Month: August 2004

Jodphur – The Blue City

Jodphur – The Blue City

Jodhpur

The Blue City

Another interminably-early morning bus ride took us Jodhpur, home of the pants of the same name, and famed for the blue walls of its hourses, and fantastic fort – Meherangarh, which was described by Kipling as “the creation of angles, fairies, and giants”. It sits formidable atop a 125 foot rock, glowering down on the town below. Like most such forts, it was added onto over hundreds of years by a succession of rulers. It has intricate carvings and decorated walls throughout. One of the most haunting displays is handprints of the 20+ wives of a particular ruler, made on their way out of the city to perform “seti” (throwing themselves onto a burning pyre) as their husband went to find a battle to the death as invaders overtooks the city. [below, center]

  

One of the last great palaces of India was built by the Mahraja of Jodhpur in the 1940s, just as they were relinquishing their royal privileges after independence. There was massive unemployment for the time, and this massive new project was seen as a way to create jobs. The palace still is home to the local majaraja in one wing; the rest of the palace is a very luxiurious and upscale hotel. We went to have a drink there, to experience briefly how the other half lives. The single drink cost about the same as two days worth of food at our budget restaurants- but one had to admit the setting was lovely. The real coup, though, was that Scott stole a big bar of sandalwood soap from the men’s room. Our budget hotels offer miniscule slivers of industrial-smelling soap, hardly enough to get through a single shower. We treasured the large, smooth, sweet-smelling palace soap throughout the rest of the trip.

This was a whistlestop tour for us – just an afternoon to look around the city, then off to our next destination — the middle of nowhere

Next: Bhenswara

Jaisalmer – Fantasy City in the Desert

Jaisalmer – Fantasy City in the Desert

jodphurfort
There was a travel book published recently, that listed the top 1000 sights to see in the world. Most of the top 10 you’d be familiar with, but you probably haven’t heard about #8, Jaisalmer. It’s a city in the far west of Rajasthan, deep in the Thar desert, not far from the Pakistani border. In an expanse of vast emptiness, this amazing golden city/fort rises several hundred feet above the surrounding desert, looking like something out of a fairy tale. It’s just as enchanting inside, with narrow rock paved streets and rock buildings straight from the middle ages. Despite being such a fabulous destination, there are few tourists — it’s far away from everything, with the nearest airport being several hours away. Turn off the main thoroughfare, and it’s easy to imagine yourself in a midieval city somewhere. This was just about everyone’s favorite spot on the tour.

jaisstreet

We went to sunset point to view the fort as the sun set over the desert. We had to pass through a very poor neighborhood, and of course the local kids trailed up the mountain after us, asking for baksheesh. But, as usual, once you showed them their picture on the screen of a digital camera, they were enchanted and competed with one another to get their pictures taken. Far more interesting than the sunset turnout out to be.

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Our hotel was yet another palace, this one belonging to the local majaraja – he kept one wing for himself and his family, the other was now a hotel. For some reason, we weren’t invited over for tea with him – I wonder why?

This time of year is an auspicious time for weddings, it turns out. In Jaiselmer we experienced the first of what was to be many weddings we came across during our travels. It’s hard to miss them – fireworks are lit off, then a huge procession forms, winding through the street to the reception hall. Loudspeakers blaring Hindi music are followed by the groom sitting on a be-spangled horse; followed by the crowds of well-wishers – men in their best turbans, women in gold and sliver edged saris. To the side of the whole procession is a chain of portable flourescent lights carried by young boys; the lights connected by extension cords and plugged into a generator that trails behind on a cart. Given the narrow width of the streets in Jaiselmer, when several hundred wedding go-ers decide to parade down a street, it pretty much envelopes anyone else on the street – and thus we found ourselves quite unexpectedly in the middle of this party. Barely had we survived this unexpected surge when yet a second groom on a second horse, with another mass of celebrants surrounded us. It was great fun! We followed one of them to the reception hall, which was draped in gaudy Christmas-like chaser lights that lit up the building. On reaching the building, a huge round of firecrackers was set off, and the women began a series of dances.

