Bangladesh Adventures

Monday, January 22, 2007

Our Trip to Rajasthan, India

We spent 15 days traveling in Rajasthan, India, 30 Dec thru 14 Jan. I would have to say this was a once in a lifetime trip but I/we have had a number of once in a lifetime trip so far in our lives. The state of Rajasthan is in the desert region of India and is still like something out of “Tales of the Arabian Nights.” Side note: thank you Tricia for giving the boys the book- Charles started reading it on this trip.

We started the journey by flying to Kolkata with the four boys and all our belongings in four bags. One big backpack for Nita and I (I carried it), Chase and Charles had their own bags and were responsible for carrying and all content, Chad and CJ shared another smaller backpack (Nita carried). We arrived in Kolkata in the morning and spent the day with friends from Compassion India, Jeba, his wife, Rajastree and two lovely daughters. Our train to Agra left at 11:30 p.m. that day.

Agra, India- Taj Mahal

The train left from Howrah Station one of the biggest in the world! Big, crowed, people seemingly living on the floor space, beggars, porters everywhere, and 22 platforms. Howrah is a story in itself and the boys where all wide eyed at the station while we waited. The train arrived and we made it to our coach in a 3 tier AC sleeper- meaning three bunks on one side and three bunks on the other side of a compartment, we had five of the bunks and CJ slept with me on this night. The train took 23 hours to get to Agra. So we arrived at 10:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. We all stayed up to midnight- had a group hug and went to bed.

Our first visit was to Agra Fort on New Years day! Agra Fort is a massive red sandstone fort built by Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1565. The fort has colossal double walls that rise over 20 meters and measure 2.5 km around. An old man that must have been born sometime shortly after Akbar death was our tour guide. The boys said he was a good tour guide because he was so old.

Nest stop was the Taj Mahal. We along with 1,000s of other India tourist were visiting the Taj on New Year day. We later found out that Indians think it is auspicious to visit the Taj on the first day of the year. It was worth waiting in line for more than an hour and being frisked.

A visit to the Taj Mahal is an overwhelming experience! It is sooo beautiful! It was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (Akbar’s grandson) as a mausoleum for his second wife, Mumtaz who died in childbirth in 1631. It was her 13th child for Shah Jahan. 20,000 people worked on the building. The Taj structure is constructed of semi translucent white marble, carved with flowers and inlaid with thousands of semi precious stones in beautiful patterns. A perfect exercise in symmetry- Charles told me. We all enjoyed it and watched the marble change colors from bright white to a rich golden sheen, then slowly turns pink, red and finally blue with the changing light as the sun sets.

The next day we visited Fatehpur Sikri about 40 km west of the Taj. Fatehpur Sikri is a magnificent fortified ghost city built in 1571 by Moghul Emperor Akbar.Although it is brilliant from an architectural point of view, Akbar’s city was erected in an area that was plagued by water shortages, and it was abandoned shortly after Akbar’s death because of no water. As we wondered around the Jama Masjid, Palace and fort we just couldn’t believe that these massive structure built from huge stones was only used for 15 years!

Akbar is regarded as the greatest of the Mughals and was thrust into power at the age 13 and expanded the Mughal Empire to cover most of Northern India. Akbar had 5,000 wives including Christian, Hindu, and Muslim- the Mughals were Muslims. There is no way to describe the enormous size of this city. In one of the stone courtyards there is a giant Parcheesi Board where Akbar played the game pachisi using slave girls as the pieces. It is amazing that everything was made out of huge Red sandstone. The tallest building was five storey which was very impressive for the 1500s all of stone- the lower floor has 84 columns.

3 Jan we traveled by train from Agra to Jaipur a 7-hour trip. Jaipur is the capital of Rajastan.

Rajasthan, the Land of the Kings, is India at its exotic and colourful best clothing, with its battle-scarred forts, places of breathtaking grandeur and its dry brown, desert landscape. The state is home to the Rajputs, a group of warrior clans, who have controlled this part of India for 1000 years.

Jaipur is known as the pink city for the color of its buildings in the old city. The old city contains the city palace complex built in 1727 by Maharaja Jai Singh. This is where the Maharajas (big kings) lived. We took a tour of the palace and saw what extravagant lives the Maharajas lived. We were impressed by one of the Maharaja’s size- he was a man of 7 foot and weighted more than 500 lbs!

The boys wanted to visit the Jantar Mantar- an observatory designed and build by Maharaja Jai Singh in 1728. He had a great passion of astronomy and the observatory is still working today. Chase set his watch by the striking sundial, with its 27-meter high gnomon, the shadow it cast moves up 4 meters per hour. We had a nice college aged guide for explaining all the curious sculptures/instruments.

Charles, Chase, Chad, and I walked up to Nahargarh or Tiger Fort that evening that is built on a sheer ridge to the north of the city. We reached it by zigzagging up a 2 km footpath. Nita did some shopping for Rajasthani clothing, very colorful!

