Sunday, 2 November 2008

Madurai






As the end of the trip approaches we are starting to feel already a bit melancholic and we know we will be missing this place.

Madurai was the final stop on our trip. It took a 12 hours train ride to Madurai, taking a train that made a complete circle going to the most southern point in India (Kanyakumari) and then back up to the state of Tamil Nadu. We learned after that we could have organized our trip by car more efficiently, but that will have to be one of the learning for the next time :-)

It is the oldest city in the Southern India, something like 2500 years old and carries lots of historical heritage, located in the state of Tamil Nadu. It is the city where Mahatma Gandhi started his self-purification by adopting a very modest life-style.

The highlight of Madurai are the many temples in a very characteristic colorful architecture. Some of the larger temples are decorated with 1000 and more individual statues of gods or goddesses, each of them painted in very bright colors with impressive attention to details. Unfortunately many of the temples were covered for restoration, so it is our excuse to come back.

Again we got the taste of how reach the Hindu religion and rituals are. In the most popular temple in Madurai, Meenakshi, we had a chance to watch the ceremony of god Shiva being taken to spend the evening with his goddess so they can "revive the energy of the Universe" (ha ha we liked this explanation of the French blue guide :). This is nightly ritual and always followed by lots of prayer by the locals and many curious eyes of the tourists.

It was in the smaller temples outside of Madurai city, Azhagar, that we found even more colorful celebrations, watched people in the form of trans connecting with their gods and experiencing their spiritual culmination.

We enjoyed for last time the spicy Indian food (we are completely used to it by now) and ate as much fresh pineapples, coconuts and bananas that our stomach could take.

We also had Indian shirts sowed by measure for both of us - 1 hour service :-) Now we have our own bright colored t-shirts to wear :-) Sanja received a gift from a lady who approached us in the streets - the red decoration that Indian women wear on their forehead, and happily wore it for the rest of the trip until return to Paris.

We soaked in the many colors of India with our eyes for the last time as much as we could ... The saris which are flashing the bright colors so elegantly when the women wear them here,....the beautiful faces of Indian people,... the exotic fruits,...the yellow dusty streets which attract you again and again,... the cows with the crooked backs and the biggest horns we've seen,... the rickshaws and the white smiles flashing on the sweaty dark skins of the people driving them.... We took pictures on our last day of anything and everything.

We love India. Hopefully Madurai will be our starting point for India Part II.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Alleppey, Back Waters







We spend some more time in Kerala, Alleppey with its back waters and Cochin.
Again another place and it feels like we are in another world... and we only traveled 60 km south of Cochin.

The trip through the back waters of Kerala felt like it was some kind of hallucination. We knew that we rented a cabin on the boat, but we didn't realize that we will have the complete "small floating house" to ourselves with a crew of three dedicated to us. It was a really nice surprise and we relaxed in the silence as we were getting lost in the back waters.
The back waters of Kerala consist of about 1000km of water canals fed by rivers, lakes and sea waters. The water has formed a maze of islands and canals. We traveled with the house boat around them, occasionally stopping and taking walks or smaller boat through a narrow canal, as we observed the daily life in this area: families taking a bath in the evenings in front of their house in the waters of the canals, women washing clothing or washing dishes, man catching fish, lobsters and selling them from their canoe... children waiting for the boat, on the boat stop to take them to school across the canal on the next island... man and women working on the rice fields... It was amazing to feel like we can be part of this lifestyle even if for short time... lifestyle so relaxed, so simple where man and nature have found perfect balance, where canoeing & kayaking are the way of life.

We also saw a Kathakaly - one of the ancient forms of dance and theater, done through lots of mimic and strong emotions expressed by exaggerated face movements, body language and colorful costumes. It is a type of art protected by UNESCO, and it is one of the many forms of art that impressed us in Kerala. Kerala has preserved so many art forms in their originality that one could devote a trip just to learn about them.

Kerala really overwhelmed us with its rich culture and natural beauties. Between the art, music, plantations of tea, coffee, spices, wild life sanctuaries, beaches, Ayurveda health and spa centers we are sure we could come back here again to discover some more... but didn't we say that for every place we went to? :-)

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Lakkadives






Vacation cannot do without a little beach and swimming :-) Lakkadives Islands were our escape.

