A Travellerspoint blog

Back to India

sunny 27 °C


Returning to Mumbai, feels like coming home. People recognize us on the street, in our favorite restaurants, and the owner of our hotel reprimands us for not giving him notice of our arrival. What a nice feeling. The city seems cooler, less humid and less crowded, but more likely, we've just gotten used to a country of 1.2 billion; 16 million right here. As we navigate between the sidewalk vendors and the motorized traffic of Colaba, the man selling the most ridiculous enormous balloons races towards me certain that I've come back to finally buy one! I decide that Kama Sutra playing cards make for more interesting gifts.

We are taking an overnight bus to mythical Goa. Private (somewhat cleaner & more comfortable) buses depart from points outside the city center and the ticketing agent has arranged our transfer to the pick-up point. Our rickshaw follows a motorcycle best he can. In a flurry of commotion, we are waved onto a local bus as our motorcycle escort barks instructions to the driver. Traffic is at a standstill and we resign ourselves to missing the bus as the ticket collector, juggling 2 mobile phones, gestures at us reassuringly between (and during) calls. Suddenly, he turns, motioning wildly and says, "Don't take tension sir!" leaving us in hysterics over the new phrase that rivals "Sorry sir, kitchen confused!" Ultimately, we arrive over an hour late to our waiting bus.
Sleeper bus

Sleeper bus

Goa evokes images of wide sandy beaches, glorious sunsets and Portuguese heritage. Thankfully, the Portuguese part lives up to the myth. There are a few upscale resorts but the public beaches are more than disappointing. In places like Calangute, hoards of tourists, mostly Indian and Russian, descend upon the beach in swarms. Vendors peddling plastic toys, cheap jewelry and all kinds of fried food, line the main road choked with traffic and fumes. The beach is packed with Indian tourists playing in the water fully-clothed. A handful of scorched tourists bake on sunbeds near the waterline. Even the cows seem put off.
Calangute Beach, Goa

Calangute Beach, Goa

Calangute Beach, Goa

Calangute Beach, Goa

Benaulim Beach, Goa

Benaulim Beach, Goa

Restroom, Arossim Beach, Goa

Restroom, Arossim Beach, Goa

Much more appealing are the brightly painted houses with traditional tile motifs and Portuguese names along the narrow streets of the capital city, Panjim (Panaji). Our Lady of Immaculate Conception casts a long shadow over main street from a hilltop in the center. The atmosphere is relaxed and pleasant. It feels like a small town in Portugal. The few colonial hotels and guesthouses in the neighborhood of Fontainas are charming and very reasonably priced. The only issue is the stench from the river occasionally activated by the wind forcing us to find less quaint but more comfortable accommodation inland.
Panjim, Fontainas neighborhood, Goa

Panjim, Fontainas neighborhood, Goa

Trying to stay dry on a bike in Panjim

Trying to stay dry on a bike in Panjim

Downpour at the fruit market in Panjim

Downpour at the fruit market in Panjim

It is Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights and Indian New Year. Over 4 days, the entire country sparkles with light and festivities. Illuminated colorful paper lanterns hang in doorways, firecrackers pop throughout the night and families gather in celebration of joy, hope, peace and prosperity. In Goa, one tradition honors Lord Krishna's defeat of an evil demon king by building giant (8 meters tall) paper mâché monsters and then burning them.
Diwali festival decorations, Goa

Diwali festival decorations, Goa

Paper mache monster, Diwali festival, Goa

Paper mache monster, Diwali festival, Goa

Visiting the old Portuguese mansions around Goa requires several days with a car and driver. The most famous homes like Braganza, Figueriedo, Alvares, Fernandes and Palacio do Deos in South Goa are easily accessible to the public. Owners & caretakers rely on visitor donations to maintain these properties as the government offers little to no subsidies. Homes are filled with Indo-Portuguese furniture, vast collections of tableware, silver and crystal from Europe and Asia. In general, we are warmly welcomed by elderly women, eager to share their family history, but husbands have passed, children have left, estates have been divided and a sense of melancholy hangs heavily in the air.
Traditional Portuguese home, Goa

Traditional Portuguese home, Goa

From north to south, Goa is dotted with churches from petite whitewashed structures in the smallest of villages to the behemoths of Old Goa.
Church, Goa

Church, Goa

Church, Goa

Church, Goa

Church of St. Francis of Assisi, Old Goa

Church of St. Francis of Assisi, Old Goa

Church in Old Goa

Church in Old Goa

Bride in Margao, Goa

Bride in Margao, Goa

We leave the cozy continental feeling of Goa and head back to Hyderabad where we have been invited to observe one of the most important events of the Islamic calendar, the Day of Ashura.
Waiting room at the long distance bus stand, Goa

Waiting room at the long distance bus stand, Goa

Reserving a seat on the bus

Reserving a seat on the bus

On the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, grandson of Mohammed, at the battle of Karbala (present day Iraq) in 680 AD. Men gather on the floor of the Ashoor Khana (mourning hall) where a man recounts the story of the battle with fierce emotion as the entire audience weeps with empathy. Women, seated of the floor, behind screens, in adjascent rooms, look on crying their souls dry. A procession of men (only) in black follows in the streets, led by men of all ages including very young boys, beating their chests and cutting themselves with sharp blades in honorary self-mutilation. Veiled women, watch discreetly from behind doors and on rooftops.
Burning written wishes before the procession during Muharram, Hyderabad

Burning written wishes before the procession during Muharram, Hyderabad

Muharram procession at Charminar mosque, Hyderabad

Muharram procession at Charminar mosque, Hyderabad

Self-flagellation during Muharram, Hyderabad

Self-flagellation during Muharram, Hyderabad

Self-flagellation during Muharram, Hyderabad

Self-flagellation during Muharram, Hyderabad

Crowd, Muharram, Hyderabad

Crowd, Muharram, Hyderabad

Self-flagellation during Muharram, Hyderabad

Self-flagellation during Muharram, Hyderabad

Blood bath, Muharram, Hyderabad

Blood bath, Muharram, Hyderabad

Ladies, Muharram, Hyderabad

Ladies, Muharram, Hyderabad

In a radical change of decor, we spend a few days visiting the archaeological wonder of Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Gigantic rock formations dwarf the ruins of the Hindu empire that flourished here from the 14th to 16th century. Hampi Bazaar is the tiny village close to the main sites. In this compact labyrinth of narrow unpaved streets, with small guesthouses, restaurants and shops, cows, pigs and dogs go about their business nibbling on garbage and soaking up the sun as pedestrians and vehicles circumvent. The basic but comfortable Thalik Guest house is run by an unusually enterprising young man with a keen sense of service. At 22 he's already running 2 guesthouses, a restaurant, cybercafe and tours.
Temple at sunset point, Hampi

