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Watching monkeys in Ranthambhore and Bundi

Posted: 2007-02-18 08:11:42, Categories: Travel, India, 697 words (permalink)

A man feeding monkeys in Bundi. After Jaipur I rode 160 km in two days to Ranthambhore, a national park famous for its tigers. The only way to access the park (at least the only officially permitted way...) was in a jeep or an openroofed bus called Canter, so I also booked a three hour safari in one of them. Unfortunately the tigers didn't show up that time, the most we saw of them were pawprints in the sand. Similarly to Sariska, deer, peacocks and monkeys dominated the fauna, with the addition of a few antilopes. The landscape was also beautiful featuring hills, rocks and ancient trees. Just outside the park entrance it was possible to climb on top one of the hills to explore fort ruins and visit temples. It was interesting to follow the monkeys climbing in the trees, eating fruit and taking care of their babies. You had to be careful though, as they were not afraid of people and could come to grab food and other items even from your hands or from bags.

About 120 km west of Ranthambhore lies a town called Bundi, where I stayed for six days. Along with Alwar and Sariska it became one of my favorite places in India during this trip. Pittoresque old houses lined the narrow streets of the old town and surrounding hills offered places to enjoy great views in solitude. The town was touristic enough to offer a range of guesthouses, restaurants and Internet cafes to choose from, but shop owners and others offering their services were less pushy and generally friendlier than those in the more frequented places like Delhi, Jaipur or Agra.

Perhaps the most well known attraction of Bundi is the Garh Palace, which looked great from the outside and had beautiful wall paintings inside. Up from the palace on top of the hills were fort ruins which were much less maintained: one had to occasionally go through bushes or climb small walls to get the best views. At the fort, tourists were few but monkeys numerous and sometimes protective of their territory. I picked up a stick from the ground to be able to fight back in case of an attack, fortunately I didn't have to use it.

Back down in the old town it was fun to take peeks into the narrow alleys which started from the main street. Most of them were dead ends but had interesting views of the old houses. The only clearly unpleasant thing was the lack of a proper sewage system. Many houses released dirty water and flushed toilets directly to open ditches which carried the waste slowly downhill by the streetsides.

I rarely mention any particular hotels by name but in Bundi I can warmly recommend the Hadee Rani guesthouse, which was everything a guesthouse should be. It was a 350-year old haveli, a typical old house, but had been renovated and opened as a guesthouse less than a year ago. The whole place was beautifully painted and decorated in hindu style, there was a personal touch to every room and even the smallest one had a sympathetic mini temple in the corner. You could climb on the roof terrace to have a view towards the hills or to watch stars during the night. The family running the place cooked great food and was generally nice and helpful, ready to engage in conversations but also understood privacy, which is not always the case in India. I just hope they'll continue the same way also after the place gets included in popular guidebooks. ;-)

I would have probably stayed in Bundi still longer but two things drove me away: the family of Hadee Rani left for a marriage party in another city closing the guesthouse (I moved to another which wasn't so good), and more importantly I had a chat with an old friend who was an exchange student in France at the same time than me. A short moment of planning, a call to confirm that the timing was suitable, and I booked a ticket to travel 700 kilometers by train to meet him. It has been again a different and fascinating experience, but I'll save that for the next time.


Mixed feelings in Jaipur

Posted: 2007-02-05 09:45:31, Categories: Travel, India, 656 words (permalink)

View over Jaipur from the Nahargarh fort. I spent four and a half days in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, and left the city with mixed feelings. It's a big and busy city but certainly more pleasant to walk around than Delhi, has forts and temples on the hills around the city offering great views and becomes full of positive energy at the time of a good festival. I had the chance of encountering there my first fellow bicycle travelers in India, a couple from Switzerland and a guy from Andorra. On the other hand, Jaipur is also a city where the jewerly mafia is having fun in nightclubs while homeless children are begging for food on the streets.

My favourite place in Jaipur was the Nahargarh fort, situated on top of a hill in the northern part of the city. It was high enough to escape the noise and dust but you coild still hear how the city hums below while admiring the view over the rooftops. The ruins of the fort and the more recent palace section were also worth exploring and not packed with tourists.

The Valley of the Monkeys with several temples in the east had an equally attractive location in a valley just behind a small hill range. However, it was already too popular with visitors and had become a money-making exercise. It's customary to make small donations in temples and I also do so fairly often, but when priests start requesting larger sums just after I've put in a small note it doesn't make me feel good.

Third monument worth visiting was Jantar Mantar, an ancient observatory in the city center built during the first half of 18th century. Many of the instruments were for measuring star movements and the exact method of how to interpret the readings was not obvious, but they were beautiful! It was fascinating to see a marble sundial large enough to reach the precision of seconds rather than minutes.

