Thursday, February 25, 2010

Varanasi (Hindu's holiest city and Westerner's hashish haven)

As any traveler prior to departure to another country does, we bought a number of highly recommended guide books for India and placed our faith in them throughout our travels and travails in India. However, why we continued to rely upon these misinformed books throughout the many disappointments (and delights) offered throughout our many weeks in India is beyond me. But, we did and that is how we ended up where we ended up at 5.30 AM after a sleepless night train in the holy city of Varanasi. We were too exhausted to complain (rather abnormal of us) and slept a fitful 3 hours before we were awakened to the dreaded sound of monkeys. On the roof! Just outside our window! And it was only 8.30AM. Monkeys and I do not get along particularly well and I was sick and tired of bucket showers, squat toilets, and creepy man hotels and knew that we just couldn't sleep an entire night here. So, I did what any concerned daughter would do in this situation, I sent my mom out on a cycle-rickshaw to scout out more 'proper' accommodation while I waited resolutely on the sidewalk atop our mountain of luggage (you must remember that by this point we were more than halfway through our travels and so had acquired quite a bit of stuff at this point). After a seemingly long 40 minutes, Roni returned and we were whisked away by a rather quick-footed peddler to the Western comforts of the Hotel Pradeep. Yes, I do realize that we sound very much like spoiled Americans bitching about creature comforts, but India is a difficult and intense country to travel and so we weighed the importance of our sanity versus our pocketbooks and recognized that we needed a nighttime retreat (meaning: a hotel with a warmish shower, a Western-style toilet, and a top sheet).

We spent the first two days in Varanasi with our mouths wide open in shock and surprise at the contradictions that this city presented. Firstly, it is the holiest Hindu city in the world: a city which performs nightly pujas (prayers) to the Mother Ganga; a city where the dying come to die and be cremated; a city where the grieving come to light candles atop marigolds and float them into the Mother Ganga to represent the soaring spirits of their loved ones. Varanasi is also a city where Westerners come to find 'enlightenment' and smoke copious amounts of hashish; where we felt like we were in a flashback to the 1960s with dreaded, stoned, and baggy-pants wearing Westerners flocking along the Ganga. Really, it was so strange and off-putting that we did not like what Varanasi had become. Apart from the pathetically enlightened Westerners, the Ganga was terribly polluted, its banks were filthy, and the sadhus and holy men (who traditionally should never beg) were thickly spread throughout the tourist areas hawking their so-called holiness. Varanasi was not, however, without its charms.

We were once again chaperoned by our friend Shakeel who is a native of Varanasi. Varanasi, or Benares as the locals call it, is often compared to the lovely ancient city of Venice. While I would not go quite that far, the narrow alleyways which represent the main arteries of the old city along the Ganga were reminiscent of its well-traveled Italian cousin. While Benares is holy to the Hindus there is a rather large minority of Muslims living here and our friend Shakeel is a Muslim. Benaras is known for its beautiful hand-loomed silk textiles and traditionally the Muslims are the weavers and the Hindus the merchants of these beautiful wares. We were lucky enough to weave through the back alleyways with Shakeel into the locals-only Muslim quarter. It was here that we got a taste for Benares and its many local contradictions as well as having the opportunity to meet with a number of Muslim weavers, who despite the constant power-outages continued weaving on hand looms that have been in use for centuries. In the end, we did not make any purchases as we decided that their wares would not fit with the trunk, but we did decide to become non-hashish smoking sightseers.

Benares is known to Westerners as the place for holy pujas and cremations. We decided that it would be too intrusive for us to witness the very personal and emotional open cremations which happen along the Ganga, but we did attend the nightly puja at the main ghat (gateway to the Ganga). The intensity with which the holy men perform their nightly prayers each night in honor of the Mother Ganga and the souls she protects is quite moving (even as we were rolling our eyes at the 'hippies'). During the ceremony, the devout sit right up front and grab a bell to chime in time to the chanting. Watching these men and women in prayer did feel a bit intrusive as we have little to compare their experiences with, but it was a truly transfixing and wholly Indian affair.

