The India Adventure: A Daily Journal
August 18, 2008: A Passage to India!
Its off to India on another great adventure, and this time it's a family affair!
Although Teresa and I had first considered an adventure tour of northern India for just the two of us, when we told our adult children about our plans, all three expressed their interest in joining us. So this will be our first travel adventure abroad as a family since 1994 when we explored northern Europe by rail together.
Geographically, India is an enormous country, and although I had initially wanted to take the 54 day Circle India tour offered by Intrepid Travel, for reasons mainly related to our work schedules we settled on the 22 day Northern India Unplugged tour instead. (Click here to see our itinerary: http://www.intrepidtravel.com/tripnotes/HRR/2008-01-01)
Allowing for a 22 hour flight from San Francisco to Mumbai (Bombay), with a 90 minute refueling stop in Shanghai, followed by a two hour layover and then flying on to New Delhi, plus one day to recuperate before starting the actual tour, and then returning from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Bombay and San Francisco, we'll be gone nearly four weeks total!
Since India is about halfway round the world, you can fly there eastbound via Europe or westbound via Asia. Our flight is on Jet Airways, an Indian airline that offers direct service from San Francisco to India without any change of aircraft. I think that's a big plus since the two main alternatives are American through Chicago O'Hare (shudder) or British Airways via London Heathrow (eek)! With a direct flight, despite the stopover, there is no connection to be missed and losing your luggage is far less likely (although not impossible)!
Our departing flight leaves San Francisco at 6:50 PM on Thursday November 20 and we are scheduled to arrive in New Delhi on Saturday November 22 at 11 AM. We'll be back in San Francisco on Monday December 15 at 4:30 PM.
I'll provide more information as our plans evolve.
September 23, 2008: Trip Planning
With our departure date drawing closer, it seems there are a myriad of details to be looked after. Although India requires visas to be obtained in advance, the process has been simplified so that you can fill out the paperwork online (http://www.travisa.com/travelvisa.htm), submit it electronically, then print and sign a copy to send in along with your passport, two photographs and the fee. India is notorious for its bureaucracy so I wasn't surprised that they asked for so much intrusive non-essential information, such as the names and nationalities of your parents. An Indian visa costs $60 for a U.S. citizen plus a $13 processing fee (paid to Travisa), plus an additional $20 to $30 to have your passport and visa returned to you by FedEx or UPS. Its interesting that India has outsourced its visa processing, but I guess this should come as no surprise since India is the outsourcing capital of the world!
To get an Indian visa, your passport needs to be valid for at least six months after your planned return. Since several of our passports had expired or were expiring soon, replacing them was an additional chore. Fortunately, the State Department is now only taking about three weeks to process passport renewals. For an Indian visa, you must also have at least two completely blank pages, which my passport did not have. So I had to send it to the passport processing center where they added more pages (at no charge) and returned it to me within a little more than a week.
New U.S. passports have been redesigned and appear thicker because they are embedded with a chip in the front cover that can be scanned and read electronically (without any physical contact) when you cross a foreign border. But I must admit I'm a bit concerned about the potential for a security breach, so I think, more than ever, that it is imperative to secure your passport in a pouch around your neck and to rarely remove it. Of course, one should always carry a photocopy, kept separately. When Katie's passport was stolen in Thailand, having a photocopy saved us an enormous amount of grief - the U.S. consulate was able to replace it in only a few hours.
So I shipped our passports off to Travisa (via certified mail) with all the fees, forms and photos, and hope to get them back in a week or so. I scanned our passport photos into our computer to that I can print additional copies to take if the need arises. Ever since 9/11, many more countries are now requiring additional paperwork, so it can't hurt to keep extra passport-size photos on hand. In fact, I think its probably a good idea to take some extras with you when you travel.
We went in last week to get our shots for this trip. Usually I'm not too concerned about all the various diseases and illnesses that you can get abroad, however typhoid and malaria are still endemic in India and these can be pretty nasty!
Typhoid vaccine is available in oral form (capsules) and offers protection if you take it at least a month in advance. However malaria requires preventive measures that must be initiated prior to your departure and must be continued after your return.
Apparently the malaria parasite has developed resistance to the older anti-malarials, so the choices are now between Lariam, Malarone or doxycycline (Vibramycin). Malarone is currently the drug of choice but its super-expensive, between six and seven dollars per pill - you start it two days before you leave and continue to take one pill daily for seven days after you return. Lariam has been around several years and is cheaper but can cause psychiatric problems such as depression and psychosis especially in those who may already have a predisposition to these. Doxycycline is a common tetracycline antibiotic that must be taken for a full month after you return, but its cheap and effective. Unfortunately, its most common side effect is sensitivity to the sun, and since it can cause sunburn you must be sure to use sunscreen and wear a hat.
Our family doctor gave us shots for Hepatitis A and B, both strongly recommended, and also for Polio. Hepatitis A is spread by contaminated food and water and Hepatitis B is transmitted by contaminated blood products or sexual contact. Polio remains a problem in India and all adults need to have a booster shot, even if they were vaccinated as children. Tetanus must also be updated, especially if you haven't had one in more than ten years.
Intrepid Travel (http://www.intrepidtravel.com/) recommends that their tour group members use backpacks rather suitcases. They also advise trying to keep the total weight down to 10 kg (22 lbs.). That's pretty challenging for a three week trip, but as I've mentioned before on this site, the less you need to drag around, the better.
In reviewing our trip itinerary, I see that we will be spending three nights on overnight trains. Both guide books I've reviewed so far (Frommers and Fodors) state that you should be able to not only lock your backpack or suitcase, but that you should also bring a cable that can be used to lock it to a railing, so that thieves can't walk off with your stuff while you're asleep.
Lots to think about and I haven't even mentioned the water!
November 18, 2008: Only two more days!
Two days to go - so many different things to think about! Thankfully I've been making great strides in whittling down my to do list.
Usually I don't worry much about the old homestead since I can generally count on one of my adult children to keep an eye on the place. But since all three are joining Teresa and I on this adventure vacation, I had to consider the downside of our home appearing vacant for several weeks - not a good idea, especially just before Christmas.
Luckily, my dad, aka Grandpa Irving, has agreed to fly down from his home in Vancouver to housesit while we're away. I've offered him the use of the family sedan, however I expect that he'll be dusting off his Kawasaki during his stay - Grandpa's not your run-of-the-mill senior citizen!
* * *
To get to the airport in San Francisco I've booked a large SUV from Budget. For the five of us, the one-way cost of $80 is a bargain compared to the cost of leaving our own car there. Our flight to Bombay leaves in the evening with a brief stopover in Shanghai - what do you do for twenty-two and a half hours on an airplane? Eat, sleep, read, watch movies and fidget a lot! On such a long flight, getting a blood clot in your leg is a real risk, so as a precaution I'll be feeding each of us an adult size aspirin (325 mg) every 5-6 hours. Our aircraft, a Boeing 777, supposedly has video-on-demand screens embedded in the rear of the seats - if so, watching four or five movies will help kill some time. I've never been able to sleep well on long flights - first class would be great but I'm no Bill Gates. As an alternative, I bought several of those inflatable neck cushions that Wal-Mart sells for five bucks - wishful thinking!
We've been advised by Intrepid Travel that packing light for this trip is crucial, preferably no more than twenty-five pounds per person in the form of a backpack or tote bag. Despite having a closet full of luggage, Teresa and I paid a visit to the local Samsonite store and got a great deal on five convertible duffel bags that become backpacks - pretty cool - and lightweight to boot! Because we've lost stuff to thieves on previous adventures I bought a combination lock for each bag as well as a steel cable to loop them all together. (Its by no means a sure thing, but at least the bad guys will have to work harder to get our stuff, especially if I attach the cable to my belt buckle!)
I'm sure we'll be beat when we finally get to our hotel in New Delhi around noon Saturday. (Click here to check it out: http://www.hotelomni.in/.) Jet lag is a killer on these long trips. If you arrive at your destination earlier in the day, most travel experts advise that you try to stay awake as long as possible, forcing yourself to adjust to the time change. However, my experience has been that regardless of when you finally do get to sleep, you invariably find yourself wide awake at 3 AM. Seasoned travelers advise taking one or two Melatonin tablets at bedtime to fight jet lag, so I've bought some to try out - I'll let you know if it helps.
Our tour group doesn't meet until Sunday evening, so we'll be on our own for the first two days. Sunday is Day 1 of our itinerary, and if you'd like to follow our progress click here: http://www.intrepidtravel.com/tripnotes/HRR/2008-01-01
I'll try to post updates as often as possible, so check back frequently!
Saturday November 22, 2008: We have arrived safely in Delhi!
posted by Katie on Sunday morning, November 23rd
This is Katie. Just a quick note to let you all know that we have arrived safely in Delhi. After about 22 hours of travel (is that all?) we stepped out of the airport "bubble" and got our first real taste of India. After a bit of confusion about the driver that was supposed to come and pick us up, we finally caught up with him and he took us to our hotel.
The ride there was exciting and interesting - a look into the vast dichotomies that India is known for. The car ride took us onto a modern highway with anything but a modern feel. Of the three lanes written onto the ground, there were four lanes of traffic, with travel going all over the place. Although there were some pretty average cars - a lot of Hondas and Hyundai's - there were tuk-tuks and old busses, too, and many of them stuffed with people and some even with passengers on the top! There were people living in tents on the side of the road.
