Hello again! I just wanted to send another update to tell you all about my excursion to Rajasthan. After 36 hours of excruciating travel each way, via winding mountain roads, noisy busses, and sleeper-class train cars, I'm grateful to be back in our serene home in the mountains, but I'm also grateful to have seen so much more of India.
My travel group consisted of 8 people, 6 girls, myself, and one other boy. We departed immediately after class on Friday, October 20, which coincidentally was the night before Diwali, India's biggest holiday that somewhat resembles Christmas in the extent to which it has been commercialized. We arrived in Jaipur, the largest city in the western desert-state of Rajasthan, on Saturday afternoon. From one perspective, Diwali is a festival of lights, so that night every house, shop, and street in the city was lined with candles and small oil lamps. Let me tell you it was quite a site! My group and I walked all around, doing some initial shopping. The central bazaar was absolutely jammed with people. After dark, ad-hoc fireworks shows erupted all over the city. And let me tell you again, Indian fireworks are LOUD! A string of firecrackers here is basically a string of M-80s, yet little kids play without regard for safety, as if they were lighting strings of smoke bombs or sparklers. Back at my hotel, I watched starbursts above the rooftops until well after midnight.
On Sunday, the city had quieted down a little, so the 8 of us rented a couple jeeps for an all-day tour of the city. There aren't many particular details I feel need to be described, so I'll just give a quick photo run-through:
First stop: Hawa Mahal, an elaborate palace conspicuously located in the center of the old city, surrounded by bazaars and juta dukans (shoe stores). Jaipur, like many Indian cities, has a walled inner city accessible only by a few ancient gates. This zone is invariantly the most overpopulated, as well as being the home of the main bazaars and historical sites. Outside the wall is the new city, home to modern roads, offices, and hotels.
Next stop: the City Palace, complete with an armory of ancient weapons. "No photos allowed", except outside at this battery of cannons. Adam was thrilled about the cannons.
Heading outside of the Jaipur city limits, we found the Jal Mahal (Water Palace), surrounded by a nearly-drained lake and overlooked from this viewpoint.
Farther out of the city, Amber and Jaigarh Forts were the homes of ancient Hindu kings. Jaigarh Fort is also home to "one of the world's largest cannon on wheels," called "Jaivana".
I managed to nab this picture of some monkeys sitting high up on Jaigarh Fort's wall.
We spent two more days shopping, touring, and enjoying Jaipur. We particularly enjoyed our extremely posh hotel, Rs 1600 per night for a double room (about $35), which was complete with refrigerators, microwaves, A/C, and TVs. I managed to finish a lot of shopping for little gifts, trinkets, and clothing, including a full-length kurta for myself (see the Halloween pictures at the end).
But 3 days in Jaipur went by quickly, so early Wednesday morning we boarded a bus for a 6 hour ride to Jodpur, connecting with a much less comfortable bus on a 7 hour ride to Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer is the western-most major city in India, though it is more of a small town by American standards because of its isolation. It is surrounded by vast desert farmland. The city itself is about three kilometers in diameter, built up around Jaisalmer Fort.
The fort contains some beautiful and intricately carved Jain temples (pictures coming sometime in the future). The temples are surrounded by tourist-oriented shops. The whole city, in fact, is tourist-oriented, that being its main industry this time of year. I thought these "Camel" cigarettes were especially funny to find here in the desert.
Camel cigarettes were so fitting because early Friday morning, all the members of our group took a jeep about 30 kilometers out of the city, out into the middle of nowhere, and climbed aboard our personal camels. Camels are ugly SOBs. Fortunately, this group of 14 must have been well cared for, because they didn't spit or smell nearly as bad as I'd been led to believe. I've been around worse smelling people.
Here's the group playing cards with our tour guides, waiting in the shade of a tree for the midday sun to pass. The shade was cool, but in direct sun the temperature exceeded 90º. This was after a two hour morning ride. Our camels had saddles but no stirrups. We sat on the front of the camels' humps. Camels are much less comfortable to ride than horses, since the slanting saddle, combined with the constant motion of their backs as they haltingly trot, applies quite a lot of pressure on your tailbone. Their backs are also very wide. This all meant that I could barely walk after this first two hour ride.
