Final Thoughts about India and Nepal

Now that we are back home, recovering from the jet lag and my horrible cold, we have been discussing the questions that most people have asked us, namely, “What was the best and worst parts of the trip?”

Among the worst are the long flights, especially if you are in coach. An aisle seat is best, which I had going to India, but not returning. And, if you have an empty one or two next to you, even better. However, our flights were just about full each way. So, no luck with stretching out to sleep. Sleep came and went in small segments, which was helpful.

The best was seeing totally different lifestyles, customs, religious activities and rituals. Of course, you can’t discount the history of India, its magnificent architecture, the craftsmanship used in so many aspects of Indian life and the unique flavors of India. I loved Indian food before going, but the level of spice became an issue for me. Even “not spicy” meant about a 6 on a scale of 10. Lesson learned! I still cook Indian, but considerably milder in intensity.

What you notice most is the disparity between prosperity and poverty . In New Delhi, the boulevards are generous, the buildings pristine and you could be in almost any large city. In the older areas however, whether in Delhi or other towns, it is chaos, with  teeming tides of humanity, outrageous noise from honking horns and vehicles of every sort moving helter-skelter to get to their destinations. To see four or more people on a motorcycle, no helmet, barely holding on, was disconcerting, to say the least.

Jim describes the towns as bee hives, with everyone seeming to have a purpose, moving constantly and we were just the observers. It was a unique perspective. The volumes of people affect everything, mobility, infrastructure, day to day living… Families stay close and live multi-generationally. And, their Hindu beliefs are strong and deep, which also guides their lives and lifestyles.

Many friends have said that India was not on their travel radar, because they didn’t think they could handle the sites and sounds of this amazing country. You just have to keep an open mind. These differences are what make India unique and exotic.

Kathmandu was a stark contrast, in that you perceived order, road courtesy, admonition that honking was not allowed and helmets required by the driver, if not the passenger (no more than one). It was almost calm in comparison to India. The Buddhist influence also defined how they live their lives.

We would recommend this trip (and especially the tour company, Smartours) because of the excellent guides, the ease and professionalism. Their prices are very good, too. Thank you all for enjoying our trip with us. The next one is coming in the spring…

Kathmandu to JFK

It will be a very long day for our return flights. The 2-1/2 hours from Kathmandu to Delhi was nothing, very smooth. The seven hour layover in Delhi was not fun, but nothing compares to 15 hours in cattle car on the flight from Delhi to New York. If there was a way to upgrade, we would have done so, but fortunately, there were entertainment screens on the backs of the seats and we could watch movies and TV shows to our heart’s content.

That made the time fly, and if you fell asleep (hopefully), you could either go back to the parts you missed or just put your hands into prayer mode and thank the gods for providing sleep-inducing films.

Of course, meals were included, and a little strange, too. The omelette was okay, but chicken or veggie dishes were entirely too spicy for me to eat, particular while sitting for many hours in the window seat! There were many babies on board, and I guess no one told them that you can’t put disposable diapers into the toilets, so two of the bathrooms became unusable because the toilets were stuffed. Always, an adventure.

We finally landed 15 hours earlier than we took off, so it was Groundhog Day, reliving the same day over again. Our good friends picked us up at JFK and we drove to NJ for an overnight and to get a day to recover. The next day, October 31, we left from Newark and made it to Guadalajara in the evening. We took an Uber, which was great, and when we arrived, our house sitters opened the door to our house and the dogs went nuts greeting us! They wouldn’t leave our side the rest of the evening.

We were fortunate to find such good house sitters. They loved the dogs and the house was perfect. And, they love Ajijic, so we would recommend them highly – and they sit for no charge, as an opportunity to see the world and get their “pet fix” at the same time.

A day to do laundry and recoup and we are now getting ready for the arrival of my children and grand children this weekend for a week of fun in the sun and a celebration of our many November birthdays (mine being the most momentous).

