January 22 - 31
Delhi – Jaipur – Jodhpur – Udaipur – Pushkar – Ranthambore Nationial Park
Fear not, I'm not planning on doing a step-by-step recounting of our tour. Instead I'll let the pictures do most of the talking and share some additional thoughts of each city and anything interesting on the way. The plan is one full day of travel as it's often several hundred km between these cities. We will have an evening and one full day in each city. Pretty much, the days will be filled with driving or wandering around forts, temples, mosques, palaces, shops and tombs.
Jaipur, the Pink City. Youngest city named after Jah Singh II. Known for textiles and jewellery.
One of the things we feared is that our tour would resemble 'see India's Golden Triangle in 12 days', similar to the busloads of tourists who see 'Europe' in 7 days. So we told our driver who had his list of tourist attractions for each city, that we didn't want to be just passive observers of India's past but also wanted to interact with people and find out what's on their mind, and we preferred to eat at local jaunts that every day people visit rather than the tourist approved places. We hoped our message was getting across because we were noticing that often people don't wait for you to complete your thought but are so eager to take action, tell you what they think you're going to say and hurry off to do it. Our driver, Ajay Sony with the A pronounced like apple vs able, was supposedly fluent in English but we were struggling to understand him and weren't sure that he always understood us. Our first stop however let us know that he understood perfectly. We stopped right off the highway at a little 'dhaba', which is Hindi for food place selling local food. I hesitate to say restaurant as that might set the wrong expectations. This place, which was a typical roadside dhaba is basically a very simple concrete space that served as a kitchen. It has an open clay oven for making parathas, naan and the like, counter space and a single burner hot plate. Nothing was in English. The plastic tables and chairs were set out in the dirt and were open to the elements. We could see a covered building close by but when we glanced inside it was empty and we figured only used when the weather was prohibitive. Ajay rattled of the options and very shortly we had a wonderful fresh cooked meal of chapatti (bread), vegetables and various sauces. The sun was hot and felt very good as we enjoyed our meal with near by guests staring unabashedly at us. We ended the meal with freshly made tea or chai as they call it. The cooks graciously allowed me to observe them at work and to also try my hand at making the chapatti. I was marginally successful in mimicking them; whipping the dough from hand to hand then flinging it along the wall of the cone shaped oven, but they were encouraging. It's amazing sometimes how much can be communicated without words. (At a roadside dhaba on the way to Jaipur)
The next stop was a wonderful family whose home was again right off the ‘highway’, deep in Rajasthan’s countryside. They were farmers and were delighted to welcome us. The family included the standard mother father and several children and also several aunts uncles numerous cousins grandparents I guess anyone remotely related to them. They crowded around us and one daughter acted as the spokesperson mainly because she was the clear extrovert in the family. She was delightful. Her English was pretty limited but she didn't let that stop her. She led the tour of the sparse but neat room she shared with her sister and the couple other spots where several people slept.
The new litter of puppies, how they harvested crop, carried firewood and in general what life is like for them. The children all go to school but also work very hard alongside the adults to maintain the home and farm. There is no running water in the house but they do have a well with a pump close enough to the house. We were offered chai, which we of course accepted and then watched as the older sister milked the cow then built up the open fire on the ground and cooked our chai, which is a mix of cardamom, ginger, masala, cinnamon and other spices. It was delicious and I guess they could read our delight because the mother joined us and insisted that she wanted to make us another cup and enjoy it with us. It was wonderful to see the family interacting, vying for our attention like typical kids and also how everyone contributed. It was especially nice to see the younger boys taking care of the babies. When we left, we felt privileged that they allowed us into their home. With Ajay's help we could ask and answer questions but he mostly left us on our own with them. He was probably relieved not to have to translate the question about “if I was black”. It's not a stupid question because I've been told since arrival I look Indian and since my mother is half Indian I figured they were noticing things that typical westerners wouldn't. At the end of the visit I wanted to show my appreciation but didn't want to insult their kindness by offering money so I pretty much emptied my back pack of every pen lotion sweet and gum that I had and the kids went crazy fighting for each piece. Despite the short time, we somehow felt we'd made a connection and I know we'll never forget them.
