All posts for the month December, 2017

High above the Blue City near the entrance to the fort. You can see a hint of the blue on the buildings below.

Apparently Rajasthan has a thing for cities of color. First we had Jaipur, the Pink City. Then Jaisalmer, the Golden City. Now we’re in Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s second-largest city, and it’s known as the Blue City because of all the blue buildings. At first we didn’t get that because we just weren’t seeing any noticeable blue at all. It wasn’t like Jaipur where the pink just wasn’t that pink; we went into the old city and didn’t see blue at all.

If you hang in there, though, and really start wandering back into the warrens of the old city, suddenly blueness starts happening. And then more blue. Blue everywhere! It was really pretty nice. The pictures here don’t really capture it, and to some degree it only became obvious when we were up in the fort and could look down on the city; then in the older parts it was a sea of blue, but still the pictures don’t capture it. Take our world for it though; Jodhpur is worthy of its nickname as the Blue City.

More blue, though this doesn’t really do justice to the blue-ness we eventually found

And just a little more blue

Of course, there can be a downside to wandering around the back warrens of the old city. Jodhpur, like everywhere we’ve been in India so far at least, feels perfectly safe from a crime point of view (ignore the traffic, for now, the purposes of this discussion): people are friendly, curious about us, and there are always lots of people around. At one point as we were walking toward the fort we were on a narrow, winding lane that was nice as there was no room for traffic. A dog started barking at us which was unusual, insofar as there are lots of dogs here and they’re all pretty chill. This one was decidedly unhappy about us, though, perhaps because there were puppies nearby, so we quickly went past and left her behind. Not sixty seconds further up, though, another mean dog started growling at us, this time in front of us. Wait – narrow lane, no exit, mean dog barking and baring her teeth in front, mean dog barking and baring her teeth behind. Yikes!

As should be obvious, we escaped. When no humans appeared to save us – I saw some at some point, they were mostly just curious – I picked up a big rock and pretty much just scared the dog in back (who seemed slightly less dangerous) away by threatening her with it. She didn’t know that I don’t have such good aim these days, but it worked. And then we were back on the trail up to the fort.

Mehran Fort, looming over Jodhpur

What is there to do in Jodhpur? Well, as is the case with these big, older Rajasthani cities, there’s a big old fort, the former home of the royal family. Turns out there is a reason UNESCO named these forts collectively a World Heritage Site; they’re fabulous. This one was huge, a long climb up, imposing, and beautiful. Now to be honest there’s not a lot to do at your fourth fort (or whatever it is), but even by the fourth one they’re fascinating. Huge doors, massive sandstone buildings, intricate carvings – they have it all.

It was a long climb up to the fort. We discovered as we were leaving that there was a parking lot much, much closer to the entrance. The funny thing is that at that entrance you had to pay a fee to get in. If you walk up it seemed to be free. Good exercise and saved $10!

One strange thing about Jodhpur: the near-absence of cows. I can’t say there weren’t any, but after all the cows we saw on the streets of Jaipur, Pushkar, and Jaisalmer at some point we realized, “Wow, there just are almost no cows here.” Which, to be honest, makes walking on the streets a little less stressful; you don’t have to pay quite so much attention to what you might be stepping in…

Another thing worth noting about Jodhpur is that we’re here at the right time of year. As we’ve experienced throughout the two-plus weeks in India the weather is delightful: decidedly cool in the morning; warm and sunny in the afternoon, cooling again in the evening. It’s not always like this, though; like much of Rajasthan Jodhpur sits in a big desert and is incredibly hot during the summer. From April through June, when the modest rainy season cools things down a little, the average high is over 100 degrees. Some days, of course, are measurably hotter than average; the record high for May is 128 degrees. That will kill you. So we’re glad to be here during the (comparatively) cold season.

