Trip Start May 04, 2007
Trip End Aug 21, 2008

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Salam alekum!

India, WOW!!!! This is by far the most culturally different and a unique country we've been in. One thing that can't be said is; India is boring. Intense is more fitting and can be used to describe everything about India, both good and bad, from the people, flavors, smells, sounds, sights, culture, religion, heat, driving, colors, and landscape. You can go from love to hate and back again countless times on any given day. Traveling within the chaos, filth, and constant haggling can push you to the point of exasperation, but it seems you are always pulled back by the sites, colorful culture, and of course, the delicious and wide array of food. The food alone is worth the trip. However, eating in India is like walking blindfolded through a mine field, you just never know until it's too late.  
Coming from Nepal, we didn't get an easy warm up to India. We jumped right into India at its wildest......Varanasi. According to legend, Varanasi is thought to be the first created spot on earth and is one of the most sacred cities to Hindus. This is where many devote Hindu make a pilgrimage in their final days. In the Hindu religion, it is believed that dying here breaks the cycle of reincarnation and releases the soul. The city lies on the Ganges River, which is the heart of Varanasi. The whole river front is lined with buildings (ghats) that have stairs descending into the river. Those who die in the area are wrapped in a colorful shroud, brought down to one of the "burning ghats", ceremoniously dipped in the water and then cremated on the shores for purification before their ashes are deposited into the river. The whole process is out in the open for public display and is running 24/7 as hundreds of people are cremated here each day. The ghats are also constantly bustling with all sorts of other activities such as: meditation, yoga, prayer, singing, dancing, sadhu (holy men), and puja (offerings). The heavily polluted, to the point of septic, Ganges is believed by Hindus to have healing powers, so in addition to everything else going on at the waterfront there are people bathing, swimming, washing clothes, and drinking the water. We walked the city as well as took sunrise and sunset boat tours. We definitely preferred the sunset boat tour, which was actually quite peaceful because we remained just on the outside of all the activity. At any one point in time there is so much going on in Varanasi, not only is it hard to describe but also difficult to process in your own mind. Trust us; it took us a few days for it all to sink in. We're glad we started with Varanasi because everywhere else in India seemed tame.
Even Agra, which was our next stop and a very busy tourist town without much character. The town itself doesn't have much to offer unless you like constantly haggling with rickshaw drivers and shop owners. However, all of that is forgiven because what Agra does have is one of the 7 Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is bitchin'!! (Sorry, we're running out of adjectives on this trip.) The monument and the grounds are not complex so you pretty much go, walk around it, and then just stare at it with wonderment as the color of the marble changes depending on how the sun or light hits it. It's hard to believe that Emperor Shah Jahan built (1653) such an extravagant tomb to show the world how much he loved his wife. We joked that John would build me a huge monument in the shape of a chocolate cake.......mmmmmm.  
From Agra, we did do one day trip to check out the fort at Fatehpur Sikri. The fort was cool, but the odd thing is we preferred walking around and exploring the crumbly outside over the heavily restored and somewhat boring inside. It's worth it if you have the time. Since we covered the main sites around Agra we decided to head west into Rajasthan, to Pushkar. On our way, we pit stopped to walk around Jaipur for a few hours and were thankful for the tip we received to skip it......we'll second that notion.   On the other hand, Pushkar was a pleasant surprise and a much needed break after Varanasi and Agra. It was like a breath of fresh air.....well, almost fresh. This is a relaxed, small town that surrounds a holy lake of the same name (Gandhi's ashes were even sprinkled in the lake). Once you get past the over-the-top free spirit crowd, it's a nice place to hang out.  
