“There's a race of men that don't fit in, A race that can't sit still; So they break the hearts of kith and kin, And they roam the world at will. They range the field and rove the flood, And they climb the mountain's crest; Their's is the curse of the gypsy blood, And they don't know how to rest.”
- Robert Service

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Agra (by Michael again. Sarah's really slacking on blog posts)

Today we’re in Agra.  This means our tour of India is nearing an end.  We went to see a big white tomb today.  It was impressive. 

My favourite part was petting a dog on the way out.  India is full of street dogs.  They’re usually either very timid or friendly, but I have yet to see one that’s aggressive to people.  At night it’s common to hear dog fights and in the daytime it’s very common to see them sleeping in the sun: on roads, rooftops, mountain tops, and in temples.  They almost all of one breed, the Indian pariah, which looks a like a small lab crossed with a dingo.  Skinny, and often with fight scars.  It’s a little hard to see the ones in rough shape, and very hard not to pet them all.  The one at the Taj bounded over to say hi and the urge to pet him won out.  He wanted to play all dog’s favourite - the hand biting game.  I wanted to play too, but the urge to avoid rabies won there.  This guy had found a friend though and wasn’t taking any hints.  He followed me around and kept jumping up going for my hands.  Luckily a helpful local lady came to help with a big threatening purse swing.  He took that hint, sadly.  
On the topic of animals, India is a curious mix of respect for animals and also a dispassionate live and let live attitude.  There are many semi-domesticated street animals co-existing with people.  There are temples devoted to well-fed rats and monkeys.  There are goats and pigs roaming the streets at large.  There are cows standing in the middle of busy roads, with vehicles driving around them.  Then there are cows eating plastic garbage and cardboard, which are so malnourished you clearly see the outline of their pelvis and ribs.  There are dogs that are well fed, and there are also dogs that are starving.  It seems to be the same for people too.

Jaipur (by Michael)

We’ve spent the last two days in Jaipur. This is the largest city we’ve been to since leaving Delhi. I’d enjoyed the (relatively) laid back pace of the smaller towns. Jaipur came as a bit of shock again. But there’s plenty to see here.

We started with a walk through the pink city, which is more a rusty-orange. Apparently it was at one time pink. The paint changed, but the name didn't. The pink city is the oldest part of town. A planned city, it's a grid of streets lined with shops and kite-filled trees. As far as I can tell, it’s essentially one big market. The focus of the market changes as you walk further into it: from jewelry to textiles, to electronics, to furniture. Walking through here is hectic, fun and stressful.

The pink city of Jaipur
We also visited a block printing shop, where patterns are stamped onto fabric by hand, with a separate pass for each colour. We saw Amber Fort, and ended the day with a hike up to a temple atop a hill full of monkeys. On the way back down we saw a third of the Chinese zodiac animals jostling for food. Sadly, no dragons.

Food (by Michael)

I've been eating a lot in India.  Eating accounts for easily a third of our day, which is a combination of three sit-down meals a day, a large group to serve, and the leisurely pace of food service in Rajasthan.  The food here is delicious and plentiful.  That's a problem.  A typical meal is some naan bread, a pile of rice, and a large bowl of curry or dal or paneer (Indian cheese which is in half the items on any menu).  It's delicious, in the way that poutine is delicious.  Actually with the carbs, cheese curds, and sauce it's surprisingly similar to poutine.  The effects of this diet are becoming quite obvious.  I'm looking forward to Australia where I can eat some fruit and veggies without worrying about the water it's been washed in.  I'm also looking forward to tonight, when I can fill my belly with delicious dal again.

In between eating we've been doing a bit of sightseeing by foot, and a whole lot of traveling by train, bus, or tuktuk.  I was thinking today how normal it now feels to be weaving through traffic in a tuktuk, leaning on the horn as we squeeze past trucks and driving on the opposite side when convenient.  It's crazy, and many of the vehicles have damage, but it takes quite a bit more skill to drive here than at home.  
Passed this truck on the highway.  From the front, you could clearly see the driver's feet.

