How to Visit India without seeing the Taj Mahal: Udaipur, Rajasthan

Udaipur here we come…..

As a first time visitor to India, looking to see some sights but more importantly to meet the real India, one might assume that the Taj Mahal was on my “must see” list.  It wasn’t.  Keeping in mind that my goal of slow travel allows me the freedom to skip famous sites, side stepping the standard itineraries in my quest to experience incredible India.  Udaipur was our first stop.

Street Scene – Udaipur Wedding Procession

Perusing the map and studying the Rough Guide to India which became my bible in the weeks leading up to my trip, it became clear that we would have to choose what to sample in this enormous country which ranks seventh largest in the world..  We settled on Rajasthan, the Land of the Kings and India’s largest state and we chose to begin our travels in Udaipur.

After much deliberation and not a small amount of anxiety, about just how to travel,I decided to join the backpacker way of life for a couple of weeks.  This was no small feat for this sixty plus, baby boomer traveller.  Intrepid though I usually am, I had qualms about schlepping a heavy backpack, and staying in local guesthouses.  However, my adventurous spirit and innate curiosity got the better of me, and found me with a 10 kg backpack strapped to my back as I made my way out of the Udaipur airport in search of my daughter and adventure

Udaipur at Night

Udaipur, aptly named the City of Lakes, is situated in a basin that connects six lakes beginning north of the city  and running right through the city center.  Staying at one of the guesthouses or hotels that line Lake Pichola, is a must for the visitor to Udaipur.  There are a range of options to choose from starting with the very simple family run homestays and ending with the most romantic hotel in India, made famous by James Bond in Octopussey,  located directly in the middle of the lake, the “Lake Palace.”  We chose to stay in the Panorama Guest House, on the western side with a lake  view from our lovely, clean room, and from the common porches and rooftop restaurant, all of which we enjoyed during our five day stay.

Arriving in Udaipur is a soft landing for the first time traveller to India, which I certainly was.  While the streets were busy, and honking motor bikes wove their way through traffic, Udaipur is a relatively small town of manageable proportions, and a noticeable lack of beggars, street people, and running sewage.  Like all Indian cities, cows are free to roam the streets of Udaipur, often leaving behind their “piles.” Watching my feet to avoid them was unfortuantely not an option, as my five senses were inundated with sights, colours, people, smells,  and thus I became all too intimately acquainted with these cow piles.

Chai Shop

Walking around the city, popping into narrow alleyways, up crooked streets, and into local shops is the way I prefer to travel.  We easily found the small chai shop near our guest house where neighborhood shopkeepers get their daily fix of chai.  A literal hole in the wall, this windowless cubbyhole of two square meters, houses a stove where the chai is cooked and a table lined with two benches.  Squeezing into our seats on the bench, while answering the questions of the very inquisitive locals, we watched as Akshara, the mistress of the house sitting cross legged on a mat ground the cinnamon, fresh ginger, black pepper and cloves with a brass mortar and pestle.  This mixture was added to boiling water along with tea leaves, milk and sugar, and within a minute or two, the steaming chai was poured into small glasses and passed around to the waiting customers.  The regulars keep a running account in the owner’s leather bound ledger of how much tea they drink.  We, on the other hand, passed over our crumpled rupees (10 rupee for a small cup- approximately 60 cents US), and received a big smile from the owner and his wife.


City Palace Entrance

As slow travellers, while not feeling the moral imperative to visit every tourist site, we did judiciously choose which sites to visit during our stay.  The impressive City Palace, built over a period of 400 years, entirely of marble and granite with exquisite carvings, allowed us a glimpse at how the royals built and decorated their houses, conducted their lives, and provided a bit of background into Mewar culture a prominent group in the state of Rajasthan..  India, with a population of more than 1.2 billion people, is home to diverse cultural groups and languages,  many of were well represented in the hordes of local tourists at the site.  Aside from an entrance fee that for non-Indians was quite high, there was also a camera fee, which I opted out of, and thus have virtually no pictures of the palace.  This, however, allowed me to experience the palace completely, without worrying about catching the best picture, or composing the right shot.  This brings slow travel to a new height.

Peaceful Tiger Lake

Leaving the palace behind and taking a rickshaw for a twenty minute ride out of the city to Tiger Lake restored our equilibrium and sense of quiet as we looked over the serene waters, and enjoyed the breezes in the hot February sunshine.  The lack of tourist facilities around the lake was refreshing, and we enjoyed the silence along with the waterfowl and a few couples.

Fort Walls – 36 KM!

