We arrived in the lush beachside town of Ajuna, Goa after a long haul from distant Hampi carrying dreams of white sand beaches and swimming in the blue ocean. We hoped the southern monsoon we’d run into down in Varkala had not made it this far north but maaaaan were we wrong. Dead wrong. The beach, as in Kerala was completely and totally engulfed in raging brown waters and the rain was relentless. Ah monsoon season. Our plans for enjoying the mythical beach paradises of Goa were not to be. Trying to make the best of it we spent a few days going out for walks whenever the rain stopped for a few moments but would inevitably be caught in the rain on our way back to the hostel. We spent one day venturing out to the local market town of Mapsa where Laura bought about 100 bengals (beautiful thin Indian bracelets) and various other knickknacks. After a few days of nonstop pouring rain though we decided enough was enough and headed inland to Panjim to visit the historic town of Old Goa. It proved to be quite a lovely area to walk around and we spent the day wandering amid old Portuguese churches and forts, getting caught in showers all along the way of course! After a week in the rain we’d had enough and we gave up on our several additional weeks of loose plans for Goa and took off for Bombay.
Bombay (Mumbai) is a terrific, though expensive city combining beautiful, classic architecture with elements of sleek, modern design. Though large swaths of the city are massive slums and home to millions of poor and unemployed Indians, most of Mumbai feels very contemporary (especially for an Indian city) with loads of world cuisine, shopping options and modern western pleasantries. From a mass transit system to Starbucks it almost felt like we weren’t in India at times. We only had a few days to spend in Mumbai (since basic accommodation charges are easily more than twice what they are anywhere else in India) so we tried to make the most of it by spending our days exploring and eating cosmopolitan cuisine. We visited as many sites as we could in two days including the beautiful Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the National Gallery. After a few days wandering Bombay, our next move would prove to be our greatest folly of this trip so far. We decided to visit a travel agent to book a series of train and bus transfers, hotel stays and tours to cover us for the next week. We desperately craved a break from our typical DIY lifestyle and hoped that the agent would get everything set up so we could take a breather from the constant planning, researching and booking we have become so accustomed to on the road. What we got for our money though was ripped off, royally. The first bus from Mumbai was actually correct but then when we landed at the first town on our itinerary the hotel we were supposed to stay at was fully booked and had no reservation for us… and this was just the beginning. The tours weren’t booked or paid for, the rest of our bus and train tickets were fakes, etc. Needless to say we had been rooked and learned a valuable lesson. Never do things the easy way, do them the right way. Our case with the India tourism board is still under review but we lost a significant amount of money that we just didn’t have the wiggle room to lose. When you’re travelling as long as we are, even $150 is a huge trip affecting loss.
Trying to put this behind us, the next stop on our trip was to Aurangabad to visit the amazing cave temples of Ajanta and Elora. Built between 200 BC and 700 AD, the amazing Hindu and Buddhist temple structures are carved directly into the stone mountainsides. Intricately carved and painted ceilings, columns, statues and reliefs adorn the painstakingly excavated cave spaces that feel straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. The breathtaking massive central temple at Elora took over 200 years to carve and includes life-sized elephant sculptures and multi-story temples (connected by bridges!) carved directly out of the bedrock right where they stand. Absolutely remarkable. We’d never seen anything like it anywhere.
From Aurangabad we decided to make our way towards Udaipur, much further north in the state of Rajasthan along the Pakistan border. With our travel agent having cheated us out of our bookings, we ended up having to endure 40 hours of buses (some without air-conditioning in an extremely hot climate) over the course of 72 hours. Following Murphy’s law to a tee, we both got sick on the journey as well, which on buses without bathrooms was a challenge of endurance. We finally arrived in Udaipur tired, very ill and angry at the ordeal we had to go through because of the greed of that travel agent in Mumbai. We took some solace in knowing that karma will eventually get the best of him though, especially in this country! Udaipur, known as the “White city” because of the color of its buildings, is a beautiful, historic, lakeside town often called the most romantic place in India. With multiple grand palaces including several built on islands in the middle of the lake, Udaipur has an air about it that is hard to describe and it notably was a primary location for the 1983 James Bond classic Octopussy. We were in some desperate need of some recovery time and Udaipur, though quite chaotic, was as good a place as any in Northern India. We soon discovered that in stark contrast to the green and relaxing towns of Southern India, from Alleppey to Goa, Northern India was much more of what I was expecting India to be like. Hot, dusty, unsanitary (understatement), loud beyond all reason, over populated and generally a fairly stressful place to travel. The differences between the south and north could honestly not be more dramatic.
The manic nature of Udaipur however could be escaped briefly with day trips to the countryside and after a few days of trying to get some R&R in a town with constant horns honking, dogs barking, power outages, choking pollution etc. we decided to take a break and headed out to visit some distant historic sites with our new German friends Dennis and Rebekah. The first site we visited was the massive Khumbalgarh Fort. An incredible structure with a 20 meter high, 10 meter wide and 35 kilometer long perimeter wall which is the second biggest wall in the world after the Great Wall of China. Walking on the wide wall alone as it carved through the green countryside was reason enough to visit the fort but the massive interior structures also gave spectacular views in every direction. It was really something impressive to see and one of those spots that you never hear about back at home but if you’re in Udaipur, India you hear about it from everyone. It is well worth the hype. The next destination was the same in its local hype worthiness and equally mind blowing. Ranakpur, a giant domed Jain Temple from the 15th century carved entirely out of white marble! Words can’t describe the intricate detail work that went into the temple as it was built over 100 years. Each of the 1444+ intricately carved white marble pillars (it is said that it is impossible to count all the pillars) supporting the five massive carved domes are each a unique piece of art. The Tree of Life growing in the center of the temple is 500 years old and the whole thing is absolutely stunning. It truly takes your breath away.
