Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Fort I Didn't See

My rickshaw driver taking me to the fort
I was excited this morning, I had hired a rickshaw to take me up to the Mehrangarh Fort (1449), known to be one of the best forts in all of India to visit. My driver showed up promptly and it took about a half hour to reach the fort.
The one on the far left is the guilty one

 Along the way we had to take the Fort Road, that's the road that leads up to the fort. One unexpected surprise is that we had stopped just for a second so decided to take a photo of some cows and bulls in the road. I snapped the photo and then without any warning the bull charged at us and hit the rickshaw turning it on it's side. I guess maybe I should have asked the bull if I could take his photo first. I was laughing, the driver was concerned about me and then his rickshaw. We both survived just fine.

I liked Fort Road, I could have walked this all day, and actually on the way back I did get out and walk a short bit and took a few photos, but for whatever reason my driver was anxious to get out of this area, and I suspect he had a good reason.

So we get up to the fort, I'm excited. This thing is massive and towers over the second largest city in the state of Rajasthan, Jodhpur. I had asked the driver yesterday what the entry fee was and confirmed online that it was 300 rupees which includes admission, camera fee (it costs extra to take a camera into all Indian sites), and it included the audio tour of the fort.

Right next to the ticket counter is the sign with all the prices. Yep, it says 300 rupees. So I give the guy a 500 rupee bill, he gives me my tickets, I wait, and wait, and finally asked for my change. The ticket take says there is no change, the fee is 500 rupees. I point to the sign and ask for my change. He said today only the price is 500. I again insist on the sign and my change. He says he has no change. So I give him my ticket back and take my 500 rupees and walk away.

As much as I would have loved to have seen this fort I was not going to allow him to steal my change away from me. This is an official park, a monument that all should come to enjoy, but to have an individual working there feel entitled to keep a few bucks from a foreigner for no other reason that just because is disappointing. How many people came and got ripped off without knowing it? How many knew it yet went inside anyway, feeding this guys dishonesty, and how many like myself did the right thing to not allow this to happen but never got to see the fort? It's lost money for someone, but I'm not paying extra money because I'm told it's just a few bucks, means nothing to an American.

The other disappointing thing is that I found this to happen at a few places but Jodhpur especially is greedy on change. Almost everywhere I spent money in Jodhpur my change was never returned, claiming they round up. No other city did I experience this. Dinner bill comes to 75 rupees and they decide that change isn't necessary because we can afford to leave it behind. Okay, maybe I afford to leave 50 cents behind, but it's the attitude that they feel entitled to the money. I'm glad I came to see Jodhpur, I wouldn't come back though, not with the attitudes that people here have. And that even includes the hotel I'm staying at when they told me that it's okay that I pay twice the price for taxis, "your a foreigner, it means nothing to you to spend more money. All over Jodhpur, what a shame.

Looking over Jodhpur, the palace in the background

The fort over looking Jodhpur

Fort Road

The most popular chai stand in Jodhpur (it was good chai too)

The entrance to the Fort, that's as far as i got

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The little mechanics and a temple

It's scorching hot out today, over 110 degrees so I ended up staying in my room most of the day. It also gave me time to figure out what to do and where to go next week. Too many choices, to many decisions, I'm really having a difficult time deciding. One thing that sucks is that as a solo traveler I don't really feel comfortable traveling on the train or bus so by air it is. Unfortunately that limits me to the big cities that have airports, I hate big cities. To get to the smaller places where I really want to be requires hiring a car and driver, beyond my budget. So part of my trip isn't going as planned and it makes planning a tad difficult. That's the adventure of it all I guess.

Vishnu and Krishna

So to clear my head I managed to brave the afternoon heat and headed out for a walk. This part of Jodhpur is not where tourists go so everywhere I walk people stare at me. Today sitting under a huge tree were two young boys, they smiled and waved with excitement, I smiled back. I went to where I had chai a few days ago, the place was closed, I guess it's too hot to drink tea.

