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Helloooo Thailand!

Bangkok & Hua Hin - By Melanie


Thailand is a mere two hour flight from India, but it feels like we are in an entirely new world. Bangkok is ultra modern and squeaky clean (we were elated by the cleanliness, along with hot water showers and toilet paper in public bathrooms). The people are shorter, smile more, speak far less English, and wear stylish western clothes. We arrived at 4:30pm, sailed through immigration, luggage collection and out to the taxi stand. In India as soon as we stepped off a bus we were swarmed by frantic rickshaw drivers desperate for our fare. I laughed out loud when I saw all of the Thai taxi drivers patiently waiting in line for their next customers, rows of neon pink Toyota cabs neatly parked behind them.
Our family friends, the Bakers, lived just outide of Bangkok for 11 years while working at the International School of Bangkok. Daniel Baker happened to be back in Thailand for a visit and was up for travelling with us for few days. We got some vague directions to the hotel he booked for us and jumped into the cab. The sun set as we cruised into Bangkok proper. Buddhist temples and skyscrapers mingled across the neverending skyline. We were all riding high, just overwhelmed with excitement to be in a new country, until we ran smack into a rush hour deadlock. We did not move an inch for 45 minutes. Had we any idea of where we were going, we would have climbed out of the cab and walked. The car finally started moving (stop and roll 15 feet before stopping again) and 30 minutes later we arrived at the hotel (we think about 3 blocks from where we first hit traffic). Throughout the entire traffic jam, we did not hear one honking car horn. Not one! Coming from India, where incessant (and generally unnecessary) honking is a rite of the road, the silence that blanketed the Thai traffic jam seemed almost uncanny.

Dan took us to a glitzy shopping mall so we could eat in its swanky food court. I have been looking forward to the wide rice noodles for months and was enamored with my meal. Brie and Swhite ordered noodles and GREEN SALAD. Eating crisp, fresh vegetables (with no fear of them being washed in dirty water) was practically thrilling.

After dinner we met up with some of Dan's friends from school at a posh bistro-pub. Comparing ourselves to the clean cut and hip Thai style, all three of us felt out of place in our hippie/India traveler apparel. Our first order of business on day two in Thailand was to buy clothes that we felt cute in. After seven weeks of being dirty, grimey, and fully covered from shoulders to knees, wearing skirts and tanktops is completely liberating. Much more so than I would have expected, donning clothes that exhibit personality and style infused us with renewed energy.
We had delicious street food (I LOVE RICE NOODLES!) and visited the Jim Thompson House, the traditional Thai home of an American who made it big in Thailand by exporting silk. He opened his home to the public as a museum, and then disappeared into the Malaysian jungle. Interesting tidbit: framed in one of Thompson's rooms was an astrological reading warning those born in the year of horse of the age 61. Jim Thompson was born in the year of the horse and was 61 when he vanished into the jungle.
On Wednesday evening we took a shared minivan from Bangkok to Hua Hin, where the Bakers have a condo. Brie and I spent much of the 2 hour ride listening to a Thai Survival Phrases podcast. We were whispering quizzes to eachother in the van, being as discreet as possible, but we could tell the passengers in the front seat were amused by our efforts.

It was so nice to be in a HOME again! With comfy beds, silverware, and couches to lounge on. The view from the 15th story condo balcony:

Dan arrived the next afternoon. We rented scooters and rode out to a beach south of Hua Hin.
The water was the warmest natural body of water I've ever been in! It felt fantastic! The entire time we were in the water there was a group of little Thai boys (maybe aged 4 to 6) waving excitedly at us. Once they got our attention, the pulled down their pants do shake their privates.
Our last night was spent dancing to American pop songs by a Thai cover band. There were actually quite good! The seven piece band was energetic, stylish and even got the crowd involved. Tecno dance beats seem to rule everywhere but the US so it was so fun to rock out to some Katy Perry "California Gurls".