This is what getting ready for a bike ride is all about – just being lazy at the pool

Besides seeing Jodhpur and the fort, the main reason we’re here is to get ready for a Grasshopper Adventure group for a bike tour of Rajasthan. For the record, “getting ready” consists mostly of just resting, buying some bike shorts, and … resting. The tour actually started two days ago in Delhi but we arranged to just meet the group here. Their day in Delhi was just a walking tour; we’ve seen enough of Delhi and weren’t eager to go back there just to take an overnight (Indian) train down here. So pretty much as soon as I click on Publish someone is picking us up to drive two hours north to where the riding starts. Then it’s nine days on the road through parts of Rajasthan we would otherwise never, ever see, before arriving in Udaipur. We’re pretty excited!

All of which means that posts here might be a bit sparse over the next 10 days: I’ll be tired after long rides, and when others are selecting our lodging, particularly in the small places we bike through, Internet access may not be what we’d like. Stand by, then, and we’ll be back eventually.

Our hotel – a little local boutique place – had good food and great doors

Speaking of doors, this is one of the main doors at the fort that would be closed to outsiders. The big spikes on the door, one of which I’m holding, are to keep elephants from head-butting their way in.

More buildings at the fort

An entrance to the fort

The view over the city from the fort

And one last view

There was more to Jodhpur than just the fort. Here is mark in one of the main markets near the old city.

If Michigan has the world’s best tomatoes, Rajasthan has the world’s best carrots. We’ve tasted them in a number of the dishes here and they’re just better than anything anywhere else.

Even when not blue, there was a certain beauty to Jodhpur

Lunch everyday was a beautiful place just a block or so from our hotel called On the Rocks. Hands down the best food we’ve had in India and in a very pleasant setting. Marred only when I discovered that they were hiding the currency conversion scam, so I’ll have to dispute all three bills with Visa. What a pain!

A pleasant lunch at On the Rocks (before I learned about the scam). Note the wine glass on the inverted saucer. That’s not just me being weird – the tables are made of some sort of wicker that’s entirely uneven so the restaurant uses the saucers as coasters to provide a more stable base. Never seen that before!

And Mark at dinner in the courtyard of our hotel. Lovely!

Kids playing in front of some of the beautiful sandstone buildings of the Jaisalmer Fort that give the city the nickname the “Golden City”

Next stop on our tour of Rajasthan is Jaisalmer, a city of 78,000 people some 360 miles west of Jaipur, out in the Thar Desert. To get there we left Pushkar early, drove to Jaipur and then flew out west. While 360 miles might not seem like that long a drive, on Indian roads it would be a nightmare. So we flew.

One of the major tourist draws in Jaisalmer is to take an overnight camel trek into the desert. Having just come from the Arabian Peninsula, though, where they know a thing or two about deserts, we decided to pass on that. The other big thing, though, is the Jaisalmer Fort built in 1156. We’ve been seeing a bunch of forts here in India, and collectively several of the Jaisalmer forts are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This one was, by a wide margin, the best ever. Like many of the forts we’ve seen this one sits up on a hill overlooking the surrounding area, presumably a wise choice for security purposes. But unlike the other forts this one is still occupied and still a vibrant part of the city, with about a quarter of the city’s population living within the old walls. And on top of just the uniqueness of a fully occupied fort, the finely sculpted sandstone walls on many of the buildings are beautiful. The colors change subtly through the day as the sun moves through the sky, giving the city its well-deserved nickname as the Golden City.

Insanely beautiful buildings up in the fort

Unless you’re going out into the desert, the fort is about the only show in town. Mark went up there every day, as the views and colors and all that made walking around a joy. As I’m still nursing a twisted ankle I was lying low a bit and, having been up there once, mostly just hung around the hotel pool. That had its own little drama, as the hotel was making some adjustments to deal with all the pigeons – many dozens of pigeons, and all the bird shit they produce – that had been attracted in the year since it had opened. While we were there they started draping netting over the outdoor space to keep them out. Unfortunately, in the short term at least, they managed to trap a few dozen pigeons in the pool area so while I was trying to read they were increasingly, frantically trying to escape. I give the hotel credit for trying to find a solution but so far, at least, it sure wasn’t working.

