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“A Teardrop on the Cheek of Eternity”

Khajuraho and the Taj Mahal


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Khajuraho was a nice change of pace. The town was small and easy to negotiate on foot. The reason we visited here was to view the Kama Sutra sculptures and the incredible temple art that covered three groups of world heritage listed temples. The Temples here are over 1,000 years old and are said to have some of the best temple art in the world. Certainly the best I have seen. The temples are covered top to bottom in intricate stonework. The amount of detail from the largest sculptures to the smallest borders and filler pieces is outstanding. The recurring theme here becomes obvious as countless large breasted women and erotic scenes adorn the temple walls. Awestruck we slowly explored the neatly manicured grounds taking in all the temples with plenty of long breaks in the shade of many nice treas. After the day before this was just what the doctor ordered… a nice peaceful and quiet day in a grassy outdoor setting. A stark contrast to our fist week or so in India.

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That evening we checked out the fair that was pumping out the loud music that kept us from enjoying our room. It was not more than a few dusty lanes with market stalls aimed mostly for locals. People were mulling around but there was not much going on. We found the source of the music but there was no band, or stage, or anyone even paying attention. Just a guy with a mike and a loud stereo. On our way out we got talking with two high school kids named Shubham and Ashok. Shubham spoke really good English and was a joy to speak to. He was really smart and in addition to English he knew basic Japanese and some Polish. We spoke with them for a long time and before long actually let our guard down when we realized they were not out to sell us anything. They joined us for dinner and through our conversations they told us that they wanted to know how to use face book. As they had taught us some Hindu, and were the first people who did not try to sell us something, I decided I would get them set up on face book. I am not sure if this is a goof thing or a bad thing but It was fun, and I know that they enjoyed it.

They next day we rented bicycles and they took us around the old part of town that they lived in. This included visiting a few other temples that were outside the main group that we visited before. This gave us a fresh look at a quieter more gentle India. The peaceful little town was surrounded by green fields and dirt tracks were kids played and water buffalo, oxen, and cows roamed. The temples here were not all as well persevered but were easily as enjoyable when combined with our impromptu tour guides and the country setting. Shubham invited us into his home which consisted of an open air room with a dirt floor, a small kitchen, and one living room were the family of six slept. It was about 10x12 at the largest. In the living room we discovered a 5 hour old baby goat that Meghan instantly fell in love with. Shubam’s mother made chai and his father, sister, and mother all sat with us and listened in as we spoke and struggled to use some limited words in Hindu. This was a great experience for us and really put me back on track with India. Just a day before I was hiding in my room ready to book a flight out of the country and here I was the following day In a local home sharing chai with people who are just as interested in me as I am in them.

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Shubham, Ashok, and Meghan check out an ancient Brama Temple
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Two kids help each other take a bath at the water pump
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Gift Shop
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Old houses, old town
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Baby Goat
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Khajuraho Crew

Another overnight train but this time we upped the comfort level and ride in the AC class. Here we found more comfortable seats and much less coming and going as we did in sleeper class. Our train was due to arrive in Agra at 2:00 am so we laid down early and I was actually able to get some sleep. Going with the increased comfort theme, we also scheduled a pickup and a hotel in Agra. The Train pulled in about 2 hours late and just as we were about to give into the rickshaw drivers, figuring that our pickup had split, I heard my name being called out and we were whisked away to the Suraya Guest house just outside the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. It was a little after 4:00am when we finally got into our room and we had about 2 hours to sleep before getting in line for the sunrise rush on the Taj. The Taj Mahal is not open on Fridays so we did not have much choice but to push on through and I am glad we did. After waiting in line to get in at 7:00 we finally made it through the airport security like checkpoint, rounded the corner, and got out first glimpse of this spectacular building.

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Sunrise over Agra
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First Glimpse

The Taj Mahal has been described as a “teardrop on the cheek of eternity”, “the Embodiment of all things pure”, and its own creator said “it made the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes” It is sincerely an impressive architectural masterpiece and deserves the large numbers of tourists it draws every day. It is amazing to think that such an amazing building is a monument to lost love, an grieving husbands memorial to a wife who died in labor. After jockeying for position for the quintessential shot of the reflecting pool we made our way through the gardens and up close.

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Piling in for that perfect shot
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Sleep Deprived Munslers
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More Taj Less Munslers

Up close the fine detail of the inlaid precious stones and the texture of the creamy marble accentuated the raw beauty of the massive structure. The amount of detail work covering the outside and inside was endless. It took 20,000 craftsmen 8 years to finish the main building and the detail work it contains. One item that was particularly impressive both for the amount of skilled carving they must have taken and for the fact that they have survived for 350 years were the window screens. These were 100% marble tablets carved into a fine stone mesh. The patience this must of taken I can not understand.

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Detail Work
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Semi precious stone inlays
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Perspective symmetry
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Long distance close up
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The Gardens

We took our time heading out finding different vantage points to sit and relax. Finally we retreated to the hotel and went in for a much deserved afternoon nap. In the afternoon we explored the Agra Fort. This large fort holds many different palaces and buildings and was a pleasure to explore. For the first time on our trip we decided to go for a tour guide and actually really enjoyed it. The Agra fort is considered one of the finest Mughal Forts in all of India. Within it heavily fortified walls were many different palaces, halls, mosques, and living quarters. Our guide painted a picture of the life of royalty in the 1600’s and brought the fort to life for us. That Evening we found a rooftop restaurant and watched sunset over Agra. The day ended as it began at that tender moment between light and dark with the pastel light of the low lying sun painting the milky white marble features
features of the Taj Mahal..

