After Mumbai, we entered into the ever-popular state of Rajasthan. This is the largest state in all of India, and fittingly, the most popular with travellers.
Our first stop: Udaipur, "The White City". The city of lakes. The most romantic city in India. Whatever or however you know Udaipur as, we were there! Being that Udaipur was the first city we were visiting in Rajasthan we were still expecting the chaos, tout traffic and hasslers to be ten fold from what we’ve experienced thus far. Of course, in true India fashion, we were proved wrong and the train station we rolled up to was absolutely gorgeous. The walls were beautifully tiled and painted into colourful murals. The ground looked like marble, although I am sure it wasn't. If the train station was this beautiful, I couldn't wait to see what the "most romantic city in all of India" had in store for us!
When we got outside of the train station, the hecticness was pretty subdued. We dodged and NO’ed away the frantic, pushy, annoying touts and sought out a relaxed driver in the corner of the parking lot who seemed to be taking it easy that morning. We also had just met a nice guy on the train right before we got off who was originally from Udaipur, so we knew the tuk-tuk should only cost 100 Indian Rupee (INR) to where we needed to go. Finally, we had some local bargaining knowledge! We negotiated our price from 250 to 150INR (he laughed and said "100, impossible!!!" when we suggested it.) We agreed upon the 150INR and jumped in... because sometimes you have to step back and remind yourself that everyone is just trying to make a living and you're haggling over a difference of a few Canadian cents.
Our ride wasn’t too long into the city’s heart. We drove from open streets, to smaller and narrower lane ways that snaked through beautifully painted homes, light pastel coloured cafes, shops with sparkling saris and jackets, silver and jems shining off the morning sun. We were in awe. This is my dream city, in my dream country, was I dreaming??? However, there were a few things that brought me back to reality. The unrelenting blaring honks, the insanity of traffic, the holy cows roaming the streets and causing most of the congestion, the motorbikes revving, the temple prayers roaring on loud speakers, the old men yelling at who knows what, and the random smells of "we'd rather not know". India can be everything and nothing all at once. It can be breathtakingly beautiful... and breath holding-ly gross. It’s just a endless juxtaposition. And we are only just beginning to experience and understand the "real" India that people so often talk and write about loving and hating it simultaneously. As we were sitting in the tuk-tuk waiting to turn onto our hostel's street, a massive bull beside us tried to mount a cow in the middle of the road. The cow was NOT having it. She ran FULL speed for 50 metres in tight traffic, bashing and banging through the hectic busy street, knocking down motorbikes and their riders, and making school girls run and jump out of the way before getting hit! It was absolute natural madness and anything in that cow's way was a goner. "Haha is okay, just India" our driver said as he laughed this absurd moment off. It was so hilarious and mind boggling to us! Especially since no one was injured, people just picked up themselves and their motorbikes, readjusted rearview mirrors that were hit, and went along their merry way like that 30 seconds of 'running of the bulls' never happened. Even though everyone else was our it very quickly, Carter and I continued to laugh about it all day long.
We spent our first day exploring Udaipur on foot. The city was split into two parts by Lake Pichola which housed the beautiful Lake Palace. We took advantage of all the rooftop restaurants, so we could look longingly at places we couldn't afford through out the city... We ate lunch at a restaurant right in the middle of the city center and took in a 360degree view from the top. You may also recognize some of the below pictures from James Bond's Octopussy film!
We toured through the narrow streets, looked in and out of shops, and visited the famed Jain Temple.
We ended the day with a tour of the beautifully impressive City Palace right in time for sunset. We opted to not hire a guide, as per our budget restraints, and we've gotten quite good at using our imagination for what things were, who built them, how old that "thing" is, etc. Except this time, I was standing in this ornately decorated room, with little coloured tile mural designs, and I commented on how gorgeous it was and wondered if it was a dressing room or something of the sorts for the heiress of the dynasty. A tour guide who happened to be close, overheard and responded "ah yes... very beautiful. The royal shitter" and cracked up laughing. That's when I stopped trying to guess what things were and just stuck to reading the information signs that were placed there on purpose!
And after a wonderfully perfect first day exploring the most perfect little city... I woke up at 4:00am to Carter violently puking in the bathroom... and then it hit me a few hours after. AGAIN - the ups and downs, beauty and ugliness that India can provide you all in a day's work! From this point, we have been sharing every food dish (our motto before each questionable-looking meal was honestly, "if we go down, we go down together"... and that's exactly what happened.) Thankfully we were able to share the most romantic times in the most romantic city! It took us a few days to truly bounce back and get over our case of Delhi belly. We still don’t know what caused it but we were both completely turned off of butter naan and curry (which was devastating because we were LOVING all things naan and curry.) Although it sucked being sick, no trip to India is complete without an "episode" of Delhi belly! So this contributed to an even more fuller, whole, experience of our trip through India.
