Monday, October 27, 2008

The Road to Jodhpur

DSC04042 I thought we had done pretty much everything in Jaisalmer, but as soon as we arrived, Jon suggested we head to Lodhruva, just a few kilometers away, to see the Jain temples. This particular temple comes complete with a resident cobra. Superstition has it that the cobra is several hundred years old. I made my silent little prayer to see the cobra, which lives under the temple and comes out every once in a while, but he did not poke out is little head while I was there. I tried my best Harry Potteresque Parseltongue, but to no avail. Perhaps I should have brought him a tasty treat from Deshnok to tempt him out of hiding. The closest I got was to the area where he supposedly sleeps. There is a carved cobra and a silver dish for whatever it is one gives a cobra. I looked into the hole to see if I could see him and immediately decided that having my face in front of a cobra’s front door was probably not a wise thing. I finally did manage to see him, but it was on a picture of him in all his hooded cobra glory, slithering atop his special space set aside in the temple.DSC04232

  Now we were truly finished and after a final night in Jaisalmer, it was off to the blue city of Jodhpur. We decided to take in the Jain temples at Osiyan on our way. Osiyan does not receive a huge amount of tourists and we were actually the only ones I saw. We were there to see the Sachiya Mata Temple and the Mahavira Temple, which we were told by the very friendly priest there, is the oldest temple in all of India. There are reconstructions all around the old temple, and whether it was really the oldest or not is probably a topic for discussion, but for now, I chose to believe it. The priest gave us our blessings and then a small tour of the complex and afterwards he gave each of us a gift… Two of us (Ulco and I) received carved Buddha heads while Jon and Manuel received carved Ganeshas. Manuel was so very excited to have a new Ganesha for his little temple. He is such a good Hindu these days with his little temple and incense and candles. I wouldn’t be surprised if I come home to find a note telling me he has run away to become a monk.

After Osiyan we head to Jodhpur with visions of a roof terrace and a relaxing dinner in our heads. We arrived at the Pal Haveli, which had been recommended by our hotel in Jaisalmer and were shown to our rooms. From the bed of my room, I had a fabulous view of the fort.

DSC04297 I had expected the fort in Jodhpur to be somewhat similar to the one in Jaisalmer, but they were nothing alike. While Jaisalmer Fort is low to the town. Meherangarh in Jodhpur is perched high above the city. While Jaisalmer Fort feels a bit friendly, Meherangarh feel forbidding. At night Jaisalmer Fort glows a warm, welcoming gold and Meherangarh casts a dominating silhouette against a dark night sky.

Perched on an adjacent hill to Meherangarh, sits Jaswant Thada, the white and brightly lit memorial to Maharaja Jaswant Singh I, and directly behind us was the Umaid Bhawan Palace, whose shape from a distance makes one think of the Taj Mahal. I decided I needed a bit of a break and decided that the next day, I would visit the fort and take the rest of the day for myself. But as I am often taught time and again, the best laid plans of mice and men most often go awry.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Camel, Camel, Cow

At the last minute Jon had to cancel out of the safari. India had caught up with him the way India likes to catch up with newbies. In total there were nine of us and our jeep driver. All of us would go into the desert for sunset, some would return and some would stay the night. We were staying the night, sleeping under the stars. I had been dreaming of starry, starry skies for a couple of weeks. I was so excited to crowd into the jeep, and crowd we did!

DSC03806Our first stop in the way to camels was in Bada Bagh to see the royal chhatris, which when compared with the ones in Bikaner were a bit of a let down. I had seen them from the roof terrace of our hotel in Jaisalmer and was curious to see them. Their current condition makes one doubt if they are at all maintained and the backdrop of energy windmills, communication towers and power lines killed any feelings of awe and any pictures taken had to be from very specific angles to edit them out. Some of the cenotaphs had crumbled either completely or their domes had caved in and it seems like only a matter of time before they are complete ruins. While the ones in Bikaner feel aged and respected, these felt old, neglected and somewhat abused, which is sadly the situation for a lot of incredible historical sites here.

