Monday, January 28, 2013

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

CST or  Victoria Terminus train station in Mumbai, a world heritage site.
Our train to Mumbai (Bombay) left Aurangabad only a few minutes late, but by the time we arrived at the outskirts of the city we were too late to use the tracks. There are so many people commuting into Mumbai, and not enough tracks, that in the morning the commuter trains get priority and  the long distance trains just have to wait. Our 7am arrival became noon, which we were happy with: we got a little more sleep and knew our hotel would actually let us check in. 

We we got to the hotel that we had booked online, they wouldn't make eye contact, wouldn't tell us where our room was, were just shuffling papers and making phone calls. Finally, they called Matt over and handed him the phone. The agent explained the hotel was full (we had figured that out by now). They said they had re-booked us into another hotel "nearby". We got into another cab, which  took half an hour. We assume it was geographically close to our first hotel, but it was not the same neighborhood. The first hotel was across from a park, near the train station, the new hotel was surrounded by automotive shops (It does seem that 50% of all shops in India are car or motorcycle repair and parts shops, or we are just wandering the wrong parts of town). As we climbed the 5 stories to the new hotel each floor had a gaggle of young men milling in the hallways. We finally see the room, and it's not the worst we have or will sleep in, but there's mold on the walls and stains on the sheets and no internet and I'm tired and smelly and grouchy so we decide we're not staying there. Maybe it was more out of irritation at Cleartrip for picking a new hotel for us (I guess it was nice of them to try to correct their mistake). 

So we walk out onto the street and find a for-pay phone in a street stall and call every number in the guide book but every hotel is booked up (because they're in the guidebook). We search for a while for internet, following helpful people's directions (again, in the interest of not saying no, I think many people seem to just point vaguely and hope you'll find something).  I was about to insist on booking a room at the super expensive Intercontinental, when we saw an empty cab. The driver says "To colaba, yes?" and we say yes. After spending too long in the "tourist haven" of Thamel, Kathmandu, we were trying to avoid Colaba, where all the tourists stay in Mumbai. As it turns out, sometimes the tourist are there for a reason. Colaba is on a narrow part of the peninsula, so you can walk from the arabian sea side to the bay side comfortably. The driver pulled up at the Hotel Gulf (so named for the Persian Gulf) and we found a room right away. 

After a rocky start in Mumbai we enjoyed wandering the wide streets with full sidewalks, admiring the crumbling Georgian architecture being reclaimed by trees and tropical plants. We ate well, at cafes that would do well in New York, and we didn't struggle to find a drink at the end of the night. We peeked in at Leopold's, an iconic Mumbai institution, with it's wobbly fans and 3 foot tubes of beer, but left it to the other tourists. We also go to visit with Ashwini, a friend from last time I was here, her gracious and funny husband and two adorable, rambunctious boys. 

I will admit it was nice to sip a cocktail on a roof looking out at city lights and boats bobbing in the bay, maybe I am a bit of a city girl at heart. After 4 days though we were ready to continue on our way (hopefully to cheaper destinations). 

- Bree

It could be London only with palm trees.
The facade is all that remains of some older buildings.
We were in Mumbai during Republic Day. 
Even if the train car is empty, Indians like to hang out the doors. Matt just trying to fit in. 
A scrawny cat sleeps atop a motorcycle.
The sun setting over the Arabian Sea.
A news van just back from either Beirut or the post-apocalypse. 
Bree and Ashwini acting like children while Jiva and Shivba act like adults.
The train station lit up at night.
Sun sets over the Mumbai skyline.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ellora and Daulautabad, Maharashtra, India

That night we went to Aurangabad, which is close to another set of ancient cave temples. We headed out in the morning to the Ellora Caves. Here there are three sections: more Buddhist Temples, a few Jainist and the very impressive Hindu caves. The centerpiece of which is the Kailasa temple. We managed to mostly avoid the big tour groups, though at one point Bree and I were swarmed by school kids wanting handshakes. 

We reached our cave temple saturation point and headed to Daulatabad, a sprawling fort that peaks with a citadel atop a massive rock outcropping. 

The fort was so coveted that after it was seized in the 1300s by Tughlak, the sultan of Delhi, he marched all the residents of Delhi to their new home in Daulatabad. However after a short time, water shortages changed the mind of the sultan, to which he order all the residents to return to Delhi. 

