Friday, January 29, 2010

Jaisalmer Camel Trek

We arranged our half day trip through the guys at our haveli. We left at 2:00pm in a jeep and made two stops before the camel ride.

The first was at some royal tombs and the second was at a deserted Brahman village. The story goes that the Prime Minister wanted to marry a Brahmin girl but it was not allowed because he was of a lower caste. He tried everything to get them to change their minds but they refused.

As Prime Minister, he raised taxes and prices for goods and made life miserable for the town. So much so that one night the whole town just up and left. The town is mostly just crumpled buildings now but there is a temple and two homes that you can walk through.

Camel treks can be arranged anywhere from 1/2 day - 3 weeks. I think many people go in groups overnight or maybe for up to three days and visit small desert villages. There are a couple popular places where everyone likes to go because of the sand dunes: Sam and Khuri. Luckily our camel ride was not planned for either of these places because tourist bus after tourist bus passed us on their way to one of those places.

We stopped at one of the tent hotels and started our ride from there, just the four of us, the guide and his young son. We had two camels, named Frodo and Sam (named by Alanna and Craig - wonder what books they are reading?). Craig and I went on one and Michael and Alanna on the other. We walked past one little village where the people didn't even have huts, just little fences roped together to stake their claim to a little piece of earth.

The camel ride was an hour through the desert to some nice sand dunes. There were only a handful of tourists here and there on the dunes. The kids ran up and down the dunes and some gypsy ladies with their babies came and sang for us - for one reason only of course - money. And who shows up next but a guy with a bag full of chips and beer. We shooed them away so we could enjoy watching the camels, the dunes and the sunset.

On the way back Alanna and Craig rode together. I went with Michael and this time I got to ride in the front with the stirrups - it was way more comfortable. We got to run quite a bit on the way back and it was so much fun - the kids loved it and giggled the whole time.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rajasthan - Part 3 Jaisalmer

Caught the 5:00am train from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer...promptly at 6:30am. This time we were in second class A/C which means just the four of us in one open compartment.

Arrived in Jaisalmer at noon and we were met at the train station by Pleasant Haveli staff. This little haveli has character and is run by two super nice guys. It is in a pretty run down, smelly part of town and the rooms are basic. By this time I felt like we were on a backpacking trip! This is a picture of our neighbour across the street feeding her cows. The guys standing on their rooftop are flying kites - a common site throughout Rajasthan.

There's something quirky about Jaisalmer. It's the town furthest west and in the desert. It's not easy to get too, but it was packed with tourists - the lure of the camel trek. It is small and easy to walk about, with tons of little shops. Jaisalmer's Fort is still lived in but is really just a big mall of tourist shops. There is garbage all over and cows and camels and other animals. The fort is crumbling and really is in despair.

The quirky thing is the lure of the shops. Suddenly Alanna had to have a baggy pair of pants that all the tourists wear. Both she and I spent a good half hour (or more) trying on embroidered leather sandals. There are shops full of camel leather goods and before I knew it Michael, Craig and Alanna were all walking around with Indiana Jones hats.

The haggling in Jaisalmer is something else and rather frustrating. So much so that there were many times we just walked away because the prices were so inflated. Glass lanterns are popular all over Rajasthan and one day we asked a shop keeper how much they were. He said 2200 Rp. The next day when we went back and someone else was working and he said they were 3500. So again, even though we really liked them we just walked.

The best things we bought were two Indian blankets/shawls for 200 Rp each ($5Can). We brought these for our camel ride - we weren't sure how cold it would get in the desert once the sun set (more about that on the next blog). They also came in handy for our evening "beer on the rooftop."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jodhpur - Day 3

New Year's Day we spent walking the streets of Jodhpur. Here are some photo's of the people of Jodhpur:

Monday, January 25, 2010

Rajasthan - Jodhpur Day 2

We spent New Years Eve in Jodhpur and even managed to stay up past midnight.

During the day we got an autorickshaw to the Mehrangarh Fort. Built in the 1400's its walls are massive and there are many rooms and courtyards to see. Rooms are painted, carved, filled with mirror work and stained glass windows.

There is an excellet museum full of well displayed artefacts such as elephant howdahs for the royals to sit upon an elephant, and carved palanquins that royals would be carried around in.

There are interesting displays of armoury, swords, weapons, and paintings also. The kids loved the swords and knives especially one their Aunt and Uncle had told them about - the weapon shaped like scissors would be stabbed into the abdomen. Then, the attacker would open them like scissors to make a second cut inside. Basically the intestines would be ripped to shreads and fall out. Lovely.

There are great views of the blue city from either side of the fort and large cannons on the ramparts. We took the path and walked back to town. Each night in Jodhpur at 6:00pm we would go to the rooftop and have a beer and watch the sunset and the moonrise.

