Our time in Bir was up and it seemed incredible that the first part of our trip was over. Those first five weeks flew by so fast that it was a reminder to enjoy every minute.
“Do you remember that last night in New York?” Matt posed the question.
“How could I forget. It was madness trying to get everything done” I responded, while thinking about how quickly we move through phases in life. Just a few weeks ago we were packing our bags. Now we are on the other side of the world, experiencing what we have been planning for months. Soon enough, we will wake up back in our adult lives, doing the next thing and our adventure will be a collection of memories. But not yet! We have much more ahead of us.
That last morning in Bir, the alarm went off at 7:00am. We had our last bowl of porridge and a hot cup of instant coffee.
We said goodbye to everyone at Lhamo’s house – including Chairman Bruno (Matt’s nickname for the dog, because he acts like a dictator that makes everything work around him).
A taxi took us back to McLeod Ganj where we spent the night one more time at the Green Hotel. The main purpose was to recharge for the second leg of the trip, which will consist of travelling around India for 38 days.
While we were getting ready for the Indian tour that night, Matt went online to make sure our flight to Jaipur – our next stop – was on track. We couldn’t find it anywhere, so we decided to reach out to the travel agency who helped us plan our itinerary and that took care of all the transportation.
Two people there, one of them being the owner, assured us that the flight was confirmed, forwarding a screen grab of it being on schedule. While we were hesitant, we also needed to trust the people who were specifically hired to make sure we get to places. There was also the possibility that the airline hadn’t updated its website (another example of how things only “kind of” work in this country).
The next morning, we arrived at the airport 3 hours before our flight to make sure everything was still good to go as planned.
Security instructed us to wait outside the airport because apparently they hadn’t even opened yet even though it was 9:00am. While sitting there, Matt noticed there was a Spice Jet window (our airline) for buying last-minute tickets. He went to ask about the status of our flight. At the counter, a charming but confused young lady couldn’t find our flight information, let alone our names in the system.
Matt called me from afar asking for the printed copy of the reservation. After checking once again, there was nothing.
“I will have to talk to my supervisor to see what we can do” and she left us there, wondering.
A few minutes later, she showed up again letting us know we needed to wait for the supervisor to finish his breakfast. Then, he would talk to us and explain the situation.
“Breakfast, huh? That’s nice. And when exactly will he be done with breakfast? We need to make it to Jaipur today, you know? So it would be great for you guys to tell us how this will happen” I said reactively, still trying to find peace while dealing with so many inefficiencies.
She nervously said “soon” and walked away.
A few minutes later the supervisor showed up notifying that both our flights (Dharamshala to Delhi and Delhi to Jaipur) were cancelled.
“What can we do for you?” He asked trying to be helpful.
In that moment it took a tremendous amount of effort to stop, breath in and out, and remind myself that challenges make us stronger. I pulled out a prayer/meditation that I do when I find myself in situations like this. While looking at my phone with the words of this meditation I said:
“We’d like to get on the 12:30pm flight to Delhi please, and get a full refund on the second flight so we can buy one with another airline that has the flight we need for today.” As I was finishing up the meditation in my head and saying these words, the supervisor spent a few minutes on the computer. Then, he turned to face me:
“Ok, you are all set. I changed your ticket to the next flight and you’ll get the money back.”
I smiled. It was a good reminder that with the right consciousness, calm and love we can fix everything.
It took us 4 more hours than originally planned, but that night we were sleeping in a cozy and beautiful guesthouse in Jaipur.
A taxi was waiting outside of our hotel that first morning. We wanted to make sure we were at the Amber Fort by sunrise. The image of the sun washing the stunning red sandstone site excited us. We didn’t want to miss out.
It was still too early for the crowds to show up, so we had a few moments of quiet observing the impressive fort up in the mountain ready to be admired.
Multiple flocks of birds were flying around it making the visit even more dreamy.
We walked to the top, where we coordinated to meet with some of the volunteers that came from Delhi for the weekend. Even though Matt and I are no longer in the program, it was great to see familiar faces.
While we waited for the ticket window to open, a bunch of monkeys eating bananas on the main staircase kept us entertained.
Then there were the elephants transporting tourists to the top. This made me mad. Riding elephants hurts their backs. No one should be riding elephants but some people did, so we saw that as well.
It was time to get in and with every step we discovered this beautiful place that seemed to have been extracted from a fairy tale. It was fascinating to be in the once-upon-a-time home of the Maharajas.
Almost three hours later, we met our driver who took us to two more forts nearby.
The first one was Nahargarth – where the views of the city are stunning. There are also apartments where the royal family used to live.
The second one was Jaigarth – a less fancy fort (nowadays) but the funnest as you can explore, climb and access most of the complex freely.
Jaigarth also has the biggest canon in the world – or so they claim. I was more fascinated by all the people taking their photos than by the actual canon.
We got back to the car thinking we were ready for our last visit of the day: The Monkey Temple. Let me tell you: life doesn’t prepare you for what this is.
We arrived at the foot of yet another mountain. Our driver indicated us to climb it to see the monkeys so we started our ascent, fighting the heat and the exhaustion after our busy morning.
At the beginning of the climb we could see Indian families camping right there, between dirt, cows and tons of – unexpected – pigs.
