It’s been almost two years since my last blog post. I’ve had plenty of travel, experiences, and reflections but I didn’t publish anything. I could make excuses - I was so busy, work had really taken off, there wasn’t anything to write about - but the truth is that in life when things are going really well, they can also be going really poorly at the same time. These last two years have been a testament to that. Along with happiness, excitement, gratitude, and joy, I’ve been experiencing sadness, loss, grief, shame, disappointment, anger, and so SO much loneliness.
Marc and I separated when we got back to the US. There are many reasons for it, and out of our mutual love and respect for one another I will not detail or elaborate on this. In January 2017, soon after our return, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer - she thought it was gas. She became frenzied in her own efforts to beat it holistically but unfortunately by May we were gathered around her, in Vienna of all places and on short notice, saying goodbye. She left the world gracefully, like a sunset, and thinking about this helps me when pangs of grief mug me without warning, or when I feel the loss of her smile, warmth, charisma, and love. She was a mysterious, strong, energetic, ageless soul, and if I become even half the woman she was, I’ll be happy.
Following the return from Vienna, I had no more days allotted to me by my job, so grieving had to be done on my own time. This mostly manifested itself in my eating habits, or lack thereof, and for several months I “enjoyed” being at my goal weight of 115lbs, something I’d strived for since I was 18. While I looked fantastic, I REALLY don’t think it was the healthiest way to get there.
Amid the loss, it was good to be distracted by work and the daily care responsibilities for Stella, and my performance remained strong on the job. My sales territory grew to include San Antonio as well as Houston, and soon I was making the 3.5 hour drive between the two cities every other week. I never enjoyed living in Houston (sorry, H-Town), but San Antonio was great - THAT is a city I could love. Arid, warm, with an earthly desert-like quality and a laid back tempo, I wouldn’t have minded spending a few years there. Houston wasn’t all bad, don’t get me wrong, it’s where I reintegrated into the US (easier said than done), it’s where I restarted my professional life, and its where I did a whole lot of important self-work, but the humidity, the heat, the landscape, and the newness of the city was something I knew wouldn’t be a permanent feature in my life. My inner affirmations turned out to be true and just when I had achieved a significant amount of resolution in the issues I had been grappling with, I caught a break. Someone in New Jersey quit unexpectedly in February this year and I was given a pass to transfer. It was at my own expense but I didn’t care. I took it as a calling and left Texas without looking back for a second, exhausting all my paid time off as Marc, Stella, and I road-tripped in a U-Haul across the country. I didn’t believe in “signs” or my own “intuition” but I think I’m coming around to the idea.
The curve was steep in New Jersey. I worked hard in my territory, then applied for and received a promotion into a home office role in training at my company, something I had been working toward for years, even before India. The feeling of personal achievement, knowing I did it on my own was amazing, and if I told you my sordid story about starting from zero, I’m pretty sure you’d share my excitement :-) that will be for another day, a long time from now!
Moving into the home office has meant a lot of change. For one, I had to turn my company vehicle back in, so got my own car for the first time in a decade, which was fun and intimidating at the same time. I hadn’t had to think about car insurance, paying for fuel, or lease payments for a loooong time so it was like learning a second language all over again! I also had to move again or be stuck with a commute that was one hour going to work and an hour and a half coming back home every day. It cost us a small fortune but the peace of mind I get knowing it won’t take me an hour and a half to get home in case of an emergency or to feed Stella is totally worth it. Unintentionally, I found out rather quickly over a few months that working in an office means sitting on my ass all day. So that svelte, undernourished, 115lb bod of mine I used to have now appears more like a chubby little trash panda, gobbling up office candy and snacks while I happily type away at my greasy keyboard and take notes in my chocolate-smudged notebook. I now have boxes in my new place labeled "Clothes, <130 lbs.”
So here I am. My professional life is right where I want it and I’m happily back in NJ where Stella and I are enjoying the four seasons and the first licks of a northeastern US winter. I spent the Christmas holidays with my nephews and parents, am seeing old friends again, took a great trip to Iceland with Marc in July, and have made some fab new friends. Of course as life often goes, there’s always something, isn’t there? I’m uncomfortable with my body, spiritually a bit lost, my marriage is unpredictable, tenuous, and fragile, like an exposed, frayed live wire, and both Marc and I have done a fair bit of isolating ourselves from our “couples friends” (if you are still out there, please forgive us during this uncomfortable phase, we love you, we need your support, we’re REALLLL awkward right now). I have to be gentle and remind myself that we are only humans, we are not perfect, and life is not a highlight reel. Sometimes we have to be ok with “good enough” while we’re working out the kinks, right?
The other thing I will say with confidence is that 2019 is going to be a good year. Here’s what I’ve got in store:
I think that's the perfect place to end this long, but thorough update. I hope your 2019 glows, I wish you a very, VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR, and am excited to see where this years takes us.
I just realized we’re a few days from 2017 and I have been putting off writing an update – now I understand why most expat blogs trail off after “the adventure” is over! Once returning to a home country, things feel uninteresting and life goes back to being what is thought to be unremarkable and ordinary. I don’t want to do that, because I think the adventure of returning is just as great, so here’s a high-level review of what’s been going on since getting back…
I’ve been in the states since November 7th and things have been moving at lightening speed…I had forgotten how efficient America is! In the first week I found a house and bought a car, then I got a job exactly one month after (admittedly, I had made it my full time job to FIND a job, so it isn’t too surprising). Immediatly after accepting the position, I booked a last minute boomerang trip back to India, where I’ve just spent the past two weeks.
I returned on Christmas Day to a sticky, winter warm-spell and two days later received the household goods shipment, delivered by a handful of very fast, very strong movers – the boxes and furniture moved so quickly I could hardly see straight by the end of the day. I had them unpack the kitchen before they left so I could sort through it on my own and I’m so thankful I asked them to do that because the amount of paper used to wrap all the items was insane. There was only one thing that broke but it was a treasure; a teak bed I had custom-made in Pune before leaving. It’s completely unusable, split at the joints in two places. Such a shame, it was my most favorite, aside from the Krishna pattachitra painting I found at folkarts bazaar two years ago.
I will be going back into pharmaceutical sales, and my new role starts on the 3rd of Jan. I’m using the last few days to enjoy the end of my three year hiatus from corporate life…and by “enjoy” I mean rush to unpack the rest of the boxes, buy work clothes (mine are dated and too big after losing 8kg in Pune), find a gym, and maybe do something fun in between all that. Perhaps a massage and mani/pedi are in order?
Folks warned me to watch out for the reverse culture shock, which I was really worried about, but so far it’s been alright. I’m sure this might change, but I am coping well at the moment. I did have one funny thing that happened – I went to see Dangal in the movie theater, and it was a time/space wormhole for me. First off, refreshments were ridiculously huge, like, 1-liter drinks sold as a “small”. Secondly, there was no national anthem to stand for in the beginning. I waited, preview after preview, and still nothing. Logically, I knew that there wouldn’t be one, but my brain must have been back in India and after every preview, I poised my feet to stand. Thirdly, I had to pee so badly and was waiting waiting waiting for the intermission, trying to be polite and not disturb my chair neighbors. I was so thankful for the break and stood up to walk out as soon as I saw the “Intermission” sign…only to find that I was the only loser who did. The movie just played on. I looked at the floor, passing everyone sheepishly, and quietly made my exit. How embarrassing.
I’ll be sure to update when I’m back at work, and can’t wait to write about my latest trip to India...hopefully it will be up in the “Travel” section of the site soon. If you have any thoughts, questions, or suggestions that you’d like to see featured in or as a blog post here, please let me know, I’m always open to it!
