Itinerary: 2 days in Varanasi

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Varanasi – the ‘Holy City’

Varanasi is everything that people love about India combined with everything that people hate. It’s a must see destination in my humble opinion. Varanasi combines winding alleyways with life on the river; rural with city; smog with cleansing properties; beggars with tourists and life with death.

GENERAL INFO

Getting there: An Auto-rickshaw is approx. 250INR from the airport while a taxi is approx. 700INR. I suggest a taxi as its a long way and quite cold at night. We booked through our hostel at a higher rate of 900INR as we were arriving at night and as you get close to the ghats the streets are narrow and maze-like – your taxi can’t enter. Our prepaid ride meant someone from our hostel met us where the taxi stopped and led the way to the hostel.

Accommodation: Our hostel in Varanasi was Bhadra Kali Guest House: it was really close to the ghats which was a huge bonus and the staff were very helpful. They booked a boat ride for us at 5am the next morning at a fair rate and helped us out when we couldn’t figure out the hot water (having hot water isn’t really a sure thing either!). If staying near the ghats one thing to be aware of is the houses are all really close together so its very noisy. Next door to our hostel there was a family screaming and crying all night as somebody in the family had just died.

Food: There were some great food places in Varanasi – the trouble is discerning which ones are good and which are the fake copies of the good restaurants. Also, if your hoping to get a beer you are out of luck. No alcohol is permitted near the holy river Ganges. Some highlights in Varanasi were:

  1. Keshari Restaurant is a great option for lunch or dinner. They do great Thali and other cheap indian dishes and it’s a popular spot with locals so a great place for people watching. Find it 20m down a side street off Dashawamedh road. There is a bad copy with Keshari in the name around the corner from here.
  2. Brown Bread Bakery is a tourist hotspot on the first alleyway back from the ghats. It does organic food and has a great rooftop terrace.
  3. Open Hand Cafe is a long way from most of the action but a great rest stop after a long walk from one end of the ghats to the other. They have ACTUAL coffee (a rarity here in India) and its really good.
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Enjoying coffee at Open Hand Cafe, Varanasi

Top Tip: Go on the dawn boat tour – even though its at 5am! Tours run at dawn or dusk but activity is much more frantic at dawn. You feel more of the energy of Varanasi. If you have time then do both but I do suggest being on land for the 7pm river worship ceremony at least once (you can’t see it very well from the boat and part of your tour is spent stopped here). 

DAY 1

You will need to wake up at 5 am on both your mornings here – its absolutely necessary and you can always have a nap later in the afternoon or go to bed at 8pm (like we did!). There is no beer to drink anyway!

On the first day I suggest taking a boat tour along the ganges (your accommodation can arrange this for you or you can haggle with the boats down the river  – anything less than 1000 INR is a good price for a few hours).

Extra Info: We got ripped off while on this trip (the only time in India!) because some boat floated up beside us and gave us offerings – they kept handing them over until we said no thank you and then tried to charge us a huge price for them. We made 3 blessings with the offerings and they were beautiful but i wish we had haggled the price first! We forgot to be suspicious because we were in the middle of the river.

The rest of your day can be spent eating and wandering the alleyways around the Ghats – there are surprises around each corner. At 7pm there is a River worship ceremony at Dashwamedh Ghat – find a great spot to watch the beautiful show.

DAY 2

Spend your second morning (you can sleep in a little later!) walking the Ghats from one end to the other.  Make sure you get to the following ghats:

  1. Munshi and Darbhanga Ghats – these are the most photogenic
  2. Dashwamedh Ghat – lively and colourful
  3. Manikarnika Ghat – the main burning ghat (please be careful not to take photographs here. Photos are fine from the boat but if you try to take pictures from land you will get scammed).
  4. Scindhia Ghat – peaceful: there is a partially submerged temple here.

You will likely end at Assi Ghat which is very close to Open Hand Cafe – time for a well deserved coffee.

I would spend the afternoon shopping. Varanasi has some great shops hidden among its alleyways and an entire main street of sari stores – I purchased my sari in Varanasi and it was a crazy experience!

If you need a break from the shops a good stop is Vishwanath temple – foreigners need to enter at Gate 2. Be aware this temple can be very busy – when we were there the alleyways surrounding it were full of people it was difficult even to figure out where to go.

Erika xx

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Itinerary: 48 hours in Delhi

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The tranquility of Fatehpur Mosque

I’ll be honest..I wasn’t really a fan of Delhi. However, as you are pretty much guaranteed to be passing through if you are going to Agra or many other popular places in India you may as well make the most of your time here.

