At 11:30PM we landed in Mumbai (Bombay).
Here, Alf, Annie, and I collected our luggage, turned in our customs declarations, and walked through the Green Lane into the warm hazy midnight bustle of Bombay. From a line of perhaps a hundred drivers, I could see one with an Abercrombie & Kent sign sporting the following word: "LINISOME". It had to be, and was, for me. Some people collect coins, others corkscrews; I, however have the world's largest collection of my own name misspelled. I am not offended. I am proud to say that people are still inventing new forms, such as this one, and that I am able to immediately recognize more than 90% of them.
Friday, 12 November started with our midnight transfer from the airport to Bombay's Taj Mahal Hotel, an elegant old palace in the middle of the city, now a luxury hotel. Vishal, our guardian angel from Abercrombie & Kent was waiting there to welcome us. The rooms were beautiful. A & K had left a copy of what they call the itinerary, and what I call a trip forecast on the bed. On the desk, the hotel had placed sheets of writing paper with emblazoned at the top.
With breakfast ordered for 08:00, sightseeing at 09:00, lunch at 12:00, and departure for a flight to Udaipur at 2:00, the pace was about to pick up.
Wow. What did we learn? What did we see?
And then we were at the airport.
"The flight will be delayed"
Hearing Vishal's words, I had a strange sense of déjà vu but shook it off. Rather than hang around the airport for a couple of hours, Vishal took us for tea in a nearby hotel.
By 9:45PM we were checked-in to the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur. We had been in India a little over 22 hours.
At 9:46 I fell asleep.
Today was supposed to be a sightseeing day. And the morning went according to plan. We visited the City Palace in Udaipur. The views are truly spectacular, overlooking Lake Pichola, with our home, the Lake Palace Hotel, seeming to float like a brilliant white island in the middle.
So the Day was divided into Sightseeing and Lunch, and Vishal saw that it was good.
But for the afternoon, my companions had changes in mind.
I realize now that I haven't really given you a complete picture of our little group of 11. First, of course, there is Alf, a fine upstanding gentleman of impeccable taste and good breeding*. Then, as this is a family trip, we have his four daughters; Annie, Christy, Lisa, and Patty -- all of whom are in awe of their father's diverse talents. Patty is traveling with her husband, Dr. Sam, and their daughter, Ellie, a five year old young lady. Christy has husband, Bernie at her side. Lisa's boyfriend, Brian, couldn't get away from work so she's on her own, and Annie is traveling with sons Chris and Cam, 14 and 13 -- both spirited adventurers. And of course myself, apparently chosen for my penchant for producing hot air.
To get back to the trip. After our morning excursion and excellent Palace Hotel lunch, the group felt physically and culturally fulfilled and I knew something was up. "Would you mind letting Vishal know that we'd rather go shopping this afternoon?" Patty inquired. And so it was that I broke it to Vishal that all of his extensive planning, and very helpful and informative city guide services should be replaced by a manic shopping spree in search of hand-painted this and hand-sewn that. He tried to counter with a well-researched A & K approved dealer in such things, but after a short browse, that of course included a purchase or four, the Erickson clan dived into darkest Udaipur -- ferreting out fantastic products and bargaining the poor Indian merchants into bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, Vishal, Denis (the very helpful and informative city guide), and myself had a cup of chai under the trees of a little tea garden just off the main road, hidden from the hustling crowd.
That evening, as the sun set, we took a boat ride around the lake, stopping at the pleasure palace, where parts of Octopussy were filmed. Later, Ellie took Sam and Patty to a puppet show, all followed by our last meal in the Lake Palace.
We were all tired and dreading a very early wake-up to make a 10:00 plane to Jaipur when Vishal got a telephone call. We could sleep in a bit- the flight was delayed till 12:00, we didn't have to leave till 10:00. Thank Vishnu... or Siva... or Ganesh... I'm still not sure who was responsible for Sunday.
But at least the alarm wouldn't be set for 06:30.
"Do you think we can fly tonight?"
The words popped out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying. As a balloon pilot, I'd heard that question thousands of times before, and the answer is always filled with a lack of surety. "Ballooning is weather dependent so we'll have to see how the weather turns out, whatever the forecast..." And now I was asking poor Vishal who couldn't lay this problem at the doorstep of weather's capricious nature; this was even more unpredictable. As of last night, India Airlines had already delayed our flight from Udaipur to Jaipur, originally scheduled at from 10:00 this morning, to 12:00, and now had delayed it again- to 6:30PM. A little more checking discovered that this same 6:30PM flight, scheduled for last night, had never taken off. And that is how I came to ask a question I never expected to ask.