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We all would have liked to stay in Jaiselmer an entire week, but after two days we were off to the “Blue City”, Johdpur

Camel Safari

Camel Safari

Camels

“A horse, designed by a committee”?
Kathy Queen of the Desert
One of the most exotic items on our Rajasthan tour was to be an overnight camel safari through the Thar Desert. What uniqueness! What adventure! What a pain in the ass! (literally). Spending about 6 hours net on camelback: entertaining at first, then tedious, then painful. Similar to riding a horse, the inside of the thighs tend to get bruised; in Scott’s case the blanket over the saddle didn’t cover the back properly, so his upper butt kept slamming into the back of the saddle. Quite… memorable.
We rode a few hours in the sun, had a fried lunch cooked by the camel drivers, napped, back on board for several more hours in the saddle. Not a whole lot to see in the desert, but we did pass some isolated villages and women out gathering dung to use as fuel for the evening’s dinner.
The only real excitement came as we were nearing our camp for the evening.

It’s like… Falling off a Camel

Scott’s ill-fitting saddle had won out by the end of the day. “Sore” hardly covers it. So Scott took a break, walking alongside the caravan. Camels don’t move very fast, so this is no big deal. And it was nice to get off the this love-sick camel (see “camel lust” later in this tale) for a while.
The desert is pretty hot (it’s a desert, ok?) so Scott needs some more water and goes up to Kathy (on her mount, top right) gets it and continues walking, behind Kathy’s camel.
As we come to the very end of the trip (where we’ll spend the night), Kathy’s camel gets spooked over something and lurches. Now, Kathy is a trained Equestrienne, so she knows how to handle “emergency” situations — with horses. However, what’s happened, seeming in slow-motion while Scott watches… Kathy’s entire saddle, with Kathy on it, shifts almost 90 degrees to the right. In other words, Kathy, and Kathy’s saddle, are now parallel to the ground. Kathy is about to fall about 6′ from the side of a camel. It is at once (for Scott) terrifying and hilarious, watching this unfold from 30′ away and being unable to do anything at all about it. It was like slow motion action scenes in the movies.

Saved by the dune!

Unlike most of the day, the “trail” here is largely soft sand, and there are dunes to the side. Recall that Kathy is horizontal, clinging for her life on the side of a camel. No dummy, her feet were not locked in the stirrups like so many gringos’ (Scott for example) would be. So she’s prepared to fall, and that’s just what she does (she’s practiced this move more than once on horseback). This saga all continues to unfold in seeming “slow-mo”; seconds become tens; Kathy descends towards the earth.
But we’re right at the edge of a dune. Her fall is into soft, dry, sand. Couldn’t ask for a better cushion. She’s unscathed from the fall. Until…

Camel Feet: well designed

There are many things one does not want to be stepped on with (oops, bad grammer: “there are many things, to be stepped on with, unwanted”). Soccer cleats, horses hooves to name but two. But you could do worse than to be stepped on by a camel, an event which followed immediately after Kathy’s fall.
Camel’s feet are quite large, perhaps a foot (no pun intended) wide and essentially round, and more like a pad than the massive toe-nail which is a horse’s hoof. They’re optimized for walking in conditions like sand. So when Kathy hits the dune, and the camel basically steps on her chest. Jenny the trip leader has visions of a helicopter medi-vac. Kathy gets up, brushes off the sand, and pronounces herself fine. All those years of falling off horses have taurght her well. She’s got a bruise and a small scratch — but both are assuaged by doting and sympathy — and a quantity of beer. Jenny the trip leader seems much more traumatized by the whole affair than Kathy.
Kathy really lucked out on this… she could have been seriously hurt — but life entails a certain amount of risk.
We had a beautiful site to spend the night in the desert (this is where one of few group photos comes from). First came the beer (brought cold, in jeeps, to this “remote, isolated” desert location. The camel drivers now turned into chefs and cooked us a fabulous feast over the campfire (and a propane stove). This was inevitably followed by singing songs around the campfire. The chefs now morphed into folk singers, and sang some excellent Rajasthani desert ballads. Having forgotten all our camping trip songs, we countered with pop songs we could recall – Janis Joplin, Yellow Submarine, that sort of thing. Not exactly campfire material.
Being cloudless (it is a desert after all) and in the middle of nowhere, the stars were fabulous. Among the many talents (it turns out) of “John the Elder“, is a compelling knowledge of the legends of the night sky. Guy is really handy to have around!
Finally we piled in under the quilts provided (lots of them – it was still *cold* at night) and fell asleep around the waning campfire.

