Thursday, December 31, 2009

Perth, Australia

Culture Shock, Perth Australia

Australians don't go to university or for that matter to kindergarten. Indeed, many do go to “uni” having one assumes, graduated from “kindi” ie. kindergarten. Then there is “teli” short for television, "breki" for breakfast, and Ozis cook not so holy slabs meat on the "barbi" while keeping beer cool in the “eski”. No less a personage than the country's Prime Minister, on national teli, expressed his approval of the end of a short postal strike, and like politicians everywhere, took credit for Australians receiving their “Chrisi” mail on time. I have yet to figure out the booming common greeting “hellaw mate” from all the rugby player wannabes; while, the young attractive female shopkeepers always call me “sir”?

Leaving linguistic particularities aside, I still can't get used to drinking water from the tap, nearly chocking every time I make the mistake of not reaching for bottled water when I wash my teeth or look to quench a thirst, as the thermometer is groping towards 40 degrees.

Then there is the issue of driving. Perthians actually stop as the light turns amber, requiring me to break in order not to rear end the offending driver in front.. At night, the combinations of bewildering over head lights on the road and brake-lights, turn signals and lit street signs, and the myriad of colourful dials on the dashboard,  all make for a psychedelic experience, a major serious  distraction making the actual act of driving difficult, and bring back a longing for the various degrees of dark  silhouettes without signalling or rear lights, that move at nights in India.

We recently had the unnerving experience of taking a taxi for a local trip and my blood pressure jumped to dangerous highs as the driver in an authoritative voice, with a thick Australian accent, commanded us to fasten seatbelts before he would move an inch forward. It also did not help that he braked vigorously at each anticipated, largely non-existent blemish on the road surface and strained to see traffic in adjacent lanes and actually signalled when changing lanes, all the while looking at his three dimensional GPS, listening to disco music on the radio, leading me to wonder how he could actually drive the car, and not simply lean on the horn, inch the nose of the car in the front of the other and just simply keep going?

Its also telling of my difficult adjustment is that during the last 10 days, I have yet to take a photograph. Not that there are no opportunities for a keen observer: the sky is a brilliant blue; the carefully cut and reticulated grass is truly bright green and the houses, a soft palate of pleasant pastels, all well manicured and the CBD even has a number of well-designed silvery glass towers that would feel at home in most American cities. But somehow everything seems so picture perfect and who wants to go home with gigabytes of digital images worthy of postcards?

Absent are the juxtapositions, that element of the unexpected, such as the surprise of seeing women in shimmering saris of reds and yellows, covered from nose to toes, set against the bleached background of the desert. Not that the women, especially the ones I have seen in supermarkets, exposed from cheek to cheek, wearing what I think of as slinky daytime nighties, with no visible straps and remarkably no other forms of support and yet somehow manage to cover some of the bare essentials, are not alluring. Indeed, they lend some support to the notion that more can be more. Still, something is missing and its perhaps my own lack of nerve to smile, point the camera wait for a sign of approval and then, and only then with consent, take their photograph. Perhaps I should carry a sign explaining that I am a post doctoral cultural anthropologist from India, analysing western women's dresses or perhaps a student of bio-structural engineering, specialising in the study of support mechanisms for summer frocks?

Then there is the issue of sticker shock as the price of bananas jumped from about 50 cents a kilo by a factor of eight. Also, they are sold in carefully wrapped plastic bags, each of uniform size and weighing exactly 750 gms and not in bunches and weighed on mechanical scales, with two pans, with an extra piece being thrown on to make sure that the  kilo weight is properly tipped. Not to mention the big smile of thanks and that look of interest, as I strap the bunch of bananas on the top of my panniers.

Eating out can also traumatise an unsuspecting diner. For example, the freshly made thali, the all you can eat complete meal on the road in India that cost about a buck is now $20 and the fine dining print carefully explains that the price includes three choices and a few breads, but that each extra chipati, which on the road came in unlimited quantities are priced at two for five dollars, enough to make one choke on his curry. Then there is the perfectly ordinary cup of coffee for four dollars, versus the ten cents chai. Notwithstanding the prices, there are not too many people starving in Australia, unlike the expression many a parent used on their children urging them to eat while citing the conditions in India.

In India, poverty was often evident and the discrepancies within India and between Australian lives is often apparent, and at times hard to ignore and deal with emotionally. Not that our societies are devoid of marginalised groups. Australia has the aboriginals, the short form of the word being politically highly incorrect, and there is the plight of the Native North American Indian, or the Canadian First Nations People, or whatever the politically correct nomenclature is for indigenous people, we cannot hide the fact that our societies have their downtrodden.

Then there were the tents. In the desert, we stayed in a fairly modest, locally operated campground in tents with all the amenities of a hotel. They stood in contrast to images of tent settlements made mostly of tattered blue tarps and bits of plastic, cardboard, sheet metal, or whatever was available, to provide some shelter with kids running around semi-naked, and where the “amenities” are an outdoor fire and buckets of water to drink and bath in, are evident on the fringes of most towns and villages, are a vivid contrast that’s hard to shake. In Australia the only visible tents are on the beaches to hide from the sun and to keep the eskis and beer properly chilled.

In contrast to the crowd of curious who would take any opportunity to feel our hard pumped bicycle tires in India, rings our bells, attempt to wear our helmets, etc. the Perth locals seem totally oblivious to us as they pass with mild looks of disdain. Our heavy duty touring bikes do not compare to their ultra-light, carbon fibre, state of the art Dura Ace component racers, hence we are no match for their speed and agility, as they fly past us on the well paved, wide bicycle paths that are everywhere in the city.

Then there is the issue of the Chrisi season, and seeing people wearing Santi outfits while the malls fill the chilled air with sounds of  Jingle Bells, riding a one horse open sleigh, while outdoors the thermometer is near 40 degrees.

But who is complaining: I am getting used to not shovelling snow, not putting layers upon layers of clothes to go outdoors, not popping vitamin D tablets but receiving the truly natural source; the beer and wines are first class; the beaches of spotless white sand go on for miles, and I am even getting used to the uniformly boring weather forecasts, always described as “fine”, meaning another in a series of cloudless, sunny days and only the temperature varying of few degrees.

Please pass the sun cream.



Ps. This being the last day of the year and indeed the decade, ten years since we thought that the world as we know it may come to an end if you recall all the scary stuff about Y2K?

Today I read an obituary of Anne Mustoe, whom I had never heard of before, who at an unfit age of  54, gave up her job as an English school mistress and decided to travel the world, alone on a bicycle. Hers is an inspirational message about our self-imposed limitations. I look forward to reading her books and following in her bicycle tracks next year. 

I wish all a happy and healthy New Year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

From Australia

Perth, Australia, December 20, 2009

Leaving Pushkar was not easy since we had spent four days essentially resting, if you exclude all the walking and climbing stairs to eat in restaurants to see the view; the feeling of community and comfort from having attended the Chanukah celebrations at Chabad and being not quite confident that I will be able to ride the 12kms over a short but quite steep mountain pass to reach Ajmer, where hopefully the by now, three broken spokes would be repaired.

As much as I loved the spicy food in India, after nearly six weeks, it was a delight to have some different western food, pasta being one that as I cyclist I particularly enjoyed. Then on day two of we discovered the Honey Dew CafĂ© and Restaurant, a few feet from our guesthouse. The eatery has about 6 feet of frontage and perhaps a depth of 10 feet with three long and narrow tables and is run by two brothers from early morning to late at night and they serve food with genuine care and love, including real, European style espresso, the kind that percolates from the bottom to the top of an aluminium coffee maker. As much as I am a caffeine addict, and refused until this discovery the instant variety, I had overcome my addiction by having only marsala chai. Chai is not only an institution but a near art form as each person making it has his own recipe, but what is consistent is that nearly always its made with ginger, black pepper and cardamom, plus some other spices, freshly pounded in a mortar and with boiled milk, sugar and water, and the first tasting by the maker is done with a bit of ceremony and the end result served in one or two ounce cups, often made of earthenware, which is disposed after a single use.  At a cost of about 10 cents for a larger cup it’s a quick energy booster and since one does not have to make the myriad of pseudo choices about the type of milk, coffee type, foam, temperature etc. that is the boon of North American coffee houses, and given that chai is always served extremely hot and in tiny amounts, one can truly concentrate on subtle spices in the brew, that vary with each maker.