There were two really fantastic things about Varanasi: curd and cycle-rickshaws. The former was served up in thick, creamy dollops into tiny terracotta bowls all day long at various street stalls throughout the city. Curd (yogurt) proved to be a great antidote to any tummy problems we may have encountered (though we were lucky enough to be healthy the entire time: no Delhi-belly for us) and for 5 cents a serving we were able to eat it several times a day. Varanasi was the first city we visited that had more non-motorized vehicles than gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing ones. Therefore, despite the sheer number and surliness of the cycle-rickshaw drivers, we were delighted to be stuck in hours-long daytime traffic behind hundreds of other barefooted and cursing cyclers than the noisy and polluting tuk-tuks.

We had planned to stay in Varanasi 4 nights and 5 days. This would have been more than enough time for any ordinary visitor, but as we seem to be rather unordinary this brief time was not meant to be. We were scheduled on a 2AC night-train headed for Kolkata (Calcutta) which was to travel through the bandit state of Bihar. Bihar is well-known throughout India as being one of the most impoverished (in both monetary and governmental means) states in India. Addingto their problems is Bihar's geographical location. Bihar borders Nepal, which is equally known for its impoverished status as well as its tradition of Maoist rebels. The Maoists have now made their way into the lawless and largely rural areas of Bihar to wreak general mayhem and havoc while attempting to spread a seemingly outdated political message. It was the Maoists who bombed the train tracks in Bihar on the day we were to depart Varanasi. Unlike many other terrorists familiar to the Western world, Maoists are not concerned with physically harming people, but just in disrupting the 'system'. Therefore, the best way to accomplish that goal in a country of 1.2 billion people is to bomb the train tracks.

The only reason we knew of this bombing was the fact that we were in the Hotel Pradeep and the Hotel Pradeep had a television (oh the luxury!). Add to this the fact that Roni happened to be watching Indian news (in Hindi, not that either of us understood it) and noticed the headlines (which happened to be in English, though most Indians are functionally illiterate in English). We promptly called the very functional India Rail hotline to find out that our train had been cancelled. As you may remember from previous posts, train reservations in India were not easy to come by. Therefore, it should go without saying that we had to bribe the station agent several hundred rupees (gotta love democracy, eh?) to get ourselves booked on the following night's train. That is how we ended up on the train the next time the Maoists bombed the train. Yes, the Maoists bombed the tracks the following day. Yes indeed we were stuck on the tracks in lawless Bihar for over 16 hours and late for Kolkata! The beauty of the Indian rail system though is that there are always people looking to make a buck and so there was an endless stream of entrepreneurs (and beggars) hawking food and drink up and down the aisle. Even better for us was the fact that the 'Queen of Sheba' was in the berth next to us and so our train was on the fast track to Kolkata. The 'Queen of Sheba', as Roni and I dubbed her, was apparently an important businessman's wife. This important businessman had clout with the railways and so was able to get our train diverted in the relatively quick timeframe of 16 hours. Not bad!

Pulling into Kolkata at 5.30pm rather than the hoped for 8am wasn't so bad, especially after our cab driver kicked us out and the heroin junkies outside our hotel were shooting-up in broad daylight. But, more on Kolkata and why it was our favorite Northern Indian city to come!

