Grant Muller

JTTE: The Most Romantic City in All of India

India-1822The road to Udaipur began after a quick caffeine fix. This would be our shortest driving length of the trip, but owing to the terrain would be our longest. Leaving Jodhpur we encountered some of the most poorly maintained tracts of asphalt I’ve seen this side of Costa Rica. Couple that with the fact that we were on the main road from Jodhpur to Mumbai, the Indian shipping capital, and we had created a very stressful start to the day for Mashtan. After a few hours we turned off this one lane superhighway onto the road to Udaipur, and things quickly improved.

The terrain changes dramatically between the encroaching western desert and the city of Udaipur. On the horizon mountains appear, and rocky outcroppings poke up out of the scrub like monuments in the sand. I can only describe is as looking like the countryside of Greece sounds. Within an hour we were in the midst of the stony mountain pass, with terraced farms, stacked walls and rock huts dotting the landscape as we zoomed by. Mashtan was visibly happier with this portion of the drive. "This is like Himalaya" he said to us, as the road hair-pinned around an embankment, "This is not boring drive". We agreed, and when the opportunity to have a tea at a hotel nestled in the hills presented itself, we lingered long.

India-1832Udaipur is like an oasis in the mountains. The city surrounds a lake, and the transition between algae covered waters and concrete structures is immediate. There are several spots where stairs have been built right into the water, and I’m certain that all of the classic shots of people collectively bathing and doing their laundry in India come from Udaipur. The city is also quite small. We planned to have Mashtan drop us off at our lodgings and just walk everywhere from there, which is more conducive to the way Cary and I travel anyway. It also gave Mashtan a much needed break.

Speaking of lodgings. In Udaipur we stayed at another "guest house", or haveli that has been converted into an inn. I don’t know how to describe these guest houses to Americans other than comparing them to a bed and breakfast, which isn’t quite the same. At a guest house, there are usually few rooms, four to ten in our experience. With such a limited number of guests staying in the haveli, the staff can better accommodate your needs than a traditional hotel. Indeed, we found that when we stayed at a guest house in India, we were much India-1840happier with our lodgings than when we stayed in a hotel. Here is an example: whenever we had an early pick up at a guest house, well before the kitchen opened, the staff would usually offer to make use something that we could pack for breakfast. Another example: internet costs money here in India. At every hotel we went to we had these goofy scratch off cards with a password to get on their internet, which was finicky to use and required constant re-authentication. At the guest houses internet was free, or they charged on a per hour basis simply asking you to report to them about how much you used. I am much more likely to overpay in the latter scenario, simply because the bond of trust between guest and host has been created by the host’s faith in my honesty. Bottom line: Pick the guest house over the hotel if one is available.

India-1870After a quick check-in later than we expected, we wandered around the city in an effort to catch the boat tour. We got a little lost, but a few rickshaw rides later caught our bearings. The boat ride would have to wait for the morning, but we did wander the streets, conversed with the locals and perused the shops. We met some of the most memorable characters we had encountered so far in India. The most avid Tata connoisseur on the planet who ran Tata’s first retail endeavor. Jony and Sony, two brothers who had set up shop as tailors of fine suits. We also ran into several other residents who had spent time in other cities and ended up back in Udaipur. I don’t blame the latter of these; we found Udaipur to be the finest city we had the privilege to visit in India, and agree with the most common assessment of the it: "Udaipur is the most romantic city in all of India".

Taking it easy for the evening, we had a leisurely dinner on the terrace of our haveli, which overlooked the lake, the lit palaces, and the city. Tomorrow we would set out on foot again to visit the tourist attractions and catch our train back to Delhi.

JTTE: A Respite in Jodhpur

India-1604After a leisurely breakfast Friday morning on the terrace of the Fifu Guest House, we began our journey out of the Thar and back towards central India. We had planned a stop on our way to Udaipur in the city of Jodhpur.

Founded in 1459, Jodhpur is the second largest in the state of Rajasthan, and sports  temples, palaces and forts that are similar in style to the other cities we’ve visited. We had planned to make Jodhpur a rest day of sorts, figuring we could roll into town sometime after lunch, see a few of the sites, then relax in the gardens of the hotel.

I expected the air to cool as we left the desert, but I was sorely mistake. As we stopped along the way we noticed that it was getting uncomfortably hot outside. In previous cities staying out in the sun was bearable, I began to think that the heat might cut our sightseeing short.

We arrived in Jodhpur around 1:00 and made a beeline for our lodgings. We were both unusually tired and Mashtan recommended we take a break for a few hours, then head to some of the sites in the afternoon. We agreed. When afternoon did come the heat had not subsided. We decided to venture out anyway and stopped first at Jaswant Thada.

India-1613Jaswant Thada is a shrine to the Maharaja’s of Jodhpur, originally built for Jaswant Singh in the late 1800’s. Jaswant, who brought technological innovations to Jodhpur such as irrigation is looked up to by the locals as a hero, and the cenotaph erected here is a place where the locals can pay homage to his legacy. It’s also a place where western tourists take photos. Inside the marble pillared cenotaph are portraits of the Jodhpur Maharajas all the way back to Rao Jodha, the founder of the city. As with most temples it is quiet inside save for the cooing of hundreds of pigeons.

India-1575Jaswant Thada and Mehrangarh Fort live right next to each other, so it only made sense to check out the fort next. This is when the heat began to give us trouble.To get inside the fort you have to muscle through a graded, shade deprived street. The climb alone was brutal, and by the time we reached the top we were both forced to sit down and take a break. After resting for a moment we continued onwards into the courtyard of the fort, at which point Cary succumbed to the heat. Forced to sit this one out, she reluctantly handed the camera over to me while I perused the museums and palaces.

India-1626Its walls carved directly from the rocks it stands on, Mehrangarh fort is a hodge-podge of architectural styles and influences. Construction began in in 1459 when Rao Jodha first moved his capital from Mandore to Jodhpur. The fort was modified and added to over generations of Raos and Maharaja, there is no one style or look that defines it; this quality is also what makes it one of the more interesting of the forts we’ve visited. In addition to the uniqueness of it’s construction, it’s also one of the more organized site we’ve visited. Museums displaying the arms, costumes, vehicles and textiles of Rajputs over the years are smartly displayed throughout the well planned out tour. I breezed through the fort, following the arrows to the major points of interest such as the Moti Mahal, Sheesh Mahal, and Phool Mahal. I’m not sure if I’m as head over heels in love with it as Rudyard Kipling, but it was certainly different than many of the forts we’ve seen along the way.

