Saturday, April 30, 2011

Rajasthan Street Scenes

A Rajasthan road trip means long hours in the car on bumpy, heavily trafficked, noisy roads. When we weren't watching The Shield, we were staring out the window, watching the world go by.   Enjoy this brief glimpse of Indian life from the backseat of of Pappu's Tata Indigo.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Maharajas & Me - Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer, the "Golden City", is located in the Thar Desert in the western part of Rajasthan and boasts one of the largest forts in the world.  The Jaisalmer Fort, built in 1156, is not just a tourist destination - people (about 1/4 of the total population of Jaisalmer) still work and live within it's walls.  Exploring the twisty alleys and crumbling ramparts of this living fort is fascinating, but overcrowding and constant use (by residents and tourists) means that Jaisalmer Fort is deteriorating rapidly

View of Jaisalmer Fort from the roof of our hotel
Inside the Fort
Crumbling ramparts
Cows and motorbikes vie for space in the narrow alleys
Jain Temple inside the Fort.
Fort resident

Shops line the alleyways

We bought a few paintings from this young, extremely soft-spoken artist
His brush was made out of squirrel tail hairs!

All of our photos from Jaisalmer (including the camel safari and camel festival) are available here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Jaiselmar Desert Festival - Photo Essay

We spent long days in the car to make it to the Jaiselmar desert festival.  This annual event highlights  Rajasthani cultural, with camel races, turban tying contests (with separate competions for Indians and foreigners), tug of war (Indian v foreigner), a Mr. Desert contest and even contests to judge the man with the best mustache. We wondered whether there is a strong correlation between the winner of Mr. Desert winner and Mr. Mustache. 

Sadly, we only made it for the last day because we were stranded on a camel safari, but still got to enjoy much of the fun.

This man celebrates the desert everyday. 
But only once a year does the rest of Jaiselmar celebrate him.
Everyone (but me) loves the camels.

The crowd was anxious for the camel race

Camel Races
(Thank goodness I wasn't in the race.  My whole lower body hurts just looking at this photo).
Even the police enjoy a camel ride.
Only five Indians (and kids) on this camel. 
They could fit twice this many on a scooter!

And then the cultural extravaganza
The lovely girls from the Jaiselmar Little Hearts Girls School
performed song and dance highlighting the rich culture of the region.

It was kinda like Twist & Shout, but different.

The girls from the Little Hearts school were quite good.

These men played Indian music for what seemed like hours.
Instrumental Indian music is kinda boring.

I think they are saying "hush hush hush papa's sleeping "
(reference to that Bollywood classic "Housefull").

And these women were bidding us goodbye, after a good day and evening at the desert festival.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Week Twenty Daily Journal

Friday, February 11
New Delhi, India

Surprisingly, we declined to eat dinner here.
We slept really late and had breakfast/lunch at the guesthouse and then took the wonderfully clean, cheap and efficient metro to the Lotus Temple (a Bahai temple), then the Khan Market (where we stopped for coffee frappes at Cafe Coffee Day) and finally Lodi Gardens (where we explored some really cool 13th century tombs) (see post, Delhi Delights). We took an auto rickshaw to Defense Colony Market and had a delicious dinner at Swagath of butter chicken, dal and curry fish (WAY too much food!). It was an adventure getting home as our autorickshaw driver could neither read, read a map, nor speak English. We were trying to direct him using google maps on the iPhone and a variety of hand gestures. He kept randomly stopping and saying ok and gesturing as if we had reached our destination, and we had to yell at him to keep going.

Saturday, February 12

New Delhi, India

We had big plans for today but ended up spending most of it booking our trip around Rajasthan. (See post, Your Classic Delhi Travel Agent Scam. Or Not?)  After this extremely stressful experience, Ashok took us to a cell store of sorts so that we could buy a sim card. Then we took the metro over to Chandni Chowk to explore Old Delhi by night. Wow. Throngs of people, bikes, rickshaws, trucks, motorbikes, etc all vying for space in tiny narrow streets. People running around carrying everything from hot coals to giant steel pipes to who knows what. Vendors selling kebabs, samosas, sweets, betel leaves, shoes, auto parts, etc etc. It was way crazier than any market we had ever been to, including in Egypt or China. We were constantly jostled around and watching where we stepped. We were also starving. We took refuge in a McDonalds and then later ventured out and had a samosa, a jalebi (a coil of fried dough dunked in sugar syrup and served hot), and something else we didn't know. We tried to find a restaurant that had been recommended, unsuccessfully. Finally we couldn't take it any longer and we jumped in an auto rickshaw to the subway and went home and ordered Dominos.  (See post, Mayhem).

