Europe - Germany, Belgium, and France
Nepal - Around Manaslu
Australia - Driving around Southern Australia
Australia - Olympics
Australia - Great Barrier Reef
Thailand - Bangkok
Vietnam - Central and South
Vietnam - North
Egypt - Along the Nile
Egypt - Touring and diving
Israel and Jordan
Brief return to the USA
Ecuador - Quito and surroundings
Ecuador - Galapagos Islands
Ecuador - Quito and the jungle
Peru - Machu Picchu and Lima
Peru - Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Zimbabwe and South Africa - Vic Falls and Blyde River Canyon
South Africa - Motorcycle trip
Argentina - Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
Argentina - Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes
Chile - Exploring the Lake Region
Chile - Pucon and the Bio Bio
Argentina - El Calafate and El Chalten
Chile - Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine
Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia
Chile - Santiago and Punta Arenas
Guatemala and Honduras - Rio Dulce and Copan
Guatemala - Coban and Spanish school
Guatemala - Tikal and Spanish school
Guatemala - Antigua and Spanish school
Jet lag gripped Louisa even though she hardly slept, she was wide awake by 7am. The TV internet beckoned and soon Tom was up also. We reviewed the lost pictures from Vietnam and re-captioned them.
We walked around the corner and found a Starbucks where we had breakfast - fancy coffees and bakery items.
Back at The Regent we worked out.. While we thought that the Peninsula in Bangkok had the finest fitness facilities imaginable, the Regent had one aspect that was superior - wireless headphones. After a great workout we checked out, then relaxed in the lobby to journal and fix up some aspects of the web site before sending out our monthly message..
We walked to a lane with trendy restaurants, as indicated on the Nancy Chandler map, but found none. We opted for a Thai/Italian brunch that had tables full. It was decent and quick. By this time we were both starving and beginning to get cranky, which seem to go hand-in-hand.
After lunch we took the Skytrain to Jim Thompson's house. The tour guide spoke great English, but told no stories. She treated the house as a museum telling us periods and dates for each of the amazing items in his collection. A Spanish family took the tour as well. We chatted a bit with them in Spanish, but it quickly turned to English to our dismay.
We walked the two blocks to Siam Center where the internet cafe was lame. Louisa found a pair of Nike's to replace her Chinese trainers.
We went to the internet cafe in the World Trade Center where Tom uploaded the necessary files. The rumors of terrible Bangkok traffic had us concerned for our ride to the airport, so he did not have time to put them on the pages.
We hurried back to the hotel, grabbed our bags and hopped in a taxi. the driver did not want to use the meter so we negotiated a fare that was not much more than last night just to get going.
Getting through town was slow, but to our amazement there was no traffic on the expressway. We had our fastest trip yet at 25 minutes. Incredible!
After a quick check-in, we waited on line for passport control. We each chose a separate line. It looked as if Louisa was a shoo-in to win, but the man in front of her took forever and Tom skated through for the victory.
We tried to get our GST refund, only to learn that we needed to get the goods checked and a stamp before clearing immigration. Oh well, we figured out that it would have been less than $8 anyway.
We sat in the Thai lounge from where we called India to get a hotel reservation. The agency assured us that we would be met at the airport.
Tom uses the internet in the Thai lounge to put up the site. The board started flashing Final Boarding so we headed for the plane. We arrived just as they started boarding - go figure.
The friendly Thai agent in Sydney came through for us and gave us great seats in the exit row with no one in front of us. We settled in to relax and read for the 5 hour flight.
We changed our watches by 2.5 hours - how strange is that? The line at immigration was long and it took awhile to get through, but not long enough for our bags to be out - so much for priority tags. The luggage took forever.
An hour later we walked out of baggage claim and found a driver waiting for us. He informed us that our hotel was full, but they put us in another one, the Ashok. While this was a ploy that we had heard about, the book said that the Ashok was fine and we were exhausted. (We found out the next day both of the hotels that we had requested had rooms.)
We paid for the room and the transfer, then happily go to sleep.
We woke early in our once-nice-but-now-run-down room. To our surprise, the view from our window was all park. We could not see one building. Seemed unbelievable for one of the world's largest and most crowded cities.
We had breakfast in the hotel and tried to work on travel arrangements, but did not get far. The hotel's agent in the lobby only wanted to arrange a car trip for us, and would not help with plane or train. Later, we learned that they don't get a commission on the latter two. Another agent in the hotel called for our first flight and found out that it was full, then tried to sell us a bus tour.
Alif, Tom's classmate in college, met us in the lobby. Our guide arrived a few minutes later and we headed out for a city tour of Delhi. The guide was quite talkative, and immediately absconded Alif's tour book.
The boys, especially, chatted as we drove through the streets. The guide tried to interject and point out every building. The first stop was a red and yellow temple called Lakshmi Narayan.
Many Indians walked around the temple (clockwise) to worship which was the most interesting aspect of the temple. The guide talked about the many Hindu gods but with no complete story.
The temple was built by a business man in the 1930's and shows influences from other religions. All signs are carved in Sanskrit, English, and a few other dialects as well. Many different icons were in various niches and rooms and they were adorned with flowers, incense and other offerings.
The exterior walls were decorated with inlaid stone and marble designs, including the use of the swastika. We learned that traditionally the swastika represents power and fortune. This made us think about its modern negative connotation and associated with Hitler who chose the symbol because of its traditional meaning.
On our way through town we witnessed an altercation that was quite lively. At a stop light, two motor-scooters collided causing damage to one. The two men yelled and yelled at each other in Hindi, and one tried to force the other off of his scooter. The light changed and traffic started to move, putting an end to the event.
The next stop were the handsome and impressive Secretariat buildings and the President's House. The latter is immense, huge, ridiculous. After a few pictures, we drove the short distance to India Gate with the British canopy behind.
At the Red Fort in Old Delhi, the line to enter was absolutely ridiculous. We stepped out into traffic where we stood while the guide parlayed a quick history. The driver tried to negotiate the congested streets of Old Delhi. The horse drawn carts, peddler stands, motorscooters and autorickshaws win and after a few blocks he turns out. The area reminds us of the bazaar in Old Cairo.