The Shabbat meal at Chabad was memorable since it was the first night of Chanukah, after lighting outdoors an eight feet high chanukiah, filled with real oil, they served delicious sufganiot, Israeli doughnuts, which I last had when I did some volunteer work on an Israeli army base a few years ago. After this filling starter, there was a full meal of Challah, (the water variety since all of Pushkar is vegan and eggs are not used) salads, vegetables, and rice etc. all with a fusion of Indian and Israeli spices, all served communal style, and just when I thought I could not eat any more, they served a hearty soup of beans, lentils, potatoes, vegetables to end the meal, which in India in an ultar orthodox setting, seamed fitting since we started with a desert.

The bike held up for the short but challenging ride and we checked into the first stylish looking hotel, emboldened by the fact that they were setting up for an evening wedding, which suggested that if its good enough for the locals, it would be fine for us. Several bike shops just smiled at my plight and urged as to visit another a few blocks away. Finally, someone was confident enough to suggest that I remove the rear wheel and on closer inspection suggested that replacing the spokes would be no problem. As it turn out that it was a problem since they did not have the right spokes, nor the tool to remove my free-wheel. Undaunted, the mechanic explained to his assistant to hand a shorter spoke on one of the unbroken spoke, which he did and with a truing stand, and using only his thumb, he effected a repair and an hour later having paid the bill of about one dollar, we were back to our hotel and made plans to continue our journey the following day.

Ajmer’s highlight was the Red, or more commonly known, Golden temple which contains a room, made entirely of 500 kg of gold, depicting the Jain concept of the ancient world. Quite a spectacular diorama, made especially enjoyable by a “volunteer” guide, who is the sixth generation of painter for the temple, who took great pains to point out his own handiwork on the spectacularly painted ceilings and the gold sculptures that filled a huge, two-storey space. Not unexpectedly, he offered to show us his own miniature paintings, all the while reassuring us that there was no pressure to buy, at wholesale prices,  “free to look” etc. but as always under such circumstances, we politely declined and parted on good terms.

The hotel was comfortable as many of the guests were staying there and we might have anticipated that the celebrations, which we joined and at which we were warmly welcomed would be not only boisterous but also quite prolonged. The groom arrived on his white horse, and of course there was the usual fireworks, the ceremony, the endless music and also the large number of eating opportunities. Although the music ended around midnight, what we did not count on was the ongoing chatter of guests who refused to leave and the noises made by a large crew, that disassembled most of the props and set up for another wedding the next day, working until about three a.m. in the morning and in doing so, given our room overlooked the area, kept our sleep to a minimum.

The next day, on my newly repaired rear wheel we headed towards the pink city of Jaipur, an anticipated two-day ride, with a stop in Dudu, about halfway.  The ride itself was not very noteworthy, other than the fact that we were now on National Highway 8, a limited access highway with two or three lanes in each direction, and a paved shoulder most of the time. Riding on a North American expressway would not be thought of  as a welcoming choice, but in India that traffic is relatively modest, the vehicles move relatively slowly and since the terrain was nearly flat, the riding was fairly effortless, until we discovered that limited access, divided highway does not preclude cars and trucks driving on the slow lane in the opposite direction and they being substantially larger than our own two wheeled vehicles, claimed the shoulder or the slow lane, which we yielded to them.

After riding about 30kms and fortunately for us, right before a fine restaurant and what we would call a highway motel, my rear tire went flat and even before removing the tyre I had anticipated the problem. Two spokes had broken through the rim tape and punctured the inner tube. I used copious quantities of duct and black electrician’s tape to cover the offending, protruding spokes and after a delicious lunch we were on our way to Dudu, where a number of people assured us that there were several places to stay. On arrival in Dudu, I consulted an English speaking tour guide who advised that we go back about a half a kilometre, cross the divided highway at an opening, and that we, like many locals ride against the traffic for about a kilometre, and turn right for our night’s lodging. Following his clear instructions, we arrived at a cross road under the expressway to discover there was a very vibrant outdoor market and repeated inquiries confirmed, that I was indeed in Dudu, but there was nowhere to stay. Finally, someone suggested that we use a service road, and go back the opposite side of the road and that there we will find a guesthouse. Indeed, after more inquiries a well dressed young man on a motor bike took us to a place, which had no sign in English and a very nondescript one in Hindi, and from the outside did not look like a guesthouse, which elicited a response from Alison, confirming that I was indeed in Dudu. Luckily, behind the front building, which consisted of closed-up shops for rent, with roll up doors, there was a two storey structure which had rooms for rent, which being the best, and only place in town, I thought was quite acceptable, the room being quite large, hot water on demand but failed to take full notice of the crumbling paint and plaster on one of the walls which elicited some discussion!  After a shower and some tea, we proceeded to explore the small village to find it to be a great delight since many of the local folk may have never or rarely seen a foreigner, as evidenced by the fact that when they noticed I was taking photographs, they approached us and asked that I take their pictures, many in colourful turbans or wearing elaborate jewellery, which I would then show them and this would cause even more excitement and approving smiles.

The ride into Jaipur, a large bustling city which always posses a bit of a challenge, always poses a bit of a challenge on two wheels, turned out be almost routine, since I decided to follow the advice of the Lonely Planet Guide book and head towards their top pick, which was very close to our route. As I might have anticipated, other than an expensive, closet sized room with a shared bathroom a floor below, they were fully booked. Fortunately, across the street there was a good hotel catering largely to Indian businessmen, and we got a very reasonably priced room on the top floor, with a large terrace so we had a comfortable stay for two nights.

Since we were not within walking distance of the old city, we took a ride in a rickshaw, which confirmed that it was indeed a very hectic and polluted place and it being a large city, the merchants and beggars are equally persistent in trying to separate one from their monies. Perhaps we were become a bit jaded, but the Pink City Palace paled in comparison to some of the others we had seen earlier on our trip and pink might have been better described as terracotta.

We were also distracted by how to get to Delhi, our point of departure for Australia. Knowing the challenges of mega cities and the mobs at bus and train stations we decided to hire a van to take our two bikes and us directly to Delhi Airport on the day of our flight which was around 11 o’clock in the evening. The manager of our hotel spoke passable English but every step of our arrangement became involved.  Having earlier spotted the make and model of a van that would be large enough, he then confirmed that he had one available, and that for about a $100, for a distance of nearly 300kms, double the cost of a bus to Delhi and a taxi to the airport, he had a car for us. I told him I wanted to see the car. The hotel manager, about an hour later pointed to a car, belonging to another guest as the type we wanted. I insisted that I meet the driver and the car, and a good thing too, since the van was an older model and the rear seat did not fold down. After some protracted discussions that our bikes would be fine on the roof, the driver agreed that he would remove the seat and put the seat on the roof. Of course, he arrived the appointed morning the seat firmly in place and only after some further discussion did he remove the bolts and move the seat sideways, which allowed the bikes to travel upright, and Alison to sit quite comfortable on the rear seat.

We had barely left town, when we stopped in front of a jewellery shop, a standard practice of all drivers and a firm NO was reluctantly accepted. Then despite the limited ability of the driver to speak English, he was very capable of conveying that for an extra 500 rupees he would show us a fort, just a few kilometres off our route. Fortunately, as part of the bargain, we included a stop at the Amber Fort, another very imposing structure; built high on a hill and surrounded by a wide and deep moat, now dry. Of course he asked for an extra 50 rupees for parking but perhaps got the message that we were not typical tourists, when to his surprise we told him we would walk up the hill, rather than take an expensive elephant ride to reach the main entrance of the fort.

The fort itself, started in 1592, is truly magnificent, not only because of its size, the grandeur of its palace, but it lives up to the pink image that I had anticipated in Jaipur, and as such made a fitting final place to visit in India.

Arriving at the airport was uneventful, other than the several hours we had to wait for our flight as I did not want to drive in the dark, and that our plane was about an hour late. After sleeping for a few hours, we landed in Kuala Lumpur and had just enough time to get re-energized by a massive coffee from Starbucks.

On landing in Perth, we waited until all of the bags we delivered to discover that our bikes were officially lost. Perhaps as a fitting finale, our driver was from Punjab, who in the height of the local rush hour traffic took all the side roads available, accelerated and braked vigorously between starts and stops, and used every amber light as a challenge to get to the other side, proving that there is a bit of India in neat, orderly and clean, Australia.

Namaste and happy holidays,

Ps  the bikes were delivered the following morning. Thanks to Richard of who over the weekend built a new rear wheel using a Mavic A719 rim,  and Swiss, double butted spokes with brass nipples, the combo Richard reassures me is indestructible wheel; my hope is that it survive the baggage handlers and the rest of our journey through Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.


