Thursday, October 25, 2007

Jodhpur - The Blue City

Huldenberg, Belgium: The next stop on my Rajasthani, tri-colored tour was blue. Jodhpur is known as The Blue City. Traditionally blue signified the home of a Brahmin, a member of the priest or scholar caste. But it seems to have caught on. It is thought that the blue keeps the home cool and helps repel insects.

I'm not going to go into too much detail this time. Partly because there is not much to tell and partly because I only have two hours before I'm supposed to go to the airport. And I still need to pack and to heat up a bucket of water to wash my face and shave. Here in the wilds of Huldenberg, I haven't showered in two days because the hot water and heating system are being worked on. Anyway...that's a story for when I get caught up. For now we are just going to stick to the highlights.
  • The color blue. The people here really take it to heart. Blue houses (inside and out), blue scarves, blue shirts, blue uniforms for the kids. Blue everywhere. Very cool.
  • The alleyways. Like Jaisalmer there is an amazing maze of alleyways in the old city. Crazier, dirtier, busier, bluer, and much, much larger that Jaisalmer.
  • The Meherangarth. The Citadel of the Sun, according to the tourist brochure. Hard to miss. In quite good shape due to the efforts of the last Maharajah to live in the palace, who now manages a trust to protect his former home. The audio tour is very informative, but it's the views that win the prize.
  • The Haveli Guest House rooftop restaurant. Great Rajasthani thalis to make you wish you hadn't eaten so much. The best fort views in town.
  • The Clock Tower. The center of the Old City and a crowded, dirty swirl of animals and people selling, buying, and riding or driving in every direction.
  • Less Touts. More Children. "Give me pen." "Take Picture." "One Rupee." are a few of my favorite pictures. There are a lot more in the slide show so check them out.

Jodhpur, The Blue City

The Meherangarh

A Few Random Shots of Jodhpur

Here is the slide show:

Jodhpur - The Blue City, India

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Jaisalmer, The Golden City

Huldenberg, Belgium: So, as usual, I'm far behind on my posts. I'm already in Belgium and I still haven't got my first Rajasthan post done yet. I blame the computers of course. It may be just that Suwei is not here to help me out with the technical stuff. In any case, I'm something like two or three weeks behind and I'm not going to get caught up anytime soon.

Suwei left for home on the 2nd of October. On the 3rd I caught a train twenty hours west into Rajasthan to the Golden City of Jaisalmer where I stayed until Oct. 7th. Our friend Guru suggested I use my last two weeks in India to see the deserts of Rajasthan. I picked three destinations to visit basing my decision solely on each cities color scheme, or rather the fact that each city actually had a color scheme. I started with gold.

Jaisalmer is called the Golden City because everything there is constructed from the same golden colored sandstone. It's not a large place, easily crossed in 15 minutes or so by foot, if by chance you manage to find your way though the maze of skinny alleyways. Built in 1156, Jaisalmer first found success as a strategic stopping point for the camel trains traveling between India and Central Asia. Now due to the preservation of its impressive fort and its many havelis (exquisitely sculpted stone mansions) Jaisalmer thrives on the tourist trade. A little too touristy for my tastes, but still extremely interesting. Get to the fort early to avoid the crowds.

Most interesting to me was the fact that the town's biggest draw, Jaisalmer Fort, is one of the world's most endangered monuments. About 25% of the city's inhabitants live within the walls of the fort and most of those folks run the many hotels and restaurants that cater to the tourist trade. All of these people are overtaxing a centuries old drainage system that is now trying to cope with 12 times the amount of waste water for which it was originally designed. Since 1993 three of the 12th century bastions have collapsed. There are NGOs working on the problem including the Jaisalmer Conservation Initiative and Jaisalmer in Jeopardy - even Lonely Planet has gotten into the act by encouraging travelers to stay outside the walls of the fort. However, the people living there and relying on the tourists' rupees are not having it. There are signs up all over town reading "Thank you Lonely Planet for destroying our lives". I guess in a way you can't really blame them. The fort has lasted this long. But still, if they loose the fort they will loose everything. I think I'd be looking to diversify.

