All posts by Jim St. George

Enjoying one of our three fabulous lunches at the White Terrace

We ended our Rajasthani bike trip with a day in Udaipur and while the rest of the group flew to Delhi and then on toward home we – since we don’t have a home – stayed in Udaipur for three more days. We checked into a luxury hotel to recover from all that biking and – having toured the City Palace with the bike group – had a pretty chill couple of days.

Separated from the Thar Desert that we’d been biking through by the Aravalli Range that we biked over, Udaipur is quite different from the Rajasthan that we’d become familiar with. In fact, it has lakes, something we definitely had not seen a lot of. Accordingly Udaipur is known as the City of Lakes, though based on my experience it would never be confused with that other City of Lakes, Minneapolis. Still, those lakes give Udaipur an attractive quality missing in the other Rajasthan cities we visited.

Lake Pichola. Mark found himself wondering what birds did before humans discovered electricity and started stringing electric wires….

To be clear, though, the peace we found there was overwhelmingly the result of staying at the Oberoi hotel. Acres and acres of beautifully landscaped lawns and gardens. A pool for Mark to hang out by and a hammock for me to read in. We’d just hang out in the morning, then go into town for a great lunch at the White Terrace (if you’re ever in Udaipur it’s definitely worth a visit). I’d go back to the hotel for some more hammock time while Mark would explore the city a little on his own.

My view from the hammock. Outside the hotel grounds Udaipur is a typically chaotic, noisy, dirty city but in here serenity reigns.

And that’s it. Relaxing and calm, though we were both annoyed by the way hotel staff had been trained to engage guests, inquiring constantly if everything was nice, if we’d slept well, if the food was good, and on and on and on and on. If your biggest complaint is that there are too many staff members doting on you your life is probably OK.

Mark’s perch at the pool

More of the hotel grounds. Acres and acres of calm.

Outside, though, you were right back in India

Mark used to drive a tractor just like this when he was a kid in Michigan

A street scene

We were almost always too excited by the food to remember to take pictures but managed to restrain our urge to feed long enough to get this shot

Meeting the locals was always a highlight of our days

All good things must end, and this bike trip was definitely one of those good things. After our rest day in Jojawar we rode to Ranakpur, Kumbhalghar, and finally Udaipur, our final destination. As we left Jojawar the scenery quickly started changing; while up to now the terrain was pretty much flat as far as the eye could see, suddenly big hills loomed. Nothing we had to tackle yet, but there they were.

The penultimate day, then, Ranakpur to Kumbhalghar, was all about the hills. Not the biggest hills we’ve ever seen but after several days of almost entirely flat countryside these were definitely hills. First a couple big, long climbs and then a series of rolling hills. Now, “rolling hills” may not sound like much but here’s the problem. When you’re biking in rolling hills you may end up biking hard uphill for maybe five or 10 minutes, then down for one or two, then up again. It feels as though you’re biking almost entirely uphill. Eventually, though, we made it up and over what here in Rajasthan they call the mountains, though to be honest they’re just big hills. From there it was mostly downhill toward Udaipur and our farewell meals.

The hills of Rajasthan, from the Kumbhalghar Fort, that we rode over and through

First, though, there were a couple worthwhile cultural experiences, something Grasshopper is pretty good at scheduling in. In Ranakpur we went to a beautiful Jain temple. Or, I should say, Mark and everyone else went to the Jain temple; I needed a little “Jim time,” plus I was finishing Red Notice, a great little exposé about Russian corruption and the successful efforts of a hedge fund manager to extract a tiny bit of justice. At any rate while I was wrapping that up they were learning more about Jainism, a religion of maybe five million people worldwide, mostly in India, that places non-violence at its center.

Mark loved the Jain Temple. Kept telling me how great it was. That’s OK; I got to see the pictures.

Another shot of the temple

The next day in Kumbhalghar it was up to the fort. Blair, our leader, made it clear that this was the best fort of the trip and pointedly indicated that I shouldn’t miss this one. So even though I’d already told Mark I’d seen enough forts for one trip up I went with the rest of them. Was it the best fort ever? No, not even close. The views, though, were pretty good and it’s probably a good thing to be social even if I didn’t entirely feel like it.

Mark with Andrew (a veterinarian) & Ingrid (a physician) from Newfoundland. Ingrid stayed busy investigating various aches and pains we were experiencing.

And finally, then, it was on to Udaipur and the end. First, though, one last tour, this time a walking tour of Udaipur and the City Palace. There’s a reason, it turns out, why Mark & I almost never take a guided tour of a city; we just prefer to explore it on our own. Too bad that a great bike trip ended on what was, for us, a boring note.