On the drive from Pushkar to Jaipur, the bus driver wanted to stop at a pullout on the opposite side of the divided highway.  So about a kilometer ahead of the pullout we found a break in the meridian, pulled onto the opposite side of the highway, and rode up the right side of the road.  This is such a common occurrence that normally it isn't an issue.  This time though we seemed to confuse an oncoming bus with whom we did of a bit of a mirror dance before settling on passing on the right.  It sounds a little more intense than it was -- I've been here long enough to not have any worries that they'd figure it out.

Pushkar (a guestpost by Michael)

From January 23rd

I've been having a bit of frustration with the light switches here in India.  They're opposite to what I'm used to (on is down), which I would have thought I'd catch onto by now, but I guess 27 years of conditioning is too hard to break.  I wonder how driving on the left is going to go.

There are at least a dozen switches in our current room: one for every individual outlet, light, water heater, and fan, all in banks of 3 to 6 switches spread throughout the room.  Our last room had one bank inside the bathroom and one outside to control different bathroom lights.  Add to that the occasional reversed or disconnected switch and burned out bulb.  Every night ends with me madly flipping switches until all the lights are off.  Tonight I managed it without swearing.  Sarah was proud.

We arrived in Jaipur this morning after two days in Pushkar.  Pushkar was a pleasant little town, a holy place to Hindus due to the lake and possibly the only Brahma temple in India.  We were told it's the only one, but we were also told that about the rat temple and passed signs for another one yesterday.  Pushkar is also full of tourists, surprisingly many of which are 40+, working on dreadlocks, and wearing hippie pants.  It seems to know it's audience well because there are shops full of Bob Marley posters, hippie clothes (not traditional Indian style, though maybe Indian inspired), and offers for hash everywhere.  By everywhere, I mean only the main market.  Sarah was thinking there must be some yoga retreats nearby to draw that oddly specific type of tourist to town.  

View of Pushkar and the trail up.
The rest of the town is beautiful and fairly quiet.  Our hotel was a short walk from town, down a dirt road and surrounded by wheat fields.  Yesterday, we took a morning hike up to the hill-top Savriti temple to watch the sunrise.  There was a coffee vendor at the top and as soon as the shop opened up, a dozen monkeys arrived.  That was a pretty awesome morning, drinking coffee, and watching monkeys and the sun rise over town.  
Coffee with monkeys.  Not too different from a workday morning.

Jodhpur (by Michael)

From January 19th

So we've been doing a bit of McBurnie family research lately. By doing research I mean we stumbled upon some sword that look a lot like the McBurnie sword, or I should say talwar. These two photos are from a display in the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur. We've seen similar swords all over Rajasthan though, including the one that Sarah is holding on the photo with Mr Bikaner (on our Google+ album).

We've visited two forts so far, in Jaisalmer and Jodhpur. Both are massive hilltop complexes with beautiful intricately carved buildings inside. Pretty amazing the amount of work that went into them. It's nothing at all like the wooden structures at Louisbourg. One neat thing is all the gates are located immediately after a 90 degree corner, to prevent elephants from building up speed to ram them. They also have spikes starting at 10 feet of the ground - elephant head height. Things you have to take into consideration when building a fort in India.

More photos are up on our Google+ album.

Bikaner (by Michael)

From January 16th.

We're in our fourth day of the tour now. Checked into our hotel in Bikaner, after an overnight camel trek last night. That was an experience. Riding the camel was a combination of equal parts fun and pain. Little known fact: camel riding is one of the earliest forms of birth control. We spent a very cold night in tents in the desert. Semi-desert actually, just a little more arid than Osoyoos. It was nice to get out of the bustle after 3 days in Delhi.
My new buddy, Daloo
In one day in Delhi we visited a Hindu temple, Islamic mosque and Sikh gurudwara. I talked to a guy in gurudwara and when he found I was from Canada, he mentioned he has a sister in Surrey. That’s neat. We’ve actually met a few people in India with ties to Surrey. I've found so far that India hasn't been any more hectic than Vietnam, and in that way feels familiar. We've run into only a few scammers so far. Or maybe we're a little more seasoned than the last trip. We had a taxi driver quote us 180 rupees (roughly $3) for a trip, then at the end claim it was 180 each. I said no, then he tried for 180 dollars. Nice try. We also discovered a scam where people will talk to you on the street for a while, not asking for any money, but ultimately they direct you to a (fake) tourist office, which will tell you all the sites are closed, but will offer to hire you a car somewhere else for the day. The fake tourist shops look very similar to the government run ones. It took us a few days to catch on because it was so subtle. It didn't cost us any money, but we missed seeing a few things thinking they were closed. It's kind of fun after you catch on to the local racquet. As far as scams go, that's pretty mild compared to Vietnam and Bali.

