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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Odd Beach Sightings

We have been scolding ourselves for the lack of blogging taking place in Mandrem, but dude, it's the beach! And after a few weeks of fast paced village hopping it was time to put the bum in beach-bum. So in an attempt to add some content for our followers I thought I would tell you about some of weird stuff we have seen during out daily beach walks.

The beach was really interesting and unlike any other we have visited. It was definitely the widest and flattest beach we had seen but that made for great running and morning/afternoon walks. Wooden fishing boats lined the water and it seemed that everyone who wasn't constructing temporary beach hotels were busy putting their nets to sea.

We happened upon a pretty interesting fishing phenomenon which I was later told was a lunar based event. For a period of 2-3 days fisherman were pulling in some pretty insane catches and it took upwards of 20 people to drag the nets up the beach and get the booty sorted. Probably the oddest part of the catch was the "school" of leopard rays. There were hundreds of them and everyone seemed really excited--I suppose this was the Indian equivalent of skate? The rays weren’t the only unfortunate critters being pulled from the sea. There were piles of small fish, prawns, and shrimp all being inspected and sold right off of the beach. The locals were all ecstatic and coming in droves to load up baskets of sea food haul them back home atop there heads. We even saw one guy tie a leopard ray to his scooter so he could drag it behind him. The beach side market lasted for the duration of the three days until one morning it had completely disappeared. Personally, I just hope they actually ate all of those rays.

Other fun sights included cows (duh, it's India), dogs, thousands of hermit crabs, and six armed starfish. We especially enjoyed the dogs who ran in packs and seemed to be running the beach. Their favorite activities included herding the cows on the beach and randomly picking "owners" on the beach to dutifully guard during their walk, yoga practice, or sun bathing.

Anjuna Market

Mandrem was just what we were looking for--slow, sleepy, beachy, and walking distance to yoga classes. We had lucked out finding our very reasonably priced room and were loving the view. The sunsets were great and it felt heavenly falling asleep to the sound of the surf each night. Our days were slow but followed a schedule that ensured we both got in some much needed exercise and were able to plow through some beach reading.

As relaxing as our environment was I did find myself with a bit of cabin fever and told Catherine she should accompany me (by scooter) to check out the Anjuna market. The market takes place every Wednesday and is apparently a Goan institution—it’s been going on since the 60’s! Although a bit reluctant to brave the Indian roads on the back of a scooter she agreed to join my field trip. I found the newest scooter I could find in the village which just happened to be bright purple with a large logo on the front “Jesus Loves You.” Sold! For about $4 we had our own transportation and could meander our way south to the market.

It took about an hour to make the trip and I was surprised at how easy it was to find. As we pulled into Anjuna it quickly became apparent that this was no small event. It was the largest assembly of tourist taxis and scooters we had seen since arriving in Goa and everyone had come ready to shop. The market was huge with literally hundreds of stalls and stretched several hundred meters inland from the beach. It was a souvenir supermarket packed full of carvings, clothing, spices, and jewelry. We wandered through the maze of shops for about an hour and Catherine honed her negotiation skills over some new earrings. It was steaming hot and very crowded so we decided to retreat to shade and a cold beverage.

We rode back late in the afternoon dodging cows, trucks, potholes and other fun road obstacles. It was a good break, but we decided our slow life on the beach was perfectly sufficient for the remainder of our trip.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reasons the Platinum American Express Card is a Huge Ripoff for International Travel

When we started this trip, we thought we would mainly use our American Express card. In fact, we upgraded to platinum, thinking that all of the benefits would more than offset the $300 upgrade cost and we'd really rack up the points on our trip around the globe. Now I'm sure that Amex did nothing untoward and that we probably misunderstood a lot of benefits and just didn't read the fine print.

However, here are the reasons the American Express Platinum Card is a complete ripoff for international travel:

* We thought it would be widely accepted, but American Express was our most rejected credit card. First of all, you usually have to pay cash in developing countries. Even if they did accept credit cards, apparently Amex's fees are so high, everyone prefers Visa or Mastercard.