Next: Jaiselmer

Rajasthan Havelis

Rajasthan Havelis

2/4 – 2/7/04 Shekawati Region

We boarded a late evening sleeper train from Delhi, heading into small-town northern Rajasthan. We toasted the start of our journey with a bottle of India’s finest red wine (Australia and South Africa needn’t fear their wine markets), and had a pleasant overnite journey in our 2nd class, 2-tier compartment. trainwine We dashed off the train about 6am at a podunk station, the last of us having to jump off as the train was gathering speed out of the station. First stop was at an eco-resort just for an excellent breakfast and a few urgent calls of nature. It was the last time we would feel clean for the next 3 weeks.

After breakfast, we plunged into the back corners and alleys of our little town. This was our first taste of rural India, and it was an eye-opener for a lot of people on our tour: Sand paths instead of paved roads, an old central well that has been replaced by a community water supply; open sewers carry all nature of waste through canals in the streets. Watch your step. sandvillageroad

We’d toured here to see the havelis. Haveli is the Hindi word referring to palatial (both in size and opulence) buildings — complexes — of staggering size and remarkable beauty. These are remnants of the time when local traders made their fortunes, mainly during the 1700s and 1800s. They are especially noted for their elaborate paintings (cenotaphs) and/or carvings that adorn almost all available surfaces. Entire extended families lived in these buildings, and competition ensued between havelis for the most rooms, the most opulence. It is remarkable how elaborate (and expensive) these buildings must have been. Elaborate cenotaph murals adorn many of the haveli walls . The most entertaining of these were sort of “word of mouth” “news” of the west; a painting would be made based one a visitor’s description of something as yet-unseen in India — a motorcar for example. Typically, Western people would be represented in caricature — prominent noses; elongated or bloated bodies.

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Many of these havelis have fallen into disrepair, the families having lost their wealth and ability to maintain the structures. Others have been chosen as World Heritage Sites, and are being slowly restored to their previous grandeur. Several however, have opened their doors to Tourists (and their money), allowing us to  experience — sort of — the magnificence of these places, and imagine how they once would have held families and their complete entourages.Quite a number have been made into hotels, and Intrepid made a point of booking us into these whenever possible..

Later than day, we moved onto Mandawa, a larger town where we stayed in a semi-restored haveli hotel and got used to life in small town India. As fascinating as the havelis were, it was even more interesting to wander through streets that seldom saw tourists, visiting the local markets and observing day-to-day life in a place that’s very different from where you and I grew up. Being in the Thar Desert, the prefered form of local transport was the pack camel, which were ubiquitous (along with the cows). Tiny little shops lined the street, often with the craftsman performing his trade when not serving customers – tailors using foot-pedaled sewing machines, a cobbler cutting out camel-skin soles, a bangle-maker setting stones in a bracelet. There were colorful vegetables, spices, and grains for sale.

Intercity buses hurdled themselves through the town at high speed, scattering people and camels in their wake. Tribal women from the countryside, with their brightly colored and spangled saris, were about town, picking up staples and a few more bangles. We were far less harassed here than in Delhi, with the exception of the adorably cute street urchins, who followed us everywhere we went, and seemed to be looking for attention more than baksheesh (“share the wealth”). From Bikaner, we headed out for one of the most exotic parts of a tour, an overnite camel safari into the Thar Desert.

