Image: On camel safari in Jaisalmer
Tired, frustrated and probably confused are how you will feel many times in India. Either from interacting with the complex culture formed uniquely and richly over thousands of years or from some modernity struggling to integrate within that context. Of course you will feel happy, delighted, surprised, welcomed, curious and a plethora of other positive emotions too which is why India is sooooo worth traveling.
I spent six weeks in India over winter in late 2018 and early 2018. Over which I visited Rajasthan, the Kashmir Valley, hill stations such as Amritsar and Dharmashala, Agra and the two big cities of Mumbai and Delhi. This is like 5% of the main attractions of an area so large and rich as India so this information might not work everywhere but most of it will. In an effort to ease frustrations and set expectations I want to share several of these essential learnings.
(To get a more cultural insight into my experience read this)
Image: Old Delhi contained by the paid entrance to the Fatehpuri Masjid Mosque
Until India, I have never been so encaptured by a culture that I didn’t want to leave it. The food is probably the best in world with so much variety and flavor on both sweet and savory spectrums.
Image: Raj Kachori at Haldirams is beautiful, sweet and savory. Every bit an example of fantastic North Indian chat food.
The people typically kind, prideful, eager to engage and helpful (if it’s not their job to be so). The colors make the rest of the world seem bland. Saris always shouting brightly with shimmering patterns. Intricate, unique artwork can be found everywhere in monuments, crafts and even ordinary street art windows.
Image: Foldable bamboo ink elephant composed from hundreds of figures.
Even the transportation trucks, lowered to basic standardization in the West, sport custom paint jobs and ornamentation! Yet, India is a complex county and sometimes hard to understand. I want to share several themes I’ve come to love from this magical place.
Image: Military stationed at an intersection
Taking a bus into Kashmir you pass several military convoys, men with machine guns on the road side every few minutes and numerous parked armored vehicles with men manning guns in the turrets. It is clear the Kashmir and Jammu (J&K) region of India is still a conflict region when I heard an IED killed four police officers in Sopore, 25 miles NW of the main city of Srinagar the day we arrived.
Every city on the tourist beat has a mahal (Indian Palace), Fort or Temple that makes you say it is the most majestic, beautiful or magnificent thing you’ll see in India. It was encouraging to see Mohguls and Rajput rulers over the last five hundred years sponsoring so much art and creation as well as their military might. We spent 15 days in the Indian province of Rajasthan in the blink of an eye and visited only the main attractions. Missing the smaller towns, outdoor experiences like trekking and places like the “rat temple”. Given the richness of the area I hope to at least express the differences and highlights of each city. It’s hard to describe these places so I’ll try to do my best with photos.
In Madagascar it is easy to get off the beaten path. So often that you’ll spend your time trying to find a beaten path at all! Traveling here is rewarding and we appreciate our travel where we:
The Tsingy in Tsingy National Park of Bemaraha, Madagascar represent not only a rock formation endemic to Madagascar but also one of few rock forests found around the world. The Tsingy represent a maze of multi-tiered gray limestone finely carved by tropical acid rain into sharp pointy tops. Their sides resembling machined corduroy. Erosive acid rain rivers have carved canyons through these rocks to create a maze of rock one can walk, climb or crawl through. They are so unique to Madagascar that the Malagasy words for tiptoe are “Me Tsingy Tsingy” for how the locals would have to walk through these areas (on their toes). It is also one of the most expensive places in Madagascar, hard to get to and well worth the visit.
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I really had no idea what to expect exiting my bus in Miandrivazo under growing rain. Aside from the onslaught of “push-push” bicycle taxis looking for a faire that is. Somehow, in our effort to negotiate our trip of the Tsiribihina River directly with a boatman, we were funneled and joined by an ever increasing entourage of people (growing to over a dozen) looking for a commission and directing us like a magnet towards the Mayer’s office. Here we were back to negotiating down from an expensive package trip.
Jerusalem is home to the 3rd most holy site to Islam, the holiest site for Judaism and most of the holiest sites for Christianity. It is no surprise the history in Jerusalem was amazing. Outside the Old City, Jerusalem feels like a modern, clean, pedestrian city. While quite expensive for the Middle East (3x Jordan, 5x Egypt, 1x EU), it is worth the visit. Israel was setting a tourist record while I was there so I needed to book at least a couple days in advance to have any choice in accommodation and something less than $40 a night. Below I describe the most important religious sites everyone must visit.
I found Petra a strange combination of a UNESCO heritage site, a circus and Yosemite Valley. It is truly a special place with dozens of impressively constructed stone entrances, beautiful rock, hundreds of abandoned carved homes and great views. This co-mingling with the loud Arabic shouts of men managing donkeys, tourists boasting excited screams as they rise on camels, kids asking me to buy trinkets or post cards and clopping donkey carts pushing through a barely wide enough canyon. In reality, I understand this my own perpetual conflict between popular tourist attraction environments and my own pristine wilderness ethics. Local people are simply trying to make a living and give the average tourist the experience they expect. I try hard to push past this so it doesn’t hamper my enjoyment of these really unique and amazing places of the world.
Jordan may be known for Petra, but within an hour of the country’s capital of Amman sits many fantastic archeological sites stretching back thousands of years. A few desert castles to the east, a massive Roman settlement to the north and even an ancient citadel and Roman theatre in the city center.
Each destination worthy of a couple hours walk with plentiful guides and historical description placards in both Arabic and English (the second official language). Better even with the great deal from the Jordan Pass which provides access to all these sites, waives the traveler’s visa fee and includes entrance to Petra. Let me take you on a tour.