I hope you enjoyed reading about our travels. I will attempt to fix the sideways pictures from the earlier posts. It is so much easier on a laptop than on an iPad mini! One more post to go, with our overall impression of the trip, the tour company and our guide. Thank you all for your patience!

Kathmandu – Day 2

Jim and the rest of the group left at 6:30 AM for the airport to fly above the clouds for a close up of Mt. Everest. There were at least six planes going up, one after another. The forty five minute flight was thrilling, and the weather cooperated perfectly. If you are wondering why I did not go, I can only say that I am a major weenie about small planes. The pictures are enough for me.

Congrats Jim

Once back, time for breakfast and off we went to visit some remarkable sites. First was a hilltop Buddhist temple, overlooking the Kathmandu valley. The Macaque monkeys were everywhere, so we had to ensure that we didn’t have any food they might steal from you.

Climbing the 60 or so steps took us to a variety of different temple areas. There were chanters, people making offerings, and many tourists, both foreign and domestic.

So many of the buildings suffered some damage from the earthquake. However, there is a huge effort to return them to their original splendor. It is tedious and will continue for a very long time. But, the eventual results will be worth it.

We moved on to another heritage site, with great detail. All the wooden pieces that were in excellent condition have been catalogued and will be ready to return to the buildings when ready. In the amazing museum, we lunched at a garden restaurant where you can even help “pluck” the lettuce for your salad. We didn’t have to, but the ambiance and flavors were excellent.

We then saw a mass of people, a parade, coming down the street. In the middle was a group of men carrying a woman. We found out that in Nepal, when someone turns 77 years, 7 months and 7 days, they are honored by this celebration. It was quite an opportunity.

Kathmandu – Day 1

What a difference a day makes! Nepal, a country of twenty million people, with Kathmandu as its bustling capital. Near the Himalaya Mountains, and most notably Mt. Everest, there are many similarities and many differences with their Indian neighbors. As a “sandwich” country between India and China, the people share many characteristics. Nepali, the official language, is very similar to Hindi. However, there are many dialects and languages used by the various areas of the country and people from different regions look quite different.

As chaotic as India’s roads were, Nepal is truly civilized. There are police officials directing traffic, intersections and lights where drivers allow others to enter, and a typical profusion of motorcycles and scooters. It is mandatory for the driver of any vehicle to wear a seatbelt or helmet, but not required for passengers. You will only see a maximum of two on a motorcycle, not four or more, as in India. Whew!

Since the earthquake a year and a half ago, there has been a tremendous amount of construction, both on buildings and roads. Slowly, they are catching up, but the damage was considerable, especially in the old parts of the city, where Buddhist temples and very old buildings came down altogether. The bricks and wooden beams have been catalogued to rebuild them meticulously, only with some unseen earthquake-proof measures.

Children’s clothing

Our first stop was a Buddhist temple that is very well known. It is the Great Bouda Stupa and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major destination for pilgrims from the Himalayas.

Because so many trekkers come to Nepal, there are many shops that sell  North Face clothing and accessories. They may be genuine or knock offs, but many of the items are made in Nepal, so they are priced at pennies on the dollar as compared to US prices. The windbreakers and puffy jackets were incredibly cheap. Caps and hats were $2-3 US. The quality was the same as anywhere.

And cashmere, whether in shawls or sweaters, was also very well priced. Jewelry and clothing are beautiful, but the people are the best, so kind and helpful. We spent most of the day visiting different temples and older areas, even eating lunch on the top floor of an old building with a great prospective of the nearby buildings.

18th century temple
Nepalese tunic

The Nepalese eat meat, unlike most of India, and beer and wine are generally available. Lamb and fish are pricey, but chicken and water buffalo are inexpensive. Jim had a buffalo burger for dinner and declared it tasty! The women wear a variety of dress, including the traditional Indian-type sari. However, mostly they wear long tunics with pants. They are usually of cotton, noin subdued colors, but not here.

Hard Yak Cafe

One couple in our group collects Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts and they thought there was one in Kathmandu. Turns out, no. But, there was something that would suffice.

