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...