Lakkadives are in the South west side of India, about 1.5 hours flight from the main land in the Arabian Sea. And yes... we imagined Arabian Sea being turquoise color and it really is... difficult to describe.

Indian government strongly controls access to these islands and only three of them are open to foreigners and it is necessary to obtain permit from the government before going there. We were one of the 30 visitors allowed on the island of Agatti, along with the 6000 inhabitants.

Islands are the most pure lagoons we've ever seen with the most preserved marine live we can imagine. Immediately we were surprised to see the 2 meter big turtles swimming just in the shallow water on the beach... and not only... the sea turtles are so comfortable around us human swimmers... that they allow you to swim next to them, touch them, swim with them. It is amazing.

The sea life has the most variety we ever seen. We joined a German group for a day of deep water diving.

The place to stay in the island is very basic but when you open the eyes in the morning and see that pure beach, turquoise water... and find yourself surrounded in all these coconut trees... you don't need anything else :-) For sure the little village of Lakkadives is a proof for it. We were welcomed by the villagers in their houses wherever we went. We had really home made delicious coconut baklava in one house. It appeared that each household had its goat, chicken, enough coconut trees, and good fishing and octopus hunting skills.

I guess the best part of taking this escape in the Lakkadives was finding ourselves in a very cozy group of friends from different countries (Canadian, South African, Polish). Some of them live in India and others were driven by curiosity like us. We could go on for hours sharing stories and experiences. We felt like we got some of our questions regarind the odds of India answered... others will just have to be mystery :-)

Friday, 24 October 2008

Cochin, Thekaddy





Kerala, the state in South west of India. It is one of most popular vacation destination for the locals and we see why. It is also very modern and economically developed state and we felt like we are in different country.
Drastic change from the Northern India desert and dry scenery's. Suddenly we find ourselves surrounded by green, green and green. Palm trees, tea plantations, banana trees, coconuts, pineapples (yes, they grow in a bush :-), everywhere. Also wild animals such as elephants, monkeys, some tigers (even though we didn't see any) surround this place. We stayed a bit in Cochin and then two days on tea plantation even though we didn't get enough time to really enjoy it. One place we can see ourselves coming back for just relaxed spacing out time. Some annoyances... Sanja fricked out after having leeches crawling all over us during a nature walk in the forest. Still at the end agreed the fear was worth it :-)

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Benares








Benares... it truly is a city that never sleeps and probably one of the best places to justify the attribute of "Incredible" India. It is the city where people come to celebrate life by purification (swimming in the holy water of Ganges) as much as to depart from the death, by cremation and liberation (burning of the body releases the soul and the ashes are thrown in Ganges).

The walks by the banks of Ganges show a bit of bizarre scenery where people come to take bath, wash clothing, get massages, shave & cut hair to prepare for holy rituals, sell anything you can imagine, sing, pray, meditate, do yoga, perform cremation rituals of their death, or just stare at the crowd... that is usually us the visitors... People and animals are mixed. Religions are mixed... you see Hindus and their Holy men, Buddhist, Jains... performing their way of religious rituals next to each other. It is a site that doesn't lack energy and you feel like you can always see something new.

Benares (or also known as Varanasi) is by accident or not, a site where many key events happened... the site where Buddha performed his first preaching, where 23rd Tirthankars for the Jains lived and preached, and obviously the holy site for the Hindus with the river Ganges in which people find home for many things (ashes of their death ones, death animals, flowers, burning candles). Even though we read many warnings that water is very polluted, and there is no oxygen left in it, the locals will persuade you otherwise... it is holy water and people who bathed in it stayed healthy :-), and that even dolphin has been seen in it :-) We'll we for sure saw fish :-)

We must say, the energy of Benares captured us, and it was difficult to leave it behind, even though we might have approached it with a beat of fear of its crowds and mess of which we've been warned. It is a place in which you may find your feelings and beliefs challenged. The smiles of people you see everywhere and the continuous celebration of life that surrounds you, absorbs you very quickly.

