India Wrap-up

Time for another wrap-up. Normally we do a Top 10, a Bottom 5, and our 5 Favorite Food and Drinks. However, wild-and-crazy India needs a Top 10, a Bottom 10 and a 10 Favorite Food and Drinks. We’ll try and keep it short as this is a lot to cover. Here we go!

Top Ten

  1. Holi festival with Sasank

    Staying with Sasank in Delhi – Great guy, generous host, wonderful apartment. Lucky us.

  2. Holi – A holiday like no other. Kinda like dyeing Easter eggs, but with us being the Easter eggs.
  3. Rooftop sitting – Drinking chai, escaping the insane streets and enjoying sunsets.
  4. Udaipur Cooking Class – First cooking class experience was both informational and a lot of fun. Who wants to taste what we learned when we get home?
  5. Meherangarh Fort – We can confidently say that this is our favorite fort in the whole world.

    The Taj at 6am

    One doesn’t usually have strong feelings about forts, but this fort just knocked our socks off.

  6. Camel safari sunset – How could you not love a beautiful sunset over rolling hills of sand that you arrived at by camel?
  7. Sikh Love – Didn’t meet a Sikh we didn’t like!
  8. Border closing ceremony antics – Though it might have been wrong to laugh so hard at something not aimed to be funny, we did and it was.
  9. Taj at sunrise – She’s a beaut and at that hour we had the place mostly to ourselves.
  10. India’s unbridled energy – Though a vague concept, there is no place else like India. Its uniqueness and intensity are at times overwhelming, but ultimately that’s what makes it so rewarding.

Bottom Ten

  1. Delhi belly – We’d toughened up our stomachs a little bit before arriving, but Delhi/India toughened them up a bit more.
  2. Obnoxious salesmen who won’t take no for an answer – Rickshaw? No, thank you. Rickshaw? No. Rickshaw? NOOO!!!!
  3. Salesmen that blatantly lie – Did you know that Richard Gere has visited this hole-in-the-wall textile shop in Jodhpur and that Giorgio Armani sources his fabric from this same place?
  4. Salesmen that are syrupy sweet nice when they are trying to make a sale that become rude or hostile when they realize that you aren’t going to buy anything.
  5. Filth – Really gross stuff. I don’t even want to write some of it down because it’s so gross. But imagine garbage, cow poo, public urination and the smells that go with it.
  6. Horn honking need not be encouraged

    Poverty – There is such a gap between the Haves and the Have Nots and it’s unavoidable to see. People literally live in improvised dwellings on the sidewalks of streets while others are driving by in their Audis. It’s just brutal to see with your own eyes.

  7. Car horns – Though the horns make lots of different clever sounds, they are all loud and all overused. A walk or a bus ride on any road is hard on the ears after about 5 minutes.
  8. Everything is a negotiation/nothing is straightforward
  9. Different prices for foreigners – This is institutionalized. Sure our rickshaw drive will be pricier than for the locals, however, everything from the Humanyan’s Tomb to the Taj Mahal has a significantly higher sticker price for us non-Indians.
  10. Staring – Unnerving, to say the least. I know most folks don’t mean any harm, it’s just weird to be brazenly watched for no particular reason.

Favorite Food and Drinks – We primarily ate vegetarian in India as Hindus don’t eat meat, thus it is a very easy thing to do. However, once in awhile a chicken curry was in order!

  1. MMMmmmmmm - Chai!

    Masala Chai – Or simply chai tea, if you will. It’s prolific, it’s delicious and it’s cheap. We drank some every day.

  2. Lassis – Pretty much a yogurt milkshake. I particularly liked banana lassis for breakfast!
  3. Aloo Parantha – Speaking of breakfast, this is what we liked to eat. It is an Indian bread stuffed with seasoned potatoes served with curd (yogurt) and pickles (chili sauce) for dipping.
  4. Naan – Or roti or parantha. At home we always ate garlic naan with our curries but we found out in India that naan is usually only served for special occasions. For everyday eating it is either roti or parantha (same thing but called by different names in different regions).
  5. Thalis – A medley of different curries, if you will, served with rice, bread and sometimes a dessert. Most restaurants serve unlimited refills, however, we usually split one between the two of us because it was so much food.
  6. Sarah and a dosa

    Butter Chicken – Chicken in a creamy, tomato curry. Mmm!