A little visited stop is Humayun's tomb. It was the first in its Moghul style of architecture, which proved to be the prototype for the Taj Mahal. The tomb is lovely and not crowded allowing for a calm visit and some great pictures.
The Qutb Minar complex was built by conquering Muslims one thousand years ago. They used pieces of rock and marble from temples that they tore down. The complex includes a very tall tower that dominates the area.
We begged for a lunch and learned that 2:30 to 3:00 pm was the norm in India. The first two restaurants were closed for repairs, but the third was great. The latter was located in a district known as Hauz Khas which is a renovated village. The cobblestone streets are narrow and wind around like a maze, but are lined with trendy boutiques and restaurants. Le Cafe served both Western and Indian food to a decked out clientele. The three of us shared Indian food and stories.
On the way back to the hotel we made a quick stop at Safdarjang's tomb, known as the "last flicker of mughal architecture."
We had a beer with Alif in the bar. It was fun to catch up and talk, but eventually we said our good-byes.
The hotel finally called and put us on the waiting list for an early morning flight.
We were exhausted so closed our eyes for a nap, two hours later we still did not want to get up. We ate apples for dinner. Tom found some energy and went down to the lobby to make sure that checkout would go smoothly in the morning. He checked on the bill and everything seemed ok, but they wanted him to pay in the morning.
He changed money. The hotel only had a few 500 rupee notes, so we ended up with two huge stacks of 100 notes. Some of the bills had significant holes, so it took a second trip to change them.
We packed our things into three bags, two only with Nepal stuff that we would leave at the hotel and the third to go with us. Finally, we went to bed about 11:30 with only a few hours to sleep.
We tossed and turned most of the night, finally got up at 4:30 for quick showers. Louisa checked the luggage and checked on a taxi while Tom tried to check out.
Even though he had checked the bill on the previous night, the hotel had added a second room and would not take it off. We had paid a travel agency for this night, but the agency had not delivered the voucher.
Louisa went to order breakfast Even though that was no easy task either, Tom had not appeared after she had finished so she went to relieve him and send him to breakfast.
The incredible hassle of checking out continued. The men had called Service International (the agency) and miraculously reached someone at 5am. An argument ensued for the next thirty minutes. The hotel wanted us to pay them twice the rate and the agency wanted us to pay them. We discovered that the agency had a history of not paying the Ashok hotel and that is why the hotel was refusing for us to leave without a voucher, and why they were trying to charge us an inflated room rate.
They finally agreed to take off the one pre-paid night and got the quoted price for the other night. We succeeded in not being overcharged, but did not leave the hotel until almost 5:30 - half an hour late.
The taxi driver to the airport hounded us to hire him to drive us for the day, but delivered us to the airport reluctantly. Men at the exterior door of the airport check for plane tickets. We could see the waitlist window across the lobby, but the men would not let us in.
In the minute that we were at the door, two Indian men had gathered around us ready to pounce. The security guard directed us to a counter to the left. The Indian Airlines employee at that counter informed us that our flight had just closed. It was 25 minutes before the flight which closed 30 minutes prior.
The Indian men turned up their harassing at this point. Tom began to argue with the taxi driver man about a price to the train station while Louisa asked the security guard for the pre-paid taxi line, which was 200 Rs to town. The security guard pointed to the man with whom tom was arguing down from 400. The man did not budge until Louisa returned to the security guard stating the man would not agree to the official price. Immediately the taxi driver changed his tune and said loudly for the benefit of the security guard that 200 Rs would be fine.
Once in the taxi, the driver tried to charge us more to take us to a train station on the outskirts of town - the side closer to the airport. Hassled we arrived at the train station less than an hour before the express train to Agra. We asked at the information booth for the right ticket line, but it ended up being the wrong one anyway. We rushed to the right one and got their 40 minutes before the train departure, when they closed it at 45 minutes. The ticket man was friendly, though, and told us it was sold out anyway. We decided against 2nd class because Fridays are free at the Taj Mahal, the train looked packed and a seats were probably not going to happen.
We entered into the frenzy outside of the station again and made a path through the men shouting touts at us. We arrived at the 'pre-paid' taxi window to be told that it was only for the auto-rickshaws, not taxis. The din of the shouting taxi drivers increased as we got this information from the window.
We looked towards the the taxi line and spied one driver standing patiently by his car and made a beeline for him. He smiled and put our bag in the trunk. The other men continued to shout until the trunk closed. The driver crossed himself and said a short prayer before leaving, which made us wonder about the Delhi traffic situation.
In reality things were fine. We arrived at The Imperial hotel, paid the meter price and were ushered into tranquility. They informed us a room for the night was available, and we went to have breakfast and relax.
During breafast tried to figure out what to do next. The lovely hotel and good service had recharged us. The concierge tried to call Amex Travel at 9:00am for us, but they were not open yet.
We checked email in the business center and read a bunch of notes from friends who had read our most recent update. Loads of fun! The concierge desk was busy when we went back down at 9:30, so we grabbed our bags and took a taxi to the Amex Office. It turns out that the travel services had turned into a phone only service, but the helpful woman at Amex called them for us. The first agent could not grasp what we wanted, but the second one seemed to more or less. The problem was that they were an hour taxi ride away.
We were rather jaded by now and started to search for a back up agency. The recommended one form the travel book that was nearby had moved. As we walked along the block we felt as if we wore tout magnets. Men constantly walked up to us and bothered us. Our stress level began to skyrocket as our patience level dropped to nonexistent.
Louisa took it out on the touts, telling them exactly what she thought of them, their rudeness, and anything that they could possibly offer. While this worked in deflecting them, new ones would approach making it an on-going cycle.
We found an internet cafe, but it opened in ten minutes. We used what we think is an illegal phone on the street to try calling a few agencies, but none of them seemed to understand the concept of traveling to Agra. In the internet cafe Tom began to surf for recommended agents in travel chat rooms and Louisa hit the phone again.
