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Published: June 23rd 2017
Geo: 28.5713, 75.4743
After our impromptu detour through the Moslem village in the Shekhawati desert, we continued our semi-planned itinerary and took the train to the "Blue City" of Jodhpur, so named because the color signified the residence of a Brahmin - a high ranking class in India's caste system.
Founded in 1459 by Rao Jodha, Jodhpur grew rich by its proximity to the Silk Road where opium, dates, silk, etc. were taken by camel train westward from Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe. Our own journey ended at the Saji Sanwri guesthouse - a 250 year-old haveli which was buried in the a labyrinth of twisty one-camel-wide streets. Four stories tall with a rooftop garden that has a fabulous view of the the magnificent fort of Mehrangarh, one could feel the history of the place. Meherangarh was built by Rao Jodha to secure this segment of the Silk Road and is still operated by his descendant, the current majaraja of Jodhpur. We explored it and we really enjoyed the taped audio tour of the fort, which we felt was the best presentation of a part of India's history that we've encountered.
We were immediately made to feel at home
by the Indu Bohra and her sons Lokesh and Manoj, who run the place. They are Jains, a fascinating religion that is indiginous to India. Jainists practice extreme self-denial and non-violence, and avoid meat. Very strict adherents usually wear face coverings to prevent the accidental inhalation and killing of insects.
Over several delicious vegetarian dinners with the Bohra family, we talked about many things, but of note, was our discussion of the profound effect that travel guide books like "Let's Go!" and "Lonely Planet" have on guest houses, hotels and restaurants all over the world. Indu discussed in detail how Saji Sanwri is included in Japanese and French guidebooks, but not the most popular English language series - Lonely Planet. Thus, English readers don't have know about her place (and she, admirably, refuses to pay commission to touts who snag tourists at the train station). It reminded us how guesthouses, hotels and restaurants often live and die because of these guidebooks. In India, as is the case with the rest the world, a huge number of 'just plain folks' depend on the ups & downs of tourism.
Continuing eastward, we took the train to Keoladeo National Park home of 380
species of resident and migratory birds from Europe and Central Asia - all in 29 square kilometers of wetlands. . Though Jamie has always been interested in bird watching, Justin got into it only after our friends Jim and Nancy took us birding in the wetlands outside of Portland. Apart from the staggeringly large number of birds, we noted that the walking paths were spic and span - free of litter. We spent the entire day with a guide who narrated the life cycles and migration patterns of the cranes, storks, herons, eagles, etc. we were seeing who were wintering in the preserve.
Leaving the calmness of the bird sanctuary, we took the train up to the tourist-laden craziness of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Knowing that the city would be a madhouse, we engaged a guide ahead of time who had been recommended by a friend. "Shabbu" picked us up at the train station and shepherded us around Agra, shielding us from the hungry touts and scam artists. The Taj Mahal entry fee for foreigners is $16, which was staggeringly higher than the usual $2-5 fee to see for
most monuments. Grumbling a bit, we lined up with everybody else to see this monument built by Emperor Jahan in memorial to his wife who died giving birth to a child (#14!). Jamie liked it a lot and informed Justin that she expects him to build a memorial of similar stature to her someday. Justin thought that it was kind of overrated - the interior was unlit and one could only see the marble inlaid with mother-of-pearl and precious stones with the aid of a flashlight.
From Agra, we took the train to the northwest of India to Amritsar where the Golden Temple, the holiest place in the Sikh religion, is located. We both really enjoyed Amritsar. Apart from the obvious difference (there were many, many turban-clad Sikhs in the city), we were really surprised by the large number of women in public. In contrast to other parts of India we've been, where mainly men walk around in public, there were women everywhere - shopping alone, walking in groups, driving cars or with men. We guess that this has to do with the non-disciminatory and inclusive nature of the Sikh religion. When we visited the Golden Temple (as we did
many times), the "greeters" at the doorway always said, "we welcome people from all places and religions." And in another departure from other places of worship we've been, they didn't hit us up for a donation. For more on this fascinating religion, go to: www.allaboutsikhs.com
While at Amritsar, we took a daytrip to the Indian-Pakastani border. Why? To see a nightly ceremony where the Indian and Pakastani guards lower their respective country's flags. We were seated in stadium spectator stands that were set up on the Indian side of a border. From there, we could see across the border at seemingly identical stands that were set up on the Pakistani side (also with a crowd of 2000 people). At the stroke of 5PM, honor guards from both sides goose-stepped out in formation very quickly and stopped just a few feet from each other. Then each platoon lowered their country's flag very slowly so that one country's flag never seemed lower than that of the other side. On each side, loudspeakers would rouse the crowd with calls to cheer. On our side, we would hear (in Hindi) "Go India" and our crowd would roar in response. I imagine it was the same
on the other side.