View of Jaisalmer Fort from Sunset Point

Jaisalmer Fort

Then again, as I was quickly learning, Indians approach business (or at least sales) differently than we do. "What is your name?" "Where are you from?" "Where are you going?" "What do you need?" These are things that are shouted at you constantly. "Burn CD, camera battery, phone home?" One guy followed me for one hour trying to convince me that he was not a tout, he just wanted me to stay at his hotel and eat at his restaurant. The whole time I was telling him that even if he was offering his place for free, I would rather sleep in the street than go with him because he was irritating. "Just look see." I'm guessing that they have enough tourists with over-stuffed wallets waddling by that it never occurs to them that there may be better ways to lure tourists than constant pestering.

My third full day in Jaisalmer was extremely quiet. It turns out, the day before, three Muslim men with a tanker truck killed about 20 to 30 cows in a nearby village. How many cows depends on who was telling the story. I'm also not sure how they were killed...whether they were run over by the tanker truck or if the said Muslims doused the cows in gasoline and had a bit of a roast. This was not clear. What was clear was the fact that the local Hindus were pissed off, and since 80% of Jaisalmer's population are Hindi, they decided to shut down the town in protest. Almost nothing was open except for a few upscale restaurants and some small shops. Although I couldn't check email or buy any snacks, what was very, very nice was that no one was yelling at me for my name or urgently requesting my nationality. I was able to explore the somewhat abandoned fort in relative peace.


Other highlights of Jaisalmer included:
  • A visit to the Gadi Sagar, a man-made lake that was once the water supply of the city. I rented a paddle boat to paddle out to some of the temples for photographs.
  • Climbing up to Sunset Point. Great views of the city complete with magic tricks by dirty street children.
  • Getting lost in the golden alleyways watching pot-makers banging metal, neatly dressed school kids heading home, camel trains dodging rickshaws, 1/2 naked kids with scabby knees playing in the gutters, old women sitting in doorways, men pissing everywhere, children herding goats, and of course, cows everywhere doing whatever they want.
  • Eating great Indian food, especially the Rajasthani specialties with lots of capsicum.

Gadi Sagar

Next stop the Blue City of Jodhpur.

For more pictures of Jaisalmer, check out the slide show here:

Jaisalmer -The Golden City, India

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Dawdling in Delhi

Johdpur, India - New Delhi is actually the 8th Delhi built in the greater Delhi area. It was the British who built this most recent one. They started construction in 1911 when the decision was made to move the capital from Calcutta. In 1947 the year of India's independence it became the capitol of modern India. In 2007 we showed up because New Delhi is the cheapest place to fly out of South Asia.

Our faith in the ineptness of the Indian railway system was cemented when the Taj Express from Agra to Delhi (which is supposed to take 2 1/2 hours) was close to 3 hours late. Arriving at 12:30am we made our way by auto-rickshaw to the backpackers area of Paharganj and told the driver he was full of shit when he tried for a 50% up-charge on trips after 11:00 pm (it's 20% max). These guys make it really easy to eliminate the need to tip.

One night in Paharganj was enough. After 6 months on the road Suwei and I have grown a bit weary of the backpacker scene and Paharganj is far from one of backpacking's nicer spots. Crowded, noisy, dirty, polluted. It's nice that the cows are there to eat the garbage. It's just a shame that the cows have no place to shit but back onto the road for all to trod in.

We ended up ponying up for a nice hotel in the more central shopping district of Connaught Place. Suwei said we should do it because I was still feeling a bit under the weather. I said we should do it because it was Suwei's last few nights in India. Either way we cover each other's guilt for going upscale. It was one of our better decisions.

Much of New Delhi is actually quite nice and Connaught Place is one of the most pleasant. Connaught is a series of concentric circles lined with shops surrounding a central park under which lies a major hub for Delhi's very new and very clean metro. No cows allowed. Perfect.

The Red Fort

We had 4 days in Delhi (Sept. 28th to Oct 2nd). We did one full day of tourist sites, two days attempting to shop, one day of pure dawdling due to it being Suwei's last day of the trip and Mahatma Gandhi's birthday.