Posted by 3ifBySEA 22:35 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Alvida India!

Kolkata - by Melanie

sunny 92 °F

Our final overnight bus ride, from Siliguri down to Kolkata, was by far the worst. Brie compared the blaring horn to (how we would imagine) the horrific moans of a dying herd of beasts. The driver layed on the horn all night long, a necessity since he was constantly baring down the smaller, weaker vehicles in his path. The curtains running along both sides of the sleeper berths were strung up like a shower curtain, metal rings on a metal rod. As the bus careened over the uneven highway, the curtains clattered like toolboxes full of nails being violently shaken just over our heads. Needless to say, we were relieved to arrive in Kolkata.

My friend Mandy in Ahmedabad gave me the name and number of another Fullbrighter, Jordan, in Kolkata. He offered to make the two hour trek from the suburbs to hang out downtown with us. Jordan was a fascinating character, seemingly full of contradictions, and a prime example of how wrong first impressions can be. He strolled up wearing a long sleeve plaid shirt tucked into a belted pair of jeans, an uncomfortably hot ensemble in the smoldering sun and smog of the city. He speaks fluent Bengali (along with four other languages), constantly has either chew in his cheek or a cigarette dangling from his lips, teaches literature and poetry at a prestigious university (for fun), was a kickboxer, habitual barfighter and philosophy major, and is a member of Hell's Angels (it runs in the family). It turned out that the long sleeve shirt in the sweltering weather was just to cover up his Angel's induction tattoo. Oh, and he was also recovering from a bout of Dengue fever, familiarly called "bone breaking fever" in Bengali.

We went to a botanical garden and saw the world's largest Banyan tree. This photo is all one tree! It covers 1.5 hectares.
Sunday was the last day of Durga Puja, Kolkata's largest festival. Each para, groups of 20-30 families, contructs a pandal - a temporary marquis made of fabric wrapped around a wooden frame (I read that some of the pandals have corporate sponsors, so they become wildy extravagant). In the center of each pandal is an elaborately ornate papermache idol of Durga, the festival's featured goddess.
There are festivities every night for 5 days, all culminating with bringing the Durga idols to the Hooghly River to plunge them into the sacred waters. We went to Babhughat along the river to watch as trucks carrying upwards of twenty hooting and hollering Indians pulled up with their fantastically adorned deities.
Many of the idols are not merely of the ten-armed Durga herself, but also an entourage of family members clustered into the scene of Durga's epic battle. Groups of men heaved the hulking idols from the truck beds onto their shoulders and hurried through the crowds to chuck the statues into the water.
Several of the spectators were covered in bright pink or purple powder. Tea stalls and snack vendors lined the river. Snare drums and excited shouts rang in our ears. The dunking of the deities is a regular event in India. It was perfect that we were able to enjoy the experience on one of our last nights. (The following day I read that over 90 truckloads of soggy idols were hauled out of the river.)
Fellow travelers and guidebooks had warned us about the extreme poverty in Kolkata. Honestly, during our two days in Kolkata we stuck to the Sudder Street area, the traveler-friendly, historic center of the city. On the brink of our move to Thailand, we were all content to take it easy. Our last day was spent on a Bollywood movie, seeking out our favorite Indian sweets, and thoroughly lavishing in one final Indian feast.

I want to mention that, along with personal experiences and observations, the thoughts shared on India in "What I Learned in Ahmedabad" were largely a reflection of the book I'm reading, The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple. It's a fascinating read that I highly recommend. At times the book is depressing, as it details so many scenes of corruption, violence, and "backwardness". These images were heavy in my mind when I was writing the last post. The book also introduces India's first rockstar, Baba Sehgal (a devout and witty rap-rocking Sikh) and first trashy romance novelist, Shobha Do - whose novels overtly mirror real personalities of Bombay's social elite.