India-1669With a camera full of pictures for Cary’s perusal in hand, I picked her up in the courtyard and we headed for air conditioning. Cary needed a nap something awful, so I volunteered to walk about a kilometer from our hotel to the nearest ATM to get some cash while she slept off the heat.

I hadn’t had a chance to walk around an Indian neighborhood since I first arrived almost two weeks ago, but I was instantly reminded of what real Indian culture looks like. We had spent the last week moving from tourist destination to tourist destination, and it was beginning to give me the impression that all of India lives to hound any visitor who crosses their path out of a few rupees. I was reminded of my first forays into the neighborhoods of Noida, where passersby were pleasantly oblivious to the appearance of a giant white guy roaming their neighborhood. I received a few cordial "Namaste’s", on my walk and I actually had a normal conversation with a rickshaw driver:

Rickshaw Guy: Hey, you need a lift?
Me: Nah, just gonna walk.
Rickshaw Guy: I’ll be here if you change your mind.

That was it. No persistence. No hounding. Pleasant.

India-1711Cash in hand I headed back to the hotel, and read for a while in the garden, sipping on a local scotch (Blender’s Pride). Cary woke sometime later and we walked around the neighborhood for a while, then grabbed dinner and caught a cricket match at On the Rocks. We also had some kulfi on a stick from the “mall” (which is a story in and of itself). There was also a wedding going on at our hotel, which provided some additional entertainment and insight into India culture.

We planned on using Jodhpur as a rest day on our long journey, and though we caught a few sights, I think we used it appropriately. Tomorrow would begin the leisurely drive to Udaipur on one of the final legs of our journey.

JTTE: How Rajasthan Gets Medieval

India-1262We rolled out of bed early on Thursday for a quick breakfast in our hotel. I had a masala omelet, which I will try to replicate when I get home, and a tea. Cary suffered through the coffee.

A Word about Coffee in India. Instant. It seems ubiquitous. Nearly every hotel mixes up a batch and walks it out to your table like it’s fresh off the French press. I know what instant coffee tastes like, and though I’ve had worse in America, I’ve elected to switch to tea in the morning since I’ve been here. I’ve gotten too used to my own coffee at home to tolerate anything less, and yes I know I’m being a big ol’ jerk about it.

 Oh, and you must explicitly state black coffee or black tea. State it two or three times for good measure, otherwise you’re going to get 4 sugar cubes and a quart of milk dumped in your mug. They will look at you like you have a foot growing out of your face when you tell them no sugar and no milk, but hold your ground on this one. Put your hand over your mug if necessary. On the other hand if you want a real Indian treat, ask for a Masala Chai, it will have milk and sugar, but at least you’ll know what you’re getting.

We began our trek further into the Thar Desert soon after breakfast. I thought the drive into Bikaner was a venture into the void, but the drive to Jaisalmer made it look downright urbane. Even fewer humans dotted the landscape, and the drive went from relaxing to boring. It would take us around 4 hours to get to Jaisalmer, and we spent the time alternately reading or zoning out as the monotonous desert rolled by.

India-1302Jaisalmer can be seen from miles away, it is literally the only thing out there. Originally built in the 12th century, the fort is the town and the town is the fort. It’s the only one of it’s kind in India, and though much has grown up in the vicinity of the walls and ramparts, most of the action still takes place inside. Our driver dropped us off at the gates to the city, and we stepped into a strange environment.

Jaisalmer Fort is positively medieval. You enter a central courtyard that leads upwards to the palace or down countless alleyways that make up the town. It can feel a bit like a maze, but you find landmarks along the way; brightly painted Ganesh’s or a shop that is selling things that are slightly different than it’s neighbors. The cows, which probably outnumber humans in India, roamed the castle alleys accepting handouts of naan and roti from the residents. Cary attempted to stand in front of one to see if would just go around her, and instead received a head-butt. Brahmin cows don’t budge for cars, I’m not sure what Cary thought she was doing.

India-1316People actually live their lives inside the fort. There are several homes, and I’m under the impression that many of the shopkeepers live in the tiny apartments just above their wares. People live semi-modern lives inside the fort. Electricity has been haphazardly run throughout the town, and you will find alleyways with cafes advertising internet access. There are drain and water supply pipes that have been added to accommodate modern plumbing. This last modern contribution is actually endangering the very existence of the fort. Built to last in an arid climate, the fort is in some ways a giant sandcastle. The introduction of water in and around the fort is like the tide coming in to destroy your childhood sand creations at the beach. This has earned the fort a place in the top 100 most endangered historical sites in the world.

We left the fort after having a bite to eat at one of the numerous rooftop restaurants. Trudging back down the path we met our driver and headed towards Sam, 40Km west of Jaisalmer and even deeper into the Thar Desert towards Pakistan. I’m pretty certain that Sam must be the Hindi word for sand, because that’s about all they have out here. We hitched a ride on a camel and trekked out into the dune sea to watch the sunset and relax.

India-1423The ride on the camel was fun, but a little painful. Apparently you can do treks out into the desert lasting up the 14 days, I think the hour or so that I spent riding was plenty. We rode out a ways, trotted a little (which the guide seemed convinced was galloping), and took our shoes off to walk around on the soft powdery sand.

This is where my American sensibilities regarding conservation and preservation kick in. As much as the world likes to demonize Americans for destroying the environment and polluting the planet, this entire trip I am reminded of exactly how unfair that assessment of my nationality is. I was horrified to see countless empty water bottles, soft drink cans, and other pieces of trash littering the landscape of the Desert National Park. I was a bit angry about it, especially as I thought about how much trash I’ve seen just laying around everywhere in India. I know they are a populous nation and it’s difficult to keep things tidy, but this is the kind of thing that can break a tourist industry. If Rajasthan wants to have more and more people come to visit its extensive tourist destinations, its going to need to get it’s act together, otherwise folks like myself will go home and tell others to avoid the trip into the desert altogether, as its just getting too dirty.

