Fatehpur Sikri: The Short, Short Version

A popular tourist attraction within India’s Golden Triangle is Fatehpur Sikri, which is located along the route from Jaipur to Agra. Built in the 16th century, Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal Empire for about 15 years, before it was abandoned due to insufficient water supply.
 We had a very full itinerary, so we weren’t sure if we were going to take the detour to tour the palace grounds. But at the last minute, we decided we would stop just to take a quick peek. Once we arrived, we were followed by a very persistent tour guide who insisted we should hire him to show us around. We were adamant that we didn’t have time for the tour, as we were just breezing through. Worn down by his persistence, we agreed to pay him a fraction of the regular tour fee, in exchange for the short, short version of the tour.

 The information I retained from the short, short version is that Emperor Akbar had 3 wives. A Muslim wife, a Christian wife, and a Hindu wife, all walk into a bar, but only the Hindu wife succeeded in bearing a male heir. As a result, the Muslim wife’s quarters were about as big as a modern-day walk-in closet. The Christian wife’s quarters were a bit more respectable, but paled in comparison to the Hindu wife’s palace. The Hindu wife’s digs were actually larger than those of the Emperor himself! Men and their ridiculous need for a son…am I right?

We didn’t even have time to complete the short, short version of the tour. Ella was tired (read: fussy) and we were trying to get to Agra before sunset. So we said goodbye to our tour guide feeling content with what we had time to see.

 Tip for tourists: Of all the places we visited in India, Fatehpur Sikri had the most thieves and scammers by far! We observed very elaborate schemes to swindle tourists out of their money and Rob even had to step in to assist a woman that was being harassed. If you are not a savvy traveler, or lack situational awareness, I would advise skipping this tourist spot. If you are unsure if you fit into either of those categories…that probably means you do.

Tiger Safari – Ranthambore National Park

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View inside Ranthambore National Park

After Jaipur, our next stop was Ranthambore National Park, where we had high hopes of catching a glimpse of the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger. The national park is open from October-June and it is the largest reserve where healthy populations of tigers exist. We checked into our hotel the evening before our safaris and after chatting up a few other hotel guests that had gone on tiger safaris, I was even more hopeful after hearing them all report that they got to see a tiger earlier that day!
  There are two tiger safaris offered every day the park is open. The morning safari begins around 6:30 and the afternoon safari begins around 2:30 (depending on the time of year). You can opt for the jeep (which they call a gypsy) safari, which seats 6 tourists, or the cantor safari, which seats 20. I highly recommend the jeep safari because it is a more comfortable ride and the jeeps can go into smaller areas of the park that the cantor is too big to manuaver in. There is a set number of vehicles that are allowed into the park each day, so you definitely need to reserve your spot in advance. The park is divided into 10 zones, with each zone being the home of several different tigers. Tourists are assigned a particular zone for their safari and they must stay within that zone for the duration of the tour. Tigers prefer a solitary existence and they are feircely territorial, so they tend to remain within the boundaries of their zone. Because there are tigers that reside within each zone, you technically have a chance to see a tiger no matter which zone you are assigned. However, many people believe that you definitely have a greater chance of seeing a tiger in specific zones and practically no chance of seeing a tiger in other zones. No matter which zone you are assigned, you still need to rely on a whole lot of luck because the Royal Bengal Tiger is well-known to be skillfully evasive.
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Ella on the lookout!
 
We had booked both a morning and an afternoon safari. In the morning, we were in Zone 8, but we had a horrible tour guide that I am pretty certain was asleep in the front seat of the jeep, rather than actively looking for any tigers. I was pretty bummed because I had heard that the best zones to spot a tiger were Zones 2-5. Alas, we did not see a tiger that morning, but I had not given up hope. I was confident we would prevail on our afternoon safari! And as luck would have it, we landed Zone 5 in the afternoon. And we scored a really proactive tour guide! He let Rob and Ella sit shotgun, so that he could stand up in the back of the jeep to find us a tiger. And even sweeter…the people that had the morning safari in Zone 5 saw not just one, but two tigers! OMG, I couldn’t contain my excitement!! Spoiler alert: We did not see a tiger.
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Summer Deer and Axis Deer

