Month: March 2015

My Trip Tattoo

Before I left, I knew I would get a tattoo to memorialize this adventure. But it goes further back than that really. I knew for years that I would get tattoos to mark different phases of my life: my first one was about heritage, family, where I come from, and ultimately the first 22 years of my life; my second tattoo in Khao Lak was a bit less predictable but was still a meaningful life symbol – the evil eye has been important to and watched over me since I was abroad, when this crazy life goal of a year of travel first entered my mind, since what seemed like the end of childhood and a change to my solo adventures, from living in big cities to embarking on this trip. But it was never meant to be the symbol of the trip itself.

I never knew what shape that would take. I had ideas in passing, nothing I would commit to, until one day on the beach in Goa when it all clicked. India was my last stop, the itinerary complete, and here I was with my best friend talking about getting tattoos together. She wanted one for India and I wanted a symbol that would forever commemorate this moment. Like Khao Lak, the timing was perfect. I had to do it.

I didn’t want something obvious, like a compass or a world map; I wanted something slightly obscure but unique to me. I thought about my route. When I bought my flights, Indie generated a map of the path I would be taking. It was the backbone of my plan, and no matter where I went in between that line stayed in tact. It was the literal visual symbol of my 9 months.

Then I remembered the words. Here it goes. When Kwaz asked why those words, all I could think was to show her what I wrote in the Ho Chih Minh City airport, the first time I thought of getting them tattooed on me:

December 8, 2014. Ho Chi Minh City Airport.

“I thought of a new tattoo. I knew I wanted to commemorate this trip somehow but had put no pressure on myself to come up with anything. I figured it would come to me eventually, probably at the end. Then I reached a crossroads in Vietnam. As I sat in the Ho Chi Minh City airport waiting to board my flight to Hanoi, contemplating this rebirth of my trip, the phrase that came to mind again was: “Here it goes.”

This phrase was the title of my first blog post saying what I was setting out to do. It has been a constant phrase in my thoughts ever since, even if I had to edit it out of most posts so I wasn’t too repetitive. And in the moment I was about to start this new phase it again came to the front of my mind.

This trip continues and as it does it reveals itself to me along the way. So all I do is smile and think, “Here it goes.” The rest will work itself out.

I’ll think on this for a while, but those three words mean more to me than they seem. And they may just end up a permanent part of my body.”

Here it goes became my mantra, my philosophy, and my comfort. So I combined my backbone with my mantra, weaving the words into the line of my route: here in between the US and South America, it flying across the Pacific Ocean, and goes on the way to Asia. The three parts of my trip.

The line trails off after that, on the back of my ankle, not a definitive ending but a line that could continue on to anywhere on the other side. It wanders off like I am now, with no period at the end of the phrase, guiding me as I keep walking, right foot forward, towards the unknown next phase.

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The Nights of Goa

Goa nightlife is centered around one thing: trance music. This isn’t my jam but when in Goa…

We tried out trance parties twice. Our first night in town was apparently Anjuna’s night off; everyone had been out until well after breakfast, apparently Tuesday night is huge, so most of the town seemed to be taking it easy. We would not be deterred. We heard Goa nightlife was all night every night and we were ready to go.

So we united with the one Swedish guy who was willing to try out the only party anyone seemed to know at Hilltop. We got there, we got drinks, we started to get into the quirky I-dance-with-no-one-but-myself movements, and the DJ stopped playing. The cops shut down the party before midnight. We were in shock. Everyone filed out, jumped on their motorbikes, and rode off like one big scooter gang to find another option or just go home.

We tried one more party at Club 9 and were introduced to dark trance. Dark is misleading; this is hyperactive trance. The only way to keep up with what is sort of like the beat is to gyrate like you’re having a seizure. It’s a workout. And it was a scene for sure. We made it till about 3 am before calling it quits.

The walk to get back to Anjuna (we’d ended up in Vagator) was through open unlit fields. A pack of street dogs sprinted past us to gather in a field and howl like coyotes, except for the one that sounded like it was dying. So we made a large arc through the far side of the field to avoid the pack. The cows became our friends; they parted their roadblock for us.

