Along the Away

a traveler's tales

Archive for the ‘ Four Months in India ’ Category

In 2011 I was extremely fortunate to take a leave of absence from work and my life in Sydney and spend four months in incredible India. The following blog posts are from this wonderful time of my life – not that every moment was wonderful, as you will see if you choose to read on, but India is like that, crazy, beautiful, chaotic, peaceful, unfair and generous all at once.

Ah Bangalore, one week and already I adore you!
Eating my way around Bangalore, week one
Back to Work
Indian Fantasy #1: Attend an Indian wedding
Mysore Mini Break
Indian Make-Over: Sari Buying
Indian Fantasy #1: Mission Success
Mini-Break: Hampi
Mini-Break: Pondicherry
Safe Travels
Hello Stranger!
Mini-Break: Kerala
Mini-Break: Goa
End of the Working Day: Internship Over
Designing in Bangalore: Projects Galore!
Designing in Bangalore: Activity Book Illustrations
Indian Bureaucracy: Sucked In and Spat Out.
Delhi: City of Millions
Exploring Rajasthan: Agra
Exploring Rajasthan: Madhogarh Fort
Exploring Rajasthan: Jaipur and the Amber Fort
Auto Rickshaw with a View
Exploring Rajasthan: Ranthambore National Park aka Tiger Spotting
Exploring Rajasthan: Bundi
Exploring Rajasthan: Bijapur (Castle! Yeee!)
Exploring Rajasthan: Udaipur
Exploring Rajasthan: Pushkar
Mountains & Mystics: Shimla and Mandi
Mountains & Mystics: Dharamsala and McLeodganji
Mountains & Mystics: Trekking Dalhousie-Khajjiar-Chamba
Mountains & Mystics: Amritsar
Take Me To Bollywood: Mumbai Madness
Yoga Week: About Time
The Not So Holy Dogs
The Holy Cows
Lasting Impressions: India

Some places go straight to my heart before I’ve even been there five minutes – Dharamsala is definitely one of those. Another twisty turny 6 hour drive from Mandi and we pull into the town’s narrow windy roads choked with traffic: crawling cars and faster pedestrians. Home of the Dalai Lama, and many of the Tibetans in exile, spiritually is in the air. Set high in the mountains with Buddhist monks in their red robes walking the winding streets and colourful prayers flags flapping in the wind, I am at peace the second I arrive.

There is a lot to do here but no hurry to do it in. I have an urge to come back even before I’ve left. It’s the kind of place I would like to spend a month of my life some time, taking leisurely walks in the mornings, learning yoga and meditation, art and cooking classes, and spending lazy afternoons reading in any of the numerous cozy cafes. It’s a place that recharges the soul – I certainly feel a lift in mine just being here, one I need after three months dealing with India.

I visited the Norbulingka Institute where Tibetan refugees learn the traditional arts and crafts of Tibet, ensuring their culture continues strongly even in exile. As well as walking around the peaceful grounds, there is the opportunity to peek in some of the studios where artists have their heads down working away, drawing, painting and sculpting. They look up and give visitors a quick smile and then are heads down at their work again.

There is a lovely cafe outside where we have morning tea sitting amongst the trees, colourful prayer flags strung up around us. It feels quiet and still, entirely unlike anywhere I’ve been in India previously. The story of Tibet is heartbreaking, all the more so once you sit amongst the peacefulness of their culture.

My group spent three days here in total, and amidst the cafe visits, roadside markets and hours spent browsing in an English book store I did a few of the local walks. There was a particular walk alongside a trickling stream that led up to a waterfall, where a very groovy cafe sits at the very top. There is a somewhat paved, somewhat not path from the town to the top, and along the way there are painted rocks, some with messages and some beautiful illustrations.

Another walk was a bit tricky, I was a bit worried I was going to go rock-sliding (a new sport?) on this one:

I joined a cooking class run by a local man who shared his story about escaping from former Tibet whilst he also demonstrated the art of ‘momos’, a specialty in Tibetan cuisine. We also made noodles and a soup which we got to eat for lunch. I must admit I find the food rather bland in contrast with Indian food (my great food love) so the more subtle Tibetan fare doesn’t stand a chance on my palette.