Sunday, February 13
New Delhi and Agra, India

We stopped at this temple for sunset. Pretty.
We woke up early this morning and went to the Taj Mahal Hotel to meet Dan and his dad. We joined them on a tour of Hamayan's Tomb and Qutr Minab (see post, Delhi Delights), and then had lunch back at their hotel. Then we went back to our hotel where we met up with Pappu and set out for Agra, stopping at a Hindu temple on the way. When we got there we checked into our AMAZING hotel, the ITC,where we were staying on points. We were excited to wallow so we had dinner at the very good restaurant there, which specialized in northeast Indian food. We had grilled chicken, dal and naan, eaten traditionally with our hands. Then we watched the season finale of Breaking Bad season 2, which was very disappointing.

Monday, February 14
Agra and Jaipur, India

A really long day.  We woke up at 6 am to get to the Taj Mahal by dawn, only to find out that all the roads were closed because of the Agra half marathon. (See post, A Lot of Lovin'). We were sad, especially Dave. We went back to the hotel and had breakfast and then went back to our car, where we found Pappu deathly ill, vomiting out of the side of his car. We later learned that it was a kidney stone. He had found another guy, Sharma, to drive us for the day and Sharm would take him to the doctor while we visited the Taj. Our guide (included for the morning in our travel package) and we set out. The Taj Mahal was breathtaking. Next we went to a marble factory, where (apparently) the descendants of the family that built the Taj Mahal were still working and doing inlaid marble. It's true that the descendants are still responsible for maintaining the Taj Mahal, but not clear if its true that they are the family running this business, although maybe. Anyway, the marble table tops were gorgeous but a little too pricey for us and we managed to leave without buying anything.  Next we visited the Agra Fort (where we were endlessly amused by a french woman in a pink sari who would shove her camera at random people and demand that they take photos of her in outlandish poses) and then hit the road. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant where we were seated in a separate room, presumably for foreigners, although we were the only ones. Next we visited Jama Masjid, a beautiful mosque in Fatehpur Sikri. We had to take a tuk tuk from the parking lot and we taught a baby how to stick his tongue out, his parents then refused to play the game with him. We were followed around the mosque by a "licensed government guide" who desperately tried to guide us, and when we strongly refused, tried to sell us his "hand crafted" goods. When we refused that he demanded a tip. Argh, India. (See post, If You Guide Them They Will Pay (Maybe)). After Fatephur Sikri we drove to Jaipur and Sharma dropped us off... At the wrong Starwood property. We had to call him to come back and drive us to the correct (and much less fancy) Four Points all the away across town. Exhausted, we ate dinner at the hotel.

Tuesday, February 15
Jaipur, India

Veg curry, YUM
We slept in and didn't get going until around noon. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Pindi  and had a delicious channa masala and veg curry to the sounds of a sitar player. Then we went to the Amber Fort where we took a horrible audio guide. We enjoy walking around and a family took some photos with us. After some time trying to buy a sim card and data plan, we went to a textiles shop that, they claimed, exported to ABC Carpets. Dave did some hard negotiating and we left with a bedspread and some pashminas. Our next stop was a jewelry shop where i was tempted by an topaz ring but we left without buying and went to meet the Blasers at Rambagh Palace, a magnificent hotel in a palace, for dinner. (See post, Maharajas & Me - Jaipur).

Wednesday, February 16
Bikaner, India

Breakfast aloo paratha, YUM
We left the hotel at 8am and stopped at a roadside cafe for a breakfast of parathas and chai masala. We drove for a few hours before visiting a Krishna Temple. (See post, Om Krishna). Back in the car for another few hours before stopping for lunch (worst food yet) and then driving some more. Finally we reached Junagarh, the fort at Bikaner, but it was closed, so we went to Karni Mata Temple in Deshnok. (See post, I Smell a Rat). We drove to the Hotel Sagar, located in a beautiful old haveli. We had dinner in the lovely courtyard. Dave went up to the room and I went to use the Internet where immediately two men pulled up chairs next to me to chat and ask me a million questions (and to force me to friend them on facebook). When the young hotel receptionist left, the older restaurant manager told me that he was looking for a western women, and told me how much he makes and how much his car cost. He asked me to bring single lady friends next time I returned. Then he tried to kiss me as I left! Ewww.