There is so much going in India - sights, smells, people, cows, religion, progress, change - it's overwhelming. I plan on continuing to read about contemporary India, both news and commentary, and look forward to coming back someday. I would imagine that while some things will be exactly the same - as they have been for 5,000 years - in a country as bursting at the seams with people and hopes of a better future, my second trip to India will be an entirely new experience.


Posted by 3ifBySEA 00:34 Archived in India Comments (2)

Don't know what you got til' it's Ghandi

Varanasi, Darjeeling, Pelling - by gabrielle

overcast 68 °F

It's hard to believe it's almost time to leave India. After many loud, colorful, eye opening weeks we are ready for round two of our trip starting in Bangkok. But first, here's a summary of some of the last couple places we visited in India along with some of my final thoughts.

Varanasi-Uttar Pradesh
Every other traveler we have met around India has had a pretty strong opinion about Varanasi, mostly discouraging us from spending too much time there. Unfortunately, we had braced ourselves for the worst to such an extent that we only stayed two nights and didn't venture too far from the main ghats(steps or landing on a river) and our hotel which we now think may have been a mistake for such a peculiar place.
Situated on the west bank of the Ganges River, Varanasi is one of the holiest places in India for Hindus. Hindus travel from all over to bathe in the holy river as it is believed to wash away a lifetime of sins. Further, dying and being cremated by the river frees a person from the cycle of death and rebirth according to Hindu belief which is why many Hindus try to hang on until they have made the final pilgrimage. The bodies are wrapped in different colored fabrics (white for men, gold for old women and red or bright colors for younger women) and carried down to the river through the narrow alleys of the city on a bamboo stretcher. Once they arrive at the river bank, the bodies are doused in the water of the Ganges and placed on a carefully crafted wooden structure to insure that the entire corpse is incinerated. We were told that the family pays about 4 to 6 thousand rupees or $85-130 dollars for a proper ceremony. If they cannot pay, the cheaper option is a quicker, Westernized system of cremating with the ashes spread in the river later.
We took a boat ride at sunrise to see all the activity along the river and I was half hoping no funerals would be happening when we passed. Even though our guide book referred to Varanasi as "unapologetically indiscreet" I felt our presence there might be offensive or disruptive. I was a bit relieved when we passed a "burning ghat" that had nothing more than a few piles of ashes and some left over decorations. Our rower was an interesting chap who told us a few tidbits about the city but we mainly talked about marriage. He asked if we were married and if our marriages would be arranged. When I said no he seemed pretty surprised and even offered to arrange my marriage for me if i came back... or he offered to marry me I'm not totally sure. I also got quite the eyebrow raise when I said it was possible to have something like seven boyfriends before marrying. Either way it's easy to forget that "our way" is just as weird to them as theirs is to us.
Darjeeling, West Bengal