The second night was much more of a success. After a few gimlettes to get the night going, we met up with our beach friends and went to Curlie’s for an on-the-beach trance party. Curlie’s was quite the scene: a Burning Man-esque sculptured light display stretched out over the dance “floor” (sand) from the DJ booth, under which people solo-danced together to the electronic sounds. To the side was a huge hangout area of well-lit tables, and down on the beach were vendors selling all the late night essentials like cigarettes and greasy food.

We danced, we drank, we got glow painted, we took tons of pictures, and I got to spin some light-up poi balls for a bit. By the time it was almost 5 am we had no choice but to stay until the sun rose. At first this seemed like it would be a gradual change, but all of a sudden it was light out and we were left with the dedicated party goers. We had made it at a Goa trance party till dawn. We felt accomplished, like we experienced the night we came for. We walked back along the beach shortly before 8 am in the peaceful early morning light.

No wonder no one does anything during the day. We slept till the afternoon and even then were slow moving. Our last night was the biggest beach party in Goa or something, but we never found out what that meant; it was Kwaz and my last night together, and she had to leave at 3:30 am for a 6 am flight back up to Delhi, so we opted for a bottle of wine at the hostel. That was way more us than another all night techno rave.

I can’t say I really get trance music or the whole scene around it. I suppose we tried it out and it wasn’t too bad, but if I ever go back to Goa I’d like to try out nights on other beaches. We heard Arambol was more drum circles than DJ’s, a little more up my alley.

The Days of Goa

Goa was the last stop of our whirlwind two week tour of India. What better way is there to end a trip like this than with three days of beach, sun, shopping, and partying?

We chose to stay in Anjuna, the supposedly new hippie location in between party-centric Vagator and commercialized Baga. It had a low key feel (especially compared to busy Baga), with cows roaming next to night clubs and everything you could need within a short walk to the beach, or in some cases right on the beach. It was the vibe we were looking for, perfect for a short stint but not somewhere I would spend more than a couple of days.

Our time in Goa was meant to be relaxing, so we limited ourselves to one task per day. Our first day happened to be a Wednesday, the day of the weekly Anjuna Flea Market, so this was an easy choice for our one activity. Started decades ago as a gathering of hippies selling their possessions to raise enough money so they could stay in Goa, the market has since grown to be a main draw for tourists.

Massive doesn’t even begin to describe it. We wandered in and around this market for hours, getting lost in stalls of scarves, jewlery, clothes, incense, spices, and all sorts of trinkets. It was an easy place for Kwaz to finish up her souvenier shopping and I finally gave in too. I’ve been good about not wasting money or precious backpack space on souvenirs, but when I saw the Tibetan Yak Wool shawls I couldn’t resist anymore. I was first introduced to these beautiful pieces at Shambhala and was jealous of my friends who got them, so when I found a pattern that was nothing short of awesome and haggled it down to a price half of what they were in Thailand I just had to have it. By mid afternoon the market reached swealtering heat levels so we beelined to fresh air and lounge chairs on the beach. Beach, finally! And what goes better with beach than beers and gold fried calamari? Nothing? That’s what we thought too. Day 1 success.

The next day our one activity was the beach. We had breakfast at one of the restaurants right on the beach then moved next door to the lounge chairs at Jack and Jane’s, where we spent the next few hours loving their mojitos and their soundtrack (70’s throwbacks and some rock jams, a nice contrast to the trance everywhere else). The water in Goa is so warm and calm; there was no convincing myself that it wouldn’t be as cold when I got in, or waiting for a set of menacing waves to pass by, it was easy just to walk in and float under the sun. We swam, we chatted, we read, we napped – Kwaz and I and our new friends Raul and the Germans – and felt like we were really on vacation.

The last day we got a late start; around 1 pm I believe. But what do you expect when you get home at 8 am? Our one task for the day was a little different than the previous two days: we were going to get tattoos. Kwaz and I had talked about wanting new ones and possibly getting them together in India, but I think we were both not convinced this would actually happen until we found ourselves sitting in a tattoo parlor in Baga as they put the stencils on us. It was our last day together until who knows when and, even though our tattoos are individual to each of us, they will still be permanent reminders of our trip and, more importantly, our friendship. We were both so happy with the results and highly recommend Krish Tattoos to anyone thinking about getting one in Goa. Kwaz got an outline of India on her wrist, beaufitully drawn in an elegant thin line, which I will not explain the reasons behind (explaining a tattoo is for each person to decide themselves) but I will say that it is so fitting and I’m so happy for her for getting it. I got my trip commemorative tattoo, the one I knew I would get when I left but had no idea what it would end up being, hoping that the right design would come to me at the right time, and it definitely did. I love it. And I will explain it in a separate post.