Our hotel Shahpura House was as lovely as advertised and alleviated some concerns re us being scammed. Many of these tours offer different categories to fit your budget and it's difficult to judge what you're getting if you don't have the opportunity to speak with fellow travelers. (One of several 'Heritage Hotels' we stayed at)
I've promised not to provide excessive details but bear with me as this experience is worth sharing. Each morning we met, Ajay would have some local sweet, or blessing from the temple he visited, in the form of a finger touch of colour between the eyes and a stick of incense burning in the car. The morning of our tour of Jaipur he had a lei of red roses for me and wouldn't you know it, it matched my outfit perfectly so I decided to keep it on. We visited a simple yet peaceful Hindu temple where we witnessed a Brahman, (the highest caste in India) bathing in the open as he calmly sat on the ground across from the temple. I didn't want to stare but the whole time Ajay was talking about the temple I watched him out the corner of my eye. How could he be so comfortable I wondered knowing that I was there. I was to learn that bathing in public is a common practice and is done gracefully and efficientlly. He kept his groin covered with his dhoti which is an ankle length piece of cloth that men wear and often pull up to tie at their waste and hitch between their legs to make walking or climbing or in this case bathing easier. He had a bucket of water and soap and he lathered every, I mean every part of his body from head to toe vigorously. I saw nothing exposed that shouldn't be and that wasn't because I was watching indirectly but because I wasn't meant to. That isn't the point of my story but apparently I can't help the digression. I'll just say he was not unpleasant to look at, nope, not at all.
But back to the real story I want to tell. We then went to the imposing Nahargarh or Tiger Fort north of the city and were amused by the many Macacques playing around the parking lot. (At Nahargar/"Tiger" Fort - notice the flowers around our necks...)
Elmar was busily taking pictures and I was watching the antics of a couple of them right in front of me while waiting for the driver. Suddenly, a mamma macaque some distance away raced across the lot, her little baby hanging on to her belly, and before I could blink she jumped up on me and grabbed at my neck. I've always thought in these situations I'd be like Sydney Bristow from Alias, you know, reacting decisively and effectively, well, I didn't disappoint. I flung my hands up and yelled immediately and quite effectively I might add -"Elmar!" He raced toward me waving his hands and kicking at the macaque who was far too fast to be touched and scampered away. I couldn't figure out why she had attacked me but then someone explained she wanted my lei and Elmar added that she had a baby with her. It was unnerving but thankfully only my dignity hurt. Lesson learned, no flowers or fruit around macaques. Those sharp teeth and human like hands are no fun up close and personal. (Macaques everywhere)
Our outstanding impression is that Jaipur is even more chaotic and dirty than Delhi and the vendors took aggressive pursuit to a new level. If you choose this city to visit, you should gear up mentally and physically, it's not for the faint of heart. We enjoyed what we saw tremendously but were more than ready to move on.
(At the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur; marble structures that tell the time with a +/-10 sec. error)
(Lake Palace and Palace of Winds in Jaipur)
(City Palace in Jaipur)
One other thing I want to mention that doesn't show up in the pictures is that we made sure to contribute to the economy with a few purchases here. We haggled, and for sure you would not be respected if you don't, and got decent prices but not dirt cheap. I learned Asian haggling from a dear Indian friend who I watched with amazement when she visited me in China. I could not believe when she offered 50% of asking price and got away with it repeatedly. Her arguments and strategies varied but her favourite in China was based on making multiple purchases and not being afraid to walk away and not look back. In India, I learned over time that I had to literally not care whether I got the item or not because they are astute readers of emotions, a bored look works, and not be affected by the vendors subtle hurt feelings to manipulate you into feeling bad. The stories of how your purchase will help are designed to tug at the coldest heart. Even if you don't intend to purchase anything you must be prepared as part of any tour, whether planned or spontaneous will always include a stop at a gem store or someplace equal. You won't see it on the itinerary but clearly the drivers get some kind of kick back. After a torturous hour at a gem store because Ajay really wanted us to stop there, we were specific with him re what we were interested in and serious about buying and asked him to not take us to the other places. (Which vehicle has more horsepower?)
Jodhpur: The Blue City. 15th C named after chief Rao Jodha.
With relief I noted that Ajay didn't bring flowers the next morning. We set out for Jodhpur, the city where the well known riding trousers (sorry, 'pants' didn't feel right, guess I'm still under UK influence) gets its name.
We stopped for lunch at a truck stop and ate a hearty and very tasty lunch. The price for all three of us was $5.00. Elmar amazed the locals who watched in wonder as he mixed his rice, veggies and several sauces together, topped it off with some curd then smoothly and naturally proceeded to shovel it into his mouth with his hands despite being provided with a spoon. Ajay himself was amazed and forgot his lunch so he could take several pictures and a video. Eating with his hands is surprising enough but knowing how to mix the food together is something very few foreigners know how or desire to do. After lunch we walked around and I got to chew on the leaf of the Neem tree growing in the back of the property. It's famous for its use in Ayurveda to make lotions, treat acne, and nourish the hair and as tooth paste. Apparently I was hoping for the full benefits in chewing the leaf. I have a real soft spot for kids and there were some really sweet ones here. Hard working well behaved and gracious. We didn't leave money but we bought them some treats. It was funny to see something so small such a thrill for them and what a relief for us that they were completely satisfied and never hinted at wanting money from us.
