Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thursday April 30 - Drive to Panna National Park

We had another early start this morning leaving the hotel at 6:0 p.m. 5:00 a.m. comes so quickly, but somehow its not an effort to be up and ready for these early starts. We had a long way to go today about 12 hrs driving. The day was hot again - about 46/48C. We generally drove about 2 hrs and then had a break. In Delhi we had 7 new people join us ages 23 to 35, Eugene,Dave,Derek, Phil, Claire, Emily and Jess. Today was Dave's 35th birthday so we sang "happy birthday"a few times and ate real cream cake provided by our Dragoman contact along with packed boxes for breakfast. We stopped on a country road to eat and couldn't get out of the Truck becauseof the crowd. Our driver Dan had to tell themto "f-off" as we were going to the toilet. Next we stopped for lunch near a place called Datia and were able to see the Nrsing Dev Palace. It looked magnificent from the distance and according to Rough Guide is one of the finest Rajput buildings inIndia being built by Bir Singh Deo in the height of Bundila's Golden Age. It is supposed tobe magnificent inside, but alas, we didn't stop to see it.

We had a later stop in the pm for cold water. For some reason, which we haven't discovered, the towns were deserted and there was nothing on the road - no lorries, carts, rickshaws, motor scooters. We stopped in one town where there seemed to be a vendor selling cold drinks. We were mobbed!! I am not sure how many young men ended up surrounding us but of course the interest was the young girls in the group. Claire, a cop from Kent, ended up signing one guy's shirt and Jess from London signed another guy's money! The number of people around us became quite alarming but once we all made it safely to the Truck Dan took off very promptly!

The countryside today was not really pretty, very flat, farmers' fields, and very dry. We did cross some huge rivers which is new as up to this time they have been dry. We arrived at our destination around 5:30.We are staying in Panna National Park at a lodge called Ken River Lodge. When you mention National Park to aCanadian or American, you conjure up pictures of beautiful mountains, running streams and lush lowlands. This National Park is nothing like that. There are no mountains, little lushness and only a few stunted trees. The Lodge is on the banks of a river and the view is quite stunning overlooking the water. We can swim in the river, but not to go too far from shore because of the crocodiles. I think I'll give it a miss, ....some brave people did swim....and survive!

Our cabins are fantastic; a front courtyard, a huge bedroom with 2 double beds joined together, a dressing room, a bathroom, and access to the roof. They are made out of concrete and plastered and painted.

After a beer, a shower and some relax time, we had dinner. After dinner, Frank arranged a game of trivia then bed.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Wednesday April 29 - The Taj Mahal

Today is one of the highlights of our trip and we left the hotel at 5:45 a.m. in a cavalcade of auto rickshaws to drive the still quiet and deserted streets to the Taj Mahal. We arrived near the gates, walked the short distance to the entrance gate, then, after going through a stringent security check, were allowed to enter the grounds. The first view that greets you is the typical Taj picture - and in reality it is just as splendid as all the wonderful pictures you have seen. It is a magnificent structure, simple, elegant, beautiful, and peaceful. The building is so powerful, you just want to "whisper", so as not to break the magic. I was totally mesmerized, I couldn't take my eyes off it. There are some sights in the world that are worth preserving for eternity. The Taj is one of them. It is right up there with the spectacular beauty of Macchu Pichu.

The Taj was built in 1631 to 1653 by Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his second wife who died in childbirth with their4th child. It is said his hair turned grey overnight he was so devastated over the death. The sad story is that soon after it was built, Shah Jahan was thrown into prison in the Red Fort in Agra by his son Aurangzeb and he spent the rest of his days in prison. He was only every able to gaze out at the Taj through a window. The Taj is built of marble screens and marble inlay made with semi precious stones.

When we finished at the Taj our guide invited us to breakfast on the rooftop of his city home. Breakfast was fabulous. Curds, bananas, oranges, toast, and some Indian deserts. His home was simple and he lived with his wife, 2 brothers and one of their wives, his 4 children, and his mother.

After breakfast, we went to see a marble factory to learn how the marble was made. Then of course, the inevitable emporium tour which I think is so distasteful for an overland trip! Oh well, I am sure some of the others liked it!

We had a quick lunch in a nice restaurant and then went to see the Red Fort. This has to be one of the finest forts we have seen. It quite overpowers the city. It was built in 1565 by Emperor Akbar. It had the usual collection of buildings such as the Hall of Public Audiences, a Mosque built for the ladies of the Court, the Hall of Private Audiences, the Mirror Palace, and a beautiful garden.

After this Ray and I went to the the Internet and had another interesting experience of India kindness. The Internet we went to was full, so someone appeared (who we later learned was the brother of the man whose house we visited for breakfast) and drove us to a business friend of his. We ended up in his business meeting with 5 fast talking Indian businessmen. They set us up at the computer where we sat trying to be inconspicuous reading our email while they made their business agreements! Then it was back to the hotel, actually got a 15 minute nap, and off to see the Mini Taj. This was based on the design of the Taj only much smaller. It was pretty in its own way but had none of the magnificence of the Taj itself.

From there we spent sunset on the banks, or should I say the river-bed, of the River Yamuna taking breathtaking pictures of the Taj reflected in the river water.It was an amazing scene. The majestic Taj looming on the landscape across the river, a young girl scrubbing a few water-buffalo in the river, kids playing with goats, a camel with a camelkeeper giving camel rides to the tourists (there were only our group and maybe 2 others). Then a little down the river we noticed smoke from a burning ghat filling the evening air. If we thought this was going to be a peaceful ending to an amazing day, we did not account for a rickshaw ride back through town at the busiest time of the day. It was quite exciting zipping around bikes, man-pulled rickshaws, cows, etc., just avoiding being hit by buses and taxis, and waiting endlessly in a queue to get over a congested bridge, meanwhile horns are blasting in your ears, people are chattering on the road, and everyone is peering in the rickshaw and calling out or waving at the "white" tourists in the by now well separated rickshaw cavalcade.

We got to dinner and back to the hotel and bed around 10:00 a.m.......exhausted!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tuesday April 28 - Travel to Agra from Jaipur

The Truck picked us up after breakfast around 8:00 a.m. and we left our hosts and travelled to Agra. It was a very hot day and most on the Truck were affected by the incredible heat. You could feel the sweat trickling down your spine, and everytime we got up out of our seats it looked as if we had wet our pants because they were soaking with perspiration. It starts cool, though, and early morning is a special time. Again after4:0o p.m. the air starts to cool down. After the -15C in Canada, I am certainly not complaining, in fact, I quite love it. Of course you have zero energy and we drink about 3 to 4 litres a day of water, hardly go to the loo, and throw water over ourselves at every opportunity. We stopped a couple of times in the morning along the way, then stopped for lunch after which we had a rickshaw ride in the Bharatpur Provincial Park. The rickshaws made me uncomfortable asI felt so badly that someone is struggling to cycle us in the sweltering heat. The route wasn't overly pretty,butwe did see some antelope and delightful birds.

We drove another 40 miles to Fatehpur Sikri where we had a tour and another palace. Quite frankly, its all beginning to mold into one gigantic scene and we are hping that after tomorrow at the Taj Mahal our palace/fort visits inIndia will be reduced.

After the palace, we drove to Agra and arrived at our hotel about 7. We collapsed in the room, showered, went to the restaurant for a quick bite to eat, then bed.

