Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Easter Holiday Excursion

Lotus Temple, Bahai House of Worship, Delhi

While our families were gathered around dining room tables eating home-baked apple pies and Easter ham dinners, Kirsten, Jenny, and I found ourselves taking selfies in front of one of the seven wonders of the world. The Easter holiday allowed our group the time to do a bit of traveling for two weeks. While Sarah joined her family on a tour of India, Hadi made a trip to Nepal, and Michael stayed in Agartala, the three of us became travel partners.  When planning, we debated between doing the traditional tourist “triangle” or getting off the beaten path a bit. We made our journey include the best of both worlds and it all started in the beautiful capital city of Delhi.  Naturally, I will take you on our journey starting from our ride from the airport to our “Smyle Inn” hostel.
Sarah Dillion (left) and Kirsten Arvidson (right) enjoying milkshakes in Khan Market
                For the first time in months, we were halting at stop-lights; something that almost the entirety of Agartala lacks. It seemed as if instead of flying only 4 hours away, we had arrived back home because New Delhi is a very modernized city. We walked around on fully paved sidewalks admiring blooming gardens that occupied multiple blocks of land. We also enjoyed the helpful directions from the friendly residents. For dinner, we dined in Khan Market, a very wealthy shopping area that President Obama had visited during his time in the country. Childishly sipping our chocolate milkshakes, Indians around us sipped Corona’s and smoked hookah; two things which we almost forgot existed.
Jama Masjid from afar, India's largest mosque
                In the next two days, we would scramble around the city to see as many historical sites as possible. First and foremost, I want to give Delhi props for their clean, safe, and easy-to-use metro system; they even have a women’s only section We were lucky enough to have Sarah join us on our first full day in the city and we began in Old Delhi. Our first historical visit was to the majestic Red Fort, dating back to the time of Mughal emperor’s reign.  It was fun to roam around and rewrite history for each of the sites including the Pearl Mosque and royal baths.  Still in the heart of Old Delhi, we enjoyed a wonderful Indian lunch right outside of the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque and waited for the day to cool down so we could explore it. After throwing on giant floppy robes and surrendering our shoes, we stepped inside the ancient place of worship constructed of red sandstone and white marble. After an exhausting day in the heat, all four of us squeezed into a cycle richshaw and with two of us dangling out the back, made our way back to the hostel. We wished Sarah farewell and went to Sam’s Café for dinner. Yes, I said “Sam’s” café and we soaked in the fact that we were no longer Indian residents, but tourists, as we ate western meals.
                Our last day in Delhi, we visited Akshardham Temple, which was built only in 2005, and made us all feel like we had taken a trip to Disneyland. However, the colored sandstone and marble was beautiful and we walked around the gardens that featured statues of important Indian historical figures and deities. Then we made our way to refreshing New Delhi to visit Humayun’s tomb.  It was another example of the mesmerizing Mughal architecture and was built by the second Mughal Emperor’s wife. We ended another tiring day watching the sunset outside of the Lotus Temple, a Bahai House of Worship. We went back to Main Bazaar and ended the day

with some low key shopping and a giant plate of the best Tibetan steamed dumplings by the name of Momo’s. We hit the hay early in anticipation of our Taj Mahal Easter Sunday.
You already know...

                We woke up before dawn to catch an early train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. If you have ever heard the rumor that this world wonder is in the middle of a wasteland, it may have some truth to it, but we were also lucky enough to see a lot of the positive things about this city. We hired a local rickshaw driver by the name of KK for the day as our personal taxi and tour guide. We got to see many of the overlooked Mughal wonders of Agra including the Baby Taj Mahal, which had floral paintings more impressive than the Taj’s, private Hindu shrines owned by families, the Taj Mahal museum, the Agra Fort, and more. The Taj Mahal was OBVIOUSLY incredible but we were happy to escape the crowds that same day to get on a nighttime train to Jaipur, Rajasthan—known as the pink city. 
Hawa Mahal Palace, Jaipur
View of Jaipur at Sunset
        Jaipur was Northern India’s first planned city and the wealthy kingdom painted the whole city pink, the color of hospitality, to welcome the Prince of Wales. We got into Zostel late but already noticed what quirky, fun lodging we would be experiencing for the next few days. We were greeted in the morning to friendly staff that was a huge help in helping us plan our day and even called their favorite rickshaw driver to take us around for the day. Asif would first drive us to the Monkey Temple and it is exactly what it sounds like; a Hindu temple full of monkeys that loved to eat nuts out of our hands. In the Hindu religion, monkeys are considered sacred and their presence in temples is highly accepted. Next, we explored the Amber Fort which was even more amazing than the one in Delhi and situated right on the water. We walked through the maze like structure and learned about how the royal families lived hundreds of years ago. We then had the luck of watching Jenny’s dream come true; Asif brought us to an elephant farm and Jenny got to ride one.
Our last destination was a restaurant/fort on a mountain that would allow us beautiful views of the entire pink city at sunset. We met our friends that we made at the hostel there and all went back for the evening to hang out and get to know each other in the common area. This is by far one of my favorite things about traveling; spending time with people from all over the world while sharing a little bit of their lives with one another. We bonded with people from Australia, London, Denmark, Canada, Belgium and India.
                The next day in Jaipur we went to City Centre; famous for its shopping and palaces. After exploring Hawa Mahal, a five story palace, us girls were eager to hit the shopping plazas. We haggled and shopped until we couldn’t anymore and got some great deals on real precious gemstones that Jaipur is famous for. Did I mention the amazing street food that helped fuel our day? We indulged in pani puri, kachori, and more. That evening, I would split up from Kirsten and Jenny for only a few days and catch an overnight train to Rishikesh—yoga capital of the world. I would hope to find a trekking group to join from there. However,  first, I spent 5 days there and Jenny and Kirsten met up with me.
After enjoying a waterfall in Rishikesh
A view of Rishikesh and the Ganges from "Buddha Cafe"
                Rishikesh is where we slowed down from the craziness of Indian cities and relaxed a bit. The beautiful, mountainous city is set on the Ganges River. We would spend the next few days relaxing in cafes, meeting new friends, swimming, hiking to waterfalls, discovering mountain top villages, practicing yoga and enjoying the scenery. After Jenny and Kirsten left, I was lucky enough to hire a local guide 8 hours north in the Himalayas for a two day trek.
View of gardens from Amber Fort
Our two week voyage exhibits a taste of the immense diversity that India has to offer; from snowcapped peaks, to bustling cities and relaxing valleys set by holy rivers; we enjoyed it all. However, nothing beat the feeling to coming back home to Agartala to see the smiling faces of Mukta, Hadi, Michael and the local community. There is no doubt we were ready to be back; there is no place like home.
Jenny and Kirsten enjoying the monkey's in Jaipur

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