Temple at sunset point, Hampi

Chariot at Vitthala temple, Hampi

Chariot at Vitthala temple, Hampi

View of Elephant stables, Hampi

View of Elephant stables, Hampi

Shiva underground temple, Hampi

Shiva underground temple, Hampi

View from Mathanga Hill, Hampi

View from Mathanga Hill, Hampi

Kadlekalu (seated) Ganesh, monolithic statue, 4.5 meters tall, Hampi

Kadlekalu (seated) Ganesh, monolithic statue, 4.5 meters tall, Hampi

Virupaksha temple, Hampi

Virupaksha temple, Hampi

Virupaksha temple, Hampi

Virupaksha temple, Hampi

Little girl dressed in her Sunday best to visit the temples, Hampi

Little girl dressed in her Sunday best to visit the temples, Hampi

From Hampi we hire a car and driver for the day (30 eu) to visit the temple complexes of Aihole and Pattadakal (a classified World Heritage site) as well as the cave temples of Badami.
Zebus at work

Zebus at work

Passengers unlimited

Passengers unlimited

Nandi bull in temple at Pattadakal

Nandi bull in temple at Pattadakal

Temple at Pattadakal

Temple at Pattadakal

Temple at Pattadakal

Temple at Pattadakal

Interior cave, Badami

Interior cave, Badami

Ladies visiting the cave temples at Badami

Ladies visiting the cave temples at Badami

Cave temple, Badami

Cave temple, Badami

Daily life, Badami

Daily life, Badami

Daily life, Badami

Daily life, Badami

But the really impressive cave temples are those of Ajanta and Ellora (both classified by UNESCO) reached by day trips from dusty, chaotic Aurangabad, famous for its Bibi-ka-Makbara a scaled-down, far-less bejeweled, but equally grand in its expression of love, replica of the Taj Mahal.Bibi-ka-Makbara, the mini Taj Mahal, Aurangabad

Bibi-ka-Makbara, the mini Taj Mahal, Aurangabad

Bibi-ka-Makbara, Aurangabad

Bibi-ka-Makbara, Aurangabad

Built between the 2nd and 6th centuries, there are no less than 30 Buddhist temples carved into the caves of Ajanta along a horseshoe-shaped ravine. It's a full day of walking up and down steep, uneven steps, shoes on, off, on, off, to admire the frescoes and colorful wall paintings which are remarkably well-preserved.
Ajanta cave temples

Ajanta cave temples

Ajanta cave temples

Ajanta cave temples

Ajanta cave temples

Ajanta cave temples

Ajanta cave temples - some visitors opt to be carried

Ajanta cave temples - some visitors opt to be carried

Over the next 5 centuries, the 34 caves of Ellora were carved into temples and monasteries by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains. It's almost too much for one day. The standout is the Kailasa Temple, an astonishing Hindu sanctuary carved from one mighty rock by a crew of 7000 over a century and a half. Let the photos speak because my jaw is still dropped.
Ellora cave temples

Ellora cave temples

Ellora cave temples

Ellora cave temples

Ellora cave temples

Ellora cave temples

Ellora, Kailasa cave temple

Ellora, Kailasa cave temple

Ellora, Kailasa cave temple

Ellora, Kailasa cave temple

Ellora cave temples

Ellora cave temples

Ellora cave temples

Ellora cave temples

Perched on a plateau overlooking a valley lies the fortified town of Mandu. With not much left of the walls or gates, and all of one intersection, it's hard to even call this a village, yet the splendid palaces, mosques, temples and tombs all within proximity are testament to a rich history disputed by rajas, muslims and moghuls between the 10th and 18th centuries. Moreover, it's easy to visit the various sites on foot or bicycle. Accommodations on the other hand, are nothing to write home about.
Jahaz Mahal (palace), Mandu

Jahaz Mahal (palace), Mandu

Hindola Mahal (palace), Mandu

Hindola Mahal (palace), Mandu

Hoshang Shah's Tomb, Mandu

Hoshang Shah's Tomb, Mandu

Jami Masjid (mosque), Mandu

Jami Masjid (mosque), Mandu

The ghats (stairs leading to the water) and temples that line the banks of the sacred Narmada River, under the imposing 16th century fort in the town of Maheshwar, have long welcomed pilgrims. However, it was the 18th century (people's) Queen Ahilyabai of the Holkar family who built, among others, the palace, today the royal family's home and a luxury hotel, within the fort walls. The highlight, despite the ear-splitting hammer of the outboard motor propelling our waterlogged boat, is the view of the fort from the river in the late afternoon. The panorama from our cozy room is pretty good too!
Maheshwar

Maheshwar

Ghats (steps leading to the river), Maheshwar

Ghats (steps leading to the river), Maheshwar

View of Maheshwar from the river

View of Maheshwar from the river

View of Maheshwar ghats from the river

View of Maheshwar ghats from the river

Bathers, Maheshwar

Bathers, Maheshwar

Egg vendor, Maheshwar

Egg vendor, Maheshwar

Mosque, Maheshwar

Mosque, Maheshwar

Dyeing cotton, Maheshwar

Dyeing cotton, Maheshwar

Room with a view, Hotel Raj Palace (20 eu), Maheshwar

Room with a view, Hotel Raj Palace (20 eu), Maheshwar

Known as Little Varanasi, Omkareshwar is a small island in the shape of the Om sign. Pilgrims come by the thousands to bathe in the water and pray in the surrounding temples. It is neither the prettiest, nor cleanest place we've visited and the enormous dam that sits on the perimeter like a digital backdrop is utterly surreal.
Omkareshwar

Omkareshwar

Drying dung patties, Omkareshwar

Drying dung patties, Omkareshwar

There are only a few hotels and for 16 euros, our "super deluxe" room includes a (thankfully) motionless bat lying on the bed! Later, as we kick back after a long, hot day, a lizard, the size of my hand, drops out of the A/C with a loud thud, stunned and frozen!
Hotel in Omkareshwar

Hotel in Omkareshwar

On an overnight bus to Baroda (Vadodara), as is often the case, the bus stops in the middle of nowhere. The choice is simple: go or hold it in for no telling how long, or how disgusting the eventual facilities may be. So, I walk far enough from the bus to find an isolated place when suddenly 2 ladies position themselves right next to me! It's so shocking yet it is a moment of female bonding. We walk back to the bus giggling with/at each other, I'm not really sure.

The 19th century Laxmi Vilas Palace, built by a British architect, with a mere 117 rooms is still home to the royal family of Baroda. A portion is open to the public.
Laxmi Vilas Palace, Baroda (Vadodara)

Laxmi Vilas Palace, Baroda (Vadodara)

Mahabat Maqbara mausoleum, Junagadh

Mahabat Maqbara mausoleum, Junagadh

Also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Champaner, the ancient capital of Gujarat and Pavagadh the sacred hill above it are about an hour from Baroda. The ruins of half a dozen mosques, poorly indicated on a map, delineate the boundaries of the city. That compass saves us. The architecture is an interesting mix of Hindu and Islamic styles.
Lila Gumbaj Ki Masjid (mosque), Champaner

Lila Gumbaj Ki Masjid (mosque), Champaner

Jami Masjid (mosque), Champaner

Jami Masjid (mosque), Champaner

The top of Pavagadh has several Hindu and Jain temples and is a pilgrimage site which can be reached on foot or by (Swiss built) cable car, but local tourists seem most interested in the kitsch photo studios that line the cobblestone streets.
Jain temple, Pavagadh

