2013 has been a year of spectrums, from long work hours to not working at all, from living where folks are comfortable to traveling extreme poverty, and from diving to the bottom of the ocean to trekking at the top of the world. We’ve had some of the most serene as well as the most trying situations that we’ve ever experienced together. It feels as though we ought to reflect on our travels and pull some sort of deep insight from our experiences. But instead, we’re going for superlatives. This is our year, in a bit more than bullet points.
Favorite City Moment
Zach: Arriving in Kathmandu, seeing nothing but Nepali signage and dust and realizing I’d entered another world.
Christina: I got my tattoo on our first day in Melbourne. That afternoon, we went to the Central Business District to explore the town, but got caught in a late afternoon downpour and ran from bar to bar on a map that our friends from New Zealand had made for us. The kind folks at Penny Blue beer bar let us in before they were actually open, where we dried off, enjoyed Aussie IPAs and started working on the guest list for our wedding.
Favorite Nature Moment
Both: Sitting on a rock at Annapurna Base Camp watching the goats that the shepherd in the Free Tibet t-shirt brought down from the mountain, listening to the glaciers crack in the background, and sitting in an amphitheater of 8,000 meter peaks.
Best Non Alcoholic Beverage
Z: Banana lassi, India
C: Super sweet chai from street vendors in the tiny cups, India
Both: Alternating turns in the bathroom while we both had food poisoning on Gili Trawangen in Indonesia.
Biggest Adrenaline Rush
Z: Third pitch of Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out in Wanaka, NZ
C: 3am in Bali, I was laying in bed, not sleeping because my two friends from NYC were on their way to come see us. Finally hearing their voices then staying up eating cashews and chatting with them, in the flesh, into the wee hours of the night.
Z: Drinking fancy scotch at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai
C: Having a lazy morning reading Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook and drinking a latte in the library at the Pen y Bryn Lodge in Oamaru, New Zealand with Zach’s dad and Janet.
Z: Day three of hiking Gunung Rinjani in Lombok, Indonesia; so much dust and human waste.
C: The three consecutive days we spent on overnight buses and in dusty bus stations from Pushkar to Hampi in India.
Worst Decision of the Year
Z: Telling the Bollywood casting tout to get lost. One of our friends accepted the offer and came back with amazing stories.
C: Diving into the shallow end of the pool in Bali.
Z: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
C: Michael Pollan’s Cooked or John Irving’s The Cider House Rules
Favorite Photo You’ve Taken
Z: Sliding down the icy Crown Range road between Queenstown and Wanaka, NZ in our 20 year old minivan with bald tires.
C: The public bus ride in Nepal. Specifically, when it tried to cross the landslide.
Z: Stumbling over a three meter python at 10:30pm on a dark trail in Hampi, India.
C: Cuddling the nice, chubby stray cats in Istanbul.
Z: The next one!
C: Tie. Either dinner at the Francesca’s Italian Kitchen Staff Party or breakfast at Privato Cafe in Istanbul. So different. Equally delicious.
Thing You’d Be Happy If You Never Did Again
Z: Take an overnight bus in India
C: Visit East Timor
Encounter With a Stranger That You’ll Remember Forever
Z: The guy on the street in Jaipur who asked us why westerners are so rude to Indians and then immediately tried to sell us something.
C: Sitting on a stoop in Kathmandu talking with a shop keeper for like an hour. He told me a story about his friends saving up for years to apply for a US visa, then the chances of actually receiving one being like winning the lottery.
Place to Which You Are Most Excited to Return
Both: Nepal Himalaya
The week before Christmas we traveled from India to Istanbul, the first stop on the European leg of our trip. But before we left Mumbai, there was some work to be done. We scrubbed off the scent of our last overnight bus, shoved our dingy, Indian traveler clothes in the trash can at the hostel, and went to the Levis store for some skinny jeans so that we didn’t feel like total urchins while dining at flashy restaurants in Istanbul and Spain. I forgot how good it feels to dress up and not be covered in a constant layer of dust!