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Walls Of Agra Fort
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Inside the Fort
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Detailed Carvings on red Sandstone
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Light and Shadows in the Pearl Mosque (Moti Masjid)
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More detail work with semi precious stone inlay as in the Taj Mahal
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Meghan at the Ladies Mosque
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More hand carved window screens. Here in Red sandstone. The ones at the Taj Mahal were Marble and even finer mesh but I did not photograph them.
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Shan Jahan’s view from his prison in the Agra Fort
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Elaborate Ceilings in the public meeting hall
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Rooftop Taj View

Posted by pmunson 09:47 Archived in India Comments (1)

Painted Elephants’ and Purple Indians

Jaipur


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The capital city of Rajasthan held our interest longer than we thought it would. We met some really nice people, experienced some Bollywood, took in a fun festival, and celebrated the Indian Festival of Color, Holi. We stayed in a nicer hotel than usual near the old city and were really comfortable. One of the first things we did was set out to explore the old part of the city, or what we thought was the old part of the city. We found ourselves amongst tons of happy kids out in the street brimming with excitement for the upcoming Holi and accompanying Elephant Festival. We were not in the “Old City” but a little neighborhood and when we realized we were lost we grabbed an cycle rickshaw to the city palace were snake charmers rose cobras over hypnotic music all for the tourist rupee. The city palace building was a bit of a let down after the palaces of Agra Fort but we still took the time to explore it all.

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Most Expensive photograph of the trip to date!
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Marble Elephant, City Palace
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Pink Sandstone Walls of the Jaipur City Palace
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Decorative doorways in a courtyard of the City Palace

That night we visited a huge Hindi movie theatre to see the current hit flic, “My Name is Khan” The place had to seat over 1000 people and apparently was the #1 movie theatre in all of India and often used for grand openings of big Bollywood hit films.

We were in Jaipur at the time of an annual Elephant Festival and for the Festival of Color or Holi. A large outdoor area played host to many elephants painted in bright colors for the occasion, a multitude of camels, and a few horses. Their were bands and dancing to go along with the competitions and games. It all took place in a chaotic tangle of spectators and animals as their was nobody keeping the hordes of people in the stands and off the playing fields were all the animals were. At one point Meghan and I found ourselves on the inside edge of a ring of people who had encircled the area were the Elephants were to play football (soccer). All of a sudden the huge animals were running around kicking (mostly just popping) beach balls with only a ring of soft human bodies to keep the animals at bay. All of a sudden their was a breach in one part of the circle and all the Elephants started moving out into the crowd. There was no real panic or mass hysteria but we both had visions of being trampled in a riot of panicked Indians and tourists. The whole thing ended with the Elephants playing Holi. Playing Holi is throwing colored powder and water on your friends, family, and people you meet in the street. It is the Indian festival of color and celebrated with enthusiasm all around northern India. In this case the Elephants made their way in and around a large crowd and their handlers and passengers tossed colored powder by the handful on the reveling crowd below. There is a tradition on the night before Holi to burn fires in the street. During the day people had been building towers of wood and hay in preparation up and down all the streets of the old town. As we exited the arena the lighting parties were just getting started. Men on motorbikes and by foot were swarming the streets with torches igniting all the fires. People were singing and dancing in the street and it was an incredible scene to behold. Had we no prior knowledge of this event it would have been quite a startle but as we were prepared the mob of fire bearing men did not startle us!

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One of the performers caught in town on the way to the festival
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The festival started with a procession of the bands and animals
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We love Camels!
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And Elephants!
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Playing Holi by Elephant
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Igniting the fires in the streets of Jaipur
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The next day was the real celebration. Our new friend Ankit who we had spent the prior day with, a day meant for sight seeing but ended up sipping chai and chatting with locals, had invited us to come and celebrate with him and his friends and family. He lived outside of town so we got up early and hired a rickshaw to where he would pick us up. Ankit showed up after a few moments on his motorcycle and the three of us piled on and sped away to his home. A bunch of his friends were waiting on the street and it was only a few seconds before we were covered in different colored powders and wished a happy Holi by numerous new people. Meghan was pulled into a crowd of young girls covered in purple who were franticly dancing to Hindi music cranked up to 11! Everyone was in high spirits and having so much fun.

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Meghan gets down with the girls
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Holi Hai! - The little dude in front makes me smile!
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Back on the Bikes

Before we knew it we were back on the bikes. This time it was 9 of us on three bikes and Meghan and I got separated. This made me nervous at first but I trusted Ankit and his friends and it turned out that Meghan also felt like he was looking out for her. It quickly became apparent that the women in India do not celebrate the holly with the same intensity as the guys. Meghan was the only girl in our crew and the next few stops we made were spent trying to convince the girls to come out and play using Meghan as bait. We went from one house to another spreading color and holiday greetings before stopping at Ankit’s employers house. He was treated to the “strong color”, a skin dying bath with dye that would leave the skin turned purple for three days. Meghan and I both had fun with the powder but graciously refused offers to be doused in the dye.

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The strong color
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Holi Color
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Meghan Gets covered
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We all loaded up again and made a few more stops before returning to the bosses house. When we did their were drummers out in the driveway and all the guys were dancing to the beat while the timid neighborhood woman peered through window screens, from nearby balconies, and from the safe distances of the neighbors front porches. The men in India are all very affectionate and close in a way that westerners might consider a little weird or queer. It is not uncommon to see guys holding hands while walking the street or showing affection with an arm around a shoulder or something of the like. This carried over to the dance and all the guys we rode with that day jammed out to the drumming in a rainbow (wink wink) of the color we had spread that morning.