After a couple days of laying low, eating our weight in plain bread and bananas, it was February 14, Valentines Day and we were determined to do something special. We walked along the lake, did some shopping (Vacation Carter out in full force), and had a nice chill dinner on another beautiful rooftop. It was nice to see red and white balloons all around the rooftop restaurants and we were even treated to more fireworks! This is more of the romantic experience we were hoping for in Udaipur...
We took our first bus from Udaipur to Jodhpur, the city of blue. The bus was a sleeper AC bus. We hadn’t heard much about Indian buses but we were expecting the the worst. We bought our tickets at a tourist travel agent in the city, who gave us only a handwritten ticket and told us to arrive at a side-street shop an hour before the bus was supposed to leave. Already sketched out, we arrived to this desk in a hole in the wall. A guy looks at our piece of written hand paper and then waved us to sit down. There were only one other backpacking couple and they said they were going in the opposite direction of us. Now I am really nervous that we’ve been scammed. Where are all the people getting on our bus?! Then another man comes and asks to see our ticket, this time we’re assured it’ll be only 10 minutes before it comes. The most unappealing looking buses started pulling up (aka just stopping on the side of the busy street as piles of people squeezed in and out of the bus door before it sped off again). A gift to my eyes, a semi-regular looking bus rolled up and the man came and ushered us to it “your bus, on on on!” When we got on, it was quite clean and like no other transit we’d seen before. We had booked an upper double sleeper and we were pleasantly surprised at how cozy this “coffin” was (mind you I intentionally didn’t look too hard at the seat cleanliness before quickly throwing our own sheet over the entire thing.) Carter and I comfortably fit in these two bunks, so we closed the curtains on both sides of us, including a glass door to completely seal out the rest of the bus and settled in. It was the most accommodating and comfortable sleeping arrangement we’ve had in transit ever before. Unfortunately that was short lived; the bus was rockier and bumpier than we’ve ever experienced before too. So sleeping was next to impossible as we were getting bounced around, back and forth, and the too-often occasional slamming of the brakes that rocked us forward and back again resulting in us hitting our heads. But! Such is life as a backpacker, we have to deal with the cheapest form of transportation in order to get to where we want to go!
We arrived at the side of the road, in which the bus driver promised was Jodhpur, at 5:00am. And of course, there was a group of tuk-tuks waiting for us. One wanted to charge us 500INR because “the sun wasn’t up yet”. We bargained our way down to 150 because we just laughed and walked away...”okay fine.. 300!”... and we walked...”miss! 250 - what’s your best price!?”... and we walked... “ok, 150. No problem. Come. Come!” What we later learned is that tuk-tuks and bus drivers have a real shady business together in some areas of India; the bus drivers will drop tourists off just outside of the city limits so they are at the mercy of the local tuk-tuks that are ready and waiting there to charge whatever price they want. The bus drivers get a cut of whatever the tuk-tuks make that day. There are also some hotels in on this deal and if the tuk-tuk drivers find tourists without any accomodation and bring them to book a room, they also get a cut. It all happens so seamlessly that as a tourist, you really are just a helpless pawn most of the time, the unfortunate reality of backpacking amongst local transit.
What we drove past getting into the city was complete filth. Garbage upon garbage. Dogs laying on top of cars. Cows eating old organics (I think... it could have been poop). Then we approached a beautiful clock tower and townsquare, that was completely vacant, quiet and calm... I know I am painting what you assume would become a pretty picture. But it’s not. This is where it became even worse. Urine stench. Torn garbage bags with their contents strewn across the ground. Sickly dogs. Cow dung piles. Where the heck is the India we were falling in love with?! After we passed through the market square we started to pass blue building after blue building. The colours of paint used for houses and doors were magnificent, even in dawns' blackness. Just as quick as we saw the garbage and hated every moment of the stench, it all drifted away and the beauty of the city (and country) came to life again.
Most of the streets were too narrow or steep for a tuk-tuk to get through. We got dropped off in a random intersection and was told that the tuk-tuk couldn’t bring us up to the hotel we wanted to go to, so we went off on foot to try and find this little guesthouse in a Google maps nightmare. We climbed these rock steps and steep paths to only then realize the entire city was at the foot of the gigantic Mehrangarh Fort atop a huge natural boulder that jutted up in the center of the city.