Thomas Cook turned the corner for us. Their response to Louisa's request was 'absolutely' and 'why don't we send a car for you.' Immediately Louisa calmed, but could not tell them where we were. Instead she got their address, and we got into an auto-rickshaw, luggage and all for the short ride. We were a funny sight in the back of the rick-shaw but we made it to the Thomas Cook office.
As we walked in, they ushered us to an office and offered us tea or coffee. Things started to feel right. we spent the next four hours at Thomas Cook with Anil Sharma, the Senior Travel Officer. He tried and tried to get us plane or train tickets but all of the segments that we wanted were sold out. After an hour, he reserved two seats for us from Jodhpur to Delhi which was a start.
The next three hours were filled with picking hotels and confirming the rooms. By the time that we left at 3:30 for lunch, almost everything was confirmed. Anil arranged a car for us to go to a delicious restaurant in the L block of Connaught Place, Delhi Darbar.
We were the only tourists in the joint and the food was rather good. The driver continued to suggest stopping at stores to us, but in-between drove us to the Ashok where we picked up our stored luggage for Nepal and then to the Imperial.
As at 7am, walking into the Imperial immediately soothed our frazzled nerves. They upgraded our room and within minutes of arriving in the large, handsomely decorated room, a chocolate cake with 'Congratulations' written in icing arrived as part of a honeymoon celebration.
Anil gave us our tickets and itinerary just before 6pm, assuring us that our car and driver would be the finest. All in all the trip looked as if it would be great.
We worked out in the fitness center, which was really one of the rooms with a few new machines in it. The two attendants paid amazing detail to us as we tried to find the energy to move.
With the late lunch and the early start of the day, room service seemed to be the ticket. We ordered a light dinner, drank the Hardy's Shiraz from Hunter Valley and enjoyed the chocolate cake.
We were asleep in the immense bed (it was well over two meters long) before 9pm.
We woke early well rested from a long night's sleep. After showers and soaking in the news on CNN we had another great breakfast. The friendliness of the Imperial staff was striking. Every time we walked along the corridor each person greeted us. We tried to check email at the business center, but the computers were already in use so we checked out and hit the road.
Wali, our driver, met us with a brand new Fiat. We finally struck the infamous Delhi traffic as we tried to get out of town. Our choice for an 8:30 departure put us in the middle of the morning rush hour.
Delhi continues for dozens of miles. After the Ring road we began to see residential neighborhoods that rival those of other third world countries. Now we understand where the millions (14) of Indians live. The conditions declined rapidly from the face of the city maintained in the business, embassy and tourist districts. Harsh reality.
The 'two' lane national highway continued to be crowded for over an hour. Vehicles of various styles moved along beside us. Push bicycles and motorbikes, but also hundreds of the motorized tuk-tuks. Out of the city proper is where the retired tuk-tuks go. These show their age with dents, scratches and rust. They are also filled with people. Some could contend for the how-many-clowns-in-a-car contest as people and limbs stick out from the tuk-tuks, there not being enough room for them to fit. Eventually we saw where they hung bicycles off of the edges as well.
A few horses and buggies pulled cargo, as we had seen in Old Delhi, but no passengers. Louisa's favorite were the huge bundles of cargo pulled by camels. The camels were quite large, but the cargos even larger. Camels look rather regal on the road with their heads held high.
At one point, we were diverted from our side of the road and drove in the left lane of the road of oncoming traffic (fortunately we were not the first car). Trucks filled our side of the road for tens of kilometers. The huge trucks filled with their commercial cargoes were parked filling the lanes. Wali told us that they were waiting for the police who were checking tax papers. It looked as if the trucks would be there for a long time considering we easily drove for fifteen kilometers with them parked on 'our' side of the road. The oncoming traffic did not flinch at the sight of cars coming at them, which implies it is a rather common practice.
It turned out that the road was closed at the border of Uttar Pradesh. The driver did not know about the strike before hand even though this was its third day. We continued along the main highway, but eventually the driver was told by others coming from Agra it was time to turn off on to the back roads.
The conditions were terrible. There was no hint of smooth pavement, just ruts, rocks and dust. While not quite two lanes wide, traffic consisting mostly of large trucks and busses came from both directions, not mentioning the motorbikes and carts pulled by animals and tractors.
Tom claims that we played over 10,000 games of chicken during the treacherous four hour detour drive to Agra.
In Deeg we stopped at the 'Monsoon Pleasure Palace' which was an attractive mansion with extensive gardens and waterworks. None of the fountains were on (only for special occasions) but we could imagine how impressive it would be. At every turn another Indian man was vying to be our personal guide - this got old so we left quickly.
On the outskirts of Agra the games of chicken got a little close as we hit a motorbike with a family of four. Everyone on the bike was fine - as we saw out of the back window. Wali did not stop, just hesitated, saw that they were all moving and continued.
Finally, we arrived at the hotel at 3:30, three hours late. The front desk said that our guide had been at the hotel, and would call him. Meanwhile we had sandwiches in the coffee shop.
We left at 4pm for the Red Fort. The guide suggested the Taj, but we opted for the Red Fort and save the Taj for sunrise.
The guide gave a good tour of the fort telling lots of stories to convey the history. The original fort was constructed of red sandstone. Some of these were later torn down and elaborate buildings of white marble built in their place. From various terraces we could see the Taj Mahal although hazy from the smog.
At the conclusion of the tour we walked around the grounds a final time alone and observed the playful monkeys and colorful parrots.
We stopped by the Agra train station to try for tickets from Jaipur to Udaipur. None were available and we learned that the foreigner quota is only available in Jaipur for that train. We began to wonder how one ever purchased tickets for public transportation.
After a short rest in the hotel, we walked along the road to dinner. Along the way we stopped in an internet cafe. Tom fixed the connectivity problems and discovered an inane set-up, but succeeded in connecting. A tour guide from Holland was trying to send a document. While Tom was working, the guide gave Louisa a suggestion for dinner and some restaurants in Nepal as well.
As we walked along the street, we were constantly hounded by taxi drivers as well as motorized and push bike rickshaw drivers. After five minutes we arrived at Restaurant Only.