* They have an international collect number where you can call them 24/7 for any problems or fraud issues at no charge to you. Not once have we been able to connect to an operator to make a collect call.

* Their fraud protection program extremely overbearing. I am not exaggerating when I say that every single time I have tried to purchase plane tickets online, the charge would not go through the first time. I would have to call them to have the fraud alert cleared and the card unfrozen. Making these calls is really inconvenient, not to mention expensive, since the collect call thing doesn't actually work.

* Supposedly, we would be able to access all of the airlines' executive lounges--convenient for layovers and just a general perk when flying. We have not been let into a *single* lounge when traveling internationally. Nope, not even one! There are two problems with this. One is that it's only good for Sky Team airlines, so it doesn't work for United and all of its partners, which we fly often. Two, even when we have happened to fly a Sky Team airline, we've been turned away because our card is American. [Interestingly enough, the *domestic* terminal in the Delhi airport has a lounge for Platinum American Express members. We stopped in there for about three minutes just because we could, but didn't have enough time to check out any of the perks.]

* We thought for every first class ticket we purchased, we'd get a free companion ticket. (not that we planned on doing this often, but maybe for some longer flights) This is only true in flights originating out the United States. Very convenient when you're on international travel!

* Using their travel concierge is basically impossible since all of their suggested arrangements are prohibitively expensive. Definitely a perk for those on a corporate account or the extremely wealthy--not for mere mortals!

I've used Amex since college when I used my Dad's account to buy plane tickets home and we'll still use them in the future. But we'll definitely downgrade from platinum!

News Flash: We are Not Backpackers!

I know I know, you're all shocked. You thought we were backpackers and it turns out that we're just regular yuppies who quit our jobs to not really backpack around the world.

Part of my trouble on this trip was definitely trying to figure out what exactly we were supposed to *do*. Yann kept telling me that we were supposed to be "traveling the world," "learning about other cultures," and other vague and nondescript sorts of things. Does that mean that we're supposed to sightsee all day, every day? I hope not, because that gets really exhausting. But since we don't have jobs and we aren't freelance writers, how are we supposed to fill our time?

We're sort of a weird genre of traveler, too. Most people we meet are either much younger or much older. We meet a lot of twenty-two-year-old Australians taking a year off and moving from grubby hostel to grubby hostel. We also meet a lot of retirees who are "so inspired" by us. But we don't really have much in common with either. And to be honest, I always sort of figured we'd morph into the former category.

It just never really worked out. We have not stayed in one single hostel. We almost did in Cape Town, but in the end, it was kind of expensive. And for an extra $30/night, we could have our own apartment with its own kitchen, not have to share a bathroom, not be kept up all night with partying twenty-two-year-olds.... We figured the lower cost of cooking our own food alone justified the cost.

Maybe that was part of it, too. We weren't on our year off trying to stretch our graduation money as far as it would go. We'd budgeted for this trip and when it came down to financial decisions, we were usually willing to spend just a little bit more money in order to be more comfortable. And if we ran out of money, we'd just cut the trip short. Sleeping in a twin bed in a dorm room with five other people and sharing a bathroom just seemed so far out of the realm of possibilities for us.

I found it really frustrating that we never could seem to get into the whole "backpackers" thing. And what did they *do* all day? We always felt like we needed to justify our existence--have something to blog about and let everyone back home know that we didn't take a year off to do nothing.

Yann finally explained it to me in a way that made sense. Basically, they just sort of "hung out". I looked at him blankly. He said, "don't you remember college? How you lived in a dorm and shared a bathroom with a whole floor of people and whenever you weren't in class, you just hung out, doing nothing?"

Right! I do remember that. I definitely did a *lot* of nothing! And I started looking around. There was one guy from Cranbrook, AB who sat in the restaurant where we had breakfast all day long--chain-smoking and waiting for people to show up so he could chitchat. There were people who sat on the beach for ten-hour stretches playing their guitars, braiding each others hair, and chilling with the stray dogs.

