Northern India

Adventures in India: A Traveler's Guide to Delhi & UPI Payment Solutions

January 10-11, 2024

How to travel to India affordably (and comfortably)

We were alerted to a big dump of award tickets to India on United's Polaris Business Class back in August, so we speculatively booked them and hoped that we would be able to make it happen.  United's Polaris seats were pretty tight.  There is not as much personal space as there is on American, but the soft product was much better.  We liked the new bedding by Saks Fifth Avenue (including mattress pads, a cool gel memory foam pillow and regular pillow, plus a day blanket and duvet!) and pajamas on the 14.5 hour flight.  The amenity kit that was announced back in October was packaged in a reusable booty bag or cross-body bag.   Made with recycled plastic, it features TheraFace skincare products such as eye serum, face spray, hand cream and a cleansing towelette, in addition to the usual bamboo toothbrush, toothpaste, eye mask, ear plugs, socks and a pen.  For anyone who travels long distances, you know how dried out and dehydrated and dry your body becomes, so these skincare products were very appreciated.  

We arrived without incident a day before the official arrival day of our tour through the North with Intrepid.  Avid blog readers will remember we did an Intrepid tour in Egypt and Jordan.  We like their vibe and the kind of people who typically go on their tours.  We also thought that we would want a guided introduction to India before venturing out on our own.  We're good a research, but you still never quite know what to expect on the ground.

Our first impression on arrival is that we're glad we did that.  Delhi is about as chaotic as Cairo, maybe even more so.  Luckily our hotel is situated about a 5 minute walk to a metro station.  We elected, though, to have a transport arranged to the hotel ahead of time vs. taking the metro.  We're staying in Karol Bagh, which appears to be a lively residential working-middle class (for India) neighborhood with lots going on.

In our research ahead of time, we learned that foreign credit cards can be problematic in India.  In fact, we had a tough time making online reservations for some long distance transport (other than planes) and some activities we wanted to reserve in advance  due to their popularity.  We had to call on Eli's friend and former colleague, Jags, who is from India and still has family here, to help us out.  Jags put us in touch with his sister,  Gayathri, who used her UPI to purchase the tickets for us and then we sent her reimbursement through Jags.  

What is UPI you might ask and do I need it?  

UPI is a financial transaction system in India kind of like Venmo, but it is cross-platform, so if people are using different UPI apps, they can still send money to each other.  Everyone here takes/uses UPI--even some street vendors and food carts.  Up until recently,  you would need an Indian bank and Indian cell phone number to make UPI work.  They have recently opened it up to foreigners through a couple of very limited opportunities.  We read that you can go to one of the currency exchange places in the airport in Delhi and they can set you up with a UPI app, etc.  What we had read was that they would give you the app to download and deposit however much money you want in your account to use while you're here.  Stephen also found an app called Cheq, which is a UPI app for foreigners that was downloadable in the US so we could check it out and have a better idea of how it works.  When we arrived at the airport, we went to the currency exchange kiosk right out of customs and asked about getting set up with a UPI.  There was some confusion on their part as to whether we'd need an Indian cell phone number, but they said they'd do it for us.  This did not inspire confidence, so we decided we'd instead try getting the Cheq app set up and transfer funds there.

How can a foreign tourist use UPI?

You can get the app set up in advance, and then all you need to do is go to one of the verification centers located around the country in the bigger cities (there are 3 verification locations in Delhi) to show them your passport and visa; then, they activate your account.  One verification location was only 4 stations from us on our Metro line.  Delhi Metro works on individual tokens or a reloadable tappable card.  You can also get a 1-day or 3-day unlimited tourist pass, but at only 20 Rupees (about 25 cents) a ride, we figured it would be cheaper to just pay by ride.  You have to pick up the card at customer service (the cards cost 50 Rupees) and they'll add any additional money on them that you want.

We headed to our verification location.  The Metro is straightforward and (like we thought in Cairo) provided us a sense of something very understandable and familiar in a very chaotic place.  We had a little bit of trouble finding the exact location of the place to get verified.  It was in a building with tons of small offices; we had asked someone where in the building it might be and they had said it was closed.  Wah-wah!   Eli, though, luckily found a directory hanging on the wall, and sure enough, it was listed.  We just needed to find our way through the suite numbers (which were not in any discernable order).  It took us about an hour in total to get verified and get the app up and running, but we're now good to go!  We funded our account via a credit card, so we're actually technically charging things and earning points!  We think it's not coming through as a cash advance, but we'll check that as soon as it posts.  Also, if you're an Indian citizen with UPI and traveling abroad, you'll be glad to know UPI is continuously growing in popularity around the world, with the  list of countries in which it's accepted growing by the month.  As of February 2024, the list includes France, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, UAE, and Singapore.

