Rowing Through The Muck

I’m sitting on the second-story balcony of a craft brewery in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, drinking a Thai Iced Tea IPA and listening to Stevie Nicks blaring from the speakers. It’s grey and chilly, raining intermittently. The forecast is calling for cloudy weather for five of the six days that we’ll be in Vietnam, a delightful change from the brutal heat of Cambodia.

We arrived late at night at our bargain AirBnB on a narrow and back alley. I purposefully booked this homestay as the hosts help arrange travel plans and we had yet to book our trip to see the karsts in Halong Bay or the less touristy Cat Ba Island – a short journey outside of Hanoi. To our disappointment, waking up the next morning after a night of constant rain, we realized that the bad weather was intending to stick around and upon further research, we learned that there is a good chance of the boat tours cancelling in inclement weather. We debated simply booking the trip and taking our chances. But, having read a number of online horror stories from stranded travelers forced by circumstance into staying at bad hotels upon cancellation we were a bit concerned with the uncertainty of traveling 4 hours to potentially be left in the rain. Doing some quick math we realized that we had exceeded our budget in Cambodia and probably should make up some money before our diving liveaboard over New Years in Thailand. Finally, I read that touring the bay in cloudy weather can be mystical (get it?), but that the cold often forces travelers to remain on the boat, forgoing the kayaking and other water activities that are the main attractions for a junkboat tour.

So after a breakfast of homemade vegetable pho, we made an executive decision to spend our time in Vietnam enjoying the city of Hanoi, saving the trip to the bay and the surrounding countryside for another visit.

I had booked a hotel online the night previous and we moved the two blocks from our AirBnB to the Meracus hotel around mid-morning. I had splurged for the hotel, using a $50USD credit from our Hotels.com rewards, bringing the total cost to $20USD. The reason for the splurge? Because long-term travel requires constant periods of downtime. Unlike vacation, where you have a limited amount of time to see and do everything in a particular location, there’s no possible way that we could spend every second out sightseeing and purposefully finding time to relax is very necessary. Instead of rushing from site to site, we try to travel slow. Really getting the feel of a place by wandering into areas that don’t boast tourist sites and trying to be more spontaneous with where we eat. We’ve both had some bouts of illness due to food so we’re trying to be careful without missing the joys of the local cuisine. And while we’ve had a great time at home stays, occasionally it’s nice to have a hotel room that is technically all yours.

We had an unforgettable experience in Siem Reap, spending three action packed days being awed by the temples of Angkor Wat. However the impacts of being away from home for two months and the upcoming holiday season were starting to surface some major emotions and I needed a place of refuge.

This time of the year has been hard for me since my father passed away on December 14th, 1999, just before the Christmas holidays of my senior year in high school. Outside of the annual reminder of my father’s death, I’m one of those people who hates gift-giving – and going into Target any time after November 15th is my own personal definition of hell. Don’t get me wrong, I love that the holiday season allows for spending time with loved ones, primarily doing two of my favorite things – eating and drinking. But the forced consumerization and need to spend money on useless crap that will be discarded by the next year really rankles me. My mom and sister often lament that I’m the worst person to buy gifts for, as I would rather spend quality time together than have “things.”

That being said, I still enjoy this time of year as it provides countless reasons to get together with friends and family, revisiting annual traditions that deepen the important relationships in my life. Some of my favorite are Katie’s cookie baking party, Christmas Eve dinner of kraut bierok with the family, the Softchoice prime rib pot luck, and the Stradiot holiday appetizer party (arguably my favorite day of the year).

Christmas Tree made of traditional Vietnamese hats

From Thanksgiving through New Years, I’m extremely busy with both personal commitments and work, it being year end for most major corporations.

For most of my adult life, being busy has been my primary coping mechanism for dealing with the unresolved feelings from my father’s death. Whenever I feel sad or start to become too emotional, I’ve always been able to distract myself with work commitments or spending time with friends.

