The Indian province of Kerala is only about an hour and half plane ride from Colombo. For our Poya day in November, we went to check it out. We flew into Kochi and then got a ride to the backwaters of Alappuzha about 2 hours south.
We stayed in a cute homestay on the banks of one of the canals. It was so different from the India we saw in the north. It was green and lush and sparsely populated.
We had a chance to relax at the homestay and have some good meals. We also had a chance to go out in one of the boats for a tour of the canals.
We checked out the inside of one of these houseboats.
The next day we went on a guided hike of the village.
We walked by a rice paddy where they were spreading calcium to fortify the rice.
Kerala is a communist province
Solar power plant
Man walking goats
After Aleppuzha we headed to Kochi for a one night stay. Kochi is a fairly small city, but it really didn’t seem like a long enough time to do/see everything.
Of course we had to check out Jew Street and the synagogue:
We walked around a little. It’s a very walkable city with lots of shops and restaurants. Compared with our home in Sri Lanka, it’s a very pleasant place to walk around.
They said that Hinduism is the majority religion, just like the rest of India. But we saw so many churches, it was hard to believe. When we took a closer look at the churches, they looked a whole lot like Hindu shrines. It made me think that maybe people are Hindu, while they incorporate Christianity into their practice.
Erika wanted to go see a puppet show or something. So Renee and I went to a restaurant near the beach to watch the sunset.
There was one small glitch to our whole weekend. It didn’t end up affecting us too much in the end, but it was kind of wild at the time. The Indian government had just revoked the use of 500 and 1000 rupee notes.
We saw people lining up to try to exchange their rupees. The lines were often around the block. There were people who were probably going to spend most of their day in line. We originally had thought this would all post a problem. Erika and I had the old 1000 rupee notes, but could not use them anywhere.
In the first place we stayed, we left a 1000 rupee note as a tip, figuring that they would exchange it with the rest of their money. Once we got to Kochi, we were a little stressed because all the ATMs were out of cash. It was insane! But the guy who ran the hotel said he would change our 1000 notes and he also exchanged our US dollars. So between that and using our credit cards to pay for things, we actually weren’t too bothered by the whole thing.
After a two day stay in Agra, we headed back to New Delhi to stay the night before flying back to Sri Lanka. I haven’t mentioned the transportation much yet, but it’s worth mentioning now. In a word, the driver we’d hired: sucked. I am generally pretty easy to please. It would have been nice to have had the driver who picked us up from the airport. He was funny and charming and aimed to please. But we didn’t need funny and charming. But we did pay a lot of money, so aiming to please is something that would have been nice.
Instead, this driver acted like it was such a big chore to drive us everywhere. He did not seem to like our itinerary (and all the driving it entailed). And he seemed resentful every time we asked him to take us someplace once we were at our destination city. And to top it all off, he seemed to be a little sick. He was constantly coughing and sneezing and sniffling. Not a deal breaker, but not pleasant.
Anyways, we were looking forward to arriving in Delhi, dropping our bags off at the hotel, and then going on a walking food tour. We would, of course need our driver to bring us to the hotel and to drop us off/pick us up at our food tour meeting point. Apparently this was just asking way too much. So instead of taking us to our hotel, he took us back to the home of the people who run the tour company. This was way out of our way, and with traffic, ended up taking us a few extra hours.
We were pretty upset that this was happening. The tour operators argued with us. They tried to explain that when they said “24/7”, they didn’t mean all day every day. We tried to explain what the term 24/7 means. It was lost on them. We just wanted to leave, so we just tried to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Things were awkward in the car now. We knew he’d complained about us. We let him know we were angry that he brought us there. And now we’re stuck in traffic, trying to get to our hotel. The driver was sooooooo angry. He had major road rage.
But eventually we made it to the hotel, and the driver begrudgingly took us to our food tour meeting point (and apparently cussed out the tour operator several times on the phone as he navigated the traffic).