At this point it was about 4:30pm and we figured we'd be done for the day.  We looked up some of the restaurant recommendations from Lonely Planet and there was a super cheap but starred restaurant a couple Metro stops away on the way back to our hotel.  They only make one dish at Sita Ram Diwan Chand, Channa Bhathura (chickpea stew and stuffed roti), but the line goes into the street for it.  You can get it for about 80 cents with one stuffed roti or $1.20 for 2.  It's no frills dining (standing tables) but it was delicious and incredibly filling for under $2.50 total.  

From Lotus Temples to Local Eateries: A Day Exploring Delhi's Rich Heritage

January 12, 2024

We figured we'd check out some of the sights around Delhi that are not covered on our organized tour.  We started by taking the Metro to the furthest sight we wanted to see, the Lotus Temple.  We left our hotel around 8:30am and figured we'd get breakfast somewhere near one of the sights (which proved harder than we thought).  The city was very quiet at this hour; it was mostly female street sweepers making piles of garbage that had accumulated in the street from the previous day's  activity.  The Metro was eerily subdued as well.  We didn't realize, but fog is a daily occurrence in this part of India in January.  We were worried we'd not be able to get clear shots of the Temple.

The Lotus Temple is Baha'i, which is a faith that developed in Iran in the 19th century.   The temple is 9 sided and its roof reminds you of the Sydney Opera House on its side; it is quite striking and iconic.  The interior is unadorned, but it is light filled and the roofline is quite striking from the interior with a dome that moved out in the shape of a 9-sided star (you can't take pictures inside).  You have to take your shoes off quite a ways before climbing the stairs to actually enter the sanctuary.

From there we headed to Humayun's Tomb.  The Tomb was a predecessor to the Taj Mahal, and you can see how some of the designs tried out here made it into the other Taj.  The site was about a 25 minute walk from the Metro station, so we opted to get a tuk-tuk to get us there from the station.  He way overcharged us; we hate having to haggle about prices for transportation.  Google said the rate should be about 35 Rupees, but we ended up paying 200 because we didn't want to argue about it.  Maybe they do that strange thing here as well and charge per person regardless that you're going to the same place and the distance and gas are the same and Google just shows the likely cost for one person.  The tuk-tuks do have meters, but none of them seemed to be functioning at all.

The tomb was built in the last half of the 16th century and has that distinctive red stone.  They limewash the interior walls and the paint simple frescoes.  The building was more impressive from the exterior and from afar; when you get up close, it's showing its wear (although the restoration wasn't that long ago).

We tuk-tuked back to the metro station (this time it cost us half as much, but still probably more than it should have).  We headed on to the Red Fort.  The Red Fort, and also Humayun's Tomb, were built during the Mughal empire's reign over India.  The Mughals were Muslim (hence the burial instead of cremation), but as was typical in other Muslim empires, they were very tolerant of other local religious traditions, and many of the states of the area were run by local Hindu royalty.  The fort is both a fort and a palace, and has a lot of similarities in design to Topkapi in Istanbul with lots of small buildings inside the walls of the palace with gardens connecting them.  The mix of red stone cladding and white marble is really beautiful.  We thought we'd look for a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant in the area, and spent about 40 minutes walking around Old Delhi and getting lost (since it was mostly built under Mughal rule, it's like a Medina with tiny streets that go nowhere), we decided to head back toward the hotel and eat there.

As we returned back to the hotel, we both remarked on how  the crowd at these sights were mostly all Indian... we didn't see but maybe one or two European tourists around at all.  Also, how the people out and about were about 75% men (even if you count the segregated car on the metro for "ladies.")

We had a late lunch at Sri Saravana Bhavan,  which we found on google maps.  It was a locals place, but they had a menu in English, and clearly occasionally would have other tourists as the had "sample plates," one of north Indian dishes and other of dishes from the South.  We did one of each and both shared.  They give you spoons for serving, but no other silverware otherwise.  The traditional way to eat in India is with your right hand.  They did give us lots of chapati (which is like a tortilla) so tore off pieces and used that to pick up our food like we would at an Ethiopian restaurant.  We did see people using their hands like a hook with their fingers picking up scoops of rice and curry and eating that way.  Stephen had a hard time using his right hand with the chapati, but he managed.  We just needed probably twice as much chapati as other diners.  Our two plates totaled $6.00 this time.

We headed back to the hotel for a while to rest until our 6pm meeting with our Intrepid group.  Our group seems like a lot of fun.  We've got some single travelers, some other couples, and a couple parent/child trippers.  Mostly British, but we have one Aussie and one other American.  It's going to be a fun group to travel with.

For dinner, we all went out to Hooters (yes, you heard right).  But it's not that Hooters; it's a more tourist friendly Indian restaurant with a diverse menu.  All the dishes we had, though, were very good (and we got to eat with silverware).  Eli had Paneer Kadai which is fresh Indian cheese cubes cooked with bell peppers in a tomato and onion gravy with a special masala spice blend. The sauce was very flavorful, but while he loves cheese, Eli's not certain he loves paneer.  He'd probably rather have tofu as a vegetarian option in this sort of preparation.  It was just slightly more expensive than our lunch, but that made it a total of about $12 for the meal for the two of us. We found it interesting how much more informed and familiar the Brits and Aussies were with the menu items.  Obviously, the UK has a significant Indian population and by default, Indian restaurants.  South Florida doesn't have much to offer in good Indian restaurants, so we look forward to exploring the menus and familiarizing ourselves as much as possible.  

