Elephant Riding in Rajasthan: Good Idea, Bad Idea?

“Ok, you have one minute to decide: ride elephant, walk.”

Ali swung around, eyebrows raised. His heavily-decorated tuk tuk’s engine shivered as it halted to a stop and he used his leg to steady it. I looked at Hayley and took a deep breath. “I can’t do it, I’m sorry.”

The city I most looked forward to visiting in India was Jaipur, a metropolis dubbed “The Pink City” that is famous for its salmon painted buildings and the Amer Fort. Once we’d gotten our bearings in Delhi and Agra, Hayley and I were set to enjoy endless lassi yogurt drinks and climbs to some of India’s most jaw-dropping forts and palaces.

Other travelers told me that Jaipur rises out of the desert like a mirage, but we rolled in on a sleeper train that was delayed several hours through a seedy part of town. The porter knocked on the door and motioned for us to get off. Jaipur, after Delhi’s chaos and the scam-laden town of Agra, was already a dream.

Ali stood, arms crossed, waiting to take us to Hotel Kaylan. Though illiterate, he pulled out a journal that was full of recommendations and reviews from other traveler. He stood up and opened the compartment under his seat, taking out a photo album so we could settle on an itinerary.

Apart from the city’s main sights, like the various forts and palaces, the Janta Mantar and the Hawa Mahal, he pushed the Elefantastic park, allowing us the opportunity to paint, feed and swim with the pachyderms. After all, the Rajasthani state is famous for its Indian Elephant festivals and breeding grounds, and elephants have been used for centuries in trade and commerce. What’s more, one of Hinduism’s most beloved gods, Ganesh, the god of good fortune, is depicted as an elephant.

Ali drove us to the Monkey Temple at sunset. Animals are quite commonplace in the streets in India – not only are sacred cows able to freely roam cities and eat all the trash they can find, but we saw goats in rickshaws, pigs and warthogs complacently lying on patches of cracked cement, and now monkeys swinging about temples as the faithful prayed.

India is different when it comes to animal treatment. As an American, I’ve always had a pet and have been taught to respect animals. My parents contribute to the National Parks System and sent me to summer camp as a kid, and I’ve been riding horses since I could walk. That said, I eat meat and would probably defend a human over any other four-legged creature.

I found India to be a strange paradox: Gandhi once said that you can measure a nation on how they treat their animals, but there were scores of abandoned creatures. In fact, I didn’t see an animal on a leash until our last morning in India.

We spoke softly to a man who carried around a bag of mangoes and spoke good English. Despite leaning on a cane for support, he’d been climbing up the slippery slope that wound up a steep mountain a few times a day to feed the massive flock of Rheus Langur monkeys that lived in the vicinity of three small temples.

We’d given the Amer Fort a full morning before hiring Ali to take us to the Mughal markets for shopping. But I was still faced with the decision of whether or not I’d want to ride an elephant up to the magnificent, sprawling residence. We spent the breezy night up on Hotel Kaylan’s terrace restaurant, sipping fizzy soda water flavored with lime and salt. While Hayley settled something with her bank, I dove into researching elephant treatment in Rajasthan. 

Part of the hesitation about the ride came from participating in the Travel Blogging Calendar to raise money for Thai elephants. After being clued in to exactly what happens to elephants when they are tamed there, I would have been horrified to support a rehabilitating practice.

I was encouraged to learn that the Indian Government opened and has sponsored an elephant compound since 2010, meant to be a refuge for the pachyderms and a tourism center for Indian elephants. There’s also an Elephant Wellness Office to which abuse and mistreatment can be reported.

The 100+ elephants working at Amber Fort have specific rules about how many trips they can make per day and are limited to two passengers, plus their Mahout, or handler. In fact, most are able to stop working for the day by 11am, before it gets too hot. No downhill trips are permitted.

But get past the first few pages of Google, and the horror stories crop up – elephants dying of heat stroke, of mahouts being trampled to death, of lack of funding for sick and suffering animals. I didn’t even bother investigating how the animals were trained.

The issue, of course, is not black and white. As animals have traditionally been domesticated by man for millennia, and this sort of tourism is crucial to many communities in India, I began to weigh those points as well. The Novio has trained horses and dogs, and his family relies on animal to earn their living, so would I be hypocritical by refusing to take the ride when I’ve ridden horses and camels?

By the time we went to sleep, I was still uneasy about the decision I’d have to make. I’d imagined elephants would be a part of my India experience, just as dosas and a guru reading my chakras and learning to drive a tuk tuk were.

Ali showed up early the following day to pick us up and take us for a lassi before driving to the palace. He pulled off the road adjacent to the Maota Lake and asked: to the elephants, or are you walking up?

I had asked his opinion on the ride, and he admitted that he wouldn’t think about doing it. Ever. Full stop. Ali is a spiritual and respectful man, so I trusted his judgement.

We set off walking, having to dodge hawkers and other tourists on the ramp and stairs that lead to the Suraj Pol, or Sun Gate.

When I saw my first elephant, trunk decorated with paint, I gasped. Having only seen elephants in zoos, I couldn’t believe I was just a few paces away from one – so surprised, in fact, that I narrowly missed a pile of fresh poop.

The climb itself was incredible, and we passed by the elephants through narrow gates. I didn’t, for one second, regret my decision to forgo the ride – it looked shaky, so I wouldn’t have gotten any good photos anyway.