Our next stop was a village and it was refreshing to finally see some green farmland instead of the arid and rocky landscape we crossed during the last couple of days. The journey so far had been dusty and bumpy and the landscape boringly flat and filled with either manufacturing plants or other unmemorable buildings. Here, the red soil was reflected in the brick homes, many of them with intricate designs. We met a number of the townfolk as the longer we stayed, the larger the crowd grew. The kids were very polite and orderly (we had treats and they waited their turn and didn’t fight each other or grab), the men flirty and the women shy. It took a little coaxing to get the women to share with me. As usual many were startlingly pretty and their clothes a vibrant kaleidoscope of colours. Every girl wore an ankle bracelet and even the babies had their eyes rimmed with kohl. We had noticed before but even more so as we travelled through the country side that there's an innate grace to the women. People recognize it from the bollywood dances but it was evident even when we saw them walking down the streets with stacks of wood on their heads. We were curious about daily life and what we heard and witnessed soon became a pattern as we stopped at various villages. The women start their day around 5:00am gathering sticks for the fire then heading to the closest pump for water which may be miles away and will again be carried on their heads. They plant, harvest, take care off the animals, children and prepare meals. Basically it's non stop back breaking work for them. (A group of women getting water at a nearby well; often they have to walk for miles at a time)
Not that there weren't men working but every village we passed or stopped at we saw several groups of them playing cards and drinking chai. Ajay confirmed that this pattern was pretty normal and acceptable.
When we got to the city it was more of the same - chaos and lots of garbage everywhere but we found that we kinda enjoyed the blue city. If you visit, stay at a hotel with a roof top as the view is great especially as the sun is setting. We stayed at Pal Haveli, which is definitely not back packer price and is a lovely old red stone noble home with a great roof top restaurant. (View from the rooftop terrace at our hotel Pal Haveli)
There are no elevators so be prepared for unusually steep steps. The rooms can be a little dark and as with most old buildings the plumbing is an adventure. We had to take our shower squatting under the 3 foot high faucet as there wasn't a tub and the water couldn't make it up to the shower head. Wish I could share a picture of 6 foot 4 Elmar doing his 'shower' moves, I call it the chicken squat. Another reason we like the city is we were already tired of being led around by Ajay as nice as he was, so we took off on our own and just wandered around. We ended up in the more residential area away from the tourists and touts and discovered quieter and cleaner streets. People were genuinely helpful when we asked for directions and no one tried to sell us anything. We met two lovely very articulate young girls who stopped us asking the same questions, where are you from, what's your name, but they were just wondering if we had any simple coins from our country they could have. It was great just having a normal conversation without a hidden agenda and to hear their passion for school and curiosity of the world. They also stirred my curiosity because I've been noticing how self assured young girls are here regardless of status. I have no research to base it on but I also noticed that many fathers are more nurturing toward their children here. They frequently hug and nuzzle, carry around and play with boys and girls alike and I wonder if that with the high emphasis on education in many states are factors. Would be interesting to explore further. (That's why Jodhpur is called the 'blue city')
There are many Muslims in the northern cities of India and it’s been that way for centuries. Mughals conquered the Rajasthan region during medieval times but were fairly lenient in some aspects because they often allowed the Maharajas in different cities to continue ruling independently as long as they were allies and paid their dues.Today, the Mughal influence can be seen everywhere in the architecture of many of the sites and Islam is a choice religion for many Indians. We saw so many women with their saris covering their entire faces and were often woken at 5:00 am with the call to prayer blaring through loudspeakers. I deeply admire the Indians' tolerance. They have no problems with existing peaceable with other faiths and in fact, in the Hindu belief the ‘guru’ Sai Baba teaches to accept and reflect all others.