Then, we saw the most traumatic thing I’ve seen so far in my 36 years. As we passed the families and kept walking up, there was a cow in a corner, eating some hay. But there was something sticking out from behind it. The first thing we thought was that the cow had a tumor – but then, very sadly we realized that it was actually the legs and hooves of an unborn and dead calf. Later on we learned the cow has been like that for a year. Somehow it managed to survive the stillbirth without the calf being taken out. The cow’s body incorporated the corpse and it now lives with it. I don’t think I can ever remove the image from my head. It was sad, intense and grotesque. Isn’t this paradoxical? In a country where cows are sacred, no one jumped in to help. If anything here is another example of how raw and baffling things in India can be.
After passing the cow and recovering from the shock, we stumbled upon a group of guys from Portugal. They stopped to chat with us for a few minutes, after looking at our troubled faces. We shared the trauma and then they gave us the useful information that the Monkey temple was actually on the other side of the mountain, not just on top. They instructed us to keep walking up and then follow the road going down where we would see the temple.
A long walk up and down and finally we arrived. All of a sudden we found ourselves in something that looked like a scene from Indiana Jones (minus Harrison Ford and the Nazis). It was a ghost town inhabited by a large number of monkeys. Bizarre, interesting and creepy all at the same time. The monkeys were everywhere, jumping, walking, playing around and approaching visitors for food. Matt and I were fascinated and glad we weren’t there closer to sunset, as we’ve heard they get progressively more confrontational.
We decided to go back to the car, climbing back up and down – looking down as we approached the poor mamma cow still hanging out at the same corner. It was too much to see again.
We arrived at the hotel, had a nice hot shower and started to get ready for dinner.
The Delhi volunteers were waiting for us at the Peacock Rooftop – a restaurant that was recommended by both Lonely Planet and the agency that helped us out with the trip.
It was great to spend some more time with everyone while sharing thalis, mango lassis and for those tired of Indian food – some pizza and pasta.
We took it easy the next morning. The first hours were filled with books, coffee and a nice continental breakfast.
At around 10:00am we were on our way to the Old City.
First stop: the City Palace. The “urban” residence of the Maharajas from the 1700s. There, we walked around the pavilions, gardens and some of the most beautiful doors. The place is not as big as what I was imagining but it’s always nice to hang out where the royalty used to spend their time.
Across from the City Palace is a site called Jantar Mantar which is an observatory also built around the 1700s. This was so cool! I felt like a kid in a candy store. It was filled with big astrological structures to measure time, position of the sun, planets and zodiac signs. It was interesting especially realizing how advanced they were with this type of technology. It reminded me of the Aztecs and their impressive calendars. They had a deep understanding of the universe just by observing how nature works.
Next up and a few minute-walk away, we arrived to Hawa Mahal or “Palace of Winds” – another piece of real estate from the Maharajas and the place where the royal ladies could see the outside world (including parades) from some tiny windows facing the main avenue but keeping their faces from being exposed.
It was time to get some lunch so we walked skillfully dodging the traffic to a restaurant nearby recommended by Lonely Planet called Laxmi Misthan Bhandar (LMB to make it easier). I say skillfully because after not getting hit by all the cars, rickshaws and motorcycles speeding up, even one driver was so impressed by Matt’s ownership of the road that after we were safe on the other side, he applauded yelling “Very nice!”. Matt felt accepted by the Indian society.
Some curries and gulab jamuns later, we took a stroll at a bazaar that was just outside the restaurant. Stands filled with colored sarees made this spot a good shopping destination for locals. There were a lot of women with their girlfriends trying on different outfits, while the tailors would pitch several options to them. We were the only tourists there and photography wasn’t as welcomed as other places, so we controlled ourselves and just walked around the narrow alleyways, taking everything in.
After a lot of walking, we went back to the hotel to rest for a bit.
It is a good idea to take breaks while visiting India. It is an overwhelming country so I recommend taking it in doses.
We rested and shower and at 5:45pm, a charismatic driver named Yogi (or maybe that was his nickname?) took us to a place the Delhi volunteers told us about: Chokhi Dhani.
When we arrived after a 40 minute drive from the city center, we found ourselves in this enormous resort that looked like an Indian village lost in time. It was a mixture of Disneyland and Medieval Times. At then entrance you would choose between a 700 or a 900 rupees meal. The most obvious difference was the sitting arrangement as one was sitting on the floor and the more expensive one at a table. Because Matt has some back issues, we went for the 900 one.
Then, you are invited to walk around an outdoor fair. You can see magicians doing tricks, acrobats, a puppet show, a village with artesanal shops, girls dancing with fire on their heads, fortune tellers, henna painters, elephant riders (sigh…), among many other attractions. It is all dimly lit by torches enhancing the experience to feel like you just walked into another period in history.
This could easily be cheesy and touristic but it’s actually authentic and interesting.
We were having such a good time that we even went for this:
When we started to get hungry, we walked to the “sitting” restaurant, where we were welcome and sitted at a communal table, while two musicians played drum and sitar.
A big thali of Rajasthani food landed in front of us. It was a delicious tasting of the regional food. We even dared to eat some raw cucumbers! They were in front of us, looking fresh, crunchy and delicious, so we went for it and we survived!
Yogi waited outside for us and around 10:00pm we headed back to the hotel.
We were getting physically and mentally ready for our first train in India, that would take us to Pushkar the next morning.
More lessons learned:
– Embrace this country and don’t get frustrated. Eventually you will get where you need to be.
– When crossing a street, just breath, go with the flow of traffic and ideally follow a group – it becomes like a human shield of some sort.
– When in Jaipur buy the composite ticket. It includes most of the main sites for cheaper! You pay 1000 rupees per person (around $15 USD) when – for example – the Amber Fort alone is 500 rupees. Composite tickets can be purchased at the ticket office of any of the attractions included.