Khajuraho




Long travel to Khajuraho, in the state of Madhya Pradesh towards the central part of India, but worth the trip to this far away place. Khajuraho is known for its large complex of temples, decorated with statues displaying Kama Sutra scenes. We went there with curiosity and left the place with appretiation about the complexity of the Hinduism and its evolution into Jainism during medieval India. One of the form of following the Hinduism that developed here was via Tantrism - religious rituals involving sexual performances. The believers for sure left lots of trails of these rituals :-)

Did we menion that Khajuraho is another one of the so many UNESCO sites here? Seems like India has stolen half of the world Unesco sites. And we are wondering why even more of them are not?

Khajuraho surprised us with the change in scenery. We were deep asleep in the car on our two hours drive from the train station in Satna, and once we oppened our eyes, we found ourselves in very green forest. Khajuraho was a very nice escape of the never stoping sounds of Rajastan and it gave us nice break in preparation for our next stop in Benares.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Agra, Fatehpur Sikri





So, the most visited place in India... Agra, the city of the famous Taj Mahal. It is difficult to describe Taj Mahal via words, or even in a photo. I don't think we've ever seen a photo that really shows its magnificence. We woke up around 5:30 hoping to be the first one in line to see it and we were wrong :-). The line was already long.

Agra was the kingdom of the Mughal empire and has also the largest fort & palace complex, from where the most celebrated Mughal king Akbar was ruling as well as few of his successors until the kingdom was moved to Delhi. Unfortunately small part of the fort is accessible to public as the rest of it is still used by the army.

We also passed by Fatehpur Sikri, small city near Agra. Here king Akbar build his first kingdom before moving it to Agra and where he built lovely castles for his three wives, Hindu, Muslim & Christian.

Ah, did we mention the monkeys? They are part of the everyday here. Sanja doesn't run after them anymore as at the beginning of the trip, now we run away from them :-)

And the Indians trains... it is part of India experience :-) All we'll say... two done, three more to go :-)

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Jodhpur




Jodhpur the blue city and our last stop in one of the Maharaja's former kingdoms, even though there are many more around India..with we could see them all. Jodhpur is called the "blue" city because many of the houses in the old town have been painted blue. When you stand up on the hill where the fort is, it is like many blue dots staring at you from the city below. It was a refreshing stop for us after the crazyness and crowds of the streets of Jaipur.
Jodhpur is characterized by a very impressive fort, in size and architecture. We spent lots of time discovering it and didn't seem enough. It appears that the Maharaja rulers of Jaipur had the strongest kingdom and cooperated well with all rulers who came on their way (Mogols, British) and after Indian independence, to keep up their great castle and fort properties. However it was a bit frustrating experience to see the newest, and if the local information were correct, the biggest new castle in the world, which was build in 1947. Knowing how large population in India lives in poverty, it made us unpleasantly surprised to see that such castles were still being built in 20th century, from the money from Indian poor tax payers. Irregardless that the size of this new Maharaja's residence, the architecture taste was lacking.
Jodhpur gave us few pleasant surprises, including Mandore gardens (not very much maintained, but still impressive complex of Temples), very lively market area, where we could observe the local handicrafts being made in the same little shop where they were sold, and the best of all of Jaipur (for Sanja :-)... there was a swimming pool in the place we stayed. It was very much needed luxury :-)

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Jaipur, Aimer, Pushkin





As we continue our trip to Jaipur, Rajasthan continues to play with our senses. It is a mix of odds and it shocks and amazes us. We find ourselves one moment in the inner circle of undreamed off wealth, displayed in castles, jewels, d├ęcor with perfection to the smallest details, while next moment we are back in the outer circle with the harsh reality of India. This truly is country of contradictions. We’ve learned to absorb and appreciate, but not to break down to the sights of poverty.
We passed through Jaipur, Aimer, Pushkin. Jaipur surprised us with its size. It is called the pink city, as all of the buildings within the walls of the old town are pink. The city grew from 300,000 citizens to 4 million over period of 50 years and the impact is obvious. The visit to the Amber fort was impressive. It was the old capital of the area, before the Maharajas moved to the new and castle in the city of Jaipur, where they still live today. The mark of the city, the Hawa Mahal, is really beautiful architecture, however easy to pass unnoticed as it is mixed among the busy bazaars.
The passage through Aimer and Pushkin was interesting contrast. The two towns being only 15km away from each other, and Aimer being famous Muslim pilgrimage – biggest one in India, while Pushkin being the one for the Hindus.
We also got a bit taste of Bolywood; went to one of the fanciest cinema we've seen and had very funny experience. We saw the most naive and heroic epic – superhero who could beat all the evils of the world with more special effects than actual story … including scenes & characters in Prague, India, cheerleaders, nuns, superwoman, magicians… whatever else you can imagine that makes no sense was in the film. We are looking forward to Part II :-)