Surviving Delhi Belly: A Day of Unexpected Turns in Delhi

January 13, 2023

We awoke and had breakfast with the plan to head out as a group starting at 8:30, but while we were at Breakfast, one of our tripmates let us know that her roommate had gotten sick overnight with Delhi Belly, and our guide took her to the doctor, where she received an IV and medications.  She had been on the South India portion of the trip with Intrepid before meeting us here and apparently had some bad water while at the airport.  We have another guy in our group who was also in South India before joining us and he ended up getting sick as well later on in the day.Though our guide warned us about consuming mushroom dishes at dinner last evening, which they both had, so who knows the exact culprit. That's really the overarching message is that you can only be so careful while balancing a dive into the local gastronomy.  It does seem as though it may be a sanitation thing, being that the city has its own moniker.

We ended up delaying our start until about 10:30 but it was fortuitous as there was heavy fog in the morning and we wouldn't have been able to see much of the sites we were to visit.  We started with a metro and tuk-tuk ride to Jama Masjid.  It's a mosque that was built in the 17th century and it clad in marble and red sandstone.  Again, we had to take our shoes off well before we thought it was necessary, so we were walking around in our socks on the stone courtyard taking photos.  Stephen wanted to go up the platform to check out the mihrabs (there are 3) and there were strange warning signs on there saying things like "do not make music videos" (as if this were the 1980's).  Since it was unclear if we could go up, Stephen asked the security guy guarding the steps if it was okay to go up.  He said sure (even thought we later saw another sign that said "not tourists beyond this point") and walked us up, shooing some worshipers off of the carpet.  He then told us we could take a picture, which we clearly knew was forbidden, and we told him that no, we didn't want to take pictures, only to look at the space.  He again insisted that we could take pictures, and with that Eli disappeared along with two of our tripmates who had come up with us.  Clearly the guy was looking for a tip, but Stephen just ended up walking away as well... after all, we didn't end up taking a picture.

From there we walked an a wider avenue in Old Delhi to a Sikh temple.  Sikh's are generally from the Punjab region of India, and part of their practice is all about acts of service.  They basically run a soup kitchen where anyone can come and get a free meal.  We started by watching a bit of their prayer service (but we couldn't take photos inside the sanctuary).  It was lots of music being played on folk instruments and chanting by the leader, along with some sermonizing.  And then headed to see their soup kitchen operation.  Eli participated in making chapati, and then we all sat down (most of us on the floor) to eat a meal of dal, rice, and chapati.

From there, the rest of the group went back to the hotel, but we ventured on via Metro to Akshardham, a Hindu temple complex built in 2005 to honor one of the Yogis of the BAPS sect.  This was probably the busiest site we visited, but we were again one of very few European tourists around.  Security here is very tight, and we had to wait in a variety of queues for bag drop, security, and entry.

We couldn't take any pictures here either, but we're including some public domain ones so you can get an idea of what it was like.  Like the Mohammed V mosque in Casablanca, some of these new buildings are monumental and beautiful as well.  The intricate carving of stone and marble was unbelievable; no stretch of the building was left untouched.   The campus has a fountain show, light show, and museum as well.  The main Mandir is a central sanctum with different scenes around the outside depicting the life of the yogi.  It reminded us a lot about how medieval and renaissance Catholic churches were organized to with stained glass vignettes of the gospels and stories of saints teach the religion to people who could not read.  We marveled at the intricate carvings inside and outside, along with the immense marble work, gold and jewels bedazzling the main alter.  Then we headed back to the hotel.  Stephen has to work tonight and with the 10.5 hour difference, he'll have to go until 3:30 in the morning.  UGH!

Agra Adventures: Exploring the Mughal Capital Amidst Fog and Fascination

January 14, 2024

Today we headed by train to Agra, the Mughal capital.  The ride typically takes about 2.5 hours, but it took us almost 4.5 as the train was slowed by fog.  It was fine, though, as we got to see both the Agra fort and the Taj Mahal with good light and little haze.

Agra Fort is like a bigger and more luxurious version of the Red Fort in Delhi.  Those are real gems embedded with the marble in the inlays.  We also learned that when these buildings would have been used, all this marble and red sandstone would have been covered with silks and/or carpets depending on the season.  There are little rings above the arches that would allow carpets/silks to be hung and carpets would have been covering all the floors in the "rooms." 

We then headed to the piece de resistance, the Taj Mahal.  We were worried that it wouldn't live up to the hype, but it is truly as beautiful as it is made out to be.  We spent about 1.5 hours exploring the grounds, other buildings, and taking photos from different angles.  We ended up paying, too (about $15 bucks), for a professional to take some shots also.