It's hard to really describe the area our hotel is in. I imagine that it is a common site in India. A million electric wires hanging above a bustling street of cars and people, lots of dirt and garbage and a definite energy everywhere. There are beggars - solely women - who carry their children and ask for money. But there is an overall politeness of the people and while the culture is very different, it still embraces respect between people. I think we will learn a lot here and will get used to the jumble of humanity.
We only stayed awake until 7 pm here in India and slept pretty well through the night. Today we switch hotels and meet up with our tour group. I think we are all pretty excited to find out who we will be traveling with! We will write whenever we can.
posted by Scott
"For baby, for baby..."
It was an uneventful flight except for the constant crying of babies. I don't think I have ever seen so many children on one flight. The meals were interesting -- authentic Indian cuisine -- I'm not sure what I was eating but it was pretty good! We arrived Saturday morning at 6:30 AM after a 22 hour flight including a 90 minute refueling stop in Shanghai. We transferred to our domestic flight to Delhi and got in late, about 11:45 AM. Exiting the terminal there was a huge crowd waving placards with guest names from different hotels . Our getting in late caused some confusion with the taxi pick-up that our hotel had arranged, but eventually it showed up and we were on our way.
I must admit the hotel was disappointing -- I guess Indians are better at creating websites than in maintaining hotels. While it resembled the photos on its website, they must have been taken 20 years ago! Oh well. At least we had a place to crash and we got there in one piece. First thing I did was track down an ATM to get cash. Second priority was to get four large Kingfisher beers to take back to our rooms. Along the way, I was accosted by touts all trying to sell me everything in sight. I was also barraged by a constant stream of beggars, all women carrying babies. Over and over the women would wave their hands in front of my face, repeating "for baby, for baby".
Back at the hotel, after unwinding with the beers and relaxing for an hour or so, we went out to explore the area. In short order we found the teaming mass of humanity to be truly overwhelming! On our way back to the hotel, we found a really nice little restaurant just down the street by the name of "Spicy by Nature" where we had a light Indian meal, and by the time we finished eating, no one could keep their eyes open, so we returned to the hotel and were out cold by 7 PM.
Posted November 26, 2008 02:01 AM --
Candy Suter said...
It sounds so interesting there! Hey Teresa are you counting your points! LOL Are there a lot of other Americans visiting the country? Can you drink the water? Can't wait for your next post. Can you post pictures? Take care and be safe! Love Candy |
Sunday November 23, 2008
First Day: Delhi
Everyone seems to have slept pretty well -- we tried the Melatonin and it got us through the night with only a few wake-ups, slept about 12 hours! Had coffee in our room, then checked out about 10 AM -- turns out the Intrepid meeting place is only about a five minute walk around the corner -- the Hotel Perfect! Got checked in -- the rooms were a bit nicer and larger. There was a notice board welcoming us to the tour and advising us to meet with our guide and the rest of the group at 6 PM.
I inquired at the desk about a visit to Qutb Minar, a World Heritage monument in South Delhi and was advised it was not open today -- the reason was unclear -- terrorist threats? I quickly walked back to our other hotel and was advised the same, so I guess its true. Too bad -- we won't have any other time to see it. After having an early lunch on the hotel terrace restaurant, we decided to head to Old Delhi and try to find the Mahatma Gandhi museum. We got directions to the Karol Bagh metro station nearby and rode several stops to the Rajiv Chowk station, emerging onto Connaught Place. Its a large upscale shopping area that is in the center of New Delhi, arranged in concentric blocks. After asking around we ascertained that we were nowhere near the museum, so we got back on the metro and rode several more stations, getting off at Chandni Chowk, the Old Delhi marketplace. Oh my God -- a teeming mass of humanity -- a cliché but its true!
After wandering around and asking for directions, we found ourselves in front of the Red Fort, built by one the Mughal emperors. We had thought that we would be seeing it with the tour tomorrow, but a large sign said closed Monday so we made a snap decision to see it now. (Hey, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!) There was a long line for locals to get in, only 25 Rupees (50 cents), and a second short line for tourists, 250 Rupees (5 bucks), but hey, at least we bypassed the long line.
The fort was pretty cool. It was a colonial military base under the British, then taken over by the Indian army after independence, and was only vacated 5 years ago. Its about 1.5 square miles, with numerous very old elaborately detailed buildings. We bought a small brochure to guide us and wandered around the grounds for about an hour and a half, taking lots of pictures. Its not restored so its in pretty rough condition.
At about 4:15 we headed back to the hotel, finding our way pretty easily using the metro. Since we had to pay for the balance of our tour cost, about 75,000 Rupees, I was at a loss as to where to exchange this much cash, about $1500. However the hotel desk clerk made a few phone calls and half an hour later, a gentleman showed up with a huge wad of cash and gave us what we needed in exchange for our travelers checks. Seemed kind of shady but the rate was good, and we got our cash quickly.
We went over to the meeting room and met our guide for the trip, Dinesh. A few minutes later the other members of our tour trickled in, one man, and six women. After Dinesh reviewed the itinerary and our upcoming plans, he took the group over to a nearby restaurant, Crossroads, and we enjoyed a very nice Indian meal. By the time we got back to the hotel it was after 9 PM. Tomorrow we are to meet in the lobby at 8 AM.
(P.S.- We never found the Gandhi museum!)
Monday November 24, 2008
Second Day: Delhi
We met in the hotel lobby at 8 AM and started our day by catching a local bus to the Chandi Chowk market in Old Delhi. I can't recall if it was Frommer's or Lonely Planet which asked the question, where do all the old buses go when they are retired from service at home? Answer: India. Never in my life have I ever seen such a dilapidated fleet of public buses, jam-packed with riders, and looking like they haven't been cleaned in a decade!
After stopping at a street stand to grab a few hot and spicy samozas, Dinesh led us to the Sish Gianz Sahib Sikh temple, one of the largest in the country, to experience a celebration and parade. I'm not sure what the occasion was, but thousands of Sikhs packed the temple and nearby street, and everything was festively decorated in bright orange colors. We donned orange headscarves and were given a tour of the temple and adjoining kitchen, where we observed meal preparations, including a giant vat of steaming lentil soup, and an automated naan (flatbread) machine that popped out pieces of naan every few seconds -- only problem was that they repeatedly landed on the floor where a harried woman scurried to grab and gather them up -- reminded me of Lucy and Ethel on the candy conveyor belt! Did you know that 2% of India's population is Sikh?
Through packed streets we walked toward the nearby spice market where we saw an endless line of stalls jammed with giant bins and bags of all sorts of spices. We traversed narrow side streets, stumbling through the throngs until Dinesh hired half a dozen rickshaws to carry us along past the crowds. For the life of me I cannot figure how all the rickshaws, tuk-tuks, motorcycles and other assorted vehicles managed to avoid colliding with other! Often times they miss each other by only an inch or so!
Our next stop was the Jama Masjid mosque, one of the largest in the country, consisting of an open air walled courtyard, two towers, and an interior noteworthy for its sequential arches, located on a hillside that overlooks Old Delhi. Most remarkable however, was the tranquility within compared to the chaotic surroundings.
Accompanied by Dinesh, we entered the metro and traveled to Rajiv Chowk station. We could see the pickpockets eyeing our group and moved our backpacks around to our fronts. He left us at Connaught Place for some leisure time and told us to return to the hotel by 2 PM. We left the group and headed back to Karol Bagh, where we had lunch at the same restaurant we first visited, then stopped at a small grocery store by the hotel to pick up some snacks for the long train ride to Jaisalmer.
The group departed for the train station in two private cars arranged by Dinesh arriving after a 45 minute ride. He told us to stick together-- lots of thievery. We sat by the track for about an hour with Dinesh standing guard until our train pulled in to the station. Oh man, did it look rough! We shared two adjacent compartments with two triple bunks each, but there was no doorway to close them off from the public, so we looped our backpacks together with the steel cable I brought and locked them to a rail. After the train pulled out of the station, we sat and chatted for several hours, then at about 8 PM a porter brought us pillows, sheets and blankets and we tried to get comfortable in our bunks. The noise didn't abate until about midnight, and we slept off and on until about 6:30 AM when the train pulled into Jodhpur. It was light out and we could see a vast expanse of arid, desert-like topography without much vegetation.
Tuesday November 25, 2008
Third Day: Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
The train arrived in Jaisalmer about 2 PM, about an hour behind schedule. Everyone in our group napped on and off throughout the morning. At one stop, several of us briefly got off the train to buy some spicy pocket-style pancakes stuffed with vegetables-- I'm not sure what they were but we wolfed them down -- we hadn't had regular food in nearly 24 hours. The toilet on the train was a squatter, covered with urine, and we were starting to feel pretty gross. The last hour or so Katie started to feel nauseous, and as soon as we arrived, she ran to the platform and retched for about 10 minutes. It was quite effective at keeping the thieves at bay, although we saw at least one person get their bag snatched!
A large jeep-like vehicle transported our group with our bags on the roof to the gate of the old city of Jaisalmer, then we walked through the narrow winding streets to our accommodation, Deepak guest house, literally an old fort built of sandstone within the walls of the old city. The room were built of stone, with views overlooking the city below.
