Tuesday, 8 October 2013

That Time I Hugged an Elephant

Hello friends and family! I realize it has been over a month since my last post, but luckily life in India has been too busy for me to stop and blog!

Although Delhi has started to feel like home, we are all more keen on exploring other parts of India. I've been counting down the days we have left (only 100 more!!!) and am in a rush to jump on top of more travel plans!

In the past month, I've been lucky enough to explore Rishikesh, Haridwar, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Dehradun - all extremely fascinating and diverse places.

India has taught me so much so far, but the most important lesson is to never be quite sure of anything. That has never been truer in the case of trying to catch buses for trips away. Our first bus experience to Amritsar was a nightmare - trying to find the bus station in a heavy monsoon rain was quite an experience. In Delhi, there is no ONE bus station for all departing buses - instead departures are scattered across random roadside stops in the entire city. Even after calling ahead to confirm the Rishikesh bus departure, it still took us 3 hours, many rickshaw rides, and quite a few moments filled with stress and anxiety to find our bus. (We still haven't learned from our mistakes and encountered a similar problem 2 weeks later on our journey to Jodhpur!)


We finally stumbled off the bus in Haridwar at dawn the next morning. Haridwar is a holy city just 30 km south of Rishikesh. We arrived in time for the morning puja ceremonies by the Ganges river, which surprisingly were fairly empty, enjoyed a chai, and grabbed an auto rickshaw up to Rishikesh. Rishikesh, a second holy city, is also better known as the yoga capital of the world, so naturally I fell in love with it's atmosphere. We made our way to Laxman Jhula, a quite touristic area of the town, for a peaceful riverside breakfast. Rishikesh appeals far and wide because of its yoga, trekking, waterfalls, white water rafting, bungee jumping, national parks, ayurvedic practices, and vegetarianism. However, as our luck would have it, the majority of those activities were closed due to the monsoon season, which means that another trip will be due soon!

We set out that morning to find a waterfall nestled in the mountains, about 5 KM away, deciding to forego a jeep ride, and hike instead. We were told that our landmark was a shrine, where we would turn right and be able to find the waterfall easily. However when we got there, the shortcut up was closed since a villager was attacked by a leopard on that path a week earlier! We were told to walk up another km on the road, but due to the lack of signs (and knowledge by people we asked) we ended up walking another 9 km before we gave up, and called a jeep to bail us out. Luckily they dropped us off by the waterfall on the way home, nestled uphill, which was well worth our 4 hour search.


The rest of our night was spent with good friends, great food and a relaxing atmosphere. After an exhausting but exhilarating day, we happily jumped into bed for a peaceful, quiet, uninterrupted sleep; an extremely pleasant change from the constant honking and barking that plagues us in Delhi. We woke up at the ungodly hour of 4 AM, hopped in a jeep, and drove up a mountain. We then climbed around 400 steps to a temple at a top of the mountain (which was challenging considering our hike the previous day), but made it just in time to see the sun peeking through over the Himalayan foothills. After watching the sun break through, many a photo shoot, and some strong cups of chai later, we began our trek down the mountain back to Laxman Jhula. Our walk took us past some rural villages; communities consisting of about 40-50 members, who still maintain somewhat of a traditional livelihood. We passed by fields and fields of corn and rice paddies, overlooking an incredible view over the town and Ganges river. After about four hours, we finally came across the waterfall we had trekked for so long to see. It was so refreshing and breathtaking, and re-affirmed that the trek through rocky terrain and steep slopes was completely worth it.

Ganesh Chaturthi Celebrations
We spent the rest of the afternoon eating and lounging by cafes on the river bank. Some of us were brave enough to dip into the Ganges, while others were a little more hesitant considering some of the spiritual and religious uses for the river. We made our way back to Haridwar to catch some sunset pujas and our bus back to Delhi. As our good luck would have it, the city was wild with celebrations for Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival celebrating the birthday of Lord Ganesh. Seeing as Haridwar is one of the seven most holy Hindu places in India, we were caught up in the midst of parades. Groups of people blared loud Indian music, played on drums, danced, and threw coloured powder around. Children watched from their balconies, and people pulled us in to their crowd to dance. By the end of the evening we were feeling exhilarated, sweaty and were stained pink and green all over – ready for our long bus ride home to Delhi.

All in all, we had a thrilling and invigorating weekend. We may have been known as the village idiots in Rishikesh for losing both ourselves and each other many times over the weekend (it seemed everyone in Laxman Jhula knew us as the girls who walked too far for a waterfall), but we fell in love with the serenity and care-free atmosphere of Rishikesh. It reinforced the right ideals to have when travelling in India – that one needs to be flexible, laid back and open minded, and have faith that things all work out in the end.

View of the blue city + Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur

Our next travels took a colleague and myself to Rajasthan for a four day weekend. We grabbed a 13 hour bus to Jodhpur, and were welcomed to the blue city by plenty of rain - something that Rajasthan does not seem used to! The whole city shut down, forcing us to shop at the few stores that did stay open, or enjoy plenty of tea on a rooftop cafe overlooking the blue city; a pleasant relaxing break from the chaos of work in Delhi. 

Jodhpur is named the blue city because many of the houses in the city are in fact painted blue. Apparently this goes back to the days when lower castes had to seek a blessing from the highest Brahmin caste. Every Brahmin house was painted blue so they were easy to identify! 

Trying my hand at pottery. 
The next day was still quite rainy, but we decided to brave the weather and took a jeep safari out to the Jodhpur villages. We visited a pottery village, a rural farm, a carpet weaver, and a textile factory. Observing a rural farmer distill opium into a drink was probably the most fascinating stop on the trip; apparently it gives them all "power" to work the fields!

The Jal Mahal - water palace.

We grabbed another bus to Jaipur that night, excited for good weather, plenty of sights, and a rendez vous with good friends. Our first day in the "pink city" (I have no story for why it is pink), was full of visiting all the sights Jaipur has to offer. We spent the morning riding elephants up to the Amber Fort, visiting 2 other forts which had outstanding views of the city, as well as a couple other palaces. After grabbing a much needed nap, we headed to Chokhi Dhani, a mock Rajasthani village just outside of Jaipur. The village offers performances, musicians, magicians, palm readers, camel rides, artisans, and incredible food! Although a bit too commercial for my taste, it was still an exciting experience. I even got my palm read, and though I don't typically believe in astrology, I hope everything comes true! (I'm going be successful, die old, and will never have money problems! Although, I will get married at 27, an age the palm reader sympathetically thought was rather old.) 

We met with friends the following day in Jaipur, and visited the City Palace. At that point, after seeing 4 forts and 2 palaces, not much of that sight was very interesting. However, the day picked up when our rickshaw driver took us to an attraction called the Elephant House. This "barn" housed 3 elephants who typically work the elephant rides up to the Amber Fort  in the morning. We caught them on a "holiday" and had the chance to meet and play with the elephants, which was hands down the best part of the trip. After watching the sunset from the Monkey Temple (which true to its name, has plenty of monkeys), we packed up, and made our way home back to Delhi. 

Panoramic view of beautiful Jaipur.
I'll be spending the following weekend sitting still in Delhi, as a few of our good friends are leaving us to return home. I've made some solid friendships with expats here - its easy to form strong connections with people while travelling, as they often have the same perspectives on life as I do. Unfortunately, people come and go, and I must face the reality of saying goodbye to good friends. It's never easy, but it's comforting to know that these kinds of friendships last, and that I'll have these connections worldwide. 

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