Stephen had to work again tonight, so it was a late night again for him.

Cultural Encounters: Tales from Fort Madhogarh's Mughal Era Splendor

January 15, 2024

Eli woke up to a bunch of phone calls and messages for his birthday from relatives who did a good job of measuring the time change.  From Agra, we headed to a rural village which is a special stay included with the Intrepid tour (although you can book independently as well).  We stayed at Fort Madhogarh, which is a Mughal era fort perched high on a hill above the village below.  We did a tour of the village, learning about rural life currently in India, played cricket with the locals (well the Brits in the group played cricket, we just watched), and had some chai at a local street strand where the regular clients didn't take their eyes off us at all while we were there.  The women in the group also frequently got selfie requests from some of the girls in the village.  It reminded us of when we were in Amboseli.  Obviously there are lots of racial and status dynamics in play, but it would feel rude not to oblige.

There are tons of monkeys who live in and around the village as well.  They can be quite aggressive, so we did our best to stay far enough away, but it made Stephen think about the disease risk of humans living so close to monkeys all the time.

Our room at the fort feels very luxurious, as if we were living in the 18th century, with 20th century plumbing (although Eli did find where the privies were back in the day that dumped the waste right into the moat).  For dinner, they dressed us up in saris and turbans (the ladies decided to take their saris off straight away after the photos), and they also got a cake especially for Eli's birthday.  The next morning we caught some shots of the sunrise above the misty valley below.  It was a nice stay and a great experience (and Stephen got to catch up on some sleep).

Jaipur Journeys: Exploring Amber Fort and Bollywood Magic

January 16, 2024

Today we headed by van to Jaipur (just about 2.5 hours from the village yesterday) and stopped at Amber Fort along the way.  Another Mughal fort, this one built in the 18th century, is known for its own version of the "hall of mirrors." You can walk up the 183 steps to the fort entrance, or they do offer the option to go up by elephant.  For animal treatment reasons, Intrepid has us walk, but we got good photos of the elephants at various points.  The fort is designed so there is a tight curve right before the main entry gate which would have prevented the elephants of invading armies getting enough momentum to break the door down.

Into town, we stopped at a gem shop.  We trust Intrepid to choose the shops that have fair employment practices, but honestly, these are our least favorite activities on an organized tour (like the papyrus making workshop in Cairo).  Eli found a diamond and sapphire necklace that he said would look good with Stephen's eyes (jk), but that was about it.

At 6pm we headed to the Raj Mandir Cinema, to see Dunki, a Bollywood film.  The cinema is a grand Indian version of an art deco cinema.  We particularly loved the entry doors.  We got snacks (they have popcorn and Indian style snacks as well) and settled in for the show.

Bollywood movies are known for their masala, or mix, of elements.  There's a little bit of drama, comedy, music, and tragedy in each one, all in different amounts depending on the film.  This one was more heaving on the tragedy and comedy, and Eli was disappointed that there was only one musical number.  He did, though, find it as an option for a sound track on Instagram, so he used it for one of our posts.  We read the synopsis in Wikipedia before going so we kind of had an idea of what was going on since it was mostly in Hindi.

We ended up leaving at intermission because we needed to deal with an issue that came up with our townhouse.  Apparently there is a leak somewhere that damaged the drywall.  We weren't sure how we were going to deal with this as our friend who usually helps us out is about to leave on her big birthday bash trip (we're actually going to miss her by a few weeks in Thailand, unfortunately).  Eli suggested that we contact the designer/contractor (and friend) who we worked with to do our kitchen remodel and see if she maybe knew of someone that could figure out what's going on.  As it would happen, she was working on a project with our neighbors across the way and volunteered to come and check to see if they could figure out what is going on.  

A Day in Jaipur: From Hawa Mahal to Handcrafted Textiles

January 17, 2024

We started today at 10am (it was sooooo nice to sleep in) for our walking tour of the Jaipur market.  We started with a stop to get a quick shot of the building that is most famous in Jaipur, the Hawa Mahal.  It was created as a building (and it is basically just a facade), for the members of the raj's haram to be able to watch the goings on of the market while still discreetly ensconced.  To get to the photo op, we had to cross the street.  Our guide, though, is taking more and more risky crossings with the group.  I think we all were a bit nervous this time.  We had tried paying him earlier for the cinema tickets via UPI, but apparently our UPI only will let foreigners pay businesses by UPI, not individuals.

Next we went to a handcrafted textile shop.  We got to witness block printing by hand and then we got to shop all the additional styles of fabrics (silks, cashmere, and embroidery) they had.  We then headed through the section that has all the wedding garments for men and women (very colorful) and then headed to the section with sweets.  At this one store we stopped in, they had all kinds of interesting and beautiful creations.  We sampled one made of cashew paste and gilded in silver leaf.  From there, the rest of the group went to continue in the market and we and 2 other tripmates decided to head to the observatory.