My second coping mechanism is to watch YouTube videos of soldiers returning home to their families after deployment. The joy you see upon their reunion and the knowledge that I’ll never have that with my own father creates a sense of gravity that allows for the tears to flow unchecked for several hours. Normally, I let Bodhi up on the bed and his consolation efforts make me cry harder, helping to quickly expend excess emotional energy.

This year however feels different. It’s not just that we’re unable to participate in the usual rituals, but being in this alien setting, away from everything that is comfortable, forces you to be introspective. Additionally, I’ve run out of excuses for avoiding the emotions, instead, forcing myself to spend time feeling and trying to understand them. The problem is, I’ve never really known how to sift through the different feelings and resolve them.

I feel like these are things that should be taught in school, right along with several other neglected life skills; how to do your taxes, drive a manual transmission, the importance of compounding interest, and sewing a button. But there is no handbook and often, you have to learn these lessons for yourself.

So we’ve been spending our days in Hanoi enjoying the vibrant city. Navigating traffic on narrow streets, to find small coffee shops, steaming bowls of pho and bun bo nam bo (a delicious beef noodle soup/salad), and day drinking (or as Dean calls it, living the dream). This city has so many great hidden wonders.

On our way to see Tran Quoc, a large Buddhist pagoda on the West lake, we stumbled into the Dong Xuan, a three story open mall packed with stalls selling any kind of good that you can imagine. On the main floor, we saw mostly purses, hair accessories, shoes, stuffed animals, and souvenirs for tourists. The second level was primarily fabric stalls, selling bolts of silk, satin, suit and shirt fabric. By the time we’d finished meandering the second floor, we were overwhelmed by the crowds and didn’t explore the third floor which mostly offered clothes. Apparently, if it’s available in Vietnam, you can find it here!

On weekends, traffic is closed on the main thoroughfare around the lake and both tourists and locals throng the streets to walk and shop. Big groups of teenagers sat in the streets socializing and families rented motorized Tonka trucks to drive their small children along the wide road. We held hands while strolling, the first time we’ve been able to do so for longer than a few steps.

The food scene is widely diverse, we’ve had fantastic Vietnamese, Italian, sushi, craft beer, and believe it or not, Nashville hot chicken. We leave our hotel each morning with a general direction in mind to see a different tourists site, meandering through neighborhoods and getting a view into daily life. We’ve dipped into several sidewalk cafes, ducked through two Christmas markets, dove into a number of local brews, dodged the motorbikes parked on every available sidewalk, and gawked at the display cases of roasted ducks along every block.

A delicious bowl of Bun Bo Nam Bo

Each day we find a new coffee shop, where I’ve been spending hours writing. Reliving that year that my father was sick and capturing my feelings of both then and now. At some point, I intend to reread my journaling and craft it into something that is worth sharing.

Coconut coffee at The Note

On the 18th anniversary of dad’s death, I cried several times throughout the day. The pain is still very present but less raw than in previous years and it’s helped immensely that I have someone to support me through the tears. Dean spent the morning on a coffee shop balcony while I typed, we ate lunch and then returned to our hotel room, where the hotel staff, upon learning that we are on our “honeymoon,” decorated our room with candles, rose petals, balloons, and a cake saying “Happy Honeymoon.” That night, Dean held me while we drank a bottle of wine, watching Love Actually and anihiliating that cake (what did you think?).

As the weather brightened over the next several days, my mood also improved. And instead of writing about all the sad things I remember from my father’s illness, I’ve begun writing about the good times. I’ve also started to really think about how this time away is changing me.

I’m still having bouts of homesickness and am sad that we won’t be taking part in beloved rituals with our families over the holidays. But I’m also happy for the opportunity to be so far out of my comfort zone, exploring new emotions and developing different perspectives around how I deal with grief, loss, and life.

I have no idea what I’m doing but that’s ok. The most important part of this period is the process. The ability to change and grow has always been a struggle. I like stability and routine. But at this moment, it feels right to be afloat. And I’m pretty lucky to have someone so supportive to share my boat.