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Dancing in the Driveway

From there it was back into the old city were one of the old buildings was the sight for a big dinner together. We climbed to the second floor were we found an open aired courtyard. As a chicken stew cooked over a charcoal fire we all shared stories. A large carpet was set out on the stone floor and we all sat down to eat. It was absolutely delicious and enjoyed by all. As I moped up the last of my stew with the amazing naan bread I knew that on this day we had a completely unique experience. One unlike anything we had experienced in our travels so far and one that can not be duplicated. Our new friends showed us a slice of their life and how they celebrate it.
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Ankit in red at our post Holi diner

The next day we went to the Amber fort near Ankit’s home. We were hoping to meet up but unfortunately we had slept in and he had already gone to work. The fort was as interesting on the inside as it was beautiful on the outside. We wondered the courtyards and passageways exploring the nooks and crannies of the generally all access buildings. On the way out we discovered that you could go down underground and explore the secret passageways. These were really renovated and only a small portion was open to the public but it was still really cool.

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Amber Fort
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Camels outside the fort
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Surviving murals on the main gate
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Looking Down on the town from the fort
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Ornately Appointed Panels and Archways
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Inside the Fort
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I have mentioned how We are constantly the subjects of Indians photos, here Meghan poses with Mom and Baby as Dad snaps away

Posted by pmunson 08:10 Archived in India Comments (2)

Pushkar to Bundi

A Friendly family and fantastic forts

96 °F
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Pushkar 03/02/10 to 03/04/10

It was a quick 2 hour bus ride from Jaipur to Ajmer, the point where we would switch buses to Pushkar. Once in Ajmer we found it was easy to get a bus to Pushkar and even refused the first bus as it was already too full for us to sit. Meghan was perfectly content to sit on her bag in the aisle but I did not want to press my luck and told her that I wanted to wait for the next bus. She relented, and dragged her bag off of the overcrowded bus and onto the next one were I would be more comfortable. We let a hotel tout who was on the bus sell us on a place to stay and had a ride waiting at the bus stop when we arrived in Pushkar. It turned out to be nice enough and a little removed from the busy tourist strip by the “lake”. Pushkar is the smallest town we have visited in India so far at just over 14,000 people and it had a small town feel to it. The big draw is the holy lake that attracts pilgrims and foreigners alike, as well as an annual Camel Fair. We missed the Camel fair but saw the fair grounds were over 200,000 people and 50,000 camels arrive each year! Steamboat Springs, Colorado were we lived prior to this trip is about the same size as Pushkar and feels like it is bursting at the seams when we have 15,000 visitors on the busy winter holidays. I could not imagine what 250,000 people and camels would do to Pushkar! Currently the lake is dry due to problems with an “infection” in the water a few year years back. The lake was dredged and drained and left to refill with monsoon rain. The last few monsoon seasons have been poor and everyone is hoping this monsoon will fill the lake. Regardless, the 52 bathing ghats encircling the dirt patch was beautiful, to see it filled with water and the accompanying the reflection would have been quite a sight. Once refilled holy water from the Ganga will be brought and poured into the lake to make the waters holy again . We spent 2 short days in Pushkar and unfortunately Meghan was inflicted with another bought of the stomach sickness. We spent the morning together in the shade of a gazebo above one of the bathing Ghats before she retired to the room with fever to rest. I decided to get out and stretch my legs and went for a good walk that lead me out of town and up to a temple that stood atop a 750 foot hill. On my climb I came across and old women on the steep staircase cut into the rocks. She reached her hand out to me and I helped her to her feet. She had a hunched back and could not stand up straight yet she sped up the steep hillside past a couple of out of breath foreign tourists who were younger than I! I really had to push it hard to pass her and was amazed by the strength in her old legs. From my elevated vantage point I could see the town, surrounding hills, farmland, and arid desert stretching out to the north. I stayed to watch the sun set before returning to the room and turning in.

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Bathing Ghats surrounding the empty lake
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Pushkar Palace, Bathing Ghat, and dry lakebed
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More street cow action
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Pushkar from above
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One must embrace the Pushkar rules and regulations… just not in public.

Bundi - 03/04/10 to 03/07/10

Set beneath an imposing fort the sky blue Brahmin homes and narrow lanes of Bundi set a picture perfect postcard scene from the window of our bus as we rounded one final corner and into town. A long, hot, and often bumpy ride through small towns packed with character, and characters, brought us to this lovely town. We had to search for a rickshaw at the bus station to bring us into town, a very unusual event when compared to the persistent presence of rickshaw drivers everywhere else we have been. We asked to go to an old Haveli, a traditional Rajasthani home, that we found lavishly decorated with Indian antiques and art. It was absolutely beautiful and just outside our price range at $20 a night! We decided to go sit outside in the shade for a bit to discuss the pros and cons of a budget busting room and to inquire about other nearby accommodation. While I was searching out other options Meghan was approached by a young man who recommended the Palace View Home stay. When I came back from viewing rather uninspiring rooms I agreed to let the young man lead me to the guest house. We turned up a narrow lane and worked our way up alleyways and over crumbling staircases away from the main road. As feelings that I was being taken for a ride started brewing we stopped and knocked on the door of an rather ordinary looking home. I was greeted by Sema and her two daughters. She showed me a well appointed room in her small home with two windows looking directly at the impressive Bundi Palace. The genuinely friendly and trustworthy feeling radiating from these three women was heart warming and I decided immediately that this was the place for us to stay.

