Monday, February 28, 2011

Golden City in the Sands

The bus to Jaisalmer was leaving at 5:30 in the morning.  Anyone who knows me well knows that I don't do 5:30 in the morning.  Somehow I was able to drag myself out of bed, into a rickshaw and onto the bus.  Not without getting hassled by touts before the sun was up though.  In particular the hotel and camel trek business in Jaisalmer is as cut throat as they come and extends it's nefarious influence down to other cities.  Young men are lying in wait at bus and train stations to sell you a hotel room before you even arrive to Jaisalmer.  To get them to go away I agreed to look at one of the hotels and then tried to sleep.

Surprisingly I got one of the nicest rooms of my trip out of that tout.  The downside was a strong push to sell me their way overpriced camel safari package.  Using my newly honed power of ignoring people, especially Indian salesmen, I was able to get a few cheap nights in a nice room and still find a decently priced camel safari.  Jaisalmer itself is a nice, relatively hassle free city once you're settled down.  A good section of it is still located within the medieval fort's walls making it one of the oldest continually inhabited world monuments or something like that.  And once again, some of the most beautiful scenes in India were just daily life spotted while taking a walk.

Religious graffiti was all over the place
After a few days in the city I headed out on a 3 day, 2 night camel trek.  I knew I wanted 2 nights because of the stars alone.  While sleeping on a massive sand dune or in a dry riverbed I saw some of the most amazing night skies I've ever seen.  I only wish it was warmer because even poking my face out of my blankets was too much for me.  What I wasn't thinking about was 3 days on a camel bouncing up and down.  When riding at a trot instead of a slow walk my stomach was churning and my balls smarting.

This guy was my camel, Tiger.  If I remember correctly he's 7 years old and had even participated in the famous Jaisalmer camel races one year.  He was fine once you got on him but wouldn't stop whining anytime you wanted him to sit down or stand up.  You quickly knew whose camel the camel driver was getting ready in the morning.  Tiger was the only one that would put up a fuss.

The trip had a good supply of traveling companions as well.  The first night was a large group with four Chinese tourists, two girls from the previous day, two more girls out for a one night trip and two Brits that I got along with well named Jay and Sacha who were there for the full 3 days.  Just after a breakfast of toast, jam and eggs the second day we split up and I was riding with Jay, Sacha and Sarjan, our camel driver, for the next two days. 

The basic breakdown of a day was wake up around 7, breakfast and preparations, leave at 8 or 9 for a 4 or 5 hour long ride, lunch and a siesta during the worst heat, another 2 or 3 hour ride to where we were going to sleep.  Sprinkled in that were a few stops at villages for supplies or just something cold to drink.  The food Sarjan made was delicious and the scenery extremely peaceful.  Rajasthan isn't an endless sand dune kind of desert.  Most of it is scrubland with the occassional dry riverbed or sand dune to break it up.  We did see herds of antelope though and had our very own guard dog who followed us for a day and a half.  He reminded me of my friend Ben's dog Spud.

The final day was also really nice because we finally had a pleasant village stop.  The places on the more traveled one or two day tours were equipped with gangs of kids asking for money or chocolates.  Getting hassled just as bad as in the cities could ruin the peaceful desert vibe but the last stop, at a semi-nomadic family's farm to buy camel-feed was the saving grace.  They offered us chai, didn't want anything for it and tried to have an actual conversation with us using Sarjan as a translator if needed.  Life is hard out there farming in a desert, luckily this guy also had added income by looking after some of the wind-power turbines at night.  The turbines are incredibly common in this area and are occasionally broken into for people to steal parts, copper wiring or whatever else sells.  Ahh India, any way to make a buck.

After finishing the camel trek I decided to stay at the hotel operated by Mr. Ganesh, the guy who also owned our camels.  It was a little bit cheaper and since I had already done his trek there were no worries about pushy salesmen.  I lounged around a bit for the next couple of days and took a scooter out for a drive to see some of the sights a little bit outside the city.  One was a massive, over-touristed area of sand dunes that had flocks of tourists going out for a one or two hour ride on a camel.  I suppose it's a good way to try it out but it's hard to imagine a more different experience than the one I had just had.