We had originally planned to go to Nepal for our last week but decided the possible border hassle and travel time wasn't worth it for the time we had left. Instead we went up to the far northeast to Darjeeling. Darjeeling is a fun little place tucked up in the foothills of the Himalayas where on our two clear days we had spectacular views of Khangchendzonga, the world's third highest mountain peak and the tallest in India.
On the train from Varanasi, Melanie sat by a family with an adorable four year old son. We went to breakfast with the family before catching out jeep to Darjeeling and two things Ram (the dad) said really stood out to me. First, he was talking about other people visiting India and how if you can handle traveling here, you can travel anywhere because of the overall lack of order and all that comes with it. He said, "it's good for you guys to suffer because your life in the US is too good." We have hardly suffered by actual standards but I'd be lying if I said traveling through the country has been a breeze. You can't expect or even demand toilet paper or soap in bathrooms, fair prices, a harassment free walk down the street, punctuality of transportation, customer service or even a strait answer. So yes, I agree with Ram that it is important for us to "suffer" by our standards a bit and experience a way of life so completely different from our own. I think that's the basis of why I like to travel, I am so curious about how other people live their lives everyday in a way that is just so foreign.
Ram also discouraged us from giving food or money to the poor who approach us begging each day. He said if we give them anything we are enabling them and they will never be forced to change their lives. This one is hard for me because I know I am so much better off than them and they know it too just based on the color of my skin being a foreigner and the fact that I can afford to travel. Generally I would just look at them and shake my head, I probably only gave about 10 people money the whole trip and it was usually mothers with babies. Ram also said not to look the people in the eyes because then it's harder to say no. This part was too much for me. My roommate when I studied abroad in the Dominican Republic told me when we dealt with the same situations that "everyone deserves to be acknowledged as a human being." She is right and since then I have tried to always look people in the eyes, even if I am saying no. It's heartbreaking because i want to do something to help but feel overwhelmed by the need and fear that it would never be enough. This is definitely an aspect of travel in developing countries that I still need to work through and decide how I'll respond.
Back to our time in Darjeeling;It was a bit chilly up in the mountains and we were surely not prepared with our desert wardrobes. Most days we sported multiple layers of baggy, brightly colored clothing, socks with sandals and fuzzy animal earmuffs we bought for less than a dollar from a refreshingly non pushy street vendor; a sight to behold for sure. We wondered if people thought that this was how we normally dressed where we came from or if they assumed we were just unprepared for the cooler temperatures...yikes! We spent our four days in Darjeeling wandering around checking out monasteries, going through the Himalayan Mountaineer Institute museum, doting on the fluffy red pandas at the zoo, climbing up to various viewpoints around town one of which had a 20 foot concrete t-rex (random), waking at sunrise to try and catch a glimpse of the Himalayas before the clouds settled in and dominating some delicious food. All in all, a relaxing much needed change of pace for a few days.
Pelling, Sikkim

From Darjeeling we ventured even further northeast to the newest Indian state of Sikkim. Sikkim is bordered by Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan and was only annexed in 1975. The people here look and act nothing like those we encountered in the rest of the country. Most appeared to be of Nepalese or Tibetan origin, spoke Nepali or a local language instead of Hindi, dressed more stylishly western, seemed visibly happier, healthier and more content and were not aggressive or pushy in the slightest.
I got miserably carsick winding up and down the mountains to our Sikkim destination called Pelling but was rewarded by fresh mountain air and beautiful scenery once we finally arrived. The town consisted mostly of restaurants and hotels that couldn't possibly survive on the sparse number of tourists who visited. There were barely any souvenir or knickknack shops and we had the darndest time finding a piece of fruit or a phone. Our first day we decided to make up our own trekking route down the mountain to a river we spotted from above. We found some clear paths but mainly walked through various terraced crop fields and peoples' property. They seemed confused but not entirely shocked to see foreigners exploring the area and were happy to wave and talk to us a bit. Our best encounter by far was at a lopsided hut by the creek where a woman in her late 70's or 80's erupted into dance when she saw us! She emerged from the hut with a huge smile on her face and motioned for us to take her picture while she twirled and swayed and hummed to herself. She was so adorable and full of energy! With her were two young children, an infant and a teenage girl. I have no idea where the men of the family were or how often they leave their hut if ever but she was certainly happy to see us. It definitely made my day. :)
I celebrated my 23rd birthday on Friday and was treated by my crew to some lovely colored toilet paper streamer decorations on our breakfast table. The hotel staff even added a small vase of flowers and a candle to top it all off! We spent the rest of my birthday sitting on an abandoned buildings' foundation enjoying the view and eating cookies. Later in the evening we watched "Up" in English! A good day with dear friends, I was happy.
We left Pelling in the rain early Saturday morning to journey to our final destination in India, Calcutta. All three of our assigned seats on the bus were either double booked or occupied by someone without a ticket hoping no one else would show up. The bus was packed so my seat ended up being the single seat right in front of the door by the driver. I was the only one with an assigned seat but still shared half the seat with a 13year old boy and the area in front and to the side with a family of four and another 14 year old boy. The 14 year old boy, Probin was so impressive and wise for his age. He told me about his school which taught both spiritual studies (mainly Buddhism) as well as general education. He said his daily schedule is to get up at 5am, wash his face, chant mantras until 8:30am, eat breakfast, have regular non religious class until 3:30pm then more mantra chanting. He said his favorite subjects are math and science so I asked him if he wanted to be a doctor and he said, "no, I want to help India." The boys had a break from school and were heading to their hometown to dance in a Hindu festival. I asked if they were Buddhist or Hindu and he said, "both. some people think their god is the big god but I think they are all good. it's not good to have any negative thoughts." One of his instructors was sitting/standing right behind me and would chime in every once and a while and tell me more about the school. I found out mainly orphans attend but my new friend did have parents, I also found out they are not allowed to speak Nepali at school (English only except Tibetan for mantras) and if they are caught they have to wear a certain hat until they next student gets caught and they can pass it on. When Probin asked about me I told him I was traveling and then would return to the US for a while to find a job, his response was simply, "oh that's good. I will pray for you." I really enjoyed talking to him and was so blown away by his respect, wisdom and attentiveness to our conversation. Once he got off the bus his little friend scooted over to share the seat with me and we shared my ipod while he grooved and bobbed his head to my country music. They were a perfect distraction from my severe leg cramp and fear of the windy road ahead.
Now that it is almost time to leave India I still maintain a neutral position on the "love it or hate it" spectrum and feel my time here and experience was just right. I will surely miss the Bollywood movies, music and gossip but will find a way to keep up on all the juice! The cashew nut gravy, squishy short bread sweet and head wobbles will also be greatly missed. So long India, hello Thailand!

