India: Part 3

Hey everyone!

We boarded our evening train from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur at 5:00 pm. We opted to go with sleeper class (one step above the dreaded general class) as it was only a 6 hour train ride. We booked the side lower and side upper bunks so we would be the only two people in our space, rather than having to share with four others. The Jaisalmer station was the originating station for the journey, meaning we were the first people to board. Several hours passed lazily reading books and occasionally watching the world go by. The train stopped numerous times and people got on and off. After a while I began to notice our berth filling up and when I began counting heads I came to a total of 15 people jumbled together in a space that should be occupied by 6. When I pointed this out to Chris he shrugged his shoulders and kept on reading. I imagined this happening in Canada, where every effort is made to avoid having to sit next to someone on public transport. If one absolutely must sit next to another person they sit on the edge of their seat furthest from said person, unrelenting in their quest to never, ever inadvertently touch their seatmate. An hour later even more people piled on and an older gentlemen (pun intended) plunked 3 kids on our top bunk that we had paid for and was one of our assigned seats! This caught Chris’s attention as he had intended to lay down on the top bunk, but he resigned himself to the fact that no longer would be an option. I stuck my head out from our bunk to observe what was going on in our neighboring berths and had to stifle a laugh. It was much the same as what was going on in ours except people had brought cardboard to lay across the floor and sleeping bodies were scattered over every inch of available space. So much for the “assigned” seats when you purchased your seat. As we sat mulling this over, serious insult to injury was added as a man leaned over Chris, hocked up a massive loogie, and spit it through the rails of his window. Chris and I both gave him a stern look and gestured to the other side of the berth for a place for him to spit any further secretions. I spent the remaining hours of the delightful ride pointedly trying to ignore the unblinking stares of a teenage boy and older man. I was wrapped in my african kikoy over my dress coupled with full length leggings, covering more of my body than the local women, but I felt naked the way the two men stared with such intent. They didn’t avert their gaze even if I did look up from my book in an uncomfortable way. As a western woman I am an anomaly no matter what I do to blend in. Generally this doesn’t phase me, but after several hours of being stared at at such close proximity, I just wanted off the train.

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We finally arrived to the station and danced our way around sleeping bodies to exit the train. We found a rickshaw who we spent an exhausting number of minutes bartering with before finally agreeing on a price. He brought us to our accommodation and even walked us inside to ensure we were at the right place. Our room was clean, and most importantly cool enough to get some sleep. We fell into bed after such a mentally draining day of traveling.

The following day happened to be my birthday and we awoke feeling refreshed after a good nights sleep. We started the day by heading to a coffee shop for an iced coffee. I must take a moment before I continue to chronicle our journey from our room to the coffee shop. First we had to climb out of the basement of the guesthouse to the main floor, then descend from the main floor to street level. Upon exiting our guesthouse we entered the side street which connected our guesthouse to the main road which, after our initial repulsion, we lovingly nicknamed ‘poop alley.’ It seemed that one and all used this side street as their personal toilet, making it a minefield to navigate. After we [carefully] made our way out of the side street we reached the main street which was only marginally better than the side street. We had to barter with several rickshaw drivers for a reasonable price to head to the other side of town where most of the restaurants and attractions were. After bartering with 3 drivers we finally agreed on a price and boarded the rickshaw and promptly set off at a blistening speed through the narrow streets, dodging people, animals and other vehicles whilst being jostled around for the 20 minute ride. We arrived to our destination, navigated our way up the two flights of stairs, and entered the quiet haven of the cafe. I thought I would include this narrative as at home when you say you went to a cafe, it means just that. Here when you say you went somewhere, it usually is some derivative of the above situation.

We took our time savoring the taste of a cup made from freshly ground beans, rather than the instant coffee we have grown so accustomed to. I watched the world go by from my perch by the second story window. From my vantage point I could see a shoe repair man with his shop set up on the corner of the street. I watched him take a pair of sandals from a man, stare at them for a moment, and then use 3 different color paints to re-create the exact color of the mans shoe. It is so common in countries other than Canada for men such as this to find a piece of sidewalk, throw down a blanket and supplies and do business. Just as common are hawkers selling a bit of everything, proclaiming what they have to offer at the top of their lungs. (I have always found this curious as it is quite obvious what you are selling when it is the only thing you are holding). At home it would be exceptionally unsettling for someone to be yelling in the streets, it would be cause to avert your gaze and hurry your pace to get wherever it is you are going. In our part of Canada there are also no sidewalk shops, juice or food trollies, or small stores selling a little bit of everything. I mused how quiet and boring our streets must have seemed to Rohan when he first moved to Canada.

After our coffee we headed to a nearby restaurant to grab lunch. We opted to split a dish as we had plans to go out for a big supper that evening. We ate at a local restaurant that had a lovely shaded courtyard for us to escape the heat.

After lunch we wandered to the clocktower and market area. I had a bit of a headache at this point and wasn’t really in the mood for [haggling] shopping. We opted instead to checkout a spice shop located a bit further outside the market that is recommended by lonely planet. When we arrived we were welcomed warmly and promptly sat down and given bag after bag of spice, spice mixtures, and teas to smell. We were also given explanations about the different things for sale, and told we would be emailed a book of recipes with a purchase. We knew the spices were a bit expensive, but they were pre-mixed so you wouldn’t have to buy each component individually which is convenient. We ended up buying the masala tea spice, a winter wine spice for making mulled wine, assam tea, and a masala spice mixture. The guy threw in 2 free other spices for buying several things.

We then headed back to the hotel to have a rest before dinner that evening. Where we stay is of upmost importance to Chris and I since we have arrived in India. We experience such chaos during every moment of our day that at the end of it we need somewhere quiet, comfortable and clean to seek solace. We spend more time reading reviews from multiple sources before booking a place than we have ever before during any of our travels. Before heading to dinner I was able to skype with my best friend Monica, and my parents from our rooftop balcony. See the picture below taken before we headed to the restaurant.

