Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Taj Mahal

On my last day in India, I went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I had heard from everyone and their mother that you can't leave India without seeing the Taj Mahal.

It cost me an arm and a leg, because I had to hire a private car to drive me. I had wanted to take the Taj Express - a train - to and from Agra, but the return train would have gotten me to Delhi at 10pm, too late to make it to the airport for my flight that night at 1am.

The driver, Vijay, picked me up at the hotel and we drove the 4 hours to Agra. I had heard horror stories from several people about the road to Agra that I won't repeat here, but strangely, I missed all of the grossness. I don't know why; it sounded unmissable. But the drive was unremarkable except for the lack of AC in the car (Vijay claimed it was broken, but somehow miraculously it worked when we had to shut the windows for the torrential rain).

Vijay stopped at a restaurant for a bathroom break. This restaurant had a huge gift shop area that I wasn't interested in, but when I came out of the bathroom, I couldn't find him anywhere. I waited, wandered, avoided the souvenier shop men, and waited more. After 3 attempts to find him, he reappeared. Hmm.

When we got to Agra, Vijay kept stopping at places that he thought I would want to take pictures of, mostly random temples, but I had had enough of temples and I didn't really feel like taking photos from the road anyway. At another temple, he offered to stop so I could go in, but it was pouring out so I didn't feel like getting out of the car. After a hot and windy 4 hour drive, I just wanted to see the Taj already. I don't think I was his typical tourist.

As we approached, he kept making phone calls to his "friend from the company." I finally figured out that this was supposed to be a tour guide. He said it was free, and "if you like, you tip, if you don't like, no tip." I explained that I really didn't need a tour guide (and I don't feel like spending more money). He didn't seem to get it (or want to) and kept calling the guy. His English was minimal, so I gave up after a few tries and figured I would wait and see what was really going on.

Finally we pulled up to the corner, and a man got in. He spoke excellent English, and he explained that he was the "free" tour guide. (Given that tour guides stand outside the Taj and offer their services for 50-150 rupees, I'm guessing that they figure that a tourist will probably tip at least 200 rupees and so they make more money that way.) I'm sure I would have learned and appreciated more with a tour guide, and that there is probably tons to say about the Taj Mahal. But all I could picture was this guy blathering on condescendingly while i schvitzed and wished I could just sit down and relax. So I explained it again and after insisting politely but firmly another few times, they gave up.

The Taj Mahal was beautiful. It is basically a huge, symmetrical structure built of white marble.

It was built by a Mughal Emperor for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. The obstetrician in me perked up - hmmm, postpartum hemorrhage? Although it was beautiful, I can't say it resonated with me. It was kind of simple, and just one structure. I don't know what I expected, maybe more detail or more buildings or something. I made several passes through to see what I had missed, and I did notice a couple of details, like the jewels on the tombstones inside. But then I had to run away because some large mouth-breather man kept stalking me, imitating me when I looked at things, trying to talk to me and mushing up against me in the crowd.

What I actually enjoyed more than the Taj was the Agra Fort, or the Red Fort, so named because it is made out of red sandstone.

Vijay wanted to take me to some souvenier shop in Agra, and I had to again tell him several times that I was not interested. I wanted to go to the fort instead. Then of course he got all huffy about the time and traffic for the return trip, and told me I had only 45 minutes. Whatever.

The Agra fort was huge and spectacular. It is not nearly as well cared for as the Taj Mahal, but if it was I think it would be truly stunning. There are several buildings, but they are all interconnected by stairways, hallways, nooks and crannies. There is some fantastic detail on the walls, ceilings and gates. I could have wandered around for hours. I could easily imagine the place in its heyday, lavishly decorated with furniture, artwork and jeweled textiles with royalty in magnificent saris and kurtas and tubans milling about.

After the Agra fort, it was a 5-hour drive back to the Delhi airport for my 14-hour flight home.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Photos Added

I just went back and added photos to several of my previous posts. Also, the entire photo set can be seen here.

Not Quite Darjeeling Limited

I finally had my train experience in India.

There was a daily train from Jaisalmer to Delhi. This was lucky, since there was very little going out of Jaisalmer, and I was flying out of Delhi. So on the day of my arrival, also known as the day before my departure, I rushed out just before the camel safari to buy a ticket. I got a lead from the adorable older man running my hotel that I could have the ticket booked for me online at the Fort View (unlike all the other ticket-booking places, which apparently just send out a runner or something to go down to the railway station to physically book the ticket).

I found the Fort View, where I encountered a very adorable even older man with one lonely tooth who seems to be Jaisalmer's IT guy. He logged on to the India Railway's impressive-looking website, and booked the ticket for me. He typed with one finger, and often hit an additional unwanted key, so nearly every time he hit "Enter" there was some sort of error in processing. So then he had to squint at the screen to figure out what was wrong, then to find the error. I was in a big rush, so this was torture, although mitigated by his adorable toothlessness. Eventually I started pointing out all the errors before he hit "Enter" and this improved about half of them (he didn't always listen to what I was saying). Finally we got to the "book ticket" screen, he clicked on the button and.....nothing. The internet connection was slow and unreliable, and it chose that moment to demonstrate it. The old man didn't know about the "Reload" button, and my efforts to demonstrate it were fruitless. After a second attempt, I really needed to leave to go on my camel safari, so I made a down payment, and he agreed to book me the ticket and I could pick it up in the morning.

I was worried that I had just been swindled, as I was very paranoid from all the hassling and insanity of travel in India. But, true to his word, the next morning at 9am there was an envelope waiting in my name (well, Verinica Ades - close enough) for a railway ticket for me (Verinica Ades) on the 4pm train to Delhi, 2nd class AC (air-conditioning).

There was no first-class option available for this particular train ride. Because of my nervousness of traveling alone as a woman, I would have paid the money for it, but I had no choice. There was also no tourist quota for this train either, nor a Ladies Car like the local trains have. Mr. Toothless wanted me to book a 3rd class AC, which has 3 people bunked on each wall. 2nd class AC has only 2 people bunked on each wall, and I figured every upgrade in class was helpful, so I insisted on 2nd class AC for $10 more.