Our photo gallery is updated too! http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/3ifbysea/

Posted by 3ifBySEA 19:16 Archived in India Comments (2)

What I learned in Ahmedabad

by Melanie

Hindu-Muslim tensions are a prominently recurring issue in India. The largest political party here, the BJP, refers to India as Hindustan. The roots of a closely aligned group go back to 1930s and are modeled after (and with great admiration for) Hitler's Germany. I don't know enough to write about it intelligently at this point, but some of the commentary I've been reading is frightening. Violence and corruption are rampant here. When protests and riots flare up, and they do regularly, whoever is the current object of disdain (be it a caste or religion) is often left with no protection.

Ahmedabad is home to India's largest Muslim population. In 2002 in north Gujurat, a train full of young Hindu Nationalists went up in flames on its way to a highly contested site between Hindus and Muslims called the Ayodhya temple. Though the cause of the fire was never confirmed, the Hindus of Ahmedabad were furious. Riled by nationalist, and AIDED by the local government, there was a horrific killing spree in Ahmedabad. Thousands of Muslims were murdered. Women were raped and then burned alive. Children were not spared. Mobs rampaged through Muslim areas for 5-10 days. The police did nothing. I saw a photo of a man pleading for his life. I don't know what happened to him, but I was nearly in tears in the bookstore. Knowing how ruthless the mobs were, I don't think there is anyway he survived.

In Ahmedabad some rickshaw drivers refused our fare if it meant driving into areas of the city not populated by people of their faith. There has been peace since 2002, but people certainly have not forgotten. While I was there a 60 year old trial - regarding the Ayodhya site - was to be read. Several Indian states shut down all businesses and closed all public offices and schools for the day to minimize people in the streets. Because of the 2002 "riots" in Ahmedabad, the Saath office emptied early so employees could be home safely in case any violence broke out. I think it was mostly an excuse for people to go home early, but some employees did live across the city and wanted to err on the side of caution. I was in a very safe (Hindu) neighborhood. I walked home that day and everything looked entirely normal. Though the entire country was on edge, or at least the media portrayed it as such, I didn't see any reports of unrest. The verdict granted some land to Hindus, and some to Muslims.

