India part 3: Sambhar

A huge lake that seemed to stretch all the way to the sky greeted us upon our arrival in Sambhar. Only a two hour drive from Jaipur, Sambhar Heritage Resort has two locations – one in the town of Sambhar and one the other side of Sambhar Salt Lake, the largest salt lake in India. We got a little lost finding the resort but we made it eventually and had our breath taken away by the stunning views across the lake.Shreyans, the manager, welcomed us to Sambhar Heritage Resort. We were given a drink of fresh guava juice with a rim of salt from the lake, and then shown to our rooms which were Swiss tents.The resort rooms are all tents because the land is owned by the government and so permanent structures are not allowed to be built there, other than those already there. One such building is the resort restaurant, NaCl, which is 150 years old and was built by the British. We had a delicious lunch in NaCl and around 3.20pm we set off for our local tour.We were asked if we’d rather drive along the road or across the lake, to which we said definitely across the lake! As it’s dry season the water level in the lake is lower than usual and so it’s possible to drive across part of the lake bed as a shortcut to the other side. We stopped for a few minutes to admire the view and look at the flocks of flamingos through the binoculars Shreyans had considerately brought with him for us to use.As we continued on our way we saw a few nilgai which is the largest of the Asian antelopes and whose name means ‘blue cow’. The females are brown and the males are a blue-grey colour. We got quite close before they bolted.Sambhar Salt Lake is 9% salt with a maximum depth of only 3.5 feet and is about 90 square miles. In comparison the ocean is usually around 3.5% salt.Across the curve of the lake we reached a small peninsula. Here we visited Shakhambari Temple, where there are Indian records showing there has been a temple here for at least 2000 years.In the temple we were blessed by the priest and each given a red bindi, our first of the trip. We then climbed up to a viewpoint where we had a 360 degree view of the lake and the hills behind.In this part of India Marwari is the local language and only a couple of the staff at the resort speak English. Shreyans’ English was excellent, which may be why he was our main contact and guide while we stayed in Sambhar.Once we’d had our fill of the views we drove back through a local village and to a small shop, encountering a few local animals on the way.We went back to the resort where we picked up bicycles so we could cycle along the dam across the lake. After a rather bumpy ride Shreyans showed us agood place to stop and watch flocks of flamingos fly overhead while the sun set. It was beautiful.We cycled back to the resort, and my bike chain came off for the second time whilst Toby’s bike broke completely; he got a ride on the back of the motorcycle Shreyans had ridden in on the back of, while he walked back with Toby’s broken bike.We had a few minutes chilling out in the room then met around 7pm for dinner, which was included in our tour package. We had an Indian feast! To start we had vegetable, noodle and coconut milk soup followed by an appetiser of tikka paneer. We then had palak paneer, mushroom curry and dal, accompanied by garlic naan, saffron rice and salad. This banquet was finished off with a hot carrot pudding, which was interesting in both flavour and texture. I quite liked it but the others weren’t so sure!We ended the evening playing Monopoly Deal with a couple of glasses of beer (or Bacardi breezer in my case) in Jo and Nikki’s room, before a very quiet night’s sleep interspersed with the sounds of wild animals.After a breakfast with all of the food, we went on a tiny train that seats only six people plus staff. It’s around 100 years old, stopped working in the 1970s and was renovated in the last couple of years to be used as a tourist attraction. It still has the same engine as when it had originally. It was used initially by the Britishers and engineers to check on the salt production. They always had to have five people on the train (three in the driver’s cabin and two in the back) as when they got to the far end the train had to be physically picked up and turned around to go back again! So for safety, we also had to have five people as well as us in case the train needed to be picked up and turned around.We rode the train out to the salt pans, with a short stop for the points to be manually changed. The colour of the water, and the stillness was incredible.At the salt pans water is pumped from the lake to the salt pans to a depth of 3-3.5 feet. It is left for about three months didn’t which it evaporates down to about 1-1.5 feet. Salt crystals form on the surface and once they get to a certain density they sink to the bottom. You can literally put your hand in the water and scoop out a handful of salt crystals.The larger pans use tractors to scoop out the salt crystals, the smaller ones in town are done by hand. Once the salt has been removed the remaining water is pumped out back to the lake. This left-over water has a very high bacteria content which means algae grows well which attracts the flamingos to the lake. Workers then remove the top layer of soil in the bottom of the pan by hand, add a fresh layer of soil then pump fresh water in from the lake and the whole process starts over again. Start to finish it takes around 3.5 months. As this is a government enterprise the salt is sold at only 5 rupees per kg. This is very cheap as most companies sell their salt for 12 rupees per kg.We stopped out by the salt pans while the manager Shreyans explained the process to us, and then waited while the workers collected some fresh salt to give us.There are 32 or 33 salt pans here and they produce 10% of the salt consumption for all of India. Sambhar salt is just for Indian consumption, it isn’t exported as mostly Himalayan salt is exported from India.This was our final experience in Sambhar, and absolutely fascinating. We were each given a small pot of the salt that had been collected for us to take home. A perfect souvenir before setting off for our next stop, Jodhpur.