The Qutb Minar (In my head it will always be The Q-tip Minar)

Notes on New Delhi:
  • The Red Fort, Delhi's most popular attraction, is dull as hell. The only good thing I could say about it is that its quieter inside than out.
  • Mc Donald's India does not serve hamburgers. They do make a damn tasty veggie burger, however
  • Coffee is popular. It took us close to 45 minutes to get one... and that did not include the time it took to get and pay the bill afterwards.
  • The Qutb Minar is where it's at. About 8 km south of city center, it's a much more interesting and pleasant place than the Red Fort. For more details check out the slide show.
  • Nothing is open on Mahatma Gandhi's birthday... well... almost nothing.
  • You need a ticket or proof of purchase to get into New Delhi's international air terminal. Suwei didn't have one and had a hard time convincing security that she was not there to blow the place up.

Suwei acting like she is upset to head home... This after security wasted 30 mintutes running us around to every locked Thai Airway office, in order to prove that she indeed had an e-ticket and was therefore allowed to inter the terminal.

That's right... Suwei has left me. She's gone home because our six months are up and it's time to go back to work. She wanted to spend about a month working out of the Oakland offices before we head off to Colorado. By stretching logic to it's outermost limits, I somehow convinced myself that it may be cheaper to continue traveling for a bit until she is ready to head east. I know it doesn't work that way, but it does give me a chance to see a bit more of India and to see some friends on the way home. So while she took off for the Bay Area, I prepped for my train trip east into the desert.

Next time ...Jaislamer.

Here is the Slideshow:

New Delhi, India

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Agra & The Taj Mahal

Jaisalmer, India - Most tourists make Agra a day trip from Delhi in order to see India's most famous site, the Taj Mahal. We had read however, that Agra deserves more than that, having been the center of a century of architectural one-upmanship during the Mughal empire. We decided to give it two days. In the end however, I didn't see much more of it than your average in-and-out tourist.

The train from Varanasi was running late as usual. We arrived at the station just in time see that the train was going to be 1 1/2 hours late. Two and a half hours later it showed up, and 1/2 hour after that we were on our way. I asked the ticket man when he thought we would arrived in Agra. He told me that since the train was 2 hours late, we should arrive at 10:00 pm. In a strange sort of way I kind of believed him. First off, we were running 3 hours behind not 2 and 10pm would put us into Agra only 4 hours later than scheduled. That sounded about right. I spent the evening trying to stay awake so that we did not miss the station. I passed the time by reading a very good book, killing the 30 or so cockroaches that chose to invade my bunk, and tried to ignore the man in the bunk next to me. He had some serious gas and was not in the least shy about sharing.

It was 12:30am by the time we arrived in Agra, over 6 hours late. By 1:00 am we had made it to our hotel and spent 30 more minutes trying to wake the caretaker so that he could tell us he had already given our room away. At 1:45am we looked at a room in another hotel that was completely taken over by bugs. As we left the caretaker was shouting to us "300 rupee...I spray pesticide!" At 2am we found a room. I made a mad dash to the loo, as something I had eaten on the train did not agree with me. Shower and bed followed shortly afterwards.

So, it was Thursday, Sept 27th when we woke up late in Agra. I had a serious belly ache and the rest of my body was degrading fast. My skin hurt. Over breakfast we read that the Taj Mahal was closed on Fridays, so we decided to set out after lunch and check it out. When we first arrived the light was horrible. There was a thick, washed out cloud cover above and the building was almost completely in shadow. Not the best for photos. Even so, it was definitely one awe-inspiring piece of architecture. The guidebooks like to talk about it being the most impressive monument ever built for love.

The Taj Mahal is actually a mausoleum built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his second wife who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. It took over 20,000 people and 22 years to complete. I, however, was having a hard time taking all this in, as my head was pounding and I felt extremely dizzy. I seemed to be concentrating more on the fact that there was only one toilet at the Taj Mahal and it was a long way from the structure itself.

