Sunday, May 25, 2014

India in Photos Continued: Agra & Fatehpur Sikri


Upon arriving in Agra, we visited the stunning Agra Fort, built of red sandstone and white marble, with excellent views of the Taj Mahal, as the sultan wanted to be able to watch its progress as it was built.

We also drove through a tiny community to view the Taj Mahal at sunset from across the river.  As a westerner, it's a bit stunning that this gorgeous view of a Wonder of the World is not only completely undeveloped to tourism, but is an impoverished neighborhood.

We queued up at sunrise the next morning with hundreds of other tourists to view the unequaled Taj Mahal.  Passing through the sandstone and marble inner gate, we were greeted with the magnificent view of the mausoleum from across the reflecting pools.    

Fatehpur Sikri

After spending the morning at the Taj Mahal, we stopped by Fatehpur Sikri on our way out of Agra.  Built by Emporer Akbar, it served as the capital of the Mughal Empire in the late 16th century.  The structures were almost entirely red sandstone, with intricate, unique designs. 

This first photo shows the seat where Akbar held court, sitting high above the people to preside over requests. 

The gardener of the site, decorated with a bit of green dust from an early celebration of Holi.

Of course, we had to pose for a few photos.

A few adventures in transportation as we departed Fatehpur Sikri for our next destination, Jaipur...

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

An Introduction to My Time in India: A Photo Essay

India has been perhaps my most intimating destination yet.  I had heard a wealth of mixed reviews from friends and bloggers alike - many love it, some hate it, but most of the feedback I encountered was a blend of the two.  After having paid the country a brief visit, I can certainly see how both perspectives can easily coexist.

India as I experienced it was first and foremost a land of striking contrasts.  The architecture is absolutely stunning, and the people are some of the most beautiful on earth.  Everything is bursting with color, from the gardens to intricate details on beloved monuments, from the delicate fabrics of the women's saris to the powder being flung in every direction during the annual Holi festival.  But India is also a place with some of the most devastating poverty I've ever witnessed.  There are piles of garbage everywhere, and there's no hesitation on the part of most residents to urinate or even defecate wherever they please.  Walking along the street, you might see a monument of incredible architectural beauty, with beggar women holding barebottomed babies out front; perhaps a set of ramshackle houses constructed of tarps and wood and garbage sacks, with satellite dishes perched on top; or you might in the same instant be hit with the whiff of rank sewage and the warm, sweet scent of spices.

I decided to book a tour with Bohemian Tours in advance to visit India primarily because prior to my departure I was incredibly intimated by the general chaos of getting from place to place and the safety aspect of being a woman traveling alone in such an unfamiliar culture, where I would definitely stand out.  While there were some major pros and cons associated with that decision, in the end, I'm glad to have made it.  

However, since I did travel with a tour, the amount of sites we visited and activities we covered in the span of less than two weeks is somewhat mind-boggling. Rather than recap in detail everywhere that I saw, I would rather let my pictures do most of the talking.  For this first entry, I'll focus on Delhi, where we started our journey with an optional add-on day tour of the old city.


Our very first stop on the tour of Delhi was the Shahi Jama Masijd, also called the Friday Mosque, a brilliant red structure of sandstone built by Mughal Emporer Shajahan in 1656, and the largest mosque in India.

A common theme… these schoolboys asked to have their photo taken, then wanted a photo with me.  I was very conscious to ask the locals if I could take their portrait, as I noticed plenty of people taking not-so-discreet photos of me with their phones.  Being a tall, blondish solo female westerner is a bit of an oddity around here, and the men are not shy.

Walking through the streets of Old Delhi, we passed dozens of shops and stands selling everything from fabric and trinkets to street food and water guns for the upcoming Holi Festival.

Rather than use blinkers, every vehicle in India uses a horn to indicate… pretty much everything.  As a result, the background noise in almost every city is a constant chorus of honking.