The rest of the trip, though, was anything but boring. Great rides, nice hotels, some genuinely lovely people to share it with. I had been a bit frustrated with our last Grasshopper tour – the requirement to all ride together seemed unnecessary and distinctly suboptimal – but this one restored my faith in them. As you can tell from the pictures we loved all the kids who would line the ratty little roads running through the villages as we rode through. It was almost enough to make me like kids! And just watching people go about their lives, seemingly unchanged over long periods as they carry firewood and herd goats and all that. Of course, things do change of course. At one point during a rest break we watched a tall, thin woman walking what must have been a pretty long walk given how far she was from anything with firewood on her head. “Things just never change,” we said. Until we noticed that while she was balancing the wood with one hand she was talking on a cell phone with the other. Even two flat tires and a little robbery couldn’t cast a shadow on a ride like that.

Did I mention kids?

Mark & I weren’t the only ones charmed by the kids. Here’s Vonnie (short for Yvonne, though I’m guessing at the spelling) using her iPad to take a selfie with a little cutie.

Oh yeah, that robbery. The morning we left Jojawar, the day after the rock-point robbery, they’d shown me a photo of the guy they thought was the ring-leader. There was no question it was the guy who’d been driving the bike. The next morning, in Ranakpur, we heard from the police that they’d identified all three and sure enough, the picture they sent of the little mean one who’d wielded the threatening rock was spot on; again, no question they’d identified the guys. So far so good.

By the end of the trip, though, the story got even better. The police actually recovered some of the money. Apparently it’s harder to spend $180 in rural India than you might expect. The manager of the hotel we’d stayed at in Jojawar collected what they recovered, topped it up to the total amount they’d taken, and sent the whole thing to our guide. In other words, I got my money back. To be honest I still felt somewhat vulnerable on the last days of the ride, just a little nervous when older guys would cluster around as they did for the local “tourist attraction,” but in the end things worked out OK.

This little kid is keeping the cows moving round and round, drawing water for irrigation from what they called a Persian Well. Yes, things change but some things don’t change a lot.

From here we’re staying in Udaipur for a couple days R&R while the rest of the group flew on to Delhi for their farewells. Then we have three days in Mumbai before we fly down to Sri Lanka to start a whole new adventure. Exciting!

Encountering locals on our ride

Making masala tea for us during a break

Sometimes our breaks were just abandoned spots along the road

Mark & Sharon adorned with fresh flowers for the final stretch into Ranakpur

These dogs, sleeping in a trash pile in the middle of an intersection, represent an almost infinite number of dogs found in very similar circumstances

The crew that made things work for us. That’s Blair, a giant Brit and the Grasshopper guide, on the left and Ashok, our (absolutely great) local guide in the middle. If you ever want a guide in India you couldn’t do better than Ashok.

Outside a temple in Udaipur during our final day walking tour

And lastly, a shot of the Peacocks. Yup, Ingrid and Andrew’s last name is Peacock which led to no end of fun in a country where the national bird is the peacock. One of the great memories of the trip was Blair ready to go when they weren’t and hearing him shout “OK Peacocks, on your bikes!” That joke just never got old.

Mark on one of the long, flat, narrow lanes running through Rajasthan. That’s a mustard field behind him, if you care.

Osian to Jodhpur, Jodhpur to Rohat, and Rohat to Jojawar for a rest day and a police report, but more on that later.

Along with our first day to Osian we’ve ridden for four days now and they’ve all been good rides, some really good. Mostly it’s been quiet country roads, what would in the U.S. be really just a one-lane road though here they manage to squeeze in traffic going both ways. Our second day of riding was mostly on a bigger highway which was easy but not very interesting. After that, though, it’s been almost exclusively on quiet country roads. Mostly reasonably well paved but then every so often you’ll hit five miles or so of really rough road. Not nearly as much fun.

Rajasthani roadside sights

As I said, day two was mostly on a reasonably major road into Jodhpur, just a bit over 30 miles. Mark and I had been here just a couple days earlier and, to our surprise, the hotel we were staying at with Grasshopper was immediately next door do the place we’d stayed. And lunch was scheduled for On the Rocks, the same place that we’d loved during our stay. After riding into town, cleaning up, and having lunch, the group headed up to the Jodhpur Fort. For us that was back up to the Jodhpur Fort, as we’d been there just three days earlier, but this time we went into the museum and so we saw quite a different perspective of the fort.