Long story short, we got lost. After THREE hours of wandering the city with our big backpacks on, checking guesthouse after guesthouse, we finally ended up at Haveli heritage guesthouse right in front of this gorgeously constructed 1700 stepwell. Unknown to us before arriving, we were coming to Jodhpur during the world Sihk music festival where thousands of visitors (Indians and foreigners) attend in the fort. This was the reason the entire city’s accommodations were booked out.
We were completely drained so we locked ourselves into the room and went for a well deserved nap. Our first move when we woke up was to go inspect this stepwell more closely.
We then went in search of the clock tower and market square (the same one we passed that morning on the tuk-tuk). When we got there we immediately knew why it was so garbage filled. It was completely crammed with the hustle and bustle of the entire city. It was the mecca hub of shopping, food, hanging out, drinking tea, anything and everything seemed to be conducted here. It was complete chaos - more so than we’ve ever experienced. The smells and sights were one thing to try and take in but the sounds are what could have drove us mental. SO much honking and not normal “toot toot” but “buuurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp” heavy, low truck horns, high squeaky make your brain shake horns, people yelling, people trying to sell you anything, people telling you to move or just driving right at you slowly until you got out of the way. You didn’t even know where to stand to get out of people’s way or where you even wanted to go because everywhere you turned was the same chaos. It was an amazing experience and some of the best people watching on earth, after a while however the noise began to turn into ringing ears and a headache.
We sought out the famous samosa shop outside the square. Again, complete and utter insanity. Over 100 people loitering out front into the road, either eating samosas or asking us for money for samosas. I tossed the man working (at an alarming rate) behind the counter 50 rupees and just took whatever was given to us - turns out it was four samosas hot out of the boiling oil vat, he knew exactly what we were there for. It was so disgustingly dusty and busy inside and out of the shop that we didn’t sit on the ground and enjoy it like what felt like the rest of the city was doing, we took our bag of samosas and beelined it to the sanctuary of our stepwell. This turned out to be our go-to lunch location while in Jodhpur as it was a peaceful safe haven from the rest of the city.
The last place we were in love with was an omelette cart just outside the clock tower market; the place is famously known for making Masala Cheese Omelettes for over 20 years. One fond memory from this place is when the two of us were enjoying our egg sandwiches while squatting down on upside down milk carton chairs when suddenly an abnormally large cow standing in the road decided to empty it's full bladder only 2 meters from us. It sprayed everywhere around us... including Carter's legs! The omelette maker heard our commotion and turned and said "my friend, this very good luck for you!" ...Carter replied "I already had enough very good luck in Vietnam my friend!" We learned that there is real benefits to cow urine; some Indians use it for medicinal purposes which they refer to as gomutra, other smear it on their foreheads for good luck and positive energy, others use it for religious purposes.
For the next few days, we lazily explored Jodhpur. Here are some of the sights we saw and visited during our time there:
Only six hours from the Pakistan boarder is the western desert city of Jaisalmer. It is home to the only "living" fort in India. This means that the original fort built 800-years ago is still an active metropolis today. Jaisalmer is also known as the golden city and rightfully so. All the buildings are made of sand stone and are golden yellow in colour. Walking into the fort is right out of what we could only assume the medieval times would feel like. The huge wooden gates are left open to a cobblestone entry way which you can't help but picture massive elephants, horses and the sorts walking through in its glory days of the kings. After a bit of a hike in, using the long entry road you come to the town's square. Off every corner of the square are little golden laneways that look like they lead to Game of Throne villages. We stayed at Deep Mahal Hotel; it ended up being a scam with extremely pushy owners but nonetheless it was the cheapest we’ve paid for a room yet (800rupees). Not only that, the inside wall of our room was the side of the ancient Jain temple over 300 years old!
The first night we were there we were invited to attend a traditional Indian wedding. We were warmly welcomed into the baraat (where the groom's family dances down the street bringing him to the reception hall). We had a ton of fun!! Carter got right into the festivities and was Bollywood dancing up a storm! The men were hilarious; so enthusiastically dancing their butts off. The women were gorgeously draped in traditional and fancy saris and encouraged me to dance, teaching me the proper dance moves for each song. The groom rode a white horse in a bejewelled dress coat and followed behind the precession. After 2 hours of dancing down a 2 kilometre stretch of street, we finally got to the reception tent and we were again invited in to join, eat and celebrate with 400 hundred of their closest friends and family (and this was considered a small wedding for Indian standards!) The tent was massive and food stations lined the entire place. Heaven. We sat and enjoyed the locally made food, watched the ceremony and left back for our hotel. What a great night!