But before sunset we would hear the call-to-prayer over the loudspeaker of every mosque in town. One mosque would start and then another and then everyone of them in the entire city. It was one of those magical sounds that filled the night and we would rush back each night to hear it.

Planned to go to Pal Haveli for dinner but it was packed with tourists so we went to a smaller place next door with equally good views and adequate food. Back at our haveli we watched Mamma Mia on the laptop til just before midnight and then moved up to the rooftop for the countdown.

A beautiful, clear night with an almost full moon. As soon as midnight struck the fireworks started all around us and into the distance. The fort and palace were lit up and the fireworks lasted about twenty minutes. It was a great way to bring in the New Year.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Rajasthan - Part 2 Jodhpur

There are some pretty great things about Jodhpur. One of them being the roof-top views from Heritage Kuchaman Haveli. We went back up to the roof-top restaurant for breakfast and discovered there was yet another set of stairs leading up to higher deck. Our breathe was taken away at the sight of the city - Jodhpur, the blue city.

It is an amazing 360 degree view with the imposing Meherangarh Fort in one direction; the Unmaid Palace another; and Jaswant Thada (a mini Taj Mahal) another. The best part though, was being able to check out the rooftop living going on all around us. The stone homes, two or three levels high, all have flat open decks on top where a lot of people spend their time at this time of year - winter.

For us it is warm and wonderful, for the locals it is cold and the roof is where they go to warm up. Everything happens here. Laundry is hung to dry, children play catch, and ride tricycles. One neighbour makes clay pots and and paints wooden figures. I feel like I am spying on everyone, especially an older couple who are just sitting together. But when the woman sees me with my camera in hand I put it down and wave. She immediately smiles, gets up and points to me to take her photo. Absolutely!

Which leads me to the other great thing about Jodhpur - the people are incredibly friendly and everyone asks me to take their photo. Not only do I feel like a rock star (just because I'm white) but now I feel like a rock star photographer. As soon as we hit the streets everyone from children to adults start posing for me. And as soon as I take one photo, piles more people want theirs taken too. I actually had a rickshaw driver pull over and motion to me to take his photo.

We walked to the clock tower and the market, full of everything from fruit, veggies, and spices to clothing and turbans and bangles. We found a really good rooftop restaurant for lunch: Pal Haveli, and a good little coffee shop next door to sip espresso and watch the people go by.

The narrow streets are full of cows and donkeys and the odd camel. Some homes are colorful and nicely carved on the outside, others are decrepit inside and out. They are all lacking in material goods but full of life.

Back at our haveli for sunset and a beer on the rooftop.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Rajasthan - Jaipur Day 3

We hired the same taxi driver again for the day and started off by going to Nahargarh Fort. This fort sits high on the hill overlooking Jaipur and the Lake Palace in one direction and Amber Palace the opposite direction. The fort boasts the worlds' largest cannon on wheels. There is not much to see, although it is peaceful and nice to walk around and enoy the vistas.

One thing we have noticed at all these palaces, forts and Hawal Mahal is the lack of guard railing, or very short guard rails in some areas. All it would take is a curious kid or an adult to stumble in some spots and over they would go - bye, bye.

There is much more to see in Jaipur, but with so little time and kids we have to pace ourselves. That afternoon we were off to the train station. We were glad to say goodbye to our Jaipur hotel and a little unsure of what we would find in Jodhpur, our next stop.

Got to the train station at 3:30pm. We reserved our train travel on and printed tickets out at home - very easy and efficient. Unfortunately we can't say the same for the trains. The train to Jodhpur was 1 1/2 hours late. The Jaipur train station is surprisingly clean. We found a bench to sit on and were immediately surrounded by locals wanting to know where we come from, where are we going, the children's ages and grade levels etc.

The trains are quite comfortable, depending what class you are in of course. We were in 3rd class A/C which is an open compartment with six people. Comfortable enough and cool in the evening so A/C is not required. The kids like to go up to the top bunks. Two Indian guys joined us as well as three others on the end bunks.

The Indian people are extremely social and talk and eat the whole time. They talk to each other and to us. When the Chai Man came around they offered to buy us chai and when we say "No thank you" they bought  it for us anyway. It is hot and delicious and served in little clay cups which we are suppossed to throw out onto the tracks afterwards. Apparently this is environmentally friendly, rather than washing dishes or throwing out paper or plastic cups.

When they find out Michael works for a cellphone company everyone gets their phone out, proud to show him they all have they same brand. They compare phones and features and we are surprised that during the whole train trip cell phone reception is excellent.

We arrive in Jodhpur at 11:00pm and are greeted by "the boys" of Kuchaman Haveli (our hotel) as soon as we get off the train. They take our bags and within 20 minutes we are at the hotel. It seems a little cleaner than the last but very basic.