Instead, we saw lots of tiger food. The park has several different species of deer and they are a tasty favorite of the tigers.
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We also saw plenty of monkeys. The monkeys and the deer have a symbiotic relationship and they can be seen together throughout the park. The deer are the eyes on the ground, and the monkeys are the eyes above; warning each other when a tiger is nearby. We were all exhilerated when we heard a deer grunting loudly to warn the others that a tiger was nearby. We were in the same spot that two tigers were seen earlier in the day. There was definitely a tiger very nearby, but he was too distant in the brush for us to get a glimpse.
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We also saw plenty of crocodiles, as well as lots of different species of birds.
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But I have seen plenty of crocodiles in the wild before. And certainly my fair share of monkeys and deer in the wild. But never a tiger…
P1030207Note to tourists: You can book your tiger safari online here and it will cost you a fraction of the cost of booking through a travel agency. However, I found it virtually impossible to book on my own. I tried every different credit card I own. I tried to use a friend’s debit card linked to a bank account in India. I elicited help from my friend living in India, and she was also unable to book online. In the end, I ended up booking with a travel agency and paying triple the cost because I couldn’t waste any more time as the safari slots were almost sold out.

Monkey Temple

As our city tour of Jaipur was nearing an end, our tour guide asked if we wanted to visit any shops for textiles or gemstones (Jaipur is well known for its gems). I think our guide probably would have received some kind of commission for bringing us into some local shops if we spent money, but we weren’t in the market for any shopping. Instead, I wanted to visit Galtaji, an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site. Galta Temple is sometimes referred to as the Monkey Temple because of the large tribe of monkeys that live there. While planning our India itinerary, I came across pictures of this temple and decided I had to see it.  

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Galta Temple

Galtaji is not part of the typical Jaipur city tour as it is located in the hills about 10 kilometers away. But since we had a driver, I decided to tack this site onto our timeline. Our tour guide was not really on board at first. He was ready for less touring and more shopping so he could earn a few extra rupees (at least that was my assumption anyway). So he tried to sway me from wanting to see the temple. You see, it was a Sunday, and he told me that the pilgrims only visit the temple to feed the monkeys on Tuesdays and Saturdays, therefore, there likely wouldn’t be any monkeys there that day. Well, that was disappointing because the monkeys certainly were a big draw. But I was not deterred because the pictures I had seen online were enough to still warrant a visit.

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The temple is built within a mountain pass and set around a natural spring that flows into two tiered pools. Thousands of pilgrims visit each year to swim in these pools because it is believed to bring forth good luck and success. The upper pool is for men and the lower pool is for women. There were quite a few men swimming in the upper pool which didn’t seem too unusual since the water appeared to be fresh and fairly clean. The lower pool on the other hand, was pretty disgusting! Only a true Hindu pilgrim would believe that swimming in that murky water would bring about success. I’m fairly confident a dip in that pool would only bring about infection and/or disease. There were a few brave desperate women, ankle-deep in the lower pool trying to fish out coins. Not quite the spiritual pilgrimage you may have envisioned.

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Oh, let’s not forget about the monkeys that probably wouldn’t be there. There were monkeys everywhere! They live in these hills and I am sure they are there every day of the week. Not just on Tuesdays and Saturdays when pilgrims supposedly come to feed them. MonkeyTemple

I felt partly redeemed after my Hawa Mahal misstep earlier in the day. Tour Guide: 1 – Dayna: 1 

The Pink City

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Jal Mahal

After our tour of the Amber Fort, we made a quick stop to see the Jal Mahal (Water Palace). The palace is located in the middle of Man Sagar Lake and is not open to visitors. So we enjoyed the view from land and then went about our day.
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Chandra Mahal

Next, we moved on to the center of Jaipur, the City Palace. Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II moved his throne from the Amber Palace (actually located in Amer, 11 km outside of Jaipur) to continue his rule in the heart of Jaipur. The royal flag can still be seen flying above the Chandra Mahal. This seven story building was the royal residence within the palace grounds.

 According to Wikipedia, the maharaja made the switch from Amer to Jaipur because of an increasing population and increasing water shortage. However, according to our tour guide, the maharaja was compelled to build a new palace because his new wife didn’t want to live in the palace of his former wife. Both valid reasons, if you ask me. 