Disclaimer: Some of my negativity about Delhi is because it was pouring with rain the first day we were there and also the red fort was closed.

If you are just headed to the Taj Mahal – pass through Delhi quickly and stay in Agra instead. Trust me on this.

GENERAL INFO

Getting there: Delhi is a transport hub so you will have no problem finding transport in and out of the city. We arrived via plane from Mumbai and booked pickup with our hotel.

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel City Star which was a mid-range hotel (much more expensive than our usual spend on an everyday hotel but also a necessary luxury heading from one chaotic city to another. I would recommend it as the room was comfortable; the staff were helpful and they have a restaurant on site.

Food: We didn’t find any memorable food spots in Delhi and although the street food is recommended we didn’t try any as we were very short on time – I hear Gali Paratha Wali is great for parathas (stuffed flatbread) and Jalebiwala for Jalebis (similar to syrupy doughnuts).

Top Tip: Connaught Place is very expensive and full of touristy restaurants and bars with absolutely no cool vibes. Avoid for anything more than an evening stroll. Also be wary of people attempting to direct you to the tourist office – there are fake tourist information centres around here.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES

There are lots of things to do and see in Delhi so pick and choose from the below depending on what interests you and how much time you have in the city. We covered all of the below (except the Red Fort) in 48 hours including a nap at the hotel while it was raining heavily.

  1. Wander Old Delhi: A suggested route is through the Nai Sarak Bazaar; along Gali Paratha Wali and onto Kinari Bazaar road then left along Chadni Chowk road to Fatehpur Mosque. Around the corner from the mosque is the spice market which is also well worth checking out.
  2. Visit Jama Masjid: there is no fee to enter this mosque but 300 INR to take pictures. No shoes are allowed inside.
  3. Visit the Red Fort: I’m sure its amazing had we been allowed to see it!
  4. Have an evening stroll around Connaught Place. It’s a great place to people watch and enjoy the evening. There is also a monkey temple somewhere around here.
  5. Visit Humayan’s Tomb: this place has not only the tomb itself but gorgeous grounds so its a nice tranquil place to escape the city. Cute squirrels are everywhere!
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Humayan’s Tomb

Let me know if you enjoyed Delhi more than I did so I know what to do next time I need to pass through!

Erika xx

Itinerary: 3 days in Mumbai

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Contemplating the beauty of Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum

Mumbai is a reasonably off the beaten path location in India for foreign tourists making it a great destination to experience local daily life and culture.

GENERAL INFO

Getting there: A prepaid taxi from the airport into Fort costs approx. 800 INR

Accommodation: Prepare to spend a bit more on accommodation than you usually need to in the rest of India. We stayed at the Traveller’s Inn in the Fort area but would not recommend it. The rooms were dirty, the windows let bugs in and there was a really weird guest hanging out on the roof terrace. The staff were nice though!

Food: I always worry about food options as I am a bit of a hygiene freak but we found plenty of good places to eat in Mumbai. Highlights were the cold Kingfisher beers at Cafe Universal down the road from our accommodation; the Mutton Kebabs at Bademiya; and the Biriyani at Leopolds Cafe. Avoid the coffee and don’t touch any Indian wine.

Top Tip: If you are blonde or a redhead be prepared to be constantly harassed for photographs. I found this to be the case much much more frequently in Mumbai than in anywhere else we traveled in India. At one point while at the Gateway of India I had a queue of 30 people lining up to take their photos with me. Some would ask my husband if this was OK rather than asking me.

DAY 1

The best way to get to know a city is to walk it! A great place to start is with the Lonely Planet walking tour of Mumbai (we did this backwards to end up at the Gateway of India). The Lonely Planet walking tour includes interesting spots such as the Oval Maiden recreational ground and the Khala Ghoda neighbourhood (there is also a pavement gallery of emerging artists here that is worth checking out!). If there’s time visit the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum.

Continue the walk after some lunch by wandering the Causeway market stalls, watching the fishermen work at Sassoon docks and then heading back up towards the Gateway of India. Spend the evening recuperating at Leopold’s Cafe in Colaba- an institution in Mumbai since 1871 but more recently made famous by the book Shantaram.

DAY 2

Walk to the beautiful Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Station and then on to Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Mandai Market (also known as Crawford Market). Explore the endless array of market stalls. In the late afternoon wander down to the Gateway of India area to take a launch to Elephanta Caves.

