Big Cities


Where else can you see an elephant in the middle of a big city, and not have it turning heads around every corner.  India’s madness is everywhere

Elephants cruising the streets

More elephants on the street

Entering Rajasthan

After the Holi celebration, we headed west from Delhi to the Indian state of Rajasthan. India has 28 different states, each with tens of millions of people and many with their own distinct dialects, religious beliefs, food specialties, and rich histories. This diversity makes the country incredibly interesting to travel through, and though we are only going to see a small portion of it, Rajasthan is supposed to be one of India’s highlights.

Rajasthan is the land of forts, deserts, and city palaces. It is India’s biggest state and also the most visited by travelers due to its proximity to Delhi, its storied past, and its impressive architecture. As a result of its popularity, there are lots of traveler services (decent hotels, yummy restaurants, multiple train and bus options for transport, etc), however there are also plenty of people out to haggle you out of your money along the way. The aggressive nature of the Indians here unfortunately left us feeling underwhelmed by the people we encountered in this state. We didn’t meet one Indian person throughout our 2 weeks in Rajasthan that we had a genuine conversation with. Every single interaction eventually resulted in a sales pitch of some sort. Yes, we pretty much stuck to the well-traveled tourist route, but that applies to many other countries that we’ve visited on our trip, and India was just different.

Despite our less-than-ideal personal interactions, we loved the places we visited in Rajasthan. Our first stop was a few nights in Jaipur, the state capital. Jaipur is part of the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Jaipur, Agra), which is the most popular short tourist route for quick visits to India. Though definitely an interesting place with some phenomenal history and an impressive city palace, I was battling a wicked head cold and overall stomach unrest brought on by our Holi day extravaganza which left me unenthused with the place. On top of that, Ted had another “foiled by India” episode as he attempted to book our onward transport on our first day. But thankfully, Ted had a little more energy in him, and he dragged us to some of the city’s historic buildings – the Hawa Mahal, the City Palace, and the Jantar Mantar, an observatory of massive proportions.

Hawa Mahal

City Palace

Hawa Mahal

City Palace Musician

Jaipur is also a big trade hub – many of India’s famous textiles and art come from Rajasthan, and Jaipur acts as a distribution center. It was fascinating to cruise the shop-lined streets, watching craftsmen work on everything from textile dyes and tea pots to keys and Hindu god shrines. India’s vibrant colors shone brightly throughout the never-ending bazaars and shops, and it was interesting to be surrounded by people so dedicated to their individual craft. We’d seen a lot of vendors and markets over the past 7 months, but nothing can quite describe the colors, smells, craftsmanship, intensity, aggressiveness, and chaos of an Indian marketplace.

Jaipur's colorful markets

Preparing textile dyes

Jaipur vendors

Making keys on the sidewalk

All in all, Jaipur was not our favorite destination, and we were ready for a change of pace out of the big city atmosphere. Luckily, our next stop was going to fit the bill perfectly.

Holi Cow

Holi Cow Ticket

Holi is an important Hindu and national holiday in India, and we coincidentally arrived in the country just in time to celebrate it.  Sasank insisted that we stay through the weekend so that we could check out the Delhi festivities in full force.  Ok, big fun party – twist our arms…

I am not familiar with the religious significance, but from what we witnessed, Holi involves dressing up in white clothes, going to a party and then covering yourself and others with large quantities of bright-colored powders.  It’s quite hilarious.

However, colors (as they’re called) are not reserved for private parties between friends.  On Holi (and the days leading up to Holi), one is at the mercy of anyone they may pass on the street.  We regularly saw people on the metro covered in color days before the main Holi celebration.  Ted and I got targeted on our cycle-rickshaw ride through Old Delhi (the kid missed, thank goodness).  People in the street outside Sasank’s apartment were also a threat, with both colors and water balloons stockpiled on balconies.  These colors are beautiful and fun however, they are extremely potent and could easily ruin your clothes, stain your skin or dye your hair.  Kinda intense if you aren’t ready for it.

At the big party we went to on Holi (aptly named Holi Cow) – we were ready for it.  We got decked out in new white outfits we secured at a cheap market, we lathered our skin and hair with coconut oil (to avoid staining, seriously), we drank a couple beers, and we piled into a cab to the party, ready to go get colorful.

The "before" picture

Holi provisions

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves but all in all, we had a hilarious day relaxing in the sunshine and making a complete mess of ourselves.  Our before and after pictures say it all.  Luckily the oil did its job and most of the color came out of our hair and off our bodies after our first shower.  As we traveled through the country for a few more weeks, we came across many blonde travelers that were not so lucky.  They were sporting pink hair for weeks!