As much as I have enjoyed exploring the mountains, travel fatigue has started to take hold after three months away. I had become fairly complacent. Where the first couple of months I’d regretfully leave a place, forming attachments and looking back longingly at the end of every experience, I had started to feel fairly detached from places. I liked them, they interested me, but I moved on easily and felt no loss. Dharamsala changed that for me, I left that place begrudgingly, and if I hadn’t been on tour I may have changed the rest of my trip’s plans and spent the remainder there. If not for the fact that on we went to a homestay in the mountains that we had toactually spend a whole day walking too that is! Take me to the mountains, let me walk amongst the trees :-)

Pushkar! Camels! Here we go – check out my new friend:

He looks good at every angle. And you are about to find that out.

But first, Pushkar is the site of the famous camel fair held every November. So it is pretty much a given that you must take a camel ride into the dessert. One afternoon we met outside our hotel to find a posse of camels waiting. I can’t remember if I chose my camel or if he chose me (or maybe I just got on the one I was told to) but take a look at this face will you, he looked very happy to have me.

PS. Check out his camel friend photo-bombing in the top right corner. Hehehe:

And here is the camel that was behind us in the camel train – he was alright too:

So off we went into the desert in one long line, a camel train if you will.

The ride was heaps of fun and actually really comfortable. Full disclaimer – I have no problems with heights, animals or motion sickness, so it really was a joy ride for me. The journey through the desert was very peaceful and quite mystical in the golden light of the setting sun.

We stopped for a little while as even a camel must drink sometimes.

And have a lay down when they’re tired out (I think these camels get their own way a lot). We all took a break for while, having hot chai as we watched our camels stretch out and have a nana-nap.

Eeeeek! A two headed camel! No, wait… No, it’s just two camels guys.

I told you they look good at every angle, you can’t disagree with this:

Then we rode off into the sunset… I have always wanted to do that.

The last part of our camel ride was through the town which was quite jovial and festive. All the local kids (and adults) waved at us from the side of the road or from motorcycles. I felt like I was in a parade though I suppose camel-transport was a usual day in town for them.

Pushkar itself has a quite the chilled out vibe, plenty of local and tourist hippies around and ‘special’ items on the menus in the cafes. I spent a little time browsing the market streets and drinking fresh juice (non-special) from a little hole-in-the-wall stall with mounds of fruit hung up all over the store front. I walked down by the lake and the ghats, hanging out with my tour friends at the sunset cafe. It was very chilled, once again a reminder how life should be sometimes – there’s so much more than the busy cycle of work and home.

On the last night we went to dinner at the home of a local family, the father works with the local Intrepid team so he welcomes groups to dine at his home. We all sat in a row in their courtyard and his lovely wife and family brought out piles of yummy food. His little boy was very sweet, shaking everyone’s hand and saying hello.

When we left Pushkar we went to the station to catch an overnight train to Delhi, which I quite like, the soothing rocking of the train lulls me to sleep. I’ve heard some really unpleasant stories about them, foreigners getting robbed or waking to find a someone leaning over staring at them, but I’ve been lucky, I keep all my valuables on me, tuck myself up, close the curtain around me and am quite cosy.

Yes I’m one of those people that quite like being in transit. Even this part is alright:

(photo credit: Daniel Brielmayer)

Waiting has its advantages; you can read, listen to music, talk, daydream, sleep, and not feel like you should be somewhere, doing something. Travel teaches you that it’s OK to slow down. Maybe some people don’t need to learn that lesson, but I do. That calm middle ground is my holy grail.

Well.. off I go to Delhi then!!

India’s City of Lakes is fairytale beautiful, with white marble palaces, glittering lakes and winding narrow streets hiding stores and cosy cafes on the street and funky rooftop restaurants at the top. Walking around and discovering a must-buy/adorable street dog/chatty local/picture perfect cow moment is all in the fun. I could definitely have spent a week here instead of two days, but I made the most of the time I had.

Udaipur is the kind of place you could just wander around for ages – sure it’s a little more tourist-centric than the rural areas I’ve just travelled through (there are a lot of market stalls and shops selling jewelry, clothes, woven blankets, handmade leathers shoes and silk) but as it comes towards the end of the tour it’s kind of welcome at this point.

The first afternoon I wandered around, did a little shopping (such as some lovely silk scarves for presents and some colourful embroidered bags for me) and soaked in the creative, bohemian atmosphere.

Later I met up with some friends from the tour and we went to watch some artists painting in the famous ‘miniature’ style. They showed us lots of their work and I bought two miniature matching peacock paintings on white marble. Then I had a peacock painted on my finger nail (as you do).