When we landed in Istanbul, Zach’s cousin Joe welcomed us to his apartment in the center of town, where we indulged in a week of comforts: coffee, a warm bed with fluffy pillows, brunch, bars with atmosphere, street art, high speed wifi, and most of all, cheeseburgers. Visiting Istanbul was the most familiar experience we’ve had in the last 16 months. It was cold, people wore black, no one cared what we were doing, where we were going, and no one was trying to sell us anything. Folks just went about their business and we went about ours.
After so much sightseeing in India, we were a bit torn between Istanbul’s tempting sights or our own, more basic desires like wearing heels and drinking whiskey and going to a drawn out brunch that wastes half the day. The thing is though, you don’t have to choose. Istanbul is a young, modern city steeped in a history that is older than most and is predominantly Islamic, as opposed to most other historically Christian European cities.
In coming to a Muslim country, I was prepared to wear loose fitting, conservative clothes and to be thinking about not offending folks. That may be necessary in rural Turkey, but Istanbul was full of tight jeans and funky leggings. For some, that was jeans with a headscarf. For others, it was lots of layers of long clothing, but in any big city, you will find a variety of fashions influenced by everything from religion to pop culture. There were plenty of indicators, from style of dress to the call to prayer, that we were in a city where Islam is the dominant religion, but that was just one of the many characteristics of the largely secular city. In areas where conservative dress was important, like at a Mosque, there were signs written in English and assistants to help tourists feel comfortable and respect the customs.
We spent a Saturday morning at the organic farmer’s market in Sisli, took the metro home and after dropping our mandarins and olive oil (a half liter bottle for 7 bucks!) off at the apartment, went up the Galata Tower (built in 500 AD) and watched the sun set behind the dozens of minarets that pierce the city’s skyline. We spent a lazy morning Skyping friends, gorged ourselves on a traditional Turkish village breakfast, then had our minds blown by The Basilica Cistern from the 5th century and tasted Turkish wines at one of the city’s newly opened wine bars.
On Christmas Eve morning, I spent the morning at the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam, enjoying a traditional scrub in a gorgeous, renovated Hamam spa. After the exfoliating scrub, you lay in silence on a heated stone in the center of the room and gaze up at the light that comes streaming through the stars carved in the marble domed roof. Now this is the way to experience Islamic architecture. A trip to the Hamam was once a normal activity for Turks, but now is more of a touristy thing to do. A highly recommended touristy thing to do. At 130 Turkish Lira, or about $65, it is one of the more expensive activities in Istanbul, but it is worth every lira.
We lived like kings in Istanbul, a city that feels a bit like a young kid a with an old soul. There are endless historical sights to see, the nightlife is great, and their restaurant scene is well on it’s way. Even though most folks don’t speak English, the city was easy to navigate and people tried to help when we asked them (or had that lost look on our faces). I can’t recommend a trip to Istanbul highly enough.
Wow, there are a lot of rocks to climb in Hampi. After our first day bouldering there I wrote a feverish email to my climbing buddies back home in the USA, telling them to get on the next flight to Bangalore. Yeah, there are a lot of fantastic climbing destinations in the USA and other, more accessible places around the world, but nowhere else can you live like a king for under $10 a day within walking distance of world-class granite. Oh, and if you’ve always wanted your name in a guidebook there are thousands of first ascents available in the surrounding 300 square kilometers of boulders and cracks.
Recently made a Unesco World Heritage Site, Hampi is a burgeoning tourist destination in southern India for temple-gazing as well as climbing. Split into two main areas by the Tungabhadra River, the Hampi Bazaar side caters to more of the short-term tourists, while the pot-smoking and didgeridoo-playing happens on Hampi Island. Shocker, Hampi Island is also home to most of the developed bouldering. If you’re there for climbing, stay in Hampi Island and watch out for flying dreadlocks.
