Sunday, December 21, 2008
We did succeed in meeting up with Kelly in Kuala Lumpur. What an adventure! After considering the option of going to Cambodia instead of Thailand because of the unrests there, we decided to stick to our original plan and go to Krabi in south of Thailand. We waited two days for the next available flight. We figured if there were no seats on the plane, then it must be safe to travel there ;) Right?!
During those two days in Kuala Lumpur we walked around a little bit, ate some yummy food and spent many hours at the hotel spa, enjoying a one hour foot massage, followed by a body massage. Oh, how happy our bodies were to be pampered like that after Indian dust and dirt.
The flight to Krabi, Thailand was uneventful, except the rain that awaited us there. It took us five days total to get there from Kolkata, and then it rained!!! How fair is that?
Likely it didn't last long and the very next day we all got mega sunburned on the beach, especially Hana's back and Kelly's behind (picture available only with Kelly's permission...:)
Our initial plan was to stay five nights in Railay (peninsula near Krabi) and then go someplace else, but we were exhausted from all the trouble of getting there that we decided to stay there the entire 10 days.
The first five nights we stayed at the Diamond Private Resort and we did not like it for many reasons. The good thing was the terrace of our bungalow with a great view of the East Railay Bay. Then we moved to Sunrise Tropical Resort, a very nice place with the best breakfast ever.
Miko and I really relaxed here doing very close to nothing while Kelly signed up for a 3 day diving certificate. We went on little hikes in the surrounding hills, chilled out on the beach, went kayaking - and got rained on but it was still very beautiful, hiding under big rocks listening to the sound of the rain hitting the ocean. We also had a great day rock-climbing. Railay is a really good place to do that. And finally we did sunset snorkeling where Miko unfortunately cut his arm on some sharp rocks right before snorkeling the best spot of the day. He had to go back to the boat and luckily there was a German couple (both doctors) who took care of his arm.
Sunset is a good time to go snorkeling because all the fishes are looking for food at that hour. It was amazing watching schools of fishes everywhere and swimming through them. Everything I was seeing felt unreal; soft corrals in pink and purple, angel fishes, a big fish called Napoleon Rass, a poisonous Lion Fish and finally a very large fish with a small one on its back. Can't remember the name, porcupine something. It was truly mesmerising. So sorry for Miko missing out on it :(
Since our arrival in Thailand, Miko and I kept talking about India and comparing the two places. We must have gone on Kelly's nerves many, many times. (Sorry Kel)
Most of the things were incomparable to India and we experienced another culture shock (a reversed one if it makes sense). It was so much easier to move around in Thailand and to do things. It was also SO much cleaner and better smelling which we could not complain about. We stopped washing our hands before, during and after every meal and stopped being paranoid about what we eat or drink. We enjoyed food from the stalls and even ate sliced up fruit from them!
In the beginning we had mixed feelings about Railay because it was full of resorts and everything was catered toward tourists - the Westerners. In India we were in a completely different world, and here in Thailand it was too similar to home. But after a few days all those feelings disappeared and we completely relaxed and enjoyed being pampered. Can't resist luxury and modern life for too long ;)
It was not easy finding good Thai food in Railay. The menus were full of hamburgers and pizzas and the like that most of the young tourists were eating. The best green curry we had was one that Kelly made in her cooking class. Thanks Kel!
Our last night there, we were invited by a waitress of the "Rock" restaurant we frequented a lot (good Thai food) to her birthday party. It ended up being the only time we got to spend with the locals. Thanks Kelly again for making friends everywhere you go.
Then on December 11th, we said good bye to lovely Railay and to Kelly at the Krabi airport. She went back to SF via Kuala Lumpur and Japan (a small detour so she could enjoy Japanese food and spa one more time). Miko and I boarded the plane to Bangkok, planing on catching a train or a bus to the Cambodian border the same day.
I guess our vacation (from vacation) in Railay was really relaxing because after we were totally unprepared for what was coming next. Initially we wanted to go straight to Cambodia from Bangkok but somehow along the way the idea of going up to Chiang Mai in North Thailand started coming up. It turned into a big dilemma - Do we go to Cambodia first and then explore Laos from South to North, finishing in North Thailand? Or do we go to Chiang Mai and take the more traveled route of going North to South Laos, finishing in Cambodia?