The other fun part of Jaisalmer for us was finding a few genuine Indian restaurants. The Marriott that we were staying in was a 20-minute walk out of town but if you walked into town (or took a tuktuk, but we’d more typically walk in and ride back) there were a few havelis, smaller, cheaper, more local hotels, with rooftop restaurants serving great views of the fort and great meals. We tried three of them and they were all great if you like local Indian food, which we do. Oh, and cheap places serve cheap red wine that’s been chilled. I know it’s not proper but we love it.

Dinner at one of the havelis in Jaisalmer with a killer view of the fort at night. I wanted to take a picture with the food but every time the food actually comes we’re so excited we just dig in, forgetting about the need for photos.

Now, with a couple weeks in India under our belts, a few quick observations:

Currency Conversion Hell – Over the years we’ve been on this adventure we’ve learned of this Visa scam where they give you the “option” of making charges in your home currency or the local currency. If you choose your home currency Visa 1) uses a bad exchange rate; 2) adds up to five percent as a fee; and 3) still charges you a “foreign transaction fee” unless your card waives those (ours does). In other words, total and complete rip off. Here in India they use a particularly insidious version of the scam: they offer you the choice, you choose local currency, and they still charge you in USD with all the overcharges described here. Ultimately the credit card company will refund me the difference but each time I’m ripped off this way I have to file a claim with the credit card company, explain the issue, and submit my documentation. Total pain in the ass. I can’t believe that various consumer protection agencies allow this scam to persist.

A guard outside one of the intricately carved sandstone buildings

Smoking – Strange but true: there’s not a lot of smoking here. It took us a while to notice but at some point we realized that in any of a number of situations where in the rest of the non-U.S. world a group of guys would all be smoking, here they’re not. Sure, you see an occasional cigarette, but nothing like China and other developing countries.

Time Zone – India is ten-and-a-half hours in front of the East Coast. Totally confusing. Just try to keep in mind what time it is back in the U.S. From their perspective it makes total sense; they’re able to keep the whole country in a single time zone. But two weeks into our trip here and I’m still confused.

Exchange Rate – Speaking of confused, the exchange rate is roughly 65 Indian rupees to the U.S. dollar. Go ahead and take a restaurant bill and divide by 65 to see how much it costs.

The colors here are sometimes stunning. Despite the poverty and squalor and dirt, women here – like women everywhere in the world? – do what they can with jewelry and clothes to be beautiful.

Small Bills – And speaking of currency, you need small bills in India. Lots of small bills for tuktuk rides and tips and just everything. Go ahead and try to get them. ATMs only dispense large bills and when you try to exchange them for small bills … everybody else is hoarding their small bills. At the hotel here in Jaisalmer I went to the front desk to get change and it took them 15 minutes to find some.

Low Carbs? – Yeah, we try to eat a low-carb diet. Here in India that means no naan bread and no rice. It’s not ideal but it certainly works for us. But just try that in a restaurant. Every single time we eat they try to convince us you need bread and/or rice to eat Indian food. Every time we say that’s OK, we like it this way. And every single time they try to insist you can’t eat Indian food without naan or rice. Now, I love naan as much as anyone; it just makes me fat. The good news is that soon we’ll be on a Grasshopper Adventures bicycle tour. On those we have much less control over what we eat, so we’ll get some naan then.

Cows – Did I mention cows? Yeah, there are a lot of cows wandering around. A LOT.

OK, on to the pictures. If you’ve noticed a change in the artwork here, Mark has been taking a more active role in selecting and editing the pictures. The result is both more and better. And less work for me!

Mark loves cow pictures

And dog pictures

And if the scene includes fascinating buildings and a dog? Perfect!

Mark enjoying lunch at one of our favorite havelis

Speaking of the havelis. Well, Jaisalmer is known for their messenger bags made from local wild camels. This was the menu card at the little haveli where we ate twice, with a similar camel cover and a cool little thing to open or close it.

Jaisalmer is definitely colorful

Kids playing. The world over, no matter the level of poverty or wealth, no matter how clean or dirty, kids play. Find a relatively level plot of ground and they’re kicking a soccer ball. Not enough room? Fine, we’ll figure something else out.