PS: So sorry for the delay in this post, but please keep your eyes out for more!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Lucknow? Whoever named this city? After our calm and restorative 4 days in Amritsar, we embarked on our first 1AC (first class) night train to Lucknow. A total of 16 hours, 2 strange men, a late-night whiskey drinking and card-playing cabin next to us, many a nighttime stop, and several chai later we arrived in Lucknow to be received by another friend of a friend, Shakeel. We were still unclear as to why we had really decided to come to Lucknow and that uncertainty became ever clearer upon our arrival to the hotel picked out for us by our chaperon, Shakeel. A man hotel! A dirty, filthy Indian man hotel in which we were the only women and the toilet had most certainly not been cleaned in a man year! The beds in India, I may have mentioned, are hard, but this hotel manged to break a record: not only was it hard it was stuffed with straw, simulating a manger scene. As it goes, it seems we arrive to each new spot with great expectations only to have them completely obliterated. And so, as with many of our entries into Indian cities, we immediately locked ourselves into our room to recompose ourselves. After a dirty night train we had been hoping to shower and change our clothes, but the bathroom presented such a daunting option that we simply opted for a change of clothes and some watered down chai. After our few moments of re-composure, we went back out into this god-forsaken city to figure out why we had come in the first place. We had heard rumors that Lucknow, while not frequently visited by travelers, was a hub of local embroidery and silk textile products. Therefore, we set out into the extremely hot, dusty, and crowded local bazaar to find ourselves some items for the trunk. After about an hour of hawking and finding nothing, we escaped the watchful eye of our chaperon and fled into the very Western arms of the Barista cafe. This was our first time that we had willingly fled into the most Western looking place around and we were not disappointed: such amazing cappuccinos! But, I digress. As the sun set we realized that we had nothing to do and nowhere to go but back to the dreaded man hotel. Lucknow has no bars (expect those which cater only towards men and while women are allowed inside they are met with incessant staring that makes even the most secure woman run), restaurants (as all eat in their homes), or cafes (apart from the Barista) so we inquired as to where we could find the local English Wine and Beer shop. Upon finally finding it, I pushed my way to the front (naturally, I was the only woman), checked that all seals were intact (if you recall my last bout with fraudulent beer purchases), bought 3 bottles of Kingfisher Strong, hailed (and bartered with) a cycle-rickshaw to take us back into the slums which led to the man hotel. We then found ourselves in the room at 6pm with no English television stations and so we tuned into the local Hindu God soap-opera (which you can find a bit of on our facebook pages) and dubbed it ourselves. This little bit of hilarity and the beer got us through the evening. Not that we slept of course, naturally the alley neighbors were having a large party lasting well into the wee hours of the night.

Now, we come to the way in which Lucknow becomes 'Luck-maybe'. Lucknow's only saving grace was that the previous day I happened to spot a tiny little sign in English announcing that the Lucknow Arts and Crafts Fair was to open the following day. Therefore, we headed there first thing in the morning. Fortunately, we were not too-terribly disappointed: live, traditional music and dancing, Lucknowi foods (oh and speaking of Lucknowi foods we had perhaps the most dreadful dessert of our entire travels: Kulfi. Kulfi is a slightly sweetened milk ice cream pounded with pistachios and raisins, steeped in rose water, and then served in a bowl covered with slimy, cold glass noodles. As this was presented to us by our friend we were forced to eat it all so as not to offend, but this is a dessert one must grow up with to enjoy), and beautiful crafts were all on offer. We found some beautiful scarves and folk art pieces for the trunk: while none of our purchases hailed from Lucknow, we were at least able to leave the city with a few new objects in tow. We were finished with the fest by noon and still had 9 hours to kill before our next 1AC night train, so back to the Barista. Lucknow? Luckmaybe? Lucknever.

After the man hotel, the night train presented a welcome place to rest our heads, that is until we met our cabin mate: a chatty colonel in the Indian army who snored like no one and nothing we had ever before experienced. Over and above the train sounds, this snorkeler kept us awake all night. We arrived into Varanasi (the holiest of cities for Hindus, where the devout go to die) at 5.30 am with high hopes of our hotel. More on Varanasi, where the travails most certainly outweighed the pleasures of this ancient city along the holy Mother Ganga to come soon.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Amritsar: Home to the Sikhs and Mrs. Bandari

Amritsar was equivalent to a trip to the beach for us (except the beach was Mrs. Bandari's lawn). It gave us our first few days to completely relax with no shopping, haggling, or hassling (as there was nothing to buy) and our first real moments to truly 'people-watch' without a monkey stick. We arrived into Amritsar at midnight on the rather fancy Shatabdi Express train from New Delhi. Now, by fancy, I mean we each had our own seat and dinner was provided. By fancy I do not mean particularly clean, on-time, or relaxing, but I have now lowered my expectations for 'first class' and 'fancy'. We were taken to a rather shoddy hotel where we slept off the train ride and, upon waking up, promptly moved quarters to Mrs. Ratan Bandari's Guesthouse. Mrs. Bandari's has been the strangest place we have stayed in so far and certainly one of the most enjoyable: the strange mix between army barracks, water buffaloes, open fires, and hot water bottles provided a rather 1930s British colonialist feel. We were virtually the only guests there and spent several days under the sun just reading with only the occasional grazing buffalo to disturb us. We refused to eat at Mrs. Bandari's (as the food was ridiculously overpriced!) and so for 2 days our only foray into the city was a block away to chow down on a variety of street food (spicy noodle dishes, fried eggplant and cauliflower, milk sweets, and chai). In these 2 days we spent no more than 2$ per person per day! Street food has been harder to find than we expected although we have been pleasantly surprised when we have found it: cheap and filling.

