Remember back in Mongolia when I was feeling the fashion pains of backpacking? I was missing my closet, feeling as unglamorous as possible, and felt as frumpy as my clothes were fitting me. Luckily, India was our next destination and I was hopeful to revamp my nomadic closet. India has been a lot of things (amazing, exhausting, awful), and it’s also been a shopping gold mine. If you are like me and like bold prints, colorful textiles, chunky jewelry, and a good bargain, India is heaven. My backpack got heavier in every city and I was continually leaving behind old clothes to make way for new threads.
Want to know what gems I found? How much I paid? And where I found them?
Rick and I put together a look book of my favorite frocks and fashion finds in India.
* shot at our beloved Agonda Beach in Goa, India *
View the spreads below or download the pdf here.
We've covered some serious land in India. In total we've hit around 3000 miles. Our last two weeks of our Indian adventure we spent at the beaches of Varkala and Kovalam in the state of Kerala. Check out our path... Before we got to the beaches of India, Rick and I hypothesized about which beach would be our favorite. We both guessed Varkala in the state of Kerala. Varkala is a known pilgrimage site for Hindus and from google images, the beach lived at the bottom of rusted colored cliffs. We took our last Indian train (phew) from Kochi to Varkala and were eager to see if we had guessed right.
Well. We were wrong. We both agreed that Agonda Beach deserves the best Indian beach prize.
Varkala is decent enough though a bit crowded. We were also there during peak time, which could account for the crowds and price gouging. Restaurants and shops line the top of the cliff and there are black sand beaches just to the north of the main beach along with some small fishing enclaves.
Here’s a look at the quieter beaches just north of the main beach in Varkala.
Sadly, Kovalam wasn't any better. In fact, it was worse.
Wiki travel described Kovalam as "famous for its beaches, among the most pristine in India."
Kovalam is a resort town of the past. It's overpriced, over-crowded, and we were over it. Not to mention dirty. Piles of smoldering trash released picturesque smoke at both ends of the beach. The food left something to desire and we both agreed it was the worst beach in India, not the best. I was less than inspired by it so here are the few shots I took...
So, a bit of an anticlimactic end to India, but by the end of 3000 some miles, we were a bit tired and anxious to move on to Sri Lanka. The last three nights we spent at a jail-like hotel near the airport where the first night we turned out the lights and a pigeon wiggled through an opening in our window (because the window wouldn't close properly) and was stuck flying around in our room. Did I mention I hate birds? After cowering under the covers, I ran to the bathroom until Rick shooed it out after it pooped all over the floor. Conclusion? Room change at midnight and we were over India. Don't get me started.
But what did I love about India??? It will all be in the next post.
I hope everyone had nice holiday season. We spent x-mas in Fort Kochi and spent New Year's in Varkala where we are now. But let's back it up...
While we were in Kochi, we took an overnight trip to the Munnar tea plantations high up in the mountains. The drive is a good four hours and on the way up we stopped at an elephant training center. I was hoping this would be some sort of an elephant sanctuary where they are lovingly cared for, but sadly this was not really the case. It seemed this was a center to train elephants for forestry work. We watched them get bathed, chained at the feet, as they absorbed much yelling.
The plantations fill the mountainside and it’s really an incredible sight. The pictures don’t do it justice. I was hoping we’d stop and get lost in the mazes of the plantations but instead we ended up at a tea museum which was lackluster and underwhelming. You receive complimentary tea which I was hoping was a tea from the area, but in fact it was a milk tea out of a cappuccino-like machine. What??? We are surrounded by tea at a tea museum and they are serving mass produced tea that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was from some mix/powder. Disappointing.
The following day we stopped by some other tourist spots (aka shop stalls ready to haggle you) and then headed back to Kochi. Overall I’d say the tour itself was a bit disappointing, but the tea plantations are quite impressive and wished the tour included a more intimate look at the plantations.