Next to explore was the City Palace, which dominates the scene being the largest palace in India and set picturesquely alongside man-made Lake Pichola. It was built in the late 16th century and is only partly open to the public as the current royal family still live there. In a nutshell, it is fairytale beautiful and opulent. Unlike the other palaces I have visited (oh ladi-dah! I mean the ones I’ve seen in India. On this tour. I don’t mean to imply I’m a frequent guest at Buckingham) this one has many furnishings and murals on display which was quite fascinating. There were lots of little touches around the place with a big emphasis on aesthetics and beauty.

There’s so much I love about this photo, but the Indian lady takes the prize.

OK I think that is enough from Udaipur Palace.

In the evening we watched a local dance performance showcasing traditional Rajasthan dances – the women were so beautiful in their colourful and sparkly costumes, their performance was mesmerising. I particularly loved a dance where a woman stacked more and more clay pots on top of her head (and kept them on!) I love Indian music and dance so the evening was really enjoyable.

We later had dinner at a rooftop restaurant with candles flickering and the breeze keeping us cool, another unique never-to-forget Indian moment.

I joined a the group from my tour in a cooking class with a local business called Spice Box. We cooked a range of super delicious Indian classics and then got to eat our results for lunch (yum!) I wonder if I will take the time to cook Indian food at home? I like to think I will, but there are so many ingredients involved, and quite a shopping list to prepare for… and so easy to order take-away (for shame).

On our last night before we moved on to Pushkar we caught the cable car to Sunset Point to watch the sun set.

And because I like to end on a ‘just because’ whenever possible, a pretty photo for pretty’s sake:

Back on the train we go, this time heading to a small town called Bassi. Waiting for a train no matter where you are in the world always presents a unique display of local life, India definitely offers some of the more fascinating displays I’ve seen. Here a colourful sight walks down the platform towards us:


I don’t know where this monkey is going but he is waiting just as patiently for the train as us:

Once we got to Bassi we stocked up on water (and chocolate ahem) and then rode in open jeeps to Bijaipur. As much as a I think pink buses are an excellent idea I am sorta glad we weren’t on this one where there was sitting room on the roof only. Lucky the Indian family behind it have their own family vehicle.

Our accommodation in Bijaipur was none other than Bijaipur Castle! Less Disney and more Tree of Life, it was pretty cool! Here is the entry to my room and my cosy window seat where I admit I whiled away a few hours of my stay reading.

I. Want. One.

I did ensure to move around a bit and spend some time reading from the swing-y chair. and the balcony day bed in the sun. I think I read two books in two days here – heaven.

I wandered around the castle on exploring missions too – the rooftop was beautiful! A bit too hot to read up here though (this white stone so popular here gets absolutely scorching to stand on!)

And I got henna-ed! A must do in India, even though I am quite familiar with the process having done a lot of henna-ing on myself at home, it was nice to have the authentic experience.

In the afternoon we went for a village tour and met lots of the locals – look at these cuties:

All the dogs have the same nap time I think. It appears to span most of the day.

We bumped into a group of beautifully dressed women, amongst them a young bride on her way to her wedding – she is in red below.

The locals are happy to pose for photos – though they must think we’re strange for finding their everyday life so picture worthy.

We toured the farm and fields, saw where they hold their town meetings. Living in Sydney is so far removed from this way of life, where community is everything and everyone relies on each other.

And to end with something pretty… just coz it’s pretty:

The pretty town of Bundi was a visual treat to wander around – so many picture perfect moments around every corner. We visited Bundi Palace, built between the 16th and 17th centuries and featuring beautiful romantic courtyards, scalloped walls and even a hot tub :-) Prepare for a post of photos photos photos – they speak for themselves!

Look at this pretty courtyard – so romantic, I want to float around here all day.

Hot tub fun!

Another picture perfect moment captured at just the right moment:

Oh monkey monkey, you’re the boss huh?

Casual retail:

Look at this groovy party cart – do they bring this out for town parties? Pump the bollywood out?

Sigh – A woman walking down the street carrying something would not be this visually appealing in Australia. Indian women have style.

What a laid back and beautiful small town!

Ranthambore! Come on and Tiger Safari with me! (Sorry irrelevant Beach Boys reference).

Visiting Ranthambore, the largest national park in Rajasthan and a protected Tiger Reserve, was a lot of fun that involved our group piling in a jeep, waiting in queue outside the gates til the appointed time, then roaring inside hoping to be the first to find the tigers!