Amritsar is known for 2 things: The Golden Temple and the Wagah Border. The former is the most important place for worship to the Sikhs and the latter is an absurd border ceremony performed every evening at the Pakistani-Indian border. Each of these takes less than three hours to fully appreciate and, since we had 4 full days, we took our time getting there. We were not disappointed buy our wait. For 3 days, we went into town each day and simply sat outside the Golden Temple peacefully 'people watching'. We were never once hassled or harangued and the locals got just as much of a thrill at watching us as we did them. Therefore, upon our entrance into the temple complex itself on our fourth day we were fully ready (well, has to enter barefoot and I hate being barefoot in public places so attempted unsuccessfully to tip-toe my way around the entire time). The complex was beautiful! It has been the most beautiful site we have seen so far: both spiritually and aesthetically. The reverence the Sikhs felt for the place was palpitating and the sheer magnificence of the shining, golden reflection of the small Golden Temple into the pond surrounding was astonishing. The fact that we got a free lunch was also pretty great. The kitchen at the Golden Temple feeds more than 10, 000 people per day for free with amazing efficiency. As one enters the kitchen, one is funneled through a vast line where one receives a plate, a bowl, a spoon and is then instructed to a place on the floor to wait. One is then met with server upon server carrying vats of curry, dal, fresh chapatis, and sweets. Even though the lunch is free, it is never-ending and was spicy and delicious. The experience of eating alongside pilgrims, locals, visitors, and those who could not afford to eat on their own was a humbling experience and reminded us to be mindful of all those around us in India who come from vastly different backgrounds and share intensely different experiences than do we.

Now, the Wagah border was a very different slice of India altogether. The notorious Wagah border ceremony takes place each evening at 5pm and is a show of both affection and bravado between the less-than-friendly states of Pakistan and India. Punjab once spanned both borders and its people continue to share many commonalities. However, after partition, Punjab was cut in two and the result is a rather tepid relationship with neither Pakistani or Indian allowed to cross. The ceremony itself is really just a flag-lowering and gate-locking formality which has turned into a 'who-can-scream-louder' and 'who-has-the-best Bollywood-tunes' event. Shuttles run back and forth from the center of Amritsar to the border each afternoon and after paying 75 RS each we were sped to the border just in time to get front-row seats in the VIP (aka 'foreigner' section). Upon sitting down, it was difficult to keep our mouths closed as they kept popping open in shock and awe as we watched groups of Indians dancing in the aisles to the theme song of 'Slumdog' to waves of Indian men jumping up and down shouting "Long Live India", screaming like maniacs, and wildly waving enormous Indian flags about. Unfortunately for the Pakistanis, the Indians certainly had the better speakers and were allowed greater movement to dance and jump about but I can't really say that their soldiers performed any less gallantly than did those on the Indian side. We would have loved to have witnessed the ceremony from the Pakistani side as well, but that will have to wait until sentiments on both sides are cooled. While the entire 'na-na-na-na-boo-boo' atmosphere was perfectly ludicrous, it was a truly Indian affair and one which I have yet to experience anywhere else. Perhaps the U.S. and Mexico could try this rather than a wall?