Just as we got into bed, there was an amazingly loud singing and fireworks. I looked out of our window and the groom was just arriving at his wedding in the building opposite. He arrives by horseback on a white, elaborately adorned horse, andthe fireworks welcome his arrival. It all subsided in about 10 minutes but was thrilling to watch.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Monday April 27 - Jaipur

The morning began with breakfast in the ornate dining room of our hotel. The hotel had been a Maharaja's palace year's ago and was still run by descendents of his family. I had toast and marmalade which was a real treat because the marmalade tasted of real marmalade. After breakfast, I had a quiet walk around the beautifully laid out and colourful garden and caught a comple of pictures of the peacocks. Peacocks are the national bird of India. Our guide, Eugene Pram, gave us about an hour's lecture on India, its history, and its social issues. It put a lot of things into perspective for us which we will discuss on the blog in due course. Then around 9:30 we set off for our "city tour". Jaipur is also known as The Pink City. The nick-name comes from the red houses in the Old City which were painted pink to match the red-sandstone of the Mughal empire. In addition, the Maharaja ordered that all houses were to be painted pink in 1876 when the Prince of Wales visited from Britain.

Places of interest are mainly located within the walled city. We went to the City Palance complex which is the most important landmark with its numerous outbuildings, courtyards, impressive gateways and temples. Next, we went to the nearby Jantar Mantar, one of the five observatories built by Sawai Jai Singh. Here we saw a variety of complex astronomical instruments, carved out of stone- and from which you can still fairly accurately tell the time. We drove past but did not go into the Palace of Winds just outside of the palace wall. This was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh. The story goes that in the not-too-distant past, ladies of the court found it convenient to watch the activities on the streets below without being observed themselves.

After lunch we wandered around the side streets and bazaars of Jaipur, went to the Internet and met our truck around 4:00 p.m. to be dropped off at a family for a "family stay". We stayed wtih a lovely couple of doctors in their beautiful home in the suburbs of Jaipur. We were treated to a delicious tea and dinner of favorite Indian dishes and had the opportunity to talk to them about their life and asperations...and India. The couple owned a hospital for bynacology and optimology. It was so lovely to be in a civilized home as opposed to crazy towns, hotels, and camp sites and we really appreciated their hospitality and kindness.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday April 26 - Delhi to Jaipur

Today was busy. We left Delhi at 6:50 a.m. There were 6 new people on the Truck, two guys from Scotland, 1 Canadian gir from Halifax who is currently living and working in England, 3 Engish - 2 girls and one chap Dave - and Eugene from Australia. It seems an easy transition and I hope they are feeling as positive as I am.

We stopped first to pick up Zoe, Dan's mate, and our tour leader, who has just flown in from England after having the last 2 weeks off for a wedding in Italy. Dan is doing all the driving on this leg. Shortly after that we stopped for chai and Zoe changed into "Truck clothes"! We had one other stop for coffee before arriving in Jaipur. The roads were unbelievably busy - so many trucks and going through the toll booths took anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes. The country side was non-descript and time was passed chatting and snoozing.

Jaipur (population 3.5 million), also known as the Pink City, was founded in 1727 and is the capital of Rajasthan. It is packed with people, transportatino, and markets. It is dirty and untidy, but somehow we are becoming used to the haos of Indian towns and beginning to find the character in them. People love to wave at us and call out to us as we pass through the narrow over-crowded streets. There are all sorts of smells, nasty sewage smells, fresh fruit smells, and the sweet smells of the fres and tidy inhabitants. There are elephants in the street, cows idly wandering arund stopping traffice from time to time, goats mixing in with the people, camel drawn carts, horse drawn carts, donkey carts and the whole scene is frenetic and mesmerizing.

Our first stop was Amber Fort. This was a beatiful fort and palace which is built in reddish pink and is representative of the finest Rajput architecture. Building started in 1592. After that we saw the lake and the deserted palace in the lake. Aopparentl, a private enterprise is in the process of putting a causeway over to the lake and developing it into something new. After that we visited a cooperatie where we saw carpet and fabric being made using the traditional methods of 250 years ago. Unfortunately, there was the inevitable "sell" job and although interesting, I did feel that this was an inappropriate activity for an overland truck group.We checked into our hotel around 7:00 p.m., freshened up, met for drinks and dinner around 8 p.m. and finally sank into bed around 11 p.m.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Saturday April 25 - Delhi

Delhi has a nice feel to it - it is a little more civilized than Mumbai, at least the part we saw of Mumbai. In retrospect, hitting Mumbai direct from Canada was a culture shock, a huge culture shock, and it took us a few days to begin to get our heads around where we were! I think if we had hit Delhi first, then Mumbai, it would have been more of a favourite.

This morning after breakfast we met yesterday's autorickshaw driver with his friend and went off site seeing. We went first to Jama Masjid, a stunning mosque and the largest in India. Building the mosque began in 1644 and it was completed in 1658. It has 3 gateways, 4 angle-towers, and 2 minarets. We climbed up the 130 steps of one of minarets and had a fabulous view over the city. The mosque is built out of a mix of sandstone and marble, and is utterly gorgeous

After the mosque, we went to the Red Fort on the banks of the river Yamuna. Once again the architecture of all the buildings within the walls of the Fort is stunning. The Fort is built out of red sandstone by Emperor Shah Jahan. It was started in 1638 and completed in 1648. The idea was to move the capital to Delhi from Agra but before this happened he was captured by his son and imprisoned. The Fort was built at the height of the Mughal power. When the British took power from the Mughals officially in 1858, they took over the Fort and added some buildings for their troops, then when India became independent in 1947, the Indian army moved in. The buildings have now become an historical site (part are UNESCO, I believe), and the Indian army has moved out to allow for renovation of all buildings. We took a guide to show us around and he painted a very vivid picture of the splendor that the Fort would have seen in the Mughal and British reigns. When you enter the Fort you immediately walk through Chatta Chowk, a covered bazaar, full of ornate and glittery Indian tourist goods, but the rest of the buildings are authentic history. They are quite beautiful, and the grounds are huge expanses of gardens, pools, canals, and buildings. Unfortunately, there is no water now, so you just have to imagine the lights reflecting off the water at the evening balls and other celebrations. We saw the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audiences), the fabulous Turkish baths, the Pearl Mosque, made of marble, the Emperor’s private palace and just so much other beauty it’s impossible to convey it all here.

After the Fort, we took our little auto rickshaw to Humayun’s Tomb. This is built in Mughal architecture around the time of the mid-16th century. There are two tomb buildings, or mausoleums, and the larger one is magnificent. It contains over 100 bodies. We spent about an hour here just wandering through the tombs, the mosque, and the gardens.On the way back to the hotel we went back to the “supermarket” and bought some English stone ground brown bread, bananas, peanut butter, cucumber, and tomatoes, then back to the hotel for a feast! Mmmmm, it tasted sooooo good, and only cost about 80 rupees (Cdn $2.00).

Now we are in the Internet, but of course, the computers don’t read DVDs, and our pictures are on DVD! I think Ray has managed to get some off his camera on the blog. We will continue to try. Tomorrow, we start the second leg of our journey on Daphne. Not sure what the itinerary is……but stay in touch. Thanks to all for your comments. Keep them coming, we love it!

Friday, April 24, 2009

April 24 - Hard Drive to Delhi

Once on the road we drove pretty consistently all morning with only a couple of stops for pee breaks. We gradually left the desert behind us, and the countryside became more tame, with a little more colour. Not much though, because it is incredibly dry!