  7. Masala Dosas – Super thin pancakes/crepes wrapped around some curry.
  8. Curries in general – So many options and oh-so-good. Even mediocre food in India is better than most great Indian food at home.
  9. Gulab Jamun – Pretty much a donut hole soaked in a sweet syrup.
  10. Pakora – Deep-fried battered pieces of vegetable. Hard to not like.

Don’t forget to check out our Best of India photos.

Indian Food Is Amazing

I’d just like to take a moment here to recognize the utter deliciousness of Indian cuisine. We’ve been big fans of Indian fare for years, and one of the big draws of visiting India was eating the food. And I must say, we were anything but disappointed. While we never fully knew what we were getting, it was nearly always delicious. Our favorite dish was the Thali, which is tray of different curries – kind of like a sampler platter. Each thali would be different, featuring the restaurant’s curries of the day.

Thali from Rajasthan

Our last meal in India - a Varanasi Thali

Other favorites include dosas (super thin pancakes wrapped in a tube and filled with curry), malai kofta, and butter chicken.

Masala Dosa in Delhi

Paneer Dosa

In an effort to learn how to recreate this deliciousness at home, we even took a cooking class. We’ll give it a try when we get back, but I have a feeling we won’t quite be able to capture the rich flavors that burst out of ever bite here.

Giving Indians a 2nd Chance

Arriving in the north after 2 weeks in Rajasthan, I needed to take a step back to re-evaluate my interactions with the people around me. It really disappoints me to say that my overall impression of Indian people was pretty low through Rajasthan. A severe lack of authenticity and genuineness. These outrageously persistent, annoyingly intrusive people have put me not only on the defensive, but on the antagonistic approach going into every new conversation. How is this person going to attempt to take my money? Will he be frank and pushy, or beat around the bush a bit before laying his pitch on hard. They have no qualms about creating super awkward and uncomfortable moments – in fact, this discomfort generally helps their cause, as many people will just pay up to get out of the situation. To some extent, I can understand the competition in this country, and the need to be aggressive just to get by. But, I really dislike who it makes me – a hardened personality that ignores nearly everyone who addresses me, often times pushing people out of my way who stand in front, and really just assuming the worst of anyone who talks to me. That really sucks.

So, now it’s time to take a step back, and give the people of this country a 2nd chance (or perhaps give myself a 2nd chance to be the friendly and trusting traveler I like to be). I’m really hoping that the people troubles we ran into are concentrated in Rajasthan, the country’s biggest tourist area. I’m hoping that now we’re up north, things will be a bit different, more relaxed, more inviting, more genuine. So far, that’s exactly what we’ve found.


Jaisalmer, is known on the traveler circuit for 3 things – camel safaris, the fort, and Havelis. Havelis are private mansions, generally with open courtyards and very intricate stonework and carvings. Elaborate homes of Jaisalmer’s rich merchants, the Havelis here have very impressive sandstone frescoes depicting gods, goddesses, animals, and other Hindu symbolism.


Haveli frescoes


The interiors are also impressively decorated, bursting with color and bling.

Flashy interiors

Colorful and ornate

If we had to pick one thing that consistently blew us away in Rajasthan, it would be the architecture. Forts, city palaces, and Havelis are some of the world’s most impressive structures, and the history surrounding the empires that constructed and destroyed them is fascinating.

Cricket World Cup

As you know, we Americans don’t really give a damn about the game of cricket, but for Indians it is the national game and a borderline obsession. Everyone loves cricket and this national infatuation was multiplied a 1000 fold during our stay because India (along with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) were hosting the Cricket World Cup 2011. Similar to the World Cup of soccer/rugby, it only happens every four years and it is of huge importance for national pride to compete well.