We had a nice rest at the hotel, dinner and for almost everyone, except me, an early call to take a flight all around Mt. Everest to see it up close. Amazingly, there was no road to get to Everest until 1959, so provisions and gear were brought up by wagon and by sherpas. Hard to imagine!

Varanasi to Kathmandu

A seller of pots
Beautiful sunrise

After the emotional eremonies last night, we were ready to witness another daily Hindu ritual, bathing in the Ganges. We left before sunrise, with a beautiful sun to welcome us. As we walked from the street to the steps leading down to the river, we saw shops carrying pots of different sizes. These were for water from the river, which is sacred. Whether plastic, copper or brass, everyone gets the water to cleanse their bodies and make offerings to the gods.

The bathers

Our boat was powered by a motor this time, as we boarded to head to the same area as last night, where the majority of bathers were. The men stripped down, while the women went into the water in saris, dunking themselves totally, and some even swimming across the river. There were hundreds just on these steps alone.

 

After breakfast in the hotel, we got ready to fly to Kathmandu via New Dehli. Ravi takes care of getting our bags checked in with no worries about weight or transfers. It is such a pleasure to be pampered like this. He works very hard and after 21 years of being a guide, he still loves it.

We finally arrived in Kathmandu, along with other tourist groups and lots of young people (looked like trekkers) there for forty days or longer. You get the Nepal visa right in the airport and off we went, arriving at our hotel around midnight. The other groups had to schlep their bags, but not us! We were exhausted, but excited. Nothing to see at night, but tomorrow…?

 

 

Khajuraho to Varanasi

How lovely it was to have the morning open to relax, pack and get ready to depart for the airport for our 1-1/4 hour flight to Varanasi. I forgot to mention that yesterday afternoon, Jim and I went to a nearby shop to have some custom clothing made. The shop had beautiful fabrics in linen, silk and cotton, plus some pre-made clothing. The choices were amazing.

jim always wanted short sleeved linen shirts, so they measured and measured and voila, they came out perfectly. There was a rack of designs to help you create the garment you wanted, which helped a lot. I found a neckline, sleeve length and general shape for a top and had it made in two colors of linen and one in silk. There was a beautiful color of a very lightweight silk that caught my eye, so I designed a top and pants to bring home. All were completed a few hours later. With a little tweaking, the items look great.

We went to the airport and arrived in Varanasi in the late afternoon. A quick freshening and off we went in three auto-rickshaws to witness a ceremony that few see on the Ganges.

Without a doubt, it was the most exciting and frightening twenty minutes in our lives. We darted in and out between cars, motorcycles and other rickshaws, honking the horn non-stop, just like every other vehicle. I tried to video the experience, but had to use both hands just to hold on! The noise was deafening and the ride something we will never forget.

The crowds nightly

We boarded a boat, oared by two strapping young men, who took us to one of the gantts (docks) to see a fire ceremony that is performed nightly. One minute, the steps and plazas are empty and the next, they are filled with thousands of people, watching, praying and lighting candles that are floated in the water as a prayer.

Crematorium

Nearby, we passed a large area that cremates bodies 24/7, since there are a lot of Indians who have died and burial is not an option. A pyre is built and the body is placed on the wood. The ashes are put in the Ganges and the family mourns for one calendar year. They shave their heads in memory of their loved ones. We could only witness this from our boat, but it is quite a spectacle.

Candles in the water

We continued farther south along the river, watching the devotees place lit candles in the water as prayers for their loved ones. We did the same. This ceremony takes place nightly, with Hindus coming from all parts of India. I wish I could include many more pictures, but you can get an idea of the significance of the moment.

Our guide, Ravi, is from Varanasi and has witnessed these light ceremonies hundreds of times. He has never brought a group to see it, because they have been too large. We were the first! It was mesmerizing. Afterward, we had a beautiful dinner together overlooking the river, and a return trip on the auto-rickshaws back to our hotel.

