The Taj Mahal: Are words even necessary?

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OK maybe a few words.

- Agra is a dump. DUMP. See the Taj and get out of there as soon as you can. Except we did meet a cute baby in our hotel. That part was great.

- Sunrise was an impeccable time to see the Taj, mostly because it gets painfully hot even as quickly as 9 a.m.
- The east gate’s ticket booth is 1km from the entrance; other gates’ booths are much closer.
- We went to the west gate because it opened at 6 a.m. The south gate opened only at 8 a.m.
- If you’re an Indian not born in India, you can fake your way into buying an Indian National ticket, which costs justs 20 rupees compared to 750 rupees. Yikes! I wore Indian clothes, confidently said I’m from Bangalore and knew the words “Where are you from?” in Hindi so I could respond. No one bothers looking at your ticket once you’ve paid.
- Saniya Palace Hotel looks cruddy from the outside but it has a decent rooftop with the best view of the Taj.

Without further ado…

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Nawalgarh, Rajasthan: It’s the India you dream of

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I think Nawalgarh is the embodiment of what people envision when they think of India. Bright, retina-searing colors, men in turbans, desert landscapes, camels trotting on the road, samosas fried before your eyes — you get the picture.

It’s a small city in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, 3.5 hours by bus from Jaipur. Since we had five whole days in Rajasthan, after two busy days in Jaipur, the more rural pace of Nawalgarh sounded inviting. Surprisingly, the bus was a piece of cake. No, it wasn’t luxurious and yes, my allergies flared up thanks to the swirling dust entering the bus, but people were friendly, they told us when our stop came, and the bus didn’t make any pit-stops. Much better than buses in SE Asia.

Nawalgarh is unlike anywhere we’ve ever been. Traveling here is like traveling back in time, even more so than Myanmar. The culture is splayed out onto the streets, whether it’s tailors working on the road, mothers dressed in glittering saris walking hand-in-hand with their children or strolling by an antique building only to realize it’s one of the many ornately painted havelis for which the city is famous.

And compared to other towns in the Shekhawati region, like Mandawa and Jhunjhunu, Nawalgarh apparently has the best accommodation options.

We stayed at Shekawati Guesthouse. On the surface, everything was great. Our mud cottage set in the family’s farm was charming, the bathroom was the cleanest we’ve ever seen in India, the wife cooked delicious organic meals, we managed to bargain the price down to a cool 1400 rupees including two meals, and we even had WiFi!

But our interaction with the wife was less than great.

On our first night, we told her a little about ourselves — how we were a couple, how I was from South India, how Eaman was from Iran, etc.

Wife, to Eaman: “So you’re Muslim then?”

In India, people have asked Eaman this question a lot, but it almost always has been followed by a proclamation about how humanity is all one, and we should never harp on differences.

Eaman: “Yeah, I’m Muslim.”

Wife: “So how are the Muslims in Iran? Are they as backward as they are here?”

Oh boy.

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The Jaipur top 5, according to Archana & Eaman

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Perhaps the best decision we made while traveling was to hire a driver for the day in Jaipur. I had thought Jaipur would be a beautiful, colorful city to get lost in, but Rajasthan’s capital is not the kind of place you walk around. It’s dusty, congested and the city itself is not all that pretty. Hiring a driver for the day is cheap — we paid 550 rupees for a rickshaw — and an excellent way to see the highlights. And though we’re not the “highlights” kind of travelers, we loved this method because it meant seeing a lot of one place without India’s characteristic hassling and touts.

With our driver Yusuf. Yes, he took us to his friends’ shops, but we made it clear that we also wanted to see stores we chose ourselves. As it turns out, his stores were better anyway. We loved him because when we’d be in one of his selected shops and ask him if he got a commission, he said, “Ya, of course!” Loved the honesty.

Here’s what else we loved and why.

5. The Monkey Temple. Our travels through Asia have given me a particular fondness for elephants, camels and monkeys, and atop this Surya temple in the city lay a gang of macaques who hold court over the city. The temple is so-so, but watching the monkeys is worth the hike up the mountain, and the views at sunset are particularly good. But keep in mind that the monkeys can get vicious, as the temple lady told me.