We went to a restaurant called Indique for dinner that evening. It had a rooftop balcony that required scaling four flights of stairs, but the view and candlelight tables made up for it. We ordered paneer tikka masala and a local Rajasthan dish, along with two pieces of naan. The paneer tikka masala was exceptional, while the Rajasthan dish left much to desire. I think it was overpriced for what we received, but it was a beautiful setting to celebrate turning 27. The days leading up to and of my birthday are usually filled with a bit of dread mixed with anticipation, but this year I found I felt nothing but contentment. I suppose that comes with age, and the knowledge you are doing exactly what you want to and believe in your heart you should be doing. It is easy to lose sight of your journey when you are concentrating so intently on the path, but a milestone such as a birthday is a reason to take pause; you raise your head and look where you have come from and where you are going. I am filled with a sense of pride and amazement at what we have accomplished in the past year and better yet, what we have to come. Best of all, when I look beside me I have my best friend and partner in crime. We may not have much to our names, but we have each other and a lifetime of incredible memories which is worth more to me than anything else. Life is beautiful that way, and I am grateful I was somewhere in the world like India to foster this reflection on such a special day.

The following day we made our way up the massive hill to the fortress that resides over Jodhpur. On the walk up we had an ariel view of the city and it was clear why the city was nicknamed the ‘blue city.’ We explored the fortress, garnering much attention from locals in the process. People snapped pictures relentlessly, without asking permission, striking a particular cord with me. I preach endlessly in my blog and to fellow travelers about snapping pictures in locals faces without first seeking permission. I do not take photos of people, even if given permission, unless I have a personal connection or experience with them. I do these things to avoid making people feel exploited, or that the sanctity of their personal being has been invaded. Yet, here in India, the shoe is on the other foot and I am left feeling this way. If anything, it has solidified my stance as there is nothing more uncomfortable than having a camera jammed infront of your face and the owner snapping away. I refine my recommendation however, to anyone foreign or local, to ask permission before taking photos of another.

After the fort we sought out Kesar Heritage Restaurant that had excellent reviews on Trip Advisor. The food was miles better than that of Indique from the previous night, for a fraction of the cost. If in Jodhpur I recommend you eat there! We relaxed for the rest of the afternoon, having done all we had hoped to do in Jodhpur. We were leaving on a very early morning bus the next day for Udaipur, so we turned in early for the evening. I will cover Udaipur in my next post!

My overall impression of Jodhpur? It was a rather dirty city that I wouldn’t have missed if we skipped it. It is very similar to many other cities found in the Rajasthan province, but not nearly as nice. If you are short on time I wouldn’t hesitate to cut it from your itinerary in lieu of some of the other cities such as Jaipur or Udaipur.

India: Part 2

Hello Everyone!

As mentioned in my previous post we arrived to Jaisalmer at midday, feeling the full force of the desert heat as we stepped off of the train. Our guesthouse, Abu Safari Jaisalmer, offered free pickup from the train station which we were thankful for as we were bombarded by rickshaw drivers as we exited the station. When we arrived to the guesthouse we were greeted by Abu, a character as colorful as the textiles India is so famous for. He sat us down for a cup of chai at the rooftop restaurant and chattered for an eternity, weaving an intricate web of tales that I couldn’t for the life of me follow after the 18 hour train journey. His favorite saying was ‘mixed vegetables’ and it was only near the end of the conversation that he mentioned his love of ‘Bhang’ Lassi that I began to piece together the makings of his convuluted speech. A lassi is a traditional yogurt based drink that can contain spices, nuts, or fruit. ‘Bhang’ is a preparation of cannabis that is found (legally) in food and drink throughout the country. There are approved government shops found in certain towns and cities, and many more mom and pop shops that are non-government approved but are more than willing to whip you up these ‘special’ lassi’s. The non-government shops are infamous for lacing their ‘special’ drinks with all sorts of things [think LSD] that leave foreigners tripping for days. Abu mentioning his veneration of Bhang gave clarity to his garbled speech. Despite it all, he was a warm and enchanting host who made us feel welcomed immediately.

Our room was $6.12 CAD a night (total) and was basic, but sufficient. The real money the guesthouse made was through their camel safaris. A camel safari is what draws travelers to Jaisalmer; it is the quintessential desert experience to have. Abu described the various options offered and we knew the prices he quoted were much higher than other companies in town. We looked up on TripAdvisor (TripAdvisor has been our most useful resource in India) companies with good reviews and headed to get price quotes. We ended up going with Sahara Travels based on reviews and our experience with the guy who ended up selling us the trip. He was very thorough in his explanation and offered us the lowest price we had been quoted immediately, eliminating the need to barter hard. We booked to leave the following day on a full day, 1 night, safari.

It was late afternoon by the time we finalized our safari, the heat of the day had dissipated making it the perfect time to explore the fortress. The fortress is one of the largest in the world and contains a palace, 8 ornate Jain Temples, along with a quarter of Jaisalmer’s population- meaning it is a functioning UNESCO world heritage monument. It is nicknamed the ‘golden fort’ as its sandstone walls are a beautiful shade of gold as the sun (especially the setting sun) hits them. We wandered through the winding passageways, fending off shopkeepers and restaurant owners as we made our way to a famed jewelry shop called Hari Om Jewellers. The shop has been in one family since inception and has garnered fame due to the intricate designs of the jewelry. We sat with the son of the creator of the shop and style of jewelry and were amazed by the pieces he showed us. The amount of detail they could get on such a small surface was incredibly impressive. I was keen to have my own piece designed but it would take 3-4 weeks to make which does not fit in our schedule. They are hoping to get an online shop up and running in the near future which I will keep an eye out for. If you are in Jaisalmer, be sure to check them out!