Okay, well I didn't feel that bad anymore. I'm glad I've moved on from being able to waste such unbelievable amounts of time. And even if we are able to relax far more than when we were at home and needed to feel productive at all times (even if we were productively socializing), we didn't need to relax *that* much. We're 32 and 34, not 22! And once you have had a real job and paid your own bills, it's kind of hard to go back to just "hanging out".

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Indian Yoga

When we first started planning the Indian leg of the trip, I was going through a really lazy phase (and there have been many) and just wanted to find an ashram where I could scrub floors, do yoga, chant, and hang out for a month. However, I sent out a few emails to some people who are from or have visited India and they all said the same thing—-that there was a lot more to India than just yoga. Plus, I also had Charlie’s voice in the back of my head saying, “what, Catherine, you’re going to do the Eat, Pray, Love version of traveling around the world?” Anyway, we compromised and decided we’d see a bunch of sights in the beginning. Then, if I wanted to just find somewhere to do yoga until our visas ran out, I was allowed.

Goa had appealed to us for many reasons: the beach, the laid back vibe, and, the LP promised, there was yoga everywhere. When we arrived in Mandrem, we’d taken three yoga classes, all of which were very basic. The third one, in Palolem, Yann said was too basic even for him!

I found a place that did twice daily classes that was right around the corner from our hotel. By Indian standards, it was pretty pricy. However, at less than ten bucks per class, it was a bargain compared to back home. And it was WAY cheaper than actually staying at the mosquito-infested retreat that hosted the classes.

I’ve really enjoyed the classes, despite the mosquitoes (which really are that awful—I wear DEET to every class and still get bitten). They’ve rotated six instructors in the past two weeks, so there’s a variety of different styles and paces. All of the instructors are foreigners, but there’s definitely been more of a focus on the mindfulness and less on the exercise than any classes I’d taken back home (and the only other place I’ve ever taken classes, in Egypt). They also have a month-long teacher training class that’s currently in session and I’ve seen their schedule—-it’s a *lot* of meditation! [I’d actually considered taking the training, but our visas run out about half-way through.]

There’s another place down the road that also offers twice daily classes and they seem to have perpetual teacher training sessions as well. It looks about the same—-a bunch of youngish white women!

Maybe it’s different if you head up north to Rishikesh (where George Harrison tried to push the rest of the Beatles to seek enlightenment) or actually commit to an ashram, but it doesn’t seem like Indians do yoga down here. It appears to be something marketed to tourists who came to India to cleanse their minds and bodies… And since that’s how we’ve been treating it (hell, we’ve even been on the wagon for more than four weeks), I’ll take it. It just doesn’t feel very “authentic”. : )

Sunday, October 31, 2010

On to Mandrem

We arrived in Mandrem on Saturday. As we drew closer, I started to get more nervous. I just really wanted not to hate it and to be settled for a few days if not longer! We drove down a very sleepy road with a few restaurants and one clothing shop. At the end was Vila River Cat—-highly recommended by the LP and TripAdvisor.

Rinoo welcomed us effusively and sat us down to coffee and a sandwich while he proceeded to talk our ears off for over an hour. From the snippets I caught, Mandrem sounded pretty sleepy and perfect. There was even yoga at the hotel right across the river. Now if only he would shut up long enough for us to check out the beach!

Finally, we settled into our room and headed out to explore. First, we went across the river where the yoga classes were. The evening class was already underway, but I confirmed that they had yoga every day at 8:00 AM and 4:00 PM—-perfect. It turned out to be a yoga retreat center, so, while we were there, we checked out a couple of the eco-lodges. A couple seemed to have roaches and the whole place was mosquito-infested, presumably from being situated on the river. And then there was the exorbitant price—-no thanks!

We walked out to the beach and it was absolutely gorgeous! Perfect, really—-wide, flat, firm, and clean. It was also pretty deserted. Then we walked around “town” a little bit. The only thing that was really lacking was internet. However, that had been the case in Palolem (and, surprisingly, so many other places in India—-we’d really expected decent, if not awesome, internet here), so we figured we’d just deal with having to go to the internet cafĂ©. We decided we could see staying in Mandrem for a couple of weeks.