Kerala is synonymous with the backwaters. A houseboat tour is a must. We opted for a 7 hour tour where the day was split between time on a country boat (smaller, canoe type boat) that allowed us to explore smaller canals, and in the afternoon we boarded a houseboat for larger waterways. We had entertained an overnight houseboat trip or a day trip and we are glad we decided on just the day jaunt. We had heard the backwaters were a bit over-hyped and I think we'd agree. It was lush as expected but perhaps not as mind blowing as we had hoped. Nevertheless, I'd recommend it and am glad to have seen the area. Here we start the tour on the country boat...
In the afternoon we headed to an island where we were served a delicious lunch. The rest of the afternoon was spent on a houseboat that lazily crawled around the waterways. It was so calming that I was fighting my appetite for a nap.
For more information regarding the backwaters, check out Kerala Tourism's latest backwaters campaign
Next stop? The tea plantations of Munnar.
We were sad to leave Agonda as we were growing accustomed to our morning coffee while watching the waves crash, our comfy tent, our daily beach walks and swims, and good eats. We said goodbye to Goa and hopped a plane to Kochi in the state of Kerala. We are staying in the area of Fort Kochi where there are clear remnants of Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonization. Several religions are visible here and there's even an area called Jew Town, complete with a Jewish synagogue and cemetery. The area is full of color and some pockets of old colonial architecture had me feeling like I was in the alleyways of Europe. Sadly, most buildings have fallen into disrepair.
A noticeable difference here are the streets are much cleaner than what we've seen in India, however there is still a sewage/trash problem. Also, they speak Malayalam in Kerala and the alphabet is beautiful and quite graphic.
Another main attraction in Fort Kochi are the Chinese fishing nets.
We went on a Sunday, so there wasn't as much fishing action, but to be honest, I'm not sure I'd want to eat any of the fish coming out of these waters. The nets are near to Fort Kochi Beach which seems more like a wasteland than a beach, but perhaps we are seeing it with our Goan glasses on. However dismal it seems to us, it's quite a popular promenade and I use the word promenade loosely. The industrial view is also lost on us.
Next post? The backwaters!
Our last stop in Goa we planned was Palolem Beach, which is a short ride south of Agonda. We had reserved an oceanfront cottage, which we found was a short trek from the main action (thank goodness). The cottages were nestled among a rocky cove (ours is the one on the left in the photo above) and we were literally steps to the water. The accommodations were as simple as they come. The panoramic photo below makes it look more charming than it really is. However, our view from the terrace was amazing!
We were beginning to miss Agonda and were beginning to feel like we were back in Baga. As we strolled the crowded shore, got hassled just as in the north, we were less impressed with Palolem and both had the same thought at the same time.
Let’s go back to Agonda.
We had already paid for 3 nights upfront and decided we’d spend the duration of the week back in Agonda in our cozy air-conditioned tent. Never thought I’d be itching for a tent, but after a few nights on a hard mattress with our neighbor snoring the night away, club music until 3am, fireworks, cockroach killings, and trying to identify if we had lizard or mouse droppings, the novelty of a bare bones ocean shack started to thin.
Agonda, we miss you.
We enjoyed our view for the 3 nights and kept cocooned in our cove.
Friday we fly to Kerala to continue our journey south.
After countless dinners to the tune or cacophony of bad club music, we were excited to head south where we heard it was quiet and very different than the north. A two-hour drive south took us to Agonda Beach. Days prior to arriving, we had confirmed our accommodation booking only to find out the manager we had been dealing with via email and to whom we had already paid a 40% deposit was now telling us that we owed him an additional 2500 Indian Rupees on top of what we had initially agreed upon. We went back and forth via email only for him to admit his initial agreement was a calculation error on his part, but that he wouldn’t honor the mistake. This place reeked of bad business and we knew we were going to have to face this genius of a manager upon arrival. Well, maybe not upon arrival. The first thing we did was put our stuff in our dingy room (while other nicer rooms next to us were completely empty) and walked down the beach to find other accommodations. We had decided to stay the 3 nights which we had paid for and then to get the hell out of there. The manager, knowing we had checked in, had not bothered to find us the first day and by the time he happened upon us on the 2nd day, we already had one foot out the door. Blessing in disguise? Lesson learned? Never stay at Simrose in Agonda Beach. We ended up at H20 Agonda where we ended up ‘glamping’ in our luxury tent complete with A/C, outdoor-ish bathroom and shower with hot water.