I mentioned yesterday about the people staring at us. It is quite an amazing phenomenom which we constantly try to understand. But wherever we go, heads turn, and men, women, and children stare at us with intense interest. If we go pee on the roadside, there will quickly be an audience, so we always have to have a "lookout". As we pass in the Truck many, many people wave at us, and of course we wave back. If we are pulled up beside someone in the Truck, they start talking to us. We have had so many conversations with so many Indians, some simple like "Where you from"; we reply "Canada"; "Where you go?" "Delhi". Others are more involved depending on the level of English the inquisitor has and can range from where they were born, to conversations about the government and elections coming up, education, health, etc. We really can't quite answer the question "Why are Indians so curious about white people?"; but when you think about it, we all like to watch other people with interest and see what they are doing. I guess Indians are no different, they are just not as discreet about it as we try to be because we are taught from and early age "not to stare....its rude".

We arrived into Delhi, back into the land of the horn blowing, thousands of trucks, cars, wagons, rickshaws, autorickshaws, camel carts, donkey carts, horse carts, any form of transportation that you can imagine. It seems a slightly more prosperous city than Mumbai. Immediately after arriving we had lunch, then I headed out with 3 others to do an intro site-seeing ride in an autorickshaw while Ray nursed a cold and slept. We saw the Gandhi Smriti where Gandhi was living at the time he was assassinated. There was a marvellous wax statue of Gandhi and his wife. It was as if he was sitting there smiling at you, his presence was so strong. Then we went to see the India Gate where Independence was declared from, drove down the Rajpath towards the parliament buildings, the president's official residence and some other government buildings. This is a huge tree-lined avenue with nicely cultivated parks on either side. It resembled our walk down Pall Mall in London; in the alternative it also reminded me of the walk from the Senotaph to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, although this is a more grassy route. This is where the Republic Day parade is held every January 26. We drove back to the hotel past the Gurdwara Bangla Sahi, a Sikh temple, with its beautiful gold domes, then to the supermarket. This was an occasion for rejoicing!! Dan has said we can't buy our truck food at supermarkets but have to use the local products from the local markets, so hitting a supermarket meant soo much civilization! It was air conditioned too which was a plus. In the evening we had a group farewell dinner as 5 members are leaving and we are getting 7 new passengers tomorrow.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thursday April 23 – The Rat Temple

I have often seen pictures and heard about the famous Rat Temple in India. Its proper name is Karni Mata Temple and it is in Deshnok, about a half hour's drive from Bikaner. Our chance to visit came this morning and we left our hotel around 6:00 a.m. armed with determination, and for some, socks! The legend is that Karni Mata, a 14th Century incarnation of Durga, asked Yama, the God of death, to restore to life the son of a storyteller. Yama refused. Karni Mata reincarnated all daed storytellers as rats, depriving Yama of human souls. Its considered "auspicious" if the rats scamper over your feet. If you see a white rat, it means good luck. I imagined walking into a beautiful Hindu temple, with millions of beautifully shining black rats running around over our feet. Imagined it something like walking slowly through a seething mass of rats. Not so! The temple was small, not particularly special, and filthy dirty. The rats were small, mangy, infected little animals. They were cute, and did run around all over the place, but nowhere near the numbers I had imagined and none ran over my feet. A rat did jump into a shoulder bag carried by Anthony and he had to get help to get it out!! But that was the biggest excitement. We watched as Hindus came into the temple to pray. It is an important pilgrimage site for them and they come to pay their respects to the rats. They get food from the priests and then feed the rats and pray to them when they appear out of the myriad of holes to eat the food. It was marvelous to have the opportunity to see this Temple as you hear so much about it in the West, but in reality, we all agreed that it doesn’t have the “oooh” factor that we anticipated.

We drove back to the hotel and went to the Internet (it takes some time to do the posts on the blog, and we are trying hard to get some pictures up, but the Internet has been really slow. Ray did get some up on it, but don't know what happened, they are not there!). We left Bikaner around 12:30 p.m. and drove through the narrow country roads in rural India. We found a fabulous deserted fort on the top of a hill overlooking the most fabulous little village, but unfortunately, we couldn't get to the fort and couldn't find anywhere suitable to camp. Eventually, we came upon a fabulous stony plain at the foot of the mountain range and took the Truck over this until we found a nice sheltered spot away from the road. News travels like lightening! Before we were unpacked, abut 12 Indians were standing around in small groups just watching us. They don't say anything, they don't do anything, they just stand and stare. We had a fabulous pasta dinner, a couple of beers, and off to bed. Because of the location, we had to have someone on watch all night. Our shift was 5 - 6 p.m. We were lucky!! We left at 6:30 a.m.

Tonight was Aussie Sarah's 36th birthday, and Gemma made some delicious desert called "Tiffin", blew up balloons, and we all sang "Happy Birthday" around the fire.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wednesday, April 22 – The Thar Desert – Jaisalmer to Bikaner

We arose before sunrise and watched the orange sun come up over the deep yellow sand-dunes. We were served paw-paw, boiled eggs and toast and jam with a small cup of sweet, spicy, chai tea. Then it was back into the jeeps and we sped back to Jaisalmer onto the Truck and off to Bikaner. It was an incredibly hot, day as we traveled through the Thar Desert, and the sand swirled around in the wind so much so that at points we could hardly see ahead of us for the sand-fog. Morale on the Truck was quite low as we sat drugged in our seats with the perspiration flowing freely over our bodies. Our food stops these days are often non-existent or very late and we stopped in a town called Kolayet for a samosa lunch around 3 p.m. This was an interesting town set among a lake which had lots of water and lilies. It is quite pretty and around the lake are small temples and shrines where Sadhus are supposed to hang out and bathe n the lake. We only saw one Sadhu and were set upon by a myriad of women and kids begging. The city almost seemed deserted, but I guess it was still very hot and most people were inside trying to stay coo. We ate lunch on the way to Bikaner where we are staying in another pretty hotel “The Harosar Haveli”. Ray and I spent about an hour in the Internet before showering for dinner on the roof with the Group. Tomorrow, we visit the Rat Temple ….. so check back soon!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tuesday April 21 – The Golden City

Jaisalmer (population 50, 286) is nestled in the Thar Desert at the bottom of Trikuta Hill on top of which sits the impressive yellow sandstone Fort from which the City gets its name, “The Golden City”. The town was founded in 1156 and due to its strategic position on the “camel-train” routes from India to Central Asia it became very wealthy. The homes of the wealthy merchants are called “haveli’s” and a number of them are on view today. The Fort itself is different from what we have seen so far in that it contains a living village of residences, shops, and other amenities, as well as the cows, and goats. In one part we walked through, it became a little scary because one of the randy bulls decided to mount one of the females. There was quite a scuffle, and we moved very abruptly out of the way, much to the amusement of the onlookers!! Wherever we go we are stared at! Kids, and men mainly. It’s kind of sick: the men love to take photos of the young girls in the group and you can seem them taking their bums and breasts in pure delight. You just have to keep remembering that in India women do not walk around half-dressed. We are a phenomonon with our white skins and free ways. The young (and some not so young) men find it all fascinating.

Mixed in among the residential homes and shops are a series of temples: 7 Jain Temples, and a Hindu Temple, and the Maharaja’
S Palace. We learned that the Fort is one of the most threatened sites on the World Monuments Watch List of 100 endangered sites, due mainly to the lack of proper sewer and water systems resulting from the increase in tourism and inhabitants.