After a quiet Saturday, our day of rest, we took to the road for a one day trip with hired taxi and driver.  This allowed us to take in two world class sites, the Kumbhalgarh Fort and the Jain Temple at Ranakpur and gave us plenty of time to get to know our garrulous driver and his views on love, marriage and life.  Winding through the rolling, green hills a three hour, sometimes hair raising ride took us to the 15th century Mewar fortress that encompasses 340 temples within its 36 kilometer long walls.   We visited two temples and took a short walk along the very wide walls allowing us a small taste of this staggeringly huge fort as well as firing our imaginations of what the fort was like in its heyday filled with hundreds if not thousands of armed Mewar soldiers.

Jain Palace

A lunch break and one hour drive brought us to the Jain Palace at Ranakpur in the early afternoon.  Jainism an offshoot of Hinduism, that emphasizes ahimsa (non-violence) and asceticism.  The temple is anything but ascetic.  Built in the fifteenth century and lavishly carved of grey and white marble, the temple is a monument to Mewar creativity, ingenuity, skill and industry.  It stands today in its pristine state, well maintained, overflowing with visitors from all over India and the world. The visitors are greeted by friendly Jain monks, willing to pray for you (for a price), and eager to talk with you about their way of life.

Sunset over Lake Pichola

Returning to Udaipur just in time for sunset over Lake Pichola we joined the throngs of local teens and twenty somethings in their weekend finery as we watched the sun make its final descent of the day.

Traveler Tips:

  1. Travel guides: I used the Rough Guide to India which I found comprehensive and up to date, but I did leave it at home because it was way too heavy for my back pack.  So read up before you go, and then let it go!
  2. We stayed at the Panorama Guest House and used the Booking site to book. We found their reviews for the most part reliable.  In this case, the reviews were accurate and we were happy.
  3. Udaipur is a wonderful place to begin a visit to Rajasthan . There is an airport with frequent flights, many tourist services, much to see and do, and yet you are not in the tourist mecca of the world.
  4. The airport of Udaipur is about 22 kilometers outside of the city.  We took a prepaid cab into the city.  We pre-paid at the airport immediately to the left of the exit.
  5. While chai is prevalent all over India, seek out the place where the locals drink their chai.  You are guaranteed a tastier brew.
  6. In Udaipur we did most of our travelling by foot, although rickshaws are readily available.

Coming up next: Slowly Eating our Way Through India

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High Holidays in Bali

After one week of total relaxation in Northern Bali, we encountered a new holiday, and began to understand an added layer to the word “relaxation.” Nepi, the Balinese New Year, this year celebrating the year 1938, is a day of quiet, reflection, and meditation. Lasting twenty-four hours from sun up to sun up, the airport closes, with no incoming or outgoing flights.  There are  no cars or motorbikes are on the road, no radio or television, no internet, and most importantly, no electricity.   While we had prepared for the day, laying in a stock of food, downloading movies, and readying ourselves mentally, our surprise, and initial dismay occurred when the air conditioner and fan that we sleep with each night, cut out at 6:24 AM. That was it for electricity.  We had understood that there would be electricity but that the Balinese would not use it, as in years past.  This year, it was decided from above that we would all be Balinese.


Preparing for the Holiday

Nepi is preceded by months and weeks of preparation, reaching a feverish pitch the day and night leading up to the holiday.  Hordes of women hard at work arranging offerings of flowers, fruit, and rice, met me when I arrived at the beach side temple in mid-morning.  Mountains of white rice covered long trestle tables awaiting blessings and ceremonies.  Off on the side were groups of men chopping meat and coconut that would be mixed with the rice later in the day.  Most of the people, men, women and children, were hanging out, buying from the food vendors, catching some shade, and chatting with friends, reminding me of street fairs or block parties.


Table Brimming with Rice

However, not everyone was at the temple.  Groups of young men, adolescents for the most part, with pierced ears and slick haircuts, had spent the better part of the month preparing Ogah Ogs.  These are huge figures, some mythical, some original, said to represent the Evil Spirits.  Made from styrofoam, papier-mâché, foam, and the like, these figures are painted in garish colors, attached to bamboo poles, and readied for the parade due to take place at nightfall. Loud rock music provides background for what looks to be a wonderful way to involve young folks in continuing tradition, and involving them in community.  Donations are collected from family and friends to underwrite the not inconsiderable cost of these scary creatures and I paid my dues.  Each village has its own parade, ending with a burning ceremony. Due to the proximity to the beach, in “our” village of Les, the burning takes place at the beach.   There were to be at least nineteen Ogah Og, human carried floats at the parade, and we previewed at least ten of them.