Everything in Hampi Island is designed for the lazy climber tourist. A dozen small guesthouses are within ten minutes walk of multiple boulder areas, and the heat of the day is spent flopping on cushions around low tables, drinking chai and playing chess or falling off a slackline. It’s common to stumble on a drum circle at sunset among the boulders or catch a Tarantino flick over thali at the restaurant next door.
Fly to Bangalore or Goa from NYC for around $1200 round trip, and hop on an overnight sleeper bus for Rs 800 (about $12) to Hospet or Hampi. No matter your preferred flavor, you can easily append a sleepy beach holiday or hardcore party schedule in Goa to your trip.
When to Go
The coolest weather is in December and January, but most of November and February are just fine for climbing in the morning and evening, and you’ll get better rates on rooms. Don’t think of coming in March and April, when temperatures soar into the 40s celsius. The rainy season is June to September and the area will be deserted. In October most guesthouses will just be opening up for the season, but you could get lucky with the weather and a place to stay.
Places to Flop
We set up camp at Gopi Guesthouse for the duration of our month in Hampi. The staff are wonderful and the rooms are cheap. Bamboo bungalows start at Rs 100 ($1.50) per night, and deluxe rooms with a daybed in the garden run a very reasonable Rs 350 ($5) while we were there in November, though rates increase in December and January. The real highlight here is the food, which is the best in town and comes in massive, shareable portions.
Mowgli Guesthouse is a slightly more comfortable option on the strip in Hampi Island. It’s a professionally run operation where you can count on management to fulfill promises, which is sometimes a rare occurrence in India.
If you’re looking for a very quiet, reflective time and hard bouldering steps from your door, check out Baba’s Cafe Guesthouse. Small and well away from the beaten path on the other side of the main climbing area, you’ll feel more like you’re staying in an Indian village than a tourist town. It’s run by a charming Spanish expat named Hugo, who is more than happy to show you around his side of town and the areas he is developing.
No, You Don’t Need to Take Your Boulder Mat on the Plane
A couple of enterprising young local climbers named Tom & Jerry rent boulder mats, guidebooks, and a few tired pairs of shoes for Rs 80 ($1.50) per day. Cheap as chips, as they say. During busy times they’ve been known to run out of mats, but Thimma at Shiva Guesthouse and a few other spots also have some available. On the other hand, if all the mats are rented out you can be pretty sure there will be some nice folks you can tag along with.
A new guidebook came out the day we left so we didn’t get much time with it, but several copies were floating around town. It was far broader than the previous edition, reaching several kilometers into the surrounding hills with clear topographical maps and lots of pretty color pictures. Strangely, it had both English and German text. It would be hard to survive in India if you only speak German.
Rest Day Activities
Hampi is littered with temples and ruins, but I’d be lying if I said we spent much time sightseeing. This is not your source for that information. There’s a massive reservoir 4km from Hampi Island where you can laze away the afternoon and indulge in a Kingfisher or three, which are selectively prohibited in the more devout areas of Hampi. Or hop on a motorbike (Rs 150/day plus petrol) and buzz through the local villages; they are about as authentic as it gets.
Stuff Your Dad Would Ask About
- Don’t expect to practice your new Hindi here. English is commonly spoken and often preferred by locals. Most of the guesthouses are run by Nepali seasonal workers, so a few words of their native tongue go pretty far.
- There’s no ATM in Hampi Island, so plan your cash carefully. Rent a motorbike and go to Anegundi to visit the ATM. Be aware of daily power cuts that knock out service.
- The Indian visa can be a headache if you’re already outside your home country. The buzz among travelers is Bangkok, Kathmandu, and possibly Columbo, Sri Lanka are your best bets. Of course if you plan ahead and get a visa from the Indian embassy in your home country you don’t have to worry about this. Six month, single entry visas are typical, but unlike other countries they begin on the date of issue, not the date you enter the country. Five and ten year multi-entry visas are available for US citizens, rules change frequently so beware of all published information. This is probably out of date already.