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Temples and Trials

It’s 3:55am when the alarm goes off. I was in a deep sleep, dreaming about…. I don’t know what. All I know is that I’m unhappy about being woken so abruptly and at such an unreasonable time.

When Dean and I first discussed our itinerary for this trip, we each picked three “bucket list” items that we each wanted to see. Mine are Angkor Wat, scuba diving the antiquities in Greece, and Machu Picchu. We had arrived in Siem Reap the evening prior and wanting to capitalize on one of my bucket list items, hired a tuktuk driver to pick us up at 4:30am to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.

It was now 4:15am and as expected, Mr. Pan, our tuktuk driver was outside waiting. We finished a quick breakfast of yogurt, sugary mueseli, and Nescafé, and hopped in the tuktuk for a surprisingly chilly commute through the jungle. The tuktuks in Cambodia are unlike the tricycle carts in India and Thailand. Instead, Mr. Pan drives a motorcycle, towing a metal trailer with a bench seat facing forward and a fold down seat facing backwards, reminiscent of a traditional horse and buggy.

We rode through the pre-dawn darkness to a check point where the Apsara Authority (the organization that governs the entrance to the park), punched our three day temple ticket and waved us onward. Another 10 minutes further into the jungle we arrived at the entrance of Angkor Wat. Any directions were unneeded as we followed the bobbing flashlights of likeminded tourists, headed toward the entrance point at the beginning of the causeway. If it had been light out, we would have seen that we were on the edge of a temporary, floating bridge, spanning the huge moat leading to the West gate of the largest singular temple in the area. Crossing the spongy walkway it was still almost an hour from sunrise, and even with the glowing half moon we could only see about five feet in front of us.

We followed the main entrance walkway of large uneven stones and tried to keep our footing. We noticed several of the flashlights grouping at the edge of the two reflecting pools at the front of the temple and decided to skirt to the mob’s right hoping to avoid the throngs that promised to continue arriving. Sure enough, there was only one other couple, setting up their camera nearby.

Prior to leaving, I thought Dean was crazy when he packed two large bags of camera equipment. However that morning, I learned that he hadn’t packed his 7lb tripod and therefore the iconic reflection shot of Angkor Wat with the sun rising behind the three towers was not possible. I told Dean that if I wanted a copy of that iconic shot, I could easily download it off the internet. A blessing in disguise as this meant that we could abandoned the busy reflection pools and walk closer to the temple, setting up the small tripod on a stone balistrade.

We could barely see the three front towers of the temple through the darkness and as the sky lightened to gray, a group of three Cambodians came over and sat under the balistrade, 3 feet away from us. They were each looking at Facebook on their phones, talking loudly, with a walkie-talkie blaring, echoing the voice of an authoritative gentlemen and shattering the prestine quiet of the early morning. After a few minutes, Dean packed up his camera and we decided to find another location from which to witness the sunrise, but were quickly told that the remainder of the temple wasn’t open and this is as far as we could go until after sunrise. We requested that they turn down the radio, but I don’t think they understood our English, so Dean motioned to the blaring radio and eventually, they turned down the volume.

For the next 30 minutes, we watched the sky slowly lighten and the temple emerge from the gloom, highlighted by the pinks and oranges of sunrise. The majesty of the moment interrupted by several more groups of tourists being told that they couldn’t proceed any further. But the beauty of the scene unfolding in front of us couldn’t be ruined. It was breathtaking.

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Angkor Wat Coming into Focus

When I chanced to look back to the reflecting pools behind us, a crowd of several hundred people were arrayed on the shores, several hundred more corralled on the temple walk. That’s one thing that we’re learning – we’re not the only people who want to see these beautiful, iconic sites around the world. And even attending during early, late, or off times, means that you’re still sharing with throngs of other tourists.