Jain temple, Pavagadh

Studio photography, Pavagadh

Studio photography, Pavagadh

Like Goa, the small town of Diu on the Oman Sea (southern tip of Gujarat) was a Portuguese enclave until 1961 when India reclaimed the territory. The season hasn't quite started yet which has its pros and cons. We visit the fort and churches practically alone but finding a ride proves difficult. By the sea, the king prawns are scrumptious!
St. Thomas Church, Diu

St. Thomas Church, Diu

Diu

Diu

Old Portuguese house, Diu

Old Portuguese house, Diu

Old Portuguese house, Diu

Old Portuguese house, Diu

Pimp my ride

Pimp my ride

The only remaining wild Asian lions (different characteristics than their African counterparts) in India can be found in Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary. Closed for 5 months during the monsoon, the sleepy town is swinging into a new season. Getting into the park is no simple affair as the number of jeeps per time slot is limited and there's a mafia-like organization for procuring the permits which consists of securing a jeep, then paying a gypsy to stand in line for you from midnight to 4am, whereby you (in our case two young Israelis looking to share costs) then take place for the remaining (freezing cold) hour or two until the office opens. Jeeps then gather around then entrance and after checking and rechecking paperwork, are allowed to enter for precisely 3 hours. We get lucky and spot 2 lions waking up with the sunrise.
Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

Lords Hotel, Sasan Gir (60 eu including breakfast and dinner for 2)

Lords Hotel, Sasan Gir (60 eu including breakfast and dinner for 2)

Additional seating

Additional seating

Typical view from the bus

Typical view from the bus

Nomads

Nomads

The town of Jamnagar is famous for a Hindu temple where a mantra has been chanted 24/7 since 1964, but the real stars of this town are the beautiful Jain temples in the center.
Shantinath (Jain) temple, Jamnagar

Shantinath (Jain) temple, Jamnagar

Interior Shantinath (Jain) temple, Jamnagar

Interior Shantinath (Jain) temple, Jamnagar

View of public urinals from hotel, Jamnagar

View of public urinals from hotel, Jamnagar

Delicious, Gujarati Thali

Delicious, Gujarati Thali

In 2001, a devastating earthquake struck the region of Kutch killing some 30,000 people. Despite severe damage, the extraordinarily ornate palaces of the capital city Bhuj, still stand.
Prag Mahal (palace), Bhuj

Prag Mahal (palace), Bhuj

Prag Mahal (palace), Bhuj

Prag Mahal (palace), Bhuj

Prag Mahal (palace), Bhuj

Prag Mahal (palace), Bhuj

King's bedroom, Aina Mahal (palace), Bhuj

King's bedroom, Aina Mahal (palace), Bhuj

VVIP Parking, Bhuj

VVIP Parking, Bhuj

An hour away in the coastal town of Mandvi we visit the royal family's summer palace, and a couple beaches nearby. In contrast to the deserted private beach, the public beach is humming with activity. Families play in the water, vendors peddle food and toys, and young boys offer camel and pony rides. A jeep pulling a parasail drives by on land as a jet ski whizzes by in the water.
Mandvi Beach

Mandvi Beach

Mandvi Beach

Mandvi Beach

Mandvi Beach

Mandvi Beach

Mandvi Beach

Mandvi Beach

Mandvi Beach

Mandvi Beach

Mandvi Beach

Mandvi Beach

T-Shirt

T-Shirt

But the most interesting site in Mandvi is the shipyard with the skeletons of gigantic wooden boats under construction. No one is working today leaving plenty of room for a flock of Pink Flamingoes to wade in the shallow water nearby.
Shipyard, Mandvi

Shipyard, Mandvi

Pink Flamingos, Mandvi

Pink Flamingos, Mandvi

Posted by SpiceChronicles 05:33 Archived in India Comments (11)

Bali Blues

sunny 30 °C

Arriving in Sanur on the southeast coast feels like most resorts in Florida. Traffic jam on the main street crammed with shops and restaurants and a beachfront with a path for cyclists and pedestrians in front of hotels lined up like dominos. What? This isn't Florida? Well, you could have fooled me. The only giveaway is that the beaches are nicer... in Florida...
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The most famous beaches, Kuta, Legian and Seminyak are on the southwest coast. We figure we should at least see what all the hype is about so we haggle with some drivers before hailing a metered taxi to brave an hour of intense traffic. I get the beach party allure that Kuta might have for the 20-something crowd, but here too the beach is disappointing. Swanky Seminyak next door, reminds me of the South of France in the summer. Hardly an inch of free sand or sidewalk which isn't surprising considering the local population of Bali is around 4 million and the number of tourists is 3.2 million per year.

Thinking we must have chosen the wrong area of Bali, we hire a car and driver for the day to look for the Bali we all expect. Every adult male it seems is a driver/guide. Taxi sir? Taxi madam? Ubud? Monkey Temple? Rice fields? The chorus of offers is deafening. At first you're polite, but after 50 "no thank yous", prompted by the drivers themselves, you switch to "maybe tomorrow."

