Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Off to the Land Down Under!

Tomorrow we're off to Australia for Christmas! We've never been so are excited to check out a bit of the country. And it will be nice to have a few days out of the dirt here. (Gurgaon is incredibly dirty/dusty with all its construction and pollution, and signs of poverty are as pervasive as you can imagine.)

I will enjoy leaving the hotel and not seeing at least one man (if not several) doing his business by the side of a busy road!

Those who advised us to look past the not-so-pretty to experience India's gems are so right, and I thank you for your insights.

We're off -- merry merry and I'll do my best to capture some of our Australian adventures while we're out and about!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Day 2 -- Corbett National Park

Dec. 9 --

6:00 a.m. found us bundled up in a jeep, bouncing over the pavement en route to start our jeep safari. Yes, it was chilly -- no windows and a good morning breeze as our driver tore off down the road. We did pass a few joggers and bicyclists, otherwise it was pretty quiet; Ava was convinced it was the middle of the night. Certainly felt like it!

After 20 minutes of crisp wind whipping at us we arrived at a small safari jeep consortium. Our driver angled the jeep as close to the gate as possible, just as the other drivers were doing. Then all drivers hopped out to do what Indian drivers do when waiting for Corbett to open, I guess, whatever that might be.

All of us tourists sat tight and I tried to remember how warm I'd been when I walked out the cottage door w/ cup of nescafe in hand.

(Note: I suck at cold, and with Delhi being so termperate in winter I feel like I'm back in Texas December weather. No complaints. I did bring lots of layers for this excursion and had kids bundled up w/ hats, mittens, 4 layers and blanket. They seemed toasty, I, of course, was cold. Suffice it to say climbing Mt. Everest and snow skiing aren't on my list of hobbies.)

Anyway, as we waited for the safari to begin we were accosted by binocular renters so each child had a pair.

As the gate opened drivers flew to their cars, each jeep jockeying into position Indian style (not much attention to any kind of line).

Once inside we again stopped for paperwork then hit the dirt roads leading into the safari zone and immediately spotted India's largest species of deer, most favored by the tiger (can't recall the name) and monkeys.

After a final paperwork stop we picked up our guide who, like everyone else we'd encountered since checking in, was intent on finding a tiger to observe. This isn't easy given their propensity to spy, the fact that they have so much cover in which to hide and that they blend into their surroundings.

But 6:00 a.m. is supposed to be the best time for this effort, hence our crack of dawn departure. (BTW I'd asked for a 5:20 wake up call, instead got one at 4:40, then a 5:20 knock at the door. More help than necessary.)

The forest was gorgeous at sunrise, a few scattered clouds turning peach and pink, a light golden haze with a bit of fog blended in to cast a lovely warm glow on the trees and hills.

Our jeep hustled us over a windy, rocky dirt road, around bends and through shallow rivers. We slowed down to pueruse for widlife, saw dozens of spotted deer grazing, most just giving us a glance and continuing with their morning munching.

The barking deer we saw here and there, too -- so small and dark brown. Birds were more active as the sun became more established in the sky.

The driver stopped a few times after spying tiger pawprints and a spot in the road where one had been sitting, all recent.

Around a bend we stopped with a group ahead of us; they had spied a tigress and 3 cubs so we stopped to look. Claire caught a glimpse of one of them but the rest of us were unlucky.

Our guide showed us where wild elephants water, though we didn't see any. We certainly saw our fill of monkeys! And we kept stopping to quietly peruse grassy areas but didn't spot the cats. Our guide said time and patience are the keys to tiger observation. He recommended we come back for several days so we could plant ourselves for hours at a time in the same location until a tiger turned up. While I'm sure the sighting would be fascinating, I'm a bit too Type A for laying in grass for hours so will hit the zoo. (Plus I could see myself falling asleep as tiger emerged, therin missing the whole thing.)

Incidentally, Corbett has 160+ Bengal tigers, the largest of the tiger species. (They count animals by using camers that are triggered when an animal steps nearby.)

While our animal ante from the excursion wasn't what we'd hoped, we certainly enjoyed the beauty of the adventure and the opportunity to get outside in such a beautiful place, careening around in a jeep. The smells of the plants were fabulous.

Interestingly, Corbett's tree leaves don't change color for the most part, though some do turn brown from the heat/dryness of summer and fall off prior to monsoon.

The salt (sp?) tree is most prevalent here -- a hardwood that spends 100 years growing and 200 decaying. It was used by the railway to make sleeper cars because of its durability.

Teak trees are also in the forest, with big transparent leaves, as were banyan trees, with vines for swinging hanging off. We saw parasite plants wrapped around some trees. Apparently they take nutrients from the host tree, making it hollow over time.

Back at the park entrance we said good-bye to our guide and headed back down to the hotel, enjoying the scenery we could actually see this time. Villagers were going about their day and we saw an elephant getting a bath. It was also much warmer, though at this point I had no plans to toss any layers yet.

Breakfast tasted great and afterword we parked next to the pool to absorb the sun. Several monkeys were playing in a tree near the pool, dropping their discards onto the ground.

We also checked out the spa; I decided the steam room was on my agenda (and why pass up an opportunity for a head and foot massage. Let's face it; after being bounced around, stiff and cold, in a jeep, massage was absolutely critical).

The ladies at the spa said they would watch Claire and Ava while I got pampered -- fabulous deal. Claire played w/ a puppy and another young girl vacationing w/ her family, Ava supervised my head and foot massage.

For the steam experience, I was placed in the cold room sans steam. At first I wondered if it worked but the attendant told me to wait, steam would come. Sure enough it started blasting out -- wet heat infiltrated the room and me. Fabulous.

Ava, at this point, was done with spa services so joined Claire in spoiling the puppy.

We enjoyed lunch on the veranda overlooking the rover; someone was standing in the middle of the river, fishing w/ a net.

At 4:00 we boarded our elephant for the elephant safari. Her Indian name escapes me but it means garland. (BTW I'm told all elephants used for riding are female as makes are too aggressive.)

Off we went, again with a guide from the hotel, across the road into the forest. The area was very thick with brush so it was a good excrusion by elephant. Our guide told us a tigress had been spotted there the previous day, in fact she followed the group on elephant so they hightailed it out of the park.

No such excitement for us. We did enjoy the ride, lovely setting, canopy, tons of lantana (which was introduced as a garden plant, takes over, nothing eats it and they struggle to get rid of it).

We did see plenty of monkeys; one tree had both brown and black faced ones living together. And we saw lots of very cool, big black and orange spiders with immense webs.

Ava fell asleep on the elephant, apparently that happens frequently as they slowly rock back and forth.

Our elephant wanted to stop for snacks along the way and at one point tried to lay down. Probably over worked and underfed.

After 1 1/2 hours of sauuntering around the forest we returned to the hotel, enjoyed folk dancing by the fire (bagpipes, drums, dancers from the area). Ava danced quite happily by the fire and we three got coaxed into joining in the finale.

What a long, wonderful day!

Corbett National Park

This week the kids and I took off for Corbett National Park, the first national park established in mainland Asia. It is, quite simply, paradise (particularly after breathing in Delhi air this time of year -- well, anytime of year, I guess).

Located in Uttaranchal in northern India (foothills of the Himalayas), Corbett and neighbouring Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary and Reserve Forest areas, form the Corbett Tiger Reserve (1288 sq. km). The park was established in 1936.

(More on park later)

Day 1 of our journey to Corbett:

After flying out of bed when the phone rang at 6 to let Mr. Brenda know his driver awaited we scrambled to get ourselves out the door.

Corbett is a 6 hour drive (it's really not all that far from Delhi but w/ roads that are a free for all for any kind of activity at all times, the statement that one does not make time is life's biggest understatement).

En route I didn't think we'd ever leave Delhi -- the urban area goes on forever (and at some point we entered different cities/villages). The air, filthy in Delhi, managed to get filthier as we went through an area of factories.

When we did eventually get away from Delhi we found patches of farmland, much of it bordered with rocks. Stalks and stalks of sugarcane were being harvested by hand and carted into the village by water buffalo. Carts were heavily laden with the green woody plants -- they must be 3 to 4 feet tall. It's hard to imagine they contain sugar. I later learned sugarcane is fed to elephants. Wonder how that is on the teeth?

We also saw lots of wheat and yellow mustard. Toward Corbett we saw groves of mango trees with some guava here and there. Very pituresque, flat, green land. BTW I tried a guava the other day -- maybe it's an acquired taste?

People lined the road as we traveled. In Delhi it was commuters getting on/off buses, trucks, cars, etc., dozens of children walking or being delivered to school.

Outside the city we saw the typical Indian myriad of transport: trucks, cars, water buffaloes, goats, pony carts, cows, bikes, motorbikes(no camels though). Our driver, Naresh, told us one of the areas we were traveling through was predominantly Muslim. We saw many men with small white caps and many women in black (though it must be ok to wear bright colors beneath the black -- we saw plenty of turquoise pants and brightly colored sandals). Naresh said Muslim girls wear white.

We saw a young boy making what Naresh called Muslim food from rolls of dough -- he flattened each ball out, laid it over what looked like an upside-down wok set over hot coals, and peeled it off a few seconds later.

In one particularly busy village street we saw a bunch of goats and owners. Naresh said the goats would be sold at market the following day. Later we drove by a smilar meeting of water buffalo and owners.

The air cleared beautifully at some point on our drive and eventually we started to see the foothills of the Himalayas, where the park's east entrance (and our destination) is located.

We rolled in early in the afternoon. Our one rest stop on this trip was at a hotel/restaurant complex with the best playground we've seen since our arrival -- complete with 5 rabbits scurrying around a cage w/ 2 big (loud) roosters.

Obviously the rabbits are used to being fed; they didn't pay any attention to me until I came out of the restaurant w/ a bag of food, then they followed me around until the kids were done playing.

Our hotel for this excursion was the Corbett Hideaway, which I highly recommend. It's set on the river with little cottages that all sport front porches. We had lunch in the Hideway's restaurant overlooking the river -- spectacular view.

At 4:00 we headed out with a naturalist for a nature walk down by the river. Ava nearly slid in, otherwise uneventful but beautiful. We saw many different birds -- Corbett has more then 600 bird varieties.

Our walk was through the buffer zone, one of the park's 3 zones (buffer, tourist and the deeper zone that can only be accessed by foresters). In the buffer zone a few villagers still live (grandfathered in before the park officially became a park, I think), and some use of the park is allowed (fishing, herb and firewood gathering, etc.).

Wildlife abounds in the area too; we were told tigers come into this zone regularly, cross roads, etc. In fact, one was hit and injured in January on the paved road. The forestry dept. looked for it to provide medical attention but it had disappeared.

In the deepest part of the park the two varieties of bears found in Corbett hang out: sloth bear and Himalayan brown bear.

On our walk we saw a bunch of black-faced monkeys and learned some Corbett animal trival -- in addition to 600+ types of birds, the park supports 4 kinds of cats, lots of snakes (including King cobra and python).

BTW venomous and non-venomous are correct terms to apply to snakes (rather than poisonous). That's because you can digest venom if swallowed (it's a protein). It becomes problematic if it enters the blood stream.