WWWRRRAAAOOONNNT...........that's our attempt at a camel calling us to come for a ride. We answered the call by heading waaaay out west to the ultra tiny village of Khuri, just south of Jaisalmer. In Khuri, we met possibly the mellowest Indian man on earth who owns definitely the cleanest guesthouse in India (Badal Guesthouse). We spent our first night sleeping on the roof rather than in our bungalow just because we could. Badal also arranged our fantastic camel safari out on the dunes of the Thar Desert. We spent a beautiful night sleeping on the sand under the stars in complete solitude. There was no one else out there except us, which is why we chose to leave from Khuri rather than busy Jaisalmer. Thankfully we eluded any Jawas and Sandpeople. We stayed one night in Jaisalmer to check out the fort, and to be honest, it was quite disappointing. It's a beautiful sandstone fort perched on a hill that looks great from a distance. Unfortunately, once inside, you realize how bad tourism can be. It was really sad to see such historic, incredible buildings and passageways completely overrun with tourist shops, hotels, and restaurants with very little upkeep of the fort.  
We broke up our long trip to Udaipur by stopping for the night in Jodhpur (The Blue City). Fortunately for us, Jodhpur is also home to the impressive Meherangarh Fort, which we were able to visit before finally hitting our last stop in Rajasthan, Udaipur, the Lake City. The place to be in Udaipur is right on the shore of Lake Pichola, which has a more upscale feel. This is probably due to the grand City Palace that sits on a hill over looking the lake with the Lake Palace rising from the center of it. By chance, we happened to arrive in town just as the 3-day Mewar Festival (to welcome spring) was beginning. We were greeted with music, singing, and colorful parades of women carrying idols on their heads down to the lake. The beauty of travel is not knowing what's around the corner. The next day proved to be one of the wackiest of our trip. It's a long story but pretty darn funny and a tad bit humiliating.............So, we're standing in the street talking with a local guy named Ammu when we were approached by 2 dudes from the tourism office. They asked us to compete in the "Best Rajasthani Dressed Foreign Couple" contest held that night. We declined as we didn't have clothes, but our soon-to-be-friend Ammu agreed to sponsor us so we figured, why not, and entered. The next thing we knew we were whipping through the city on the back of Ammu's motorcycle in route for his house to try on clothes. With the help of his mom, sister, and her friend they decided on what dress I would wear and Ammu loaned John his suit. We spent the rest of the afternoon dashing from shop to shop to get accessories for our outfits. Just before "show time" the final touches were added: mehndi (henna) applied to Diana's hands and forearms by a young girl as Ammu's sister did her hair and make-up. Meanwhile, John was getting his hair dyed......yeah, that's right, dyed!!.....the color -- an orangish/reddish hue to fit in with the local men. We were picked up and driven to the event which was held in the exclusive gardens of the City Palace. We figured we would only have to walk on stage and be judged in front of a few people. Ohhhhh, how WRONG we were! This was a full blown pageant event and we were the VIPs. We were constantly being photographed, videotaped, and interviewed by the media. Then it got worse -- we had to go on stage and address a massive Indian crowd and afterward dance to Rajasthani music. In the end, we scored 4th place and a free dinner at a nice hotel. Not so shabby considering some people actually rented their outfits. We're still claiming, "It was rigged!" Nah, we had such a fantastic fun night and one we'll never forget. The story isn't over yet.......the next day we came out of our hotel to buy water when the shop owner says he recognizes us from TV and then showed us our picture in the newspaper. Others continued to notice us throughout the day -- we're celebrities!!  
Our swollen egos were quickly put back into check on our overnight bus south to Maharashtra and the Ajanta/Ellora Caves. This was one of the worse rides of our trip! We figured an overnight sleeper couldn't be that bad....YES, it can!! The road was in horrible shape and we were in the back of the bus literally bobbling down the road and every once in awhile catching enough air that it actually hurt when we landed. We found we could stabilize ourselves by keeping one foot pinned to the ceiling. Invariably, as soon as we removed our leg we would hit another huge bump.....OUCH! No worries, it only lasted for 11 hours and we still hadn't reached our destination. The caves were worth the hassle. Over 2 days we visited both the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. They're less like caves and more like huge Buddhist and Hindu temples carved directly into cliff faces. Imagine detailed temples carved out of and into a single slab of rock...wicked cool! We enjoyed both but Ellora was far superior.  