We don't find the postcard beaches, but here and there we do find some nice spots including the lovely Tirta Empul Temple in Tampaksiring famous for its holy spring water. Bathers move down the line of fountainheads in a ballet of gesture and prayer.
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We inch our way through Ubud in traffic that rivals some of the world's best and at first glance we wonder what the draw to this place is. We visit the requisite Monkey Temple hoping that we won't be jumped by primates with a mission, but they're smart enough to go after the tourists wielding bananas. The park is actually quite pretty and we stumble upon a ceremony.
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Balinese architecture Is beautiful and no matter the size, every home has its own family temple with intricately carved columns and figures. Even the smallest guesthouses have elaborate entrances.
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Every day offerings are placed on the ground in front of homes, temples, shops even hotel rooms to honor the good spirits and fend off the bad. These small, handcrafted leaf packets filled with a variety of ingredients including, flowers, rice, nuts, fish and incense are hard to avoid stepping on. Luckily, once the ritual has been performed it really doesn't matter.
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The picturesque Jatiluwah rice fields in Tabanan, about 2 hours north of Denpasar, are classified by UNESCO as a Cultural Landscape for their traditional Subak irrigation system. We spend a few hours walking along paved paths admiring the ingenuity of this ancient, eco-friendly technique passed down through generations.
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The coastline along the east coast is rugged. We stop at a few places like Tulamben, famous for its shipwreck which lures experienced divers prepared to battle the harsh current, and Ahmed a tiny village known for free diving and yoga, but no area particularly inspires us, so we decide to try some of the small islands just off the coast.
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Everything in Bali is negotiable and choosing the boat to take you across a fairly treacherous corridor is daunting. Foreign-owned private companies dispute the boardwalk for your business asking exorbitant prices, while the locally run companies seem disorganized leaving you to wonder how closely price and safety are related. With the luxury of time, we observe several operators and ultimately decide to support the local guys, who it turns out, offer the exact same service. And no matter what price you pay, you will have to get your feet wet. The boats get right up to the beach, but you have to wade in, between breaking waves to get on. Of course the locals do this with a bit more finesse and we're thankful that they are in charge of luggage.
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It's a 30 minute smooth ride to Lembongan a small island where the scooter rules. A few small trucks are authorized to shuttle tourists and baggage. We check-in to the Pondok Arsa Santhi Hotel (20 euros per night/double)
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Though not on the beach, the bungalow, next to the pool, is spanking new, with a nice outdoor bathroom. We last one night: The noise of scooters and motorcycles is unbearable. We find a bungalow at Mega Cottages (22 euros per night/double) on the beach for a few days, and then snag the last available bungalow at Yogi Guest House (22 euros per night/double) where we settle into an extremely relaxed rhythm.
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To visit the interior of the island and beaches farther away, still in search of fine white sand, we rent a scooter for the day. We cross the rickety bridge to Ceningan a smaller island with just a couple of hotels and numerous seaweed farming operations.
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The seaweed cultivated here is intended for use in beauty products.
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At the end of the day, we decide that we're happier on our beachfront even though swimming is a challenge in the extremely shallow coral-filled water.
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Happy hour is particularly pretty on Lembongan with lots of nice bars and restos to enjoy sunset followed by a movie at Jungut Batu, a covered outdoor theater with comfy bean bags and good food. Every morning the owner posts the movie of the evening. The show always starts with a surfing flick.
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A communal cremation will take place in a few days. Poorer Balinese families bury the deceased until they can raise enough money for the Ngaben (cremation ceremony). On this day, there are about 20 families that will participate. For one family it has taken 7 years of saving. The remains are placed in a large funeral tower made of wood and paper mâché which sits on a thick bamboo frame. With a band of musicians playing bells and beating drums, 40 - 50 men hoist the structure in the air, twirl around and parade it up and down the main street, to confuse the spirits of the deceased and allow them to move on to the next life. On either side another group of men carry 2 bulls high over their heads in a similar trance. The procession carries on for 2 hours in the grueling sun with onlookers throwing refreshing water on the men and fanning them with large sheets of woven palm.
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Next a procession of the families bring offerings and possessions of their loved ones which are placed inside the tower and blessed by holy men. Two young boys holding symbolic birds are attached to either side of the tower and once again the structure is carried to a timber platform where a dozen brightly-decorated, hollow horses await. Each family recuperates the remains and carries them one final time to be placed inside the horses. A series of ceremonial gestures follows - sprinkling water, placing leaves, burning incense, and blessings - before setting the entire line of horses ablaze. Though the fire will burn for hours, the families take leave as soon as the flames ignite. Not a tear is shed. This is a time for celebration knowing that the deceased will return in a new incarnation.
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Visa extension requirements take us back to Bali. This time, the sea is raging, with waves pounding the boat from the side. It's like being inside a car wash. Everyone holds their breath as we slam forward to Padang Bay. Safely ashore, we decide to try the beaches of Nusa Dua and finally discover a beach with fine sand and turquoise water. BUT... this area is behind security gates. Anyone can enter, but you'd hardly know you're in Bali. It's just one international hotel after another. If you're looking for Starbucks and a deal on Polo Ralph Lauren, you've come to the right place.
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About 40 minutes away the Uluwatu temple sits on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It draws big crowds especially at sunset, but the highlight is the Kecak dance of the monkeys. The "music" is actually a rather impressive breathing technique performed by a choir of men.
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Crossing the seas yet again, we opt for Gili Air, one of 3 small islands right off the island of Lombok, about 1.5 hours from Bali. This boat ride is more like a rave party. We are the last to board and the party is in full swing but I'm pretty certain it's our seniority that causes the attendant to usher us right into the Capitan's deck. As the door shuts behind us muffling the Ibiza soundtrack, we settle in to thick leather couches for the ride wondering how we got so lucky.
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There are no cars on Gili Air, just bicycles and horse-drawn carts. The Elephant House Bungalow is a 5 minute walk from the ferry. Our bungalow is nicely equipped with a roof terrace/lounge. If it wasn't so hot and humid you could sleep outside.
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It takes all of 1.5 hours to walk around the island. Here too, the beach is painful underfoot, but the water is clear. Most places have gazebo-like platforms at water's edge and the rhythm of life, which even suits the mosquitos, is even mellower than Lembongan. Our favorite place for a cappuccino is Mowie's Bar, just steps from our hotel on the beach. However, this blissful place is short-lived. Some reservation confusion but more importantly, really loud music every night, forces us to pack up once again and head back to Bali. At this point, we have a nice relationship and volume discount with the local ferry guys.
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We check back into our simple yet comfortable guest house, The Little Pond in Sanur (18 euros per night/double), and head to our favorite massage place next door. 6 euros for an hour head to toe. Divine.
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With just few more days to spend in Bali, we decide to return to Ubud to visit a few more sites in the north central part of the island including Ulun Danu temple which sits on Beratan Lake in Bedugul and the Taman Ayun temple in Mengwi.
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Although Bali did not live up to our expectations as a beach paradise, it did whet our desire to see more and we plan to return to Indonesia in the future to visit Sulawesi island for the funeral ceremonies, Komodo for the dragon, Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, and much more...
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Posted by SpiceChronicles 23:33 Archived in Indonesia Comments (8)

