December 24, 2007

Sundrenched Udaipur

Udaipur is gorgeous. A white palace, prohibitively expensive beyond the means of the ordinary tourist, floats in the middle of a lake, surrounded by lush green hills. Luxury hotels cluster around the edge of the lake, promising romantic, roof-top views, perfect sunsets, and "Indian, Continental, and Chinese" food. And every roof-top boasts a 7:30pm screening of Octopussy, the Roger Moore 007 flick that was partly filmed here.

We have spent the past three days doing nothing but sitting and enjoying the beautiful scenery. We found a lakeside restaurant called Ambrai, where the food is better than average, the sunshine is plentiful, and the views are stunning.

We did visit the city palace, but, after having seen about 4 other Rajput palaces in the past two weeks, we decided not to go inside. An enterprising security guard tried to stop us before we could even get into the palace grounds.

"Yes, please?" he asked, motioning for tickets.
"Oh, we're just going to sit in the garden.
"Yes, no problem. 10 rupees each."
We looked around - no one else had been stopped.
"Is this 10 rupees for YOU or for the palace?" I asked.
He couldn't suppress a guilty smile.
"That what' s I thought," I said, as we pushed past him.

We are on our way to Mumbai in two hours.

December 20, 2007

Haggling in Jodhpur

Haggling in India is very much about the "walk-away." Compared to haggling in China or South EastAsia, where it is very much about a softer discussion in which both parties try to save face, the Indian Haggle is in your face, involves a bit of raised voices, and, to get that last little bit, requires walking away. It is not, however, as involved as the middle-eastern haggle, in which both parties are expected to yell at each other and I will invariably be accused of being the "mother of a goat."

With Indian rickshaws, the routine is very much:
Rickshaw driver: "Where you go? Rickshaw?"
Me: "Sure, take me to the clock tower."
"Ok, ok, get in. No problem."
"How much?"
"Get in, get in, no problem."
"How much?"

(pause as he sizes me up)
"100 rupees."
"100 rupees??? No way. 25."
"No. Those people (pointing at a random rickshaw) pay 100."
"Ok" (walking away)
"Ok, no problem. Get in. 70 rupees. Last price!"
"No. 30 rupees. Let's go."
"No vay!" (I start walking away again)
"Ok, ok. Last last price. 40 rupees. Indian price!"
"30 rupees"
"Ok. 30 rupees. Get in, no problem."

On the other hand, haggling for larger sums is more involved. This morning, I negotiated a taxi for tomorrow from Jodphur to Udaipur with our hotel owner. We both sat down at a table, exchanged pleasantries, commented on the weather, and talked softly. After about 20 minutes of chatting, we got down to business and I knocked about 40% off his first asking price. I am still paying 10% more than market price (if I had gone directly to a taxi driver), but I wanted the security of going through a hotel and having accountability.

We spent a lazy day up in Jodhpur's fort. Even after seeing multiple forts, castles, palaces, and temples over the past10 days, this one still stood out. I would highly recommend it to anyone. The views are incredible, the fort is beautiful, and the audio guide (commissioned by the Maharaja himself) is extremely informative and helpful.

December 19, 2007

Fun with touts, scammers, and rickshaw drivers

Jodhpur, the blue city, is the chilled-out sister to Jaipur. Dwarfed by a the massive Meherangarh fort that towers over the city, Jodhpur suffers from a light bout of pollution, traffic, and noise. However much she tries, though, she remains much more charming and relaxed than her sister to the east. That said, she has been suffering from problems with touts, corrupt rickshaw drivers, and scam artists, despite a recent police crackdown (that includes a large sign in front of the historic clock tower that says "do not listen to these bad boys who do DRUGS and PROSTITUTION TRAFFICKING along with stealing from tourists").

After a sleepless night on the train from Jaiselmer on which the LOUDEST snorer I have ever come across (he was worse than my boyhood friends, The Thugs) terrorized a full carriage, we arrived in Jodhpur, bleary-eyed and confused. We had been promised a train-station pickup by the guest-house owner, but we didn't find him. So, we walked to the guesthouse. There, at the bottom of the stairs, an unshaven man in a dirty cap claimed to be the manager.
"Guesthouse full, but I have your booking at my sister hotel. Come with me, I have ride waiting for you."
He was blocking our way up the stairs, suspiciously nervous.

"Yes, yes, come I have room for you at my hotel. No problem. I wait for you at train station, but you no come."

Although I almost fell for it, alarms were going off, so after a bit of interrogation, I squeezed past him, despite his best efforts to stop me from doing so. Sure enough, he was a scam-artist rickshaw driver, hoping to lure us into his cab and take us to another hotel where he could cash in on a commission.

Anyways, the guesthouse turned out to be disgustingly filthy, so, at 6am we called another one that had been well-recommended by other travelers.