The observatory was a 18th century creation of the raj who had a fascination with astronomy and astrology.  There were 5 observatories built, and one of them was in Jaipur.  The look of the park was very modern, actually, for something built from that period.  Some of them looked Esher-esque or Dali-esque because they were split into sections and there were two copies, one with one set of slices, and the other with the others.  This was so that astronomers could walk between the sections and get a more accurate reading of the information up close.

We had a harrowing ride back with the 4 of us in a tuk-tuk made for 2, but it all worked out, and it was the first time the tuk-tuk actually offered a fare that was what we should have paid (which is what our guide told us it should be).  We relaxed a bit and got caught up on the blog.

For dinner, we went to a rooftop restaurant Dagla.  This was by far the most upscale place we've eaten (tourists mostly), but the food was worth it.  It had a nice rooftop deck for seating, and they provided blankets as the night was pretty chilly.  We had goat curries and our dinner ended up being $30 total.  

Into the Wild: A Safari in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve

January 18, 2024

We arrived in Ranthambore about noon and had to get ready to head to the park at 1:30.  Ranthambore is a tiger reserve, but the beasts are pretty elusive; tigers are territorial and solitary.  The jeeps are required to stay on the dirt roads, so unless the tiger is near the road, you're out of luck.  There were a couple of times we heard warning calls from the animals that would indicate that a tiger was nearby, but likely it was on the other side of the animals from us.

They split the jeeps up at the entrance and assign them to one of 6 different different zones which loosely correspond to a territory of a single tiger.  Our tour group was spread across 2 different jeeps and we got assigned to different territories.  The other jeep got a tiger sighting, but we did not.  We know from even our best safari experiences in the Galapagos, Kruger, and Maasai Mara that that's just the nature of the beast (excuse the pun), and so while we were disappointed, we were excited that at least some of our group got the experience.  We're including the photos they shared with us here so you can see them also.

We did, though, also get to see quite a bit of other wildlife including turtles, crocodiles, birds, two kinds of monkeys, and deer.  

Bundi Bound: Exploring Stepwells, Palaces, and Markets

January 19, 2024

We woke up and headed by van to Bundi, another town heading south from Ranthambore.  This town has about 150,000 inhabitants.  We walked through the central market (it felt relatively manageable compared to the big cities).  We learned that you can tell a shop that sells gold, silver, or gems because they’ll have white mattresses on their floors.  This is partly because customers will spend a lot of time shopping, but also because it will make it easier to see anything that may drop. 

From there we headed to a stepwell Stepwells have been scattered all around in India since the 8th century, but the one we went to see was built in the early 1800’s.  It is a groundwater well, but one that, instead of using pulleys and buckets to bring water up, people would walk down to the water level.  This gave a lot more people access to the water at the same time.  At the height of the monsoon, the water would be almost within 2 meters of the top of the well.  Visually they're really interesting as they look a bit like an Esher drawing or like a ziggurat.  You can get a sense of the scale of it by looking at the picture of Eli standing on the far side of the well.

We also checked out Bundi palace.  It's another Mughal fort/palace, built originally in the 13th century, so it looks similar in design to the other ones we'd seen, but this one was occupied by a Hindu noble vs. a Muslim.  In addition to all the traditional Islamic design, there were Hindu paintings dating from the early 19th century.  It was an interesting mix that we hadn't seen before.  

On our way back, we stopped at a well-regarded Chai stand and got the official recipe.

Our guide, Pancham, uses mustard seed oil on his scalp.  It's actually a really nice smell.

One of the unlicensed street "dentists" many of whom begin practicing at a very young age!

A few of the implements and services offered by the street dentists are on display

Insights from India: Sacred Cows, Economic Contrasts, and Glamping Delights

January 20, 2024

Holy Cow!

Today we woke up early to catch a train to a camping stay. We were at the train station by 6:30 for a 7:00 train. Except the train was delayed by an hour. Why, you may ask? We would have thought it was because of the dense fog, but no. A cow had situated itself in the tracks and the train had to wait for it to move.  Because cows are sacred and revered animals, the train could not honk its horn to get the cow to move.  Being from rural Missouri, with grandparents who still farm and raise cattle, Eli's finds it difficult to wrestle with the idea of cows being revered and sacred, representing Mother Earth with its milk nourishing all creatures against the contradiction of them being left to freely wander the streets and roadways, scavenging through heaps of garbage and plastic bags for food waste, while dodging motorcycles, autos or tuk tuks, and vehicles (or the other way around). He finds it a bit counterintuitive to believe that's providing the cow a "good" life.  Granted, not all cattle, especially dairy cattle are raised in this manner, yet it is certainly reason to avoid eating beef and promote vegetarianism in the region.