Southern India

sunny 38 °C

Everything in southern India has a different flavor. From the language, primarily Tamil to the vegetarian cuisine - thalis and dosas, to the terrain. Days are spent coming from or going to visit temples of which there are literally thousands, some classified by UNESCO. A6DA48D1B6127DFE1DDF4667A05A595F.jpg
As if Indian city names weren't complicated enough, sometimes the new names aren't so different Pondicherry - Puducherry, Mahabalipuram - Mamallapuram. Thankfully, contractions are popular. Despite the tongue-twisting name, Mamallapuram (Mal), a little under 2 hours south of Chennai (Madras) is classified as a world heritage site for its temples and natural rock formations. The vestiges of the 7th century Shore Temple dedicated to Shiva sit at water's edge. It's hard to tell if it's being swallowed up or regurgitated by the sea.A6D7159EA0EAFB517E481C1F05C4B45C.jpgA6D6AA79DA717BA850D25103FD48DBF3.jpg
A short rickshaw ride takes us to the 5 Rathas (chariots) Temple, a group of sanctuaries each dedicated to a Hindu god with a sculpted animal standing guard. Most remarkable is that each temple and figure is carved from a single piece of stone. This archeological wonder was dug out of the sand by the British some 200 years ago.
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Carved into a long rock wall along one of the main streets in town are scenes of daily life and Hindu mythology.
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A bit further down the road, looking as if it's about to roll, sits an enormous rock called, get this... Krishna's Butter Ball!
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The expansive Arunachaleswar Temple (dedicated to Shiva in his incarnation as fire) sits in the town of Thiruvannamalai at the base of a dormant volcano. It has four particularly tall gopurams (typical Hindu stepped tower gate). On full moon and other holy days, people come to worship at the temple and climb the volcano; barefoot in the blazing sun, of course. During the annual festival of the Nov/Dec full moon, millions of pilgrims make the journey.
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Thanjavur, once the capital of the Chola empire is home to the 11th century Brihadishwara Temple, also a Unesco World Heritage site. The thick fort walls dissolve from beige to pink, orange and red tones as the sun shifts overhead.
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As with all Hindu temples, shoes must be removed. Locals don't seem to have trouble walking on blistering hot stone, while I hop around trying to catch bits of the worn-out runners that have been laid out. When there's no carpet, I hug walls trying to fit my feet into the thin crisp shadow of the midday sun. In some areas, a strip of ground has been painted white and what a difference that makes. On the rare occasion that I remember, I pack a pair of socks, but not all temples allow them. In the center of the complex stands a 25 ton Nandi (Shiva's bull) carved out of a single stone. The arcade that stretches around the huge complex is filled with sculptures and colorful paintings of Shiva.
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Pondicherry or Pondy, is a bustling chaotic town on the southeast coast. But crossing over the canal to the neighborhood bordering the sea is like stepping into 18th century France. Large houses, freshly-painted pale yellow, topped with red-tile roofs, sit on tree-lined streets named Alexandre Dumas and Romain Rolland.
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The elegant Hotel L'Orient, has been lovingly restored with muted colored walls, 4 poster beds, polished wood floors and impossibly high ceilings making you feel like a veritable French aristocrat.
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A few more hot bus rides down the southeast coast lands us in Tamil Nadu and in particular the Chettinad region, the enclave of the Chettiars, a large clan of 9 families who made their fortunes in international business and finance. They built expansive mansions in their native villages (Karaikkudi, Kothamangalam, Pallatur, Kanadukathan,...) with imported Burmese teak, Italian marble, Japanese tiles and Belgian mirrors.
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The streets are long and straight, lined with expansive dilapidated homes. It feels like a ghost town and looking towards an intersection, I half expect to see tumbleweed blow by. The silence is deafening. This cannot be India.
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The entrance to our hotel, Saratha Vilas, is unassuming, yet a push through large wood doors into the partially covered courtyard and the grandeur of the place unfolds.
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Oversized daybeds amid lush greenery lead up a few steps to the columned portico standing on polished black (Belgian) tiles. Stepping into what might be the foyer in a European home, feels like walking into Versailles.
Through large windows, designed for air circulation, on the far wall, a succession of spaces recedes into the distance.
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Most Chettiar mansions have a similar layout based on Vastu Shastra, the Tamil version of Feng Shui. Oddly, this front room was the marriage hall and is wide rather than long. There must be 20 meters looking left and right, with large chandeliers, mirrors, paintings and a polished marble floor. Behind a painted screen at one end is our room. The key itself is a conversation piece.
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Each day at 7 am the women who work at the hotel draw a design on the floor in the main courtyard. Made with a paste of white rice the Kolam is believed to bring prosperity. Throughout southern India millions of women draw these designs in front of their homes and shops every day.
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There are apparently, over 10,000 Chettiar mansions in the area yet only a handful have been restored. However, Chettinad is quickly gaining popularity as a tourist destination and renovation projects are proceeding in all the villages. The work undertaken by the two French architects who run Saratha Vilas is by far the most thoroughly accomplished. A masterpiece of understated elegance, honoring the traditional style and craftsmanship of a Chettiar home while adding just enough modern conveniences and personal taste to create a contemporary luxury accommodation. But the master plan, imagined by Michel and Bernard and well underway, is for the entire Chettinad region to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
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In the small village of Athangudi, craftsmen make the distinctive tiles found in all the Chettiar mansions. A piece of glass is placed in a mould and colored powders are poured in. The mould is then removed and the pattern is covered with a layer of sand on both sides and set aside to rest for a day before being placed in water for 2 days. Once dry, the glass is removed. Working in pairs, tile-makers complete about 250 tiles per day.
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There are many Hindu temples in the area. Each bordering a large water tank. Staring down the steep steps into the virtually empty basin, it's hard to imagine it rains here at all.
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In addition to the wealthy Chettiars, the villagers of this region have also contributed to making this area unique in India. Every year between May and August, one after another villages honor Ayyanar, the god who protects the villagers. Pottery offerings in the form of horses, cows, elephants, goats, and human figures are carried in a procession to the village temple where they are arranged in neat rows on the temple grounds.
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Each year, new offerings are added and as the years go by, nature grows on and around these delicate objects. Scattered throughout the region are sanctuaries dedicated to Ayyanar, some in the form of temples while others lie in a sacred forest or clearing as designated by the living gods, men who through trance transmit Ayyanar's desires.
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The most popular offering is a horse and in the potters' village a very special horse is made each year. This one stands 7 meters tall and took 22 days to make. It is carried by 50 men who relay themselves over the 5 km walk to its resting place at the temple next to those of previous years. As with many local traditions, there are only a few families of potters left as younger generations are leaving for work in bigger cities.
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For a brief escape from the oppressive heat of the south, we head to India's most famous hill station, Ooty.
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Following rave reviews from our favorite guidebook, we take the vintage miniature steam train on a 5 hour putter into the mountains. It turns out, this is a popular attraction with Indian tourists who arrive in droves, laden with feasts for the journey. This ol' engine needs water to propel her up the mountain and we stop at almost every station to top off and check that all parts are attached and functioning properly. At every halt, the local tourists bound off the train to take pictures and eat.
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In horror, we watch as they throw garbage on the ground. Indians firmly believe that they are providing work for others. And while the mentality towards waste management in general is slowly changing, the country remains quite filthy and it's going to take generations to clean up.
The Garden Manor hotel near the botanical gardens in Ooty is cute and comfortable. It's the best thing about the town, well almost. The kitchen is a disaster. After several unsuccessful attempts to find an edible breakfast we pack up and leave.
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The bus to Mysore is a winding ride through the mountains with a rare sighting. As is often the case, we are the only tourists on the bus and no matter how crowded, seats are always found for us. Sitting up front offers a great view. A few Spotted deer on the left, the occasional elephant on the right and then... a leopard! Over the last year we have bounced through many a reserve hoping for a glimpse of elusive wildlife, and here on a public bus, for all of 1 euro, a leopard casually crosses the road before us!
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The centerpiece of Mysore is the Maharaja's Palace. The building that stands today was built in the early 1900s after fire destroyed the original palace. It is an impressive monument filled with royal history and intricate architectural details. Inside, photos are strictly prohibited, one wonders why, but the magical moment comes one night at the end of the regular sound and light show when the 100,000+ bulbs that frame the entire monument shine brightly for exactly 2 minutes before dramatically powering off in unison.
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The Parklane is a quirky, comfortable hotel. The restaurant has a reputation for good food and does a bustling business with locals. We will remember it for the one slip-up at breakfast which coined a phrase: When served severely moldy bread, our waiter rushed back with fresh slices and said, "Sorry madame, kitchen confused!"
The Keshava Temple in Somnathpur is worth the 45 minute ride out of Mysore. Built in the 13th century, it is one of three temples from the Hoysala period classified as a Unesco World Heritage site. The temple sits on a raised star-shape platform with every inch inside and out covered with carved figures of gods, goddesses, musicians, animals, and scenes from ancient Hindu texts called Puranas. The ceilings are carved with the various stages of a blooming banana flower and the names of all the sculptors are carved into the temple.
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The fortified city of Srirangapatnam, the official capital for most of South India in the 18th century, is most famous for the epic encounter between Tipu Sultan and the British at the end of the 19th century, in favor of the Brits. Only parts of the walls and gates still stand, but a mosque and a temple remain. Nearby, is the Sultan's summer residence, Daria Daulat Bagh, an ornate palace largely made of wood, covered with murals depicting daily life and important military campaigns.
But the really beautiful site outside of Mysore is the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary where in addition to flocks of wild storks, Ibises and Cormorants, we are mesmerized by the giant crocodiles soaking up the sun on the banks and patrolling the river.
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With our visas about to expire we take a train from Trichy to Chennai intending to fly to Bali though one of us is denied exit from India on a technicality so small even the immigration officer has to use a magnifying glass to point it out! The red tape is so thick, it takes one week, many documents and several office visits to obtain the required paperwork.
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impressions of Bali coming... eventually!

