Posts Tagged With: traveling with kids

Are We Still in India?

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Beach Bum

The first half of our vacation in India had us hustling and bustling to see and do so many things. I’m glad we seized the opportunity to see so many new things, but quite frankly, it was exhausting. Luckily, I had the foresight to factor in some relaxation time as well. We left the crowded streets of Delhi behind and flew south to spend 5 glorious nights in Goa. It was like we were transported into another country! Goa was so different from the India we had grown accustomed to. We took a taxi from the airport to Candolim Beach and for the first time since we had arrived in India, the incessant horn honking had finally ceased! The air pollution was no longer hovering around us and we began to remember what fresh air tasted like! We knew immediately that we were going to enjoy our time in Goa!

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Cheers!

What made our stay in Goa even more enjoyable was that our friends, Brie and Raj, were able to join us for 3 of those nights. We shared a fabulous villa in North Goa that was walking distance to the beach and we all enjoyed our first experience of the Arabian Sea. The adults sipped on cocktails before noon and the kids loved playing in the sand.

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If cocktails before noon aren’t relaxing enough for you, how about a 20 minute beach-side massage for $5? And…if you are really lucky, your toddler might work your lower body at no extra cost!

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The masseuse and the apprentice

Goa was the perfect destination for the adults to relax and for the kids to be kids. The food was delicious and the sunsets were perfect.

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Long walks on the beach with Daddy

And most importantly, Ella’s love for Anya & Elia grew even stronger…

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Holding hands with her idol, Anya

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Group hug

 

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Categories: Destinations, India | Tags: , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Bears that Danced into My Heart

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS


Before returning to Delhi, the last stop on our Golden Triangle road trip was the Agra Bear Rescue Facility. I had learned about this rescue organization and immediately knew I had to fit this into our itinerary. The Agra Bear Rescue Facility, managed by Wildlife SOS, is home to sloth bears that were rescued from captivity by the Kalandar tribe of India. For generations, the Kalandar people have been “training” (read: torturing) these bears to dance and then exploiting the “dancing bears” for money. Unfortunately, India has a very long history of animal exploitation, and this is by far the worst example that I am aware of. 
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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS


Poachers would kill a mother sloth bear after she left her den to forage for food. They would then capture and sell the cubs to the Kalandar people. What happened next was extremely barbaric, as they pierced the cub’s muzzle with a hot iron stake, as well as removed the canine teeth, all without any anesthetic. They looped rope through the freshly pierced hole in the cub’s muzzle and it was used as a make-shift bridle to control the cub’s head. When the “owner” pulled up on the rope, the bear would stand on his hind feet in an attempt to lessen the pain. The bears lived their whole lives on a four-foot rope, all while being tortured as tourists paid money to watch them “dance.” 

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS

The Kalandar people would cover the holes on their muzzles so the tourists wouldn’t see the wounds that were often infected and gruesome. I still don’t understand why tourists would have paid money to see these bears “dance.” Everything about this scenario screams animal cruelty. I guess ignorance is bliss? Public Service Announcement: People of the world…please educate yourselves so you don’t perpetuate this type of exploitation and cruelty!

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS

The good news is that it is now illegal to hold these wild animals captive. The bad news is that the captured bears wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild. Wildlife SOS stepped in to care for and rehabilitate these adorable bears. Most of the bears seemed very comfortable and happy at the rescue facility, while others still displayed periodic signs of post-traumatic stress. The cuteness factor is almost too much to handle as you watch these bears play with their toys and enrichment activities, but the horrific scars on their muzzles is a constant reminder of what they had been through. Many of the bears have life-long illnesses or injuries resulting from their captors. For instance, several of the bears are now blind because the optic nerve was damaged during the piercing of the muzzle.   

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS

In addition to rehabilitating the bears, Wildlife SOS sought out to rehabilitate the Kalandar people. Having relied on the sloth bears as their main source of income for generations, they didn’t have any employable skills. So they were taught a skill or trade so they could ethically earn a living. The rescue facility has a gift shop of craft items handmade by the Kalandar people and 100% of the proceeds are returned to them. I purchased assorted watercolor note cards and a scarf hand-dyed with the unmistakable silhouettes of sloth bears.

  

 I was allowed to take pictures at the rescue facility, but I was asked that they remain for “personal use only” and not be shared on social media. Therefore, the pictures in this post came from Wildlife SOS or their affiliated partners. Wildlife SOS is also making extraordinary strides for the treatment of elephants in India. I really wish we had time to visit their nearby elephant conservation center.  You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram to learn more about the amazing work they do, all while getting daily doses of cuteness.

