Saturday, November 28, 2009

How to Bring Explosives into Bombay Airport (or at least bypass Bombay Airport Security) with a $20 Bribe

Unfortunately as I was entering the airport a few minutes ago I realized that I forgot to bring a printout of my e-ticket, so I was stopped at the entrance gate. It's standard procedure at Bombay to only allow entrance to people with an airline ticket, which is inadequate because if you're a terrorist with an agenda you can (a) buy a cheap plane ticket and get in or (b) take an old e-ticket and modify the html to make it look like a current ticket.

However, let's assume for the sake of the plot that you don't bring an e-ticket printout, as I did. I asked the security guard what I should do and in typical Indian babu style, he said there was nothing I could do. Then he changed his mind and said talk to security guard #2 who has access to the passenger lists. So I accompany security guard #2 to the passenger list and find my name on it, only to find out that the guard isn't actually interested in verifying that my name is on the list. He's interested in a cash bribe. Seriously. So I pulled out a $20 bill, which in retrospect is stupid because of the 500 rupee bill that I also had. Twentyu dollars was enough to get me in.

P.S. If you're looking for the guard in question, he's the sardarji at the entrance to gate A tonight.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rome Wasn't Built In a Day But This Mosque In Ajmer

Is called the Two-And-A-Half Day Building. There are two explanations for the name, the less plausible one being that it was built in 2.5 days. There's a festival that lasts 2.5 days and that's probably what gave it this name.

It's architecturally more interesting than the big religious monument in Ajmer, the Dargah, although the Dargah has more religious importance. The Dargah is the most important Islamic shrine in India, according to at least one guidebook.

Before visiting these two shrines we visited a bizarre yet awe-inspiring Jain temple, which featured a mini world inside it made out of gold. It depicts stories in the life of a Jain saint, but it looks like one of those giant Lego cities that people used to build. Here's a good photo. And another that shows that the whole structure is two stories tall.

After lunch, which included real biryani at Jannat, Mom went back to the hotel and I climbed a hill to get to Taragarh Fort. I thought the fort would be typically Indian--not much at the top except tourists. It turns out there's a pilgrimage site at the top so there are stalls all along the trail selling quack religious cures. There are old loudspeakers on each stall with recordings spouting out stuff like:"Does your child have bad dreams? Does your child wake up in the middle of the night? Use this magical necklace. Two for five rupees; four for ten." I suppose you have to buy two in case the first one is defective and not covered by a warranty. The shrine at the top of the fort is worth a visit but you will be asked for money by a couple of religious people and you won't get a receipt, which is unlike the shring at the bottom of the hill, the aforemention Dargah, where all donations are recorded.

I descended the hill using a different trail which was mostly paved so it took only 25 minutes or so. I liked the views along the ascent more but during the descent, I believe I saw the elite prep school east of town, which is referred to as the Eton of the East.

Incidentally Ajmer gets very few Western tourists. I saw fewer than ten today. I did find one at the precise moment at which I needed to look at the Lonely Planet map of Ajmer, though.

Tonight we're taking a train to Jaipur.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

28 Hours in Udaipur Without Any James Bond

A lot of hotels in Udaipur have a daily or a non-stop showing of Octopussy, which was mostly filmed here. Somehow I missed out on this, so I will have to go to netflix and put the dvd on the top of my queue. I did enjoy this city and I wish I could spend another day here. Unfortunately I have to get on a train that arrives in Ajmer at 3.45 am. Ugh. Not even sure whether Ajmer is worth visiting at this rate, but we have a reservation so that's that.

My goof for the day was setting my camera to take low-res pics and forgetting to reset it back to high-res. So some of my best sunset pics are lowish res now. Oh well I do have more spare memory on my card, which is good.

For some good pics of Udaipur taken by other people, see

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Udaipur Tonight

The morning in Jodhpur went well with a visit to Umaid Palace followed by shopping. The palace itself looked squat from the outside and wasn't very impressive except for its size. The interior however featured some worthwhile objets d'art including some of the most fascinating clocks I've ever seen.

The shopping trip including stops at a textile store and three antique shops. The first two had good collections and I ended up buying a small card box from one. The third was more like a warehouse of everything one could possibly fit under one roof.

For lunch we went to Bollygood restaurant, where we ended up getting to know the owners of the restaurant and adjoining hotel. They were both very gracious. I also got a tour of the hotel. The furnishings were quite interesting, especially in the honeymoon suite.

In the late afternoon we flew to Udaipur. The flight arrived on time but the ride to the hotel took some time due to traffic. When we finally got to the hotel the sun had set but we still got a view somewhat like this.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Still in Jodhpur, the Blue City

I had a delightful day, which is more than I can say for the previous days on this trip. Of course this is only one of three days on this itinerary on which I'm not in transit, which makes it more peaceful. Tomorrow I'm flying to Udaipur, which has a lake.

We got off to a late start but spent four hours or more at the Mehrangarh Fort(pic pic pic) , which was more interesting than the Bikaner and Jaisalmer forts and had better views too. I'm glad I saw those two forts before I saw this one. (Not that I'm recommending skipping B and J if you're ever in Rajasthan. In fact, you could visit Pokaran too and have a P,B and J.)

