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Backpacking India: Trip Summary

India - Jaipur - Amber Fort
After 4 months backpacking through India, we have a lot of fond memories and unforgettable stories. We did our best to see as much of this amazing, diverse country as possible. We took dozens of trains, buses, and shared jeeps, covering more than 13,000 kms (further than the distance from Vancouver to Delhi) traveling between 35 destinations. There are individual blog posts about each stop on our trip, which you can read if you have hours of free time. Otherwise, here’s our recap.

The Highlights:

Hampi Ruins
We spent four days exploring the massive ruins around Hampi and the boulder strewn landscape. We could have spent more. Every day was special, but there were two very memorable moments. On the first day we hiked over a ridge and found ourselves alone with a sprawling ruins below us just begging to be explored. On our last day, we rented a motorbike and explored the north shore. We got lost on small dirt roads amidst rice paddies, hiked up to a monkey temple, and ate lunch at a packed, chaotic restaurant where no one spoke English, there was no menu, and the only thing they had was an unlimited thali with the tastiest food served on a banana leaf – no plates or cutlery.

India - Holi in Varanasi
Indians know how to party and we got to celebrate a few big festivals. We were lucky to celebrate India’s most colourful festival, Holi, in its most holy city, Varanasi. It was a riot of colour – fun but intimidating too. We brought in the New Year in Kochi with elephants, fireworks, and burning Santa Claus.

India - Jaisalmer Camel Safari With mystic tours
Camel Safari in Jaisalmer
Riding a camel might not be the most comfortable or fastest way to travel, but it sure is memorable. We slept under the stars at night and played cards under a shade tree during the day. Our camel ride left from Jaisalmer, one of the most relaxed and picturesque towns we visited in Rajasthan.

India - Pushkar yoga Swamiji and us
Yoga in Pushkar
Yoga in India is much more spiritual than the purely physical form you find in Vancouver. We really enjoyed many of the classes we took and our excellent instructors, but the highlight was meeting Swamiji in Pushkar, who we formed a deep personal connection with during our short stay. He really impressed us with his teachings on the fundamentals of yoga and his wisdom. We plan on making yoga part of our daily routine in Vancouver.

India - Gokarna
Beach Time in Goa
Far way from the chaos of India’s cities, the beaches of Goa and Gokarna are in a different world. For 10 days we slept in dirt-cheap huts and spent our days doing yoga, hiking, and reading on the beach. It was a great opportunity to recharge our batteries after our first month in India.

Chandrashila Trek
Himalayan Trekking
Our first attempt to hike the Himalayas along the Singalila Ridge didn’t go as planned, but we knew there was something special about the worlds highest mountains and signed up for another trek. The second time, Dan joined us for an epic 3-day hike to the top a snow-capped Chandrashilla Mountain. It wasn’t easy, even with porters carrying our gear and cooks making our food, but we survived and were glad we did it.

India - Calcutta
Karma in Kolkata
We met a lot of fascinating people throughout India, both locals and other travelers. In many ways the people we met were more memorable than the sights we saw. In Kolkata we were lucky to meet Karma and his friend Priya. We spent two days talking with them, sharing stories, and talking about our hopes for the future. They also showed us a part of the city we would have never found on our own.

India - Udaipur
Udaipur and Krishna Ranch
We spent a whole month in the Rajasthan, a state rich with history. After a while many of the cities started to blend together. Every one had an imposing fort, and ornate palace, and divine temples. But Udaipur really stood out from the pack with its beautiful setting on a lake with floating palaces. We also spent 3 relaxing days just outside the city at Krishna Ranch, enjoying the tranquil setting and doing some adventurous hiking/bushwhacking.

India - Tashiding, Sikim
The northern state of Sikkim, next to Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan was another unique Indian gem. Rich in Buddhist culture, we loved the views of the towering Himalayas, ornate monasteries, Nepalese food, and our epic shared jeep rides between towns.