We are now in electricity-challenged Varanasi, but have lots to relate regarding our 1AC (first-class) sleeper night train experiences, why Lucknow is really more 'Luck-maybe', and why there are so many Western 'hippies' in this holiest of cities: Varanasi.
Stay tuned!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Jaipur: A not-so Truly Pink City

We took our last leg with Raj, our reliable and ever-re-re-confirming driver (as one is always directionally challenged when in India), to Jaipur. After a relatively easy 6 hour drive (and a few near monkey attacks) we found ourselves in Jaipur, the largest of the cities in Rajasthan. We said goodbye to Raj, who we didn't realize how much we would miss until the next day, and went straight to the rooftop restaurant of our hotel for a beer and some aloo gobhi (a very typical Indian dish: potato and cauliflower curry). Having missed the Jaipur Kite Festival (Indians are particularly enchanted with kites and on any given afternoon one can simply gaze at the skies and the rooftops filled with kite fliers. This festival is in homage to them and is celebrated all over India but is supposed to be particularly beautiful in Jaipur) we were lucky enough to find ourselves in Jaipur on the last day of the Annual Jaipur Literary Festival. Filled with international literary nerds, authors, and journalists the festival also showcases numerous international musicians. We decided that literary musings were over our head and so we spent the day in the not so Pink City (it's really terra-cotta colored) unenthusiastically touring the City Palace and dodging touts and men peeing on the streets. After a harrowing pinch in which we were nearly mashed between a bus and a public urinal, we headed straight for the Diggi Palace, where the musical talents were gearing up for a night of diverse shows. Upon arrival we purchased tickets for at least 6 glasses of Sula wine (as wine is particularly difficult to find in this country) and found ourselves some seats. The opening act, an Italian violinist accompanied by traditional Indian drummers was outstanding. Our favorites of the evening were the Sufi Quawalli singers from Sindh, Pakistan. These were the same sect of singers we had seen in Nizamuddin Dargah in New Delhi on New Years Eve, however, we were much better equipped to appreciate their musicianship equipped with socks and shoes and a glass of red wine in hand.

The following day was Indian Republic Day and we found ourselves atop the less-than-impressive Amber Palace along with all the other locals who had the day off. Our pictures were 'snapped' more than a few dozen times by fellow Indian tourists. By 'snap' I mean that I was requested to pose in my sunglasses with any number of young, naughty Indian men. I don't even want to imagine what they are using those photos for. While I have been a minority in other countries before and had my photo taken numerous times it was always along a family portrait, rather than with groups of young men and so having my 'snap' taken in India seems to carry a different weight. Having only 2 days left in Jaipur, we decided to hone our shopping skills.

By many accounts the best shopping city in Rajasthan, we found ourselves in the basement of a textile manufacturer for almost 2 days straight. Shopping in India is like nothing we have ever encountered before: the terms "wholesale" and "fixed rate" seem to mean entirely different things when in India. Therefore, it really does take 2 days or more to settle on a price, amount, and comfort level. We were lucky, however, to have fallen into this particular 'wholesaler' as we immediately liked their energy and over many yummy Masala chais and thalis we finally walked away with several purchases of textiles and goods. Overall, Jaipur was rather uneventful and we were greatly looking forward to our 15 hour trek by bus and train to Amritsar, Punjab: the home of the Sikhs. From here we now write, more on our four day Amritsar experience soon!

Oh, and I almost forgot! What to do when sold a fake beer? Take it right back to the dirty scoundrel who sold it to you in the first place, pour it out on the street so he sees it's fake, then demand your money back! Now, it is important to recognize that purchasing alcohol in India requires one to enter one of many terribly sleazy misleadingly named "English Wine and Beer" shops where one will be the only woman amongst already quite drunk men buying cheaply made and cheaply costing Indian-made whiskey. All this hassle for just a plain old Kingfisher, and then to return to the hotel, pour oneself a drink, and find it's stinky, dirty sewer water? I don't think so Mr....

Monday, January 25, 2010

Bundi: Losing Motion and Madame is coming!