Thursday, February 17
Jaisameler, India

We left the hotel early and stopped for lunch at Shree Ashapurna restaurant for lunch, where the most adorable tiny baby pups were playing outside. We continued driving until we reached our camel safari "resort", Dunes Camp Khuri, in a town about 40k outside of Jaisameler.  I didn't have the best nights sleep, but it was so peaceful out under the stars and the giant full moon, in the middle of the desert. (See post, Sleeping Under the Stars)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sleeping Under the Stars


Ashok promised that it would be the highlight of our Rajasthan road-trip.  A camel safari through the ancient deserts of Jaisalmer with sunset over the dunes, a traditional dinner with local Rajasthani song & dance, and the piece de resistance, spending the night under the stars.  Jesse immediately rejected the idea.  "Thanks but no thanks, we got all our camel riding, desert trekking, and canned local culture we need.  Take it out."

This might be a good time to review the JSR.  The JSR is the "Jesse Supremacy Rule."  It is the basic proposition that if there is ever difference of opinion between me and J, Jesse's position will result in a better outcome, and should be followed in all but a few very narrowly tailored decision-making subjects.

Dave's Domain
  • Food selection (but generally not amount of food),
  • Electronics (though as with food, she maintains a veto over the number of electronics we purchase), and
  • Directions (I am the Director of Maps; Jesse fluctuates between the Assistant Director of Maps, or more often, the Assistant to the Director of Maps whose duties are mostly limited to handing me the map
 Jesse's Domain   
  • Everything else     

The ad was even prettier
than this sunset.
But, flying in the face of the JSR, as I am apt to do, I suggested that a sunset camel safari sounded fun, and even romantic.  And when Ashok produced a glossy ad with the sun setting over the dunes I was sold.  Despite Jesse's lucid, intelligent, and well thought out reasoning I gave Ashok a knowing man-to-man looked and overruled the JSR.  And just a few short days later, there I was, muttering "JSR, stupid JSR.  Ugh, how could I have ignored the JSR again" as I walked my camel through the dessert, had one of our worst dinners in India, and then slept in all my clothes on a filthy blanket in the Jaisalmer dessert.

The Camel Ride
I like riding animals.  That's because if I am riding, I am not walking.  Camels, however, must be the most uncomfortable animals to ride in the whole world.  I now fully understand why the Jordanians use a robo-whip instead of a jockey when they race camels.  Notable times of discomfort include the alarmingly angled moment when the camel stands up, the dizzying drop it makes when it sits down, the unnaturally wide seat one must assume and, of course, the painful impact in one's nether region with each slow step.  So, as we plodded out of camp towards the desert you can be sure I was replaying the scene in Ashok's office and cursing my (all too often) failure to adhere to the JSR. [JLM: And, of course, blaming me for not being more insistent.]   Going at a human's walking pace (I know this because our camels were being led by a young man on foot) we soon fell into line with all the other tourists heading to the desert sunset.

If we were only going to reach a human's pace, I might as well walk too.
For brief moments I was distracted from my camel-riding induced misery.  Times when we saw the local women drawing water from the well, perfectly sculpted mango trees, and the general coolness of riding a camel through the desert.  In each instance, however, I was quickly brought back to reality as I slid in and around my camel's two humps.

Ladies returning to their homes with water for drinking, cooking, and bathing.

J's on the front camel.  I'm on the second one.
The tree's perfectly hemmed bottom is from camels snacking on the "low-hanging fruit."

The Sunset

The sunset from the top of the dunes was nice.  Like all of our sunsetters we quickly found the bar; in this case, a young boy selling Lay's potato chips (American Cut, i.e. ruffled, thank you very much) and warm Kingfisher beer.  This is about as good as it gets in rural India.

Reading emails?  At this sunset?  C'mon Dave.

As the sun dropped below the horizon we loaded back up onto our camels for the 40 minute ride back.  Within 10 minutes I stopped the procession and hopped off.  It was glorious.  The remaining 30 minute walk gave me time to stretch out my cramped and sore knees.  The Indian fellows, who were also walking the camels, really got a hoot that I was on foot, when I had a perfectly good camel to ride.  Had I not been in such pain I would have been thinking the same thing.