On the way there I was passing through a small village and was called by a young teenager to slow down and stop.  All he said to me was "3 kilometers" and before I know it this old guy is getting on the back of my scooter.  As is often the best case scenario in India, I rolled with it and took off.  Turns out the old guy spoke a little English and was a Brahmin going to visit a new temple.  India, especially in smaller areas, really does strike me as a give and take sort of country.  People seem generally more willing to lend a hand, even to strangers, but also more willing to impose and assume you're going to help them out.

So Jaisalmer was a great stop on my trip.  India overall has been an excellent trip but has certainly been loaded with plenty of ups and downs.  And now for shits and giggles, here are some more pictures of me on a camel.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Finding A Little Peace

Internet connections near where I'm staying are a little spotty, so no picture uploads until I head into town.  It's nice here in Rishikesh, really nice.  I'm staying at a place called Mama's and it has a great, relaxed vibe.  The thali (a kind of set meal) is delicious and the people are good conversation.  Mama herself is a bit of a character and insists on calling everyone "son" or "daughter".  At 200 rupees a night (under $5) for a nice double with hot water it's a great value too. 

So I'll be here for a little while.  I've already spent about 5 days here and will spend at least another week.  There are tons of mountain trails leading to views and waterfalls, the Ganges is (relatively) clean and beautiful and where I'm staying above the town it's amazingly peaceful.  I also need to wait for higher altitudes to warm up a bit, as a Florida boy I'm not too prepared for a Himalayan winter.

So that's where my trip stands right now.  I have a feeling that the Himalayas will be my favorite part of India.  They're much more chilled out and scenic.  Then again, I imagine anything is more chilled out and scenic than your average Indian city.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Jodhpur the Blue City

In short, Rajasthan is awesome.  If you only have a week or two in India then go to Rajasthan.  Agra is great for the Taj and the ceremonies in Varanasi are interesting but Rajasthan has something to it.  Wandering through back alleys of a 1000 year old fort made me feel I was really somewhere different, somewhere that is still clinging onto its past even as the modern world rushes in.  And Rajasthan isn't short on ancient forts and windy alleys.

To save you from reading all of this and catch you up a bit, here's the quick version.  Cities are helpfully color coded due to some weird historical quirks or the whims of once mighty maharajas.  Jodhpur the Blue City is a busy city but has amazing, twisting alleys and a truly imposing fort up on the hill.  Jaisalmer the Golden City also has a fort and is a much more laid-back city with lots of desert around it.  The camel trek was amazing.  Jaipur the Pink City is a big piss-hole of a city with some of the most annoying touts I've found in India.  I have nothing nice to say about Jaipur and my mother always said...

If you're still reading good.  It means you love me.  Or at least have a general affection towards me that compels you to find out what I'm doing right now.  You may actually be stalking me.  Too bad I'm two weeks behind on my updates, sucka.

I think my stay in Jodhpur was made better by a stroke of good luck in getting accommodation.  A friendly English bloke at the bus stop was just coming from there and recommended a family run place called Heaven Guest House.  It really was their home with the mom and dad sleeping in the lobby to hear late arrivals like myself.  Networking as the business folk say can work wonders.  My New Year's Resolution was actually to be more social on this trip and since my stomach has been behaving that has helped.  I'm pretty good at meeting and chatting with strangers but when sick would prefer to sit in my room and feel sorry for myself.  I imagine that makes me interesting dinner conversation.

This is the main market square in Jodhpur which was nice enough.  I did have a guy spit on me but I'm pretty sure he didn't mean to.  Better this pissing on me or god knows what else; it all happens on the street here.  In the background is the fort I was mentioning  No way to express it in JPEG form but you really felt its presence looking down on the city.  Inside it was really well preserved and had an interesting museum.  And in this museum was the mighty gun-sword!

