Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thai'd Down



Tonight! Tonight!
9 PM! 9 PM!
The best Muay Thai! The best Muay Thai!
Super fight! Super fight!
Champion of champions! Champion of champions!
Chaweng stadium! Chaweng stadium!
Get your seats earlier! Get your seats earlier!

We're still (Sunday) in Koh Samui. Our afternoon flight to Bangkok was indeed cancelled--the Bangkok airport is now officially closed through December 1--and so now our plans must change. The prospect of more widespread civil unrest is looming and is being openly discussed on BBC and other places. So we're looking into options for leaving. These of course are limited on this small island and with thousands of others similarly trying to leave. But we'll get out in due course. It's a sad prospect for us: we really like what we have seen of Thailand and the Thai people. And we'll also miss Angor Wat.

On Koh Samui you'd never know what's happening on the mainland. For us, yesterday was more sun, walks on the beach and along Main Street, and a really nice dinner and traditional Thai dance program at Poppies' (http://www.poppiessamui.com/uk/uk-samui-home.html) next door...shrimp cakes with plum sauce, spicy prawn soup with mushroom and lime leaf, stir-fried morning glory, fried chicken with ginger, roast duck curry, ice cream and banana fritters. Oh yes, and not to forget the pina colada and "Get Your Seats Earlier."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Coup de Thanksgiving




Happy Thanksgiving to friends and family. Vicki and I remain on the island of Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. Somehow we managed to schedule a cooking class for Thanksgiving, so our Thanksgiving dinner, which I cooked (Vicki joined as a guest), consisted of Panang Curry with Chicken, Steam Fish (red snapper) with Ginger/Soy Sauce, and Stirred Flat Noodles with Pork. All very, very zesty and good (if I say so myself). And lots and lots of steamed rice and stir-fried vebetables, some in fact new to us. The class was at the Samui Institute for Thai Culinary Arts, www.sitca.net.

The weather has gotten decent, and yesterday we did a tour of the island, hiring a taxi for the afternoon It's only 50-some kilometers in circumference, but is wonderfully scenic and interesting, especially if you like palm trees, mountains, alternating shorelines of rocks, cliffs, and white sand beaches. Also lots of shrines and temples (at least they're Buddhist). Only the northeast shore is heavily developed. The west and north are still pretty much Thai, despite a variety of dubious tourist attractions. We did not do the crocodile farm, the elephant ride, the jeep safari, the monkey jungle, the snake farm.... Today, in addition to the afternoon cooking class, we took another long beach walk. Avoiding sun-burn has again become a concern.

Most of our attention has been focused the last two days on the escalating political situation in Thailand, particularly in Bangkok. Protesters have closed Bangkok's two commercial airports, essentially isolating the country and strangling its economy. Scores of thousands of travelers are stranded. The prime minister has declared a state of emergency, but it's unclear either the police or military will respond. An update with some backgorund information is at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/28/world/asia/28thai.html?_r=1&ref=asia. (Thanks, Mel).

This morning we explored some options for getting out of the country, to Siem Reap in Cambodia, which would have been our next stop after Bangkok, or to other places. Not much is going from nor coming to Koh Samui (most planes are on the ground in Bangkok), everything's booked anyway, and getting worse as everyone tries to get out. So we are simply holding up here, waiting for the situation in Bangkok to clarify. We have reservations for Bangkok Sunday afternoon. We'll see what happens. We don't feel at all threatened. The Thai are wonderful people. We don't have to be anywhere really until December 11. We can keep our room indefinitely, internet's free, the weather's improving, the food's great, and Koh Samui's actually a pretty nice place to spend a coup. The only US TV news we're getting is Fox, and that has been a bit of a culture shock. Fortunately, there's BBC too.

The political situation and its economic consequences are really going to hurt people in this little nation. The news from India is ever more dire and distressing. Thanksgiving's a good time to count one's blessings, and Vicki and I, and ours, and readers of this blog are very fortunate indeed.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Corn Sundae, Anyone?



Seen at the Chaweng Mall this afternoon (to which we retreated as the monsoon worsened...). I thought I had a fair grasp of the principles of Thai cooking, but this one was new to me.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Revenge of the Carnivores




Seven weeks of Nepali/Indian food, even the occasional non-veg and Pizza Hut, had gotten to us, so last night we splurged at a "Brazilian grill" up the street, Zico's. The food was great, it was a somewhat different dining experience for us, the decor was convincing, the music and entertainment appropriately upbeat. Preceded by an extravagant salad bar, the main attraction was the all-you-can-eat mixed grill. Every night they grill 15 different meat, fish/shellfish, and fowl varieties and slice them onto your plate from skewers (see illustration), accompanied by a variety of sauces. Great lamb, chicken, barracuda, prawn, pork, veal, chorizo, salmon, duck, beef, etc. I cannot say we totally pigged out--we are both very pleased with the weight we lost as result of Dr. Sherouse's Miracle Khumbu Diet (burn 6,000 calories a day; ingest 1,500; get sick; lose your appetite). But we do think we scored one for the carnivores last night. Confession: I tried the grilled shark , but I did not eat the fin. I think it had been removed in China. See Zico's at http://www.zicossamui.com/index.asp for yourself.