The streets of India: tangled wires, buildings, and traffic patterns.

A sikh man in brilliant orange robes outside the Red Fort.  He happily posed for photos from a number of people in our group, smiling widely when we showed him the results.

Geometric patterns at Delhi's Red Fort.

A visit to a Sikh Temple in Delhi, where we covered our heads, removed our shoes, and took a peek inside the kitchen where they prepare meals for the community.

A child on the street stood in this pose shouting "namaste!" to us as we passed, his family members smiling behind him.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Day Tripping in the North of Portugal

While Aveiro was my primary stop and major "hub" so to speak during my time in Portugal and in Europe in general, I also had the opportunity to venture out and take in a few more destinations in the northern part of the country. 

Santa Maria de Feira

En route to our first visit to Porto, we made a stop at Santa Maria de Feira, best known for hosting an incredible series of medieval fairs over the summer.  We stopped through to visit with João's friend Edgar, who runs Oficina do Velho Oficio, creating works of iron and other materials typical of medieval times for use in museums, fairs, and other places for historical preservation.  As we visited his workshop, he bestowed on me the gift of a sword!  Which is both incredible and fairly entertaining when it means carrying the sword home on the train for multiple hours!  While in Santa Maria, we also stopped into the center of town, visiting the Medeival Historical Preservation Center and stopping for coffee with the local castle overlooking us from afar, with a view of an incredible Vhils cork sculpture right in front of us.


We made a few visits to Porto, the largest city in Portugal after Lisbon, and the home of the academy where João attended.  Two of these trips were simply to visit friends, have excellent meals, and/or pass through, but we made a final visit during my last week in town where we were able to properly explore the town a bit more.  

The day couldn't have been more gorgeous, as we wandered through the main square, enjoying the beautiful architecture under a clear blue sky.  We paid a visit to the Majestic Cafe for coffee and fresh scones, then walked to a greenspace highlighted by the Clérigos Church Tower. 

On our first visit to Porto, I had the chance to see the Clérigos Tower lit up in the evening.

In the same section of town, we visited a beautiful old bookstore called Livraria Lello (which the locals have dubbed the Harry Potter Bookstore, as it would fit perfectly inside the series), which was full of dark wood and stained glass, like a tiny cathedral of literature.  The central feature of the store was a unique wooden staircase with red painted flooring that wrapped organically almost into itself, like a 3D figure-eight in stairs.

Photo from National Geographic 

Next we walked across town, over to a large park overlooking the river, getting an incredible view of the city, the bridges, and the water below at dusk, the town's lights just starting to illuminate the streets.  As it grew darker, we walked back through a small local fair lit up with rides and carnival games, then eventually back to a spot near the tower and the bookstore for a quick snack before catching the train back to Aveiro.

Costa Nova & Barra

On one of my final days in Portugal, we took a bus out to Costa Nova to spend an afternoon wandering along the coastal town.  Costa Nova is best known for the brightly colored vertical stripes painted on the homes along the coast, done to help the fishermen identify their homes as they approached from afar.  Between the striped houses and the typically-Portuguese mosaic sidewalks, the town looks straight off a postcard. 

If you make a trip to Costa Nova, you absolutely must try this typical sweet treat:  Tripa.  It's basically a crepe folded up burrito-style with a sweet filling.  I chose chocolate, with a dusting of cinnamon on top, but ovo moles (a sweet egg filling typical of the region) is another fantastic option.

We strolled the streets on the bay side of the town, then up to the beach to take in the sunset, breathe the salty air, and watch the waves roll in.  As it grew steadily darker, we walked along the roadway on the bay side until we reached Barra, the next town over, to see the gorgeous lighthouse (the tallest in Portugal) before catching the bus back into Aveiro.  

And thus concludes my time in Europe.  It wasn't part of the original plan, but I couldn't be happier with my decision to spend a few weeks exploring and seeing wonderful people.  Next up:  the subcontinent of India...