Category Archives: Adventure

The Taj Mahal – It ‘ain’t’ just another monument.

Tree at the Taj
Tree at the Taj

There is only one picture that captures the essence of the Taj Mahal. A forelorn Princess Diana sitting in front of the flowing fountains pondering her life gave us all a glimpse into her vulnerability. As the folklore goes, the picture was taken during the time that she and Charles were falling on troubled waters, and later that year they split.

The Taj creates a ‘feeling’ inside you. It makes you feel a bit more ‘exposed’, like someone is peering deep within. It is all that life is: love, despair, hope and tragedy, joy and madness. The fact that a man made building can create such a lasting memory is a testament to its power. I was moved by the sheer size of the monument, a tribute to the Shah’s dead wife. It is so big and so unusual in its stature that they say astronauts can pinpoint it from space. The words that come to mind are majestic, grande, immense, incredible and crowded!

Taj Mahal Pool
Taj Mahal Pool

Yes, apparently, I was not the only person that wanted to see the Taj Mahal on that given Tuesday. Everyday there are tens of thousands of visitors to the Taj. Its probably the single biggest ‘tourist attaction’ in the World. And, what is odd about this fact is that this beautiful, magical tomb is in Agra, one of the dumpiest towns I’ve visited in all of India.

Details of the Taj
Details of the Taj

For a town receiving millions of visitors per year, Agra has no supporting infrastructure. There is only one extremely narrow and small road leading through Agra to the Taj to support all the tour busses, cars, taxis and local movers for all. There are few hotel choices within the mid range and the prices are jacked up. The food choices in the restaurants are minimal with food prices unusually high. It is also dangerous to venture out too far at night due to a high crime rate in Agra itself. So, this begs the question, with all the millions of dollars coming from visits to the Taj Mahal, where is the money going? My personal opinion is that there are a lot of political pockets being lined with Taj rupees. It is well known that India’s politicians live like their preceding kings. There is a long history of bribery and kick backs which has continued to plague their political system. However, this is still no reason not to protect, nurture and support the greatest tourist attraction in India. The Taj is a ‘must see’ on the list of things to do in India. Though, if you go, I would recommend staying out of Agra and going to the Taj as a day trip. This way you’ll have the experience without the headache.

Sepia Taj
Sepia Taj

It is well worth the trip to see, feel and sense the love and anguish in the walls of the Taj Mahal. Just don’t expect to be the only one there to see its majesty, as the Taj is never lonely for company.

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Munnar is Tea Heaven if you can stomach the drive.

Mel & the Tea
Mel & the Tea

Munnar is a hill station nestled in the Western Ghats of Southern India! Magnificent Views of jungle, then mountains, and the tea plantations cover the topography. It is a spectacle to see such varieties of green in this magical place also known for all the spices we have grown to love in the gorgeous and zesty South Indian food!

Tea Lady hard at work
Tea Lady hard at work

The only drawback to this area is getting there. From Cochin, a main city hub in Kerela, it’s a winding, narrow, heroic drive that makes your stomach feel like its on a 5 hour roller coaster. Add to this the honkers, tour busses, and the m any traffic slow downs, and you have one heck of a ride to get to the top of this World. If you have travelled the road to Hana in Maui, you will be able to relate to the potential barf feel of such a car trip to Munnar. That being said, if you are of strong fortitude, and love the fresh air and scenery of mountainous regions, you will love The area of Munnar.

Scenic View Munnar
Scenic View Munnar

One of the non-touristy and memorable things we did in this area, was to hire a guide to take us trekking beyond the tea plantations. We made an arrangement with Jayshungar, a wonderful guide who loves nature and is an advocate for a more environmentally sensitive India. He helped to shake the cobwebs in the brain from such a long car journey.

Munnar Tea Pickers
Munnar Tea Pickers

Making the equivalent of about $8.00 a week, the ‘tea ladies’ work picking tea leaves for up to 12 hours per day. Their charisma and smiles seemed to tell the story of so many Indians. Hard working and very proud of their daily accomplishments, they were happy to share. It is this sense of satisfaction in life, whether false or not, that seems to be such a part of the Indian character. These Tea Ladies, with their broad smiles will be a lasting memory of my Munnar trip!

Varanasi – A spiritual slap to the senses!

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All I can say about Varanasi is summed up with the acronym O.M.G.  It is one of those places that cannot be described and must be experienced.  This seems to be the same comment I am making about India as a whole.  However, Varanasi is all the good, the bad and the ugly within one city.  Varanasi is the birth place of Shiva, the destroyer in Hindu mythology.   Varanasi is the oldest living city in the World, 3500 years old. There are 3 million people within this massively crowded, polluted and congested city.  Many Hindus come from all over India to die in this eclectic and eccentric town.  Why? One reason, to be burned and cremated along the holy Ganga river and ascend to a higher level of being.