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Most of Old Jaipur was constructed of red and pink sandstone, hence its’ name, The Pink City. However, a subsequent ruler actually painted Jaipur pink to welcome Prince Edward VII and Queen Victoria. I don’t really see the connection there, but regardless, Jaipur will forever be known as the Pink City.

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Hawa Mahal

One of the most recognized buildings in Jaipur is the Hawa Mahal. This five story, honeycomb-like façade has 953 small windows decorated with intricate latticework. The purpose of the lattice was to act as a screen so royal ladies could observe the street below without being seen. The lattice also allowed cool air to flow into the building, giving it its’ name, Palace of the Winds

 I thought we were going to be able to go inside the Hawa Mahal, but our tour guide told us there is actually nothing to see inside. He told us the Hawa Mahal is just a bunch of government offices at present. But I think he pulled one over on us in an attempt to end our tour sooner, rather than later. I later learned that tourists can enter the Hawa Mahal from the rear of the building for a fee of 50 rupees (<$1). It might be true that it is now just office space, but apparently visitors can go to the top of the palace for a panoramic view of the city.

Tip for future tourists in India: If you want to see something during your tour, don’t let your tour guide sway you or talk you out of it. Do your research! Tour Guide: 1 – Dayna: 0.

 

 

 

 

 

Amber Fort & Palace

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There are many forts all over India that tourists can visit. We had the opportunity to visit several of them, but we passed over most of them in order to do other things. If you are like us and you don’t have time to see every fort, make sure you at least visit the Amber Fort in Jaipur. It is Jaipur’s main tourist attraction, rightfully so. The fort and inner palace are made of red sandstone and marble. The Amber Fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.

ambergatesThe main entrance to the fort is through the Sun Gate (pictured above: top right) which leads to Jaleb Chowk, the first main courtyard. This courtyard is where armies would hold their victory parades upon return from battle. The stairway of Jaleb Chowk (pictured above: top left) leads to the main palace grounds. The Ganesh Gate is the entry to the private palaces of the Maharajas (pictured above: bottom left). Ganesh is the Hindu God who removes all obstacles in life (pictured above: bottom right). Above Ganesh Gate are latticed windows where women of the royal family could watch functions below without being seen.
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 The Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace) is covered with mirror mosaics that light up the entire palace with a single candle. And the carved marble panel is known as the Magic Flower because there are seven different designs within the flower that are revealed when parts of the flower are hidden by your hand. Depending on where you place your hand, the following are revealed; fish tail, lotus, hooded cobra, elephant trunk, lion’s tail, cob of corn, and scorpion.

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 The Palace of Man Singh is the oldest part of the palace fort. The Baradhari Pavillion lies in the center of the palace courtyard and it was a meeting place for the maharanis. The maharanis were not allowed to meet privately with each other, only publicly in this pavilion to prevent jealousy and drama among the harem.

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 Oh…and there were monkeys. Let’s not forget about the monkeys!

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The Great Elephant Encounter

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The activity that I was most looking forward to on our trip to India was riding an elephant. I have always been fascinated by elephants and the thought of riding one seemed like the coolest experience ever. But there was a problem. A big problem. I always try to be an advocate for animals and I knew all too well that elephants across Asia are not always treated well and are often exploited for tourism purposes. I certainly didn’t want to perpetuate that exploitation by paying money to individuals that don’t take good care of their animals. So what is a girl to do?

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Tourists have countless opportunities to ride elephants all across India and one of the most popular venues is at the Amber Palace in Jaipur. Everyday these elephants carry tourists up the hill to the entrance gate of the palace wearing cumbersome baskets designed to make the ride more pleasant for the tourists (pictured above). But these baskets are actually very bad for the elephants’ backs. Surprisingly, these gentle giants are not anatomically designed to carry heavy weights on their backs and the baskets make that weight even more damaging to the elephants’ spines.

So I started researching ways that I could humanely interact with an elephant while in India and luckily enough I found two options. The first option was an elephant farm in Jaipur called Elefantastic. The second option was an elephant haven outside Agra called Agra Elephant Rescue & Conservation Facility. Both of these places afford tourists a hands-on opportunity to humanely interact with elephants. We only had enough time to go to one location and we ultimately decided to go to Elefantastic because we had more time in Jaipur than we had in Agra.