Fellow Travelers

Fellow Travelers

Tour Members

The group was a bit smaller than the max of 12, with a total of 10 passengers + our Guide/Facilitator (front, left). Interestingly, all of them were taking this tour as part of a longer, multi-month trek. I guess unless you’re a serious traveler, you don’t take three week bus trips through rural India. A very interesting group of people, meeting them was one of the best parts of the trip.


Jordan & Janice: 30 year olds who are taking a year off to backpack around the world.. Good for them! He’s an ER doc at a public hospital in the Bronx; when he returns he’ll have the same job at Cook County Hospital in Chicago (yes, same as the TV show “ER”). She’s a fashion designer, her last job was for Ann Taylor Inc. Both are compulsive world travelers, especially Jordan (who does volunteer doc work in interesting places around the world) Great stories of their travels and of life in the ER. You can read about their trip at www.travelpod.com, under traveler name “jmo”.


Ravi: a late-20s med school graduate who is taking some time off before doing his residency. Born & raised in the US, with Indian immigrant parents. This is his first time visiting India other than staying with family. To everyone’s amusement, locals assume he is our guide, and try to cut deals with him to win our business. Ravi doesn’t speak Hindi, but is game for the deal-making nonetheless (sharing the kickbacks). He’s spending a couple of months touring India, ending up visiting family in South India the last few weeks — where he will have “introductions” to possible brides – his family has been advertising.


John “the Elder”: An Irish Barrister (lawyer) turned Software Engineer in his mid-30s, bright and witty. Had a job offer in Australia from friends, so he quit his job, gave up his flat, and set out to reach Australia via India. The job offer in Australia has since disappeared, but he’s sticking to his guns, hopeful of finding a different position when he arrives. Another compulsive world traveller, you can read about this and previous adventures at www.heldencrow.com.. A wonderful story teller and entertainer (and an excellent writer!), and knows some facts even more arcane than some than even Scott can come up with.


John & Holly — 19 and 18 years old, respectively. Taking six or seven months off to see the world during their “gap year” (after high school, before college). India was the first leg of their trip. Unlike the other hardened travelers on the trip, I’m not sure if they knew what they were getting into, but they gamely figured it out as they went along, relying on familar junk food and chocolate when things got tough. I never would have been brave enough to do it at their age. I can’t think of a better life experience for someone of that age, then to get out and see the real world like this.


Andrea: An entirely likable late 30s single gal, she got fed up with the stressful corporate life in London and quit her job, moving back to her mom’s in Yorkshire before setting off on a round-the-world trip by herself. Not sure what she’ll do next, but it won’t be the rat race. A wonderful person, we’ve convinced her to stop by and stay with us when she gets to our part of the world in May.


Athena: An unlikely candidate for this trip, she’s been staying with our friend Asha in Delhi, and decided to come along when she heard about it from us. A long-time US State Dept employee in Paris, she moved back to the US a couple years ago, just in time to help in building the communications strategy for the explaining the Iraqi invasion. This was an extremely stressful job (especially since she didn’t agree with most of it) and she finally decided she had to quit or go crazy. They convinced her to take a sabbatical, and she’s spending six months in India, staying with Asha when not touring other parts of the country. The most experienced “India hand” among us travelers (being in India since November), she taught us how to bargain hard and how to check for quality.


Jenny: Our tour gude, 23, idealistic yet wise; has an unflappable, get-things-done attitude which makes her very effective. I have no idea how she can be so poised at her age. Has led trips throughout China and India for Intrepid.

 And then, there’s us. The Group Elders.

And so we set out on the first leg of our journey, the Shekawati region of Northern Rajasthan.