India - Munroe Island - backwater canoe tour
Kerala Backwaters
The tropical, jungle atmosphere of the Kerala backwaters in South India stole our hearts. We stayed in a lovely guest house on Munroe Island and enjoyed exploring the canals that connect the local villages by canoe. We also stumbled upon a Hindu festival with drummers and actors dressed up like gods and demons from the Hindu scriptures.

Mischievous Monkeys
Monkeys in India are like racoons in Canada – cute but mischievous pests. But monkeys are not afraid of people and are active during the day. We lost count of the number of times got close to an adorable monkey, smiled (big mistake), and ran away when it bared its teeth and hissed at us. On Christmas morning at Karuna Farm, monkeys stole food from our outdoor kitchen while I was cooking breakfast. In Varanasi, one tried to pee on us from a rooftop. And in Hampi, we sat and watched monkeys jumping from roof to roof and making a mess of clothes lines and water barrels.

Bonus Photos
India - Jodhpur - Mehrangarh Fort

Rafting the Ganges
Continue reading Backpacking India: Trip Summary

Backpacking India: One Month In

India - Chennai
We’re one month into our 4-month trip through India and we’re getting into a good routine. We’ve figured out how to order South Indian food and eat it with our hands and how to walk down the street without being hit by a bus or stepping in cow shit. We’re used to sleeping on the hard beds and ignoring the aggressive rickshaw drivers and touts. And I’m getting better at walking by cows and monkeys without having to snap a picture, but it’s not easy – they’re so cute.

India - Bangalore
Our daily routine has been pretty relaxed. It may look like we’re doing a lot, but it is much slower pace than we’re used to. Our days start with a leisurely morning with an Indian breakfast. After that we will check out one sight or neighborhood and then grab lunch. Often we’ll retreat from the heat back to our hotel in the afternoon for a rest. After that we might check out another attraction before grabbing a late dinner. Indians tend to eat their meals later than Canadians and we’re starting to do the same.

India - Chennai
We eat Indian food for most meals. Our favourite breakfasts are dosas or idlies with sambar. I’ve lost count how many dosas we’ve had – easily over 50 (including 6 today between the two of us). For lunch we often get thalis – cheap, vegetarian combo meals involving rice, bread, rassam, sambar, curries, and a sweet served in small silver bowls that waiters will often refill as you empty them. For dinner, we’ll either have more dosas or get something adventurous. North Indian food is easy to find the south and very tasty. It is also the closest to what you would find in Canada, but much better. You can’t go wrong with dal (lentil), aloo (potato), bhindi (okra), bharta (eggplant), or gobi (cauliflower) dishes. We’ve also discovered gobi 65 (a deep fried cauliflower dish) and gobi manchurian (like cauliflower buffalo wings), sambar vadai (donuts in a savory sauce), stuffed paratha (like an Indian quesadilla), and chana bhatura (chickpea curry with puffy bread). There’s enough variety within vegetarian Indian food that we’ve rarely felt the desire to eat Western food, although we did enjoy a burrito and falafel while we were in Bangalore. In most cities it is common to find reasonable facsimiles of Chinese, Italian, and American fast food (minus the beef).

The food sometimes meses with our digestive system. We’ve been sick a few times, food poisoning and vomiting for me, traveler’s diarrhea for Emily, and a lingering cold for both of us.

India - Cochin
We have a rough itinerary of places we want to visit and have been reserving accommodation and transport about a week in advance. Now that the Christmas/New Year holiday season is over, it has been easier to book trains and hotele on short notice. During Christmas, train reservations are impossible and we had to rely on buses. We found handy websites to book our transport online – trains through cleartrip and buses through redbus.

India - Hampi - Laundry
We have been spending 2-4 days in most cities. Long enough to see all the sights and have some downtime. We often hand wash clothing when we arrive in a new city so it has time to dry. We’ve tried using laundry services, but they charge per item, so it is not worth it for underwear or socks.