After Bada Bagh we made a brief stop at Amar Sagar, the gardens of the Maharaja which sound far more grand than they were, except for one spot here we looked out over a dry lake bed to beautiful Jain temple. Then it was back in the jeep and we were soon speeding into the desert toward Pakistan.

DSC03829 Most of the camel safaris from Jaisalmer go to the Sam Sand Dunes, and what sounds like a nice experience away from the crowds can be ruined by the number tourists that do the safaris. We were in luck. Our hotel owners also own about 50 camels and they conduct their own safaris, limited to a maximum of about 10 people and they go to an area about 40 kilometers from the touristy spots. We arrived at a village whose name I do not know with only a few inhabitants and whose livelihood depends on camels and the income generated from the safaris. We took a brief tour of the village and met pretty much everyone living there. The homes were made of mud walls and  grass roofs. After thirty minutes or so, we were each assigned a camel – mine was named Kala – and off we headed into the desert. Kala stopped at every bush to take a bite and I heard the common complaints from Ulco, who was directly behind me, that my camel was a bit gassy.

DSC03889About forty minutes later we arrived at our spot for the night, about an hour or so before the sun set. We had our chai and the camels were taken to a small oasis to feed while we all watched the sunset, just forty or so kilometers from the border of Pakistan. We could not see a building, hear a car or anything other than the small group several hundred meters away whose voices we could barely hear in the silence of the desert.

Our guide made us a great supper over a fire and the group of us – nine, including the two guides – played all sorts of games that we haven't played since we were six. the innocent game of "Duck, Duck, Goose" was now a more vicious version called "Camel, Camel, Cow". The moon was full and so bright it blocked out most of the stars I was looking forward to sleeping under. But a full moon casts a wonderful light on the desert. It was bright enough to see quite far into the distance, making out the silhouettes of distant camels and solitary trees. It was like the world was flat and we were dangerously close to the edge. 

DSC03994 We slept on flimsy mattresses on surprisingly hard sand. Walking in it, it feels all squishy and soft. Trying to sleep on it, I felt every ridge and dent. I woke up to a damp and slightly foggy morning, a mist hanging over the dunes of the desert making it all the more mysterious. I took a bit of a walk on my own and after passing over one dune, I found myself in a valley with nothing but sand and fog around me. I could hear the voices from the camp and with my footprints still visible, I had no fear of getting lost, save for a sudden sand storm.

All too soon it was time to get back on our camels and this time it was a much longer journey to the pick-up point. At first the camel seems very uncomfortable and as there are no stirrups giving one a sense of foundation or balance I felt like if I moved the wrong way, I would slip off.

All too soon our journey was over and it was back to Jaisalmer in jeeps for our last night before heading off to the blue city Jodhpur.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


DSC03576At this very moment I am sitting on a rooftop terrace in Jaisalmer across from the fort, The sun is in the final stages of setting and the fort is lit in such a way that it almost seems as if it is floating. This is the fourth day of a two week trip and I feel like I have been traveling for ages. And in the very best way possible. Delhi seems like foggy dream. I feel like I could give up my job and just spend the rest of my life on this terrace, living in that space between sleep and wake, when everything seems a bit hazy and just feels so very good.


DSC03354We arrived here under dark of night after along drive through the desert. There were times when there was not a single car or building for as far as I could see. It was amazing. After the chaos and crowds that seem to define Delhi, I was suddenly nowhere. It was just the five of us. We stopped the car to get out and there was nothing to hear. There were no people. No car  horns. No music. Just silence and space. Lots and lots of seemingly endless space. I imagined being like Marco Polo, making my way across a land having no idea of what I would find, but when finding my self in such a place wondering if I really wanted to find anything more. I have missed the desert. In California the beach and the desert were my anchors. They were where I went to both to think, to celebrate, to make my plans, to be with friends, to just get away from it all. I always loved the severity of the desert. I really had not expected to find myself in such an isolated place on this trip. I have a lot on my mind. A lot to think about and decisions that I need to make. Suddenly the desert was here for me again.