I’ve been in the US for little over a week. Stella was great on the plane, and the luggage wasn’t as much of a burden as I thought it would be. The layover in Munich was cold and miserable, and it was spent huddled, drinking an obscene amount of coffee in one of the only cafés open at 7 in the morning. The nine-hour flight from Munich to Newark was annoying. It was a full flight with no empty seats and I was cramped in an economy seat with Stella underneath in a carrier that barely fit. Earlier during the flight from Bombay she barked when I went to pee, prompting whispers from other passengers, so every subsequent bathroom visit was a precarious dance as I managed the logistics of peeing while holding her up, trying to avoid either one of us touching the disgusting floor. The apologetic, deflated look on her face mirrored my own as we looked at each other, her in the air and me squatting over the toilet, hoping not to pee on myself too much. Parents, I feel your pain now.
I arrived on Election Day just in time to see Donald Trump get elected in the US and Modi announce the immediate devaluation of all 500 and 1000 rupee notes in India in an after-hours missive. These two things independently would have affected me, but together it was amplified. There are people I love in India who live primarily on cash and are struggling to get their old paper notes changed at the banks. They’re standing in hours-long lines, taking off from work and losing wages to do so. Back here at home, we’ve got an uncertain political future and an increasingly volatile divide in ideals which is fragmenting people in a way I’ve only read about in books. Talks of a “muslim register” and “building a wall” between the US and Mexico…it’s exclusionary, shameful, and deeply damaging. Truth be told, I wasn’t happy to come back, and I am even less so now.
In addition to that, it’s been a rough transition. I’m in a new place with new demands I’ve put on myself, and though it should feel familiar, in so many ways it’s completely foreign to me. I’ve found myself pining for the Northeast ever since I got here. Something doesn’t feel right, there’s a grave stillness, a sensation of waiting for something, like seeing the sky change and feeling the wind before a thunderstorm. Though I am going through the motions of setting up “life stuff”, everything inside of me is still in Pune and I just want to go home. A friend warned me not to do this so I won’t, but the struggle is daily and it’s fierce. It’s bigger than me this time, and that’s something I never felt when I left New Jersey.
Personal battles aside, the logistics of re-patting have been a good distraction. I am eager to get back to work so my career search has been consuming most of the day. I found an excellent dog park for Stella, a few good Indian shops and restaurants, and a café with decent coffee that isn’t Starbucks. I know I can survive here, but so far I’m feeling like a potted plant on a patio…portable, impermanent, with no roots in the ground.
It will be interesting to see what the next few months hold. I have plans to visit India, and the shipping container arrives just in time for Christmas. It will be good to have everything back in one place, though after being without “stuff” for such a long time, I wonder if I need it, and the space in the house, at all…oh, the places a brain can wander with the luxury of so much time alone…
Well, the packers came and went. 179 boxes and one Royal Enfield motorcycle weighing, in total, approximately 11,000 pounds. It’s a surreal experience to watch everything you own get boxed up and walked out the door knowing that you won’t see it for 45 days, during which time it will have traveled in a giant steel container by land and over an entire ocean, hopefully even arriving in the same condition that it was packed. I remember moving here, when we received our shipment it was like Christmas morning…I’m sure it will have the same wonder because I shopped in a frenzy and I DEFINITELY won’t remember what I bought by the time it gets there!
It’s funny, over the past three years I went from really missing my favorite products from the US, to finding new compromises, which in turn became my new favorites. I bought everything I knew I wouldn’t want to be without, including:
-- stainless steel kitchen ware – servingware, two milk pails, strainers, tea cups, a chapatti holder, etc…
-- Odomos mosquito cream (much better-smelling than Off!)
-- Patanjali body products
-- Patanjali Ghee (6 liters of it!)
-- Vim Dish Soap
-- Packets of non-perishable food items: poha, dosa mix, dhokla mix, sauce packets, masala oats, spices
-- Kissan Mixed Fruit Jam (the obnoxious bright pink kind)
-- Green Tokri Sun Dried Tomatoes in Oil and Basil Pesto
-- Mother’s Recipe Pickle in several flavors
-- Cleaning Supplies (steel wool, sponges, sponge wipes)
-- Gala Sweepers
-- Meswak Toothpaste
-- OTC meds (naproxen, paracetamol, multivitamins, etc...)
-- Anokhi table linens
-- Ariel Laundry Detergent
-- New towels from Fabindia
We’ll be taking Stella back to the US with us as pet in-cabin, same as last time. We have a soft-sided carrier for her, and used Furry Flyers as a liaison to get the “No Objection Certificate (NOC)” in Navi Mumbai. This is sometimes referred to as the “Export Certificate, FYI in case you’re reading this as a pet owner in the same situation. They were good to work with last time and though it’s an expensive service, Rs. 13,800 just for the NOC assistance, we would rather have peace of mind than chance it. Though they take some of the legwork out, it still involves several steps on my end. I need to take her to the vet for a health certificate (template is provided by Furry Flyers) and then go to Navi Mumbai for the NOC the next day. Overall it’s a day and a half sunk into getting her ready to go.
Other than packing and getting Stella sorted, I’ve been busying myself mostly with researching about Houston. Neighborhoods, jobs, doctors, grocery stores, etc…it’s fun but also a little nerve-wracking, and in the back of my mind I worry that adjusting back is going to be hard. I just don’t know how hard yet and only time will tell.
We leave in a little over a week, and I’m trying to enjoy the rest of my time here in Pune. I have farewell dinners and coffees and lunches to look forward to, and will hopefully get in a little relaxation as well.
I hate goodbyes, especially this one, and I never wanted to write this post because I never wanted to leave, but the time has come and I can’t pretend it hasn’t any longer. The move will be to Houston, TX, in early November. My email box is filling with neighborhood selection information, introductions to relocation agents, and guidance on getting Stella to the US. I've got my workhat on, but my heart's not in it. It's sad, a little exciting, but more than anything else, to be honest, I'm absolutely terrified.
These three years have been the most amazing years of my life and while I can’t fill my CV with most of it, I have actually evolved more here as a human being than I ever possibly would if I’d have stayed at home. I volunteered for causes I actually saw benefit from my contributions. I developed professional skills and learned how to get things done in a country that ranks in the world's bottom third when it comes to ease of doing business. I developed and maintained a website, something that challenged me technically and creatively. I embraced different cultures and religions. I gained a deeper understanding about relationships, love, and friendship, and my perspectives on many subjects have changed as a result. Though I didn’t find out the whole meaning of life, I certainly did learn that it’s not about the checklists we make in our brains, other people’s expectations, reciprocal relationships, or possessions. Now I understand why some people dedicate their entire lives to the search for enlightenment.
Expat life, if you ever get the opportunity, is a wild ride that I suggest you say “yes” to. I’ve never regretted a moment of it, bad or good, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. It changes who you are, and it makes you dive into yourself. It’s ecstasy, tragedy, despair, wonder, hope, disappointment, discovery, and curiosity all rolled into one. It pushes your relationships, all of them. It forces you to get out into the world and explore. It enriches your skills in adaptation, problem-solving, communication, tolerance, and patience. At the end of it, if you are lucky, you come out with your sanity intact, a shipping container of treasures, and an external hard drive full of memories because your computer didn’t have enough space to store them on its own.
Along with my sanity (most of it, anyway) and treasures and memories, I’m leaving in a few short weeks with a resolve as well that this move will be a “see you later” and not a “goodbye”. I know this place is where I’m happiest and that some way, somehow, some day, I will find my way back to India. For now however, it's time to press “PAUSE”. I'm excited to get back to work, to take on new challenges, explore a new place, and maybe even to find something that will allow me to bridge both worlds.
I will continue the website of course and there will be plenty of things to write about: readjustment, the relocation process, re-entering the job market, and life in the US. I know that all the "re-"s will be tough, and if I can help anyone else through the experience by sharing mine, then that will be enough motivation for me.
I hope you'll come along with me for the new adventure!