Later. Our inactivity continues, aided by the occasional thunderstorms and clouds. Major achievements include: getting my beard trimmed, Vicki's getting a pedicure, getting our clothes "professionally" washed (35 bhat/kilo, folded), editing pix down to a manageable 13 gigs and backing them up, making Bangkok and Siem Reap arrangements, Vicki's reading of Ken Follett's PILLARS OF THE EARTH, not getting sun-burned. Today we did a two-hour walk, covering much of Chaweng Beach. The highlight for me was a great Tom Kha soup with prawns for dinner.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Still Another Removal!"


$30/night including American breakfast!

After using up our discount we have moved from the luxurious Buri Rasa down the road a few blocks to the less luxurious but still nice Seascape Beach Resort (http://www.seascapebeachresort.com/). A small bungalow, a little less room, a little more spartan, but $50 less per night and still on the beach with pretty much the same features and amenities. After four sunny days, the monsoon has returned, and this also influenced our plans.

We are still lazing about, Vicki reading a novel a day, most recently Terry Pratchett's THUD! (all the hotels/motels/resorts have small libraries of left-behind books, mostly in Deutsch), but today I hope to get some much over-due work done on the 8,000-10,000 photos we have taken so far. By my count, this is our 39th room in the 82 days we have been on the trip.

When we were in Nepal, below tree-line, I marveled at the lush forests--pine, fir, spruce, a particularly beautiful oak (with Spanish moss) and rhododendron tree forest near Tengboche, and more--and also at the fact that (unlike the Rocky Mountains) there was absolutely no evidence of (nor concern about) wildfires. The monsoon keeps everything pretty moist year-round. I also wondered what the monsoon was like. My curiosity is now satisfied.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

McThai



So there, right on North Chaweng Beach Road in Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui, is a smiling, culturally-sensitive Ronald McDonald, welcoming you to the McCafe: "Sawadee!" (Click to enlarge). I could not resist the shrimp burger (real shrimp in a patty on a bun) and the creamed corn pie. Both are available only in Thailand (so we were told), as is the pork burger. The Chaweng area contains a remarkably eclectic mix of restaurants for a small place (the whole island is only 50,000), mostly Thai, but pretty much anything else with a cuisine. We'll be doing the mostly Thai, which we both like, hoping to take a cooking course next week. But we could not resist the beckoning Ronald tonight.

Other than walks on the beach and some local exploration we have not done a great deal in the past three days. As planned. "Que bonita es no hacer nada, y despues de no hacer nada, descansar." It is good to do nothing, and after you have done nothing, to rest.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Phuket



"Sure! Fuck it! That's your answer! Tattoo it on your forehead! Your answer to everything! Your "revolution" is over, Mr. Lebowski! Condolences! The bums lost! ...My advice is, do what your parents did! Get a job, sir! The bums will always lose-- do you hear me, THE BUMS WILL ALWAYS--"

Well, as you may surmise, we are not on Phuket, but rather on Koh Samui, Thailand, in the Gulf of Siam (I think). We arrived in Bangkok at 4:30AM, Sunday morning, managed, bleary-eyed, to navigate immigration and customs without international incident, and found our way to the departure level. For a variety of reasons, we arrived in Bangkok, very uncharacteristically, without arrangements or even a plan of what to do. Vaguely, we felt like some beach time would be good, particularly following the 76 pretty intense days we have had, not even including those last few weeks in dear Missoula. Vicki had heard of a Bangkok Airlines "air pass" and previous attempts by Rebecca to get one for us (allegedly obtainable only outside Thailand) had not been successful. But at the sales counter, at 6 AM Sunday morning, contrary to what we were told in early October, Vicki bought two such passes. The only question was where to go, and the only Thai beach place we could remember (much less pronounce) was Phuket. The sales person told us flights to Phuket on Sunday were completely sold out, but that Koh Samui, on the east side of the peninsula, was nice, and there were seats available for an 8:30 AM flight.

Arriving in Koh Samui by 9:30, we faced pretty much the same lack of arrangements, but again lucked out, getting ourselves into the Buri Rasa resort (http://www.burirasa.com/home.html), on the beach, east side of the island, a really nice room (for a change!), at a decent discount. The resort is about as lushly landscaped in tropicals as anything I have ever seen, and the pond has lunker Koi's. One must be 26-28 inches long. The food is great, there are shops and things to do, and we may stay here for a while. It's hot, but the room has AC and a variety of amenities, and the beach is a short stroll away. It's pre-season, so not very crowded. It's touristy, yes, a bit, but even that is a nice change for us. We crashed on arrival.

Did I mention it is a topless beach?

PS. Clarification: a few of the women and most all of the men go topless on the beach. The Buri Rasa guest guide informs us that Thai people find women going topless "deeply offensive."

Vicki adds:

November 23-- Koa Samui

I have been taking it easy hoping my shoulder would mend itself. It has gotten much better but I did make an appointment at an English speaking hospital in Bangkok for next week. Of course we are now watching the Thailand network to see if we can even go to Bangkok due to the demonstrations there attempting to overthrow the government. We may be spending a very long time on the beach.