The information above is extremely brief, but I wanted to include it because I am realizing how significant of an issue this is in India and in Ahmedabad in particular.
My volunteering stint turned out as well as it could have given that I was only in the office (or on site visits) for eight out of the fourteen days that I was "based" in Ahmedabad. Between the microfinance office being busy with consultants, me going to Udaipur (worth it!), Ghandi's birthday, and fear over the Ayodhya verdict, neither Saath nor I gave my project undivided attention. Despite the seemingly insufficient time period, I accomplished what I set out to do in Ahmedabad. I experienced India more profoundly than someone merely passing through normally could. I had conversations without a price tag. Though India is incredibly vast and complex, I feel like I have a much better understanding of why it churns, surges, and stagnates like we've observed time and again.

There are over one billion people in India. With this massive population, and relatively limited opportunity, there is constant pressure to gain and succeed, if not just to survive. Everyone is striving to better their lot, no matter how good it is or isn't. Rushir and his family are well off. They have enough money to travel the world, for him to attend grad school in the US, and to donate 1 million rupees to the building of a new Jain temple across the street. The hospitality kids in Mt Abu had all moved away from their families to secure more respectable and stable positions (housekeeping) and to make money in the city. They are examples of the successful part of the perpetual urban migration in India.

The vast majority of people moving to the cities, though, are uneducated villagers who flock to urban centers and fill up the slums that are fanning out from all major cities. The microfinance employees at each of the branches are all from the slum areas that they work in. These women were nothing like what I'd expected. Most of their families had been in Ahmedabad for at last one generation, and had left school after 7th or 10th grade (a few had college degrees). Though I didn't understand a word said in the branch offices, it was clear that the women were quite competent. They spoke with confidence. They were business minded, with ideas for expanding the branch clientele and more efficiently communicating with the head office. It is overwhelming to think of all the talent lost to poverty: brilliant minds, gifted athletes, generous hearts that have no opportunity to develop and achieve.
The Ahmedabad slums were not the worst off. The microfinance clients lived in sprawls of rundown cement houses winding around pot hole ridden dirt roads. They weren't the tin and tarp shanties that we saw in Mumbai and all over the countryside. I was invited into one home that was nice and clean, linoleum floors and sufficient furniture. My guess is that it's one of the nicer houses in the area.
Constant physical reminders of the push to achieve more are the omnipresent advertisements we see for classes and professional training: English language, MBAs, and various diploma courses. There is a huge industry built up around teaching people what they need to know to somehow move up in the world. Everyone is grappling for a rung on the ladder, something that will make them successful. We've had a couple rickshaw drivers who said that they were "fashion designers". A hotel manager explained that he was in tourism before he decided to take a course to transition into hotel management. There are only a handful of scholarships here, so only the wealthy can afford the best schools, and competition is always fierce. Rushir told me that his high school was more difficult than the American masters program.

Indians don't quit their jobs to travel the world and figure out what they want to do with their lives. I am so thankful that I'm from a culture where there is more professional freedom and opportunity, where wanting a personally fulfilling job is not a ridiculous concept. I was able to work and save for this trip, and I'll be able to return and find a new job, likely in an entirely different field. All of this would be nearly impossible and entirely unacceptable for an Indian.
I decided to cut my time in Ahmedabad short for several reasons. I realized after only a few days that I don't want to go into microfinance. To work in development, in the trenches of developing countries, you have to passionately want to be there and be making a difference. Though I think microfinance is an amazingly effecting way to help people help themselves, it's not something that I want to devote myself to. That being said, I'd made a commitment to Saath and still wanted to complete my project. The problem was that I was trying to rush to finish so I could meet up with the girls again, but rushing was not possible when I depended on translators who had their own jobs to complete.