Info: Boats run every half an hour from 9am-3pm and the last boat back is at 5:30pm. Cost for the boat is 150 INR return and tickets to the caves are an extra 500 INR each. Only the 2 main caves are worth seeing – can also walk up to Cannon Hill if time.

When you arrive back from Elephanta Caves, you could have a drink at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel’s Harbour Bar ($$$ Splurge: if your budget allows this!) and then to save some money on dinner I suggest dinner from Bademiya (a street food stall selling fresh grilled kebabs and tikka rolls – open 7pm-3am: there is also a sit down branch).

DAY 3

Early morning taxi to Haji Ali Dargah Mosque. This is a floating mosque 500m off-shore. Pictures of the mosque are more impressive when its surrounded by water but you can only walk over to the mosque itself at low tide so plan your trip accordingly.

After the mosque, make your way to Mahalakshmi Train station. There is a bridge just outside the train station that is a good viewing point to see the traditional laundry process taking place at Dhobi Ghat. If laundry doesn’t sound that interesting to you take a look at the amazing photo below:

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Next, hop on the western line to Churchgate station from Mahalakshmi (need to purchase a ticket beforehand at the ticket counter, try to avoid taking local trains during rush hour – it may be better to take a taxi at this time of day). If you are trying to catch the train in rush hour keep the below tips in mind:

  • Make sure you are waiting at the correct place on the platform to get on.
  • Don’t wait for people to get off just start pushing and only push on if you are in the first wave or you may get pushed off
  • Keep away from the door as people sometimes get pushed out
  • Hold valuables close as pick-pocketing happens
  • If you are a female you can get on the ‘female only’ carriage

Aim to arrive at Churchgate station by 11:30am. You are here to see the Dabbawalas. These are people whose job it is to collect home-cooked lunches from worker’s homes, delivering them to their offices and returning the packages once lunch has finished. Mumbai is the only city in the world that does this. The system doesn’t use any technology but rather a complicated colour coding system yet mistakes only occur at a rate of 1 per 6 million lunches. To see this amazing spectacle in progress; wait at the train platforms until the Dabbawalas start to appear then follow them to see where they go to redistribute their packages.

Spend your last evening in Mumbai at Chowpatty Beach – wander Marine Drive and watch the sunset. The lights you can see when looking back along the harbor are the reason for its nickname ‘The Pearl Necklace’.

Have more time? If you have time to spare after completing this itinerary you can take a tour of Bollywood or even be an extra in a Bollywood movie!

Erika xx

How to: Decide Where to travel next?

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Sunset walk along the beach in Canggu, Bali

If you are anything at all like me, you look at one picture of a beautiful island or exotic wilderness and want to jump on a plane right away. This isn’t usually possible unless your a billionaire with no job – there’s only so much leave I can take from work and only so many times my savings can cover my mortgage while I am gone!

With 195 countries in this world and countless destinations within them, deciding where to travel is much much harder than ever before. I see daily images of places I would rather be – but which place would I most rather be at?

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Lounging next to the infinity pool on the 57th floor of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Singapore

I find there are a few key things to keep in mind – looking at your current priorities makes this decision easy!

1. Cost: Most people, when deciding to travel, only consider whether they can afford a trip or not. Instead, consider your finances – if you have any spare income at all you can afford a trip, its just about prioritising. My husband and I try to do one overseas trip a year but some years we have more spare cash than other years, so we chose a trip based on what we can afford.

For example: In 2015, we got married (which is SUPER expensive however strictly you keep it to just the basics!). This meant that our overseas trip for the year would be our honeymoon but we couldn’t afford a luxury trip to the Maldives (my ideal honeymoon destination) because we had just paid for a wedding. Instead, we spent a week or so in beautiful New Caledonia which is much closer to home for us (we live in New Zealand) and less known for its luxury resorts. If we went to the Maldives, we would have spent way more on flights and would have had to skip staying in one of those beautiful over the water resorts (which is really the purpose of going to the Maldives isn’t it?) Now we can save that for another time – maybe our 20 year anniversary!

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Here I am frolicking in the water in Noumea, New Caledonia

A holiday by the beach is what most people look for for a honeymoon – and we got to have this in a less luxurious way by choosing New Caledonia. If the style of holiday you can have is a lot more flexible, think about heading to a country where the cost of living is cheap – your money goes a lot further in many Southeast Asian, South American and African countries than it does in say most parts of Europe and the USA.