The king cobra is so venomous it can kill a bull elephant. It's also the only snake that nests; it hangs out w/ its young and cares for them for about 30 days.

Tigers typically have 2-3 cubs, sometimes 4-5. They are solitary dwellers, mark their territory and males will fight to the death over territory. (Lions are the only wild cats that live in groups.) Male tigers sometimes kill their cubs.

Wild elephants live in groups of 25-40, females and young, the oldest female being the leader. Males live by themselves. Apparently wild elephants can be very aggressive. The park has Asian elephants, which differ from African elephants in ear shape and whether males/females have tusks.

At least 2 types of monkeys live at Corbett -- we saw both brown and black faced. They send out signals (calls) when cats are near by. These calls warn the spotted deer and other animals. The monkeys also drop food down from trees to the deer sometimes.

Spotted deer are one of the four types found in the park; they're small, with spots and live in herds. Barking deer -- the smallest deer of all -- are solitary dwellers and actually sound like a dog when they warn other deer of predators.

Back to our walk...we saw fish named for their big heads; they are silver underneath and we could see the flash of their markings when they turned over.

The river which Ava nearly entered was shallow and very wide. During monsoon time, when the park is closed (July/August timeframe) this and the other rivers in the park fill and can be 8-10 feet deep.

Around a bend in said river we came upon a Hindu temple set at the top of a very narrow hill. At one time it was a regular hill but most of the soil has eroded over time. The temple remained intect and is supported by a man-made structure.

We salked down to the water, passing another temple on stone steps, where we spotted many of the afore-mentioned fish.

After our two-hour walk we caught a slide show about the park's animals, which was set up by a roaring (quite literally -- I had plenty of ash all over me by the end) fire.

After dinner we fell into bed at 9:30 I think -- is there anything more tiring than sitting in a car or on an airplane for hours?!?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Shopping and banking

No great sight seeing adventures to report today -- we've spent the last couple of days doing a little Christmas shopping and attempting to get access to our money. (Iy yi yi sometimes what seems so simple becomes a four-step process.)

Regarding shopping, Roop took us to the "best" market -- best quality, best prices -- on Friday. I was truly looking for only a few items but as soon as we entered Delhi Haat the buzzards were circling.

Out of every corner was a sales person and they were all talking at once. Bangles, carpets from Kashmir, handiwork, bangles for the "babies" (that's the term of reference for all children), traditional dresses for the babies, saris for the madam...etc.).

We managed to extricate ourselves from the first sales demonstration (textiles -- lovely things, they started w/ the synthetic blends and finished with pure silk and pashmina).

We skipped the rug room altogether, had to move pretty quickly on that one.

On the way up to jewelry I was accosted by an eager sari salesman -- "oh you must have sari, madam." Wherein I pointed to my jeans and said "I'm good in these, thanks." (That got a few laughs; I love the Indians for their sense of humor.)

Surprisingly, we managed to leave with the few items on my list, and I was quite pleased with prices and quality, just as Roop recommended. He came along to bargain, which I think made his day, so we got "discounts" on everything, even though signs said "fixed price only." What isn't negotiable here???

From there we went to a bigger supermarket with numerous western products. Couldn't pass up chocolate milk (for Claire), salami (which Roop thoroughly enjoyed on the way back to the hotel), oreos, etc.

Yesterday we were on a mission to get cash. We even resorted to looking for an ATM in one of the malls -- mind you it has everything, from Benetton to Sbarro, a big department store, Bath & Bodyworks, Pizza Hut... -- but no cash machine. Anyway, after finding 4 cash machines, we finally found one that would burp out some money.

I was also successful in posting a package to the U.S. I felt like I had to beat back everyone in line to let me have my turn at the postal counter, though. Mom, I'd say keep an eye out for said package, but I really don't have a good grip on when it will arrive...we received something a friend sent from Calif. weeks ago; it was late as it went first to Indonesia. (Mind you it was clearly marked India.)

Later in the day the hotel set up a movie night: a showing of The Bourne Ultimatum (which I ended up choosing, not sure how I got that honor). The DVD list here isn't terribly lengthy, though more than adequate, most films on the list are well known and have been out for a bit.

Anyway, I joined the group in the presidential suite for a movie hotel style -- straight-backed chairs, nuts and tall glasses of Fanta for snacks. The power went off twice (we have outages every day in the hotel but in seconds the electricity comes back).

Each time it went out during the movie, though, we had to go back to the beginning and fast forward through...first time the ladies running the show (literally I guess) called engineering. Thankfully an audience member grabbed the remote and we were up and running in short order.

The 2nd blink was at the height of action: Bourne jumping from the top of a building. What timing...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jama Masjid, December 04, 2008

After a lovely coffee with a friend of a friend (thank you, Archana), the kids and I headed off to see Jama Masjid – India’s largest mosque. (And quite the safe place to tour, according to our driver, Roop, who commented: when do you ever hear of an Islamic Mosque being bombed? !? )

“An exquisite Islamic statement in red sandstone and marble” (according to Fodor), the Jama Masjid was the last monument commissioned by Shah Jahan.

The mosque is in crazy busy Old Delhi, whose windy little streets are chockfull of everything under the sun. From far above it must look like an ant colony, there’s so much hustle and bustle. Tons of rickshaw drivers &market shops, a few dogs thrown in, a bunch of goats being led somewhere (Roop said they were en route to be sacrificed by Muslims, then eaten. Sometimes I do wonder how much I misinterpret…of course, it would also not surprise me if they were being led off to holy slaughter. That does sound a little nicer than just butchered, I guess?)

Ok, so after I asked if the Muslims ate them, I asked Roop if he ate goat. Wherein he said “Mutton? Oh yes it’s very good.” I then realized that I’ve been eating plenty of goat, as I assumed mutton referred to lamb. Well no complaints, it tasted pretty good.

Aside from goats, bikes, beggars, builders, marketers, tourists, shoppers, police, horse carts, autos etc. we saw our first Hindi funeral procession. Claire glanced over at a body, draped in bright red cloth with orange garlands decorating it, being carried through Old Delhi atop what looked like a cot by a handful of men. She immediately knew what it was (how is that kids can identify death so readily? Must be innate.) I think singing was accompanying the procession but with all the noise (and with us in the car) I’m really not sure if I made that up or if was really happening.

After ditching the car Roop walked us to the entrance of the Jama Masjid, which was completed in 1656 after six years of work by 5,000 laborers.

Featuring a mix of Hindu and Islamic architecture, the dome is onion-shaped, has three gateways, four towers and two minarets.

The closet in the North gate of the mosque contains a collection of Muhammad's relics - the Quran written on deerskin, a red beard-hair of the prophet, his sandals and his footprint, embedded in a marble slab, all of which are still preserved. It is said that the walls of the mosque were tilted at a certain angle so that at the time of an earthquake, the walls do not collapse in the courtyard but outwards.

The courtyard can hold up to twenty-five thousand worshippers. The eastern gate of the mosque was the royal entrance and it has 35 steps. These steps used to house food stalls, shops and street entertainers. In the evening, the eastern side of the mosque was converted into a bazaar for poultry.

The south minaret is open to tourists, so we purchased tickets. (By the way, we were fleeced 4 times entry on the way through this mosque…first to come in, then to traverse up narrow, ancient steps in a tiny space to check out the view, then to use a camera for said view, then to pay someone for watching our shoes. The last one was a bit fishy but at that point, why not one more donation? I seem to recall similar experiences at those lovely European cathedrals…)

I am quite proud of Claire; she led the way up that winding little staircase with some trepidation, was quite the trooper. Ava, whom I carried (I’ve decided she now must weigh 60 pounds – well that’s a bit of an exaggeration but by the time we got to the top of the tower – 41 meters -- it certainly felt that way). Her commentary was: boy this is a tough climb. (Tough for who?!?)

What a great experience – breathtaking view, which we shared scrunched up next to Indians, UK’ers and Koreans. (There was very little landing and we had to hug the side so as not to step back into the stairwell, which of course has no railing.)

I spied a few men sporting plaid “skirts” (foreigners) and at first I thought maybe they were making a pilgrimage to the place, clad in some kind of symbolic attire. Silly me…they’d come in shorts so had to cover up for respectful entry into the place.

In the courtyard people were gathered here and there, several women in traditional Muslim attire, many kids playing around the fountain. A woman was feeding the numerous pigeons that seem to call the Mosque home. A few prayed in various corners of the Mosque, while others gathered to eat and converse.

I was struck by the majesty of the building and its view; set on a hillside, it overlooks that bustling Old Delhi scene we meandered through. Well worth the visit!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

December 2

It's December? How did that happen?

All's well here; I've decided it's quite un-holiday like here. No turkey on Thanksgiving, weather was in the 80's in Goa, Delhi is cooler but not much; there are no lights, Xmas lamp post decorations, holiday shopping billboards etc. Let's hope Santa makes it.

By the way, I did note as we landed in Delhi (after absorbing the beauty and cleanliness of Goa) the smell of pollution wafting into the plane. A haze greeted us upon exiting. No doubt cellophane fires here and there aren't helping the old lungs.

I digress...

Yesterday we traipsed down to the National Railway Museum to check out trainage. (is that a word? well, why not?)

When we pulled into the parking lot I had a moment of doubt...dozens of uniformed children were lined up and marching toward the entry gate. Dozens as in several busloads. However, the kids were teed up to check out the trains so on we went.

Thankfully the place is huge -- big indoor museum and several acres of engines, cars, a small train that actually runs, auditorium, train car bookstore, etc.

The museum housed railway maps, lots of model trains, roadkill (track kill?) -- actually the skull of an elephant that got nailed by a train way back when -- and various other historical data.

As we were meandering through 300 girls (7th grade) dressed in brown filtered in(more like pushed/shoved). We then became more of a spectacle for them than the trains.

Anyway, their teachers encouraged us to cut to the front of the line for our train ride around the place, which was Ava's sole motivation for visiting the museum. After our spin around we climbed aboard a variety of engines and cars, which included:

- the world's oldest working engine
- the Patiala State Monorail Train -- built to run on a single rail along one side of a road (originally pulled by 500 mules)
- the White Saloon of the Prince of Wales and Mysore Mharaja's Saloon (with gold ceiling) -- both were quite fancy

and a wide array of other railway relics.

Today we spent some time w/ our Gurgaon ex-pat group and got whisked off to lunch by our friend Margie, who is managing construction of a home nearby. One of her more recent tales of frustration was a crew that showed up on a Friday and did nothing all day because they forgot to bring tools. Maybe when I return to the U.S. I'll borrow a chapter from their book...I couldn't make dinner because I forgot to turn on the stove?

Monday, December 1, 2008

December 1

I caved.

Last week I really thought -- for all of 24 hours, perhaps, that I could grow out my hair and that it wouldn't drive me crazy, that I would be ok w/ "big hair" (let's face it -- any hair is big when compared to how closely cropped I've kept mine the last several years).