We got here really by accident. We arrived in Thailand with no plans other than to try to buy the cheaper airpass that Bangkok Airline sells outside the country. We could find no way to purchase it in US, China or India. I have a feeling it is not a product they sell a lot of. We had asked in Bangkok before with no luck--this time they said yes, but there were no seats that day for Phuket, which is an island on the west coast where the tsunami hit. I asked where else she could suggest--she said Koa Samui and we were here two hours later. It is an island off the the southern east coast. It was "undiscovered" until about 10 years ago. We spent 4 nights at a boutique resort which was small but very, very nice but also $80 a day after the various discounts. So we scouted around walking up and down the beach and found Seascape. It is exactly a cheaper imitation of the upscale small resorts except it is older. It is also $30 a night with breakfast buffet. It is low season on the east coast as this is the rainy season and they mean it. It pours about 8 hours in 24. However it stays over 80 degrees and usually turns partly cloudy in afternoon and evening. So we sleep late, eat breakfast at 10, walk on the beach in the afternoon, have a drink, wash the salt spray off in the pool, laze around and go out for dinner around 7 or so. Life is good.

A Passage from India



We awaited our Thai Airlines flight to Bangkok for three hours at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. India is renowned for its lack of infrastructure, and the airport is no exception. The international terminal has 8 whole gates (a city of 13 million, capital of the world's 2nd largest nation), a trinket shop, a small duty-free store, an Indian fast-food joint (worked by one individual), and a Subway (two sandwich artists). All this after a recent renovation. At least it was air-conditioned. Fortunately, our plane was on-time, and we were aloft by 12:30AM, November 16, aboard the red-eye to Bangkok. Dinner was served about 1:30 AM, but, alas, no breakfast: I was really looking forward to Courvosier on my granola.

India. We're glad we visited what we did of India, the so-called Golden Triangle. There were many interesting and remarkable sites, mostly Muslim in origin, and not a little history to learn, much of it unfamiliar to us. And culture and religion.

In our preparations, months ago, we figured we could not handle India without help, and so we engaged Caper Travel (found on the web) to move us around, book hotels, and provide more or less daily guides. This was relatively inexpensive and worked for us. Our only dissatisfaction was with some of the hotels, noted earlier.

Despite current comparisons, India and China are worlds apart. India, what we saw, is decidedly third-world. China is in great flux, but you have to look for real poverty, at least in the 6 or 8 cities we visited. In India, it meets you as you debark and raps on your car's windows at every intersection. Squalor and filth are everywhere.

Will we come back? To put it in plain Anglais, J'ai été là, j'ai fait cela. Travel is an intensely personal and individual thing, however, and nations are far too complex to dismiss, even from experience. We saw or met many tourists spending rather more time in India, clearly loving it, almost going native in some ways. We knew pretty much what we were in for, and we were not surprised. But we have had enough. On to Thailand!

PS. My one regret about India was not getting to Mumbai and the Bombay Sapphire outlet presumably there. But I suspect this would have ended like our unsuccessful search, years ago, for the London Fog outlet in London.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Duo Does Delhi




Our tour of Delhi did not begin well. The Shatabdi Express from Ajmer got us to Delhi as scheduled, at 10:40PM, and the Caper Travel representative met us at the station promptly. There was some confusion about the hotel we were to stay in, and this entailed a trip from the New Delhi train station to South Delhi, very near the airport, and then back again to New Delhi, trying first one, then another “Good Times” hotel. We finally got settled in sometime after midnight, and decided to begin the Delhi tour proper at 10 the next morning.

FWIW, the “Good Times” hotel was fairly awful, next only to the filthy Hotel Chanakya in Agra. But then everything in Agra seemed ankle deep in excrement, human and other. Among the six hotels we stayed in in India, I would rate only the Greenwood in Khajraho as good, the Chandargupta in Jaipur as acceptable, the Royal Safari Camp as a case apart (thought better than the Chanakya and the Pallavi International in Varanasi, where the excrement seemed knee-deep. Or perhaps it was just the “culture” shock.)

Our tour of Delhi, once it got underway, was superb. Such a city deserves a week or weeks, but we saw a very great deal in one long day. We began in Old Delhi and the Jama Masjid mosque, built by our old friend Shah Jahan (Taj Mahal) in 1656. One wonders whether there would be a tourism industry in India without Jahan. We followed this with a pedi-cab tour of Chandi Chowk, the marketplace of the old city, its myriad narrow alleys of commerce and residence (“Do not get off the pedi-cab,” our guide, Herb, warned). It was pretty fascinating, divided, like so many Asian places of commerce we have seen, into “districts,” perhaps a block or so, of booksellers, paper goods, saris, blankets, car parts, radiators, ball bearings, jewelry, vegetables, fish, and so on. The monumental Red Fort was closed, but we got some pix. The Red Fort does not compare with the Agra Fort or the Amber Fort, Herb said, and we have now seen our share of forts anyway.

Next we visited the Raj Ghat, the memorial to Gandhi, where his body was cremated (his ashes were placed in Pushkar Lake, I should add (Nehru's too); something about caste, I think). Hundreds of people were at the memorial, even now, 60 years later. Truly the father of his country and a most unusual leader. I indicated further interest in Gandhi and Herb took us to the 1948 assassination site, now a Gandhi museum, where we spent perhaps an hour lingering among the exhibits. So much occurred in India (and Pakistan, etc.) in 1947-48, so much that still has major implications for our world. Gandhi opposed the Partition, and in this, as well as other things, he was not heard.