Applying colors

Colored up!

Colorful and happy

Our Holi Cow Crew

The "after" shot

Picture of the Week

Most colorful holiday ever – Holi!

Holi Festivities

Who wants to get colorful?!?

Foiled by India

For Day 2 in Delhi, we had an equally ambitious day planned that would take us into the heart of Old Delhi.  We opted to take the city metro and we were beyond impressed.  Not only could we effortlessly travel to all the main tourists destinations but the metro was the cleanest, most secure and easiest to navigate subway that either of us had ever experienced.  NOT what we were expecting at all and a welcome treat.  As it turns out, the city hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and the completion of the metro coincided with this important international event.  Side note – Particularly awesome about the Delhi Metro: women-only cars.  A welcome relief from all the Indian men’s smells and stares!

Women Only Section!

Our first stop to Connaught Place, a conglomeration of shops, restaurants and travel agencies, was uneventful except for our first run-in with one of India’s notorious touts.  We were looking for India’s official office of tourism (a notoriously hard place to find), however, the seemingly helpful concerned citizen instead had us follow him around for several blocks with plans to take us into his friend’s cousin’s brother’s sketchy travel agency.  Needless to say, we figured it out rather quickly and had some steps to retrace.  Foiled!

Our next plan was to head to the train station to pre-book our onward tickets to our next stop in India.  The Old Delhi train station is such an overwhelming, dirty, confusing, loud place that they have an upstairs room of the station dedicated solely to helping foreigners buy actual train tickets to their desired destination for the correct price.  The guidebooks warn you, “Don’t believe anyone you meet in the station that tells you the office doesn’t exist, or that it has moved locations or that it has burned down”.  Apparently, there are enough fakes out there that have illegitimately separated tourists from their money that they had to create this office to begin with and then warn people to persevere to find it!  We did find it, but the line to meet with an agent was literally all the way around the room.  After over an hour of waiting, we found our desired trip was full and since we didn’t have a back-up plan lined up, we walked away having purchased nothing.  Foiled!

Our plan to take the lovely, beautiful metro to our next stop was also unsuccessful.  The metro stop below the train station is probably the busiest one in the whole city.  The line to buy tickets, plus the line to get through security (yes, they have separate male and female lines for body pat-downs and an X-ray machine!) were both over 100 people long.  After extensive waiting in the train office, we did NOT want to wait again (in hindsight, waiting would have been the best move).  Foiled!

We decided to take an auto-rickshaw instead.  However, as we were at the train station where many people arrive and need rickshaws, and because we are white tourists, the price we were quoted was astronomical.  We asked 5 different drivers with no significant budge in the price.  How about using the meter?  Absolutely not!  Foiled!

We opted for a cycle-rickshaw instead, as Old Delhi was not too far away.  This was moderately successful though it involved a very skinny and rather old man using all his might to move his bicycle and our large, American bodies through the most insanely unproductive, inconsiderate traffic that we’ve ever experienced.  Trucks, buses, cars, auto-rickshaws, bicycle-rickshaws, mopeds, children, cripples, cows, and chickens are all going whichever way they want to go with little to no regard to any other moving object in their way.  It’s chaos and total gridlock.  What should have taken 5-10 minutes took well over a half hour.  Semi-foiled!

Old Delhi - crazier than it looks here

Cycle Rickshaws - when they're not full of people

We finally got close enough to our desired destinations that we opted to bail on the cycle-rickshaw (the traffic had clogged up again) and walk our buns the rest of the way.  Walking wasn’t much easier.  Sidewalks don’t quite exist and every step is a conscious thought that involves avoiding the street traffic and making sure you don’t walk into cow poo, a mysterious dark liquid, someone’s lap, or a man urinating.

These pictures really don't do justice to the chaos of Old Delhi

Old Delhi from above

We were hot, we were tired, we were hungry.  We ate, we relaxed, we attempted to gather up the energy to head back out and visit our planned tourist destinations.  However, we looked at our watch, saw it was late afternoon, realized the monuments would be closing and that Sasank would be home from work soon.  So after hours of attempting to get to where we were at that exact moment, we turned right around, found the nearest metro, and called it a day with little to show for ourselves.  Foiled indeed.

We returned home dirty, exhausted, and unaccomplished.  Old Delhi had shown us a little taste of the India we had in store for us ahead, and we now understood the previous warnings from other travelers.  India had gotten our attention that day, and it wouldn’t let it go for the rest of the trip.  This would not be the first nor the last day we would be foiled by India!