We went up to the rooftop restaurant for a quick bite to eat. The view of the city was beautiful but the food was terrible. Craig and I both ordered minestone soup and what we got made our stomach turn - it was green and the consistency of the yolk of a sunny-side-up egg. I still cringe when I think about it and needless to say we didn't touch it.

We are on the ground floor right next to the reception and it is very noisy from "the boys" socializing inside and people outside and when one dog starts barking, it seems to set off every dog in Jodhpur. We must have been tired from travelling, I don't know how we fell asleep with all the noise but we did, and we slept until 10:00am - the best sleep in a long time.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Rajasthan - Jaipur Day 2

The next day we took an auto rickshaw to Hawa Mahal. Hawa Mahal used to be a palace right in the center of Jaipur. And there it is, right on a busy street in the old town. It was built for the ladies of the palace to sit and watch daily life. The entire front of the building has windows intricately carved with many small openings, allowing the ladies to view the outside world without being seen themselves.

Even if the royal ladies did go out in public, which I am assuming was rare, they would cover their heads to remain unseen. Many women in Rajasthan still follow this custom and walk outside with their sari scarves over their heads. Many cover their face as well.

The kids love the audio guide so we did that again. I really enjoyed Hawa Mahal with the guide - it is mostly open courtyard upon open courtyard but again the intricately carved windows are unique.There is some  beautiful stained glass work and the architecture is so interesting, as well as the history.

In the afternoon we walked around the old city where there is one bazaar after another. There is organization within the chaos and each bazaar has its own theme: jewellery, leather making, kitchenware and so on. Our favorite was the sari bazaar. Row after row of narrow alleyways with shop after shop selling sari material.

Ladies sit and drink chai while shopkeepers unravel the nine meter long material. The ladies shake their heads and fingers and prompt the shopkeeper to bring out more and more until the floor is covered with material and hopefully after much bargaining a decision is made. We came across a proud family watching their daughter try on traditional red wedding sari's.

Back out to the main street, huge crowds of Muslims were gathering. The streets were closed to traffic and people were sitting on the sides of the street and crowded onto balconies and rooftops. Many people waved and smiled at us but the crowds started to remind Alanna of the Dasara crowds and she got quite agitated, wanting to go back to the hotel.

It's strange how the crowds seem to change people and we all got a little jittery as people would surround us and stare and sure enough someone tried to pickpocket Michael (to no avail). We never did find out what the celebration was as we grabbed a couple bicycle rickshaws and took the kids back to the hotel.

After dinner Michael and I went back to the outskirts of the walled city where there were still a lot of people but we ventured down some less crowded backstreets and enjoyed people watching. There are a lot more animals in the streets here it seems - a lot of cows and goats. This guy was trying to park his bike in a narrow spot to make a delivery:

Monday, January 18, 2010

Rajasthan - Part 1 Jaipur

We spent two weeks in Rajasthan from Dec. 26th - Jan. 9th. We visited Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur. Weather-wise this is a good time to go as it is "winter." It is warm in the day, t-shirt weather, and a little cooler in the evening, requiring a sweater or shawl. The drawback of course is all the tourists, Indian and Western. We aren't used to seeing many tourists in Bangalore so it was a bit of a shock to see so many - and worse, to feel like one.

Flew into Jaipur at 11:00pm and got a prepaid taxi to Naila Bagh Palace (our hotel). Within ten minutes driving along the street we saw a camel and an elephant walking alongside the road. Arrived at the hotel and went straight to the room. Don't be fooled by the term "palace." This place was the palace home to the Rajput family in the 1800's and apparently they decided to keep the original dust from back then too.

The place has character and nice grounds. It has potential if they would clean and maintain it. As it is, it is overpriced and we weren't happy with the room or the minimal breakfast.

Once we got over that we hired a taxi for the next day at 1000 Rp ($22Can) and visited the Amber Palace. The Palace is situated on a hill 20-30 minutes outside Jaipur. Normally one can take an elephant up the ramparts to Amber but there are so many tourists at Christmas that they can't accommodate the workload. So we hiked up the ramparts and up the steep steps to the palace.

Amber is much larger than I thought it would be. It is a beautiful building of sandstone and marble arches. There are rooms full of incredible glass inlay, delicate marble carvings and paintings. So many rooms to see and the audio guide was interesting - all in all we were there about three hours.

On the way back into town we stopped at the lake for a view of the Lake Palace at sunset. Very pretty with a big walkway along the lake with foodstalls and lots of people milling about.

Took the kids back to the room and Michael and I went out for a walk. The local people are extremely friendly and love it when I take their photo. In fact, when they see my camera they often ask me to take their photo. Grabbed some samosas off a street vendor and called it a night.