This brings me to the next thing to think about before you decide on where to go on holiday:

2. Decide what type of holiday you would like to have. What are you into? If you are like me – you like to experience almost everything so this makes the decision much more difficult. However, I still think about what I would most like to do by thinking about what I would like the holiday to achieve: Have I been stressed at work lately – I think I need a relaxing holiday in this case. Do I need to update my wardrobe – how about a trip focused on shopping? Have I been really disappointed with every restaurant I have eaten at lately? Let’s go somewhere with amazing food! Have I been feeling bored with my daily routine? Time to have an adventure.

You can always combine these things: How about heading to Italy for amazing food AND shopping? Or to Mexico for beaches AND adventure?

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I’ll admit it – I went to Carnival in Rio De Janiero, Brazil just to have the best party of my life!

Part of deciding what holiday to have includes when you can go: for example, I would avoid going anywhere in the rainy season (especially if they have monsoons). If your headed to the beach, pick summer in the country you are at – you won’t mind if it gets to 40 degrees because you will be swimming constantly. If you are sightseeing or heading to a city, pick a time that will be cooler as you don’t want to be walking around all day sightseeing in sweltering heat.

3. How long can you go for? This should play a significant role in how you decide where to go. The distance you are planning to travel should be based on the length of time you have available for your trip – for me, getting to Europe means about 2-3 days spent travelling. For that reason, if I have a week’s holiday I am not going to go to Europe. I might pop over to Australia or one of the Pacific Islands, possibly somewhere in Southeast Asia where I can take one flight and not have to transfer. If I have three weeks or more, I am more likely to venture further afield.

In a week or two’s holiday, I wouldn’t try to fit in more than one country – If I have more than two weeks, I may try to see parts of two countries: such as make the trip over from Spain into Morocco. If you have months (lucky you!) It’s best to base yourself in one part of the world so you can experience more of those places that are difficult to get to on their own. For example, I spent six months in Central America which was a good amount of time. I would discourage purchasing one of those ‘Round the World’ flights advertised by travel agents as you end up only going to those places that the airline flies to all the time. These are easy to see on a stopover or a much shorter trip.

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To get to Havana, Cuba I had to fly via Mexico – as I was already in Mexico it was easy and so so worth it!

There is one final thing that I would recommend when choosing where to travel, it is the one most often overlooked but really important when choosing where to go.

4. What stage of your life are you in? Where you are at in your life should play a big role in making travel plans – especially if like me you want to fit so much into your life. For me, I try to organise things so that I don’t miss out later on. I did 6 months of travelling when I was young and carefree and nothing was holding me back -do it while you can as your life won’t be that way for ever! Now, I have a husband and a mortgage and a career – my wanderings need to be more carefully structured and fit into my 4 weeks holiday a year.

Another thing to think about is children. If you want to have children they will severely limit your ability to travel – its not impossible of course! But you will have less funds available and more people to pay for on your trips! You also need to decide more carefully where you will travel – not only once you have children in your life but beforehand too. For example, if you travel to South America the risk of Zika virus means, you need to wait 6 weeks (women) or 6 months (men) before you conceive a child! Best do this a while before you want to have a child then! Or at least don’t take your partner along ladies!

To show how these factors have shaped my decisions, here’s an example. I would love so much to visit Disneyland in the USA. However, I plan to have children so why not wait until I can take them? They would love Disneyland even more than I would and its the perfect trip to take children on. I also really wanted to visit India but India is a terrible place to take young children because they touch everything and put it in their mouths and India is SO DIRTY! So, I went there in Jan/Feb this year while I still had the chance!

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Exploring the intricate carvings at the City Palace in Jaipur, India

Think of these 4 things next time you are considering a holiday and the decision should be easy – or at least easier than it was before! If worst comes to worst just throw a dart at a world map and see where it lands!

Let me know in the comments how you choose where to travel or where you have decided to go next after using my guide. I love hearing about all the exciting places you are going and it might help me decide where to travel next!

Erika xx

 

Tacos vs. Tostadas

When I first arrived in Mexico City, I used my Lonely Planet guide to find a place to eat. What was I looking to experience? The famous Mexican Taco of course!

Until now, I have been raised a naïve kiwi girl. I thought that traditional Mexican food was the Tex-Mex version that can be found in the shelves of our supermarkets (Ol’ el Paso kits ring a bell for anyone?) and when I felt I had found the Lonely Planet recommended taco place I was raving about how good my taco I ate there was. I only realised my mistake when I returned days later. I saw the place I was actually directed to by the guidebook and discovered that the hard shell taco-resembling meal I had eaten was actually a Chicken Tostada. Nevertheless, I went back to the original hole-in-the-wall and made two pacts to myself:

1. Don’t rely too heavily on Lonely Planet (But use its suggestions to find better, cheaper options nearby!)
2. Learn about Mexican food!