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Palace View from Palace View Home Stay and Palace View Home Stay View from Palace!
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Bundi’s Blue Rooftop’s

This turned out to be a real home stay in the best definition of the term. Sema and her husband Durga had only one room to rent and it was nearly half the size of their modest home. The rest consisted of a tiny kitchen, smaller than most American pantries and a small room that husband, wife, two daughters, and a son slept and lived in. This was all complemented nicely with the best rooftop in all of Bundi. We were the highest on the hill and had a commanding view of the Palace. After we put in a request for our dinner, and Durga returned from his shop nearby, we learned more about our hosts. Durga was an artist, he was a cheery and personal man with a contagious sense of humor and heart warming laugh that erupted after almost every statement! His shop was a stones through away at a desirable location just inside the palace gates. He had just started offering his front room to lucky travelers last summer and we were fortunate to have been brought to him as he does not advertise other than in his own shop. His Sister in-law prepared the food for us. She went to the market to buy the vegetables for our dishes as we ordered them. Side note, other than two or three meals with chicken we have been on a vegetarian diet since our arrival in India over three weeks ago. I have had exactly one glass of whisky and only one lonely beer. I did not expect it to be so easy to eat only vegetables and go with out alcohol but when it is not presented to you it is amazing how much you do not miss it. The parts of India we have visited have weird liquor laws and while most places can arrange for some hooch or a beer it is rarely on the menu or out in the open. Anyway, the food that was prepared fresh from market veggies were amazing. All other food is now ruined as I am sure this will not be duplicated for me if not just in taste than in my memory of the entire situation. Durga kept us entertained with his unmistakable charm as we passed the long wait while veggies were procured and flat breads were made from scratch. We sat on his rooftop, on the top of the city, before the impressive palace view, and ate great food and enjoyed pleasant conversation. This would set the tone for our stay in what is so far my favorite place in India.

Going back to the early 1600’s the Bundi Palace is built into a hillside with towering walls rising high above the town. An ancient series of cobblestone ramps lead to an huge gate adorned with two massive carved elephants raising there trunks together to form an archway to the inside.
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Elephant Gates

For many years this palace was left to the encroaching vegetation, bats, and resident monkeys but recently has been cleaned up and now is amongst Rajasthan’s finest. The whole place shows signs of its lengthy abandon but a few treasures still remain. This was part of the reason I liked it here so much. The fort and palace were a humble witness to an ancient time with little more than a dusting to reveal there faded glory. One room in the palace that we particularly enjoyed was filled with murals and paintings that had survived the years with out any protection of the elements. There were proof of some vandals but mostly remained for all to enjoy. The fact that this was not behind glass or monitored by some sort of security is so unique to me. I feel that if this had been in America it would have not lasted as long as it did with out protection or greater vandalism.

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Meghan studies some old art
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Old Murals delicately surviving the test of time

Working our way up the hillside to more areas of the palace we found more impressive art and interesting architecture.
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More Murals in the upper reaches of the palace
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Pillared Courtyard showing pilfered adornments
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Manicured garden in the fort
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Detail of an old door

In the afternoon we visited the vegetable market that provided our daily meals and found a relaxing public park to rest in the shade alongside a 46 meter deep step well that was built at the turn of the 17th century.

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A very micro view of the large Bundi Vegetable market

Knowing how long dinner could take we place our order early and let Durga know that we were going to climb up above the palace to the old fort and watch the sunset before we would return to eat. We climbed up past the palace on the cobblestone ramps and further up past remains of old buildings and along the fort wall as it worked its way up the hillside. At this point we wished we were kicking down the cobblestones feeling groovy as Simon and Garfunkle would sing it but instead we were crawling up the cobblestones feeling sweaty! We switchback up an even steeper cobblestone ramp that was lined with thickets of thorn bushes that led up to the impenetrable entrance of the Taragarh or Star Fort. Dating back to 1354 this was an overgrown relic of a small town and palaces that laid within the protection of the double walls of the hilltop fort. Climbing through a small door within the huge second gate I felt like I was 10 years old again playing Indiana Jones in the woods behind my childhood home. There were no signs telling you what way to go, no entry fees, and no people around. It was just us and the fort.
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Bundi Fort from above
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Heading to the upper fort
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Thorn bushes that protected the entryway to the fort and penetrated the soles of my boots
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Sharp spikes on the first gate to discourage an army of charging Elephants

I left Meghan atop one of entry gate buildings and set off on a whistle stop tour of the large fort before the setting sun pushed it all into darkness. I found a lot more than expected and knew that a second trip was necessary, so I decided I would save the real investigation for a 2nd day. The sun settled into some low lying clouds depriving us of the romantic sunset over the Blue Brahman houses of Bundi and the illuminated fort so we went back down the cobblestone path to our rooftop perch before it got too dark.

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Meghan waits patiently above blue Bundi
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Forgotten Temple
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Fort wall and overgrown grounds
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Outside the Palace at Taragarh
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Looking down on Bundi

Back at the house Sema and the family along with Sema’s sister started a fire in a fire pan on the roof and cooked potato paranthas in a wok like pan over the open flame. (Parantha is a wheat flour like tortilla stuffed with yummys before cooked.) We all sat up on the roof together, the family all huddled around the fire helping out with the task at hand and Meghan and I watching on and we spent another evening enjoying the incredible food and watching the numerous monkeys climb all over the floodlit fort. I forgot to mention this but there were a lot of monkeys. In the mornings they would scamper across the rooftops to the palace were they would take to the shade in the numerous alcoves across the palace walls. At night they would come back out again and we could watch them climbing and playing all over their huge jungle gym. This was all quite entertaining and was kind of like our television for the nights we were there. Durga informed us that they were educated monkeys and would swipe your shoes or drying laundry and taunt you with your missing items until you fed them a Chapati (un stuffed wheat like tortilla)! In addition, meals taken on the roof top are served with a large stick, just is case a monkey gets too daring.