While I’m on a rant, I also want to make a comment about wares peddlers. I understand that these folks are just trying to make their way through life in the desert catering to tourists, but please don’t encourage child labor. I’ve witnessed too many children here that have been taught only two or three English words, usually "Money", "U.S. Bank" and occasionally "Chocolate". Not to nitpick, but the British make up most of the tourist industry coming to India, so teaching them "Pounds Sterling" would be far more effective for maximizing profits. Additionally, when I say no, I mean it. Don’t press me, you’re making me angry, which will in turn make me less likely to buy anything from you and recommend that other tourists come here.

India-1522Other than the above we did really have a great time in the desert. 30 minutes before the sunset we stepped off of our camel at the top of a handsome sand dune and took a seat to watch the sunset. It was a relaxing end to the mini camel safari. I was reminded of Jantar Mantar, where I could watch the shadows cast by the sun move across the instruments in time. I rarely sit and stare at anything, but watching the sun set over Pakistan in the distance was a soothing experience.

We left Sam and headed for our hotel. About halfway there Mashtan informed us that he had scoped it out already. "How did it look?" I asked.

"Not Good"

Cary and I both got a little worried at this point. This is one of the few bookings we made ourselves, allowing my company’s travel agent to take care of the rest, and we were beginning to wonder whether or not we made a mistake. As we ducked off the main highway and into a back alley neighborhood, I was beginning to agree with Mashtan. Not Good.

We pulled up to the small haveli called "Fifu Guest House" and with trepidation let a few young men take our bags inside. Cary walked in first, and was notified that they’d been expecting us. I stepped in and was immediately put at ease.

India-1557The guest house was immaculate. Built entirely of stone and plaster, the haveli rose straight up four stories, with a rooftop terrace and restaurant on top of it’s slender frame. First we were shown to our room, easily the most beautifully decorated thus far, where the attendant showed us our view of the fort from a bay window. After giving us a few minutes to examine everything, he informed us that we were welcome to have tea on the terrace as a gesture of welcome. We graciously accepted, and after climbing another flight of stone stairs we plopped ourselves down on one of the stone couches near the edge of the terrace with a view of the fort bathed in light. The attendant informed us that for New Years and Christmas they really bring out the big guns, but we were impressed with it as is.

We spent the entire evening on the terrace having dinner and  sipping tea and beer. It was a relaxing end to a relaxing day, and we both agreed that our trek into the desert has been one of the highlights of this trip. We retired to our room, looking forward to breakfast on the terrace and our continued trip. Next stop: Jodphur.

JTTE: Bringing the Rain to Bikaner

India-1099We began our descent into the western desert of Rajasthan around 7:30 AM on Wednesday. We had to cross 320 Km of sand and scrub before we would arrive at Bikaner, and our driver informed us that the drive would be very boring. On the contrary, we found the drive to be peaceful as the urban and agricultural way of life faded into the vast expanse of pastoral desert.

You see very few humans out in the desert, and their number becomes increasingly fewer the further west you go. Occasionally a bright pink or purple sari will appear in the distance, giving credit to my theory that the brightly colored costumes of the women was at some point a way to attract men to a nomadic camp. There are grass huts spotting the landscape as well, with herds of goats, sheep, cows, and camels grazing here and there. Cary and I both agreed that this seemed like the most peaceful way to live in India; as far away from the urban centers and wheat fields as possible.

India-1134Our first stop during trip was at the infamous Karni Mata, or Temple of Rats in Deshnok. As the story goes, a woman by the name of Karni Mata begged Yama to bring back to life the dead son of one of her story tellers.  Yama couldn’t perform this miracle, but he suggested that another could. Mata’s wish was granted on one condition: every member of the family would be reincarnated as a rat. As a result, the family treated all rats as potential kin, and built a temple to honor and house them. Karni Mata as a result is full of rats. There are probably thousands within the marble walls and courtyard of the building, all running freely.

After dropping off your shoes at a little stand, and removing all leather items, you pass through the gates of the courtyard where dozens of rats are scurrying around. Huge pans of milk are left out for the rats to drink, along with other scraps of fruit and sweets. We followed the advice given to us by previous visitors: shuffle, don’t step. Wear socks. Keep your hands in your pockets (Cary kept hers on the camera).

India-1141Inside the temple the number of rats drastically increases and you get a better sense for how many are actually living here. It is said that if a rat scrambles across your feet, then you are blessed. The rats blessed the hell out of me and decided that Cary wasn’t worth the effort.  In the back of the temple there is a shrine where you may give an offering and have a dot thumb printed onto our forehead, this time orange instead of red. Cary and I weren’t allowed within the shrine, but we could watch from outside and see the offerings of sweets being made. The last part of the ritual involves drinking milk drawn from the same pan as the rats drink from. Mashtan came inside with us, but skipped most of the ritual. I don’t blame him. Cary’s fascination with rats appeased, we continued on towards Bikaner when a strange thing happened.

It began to rain.

According to the locals, this is exceedingly rare. Mashtan said the rain was very good luck. Mashtan is from the Himalaya’s and hates the Rajasthani heat, so I can imagine a cooling rain in the desert is about as lucky as it gets. It must be all those rat blessings I got. It sprinkled a bit, then backed off, so we continued our trip to try and catch a couple more sights in Bikaner.

India-1158We arrived at Bandasar, a Jain temple built more than 500 years ago. According to the local priest it is actually the first Jain temple in India, and the mortar was made with ghee, or clarified butter. 40,000 Kg of it in fact. Legend has it that on very hot days the ghee will seep from floor and walls. Everything in the temple was intricately painted, every column, every ceiling, every wall. In the center of the main building is a large shrine. If you’re lucky, someone will be one staff that can unlock the doors to the stairs leading to the top, where you can view two more shrines, as well as get a fantastic view of Bikaner from it’s highest point.

When we left the temple we had plans to see a few more sights, but the wind had picked up, and the weather was taking a turn for the worst. The desert sand was carried into town by the swirling winds, and dust devils were forming in the streets.