The night we got back from our camel safari, India was playing Pakistan in the semi-finals of the tournament. This was no ordinary game. India and Pakistan pretty much hate each other and the competition was symbolic of much more than a sporting match. In fact, India’s Prime Minister had invited Pakistan’s Prime Minister to come to India to watch the game together and the newspapers referenced this gathering as a notable sign of diplomacy! Every Indian we talked to told us that it was much more important to beat Pakistan than it would be to win the whole tournament. These guys weren’t joking around.

Though Ted and I didn’t watch the whole game (because we didn’t really care and we don’t understand it no matter how many people try to teach us the rules), we were able to guess how India was doing based on the number of fireworks that were exploding in the night sky. Though Pakistan started strongly, the Indians were the ultimate victors and the country celebrated with pride. We were only in tiny old Jaisalmer on western edge of the country however, from what we saw and heard in our little town, I can confidently say that the whole country was ecstatic.

India went on to play Sri Lanka in the finals and managed to win the whole tournament. As you might imagine, Indians were celebrating for days. It was quite a treat to be in India when the country both hosted and won the world championship of their much loved national game. Kids and dads took to the fields for impromptu games, the newspapers couldn’t get enough of it, the fireworks continued, and the players were all instant celebrities. Overly excited India got even a little more so.

Industry Bloggin’

In my latest post for World Nomads, I talk about how Jaisalmer’s famous fort is being loved to death by locals and travelers alike.  Check it out here, or copied below:

How Tourism Conquered India’s Oldest Fort

Jaisalmer Fort, situated along the Thar desert in western Rajasthan, is one of India’s most impressive  historical monuments.  The Fort, built in 1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisala, rises out of Trikuta Hill and is surrounded by golden sandstone walls dotted with 99 bastions that radiate in the desert sunlight.  Jaisalmer Fort is a living museum – claimed by some to be the oldest still-inhabited citadel in the world – with a palace, temples, hundreds of havelis, and over 1/4 of the old city’s population – about 2500 people.  The Fort is also one of the world’s most endangered monuments.

Jaisalmer Fort, from a distance

Bastions lining the Fort's outer walls

Jaisalmer Fort is being destroyed, and the primary culprit is tourism.  One of the most popular attractions in Rajasthan, the Fort has endured an explosion of hotels and restaurants along its narrow cobbled paths.  These water-intensive businesses require the Fort’s aging water system to pump 120 liters of water per person through its pipes – over 12 times its intended capacity.  Exacerbated by poor building practices and overcrowding, these drainage issues are causing the Fort to literally sink into the hill, collapsing buildings, walls, and bastions in the process.  Since 1993, over 250 historic buildings have fully or partially collapsed, including 3 of the 12-century bastions.

Jaisalmer Fort is falling down

As a result of tourism’s negative impact, nearly all guidebooks covering Jaisalmer strongly advise against staying within the Fort’s walls, and some ask that travelers do not eat at the Fort restaurants either.  But not all residents feel this boycotting approach is good for the local industry.  Not surprisingly, all of the business owners I spoke with within the Fort adamantly protested against the guidebook advice, claiming that the Fort’s condition is most certainly stable, and without tourism, their livelihoods are in jeopardy.  Outside the Fort’s walls, opinions were mixed – some agreeing that tourism should be controlled within, others more sympathetic to the struggling hotels inside the Fort.

As a responsible traveler, you have to make a choice – support the struggling local businesses who desperately need your rupees for survival, or support the ban on staying within the Fort’s walls to help curb deterioration.  I chose to stay outside the Fort, but after meeting a few locals impacted by the ban, I’m not sure what the most “responsible” choice really is.

For more information on saving Jaisalmer Fort, check out the very impressive accomplishments of the charity, Jaisalmer in Jeopardy.