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We headed to a restaurant that overlooked the Jain Temples (they close each day at 1 so we were unable to view them) for a sunset pot of chai. The traditional Indian Masala Tea is prepared by brewing a strong black tea such as Assam and then adding a mixture of spices most commonly including cardamom, cinnamon, ground cloves, ground ginger, and black peppercorn. The resulting tea is delightful, Chris and I have been consuming more than our fair share of it since arriving to India. Finishing our chai we headed to the main gate of the fort to a restaurant that was recommended to us by someone we had met earlier in the day. It was an ‘Indian – Italian’ restaurant and we weren’t in the mood for Indian so we opted to give the Italien a go. As we expected it wasn’t fantastic, but it was a welcomed change.

That night we discovered why cheaping out on a room in the desert isn’t a wise decision; it was insufferably hot in our room which was equipped with only a fan that did nothing but circulate the torrid air at a higher rate than would occur naturally. Sleep was inconceivable. We spent the entire night tossing and turning, vowing never to give into the lure of such a cheap room again.

We dragged ourselves out of bed in the morning to head to the camel safari office for our departure. To our utter dismay it was significantly cooler outside than in our room. We met the 4 other travelers who would be on our safari at the office and we headed out in a jeep to our drop-off point. Along the way we stopped at an abandoned city, as well as a desert oasis. After about an hour of driving we reached our departure point where our trusty steeds awaited us.

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We each mounted our camels and we set off towards the ‘deep desert.’ I am uncertain the origins of camel riding as a touristic thing to do, but I think it needs some serious revision in the guide books or at the very least a disclaimer. Something along the lines of, ‘will be hours upon hours of discomfort from your precarious perch astride the most uncomfortable saddle on an animal with a nauseating gait under the blazing inferno of the sun,’ would suffice. Perhaps I am being a bit dramatic, the camels we rode were extremely well treated and as such were well behaved and as pleasant as possible [for a camel]. Before putting the massive, wide saddles on the animals several pillows and a blanket were placed on the camel to improve comfort. The saddles were high quality with the only downside being they were without stirrups so our feet dangled helplessly as we were bucked along. I do think the company made every effort to make us as comfortable as possible- but the reality of camel riding is it is uncomfortable no matter what bells and whistles are placed on the camel. We rode for an hour and a half before breaking for lunch and a siesta. While the camel boys were preparing our lunch we chatted with the other travelers and realized that two of the four were not only Canadian, but current Dalhousie Students! It was a ludicrous coincidence; to be in the middle of the Thar Desert in India ridding camels with people attending our Alma mater. We had extensive discussions about life in Halifax, our favorite restaurants, watering holes, activities etc. Being over 8 months into our trip these chats inflicted a generous dose of homesickness in both Chris and I. Sometimes you don’t realize just how much you are missing familiar things until you meet someone who knows exactly what you are talking about when you say ‘Turkey Stuffing Poutine.’

After our siesta we unenthusiastically mounted our camels again for the afternoon ride. When camels stand up they first stand on both their back legs, pitching you forward in your saddle at an extreme angle, before getting onto their front legs. That motion alone allowed us to really feel every area that was sore from the morning ride. The afternoon ride lasted 2.5 hours, with loss of feeling in our lower extremities occuring after 2 hours. When we reached our campsite we all but rolled off the camels, unable to lift one leg high enough to dismount with any grace. The other two tourists with us were 17 year old english lads, one of whom indulged in ‘Bhang’ cookies (aka disco biscuits) during the afternoon ride and was absolutely cooked by the time it came to dismount. He stared at one spot of sand for 30 minutes before being able to engage in any type conversation.

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Our ‘campsite’ for the evening was a flat surface on a sandune where there were several iron bedframes, a stack of mattresses, musty blankets and a designated area of sand used for cooking. We passed the last hour of sunlight by playing cards while the camel boys prepared our dinner. The sunset was beautiful to watch, and as the sky darkened the stars began to illuminate the night. We ate dinner by the light of our torches before spending the rest of the evening star-gazing. We were sleeping in the open under the blanket of the stars, there were no tents or other structures to obstruct our view. This was justification enough for the traumatic day of camel riding.

The next morning we had breakfast and then a short 1 hour camel ride back to our drop-off point. My overall opinion on the experience? It was novel, but I wouldn’t do it again. I think an hour ride on a camel would be more than adequate to tick it off your bucket list. Far and away the best part of the excursion was sleeping under the stars, so if you can take a jeep to the dunes that would be ideal. If you do decide to go for it, I recommend Sahara Travels as a company. They had the best price, made every effort to make us comfortable, had decent food, and the camel guys were great.

When we returned to Jaisalmer Chris and i headed immediately to the Jain Temples before they closed. It was $4 dollars to enter all of the temples and the temples were incredible. Many people skip over them in favor of a camel safari, do not make this mistake! The intricacy of the design of each temple was stunning, we only had 40 minutes to explore them but we wish we had more! Go early so you don’t run out of time.

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After exploring the temples we headed back to Sahara Travels office as we were told we would be able to go somewhere to have a shower and use wifi after our safari. When we got to the office they directed us across the street to a rooftop restaurant and said we could use their shower. We headed to the restaurant (shaking our heads along the way) where we were able to take what you could technically define as a shower, in a bathroom of questionable cleanliness. Nevertheless, it did improve our state of being as we were filthy from our desert adventure. We hung around the restaurant for a few hours before heading to the train station to catch our evening train to Jodhpur. I will cover our adventures there in my next post!

India: Part 1

Hi Everyone!