The next day, we looked at the place next door to our hotel and they had a room right on the beach for about half the price. Like Palolem, there were tons of huts in Mandrem, but our new place had to be the best bargain on the beach—-solid construction, oceanfront, and reasonable price! (And, in my opinion, another major bonus was not listening to Rinoo every time we came and went.) We went ahead and reserved it for sixteen days once our stay next door was over.

[The one drawback to leaving Rinoo was leaving the cutest kittens ever. There’s a reason it’s called Vila River Cat—-they feed quite a few strays and one had month-old kittens!]

We also walked up the beach about forty-five minutes to Arambol-—what appeared to be a backpackers’ haven. It was nice that there was somewhere else to walk to, but we were pretty psyched to be where we were.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Arrival in Goa--Palolem

We’d probably hyped Goa up a bit too much in our minds. Between the fact that it was supposed to be one of the more laidback parts of India and the fact that we’d be on our own schedule, we were *so* excited to get down there.

Even though it’s a fairly small state, we had a hard time picking where we wanted to go. We were looking for somewhere to stay (potentially) for up to three weeks. I basically wanted to find somewhere really quiet that offered yoga twice a day. And after our hotel in Varanasi, I really wanted a hotel with clean sheets. Yann wanted somewhere that he could run every day. If he wanted to go diving for the day (India’s best diving is supposed to be in the Andaman and Lakshadweep Islands and getting there sounded very expensive), everything seemed close enough. Otherwise, we didn’t care a whole lot as long as we could chill out and not have anyone telling us what to do.

With the help of the trusty LP, we narrowed it down to three places. Mandrem was way up in the north and supposed to be very quiet with beautiful beaches. We wondered if it would be too quiet. Palolem was way down in the south and also supposed to be quiet, but maybe not as much so. The LP said it was the place to be if you wanted to yoga, tai chi, reiki, or massage the days away… And in the middle were the fancy resorts. That sounded pretty nice for a couple of days. However, since we didn’t want to pay those prices for three weeks, we wondered if we ought to go ahead and get settled elsewhere. In the end, we decided on Palolem.

Like a lot of Goa, most of Palolem’s accommodation was supposed to be beach huts. Every year, these huts are torn down at the end of the season and then rebuilt at the beginning of the next after the monsoons have subsided. We decided to book a solid hotel for a couple of nights and then we’d find somewhere else to move over the following couple of days.

We arrived pretty late on Thursday night—-it was almost 10:00 PM. We were greeted by the security guy who handed us a bottle of water and told us the restaurant only did breakfast. We’d eaten a little on the plane and didn’t really know what our options were or if anything was open. So we decided to head to bed. Our room was huge and seemed pretty clean, but it was really simple and sterile…maybe we’d needed a couple of days at the fancy resort after all. Neither of us were that excited, but figured there was nothing to be done at that point anyway.

In the morning, everything looked better without the glow of fluorescent bulbs. We had some breakfast and took off towards the beach in search of the one hotel we knew of with yoga. We finally found it, confirmed that they had classes every morning and evening and even looked at some of the rooms. They seemed expensive for what they were.

Then we found the beach. It wasn’t bad exactly. It just wasn’t what we were all excited about. And to be honest, we’ve probably gotten a bit spoiled with spending so much time in the Bahamas and the gorgeous clear water and white sands. But we walked all the way up the beach, checking out a few huts along the way. A lot of them were still under construction since it was still right before the season officially started. As much as the Palolem was supposed to be sleepy, it seemed pretty crowded to us.

However, the LP told us that if even Palolem seemed too happening, we could head further south to Patnem. In the Palolem, the beach had been fairly clean, despite the numerous cows that wandered it and the odd bit of garbage here and there. Patnem was certainly quieter—-and with reason! The beach was absolutely filthy. There was no way that would be relaxing for a couple of weeks!

