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

 

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?

Tapa Thursdays: Apple Strudel at Buda Castle

While Spanish food is one of my biggest loves, I am not one to turn down local fare in any of the places I visit. This meant wild boar tortellini in Florence, leubuckhen in Passau and even grasshoppers in China. A happy tummy means a happy Cat.

When I was on a shoestring budget traveling around Europe, I typically ate street food and made sandwiches in hostels and splurged on one meal. Now that I have a big kid job, I find that a far larger part of my budget on eating and visiting local markets.

Then my parents came to Europe and they offered to pick up the tab.

As part of our package on our Viking Cruise down the Danube, we were offered the option of taking walking tours with local guides. As someone who has traveled independently for six years, I tend to stick to a map and my own intuition, but I found Viking’s guides to be knowledgeable and quite humorous.

My most frequent question: Where do the locals go to eat?

Our guide in Budapest, Julia, showed us around the Buda Castle area and directed us to the Ruszwurm, a nearly 200-year old coffeehouse that had retained its recipes ever since. Famous for strudel – apple, sour cherry and even nut – it’s one of the most frequented and most beloved of the Hungarian capital.

When we walked into the cramped café, one of the other families on the cruise was leaving, so we snagged their seats and ordered an espresso for me, a cappucino for my sister, and an apple strudel and tiramisu to share. One thing you have to understand about my family is that we’ve all got a severe sweet tooth, so a certain amount of self-restraint was required to not get an individual pastry and fend off wandering forks.

The strudel was heavenly, flaky on top and tart in the middle. Our bill for two coffees and two cakes came out to 9€ (most places in Budapest accept euros). Warm apple strudel? These are a few of my favorite things.

Marek told us that we should wait until Vienna for apple strudel. Or, you could just wait until Ruszwurm. 

If you go: Ruszwurm is located at Szentháromság utca 7, just steps from the St. Stephen’s Cathedral on the Buda side of the Danube, and is open daily from 10a.m. until 7p.m.

Revisiting Gran Canaria: Driving the Miniature Continent of the Canary Islands

As I prepare for my upcoming Christmas trip, I’ve realized something: for as many years as I’ve run Sunshine and Siestas, there are loads of places I have never written about visiting (like, several stops on my Christmas route). 

One of those places is Gran Canaria. Though a part of Spain, the island chain that makes up the Canary Islands is actually closer to the Western coast of Africa and are a haven for North Europeans – as well as Spaniards – on holiday.

As it turns out, this near-perfect circle of an island had far more than we bargained for. After all, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its biodiversity, earning it the nickname ‘The Miniature Continent.’ Though we went in May 2008 for a wedding, the Novio and I were able to see loads on our Gran Canaria holiday.

Though arriving to the Canary Islands is actually quite easy, as Las Palmas Airport is one of Spain’s busiest, renting a car made the biggest difference. I blindly followed the Novio, as I did in the early stages of the relationship, as he navigated the large airport, stuffed me into a car and drove me right to breakfast.

The GC-1 highway runs the eastern circumference of the island and took us to Maspalomas. Known for its dunes and gay nightlife, we cozied up to an airy bar near the beach. I gawked at how everything on the menu was in big, bold English with tempting bacon and hash browns. The morning was spent walking across the dunes, which stretch on for three kilometers away from Playa del Inglés.

Not surprisingly, then, there were loads of holiday makers and a few who wanted to bare all in the warmth of the early May sunshine.

We followed the GC-1 though the mountains to Puerto Mogan. The seaside village sidles up to a small port and beach, perfect for our lunch stop. We strolled through the streets, avoiding the shade and popping into boutiques.  That afternoon, we had a long lunch with several beers and loads of footsy.  Back on the GC-1 later that day, the afternoon meant relaxing near our hotel’s beach and strolling through the center.

We hopped on the GC-2, the highway that runs counterclockwise from Las Palmas, turning off at the GC-20, a secondary highway that leads to the island’s second-largest city.