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS


 

 
 
 

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Taj Mahal: A Closer Look

Taj1Taj Mahal means Crown Palace, but it is actually not a palace at all, nor was it ever intended to be a palace. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum; built to honor Emperor Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. (I’m no expert in polygamous relationships, but I imagine the other wives might have been a tad bitter or a bit jealous.)
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The Taj Mahal lies adjacent to the Yamuna River, and as I mentioned in my previous post, you can see the Taj Mahal from the north on the opposite side of the river. But the Taj Mahal complex was actually designed to shield it’s beauty. There are three large gates (east, west & south) from which to enter the complex. But even once you have entered the complex, you still cannot capture a full picture of her beauty. The Royal Gate is an interior gate with adjacent walls that guard the Taj Mahal from full view. The Royal Gate is made of red sandstone and the calligraphy is Koran scripture made of stone, inlaid into white marble. While standing directly in front of the Royal Gate, you can only see two windows of the Taj Mahal. Our tour guide told us it was specifically designed this way so that the gate would act as a burka, revealing only the eyes, and covering the rest of her beauty.

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View from inside the Royal Gate


The view as you walk through the Royal Gate is spectacular!
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The white marble is somewhat translucent which means the color of the Taj Mahal alters in the changing light of the day. For this reason, I originally wanted to get up extra early to see the Taj at sunrise. Luckily, our driver Raj discouraged me from doing so because he warned there would likely be a lot of “fog.” I’m glad I heeded his advice because we enjoyed beautiful, clear blue skies by postponing our visit just a couple of hours. (Refer to the bottom of this post to see the sunrise view that wasn’t.) Typically the complex is only open until 7 p.m., however if you time your visit just right, there are full moon tours available at night 5 days a month. Tourists can see the Taj Mahal aglow by the full moon light on the night of the full moon, as well as two days before and two days after. Sadly, our visit did not coincide with the lunar calendar, but believe me, I checked.
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Stone inlays and marble lattice


The white marble building took 20,000 workers 22 years to complete! But that is no surprise given the intricate craftsmanship. Just like the Royal Gate, the Koran scripture is not painted onto the marble. It is all made out of stone and inlaid into the marble. The size of the text gradually gets larger from bottom to top so that it can be read without appearing skewed when reading from ground level. The floral designs are also inlaid into the marble, made of semi-precious stones. And the intricate lattice work is all hand-carved out of the marble.

You are allowed to go inside the Taj Mahal, but photos are not allowed. Inside are replicas of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan’s tombs. The real tombs are in a lower level of the building. Emperor Shah Jahan never intended to rest inside the Taj Mahal. It was meant to honor only his beloved wife. But when his plans to build a twin Taj Mahal for himself were derailed because he was imprisoned by his son…well I guess they had to improvise.

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Mosque & Guest House

There are two identical buildings on either side of the Taj Mahal. The building to the west is a mosque and the building to the east is a guest house. These buildings are not open to the public. However, the mosque is open to descendants of the Muslim builders of the Taj Mahal. For this reason, the Taj Mahal is not open to tourists on Fridays, as this is when those descendants go to the mosque for prayer.

Tip for Tourists: Air pollution is VERY bad in India during the winter. The smog is so bad that you will literally choke on it. With cooler temps and lower air pressure, the smog settles closer to the ground. As the day gets warmer and the air pressure rises, the smog is lifted. It seemed to us that most of the Indian population was ignorant to this air pollution and they referred to it merely as “fog.” I can assure you it is not fog. Have you ever choked on fog? Of course not. Had we visited the Taj Mahal at sunrise as I initially intended, this would have been our view.

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Hotel rooftop view at sunrise

 

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Taj Mahal: A First Glimpse

 
One of the reasons we left Fatehpur Sikri in such a hurry was because I wanted to get to Agra before sunset for our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. We went to Mehtab Bagh (The Moonlight Garden) which lies directly opposite the Taj Mahal, on the other side of the Yamuna River. Mehtab Bagh is perfectly aligned with the Taj Mahal, making it an ideal place to take pictures. Emperor Shah Jahan realized this was a great viewing location, so the Moonlight Garden was created. Additionally, Mehtab Bagh was supposed to be the location of a twin Taj Mahal. Emperor Shah Jahan intended for this location to be a mausoleum for himself, made entirely of black marble. Unfortunately, his vision never came to fruition because he was imprisoned by his son. (I don’t understand why men care so much about having a male heir? A daddy’s girl never would have done that!)  

 Tip for tourists: There is a small entrance fee to enter Mehtab Bagh (only 100 rupees). However, you can get (almost) the same view for free without entering the garden complex. Our driver, Raj, tipped us off that we could walk down to the river on the public street adjacent Mehtab Bagh and still have an awesome view. So we decided not to enter the garden and took a free peek at one of the 7 Wonders of the World!  I’m not suggesting you skip the actual tour of the Taj Mahal, but it was nice to see the Taj from a different vantage point, away from the massive crowds of tourists.   

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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.

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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.

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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?

  

  

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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!

   

 

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