The food was fair, but the place looked clean and the traditional musicians playing Indian music created a nice atmosphere. We opted for a push bike rickshaw back to hotel since we were once more exhausted. We turned in for another early night by 9pm.
We woke before the alarm at 5:30am which surprised us. After showers we met the guide and Wali in the lobby at 6:15.
At the parking lot for the Taj Mahal, the ubiquitous hawkers were there before the sun. We took a battered electric bus - internal combustion engines are not permitted within 2k of the Taj, a ridiculous requirement given the thick smog over the entire city. At the main entrance, we brushed past more insistent salespeople - we were in no mood at this early hour.
Once inside, however, there were relatively few people, and the peace and majesty of the place started to work on us. The sun began peeking over the hills and lighting the marble. Unfortunately, the smog prevented any real penetration of the beautiful pink and orange rays, and the Taj remained somewhat grayish. Despite this, we think we picked the right time to come - hardly anyone was there.
Our guide gave us the history, then showed the key spots for pictures. We then wandered around on our own. After about 45 minutes the sun got high enough to cast a few shadows, and the Taj took on a gorgeous golden color.
We left around 7:30, having spent almost enough time there. At the hotel, we checked out and ate breakfast in amazing harmony and speed, and were on the road by 8:15.
An hour later we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar's capital of India. The impressive location is clearly visible from the road - it is the high point in the valley. The palace is mostly gorgeous red sandstone, with many palaces and throne rooms. We wandered through in just over an hour, refusing many insistent offers of a guide. We were completely harassed at the nearby mosque since it is free. We used our new favorite line: After saying no once or twice, we ask them if they speak English, and then affirm that they understand the meaning of the word "no".
Back in car for the long drive, we both nap until Wali wakes us at noon at a 'clean' restaurant. He also tells us we have almost 4 more hours to go - yikes!
We ate quickly, enjoying the surprisingly good food, and got back on the road. The drive got more interesting over time. We saw many accidents between big vehicles - a bus tore apart a truck, a truck on its side with a broken wheel, and many trucks permanently disabled, i.e. missing back axles. Not good.
We turned off onto a one lane road - literally some paving in the middle of the sand that is barely one car width wide. This made it interesting to pass frequent huge camel-drawn loads of wheat, not to mention the buses and trucks coming at us. As we drove further and further into the country we noticed a change in the people. Children stopped running to the car windows and begging for pens or chocolate. Instead we got big white-teeth smiles and waves. They loved when we waved back - even the dads and moms smiled and waved. We loved this.
Wali stopped to put air in the tires and Tom gave one boy a superball we had found in Australia. The boy's cheeks practically broke with the size of his smile. Funny, but it did not seem that he understood it to be a superball. he just held it and showed it off to everyone.
We finally arrived at almost 4pm, which meant we missed the afternoon safari that left at 2:30. We also found out that they have a new system with jeeps - reservations start two months in advance. They started scrambling to get us one for the morning.
The Sawai Madhopur lodge was unimpressive. We could hardly believe that we paid well over $100 for it. We decided to walk around the grounds and came upon a huge group of monkeys with long tails - we later found out they were black-faced lengurs. Soon they forgot that we were in the clearing with them and they start playing, wrestling and bouncing between the trees. We had fun just watching them.
Unfortunately, Tom started to feel ill just after lunch, so he napped for a couple of hours while Louisa read and relaxed on the verandah.
At the buffet dinner at 7:30, Tom lasted for about 10 minutes, then went back to lie down again. The dinner was an effective presentation of main Indian dishes in giant copper or brass urns filled with burning charcoal with the serving dishes on top. Just after Tom left musicians started. Louisa listened for awhile before bringing Tom rice and naan in the room.
The phone rang, and we learned of a convoluted scheme for a jeep in the morning, involving us impersonating another couple that canceled. We hoped it would work! We are more impressed by the service of the staff, now, which did not come across in the afternoon.
Tom stayed in bed from 8 on, Louisa retired closer to 10. We laughed about Tom sharing a room with Alvin one year ago tonight.
We woke before our alarm and enjoyed a cup of coffee on the terrace before leaving on the safari. Amazingly, the hotel had secured us a jeep which we shared with one other couple. It seemed that lady luck was with us.
This impression changed quickly. The minutes slowly ticked by as we drove through dry brush. We saw more of the twenty-some seater 'jeeps' filled with school children than anything else. At one point the four of us spotted movement only to identify the animal as a domestic dog from the nearby village. The guide was upbeat, but no tigers were in sight.
Towards the end of the drive, we came upon a number of deer and antelope, including the giant blue bull. We stopped for a few minutes at a watering hole were a few types of deer and antelope were relaxing in the water. On the way out of the park we saw two small crocodile half-submerged in the water.
What we saw: white spotted deer, samba deer with their babies, blue bulls (huge antelope), black face lengurs (monkey), peahens, peacocks, white necked stork, egrets, and small crocodiles.
At the lodge we had breakfast on the patio off of the formal dining room. The latter was another demonstration of how the lodge was in its glory in the thirties and forties, nice but in need of attention and cleaning, as the entire place was musty.
Tom was exhausted and took a nap before we started the drive to Udaipur. During the drive, Wali stopped a few times to show us some attractions. First was an ancient bath. The building had wonderful arches and steps. Some men were bathing, which seemed brave to us after looking at the littered and scum lined water. The village seemed to halt all activities as a crowd formed around us. We definitely felt like a spectacle.
Tom had a great idea to take a picture of one of the freshly painted houses for Dewali. Wali pulled over in front of one with bright colors and a geometric design. A young girl greeted us with smiles and lots of energy. Wali translated that she had invited us inside so we followed her through the door opening. We found an immaculate courtyard with freshly painted walls similar to the exterior walls. The women of the adult generations were inside and they welcomed us. Their kitchen area was in the far corner and we peaked inside the one roofed room that had quite a low ceiling. The cleanliness was striking, especially considering it was an open-air, packed dirt floor house. Before we left, Wali took a picture of us with the family of women.
We arrived in Jaipur after four hours. The Trident hotel was lovely. The friendliness of the reception staff was great. They learned that it was our anniversary and gave us a fantastic room overlooking the lake and a lake palace (unoccupied)..