The Jain Temples are amazing. Jainism started way back in the 6th Century BC as a reaction against the caste system and Hinduism. One of the major criteria of the religion is non-violence towards anything that is living. The Jains make up about 1% of the Indian population, but they are often very rich and economically strong. The Temples are incredibly elaborate with every inch of the numerous columns carved with statutes of gods, animals, flora, etc.

We also went through the Palace which was small than the others we have see but no less ornate. It offers amazing views over the city. We arrived back from the Fort in time to shower before leaving for our camel trek and night in the desert.

The camels are amazingly ugly. They look ugly, their faces are ugly, and their movements are quite ungainly. However, we had a fun 1 ½ hr ride on the camels to our desert camp. When we arrived, my guide gave me the opportunity to go fast on the camel. At first I was very skeptical. I might be able to gallop on a horse, but I wasn’t sure about galloping on a camel. Anyway, he convinced me – not really tough!! – and rode up with me in front of him. “Fast” means a fast sitting trot. Its soooo comfortable. Like doing a sitting trot on a draught horse but with an even bigger stride. It was such fun! We had dinner served while a group of magicians played and danced typical Rajasthan music, then we bedded down in the open air, our nerves jangling with the thoughts of scorpions crawling over us in the night.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Monday April 20 - Sambhali Trust, Jodhpur

In the morning we woke up around 6 am. to find ourselves surrounded by lambs, sheep, goats, cows, camels, and people from the small rondavels that housed the workson othe land. We were followd by an array of kids as we went about tidynig up the camp site all chanting "photo" and of course we obliged! About 8 we left our desert house and drove about 1/2 hr back to Sambhali Trust. This is a grass-roots organization for the empowerment of marginalized women. It was only started in 2007 by the owner of the Durag Niwas Guest House that we visited yesterday, thanks to a generous donation by Lonely Planet. Dragoman also donates so many rupees per person travelling on the Trust. The Setrawa Village project provides educational and economic opportunities through language training, craft design, and other relevant workshops. The web site if you would like to read more is: We spent a couple of hours wtih the children aged from about 4 up to 14 or 15 watching their dancs and hearing their songs. We also told them a bit about our contries and tried to sing some songs too. Ray gave out the Canadian flag pins we obtained from Bev Oda and they were a big hit. All too soon, it was time to leave.

The problem in India and Rajasthan State is the traditional treatment of women Women are totally dependent on men, and are subjected regularly to beatings, rape, and other violence. Under the Indian Constitution the Caste System is illegal but it is still very prominent especially in rural regions. Some of the girls at the school are married by age 12, even although the law is that women can't marry until age 18. The women at the school are the Harijans or the untouchables, in other words, the lowest of the low. It is hoped that through sponsorship by the Trust these women will be able to make better choices, know their rights, and have an improved economic opportunity. There is much work to be done.

Alanna pointed out that I haven't talked much about the group we are travelling with. Overall, the group is quite congenial, supportive of one another, and not extreme in any way. We get along just fine with all of them and there is always someone available to do something if you so wish. Its not as close a group as our South American group, and the group is generally more independent. Also the nature of the holiday is much differenct from South America - shorter segments, more turnover in people, and I think this leads to the singularity. The overal comraderie exists, but it is not as deep, and I can't see many relationships being continued after the trip. But then, that is just my perspective - and perhaps the others feel they are forming these closer relationships. The people are very diverse:Ray is the oldest, but marvellously, it is not evident. Geoff - English - and retired, but still does some odd jobs to supplment his income; Frank (English) and Franz (Austrian) are both in their early 60s and are retired geography teachers. Karen used to work for the British Government in the VAT office. Sean is a Cockney, about 46, and currently living in Edinburgh. He was in the army for a short time, and now works on a contract basis. Jean Paul - English - not sure what he does. He has a lovely wit, and is one of these steady reliable people. Anthony is from New Zealand. Sarah is Australian - early 30s, living in London and works as an accountant for an optical shop. She was married when young and divorced by about 25. Sara from Seattle (40 ish) - currently living in Italy - quit her stressful job as a manager in IT to travel. Caroline from Boston works on contract in graphic design and marketing. Philip (Scottish) and Marie (Irish), early 30s, married for a couple of years. Philip works as an account manager in the financial field and Marie is a GP. Gemma, English, 30, has been travelling for a while and goes on to Vietnam after Kathmandu after which she goes home to a lecturing job in psychology. Katie is English, 23, and an opera singer. Vajn is from North Carolina and is just entering law school at Cornell. Scarlett and Olivia, both English are in their gap year. So you can see, it is a varied group and everyone brings something different and special.

The weather is getting hotter and we are now truly in the desert. Its not the pure sand and sand dunes desert like the Sahara or the desert in Peru, but it is more scrub - sand with low, thorny trees and camel grass. We watched the "dust devils" forming on the horizon as we drove along through the incresing heat. We didn't really stop for breakfast or lunch today, but just kept going to Jaisalmer where we arrived around 2:30 p.m. The hotel "Golden Haveli Hotel" is brand new and although not quite finished and not quite open it is fabulous. Our room and bathroom in the Indian style, are equal to any 4 or 5 star hotel in Canada/USA. However, the gorgeously located roof-dining room was a bit of a disappointment. Now, in India, you need to have patience. Firstly nobody understands you, but they all look at you nodding their heads and saying "yes", then nothing happens. Second, nothing happens quickly, so when we ordered lunch (a grilled cheese and a pineapple raita) it was 2 hours before the grilled cheese arrived and the raita never did. The grilled cheese was not grilled because there was no power, and plain bread with grated cheese of some unknown description didn't quite live up to my expectations! The owner gave us a 15% discount! However, this gorgous hotel charged us $1.35 per night for a room! Fantastic!!! Beause it was new, the owner just wanted the business. He owns 3 hotels, and told us that it was his fault that we could not stay at the first one because he had mistaken the day of the booking - so he just put us up in the new one. Ray and I decided to chill after we arrived at the hotel and showered then walked down to the Internet and to dinner.We went to one of the owner's other hotels, for our meals and that is how we found this out. In fact he even left his driver to drive us back to the hotel we were staying at after dinner. Another act of Indian kindness.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunday April 19 - Mehrangarh Fort

This morning we left Pushkar (population 846,408) to journey to Jodpur. As we drove, the landscape became more rocky, the towns less populated, and the roads better. Jodpur was founded in 1459 and it's growth and development was financed by the opium trade, sandalwood, dates, and copper. The town is dominated by Meherangarh, a large fort that sits atop a rock overlooking the Brahmin-blue houses of the old city below. Like most of the other cities we have seen it is busy, dirty, and smelly. We parked the Truck at the Durag Niwas Guest House, a small guest house by the gates of Old Public Park where we had a lovely lunch before we visited the Fort.

We did an audio tour of the fort which was brilliant as the narrator although Indian spoke with the most perfect British accent and we could understand. Most of our guides so far have purported to speak English, but it has been very hard if not impossible to understand them. I am surprised at how poorly English is spoken here, and I saw a newspaper article in Mumbai which indicated that the government is aware of the huge need for people to speak better English if India is to complete on the world stage.

I loved the Fort. It was started in 1459 and the impressive external architecture envelops maginificantly decorated rooms, and a wonderful collection of palanquins, elephant howdahs, weapons, paintings, and turbans. The views over the Blue City are marvellous, and the discussion on the audio tour by the current maharaja in his Oxford perfect Engish made it all so personal.

In the late afternoon, we reluctantly walked down the steep narrow lane leading from the fort to the Sardar Market and the clock tower, and after being harrassed by enough vendors and beggars, we climbed in to an autorickshaw and went back to pick up the Truck.