I even had myself somewhat convinced that it wouldn't drag my face down or bury my cheekbones. (Never mind that the more obsessed I became w/ my hair -- which I normally don't worry about once someone has cut off as much as possible without making me feel militaresque...though I guess I have been known to stalk other women w/ great short hair to find their hairdresser. So maybe I am obsessed. Stalking anyone here led to nothing -- all Indian women, young and old, have long hair. Anyone w/ short hair is a foreigner holding out to get it cut in the UK, Australia, etc.)

Anyway, all this pipedreaming about long flowing straight dark-going-gray hair went out the window when I woke up this morning. NO WAY was I going to be able to make it til Xmas vacation, letting this mop grow out, until I got somewhere where I could find an English speaking hair stylist with short, feminine hair-cutting expertise.

Thus led me to a salon at the Galleria shopping center. Frankly no research involved here; we rounded a corner on the upper level, I spotted a salon, poked my head in, all men in the salon had good hair (and no bad red dye jobs). So I asked the cost -- approx. $10 -- and if it was ok if my 2 small sidekicks watched.

Thirty minutes later I walked out quite happily, with less hair and the man's biz card in hand for my next hair cut fix. I was practically giddy with the experience, so thrilled was I to be in the chair w/ a cape on, watching hair fall around me. After all, it had been more than my typical 5-week hair cut stretch. Oh the small things in life...

We also set about getting Xmas cards made today (yes, late start, what can I say) and by the time these folks get a proof of said card to me (they created it while I watched -- so much for those snapfish templates), you stand to get a card from us sometime in February.

But it was quite fun; the kodak folks invited us behind the counter to pull up the photo off of yahoo, then they created the card while I got a pedicure (I no longer have calluses on my feet, first time in 20 years -- feels great until I try to run later this week).

After giving the ok on the card to the kodak guy, I asked about timing for printing these things...wherein I was told "plenty of time -- it isn't Xmas for another 24 days..." (Maybe February is being optimistic.)

Then we talked price -- 20 rupees per card. I walked out paying 14. I do love the bargaining piece.

No other late breaking news -- heightened security (expected) at the hotel, hoping to bury our heads in the sand in Australia for Xmas.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Saturday, Nov. 29

The idea of leaving this beach paradise is rough, I must say. What a lovely place to relax.

An Indian wedding party rolled in yesterday; these folks know how to celebrate. They had a big shindig last night, a beach party today and a rocking party is in full force right now. The men all showed up at breakfast in loud Hawaiian shirts, and the Indian contingent was wave-hopping in saris this morning. Swimsuits, I've decided, are more convenient for ocean immersion.

Regarding flying tomorrow, I'm terribly thrilled. Post Mumbai, I'm sure it will be more of a zoo, plus security on the way here was wicked. While we didn't have to lose our shoes, we did have to shlep belongings onto a belt, same as in the USA, but these women become like those older ladies who were dying to have Mass w/ the pope when I was in college -- they used umbrellas as weapons to get to the front of the line.

I digress. Traversing security in the Delhi airport, the kids and I lined up patiently, only to find these Indian women shoving us aside, hurling their purses/carry ons onto the belt in front of our things and blatantly thrusting themselves to the front of the line. Astounded as I was, I stepped up to the plate when they tried to plow over the kids, told one woman NO rather rudely and held my ground. Good LORD; we all needed to get through the line!!!

On that note, I'll sign off -- hope all enjoyed the Thanksgiving weekend!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Day after Thanksgiving, Goa

Nov. 28 -- after a very lazy Thanksgiving day, I elected to hit the spa (I dissed sight-seeing in Goa. Hopefully the churches et al will be ready and waiting for my future visit. Frankly the idea of a 2 hour drive out of paradise didn't appeal).

This a.m. I checked in for my first massage in India. (Afterall, how could it be Thanksgiving vacation without me checking into a spa, noted Joe.)

I got there early so I could relax in the sauna, was then slipped into a robe, handed a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and shepherded into spa room 2 by a tiny Asian woman.

The first 25 minutes were devoted to deep tissue, back/neck. After all kinds of pressure point treatment, I'm sure I was partially into a heavenly coma.

Then she moved me to a chair for the Indian head massage. I'd experienced a bit of this in Jaipur (10 minutes for 20 rupees) and swore the guy found and addressed every bit of tension in my head/neck/shoulders in said 10 minutes.

This treatment was even better (music, aromatherapy, three times as long)...I was practically asleep.

Then I was shepherded back upstairs to the sauna, where I was allowed to relax for 10 minutes, pulled out (maybe they thought I'd pass out in there) and given warm herbal tea. (I'm not a big tea drinker but this was fantastic...when in Rome as the saying goes, or in this case, the Goa Intercontinental spa...).

After tea I was sheperded into a cold shower. I do mean COLD. The woman told me it was only for 2 minutes; that, I thought, would be a very long 2 minutes. Thankfully it was more like a 20 second rinse (automatic shower). Then into the steam room for 10 or 15 minutes of steam so thick she had to lead me to the bench.

I was then escorted to the shower. Plenty of service for a sauna experience that was absolutely over the top. No doubt it's spoiled the Lake Norman Y sauna for me...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Safe and sound in Goa -- Nov. 27

Just a quick note to say we're safe, though horrified by what's happening in Mumbai. Many thanks for all the notes of concern; we are grateful to know that all Bank of America associates here in India are accounted for.

Despite the terrorist issue we enjoyed a very relaxing Thanksgiving day on the beach in lovely Goa. Truly one of the most beautiful beaches I've experienced. Great food too, though Aileen's Thanksgiving menu is now running through my head.

We miss our friends and family and wish you all a wonderful holiday!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Monday, Nov. 24

Gorgeous weather here – cool and sunny, clearest air we’ve seen so far (let me define that: a little less haze than a month ago). So we headed outdoors to Lodi Gardens, a huge park in Delhi. Apparently it’s a hotspot for political bigwigs, accompanied by bodyguards, but we didn’t seen any of those (or their security was awfully subtle). We did see joggers, bikers, lots of young couples, a whole lot of birds and chipmunks, flowers and trees.

We checked out the 15th century tombs (Sayyid and Lodi dynasties) of Delhi’s last sultans (some still feature the original turquoise tilework and calligraphy). The Tomb of Muhammad Shah (r. 1434 – 44), the third ruler of the Sayyid dynasty, is said to be the oldest in the garden.

At the South End is a lovely stone bridge called Athpula (wich means eight piers), built in the 17th century.

We crisscrossed our way through the Gardens and exited a completely different spot from where we started! At that point we let Roop find us. And I let him track down a new phone charger for me, he was convinced I’d be gouged at the market given my foreign status. Probably true.

Note: this past weekend there were 10,000 weddings in the Delhi area! 10,000!!! There will be two more particularly wedding-packed weekends in Dec., according to the paper. One woman interviewed in a recent article about the wedding season (which Roop says is between Nov. and Feb.) said she plans to attend 25 this year! We've heard lots of fireworks and spied all kinds of party tents, decorated carriages, etc. around town.

Nov. 19 - 24 Back to Gurgaon

After a French toast breakfast (seem to prefer honey over syrup here) in Jaipur, we made good time back to Gurgaon and spent the remainder of the week getting settled back in, running errands. We found it easy enough to open a bank account here (yes, ironic, isn’t it, that Joe works for a bank – in fact is working for said bank here…).

Anyway, the challenge now lies in getting funds into the bank. Really only due to inept wire transfer instructions/expertise and probably too many people trying to help. (Seems like many hands like to get involved in all kinds of things here, big and small, which muddies the waters more often than not.)

I do believe we now have a handle on the banking situation. (While we’d love to visa it up, cash cash cash is king here, thus access to rupees proves helpful.)

Wed. we caught the tail end of coffee with the Gurgaon group as Citibank absorbed the morning, but a few women had lingered so we were soon off to coffee at a lovely New York woman’s home. She’s an Indian American lawyer building a home/office with her dad here in Gurgaon. We got a tour of her ecofriendly home (in an incredibly un-environmentally sensitive area). She showed us around a nearby market and left us to check out a lethally smelly pet store. 30+ bunnies, ½ dozen birds, one puppy and some ripe fish. Another blessing of hotel living: no pets allowed.


I had big plans to jet off into Delhi and join the British Council library today, as I’d been told it’s the best resource in the area for English books, and because I needed a good library fix. We did eventually find the place (Roop asked policemen, rickshaw drivers, auto drivers, turbaned men standing on corners, you name it, for directions).

As it turns out the library is adequate, membership is $70 for a handful of books and required documentation upon documentation. After learning the process, assessing the value and commute (it would be like going from Davidson into Charlotte during rush hour for a few books), I passed. We instead read half the kids section in our 2 hours there and stopped at the American Embassy to see what they offer.
Apparently their selection is less, just as much a process and only available a few hours a week. Hello bookstore, here we come.


Our friend Margie whisked us off to the Delhi connection’s bread/chocolate tasting at a new restaurant in Kahn Market (highly recommend it – called Chocolat). We met the owner, visited with the chef while he sliced bread and made acquaintance with several ladies from Europe/the U.S. Then we did some shopping, stopped at a theatre/arts place in Gurgaon for a look around and a walk through their art exhibit (met the chef at the restaurant there, too).

In the evening we met up w/ two Americans Joe had visited with when he was house hunting (make that hotel shopping) in September. We enjoyed Italian food and story swapping.


Our 11th anniversary! Who knew we’d be here when we started our life together 11 years ago?

We had a fun day – went to a bookstore (obviously I was obsessed with books this week), right prices, decent selection! And we checked out a grocery store (love grocery stores). Spencers caters to affluent Indians and foreigners, is most akin to the grocery store concept we know and had glass windows in front of the bakery. Kids parked there to watch the bakers churn out all kinds of fancy pastries, Joe ended up conversing w/ the store manager. And I checked out every aisle.

We also stopped at Cottage Industries, a store that sells handcrafted items at good prices. Nice gift items. TGIF’s for lunch (I know, not exactly anniversary material, but it sounded good!) And not bad vegetarian fajitas.

On that topic (vegetarianism), I have no plans to become one anytime soon, but I’m discovering it would be quite easy and satisfying here, given the wide array of DELICIOUS and satisfying vegetarian items. Must be all the wonderful lentils, yogurt, cheese, flavorful herbs, nuts, etc. I particularly like the cottage cheese that is used in so many different ways.

Now if only I could stop thinking about the millk – after seeing what seems like most of the Indian cow population grazing on trash (plastic bags have been a problem for them in particular) and undesirable plant material, I’d hoped to learn that their milk isn’t finding its way onto my breakfast table. Jai tells me there aren’t dairies here, just small producers…let’s hope he’s wrong or that the milk import business is strong. BST hsa become the least of my concerns.

So now we’ve been here 4 weeks, hard to believe. It’s been quite enjoyable! Some recent observations: men are everywhere, they clean our rooms, are chefs/waitstaff, drivers, business people, hoteliers, etc etc. Women are sprinkled throughout in the workforce but fewer (or at least from what I've seen). (Well, plenty are in the fields and at construction sites, carrying rocks regally on their heads, dressed in brightly colored saris).

In today’s paper was an article listing percentages of male births over female births, still occurring today, just as big a bias toward males than females in today’s more affluent areas (attributed to greater access to ultrasound technology, alternative procedures).