Intrepid Travel with Intrepid Travel

Intrepid Travel with Intrepid Travel


We virtually always travel on our own, not with a tour group. We did Vietnam and Cambodia and Indonesia by ourselves. But even we were not up to striking off on our own across India. At the same time, the last thing we wanted to do was find a standard tour group, paying inflated prices and eating dinner at dumbed-down tourist buffets watching kitchy “culture shows”. A friend we met on our ref: /Travel/Asia/Cruises/Zaandamcruise0403/index.html cruise last year introduced us to a third alternative – a company called Intrepid Travel – that is best described as an organized backpackers trip. They have great itineraries, with all the spots you want to see. They arrange for local-style transportation — buses, rickshaws, trains — inexpensive, and culturally interesting. They find interesting, inexpensive guest houses to stay at. They arrange for local guides where appropriate. Then they leave you alone to eat where you want, and do what you want, when you want. It takes all the hassle out of travelling, while still leaving you lots of freedom. And it is surprisingly inexpensive. So, we signed up for Intrepid’s 22 day “Rajasthan Adventure” tour, and set off with eight other travelers and a guide. To see the description and dossier, visit their site and plug in “RSH” for the tour code.

The tour: the term “Intrepid” fits. We were concerned (and potentially dreading) some of what the tour contained: (dirty, crowded, uncomfortable) public buses, shoddy hotels, “everybody gets sick” (this last turned out to be basically true). But with some exceptions, the time on public transport passed quickly, and we all lived to tell the tales. The guest houses were generally restored former palaces and upscale havelis (trader’s mansions) and entirely acceptable. This style of travel brought us much closer to local people and economy. It is sometimes difficult to gauge peoples’ genuine intentions here; are they “interested” because they want to sell you something, or is this basic person-person kindness? Sometimes we insulate ourselves because we don’t want to get hurt — unfortunate because we don’t learn anything that way.
Traveling with Intrepid has also given us more confidence about inexpensive 3rd world travel. We tend to travel inexpensively but well, taking relatively few risks but getting fewer rewards as a result. The trip doesn’t make me yearn for the interaction of a public bus, but does pique my curiousity and makes it more likely I would risk a “bad” interaction in exchange for the probability of a good one.

Next time, we’ll have the skills to see India on our own – but will travel with Intrepid again when the going gets tough (Uzbekistan, anyone?)
One great benefit of traveling with Intrepid is the fellow travelers on the journey – you can meet them here.

Next: Our Traveling Companions

Hello, Delhi

Hello, Delhi

What have we gotten ourselves into?

Getting There is Half the Fun

We bid adieu to our friends the Nichols-Henrys in Chiang Mai and packed for our trip to India. We wanted to be sure we made the connection so we decided to change to an earlier Chiang Mai-Bangkok flight, only to find out we don’t actually have any reservations from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.. We’ve got tickets, the tickets say “OK” (i.e. confirmed not waitlisted) — but it seems that the travel agency neglected to provide the airlines with a ticket number, so as far as Thai Airways goes, we were never ticketed — so we don’t exist. We had paper tickets and they were quite surprised to hear that — once I rattled off the ticket numbers to them, they appreciated that it indeed was not our fault our ticket numbers hadn’t been entered into their system — except perhaps to the extent that we chose a lame Travel Agency. And, being the end of a holiday weekend, all the flights were completely booked until rather late in the afternoon, putting our connection at risk.
But, not to worry, we made it standby on an early connection, and arrived at Delhi Airport after a short 4.5 hour flight. . We get through Immigration (which has improved since Scott was last to Delhi), then waited for our luggage. And waited, and waited. No bags. We start scanning the airport horizon for the “Lost Luggage” claims office, in anticipation of having to spend an hour or three there… when we spot a sign that says “Star Alliance Priority”. Our bags had been removed from the belt, and important travelers that we are, was waiting patiently for us — and might well have been for the 3/4ths of an hour we’d been looking for the bags.