We celebrated our new tattoos with glasses of wine and a repeat dinner of our favorite meal from our favorite place: gimlettes and chicken vindaloo with jeera rice and naan. This chicken vindaloo is the spiciest thing we ate in all of India in the best way. Freaking delicious, we couldn’t get enough of it (obviously since we had the same thing two nights in a row).

Kwaz left the next day. I still had a full day in Goa before I left on a night bus for Hampi, which I spent taking care of business and eating leftover vindaloo in the hostel. It felt strange to be in India without her. We may have gone 8 months without seeing each other but as soon as we were reunited it felt like just a week. It can be challenging to travel with another person for 2 weeks straight no matter how good of friends you are, especially in a place like India, but it never was with Kwaz. In fact two weeks didn’t feel like enough. Which is why, when I got a WhatsApp that due to a bad connection she had missed her flight home and was stuck in Delhi till Monday, the first thing I did was look up flights from Goa to Delhi to go hang out in the hotel with her till she could actually leave. I didn’t end up ditching my Hampi plans for my best friend and a pool, which in the end was probably the right decision for me, but damn was I tempted.

Kwaz, I know that you’ve wanted to go to India forever, and whether I was the excuse to see India or India was the excuse to see me, I am just so happy you came and had a great time traveling with you, even if India was a two-faced bitch sometimes.

Time for South India: Mumbai

I’m going to breeze over Agra and our return to New Delhi. Basically after the Taj we got back to Delhi as fast as possible. Agra is another busy North Indian city that we’d been told wasn’t worth spending much time in, so taking into consideration our exhaustion from the past week and Kwaz’s lingering illness we decided to just get the hell out of there. It was the right move. We enjoyed a relaxing night at the wonderfully modern Madpackers Hostel – we ordered in Lebanese food, I did some “work,” and Kwaz got a ton of sleep to finally get healthy – before our flight down to Mumbai the next morning.

In the two weeks Kwaz and I traveled India together we had inadvertently split them down the middle: one week North, one week South. Mumbai was the beginning of our South India chapter, and we had high hopes for how this week would go.

Mumbai was a breath of fresh air. It revived and reinvigorated us.

Starting with our lovely AirIndia flight, complete with Bollywood movie and veg or non-veg food options, and the well-signed airport, to the very kind man who helped us find the AirBnb apartment we would be staying in, even calling the owner himself to get accurate directions and giving us his number in case we needed anything, things were looking up.

We sprung for an AirBnb in the chic Bandra West neighborhood. We spent the afternoon wandering up and down the oceanside walk past the apartment complexes where all the rich and famous live – Mumbai’s Hollywood Hills – and tasting local street snacks of pani puri. We were shocked to get 6 per order for just 45 Rs, and even more shocked when we expressed how we didn’t realize we got so many and we should have split an order and they actually tried to give us our money back. People were so kind in Mumbai! After a bottle of wine in the apartment and a couple of hours in a dive bar that felt like home, Tito’s Garage, we were declaring our love for South India.

Our only full day in Mumabi was dedicated to one thing: Elephanta. Elephanta to Kwaz was like the Taj Mahal to me. This is the number one thing that she wanted to see on this trip and after going there I totally get why.

But first, we had breakfast at a bagel place. BAGELS. Sure they were no Jersey bagels but still, a little taste of home. Especially since we got one with avocado on it. Then we took an UBER to the ferry terminal. Were we really in India? The terminal was in the colonial part of town so the surrounding architecture was a mixture of European styles. The whole morning was a jarring difference from the India we had seen in the previous week.

An hour boat ride – always an enjoyable way to travel – and a 30 minute uphill climb brought us to the main cave on Elephanta Island. Standing in front of the row of pillars carved into a rock face imbued me with a sense of anticipation. “There’s something amazing through there.” And there was.