At 4:30, after getting cleaned up, we met with Dinesh on the rooftop terrace restaurant. He took us on a walking tour of the town, through the narrow rabbit-warren of streets past the main gate and into the nearby marketplace. There were rows of tiny stops and stalls, with cows wandering around openly. Apparently it is considered good luck to keep a cow in front of one's home!
We returned to the hotel and had a sunset dinner under the sky on the rooftop overlooking the city -- it was very beautiful.
Posted November 27, 2008 05:52 AM --
Heather F. Bowes said...
Well, I am very excited to report to all of us here in the states that the Rose family is alive and well. We have all been deeply concerned for you, even my husband!! Love from Heather
Posted November 29, 2008 01:05 AM --
Candy Suter said...
No toilet seat covers? LOL
Wednesday November 26, 2008
Emergency Post -- Terrorist Attack
posted by Scott
This post is to assure everyone that we are OK. The television in the lobby of our guest house has been reporting a huge terrorist attack in Bombay and we have received numerous e-mail messages asking if we are OK. We are unaffected so don't worry, we are fine!
Posted November 27, 2008 09:14 PM --
Mike and Anna said...
Teresa-- Mike, Lisa and I were worried about you and your family. Happy and relieved that you are OK. Anna
Posted November 27, 2008 09:22 PM --
Terry and Tim said...
We have been thinking of you this past 24 hours. And have received phone calls from others who are worried about you. Glad to hear you are safe!
Posted November 27, 2008 10:34 PM --
It's frightening but I feel that we will be safe traveling with the group. We are considering private cars for some of the tours.
Posted November 27, 2008 11:35 PM --
Julie E @ WW said...
Teresa, all of us from Tuesday 5:30 pm meeting are thinking and praying for you and your family. Please continue to be safe and have fun.
Posted November 28, 2008 09:32 AM --
Connie Donohue said...
Teresa and family, very glad to know you are okay. I'm thinking of you. Take care and see you soon.
Posted November 28, 2008 11:19 AM --
Joan Marvin said...
Teresa & family - glad to hear you are okay. I'm thinking of you and praying for a safe rest of your journey!
Posted November 28, 2008 12:48 PM --
Uncle Dick said...
OK Teresa, I did warn you. Have been very worried about you guys! Scott, don't want to have to go over and start mowing your lawn again. Love - Dick
Posted November 28, 2008 01:38 PM --
Tina Farrell said...
Teresa and family, glad to know you are ok. I've been praying for your safety. Plus, being a little selfish - I need my Wednesday leader back!! Ha, Ha Tina
Posted November 28, 2008 03:47 PM --
Cindy Andrews said...
Bill and I are happy to hear you are all ok!! We were really concerned. Hope the rest of your trip is uneventful.
Posted November 28, 2008 06:59 PM --
Jayme Richards said...
Yay, so glad you are all safe and sound. Enjoy the rest of the journey, can't wait for more stories!
Posted November 28, 2008 11:16 PM --
Linda and Steve said...
We were so worried about you guys. Glad I remembered your travel blog. Keep safe. We look forward to hearing all your stories.
Posted November 28, 2008 11:46 PM ==
Michelle Tuck said...
Hey Teresa, I am so happy to hear you and your family aren't in any danger! All of your friends and family at the 9:30 Saturday meeting have been so worried! Cant wait till you are back! Have a great time! Ill keep up on the blog so I can update everyone! xo
Posted November 29, 2008 12:50 AM --
Candy Suter said...
Hi Teresa, I am so happy that you are all ok. I have been thinking of you all over the last 24 hours and knew that the last post was you in New Delhi. Figured you were ok but not sure if you had traveled down South. Tomorrow is 11:00 Sat. meeting and I will let all know I read your blog news! Did you celebrate Thanksgiving? Weerd question I know. Love ya and talk with you soon.
Posted November 29, 2008 10:41 AM |
Larry and Lee said...
Well, guys, you sure know how to time things!! VERY glad you all are OK, and sad to hear about such awful events. Your trip otherwise sounds quite Indian! Lee marvels at your spunk!! Love you and glad you're all safe. L&L
Posted December 1, 2008 07:41 PM --
Thank God! Miss you - Nori
Fourth Day: Jaisalmer
We sat in the lobby watching the news about the terrorist attack and hostage-taking. Fortunately we will not be in Bombay until December 14.
At about 9:30 we headed for the Jain temple nearby. Its hard to describe-- its built of sandstone and the walls and ceiling are very intricately inscribed with carvings and symbols. Dinesh said the Jain religion actually preceded Buddhism. There are many Buddha-like figures sitting in the lotus position, but Dinesh said they are not actually Buddhas.
We walked through the marketplace and Dinesh stopped and explained the various sites of significance. Also stopped for samosas, hot and spicy, delicious. We visited the Patwa, the restored home of an 18th century merchant, very elaborately decorated with glasswork mosaics-- I'll post the pictures later. Apparently although the fort at Jaisalmer where we are staying was built in the 12th century, but the town didn't develop until the 1800's.
After the tour, Teresa, Christopher and I had lunch at the Trio restaurant, highly regarded by both natives and expatriates, and had a meal of Tandoori chicken. We stopped along the way back and bought several t-shirts before returning to the hotel.
We met in the lobby with the group at 6:30 PM. Dinesh's family, which lives here, has graciously invited the whole group for dinner! Dinesh took the women to a shop next door where all were outfitted in saris -- pretty spectacular. I think the men were jealous they didn't get to dress up!
We took several tuk-tuks to Dinesh's parents home, where we met his father, grandfather, brother, wife, baby daughter and two nieces. They served us an elaborate and delicious dinner in a small room seated around a table on floor cushions. Afterward, Dinesh's grandfather regaled us with his recollections of colonial India, and how he built up a prominent family tourist business starting in the mid-70's, while the women were all painted with elaborate Henna tattoos. It was after 11 PM by the time we returned to the hotel.
Posted December 2, 2008 04:03 PM --
Regina Luster said...
I am reading your daily entries with much amusement. Over the weekend I watched the "terrorist" act you referenced as it was unfolding on CNN. It is very good to hear that you are safe!!! It sounds like the local government and police officials were able to bring some control to the situation within a few days. I will continue to read your entries and if there is any pertinent announcement by CNN regarding the situation in Mumbai/Bombay, India I will post it here. Godspeed!
Thursday November 27, 2008
Fifth Day: Camel Safari
We had some free time this morning, so we walked about 3 km to a small lake that is near the town. It was pretty although the view was a bit spoiled by the bloated dead cow on the shore! Teresa got annoyed at me for getting too close to it to see if it was really dead! (It was.) We bought a small package of bread to feed the fish, and were shocked when we threw it in the water and there was a huge thrashing and frenzy of the most gigantic catfish I've ever seen -- I would certainly never swim here! We then climbed a nearby hill which overlooked a cemetery, then had a discussion as to why they needed a cemetery since we thought they cremated their dead. (Anyone know?)
We separated to do some shopping. Teresa and Christopher headed back to Trio restaurant for lunch, while Katie, Brandon and I headed to the leather shops and eventually I bought a camel leather cushion and Katie bought a camel leather purse (after some shrewd negotiating)!
While returning to the hotel, Teresa was repeatedly stopped by the locals who expressed their concerns about our well-being -- they were very upset that tourists had been the target of the terrorists.
We re-packed our gear at the hotel, taking only the essentials, in preparation for our safari, then we were loaded into two Jeep-like vehicles which took us about 20 km into the desert, where we met our camel drivers and were loaded up onto camels for the hour and a half journey to the sand dunes.
Once there, we were surprised to see an open-air secluded windbreak composed of woven straw adjacent to a dozen camp style cots placed in a semi-circular configuration.
We unloaded our packs, then sat out on the dunes and watched the sunset, while the camel drivers provided us with beer and rice cakes, pakoras (lentil cakes) and cookies.
After sunset, we sat around a campfire and were entertained by a small gypsy folk troupe who performed and danced to traditional Rajastani music. We were then served a late dinner by our camel drivers -- a traditional, very spicy meal -- it was so hot I spit out my first bite -- I don't think any of us ate much other than the bread and rice, except Christopher who has a cast-iron stomach.
At about 8 PM, blankets, sheets and pillows were passed out, and after making our beds we hit the sack. The night sky was amazing and I saw at least one shooting star before dozing off! I awakened about 1 AM needing to go to the bathroom and wandered off into the night with my flashlight. I was creeped out by some strange sounds -- but it may have just been the camels grunting and farting!
Posted November 29, 2008 06:40 PM --
Marsha and Jim said...
When we were going down the "Worried Path" with Linda, she gave me your blog address so now you are the accompaniment to our morning coffee. Jim and I are sooo jealous--living vicariously through the colorful descriptions of all your experiences. Bring it on!
Friday November 28, 2008
Sixth Day: Jodhpur
We were up early at 7 AM, just in time to see the sun rise over the dunes. Took some more pictures then had a light breakfast of chai tea and toast. We packed our stuff and got back on the camels for the journey back. On the main road we returned to the jeeps then had the hair-raising experience of having our driver speed past a police roadblock, apparently trying to avoid having his vehicle conscripted. They managed to grab the other vehicle and for a while there it looked like we might have a problem but we met up with the rest of the group a little later on, unscathed.