I turned around after only half an hour and began to retrace my steps. When the two boys under the tree saw me coming their bright smiles beamed and hands waved again. I stopped this time to say hi, learning that the two were brothers, Vishnu and his younger brother Krishna. Beside them laid an assortment of tools. I took a few photos and the boys were delighted to see their photos, as I was getting ready to leave an old man came running towards me yelling words I could not understand. Come to find out he was yelling at me to stop, he wanted to see the photos of his sons. He looked, studied the photos, stood erect and nodded his head, approving of the photos. I learned that this shady spot under the tree has been his spot since he was a young boy, he's a mechanic for the three wheeled auto rickshaws. His young sons are now in the business and will probably remain here under this tree until their sons take over. All three were very proud to be business owners, I shook hands and proceeded on my way back to the hotel.

Then I hired an auto rickshaw for a short while and went to visit a Hindu temple that was over 1000 years old. No one there knows for sure how old it is. Outside of the temple I met a boy and a girl, the boy spoke great English and was full of questions, the girl was very shy but allowed me to take her photo. The temple sits in the center  of another building which now serves as a government school. The teachers were all sitting under a tree talking and the once hard at studying students were now paying attention to me. A few photos later and  the boys were all around me. I made an escape as they would not bother me when I was in the temple. After taking my shoes off I approached the temple and rang the bell so that the Hindu gods would know I was here. Inside the paintings on the wall looked as if they were done at the beginning of time. Out of respect I did not take any photos inside the temple. In Hindu fashion I exited the temple stepping backwards and as I did going in I touched each step with my right hand and then to my chest. And finally I rang the bell again to let the Hindu gods know that I was leaving.

Hindu temple of unknown age in Jodhpur

Then the boys started in on me again. One boy came to me and said he came from a poor family and asked for money, I told him I had none but he knew better. After persisting for a while I pointed at him and called him "bodmosh" which in Hindi means sticker, troublemaker, something along that line. That did the trick too, his eyes went wide open and he ran back to his friends, I could hear him telling the other boys what I had called him and everyone was laughing, no more pestering for money. All in all a nice outing.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Palace and the Patel Family

It really felt good to sleep in late today. For an hour my mind had started it's day but my body couldn't move. Eventually at 830 am I had to force my muscles to move. For the first time in three weeks I went unshaven today, it felt good to be little lazy. Knowing that the window of opportunity for my free breakfast was about to shut I made my way to the dining hall and order a traditional Indian breakfast of parathas, yogurt and spicy pickles. Okay, so it wasn't all Indian, I had a nice cup of black coffee too.

Shortly after I ordered two young guys came in and sat at the table next to me. Starving for company and someone to talk to I introduced myself to the two guys from Ohio. Sorry, names forgotten. One is a real estate developer and the other a school teacher. A nice couple of six years enjoying their their three week vacation in India.

A glimps of the Umaid Bhawan Palace

After a little bit more conversation they mentioned that they were headed to the palace so naturally I invited myself along. Right after breakfast we hopped into an auto rickshaw. Vishu, the driver, spoke excellent English and the guys had used him the day before to go to the fort. These rickshaws only have room for two passengers so I sat on a small bar in the front.

The Umaid Bhawan Palace is still owned by the Royal Family. The construction began in 1929 and the palace was completed in 1943. The photos I have do not do it justice. The entry fee for Indians is 24 cents, for foreigners within Asia it is 48 cents and for all other foreigners it is $1.25.  The museum was okay, nothing spectacular. Lots of photos and art work and ceramics an even old clocks but very little descriptions. The palace is in pristine condition and my photos do not do it justice, you're probably better off looking at photos on the internet of the palace.

The view from the palace is unreal. It sits on top of a small hill of only 400 feet high and has a 360 degree view of the flat desert land. The palace has 347 rooms and is now divided into three distinct parts. The Royal Family still lives in a portion of the palace, a portion is now a museum and a third portion is a five star luxury hotel owned by the Taj Hotels. There is a bar and restaurant at the hotel however it charges a $60 per person cover charge just to get in so needless to say we didn't check it out.

Being low season has it's advantages, there was only one other couple in the palace at the time so it felt like we had the whole thing to ourselves.