Posted by SpiceChronicles 00:18 Archived in India Comments (3)

Mumbai (Bombay) and points south

sunny 38 °C

It is said that New York is not representative of America. The same can be said for Mumbai, and oddly enough, Mumbai feels a lot like New York!
Perhaps it's the Starbucks or Le Pain Quotidien that catch my eye as we weave through traffic in the distinctive black, Padmini taxi. Auto rickshaws are not allowed to circulate in the center, but motorcycles and buses are and it's a frenetic scramble for position as everyone rushes to go absolutely nowhere, honking incessantly. Forget the notion that pedestrians have the right of way and do not dare to rely on a traffic signal. It's bad enough that you have to remember to look to the opposite of naturally, but when you do attempt to cross, vehicles pass in front AND behind you hardly slowing down, outright nudging you out of their way. The rule seems to be, the more space you occupy the more priority you have and you always have priority if you're in front if you're bigger! Eventually, you get the hang of this insanity that seems to work though it may be only because Indians seem to have little tolerance for those who cause accidents.
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Long avenues lined with tall buildings hide an intricate network of streets. Sprawling neighborhoods of past or booming grandeur, monuments, business districts and slums share tight borders populated by a colorful mix of people. Buildings wear the indelible marks of the intense heat and humidity that engulfs the city before the monsoon and the torrential rains during.
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Our separate entrance at the Hotel Moti in Colaba, resembles The Best Marigold. The grand staircase leading up echoes with faded glory. The room, though sparse, is large and clean enough. An A/C screams cold air at us. The place would be a masterpiece if the owner had the means to restore it. The 4-story building stands in the shadow of the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace hotel which itself stands by the imposing Gateway to India at the edge of the Arabian Sea. On nearby side streets, trendy boutiques including Bungalow 8 and upscale restaurants like Khyber occupy renovated buildings with high ceilings and exposed brick. Most establishments have A/C. Even the minuscule barber shop on the sidewalk near our hotel can pull closed a folding plastic door offering a man a cool cut and shave.
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The busy Colaba Causeway lined with shops, with sidewalks claimed by vendors leaving just a single-file lane for pedestrians, pulses with activity day and night. Making our way through the throngs of people, we walk to the magnificent, Victoria Station, today called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the short tour is worth taking just to escape the blur of people rushing in every direction on the platforms. Trains barely come to a full stop as they empty and refill their wagons and it's always a polite fight for a non-reserved seat.
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Chor (thieves) Bazaar is a web if small streets packed with antique shops. Exactly how antique is certainly up for discussion, but it's a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours and there are some great finds. We would be in trouble if we had a place to furnish.
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In addition to the (as grand as its name) Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum (formerly the Prince of Whales Museum),
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on the list of pleasant surprises is the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. A bit out of the way, It houses a vast collection of artifacts, photographs, manuscripts, and objects illustrating the history of the city. Most appealing is the lavish renovation of this 18th century renaissance building itself.
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We head out along Marine drive towards the vicinity of Chowpatty Beach to visit Mani Bhavan, the house where Gandhi sojourned in Bombay. Now a museum, the small rooms are filled with photos, texts and memorabilia. You can see the simply furnished room where he wrote some of his most famous texts, and there is an air conditioned room with nicely constructed dioramas depicting the major events in his life. We linger here on the second floor not only for the A/C but to really get a sense of one man's fortitude and the simple means by which he achieved his goals. It's a humbling visit.
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Walking over to Chowpatty Beach, the sun bombards our power umbrella which struggles to deflect the crushing heat. When we arrive at the legendary beach, there is hardly a soul. Well, of course not; it's broad daylight. We wander off in search of Kotachiwadi, a Christian enclave wedged between Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods, famous for its colorful 2-story wood houses on narrow streets where taxis and rickshaws don't venture. Lost in the web of minuscule lanes, we come across a congregation of about 20 sitting on benches and plastic chairs in front of an effigy to the Virgin Mary singing hymns.
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As the sun sets on Chowpatty, the beach has morphed into a theme park atmosphere with hundreds of locals picnicking, swimming and socializing. Vendors sell cotton candy, balloons, toys, and all kinds of food including delicious roasted corn on the cob sprinkled with fresh lime and chilly salt. Yum! We are the only foreigners and many, many people want to pose for photos with us. The atmosphere is so festive that I ask someone if this is a special occasion. "No! It's like this every day. We come here to cool off."
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Bollywood movie stars are akin to gods and we catch a glimpse of the magnitude of this one afternoon as we stroll along the Bandra West Bollywood Starwalk where the biggest names have earned their star along this seaside strip. There are also statues of actors and plenty of people posing next to them. Many stars live in the modern apartment buildings along the water. We come across a group of adoring fans standing in front of superstar Salman Khan's building waiting for the demigod to appear on his terrace and wave: something we're told he does daily.
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As mentioned before, train tickets are not easy to reserve and comfortable seats for long journeys are almost impossible to score last minute. We decide to take an overnight sleeper bus to Hyderabad. The standard seats have been removed and replaced with bunk beds. On one side of the bus the beds fit 2 people on the other side they are single berths. It's important to choose an upper berth away from the pile of flip flops and sandals that cover the narrow aisle. The mattress is comfortable with clean sheets, pillows and blanket. A stiffly pleated cotton curtain offers a modicum of privacy. The only potential inconvenience, aside from heavy snorers, is the lack of a toilet. Anticipating the worst, one of us heads off in search of a solution. Figuring that it will not be easy to aim into a bottle in a moving vehicle, one procures a wide-mouthed container. The irony of course is that in the middle of the night, despite several attempts in some extremely funny positions, he is unable to relieve himself. Naturally, the driver stops every few hours for the rest of us. Sometimes there is a toilet... of questionable cleanliness.
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Hyderabad, or Cyberabad, as it's playfully referred to given the recent proliferation of IT companies, is an astonishing mix of old and new. Not a top pick on the tourist trail, the first impression is underwhelming, no, downright ugly. But within a day, we begin to discover the treasures hidden behind tall walls, at the end of winding streets and inside courtyards. In the 16th century, the Deccan, southern plateau, became the Islamic center of India. From the 18th century, the Nizam dynasty ruled Hyderabad, fending off the British and French for control of commerce right up to India's independence (1947). Mineral-rich soil which produced stones like the Koh-I-Noor and Hope diamonds, and the region's strategic geographical location brought inconceivable wealth to the Nizams and noble families who served them. The city is filled with remnants of culture, prosperity and certainly the greatest number of mosques and shrines per square meter. The old city, anchored by the Charminar (gate and oldest mosque) remains firmly planted in the Middle Ages, with endless bazaars selling everything, tiny streets jammed with cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, cows, pigs, and a stream of women draped in black and men in white hugging the edges. In contrast, ultra-modern Segunderabad and Banjara Hills resemble upper middle class neighborhoods in the US. Wide freshly-paved avenues, traffic lights that most respect, gated communities, and shopping malls with valet parking packed with people dressed in jeans and polos. We stop in at the Hard Rock Cafe for our first burger in months! In the 3D theater next door they are showing 1/2 a dozen attraction films from our favorite 3D movie producers!
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The Falaknuma Palace, once the 6th Nizam's summer residence, sits about 15 minutes away on a hill overlooking the sprawling city. Today, it's a 5 star hotel that has been painstakingly restored. Getting inside, when you're not a guest takes a bit of maneuvering, but the 100 seat dining room table is a must see. There is hardly a soul to admire the over-polished setting.
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On the other hand, Chowmahalla Palace, home to many generations of Nizams is a museum and you can freely roam the beautifully restored grounds The highlight of this visit is the Durbar Hall, Khilwat Mubarak, where all official and religious ceremonies were held. 4 rows of gleaming crystal chandeliers catch the flooding sunlight.
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The Purani Haveli, principal home of the 6th Nizam, is most famous for the staggering 73 meter (240 feet) Burmese teak wardrobe. This is the granddaddy of walk-in closets! They say he never wore the same clothes twice.
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The city of Hyderabad was built when water ran out at the massive Golconda Fort which was the centerpiece of the region for centuries. It is the soil around Golconda that produced the biggest diamonds in history. The outside wall stretches over 10 km and there are several ingenious security systems: to deter stampeding elephants, large pointed metal spearheads cover the 2 foot thick doors, and the entrance has a diamond shaped structure which rebounds the slightest sound all the way to the highest point of the fort. It takes us an hour to reach there on foot.
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Standing as a backdrop for a pick-up game of cricket is the 500 year old Toli Masjid mosque. In addition to the standard 5 arches representing prayer, charity, pilgrimage, fasting and faith, the intricate details of the minarets are bathed in beautiful light at the moment we pass.
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The journey to Cochin (today called Kochi) is epic. 12 hours to Bangalore on a sleeper bus; this one is not a modern Volvo which we note for future bookings, but it's comfortable none-the-less. We have just enough time for a cup of tea at a roadside stand, before boarding a semi-sleeper bus for the next 12 hours.
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Here, seats have footrests and recline almost completely putting you pretty much in the lap of the person behind you. It's a little tight for our western body frames but thankfully, the bus isn't full. As soon as we get moving, the entertainment system is fired up and one ear-piercing Bollywood film after another plays for the duration. There are no English subtitles, but the plots are simple enough to follow. Our fellow passengers are so thoroughly engrossed that when the DVD jams it nearly causes a riot. Play resumes and the audience returns to fits of laughter and snacking.