My best experience in Jaipur was participating in the Muharram festival. It's a muslim festival commemorating the date prophet Mohammed's grandson died. Jaipur has a large population of muslims and many hindus are flexible enough in their habits to join the celebration too, so it filled the streets with great vigor. Although the festival was modeled to commemorate a funeral, on the street it looked like a fairly joyful event. Several hundred handmade floats were carried through the center to be disassembled and put to big holes in the ground beside the main mosque at the outskirts of the city. Groups of drummers accompanied the floats stopping in front of spectators to show their best talent and collect some tips on the way. Again foreigners were warmly welcomed: we (I was with two Canadians that day) were invited to the doorsteps of a shop for the best view and offered a chance to participate in the drumming too.

The less pleasant face of Jaipur was that it was hard to tell whom you could trust there. In two separate cases probably by two completely separate groups a friendly encounter of a local led after some time to shady business suggestions being made to either me or to my friend. Bumping to the same people again on the street after cutting contacts made me want to get out of the city as soon as possible.

Events like this make you think how easily and what kind of personal information you give to strangers on the street and in the Internet. About one month ago I read an article warning about divulging too much private information (focusing on social networking websites) and the fairly different Slashdot response where several readers argued that the young Internet generation knows and lives with it, pointing out also positive aspects. While I've been personally fairly open and would like to keep it that way I also strongly support the right to privacy for those who choose a different approach.

Keeping up with the news

Posted: 2007-02-05 09:29:56, Categories: Travel, General, India, Free software, Politics, 303 words (permalink)

People often ask me how I keep up with the world news while traveling. The short and honest answer is that I don't keep up very well at all. :) Occasionally I do check out a newspaper or some websites, and my folks at home inform me if something really groundbreaking happens, at least if it is related to the area where I'm traveling in. Friends sometimes tell by email what has happened to them lately and it's always nice to read those mails.

For the traveler who likes to keep up to date, India is one of the easier places. Good quality English language newspapers are readily available, sometimes also in restaurants or hotels avoiding the need to buy the paper yourself. I discovered that the editorials and opinions page of the Times of India is particularly interesting. The articles are also available on the web so I'll share two good pieces with you. One of them is about urbanisation and overpopulation while the other takes on the state of science in India:

I currently don't have a source of general news which I'd check regularly. Browsing the sites of major newspapers would be too time consuming because I'm not connected to the Internet daily and would have to go back several issues each time to get the full news flow. A weekly summary delivered by email would be optimal, suggestions are welcome. I'm still passionate enough about Free software to read the weekly issues of Linux Weekly News, and for some reason I find it fun to read the Ask the Headhunter newsletters although I'm not currently searching for a job. Otherwise my search for information in the net is usually reduced to current practical needs such as visa information and weather forecasts from the Weather Underground.

Guest of honor on the Republic Day of India

Posted: 2007-02-01 18:12:49, Categories: Travel, India, 701 words (permalink)

Speaking in Narhaith on the Republic Day of India. In the afternoon on January 25th I arrived to a small village called Narhaith. A few highschool students started talking to me and brought me to the primary school of the village. There I was warmly welcomed by two teachers, Mr. Dinesh Kumar and Mr. Ramdang Pti. They offered me tea and fruits and told that next day there would be a celebration of the Republic Day of India. I had actually heard about the Republic Day in Delhi but already forgotten the date. When I said that I'd be happy to stay and see the celebration, the teachers were excited and said that I'd be the guest of honor in their program.

During the next few hours I was taken to a local temple, given a tour in the village and treated to a tasty dinner in one of the village homes. After some rounds of Indian rum (Old Monk, fairly good actually) and local "wine" it was about ten in the evening and we returned to the school. I was given the task to write a speech which one of the high school students would then translate to hindi. I took a fairly conservative approach, explaining who I am, telling about the warm welcome I received in the village, then congratulating India on the Republic Day and wishing peace and happiness for everybody. Obviously I was unable to check the translation, but it looked good. :) Around midnight we went to sleep on the floor of one of the school rooms. People were very curious about my strange western things such as my sleeping bag and my headlamp.

The program started at nine in the morning by singing the Indian national anthem and raising the flag. Then there were a few speeches, some songs performed by children and two short dance performances. As the guest of honor I was given two flower necklaces and a chair behind the table in front with the teachers and other respected people while the school children were sitting on the sand field.

After the program Dinesh invited me to his home, he was actually living in another village away from the school. I accepted the invitation and rode my bicycle 15 kilometers back the road I had just taken the previous day. There I got the full Indian experience of staying in a village where everybody knows each other. Dinesh wanted me to individually introduce myself to every relative and friend of his - and I can tell you there were many of them. ;)

One of the particularities of Indian culture is that traditionally the guest eats first and only then others can start. They'll give me food and everybody will sit around watching me eat. I'm a slow eater and they'll keep adding more to my plate until I've several times said that I'm full, so it takes quite a bit of time. Personally I would prefer that we'd all eat together, but naturally I don't try to fight against the local culture. In modern families this is changing and eating together with the guests is becoming more common.