We made our way back to the car, squinting to keep the dust out, and decided we better check in to the hotel. On our way it began to rain again. A lot. By the time we arrived at our hotel we were in a full on thunderstorm. Despite the infrequency of the rain, the locals didn’t seem concerned. In fact most remained outside to enjoy it, as the day had previously been a scorcher. By the time we left for dinner the storm had subsided, but there were standing puddles everywhere; when it rains in the desert, water has no place to go.

We had dinner, our only meal of the day in fact, at a place called Suraj. We didn’t know it when we picked it, but it turned out to be an all vegetarian joint, and when we arrived they were apparently planning for most of Bikaner to join them for dinner. We took one of the few remaining tables that wasn’t set up for the very large party they were setting up for.

More about food in India. If you’re on a strict diet of some kind, you can forget it. You’re fighting a losing battle if you try to ask for something with "no wheat", or "no eggs". Carbohydrates make up at least 70% of their diet, and if you think you’re going to get away from a meal with trying the rice, pappad, or naan, you are sorely mistaken. Dal or lentils are served with nearly every meal. They will put it on your damn plate if you don’t do it yourself. I would suggest you not worry about whatever strict diet you’re on until you get home, its too frustrating to try and work around the way you eat, just work with them.

India-1211A little more about eating "clean" in India. Before I got here I was given a list of foods to avoid, which I tried to follow. I got a little sick anyway. After fighting that losing battle, I gave up and started eating whatever the hell I wanted including milk, yogurt, cheese and kulfi. I had a lassi masala this morning which would definitely be a no-no. It tasted great, and I actually feel better (though not 100%). I ate some of the best butter I’ve ever had this morning. You don’t have any idea what goes on in an American kitchen, and you don’t want to know. In India, you really don’t want to know. I believe most people will do fine avoiding the fresh fruits and vegetables, and of course the water. On the other hand, Cary has been very careful out here, and has not gotten sick in any way, so maybe her approach is best.

Suraj was a little scary. The tablecloths looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in since the town was built, and the furniture looked ancient. I have commented before about how everything seemed old in Delhi, and I’m sure if we asked the vintage of the furniture was they’d tell us 3 years. The staff spoke no English, so we pointed to what we wanted on the crumpled menu and hoped for the best. Then a roach crawled across the wall behind us. You really really don’t want to know what goes on in an Indian kitchen. We both agreed that if we were going to get sick anywhere, it was going to be here. This was probably our most authentic experience to date, so we toughed it out. It ended up being quite good, and was probably our cheapest meal so far at  a whopping 300Rs, around $6.00.

We retired to our hotel, the old residence of Maharaja Ganga Singh, and hoped for the best. In the morning we would be venturing even further into the Thar desert towards Jaisalmer and the Pakistani border.

JTTE: The Pink City II

India-809By the time we got to Amer Fort on Tuesday the line to take the elephants through the moon gate entrance was too long for us to bear, and already we wished we had made an earlier start. With a full day of sites to see we skipped the elephants; just as well, Cary hears they’re not well treated.

Amer, or Amber is another Mughal fort situated at the top of a hill near Jaipur. The fort is actually the latter of two nearby forts, and was itself built on top of an 11th century fort during the reign of Man Singh in the early 1600’s. The fort looks like many we’ve seen, though it was far more open than Agra’s Red Fort and Fatehpur Sikri. We were free to wander almost the entire structure. This sounds cool until you actually start roaming and find yourself lost in the drafty tunnels and tight staircases. There isn’t much impressive about the architecture in the majority of the fort, and you get a sense for what living in one of these places would be like which was rewarding in it’s own right.

India-931Disappointingly, most of the fort’s really impressive sights were closed to the public. The Jas Mandir, the latticed, mirrored hall of private audience was completely shut. Gated as well was the Summer Palace located above. Cary managed to snap a few shots through the windows, but I would have preferred to wander inside. We did get to descend into the bowels of the fort where the water storage tanks were housed. We left Amer a little tired of forts and headed back toward the Old City of Jaipur to check out a site I was really looking forward to: Jantar Mantar.

India-1004Jantar Mantar is basically a medieval observatory on a massive scale. Built by the brilliant Jai Singh II, who believed that larger instruments would render more accurate measurements, the site possesses an array of gargantuan and unique sundials and astronomical measuring tools. The Yantras, or instruments were truly fascinating, and Cary and I spent several hours walking from device to device trying to determine how they might be used. Most of the tools use the location of the sun and it’s movement as a reference. The shadows cast by the sun on the tool being used could determine the azimuth, altitude, or information about which hemisphere the sun was currently in. There is some truth to the Jai’s argument; with many of these tools you can actually watch the sun move by degrees through the sky. We would’ve like to see some demonstrations of the tools in use but none were provided. Perhaps there will be a Nova special on it very soon.

India-981We left Jantar Mantar hot and sweaty and walked over to the nearby City Palace. We weren’t ready to have a wonderful experience here, it is after all a fairly modern structure, but we were pleasantly surprised to find several museums and architecture during our visit. We both found the textiles museum fascinating, which had on display the costumes worn by the Rajputs and their wives over the centuries. In the main court there are several brightly colored gates, and a very modern hall of public audience complete with chandeliers and giant silver urns. Inside the hall of private audience there are several portraits of the Maharaja’s over the years, photographs if the Raja with British Viceroys, and Man Singh II’s polo trophies. This isn’t at all boring, and the opulence of the hall adds to the atmosphere that suggests a significant British influence.

India-1043The modern story of the British relationship with the Maharaja is actually a good one, and though there are mixed emotions in some places about British rule of India, I got the impression that the folks here feel the relationship was a positive one. I found myself in agreement with one prominent Maharaja who, after a trip to England and Scotland declared that he didn’t really care for anything there other than the whiskey, which he brought back with him. Is this why the easiest liquor to find in any Indian pub is Scotch?

India-1059After leaving the City Palace we walked out into the streets of old Jaipur, and around the Bapu Bazaar which specializes in textiles. Cary stopped in several shops, perfecting her bargaining skills with the locals and picking up some choice fabrics along the way. I bought a pair of much needed sandals, though I think I could have gotten them cheaper. I’ll let Cary do the bargaining next time.

