INDIA

By janosilva

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I was expecting the included breakfast at the hotel to be the standard fresh fruit and cold cuts fare that you usually get at hotels, so we were very pleasantly surprised to find out that it was an expansive buffet. All kinds of juices, omelets, waffles, sausage, bacon, etc. I however opted for the awesome Indian options and had Chole (chickpeas) Bhature (deep fried naan) with a side of curry chicken. It was like Kabob Palace for breakfast!

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Since our city tour tomorrow only covers an outside pit stop at the Red Fort, we made it our priority to check it out today along with the rest of Old Delhi. Admission is 250 rupees for foreigners and 10 for Indians! I soon realized that's because the outside wall is much more impressive than what's on the inside. Still glad we went in though. We took the lead from the locals and sat in a shaded grass area and had ourselves an impromptu picnic amongst all the chipmunks.

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I always aim to eat where the locals eat when I travel. However, while walking through Old Delhi it became clear that it was not gonna be easy to discern what spots we should try and which would put us out of commission, so we asked a guy at the hotel for recommendations. He gave us a couple and then looked at us and asked just how authentic we wanted to go. We told him all the way and so he sent us to Karim's.

When we got there they sat us with two locals who were already well into their meal. We exchanged pleasantries and then they walked us through what we should and shouldn't order. We ended up getting butter chicken, mutton quorma, and chicken curry accompanied by naan and tandoori roti. It all came with a couple of serving spoons and no silverware, which was fine with me since it was all just finger licking good!

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After that awesome dinner we walked back to the main street through a different part of the bazaar. The place was filled with street food vendors cooking all kinds of things, including chicken feet. The girls enjoyed this part of the bazaar a lot better. I think a lot of that had to do with the random pet goat we saw. After all, as Sara and I learned last year in Morocco, goats are super cool and very underrated.

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We woke up at around 6:30 AM to the sound of rain on our windows. We all had an early breakfast together but then I borrowed Kate's rain coat and umbrella and headed back to Old Delhi while the girls relaxed before the start of our tour.

On the way to the center of Old Delhi I saw some vegetable vendors setting up shop on the street and asked my tuk-tuk driver to let me out there. I decided to follow some folks carrying sacks of produce down an alley and I came into a courtyard which doubled as a vegetable market. It was raining cats and dogs at this point and everyone was set up under makeshift tarp tents. The ground was a complete disaster but some how most of the vendors managed to keep the product dry.

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We walked by Digambara Jain Temple yesterday but couldn't go in because it was closed to the public at that time. Today I walked by while it was open so I took off my shoes (required) and went in. Inside there was a group of people singing in unison, but everyone else was focused on their own form of worship. Some were performing rice offerings, some were pouring oils, some were praying with beads, and some were just sitting on the floor praying in silence.

An interesting aspect of the temple is that it houses a hospital tending to "vegetarian birds." Birds of prey are cared for as outpatients only. When people find injured or ailing birds they take them there to be nursed back to health. I got to see a lot of the birdies as they sat in their cages recuperating. As someone who tried to care for several injured birds with a very low rate of success as a kid it warms my heart to know that such a place exists.

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We started our guided tour at Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. The courtyard can hold up to 25,000 people for prayer. Kate wanted to go up one of the minarets to get a view of the city. She's lucky I obliged because women aren't allowed to go up unaccompanied, LOLz. Also, several groups of locals requested to take pictures with Sara and Kate. I guess they are exotic here.

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Our tour guide took us to Lazeez Affaire for lunch. As soon as we got there it became clear that it was one of those places that is in cahoots with the touring agencies since it was full of tourists. Exactly what I thought we'd avoid by having a private driver/tour. I got a Pakistani butter chicken and minced lamb meat and herbs stuffed naan. Kate's order was the winner this time with a tendori style chicken and cheese filled naan. I guess I can't complain about the place too much since the food was decent. But then again my portion of the bill alone was as much as all three of us paid last night, so yeah....

Afterward I jumped to Nathus Sweets a couple of doors down and got us a kesar gunjia, a launch slats, and a samosa gunjia. They were all very similar and a lot better than I expected. I might just bring a box of these back for the family.