Luxmi Patel in the middle flanked by his two younger brothers

After visiting the museum the three of us walked back towards the gate and decided to take a quick break at the concession stand, sit in the shade and have some water. There was a large extended family also sitting there with lots of beautiful kids. Naturally I pulled out the camera and took some photos and instantly we had new friends. A young man approached me and proudly introduced himself as Luxmi Patel from Pakistan. He was so proud of stating to all of us that he was here on a real visa, made me wonder how many are not here on a real visa. The entire family from parents to grandparents and everyone else was so warm and outgoing it felt like we knew them for years. Luxmi' mother was very camera shy in her purple sari but everyone else couldn't wait to have their photo taken. Then we were asked if they could take our photos and with an obligatory yes everyone pulled out cell phones and started taking photos of very one else. It was the highlight of my day.

Everyone photographing everyone with their cell phones

This evening I went for walk (I like to walk) and found Food 'n Fun. It's an ice cream parlor and food joint, and a  very popular place among young adults and students. Outside the crowd just stared at me as I opened the door, inside people hushed but not as much as last night, can't let the ice cream melt just because a stranger walks in the door. The menu was filled with so many choices including Indian, Chinese and Italian. Hungry, but not too hungry, I decided to order dahi pupri. Dahi is yogurt and pupri is a cracker. It's an awesome snack in which crisp crackers are topped with potato chucks and a few peas and covered in yogurt and some chutneys and garnished with some smaller cracker like things. It had to be one of the best I've ever had, my mother would have liked it. I'm here for a few more days and I've decided this will be my regular hangout. Cheap food, Great food, and maybe one day before I leave I'll indulge in some ice cream.

The new luxury living development around the base of the Palace, prices starting at $1 million USD

An overview of the palace

Beautiful twin boys

Look at those eyes!!

Our hired auto rickshaw

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Jodhpur, Rajasthan

It's the first of July and I've been in India almost three weeks during which time I've been visiting relatives. Mumbai is a neat city with a lot of history but as there is a week between family functions I decided to get away for a while and go explore some place new. Besides, hotels here in Mumbai are extremely expensive for nothing out of the ordinary.

So last night I bought a ticket for Jodhpur which is located in the desert state of Rajasthan. I really want to see Rajasthan and besides, it was the cheapest place to fly to on short notice. The flight aboard Jet Airways tool only one hour and even on such a short flight we were served lunch and even dessert and after that coffee and tea. And the flight attendant addressed me by name the entire time. Really nice.

Clock Tower, Jodhpur
After arriving at the airport the heat hit me, it was about 104 degrees. It's a dry heat so it's actually more comfortable that Mumbai's humid 90 degrees. A driver waited for me with my name on a placard outside the airport and too me to The Kothi Heritage. I chose this hotel because it had so many great reviews, actually rated number 3 in the city. The Kothi is known as a Haveli which is a stately home converted into a hotel. The fourth generation brothers greeted me at the front door and took me inside where I was given flowers and a glass of fresh squeezed juice. After talking a short bit and learning that their great great grandfather built this home 129 years ago I was finally shown to my room. I had booked the Executive room, their most basic for cost reason. I was given a complimentary upgrade to the Luxury room and, well, luxury really isn't the word to describe it. The bathroom is bigger than any I've ever seen, and it' bigger than many hotel rooms I've stayed in. The king size bed is about 8 feet long and sits over three feet off the ground, there are three steps that lead up to the bed. The ceiling is no less than 30 feet and the room is impecably clean and quite. Sitting in here it is hard to remember that I am still in India.

After getting settled in I braved the heat and took an auto rickshaw to the Clock Tower. This is where the oldest market in Jodhpur is. And all of this sits at the base of the towering Mehrangarh Fort (1449). The market was interesting but as it is in the center of where the tourists stay it is not quite the feel I like. Everything is priced outrageously expensive if you're not from around here.