Furthest one of the left.  Tremble at its power.
 After doing the tourist thing the first day I got dinner and met a nice Chinese couple who were traveling for Chinese New Year.  We chatted and I headed off to bed.  The next day I got incredibly lost in the alleys and even ended up eating at a McDonald's because it was there.  No beef and no pork in it but the Chicken Maharaja (their Big Mac equivalent) wasn't half bad.  And then getting even more lost trying to find my hotel again I saw the craziest sight I've seen in India so far.  I round a corner and there's a cow who had just given birth licking baby juice off its  newborn calf.  I'm sure the Indian people laughing at the expression on my face were justified, I was shocked.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Burnt Out

So I'm in Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) at the moment and am pretty beat.  I haven't gone into the Taj yet, I'm saving that trip for tomorrow before my night train to Varanasi.  Today was spent sleeping in a little and going to Fatepur Sikri.  I was really, really hoping to escape touts and annoyances there but if anything it was worse than Agra city.  There are only so many times you can hear "I sir, where are you from?" knowing that it inevitably leads to some sort of sales pitch or begging before you want to punch someone.  The worst are the bastard touts who try to guilt trip you into talking to them with lines like, "Please stop.  I only want to talk.  I like talking with foreigners to learn about other cultures."  Sure you do Mr. rickshaw driver/gem store owner/serial killer.

That said, it's all part of the Indian experience.  This is easily the most frustrating country I've traveled in.  The incredible part is that it's also one of the most rewarding.  When I was on my camel safari an English chap named Jay had a great analogy.  "India is like surfing.  You start out and struggle against the waves, pushing yourself farther out to the point where you just feel like giving up.  Then you finally catch a good wave, feel like you're on the top of the world and go right back in to catch the next one."  I know absolutely nothing about surfing but I have to say that yeah, India is something like that.  You can have a terrible day, be absolutely fed up with the constant stream of annoyances that beset a foreign traveler here.  Then all of a sudden you come across something that's absolutely unique, something you could never see anywhere else and then it all clicks and you know why you came out here in the first place.

So overall the trip is going well with good days and bad.  I'm tired of the big, touristy cities I'm in right now and am really looking forward to getting out of them and into the Himalayan leg of my journey.  I still have plenty of blog entries to write too and will sit down and do them shortly.  In short, Rajasthan (excluding Jaipur) was awesome and the best state I've visited in India so far.  Sorry Karantaka but you didn't have camel safaris or giant fortresses overlooking the cities.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Korean Octopussy Extravaganza

One of the first things you'll notice when heading through the tourist district of Udaipur is all of the signs advertising "Octopussy Showing Every Night 7:30".  The second might be a surplus of signs written in Korean.  No, you haven't stumbled into some offshoot of Seoul's red light district.  It's just that the (pretty horrible) James Bond film Octopussy was primarily filmed in Udaipur and Korean’s must love “Rajasthan’s most romantic city”.  When sick one day I broke down and sat through the film.  The parts filmed in the city streets were especially interesting and only a little bit of an embellishment of the sort of stuff actually happening on the streets here.

Udaipur itself is actually a gorgeous city and probably the prettiest city I've seen in India.  The tourist district is centered around the lake and near the palace and its narrow alleys are brimming with shops and guesthouses.  Head up to the obligatory rooftop restaurant and you're treated to a panoramic view of other guesthouses and street life.  My guest house's restaurant was particularly nice since it overlooked the lake and had a striking  view of the palace and several of the havelis, old mansions used by the Rajasthani nobility that have now been converted into boutique hotels.

My first day was spent resting after a long bus ride and wandering a few of the cities many alleys.  The next day I decided to head out and see some of the countryside and set off on a very long but very rewarding trek.  Originally I decided to walk towards the Monsoon Palace, an old royal palace perched on a nearby hilltop. 

I figured I could either find the way up to the top or failing that take in the natural environment that turned out to be some interesting scrub land.  The further I got from the city the more interesting it got so I just kept going.  I also found out what happens to sacred cows after they die.  Whereas cows and pigs pick through the garbage for anything edible, when the cows die it's the dogs' turn.  In my head I can hear Elton John crooning about the circle of life right now.

The surrounding villages were filled with some gorgeous farmland.  And to see little boys and old women herding goats was another memorable sight.  India is a strange place to go.  It's filled with contradictions of modernity and history, affluence and poverty.  It's also downright stressful at times and takes some getting used to.  But outside the relative comfort of a nice city like Udaipur you can find people engaged in activities their ancestors did hundreds if not thousands of years ago.  I suppose one of the charms here is that you can have both, and on top of that it's set in an incredibly foreign and baffling cultural context.