India - Mysore
Of course, everything hasn’t gone smoothly. There have been frustrations along the way. Technology tends to break just when we need it. I’m on my second cellphone now. It’s taken a bit of detective work to disable all the cloud syncing on the iPad so it doesn’t grind to a halt. Most of our accommodation has had free WiFi, but the signal is either weak or the connection to slow to use. Google Maps has lead us astray a few times.

India - Pondicherry
Getting around in general has been the most frustrating. We’ve had a number of angry encounters with rickshaw drivers trying to screw us over. The buses are confusing with little English signage. Google maps has transit directions in the big cities, but it has been more detrimental than helpful. We tend to walk a lot, even though there is rarely sidewalks.

India - Hampi Emily and her paparazzi
We don’t understand why Indians want to take their picture with us. The first time it was amusing. But some days we can be asked 50 times for a photo and some of the young men can get aggressive when we say no. It’s annoying, creepy, and borderline racist. It makes sense when it is someone we’ve talked to or had some interaction with, but usually it’s complete strangers. It makes it hard to enjoy some of the more popular sights when you’re being hunted by groups of paparazzis.

We’re slowly learning how to order food, but Emily was often frustrated early in the trip with large menus and no information about what the options are. At pure veg places we knew we could eat everything, but when we tried to order anything beyond the set meals or thalis we rarely had a balanced meal. Asking the waiters never helps because they just nod their heads.

El Salvador Resort Vacation

Beach Chairs at Sunset
El Salvador is a slice of paradise. The weather is perfect, the water is warm, the food is good, and the locals are friendly. The tourism industry is still developing but it gives the country an authentic flavour.

Every winter my Dad escapes the cold clutches of Winnipeg and organizes a group trip somewhere warm. This year it was El Salvador and Emily and I decided to join them. All-inclusive resorts are not our preferred way to travel, but we thought it would be good to spend some time with my parents and El Salvador seemed more adventurous than the normal Mexico, Cuba, Dominican destinations.

The Surprise
Turtle Family
My mother didn’t know we were coming. I didn’t know my sisters were coming. My dad had a web of secrets he managed to keep until we all arrived in Toronto the night before our flight to El Salvador. I was shocked when I bumped into Kelsey and Matt in the hotel lobby a few hours before my parents arrived. We schemed and joked about how to surprise Mom.

We managed to sneak into her hotel room and hide in the bed and behind the window curtains. When Mom came in, she dropped her bags and left before we could get out of our hiding places. I was still under the bed covers when I heard Matt whisper, “I think she left”. I was about to chase her down in the hallway when I heard the door opening again. This time Mom entered, heard us giggling, and called out: “Hello? Is there someone in my room?”.

Mom might hate surprises, but we enjoyed the look on her face when she realized that we were having a big family vacation.

The Resort
Poolside Lounging
We stayed at the Royal Decameron Salinitas, one of the few all-inclusive resorts in El Salvador. It sprawls along the Pacific Ocean with several pools and restaurants. It takes about 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other. The rooms were all beautiful with ocean views.

In the morning, I would get up early and go running. The security guards at the front gate had no problem letting me in and out, and I never worried about my safety. Even at 7 am, it was hot and humid and I was soaked in sweat by the end of my runs.

The spa at the resort was surprisingly good and well-priced. We had massages and also tried the Temazcal, a free 30 minute spiritual ritual inside a Mayan sweat lodge.

One interesting thing about this resort is that the majority of the guests were from other Central American countries (especially on the weekend). There were a sizable group of Canadians, but we were definitely outnumbered by families from Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and even El Salvador. As a result, most of the entertainment was in Spanish and a lot of the staff only spoke Spanish. The tours were geared at Canadians with English/French speaking guides, but on the resort there was no forgetting you were in a Latin American country. I liked that.