Because we were moving slow and I needed a lot of time to sit, rest and collect my head, we ended up spending the entire afternoon and a good portion of the evening there. We watched as the clouds parted and the sun hit building in its full glory. We watched the color of the marble change as the sun dropped. We watched as thousand of foreign and local tourist mulled about watching the same thing. The Taj Mahal is one of those places that is photographed constantly by thousands of tourist everyday. Everyone who visits must knock off at least a roll of film if they are still using film. As the afternoon rolled on, I think we both enjoyed the challenge taking pictures that were perhaps mildly different than what you see in the post cards.

The next day however, I was a goner. Instead of venturing out and seeing the other architectural wonders of Agra, I spent the day lying in bed and cursing the rogue samosa or whatever it was that made me feel like there was an elephant sitting on me. Suwei went out to visit Agra Fort and get some lunch, and maybe she might like to tell you a bit more about Agra. As for me, beyond saying that the Taj Mahal rocks, the most I could tell you about Agra was the color of the ceiling in our hotel room. That night we caught the Taj Express to New Delhi.

This is Suwei. I am stateside in California now. Actually, been sick for the last few days with a really bad case of food poisoning. Didn't actually get sick until 12 hours after I landed so I can only blame airplane food, this really good Mexican place that Eng-Shien and I had lunch, or my own cooking for dinner. Anyways, the fever has passed but least to say I am still far from solid. Yes, I know, WTMI.

Ok, so Agra...just wanted to say one thing really quick...the Taj Mahal was incredible! And for me to say that at the end of a 6-month is really, really incredible. Blew the Forbidden Palace away (though I have to put in the caveat that most of the Forbidden Palace was hidden by scaffolding for renovations when we visited). Plus, all the other tourists in beautiful bright saris enhanced the scenery instead of loud Chinese tourists with identical shirts and hats detracting from it.

So the next day, Karl was sick...though he did say that he would wait until 10am to see if he felt better and make the decision then as to whether he would venture out. So by the time I reached Agra Fort it was around 10:30am and hot. No clouds in the sky. The fort was nice. Yes, just nice. I guess after being blown away by the Taj Mahal the day before, Agra Fort paled in comparison. If you plan to go to Agra some day, I say do the fort first then the Taj. It is well restored and maintained and has a lot of history. I spent about 1.5 hours there and had walked leisurely through all the parts open to the public, even the parts that have not been restored. (where I got yelled at and told to be careful to not fall off the edge of the wall). The pics from the outing were not great since I was there during the middle of the day. Actually, the fort, or at least the portion that we were allowed in, is less a fort and more a set of palaces and courtyards. One of these palaces is where Emperor Shah Jahan who built the Taj was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb (2nd son from the wife for whom he built the Taj Mahal) when Aurangzeb took over and from that palace you can see the Taj! Anyways, if you want to see pics from that check the slideshow below.

Other than that, I had a bit of adventure with the rickshaw drivers but actually nothing uncommon apparently in India. I had said Agra Fort as my destination, negotiated the price, and then was promptly taken to Agra Fort Train Station. I was told that if I wanted to be taken to Agra Fort, I would have to pay more money since it was apparently my fault that I had said Agra Fort and not "Agra Fort" Fort. (Karl had said he liked India because they speak English and it was easier to communicate - you think?) I told the driver, "fine", take me to "Agra Fort" Fort. When we got there though, I pulled a bitch-move and just paid him what we agreed upon, walked out of the autorickshaw with him and his friend following me to the entrance and screaming that I had cheated him. Yes, two can play at that game. This was actually on the way back to the fort after lunch. Before this, going from the fort to my chosen lunch place, another rickshaw driver kept trying to get me to eat at his chosen place where he would get a kickback. And then when going back to the hotel after the day's outing, yet another driver kept trying to lure me into a was a parley in English that ended with "Do you always harrass your customers? I am not harrassing you, just asking nicely. Ok, than ask. Do you want to look in a shop for just 10 minutes. NO, absolutely NO. I want to go straight back to the hotel. Is that answer confusing? Anymore nice questions?"

In all these incidents, in the beginning before all the shenanigans, I was planning to tip them but by the end of the ride, I was feeling far from generous and closer to hella-frustrated. I wonder where they get the idea that this technique works in extracting more money. On the other hand, I have heard a lot of tourists are too polite, scared, and/or dumb.