Back at the hotel, we got cleaned up and repacked our stuff, then headed to the bus station for the next leg of our trip. We boarded a public bus and had reserved seats, however the rest of the population did not, and apparently the custom is to pack in as many people as possible and they just kept coming! There were bodies stuffed into the overhead compartments, in the aisle, and on top of the bus by the time we departed! There were well over a hundred people on board. It was a long, uncomfortable journey, with many stops, and although it wasn't hot, we kept the windows open to keep some air circulating. Then the passengers on top starting spitting, and one woman vomited, with everything flying back in through the windows! I got splattered with something in my face -- what was it?? Yuck -- gross! I wanted to get up and wash my face but I was trapped in my seat! Then some of them decided they were going to sit in our laps! Dinesh nearly came to blows with one drunk guy who was harassing our women.
We finally got into Jodhpur at about 6:30 PM -- what a zoo! The bus station smelled like piss and I soon realized why -- there were men just behind the bus urinating on the walls! Dinesh quickly arranged several tuk-tuks to take us to our hotel, and we slowly made our way through the chaotic crush of people and vehicles, darting in and out of traffic on bone-jarring cobblestones, past the clock tower and through the main gate into the old city!
After finally getting settled, we headed for a late dinner on the rooftop terrace overlooking the city. What a great view of the old fort! (Good thing, because the food was mostly inedible.)
Saturday November 29, 2008
Seventh Day: Jodhpur
We met in the lobby at 9:30 AM then followed Dinesh through the narrow twisting streets of Jodhpur heading steeply uphill to the entrance of the Mehrangarh Fort, an enormous spectacular edifice which overlooks and dominates the city's landscape and was built in 1459 AD as the "Citadel of the Sun". We followed a very well done audio tour that took about 90 minutes. A display of palanquins and elephant howdahs to transport royalty was particularly impressive -- the audio guide noted that it took twelve men to transport a palanquin carrying just one person. Toward the end of the tour Katie had her palm read by Mr. Sharma, apparently a well-known local psychic recommended by both Frommer's and Lonely Planet -- she didn't tell us much of what he said but seemed pretty satisfied.
After the tour we followed a narrow winding road about 1 km to the Jaswant Thada, a small white marble castle build in the late 1800's. The interior didn't have much worth noting -- apparently it is used by the royal family for funerals.
Walking back down to the city, we stopped at the home of Dinesh's uncle (his mother's brother) and were welcomed with chai tea and snacks, then we proceeded to the Sadar market, both figuratively and literally a zoo of wandering cows, pushcart vendors and small merchant stalls. Except for the tuk-tuks and motorcycles, it was like traveling back in time 200 years.
Near the city gate we stopped at a small cafe that apparently specializes in lassi, a yogurt-like drink that is quite popular here. Dinesh said they served the best lassi, so we all took seats and tried it. I must admit it was refreshing and quite tasty -- sort of like a milkshake made with yogurt!
Dinesh then hired two taxis to take us to a textile factory located on the outskirts of town where we were given a tour and a demonstration of blanket and carpet-making. The finished products were quite beautiful with elaborate colorful patterns, but very pricey by Indian standards, at least several hundred dollars each although I'm sure Macy's sells them for a lot more.
After returning to the hotel, we reconvened at about 7 PM and were transported by several tuk-tuks to a locally well-known restaurant, "On The Rocks". Along the way we passed several wedding parades -- apparently a parade occurs after the wedding ceremony -- lots of bright lights and a marching band followed by the merry revelers. (Dinesh said its a popular time of year for local weddings.)
The restaurant itself was very rustic and Teresa said it reminded her of the Blue Bayou restaurant at Disneyland (you know -- the one next to the Pirates of the Caribbean). Actually there are a lot of things in India that remind me of Disneyland except that they're all quite real! I guess that's how Disney gets its ideas! Anyway, we had delicious tandoori chicken -- it sure was great to have something solid to sink my teeth into!
Sunday November 30, 2008
Eighth Day: enroute to Udaipur
We were surprised to find it overcast today since its been sunny every day until now. After our hair-raising bus ride, with the group's agreement, Dinesh arranged two private minibuses to take us to Udaipur. With the luggage stacked on top, we piled in. Along the way we saw the aftermath of a head-on collision between a truck and a car, as well as a dog get run over by a truck. Needless to say, everyone was horrified. Driving in India is sheer insanity! After about 30 minutes, we stopped to check out a pottery-making operation and Katie tried her hand at the potter's wheel, producing a relatively symmetrical bowl -- not bad for an amateur! We bought a few small items including salt and pepper shakers, then wandered over to a carpet-weaving operation next door, where the owner showed Brandon how to weave with a loom. We drove a few more miles than stopped at a small family farm for a tour. The farm produces sesame, millet, barley and small amounts of opium (for their personal use)! Yes, its illegal but quite common. There was also a huge heap of dung patties which they burn for heat and also sell -- two patties for one rupee, about a penny each.
We then traveled about two more hours during which there was a sudden downpour. We had to stop and take all the luggage off the roof and try to cram it into the vehicles with us. It was a tight squeeze! We stopped for a nice lunch buffet -- we were pretty hungry by then and there was a good selection of chicken, cauliflower, potatoes, naan and several other items. After lunch we stopped at the Jain temple in Ranakpur, a huge spectacular edifice with elaborately detailed stone carvings throughout the interior, with rows of columns and full-sized carved elephants. Apparently the Jain devotees are eccentric and cult-like and several monks followed us around warning us not to take photos of the gods (idols).
Another 4 hours of driving took us off the beaten track on to narrow and winding roads. We drove along a major freeway still under construction where traffic was going in both directions on both sides of the freeway! Yikes! Later, a family of monkeys was sitting in the middle of the road and refused to move while our driver honked and honked. Along the way, Teresa noticed that there were quite a few female villagers carrying loads of firewood on their heads for heating at night, and we realized it was getting very chilly as it got dark.
We got into Udaipur at about 7 PM and checked into the Pratap Bhawan Guest House, a four level stone edifice with large spacious rooms and icy cold floors. We crossed the street to have dinner at the Masala restaurant, then returned to the guest house. I think we'll be piling on the blankets tonight as the rooms are all open to the outside.
Posted December 2, 2008 09:15 AM --
Heather F. Bowes said...
Ok Roses, it's either time to come home or give us one more emergency "we are ok". Everyone's nerves are shot worrying about you all. I pray you are well and safe and that your trip home will be effortless. Love, Heather
Monday December 1, 2008
Ninth Day: Udaipur
We met with Dinesh at 9:30 AM for a brief orientation to the old city of Udaipur. One obvious difference from what we had seen elsewhere -- it was not quite as chaotic -- and there seemed to be less extreme poverty, i.e., fewer beggars.
We embarked on a tour of the City Palace, the main tourist site in Udaipur. The palace was the home of the Mewar royal family prior to India's independence -- apparently Maharawa Sinhji, the current symbolic head, still wields significant influence. The palace, which sits adjacent to Lake Pichola, is the former royal residence, and is a massive labyrinth of courtyards, assorted public and private meeting rooms -- all of which are interconnected by a confusing maze of corridors and tunnels apparently designed to deter invaders. The various interior facades are of historic interest but since the palace has not been restored and appears well-worn, one's first impression is that of faded elegance. It was built in 1559 by Udai Singh, the first of 76 maharawas, and has been added to continuously up until the last century --- apparently the current structure encompasses 11 palaces constructed over the years by various members of the Singh dynasty.
Across from the palace, on a nearby island within the lake, is the Lake Palace, built as a royal summer retreat in 1740, but which is now a high-end hotel accessible by boat.
After leaving the palace we enjoyed lunch at the Rainbow restaurant, then had a free afternoon of exploring the town and doing some shopping.
We all reconvened at 4:30 PM and boarded four tuk-tuks for a twenty minute ride nearly straight uphill, along switchbacks and hairpin turns, to the Monsoon Palace, built by the maharawa as an observatory in the nineteenth century and now a nature conservancy museum. What spectacular views of the surrounding topography, including the city and lake below!
We returned just after dark and Dinesh led us through narrow streets and across a bridge to the Amrai Restaurant located on the lakeshore directly across from the brightly lit City Palace which was spectacularly illuminated and reflected in the nearby lake. (We were informed that "Amrai" means "under the mango tree.") And facing the opposite direction was the brightly lit and whitewashed Lake Palace hotel. What an incredible setting for our dinner!
Tuesday December 2, 2008
Tenth Day: Udaipur
While most of the group, including Teresa and myself, enjoyed their best dreams of the night, Katie, Brandon and several others rose at 7 AM for a yoga class.
Later in the morning we met with Mr. Shakti Singh for an Indian cooking class at the Spice Box cooking school located on Lal Ghat in Udaipur. For more than three hours he demonstrated a wide variety of cooking techniques and together we prepared various local recipes including khadai paneer (a cottage cheese favorite), malai kofta (crushed and formed potatoes with vegetables inside), biriyani rice, palak paneer (with spinach and cottage cheese), roti and chai tea. And the best part is we got to eat it all for lunch!
Following the class, several members of the group, including Teresa and Katie, arranged for massages later in the day, while others used their free time to wander through the marketplace. Probably the oddest shop we encountered was the one selling false teeth! There was an entire display window full of false teeth -- I guess if you need them, you just go in and try them out! Eew!