Louisa checked email and worked out while Tom slept. The local tour operator called from the lobby and we met with him. He seemed outstanding which gave us a good feeling for the next day.
We ate dinner in the hotel where the waitress was amazingly attentive. At the end of the meal we discovered that she knew it was our anniversary when she appeared with the chef and a cake, complete with sparklers.
After dinner we looked for the fortune teller and walked by the puppet show before going to bed early, after a second piece of anniversary cake.
We woke at 7, with Tom still not 100%, but much better. We drank some coffee in the room, showered, and went down for breakfast. Afterwards, we split forces - Louisa argued about the breakfast bill while Tom sent a business fax and mailed some postcards.
In the lobby, we met our guide Bharwani Singh. He introduced himself with a complete history of his lineage. This was rather funny, but educated us on the hierarchy with rajas in Jaipur. His depth of knowledge impressed us. Soon we were on our way to Amber fort.
The fort perches on a hill, but at the bottom we were greeted by dozens of brightly decorated elephants. Our guide walked us to the front of the line to get on the next elephant - just the two of us (most other elephants carried 4). Many of the elephants had A&K blankets - there was a huge A&K around the world trip visiting.
The elephant ride was fun, quite a novelty. The views continued to improve as the elephant walked us to the top of the hill. The tour started with the temple, made of white marble.
We walk around the huge fort. Every turn brought a well-restored room, balcony or terrace for which Barwani had an accompanying story. One highlight was the raja's bedroom with its ceiling of mirrors. The doors were closed and a candle lit, to show off the hundreds of glittering shards of mirror embedded in the ceiling, glowing and sparkling like stars in the sky. Neat effect!
The maharaja had constructed 12 apartments for his 12 wives, each with a separate kitchen (so they wouldn't poison each other), and separate staircases to the maharaja's apartment. We wandered through the rest of the fort, enjoying the views and Singh's explanations. There are two other forts on the hill, still owned by the current maharaja, but we didn't have time to visit them. After nearly 2 hours, we walked back down past souvenir hawkers and the green lake.
Singh suggested a visit to a block-printing factory, a local method of hand-decorating fabrics with vegetable dyes. We watched the "expert" and then Louisa tried her hand - hers was better. The vegetable dyes are incredible - they change color dramatically when washed in mild acid, are machine washable in hot water, and will not fade in sunlight.
Tom tried carpet weaving, as well. We quickly declined to buy carpets, but looked at hand-printed fabrics - they were outrageously priced, and not very high quality, so we didn't buy anything in the end.
Back at the hotel, Tom napped while Louisa checked email. Then we were off to the Observatory and City Palace in the afternoon.
The Observatory was incredible! Incorporating the largest sundial in the world (with 2 second accuracy - we corrected our watches) and a variety of other celestial instruments. Tom peppered Singh with questions about how each instrument worked, and we marveled as we realized how sophisticated many of them were. Our quads ached a bit as we climbed to the top of the sundial for a great view of all the instruments. They even had separate sundials for each sign of the zodiac, to help with horoscope casting, which is still a major industry here.
We walked through the palace, which is still occupied by the Maharaja. The public parts contain moderately interesting museums and buildings, but we didn't spend long there.
Jaipur is also known for gemstones, so we went to a "factory" for another thinly disguised "demonstration" designed to get tourists into their store. We were surprised to find a lovely bracelet of sapphires and diamonds in a white gold setting, that we just fell in love with. After significant haggling and a bit of debate about the safety of both purchasing and traveling with such an expensive item, Tom bought it for Louisa as a wedding gift.
Finally back at the hotel, we relaxed a bit, then dressed up for dinner at the beautiful Raj vilas. Louisa wore her new gift, which matched perfectly with her blue dress. The ride there was harrowing, on dark narrow roads with huge trucks passing on both sides.
The Raj vilas is lovely, but they were a bit standoffish, ensuring we had a reservation before even letting us into the dining room. We then waited for a while for our promised tour of the property. The grounds are beautiful, however, and the suites lovely. The construction is new, but the style is Rajasthani palace.
We ate dinner outside on a lovely terrace with a fountain and stage. The live Rajasthani music was enjoyable, and occasionally there were dancers or vocalists as well. Dinner was pretty good, and the service quite good, although perhaps not quite as amazing as we expected.
On our way out, we were ignored by the staff, who were very busy checking in the large A&K group we had seen earlier - now we know why they didn't have room for us! We found our driver on our own, and got back on the crazy roads. Wali explained to us that "lorry drivers at night are the maharajas," meaning kings of the road, "especially when they have whiskey" - a truly frightening thought. These trucks all have refrigerator-sized marble slabs in back, which are mined locally and go to polishing and cutting factories near Udaipur.
Wali gets us back safely, and we crash immediately - it was a long, but good, day.
We were rudely awakened at 4:45am by a mistaken wake-up call, and slept fitfully from then until our actual 6am alarm. We packed and grabbed some breakfast, and were on the road just after 7 for our over 400km drive to Udaipur.
The road was good, by Indian standards, meaning that it had two paved lanes most of the way. This is the national highway from Delhi to Bombay, so there were lots of overloaded trucks careening along. We passed several bad accidents, including a truck completely upside-down in a ditch, and a jackknifed semi. At one point the traffic stopped for a while, and Wali did an incredible job of inching along the shoulder to get by a relatively minor accident between two trucks, and after that the road opened up quite a bit.
The trucks seemed to contain nearly every kind of goods, from raw marble blocks the size of garden sheds to rows upon rows of new motorbikes. Some were practically overflowing with grain, while others had huge stacks of tires. The funniest were unfinished trucks, we assume on their way to a body factory - they were just an engine and wheels, with a seat perched on top. Not exactly a safe mode of transport.
At one point we stopped for a train. For some reason, in India, they close the road for quite a long time before the train actually arrives, so we got out of the car and stretched our legs. When the train went by, we were surprised to see that several cars had crowds of people on top, sitting and lying down in the breeze.