We landed in Delhi after 12 hours of traveling from Nairobi at 4:00 am. We approached the passport control counters with trepidation as the line snaked its way out of sight from the top of the escalators. We resigned ourselves to a long wait before seeing signs for the e-tourist visa holders pointing further down the hall. We followed the signs and sure enough found ourselves at a different section with no line whatsoever. We were relieved and after a bit of a delay due to malfunctioning computers we had cleared passport control. The e-visa was only introduced about 6 months ago but our experience obtaining it was seamless. You must apply at least 4 days before travel and it says it takes 72 hours to process but we had ours back within 48. You print the email with your confirmation and present it at the desk with an additional piece of paperwork you fill out at the airport and then you receive a stamp in your passport. I recommend it to anyone traveling to India for a month or less. However, it cannot be renewed or extended, so if you are like us and want longer than a month in India you will have to leave the country and obtain a new visa before returning. Ironically, this means we will exit India into Kathmandu, Nepal to apply for a new visa. This is ironic as we were meant to spend a month and a half in Nepal but because of the earthquake we changed our plans and stayed in Africa longer. We met a Nepalese couple who said all major tourist attractions, with the exception of a few, are intact and open for visitors so we will at least make the best of our time there while waiting for our visa to be processed.

After collecting our bag at the airport and withdrawing rupees from an ATM we headed to the metro to make our way to our hostel. We were immediately impressed with the metro system; it was airconditioned, modern and efficient, none of which we expected. We purchased metro cards which made it easier to navigate our way through our several transfers as we didn’t have to keep purchasing tokens. We planned to take the metro to all the tourist attractions as well so it was an investment (a very cheap investment, it cost about $0.20 CAD per ride). Our end station was a 10 minute walk from our hostel and as we exited the station our senses were immediately overwhelmed; it was 30°C despite being only 6:30 am, the morning traffic was in full swing with honking motorcycles, rickshaws and cars, and finally there were so many different smells we found ourselves breathing through our mouths. We trudged through the heat with all of our bags, navigating traffic as we went which felt a whole lot like the game frogger (I am convinced that game was invented in Delhi). We finally arrived out our destination, climbed the three flights of stairs and collapsed on the common rooms couches welcomed by the airconditioning on full blast. It was 7 am and we were absolutely destroyed from the flights and the chaos of getting to our hostel. We were immediately impressed with the hostel, MadPackers, pristine cleanliness and excellent common space. It was another hour before the receptionist arrived and it wouldn’t be until noon that we could check-in. We spent the day recovering, getting caught up on the ultra-fast wi-fi, and having delicious food delivered (what a treat!). The rooms were on par with the common room in cleanliness and quality. The beds felt like clouds, the lockers were huge, and best of all the room was airconditioned. Breakfast was also included in the price and was excellent. I highly recommend staying there if you are in Delhi!

The following day we headed out for the day to do some sightseeing. As we made our way back to the metro I took more notice of our surroundings and couldn’t help but smile a bit. At first glance it appears to be total chaos, but after observing things a bit longer you can see some semblance of organization. I recalled the Departures episode when they visited India where Justin couldn’t handle the constant honking and noise pollution. It certainly does bombard your auditory system, but I think we had a bit of an introduction to this in Africa so it didn’t have quite the same assault on our hearing as it did his. People warned us of the local tendency to use anywhere and everywhere as their own personal toilet which certainly rang true on our walk to the metro. I will admit this part of India did take some getting use to. As you walk you are dodging not only dog poo, but also cow (they are sacred and as such can roam freely) and human excrement as well. I quickly learned what areas were “favorites” and held my breath in anticipation and gave a wide berth to these places. People also seem to endlessly be coughing up all sorts of horrible things and spitting them without looking who may be in their line of fire. The sound of rattling mucus now causes me to look around anxiously to see where the noise is originating from and get as far away as possible. A 10 minute walk with all of the aforementioned idiosyncrasies could feel like a lifetime.

Once we arrived [finally] at the metro we were required to have our belongings scanned and to pass through a metal detector much like airports. Luckily they have a female only line that always is empty so I could make my way through quickly. They also have women only carriages on the metro which I took full advantage of during times when the train was completely full. I usually was able to snag a seat, or at the very minimum have enough personal space to keep an eye on my purse. Chris unfortunately had to stick it out in the carriages where people would take running jumps to fit in. Each ride was most definitely an experience.

Our first sightseeing stop was a small mosque that is recommended by Lonley Planet. It is a bit off the beaten track making it slightly difficult to find, you wind your way through food stalls and shops selling rose petals and garland before coming to an inconspicuous opening where men yell at you to remove your shoes. Once your shoes are off you walk through a labyrinth of passages before opening up onto the mosque. We were the only tourists there and we drew a fair bit of attention. The building was beautiful but we stayed for only a few minutes as it seemed almost intrusive to be there. We made our way out the same way we entered and continued onto what we thought was Humayun’s Tomb, but turns out wasn’t. I am not sure the name of what we ended up visiting was, see pictures below and if you have any ideas, please do share!

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After the tomb we made our way back to the metro and headed towards Connaught Place. We had lunch at a favorite restaurant of locals famous for its thali plates. The food was absolutely delicious, detracted only slightly by a visit from a cockroach on the wall. After lunch we walked to the New Delhi Railway station to purchase our train tickets to Jaisalmer for two days time from the International Tourist Ticket Office within the station. We had been warned by both our hostel workers and the LP book of locals who tell you the office is closed, doesn’t exist etc. to try and get you to buy your tickets from an office where they will receive a commission. We approached the station and were asked for our tickets, which of course we didn’t have. We asked where platform 1 was as we knew that is where the office was located. They directed us to an entrance a bit further down the road. We began walking and were approached by a man claiming to work for the railways who said we needed to buy our tickets from an office in town, which we knew to be false. He tried to no avail to get us to get in a rickshaw that would take us there but we continued walking as if he didn’t exist. When we reached the other entrance an official security guard told us no, we had to go back to the other entrance to buy our tickets. We begrudgingly made our way back and again a local attempted to stop us saying we needed to show a ticket, which we ignored and kept walking to his utter dismay. We made it to the tourist ticket office and easily obtained our ticket. As we exited the station the same guy who tried to stop us apologized and attempted to smooth things over in fear of being reported.

