Still No Tainted Samosas

Trip Start Jun 25, 2003
Trip End Sep 2004

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Saturday, February 14, 2004

No cavities!

Both Jordan and I had exemplary reports from our Bangkok dentist. So with clean fresh teeth we left Bangkok for a wonderful day in Hong Kong complete with dim sum, sunset views from Victoria Peak and a bit of hotel luxury before finally leaving S.E. Asia for India. (Note: we hope this will appease rumblings among the masses who we have heard were bored with our extended stay.)

So, with great trepidation we boarded our plane en route to Delhi. For the past seven months we've heard nothing but horror stories from other travelers about ripoffs, cons, pollution, poverty and tainted samosas. So upon arrival in Delhi we had our game faces on, our packs held tight and passports stuffed safely down our underwear. After easily collecting our bags and sailing through immigration, we gruffly entered a taxi. We demanded to be taken to our hotel and stared straight ahead refusing to engage in small talk with our driver fearing he would take us for a ride, no pun intended. To our dismay, the pleasant well-groomed man drove us skillfully through the uncongested streets under a bright blue sky straight to the door of our hotel. Still expecting a ripoff we thrust the rupees at him and ran into the safety of the lobby.

Emboldened and a bit surprised that we hadn't been taken advantage of we decided to push our luck and hire a rickshaw for the afternoon to explore the city. Walking out of the hotel, game faces on, we were confronted by two of the nicest men we have ever met while traveling. Aadil and BD whisked us around the city in their little motorized rickshaw pointing out the sites and chatting about a daughter in college in Nebraska. They even ended the sightseeing by buying us chai, Indian spiced tea, on the street where we could enjoy it with them while they taught us useful phrases in Hindi. It was at this point I felt safe to relax my game face, which is good, because looking mean is well, mean.

That night we joined our group for our next Intrepid trip. Over a wonderful Indian meal we got to know each other and exchange common concerns for what the next three weeks would hold for us. At the top of the list was explosive diarrhea, normally not dinner conversation but hey, we are new travelers to India.

We woke up to another bright blue beautiful day in Delhi and had a wonderful time sightseeing from the Jame Masjid (Great Mosque) through the narrow streets of Old Delhi and ending at the magnificent Red Fort, where we sipped chai in the gardens and talked about how wonderful our first days in India had been. But we couldn't help wonder when the other shoe would drop.

After an overnight train, very cush indeed, we found ourselves in the Shekawarti region of Rajasthan where we greeted the dawn with a wonderful organic breakfast followed by a walking tour of the village, Nawalgarh. Once again under bright blue skies, our local guide led us through the dusty streets of this desert town past wandering cows, ambling donkey carts and women dressed in brightly colored saris. Along our walk we passed by gorgeous old havelis, ornate mansions built by wealthy merchants 150 years ago. The Shekawarti region, an important stop along ancient camel trading routes carrying silks and spices, became known for its rich merchants and their beautiful homes. Merchants displayed their wealth through the beauty of their havelis. Some were covered with richly detailed murals while others with intricate and ornate carvings.

After marveling at such beauty you can imagine our excitement when we arrived in Mandawa, another nearby village, and checked in to our very own haveli, cum hotel. Upon entering the inner courtyard we were struck by the sumptuousness of the architecture and the beauty of the murals painted on every wall. It only got better when we were shown our room. Dropping our bags in our own private courtyard, we passed through a second ornately carved door to enter the grand palace that would be our bedroom. Complete with daybeds draped with rich fabrics, a private sitting area under a vaulted carved ceiling and stained-glass windows looking out onto the narrow, dusty, market-lined streets, it was a room built for royalty, but would do for two dusty backpackers.

We spent two wonderful days in Mandawa, wandering through the amazing streets, indulging in excellent local food (still no signs of tainted samosas) and relaxing in our palatial quarters. In all the traveling we have done, Mandawa was like nothing we have seen before. Walking the frenetic, colorful streets I could imagine little has changed since the days of the old camel traders who built the havelis. Especially as from time to time we had to dodge the odd camel-drawn cart rushing on its way to market.

From Mandawa onto Bikaner, a town on the edge of the Thar desert known for its magnificent fort and camels. After a day spent wandering the narrow lanes of the old city dodging cows and avoiding the odd steaming pile left in their wake, we visited the camel breeding center. We figured we should learn something about camels before jumping on their backs and heading into the desert early the next morning. While I wasn't able to differentiate one camel from the next, supposedly there were three different breeds, I very quickly picked up on the signs of a male camel in heat. While snorting, frothing and groaning may not seem attractive to us, the female camels really don't seem to mind.