Louisa was not feeling great, so she napped for a while in the car. We also spent quite a bit of time working on exercises from the back of What Color is Your Parachute - we are going back to the working world at some point, so we're starting to think about that.
Wali got us to Udaipur in record time, just over 7 hours. We had a late lunch in the hotel, then napped for a little while. The Trident Udaipur shares a property with the under-construction Udai vilas and a small wildlife preserve called Bara Mahal. We walked up the short path to the wildlife preserve, and watched the old man feed the wild boars and spotted deer. From the old building there we had a nice view across Lake Pichola to the City Palace and Lake Palace Hotel. We chatted with a nice man from Hyderabad about Diwali - he his touring Rajasthan with his daughter for the holidays.
Tom got a terrible headache in the early evening, so he napped again while Louisa read. We then roused ourselves for a late dinner at nearly 9pm, and went straight to bed.
The day of sight-seeing began at a local temple. Once we entered the old part of the city the differences with Jaipur were obvious. The narrow streets wound around buildings and the almost two lanes were filled with three lanes of traffic and pedestrians.
Many people were at the temple in new, colorful saris and dress to pray for a good Diwali. We admired the carvings and learned a bit more about Hindu before leaving.
The City Palace dominates the sky line, appearing to be five or six stories tall. Soon the guide told us that the walls cover rock on the lower levels and that the rooms of the palace begin with the windows. Very interesting technique.
Overall, the palace seemed quite run down and not well maintained. Many rooms had the pieces of colorful glass embedded in stucco, with one courtyard lined with gorgeous peacocks.
Next we got on a small boat from the Lake Palace Hotel dock and went on a tour of the ever-shrinking Lake Pichola. The rains in the area have been very weak for the last three years or so. The level of the lake is obviously low compared to the high and dry normal water marks.
Many women, men and children were not deterred by the low, stagnant water or the huge amounts of trash floating around. They were bathing themselves and washing clothes on the steps from town.
We turned away from town, went past the Lake Palace Hotel, and around the back side of Jag Mandir, a miniature entertainment palace in the middle of the lake. This is where the Bond film Octopussy was shot. We debarked under the gaze of welcoming elephants, and walked up into the small palace where Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal) took refuge once. There we saw a cool black and white marble room, and had a nice view across the lake.
Back on the land, we drove to the outskirts of town to Sahelion ki Bari (the Gardens of the Maidens). The ladies of the court retired to these gardens in the summers. Princes were sent here starting at the age of ten to learn Kamasutra from the maidens. Today the palace building is not opened to the public and the elaborate gardens are rather run down. The fountain system sounded as if it was rather advanced, but the local drought eliminated the possibility of running the fountains.
The guide insisted that we stop at a local craft shop. We warned him that usually we did not buy things, but stopped to see if we would learn anything. Their demonstration was pathetic, and reflected on the quality of the goods. We asked prices on a few things and laughed at what they were asking.
Next stop was the Bharatiya Lok Kala Folk Museum. The exhibits were dusty and faded. It looks as if it has not been looked after since the collection was initially put together in the early seventies. We stayed for a cute puppet show with quite erotic overtones. While waiting for the puppet show the Indian girl next to Louisa practiced her English.
We had lunch at Hotel Fountain a predominantly Indian hotel that had an odd feel to it. We were rather dubious about the food before ordering, but it was good and the service rather quick for India.
After lunch we returned to the center of town to walk through the market. It was alive with lots of people shopping for Diwali. Most shops were adorned with marigold and ashoka leaf garlands, other shops displayed their Diwali glittery garlands and firecrackers (crackers in India) and the people wore brightly colored clothing. Overall, every direction was filled with lots of color. Many women sat on the ground with baskets bursting with flowers and stringing them together for garlands. The shop windows full of Diwali sweets looked good also. As we wandered out, we bought a garland for Wali (for only 10 rupees). He immediately wrapped it around the rear view mirror with a huge grin.
On the drive to the Devi Garh, we stopped to see some ancient Jain temples in Nagda. A French tour group was there, otherwise it was deserted - no cars, motorbikes or people were down the dirt road. . The temple consists of two intricately carved temples of sandstone. The workmanship was amazing. We were further entertained by the depictions of kamasutra, including some positions with animals. So were the ways in the 11th century.
On the return to the main road, we took a picture of a smaller side temple that originally was built in the middle of a lake, but now sits in a bit of mud.
The entrance to the Devi Garh does not do it justice. An old beat up sign points you down a dirt track toward the Palace. Eventually a gigantic yellow building looms ahead of you, the hotel. The staff greeted us with incredible friendliness.
The hotel was not very full so we had our pick of palace suites. It was interesting to see many of the rooms. All of the rooms primarily are made of white marble with sleek modern lines, then each room has its own accent color. We chose a room that was larger than Louisa's apartment in San Francisco. The theme color was orange, including marigold flowers which was quite appropriate for Diwali. The room contained two bay windows for reading with views over the surrounding fields, as well as a cupola room. The latter sealed our decision.
By the time Sunil had showed us the palace and the rooms it was time to go out again, this time to Eklingji.
The Eklingji temples were built during the 15th century and are an impressive collection of buildings. The maharaja of Udaipur still considers the temple as their active temple and worships there every Monday evening.
We arrived just before the gates opened at 5:30. Vendors selling sweets, coconuts and garlands were around the front gate and lined up along the corridor into the main temple. A large number of villagers were waiting for the temple to open so they could make their Dewali offerings. Overall, everything seemed quite exciting and abuzz with thoughts of the evenings festivities.
Soon the bells rang and the floodgates opened - all of the waiting villagers swarmed inside. Hanuman showed us some of the 108 impressively carved side temples to let the crowd subside.
We walked into the main temple with quite a hush. While we waited we listened to a chant to Shiva. The priests at the front were quite busy collecting the offerings, giving half to the idol, and returning the remainder to the offeree. We felt as if we had experienced the start of Dewali.
Outside the temple, Hanuman shared his blessed sweets and delicious fresh coconut. We returned to the Devi Garh to relax.