We walked around the centre park of Connaught Place before boarding the metro and heading back to our hostel. We had a relaxing evening in the respite of the airconditioning where we ordered a paneer dish from a local restaurant that was delivered to the hostel. Paneer is a local cheese used in vegetable dishes as a source of protein. It has become one of our favorite foods and we have been ordering paneer dishes nonstop!

The following day we hit the metro again, this time headed towards Old Delhi. Old Delhi is infamous for being chaotic, loud, dirty and full of people who hassle you to buy things. We exited the metro without incident and made our way to the Red Fort where we rented audio guides and made our way through the expansive grounds. The audio guide made a big difference to our experience and we were very happy we invested in them. After the audioguide tour ended we settled ourselved under a tree and had a lovely hour relaxing and taking in our surroundings. It was interrupted only slightly by several groups of people approaching and asking for a photo with Chris. He politely declined for fear of where exactly these photos would end up.

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After the Red Fort we made our way through the busy street to a sweet stand where we tried Jalebi, a deep fried wheat flour soaked in syrup. It was very delicious. We then made our way to a Paratha Restaurant where we tried a mixed paratha. The paratha is a type of bread which anything can be added, and it is accompanied by different sauces which can be sweet or spicy. After lunch we made our way to the spice market during which time we were constantly called after to look in shops, ask where we were from etc. We packed it in fairly early as the heat of the day in combination with the tireless efforts of the locals and touts for our attention exhausted us.

The next day we headed to the Qutb Minar, the second tallest tower in India. It was very impressive, as were the other buildings and archways found in the complex. Both Chris and I forgot our phones at the hostel so I don’t have pictures to share, my apologies! After Qutb Minar we headed to the Lotus Temple which was designed by an Iranian-Canadian. The temple was absolutely stunning and one of the most peaceful places we have visited. After the temple we quickly made our way to see the India Gate, located on the famous Rajpath. We then hurried back to our hostel to have a quick lunch for heading out on our 18 hour train to Jaisalmer.

We arrived to the train stain 40 minutes earlier than the departure time of our train. Riding the rails is a quintessential travel experience in India, and it starts on the platforms. Upon arriving to our platform we noticed the overwhelming smell of urine and didn’t have to wait long to find out why. Within moments we witnessed two different people urinating in a ‘stream’ that ran adjacent to the tracks. There were a few sparse benches that already were laid claim to by more occupants than seats. We decided to stand and hope we could board the train as soon as possible. Our train was listed as departing from platform 9, but the guy operating a small concession stand got our attention and said our train was at platform 10. We quickly scrambled to make our way there, trying to find a railway employee to confirm that indeed it was our train at platform 10, but had to settle with asking several locals in our carriage as we couldn’t find anyone who appeared to work at the station or on the train. There are different levels of tickets starting from general, which means as many people as possible packed into the carriages and hanging out the doors, up to 1AC which has AC, meal service, curtains on the bunks, and only 2 bunks per berth. We settled for middle of the road with 3AC which had 6 bunks per berth, no curtains or meals, but glorious airconditioning. The middle bunk of each set of bunks folded down so that we could all be in a seated position for the start of our journey. We shared our space with two business men and a mother and father with a son about the age of 3. He was a devil child who threw tantrums (and things) over the businessmens snacks, and even when his father left the train and brought him the same snacks his tantrum could not be quelled. The parents then gave him more sweets, chips and soft drinks than a grown man should consume in one sitting, to be rewarded with the child punching his mom in the face repeatedly. He settled down only after being breastfed (I was just as confused after the sugar binge I had witnessed). We ordered a meal to share which was mediocre but enough to sustain us. After our meal we fastened the middle bunk in place and settled in for a long night. I read for several hours and then surprisingly was able to get a decent nights rest, with the help of ear plugs and a sleeping mask of course. The train was delayed by an hour so we arrived to Jaisalmer at midday. I will cover our time there in my next post. For now, I hope I gave you a colorful introduction to our time in India!

Overland Tour Part 8: Back to Kenya

Hi Everyone!

It is hard to believe this is my last post of our time in Africa. I will recap the final days of our tour before wrapping up our time on the continent.

We crossed the border to Kenya with no problems and after a quick shopping stop at a supermarket we made our way to Nakuru where we were camping at the East African Mission Orphange (check them out at http://www.eamo.co.ke/), an orphanage owned by an Australian couple. We arrived during a torrential downpour and pitched our tents for the first time in Africa in the rain which is pretty remarkable considering how long we have been here. After pitching our tents we headed to the luxurious bar for hot chocolate and coffee to warm ourselves up. After dinner we met the owner of the orphanage and lodge and found out more about the organization. He told us after some difficult life circumstances he and his wife decided to live their lives for others and spent several years traveling the world volunteering with different organizations. They came to Kenya after meeting someone in Mexico who suggested they make their way over. They were volunteering in an organization but were taken by the street kids of Nairobi that they encountered. They began bringing food and other supplies to the street kids until eventually they began bringing the kids home. They started the orphanage and it has slowly grown over 18 years to what it is now, a home to 235 children. They provide all basic necessities for the children along with their education. They started the lodge as a ‘retirement’ plan to help sustain themselves so they can continue with their work at the orphanage. It was a very inspiring meeting. He was very honest with us and discussed the issue of us visiting the orphanage and whether it is positive or detrimental to the kids. He said on one hand they rely on us visiting and sponsoring children to stay afloat; but us visiting also exposes the kids to the western way of the world and their behavior has deteriorated because of this. Simply put he stated they were spoiled. I found this interesting to hear from someone who has spent so much time here as I have been struggling with similar concepts relating to traveling that I have discussed in previous blogs. He said he is still trying to find the balance with it all, as am I.

