), and although we did have enough time to explore it all, it definitely left us we wishing we had even more time to take it in.
Back when we were in Delhi, we had pre-arranged for a driver (Rana) to pickup Guy (in Delhi), meet up with us in Agra, and now he'll be driving us around Rajasthan (the province Northwest of Delhi) for the next 2 weeks.
On our way to Agra, we stopped for a day in a small town known for its Kamasutra temples - Khajuraho. The atmosphere of the small town was a really nice break from the busy, noisy streets of Kathmandu, Delhi, and Varanasi.
Built around the 10th century, the temples of Khajuraho are amazingly well preserved. We took the audio guide tour, so we learned a few interesting facts about Hinduism:
- Hinduism is the world's oldest living religion.
- It has "330 million gods and goddesses to be exact" (no kidding!)
- There are 3 main gods: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver/protector, and Shiva the destroyer.
What makes these temples really interesting are the amazingly detailed carvings. Each temple has multiple rows of scenes carved all around the temple base and outer&inner walls, mainly depicting aspects of day-to-day life.
The temples are commonly known and referred to as the "Kama Sutra Temples", but this is actually an overstatement/misnomer. Only a few (about 10%) of the carvings actually have scenes with erotic poses… but they are no doubt quite explicit!
The concept of huge breast implants was not invented by 20th century doctors… or by the fantasy of 14 year old geeks reading comics… as you can see from the following pictures, that honour should probably go way back to the 10th century Indians.
We also learned the story of Ganesh - the god with the elephant head. Here's a synopsis of it (in our own words):
Shiva's wife, the goddess Parvati, was getting pretty lonely (Shiva was always gone... probably playing video games with his friends). She wanted to be a mother, so one day she made a clay doll and gave it life. Under Parvati's nurturing tenderness, the doll grew and became the son she always wanted. Many years later, Shiva finally returned home (it was a big lan party). To protect his mother, Ganesh refused to allow the stranger, Shiva, to enter their abode. In the fight that followed, Shiva cut off Ganesh's head and let him die. Seeing this, Parvati cried out and told Shiva that Ganesh was their son. She demanded that he restore their son's life. To please his beloved wife, Shiva sent his minions into the world to look for a head to replace on Ganesh's body. The first animal they found was an elephant, so they brought it back so that Shiva could attach the head and bring Ganesh back to life.
Varanasi, regarded as the holiest of the 7 holy cities in India. It is where Hindus come to bathe in the Ganges River to wash away their sins. It is also where they come to die in order to reach salvation.
When loved ones die, their bodies are brought to Varanasi from all over India. A cremation ceremony is performed on the banks of the Ganges and the ashes are washed into the river. The cremation takes around 3 hours and will cost the family around 5000 rupees ($100 USD). If you are poor, you can use the electric cremator (which only takes 2 minutes), but people try to avoid this option because it's bad Karma. Not all bodies are burned before being put in the river: young children, pregnant women, holy men, and cows are wrapped and weighed down with rocks before being thrown in the water. If a person is killed by a serpent bite, their body is placed on a bamboo raft that is sent down the Ganges - if they're lucky, a holy man will see them and bring them back to life.
In addition to human remains in the Ganges, a fair bit of garbage and sewage can be seen making its way into the river. Dom intended to come here to experience a spiritual bath like the locals, but after seeing what the water looked like, he opted out figuring it's probably safer to keep our health (and sins) :). Amazed at watching their daily routine in the river, we quickly realized how wimpy we are compared to them.. on numerous occasions, we saw them brushing their teeth and even drinking the water from the banks of the Ganges, and somehow they don't get sick.
One great way to see the Varanasi ghats (the various series of steps leading down to the river) is to take a boat ride during sunrise and sunset. During sunset, you see the illuminated buildings and prayer ceremonies. During sunrise, you see the locals performing their daily bathing and laundry rituals.
We also walked the old town's narrow (about 1.5m wide) streets, which are shared with numerous cows, carts, motorbikes, and pedestrians. This becomes especially tricky when it gets dark.. and you also have to navigate the cow manure.
Cows are sacred here and are free to roam wherever they please. It seems they are never killed, even if in misery. Dom saw a cow dying on one of the roads… a man put a blanket over cow and appeared to simply be sitting and praying as the cow waited to die.
We've also noticed a lot of cows picking through and eating the various garbage on the ground (not just food scraps - they apparently also eat paper, plastic bags, etc.). The first time we saw a cow eating garbage, it really surprised us. By chance, we had just started reading a book called "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is a really interesting read about where the meat that Americans eat, comes from. Now we wonder if the garbage that we see the cows eating here is actually better than what's being fed to the animals back home…!! Crazy.