How strange to consider as we raise daughters in what we hope is the most egalitarian culture/fashion as is possible. Gender bias seems so pointless to me; I guess some things I’ll never understand and frankly why try.

On a lighter note, off to Goa this week and so looking forward to a relaxing Thanksgiving!

Day 10 of Rajasthan trip -- Jaipur

Our last day of the infamous Rajasthan trip! It’s been delightful – rich in wealth, art and beauty, people have been kind and engaging, enamored with the kids (to a fault), so willing to help. (Also so willing to have us spend and donate money!)

The shops we entered have pulled out tons of linens – seemed assured we’d drop 100’s of dollars in minutes – maybe lots of tourists do?

Some of what we saw was unpleasant; no doubt every country has that – trash here there and everywere (trash cans I notice, are rather scarce here). Children coming up to cars on busy streets begging. One particularly poignant site: a toddler, nude, sleeping on the pavement in the market in Pushkar, no one nearby attending him that I could see.

But overall, I am captivated by what I’ve seen of India so far – the dancers, music, saris, turbans, bargaining (love the markets!), the jewelry these women wear, the forts in their grandeur, the changing countryside : flat and dry, sandy and brushy, hilly with stone fences, hilly with monkeys and brushy trees, green mountains, rock walls, sand dunes, patchwork crops, thatched houses, stone dwellings, havelis, on and on.

But about today – we got moving early – ate a quick breakfast. The waiter mistakenly brought Jai 2 orders of yogurt and barindi (?) – some knd of cooked flatbread. It was quite good.

We made a quick stop at the Howa Mahal, Palace of Winds. It was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh so women of the court could discreetly take air and watch the street activity below. Five stories, the building is one room thick so wind passed easily through it and with water thrown on the latticework, the breeze would be cool.

The façade – with a delicate honeycomb design – has close to 1,000 windows and is pink sandstone.

As we left, we saw our first snake charmer – fascinating in a repulsive way.

We zipped on to Amer Fort, up on a mountain near Jaipur. It was originally the city center but as population grew and water sourcing became a problem the capitol shifted to Jaipur (early 18th century). Building of the fortress began in 1592 by Raja Man Singh and construction continued by Mirza Raja Jai Singh and Sawai Jai Singh over a period of 125 years.

When we pulled up we saw lots of other tourists with the same plan – early start to ride an elephant. Thus we cued up – nice morning to be outside and a great lawn area for the kids to play, so the wait wasn’t unpleasant. It was amusing to see all the marketing going on up and down the line – puppets, t-shirts, turbans, toys, elephant knickknacks, books, post cards, etc. The views were fabulous – could see the 11 km. of wall circling the fort and coming down the mountains.

Before long it was our turn on an elephant; Sanchel was his name. The kids and I hopped on one side, Jai on the other and we had an iron bar to hang onto on four sides, one that lifted for mounting/dismounting. We stood on a platform to get on, with a cushion to sit on. And up the ramp to the fort we went. It felt a bit like a boat ride, swaying back and forth on old Sanchel.

Each elephant’s face and trunk was decorated colorfully, with a big red cloth over the back.

We dismounted in the 1st courtyard of the fort (Jaleb Chowk) and looked around – lovely mix of Rajput and Moghul art & architecture. One of the gates, with a latticed corridor above, was used by the queen who, always in purdah (hiding) would await the king’s return from battle and sprinkle scented water and flowers down on him.

The next courtyard featured the Hall of Public Audience. The prettiest room, in my mind, was the Sheesh Mehal (Palace of Mirrors), decorated all over with tiny bits of mirror on the walls and ceiling.

Near it was a lovely garden (Islamic design) with a wide variety of flowers. From the top of the fort we could see Jaigarh Fort on the crest of a hill.

In the oldest part of the fort were 12 apartments, one for each of the king’s queens (2 special ones for his favorites). One of the apartments had a deep square bathtub in the center. Apparently the queens could not go to the king’s apartment; he used secret passageways to visit them. They also weren’t allowed into each other’s apartments so instead congregated in their own courtyard, where entertainment was often provided. Eunuchs were used to guard their premises.

Incidentally, the fort was never attacked – too well fortified. How’s that for a play on words?

We walked down to the car then, hounded most of the way by a photographer who’d taken our photo on the way up. Unfortunately, none of the photos were good so I passed. The guide walked me through Kanak Vrinkara Gardens – a set of gardens and temples below the fort with a great view of Man Sagar Lake (apparently oft used in Bollywood).

We also stopped at the Jal Mahal, a lake palace not open to the public. It was used for entertainment by the royal family and is called the Floating Palace because it does look like it's floating. (It did not originally have water around it, an artificial lake was made around it after its completion).

The place we stopped for photos was on the lake, a lovely area for strolling – lamp posts and plants decorating the pink stone walkway.

Our guide left us in the market once our tour finished, as we wanted to wander and grab lunch. In search of a necklace for Claire we were offered 2 (both of which she liked) – 1 for 50 R, the other 15. We ended up getting both for 15. Go figure.

I found a skirt, and our other purchase was hard candy.

For lunch we had more street food snacks – I really like those filled fried potatoes. Harder to find something the kids love. We wrapped up the market an hour or so later – Jai got several items, which he tried to pass off as my purchases.

We relaxed on the rooftop terrace of our hotel before dinner, then headed to Chokhi Dhani, an entertainment “village” I’d read about. Part museum, part Indian style carnival: camel and elephant rides, pony and oxen cart rides, human powered ferris wheel (I have my doubts it’s up to any code), roaring dinosaur and lagoon, puppet shows, juggling acts, magicians, dancers, etc. You pay a fee to get in, most things are covered within that cost.

Kids had fun on the carts and Jai got into an altercation w/ the guy running the tin can ferris wheel.

Dinner came w/ the entry fee – we sat on the floor (padded cushions) before short tables and ate with our hands (and the help of one small spoon). I loved it, tried all kinds of yummy items that I’d love to re-create but wouldn’t know how to start. Novelty was lost on the kids as, again, they’re suspicious of sauces. They were all over the pop corn we spied later. The place had lots of snack booths, and one man was stirring an immense bowl of milk over a fire, making some kind of drink – I was too full to sample it.

Nice way to end the trip!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Day 9 – Rajasthan Trip -- Pushkar to Jaipur

It was nice to have a slow morning; we ate breakfast in the courtyard of our palace – lovely setting for coffee and the paper. Cool weather, lots of palm trees and plants, toast and cornflakes, hot chocolate for Claire.

Afterward we walked to the lake and across the bridge, holy so off went the shoes. Incidentally, all this barefoot temple business is tough on the socks. Will need to throw a bunch away and start over soon.

It was great people/animal watching this morning; we saw a wide sampling of hermit-looking types – plenty of facial hair, bony bodies, haphazard clothing, some face paint. Many of them were in the water this morning, getting blessings, some bathing – accompanied by catfish, birds, a few cows on the bank…

From Pushkar it was a relatively short ride to Jaipur, passed more marble slabs and stopped at some roadside shops to check out marble products. Gorgeous stuff – again, the mortar & pestles of all sizes, decorations for the home/garden, rounds for rolling dough, table tops, etc.

Jaipur is big – 3 million people. It has Delhi’s big city throb and modern shops, elegant apartments, what looked like a hip movie theatre (Bollywood!), lots of traffic and markets. We eventually wound our way to the hotel, a lovely haveli.

Here we were greeted w/ pineapple juice and asked how long I’d be working for the American embassy…that rumor kills me.

Our first stop was the market in the Old City for lunch; we wanted a snack style lunch rather than a lengthy sit down meal – landed at a bustling café with standing tables and counters where you could order street food specialties (which I’d been dying to try but wasn’t sure about safety). This place was patronized by foreigners and Indians, so no worries.

A lovely woman who works at the shop took us under her wing and ordered for us – pizza for the kids (it came w/ chips on top and ketchup on the side. The one other time they had pizza at an Indian restaurant it was served with ketchup, too.)

I tried three different snack items – one stuffed with peppers (YUM), another a potato cake with some kind of chickpea filling (I'm guessing on the content – it was delicious) and one other yummy sweet/savory fried item. They came w/ a green sauce (cilantro and other herbs) which I dearly love and have had several times. And I ordered another fruit lessee, tasty but I preferred the first one I had. Stuffed, we moved onto sites.

Our first tour stop was the City Palace. Located in the center of Jaipur, it’s been home to the city’s rulers since the 1st half of the 18th century. Open and airy, the complex is a blend of Rajput and Moghul style architecture.

Part of it is now a museum, which we very much enjoyed: miniature paintings, manuscripts, carpets, musical instruments, royal costumes and weapons. We saw one of the world’s largest silver objects, an urn that carried Ganges water for Mahdra Singh II’s visit to London in 1901 (he took 2 of them). The weapons (i.e. daggers and swords, had gorgeous jeweled handles. One shield was made from crocodile skin, I saw another of leather with lovely detail. Guns weighing 50 pounds were displayed, used by mounting on camels.

One of the rulers (father of the current king I think) was a polo champion of the world (1957?). We saw lots of his polo gear – winter and summer outfits, photos, trophies. A portrait of him dressed rather royally (appropo, wouldn’t you say?) was located next to a statue depicting him in the same clothes.

One ruler was 7 feet tall, 4 feet wide, 500+ pounds. His clothes, too, were on display. Talk about needing a tailor job.

Our guide said the royal family – they have a daughter and have adopted her son or her husband (this adoption of a male was/is common in the royal families we’ve been learning about – cannot deviate from the male heir concept, I guess) live in private quarters in the Palace. While the king is a “common man” as our guide noted, he’s still very wealthy and a big supporter of the arts (as are other members of Jaipur’s leading citizens, he said).

Within the Palace grounds is an art shop with artists giving demonstrations of their work and displaying wares. The artists are handpicked by the government to be part of this studio. Ava and Claire were intrigued with watching them work. Two painters whipped out elephant drawings for the kids, using dainty paintbrushes made from squirrel hair.

We left the Palace and went next door to the Jantar Mantar, similar to the one we saw in Delhi. This one had been restored so was obviously in better condition. Of those Sanai Jai Singh II created, this one is largest, with 16 instruments, some still used to forecast weather. The Unnatarsha Yanta was used to determine star and planet positions. The Laghn Samrat Yanta (small sundial) calculates Jaipur’s local time (they now use India time but prior to British rule different regions used different time zones – Jaipur’s traditional time was 12 minutes behind the current Indian standard.) The small sundial is accurate within 20 seconds, our guide told us.

The Narivalaya Yanta is used to draw up horoscopes. And the Jai Prakash Yanta maps out the heavens, supposedly for Jai Singh to verify accuracy of his instruments.

Finished with monuments for the day, we headed to the market, which was busy but not crazy busy, as it was Sunday. Kids got some beads and Claire and I got henna paintings on one hand. Ava opted out but of course on the way to the hotel wanted one…

For dinner we went to Indiana, a place recommended by our guide, with music and Rajasthani dancing as we sat under the stars. Claire shed her inhibitions and danced on stage!