Our favourite site here is the Meherangarh fort and is not to be missed. It rises majestically and imposingly right from the mountains. There are several options to get to the entry gate from the road including a ride on a decorated elephant; however, we went with the mundane car and driver. Most of the sites have audio guide tours and while we would say bypass most of them, the one at this fort was pretty decent. (Meherangarh Fort)
The other must experiences are two food delights. Right at the base of the town clock in the main town square is a very tiny stall where the renowned ‘Omelette Man’ cooks up a mean fare. He started out cooking a variety of dishes but after the Lonely Planet, which seems to be the bible of guide books these days, can make or break your business, extolled his omelets, he now only specializes in omelet making and is much richer and happier for it. You can believe the hype, they are delish and cheap. We tried the masala and the cheese and it was finger lickin’ good. Despite his increased wealth he refuses to change anything about his winning approach so each day he stands all day from 10:00 am to 10:00 pm in a little area of no more than 1 by 1 meter and with one omelet pan churns out each order. (The 'Omelet Man' in Jodhpur)
His son who is very proud of his dad takes the orders and tries to get you to visit his little souvenir business down the street and also plans to open up another restaurant. It's always nice to see passion and honest hard work paying off and we wish them luck. The other food delight is the lassis from a little sweet shop right around the corner from the omelet man, right underneath the clock tower and called ‘Mishrilal Hotel’. Lassi is a yogurt drink that is a staple in the local diet and can be bought anywhere on the street either salty or flavoured with spices or fruit. I have heard that there is a version flavoured with cannabis but I can't speak to that. This guy's is the gourmet version. His drink has added spices to the unfruited version and is more like a super thick milk shake that you eat with a spoon vs drink it. Believe me it was addictive. So much so we couldn't resist making one last stop on our way out of the city. (Easily the best lassi and sweets in India)
Udaipur - Southern Rajisthan estab mid 16th C by Udai Singh II of Sisodia royal family. Probbably one of oldest surviving dynasties in the world
Rather than via highway, our guide took us through the back roads to Udaipur. We discovered a much greener India and at times much cleaner. It was Republic day and we stopped on the way to experience some of the celebrations. He chose a village school and we joined the program already in progress that was put on by the students. As with all things with kids, the performance was endearing. We met and took pics with the Maharajah of the region. We were allowed to sit up front with what looked like the dignitaries and I felt slightly awkward as I noticed that there was only one other woman there. The others stood around or sat on the ground with the children. They treated us very graciously and included us in the meal after the program. I was encouraged to see a booth in cooperation with one of the UN agencies educating all on the importance of nutrition, education and care of infants to toddlers. It was simple but effective and run by a woman who seemed to love and was proud of what she was doing. (Celebrations on Republic Day)
The next stop seemed random. Ajay noticed a man through a doorway right off the street who appeared to be churning something. He backed up and as he explained it that he was making mustard seed decided to get out the car and join the man for a closer look. Pretty soon other villagers poured in and were warmly welcoming. They always want to share something with us, usually water or chai. The chai we can drink but the water which is so precious to them we always have to refuse which I hate doing. We met a couple college students who were best friends and the proud father who shared his story and delight in sending all his children to school. The girls, dressed alike, both wanted to be teachers and seemed determined to achieve their dreams together. They were both fluent in English so our conversation flowed easily. The woman in charge of the mustard seed churning shared a horrible tasting sweet made from the mustard seed and we could tell she was very proud to share with us. I really tried to get down a couple bites but it was tough. I was able to palm it off to Elmar to finish to avoid any embarassment. Mustard seed oil is apparently good for skin, hair, cooking and massage oils. We would have bought some but this was the raw manufacturing stored in clay pots and we didn't have a bottle or anything handy. It's always hard to leave the villages as they enjoy us as much as we enjoy them but it was time to push on.
We next stopped at an extraordinarily beautiful marble temple and learned it was built by the followers of the Jain religion. We did the tour with the temple priest/guide who said its no wall, 1,400 column structure was built by illiterates. The religion sounded weirdly interesting. They don't believe in the caste system and promote non violence to the extent that they won't eat root vegetables because harvesting them means killing bugs. Pilgrims can stay there free of cost and I was beginning to think, hmm pretty good until the priest made it clear that what he initially offered as a no additional charge tour really meant not just a tip of our choosing but a tip that he approved of. We had already intended to leave a gift and still did but somehow I'm still taken aback at the blatant begging and leaching of tourists especially when it comes from people you don't expect it from or after you think you're connecting with someone on a different level.