As we made our way towards the citadel, we passed several crumbling walls, a murky moat, and were faced with a narrow dark tunnel leading up. The design of the tunnel was said to have been so disorienting to any intruders that some would have taken their own lives after getting lost in the tunnels. In the tunnels were channels carved for smokescreens and hot oil to be poured. Now it's just a dark tunnel filled with bats and the nearly overwhelming stench of bat urine. Still almost enough to made you go crazy. Once through the tunnel, there wasn't much more to see but the view back down onto the rest of the fort was worth the trek up. 

We then got dinner in town. More veg Thalis. A thali is a set meal where you get a small amount of several dishes. They are usually pretty cheap and always very filling. From there we walked over to the train station. Next stop: Mumbai.

- Matt

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra, India

Another overnight train took us out of Rajasthan, through Gujarat and into Maharashtra. We arrived in Jalgaon, another dusty transit town, and negotiated for an auto rickshaw to take us to Fardapur. The driver insisted he would be faster than the bus, and he was definitely cheaper than a car. The trip took about 2hrs, and the junction towns we passed were dusty and full of fumes. At the hotel "tourist resort" we chatted with a guy who had a gem store near the caves, and could give us a lift to the lookout in the morning. We knew this was a long-sell deal, all to get us in his shop, but we decided to take a chance. 

Early the next morning the gem guy showed up to let us know it was his brother who would be taking us. We probably should have expected this, but I think we were both a little surprised when he led us to his motorcycle. The three of us climbed on, the brother, then Matt, then me with the camera bag, all without helmets, and took off to the lookout. The kid was probably taking it easy for us, but at one point did take Matt's arms and pull them around him so Matt could grab the handlebars. We made it to the lookout, where, in 1819 John Smith and the rest of his British hunting party spotted the caves after 1200 years of obscurity. I have a feeling that the villagers nearby probably knew the caves were there, just didn't bother to tell anyone. A local guide probably even pointed them out to John Smith, but he's the one who gets credit (and even graffitied his name on a column). 

The caves are all Buddhist monasteries and assembly halls dating from the 2nd century BC to 6th century AD. What is even more remarkable than the carvings, is that some of the cave paintings remain. People say that the color has faded noticeably even in the last 10 years, and there are efforts to reduce further damage. The place was crawling with school groups, Indian families and Chinese tour groups. Many tourists took advantage of the hardworking porters who carried people up and down the stairs on palanquin chairs, but we opted for the traditional walking method. 

I was astounded at the size of the spaces and intricacy of carvings, but more so that someone would be wandering through the valley, look up, and say "Hey, I could carve that, why not?"  An interesting fact is that the Ajanta caves were essentially abandoned once Ellora was started, I guess even in 600 everyone was into the hot new thing. 

- Bree

The river gorge leading towards the caves, would be nice in monsoon season. 
The gorge as John Smith may have seen it (if he had a telescope, and with less vegetation and more toursits)
Caves 25-28

Looking across the horseshoe gorge at caves 15-28

A battle scene

Reclining Buddha

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

Jodhpur, the blue city.
Blue houses traditionally denoted those of the Brahman caste but now it is thought that blue is both cooler in the hot sun and repels insects.

Mehrangarh Fort, the centerpiece of Jodhpur.
Crumbling walls around the fort.

When the maharaja died, his wives would leave their handprints here before throwing themselves onto the funeral pyre.

One of the many ornate palace rooms.

The blue city seen from the fort.

Bree listening to Wham as we walk through the ancient fort. I told her it wasn't appropriate. 

We took a painless train ride from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur. It was less than an hour late! The next morning we headed up to the fort that dominates the city. It was as impressive on the inside as it was on the outside. Afterward we walked down to the market and clock tower, before winding our way through narrow streets home. We went out to dinner back near the market with a young Brit, travelling India for a month on break from Uni. It was nice to hear a kid with well thought out opinions and the knowledge to back it up, assessing his time here.

As we lay in bed before falling asleep we felt a heavy weight on our feet. We switched on the flashlight to see that the hotel stray cat had climbed in through the open traditional style half balcony (there is no glass or door) and picked our bed for the night. He's pretty big, we're not kicking him out. I wonder if he shared the bed with Adrian Brody when he slept in this room. (this is the smallest, oldest, and dingiest room we've had, but it also has lots of character)