Friday, December 11, 2009

from Pushkar, December 11

The first time I ever heard of Pushkar was in the context of its famous camel fair, mentioned in one of those “100 things to do before you die” books. Alas, the spectacular camel fair which another well travelled friend and a cyclist friend Ron J. actually attended, this year was held a few days before we landed, what seems like a life time ago in Mumbai. While the ride here was more than challenging which I will come to in a bit, the effort was well worth it, since the town has a magic quality of its own with it  famous lake 54 ghats, a prominent Hindu pilgrimage place, some 400 sky blue temples and a host of services to cater to pilgrims and visitors, all designed to accommodate the peak of the fair, such that our $100 room, with a commanding view of the entire ghat and the surrounding hills around it, is going for only 10% of its peak price. The mix of pilgrims and tourists has a dialectic that seems somehow to work. The main drags are full of colourful shops and ta few restaurants, the latter I was told used to be on the main level but due to higher rents have been consigned mostly to rooftops all promising the best Italian, Indian, Isralian, European food with a view.

The presence of Israelis is very evident as everywhere  as signs in Hebrew entice the visitor to buy or eat in their native language. As well, seeing a woman, modestly dressed, who turned out to be the Rabbi's wife, with a man with a black skullcap alerted us to the fact that there is a Chabbad house here, which in turn caused us to extend our stay here by one day, so as to celebrate Hanukkah and Sabbath on Friday night.. Unfortunately, we also discovered that one of the American/Pakistani terrorists, Headly, was staying in a hotel across from Chabbad House for a month, clearly planning an attack perhaps in conjunction with the one in Mumbia last November, and as a results there are now armed army men behind sandbags guarding this place of worship.

Leaving Bikaner we had an easy 30km ride to Deshnok and it's according to Lonely Planet “extraordinary” Karni Mata Temple, infested with rats. Infested is a pejorative term since the temple is know for and is famous for it holy rodents, rats to be more specific, who run around the temple constantly feeding from giant bowls filled with milk and devouring the blessed food that is given to them by the pilgrims. The rats are supposed to be incarnations of Kani Mata story tellers and as such this makes for a good story and a cute sight, as the rats appear to be clean and obviously well fed and looked after.

About 30kms down the road, at Nokah, we arrived in a noisy, dusty railroad town and after some effort to communicate, we found a teacher visiting the local pharmacy, who understood our plight and took us nearly by the hand to the one and only place in town to stay the night. Unfortunately, even at the asking price of about two dollars for 24 hours, the place was not worth considering, so we explored the options. The train left in the evening, the bus seemed too chaotic so we decided to ride the remaining 60 kms to Nagaur, where we were certain of having more suitable accommodation. After a very full lunch, for the first time I felt a bit ill but recovered sufficiently to complete the longest day's ride of 120kms, only glancing in passing at the town's fort and happy to be ensconced in a fine quality hotel for the night. I was also energized by the anticipation of recording adding another 1,000kms to the old odometer.

The next day's ride of 80kms also was challenging since we encountered headwinds and I was still not feeling a 100% the whole day.  Our destination “Merta City” did not quite live up to its billing being but a very dusty cross-roads village, but once again there was a modest hotel with friendly service and the one restaurant in town served good food, of which I did not take much.

 The next day, about 25kms from Pushkar, I heard that unmistakeable metalized click, which every experience cyclist knows is the sound of trouble. Usually, a bike is smooth, near zen like experience with man and machine working together and the only sound is that of the gliding chain and whatever the ambient noise happens to be. Even before getting off the bike, I knew the problem and had been anticipating it since leaving Mumbai, where the rear wheel had been badly bent and trued by a local bike mechanic. During the entire ride, I took extra precautions to avoid the smallest of bumps, and to stand in the saddle to decrease the weight on the rear, whenever bumps were unavoidable. (As an aside it should be noted that virtually all the roads, while at times full of crazy traffic, are well paved and quite smooth). Over the nearly three weeks of our ride, I would also re-true the wheel on a frequent bases as it had a continuous tendency to return to its bent shape that it acquired during the transatlantic flight.

I soon found the broken spoke on the freewheel side and to my dismay, found another. Since the spare spokes that I always carry, were somehow lost, also in transit, any hope of meaningful repair was gone. However,  we were so close to our intended destination, I did another major truing job so that the wheel did not touch the break pads or the frame.  We arrived safely in Pushkar., having completed over 1,100 kms in about three weeks, in my case, on 72 minus two broken spokes.

The next day, we visited all three bike shops in town none of which would even attempt a repair, as all the locals ride 26” versus my 700c or metric sized bike. Perhaps in Ajmer, only 12kms from here, they might be able to help. So, the plan is to ride to Jaipur or in the alternative, we will go directly to Delhi, and spend a couple of days there. But as always, plans are subject to change.

We have spent the last few days relaxing, strolling around this quaint laid back holy Hindu town, staying at a small guest house with a balcony overlooking the ghats.  We are awakened at dawn by the chantings of priests, pilgrims bathing in the holy waters, incense wafting through the air surely an act of piety as the mornings are now quite cool, about 10 degrees and even thought the lake has been totally drained to be cleaned, even the washing ghats are of questionable clarity. As the sun rises through our open door the rays fill the room as we lie in bed. We go for breakfast of chai and toast or rice pudding and the town starts to hum with women in brightly coloured saris, school children in neat uniforms, vendors opening stalls selling shawls and jewellery,  hippy clothing and leather sandals, as Pushkar is filled with hippies, both young and old, with dreadlocks and tie died clothing carrying the mandatory colourful cotton bags with tiny round mirrors..  The temples are fascinating – some built in the 15the century, and we stroll around, careful to remove shoes and dress modestly.   The streets are narrow just like in medieval European cities, but here we  have the ubiquitous cows   Another striking difference is the number of very cute monkeys which hang out on our roof top and directly in front of our balcony.  We get to see the monkey show from time to time as they groom each other and jump about.  Oh, and the last difference is that in Europe, you do not see camels walking along the streets pulling loads of produce.

Today we joined in a wedding procession where the dowry was paraded through the streets before the guests,  who followed several push carts laden with a Samsung fridge, Sony Bravia TV, water purifier, clothes, jewels, food and one cart full cash, stacks of 100 rupee notes, neatly displayed and proudly paraded. The three day wedding is winding up (we have had drummers and other musicians playing loudly outside the brides home,  for the last two nights a warm up celebration before the main event – and her home is opposite our guest house, so we have had loud drumming, clarinets and tubas serenading us.

This seems to be the wedding season here for after dinner, we came across yet another wedding procession, this one obviously one the way to the actual ceremony. At the head of the procession was a New Orleans style marching band play a cross between jazz and arabesque at an octave that will invited the dead. Behind, the family and guests dancing to the rhythms. After all the guests, two white horses, fully dressed in glittering garb pulling a giant silver carriage, carrying the groom in full regalia and about six young boys, also dressed for the ceremony. Behind the carriage a diesel generator and then a single white horse, again dressed in gleaming covers. The generator and two long lines of electric wires on either side of the assembled fires about two dozen electric lanterns with coloured light that glitter in the dark narrow streets of this medieval like town. Like a good procession it moves slowly stopping frequently for another jig, the music becoming more fervent as time goes on and as the traffic of motorbike and cars still try to move in both directions, and all the merchandise from both sides of the street, and the throng of pedestrians, all compete for space. We follow and in effect participate in this parade for more than an hour and cover about for or six city blocks to arrive at the sight of the ceremony and giant courtyard which has been decorated for the purpose.

The groom moves from the carriage to the horse and at the entrance to the main hall which is decorated to the hilt full of guests anticipating the arrival of the groom, there is more dancing...first all the women dance and then all the men with the groom also dancing around on the horse in a pretty confined space, it not being clear that this was part of the plan or a way to keep the horse from bolting but he seems happy and confident enough to even wave his ceremonial bronze sword at the people gathered around.all the while being showered by rose pedals and other confetti as well as the occasional small coin being tossed his way. The men also wave bills of 10 and 20 rupee notes as a way of a salutation and blessing towards the groom, and after their intended purpose, one of the horse's handlers gently but firmly takes the blessed notes from the celebrating individual and promptly deposits it his own pocket. After the groom dismounts and makes his grand entrance into the hall, filled with food and drink stations of every description, one of the supporting cast members, scours the grounds and amongst the dirt, dust and rose pedals he collects a small handful of coins which with a great smile he proudly displays to one of his friends.

This morning, life has come full circle. The same band, but men wearing dark blue blazers and black ties, instead of red jackets, playing slightly more somber jazz-like music,  precede a group of women, a few in black saris, two of them carrying earthen urns, containing ashes, on the way to a funeral. The procession moves slowly, dignified, people en-route and members of the funeral procession wave small notes towards the deceased and one of the band member collects the notes.