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Palace Monkeys
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Looking closely you can see them all over the Elephant gate

The next day we hired some push bikes and set out to do some exploring north of town. It was fun to get out but we did not see anything too memorable and mostly just enjoyed the more quiet countryside and bit of exercise that is missing from our current lives. Upon returning to Bundi Meghan went in for some R&R and I returned to the fort on the hill. Like the night before I entered the imposing gates and found myself alone. I would spend an hour exploring the 650 year old buildings and all their narrow passage ways, tight staircases, and empty courtyards alone. It was quite some time before a few other intrepid travelers crossed my path. I can not describe how much I enjoyed this. I was possessed with images of life in this time and as I wandered the abandoned buildings they came to life in my mind. I spent a good time up in the fort collecting long thorns in the soles of my shoes and exploring every inch of each decaying building before heading back down for our final meal with Durga and his family.

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A closer look inside the Taragarh
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Indy?
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Bundi Fort and the walls of the Taragarh above lit up at night

The next morning we would be up early and off to the “Venice of the East”, the romantic Rajasthan city of Udaipur.

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At 6:00 AM Durga was sharply dressed and ready to see us off.
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Sunrise on the Tracks, Bundi Train Station

Posted by pmunson 08:24 Archived in India Comments (1)

Who’s up for another round?

More Forts, Palaces, and Temples - Udaipur and Johdpur

sunny
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Udaipur - 03/07/10 to 03/11/10

On our way to Udaipur we traveled by train again. We were able to make a pit stop in Chittor to break up the journey and spend the afternoon exploring the Chittorgarh. This was an interesting and large fort with many temples and palaces occupying a 28 square km plato that is 180 meters above the surrounding plains and completely encircled by a high fort wall. One item of interest here was the Tower of Victory. Dating back to 1468 this tower rises 37 meters high and has nine stories. Each level is carved in the same fashion as all the fine temples and on the inside an stairwell allows you to climb to the 8th floor, looking out over the entire fort. After visiting the fort we got back to the station just as the train was pulling in and rode to Udaipur with two other travelers we had met on the morning train and toured the fort with.

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Temple Art
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Victory Tower
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Meghan Makes her way up the tight stairwell
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Udaipur is a beautiful oasis in the middle of Rajasthan. Its centerpiece is a shimmering lake with two Island palaces set below surrounding mountains. Udaipur is home to a few different world class hotels including the Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel and the Lake Palace Hotel. Both these hotels as well as the city of Udaipur was the set for the James Bond movie Octopussy. There was an interesting mix of tourist as the super rich were ushered into their $2000 a night suites that shared a similar view with the $6 a night room Meghan and I shared! Thrown in the mix was the obligatory City Palace, temples, and a compact old town of narrow lanes that surrounded the lake. We decided a few days off the sightseeing tour were necessary and stuck to the shaded rooftop and wonderful view out over the lake to the City Palace. Doing so we met an nice couple who were filming an amateur documentary about travel and we gave them an interview on our trip to date. On the third day in Udaipur we made it out to explore the City Palace and Museums. This was well persevered and much more lavishly appointed than the decaying forts of Bundi that we loved so much. It is the largest Palace in Rajasthan and is a mix of different buildings that slowly were added on over the years by different Maharajas. There were murals entirely made of glass mosaic and technicolor rooms with walls and ceilings of all glass and mirrors. We spent our 4th and final night on our rooftop watching Octopussy and glancing over our shoulder to look at the palace every time it came across the TV screen!

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City Palace, Udaipur
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Trim and proper. I got a hair cut and a straight razor shave at a small barbershop
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Brad and Lucy who interviewed us for their travel documentary
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City Palace
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Lake Palace and surrounding countryside
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Manak (Ruby) Mahal, City Palace
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Mosaic Peacocok in the Mor Chowk, City Palace
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More Glass Mosaics
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An incredible dining room in the City Palace being prepped for an upcoming wedding
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Lake Palace by night
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City Palace standing above the old Havelies’s of Udaipur

Heading out we decided to schedule a stop during our days travel as we did on the way in. This time it was by bus and the stop was at a temple and not a fort. We were dropped off at a Jain Temple on the route from Udaipur to Jodhpur. We were both a little templed out after all that we had visited so far in Rajasthan and were wondering if we should just skip it but we pressed on. Upon arrival we put down a 25 rupee or 50 cent lunch that was all you can eat dal (lentils) , Rajasthan curry, and puri’s (fried dough rounds) and made our way into the temple on a full stomach. Once again we were totally blown away. We were at Ranakpur, a marble Jain temple built in 1444 that consisted of 29 halls held up by 1444 carved pillars. The place was incredible and unique. Jainism is described a an extreme form of Buddhism.

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Not a centimeter of marble left un-carved, The impossibly intricate domed ceilings of Ranakpur
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Awestruck
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Ranakpur from the hillside.

We enjoyed our quick stop before heading back out to the street to wait for the bus. When the bus arrived I climbed up on top and lock our bags to the roof. When I got into the bus, or rather when I pushed my way onto the steps of bus I found it to be just as crowded as one might expect after taking several buses in India! That is that people were jammed everywhere and I was barely inside the bus! It was 4 hours to Johdpur and I started mentally preparing for the journey. After about a half hour Meghan squeezed herself into a seat as the previous occupant stood up. You need to position yourself exactly right to get into the seats or else the space will evaporate. It is almost like trying to swap a book in an already full bookshelf. If you are not inserting a new book into the space the old book is coming out of you are never going to get it in. A little while later I was able to do the same and we were on our way in high spirits to Jodhpur.

Jodhpur 03/11/10 to 03/13/10

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After staying in a cheapo rooms in the land of over the top luxury accommodation that was Udaipur we decided to up the anti a little bit and got a fabulous room for the 2 nights we were in Jodhpur. A big bay window that you could sit in offered views of the fort, we had a mini fridge, and a tub! Did I mention the fantastic rooftop restaurant with great fort views? WAHOO! Living it up! It was tough spending almost $20 a night when we knew their were rooms out there for $2 but we had been working hard and deserved it.