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As we were pulling into town our driver recommended that we get massages done with local oils so after we checked into the hotel we called him back so he could take us to his preferred spot. Other than the practically see through underwear they gave me to wear, which by the way was at least 2 sizes too small, it was a pretty awesome full body massage. And it was only $25 for 65 minutes!

After that we headed to Handi restaurant. We had read about this place and our driver confirmed that it was a good joint. Sara and I split the Tendoori Platter which included Tendoori chicken, seek kabab, shammi kababa, chicken tikka, mutton tikka, and galouti kabab with a side of palak paneer (spinach and cheese in curry sauce). It was good but not amazing. The search continues for somewhere as good as Karim's in Old Delhi.

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We made a pit stop by the Jal Mahal, AKA Water Temple, on the way to Amber Fort. I would have liked to get there an hour or so earlier to catch it at sunrise but I didn't want to drag everyone out that early (I'm saving that card for the Taj Mahal ;-P). Missing the sunset meant that we had to deal with some pretty serious backlighting which is unfortunate because we couldn't really see any details on the structure. I think we still managed to snag a couple of OK shots.

The promenade where you look out at the Jal from was already pretty crowded for how early it was. There was even a couple getting their portraits taken. They were feeding all the birds and then running through them while the photographer snapped away. I was hoping to get a bunch of birds to fly into my frame by having Sara and Kate run through them as well but it didn't work out too well. Then a stick in the mud came to tell everyone to stop doing that, so we left.

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We made it a point to get to Amber Fort early in the morning because we wanted to make sure we got to ride an elephant up to it. It is only two people per elephant so Sara and I rode together and Kate rode solo behind us. It's a pretty long way up to the fort and the whole ramp was paved with a procession of elephants.

At one point our driver turned around to take our picture but he was so close to us that he got 0% of the 3,000 elephants in any of the frames. They all basically just looked like selfies. Of course there were guys further up the hill taking pictures to sell them to people as they exit the fort. I didn't really want to buy them since they were hard copies but I figured those were the only photos we'd have of us riding the elephants so I told him I'd buy two. Ended up haggling down the whole set from 1,000 to 300 rupees.

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Amber Fort is spectacular and definitely my favorite site so far. You enter the main square on elephant and from there you take the stairs to the palace. The place is huge and we spent a couple of hours just wondering around in no particular order, just seeing where each little passage would take us. Some times it would be an empty closet, but more often than not it would be another beautiful courtyard or a balcony with awesome sweeping views of the mountains or the town down below. One of the highlights was the Hall of Victory which is decorated from floor to ceiling in a mosaic of mirrors that make every surface sparkle. Simply beautiful.

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I'd seen pictures of these Escher looking stairs and knew I wanted to go see them. The place is also the setting of a scene in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in which kids are jumping off them into the water. Fortunately I did some research because it is super hidden away in the town of Amber, just outside Amber Fort. The place is so hidden that we had to cross thru what I assume were private roofs in order to reach it. It was completely empty except for us and one guard the whole time we were there. The place was just as cool as the pictures I'd seen and made even more so by the fact that it was so quiet and peaceful with no one else there.

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After playing with the elephants we headed back to Jaipur where our diver dropped us off right in the middle of the Old City. We spent the rest of the day going to the main sites and just walking around the bazaar looking for things to buy and haggling to the best of our ability.

The sites we visited were Hawal Mahal, with its beautiful facade, and the City Palace. Unfortunately, we thought that except for the doors of four seasons at the City Palace the inside of these two places were a bit underwhelming, especially right after seeing Amber Fort. We also visited Jantar Mantar, an observatory complex built in the 16th century. In it are giant concrete structures and metal instruments that were used to measure the movement of celestial objects. Very fascinating stuff. While there we went on a hunt looking for the concrete structures that pointed at our zodiac signs. Once we found them we took pictures in front of them while doing our best interpretations of them.

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Our last pit stop during today's road trip was at Fatehpur Sikri. The place is a gorgeous example of Mogul architecture constructed almost entirely out of red sandstone. We were there in the middle of the afternoon but I bet the place glows like it's on fire during sunrise and sunset. The light was so harsh while we were there that I barely bothered to take any pictures.

