Days 6 & 7: Pushkar, Lassi(ez)-faire society.

The drive from Jaipur to Pushkar is not long but it is uneventful. It goes on for a while and then after sitting around doing nothing for some time, it is over.

This was a good prelude for what life in Pushkar is like. There’s a lot of sitting around in coffeehouses, drinking their Lassi. It’s quite special as you do get a lot of bhang for your buck. We spent a couple of days of relaxing and lazying around which gave me a lot of time to relax and think.

So I think now is a good time to do a little summary of my thoughts after my first week in India. A lot has happened and I think it will also help me process it all. Let’s start with what I’ve enjoyed so far and what’s gone right.

The things I am enjoying the most so far have been the monuments, the local markets and the normal people. Basically it seems I enjoy any moment when I can forget I’m a big white guy walking around India. It’s great to exchange a smile with a random stranger, take a look at a stall and not get dragged in for a tea and a sales pitch.

I also think that getting a car for this first section has been a good idea so far. We’ve seen a lot more than we would have otherwise and kuldeep is a great driver and guide, though a little stubborn at times. Overall I’m very happy we got him.

The last thing that’s gone very well is my camera/technology setup. Everything is working great and I’ve had no issues so far. The Radpower Filehub works great and I don’t think I’ll ever travel without it again.

Things that I could do without: the constant screams of “Hello, where are you from?” to try and sell you things. Random tuk tuks following you for minutes and strangers “just offering to help” when they clearly have an ulterior motive. It gets old very fast. Also Kuldeep has landed us in a couple of these situations and that was not too appreciated. Though we did end up buying something both times so maybe we did appreciate it?

I also could do without the constant shoes on/off parade. I don’t mind a little barefoot walking but these temples are surrounded by grime and dust and I don’t feel like getting my ugly feet dirty 3 times a day. Also having to leave your bags outside seems ridiculous. I feel very paranoid about leaving my camera anywhere.

Lastly here are a few things that have really surprised me:

  • Cows are not so peaceful. We’ve seen our fair share of cows getting annoyed at people and one even went for Esther!
  • People here litter a lot!
  • Road and speed signs are like short pieces of fiction. They describe an ideal world but nobody can live up to their standards.
  • A road will stretch to fit as many vehicles as want to pass by at the same time.
  • If a vendor, guide, tuk tuk driver, etc. tells you a place is closed, it is probably open.

These are a few thoughts and impressions from Pushkar. Next stop Agra and the Taj Mahal!!!

Days 4 and 5: Jaipur!

We knew that it was going to be a long drive to Jaipur from Delhi. Nobody enjoys the prospect of 5 hours in the car but we steeled up for the task and left early in the morning so as to get there by lunch time. The road to Jaipur has 2 clearly defined sections: before you reach Rajastan and after. The roads in Rajastan are a lot better than in the state of Delhi. However, apart from the heat, it was a rather uneventful drive.

To start our Jaipur visit we went to the Amber Fort. This is a beautiful fort, perched high up in the Hills above Jaipur. It has great views of the wall that runs along the top of Jaipur’s hills but is a bit of a climb to get to. You can take an elephant up to the top but we preferred to walk. As it as a festival day, there were hordes of people there to visit the local temple but the fort itself was not extremely crowded.

After visiting the fort we took a drive along the lake to see the water temple and then we went to our hotel. We unpacked and decided we wanted to eat kebabs so we struck out into town in search of a place called “The Kabab Shop”.

Our hotel was a bit outside town so we had to brave the roads and highways at night to get to the food place. Esther is either getting better at walking among traffic or she’s becoming a better actress as I only heard her screaming once, maybe twice, in the whole journey.

The kebabs were delicious and well worth the walk there and back again. Back at our hotel I fought wiith the wifi for a while and then gave up and went to bed.

The next day we also got an early start and went to see Albert’s house. This building was constructed to honour the visit of Prince Albert to India in the late 19th century and is now a museum. As it was World tourism day, all entries were free to museums and attractions so we just walked in.

This building is now a museum where they display anything they can get their hands on. It had weapons, pottery, textiles, paintings, reproductions of Greek statues and even a mummy in the basement! Not sure if it’s worth a visit or not.

After that we went to see the city palace and the jantar mantar.The city Palace is rather impressive and boasts the world’s biggest silver object. 2 jars weighing 345kg each! Apart from that it has some beautiful courtyards with stunning doors and curious guards that are happy for you to take their photo and then whisper “Tip” while standing under the “No Tipping” sign. No tips were given though advice was freely dispensed.

After a brief walk through the blazing heat of the jantar mantar, we joined kuldeep for some traditional Indian thali. Though all vegetarian, it was really nice and having a beer with it also helped a lot.

