4 January, 2012

From India with Love: Exploring Rajasthan and Goa

4 January, 2012

Jewel-coloured saris, jingling jewellery, romantic music, pungent spices and dramatic architecture. Before going India my impressions were shaped by Gregory David Roberts’ masterpiece ‘Shantaram’, Bollywood films (which I have a surprising affliction for) and Slumdog Millionaire. They were all totally on the money but there was so much more to the experience than I ever expected. The streets really are organized chaos with people, vehicles, and animals jam packed against a backdrop of high rises, temples, colonial architecture and slums. India is vast and I only had two weeks in which to explore it, so I decided to set my sights on Rajasthan and Goa.

As a young female travelling alone, attention from Indian males can take a bit of getting used to. I am not exaggerating when I call it eye rape. Everyone harasses you with the same three questions, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘How long in India?’ Just try to remember that they are harmless and have a good heart!

Upon arriving in Delhi I had a fair idea of the cities I wanted to visit, but no idea how to actually get to them. So first stop was the Tourist Office, who kindly planned my itinerary, organized a driver, booked accommodation and bought train/plane tickets for me. Once introduced to my driver Sanjay we set off for a whirlwind daytrip of Dehli sights, including the Lotus temple, a Sheik temple and the imposing India Gate. I highly recommend getting a driver because they are cheap, know all the best spots to visit, and how to avoid the nightmarish traffic. Delhi is terribly polluted so one day was definitely enough.

The next morning the driver and I began the four hour journey towards Agra, home of the magnificent Taj Mahal. The Taj was built in 1631 AD (and took 20 years to complete) by Shah Jahan as a symbol of love for his wife, and it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Cheesy Princess Di pose in front – check. To go inside tourists have to put on bright red shoe covers, while Indians must go barefoot.  At one point I became something of an attraction myself, with locals queuing up to take pictures with me.  My feeling of celebrity diminished once they discovered Miss Universe India was there posing for her own Princess Di style picture. I joined the crowd trying to catch a glimpse of her.

New day new city, it was off to Jaipur also known as the Pink City because of the plentiful pink sandstone famously exported from the area.  But funnily enough it didn’t get this name until 1856 when the city was given a pink wash in honor of Prince Albert’s State Visit. A few miles from the city my driver dropped me off at the bottom of a hill, something he called the Monkey Temple, and told me he would pick me up at the other end. Under the hot morning sun the temple was coming to life, people were bathing in questionable looking outdoor pools and going about their daily business. I groaned as I looked up at the steep stone path and realized the only way to the other side was over. Luckily the view from the top was breathtaking, the temple overlooked the whole city of Jaipur with its flat roofs and old world charm. Monkeys lined the path, basking in the sun and scratching each other’s backs. They were not fazed by humans at all, although I didn’t dare touch one since I ignored my doctor’s advice to get rabies shots before my trip.

I skipped the Red Forts in Delhi and Agra because my guide was adamant that Jaipur’s Amber Fort was the best and he was right.  The romantic Rajasthani fort/palace sits on a hill and again after climbing many stairs I reached the top. It is possible to ride a gaudily decorated elephant up but I passed on that.  While exploring alone one of the many men sitting around outside befriended me and gave me a guided tour.  He turned out to be super knowledgeable when explaining the rich history of kings and queens who had once lived there, and what each room in the fort was used for. He even gave me a ride back down the hill on his motorbike, showing me a small temple on the way. Jaipur is famous for its cheap gemstones so visiting one of the many jewellery shops is a must, don’t forget to bargain!

My final stop in Rajasthan was Jasialmer, the Golden City. After an 11 1/2hour train ride I arrived in the heart of the Thar desert.  A small and isolated town by comparison, the ominous fort and beautiful Jain Temples are at the center of life here. The fort was once home to the king, but is now inhabited by descendants of his former staff, who have made only a few adjustments for modern life.