I trudged back into the city tired and hungry.  I met up with a Canandian guy from Montreal that I had met on the bus and had a nice dinner.  I will miss paneer, it's delicious.  Not as delicious as masala dosas though.  It's my mission to track down a hotel Lonely Planet claims serves South Indian food tomorrow.  At least my stomach has recovered which leads me to...

Rajasthani miniature artwork which isn't so miniature

The next day I got up and checked out the palace.  I'll put some photos of that below but it was really beautiful.  If I had to pick the palace in Mysore is nicer and the fort in Jodhpur is more impressive but that would be splitting hairs.  Udaipur's palace had ample charm and was the most distinguished looking of the three that I've seen.

After touring the palace I was starving and something in my was screaming out for meat.  I headed to a place with wifi I had been before and ordered a chicken korma that I suspect led to a week of stomach troubles and nausea.  But then again it's India and you never know.  It could have been some fly had landed on my morning toast bringing along with it god knows what filth.

At Soulmeet, the cafe with wifi, I also met up with a half-American/half-Swiss kid who grew up in Kenya and had just been kicked out of his prestigious hotel management program in Switzerland.  I suspect he came to India to escape reality for awhile and was certainly doing his best to do that with his own special cigarettes.  Partaking with him, some of his friends and the staff at the restaurant was quite nice and a bit of relaxation.  Had I not gotten sick I would have hung out there more, all said the food was tasty.

I had booked a bus ticket for the next day but by morning knew that was a nonstarter.  This illness dragged on and the worst part was the nausea that eventually prevented me from eating.   I had some weight to lose so it's all good, but I could have done without that method of losing it.  Of all cities I've been in though, Udaipur was by far the best to get seriously ill in though.  I could steal some wi-fi from a nearby cafe, eat at my guest house's restaurant with a really nice view and was staying in a spacious, comfortable room with balcony and a good supply of hot water.  So all said, I've rested up and am happy to be continuing my trip.  I'm currently in Jodhpur which ha a very impressive fortress perched on a hill above it and plenty of charm.  India has been full of ups and downs but I keep telling myself that's part of the experience.  Til next time.

View of the city from the palace

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bullet Holes and Espresso

Apologies for the lack of entries but I was waiting until I was in better spirits.  Either my stomach hates India or India hates my stomach.  I'm feeling better as I write this but a week of barely eating (and losing most of what I did eat through either end) has left me a little weak.  Thankfully the doctor I saw here  in Udaipur actually did the bloodwork he said he was going to do and everything turned out normal.  Bastard tourist doctor in Hampi just charged me the cash for tests without bothering to look at them, ahh India.

After the expensive closet I was staying at in Mumbai (600 rs., about $15 or so) I decided to try out an equally expensive but far more comfortable room in Udaipur where I am now.  That made the first few days great and me much more comfortable after I got sick.  I've even been able to steal limited wifi from a shop next door so chatting with Jess and browsing the interweb have helped pass the time.

Anyways, I left off last time saying I planned to head from Gokarna up towards Mumbai through Goa.  Well, I ended up staying in Gokarna a couple days longer and since no convenient trains were available through Goa I just did the long haul on a semi-deluxe sleeper bus.  Now India's buses have several grades, most of which are nonsense and far from deluxe.  Semi-deluxe sleeper meant your average American bus seat that reclined a little.  A few days later when leaving Mumbai I was on a deluxe sleeper which is a full bed compartment where you can lie down.  It could actually be a nice way to travel if it wasn't for all the holes in India's highways and the fact that honking in the middle of the night is considered common courtesy here and not an annoyance.  There's nothing like the feeling of drifting to sleep only to hear a semi blaring its horn as it passes.  I suffered through though and have found audio books on my ipod to be a godsend.

Mumbai as a city was much nicer and much less of a hassle than I thought it would be.  Like a lot of Indian cities there was a tourist district where most of the accomodation foreigners use is.  In Mumbai this is all in Colaba at the southern tip of the city, it's also the area talked about most in Shantaram.  There was one main drag that was filled with vendors, people trying to offer you a "blessing" for cash and plenty of offers for illicit narcotics.  Outside of that immediate area though Colaba was really nice with peaceful, shady streets filled with old colonial archetecture.  It actually reminded me a lot of the Georgetown area of Washington, DC.