The 2nd class AC car was more crowded than I expected, but in the end it was OK. Each car had several sections (maybe 5-8), and each section had 2 beds bunked on each wall plus another 2 beds bunked along the hallway. There were no doors, only curtains closing off each bed. My bed was the top bunk in the hallway. I was apprehensive about it, especially when I saw four businessmen occupy the beds in my section, and they were not very friendly. As it turned out, only 2 of them were staying there, and a nice French couple occupied the other 2 top bunks in my section. I talked for a long time with the woman, and she made me feel much more comfortable about the whole set-up. The only example I had in my mind was The Darjeeling Limited and Harry Potter other train movies where people had their own compartments with locking doors. This was wide open and not private at all.

Before the train left, a man came around selling small chains with locks to lock up your bag. I noticed the french couple had them, so I stopped the guy and managed to negotiate down from 250 rupees to 100 rupees - I was proud of myself for that one (I'm sure an Indian person would have paid like 20 rupees, but still, at least I learned a bit about haggling). At first I still kept all my bags on the bunk with me, but it would have been hard to lie down like that, and this was a 19-hour ride. So, after talking to the french woman, I calmed down a bit and put my large bag underneath the bed, locked up, and it was fine.

I had been worried about food, because I had been told there would be no restaurant car (despire the Darjeeling Limited scene) so I bought 2 samosas on my way there. As it turns out, men walk through selling potato chips and soda the whole ride, plus a man comes through selling chai quite often (I am obsessed with chai now, given its deliciousness and caffienation). And there was even dinner service for 40 rupees - you got a lot of chapati, rice, raita and 2 dishes (a yellow dal and something else). It was quite tasty. Sadly, although I love it, I had to avoid the raita because it is often mixed with water and I couldn't take the chance.

At the end of the trip, I felt rested but very dirty; despite the air conditioning it was sometimes a bit stuffy in there, and I had done all that sweating in the Jaisalmer heat so I felt sticky. Plus, a train like that is only going to be so clean.

Overall, the ride was enjoyable. The most regrettable part was the lack of windows. I was hoping for nice views of the countryside over the long ride, but there was no window at the top bunk, and the curtains were closed on the lower bunks. I slept a long time and fairly comfortably considering the circumstances.

Women's Health

Before I left Jaisalmer, my medical training was called into use.

On some of the check-in forms for hotels, profession is requested. The hotel owners, being relatively chatty, asked me about my being a doctor when I checked in, and we discussed the fact that I am a doctor for women and pregnancy. The next day, when I went to check out and leave my bags there fore the day, the owner had his brother in the office, and they wanted to ask my advice.

The brother's wife is pregnant, and she had felt very weak the day before, and it happened to her sometimes. They wanted to know if that was normal. It happened periodically during the pregnancy, but not all the time. I discussed with them the fact that it could be normal, especially since Jaisalmer is hotter than the center of the sun, and I asked about additional symptoms, of which she had none. He estimated that she was about 7 months pregnant. He said she also gets weak and uncomfortable when she has her periods - was that normal? I told him that it was, and that women's lives are hard. He said "Yes, they are! I didn't realize it before, but know I know. Life is very hard for women."

Later, when I came to drop something off with my bags, I ran into the adorable older hotel owner - the father of the other two men. He was quite a nice man and had given me good advice during my stay and had been very friendly and caring. He asked me to come and sit with him and his mother and wife by the fan and cool off. They chatted with me (except that only he spoke English, and just barely), and then asked if I would be willing to see his daughter-in-law. I told him I don't have any instruments, and he said "That's ok, a good doctor just looks at the patient and talks to her and knows if she is OK." Which is, in a way, kind of true.

So I walked over with his wife to another house nearby. There were 5 women sitting in a living room on the floor, watching TV and chatting. I couldn't even tell which was the pregnant one - they had to tell me. We talked for a while. The pregnant woman didn't speak English, but the others did. It sounded to me like she wasn't drinking nearly enough water, and when I said that they all roared with laughter as if they had all told her that before and now here the doctor was saying it too.

Since I had no instruments on me, all I could do was feel her belly, but I figured I could do a guesstimate fundal height, some Leopold's maneuvers and they would feel like I did something. From her LMP, which she knew, she should have been about 27-28 weeks. I estimated her fundal height to be around 23 - it was only a bit above the umbilicus. Hrmm.

One of the women told me "The doctor in Jodhpur said the baby is weak." I asked why he thought that, and they said it was because she wasn't eating enough.
From interviewing her I got the impression she was reluctant to eat anything because she thought it was bad for the pregnancy - things like chapati, rice, dal...basically everything. I told her she needed to eat well for the baby, and all those things are good for the pregnancy. Really I told the other women, because I got the feeling they would be the ones enforcing this. She kept insisting "no chapati" so maybe she doesn't like chapati, but she needs to eat something.

I also asked about activity, and it sounded like she doesn't do much besides sit around in that room and watch TV with the other women. Women seem to be so invisible and sheltered in India, and there is a universal misconception around the world, it seems, that women are incapable of doing anything in pregnancy besides lying prostrate, for fear of "hurting the baby." (If you have met me, you have probably heard me rant about the idiocy of bed rest.) I told her she needed to get a little more exercise, and in the early mornings or evenings she should go for a little walk with all the women there. This was not news to them either, and they roared again and seemed to say "I told you so!" in Hindi.

I couldn't take her blood pressure or check a fetal heart rate or do a sono, but at least we had a chat. It was nice to meet and talk to some women at least, and it was really nice to see that the female-friend dynamic is the same across cultures.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Bapu the Camel

A popular tourist activity in Jaisalmer is to go on a tourist trek, and it got rave reviews from everyone I met who did one. So I was particularly excited to do that. I had heard you could go on a three-day camel trek, sleeping in the desert, seeing ruins and eating yummy food cooked by the camel driver. I didn't have time for three days. But Anita's brother had told me you could do just an evening camel trek to see the sunset and come back the same evening, as he had done.