Next we briefly visited New Delhi's government houses, parliament, the President's House, the India Gate, and associated monuments and edifices. Clearly, the Brits had big plans for India when they moved their capital to Delhi in the aftermath of 1857. It is a beautiful capital complex, parks, fountains, ponds, wide, tree-lined boulevards, a place any European imperialist might envy.

After another mediocre Indian lunch, we drove on to the complex of tombs associated with Humayun. Humayun's Tomb is regarded by some as a proto-type for the Taj. It is a World Heritage site, built in 1562. It is in a large Mughal tomb complex, some of which are older, pre-Mughal, still Muslim, but somehow more "indian"-looking to me.

Vicki wanted to see the Lotus Temple, renowned for (allegedly) attracting more visitors than the Taj. Upon closer examination, this turned out to be a 1986 concrete structure, a temple of the Bahai faith, not worth a glance, IMHO, much less a detour. But the crowds and tour buses certainly were there.

Last, and perhaps best, we visited the Qutub Minar complex, another World Heritage site. Its centerpiece is the 72m high (that's 20 stories or more) minaret, built in 1206 to celebrate the Muslim conquest of most of India. Its fluted brick columns are truly impressive. Just as impressive are the adjoining ruins of Delhi's first mosque, built from the stones of the 20-odd Hindu temples that stood on this site in the 12th century. The various Hindu images were defaced, just a bit (Muslims don't do icons and images), but not so much that one can't see exactly how it was all put together. Enlarge the picture above (click on it) and you will see a part of this structure in the foreground. Delhi is a very old city―six or more distinct cities, historically―and this medieval complex is 12-15km south of Old Delhi. I guess it's always been a large place, but never a particularly important place, until 1857.

We had some time to kill (our plane left a few minutes past midnight), so Herb took us on a walking tour in the university district, to “see how the real people live.” We had already seen enough of this, so we checked email at a cyber cafe. Actually, we checked email at two cyber cafes. We left the first rather abruptly after an electrical fire started at our work station. But that's another story.

It was, nonetheless, one of our better tour days.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Conversion to Hinduism on the Shores of Lake Pushkar


“Oh God, please don't let him put any of that water on us."


When the camel fair is not in session, the other 50 weeks of the year, Pushkar is a major holy place and destination pilgrimage site. (I do not distinguish between religion and tourism; not since seeing Chartres many years ago). And the November full moon is the choice time to be in Pushkar, celebrating the Lord Brahma's convocation of the 900,000 celestial beings here. Some time ago.

As everyone knows, Brahma, the Creator, is one of the three chief Hindu gods. Vishnu, the Preserver, and Shiva, the Destroyer, are the others. For reasons that can only be described as obscure--no, wait, there's nothing obscure here, just patently absurd ("to non-believers," Vicki insists I add; look it up in the Wikipedia)--there is only one temple for Brahma and only one place in the entire world where Brahma is venerated and worshiped: Pushkar. Let's just say it has to do with the wrath of a scorned river goddess/wife, some astrology, and being late for a ceremony. Evidently Hindus are real sticklers for punctuality. Anyhow, apart from an abiding interest in camels, Lord Brahma, the Creator, is why we are in Pushkar.

So today (November 14) we toured Pushkar's two major religious attractions: the Brahma Temple and Lake Pushkar. We also made some offerings to Brahma at the Temple and consummated these further at the Lake, where a priest officiated (for only 50 rupees each; the religious equivalent of steerage), and we confessed our sins and asked for good karma for everybody, and world peace, all in Hindi. "Repeat after me," the priest said. Actually, we have no idea what we said or did, except for dropping plates of flowers, rice, sugar, the red- and yellow-dot sticky stuff, etc., into the lake, and having small amounts of lake water sprinkled on us. Fortunately, neophytes and gullible tourists don't have to do full immersion like Baptists. All this with shoes removed, too, twice. Hank, our guide, seemed pleased. I am sure he gets a commission from the priest. Obama will take care of the world peace.

It would all have been over in an hour, but we had to fax something to the customs authorities in New Zealand, and this occasioned a major Hank-led walking tour of beautiful downtown Pushkar in search of a working fax machine. Thus we got to see major parts of the town and interesting sights we had missed in our two previous forays. Yesterday we walked (or were pushed and shoved) along some of these same streets, but saw little except the sea of humanity of which we were a part. It was a bit scary at times, and it occurred to me briefly that a particularly ignominious way for me to go would be the victim of trampling by a panicked throng of the faithful. (Do atheists have martyrs?) Frenzied religious trampling happens often in India, most recently in Jodhpur, where something like a hundred pilgrims were so killed last month. (Vicki, of course, has a trampling/contingency plan: climb or hug a tree. This is the desert, I observe.)

Untrampled, we returned to Royal Safari Camp by noon, in time to see the last tour bus depart and to witness the disassembly of tents, beds, furniture, temporary water and sewage lines, and so forth. I have closed a few bars in my time, but never a safari camp, much less a royal one. The owner said he had two more festival gigs to do in November, one in December, and New Year's. "Indians really like to celebrate the New Year in the desert," he said. Less chance of trampling....