The next day we had a game drive in Lake Nakuru National Park. The Lake has flooded to the point they had to build another road through the park and move the main gate to another area to escape the water. It made a very eery scene; dead trees with a third of their trunks submerged in the water next to the abandoned main gate. The park used to be famous for its large number of flamingos, but most have left due to the high water levels. We were able to spot both white and black rhinos during the course of the drive (from afar, nothing like our encounters in Swaziland) that completed the ‘Big 5’ for the rest of our group from Vic falls. We also spotted a different species of giraffe that looked like they were wearing white socks. As always, the pictures are thanks to Miss Tiana! (I stole them from Facebook)
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We returned to the campsite and were able to head to the orphanage to mingle with the children. I had a quick shower and “bush haircut” compliments of Cari before heading to the orphange. I have needed a haircut for weeks but my experience in Turkey made me nervous to visit a local salon again. Luckily Cari had some experience from her university days and did an excellent job, especially considering the circumstances!
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We headed to the orphanage and were immediately bombarded with children wanting to hold our hands, play games, and take us on a tour of their home. It was a bit overwhelming, the children are used to mzungu visitors so they know just what to say and what to do to make you bend to their will. “Where is your camera?” was the number one question I received and I was grateful I had left it back at the campsite. I was amazed to see how used to technology the children were; they knew how to operate the different cameras and phones to display pictures! One little boy dressed in his onsie pajamas complimented with a bedtime robe latched on to me and took me on a tour of the facilities. He was adorable but very shy, he was happier to lead me by the hand than to make conversation. He showed me the dorms which made me smile as they looked much like many of the dorms we have stayed in along our travels. Soon we heard the dinner whistle and made our way to the dining hall as we were to have dinner with the children. After washing our hands outside the hall we made our way in where we served ourselves food and then the head girl directed us to a table to sit. I was seated with a group of 10-14 year old boys who were incredibly polite and happy to engage in conversation. I must admit I was a bit distressed by the meal discrepancy, we had a soup with potatoes along with chapati,while the kids had either millet and water or a porridge. They longingly looked at our meal, particularly the chapati. When I asked if they ever have chapati they answered only once a month. Another member of our tour asked if they ever had soup and she received the answer only at Christmas. I felt it really distinguished us muzungu’s from the children and I felt a sense of guilt that we were receiving such a treat infront of the kids. I think it would be better if we ate the same meal as the kids or didn’t eat dinner at all with them. As I was pondering these things the boys around me were working intricate trading deals amongst themselves and the tables around them. They would split their meals half and half (you chose either millet or porridge), give each other a few spoonfuls, or some just gave half their meals away in what appeared almost payment to other children. It was interesting to observe, and they simply smiled if questioned about it. After dinner a group of us headed back to the lodge while others chose to stay to observe evening devotion with the children. It was a good experience but as the owner mentioned they definitely were accustomed to tourists.

The following day we headed to Lake Naivasha for our last day of the tour. There were optional activities but we chose to stay behind and relax. We had done everything that we had wanted to do while on tour already. It was a lovely campsite and bar, with Internet that allowed me to get caught up on blogging. That evening after dinner we had a few drinks before heading to the onsite disco for a last night out. We had fun together before retiring to our tents for one last time.

The next morning we returned to Nairobi where we dropped some people in hotels in town before continuing to Acacia Camp. We relaxed until the late afternoon when Chris, Wendy, Nat and I headed into town. We first visited the Masai Market that only takes place on Saturdays. I purchased a replacement ankle bracelet as my previous anklet was a victim of the booze cruise in Zanzibar. I also bought a necklace that I had seen only once before in the Masai Mara and have been thinking about since, and finally a kanga that will be useful in India. Having finished shopping we headed to meet up with Michael and Tiana for our last dinner together. We chose an Italian restaurant and had great fun reminiscing about the tour. After dinner we headed to a bar for a few drinks before finally having to say goodbye. We have been with Michael and Tiana since the very beginning, 49 days ago. They have been an integral part of our experience and as such have made our time on tour infinitely better. We are going to miss them and feel lost for a while without them by our side. The only consolation is knowing we will see them again very soon as they are planning to meet up with us in Thailand!
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The following day Chris and I had scheduled to visit St. Charles Lwanga Childrens Centre and Secondary School on the outskirts of Nairobi. My home county of Inverness is a major supporter of the organization and my mom has gotten involved in the committee recently and asked if we could stop in to discuss the possibility of an onsite clinic. The manager of Acacia Camp drove us, even stopping at a supermarket to allow us to buy supplies to bring with us. As we we made our way down the bumpy, dirt road to the centre we could see the children lined up outside waiting to greet us. As we pulled in they were all clapping and waving, it was a greeting fit for royalty! The director, Brother Kennedy, greeted us warmly as though we were old friends. He immediately ushered us into his living room and offered us refreshments. We chatted at length about the needs of the centre with regards to a medical clinic. After our discussion two girls, Carol and Pesh, showed us around the centre. We saw the classrooms, the dorms (including the new dorms), the ‘Inverness County Hall’, the rain water system, and The Martha Kitchen. It was a very meaningful tour for me as many of the buildings were made possible thanks to the efforts of my home county. After the tour we were treated to songs, dances, dramas and speeches by the children. It was incredibly touching, I welled up more than a few times during the course of the afternoon. I expected to show up and have a chat with Brother Kennedy and then leave; the hospitality and warmness we experienced was far beyond these expectations. We had lunch with Brother Kennedy, Frederick, our driver, and one of the board members where we were able to continue our discussion about the clinic. Chris and I are determined to make it happen as we believe it would serve the centre as well as the local community enormously. I have always wanted a volunteer project I could really get behind and after visiting the centre I know I have finally found it. I will never forget our visit and I know in my heart it will not be our last.
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We departed after lunch as our driver had to get back to Acacia to drive Nat to the airport. It was sad to say farewell to Nat as she has been with us since Vic Falls and another integral member of our group of ‘tour friends.’ However, she will be in Moncton in July so we will see her very soon which made it easier to part ways!