Exploring India's Economic Disparity

While we were waiting for the train, a few of us got started talking about the level of poverty in India and its general pervasiveness.  It has kind of surprised us as well.  India is a part of the BRICS countries.  From the news and from outputs like Bollywood films, the local tech industry, and the fact the US is receiving a steady supply of skilled immigrants from India, we were surprised by the level of development in most of the places we've visited.  We were expecting an experience in Delhi and Agra much more like Beijing or Rio, or even Quito.  As we were all talking, we started looking up per capita GDP numbers for some comparisons.  India’s per capita GDP is $2,612.  Brazil's is $10,412.  Mexico's GDP per capita is $9,809. So,India is basically about 4 times more poor than Brazil.  Ecuador's is $6,500 so it's 2.5 times richer than India.  Granted, that doesn't take into account inequality in distribution within each country, but it still paints an interesting picture.

The train arrived, and this one was very different from the one we boarded from Delhi to Agra. It was a more local train and didn't come with assigned seats (or climate control).  It was freezing in the cars, and there were clearly people who had been on the train for a long distance overnight.  At least the windows opened, though, as one of the guys sitting next to Stephen started smoking.  Then, after another person on the bench got off, he stretched himself out, covered himself with his blanket and slept, leaving Stephen a tiny corner in front of his feet. Luckily there wasn't much time left on the train at that point.

A couple of jeeps picked us up and drove us to our “glamping” stay at Pangarh Lake Retreat.  It was a nice setting on a lake, and each tent had its own en suite.

On the way we stopped by a village to check out a local artisan who creates intricate triptych-like panels (with many more folding panels) that depict Hindu stories.  He even received an award from the Prime Minister for his work. This is the kind of thing that Modi is well known for, and why minorities here have concerns about creeping Hindu nationalism (kind of like the Christian nationalism dog whistled by Trump).  

Later that afternoon we all hiked up to the fort at the top of the near our glampground to watch the sunset. Pancham, our guide, gave us tons of information about Hindu traditions in so many aspects of life. 

We came downhill, had drinks and dinner, and then headed off to snuggle under the blankets…. No heat in these tents.  Eli ventured a shower, Stephen demurred.

Castle Bijaipur Retreat: Exploring Organic Farms and Indian Wedding Festivities

January 21, 2024

Happy birthday, James!  From the tents, we went to a castle via Jeep again.  The castle heritage stays keep getting better and better.  Today we're in Bijaipur at Castle Bijaipur hotel. There isn't much around here, but that's okay. We're enjoying the nice weather (and the pool) and the castle surroundings.  We had massages (not Ayurvedic), but still nice after lots of walking and had another day of relaxation.

On our way here we stopped at a small farm run by an independent farmer.  They grow everything here organically, although it has more to do with what is available and affordable than by intention.  There were lots of cow patties around for fertilizer.  We learned in Africa that dung of ruminant herbivores is not dangerous (our guide ran it through their hands and then just brushed it off).  The other interesting thing to note was that, in addition to food crops like quinoa, corn, wheat, carrots, beans, and herbs, the farmer was growing opium poppies.  It's heavily regulated by the government, but farmers are allowed to grow a certain amount based on the total square footage of their land.  They have to sell it to the government, and the government in turn sells it to pharmaceutical companies.

By the fireside before dinner, we played India Pub Quiz with questions curated by two of our tripmates (they had written the questions to keep themselves busy on the train ride).  Topics included questions about our group members and stuff about what we had learned so far about India on our adventure.

After dinner there was a wedding in the town, and Pancham invited the ladies of the group to join the equivalent of the bachelorette party with them.  There was lots of dancing and loud music non-stop.  The attendees dance and wave cash around the head of the bride-to-be and then deposit it in a bucket for good luck.

Vibrant Udaipur: Exploring City Palace and Hindu Celebration Vibes

January 22, 2024

Inauguration of Ram Temple in Ayodhya

Today we took taxis on the 3 hour drive to Udaipur.  Udaipur is situated on a lake and is our favorite city so far.  It's a good medium-sized city and feels very manageable.  There is a big national (and according to Pancham, world-wide) Hindu celebration inaugurating a new temple built on a former Mughal mosque which itself was built on top of a former Hindu temple.  Because of this, many of the things we had planned to do were not running.  We walked around town a bit, we saw the beautiful City Palace which had many great miniature paintings and mosaics in a Hindu style showing actual animals and humans.  From there a few of us broke off and wandered around town.  We saw lots of people getting ready for the festival.

For dinner, we headed to a lakeside restaurant with great views of the fireworks and then headed out to catch the festivities in action.  The most interesting place to be was the square in front of the temple closest to the lake.  There was a throng of people there dancing to music.  Flags were being waved all over with an image of Vishnu, who is the Lord generally honored on this day (even if not quite in such a big style).