The next morning prepared with the knowledge of what to avoid in a male camel, we drove out to the Thar desert with a brief stop at the famous rat temple on the way. Which is just that, a temple full of rats. It is actually considered auspicious if a rat runs across your feet. Not wanting to feel auspicious I made Jordan get pictures while I stood not so safely behind him. Further into the desert we mounted the camels (Jordan says not in a breeding center way) and headed off under the hot sun. We rode along swaying in our saddles and I quickly figured out why all of our guides chose to ride in the cart with our supplies - riding a camel hurts. While graceful from a distance, sitting on them is a series of lurches and jolts designed to chafe areas I'd rather not have chafed.

After a leisurely lunch on blankets spread out under a shady tree to protect us from the hot midday sun and a few more hours of bouncing around, we finally arrived at the sand dunes where we would camp for the night. We dismounted our camels, nursed our chafes and gratefully drank the chai prepared for us while gazing across the beautiful sand dunes made even more striking in the golden evening light of the setting sun. Eventually we traded our chais for cold beers and turned around to marvel as we witnessed a brilliant orange moon rise dramatically out of the desert sands into the ink blue-black night sky. While our dinner was being prepared over an open fire we watched the silhouettes of camels under the moonlight and gazed up at the stars. Despite the crude kitchen our guides managed to cook a delicious dinner pushing food on us as if they were trained by Italian grandmothers. After dinner we gathered around the fire with our guides to sing songs, alternating between Hindi and English - no easy feat.

Our next stop was the golden desert city of Jaislamer, acclaimed for looking like a scene from 1,001 Arabian Nights. Stepping off the bus upon our arrival, we were not disappointed. We were immediately engulfed by the busy markets, colorfully dressed people, and ubiquitous cows plying the narrow stone streets. Once a major trade center, also located on the busy caravan trade route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, its early rulers grew rich by looting gems, silk and opium from the caravans. With this booty they built beautiful havelis and a magnificent golden sandstone fort rising out of the desert sands. It is really fortunate that they built all these beautiful things because Jaislamer is also known for its amazing shopping. So while I spent time in and out of silver and silk shops, Jordan was able to wander in and out of the streets taking pictures. Two sunsets, four bracelets and three shawls later, I still felt as if I could spend another week taking in the sights, wandering the narrow lanes and of course, doing more shopping. Jordan was ready to leave though, after all he was involved in a hit and run cow incident.

Reluctantly leaving Jaislamer, we were off to Jodhpur, the blue city. Jodhpur is known as the blue city because looking down from its imposing fort, reminiscent of Minas Tirth from "Lord of the Rings", the blue painted buildings create a striking indigo glow against the yellow sands of the surrounding desert. We spent our day in Jodhpur touring the fort, wandering the streets of the old city and ending the day at the Umaid Bahvan Palace, where the present-day maharajah still lives. We enjoyed gin and tonics as we watched the sun set over the beautifully manicured gardens leading out into the desert. Sitting here I could imagine I wasn't a dusty backpacker but daydreamed I was Indian royalty or just plain rich enough to afford a room at the Palace (being maharajah isn't what it used to be and he rents out extra rooms for $600 a night)- oh well, a girl can dream.

Leaving the luxury of the Palace we headed off to Bhenswara, a place so small it doesn't even register in the guidebooks. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in grubby, excitable children. As not many travelers make it here it is a big event anytime someone visits the local villages. As we walked the narrow lanes passing small thatch huts and animal pens we were always surrounded by an entourage of 20-30 children begging to have their photos taken. Fun at first, but after an hour or two it got a bit old. Thank goodness for the digital camera and the delete photo option. We didn't only take photos of the children however, the women were beautifully dressed in colorful saris and the men looked striking in brightly colored turbans as they brought animals in from the pastures for the night. We saved these photos. Escaping from the village visit we managed to watch the sun set in a beautiful, quiet, childless area known to still have wild leopards prowling the surrounding hills. I was more than willing to trade the possibility of a leopard attack for the certainty of 40 small grubby hands tugging at my jacket.

Waving good-bye to the children as we drove out of town we rode through the desert en route to Mt. Abu, a mountain retreat popular with middle class Indian honeymooners and all the kitsch that implies. The place is covered in sparkling velvet paintings of favorite Hindu gods, magic trick shops and knock-off jewelry stores. Forsaking the option of spending the day in a self-propelled swan boat on the mountain lake, we decided to go for a hike in the surrounding hills. Once outside the town and away from swooning honeymooners romantically riding costumed and bejeweled horses through the streets, we were able to enjoy beautiful views of the valley far below. Feeling invigorated from our day spent hiking, our first in a long while, we spent the afternoon touring the absolutely breathtaking Delwara Jain temples just outside of town. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries and considered to contain the most beautiful marble carvings in India, we were absolutely awestruck upon entering. This says a lot as we have become a bit temple-jaded in our seven months of travels. But our renewed excitement is not unexpected as we have become reinvigorated for travel by spending time in such a different, wonderful and exciting country. Still no signs of tainted samosas.

Next stop Udaipur, famous as the set for the James Bond film, "Octopussy". While I write this Jordan is out trying to find a cheap tailor to make him a tuxedo.
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