- If you plan to stay for a while, an Indian SIM card will be helpful. After recent terrorist attacks the government has made it more difficult for foreigners to get a SIM, but its not impossible. You’ll need a reference (a hotel will work), a few passport photos, and a sympathetic retailer to get one.
If I had it to do over, I’d only plan to stay longer in Hampi. A month flew by and I was sad to leave. Count on getting knocked out with gut issues for at least a few days, so build some extra time into your schedule. This isn’t a place to squeeze in. Relax, enjoy it, and prepare your fingers to be shredded by small holds and sharp granite.
We didn’t know it while we were traipsing around Rajasthan, seeing the sights, but the little town of Hampi is what we have been craving since we arrived in India.
With so much history and so many really big, really beautiful historic sites, we couldn’t resist checking out the Golden Triangle. We saw the forts and tombs, palaces and temples, and our favorite, Jantar Mantar. We got tired, rested, saw some more sights, got tired again, rested again, went to a new city and did it again. For two weeks, we were full on tourists in cities where people make their money from tourism. For two weeks, I didn’t leave the guest house without telling ten rickshaw drivers “no,” or trying to avoid begging children. We were a wallet, an opportunity.
“Hey my friend! Where you from?
“Obamaland, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan! Nice country.”
“Yeah, pretty good, but we are enjoying yours as well”
“You come to see my shop? Very nice, you come.”
“No thank you.”
“Yes, you coming. Shopping. Very nice.”
And so it went until the next person came by and started from the top. “Obamaland, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan!” It was endearing the first time, but got old very quickly.
We were doing the things that you do when you’re in India. It was really cool being in the presence of structures from empires ago and learning about the history of India, but it was exhausting and felt a bit like going through the motions. Is this what traveling in India is like? Is this what people do for six months? For a moment there, we forgot that long term travel is a balance of new cultures and new activities while also maintaining some routine and indulging in things you know you like.
So when Robyn and Stephen, our former room mates from New Zealand sent us a message saying, “We are in India! Smashed it out last night all the way from Bangkok to Chennai then Bangalore to Hampi! Hampi is amazing. Actually so good I cant believe I missed it on previous trips…Climbing, friends, bicycles, a risk board…,” we scrapped our plans for further sight seeing and booked three back to back night buses to go see them in Hampi.
Hampi is quiet and comfortable. We climb the famed Hampi boulders in the early mornings and cool evenings and avoid the heat of the day by flopping around the open air restaurant at our guest house, eating thalis and drinking tea. As Stephen said over breakfast the other day, “Not everything you see here is going to be enjoyable while you’re here. That’s not why you’re here. You’re here to see what it’s like in India. Well that, and to see 50,000 camels competing in a beauty pageant.”
The Pushkar Camel Fair is a circus and camel trading show that overtakes the small town every year. When I say circus, I don’t mean an everyone sit down in the big tent for a show sort of thing, I mean a festive, chaotic, mob scene in the desert. 50,000 camels, their neon turban clad traders and their gypsy families set up a tent camp outside of town. In the week before the fair, camels are bought and sold while locals set up the stadium and ancient carnival rides. We arrived a few days before the fair started, while the barefoot locals were swinging sledge hammers, erecting a stadium in the sand. Pre-fair Pushkar was filled with anticipation for the biggest week of the year and the heavy flow of tourist dollars.
The main drag in Pushkar is one narrow street, about the width of a car (sometimes at the expense of side mirrors) from one building to the opposite building. A few tinier side streets are home to the locals. There is no space for cars in town as the main bazaar is crammed with international tourists fondling camel statues, Israelis tearing through on Enfields and Hindu pilgrims visiting the holy lake and temples at the center of town. Fruit vendors, stray dogs, chai stands, and pashmina shopkeepers all add their voices to the chaos of the one street that runs through Pushkar.
While on the bazaar, there were so many people that hawkers would shout at you, but quickly move on to the next tourist. At the fair though, they followed you around. “Only twenty rupees, m’am. Twenty rupees for a bangle. Handmade, special.” (Clearly, it was not.) “Photo? Photo? Very nice my photo. Money? Camel ride? You like happy price for camel ride? Give me money? Chai? Chai? Chai?” It was endless. I must have said “No” more in an hour at the Camel Fair than in a month at home.