A late stop at the local Jagdish Hindu Temple was a disappointment compared to what we'd already seen. (It was constructed in 1652 and is showing its age!) However, the temple contained a statue of the god Vishnu who was eerily reminiscent of a character in a Ghostbusters movie!
Later in the evening Dinesh escorted to group to a well-regarded restaurant for dinner, the Jagat Niwas. It was lakeside, similar to last night, but with a different perspective.
Posted December 2, 2008 07:05 PM --
Jim and Marsha said...
You just can't know how envious I am to read of all your experiences! WOW! Even the puking lady was a good story that I told last night at my Dream Group. Soooo how is an Indian massage, ladies?
Posted December 3, 2008 06:09 AM --
Teresa replied to Jim and Marsha....
I got a facial which was INTERESTING but Katie had the FULL body massage. She has the story. I'll ask her to post the details. This is a trip that I could not have dreamed of. It's full of superlatives. The best and the worst of everything. You would love it, Marsha. It is unfortunate that terrorism has played a role. Dinesh is taking care of us but he has admitted that we are at risk just by being Aussies and Americans. I've only been spat at once for being an American! More often people want to ask about Obama. Everyone seems hopeful!
Posted December 3, 2008 06:10 AM --
Well...let's just say an Indian massage was an interesting experience. Ha ha!
Posted December 3, 2008 08:34 PM --
Jim and Marsha replied to Teresa....
Sorry about the terrorism thing....but maybe they'll think you're French...yes...I think you look French, and if anyone nasty surfaces, Katie (who of course ALSO looks French) can throw the language around. Problem solved! The trip just sounds fascinating! Tell Scott to keep up the blog!
Posted December 3, 2008 08:36 PM --
Jim and Marsha replied to Katie...
Hmmmm... interesting in a g-o-o-d way? Or, interesting in a "OMG-I-can't-post- that-in-a-public-blog" way? Now I'm really curious!
Posted December 4, 2008 12:21 AM --
Well, let's just say that 'drape' was a teeeny tiiinnny towel...and I was lucky!
Posted December 4, 2008 01:08 AM |
Nancy Drewek said...
Unlike Marsha, I am NOT envious of ALL your experiences, though many of them sound very intriguing! I give the five of you credit for your adventurous spirit and your courage. I'm wondering, Teresa, how many points in khadi paneer??? Thank you so much for this wonderful blog! I'm really enjoying it!
Posted December 5, 2008 08:56 AM --
Teresa replied to Nancy Drewek...
There are no points in India! Every time we eat there are lengthy discussions about whether it will make us sick or not. My weight was going down until I discovered white rice and naan. Everyday is a new adventure!
Posted December 5, 2008 06:32 PM --
Jan Barrett said...
Teresa, I read your tenth day expecting mountain climbing and blisters. Instead I read of massages, yoga and shopping. I hope you are having fun. I gained weight over Thanksgiving. Your sub is a really nice gal. Hurry back. Jan (Wed. 9:30 class)
Posted December 9, 2008 07:38 PM --
Nancy Drewek replied to Teresa...
So it IS all about weight loss!!!
Wednesday December 3, 2008
Eleventh Day: Pushkar
We had an early start today -- we met in the hotel lobby at 6 AM and made our way to the train station via auto-rickshaw (tuk-tuk). The station was deserted and it was still dark as we boarded the train. We had bench seats which were quite uncomfortable, but luckily the train was mostly empty so we were able to spread out. Teresa had bought some split peas and apples for snacks, and after we ate the peas she tossed all the shells out the window of the moving train (they're biodegradable) and they promptly landed on several people loitering by the track! Oh well! Otherwise it was a relatively uneventful ride and we got into the city of Ajmer at about 12:30 PM.
Dinesh had arranged a private bus to take us the 10 or so kilometers to the town of Pushkar, our destination. After getting settled at our hotel and having lunch we met at 4 PM for an orientation walk into the town. Its a relatively small town, and apparently a prime destination for so-called "hippies" i.e., eccentric souls who are either stuck in a 1960's time warp or want to relive their youthful past! Very strange! Apparently a lot of them came here to visit and forgot to leave! (Teresa suggested that, as a tourist destination, Pushkar is akin to taking a tour of San Francisco and making an obligatory stop at Haight-Ashbury -- the only problem is the "summer of love" ended 40 years ago!)
So we walked about 3 km along a narrow road into the town which is renowned for its "spirituality." It has a small lake in the center completely surrounded by ghats -- sacred marble steps -- where Hindu pilgrims come from afar to bath, be blessed, and to cleanse away their sins. Dinesh, who is of the Brahma (priest) caste, took us to the Brahma ghat where we sat by the lakeside and accepted the blessing of a Brahma priest. The priest performed a "puja", a ritual prayer that involves rice, turmeric, sugar, coconut and flower petals -- then we tossed the petals into the lake while making a wish! Dinesh said the lake was created when Brahma dropped a lotus petal on the ground and a spring erupted! The priest then tied a red thread around our wrists to keep other priests from hitting us up again for donations and more prayers! Hey, don't laugh, it worked!
I was surprised to see numerous Hebrew signs everywhere -- apparently there are a lot of expatriate Israeli hippy-types in residence here -- my friend Lorne Shapiro used to call a Jewish hippie a hipski!
We returned to the hotel at about 7:30 PM and had dinner on the rooftop -- yes, it seems that every hotel in India has a rooftop terrace restaurant! There was a wide-screen TV on which was playing a Bollywood musical in the background -- very weird -- the dialogue abruptly halts and the actors suddenly break out in a song and dance number -- but I guess its no different than a 1940's Hollywood production!
Unfortunately, by the time we called it a night, I was starting to feel icky -- hence the delay in this blog entry!
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Twelfth Day: Pushkar
Today was the toughest day so far, at least for me -- I was up most of the night feeling feverish, then having chills -- what could it be? Perhaps if I just intellectualized it enough it would go away! No such luck! Although I felt horrible by morning I was still determined to make a day of it! So I gamely joined Teresa and Katie on a walk back into town to do some shopping and see the Brahma temple -- apparently its the most holy and largest such temple in India -- how could I not see it!
I have to say I was underwhelmed -- there wasn't much to see at the temple and it paled by comparison to others we've seen so far. But the real problem, as I was feeling increasingly light-headed, was the enormous number of flies everywhere -- I don't think I have ever seen so many flies in one place -- it was truly gross -- they were swarming everywhere -- it must have been the combination of the mid-day heat and the cow poop everywhere in the streets. I was afraid I might faint!
A little later, after I was feeling a bit better, we rambled through a multitude of densely packed shops that were clearly aimed at tourists. Although it was relatively uneventful, there were a few memorable moments: Teresa argued with one shopkeeper who insisted she stay in his shop-- "We are not done negotiating!" -- "Yes -- we are!" -- Then Katie watched transfixed as one cow scratched its nose on another cow's butt who then promptly peed on the first one's face -- then another (different) shopkeeper chased me out onto the street proclaiming his last, best offer! (Yes, I turned back and bought the item!)
We finally returned to the hotel. It seems that Pushkar has simply been tainted by too many foreigners -- whatever spirituality and ambience it once possessed has clearly vanished! Back at the hotel I retired to the room to recuperate while Teresa and Katie headed for the terrace where they spent the rest of the afternoon quaffing ice-cold Kingfishers!
Later that evening we boarded a small bus to have dinner with a local family at their small farm. After traveling about 7-8 km on a dirt road, we arrived and were seated on blankets and served our meal on pata (small tables a few inches off the ground) by the owner and his family -- beside a campfire under the stars. (As an aside, I was amazed at how well the younger children, 13 and 7, spoke English -- apparently its taught at a very early age.)
By the time we got back to the hotel, I was feeling worse than ever and headed straight to bed.
Posted December 5, 2008 11:29 PM --
Michelle Tuck said...
Hey T, I know you're having a terrific time! I am having a great time reading this blog every night. We all miss you bunches!! M
Friday December 5, 2008
Thirteenth Day: The bus to Jaipur
It was a short early morning walk to the local bus stop -- we needed to get back to Ajmer to catch the regular bus to Jaipur, about a 3 hour ride. When we saw the local bus, Teresa exclaimed "it looks like they just dredged it up from the bottom of the ocean!" No joke! And the seats were all tattered -- all that was left of my seat was the metal frame -- there was nothing left -- not even remnants of padding!
We got to the main station and Dinesh left us briefly to buy the tickets. We were immediately surrounded by touts and beggars grabbing at us and trying to sell us stuff. Just as we were boarding the bus, Christopher decided he urgently needed to relieve himself, and moments later the bus took off without him! Dinesh immediately demanded the driver circle the block and jumped off to look for Christopher -- for a few anxious moments it looked like they would both be left behind! Then they suddenly materialized and leapt onto the moving bus through the still-open door, and we all breathed a sigh of relief!
Except for Teresa getting a big fat wad of chewing tobacco spat in her face through the open bus window, we arrived in Jaipur unscathed. (If you want a more elaborate description of this traumatic event, I'm sure Teresa will fill you in on the details if you ask her - just leave a comment!)
We got settled at our hotel and had a quick lunch, then boarded pedicabs for the short ride into the old city. Teresa felt sorry for our driver who was struggling to pull us -- apparently he wasn't used to hauling around large Americans -- then he rammed into another cyclo and we both went flying! No blood, just a few large bruises -- I think we'll avoid this mode of transport in the future!