Art and Architecture of India came to life around me. We entered a hall of columns, rows of them carved into the cave as if they were holding up the whole mountain above us. Off to the right was the shrine for the linga, with its protectors carved into the walls around it. Images from class came rushing back to me and I smiled in the realization that I was actually there, seeing this in person. All around the cave were reliefs depicting Hindu scenes, most revolving around Shiva, and even though they were in various states of ruin I could still see the immense detail and care that went into creating them. We read the little guide Kwaz picked up and played “find the detail” with each one. At the center of it all was the impressive and emotive sculpture of the three heads of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector, and Shiva the Destroyer. We stared at it for a long time, and no matter where we were in the cave, my eyes kept going back to this amazing piece. It commanded attention in its scale but allowed contemplation in its expression.

We explored the secondary caves but felt like we’d already seen everything we came for in the main one. Elephanta was the experience that was missing from the Taj Mahal; actually being there was a level above seeing the pictures. It was like Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu – places that I knew would be stunning but the reality of walking around far exceeded the expectation. And for Kwaz, it was a life dream come true. I felt honored to be there with her for such an emotional moment, and seeing her reaction to this place only made me appreciate it even more.

The return ferry dropped us off somewhere else in Mumbai. It smelled rank of fish and with barely any taxis in sight we totally overpaid just to get out of there. The ride back to our area was a surprise, and fascinating in its own way; it was the other Mumbai. We drove through slums like I’ve never seen before. I felt almost guilty looking out the windows of the taxi, knowing this was a part of the city I wouldn’t have purposefully gone to but oddly happy (happy isn’t the right word, but I don’t know if I could ever find a right one) to have accidentally passed through it. Structures that can only be described as shacks were piled one on top of the other, with dirt paths weaving into and through them, hovering over the edge of a river or pushed up to the sidewalk of the main thoroughfare. People were everywhere, and so was garbage. It was overload in every way, literal and sensory.

To decompress from the day, the overwhelming traffic, and the intensity of what we just saw, we went to endless sangria happy hour before our flight. It was a quick trip to Mumbai but one that left us wanting more. We agreed that the next trip to India we would fly directly to Mumbai and move South from there.

The Taj Mahal

The other day Kwaz asked me why I wanted to come to India. My answer: the Taj Mahal.

The Taj was one of the pillars that outlined my route. I learned about it in multiple classes – I did take Art and Architecture of India in college – and was at one point able to describe its layout so well that my professor thought I’d been there. So I didn’t mind at all the 5 am wake up to try to beat the crowd and the heat (a successful strategy), I was finally going to see the Taj Mahal.

It looked exactly like it did in the slides I studied. This was the cause of both my amazement and my disappointment.

The Taj Mahal is perfect. It is pristine, gorgeous, impressive. It is every positive adjective you’ve ever heard people say about it. The first glimpse of it through the entry gate’s tall arch takes your breath away, and seeing the full expanse of the garden procession to the hovering building just increases the sense of awe.

It was the same garden that I had described so well, with its four rivers leading to the central fountain and its perfectly manicured lawn and bushes. Maybe that’s why I expected so much from it and was sad to feel so little. The procession leading to the Taj was supposed to feel like an honor to walk up with the building growing ever larger, but I just felt like it was any other walk. The building looked impressive but that was apparent from the start. The walk was more focused on platforms from which the best pictures could be taken. I yearned to know what it looked like with the original trees and fruit plants obscuring the view, causing the white bulbous domes to appear floating above Paradise.

Once I reached the Taj Mahal itself there was no way to stop staring at it. Every stone, every inlay, every detail, and every angle of the building commanded my attention. I ran my hands over perfectly carved flowers in vases, wondering how it was possible to create such a delicate image in such a hard material. I slowly walked the circle around Mumtaz Mahal’s and Shah Jahan’s tombs, my eyes scanning from the woven stone circle around them all the way up the ceiling. The amount of detail was astounding. When I made it back outside it lightly rained, a strange occurrence considering the bright blue sky, which made the stone plinth reflective (and slippery). I took my time walking back around from the river side to the garden, taking in the four corner towers, the side buildings (both beautiful in their own right), and the garden approach from this side. It is an amazing complex. It is Paradise on Earth, as intended.

After we finished our tour – I recommend the audio guide, it was informative but not long-winded – I sat on a bench to the side of the center fountain, staring at the Taj. It deserves nothing less than quiet contemplation, this perfect compilation of art and architecture.