Coming back in the mid afternoon, the ad hoc parking lot that had been filled with motor scooters a mere three hours earlier, was empty.  My erstwhile guide, Comet, assured me that there were prayers going on, and urged me to don my sarong, the di riguer  dress in all Balinese temples. I peeked around the corner and saw a group of twenty five men, all dressed in the same costume, plaid skirts, white shirts and white headdress, sitting cross legged on the ground, chanting, with the chief sprinkling water in the direction of the beach.  Clearly, this was an important ceremony, and I had no business being here.  I urged Comet to leave, whereupon he brought me to Pura Dalam, the large village temple hosting the public ceremony.  As we entered, we were met with women bearing square, colorfully woven baskets filled with offerings balanced precariously on their heads.  I looked over the temple expanse.  Hundreds of beautifully dressed Balinese, men, women and children, sitting quietly, cross legged on the ground. Waiting. A smell of incense filled the air.  The air was heavy, humid, with the only breeze coming from women who were fanning themselves with woven baskets.  After about twenty minutes, far off in the distance three priests sprinkled what look like water on the crowd.  Apparently this continues for about two hours, but soon after we left.


At the Temple

As night fell, we made our way to the main road with our local host.  We were greeted with people lining the street on both sides as far as the eye could see.  With excitement in the air, we chatted and waited patiently for the big event.  The beating of bamboo drums could be heard from hundreds of meter away, as the procession made its way from the main village temple down the main road.  Float after float passed by, accompanied by bands of bamboo beating youngsters. Torches flanked the parade, and the floats were lit by either electric generators mounted on the bamboo platforms or by the simpler, hand held flashlights.  Every float, held up high by at least twenty young men, received a rousing cheer from the crowd.


Oga Ogh Parade

As the parade wound its way down to the beach, the noise subsided, and focused attention went to disengaging the huge figures from the bamboo sticks that carried them.  Gold and tinsel were removed and then the giant figures were set alight symbolizing the burning of the Evil Spirits, and ensuring a good year for all Bali.20160308_194856 (2).jpg

The Burning of Oga Ogh

Bringing us back to today, Nepi, the “Quiet Day,” is a day without background noise.  Nepi brings us back to ourselves, to nature, to a simpler way of life, to the very basics.  Celebrating this day with the Balinese and honoring their culture, allows me to overcome my annoyance at no internet, no air conditioning, no electricity, and appreciate the beauty of simplicity.  This is a day without achievement, without doing, without going.  This is a day of just being.  Grateful for every breeze sent from the heavens, appreciating the silence, slowing down, breathing, I pray, along with my Balinese friends for things that all human beings pray for: health, prosperity, and peace.

Link to more pictures


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Slow Travel in Nepal:  Life in a Buddhist Monastery

Slow travel takes on new meaning  from the top of a green mountain overlooking sprawling, dusty Kathmandu.  I am at  Kopan, a Buddhist Monastery  in the Tibentan tradition.  Quiet permeates the air with an occasional eagle spreading its wings soaring overhead.  The mountains in the far distance are an ever changing tableau-variously swathed in gray clouds, hidden by white puffy ones, or shining clear in the aftermath of a monsoon rains shower. A golden temple looms in front of me, dominating the center of the mountain.  Peering inside, one can see an enormous  Bhudda, and ornate, colorful walls and columns.

monastery 5

View from the Monastery


Gardens at Kopan

The monastery, a mere thirty minute ride from the international airport is a world apart from the teeming, crowded streets and alleyways of third world Kathmandu.  Up in Kopan there are well tended paths, green gardens, flowering trees, ornate temples, and golden statues of Bhudda. The monks garbed in burgundy colored robes, with bright yellow shirts peeping out the top, gather before 6 AM for communal prayer that is strongly reminiscent of the familiar  prayer in the neighborhood synagogue near my house, with the welcome addition of mugs of hot tea and bread, that are past around to each person who has arrived on time.  Chanting is occasionally disturbed by the crashing of cymbals, the  ringing of  bells, and two horns vigorously blown,  creating a cacophony of noise that perhaps helps the prayers reach their intended destination.