So I went to Mumbai to see what a big, modern Indian city would be like.  It had a lot of international big city conveniences (shops you can actually walk into...*gasp*) and a variety of Starbucks clones.  As an aside, I already miss the local 12 rupee coffees in South India.  And Mumbai was also the last city I was able to find masala dosas in.  Probably won't be able to find any more unless I head into a South Indian area of Delhi or another big city :(  Still, the city isn't without plenty of quirky picture oppurtunities.

When coming to Mumbai the little I knew about the city mainly came out of the novel Shantaram.  It's a good read.  Anyways, one of the main characters is a slum-dweller named Prabaker who guides the main character around for a little while and becomes his friend, etc. etc.  I met a similiar tout-ish chap while exhaustedly looking for a room and agreed to have him show me around the next day so I could see some of the city.  It was about 50% a waste of time and money but the guy needed a nice meal and was able to offer some insights I would never have thought of.

One of the first things having a tour-guide helped me realize was that Colaba was the main center of the Mumbai terrorist attacks.  I was staying about 2 blocks from the Taj Hotel that suffered the worst of them but Leopold's Cafe (another big part of the book and now an insanely overpriced and packed tourist restaurant) still has bullet holes in its front walls.  Needless to say, security is a much more pervasive element in that part of Mumbai and there are plenty of police and private guards.  I have no doubts India will see more terrorist attacks in the coming decade but if they're looking for soft targets then this district of Mumbai isn't one of them.

The day we went sight-seeing we started off by getting a local bus that wasn't too crowded and actually pretty pleasant.  We went through a few markets, they were big but weren't anything to write about.  The fruit and vegetable market looked like a big farmer's market back home and the other sections were actually streets of shops all selling similiar wares rather than an open bazaar atmosphere.  I've never fully understood it but many cities in developing countries seem to clump similiar industries all together in the same place, whether it be a few blocks all selling silks or a long street with nothing but mechanics or print shops on it.  The Thieves Bazaar had sounded the most interesting by far when I read about it.  In my head I was picturing narrow alleys filled with one-eyed vendors and their ill-gotten wares.  Pickpockets trying to nab my wallet while someone tries to sell me a "brand new" digital camera with some poor tourist's pictures still on the memory card.  Yeah, okay, I definitely romanticized it way too much in my head.  In reality it was just a bunch of curio shops selling fake antiques and souvenirs.  I still like the version I have in my head better.

After wandering around the market streets with my guide getting lost (like I said, partly a waste of time seeing as I'm really good at getting lost on my own) we got cheap biryani for lunch and headed to the bus to get to the dhobi ghats where they do the washing.  This is when I saw what Mumbai's bus system really looks like.  I've lost most of my compunctions about shoving people to get into public transport but Indians are so much better on it.  My guide had just gotten a foothold on the stairs and was holding onto the side of the bus when he saw me and got off, losing a flip-flop in the process.  I felt bad that the dude was barefoot for the rest of the afternoon and decided cab rides were much easier than squeezing myself into a bus.

Next stop was the dhobi ghats where the city's laundry gets done.  I didn't go down into them due to time limitations but they're definitely one of the more memorable things I saw in Mumbai.  The amount of stuff that gets done by hand in India always amazes me.

This next photo is of the Haji Ali mosque, another famous spot mentioned in Shantaram.  It's well touristed but quite interesting, at high tide the walkway apparently gets submerged and the mosque is isolated from the mainland.  The buildings themselves weren't too amazing but the atmosphere was worth it.

And here is the Gateway to India, erected by the British to commemorate the visit of King George V.  Lots of security, it's also the place where tourist ferries leave for some other sights.  I decided to skip a planned visit to Elephanta island and just walk around more.  I found the colonial archetecture in the southern areas of the city (Colaba and the Fort area) to be a welcome shift from the concrete blocks of South Indian cities.  Wide, tree-lined streets made for a pleasant walk as I passed posh housing across the street from some slum dwellings near the water.  India really is a crazy mix of the old and the new, the rich and the poor.  And yes, even Mumbai had a few goats and chickens on the street.  They just tie them up in the big cities.