After the descent we also saw the clock tower; the pic that I link to shows the full glory of the market around the tower. And we had some desserts at a small sweet shop that The Lonely Planet recommended.

In the evening we had dinner at the Mehran fort restaurant--somewhat expensive yet paling in comparison to the Umaid Taj place only a few miles away, where you have to pay about USD 70 per person just to get into the restaurant. We were the only ones at Mehran, so it was very peaceful and the food was commendable.

Incidentally, there's a tight rickshaw mafia in Jodhpur so rickshaw drivers get into extended discussions though not necessarily heated ones with other rickshaw drivers about who "owns" you as a customer. All of this is sort of comical because many rickshaws are awfully slow around here and you'd think they'd focus their energy on the slowness problem. I swear I could outrun pretty much any rickshaw in this city; I miss the rickshaws in Pune.

Tomorrow I'm flying to Udaipur, the Octopussy city. I'm looking forward to looking at a lake instead of a desert.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

In Jodhpur

Ah, so much to write about, so little time. Yesterday morning my mother and I took a quick tour of the havelies in Jaisalmer and then went on a camel safari in the evening. The safari included a couple of visits to village in the desert, one of which was the hometown of our driver. The campfire at the end was enjoyable, but would have been better had it not been cloudy outside. It even drizzled. In the desert. Seriously. I did see some stars before the clouds covered the entire sky though.

This morning my mother and I toured Bada Bagh and a couple of Jain temples in the outskirts of Jaisalmer. We also saw a tiny but scenic lake. It was cloudy today too but we had some interludes of sunshine.

The train journey to Jodhpur was mostly pleasant. There were a bunch of really loud college students on the train but they tired themselves out by about 8 pm. The train itself got to the first Jodhpur station on time, but then stayed there for 45 minutes. We had to exit at the second Jodhpur station, so we got to our hotel fairly late. Ratan Vilas appears to be a very comfortable hotel though, so it's a nice change.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

In Jaisalmer

A> Jaisalmer is really cold. The train journey here was really unpleasant because it was freezing. Even the Germans on the train were complaining about the cold
B> The Artist Hotel in Jaisalmer is an interesting concept (in that it supports musicians), but it has a LOT of problems.
C> The fort in Jaisalmer is gorgeous
D> I need to get back to the hotel before it gets too cold outside

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Q. How Do I Unintentionally Avoid Indians in Rajasthan

A. Pick your hotel from Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide.

Demographic trends at tourist attractions in Jaipur:
Jantar Mantar: mostly Indians
City Palace: mostly Western Europeans
Hotel Pearl Palace: mostly Scandinavians
Hawa Mahal: mostly nobody

We started out by visiting Hawa Mahal, which was surprisingly empty. We hired a tour guide who said that the recession and H1N1 were responsible for driving tourist away. "How many cases of H1N1 does Rajasthan have?" I asked. "Oh, 60% of the cases in India are in Rajasthan," he replied. Awkward silence.

Later he mentioned that the Mumbai terrorist bombings were also a factor. Jantar Mantar and The City Palace seemed reasonably crowded, though, so I suppose all is not lost. We had lunch at Ganesh Restaurant, which sits on the old city wall. The kitchen is open so you can see how much oil (answer: a lot) goes into the food. They have a real clay oven and the garlic nan that came out of it was one of the best I've ever had.

Afterwards we struggled to find some form of motorized transportation to a nearby fort, and upon failing, decided to take a cycle rickshaw back to the hotel. Cycle rickshaws are quite popular here; it's odd because you'd think they'd be impossible to drive in the summer heat in Jaipur. Incidentally, they're single-geared.

Now we're just killing time until our 9pm train to Bikaner. I've never been on an overnight train journey before, so I hope I can fall asleep.

Monday, November 09, 2009

And We're Off

My mother and I took the early express train to Bombay too. (Don't let 'express' fool you; it still takes three hours to traverse 220km.) On the plus side you don't have diesel fumes bothering you, so it is better than the expressway.

After arriving we spent some time at the house of a family friend--which was memorable because Mr. M said "How old are you", paused and then said "OK I'm not going to ask you the next question: when are you getting married." We left for the airport at about 1.50 which was plenty of time for the 3.30 flight. And we got the airport and checked in for our 3.30 flight. And we sat near the checkin counters for a while because we figured we had plenty of time before our 3.30 flight. And then my Mom noticed that our departure time on the TV screen was 2.30. AAAARGH! Why does Indian Airlines not email people when they change their schedules. Well we got on the flight in time, although we were paged and it was extremely cringeworthy to hear my mother and me referred to as Mr. and Mrs. Martin.

Now we're in Jaipur at this place, which is quite comfortable although my Mom has found about fifteen things to complain about in the last two hours. We stopped at the Birla Temple on the way to the hotel. The Birlas are the Indian equivalent of the Rockefellers, and they sponsored this temple. It's unusual not only for the stained glass but also because in one corner of the exterior they have statues of non-Hindu figures including Jesus and Socrates. Somehow Confucius ended up next to the Madonna and Child.

Tomorrow we're off to see the City Palace and other Jaipur sights.