Tonight was another bush camp, however, the owner of the Guest House suggested that where we planned to camp was not safe and offered us his land to camp on in a rural community. The story is that his grand father's family farmed the land in a rural community. Five of the 6 brothers remained on the land to farm it and his grandfather, the 6th brother went to the city to help out with supporting the famiy and that is how the Guest House was started. He sent one of his employees with us and we drove about 2 hrs out of the city of Jodpur and into the flat rocky-sandy wilderness of the Thar Desert towards Pakistan. The road was excellent and we passed tons of Indian army vehicles and troops on the way to the border. The border is highly guarded, fully fenced, and they take no chances on allowing the wrong people through. We also saw many windmill farms which provide the energy to support the lighting along the fence at the border.

It was dark when we turned off the main road onto a narrow lane and eventually off that to drive across the sand to the community of 6 houses. People sleep on the roof here, so we elected to do the same instead of pitching our tent. Being part of cook group I started preparing dinner immediately. It was a magical night under the stars, and we even managed to contact Alanna by phone from this remote spot on our Vodophone Indian mobile SIM.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Saturday April 18 - Pushkar

We had an uneventful 6 hour journey from Udaipur through to the Hindu-pilgrimage town of Pushkar (population 14,789); well, we did see rather a gory accident where a truck had dessicated a small car and flipped of the highway to land on its side about 30 feet below by the side of the road.

While driving along, I often look around me at the impassive faces of my fellow travellers and wonder what thoughts and feelings are crowing their minds; also chuckle at the facial contortions of those "snoozing". We are certainly not an attractive specimen when in repose: when you lie in your truck seat head flung back against the back of the seat, mouth wide open - and snoring!!!

We arrived in Pushkar around 1:00 p.m. and while waiting for something to eat I sat in the hotel garden sipping on a fresh lime juice and soda in the 40C temperature taking a quiet, solitary moment to reflect on all the amazing things we have seen so far. The legend regarding the founding of Pushkar is that Brahma dropped a lotus flower on the earth and Pushkar rose to the surface. The town is built around a small lake, along the edge of which are 52 holy bathing pools or "ghats". You can be blessed by the side of the water by a real or maybe not so real priest, for a few baksheesh, but somehow this didn't really appeal to us! There are many temples (most of them fairly new) mixed in with the tourist-cheap shopping area. We went into the Brahma temple with our little collection of rose petals and tried to follow the habits of those who had made the pilgrimmage there for holy purposes. It was very hard to find a "spiritual" element amidst all of the tourist-hype and constant barrage for money, although I asume at some level it is there. The main narrow street through town is lined with trashy tourist shops and full of pilgrims, tourists, local, cows and scooters. Despite the dirt and trashiness, it was a neat little town and we enjoyed a cool drink and later dinner on 2 of the lake-view roof top restaurants. The saddest part is the lake, which is very dry and which was being excavated to make it deeper. Not a pretty site! Water is a real problem in this north-western part of India and some of the towns haven't seen rain-falls for years.

It is the extremes in India that play with your mind. You no sooner conclude that generally all Indians are dishonest and only out for a buck, then along comes someone who shows a great amount of kindness. It's hard, but you have to adopt a neutral approach and let each person you meet convince you one way or the other by his/her own behaviour.

I haven't yet discovered the mystical, the magical, or the "romantic" side of India that you hear people talk about. The sites we have seen, although impressive and interesting and each containing their own special meaning, do not reflect the "magic" or the "romantic" element that you see in so any pictures. Life is hard here, the people are hard, its a struggle for survival for the majority in a land that constantly fights for the natural elements such as water, and other comforts of life.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Friday April 17 - Udaipur

Its all go on these trips and there is not much down time. Our city tour left the hotel at 8:30 a.m.. 5 of us crawled into a lovely air conditioned4-year-old Toyota SUV which was a little more comfortable than the regular auto rickshaws we took yesterday. The "Old City" of Udaipur is quite charming with narrow streets flanked by shops and restaurants and full of the usual rickshaws, oxen, donkeys, scooters, bikes and taxies. How there are not more accidents, I don't know!! We went into 2 of the magnificent City Palaces. The City Palace is a conglomeration of various palaces built by the various Maharajas of Rajasthan over the years starting in the 1600s. The palaces had a fine collection of the usual arches, narrow passages and decorative work and a fabulous view of the city. Some of the highlights for me included seeing the tigers' cage (no tiger unfortunately), the beautiful Marwari horses in the stables, the 'durbar hall' built in 1909 where the ladies of the palace could view the state banquets and meetings from the Crystal Gallery containing an unused collection of crystal chairs, sofas, tables and beds. After the palaces we drove to Saheliyon-ki-bari, a charming ornamental garden designed for 48 women attendants who were part of a princess's dowry. The gardens contain a beautiful lotus pond and the usual amount of floral colour, peace and tranquility that gardens normally offer.

In the afternoon 5 of us went for a rather disappointing horseback ride on the Marwari horses where the only excitement was caused by the sudden burst of blasting in a mine we passed by!

In the evening we went for dinner and to watch "Octopussy" on a rooftop terrace overlooking Jagniwas Island, the island in Lake Pichola where 3 palaces are located that were used in the James Bod movie.

On a couple of the rides in the Toyota I sat in the front passenger seat beside our drive JP. I was able to get a bird's eye view of the undisciplined driving that is India. I couldn't work out the "rules" and on chatting to JP learned that although there are rules, no-one knows, or obeys them, and the police don't bother enforcing them! Many cars, rickshaws, bikes, etc. use no lights and you learn to anticipate the movements of the ominous shadows and black shapes that represent the various modes of transportation. I think it is as JP said: "you take care of you and everything works out" ..... sometimes!!

Our stay in Udaipur was somewhat dampened by some unfortunate events that took place at the hotel, which although beautiful may not have been as safe as most would wish. One of the girls woke up around 2:30 a.m. to find the owner of the hotel in her room rummaging through the bags of one of her other 2 room-mates while they were up on the roof With a few of our group drinking. Apparently she had left the room unlocked so that the other 2 could come in. Although we heard a wide array of excuses, but no apology, from the owner, I think it is difficult to find an acceptable reason for this invasive and dishonest behaviour. Had this been Britain or Canada, the owner would have been reported to the police. Here, there is no point in doing that! Nothing would be done about it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Thursday April 16 - Udaipur

We had a short journey from our campsite to Udaipur, about 4 hours - with a stop along the way for chai. Above the back 5 seats of theTruck, is a shelf which contains another 4 seats. This morning, Dan opened up the back section of the roof and I was able to sit up there for about 2 1/2 hours. My head just peeped over the items stored on the roof of the truck making it easy to duck for trees and hydro wires. The view was fantastic. We could see straight down the tiny tree-lined roads we were travelling along; we could see over brick walls and into courtyards where goats, cows, oxen and camels lay or stood munching on their straw, and we could see the beautiful facades of some of the buildings we passed. We passed slowly through some towns where political rallies were in full swing and our guide has warned us well to stay clear of political demonstrations as they can become violent, as evidenced by the "riot control vehicle" we passed ominously parked in one of the village squares.