After we left the Taj I expected to feel elated. I had just seen the one thing I wanted to see most in India. Something held me back. The Taj was as expected, and nothing more. There was a lack of an emotional, experiential connection. I remembered Angkor Wat and the feeling I had there, overwhelmed by the greatness that just being in the presence of the structures made me feel. The Taj is beautiful, but it didn’t have the same effect. I suppose that will happen sometimes. I wonder if it’s because I’ve seen its image so many times or seen so many amazing things in the past almost 9 months. Regardless of my slight disappointment, I still think the Taj Mahal is an incredible piece and a must-see, and I am thrilled I made it there.

I Did It

It’s my last real day in India.

I say real because I’m about to embark on 40 hours of travel to my next destination, and I don’t think a day spent just on planes, trains and automobiles should count as my last day here.

So it’s from the beautiful, serene, fantastic village of Hampi, India that I say farewell not just to this country but to my itinerary. I did it. I reached the end. It may not be the end of traveling (it definitely is not), but it is the end of the original plan.

For the past nine months I’ve traveled the world. I learned how to survive in the jungle, the cities, and the mountains of South America, adopting Spanish and companions as I went. I drove through, jumped out of a plane over, and played frisbee golf within the vast landscapes of New Zealand, forming a fondness for this faraway place that may result in a prolonged return in my future. I swam with sea turtles, got a solid tan, and enjoyed the gastronomy of Australia, a continent so far yet so familiar. I rode on every form of two- three- and four-wheel transportation imaginable, ate meals that cost little but tasted lots, and sweated my ass off in Asia, while learning hello and thank you in more languages than I can count on one hand.

I feel satisfied. Happy. Accomplished. I did what I set out to do, my 9-month open-ended plan, and now from my last location I am proud to say that I feel like I completed my goal. Everything from here on is bonus.

Thank you to the people in my life, both new and old, who have supported me, shared the adventures with me, and at times helped make this solo journey bearable. Thank you to the countries I encountered for making me feel welcome and showing me everything you have to offer and more. You are all wonderful. Thank you to myself, which feels weird to say but is true, for following through on my life goal, for not backing down when things were tough, and for becoming more myself than I have ever been.

It’s been an incredible journey that has affected me more than I could ever say here. I am not done posting, not even close, because even though the plan ends here the adventures continue. My Travel Abrodge is not quite done.

So where will take 40 hours to get to, you might ask?

Tokyo.

Japan, you’re up next. Get some sushi and sake ready for me. I have no doubt that you’ll keep this amazing experience going.

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Happy Holi?

Kwaz and I had been looking forward to Holi since we started planning our India trip – we even moved our arrival back three weeks so the timing was right – so you can imagine our excitement when we put on our white shirts and colorful pants and set out to meet up with our friends from Delhi, who were staying at a different hostel nearby that had arranged for transportation to a celebration out near Amber Fort.

Which is why we were so disappointed when we never found the hostel. The wifi was down that morning, so we were going off of my memory from looking it up the day before. We knew we were in the right area so we started asking guesthouses and tuktuk drivers; either nobody knew this place (it was pretty new) or they pointed us in wrong and different directions. It was an hour before we gave up and took a helicopter ride back to our guest house. We knew they were celebrating there too, so we might as well make it to one Holi party.

This trip ended up being one of the highlights of the day. As we rode around tuktuks and motorcycles pulled up next to us yelling “Happy Holi!” and offering us colored powder. Our first color of the day, but nowhere near our last. We were even okay with being sprayed with blue water by the water-gun-wielding kids. Everything was exciting as the energy in the street grew around us. By the time we got back to the guesthouse we were ready to go, and happy to find the other guests on the roof all getting their colors on. Raman, the awesome manager, instantly fixed our too-clean problem by wiping large handfuls of green, yellow, and pink on our chins, and we joined in helping ourselves and everyone else get covered in color. Happy Holi!

We took to the streets, excited to see what this festival was all about, and headed for Raman’s suggestion of a party at the Tourist Information Center. The entire walk people stopped us to add to our rainbow, every time saying “Happy Holi!” as they put more powder on our faces. This is how people interact on Holi: by rubbing colored powder on first one side of the face, to the chin, and then the other, often followed by a hug and always by a “Happy Holi.” This is also unfortunately one of the reasons Holi has a bad reputation. I’ll get to that in a bit. For now though, we’re walking down the street and motorcycles and cars are pulling over to keep changing our colors.