As our guide Raj mentioned, people come to this holy city for earning, learning and burning!  The Ghats are the heartbeat of Varansi, also known as Banaras or Kashi.     The 84 Ghats are a grouping of steps that provide an entrance to the river Ganga.  There are different ghats for different activities at different times of the day.  In the morning you will see people purifying themselves with a dunk at one Ghat. While another Ghat you will see the Dhobi wallas, beating the laundry. Another Ghat is  used for Aarti, a holy Hindu ceremony to either bless the coming of a new day, or to bless the River Ganga.  And there are two Ghats devoted to cremation.  This Ghats are  life force of Varanasi and well worth a walk as well as a boat ride with a local.  Walking along the Ghats is as if you have hit the super charge button and zoomed into a past World.  Many of the rituals of each Ghat have been going on for many, many years.

Of course, this is not for the feint of heart.  Even getting to the Ghats can be a challenge as you navigate with caution.  Getting to the Ghats provided the most interesting of all traffic congested rides of my life.  The ideal mode of transport is a bicycle rickshaw, as it is quicker and easier to move through the congestion.  The only problem, is the noise and air pollution.  If you are  claustrophobe do not come to Varansi!  But, if you want an adventure, then do not hesitate.  It’s worth it!

There is so much to write about this city, but the main thing that makes Varanasi different is the burning ritual.  To see and experience the ritualistic creation of cremation on such a visceral level is something I will never forget.  It was not a sad feeling, nor disheartening to experience this.  It was simple, paying homage to the end of a life.  Hindus believe that this ritual is a sacred rite of passage to a better afterlife.  I walked through two burning Ghats with the utmost of respect in my heart.  It seems to be a simple and justified concept that allows closure.  Of all the things I’ve experienced, this will be one that I will remember with fondness, not sadness.  I understood it.  As my friend Vikesh said, Death is simply a part of Life.  Hindus do not shy away from it, as westerners do. They embrace it as a fact of life, without all the baggage.  We are born. We live. We die.   No matter what your inclination or religion, you will be affected by this city.  Varanasi is a place you must experience.  It is a must do on the list of things one must do in India.   Image

Jaipur – A Shopping Jungle

Jaipur, the pink city, is brimming with retail therapy clinics everywhere you look!

P1130252 Being the capital of Rajastan, it is a hustling, bargaining and bustling city of 11 million people.  It is known for its magnificent forts, glorious palaces and it’s shopping. And, that is a personal weakness on such a trip as this! One can have a very reasonably priced experience in India, as the food is inexpensive and accommodation can be found at every level your budget can afford.  However, if your weakness is shopping, then, my friend, the ‘deals’ can suck you dry.

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You name it, and you can buy it in Jaipur. Tailor made clothes, silver, shoes, carpets, furniture, clothing, and on and on it goes.  Quality can be questionable in certain places, so buyer beware.  While the prices can be very reasonable to a westerner, make sure you bargain as much as possible. One note of caution is to beware of the tailor shops.

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Tailor made clothes used to be the way to find the ideal fit for a low price. Based on my experience, the tailor shops were a disappointment.   Most of the clothes I had made, needed altering, we’re of poor fabric quality, and seemed far more costly than they should have been.  I take full responsibility for this, as the tailor shop tenders are shrewd bargainers!

Frankly, it’s expected in most shops to have a haggle and start at 50% less than the original price.  You will go back and forth a few times to a settled and reasonable price.  And it is an art to perfect the haggle. 

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 So, shop wisely!  Don’t be too interested, nor too vested in any item.  One must be open to walking away like it does not matter if you get the item or not. And, I would suggest walking away far more often than I did.  It will save you bundles!  I wish I could heed my own advice.  May you be ‘one with the the rupee’! 

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Pushkar :) A loving, bumpy ride

In western Rashistan is a smaller, quaint town known of Pushkar. The town is full of a more desert way of life than the many cities of India. It is slightly more laid back, and while it still has it’s share of traffic jams, it is more camels than cars shuffling along the streets. Pushkar is famous for its Camel Festival. This Fall season festival brings thousands of people, both domestics, and foreigners, to watch as camels are purchased, and traded for business. Thereafter, there is a week long camel loving celebration!

As my travel is in December, we did not attend the camel festival, but we’re still intrigued by the Proud Rajastani tradition. It was explained to me that the significance of the camel is it’s representation of Love. Why would a camel represent Love? Because love can be a bumpy ride!

I have enjoyed many bumpy rides in my life, and was smitten by my own camel experience on Mowgli. I can’t say that we had a long affair of the heart, but he did not spit at me. That was something. And after it was all over, bumping along the sand dunes of Rajastan, I wanted to do it again! I suppose you could say that Mowgli’s awkward lope captured a wee piece of my heart. If you ever visit western Rajastan, make sure to experience the ways of the camel. It is an experience that your heart will never forget.

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Udaipur – A land of lakes and luxury

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Udaipur is an oasis! There are six ‘king-made’ lakes throughout the city that make this moderately sized town quite famous. After the hustle and bustle of Indian city life, I can see why so many ‘domestic travellers’ relax in Udaipur. After a very long journey from Rishakesh to Delhi by both auto and train, we carried on to Udiapur on a plane. Luckily, the plane was not delayed due to fog, which is the norm for this time of year. And after 15 hours of travel, this lake town was a welcome reprieve.