Saturday, December 05, 2009

From Bikaner

There were about a dozen or so camps with luxury tents built on stone platforms and all the amenities of a hotel room. The first one I approached was catering to tour groups and after starting at 3500 rupees and ending at 1500 we still had misgivings, since it was on the edge of the dunes and the prospect of sharing the sunset with another tour group and attending a musical and dancing session of local folk art, just did not appeal.

So we went native with one of the local operators, where for 800 rupees we got a tent and all the fixings, lunch, dinner and breakfast although it was not quite luxury. There was no electricity, and the food was what the staff was eating but it enhanced the experience and the sun-set and moonrise were spectacular, albeit we had to share the dunes with lots of tourist and traveling musicians and dancers but that’s all part of the carnival atmosphere that one expects in a popular tourist spot. For future reference who plan to follow our tracks be sure to negotiate carefully since we were told that our 800 rupees included only one camel and that the second one would cost 150. The ride in the dunes was fine for a few minutes but after that I was more than happy to lay back and enjoy the view.

Negotiating here is an art that I am still developing and will have to wait another day for a fuller description

We and more importantly the bikes survived the 6.5 hour bus ride from Jaiselmer, although  I was concerned given that they, the bikes that is, were simply placed on the roof of a regular bus, after being told they would ride inside the cargo area, in the pitch dark of the dawn at 6 am. However, as the bus made the local rounds, after several stops they were tied down without any supervision from me which I would have preferred to make sure they were securely secured and not in a position to be damaged.

The ride was quite comfortable, although quite chilly for the first couple of hours when the sun came up and we watched how in two hours the bus covered what was for us two days of some of the best riding in the solitude of the desert. Perhaps the only note of discomfort was that non of the places where the bus stopped had official washrooms, so I followed the local practice of using grounds that become designated by ones olfactory senses. This practice is quite wide spread wherever crowds of people gather, including the open sewer gutters of the front gate of Jaiselmer's fort. Women have to be more imaginative and perhaps this explains why they wear skirts.

Arriving in Bikaner, at the outside wall of the fort, the biggest challenge was to fight off all the rickshaw drivers that had the best deals for hotels in town while assembling the bikes in the early afternoon sun, with the earlier noted problems that fort walls suffer from, which in this case was the only place the bikes could lean against while I changed clothes and mounted the panniers. One the drivers saw we had our own transport and were going to find a hotel on our own, they become very friendly, helped take the bikes off the bus, provided directions and watched with some amazement as we left for the local tourist office which happens frequently be in the state run hotel, which often serves some of the best food, since they cater to locals.

Bikaner is quite a delight, not only for its dramatically painted Jain temple from the 1500 and a fort from the same era, but from the point of view that its largely a very active trading center and tourists are few and far between, and as such we can enjoy the local sites, watch kids play and giggle in the streets without constantly being the center of attention of merchants or people wanting “one pen” or “one rupee” which is often the case in the more touristic towns.

The food is also exceptional here because it has not been modified for the tasteless buds of foreign visitors. The lack of tourists was evident during the tour of the fort, where we were a very small part of a group of mostly Hindi speakers with the guide using English for us and another couple.

Tomorrow, we head south and sadly, we are starting to count the remaining days.


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

from Jaisalmer

Continuing the theme of why this trip is different than all our other trips, most of our other trips routes  have been planned in considerable detail based on available information on places to stay that are reasonable distances apart, sights to see, road conditions and the experience of other cyclists who have done part or most of our intended itineraries.  Having done considerable research before leaving for India I was impressed by the few accounts of other cyclists who have cycled in Rajasthan, and those that I read were either very sketchy, with frequent uses of trains and buses or dwelt extensively about the hazards of the roads, with one posting photos almost exclusively of truck and car crashes.  While I like the idea of cycling between a pair of cities, as we have done between Bangkok and Singapore, Hanoi and Saigon, etc. I knew that this trip would evolve based on our own on the ground experiences and input as we traveled and spoke with locals..

Mumbai to Delhi was the initial thought, then Udaipur to Delhi and at this point its only the section Udaipur to Jaisalmer that is a certainty and how we will get to Delhi is yet to be determined. The seed of the idea of riding to Jaisalmer was first planted by Andrew T. an experienced traveler friend from.the JCC. The seedling grew as it was subsequently reaffirmed by several others en-route, despite the fact that this region has apparently not had had any rain in three years, and camel feed costing about 25 rupees a .kilo, which translates to about $10 per day per camel. Jaisalmer is described as an important trade center that rises magically from the desert, a captivating description as a destination, but what made it appealing, despite the fact that its the opposite direction Delhi, was that it is very remote, about 60kms from the Pakistani border and being a small town, the roads would be quiet and places few and far between, which given some of the frenetic paced traffic of the days before, would be a refreshing change.

Leaving Jodhpur even in the relative tranquility of the early morning traffic, on arrival in Mandore, only some 10kms to the north, we were very quickly transported to another place and time. Mandore was the capital of the Marwars, before Jodhpur, and as such it has some relics dating back to the 14th century. However, what Mandor is known for mostly is its gardens that contain the cenotaphs of the rulers of Jodhpur from the 1700's. The monuments are made of dark-red sandstone, have intricately carved columns supporting three story structures a fitting testament to the rulers they commemorate. Perhaps not quite as noble as the gesture of 64 queens and concubines who committed sati in 1724 on the death of their ruler.

From Mandore, we headed to Osiyan, our nights stay, on roads which were through a desiccated landscape and the road becoming more narrow such that in places it was a single lane which meant giving way to trucks, albeit they were few and far between. A few kilometers from town a young man in flowing bright red tunic and white jodhpurs, identified himself as the priest of the Hindu temple and the nephew of the priest of the Jain temple, who is prominently mentioned in the Lonely Planet. At first a bit suspicious, we followed his lead and to the only place to eat in town, where we had a delicious tali with a large group of locals and then proceeded to meet Prakash Bhanu Sharma, the priest of the Hindu temple who runs the pilgrim temple, a free school for 200 kids as well as the only guesthouse in town. Upon further discussions, there is little that he does not run. He owns 25 camels and organizes camel tours, including one that is now taking place to Pushkar over a period of 9 days, which he supplies with food on the way each day. He also has jeep tours, owns a general store and if you are interested in a stone carving that he made himself or by one of his student that too is available, and of course travel and ticketing etc.

The room is quite comfortable and large with two picture windows, a roof top terrace, a detached washroom and all the hot water one cares to heat using a giant electric emersion coil that no self-respecting CSA official would approve, that you insert into a metal bucket and in a few minutes a gallon of hot water is ready, if you are careful not to get burned or electrocuted in the  process.

The Jain temple is magnificent and dates from the 14th century and we meet up with its priest from the road who gives us a detailed guided tour and posed for a dramatic photo as part of the bargain.

For dinner, we are back to the same little restaurant where several local families are eating and a huge bull is constantly poking his nose in, no doubt looking for a handout. The tali is a complete India meal that consists of two or three vegetable dishes, roti, a yogurt, and chutney, and the intention is to keep offering food until one is completely full, ending with rice as the last filler. Its a fixed price  eat till you drop meal that cost in local places, slightly less than a dollar.

Prices for most things vary a great deal, depending on the clientele being served. In the upmarket hotels each dish can cost two to three dollars and meal for two, eight to ten bucks or four to five times as much as in a place the locals eat. While the setting might be fancier the food is also has been watered down to a common denominator of the tourists tastes, which usually means bland with little or no spices. Needless to say if given the choice, and often we don't have much of a choice, we eat where the locals do and are loving it.

In terms of accommodations, again its a case of there being either no choice at all, as in the guesthouse described above, or the fancy modern hotel near the fort a Kumbargahr or more typically in a haveli, a former palace or fort of a local prince, whose place has been converted into a hotel facility. We have also twice stayed in a chain of hotels run by the Rajastan government, which to our surprise and delight have been clean and comfortable and as a bonus, serve food catering to mostly Indian tourists at local prices.

As I am writing these notes in the small desert town off Pokaran, watched a glorious sunset and since  we met the cook (as well as the 10 or so other staff members, as we are the only guests in the establishment)  we had an opportunity to discuss the dinner he will cook for us, while I continue to type in the dark, enjoying the soothing sound of the wind as there is an almost complete silence  and the cooling temperature and the brilliant moon and stars that appeared almost immediately after sunset.

And speaking of temperatures, it has been almost perfect for cycling. In the morning, there is a slight chill in the air, as the temperature dips to about 15 degrees and rises to the low 30s in the late afternoon. But since there is virtually no humidity and the air appears to be cool, the riding is very comfortable especially in the desert where the terrain is nearly flat and we have even enjoyed some tailwinds from the east.