Delhi’s Doin Alright

Our first day of touring in Delhi took us to two famous sites recommended by Sasank: Humayan’s Tomb and Lodi Gardens.  He also recommended a nearby lunch spot we couldn’t miss – I tell you, this guy is good.  Imagine our surprise on our first auto-rickshaw ride through New Delhi as we took in the busy but not too busy street scene, the slow but not unbearable traffic, and the trash-ridden yet tree-lined streets of New Delhi.  India wasn’t overwhelming at all – what was all the fuss about (we asked our innocent selves on Day 1 in the country)??  We were momentarily convinced that our 7+ months of traveling had broken us in and that we were not feeling the intense reactions that many travelers report upon arrival to India.  We were just incredibly naïve – but more on that later.

Auto-rickshaw ride #1

Humayan’s Tomb is an incredible architectural masterpiece.  Built by a Mughal emperor in the 1500s, the tomb was once left to ruin but is actively being restored and has earned the designation as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It’s is surrounded by a dozen other interesting buildings and the grandeur of the central building is accentuated by the beautifully manicured grounds.  Lots of picture-taking ensued.

Humayan's Tomb

Amazing stone work at the Tomb

The actual tomb

After an amazingly delicious lunch featuring our first of many orders of butter chicken, we found our way to Lodi Gardens.  Situated in central New Delhi, Lodi Gardens is a lovely green oasis featuring beautiful flowers, old-growth trees, ponds, as well as, several architecturally impressive monuments dating back hundreds of years.  Families, old folks, young lovers and tourists alike stroll through the gardens, nap on the grass and enjoy the peace and quiet that is rare in this raging metropolis.

Lodi Gardens

Lodi Gardens

Lodi Gardens

When we got back to Sasank’s that night, we were feeling quite comfortable and accomplished.  All this talk of Delhi’s intensity and challenges – shenanigans!  That is, until tomorrow…

A Soft Landing in India

We had heard a lot of intense things about India before our arrival, so we didn’t quite know what to expect.  Overall most people liked the place, but no review of the country was without some obvious cautions.  Some of the most common warnings we heard had to do with lack of personal space on a daily basis, the general dirt and filth of the streets and public spaces, the fact that you are being stared at by someone at all times, and the glaring and depressing poverty.   Someone once told me that India stands for I’d Never Do It Again.  Wow, what were we getting ourselves into?!?

Despite all of these warnings, our arrival to the Indian sub-continent was actually quite smooth.  Delhi, known as an overwhelming big city that most people try to get in and out of as fast as possible, turned out to be a place we rather enjoyed, thanks to an old friend.  Sasank is a friend from high school who learned of our round-the-world trip via Facebook.  He saw our travels were taking us to India and he invited us to stay with him.  No, we hadn’t seen him since high school graduation, nor had we emailed or spoke on the phone, but that didn’t stop him from offering us a gracious invitation and didn’t stop us from happily accepting.  It was great to catch up after all these years – in no time we felt like we’d been in touch all along.  He was an amazing host and a wealth of information about the city, Indian culture, religion, food menus, and more.  AND he’s got a sweet pad in a cool area of the city, complete with full-time domestic help – a super nice guy named James.  James whipped us up breakfast, did our laundry, and made the most delicious chai in India.  Delhi”s not so bad…

Sasank and Sarah

James and Ted

A huge thank you to Sasank and his roommate Brian for hosting us twice as we toured the country, and for telling James to take care of us!

Kenya Got Jipped

If you talked to us before we went on our trip, we would have told you that we had a month to spend traveling between Tanzania and Kenya. However, what actually happened is that we spent 30 days in Tanzania and just one in Kenya on our way out of the continent.

That’s not to say there isn’t loads to do in Kenya, however, the country highlights are very similar to what we had just experienced in Tanzania. For island paradise, Kenya has Lamu where Tanzania has Zanzibar. For mountain climbing, Kenya has Mt. Kenya (the second biggest mountain in Africa) and Tanzania has Mt. Kilimanjaro. And for the ultimate in safari, Kenya’s Masaai Mara National Park borders Tanzania’s Serengeti. Though we would have loved the opportunity to compare and contrast these country highlights, our timing and our budget simply didn’t allow it.

As a result, we had just one night in Kenya and we spent it in the notoriously unsafe capital of Nairobi. Nairobi is up there with Johannesburg as one of the most dangerous cities in Africa and though I’m sure it has earned that title for a reason, we were pleasantly surprised by the place. We comfortably and easily walked from our hotel into downtown. The buildings were proper sky-scrapers and thousands of business professionals, as well as the to-be-expected touts were out on the street going about their business. It was the most urban city we had visited outside of South Africa and we were happy to see that it felt modern and we felt safe.

