Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hampi Then and Now

There was one place in all of India that I knew I absolutely had to go to on this trip: Hampi. I had gone there with my dearest friend Amanda while on Semester At Sea in the spring of 2006 and it was one of my favorite places of the whole semester. The setting was beautiful, the ruins were ancient, and we saw only a few other tourists. It was exploring heaven.

Hampi back in 2006
My, how things have changed!! The place is crawling with tourists, both Indian and foreigners. The town has changed dramatically. Somewhere along the line from then to now, the secret of Hampi had been unleashed. Every traveler in southern India goes to Hampi now.

Somehow Hampi has managed to retain much of its charm. The town is a quiet respite from the noise of the rest of India. In Hampi you could spend an entire morning just gazing at the green rice fields, the palm trees swaying, and the rock strewn mountains in the not too far distance. There is peace in Hampi.  

We rented some very crappy motorbikes and visited some ruins. The first bikes we got broke down and we had to wait another day and rent from someone else. Make sure you check the tires and look at the bikes to make sure they at least look acceptable to be riding around on dirt roads.

We dealt with the broken bikes all afternoon (bummer) and then went to climb some rocks to watch the sunset. It was beautiful. The view from the top of the rocks was phenomenal. The sunset was gorgeous. It made the whole day better.

We finally got some half way decent motorbikes and saw the ruins the next day. We didn't pay the exuberant tourist price to get in to see some of the best ones but we were still happy with what we saw.

We also went to see the sunset at the Monkey Temple. It was a popular place to go and there were lots of people, tourists and locals alike. And of course, monkeys were everywhere.

On our last morning in Hampi, we ate our breakfast while watching the local elephant take its bath in the river. It was very cool.

And then we went to Mumbai.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Beauty in a Misadventure in Kerala

We read that the best place to see elephants in the wild was at a nature reserve in Kerala. It's the best place because the guidebook said it was "almost guaranteed" to see them. As soon as we had that information, we were making plans to go there.

So the day after our day at Fort Kochi and just one night after our 42 hour train experience, we got on a bus and rode for six hours. We then figured out we were still another couple of bus rides away from the nature reserve so we spent the night in some random city and left on a bus again the next day for another five hours on two different buses. It was a long couple of days and we were exhausted.

We finally got to the town next to the nature reserve. As we were checking into the hotel we saw posters with elephants on them and a map of the nature reserve. We told the lady behind the counter that we wanted to see the elephants, to which she promptly replies, "Oh, the reserve is closed for fire season. You can't go now."

What??! I felt so defeated. I had pushed us into taking bus after bus, day after day. I was doing the research at the time and it was my fault that we had to stay in that random city the day before because I had made a mistake. It was Jeremy's birthday the next day and now we couldn't see any elephants. Ugh.

We were all disappointed, but we did what every traveler learns eventually and we just let it go and tried to make the best of it. We spent the next day in a private car (with air-con!) seeing the sights we were still able to see in fire season.

The first thing we saw was a cave-like place with some very old carvings in the rock. It was there that we met a group of about 30 public school teachers who were on a trip during their summer holidays. At first, the men talked to Jeremy and Spencer and the women talked to me and Katie. Then later we all joined in on one big conversation. We asked what subjects they taught and when one guy said he was the music teacher, Jeremy jokingly asked him to sing for us. At first he refused, but then he complied and started singing. His voice was clear and strong and everyone was quiet letting his voice bounce off the rocks and fill the area his music. Another teacher joined him and they sang together. Some more joined in and it was beautiful. The four of us couldn't understand the words but we were all smiling, our hearts full.

As we walked down the hill away from the cave and towards the car, we saw a bunch of monkeys around the trail. It was obvious that people feed them there because there were a lot of monkeys and a lot of babies. It was fun to watch them and see all the tiny babies scurry about and ride on their mama's backs and tummies.

Next we went to a waterfall where we almost got heat stroke from walking in the afternoon sun. It was still nice though.

Lastly, we went to a small lake that we walked around. There was a nice shaded path all around it with seating areas, a playground, places to get snacks, and monkeys everywhere.