Watching the passengers dismount in the lower courtyard, called the Jaleb Chowk, the elephants turned around and went back the way they came. I couldn’t deny that it was beautiful to watch them sway as they left the sun gate and went back for the next batch of passengers. 

Elephants, in Hindu culture, represent strength, prowess in war, majesty and royalty, and a vehicle to the divine world. But in no way does a vehicle to the divine world mean sitting on top as the elephant trudges up a slope.


  

This article was written as part of Contiki Storytellers’s campaign for Costa Rican sea turtles (please watch the video above!). Animals are an important part of ecosystems, after all. I cannot tell you it’s right or wrong to ride an elephant in India or Thailand or elsewhere, merely that you investigate and make the decision based on your personal feelings. I am not a conservationist or an animal rights activist – I’m just a traveler who didn’t feel right taking an elephant ride. I was not paid for this article.

What’s your take on animal tourism? I’d love to hear from other bloggers like Green Global Travel, Wanderlusters and Hole in the Donut, who are into responsible tourism.

The Amer Fort is located 11 kilometers from Jaipur in the village of Amer and is open daily from 7:30am until 5:30pm. Foreigners pay a 200 rupee entrance fee (about 3€). The cost of riding an elephant is 1000 rupee for two people, plus a tip for the driver.

Is Neuschwanstein Castle Worth It?

Sometimes, as a traveler, I struggle with taking the road less traveled and getting off the beaten path. I also struggle with not using idioms because I not-so-secretly love them.

Anyway, I am the first to admit that I love what everyone else does. Duh, that’s how they get popular in the first place.

Munich has always been a city in the back of my mind to see, just as Spain was since I first learned to say, “Me llamo Cat.” After attending Oktoberfest, I was hooked. Taking advantage of having my family’s arrival to the Munich Airport for our Viking cruise, I planned three nights in Bavaria.

I knew I could see Munich in a day, exploring its Christmas markets and beer halls with my cousin, which left me a full day for going elsewhere. Top contenders were Dachau, Nuremburg and Neuschwanstein Castle.

By the time I boarded my flight, I was still undecided and started considering whatever was cheaper. 

I arrived to my hostel after midnight, falling asleep with the internal wrestle of to do what was popular and what was probably better for the history nerd in me. The following morning, as I set off to meet Christyn, a group of Brazilians introduced themselves and revealed they’d be renting a car to drive to Neuschwanstein the following morning, in case I felt like joining. I politely turned the invitation down, imagining I’d choose to go to Dachau.

An hour later, as we sipped our first glühwein in front of the Rathaus, I announced my plight: visit a castle, pay respects at Dachau, or nerd out in Nuremburg. Christyn revealed Neuschwanstein was one of her favorite sites in all of Germany (this, from the girl with just as much adventure and curiosity as me, just types “schloss” into her GPS and follows the highway to a different castle on free weekends). Without so much as a second thought, I resolved to follow her advice.

The following morning, I boarded the first train out to Füssen, the end of the line. The train was chock-full of tourists, and I cursed the 44€ train ticket and the two-hour trip and the two girls seated opposite me who talked on their phones the entire time. I was moderately hung over from all of the wine and beer yesterday, and my stomach churned from overdoing it on the sausages, too. 

The landscape went from industrial to flat and without so much as a trace of a village for hours. By the time we got to Füssen, a small town near the foothills of the Alps, I’d gotten over myself. Like cattle, everyone emptied out of the carriages and directly onto the bus bound for Hohenschwangan. I kept my nose pressed to the glass to see the fairytale castle that inspired a hundred, um, fairytale castles, but the swarm of fellow tourists gasped as it came into sight. 

Built as a retreat for Ludwig II in the 1870s and 1880s, the castle is visited by more than 1.4 million people each year. On a crisp day just before Christmas, the whole place was alive with activity, and I felt like there were 1.4million people there with me. I chose to walk on foot to the nearby Hohenschwangau castle first.

I overheard two other tourists claim that the best, unconstructive view of Neuschwanstein could be seen from the chapel built right into the mountain. I eagerly climbed, Camarón ready, but it was hard to see the celebrated castle. 

Already feeling a bit disappointed with German Disneyland, I decided to forgo entering the castle, as I already felt overwhelmed by the number of tourists, the wait time (nearly two hours!) and the cost of the guided tour (12€ or 23€ to go into Hohenschwangau, too). The train ticket had already cleaned me out of cash, so I grabbed a grabbed a glühwein at a small cafe in town before starting the trek up the hill.

The thing about traveling alone is that you have no one to pull you one way or another and no one to take pictures of you. I grumbled as I looked for someone who spoke English or Spanish to take my picture (see above). In the two hours I’d spent at Neuschwanstein, I didn’t feel inspired or awed or even able to find a reason why it was worth making the trip.

In the end, I didn’t think visiting Neuschwanstein was worth the day or the money. The train trip was long, the cost to visit the castle itself was steep, and I worried I’d have to photoshop the hell out of my photos to remove the other baseball caps and elbows that surely snuck into my shots.

Don’t get me wrong – I will go to the Eiffel Tower every time I am in Paris, and I will enjoy it. I gleefully step into Plaza Mayor in Madrid and marvel at the fact that it was once a bull ring. Seeing the Taj Mahal was an intense experience between the heat, the people and the sheer beauty of the place.

But Neuschwanstein didn’t do it for me, even after I’d braced myself for the tourists, the prices and the cold.