Stupid dilemma when you think of it, but when you are on a big trip like this it seamed as one of the most important decisions of our life. Completely stupid (says Miko). Railay fried our brains and we could not think. We lost our traveling mojo. We tried to decide at the airport what to do, then moved to the bus station, and finally to the train station. By that point it was already dark, the day had gone by and we were exhausted (Partying the night before did not help). We spent a night in a hotel next to the train station unable to think or move anymore. Still undecided...
Finally in the morning we decided to stick to our original plan and go to Cambodia. Then we enjoyed Bangkok a little and walked around. Our favorite part was Chinatown where we found this narrow street packed with rows and rows of shops & merchandise of any kind, block after block. There was barely any room to walk in between, and you could find anything you wanted there, useful and useless. Including some yummy food and fresh squeezed fruit juices that we could not stop sampling.
Something else happened on our one and a half day stop in Bangkok which again proved that the past two weeks really softened us. We were not alert travelers anymore but complete beginners. We almost had two scams pulled on us in one day. On our way to Chinatown, a very nice middle aged guy approached us and presented himself as a teacher. He was friendly curious about our visit to Thailand and suggested that we travel up North next and then take a slow boat to Laos. He gave us a name of the "government approved" travel agency who could arrange everything. He even helped us get a rickshaw to take us there. Luckily we did not like the package they were trying to sell us at the agency and we left.
Later that day, in a completely different part of Bangkok, another man approached us and appeared very friendly. He was also a teacher! And again he offered "useful" information, pushing us to take a boat and visit some sights free only that day for tourists, away from the temple we were planing on visiting saying that it was closed already . Somehow, this time we were more suspicious and did not let him get us in a rickshaw. Instead we went to the temple which was actually open. Another liar and cheater. That's when Miko figured out that the older guy from that morning was part of another scam. We were so naive again, worse than in India. But at least we did not fall for it.
The next morning we bought train tickets to Aranyaprathet (Thai town near Cambodian border) which cost 48 Baht and then we payed 55 baht for a cup of coffee!
We boarded the train to our next adventure - Cambodia. Back on the road again!
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
After leaving lovely Udaipur (white city on the lake) we decided to take a bus to Bundi ( a place in the middle of nowhere) and stay there for 2 days only...
When we were debating our visit to Bundi, we read in the guide book that the road there was bad and very shaky, a "bone rattler" they called it. But when we went to an agency in Udaipur to buy the bus ticket, the guy told us that there is a new road with 4 LANES. We took the sleeper bus for the first time.
Our sleeper cabin was fine and we made ourselves comfortable for the good night sleep. We goofed around and took some photos. The bus was stopping everywhere, picking up more and more passengers. We set off to sleep with the help of the earplugs. Soon enough it became clear that the ticket agent was lying and that the road was so bad, full of potholes. It was shaking and tossing us like bags of potatoes. I had to push with my feet on the bottom and head on the top of the cabin to stop myself from bouncing. I kept opening my eyes and looking outside in the dark thinking: "Where the hell are we going? Is there even a road here?"
I think we still managed to sleep a few minutes here and there between the series of jumps. We survived the journey. In fact we survived it much better than two Belgian girls (Mariane and Joke) who started puking as soon as they got off the bus and were sick in bed for a day.
We are not taking a sleeper bus again. Because even if the road isn't completely destroyed, there will be somebody playing insanely loud and distorted music through their cell phone. It appears that people don't even think that they might be bothering someone around. And no one seems to be bothered anyway, except us, poor little soft-eared Westerners.
On our first day in Bundi we decided to walk to the fort, on top of a hill above Bundi, to watch the sunset. Everybody warned us about the monkeys who like to hang out on the trail to the fort so we armed ourselves with some sticks. They told us monkeys can be aggressive. I was scarred from the start, but Miko got scarred also when we had to walk through about 20 monkeys sitting around the trail. We turned around and then bumped into the Belgian girls again! (we met them on the camel safari in Jaisalmer)
So, together in a group we walked through the monkeys with big sticks, making noise by clapping the rocks together. We avoided showing our teeth and making eye contact with the monkeys because that can provoke them.
It was quite funny when you think about it later. Those monkeys were probably as afraid of us as us of them. The locals just filled up our heads with fear so we would hire them as guides.
We also learned about the two kinds of monkeys here just like in Rishikesh. The tall ones with light fur and black faces and long curvy tails. They seem to be really mellow. Then there are shorter ones with brownish fur, pink faces, red buts and huge hanging balls. They are more aggressive (probably because of the huge balls). We stay away from them.
On our second day there we went to visit the beautiful Bundi Palace. It is decaying but that is what makes it so charming. It is full of very old wall paintings about the Maharaja. But the best part of it is the garden area. The contrast between the old building and the very well maintained green & square garden makes it a magical place.