Anyhow, the camel fair is over. The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on. We have moved on too, first to Ajmer, a city to the west of Pushkar, and now, via the Shabatdi Express, en route to Delhi, our last stop in India.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Midnight at the Oasis...I Mean, Tent City




We arrived in Pushkar about noon, not a bad drive actually, but the police had closed the main road for crowd control and we had to re-route, eventually arriving at Camp Royal Safari about 1:30. It may not be the desert, technically, but it is hot, dry, sandy, barren, and there are camels everywhere, mostly pulling carts to take residents of this and adjoining tent-cities into town.

Camp Royal Safari consists of perhaps 75 tents, plus a reception tent and a dining hall tent (and several smaller tents for souvenir merchants). Our tent, #33, is actually larger than some hotel rooms we have inhabited recently, perhaps 16x24 feet, carpeted, two beds, chairs, table, nightstand, and an easy chair out under the porch awning; the full bathroom is within the main tent, but separated off by another tent wall. It is all actually better than feared, although the HVAC is lacking, as are TV and wifi. There are two electric lamps, however.

After settling in, we took the 4:25 PM camel cart into town, about 2 miles south. Vicki had had an unpleasant camel-riding experience many years ago in Egypt, so we did not go for the ride-your-own option. Pushkar is basically an Indian state fair, featuring all kinds of livestock, but mostly camels. (The highest auction sale this year, we read in today's India Times, fetched 51,000 rupies, not a whole lot of money, actually, but then camels are not good for very much as far as I know). Mostly it is block after block of souvenir stalls, small exhibits, cheap goods, food, drink, a lot of carnival stuff, three ferris wheels, but no roller coaster, no tilt-a-whirl, and no yak-lady. Also no blue ribbon apple pie, 600 lb. pumpkin, corny dogs, cotton candy, nor lemon shakes. (Nothing could compare with the Ohio State Fair). Anyhow, we took all this in for a while till it started getting dark and we realized we hadn't a clue where to catch the return camel cart. Eventually we followed some other tourists and wound up at the central camel loading port, where a driver identified himself as Camp Royal Safari. We rode back under the full autumn moon. (I get very up-tight in these situations, so it was not quite as pleasant as it may sound; Vicki later teased me by claiming she saw a scorpion in the bathroom). We finished the evening with a dull Indian veg dinner (buffet in the dining hall tent, with other guests, mostly snooty French, who, ha!, got no wine with their nan) and then, by campfire, watched the “cultural” program, dancing and drumming (our third such program in two weeks, fourth if you count Varanasi). A tent and a camp-fire program...just like back home.

Vicki adds:

Pushkar, November 13

It is 8:30 in the morning and I am lying in bed in the tent at the Royal Safari Camp. The Pushkar camel fair, or melee, brings over 150,000 visitors to a small town in Rajasthan. This of course is way too many to house and so there are at least 15 tent cities, each with 75-100 tents. Our tent is quite large, divided into two parts with full bathroom and flush toilet. No camp-cots here, full wooden beds, table, chairs and kerosene lanterns with electric lights inside. The only thing missing is AC, which is only needed in the afternoon. Last night we took our first sojourn to the fair, which is about 2 miles away across desert dunes, by camel cart. The fair is 95% Indian and the rest foreigners. Most of the camel and cattle-trading is over as these are the last days. There is a midway, 3 ferris wheels, and some very strange kiddie rides. But mostly of it is stalls set up flea-market fashion selling camel saddles, pots and pans, dishes, etc. Unfortunately the fair is not that interesting, and the second you show any interest, the shopkeeper, cousins, friends, assorted hangers-on, are all over you, touting the wonders of their wares in broken English. We intend one more foray to the fair this morning.

The camp include all meals, all vegetarian, as Pushkar is the the holy city of Lord Brahma and allows no alcohol, tobacco, or meat within its environs. Lord Brahma is the least popular of the three main Hindu gods and basically only worshiped here. The reason for this is long, complicated, and as in all religions, completely ridiculous to non-believers. Look it up on the Web.

Tomorrow we have a guide to see the religious parts of the place.

PS. Two days ago we succombed and purchased a hand-knotted Indian carpet—what every homeless person needs. We are having it shipped to daughter Rebecca's house. It is a small one and is quite beautiful and inexpensive.

Another Day, Another Elephant Ride (it was part of the package)




We did our Jaipur tour today, November 11: the Wind Palace, the impressive Amber Fort, the astrological observatory, the City Palace, etc. The entrance fee to the Amber Fort included another elephant ride, so what the hey, we're getting good at this. (The government has limited the Jaipur elephants to five round trips per day after several collapsed, killing tourists; so our guide said). We also visited a rug and textile showroom, where Vicki further stimulated the local economy. Tonight we are resting, re-charging batteries, fortifying ourselves for the long drive tomorrow and Pushkar. Probably a camel ride too.

Vicki adds:

November 10, deepest, darkest India

Day 72 of the trip Memsahib Sherouse is feeling quite a bit exotic. Having been made gun-shy of traveling independently in India by other blogs, we are finding the personal guided trip quite interesting. We were met at the airport in Varanasi by our guide and the driver who took us first to the hotel and then again later for a boat ride on the Ganges to watch the evening ritual and see the cremations, We saw this all again before dawn the next morning. Apparently this is the only thing there is to do in Varanasi. I would advise those contemplating a trip to India to omit Varanasi, with its floating donkey corpses, crematoria, laughing yoga practitioners, bathing, washing clothes and dishes, P/A system chants, and tourist boats propelled by 10 year old boys. We were driven back to the airport where we flew to Khajahuro on Kingfisher airlines, to a quite nice hotel, the Greenwood. That evening we went to a regional dance performance, quite well done. Next morning our local guide, George, took us to a tour of the 22 extant temples in Khajahuro, of which only 2 percent, contrary to popular belief, present miniature three-dimensional depictions of the Kama Sutra or some such. But very well done.