How do you bargain in an Indian bazaar? The trick is to first appear disinterested in whatever they’re showing you, no matter how much you might like it. Like buying a house, don’t fall in love with it. Make the decision that you might like to buy something like it, and ask what the price might be. When you hear the price, scrunch up your nose, cock an eyebrow, or make whatever face you’d normally make when someone tells you the price you don’t want to hear. Wave it off, stating that its too much. If they respond with a lower price, act like you’re considering it, then shake your head. They may at this point ask what you think the price should be. A good starting point is less than half the asking price. The goal is to get to 50% the asking price or lower. Do that and you’ve succeeded. Bonus points for whoever can make the merchant cry.

We wandered around looking for dinner afterwards and ended up at Niro’s, a restaurant that shows up in nearly every travel book. It was decent, though the horrible 80’s muzak can get irritating. We would leave for Bikaner in the morning, so we packed up our wares and went to sleep, tired from mingling with the locals.

We found Jaipur to be an incredibly fun city. The traffic is awful, but finally getting to experience life as a pedestrian in an Indian city showed us that you’re safer than you think out there. Just listen for the honking, and if you plan on stepping out in front of a car simply hold your hand out; they actually stop no matter how fast they seem to be going. The fort is a good place to visit if you haven’t seen any other forts, but the highlights of the city are certainly Jantar Mantar, City Palace, and the bustling bazaars. If you’re planning a trip to Rajasthan, you will need two days to soak this city in.

Next up, Bikaner and the back country desert of Western Rajasthan.

JTTE: The Pink City I

India-652We left for Jaipur at a reasonable hour on Monday; we would be spending two nights in the city and felt we could get there a little later, not to mention we needed the rest. On the way we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, a fort located about 100 Km from Agra.

Fatehpur Sikri resembled many of the forts we’ve seen along the way. A mix of Mughal and Hindu architecture, the site is in some ways an anomaly in our travels. Most of the forts, towns, mosques and temples we planned to see were occupied for several hundred years before being abandoned, or were still in use today. Fatehpur Sikri was built by Akbar and lived in for only 14 years before he moved the capital to Agra. The area itself has been occupied or around for thousands of years, but Fatehpur Sikri as it stands today was a blip on Akbar’s very busy radar. Most say it was abandoned due to lack of water.

India-716On the site you will find much of the same architecture as you would at other Mughal palaces, though in a more primitive state. Akbar it seems was still molding the style that would later be refined by his son and grandson. For a palace that was occupied for less than a quarter of a century, it is surprisingly complete. There are the typical diwans for addressing public as well as private audiences, courtyards, gardens, and pools. The palaces here were downright austere compared to the Jami Masjid up the hill, which is similar to the Jama Masjid in Delhi. To be honest, the architecture of the mosques and tombs begins to run together after you see three or four in the Mughal style. Looking back at the photos I find myself wondering which one is which.

After leaving Fatehpur Sikri we continued on towards Jaipur. The scenery along the way was bucolic; rolling fields of wheat made up the majority of the landscape, the roads lined with trees that Mashtan informed us were very expensive. Like most deserts, it is entirely flat. It reminded me of driving through inland southern California. Every ten to fifteen minutes you would roll through a village, all of which looked too similar to tell apart. The drive was relaxing compared to a drive through Old Delhi, but nothing like a drive through wine country in Northern California.

India-750A word about driving in India. Chaos reigns the road. Lane lines are more of a suggestion, and its hard to tell if the drivers are interpreting them as something they should ride on top of or between. Honking is your friend. It lets drivers around you know when you are about to do something crazy like pass into head on traffic. It also tells the guy in front of you to move out of the way, which they will do if you honk long enough. Intersections are like games of human frogger, with pedestrians, bicycles, camels, cows, cars, and scooters all trying to hit you and avoid being hit. It works though. I don’t recall seeing any car accidents (though most of the cars have experienced a scrape or two), nor did I see any ambulances rushing hit and run victims to the hospital. There is order in the chaos and though I wouldn’t want to see the streets of Atlanta cut loose, I have to admit that they may have something here.

You can’t mistake arriving in Jaipur. The pink city rises out of the flat landscape like a skyscraper out of the India-777desert. You suddenly find yourself climbing a hill up into the city, winding around tight curves lined with walls several hundreds of years old. When you arrive at the top you enter through a gate and find yourself in the middle of a bustling bazaar. Our driver confirmed that the traffic in Jaipur is much worse than Delhi, and that’s saying something.

We got there late in the afternoon and didn’t have time for site seeing, so we stopped at a few shops that Cary was interested in, then made our way toward dinner and lodging. Our driver took us to a place that served Rajasthani food, which we both agreed was fantastic. There were musicians and a dancer that was showing off the typical Rajasthani moves; carrying an inordinate number of bowls on her head and twisting around in circles. Cary found herself caught up in the dance along with several other restaurant patrons, though she wasn’t required to balance anything on her head. The night properly topped off with a Kulfi, we fell asleep ready a day of forts, palaces and science in the morning.

JTTE: Agra, A Great Place to be Buried

India-293I don’t feel like I’m on vacation as I stumble out of the Master Guest House at 4:00 in the morning to meet Mashtan, our driver downstairs. Only he wasn’t exactly downstairs. The gates to the neighborhood had been closed and hadn’t been reopened yet, so we walked a couple of hundred feet to meet him there, and set out for Agra.

A word about residential streets in Delhi. They all have gates. At a certain time during the night they get closed and locked. This doesn’t prevent foot traffic, but does keep the rickshaws, cars and scooters off the roads while people are trying to get some shuteye. It seems strange until you realize how quiet the street gets when the vociferous horn-using Delhi drivers are taken out of the picture. With the hustle and bustle kept on the main roads, the neighborhood sounds like any other the world over. At least for a few hours a day.

Driving through the darkness towards Agra, the streets were already filled with Holi celebrators, no doubt still a little tipsy from the bonfires the night before. Faces and shirts smeared in red, green, blue and purple were turning up in the villages along the way, and Mashtan said Holi would be in full swing until around 1:00 PM. I fell asleep a few times, and roughly half way through got the opportunity to use a road side "toilet" at a petrol station. Like most Asian countries the crapper is just a hole in the ground, and you squat over it. Enough said.