I’ve had a lot of good times in Goa, trust me, but from a road-trip perspective if I had been to Murud or Kashid earlier during my stint in Pune I would have never pained myself with the long drive just for a few days of relaxation. Don’t get me wrong, Goa is great from a social point of view: awesome restaurants, boutique shopping, lounge chairs on the beach with food and drink service, 5-star hotels…but for just a few days of chilling with the fam or some friends, Air BnB-ing a bungalow in the Kashid/Murud area and cooking at home all weekend would have been a much better option in my opinion.
What this area doesn’t have is fussiness. You can really just get back to basics and have a relaxing time. If you’re looking for high quality cuisine and bumping nightlife around fellow cosmopolitan-ites, you won’t find that, unless its in your own rented accommodation J think beach shacks, local roadside eateries, and unpopulated beaches instead.
Here’s why I loved it, and what would make me return:
1. Proximity to Pune.
You can drive there in 4-6 hours. Yeah yeah yeah, Google Maps says 3.5, but give or take a break for the bathroom/snacks/chai, a random waterfall picture stop (or two or three), random traffic, or unexpected bad road conditions, you and I both know Google Maps is a rough guess (just like the one that says it’ll take you 8 hours to Goa, haha).
2. Kashid Beach
This is a lovely way to spend a day or at least a few hours. The beach has light colored sand, and is relatively clean. The water is refreshing and the waves aren’t too high. There are horses that you can ride and get pictures with for Rs. 100/- and also horse-drawn carts if you fancy a trip up and down the beach. There is ample parking, changing rooms, a public toilet (bring your own toilet paper and please spare 5 or 10 rupees for the family that tends to it), plenty of beach shacks serving snacks, drinks, and coconut water. They even had eggs when we showed up at 9am!
3. That GORGEOUS Drive.
Here's the route we took on the way back. It was a suggestion from a shopkeeper in Kashid. It wasn’t exactly direct, but it was far more enjoyable and actually ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. It also beat the way we arrived, through two hours of potholes from Kolad. The roads back were in excellent shape (except for the awful beginning of Tamhini Ghat Road) and passed through some beautiful scenery; waterfalls, cliffs, grasslands, jungle. It also had lots of fun, winding switchbacks. I suggest going during monsoon or shortly thereafter to get the full benefit of the greenery.
4. Janjira Fort
This fort is insane. Beautifully constructed on its own island, it is the only one of its kind. You take a little sailboat to reach the fort (warning, there is no boat motor and no life jackets!) and there are guides for hire, though if you read up about it before you go, you won’t need one. You can basically walk all over the fort on your own, it’s a lot of fun to explore. This is a good way to sink a half day and you can have lunch afterward at the Sea Rock Restaurant near the ferry departure point, or take my recommendation below, get some crazy good chicken biryani down the street and find a nice spot to sit and enjoy it.
5. The Biryani in Murud
Bear with me, these directions are a little vague. If you go to Janjira Fort, you’ll walk up a little road that takes you to the ferry and the ticket counter (on the right). Before that, on the same road, is a guy on the left who sells biryani in a huge steel pot. Bring your own fork if you don’t want to eat it with your hands. It is super super tasty; please do not be scared because it isn’t a proper-looking restaurant. This guy has serious biryani skills.
6. Cute Bungalows!
I did not have the foresight to go on Air BnB. This was a last minute trip so I just left town on a moment’s notice…a trend in my travel-planning, or lack thereof. I stayed in a Rs. 1000/- per night hotel, which shall remain nameless, that had a fantastic view of the sea and just about nothing else. Anyway when I got home and went online to do a bit more research, I checked out Air BnB and found a bunch of really adorable bungalows and rooms for rent. So if you go, do that! I know I would if I had the chance again.
I arrived in Shimla with a loose plan to stay there a few days then continue to Gujarat where I would take a bus with a friend to Dwarka for the Dwarkadhish temple site. It was the final stop for me before heading home. Unfortunately she couldn’t make it so I ended up with some free days. I was bummed to have to miss the temples and her company (she’s one of those effortlessly fabulous people) but everything happens for a reason and if I had gone there, then I would have missed a great adventure.
Enter Mohiddin, a guide from Hotel Dreamland in Shimla. During my walking tour of the town I told him how disappointed I was with the diesel fumes (yuck.) and congestion, so he suggested a trip out east to Kinnaur, more specifically the Sangla and Kalpa Valleys. I had never heard of those places, had no idea where they were on a map, had never traveled so remotely alone before, and didn’t know the strangers who would be taking me 10 hours away by car into the mountains so naturally I said, “sure, sounds great!” I mean, what could go wrong? Haha.
The following day I piled into a car with Mohiddin and two men I had never met before: a Kashmiri guy named Arif (my guide) and a local named Vijay (the driver). Mohiddin came to say hi and introduce the two but then left about five minutes after that to go back to the hotel so it was just me, Arif, and Vijay.
We took the NH5 pretty much the entire way. I know that sounds pretty straightforward, but if you look at it on Google Maps, it basically looks like a 4-year-old high on sugar scribbled it. There were no real straightaways for the next five days, though after a while the novelty of the turns wore off and the back-and-forth rocking of the car became normal.
About two hours in, I had a landmark event. I had to pee and the only place to stop had an elevated squat toilet with no toilet paper which was fixed, seemingly as an afterthought, on the side of a building. The whole thing looked as if it could detach from the structure at any moment. I did what I needed to but then I made a mental note to put in this blog that if I have one recommendation for this trip, it’s to take toilet paper with you. I would have liked to take a picture of all the potty spots I chose, because there were some amazing views. Sides of mountains, crevices between rocks, really breathtaking…but toilet paper would have been great because a bottle of cold water and a wet ass is no comfy way to end a bathroom break.
After visiting the newly finished Hatu Temple in Narkand, our first night’s stop was Sarahan, a quiet and walkable town that sits around ~7500ft elevation. It’s home to the ornately decorated Bhimakali Temple and the King’s and Queen’s Palace. Though entry to the buildings isn’t allowed, the grounds are accessible and there is a lovely manicured lawn from which you can admire the palace. I stayed at Green Valley Resort, a humble little place with nice staff, good food, and terrible coffee. The terrible coffee was a trend at every place I stayed so if you like it THAT much, bring your own.
The second and third days were spent in Rakchham, a self-proclaimed “Modern Village” in the Sangla Valley. We took several walks through the local buckwheat fields and visited Chhitkul, the last inhabited town along the Hindustan-Tibet trade route (according to Wikipedia). There is a marriage of modern development and traditional folkways there, though I can see the toll of tourism beginning: tetrapak juice boxes, cello wrappers, and other trash littered the sides of the road and the walking paths, painfully unfitting against such a majestic backdrop of the mountains and village.
While walking around to admire the architecture, I saw the women in the village preparing offerings for a full moon festival in the common square and they invited me to sit with them. I took a seat on a bench and after a while of watching, one of them gave me a hot cup of tea. We couldn’t talk to one another but through facial expressions and laughter we had some warm and humorous exchanges. Later that evening when the moon came out, it was the biggest, brightest one I’d ever seen and I thought of them.
My last day before driving back to Shimla was spent in Kalpa. To get here, one needs to pass through unpaved roads in a barren valley cut in the middle by the river. It’s dusty, seems to last forever, and is filled with workers on either side cutting rock by hand. It appears as if maintaining and repairing the road from landslides and deterioration is a full time job. There’s also no place to stop for the restroom or food for about an hour and a half and I ended up having to pee in a crack between a giant rock and the cliff face. I could see the workers cutting stone while I was squatting down, but I had to go so badly I really didn't care and honestly, I'm sure they've all been there before, haha.