The crowd was very young and the music seemed very contemporary with its production and beat so we asked Pancham if they were dancing to pop music.  He said that no, it was actually religious music.  At one point an older onlooker with a child about 2 years old thrust his child into Stephen's arms.  The man was on a video chat with about 5 other members of his extended family apparently (he turned his phone so the selfie camera was facing Stephen so that they could watch him dancing with the child).  Stephen obliged, but it was definitely an odd feeling being treated like we're almost famous just for being, what we are assuming, white and foreign.

While we enjoyed witnessing the festival, the larger political implications concerned us and definitely put question marks around what we were observing.  Eli made note of a comparison on some issues to the conflict in Israel and Palestine (ie. the Aqsa mosque over the Western Wall) and the role of minorities in India and Israel.  With the history of the Partition in 1947 upon the withdrawal of Britain and the subsequent conflict that ensued.

Exploring Udaipur's Culture: Cooking Class, Music, and Sunset Boat Ride

January 23, 2024

For our second day in Udaipur, we started with a cooking class for lunch.  We each got a turn to participate, and got a sense of what Indian home cooking is like in comparison to the restaurants we've been going to.  It was much less heavy and you could taste the flavor of the ingredients vs. it being too covered up with spices.  Daniel got the moniker "Chaiwala" which means master of chai. We learned the difference between a Winter chai vs. a summer chai is the addition of warmer spices, like black peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon and ginger. The hostess taught us how to make a variety of traditional dishes including Aloo Pyaj, Bhindi (Lady Fingers aka Okra), Dal Tadka, Vegetable Pulao, Raita (yogurt with spices), and of course Chapati, an unleavened flatbread.


💡Did you know?  The difference between Chapati vs. Roti

While both are unleavened, wheat breads cooked on a griddle, the main difference between chapti and roti is that chapati contains only whole wheat flour, while roti may contain a mixture of whole wheat and all purpose flour.  This lends a slightly nuttier flavor and denser texture to chapati than roti.  Ultimately, the difference is mostly cultural and both equally delicious as an accompaniment to a rich curry dish!


From there, the group split up with some going on to a miniature painting studio, others went for general exploration, and we went to the local instrument store Pancham has told us about owned by Krishna.  It was a strange experience there, although the clearly handcrafted instruments were beautiful.  He had a lot of antique mostly bowed string instruments hanging at the highest level, some of which reminded us of our rabab from Morocco.  Then the others were mostly sitars and tablas.  We decided we would look for a sitar.  They have various lengths of necks which means you can get more range out of it, but for shipping purposes we decided on one of the smaller ones.  We chose one that, to us, looked a little more rustic and less painted, shallacked and fabricated than some of the newer looking sitars. The shop owner's son came and gave us a demonstration and Stephen played a little.  You play primarily on one string for melody and then every so often string a chord of the other strings.  There are additional strings that don't get strummed laying underneath the played strings for vibration.  The frets are bowed so that you can easily create the vibrato that the sitar is known for.  Even the small one was more than what we've spent on any other instrument before, but we think it is worth it.

We had a quick change back at the hotel and then headed to meet the rest of the group for our sunset boat ride on the lake.  For dinner, we headed to a rooftop restaurant atop the hotel that was the inspiration for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Daniel's new nickname is "Chaiwala." 

Exploring Pushkar: Temples, Hippie Enclaves, and Family Dinners

January 24-25, 2024

Travel back to Delhi from Udaipur would be a super-long train ride if doing it in one shot so the tour breaks it up into two and has us stop in Pushkar for a night.  Pushkar has a temple which is the only place that Hindus supposedly are allowed to pray to Brahma (although Pancham said that there actually are some other places where it happens too).  It was a hippie enclave in the 60's and 70's and you still see some of that around.  We've seen many more white people than we would have expected here given Pushkar's size and relative obscurity. 

Where to Stay in Pushkar

We stayed at a lovely "palace" slightly on the edge of town, perched on the hilltop overlooking Pushkar.  This full-service hotel, Gulaab Niwaas Palace, has a beautiful garden and swimming pool we didn't brave, but some in our group from cooler climates did and found quite enjoyable.  They even appeared to host some, let's say "spiritual" group events and retreats.  We don't really know--we just saw lots of couples doing lots of staring into one another's eyes, holding hands, and eternal embracing. It definitely had a hippie vibe, but it was relaxed and chil and the food in the restaurant and little cafe was good.

We definitely recommend doing a casual walking tour to learn about the spirituality of Pushkar and witness the beautiful sunset.  You can book an incredibly affordable tour through this TravelAddyx exclusive link.

For dinner, we were invited to have a home-cooked dinner at a family compound of one of the coordinators of the transportation company that Intrepid uses in the area.  The compound is home to the families of 3 brothers.  They each have their own houses, they cook for themselves, but they eat communally.  On of the younger members of the family who is currently in college sat with us for a while and answered questions from us about her life and family.  The food was much lighter overall in flavors than the heavy stuff we've been getting in restaurants, and it showed that the flavors of the vegetables shone through more.  It was telling, though, when asked if this is what a meal at their house would usually look like, the family member we were talking to said, "no," that all they generally eat is some sort of dal and chapati.