We don’t have a lot to say about Kenya (nor do we have any pictures to share), but it is certainly worth a much longer visit when we can give it the time that it deserves.

Southern Africa Wrap-up

We visited a total of 6 countries in Southern Africa – Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique – but some for only a matter of days, and some for only a matter of hours! That being said, we’ve decided to combine them all together for a regional wrap-up. Below, in no particular order, are our Top 10 Highlights, Bottom 5 Bummers, as well as Favorite Food/Drink and Animal Sightings (new category for Africa!) of our two months in Southern Africa. You can also check out our Best of Southern Africa photo album for some more visual highlights (and don’t forget the African Mega-Fauna album for our top animal sightings).

Top 10

  1. Mokoro Ride

    Victoria Falls – What can we say? They are one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and they are some incredibly impressive falls.

  2. Remoteness of the Botswana bush – A safari in Botswana is a unique experience. You are hundreds of miles into the wilderness away from cities, towns, and other people. There are no power lines or fences or signs of civilization. The only way in and out is via bush plane. It’s just you and the animals in the bush.
  3. Small plane flights between safari lodges – Due to the remoteness of the safari camps in Botswana and seasonal weather conditions, several times our transport between camps was by small plane. One flight was a total of 8 minutes and Ted got to sit shotgun with the pilot.
  4. Mokoro ride – Our safari group in Botswana got treated to traditional Mokoro rides, which are similar to dug-out canoes. Powered only by a long pole, you are gliding just inches above the water and kinda feel like you’re flying.
  5. Family-filled January – How incredible is it that both sets of our parents came all the way across the ocean from the Northern United States to Southern Africa to visit us?!
  6. View from Table Mountain – Nothing quite like it and I think we appreciated it even more due to the energy we expended to get up there!
  7. Morning at Clifton Beaches – Just around the corner from Cape Town’s city center are the most beautiful, tucked-away beaches. We went with the Graces on a weekday and nearly had the place to ourselves.
  8. Cheetah!

    Animal Sighting Good Luck Charms – The Martens saw it all in the animal department – including the much talked about Big 5 (elephants, leopards, rhinos, buffalo and lions) plus cheetahs and lots of other good stuff in a matter of days. Ted and I had not seen a rhino or a cheetah before their visit and we’d been on nearly 30 game drives before they came.

  9. Bush to Beach to Bush – I wrote about this day in a previous post, and it was really quite awesome. Seeing big animals and swimming in the ocean makes for an incredible day.
  10. SCUBA Diving in Moz – We both love being underwater and I wish we got to do it more often. We were very impressed with the coral and the variety of fish in Mozambique.

Bottom 5

  1. Lame NYE – We’d love to have a memorable, exciting story to share about our New Year’s Eve on the trip, but low and behold, we were asleep before midnight.
  2. Theft – At the lodge we stayed at in Cape Town with my parents, we had an issue with some sticky-fingered housekeepers. Wily Ted was able to prove their misdeed. The manager was appalled and immediately and appropriately addressed the situation, including reimbursing us for the small amount taken.
  3. Bad Bus Ride

    Bus to Tofo BeachWe’re wimps. We didn’t take a whole lots of public transportation in Africa, and I’m using this fairly uncomfortable bus ride as justification of why we didn’t do so.

  4. Visa debaclesLet’s just say that in Johannesburg we went to the India Embassy three times (to get a visa), the Mozambique Embassy four times (to get a visa), and the U.S. Embassy once (to get more pages in my passport).
  5. Failing to visit NamibiaWhen we left the US for our trip, we were 100% positive we were going to Namibia. Ted has a travel industry friend and contact living there with his family and we were planning to pay them a visit. Sadly, it didn’t happen.

Favorite Meals and Treats

  1. Sundowners – The idea of having a cocktail while watching the sun go down is a good one. We enjoyed our sundowners on the Zambezi River in Zambia, in the Botswana bush, with city views in Cape Town, throughout the greater Kruger Park area, and the list goes on.
  2. Ostrich Fillet - Mmmmmmm

    Stuffed Crabs – Mmmm. We discovered these stuffed treats in Mozambique and ate them all week.

  3. Unique Game – Never before had we eaten ostrich or impala – and we quite liked it. Other game options included crocodile, kudu (a type of antelope), and warthog!
  4. Ocean Basket – OB is a South African chain restaurant that serves fresh seafood, fish and chips, and sushi. They are everywhere and we ate there many a time including with both sets of parents.
  5. NatHab Safari Meals – When we were on safari in Botswana, we ate entirely too much amazing food. How they got such fabulous fresh food out into the middle of the bush in order to feed us so well is beyond me.