Tomorrow morning, we have a 5:30 call to take another boat on the Ganges for a typical sunrise activity, bathing and sharing the sacred waters of the river as an offering to the gods.

 

Khajuraho

Our harrowing drive from the train in Jhansi to Khajuraho brought us to a very nice, tranquil hotel. The aroma of incense and sounds of flute and drum in the lobby made you feel like you were in a yoga studio. We needed that, for sure! A quiet dinner and bed.

Local bathers

The next morning, we slept in before heading out. The town is quite small, only 20,000 people. It is bustling for its size. There is a large lake where many residents bath to cleanse themselves before going to the temple. Walking around the center of town was a feast for the eyes and nose (some good some not so much).

Large temple

Khajuraho boasts an amazing park filled with Hindu temples. Only one is actually used for prayer. The largest is known for its intricate sandstone carvings of people, warriors, families and temptations. Many know that Khajuraho is also known for its acceptance of the Kama Sutra,  much of which is depicted in many of the carvings. And, it is very explicit. Puritanical USA would have a difficult time allowing such carvings on any public building.

Kama Sutra

The Kama Sutra is a guide to sexual positions and we decided that you either had to be a pretzel or  much younger than we are! In any case, the temples were very interesting.

In the afternoon, after lunch, we each had a massage and I had a facial. Both services were quite nice, but living in México, you get very spoiled with the pampering services, as well as the prices. It didn’t quite live up to my expectations, however I am not complaining about the opportunity to relax and absorb all that we have exped so far.  It did knock us both out, though. Tomorrow, we fly to Varanasi for our final day in India.

From Jaipur to Khajuraho

i have skipped a day of the blog, which I will send later, because yesterday was memorable. We left our hotel in Jaipur early to get our 8:00 train to Jhansi in central India. The first class train was okay, no chickens, cows or people hanging off of the roof! The countryside was all farms, reminding you that you could be almost anywhere.

Insanity at the Jhansi train station

 

Once we arrived, there was a tight gaggle of auto-rickshaw drivers vying for passengers. It could have been daunting had we not had a Smartours bus waiting for us. Yippee!

Our group on the huge bus

We left for lunch and a bit of sightseeing. Our bus was much larger than we needed and had what we believed to be no suspension system. The worst part was that it had no a/c. Luckily, the heat of the day wouldn’t hit until later, but you couldn’t open the windows either.

Ravi told our driver to get it fixed or get another bus. In the meantime, we ate some lunch and went to see a huge home from one of the shahs from the 1600’s.

Typical Shaw residence

There are so many monuments to history, but unless they are maintained by the country, the individual states can’t keep up with the renovations required, as it was in this site. Many have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, about 88 of them, and slowly, they are being brought back to their former glory.

After our visit, we were met with a different bus, even larger than the first. Great suspension, but it now required that it squeeze between the millions of motorcycles, each with a minimum of three on board, the auto-rickshaws, large trucks, many, many cows in the road, one lane bridges and two train crossings that added a minimum of forty minutes to our journey. And, with no visible lines to indicate lanes, which are probably only suggestions anyway, vehicles were coming right at us most of the time.

The Hindu temples

Sitting in the second row, gave us the unique prospective of seeing the oncoming traffic in vivid detail. It was absolutely frightening, and we had 4-1/2 hours of travel still to go! Pretty soon, we just closed our eyes and dozed, mainly to avoid the scary view through the windshield. By the time we reached the Radisson Hotel, it was dark and we were spent emotionally! A light dinner and a lovely bath and off to bed.

Jaipur to Agra

After breakfast, we loaded our van and headed through the quiet streets of Jaipur to the highway connecting us to Agra.

Typical market

It will take all day, due to the distance, but also due to the stops to see special sights along the way. The streets were uncharacteristically empty because this was the last day of Diwali and on this day, sisters visit their brothers and bring more and more sweets.

Making candy

The sugar rush must be out of sight, but all the markets carry a huge assortment of sugary items. 