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There are 24 elephants that live on the farm at Elefantastic and each one lives with a caretaker and his family. Most of the caretakers, if not all, used to work their elephants at the Amber Palace, but have given up that practice now that Elefantastic has afforded them an opportunity to support their families in a more humane way, while also offering tourists a much more personal experience with elephants. I was definitely skeptical about whether or not these elephants were cared for as well as the owner, Rahul, claimed. For example, I was told that the elephants only give tourists a ride once per day and then that elephant gets to rest the following day. That means the business operates with 12 elephants per day, rather than 24 since they only work them every other day. I found that a bit hard to believe. Nevertheless, the elephants seemed to be happy and well taken care of.

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Overall, the experience at Elefantastic was amazing! We were introduced to a 19 year old elephant named Annarkali, Anno for short. Anno had been rescued from a circus in India about a year and a half ago and she was in pretty bad shape. She suffered from toe rot on all of her feet and her toe nails were finally starting to grow back healthily. Even more sad, her hind legs were deformed from being “trained” to ride a bicycle for a circus act. We spent a good amount of time bonding with her by petting her trunk and face, and looking into her eyes. It was the most beautiful thing to have such a personal encounter with her.

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Once we were officially introduced we got to feed her a LOT of sugar cane! Her caretaker, Ramjaan, continuously handed us stalks of sugar cane to feed her.

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After feeding, we learned about the royal tradition of painting elephants in India. The colorful paints are all-natural; made from the dust of ground stones and gems. Our artistic talents were lacking, but it was still fun.

And then things got crazy….

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Ella watched me put paint on my hands so that I could put purple handprints on Anno. So Ella took that as a green light for her to put orange handprints on her face!

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The all-natural paint washed off pretty easily though, so that was good.

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After we got cleaned up, we had our chance to ride an elephant. Rob rode on Anno and Ella and I rode on a different elephant whose name I can’t remember. You’ll notice that the man riding on Anno with Rob is riding on her shoulders near her neck. That is actually the most humane way to ride an elephant because it is much easier for them to bear weight on their shoulders as opposed to their spines. I wish they would have offered us the opportunity to ride in this manner, but maybe there were safety risks involved that prohibited them from doing so?

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After our ride, we offered our friend a drink. She would fill her trunk with 6-8 liters of water and then chug it down over and over again. Good hydration is key!

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When our elephant encounter was over, we were driven to the home of Rahul’s mother who had prepared us a home-cooked vegetarian Indian meal. It was delicious!

If given the opportunity to start over, I would visit Elephant Haven in Agra instead of Elefantastic in Jaipur. While I do believe the elephants at Elefantastic are well cared for, I think the elephants at Elephant Haven are in a more natural habitat. They are free roaming and are not considered “property” to a specific family or caretaker. It really is a “haven” for elephants. Visitors of Elephant Haven are afforded a very similar personal encounter with elephants, at a fraction of the cost! (Elefantastic was the most expensive thing we did in India!) Elefantastic is a business, whereas Elephant Haven is a non-profit run by Wildlife SOS. The other key difference between the two is that Elephant Haven does not offer an elephant ride because of their stance on the humane treatment of elephants. Instead, they offer visitors to walk alongside their elephants. Even though riding an elephant was something I so desperately wanted to do while in India…it really wasn’t that exciting. Every other way we interacted with Anno was more meaningful because it was much more personal and affectionate than the actual ride.

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India Welcomes Ella

  

We kept our schedule pretty breezy for our first couple of days in Delhi because we knew we were going to need time to recover from jet lag. One of the things we did during those first couple of days was visit a local craft market. Dilli Haat is a craft market that allows you to ease into shopping in India because there is a small entrance fee which eliminates the hawkers and riff-raff that are commonly found in the open markets. Rather than being bombarded by people trying to sell us crappy souvenirs, Ella was bombarded by people that were dying to have a photo taken with her.
  

  

India has a deep-rooted belief in reincarnation. It is a subject that I don’t really know much about, but I think Ella might have been a rock star in a former life! Everywhere we went in India we were constantly approached by people that wanted to have their picture taken with Ella. It was the strangest thing, but we generally obliged. As a result, Ella is most likely plastered on Facebook pages across the world.

  
 It seriously happened everywhere we went! It didn’t matter if we were checking out the sites, or checking into our hotel! At restaurants, our waiters wanted to carry Ella around the restaurant or show her the kitchen. People would just reach out to her with open arms and say “Come.” And off Ella went. She often came back with gifts from whomever she was visiting.

