Kerala – India’s Quiet Side

So there we were…gliding through Kerala’s majestic backwater river network, taking in the beautiful countryside from our personal houseboat.
 
Kerala, a small state on the south-western coast, is where Indian life slows to a screeching halt. A massive network of canal like rivers weave from the ocean and spread inland throughout the state. Known as the Keralan backwaters, villages sit on the edge of the river banks which serve as the areas “super highways.” Children take the school “boat” up river to class and locals wait at the boat dock to catch the next ferry to and from work. The slow pace of river life made it a relaxing place to chill out for a few days.
 
The best way to explore the backwaters is by renting a houseboat for an overnight trip. As a big holiday destination for Indian and foreign tourists, the boats range from small one-bedroom options to high-end luxury boats with multiple bedrooms, satellite TV and large viewing decks. We found a cheap one-bedroom option and set out on the water. Starting at lunch time all we had to do was sit back and enjoy the view. Armed with a cook and captain, we were served all of our meals on board. Watching local Keralan life go slowly by from our lounge chair on the deck made this experience a top overall highlight for both of us.
 

Back on land the following day, we headed inland to Periyar Tiger Reserve. Hoping once again for a chance to see a tiger we paid for a jeep safari into the park. We were disappointed to find out the jeep only drives you to a tourist compound with 40 other tourists where you branch off in small groups for a short trek and a cheesy boat ride. With no tiger sighting and a bit of money wasted on the jeep tour, we quickly left for the town of Munnar.

The drive up to the hilltop station of Munnar was worth the trip in itself. Vast stretches of tea plantations cover the hills creating a sea of green against the blue sky. The setting for the town of Munnar was just as dramatic as the drive and we spend a few days wandering the tea fields and enjoying the cool night air. We wished we could have stayed more than two days but we had a flight to catch and headed back to Cochin. Boarding a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, it was time to begin the next leg of our trip in South East Asia.

Highlights

  • Exploring the backwaters and spending the night out on the houseboat
  • Hiking through the winding aisles of tea rows in Munnar
  • The fantastic food and laid back people

Lowlights

  • The money wasted on the jeep tour at the tiger park.  Although the hike was nice, it was not worth the cash and not very authentic
  • Saying goodbye to India – seven weeks wasn’t nearly enough!  We will definitely be back again to explore even more of this vibrant country
Jason on our houseboat
The rice barge houseboats
View from our boat
Local Keralan kids
Backwaters sunset
Waterfall in Periyar Tiger Reserve
Tea plantations in Munnar
Views from hiking in Munnar
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Bombay to the Beach

So there we were…riding up and down the side streets of coastal Goa searching for the best beach to spend the day.  Sinking our toes in the sand, we felt a world away from the hustle and bustle of the India we had known so far.

After a long overnight train from Udaipur, we arrived in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), a city with over 16 million people.  Home to the ever-growing Bollywood movies, the city is a contrast of rich and poor, with over half the population living in slums next to some of wealthiest Indians in the country.  We spent a few days walking the busy streets admiring the European architecture left over from the English and eating fabulous food.

City life quickly became exhausting and we hopped on another long train taking us south to Goa.  Goa sits on the western coast with plenty of beach front property and attracts a very diverse crowd; everything from vacationing Indian families, Russian package tourists and hippies that setup shop for the whole winter season.  With many mixed reviews from fellow travelers we weren’t sure what to expect, but headed to the northern beaches and landed in Anjuna to decide for ourselves.  Even though we are soon heading to many beaches in South East Asia, we hadn’t been in a very “beachy” area since Zanzibar in Africa.  We quickly fell in love with the small beach town vibe and relaxing beach Anjuna provided and before we knew it, five days had flown by!

We arrived on Wednesday just in time for the large tourist market the town hosts each week.  We walked the aisles looking at all the overpriced stuff getting sold by vendors with the gift of gab and then enjoyed a few sunset drinks overlooking the beach.  For the next few days we rented a scooter and cruised up and down the jungle filled coast checking out the other beach towns.  It was a wonderfully relaxing change to busy North India and it was difficult to muster the energy to move on.  On the way out-of-town, we explored the beautiful architecture of the Portuguese quarter in Panaji and the cathedrals of Old Goa before making our way further south to visit our final Indian destination, Kerala.