In the end I visited two branches, the newest and one of the oldest offices. One in a Hindu area, one in a Muslim community. We interviewed all of the employees about their job descriptions, and gathered as much information about the area as possible. It was frustrating to hear minute long responses to my questions in Gujurati, and then get 15 second translations in English. It would have been much more educational if I could have understood everything being said, both for understanding how the branches work, and to pick up on the attitudes and opinions of the employees. I took what I could and wrote up socio demographic descriptions of the two areas (which was the most interesting part) and the challenges each branch is dealing with at this point. I put together an excel document that compared what employees in the same positions at different branches considered to be their job responsibilities. The purpose was for the head office to be able to see were discrepancies are forming, and then eventually implement standardize operations across all the branches. On my last day at Saath an English girl (who speaks Gujurati) showed up to volunteer for a couple of weeks. It sounded like she will pick up where I left off, using the same format and method that I'd established. I left feeling good that what I'd started was going to be seen through to completion.

Fatiwade Branch
Vasna Branch
I met some other Americans in Ahmedabad doing internships that sound horrible. People fly all the way over here expecting to get quality experience, and then get plunked down in a call center or laden with an array of other menial tasks. I feel very lucky that Saath gave me such a meaningful experience. I was introduced to all of their urban programs, had conversations about the future of Saath and NGOs in general, and was given a task that was actually beneficial to the organization. All the while I was engaging with Indians on level not readily reached when traveling through India. Ahmedabad treated me well.

Posted by 3ifBySEA 23:23 Archived in India Comments (4)

Jaisalmer and Agra

by sarah

sunny 105 °F

Holy smokes the desert is hot! Every new city we went to got progressively hotter, and getting to Jaisalmer was no exception. It was around 100-108 the whole time we were there. At first this made us pretty nervous for our upcoming camel safari, but once we had all of our long sleeved tops, long trousers and head scarves we were ready (and it turns out that being fully clothed does make you cooler, who knew?). We met up with Melanie once again in Jaisalmer along with our friend Mike and a new friend Ross. Our first day there we decided skip the sights and head to the pool, which was a nice relief from the heat. We also knew we would be in the sun for the next day and a half so it was nice to relax there before heading into the desert.
The next day was our camel safari. We took a one hour car ride packed in like sardines and listening to bollywood tunes, out of the city to meet the camels that we would ride for the day. Mine was named Bonnie, G's was Philco and Mel's was Charlie. They were all realted somehow, but don't really remeber, but they were awesome!
Camels are pretty much the coolest animals ever. They are super obedient and relaxed. Riding a camel is another story though. Everyone we spoke to said that they are pretty uncomfortable to ride, so I was prepared for the worst. At first I didn't understand what everyone was talking about, but after about half and hour, with a little camel running in between, I began to realize. I thought it might be a bit like a horse, but there were no stirrups and you couldn't move with the animal at all. Our friend Mike was pretty afraid of his cheap new trousers ripping during the trip, and all it took was the first attempt getting on the camel for the whole crouch to rip out...pretty hilarious.
Luckily our ride wasn't too long before our 'lunch and siesta session' that turned out to be a 4 hour stop, sadly with no where to sleep. But no worries, I managed to take my nap laying the in dirt anyway! After our extended stop we rode the camels through the desert, which we thought would be the rolling sand dunes you see on TV, but turned out it was just dry land with cacti here and there. It was still a cool experience. And shortly after our ride started we spotted some sand dunes in the distance that were a welcome sight. We set up camp there and got a chance to play in the sand, and of course take some more awesome powerkick shots. (including the awesome one of my silhouette that I'm sure you've all seen :) ). We lounged around for some more before heading over to the 'sunset spot', which was just the next dune over, but still a very pretty sight.
As it got darker we continued to chill out around the camp while our camel drivers prepared our dinner of boiled potatoes, rice and bread...mmm carbs. We were told that this is what you eat on a camel safari. So after loading our plates with salt, we dug in listening to the sounds of one of the drivers, Daniel, sing tradition songs. (He also treated us with his rendition of 'Barbie Girl' on the way in that was "I'm the camel man, in the bloody sand...imagination, life is your creation...") Very entertaining to say the least.
Once it was completely dark the stars came out and it was amazing! However, so did the HUGE dung beetles that were rolling around carrying camel poop, niiice. It was so cool though to be outside of a city and see sooo many stars. After a while our camel men set up the beds, which consisted of the saddle padding we used to ride there with, nothing like sleeping on camel sweat! It was pretty nice to sleep under the stars though, and even better not to wake up every ten minutes dripping with sweat.