We were dropped off by the main gate to the old city. Talk about sensory overload -- touts, beggars, scooters, buses, gypsies, smoke, smells, rickshaws, carts, vendors -- it was unbelievable! Despite the chaos, we managed to do some shopping and bought a few interesting items then, as it was getting dark, we found a small, nice-looking vegetarian restaurant where we had a light dinner -- "an Indian Denny's" to coin Teresa's phrase.
After all the turmoil it was a relief when we finally got back to the "bubble" of our hotel.
Saturday December 6, 2008
Fourteenth Day: Jaipur
Although this may be a premature judgment, I think we've discovered the armpit of India! It is virtually impossible to set foot outside the front door of our hotel in Jaipur without being surrounded and intrusively accosted by nearly everyone and everything imaginable. Within seconds, literally, a virtually army of touts, con artists and beggars surrounds us either asking for money or trying to sell us something. Its true that we are getting worn out from the hectic pace of our itinerary but I don't think that's the source of our apparent impatience! Its truly an assault on one's senses and personal space -- when walking through the market, hustlers step right in front of you to block your way -- and even if there's an item you may have been interested in, your instinctive reaction is to walk quickly away!
Since there was no formal activity today, group members made their own arrangements to see the major sites including the Amber Fort, the City Palace, the Wind Palace, and several others. Teresa, Katie and I agreed to hire an auto-rickshaw for half a day to take us around -- initially the driver wanted to take us to various shopping locations, but we firmly declined -- apparently they get commissions when they get tourists to buy stuff. Meanwhile, Christopher and Brandon decided to pursue their own arrangements with several other group members.
For us it was an uneventful 7 kilometer ride to the Amber Fort which was actually quite impressive -- its an enormous castle-like structure built on the top of a mountain, and requires a relatively steep ascent by foot or via elephant to get to the entrance near the top. We chose to walk although there was a steady stream of elephants hauling up tourists.
We ran into Christopher and Brandon at the fort about an hour later -- they too had hired a driver but ended up being delivered to a gas station in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Jaipur where the driver stopped, then tried to extort additional money from their group to take them any further. They abandoned their rickshaw and walked another kilometer or so before finally finding another driver to hire -- then the first driver suddenly showed up and started arguing with the second driver, insisting they were his customers and to leave them alone! After much grief they finally got rid of the guy and eventually got where they wanted, but they were all pretty riled up!
While at Amber Fort we encountered a snake charmer who, for a few rupees, charmed a cobra out of its basket. I moved closer to take a picture, and honestly, it didn't look real -- the snake appeared motionless. Katie also moved in closer for a better look, and just about the time she decided it was probably fake, the snake suddenly jerked around to face her and she let out an enormous shriek and jumped about ten feet backward! I was startled and also tumbled backward, dropping my camera which bounced off the cobblestones. Profiles in courage all around!
After allowing our adrenaline to subside, we wrapped up our exploration of the Amber Fort and our driver delivered us to the City Palace as arranged, where we enjoyed a relaxing (!) audio tour without any drama! The museum had a particularly interesting collection of clothing and styles utilized by the maharajas and maharanas. We then briefly stopped by the Wind Palace to take some photos then chose to return to the hotel, convinced of our good fortune in not running into any other unexpected drama.
We had a late afternoon lunch, and although we thought about going back out to try to fit in some additional shopping, the thought of heading back into the turmoil of the old city market convinced us to stick around the hotel, where we played cards, drank beer, checked out the Internet, and eventually called it a night.
Posted December 9, 2008 07:07 AM --
Jim & Marsha said...
Soooo...cyclo accidents, projectile chewing tobacco, snake charmers, extortionists and more! The season finale of the Amazing Race didn't have this much riveting drama! We can't wait for the next installment!
Sunday December 7, 2008
Fifteenth Day -- Bharatpur
We were up early today and boarded several auto-rickshaws to get to the Jaipur bus station. Although its only 108 miles to Bharatpur, the trip will take four hours because the infrastructure is so bad! Christopher apparently got some bad food yesterday and stood next to our bus barfing up last night's dinner -- it sure cleared out the touts and beggars quickly although they returned a few minutes later! As I've already mentioned, this was probably the worst place for this we've seen so far, a constant intrusive barrage.
We boarded the bus which was actually reasonably decent, and got to our hotel in Bharatpur at about 1 PM, then had a light buffet-style lunch. Dinesh arranged for pedicabs to transport us to Keoladeo National Park which is actually a bird sanctuary. After a hair-raising ride along the main highway, we turned into the park entrance and down a narrow paved road into the park. About ten minutes later, the silence was stunning! Peace and quiet.! Tranquility!
The landscape was sort of swampy, kind of like the Everglades without the mangrove trees. There were an amazing number and variety of birds nesting, and I took some photos mainly to satisfy our driver who kept excitedly pointing them out -- although I find it hard to get excited about birds, it was impressive . We returned to the hotel at about 5:30 PM, just as it was getting dark, then gathered around an outdoor firepit where we were served cold soft drinks and beer, then ordered dinner which the hotel staff agreeably served by the fire.
What a dramatic contrast to our experience in Jaipur -- a great relief! After mulling it over, I couldn't decide if we had become agitated because the intensity level of the trip had increased, or if we were just getting fatigued? Probably some of both! Regardless, Teresa and I resolved to try to stay calm for the upcoming last week of the tour.
Tomorrow is the day we've been waiting for-- the Taj Mahal!!
Monday December 8, 2008
Sixteenth Day: Agra
What a horrendously inefficient transportation system! It took us more than an hour and a half to cover the 34 miles to Agra. Infrastructure in India is a mess. For most of the time the bus driver honked incessantly at the steady stream of motorcycles, rickshaws, trucks and cows coming towards us and felt compelled to pass everyone in sight regardless of whether or not there was anywhere to go. The consequences of this must surely be deadly!
Its hard to believe that anyone back home would seriously consider India to be an economic threat to the US -- talk about a gross exaggeration! Its even more ridiculous to think that they were blaming India and China last summer for our high gas prices! China perhaps -- I don't know, but India -- not a chance! Bicycles and scooters are the primary mode of transportation around here, not to mention camels and donkeys! India clearly remains a Third World country with much of the population living in squalor!
We got to our hotel, located less than a mile from the Taj Mahal and headed to the rooftop terrace for lunch -- but the smog was so bad we could barely make out the hazy image of the Taj Mahal in the distance! The air pollution was the worst I have ever seen anywhere! After lunch we walked the short distance to the main gate and gradually the image of this phenomenal structure came into focus! It looks, of course, just like the pictures, but its the scale that is mind-boggling -- its so massive it doesn't look real!
I took several pictures with Teresa and Katie in the foreground, and the shots looked like one of those fake postcards where you pose in front of a poster! I must have taken 50 shots from every conceivable angle but was unable to capture its grandeur. I should also add that because there are no other monuments or substantive geographical features nearby to create some perspective, its difficult to appreciate and to convey a sense of its enormous size! In contrast, an amazing intricately detailed marble inlay covers virtually every surface of the building's interior!
After exploring the Taj inside and out for about two hours, we exited the grounds, met up with our group at the hotel, then headed to the Agra Fort. I expected a let-down after experiencing the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, but I have to admit that the Agra Fort, built in the sixteenth century, was also pretty amazing in its scope and grandeur
It was getting dark as we left the fort. Dinesh offered us the option of returning to the hotel or taking a tour of a nearby carpet manufacturing factory, and Teresa and I chose the latter. I thought it might be interesting although I wasn't really expecting much, but as we were shown the detailed steps involved in design, layout, weaving, cleaning and finishing of a hand-woven carpet, I'll admit that I was impressed with how much intensive labor was actually involved. We were also told that the entire process from start to finish took nearly six months for a full-size carpet.
After the formal tour we were shown a collection of some of the most beautiful rugs I've ever seen! Then, following a relatively short period of deliberation, we chose a beautiful six by nine foot rug for our dining room and arranged to have it shipped home! I only hope it looks as good back home as it looked in the showroom! (Teresa later admitted that she woke up during the night and fretted about making such an impulsive and frivolous purchase!)
Food for thought ---
How can one of the original Seven Wonders of the World be surrounded by such an incredibly abysmal infrastructure?
Tuesday December 9, 2008
Seventeenth Day: Agra to Varanasi -- Caught in a Riot and Attacked by a Mob!
We had a little down time today -- no organized touring. Several members of the group went back to the Taj Mahal for a second look. Apparently today is a Muslim holiday so its free until 10 AM. Christopher chose to hang out, Teresa and Katie went down to the Internet Cafe nearby, and Brandon and I arranged for a auto-rickshaw to take us to see the Tomb of Itmad-ud Daulah, otherwise known as the "baby" Taj.
Before we all left, Dinesh warned us about the numerous hustlers and scamsters operating in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal, and warned us to be careful. He said even the moneychangers will often give you counterfeit currency! He said Agra is one of the worst areas of the country for tourist scams. He also warned us to stay clear of any crowds or large groups -- he seemed genuinely concerned for our safety. Before we left, he informed us that we would be leaving for the train station at about 5 PM to catch the 7 PM train to Varanasi. He said there's a lot of traffic and it would take at least 90 minutes by private car -- he also said the station itself was quite dangerous and he wanted to be sure the group stayed together on the platform and watched our bags closely.