Kopan Monastery is unique in that it offers courses about Buddhism open to all that are interested,  throughout the year. There are both beginners and advanced courses that include anywhere from days to weeks of silence.   Several times during the year, when there are no official courses taking place, the monastery welcomes what they call “private stays,” utilizing  the extensive guestrooms and generating additional income for the monastery.  During these private stays which can range from days to weeks, visitors are welcome to attend Dharma talks, an hour in length, that are offered by the local nuns and monks providing a general introduction to Tibetan Buddhism.  Dharma means “the way” and refers to the Buddhist way of life.

Luckily, the few free days that I had before beginning work on a post earthquake psychosocial intervention program with a local NGO, were available for private stays.  Sitting cross legged on cushions in a corner of the massive temple, during the morning Dharma talks we learn about the root of human suffering, the nature of anger, and the Buddhist way (literally the Dharma) to release ourselves from these and other ills that human beings are plagued with.  The two middle aged nuns who led these talks during my stay, were both Westerners and had “taken the robes,” the Buddhist expression for becoming a nun or a monk and renouncing the pleasures of the world, thirty to forty years ago. We laughed together about our similar haircuts, and one of the nuns actually did a double take when she saw me, confessing that she thought at first that I was one of them!  We agreed that this haircut, a basic buzz cut, is wonderful, indeed, requiring minimal care and attention, while always looking good. .  The nuns were friendly and down to earth, yet very earnest and sincere in their exposition of Buddhist precepts, and apparently very dedicated to their spiritual lives. They welcomed questions and conversation during mealtimes and were open for consultations and advice.

Looking back at my five days in the monastery, I sense that these were days taking place in a different dimension. This was time out of time.  I noticed that my mind was empty, blank.  No thoughts or worries occupied them.   I knew that my meals would be served (100% strict veg) and all I had to do was to show up. I had no “to do” lists, no tasks or things I had to do. The writing I intended to do I never got around to.  Reading, walking, thinking, breathing, meditating, journaling, looking at the breathtaking scenery and talking filled my days.  Yes, talking.  This was no silent retreat.  While there were people at the monastery who were “in silence”,  doing a private retreat, a group of us, were clearly not, and we happily spent mealtimes, enjoying each other’s company and conversation.  Mauritius, Iran, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Holland, Australia, and USA, were some of the countries represented.  Much of our conversation centered on Buddhist thought and practice.  There were those who were well versed, in Buddhism and others that were new to this.  Many of the people came to the monastery searching for answers to life challenges such as lost love, choosing a career, and dealing with illness.  Others were spiritual seekers, looking for answers to the mystery of life. Yet others, like me were simply seeking a peaceful environment, away from the hubbub of life.


Monks at Kopan

The atmosphere in the monastery was one of ease, order, interest, and yes, spirituality. Contemplating the lives of the monks and nuns, it occurred to me, that living a life without family, without responsibility for livelihood, spending large parts of the day in prayer, study and meditation, and living in a community of peers, is a life with far fewer stresses than most of us can imagine.  In this modern age of instant communication and the expectation to be immediately responsive and constantly reactive, our lives are far removed from the measured, ordered, peaceful lives of these monks.  Is it any wonder that the monks had an air of equanimity about them?  Equanimity.  That was the word that immediately came to mind observing the monks, and long before I learned that  Buddha directed his followers to cultivate equanimity (uppekha) along with compassion, joy, and loving kindness, considered the Four Great Virtues.

There is time here to contemplate the meaning of life, the very essence of our beings.  We learn about the basic emotions: anger, jealousy, hate, sadness, love, happiness.  We consider many of the 51 aspects of mental formations.  We learn that karma means cause and effect, and as such according to Buddhist thought, we can impact on what happens in our lives.  Our lives are not totally random, and things don’t just happen to us.  We have a part in them.  Life here in the monastery is pared down to the basics:  simple food and lodging, honest conversation, and straightforward interactions.

How do we take this back into our lives, I ask my favorite nun on the eve of my departure.  You don’t, she says.  You cannot take this experience back into your life.  You take the wisdom you have gleaned from your stay here back into your life.

I think about this.  What wisdom do I take with me?  Firstly, a rededication to slow travel, to appreciating the little things in life that make life worthwhile, to taking time to breathe and smell the flowers, to talk to people, to listen to the quiet.   I take with me an appreciation for how little we need, how things don’t make us happy, how anger is destructive, the importance of stopping and breathing, reconnecting to my body, and observing my mind.    These are the things I take, along with a souvenir picture of Kopan indelibly printed on to the pictures of my mind.  A picture that I can retrieve at a moment’s notice, with a mindful breath in and out, reminding myself that such a place exists in this world. Slow travel at its best.