The Jodhpur Fort, lit up at night, from the main market area

Afterwards we walked down into the market – always interesting – and then off to dinner. For Mark & me dinner was coming up too soon – less than four hours after lunch – so we opted to go off on our own later and, not surprisingly, ended up back at On the Rocks. We had been curious about one thing there: there was an indication that, because it was a family establishment “single men” would not be served at the bar. Did that include us? Whether it was intended to or not, it didn’t. In fact, there were only men there and they were the only tables available for dinner near heat (it gets pretty chilly at night so I needed the artificial heat). At any rate, the meal as usual was great.

From Jodhpur we rode on to Rohat, this time a little less than 30 miles, into what seemed like a nothing little town. As we rode through the town toward the hotel I found myself thinking “Jesus, what kind of place are we going to find here?” Turned out an exceptionally beautiful place, just an amazing oasis in an otherwise ugly, dirty town. So amazing, in fact, that Madonna Herself apparently stayed here a few years ago and loved it. And then we learned that just the day before Brooke Shields had been there. Based on the photos the staff showed us, she’s still looking pretty good. So we loved our little Rohatian oasis.

The kids love us as we bike through their tiny villages. As I said when we first started this ride they give a whole new meaning to the term “tourist attraction.”

Next stop then was Jojawar, another pretty nondescript town after a long 55-mile ride. The hotel here – like so many of them built in an old royal palace – was nice but nothing to get too excited about. The excitement was that we had a rest day, well-earned after four days of biking. First, though, after arriving in Jojawar we were going to go on a “human safari” which, we learned, was heading out in a jeep into a really, really remote village to meet some really remote people. This was truly out off the grid, just a tiny compound of an extended family, part of a small religious minority in the area. Then it was into a very small village where we watched and participated in an opium ceremony – yes, opium tea – where the local men chant and do all that religious stuff and then share some very, very, very weak opium tea. We all tried it and ultimately it was pretty bland. I don’t think any of us became addicts.

The family patriarch and a local guide on what they called the “human safari”

As part of the opium tea ceremony you drink the tea directly from your cupped hands. Even if it weren’t so totally diluted you probably just couldn’t drink that much of it.

The next day we had a morning activity, an hour-long drive through the hills of Rajasthan – the first hills we’ve seen – to an old railroad station. The activity was just to ride the train through the hills, enjoying the views and seeing how the locals live and travel. Fun enough. From there back to the hotel and lunch.

Hanging out on the train. Don’t worry, it was stopped, though when it was running these doors stayed wide open so you could enjoy the breeze and the views.

On of the stops along the way. The cows ultimately were unable to board, but this gives you an idea of the quality of train we were riding.

After a bit of rest I decided to go for a walk. Yes, it was a rest day, but I wanted to get a little exercise in. So I took off into the little town and quickly found myself out on a small road leading, well, who knows? But I like walking out in the country so off I went, past a cricket field with a couple teams playing and then on out, just to get some fresh air and see what was there. I’ve done this dozens and dozens of times, and this road was no different from the roads we’ve been biking on.

Ah, but it was different. While the small number of people I would see on their motorcycles were typically friendly, waving at this strange foreigner out for a walk, one group of guys on a bike – three of them, to be precise – started hassling me. I wasn’t sure what they were up to, but it wasn’t just the usual friendly banter; it was menacing. Eventually they sped on and I continued. But then they came back, maybe a little more menacing, so this time I turned around and headed back to town. They rode away but again were back in a minute or so. This time one of them got off the bike and started challenging me. I didn’t know what was going on, though it was obvious whatever it was wasn’t good.

We’ll stop the story here for the cutest picture ever, a shy cat in Jodhpur…

Pretty quickly I realized that the word he was almost chanting as he circled me was “Money.” Over and over, snarling, growling, as the other two guys started chanting it with him. It was starting to be clear to me, especially when the second guy got off the bike and I saw a big rock in his hand. OK, there’s something of a language barrier but I get the point: I’m being robbed at rock point. I took out my wallet and quickly extracted all the cash in it; I wasn’t going to try to play games by keeping a few bills. Sadly, just the day before we’d stopped at an ATM and I’d taken out 10,000 rupees, about $160, and hadn’t yet given any of it yet to Mark, meaning I had about $180 on me. I gave them the money and got out of there as fast as I could.

Not fast enough, though, as they quickly circled back and then started chanting “Phone!” For some crazy reason – as Mark points out, they were obviously amateurs – they believed me and left. And that was it. Never got my credit or ATM cards, didn’t take my iPhone, didn’t even seem to notice the AppleWatch. Amateurs. As I started to walk back to town a group of guys who worked at a nearby power plant and had heard something going on came out. They were sympathetic but by then the evil trio were long gone. I remembered that I had our local guide’s phone number, though, and called him to report what had happened. He and the hotel were out there within five minutes at most.