Cool factoid: The palace apparently housed 200 concubines, some of which the emperor used as pieces of a board game he played in one of the massive courtyards.

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We arrived at our hotel, checked in, dropped our bags, and went right out to catch a view of the Taj Mahal during the sunset from across the river. We ran into a massive traffic jam on the way and it looked like we weren't going to make it for a bit but we got there just in time. While we watched the sun set a bird pooped on Sara's head. It was magical.

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We woke up early to go to the Taj Mahal. We got there right before sunrise as the doors were opening. I highly recommend anyone going to see it to do the same. The view as you enter with the fog rising up from the river behind the Taj and the golden light hitting it just so is breathtaking. You also get the added benefit of a smaller crowd.

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We stopped by Vrindavan just before arriving in Mathura. Our driver got us a guide to walk us around town showing us the many different temples devoted to Krishna. Unfortunately he spoke in very broken English and we could barely understand him, but the gist of what I understood is that Krishna loved to steal and eat butter when he was a kid, which is awesome and really speaks to my heart. Lord Krishna is officially my favorite deity.

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Since Marhura is the birthplace of my butter loving home boy, Krishna, there are many temples dedicated to him here and in Vardivan, where he grew up. We went around to check out a couple of the main sites in town including Dwarkadhish Temple, one of the main Krishna temples and Vishram Ghat, the place were Krishna rested after defeating the deamon King Kansa. Since we entered the Ghat from the side along the river instead of through the front we never realized we had to take our shoes off. That is until people started pointing and yelling at our feet. Oops. There were some people praying, lighting little oil lamps and floating them down the rive. There were also many boatmen offering a ride down the river for a better view of the ghats. We decided to pass on the boat rides since we'll be in Varanasi in a couple of days and nothing compares to the famous ghats along the Ganges there.

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A little history on the use of colors during Holi. Krishna's skin was turned blue when he drank the milk of a she deamon. This made him self conscious as he was growing up and he worried that he wouldn't be able to get any ladies. His mother got tired of hearing his complaining and told him to paint the face of the girl he had a crush on and see what happened. Naturally she fell in love with him and they got married, because women love nothing more than when guys randomly assault them with paint. As a result, it became a Holi tradition to wipe powder color on people's faces while wishing them a Happy Holi.

Mathura and Vrindavan being the home of Krishna celebrate this aspect of Holi rather enthusiastically, which is of course why we came here in the first place. Holi proper falls on the 6th this year, but here they celebrate for days leading up to it and everyone and anyone is fair game! We were getting what I would consider a normal amount of powder and water thrown on us considering it wasn't Holi just yet, but then we unwittingly made a right turn into a parade. The street was lined with people on the side walks, windows, and roofs just throwing powder and colored water on everyone walking by below. We came out the other end looking like a unicorn had just peed on us!

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Holi History, Part 2:

When the evil King Hiranyakashipu declared himself a god, his virtuous son, Prahlad, refused to accept him as one. Prahlad's aunt, Holika, and the King decided to trick Prahlad into sitting on a pyre with Holika believing that her magic blanket would protect her from the fire and kill Prahlad. Lord Vishnu intervened and transferred the magic blanket from Holika to Prahlad. As a result, Holi is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil.

To commemorate this, every year on the night before Holi, people burn Holika's effigy on huge bonfires. These pyres were set up in what seemed like every other block of Mathura. The pyres were made up mostly of cow dung and they were set ablaze between 9:00 - 9:30 as dictated by the priests. We went to see the burning of one of these near our hotel. The cow dung didn't burn nearly as fast as I thought it would, but we stayed until Holika's effigy was completely burnt.

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We read and were warned that the streets could be dangerous for foreigners during Holi as intoxicated mobs of men could get excessively frisky with women. We experienced this to an extent yesterday but nothing we didn't think we could handle, and besides, we'd come to Mathura specifically for the Holi festival so we weren't about to just stay in our hotel. We figured if we went out early we could still experience it before the crowd got too rowdy so today we headed out to Brindavan at 8:30 AM. Man were we wrong. Within 5 minutes the girls had taken all the harassment they could manage for one day, so we found them a tuk-tuk and sent them back to the hotel.

