Friday, January 31, 2014

We Are Two Princes

All of our touring for this trip will be in the state of Rajasthan.  And I read in the guidebook that Rajasthan is the ‘Land of Princes'.  So I told Sonu ‘we are two princes on an adventure!’.

The royals of this part of India are the Rajput maharajas, whose kingdoms began in the sixth century and survived both the Mughal Empire and British rule.  Their biggest legacy today is the opulent palaces and expansive forts they build throughout the state.

We started out with the biggest and the best.  In Udaipur, the City Palace is the largest of all palaces in Rajasthan, and the second largest in India.  The Mughal or Persian influence is evident in the architecture and design, and the building materials are granite and marble.  And intricate latticework, mirrored mosaics and distinctive scalloped door and window elements are seen throughout.

Udaipur is surrounded by majestic mountains and It’s known as the ‘City of Lakes’. The city is also called ‘The Venice of India’, and the white-walled summer residence, the Lake Palace,  is an island to itself, seeming to float on the water.  Udaipur has been called the most romantic city in India, and the wedding capital of the north.  We were told that this is the ‘wedding season', and we saw over-the-top evidence of this.  One wedding taking place while we were there filled hotel rooms and took over major tourist sites, and had 1,000 guests.

The nearby mountaintop fort at Kumbhalgarh has the second longest wall in the world.  At 22-miles-long, it’s second only to The Great Wall of China.  We decided to forgo a guide and ‘scramble’ the walls and fort on our own.  We found a perfect spot for a sunset photo, and stayed for an evening ‘illumination’ show.  We were two princes surveying our realm  .  .  . 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pushkar: Pilgrims, Hippies, Holy men and Priests

Sonu and I are so happy to be together again.  We've already fallen into our familiar pattern.  We laugh together as we see camels, cows, sheep, goats, monkeys and an elephant on the road, and overloaded trucks, tractors and buses.  And also when I jump out of the car for photos.  We snack on Lay's chips and cokes, and we talk about family, home, politics, religion and life.

Our timing is off for the annual Camel Festival, but it's a scene to behold every day in Pushkar.  This first stop for us is a pilgrimage site for Hindus, not unlike Haridwar and Rishikesh on the Ganges River;  I visited both of them my last time in India.  Pushkar's holy water is that of a sacred lake, and the city's major temple is one of very few anywhere dedicated to Brahma, a principal Hindu god.

It's a crazy mix of the spiritual and commercial here.  Young backpack-carrying Americans, Europeans and Israelis create a throwback 'hippie' culture, mixing with pilgrims, and turbaned holy men and priests.  Sacred cows wander narrow streets lined with tourist ware shops.  And everyone steps out of their shoes and walks down to lakeside platforms (ghats), particularly at sunset.  There they cast flowers on the water, or light incense or candles.  Or they pay a local priest to say a puja (blessing).  We saw many people just sitting or standing to reflect.  After a long, seven-hour day on the road, so did we  .  .  .

Monday, January 27, 2014

Old Friends in New Delhi

On my third trip to India, these two are like old friends welcoming me back.  The Ambassador Classic car and the three-wheel, green-and-yellow Tuk-Tuk are iconic means of transport in the capitol city of New Delhi.  Unlike the updated black London cabs, they have both remained fairly unchanged since the 1950s.  They're beloved by their owners, and some of them are actually that old.

I was on my own today, and braved the Delhi metro.  I found it easy to use, and my one-stop ride cost the equivalent of 6 cents each way. The packed-in people, body contact and pushing was like nothing I'd seen anywhere before, and I've ridden a lot of subways.  I was glad I left my camera at the hotel, and had my money in a zippered pocket.  But it was a rich experience, a 'slice of life'.  I was surrounded by nothing but men, with a few exceptions.  But I realized that there are separate cars for women when I saw pink signs saying 'women only'.  Another sign warned of a fine for spitting: the penalty is 200 rupees, or about $3.

Tomorrow I meet-up with Sonu.  Many of you will remember that he was my driver the first time I came to India, and he became my friend.  At the end of that 2010 visit to the Taj Mahal, Ranthambhore and Jaipur, I had Sonu list in my journal an itinerary for the next time.  When I came in 2012 we toured the Himalayan foothills, and even visited his family.  Again, I didn't leave without his writing down a plan for another visit.  And here I am!  This time we will be 10 days further exploring the state of Rajasthan.  We learn together and talk about everything.  And we Facebook message and Skype between visits.  I'm so looking forward to being with Sonu again.  Having met him just four years ago, he may not be an old friend, but he's one of my best  .  .  .

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Snapshots: Phuket

We saw umbrella and lounge-lined white sandy beaches, elephants, a giant buddha, motorbikes, elegant dancers, limestone cliffs, blue-green waters, and so many smiles everywhere we went.  To India (for me) and Cambodia (Allison and Eva) in the morning.  I'll sure miss these two!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Back to Phuket

I've wanted to return to Phuket, Thailand, ever since I visited here six years ago, so I'm back!  This time I'm accompanied by friends Allison and Eva.  They flew from New York and we met in Tokyo, then we continued on and overnighted in Bangkok before a final short flight to Phuket.  We will be here a week, and then 'the girls' will go on to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and I will fly to India for some touring with my friend Sonu.

Marriott's Phuket Beach Club is one of the reasons I wanted to return.  It's probably the nicest Marriott timeshare property anywhere in the world, sharing all amenities with the JW Marriott resort.  It's absolutely stunning, and I'm able to come as a trade for the week I own.  But it's also the perfect weather, uncrowded beaches, and beautiful foliage and flowers that drew me back.  I love the colorful small 'spirit house' shrines you see outside many homes and businesses, and also the serene buddhas and humble monks.  The flavors are some of my favorites, including coconut, lemongrass, curry, mango and lime.  And the biggest draw is the charming people who use their warm smiles often, and bow to you in hands-clasped greeting.