We made it to Kalpa after about three hours of winding roads, mostly unpaved, and probably thirty steep switchbacks for the entire last twenty minutes. I was thinking of that quote "dangerous roads often lead to beautiful destinations" but actually I wasn’t impressed when we got there; I think it may have had something to do with how beautiful Rakchham had been. It had a wonderful view of the mountains though and some pretty tourist attractions. After settling into Hotel Rollingrang (I think it was about Rs. 700 per night), another cozy and adequate but unfancy guesthouse, we took a walk down a steep set of stairs to a hilly part of the town that had beautiful Hindu and Buddhist Temples, old wooden houses, and a few lovely, fluffy, friendly neighborhood dogs. The apples on the trees hadn't yet been picked, which provided a great foreground for some beautiful photos of Kinnaur Kailash, the snow-capped peak in the distance...over 19000 feet in elevation!
Afterward, we took a drive to Roghi Village, accessible from Kalpa through a 20-minute drive on a narrow road rife with potholes and no safety barriers in places. We stopped to take a look at Suicide Point from the opposite cliff halfway there and arrived at the village in just the right sunlight to take some pretty pictures. Arif showed me around the terrace farms, explained the the apple harvesting, and took some clicks of the mountain view, then we turned back and headed to the hotel for the evening...I was exhausted from 20 days of continuous travel and in desperate need of dinner. I slurped down a very oily but delicious butter chicken and crashed early. The bed had a thick blanket and the air was crisp, so I slept like a baby. In the morning, I woke up to an AMAZING view, the perfect memory before my 9 hour drive back to Shimla.
This is probably not the blog post you were hoping for regarding Shimla. I will preface it by saying that during the winter I can understand it may be a majestic escape from the cities, and for those who never really experience a winter otherwise there must be a novelty-factor to it, but on my visit during apple season in September I found it to be congested: with people, with diesel fumes, and with desperate over-development.
I had seen photographs of Shimla that show it as a winter wonderland, snow-capped and green, filled with fir trees and warmly hugged by the yesteryear charm of the British Raj era. I pictured a few adorable B&B’s, some sturdy, stately British buildings leftover from years past, and, since it looks pretty remote on a map, only a few tourists. Unfortunately with increased demand, Shimla has adapted to accommodate and the integrity of the environment and natural charm has deteriorated.
It’s not all bad, however, I’m definitely not saying that you shouldn’t go. In fact, I spent a day there and took a fantastic walking tour with a guide named Mohiddin from Hotel Dreamland. He took me around to the Hanuman Temple, the Vice Regal Palace, and the Mall where I saw the charm of Shimla. There was the British architecture I had been looking for, and we nipped into one of the street shops for some delicious chana bhatura with puri, and local specialty.
If you are planning to go to Shimla, I have some recommendations:
1. Bring Comfortable Shoes! This is first and foremost. You will walk, a lot, up and down and all around…do NOT underestimate the amount you'll walk and don't take shiny new shoes or else you'll get blisters! In one day, I walked 21,000 steps according to the Pacer app on my iPhone. Shimla is a true hill station and you will miss a lot if you limit yourself due to your choice of footwear!
2. Take the Toy Train from Kalka. You can make a nice long weekend out of Shimla by flying into Chandigarh; it’s a 3.5 hour journey on traffic-y, mountain roads by car or you can take the toy train from Kalka (max price I think is Rs. 600), a 1 hour drive from Chandigarh. Friends have recommended NOT staying overnight in Kalka. Chandigarh is a better option and you can do sightseeing there in a day. I paid Rs. 3500/- for an Innova to get to Shimla. I’ve heard the toy train gives awesome views, and unfortunately I didn’t have time to do this, but I hope you do!
3. Stay at the Radisson. I stayed in the Radisson for a night and if you’re looking for a 5-star, this will do nicely. They have beautiful, well-appointed rooms, and some excellent local items on the menu. Also, there is no walking required to reach the hotel, unlike many others in Shimla that require some rigorous uphill trekking.
4. Leave Shimla if You Have Time. I was offered a 4night/5day tour package out east to the Kalpa and Sangla Valleys by the tour guide I had from Hotel Dreamland (a cute budget hotel at the top of the hill – walking required). This ended up being one of the most amazing experiences of all my world travels. Mountain roads, villages I’d never have heard of otherwise, cool weather, and the unspoiled beauty of the Himalayas; a truly excellent adventure.
5. Take a Walking Tour. As I mentioned, the walking tour was a great way to see Shimla and burn off some of the yummy Himachal food I had at the Radisson. I recommend calling Hotel Dreamland and inquiring if they have a guide. Mohiddin is great, if he’s around.
6. Eat Chana Bhatura/Chole Bhature. This is a Punjabi dish, popular in Shimla and perfect for cool weather. Chickpeas stewed in a huge wok, served with puffy bread. Can be eaten anytime of day.
7. Carry a big stick if you go to the Hanuman Temple (Jakhoo). The monkeys are cute but they don’t play around...they can be real jerks and having a stick to wave at them is a good deterrent.
8. Keep a hanky with you. Because…diesel fumes.
9. Take your own toilet paper. Most restrooms don't have any. I may have had to wipe with my hand and the sprayer once or twice.
10. Pack Woolens/Sweaters. Even if you think you won't need them. At least pack a sweater or light coat.
My university degree is in Urban Studies and Sociology, which means I spent my time analyzing cultures, problems in inner cities, urban planning concepts, and the various leaders of thought therein. One of those was Le Corbusier, a Swiss-French architect and the brain behind the layout of Chandigarh, also known as “The City Beautiful”. He created a grid-system for streets and relied on almost Marx-ist style principles of community policing in his construction of the inward-facing buildings within the city blocks, or what are called “sectors” on the map.
Naturally, I was excited to see it in person before heading north to Shimla. I flew in on Sunday evening and had only one day before leaving. I slept in a super budget hotel for Rs. 1800 per night, and this was easily the shittiest hotel I’ve slept in…ever. The cold water came not out of the tap but from the hose below the sink, there were no windows, and the air conditioner smelled like a damp dog.
After a sleepless night, I got out of bed at 7am and left the hotel as soon as possible. I got an Uber cab to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on the ground floor of Hotel Aroma (Sector 22, this is a great hotel) and spent two hours toggling between mindless clickbait and Trip Advisor to see about sites in the city. I think I was probably a little delirious from not sleeping the night before.
The cool thing about Uber is that once you’re in the cab, if you like the driver, you can hire him for the day. The particular driver I had, Harry, charged me Rs. 1800 for 8 hours of driving (his number is +91 99 88 929420 if you need a driver!) I highly suggest going this route instead of hiring a guide in the city since most of the tourist sites are self-explanatory and all you really need is someone to take you to and from.
My big takeaways from my trip here:
Here’s what I would suggest for a day-long itinerary based on my experience. You can split it into two if you want to really savor each site.
Capitol Complex – this is the iconic building by Le Corbusier. I wasn’t able to see it because I didn’t get there in time. Apparently, they have special timings for visitors and you need to register at the office with your passport before going to see it…so, check with them before going.
Rock Garden – you won’t want to miss this. It only costs Rs. 20 for entry and will provide you (and your family, if you have one of those) with at least a full hour of entertainment. It’s a labyrinth of Gaudi-style art made from found objects with a few big water features and a giant set of swings toward the end.
Le Corbusier Center - this is a museum dedicated to Le Corbusier, mastermind of the City Beautiful. It is closed on Mondays so I wasn’t able to see it. They had an interesting art gallery that was open however, and on their regular days there are several exhibits that highlight Corbusier’s achievements.
Pal Dhaba, Sector 28D – there is some great northern Indian food here and I highly suggest that you stop for lunch or dinner. It’s popular with celebrities and tourists, and is hygienic. I ordered the Boneless Mutton Rogan Josh and Chicken Masala. The mutton was falling off the bone and the gravy was perfect.