(Picture below taken from their website)
The tents are close enough to the water that we could hear the waves crashing when we’d crawl into the comfy bed. For a nightly rate that was just $3 more than what we would’ve been paying at Simrose, we were happy ‘glampers.’ We’d have our morning coffee in the airy lounge that overlooked the ocean and then find our way to the sun beds that were more cabana style.
Now let’s talk about the beach. Best beach in India thus far. It’s quiet and beautiful with lush green surroundings without the hassle of people constantly trying to sell you things. Unlike the north, this beach is lined with oceanfront huts and it’s clear there is a strong yoga presence. This is what I’m talking about!
It's a bit more rocky and quite photogenic.
We continue south on Friday when we head to Palolem.
If you want atrocious trance and techno beats with your could be romantic, but ruined by people trying to sell you glow in the dark devil horns, or speakers (why?!), while you dine, then Baga Beach is for you. Just north of Candolim and Calangute, we stayed at the very cute Little India Guest House which was just steps from the beach. Baga Beach looks very much like Calangute or Candolim as the beach is lined with food shacks and sun beds.
We also discovered a more secluded beach north of Baga that you can only get to by crossing a river which can be difficult depending on the tide then hiking the side of a mountain. The crossing proved difficult with a camera and our feet got cut up from rocks, but the beach is well worth the trek.
We spent Thanksgiving here and while we were craving mashed potatoes and stuffing, we opted for seafood, found a quiet dinner spot on the beach and our dinner ended with an impromptu fireworks show. Quite a nice last night in Baga.
Next stop? Agonda Beach in the south.
After making miles through Europe, Russia, and Mongolia, we were suffering from severe beach withdrawal. Sure we had a taste of Siberian beach life on Olkhon Island, but frigid lake water wasn’t exactly what us beach bums had in mind. The last we saw a beach day was in December 2012 in Puerto Rico. The ocean was calling and we were way overdue. We weren’t sure what we were going to find in Goa as our India trip has thus far been challenging but we were hoping for a little restorative stint in the sand. We knew Goa was going to be touristy and we wondered if it was going to live up to the hype. We knew it had its’ hippie heyday, complete with full moon raves and probably a fair share of glow sticks, but was all this fame just a thing of the past?
The first lesson we learned was never use hotwire.com’s secret hotel rates. We had tried this twice before where you get a good price for a room but you are only told the hotel after your nonrefundable booking is placed. The first time we used this service was great, the second was eh, and the third was ew. Three strikes and you are out hotwire! We got to our hotel in Candolim in North Goa and we were over India all over again. The hotel was far from the beach, the room was gross, the water was cold, and the ac was a joke. We found ourselves unable to sleep, hot, frustrated, and at 3am, eating a box of cereal on our stained bed.
The following day, we ended up moving to a better room where we got poor to mediocre sleep due to noise-at-dawn factors for our first week in Goa. Thank god for the beach. The shore is lined with food shacks that have sun beds with umbrellas. We spent every day laying out, swimming, eating seafood, drinking beer, and surrendering to the sand. It felt amazing to be reunited with the sea. We found a proper supermarket with all kinds of toiletries. It was like a backpackers dream. I even found the elusive tampons with applicators, which is like finding a needle in a haystack here in India.
We are surprised to find that the major tourist population is Russian. Signs and menus are in Russian and the locals have picked up a fair amount of Russian too to conduct business. There are tons of Indian tourists and plenty of Brits too, but we didn’t hear a lick of an American accent anywhere. Surprisingly, I also heard some Finnish and even saw a shack that flew the Finnish flag. So last we were in Siberia with Russians on a beach and now we are in India with Russians on the beach.
So minus the poor accommodations of week 1, we were starting to relax.
It was about time.
Sorry for the major delay in posting. We had spotty wifi in Mumbai and when we got to Goa we found little to no access.