On arrival, Sunil and the priest were at the Devi Garh's temple. We walked over and the local priest blessed us after which we paid our respects by swirling around some burning incense in a bronze plate. The priest rang the bell to alert the gods that we were calling.
The hot and dusty day had taken its toll so we dove into the large, attractive pool. Darkness set in while we swam. A few bats flew over the pool. One was incredible large. We were afraid that it might carry Tom off into the night.
On the return walk to our suite we explored the roof top of the palace and other nooks and crannies. The town was lit up for Diwali. Some houses had electric lights similar to Christmas lights, but others had lined up candles along the roof line.
When we came down for dinner the staff had started to light some large sparklers. Large - a foot and a half long. They gave us a gift of nuts and dried fruit and lit us each a sparkler. soon they started lighting off larger fireworks that shot streams of color into the sky.
The warm evening allowed for a lovely dinner on the terrace. We opened a Shiraz/Cabernet from Hunter Valley and sat down to a wonderful tandoori dinner.
During dinner the staff continued with fireworks, including some great rockets that shot jets of white and orange into the sky.
After dinner we sat in the cupola room and listened to the villagers celebrate Diwali. The music rose into our room high above the fields with a sense of excitement.
In the grand tradition of American presidential birthdays, we rescheduled our anniversary for a date more convenient for us. In this case, we were taking a day off from touring, and enjoying the beautiful Devi Garh palace hotel near Udaipur.
We woke early, feeling good, so we spent the morning reading in our cupola room and ordering breakfast in our suite. We decided to work out, so we headed down to the somewhat disappointing fitness center - one that we would have expected in a mediocre hotel. We ran and stepped anyway, and felt great afterwards.
A dip in the pool was up next, and we relaxed for a bit there. The masseur and spa manager stopped by, and after some discussion, scheduled a facial for Louisa later on, and a massage for Tom immediately. Louisa worked on the journal by the pool, as Tom disappeared downstairs.
Tom emerged from his massage relaxed and scented as the masseur had poured gallons of aromatic oils over him. We went to the restaurant for lunch. In true Indian fashion they could not comprehend our request for fast service, so Louisa left Tom at the table for her facial.
After Louisa waited 45 minutes for the previous customer to finish, the spa manager gave the facial which was quite extensive and good. Meanwhile, Tom surfed the net, finding out our times of birth for the astrologer. Louisa found Tom diligently working on the journal in the room.
The assistant manager, Sunil, appeared soon after to complete our tour of the palace. The effort put into restoring the building and to the details continued to amaze us. We learned that they plan to have everything complete by the first week in November when they are completely sold out. In fact all of the palace suites ready for occupation were filled for the night.
The camels waited for us at the front gate. Two men dressed in white dhotis and red turbans led the huge beasts while we rode on top. The camels were completely decked out with ribbons and bells, Tom's even had a hat.
As we rode along the dirt tracks through fields children would wave and say hello. None of the houses had running water. At each well we came upon women in their colorful saris congregating and talking. By the reaction from the villagers of all generations, we were quite a novel attraction.
It seems that the camels and bulls do not get along as the camel drivers shouted at the people herding bulls. While they figured out safe ways to pass each other, we laughed at the paintings on the bulls. For Diwali, their horns had been painted in stripes of primary colors, with the extra paint used on their hides. Quite funny.
In Delwara, the town immediately adjacent to the palace, we stopped in the local Jain temple. It is an amazing treasure. Intricate carvings cover the entire marble building. The camel drivers and the woman who maintains the temple tried to explain the idols and carvings to us, but they only spoke Hindi. We did our best with sign language and the names of the gods. She showed us an underground idol at the start of a passageway which runs for 10 kilometers to another worshipping location. Amazing.
The children continued to shout hello as we navigated the narrow streets. The signs of Diwali were everywhere. The houses were freshly painted in bright colors, most doorways were adorned with traditional paintings and offerings and garlands hung from the structures.
We tried out the giant marble bathtub and learned that marble stays quite cold. This made the hot bath a rather chilly experience.
The astrologer read our charts and imparted great wisdom to us - not. It seemed that he only knew one spiel so he told basically the same thing to Tom and to Louisa individually. It is amazing how lucky, wealthy and healthy we both will be.
The staff at the Devi Garh surprised us with an intimate candlelit dinner for two on the roof of the palace. The stars glittered in the sky and the musicians played soothing Rajasthani music while we dined on a rose petal covered table. Fantastic.
The grand finale occurred when we returned to the room to discover it glowing by candlelight. Dozens of candles had been placed all over, and a bottle of champagne and a cake were waiting on the table for us. We were delighted by the effect, and enjoyed the champagne and ambiance as a wonderful climax to our best (well, okay, our first) anniversary ever.
For the first time in India, the checkout went quite smoothly. We were sad to go, Louisa especially since she had a slight hangover from the wine and champagne.
Wali took us along some back roads through the countryside. He pointed out some amazing aspects of rural life during the journey. First was a water system that was developed some 1000 years ago. Buffalo turn a wheel that works a water wheel with pottery urns that pick up the water from the well deep in the ground. The water is then fed into irrigation canals through the fields.
They also cleverly use buffalo to thresh the daal and he found an example of a two-room bird house of which he particularly likes.
Unfortunately we got a flat tire. We pulled over in front of a shack-store. Wali quickly changed the tire while some boys talked to Louisa and asked for pens. Tom watched the passing activity and took pictures of tractors and jeeps decorated for Diwali.
We arrived at the Jain temples of Ranakpur around 11:15. When we walked into the main temple a dynamic high priest dressed in bright yellow and red approached us. He offered to show us the highlights of the temple and we agreed. His style reminded us of a car salesman, but in a humorous way. As he led us around he recruited more hapless tourists. The elaborate carvings on every surface were astounding. It was as intricate as the local temple in Delwara near the Devi Garh but on a larger scale. While he pointed out the major carvings he spouted Jain wisdom.
After the entertaining tour, we left the main temple and collected our shoes and Tom's leather belt. We found a bathroom in the pilgrimage dorms. Tom chatted with a pilgrim who demanded money for showing us the bathroom, another one from Bombay was quite friendly.