Finally, at 8 pm that evening we said farewell to the last of our group, Wendy. She too joined us in Vic Falls and helped enhance our experiences on the truck. It was bittersweet after our final goodbye; we were sad for the tour to be over, but excited to be on our own again.

In total we spent 113 days on the African continent, visiting 13 countries between South and East Africa. We spent two months driving ourselves around Southern Africa, covering approximately 7000 kilometers at the expense of two hubcaps and one tire. We spent the remaining 49 hectic days aboard a truck with three different legs of travelers covering approximately 11 950 kilometers. We spent 98 of our 113 days on the continent in a tent (that is 87% of our nights). We met people from all over the world that have become friends for life. Our hearts were stolen by the children of St. Charles Lwanga Childrens Centre and Secondary School. We were reminded daily why we embarked on this epic adventure. A big thank you everyone who made this leg of our journey so amazing; Nathan, Ayesha, Matt, Brad, Laurelle, Mr. Clemens, First class, Manda,Avel, Diamond Dog, Michael, Tiana, Nat, Wendy, Joy, Raj, and finally Mr. Chris Jaramba our tour guide for 5 weeks for putting up with us.

We have arrived safe and sound in Delhi, India and are taking the day to rest up and get over our jetlag. I look forward to chronicling our adventures in India with you!

*We booked our tour through African Overland Safaris, the Adventure Travel Division of Tshokwane Safaris, on behalf of Africa Travel Co. We experienced incredible customer service and were fully satisfied with the price we paid and the information we were provided about the tour. Find more information at: http://www.african-overland-safaris.com OR http://www.tshokwanesafaris.com.

Overland Tour Part 7: Uganda and Rwanda

Hi everyone!

We made it to the border with Uganda early in the morning and proceeded through with only one hiccup. Some of the members on tour bought an East African Visa at the Kenya departure point and the Ugandan officials wanted to deny entry as you must obtain the visa at your point of entry, not upon departure. They relented after delaying us by several hours with their bureaucracy and we were finally on our way. We made it to our campsite outside of Kampala as the sun went down. It had rained on and off all day so all of us upgraded to the dorms (only $4 USD extra) for the night. As with so many other days we have had on this truck trip we had dinner, a few drinks and then headed to bed due to exhaustion. The long days on the truck take a lot out of you. As bad as truck days are, we reminded ourselves that trying to make our way by local transport would take three times as long and be infinitely worse.

The next day was our third long truck day in a row, but we would arrive at our base camp for our gorilla trek so it was all worth it. Uganda is a stunning country, I spent most of the day looking out the window in amazement. It is one of the most lush and visually beautiful countries we have visited. When we finally arrived to our camp we were tired but excited as the next day we would be the first group to head out on our gorilla trek. We made sure to go to bed early as we had to leave very early the next morning.

We had breakfast the next morning at 5:00 am, where we also packed a lunch to bring with us on our trek. We were picked up promptly at 5:30 to drive the 2 hours to the start of our trek. The drive was even more beautiful than the previous day as a blanket of mist covered the landscapes in the early morning hours. As the sun rose and hit the mist and the rolling hills it made a breathtaking scene.

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We arrived to the starting point of the trek and waited a short while before being briefed by one of the rangers. He welcomed us to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and explained the do’s and don’ts for trekking with the gorillas. I will highlight them below:
1) You are not suppose to trek if you have any respiratory or gastrointestinal illness as the gorillas can catch these illnesses from you. Despite this several members of our group trekked while ill. I understand it was a long time spent driving to get to the gorillas, it was expensive, and arguably it was to be the highlight of the trip. However, there is the aspect of being a conscious traveler to be considered, which means one needs to seriously consider the health of these critically endangered species over ones own desires. Are pictures worth risking causing harm? I would like to think if I was sick I would make the right decision to stay behind, but luckily I didn’t have to make such a tough call. It is something to keep in mind if you plan to trek the gorillas.
2) You cannot touch the gorillas, but they can touch you (but you shouldn’t put these images on social media if it happens because it makes conservationists angry).
3) You should avoid looking the gorillas in the eye as they interpret this as a sign of agression, you are to avert your eyes and act submissive. You were allowed to look at them through your camera lens or LCD screen.
4) If you can’t finish the trek for any reason you can either turn back, or they can organize a stretcher team from the village to carry you with a starting price of $300 USD. If you wanted a porter the minimum price was $15 USD.
5) When taking pictures the flash must be turned off.
6) You will only have one hour with the gorillas once you reach them. You are only permitted one hour as any longer can stress the animals, and they want to limit the interaction for a health stand point for both us and the animals.

The rules aside we were informed there are 6 groups of habituated families of gorillas in Bwindi and each group of tourists would visit a different family (it takes two years for the staff to habituate the animals enough for tourists to visit). Finally, each group would be accompanied by two men who carried rifles in case we encountered forest elephants who were known to be aggressive, or in the worst case scenario in which one of the gorillas became overly aggressive.

Having been briefed we met our guide and guards and started our trek. Each family of gorillas have 2 trackers that set out early in the morning to find their nests where they slept the previous night, and then track their location from there. The trackers are in radio contact with the guide and instruct him where to lead us to find the gorillas. We were 8 in our group and moved efficiently through the dense rain forest. The hike was relatively easy, (compared to all the hikes Chris and I have done) we hiked for 1.5 hours and then stopped for a rest and to wait for our group of gorillas to stop moving, then another half an hour and we were at the gorillas. Our family of gorillas was called the Bikingi Familt and were 11 in number, with the youngest baby in all of the families in Uganda at 3 months of age.