Turning on my data to search GoEuro for busses back to the train station, I found I had enough time to walk down the hill, grab a few postcards and stand in line for the bus back to Füssen, where I would kill nearly two hours before the train back to Munich (and I ran into the Brazilians there, after an all night binge).

Füssen, as it turned out, was a lovely surprise to end the day. The Christmarket on the main shopping street was small but lively, and the morning bustled with shoppers and partygoers. I camped out on a bench with a beer and a bratwurst and listened to Tyrolean horns toot out Christmas carols.

Later that night, after wandering in the Christmas markets, I called the Novio in the hostel’s atrium before saddling up to the bar for another weisserbier. The bartender addressed me in Spanish, confessing to having overheard me on the phone. Inquiring about my time in Munich, I recounted my day and my disappointment with the castle.

My heart sunk when he told me that I could have bought a youth pass or even used my Carnet Joven to get a hefty discount on the train at 10am, something I would have known if I had actually done more research, as I intended to. I gulped down my beer and ordered another, sharing travel tales with the worldly bartender. Like many travel fiascos, a drink and a laugh do me wonders.

I’d consider going back for half the cost, and perhaps during the warmer months. I feel at home in the mountains, despite being from the Prairie State, and find Neuschwanstein more breathtaking in the summer. 

Love Germany? Been to the-Castle-with-the-Impossible-Name? Or have destinations that didn’t live up to your expectations? Check out my other posts that you’ll liebe:

A Guiri Guide to Oktoberfest // Passau, the City on Three Rivers // Karnevals of Cologne

 

Learning by Watching and Doing in India

There is no way to prepare yourself for India. Not by reading books or watching Monsoon Wedding or scouring the latest edition of Lonely Planet.

Nothing can prepare you for the heat. The crush of bodies. The smells (both good and bad). The menagerie of animals eating trash on the street. The traffic. True to every single thing I heard about it, India was an assault on the senses.

I woke up groggy every morning from listening to the cacophony of tuk tuk horns that had my ears ringing all night. Every meal seemed to taste better than the last. I was humbled by the simplistic nature of the barefoot kids who were happy in their ambivalence. I have a newfound love for Bollywood tunes, marigolds and milky chai tea.

India got under my skin in a way that only Spain has.

But India comes with a learning curve as steep as they come. After more than 24 hours of travel from Seville to Delhi, and countless more hours awake, Hayley and I were burped out into a muggy, overcrowded city, which was beyond foreign. And our room wasn’t ready either, so we gingerly ventured into the mess of streets in the Kailash Colony area of South Delhi, only to get lost, whine at one another and take a tuk tuk to the closest thing on our map, the Lotus Temple.

After a nap and shower (and a fresh change of clothes), we wanted to see the Jawa Masjid temple in Old Delhi, in the shadow of the overpowering Red Fort. We took the metro to the wrong stop, couldn’t fend off the dozen tuk tuk and rickshaw drivers who tried to pick us up. We walked through a part of town where it seemed that tourists were anywhere but, finally using the call to prayer to direct us to the beet-colored Muslim mosque.

We had a disastrous first meal in India at the celebrated Karim’s (WHY would we order mutton? We must have been that jet lagged…), and then after having women ask to take pictures with us Hayley the streets and dodging every sort of traffic imaginable, including pushcarts, cows and people crawling, we treated ourselves to frozen yoghurt and a sleep not punctuated by anything else but blackness.

As we crawled into the tuk tuk the next morning, I was not excited. In fact, I was ready enough to leave India without seeing the Taj or eating aloo gobi or giving it a second chance. I kept my feelings silent to Hayley for the entire day, realizing that this was her dream, too, and that the only way to make up for the previous day was by opening my mind and heart back up to incredible India.

We soon found that adapting to locals’s customs was the only surefire thing we could do to not stick out as a gora as much as we already did. We watched, and we repeated.

Customs and Religion

India is full of idiosyncracies, especially across regions. In such a large country, each part of the patchwork is just a little different from the rest. I maintain that just walking across the street, one can see everything and nothing, an array of headgear, mustaches, body types, sari styles, skin tones and accents. It’s not called a sub-continent for nothing!

The head bobble: Ah, the Indian head wiggle. While in Delhi, Hayley and I didn’t see much of the ever-famous head movement that is used to communicate both yes and maybe.

 

But when we got to our hotel in Jaipur, run by a family from Kerala, we were taken aback but the range of motion used when communicating a simple yes or no. It took us a few days to perfect, but on our last day, we had a conversation with a five-year-old girl from Pune, in English, who mostly answered by wiggling her head. Learn it and love it.

Clothing: Other travelers suggested buying a salwar kameez, the long tunic worn over loose-fitting bloomers, and not bringing sandals, but sturdy sneakers. I figured we’d buy something in India, but those salwar blouses looked far too hot for the 90° and humidity. 

We did stick to modest clothing, but in urban centers like Delhi and Mumbai, we saw younger women sporting everything from dresses to leggings to saris. Dress modestly at all times, but wear what’s comfortable and breathable. Just like the Camino, we brought clothes that would dry easily and a bar of laundry soap. I caved and bought sandals, as well – my feet couldn’t take it!

Men holding hands: In Spain, many female teenagers hold hands with one another. In India, it was mostly grown men. We observed, and we did, but only for fun and because we love each another.