We're in a group of 15 plus a guide for this tour, which so far has been a great group. We were taking bets on who would be first to succumb to 'Delhi belly'. We had our first winner last night -- a guy who'd been brushing his teeth with tap water. So far Sarah and I are doing great. We're loving the food. I wish I could remember the names of some of the stuff we're eating.

Today we went to see the Camel Festival at the stadium in Bikaner. As soon as we got in the gates, someone approached us to sign up for the events. They were having some foreigner events and needed more participants. All 7 in our group participated in the turban tying contest, up on a stage in front of maybe a thousand spectators. We had one demonstration then had 5 minutes to tie our own. I’m pretty sure I built a masterpiece. I think. I couldn't see it myself. After this we were interviewed by all the local TV stations. We’re minor celebrities again. Next we participated in the foreigners vs. Indians tug-of-war, which the locals won handily.

Then all seven of us piled into a rickshaw and headed back to meet up with the group to go see the rat temple. As you might have guessed, the rat temple is a temple dedicated to, and full of, rats. Being a temple, you must remove your shoes before entering. Apparently it's considered quite luckily if a rat crosses your feet. No such luck for me. It wasn't nearly as frightening as I thought. They’re well fed and used to people, so there’s no real worry of getting bitten. It was interesting to watch them scurrying around, a lot like watching chipmunks. My biggest concern was being sure not to step on one. That would have not gone over well in the rat temple.

Rat paradise at the rat temple
More photos are up on our Google+ album.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Beijing (by Michael)

From January 12.

We woke up in Delhi this morning, after 2 days in Beijing. China was fabulous. We found it extremely friendly, and modern and well organized. And we lucked out and had 2 beautiful blue sky days with very little of the smog that Beijing is famous for.

My expectations were based on Vietnam, so I expected to have to be wary of shady taxi drivers, being constantly harassed by hawkers and scammers. None of that was true here. Everywhere the people we met were professional and helpful. Our first night, we found ourselves a little lost in a hutong (a narrow alleyway winding between residential compounds) trying to find our hostel. A local noticed us looking around like lost tourists and without a saying word, pointed out the way for us. The language barrier wasn't that noticeable though. All business and street signs are subtitled in English. We were told the government has been promoting English as an international language at least since the Olympics. The few times when there was a language barrier, people were patient with our gesturing. In McDonalds, where we tried red bean pies, they pulled out a card to point at. They've seen a few tourists here before.

Even so, Sarah and I were occasionally minor celebrities. A few times in the Forbidden City and again at the Summer Palace we were approached by people who wanted to take photos with foreigners. At this time of year at least, these sites are full of mostly domestic tourists, so I imagine some of them haven't seen too many foreigners.

A colourful structure at the entrance to Tiananmen square
I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that we were in China. It seemed so easy. Contrast this to our first day in India today, where there is no doubt we're in a different country. I loved everything about Beijing, from the massive ceiling in the airport as we arrived to the walkable downtown, the colours of the Forbidden City, and of course, the Great Wall. The section of the Wall we visited, Mutianyu, runs along a mountain ridge. We took a chair lift up, walked to the end of the rebuilt section (and a little passed that into the ruins) and then rode a metal luge track back down the mountainside. I wondered if it was like Disneyland where you can go full throttle and still not be anywhere near the limits of the ride. It wasn't. I had to use the brakes a few times. It was awesome.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Sarah and Michael on a Shoestring: Beijing to Udaipur

It's a good thing we're rained out in Udaipur, India today. Last night, I had just put the finishing touches on a lengthily blog entry when I accidentally deleted it all. The shame of it was that with our busy touring schedule, a bad head cold, and the resulting early bedtimes it had taken me the better part of 4 days to finish it. So, while we're stuck in the hotel hiding from the heavy downpour, I'll do my best to give you the Cliff notes.