When we arrived to their location we took a few minutes to get ourselves ready for our one hour with the family. Once ready I was pushed to be the first one to follow the tracker. He cut through the brush until he revealed a gorilla sitting a few meters from our location. He inched closer and closer and encouraged me to follow. As soon as I reached the trackers side the gorilla lunged at us. I think my heart stopped. The tracker acted quickly by making the noises the gorillas make to communicate and smacking his machete at the brush close to the gorilla. As I tried to remind myself to breathe the tracker broke into laughter and explained the gorilla was a juvenile male and was just playing. He noticed the look of terror on my face and said it was absolutely fine and I better start taking pictures. I reluctantly did so and captured the juvenile still in a crouched position towards us. A minute later he had one last lunge at us before taking off into the bush. My heart was hammering in my chest still, what a rush of adrenaline! The size of the animals and their intelligence makes for a very intimidating combination.

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After the juvenile left we noticed one gorilla hanging out in the trees having a snack. You had to be quick with your camera as they moved very fast and you could miss a photo opportunity easily.

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The trackers then pointed out a mom, juvenile, and the 3 month old baby that is the youngest of any of Ugandas babies. We spent a very long time observing them. The mom was relaxing and being groomed by the juvenile while keeping a close eye on the baby. The baby was just as our babies are at that age; inquisitive, playful and active. When it tried to move too far from mom she would snatch it up and place it back on her belly, where she would rub its back in a soothing way. I can’t really describe what it was like to watch, they are so alike to us it seemed like people dressed up in suits playing a prank on us (it would be a very expensive prank). I couldn’t stop staring at their faces, the expressiveness was captivating. You could see their level of intelligence in their faces and actions. It was difficult to capture pictures as there always seemed to be a branch in the most inopportune place, but this forced us to stop and observe which was a beautiful thing. After a while the juvenile scooped the baby up and took off into the bush, the guide joked it was a good babysitter for mom to have a break! A few minutes later mom took off after them.

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Our next spotting was two blackbacks who were relaxing under some bush. They had their heads resting in their hands looking positively bored. I cracked up watching them, between Tiana and I we managed a few good shots (check them out below). As we moved position to get a better look one of the blackbacks stood up on his hind legs, beat his chest, and thrust himself forwards under a different bush. The sound of him beating his chest was totally unexpected; we thought it would be hallow sounding but it was more high-pitched and sounded like a woodpecker, ‘pop,pop,pop.’ I am so glad we were able to witness that.

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We moved a bit further down the bush to a cleared area and the guide told us to train our cameras ahead of us because a 16 year old silverback was going to pass. Instead of just walking on when he reached the clearing he turned and faced us straight on for several minutes. We were all frozen, he was built solid and much larger than I expected. These were definitely our best pictures of the day. He decided to sit down right in the clearing and break branches from the trees and have a bit of a snack. Our guide couldn’t stop reiterating how lucky we were as usually the silverbacks are elusive and don’t come into the open. We snapped pictures like mad as he sat utterly nonplussed by our presence.
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After 10 minutes or so (time seemed to both speed up and slow down simultaneously) the guide pointed behind us and said the alpha silverback of the group was going to pass behind us. He too decided to stop for a snack, so we were trapped between the two silverbacks. Some of our group moved to photograph the alpha silverback while some of us stayed with the younger one. Not two minutes after some of the group moved the young silverback got up and started walking directly towards the group of us that remained. We all panicked (I grabbed Nat for dear life) and grabbed each other and pulled one another out of the way (including the trackers). As soon as we moved the silverback passed by not inches from where we stood. He wasn’t aggressive in any way so really there was nothing to be fearful of, but his presence commanded respect and none of us wanted to upset him. For the second time that day my heart was in my throat.

Our group then moved to the alpha male where we were told it would be the last pictures of the day. The hour passed in the blink of an eye and we tried to enjoy every last second. The alpha silverback was spectacular, he was in a perfect position for pictures. Check the one I snapped of Chris with him!
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We said our goodbyes to our gorilla family and began to make our way out of the forest, stopping quickly for lunch on the way. Before we reached the car park we had our ‘graduation’ ceremony where we received certificates for having successfully trekked the mountain gorillas. We took cheesy photos to complete the experience!

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The two hour drive back flew by as we reflected on what we had just experienced. We were blown away by the scenery along the way and stopped to take pictures. The photos below don’t even come close to doing justice to the scenery but I thought I would share them to give you an idea of what the countryside looked like.

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We fell asleep immediately after dinner after our long and exciting day. Chris and I had nothing planned for the next day so we took the opportunity to sleep in. We meant to have a relaxing day by the lake (our campsite was amazing), but we looked into our visa for India and realized we had a very short window to apply for it. Our relaxing day turned into a stressful day battling with the intermittent wi-fi and power outages to complete our applications. Chris managed his that day, but I had to wait until the next day to finish as everyone returned from their day trips and made the Internet impossible to use. It wasn’t as relaxing of a day as we hoped but we were relieved to have our applications completed.

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The following day our group of 8 headed to Rwanda for a day tour. Driving into the country we could not believe how beautiful and clean it was. The previous day was the last Saturday of the month when every member of the country (including the president) are required to do a massive clean up of the entire country. On this day no tourists are allowed to enter the country. There wasn’t a single piece of trash to be found, it was a stark contrast to the rest of Africa. It was a full day excursion where we visited a church, ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ the place where the 10 Belgium soliders were killed during the genocide, and finally the genocide museum. It was a deeply moving day that opened our eyes to the horror that took place in the country. I recommend a visit to Rwanda and these historical places to everyone.

The following day we headed back to Kampala where we overnighted for one night, and then made our way to Jinja for one night. When we arrived to Jinja some people went white water rafting which was meant to be spectacular, but was out of Chris and I’s budget (and interest). We spent the day at the bar overlooking the Nile River reading our books and enjoying the down day.

The following day we made our way back to Kenya which I will cover in my next post, along with a wrap up of our time in Africa!

Cheers!

*We booked our tour through African Overland Safaris, the Adventure Travel Division of Tshokwane Safaris, on behalf of Africa Travel Co. We experienced incredible customer service and were fully satisfied with the price we paid and the information we were provided about the tour. Find more information at: http://www.african-overland-safaris.com OR http://www.tshokwanesafaris.com.