"Do not take rickshaw here, or I will have to pay commission," the owner the Haveli Inn Pal implored. "Give me your name and I will come get you."

So, we stood on the side of the road, waiting for our ride to show up. Sure enough, within 5 minutes a rickshaw had pulled up. But I was wise to the game now. "Where you taking me?" I demanded the driver, who claimed to be there to pick me up.
"I take you to guesthouse!" he declared happily.
"Which one, which special one?"
"Oh of course I take you to special guesthouse. Come with me, quickly."
"Which special guesthouse?"
"Yes, yes, very special!"

"Please go away."
"No sir, I take you to special guesthouse. Trust me sir. Get in."

As we had this ridiculous, circular conversation, another rickshaw pulled up and a boy no older than 12 hopped out, bearing a sign with my name on it. Perfect.

The Haveli Inn Pal is a gorgeous guesthouse. It is right in the historic part of town, in a 250 year old mansion that dominates the square. The descendants of the original merchant owner still own it, but the two brothers are "having misunderstandings" so the mansion is now two separate, lavish guesthouses, in which each brother has tried to one up the other, while still competing on price. Good for us, bad for them.

This afternoon, we took a rickshaw to the modern, lavish Umaid Bhawan Palace, hoping for a drink. The corrupt driver was more focused on collecting some sort of commission, and tried twice to stop off at some "Tourist Emporiums" hoping that we would bite and go in and buy useless trinkets. Instead, I insisted we continue on to the palace. There, the foolish driver drove right by the open gate around the corner, where he parked in front of a locked side gate.
"Palace closed" he declared.
"Look. Palace closed."
"You've got to be kidding me."
"No. Look. Closed. We go to restaurant Kashta? Very good. Very delicious." Obviously, this restaurant payed some delicious commissions.
"Bugger off. We'll get out here and take our chances."
"Oh. I wait for you here?"
"Bugger off."

We walked around the corner, through the front gate, and headed for the bar. Sadly, the bar had been booked out by a private party, but we did enjoy poking around the over-the-top hotel, where they claimed "It is minimum $50/person cover charge at the bar."

To top off the day, we dined at the ridiculously named "On the Rocks" restaurant (which boasts a bar called "Rocktails"). Despite the name, the food was delicious - we feasted on Seekh kebabs, Mutton kebabs (Z declared them some of the best "mishkaki" she has ever had), and channa massala. Yum.

December 17, 2007

Lovely Jaisalemer

The last two days in Jaisalmer have been fantastic. Our stomachs cleared up (knock on wood), the clear desert air helped my asthma, and the hotel we are staying at is warm, friendly, and comfortable. I really like Jaisalmer. While its main industry is tourism, the high season has not yet started, so we have the place to ourselves. It's a small, walkable town whose main attraction is the massive fort that towers over the otherwise flat, featureless desert. The golden, sandstone fort encloses a warren of quiet, traffic-less alleys, where people and a large contingent of bovine still live and go about their daily routines.

We enjoyed the day getting lost in the maze, our biggest challenges squeezing past obstinate cows and avoiding their inevitable patties. We marveled at the intricately carved 600 year old Jain Temples, sat in the town square and watched the shopkeepers half-heartedly pester the few tourists that wandered by, and even found a real coffee. And then, we ate. The mutton curries here are delicious and Z, an ardent tandoori chicken fan, claims that yesterday's restaurant, Treo, had some of the best she has yet tasted in India!

But most of all, we enjoyed the peace and quiet. It must partly be due to the fact that we're out in the middle of nowhere, but what's amazing is that even though the main industry is tourism, with everyone competing for the same potential sale, people are surprisingly hassle-free.

"You buy from me, good for health!" one salesman shouted after me.
"Your health?" I laughed back.
"Of course my health! You want to buy?"

"Come spend your money here. We might even give you good deal" another shopowner yelled. "One thing for sure, we will be happy with your rupees!"

And yet, once I said no, they backed off. Overall, I'm a fan of Jaisalmer.

December 16, 2007

From Agra to Jaisalmer

I stand corrected. What I've seen of India is filthier, noisier, and more dusty and polluted than any other place I've been. We hit rock bottom a couple of days ago in Agra, which is a poor, filthy city. There, I cursed however told me "December is the perfect time to go! The weather is beautiful!" Suffering from stomach sickness after some dodgy daal and shivering on the train platform in the miserably persistent early morning fog, we had to move after an old, homeless lady decided to squat 3 feet in front of us to answer the call of nature. 3 hours late, the train finally wheezed into the station, as the loudspeakers blared triumphantly "The Jaipur Express has now arrived."