Highlights

  • The strip of sand in Anjuna, even though a bit touristy, it was just what we needed
  • The tasty street food in Mumbai and the great seafood in Goa
  • Getting asked to be in another Bollywood movie, we graciously declined saying we had already made our debut
  • Exploring the Hindu cave-temples on Elephanta Island off the coast of Mumbai

Lowlights

  • Prices of accommodation in Mumbai – so expensive – forcing us into a real dump
Mumbai's Victoria Terminus - busiest train station in Asia
Three-faced Shiva Hindu God at Elephanta Caves
Anjuna beach
This is still India
Sunset at Anjuna beach
Jason cruising around on the scooter
Becky always shopping - Anjuna's Wed market

Romantic Rajasthan

So there we were…wandering grand forts and palaces, picturing an old India of Kings and royalty.  Rajasthan today is very different, but many of the monuments and their history still remain.

After spending Christmas in Agra and celebrating our engagement, we planned on heading straight into the Rajasthan district but protests blocking the roads and railways forced us up to Delhi.  We were going to skip Delhi completely but we enjoyed a few days in the big city.  We were cast as extras in a big Bollywood movie being shot at a local monument in town.  It was a very interesting day.  They picked us up from our hotel, fed us breakfast and lunch and paid us $10 each.  All we had to do was stand around and look like tourists – that was easy!

Since the roads were clear from Delhi, we made our way to our first stop in Rajasthan, Jaipur.  We spent a few days walking the city browsing the markets and local sights.  Not overly impressed by this busy town we quickly moved onto the mellow Pushkar.  We were immediately relieved to find a more quiet and subdued India, all of our time up until then had been spent in relatively large cities.  We kept busy in Pushkar lougin’ around our hotel’s rooftop, wandering the long street of tourist shops (with lots of good stuff!) and visiting the bathing and washing ghats in the center of town.

Next stop on the list was Jodhpur, the famous blue city.  Many of the buildings in the old city are painted an Indigo blue to ward off mosquitoes and keep the homes cool in the summer.  The color of the buildings along with a dramatic red fort towering over the city make for an impressive backdrop.  By chance, an old friend of Jason’s from his study abroad days in The Netherlands just got married and was on his honeymoon in India.  We happened to cross paths in Jodhpur and were able to meet up at their lavish hotel for dinner.  It was wonderful to see friendly faces and share a wonderful meal together.  Hermann and Danica – congratulations, it was so great seeing you!

Our final stop in the area was in Udaipur.  This was one of our favorite cities where a “floating” palace sits in the middle of the town lake – maybe you have seen it before in the James Bond film Octopussy (which is shown everywhere).  Finding a great hotel always helps us  enjoy our time and we had just the place with a rooftop serving up great views, especially at sunset.  We enjoyed a few more days of relaxing, Jason tried his first ever yoga class – and liked it! – and we did an all day Indian cooking course.  The food has been fabulous here in India and learning to make curries, naan, chapati, chai tea and a few other delights was great fun.  We can’t wait to get home and try out our new recipes, anyone want to come for dinner?

Highlights

  • Being in a movie with two big Bollywood stars and seeing how it all works from behind the scenes
  • Learning to make so many wonderful Indian dishes and then getting to eat it all

Lowlights

  • Becky getting thrown-up on while on our way by local bus from Agra to Delhi.  It is common for locals to get car sick on the buses as some of them have never been in a moving vehicle
Monkeys in Jaipur - they really do love bananas!
Sunset in Pushkar
View of the fort and the blue city of Jodhpur
After dinner with Hermann and Danica in Jodhpur
Cooking class with our wonderful host
Lake scene in Udaipur

We’re Engaged!

So there we were…groggy and cold, waiting in line before the sun came up outside the Taj Mahal. Enjoying the view at first light was supposed to be magical, but Jason had something even more exciting planned once we were inside.

Visiting the Taj Mahal was on the top of our list while visiting India. We wish would could say the city of Agra was just as wonderful as the Taj, but unfortunately it was quite the opposite. When we arrived on Christmas Eve we were not very impressed by the filthy and busy city which houses one of the world’s most famous monuments.