We decided we’d leave the next day and try Mandrem. If that didn’t work out, we’d check into a fancy place in the middle for about five to seven days to relax, finalize our plans for Nepal, and just accept that it was time to move on from India.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Everything we’d heard about Varanasi was lukewarm at best—-along the lines of “it’s interesting, but a little chaotic...” Even the LP’s first sentence describing the city was “brace yourself”. Between that and the overnight train ride, I was feeling very anxious about our trip. The main consolation was that after we made it through the next four days, we’d be on our way to Goa to chill out and have no schedule until we felt like it again.

Surat dropped us off at the train station a couple of hours early since he had to drive all the way back to Delhi that night. We paid someone 100 rupees to make sure we got on the right train—-it may have been the wimpy way out, but with little in the way of information inside, we figured the two bucks was worth it. Hanging out at the train station only heightened my trepidation as we watched the rats scurry around and listened to the world’s loudest pigeons.

[Allegedly, this is the only picture of the train. For the record, I do *not* have a double chin.]

Finally, our train arrived (right on time, I might add) and our hired guy made sure we got on it. It was an interesting set-up. All of the trains we’d been on thus far had been locked compartments of either two or four bunks. On this train, all of the bunks were out in the open with curtains that you could pull closed. Luckily, it was already 8:00 PM, so by the time we got settled and exchanged a few pleasantries with the men in the bunks across from us, I was able to crawl up on the top bunk, read for a bit, and go to sleep in the very hairy sheets provided by the railway. I vaguely heard Yann discussing politics as I drifted off.

[If one thing recurs over and over in our travels, it’s how ecstatic the rest of the world was for our change of administration. As uncomfortable as it can be at times traveling as an American, I can’t imagine how much worse it was under the reign of terror.]

We were supposed to arrive in Varanasi at 6:15 AM. Around 5:45, the guys across from us told us that the next stop was Varanasi. How exactly they knew, I’m not sure-—there were no announcements or anything. We quickly gathered our bags and headed out with everyone else.

Immediately outside of the train, a young guy held a sign with Yann’s name. He quickly introduced himself as Rahul and led us to the car. After checking into our hotel room, we made arrangements to meet him after lunch.

We spent the next 30 or so minutes arguing with the hotel. Our first room wasn't made up. There was an open packet of toothpaste and hairy soap on the edge of the sink and yesterday’s newspaper on the nightstand. The next room had two twin beds. They didn’t even pretend the next room was made up and told us we could have it at 10:00 AM. I told Yann we should just take the room with two twins so we could shower and have a quick nap now, when magically a made-up room with a queen became available. We moved our stuff in there and I tried not to make too huge of a fuss about it…it was definitely the grossest room we’d stayed in so far and the posted rate on this room was $100/night. We slept in our sleeping bag liners. : )

After showers, naps, and lunch, we were ready to tackle Sarnath with Rahul. Sarnath is where Buddha preached his first sermon after achieving enlightenment. As Buddhism flourished, there were elaborate and huge monuments and monasteries for at least seven centuries until Muslim invaders destroyed the city. The ruins were rediscovered by British archaeologists in 1835.

First, we visited the Mulgandha Kuti Vihar temple where Buddha’s first sermon is chanted daily. It was a really pretty temple painted inside with Buddhist scenes. However, Yann and I didn't like our tour guide--Rahul was about 20, really enthusiastic, and royally grating on our nerves. Luckily, when we went over to the Dhamekh Stupa and monastery ruins afterwards, he let us wander around by ourselves. Here’s a picture of my feelings on sight-seeing at that point:

After that, Rahul presented us with two local tickets (5 rupees apiece instead of 50) into the archaeological museum.

We headed back into town so that we could arrange for a sunset boat ride along the ghats. Ghats are the long stairways leading down to the Ganges River. They line the west bank of the river for about three km or so. Most of them are sites for pilgrims to bathe in the sacred river. However, some of them are used for public cremation.