Before Naraith I stopped for one day in the Sariska national park. Just upon arrival I met two Canadians who had a car and driver (in India you usually rent a car with a local driver) and we went to the park together. We saw lots of monkeys, deer and peacocks but were also lucky enough to spot one leopard. It was a fairly short sighting so I didn't get a photo but there was no doubt that it was a leopard. Also the surroundings of the park where I could ride my bicycle were pleasant and full of animals: especially monkeys liked to play by the roadside.

A few days ago I finally arrived in Jaipur. It's again a big city of several million inhabitants and some interesting places, I'll write more about it later. Riding from Delhi to Jaipur took several days more than I expected, but spending time in the villages was certainly worth it. As a Romanian guy whom I talked to in Cluj said: "More important than to travel in India is to be in India". I agree with him.

Surrounded by people

Posted: 2007-01-23 08:37:13, Categories: Travel, India, Cycling, 894 words (permalink)

Crowd of Indians surrounding me in Sohna. Whenever I arrive in a village and stop my bicycle, it takes merely seconds to be surrounded by dozens of curious faces. If India is an exotic destination for me, the reverse is also true: locals have never seen something as strange as a white man touring their country by bicycle. They'll push each other to get closer, they'll squeak the horn attached to the handlebar of my bike and push the gear buttons, some even want to touch me to make sure I'm real. A lone cyclist in India is never alone.

On my first day of hitting the countryside, I met a motorcyclist just after leaving a small town called Sohna. His opinion of the next 50 kilometers wasn't too encouraging: "Totally backwards country, only poor people, you'll not find any place to stay...". I could have turned back and checked in to a hotel in Sohna, but that would have been deliberately avoiding any possibility of adventure. I decided to ride until Nuh, the next town on the map about 20 kilometers away, and see what would happen there.

I didn't even reach Nuh before I was talking to two college students living there, on their way back to town by motorcycle. After hearing that I didn't have yet a place to stay for the night they readily invited me to their home. We went to get a blessing from a local temple at the foot of nearby hills, chatted with friends around a small fire while the village was suffering one of the very frequent power cuts, tried a special mix of sweets and spices wrapped to a plant leave called "paan" and had dinner together before going to bed. I heard that they had met two German cyclists on the road a couple of years ago, but I was the first foreigner who actually stayed as their guest in the town. I would have had an invitation to stay for another day had it not been that unfortunately my new friends had to go to Delhi early next morning. Now it became an open invitation: they said I'll still have to come back before leaving India. They even called me several times during the next two days and sent sms messages to make sure I'd return.

Nuh also showed how modern technology is making it's way to Indian villages and small towns. A car is still a rare luxury item, but for example mobile phones are becoming increasingly common. Most traffic on the roads consists of either buses and trucks, or light-weight vehicles such as motorcycles, mopeds and bicycles. Cows and hairy pigs roam on the narrow alleys in towns and villages while camels are used along with trucks for long distance hauling of goods.

Last two days I've spent in Alwar, a pleasant medium-sized city of a few hundred thousand inhabitants. Also here a foreigner is a target of constant attention: everybody wants to ask at least what's my name and where do I come from. However, unlike in Delhi they are not touts which try to lure me to a shop or restaurant, here people just want to spend time with a foreigner and perhaps get a contact address abroad. Answering the same questions over and over can get tiring after a while, especially as the discussions don't usually get much further without the ability to speak hindi. I don't have any hard feelings to ignore touts, some of which are even outright dishonest, but doing the same for people who are simply curious and friendly would be rude, so I try to keep on smiling and answering those questions. And should I start ignoring people I would also miss some of the best experiences, like meeting Dhara.

Dhara was one of those people who came to talk to me in a park and wanted to know who I am, where do I come from and whether I like India. Then he wanted to take me around in the city and show all the historical places, as he put it. I decided to follow him for a while at the same time wondering when he would start asking for guide fees. I couldn't have been more wrong on the last point: as I was his guest he wouldn't let me pay for anything except a small gas refill for his old scooter which we were using to get around. In addition to the sights and tasting kalakan, a specialty in Alwar, I got a small insight into the life of an Indian truck driver. The evening ended with a dinner at Dhara's modest home, where a dozen family members shared three small rooms and a few animals lived in the yard. The food was cooked on a stove burning platters of dried cow dung; wood is scarce and only more wealthy families can afford a gas range.

One of the pleasures of leaving Delhi has been a sharp decrease in the pollution level. Roads are a bit dusty, but otherwise I've been able to breathe reasonably clean air again. My long-lasting cough which started in Istanbul and continued in Delhi is finally gone. Beggars are also much less numerous than in the capital. People in the countryside might be poor, but most still have at least a clay hut where to live in and enough basic food to eat.

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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