The Dinner
Back at the camp we had a mediocre dinner (but the young cook was so proud we had to tell him it was delicious.  In fact, we mostly ate the fried rice chips (think prawn chips) he served as an app) and reviewed our sleeping options.  Option one was the concrete room with a filthy bathroom or, as promised, sleeping under the stars.  And like we said, what Ashok promised, he delivered.  Sleeping under the stars meant just that.  It would be me, Jesse, and a few dirty blankets back in the desert.  No bungalow.  No tent.  No nothing.  We opted for the stars.  It was, after all, the reason we were out in Jaisalmer in the first place.

Looks OK from the outside
Does not look OK from the inside.
We can do a squat toilet, and we can do a western toilet
but a western toilet with no seat?  This is experts only.
The Second Camel Ride
What I had not considered was how we would get back to the desert to pitch our tent lay out our blankets.  You can imagine my dismay when our Indian hosts enthusiastically motioned for us to get back on our camels!  Drawing a line in the sand (well, not literally, we hadn't reached the desert yet) I insisted they attach the large cart to the camel and allow me and J to ride back to the desert in it.  My request was denied when they pointed out that the cart only had one wheel.  Thankfully, and as always, Pappu came to the rescue.  We unloaded the camels, loaded up the car and drove to our camp site.  Now knowing that our desert "campsite"  (blanket-site?) was just off the road, the entire enterprise lost some of its mystique and excitement.  I mean it is fun and exciting to trek through the desert with only the gear on our camel's back and spend the night isolated from civilization.

The Accommodations
Making camp was a quick affair.  Me, J, and our albino Indian "guide" laid out three blankets and that was that.  Camp was set.  Next we were told to comb the desert for firewood.  Hmmm, not much in the desert, and it was dark (but not that dark because it was an awesome full moon), and since we did come in a car and all, couldn't the wood have been collected at some earlier time, like in the day, or when there were not paying guests?  Sitting around the fire was nice.  We listened to the other tourists who seemed to be enjoying traditional song and dance and debated whether we were better off with or without such attractions.  We decided that we were, but mad because we surely paid for the song and dance routine.  It was just as well, since when we mentioned heading over to their campsite to say hi, we were told "not allowed!"

Jesse, our meager fire (due to the lackadaisical wood collectors), and our albino Indian guide.
That's it folks.  The entirety of our campsite.

Once we retired to our blanket, me in the great white onesy, hiking socks, hooded sweatshirt, hat and gloves, and J bundled so professionally that all parts of her body were separated from our "bedding" by at least two layers of clothes, it was actually pretty cool to be sleeping alone in the desert.  The other tourists had returned to their camp, our guide was sleeping on his blanket beyond another dune, and it really felt like we were all by ourselves.  Laying there it could have been 10, 100, or 1000 years ago (except for all the high-performance gear we were sporting).  As expected, I fell asleep immediately, leaving J to ponder the night sky, the surprising hardness of the sand, and the real or imagined noise and movement of any bug or snake within 50 yards of us.

Sunrise and Hightailing it back to Civilization
We awoke at sunrise and lazed in our blanket, pleased with our decision to sleep under the stars.  We caught the tail end of the sunrise and went to meet our guides for the camel ride (Jesse) and walk (me) home.  Back at the camp we had the Indian version of the continental breakfast:cold toast & chapati, gray butter, and remarkably bright and sweet "jam" (it actually may have been jello) and told Pappu to ready the car.  We were getting the heck out of there.

Sunrise in the desert.
(Our "room" was in the gully on the left side of this dune)

The hearty breakfast one expects after a night in the dessert.
You can't tell, but I promise that the butter was gray and the jam phosphorescent.

Pappu.  Looking a little worse for the wear, but as always, ready to roll.

Friday, April 22, 2011

I Smell a Rat

Click click click.  It was the sound that got to me first.  Click click click.  Not the smell, not the sight of droppings littering the floor, not the bowls of milk and food placed haphazardly throughout the temple.  Click click click.  No, it was the click-clacking of thousands of tiny rat fingernails on the hard marble floor that sent shivers down my spine.

Feeding time!

We were at the Karni Mata Temple of Deshnoke, 30 kilometers outside of Bikaner, where the thousands of rats that occupy the temple are considered holy.  So holy, in fact, that is good luck for a rat to run over your foot in the temple.  To me, this falls under the realm of “things we say are good luck to make us feel better because they are actually terrible.”  Like rain on your wedding day, or a bird crapping on your head.