Bartering: It’s common knowledge that there’s an added gora tax in India – if you’re a Westerner, you’ll have a more inflated price than an Indian. This was evident in none other than the Taj Mahal, where we paid ten times as much to see the world’s most beautiful building (and elbow people out of our pictures).

Bartering is quite common in India, for everything from taxis to clothing. We couldn’t really watch locals haggle, but we’d watch them walk away, only to have the salesman follow and seemingly offer a better bargain. I personally like Hayley’s take on bartering: only offering the price she was willing to pay, and repeating that figure over and over!

Touching Feet: One morning, we found ourselves at the Agra train depot on our way to Jaipur. Our train had not only moved tracks, but had also been delayed several hours. As we staved off sleep and tried to take in everything around us, a crawling man approached us and touched our feet as we watched, bewildered. 

As it turns out, touching feet is a sign of respect called pranama, and it is usually performed by children to elders, or by women to their husbands. After leaving us (and asking for money), he did the same to other travelers, who shooed him away.

Travel

No getting around it – there are 1.2 billion people or so in India, and they’re mostly crammed into its major cities. The sheer amount of bodies and cars and rickshaws and random cows on the street are enough to make you considering a private driver (we did in Agra and Jaipur).

Crossing the street: As Todd from the hilarious show Outsourced quips, crossing the street in India is like a real-life game of Frogger with people. When we’d timidly set out to get from one side of the road to another, one of us would pull the other back, until we decided to stick with big packs of locals and cross when they crossed, or just start walking and hope we didn’t get hit.

After all, the tuk tuks always seem to find a place to squeeze into!

Tuk tuks: Our favorite way of getting around was by tuk tuk, which looked like glorified tricycles with a backseat and a roof. Not only is this option economical, but also hilariously scary when you’re zipping through traffic.

We saw entire families cram into one backseat, so we treated our trekking bags like small kids and stuffed them between us so as to evade possible bag snatchers. We also learned early on to ask the price of your trip and reach an agreement before getting in (head wiggles works), and please keep your limbs inside the moving vehicle. May not be Disneyland, but the same rules apply.

Trains and Undergrounds: We hadn’t yet been assigned seats (India Rail’s website is the most inefficient and confusing mess of words ever), so we inquired at the ticketing office.  The elderly woman scribbled something on our printout and directed our gaze to the electronic board, which announced comings and goings.

It had been easy to find out seats the day before en route to Agra, as train cars were clearly labeled, and the train stopped completely on the tracks for five minutes. First class seats are assigned, whereas lower classes have simple wooden benches and people cram into the compartments.

When our delayed train finally showed up, patrons were jumping onto the platform from a still-moving train. There were close to 80 cars, and not one was labeled as first class. A man snatched the ticket out of Hayley’s hand and showed us onto a sleeper car. 

We tried to protest as we were shown a berth where an elderly couple sat drinking chai. The morning before, we’d shared a table with a wonderful older couple who had shared stories as we had a complimentary breakfast. Snackless and exhausted from an early wake-up call and over waiting, we fell asleep right away, and when we woke up, the couple was gone.

I ventured out to see if there was a snack car, or at least someone who could tell us where we were and ended up in third class. It was muggy and I had about 100 eyes on me. Turning on my heel, I reported to Hayley that we were on our own until we saw the station. As we watched out the window, Rajasthan’s deserts and stark hills soon came into view, and we arrived to the Pink City three hours after we were meant to. (for more on trains, check out this episode of Outsourced)

Delhi has an underground system that was a life and penny saver when we visit the capital city. While the system itself is not complicated, we found out the hard way that you have to pay in exact change to get a token, which you then place into a machine. This token must be kept until you exit the system.

We were delighted to find that every train has a specially designated “Women’s Only” car, meant to keep gropers at bay. The cars were clean, roomy and air-conditioned, though we were in for a shock when we arrived to the hub at Central Secretariat, where we had to change platforms and run to the other end of the train for the women’s car. We did as the Indians do: pushed hard!

There’s also hella security in the underground. Apart from having to actually pass your bags and body through scanners, there’s always a man with an AK-47 right at the entrance to the trains. I can honestly say I felt safe in India!

Food

Confession: the real reason Hayley and I wanted to go to India was for the food. My mouth watered for baby corn masala, naan and fresh coconut water from the moment we touched down in Mumbai. Thanks to my strong stomach, I had zero problems with food while in India.

Indian meal times are similar to Spanish meal times, but a tad earlier – breakfast usually before 9, lunch around 1 and dinner at 8 or so. To everyone who told me not to eat street food, I both love and hate you – so much of it looked so enticing, from fresh coconut slices to fried churro-like candies.

Meal time was one of our favorites – we could relax, plan the rest of our day and tuck into delicacy after delicacy. I have a new appreciation for vegetarian cuisine, for long meals and for using my hands and pushing pieces of bread as a utensil. 

Safely eating: “No, no, you eat this way.” The man in 32K next to me shook out the dried spices and sugar into his mouth, chewed it up a bit, and spit it in his napkins. “Very nice breath!” he said with a smile, and I followed up my Indian dinner on the plane following suit.

I clearly know less about Indian food than I thought.

After a disastrous first meal at Karim’s, we decided to give its second branch, near Humayan’s Tomb and the Hazrat, a try. Tucked into a small street in the Muslim Enclave, the place oozed Far East. The wait staff lead us to a table in the corner, under and air vent, and the power went out as soon as we ordered.