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The people of Rajastan are all very friendly and welcoming. They are inviting and often offer their own homes for a cup of tea or a chat. This was the case with our waiter, Barat. He called his mother and suggested that his new travelling friends should come to her house for tea on our way to…

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Udaipur – A land of lakes and luxury

Udaipur is an oasis! There are six ‘king-made’ lakes throughout the city that make this moderately sized town quite famous. After the hustle and bustle of Indian city life, I can see why so many ‘domestic travellers’ relax in Udaipur. After a very long journey from Rishakesh to Delhi by both auto and train, we carried on to Udiapur on a plane. Luckily, the plane was not delayed due to fog, which is the norm for this time of year. And after 15 hours of travel, this lake town was a welcome reprieve.

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The people of Rajastan are all very friendly and welcoming. They are inviting and often offer their own homes for a cup of tea or a chat. This was the case with our waiter, Barat. He called his mother and suggested that his new travelling friends should come to her house for tea on our way to Pushkar. This is the way of the Rajistani people! So kind.

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Udiapur has some lavishness to it as well, with some incredible hotels and the City Palace and Red Fort are fabulous to visit. One 5 star plus hotel is in the middle if the main Picola Lake and was used for the James Bond Movie, Octopussy. The City Palace was so worth the admission with the feeling of Maharani royalty everywhere one turned. There is also one lovely little spot called the Pleasure Palace that was the king’s pleasure place. Udiapur has a sense of wealth and a feeling of royalty that is so far unmatched. Didn’t spend enough time here to really see it all. There is a richness to the people that matches the inner wealth of the experience. And I already want to go back

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Incredible India Hardiwar and Rishikesh

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Rishakesh And Haridwar

At the foot of the Himalayas lies two holy towns which sit along the Ganges about 30 km away from each other. Hardiwar is not the cleanest city I have ever seen but the many people, cows and monkeys make up for its ‘less than kind’ features. There are many holy places along the Ganges River. There are holy men everywhere due to the prominence of Hindu temples with their many stories. There are 33 million Gods in the Hindu culture so there is a lot of worshipping going on at any given time.

Our Hardiwar and Rishikesh guide, Alok, was proud to give us the top tips of Hindu religion in a simple way. Of course, the main three or Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. As it has been explained, G O D is the acronym for Generator, Operator and Destroyer. In the Hindu religion, Brahma is the generator and creator. Vishnu is the operator and protector. And Shiva, the destroyer and transformer. As one walks through the town, dodging scooter and pigs, there are little pujas and statues throughout.

A bit further North is Rishakesh, another very holy city. It is cold and rainy on the day we arrive. The Ganges snakes along the mountain valley like a serpent of servitude. This river is a reminder of the strength of India’s cultural connection to renewal. Throughout its history, and all the strife, discomfort, war and poverty, is always a sense of hope. There always seems to be that feeling that this too shall pass.

Rishakesh is famous for two bridges to cross the river in significant spots. Laxshman Jhula and Ram Jhula both provide passage to the North side of the river. The most amazing experience there was the Aarti Ceremony right on the foot of the Ganges. The rain stopped and the skies opened to a beautiful sunset. People gathered around next to the Ganga and a large flock of young boys dressed in their saffron and maroon clothing flanking the holy fire. It was simply beautiful. The singing was something I have never experienced. I think the Hindi spoken ceremony was basically about honouring the experience of ‘life’ and ‘light’ that is within. The feeling that overcame me was surreal. The mood was one of release and an uplifting of spirits. And the young boys seemed entranced with such passion as they sang along with the holy man overseeing the service. It was truly moving.

As we left Rishakesh, dodging cows, pigs and scooters along the small streets, I could feel a shift inside. It will be a moment I will fondly remember. No matter what occurs, It is as it should be.

Continue reading Incredible India Hardiwar and Rishikesh

India Calling!

India Calling! Its not your standard hang out at an Ashram and cleanse from the karma that bites you in the ass trip.  It is more of an Indian Buffet of all things wild, weird and wonderful about India.  As I’ve never been, everything and anything about it will be wickedly gob-smacking!  Two weeks in the North, the Taj – OMG factor; Jaipur – Pink City Retail Therapy;  Pushkar– Get to know your camel toe (on a real camel) and Varanasi – the cultural slap of the Ganges Ghats ; and then two weeks in the South, backwater cruising in the Kerala District; Ayurvedic de-tox sensations; and the final Hippie fest in Goa.  The great thing about travelling in places so foreign is that its like a cold splash in the face on a humid, hot day. It’s a shock to the system and ideally sets you on a new refreshing course.  Travelling has always been my way of ‘system shock’! And, it works!

So, friends, this will be an opportunity for me to share with you some of the wilds of the tastes, smells, sights, and intuitions – both the gross and the glorious!  It will be INDIA in all its glory, on my terms and from my perspective! I hope you enjoy!

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