Sukhna Lake – go here in the evening for a stroll before dinner as the sun sets. The lake is beautiful and they’ve done an impeccable job at keeping it clean and maintained.
Garg Chaat, Sector 35 – this is a super yummy Punjabi chaat stand in a cute market market. I had the dahi chaat – in American-speak, this is an awesome snack that plays with textures and flavors. There are savory, crunchy wafers and little spongy cakes that are doused with yogurt and tamarind sauce. It’s a sour, sweet, salty, crunchy, creamy combination that can’t be beat.
Elante Mall – go here. Great brands, big mall, the latest fashions. It’s a fun way to spend a few hours.
Topiary Garden – this is a small, tidy park, but if you’re feeling cramped on time, don’t bother yourself with it. The topiaries are in poor shape and it’s underwhelming especially when compared to the Rose Garden and Lake Sukhna.
Rose Garden – September is NOT the season for roses. Though I can see that it must be beautiful during the season, most of the plants were not in their prime state. I’d suggest trying to be there in February or March. While the roses were still alive, they weren’t in full bloom, and it was 36C out so I found it hard to enjoy.
Three and a half hours south of Mysore is Mavanalla and The Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, located in the state of Tamil Nadu. If you are into safaris and wildlife, exploring the lush environs of tea country in Ooty and the surrounding areas, and driving adventurously on 36 hairpin turns, go here, you won’t be disappointed!
I visited in September and was told there had been rain issues, so the landscape I saw was arid and desert-like, with peasant temperatures in the mid to high 80’s during the day which dropped to the low 70’s in the evenings. We had a few showers as well in the late afternoons that cooled things off.
This current travel stint of mine was spontaneous and necessary, but not something I had planned at all, so in the interest of saving as much money as I can, I’ve been cutting corners wherever possible. Instead of compromising my safety by trimming transportation, I have been tapping into Couchsurfing to a.) save on lodging, and b.) make friends along the way. It’s a site that allows registered members all over the world to stay with one another. This was my first Couchsurfing experience, and my host John, who lives within the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, couldn’t have been a better choice.
After picking me up in Mysore, John and I left for Mavanalla. We learned the next day that they had shut the borders between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, so we were lucky. Ongoing water disputes make this an annual situation and the violent bandh that ensues is a days-long pain in the ass for tourists and residents alike hoping to leave or enter either state.This year it has been particularly volatile. If you’re planning to visit during this time of year, I’d give a look into the local situation first.
I stayed in Mavanalla for a week, and I think that this was a perfect amount of time given the variety of things to do in the area. If you need some recommendations, here’s what I’ve got after my time there:
Just outside of Mysore is Srirangapatna, or Seringapatam, depending on whom you ask. It’s an important town rich in military history and has a natural beauty due to the Kaveri River that flanks it on either side. I had no intention of stopping at this town and, in fact, I had just planned to go to Mysore itself where I thought I’d relax after visiting the Mysore Palace but after looking back on all the pictures I’ve realized it is probably one of the highlights of my trip so far. The town itself is quite small and if you’re staying in Mysore, it would be a perfect day-trip from there since it’s only about 30 minutes away.
Instead of describing everything in detail, I’ve put two maps above. Everything is pretty much in the same area with the exception of Thomas Inman’s dungeon and the Jumma Masjid mosque. These are located on the same road and are near to one another. Also, Daria Daulat Bagh, which sits a little outside the village.
I found Mysore to be adorable. There is no shortage of beautiful (but dilapidated, mostly) architecture from the British Raj era, a few good food spots, temples, a monastery, and one of the most beautiful palaces I’ve seen in India so far. I highly suggest you visit the Mysore Palace twice. Once during the day time to take the tours, and once in the evenings on Sunday evening when it turns into a lit up wonderland.
The place where I stayed, Park Lane Hotel, is a great budget-friendly option at about Rs. 1300 per night, and is only a ten-minute walk to the Mysore Palace. They rooms are simple but clean, and the hotel provides its guests with a nifty kit of toiletries, including the famous Mysore Sandalwood Soap. You can get a rickshaw just outside of the hotel, or download Uber or Ola to hail a cab through your mobile phone if you have a SIM card or WiFi.
For great food, try the restaurant at the Park Lane Hotel or The Old House, a trendy place that serves excellent coffee and wood-fired pizzas (they open early for breakfast as well).
During a recent walking tour through old Bangalore, my guide Ameen led me down an alleyway and into this unassuming restaurant, Akshmi Natraj Refreshment. It's not a fancy or expensive place, and its one that I would probably pass if I were on my own, but I've learned, especially where food is considered, that it is unfair to judge a book by its cover, so to speak.
Here what I ate:
Idli w Masala Vada (above) - The white fluffy idlis are a quickly fermented mixture of rice and dal flours, steamed in trays. This plate was served with a masala vada and tomato and coconut chutneys.
Masala Dosa w chutneys - A thin and crispy pancake made from quick-fermented rice flour. It is cooked on a flat pan with ghee and filled with a mixture of onions, potato, coriander, and turmeric. Served alongside tomato and coconut chutneys.
Obbattu - We have this in Pune and know it as "puran poli". It's a sweet dish of maida roti filled with a mixture of chana dal, jaggery, and elaichi. It's cooked with ghee on a tawa (flat pan).
Filter Coffee - I have been consistently pleased with the quality of the coffee in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It is strong and flavorful. I guess to be expected though considering this is tea and coffee country!
A while after breakfast, I stumbled across a street vendor selling sweets. My belly was full but it looked too good to pass up so I grabbed a slice of this beautiful coconut dilpasand (below), a pastry filled with shredded coconut, sugar, and cardamom.
My time in Bangalore was short, barely a day. I was using it as a jump-off point to get further south to Mysore, but I wanted to make sure I got out and explored a little bit so I booked a walking tour with Ameen at Bengaluru By Foot because I had no idea where to start and the city is spread out. Also, I wasn’t really paying attention to proximity when I booked my hotel and ended up staying too far south, about 25 minutes away from the Botanical Garden.
My first tip about Bangalore is this -- stay near the Botanical Garden. It will be much easier to access the rest of the city from there.
If you’ve used tour guides before, you know they come in “types”. There’s the verbatim, wrote tour guides who do it for the extra cash, spew out some general knowledge (which is sometimes right and sometimes wrong), and take you through the major picture points. Then there are the touristy tour guides who, especially in India, use the tour as more of an accompaniment to the shopping stops at their “friends” places along the way. Finally, there are the guides who are in it for the sake of being in it. My tour guide, Ameen, was one of those. He’s passionate about history and it showed in the way he presented the oldest section of Bangalore to me.
We started at KR Market, which operates as a flower and green market in the old city. It’s a super crowded place, and he said due to the upcoming Ganesh Chaturthi festival, which marks the birthday of Lord Ganesha, it was extra busy. The flowers here are beautiful and I highly suggest if you’re heading to Bangalore that you stop by. Take the stairs also to the second level so you can look from above at all the vendors. It’s a colorful scene and nice to watch from above.
Following the market I was shown the old armory belonging to Tipu Sultan, the old ruler, where all the rockets were kept during the Third Mysore War in the late 1700’s. It is hidden behind a school and one does need a guide to locate it, but to see it in person is exciting because of the sheer stoutness of it. Its set into the ground about twelve feet and the walls are at least two feet thick.
Next stops were the old Bangalore Fort, where the massive gate was stormed by the British East India Company in 1791, and Tipu Sultan’s summer palace, a delightful blend of Islamic and Indian architecture. There are massive pillars made of teak, intricately painted walls that are still intact, an attached temple, and a beautiful collection of lawns and plants.
My time here was short, and this morning I am off again today. While I did cover some important locations, a few things I didn’t get a chance to do here were: The Bangalore Palace, Grasshopper restaurant (they apparently do an amazing 7-course tasting menu), The Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, and the Art of Living International Center…hopefully I’ll get a chance to explore Bengaluru some other time and finish off my to-do list!