Animal Sighting Highlights

  1. Wild Dog

    Wild Dog – Our one and only sighting of wild dogs was in Botswana. They are endangered and extremely rare to see. Even the guides were excited, that is how we knew we were lucky.

  2. Pursuit of first leopard – Francis, our guide in Botswana, is the man. With his animal tracking know-how, his persistence and determination, his off-road driving and a little bit of luck we spotted our first leopards – a momma and two older cubs. You wouldn’t believe the amount of vegetation we got to drive over just to find them.
  3. Baby animals – Due to the time of year we were visiting, we got the opportunity to see lots of mommas and their babies. There isn’t anything much cuter than baby lions, elephants, and impala.
  4. Elephants – Ted’s favorite animal to see. We saw lots.
  5. Giraffes – Sarah’s favorite. Oh, and to see a giraffe running is incredible – it appears to be happening in slow motion.
  6. Rhinos

    Game drive with Ocean – Ocean was one of our guides with Ted’s parents and he kept things interesting. Within a couple hours we saw 4 of the Big 5 (elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and rhinos) and evaded an aggressively charging male elephant!

  7. First rhinoceros – Finally! After our Botswana safari and several days in the Kruger Park area we were beginning to think they didn’t exist. But they do!
  8. Cheetah with it’s kill – What an amazing site to come upon. We didn’t realize it had just hunted until the little impala almost got away and the cheetah had to finish it off.
  9. Surprise night-time leopard sighting – Last night in the Kruger Park area and our way back to the lodge we magically came upon a leopard.
  10. Lotsa fish – Between snorkeling with the Martens and SCUBA diving in Moz, we got to see some great underwater animals as well!

Don’t forget to check out the Best Of photo albums here and here.

Living Behind Walls

South Africa is an amazingly beautiful country. The diversity of landscapes, cultures, animals, and cities is world-class, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time down there. Based purely on its tourist merits, South Africa might just be one of the world’s top destinations. But South Africa also has a very dark cloud over its head, one that is omnipresent, and one that will take many years to clear.

South Africa’s cloud is safety and security, rooted in their post-apartheid recovery. Bottom line – a lot of bad stuff happens there, and it happens all the time. Don’t get me wrong – one can travel safely and comfortably very easily (otherwise, I wouldn’t have invited our parents over to visit!). We made it all over the country, including a week stint in its most dangerous city, with no issues whatsoever. But, you gotta be smart about how you travel here, and you gotta be even smarter about how you live here.

South Africans live behind walls, security systems, electric fences, and razor wire. In the cities, nearly all middle class communities are gated and guarded, and almost everyone has been (or knows someone who has been) robbed, assaulted, or car-jacked – likely multiple times. At night, you don’t walk anywhere that isn’t within a guarded area. In some places, it’s totally acceptable to run red lights, if you feel your safety is in question. At first, I was appalled to hear that people live in such circumstances, but South Africans look at it as an everyday challenge that needs to be dealt with. And to their credit, they’ve created a very comfortable and modern lifestyle that avoids these threats. Thriving JoBurg suburbs like Sandton have beautiful malls with enclosed courtyards and parks that people flock to for social gatherings. Housing neighborhoods feel like ones at home, just with big walls surrounding them. A security industry that must lead the country’s economy ensures that your office, home, school, car, etc are looked after while you’re out. In short, South Africans have figured out how to live well in a dangerous place.

Police vehicle in downtown JoBurg - used for regular patrol

In reality, most of the country is not very dangerous at all – it’s mainly the big cities. Living and traveling safely here is simply a matter of being a bit more vigilant in your actions and precautions. We found ourselves being particularly conscious of leaving nothing visible in our cars, planning our routes around safe areas, avoiding walking at night (in most places), and minimizing the valuables we had on us at any point in time. The result – no problems, and a killer visit to this amazing country.

South Africa, despite its challenges, is an fabulous place that we highly recommend you check out. From the incredible game of Kruger National Park, to the flat-topped Drakensburg Mountains, to the wetlands of St. Lucia, to the beaches of the Wild and Garden Coasts, to the vibrancy of Cape Town, and more – this country has it all. It may be years before the dark cloud of Apartheid finally disappears, but in the meantime, do what the South Africans do: work around the security challenges – the rewards are well worth the effort.

Copyright © 1996-2010 Oh, the Places We'll Go. All rights reserved.
iDream theme by Templates Next | Powered by WordPress