In the afternoon we decided to rent a scooter and go visit the Shiva temple Rameshwar, about 20 to 30 km north of Bundi. This was so much fun. Riding in the countryside and going through villages we felt so free. It was great to be able to go around as we pleased and not have to deal with rickshaws and taxis. Miko wished he had gotten the motorcycle licence before the trip. We could have bought or rented a "bad ass looking" old motorcycle like this really nice Israeli guy (Jonathan) who we met at the guest house. That will be our next trip :)
The road to the temple was nice with very little traffic. Instead of crazy buses and trucks, we had to dodge cows, goats, camels and buffaloes. Very quickly, Miko adopted the Indian way of signaling - the HONK, to the point of his finger cramping because of it.
The temple itself was ugly. The place where people come to worship is a hole in a rock. Around it is a big ugly concrete platform. What's beautiful is the nature around it populated by many monkeys (the nice ones). The little baby monkeys jumping and playing with each other just like kids. Before going to the temple (cave), worshippers wash themselves at the bottom of the waterfall. Men wash themselves in one area and women further down the creek. It was interesting to see that some women were partially naked (the top part). Modesty is very important in India and in this male dominated environment, women are usually covered head to toe.
We were the only Westerners there, so EVERYONE was constantly starring at us. They stare at you with a blank face but usually if we say "Namaste" or just smile and nod our heads, they smile back. Miko was able to take a lot of portraits that day. People liked having their picture taken and he would always show them the photo after on the screen. Their reactions were interesting. Often they giggle, or nod their head in approval, but sometimes they try to take the picture from the screen. We wished we had a small portable printer to give them their photo.
But one of the most important things that day was that Hana drove the scooter for the first time in her life! Yeaaaah!!!!!!
At the end of the day we heard that a guy named Kukki was showing some cave paintings in the area and we called him to get more details.
We ended up meeting him personally and being invited to his home. It was nice to meet all his family, his wife, son and 2 daughters. They were very friendly and we talked for a long time. His youngest daughter really like Hana and insisted on doing henna on her hand. Hana agreed even though I know she said she would not do it while in India.
Anyway, Kukki really excited us about the cave paintings and seeing more of the countryside with him. Before the end of the day we decided to stay one more day.
The next morning we went to pick up the scooter we used the day before and realized that the stupid little piece of cow poop at the shop, sucked out half the tank we put in the day before. We did not say anything but returned the scooter empty. Now we are even.
After a welcoming chai at Kukki's house (you can't say no to chai) we finally left. On our way to the cave paintings we visited rice fields and a beautiful flower farm owned by his friends. After riding on beat up roads we arrived at a beautiful waterfall and spent the rest of the afternoon in this area.
But first we need to talk about Kukki. He is a character. He is like a big kid, always laughing. About 55 years old, he is a self taught archaeologist. He says archeology is his hobby. He found his first artifact when he was only 9 or 10 years old. And then kept finding more and more until he went to Delhi and showed his findings to a specialist. This man was impressed by his discoveries and asked him to look for prehistoric/historic cave paintings. He then became obsessed with the research, neglecting his family and business. But in 1999 he found his first cave painting and many, many more. Many famous archaeologists came to visit him since and now he has his picture in the Lasco museum in France.
We spent most of the day talking to him and hiking in the area of the waterfall and around the canyon. Kukki told us about an Indian archaeologist who came to visit him after he heard about Kukki (the cave painting legend) and stayed at his home. Kukki showed him his findings. Later this man claimed during a conference to have found these prehistoric cave painting himself. Likely, somebody stood up and said that that was Kukki's discovery and not his. Since then Kukki believes that 80% of Indians are bad people and that in his next life he wants to be reborn in Europe.
He showed us one of his discoveries from 2003. It is one thing to see prehistoric paintings in books or on TV, but when we saw them for real, we were really moved. It makes you realize how our lifetime is insignificant compared to how old those illustrations are.
This has been such a wonderful day: riding in the country side, honking :), passing farmers & goats, buffaloes, camels, the beautiful scenery of the waterfall and finally the paintings - awesome. The sun was going down and Kukki who initially wanted to show us more, realized that it was getting late and that we should head back to Bundi. We agreed. Kukki then thought for a minute and decided to show us one more thing - a lake. It was almost five at this point... We ended up getting back to Bundi 3 and a half hours later. A total nightmare.