Waking up early on Christmas morning, we headed down to the gate to buy our tickets and stand in line until the sun came up. Stepping inside the compound, our first up close look at the mausoleum was marvelous. It was everything we ever pictured it would be, larger than life and covered in exquisite marble. In total, 20,000 people from India and other parts of Asia worked on the building. Specialist were brought in from all over the world to produce the marble inlay which is made up of beautiful semi-precious stones.

Since it was still early morning, haze had formed around the base of the building, but as the sun rose so did the fog creating a magical mood while we walked the grounds. Since no shoes are allowed on the marble flooring around the building, we were given small booties to cover them. After taking some pictures and peeking inside, Jason led us down the main steps off to a small garden on the side. Not sure why we were going that way, I followed him anyway until he stopped to take off his booties. Not paying much attention, I turned around to see if he was ready to go and found him down on one knee. Tears immediately started flowing as he grabbed my hand and asked me to marry him. Of course I said YES! The Taj is described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love and it was the perfect place and time for our engagement to happen. We are both very excited and cannot wait to get home and celebrate with everyone!

Magnificent Taj Mahal
Early morning sunrise
Rising out of the fog
India's most famous icon
Enjoying the moments right after our engagement

Incredible India

So there we were…crossing into our 14th country when the smell of trash, urine and exhaust fumes filled the air…aaahhh yes, we have arrived in India.

Leaving Nepal was bittersweet but we were anxious to continue our spiritual journey through India. Varanasi, the holiest city in India, is a colorful place where Hindu’s come to wash in the holy water of The Ganges or to cremate a loved one. This city is at the heart of the Hindu beliefs and people travel hundreds of miles to bath in the river of salvation. Hinduism is India’s main religion practiced by approximated 82% of the population. Hindus believe the earthly life is cyclical, you are born again and again, and a dip in the holy water can wash away a lifetime of sins.

Life down on the river bank is fascinating to watch. The river is lined with Ghats, a long string of bathing steps which lead down to the water. Every day about 60,000 people go down to the river to take a dip. No one seems to notice that the “holy” Ganges water is actually septic with about 30 large sewers and industrial plants continuously discharging waste into the same area. Watching people swim and sometimes drink the water can be a bit nauseating. We figured we could find another way to wash away our sins and just watched from the sidelines.

There are also several burning Ghats where people come to cremate their family members. The burning is done on an open fire, in public, right on the bank of the river. Each body is doused in the holy water before the cremation session begins. While not always pleasant to watch (or smell), it was intriguing to see the process for cremation; from the march of the family through town with the deceased on a bamboo stretcher, to the choosing and weighing of the wood for each ceremony.

After waking up at sunrise and setting afloat our puja, an “offering” of small flowers and a candle, we felt spiritually fulfilled and ready to move on from Varanasi. We headed west to the small towns of Khajuraho and Orchha. Both showed a more mellow side of India with beautiful temples and architecture. The elements in Khajuraho’s temples was amazing, all of them shown with mithuna, carved figures in Kamasutra positions. The skill and time put into these sculptures was eye-catching not only for their intricate detail but also for all the crazy positions that make you blush! Orchha’s temples, while different, were also spectacular. Spread throughout the town, the old buildings rose from the undergrowth and could be spotted around every corner.

Highlights

• People watching and picture taking in Varanasi – it’s a photographer’s paradise

• Khajuraho’s wonderful temples and the park that surrounded them. It was peaceful and green, very different from India’s chaotic and dirty streets

• Watching the sunset over the river and vulture filled temples in Orchha

Lowlights

• Having a small boy come up and grab Becky inappropriately in Orchha. Shocked and disgusted, we found him at his home and told his mother who didn’t hesitate to smack him across the face. It was an uncomfortable and awkward situation, but we think he learned his lesson.

• Constantly dodging the ever present cow, dog, monkey, goat and human feces that line India’s streets

• Jason getting Delhi belly on his 1st day in India

Bathing Ghats in Varanasi
Varanasi at sunrise
Early morning bath time on The Ganges
The Ganges
Khajuraho's detailed temples
Kamasutra carvings in Khajuraho
Orchha temples at sunset