Did I mention cows?

Colorful vegetable markets. And amazing vegetarian dishes in the restaurants.

I have to keep reminding myself that the swastika was a Hindu symbol long before the Nazis expropriated it

Just like in China, local kids LOVE to have their pictures taken with us

With me, too

Local color

Colorful in its own way

More of Jaisalmer Fort’s architecture

Oh, and they have cows wandering around here

Cows, birds, and a few worshippers around Lake Pushkar

As we were planning this India gig that includes a Grasshopper Adventure bike tour with fixed dates we had a couple extra days to deal with. So we decided to take a little side trip down to Pushkar, a Hindu holy city that is supposed to be visited at least once by devout Hindus. The town is built around Lake Pushkar, supposedly created with Brahma – the Hindu creator – dropped a lotus flower there. Today the city is a strange mix of Hindu mysticism and backpacker funk. One peculiarity of Pushkar is that, because of its religious importance, meat and eggs consumption is prohibited throughout the city. Fortunately we were staying outside the city proper, so we weren’t terribly affected except when we wanted to go into the city for lunch. That didn’t work so well.

Actually, our hotel was one of the weird things about our visit. We stayed at a Westin that opened just last year, about a 20-minute drive out of Pushkar. The strange thing was that for the life of us we couldn’t figure out why there was a resort way out there. Our experience is that when we’ve stayed at remote resorts they’re either on a beach or they focus on the remote, rural surroundings. Not this one. No beach within hundreds of miles and the comparatively small footprint was surrounded by walls with all the rooms facing inward toward an unimpressive pool. There was nothing wrong with the place, but there was nothing particularly good about it either. I don’t know what Westin was thinking…

The kids of rural India on our walk into town

The good news was that while it was a long walk into town – an hour and forty minutes or so, so definitely a long walk – parts of it were beautiful. This was true rural India and the first time in the two weeks we’ve been in India that we felt we were seeing more than just urban insanity. No spectacular scenery or anything, just quiet rural peace (or at least an Indian version of tranquility). The bad news was that the long walk was not injury-free. Just about half way into town I tripped on some broken pavement, went down with a crash and twisted my ankle. Ultimately nothing too bad; no sprain and certainly I didn’t break anything. I pretty much had to finish the walk in since, at the half-way mark, it was going to be as far either way and way out there were no tuktuks offering rides. But for the next few (several?) days I’m going to be lying low. After 103 consecutive days of surpassing my “Move” goal as set by AppleWatch my streak was broken. Sad!

As for the town itself, it was fun. We’re starting to get into the swing of this India thing, rolling with the intensity and chaos and squalor and all that and appreciating the parts that we like. Lake Pushkar was nothing like I’d been expecting. When I think “lake” I expect greenery, nice paths maybe, something approaching a park setting. Not here; it was remarkably small, really just a pond, and completely surrounded by cement sidewalks and mostly ugly buildings. It is holy, though, so there were lots of people around the edges bathing and otherwise partaking of the holiness. The surround area was definitely more bohemian backpacker than holy which adds a special flavor.

Pushkar’s main tourist/backpacker street

Enough of our side trip. It was a three-hour drive out to Pushkar and after our visit we had to get back to Jaipur to catch a flight to western Rajasthan. We scheduled a 6:30 AM departure which meant we left on Christmas Eve while it was still dark and thus got to enjoy a sky full of stars. That might have been my favorite part of the whole stay!

Lake Pushkar from Laura’s, a café where we thought we might have lunch. When we discovered the all-veg menu (which translates to “all-carb”) we left after just a bottle of water.

We love the bright colors in India

A woman outside one of the many temples lining the lake

Mark on the lake

Cute monkeys!

Cute door

Another of Pushkar’s temples

Mark takes a lot of pictures of cows. Oh, and there are a lot of cows in India.

More rural peace – and a cow of course

Mark with Deepac, a server at the Westin who poured good glasses of wine

And me with just a little festive Holiday spirit. Merry Christmas!