When I got to Jaisalmer, the first thing I had to do (after hotel, shower and die of heat stroke) was find a camel safari. My hotel led me to the guy next door, whose rates were more than I expected. Then again, the borrowed guidebook I had was 6 years old, so all my prices were off. But still, it was more than I expected, so I needed to think about it (plus no food was included). What made me even more hesitant was that I would be the only one on that particular safari. I didn't feel comfortable going alone.

I walked a little further into town to find food or internet or something, and I came across another tourist center (really, you couldn't spit without hitting one). I went in and spoke to the guy. He had a French couple going on an overnight safari that evening, and I could join that group. I could stay overnight, or I could come back after dinner, but since I was the only person coming back, it would be a bit more expensive. His rate was similar to the other guy's but a little lower (and dinner was included). I felt reassured that there would be other people, and I decided to accept this one.

I met them at the office at 3pm. Cecile and Paul, a companions for the journey. It was really nice to have them with me - they were quite nice and we had some interesting discussions. Plus Cecile got some good camel photos for me. We drove in a car to see Bada Bagh and Amar Sagh, two sites of ruins nearby that are popular with tourists. They weren't very crowded, which was nice, but they were only somewhat interesting. Compared with Angkor, they weren't very exciting, and the Jain temples I saw inside the fort the next day were much more impressive. Then we drove a lyoung couple from Paris, were myong distance in the car (exhausted from the bus trip, I fell asleep) until we drove off the road at a certain point and toward the desert. When the dirt road ended, we met up with the camel drivers - one in a white kurta (tunic) and one in a blue kurta.

My camel's name was Bapu. Mounting the camel was interesting. The came lay down on the ground, and even then it was a struggle to get on. I suppose these were one-hump camels, although you could barely see the hump at all, even with the saddle off. They were very cute. I love how camels chew.

Once you got on, the camel stood up first on its front legs, so you leaned waaay back, then on it's hind legs, shooting you forward. Then you were very very high.

We walked slowly. I wondered if camels can gallop, but I didn't want to find out. Riding the camel was really nice. Because the pace was slow, you could sit and look and think, and you didn't have to worry about falling off. Cecile's camel seemed to like to walk her through thorn bushes. Our ride was only about an hour, but I can't imagine how people do it for longer. I was sore and aching to move my legs into a different position before the hour was up. Plus we were there in the evening (we mounted the camels around 5:30). I can't imagine how hot it was riding these camels in the desert during the day.

The camel drivers didn't mount - they walked their camels. The driver in the white kurta pulled out his cell phone and chatted for a while. This contrast - us on camels in the desert, him chatting on a cell - struck us as very funny. I'm surprised there's even a signal way out there. After a while, the driver in the blue kurta turned around and went away. The other driver said he would meet up with us later, which he did, after dinner.

We were able to then talk to the driver in the white kurta. His name was Hamji. He told us he was walking, not riding, because he had been riding all day with another tour and was tired of riding. He made lots of different clicking noises, which the camels seemed to understand, almost as a language.

While we were riding, we came across a little girl herding sheep. We heard her before we saw her, because she was singing loudly in a high-pitched voice. Hamji said it was a typical Rajasthani song that the children learn. She sang for a while until we came close. We waved and said "namaste" and she bowed and stared. After we had ridden off, we heard her start up her singing again without any trace of embarassment.

After we had ridden the camels for an hour, we reached a small dune, were we dismounted and Hamji said we could take photos and relax while he made dinner. Another little girl approached us curiously. She asked for a pen repeatedly. I wished I had bought a box of pens to give out to children. You never know what the kids in each country will want, but often they want pens. I remembered I had one pen in my bag, and I gave it to her. After that, she was my best friend for life. She stayed with me, never more than a foot away, watching my every move. When I walked up a dune, she walked up the dune. When I sat, she sat. She wrote words in Hindi for me in the sand. She kept calling the pen her "shukul pen" which I eventually realized meant "school pen." We counted to 10 in English, and reviewed simple English words (shirt, shoe, eyes, foot), although I couldn't get her to tell me what the words were in Hindi. At one point, when I closed my eyes out of exhaustion, she played in the sand, then poked me to tell me that the pen was gone, indicating that she had lost it in the sand. ("Shukul pen! Shukul pen!") I had no more pens, and told her so. Miraculously, the pen appeared out of her shirt. Another little girl came over who spoke a little more English (she was 11, while the first girl was 8). But I didn't have a pen for her, and she lost interest and left. My friend stayed with me until dinner.

While we were relaxing on the dunes and the Cecile and Paul took photos, Hamji started a fire and cooked up chapati, rice, dal and potatoes. It was delicious and, like everything I ate in India, just at the maximum point of spiciness that I could handle (and that's is the "mildly" spicy variety).

I came to really like Hamji over the course of the trek. He seemed to have a good relationship with the camels. He was quiet, answering our questions but not overly talkative. Most of the people I had met in the touristy areas either wouldn't stop talking, or didn't talk because they didn't speak much English. Hamji's English was quite good, and even more impressive when we learned that he can't read or write because he never went to school, and learned all his English speaking with tourists over the last 5 years. He is Muslim, and lives 40km away near the Pakistani border. He goes home every couple of months. He said it used to be easy to cross the border to visit relatives, but now it was very difficult, more so for Pakistanis than for Indians. He speaks four languages: Hindi, Rajasthani, English, and Sindhi. Some of this we learned while riding the camels, although it was hard to talk then. Later, after he had made dinner, he came over and sat with us, and this is when we talked to him substantially. The conversation was so interesting that I wanted to stay longer, but it was cut short by the arrival of the man who would be driving me back to Jaisalmer.

Bobby Heena

I had walked around Jaisalmer in the morning, and it was starting to heat up in the afternoon. At one point, one of the people in a house sitting in front of a fan saw me walk by and said "Afternoon is too hot for walking! Time for nap!" I was inclined to agree, but I had nowhere to nap, as I had checked out of my hotel.