Once we were dropped off, things were fine! We had a great food tour with a really friendly guy who really knew his stuff.
Street Food: sort of a curry home fries
Parathas with different fillings
Our tour guide brought us to some great street food spots. He also brought us through a spice market:
We ended up on the roof of the spice market:
One of my favorite moments: When I taught some Indian dude what the word clusterf*ck means:
The night we happened to be in Delhi was the night before a big festival. Apparently all the markets and shops would be closed the following day. So people were out shopping. Thats why the streets were so crowded. We had parathas at this wonderful little hole-in-the-wall shop down an alley way. When we tried to leave, this is the scene we saw. So our tour guide told us it wouldn’t be safe to leave just yet, so we just sat down and watched it all go by. I’ve never seen a human traffic jam like this before.
This scene will remain in my memory as NEW DELHI. And I love it.
Agra is not technically in Rajasthan. But if you go to New Delhi, it makes sense to go to Agra because it’s only 2 hours away. And you know, it has the Taj Mahal and stuff.
On the way to Agra, we stopped at Fatehpur Siri. People say it’s an important historical sight, but I was unimpressed. I suppose it was well kept, but it was pretty plain to look at. I guess after some of the stuff we’d already seen, my eyes were hard to impress.
We arrived in Agra on a Thursday evening. The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays, so on Friday we went to the Agra Fort. We also visited the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah and we snuck a peak of the Taj Mahal from across the river.
It’s a nice fort, as forts go. I liked the courtyards.
We got a nice view of the Taj Mahal:
I liked the structure of the fort. It had lots of long lines and arches that were fun to photograph.
Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah
This tomb is often called the “Baby Taj” because it thought of as the draft for the Taj Mahal.
We were really eager to take a look at the Taj Mahal. We heard about a park that is actually across the river behind the Taj Mahal, where we could get a really good view of it. Mehta Bagh is a garden located across the Yamuna River.
After the Mehta Bagh we headed over to The Oberoi Amarvilas: the fancy pants hotel and restaurant with a view of the Taj Mahal. I had a cocktail on the balcony and then we went downstairs to have a very fancy dinner that did not disappoint.
The Taj Mahal
We woke up before dawn to see the sun rise at the Taj Mahal. I haven’t seen the Taj Mahal in any other way, but I’m pretty sure this is the best. It was everything I’d hoped it would be.
We squeezed an epic distance into a one week vacation. We flew into Delhi, were picked up at the airport by an absolutely delightful gentleman who took us for some great tandoori chicken, and then to the home of the people who ran the tour company.
We had some chai and did some small talk.
Mostly we were there to pay them and settle the terms of our travel. Our understanding was that we would take a train to Jaisalmer, and be picked up at the train station there. Then the driver would drive us to all the places on our itinerary. He would be available to us 24/7 during our trip (although we didn’t anticipate too much driving once we were at our destinations).
The 3 J’s
Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, and Jaipur (with a little stop in Pushkar for good measure -that’s the black dot: it’s not big enough to make it onto the map). Agra and New Delhi get their own blog posts.
The Train to Jaisalmer
After our little meeting, we had to catch our train to Jaisalmer. There was so much traffic in New Delhi. We almost didn’t make it to the train on time. We ended up paying some dudes in front of the train station to show us where our train was and to carry our luggage as we ran. I loved that part: running through the station, slipping and sliding, dodging people, dogs, and cows, up and down stairs, chasing after a set of tall Indian dudes who had our suitcases on their heads. I’m pretty sure we overpaid them, but in my mind it was well worth it: these guys saved our asses!
We made it to the train just in the nick of time and settled in for our 18 hour journey just as the train started to roll away. It was a long journey. We ate some crappy food, and then tried to get some sleep. I did not sleep well. But it was nice to watch the world go by on the train.