The desert is mostly reddish sand  with patches of green shrubs and as I found in the prairies, less is often more where each small item looms larger, whether its a herd of goats, a few camels, a group of thatched huts (which according to Alison are like the ones in Africa) or a speeding buck racing away just as I am about to photograph it. Most welcome are the signs indicating a settlement on average 15kms away, often with a huge cell tower visible for many kilometers ahead only to discover that the settlement in often but a cross-road with a small truck stop with metal frames with webbing used by the truckers to rest, and most welcome for us serving tiny cups of masala chai, hot, sweet and with freshly ground spices; always a much appreciated energy booster and an opportunity to meet the curious gazes and questions of the locals.

From Osiyan we headed further west to Khichan, where in a man-made lake for the last 150 yrs the locals have been feeding about 7,000 demoiselle cranes that winter here having flown over the Himalayas from Siberia.  The sight of these elegant bluish/purple birds, essentially in the middle of nowhere was quite striking.

Our next overnight stop was Phalodi that reached its zenith in the 18th century when trading in salt allowed local businessmen to build beautiful havelis, or small palaces or mansions, again of red sandstone, all elaborately carved and of exquisite design.. Alas, the town is crumbling, as is its 15th century fort, and walking through it is in part like a set for an Indiana Jones movie, at times like an archeological dig interspersed by buildings that have been slightly restored and in a few cases, as in the fully restored hotel we stayed in, well looked after. The whole town has open sewers and narrow streets with overhanging balconies, giving it an exotic middle-ages feel with the usual struggle for space on the narrow roads amongst ever present cows, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and a few daring pedestrians. Only time will tell if this town will follow the fate of its crumbling fort, or that of our hotel which has  modern comforts built into a well preserved historical shell.

The site of one shoe by the side of the road is a common sight in most developing countries where the most common mode of transport is the motorbike and is usually a plastic flip-flop or thong, which one imagines can easily slip of the feet. So it was quite curious that an one point there were hundreds of shoes for several kilometers, often in good condition and obviously in pairs by the side of the road. One hypotheses I advanced that they may have been the spilled cargo of a truck or a burial ground for shoes as part of some strange ritual. Only when we stopped for chai that we learned that the shoes were left by pilgrim who out of reverence walk the last 10 or so kilometers to a temple, commemorating a saint who died in 1458 and who is revered by both Hindus and Muslims by the name of Ramdev Mandir. The temple constructed in the 1930s is a gaudy affair, with a long line of shops selling souvenirs and beggars and countless people seeking donations on the way to the entrance giving it a carnival atmosphere. Once inside, there is again a crush of people showing their devotion with staff urging and at times pushing people to move on to keep the crowds flowing.

After our comfortable stay in the government run hotel in Pokaran, we left early to cover the 110 kms to Jaisalmer. Riding conditions were particularly good as the traffic was minimal and we were on the road immediately after our breakfast at 7a.m. As well the road had become noticeably wider and smoother which is explained by the fact that its close to the Pakistani border and the movement of military convoys is quite evident, as is the signs pointing to artillery ranges and the frequent sounds of explosions in the distance. Pokaran was also the site of the first Indian underground nuclear test in the 1970s and the resulting aftershocks were given as the explanation why some of the stairs in the town's fort had crumbled.

About half way to our intended destination there was a fairly crudely painted sign pointing to Mirvana Nature Resort and Farm about 3kms off the main road. Once again, we followed the sign, not quite knowing if this was a nudist colony, and later day hippie colony having difficulty spelling  Nirvana, to discover a luxury resort with a swimming pool, lots of luxury tents and ultramodenrcottage style accommodations made to look like African huts.. After some very judicious bargaining we have once again living in a hut.. And as anticipated, late afternoon a busload of German tourists arrived which broke the silence of the oasis but by that time we already had too much time in the sun lounging at the pool.

December 1 Jaiselmer

From about 5kms from town, it became obvious why we came to this town in the Thar desert, as the fort with its golden yellow hews shimmered in the mid-day sun, looming large over the horizon. Its only when we entered the fort's main gates, the fort being from the 1150's did we fully appreciate that this is not only a magical historical edifice, in gleaming yellow sandstone, reminiscent of Jerusalem, but also a living museum, as about 15,000 people live within the fort and life carries out for some as if time had stood still for centuries and at the same time there is as one might expect a very vibrant commerce catering to the tourists, with all kinds of clothes, general merchandise, souvenirs and restaurants, as well as the usual throng of vehicles, pedestrians and cows competing for space, as if one were in the middle of a five ring circus, not quite knowing where to look but always keeping an eye on the ground, which is of cobbled stone of dubious smoothness with an abundance of droppings and other hazards.  The totality is at time like the crescendo, especially when a motorbike or rickshaw  fights for room and signals its intentions with the shrillest sound possible and at times, sitting on the endless rooftop restaurants offering unobstructed views of the city and beyond, its as is we were in a totally secluded spot..

Tomorrow, we will head towards the sand dunes of Sam or Saim, and after much back and forth, given that neither the trains nor buses have schedules that permit leaving and arriving in daylight, we have chosen to go to Bikaner, another city in the desert, not exactly inline with Delhi, but it will allow us to ride to the famous camel trading town of Pushkar, and perhaps to Jaipur, before we will have to make our way to Delhi and leave for Australia on Decmber 16th.

Happy journeys

ps still having problems loading photos...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Updates from Jodhpur

Udaipur to Kumbhalgarh

Little more than 24 hours ago, with energies waning, we wondered about the wisdom of riding any further, as the road seemed to increase in elevation at each twist and turn, and there seemed to be no end to the short, very steep hills. Having made the earlier decision not to stop for lunch in Rajsamand at around 11 a.m., and eating opportunities virtually nil, it was becoming obvious that we were hitting the proverbial wall, a combination of challenging riding and the lack of caloric input. But by two p.m having covered 20kms of easy riding on a two lane road with even a shoulder, the last 20 kms was a single lane road which was fine for two motorcycles passing, but large trucks, carrying massive cubes of marble, to be sliced and polished closer to town, required the entire road surface, which meant getting off onto the gravel shoulders in a hurry.

Just as we were nearing our limits, and having no plan B, since the traffic dwindled to an occasional car or motorcycle, and no sign of habitation in what is essentially a rocky desert, with flashes of green along dry riverbeds, as if a mirage, a small cross-roads stop with a couple of vendors was exactly what we needed. Freshly made fragrant chai, served in tiny glasses and dry biscuits were sufficient to allow us to revive and continue to balance of the journey of some 20kms which as good fortune would have it was mostly down hill. We chatted to the locals and photographed women clad in an array of brightly coloured saris, men in intriguing turbans with curled and twirled moustaches and headed towards our destination.

Perhaps it was this sense of euphoria that influenced me to stay at the first hotel we came across, costing a small fortune compared to our usual expenditures on a room, or a large one in local terms, but when you have expanded nearly all your energies, the comforts of an international class, brand new resort, with rooms carved into the hills, with a cascading infinity pool and a commanding view of the hills below, with a small army of staff to carry bags to the room, and a manager who gave us a very generous discount on learning about my aspirations to organize bicycle tours, is as close to perfection as one can aspire.

Our destinations, the fort of Kumbhalgarh is only four kms from where we are staying, and we decided to spend the day here and enjoy two nights in luxury which gave us nearly a half day to explore the fort itself. Even from the distance, the long winding walls of the fort are evident, and they stretch a distance of 36 kms which apparently is the second longest fortification after the Great Wall of China. The first close view of the fortification can only be described as WOW, fantastic and breathtaking. Situated on a hill at about 3300 feet above sea level, constructed in the 15th century, its like something surreal, and might be a creation of Walt Disney Studios. The walls and ramparts cover the hill and turrets like giant chess pieces shaped like rooks, (no wonder chess was invented in India), against the brilliant blue skies is truly magical. On entering the main gate, it becomes clear that this is a massive settlement, with temples and a series of fortifications within, with spiraling walls and a series of massive gates designed to withstand the forces of elephants, leads one to the top where the royal quarters have the proverbial breathtaking view.

I write about the last day since its freshest in memory but each day is filled with the wonders of the sights and people of India, one as uniquely memorable as the other.

In Udaipur, we decided to walk to Saheliyon-Ki-Bari, an ornamental garden, which one could find in Versailles, built in 1710 for 48 women who were part of the retinue of a princess. This oasis in the hustle and bustle with its flowing fountains is one that was well appreciated.