Our first stop was to another artisan place, where we saw rugs being hand knotted, which is quite different than hand “made.” Each tuft is tied individually and it can take a very long time to complete, sometimes a year or more.

Knotting the rugs

Once finished, the next difficult task is to take a pair of flat scissors to cut the tufts, so they are all the same length. Then, the rug is turned over and a seasoned artisan uses a blow torch to burn the knots, so the rug will never slide, even on polished floors.

Blowtorching the rug

The next step is to wash the rug with lots of water, using a wooden squeegee to remove as much water as possible. The rug is

Removing the water from rug

allowed to dry in the sun. The colors will never fade.

We saw raw gem stones being cut and polished for jewelry and other adornment by men who sit cross legged for hours on end. How they can do this is beyond my understanding. The work is tedious and time consuming and these men apprentice with their fathers and grandfathers for years.

Block printing

Other artisans create blocks to print cotton and silk fabric. It is a multi-stage process, with each block adding more color and depth. Once dry, the fabric is dipped in a vinegar and water solution to set the dyes, then washed. The color changes are dramatic and the elephant is the most popular motif.

The final colors

We moved on to the City Palace, a place rarely visited by tour groups, because the Palace can’t handle crowds. In the Palace, you see the armaments for the time, the

Palace Museum Guards

halls where the heads of state entertained and the opulent lifestyles. Not much was spared. The guards were very colorful!

Palace Museum

Our next destination was to the train to take us from Jaipur to Agra. The two hour trip went mainly through well-tended farm land. We ended up at the Jhansi station, which was very chaotic, as auto-rickshaw drivings were vying for our attention as potential riders. Yippee, our bus was waiting for us and off we went for the four hours to Agra.

Believe me, when I say that those four hours, particularly since it was getting dark, was harrowing, at best. Motorcycles, cows, cars and buses coming at you in your lane… It was not for the faint of heart. Finally, I just had to bury myself in my book and not watch. Our saving grace was arriving at our beautiful hotel in Agra, to rest after the bus ride. Tomorrow, on to the Taj Mahal!

 

Agra and the Taj Mahal

Jaycee Palace Lobby

After our harrowing drive from Jaipur to Agra, this morning, we were enthusiastically excited to go to the most iconic symbol of India. We left our beautiful hotel quite early to arrive before the many tour groups and general visitors make the site a mob scene.

Entry building

There was a beautiful sandstone building to welcome you. As we entered, our destination was readily visible through the archway. Ravi gave us many details of its origin, specifics about its construction and how it is revered in India.

The lines of humanity went all around the building, but we got in immediately. While you can take pictures almost anywhere, no photos are allowed inside the building. However, it didn’t deter many Indians from doing so.

The Taj Mahal

When you enter, you are surprised to see that the domed ceiling is quite low and the inside area small compared to the massive outside. The tall central dome is actually a double dome, so if the outer dome is damaged, as it was at one time by lightening, the inner dome protects the inside. There are two crypts in the center, but it is only a depiction. The actual remains are below ground. Everyone moves very slowly as they view the crypts and marvel at the intricate carvings in the marble.

Detail of the marble

The marble used comes from a quarry in India that is known for its unique  properties . It is non-porous, has little veining and is unlike marble anywhere else in the world. The Taj Mahal took seventeen years to build, with paid artisans working full time, just to honor the Mogul’s wife. You can’t help but be affected by this vision.

 

Beautiful stones
Table top

We moved on to visit a factory that uses the same marble in unique ways, embedding semi-precious stones in the designs. They use white, black and green marble in their tables, boxes and other decorative items. The artists work with a grinder that is hand driven to create the pieces to fit into the designs. Using malachite, lapis lazuli, carnelian and mother of pearl, these are works of art. And, they ship all over the world for free!

Fort in Agra

Our next stop was a huge fort nearby. It protected the area from invaders and looked like something out of a Monty Python movie. There was a moat around it, plus openings in the walls to pour hot oil on their enemies. The interior gardens were lovely and there were views of the Taj through the many windows. Another great day!