A British couple sat next to us, sharing our table and their stories of three months of non-stop travel around India. They explained things on the menu to us and warned us against eating anything that was able to reproduce. Paneer, a bean curd tofu, stuffed chapati and aloo gobi became our staples during the week, and we mixed them with different sorts of sauces and curries.

We also tried to avoid uncooked food or anything fresh. I missed vegetables and yoghurt after a few days, as well as beer. Taxes on alcohol are exorbitant in India, so lay off the slosh if you want to spend your money elsewhere. I did order a “pitcher” of beer at Leopold’s that was easily three litres.

Water bottles: India was just on the brink of the hot weather when we went in mid-April. Warned not to drink the water, we were sure to have a few bottles on hand for drinking and brushing our teeth, and were willing to shell out for untampered water bottles.

If you see that the security ring on the water bottle has been broken, return immediately. Some restaurants or roadside booths will re-use bottles and fill them with unfiltered water. Be cautious with the fizzy lemon drink that’s a popular alternative to pop, as well. Ask the waiter to open the bottle in front of you.

The Takeaway

India didn’t leave my consciousness right away – I had a nasty virus or parasite or magical fat burner for a week after returning to Europe – and it still hasn’t, a month after we returned to Spain and drinkable water. My body heaved a sigh of relief as soon as we’d been bumped to business class for our long haul flight, as if I didn’t have to have my senses sharpened and my head on straight all the time (I missed you, beer).

My boss was right when she said that India has all of the beauty in the world, but it is full of shadows. We were scammed and once put in a potentially dangerous situation. Women offered us their babies at corners. Heat, anxiety and lack of vegetables left us weak and then made us both quite sick. 

But I think that India is the sort of place that you have to plunge into, headfirst.

I sometimes envied the travelers who were seeing India on circuit trips between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. They didn’t deal with train delays or scams, but then again, they didn’t have any sense of adventure when it came to figuring things out on their own and recovering from mistakes. Hayley and I discovered more than we had imagined during out eight days in India, evident with her quick stride as she crossed busy avenues and pressing our hands together in the Namasté greeting.

India did as good a job embedded itself into my heart and my head as the parasite did in my rock-hard immune system. I just hope the memories of one last longer than the other!

Have you ever felt like a fish out of water on your travels? Tell me about it!

India: The Dream I Didn’t Know I Had

Have you ever dreamed about a place you didn’t even know you wanted to visit?

When Hayley mentioned the idea of going to Asia for Holy Week, I figured it was a pipe dream, given prices and our limited travel time. But what happens when it’s almost as cheap to jet to India as it is to fly round-trip to Berlin? On a whim, we chose to book Lufthansa flights from Madrid to Mumbai and figured we’d let the rest of the chips fall. No one could talk us out of 450€ roundtrip.

Many friends of mine have gone to India and can’t seem to shut up about how it lives up to its touristic nickname, “Incredible India,” but it was never a place I yearned to see. That’s a special place on my mental bucket list reserved for Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand and Seattle. But I bought a Lonely Planet off of Amazon UK and soon realized that India must have been buried deep in my conscious as a place I’m dying to see.

 

There’s been hold-ups with visas and how to get to and from Madrid with limited options, the immense task of whittling down dozens of worthy destinations to fit our short, nine-day itinerary, plus the the push-pull of two seasoned travelers with different ideas of what to see and how.

At the moment you’re reading this, I could be laying eyes on the Taj Mahal. Or pinching my nose in a marketplace in Delhi. Or picking out a sari for myself in Jaipur’s garment district. I have a feeling that my journey to India will be diving into the deepest dreams I’ve always had for my life – of travel, of discovery, of self-realization, of having that freshman feeling over and over again.

I think that’s what India will be to me – seeing life unfold before me, the contrasts that so seem to characterize the country. Mariellen Wallace of the excellent India page, Breathe Dream Go, refers to a traveler’s first trip to India as “Beginner’s Mind.” Experiencing India as if you were seeing the world for the first time and reminding my senses to wake up and associate new sights, sounds and tastes.

I’m reading Shantaram, a Novel, a book I can’t put down that explains life in the underbelly of Mumbai. Not three pages in, he summarizes the majesty and the poverty of the world’s second most populous country through its myriad of smells:

“I immediately recognize it. I know now that it’s the sweet, sweating smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; it’s the sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love. It’s the small of gods, demons, empires and civilizations in resurrection and decay. It’s the blue skin-smell of the sea, no matter where you are on Island City, and he blood-metal smell of machines. It smells of stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and raw. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of crucial failures and loves that produce our courage. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense and freshly cut flowers…But whenever I return, it’s my first sense of the city – that smell, above all things.”

I expect India to be nothing short of overwhelming, exhilarating, eye-opening and heart-breaking. I expect to battle my stomach and the urges to talk to strangers. I expect to feel defeated and uplifted in the span of a day.

And at the same time, I don’t have too many expectations. I just want to experience India with an open mind and heart.

If you’re interested in our itinerary:

We arrived to Mumbai early morning on the 12th and took the first flight out to Delhi.

Today, we’ll take the famed Shatabdi Express to Agra, where we should be now. We’ve heard Agra isn’t too exciting, so we’ll be there to see the Red Fort and the Taj and sunset and sunrise before jumping on an early train.

Jaipur is next on the list, and I’m psyched to shop and see the Amber Fort, which is supposed to be mind-blowing. 

We have a flight from Jaipur to Mumbai, where we’ll experience the city’s chaos and imperialism in Colbata.