From the gardens, a rickshaw took us to Ahar, where a security guard opened the entrance to an earily quiet cemetery, at least there were no signs of anyone else, especially tourists, where for the last 350 years, all of the maharajas and princess were cremated, and their lives, commemorated, according to their status, in 250 cenotaphs each an elegant testimony to the person who's life its designed to celebrate. Each is covered with a large white dome, (with a couple of exceptions where the estae ran out of money to complete the monument) supported on intricately carved columns, and they range in size from a one story building like a large a frame to multi-story complexes like mini Acropoli, all densely built against each other. Not since Bagan, Burma, have there been so many monuments in one place, albeit, Ahar is much smaller in scale and the monuments very closely packed, but its impact is equally moving.. Just as were were nearing our solitary walk amongst the monuments, a young man appeared, who as it turns out is the fifth generation descendant of the person who is responsible for the cremations, and he not only gave us a detailed description of the death ceremony, but took time to show us some of the details of each cenotaph, and the history of some of the more significant ones, the largest being for the maharajah who died in 1620.

The road out of Udaipur was eventful only to the extent that the traffic was manageable, and the for a distance of about 20kms it seemed as if was lined solidly, on both sides, by places selling and/or fabricating marble of various colours, ranging from white, black, greens, pinks and browns. The prevalence of marble, and one can only assume that its inexpensive explains why marble seems to be a common construction material on floors, tables, walls even in simple retail kiosks and in the places where we stay.

Eklingji is a temple complex of 108 small shrines, which was started in 734, but the extant part is from the mid 15th century. Its a walled mini-complex of worship and education, each shrine uniquely carved and of various shape and size. As is the custom at each temple, offerings of freshly woven garlands of flower are sold by women at the entrance for the equivalent of about 5 cents and are given as offerings.
I could not help but to smile as I noticed that the offering were collected, and they were discreetly handed to a person through a small opening in an elaborately carved wall made of solid silver, to be rushed to the front of the temple. Clearly, conservation through recycling has a long history.

In Nathdwara, which barely deserved mention in Lonely Planet, we discovered a very vibrant spread out community that draws thousands of pilgrims to its 17th century temple, which is open only for a half hour a few times a day, and the anxious supplicants wait patiently at the entrance, to rush in when open, the crushing sea of humanity is not unlike the pictures of crowds emerging from crowded subway stations in major cities. The chanting and singing is as intense as the desire to enter this place of worship. This temple being off the tourist path, is surrounded by a maze of narrow streets with merchants offering colourful momentos to the locals and blissfully ignoring foreigners like us. While wondering through the narrow streets, a wedding procession lead by a clarinet playing pied piper took us to a colourful ceremony,

In Rajsamand, we enjoyed a similar temple to Nathdwara, as well as the tranquil lake which resulted from a damn being erected by one of the local rulers. The object of worship is a black Krishna image which is housed in the temple built in 1669. The priests treat the black Krishna like a beloved child – bathing it, feeding it, dressing it and waking it from its siesta at 3:30 which is the busiest time to visit.

Tomorrow we head towards the lowland town of Ranakpur, and whatever surprises that lie ahead.

Namaste, which is a common respectful greeting here. As is 'ta ta', which dawned on me is also the name of TATA one of the largest industrial enterprises in India, which I just read now earns 65% of its revenues outside of the country.

The magic and mystery tour continues.

Love and Peace

Kumbhalgarh to Ranakpur

Two nights in the comforts of a luxury hotel, and the benefit of an immense buffet breakfast, the ultimate boon to cyclists, did not seem to be sufficient prelude to tackle the hills as we left in the morning, and in fact it appeared that the hills were getting steeper and longer, not an uplifting way to start the day.

It also did not help that both of us have been fighting minor ailments. Within a week of arrival in Mumbai, I developed a sinus infection, which each day I had hoped, with the help of antihistamines would abate, but with the constant in and out of air-conditioned buildings and buses, the dust and fumes along the road, seems to have gotten progressively worse. Now that we have been in the clean mountain air for a couple of days, I am hoping that I will start to feel better, since I don't need any help of drugs at the end of the day to fall asleep. Alison, has also developed a sore throat and some congestion, but is starting to feel better.

After about 20kms mostly climbing, and arriving at a town not on our maps, it became clear that we have reached a peak, and the road for the next 25kms was like a tightly wound coil with twists and turns, all heading down hill. It was early afternoon when we reached our destination, the famous Jain Temple, called Chaumukha Mandir, built in 1439. On arrival, tired and grimy after a challenging day of riding, we were told that the temple is only open between noon and 5 pm, so with rented lime green pants to cover our legs, we entered the temple to once again be awestruck by magnificence. At the risk of being repetitive, once again the adjectives were insufficient to describe the effect of the temple, built entirely of milk-white marble and a series of soaring domes supported by 1,444 columns, non of which is alike had on us. Each pillar is intricately carved with various human and animal shapes and themes the totality of the effect of which is like any of the major cathedrals of Europe, except that this edifice is older and much more compact and ornate, without the feeling of being kitsch. There are also idols, brass bells and drums and the cool serenity and the simplicity of the structure is truly captivating.

The second,much smaller temple in the complex was equally interesting and provided an appealing backdrop to the main temple. As the day was coming to an end, with sunset around 6 pm, and dark descending quite precipitously, we began a search for the night's accommodation. The first place while very near the temple which I already decided needed a second visit, was too institutional in feel, the second, while highly recommended by Lonely Planet seemed disjointed, and the third, set in a lovely garden with a central eating area looked inviting even from the road. Ours is a huge room with white granite floor framed in emerald greens and the walls painted with elephants and some local scenery. At one fifth of the price of our previous night's stay, its not only appealing but highly affordable. The service once again was impeccable, with four young men competing to carry our gear and one insisting on riding one of the bikes up to our room, which overlooks a small terrace and abuts the garden.

As we are in a valley the vegetation is more abundant and families of monkeys are all around, as are countless birds and parrots of various colours and shapes and to our surprise, numerous peacocks with full plumage. The main road is covered with a canopy of eucalyptus trees and of course there are the ever present cows, bulls and and sunset, herds of them and goats are shepherded home. Altogether a very idyllic setting and we spent the day riding to the nearest settlement and visiting the temple in the morning and evening light. The night sky is brilliant with stars and a skinny mood, with no nearby city lights to dull their effect.

The temperature during the day is in the low 30's but as yet does not feel that hot, since there is a cooling wind, a lingering effect of the cool mornings, which my thermometer indicated was about 12 degrees. As such, its ideal sleeping temperature, with no cooling of a fan or air conditioning required.

Tomorrow we head towards a town called Pali, not on the tourist circuit, but with some input from a very enthusiastic, warm, gracious local businessman who not only drew roads that are not on our map, but suggested places to stay, not only enroute, but in Judpur in a hotel owned by his uncle we are well prepared for our journey over the next few days. In the true spirit of tribal hospitality, he gave us his cell number and urged us to call if we needed any help during our stay and to visit him and family in a few days time when he expects to be home. He also gave us a written introduction to his brother, who is the Deputy Inspector General of Police, of a nearby city, which reads “Mr. Andrew is known to me personally. If they happen to have any need or are in any difficulty, please do the needful....”

Jodphur 1

If there is one overriding impression of India, is that its a constant of contrasts and one can never anticipate how events my change, almost instantly. Perhaps it all began when we were briefed by a Canadian trade official, who described India in similar terms, including the slums that are very much evident in Mumbai, as being pretty bad on the outside, but that they are quite nice on the inside. This statement might be true, but I suspect that this official was never inside the “home” of a slumpdweller, and since I have only cycled past them, its possible that the inside of dwellings made of scrap pieces of metal sheeting, plastic tarps, or cardboard boxes have a simply more attractive on the inside, but not having personally looked at these from the inside, I cannot attest to their state, but can make an educated guess.

We were also told by a number of people, that the government build houses to relocate the slum dwellers, but that the people who lived in the slums, move to the new housing and continue to rent out their slum dwellings. Its also told that some slum dwellers are simply awaiting to be bought out by developers who are about to build gleaming high-rise offices or condos and that some slum dwellers, or the mafia organizers, are paid as much as $300,000 to move and permit such new construction. I can well imagine that some or at least a few have been paid such large sums, but given that 70% of the people in Mumbai live in slums, it would make them incredibly wealthy if all their dwellings were worth such a large sum. So, after a while as a traveler one becomes accustomed to seeing gleaming new buildings next to paper shacks, shinny new cars with chauffeurs in the midst of shoeless pedestrians, modern factories with high security fences and proclaiming the latest ISO standards in the midst of arid agricultural tracts with a farming implement being pulled by hand or an oxen.