There were 7 guides in all, none of whom spoke more than a few words of English. I found it difficult to try to speak Hindi with them, too, because they use a dialect called Rajasthani which differs from Hindi just enough to be unintelligible to my untrained ear.
Here's just a nice photo of my camel's shadow. You can see the type of desert landscape we traversed. The area surrounding this ground is agricultural, with small single-acre farms and family huts dotting the path. I was told that this is the start of the growing season, after the monsoons and sweltering heat of summer, but what crops were growing looked malnourished. Outside of farms there were mostly grasslands dotted with shrubs and sparse, flat-topped trees. The ground was also littered with watermelon vines. I didn't dare try to eat one.
Shortly after lunch, we came across a desert oasis. The woman here is a French newlywed, visiting Rajasthan on her honeymoon. Somehow she and her new husband got stuck with our group for their camel safari, but they were extremely friendly. They spoke very good English, and several girls in my group also spoke decent French that they learned in high school.
Just before sunset, after another 2-3 hour ride, we arrived at our camp in the dunes. Though we were 30 kilometers from civilization, a funny Indian man on his own camel showed up carrying a bag of ice-cold Coke and lime soda. At the risk of sounding cliche, this juxtaposition was a little amusing.
Here are a couple photos of my group watching the sunset over the hazy horizon.
And that's it. We camped under the stars (which under the haze were disappointingly dim compared to our view from the Himalayas), our guides cooked dinner and breakfast, and then we packed up and rode two more hours back to a rendezvous with the jeeps. Our hotel provided us with a place to shower and change, and then we boarded a train for an 18 hour ride to Delhi. Our car was "sleeper class", which meant there was no A/C, but the padded bench-seats converted to beds. Sleeping made the ride go a lot faster.
The whole trip was a lot of fun, and like I said, I am glad to have seen and experienced so much more of India. I traveled over a thousand kilometers (at an average speed of something like 50kph) across the width of the country. I ate potentially life-threatening samosas from roadside vendors. I spoke (or tried to speak) Hindi with a variety of people. I toured historical monuments. I bartered with shady shopkeepers. I road a camel. I slept under the stars in the sand.
The only part of the trip that was not fun was getting back to Delhi. Even as the train passed through the outer city limits, I could start to smell the pollution and thick, humid air. The train passed by slums where children played and danced on their tracks — this part was not so much displeasurable as it was eye-opening after the trip to Rajasthan. Rajasthan certainly has its own share of poverty, but Delhi's outrageous overcrowding changes the equation significantly. (To Sarah and Michalina, I noticed that Jaipur and Jodpur both had conspicuous pro-condom HIV-awareness campaigns, whereas Delhi does not have any such thing, at least not in places visible to tourists.) But when our train pulled into Old Delhi Station, our troubles began immediately. We had arranged a taxi to take us on a 10 hour drive back to the Himalayas, but by some mixup, he was waiting at New Delhi Station and had no cell phone. So we scrambled outside to find some taxis to take us across the city. One girl hired a porter ("coolie"), whose price was supposed to be fixed at posted rates but who immediately demanded double. No taxi driver would negotiate a fair price either, demanding at least triple the "Indian" rate. For the first time since I've been in India, I felt like everyone around me was out to cheat me, seeing my skin as a walking white dollar sign.
We arrived "home" past midnight on the morning of Sunday, October 29, after a little more than a week of travel. Over the next couple days I eased lazily back into my regular school schedule. The nights now are significantly colder, and except for the lack of rain, the weather is probably identical to Seattle's.
Last Tuesday, we had a special surprise: a bag full of Indian pumpkins for Halloween! Pumpkins here are small and green, but easy to carve. We all dressed up and had a little taste of home.
Here is Josh, dressed in some sort of outrageous outfit, carving his.
Brian and Evan dressed in togas. Here is their impression of an "omega":
My Hindi teacher dressed in a sari:
And Adam achieved the most convincing impression of a redneck I've ever seen (notice the Budweiser / Confederate Flag tattoo):
And here's the group. I'm dressed in my new kurta on the right, complete with my Hindi teacher's Muslim topi (hat):
Finally, these are our pumpkins.
So that's it! Thanks for reading, and please, everyone, stay in touch. I'm sorry that I don't have time for more personal emails, but I've read everything that you've all sent and I'll reply eventually. I've also picked up some postcards which I should be able to mail in time for Christmas.
So until next time, I miss you all!