Does this prove the stupidity of tourists…or just of me? Is this a common occurrence? This experience really helped me to see that for a cultured, well travelled girl I am really quite un-cultured and inexperienced. No longer will I assume ANYTHING.

I am happy to say that this experience was the beginning of my ferocious passion for cooking and eating Mexican Cuisine.

Until next time,
Love Erika xx

Mexican Road Trip

Today’s plan was to visit the Museo Nacional de Anthropologica, which is apparently the best anthropology museum in the world. It isn’t really a major interest of mine but I thought it would be a good idea to check the place out. Roseanne also wanted to see the museum so we flagged down a bus (I am not sure if there is such a thing as a bus stop here) and headed towards Bosque de Chapultepec.

To be honest, my major interest in the anthropology museum was actually an interesting ritual that happens right outside the museum (due to financial benefits from the museum’s tourists no doubt). There is a large clearing in which a large pole sits right in the middle. Every half an hour, men wrap ropes around themselves and jump off, detangling themselves slowly while playing music until they reach the ground. It’s an insane native coming of age ritual which seems to be a cross between bungee jumping and a maypole dance.

I filmed this…Take a look on my Flickr set ‘Mexico’ to see it.

Although I took some good photos of beautiful old relics at the museum, it was essentially information overload. I don’t suggest going unless you are really really into anthropology. It took me four hours to get through less than half of the museum…at which point I gave up.

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After returning to the hostel, Roseanne invited me to spend some time at a local friend’s place drinking. Tonight, we saw how the Mexican elite live. They spoke English, drove us everywhere, paid for everything and had flashy apartments. These guys were gentlemen: opening doors and bottles for us whenever necessary. According to them, that is how all Mexican men treat women…but in my experience in the streets of Mexico so far I don’t think I would call Mexican men ‘gentlemen’ as such. After spending the night in the comfortable spare room at Carlos’s apartment, we returned to the hostel in the morning to shower and have breakfast, to then head on a road trip to the town Cuernavaca – the purpose of which was just to have a party.

The drive to Cuernavaca was a huge wake up call as to how crowded Mexico City really is. The traffic is awful! We left at 12pm and spent the next three hours in traffic, still in Mexico City. It only took us an hour after that to get all the way to Cuernavaca once we had left the traffic behind. We spent long periods not moving anywhere. Carlos even had time to play table tennis on his phone while driving.

When we arrived in Cuernavaca we stopped at a great little pizza joint with a huge old-fashioned pizza oven for an early dinner. It literally beat the whole of Italy in the pizza competition, but maybe that was just because I was so hungry from the drive. Our night in Cuernavaca was hilarious. I tried to keep up with the Spanish and they all translated for me when they felt like it. Also, I managed to understand the rules of all the drinking games so that was enough really! When I woke up at 9am the guys were still drinking…Mexicans party hard!

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City of the Gods

The day after our bender, very early, we decided it was the appropriate time to take a tour (with the same crazy tour guide) to see the ancient Mesoamerican site Teotihuacan. We had a few stops while I was still half asleep to view various churches and ruins that weren’t all that exciting at that time of the morning. Until we reached a cathedral that was so beautiful that I had to perk up and take some pictures.

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Eventually, we started heading out of town toward the main attraction, which was about an hour’s drive. When we were sufficiently in the middle of nowhere of inland Mexico, we stopped at a little place with a buffet lunch laid out for us. I have today had my first Mexican dish which was too spicy to handle! It was an onion and fresh chilli salad, and on second thought, it should have been obvious that it would be insanely spicy. We also learnt here about all the things which can be made from the cactus plant.

The pyramids are breath-taking. The site that exists today is thought to be only 17 percent of what it once was. Large mounds of earth can be seen for miles around that were likely to have been pyramids in the past but have not yet been excavated. There are two major pyramids on the site, one of which cannot be climbed up all the way as the top is damaged. At the first pyramid, some of the guys raced up the steps. You can see how crazy that is in the photo below. I walked and I was still exhausted when I reached the top!

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On the top of the next pyramid, we spent a long time sitting in the cool breeze at the top admiring the view before heading back to the Centro Historico for dinner and drinks.

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