Without going into the details, suffice it to say that "technical difficulties" were to blame.
But our luggage was already on the dock. We were ready to catch our flight, but there was no flight to catch. After Vishal's suggestion that we fill in the time by visiting a Temple and then having lunch met with tepid response, Alf proposed driving to Jaipur. Leaving immediately would get us to Rajvillas, the Oberoi Hotel in Jaipur, about the same time as waiting for the plane.
And so we were off on a ten hour driving journey across Rajastan. The two lane highway we traveled on was unbelievably narrow, with cars, trucks, cows, camels, elephants, and people all maneuvering around each other at their own pace. We had been told that by honking at every vehicle you pass to alert them to your presence reduced accidents in India. I firmly believe this to be true. Our excellent A & K drivers honked every time they passed, and no one was offended. Trucks we passed even had signs on the back saying "HONK PLEASE" to encourage the practice. We had also been told that the accident rate was 0%. This, I can patently state, I do not believe to be true, unless you define head-on collisions, overturned trucks, and camel carts mating with tour buses as mere mishaps.
We stopped only briefly a couple of times, once at the smelliest toilet facility I've ever encountered, but we were warmly greeted by everyone we met and arrived at the Rajvilas around 9:30PM.
This hotel is fantastic. And the staff is unbelievably competent, friendly, and helpful. From the 24hr butler service to the sunken marble bathtub in my room, there was nothing that didn't impress to excess. Needless to say, we dined well, and slept soundly. If I should mistakenly end up in heaven after this life is over, I hope it is exactly like Rajvillas in Jaipur.
Practice this dialog until it seems natural.
You: "Hi- where you from?" (Big smile)
Target: [State] or [Country]
You: "[State]?" or "[Country]?" I have a brother in " [State] or [Country] (Big Smile)
You: "Where you stay in Jaipur?"
You: "Oh! [Hotel]! Very nice hotel!" (Again, big smile)
You: "My office near here. You come for tea?" (Look sincerely into eyes of target)
(At this point you lead the victim target to your shop, serve him/her some tea and SELL SELL SELL!!!!)
It seems everyone on the street in Jaipur is anxious to serve you a tea unless they don't have a shop. In that case they are anxious to drop matching egg-shaped salt and pepper shakers in your hands, or hand carved wooden camels or elephants, then negotiate their value. If they have a shop, you can buy puppets, carpets, fabrics, paintings, and many other fine products for "very good price."
As we stepped off the bus I explained to each new friend that I didn't need salt and pepper shakers, I don't even have a table; and I didn't need hand carved elephants and camels, I don't have a vacuum cleaner; and I don't need puppets (even if they are "very fine quality"), I don't have ... whatever one needs to use puppets.
We made our way onto the main shopping street of Jaipur, the Pink City, so named because all the buildings are painted pink. Christy, Bernie, Patty, Lisa, and Annie were in shopping mode. I was tagging along just to take a wander through the place. As they found new friends who had their offices just near here and there, the purchases piled up.
In the meanwhile, these various new friends got to know us. They passed us from one to another like you might share a bottle of Coke in a hot car. If you wanted to know where I was, you had only to refer to the "man in the green shirt and small hair" to be lead through a back courtyard, up some stairs and into a rooftop shop where I had been told earlier that you would be waiting for me.
Speaking of friends- Bernie and Christy got a surprise when Darby Watson, a friend from Seattle who first introduced them to each other, happened to bump into them on the streets of Jaipur. A phenomenal coincidence? I think not. She was standing where a new friend, his office nearby and a brother in Seattle, had told her they would be waiting for her ...
Lunch was back at Rajvillas and sightseeing in the afternoon was to the Jaipur Observatory and the City Palace. Both visits were excellent, and well described already in the A & K "Itinerary."
As we boarded the bus for our return to the hotel that evening, I patted myself on the back. I had resisted. I had bargained hard. I had a set of salt & pepper shakers, a wooden hand carved elephant, a wooden hand carved camel, two puppets, two dolls, two Christmas ornaments, and many happy new friends.
Our sightseeing this morning is to Amber Fort, first constructed in 1592, was ultimately destined to be home for the Maharaja of Jaipur. It was designed to house one Maharaja in luxurious splendor, along with a few wives, 300 or so concubines, and, to protect it all, a few thousand soldiers.