Then we arrived at the Tourist Center. The beginning of the end of our Holi. Bus loads of Westerners in entirely clean all-white outfits were pouring into the party with their cameras ready. One even took pictures of me, the white girl who was already colorful. Policemen stood guard at the entrance, partly to protect the foreigners and partly to confiscate things like our whiskey, which he was convinced was wine. I’ve never seen such a horribly disapproving look; I thought I might get kicked out of India by this man. But he just kept on his disgusted face and threw it to the side, carefully watching us go inside. Once we made it inside we saw a big rectangular enclosure filled with sort of colorful foreigners, a few trying to dance to the live music that wasn’t nearly as upbeat as we were hoping for. This is the best party to go to? We all stopped and stared. It was where they sent the foreigners, the safe place to be, like we’d been quarantined away from the true Holi happening elsewhere in the city. At the time we were confused, even a little offended, and definitely not into this scene. Where was the excitement, the Bhangra dancing, the showers of powder, the locals?

We preferred the streets, so we left. It was getting later in the day, which means around 11 am, so our trip back to the hostel was a bit tougher than the way out. We started to see why Holi had gotten a bad rap. People were still enthusiastically powdering us but it felt more aggressive. If we stopped walking for more than two minutes we would be surrounded by men and their powder bags; we even got to the point of saying “uh oh” when a new car or bike pulled over and trying to move quickly so we were too far away by the time they could get out. Then the kids showed up with their water guns and pushy hugs and we actually broke out into a run to get away from them.

We needed a break. And some beers. We sought refuge on the roof of our guesthouse, where a cheerful group of teenagers (the restaurant employees) were dancing along to Bhangra music covering each other in green powder. Of course we joined in for a dance or two. We had planned to make it into the Pink City after we finished our beers but the prospect of going back out was too daunting, so we never did end up leaving the roof again.

The more I heard about Holi in both Jaipur and other places the more I realized two things: 1) we actually had a pretty positive day considering the possibilities, and 2) Holi is not for foreigners. We heard stories of girls who had been backed up against a wall, aggressively caressed in places that should not be touched by strangers, and fearfully trapped in groups of men. We heard most foreigners were sent to places like the tourist party so they were protected from the dangers of the day, and if they ventured out to try to find the local celebration it most often did not go well. We heard about policemen hitting people with bamboo canes if they got anywhere near a foreigner. We heard about the dark side of Holi, the reason that Pramod and Raman had told us to not go far from the guesthouse, stay together, and don’t be out on the streets after 12.

We were disappointed. What we had assumed would be a happy festival of vibrant colors had a dark side. Now we know. And considering the stories we heard, we now look back on our Holi experience more positively. We came out of it unscathed, except for the lingering dye on my feet and hair. Pink is the new blonde.

We Saw the Crazy Side of India in Jaipur

We went to Jaipur for one reason: Holi.

We had heard more than once that it was better to celebrate Holi in North India than South, so after consulting with some new hostel friends in Delhi, as well as a map, we landed on Jaipur as being our best option. To give ourselves enough time to celebrate properly, we arrived the day before Holi and left the evening the day after Holi, leaving a day on either end to explore Jaipur before and after the madness.

Or so we thought. We soon learned that the madness is constant in Jaipur. The city is a crazy, loud, congested, overwhelming place. Our tuktuk ride to the East Gate joined a constant stream of plenty of other tuktuks as well as motorbikes, cars, helicopters (their name for bikes pulling a 2-person cart), livestock, and camels. I repeat: camels. I really am in India.

Once inside the gate we slowly made our way through a bazaar, with one side of the street selling spices and the other cheap clothes. Vibrantly colored Holi powder was for sale everywhere. Walking down the sidewalk felt like a sport, like dodgeball but with people. We escaped to a rooftop for lunch; it was a quiet retreat with deliciously spicy food and cold beers, and it was hard to leave. Not realizing how long we’d been there, we didn’t make it to the City Palace in time to go inside, but even walking up to and around the area felt like we saw the Pink City, which is really more of an orange hue, but it was still cool to see an entire city zone painted one color with off-white accents. At least it was in the moments that I could look around me instead of focusing on the chaos I was attempting to move through.