Once Rahul had secured our vessel, we climbed aboard and headed up the river toward Manikarnika Ghat—-the main burning ghat and supposedly the most auspicious location for a Hindu to be cremated. At this point, it was mostly dark, and we could see the fires from a ways off. The fires burn 24/7 as people bring their loved ones, wrapped in golden shrouds, to be washed in the sacred river and then cremated at its edge. Rahul told us that it takes 300 kg of wood and three hours to burn a body. I’m not sure we believed him. However, it was quite a sight to behold: we were really very close and it smelled of burning flesh. We also saw random body parts sticking out of the fire. Very interesting and a little eerie.

We headed back down the river to Dasaswamedh Ghat, where the ganga aarti ceremony is performed daily at 7 PM. The ceremony is to worship the river and is full of chanting, incense, fire, dance, and prayer. The ceremony was pretty spectacular despite Rahul’s incessant chatter and the fact that we were bumping against about fifty other boats.

The next morning, we woke up psyched—-a whole day to ourselves! After a leisurely breakfast, we found a rickshaw to take us to the ghats (we were staying near the train station and about thirty minutes from anything worth seeing). We instructed our driver to take us to Assi Ghat, the southernmost of the main ghats. We then planned to meander our way up the river and into the old city. I was slightly nervous—-apparently Varanasi rickshaw drivers are notorious for taking you to shops, restaurants, etc. where they will receive commissions rather than where we actually want to go. Our guy was good though and we jotted his number down so we could call him when we wanted to head back.

I’m not sure if it was the gorgeous day or the sense of freedom in not being “on a tour”, but we had a really lovely day wandering up the river, around the ghats and the back streets, and around the old city. Despite the fact that the river is pretty polluted, the scenery was pretty and interesting, and, yes, we did get mildly hassled by people wanting to take us to their shops, but nothing any worse than anywhere else we’d been. A kid of about eleven, Deepak, hung out with us for a while and I was honestly sad to see him go once he got run off by an older tout. We managed to find a pretty touristy restaurant for a couple of veggie burgers and iced teas (despite the fact that we have most consistently enjoyed the food in India, we do occasionally need a break from all of the lentils and cauliflower) and a couple of sweet shops. We both love the sweets in India—-they are only a couple of bites each, so you can sample a few at a time!

I tried to do some shopping afterwards, but just wasn’t in the mood (shocking), so we wandered around, taking in all of the colors and the sights. Late in the afternoon, we headed back to our hotel to shower and find somewhere close by for dinner. Unfortunately, our driver from the morning wasn’t answering our call, but we managed to find another driver who took us straight back again.

The next morning, we were supposed to take a sunrise boat ride down the Ganges. Rahul met us in the lobby at 5:15 AM with another guide, also Rahul. He explained that he needed to pick up another couple and would meet us at the river. Later, it turned out that he’d pawned us off on Rahul II who said it was his first day as a guide and he was “so scared”. The whole thing was weird and silly, but the bonus was that Rahul II didn’t talk *nearly* as much as Rahul I.

The boat ride was very nice. We left from Dasaswamedh Ghat, the scene of the aarti ceremony from two nights before, and were rowed down close to Assi Ghat, where we’d started our walk the previous morning. Mainly, it was just a peaceful scene, but there were definitely a ton boats out and a ton of people bathing—-I felt a little bit like a voyeur.

We got off the boat a little north of the main burning ghat. We met back up with Rahul I and a very nice, if a little seemingly shell-shocked, Indian-Canadian couple. We wound through the back streets to get to the Golden Temple, which is an important Hindu pilgrimage site. Rahul I introduced us to the priest who would take us there. Yann and I would not be allowed to go in since we are not Hindi (I’m not sure if the Canadian couple was either, but skin color seemed to go a long way on such subjects). We were a little confused and I think the priest thought we were mad that we wouldn’t be allowed inside. He quickly relented and said that it was okay, we could go inside. We just needed to say that we believed in the Hindu religion and that we prayed to the Lord Shiva every day. That seemed a little wrong, disingenuous, and disrespectful, so we told him that we’d just wait outside. You couldn't really see much from the outside, but the top of the temple was supposedly made of solid gold.

