Saturday, October 31, 2009

Give Back and Kick Back in Mali - January 2010

Update 12/13/2009 -

Unfortunately, due to lack of enrollment, Tina and Pam have had to cancel their 2010 departure for this trip. Keep an eye on their site for details about their 2011 trip, or sign up for their mailing list.

Our friends Pam from Adventures in Rock and Tina from Women Worldwide have once again teamed up (as Give Back, Kick Back Travel) to put together their second annual volunteer vacation to Mali in January, 2010. They will be helping to create a school garden in the Dogon village of Tireli, so that the students can raise produce and sell it in local markets to raise money for school supplies. After the fulfilling volunteer project, they will tour Mali and spend three nights camping in the Sahara at the world-famous Festival au Desert in Essakane, enjoying live music on the dunes under the stars each evening.

We can't recommend this trip enough! We went on their inaugural Mali trip in 2009, and it was fantastic! Now that they have been on the trip once already, they were able to fine-tune the itinerary to make it even better (better accommodation in the Djenne area, three nights at the Festival instead of just two).

If you're looking for an adventure, with a chance to really connect and make a difference in the lives of local people, then this is the trip for you. We wish that we could join them again.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Mukul's Gardens

Mukul is a very talented gardener, and we enjoyed the oases that he has created at his home in Agra and on the campus of Colonel's Brightland School. His garden at home consists of over 100 species of plants, along with turtle and fish ponds, lily ponds, and terra cotta birdhouses for parakeets. It was the perfect place to relax with a cup of tea first thing in the morning.

 This one only blooms at night!



Thursday, October 22, 2009

Deogarh, Udaipur, and Delhi

Vegetable seller, Deogarh


 Our room at Deogarh Mahal

 Our room at  Deogarh Mahal

 Deogarh Mahal

Teatime in our room

  Deogarh Mahal

 Step well that looks like an Escher painting, Deogarh
 Cave shrine, Deogarh

 Golden jackal, Deogarh
Sunset on Jeep safari, Deogarh
Dancers at Deogarh Mahal

Deogarh Mahal

After leaving Jodhpur, we headed to Deogarh, where we stayed at the incredible Deogarh Mahal, a 17th century palace which is now a heritage hotel. It is owned by Rawat Nahar Singh II and his wife Rani Saheba. "Rawat" is a local title equivalent to "Raja". The room that we stayed in (Moti Mahal, room 227) dates back to the 17th century, and has beautiful 18th century frescoes depicting events in the life of Krishna. It also has marble archways and niches in the wall. It looked like the kind of museum rooms we had seen in some of the city palaces we had toured – yet we were actually going to get to sleep here? It was incredibly surreal.

Deogarh Mahal

Artist, Deogarh Mahal

After sufficiently marveling at our room, we went for a late-afternoon jeep safari, and saw antelopes, two golden jackals prowling around some herds of goats, and a star tortoise which had interesting star-shaped patterns on its shell. We watched the sun set as we continued our jeep ride to Fort Seengh Mahal, a villa property smaller but no less luxurious than the main palace. We had private tea with Rawat Nawar Singh II and Rani Saheba overlooking the lake. They have much respect for Mukul, and invited the three of us when they learned that he was staying at the palace that night. They were absolutely charming, extremely learned, yet down-to-earth people, and we were quite honored to have an audience with them. Mukul and Rawat Saheb share a love of history and birds, as well as a great sense of humor. Rani Saheba mentioned President Obama's Diwali message, saying that he was the first President to celebrate Diwali, and that she was so glad that he did so.

We headed back to the palace, watched a music and dance performance in one of the courtyards, and then ate dinner outdoors on the rooftop patio. This property was amazing, and there is even an audio tour hosted by author William Dalrymple asking questions of Rawat Saheb and Rani Saheba about the property.

Shopkeeper, Charbhuja Village

Krishna shrine, Charbhuja Village

Flower seller, Charbhuja Village
Girls, Charbhuja Village
Roadside Snake Temple

Ranakpur Jain termple

Ranakpur Jain Temple

Ranakpur Jain Temple

Women on their way to a wedding

Lake Palace Hotel

Our room at the Lake Palace Hotel
View from our room at the Lake Palace Hotel

Diwali lights - View from the Lake Palace Hotel

The next day was Diwali, the Festival of Lights. Diwali is like Christmas, New Year’s, and Fourth of July all rolled into one. Homes and businesses are decorated with garland and strings of lights. People wear their best clothing and jewelry and buy gifts for one another. People line up at confectioners’ shops to buy sweets. And EVERYBODY lights off fireworks.

We drove to Udaipur, stopping in Ranakpur to visit an amazingly carved Jain temple (Shri Ranakpur Jain Temple) which dates back to the 14th century. It is dedicated to Adinatha, and is made up of 1444 columns carved from white marble.

When we got to Udaipur, we visited the Pashmina shop of Mukul’s friends the Jain family. We would be visiting their home in the evening to experience their Diwali traditions. There were two young children in the family, 5 year old boy Golu and toddler girl Pari. Both were afraid of us in the store.