The maharaja, wives, and concubines having left ages ago, one might think that there was no longer a need for extensive defense. These days, thousands of tourists invade daily, so we were not alone this morning as our caravan of elephants made the inexorable climb up the hill and into the fort.
Little did we realize that one defense remained in place, fully functional, and frighteningly effective. As our elephant cleared the main stone gate into the palace compound, we suffered a devastating aerial bombardment by descendants of the Royal Pigeon Brigade. Fortunately, our elephant was an experienced veteran of previous battles and bravely pushed on through the attack, allowing us to escape with relatively minor injuries.
Amber Fort is practically a walled city, first constructed in 1592 on a high mountain with a magnificent view of Jaipur. And the maharaja certainly new how to live. His private quarters even had an effective airconditioning system utilizing the prevailing breezes and evaporation of cool perfumed water flowing through the rooms and down fabric window coverings. One of the halls is decorated with thousands of small convex bits of mirror which in the evening shimmer and swirl with reflections of candles and torches. Our guide was excellent and everyone agreed the visit was a very well spent morning.
Vishal wisely arranged jeeps to whisk us down the hill by a secret back road, thus avoiding further fowl confrontation.
With "bags out at 12:30," our last lunch in Jaipur was at Rajvilas, finishing just in time for our transfer by luxury coach to Sawai Madhopur Lodge at Ranthambhore National Park.
Our schedule for these two days revolves around two Game Drives each day; one from 6:30 till 10:30 in the morning, and one from 2:15 till 6:00 in the afternoon.
Ranthambhore National Park is 400 sq kilometers of wild jungle in the middle of Rajastan. As day breaks, we enter the park. Ranthambhore Fort is perched high on the cliffs above us. The first animals we see are gazelles, the smallest of the antelopes, and soon we find ourselves among spotted deer, bulbuls, and wild boar.
But once again, some strange spirit from the past seemed to be at work, protecting yet another long dead maharaja from an Erickson invasion. Leaving the camp this morning, a flat tire had delayed our departure. Then, as we passed into the heart of the jungle, an entirely different kind of aerial assault stopped us in our tracks. This one left even our guides shaking their heads in wonder.
Clouds of fine reddish brown dust followed each of our three open top Jeeps as we made our way slowly through the jungle over rough and rocky dirt roads. So, riding in Jeep Three, I didn't actually see the collision, but as we turned into a small clearing, I could see a crowd of guides and passengers already gathering where Jeep One had come to rest with Jeep Two parked directly behind. The impact had shattered the windshield and even bent the its frame. "Has anyone been hurt?" Vishal immediately asked. "What happened?" As well as I could piece the story together from eye witnesses Ellie, Sam, Patty, and Alf, a monkey had landed on the windshield of Jeep One from a height of more than 40 feet. He had apparently leapt to a limb that couldn't support his weight. While his fellow monkeys casually observed his plight with passive curiosity, he plummeted, unsuccessfully grabbing at limbs during his descent. And then WHAM! He landed square in the middle of the windshield of Jeep One. The windshield must have absorbed the shock because the monkey, only a little dazed, got up and ran away. Tell THAT one to your insurance company.
Breakfast was already being served when we returned to the camp, and before long, lunch as well. And a game of cricket, which is the fever. It was Vishal vs Sam, Bernie, Ellie, Cam, and Chris. Vishal won.
The afternoon Game Drive was fantastic, even though the tigers, for which the park is so famous, were in hiding. Ah well, perhaps tomorrow.
Tigers. We awoke at 05:45 and prepared ourselves for tiger hunting. Ranthambhore Park is the home to over 30 of these magnificent but elusive creatures. In days gone by there were thousands roaming India- now they are an endangered species. Catching a glimpse of one in the wild can be difficult, at best. But tigers are the main attraction and so tiger hunting was the focus of the drives. I had to feel saddened for the guides when the beasts decided to remain hidden from view, watching us, I imagined, from some cat house behind the banyan trees.
We did have a short sighting on the morning drive today: Annie, Bernie and I did manage to catch just the quickest glimpse of the back sides of a tigress and two cubs strolling up a slope and into the jungle. To show how short a look it was, Annie didn't even have time to snap a picture. And Bernie says it could have been a spotted deer ... or a crocodile. No matter. It did happen. Really. I mean really. Oh- never mind.