But, that was rock bottom. We arrived to warm, sunny blue skies, a friendly hostel, and a change of scenery. Even though I was sick, I enjoyed Jaipur. Despite the constant hassle from touts and rickshaw drivers, who all wanted to either take me to their brother's textile store or take me on a full day tour of the city at an inflated price, I enjoyed Jaipur. The Amber Fort is quite different from Delhi's Red Fort - and in much better shape - and is worth a visit. It was fun exploring the maze of hidden rooms, imagining the Maharaja sneak from one wife to another to satisfy his carnal needs. The Maharaja was a randy, corpulent fellow, weighing in at 250kg, and keeping a harem of 108 mistresses and concumbines. Atta boy.

To get to Jaisalmer, we took advantage of India's corruption. There is only one night train to Jaisalmer (and no flights), and during high season, it is notoriously overbooked. The waitlist for bed in tourist class was at least 20 deep and there was no way I was going to sit for 12-15hrs in the cramped, filthy, and overcrowded, unreserved class. Luckily, our hotel owner had a "special tour agent" and he placed a call for me.

15 minutes later, a shifty-eyed fellow with a thick, greasy mustache and a pair of stained brown pants that were two inches too short showed up. He refused to look me in the eye and would not step foot in the hotel. "Weee eye pee serwice, sir" he promised. "Conpurmed bed on train, no problem!" Only catch - it was a 50% surcharge for the ticket, he wanted cash there and then, and would not give a receipt. The tickets would show up the next day, he promised.

Weighing my options, I paid the hefty $10/ticket "handling fee," and crossed my fingers. The tickets showed up as promised, but with handwritten seats scrawled on the tickets. Very shady. But, the good man was true to his word and when we boarded the Jaisalmer Express (which was only 2 hours late) two of the choicest bunks were waiting for us.

We are now 100km from the Pakistani border, in the wonderfully chilled-out town Jaisalmer. The first thing you notice is the 800 year old sandstone fort rising above the desert. The next thing you notice is the lack of hassle, the cleaner air, and the lack of honking. We will certainly enjoy the desert skies tonight!

December 11, 2007

Agra's jewel

What a way to spend my birthday. I am still in a daze after having finally seen the Taj Mahal. Poets, singers, and professional travel writers have all tried to do it justice over the centuries - and failed - so I will not even try. All I can say is that no matter how many pictures you have seen, no matter how many movies it has appeared in, or how many times you've seen a plastic replica sitting on your uncle's coffee table, you will still, most probably, be amazed when you see if for the first time.

These moghuls sure knew how to build a good tomb. But you really have to pity poor Humayan. He built a superb tomb well before Shah Jehan started dreaming of the Taj Mahal, only to have Shah Jehan turn around and stick a couple of close replicas on the SIDES of the Taj Mahal, to make the centerpiece look even better!

Should you come to Agra, a few words of advice:

1. Don't bother to go into the fort if you've seen the one in Delhi. Apparently, it is a more ramshackle, rundown version of its red sister.
2. Go to the "Baby Taj" and go there BEFORE you hit the main attraction. The Baby Taj is actually quite beautiful and has very few tourists at it.
3. Get a rickshaw driver to take you across the river to see the back of the Taj Mahal. And when you get there, don't pay to go in the garden, just walk about 100m further and there's a beach where you can get perfect, unimpeded views of the Taj Mahal... with NO tourists in them!
4. Budget more time than you expected at the main attraction. It's stunning and it's huge. Go into the mosques on the side for some pictures that will be absent any tourists. It's a little known fact (apparently) that the Taj Mahal is perfectly symmetrical and no one bothers to go around the sides.
5. The place is crawling with Indian Tourists. And they're curious. And pushy. And quite happy to take pictures of foreigners, especially those that look just like them but wear very different clothing.

Yesterday, our last day in Delhi, was a lazy day. We spent the morning in a french coffee shop (Cafe Turtle in Khan market) enjoying delicious cappucinos with the other ex-pats, then headed to Connaught Place to wander around. We finally decided to escape the noise, pollution, and traffic by ducking into the Imperial Hotel, where we were greeted with a whiff of Jasmine flowers and a cold Kingfisher in their atrium. I made it through the first quarter of William Dalwinkle's City of Djinns, which I highly recommend.

We are off to the Amir villas (apparently Agra's best luxury resort) for a birthday toast.

December 09, 2007

Delhi - leave the comforts at home behind

Advice for the new traveler to Delhi: see Humayan's tomb LAST.

Z and I decided to forgo our driver Ishor today, and took an auto-rickshaw instead. A much better idea, since the three-wheeled contraption was much more nimble than a car.

We headed to the Red Fort, a place the guidebooks promised to be a romantic monument of majesty and pomp. Compared to Humayan's tomb, it's a dump. Sure, it's a nice palace, but it's run-down, falling apart, and crowded. I'm sure good ol' Shah Jehan is turning in his grave at the thought of so many filthy commoners scampering through his Royal Quarters, peering at the most personal and private areas of his life.