We pulled into Udaipur around 11:30 a.m. and our hotel for 2 nights "Inder Prakash". The hotel is an elegant "persian" looking hotel, with beautiful black wood doors, windows and trim. The doors are secured with padlocks and there is a musket hanging on the wall , hope we don't have to use it! The ceilings are about 11 feet high, and there is a TV, a beautiful window seat overlooking Neharu Island Park in Fateh Sagar Lake. The lake was man made in 1678 by some Maharaja and the gardens can be reached by a autorickshaw. Once again in Udaipur we see the contrasts of India. Where the streets are busy, noisy and untidy, this lake at night time is beautifully lit and quite romantic with full value being made of the white palace like structure in the park. There were even fireworks tonight over the lake in celebration of the Congress Party's win in the area.

Udaipur, population 389,317 is referred to as the Venice of the East. The main lake is Lake Pichola which is flanked by the Aravilli hills. It is in this lake that you see the floating palace - Lake Palace - where parts of Octopussy were filmed. Tomorrow we are hiring a taxi to take us to see more of this city of opposites. Today, we went to the Internet, an ATM - this was an interesting experience with the security guard supporting a 12 gauge shot gun with hundreds of bullets slung around his shoulders - arranged our day tomorrow, and finally had dinner on the beautiful roof terrace overlooking the Lake where the bright lights of the gardens in the lake reflected their shadows over the shimmering water. It was dreamlike and quite romantic.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Wednesday April 15 - Meeting a Sadhu - and Kindness

Today was a day of travel from Mandu into Rajasthan and a bush camp at night. The route took us through the sun-baked country side of Upper Maharashtra State into the more verdant farming country of Rajasthan. We saw our first camel ambling along the side of the road with its owner and also our first elephant with its colourfully painted head and bum. Before leaving Mandu we saw and photographed some of the famous Baobab trees which apparently only grow in this region.

One of the exciting things about India is that it is so different from Canada and other Western countries, so looking out of the windows of the Truck your eyes don't know where to look because there is so much to take in. India grows on you as you come to understand its history, religions, and cultures, but its not an easy country to relate to because of these differences.

We had a very special moment when we stopped for a truck lunch. We turned off the main highway down a random very narrow, very steep, pebbly track. When the lane ran out, we were on the edge of a precipice with 2 water wells and 2 water falls cascading down two separate rock faces to a dried up river bed below - or they would have been cascading if there was any water in them, which of course there isn't. Underneath one of the falls was a cave. We learned that a sadhu was living in the cave. Our Nepalese guide Erwin went done to check out the situation and came back with the exciting news that the Sadhu didn't mind visitors, but Erwin suggested that in order not to intimidate him and to show him some respect, we go down in small groups. After lunch Ray and I walked the short distance down concrete steps, to the cave. It was an amazing experience to meet and talk to someone who has the confidence in himself to leave the mainstream and know that life will continue. Our Sadhu had lived in the cave for a year. He had some pets which he introduced to us - a beautiful parrot who comfortably perched on my finger or pictures after giving his consent, and a tiny baby owl who was too young to know any different. The Sadhu had given up life as a marketing manager in Kerala in the South to life a "simple life" in an attempt to get closer to God. He was incredibly good looking with the kindest smile in the world. We could have stayed chatting with him for a long time as he would with us. His English was excellent and he really badly wanted to show us his photos. In fact, a French man had visited and stayed for 3 months. Sadly, Dan called down to us that the Truck was leaving and we made our way back up the hill filled with one more image of kindness in India.

The towns in Northern India appear a little more Islamic but the scenes of mayhem and tons of people still abound.

The day passed all too quickly and we pulled off the road down a tiny farmer's lane to find a campsite. No sooner had we stopped the Truck than a chap appeared on a scooter. He explained to our leader that there was a wedding party on tonight and the locals would be drinking so best not to stay there. He was working on some land close by and we could camp there. One of the guides went on the bike and we followed in the Truck. We travelled a short distance and into a field where thy were clearing the stones to prepare the land or agriculture. Our guides indicated we were too close to the road and Ray and a few o the guys went out to source a camp site. They soon came back with the news that this chap would make a road or us to get to the back o the property behind a large mound which would provide protection for a perfect camp site behind the mound. So up came the backhoe to cut a road through, then the tractor with a load full of topping for the road, then the back hoe bladed it smooth and the road was finished. No money changed hands. The chap said his boss the landowner was developing the land for commercial purposes and he was happy to help in any way he could. An incredible act of kindness. We enjoyed the wedding music and drums through the night and then drifted into a peaceful sleep on top of our straw field bed.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tuesday April 14 - Mandu Ghost City and the Pied Piper of Mandu

Life at a campsite starts early in the morning and we were up at 5:00 a.m. to leave at 6:00 a.m. In that time we washed, brushed our teeth, had a cup of coffee/tea, took down the tent, and packed the truck. Our "wash" consisted of a "wet-wipes" wipe all over while still in our tents, and tooth brushing was accomplished in the squat position a short distance from the tent while at the same time swirling our mouth with bottled water to clear out the toothpaste. The "loo" on this trip is a hole dug in the ground and covered with a tent. If you do more than "pee", you have to cover up your deposit with earth. Toilet paper can be buried in the hole. In other open-air situations, toilet paper is either burned or carried back to the Truck and deposited in the plastic bag located in the spare tire at the back of the Truck and specially placed for that purpose. The preferred style of loo are the squat toilets which when you think about it are probably more hygenic than the sit-down toilets in that you don't have to sit on a toilet seat where hundreds of other bare bums have sat, but there are flush sit down toilets in some of the more modern hotels/restaurants, etc.

Our drive to day took us through the real India. A mixture of paved divided highways, narrow two lane roads and bumpy dirt roads. In any of these cases the lorries prevail. They are brightly coloured, Tata trucks which roll along like a caravan of camels in the desert - and there are hundreds of them. Moving precariously between and around the trucks are the motor scooters. Other highway hazzards on the country roads are the tractors and the oxen-drawn carts. There is garbage everywhere, high quantities in the towns and less in the country areas. The villages such as Songir, Shirpur, Senaburg, Jhylwanda and Phalgat, are generally anywhere from 800,000 to over 1 1/2 million people. They are an eclectic mix of one or two room brick, mud or concrete, houses with tin , tile, or thatched rooves, with or without a satellite. Cows, goats, and hens all live with their owners. India is a nation of vendors and shop-keepers and tiny 6 feet by 8 feet shops, and wooden carts line the village streets. Into all of this add the women in their colourful saris, the men in their shirts and pants, and the huge numbers of children.

The normal routine on the road is drive for 2 hours, stop for 25 minutes for chai and a wee, and depending on the day, breakfast. Today we had chipatties for breakfast. We made a lunch stop in Dhammod during which time our cook group went to the local market to buy the ingredients for the evening meal. Shortly after lunch, we had our first puncture of the trip. We stood around in 38+C temperatures with the sun blazing down, watching Dan change the tyre in record time. The sweat was pouring off him like a small stream rolling its way down the mountainside.

On our way once again, we turned off the main roads onto a small one-car lane which curved its way through a beautiful farming area, some very friendly villages, and up through a series of spectacular hair pin bends to Mandu. Although a tourist town, we only saw a handful of India families visiting and no other "westerners".

The mountain village of Mandu, population 8550, sits 634m atop a ravine-riddled plateau. It was built in the 10th Century by an Afghani king as a fortress retreat. In 1304 it was conquered by the Delhi Muslim rulers, and in 1401 the Governor of Malway set up his own kingdom there. Following a series of hostile takeovers, the last of which occurred in 1732 the city's wealth and population started to decline so that today it has the feeling of a "ghost city". There are two categories of ruins, the Royal Enclave consisting of the palaces, stables, house, shop, mosque and Turkish baths, and the Village Group consisting of the mosques, tombs, and a Jain temple which stretch over 20 sq km. I think the best way to see it, at this time of the year anyway, would be by bike. We hired a guide and took the Truck to the various spots. It is a truly beautiful area. The architecture is stunning with its many archways, tall ceilings, water and garden areas, and the hole effect is one of serenity. It was like taking a moment out of the hectic life at the bottom of the mountain, to appreciate the solitude at the top.