I snuck up to the roof terrace about thirty minutes before sunrise. It was a bit chilly and the fort was a dark silhouette against a dark sky. It was that time of the day when the sunrise can be more felt than seen. The promise of something that is to come. I love that time of morning, when the streets are quiet and world partly asleep. Early morning calls to prayer blanket the city like a warm pashmina.

DSC03689After a breakfast of what I now call “sunrise porridge”, we were off on a small walking tour to see the havelis of Jaisalmer. Like a lot of tours in India, it was more a tour from store to store with some sights tossed in between shopping destinations all offering “very cheaper price, sir. Just look. No buy”. We visited the exquisite former house of the Prime Minister which is now half residence and, surprise, half store. School children crowded around, each wanting “one school pen” and finally there was one who was just so cute and so shy, I caved in and handed over my one and only pen.

  After the store to store tour of the havelis, it was time for the fort itself. The main attraction seems to be the Jain Temple and foreigners are only allowed in after 11, which created a mad rush through the main entry of the temple, which is a small door. Ulco, Manuel and I climbed a small set of steps and watched the crowd below push and shove their way in, all the while DSC03756trying to take pictures and holding up the people behind them. I noticed a small door to my left and of course, I went to investigate. I was in a completely empty Jain temple and better yet, it as connected to the main temple through a somewhat hidden passage. It was all very Indiana Jones. The carvings were absolutely amazing, but the monks kept trying to get into the picture and then wanting money in spite of all the signs that say not to give tips to temple workers. There are metal boxes that are meant for donations, but it seems that several of the temple workers don’t care for those boxes as much as getting the cash themselves.

Before long it was time to head back to the hotel for a lunch and a battery recharge before we headed out into the desert on the back of a camel for an overnight safari in the dunes.

Oh Rats!

DSC03350We left Delhi at 5am Sunday morning and after fourteen or so hours in the car, we reached Bikaner, a city described by Lonely Planet as “a dust-swirling desert city… Streets feel medieval - narrow, dark and uneven complete with open sewers”. It was in Bikaner that we spent the first night, luckily finding an acceptable hotel on our first try. We went for a walk to and in the old city and after about 10 minutes decided to head back to the hotel for an easily forgettable dinner and an early night. It was also more than obvious to me that Ulco was not having a good time. Not at all. I have to admit, it was a pretty lousy introduction to India. As I mentioned before, this trip to India was Ulco stepping way out of his comfort zone and I really have no idea where it will all lead. If he likes it, great. If he hates it, then he is in for a long two weeks.

DSC03394 Today we were all surprised to find the sandstone Junagarh Fort and a few extra sights to explore. All to soon, or not quite soon enough (depending on who you were asking) we were off to our real reason for staying a night in the oh so charming city of Bikaner; the Karni Mata Temple about thirty miles south in the otherwise nondescript town of Deshnok. In spite of having traveled over fourteen hours on bumpy roads through towns with no names and no plumbing, I had absolutely no intention of going into the temple… I just wanted to see it. I knew Jon and Ulco would not go in. In fact, I had told everyone not to mention the temple to Ulco until we were closer, because I did not want to give him too much time to get himself all worked up. I lasted about 6 hours into the drive and then spilled the beans. The only person in our party with firm plans to enter the temple was Manuel.

Perhaps I should explain a bit about the Karni Mata Temple. This temple is more commonly referred to as the Temple of Rats. As the name implies, the temple is home to thousands of rats. It is an important pilgrimage site and people bring all sorts of food offerings like sugar balls and other sweet foods for the rats. Devout believers actually eat prasad with some holy rat saliva in it, which is believed to bring about good fortune.