So we are in Goa now, but let’s back it up to Mumbai…
I was ready to break up with India on our way to Mumbai.
Six weeks of dodging cow dung, fighting crowds, and succumbing to a number of health ailments was breaking me down. We were both hitting a bit of a six-month travel wall and hitting it in India only magnified the exhaustion. We were missing modern luxuries like consistent hot water, fast internet, and a comfortable bed.
With that being said, I was happy to be flying from Udaipur to Mumbai as it is much more pleasurable than long train rides. But just like any country, there are ineffective systems that can drive you mad and when you are already aggravated, it’s enough to put you over the edge. This is how I felt after an insanely ineffective check-in and security check to get on an hour flight. We land late because of too much traffic at the airport but our taxi we arranged through our hotel was luckily still waiting for us. We get in the taxi and sit in more traffic. It takes an hour to get to our hotel area only to realize our taxi driver has no idea where our hotel is. He stops numerous times to ask people, eventually calls the hotel, but after an hour of circling, we are the ones that spot it. We guessed we’d get to the hotel by 8pm at the latest and it was now past 10pm.
We check in which is by far the most expensive hotel we’ve booked in India and not because we wanted to splurge, but because Mumbai is expensive with little to no budget lodging options. We’ve averaged around $25/night for most places and this place almost hits $60/night. We are hoping the $60/night gets us at least a hot shower, fast internet, and comfy bed, but instead we find a mediocre lukewarm shower, slow internet that only works in reception, and stained, dirty sheets. We’ve had it by this point and we were starving so we head out hoping something nearby is open. We go to the first place we see which is also a little pricey but we were desperate.
We are seated and we are suddenly suffering from modern shock. We haven’t sat in a proper restaurant with tablecloths and cloth napkins in who knows how long. It feels strange and comfortable at the same time. We go to town. Rick gets a beer, we share a pizza and salad and end up going all the way with dessert and espresso. They bring out the caesar salad and Rick exclaims, “IS THIS SHAVED PARMESAN CHEESE????”
I burst out laughing because it was like he had struck gold. It only goes to show the food depravity we had been feeling.
As expected, Mumbai proved to be much more modern than the other cities we’ve seen in India. We stayed on Marine Drive, which is lined with walkways and places to sit along the Arabian Sea. It’s actually a little reminiscent of Ocean Drive in my hometown of Long Beach, California. It is a place of congregation come sunset where many couples canoodle under the stars. Public displays of affection! We can finally hold hands in public again.
We took it pretty easy as we were really just counting down the days to the beach and were a bit day-tripped out. We did however make it to Elephanta Island, which is about an hour-long ferry trip out of India Gate…
The last two days, unbeknownst to us, Sachin Tendulkar (think David Beckham of cricket) was playing his final farewell games down the street from us. This is MAJOR in India. Our block was packed with news crews, fans, and roaring crowds. It was the talk of the town and here we were watching it from our window.
And then we were off... to the beach... finally.
Udaipur is known as the "Venice of India," and we were eager to find out if this comparison rang true. (Secretly wishing there was also comparable gelato). We have been traveling from busy city to busy city and we found Udaipur a nice break from the madness. We stayed at Jheel's Guesthouse right on the lake and they serve coffee drinks from a legit Espresso maker with baked goods, so our stomachs welcomed the rehabilitation. We also were able to breathe a sigh of relief that we weren't being bombarded on the streets. We could actually walk! And the cow dung density was finally in our favor. We were here during Diwali so there were a few nights of fireworks at every corner and I feared for my limbs and ear drums.
Oh, and you might recognize the floating palace in the lake from the James Bond movie Octopussy.
Tomorrow we head to Mumbai!
One thing that long term travel hasn't been able to afford me is the ability to be as crafty as I want to be. It's been six months since I've touched a sewing machine or made anything and my hands can feel the creative absence. Traveling fills me with inspiration but I feel a bit creatively out of shape. My artistic muscles feel as though they are atrophying. So when we went back to Jaipur for a few days after Jodhpur, I looked into a block printing workshop to appease my creative hunger. We traveled to the Jai Texart Factory in Bagru, 30 km from Jaipur for a 1 day block printing workshop. Bagru is a town that is famous for their expertise in block printing and more specifically, their printing with vegetable and natural dyes. The process is not only painstakingly laborious but anciently beautiful. It has been perfected over 1000+ years.