Pune is an ideal place to live, it really is. The weather is mostly favorable (especially when compared to other parts of India), the people are friendly, and it’s right in the middle of the country, which makes it a good origin point for flying. If the traffic and infrastructure were improved it would be damn near perfect, but I think in my time that won’t happen.
One of the favorite spots to visit from Pune is Goa. The flight is just under an hour and a cab ride will take you anywhere. Many of my friends prefer the beaches two hours in the south such as Agonda and Palolem. They are lovely if you want to get away from it all and just “veg”, as we call it back home in the states. My preference, however, is going to North Goa on the cusps of the high season (October to January), where there is a little bit of everything to fit all tastes and budgets, and when the crowds are not yet in full force.
There are several places that I recommend all over Goa, north AND south, but I’ve got a nice little list of hotels and restaurants that really hit the mark in the north that I'd love to share.
1. Siolim House
Siolim House is one hour north of the Vasco di Gama airport in a small village. The furnishings are reminiscent of the period-style grandeur of the past: simple, yet elegant, with Portuguese flair. They serve breakfast in their airy restaurant in the mornings and have homemade jams and yogurt.
Don’t Miss: cooking classes where you can learn traditional Goan recipes with a local
2. Presa Di Goa
Presa di Goa is 45 minutes south of Vasco di Gama airport, near Calangute. It’s It’s the brainchild of Luxembourg transplant Edouard. He and his dog Tasha, a very sweet black lab, are a big part of the charm of the place. It sits inland about 15 minutes but transportation by cab is affordable and the quietness is much appreciated during the nighttime when the beach resorts are thumping with dance music and crowds of partygoers. They have a well-kept swimming pool with great loungers and the hotel is pet-friendly, something that’s important to me as a dog owner.
Don’t Miss: Breakfast delivered to your door in the morning, and a snuggle with Tasha if she’s around
3. Baba au Rhum
“They serve their café au lait in BOWLS”: this was my initial takeaway from Baba au Rhum. It’s a proper little French spot that sits back off the main road a bit and overlooks a field, but don’t expect doilies, Yan Tiersan music, or kitsch because it is not that. It’s beachy with kind of a stoner vibe. Really perfect for Goa. In addition to excellent coffee, they serve delicious omelets, croissants, and Nutella with baguette, a French staple item.
Don’t Miss: This is a solid breakfast spot…head over in the morning (they open at 9) to nurse your hangover or start the day right.
4. La Plage
Located at Ashvem Beach (near-ish Morjim), La Plage offers an ever-changing menu that features fresh ingredients in a laid-back setting with comfortable and plentiful seating. Originally a plain dirt road led to it but since a few years back they have installed a proper parking area, and some pop-up shops with resort wear, housewares, and jewelry. Go in the morning to grab a spot in one of the beach loungers off the restaurant, have lunch, shop, eat again or have some cocktails, and chill - really an excellent way to spend a day.
Don’t Miss: CEVICHE! If they have it on the menu, get it. It’s really delicious.
5. Go With the Flow
Baga is a great place to be for restaurants but this one is, hands-down, my favorite. The ambiance is funky and fun, with white seating and colorful lighting. The food is plated absolutely beautifully and the menu items are a refreshing blend of old standards with new flavors (chicken pate w/ beet jelly anyone?). The kitchen is also something to see. It looks like it’s straight out of one of those cooking competition shows -- you can have a glance as you make your way to the bathroom.
Don’t Miss: Try to get seated in the elevated dining room overlooking the water. You get there by climbing a steel staircase. Not for those afraid of heights!
This restaurant sits on a tall rocky cliff overlooking the ocean at Vagator Beach, and is one of the most perfect sunset spots in Goa to enjoy a cocktail and get Greek food favorites (think olives and feta, hummus) and seafood dishes. The only downside tot his place is that it’s seasonal. They don’t open until after monsoon, usually Oct 1.
Don’t Miss: If you are there on certain days, they have Greek dancing shows. Call ahead to make a reservation if possible a few days in advance because it fills up, and be sure to see when the dancers will be doing their thing!
Monsoon is here, no doubt about it. Unfortunately it’s a season for lots of car wrecks, terrible road conditions, and mold growing in unpredictable places, but it’s also the most beautiful time of year in terms of nature.
Since our upcoming home visit is this week, we decided to do one more trek before heading out. I chose Tikona because I saw some Instagram photos from other trekkers and it turned out to be my favorite hike in Pune so far, with the exception of Lohgad fort, which I hope to get back to as soon as I return.
It took two and a half hours to reach the fort, and we only overshot Google Maps estimated travel time by 20 minutes, which I thought was pretty impressive given the season. We even stopped twice for snacks; first to get tea and grilled corn with lime, chili, and salt, then again for vadav pav, a potato patty sandwich that usually comes with salty, fried green chilis. It’s the perfect snack on a cold, wet day.
The directions were straightforward, and if you have a driver he should have no problem at all finding the place because it’s marked pretty well. You can drive all the way to the base and park in the lot there. One thing to note is that there are no washrooms. Me personally, I will pee wherever I can find a little privacy, but if you need to go and require a proper toilet, try looking for a rest stop before you get there.
The trek itself is FUN FUN FUN. The paths are clearly marked, and the views are just amazing. It is a relatively easy climb because the duration isn’t long, about 45 minutes to the top, but if you have small children under five it may be quite difficult due to the height of some of the steps, especially at the top. I also don’t have kids so my guesstimate on that age is totally baseless. We took Stella, our maltipoo, and she did pretty well, but she’s an adventure dog and people keep telling me I need to stop comparing her to their kids so…anyway…
There are two plateaus before reaching the summit. One is the ridge of the hill, and there is a path that straddles it so you can walk the length to see some nice views of the land below. It is flanked by ardent grass that looks like a fluffy green carpet, quite romantic to watch in the wind. The second climb leads to a sort of flat, dirt area where there is a tea stall and a more barren flat surface of rocks. Not quite scenic, but a good place to grab a cup of tea. Following that, the climb leads to a water reservoir, a small rock tunnel, a grinding mill, an awesome Hanuman statue, and at the top there is a treacherous and steep set of stairs with an electric cable for holding on to that leads to the vista. Unfortunately we could not see due to the rain that had begun to pour at that point so we just turned around once we reached the top. It was pouring so badly we didn’t dare take our cameras out.
I really suggest you go to this fort during monsoon. It is a super entertaining climb because there is something new and exciting to see at every turn, and the terrain changes from grassy ledge to randomly scattered rock and trail, to proper steps…it makes for a varied and fun trip.
My big recommendation in hindsight is to take an extra set of dry clothes and a towel just in case, or one of those cheap plastic ponchos you see on the side of the road or else you’ll be in a cold car, wet and miserable and dirty in your soaked clothes for the drive home!
After months of stifling heat, terrible air quality, water shortages, and dust that falls into even the most protected places, monsoon comes in like a knight in shining armor, solving all the problems and covering every organic surface with emerald green. Little flowers and grass pop up, and the trees get a good washing from the rains that pour in. The air is suddenly breathable and the temps go back to being enjoyable. It’s pure magic.
A few weeks following the first rains, we knew the grass had had a chance to grow just enough to be beautiful and decided to head out to a fort. There are a lot to choose from in our area, but we chose Raigad. Not due to its proximity to Pune (it ended up taking us 6 hours to get back with the weather) but due to how low-impact it would be to access it. We had done pretty heavy leg workouts earlier in the week so didn’t want to put ourselves through the agony of a real trek, and most forts in the area demand a decent amount of energy. This was a great choice because Raigad was as easy as taking a cable car, climbing some steps, then wandering around on a flat surface.