We spent the next few days roaming around the fort and exploring all the nooks and crannies. We shopped for scarves and found our favourite local samosa shop (that we probably had 32 samosas at by the time we left Jaisalmer). The street food here was to die for. But the best part about the fort was that no cars were allowed so it was SO much quieter than what we just came from. It was a little escape from India within India.
We decided to book a 2 night/3 day camel safari in Thar Desert with Thar Desert Tours. We were driven two hours out towards barren land; past military posts and the location they test nuclear bombs and all of a sudden the Jeep turned off the road and towards a big tree - here were saw 3 camels and Sumar, our guide, appear. Carter helped unload the Jeep and suit up the camels with all the supplies. Then Sumar helped us onto the camels and we were off! Just like that! Our first camel ride in the Thar desert.
The camel getting up was quite bumpy - they go from lying down, to their back knees, to their front knees, to straight back legs to fully standing - it feels like you’re on a teetetter-totter that you have to hold on to for dear life. Sumar walked his camel and led us for 30 minutes while we got more secluded and then he let Carter ride his camel, Johnny, all by himself. So Carter led the way because as we soon learned his camel was quite the stubborn arse, he earned the nickname Johnny Drama from us. After an hour of walking, Sumar got on his camel and led us into the “deep desert” which wasn’t so much deep as it was just a very secluded peaceful flat land. After a few hours of riding before sunset, we could really feel the leg strain and began to laugh about how we didn't realize riding a camel would be so damn hard! Carter had his shorts ride up the entire time and his pasty white thighs turned into a more desert red!
Our first night in the desert was amazing; we hunkered down between two dunes and Sumar started a fire right away for some chai. Carter and I took my camel, Alex (the nice one of the trio), out for a sunset walk. After tea, Sumar started cooking our dinner; a version of curried vegetables, rice, and freshly handmade chapati bread. We had great conversation all night long about life in the desert and arranged marriages (he admitted he didn’t like his arranged wife at all but does love his daughters very much), education and Indian government and tourism. We truly learned a lot from him, he was a really sweet hardworking man. When we finally went to bed around 10pm, we simply laid the mattresses out on the sand, used the incline of the dune as a pillow and got under one blanket. We woke up in the middle of the night to see the three camels silhouettes in the light of the night's stars. It was cold but the fresh cool air was a welcomed thing after the dust and chaos of the rest of India. My favourite part was the complete silence of the desert, it was almost hard to believe we were in the same country as earlier that day.
We woke up to the sunrising over the dunes, had the best banana porridge made by Sumar, and were off before the heat became too intense. It wasn’t long before we stopped for a tea break under the shade and let the middays heat pass.
While having a relaxing tea break under one of the only trees in the area, a local goat herder walked out from behind a dune. He was out for his daily walk which involved him following around the grazing goats. He and Sumar got talking, and so, we invited him to join us for tea and snacks. With Sumar’s help, we had a great conversation with him about his life in the desert and how he makes a living off his goats. We would ask Sumar questions in English, which he would translate to Hindi and translate back what the goat sheppard would respond in with. He revealed that he has been tending to his family's herd of goats for almost 40 years, and was proud of the goat cheese they produced, although it doesn’t warrant much income. After we were done enjoying our tea, I drifted off into a snooze in the shade. As usual, Carter was still in deep conversation with our new friend.
Suddenly, I am rudely awoken by what sounds like a circus show. I open my eyes to Sumar and Carter shouting and running around waving their arms in the air. There are a few goats still kicking around but the sheppard is gone. I look around and there are at least ten wild camels surrounding our camp closing in on our three Camels. FUN FACTS; camels are very territorial. We had an earlier talk with Sumar where he told us that in this time of the year, all the camels in the desert are male and all the females live in the stables for mating. Camels also have a very strange way of showing mating calls and aggression, first they begin making this disgusting wet gurgling noise and hang their giant tongues out of the side of their mouth; it sounds like an outboard boat motor starting up in the mud. Then the weirdest part happens. They spread their back legs, and whip there tails from their backs down in between their legs while simultaneously peeing and pooping in order to launch the excrements at their opponent. Never knew they behaved like such a**holes...did you?