In the morning, while the sun was still waking up, we visited the fairgrounds and were back for lunch before the mobs of people and camel poo dust got too intense. We wandered through the scrubs to the open space where the camels were held and stood in the sea of beasts, just listening to their dinosaur like noises. This must be what Jurassic Park is like.
In the afternoons, we retreated to the garden at our guest house to edit photos and chat with family. We met some American travelers and enjoyed their familiar accents at tourist-friendly cafes that offered falafel, pomegranate juice and real coffee (!!). We stayed in Pushkar for a week and enjoyed a bit of routine simply by staying in one city.
Look, if you’re a maharaja and there’s no threat of imminent attack from desert raiders on elephants, you better find some way to use your time. Rather than sit around all day eating grapes and drinking chai, in 1721 Sawai Jai Singh decided to bring science to Rajasthan (now part of India) through the construction of Jantar Mantar, an observatory in Jaipur which also happens to be a pretty awesome name for a 70s prog-rock band.
Astrology is very important to Indian culture, with superstitions about everything from the time you’re born to the best day of the month to start a business. Visiting Jantar Mantar brought this to life. The work conducted here was some of the most advanced astronomy since the great ancient Greek and Roman thinkers and Jai Singh devoted considerable resources to accurate measurement of the sun, moon, and stars, in a time when most of his subjects led very simple existences.
Pretty much a playground for astronomy nerds, the observatory contains about a dozen giant measurement devices, one of which displays the accurate time down to two second intervals using only stone and the sun!
As you can see, the devices at Jantar Mantar aren’t just functional, they’re beautiful. Carved marble abounds, and huge gentle curves hug you from every direction. Jaipur is heavy on history, but even if you’re sick of palaces, temples, and forts (as we very much were) you can’t skip this unique and fascinating example of primitive science.
Oh, you’ve heard of the Taj Mahal?
We tried to skip visiting Agra, fearing the crush of tourists wielding massive zoom lenses, but everyone told us we were crazy to pass up a chance to see the most beautiful building in the world. They were right. It was pretty nice.
But you can read about the Taj anywhere. The real story here is the incredible contrast of its marble splendor with our cheap-ass hotel room in Agra, which I’m pretty sure is the shittiest place we’ve slept in a year and a half of traveling.
It was missing a few basic amenities: a table, chairs, even hooks to put wet towels on. As you can see from the photo to the left, it was just a bed in a room, and the room was so narrow that we had to awkwardly shuffle in from the foot of the bed.
Our window (or what was left of it) looked out onto the front steps of the neighborhood mosque. And this wasn’t just any mosque. They must have had tourist dollars flowing in from the Taj pilgrims, because they had the most advanced public address system in India.
Shortly after our daily dawn neighborhood wake-up call we were bound to be alert because the ceiling plaster above our bed was crumbling, and the early morning construction on the building shook it onto our heads, covering us in a thin film of white dust. GOOD MORNING!
Then there’s the door. I fought with the damn door each and every time I touched it. Locking it from the outside involved pulling it shut with all my weight, then twisting and prying the bent and rusty bolt to line up with the lock. This produced deafening screeching noises, making us very popular with other guests. Opening it from the inside was no picnic either, which made stumbling to the shared bathroom in the middle of the night especially convenient.
Oh, the bathroom. What a joy. A shared bathroom is bad enough, but when you’re sharing a single squat toilet with the popular hotel restaurant and the staff that are sleeping on the lobby couches, that’s a whole different ballgame. Because it got such heavy use and abuse, it was constantly in a shocking state. This was not helped by the fact that the shower drain seemed to only work in the wrong direction, not allowing waste water out, but letting used water from below back up in and flooding the floor with old soapy-grey scum. Yum! Thanks, Lonely Planet!
So yeah, much like our time in Delhi, Agra was about contrasts.