The fort is about 4 hours southwest of Pune, though with a stop in between for bathroom/tea/snack, and whatever delays there are with traffic, I’d budget 5 hours. The drive goes through mountains, farmland, and small villages, providing some great valley views and scenic stops along the way. Once reaching, there is parking available and several little restaurants and shops. You can take a trek to the top (difficult) or you can buy a ticket to ride the cable car (easier and fun) through the mist and see the beauty of the cliff’s face as you ascend.
At the top there is a small snack stand with a limited menu, a few tour guides, ticketing counter for the fort, and restrooms. After passing this, stairs take you to the temple, statues, and fort. You can spend at least an hour and a half wandering around without getting bored and there is so much to see!
Now, I can’t tell all the good without mentioning an unfortunate truth of our experience. We visited this fort during peak mischief time (monsoon/rain/weekend) but even that should be no excuse for what happened to us. While walking through the fort we were stared at, commented on, and approached for photos, mostly by young men, and not in a nice or polite way. There were several of them who whistled and hissed at me, and if I hadn’t been in India as long as I have, it would have been scary.
So, if you are reading this and are a local, I appeal for you to do what you can by talking to the young men you know about respecting others and your national monuments. This behavior creates a hostile and frightening environment that perpetuates the stigma of India being an unsafe place to visit, especially for women, and by acting this way at national monuments you are showing disrespect for the legacy left by the people who built and fought for it.
That being said, I would visit Raigad Fort again and it definitely gets thumbs up from me! I might go during the week or with a bigger group next time, but overall it’s a fun trip and you could even pair it with a two-day excursion staying over at one of the resorts in Lavasa or Mulshi. It was a nice drive, a pleasantly easy walk, and there was plenty to see and do.
I’m impulsive and slightly (ok, more than slightly) hedonistic, especially when it comes to travel, and my husband can sadly attest that if it weren't for him and the dog, I’d be a completely untethered ball in this world.
My latest last minute vacation was Udaipur and Jodhpur. I decided on Monday that I wanted to go and by Wednesday evening I was drowning in my own boob sweat, walking around the palace, totally unprepared for the heat. Let me back up. Pune has just gotten its monsoon, so I thought since Udaipur was north it would be cooler and possibly wetter. I packed some ¾ sleeve kurtas, leggings, and skinny jeans. What a mistake. Apparently I haven’t gotten a full understanding of monsoon patterns across the country yet.
Like most places I visit, and I’d imagine you’ll agree, it’s the experiences and the people I meet that end up being my favorite memories. So, I won’t give you a play by play, or my opinions on the Trip Advisor Top 10 list, but I’ll give you MY highlight reel.
If you are going to Udaipur and aren’t luxing it at one of the fancy palaces, my advice is this: pack for comfort, do not spend a lot on a hotel room (mine was Rs. 1000 a night and SO CUTE), take sandals without heels (hilly streets), don’t freak out about walking alone, and DO wander the streets as much as you can – you’ll get a much better appreciation of the area that way. Also, forget about the Rs. 450 cruise to Jagmandir, I thought it was a total tourist trap. It’s basically just a garden with an expensive restaurant. Spring for one of the little Rs. 250 boat rides near Lal Ghat Guest House instead. I think the last one leaves around 5pm.
2. Watching day turn to night at Lake Pichola Hotel’s rooftop restaurant. Please do this. It is an event in itself. Go around 6 for a pre-dinner cocktail and stretch your dinner until at least 8:30.
4. The drive to the monsoon palace, and the vista view from the top
5. Rajasthani dance show at Bagore ki Haveli
6. Making friends with the dogs in the street
7. Manish at the travel agency at Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel (+91 99 2830 6517). This guy hooked me up
with a guide and two drivers, Shankar and Ganesh. He is available on WhatsApp and very
8. Dipping my toes in the puddles from the fountains at Sahelion-ki-Bari Garden
My second leg of this trip was Jodhpur, the blue city. I never did get clarity on why the houses are blue, but I did hear a lot of interesting theories that ranged from “it cools the houses” to “Krishna liked blue”….who knows what the real deal is. It was a 5-hour drive from Udaipur with a stop halfway to the Ranakpur Jain Temples and a beautiful view of mountains, desert, and farm life. My best highlight from this part of my trip was my driver, Ganesh. Without him, I would have been totally lost. As I was traveling solo, he was always aware of my surroundings and kept an eye out for my comfort and safety. Please call him if you need a driver/guide in Udaipur or Jodhpur (+91 97 9982 8409). Can’t sing his praises enough. But aside from him, my favorite experiences were:
3. Taking pictures with a honeymooning couple at the palace. The girl’s smile was ear to ear, and she
wanted to touch my hair and my hands. I’ve never lived somewhere where strangers can have such
intimate experiences. It can be beautiful if you are open to it (and are a good judge of character…
this doesn’t apply as a universal rule).
4. Walking barefoot on the marble (and on the perfectly manicured lawns) at Jaswant Thada and
feeling the wind come through the windows.
5. Getting Butter Lassi, Rabdi, and Mawa Kachori at Shri Misrilal Hotel with Ganesh near the Clock Tower Market
I think that four days was good for this short trip, so if you are thinking of doing this as a part of a bigger vacation through India, it would be easy to club this with Jaisalmer or Jaipur. I would suggest, however, one extra day in Jodhpur to spend time at the fort. It has a lot to offer in terms of wandering and watching the city below.
I love Indian festivals, especially when they work in my favor as a traveler, like during my trip to Jaipur last month which fell during the Makar Sankranti festival (a.k.a. the kite festival). According to friends who have been there, the city is usually a congested nightmare, but I found it to be ideal. The locals were home celebrating, but all the major businesses and tourist sites were operating business as usual…so there was zero traffic, short queues, un-crowded streets, and a limited amount of haranguing from beggars and street vendors.
Thanks to the winter, the mornings/evenings were cool and dry, and the midday sun was warm, but not enough to warrant copious water consumption. I tried to pack minimally so only threw in two pairs of jeans, flat shoes, a scarf, a few modest tees, a light sweater, sleeveless tops and, of course underwear, ha ha ha. It worked out perfectly, and I’m glad I didn’t bother with a swimsuit because it was too cold to enjoy the beautiful hotel pools anyway.
Budgeting three full days because I thought there wouldn’t be much to see was a big mistake on my part, though. I could have taken at least seven to fit in some things that were a little further away or too time consuming, like Jodphur, Udaipur, Ajmer, Pushkar, and the Chand Baori stepwell. I also would like to have taken a hot air balloon ride after hearing rave reviews from our friends, but it would have been too time consuming. So, if you are thinking of making a trip to this region, do it right and take some extra time for that stuff.
If, however, you are like me and only have a few days, here’s what I was able to cover. I grouped it into three days, basing it off of how I would do it if I go again:
Day 1 – get a ride to the Anokhi Museum. From there you can walk to the stepwell and then on to the Amber Palace from there. I hired a tour guide that drove me everywhere but I think this was pretty unnecessary. Also, a note: the Jal Mahal, while pretty, can only be seen from a distance right now as it is undergoing renovations. The promenade on the lake where it is is a nice place to stop and get a refreshing coconut water while grabbing a picture or two.
Day 2 – this is a city day. I recommend hiring a tour guide for this because there is so much information that you will miss if you don’t have one. Especially at Jantar Mantar (it just looks like a bunch of stone slabs if you don't have someone to tell the story behind it) and the City Palace complex. Isarlat, City Palace, and Jantar Mantar are all within walking distance. You may prefer to take a car for the rest. The entrance to Isarlat is in an alleyway and is actually very poorly marked (like, not marked at all), but it’s worth the effort to find it because it’s a fun walk up and it offers an awesome view of the Pink City and the surrounding areas. If you’re claustrophobic or if you have to pee, this is not the spot for you. It’s super tight quarters going up and down, and there’s no bathroom.