We had a long stop in a little town called Pokeron. We got out and walk around. The people were all really curious about us, but very friendly. Some ladies wanted to take a photo with me, so I asked to take a photo with my phone too. The kids were great and they all wanted to pose for photos. We also had some roadside fried food…which may have been a mistake for me, but we’ll get to that later…
This was our introduction to India really. Everyone was so fun and loved to joke around. The colors were so bright and the people were so happy. I don’t know if I’ve ever connected with people as quickly as I did in India. It was love at first sight.
I wish we’d had more time in Jaisalmer. We stayed at the Gulaal Hotel for the night. It was an amazing hotel, decorated in the style of a palace. And the fort was really fun too.
We walked around the fort a little while. The fort is an inhabited fort. Unlike the other forts we ended up visiting, people live and work in this one, and you can even stay over night there. We didn’t stay in the fort because there is so much stress on the land that it’s actually making the fort sink. So we were told it’s better to stay near the fort and go for a visit.
Later that day, Erika wanted to go to a puppet show. I started to feel kind of sick. Then I got really really sick. I ended up running out to throw up. I also had awful diarrhea. It was terrible!! I was in front of this cultural center, trying to find a place to throw up, and it was just coming out of both ends. Ugh. When I was “finished”, I jumped in a tuk tuk and went back to the hotel. I’m pretty sure I had what they call Delhi Belly. It could have been from the airplane food. It could have been from the snacks we got in Pokeron. Whatever it was, it made me so sick I could barely walk.
I tried not to let it get me down. The next day we drove to Jodhpur and stayed at the Devi Bahaman Hotel. It was a beautiful hotel. It felt like we were staying in a little cottage in an English garden. We were so hungry when we arrived. We went directly to the restaurant and had some amazing curry. My stomach was still a little off, but I managed to have a good taste.
The next day, we checked out the Mehrangarh Fort:
There was beauty around every corner…
Outside the fort, we saw these women worshiping at a shrine:
On our way to the parking lot, a woman stopped us. She wanted to take a photograph with us. Then her family caught up with us and they wanted photos too. Soon, we were posing and laughing and hugging. The woman noticed Erika’s earrings and said she wanted to trade with her. So Erika gave her the earrings off her ears, and the woman put her earrings in Erika’s ears:
On our way out of Jodhpur, we swung by the Maharaja’s palace. Apparently there is a museum that you can visit and for like a million rupees per night, you can even stay over night there. We were a little early for the museum, so we didn’t go in. The price tag for an overnight stay was a little steep for us, so we just drove by and had a look.
After Jodhpur, we drove to Pushkar. I loved Pushkar. Loved it! It’s a small town that is on the banks of a holy lake. People come from all over India to visit. It also has a neat backpacker vibe to it.
The people were celebrating a lot of festivals while we were there. We asked a lot of different people what was going on, and they all said something different. So we couldn’t figure out it out. But it was a total rager!
People were constantly partying. It was amazing! These trucks were driving around everywhere, and dudes covered in purple powder and paint would just rage it. And then all of a sudden the music would stop and they’d disperse.
Pushkar is considered to be a Hindu holy place. It is located on a lake and is a destination for pilgrims. We visited the ghat (staircase into the lake) where Ghandi’s ashes were placed. I regretted not bringing my mom’s ashes. She would have loved it if I’d sprinkled a little of her in there with Ghandi. Maybe I’ll go back one day to do that.
I loved walking through the streets of Pushkar. Again, the people were so friendly. We had seen camels from the road, but this was the first place where we saw camels just hanging out in the streets.
The camels were also used in one of the parades we saw. There were so many parades. I couldn’t put my camera down. And again, no one was able to tell us exactly what was going on. People were just making party I guess.
We were told that all these parades and processions were leading to this hill where they would set some cross on fire and set off a bunch of fireworks. Not even kidding:
We ate dinner on a rooftop restaurant and watched it all happen.
We were up there for a long time.
Oh Pushkar, how I love you!! I will return one day!
By the end of our stay in Pushkar, I was starting to feel a lot better and I was able to eat whole meals without feeling sick. We then drove to Jaipur and stayed at Hotel Pearl Palace. Jaipur was a neat city.