The next day we rode (well, sprinted back on our camels) back to the starting point. That was pretty painful, and one of our friends even said that he is pretty sure he pulled his groin, and is now infertile.
We got back to Jaisalmer pretty early that day and Melanie, Mike and Ross decided to go to Jodhpur to do the ziplining Gabrielle and I had done. So we separated (for the last time, we promise). And Gabrielle and I spent the day in Jaisalmer avoiding going outside because of the heat. Eleven pm that night we started our 22 hour journey to Agra.
After two trains and a four hour layover we arrived in Agra only an hour later than schedule. We had read and were told that a rickshaw to our hotel from the station should be between 30 - 50 Rupees (just under $1). We had also read and heard that Agra is one of the worst places for touts and scams. As soon as we stepped outside the station we were of course swarmed by drivers. When we asked the price we received varying offers from 100 - 300 Rupees. Of course we were annoyed and knew that they were trying to cheat us. We kept asking around and getting the same answer, and had this small little man following us everywhere, shouting things at the other drivers in Hindi. We continuously asked him to leave us alone but he was relentless. He kept saying that he was president of the rickshaw association, and that every ride had to be cleared through he. Again, we asked him to let us be and find our own ride but he followed us everywhere. We finally found a driver who would give us a 'fair price' of 50 Rupees. The little man though was not happy about this, and continued to barricade our rickshaw. We could tell that he was angry that our driver was willing to give a lower price, and continued to say that we couldn't leave until he gave us the okay. Our driver attempted to leave, but of course his rickshaw wasn't working. We got out and decided to walk down the road a ways to get out of Mr. Crazy's jurisdiction. One of the drivers who originally offered us 200 pulled up and said he'd take us for 50. Wanting to get out of there we went with him. He proceeded to tell us how that man was part of the 'Indian Rickshaw Mafia" and that all the drivers were scared of him. I'm not entirely sure what the Indian rickshaw mafia is capable of, but I'm pretty sure it is no where the same as any other mafia.
We finally made it to our hotel, which was a stone's throw from the Taj Mahal. We decided to wake up early the next day and head to the Taj for sunrise. We got there right as the doors opened and were some of the first people in that day. It was amazing to see it without hoards of tourists around. Everything we read said that you'll be in awe and it will be so much better in person, and that couldn't be more true. It is such a beautiful building and looks sooo much bigger in real life. I still can't quite believe I've seen in. It makes dealing with the 'mafia' totally worth it. We met up with Melanie later in the day and wandered around the city some more, took a look at the fort and headed to the restaurant that is known for having the best view of the Taj. We also got lucky and are going to be the new stars of the menu cover at the restaurant, Shanti Lodge, so if any of you ever go there, look out for me and Gabrielle! A man with a camera (that belonged to a different group of tourists) came over and showed us the old menu, and said he wanted us on the knew one. With the borrowed camera in hand he took lots candid shots and told us he was finished. Yet another celebrity-esque day for us.
Our plan from here was to go to Varanasi and then straight to Nepal, but it turned out to be too much hassle to get across the border, and we are ready for some chill time, so have decided to go to Darjeeling instead. Hello Himalayas :)

We've added lots of new photos to our gallery! Again, they are slightly out of order but mostly on the first few pages. The link feature isn't working so just copy and paste to view!

Posted by 3ifBySEA 22:22 Archived in India Comments (0)

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