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Jodhpur Fort

Another Beautiful fort. India and Rajasthan has really turned into a temple, palace, and fort tour but we are enjoying it. The Fort at Johdpur had an great museum and some interesting history as well. It was a steep climb up out of town to the first of seven gates that let up more steep walkways around sharp turns to the final gate. This fort was never taken during wartime and there are welts from cannonballs in the sturdy stone walls near the first gate evidencing that the impressive fortifications where tried. Inside the museum had great displays offering a look into the lavish lifestyle of the Maharaja and a great weapons display as well.

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Cannonballs
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Yes, We took the audio tour
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Hand prints representing the widows of the Maharaja who, rather than continuing on as a widow, ended their lives by throwing themselves on the dead kings funeral pyre in 1843.
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Turbans and facial hair, favorites amongst Rajasthani men
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Tiger Howdah - Seat for carrying people on an elephants’ back
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Golden hand drawn palanquin for the king
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Sword Collection
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After the fort and palace we explored the city that was a mess of lanes in horrible condition due to an over run and often overflowing sewer system. All of the cities we have visited in India have an open sewer system in the old cities. This is for your cleaning and cooking water and the dirty water runs in open gutters that line all the streets and alleyways. In Johdpur they were increasing the capacity of the actual sewer with a larger diameter pipe and not doing the cleanest job of it all. For lunch, we sought out a Lonely Planet made legend of Johdipur. The Egg Man whips up a tasty omelet out of a small cart and serves it up between bread sandwich style . He offers a few dirty plastic stools to sit on and claims to cook up over a thousand eggs a day to fulfill the demand of his deserved reputation. The little suckers were tasty! We shared our sandwiches with passing camels, cows, pigs, eager rickshaw drivers, beggars, over friendly children, and the usual circus that is any spot in the old cities of Rajasthan!

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Egg Man
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Camel Cart Drive Through?

I could not stop singing the beastie boys “Egg Man” in my head while we ate and thought of ourselves in a flock of the “Lonely Planet” crowd while singing “suckers they come a dime a dozen, when I say dozen you know what I am talking about boyyyy!” It is funny how the guide books that we all rely on so much bring all the tourists together at spots so obscure as a roadside shack selling omelets for 50 cents. Every time you get into the tourist beat around the attractions and the popular stops, business owners advertise what guidebooks recommend them. While we are glad to have the Lonely Planet for recommendations on were to go and what to see, when we actually arrive somewhere the difference between guide book recommended hotels and restaurants is alarming. Places in the guidebooks thrive while there competition across the street struggles to get buy, often with superior quality and cheaper prices.
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Women huddled in the Shade, mid-day, Johdpur
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Street side pottery
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Step well outside our hotel window
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Clock tower with Fort in the background

The next morning it was off again to Jaisalmer, further west and on the fringes of the Thar desert. We thought we would give a private bus a go after only riding the local government busses and reserved two seats on what we thought was a direct bus. The bus itself was certainly of superior quality. It was a sleeper bus with chairs on the bottom and sleeping bunks at the top. We assumed that being a private bus the reserved seats and sleeping bunks would be occupied and they would not sell standing room tickets as they do on the public busses, in this we were wrong. With the compartments above and the chairs below and the Indian technique of packing them in tight, asking everyone to take a deep breath, and then adding a few more for good measure, the bus was packed. It is like going one notch to far on your belt, the one you know is going to hurt later. Meghan and I had unknowingly reserved two seats on the last bunk of the bus, you know the ones that have a perfectly vertical backrest and enjoy the full effect of all the bumps and bends of the road. Not on one side either, smack dab in the middle.

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Packed into the back of the bus… What was standing room only at first opened up with enough room for people to sit on the floor in the isle.

I called on my reserve patience that I have been building up to an impressive level since being in India and managed not to freak out even though I thought we would be more comfortable on the miserable government buses. Here comes the negativity again so let me cool it down with the rewards of these busses and the reason we keep inflicting the torture I have repeatedly described on ourselves. The busses give you a view into rural India that you do not see in the cities with the attractions. The people you see coming and going, sometimes so close that you carry their sweat with you to the next destination still live in the traditions of their ancestors. Sometimes seeing a woman covered head to toe in jewelry and dress that matches the displays you have seen in the museum cram into you on a bus is more memorable than the landmark temple that you read about back home. Or feeling the acceptance of unselfish people as they make themselves less comfortable to help out a stranger on a bus. It is hard to explain but after all the frustrations and discomforts in settling into a long bus ride we usually exit with some new experience or insight to the places we are passing through. So six hours later we arrived in Jaisalmer and fought our way our of a circling pack of vicious rickshaw drivers and hotel touts desperate for commissions. I am not sure if it was because we were coming of the more expensive bus or if it was just Jaisalmer but these guys were unrelenting. It was so bad that a police officer had to come to our aid just to make room for us to walk away. One guy took it to far and I had to let him know we were serious with a firm hand on the ribcage that put him on his heals as I yelled “Back Off” None of this was more dangerous than a nuisance for all you worriers out there, Robin, but non the less I had to speak up.

Posted by pmunson 00:04 Archived in India Comments (1)

Meet La La, Ratu, and Mr. MaGoo

Jaisalmer and the Desert

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View rtw on pmunson's travel map.