You can follow me on twitter and instagram, where I’ll be uploading photos as wi-fi allows. If you’re interested in an India trip yourself, I’d recommend the monster Lonely Planet, with up-to-date information, fail-proof advice and loads of pretty pictures.

How Bratislava Surprised Me

There was nervous anticipation on the boat. 

“And tomorrow,” Marek said shrilly, “we tour the greatest country in the world, my home of Slovakia!”

I didn’t share his enthusiasm, though have always thought that their flag is pretty sweet. For an itinerary packed with so many European highlights, Slovakia seemed like a necessary stopover because we didn’t have any onboard entertainment (save Marek dressed as Mozart the night we left Salzburg). All of the opportunities I had had in the past to visit Slovakia’s capital city had been met with the same response: “Skip it, there’s nothing to see there.”

And then, of course, there’s the city’s shining portrayal in the film Eurotrip.

So I wrote Slovakia off altogether until it was part of our Viking Cruise plan; a morning in Bratislava. This also meant my 31st country, one I’d merely passed through on an overnight bus between Budapest and Prague in the past and where I laid groggy eyes on the castle from the gas station.

We piled into buses at the small Danube port. Remnants of Communism remain, but the city proved to be a strange juxtaposition of Maria Theresa’s opulence and Czech repression with a few modern structures thrown in for good measure. 

Climbing into the hills behind the castle, we passed the various embassies, monuments to liberation and elegant states houses, plus TV towers, grungy hotels and decrepit houses. Squat housing developments and factories lay just across the Danube towards Vienna. Our guide pointed it all out, joking about how Communism meant that she grew up getting her knuckles rapped at school for having a shoelace untied, but her kids now graffiti the school without punishment.

Calling the castle an “overturned castle,” she confessed that it was, amidst crumbling buildings and Soviet architecture, quite possibly the biggest eyesore in the city. Maybe because it was glistening white and unspoiled by war and oppressive regimes, but I had to agree (and then took my obligatory picture).

Crossing into the historic, traffic-free center of town through Michael’s Gate, the streets were lined with small shops and cafes. Cannonball holes made for interesting stories about tax payers who purposely mutilated their own homes to get out of fees for a few years, even when the trajectory made no sense. Our guide was quick to make fun of oppressors who had tried to take control of the landlocked territory.

Pressburg’s former glory was reduced to ruins quickly during the last century, but it seems that the iron-clad spirit of the Slovaks have given the city a sort of revival; it was no wonder that every Slovakian staff member on board or ship was colorful and good-natured. The country has seen its share of battles, changing of rulers and didn’t gain independence until 1993. Amidst the cannonball-laden buildings, there are McDonald’s, boutiques and whimsical statues. 

Once we’d tipped the guide, we set Nancy loose in the city to do some shopping, and we joined a family from Maine in one of the city’s most famous chocolate shops. In a city where coffee culture is king, we opted for beers – and the Slovak beer, Zlaty Bažant, was awesome. Bratislava is rumored to have great nightlife, as evident by the slew of bars on Sedlárska Street.

 

While not a dazzling European capital, Bratislava was an easy-going break between regal Vienna and Budapest that gave us a chance to drink in a bit of small-city Europe. It was a place where I, for the first time on a trip that had us in four countries and eight cities, didn’t need to blindly follow a tour guide and tick things off my list.

Between the coffee culture and architecture, I could have spent the entire day popping in and out of locales for a drink or snack. It seemed to blend a tragic past with a hopeful future and a fun-loving, self-deprecating present.

Would it be it worth an entire trip? Perhaps, but as just an hour’s drive from Vienna, it’s definitely recommended for a quick visit (if even just for its cheaper prices, hilarious locals and yummy beer).

Have you been to Slovakia or Bratislava? What did you like (or not) about the city?

My Biggest Travel Fiasco (or, the time I spent New Year’s Eve alone in Romania)

Budapest, Hungary

The clock reads 7:32 a.m. The man in the front seat is antsy, nervously playing with the manual lock system on the minivan. 

“Where are these people? Don’t they know we could be late for our flights?”

I assure Fidgety Floridian that the Budapest airport is quite small and easy to get through, but his wife isn’t convinced. She rolls her eyes and says, “We have the worst luck with planes. We nearly didn’t make it on the cruise.”

My flight to Tirgu Mures, Romania doesn’t leave for four hours, so I’m cool. I settle into the jump seat at the back of the van, wedged between luggage.

Three hours later, I’ve sailed through security and pursue the food options. I decide to wait until I land in Tirgu Mures, as I will need something to do for three hours before leaving for Madrid. My foot taps impatiently against the floor as we begin to embark. Wedged into an airport bus, I choose to stand next to someone who hasn’t showered.

For thirty minutes.

After which we are unloaded back  into the terminal and delayed another thirty minutes. I settle into my third book of my holiday break and return to tapping my foot again while doing the mental math: I have a one hour flight, a one hour delay and a one hour forward time change. I have just enough time to grab my bag, check in again and head to my gate once we touch down in Tirgu Mures. 

My foot taps faster.

In the air, I relax a little, as I’ve been assured that it will be taxi, takeoff, ascent, quick passage of the metal cart for snacks, descent, landing, taxi. Plus, I’ve snagged a seat on the aisle in the third row (thank you, Amazing Race, for teaching me how to get on and off planes quickly). Flipping through the inflight magazine for the third time, the captain announces something in Hungarian. Then, in English: Due to zero visibility in Tirgu Mures, we’ve been rerouted to Cluj, to which we have begun our descent. There will be buses on hand to take you to Tirgu, unless you’d prefer to stay in Cluj. We apologize for any inconvenience.