Then we checked into our hotel, the amazing Lake Palace located on Jag Niwas island on Lake Pichola. Mukul had told us that everyone needs to stay there at least once, and he was right. The place was beautiful, and was the summer palace of the Maharana of Mewar dating back to the 18th century. The service was unparalleled; the staff just couldn't do enough for us. The doorman holds a parasol over you so that you stay out of the sun! The hotel is only accessible by boat. India has been experiencing lack of rainfall, and the lake wasn’t as full as usual, but it was still very beautiful.

We took the boat back to shore at 7 and met Mukul and Mr. Jain, who drove us through Udaipur to see all of the Diwali lights on our way to the Jain house. When we arrived, 5 year old Golu proudly showed off his assortment of fireworks. It was an ice breaker and he soon was very comfortable with us. Little sister Pari was still skeptical, however.

Mukul, Golu, Pari, Mr. Jain
Mukul lighting off fireworks

Diwali dinner
Diwali dinner

Diwali puja
The Jain Family

Fireworks as seen from Lake Palace Hotel

We went outside and lit off some fireworks. Golu was so excited he barely stuck around to watch any go off, he would just run back into the house to select the next one to fire off. The women of the household prepared a lovely meal of potatoes, bottle gourd, lentils, poori, and rice. Everything was spiced to perfection. It was unlike any Indian food we had ever had in the USA, spiced for an Indian palate rather than an American one. We loved every bite. Just when we thought we had stuffed ourselves to the bursting point, we were given plates full of deliciously decadent home-made Diwali sweets. It was all so delicious.

After dinner, they performed a puja (ritual ceremony) and we watched with interest. It was wonderful to be able to celebrate Diwali in an authentic way, and we are very grateful to the Jain family for hosting us. Mr. Jain explained the significance of all of the rituals that they performed. After that, they drove us back to the jetty and we caught the boat back to the Lake Palace. Craig and I sat outside watching fireworks being set off from various locations around the lake.

The next day, we toured the City Palace. The Mewar dynasty is the world's longest-ruling dynasty, dating back to AD 566. They trace their lineage back to the sun god, and there are many sun motifs to be found within the palace.

City Palace, Udaipur

City Palace, Udaipur

City Palace, Udaipur

City Palace, Udaipur

City Palace, Udaipur

Mukul and Arun

We then went to visit Mukul’s good friend Arun. His home contained many interesting art pieces and it seemed like a museum to us. He shares Mukul’s love of plants and we had a lovely lunch in his garden. Once again the food was absolutely delicious - spicy eggplant, fresh poori, lentils, and rice. The spices were perfect. The meal was capped off with some more delicious home-made sweets, and we even took some with us for the road. They were too good to pass up, but we just didn't have the space left in our stomachs.

After that, we drove 23 km out of Udaipur and visited the Sas Bahu Temples. These are Hindu temples with ornate carvings which are at least 1100 years old. There were very few tourists there and we were able to enjoy the site at our leisure. Then we stopped in at Sahelion-Ki-Bari (Maids of Honour Garden).

Sas Bahu Temples

Sas Bahu Temples

Sas Bahu Temples


Baby at Sahelion-Ki-Bari

 Young ladies at at Sahelion-Ki-Bari

At 4 o’clock, we took a boat ride on Lake Pichola on His Highness the Maharana’s private boat (how does Mukul arrange these things?!) The late afternoon light was shining beautifully on the palaces and hotels around the lake. We docked for a while at Jag Mandir island. We enjoyed cappuccinos at the small palace there as we sat in the courtyard.

On His Highness' boat

 City Palace

In-room dining at the Lake Palace

At 5 o’clock, Mukul headed back to the Jain family’s house where he was staying, and we headed back to the Lake Palace. We unpacked and re-packed everything for the next day’s trip home, and then enjoyed an in-room dinner by candlelight.

The next morning we took it easy, trying to rest up before our red-eye flight home. We checked out of the hotel at 1:00 and took a 3:30 flight from Udaipur to Delhi. Once we arrived in Delhi, we braved rush hour traffic to cross the Yamuna River into the suburbs to visit Mukul’s friend Jagdish. Knowing that we have a love of music, Mukul had arranged for Jagdish to play the sitar for us. Our flight to Delhi had been a bit delayed, which meant that our visit was rather rushed. But we were delighted to meet Jagdish and listen to a few songs on the sitar in the comfort of his living room. We also met his lovely niece Cheena, who whipped us up a delicious dinner befitting our last meal in India - matta paneer, chapati, rice, yogurt, stuffed eggplant, and her specialty- a wonderfully spicy pumpkin dish. This of course was topped off with more Diwali sweets.

Checking out of the Lake Palace

Leaving the Lake Palace

Jagdish Ji and Cheena

Jagdish Ji giving us a private sitar concert

Soon we were back in the car with Mukul, driving to the Delhi airport for our 12:50 am flight home. It was difficult to say goodbye to Mukul – we had enjoyed his company so much. But it isn’t goodbye – rather, until next time. Mukul, his family, and all of his friends were more welcoming than we ever could have imagined. Their hospitality was overwhelming, and we are humbled. These personal touches made the trip all the more special and memorable.

We returned home on Tuesday with over 6000 digital photos. We hope to post some over the weekend.