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.
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.
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.• 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.• 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!