In the afternoon the driver took us to Agra, a 4 hour drive, then a train ride of 2 hours, where we were left at possibly the filthiest, most disgusting hotel we have ever seen. Armed with our own sheets and towels, we managed for 2 nights by not bodily touching anything in the room. Agra is known for its scamming of tourists, lousy hotels, frequent power outages (20 times in 2 days), and general filth and pollution... and the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal was wonderful. Photos don/'t do it justice. Unfortunately there was considerable haze, and some of our photos won't do it justice either. The haze partially cleared, and it was a magnificent sight.

We also visit the Agra Fort. Another highlight of the day was a visit to Pizza Hut, and a pepperoni pizza, which was wonderful, our first American food in 6 weeks. (I have lost at least 10 lbs).

Today we had a 7 hour drive across north central drive across north central India, and in route saw Fatiphur Sikri, a 16th century ghost-fort in very good condition, and on into Rajasthan and its capital city of Jaipur. Where we are staying in a very nice, clean hotel in the city. Only one power outage so far.

Mark is typing this for me as, except when I can't. I am staying flat on my back to rest my shoulder, which is getting better, but very slowly.

Taj Mahal





Monday November 10 finds us in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Yesterday we did the highlight of our India trip (or anyone's), presumably, the Taj Mahal, in Agra. The morning was quite hazy, and our initial distant views of it were disappointing. (I initially ascribed the haze to pollution, but a day later, far from Agra, I can see it is more haze than smog). As we neared and the haze burned off a bit, the views improved considerably. And the Taj is even more impressive up close, in detail. The minute work, the marble, the inset precious stones, the changing colors, the symbolism, all are incredible. One pretty much forgets the crowds of other visitors. Our guide, Bob (I swear...but he did not share his religious views with us nor attempt to proselytize), gave us the usual farcical romantic story of it all. Romance or not, it is singularly impressive.

Another highlight of the day was our first genuine, real, Western food in some six weeks. Vicki spotted a Pizza Hut en route to the Taj and instructed Bob to take us there for lunch. While most of the toppings were Indian, sort of (would you believe pizza tika masala?), we succeeded in getting a real pepperoni pizza. (See illustration). Even I enjoyed it immensely (although I am really enjoying the Indian dishes we are having, especially the the paneer butter masala, the murgh masala, and the garlic nan, etc.

In the afternoon, we visited Agra Fort. Forts here are fortified cities or palaces, generally dating from the 16th or 17th centuries. Akbar the Great seized this one, I think, and Mughalized and enlarged it. His grandson Jahan was builder of the Taj. One of the sites within Agra Fort is the “cell” (itself a small palace) where the imprisoned Jahan pined for his beloved Mumtaz (not the fiords) and gazed at her memorial, the Taj Mahal. (Actually, others say, he overdosed on opium and aphrodisiacs, enjoying the sexual extravagances of a Mughal (ex-)emperor till age 72). Whatever. Both edifices are impressive in their own ways.

Today was a 240km car trip from Agra to Jaipur. Seeing the countryside close-up is always interesting. Mostly it is flat, agricultural land, occasional hills and hillocks, trees here and there but increasingly dry, temples and monuments and ruins dotting the expanse. And villages and towns. Indian driving makes Chinese driving look organized, coherent, serene. The horn is used here more amply, as a courtesy to let the other person know you are over-taking. Everyone is trying to overtake someone else, so far as I can tell. Tuk-tuks are everywhere in the cities and elsewhere. Fortunately, our drivers these past two days were very, very good (by my lights), arriving on time, patiently dodging all the obstacles, trying to answer my occasional questions. I sat in the passenger seat both days—allowing Vicki to stretch out in the back—and I am sure both cars have dents in the floor-boards where I was desperately trying to brake. The road today was fully paved all the way (once we got out of Agra and unlike the road from Khajahuro to Jahnsi), even 4-lane divided highway in places. Unfortunately, the Indian notion of an interstate or super-highway does not include limited access, and even on the divided/4-lane one is constantly dodging feral animals, vehicles going the wrong way, etc, albeit at a much higher rate of speed. As one gets into Rajasthan, camel-drawn carts become quite plentiful. In Jaipur, a city of 3 million, you can add elephants to the road mix.

En route we spent a couple hours at Fathepur Sikri, the famous “ghost town.” Akbar the Great (ecumenical Akbar, who tried to synthesize the prevalent religions of the time) built a fortified city there and made it capital of the Mughal (not to be confused with Muggle) empire—celebrating a resident sufi master's foretelling of the birth of his heir—and then abandoned it permanently 15 years later, in 1585. It is very largely intact, architecturally, acre upon acre, scores of great buildings, all walled and fortified, palaces, mosque, women's residences, etc. He allegedly had some 5,000 wives, concubines, dancers, slaves, and other lady friends. The official line is that he abandoned Fathepur Sikri because it had water problems; others say he moved his capital to Lahore to put down/ a Punjabi rebellion, then returned the capital again to Agra. Anyhow, it was impressive to see what a Mughal emperor could build in 15 years out of largely red sandstone, adorned with the usual precious stones, paintings, etc.