After a hard morning of tiger hunting, there's always something to do at Sawai Madhopur Lodge. Chris and Cam played ping pong and pool, Sam and Ellie went swimming, Bernie and Sam even played a quick game of badminton. Everyone else relaxed on the lawn, enjoying the perfect Indian weather.
The afternoon Game Drive focused on the point where the tigers had ostensibly been seen in the morning. We were not alone in our efforts. Everyone from our camp, and all of the other camps around the area had suffered by the tigers' game of hide and seek, so that this little spot on a dusty, narrow one lane track became filled with open-top jeeps, open-top buses and eye-straining humanoids. Although we stayed as late as we dared, with each passing minute hope faded, and we settled for a mad dash to reach the exit before the gates were closed and the tigers could start looking for us.
We made it.
Traveling with Alf can leave one somewhat confused after a while.
Today we made the long bus ride from Ranthabhore Park to Pushkar, the site of the biggest camel fair in the world. I have to honestly say that I slept most of the way while Sam and Bernie played cards, and Vishal tried to pack 3500 years of Indian history into increments of 30 minutes- the maximum extent of our collective attention span.
The Pushkar Camel Fair is a manic event in the desert where the tiny town of Pushkar is invaded by practically everyone in India who has any interest in buying or selling camels. There will be thousands of camels, and many more people, from the strange and colorful to the stranger-still and khaki clad.
Ellie, who has proved herself a quite capable traveler, was excited, as were we all, and as a safety precaution, Patty decided to quiz her on some basic information.
"What's your name?"
"Ellie, what city are you from?"
Ellie answered correctly: Portland.
"And what state?"
"What's your phone number?"
Correct answer again.
"What country do you come from?"
Ellie was quietly quizzical.
"Are you Chinese?"
"No!" Ellie smiled.
After another pause, she tentatively asked "Am I English?"
Four out of five ain't bad. I don't think by this time I could have done so well.
We arrived at Pushkar around 3:00PM, just in time for a late lunch and a look around our new home for the next three days- Royal Tented Camp. Vishal told us on the bus that it would be "Basic Luxury" and I was finding out what that meant. It meant that there was running water- of sorts. Two buckets of water were suspended behind each tent and kept full by a man who poured water from other buckets. These suspended buckets supplied the toilet water and wash water. For hot water, all you had to do was ask the porter outside the tent and he would bring it to you ... in a bucket.
The interiors were well equipped and comfortable but, as this is the desert, hot during the day and pretty cool during the night. Vishal even managed to get an electric socket slipped into my tent so that I could run the laptop ... in the evening, when the electricity was running. We had even spotted an Internet Café advertised in the village!
Today we climbed aboard camel carts to tour the festival and get our first close up look at Pushkar. People gawked at us as much as we gawked at them. As we made our way through the camel trading area, most of the traders seemed to have slept on the ground near their camels. There was a large water basin, perhaps 6 x 3 meters, where everyone went to wash.
Just next to this trading area were the carnival rides (three rather rickety looking ferris wheels) and the Circus Maruti, running continuous shows of approximately 2 hours. The town was packed with shops and street vendors- so, once again, Patty, Christy, Lisa and Annie were in heaven. It must be noted that Bernie is also a shopaholic.
At the end of the cart ride, we walked with Vishal to the Sacred Lake where people were bathing to cleanse themselves of their sins. It occurred to me that with all those sins in it, it was probably a pretty filthy lake. As we approached, some rather official looking men gave us marigolds and then pulled Sam, Chris, and me down to the lakeside for some kind of blessing. Not wanting to offend, we went along peacefully. After a few incantations, they poured lake water over the flowers in our hands and then told us to throw the flowers into the lake, which we did. Then they asked for money. What a scam. But we all figured it was a cultural experience and possibly good luck to have a hindu blessing. They count on that kind of thinking.
That evening Annie, Bernie, Alf, Chris, Sam and I went back into town to see Pushkar by night. It was even more animated than it had been during the day. What possessed us to see the Maruti Circus I do not know, but perhaps it was the 130db loudspeakers that seemed to endlessly produce what sounded like "DIGADIGADIGA BLAH BLAH BLAH!!!!" This, I supposed, meant something along the lines of "Ladies and Gentlemen! Prepare to be astounded!"
Inside the big tent, spectators sat on the sand of the desert around a ring approximately 8 to 9 meters in diameter. Considering the price, it was good value for money. The performers included a juggler, a team of aerialists composed of teenaged girls, and a contortionist or two.