What he did not tell us when we left is that we were going to ride 60km on insanely beat up roads in complete darkness, trying to avoid being hit by trucks covered with neon lights blasting very loud Indian music which we couldn't tell if it was coming from the outside speakers or from inside the cabin. Sometimes there would be more potholes than pavement and they called it a road. On top of it, Miko was driving with his camping headlamp because the scooter lights were so weak. He was so tense from concentration to avoid the potholes, his back was completely knotted. Plus Hana would bury her teeth in his shirt and back every time she hurt her butt while bouncing. In all that craziness, Kukki was behaving like everything was cool (which it was for him used to these roads) and telling us to look around at the beautiful nature when the only thing we could see was the back of his scooter, the next pothole to avoid & the huge light beams coming toward us. And we were running out of gas...
Somehow, miraculously we made it back to Bundi in one piece. We were ready to say goodbye to Kukki who made us feel so happy and amazed and then scarred shit less all in one day. But he insisted we go to his place for dinner that his wife prepared for us. We were angry with him, but he did not seem to realize how hard the way back has been for us. Miko was thinking: "Why are you so freaking nice and jovial, I can't even get angry at you fucker!".
We ended up going back to his place and having great food and talk with his family. Again we were having a nice time with him. What a character!
Finally to finish our experience in Indian style, Kukki gave us a ride back to the guest house, the 3 of us squeezed on his tiny scooter, honking and slaloming through the narrow streets of Bundi.
We decided to stay one more day to recover.
The next day we did nothing which was much needed but Raj, the owner of the "Elephant Guest House" that we were staying at, and the other guests there wanted us to stay and dress up for the parade starting the Bundi festival the next day. We decided to stay one more day (now 5 in total).
So, we got up early in the morning and Raj gave us traditional Indian costumes to wear. Miko was very happy that despite the weight-loss he couldn't fit in them. The truth is, he felt so ridiculous he did not want to wear it.
Raj's wife gave Hana and a British girl Anna a pink and yellow sari and they both looked good in them (unlike the men). It was fun getting ready and taking pictures but we had no idea what awaited us. What do you expect to happen when a few whities show up in a small town's festival dressed up in traditional local outfits?
When we arrived at the start of the parade everyone was staring at us, the Westerners wearing Indian clothes. We were invited to meet the town officials. There the picture session started and the cameras were rolling. That's when I congratulated myself for my wise decision not to dress up and Hana regretted hers.
The local newspaper were there taking pictures of the 4 whities dressed up in saris. Different tv channels were there and when one of them asked Hana how she liked wearing a sari, she answered that it was nice but too hot. They immediately jumped to the spanish girl next to her to ask the same question and get a better answer.
After this short moment of fame we caught up with the parade which was actually very nice. People in traditional costumes were walking with decorated horses, camels and even an elephant. Bands were playing and dancers performing. There was a procession of beautiful Indian girls with ceramic pots on their heads. That's when they stopped the group for another photo shoot. They put pots on the heads of Hana, Anna & 2 Norwegian girls in saris and placed them in front of the Indian girls, completely blocking them. Hana dropped her pot on the girl behind her (good job Hana).
After walking for what seemed like ages, we arrived at some kind of stadium were all the foreigners were seated in the shade (as VIP guests) and the mass of local people was standing around in the sun. There was horse racing and a mustache contest where the men had to lift a small child of the ground by holding on to their mustache. A turban competition to see who can wrap it the fastest. The biggest moment was when they asked the tourists to compete against the locals in a tug of war. Women first then men. The tension and excitement was insane. The crowd was so big and close to the contestants we couldn't even see the people we were competing against. They could have put a tractor on the other end, we would not have known. It was loud and disorganised. So much fun.
From what we understood afterwards, the tourist women lost, and somehow the men won.
Finally to end this very busy morning the city invited all the tourists for a delicious traditional Rajasthani lunch. Women were offered bangles as gifts (Hana broke hers trying to put them on :( and men had their heads wrapped in colorful turbans.
The rest of the day we spent relaxing and enjoying the few hours we had left at our wonderful guest house "Havell Elephant Stable". We left the next morning, sad but very happy we had extended our stay in Bundi.
We did not see much of the city of Jaipur since Miko got sick few hours after our arrival (stomach issues). Still, two things stand out from this short visit:
the Hawa Mahal, which is the main landmark of Jaipur, also known as the pink city. It was built for the wives and concubines of the Maharaja to be able to watch the parades and festivities on the streets of Jaipur without being seen from the outside. Its interior design is very minimal compared to other Indian monuments we have seen.