While driving around, we went through a lot of tea fields. It was cool to see them and think about how different and the same they were from the tea fields in Korea.

It was still a good day even though we didn't get to see wild elephants. We made the best of it and were happy regardless. That's one of the best things I learned while traveling: how to be happy when everything is hard and not going your way.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Journey to Kerala and Fort Kochi

It was nearing the end of our trip and I was eager to see as much as we possibly could. I'd heard about the beauty of Kerala and its backwaters from so many people both on the internet and in person. I knew I didn't want to miss it. The only problem was that we were 2,725 kilometers away. That equates to a 42 hour train ride. Forty. Two.

Oh, and the first 23 hours were spent next to an insane person. Really. I'm not kidding. There was a good sized man sitting in our area who would randomly start yelling, grabbing people walking by, hitting his companions, and other unintelligible antics. He hit me while I was sleeping in the middle of the night. It was a scary situation. Every time he would have an episode, a bunch of guys would hold him down, talk softly to him, and give him some kind of medicine out of a tiny brown bottle. Eventually, we were able to switch with some people and got away from them and we were very grateful for the move.

We arrived in Cochin in the wee hours of the morning, found a place to stay, showered, and passed out for a couple of hours. The next day we were itching to stretch our legs and explore the city after being so cooped up for two days on the train. I can't remember why but for some reason that day no one brought their cameras along with them. It was one of those days where you are incredibly in the moment and free.

We decided to take a ferry over to the Fort and after waiting in a hectic line, we finally secured tickets and made it across the bay. It was very sunny and humid but with a breeze that could make you sing. We spent a lot of time walking around under the big trees by the water looking at all the goodies for sale. There were women sitting on blankets selling handmade jewelry while their little ones ran around barefoot and dirty. There were people selling all the same things we had seen over and over again for tourists to buy: marble coasters and elephants, little statues of Ganesha, wooden boxes, brightly colored scarfs, and baggy hippie pants. Of course, there were also carts selling fruit, candy, peanuts, and other portable snacks.

We saw some six feet tall portraits drawn in charcoal on the side of a dusty cream colored building. They were spectacular. We were all blown away not only by how beautiful they were, but how temporary they were. The monsoon season was just a few months away and then they would be gone. I felt lucky to have seen them. 

We stopped at a plain but somehow elegant cafe in the courtyard of some old building. We sat outside under the veranda where we could see a sliver of the sea through a double doorway. The fans above us stopped every once in a while when the power went out. We ordered fancy sandwiches and coffees while playing card games. It all felt very classy and relaxing, even when a little troupe of goats passed through to nibble on the grass.

We walked down to the beach and saw some people swimming in the water with their clothes on. We talked about how surprising it would be to everyone around us if we put out a towel and began sunbathing in a bikini on the sand. Things are so different.

A Week in Jaipur

We took our time in Jaipur. We stayed at some really nice, cheap hotels, relaxed on more rooftop restaurants than I can count, and celebrated Holi (the festival where the color run got all its ideas!). It was epically beautiful.

Jaipur is known as "the pink city" but it's really more dusty coral than pink. Still, it was cool and pretty easy to navigate for a city of its size. Jaipur is the gateway to Rajastan, India's desert state. It's arid, sandy, and can get downright scathingly hot. Thankfully we were there in Spring and the weather was perfect. The first thing we did is explore the old city, aka "the pink city." You can decide if it's pink or not!

Another day Spencer and I went to see the Amer Fort, perched high on the hills surrounding the city. There are elephants to ride up and lots of tourists around. The fort itself is elaborate, beautiful, and old. It was still a cool thing to see even though it gets so many visitors. 

One of the best things we did in Jaipur was go to feed some monkeys at the "Monkey Temple." Now, I'm not sure if the temple is really called the monkey temple or it just got named that since so many people feed monkeys on the walk up to the temple. Either way it was very cool to feed them peanuts and watch them crack them open and eat them or save them in the cheeks for later.

That night after the monkey temple, we went up to another hilltop to watch the sunset and see the city lights. It was impressive.

And then, there was Holi.

It was wild. It was crazy. It was epic.