A word on bikes, as in bicycles. I believe I’d seen just about every kind of good that can be transported via bike on bikes here. But today surprised me. I saw a staircase go by on the back of a bicycle in heavy traffic. Mounted horizontally, it took up a lane of traffic. The driver didn’t seem the least bit phased.

Day 8 – Udaipur to Pushkar

We were in the car for a long time today – left Udaipur before 9:00, after breakfast and that great rooftop view.

On the road to Pushkar we saw slab after slab of marble, gathered and resting on its side. Literally went on for miles. We saw an elephant being carved out of marble, too – could see its rough form emerging.

Today we went through a relatively hilly area – lots of trees and stone walls. It again was quite picturesque, and we saw many people working/living in the fields along the road. For lunch we stopped at an Indian restaurant/tourist trap but I must say the vegetable/cheese dish I had was very good, this time more of a tomato/onion/celery stew. Reminded me of mom’s stews.

Along the way we passed a village where a festival in honor of a Hindu God was taking place. People were gathered in ceremony and sweets would be offered (or provided to the audience or both – not exactly sure what Jai was relaying). Looked like most of the town was in attendance.

We also passed a “melee” of animals that had been herded to a central spot from surrounding villages to buy/sell. Their owners walked them to the market, camping en route and during the sale. A few hundred were gathered with tents set up nearby.

Our hotel in Pushkar was the Pushkar Palace, recommended by my guide book. The building – truly a palace – was built by the Maharaja of Jaisalmer in the 15th century and was later presented to the Maharaja of Kishangarh. It sits by Pushkar Lake and has a beautiful courtyard in the middle. When we left our room, locking the door cracked me up; we’d been provided a padlock and key, so we bolted the door shut and slapped it on locker-style.

Pushkar was busy w/ activity when we drove in; Jai was all set to hire a local guide as our “program” didn’t include one but I said no – the sights were all within walking distance of the hotel, the main attraction being the Camel Fair that was going on the week of our visit.

The city is one of Hinduism’s holiest sites, with more than 500 temples. It’s a destination for many worshippers (makes it great for people watching -- all kinds of hippy-looking types wandering through).

Our first stop was the lake, where a Holy man was standing at the steps (the holy bathing ghats). He was leading people to the water to pray and recite a blessing in Sanskrit, paste a dot on the forehead and a string bracelet (denoting a blessing) on the wrist. All for payment of course. Feeling holy enough, kids and I passed.
Into town we headed, spying a big temple to the right – looked lovely. No foreigners allowed though.

Then we wandered through a bustling market that seemed to go on forever. I tried some sweets and snacks on the way through – saw lots of potatoes and other yummy smelling items being fried. Big vats of milk were being boiled and stirred to make sweets, stalks of sugarcane pressed through a cranking machine to render sweet juice for drinks, vendors selling silver (92.5%, 95% -- have never seen such labels), purses, material, clothes, stamps, china, mortar & pestle, pots and pans of all sizes, key chains w/ names inscribed on tiny rice inside, vegetables and fruits resting on cloths on the ground, scarves, camel and horse décor and on and on and on.

As we wandered the never-ending market we rounded a bend and spied THE Temple of Pushkar – Brahma Temple. It is located in the center of town, overlooking the lake. This one we were allowed to enter, without camera/cell phone. A long stairway took us up to the only temple of Brahma, who married the goddess Gayatri (some say she was a milkmaid). Savitri, his wife, cursed him and said he could only be worshipped in Pushkar.

It was an interesting temple to visit, largely because despite all the security and rules about cameras/phones to keep it a prayerful, quiet sanctuary, it was noisy, full of bees (who were after all the candy/flower donations) and beggars.

Past the temple, I kept expecting to get to an area where all the camels, horses and other stock would be gathered for buying and selling. But alas, I was disappointed; apparently the event – like the melee we’d seen on our drive but on a much larger scale – had already taken place. There were still tons of people around and all kinds of activities (carnival, animal rides, extra vendors, etc.) as the days before and after the actual sale comprise the fair.

We wandered through a lot of debris, where animals and owners had been (littering seems to be the norm in India, unfortunately). We did see 50 to 75 horses being taken care of – no horse rides, though, to Claire’s disappointment.

Since we’d already ridden a camel, we sought out a camel cart, bargained with the driver and took a spin. (I guess that might not be the most apt description for the plodding cartride.)

We were perched on a rubber-tired cart with padding and a blanket on top, actually not a bad ride once we got out of the streets. (Far smoother when the camel was pulling us through the sand; road conditions leave a lot to be desired in Pushkar!)
Our driver took us around the back of the fair area, which was quiet and afforded a lovely view of the sunset and mountains, then through a pavilion area where events (i.e. cricket games) are held.

After our ride we wandered back through the market; I got a purse for 100 rupees (I do enjoy the bargaining!). Jai got a banner decoration for his home’s “man entrance” – had no idea there was such a thing. I thought maybe he meant main entrance, but when he said it would make his home auspicious when "mans" come to visit, I took that to mean it’s the male entryway to the house. Maybe the garage?!?

On the subject of Jai, I don’t think he knows what to make of me – I think he was expecting a little lady who needed to be taken care of and who was afraid of her own shadow. A few times I found him trying to check into the hotel for me and making decisions about our itinerary, and every time I tried to converse w/ the driver (who spoke just as good English as Jai) he jumped in, wanting me to ask him the question, then passing my question onto Naresh, and vice versa. Egads. When I pushed back – diplomatically I might add – he’d make some comment like “Madame I am at your disposal” – not sure if that was for my benefit or a reminder to himself.

It was 7:00 by the time we got back from the market so washed off the travel & Pushkar fair dust and had dinner on the roof, with a lovely nighttime view of the lake. I just ordered soup and the waiter warned me it would be spicy – they must be used to gringos who can’t handle “hot.” So far I haven’t encountered anything with too much heat – must be those years in Texas.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Day 7 Rajasthan trip -- Udaipur

What a lovely city -- this Udaipur -- as thiemorning’s golden light shone on the white houses (wouldn’t you know it; Udaipur is nicknamed the white city).

We had breakfast on the roof; Ava’s all about the toast with butter. Well really she’s all about the butter, toast optional.

Our first stop of the day was the Royal Heritage Palace, part museum, part hotel, part shops, part private residence. The place is, obviously, huge – largest of its kind in Rajasthan, covering 5 acres. It was built/added to by 23 different Maharanis between the 16th and 20th centuries.

The shops in the Palace house works from artists invited here from Kashmir to work due to the unrest there. The king and his family still reside in part of the Royal Palace. A fountain out front indicates whether they’re home or away; if it’s running they’re in residence. Apparently the king has a collection of 26 or 28 vintage cars, one we saw parked out front. He is 62 years old and has an heir to the throne (must be male) as well as 2 daughters. The son is 24 and studied hotel management in Australia (the family isn’t political; they own a bunch of hotels).

For the palace tour we went through the museum, saw “elephant parking” in the first courtyard – an area of stone with indentations for elephants to rest comfortably (as comfortably as hard stone allows, I guess) and posts to which they were once chained. Around this spot is now, appropriately , tourist vehicle parking.

This main courtyard is a public area where events are held and a restaurant serves meals.

Inside the palace were a number of other courtyards, one for the Holy Festival (dying and spraying of water), one for theatre/entertainment, one that is used today for royal events, etc.

And in the palace are paintings and décor from different Maharaja reigns. Of interest was a horse that gave its life to save one of the rulers, who was wounded in battle. The horse jumped across a river to where the ruler’s brother had another horse, with which he was able to escape. His own horse had been a favorite and had gone into battle wearing an elephant mask to trick enemy elephants into thinking he was a baby elephant so they would want to protect it rather than do harm.
The horse was depicted in a number of paintings and we saw a statue of it in the city later.

Also of interest throughout the museum were miniature paintings with tons of details, which told stories. A precursor to animation, some paintings showed various stages of events – i.e. tiger hunting, wherein 3+ pictures of the same tiger were painted (tiger sleeping, tiger awakened by hunt, tiger running, tiger cornered…you get the idea.

We saw where the ruler sat on a low couch, and were told nobles had to sit on the floor, as no one could sit at the same level as the Maharaja. One ruler was known for giving to the poor and had a big marble bin – cut from a single piece of marble – to hold coins for distribution. (BTW there is plenty of marble in buildings around Rajasthan, as the stone is abundant in the region. Also abundant near Udaipur, we were told, are gems and silver.

One ruler had a polo accident at 20 and was confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. We saw his quarters. In the 1930’s – when electricity came to the palace – a lift was installed with a false door next to it. Apparently he liked to play tricks on guests, telling them to take the lift behind that door while he took the other.

That ruler had 3 wives (not all at once), the last a Krishna who had a separate kitchen from the one used by the people.

Toward the tour’s end we saw photos of the ruling family and other artwork throughout the ages.

After leaving the palace we walked around it to the dock for a boat ride on Lake Pichola. The area around along the shore was lovely, with numerous mango trees and other foliage. (Apparently magoes are harvested May-July so no fruit on these trees.)

The boat tour was scenic, we saw tons of ducks and algae, people washing their clothes , a few bathers, some cows drinking at the edges. Multi-use. And it made Wisconsin’s Lake St. Germain look incredibly clean.

In the center we docked at Jag Mandir, which was built in 1620. Eight stone elephants – gorgeous white marble -- stand guard at its entrance. Between 1623 and 1624 the island palace – built for summer entertainment -- provided refuge to Prince Khurram (who later became Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan) while he rebelled against his father. The structure is reputed to have provided ideas for the Taj Majal. It now features a restaurant and spa, lovely gardens for wandering, and an exhibit about restoration.

After the boat ride we walked past the palace private quarters, then stopped at a coffee chain restaurant for small pizzas and a wonderful iced coffee that the kids sampled and loved. Don’t worry, I won’t turn them into coffee addicts yet.

We then hit a silver shop, where Claire and Ava checked out their birthstones. Then onto Saheliyon Ki Bari, a garden created for a queen of Udaipur and her lady friends. (Her dowry included 48 maids!) Here no men were allowed, and the women could bathe in one of the two swimming pools and enjoy the fountains and lavish gardens, with a wide array of trees and flowers.

One pool has four elephants, carved from marble, with water spouting from their trunks.

At the end of our tour, we decided to take up our hotelier’s offer of pool at his brother’s hotel, located a few kilometers away. He arranged an auto for us and off we went. (Our hotel -- sans pool -- was in a great location for wandering Udaipur -- this other property was a bit removed, in a scenic hilly area overlooking the city).

About the auto: it's a three wheeled job that sounds like it has a weak motorcycle motor inside. No real doors, it’s an airy ride, designed to fit a couple people but here we’ve seen them packed to the gills.

The auto that took us to the pool was even more beat up than most, it seemed, as was the driver. We were told to pay at the end, so when the guy stopped at a petrol station en route and hit me up for 50 R I said no. (The total fare was 100; frankly I didn’t have any small bills and didn’t want the fare to disappear before we got where we wanted to be.)