I'm not going to say much about the city of Udaipur except that I was disappointed on many levels. It's touted in the guidebooks as THE romantic destination as the city cradles what's referred to as beautiful Lake Pichola and is overlooked by towering mountains. I found the lake dirty and smelly and while the palace we visited was lovely, we were disappointed that the current royal family lived in California and received not only the profits from the tours, but anyone who did business in the palace, such as selling souvenirs or running a little cafe had to fork over 50% of their earnings. I wouldn't care about this except that there didn't seem to be any giving back to the city. Poverty is rampant here with many in shantys or sleeping on the street. The roads are terrible, clean water a problem and buildings in poor condition. Accommodations were severely over priced especially if you opted for any of the hotels on the lake but in general as well. It was hard for me to feel romantic or that I wanted to spend anymore money here. (City Palace in Udaipur)
I unfortunately developed a bad cold after Udaipur which may have also contributed to my blighted view so we didn't make any stops on the way to Pushkar. To be honest, I don't remember a lot other than it being more of the same arid, dirty desert cities we'd been experiencing so far and that we had problems with the hotel not having our booking. We couldn't tell if the booking agent had messed up or the hotel decided they could get a better rate from walk-in guests. Reception was barely polite and his suggestion of coming back the next night unacceptable. This is where a seasoned guide comes in handy because Ajay got on his phone and soon had us booked in a decent place he knew of. Pushkar is a strictly vegetarian city so no eggs, meat or alcohol are allowed but there are around 500 temples dotted all around the lake so I guess you find one if the urge for non veg or a little spirit hits too hard. Apparently too this is the mecca if you're looking to buy a camel or two. It's the largest camel market in the world and we'd just missed the annual event. It sounded interesting in theory but as Ajay described some of the details like thousands of camels and dealers haggling all day I couldn't drum up one bit of regret. More interesting for us is connecting with people and we had an interesting conversation with the owner of the pizza restaurant where we went for dinner. Pizza would not be our choice usually in India but he was a friend of Ajay and invited us to join him around an open fire just as we were leaving. Like so many Indians he was very well educated and had very strong views, particularly about respecting life, which he spoke passionately about. His ultimate point was that he was frustrated that as the most developed of life forms we as humans choose to kill animals for food when we don't have to. It was a lively conversation that we thoroughly enjoyed and left some food for thought as well as he raised some good points. Sadly he also spoke about the rampant corruption in the government that kept too many people trapped in poverty. We spoke long into the evening about what life is really like in India and might have gone longer but we noticed poor Ajay struggling to keep his eyes open. So we quickly said our goodbyes and left with that satisfied feeling you get when you've had a really stimulating conversation with interesting company. (The holy lake in Pushkar) (Impressions from Pushkar) (A local specialty, chapatis soaked in honey)
Our next stop provided a release from the standard meandering through temples, palaces and tombs. Ranthambore is a small national park and is home to a healthy population of tigers who we were told hunt in the open and are not perturbed by jeep caravans of humans invading their territory. Rather than a hotel, we stayed in a luxury tent that had an ensuite bathroom and a little heater for the cold nights. We were one of five guests staying there so it was very quiet and peaceful. The tents surrounded a nice size lawn area with comfy chairs and tables and individualized wood burning fires to keep you warm. It was very cosy eating then lingering late to talk and gaze up in wonder at the brilliantly star studded sky. I thought of my good friend Craig Smith who is an avid star gazer and how much he would love it here. That's something that you do miss a bit. There are so many times during a trip like this that you think of friends and loved ones you want to share different experiences with because they would love it too. Our wake up call was at 5:30 am so we eventually went to bed and slept very comfortably in our queen size bed. The next morning just as the sun was coming up we had a hot drink then with heavy blankets provided by the hotel we headed out in an open topped jeep. Because of its close proximity to the Golden Triangle stops of Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, this is a popular destination and it can be very difficult to secure a jeep. In fact we had a few tense moments wondering if we did have a reservation but Ajay again made sure we had a jeep with a small group of two other couples rather than the open top buses that hold upwards of 20. It was very cold but exhilarating and we saw lots of antelopes and other wildlife but unfortunately only tiger tracks instead of the real thing. (In Ranthambore)
While we were disappointed we still relished being out in the forest and walking around in designated areas. We often spotted villagers hiding in the forest foraging for wood. At one point two women with huge bundles of firewood on their heads heard our jeep and must have thought we were the rangers. They started running and then ditched the wood to secure a hiding place. Deforestation is a serious concern in many areas throughout India and you wonder who will win the battle, struggling families trying to fill their basic needs or the conservationists. (Our 'luxury' tent in the national park) (Fresh tiger tracks...but no tiger)
The mini safari lasted about 3 hours and we returned to a pretty good breakfast then headed out to Agra. We'd been discussing what we would do after the tour which was nearing it's end, and although we knew we definitely wanted some beach time we couldn't decide exactly where. That's one of the beauties of India, you can climb the Himalayas, tour desert cities or laze on world class beaches. We'd been debating Andaman islands vs Kerala which is a lush southern state. Luckily for us, on our safari we met an Indian from the south and he was very discouraging about the Andaman islands. He was there recently on holidays and was himself appalled at how dirty the beaches were. That cinched it for us and we booked our flight to Kerala where we could do a backwater tour. On the road in Rajasthan)