Brandon and I toured the baby Taj, which is actually quite impressive! If it weren't overshadowed by the nearby Taj Mahal it would probably be a major destination in and of itself! It was built about a hundred years earlier than the Taj Mahal by the grandfather of Muntaz Mahal, the wife of Shah Jahan (for whom the Taj Mahal is dedicated).
When we reconvened at the hotel later in the day, Dinesh advised us that he had received a message that our train would be delayed by three hours. Since our cars, two jeep-like vehicles, were already waiting, we headed off to the station, six per car.
It was stop and go traffic, very heavy, for at least an hour, then something unusual happened. Brandon and I were together with four others in the first car, when suddenly we passed a heavily damaged vehicle sidelined by the road -- then out of nowhere, in the middle of the highway, there was what appeared to be a telephone pole across the road blocking our way. Our driver swerved suddenly to avoid hitting it just as a man appeared running toward us and waving his arms at us to stop. Our driver gunned the engine and we sped by him! We stopped by the roadside several kilometers further down and he called Dinesh in the other car by cell phone. Dinesh indicated there was some sort of problem and told us to stay by the roadside in our car and to wait for him. He called again about twenty minutes later and although his voice was calm, there was clearly something wrong. He told us to continue to the train station on our own but to wait for him there in our car.
At the station we stayed in our car for about twenty minutes more, and then the other car finally pulled up. When we got out to greet the rest of the group we found they were badly shaken. Several of the women were teary-eyed, and Dinesh appeared to be as ruffled as I'd ever seen him. Apparently they had been caught in some sort of demonstration and a group of rioters had sidelined and tried to attack their car. Teresa will be adding to this post to explain more fully what happened, but apparently their lives were in danger -- they had covered themselves and hid on the floor of the car while Dinesh had talked his way out of it!
posted by Teresa--
In an attempt to keep out of harm's way, we decided to avoid the free day at the Taj Mahal -- this in an effort to avoid crowds in high-profile places. So it was a surprise when on the car ride to the train station tonight we were attacked by a rioting mob.
As we were driving, suddenly there was a large log in the road which caused the driver to slow down. Immediately, a man ran at the car wielding a large piece of wood with metal on it. Someone screamed "what's going on?" Then they yelled "get down, cover yourselves!" Katie, Christopher and I, along with three other of our group dropped down immediately. Christopher didn't want to at first, until someone said you need to cover your skin. One of the girls wept. It seemed like an eternity but somehow the driver backed up a bit and the attackers got distracted.
Dinesh told us to stay in the car with the driver, that he was going to try to reason with them. Moments later he rushed back into the car, out of breath. When he had attempted to talk to them they tried to hit him with the wooden weapon they had fashioned and they had grabbed him. He was lucky to get away.
The driver tried to move the car again while we were all still down. Dinesh got on the phone to find out where our other car was. He assured us that they had gotten through OK. There was a traffic jam as everyone was trying to flee the riot. We could hear the chanting and the chaos ensuing outside. We all were terrified. If they saw we were Western what might they do to us?
In the next few minutes, Dinesh jumped in and out of the car as it inched along. Suddenly, the car took a sharp turn and we began moving along. I looked up to see that we were on a single lane road in a darkened field with a car following behind. We took advantage of this time to cover ourselves better. Katie shared her shawl with Shane, and Christopher fashioned a turban out of a purple t-shirt. It was quite a sight! Down again as there was a light ahead. The driver was talking to someone who apparently was trying to get us to pay 1000 rupees for directions out of harm's way. Dinesh convinced him that we were in trouble and to help us.
After driving through a few more groups of men, and many twists and turns, we arrived at the train station. Probably 45 minutes after it began, our ordeal was over. The other group never knew what happened. We all sighed with relief and shed a few tears. We were safe, but this is what I was thinking about when I didn't know what the outcome might be---
That Vegetarian Cheese Paneer with plain naan might be my last meal!
That Scott wouldn't get on the train without us!
That Scott and Brandon would have a hard time without Katie, Christopher and me to temper them!
That Zana was not going to be happy if I got murdered in India by an angry mob!
That I'd fight off the bad guys with the corkscrew that was in my backpack!
That Katie and Christopher would go down fighting because they are so strong!
That I really appreciate living in the USA!
We gathered on the station platform and prepared to wait for the train -- at least two more hours. Several Indian men gathered around us and were leering at the women -- Dinesh explained that some of them had never seen foreigners before except in movies! It was extremely uncomfortable. Finally he approached the railway information office and explained to the officer what our group had just experienced, and persuaded him to allow our group to huddle in this small office with our bags until the train arrived. The only problem was that there were birds nesting in the ceiling rafters and they kept pooping on us. Ick!
The train only stopped for about five minutes, and we quickly boarded and made our way to our reserved berths, two triple bunks in one open compartment. But there was an older Indian woman asleep in one of our beds and she was determined to pretend that she belonged there. She had also taken up nearly all the storage space with her numerous bags. I was determined to kick her out right away -- she clearly had no business being there and my patience was wearing real thin. (She reminded me of my maternal grandmother, a strong-willed woman who used to manipulatively feign ignorance and weakness to manipulate others into letting her have her way.) Fortunately Dinesh came over and convinced her to leave -- good thing -- I was on the verge of getting rash!
After she left, we secured our bags, made our beds, and settled in for the overnight ride -- the train was quiet and we all fell asleep fairly quickly. When I awakened to the sounds of children running up and down the aisle, I saw that it was already 7:30 AM! What a night!!
Posted December 12, 2008 01:10 AM |
Nancy Drewek said...
Wow! This Dinesh guy sure knows how to show you guys a good time!! I am so grateful that you're all okay and wish you were already home!!! Have you started planning your next adventure? Can't get much more exciting than this one!!! Nancy
Wednesday December 10, 2008
Eighteenth Day: Varanasi
The train got into Varanasi four hours behind schedule which was to our advantage -- we didn't have to get out of our bunks at 5 AM as originally expected! We took several auto-rickshaws to the hotel -- the Temple of the Ganges. (Not quite a temple but not bad either!) Varanasi was a busy place but not nearly as chaotic as what we have been experiencing -- apparently its considered one of the holiest cities in India -- if you die in Varanasi you are assured a place in heaven!
We headed up to the hotel terrace restaurant for lunch. The hotel sits adjacent to the Ganges River next to Asis Ghat, a holy place where many worshippers come to bath each morning in the river but it was so smoky that we could barely see the river. The dense smoke was apparently coming from the funeral pyres along the shore that burn 24 hours a day. Being cremated in Varanasi is considered very desirable, hence the constant fires!
We gathered at 1:30 PM for our orientation then walked about 2 km down a narrow road toward the old city where the bazaar is located. There were a lot of street vendors but I noticed very few Westerners, and there were very few touts and beggars. At the bazaar Dinesh took us into a fabric shop recommended by Intrepid and we sat through a well-intended but excessively long presentation about cotton fabrics. I slipped away and tried to find a currency exchange as I had been running low on cash and had seen almost no banks or ATM's -- its been more difficult to get local cash than I had expected! I found a local moneychanger who immediately tried to rip me off by giving me less than we had agreed to -- after I had handed over my traveler's checks! I don't have much patience for such blatant lying -- after arguing with him he finally coughed up the cash -- I'll bet he gets away with this petty thievery all the time!
Following the presentation there wasn't much time left to shop -- Dinesh had arranged an evening boat ride on the Ganges -- so we postponed our shopping until tomorrow and caught pedicabs back to the hotel. From there we headed down to the water's edge by the Asis Ghat where our boat was waiting. Apparently the shore of the Ganges in Varanasi is lined with more than a hundred ghats where people come to pray and bath, but only two of them are responsible for doing all the cremations.
After a relatively short boat ride we approached the Dashawamedh Ghat and tied up to observe an elaborate prayer ritual, the Ganga Fire Arti. Young Brahmin priests perform an elaborate ceremony with burning torches accompanied by music and drumbeats -- very impressive! When the ceremony ended we passed the Harishchandra Ghat, which is one of only two ghats responsible for performing all the cremations. There were several huge bonfires burning brightly by the shore -- funeral pyres!
On the way back to Asis Ghat, our boatmen lit hundred of small candles and placed them in clamshell plates with flower petals, and we took turns setting these adrift in the river -- there was quite an impressive procession of these floating plates behind our boat. We were told you could make one wish as you placed each in the water -- my first wish was for health and happiness for all of our friends and family -- my second wish was that we have hot water for our showers in the morning! By the time we returned to shore, the river had become shrouded with smoke and fog, and we enjoyed the solitude as we slowly drifted in.
It was getting late when we returned to the hotel and we enjoyed a buffet dinner on the rooftop prepared for us by the hotel.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Nineteenth Day: Varanasi
As there were no scheduled activities today, after having breakfast on the terrace we walked the 2 km or so to the bazaar for some shopping. The bazaar consisted of a long row of small shops on either side of a narrow street stretching for about half a kilometer, and tucked in behind the street there was a maze-like rabbit-warren of alleys with even more shops selling mostly fabrics, saris, scarfs, table coverings and the like. We wandered by a heavily guarded Hindu temple nearby but were told only Hindus were allowed in.