The main thing to do in Jaisalmer is go on a camel safari, so the next afternoon I was picked up by an overcrowded jeep of village people and taken to meet my camel driver.  We rode about an hour into the desert before stopping for a late lunch with some other people.  My ears tuned in when I heard them speaking Cantonese, and sure enough I was in the middle of the Indian desert with four Hong Kong locals! Lunch was basic but perhaps the best meal I had in India, a simple potato curry and chapatti made over a small campfire. Although I expected majestic images of riding a camel through the sand dunes at sunset, reality was a bit different. First, the dunes are only in patches, the rest of the time you ride in tussock. Second, camels spit, foam at the mouth and are not the friendliest creatures in the animal kingdom.  But after a few more hours riding we set up camp for the night. After seeing the state of our hut accommodation my fellow HK’ers and I decided to sleep under the stars. The camel drivers played us some traditional Rajasthani music and danced wildly around the campfire much to my delight. They live such simple lives, working the tourist season half the year then surviving the blistering 50 degree heat for the rest. With a life expectancy in the early 50’s my camel driver looked as if he was pushing that with this leathery skin and deep set wrinkles. I was shocked when he told me he was only 32, the dangers of living in the sun I guess.

After the hustle and bustle of these frenetic cities it was time for some R&R in Goa.  Palolem’s Chattai Beach Huts became my home for a week and relaxing was just what I needed after the madness. Palolem beach is located at the Southern end of Goa, about 1 hours drive from the domestic airport. The beach itself is just as beautiful as Thailand but the vibe is totally different. Less harassment from hawkers and more chilled.

Since India is the birthplace of yoga, it was no surprise to find many yoga studios offering classes. I managed to drag myself out of bed one morning for sunrise yoga, a great experience for mind, body and soul.  Days were spent lounging in the sun, swimming and being approached by nice women wanting to sell me henna, massages and jewellery. Every evening there was a different beachfront restaurant to try, my favourite being 8th Wonder, where new friends gathered and the chef taught me how to make my favourite curry, Malai Kofta.

While I was there Bollywood came to Palolem to film dance scenes on the beach. The apparently well known actors and backup dancers busted their best moves under the blistering sun, even recruiting Westerners to participate. Unlike the other Goan beaches Palolem’s nightlife is rather tame, but the Thursday night Silent Disco is definitely worth checking out. It was a slow start to the night with everyone a bit shy to get on the dance floor with their headphones, but after a few Kingfisher beers and great old school songs it was packed.

Many beaches line Goa’s stunning coastline, and although Anjuna’s wild trance parties might not be your thing, a trip to the area is definitely worth it. The famous Anjuna flea market is a collection of typical tourist souvenirs such as silk scarves, spices, t-shirts and ethnic jewellery spread amongst some unique and innovative products. It is also home to hundreds of hippes, from babies to grandparents, many of whom live here permanently soaking up Goa’s hedonistic lifestyle.  The odd cow can be seen wandering around on the sand and beachfront restaurants pump out good house tunes.

Getting a dodgy tummy was one of my greatest fears heading to India, but it actually wasn’t too bad. The locals seemed quite protective and told me not to eat in certain places, but the combination of heat, exhaustion and eating spicy food three times a day took its toll. The Western food is pretty average, but sometimes it was necessary. India is an awesome place to be a vegetarian. Around 50% of the population does not eat meat so you never have to look far for a meal, plus McDonald’s and KFC make their veggie burgers in a totally different part of the kitchen, ensuring no meat juices contaminate them!

One of the Indian people’s favourite pastimes is the ritual of drinking masala chai. On every street corner lies a rustic little shop usually housing just a few seats. The sweet tea is boiled with milk and poured into an espresso sized cup. It is drunk at all times of the day and nearly everyone you meet will offer you a cup. Take it! Not only is it polite to do so, but the tea is delicious and becomes something of a comfort for the culture shock.

India is full of surprises and contradictions, and if you are willing to open your mind to new experiences it may just have you hooked!

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