As the heat was rising we retreated to a coffeeshop for espresso and air conditioning. In there we had another of our inevitable photo sessions with the locals and then ventured into the beauty of the Hawa Mahal.

This place is definitely worth a visit as the architecture is stunning and it is also full of small corners were you can retreat for a bit of peace and quiet. This is a quality not to be underestimated in a city as crazy as Jaipur. After the Hawa Majal we ventured into the local markets in search of trousers for Esther.

This took a long time and a lot of meandering through fun streets filled with the usual assortment of vehicles, people and this time also pigs! We asked Kuldeep later if people ate those pigs and he answered “No, those are street pigs”. Apparently the local fauna includes stray pigs.

Once the shopping was done, we got nicely lost in the side streets heading to the city palace and were accosted by hordes of children screaming “Photo!!!” and “Chewing Gum!!”. We took their photo, gave them a print and some gum and they were gone in a second. Leaving behind a crying 1 year old toddler that we were not very sure what to do with. Luckily an adult was on hand to take the baby and we scampered away down a side street that seemed to lead to where we wanted to go.

Back in the safety of our car, we headed to the Tiger fort to see the sunset. This fort is really high up in the hills and you would need some sort of vehicle to get here. It is most definitely worth it. Not only is the fort beautiful but also the views are spectacular. I’d also recommend paying the 200 rupee fee to get into the opa restaurant to see the sunset. You get a free drink with the entrance and the views are hard to beat.

As the day came to a close we headed back to Jaipur and asked Kuldeep to drop us close to the kebab place for dinner. “Close” was 2 kms away and we had quite a walk to the kebab shop and then to the hotel. In the end we got there safely after a bit more screaming from Esther. She now uses the screaming therapeutically to give her strength. It is mutating into half scream, half roar.

We fought with the Internet a bit, and then slept peacefully until the next day.

Day 3: Rest day, relatively speaking…

So, today was supposed to be a day of rest. We had been told that everything worth seeing was closed on Mondays in Delhi so we had decided to take the day slowly, maybe go out for a stroll but generally just have lazy day. Sometimes the best laid plans just don’t stick.

The beginning of the day was as planned. Woke up late, had another cold shower, a slow breakfast and we left the hotel by 10:30 or so, on our way to the Gurudwara Sikh temple. The heat started to build and we had to walk along some main roads, avoiding tuk tuks, husslers, cars, more husslers and the occasional suicidal bicycle. We ended up taking refuge in a cathedral as it was cool in there and nobody followed us in.

We then made it to the Gurudwara and once again had to remove our shoes. I’m not the biggest fan of removing my shoes and exposing my big ugly feet but it seems like you have to do that everywhere here. At least this place was clean and fresh. It was rather beautiful as well.

After there, our plan was to head to Jantar Mantar, an 18th century building designed to measure the movement of the stars. Once we got there and saw there was no shade anywhere, we took a detour to a nearby air conditioned coffee shop. By this time I looked like I had taken part in a wet t-shirt competition and lost with great embarrassment.

We gave up on the sunny Jantar Mantar and went in search of food. We had a hankering for western food so we ended up in Pizza hut! It’s amazing how much they can do with only chicken. Chicken Salami, chicken meatballs, chicken suasage, chicken tikka, and many more Instead of the meat lover’s pizza it was literally called the chicken lover’s pizza. I quickly professed my avian love and scoffed down all that fowl goodness.

After pizza we both agreed that the Jantar Mantar was beyond our capacity so we set out in search of a local well called Agrasen ki baoli. It was kind of hidden down a pathway but well worth the find.

It was quiet and beautiful but so not worth the 108 steps to get to the bottom. We spent a good hour there just chilling and recuperating.

Once our batteries were full we hatched our final plan of the day: do some shopping for toiletries and then retreat to the hotel. It all seemed to be going off without a hitch until our map showed us there was a park in the middle of the area we were walking through.

We quickly ditched the plan and headed for the park. It was all for naught as the park was closed but we did manage to get even hotter and see more people standing around markets, apparently not buying anything. We went back to the original plan, got some soap and gel as well as some snacks and headed for the hotel. This was the toughest stretch. The road offered no shade and it was way too hot for two people accustomed to Irish weather.

After taking a wrong turn or two, stopping for coffee, avoiding more tuk turk’s, husslers, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, acrobatic children and other dangers of the city, we finally arrived at the hotel! Our “day of rest” consisted of around 9kms walking in 36 degree heat. I’m glad we don’t take too many days off!

Day 2: Delhicious

After waking from our self-induced coma of 12 hours, we steeled ourselves for another day of intense sightseeing. Our morning shower was cold (not by choice) and our breakfast was simple (kind of by choice). We met Kuldeep at 10 am and off we went into the streets of Delhi.