At about 3 PM, Brandon and I headed back to the hotel leaving Teresa and Katie to continue shopping. Back at the hotel, Brandon met up with Christopher and several others and went walking among the ghats. Later, Christopher described how they had seen several funeral pyres on the shore with arms and legs still protruding. Its not for the faint-of-heart. And later we were told that when the burning is done, the remains are shoved into the river!
All-in-all it was a quiet day -- no drama!
Friday, December 12, 2008
Twentieth Day: Varanasi to Calcutta
Teresa and I got up early this morning and went walking through the ghats along the shoreline by our hotel. It was some kind of special day (a festival?) and there were literally thousands of women lining up along the ghats waiting to bathe in the river. We walked for about an hour and finally ended up at one of the main cremation ghats. There were stacks and stacks of firewood and we watched while they placed a cadaver on top of a stack of wood, performed a cremation ritual, then started the fire. It was quite morbid and we didn't stick around too long -- the burning bodies produce a thick, acrid smoke! We were told that when the burning is done, those from the lowest caste are allowed to sift through the ashes looking for valuables such as jewelry and gold teeth!
After lunch we headed back to the bazaar -- its unlikely that we will have more time for shopping and Teresa wanted to have a second look.
We headed for the train station at about 5 PM and boarded the overnight train to Calcutta at 7 PM. It was a dreary, crowded station and Dinesh told us to watch our bags closely. While we were waiting a cow sauntered up and started to eat garbage from the trash container near us. For the life of me I couldn't figure out how it had gotten on to the elevated platform -- its odd how everyone just ignores the cows which are ubiquitous and wander around wherever they please.
By 10 PM we had prepared our berths and turned in for the night.
Saturday December 13, 2008
Twenty-First Day: Calcutta
The overnight trip went smoothly without incident -- the train arrived in Calcutta at 11:30 AM, several hours late -- we boarded taxis for the ride to our ending point hotel, the Victerrace, got cleaned up and had lunch. We met with Dinesh at 2:30 for an orientation walk, and afterward he left us near the main shopping area to look around.
We headed off in the direction of the Victoria Monument to have a look, and while we were walking I spotted a Jet Airways ticketing office -- we decided to make a quick stop to confirm our reservation for tomorrow. "Yes, we show that you are departing tonight at 6:05 PM," the agent said. "No, no," I replied, tomorrow at 6:05 not today!"
Much to our dismay, we were informed that our Monday morning flight from Mumbai to San Francisco had been canceled and that we had been re-booked to depart tonight, only three hours from now! The agent gave us the lame excuse that they had no contact number to let us know in advance -- but Teresa pointed out that they had our e-mail address on our reservation and could have sent us a message! I told the agent that leaving tonight was impossible -- we were unprepared to leave so soon. (I was definitely not willing to miss our farewell dinner.) After the agent confirmed that they indeed had our e-mail address, he was apologetic and, after consulting with his supervisor, offered to rebook us from Calcutta to Mumbai on the 6:25 AM flight tomorrow, with a quick connection to our overseas flight at 11:25 AM .
We were a rattled by the last-minute change, but since we really weren't planning on doing much in Calcutta, we decided we'd better leave while we could. So we'll be getting up at 4:15 AM and taking a taxi to the airport for an early Sunday morning flight to Mumbai. The layover in Mumbai is only two and a half hours, and hopefully we'll be able to make the connection without any problems.
Although we had intended on doing some sightseeing, after leaving the ticketing office we figured we'd better head back to the hotel instead and review the logistics of our travel plans for tomorrow.
We met with the rest of our group at 7 PM -- Dinesh had checked out several nearby restaurants and had arranged a farewell dinner for the group at a local favorite, "Peter Cat." Odd name for a restaurant -- I haven't seen hardly any cats in India -- hmm -- makes you wonder!
This was definitely an upscale restaurant with exceedingly attentive wait staff and it was also crowded, a good sign! I chose to order the tandoori chicken, one of my Indian favorites, while Teresa chose a simple vegetarian dish. Having avoided getting sick so far, she wanted to play it safe, but Katie also went with the Tandoori chicken! The chicken was delicious, but quite spicy! After dinner we went around the table and took turns describing our most compelling experiences of the trip. Getting caught in the riot obviously got a lot of attention -- a negative experience undoubtedly -- the stuff of nightmares, but there were many positives as well. Having dinner with Dinesh's family in Jaisalmer was at the top of the list, as was our camel safari and overnight campout in the desert dunes under the stars!
Dinesh admitted to us that the situation on the way to the Agra train station had been even worse than we thought -- when he had gotten out of the car to try to reason with the rioters, he had been beaten with a stick and punched -- he had pleaded with them to let us get through -- he had told them he was just a poor Brahmin doing a new job and was required to escort these western tourists to the train station -- they had backed off and left us alone only after he had pleaded with them! His actions were truly heroic -- I have no doubt he saved us!
After dinner we walked back to the hotel to get ourselves packed up. Since we are gaining a day on the way back due to crossing the international dateline, we should be home by 8 PM Sunday evening.
Sunday December 14, 2008
Twenty-Second Day: Calcutta to Mumbai to San Francisco
Although I'd arranged for a wake-up call at 4 AM, I didn't trust the hotel, and when my anxiety level woke me up at 3:30 AM I got up, finished packing, and headed down to the lobby. Nadia, who also had an early flight, had asked if she could share a taxi to the airport with us, and since we needed two taxis anyway we had readily agreed. She was already in the lobby and had called for the taxis, and by the time everyone came down at 4:15, both were waiting. We'd been instructed by the airline to be at the airport no later than 5 AM, and although they'd indicated they would have seats for us, they'd also said the flight was full, so my confidence in them was lacking. (Hmm, I wonder why?)
There was no traffic at this time of night and our taxi drivers decided that all the red lights were merely suggestions, so even though the airport was 20 km away, we made it in record time and we were in the check-in line at 4:45 AM. We got our seat assignments, then much to our surprise we were directed to the first-class lounge! (I guess they figured they owed us!) We bade farewell to Nadia, then after availing ourselves of the complimentary coffee and light breakfast, headed for the security screening area. By the time we made it to the boarding gate there was a long line of passengers waiting to board our flight.
After all we'd been through, it was nice to get a little first class treatment -- we ate breakfast (again), then slept and read. My anxiety level started to rise again when I realized our flight would be half an hour late getting in to Mumbai, and I began to worry about our connection. Fortunately there was a bus waiting for us at the domestic terminal when we arrived, and it whisked us to the international terminal 4 km away. Since our bags had been tagged with priority stickers and checked through to San Francisco, we never saw them again and could only hope they would follow us. We were dropped off at customs and immigration at the international terminal, then directed to the end of a very long queue!
Then, just when I thought we could relax, the oddest thing happened. While we were waiting, an abandoned bag materialized in the line, and whispers of anxiety began to spread among the waiting passengers. One individual called over to a nearby security guard and pointed to the bag which was conspicuous by its solitude -- the guard studiously ignored her! An anxious buzz began to spread through the crowd as everyone backed away from the bag -- this was Mumbai -- less than three weeks ago terrorists had killed 195 people here. Another women beckoned to two other security guards -- they leisurely walked over and stared at the bag, but still did nothing. I could practically hear the bomb ticking by now! What a bunch of idiots!
Finally, a well-dressed Indian woman loudly proclaimed in English, "This bag is abandoned and needs to be dealt with! Its causing great anxiety!" When none of the guards responded, she finally shouted at them in Hindi -- I don't know exactly what she said but the tone of her voice suggested something to the effect of "You idiots need to get your lazy asses over here pronto and do something!!" I suspect that she said this because suddenly half a dozen of them came running over and stood in a circle around the bag obviously trying to decide what to do! It was apparent that despite what had happened only three weeks ago, they had no protocol to follow and didn't have a clue as to what to do! If there had been a bomb in the bag I'm sure we would all have been blown to smithereens by the time they did anything! One of them finally went over to the PA and made an announcement that an unidentified bag had been found -- then, moments later, a middle-aged Indian man came running over and claimed to be the owner of the bag -- he explained that he was just trying to hold his place in line while he went off to look after something. The guards immediately hustled the man and his bag off somewhere, and that was the last we saw of him! In the end, I couldn't decide who was stupider, him or the security guards!
After that we proceeded through immigration, customs, baggage scan, security, check-in, and security again, before finally boarding the airplane. All-in-all it was the most incredibly haphazard security operation I've seen in a long time, especially in light of recent events and the obvious level of risk.
We were finally able to relax as the flight taxied to the runway. It was otherwise uneventful with the only minor annoyance being that each time the meals were served (lunch, dinner and breakfast), we got stuck with an Indian meal, even though the menu clearly indicated a choice between an Indian meal or a continental (American) meal. We were all done with Indian food -- Katie gagged when they placed the Indian dinner on her tray. Finally, at breakfast, when they tried to do it to us again, Brandon got irritated and demanded that they find us some western food! Lo-and-behold, they managed to find five breakfasts consisting of sausage and eggs with orange juice -- what a relief!
At the baggage claim in San Francisco, much to our delight our bags materialized almost immediately! We breezed through immigration, and when the officer welcomed us home we realized that we had made it back safe and sound!
We picked-up a car at the rental counter and headed home. Despite the torrential rain all the way, we pulled into our driveway at 8 PM Sunday evening!
At last, home sweet home!