A Camel Safari

Though we didn’t quite know what a camel safari would entail, we had been told we had to do it. So that’s how we found ourselves in the back of a van being driven for miles west of Jaisalmer into the Thor Desert. We were not sure where we were headed exactly, but it appeared that our final destination was just an arbitrary mile marker (rather a kilometer marker), because that is where we met our guide, his young apprentice, and our camels.

I can’t remember when or if I have ever hung out with camels before, but they are pretty funny looking things. Their facial expression reads a combination of curiosity and ambivalence mixed with annoyance, and they audibly chew their cud at all times. Not exactly cute and fuzzy, but somehow kind of endearing.

Suiting up on Mr. Rocket for our journey

Sideways chomping

Regardless, we were excited about our adventure. Ted’s camel’s name was Mr. Rocket while I was on Johnny Walker. Getting on the camel is no problem as they are kneeled on the ground, but when they need to get up, you’d better be holding on and leaning back or you will surely fall off. We made it up incident free, thank goodness. We were led by our guide and our little helper, who was no more than 12, was pulling up the rear.

Cruising the camel trails

Our guide and his apprentice

As we set off into the desert, there were still signs of civilization for the first half day, but as we continued west, it was just us and the sand. After a couple hours of camel riding, we thankfully took a several hour lunch break. Between the heat of the day and the need to stretch our legs and rest our bums after riding a relatively uncomfortable camel, we were happy to relax and nap.

Relaxing in the shade

Fresh curry and chapatis for lunch!

A couple more hours into the desert and scenery changed completely – rolling sand dunes as far as the eye could see. It was an incredible place to watch the sunset while our guide prepared curry and fresh chapatis for dinner. We slept under the stars on the dunes – no tents or pillows for us, just a simple mat on the sand. We were only a few short miles from the Pakistan border and from where we camped, we could see the glow of the giant spotlights the Indians use to patrol the boundary.

Cruising the dunes

Sunset in the desert

The Dunes

The Dunes at Sunset

The second day we headed back in a different direction to an equally arbitrary finish point as where we started. We’d had a good couple days on our camels, but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that we were ready to be done. With super sore bums, a hot shower and a proper sand-free sleep were in order!

Sarah and Johnny Walker

Getting a camel to stand up can be difficult

Kinda like riding a horse, but not really

Getting Pitched in India

Throughout India, everyone is trying to sell you something, all the time. You literally can’t walk 10 ft without someone pitching you a ride in their rickshaw, a look in their shop, a stay at their hotel, a booking on their trips, or a plain and simple ask for money. This is just part of the intensity of India, and while it gets old, you really can’t fault them for it – with over 1 billion people in the country, it’s a cut-throat competitive market for survival. At least these people are motivated and enterprising.

So, let’s say you take the bait, you’re interested in buying some of Rajasthan’s beautiful textiles or art, and you’ve allowed yourself to be pulled into a nice-looking shop. Here is some typical dialogue:

Welcome to my shop! You will not be disappointed! We have the best textiles in all of Rajasthan. Richard Gere and Tom Cruise, whenever they come to India, they come shop in my store. And I export to many stores in Paris, Rome, and New York. I even supply to many famous fashion designers – Armani, Burberry, and Versace!

Now, all of this is likely a lie, as every shop you pass seems to claim Richard Gere’s patronage (why Richard Gere?!?), though we did see a NYTimes article about one of the shops supplying famous boutique stores in NYC.

All store owners start with 3 questions, and they are always the same questions. At first, they may just seem interested in who you are, but each question is really providing them insight into your buying power and naivete:

Where are you from? This gauges whether you are likely to have money. You say America, they see $$

Where are you staying? A more detailed assessment of your financial situation, and what you’re willing to pay for in India, which can be a huge range (rooms from $5 to $500)

How long have you been here? This question determines 2 things: are you going to buy something today, and are you aware of Indian pricing and haggling. If you say, “I’ve been here for a week, and I head home tomorrow,” you’re prime bait – you want to buy souvenirs, and you likely aren’t aware of the true market value of what he’s selling. If you say, “I’ve been in India for 6 months,” that’s bad news, as you likely have seen these products around the country, have learned how to haggle, and know how to call bullshit when they attempt to put a fast one over you. Needless to say, we claimed to have been in the country for way longer than we actually had.