I never did make it to the last building. I was trying to capture a picture of the sunset over the water and when I turned around there were a couple of children around me whom I started talking to. Before I knew it, there were 20 or 30 around me, all wanting "photo". As I took the photo's and let the children see them, we walked slowly towards the Truck, but too slowly, the Truck took off up the hill to the last ruin. The next half hour I spent surrounded by children so excited to talk to white people. They jumping up and down, waving their arms around as if in some frenetic dance, shouting "photo" and gigling and cheering. It was quite a sight and the energy level was crackling in the air! After taking the picture I showed it to them and they scrutinized themselves in the picture, pointing each other out, telling me their names, and practising their limited English. I looked up to the Truck which by this time had reached the ruins and thought to myself that it would't hurt me at all not so see one more ruin, and that giving the children so much fun and an experience they wouldn't forget for a long time, was worth much more. Besides I was having fun too. So, I took off my sandals, and walked slowly up the hill amongst a chattering, excited, group of youngsters.

Afterwards, I pondered why they got so much pleasure from this. I thought it may be that they don't have mirrors in their houses like we do, and that seeing themselves in the pictures was a novelty. After all, think of the hours we spend preening ourselves in front of a mirror! Vanity....that is one thing there is not much time for on this trip.

Back at the camp site at the Malwa Resort, cook group cooked up maccaroni cheese with potato and tomato, and sliced bananas filled with melted Cadbury's chocolate for desert.
One of the fun parts of camping is the camraderie in the evening when you get to sit around a campfire, slug a few beers, and share stories with your fellow travellers.

Camped in the grounds of the Malwa Resort

Monday, April 13, 2009

Monday April 13 - Daulatabad

Breakfast at 7:00 p.m. ion the hotel was a simple affair; corn flakes and hot milk, boiled egg, toast, jam, and tea/coffee. The Indian food we have eaten has been delicious: spicy, arromatic, but way too much. Haven't a clue what it all is, but generally its included chicken, mutton or goat, vegetables, rice, roti of some description, and bottled water or beer. I had yoghurt sprinkled with fresh lime juice at lunch time and it was delicious. The daahl is also good, so despite not being very adventurous when it comes to food, the Indian food is quite easy to digest.

We set off from the hotel just after 8 a.m. and drove to Daulatabad, about 13 km from Aurangabad. This is a hill-top fortress which was built

Our guide sold us a story about one of the sultans who, in the 14thC decided to make this the capital of India, apparently a good location because it is in the "centre" of India. He marked the entire population of Delhi 1100 km to populate the new city. Most people died on the way. It's easy to understand why! At this time of year, the land is parched dry; the river beds have dried up; and there is no rain. The countryside looks like a sun burned blanket of hay-grass. The temperature yesterday was about 40C. Lack of water is a huge problem. There is an election on this area and one of the regions has told the politicians in uncertain manner to get water for them before they can expect the people to vote since the town is dry. Two years later those who survived retraced their steps back to Delhi. Several reasons are given: the Sultan was a bad leader; the area was unsuitable for a capital city; and the future sultan didn't want to stay there.

The fortress is a unique conglomeration of buildings designed to thwart the most ardent invaders and the Hindu guide who took us over the site wove an intriguing tale of the philosophy/psychology behind its construction. First the fort is protected by 7 surrounding walls with off set connecting gates studded with large metal spikes to make ramming by elephants impossible; second, part of the ascent goes through a dark bat filled tunnel which ends in a divided circle so that confused invaders will go both left and right around the dividing wall of the circle thus crashing into each other and self-destructing; and third, the passageways and steps are erratic and dangerous with "tripping stones" strategically placed at the corners of the corridors to trip the invaders so that they land flat on their faces. Our guide told us thrilling tales about an attempt to scale the walls using guana to secure climbing ropes. The invaders attached harnesses to the guana and flung them up the rock where they lashed on with their legs and were secure enough to support the invaders scaling the rope. True?....mmmmm, not sure.

The climb to the top covered 200 meters. We saw chipmunk looking squirrels and playful monkeys on the way up ....and people. The people here are much more friendly than in the Mumbai area. They are all intrigued by "white" people and we had many conversations on the way up and back in a broken English or sign language. We were made to feel like royalty.

The view from the top was magnificent and well worth the 45 minute climb. The last part up to the flag pole was a killer though, numerous stone steps reminiscent of those "Inca steps" on our Machu Picchu trek only in 38 - 40C. The sweat was pouring off us, and as the air is so dry we couldn't drink enough of our sun-warmed drinking water. It was quite exhiliarating though and the experience was enjoyed by all.

We had lunch in a small typical Indian restaurant then drove to Dhule where the cook group took a rickshaw into the market-centre of the town to do the shopping for dinner while the others of us sat in an air-conditioned restaurant cooling down from the sizzling heat of the day.

Our drive took us through charming farming lands and small villages then over a series of S bends as we crawled up and down a parched escarpment of basalt rock. The villages would be town s to us and they are bedlam: there are hundreds of people walking through the streets together with the usual assortment of trucks, rickshaws, bikes, cows, dogs, and donkeys. The horns are honking, loud speakers playing music, and the noise level id deafening.

This was our first "bush camp"; and it was a race against darkness to find a suitable spot. But our leader Dan made a splendid choice and as darkness settled in we pulled off the main road down a narrow, dirt, rutted track lined with thorny scrub trees that clawed at the sides of the truck as we bumped along to come to a rest by the side of a large pond. Dinner (coq-au-vin) mashed potatoes, green beans was a welcome change from the spicy food we have consumed so far. Bed around 11:30 p.m. followed by deep sleep in our moon filled tent.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sunday April 12 - Elora Caves

We were up this morning at 5 a.m. and on the road at 6:00 a.m. - everyone nodding off in the Truck; the mood was "sleep". After 2 hours of driving we stopped for breakfast at a roadside restaurant. It was in a delightful small town and people were very friendly and curious. Dragoman had not taken this route before so I guess the Truck and the travellers were a curiosity to the locals. The route was pretty as we drove through valleys, farming lands and hills and crossed rivers and admired the doeful-faced cows, as the sun rose slowly in the blue sky. The country side was dotted with small farmsteads, many thatched houses both roof and walls, or baked brick walls and thatched rooves. Simple but full of character. The chai was even better than yesterday, but the wada ( I think that's the right name) (potato and bread bun) didn't excite me. The "slum housing" was greatly reduced but as we drove we wondered whether life in a slum in the city would be better or worse than life on a slum in the country, but didn't come to any conclusive answers. Around lunch time we pulled into Elora, grabbed lunch, and then took off to see the Elora Cave-Temples, a World Heritage Site.

The 34 caves were constructed in 600 AD - 1000AD on a 2 km stretch of escarpment as temples, chapples and monasteries for Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monks using only a chisel, a hammer, and a pick-axe. There are a profusion of intricately sculptured figures and scenes depicting the religion and way of life of the Buddhists, Hindus, and Jain.The Hindu temple Kailasa which is dedicated to Shiva is remarkable, and is apparently the world's largest "monolithic" sculptures. It is incredible to image that the design of this huge artistic structure was contained in the heads of those who worked on it, and the linear precision achieved is amazing. We also pondered at the number of monks who must have prayed there, and speculated what it would be like to be in a "time capsule" and visit those times.