The second highlight is the Raj Mandir Cinema where we went to see a 3 hour long Bollywood movie. We were disappointed since the story was really bad and there was only one dancing sequence. The fun part was the crowd. Everybody talking and reacting to the movie, babies crying and cell phones ringing.
Later on, we wished we had skipped Jaipur completely and stayed 2 days longer in Varanasi. But how are you supposed to know....
WE saw TAJ MAHAL!!! And like everybody says, it is amazing and impressive. Especially when you first enter the gate and see it almost blending with the foggy background. It looks like unreal, floating and magical. If you come to India, you must see it.
Varanasi is a very interesting and photogenic place on the banks of the sacred Ganga river. The mother of India. Indians come from all over the country to burn their deceased family members. We witnessed one of the ceremonies because it happens out in the open on one of the ghats. It is so strange for us Westerners. The body, wrapped in cloth is brought on stretchers and dipped in the Ganga river, then placed on a pile of wood (special wood from the mountains, very expensive). Then they unwrap the face and place some river water in the mouth. Holly men perform some kind of ceremony and a close family member walks around the body 5 times before setting it on fire. There is more to it but this is what we saw.
In Varanasi we also celebrated Hana's 33-rd birthday! And to celebrate we woke up at 5:45am to go on a 2 hour boat ride on the Ganga river. It was especially nice to be on the river at that time and watch the sunrise and the city slowly awaken. People were bathing and washing clothes on the banks. It sounds very nice but when you know how polluted the river is, than it's not so nice. The ashes of the dead, the sewage system, garbage, the water buffaloes bathing, etc. It all goes in the Ganga. And in all of it, people happily wash themselves and brush their teeth. I think we just can not understand, it is a cultural thing and for them the river is holly.
Back to Hana's b-day. She also got an ayuverdic massage that day. And very special earrings that I bought in Udaipur but had already given them to her in Bundi because when I saw her putting the sari on and complaining about not having any earrings, I thought it was a good time to surprise her.
That day we saw Julian (our friend and fellow traveler from Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Udaipur) and went to see a little concert in an Music Ashram. We got to listen to some beautiful classical Indian music created by 4 men playing tabla, sittar, flute and one more instrument. The sittar was the best. The guy was totally rocking out.
On our way back to the hotel, we saw some crazy male action - dancing on the street as part of the wedding celebration. There was a lot of drumming and pelvis thrusting with the arms in the air, shoulder shimming, jumping, pushing and sort of humping, It was very sexual and aggressive. Did I mention that they were all young men....
The only downer we experienced in Varanasi was constant harassment & that virtually everyone was trying to rip us off. We always had to double check everything we were paying for. It kind of reminded us of the beginning of our trip in Delhi. And it was the only time since our arrival in India, that the rickshaw driver tricked us and dropped us off by some shop pretending that is the destination we agreed upon when actually we were 1km away from the place.
Still, Varanasi is a great place for people watching and hanging out. It is also very photogenic. If you like taking photos and if you like colors, you will go crazy here.
We had to keep going since we had a flight to catch from Kolkata to Bangkok and were planing to meet Kelly there...
We took a night train from Varanasi to Kolkata and for the first time we took a sleeper class so we were a bit anxious. Normally we were taking a more comfortable and more expensive 3AC class. While it was crowded in the beginning and noisy for most of the night, the people in our compartment were very nice and we were pleasantly surprised. One Indian man in his fifties was very chatty with us and when he heard that it was my birthday the day before, he bought chai (Indian tea) for everyone. Then a middle aged couple offered to share their dinner with us, some chapatti, curry and mango chutney. They were very nice and did not speak much English.
To our surprise, Kolkata was not a second Delhi. We did not see much of it, just the Sudder and Park Street area, which is very touristy, but we liked it. Old english colonial buildings mixed up with more tropical greenery is interesting and different from other places we saw. Unlike Delhi, it feels more like a city.
Overall, we really liked India even if the beginning was difficult. Even if you like this country or not, you can not forget it. It is a completely different planet from ours. Yes, it is very dirty and poluted & loud & overpopulated & male dominated. But it has so much history and culture. Each place we visited was so different from one another. We met some very nice and generous people. But we just saw a small part of the country, you need at least 6 months to visit it all. We want to come back to spend more time in the North and the South. But the next time Miko wants to do it on a bad ass motorcycle.