DSC03430 Once we arrived in Deshnok, I had a bit of a change of heart. I decided I was not going to let a few thousand rats bully me out of any place. I promptly removed my sandals and headed for the entrance. Yes, it is required to go in bare feet. I know. The “ick” factor goes way up, but I still was not planning to go all the way in, I just wanted a peek so I could write about it,  and the temple itself seemed to have some very interesting carvings. I could feel the blood leaving my head as I got closer and I felt a bit dizzy. Standing in line did not help my anxiety and I had pictures of the floor of the temple being covered in rats and having to shuffle my way through the heaps and heaps of rodents that were just a few meters away. I wondered if they would nibble at my toes. What if it was all so horrific I fainted? Would the rats run all over my body? I wanted to back out, but I was not going to let some shriveled little raisin of an old lady be a braver man than I. IMG_0071 (8)

 I took a deep breath and stepped into the temple. To the right were a few hundred rats, all minding their town business, eating and drinking and just being merry. There were not rats covering the temple floor. They were not running up my legs – I was in shorts, but still! They were not pouring out of the walls like the snakes in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and except for a couple of times when one went running across the main area, they stayed in their little areas. It is considered auspicious for a rat to run across your feet, but the closest one got to mine was about 6 inches, and that was my own doing. In spite of a life-long fear of rats, I was calm and relaxed in the temple and really enjoyed just watching the rats do their rat things.

I left the temple feeling a bit high. I had confronted my fear head on and found it to be far worse than any reality. I couldn’t believe I had actually done it, but I did and I was quite impressed with myself.

DSC03518After visiting the Karni Mata Temple, we decided to drop in on the National Research Centre on Camels and discovered they were closed. I wanted to see camels and Jon wanted a pair of camel leather slippers, but the camels were out on safari or doing whatever it is camels do when they are not at home so we decided to just head to Jaisalmer. As we were heading back into Bikaner to pick up the main road, we got a bit lost, but that turned out to be a very nice surprise. We went a bit out of our way, but soon came across a collection of domes and so we all agreed to stop the car for some photos. It turned out these were no ordinary, run of the mill sandstone and marble constructions, these were the cenotaphs for the Bika dynasty of rulers in Devi Kund. Not only that, but we were allowed to go in and there were no other visitors. We had the place all to ourselves and it was amazing, with hundreds of elaborately carved arches and pillars and fantastically preserved and cared for, which unfortunately is a bit of a rarity in India. One of the keepers opened a small door/window for us, which when climbed into provided a fantastic scene of thousands of blooming lily pads and a few white cranes with a backdrop of white domes.

Next stop, the golden city of Jaisalmer.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Coming to India

The day I never actually thought would arrive has dawned. Ulco is coming to India. Years before I moved here, I suggested many times to Ulco that we should take a trip to India. The suggestion was usually met with silence, a stare, and then a not so subtle change of subject. India has never been on his list of places to visit, and more accurately, was probably near the top of places NOT to visit. But a few months ago he told me that he was going to be coming for a visit and I was both excited and nervous. I wanted to see him, but I just wasn’t sure I wanted to see him here, in Shah Jahan’s old town. My first instinct as to keep him somewhat isolated, visiting monuments during the day and keeping all of our lunches, teas, dinners and brunches at the Oberoi or the Imperial. But then I had another idea…

I have not taken any holiday time in India since I moved, and with the exception of a few weekend trips to places like Mumbai, Jaipur or Agra, I have not really seen anything of India. Even my first trip to India 12 or so years ago was pretty limited. Trains took forever, if they showed up at all and only really visited Delhi, Agra and Varanasi. That is all about to change…

Tomorrow morning at 4:30, Ulco, Manuel, Jon (another visiting friend) and I leave for 2 weeks of adventure in Rajasthan. We were originally going to go by train, but instead opted for a car and driver. My driver, actually, which makes the whole thing a lot easier logistically. We have a rough idea of where we will be going but that is all subject to change at a moment’s notice. The only commitment we have is for a hotel in Jaisalmer on Monday night and then on Tuesday we head out into the desert on camels for a night under the stars. It is a very touristy thing to do, but we have arranged through or hotel that we will be going to an area where it will be just the four of us, our guide, our camels and the sand dunes.

I won’t write any more about the trip now as I would not want to give away any surprises, but I will be blogging about it daily and posting as I have internet access.