Back in our tents by 11:00pm, it had been a full day.
Have you ever ridden a camel? No? Well, I have. To watch them walking through the village, gracefully placing one well padded foot in front of the next, head held proudly high, it seems like the ideal way to get around. Getting on isn't difficult. The camel lies down and you climb aboard. It's when the camel gets up that you begin to wonder if this was such a good idea.
We all road camels into town today, each camel carrying two of us. Cam and I were camel partners and thought we were going to fall off as our camel stood up, in seemingly poor spirit. But no harm was done and the ride was enjoyed by all- especially Ellie, who was disappointed we didn't take camels everywhere. The rest of us were happy enough to walk back to camp through the town, shopping and snapping photos of eunuchs dressed as women, men dressed as monkeys, and ourselves dressed as, well, tourists. Chris, Cam and I decided to brave the Ferris wheel, taking in the view from above. Although it didn't really look all that safe, other passengers did not seem shaken by the experience so we decided to try our luck. The Circus Maruti was in full voice, "DIGADIGADIGA BLAH BLAH BLAH!!!!"
That afternoon was the beginning of the end. Dr Sam had been feeling a little "under the weather" and this afternoon tried to get some rest in his tent. I snoozed myself, munching popcorn Annie had picked up in town.
Around 5:00PM we made our way in for the last of our shopping forays. Even Alf was in shopping mode. He bought a cool lock.
As I crawled into bed I felt a little chilled, the desert temperature was at least 40 degrees cooler at night than during the day. I drifted into a fitful slumber, punctuated by blasts of "DIGADIGADIGA BLAH BLAH BLAH!!!!"
It's 6:30 and I'm almost packed. The porter brought hot water around 6:00 so I'm shaved and ready for our next journey across India. But sleep well, I did not. The noise- I can not call it music- blared practically all night from the carnival, reminding me how truly crazy this event is. Even now, when most of the participants must be asleep, the loudspeaker blasted out.
Sam's condition has worsened in the night. Consulting the group, Alf decides the best course will be to head directly to Delhi today. The bags (and Sam) are taken by camel cart down to the bus and we all climb aboard for a day of Indian roads.
This time my view is different. Although the temperature has climbed into the 80's, I'm still feeling chilled and for most of the ride I feel tired, achy, and cold.
On earlier bus rides I had seen towns filled to overflowing with active, energetic people making due with what they had; a small cubicle turned into a barbershop, another turned into a one-man sewing center, a café, a restaurant, a tire shop, and makers of so many things that I couldn't imagine what use they could have.
Now, riding along, the sights are the same but I see what my eye had overlooked before. I can see the open piles of garbage rotting next to hovels some call homes, the filthy ditches littered with every kind of refuse from old tires to decomposing animals, the half-starving dogs and pigs rooting through it all, and the children in bare feet playing in it, squatting wherever to relieve themselves. Whether it's the scene or sickness, I am filled with nausea. I begin to realize what it means to have a country of 1 billion human beings brought up to believe that social mobility in this lifetime is a sin. Where 50% -500,000,000 people- can not read or write. Where you can't even brush your teeth with the public water supply without inviting a parasitic infection. Where children are legally required to go to school, but can't because they have to work to eat.
Obviously, I'm in a down cycle.
By the time we reach Delhi, it is clear that I am not well. A doctor is called and I take a hot bath. The rest of our group has been luckier, even Sam is now feeling better. The doctor's diagnosis: a virus which will just have to run its course. Feeling satisfied with that, I skip dinner and go to bed.
By 2:00pm I felt good enough to go downstairs and join everyone for lunch. The group divided into those who wanted Chinese and those who preferred Italian. I joined Cam, Chris, Lisa, and Annie for Chinese and then went back to my room to pack and rest.
Alf, Annie, Cam, Chris, Christy, and Bernie all left around 4:00pm to catch their flight to Bangkok. I was sorry to see them go, we had had such a good time together.
At ten that evening I left with Patty, Sam, and Ellie for the airport. I must give credit to A & K. The assistant who accompanied us to the airport cut through the crowds as only an expert could, checking me and my excess baggage through in no time.
Sitting in my Air France seat I wondered when I would ever feel well enough to finish the journal. Probably after I've been to see Dr. Pingot.
So, now that it's finished, I'd like to thank Alf for the trip and for the opportunity to put my observations down on hard disk. It's been an experience I'll never forget.