That evening we returned to Udaipur with lungs full of fresh air to find the city in full on festival mode as the birthday of Krishna filled the streets with revelers and music. We made our way to the central square where thousands of people had gathered for the main event. A paper ball containing 21,000 Rupees was suspended by string some 20 meters (60 feet) above the crowd. The challenge? Teams from around the region (all male) had to try and reach the money filled ball by forming human pyramids in the center of the stone square! When they came crashing down it was terrifying as in the past people have died falling from the heights these pyramids go. But not today. Today victory would go to a team with about 15 brawny men; arms locked making the base circle, then about 10 tall barefoot men climbed onto their shoulders, then about 5 more young lanky barefoot guys climbed to the top of them, followed by two more, one of whom leaned over to make a human table while the last guy climbed up onto his back and grabbed onto the ball over his head! 60 feet in the air! Then as the pyramid began to collapse beneath him he held onto the ball and rode it and the strings down into the crowd which immediately erupted into a dance frenzy! The whole square went absolutely bananas. After a bit the crowds dispersed and I made my way to the winning team and shook a few congratulatory hands before the local TV crew came up and interviewed Laura and I for the evening news. What a night and just another crazy experience that we always seem to find ourselves having on the road.
After a week in Udaipur we headed north to its sister city, Jaipur, the “Pink city”. Still trying to recover from the bus odyssey to Udaipur and the still lingering sickness that resulted from it, we found a nice quiet guesthouse in a suburban neighborhood, away from the incessant honking, barking, mosque chanting over loudspeakers, etc. that had kept us from getting a good night’s sleep in weeks. Sweet, sweet quiet. Something we had truly learned to appreciate in India as it can be hard to come by. Jaipur was the reboot we needed. We spent our days reading and writing and only stepping out occasionally to walk the loud streets of the old town (the walled pink city) and to watch the camel carts walk by. Health reestablished.
From Jaipur we headed east towards our ultimate destination and Laura’s main goal when adding India to our itinerary in the first place….the Taj Mahal in Agra. As we entered the city of Agra in the midst of a combination dust and rain storm (I still have no idea how that was even possible, absolutely bizarre; choking AND soaking!) we immediately noticed the city wasn’t anything like either of us had expected. From seeing pictures of the lovely Taj Mahal throughout our lives we had for some reason expected a clean, tourist friendly, well-kept town surrounding what is obviously the top tourist attraction in India. What we got was a ramshackle shanty town with practically no tourist infrastructure whatsoever and crowded narrow dirt and rock street corridors between crumbling buildings. We were there three days and the electricity in the town was out at least half the time. Seriously Agra? It’s the freakin Taj Mahal! We departed our guesthouse just before sunrise the next morning to visit the Taj and in the predawn hours the town is actually quiet and our bicycle rickshaw ride to the gates was mellow and enjoyable. Walking through the massive gates that morning and seeing the immaculate white marble Taj Mahal glowing in the orange radiance of sunrise was breathtaking. We spent the entire morning walking around the well-manicured lawns and plazas that surround the beautiful building. The reflection pool in front was empty but besides that it was just as we had imagined. Because we had begun to feel like we did not want to come back to Northern India, likely ever, we spent a significant amount of time at the Taj, really enjoying and taking in this jewel of India from every possible angle. It was a great experience and we left Agra fulfilled.
At this point we had spent 6 weeks in India already and the three weeks in northern India had felt like ten. We were ready to move on. Previous plans to visit Delhi and Varanassi were discarded and we began plotting a route directly towards Nepal. This is one of the beauties of travelling without plans. From Agra we headed to the seldom tourist visited state capital city of Lucknow. We immediately fell in love with the city our first night when we ventured out on a bicycle rickshaw through town and ended up riding through an almost magical bazaar street full of vendors and people that was illuminated with hundreds of strands of Christmas lights and hanging chandeliers. That night we visited Tunday Kababi, the most famous kabab house in a city known countrywide for its amazing and unique kebabs. The mouthwatering, melt in your mouth, mincemeat mutton kebabs were cooked out on the street over open fires and have almost the consistency of pate when you spread them on the delicious homemade flatbreads. The legend goes that many years ago, the elderly and toothless “Nawab” or prince of the region instructed his royal chef to make kababs in such a way that they would literally melt in your mouth so he could eat them! Mission accomplished. That first night eating with the locals at the packed locals only spot sealed the deal. We would stay in Lucknow a bit longer. For several days we visited many historic sites in Lucknow and enjoyed its well-manicured green spaces and incredible cuisine. We tried every kebab variety we could get our hands on and savored the unique Lucknow food.
From Lucknow we would take an uncomfortable overnight bus to Gorakhpur way up north and then jump a 5am collective jeep three more hours up to the border. As we made our way through the Northern Indian countryside towards Nepal at sunrise, we felt an incredible sense both of relief to be leaving India behind and excitement to be entering a new country for the first time in nearly 2 months. Continuing our global journey. Overall we found India to be a fascinating and diverse country that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. It’s THAT unique. That being said while we absolutely loved the southern half of the country, the much more chaotic north is a place I think we’re likely never going to return to as beautiful as parts of it are. It was a heck of an experience but the enchanting Nepal awaited.