My heart skips a beat and I call the flight attendant, slightly panicked. How long until the buses arrive? Is it a far drive to Tirgu Mures? Will I have to go through customs here? I continue to fire, but she comes back with two responses: first, I don’t know anything about Romania and second, we are a point to point airline, sorry.

No shit. 

Cluj-Napoca Airport, Romania

Once on the ground, I call the Novio, fighting tears. Our New Year’s plans were to spend the night with his extended family which had come from London, Peru, Murcia and Madrid. He assures me they’ll come and pick me up from Madrid when I get in, whenever that may be. I hastily get through customs, and my checked bag comes barreling down the belt first.

My first stop is the tourist information counter. Unfortunately, the woman speaks limited English. There is no bus to Tirgu Mures out front, and I check my watch: with the time change, my flight closes in 90 minutes. I return to the desk and slow down: How long in taxi to Tirgu Mures? 

“One hour thirty, maybe two.” Remembering my Romania road trip, I think of the poor state of most highways in Romania and bite my lip.

Other travelers are taking pity on me, asking if there’s anything they can do to help me or if I’d like a lift to the center of Cluj. I rack my brain – I’ve been here before. It’s a large university city where we made a quick stop, and the food was cheap. A large, domed church with a fountain in front gets shaken from my head as I try to think straight.

The Cluj airport flies to many more destinations, including Barcelona and Madrid, I tell myself. If I fly out of anywhere, it will be here.

I have to say, I have never been a nervous flier. I always arrive to the airport early, pack my bag without liquids and know how planes work and why they just don’t fall out of the sky. Yes, I even pray to the Virgin of Loreto, patron saint of pilots (and I can’t believe I just admitted that). But now I’m antsy, channeling Kevin McCallister’s mother as I half-run to the Wizz Air ticketing office in the departures terminal.

The woman is quite nice and speaks English, and looks up flights to anywhere in Spain – Valencia, Alicante, Palma. Nothing more will fly out today to Spain, just to Budapest at 8pm, more than six hours in the future. She assures me there are flights from Budapest to Madrid the following day for a mere 145€, and the woman in the other information booth looks up overnight buses and prices for me.

Just then, a young Lufthansa worker touches me on the shoulder. Nothing is flying out of Targu this afternoon – there’s no ground visibility and they’ve already sent word that we’ll be getting flights bound for other destinations here, he tells me.

Feeling a stroke of good luck, I buy myself a cold sandwich and a warm Orsus beer and pace the empty departures hall.

For the next five hours, I jockey between the Wizz Air office, the check-in counters for news and the information desk. Passengers from other flights to Lutton and Beauvais pass through, looking at me as if I am in the movie Terminal. Time ticks by slowly, but I don’t pick up a magazine until several hours into the ordeal. Food doesn’t appeal to me, and even the nice Romanian girl who offers me tea gets a no, thank you.

The Lufthansa worker is nowhere to be found, so I ask another for help. Thankfully, he speaks English perfectly and makes a call. 

“We’ll know in thirty minutes, but I think you’re in luck. Just stay within sight.” Doing as I’m told, I finally start to try to occupy myself, returning to my e-book. Still distracted, another hour flies by and the Novio calls back. He tells me, pity in his voice, that no one could help him in Barajas, then, angrily, “And the call costs 1,15 a minute, joder!”

Just then, nice Lufthansa man steps out from around the heck-in desk with a long face. “Yeah, so, your flight will leave in 15 minutes. From Targu Mures. I’m sorry, the weather has cleared up.”

Well, crap.

Nice Lufthansa man turns into an angel when he gets on the phone with Wizz Air and scores me a new ticket, free of charge, for the misinformation he alleges I’ve received. An email in my inbox confirms this. I could hug him, but instead I give him the bottle of wine I was carrying home for the Novio’s family. One good deed deserves another, and he gladly accepts it, saying that he was made to work an extra eight hours with the influx of re-routed flights.

I grab my things and find a taxi after seven hours in the terminal. There is general confusion, as the taxi driver asks me which bus station I want to go to. I dart back into the terminal to find it completely deserted. I leave it to blind faith and nod when he asks the name of the company and just takes off, racing towards the city.

Cluj-Napoca City Center

We pull up to what appears to be an abandoned junk yard with a few plastic huts. “Bus!” the driver calls out and dumps my bag on the cold, wet ground. Never mind the vintage stein I’m bringing back…or the other bottle of wine.

Everything is dark. I can’t read anything. My watch read 8:22, or one hour, forty-eight minutes until the bus apparently passes. Music is playing at the hotel around the corner, so I go in and plead my way into sitting in the still-cold lobby, tired enough to want to cry, or just curl up and say to hell with an overnight bus.

Welp, turns out there was no overnight bus, or any bus or train on New Year’s Day, so I turn on my Internet data (happy Christmas bonus, Vodafona) and look up hotels, figuring it would be money well spent. There’s a Hilton.

There’s a Hilton.

The closest I can get to home is a Hilton, and they would definitely have wi-fi and breakfast. I realize, rubbing my eyes, I’ve barely eaten or even drank since 6:30 in the morning, adding to my drowsiness and overall pity party.