Outside the temple.
Please note my socks and Dave's bare feet.  He is a fool.
Reluctantly leaving our shoes with the shoe attendant – we always take off our shoes in India reluctantly, but it was with special reluctance that we shed the only thing that would have stood between our bare feet and rats (and rat food, and rat droppings) – we followed the crowds to the cordoned-off line and through the broken x-ray machine into the temple.  At first, it was the sound, but it wasn’t long before the sharp scent of rodent became overwhelming.  And then we saw them.  Thousands of rats, scurrying across the floor, congregating in the corners, perched on the edge of giant bowls of milk and rat food, sitting on ledges and in the carved niches lining the walls.  They were smaller than your average New York City subway rat, but what they lacked in size they more than made up for in sheer numbers.

Scurrying across the floor.
We picked our way across the floor towards the center of the temple, barely suppressing shrieks of horror as the rats skittered past.  Occasionally one of us would surreptitiously nudge the other’s foot, just to enjoy the freak out that would follow.  We kept our eyes at our feet as we gingerly made our way up the stairs to the main temple area.  The rats seemed to love standing on one step and poking their paws and little faces up onto the next step.  This was unnerving.  All the while, our young guide Kapil kept urging us to keep our eyes out for a white rat.  This was the ultimate in good luck rat sightings.  The Brangelina of the rat world.  The Virgin Mary on a piece of toast.

Oh, did you need a close-up of rats drinking milk? Here you go.
I challenge you not to shudder.
Eventually we made it to the narrow metal gates that funneled us into a single file line as we approached the inner temple.  Narrow metal gates are necessary as the concept of a single file line, or waiting in line in general, appears to be foreign to Indian people (and especially to Indian religious pilgrims).  Normally we welcome such gates and the forced lines they create, but in this case the metal gates seemed to be prime nesting spots for the plumpest, most alpha rats of the bunch.  We tried to make ourselves as narrow as possible to avoid contact with the gates to either side.  Once we were through the gates, we moved extremely quickly.  Past the man who takes and doles out the offerings, past the man pressing red bindis onto everyone’s forehead, past the man who’s job it is to swipe heads with what appears to be a large duster.  We had had enough.  We wanted out.

Panic (and blurry photos) sets in
And so, moving rapidly towards the exit, rat food (we hope it was rat food, please let it be rat food) crunching under(bare)foot, we escaped the rat temple.  We hadn’t seen a white rat, and no rat had run over either of our feet, but then again, we hadn’t caught the plague.  We slid on our shoes, took photos with a few Indian tourists, ordered up a celebratory sugarcane juice, and considered ourselves lucky to have visited – and even luckier to have left – the Karni Mata Temple of Deshnoke.

Much Purell was required before Dave was even allowed to touch his juice glass.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Om Krishna

The music was deafening, the air thick with incense, the crowd surging as we threaded our way through narrow streets towards the Krishna temple.

Hawkers sold everything from CDs to bangles to flower garlands, and we stopped at one of the many sweets shops to pick up a box of cookies and candies for our offering to Krishna.

It was a mob scene around the temple, and we were lucky to have Kapil to guide us through the process.  After leaving our shoes outside, we pushed our way into the inner sanctum.

When we finally reached the alter, I did what everyone around me was doing and handed the box of sweets to one of the men in charge.  He scooped out half of the contents and deposited them into a large bowl.  Then he refilled my box with a mix of offerings from other pilgrims who had come before me. A quick dab on my forehead from another fellow and we were herded into the outer temple area.

The outer sanctum was larger and not as packed, but almost more overwhelming.  There were stations for giving money, stations for having your head swiped with what appeared to be a giant feather duster, stations for tying red threads (for fertility, we think (we passed)), and stations for adorning with fragrant, colorful flower garlands.

We met a man who claimed to be 109 years old, bestowing blessings for a long life on the people who came to kneel before him and touch his feet.

We told him he didn't look a day over 90.

I wasn't so eager to touch his gnarled toes with their long, gross toenails, so we settled for a photo (in which I appear extremely skeptical of his powers, yet fetchingly coordinated with his scarf).

Our visit to the Krishna temple ended in typically Rajasthani ways, accosted by beggars and by cows.