I was thinking about where I could go to sit down and cool off until my train at 4pm, when I happened upon a woman at the door of her shop, recruiting me to enter. This made me pause, since it was so, so rare to see a woman conducting business in India. And what she said made the pause into a stop: "Please come and see my store. I am a woman business owner and the men don't like me, they don't want me to succeed and they try to ruin my store. I sell things made by village women to support them."

Was it true? Or was she just as good of a swindler as everyone else? She had the incessant talking habit that they all had. I hesitated, but then I decided that a woman salesperson was so rare that it was worth investigating, even if it turned out to be a pain in the ass. I went into her shop, and she continued her breathless speech for a while: "Women are forced to marry here so young, between 9 and 12 years old, latest at 14. I am 28 years old and I am not married. I am an educated women, I have a business degree, and the men don't like this. They threaten my store, they slashed my fabric yesterday, I can show you. They don't like me because I am trying to help the woman, the village women, I buy their needlework and pay a fair price. I don't pay commission to the touts because I don't want their help to bring customers. I want the customers to find me themselves and see my store, but they don't like this, and they don't like me because I am a woman..."

Gahhhh okokokOK! I was very sympathetic to what she was saying, of course, but it was coming out in a rapid stream of words (the Indian sales pitch, I have learned), and I just wanted her to stop talking already. I finally got her to stop by interrupting in feminist agreement and looking at some of the garments. After that she actually calmed down, and she was quite interesting. She told me she was 28 and unmarried (and her bindi was, in fact, black as opposed to the red bindi worn by married women). Her father was educated and her mother was not. They were from a small village, but her parents had managed to educate all of her many siblings, some of whom had since died. She did not want to marry yet (I have to say, this was very surprising for her circumstances. I wanted to know more about this, but I didn't want to pry).

I looked at the quality of her textiles, and it actually did look quite good. And her prices seemed fair, at least to me (they were significantly less than the prices quoted to me in Udaipur for the same kind of textiles of poorer quality). I looked at many specimens of needlework. She explained that some were from pakistan (we were not far from the border, less than 100km I think), some from villages in India. She explained the work that was involved in different types and why some were more or less expensive than others - the difference was obvious. All were beautiful, but some were obviously labor intensive. I loved the ones with gold embroidery on black cloth, but they were too expensive for me. Another tourist came in to buy some bedspreads she had looked at earlier, and these were beautiful too.

The store owner's sister came in, and turned out to be her business partner. The sister was married (red bindi) and had her 10-month-old daughter, Princie, with her. She told me she named her Princie because girls are not valued in India and most people did not want a girl, but she loved her daughter ("she is my princess") and was very happy to have her (she also had a son, a few years old). The baby was very cute and active. I had a nice time talking with the women, and looking at fabrics. They seemed in no rush and I decided that the prices were fair enough that even if the women's-lib thing was not true, the purchase would not be a rip-off. As it turns out, the same sisters also run a massage center for women that is recommended in Lonely Planet (I noticed the name, Bobby Heena, on their business card and made the connection). They have a DVD about their business that I guess they give out to interested customers, although they had run out of copies and offered to deliver a copy to my hotel or let me come back to pick it up that afternoon after they made more (I wish I had gotten one, although the heat in Jaisalmer makes you forget everything but the present, and by the time I was ready to leave I couldn't think about it).

It would be interesting to know if their business model is true. If so, it's a great business, and their fortitude is impressive. It's easy to believe what they told me about the threats they get, having seen the status of women in India. They told me that one of them always sits outside and one inside with customers because they have to watch the fabrics displayed outside the store so they are not slashed again. They said that when they first opened the store, someone smeared cow shit all over the door one night. I kept thinking that if I worked for NPR, I'd go back there and look into it, and if they are really helping the village women with their business, it would make a great public radio story.

Women and Men

I feel like on this trip, I only got an introduction to the status of women in India. It feels very different than in Africa. In the African countries I have been to, life is very hard for women, but it is easy to connect as most will smile back if you smile or say hello. In India, half the time you just didn't see the women (in businesses, stores, hotels, etc) and when you did, many either didn't look at you, or stared at you but did not return your smile (a few did). There were other more private settings where I met women (in the wedding, in the haveli), and the interactions were warm and personal, but I felt that these opportunities were rare. For the most part, the women seem invisible. I need to ask Anita more about this, because I was only there for 2 weeks, and I was on the tourist trail, so maybe that affected my experience.

The interactions with men were strange, too. In other countries, there is a chivalry I never noticed until I realized it was missing in India. I am no damsel-in-distress, but I appreciate the respect implied when someone helps me lift my bag out of a trunk, or hands me something I dropped, or offers polite directions when I ask. Traveling alone, as a woman, sometimes engenders more respect or sympathy from people - the most recent example that comes to mind is Uganda, where scores of Ugandan people went out of their way to help me determine my bus stop or race to catch a plane or prevent me from getting cheated by a moto driver. And so even though it is nerve-wracking to be alone and female sometimes, I am surprised by how many people are willing to help me.

In India, things were a little different. I did find help or sympathy at times, but I found it to be less frequent, and usually only when I requested it. Rickshaw drivers did not help me with my bag - not that I need it, but it is a nice gesture. In interacting with men, I sometimes found a veneer of contempt. Once, on the train, I accidentally dropped my ticket onto the floor from the upper bunk. The four businessmen sitting on lower bunks below looked up at me scowling. Three did not move, and one reluctantly picked it up, turned his head in the opposite direction and handed it to me without looking at me again. It was such a strange interaction.

I don't know how much of it was gender and how much was cultural, but it was odd. I also found that men in stores felt liberated to be quite verbally aggressive to the point of insulting, and I wondered if they were quite as domineering with male foreigners. I wondered if this was my own oversensitive interpretation, but when I asked other travelers, they had sensed a similar strangeness that is hard to verbalize.