We then headed to the famous Chandi Chok, a milling, teeming baazar. It was crowded, filthy, and claustrophobic, and I loved it. Ten minutes away, the famous Karim's restaurant awaits the weary traveler, with cheap, delicious kebabs, lamb chops, and tandoori delights. I dare say, Karim's lamb chops were tastier than those at my favorite Pakistani restaurant, Shalimar!

I am now in the "dangerous area" of Pahangarj, where I almost stayed but was dissuaded from staying by many of my colleagues who know Delhi well. Yes, it is dirty, noisy, and chaotic. But it is just like any other backpacker ghetto around the world. That said, I am quite happy with our guesthouse in South Delhi, except for the fact that it is 45 minutes (by cab) from anything!

Welcome to Delhi

I had been dreading my arrival in Delhi. Everyone I spoke to had warned of the severe shock that India deals to the traveler, no matter how seasoned he may be. I was bracing myself for the worst and thus set myself up for a very soft landing. Sure, Delhi airport is an antiquated, inefficient and dilapidated dump, but it was far nicer than, say, Kathmandu International Airport, or Pnomn Penh's tin shack. Yes, there were some unsavory characters driving cabs, trying to overcharge us and take us to the wrong hotel, but we arrived at 3am so what should one expect? And true, the streets of Delhi are filthy, poverty-ridden, and chaotic, but they are no worse than the streets of Cairo, Nairobi, or Ho Chi Minh City.

And so, I am thoroughly enjoying myself. My fears were unfounded. Delhi is no worse (or better) than any other 3rd world developing metropolis. It is choked with traffic, pollution, and people. It is unfailingly democratic, as the newly (but carelessly) paved streets are navigated by suicidal rickshaw drivers, horse-pulled carts, brand-new, already dinged mercedes, and the inevitable sacred cow. And it has a wealth of historic monuments and delicious restaurants to explore and discover.

We arrived in Delhi after 27 hours of travel. Suffice to say, we were exhausted when we landed, and frustrated that our bags were the last to come out. However, that's so much better than having no bags at all! I was not surprised when the "deluxe airport pickup" my hotel had promised me was not there, and resigned myself to a pre-paid taxi ride. Our taxi (it was more of a tiny van) was commandeered by the maniacal Rajeev, who did not speak much english. Luckily, he had brought along his sidekick, Mujeet, who claimed to own 3 cabs and wanted to build a taxicab empire.

"Mister Ace," he began after establishing my name, "is this your wife, or your...?" he asked with a mischievious grin, staring at Z.
"My wife," I answered. Mujeet then proceeded to ignore Z for the next 40 minutes.
"Mister Ace," he continued after a short pause, "I have a girlfriend, but sadly, she is Muslim, while I am Hindu. Life is very caamplicated in Delhi for me."

And so it went that as Rajeev drove around in circles, looking for our hotel, that Mujeet practiced his english, tried to get to me commit to a driver for the next day (at twice the going rate), and told me of how difficult life is, while one tries to build an empire.

Yesterday, our first day in Delhi, was a busy one. Our driver, Ishor, was short, mustachioed man of few words. This, despite the fact we were promised a "fully fluent guiding driver." However, he was a very capable driver, with one hand on the horn, the other hand on the wheel, navigating the tight, fluid chaos of Delhi's rush-hour. We started at the Bahai interfaith temple, a beautiful lotus-shaped oasis of calm. Then, we proceeded to the Qutb Minar, a 73m high minaret that was built almost 900 years ago and is still standing. It must have been Field Trip Day, since the place was overrun with uniformed children from the provinces, all of whom stared slack-jawed at us. They could tell we are Indian, but couldn't figure out why we were dressed the way we were.

And then, we visited the sublime Humayan's Tomb. This monument to love was built by Humayan's widow. It preceded the more famous Taj Mahal and in fact many of the architectural innovations were duplicated in the Taj Mahal.

We met up with the Impeccably Dressed Indian (who, as you may remember, I had also met in China) at India Gate, a monument to India's victories. This Arc de Triomphe had a full 25 piece band playing patriotic sounds, much to a large crowd's delight.

To escape the noise, smells, and commotion, I took my Dear Uncle D's advice and headed for the Taj Palace Hotel. There, we enjoyed a lovely Kingfisher beer (Z had masala chai) in a calm oasis of opulence. The service was outstanding, especially in the bathroom, where two obsequious gentlemen jostled to open the door, turn on the faucet to the perfect temperature, squirt soap into my hands, and hand me thick towels, all while murmuring "sir please" under their breath. The next stop was the legendary Bukhara restaurant, where we feasted on lamb, tandoori chicken, and roasted black daal. Delicous!

And so, our first 15 hours in Delhi were wonderful and nothing like the shock I had expected. Z and I are safe, well-fed, and quite happy.