The workshop runs from 10am-5pm and I come out with two beautiful cotton scarves.
Let's get started.
This step is important to rid the fabric of any impurities. In the olden days, they would use cow dung diluted in water to do this. My fabric was already treated so I began at step 2.
STEP 2: HARDA DYEING
The fabric is dyed in cool water and harda powder. Think of this as a primer. Without this step, the dye will not absorb into the cotton properly.
Below we are showed just how important this step is. Fabric that is not harda treated and harda treated are dipped into black dye and you can see the difference. The not harda treated fabric is the white fabric on the left, and the harda treated fabric is the yellow tinted fabric on the right.
While the fabric is drying, we watch as colors are mixed. Just how these color recipes were made still blows me away. The recipe for black especially boggles my mind. Below are the colors used today...
BLACK: Horseshoes that sit on coals for a period of time, brushed of rust are then put in cans with water and sugar cane juice, left to ferment for periods of months to yield black dye.
RED: A mixture of natural gum paste and alum
BROWN: Red Kashish with water
We also had a little time to peek around the factory...
STEP 4: PRINTING!
I first stretch and pin the fabric on the printing table and choose some blocks for my design. A master helps me start my border corners...
Now time to fill those zig-zags. I choose red, which appears yellow at this point. It won't show as red until the last step when it is boiled with the presence of alizarin (root of Indian Madder Tree). Now I use the filling block which is like the inverse of the outline block. This is getting tricky!
STEP 5: DRYING
Now that's I've practiced with one, I move on to scarf #2! This time I opt for a monochromatic geometric pattern using only black ink. Here we go! I'm also guided by a few other printers that help me with the print.
We are showed the indigo dyeing pot and another part of the factory where they silk screen.
STEP 6: WASHING
The fabric is now ready to be washed in cool water.
This is where the color fasting takes place with the help of flowers from the Dhaura tree.
Pieces with red dye is boiled in a separate pot with alizarin which then turns the once yellowish color red.
So there you have it. A day of much needed creativity thanks to the team of Jai Texart!
A few days pass and the art pains are visible on my hands.
Beauty is pain.
When we got to India we noticed the camels are much taller albeit a bit more worn than the camels in Mongolia. We couldn’t pass up a chance at a third go with these creatures. Soon enough we will be expert camel riders. We decided on a day trip out of Jodhpur that would have us at the edge of the Thar Desert in just 1 ½ hours. We stopped for lunch at a tourist tent camp where for the first time in India, we found quiet. “Do you hear that?” We asked. It was the sweet sound of silence. It almost felt like Mongolia for a second. We ate a meal of tourist trap price proportions and we were on our way to the camels. One thing I love about India is that everything is decorated… from their trucks, to their tuk-tuks, to even their camels. These camels were more accessorized than I could compete with not to mention tall! We rode for 1.5 hours through desert brush and small dunes. They weren’t quite Gobi dunes, but I doubt that experience can be trumped. When we got back in the car we got stuck waiting for a train to cross, meanwhile kids clamored to our windows asking for money, chocolate, pens, etc. One girl in particular caught my eye. It was her big eyes and pixie cut that I fell in love with. I gave them some candy and we made faces at each other through the window until they spotted other tourists ripe for the touting.
Below is an animated gif I made as they fought to be in frame.
*if you receive posts via email and cannot view the gif, view it here.
After we survived our tuk-tuk ride to our hotel, we settled into a lovely heritage guesthouse. I don't usually post anything about where we stay because as a backpacker, there is usually not much to get excited about. We spent a little more this time and I fell in love with the decor. Shahi Guesthouse is a 350 old mughal-style Haveli, situated in the oldest part of the blue city. The building is rich in history and was originally the “JANANA DODI”, or women's area, of Rajput Officers' quarters. Traditionally, women met here in purdah and the haveli maintains many of its original features such as stone lattice work, balconies and an open central courtyard.