The Hilton glows green on the empty street, just a few yards from the city center. I practically collapse as the receptionist charges my credit card and writes down my information to the tune of 58€. Giving him the cliff notes of my sob story, he promises to call me a taxi.

Upstairs in my room, I’ve just taken off my bag when the phone buzzes. “Um, yes, my friend can take you to Budapest Airport tomorrow. It is five, maybe six hours. It will cost 250€. Yes?” Without even thinking, I say yes. Besides, I already did the mental math. If I waited another day, I’d have to spend another 58€ for the hotel room, over 300€ for the flight from Cluj on the 2nd, and then another train ticket from Madrid. 

I kick off my shoes and run the shower. I stare at the water and steam for about a minute before I decide I’m too tired to even stand under the jet of water. The clock says 11:23 p.m., a full 15 hours since I left the dock in Budapest. I should have arrived to Spain three hours ago.

My night is sleepless, punctuated by fireworks, whatsapps from well-wishing friends and a very nervous mother. My in-laws send pictures of themselves eating my 12 lucky grapes, and all I can think is, vaya suerte. 

Rural Romania

The driver nods his head at me as I slip in the back seat of his car. He punches something nervously into his GPS and I wish him a happy new year, surprisingly sunny, given the circumstances and the money I am about to fork over to him. It doesn’t seem that he speaks English, which both relieves and disappoints me.

One thing I can say since my road trip through Transylvania and Mures: the roads have definitely gotten better. We speed out of Cluj along the E-61 towards Hungary, and I am flooded with memories of my trip. The intricately carved wooden crosses on the side of the road, the haystacks behind homes and the women in black fly by as we take the twisting roads west.

There’s definitely a common theme amongst Romanians – they’re all so damn nice, and it’s amazing what a terrible night of sleep did to me – I feel 100 times better and pray to the travel gods that I will be back in Spain on the first day of 2014.

Romanian-Hungarian border

The driver is nervous. He backs his car up, pulls it back in, changes positions, smokes his smokeless cigarette pipe thing. I’m sipping down water in small amounts, not sure if he speaks enough English to know I need a pit stop. After seven long minutes (for him, not me), the guard approaches the car and hands me back me passport and Spanish residency card.

On the first day of 2014, I’ve already got two freshly stamped entries in my passport. Every cloud…

Budapest, Hungary

Once we’re into Hungary, the roads become straight and the hills disappear. While I can understand some words in Romania because of its Romantic language roots, Hungary has me completely stumped. All I can make out is the ever-dwindling number of kilometers between our car and the airport.

The driver drops me off right in front of the terminal. I’ve given him a tip of close to 30€ (after all, he charged me in Romanian leu and that conversion is not easy on a sleep-deprived brain) for his trouble on New Year’s Day, and he shakes my hand firmly after helping me put my heavy bag on my back. I thank him on the only word in Romanian I know, multumesc. Thank you very much.

My phone picks up the wi-fi immediately in the airport, and I re-book a train ticket for 9:30 p.m. I have three hours before my flight, which will give me time to finally have a beer, get checked in and get through security…and maybe eat fast food and not feel ashamed about it. Spanish permeates my consciousness and I relax.

Once on the plane, the sky is a dreamy pink with streaks of red until night falls.

Madrid, Spain

As soon as the plane touches down, the first thing that comes to mind is Manolo Escobar’s famous Spain anthem, Que Viva España. My phone is turned on before we reach the gate, and I send whatsapps to everyone I know. I feel like I’ve returned to a place where everything makes sense and where language is no longer an issue. I get Spain. 

Time seems to pass by in three seconds as I grab my bag, transfer to terminal 4, hop on the cercanías line and make it to my train – the last of the day – with 20 minutes to spare. Being a holiday, my car was only half full, so I could curl up across both seats and sleep for two hours. Stepping onto the platform and seeing ‘SEVILLA – SANTA JUSTA’ as I take a deep breath reminds me that I am, at long last, home.

Sevilla, Spain

I arrive home five minutes to midnight on January 1st. The travel gods heard my plea, it seems. I’ve traveled, by my estimate, over 3900 miles in 40 hours. The Novio hasn’t changed the sheets in two weeks, but I hardly notice as I sleep, finally, in my own bed for 10 hours.

I’ve since recounted the short version of the ordeal to my friends. While some are shocked and glad it didn’t happen to them, I can say this: I am relieved that I am a seasoned traveler and that I’ve watched my parents navigate standby and weather delays like champs. My nerves and even my tear ducts were put to the test, but I got home, unscathed (just poorer). Had I been new to international travel or unaware of European flight compensations, I may have made rookie mistakes.

One thing I have realized? I am not cut out for round-the-world travel. While it seems challenging and fun, I’m too accustomed to my comforts and hate wearing dirty clothes (there, I admitted it). I can handle when things don’t go as planned, but I don’t like it because I am not spontaneous. I like feeling grounded. I like the feeling of familiarity. I like having wi-fi and no roaming data (my bill came yesterday…ouch).

That’s not to say that I won’t travel for extended periods of time – I most certainly will travel as far as my body and my salary will take me, and have big dreams when it comes to doing it. But I think I’ve finally mató el gusano. The idea of round-trip travel is no longer a little tickle that flares up once in a while.

The idea of becoming an expat in another city or another country? THAT is the new gusanillo.

Have you had any travel disasters recently? I’d love to hear them, and if they’re Spain-related, feel free to send me the story for publishing!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...