Meanwhile someone put a wine-bottle sized container of petrol in the auto, which had been sputtering since we started this trek. All kinds of hands flew and angry words were exchanged as the driver came up short w/ cash for the ride, so a minute later someone came out w/ a small hose and siphoned out the wine-bottle sized amount of petrol!

And another guy appeared with a 7-up bottle of petrol instead, which apparently the driver could afford.

Then off we went to the pool! The auto guy wanted to hang out until we were done to assure himself another fare but we passed; I wasn’t too confident of his auto, nor did I want to be held to his timetable.

Kids had fun in the water – it was a lovely facility – and they chased pigeons until it was time to head back to the hotel.

Word on signs: on this trip (and since arrival in India) some of the signs in English that I see kill me. “Ruby Thursday” (not sure if they’re trying to do an offshoot of Ruby Tuesday?), Hot Showars, Bear and Wine (with Beer spelled appropriately below), English Wine (who knew the English had a reputation for vintnering?), “This area prone to accidents.” The list goes on.

The return auto ride was much more normal – nicer vehicle, driver was very cordial and not frazzled. There was even a bar on one side to help ensure a passenger didn’t slip out.

As we passed down the hill and around a bend the sun was setting – a big golden red circle with pink/peach filtering around it. We climbed up to our rooftop restaurant for a view, then got ready for the special Rajasthani dance program at the Bargore ki Haveli. It’s performed nightly in an old haveli courtyard under the stars. The building was originally a guesthouse and is lovely, white with frescoes/niches for oil lamps inside. A big tree shot up in the middle; its leaves falling on us during the performance.

The people at the hotel – who were so good to us – escorted us to the haveli when Jai was late.

For the audience thick blankets had been laid over low benches and the gorund. We opted for the gorund up front so were very close to the band and action. The first song was to welcome us, then dancing began – all traditional, most originating in Rajasthan. One young woman (the first dancer) danced w/ a pot of fire on her head, bending, moving quickly, twirling, the whole bit.

Two older women then performed, seated, with bells on their arms, legs and feet.

A puppeteer, typically hidden but in this case exposed so we could see his art, handled 2 puppets (separately) to music.

The first was a female puppet doing all kinds of dance moves. The 2nd was a male puppet whose head kept popping off and the puppet kept reaching for it, first with arms, then legs – fun and light-hearted entertainment.

Other dances included one where a group of beautifully costumed women swayed to the music, a dance that is performed as an exhibition of pride in culture, family, purity.

The grand finale was a middle-aged woman who danced with pots on her head – a Western Rajasthani dance (area of water scarcity so women learn at an early age to banlance more than 1 pot of water, carrying it from the village well). More and more pots were added as she danced. She even got down on the floor – with pots on her head – to grasp a scarf with her lips – and she danced on glass and on a pie-tin shaped object, making one side of it go up, the other down, more and more rapidly as she spun around. The last few pots had to be added by her helper as he perched on a stool – for a total of 10!

She danced for a very long time and what a sight. We took photos with her at the end, then sought out the Abrei restaurant, which our guide recommended. It is set on the water – a stunning nighttime view of the hotel in the center of the lake (THE place to stay if you have deep pockets when you come to Udaipur – it was featured in the James Bond movie Octopussy!) and the Jag Mandir, which we’d toured earlier.

I had a rajasthani lamb specialty, which was fabulous, and the kids had the freshest chicken they’ve had since we arrived; the water warned me it would take a few minutes longer to prepare as the chefs had to cut it up first. Wonderful meal and much enjoyed by the kids, who’ve been troopers about trying new things but certainly enjoy the familiar. (They are a bit skeptical of all the food that comes in sauces.)

Day 6 of Rajasthan Trip -- Jodhpur to Udaipur

A bigger car day, we set off after the waiter hooked the kids up w/ pancakes. We made a stop at a craftsman’s hut – a stone dwelling w/ a small bedroom/living area made from grass hut in one corner, outdoor kitchen/living area in center, another indoor living/working area on the other side.

A woman was making bread outside over the fire while the craftsman (a 50+ year old man) sat on the ground working at a frame made from sticks. He was weaving a rug and demonstrated the technique and pattern, which he said he knows from memory/practice. Apparently his father/grandfather had also been rugmakers.

His wife pulled out some rugs for a demonstration, some made from camel hair, some cotton. After bargaining we did leave with a rug – a simple cotton piece that will remind me of the people of Rajasthan. It was a much better buying experience than the polished sales pitches at some of the stores we’d visited, and putting the money directly in their hands seems better than wondering if the artists get the compensation they deserve through the more commercialized retail process.

Onward we drove, camel sighting becoming fewer and further between. More greenery was cropping up, along with more villages. We started to see hills and eventually stopped for lunch, then to the Ranakpur Jain temples for a look around.

One of the five most important pilgrimage sites of Jainism, it's located in the Aravali ranges. Also one of India's largest Jain Temples, it is exceptionally beautiful.

Ranakpur is named after Rana Kumbha whom Dharna Sah, a Jain businessman, who had a vision of the temple and asked for the land for its construction. It was built in AD 1439.

Per the Internet:

In addition to the main temple rhere are four subsidiary shrines. Altogether the complex has 1,444 columns, all intricately carved with no two alike. The artistically carved nymphs playing the flute in various dance postures at a height of 45 feet are an interesting sight. In the assembly hall, there are two big bells weighing 108 kg whose sound echoes in the entire complex. The main temple is a Chaumukh or a four-faced temple dedicated to Adinath.

OUr temple experience:

Garlands of orange flowers hung in the entryway where a guard kept yelling at anyone with a camera not to photograph those in prayer. His ascerbic (?) yells ran contrary to a prayer environment in my mind.

We circled the place left to right and found gray monkeys hanging off one side. Later one was caught eating garland inside the teample and the noisy guard came yelling after it with a broom. It (the monkey) must be used to getting in trouble, as it scampered around the pillars like it owned the place.

I got another dot on my forehead in the temple; someone was rolling something out with water (I assume), making a special paste to put on foreheads. The kids were all for me pulling out a wipe and removing the Jain temple evidence.

Outside we saw more monkeys and went into another temple, smaller and darker.
We also ran into a persistent young man with a camera phone who tried three times to take photos of the kids. The first two times I pleasantly asked him not to; the third time I yelled at him and told him he was rude. That’s the last we saw of him. Soon my photo will be in the paper for reaming the natives about photography.

The rest of our drive was very scenic, through hills with new roads, where layers of rock – pink, peach, opaque -- flanked both roadsides.

The geography gradually became steeper with wicked switchback curves. The road took us through Sarkiska National Park, a protected wildlife area where tigers, leopards, jackals, caracals (?) and jungle cats are said to reside (unfortunately we didn’t spot any).

Our driver laid on the horn before we went around every bend (narrow road, sheer drop offs, plenty of cars going too fast). Thank God for the horn; you simply couldn’t navigate the road here without it.

Incidentally, I’m becoming desensitized to a variety of things, one of those the driving styles. It no longer alarms me when we’re playing chicken w/ a bus or big truck, ducking back into our lane at the last minute. And no, this isn’t for those late teen thrills, it’s the way driving is done, at least through all roads in Rajasthan (no doubt everywhere else in India too).

En route we saw a few more gray monkeys and tossed an apple discard to one; he was on that core in a flash.

With the windows down we enjoyed the breeze, turning in and out up the hills looking for wildlife. The hills were mostly covered w/ trees, a few with hints of orange. Once out of the switchbacks the scene turned more to a rolling topography – gorgeous mountain backdrop and small patches of worked land. We saw many stone walls on the way, marking pastures and farm plots. And lots of peasant homes – huts and the like.

Here and there people worked in the fields. I really was amazed with the beauty of the land – so different from Gurgaon/Delhi and from the sandy, dry parts of Rajasthan.

Some tall green grasses shot out of irrigated areas, almost like fronds, not sure what they were – rice? Didn’t seem wet enough for that – maybe another type of grain. We pulled over to see an old-fashioned well – a big wheel being pulled by 2 white oxen, a gap-toothed, weathered, middle-aged man in white following them slowly around in a circle.

We looked into the well – deep but could see the pool of water at the bottom. Buckets on the chain brought water to the top as the oxen powered the pulley. Stones lined the interior of the well.

After checking the operation out Jai and our driver commandeered some kind of green nubby fruit from a nearby tree. Jai paid a young boy a couple pence for climbing it.

Onward we drove to Udaipur. And what a surprise it was! Really windy, narrow streets like those in Italy, the car squeezed by motorbikes, walkers, autos…approximately 10 mintues of winding – quickly – through the alley-like streets we landed at our hotel, checked in and relaxed.

We went up to the roof (the roof is the thing in Udaipur – it’s a lovely, hilly city with lake in the middle so the views are just amazing). Our hotel restaurant was up there, so we got a great view as the sun started to descend.

The kids and I then headed out to explore; we were directed to a foot bridge (though ended up on a non-foot bridge which served the purpose) which led to the market in the old city. Claire found a bangle shop – tiny space with a lovely young woman and her daughter manning it. The mom lifted Claire in for a closer look and she chose a set of 14 purple bracelets – 50 rupees.

Then we watched the sun continue its set on a Greek rooftop café overlooking all kinds of temple activity. (Apparently it was a Hindi holiday involving water; we saw many people swimming in the lake, which really didn’t hold too much appeal given the debris floating around in it…). Candles were being lit and placed in the water and many Indians were gathered on the steps near the temple in celebration.

We went down for a closer look, then did some more market browsing (I found a long, fun skirt – which I bargained with a 15 year old for. He's quite the young salesman already!).

On the subject of clothing, so far the sari piece doesn’t hold much appeal to me – not sure how I’d put it on/keep it on and not trip. Plus my white skin just doesn’t seem to fit the look. But I do like some of the skirts/gauzy shirts I’ve seen.
Later in the evening we had dinner at a very cool restaurant – Savage Garden – which I highly recommend should you end up in Udaipur. Kids were thrilled to received Cadbury chocolate bars from the waiter as a little treat on the way out. First chocolate they’d seen since Halloween.

I also highly recommend Udaipur – very romantic, lovely city!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Day 5 of Rajasthan trip – Manvar Camp, Jodhpur

This morning I woke early and listened to breakfast being prepared, sat outside and watched the sunrise over the desert. A man with turban, barefoot, with child perched in front, came dashing in on a black horse. Not sure if he was late for work, adding to the desert effect or simply dropping in for coffee.

We wandered up for breakfast – kids enjoyed the hard boiled eggs and Claire was all over the oatmeal. Our luggage was collected via camel cart, and we rode out of Manvar Camp with our French friends, Sebastian and Cecile (from Nice) via jeep.

Back at Manvar hotel we met up w/ our driver and left for Jodhpur, a relatively short drive. As we traveled the area grew more populous; we passed through more villages and a hodge podge of activity in each. In Jodhpur we checked into the Shree Ram Int’l, greeted with red dots on the forehead for hospitality and small glasses of coke. The kids aren’t into the red dot thing, but they were all over the coke. (I wonder if they serve all guests coke or just us burger eating/coke drinking Americans?)