The state of Kerala stretches along the southwest, Malabar, coast of India. Cochin is the port town in the center. For centuries a major hub for spice trade, when Vasco de Gama landed here in the 15th century, it opened a new and extremely profitable route to Europe. While the Portuguese, Dutch and British took turns massacring each other for control, a small community of Jews fleeing persecution in the Middle East and Europe settled in and prospered. These Paradesi (white, foreigner) Jews where different from the Malabar (black, Indian) Jews that had arrived centuries before. There are many theories as to when exactly, but the earliest recording in Cochin is on a hotly disputed set of copper plates from around 1000 AD that now sit in the Paradesi Synagogue. While they tolerated each other, the Malabar and Paradesi Jews remained resolutely distinct.
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Of the 8 synagogues (7 Malabar and 1 Paradesi) only the Paradesi synagogue, built in the 16th century by Sephardic Jews, remains (somewhat) active today. It has been timelessly restored and is open to visitors for a nominal fee and for prayer though there is no longer a rabbi. The synagogue sits in Jew Town in Fort Cochin. While it, along with Jew street in Ernakulam, sound pejorative, we are quick to learn that the Jews of Cochin were far less persecuted than their European counterparts and enjoyed special privileges throughout history.
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We meet a man from Los Angeles who comes to Kerala often on business and who has developed very close ties with the family that maintains the synagogue. It is Friday evening and he has come for the sabbath prayers. After, he invites us to join him for dinner at the home of Queenie Hallegua. Granddaughter of Samuel Koder a wealthy merchant and major benefactor of the synagogue, Queenie continues the Friday night open house dinners made legendary by her grandfather in the early 1900s. The atmosphere is rather somber these days as we are clearly at the end of the line here. Of the few thousand Jews that once lived in the region only a handful remain.

We also visit the synagogues of Chennamangalam and Paravur whose buildings have been restored, but are relatively empty inside.
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Clearly the most unusual synagogue is Kadavumbagam, which lies at the back of an aquarium fish and plant shop in Ernakulam. "Babu" the owner of Cochin Blossoms is a Malabar Jew and he explains that when Israel became a nation in 1948, there was a mass exodus from Cochin. By 1972, his temple's congregation no longer had enough men (10) for a minion and by 1977, the synagogue was abandoned. Babu installed his shop in front of and has undertaken renovations of the synagogue, but with little to no funding it's slow-going.
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Kathakali is the traditional dance of Kerala. Stories based on the life of Lord Krishna are acted out with very precise movements and facial expressions synchronized to rhythmic beats and melodies. Years of rigorous martial arts training are required to master the art form. Equally impressive is the make-up session that takes hours, every night, before the show. The audience is invited to sit in. Bold lines and colors are used to define the personality of each character.
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Coming soon: the rest of southern India...

Posted by SpiceChronicles 02:56 Archived in India Comments (12)

Incredible India

Delhi & Rajasthan - March 1-20, 2014

sunny 35 °C

The well-chosen slogan from India's tourism authority sums it up in two words: Incredible India!

Delhi: A total assault of the senses from the minute you step out of the airport terminal even at 4AM. If there's one piece of advice to offer, it's act like you know where you're going and how you will get there even if you don't, because if you waiver, for even a millisecond, you will be pounced on by eager men with varying means of locomotion. But Indians are efficient if not organized and the prepaid taxi stand will ensure a fair price and provide reference for future rides which you'll be thankful for the next time you have to negotiate a fare.