Then I contrast that with the warmth and graciousness with which I was received at the wedding. Everyone, male or female, greeted me earnestly. I got lots of stares, but they turned into smiles as soon as I smiled first or said "namaste." People who had never met me before, like Mrs. Sharda, went out of their way to help me find my way among the many customs (saris, shopping, wedding traditions, food). So maybe part of what I had sensed was the cynicism of the tourist trail. It seemed that everyone I met wanted something from me. I also think of the man who managed my car on the train to Delhi - he looked me in the eye, was repsonsive, respectful and helpful. There are several examples like this - the camel driver in Jaisalmer, the occasional normal rickshaw driver (ie. didn't talk my ear off, propose marriage or try to get me to go to some tourist trap souvenir shop), the hotel owner in Jaisalmer, the leather notebook seller in Udaipur and the old man selling textiles in Delhi. Their professionalism made me realize what had been missing the rest of the time.

I am reluctant to post this because I don't mean to label all of India or even imply that my experience is demonstrative. I was there for 2 weeks in some of the most tourist-dense locations for very short periods of time in which I had no chance to get comfortable. It's possible that if I had a longer stay in one place, I would come to understand better how things work, and I would be less uncomfortable. I suppose the fact that much of it was mixed with the gender issue, and it was hard for me to figure out what was what. I think it was just an introduction to Something, and I haven't put my finger on what that Something is yet.


Jaisalmer was great. It is a city within a fort. There are a lot of forts in India - all of the architecturally impressive and beautiful - but they are mostly non-functional and are merely tourism sites. Jaisalmer is a living fort - there are homes and shops and all kinds of activity within its walls. It has narrow streets and alleyways, and is surrounded by a wall with interesting holes that I assume were for soldiers to shoot people through. It is called the "golden city" because of the color of the sandstone.

Unfortunately, the fort can only hold so many people, and the tourist traffic overwhelms it. If I had been staying any longer, I probably would have stayed outside the fort and taken rickshaws to see it. But I didn't have enough time for that, since I had only 24 hours to find a hotel, find and do a camel safari, book a train to Delhi for the next day, see and tour the fort, do some shopping and find something to eat. Luckily, eating was the least of my problems, since the heat effectively eliminated my appetite.

I managed to do it all, but just barely. I did most of my touring of the fort the morning after arrival, when it was cooler. Afternoons were like death on a stick. I just walked around, enjoying the beauty of it. Since it was such close quarters, there was constant recruitment by shop owners to come into their stores, and one guy near my hotel became really rude and aggressive when I passed his shop many times without entering (as if insulting me would make me more likely to go in?). I eventually became turned off by all of the touting, and decided not to do any shopping, until I met Bobby Heena.


Jaisalmer is in the desert - that's the first thing to know. It is not recommended to go until the end of August - that's the second thing to know. But what was I going to do? It was July, and I was in India, and the city sounded fascinating. Plus Lisa had done a camel safari there, and loved it.

True to it's reputation, Jaisalmer was hot. HOT. Hotter than hot. Fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot. No, roast-a-chicken-on-the-sidewalk hot. I had left New York in the middle of a heat wave, so everywhere else in India has seemed comparable, or even more tolerable than New York. But Jaisalmer was well beyond New-York-heat-wave hot. Maybe I've forgotten Arizona, but I think it was hotter than Tuscon in July.

I wanted to stay inside the fort (more on that later), and I knew that motorized vehicles are not allowed inside. So I got a cab to the entrance of the fort, then I loaded up my bags and walked up the steep entrance, through several gates. The hellish overnight bus ride and prolonged deliberate dehydration (to avoid further bladder traumatization) had left me somewhat weak, so I had to go slowly and pause occasionally. Which meant that the touts were able to follow me easily, approach and offer more tourist crap like jewelry and hotel cards and whatnot. Which just irritated me all the more. I was just pouring sweat, and I have never been so glad for my sweat rag.

I finally made it inside and allowed one tout to show me which direction to go for the hotel I wanted (there are no street signs outside of Bombay and Delhi, it seems, and if there were they would be in Hindi) and then I had to tell him 6 times that I already had a reservation (a lie) and I didn't want to go to his hotel (a truth). I found my hotel - inside the 450-year-old haveli, and thankfully they had a room.

There was no AC in Jaisalmer anywhere that I found (maybe outside the fort?). The very attentive staff at the family-run haveli helped me get settled, carting my bag up 3 exhausting flights of stairs, and then up carting an air-cooler and a fan and setting them both up in front of the bed. I don't know how an air-cooler differs from an air-conditioner, other than not working as well and leaking water all over the floor, but it looks the same - a heavy boxy structure with vents that cools the air and makes lots of noise.

Throughout my entire stay in Jaisalmer, the heat was an active struggle. The only time I was comfortable was after sunset in the desert, and in the first 10 seconds after waking up in the morning. The shower, surprisingly, had hot water, but who needs it? All one could possibly want in that heat is a cold, cold shower, but it was impossible, as even the cold water was warm. When I squeezed the conditioner and shower gel into my palm, they were hot just from sitting around. The second I turned off the shower, I was sweating. I think I might have even been sweating in the shower. I tried to check my email but I didn't want to be anywhere near computers emitting warm air, and finished after about 5 minutes.

So, sadly, even though I really liked Jaisalmer - I thought it was so pretty and interesting - the fact that I had to leave 24 hours after arriving wasn't entirely disappointed. I would have liked to have spent more time there - there is plenty to do, and I could have gone on an overnight camel safari or done more shopping, but I really looked forward to that air-conditioned train compartment.

Bus From Hunger

I really wanted to take a train in India, but there are not many trains to and from Udaipur, so I had to settle for the bus. I figured that was another important experience to be had.

Important, maybe, but not pleasant. I won't be repeating it.

There are many private bus companies (ie. the nicer buses, sadly) and you just have to find one and reserve a ticket. There was a ticket-booking place outside my hotel. Nothing goes directly to Jaisalmer from Udaipur, so I had to change buses in Jodhpur, but I bought the ticket for the entire journey. The ticket cost a little over $10.