The next day was the main event. Holi was an experience we could have never predicted, and for that it gets its own post. I’ll fast forward now to the day after Holi.

Kwaz got sick. Everyone says you will get sick in India, but for some reason you never believe them, so when it really does happen it sucks. I felt bad I couldn’t make it go away and she felt bad period. But we had one more day in Jaipur before our night train to Agra and she didn’t want to wallow in the sickness, I wouldn’t have either, so we chose to do a calmer tourist activity instead of braving the Pink City streets a second time. I guess we may never see what’s inside the City Palace, but we’re both okay with that.

We chose to get out of Jaipur center to the Amber Fort. Half an hour north of the city, the tuktuk ride to get up there was sightseeing in itself. We drove through a part of town that is home to the lowest caste in India. It looked like a farm emptied out onto the city streets; there were cows and pigs everywhere snacking on the garbage that lined both sides. The smell was strong and unpleasant, and the roads winding and bumpy.

The fort is huge. It sits impressively on top of a hill with Jaipur’s version of the Great Wall snaking out on the hilltops around it. From what we’d heard it would take three or four hours to explore the whole complex; we were done in one. Not to say that Amber Fort isn’t a pretty building that’s worth visiting, it totally is, it just didn’t take long to meander through the various courtyards and buildings. Also the temple was unfortunately closed from 12-4 so we missed out on that. But without a guide it was just up to us to explore at our own will, climbing up down and around to see the turkish baths, mirrored hall, green geometric garden (which was a jarring contrast to its dry tan surroundings), and elevated vistas on top of the walls. The Amber Fort was another historic building that was our playground for the afternoon.

It was the perfect amount of activity and leisurely pace for the day after Holi and the advent of Kwaz’s Delhi belly. On the tuktuk ride back we saw the Water Palace – a building in the middle of the lake, we still have no idea why it’s there and should probably look it up – and we thought we were going to a market, but instead our driver just took us to a textile shop where they told us “looking was free” but clearly just wanted to sell us things. We had no tolerance for this. Take us home now. It was an unfortunate ending to the day that made us happy to get out of Jaipur that evening.

Jaipur was exhausting. It was an entirely different experience than Rishikesh had been and showed us the side of India that people had warned us about. It’s hectic and sensory overload but I can’t fault it for that, I asked for it when I came here, so in some way I’m happy to have made it to Jaipur just to experience that India. And now I’m happy to move on and see other parts of it.

We Enjoyed the Calm Side of India in Rishikesh

I honestly had never heard of Rishikesh until Shambhala, but when a new friend told me “if there’s one place you go in India, go to Rishikesh” I knew it had to be added to my itinerary. I planned to spend a few days after Kwaz left chilling out there, but as soon as I told her that she expressed that she would also like to see it, so we changed around our plan to start in Rishikesh instead. Somehow I had completely forgotten Kwaz’s yoga passion; of course she should also go to Rishikesh.

I can’t imagine a better way to have begun our India adventures. Rishikesh is a picturesque, relaxed town in the foothills of the Himalayas that is centered around yoga, meditation, ayurvedic massages, vegetarian food, and outdoor excursions. It is on both sides of the Ganga river, so crossing a narrow pedestrian bridge is part of the daily routine. It’s also routine to share this bridge with monkeys, cows, and motorbikes. In fact monkeys and cows, as well as dogs, share the whole town with people, so you always have to be sure you don’t have anything in your hand that the aggressive monkeys will want to grab. One even tried to take food through a restaurant window one night. They’re actually kind of evil.

We made the best of our limited time in Rishikesh with a zen day, an active day, and an unfortunately wet and freezing day.

The day we arrived was the wet and freezing day. The overnight bus dropped us off before most guesthouses were even open, which didn’t really matter since we’d happened to overlap with the International Yoga Festival, so almost everywhere was completely full. Uh oh. For well over an hour in a constant dreary rain we walked up and down the small hillside streets, back and forth across the bridge, carrying all of our now-soaked possessions on our backs, looking for somewhere, anywhere, that had a bed, hot shower, and place to lay our stuff out to dry. In all my traveling and not-booking-in-advance experience, this is probably the worst time I’ve had trying to find a room. We had nearly given up when a very kind man told us actually yes he might have space for us, come back at noon to know for sure. This glimmer of hope kept us warm, along with a few pots of Masala chai tea and some porridge, as we hid inside Oasis Cafe until 12.