Next morning we had a leisurely morning as our train journey would continue around 2pm.  There was a Ukrainian group doing some sort of retreat that arrived today.  We saw them out on the patio doing group hugs.  Later, though, we saw what we would assume was a husband and wife arguing on the balcony.  We saw the woman sitting alone at lunch, so maybe there's some work still to do at the retreat.

On our way to the train, the cab that Stephen was in lightly tapped the car in front when they stopped short.  The driver of the other car got out, started talking with our driver and quickly grabbed the keys of our car out of the ignition so our driver couldn't go away.  Our train, again, was late getting into Delhi, and the train station was a zoo.  We had to weave through about 3 or 4 blocks of stand-still traffic (and it was hard to get into the spaces between the cars to walk) to reach our bus.  We ended up getting to the hotel at about quarter to midnight and Stephen had to work at 12:30.  Luckily he was able to get settled, but rushed off without really saying goodbye.  It was the end to another really great adventure with Intrepid.  Now we're looking forward to our trip to the South.  We've got a couple days in Delhi to regroup and so Stephen can be in a place with good internet.

Republic Day Reflections: Parade Highlights and Travel Challenges

January 26, 2024

Today is Republic Day in India celebrating independence from the British.  Pancham encouraged us to go down and watch the main parade.  We ended up deciding to just watch it on TV.  We had a feeling we wouldn't be able to see much, and Delhi is already crowded enough without getting crushed in a mass of people.  The parade was very elaborate, with the Indian version of the Macy's Day parade plus something akin to a Soviet parade with all the weaponry.  There were dancers and musicians from each of the states performing the traditional dances from their area as they marched.  AND, there was precision camel riding (we kid you not).

Professional full-time travel isn't all fun and glitz and glamor. 

It takes work and lots of time and energy researching, logistical planning, budgeting, ticketing, finding and booking suitable accommodations weeks and months in advance and then hoping it all goes as planned without a hitch. Today was one of those "work" days. We spent most of the day trying to get our transport tickets settled for the southern half of our trip.  We couldn't do that from the US because Indian websites don't typically take US cards.  Even still, we ran into some problems with websites rejecting our UPI, particularly the state transportation website in Kerala, which we would have needed for two buses.  Luckily worked with our UPI and they only tack on a small (in the 50 cent range) surcharge on tickets.  We also decided to forgo a 6 hour bus ride that would have had us arrive in madurai at 11pm and still need to get into town (bus depots are often on outskirts of the central city).  Instead we'll use a private car hire.

For dinner, we went in the neighborhood to Oh! Pin.  It's a pan central Asian restaurant.  We had Chinese, Tibetan, Afghani, and Indian food.  Stephen chose some dishes that weren't very spicy as his taste buds needed a little rest. We had yet to try the infamous momos, so we decided to give them a try in an assorted fashion. All were very tasty with different sauces and filling combinations.

On our way back we walked down one of the local streets that is filled with street vendors of every sort.  It's nice to be able to explore in this neighborhood a bit more.  However, internet at our host hotel has been spotty today although it worked fine last night, so we may end up moving to a business hotel near the airport so Stephen can work on Saturday and Sunday.

A Poop-tastic Finale to Northern India

Jan 27, 2024

We are coming to you now from the Ibis hotel in Airport City.  After time yesterday without good WiFi and worrying about Stephen's work, we decided to do a couple of things (that basically took us all day).  On the way to our first errand, though, Stephen managed to step in some dog sh*t.... He was able to scrape enough of to continue, but he had his hiking boots on, so you know it was all in each and every deep crevice.  We were actually amazed we had lasted this long without one of us doing it.  And Stephen decided it was better than getting Delhi Belly.

We were heading to the AirTel office to get a local sim card so that we would have an Indian telephone number.  Luckily, they do offer eSIM, so we didn't have to lose our primary sims for back in the US.  However, we had to figure out how to give them an Indian telephone number.  Yes, you have to have an Indian telephone number to get an Indian telephone number as they need to verify you with an OTP text message.  Luckily our original hotel helped us out and we used their number and they called the customer service rep with the OTP.

Stephen had planned for the sh*t possibility, and when he got back to the hotel, he was able to use the extra toothbrush he brought for just such occasions to clean off his shoe (and then promptly threw the brush away). Fortunately dental kits are an amenity most every hotel provides in India, so we've begun grabbing an extra toothbrush here and there to remedy any future shitty situations. Eli has taken to using one periodically to routinely clean his hiking boots.  So, a word to the wise...always carry a spare toothbrush.

Next was trying to get to our new hotel.  We figured that we'd try Uber as it was comparatively cheap.  Unfortunately, Karol Bagh has a Saturday market, so the streets were teeming with people and goods.  Under normal conditions, this would have been fun, but Stephen has a cold, and was anxious to get to the new hotel to get set up.