Observation: Indians are fantastic squatters. As a pseudo-athlete I mean this in the most complimentary way. I’ve seen everyone from children to the elderly drop down into a full ass-to-ankles squat and sit there for a long time. I watched a child put his shoes on this way. I saw a group of men playing cards this way. It seemed universal. I was envious of that kind of flexibility and it was a reminder that much of the world’s population doesn’t have to sit with their ass in a chair all day.

India-201We made a stop on our way to Agra at the nearby Akbar’s Tomb. Akbar was the famous 16th century Mughal ruler who established much of what can be seen at Agra, and set the stage for his son and grandson to expand upon. At this point it was still very early; I assume that most of the world was either asleep or playing Holi, and as a result the site was completely docile. We were one of only a few visitors. We got to absorb it in almost complete silence, broken only by the occasional cry from a peacock.

On the grounds we found more well-maintained gardens, populated by hundreds of peacocks and some kind of Indian deer that looked like a cross between a goat and an ibex. You can walk down into the tomb, which is lit only from a small window above. The site is highly symmetrical, with a number of gates and a small mosque as well. It was a great way to start the morning, especially with the notoriously busy Taj Mahal coming up on our itinerary.

India-294We arrived at the Taj early, around 9:00 AM. After taking a half mile walk up a hill to get to the gates (cars aren’t allowed near the gates), we entered the grounds of the monument without issue. We had steeled ourselves for hundreds of wares peddlers and guides, but were pleasantly surprised by how few were actually there, I assume because of Holi.

No picture can prepare you for the scale of the Taj Mahal. It is massive. Not quite as imposing as the Coliseum in Rome, but still a truly gargantuan piece of work, especially considering it’s marble construction. Upon entering you walk a straight path towards the tomb through gardens and pools; like most of the major monuments so far the grounds were well-maintained. The tomb itself is flanked by additional sandstone structures,  mausoleums for Jahan’s other wives, which closely resemble the architecture of the Jama Masjid and Akbar’s tomb. like Akshardham, the entire site is located on the banks of the Yamuna River. In recent times the river has flooded and receded a number of times, and apparently the water level will often reach the base of the walls surrounding the tomb.

India-361The interior of the tomb is simple. there are eight marble chambers surrounding the main dome, each with a view into the tomb itself. The main dome is the highlight of course. Inside, the din of tourists whispering to one another turns into a chorus of echoes. Cary and I spoke to one another on one side of the chamber and I could swear by the time we had walked to the other side I could still hear myself repeat the same sentence via echo. A young man decided to take advantage of this and began to sing a song. I plan on recording my next vocal session there. The final highlight in the main chamber is the screen around the actual tombs of Shah Jahan and his beloved wife. Hand carved from white marble, it is an impressive piece of artwork.

We wandered the grounds a bit more, checked out a museum for the low low price of 5 rupees each, then made our way back toward the car. It was time for a break, and we sorely needed it. Mashtan dropped us off at our hotel, where we ate and rested until the heat subsided. At 3:00 PM, when we left for Agra Fort, it was still extremely hot, but we moved out anyway.

India-455Agra fort was the domicile of Shah Jahan in his lifetime, but it’s history extends much further. Built on the banks of the Yamuna river, the fort has a respectable view of the Taj Mahal. The site itself is one of the largest we’ve visited; one can easily spend a half a day here and not see it all. We spent the entire afternoon wandering the palaces, mosques, diwans, and courtyards. There were a few gardens, not to mention several examples if Indo-Islamic architecture.

India-569And then there were the monkeys. India is teeming with life, both domestic and wild. So far we had only seen a handful of monkeys, we seem to have found where they were all living though when we made our way into an older section of the fort. The monkeys had congregated at the top of a tower, and all at once a chorus of barking began. Apparently one smaller monkey had upset the social order by mounting an older female, and the other males were chasing him off. We were witnessing a monkey fight. It looked like things were getting out of hand, and we thought we might get caught up in the action, but we watched the monkeys duck and dive around us as though we were just part of the architecture. The beauty of the fort was amazing, but the highlight of our visit was definitely the monkey fight.

Drained by the sun we left later in the afternoon towards our hotel for a quick rest before dinner. We had dinner in a restaurant called Peshawri, located in another hotel that served Mughal food: kebabs and tandoori, spiced meats and breads. Cary and I both had wheat for the first time in eight months, and realized that we weren’t missing anything. Naan, even in the country of it’s origin is just not good enough to keep in our diets all the time.

A final word about Agra. It’s a tourist town. The local restaurants and hotels know they have a captive audience, and as such you should expect to pay a lot without great quality or service. We knew this would be the case going into it so it didn’t bother us, but in retrospect I think we will find that Agra, despite housing some of the worlds finest monuments, will be a low point on the trip.

In the morning we would set out for Jaipur. This time at a reasonable hour.

JTTE: Making the Rounds in Delhi II

India-155We spent Saturday afternoon at the Qutub complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with an array of ancient tombs, mosques, and the ruins of temples and a history dating back to at least the 800’s AD. The highlight of the ruins is the Qutub Minar, the world’s highest minaret at 240 feet featuring typical Indo-Islamic architecture. Surrounding the minaret are the ruins of a mosque, a Jain temples, and corrosion proof iron-pillar dating back almost 1700 years.

One of the more interesting sights is the one-story foundation of another minaret. Apparently Allaudin Kilji had aspirations of building a minaret taller than the previous one, but construction was abandoned after his death. I guess he was the only one with such high aspirations. Being able to see the raw form of a minaret in construction is fascinating. It looks like a hut of mud and brick, a subtle reminder that even our most impressive creations may be built on rough foundations.

India-163The site was pleasant, and mostly quiet despite the number of tourists. On the grounds there are a number of well maintained gardens, and strolling along the paths among the ruins is a relaxing reprieve from the streets of Old Delhi. We stayed for several hours, and Cary took a number of pictures (which I will selectively post some of later).

The sun was drooping in the sky when we left Qutub Minar and we decided it was time to check into our hotel for the evening; Cary had only arrived the night before, and I was beat from walking around.