Our guide met us in the lobby and off we went to yet another fort -- Mehrangarh Fort, this one not a living museum.

Mehrangarh Fort is set high on a hill, a very tall, large sandstone structure. (It rises out of a 410 ft high rock). We took the elevator to the top, where we got an even better view of the blue city, so named for its many blue homes, painted for coolness -- the heat gets REALLY intense here – 120+ F.)

Founded by Rao Jodha in 1459 (and added to by later rulers), the fort has a wall around it as it was attacked so additional reinforcement was deemed necessary. Inside didn’t have the same mazelike feeling of the previous fort – some narrow passages but overall structure was more open. (FYI on fort construction: most have narrow passageways and low doorways for a couple reasons: defense -- the tight spaces make it harder for armies to infiltrate quickly, low doorways force men to bend so they’re better targets for having their heads cut off. The lower doorways also help minimize sand influx during sandstorms.

An art exhibit was set up in one section, nice variety of abstract and traditional-style paintings.

The fort’s meeting rooms stood out in my mind, rich in décor, containing pieces from various reigns – thrones, cushions, photos, etc. The men’s parliament room had a balcony area where women (family royalty) could sit and watch presiding, sending paper messages to the Madrajah via messengers when they wanted to share an opinion.

We saw two or three courtyards; the architecture surrounding them was gorgeous – mix of Islamic and Hindu. Apparently the miniature paintings we saw in the fort were also a mix of Islamic and Hindu technique (different colors, different ways of depicting faces, etc.). Swords and weaponry, elephant seats, seats to carry ladies by hand (palanquins (?), including one that was huge and opulent, requiring 12 men to shlep and other museum pieces. Portraits of leaders were done in profile, style of the times.

In one courtyard – Shringer Chowk – is the coronation throne of Jodhpur rulers. Every man after Rao Jodha was crowned in it. (The current king was crowned at 4 years old as his father was killed in a plane accident.)

In one room (the Miti Mahal or Hall of Private Audience) the ceiling is decorated w/ mirrors and golf leaf, crushed seashells were mixed w/ plaster to give the walls a lustrous shine. (Note: 1 of the rulers: Maharaja Takhat Singh – reigned from 1843-73 and had 30 queens and numerous concubines. Yipes.
On the way down the fort we saw holes where cannon balls had damaged the walls in an attack.

We were hit up by vendors as we exited, one who showed us tie-dye scarves, a little different than the colorful versions we create. Knots are tied, then a particle of fabric is popped off. He showed me how to tie the scarf on but I passed on purchasing. The next vendor showed his fabric stamping technique to the kids and stamped their hands w/ henna flowers, which made their day.

From the Fort we stopped at Jaswant Thada, the 19th century cenotaph of Maharaja Jaswant Singh II. It's a marble memorial (e.g. Taj Mahal) and fine lattice carvings throughout. The Maharaja is renowned for his innovative irrigation systems, which helped bring water and prosperity to the land. The locals apparently still offer prayers and flowers at the shrine, and cenotaphs of subsequent rulers/family members are also located here.

After lunch we wandered through the market for a look at the clock tower, built in 1912. It serves as center of the market and city. We stopped at a little crowded cafe known for its lassis (a sweet milk-based concoction – kind of custardy/milk shake-y, which was very good).
Here’s wikipedia’s definition of said drink: Lassi is a popular and traditional Indian drink originating from the Punjab region. It is made by blending yogurt with water, salt, pepper, ice and spices until frothy. Traditional lassi is sometimes flavored with ground roasted cumin. Lassi is also available as sweet with sugar.
Next up was a stop at a tea and spice shop for a demonstration of both – got to sniff all kinds of stuff and try a special blend of tea traditional to Kasmir. It was lovely.
We wandered the market (Sardar Bazaar), and saw so much it was hard to absorb – fruits and vegetables that I did and did not recognizes, scales of all shapes and sizes, tons of jewelry, a dozen varieties of rice, piles and piles of dried fruit, linens, the list goes on and on. I just love wandering the market – not so much to buy but to check it all out.
Later, after dinner in our hotel courtyard, we were asked if we’d like to see a magic show – couldn’t say no to that. A turbaned gentleman in white brought out a big gym bag with magic supplies and set up in front of us (just us – nice private show). He made a coin turn to stone and vice versa, 2 coins drop from Jai’s pants and a flower appear before my eyes. The best act – the last – was when he made 3 chickens (?) appear – kids got to pet them and let them perch on their arms.

Day 4 Rajasthan Trip -- Jaisalmer

I write this from a tent in the desert. We woke this a.m. in Jaisalmer, nicknamed the Golden City for its many sandstone buildings, as sandstone prevalent in the area. Apparently it hardens over time, hence its use structurally abounds.

Our breakfast was had on the terrace in lovely weather (we had fabulous weather throughout this trip; cool mornings and evenings, warm/sunny with little wind mid-day).

I tried a new juice, some kind of orange/lime fruit? Very tasty.

First on the tour agenda was a visit to Gadisar Lake, made by men in the 12th century to collect water, a very precious resource in the area. (Water, in fact, was heavily recycled by people of this and other areas – 1st for bathing, then washing clothes and homes, finally for watering livestock.)

Around the lake are temples and lots of seating (outdoor theatre style – called ghats). Our guide said Hindus of different castes/sub-castes each have specific ghats where they sit and pray at special times (honoring dead, etc.).
Because of its value water plays an extremely significant role in religion and culture here.

The lake’s abundant catfish, peacocks and other birds are fed by Hindus as they come to worship. They believe good deeds come full circle (simplistic explanation from your Christian blogger before I’ve had enough coffee), hence the caretaking of these animals and other goodwill gestures. Because the lake is a holy body of water nothing is harvested from it.

Our guide gave the kids and me bread to feed the catfish, which emerged as a huge wiggling whiskery mound. The kids loved feeding them, laughing at their long whiskers and wide open jaws.

We then visited the Temple, where a holy man was chanting, saw bats hanging in one part of it, enjoyed the lovely architecture and shrines. Note on the lake: a courtesan wanted to have a gate made for her in commemoration, as she’d had no children. She didn’t ask permission from the king, though, so it was going to be torn down. Thinking quickly, she added a temple to thwart construction!

Two other small gates were later added so people who didn’t like the courtesan could pass through those, rather than hers. To this day, the guide said some people still choose to avoid the courtesan’s gate.

Our guide explained a bit more of the Hindu faith, then we drove to the Fort, a living one where more than 4,000 people today reside. (We were told that the sandstone foundation is suffering because of the impact today's water system has on the material.)

Built in 1156 (with building continuing into the 1300’s) by the Bhati Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal, it was attacked twice to no avail. It is one of the largest desert forts in the world, with “massive yellow sandstone walls a tawny lion color during the day, turning to a magical honey-gold as the sun sets and camouflages the fort making it appear a part of the picturesque yellow desert.” (Thank you, Fodor’s travel book).

Like the Bikaner fort, the Golden Fort has been used in movies. It has tiny lanes throughout, where markets and restaurants abound. I think 7 temples can be found within its walls, 5 Hindi, 2 Jain. We toured the latter as the Hindi ones weren’t open for visitors yet.

The temples' “honeycomb” architecture, with its white detail, was lovely. One temple was larger, with more light and was hosting an auction (religious but not sure what was really happening there). We walked upstairs to enjoy the “balcony” view and looked at all the shrines on the walls around the main body of the temple, wandering through left to right as is the custom.

About this time we realized Ava’s feet were suffering from new flip flops (less than a buck and deliver blisters too) so Jai and I took turns carrying her around the fort.

Life inside was bustling, women cleaning their houses, cows wandering through, puppies playing (much to the kids’ delight).

BTW we see a lot of dogs roaming the streets here (probably why Donna recommended rabies shots…), so far they all seem to be the same breed (no idea what it would be, but sort of your non-descript skinny brown dog). Puppies are cute, though.

And of course the fort was full of shopkeepers hawking their wares. We saw big sandstone balls perched on the fort walls, ready for use defending the facility if needed, ramps that could be oiled to prevent enemy elephants and their riders from entering, “gutters” that helped collect water and pull it into storage systems for use later and so many more structural and aesthetic details.

To announce an upcoming wedding to the community, it is a tradition here in Jaisalmer to paint on the outside of the house a decoration w/ date and names of brides/grooms. We saw many of these paintings, as they leave them up. Wedding announcement sans newspaper.

Word about desert travel: as we rode in the car on our journey to this area my eyes were killing me – must be the fine sand. One keeps weeping. Obviously too harsh a climate for lily-livered me, even in winter!

We left the fort to wander into the local market – all the hustle and bustle of the night before. Here we stopped at havelis – one a huge mansion built by a wealthy man for his 5 sons. Each of the 5 parts of the home are 7 stories (2 basement). One part can be entered today and is a shop. We went in, enjoyed the art/architecture (original) throughout.

The other haveli we entered was built by 2 brothers. Both sides look the same and are symmetrical but many of the details varied (statues, windows, entry décor, etc.)

Our tour wound up back at the car and off we went to Manvar Camps!

We stopped en route for lunch; I had some fabulous cottage cheese dish w/ a green sauce – to die for. Maybe cilantro/basil/oil and who knows what else? As noted, the cottage cheese is really big clots of cheese, more like ricotta/mozzarella in texture, very mild and tasty.

The Manvar experience started at Manvar Resort, a facility that really does feel like an oasis. You arrive to its green, lush courtyard with gorgeous shady trellises and verdant gardens after shlepping through miles of dry, brushy surroundings with increasing numbers of sand dunes (somewhat of a cross between Arizona, eastern Wyoming and Nevada – minus the cacti -- in my mind). The resort feels/looks cool and refreshing, and of course we were met w/ cool wet cloths and cool, refreshing glasses of juice.

Upon checking in, our luggage was whisked into a jeep by turbaned Indians, as were we and a couple from France. We were then driven over a sand road deeper into dunes, probably a 15 minute ride into the heart of the desert. We passed goats, a few cows, some local inhabitants’ houses (huts of adobe and grass).

Around a bend we came upon the camp – white tents arranged in a circle with camels sitting at the bottom. Men with colorful turbans were attending them. We were settled into unit 1, closest to the mess tent and could see torches and an area for entertainment in the center.

Our room: a wide tent with double twins, chairs and curtains that went up and down to allow/curtail ventilation, porch out front with 2 chairs and a lantern, bathroom in back (lovely stone tile and running water, I might add). Very much like a hotel room, but of course w/ the desert ambience. Upscale camping!

We zipped down for camel rides immediately, were the 1st to get on. Our camel’s name was Vinto – all 3 of us rode him, Ava and Claire in front, me behind the hump. The lurch getting up was sudden and intense, had to hold on tight as the camel came up rump first to his kneeds, then the rest of the way. We were sauntered around by one of the young turban-adorned attendants, sporting loose white pants and what looked like leather slippers (common attire for the area).

He took us down the road a bit, then into the desert where Vinto nibbled from a couple of trees. Across a sandy expanse and up a hill, we traversed to a popluar sunset-viewing area. There we dismounted, again a big lurch, then relaxed for the sunset, joined by a big group of French people. It was another mangificent sunset, light yellow to start, changing to pink, then peach, then peachy orange, finally disappearing, leaving the sky a lovely shade of peach.