We are in Jaipur for two nights, in a nicer “heritage” hotel, then off again via auto to Pushkar--“Pushkar Kings of Kings,” where Brahma convened all 900,000 Hindu celestial beings--the full November moon, and the annual camel fair, which attracts some 150,000 people, etc. We'll be staying in a tent on the edge of the desert, eating veg. This is all Vicki's idea.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Temples of Khajuraho



We did the temples, west and east, in Khajuraho this morning. In terms of age (10th century, some), size, preservation, extensiveness, depiction of everyday life, religious symbolism, they're pretty impressive. We are glad we came here. We had a guide, George, a born-again Christian (he said), who seemed quite knowedlegable, answered all our questions, and discussed the erotic stuff pretty straightforwardly. He also had a working sense of humor, unusual for guides in our experience (except Mingma). Even the motel, the Greenwood, in Khajuraho, was superb.

Personally, I thought the sex thing at the temples was overrated. Only two per cent of the figures in the 22 extant temples are sex scenes, and not all these directly concern human/human sex. Oh well. Concerning the depictions, as George said, not all that much has changed, really.

We're off this afternoon by car and then train to Agra, the Taj Mahal, and who knows what else.

Update: the 145km car trip from Khajuraho to Jhansi took 4 hours. 4 hours of dodging other vehicles, goats, packs of dogs, feral cattle (some in herds). Mostly pastoral squalor but some interesting sites and scenes. Jhansi is a town of 2-3 million. I missed the one great photo opp of the afternoon: a cow on the track in the middle of the Jhansi train station. The train ride from Jhansi to Agra was relatively uneventful. We sat across from a nice family with a cute toddler Vicki entertained for most of the trip. For $17.50 the two of us got the transportation, with cushion seats, in AC comfort, with high tea and dinner. We even arrived more or less on time, were picked up by our guide, and have checked into another "traditional" hotel (I think) in Agra. We're sleeping in our silk sleeping bag liners. Tomorrow: Agraculture, including the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort.

Candle-light Cruise on the Gunga-jee



Wednesday, after celebrating the Obama victory, we prop-jetted back to Kathmandu, enjoyed a final Nepalese dinner at the Kathmandu Guest House, and strolled the night streets of still-crazy Thamel. Thursday morning, we stimulated the local economy, buying several Everest and Kala Pattar patches, a poster, and having the Buddha Eyes embroidered on our light jackets. Vicki particularly stimulated the local pashmina industry.

Air India got us to Varanasi Thursday afternoon, only an hour and a half late, but too late to see the Buddhist site of interest there (Buddha's first sermon following enlightenment, it is said), so we did the Ganges evening water program, hiring a boat to take us out to watch the assorted rituals, activities, etc., along the shore. Part of the deal is buying little flower/candle things to set adrift in the river (it is all about fire and water, visually, and the various temples, ghats, etc.). You're supposed to make a wish as you set your candle adrift. Vicki probably wished for less pain in her shoulder. I wished, fervently, not to fall in. This is also the place where they cremate the (dead) faithful and place their ashes in the holy river. (They used to deposit the (uncremated) bodies in the river but that is no longer done, except for snake-bite victims (we were told)). See illustration.

Everyone told us Nepal would be a good warm-up for India, and I can see that this is the case. Pretty much the same song as Nepal, in many ways, only many, many decibels louder and more complex. Varanasi has about 3 million people, and most of them appeared to be out Thursday evening. We spent the night at a "traditional" Indian inn, the Pallavi International Hotel, which must have been very nice at one time. Very colonial-looking. An Indian corporation now owns Jaguar and Rover, did you know?

Friday morning we did the sunrise-on-the-Ganges water program, another boat, somewhat different activities and sites. Particularly memorable were the yoga practices along the shore--groups of them--the "laughing" yoga practice, the individual holy persons worshipping and praying. Later we toured some of the "old" city, getting close to but not in a major Hindu temple. Security in India right now is really strict. We were searched and frisked three times just for the flight to Varanasi.

Our tour of Varanasi thus concluded, we jetted this afternoon on Kingfisher Airlines (actually very nice) to Khajuraho, the site of the great Indian Sex Temples. I am not quite sure why Vicki scheduled us to come here, but I look forward to seeing all these World Heritage Sites tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

On Safari



Today (November 4) was an action-packed adventure/safari day. We began with our elephant ride (see illustration above, Vicki and me behind the driver), which lasted about 90 minutes and involved 5 rhinos, numerous spotted Nepalese deer, more crocodiles, etc. The elephant ride was cool. You're really high up on this animal that basically fears nothing and goes wherever it wants (or is told). The “driver” sits on its head/neck and appears to steer by nudging the animal's ears with his feet. At one point the driver got off to go behind a bush, but our concerns were allayed when the beast picked up a huge stick with its trunk and began scratching itself. A moment later the driver reappaeared and the elephant gently lifted him atop its head by its trunk. We had considerably more elephant experience at the morning elephant bath, on the big river. Here they brought together half a dozen pachyderms, got them in the shallow water, let people ride them, wash them, massage them, get sprayed by them, etc. Vicki and I watched from the sidelines but enjoyed it all nevertheless. This afternoon, we did the jeep safari, a different part of the park, and saw more deer, rhinos, birds, crocs, and a wild boar. But no tigers...which is just as well, since we'd prefer seeing them only at a great distance or though a barrier.