The bus was scheduled to leave at 9:30pm. At 9:30, a group of about 15 foreigners had collected (from my count, at least 5 from the UK, 4 from Spain, 1 from Australia, and a gaunt weird-looking couple with interesting clothing and smoker's teeth who sounded like they were speaking Portuguese and seemed fairly crazy). We were told to pick up our bags and walk. We crossed a large, dangerous street, and no one from the bus company seemed to be looking back to make sure a foreigner hadn't been squashed trying to dodge cars wearing heavy packs. We continued down a road in the dark, stepping in puddles and over garbage. Being a large group, we took up a significant portion of the road, and the cars honked and swerved. We kept having to cross and turn and I wondered if we had lost anyone yet, but I couldn't risk turning around and getting squashed myself. The walk seemed to go on forever - it was almost funny. I heard the Spaniards wonder aloud why they didn't just tell us to meet where the bus was parked in the first place.

The bus was a sleeper bus, and there were seats, but those of us (all foreigners) who had bought a sleeper ticket were assigned to a coffin-like compartment above the seats. Some were doubles, for 2 people traveling together, but mine was a single. There was just enough room to lie down, and I wonder if very tall people would fit even lying down. You could not sit up, and sometimes the bumps in the road made you fly up and hit the ceiling. When the bus swerved left or right, which was constantly, you were thrown against the sidewalls of the plastic coffin. This lasted 7 hours.

It didn't look as if it was cleaned all that often, so I was glad that I had my own travel sheets. There was no AC, and the plastic coffins were a bit stuffy, so you could open the window, but that had its own complications. I left mine open a crack.

After about 3 hours on the bus, I wondered if I had to pee. Which usually means that I do, but I'm in denial. There was no bathroom on the bus, and the staff didn't seem too friendly. I didn't think they would take a request for a bathroom break very well, if they understood it at all. The bus stopped at one point, and the British guy across from me hopped up, desperate to urinate. I followed him out, but not fast enough. He managed to dash across the street to a gas station, but I was more timid, and while the nicer bus attendants said I could go across the street, I was worried about being left behind by the bus. Then a meaner attendant stopped me from crossing and said "No bathroom! Can go here, all around, anywhere." Right, yes. Great idea. A woman traveling alone in the middle of the night surrounded by rude leering men is going to expose herself and squat next to the bus.

So I got back on the bus and hoped for another stop, which never came. I tried for mind over matter. Denial worked a bit, and I managed to fall asleep on occasion, only to be awakened a few minutes later by a bump or a swerve. The time went by very, very slowly and I reconciled myself to the fact that I would be very, very tired when I reached Jaisalmer. I also made peace with my bladder and embraced the pain. By the time we reached Jodhpur, at 5am, I couldn't even tell if I had to pee anymore, although I was pretty sure I did.

I asked one of the Spaniards to guard me - I've heard some stories - and I ducked into these cement stalls that looked like roadside bathrooms. I'm not sure what there were, since there didn't seem to be any sort of urinal or hole, but they reeked of urine, so I figued I wasn't the first. I ducked and peed. Sorry for the TMI, but the volume of urine I had held in was astounding.

Since it was so early in Jodhpur, we were the only people at the bus stop. There also didn't seem to be a bus stop, just a corner. I had worried about this bus change - how would i know where to go? What time was the next bus leaving? What if they made me buy a new ticket? What if there was no bus to Jaisalmer? But it turned out to be surprisingly easy: when we arrived, there was another bus waiting, and nothing else to be found anywhere, except a guy with a cart selling chai, and a couple of guys standing around with him for apparently no reason.

Of course, nothing can actually go smoothly. We were barked at on arrival - "Jodhpur! Hurry up! Off the bus! Next bus leaving! Bus to Jaisalmer leaving!" We unloaded our stuff from the first, but and put it onto the second. Then we waited around for over an hour with no explanation. No one even bothered asking or complaining. We just all sat and waited outside, since it was too hot inside the bus.

We had all been instructed that the first bus would be a sleeper bus, and the second a sitting bus. But this new bus also had sleeping compartments, which confused us. On the first bus, while the tourists slept in the compartments, the seats were filled with Indians. This time, we were all assigned seats, and then the remaining seats were filled with Indians, and then the Indians who came later began to filled the sleeper sections (which were bigger on this bus and you could sit up easily) at random. Then there was a game of musical chairs, especially with the 4 Spaniards, some of whom decided they wanted to be in a sleeper, or on the roof, or whatever, and so an Indian person would come and sit where the Spaniard used to be. When the Spaniard got back, his seat was taken, so he went somewhere else, and it seemed at every stop, there was swapping and moving and confusion.

The seat in front of me, occupied by the Australian, was broken and leaned so far back that his head was nearly in my lap. Whatever. At this point I was so hot, dirty and exhausted that I could barely register anything. Thankfully, I had a good book.

Friday, August 1, 2008


Since I had time before the wedding on the second day, I explored the center of Udaipur a little.

I decided to walk at random, without looking at the map. I saved the City Palace - the main tourist attraction - for later. The road leading to the City Palace was filled with overpriced shops selling fabrics, needlework, leather notebooks and other items. The prices were outrageous, not even worth negotiating, so I left. I ended up wandering into the non-touristy area, where I got hassled less.

There was a main market area where the tiny shops sold things that locals would need - cooking pots and saris and things. I turned into an alley with mostly just residences, and immediately the cacophony of the main road - the honking, barking, shouting and overall din - faded and it was almost quiet. I wandered through these back streets for a while, until I found a main street again. I found a man selling leather notebooks, and he actually quoted me a very reasonable price, so I sat on his floor and looked at many until I found one I wanted. He said his name was Assam. He was very nice, and was probably the first shopkeeper who didn't talk my ear off, hurl random products in front of me and pressure me heavily to buy at a wildly inflated price. I bought a small notebook. Thinking about it later, I wished I had bought more, just because he was nice.

I realized that in the non-tourist area, I never saw a hotel, nor a shop selling water. This thought made me thirsty, and I wondered where I was. I kept wandering, and sure enough, the appearance of a store selling water signalled my entry into a more heavily trafficked area where tourists might be. I still had no idea where I was, so I took a rickshaw to the City Palace.

The City Palace was great - so much better than I thought it would be. It was huge, with tons of rooms displaying artwork of gods, or photos of British people who had governed in Udaipuir, or lists of former Indian rulers and the dates of their rule and their many accomplishments.