After escaping the touts and the rickshaw drivers at the bus station we stopped at the main gate to the fort for a much needed chai. In Jaisalmer the fort is still lived in. Their are many guesthouses and restaurants in addition to local people who live there. The impact of the increase in tourism over the years has put pressure on the fort and it is slowly wearing away due to the antiquated drainage systems that have been pushed past their limits. With some of the 12th century bastilians collapsing in the last few years many have taken to conservation of the fort. With this in mind we chose not to stay in the fort but in the town below. We stayed at the Roop Mahal, the owner claimed to have been doing camel safaris out of Jaisalmer for over 25 years and recently had moved his guest house and camel safari operations out of the fort. He sold us on exactly what were were looking for in a camel safari and we agreed to 6 days in the desert far away from the more popular spots that while possibly more scenic were overrun by tourists and unscrupulous outfitters. We left ourselves a day to explore Jaisalmer before we set out. The fact that the fort was still occupied was an interesting change of pace from all the forts we have already seen. If you looked passed the endless lines of shops and tourist trinkets spilling out into the narrow lanes you could see life continuing in the same location it had for 800 years. We passed up going into the palace but could not refuse an unethical cappuccino in one of the fort restaurants. In the old cities a lot of the restaurants are not much more than a family run operation out of a home. We experienced this in Bundi as well were you worked your way up to a rooftop restaurant through someone’s home walking through bedrooms and the kitchen en rout to the rooftop. In these old buildings the staircases can be incredibly tight and narrow, turning 90 degrees after every few steps in a tight spiral to the roof. We also explored a part of the city surrounding the fort and found the interesting Patwa-Ki-Haveli. Built in the 1st half of the 18th century this old private mansion was an impressive display of intricate mesh stonework and about 5 floors of rooms and hallways. Later that day we searched out a high spot to gaze upon the Jaisalmer fort with its golden bastions giving it the appearance of a sandcastle in the setting sun.

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Traditional Rajasthan Dress. This was more for show as the pictured women was trying to sell jewelry but we did see many ladies on the buses in similar jewelry and dress.
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A larger man would not have made it through the small doorways and up to the roof for a cappuccino
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Patwa-Ki-Haveli
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Contender for the annual desert festival’s mustache competition.
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And so castles in the sand….
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Sunset Serenade

The next day it was up early, the start of a routine for the next few days, and off to the Thar desert. A jeep was loaded up with supplies and we set out for the 70 km drive. The Thar desert is an arid scrubland with lots of small villages spread between occasional sand dune ridges. The Jeep pulled over to a group of men waiting on the side of the road at a non-descript location. We were quickly out of the jeep and onto the Camels and on our way with an entourage of camel men. We met Karim who would be our Guide, or “Camel Man of the Thar Desert” as I came to call him, and his helper a 15 year old “Camel Boy” in training. The camels were easy to command and the saddles were fairly comfortable. I was riding a camel called Ratu and Meghan was riding a camel named La La. Karim and the boy were paired up on Magoo.

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Loading up the Jeep
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Ratu, La La, and Magoo

An average day in the desert started well before the sun broke the horizon. We were naturally up early when the pre dawn light started to glow on the horizon. Karim and the boy usually got up around the same time and immediately went to work building a fire for breakfast and Chai or Coffee. Karim would have a nice blanket spread out for us in the sand and once we were out of bed we would sit and watch the sun rise as we enjoyed our morning meal. We were pleased to get eggs and toast with jam . After nearly 5 months of travel we are still holding on to our familiar western breakfasts. Once the camels were gathered and the gear was loaded we would set out for the mornings ride.

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Ready to disembark

This would be 2-3 hours on the camel through scrubland in and out of shallow valleys below sandy ridges and past a few odd outposts and small villages. Most mornings we would stop outside of a village, dismount, and walk in. We usually picked up an entourage of smiling children on our way in were the women of the village would be waiting with the babies and really small children. We could not leave before being offered chai and when we accepted somebody would head out to find a goat or cow to get some fresh milk to make the milk based tea. On the promise of delivering printed photographs, everyone in the village was eager to have their picture taken. As soon as the shutter clicked I would be circled as everyone wanted to see their image in the digital display. Sometimes I let the camera go and looked on nervously as it was hastily passed from one to another.

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Meghan tries to communicate with some morning visitors
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Trying to find a nice shot of the village people I decided, like the boy in front, to “pick a winner”
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Villages
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Taking Chai - sitting in front traditional mud and grass roof huts. The doors were low, the walls contrasted from sand, stone and “cow shit” (Karim’s description) Roofs were dried grass. Amazingly cool inside - in temperature!

The village stop also usual coincided with a water stop for the Camels. Sometimes this was a easy as an open watering pool or trough. Sometimes we would have to pull water up out of a tank or even from wells that were 35 meters deep. For an animal that can go a week in the desert without water we sure did spend a lot of time watering the thirsty beasts.

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Humping water from the storage tank - these storage tanks were sometimes located with in a village and other times in a location near a few for easy access. Water is pumped here from larger villages with electricity to those with out.
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Filling up the original Camel Back - These camels would carry around 200 liters of water to homes and villages nearby.

At about 11:00 we would find some sort of shade under tree and prepare for a long rest to pass the heat of the day. Karim would prepare his desert living room for us by clearing a spot in the shade for us and spreading out a ground cloth and a few thick blankets. This along with a rolled up blanket for a pillow made our island of comfort where we would pass the next 4 to 5 hours. The boy would gather up some wood from around the shrubs and start up a fire for our lunch. This started with the obligatory Chai and was followed by some sort of veggie curry, rice, and desert fresh chapatti (flat bread). The boy always made the chapatti dough fresh and would shape the chapattis in his hand like a pizza dough as he had no rolling pin or surface to roll it out. After lunch we would read and sleep while the sun settled down and the temperature became more tolerable. We had brought cards and upon learning this our guides often settled in to a heated game of a trump style game.
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The boy did make a mean chapatti.
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Lunch in the shade

A few thoughts about the temperature. It was HOT. We were in the desert in India after all. By about 9:00 AM we started to feel it and by 11:00 is was almost unbearable. Our little temperature gauge gave us readings in the 103 range but the unbroken intensity of the sun on the camels back was intense. Occasionally we would get a hot wind while resting in the shade that was positively stifling. To protect ourselves we wore long sleeve shirts and pants along with our low hikers. In addition to this Meghan wore a sun hat with a scarf wrapped around it to protect her neck. I went for the Lawrence of Arabia look with a scarf around the head and then pulled across the face leaving only the sunglasses exposed. Those of you familiar with my mandatory shade breaks on outings into the hot sun would have been truly impressed. By 3-4 it was bearable once again and by sunset it was actually really pleasant. We were reminded that the “hot” season doesn’t start ‘till May where temps climb into the 110s.