Back on Vinto, we returned to the tents, relaxed a bit and joined the group in front of the band. We perched on low couches behind short tables featuring candles and plates. Appetizers -- nuts, grilled cheese and chicken on toothpicks -- circulated while we listened to desert music and watched dancing. An outdoor bar was set up too. The women dancers wore darker saris with lots of jewelry and fancy veils, they were fun to watch, as were 2 boys in white costumes and white turbans. Ava and I took part in the dancing after 1/2 the French entourage jumped on state.

The entertainment ended with a splay of fireworks in the distance, then we moved to the tent for a buffet dinner and fell asleep to the murmur of French people. (Easy to tune out when you can't eavesdrop.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Day 3, Rajasthan Trip

Bikaner to Jaisalmer

After a buffet breakfast at the hotel (yogurt was quite good, as I’d been told; kids enjoyed the familiar: cornflakes and toast) – and while roasted tomatoes aren’t what I’d typically consider b’fast food, they were yummy too!) Then began our long journey to Jaisalmer.

We stopped at Khichan, near Phalodi, to see hundreds of demoiselle cranes gathering around its lake (a typical sight from Sept. through March, my guide book says).

Several Indian children – barefoot despite rocks/gravel – rushed over and posed for photos, then wanted to see themselves on my digital camera. We walked to the cranes’ spot and observed them – blue/gray – then were invited (by these children) to view their home – a grass hut with what looked like an adobe foundation (today we saw a lot of sandstone huts, many set up villa fashion – a bit of a Mexico feel).

A baby goat hopped up on the outdoor beds, and a half nude baby (we saw a lot of them on our trip too – usually w/ t-shirt on and nothing else) wandering around, attended to by the children and a wrinkled old man dressed in white.

Upon departing we got asked for money so apparently they’re quite used to tourists and getting paid for modeling.

A word about Jai, our security guy. On the first day of our journey he informed me quite seriously that he doesn’t smoke, eat meat or drink. No doubt I took the wind out of his sails when I later ordered a Kingfisher and enjoyed a meal of lamb. I suppose I could also have lit a cigarette, as I’ve been known to do that, too…

From the birds we continued on our journey – more sand, fewer camels, fewer people, more army camps and trucks. We got to our lovely fort/castle-looking hotel with pool mid-afternoon, promptly took advantage of the water, then sunbathed until it was time to go for a special sunset viewing from a Hindi monument on a hillside overlooking the city.

Note about angry mother – me: while we were at the pool an employee tried to take photos of the kids and scared Ava to tears. I was at the other end of the pool, so came back, asked the woman to please leave her alone and calmed Ava down. Ten minutes later I was again finishing a lap at the other end of the pool when repeat performance occurred, same hotel employee. At this point I yelled at the woman, who vanished and hopefully won’t torment any other poor unsuspecting 3 year olds.

The sunset was amazing, and we had plenty of company – locals and tourists – enjoying the view over the city, fort and all. Dozens of windmills could be seen on the horizon (took me back to my drive through Wyoming this past summer.)

After the sunset we went to the local market in search of new flip flops for Ava as I left hers at our first stop. We scored at the 2nd shop, did a bit of bargaining (less than a buck), then checked out the rest of the market – great sights/sounds – people getting hair cuts in open air stalls, cows wandering around, motorcycles dodging pedestrians and everything else filling the streets. Ava scored on 2 bracelets, I got a set of bangles, then we headed to dinner at the hotel.

We were pleasantly surprised with a lovely buffet in the courtyard and entertainment by a Rajasthani band and dancers, outfitted in turbans and traditional dress. The kids had fun dancing on the grass near them (but steered clear of being part of the act). A great night under a lovely starry sky!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Day 2, Rajasthan trip

Ok -- I digress from Rajasthan for a minute to note that the hotel grapevine here at the fine Crowne Plaza is working well; seems like the entire staff knew we went on a 10 day excursion out west. They all seem to know where we went and what we did, too...did someone pass on our itinerary?!?

After breakfast with Simon we left Manvar, headed for Bikaner. We stopped at a village just outside Manvar to explore a few more havelis, led by an English guide who met us there. One haveli was the size of a city block, again with lovely frescoes inside and out.

As we wandered the village the morning hustle and bustle was in full swing, people doing their housekeeping, pigs, goats, cows (one that got up close and personal w/ Claire), horse-pulled cart (more of a rarity here -- we've seen most pulled by donkeys, camels, the occasional oxen). The market was getting going; we stopped at a stall to watch how a craftsman -- small wizened fellow with dyed hair (sort of orange/red -- makes bracelets. (Btw since we've been in India we've seen quite a few red dye jobs on men).

He showed us how he made them using some kind of metal (?), rolling it over a hot plate until it became long and thin, melding color into it -- orange and green. When he judged it long enough and the same circumference around he cut it, dipped the ends in hot charcoal and fused them. The piece was then dropped in water for cooling and given to Ava, whose wrist it fit beautifully. He made one for Claire too. (No, this wasn't free, of course, but cheap!).

Afterward we saw an immaculately restored haveli, and were invited to climb to the top of another for a view of the city by the family living in it.

Into the car again we headed to Bikaner, which is less than 100 miles east of the Pakistan border (and heavily fortified w/ military presence given its proximity to its neighbor country).

A note about covering faces -- I saw many women doing so throughout Rajasthan (not sure if they were formally following perdah, wherein they cover their faces in front of strangers and men other than their family) or protecting skin from sun or both, but it seems to run contrary to how open many men are with performing their ablutions (sp?). (Bathroom has taken on a whole new definition in my mind after being here for a few weeks -- as has house in general. The whole emphasis on outdoor living space need not be marketed here.)

The aridness, sand and dry brush of the desert became more apparent as we traversed westward to Bikaner. The city has a 9% Moslem population (significantly lower than Manvar and the other village we visited).

From the road we saw what looked like sagebrush and tumbleweeds -- certainly very dry and hot. People were more sparsely distributed throughout the countryside, few villages to pass through (but a far better road!). Apparently a real road and electricity made their way into the area in the '70's. Until then it was limited train access and getting up in the night to travel via camel from village to village so as to avoid the heat of the day.

I expressed interest in the grass huts so low and behold 10 minutes later we were walking up to one, asking the ladies in the field, adorned in brightly colored saris, if we could have a look. (They were gathering mustard seed stems in bunches to be picked up by the men with tractor on the other side of the field.)

(Jai, our escort, led the charge on this quest for viewing -- the women spoke no English. He said they had to check w/ their husbands first; I missed that chapter.)

We were told to have a look, and several kids came out of the hut as we came up to it. Inside was a sleeping/living area (one room). The hut was made of some kind of brushy grass – not sure how it was held together, but no doubt it was fortified to handle sand storms.

Inside food was lined up ready to be cooked: a big hunk of bread dough and some vegetables.

According to Jai families like these (and we saw many huts sprinkled across the countryside) grow only to sustain themselves, not selling their harvests.

Outside the hut was a fire pit for cooking, looked like a small one inside, too.

A stone structure sat to the right of the hut; inside was wiring for electricity… and a TV!

A few cows milled around; more wandered over as one of the boys drew water for them. As we walked away Jai asked if the women would like their photo taken. They came up the hill, adjusted their saris and posed – very endearing.

We then schlepped across the road for a look at the hut on the other side. There a man held a baby and waved us in for a look, nodding yes to photos while his shy daughter looked on. Very neat and orderly, they had 2 grass structures, one low to the ground with what looked like the trunk of a tree in the center for a base. A cot was set outside for relaxing/sleeping.

A bit later we arrived in Bikaner, which is less than 100 miles from the Pakistan border (and heavily fortified w/ military presence, I might add). We found wide streets lined beautifully with trees. Where we entered the city the surroundings were well kept, with lovely clay buildings, fountains and green space. Our hotel was a beautiful, recently opened facility outside Bikaner(cool, inviting courtyard in the center and green grass/flowers in the grounds around it – nice contrast to the dry, barren areas we’d passed en route).

We had lunch – a buffet of Rajasthani specialties (with Indian style chips that looked like cheese puffs, which the kids of course enjoyed) – near Bikaner’s main attraction: the Junagarh Fort. (It was built by Raja Rai Singh, one of Mughal emperor Akbar's trusted generals.)

Added on or completed over several centuries, the building featured various styles of architecture. It is still owned by royalty and proceeds from tourism go to local schools.

With courtyards throughout for meetings, entertainment and events ( parts of the fort are still used for royal weddings and viewings, and it has been featured in movies and Bollywood films)it was magnificent.

One courtyard has a swimming pool w/ screens to ensure ladies’ modesty. We also saw summer and winter bedrooms (more ventilation in summer, less in winter), wooden ceilings (better insulation) and exquisitely detailed paintings on every wall and ceiling. Delicate brushes made from hair were used to yield such tiny, perfect artwork, with a wide array of colors, plus silver and gold throughout.

Restoration was taking place on ceilings and other aspects of the fort. As it was never attacked it is in quite good condition.

Two elevators are in the fort, along with a museum, hosting ancient manuscripts, gems and jewels, exquisite carpets, treaties, arms and royal weaponry.

From the Junagarh Fort we went to the Camel Breeding Station, the only facility of its kind in the world, according to our guide. It was founded several years ago after public concern grew about the treatment of camels (illness, sores, injuries, etc.). The government set up this station to learn more about camels’ needs and to provide free medical attention/medicine to the villagers with ailing camels. It’s also been used to help educate the owners on diet and nutrition, care, breeding, etc.
Begun with 20 camels, the facility now has well over 100, with a variety of breeds and studs for replication of specific traits.

We got to see many eating in the corrals, as they’d spent the morning grazing in nearby fields. We also saw mothers with their young and lots of pregnant camels.
About the camel:

They have a 13-month gestation period, live about 25 years, have 9 – 10 calves in their lifetime, no twins. They can carry 20 % of their weight but can pull much more (quite literally pulling their weight, I guess)

From the Camel Breeding Station we made 2 more stops: a silk shop where we got another big sales pitch on handiwork from ladies of the desert (I guess there is no way to cut to the chase; I had hoped…).

After seeing what seemed like a representation of everything in the shop – including a wedding dress used by royalty in the 19th century (it took 2-3 years to make, woven with gold and silver and must have weighed 15 pounds – Claire and I got to pick it up), we did actually leave with a blanket. (Nothing too elephanty, though – can’t quite see that working in my suburban North Carolina home.)

I had to laugh at the wedding dress; the guy would have sold it for $2,000, even though it represents a lost skill and should be part of a museum collection given its history and value. Just think what I could have done w/ that on ebay…

Last, we popped into an art gallery and met an artist whose work was chosen by UNICEF for one of their cards. He specializes in miniatures of trees, using a delicate paintbrush made from hair. His works have appeared in various books and art shows throughout the world.

He showed us his brushes and how he mixes minerals with water to create paint. Nice art lesson.

And we collapsed shortly after ending the evening w/ a meal at the hotel – big day!

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India