We were some of the first people to enter the temple and proceeded through the main gallery, past the restored libraries, to the back of the complex. Upon reaching the Northeast corner, I joined a line for the Bakan, the elevated inner gallery, which would allow us to be two of the first 100 tourists to take the steep stairs to the top level, providing 360 views of the Angkor city and the main shrine. The Bakan doesn’t open until 6:40am, which was in 30 minutes. I told Dean that I was happy to wait in line if he wanted to walk around some more and capitalize on the morning light. I spent the next 15 minutes enjoying the people watching, but started to panic when the line began to move at 6:30am, a full 10 minutes before posted. Dean hadn’t returned and I was extremely annoyed that 1) I might have to go up without him or 2) lose my place in line. With two minutes to spare, Dean appeared around the corner and joined me in the line. In true Krista fashion, I snapped at him. Making some comment about how I was worried that he wasn’t going to return in time and how I didn’t think he appreciated my sacrifice.

Here’s the thing about me – my anger burns hot and fast. I build up tension, make a barbed comment and once released, it’s done. I’ve moved on. Dean on the other hand, is a slow simmer. It takes a lot to anger him but often, my snarky comments light the flame, adding to the heat until he reaches a boiling point.

I lit the flame early that morning, causing there to be tension throughout the day as we fell into our patterns – me making comments and Dean fuming. Finally that evening, it came to a head.

We had returned to the hotel around 1:30pm, hot and exhausted after a day of doing “the small loop,” a tour of 5 different temples, closely located. At the fourth, Ta Prohm Temple, we had a miscommunication with Mr. Pan, which left us looking for him for over 40 minutes in the blazing heat. We decided to skip the fifth temple and head straight back to the hotel. We grabbed lunch at a highly rated Italian restaurant called Momma Shop. The lunch was delicious and we returned to the hotel with a full pizza as leftovers. After a quick trip to the corner grocery store to stock up on snacks for the next day’s trip, I joined Dean in the pool. With the help of the cold pool, a fantastic lunch, and several minibar beers, the tension had eased and we talked about our amazing day.

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Jungle Overtaking Ta Prohm Temple

I knew Dean was especially tired when he suggested a late afternoon nap. I nap every chance I get, however Dean rarely partakes, instead using the quiet time to read or relax. We both quickly fell asleep but I woke up after an hour and not being able to fall back asleep, decided to do some research for our next leg of the trip to Vietnam and Laos.

When Dean finally woke up several hours later, I was in the midst of booking tickets to Laos and back to Bangkok for Christmas. Throughout our travel planning, Dean typically has taken the lead on booking transportation (flights, trains, buses, etc) and I have booked accomodations (hotels, AirBnBs, etc). I was annoyed that I had to do the research and booking for what I perceive as “his responsibility.”

Having finally booked the tickets after several frustrating attempts on Air Asia’s website, I looked over at Dean, who was playing a mindless video game on his phone. I snapped and immediately made a snarky comment, asking how his “research” was going. I know it wasn’t rational. But in that moment, all of the tension from the day culminated in my statement and Dean, having finally reached the boiling point, angerly asked what was my problem. I immediately regretted my statement and apologized but the damage had been done and Dean needed some time to cool off.

We spent the next several hours, purposefully not talking to each other. Instead, I ate a dinner of leftover pizza, banana chips and Ritz crackers while Dean said he wasn’t hungry.

While brushing our teeth, I decided to bring up the subject as I desperately didn’t want to go to bed still angry. Considering that emotions were high, we had a civil conversation where we talked about our frustrations throughout the day. I was angry that Dean didn’t appear to appreciate me, and therefore I made snarky comments, pushing him further away. He talked about how my comments made it so that he didn’t particularly want to be around me. And when he stated as much, it made me want to push him away even harder.

You see, we’ve never really had to work at our relationship. We’ve always had a very easy way with each other, often talking through feelings and big decisions. So on the rare occasions that we do fight, neither of us really knows what to do. But we promised that we would work on our communication and tomorrow, we would have a “do over.”

We went to bed early and when we awoke at 3:55am the next morning, the power was out but our attitudes were a little better. As we got ready in the light of our phone flashlights, I could already tell that we were both trying.