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Delhi, Udaipur, Ranakpur








We had hard time to find internet caffee in Delhi. It is huge city and easy to get lost in it. After the fresh air in Nepal it was a bit of a shock to find ourselves surrounded with the overwhelming crowds of Delhi, even though we mentally prepared ourselves for it.
Even though the experience in Delhi wasn't the most easy one, it still has few impressive sites such as the Humayun Tomb which we stared at (literally) for two hours and we could go back for some more.
We happened to be in Delhi during the last day of the Durga Puja festival, one of the largest festivals for the Hindus, so we got to be part of the festival's culmination - burning the 10 meter high doll imitation of the bad monster and celebrating the victory of Lord Rama. Really interesting experience and we were lucky to come across some friendly police man to let us be part of the festival gathering.
We find that as much as we find Indian people beautiful and are tempted to take photos of them, they are equally interested to take photos of us :-) We get asked all the time to take photo with them, and then if language allows, we try to make some acquaitances.


Then we traveled to the refreshing Udaipur, starting our journey through the state of Rajastan. Udaipur is very romantic city and was a real refreshment after the noise and crowds of Delhi, even though we come across that disorder, mess, noise here as well, which we expect will follow through the rest of our trip... somehow we start to find it charming :-) Udaipur is rather recent city which was raised in 16th century by the Maharan (title for a king) who was moving his kingdom to escape the Mughal invasions. Udaipur continues to have the royal family today (the Maharan), even though besides their beautiful castles, they don't have any political power, but for sure they are "responsible" for the tourism in Udaipur. The city is marked by a lake which has two "floating" castles on it, and one park. The architecture which is mix of Hindy, Muslim and local Rajasthan style of the Maharanas, is really capturing... another one of those in which you can't stop staring at.
We came across a local wedding party, when the man on the horse was all decorated and was going with his family to pick up the bride... sounds familiar? Well, Pierre got pulled into the dancing party with bunch of other man (there were no woman dancing) and being well trained in Skopje, he didn't resist some more dancing :-)

The surrounding of Udaipur is equally impressive. On the road to the Jain temple (Jain religion is like a stricter version of Budism) in Ranakpur (impressive marble temple with amazing detailed carvings) we had some interesting encounters with the villagers and a taste of their seasonal activities with the cattles, sheap, goats, farms... continuing our discovery of Rajastan by train trip to Jaipur.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Kathmandu Valley, Nepal





So here we are, after long travel to Delhi and then spending 12 hours at the airport waiting for our connection flight to Katmandu, we are finally in Nepal.
We arrived late at night in Kathmandu, taxi picked us up to drive us to Nagarkot, after a few stops by army patrols and escaping drunk nepali teenagers in the middle of the country side, we reached in a peach dark night a very charming hotel in the hills.
Despite hardly sleeping over the last 48 hours, we are ready to start our trip with a view on the sunrise over Himalayas and immediately a hike in the hills below the Himalayas in the region of Nagarkot.

The morning after, from the time we put a feet on the roof top of the hotel to enjoy the sun rise, to our late arrival in Kathmandu, it was an extraordinary day from the breathtaking landscape of Himalaya, to the charms of lost villages in the hill dozn to the amazing world heritage sites of Changunaryan, Bhaktapur & Patan.

We were fortunate to be here during the biggest religious holiday in Nepal, and we found lots of festivities in each place we went, including some religious sacrifices of animals.

We also caught the time when the villagers are collecting the rice from the fields and preparing it for the winter. Driving in the valley, we can’t help but stop and stare at the mix of yellow-green colors of the rice fields’ mixed with the rich bright colors by the traditional dresses from the women who are working in the fields.
It feels like wherever we go, people are outside on streets spending time together, socializing irregardless if that is in front of their little shop for crafts or cashmeres, or while sharing the work in the fields, or just by seating in front of a temple or a fountain and sharing a talk. It is very relaxing and animated atmosphere and it captures you very quickly.
Ok, we’ll stop here ;-) Until next time from Delhi.