Well, we thought that we were done with India, but we are still here in Kolkata. Our flight to Bangkok was canceled yesterday. We spent a crazy day at the airport not knowing what to do and what is going on. We went to bed hoping the Bangkok solution will get resolved the next day, only to wake up this morning and hear the Mumbai news... What is going on with the world?!
We decided to go to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow and then to South Thailand (Krabi). We were supposed to meet with Kelly in Bangkok, and she got stuck in Japan. So, hopefully we will meet up with her in Kuala Lumpur this weekend.... Stay tuned.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
We started our tour of Rajasthan in Bikaner, a desert town in the West part of India. The train ride from Haridwar to Bikaner was 14 hours and it went by fast since we were sleeping most of the night.
Bikaner was an interesting experience. A mixed bag especially for Hana. It was so freaking dirty in the Old Town area. We were walking through the streets looking at very old Haveli (houses with beautiful & busy carvings), but Hana could not really enjoy it because she constantly had to look at her feet so she doesn't step into cow shit and garbage. She even saw a kid pooping on his doorstep, just like that, in front of everybody. I am also affected by it, but maybe because I am more curious or "amazed" by the craziness of it all, it does not put me down as much. We need to mention that we arrived in Bikaner right for the biggest holiday of the year: Diwali and most of the garbage and filth on the streets was due to that. Normally they clean the streets in the morning before opening the shops, and on that day everything was closed so nobody bothered cleaning the streets either.
During the Diwali festival (which lasts about a week or maybe a month, hard to tell since it's still going on) which was described to us similar to Christmas, people visit their families, light candles and blow up the entire country with fireworks, day and night. Now, these are not your usual fireworks, the kids blow up firecrackers which are illegal in other countries everywhere on every corner, by your feet when you walk. And everybody tries to show off, the bigger and louder, the better. Imagine this going on in every city in India for several days....
It does sound like a war zone, but it is not.
On our first day in Bikaner, we visited the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnok, 30 km south. It is a temple devoted to rats. It is pretty funky, a little nasty but mostly funny and intriguing. There are hundreds of rats running around your feet. They don't care about people, they are just concerned with the food they are offered. They fight a lot among themselves and so many of them look sick. Maybe because they are old, or according to Hana's theory they have diabetes since they are being fed milk and sweets all the time.
It is considered good luck if the rats run over your feet. But if you see a white rat, that's good karma. Hana got double good karma because she spotted two white rats and another ran over her feet (me too after :)) Her reward materialized in a puking session that evening at a bad restaurant (Lonely Planet recommendation). She had hard time with the heat that day, which created a bad migraine.
But the best part of our visit to Bikaner was meeting Dhirendsa, an Indian police inspector. We met him on the train from Haridwar and had a very nice conversation. He was very curious about us, and us likewise very curious about him. And before arriving in Bikaner he invited us to have lunch at his house and to meet his family and his new born baby girl.
So, the next day we went to his house where his wife, sister in law, mother in law and his 6 year old daughter warmly welcomed us. The women prepared delicious Indian food. And Dhirendsa patiently explained each dish to us and showed us how to eat it. Raita in one bowl, dal in another, rice, seasonal fruit chuttney and palak paneer on the plate, and of course chappati. After we ate sweets, home made potato halwa and gulab yomun. Then we had Indian chai - Miko's latest addiction. Bye, bye coffee. (he still likes cheese though - no worries)
During the lunch, we had a lot of questions for him and he some for us, so the conversation kept flowing. We definitely felt very comfortable with him and learned a lot about Indian culture in those few hours.
The tradition is still very strong here. He was the only one eating at the table with us. The women were in the kitchen. After lunch, he showed us his wedding album. Their marriage was arranged by the parents, which is how most of Indians get married. Even if that idea is strange to us, they look happy and Dhirendsa actually told us that it worked out well for him.
It was interesting to see the photos of the Indian wedding. So colorful. They both looked beautiful in their traditional outfits. Here the bride wears a red sari, and the groom arrives on a horse, dressed in white with a saffron color turban and a sword. All the celebration and the ceremony happens in the house. It seems to be a very serious affair. They were not smiling in the photos, and Hana mentioned it to him. Dhirendsa replied seriously: "Marriage is a serious matter." In our conversation he mentioned that it is still very difficult to get divorced, because here everybody is involved, not only husband and wife, but the entire families, and it is all about saving the honor. Dhirendsa lives in his wife's family house with his mother and sister in law. Like he said, you won't see old people living in the streets here because the family will take care of them no matter what.