The rooms of the palace were fantastically beautiful, made of marble with intricately carved walls and decorative windows with colored glass. Some rooms were deocrated entirely with colored and colorless pieces mirror.

There was a group of four young Indian men that kept overlapping with me along the way. They stared at me at first, and then eventually approached me for "one picture, just one!" Which of course was at least 6 pictures, with each of them in different combinations and with all of their cameras. Only mildly tolerant of this in the first place, I frowned when they leaned on my shoulder to pose, and when one tried to put his arm around my shoulder, I pushed him away and scolded him. I got very tired of the whole thing but finally they finished and I scowled as they left. I am not a nice person.


In Udaipur, I switched from a Budget hotel near Anita's family to one in the center of town when they moved to the wedding hotel. This is when I discovered Havelis. They are houses that are hundreds of years old, with beautiful architecture (of a certain style, don't ask me what) and many rooms, connecting hallways and nooks and crannies. Some are beautifully preserved, and you can tour them in some towns.

I chose a hotel near the Central Palace that is in a restored haveli. It was a challenge to find it - through narrow streets with twists and turns - and it was more expensive than a budget hotel but well worth it. It was beautiful, painted bright white, and the rooms were immaculate.

The less expensive room, which I took, had a separate large dressing room and a large tiled bathroom and was spotless and comfortable. The more expensive room had, in addition to the bed, a lounging area with a mat and pillows in the large bay windows. The restaurant was along one wall on the third floor, and had great views of the lake and the famous Lake Palace Hotel, a super exclusive hotel and popular wedding venue.

It had regular table seating as well as window seating on a mat with pillows. It was such a nice place to sit and read and drink chai.

I loved the haveli so much that I decided I wanted to stay in one every time, if possible.

In Jaisalmer, I also chose a haveli. Even though I had some guilt about staying inside the fort given the environmental problems, I decided it was worth it, and I had only1 night. The haveli in Jaisalmer was very cute, although much smaller and mustier. Plus I was on the top floor with no AC, and it was really hot. But the family that ran the place was cute, and the room was architecturally very interesting. The fact that it was 450 years old was also fascinating to me. It also had great views from the roof.

If I was traveling in India longer, I would stay in more havelis, just to see them. So much more interesting that a regular old hotel.

Monsoon Wedding, Part 2

The second day of the wedding consisted of more meals, and a picnic, which ended up being cancelled because of the rain. On the first day of the wedding, it had rained, but only at the end of the party. It was actually quite dramatic - there was the threat of rain, as it had rained earlier in the day, but most of the party remained dry. Which was nice, because the eating tables were not covered and were on the grass. By the time it rained, everyone had moved over to the performance and dance area, which was covered. The rain started while we were dancing, and it looked beautiful in the night sky. The rain threatened to end the party, as the speakers were nearly getting wet, but they were moved onto the dry stage, and we kept dancing.

On the second day, it rained in the morning, then dried in the afternoon. It was lucky for me that the picnic was cancelled, since I failed to look at the extensive schedule card and thought things were starting at noon, not 8am. Luckily, there really ended up being nothing to do until around 4.

At 4, I came back to my room and put my things together. I needed help putting on the sari, so I headed to the hotel for help. Then I found the Chicagoans/Australians and we hopped in a car to take us to the wedding site. On the way out the door, I noticed an extremely old and tiny Indian woman who seemed to be holding onto a plant for support. I offered her my spot in the car, between the two American sisters(who are both probably almost 6 feet tall), and I climbed in the back with the elderly woman's family. Not one Indian person in the car spoke English (including the driver) and not one of the foreigners spoke Hindi. There was a lot of smiling and nodding along the way, but it was nice. It was probably better that the Indians didn't speak English, because the American sisters turned to the tiny Indian grandma and said "Well you are just so cute!" Which she was, but I'm not sure I would have said so.

It was already pouring rain at this point. We entered the wedding site through the long tented hallway that was decorated with colored lights. I stood with at American family (friend's of Anita's father) and wondered what to do and where to go. The fake grass was soaked, and we women weren't sure whether to sacrifice our shoes and save our saris, or go barefoot but be lower and risk getting the saris muddy. In the end, neither the shoes nor the saris were spared.

Eventually, the crowd arrived and the elephant appeared at the entrance to the hallway. The elephant was huge and very cute, with freckles. People crowded around, and the drummers pounded away. A white structure with 2 seats was placed atop the elephant's back - one for Neil (the groom) and one for the elephant driver. The elephant trainer was like out of a movie. He was small and lithe, with a funny eye, a yellow turban and very little clothing. He scrambled up the elephant from all sides - once up her face, and once to get down, she leaned waaaay over to her right and lifted her left front leg, and he walked down as if on stairs. And this was all with Neil on top in his throne.

There was dancing by close family members in front of the elephant, then feeding the elephant, then the procession made its way chaotically down the tented hallway, with the crowd pushing itself along slowly and confused, and with both a brass band and the drummers competing for the limits of our eardrums.

There was lots of time for stares and smiles from family members, with affectionate patting and hand-holding.

Inside the wedding area (the same place as the night before), we found seats facing the stage. The groom went up to the stage, and then the bride entered with fanfare, in a beautiful dark green sari, completely covered in jewels and wearing heavy jewelry and makeup. She was incredibly poised. I think I would have passed out.

The ceremony took place in a small covered space that looks like a large chuppah, but because the ceremony had to be unexpectedly facing east (or something), their backs were to us. All of the non-Indians moved to closer seats to watch. The ceremony is not as reverential as in US weddings; people milled about, chatted, and checked out the food. I stayed with Mrs. Sharda and Mrs. Rao. It seems like a whole lot of tradition and pressure and formality for the bride and the family, but not as much for the wedding guests.

According to Anita, there is a tradition that people make fun of the priest throughout the ceremony, and play pranks. Apparently there was a whole episode in which there were attempts by the children to steal the groom's shoes, followed by efforts by the groom's side to protect them. The shoes were eventually stolen by a clever and sneaky little girl. I missed all of that though.