The Food
El Salvador BreakfastThe food on the resort was good, but it was difficult keeping to a vegan diet. Luckily I’m willing to be flexible when I’m on vacation, so I ate vegetarian instead. I just couldn’t resist the fresh papusas, stuffed with a refried beans and cheese. Every meal had fresh fruit and vegetables, salsa, corn tortillas, and some kind of bean dish (although you had to watch out for random bits of meat). The one thing I couldn’t find was fresh mango or coconut.

Beach Day and Boogieboarding
Waves Collage
The beach in front of the resort is protected by a large breakwater, so there aren’t any large waves. The resort has another property 30 minutes away (accessible by a bus shuttle) with a long sandy beach. We spent one day there catching waves in the ocean, boogieboarding, playing ping-pong, and relaxing. If I wasn’t worried about burning in the sun, I could have spent all day in the ocean.

Volcano Hike
Cerro Verde Panorama
The best excursion we did was a day long hike of the Santa Ana volcano in Cerro Verde National Park. The hike started in a forested jungle and ended along the crater of Santa Ana with a view down to the pool at the bottom. The 8 km hike with 420 meters of elevation gain took us 4 1/2 hours including a 30 minute break at the top for lunch (map and elevation profile). For Emily and I it was a nice, light hike. For my parents it pushed their physical limits a bit, although they never struggled.

Zipline RockstarWe went ziplining at the nearby Apaneca Canopy tours. I was impressed with how well run it was. They had 14 lines, starting with small ones (around 20 meters) to get used to the harnesses, and ending with long runs (280 meters) that went over a valley with a coffee plantation. The staff was good at keeping everyone moving and ensuring we were safe and having fun.

Cultural Tour
Amongst the Beans Ahuachapán Tour
We took a bus trip and cultural tour down the Ruta de las Flores to check out some of the towns. We stopped at a market, a coffee mill, furniture factory, chocolate store, and a geothermal power plant. It was good to see some of the smaller villages, but I would have liked more unstructured time in town and less guided elements. The geothermal plant was interesting, but I didn’t need a 2 hour tour.

Photo Highlights
Full photo set on Flickr
Ready to Jet Canadian Eye Mask Hotel Room First Run Water Aerobics Sunset Kiss Coffee Beans Bean Roaster Village People Floppy Hard Hat Transit Bus Ready To Zip Apaneca Ziplining Zipline Disembark Coffee Cherries Porters in Paradise Izalco Horsey Walking Stick Mom Mom and Dad Hike Me and Izalco At the Santa Ana Peak Santa Ana Jump Forced March Agave Parents Tight Squeeze Ping Pong Showdown Shuffleboard Ladies Iguana Sweaty Runner Temazcal Playing in the Pool Beach Sunset El Salvador 2014 Sunset Tree Sad to Leave, Happy to Return

1 million Flickr views!

Flickr Stats Chart
As of today, my Flickr account has received 1 million views. It’s the milestone I’ve been waiting for to cancel my paid account. I have no problem paying $25/year for a great photo storage website, but Yahoo announced two months ago that Flickr would phase out its Pro accounts and transition people to free accounts. Yes, Flickr has coerced me into not paying them. After 8 years and $218, my money is no good.

The new free account is almost as good as the old paid one was. The world will still have access to all my photos and I have the ability to upload as many new ones as I want. Sure there’s a 2 TB limit, but it will take me over 1000 years to reach it at my current upload rate. Realistically, the only downside is I no longer have access to detailed statistics, which is why I waited until today to cancel my account.

I started my Flickr account on July 30, 2005 by uploading this horrible picture of my sister (sorry Kelsey).
Lunch 003

Since then I’ve uploaded 5,335 more photos, most better than the one above. Here are some of the most popular photos on my Flickr account and a collection of my favourites.
MSN Butterfly Ladies Students Studying Plumber's Convention Sugar Cane Summit Salutations Cow Break Gay Cowboy School Girl and School Boy
Diving Board Feet Radiant Heated Sidewalks Scary Fish Sunbathers on Kits Beach Gullfoss Waterfall The Sombrero at Postcards Cafe Frozen Snowflake Rocky Peak