The bats in the Kailasa Temple were fun to watch too - I think they were probably sleeping until our flashes startled them and a few made some swoops of protest around the inner chamber of the cave.

I had a little moment of panic as were leaving the temple at the end of the day because I went back to take a picture of the elephants around the outside of the temple and when I turned back the group was gone. I couldn't find the way out for about 10/15 minutes, but all was well, despite my vision s of spending a night locked up in a Hindu cave-temple.

After the caves we made a short drive to Aurangabad and our hotel Altithi where we arrived around 7:00 p.m. Ray and I went out to find an Internet Cafe from which to call Alanna and wish her happy Easter but unfortunately their mike didn't work so we were unable to do so. Then we cam back to the hotel, had a delicious meal of I don't know what - goat or mutton...?, sat and chatted with some of the group and bed around 11:30 p.m.

We are coming to understand India more and more each day. It was a delight to be in the countryside on tiny little bumpy roads and being out in Aurangabad tonight we met some really nice people. Apart from the rickshaws no-one followed us, no-one begged for money, and no-one tried to get us to buy something!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Saturday April 11 - Winery in India - eh?

Believable or not, the Nashik area, among others, is known for its wine grapes and we had a quick tour in the afternoon of the Jula Winery. It was started in 1996 by a local landowner who called on expertise from California to establish a vinyard. The wines sold are always a year old, and despite "tasting" many, we really could not find one that we wished to purchase. They cost about 490 to 690 Rps a bottle (about $15 to $21), so not really cheap. It felt very weird to all of us to be "wine tasting" in India!

The town of Nashik is quite special and is about 6 hrs drive from Mumbai. If we thought Mumbai was frenetic, this is madness! The noise of the horns is excruciating; the narrow roads in the centre of town are a heaving mass of people, animals, produce, goods, scooters, bicycles, carts - all mixed into one moving writing, heaving bundle. In the truck we feel like dignataries as so many people wave at us as we go by, but there still some beggars coming to the truck windows begging for money.

The drive out of Mumbai started at 6 a.m. just ahead of the morning rush and we made good time. We stopped once out of the city at a roadside restaurant for chai (tea) which was delicious - I think its ginger, cardomen, masala, milk and sugar.

The route initially wound through pretty flat, parched countryside until we came to the hills. These were brownish/yellow and rutted with channels from the monsoon rains.

After the wine tour we had a nice swim in the hotel pool - very welcome in this 40+C heat, then a group dinner. The group seems very nice and are quite varied in ages; probably out of the 19 7 are over 50 or around. We have a doctor, a psychologist, an opera singer, a couple on their gap year; a couple at university and they are from Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Scotland, and Ireland. The truck "Daphne" is similar to the truck on the South American trip but a little smaller I think. It does have seats on the roof, so we are promised some open air travel which will surely give us the true feeling of being in India.

Tomorrow we are off to see the Elora Caves and then on to some "wild camps" - so stay tuned.

Friday, April 10, 2009

April 9/10 - The Gateway to India - Mumbai, or Bombay

Bombay, or as it is called by some, Mumbai, is the financial capital and largest city by population in India - approximately 16.4 - 18 million people depending on the source. I can't say that it is one of the world's prettiest cities. The land is very dry (at this time of the year anyway), there is not a lot of floral "colour", and many of the buildings are either externally deteriorating, blackened by weather and pollution, or unfinished. Despite this, there are some spectacular buildings such as the university, the high courts, the very special Victoria Station, various temples, and of course the world renowned Taj Mahal Palace and Tower. What is special about Mumbai are the people. The city is like an electrical current. It is alive, makes sparks, and is constantly on the move. At first the city confuses you as it moves on so many different wave lengths and three days is not nearly enough to understand its inner workings. First there are the tourists, their white skins standing out amid the pale, mid and dark browns of the Indians. The Indians are a fine, proud people with dark hair, large dark eyes, and fine facial features. Our clothes look the same as many Indians, and you just want to slink along with the crowd, but you can't. Out of the millions of people in Mumbai, about 55% live in slums. If you have read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, you will have some idea of slum life and the battles that poor people living there have to face on a daily basis. Living in a slum doesn't mean you don't have a job, it just means that you can't earn enough in your job to live elsewhere. Then there are the beggars, who I have to admit do not appear as a large group. The most heartbreaking are the women with young children, the older women, the physically challenged, and the children. When you have just left half of your dinner on your plate, you feel very humble when some kid grabs on to your arm and begs you for food. Then in contrast to all of this is "officialdom", i.e. the police, the army, the navy, etc. who walk around importantly in starched white uniforms and highly polished shoes. There are the very rich, who I suppose we haven't seen, but we did go into the Taj and we have noticed some very luxurious yachts in the harbour. And then there are the rest of the population who you see rushing about their daily chores. The Indian people are mainly very slim. They walk erect with an air of importance and the knowledge of a place to go. You don't get many smiles, the people are serious. At least, this is my "bird's eye" view as a tourist having spent 3 days in Mumbai.

On Thursday we rented a car and a driver and went around a small part of the city. We saw most of the main sights that are in the tourist books, and many more. The more interesting of the sights were the house where Gandhi had stayed, and the laundry ( I need my book to fill the names in here). On Friday, we took a ferry 10km to the Elephanta Caves, abut an hour over, two hours there, and an hour back. The island contains a series of cave-temples which it is thought were carved into the volcanic rock somewhere around AD 450-750. The main theme is a Hindu temple and depicts the Brahmin, Vishnu, and Shiva gods. There is a huge and spectacular carving depicting this. Our guide told us that when the Portuguese ruled Mumbai they used the carvings as target practice, and all construction work was stopped.

We have read the local papers and noted some different social problems from ours, for example: spitting, a health hazard; spitting "paan" which is a mixture of tobacco and other ingredients wrapped in bechtel nut leaf and which is mildly narcotic, when spit, the red dye from the mixture leaves nasty stains and costs the government millions to clean up; the noise level, its horrendous, your ears get sore with all the honking, ringing of bicycle bells, sound of the traffic, and the chatter of people. India continues to evolve from its British roots and is realizing the necessity of change in order to manage its vast numbers of people and keep up with the global world.

On the global scale, India is concerned about Obama's plan for Afghanistan. Its main fear is that there is no control over aid going to Pakistan and that this aid is ending up in the hands of the Taliban. There is a huge fear, and quite real I believe, that the Taliban once in Pakistan, will be able to penetrate India quite easily. This is a very serious problem here.

We have wandered through markets alive with people in colourful sarees and other dress buying and selling their produce and goods. We have seen the largest laundry in the world where clothes are washed in hundreds of concrete tubs and hung outside to dry. We have seen slums and houses which in our priviledged western lives we couldn't imagine. We have seen elegance and beauty to match the best in the world. When people say India is a country of extremes - it is. It plays with your emotions, it stretches each of your senses, and just when you think you can't listen to one more honk of a car's horn, or ring of a bicycle, or listen to one more child begging you for food, or one more street vendor trying to sell you something, the day ends, and there is a deathly quiet and peace which lulls you to sleep until the next day when it all starts over again.

We head out of Mumbai on Friday night - and I will catch up again with you as soon as possible. In the mean time, Happy Easter to all.