This time, we decided to skip the crowded throngs at Angkor Wat, and instead go to Phnom Bakheng, the previous capital of the Khmer empire located on the only hill for miles. As we climbed the groomed path at 5:10am, we needed our headlamps to navigate the uphill, jungle trail. After some stumbling in the dark, we finally found the entrance, and climbed the steep stairs leading to the main level of the temple. Upon reaching the top, we realized that we were the only people there. We sat on the East facing stairs and were slowly joined by several more groups as the sun started to color the sky. No throngs of tourists crowding together for the perfect shot, no Facebook, no walkie-talkies. Just silence and a shared appreciation amongst strangers for the beauty of the scene before us.

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Angkor Wat in the Morning Mist

 

After the sun had fully risen, we decided to hike back down to Mr. Pan and our tuktuk, admiring the beauty of the jungle path and the western views that had previously been hidden by the night. Also waiting for us in the tuktuk was our leftover pizza which we promptly ate for breakfast, fist-bumping to celebrate our genius.

Our next temple, Bantey Shrey, was 35 kilometers away, and we were rewarded with a 40 minute drive through the countryside bathed in the early morning light. The main industry in Cambodia is farming; rice being the major crop produced in this swampy area. The fields were yellowish green and flat, providing a view of the large hill in the distance where the Khmer quarried both the lava and sandstone that was used in the 100+ temples in the region.

We fist-bumped again as we ordered two americanos from the snack bar outside of the temple, as we weren’t able to make Nescafé in our room due to the power outage. Remember, today was our “do over,” and after two early mornings, we desperately needed some caffeine to keep our energy up and attitudes in check.

We then proceeded to do “the big loop,” with the temples spaced further apart and on the outskirts of the large complex. Similar to the previous day, we were hot and exhausted by noon, but powered through, finishing by 1:30pm.

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Mr. Pan Leading Us Through the Jungle

A lunch of local fare and Singha beers prepared us for a dip in the pool. After a nap, I spent some time on TripAdvisor, searching for the perfect dinner and surprised Dean by choosing the Siem Reap Brewery. Over a beer sampler and a superb dinner, we talked about the improvement in the day and how each of us is going to have to continue to work to better communication. We went to bed early and while we didn’t have a 4:00am wake up call for sunrise, we did need to be at the Grasshopper Adventure office at 7:30am for our full day, mountain biking temple tour.

Neither Dean or I are big “tour” people. In fact, we’d spent the last two days dodging massive groups of tourists blocking doorways and posing endlessly for the same pictures. But bike riding through the jungle on the secluded trails linking the temples was definitely something that I wanted to experience.

We spent an extremely enjoyable day, riding through the massive Angkor complex and revisiting several of our favorite temples: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon. Our guide, Sambo, was very knowledgeable and told great stories about the history of the temples and the rise and fall of the Khmer empire. He pointed out countless interesting carvings and answered a number of questions that we had while touring the previous two days without a guide. Having been born just outside of Siem Reap, he had a very great sense of pride in the lasting monuments of his Khmer ancestors. As we rode back to town, we passed the outside of Angkor Wat and the iconic West facade. We paused for a picture in the late afternoon sun and it was a perfect moment to say good-bye to this magical place.

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South Gate of Angkor Thom

Heading to dinner that night, we were saddle-sore and famished, but extremely pleased with the experience. It was definitely one of my trip highlights and something that I’ll never forget. Not just due to the mystery and beauty of a place that I’ve dreamed of seeing but also because this is where Dean and I made some real strides in improving our communication.

And while I know it’s going to be difficult for me to tone down the snark, I am more aware of how it impacts Dean. And doing the work to improve our relationship will ensure we build something beautiful that will last a lifetime. Rather like those temples.

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Faces of Bayon Temple

There Are No Sidelines In India

The first rule of India for any foreign traveler – breathe through your mouth. India assaults your senses. The bouquet of aromas that you experience within any 20 foot walk can be varied and often, unpleasant. The sheer volume of people, living in close quarters in centuries old cities can create some unique problems.