I continued making my way toward Banke Bihari Temple following the sea of people. The closer we got to the temple the crazier it got. Eventually I made it inside where everyone was throwing powder up in the air and praying toward the altar in the front. Every now and then one of the priests would say something over the loudspeaker that would send the crowd into (an even bigger) frenzy. It was a really awesome experience and I was sad the girls had to miss it because of fear for their safety.

By the time I came out of the temple someone had taken my shoes so I was left with no choice but to take someone else's. I did try to be a stand up guy and took the cheapest flip flops I could find though.

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What a shocking contrast between how Holi is celebrated in Mathura vs here in Delhi. While everyone is out on the streets and there isn't an inch that isn't covered in color powder in Mathura, Delhi is eerily empty and totally clean (as far as color powder is concerned). We learned from Raj that Holi is a more subdued and intimate affair here with people simply celebrating it at home.

With the streets deserted we were lucky to find a place to eat. It was another samosa joint and surprise, surprise, it was awesome. Had some chole bhature, a samosa, and imreta for dessert.

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We had to say our sad goodbyes to our awesome driver, Raj, as he dropped us off at the airport so we could continue on our journey to Varanasi. We were very lucky to have him as our driver and unofficial guide. He could not have been more helpful, attentive, or caring. Thank you for making our journey through the Golden Triangle a smooth and memorable one, Raj!

We asked a stranger to take a picture of all four of us but it was totally backlit and underexposed so here's a picture of him and Sara at Amber Fort instead.

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After landing in Varanasi we went directly to Sarnath to see the Dhamek Stupa which marks the spot where Buddha gave his first sermon to his first five disciples. The structure itself is massive and the surrounding area houses several Buddhist temples and a museum. We noticed that all the depictions of Buddha were of him slender and with hair, which made us wonder when and where he came to be depicted as fat and bald. Further investigating will be required...

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We hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast so we decided to just have dinner on the rooftop restaurant of our hotel. Our decision to eat here paid off because the mutton saagwalla I had was phenomenal. It might be my second favorite meal after the one we had at Karim's. As we ate, a full, bright orange moon rose over the Ganges. Not a bad evening at all.

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Today was our only full day in Varsnasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and one of holy cities of Hinduism. It is believed that bathing in the Ganges river washes away a lifetime of sin. Since the Ganges plays such an important role in the spirituality of the city, it is lined with temples and ghats (series of steps reaching down to a body of water) all along the western bank.

We made it another early morning to go on a boat ride down the Ganges and observe the many ghats front on. There must have been hundreds of rowboats out in the water along with us, all doing the same thing. It was cool to see the ghats come to life as the sun rose up and people started to come down into the river to bathe and pray.

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One of the recommended places to eat on our travel book was literally right around the corner from our hotel, so we decided we'd skip the free hotel breakfast and try this place instead. It was a nice little cafe which also doubled as a store for locally crafted textile goods.

Unfortunately the food was extra average. I had a masala omelet and a banana muffin which were nothing I couldn't have made better. In their defense, the book listed it as the best espresso in town, and the cappuccino I had was the best cup of coffee I've had in India. And extra points for the cool and laid back atmosphere and fre wifi.

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After breakfast, the girls went for a tour of the city with our local driver while I roamed around and explored on my own. I like to set out with minimal objectives and then just wander around and get lost in alleys as I go wherever something catches my eye. I realize this form of free roaming exploration is not for everyone, which is why I like to do it alone. I don't like to feel like I'm dragging anyone along, and by extension feel like they are holding me back.

Anyways, I started by heading north when I came upon Harishindra Ghat, one of a couple of "burning ghats" dedicated to the cremation of bodies. As I arrived there a funeral procession came down the steps carrying a body on a bamboo stretcher. The body was wrapped in golden cloths and covered in orange marigold garlands. They carried the body all the way into the river where they submerged it and then brought it back on land. Once they set it down they went back and forth into the water to scoop water in their hands to pour it on the head of the deceased. While I watched the family perform these rituals, two more bodies were brought down. It is amazing how death is presented so matter-of-factly here. I watched for a while, but without knowing how long it would take until they would light the pyre, I decided to move on.