Our hotel, Grand Godwin is in Paharganj a bustling, dilapidated, noisy area near the New Delhi train station popular with backpackers and famous for its crowded Main Bazaar. The streets are jammed with yellow and green auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws - affectionately referred to as Indian helicopters - motorbikes, cars and pedestrians weaving in both directions with little regard for one's side of the street! Looking up all you can see are neon hotel signs receding to infinity. While the neighborhood isn't as pretty as the circular colonnades of Connaught Place, the room is 4 star and much better value than anything I will visit in a nicer area (30€/night).
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We do however, eat almost all our meals in the restaurants around Connaught Place which range from basic to ultra trendy. One favorite is the United Cafe: mirror, velvet and crystal of a bygone era serving scrumptious food.
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Delhi is full of contrasts. Honking is akin to breathing here, but it is possible to escape the deafening noise. Sites like the Red Fort, Humayan's Tomb and the Purana Quila offer immense manicured grounds to stroll through and wonder at the majesty of ancient cultures. Once you get the hang of using the metro with its Smart Card, getting around is easy and less chaotic than the exhaust-filled roads.

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There is a large Muslim community and India's largest mosque, Jama Masjid, sits high above Old Delhi offering a 360° view. Most popular though is the mosque of Nizam-ud-din where on Thursday nights, thousands flock to listen to traditional singing. Getting to the mosque is a challenge, winding through narrow streets lined with vendors selling flowers, incense, food and other offerings and worshippers hurrying to arrive by sundown. Uncomfortably, we make our way with the mob, the air thick with Incense. Shoes must be removed, but we hold out until the last possible moment before bearing our soles.
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Delhi to Jaipur is a 5 hour train ride picking up dust as we rattle our way into arid Rajasthan. Temps are rising and within a few days, we'll be trying to remember the chill we felt in New Delhi. We visit the City Palace and the beautiful Hawa Mahal, but the highlight of the pink city is the majestic Amber Fort perched on a hillside outside the city. On the way are the beautiful white and beige marble tombs of a long line of maharajahs. Save for a group of local boys playing cricket in front, we are the only visitors.
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The Pearl Palace Heritage hotel in Jaipur is an unexpected find. Although a new construction, it's quite charming. The lobby is hand-painted and old black and white photos cover the walls leading up bleach-white marble stairs. An oversized lock and bolt opens fort-thick wood doors to our "Jaisalmer" room and we step into what looks and feels like the inside of a sand castle. Call it elegant kitsch! The rates are ridiculously reasonable (30€/night) and I wonder if this will last when word gets out that the hotel was one of the shooting locations of the upcoming sequel to The Best Marigold Hotel.
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A friend joins us for 5 days and in order to optimize our time together, we hire a vintage Ambassador with driver and set off on a highlights tour of Rajasthan.

The Samode Palace, an hour outside of Jaipur, is our first stop. The tiny town of Samode is all of one winding, pitted, gritty, road lined with a few local shops. At the end of the main street we pass thru an arch and morph from a dusty, sepia-tone atmosphere, into a brightly-colored scene of bold green lawns, bordering a flower-lined drive. As the car turns in and stops at the base of grand stone steps, our gaze climbs to meet the warm yellow facade of the palace. Once the home of the Maharajah of Samode, this 450 year old gem sits like a glowing ember in a cluster of hills. Most enchanting, is the manageable size of this palace. In addition to our elegant suites (113€/night), as first-time guests we've been automatically upgraded, there are two particularly beautiful historic rooms, the Darbar and the Hall of Mirrors. The craftsmanship is palpable in each room with fine glimmering details that cover the walls and ceilings in rich, saturated colors and intricate fabrics. These are gathering rooms for important events where lavish celebrations continue to take place today.
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Dinner is a royal treat which starts with a visit of the kitchen to meet the chef and his team and to plan our meal. We dine alfresco with a lovely bottle of Indian wine from the Sula Vineyards.
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Pampered and well-rested, we drag ourselves down those magnificent steps to our ivory Ambassador and bump out of town towards the lakeside town of Pushkar. On the way, we stop in noisy, crowded Ajmer to visit 2 very different places of worship. At first glance, the Nasiyan temple looks like a typical, red stone, Jain temple on a busy street. We wind our way up a dingy metal stairway several flights to a very large glass enclosed room that can be viewed from 2 levels. Emerging from the dark stairwell, the scene is simply astonishing: an enormous diorama depicting the Jain interpretation of the ancient universe. Even more astonishing is that this fantastical scene is made of pure gold!
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The most important muslim pilgrimage site in India also sits in Ajmer - the Dargah (sanctuary) of Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti. Our driver inches thru a sea of claxoning rickshaws, bicycles, and pedestrians until he can go no further. We walk the rest of the street in the blazing, blinding sun amidst thousands of worshipers and very few tourists. We are funneled towards the entrance where we reluctantly hand over our shoes wondering if we'll ever see them again. Somehow, over the shouting, a kind, French and English speaking man gracefully offers to accompany us. We cover ourselves head to toe and enter the flow toward the gate, pressed tightly against one another, until we are ejected from the bottleneck inside the grounds and the noise level resolves. Resting place of the most revered Sufi saint, long lines of people shuffle around the 13th Century tomb, while others pray in the mosque, or simply sit with their families in contemplation.
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Although famous for its annual camel fair, on most days, Pushkar is a mellow enclave of pastel-blue tint whitewashed houses, lining the ghats around a sacred lake. We check-in at the charming Inn Seventh Heaven (25€/night) then quickly head out to find some cheap clothes for Holi, the infamous color festival celebrating the change of season taking place the next day: I know from experience that it's imperative to be prepared.
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"Happy Holi!" a passerby says as his hand caresses my face leaving a trail of hot pink powder on my cheek. In the same beat, I feel the cool spray of a water pistol and jump as the bright orange liquid hits my throat and trickles down inside my T-shirt! I reach out to shake an extended hand as a fistful of electric blue powder hits my shoulder and when I turn to see where that came from I find myself face to face with a group of jubilant boys yelling "Happy Holi!" Each one shakes our hand, hugs us and throws more color at us. We are not 10 steps from our hotel and already color-coated! The streets are teeming with people carrying small plastic bags filled with bright colored powders, water guns, buckets of colored water, and kids are running around in a frenzy of friendly-fire. We gravitate toward distant beating drums, abandoning ourselves to embracing strangers, slapping hands and chanting Happy Holi, Happy Holi, Happy Holi... The main square is like a huge Rave party, with hundreds of gyrating bodies, all throwing color at each other. The atmosphere is joyous, festive and just plain fun. The party slowly dies down as the sun sets and one can imagine the entire country showering off in exhaustion.
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By day 4 we are getting used to our driver zig-zagging through traffic and tailgating cars before darting past on either side, honking incessantly. Sometimes it's just better to close your eyes. Driving into Jodhpur wins him accolades as he navigates the overly congested streets squeezing the car thru the gate of the old city and pushing forward as the streets tighten around us. We transfer to a rickshaw for the ultimate, theme park type, twist and jerk weave through a labyrinth of tiny streets lurching to a halt at the door of the quaint Shahi Guesthouse (30€/night). The steps leading up to the funky colorful rooms are cut for agile giants. The view of the blue city with its majestic fort from the rooftop is mesmerizing.
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As this part of the journey comes to an end, we look forward to coming back to Rajasthan in the cooler winter months. For now, we are heading south into sweltering heat and humidity...

Posted by SpiceChronicles 02:12 Archived in India Tagged india new delhi rajasthan Comments (5)

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