A Quick Introduction to Life in India

The airport is only mildly crazy, and we’ve both seen this kind of madness before (taxi, Boss? transport?). Our guidebook has recommended a specific spot to get a prepaid taxi, we finally find it and get into a painlessly-short queue. People try to cut into line but Scott’s seen this before and is not bashful about body-blocking the perpetrators. None succeed.
We get our taxi’s plate number (that’s how you find out who you’re going with — they give you the license plate). Helpful boys are nearby to hoist our luggage the 3′ it needs to go from the ground to the back of the taxi — but each one wants to get paid for this “service” (which we didn’t ask for). One gets some spare change, the others stern looks. We didn’t ask you for help, and we didn’t offer to pay you. Welcome to India.
The driver has the address of our first “tour” hotel. It’s a neighborhood north of New Delhi (more on the “New Delhi / Old Delhi” thing later), nearby but not in the backpackers’ part of New Delhi (where rooms — and life — are cheap). We’re looking for a place called the “Good Times” hotel, in this Karol Bagh district.
The first inclination that this is going to be… entertaining… is the driver says “Karol Bagh… very big”. Now, we’re traveling on a prepaid taxi fare, so it is not in the driver’s best interest to feign not being able to find the place. He gets paid when we leave the taxi — and we ain’t leaving till we see a sign that says “Good Times Hotel”. So maybe he really doesn’t know where we’re going. Well, after quite a number of stops to ask direction, we get there eventually; turns out that taxi drivers in Delhi lack the navigational skills of those in say, London. To put it mildly.
We wouldn’t exactly call theGood Times hotel charming – servicable would be the kindest description we could muster. Dingy, uncomfortably thin beds, moth balls in all the drains, 15 watt bulbs — think $20 motel in rural Alabama. But, the staff was friendly & it was a place to lay our heads. The flight from Bangkok to Delhi was short, but after that ticket hassle in Chiang Mai, Customs, baggage, Immigration, taxi, money change, an hour of taxi-driving that could curl your hair… it’d been a long day. But we were to know many long days. But first, we had some people to meet along the way (old friends and new), and a couple of days to explore the sites — and sights — of Delhi. (Ironically, on our return to Delhi after the Rajasthan Adventure, we were very appreciative of the many comforts and conveniences of the Good TImes – seriously)

It’s Nice Having Friends in the Right Places

Without going into the (interesting but verbose) details, Kathy had met Asha Pant… at a funeral in Boston. “We’re headed for India in a few weeks”, Kathy says. “We live in Delhi, you must come visit”, says Asha. So we do. Asha and her husband, who winter in Delhi and summer in Boston, are lovely hosts, infinitely helpful and patient with our neophyte ways in Delhi. Shortly after our arrival, we were invited to a party in our honor where we were introduced to a fascinating circle of friends and relatives; Scott was not at his health-best at that point (“Delhi belly”, its called) so he had a little trouble being outgoing and cheery with the crowd (“Just let me go somewhere and die” was his prevailing thought). Kathy did interact with a lot of interesting people; it was a but more difficult for Scott. Nonetheless a great start.
One of the party-attendees was Athena. Athena is a long-time friend of Asha’s from shared days in Paris. Athena is having her mid-career crises having recently left a position with the US State Department in Washington.. She’s been in Delhi, staying with Asha for a couple of months, so she too is a Delhi veteran and this proves both useful and entertaining as we go about our ways in Delhi.

Tea with Nigel, Thali with Hirendra

Athena has connections everywhere and one of them happened to be an older gentleman, Nigel. Nigel worked the British High Counsel in Delhi until he retired a few years ago and started giving tours to people referred by the High Commission. He has been a Delhi resident since the 1940s, and as you might imagine, was able to offer a unique perspective. He took us all around Old Delhi and New, giving the “British view” of the myraid events that have taken place between the English colonization of India, to the present independent countries of India and what is now Pakistan.
The tour included:

  • A visit to Matahma Gandi’s residence (there had very recently been a commeration, so it was particularly festive)
  • Wandering through Chadni Chowk, the market of Old Delhi. That’s a story in itself… for a later time.
  • Traditional Indian funeral pyre. Hindu custom calls for a dead person to be cremated soon after death — and this is performed at outdoor locations around the city. Doing our best to be unobtrusive (no pictures, for example), we visited on and observed the rituals
  • A lovely lunch at a venerable old hotel (Oberoi Maiden)
  • Visited a Sikh temple, and the spot where King George proclaimed that a “New Delhi” would be built (“but, what shall we call it?”)

Rajasthani or Gujurati?