Day 3 – the forts. Wear sneakers, take water, and a sun hat. You're going to walk a lot. This is not a day to worry about looking cute. Jaigarh and Nahargarh are very close by one another but they’re really spread out so it’s a good idea to get a car for this. You can easily spend the whole day just walking around and checking out the surroundings. Jaigarh has decent restrooms, a little museum, and a snack stand but if you have the ability to pack a lunch picnic, either fort provides pleasant breezes and plenty of places with awesome views to enjoy that. At Nahargarh there is a summer resort with dozens of rooms; it has a dizzying amount of beautiful and intricate painting, so don't miss it! Birla Mandir and the Hanuman Temple are both things you can check out either on the way there or on the way back since both are situated on the same highway that leads to the forts. The Hanuman Temple is a bit of a walk.
Must Visit Restaurants and o.k. Grub Stops
I try not to eat at the big hotels I stay in if I can help it when I know there are plenty of great local places out there. Unfortunately, this is where I think Jaipur fell short. It was tricky finding restaurants that served meat, and while I did end up finding a few gems, I was mostly underwhelmed. Here are the ones I do recommend:
Handi Restaurant – for dinner or lunch, this place had awesome regional food with minimal wait time and nice staff. Get the regional specialty, laal maas. Be ready, it’s a spicy stew of lamb and chili peppers. Honestly, I would have been good eating every meal here.
Peacock Rooftop Restaurant – Yummy yummy! Serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner! This place offers an uncomplicated menu with Indian and western food, and makes good espresso. Downstairs there are inexpensive hotel rooms with a kitschy vibe.
Shreenath Lassiwala – Tangy and sweet, lassis are the perfect thing to beat the midday heat. Here, just be prepared for the beggars. I was swarmed as soon as I pulled up. You can order from the car and they’ll bring it out to you.
LMB Sweet Shop and Restaurant – go here for the sweet shop and try the ghewar, mawa kachori, and doodh kesar feeni (links above). This is the perfect place to buy some sweet souvenirs. TIP: there's a kiosk in the Jaipur Airport if you forget!
Café Coffee Day – if you’re near the Amber Fort, this is a good place to pop in for a bathroom stop and to get a coffee or a quick snack.
We just had an awesome morning. If you read my blog last week you know that I’m recently hooked on these weekend motorcycle rides with my husband. This weekend we decided to couple it with another thing I love: exploring the local forts around Pune. We woke up before dawn, hit the road by 5:30am, and took the hour’s drive to Malhargad Fort, which is located just off Pandharpur Road, via Kalewadi village. After a simple twenty-minute trek, we ate and hung out over the breakfast picnic I packed, did some exploring, and took plenty of pictures before heading back. It really was the perfect little taste of nature in a compact amount of time, and I’m shocked to be home writing this at 12:00pm on the same day!
The fort itself is in decent shape and, like all forts here, has excellent views for miles on all sides. There are two small temples, plenty of lookout points, and ample flat ground for camping. There are no toilets or water and it seems like aside from a large sign that gives details in Hindi about the fort, it is one of the more forgotten-about places -- which makes it perfect if you want to get a bit of peace and quiet!
Getting there is simple: depart Pune on the south side and get yourself to Pandharpur Road. From there I have seen a few different ways to reach the fort, but what we found was incredibly simple and took us basically to the base of the fort itself. Make a turn to go to Kalewadi village. It’s easy to miss this turn but it’s on the opposite side of the road between Fort Jadhavgah Road and Garva Family Garden Restaurant. Go through the village for about 3km; the road will wind and pass some white greenhouses. After that you’ll see many really beautiful, small farms with everything you can imagine: ladyfingers, pomegranate trees, figs, tomatoes, capsicum, etc. It gets smaller and eventually turns into nothing more than a dirt path, ending in what looks like a rain gut. You’ll see the fort in front of you slightly to the left as you approach.
When you park your vehicle, the footpath is to the right. You can’t miss it. Follow it up through the tiny patch of small trees, it will switch back directions, then you can continue up to the fort. From the footpath we found two separate ways to reach the structure (there may be more). One is to go straight-ish to the far corner and hang a right where you can climb through a doorway. I didn’t see any organized paths but you can kind of wing it. The other is to the right. It’s basically a steep-ascent that leads directly to the structure. A bit precarious, but fun if you’re in the mood for it and have a good pair of shoes!
Like I said, this is the perfect little morning trip out of the city. The village is lovely, the fort is clean (and please keep it that way by taking out whatever you take in!), and the drive is short. We saw a few nice looking garden restaurants too, so if you have a family or don’t want to pack food, that might be a nice option.
Another year down has us rounding out our second in India and for a change of pace we decided to stay local this holiday season instead of doing the usual to-and-fro, hopping from house to house in the states. We celebrated with friends, spent some time together, and closed Christmas weekend with an amazing group motorcycle ride in the Aamby Valley, a large expanse of golden, grass covered hills, lakes and streams, and scenic mountains about two and a half hours (by bike, anyway) outside of Pune.
Let me tell you, first of all, from a passenger’s perspective, about Marc’s bike. It looks cool and he calls it Kali. It’s matte black and super sleek. Kali, in Hindu belief, is the goddess of time, and this rings true because for the first twenty minutes or so she’s a relatively comfortable lady…until reality sets in. There is no suspension. Every road bump sends my ass flying about 6 inches off the seat and I contemplate, pretty much the entire time, the best ways I could try to land on the pavement (or whatever else off-road terrain we were on) with the least amount of injury to my precious face should she decide it’s my time to fly. Then there is an awesome steel bar right at my left calf which I’m sure has some purpose but digs into my muscle constantly, leaving love marks that remind me of my epic journey for days afterward. I digress – for all the complaining, there is something freeing and exhilarating about cruising down the road on the back of a bike and after our trip this weekend I’m definitely hooked.
The Aamby Valley is breathtaking. In winter it’s dry and a little bit smoky from the cooking/rubbish fires in the villages, cold in the morning but warm in the afternoon. The landscape is golden wheat with patches of hearty sun-loving wildflowers, and the trees that remain are scraggly and dark green. The landscape slowly transitions during monsoon around July and the gold is replaced by nothing but green, everywhere. It covers the mountains like carpet, and delicate flowers that can only exist in the humid, favorable conditions of the season bloom in large clumps. The rains also bring waterfalls by the dozen, and an ethereal misty fog, giving the visitor a real feeling of being in paradise found.
Our motorcycle ride, like many of our trips out of the city, began before sunrise at about 6:00am. It was 55˚F (13˚C) and freezing! Bundled up, we broke out of the city on the west side near Kothrud and used the scenic regional roads beneath the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, cutting a sharp left south at Kale where did a little dodgy off-roading down what Google Maps simply calls “Unnamed Road”. We headed over the top of Pawna Lake, stopping for an Indian buffet breakfast (and bathroom break) at Cloud9 Hills Resort around 10:00am, and thanks to the sunshine were finally able to peel off some of our layers from the morning.
By 10:45am we were on our way. We headed south on Lonavala-Aamby Valley Road where we did some more off-roading and had to stop a few times to check Google Maps and ask for directions. We rode under Mulshi Dam and through Paud via Mulshi Road (Highway 60). It was at about this point when Kali began to randomly break down due to a fuel filter issue.
This happened 8 times. Once at a major intersection in midday city traffic, a few times on the outskirts of the city, and for the last time about 3km from home, in the middle of two lanes (and if you know Indian traffic you know that “lanes” is subjective). We ended up at home around 3pm, and I spent the rest of the day with a phantom “thump thump thump thump” in my head, and a slightly dislocated feeling in my hips. It was an awesome first ride though, and I’m excited to get out for more. I hope one day I’ll get the courage to ride my own bike, but until then I’m happy to sit on the back, enjoy the view, and take awesome pictures.