We seem to have the local gathering spot for children just outside our hotel and there were already a dozen of them running amok when we left in the morning. I suspect this is because out street is the only one with no tarmac and therefore has almost no traffic.

Our first stop in the morning was the famous red fort. This place is huge! The towering walls were impressive and as we had to walk around a big part of it to get to the entrance, we got a good image of what it might be like to approach this imposing fortress as an invader. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t want to be one.

The complex on the inside was also very beautiful. It reminded me of parts of Iran with the waterways and decorations. It is very clear to see how the Mogul rulers of India were inspired by Persian styles.

After the red fort, we ventured into the craziness of the Sunday bazaar. It was extremely packed and we were accosted on all sides by beggars, tuk tuk drivers, guides and other tourist vultures. We were also somewhat paranoid about our belongings so we sped through (relatively speaking) on our way to our lunch spot, Karim’s.

Karim’s is a little restaurant off a side road near the Jamal Masjid mosque. It is a great place to eat mutton and after 3 days of only chicken, I could do with the change.

Once our stomachs were full, we moved on to the Jamal Masjid mosque. We paid the tourist tax and got covered in a piece of cloth and charged for it too. Apart from that little inconvenience, the mosque is well worth a visit. It’s a great place to sit around and meet some locals. You will also get to take a lot of selfies with a lot of people. This place is almost as bad as China!

After a while at the mosque it was time to brave the bazaar again to go in search of our car. This was a crazy walk. We dodged people, cars, tuk tuks, motorcycles, mud and dogs just to get to the main road. I almost lost Esther at a certain point but we made it through in the end. Crossing the road was fun and Esther is actually crossing with almost no screaming by now!

Once we got to the car, we went to the Shrine of Mahatma Ghandi which was not that great and then on to the best sight of the day: Humayun’s tomb!

If you could only see one thing in Delhi, I’d recommend this place. It served as a template for the Taj Mahal and is absolutely stunning. I’d recommending coming here and spending a long while walking around and enjoying the various mausoleums. I’d also recommend carrying some spare water as there are no vendors around and it can get rather hot. Also, avoid friendly security guards offering to explain what the monuments are. They are, once again, just after your money and really have very little to offer when it comes to actual information.

To round off the day we did a little clothes shopping and ate some delicious Indian food at a restaurant near the hotel. Then a good night’s sleep to get ready for day 3!

First day: flights and Delhi!

So, here we go again. Flying off into the unknown with apparently not a care in the world. It’s all a carefully orchestrated illusion of course as you cannot avoid some level of trepidation when embarking upon a month-long trip into India and Nepal.

The flight over was relatively uneventful with the exception of encountering my first burger king that served no beef burgers. I have a feeling I’ll be sprouting feathers by the end of this trip! Eating nothing but chicken every day!

The monotony of the fight to Delhi was broken by a group of screaming old Italian ladies that spent a big part fo the trip complaining loudly in Italian to fellow passengers that did not speak a word of Italian. They also routenly ignored the fasten seat belt sign and one even got up to chat with her friend just before the plane started accelerating for take-off. Esther and I found it very funny, a feeling clearly not shared by the flight crew. Once we landed and spent the mandatory hour in the queue to get our visas, we stepped outside where our patient cab driver was still waiting for us, in spite of the fact that we were almost 3 hours late.

The drive over was either a lot of fun or nerve-wracking, depending on which one of us you asked. I have a feeling that by the end of this trip, Esther will either never want to get in a car again or will be one more of the crazy drivers that you find in these latitudes.

After getting some food and refreshment at the hotel, we sat down with the hotel’s travel agent to book the trains over to Varanasi. We knew that finding spaces on those trains could be challenging so we had to book the in advance. Somehow after a few minutes talking to the agent we found ourselves breaking my cardinal rule of my trips, No planning!

We now have a driver for the first week or so, as well as hotels, trains and everything booked until we are due to leave India on the sixth. I’m not sure how I feel about this yet.

On the one-hand it’s nice to have a driver to take us around, avoid the hassles of looking for transport and ending up stuck in a local bus. On the other hand, I kind of like those hassles and buses. In any case, I saw Esther’s look of relief when everything was booked and at the end of the day, that’s what matters. We are travelling together and if she’s happy, That’s all I need.

Now all that was over, we could begin our exploration of Delhi! Our driver, Kundeep, turns out to be a great guy. He’s been doing this for 24 years, has a solid FB following and books full of raving comments from past clients. He took us around to the best known sites of New Delhi and it was a mixed bag.

Some sites are amazing and we feel like we should have stayed a little longer. Places like the Lodi gardens and the Qutab Minar deserve time to see properly.