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The cool shelter of the shade tree
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Pedro of the desert

So after our long break it was back on the Camels, possibly an afternoon village visit or camel watering, and we were to camp usually just before sunset. Camp was always on top of a sand dune and elevated above the desert plains. This would get us out of the scrub brush and give us excellent views in all directions. As in the afternoon Karim would first make sure we were set up on a blanket and comfortable before getting the fire going and getting the chai ready. Dinner was always similar to lunch with rice and fresh chapattis, but the main course was always Dal Fry. Karim’s version was a thick soup like lentil dish with boiled potatoes and tomatoes. Even on the 5th consecutive night it was delicious. Typically the sun would set on us as we were sipping chai and we would have our dinner in the dark beneath the endless stars above. The crackle of the small campfire as day turned to night with the slow progression of color in the sky was magical each and every night. We slept on the sand under the stars on really nice beadrolls (Australian Swags) that once unfolded produced full linens and a comfortable pillow, far more than we expected. The first 2 nights there was no moon so the stars were really amazing. On the third night we were treated to the first sliver of a waxing moon appearing out of the bright sunset as the sky turned purple. With a smile on my face I sang out loud “the sun went down in honey, and the moon came up in wine” as Bob Wear would sing “The Music Never Stopped“. Somewhere in the middle of the night the temp would drop enough to pull over a thick blanket and by morning our water bottles were cool again and we could sink our toes deep into the chilly sand to greet the new day.
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Totally posed
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The evening cook fire
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New Moon
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Desert Hotel

We were glad that we decided to go for 6 days. We spoke with a lot of people that went out for a night or two and it sounded like they did not get the same type of experience that we did. It took us a few days to get used to the routine and for our bodies to become accustomed to being in a saddle and out in the heat. We owe a lot to having a great guide. Karim brought us out to were few westerners go. In fact we did not see another foreigner or any other camel safari outfits on our entire trip other than a Australian couple who we had the option of meeting up with on the last 2 days. Karim is Muslim and he brought us mostly to Muslim villages. Included in this was a trip to his own village which he said he only visit’s a few times each season and only with small groups of people who are out on a longer trip. Aware of his arrival we were received by about 20 kids who started following us in from about a kilometer out. We rode through with people waiving and shouting hello to a huge sand dune in the background that would be our camp. We liked his village so much that we decided to spend two nights up on that dune and enjoy a rest day. This was just amazing. In the morning we went to the village. They brought us into their homes and made lunch for us. We ate chapatti made from hand ground millet and drank fresh goats milk Chai. From a hard life in a almost barren land came kind and welcoming people who offered up what little they had to make visitors welcome in their home. In the afternoon after taking our rest in the shade we went out for a short ride around the dunes. We looped round and came to a spot were we had to ride the camel down a steep slope of deep sand. I led the way with my camel running down and sand flying everywhere as Meghan looked on from above. Being close to Karims Village we got a better look into the daily routine. The men were up well before dawn every day and we were gently woken not only by the life but their calls and the distant ringing of the sheep’s and goat’s bells as they were herded up and driven up over the dune and into the surrounding areas to graze. Kids played in the cool morning air and people were out and about going about their daily routines before the sun was to high in the sky. Around sunset the village would come to life again before settling down shortly after dark.

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Kids rushing in for the Photograph
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Village Kitchen - everything is cooked over the good old “three rock” fire
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Lunch
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It was hard to get people to smile - not hard to get them to smile, hard to get them to keep smiling for photos!
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I usually got expressionless shots like this

6 days of perfect sunsets followed by equally impressive sunrises. Sleeping on soft sand under a dazzling sky, and settling into a daily routine of ancient travel was a great experience that both truly enjoyed. We each had our moments of uncomfort with the saddles and the heat but they were far outweighed by the experiences they came along with them. We would highly recommend Chandra at the Roop Mahal in Jaisalmer to anyone interested in a Camel Safari. Just opt for a few extra days extra and be sure to ask for Karim.

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Our friendly guide

We spent one more day in Jaisalmer lounging around the guesthouse taking care of laundry and some further trip planning. We have only one week left before we head to Nepal and hope to make the most of it so we have decided make a long trip to Delhi and then on to Rishikesh for a few days before flying out.

More Camel Safari Pictures

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Our Visitors from the first morning
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Camel tracks in wavy sand
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Hut Close up
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Shadow and Sand
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Hut Kitchen - the amount of silver in her ears is impressive - probably 10 or so silver hoops!
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I took the Indians at their own game!
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The many faces of Ratu
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A man and his camels
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Distant Shade
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Just Sand
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Meghan and La La
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Hindu villagers - notice their dress compared to the next dress.
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More Villagers - these villagers are Muslim. The dress she is wearing in intricately embroidered by hand and adorned with mirrors and beads. This dress is really heavy and much more then I could bear in the heat, never mind all the silver from the fingers, wrists, arms, neck and ears!
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La La takes a load off
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Meghan, Karim, and the camel crew

Posted by pmunson 00:36 Archived in India Comments (2)

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