For starters, there is often issues with implementing indoor plumbing and sewage systems. Public waste management is not widely accessible and culturally, most people think nothing of throwing trash on the ground, sometimes gathering it into small piles to burn. There is always a haze on the horizon due to exhaust, dirt roads, and the burning of garbage and crop waste. Cows, pigs, goats, and dogs freely roam the streets, their excrement smeared across the pavement. As you walk along the street, you can be hit by a cloud of exhaust from a tuktuk, smell the rich aroma of spices, dodge a pile of fresh cow shit, and catch a whiff of a cooking kachori all in the span of 5 steps.

There’s something to see everywhere you turn. The streets are lined with shops selling everything from spices to household goods to vegetables straight from the outlying farms in the countryside. There’s an endless sea of bright colored and boldly patterned saris, the women resembling peacocks sporting their intricate jewelry. The roads are narrow, winding through buildings in varied states of repair, some with interesting murals or architectural features that draw the eye and make you wonder about the beauty of the city in the distant past.

The cuisine is delicious, leveraging the fresh ingredients from the local farms. Every dish is served in a rich sauce or gravy, the base of which is typically cooking oil, making most meals extremely heavy. Any fresh vegetable or salad isn’t an option as foreigners can get very sick from unhygienic wash water. Both Dean and I have gained weight, in spite of hours spent walking each day.

It’s impossible to escape the constant sound of horns honked by every car, truck, motorcycle and tuktuk on the road. Vehicles use their horns for communication as traffic rules are lax, with people merging with abandon without care for oncoming traffic. Roads are choked by individuals pushing handcarts and it appears that any vehicle can pull over and park where it suits, heedless of the congestion building behind it – I often joke that India’s theme song should be “Move Bitch, Get Out The Way.” Additionally, music blares in every restaraunt, making conversation nearly impossible over TVs turned to full volume. The person who thought up the “Some goddamn peace and quiet” card in Cards Against Humanity surely must have recently returned from India.

Tuk Tuks In The Way

While people aren’t necessarily rude, there is an “I do what I want” attitude to the way in which people move through daily life with no apparent regard for the impacts to those around them. It’s a very “me first” society, with people cutting in lines and scrambling to get ahead. Growing up in a society with strict rules that govern polite interaction, and considering our experience in Mumbai, I can see how people think that Indians have a “fuck you” attitude toward foreigners. But while traveling Rajisthan over the last two weeks, we had the opposite experience.

We flew into Udaipur in the evening and immediately hired a taxi to our hotel in the old city. Cars aren’t allowed in the ancient and narrow streets of Udaipur’s Old City, so Dean and I walked a half mile towards the Maharaja’s old palace (now a museum) and through ancient complexes (called havelis) previously housing entire families of the upper castes.

The next day we were scheduled to meet the folks at Jatan, the NGO that Softchoice Cares had partnered with the year prior to build a computer lab in rural Rajasthan. Our contact, Raajdeep, had arraigned a car for the day and we drove to meet the Jatan team at their Udaipur offices before driving the two hours to Railmagra the building site. I was extremely excited to hear about the progress being made on the building and how it’s enabled Jatan to institute more and more programs that are impacting the rural communities nearby. The Jatan group was extremely excited to hear that Dean is an architect and asked him to look at the plans for their new building, breaking ground in 2018.

Jatan Railmagra Building October 2016

After a welcome ceremony at the Jatan Railmagra offices – that included friendship bracelets, marigold necklaces, red tika and tea – we ate a thali lunch with the entire office. We then drove the 20 minutes to the building that one year prior, was the shell of a single story building with a concrete staircase on the outside. Softchoice Cares had funded the construction of the first story in 2015 and the 2017 Board decided to return to build the second story. The group of 16 Board members and 5 additional family/friends spent two weeks building; mixing cement by hand, making a human chain to toss bricks from a pile on the ground to the stair landing and then onto a pile on the second floor for use in building the external walls, layer by layer. The building had no running water as the bathrooms were a dirt floored room being used to store materials and power was provided by a diesel generator.

We set up 30 Lenovo laptops, a 50 inch flat screen and Nintendo Wii in a windowless concrete room and were promised that internet would be available within the next month. I’ll admit, when we left the project, most people in the group were dejected. We wondered if the investment was wasted as there was still so much to do.