Also, the cast system is still effective here. While we were eating lunch, two men were playing music at their door step. Dhirendsa explained to us that they come from a village nearby and play only at his house for every holiday or important occasion (like wedding or birtday). It has been like that for generations and will continue to be. They are from a lower cast - Shudra (laborers), and he is from a higher cast - Kshatriya (warriors). His duty every time they come is to give them money.
Dhirendsa is a very interesting man. He is really respectful of traditions, for example his wife's family has a guru and he respects it but does not believe in it personally. He is hoping for changes in his country and is open to learn about other cultures. One of the reasons he liked us is because of Hana being from Bosnia. He is thinking about applying to get into the UN troops and go on a mission in Bosnia. And because it is not far from Switzerland he really, really, really wants to visit Switzerland one day, just like many other Indians.
Then sadly the time came for us to leave their nice, clean and peaceful house . Hana told me after that she almost cried when she saw Dhirendsa's wife, her sister and mother come out to say goodbye to us. They were so nice to us, and being invited to someones home here is the best thing that could happen.
We left Bikaner on 30th of October and took a train to Jaisalmer. We were the only people in the AC wagon, kind of nice to have some private space.
Few hours after we arrived there, we booked a camel safari with Ganesh Travels for the next morning. Two full days and one night. On the first day, we were in a group of 8 people (t ourists) and 4 camel drivers. It was a very nice international group. A good mix: Luke (Australia) and his girlfriend Keri (UK), Rebecca (Swiss), 2 Belgian girls Marianne and Joke, Greg (US) and Baba (South India). It was fun and exciting to be riding the camels. Not super comfortable but not too bad either. There was something very meditative about it, the slow movement, (sweet) silence all around except the bells on the camel. Hana's camel was very tall and it was called "White Man" because of its color. He did not like walking behind the other camels, always walking on the side, in the front or all the way in the back. He was stubborn and had a will of his own. Just like Hana...
Miko does not remember the name of his camel.
It was very nice to be outside of the cities and enjoy the silence and calm of the desert. We arrived at the sand dunes just in time for the sunset. Later, we sat around a fire, ate dinner, talked and listened to their songs. We slept on the blankets under the open sky, stars everywhere. Beautiful.
The second day we separated from the main group because they were on a 3 day safari and we ended up riding alone with one camel driver. Since it was a small group, we were running a lot on the camels. Miko looked cool in his saddle, slightly bouncing and holding the ropes tight in one hand, while I was trying hard to balance myself. I had one hand in the front and one in the back, and did not even try to control the camel with the ropes. I did not look cool at all.
Because we were alone with our camel driver, we got to talk to him a lot so it became more intimate. While we were sitting in the shade of a tree and he was preparing lunch for us, he told us about his life. He comes from a small village, 85 km away from Jaisalmer. He is Muslim, 25 year old and his wife is 15, they don't have children yet. He works for Ganesh eight months out of a year and then goes back to his village in the summer when they are no tourists for four months. In the meantime, his wife lives with his parents. He is illiterate, never went to school, but speaks fairly good English which he learned working as a camel driver for the past 10 years. What a different life from ours, such a different world. But the camel driver did not complain about it, actually seemed content, relaxed and always singing.
Overall, the camel safari was a fun experience. I learned that camels longevity is about 25 years. They pee and poop while walking and they can also drink water while peeing at the same time. They chew very loud, have bad breath and fart a lot.
After the safari, we spent two more days in Jaisalmer. We stayed inside this amazing fort, which is actually the center of the city. It is several hundred years old and looks beautiful hovering above the city, bathing in the sun light. Jaisalmer is called a gold city because of the color of the fort made out of sandstone.
While traveling in India, we noticed that almost every tourist has the Lonely Planet guide book for India. And like everybody else, we started relying on it heavily. It became our Bible. Before our arrival in Jaisalmer we read in the guide book that there is an issue with the fort and that it is endangered due to the pressure on the city's drainage system, and also thoughtless building, and that the inhabitants are not taking the conservation measures seriously. For those reasons they don't list accommodations inside the fort, so on our first night in Jaisalmer, we stayed in a hotel outside. Then we met a shop owner in the fort who told us the damage the Lonely Planet guide book has caused to many fort inhabitants. Their only income is from tourism during the winter months. So, many people were hungry after the guid e book published and tourists stayed outside the fort. We noticed that the guest houses and restaurants inside the fort were empty and their owners desperate to get us in. We are not sure if the Lonely Planet is right or wrong here but it is definitely scary to realize how much power or persuasion this book has on visitors and how it can affect lives of so many people in these poor places when it is mainly the government's fault if the fort is falling apart.