Now that the store owner has a general feel for what you’re willing to spend, it’s time to lay it on thick. And it is a hell of a presentation. Generally you’re taken to a separate room, where an air conditioner is running at full blast. Two or three assistants will unroll, unfold, and properly present to you every color, fabric, and style they have in stock, while the lead salesman describes the origin, material quality, and patterns of each item in the showcase. As soon as you expresses the slightest interest in a particular piece (ie, you touch it or look at it for more than 2 seconds), the presentation is modified to focus on those particular styles. There is no dead space in the conversation – every moment is filled with BS about the amazing quality of the material, craftsmanship, or beauty of the products. These guys act as though they are your best friends, and all they want to do is give you a great deal.

That is, until you say no. And once you say no (and they have accepted that no, so really after you say it about 10 times), it is amazing how quickly their attitude changes. The air conditioner gets shut off, and their smiles have turned to scowls. Suddenly, you’re made to feel guilty for not purchasing, for wasting their valuable time (this is despite the fact that we very specifically would tell them upon entering the shop that we’re not interested in buying anything today, just browsing). Indian salespeople are not scared to make you feel awkward and uncomfortable, and this guilt trip might just make you feel bad enough to change your mind.

Because of situations like this, I didn’t particularly love buying things in India. But that’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable for some. We had some pretty significant limitations – we didn’t have space to carry things, we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on souvenirs, and neither one of us particularly likes to barter. But for people with more room and money, and for those that like to haggle, you can get some amazing things at incredible prices.


The parking lot at Mehrangarh Fort.  You know, cars, motorcycles,…camels?!?  Now that’s sightseeing in style!

Camel transport to Jodhpur's Fort

Fantastic Fort

From Udaipur we headed to Jodphur, known for the impressive Mehrangarh Fort perched on a 400 ft cliff overlooking the city. Calling the Fort merely impressive is a huge understatement – this Fort is incredible. Built in the 1500s by Rao Jodha to house and protect the Maharaja and his family, the Fort was used as recently as 1952 for a modern-day coronation of the living Maharaja, Gaj Singh.  Aged 4 at the day of his coronation, it was this young Maharaja’s foresight, money, and dedication that created the Mehrangarh Museum Trust that is dedicated to preserving and caring for this important part of India’s history.

Meherangarh Fort

The Palace within the Fort

The inside was just as impressive as the outside

The halls within

Neither Ted nor I are history-buffs or museum people in general, but we were hands-down blown away by what we saw and learned. Surprisingly, it was a well-produced and informative audio tour (included in the price of our tickets) which led us from the exterior walls of the fort, through courtyards, into the palaces’ opulent rooms and finally to the tops of the walls where dozens of cannons now sit idle after providing hundreds of years of protection. Some highlights of the day include:

  • Palanquin

    Learning that fort had never been breached or conquered in its 500 year history.

  • Seeing examples of palanquin which were used by the royal family when traveling by elephant.
  • Learning about the intricacies of the window panes that allowed the women of the palace who were observing Islamic purda to see out into the courtyards but did not allow men to see in.
  • Hearing a story about the 21 wives of one Maharaja that threw themselves on to his burning funeral pyre after his death in battle.
  • Seeing extravagant royal baby bassinets and learning the importance placed on astrology for determining that baby’s destiny – everything from their name to their future spouse.

Oh and the stories go on. This fort was by the far our favorite of the sites we visited in Rajasthan. Whether looking up at the fort from town as it towers above you or standing on top of the fort’s walls looking down over Jodphur’s iconic blue buildings, you can’t help but feel its importance to the people of Jodphur, both historically as a great protector and presently as a source of pride and income for their city.

Views from within the Fort

Hookah Man

Views of Jodhpur from the Fort

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