We toured the smaller temple which was less elaborate but had erotic carvings along the outside walls. We guessed this was the first sex education class, so to speak.
By the time we returned to the car Tom's pockets were empty of all change and most small bills. These priests and pilgrims are a persistent bunch. Lengur monkeys ran around the parking area. We laughed at a few of their antics and were amazed by the tiny size of some practically newborn babies.
Before starting the three hour journey to Jodhpur we stopped at a cafe a few kilometers down the road. They served a surprisingly good lunch.
During the drive we tried to be productive, working on the journal and other such things only to arrive at the surprisingly beautiful Taj hotel (with no sign out front).
As usual in India, the front desk staff was quite friendly. The room was handsomely decorated and large. Louisa wanted to give in to the urge for a nap to sleep off her lingering champagne headache, but instead we motivated for a workout in the new fitness center.
Back in the room we found "You've Got Mail" on HBO and settled in for a good veg out session. By the end of the movie we were starving and headed out to the Chinese restaurant in the lobby. It was just 7pm and to our dismay none of the restaurants open until 7:30!
We stopped in the gift shop which had a few items that caught Louisa's eye. A band and some dancers were pool side and they entertained us until 7:30.
We were the first ones in the restaurant and hit up a good rapport with the staff. They served a good meal with even better service. Back in the room Tom wrote in the journal while Louisa climbed in bed glad to finally get some sleep.
The usual breakfast, pack, and checkout routine went smoothly, and we looked in the lobby for our guide - nobody there. Hmm. The front desk called the travel agency for us, and they had no record of us coming. They were very responsive, however, and promised a guide within 10 minutes, so we shopped a bit in the lobby gift shop, almost buying a pillow case until we saw a huge black spot on it.
The agency called back and said we would meet the guide at the fort, so we loaded the car and headed up. The Mehrangarh Fort dominates the landscape, built on an imposing rock outcrop. We took the elevator up to save a bit of walking, and got an incredible view of the blue city of Jodhpur from the walls. Tom was fascinated by the ruins of an old water wheel for bringing water to the top of the walls.
Inside we viewed ornate howdahs and embroidery, as well as many decorated rooms that had been wonderfully preserved. The colored glasswork and mosaics particularly impressed us. The castle walls were intricately carved red sandstone with each screen and arch made in a different pattern. For further ornamentation one part had been whitewashed and gleamed in the sun. There was also the usual carved sandstone and marble screens for the ladies in purdah to see without being seen. We were quite impressed with this fort, it was one of the best preserved and most scenic ones we saw in all Rajasthan.
We walked through the gift shop and bought some post cards, then walked down the ramp to the bottom again. We drove a short distance to Jaswant Thada, the cenotaphs of the most recent maharajas. There we saw pictures of the entire unbroken line from 1212AD to now. We got some nice pictures looking back at the fort, then headed down the hill to the market.
The old market was built by one of the maharajas, and was bustling with daily activity. Besides the usual colorful fruit and vegetable vendors, we saw a wide variety of grains and lentils for sale in colorful mounds. Cows wandered up and down the narrow alleys, munching on garbage and leaving their mark. We stopped in to an embroidery shop, but their hard sell turned us off quickly, so we walked around a bit more before heading back to the car.
Man Singh took us to the Aristocrat Hotel for lunch, and we had a nice murgh masala and vegetarian curry, topped off with very garlicky nan. Then, at our request, Man Singh took us out to see some rural villages.
We quickly left the town and drove down sandy dirt roads to a pottery maker. The temperature seemed to rise as we drove further, and we stepped out of the car into scorching dry heat - as bad as Egypt. We sat in the shade and watched a potter with a manual wheel make small pots and bowls, and then admired the larger ones drying in the sun before firing in the kiln.
As in many villages, all the local children gathered to see the foreigners, although these were experienced, and asked for pens and chocolate, which we were advised not to give.
Our next stop was a farmer and durry weaver. First we walked out to the field and admired the stacks of millet and daal (lentils) drying in the sun. Man Singh showed us how the grain is threshed and tossed to separate the chaff. Then we went around back to see the weaving.
Durries are carpets woven with an interlock style, and seem to have dull colors and primitive motifs. We watched a very brief demonstration, then endured an eternity of the weaver showing us his clippings (he's been mentioned in several foreign newspapers) and then selling us carpets. We weren't interested, so we quickly made excuses and left.
Next stop was a shepherd's house, still clean and decorated for Diwali. We cooed over the baby sheep and goats in the pen, and peeked into the family's small huts. Dozens of children appeared out of nowhere and followed us everywhere, leaving handprints on the car windows after we got in.
We drove for quite a while through the desert-like country. Bushes grew no taller than a man, and more ground was barren than plant-covered. We pulled up to a gate and climbed a small hill - an oasis! We looked over a small lake almost completely covered with cranes. There were also small ducks, partridges, peahens, and a dozen or so black bucks (like dark deer with straight horns). We sat quietly and listened to the cranes honk at each other, enjoying the peace and solitude.
We asked Man Singh many questions on the drive back, and found out that his family was a leading family and ruled over 21 towns for the maharaja - he is Rathore, of the Rajputs. He owns a huge mansion that he wants to turn into a Heritage hotel, and just does guiding for fun.
We decided to rest at the Taj hotel for the hour or so we had before going to the airport. We journaled and wrote emails, but their internet connection was down, so we could not send them. We grabbed a couple of sandwiches at their snack bar for the road, and got in the car for the airport. Before we left, though, we repacked our carryons, removing everything that required batteries and putting them in the checked luggage. India seems to be crazy this way, you can't have any batteries in cabin baggage.
At the airport we found our first mistake - the tickets say "check in time" and we read that as "departure time" - which means we were over two hours before the flight. The airport was deserted, but we decided to just sit and wait - it was reasonably comfortable inside, and returning to the hotel would have been silly. We found a couch with a coffee table, ignored the kid who polished it for several minutes hoping for a tip, and journaled some more.
Soon enough it was time to go, and we packed the bags once more.
Revised: Wed Feb 13 11:37:55 2008 on