JODHPUR & UDAIPUR
We took the bus from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur - the blue city. It is called like that because there is an entire neighborhood where the houses are painted blue - indigo blue. It u sed to be the neighborhood where the Brahmins lived (the cast of preachers and teachers). There is also a chemical (forgot which one) in the blue paint which works as a pesticide. So, they mark the house of the Brahmins and keep the termites away.
Jodhpur also has a fort above the city. It is called Meherangarh. We took the audio tour of the fort and it made it a lot more interesting than just walking around and looking. The recording was not boring at all, unlike most of other audio tours, there were interviews of different people, little anecdotes and interesting history. We got a glimpse of what life was like hundred years ago or less in a fort like this where Maharajas lived with all their wives and concubines.
We have not much while in Jodhpur besides visiting the fort, we wondered in the streets and the main market area. Very mellow visit. We tried delicious lassi (butter milk) made with saffron, a specialty here and we kept going back for more.
We also bumped into some people we met back in Bikaner, a nd again in Jaisalmer. A french guy Julian from Bretagne, who has been traveling for the past 7 months and is hoping to go on for another year and a half. We saw him again yesterday in Udaipur and every time we go together for a meal, then say good bye as if we are not going to see each other again, but we always do.
Another interesting traveler we met on our camel safari in Jaisalmer is Baba (grandfather), a retired Ayuverdic medicine doctor who lives in South India and is on vacation just like us. It is really funny to see an old Indian man in traditional clothes, traveling around with the Lonely Planet guide book, and going to all the places that we are going to.
In Jodhpur we spent a nice evening with him. He likes to talk, tell us about history of India and is very informative. His gesture s are very typical Indian with the famous puppet like head wobble. He is also on a spiritual mission. He message to us was to became spiritual and he thinks that is the reason we came to India, that it was not just a coincidence we chose this country.
He tried to explain spirituality to us in a very scientific way, that everything is energy, that we are all One and that the I that most of us identify with is just a creation of the mind.
He suggested a few books to us to read, one of which is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
So, the next day we went to the bookstore and bought it and we also bought Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald. The second book is very fun to read while traveling in India. It really captures everything Westerners experience here for the first time and she does it in a funny way. Miko is reading a book again, yay!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
By the way, bargaining for those books with the female bookshop owner was hard core, but in the end we did well. If there were teaching bargaining classes somewhere, w e would definitely take them. It is a necessary skill here. As soon as they see our white faces, we get the "foreign price" which is sometimes 5 times what the real price would be. And the worst is that sometimes we have no idea how much it should cost. So, the best thing is to always start low or ask around.
During our stay here, we noticed that Indian cows really don't like Miko even though he likes them. In almost every city a cow hit him in a butt with the horns while he was passing by. And lately it's been happening almost every day. I'm so scared of them now, that I avoid them and get out of their way. Indian cows are like arrogant spoiled kids here, they can do what ever they want, all the traffic has to go around them.
We spent the last four days in Udaipur not doing much but enjoying this romantic city by the lake. It is very clean compared to the other cities and very laid back, not as much harassment from the rickshaw drivers and shop owners. Just the kids, who yell: Hello, hello and ask for pens and coins and chocolate and biscuits. But most of them actually just want their photo taken and that's all they can say: "Photo, Photo" or "Which country?" or "Your name?" Usually when I say I'm from Bosnia, I get a blank face and that's the end of conversation. Everywhere people have been telling me that I'm the first Bosnian they met, so we believe that I am the only Bosnian traveling the world.
We are staying here in a cool place called Dream Heaven Guest House. They have a great terrace with a view of the city and the lake. We usually spend our mornings sitting there, reading books, writing and sipping Indian chai.
By the way, Udaipur is also famous because the James Bond movie "Octopussy" was filmed here and they play it in every restaurant and cafe and guest house every night. Now, I know why I didn't like this corny movie the first time I saw it. Udaipur is also famous for its mignature paintings.
So, we leave Udaipur tonight on a sleeper bus to Bundi, a small town in the middle of nowhere.
We have less then three weeks left in India. For us, it's been going by really fast and right now we are enjoying it. We got used to the way things go here and everything seems a lot easier now.
Yesterday, we were badly surprised to find out that the trains are already getting full for our next destinations. So, we had to plan ahead, day by day, the rest of our trip. It sucks. I liked deciding from one day to the next what we were going to do. But these are our biggest problems on the trip so far, and of course the regular bowel movement - very important :)