monastery 4

Entrance to Kopan Monastery

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Rainfall in Jakarta

Technically this was anything but slow travel.  At the last minute I was asked to join a delegation to teach a seminar in psycho social interventions after disaster in Jakarta, Indonesia.  How could I refuse? I, who have never been farther east than Amman, Jordan, was offered a chance to take a peak at the great East for one week.  I knew at the start that I would have little opportunity for sight seeing, and slow travel would be a non-existent commodity.  Urban landscapes was what was on offer, along with the jet set age and a week of intense teaching about trauma and resilience.  Yet I agreed feeling the pull of the road, the spirit of adventure and the opportunity to meet a new culture and way of life.  I was also pleased to be meeting with a group comprised largely of mental health professionals from the Crisis Center at the University of Indonesia, teaching them about resilience and learning from them how they meet the challenges of frequent natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes as well as ethnic and religious violence.


So while I did not see much of the traditional sightseer’s delights, I did get a peek of life in Jakarta, a simmering city of over seventeen million residents by day and around ten to twelve million after sun down.  As you can imagine, a city of that size is plagued by traffic jams, and many life decisions are dictated by that.  The hotel we stayed at, for example, was in the middle of nowhere with little to do after hours, however the reason it was chosen was to avoid hour long traffic jams going to and from the seminar location in the beautiful new library at the University of Indonesia. Motorcycles are the preferred mode of transportation as the drivers can weave in and out of traffic. At a red light it is not uncommon to see one hundred or more motorcycles waiting for the light to turn green.

Indonesia is indeed a tropical country with lush vegetation, due to copious amounts of rainfall and equatorial climate (read: hot and humid!).  Upon arriving at the airport one is greeted by lovely gardens and greenery surrounding the departure gates giving no indication of the bleak urban landscape that lies beyond.

After making our way through moderate traffic- it took only one hour instead of the expected two to three hours predicted by our hosts, we arrived at the campus of the University of Indonesia where we spent most of our waking hours over the next five days.  The university is home to 60,000 students, and has a lovely campus with both older traditional buildings, like the psychology department, and newer ones like the library.


U. of Indonesia Campus

 The library has been built with environmental sensitivity, so that half of the building is without windows and essentially is built into the mountain.  This is to reduce air conditioning costs which must be enormous, as the equatorial climate is hot and humid year round.  The weather while we were here hovered around 34 degrees with incredibly high humidity.  There were frequent rain showers which did nothing to cool things off, but rather just added to the steamy, sticky atmosphere.

Ecologically Built Library

Ecologically Built Library

The workshop, run by the JDC, who is trying to build bridges to more moderate Moslem communities worldwide, and is joined in this particular venture by the USAID, offered an opportunity to begin to meet the people of Indonesia, and get a tiny peek at understanding the diversity of ethnic groups, religions, geography, culture and language that make up this country called Indonesia.  It may be more accurate to consider Indonesia as a patchwork quilt of several major islands, many smaller ones (close to 18,000 in all) with over three hundred active languages and 500 ethnic groups.  While the major religion practiced is Islam, with 95% of the people considering themselves followers of Mohammad, their form of Islam for the most part is quite moderate, and incorporates many of the former Hindu and Buddhist practices into it.  Many, but not all women cover their head in the Islamic tradition.  Intermarriage appears to be fairly widespread, however not without its difficulties.  There have been several pockets of religious and ethnic violence over the years, although recently natural disasters have overtaken the internal strife, bringing people together to work at the common goal of restoration after destruction.

The Human Landscape

The Human Landscape

Our seminar was held in Jakarta, the capital city on the island of Java.  This is not the largest island, but it is relatively central.  People in our seminar came from a variety of islands, and ethnic groups, and are proud to be identified with where their mother or father have come from.  Bahasa is the common language, created so that the people of this diverse country could talk to each other.  From my understanding it is a simple, colloquial language, perhaps similar to Yiddish, in the sense that it is based on several of the local languages.  Most people will speak Bahasa, their local ethnic language, English, and perhaps one or two other languages as well.

Beautiful Faces of Indonesia

Beautiful Faces of Indonesia

One of the dominant pictures for me was the contrast between the lush green pockets, to be found in places like the University and the Mini-Indonesia we visited, and the huge urban sprawl, reminiscent of other third world countries such as Haiti and Bangkok.  The traffic, the smog, the huge air conditioned shopping centers for the rich, the hovels for the poor.  A world of contrasts, and a world of transitions.  Hopefully, the next time I make it over this way I will be able to indulge my passions of slow travel, leaving urban sprawl far behind.

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