So here we are surrounded by thirteen nine-foot camels, horny, angry and all flinging shit at each other! I am closest to the big tree and relatively safe from the action. Carter is trying (like a crazy person) to scare away the wild camels and is literally caught in the crossfire of the camel's "spray". Johnny Drama and another big camel are circling each other and flinging a mile a minute, eventuality they stop after a little scuffle and the crazy wild camels get chased away. The dust finally settles and when it does...Johnny Drama is in a fit of rage, Carter has him by the rope, Sumar’s camel is an angel and just stood there eating a thorny bush during the whole debacle and my camel, Alex, is NOWHERE to be found. Sumar goes sprinting off into the distance over a sand dune, Carter passes me Johnny’s rope and heads up the closest tall dune to try and spot Alex. Carter comes back and tells me he can’t see Alex or Sumar anywhere but the wild camels are lingering in the distance. About 30 minutes later Sumar came back, soaked in sweat but had my camel in tow. He ended up having to trace Alex’s tracks through the sand - he ran for 10 minutes straight before finding him. In the meantime, Carter rinsed off poop on him with a water bottle once again.
The next night's stay was a little less impressive than the first. We were at a more popular sand dune so there were other groups of tourists yelling and Indians who were utilizing the same dunes. We tried to get some photos with the camels but they weren’t cooperating, especially Johnny Drama. Carter was doing his best to try and control Johnny in the right direction but he would literally just stand still or run away from Sumar, it was hilarious.
We had another great meal with Sumar and headed to sleep a bit earlier tonight. Due to the climate being warmer in this location, there were so many beetles crawling around so we slept on raised cots (thank goodness). We woke up early to head back to our pick up spot. Since Sumar trusted us on, and with, the camels now we all took charge of riding our own and even had races. We passed through a village in which the kids went crazy for us - pulling off my sunglasses to wear, painting my nails and offering us tea.
We got picked up and said our sad good bye to Sumar, the greatest desert guide there ever was. We gave Sumar a nice tip because he really was a hard working man who talked a lot about how much he appreciated us as guests. We enjoyed camping with him and we would always pitch in and help...cutting up the veggies and doing the dishes after meals. He told us we were the first group to ever do the dishes after eating and that it made his time much more enjoyable because he could relax too (even though he was always finding ways to keep busy.) We told him "where we are from the cook doesn't clean" he said he wants to come to Canada for that reason! Carter had a utility knife equipped with a fork/spoon, Sumar was very impressed with the tool as he used a very old little knife for preparing food. Upon departure we gave him the utility knife as we know he would be much better off with it. He was a great man and we will always remember him.
Back in the city we were very thankful our camping trip was over because that night around sunset there was an incredible sandstorm that came blowing across the desert. We watched from a rooftop patio as it came from kilometres away in the desert, thrashing closer and closer to us! When it arrived the entire city was dark brown, you couldn't see more than a few buildings away and you could feel the sand in your mouth and eyes...like something out of a movie. Lasting only 10 minutes it was another great experience in Rajasthan.
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and by far the biggest city we've visited in the state. Unfortunately, after being blown away by the previous three cities because each had something so unique to offer, Jaipur was... underwhelming for us. The city wasn’t overly impressive itself ; it was large and spread out making it less ideal for tourists on a budget who didn’t want to be continually ripped off by tuk-tuk drivers ("hello sir want to ride in my Ferrari" was a popular pick-up line) or hire a private driver for the day. It did, however, have many malls which we frequented during our stay there. Sometimes we like to take advantage of a big cities offerings, so we saw Black Panther here... great flick!
Jaipur is known for it's Pink City. We heard nothing but amazing things about Jaipur and it's beauty. But to be honest, we didn't really see it that way. I think because it's in close proximity to New Delhi, tourists who go to New Delhi and Agra can stop into Jaipur for a quick taste of Rajasthan to see the Pink City. It would have likely been nicer if the pink city wasn't under construction, but it still didn't have that unique feel of the other cities we loved in the state. The different alleyways and streets were all themed bazaars; ladies fashion, men's fashion, automotive, tourist knick-knacks, local shopping, food, etc. We spent the days walking around and exploring, visited the Amer Fort but due to ridiculously high "foreigner price" we opted out of going into the main portion. We ate at an amazing restaurant called Nibs near our hotel, and had our first Indian McDonald's...an aloo (potato) burger and a paneer (cottage cheese) Big Mac. Hawa Mahal (the Wind Palace) was the most impressive thing Jaipur has to offer and even that was smaller than we anticipated.
Jaipur was a nice experience for us but in a different way than the last three cities. Being a larger city, it had malls, movie theatres and great restaurants offering every type of cuisine. Jaipur for us was a really relaxing & recharging station. We took advantage of the things missing in our lives while on the India backpackers' course, which meant going to the movies, eating dinner off of plates using cutlery and the luxury of using a western toilet with toilet paper!! Ahhhh...the simple things. It was nice to re-group and feel almost slightly as though we were living a structured life!
Carter Bender & Brittany Wilson left Toronto, Canada to travel the world. Where will they be next? Follow their #cbwtravels blog to find out!