When we returned our new favorite person in Rishikesh greeted us with a big smile; we had a room. Thank god. The rest of the afternoon we scoped out town in the continuing bad weather, getting the lay of the land and information on activities for the coming days. Kwaz bought some colorful scarves. Town seemed quiet all day and even quieter after 6 pm when seemingly everything closed. That was fine with us, we planned to start the next day with some early yoga.

Our second day in Rishikesh felt like the definition of what a day in Rishikesh should be. We started with 9:00 am Sattva yoga, a type of yoga that was developed in Rishikesh and is described as follows: “In Sanskrit Sattva means whole, complete, truth, balance… A Sattva Yoga Journey is a journey into Self through asana, vinyasa, kriya, pranayama, free movement, and laya. Every class is unique and set to music and has a theme – flowing and shifting energy in the body, mind and spirit.” This sounded interesting, and it was, as well as challenging and freeing for the spirit and the body. A combination of yoga and meditation to the soundtrack of didgeridoos and drums – I couldn’t help but think of Shambhala once the music started – I loved it.

We came out of the hour and a half class relaxed and centered and ready for the day, which had decided to reward us with sun and blue skies. We celebrated this fortunate weather shift with brunch at Ganga Beach Restaurant, located on the riverbank looking out to the bridge and town above. Healthy fruit, muesli, and curd with chai tea and a beautiful view; we could get used to this life. Kwaz went to another yoga class (apparently pretty hard compared to the States) while I wandered around town. I discovered that Rishikesh is actually bustling when the weather is nice. It is also apparently a town that functions between 11 and 6, a fact I attribute to everyone starting their mornings in yoga classes and having to go to sleep early for the next morning’s routine. Kwaz and I met up again that afternoon for our ayurvedic massages.

Ayurvedic massage was another new massage style for me; it is an oil full-body massage dominated by repetitive rubbing of the limbs and back, complete with an oil head massage that left us looking stunning (sarcasm). After the hour was up, we may not have looked great, but we felt great. We returned to Oasis for a delicious and cheap Indian meal and more Masala chai. Did I mentioned Rishikesh has a ban on alcohol? There’s none allowed in town at all. So we drank tea the whole time. Lots and lots of chai tea.

Our last day in Rishikesh started early – 5:20 to be exact. We had signed up for a sunrise hike and despite the tired and cold (my feet were numb for at least an hour) it was a fantastic decision. We were up on the top of a mountain by the time the sun appeared over the ridged skyline; snow-capped Himalaya peaks were visible in the distance and we could see the shadow of the temple beside us at the top looming over the city of Rishikesh below. Our guide Pramod told us the legend of the temples in the mountains and took us inside, where we were all blessed, before leading us a down to our delicious breakfast of aloo parantha, nutella and bananas, watermelon, tomatoes and cucumbers, and chai tea. Then it was time to climb down.

The 6 hour downhill hike was gorgeous, and Pramod’s continued anecdotes were fascinating. We learned everything from the crops that are grown in this area to the story behind Holi to modern-day marriages in the mountain villages. For anyone who is looking to go for a hike in Rishikesh, or really any travel services, check out TrektIndia, I highly recommend them. Not only did they lead us on a great day hike but they helped us book transportation from Rishikesh to Jaipur and Jaipur to Agra, something that is surprisingly hard to do in India and will get a separate bitching post from me at some point in the near future.

We left Rishikesh on a night bus bound for Jaipur for Holi (another story that will be in the bus-bitching post), sad to say goodbye to a town that we had fallen for. What started out as a tough trek through the cold rain ended in a beautiful stay in a relaxing town. I’m incredibly happy we decided to start our time in India there; it was the perfect calm before the crazy storm that is the rest of North India. It introduced us to the contrasts of India – such as the experience of exiting our relaxing massage into the crazy motorcycle- and animal-congested loud streets – that we would soon discover only escalated as the cities got bigger.

So thanks friend who told me to go there. I will now be like you and tell everyone else who is going to India to go to Rishikesh. A zen atmosphere and beautiful surroundings are waiting for you there.