There are only about 30 adult tigers in the park so luck has a lot to do with whether you get the chance to see one. You can’t get too close, though the jeep driver all keep an eye on each other and when one is seen to stop and stay in one place for too long all the other jeeps start roaring towards them. That was a bit of a worry to me… shouldn’t we try to be a bit more inconspicuous? But I can’t complain too much as that is how we managed to see one pretty close up! We saw another jeep parked still with all the occupants pointing their cameras in the same direction – our driver sped over to where it was and there was a beautiful tiger just mosey-ing around by the river.

We also spotted one ourselves – it was further away, but I enjoyed watching it more as I didn’t feel like we were intrusive. It just wandered around on the slope, slowly moving out of view.

The tigers were not the only beauties in the park – we saw lots of the other residents too:

And look at this sun! Is it particularly ginormous? Hmmm… maybe just extra glow-y.

It was a really enjoyable, extremely bumpy ride – highly recommended!

Ummm yep, I went for a ride on this (noticed the windscreen after the trip had commenced)…

Next stop was Jaipur – the capital of the state of Rajasthan and one of my favourite places thanks to its bustling vibe, filled with bazaars and busy streets. We had a lot of fun attempting to fit as many people in an auto-rickshaw as possible (eight! But apparently you can fit 12 if necessary) which resulted in lots of in-unison-screeching as pot holes sent eight heads bashing onto the rickshaw ceiling and butts slamming onto the hard skinny seats – but lots of laughs too of course!

A Jaipur highlight was seeing a bollywood film at the Raj Mandir theatre, deliciously retro with its candy pink and baby blue foyer complete with chandeliers and star-shaped lights. We felt like celebrities out the front where an Indian tourist came over to us to introduce his family and have photos with us. The film, Thank You (थैंक यू), was in Hindi, no subtitles, but still universally entertaining (cheesiness knows no language barriers).

Another Jaipur must-do is the trek up the hillside, past a heap of crazed monkeys, to the Galwar Bagh Monkey Temple at sunset. What a fabulous view of Jaipur from the top! The monkeys are spoilt, aggressive little brats that you have to avoid making eye contact with otherwise they will jump you and mug you for everything you have on your person. But apart from that, we enjoyed a perfectly pleasant visit speed walking past the monkeys and taking photos from the top.

There was some good shopping to be done in Jaipur’s bazaars, in particular for silver jewellery – proud to say I played my part in supporting the local economy. Yep, that’s what it’s all about! As I was wandering around the bazaars with the girls we stopped to window gaze at a silver store. The next thing we knew we had been whisked inside the door by a peppy young guy who smoothly had us all lined up in seats at the counter, offering to make us tea while pulling out trays and trays of shiny silver pretties! Normally I’d be backing out the door at this point but there was just something about him, his keen entrepreneur spirit seemed genuine and he chatted away giving us an art history lesson in Indian traditional and contemporary jewellery. We liked him and more importantly we liked his trays of shiny silver pretties so it was not long until we all had our wallets out.

The bazaars are brilliant to wander through; photo moments at every corner, each store packed with a colourful variety of produce, sweets, spices – well everything actually! And the store owners were only too happy to have their stock and themselves photographed.

The tour of Amber Fort near Jaipur was a favourite for me; what an awesome presence this late 16th century citadel has, staking its claim with stone walls running along the mountain tops wherever the eye can see. Predominantly constructed with red sandstone and white marble, the fort sits picturesquely next to Lake Maotha and stands four floors high. The imposing exterior fits into the rugged landscape perfectly but the interior is a piece of art. Intricately carved columns, mirror-inlaid patterned wall panels, paintings flaking away but still showing glimpses of vibrant colour – the attention to detail inside is exquisite and one can only imagine what life was like for those who lived and worked inside the fort when it was in its prime; especially with furniture and textiles further cosying up the ambience.

The four floors all seemed to serve a purpose, the bottom set the scene for parades and the bustling bazaar, another held offices of the ruling empire and halls for public and private audiences, and another housed the consorts (100+ of them!), gardens and temple. The top floor was home to the twelve wives, all set up in their own mini-palace apartments accessible by the Maharaja by a discreet common corridor so that no one but he knew who he was visiting and how often, diplomatically maintaining harmony in the household! Diplomacy was one thing the Amber Fort was lauded for; the careful attention to neutrality and strategic alliances with other ruling forces, from nearby kings to the British meant Amber Fort enjoyed relative peace and was never attacked or conquered. I’m sure the impressive walls and outposts on the surrounding mountains also helped :-).

Rajasthan adventures continue in the next post…!