India part 2: Jaipur

We arrived in Jaipur around 10pm after a long day sightseeing in New Delhi followed by a long 5 hour drive. There was a bit of a mix up with the rooms but we (or rather, Toby) got it sorted and we eventually got to bed. We had breakfast at 8am and left at 9am to pick up our local guide, Arvind.

Arvind was a fountain of knowledge about Jaipur. He told us that Jaipur is known as the Pink City, it was founded in 1727, and built by the Hindu Maharaja Jaising. The red ochre colour of the buildings means good luck and welcoming, and was chosen by the Queen of Jaipur at the time. The interior city is 10 square km and surrounded by a wall with gates on the four sides, with a 2 mile 40 yard long straight road from the Sun Gate to the Moon Gate. Hindi is the main language in Jaipur, which is one of 18 languages spoken in India.

Our first stop was the Palace of the Wind. It has 5 floors, lots of tiny windows and was built in 1799.

Next we headed to the Amber Palace. Once we arrived in the small town surrounding the palace, we were asked whether we wanted to ride an elephant up. Toby and Nikki rode an elephant (all the elephants that walk up to the palace are well-looked after and only do a maximum of five trips a day, and are all female); Jo and I went in the car up the hill. Around the town and the package is a 12km long wall, like a mini version of the Great Wall of China. It was built in the 16th century, around the same time as the palace which was completed in 1592 by three different kings and took 25 years to build. In the town is also a palace from the 10th century with the same name.

The town next to the palace, Amber Town, is over 1000 years old. The town and palace names are the same, named after the Hindu goddess Amber, goddess of art. There was a 400-year-old painted fresco of the Hindu goddess Lakmi with lotus flowers, which is her flower and the symbol of prosperity and good luck. In the palace is a saffron garden; saffron is only grown in three places in the world: in Kashmir, India, in Spain and in Iran. Within the palace are two separate areas, the winter palace and the summer palace on opposite sides. In the winter palace is a mirrored room made with glass imported from Belgium. Interestingly, the Maharaja had a wheeled chair as he had 4kg of jewellery that he wore and so he couldn’t walk when wearing it all. He had 12 wives, and each wife had her own apartment within the palace.

Another thing our guide told us was about the Indian caste system. Hinduism is all across India, and there are 4 castes – priest is the highest level then warrior, merchant and lower caste. Maharajas are all warrior caste, which means the priests are above them although don’t have any wealth. Families are very traditional in India; people must marry within their caste and around 90% of marriages are arranged. When daughters get married their parents must provide a dowry, which means that in a poorer family with several daughters some of them may never marry. However the divorce rate is very low with only 5-10% of marriages ending in divorce. Unfortunately, due to this traditional outlook, a high percentage of women are still illiterate, mostly in the countryside.

Next we went to see Jal Mahal, the Water Palace, which was built in the 18th century and was where the Maharaja and queen would stay in the summers.

Jaipur is known for block printing fabric. Wooden blocks are used (minimum 1, maximum 7) or metal blocks for silk, to print intricate designs on a large sheet of fabric. This fabric is then turned into clothes, scarves, cushion covers, bed spreads and much more. Only vegetable dyes and all natural fabrics are used. Once the fabric has been printed it is then left in the sun for 40-60 hours then washed 2 or 3 times to fix the colours. They have to stop production in monsoon season, but otherwise it continues all year. According to the manager of the store, block printing is like a married man, never perfect! But that’s part of what makes it unique. More than 400 families living in nearby villages work on this project. After the demonstration we looked around the shop where they sell all the products and we were shown samples of all the different fabrics. None of us bought anything, although it was all very interesting.

Next it was time for lunch, and this time we had a buffet for 600 rupees at Aanandam restaurant. The food was fine, although not as good as lunch the previous day.

After lunch our guide took us to the City Palace, or the Palace of the Maharaja. We decided not to go in as cost was 3500 rupees (about £35) for the full tour, 2000 rupees (£20) for half or 700 rupees (£7) just for the museum.

As we were leaving we saw a small boy (who we had also seen at the Water Palace) who wanted to show us some magic. As it seemed he had followed us all the way there and waited for us we agreed to watch his magic show. He was actually really good. We just hoped that the tip Toby gave him wouldn’t be taken from him by older street children.

Next we went to Jantar Mantar, which means ‘instrument of calculation’. This is a large complex of huge astronomical instruments that are part of the buildings. It was built in 1728 by the founder of Jaipur city and took 6 years to build. The various instruments are used to calculate the angle of the sun, planets and constellations, as well as make people’s horoscopes. You can also find the biggest sun dial in the world here, and loads of chipmunks running up and down one of the trees.

Finally our guide took us to a spice market stall, some flower stalls and a small bazaar (which was really a line of small shops) selling jewellery, shoes and clothes.

On the way back to our hotel we drove past Albert Hall, which was built in 1876 and named after Prince Albert who came over from London to visit Jaipur around that time.

For dinner we explored the area near our hotel and eventually found a place not too far away. We ended our stay in Jaipur with some tasty food and a couple of drinks.

Exploring more of Naples

As we’d had such a hectic day on Saturday with our day trip to Rome, my sister and I decided to have more of a chilled out day on Sunday.After breakfast we walked down to the seafront where we saw one of Napoli’s castles. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to go inside, but it was impressive nonetheless.

We walked along towards the harbour and stopped in a small park for a short rest in the shade and to work out where we were going next. We wanted to see the Piazza del Plebiscito, but due to construction work the stairs up to it were closed.

This meant we had to walk down to the seafront, where we were greeted with a stunning view of Naples Bay and Vesuvius opposite. We decided to stop here and try the granita we had been seeing everywhere – a little like slushies but made with actual fruit juice and so much more delicious. It was really lovely just sitting and relaxing by the bay.

We then walked up to the Piazza del Plebiscito – a huge open square with the Palazzo Reale di Napoli (Royal Palace of Naples) on one side and the Basilica Reale Pontificia San Francesco da Paola facing it.

After admiring the Piazza, we walked down Santa Lucia street and camber across a funky-looking cocktail bar called Misture. Of course, being on holiday it would have been rude not to stop and see what they had to offer! We weren’t disappointed. The cocktail menu was a deck of cards with a different cocktail on each card as well as a few cards explaining the history of Naples. When we finely decided which cocktails to try, they arrived along with delicious nibbles to snack on.

Although the cocktails and nibbles were delicious, we thought it might be an idea to have some proper food for dinner, so we asked the barman for ideas. He recommended a restaurant called Ciru next to the other castle and the harbour. I have to say, the salad I had was decidedly underwhelming, however the views were gorgeous.

Finally, we got a taxi back to our B&B and went to bed. Our nice relaxing day had ended up with us walking over 13,000 steps or 8.4km (5.25 miles)! Still, it was a really lovely day.

No Shopping Challenge Week 9

Note: This is a week late as I completely forgot to post last weekend in my jetlagged state! Week 10 will follow soon.

For most of this week I’m in Bolinas, California, staying with my aunt and uncle for the last part of my Chinese New Year holiday. Once again I’m not limiting the amount I spend on food and eating out, but I’m still sticking to not buying ‘stuff’.

Monday was a gorgeous day with bright blue skies and a cold wind. I went into San Francisco with my uncle where – after my uncle making a trip to the bank while I had a cuppa ($2.55/£1.80) in Peet’s coffee shop next door – we went to the SF Museum of Modern Art. Uncle H paid for our entry saying I could get lunch instead! We had lunch in the museum cafe ($55/£40 for both of us to have carrot and ginger soup, a pastry and a drink) then looked at the exhibits – mainly Robert Rauschenberg plus a few other artists such as Matisse, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dali and Zammit. SFMoMA is a fantastic place and well worth a look if you’re in SF. Once we’d finished we drove back to Bolinas over Mount Tamalpais and made dinner from bits and pieces in the kitchen, so no further spending there.

Tuesday I asked Uncle H to drop me into town on his way to work, where I went to the Coast Cafe for lunch ($57/£41 for three courses and two glasses of wine, including tip – not cheap, but it’s the only restaurant in town and the food is pretty good) and did a bit of reading and writing. I then took a lovely walk along the beach and circled back around into town to meet my uncle, where I found him next to the wood-fired oven that is brought out twice a week by a guy who makes great pizza, waiting for a pizza he’d ordered for us for dinner. Topped with goat’s cheese, kalamata olives, mushrooms and sundried tomatoes, it was delicious.

On Wednesday it was my uncle’s weekly trip into the city (San Francisco) to look after his goddaughter’s two children, so of course I went too. The last time I was here, the oldest was four years old and the youngest was a baby; now they’re seven and four-and-a-half – such a difference! After picking them up from school and nursery, and meeting mum back at the house, we went to the California Academy of Sciences. The first thing we did was have lunch in the cafe ($13.71/£10 for mine) as it was gone 2.30pm by then and although the oldest boy had had lunch at school the rest of us were starving. The rest of the afternoon was spent looking at the penguins in the Africa gallery, playing tag and watching all the different fish in the aquarium section. Great fun! Plus free entry because mum is a member. Once we’d had enough fun we all piled back into the car to take the boys and mum to their home, where Uncle H and I were invited for dinner. We spent a lovely evening chatting and the oldest boy drew me a picture of his favourite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants. On the way back to Bolinas we had a fantastic conversation (well, mostly Uncle H talking and me listening) about my grandparents (his parents), he and my dad (his brother) as children and various things about the rest of the family. We carried on talking about this for the rest of the evening and H showed me a few old family photos as well. To top off a really lovely evening, my Aunt C then arrived home with a delicious persimmon pudding, and I finally had a chance to have a catch up with her as she’d been working lots all week.

My last day in Bolinas came around much too quickly. After breakfast with my uncle, he went to do some jobs while I stayed in, repacked and chilled out. The afternoon was spent in Point Reyes at KWMR radio station where my uncle interviewed me on his radio show ‘Teatime Books’. It was great fun and you can listen to the archived show here. Let me know what you think!

After the show we picked up pizza and salad ($33/£24 for both) from the new restaurant in town, Eleven, and took it back to the house to enjoy with a glass of wine (for me) and a cup of tea (for H). My aunt came home early from work so we had a bit of a chat and all too soon it was time to say goodbye and drive to the airport for my flight back to HK.

I spent my last $22 (£16) on a drink for the flight and chocolate to take back with me – Ghirardelli sea salt almond chocolate is heavenly.

Friday I spent nothing as the day pretty much didn’t exist for me. I went back in time 16 hours and the little part of Friday I did get was spent on a plane, so I went straight from Thursday night to Saturday morning. The quickest and easiest way from HK airport to where I live in Shenzhen is by Skylimo – various companies run minivans between the airport and the various borders, and if you pay a little extra they’ll take you all the way to your apartment (total 200HKD/£18).

After a nap which ended up lasting most of the day I made it out for dinner with my flatmate E and another friend T. Lovely Italian food and a cocktail later (306rmb/£35) they went home and I went for a few drinks (210rmb/£24) with some other friends who I hadn’t seen for ages even before the holiday.

Sunday was mostly spent hungover and jetlagged in bed or watching tv and chilling out! The only money spent was on bread and fruit juice (52rmb/£6), both very much needed.

My total spending for week 9 was US$195.26 + 598rmb + HK$200 which equals (to put it into one currency) £227.50 – not bad for most of a week in the States on holiday and a night out catching up with friends. I also didn’t buy any ‘stuff’ or takeaway, even though it was very tempting to when I got back.

Week 10: Back in Shenzhen.

No Shopping Challenge Week 8

Costa Rica!

Although I’ve relaxed my budget for food while I’m travelling, I’m still trying to stick to the ‘no buying stuff’ aspect of my challenge. So far the only things I’ve spent money on in Costa Rica have been food, accommodation and transport, and I’m going to try and keep it that way.

I’ve been here almost a week with my best friend from home, E, and it’s been fantastic. Although it’s less expensive than the US was, I’ve still spent a fair amount as we’ve been eating out for almost every meal and doing lots of fun stuff.

We began the week, having just arrived in Playa Chiquita near Puerto Viejo, Limón, heading to the nearest beach with the best reviews – Punta Uva. One of the staff at the lodge we were staying at persuaded one of his friends to drive us there when there were no taxis available. This turned out to be a fortunate turn of events for us as he was a font of information about Puerto Viejo. He recommended places with the best coffee, the best Asian food, the atm with the shortest queue and various other useful titbits. The journey from where we were staying to one of only three ATMs in Puerto Viejo, back past where we were staying to Punta Uva and Arrecife Beach (definitely the best beach in the area) cost 10,000 Colones or $17.50 between us. Not bad for a 30-odd minute journey with free advice.

We then spent some time at the most stunning beach with warm, clear water, which was just perfect.

***

Since I wrote the first part of this post I’ve been busy doing holiday stuff, so I’m going to summarise my spending for the rest of this week. Otherwise it’s going to take a long, long time and I’ll just end up repeating what I’m writing on my post about my travels. If you’d like to find out more about what I did in Costa Rica, please have a look at my other blog posts here and here!

To summarise, all my money this week was spent on: taxis and tuktuks to and from the beach, restaurants and various places we explored; food and drink; cocktails; entry to the Jaguar Rescue Centre; horse riding along the beach and through the jungle with Caribe Horse Riding Club; transport from one side of Costa Rica to the other and back to the airport; accommodation; and tattoos.

I managed to resist the urge to buy things by telling myself they were all things I didn’t actually need, which is true, so almost all my spending was on food or transport apart from my various holiday activities.

Saturday we had half a day in Miami. Since we’d met up, we’d been talking about getting tattoos together (E’s idea!): as a memento of our trip, our friendship and a significant birthday this year for both of us. It would be E’s first tattoo and my 12th. After trying – and failing – to find somewhere to get the tattoos in Puerto Viejo where we were staying, I looked into tattoo artists in Miami. I found an article about the top ten artists in Miami and emailed a couple of places on the list who weren’t too far out of our way, to find out whether they’d be able to do what we wanted in the time we had available. Only one place came through, and it just so happened to be Love Hate Tattoo, where Miami Ink was filmed a few years ago! This made the tattoos even more special and everything went according to plan (even if that meant getting very little sleep. Stupid flight times). This, of course, has added a significant amount to my spending this week ($262.50/£190), however, I’m much happier spending that money on a beautiful tattoo with a beautiful person than on more stuff that I don’t really need.

My last stop this week was Bolinas, California, a lovely little town where my aunt and uncle live. My uncle picked me up from the airport on Saturday evening then treated me to entry to see a reggae band at the local community centre and a glass (well, tin cup) of wine.

Sunday was very chilled out. After breakfast I took a stroll into town taking a few photos on the way. I had lunch ($37) at the Coast Cafe – the only restaurant in town – bumped into my aunt by the People’s Store, met up with my uncle, bought a few food items (my uncle paid) and went back to the house for the evening.

***

My total spending for the week was $579.62 (£415) plus $222 (£160 between us) on our accommodation for the week, plus the tattoos. Not too bad for a week full of fantastic food, awesome adventures and gorgeous scenery!

Costa Rica: La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano

My first two days in Costa Rica with my best friend E were fantastic.

I had arranged for a driver from Hotel Las Orquideas, where we stayed in La Fortuna, to pick us up from San Jose Airport when we arrived at around 1am. We thought it would make more sense to try and sleep on the plane and in the car while we travelled instead of staying in a hotel for one night and then wasting the next day travelling. This definitely turned out to be the best option, and not just because the B&B we were going to stay at emailed to say they weren’t open at 1am so we couldn’t arrive then anyway.

We arrived at Hotel Las Orquideas around 4am. E had slept most of the way but I hadn’t because the roads had been twisty and foggy which made me feel quite ill, and closing my eyes made me feel worse. However, I needn’t have worried. The driver showed us to a tiny room with one bed and got us duvets and pillows so we could sleep there for a while until the place opened at 6am. They actually let us stay there until our proper room was ready at about 11am and let us check in early at no extra cost (the regular time for check in was 2pm).

E went for a walk while I was still catching up on sleep and explored the town a little. When she got back we decided to spend the rest of the day at the thermal pools and hot springs that are one of the main attractions of the Arenal area. Once again our host Gustavos came to the rescue and got us a great deal – $35 each for use of all the thermal pools and a buffet dinner at Los Lagos Hotel. We’d heard of Baldi hot springs from other people and when researching about the area so we originally asked about going there, but as entrance alone is $35 each we decided to go for the cheaper option and went with Gustavos’ recommendation.

We weren’t disappointed. It was probably an ideal day to spend at hot springs as it rained on and off all day, however, because we were in nice warm water anyway it didn’t really matter. Los Lagos Hotel has 17 thermal pools of varying temperatures and sizes, some with water jets, bubbles, waterfalls or water slides. The main pool also has a poolside bar, which was lovely. We had a lovely relaxing afternoon and evening; perfect after the long night of travelling with little sleep. The buffet dinner was better than expected as they had a good range of vegetarian food for both of us. We both slept very well that night!

The following day we had brunch at Red Frog Coffee Roasters – a lovely cafe with a great range of traditional Costa Rican food, amazing coffee (according to my friend), a friendly owner who speaks English and a little gift shop. I had a traditional breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans) with plantain, fried eggs and vegetables, which was delicious and the perfect meal to set me up for the day of hiking.

After brunch we got a taxi to Arenal Volcano National Park. The driver recommended a different trail to the main one we’d asked him to take us to, which he said was better, quieter, cheaper and less touristy, so we took his advice and followed the Arenal 1968 Volcano View and Lava Trails. The walk up the trail to the viewpoint was gorgeous – surrounded by rainforest full of wildlife you could hear but couldn’t quite see apart from the birds, of which there were many different beautiful species. There were also epic sections of volcanic rock in abstract formations where the lava had flowed in 1968, causing devastation for 15 square kilometres around the volcano. Three small villages were buried and 87 people died; in total more than 232 square kilometres of land was affected by the eruption.

The view at the viewpoint was spectacular. No-one is allowed up the volcano itself because it’s still active, so the viewpoint is the highest elevation you can climb to. It gives a perfect view of Arenal Volcano on one side and a view out to the lake on the other. We saw eagles swooping around hunting for prey, heard howler monkeys in the rainforest and spotted specks of what looked like quartz in the volcanic rock we were standing on. By this point it had stopped raining and the clouds looked like they were going to lift from the top of the volcano; we waited for a while, admiring the view and watching the eagles swoop and soar, but unfortunately the clouds just played tricks on us and we didn’t see the peak.

Once we’d made our way back down the other side of the volcano and through some ridiculously tall grasses, we went for some refreshment at the ‘cafe’ – more like a booth selling soft drinks and cocktails, with a handful of chairs outside under a canopy and another great view of the volcano (if it weren’t for the pesky cloud cover). There were also some very friendly white-throated jays who were good enough to pose for photos!

As we’d arranged earlier, our local taxi driver picked us up at 5.30pm and took us back into La Fortuna for dinner. Unfortunately, the restaurant he recommended had very little in the way of vegetarian food so we had one cocktail there (it would’ve been rude not to!), then headed for a restaurant called Veggie Sub. The name is misleading as they do veggie/vegan burgers, pasta and breakfast as well as subs and sandwiches, so there was much more choice for both of us.

Of course we had to end the evening trying out the cocktails at a nearby bar, including one containing the local liquor Cacique, which is made from sugar cane. Delicious.

The next day we once again had brunch at Red Frog, followed by a quick visit to the free hot springs which all the locals go to. It was really lovely to go somewhere natural that hasn’t been bought out or turned into a fee-paying tourist attraction.

We sadly checked out of Las Orquideas and were picked up by Caribe Shuttle to take us to our next destination – Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.