Referring to our accommodations as a hotel, however, does not really do them justice. Cary had booked us in Master Guest House for the night, a 4 bedroom inn, something like a bed and breakfast in America. The proprietors, Avnish and Ushi run the guest house themselves along with some hired help, and as we would find out have a number of returning guests visiting all the time. When we arrived, our bags were rushed away by a teenager and we were ushered into a small dining room, where Avnish and Ushi were preparing afternoon tea to celebrate the birthday of a long-time friend from The Netherlands. Avnish welcomed us warmly and we spent the next hour taking a load off with the other guests, sharing travel stories of India, and enjoying tea and a quick snack. It was delightful, which is a word I never use.

234px-Mutappan-as-ShivaOf the more interesting stories, we heard a tale from a British gentleman who obviously knew Avnish and Ushi very well, about his recent experience with a religious practice called Theyyam in Kerala. He found himself there while in transit to Northern India to visit friends, and met up with a few young men who invited him out to their village to see them dance the Theyyam. It was a twenty-four hour affair, culminating in a dance that represented the victory of of a hero over a demon at the threshold of a door just as dawn arrived. To take part in the dance, the participants dress in costume and paint themselves to look like demons, after which they stare into a mirror and become that demon. I’ve heard of the practice before, and many cultures perform a similar ritual the world over. Celebrating the victory of Spring over Winter and life over death, right around the time of the Spring Equinox as the day’s begin to increase in length is prevalent the world over. Don’t even get me started with Easter.

After a while Ushi asked if we’d like to got to our room, and we took her up on the offer. We laid around for an hour or so in our bedroom, which was immaculate. Master Guest House was a a very bright spot in our trip so far, and I regret not being able to spend more time there. Next trip we will most certainly make sure to spend a day or two there, if only to have tea and hear a few tall tales of India. Finally, it was time to grab a bite to eat and get some sleep.

We dined at The Spice Route, a restaurant in the Imperial Hotel that Conde Naste deemed one of the top ten in the world. Avnish told us that Bill Clinton had spent an evening there, and that he and Ushi stop in when they need a break.

A word about restaurants in India. The locals eat at home almost all of the time. As a result there aren’t that many stand-alone restaurants in India, though there are plenty of dhabas and a lot of "street food". Restaurants tend to pop up where folks who are used to eating in restaurants tend to be, which is in the hotels and offices. In America, at least in my experience, the hotel restaurants aren’t fantastic choices. Safe, sure, but you’re not going to get anything great. In India, don’t be surprised if some of the highest rated restaurants are attached to the lobby of a very expensive hotel.

Spice Route is a concept restaurant. They offer an option that allows you to taste the foods of the old spice route, from the Malabar Coast to Thailand sampling foods from each region on the long trail. For those with smaller stomachs there is a full menu that offers Thai, Indian, and Chinese choices. Cary and I have eaten at a lot of restaurants, and we agree that the food was great, it just wasn’t top ten in the world great. Put another way, if this is one of the top ten in the world, then Atlanta has eight of the other nine.

After dinner our driver took us back to Master Guest house, where a different teenager let us in. Both tired from a full day in Delhi, and anticipating a very early 3:30 AM wake-up call, we crashed moments after arriving. Holi was the next day, the festival or colors, and those who don’t celebrate the holiday warned us that 80% of the population would be drunk, so it would be best to stay off the roads if possible. Our driver suggested the 4:00AM departure time, and with all of the warnings, we agreed. Next stop, Agra and the Taj Mahal.

JTTE: Making the rounds in Delhi I

Sunday March 20th 10:05 PM

I found myself stumbling in my boxers to the door of our room in Delhi at 3:45 AM this morning to answer what sounded like the world’s tiniest machine gun. A boy of about 16 entered the room with a tray that he set on our table. "Coffee, sir".

Slack-jawed, I ran my fingers through my hair as I realized that this was our wake-up call. What a whirlwind the past few days have been.

Thursday and Friday I spent working. On Thursday a long-time colleague was kind enough to invite me to dine with him at his home in Noida. I was treated to some of the best food I’ve had in India so far: ultra-thin homemade dosas with chutney, dal, and and a spice mixture that he referred to as "gunpowder". Whether or not this gunpowder contributed to my later illness, I can’t say, but it sure was tasty.

I got off to a rough start on Friday as some sort of minor intestinal ailment had set in. I imagine my total lack of care when it comes to food had a big part to play in that. Suffice it to say that Friday was rough, and I fasted a good part of the morning to try and reset. At 11:30 PM on Friday Cary arrived and the vacation portion of the trip officially started.

Akshardham – Saturday AM

akshardham00fWe both slept like stones on Friday night, and woke Saturday morning ready for our 8:00 AM pickup. First stop: Akshardham.

Akshardham is a temple complex constructed in the modern age to replicate ancient Hindu temple styles. Built by followers of Swaminarayan Hinduism, it is the largest of it’s kind in the world. We actually have a much smaller Akshardham close to my home in Georgia that I intend to visit when I return.

Akshardham is referred to as India’s Spiritual Disneyland by many guidebooks, and in that capacity it doesn’t disappoint. There is a boat ride featuring animatronics that was described by several co-workers as being equivalent to "It’s a small world after all" at Disneyworld. We didn’t see the boat ride, but we did stroll the vast gardens, the outer wall, and of course the temple itself. Following some basic rules regarding an examination of a Hindu temple, we walked clockwise around each of the three levels, taking in first the Elephant plinth around the base. From there we ascended the stairs onto the cool marble floors of the second level (did I mention we were required to go barefoot), examining the sandstone walls of the temple, intricately adorned with hand carved statues of the gods and goddesses, not to mention tight filigrees and hundreds of tiny elephants, all of which are unique. From there we wound our way into the temple itself, which is carved entirely of marble.

elephant10fI really don’t know how to describe the temple. It’s overwhelming. The style of architecture, a mixture Vastu and Pancharatra Shastra is an Ikea designers worst nightmare. It is literally tiring to look at; the enormity of the structure had me straining to see figures carved on every wall and ceiling, and my eyes could not keep up with the visual barrage. The experience was exhausting. To describe it would not do it justice, you would have to make the journey yourself to see what I mean, especially since no cameras are allowed inside.