Ok by now you know the routine...more, pics, link, below:

Agra & The Taj Mahal, India

Friday, October 5, 2007

Varanasi - Ghats, Ganges, & Garbage.

Jaisalmer, India: So, I'm getting a little behind on the posts. We've been moving quickly through northern India. We've seen Varanasi, Agra and New Delhi. I'm now in Jaisalmer and I am just getting around to putting something together. It's god awful hot here and the middle of the day is a good time to be inside with a coke. So, maybe I can get caught up.

After we left Darjeeling, we took up the suggestion of many of our fellow travelers and booked an overnight train across the swamp-like Ganges plain to Varanasi. Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India. For the Hindus it is a crossing place between the physical and spiritual worlds. They believe that dying in Varanasi offers Moksha or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Indians come from far and wide to wash away their sins, ills and dead in the Ganges or Great Mother as it is known to the Hindus.

We arrived in Varanasi on Sunday, September 23rd and stayed 2 1/2 days. Our first impressions of Varanasi were probably not the best and our final impressions were slightly worse. Our impressions were probably marred by a couple of factors: 1) it was the tail end of the monsoons, 2) it had rained prior to our arrival, and 3) it was wicked stormy most of the time we were there. Varanasi was not looking its best. We spent the first day and a half either hiding in our hotel or running though the rain dodging cows, cow shit, rickshaws, and large muddy puddles in search of food or water. Our plan was to get up at sunrise and take a boat down the Ganges to see the ghats in the morning sun. It quickly became evident that that was not to be.

It stormed. The wind blew and rattled windows. The streets changed from sewage soaked to mud pits then to cesspools. You would think the water would serve to wash a little of the mess away, but it just seemed to collect and move it around so that it smelled more.

On Tuesday morning the rain let up and we hired a boat to take us out on the river. This is by far the best way to view the ghats. Varanasi has around 80 ghats. Most of the ghats are designated for bathing but several are used to publicly cremate the bodies of the dead. This may sound a bit sick, but I would much prefer to cremate someone rather than bathe in that river. The Ganges is said to flow from Vishnu's Toes. Besides the image of a river solely derived from toe sweat, the idea of bathing right next to where bodies are being burned does not appeal to me. Add to that image, sewage - along this area of the Ganges over 30 large sewers are discharged into the river - and you have one polluted river. The Lonely Planet talks about the water being septic. Water samples taken from the river and have shown the amount of fecal coliform bacteria per 100mL to be 1.5 million parts. Water that is safe for bathing should have a figure lower than 500 parts. That's one really nasty river. Suwei got upset every time I shifted positions and rocked the boat.

Our Oarsman on the Ganges

Bathing Ghat
The ghats, however, are fascinating. Amongst all the bathing and burning, people are out washing clothes, doing yoga, praying, getting massages, having a shave, selling flowers, swimming, name it. It's quite colorful and dynamic. After floating by the ghats, we took a walk through the madness, then turned our attentions inland to the narrow alleyways of Varanasi's old town. This didn't last long however. Where as I was fascinated by how dirty a city could get, Suwei was truly repulsed. Cow shit, piles of stinking wet garbage, men pissing on walls, raw sewage everywhere. The final straw was the site of a dead rat caught ignominiously in a large mound of water buffalo shit being gnawed at by squirming maggots. I honestly felt she would have puked if it weren't for here intense desire not to contribute to the problem.


As I said before, we did not see the city in its best light. I'm sure if the city had a chance to dry out a bit, then some of the mess would have been swept up, burnt, or thrown in the river, but it that didn't happen while we were there. The colors, the people, the craziness made it very interesting, but after the rat, we were more than ready to move on.

Indian Idol update: Riots in Siliguri! It turns out a radio DJ said some things on the air that did not go over well with the Prashant supporters. Somehow a mob formed and cars were burned. We read about it in the paper, but the aritcle was so poorly written that it was hard to figure out the details.

Signs I found funny and were unable to take a picture of:

BLIND DATE, Family Restaurant


Each Liter Make a Celebration Better, Seasons Greetings

That's it... For more pics on Varanasi, check out the slideshow below:

Varanasi, India