Yesterday, we were within about 20 kms of Jodhpur when I earlier described seeing a sign to fort about 9 kms off the main highway. What was not said is that the highway in places had an endless stream of trucks and buses each trying its hardest to pass the other, and relying on the request on their backs to “honk OK” or “please honk” etc. The constant occupation of both lanes of the highway means that as a cyclist, the prudent thing is to get off onto the soft shoulder to avoid the fate of roadkill. After a while, and with constant attention, the skills of avoiding passing traffic coming directly at you, becomes routine and acceptable, and all in good spirits, since each passing vehicle, in both direction gives a celebratory wave, flicked of the headlight and/or smile, wave of the hand and/or a loud blast of its horn as it passes by, as if we have just been inducted into their realm of surviving road warriors.

The contrast that I am pointing to is not so much the expectations of riding in my country, with its own hazards of the road, where cars travel at much higher speeds and cyclists are usually not acknowledged any way, but the side road leading from the main road. This was a one lane affair, with virtually no vehicular traffic at all and the hazards to contend with were herds of cattle, goats and the occasional stray cow, dog or peacock that decides to checkout the foreigner cyclists. The peace and serenity of riding in silence, with people in the fields waving, saying hello is like entering a quiet sanctuary from a battlefield. The riding is effortless and arriving yesterday at the restored fort, converted to a fine hotel just added to the feeling serenity.

Jodhpur, famed for its fortification, that dominates the entire town, built into and on top of its hill in the 1500s, is probably the most chaotic and polluted place on the planet that I have had the displeasure of experiencing. It did not help that arriving around noon, with the blazing sun, checking out the international tourist bureau at the train station that had no useful or otherwise information and that four or five hotels were either full, had room only for one night or were not inviting, such that it took about three hours of fighting heavy traffic, noise and unbelievable pollution, before finally settling on a small hotel, sufficiently removed from the core, to provide some peace and a bit of air to breathe and all along, having had nothing to eat. Then, just before its closing time of 5 pm we decided to inquire at the other tourist office to again experience receiving virtually no useful information, but a couple of good maps and as the sun was starting to set, we were mysteriously drawn by the red sandstone clock-tower in the distance, with its chaotic, vibrant Sadar outdoor market, nourished only by a small packet of roasted peanuts, we walked the streets and only as the sun was setting that we finally settled on a restaurant, nearly 12 hours after breakfast. But such is India, that despite all the commotion and lack of food in our case, it is so captivating that eating somehow becomes secondary to the totality of the experience.

November 25

Jodhpur 2

India continues to amaze and in particular the fortification of Mehrangarh, started in the year 1459, which we first got a glimpse of in the dense smog, yesterday afternoon. Today the air seems to have cleared a bit and approaching the fort from a motorcycle rickshaw, we were immediately struck by the immensity of the edifice, as it grows organically from the rocks on which it was built and the actual scale of the construction only becomes fully apparent, standing in front of its main gate, feeling like a small ant, facing a giant dwelling. The hill is some 400' in height and the sheer wall and the massive fortification, and the intricacies of its construction is truly mesmerizing. The actual battlements are from 20 to 100 feet high and there is a clear view of the 5km winding road leading up to the entrance, putting in perspective how the fort dominates the entire azure blue town below. As if needing a reminder a sign said “to breath the clean air here” in between breaths of awe.
It took over three hours to follow the excellent audio guide through the fort and the palaces of the maharajah above. The fort was never taken in battle and the entire experience transported us to a time when no time, money or energy was spared to build a lasting testament to living in safety, in honour and of course luxury. Words and time prevent a fuller description and perhaps some of the photos to be posted later will capture the experience more fully.

Quick Notes
One obvious and striking feature of riding in Rajasthan, especially through the desert and near desert in the dry season, is the stark contrast between the arid, and often colourless landscape of yellow and browns with a smattering of greens and the brilliantly coloured clothes of the women, who wear saris of reds, pinks, yellows and brown, and are usually adorned by jewels and their head is covered from time to time, and men, with bright red, orange, yellow and white turbans, which are radiant against their faces which often sport long curly mustaches, and flowing white beards.

I passed a bit of a milestone, when my computer turned 65,000 kms a 1000 multiple of my age. It makes me wonder, since I am unlikely to reach the age of 100 how much cycling I will have to do to reach the 100,000 km mark?

A couple of days ago, we passed through the small village of Rohet, which according to our guidebook is where Bruce Chatwin, an eccentric Englishman wrote Songlines, one of my favourite books about the Australian aboriginals and how they have a way of navigating through features on the landscape and recording the oral history through songs. I can imagine that the similarities of the land and its features might have accounted for Chatwin selecting this small village with a converted heritage hotel.


Monday, November 23, 2009

In the desert

I still cannot post updates from my memory stick, but the journey continues and each day is a revelation.

This very brief update comes by way of a cell phone connection and a very sticky key board, but the journey is as exciting and exotic as i could every have imagined.

About 20kms from our intended destination, Joghpur, a small sign said 9kms off the higway is Fort Chanwa Luni, and inquiries from the truck stop where we were having a simple lunch of rice and dahl confirmed that it had rooms available.

A brief phone call confirms that this is ultra luxury with prices to match but my negotiating skills with taxes, meals included, made it affordable.

and what  place it is. As the sign said, its 'a jewel in the desert' a 200 year old pinkish sandstone fort restored with modern facilities, including a swimming pool!

Before this trip I had business cards printed, to indicate the seriousness of my business of bicycle touring, and gave myself the title Chief Explorer and this trip, with decisions taken on the spur of the moment. I am starting to feel, I am living up to my own description.

Wishing you all, your own journeys and exploration,


Monday, November 16, 2009

Mumbai to Udaipur

I fully intended to do an Andrew & India, a la Julie & Julia which I saw and thoroughly enjoyed while flying over the Atlantic or was it the Arabian Sea, the experience of which has now faded into some almost forgotten recess of my memories, since so much has happened and it seems that the alignment of the stars is not auspicious for me to maintain anywhere near a daily journal that I would like.

This morning we woke in Udaipur, and the fact I had to ask Alison whether it was our first or second nights' stay, is just one indication of how consuming the experience of traveling is and the futility of trying to keep the sounds, smells, tastes and the ambiance in focus and then to recall it so it has some coherence on some regular basis.

Perhaps its like all the electronic gear that we are carrying, netbook, cell phone, two cameras with spare batteries, all of which seem to get drained much faster than anticipated such that the logistics of finding enough converters and plugs, and their timing, is a challenge not unlike that of eating, sleeping and finding time for the psychological recharge of ourselves after only a couple of days of being away from Mumbai. As well, the netbook, with only 256mg of RAM and a small memory bank, is processing the experience as slowly as I am given the amount of information that has to be processed and stored.

Not that I am complaining, as I am typing these notes on the roof-top restaurant of our hotel with a commanding view of the city and the eastern walls of the City Palace, the building of which started in the 1559 and which is at 244m the longest palace in Rajasthan. The palace is like a fairy tale castle with turrets, terraces, pavilions, courtyards and endless room, built of mostly marble and decorated with frescoes, tiles and mirrors, as impressive as anything I have seen, and so captivating that we, quite uncharacteristicly hired a guide and then went back on our own in order to try to absorb some of the details on our own. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Perhaps its the contrast between the opulence of the palace and its solitude, that stands in contrast to the the rest of India. Everywhere there is an overflow of energetic activity, organized chaos like a Jackson Pollock painting. The rooftops are of all sizes and shapes and colours not like the blue fringed white buildings one seas overlooking the Mediterranean, or in Obodos, Portugal. But if compensation were needed, there are large curly tailed monkeys jumping from trees to trees to roof and doing their daily grooming.

The roads despite the apparent chaos has its own flow and order. Most cars and truck, three wheels motorcycle rickshaws, have no side view mirrors, which have been folded, broken or taken off, to permit close passing in the heavy trafficked, narrow streets. AS well, many trucks carry “please horn” or “horn ok please” indicating the expectation that the vehicle in the rear, would honk if it intends to pass. Of course, everyone is in a hurry, and the honking rises the more pressing the need on the part of the driver in the back to get ahead.

On arrival at our luxury hotel in Mumbai, dressed in our best cycling and train travel gear, we got some inquisitive looks from the staff, which turned into warm smiles when I produced the receipts for our two bikes and one very large suitcase and a bag. With three hotel staff helping with our gear, we descended to a fairly sheltered and secluded driveway on the side of the hotel, and within an hour, much to the amazement of a large group of onlooking staff, who could only smile and shake their heads in disbelief when we told them of our plans, we were ready to ride. They were clearly appreciative of our plight when I procured a couple of 200 ml bottles of drinking water, as they produced about a dozen similar bottles on their own for us and helped fill our four large water bottles.