Getting to our last stop in India, Mumbai (Bombay) proved to be more eventful than we planned. We booked our overnight train ticket days in advance but still ended up on a waiting list (spots 1 & 2). Diana, motivated by the haunting memory of that sleeper bus, decided we'd get on the train anyway. The conductor initially told us there was nothing he could do.....Diana kept pushing and the train started moving. At that point, he understood how badly we wanted to stay on that train. He found us one open bed which we had to share. It was tight but at least we were on our way to Mumbai.
What happened to India?! Mumbai is completely different from anywhere else we visited in India. Still hectic and dirty, but much more modern and far less traditional.
From Mumbai, we boarded our first flight since flying to Thailand from Australia.....we can't believe we traveled that far overland. After a short layover in Bahrain of all places, we arrived in Egypt to start our 11 day tour. With not much time to spare, we opted to book a packaged tour rather than going it on our own. Packaged tours are usually not our thing but in Egypt it makes sense and we're glad we did. We did go semi-budget, which was perfect for us.  We stayed in decent hotels and had the bonus of avoiding the super mega groups on the big tour buses. In fact, in Cairo, we had our own personal guide. Since the tour was so structured, there's not much of a story to tell. So, we'll just share our thought on the places and sites we visited.
Cairo: This mega-metropolis (22 million people) was the start and finish of our trip. Our days were jammed packed with all the incredible sites in and around the city.
-The Great Pyramids of Giza (Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure are over 4200 years old) - They live up to the hype and are absolutely mind blowing.
-Sphinx- This beast is much smaller than we had expected but still impressive especially with the pyramids as its backdrop.
-Saqqara (Zoser-1st step pyramid and 4800 years old) - It may not be as aesthetically pleasing as the others but that's okay because it claims "OG" status in the pyramid world.
-Egyptian Museum- Fantastic museum and the highlight is definitely the King Tut exhibit.
-City Tour-Checked out the main market and visited the Muslim and Coptic sections of the city, visiting different mosques and Coptic churches within each. It was interesting to gain insight into these different religions and see how they coexist in the city.
Aswan: We weren't overly impressed with the sites. If you are pressed for time, this is the city to miss, unless you are going to Abu Simbel or taking on overnight felucca up the Nile River, which is especially beautiful from here.
-Kitchener Island (Botanical Garden) and Elephantine Island are just so-so
-Unfinished Obelisk- Semi interesting for a rock quarry
-Philae Temple- Pretty nice with a great Nile river setting but you'll see better in Luxor
-Abu Simbel (Ramses II)- A painful 3:30am bus ride from Aswan but worth the extra miles and time. We thought this was one of the better sites in Egypt.
-Felucca Boat Ride (2 nights) - Very relaxing and great views along the Nile - seems much more peaceful than the obnoxious, loud cruise ships.
Temples Outside of Luxor:
-Kom Ombo (Sobek) and Edfu Temple - Both are pretty cool but don't compare to the temples in Luxor and it takes a 2 hour bus ride to get there.
Luxor: This is where it's at!!! Can't go wrong with any of these sites.
-Luxor Temple- Spectacular temple with a grand entrance. It even has a mosque inside it.
-Karnak Temple - An enormous temple full of hieroglyphics, columns, statues, and 2 well preserved obelisks
-Valley of the Kings-West bank of the Nile where the kings are buried. There are tons of tombs you can chose to go inside. Many of them have colorful hieroglyphics throughout. They are still excavating the area and recently 9 mummies were uncovered in a new tomb.
-Temple of Hatshepsut-Only temple dedicated to a woman king. It looks imposing as it's built into a massive cliff face.
-Colossi of Memnon- 2 big statues in the desert
Hurghada: Resort beach town on the Red Sea bursting at the seams with Russians.
-Diving was awesome!!! The water is the bluest and clearest we've seen and full of unique fish.
Egypt lived up to its reputation. At times, standing in front of some of the ancient sites felt more like a dream than a reality. Our only recommendations are to make sure you have a good guide (it makes a HUGE difference), prepare and accept the masses of tourists at the sites, and definitely book in some chill days. We didn't and are leaving happily exhausted. We hope to recover on the beaches of Greece.


Diana and John 

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