After the ceremony, the couple took photos with everyone at the wedding in small groups. It seemed interminable, and I don't know how they smiled and looked so poised for so long.

After that, the bride disappeared to rest a little, and the eating and socializing began in earnest. There was no dancing, but there was so much food, and it was truly amazing. I was able to sample only half of it, because eventually I got tired and couldn't eat another bite. There were more varieties of Indian food than I even knew existed. Everyone was impressed, not just me. Mrs. Sharda and Mrs. Rao had a fine time walking around and sampling. They encouraged me to eat more, and I desperately wanted to, but I couldn't anymore.

Thankfully, the rain had let up by the end of the ceremony, and we were able to walk around the grassy area to check out the food without too much difficulty. I still ended up with a muddy sari, but I'll just have to find a dry cleaner in Jackson Heights.

Hotel Headache

In Delhi, I learned something about myself, or about Delhi.

I used to have a high tolerance for budget travel, as far as I recall. I was always satisfied with hostels, as long as the price was good. I shared bathrooms, slept on rickety bunk beds and didn't ask for much. In India, I've been a little more selective. Because I'm traveling alone as a woman, and also because I'm older now and don't feel like sleeping in dorm-style rooms or sharing a bathroom, I've been opting to pay a little more for a private room with bathroom, but still at inexpensive places. When it was worth it (eg. to stay in a haveli), sometime I bumped it up to the mid-range option.

In Delhi, I planned to go with a budget hotel. I was only staying one night, none of the mid-range options seemed worth the upgrade, and there were plenty of budget options in Lonely Planet. If I had been smart, I would have made a reservation. But Jaisalmer was so hot I couldn't think straight.

After a long trip (in this case, 19 hours on the train), all I ever want to do is shower and rest. In this case, I was desperate for a shower, having sweated profusely for hours in Jaisalmer, followed by sleeping in a not-so-clean train and using the Indian-style toilet multiple times. When I arrived at the hotel I had in mind, it was pouring rain, and I dashed from the rickshaw into the hotel. The reception staff was helpful and seemed trustworthy. After looking into their bookings, they had no room available that night, and offered to put me in a room there until 10pm, and then move me to another hotel. Instead of moving later, I asked to see the other hotel now.

A man from the first hotel walked me there. It was down an alleyway, a 2 minute unpleasant walk, with cow shit and flies everywhere. I was apprehensive to begin with, and this didn't help. At the other hotel, there were several men gathered in the lobby. The reception staff seemed disorganized, and I had trouble distinguishing whether the main guy didn't speak English, or was merely monosyllabic. I asked to see the room - they offered AC or non-AC. Because I don't really need air-conditioning at home, and even in India when it was available, I shut it off at night because it is too cold (the only place I really wanted it was Jaisalmer, where it didn't seem to exist). So I asked for non-AC to save money.

The first room was on the third floor, and was small and underwhelming. It had a tiny window (which is better than most, it seems), but was not particularly clean or attractive. I asked to see a room on a lower floor, and they showed me a room on the first floor. It was the tiniest bit bigger but with no window and the bathroom was dirtier.

I don't know what I was thinking. I should have turned down the room, but I was tired and headachey and so hot and dirty and I just wanted a shower. I thought maybe I was overreacting because I was tired and nervous and disappointed that the first hotel was not available. I could look for another hotel, but the other ones in the book were a walk away, and I wasn't sure how far. I would have to lug my heavy bags, and it was either raining or hot with sunshine. I could take a rickshaw, but that was another hassle, arguing over the fare. Very very reluctantly, and not listening to my gut, I took the room on the first floor.

As soon as I handed over the 500 rupee note, I regretted it more and more each minute. As we left to go get my bags, I almost turned around and canceled everything. By the time we got to the first hotel, I was very unhappy, and I told them so. They felt terrible, offered to make other arrangements, but because I had already paid (stupidly), I had to go to that hotel. I walked back and went upstairs.

Arriving in the room, I realized what a mistake I had made. The walls were yellowed, and there were weird gross stains on the walls and especially over the garbage can that looked as if people had flung bits of garbage and used the wall as a backboard. The furniture was torn in some places. The sheets had multple stains. I called them to change the sheets, and they told me that there were none available until 5pm. The bathroom was dirty and the pipes covered in rust, and I couldn't fathom taking a shower in there. I hesitated, thought about leaving, but I was desperate to shower. Holding my breath, I did.

After the shower, I looked around the room again. I could not get comfortable here. I didn't want to relax in that room, and I wouldn't be able to sleep all night. The door had only a doorknob lock, and those men in the lobby made me uncomfortable. I thought about what Dad would say. Well, actually I first thought about what Mom would say, but she wouldn't say anything if she saw that place. She would spontaneously combust. Then I thought about what Dad would say: "Forget it. If you don't feel safe, screw the 12 bucks. It's not worth it. Go find somewhere else."

Which is what I did. Unencumbered by my bags, which I reluctantly left in the room, I walked down the street and looked at several hotels. They were all a little better, but not so much better that it justified moving. The cleanliness left something to be desired, which was my biggest concern. Finally I found a place that felt better. It was large, with a reception staff that seemed competent, and an internet place and travel agency inside. Of the non-AC rooms, only a very cheap one was available, 350 rupees, and so I looked at that and an AC room for 800 rupees. The AC room was much better - it was clean, especially the bathroom and the floors, and I knew I would be much more comfortable here. So even though I didn't care about the AC, I took that room. (I'm wondering now if maybe I should have looked at AC rooms to begin with; maybe they are nicer, who knows?). The reception staff was very nice about holding the room for me while I went to get my bags, they were quite professional, and they even have a security camera at the front desk.

I don't know if it's that the standards for hotels in Delhi is different (I didn't have this problem anywhere else, even at the budget hotels), or if I'm just getting older, but this was a new experience for me. Being so upset at the quality of a room that I outright said so, and then leaiving the room and losing the money - I never thought I would do that. Maybe now I'll learn to turn down an unacceptable room in the first place.