Arucas and the cavernous church de San Juan Bautista was the venue for Jose and Particia’s wedding the next day. Like Maspalomas, Arucas is famous throughout Spain, though not for its natural beauty. This village, perched on a mountainside, produces a sweet honey rum called Arehucas. We’d later drink it until the early hours, only stopping once we saw the sun. My first Spanish wedding has always been my favorite.

On Sunday, the Novio had the idea to drive inland, towards Roque Nublo. As the highest point on Gran Canaria, we had to take several small highways that snaked higher and higher into the mountainous central part of the island.

I hated him for it.

From the top, one can see not only the panorama of the whole island (though the northern part of the city tends to be covered in fog), as well as Teide, the volcano on Tenerife and Spain’s highest point. Hiking off the hedonism from the previous night served me well for the return trip to the Iberian Peninsula. 

Afterwards, we stopped in the quaint fishing village of Agaete for lunch and a bit of sun. Located on the west side of the island and a jumping off point to other islands, the bars were a bit rough around the edges and cheaper than the bars we’d been at in other parts of the island.

Though our holiday on the Canary Islands lasted just one long weekend, we felt miles away from everything. It truly is a miniature continent, and has something from every type of traveler.

Have you ever been to the Canary Islands? I’ll be traveling to Tenerife right after Carnavales next year and would love tips!

Paddle Surfing in Calpe

I don’t know what I was more afraid of – the translucent jellyfish that floated near the surface of the water, or the fact that pictures of me in a bikini were circulating around twitter and instagram. Malditos blogueros.

Patricia was quick to offer up the switch: “No, no. You take my spot in the paddle surfing class. I prefer to stay on dry land, or at least sail.”

I was in Calpe on a blog trip, rubbing away the early morning goosebumps on my legs as I agreed to give her my spot in the sailing class for hers in the stand up paddle class, known locally as SUP. Calpe’s location in the northern region of Alicante is planted right on the water, its enormous Peñón de Ifach splitting the old fisherman’s city into two bays. That morning, I’d be learning how to surf standing up.

My legs already ached thinking about the six-hour ride back to Seville and the inability to stretch out after a vigorous morning workout.

I’d tried surfing before in La Coruña, but the lack of waves meant that as soon as I’d paddled out to the middle of the Riazor and stood up on the board, I’d sink. I was thankful that the crystalline waters of the Mediterranean were calm that day.

Chris from Gravity Cartel Surf Shop met us with a dozen boards. Resembling those used commonly for surf, the SUP boards were wider, sturdier and easier to get on, meant not for speed but for stability. He breezed through an explanation on how to correctly use the oars, how to stabilize a board and how to make turns. His abbreviated monologue was due to the calm waters – we had no need to learn how to battle waves nor how to pick up speed for the hour we’d be on the water.

I watched as Miguel Angel, Carolina and Fabio all paddled out, made it to their knees and then stood up without so much as rocking the boat. I cautiously waded out until the water reached the top of my bikini bottoms. Too cold to stay in the water, I climbed on top of the board, gingerly getting to my feet. The others were all paddling quickly through

The day ended up beautiful, the sun already high in the sky and reflecting off of the sea. The other instructors from Gravity Cartel helped me perfect my skills, talking about the village and how long they’d been there – they were all adopted calpinos, drawn to the villa for its sand and surf. Calpe seemed to be a city that has been able to retain its fishing village charm while meeting the demands of the tourism that fuels the local economy.

As Fabio and I began paddling back onto shore nearly an hour, I asked Laura to take our picture. Once she’d done it, a small wave rippled behind my board, knocking me right into the water as Fabio laughed. Turns out I should have stuck around to listen for how to deal with waves.

Have you ever paddle surfed? Are you as deathly afraid as jellyfish as me?!

Major thanks to both the Calpe Tourism Board and the instructors at Gravity Cartel for the lessons and not laughing too hard when  I fell off my board. My opinions, as always, are all my own.

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