From there things went surprisingly well. The manager, who you can imagine absolutely hated the fact that one of his guests had been robbed in town, got the police on the line and soon enough I had three or four police officers asking questions, taking notes, all that stuff. They explained that because we knew almost precisely when it had happened – my call to the guide was time-stamped on our phones – they could look at a CCTV camera on the road leading out of town to see if they could identify anyone. Before bedtime I had a call from the superintendent of the regional police saying they were on it and they would find the guys.

And to my enormous surprise, they did, before even I left town the following morning. There was all sorts of paperwork and signatures and stamps and all that during the evening and I was incredibly bad at giving them any description of the three guys at all: I had been focused on surviving, not taking mental pictures. And yes, as they were driving away the last time it occurred to me that taking out my iPhone to take a picture wouldn’t have been smart. I thought it was pretty unlikely that I would be able to identify anyone if they could pick up a likely suspect.

The next morning, though, as we were getting ready to leave for our ride, one of the cops pulled me aside and, with our guide as translator, pulled out his phone, showed me a picture, and asked if I recognized the guy. Absolutely, without any doubt, it was the guy who’d been driving. He explained that they’d figured out the night before who it was, went to their houses, and all three guys were out and didn’t come back. At some point, though, they’ll come back and the police will be ready.

I asked the cop who had this photo on his phone if I could take a picture of the picture. So there he is, the evil SOB who was driving the motorcycle. What’s funny is though I didn’t recall his facial hair, the second I saw this I recognized him. The one thing I did remember, and told the police, was that his hair had a slight, unnatural reddish tint, which you can actually see here.

Of course, I’m not getting my money back. And to be honest, I’m not sure I care what happens to them. I suspect, though, that they won’t get away scott-free. The hotel manager was genuinely upset; I believed him when he said that had never happened before. And I think the local and regional police hated it that a foreign tourist was robbed in their cute little town. To their credit, and in massive contrast to an experience in Rio years ago, the hotel manager, the police, and the Grasshopper staff were extraordinarily helpful and responsive. I mean, they had IDed the guys within just a couple of hours. That’s not bad work.

For the second time in my life, then, I’ve been robbed. The first time was in Rio 12 years ago or so but hell, that was Rio. You’re surprised if you spend time there and don’t get robbed. You don’t expect it in rural India, where the people have been almost impossibly sweet and kind and friendly. At one point I realized that until now, I hadn’t been carrying my wallet at all; everything is paid for by Grasshopper so you really don’t need to have a wallet. I’d grabbed it as we left for the train ride, though, in case I wanted to buy a snack or something, or in case I’d misunderstood the directions and we had to pay for the train tickets. And when you think about it, it would have been a lot worse if I hadn’t had my wallet. Who would believe that a Western tourist didn’t have any money at all? They would have likely tackled me to get the (non-existent) wallet and who knows how that would have ended. Most certainly with me one less iPhone and probably a bit of spilled blood. Losing a bit of money is OK when you put it that way.

In the end, then, not the worst thing that ever happened. Now it’s back on the bike and off to high-fiving more cute little seven-year-olds who are just grinning from ear-to-ear seeing these strange aliens on bikes.

Sunset in Jodhpur

An Indian woman at the Jodhpur Fort. Her face is covered by a veil, indicating that she observes “purdah”, a religious practice of both Hindu and Moslem women in northern India to cover themselves. The colorful clothes and relatively thin and translucent veil makes it seem somehow less oppressive than the thick black burqas seen in other Moslem communities.

Tony & Sharon, from Adelaide, were celebrating their 30th anniversary with us

Our intrepid leader Blair, from Scotland. At well over 6 feet and with a big reddish beard he must look like something of an alien to these Indians.

Women in the rural compound on our “human safari.” The large nose ring indicates she’s married.

Cute calves

Jim & Anne, another Aussie, on the train ride

Steve, a sweet American employee of Grasshopper but doing the ride with us on holiday

Strange street scenes along the ride

At one point on the ride we stopped at this shrine. It’s a motorcycle shrine. The story is that some guy was killed in a motorcycle accident back in the 1990s. The cycle was brought into town but every time they did it would drive itself back to the site of the accident. So they built a shrine and left it there. Color me a sceptic.

It’s hard to overstate how challenging and medieval almost their lives can be. Over and over you see women and small children carrying firewood so they can cook their meals.

Jim and a cute kid

Kids playing a game, as kids everywhere do