Other places were not so great. The Laxmi temple, Indira Ghandi memorial and the government building are ok if you have time to spare but I could have done without them.

Overall it was a good day, by the time we got back to the hotel we were wrecked and ended passing out on the beds and waking up at 6 am the next day. We’ll see what tomorrow brings!

Technology update. Smaller and better.

The last time I did some travel blogging was 2 years ago when I went to Japan for the first time. Back then I was using my Android tablet with an attached keyboard to write my posts and also to transfer my photos from my SD cards to my hard drive.

I ended up quitting blogging half-way through that trip as the entire process was a nightmare. The tablet was very slow, uploading and editing images was really hard and overall it took way too much time to complete a blog post. I still really appreciated having a way to backup my images but it was not feasible for blogging. Since then I’ve gone even more minimalist. I now travel with just my smartphone which I use for editing my photos and I also carry a card reader and a HDD but depend on the kindness of strangers to transfer my photos to my HDD. This has gone well so far but I never felt quite comfortable with the setup. For this trip I am taking a leap to try to do more blogging on the go and I’ve got a couple of gadgets that will hopefully help me achieve everything I want while not taking up too much space. My first addition to my setup is a Bluetooth keyboard. I bought a folding keyboard which I’ve paired up with my smartphone and I’ll be using that to blog on the go. I’m actually writing this whole article with this setup and it works a treat. This will let me write up my posts whenever I have a spare moment and is also so much more responsive than my old setup. The second issue I want to tackle is mobile backup. I’ve ordered a little gadget called the Ravpower Filehub. Ravpower is a company that is better known for its power banks but this nifty gadget does so much more. The main thing I want to use it for is to transfer files from my SD card to my portable hard drive.

This gadget has both an SD card reader and a USB port so I can use it to move files from one to the other without going through my phone. It also is a WiFi hub so I can read files and watch movies stored on the hard drive, it acts as a WiFi extender for bad connections, can turn hard point connections into wireless connections and so much more. Did I mention it also has a 6000 mA battery to charge my phone? I’m really excited to get this little piece of tech and start trying it out.

Fuji camera gear selection 2013 vs 2017 (part 1: lenses)

When I last travelled to Nepal the Fuji X system had recently launched and there were few lenses to choose from. I still agonised over what lenses to pick which seems funny looking back now as I had a lot less lenses to choose from back then.

So many choices!

I finally went with the following selection:

  • X-Pro 1 body
  • 35mm f1.4 lens
  • 18mm f2 lens
  • Sigma 100mm f2.8 macro lens (manual only)

It was a pretty well rounded setup as I had a wide angle, a portrait lens and a telephoto lens which I felt covered everything I would need. In the end the 18mm and the 35mm were clearly my most used lenses. The 100mm was used for one day only and was a bit of a waste.

Over the years since then I slowly transitioned to travelling almost exclusively with my X100S. I’ve grown very accustomed to my 23mm (35mm equivalent) field of view and I feel it covers most situations I run into. However for this trip I’ve decided to go back to a multi-lens setup as I will be travelling with my X-Pro2 and would love the flexibility of being able to swap lenses.

I know I will be taking the following items for sure:

  • X-Pro 2 camera
  • Rokinnon 12mm f2 manual lens
  • Fuji 23mm f2 lens

This has me well covered for wide angle shots and most travel photos. the 23mm can also be used as a portrait lens in a pinch but I’d prefer to have something longer for that purpose. I have though about also taking the 35mm as it is a very fast lens and great for portraits but I feel like the difference between that and the 23mm is not huge.

Now I need to figure out how to get these shots!

My biggest struggle now is covering the telephoto side of things. I plan on going on a mini safari during this trip and also going up to the Himalayas to see the sunrise so having a long-ish telephoto would be very useful. The possible options I have are:

Sigma 100mm f2.8 macro lens.

Cons:
Not the sharpest, not the fastest, no autofocus, a bit too long for portraits.

Pros:
It is relatively light and allows me to do macro work if the need arises.

Rokinon 135 mm f2

Cons:
Heavy, not very flexible use, no autofocus, limited portrait work.

Pros:
Tac sharp, very fast, that BOKEH!

Fuji 50-140mm f2.8

Cons:
Heavy, expensive, not the fastest lens

Pros:
Flexible, Image stabilised, can be used as all round portrait and landscape lens, very sharp.

As you can guess I am leaning towards the 50-140 lens. My biggest problem is the extra kilo of weight it adds. A kilo might not sound like much but when you’re lugging it up a mountain, it makes a big difference!

I’m still not sure which way to go so if you have any opinions, please let me know as I’d love some help!

In my next post I’ll cover the accessories I’ll be taking to help me get the images I need and also what I’ll be using this time around to blog while on the road.