I was pretty much over the fort scene, so I went to get a massage while Erika saw the fort. The massage was not the best, but I was tired and it was nice to have a little time to just lay around.
After the massage, I got a ride back to the hotel with a tuk driver named Jonty. He was insane. And apparently, because I had ridden with him once, he owned me. No one else around our hotel would drive me. They said Jonty had to. He was completely hilarious, a little odd, and a good time.
While in Jaipur, we visited the Amber Palace. It’s a beautiful palace with amazing courtyards, gardens, beautiful vistas, and an incredibly ornate Mirrored Palace with a mirrored ceiling.
After Jaipur, it was time to drive to Agra to see the Taj Mahal!!! Check out Part 2 to see what we saw!
I fell way behind on posting my travels in 2016. So now what we’ll have is a roundup of travel photos and stories that I’ve been meaning to post.
Last September I went to the The Maldives with Erika. We stayed on the island of Dharavandhoo. But our purpose was not to just relax on the beach, which we did plenty of. Our purpose was really to swim with the manta rays. For that, we went to Hanifaru Bay. And it was spectacular. We were there for about 3 days and we went twice a day to swim with them.
We stayed at the spectacular Aveyla Manta Village resort. This is a very special place. It’s right on the ocean, and has a very family feeling to it, while at the same time maintaining a very high quality accommodation. The only thing that wasn’t so great was the scuba diving. We tried a dive on our first day. It was our fault for not telling the dive master that we were a little rusty, but I think that a good dive master should ask about the skill level
of the divers. It’s kind of his job to ask us. On the form we filled out, I wrote down the truth: I haven’t done any diving in a few years, and my total dives are pretty low, making me a novice. I don’t think he even read the form.
The dive was a terrible experience. The worst diving I’ve ever done. I’ve never felt fearful when diving, but I panicked during this dive. The dive master tried to be helpful, and I was able to settle down, but it was a horrible experience. I’m not put off diving for good, but I’ll need to find a good dive master for my next dive.
Fortunately this experience did not at all cloud my overall experience. Later that day, I went out on the boat to Hanifaru Bay to try to find some mantas to snorkel with. The Aveyla staff were fantastic! They really seemed to love their jobs: helping tourists experience this amazing manta heaven.
I was blown away. There were dozens of mantas swimming around eating plankton. And they all seemed to want to play with us.
Diving with these animals was unlike any experience I’ve ever had. We were instructed not to try to touch the mantas, but they didn’t get the same instructions. They were so friendly and seemed to be truly curious about us.
They would come right up to us, and kind of skim their bodies against ours. I felt like they were truly trying to connect with us. It was magical.
We couldn’t get enough of the magic, and ended up snorkeling twice a day for 3 days. It turned out that snorkeling was a better way to access the mantas. They seem to stay away from the scuba divers, maybe on account of all the bubbles.
We wished we could be in the water with the mantas all day every day, but that wasn’t very realistic. So we lounged around at the resort, and explored the very small island.
Hanging on the boat!
Aveyla Manta Village
The Maldives is a really interesting country. It consists of over 1200 islands, but only about 200 of them are inhabited by Maldivians. The rest of the islands are either resort islands or they are not inhabited at all. The Maldives is a strictly Muslim country. This means that Maldivian islands, by law, have no alcohol or pork. You are likely to see women wearing full burkas. And like other Muslim countries, friendly hospitality is the norm! People welcomed us with opened arms. It was a lovely experience!
I’d love to return to this amazing island and stay with Aveyla again. We almost didn’t make it off the island! On the day we were set to leave, our plane from the small airline called Flyme never came!! We waited all day, but it just never showed up. So the airline paid for us to stay for another night at Aveyla. The resort was very accommodating. We had to make an awkward phone call to our principal and tell him that we were indeed stuck in The Maldives, and we would have to miss a day of school. He was very understanding and we had a good laugh about it when we returned.