This year, upon arriving at the site, I was shocked. The crudely built brick square was a tiered, three story building, gleaming white in the afternoon sun. I giggled with glee walking up the dirt path as Raajdeep explained that they intended to build a concrete drive, lined with mango trees, leading under the large porte cochere on the side of the building.

Jatan Railmagra Building November 2017

Walking through the double front doors, we were in a large room with stairs to the second story on either side (now enclosed), the screens at each landing filtering the sun. The dirt floored alcove where our meals were cooked a year prior was now an office for the building manager while the storage room at the back became the bathroom with 4 shower stalls, 8 toilets and a large trough sink. The computer lab was the same concrete room, but now with cloth covers to keep the machines prestine. The TV had been moved to the largest room and is being used for presentations, etc. for trainings.

Railmagra Children at the Jatan Building

The now completed second story houses two rooms for break out groups or smaller gatherings and can be used as dormitories for multi-day training sessions and retreats. The bathroom layout mimics the first floor design and there are two individual rooms with ensuite toilet/shower for trainers or chaperones.

The third level is an open rooftop with temporary kitchen for making meals and tea. There’s plenty of space for activities: yoga, exercise, breakout groups, the possibilities are endless. Up a metal ladder and you have access to a smaller rooftop, providing a 360 view of the surrounding countryside. While Raajdeep told us about the buildings’ many uses, he also outlined future plans for a permanent kitchen, full time guard housing, and garden to support their nutrition education program.

I returned to Udaipur that evening, exhausted but happy. While there’s still a lot of work to be done, the amount of progress made in a year is astounding and I’m extremely excited to report back to Softchoice Cares with pictures, 360 photo spheres, and a full report of the impacts being made.

We spent the next two days in Udaipur, leisurely enjoying the sites: eating on rooftop restaurants overlooking the lake, admiring the lavish and well preserved palace, and taking a boat ride to Jagmandir Island for sunset. I had reserved a room at Jaiwana Haveli for our last night as I had spent a weekend there the year prior and had facetimed Dean from the rooftop patio. This was a special place that I wanted to share and I specially requested one of the two rooms in the tower to ensure we could enjoy the view from the same patio. Upon checking in, the owner learned that Dean is an architect, and again, he was asked to look at building plans and render his opinion. We spent almost an hour looking at the plans and afterwards, the owner shared his lunch with us and offered to provide a discounted bottle of wine after learning that we intended to walk the 15 minutes to a beer store. As we followed the bellman to our room, I was dismayed when instead of taking us to the tower, he took us to a second story. He opened the door to a large room with a bay window, overlooking the lake, and a private patio with a sitting alcove carved into the stone. It must have been one of the best rooms in the entire complex. Score!

Lake Pichola from Udaipur

This was only the first example of the hospitality we experienced throughout the next week. We had received a referral for a homestay in Jaipur from Dean’s best man, Brian, who had traveled to India with his wife in 2016. Pushpendra happily provided dates available for one of the five rooms in their beautiful home and asked about our plans. Upon learning that we had yet to reserve accommodations in Jodhpur, he recommended a homestay with relatives and also suggested we look into a camel safari in nearby village Osian.

We arrived at our homestay in Jodhpur and were immediately greeted by Madan, a stately older gentleman, who ushered us into his large sitting room and offered tea. Upon chatting with Madan and his son, we learned that his family is related to the Maharaja of Jodhpur – whose forefathers established the city – and still lives in the city’s 20th century palace.

As we settled into our room – which included a large bathroom and access to a terrace – we were invited to join the family for dinner later that night. After returning from an afternoon visit to the palace museum and crowded Sunday market, we went downstairs for cocktails and a few hours of conversation with our hosts and another couple staying in the home, a Brazilian diplomat and his wife currently stationed in Sri Lanka. Madan and his entire family are fantastic hosts, offering insights into their lives and the Indian culture, as well as taking an active interest in their guests. Upon learning that we were scheduled to travel to a safari camp in Osian, they helped arrange transportation and invited us to visit their property, a luxury safari camp (the original camp in Osian) located immediately next door. The night’s dinner was among the best we’ve had yet. It was an extremely enjoyable evening and when offered the option to join them the next night, we immediately accepted.