After picking up our tailor made kurtis (traditional women's tops) in Udaipur, we got back on the road for the journey to Bundi, a small haven in-between bustling Udaipur and Jaipur. Along the road to Bundi we stopped at the impressive fort town of Chittorgarh. Chittorgarh is home to the largest of the many Rajput forts and shares temples with those of the Muslim, Jain, and Hindu faiths. After a whirlwind tour of the top, as we were naturally running behind (Indian style), we headed for the last bit of our journey to Bundi. Unfortunately, the lovely toll road (which is really just a nicely paved road with all sorts of traffic coming from all angles) ended about 60 kilometres from Bundi and so that last portion was traveled along a one lane, poorly paved road through unlit villages and rock mines. Through this, our poor driver had to navigate his way around over-burdened 'goods carriers' and more speed bumps in the middle of nowhere than we have seen in our lives.
Needless to say, we arrived in Bundi past 9pm and a little less than comfortable. Upon our arrival to a highly recommended women-run guesthouse, we entered into a jammed packed Fellini-esque living room scene with numerous family members and apparent boarders to find that there was no water, they were banging on pipes throughout, and the term 'haveli' (which in most cases means renovated mansions) really meant run-down, dirty old house. We fled as quickly as possible, with both the driver and the owner of the guesthouse running behind us asking us whether we had lost motion. "Madame, have you lost motion? We fix water very soon. No problem". To 'lose one's motion' in India means to have 'diarrhea'. While madame (Roni) and I did not lose our motion, we certainly weren't staying. We eventually ended up at a lovely rooftop room in the Kasera Paradise where we were duly treated to a beer and a Masala Omelet. Little did we know what was awaiting us in the morning.

As one becomes more comfortable with India, one becomes excited at small comforts provided: the fact that this hotel actually had toilet paper and warmer-than-lukewarm water was incredible. The fact that we had to beat off monkeys with a monkey-stick at breakfast was not such a highlight. We soon found out that the sleepy town of Bundi was a haven for monkeys: both Gibbons and the naughty Macaques. The former are generally quite harmless and afraid of people, however due to close quarters the latter have shown the peaceful Gibbons a few of the many tricks up their sleeves. Therefore, we rambled around town with monkey sticks (really just bamboo scraps found along the road) in tow and a high-pitched scream when necessary. Apart from monkey mayhem, Bundi was simply lovely and had a yet untouched feeling about it. The small fort and palace overlooking the town was in quite good condition, considering that most monuments in India are rather rundown, and the 'Maharani's Quarters' were simply breathtaking. Maharani means 'queen' and in her quarters were allowed only women, eunuchs, or the Maharaja (her husband, the king). The palace was covered from floor to ceiling in magnificently preserved miniatures of women bathing, putting on makeup, dancing, playing music, and generally enjoying themselves. All this was presented to us by the extremely enthusiastic 'keeper of the keys' (the palace's security guard) who opened locked rooms and pointed out details we would surely have missed. The fact that Roni is so close to the Indian name Rani (again, meaning queen) delighted the 'keeper of the keys' to no end which perhaps ensured our special treatment.

We were fortunate enough to run into our friend Sheila, whom we had met in Jaisalmer a few weeks back. We had a lovely dinner and beer with her before the next part of our journey: the hectic and not so toll-roaded way to Jaipur: the Pink City and the 3rd stop on the very touristed trail known as the 'Golden Triangle' (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur).

More soon on the intensity of Indian shopping and the amazing music heard at the Jaipur Literary Festival (and also tips on what to do when one is served fake beer).

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Udaipur: Indian Wedding Fireworks and Puja

Udaipur took us 14 hours and a one night stopover in Mt. Abu to reach. Located in Southern Rajasthan, it is by most accounts the most well-liked city in the whole desert state. Overall, we quite liked the energy of the place and the beauty of the rundown havelis, lakeside location, and presence of women shopkeepers. It was the latter that led us to buy even more miniatures and dozens of clanky, steel bangles. After so many weeks of doing business with only men it was quite a relief to work with women.

Udaipur is a beautifully magical city set upon a lake with palaces surrounding and so during Indian wedding season (roughly November to March (though sadly we've yet to be invited to one!)) many Indians travel here for their elaborate wedding festivities. Even though we have yet to be able to be a part of the actual wedding festivities, we have been able to view the many firework displays from our hotel's rooftop. Added to that excitement, a new Hindu temple was consecrated in the courtyard of our hotel and so we were able to witness the puja (initial blessing) and the neighborhood feast which took place afterwards. The neighbors had been preparing beautiful vats of curry and sweets for days, all of which was gobbled up within a mere 3 hours for the temple. Simply lovely to be able to be apart of this, albeit from the rootop!