That afternoon, we met back up with Rahul II for a few hours before we needed to catch our train. First, we went to the Bharat Mata Temple, where there is a cool marble relief map of India and the bordering countries. I’m not sure how Yann got on the subject, but the guy at the souvenir counter wanted to buy his iPhone for about $500. He was quite insistent—-we probably spoke to him for about ten or fifteen minutes.

Then we drove through Benares Hindu University. It was pretty and not much different from college campuses back home. Our driver and Rahul II were both very insistent that we needed to try paan to round out our Varanasi experience before we left. Paan is a digestive and mouth freshener made of betul nut (which is mildly narcotic), lime paste, and spices wrapped in a paan leaf. The idea is to stick it in your mouth and chew it, letting the mixture ooze into your mouth. I wasn’t up for it, but Yann agreed to try it. The look on his face when he bit down on it was priceless!

Then we were off to the train station to board the most roach-infested car that ever existed. That may have been it for our Indian train experience! However, it was definitely well worth it to see Varanasi—-one of our favorite stops on our trip.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


It was a long trip from Ranthambore to Agra. We left the hotel around 8am and Surat told us it would take between 7 and 8 hours to make it to Agra. After two weeks of traveling in the back of this little car we were now relative experts at maximizing comfort in the back of our Tata Indigo. We put the iPod on over the FM transmitter and settled into our books. One quick side note here, neither Catherine or I have ever been able to read in moving cars and somehow we have developed an immunity on this trip. It is strange enough to both of us that we don't really talk about it, almost like we would jinx this new found skill that we have learned.

Between reading and rocking out I entertained myself photographing trucks along the side of the road. One thing I have absolutely loved on our trip is how people in other countries decorate their trucks--we are talking pride that goes well beyond my fellow southerners twinkling eye as he looks over his F-150. Ownership of a hauling truck in these places is a sign of success and the fierce pride is on display across every inch of the machine. What was particularly interesting to me was how the graphics in India encompassed the use of the horn. EVERY truck has big letters on the back asking nearby traffic to blow their horn. That's just the way it works here, no turn signals, no abiding by lane markings, just blare your horn and haul ass if there is an opening.

It was a long haul, but we finally pulled into our hotel as the sun was setting. We quickly got settled and ran back out to make a run for the ATM and mail out box of goodies back home. Over dinner I told Catherine that I thought it would be a good idea to take the locals advice and head to the Taj Mahal at 5:30am to see the sunrise. After she shook off the surprise of my suggesting an early wake-up call she happily agreed and our plans were made.

Dawn was far away from cracking as we piled into the car and met our guide for the day. Within a half hour we had tickets and were standing in a line that was already at least 100 people deep waiting for the gates to open. By the time we made it through security the sky was grey blue and the sun was just peaking its head above the horizon. We made our way through the main gate and enjoyed a pretty view of the moon falling to daybreak. This was it, the big event, what everybody comes to India to see. The Taj Mahal and all of its legend stood before us along with at least a couple hundred tourists (better than the thousands that would arrive in a few short hours). It really is a beautiful building and pretty awesome to finally see it in person. Neither of us were brought to tears or anything like that but both agreed that is was one of the more beautiful buildings we had seen. I took about 500 pictures, but don't worry you only have to look at a couple. The surface did change color as the sun climbed into the sky and I tried to capture as much as I could. Posted in this entry are photos of: 1) Sunrise, 2) Mid-morning, 3) Mid-day from Fort Agra, and 4) late afternoon from the backside across the Yamuna River.

After two hours I had enough photos to keep me busy editing for at least a couple of days and we headed back to the hotel.

Breakfast and a quick nap served us both well and we met back up with our guide who seemed to be more focused on recovering from his birthday celebrations the night before than guiding. Fine with us, we prefer the quiet. It was mid-day and hot so the guide told us he'd take us to the "obligatory" marble factory where we would see how the intricate designs decorating the Taj Mahal are crafted and placed in marble. We are very familiar with this game, but went along with a friendly smile and resigned ourselves to enjoying a free glass of tea--what on earth would we want that was made of marble. We were enjoying our tea and making snarky remarks about the sales pitch until we went into the show room and saw some really amazing stuff. They had table tops with thousands of pieces of semi-precious stones inlaid into marble with jeweler like precision. Only one problem--expensive!