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I continued walking up a mile and a half stretch of ghats, enjoying the scenery as much as the people watching. People do everything there, from bathing, to laundry, to playing cricket. These series of steps are so central to life here that there is always something interesting happening to capture your attention. Unfortunately it was high noon, the light was bad, and it was irritatingly hot. I think I'll return in the early morning to photograph the scenes.... If I wake up in time, of course.

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As I made my way through the narrow alleys I came across a herd of buffalo walking single file in the same direction. I let them pass and went into the middle of the ally to take a picture when I heard a little kid yelling at me in Hindi. I turned to look at him and saw him pointing behind me and when I turned around I saw another buffalo, which had fallen behind, coming straight for me. Thank god for that kid because I do not think that buffalo would have stopped for me!

A bit farther down the road I saw an open door revealing a nice little courtyard with a sleeping cat and dog posing perfectly for me. I barely set one foot in when the dog jumped into full guard mode and started coming at me barking. It kinda freaked me out because of the thousands of dogs I've seen here I hadn't seen a single one bark at people. The children of the house came out to quiet the dog down and to tell me he wouldn't bite. They were really sweet and asked me to come in. Of course at that point the scene was ruined. I pretended like I was still trying to take a photo for their sake, but even the cat wouldn't cooperate. He simply wouldn't stop shoving his face in the camera, haha. I didn't get the picture I wanted but I got an even better memory.

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We went searching for another place recommended on our book, but when we got there we we came to find out that it was a vegetarian restaurant so we hightailed it outta there. We went to the cafe right across from the one we went to in the morning and it was very clear that they were trying to emulate everything the other place was doing. I just ordered some juice and saved my appetite for the hotel restaurant. There I tried the other mutton dish. It was pretty excellent, but not quite as good as the one I had the previous night.

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An aarti is a Hindu rirual of offerings to Goddess Ganga, the Holy Ganges personified. The ritual is performed every evening on the ghats, but the biggest and most impressive one is held at Dasaswamedh Ghat. There, eight priests perform a series of synchronized fire offerings while chants are sung to the rhythm of ringing bells. People then cup their hands over the flames and pour the smoke over their heads to receive Goddess Ganga's blessing.

Despite getting there just as the ceremony started we were able to work our way to a pretty good spot close to all the action. During the ceremony all three of us got blessed by a priest and afterwards we floated lamps down the river to bless our families.

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I decided I wasn't going to waste my last morning in India sleeping, so I woke up early once again and went for another walk along the ghats as the sun came up.

While I was taking some photos down by the river shore a guy who was bathing looked at me and told me he remembered me. I just looked at him blankly and he asked me if I remembered him. I told him I did not and then continued taking photos. I mean, I honestly thought he was just another person trying to peddle me something. But then I heard him say "orange juice and banana muffin." I had already decided to zone him out so it took me a second to process what I had just heard but then it registered that that's what I had ordered at one of the cafes the previous day. And just as quickly as I realized who he was I realized how big of a jerk I must have seemed like, brushing him off like that. Anyways, we laughed and spoke for a little bit and he told me how he always comes down to bathe in the river that early so he can open his cafe. After a while we parted ways and I continued making my way up the ghats until it started getting hot. Then I started to head back to the hotel to pack and get ready to check out.

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With three hours to kill and 30+ hours of traveling ahead of us, we decided that it would be best to find somewhere cool to relax and reflect on our trip. We ended up going to the cafe where we had breakfast the previous morning since we liked the atmosphere and they had free wifi.

I consider myself a well traveled person and growing up in Peru has given me a certain level immunity to the sights, sounds, and smells of third world countries, but I don't think anything can quite prepare you for your first arrival in India. It's a shock, but one that gradually wears down as you get acclimated (or as acclimated as a foreigner could ever become). Soon you realize that there is an order to the chaos here. The best way I can describe it is as a mass of flesh and steel engaged in a constant, fluid dance to the unrelenting sound of horns and yells, as if orchestrated by higher power. You can attempt to fight it but that will only lead to frustration. Instead you have to jump in and dance along with everyone else. Do that and you'll come out the other end with a deep appreciation for this beautiful country and its amazing people.

India has been, hands down and without a doubt, the single most fascinating place I've ever visited. We only got to see but a small corner of it but I have no doubt that I will return to explore more of this incredible country.

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