The next day, we explored Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort – a massive stone building dominating a nearby hill and the original seat of the Maharaja. We took Madan’s recommendation and opted for the audio tour of the museum instead of getting a local guide. The building itself was extremely well preserved and the audio tour had some fascinating information, explaining the history of the architecture as well as displaying some well preserved paintings, murals and artifacts from when India was a number of individual states, each ruled by it’s own Maharaja.

Even here, the Indian tourists were pushy. Crowding in front of different displays, yelling to family members, with no regard for personal space or quiet. At times, Dean and I chose to hold back, trying to avoid particularly annoying groups.

After leaving the museum, we wandered along the battlements, hoping to meander a bit and get away from the crowds. We found ourselves in a beautiful garden with only a handful of people, the fort towering above us just up the hill. I found a set of stairs, leading to the back wall, and seeing no signs or barrier, we decided to head up to look around.

The back of the walled compound overlooks an old area of town, called “The Blue City,” aptly named as the priestly caste called Brahmins who live there have painted their houses a light indigo color for centuries. We decided to see if there was an exit from the fort toward the Blue City versus leaving with the throngs of tourists arriving from the Old Town.

Jodhpur’s Blue City

Walking down the road, we were stopped by an intimidating looking guard, who said, “No access.” But when we asked if this was the direction to the Blue City, he smiled and pointed the direction we had been heading. The same thing happened with the next guard we passed, an emphatic “No,” then a smile pointing us onward.

We exited through a pair of elephant-sized doors set in the thick stone wall. We meandered the back streets of the Blue City, which had been built centuries before right up to the walls of the fort. The area felt no different from any other Indian city as there were chai stands, food stalls, and shops scattered along the road. However, the light blue color of the buildings added a layer of mystery and brilliance to the otherwise commonplace sights.

Back Way Out of Mehrangarh Fort

We left Jodhpur the next day for a quick trip north to Osian, a small village located on the edge of the Thar Desert and therefore the perfect location for several safari camps, catering to adventurous tourists. We whiled away the afternoon, drinking beer and playing several games of cribbage under a shady tent with our toes in the sand.

We took an evening camel ride through sunset – an experience that is sure to be one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done – and returned to camp to find out that we would be the only guests staying at Safari Camp Osian that night – the king and queen of the camp with a 5 person staff taking care of just us. Dean and I both wondered aloud at our luck.

Evening Camel Ride in Osian

The next morning we hopped a 5 hour train ride to Jaipur and were greeted by our hosts, Pushpendra and his wife Sneh. Again, we were amazed by the hospitality as we enjoyed a wonderful evening, Dean sampling single malt whiskeys with Pushpendra, while Sneh and I talked about their two daughters. I was shocked to see that it was past 10 o’clock when our dinner was finished and was sad when they told us that they had to attend a birthday party the following night. However we still had a good chance to spend time with the extremely interesting couple during our 3 days spent in their home. While saying our good-byes the night before leaving, Sneh gave us a set of coasters made from the famous Jaipur blue pottery; a kind gift from our new friends.

Our Wonderful Hosts in Jaipur, Pushpendra and Sneh

As I reflect on our time in India, I’m happy that we’ve had such a wide variety of experiences. I can understand how people are overwhelmed when first coming here. Life is lived on a different level – it’s gritty, in your face and doesn’t follow the rules of courtesy. At the same time, the people that we’ve been lucky enough to meet have been warm, hospitable, and gone out of their way to take care of us. It’s an interesting dichotomy.

I think it comes down to one thing – India demands participation. If you’re willing to penetrate the masses to meet the individuals, instead of being a spectator, you’ll get to experience the richness of this wonderful country.

Elephants Leaving Amber Fort Outside of Jaipur