Both in Kathmandu and here we have been attentive to television coverage of the US election. CNN/Asia is widely available, and we have been devoted viewers when time allows. It's Tuesday night here, voting day in the US, and we hope to awake tomorrow morning to a convincing Obama victory. Everywhere we have been, we have managed to talk some politics with the people we have met. Scores, perhaps hundreds of them. The enthusiasm for Obama is striking and unanimous. The revulsion for Bush, which we share, is striking as well. Perhaps there is hope.

Vicki adds:

November 4, Chitwam National Park

We have spent the last three days at Chitwan Adventure Resort in southern Nepal, but my shoulder is still giving me a lot of problems. We have managed to spread the activities over three days instead of two, and double-doses of pain medication have meant I could do most of them. Chitwan is on the border with India and is basically a jungle park. So far, we have been on a dug-out canoe trip, an elephant trek, a jeep safari, and an elephant bath. We have had the opportunity to see wild boar, spotted Nepalese deer, giant termite mounds, assorted storks, cranes, eagles, and peacocks, but the most exciting was the one-horned rhinoceros, of which we have seen five. On this morning's elephant safari (quite comfortable, like riding a double-decker bus) we were able to get within 20 feet of several rhinos. This evening on the jeep safari we saw another mother and child rhino. Our stay here has included all our meals and activities, lodging, etc., all for about $60/day for the two of us. Accommodations are somewhat spartan, but we do have satellite TV (when electricity is working), and we are anxiously looking for the results of the US elections when we wake up tomorrow (Wednesday morning).

Mark is typing this for me; I am trying not to sit up. I hope India will be easier on my shoulder. I did forgo the elephant bath festivities in the river this morning and was merely an observer. Of course this also enabled me to avoid any nasty river parasites I might have acquired. We are on to Kathmandu tomorrow and then Varanasi (Benares), India, on Thursday.

Elephants, Tigers,and Crocs, Oh My!





Monday November 3 finds us near Sauraha in southern Nepal, in the (former) Royal Chitwan National Park. The “Royal” is being scratched out on both public and private signs all over. Nepal is Maoist now, the King and Prince formally deposed overwhelmingly by the Parliament last spring. I guess the park will become “People's Chitwan National Park.” The Maoists seem to understand that tourism and tourists are good. (I am still carrying my Chinese flag and little red book of Mao's sayings just in case). The former palace in Kathmandu is being transformed into a museum. Hey, it worked for France, and no guillotine nor other unpleasantness, either.

We flew from Kathmandu to Bharatpur Sunday morning on--I swear I am not making this up--Buddha Air (“fly the transcendent skies”) and then taxi'd into the park and our lodgings, the Chitwan Adventure Resort. I give the Nepalis high marks for humor in naming their airlines—in addition to Yeti Airlines and Buddha Air there is also “Cosmic Air.” On the other hand, maybe airlines are not exactly the right business for levity. Anyhow, the resort is OK, certainly a step up from the Khumbu guest-houses of the past three weeks, with hot and cold running, AC, and other amenities. Food is Nepali, pretty good, and the atmosphere distinctly Hindu. We are just miles from India itself. The staff is wonderful and the chief guide can give you the common English and Latin names of all the critters, including the scores of different birds here. Lots of storks and peacocks, the national bird.

Vicki is better, still in considerable pain, but not enough to keep her from a canoe ride on the Rapti River (real crocodiles), and a visit to the national elephant breeding center (real elephants, including real elephant babies; not as cute as pandas). We did not see any rhinos today, but we did see some very fresh real rhino tracks at a mud hole near the river. I know Vicki is better because on the jungle cruise she kept cracking jokes, intelligible only to me, about Disney World. The thirty foot long dugout we were in was not on rails and the crocs were not animatronics. She even managed to cross the Rapti on a 150 foot two-log bridge (no handrail), a personal best. Lest anyone be alarmed, I should add that the Rapti at this point is only about a foot deep. But there are crocs and other nasties. We have decided to put the elephant bath and elephant ride off until tomorrow. Also the tigers.

It is HOT here. Despite the haze, one can still see the big mountains off to the north, not a hundred miles away, 7,000m peaks. But this is lowland Nepal, sub-tropical if not tropical. Every kind of crop imaginable is being grown here, rice to bananas to mustard and corn, and what is not being tilled is either jungle, savannah, or, as in the case of our “resort,” lush and colorful garden, with citrus, hibiscus, bougainvillea, palm, ficus, cactus, succulent, and dozens of other plants I admire but don't know. And, oddly, no mosquitoes. Last night we visited a local Tharu village (clay and dung mud huts), viewed some camels being introduced here, and saw the sunset over the Rapti. There are 4 or 5 other parties at the resort, one English, one French, one Netherlands, one French-Algerian (lives in Scotland currently), one Russian.

We'll be here another day, return briefly to Kat, and then depart Thursday for India, Varanasi specifically, where the real adventure begins.