It was a lot like a baseball game with cheerleaders, peanut sellers, and people hawking DVD's of the ritual - except that in this game each side has nuclear missles aimed at each other, is now engaged in a low-intensity war over the mountains of Kashmir, and has a couple of hundred thousand soldiers facing off. For the world's sake, let's hope that this nighly border ritual is a way to let off steam and doesn't progress further!
Indeed, the highlight of the monument/temple-seeing part of our trip was our visit to the Golden Temple in Amristar. Jamie thought the Taj Mahal was magnificent, as we expected it would be. But the Golden Temple was breathtaking and definitely spiritual. It is a marble structure set in the middle of a "lake" of holy water. The marble has the same amazing inlay work as the Taj, and the 2nd and 3rd stories of temple are covered in about 1500 lbs of gold that makes them glisten. One walks around the complex counter clockwise to get to the bridge that takes you into the temple. As you walk, you hear text from the Sikh holy texts being sung
in Punjabi (as it is all day long). It is mesmerizing, and as beautiful as listening to Kol Nidre being chanted on Yom Kippur. Once inside the temple, mirrors, jewels and paintings line the walls and ceiling. Four musicians are sitting inside singing and a holy man sits in front of the text and sings. One can sit down and just enjoy the prayers, even if you don't know what they mean. To us what was being sung seemed positive and affirming. We went back, at different times during the day, to enjoy the way the sunlight shone off the gold walls and domes.
Fully recharged from our time in Amritsar, we took the super-fast train back down to Dehli and then a flight to the old British capitol of Kolcata (formally known as Calcutta). Here we are enjoying touches of home, like chocolate cake and Justin's first brewed cup of coffee in many monthe, and planning future adventures.
A note on accommodations:
So you may all be wondering what type of places we have been staying in. Budget traveling can have its ups and downs. On average, we have spent about $6 a night on lodging for the two of us.
Within this range, we have stayed in some great places, and some scary dives. Most places come with hot water that is available either for a short time in the AM and PM, or with a bucket shower (we recommend you try a bucket shower, they are quite enjoyable). You also have to supply your own toilet paper in most places, as Indians here do not use TP and we have not quite learned how to do it the Indian way...We have made a top five list of the diviest places and here is a run down of a few: In Bikaner, Jamie found a surprise under her pillow, and it is not the kind the tooth fairy leaves behind. She was hoping that a rat from the Hari Mata rat temple did not find its way home with her. In Amritsar, the sheets had not been changed in many months and the stuff on the walls was of an unidentified substance. We watched in amusement for a while as a mouse ran around the floor of that hotel restaurant. Top on of our list was the Centerpoint Guest House in Kolkata. The carpet looked like it had something growing
on it. As a result, we slept with our shoes on. A bonus was the 5:20am Muslim call to prayer that was chanted on the loud speakers right outside our window (which was missing a few glass panes). To top off the night, Jamie woke up to a cockroach staring her in the face - and no, it was not Justin. For all of these places (and, we have only stayed at these one night before moving on), we have had some wonderful accommodations that more than make up for these dives - still within this range.
Please don't think we are complaining. We expected this kind of thing when we packed up our house (and comfy bedding) and headed out for this trip. Our stays do make for entertaining reports to all of you, and the cost is well within our budget. We have had the opportunity to step into 5-star hotels and have a drink and dinner. Even though we are not staying there, we are fortunate that we can escape for an evening.
So, we head off to the cold region of Sikkim to enjoy some mountain views, trekking, and hopefully a reprieve from the touts!
Tot: 2.419s; Tpl: 0.057s; cc: 14; qc: 47; dbt: 0.0373s; 2; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 1;
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