As has become the norm in India, we stayed in a lovely 'quiet' hotel (Hotel Panorama) opposite from the palace. 'Quiet' in India really means lots of honking, nighttime dog fights, early morning calls to prayer and pujas, and the occasional bellowing of cows. wedding Therefore, we have rather lowered our Western expectations of 'quiet' and have relied instead upon a few Kingfishers with dinner and halves of Ambien before bedtime. Not the healthiest diet perhaps, but it has so far led us to sleep.

Udaipur is an easily walkable, though hawkable, city and our poor driver, Raj, had no idea what to do with himself for two days straight. He called us at least three times per day ensuring that "Roni madame" was doing well and that we were being charged Indian prices rather than the much higher Western prices. In the end, I found myself haggling over the price of bottled water as one stand would quote 30 rupees and the next 20 Rs for the very same bottle. As I've said before, one must never fully trust what one hears when in India. Amongst the inevitable hawking and haggling, we did manage find a lovely Lassi man who made the best banana/coconut/pomegranate lassi I've ever tasted.

Another interesting fact about Udaipur is that Octopussy was at least partially filmed in this city and virtually every hotel shows it every single night at 7 pm. After 3 nights there, we were sick of it, not to imagine the poor hotel staff who see it every night! We then decided to move on the relatively sleepy little town of Bundi which lies in-between Udaipur and Jaipur on the Rajasthan circuit.

More on Bundi and it's 'relative' sleepiness soon!

We do hope you are enjoying our blog and related photos!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gujuarati Welcome: Jain Tantric Prayers & Salt Flats

Gujarat: One of the least visited states in India and the nicest one we've visited so far. It took a 10 hour drive to reach the city of Bhuj, the capital of the Katch Valley, home to the last nomadic tribes of India: the Rabbari. Along the drive we passed by every imaginable animal and person: indifferent cows and camels, turbaned men herding groups of fluffy black-faced sheep and spotted goats, slithering mongoose, wild boar, troops of Gibbons and peacocks, brightly dressed tribal women with amazingly large circular golden nose rings balancing baskets of sticks, water, and food atop their head, and Rabbari tribespeople perched atop camels carrying along their belongings to their next place of rest. Indians typically drive down the center of the lane in order to better avoid the above-mentioned traffic as well as vehicles driving down the wrong side of the street or otherwise parked along the road for a chat with the locals. Warmer in both weather and people than Jaisalmer, we instantly liked Bhuj. We found ourselves in the extremely welcoming and inexpensive ($5/night) City Guesthouse right in the thick of the main bazaar. Little did we know that the Guesthouse was also neighbor to the local Jain temple where devotees begin chanting and ringing bells at 6am and which last well past midnight. Thank goodness to our supply of earplugs and Ambien!

We spent 4 days in the Katch Valley accompanied by our lovely driver, Raj, who we hired in Jaisalmer and who will be with us for the next 2 weeks. The Katch Valley is situated along the Pakistani border and one needs a permit to visit many of the local villages. The villages are made up of mostly previously nomadic tribes who have now mostly settled down. There are, however, still some nomads, the Rabbari, who wander the western borders. We traveled throughout the Katch valley meeting with local artisans who weave, block-print, quilt, and generally keep alive the arts and handicrafts which make India so unique. Each village warmly greeted us and offered us amazing Kaatchi meals complete with sour butter-milk and never-ending chappatis. During lunch villagers displayed their ornate wares that we couldn't help but drool over. We thought that we were hard bargainers, but found the locals to be far better equipped with both time and diligence. Most of the time, we left empty handed, unable to afford the high prices quoted but happy with our interactions with the welcoming villagers. I think, in the end, the locals were more interested in interacting with us and less interested in a sale, thus the ridiculously high prices and hard bargaining. We did manage to leave the valley with a small stockpile of hand-woven shawls, hand-dyed and hand-block printed bedspreads, and some adorable Rabbari baby hats and dresses. We wish that we had had more time to navigate the harsh lands of the nomads and spend more time in, so far, our favorite Indian state, but alas we have a loose agenda that must be followed.

We spent another 6 hours in the car today winding our way up to the cool and quiet former British hill station of Mt. Abu for a night of rest and relaxation (hopefully far away from the tantric chanting). Tomorrow, off to the lakeside town of Udaipur.

More to come soon!