Heavily loaded, the bikes felt like unruly horses, which after a few minutes of riding become much more comfortable and the 10km ride to the Bandra Train Terminal seemed nearly effortless. The ride itself was easy; finding the termianl with the “help” of various locals, who seem to point left and indicate right etc. less so, but I had been expecting this, since on the business portion of our trip, with a bus driver, a helper, a representative of the tour company and a native Hindi speaking Canadian businessman on the bus, we were a half an hour late to a well-known landmark building, due to directions such as the building is “just behind” etc.

The train ride from Mumbai was also eventful, not so much for the fairly comfortable sleeping arrangements, with two sleepers above each other, but as always the sites, the people and the food.
A young group of business men and women going on a company environmental effort to plant trees were more than happy to use their English and exchange views on lives etc. wirh us.They renamed us Asha and Anand, hope and happiness respectively. Incidentally, our new names come in handy since it gives us a degree of familiarity with the locals, whenever the question “what's your name” or “where are you from” is used as the opening gambit of a sales pitch or a genuine effort on someone's part to know where we come from.

While there is no official dining facility on the train, at each stop, and there were plenty on this what we thought was a one stop express train, a group of vendors offered drinks, scalding hot chai, iced juices and water and snacks of various types. And once I figured out that the train like an ocean liner gives a loud blast on leaving, and accelerates rather slowly, there were kiosks offering the most fragrant samosas and other similarly fried dough with fillings ranging from aromatic potatoes, lentils, chick peas the names of which escape me and cost the equivalent of 5 to 10 cents each. Only once did the train leave without fanfare but fortunately I was able to hop on the moving platform.

Uncharacteristically again, I had pre-booked three night's accommodations in Udaipur with an international travel agency and again after assembling the bikes, we found, after considerable effort, the right place only to be told that they had no record of our reservations, that the hotel was full and that it was for Indians only. As is the case in most situations, we had at one time four people calling the booking agent when out of the blue a well-dressed young man on a motorbike arrived and told us to follow him to the right hotel some five minutes away. Weary of touts, I am still not a hundred percent certain that we have not been scammed, but the place has most of our requirements: reasonably clean, beds with mattresses, hot water, a European style toilette and even a TV WITH remote, which we have yet to use.

We have also yet to turn on the AC as we slowly buy into the notion that its winter here and if we needed a reminder a couple minutes from our hotel is a seasonal outdoor Tibetan market selling heavy woolens, coats, hats, etc to the clambering locals who can be seen early in the morning and evenings wearing their winter woolen sweaters, jackets, ear muffs in 20 degree weather. During the day it is brilliant sunshine, with temperatures in the low to mid 30's

As hot as it is in the sun, I have now had to move to a cooler shady corner of the restaurant to be near the electric plug to charge the machine and to have my second cup of hot chai to energize me.

As for Udaipur, its a bustling city with narrow curving streets with countless stalls of merchants any unsuspecting tourist could dream of. The town is painted a rainbow of pastels and has the feel of mid-eastern bazaar from the middle-ages, with traffic of cars, motorbikes, buses, bicycles whizzing in each directions, interspersed by cows that amble along like bored shoppers, donkey carts and occasionally a camel rider with fluorescent turban and even an elephant from time to time. The street is where everything takes place:trading, to cows urinating, dogs fornicating, pigeons dropping. The resulting noise, dust and the attending aromas are part of the captivating aura.

From Clark Kent, to cyclist, it now feels as if I am making a minor transformation to Hemingway, but there is far more to experience than the inclination to write, but there will be more including hundreds of photos to be sorted and processed.


But its really the people that make the place. A smile always begets a smile, even from a beggar, and a brief no to a sales-pitch meets with no resistance, and all is well.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

From Mumbai

Why is this trip different from all of the the other trips you might ask as I sit by the open window of a six story building with a commanding view of rooftops and the sea, almost at the southern most tip of Mumbai, as we are experiencing the spray of rain and the cooling effect that comes with it, which is not only what the locals call a post monsoon rain, supposedly an extremely rare event, but a genuine cyclone named Phyan. Perhaps the main message that is continuously being reinforced for me is that one should always expect the unexpected and as a rule this seems often to be the case and that this is a land of surprises as well as one of constant contrasts.
The “business” portion of our trip ended successfully, early this morning and we can now look forward to shortly, getting on our bikes. But as I look back, I am less clear about the future and how and in what direction our travels will take place, as I am acutely aware of being in India.
As an example of what I am stating think of as Indian influences, is that we left our last meeting in Pune at 4 pm anticipating to arrive in Mumbay, after a 25 minute flight to cover 180 kms around 6:30 pm. Due to a plane missing the end of a runway in Mumbai, caused by heavy rains, in this the dry season, our flight did not land until around midnight, to be then told that there were NO taxis available, because of the rain. As it turns out estimates of the driving time would have been between three to six hours to cover the 180 kms, but in India, in hind sight, our more predictable choice to fly, was clearly the wrong bet. Its also worth noting that on a good, dry, sunny day, on relatively uncongested roads, I might have cycled the distance in the 8 hours it took us to fly.
At this point, why is this trip different than all the other trips, is weighing on my mind. On arrival, in our 5 star hotel, two porters carried our bikes to the baggage area, having been transported in style on arrival by porters who could not be dissuaded and on a minibus for 12 to accommodate four people and the two bikes. On the second day, I checked out the bikes, which were in heavy duty plastic bags, to discover that unlike all the other times when we transported them in this manner, my bikes rear wheel in profile looked like a figure eight.
The concierge called several bicycle shops, the first one did not seem to know about metric wheels sizes, so I chose the second, that seemed to understand that I would in all likelihood require a new rim.
I elected to travel by auto rickshaw, to the dismay of the Marriot taxi pool, to the bike shop. The first few drivers would not take me, even though the destination was nearby and I had written directions. As I discovered on my return trip that I do not have the requisite Mumbai accent, and my presumption that the drivers read, was sadly mistaken.
The bike shop made my heart beat, as it consisted of a very narrow store front, off a long dusty driveway, off the main drag, which displayed a dozen or so heavy duty single speed bikes, with an outdoor repair stand. After “explaining” the obvious, I was assured that a repair will be undertaken in about an hour or so's time.

An hour later, flag down a young fellow on a dashing North American racing bike who I soon discovered was the service manager of the local Trek bicycle dealership. I ask him about the availability of rims for my bike, and he tells me that it would be a special order needing about a week to ten days to arrive. Since he was clearly a bike expert and appreciative of my plight, we went together to the person repairing my wheel and the two agreed that while badly bent, the repair should suffice, and an hour later I am back at the hotel baggage room reassembling my bike and that it will be serviceable for distance ahead. At this point I can only hope that the planets and stars are properly aligned with my spokes and that the wheel will turn in its destined path, for the alternatives are residing on another part of our planet, which perhaps explains why I have yet to see another multi-speed bike in India.
The plan is to retrieve the bikes and bags left at the luxury hotel early Friday morning, camp out somewhere to assemble the bikes and our belong and to take an overnight train to Udaipur later that afternoon. Hopefully by then the seasonal weather will have returned and the only thing to contend with will be what to do with all of our belongings and riding the eight or so kilometers from the hotel to the train station and deal with the usual masses of humanity, check the bikes etc. when we are told can take several hours. Did I mention that the concept of time is also different here?
Unlike all of our other trips, without the benefit of a bent rear wheel, we would assemble the bikes at the airport and ride to the city of our destination. Having had the benefit of traveling with two large suitcases to accommodate not only gifts, people in India love Canadian maple syrup and various papers we were carrying, we also had to have appropriate clothes for our stay, and in the process, we have followed Muphy's Law packed more that we would have otherwise.
With a heavy hearth but a hopefully lighter bike, I will leave behind my suit and dress-shirts, ties, shoes etc. but in the leaving I am feeling an anticipated sense of loss. Yes, some local person who has much less than I will be delighted by the hand-me-downs, but perhaps deep in the psyche there is a realization that perhaps I am not quite Clark Kent to be transformed into Superman but only an actor who was dressed as businessman soon to become one portraying a cyclist, in strange colours carrying his own gear that no self-respecting local person, certainly not one of our means would do in a country where the middle-class is used to having up to five servants, to clean, wash, drive, organize etc. but that and the issue of poverty, which is entirely too evident amongst the obvious wealth here, will require more time and reflection.

Stay tuned.

photos below