After leaving the temple we walked the grounds in search of refreshment and instead came across a small temple behind the main temple. Cary encouraged us to step inside, where we found ourselves in the middle of ceremony called Abishehk. The experience lasted about twenty minutes, and involved first having the characteristic "red dot" thumb printed on your forehead. Then, after sitting cross-legged on the floor with a hammered copper bowl of water in front of you, a youth sings a song after which you’re invited to pour your bowl of copper water over the head of a statue in the likeness of Swaminarayan. It was an experience; Cary and I both agreed we left the short ceremony feeling relaxed and ready for our next stop, Jama Masjid.

Jama Masjid – Saturday AM

jama-masjid-delhiWe climbed through the crowded streets of Old Delhi making our way through and sea of single-speed rickshaws, extremely dangerous electrical junctions, and and tiny shops packed so close together you couldn’t tell where one began and another ended. We arrived at the base of Jama Masjid, just as a half dozen tour buses arrived. The smell of rupees to be made mingled with the scent of smelly feet (you have to take your shoes off to go into Jama Masjid as well), and the site guides were lining up to catch a whiff.

 

A Note about Site Guides
When you arrive at a tourist site in India, there are always "official" guides there, with some sort of credentials ready to walk you through the site, explain historic points of interest or provide anecdotes from a knowledgeable local. They can actually be quite talented. They can handle a crowded bus of foreign tourists, speaking whatever language the group happens to speak (I’ve heard Japanese, French and German in addition to English so far), and they seem to know what they’re talking about. Depending on who you are and how you like to travel, they can come in handy, but it goes without saying that you should know what you’re going to pay this fellow before he tags along with you. We got into what could have been a bad situation at Jama Masjid when a guide, after showing us the site, said he is paid no less than 500Rs. That’s about $11 USD, for less than 15 minutes of work. I know expertise is priceless but when you start to add that up over a full 8-10 hour day that’s quite a bit, and I knew I was being ripped off. So we refused to pay him more than half that amount.

India-55Jama Masjid was quite a site. Sitting at the top of a very crowded street in Old Delhi, you can peer over the ledge and see markets for miles. The mosque itself is still in operation, and several thousand locals visit regularly to wash their feet and face with the original well water, and pray. While we were there the enormous chandelier was being cleaned in expectation of the arrival of a renowned imam, who was to deliver a service from the famous Mosque.

Another observation: There seems to be an obsession with object association in India. This means anything a famous religious figure touched, wore, wrote, or was otherwise attached to during their lifetime. The most benign of these objects might be a page from a book they wrote. There are some real stretches though, and if you want to see such a stretch feel free to have a private look at the small marble treasure trove of artifacts stored at Jama Masjid that are associated with the prophet Muhammad. You’ll be treated to a look at his camel-hide sandals, a marble tile he stood upon, and a hair from his beard. You heard me. At Akshardham we were exposed to similar artifacts related to Swaminarayan, such as skin flakes and nails. I’m not sure what the obsession is, and I certainly hope that nobody boxes up my old nail clippings in order to view them from behind a VIP rope barrier when I die. At least at Akshardham the viewing was free; at Jama Masjid you will be asked to make a "donation", and that donation better not be less than 200 Rs.

Speaking of donations, nothing in India is free. I’ve heard stories about how cheap it is to travel in India, and I assume that these people must have spent their entire vacation in their hotel rooms. Besides the guides and donations to view strange objects, you’ll find yourself being asked for tips for everything from the guys watching your shoes outside a monument to even the smallest tidbits of information about a site. At one point an official guard told me that there was a tunnel that goes from Delhi to the Red Fort in Agra, after which I was asked to pay 50Rs for the information. No, it was not worth $1 for you to tell me something I already know. Thanks though. The warning here is that India appears cheap, and the cost can certainly reduced be if you know how to wave a hand and firmly say "No". If you don’t have the ability to do that before you arrive, or don’t develop it quickly, India will quickly feel like death by a thousand cuts as tourist traps nickel and dime you into bankruptcy.

India-114Cary and I learned some lessons at Jama Masjid, but all irritation aside it was well worth it and a fine site to see. With some experience under our belt we headed over the the India Gate. Our strategy here was simply to take some pictures; There isn’t a whole lot to see on site other than the gate itself. If you time it right and the Delhi haze has burned off, you’ll get some fantastic shots with the president’s house in the background, showing off some of the more modern Indian structures. We took a quick trip to the gates of the president’s house for some more photography, grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant, then headed to Qutub Minar for the afternoon.

Part II cover our Saturday afternoon in Delhi.

JTTE: Wednesday is Cow Day

7:05 AM

I woke at 5:00 am this morning and couldn’t help but catch a quick workout, regardless of the promise to myself not to train during this trip. I argue that it will help keep the jet lag at bay. I don’t foresee a particularly eventful day: work, work, and more work. This could be a long one folks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are no updates until tomorrow.

6:30 PM

After a full day of work I found some time to work around the neighborhood again before dinner, this time taking a different route around the park and into a different “sector”. Wednesday is apparently cow day around here, as I ran into more in my 45 minute stroll than I have the entire time I’ve been here.

India-34

Don’t eat that dirt, dude.

India-40

You lookin’ at my hump?

India-43

Why is this big white dude taking my picture?

India-44

Yeah, we’re eating trash. A cow gets hungry alright.

I also came across what appears to be the local convenience store, a cluster of small open shops selling everything from packaged snacks to eggs.

India-36

 

I finally came in contact with my first “street food” vendor as well, who was frying up some kind of meat in a big dish, and putting it into wraps. I was sorely tempted despite the prohibitions heaped on me by wife and co-worker. I am told that my weak American digestive system will not be able to handle it, but that I may acclimate in time. We’ll see.

India-35

Egg rolls in India? Can my stomach handle it?

I mentioned the smog in my first post, but failed to point out that it seems to “burn off” by the afternoon. Here is the haze in the morning:

India-30

And a much clearer view in the afternoon:

India-31

Dinner will be in the hotel tonight. Tragically we have to be present for a few meetings tonight (you know, in the morning back home), and we won’t have time to go anywhere too far for dinner. There is always tomorrow night.