A very small part of Shadar market which surrounds the Clock Tower

Okay, I'm going to vent just a little bit. I asked at the hotel what it would cost for taxi to take me to clock tower, the response was "for you, $2", so I replied with "what would you pay" and he said no more than $1. I asked why the difference and he said "you're a foreigner, we all know you have lots of money so it's no big deal". It's that attitude that makes me so angry sometimes. And it's all throughout India more so than any other country I have ever visited. Hotels have two prices, some restaurants do as well. And then there are all these massive monuments and forts and palaces where the Indian government also has different pricing. For example the Taj Mahal is only $1 for an Indian to visit but $20 for a foreigner, and foreigners have to pay extra for taking a camera inside where as an Indian does not always have to. It's this reason that I refuse to visit most monuments in India, my way of boycotting.

So back to the Clock Tower. No one really bothers me, some kids ask for money, I try to take some photos but the sun is just too bright. I walk behind the alleys into the residential areas, everyone is calling me friend. The heat becomes unbearable and I head back to the hotel. Knowing what a local pays, 50 rupees, I was able to stand my ground and negotiate the same price for my transportation in both directions. Made me feel good.

I decided not to eat at the hotel's restaurant tonight, kinda pricey and takes 40 minutes to prepare. So I asked for a recommendation and was told to walk about six blocks down the road. I walked. In almost total darkness on a dirt road. Packs of stray dogs concerned me more than anyone lurking in the darkness or stepping in a pile of cow shit that I can't see. Crossed three major streets. Then out of nowhere appeared the desert oasis. Stores lined for two city blocks brightly lit, music playing and people hurrying about. Guess, Tommy, Levi, and other major brand names of clothes that are made in India have stores here. A convenience store with the usuals. And there on the corner of the street like I was told it would be was Gypsy Dining Hall. Two stories. The lower level is the fast food and chaat area with really nice outdoor seating on a huge patio, a boy sits facing the street with a cane in his hand beating away cows and dogs looking for scraps. There's a line of people waiting for a table. It's quite the happening spot, this a posh area of Jodhpur.

I find the stairs that lead to the restaurant upstairs. I enter and all goes quiet. All eyes are on me. Am I the first foreigner to step foot here? I take a seat, people start back to their conversations at the 20 plus surrounding tables. Hands now moving from thali to mouth.

It's an interesting place, one I've seen in movies or on tv but never in real life. It is an orchestra of waiters moving at the snap of fingers.

When you come upstairs to the air conditioned area to eat there is no ordering. Only one thing is served and it is a traditional Rajasthani thali (google it). Just take a seat. A boy comes with a pitcher of water and pours water over your hands, he holds a brass pot underneath to catch the dirty water. An empty thali is placed in front of me with six small bowls. I wait, and wait. People are still staring, trying to anticipate what I will do. A man in a white shirt asks if I'm ready, I nod. He raises his hand with such authority and with a snap of the fingers all hell breaks loose. One boy comes on my left with three bowls of chutney's, he quickly twirls the bowls and with each spoon places three small dabs on my thali and at the same time a boy on my right is placing a samosa and pakoras on my plate, another hand reaches through the crowd and places different vegetables in three of my bowls, another with dals and butter paneer and another with puri, roti and parathas and then the dessert boy places sweets in another bowl. Finally rice and palau is added to the center of my plate.

In ten seconds my plate if filled. The boys continue to other tables twirling pots and spooning out food, this is after all an all you can eat thali dinner.

I take a roti and tear it with one hand, I begin to eat noticing the disappointment on so many faces that I'm eating like them. The spoon placed next to my thali must be the only spoon in the entire restaurant, it goes unused. As soon as I finish the dal I hear a finger snap and with a blink of the eye my bowl if full again. I finish my roti and I hear another snap. There's snapping all around and boys running to each command. I'm asked questions, I answer in Hindi. People smile at me, the guy in white laughs at me, must be my accent.

Dinner was good though I didn't eat much. For three bucks it was quite nice. My walk back was along the same dark path, the dogs this time are too busy chasing scooters to bother with me.

Ladies buying cherries

Making and selling pots, the large ones used for carrying and storing water

One of many public watering stations throughout the city