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Beaches, banana chips and fighting with rickshaw drivers in Kannur, Kerala

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We had agreed on 150 rupees, and yet there we were, finally at our accommodation, Shoreline Beach Resort, in Kannur, Kerala, arguing with the rickshaw driver, who now demanded 200 rupees.

He had gotten majorly lost along the way, and we had a feeling he’d up the price.

Once we arrived, he wouldn’t take 150. He started ranting in Malyalam and said something about 170. So we said, “Fine, we’ll give you 170″ just to get him off our backs. Then, the driver all of a sudden wanted 200 for all the gas he spent trying to find the place. It wasn’t our fault he got lost. If he didn’t know the way, he shouldn’t have taken us.

Eaman staunchly refused. The driver threatened to call the police. He kept yelling in Malyalam. Then he got all up in Eaman’s face. He probably would’ve spit in our faces if he didn’t want our money so badly.

The fight became a shouting match — with the driver doing all the shouting — so finally, we paid 180, only because Hamza himself gave us the 20-rupee difference.

And this was our welcome to India’s most laid-back state.

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Scenes from Mysore’s Devaraja market

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We loved the colors, smells and people of Mysore’s Devaraja market so much that we wanted to dedicate a whole post to the photos. If only you could smell those sandalwood incense…

Mysore is one of India’s major sandalwood and incense manufacturing centers.

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Mysore: Where we learn to appreciate the dichotomy that is India

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India is a country of contrasts. The rich, the poor. The schooled, the uneducated. The glamour, the squalor. And as we found out in Mysore, India is also the place of emotional dichotomy, a place where you can experience the lowest lows followed by the highest highs. Mysore gave us our first taste of this. And we learned that what goes down almost inevitably comes back up.

At times it felt like fights with auto rickshaw drivers dominated our time in Mysore. “The palace is closed for lunch!” said one driver, who hoped to rangle us for his own tour of the city. (Note: The Palace doesn’t close for lunch.) And there was the guy who knowingly took us to the wrong entrance for the Palace. And the other guy who agreed to our price, then demanded a higher price for no apparent reason. And somehow, taxi rides, something that should occupy maybe 10% of our day, seemed to occupy a much larger chunk of the day. It left us tired, frustrated and completely wary of any taxi driver. Even the nice ones. Sorry, nice rickshaw driver!

But just as you’re beginning to question why you chose to travel there in the first place, India has a way of turning the tables. That’s when the highs kicked in.

For starters, Mysore Palace, the city’s crown tourist jewel, is really beautiful. There’s not much interior proof I can show you because cameras are forbidden inside, but I did sneak a few pictures on my phone. When the security guards caught me, they scolded me, threatened to take my phone for two days and hung a 500-rupee fine over my head. But traveling through India as an Indian has its advantages. I busted out my Kannada, and, so impressed that a child of their country who was born and raised in the U.S. could speak their mother tongue, they let me go. They did want a tip, but Eaman and I just walked away.

A gloomy day.

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The realest Hindu temple we ever did meet

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After Bangalore, Eaman and I, along with my mom, aunt, uncle and cousin piled into a car to drop us off in Mysore. But before we parted ways, my family took us to a very special place in the temple town of Nanjangud.

This is the Srikanteshwara temple, a major pilgrimage site dedicated to Shiva that dates back more than 600 years and was once frequented (and often cared for) by my grandfather and great-grandfather. I had never been here before, so to finally visit with Eaman by my side was truly special. We couldn’t take photos inside, but I’ll tell it like we saw it and show you what the grounds look like.

It’s big and cavernous and dimly lit, making the whole experience just a little more intense. You may have seen Hindu temples around India or other countries, but forget everything you know about them. This temple is about as real as it gets. Even I was a little culture-shocked. There were people rolling around the floor (in sacrifice), naked babies laid in front of idols and people prostrating so fervently. I truly had never seen anything like it. It felt like we had traveled back in time.

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Eaman turns 29 in Bangalore and we celebrate x3!

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My parents and I had been scheming Eaman’s birthday, which would be spent in Bangalore, since we were in Myanmar. Emails were exchanged, venues were called and what they came up with — my parents deserve all the credit — was a food-, game- and family-centric way for him to say hello to 29.

The day of his birthday, we had lunch at Leela Palace, a gorgeous 5-star hotel with a few locations in India. The spread was phenomenal. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten a more fancy meal before.

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