Scott had been do India perhaps a half dozen times, each time in the kind care of Hirendra Gupta, who was Ascend/Lucent’s Sales Manager for India at the time. A competent, successful, perpetually-upbeat guy, Hirendra is always a delight to be with. Not your typical Sales Manager (not to pick on anyone in particular). Kathy had also met him and family, at a distributor get-together in Thailand. We really wanted to see him outside a normal business context. We exchanged emails and moved dates back and forth, but ultimately connected. The two of us, Hirendra and his wife got together in our Karol Bagh neighborhood, and had an excellent traditional thali dinner. Thali is a set meal which comes in a large, flat-bottomed, stainless steel bowl in which are placed multiple small courses. We got the choice of thali in the styles of the Indian states of Rajasthan, or Gujurati. We took one of each and “compared notes”.

This is no time to be a member of the “Clean Plate Club”

One of the traditions for thali meals, is they’re “all you can eat”. An Indian tradition in general, we found, was that visitors are encouraged to eat… and eat… and eat. Indians are wonderful, gracious hosts and food is an intrinsic part of friendship. The rub is, when you’re trained from childhood to “finish everthing” (“there are children starving in…”), and as soon as you finish something the Waiter comes and gives you more… well let’s say we didn’t lose any weight in India!

Preparing for the Intrepid Tour

We knew from reading the Intrepid literature, that we’d been needing to hoist our own luggage around — on and off buses and trains, in and out of hotels. Since there were more than a dozen stops along the way, we wanted to minimize what we took on the trip. Asha gracefully agreed to keep our un-needed stuff; we pared down to one carry-on-sized backpack each, plus a rucksack each. It was great to be rid of our surplus “stuff” — including the PC Scott’s using to write this website (that’s why the content is less contemporaneous than in past trips).
Around 6pm on the evening before the tour, we met our Guide, Jenny, and the people who were to become our fellow-travelers and ultimately, our friends. We’d already met Ref: /Travel/Asia/Thailand/ThaiIndia-0104/Delhi.html#Athena” (at Asha’s party) and that night we met the other seven new mates.
We got the basic “rules and regulations”, and as the tour unfolded we received short descriptions of each site and maps (which usually weren’t that great). The first day of the tour covered ground we’d already seen, so we did some other touring and had a relatively simple day in Delhi.

Next: A Little Background on our Tour

Bangkok with Friends

Bangkok with Friends

Plains, Taxis, Trains, Scorpions, Siilors
Showing friends around an exotic town is a major kick.


We met the dynamic trio Barbara, Harold and William, at the Business Class lounge at Narita (Tokyo) airport. We’d taken different routes from Boston; we via San Francisco, they Chicago — a longer flight (which Scott prefers) but it wasn’t available at the time we booked. We’re tired, didn’t sleep especially well on the flights; they’re tired but buzzed with excitement — magnified by son William, who is ready to rock and roll. William’s almost always ready to rock and roll…
We need to wait a couple of hours before the Bangkok flight; Scott and Harold make use of the shower facilities. Scott says “Makes me feel like a new man… if only I had a non-stinking shirt to change into afterwards”. Note to self.
OK so now we’re in Bangkok. Let the games begin! Its around midnight and Bangkok’s airport is relatively quiet (I have seen other airports quiet, when flying at odd hours. Bangkok is not one of them). We debate how we’ll manage to get 2 taxis (’cause we’re not all going to fit in one, with our luggage) to the same hotel — none of us know exactly where the hotel is. We get into a mercifully-short taxi rank, bypassing the touts who want to take you in their “special” taxi (unlicensed) and charge 3 times the going rate. If you use the “official” taxi queue, you agree to pay an extra B50 (about $1.25) — in exchange for the taxi driver actually agreeing to use the meter in the taxi. What a concept.