  

  

If strangers approached our daughter while at home in the US, it seems unlikely that we would be so willing to just let some random person walk away with our baby. But in India…it seemed ok. Of course we weren’t completely negligent parents. We never let her completely out of our site, even if she did get 50 feet away. Has anyone ever experienced a phenomenon like this elsewhere while traveling? And were you as willing as we were to let strangers take selfies with your toddler?

  

  

We Went to India!

What do you do when your dear friend abandons you accepts a 2 year job position in India? You cash in your frequent flier miles and you travel halfway across the world, duh! When my friend Brie told me about her upcoming job in Delhi I was very excited for her and I told her that I would definitely be inviting myself over for a visit. She probably heard that from a lot of different people, but I doubt any of them were as serious as I was! I have always wanted to travel to India and going at a time when I actually knew someone there seemed kismet. So dates were set, flights were booked and an itinerary was planned. We enjoyed 16 days in India and we were able to see and do some really amazing things. Stay tuned for posts covering our time in Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Ranthambore National Park, and Goa. And then there was a bonus stop in Qatar, where we had an overnight layover before returning home. 

Oh, in case you were wondering…yes, we traveled to India with our toddler! That kind of travel clearly is not for everyone; adults and children alike. But if you are adventurous and keep an open mind, let us be your proof that it is possible to travel halfway across the world with a toddler…if you dare.

 Namaste!

   

 

Aruban Sunsets

One of the ways we save money when we travel is to book a private rental vs. a hotel. The rental properties are usually much cheaper than hotel stays and they are usually equipped with a full kitchen, which saves us even more money by not eating out every meal of the day.  Rental properties are also great options for families in need of more than one bedroom. We have had great success renting properties from vrbo.com (Vacation Rentals By Owner) and we have saved a lot of money in the process. Our temporary home in Aruba was on the northwest coast of the island, right across the street from Boca Catalina. This small beach cove is said to be the best spot for snorkeling on the island. Additionally, this property was just a short 5 minute walk to my precious, Arashi Beach, mentioned in yesterday’s post. Aruba’s hotels are all crammed on one small strip of the island and we were able to avoid the crowds by renting a property that was located away from the high rises. This also meant there were fewer people I had to share Arashi Beach with!  

View from our apartment

In addition to being right across the street from the best snorkeling spot on the island and near the best beach on the island, we were also in a great location to enjoy the beautiful Aruban sunsets. 

  

    
  

 

 

 

 

Aruba is My Paradise

In August, we took a family vacation to Aruba and it was paradise! Well…it was paradise for me. Rob, on the other hand, wasn’t Aruba’s biggest fan. He didn’t quite understand why I was so ready to put a Monopoly-money down payment on a vacation home there. I can understand his point of view though. The island terrain is not very appealing. Aruba is essentially a dessert, covered in cacti and dirt. But who cares? The weather is basically perfect there all year long and I would spend all my time on it’s pristine beaches with the clearest water I have ever seen!   
 You see, I have a very intense fear of sharks and I almost never go in the water. I have to be able to see my feet in any body of water or else there is no way I am stepping in. And even then, I am usually filled with anxiety. Constantly looking around, waiting to see that iconic dorsal fin appear, heading in my direction. Jumping out of my bathing suit every time a piece of seaweed brushes past my leg. Ridiculous, right? I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s probably not going to change. I have gone to so many beach locales, but I could never truly enjoy the ocean because I would be overcome by my fear and anxiety. Until Aruba!

  

   
 

We spent most of our beach time at Arashi Beach. The water was crystal clear and I could see everything around me in the water, in all directions. The ocean floor was soft white sand without a single piece of seaweed in site. It was glorious! I could actually play with Ella in the water without worrying what might be lurking nearby. I could actually lounge on a raft, enjoy a beer, and even close my eyes and still not feel an ounce of anxiety! Well, that is until the kids playing in the water start yelling SHARK, SHARK!!! I almost spill my beer as I heave myself off my raft to make my escape to shore, only to realize the kids are playing a game with one another. Seriously though….that shit should be illegal. You should not be allowed to yell shark in open waters! Doesn’t that fall into the yelling FIRE in a movie theater category? No? Well, it should.