After our education in jeweled marble slabs we grabbed lunch and prepared for the afternoon heat. Agra Fort was a fairly uneventful tour. Most of the property is still used by the military, however the older sections overlooking the river are still open to the public and you can glimpse out at the view of the Taj Mahal just like its creator Emperor Shah Jahan did after his son imprisoned him.

It was still early in the afternoon and we had several hours to kill before our train left for Varanasi. We parted ways with our guide and asked Surat to take us over to see the "baby" Taj Mahal. With similar architectural features this building was allegedly the template upon which the Taj was designed. We strolled through enjoyed the monkeys and headed back to Surat in search of additional activities. A garden sits across the river and directly behind the Taj Mahal and we decided to spend our last hour in Agra taking in another view of its legendary monument. It was quite a different view with the trash and barbed wire fence creating an odd frame for the exquisite Taj. We met some kids, took some pictures, and called it a day. It was time to say good bye and get pumped about our first overnight train trip in India.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


After spending such a great couple of days in Udaipur, we were pretty bummed to leave. However, we'd definitely been looking forward to Ranthambore Park and the prospect of seeing tigers in the wild.

We’d been told that we did not need to book our tiger safari ahead of time and that we should just wait to do it through our hotel. In fact, when we pushed a little, we were told that you could not book it ahead of time (something having to do with monopolies in the travel agency biz and Thomas Cook…). Needless to say, when hotel reception told us that we needed to have booked a jeep at least a week ahead of time, we were a little peeved. He did tell us, however, that if we booked right now, he could get us onto a canter for the next day’s early morning game drive. What’s a canter? A huge diesel truck that seats about 25 people. Sign us up!

After booking our safari, we quickly discovered that there is nothing to do in Ranthambore except shopping, tiger safaris, and hanging out at your hotel. We settled into our books and ate a mediocre buffet dinner in the garden.
The next morning, Yann was *really* excited to get up at 4:45 AM. We ate a quick breakfast and waited for our canter. It finally arrived after about thirty minutes. Does this look like a stealthy vehicle for sneaking up on tigers? We thought so, too.

We spent the next forty-five minutes driving around to the hotels and gathering additional passengers. Finally, we were off to the park!

We quickly spotted some deer. And some birds. Then the guide saw a monkey in the trees overhanging the road. The driver didn’t stop, but continued ahead. Surely he wasn’t going to stop directly under it? Nope, he kept driving right on through and stopped on the other side, even once the monkey started peeing! I was lucky only to catch a couple of drops, but the guy diagonally in front of me got pretty doused. Jealous, Lindsay?

[When Lindsay and I were walking through the hanging bridges in Arenal, Costa Rica, our guide told us never to stand directly under monkeys (especially with an open mouth) since you never know when they will decide to relieve themselves. Lindsay quickly decided that being peed on by a monkey would be *so cool*…until we heard some sort of liquid falling through the leaves and she hightailed it out of there.]

The next two hours were filled with sightings of peacocks, deer, spotted deer, more peacocks, unspotted deer, big deer, little deer, other birds, peacocks, and about half of a small crocodile really far away from the canter. Of course it wasn’t really that surprising that we didn’t see anything very interesting: we were the last in a train of about thirty vehicles and every time we passed one headed back in the opposite direction, they reported that they had seen nothing. This was a far cry from safari in East Africa!

As we were leaving the park, we heard that someone had seen a tiger in a different area. We quickly headed in that direction, but by the time we got there, it was gone.

Well, it was about that time, so we headed out of there, reversing the order of the morning’s pick-ups, so Yann and I were the last drop-off. Maybe especially since we’d had such good luck on safari in Kenya, we decided we didn’t really care to spend another few hours that afternoon tiger-hunting in a huge, yet amazingly uncomfortable vehicle. We settled back into our books for the afternoon.

That night at dinner, I think we may have been the only people who hadn’t seen *at least* one tiger earlier in the day. Most people had seen two or more!