The hotel is located along a major thoroughfare (Sukhumvit Road) and while it would seem trivial to get to the place, it is in just the wrong location. Maybe that’s why its cheap (it’s a lovely hotel, tho, once you get to it). The two taxis go to the nearest corner — the hotel is actually about mid-block — and they pull off at that corner. It’s a gas station or a 7-11. After 30 hours travel, it’s all a bit hazy; the cruel fact is we’re now going to have to schlep our luggage through Bangkok’s streets (ok technically just through a street-market area, and not all that far) so that we can get to the damn hotel, so we can get some SLEEP.
Barbara has been to Bangkok once before, Kathy a few times, Scott dozens. But for William and Harold, this is a totally new experience, and they experience it wide-eyed and with gusto. I’ve learned only after the fact, that Harold tends to be conservative about new experiences that are so foreign (most folks would be); it is a great compliment to hear that he felt comfortable just “going for it”, because of my comfort level.

Highlights:

  • Chinatown — where Chinese New Year was in full swing
  • Snake Farm — cobras milked for their venom (its run by the Red Cross), William enjoys all aspects of the snakes. Barbara… fewer.
  • Bugs — the boys chow down on some deep fried critters. Later, deep fried scorpions are acquired for William’s demanding palette, but they’re thought too old to be fresh enough to eat. Pity.
  • Travel Agent — we head for a travel agency to book some simple tickets. No problem, cept they neglect to tell the airline that they’ve sold us tickets. We have no reservation. We can get from Bangkok to Delhi… but we can’t get to Bangkok
  • Chiang Mai — we visit the new Heifer Thailand headquarters, have lunch and conversation with the staff. And we bought a cow (just seemed like the thing to do at the time).
8 Weeks in Thailand and India – Summer 2004

8 Weeks in Thailand and India – Summer 2004

Center map
Traffic
Bicycling
Transit

Our Much Revised Plan to Avoid Winter

New Zealand, Here We Come (not)

We had actually meant to, been planning to, go to New Zealand. Kathy had bought all the guidebooks & mapped out itineraries. But, when we tried to book flights, there weren’t any available via Frequent Flyer points. We tried all the different airlines, all the different alliance partners, all the different routings, willing to fly to Australia as well as NZ.. Nothing was available – we could get a flight out in mid-January, but there was no way to get back before June. The only way to get home sooner was to call a couple times every day, in hopes that someone might have just given up a seat. That meant going one by one through each day, all routings, checking for availability (you would think computers could be used for all this, wouldn’t you?)

By November, Scott was despairing, certain that we would be stuck in another arctic New Hampshire winter. Just as he was becoming despondent just at the thought, Kathy pulled out the world globe one evening and said “Well, let’s just go somewhere else”. We spun the globe looking for interesting places we have always wanted to visit, and could reasonably be expected to soak up two months worth of traveling. It couldn’t be too hot (that left out most of the southern hemisphere, where it was summer), or too cold (most of the northern hemisphere). And there was India, where the temperature would be just right, practically Goldilocks-ian. A place that had long been on our travel “to do” list, but we had kept putting off because it has a reputation for being a difficult place to travel in.

Omens suggested this was the right decision. Kathy found it cheaper to fly to India via Bangkok, letting us split our vacation between difficult India and well-known, comfortable Thailand. Friends Barbara Nichols & Harold Henry, and their son Will, were planning time there that would coincide with ours. We had just that spring met an interesting couple, Denise and Sharon, from Victoria B.C., who had told us about a tour company, Intrepid Travel, that provided low-cost, close-to-the-ground travel (the way we prefer to go). And they had a fabulous tour of Rajasthan available, for less than $50/day per person – including hotels, transportion, guides. Then Kathy happened to meet a charming Indian woman, Asha Pant, who had lived with her husband in the US for 20 years, but who had just starting spending the winters in Delhi. “We’re headed for India in this winter”, Kathy says. “We live in Delhi, you must come visit.”, says Asha.

So, the plans were set: leaving mid-January for a week in Thailand with the Nichols-Henry’s; Delhi to visit Asha, 22 days touring Rjasthan with Intrepid, a side trip to Varanase (a famous religious city), then back to Thailand to do some beach time, and visit parts of the country we hadn’t seen before, back home in late March when (hopefully) winter will be over.