On Jan 8, Michael and I started out towards India, but since we had to layover in Beijing anyway we opted to take advantage of China's 72 hr visa-free option. Over two days we were able to see the Forbidden City (HUGE!), walkabout Old Beijing, and then hired a tour guide to take us to see the Great Wall. The Wall is definitely impressive, though officially you're only allowed to visit a few short sections which are maintained by the government. Beyond these parts was the "Wild Wall," which looked like it was being slowly reclaimed by the earth - with guard posts dotting along impossibly steep moutain ridges. Hard to believe that each brick had to be carried up the mountains by hand!
Standing atop a guard post
Next, Delhi! It's a dusty, busy, loud city, but has plenty to offer a tourist seeking adventure. We were on our own for two days before we were scheduled to meet up with our tour group, so we were free to try and introduce ourselves at our own pace. Delhi is a fairly old city, which makes it all the more interesting. Amongst high-end shops and cars and modern buildings are colonialist style shopping areas (Connaught Circle), and ancient mosques. Some of my favourite places in Delhi are large parks with the ruins of temples dating back to the 1200's, where locals come to picnic with their famlies

Humayun's Tomb - within a large park complex, restored not long ago. It was the inspiration for the Taj Mahal!
One of the aforementioned mosques-in-a-park
 After we joined the rest of the tour (16 young people from Canada, the US, Germany, England, Scotland, Norway, New Zealand and Australia), we made off for the desert and the hotly anticipated camel safari near Bikaner. We were each assigned a camel, though we weren't trusted to lead ourselves, so each camel also came with a local boy who walked beside us - for 4 hours! (and in flip-flops, through the sand...) We stayed overnight at a cozy camp, where our hosts prepared us a delicious supper, and we all chatted on into the night next to a fire. I will admit to being quite cold on this excursion, though. My expectations of India's weather were incorrect, and nighttime in the desert was very chilly! Thank goodness for the extra blankets and the hot water bottles we were given!
Giving a camel good pats after having brought us our of the desert the next morning
The next few days after that were busy! Long bus rides for several mornings, plenty of local food (even the "non-spicy" food can be piquant), temples, tuktuks and huge forts rising up over well-worn cities. It was in Bikaner that we stumbled upon the Camel Festival, where - as western tourists - we were ushered through a VIP entrance to the stadium and invited to join in on some special competitions. Initially, we were hesitant to join (there were at least a thousand people in attendance), but in the end, we joined the tug-o-war (locals vs tourists), and came up on stage for a tourist-only turban-tying contest! For the most part, our turbans weren't very good, though one in our group won second place and 2000 Rupees!

I found these gentlemen at the festival, dressed to the nines. They had competed in a mustache growing contest! (though you wouldn't know it, since they keep them well curled up), the winner was crowned "Mr. Bikaner"

We visited a sacred Rat Temple near Bikaner- a temple that was over-run with rats!

In Jaisalmer, the man with the longest mustache in town, in front of a Haveli. The ornately carved balconies was all over, and so beautiful!

In Jodhpur, the "Blue City," we toured a large palace. One of the more striking pieces in the collection (besides the ornate seats for riding elephants), was this dagger. Once stabbed into an enemy, a trigger could be pulled to open the blade and flay them from the inside!
We took a fleet of Jeeps out to the countryside to visit local artisans. Here, Michael's watching a potter showing us the wheel that he must spin manually with a long stick. We got to try our hand, but generally failed miserably....
Last night in Udaipur, we attended a local dance show. This woman was able to dance with 10 water pots on her head!
So, today we try and wait out the rain. We're still in a fairly arid region, so I'm hoping it doesn't last all day. Later this afternoon, we have plans to regroup and attend a Henna tattoo demonstration, and then a cooking class where I've been told we'll get to try and make samosas! Yum!

*For the record, we're currently taking the India on a Shoestring tour, organized by G Adventures