We got to stay in two of the six rooms and enjoyed our meals on the rooftop which boasts quite a view of the blue city as well as the fort atop the hill. From the rooftop there were ample photo opportunities... From the roof you are encircled with all sorts of noise... prayer calls, stray dogs fighting, the city noise below (constant honking), and a night wouldn't be complete without young kids setting off fireworks. This is not only extremely unsafe, but because the buildings are so close together, it becomes highly annoying when you are trying to go to sleep and fireworks are going off feet from your window. The following day we climb to the top of the hill to check out the Mehrangarh Fort. It is quite opulent inside and it houses a museum along with grounds to roam, a restaurant, and other nooks and crannies. It is easy to spend a few hours here. Like I said, while this is somewhat calmer than the other cities we've visited, it is by no means calm. This coming from two New Yorkers. The streets still emit the same chaos. Stay tuned for the next post where we day trip it to the Thar Desert to ride camels for the third time.
I'm going to introduce Jodhpur to you in the same way we were introduced to it. Rick took this video of our tuk-tuk ride from the train station to our guesthouse.
If you can believe it, Jodhpur is the calmest city we've encountered thus far.
If you've ever been on Mr Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland, consider yourself auto tuk-tuk ready.
We decided to take a day trip out of Jaipur and I'm going to call it, the photography prohibited day trip. Nearly every attraction we visited did not allow photos, so my apologies for no visuals. I assure you it was interesting. We went to Ajmer and Puskar which are about a 2.5 hour drive out of Jaipur. The most interesting part of Ajmer was our visit to Dargah. After haggling with an auto rickshaw driver, me putting on a head scarf and Rick purchasing a Muslim cap, we dropped our shoes off in a random shop and walked barefoot (glad I got that tetanus shot in Finland) to the pilgrimage site. Inside people were praying, selling things, you name it. It was somewhat hectic upon entering but an interesting site nonetheless. We then got to Pushkar which is sort of like a mini Varanasi with bathing ghats around the small lake. It was quite photogenic, if only you could take photos (I sneaked a few below). They claim the photo discretion is for holy purposes but we soon find out it's really just about money. Isn't it always? If you don't buy flower offerings for a water side puja, you can't take photos. So sadly, the only photos I snapped from this day trip are the 5 below. The last one is of our driver getting some pampering before we headed back. The next day once back in Jaipur we did our second round of sightseeing. We were off to City Palace and Hawa Mahal.
City Palace... Hawa Mahal... While walking around the streets we stumbled across a photographer who shoots with an old 4x5 camera and develops and prints on the spot. This apparently is a family tradition that started with his grandfather. We were hooked! And now for some street scenes...
The first few days in Jaipur we were holed up in our hotel because we were both still battling Delhi Belly. Luckily I had picked up some antibiotics in Finland for just the bacterial occasion. We got tired of wavering between feeling starving and nauseous and grew tired of talking about our bathroom habits. Now as we are recovering we are dreaming about things like sushi, salads with artichoke hearts, fromage from France, gelato from Italy, and I even had a dream about a bakery with every kind of muffin in it. But then I woke up and realized I was far from any of my food fantasies. I love Indian food but after being sick for two weeks from what I suspect was a Malai Kofta dish which I ironically announced "This is the best Malai Kofta I've had," my body has begun to fear it and now I'm dreaming about baked goods.
We had enough strength on our fourth day to finally do a bit of sightseeing. We decided to head for the forts. Amer Fort, Jaigarh Fort, & Nahagarh Fort. We finished off the day with Jal Mahal which stands in the middle of a lake.
After the madness of Varanasi, we headed back to Delhi to recuperate for a few days before heading to Jaipur. I had previously posted about Paharganj, which is only a small part of Delhi. During our two stints in Delhi, we also did some sightseeing which led us to the more historical parts of the city. Indeed the architecture is beautiful. A few sights included: