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Friends beware. It turns out that Nellu and I are the type of people who, when you casually suggest we visit, will likely take you up on that offer. (Our friends who just moved to South Korea, you’ve been warned.) Over the last month of our trip, we visited more than a dozen friends over Europe. Some were old friends and some were new. But it was the perfect way to end the trip of a lifetime…

Sweet Caroline — Berlin

I remember the first time we met Caroline. Nellu and I had just taken the overnight bus from Cape Town to Johannesburg, enduring hours of entertainment like the best music videos of Brandy and Celine Dion. (There are no earbuds on the planet that could block that out.) We had taken the train “where the robbers get robbed” to the airport, where we got a free pick up from the hotel we’d stay with for a night as a part of our G Adventures overland trek to Nairobi. We were tired and after finally connecting with the hotel manager/driver, we loaded into the back of a minivan. But we’d wait for one more passenger. This turned out to be Caroline.

It’s always a little bit awkward meeting people that you know you will be spending the next month with. Will I like them? Will they like me? Will we be able to tolerate each other’s company for weeks? Caroline didn’t say much on that car ride to the hotel but over our 28-day trip, we got to know her well. She’s one of those people who is generally wonderful to be around. She interested and interesting and laughs a lot with this genuine, contagious laugh that draw you in.

Berlin, Germany, traffic lights

Nellu compiled this photo of the Berlin walk signs. I think the little man looks like he’s in a barbershop quartet.

Berlin won me over but I’m sure a large part of that had to do with Caroline. We booked a place in her neighborhood and met up with her often during our brief stay. She took us to Tempelhof airfield, where we got stuck in the rain.

Nellu Mazilu, Tempelhof, Berlin Germany

We got stuck in the rain during our visit to Tempelhof field. But as Caroline and Nellu demonstrate, only our backsides got wet.

She gave us a driving tour of downtown Berlin, showing us where Angela Merkel lives, and took us to a flea market and brunch.

Nellu helped her carry her new mattress up to her apartment. It was folded into the back of her VW Golf. (I include this detail because 1) they use mattresses that fold up in Germany and 2) I love that as a Berliner, Caroline drives a VW Golf. It fits her.)

Caroline also cooked dinner for us. It was so excitingly normal. We felt like we could have lived there. Maybe someday we will.

Eating Danish Danish with the Queen – Copenhagen

Denmark, Copenhagen, Nyhavn Canal

Nyhavn Canal, Copenhagen.

Line (pronounced Leena) was also on our Africa trip. She was on a similar extended adventure, traveling with her friend Kristine over several months and continents.

Line has a worldly sophistication unusual for someone in her early 20s. She lived in South Africa at some point and on the long truckbus rides across southeastern Africa, she attempted to school us in the art of the click constant present in Xhosa language.

She also has easy-going nature that hides any fatigue she may have with English-speakers pronouncing her name as if they were referring to a long, narrow mark.

We had originally hoped all of us—Caroline, Line, Kristine, Nellu and I—would be able to get together in Copenhagen but we just couldn’t get the dates to work out.

We were thankful to be able to connect with Line. “I forgot that you haven’t gone home yet,” she said meeting us.  It was true. We were still wearing the same clothes she’d seen us in three months earlier in Africa. Line,  of course, rocked that effortless style that Danes seem to acquire as a birthright.

ROKOKO-MANIA, Design Museum Danmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Dress made out of straws one of the ROKOKO-MANIA exhibits at Design Museum Danmark. (That’s not a typo.)

(Seriously, Copenhagen looks like a showroom for Design Within Reach with everyone riding around on bicycles. It’s  just so devastatingly chic and civilized.)

One item high up on our list of things to try in Denmark: danish. That’s right, Line took us out for Danish danish. And they were delicious.

Danish, danish, Denmark, Copenhagen, Nellu Mazilu

Line takes us for some delicious treats: authentic Danish danish. Photo by Nellu Mazilu.

We headed over to the Amalienborg Palace to see the changing of the Royal Guard only to have Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II drive right past us.

Line also humored us, accompanying us on a  boat tour of the canals.

Nellu Mazilu, Nyhavn Canal, Copenhagen, Denmark

Nyhavn Canal. Photo by Nellu Mazilu

Our visit coincided with the first truly warm days of spring where everyone makes a point to be outside as much as possible just to soak it all in.

Copenhagen, Denmark, spring, sun, canal, Nellu Mazilu

People hanging out by the canal. Photo by Nellu Mazilu.

It was really just one of those stretches that makes you feel good to be alive.

Rockabilly – Oslo

After traveling extensively over the last two years via trains, plans, buses, boats, camels, etc., I feel confident in declaring the loveliest way to travel is by ferry. Ferries are comfortable, luxurious even. Many of them have free wifi. Need I say more?

ferry, Copenhagen to Oslo, Denmark, Norway

See ferries are so classy they have models of the boat on the boat.

We took the overnight DFDS Seaways ferry from Copenhagen to Oslo (thanks to help from the fantastic seat61.com). We booked one of the smaller, cheaper cabins: a room with two single beds and a bathroom. It was amazing. We had privacy. We could work, explore, sleep and most importantly shut out the rest of the boat for one peaceful evening.

We had gone to Oslo to meet up with our friend Morten, who we had met nine months earlier in Beijing. He and two friends had been preparing to drive back to Norway from China on two motorcycles with sidecars. They made it in about four months just before Christmas.

But over the few days we spent in Oslo, we’d learn that a lot went wrong. Their bikes broke down often. A bag with a passport (and an important visa) fell out. And it got very, very cold. (Read all about it on their blog “From East to West on an Iron Horse” with the help of Google Translate. They’ve also started working on the book about the trip.)

Morten let Nellu try on the gear he’d bought to stay warm. This included a wolf skin that looked way too close to the husky dog I had growing up.

Nellu Mazilu, wolf skin

Nellu and Morten pose with some of the items Morten collected across Asia.

“I can’t believe you guys are here,” Morten told Nellu when he called to schedule a time to meet up.

How best to describe Morten? Morten is the strong streak of creativity that runs through him. The word jovial (sorry Morten) also comes to mind. He and his friends had everyone in our hostel in Beijing entertained for nights with a song they’d made up at the airport. “Don’t leava your baggage unattendo,” was the bridge,  which they sang with faux-Jamaican accents. (There are several verses to this song. It’s really quite impressive.)

Morten is also talented photographer and actually won trip to New York a few months back for one of his pictures.

Morten in New York. Photo Courtesy of Morten Espeland.

Morten and the Big Apple. Photo Courtesy of Morten Espeland.

(When you click on any of the pictures on their Iron Horse blog, it will pull up a slide show of Morten’s work on the road. It’s worth checking out.)

We met Morten in downtown Oslo and he took to a place he referred to as a “rockabilly” bar.

“Rockabilly? What the hell is rockabilly?” we teased.

Apparently rockabilly is huge in Oslo and refers to places styled in that vintage diner look. (Wikipedia says the word is a combo of rock and hillbilly.)

We got beers as Morten pointed out all the Norwegian celebrities.

We spent time in Oslo doing a lot of the touristy stuff without Morten—visiting the boat museums like the Kon-Tiki museum and the Viking Ship museum. (It’s Norway. Boats are big there.)

Nellu Mazilu, Kon-Tiki, Oslo, Norway

Me & Kon-Tiki. Photo by Nellu Mazilu.

We also went to the Munch museum.

Edvard Munch,  Madonna, Edvard Munch Museum, Munch

Edvard Munch’s Madonna. Photo by Nellu.

With Morten, we spent time seeing a more nuanced Oslo. He took us for a walk along the river all the way down to Parliament.

Nellu Mazilu, Akerselva River, Oslo, Norway

Art along the Akerselva River, Oslo. Photo by Nellu Mazilu

He also explained why so many high-school aged kids were walking around with red or blue overalls.  (They’re Russ. It’s a fascinating tradition which I can best describe as a month-long Mardi Gras for high school seniors. But you can read all about it here.)

We were having too much fun chatting over beers at a bar called the “Last Train,” that we missed the last train that night to our apartment. We ended up roaming through Oslo in the middle of the night, fighting as people do when they’re lost and stranded in a foreign city, all the way back to Morten’s. He didn’t look a bit inconvenienced when we knocked on his door.

More to come…

~ Molly

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Ok truth be told, Nellu and I had gotten pretty comfortable in Delhi and I would have been absolutely content to stay there for the entire month we allotted to India if not for the subtle voice in the back of my head that kept saying, “You should really get out and see more of the country. You were the one who wanted to come here for so long. So go. See it.”

So we made a plan, booked our trains and started setting up our accommodations. We resigned ourselves to only covering part of northern India. Essentially, we’d see India’s Golden Triangle – Delhi, Agra and Jaipur – with a few extras. This romp would take us for 12 or so days through five cities. As with China, there were going a number of overnight trains involved, so we made sure to book a few more nights at Mala’s on the tail end of our trip just to rest up and in theory get some work done. (Note for future travelers: we booked all our trains through cleartrip.com as recommended by seat61.com. We were able to do all the transactions online, pay with our Capital One Venture credit card, and print out e-tickets. There was a small, negligible handling fee but it beats running to the train station every other day and doing on the spot re-routing.)

We left our Delhi home with full bellies (we had this divine hot chocolate pudding/lava cake with vanilla ice cream for dessert, no joke) and headed to the train station for our first overnight train to Khajuraho.

Khajuraho’s temples, still scandalous after all these years

Khajuraho is home to India’s slightly scandalous Kama Sutra temples. We arrived first thing in the morning and checked directly into our hotel room. Even though we planned to take the night train out that evening, we booked a hotel room so we could store our luggage, shower and nap. (I know this may surprise you, but sleep on the night train is not always easy to come.)

Right away we realized how refreshing it was to be outside the big city and in the country. Khajuraho is a tiny town that would never register on anyone’s radar if not for the temples. After checking in, we had a breakfast of coffee (thank god) and the chocolate cake tops Mala sent with us. Then we took to the streets with a plan to walk to the first group of temples. Along the way many drivers solicited us but it was a kid on a moped, who decided to walk with us/follow us/try to tour guide us for most of the morning.

The temples in Khajuraho are striking more so for their exquisite detail than explicit sexual positions. The craftsmanship alone is worth marveling at.

After several hours of temple gawking both in the morning and afternoon, we headed back for showers and food before catching the second of our overnight trains to Varanasi.

In Varanasi, we paid extra for our guesthouse to send a driver to pick us up. We rationalized that after two back-to-back nights on the overnight train, it was best to avoid added aggravation of negotiating with auto rickshaw drivers the moment we arrived. The driver met us on the platform and took us to his car. The city was flooded and even though we were about 6km from the train station it took an hour to reach our guesthouse on the riverbank of the Ganges.

Varanasi is said to be the place where Buddhism was born. But more evident is the significance the city has to the Hindu religion. Many devout Hindus make the pilgrimage there to bathe in the Ganges River. The old city is framed around ghats or steps leading down to the river where people can bathe. Hindus believe washing in the Ganges purifies oneself.

Kedar Ghat (I like to call it the Coney Island Ghat)

The Varanasi entry on Wikitravel suggests that bathing is exactly what you need to do when visiting the city…with several caveats:

Over 60,000 people come down to the waters edge every day to take a dip in the sacred waters of the Ganges. Try not to think too much about the dozens of sewage pipes and sunken corpses in the waters around you and you’ll find it’s not nearly as bad as you expect once you’re actually in it. Although medically, bathing in water in which a corpse resides risks infection with numerous blood borne diseases (notably hepatitis) and many infections.

Nellu Mazilu

Photo by Nellu

Hindus also believe that dying in the Ganges will allow the soul to escape the cycle of reincarnation and establish a percent place in heaven. Consequently, in addition to the bathing ghats, there are also cremation ghats. But not all bodies, such as those of children, can be cremated so the corpses are sent into the water with riggings to weigh them down (hence the sunken corpses mentioned above).

I’m pretty sure Jeremy Piven took a dunk in the Ganges for his Travel Channel special: Jeremy Piven’s Journey of a Lifetime. But I imagine he had a team of Purell Super Soakers ready to go when he got out.

Needless to say, Nellu and I didn’t try it out. Not even a pinkie touched Ganges water.

It look beautiful but the Ganges River has a lot going on below the surface

We did take a sunrise boat cruise to see the bathing ghats. The whole time, I couldn’t help but wonder how the bathers felt with all the tourists going by in boats and taking pictures of them while they washed. I guess that’s why they stare and take so many pictures of us… It’s pay back :)

Varanasi is one of the most iconic cities in India and the subject of some of the most striking pictures of the country. But it’s certainly not the place for squeamish travelers. The city may be chock full or yoga studios and mediation centers, but hordes of pilgrims and tourists cause congestion and attract aggressive touts.

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From Varanasi we went to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple, one of the most important places of worship in the Sikh religion. Our Delhi host family, the Bindras, were Sikhs and spoke highly of it and shared pictures. It was gorgeous in pictures so you know in real life it was only going to be that much more impressive.

We took a 24-four train from Varanasi to Amritsar in a first-class compartment. We paid a little more for this privilege but of all the things we’ve spent money on in the last six months this one is really high up on the “worth-it list.” As a couple, Nellu and I were given one of the two-people first-class compartments. Yes, that’s right. We had it all to ourselves. We had a door that locked and they even gave us towels. This was by far the best of all our train rides to date. We slept, got caught up on some work, and even got some reading in. We watched the sunset over the Indian countryside in peace and quiet. It was heaven.

Nellu Mazilu

Heaven to us is a train compartment all to ourselves

Oh and on the way we met our new friend Hamilton. He’s a Canadian/American currently residing in Nepal. He’s a documentary filmmaker doing some pretty inspiring work. In fact, one of his films won the top prize at a festival in France and the People’s Pick: Hanuman Airlines: Fly Over Everest.

Hamilton was going up to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple as well, and had planned to stay at the hostel in the Temple itself. At the Golden Temple, anyone can stay for free. They can also eat for free at the cafeteria in the Temple, which is fueled by donations and volunteers. When you walk by, you can hear clambering of the dishwashers churning through hundreds metal plates. Sikhism is a religion based on equality and Gurpreet Bindra liked to brag to us that at the Golden Temple cafeteria a rich man could be sitting next to a beggar and everyone would be treated the same. That philosophy is felt through the whole complex of the Golden Temple.

Nellu Mazilu

Entrance to the cafeteria at the Golden Temple. Photo by Nellu

The temple grounds really are exquisite. The Golden Temple sits at the center of the complex surrounded by a lake of holy water. This holy water, however, is leagues cleaner than the Ganges river. Devotees bathe in the water and drink it. It looked so nice on the hot September day that I wanted to take a swim but of course that would be disrespectful.

The gorgeous Golden Temple

We visited twice, both in the morning and then at night to get the full effect of its beauty.

Nellu Mazilu

Golden Temple at Night. Photo by Nellu

Just outside Amritsar in Wagah is another prominent attraction: the only road border crossing between India and Pakistan. We were so close, we had to go. There are two flag ceremonies at the border each day: one when the border opens and another when it closes. We made it there for the closing ceremony. It was quite the sight. Both countries have built stadium-style seating facing the border gate and people flock there to watch the spectacle on both sides. The ceremony is full of dancing, goose step walking, bugle horns, and dirty looks. There’s also an announcer that sounded like he kept shouting, “Gooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllll,” but it was clearly something else.

Nellu Mazilu

Can we come over and get a stamp? Photo by Nellu

I am not taking sides or anything but India was having a dance party during the pre-ceremony and Pakistan barely budged.

From Amritsar, we trained it back though Delhi to Ramnager on the outskirts of the tiger reserve at Corbett National Park. We went on two safaris, one jeep and one on elephant back. We didn’t see any tigers, but we did see paw prints.

Nellu Mazilu

Tiger paw print. Photo by Nellu

We also learned that not all elephant trainers are good ones like the one we met at the sanctuary in Bali. This trainer was pretty rough on our elephant using both a bamboo stick and the back of a metal rod. I felt ashamed that we had put the animal through this and we made it clear to our hostel that had booked the ride for us that this ruined the experience. We also swore that the next time we visit elephants, it will be in the wild.

We felt awful the trainer was rough on our elephant. Our advice: stick to the elephant sanctuaries or just see them in the wild.

The highlight of our trip to Corbett Park was an accidental meeting of the owners of the Forest Haat, Dheeraj and Amrita Singh. The Forest Haat is a cafe/store in the heart of the park that just happened to be right next to our hostel and had the only working wifi in town. Two days in a row, Nellu and I had gone in search of internet and ended up talking with Dheeraj and Amrita for hours. It was great to share our experiences with the couple who made us feel very normal and gave us lots of great insight. Dheeraj quit the corporate world and found he could make a living following his passion as a wildlife photographer. (He has seen many tigers!) Amrita dreams of opening a small guesthouse at the foot of the Himalayas and if she does, we’ll be back.

By the river in Corbett Park

After a restful few days in Corbett Park, we got back on the train traveling once again through Delhi to Jaipur. Jaipur is one of the cities that make up India’s Golden Triangle. It’s known as the Pink City because in 1853 they painted the city pink to welcome the Prince of Wales and they kept it.

Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

To me, the beauty of the buildings in Jaipur rival that of the Taj Mahal.

Inside the Hawa Mahal

Inside City Palace

After twelve days and five cities, we arrived back in Delhi in one piece and markedly less tired than we expected. We had two more days in India before flying to Thailand to do it all again.

~ Molly

Nellu Mazilu

We call shots like this a “for the parents” picture.

“Do the cheesy touristy things.” That was one of the pieces of advice I got before embarking on this trip and the person that gave it specifically mentioned the Taj Mahal. It’s funny because in real life, doing the touristy things would be last on our priority list. But if you’re doing a broad world survey like we are, they are unavoidable. You cannot go to India on an exploratory mission and not visit its most famous landmark. And Nellu loves a good UNESCO World Heritage site so off we went…

We took the early morning express train to Agra from Delhi. The trip took just under 2 hours.  (A word of advice to future travelers: all the touts know this is a big tourist route. There is a scam where a man approaches you at the train station and tells you that your e-ticket for the train is not valid. The guy has you run you around the station looking for a place where you can get a boarding pass so you miss the train and take their high cost taxi to Agra. One of these guys did approach us the morning we got on the train and started to mumble something about just having an internet ticket. But our Delhi family had warned us and we got on the train and into our assigned seats. The conductor comes around to check tickets once the train has departed. We booked our tickets online through cleartrip.com per the advice of one of my new favorite sites seat61.com. It was wonderful and easy!)

We arrived at the gate of the Taj Mahal just before 9am after wandering around for a few minutes trying to find the entrance. The Taj is quite funny the way it’s tucked away behind a wall inside the crowded city of Agra. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d certainly not guess. We entered from the South Gate, which is practically hidden.

But once you find it, the Taj Mahal does not disappoint! We walked through the gate to find the white marble structure practically glowing on its pedestal framed by a blue, blue sky and postcard perfect clouds. We read the chief architect of the Taj actually designed it so that there would be nothing but sky behind it.  It looked so perfect, it looked fake. We keep joking that all of our pictures look like we’re standing in front of a green screen rather than the real thing.

Nellu Mazilu

They gave us booties to put over our shoes so we didn’t have to take them off.

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the mausoleum that is the Taj for his wife Mumtaz Mahal after she died giving birth to their 14th child (I know!). We spent a good part of the morning just wandering around marveling at its beauty. We couldn’t stay for the golden hour but I can imagine pictures taken at this time would be breathtaking.

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Our one set back: Little Jimmy McMillian was denied entry into the Taj Mahal as he was deemed a security threat. I tried to explain to the guards they could fully check him out by pulling off his head and hands but they were unconvinced. To be fair, the day we went to the Taj Mahal, the Delhi High Court was hit with a briefcase bomb that killed 11 people. It’s quite reasonable to think that guards are wary of unknowns like Little Jimmy. But Nellu was able to get a shot of Little Jimmy with the Taj from the perch at Agra Fort down the river. (Check out all the Misadventures of Little Jimmy here.)

Nellu Mazilu

Photo by Nellu

Agra Fort is truly another gem of the city. It’s about 2km from the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. Nellu and I walked there even though every 50 feet or so drivers of all kind – auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and even camel drawn carts – approached us. We also managed to avoid the persistent tour guides hovering at the fort entrance – one in particular who was sure we’d miss out if we didn’t hire him. Emperor Shah Jahan refurbished Agra Fort replacing much of the red sandstone with white marble. The complex also has intricate water fountains running through it. (You know I’m a sucker for a good water way). It was renovated as a palace but later became a prison for the Emperor when his son overthrew his rule.

A veranda in Agra Fort

There are a few more things to do in Agra including a visit to what people call the baby Taj but Nellu and I skipped on the last. We got some good food at rooftop restaurant with views of the top of the Taj Mahal, watched monkeys jump from building to building, and hopped on the evening train back to our Delhi home.

~ Molly

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