From Jaipur we went to Jodhpur- 6 hours by train.

In Jodhpur we stayed in 500-year-old haveli named Yogi’s Guest House. The rooms were inexpensive at $8 a night but clean with some hot water. It was cold the whole time in Rajasthan with 5-10’C temperatures. We pretty much wore all the clothes we brought with us. A Haveli is a mansion with an internal courtyard to provided security and privacy for the women of the household. The main entrance is a large wooden gate lading into a small courtyard. It was amazing to sleep in such an old mansion made of stone with Hindu carving in the stones. From the top of the guest, house which was also a restaurant you had a perfect view of the Majestic Meherangarh Fort.

We all enjoyed our tour of Meherangarh Fort (most impressive fort we visited but they were all grand). It is still run by the Maharaja of Jodhur. We took a very well done audio tour of the fort, which was built in 1459. Meherangarh means Citadel of the Sun. The walls are Massive! We had a delightful lunch at the fort and I read the boys a magazine about ancient Persian Empire that was very similar to the Mughals and under King Darius reached as far as western India. The second gate is scarred by cannonball hits. The boys thought it was interesting that the large stone block road leading to the gate went up pretty steep and then made a hard left into the gate area- the reason for this was to keep elephant from getting up to ramming speed to knock the gate down. We spent all day at this fort- just taking our time and enjoying the views from the ramparts. However, Nita was a little (okay, a lot) anxious about the boys getting close to 20 to 30 meter walls on top of 125 meter high sheer cliff to the town below. The view showed us all the blue houses in Jodhpur.

Jodhpur is known as the Blue City because of the indigo colored houses in the old town. Blue signifies the Hindu God Brahmin and is an effective mosquito repellent!

We also visited the 324 room Chhittar Palace where the current Maharaja lives. The place was unbelievable! It is built of marble and pink sandstone and it is immense! The Maharaja and his family live in one end and the other end is a very high end hotel with room rates from $700 to $2,500 a night!

From Jodhpur we went to Jaisalmer- 7 hours by train.

I have never seen a city like Jaisalmer before in my life! Jaisalmer is a place that should exist only in the imagination- nothing is like this enchanting city! The vision of Jaisalmer’s massive fort thrusting heavenwards out of the barren desertscape is unforgettable. The old city inside the fort is labyrinthine of bazaars and streets. The fort is home to several thousand people and this is what makes it so special- it is alive!

The fort was built in 1156 (that’s 900 years ago!!!) by a Rajput ruler. Our guest house was in the wall of the fort- so we slept in a 900 year old room! The fort is the most alive of any museum we were ever in. There are homes and hotels hidden in the laneways, and shops and stalls swaddled in the Kaleidoscopic mirrors and embroideries of brilliant Rajasthani cloth! Nita could have spent many days just wondering around looking at all the colorful clothing! We enjoyed walking around and watching the live in a 900-year-old fort. However, we only spent 1.5 days in Jaisalmer because we went there to go on a Camel Safari! We also saw a delightful Rajasthani puppet show the one evening we where there- the boys and us laughed and laughed and the boys bought a string puppet they will need to show you.

The highlight of our trip was our 3-day Camel Safari!

The boys absolutely loved it! Nita was very concern being up that high and its quite an experience just sitting on a camel and having it stand up- you have to hold on for dear life or you will first fall off frontward then fall off backwards- Nita screamed every time her camel stood up. It was excellent! The boys had no trouble.

We left at 9:30 a.m. on day one on six camels. Our guides were Raju and Mr. Soda, very nice fellows; Mr. Soda owned two of the camels. Charles, Chase, and Chad rode and controlled their own camels! That was the best part for them! CJ and I shared a camel and shared driving it! Nita had her own Camel but it was tied to the Camel that Raju and Mr. Soda rode on (they shared). Nita did not want any part in driving! We had heard from other people that many times they don’t let people drive so we were happy we could!

We rode through tumble brush for about 3 hours seeing wandering goats and sheep. We stopped for lunch under a big tree. We had to unpack the camels and then Raju and Soda started a fire from dry thorn bushes. We had dhal (lentil soup) and chapatti (flat bread) for lunch and supper each day with some vegetables thrown into the soup. After playing Frisbee with the boys on a lot of sand- I took a nice nap. We rode another two hours after are break and then stop for the night. Raju made us some tea over an open fire and set up our blankets for sleeping. It was very cold at night around freezing. They put some camel blankets down for us to lay on- right on the sand behind a big cactus/grass to keep the wind and blowing sand off of us. Then we slept in pairs covered with two blankets for each pair. Nita, CJ, Chad and I; and then Charles and Chase together.

Uncle Jim- you can’t imagine how many stars there are out in the middle of the desert with no lights around for miles! I kept telling the family how many stars there where- they kind-of got tired of it. But the sky was so filled with stars. The moon didn’t come out until around 3 a.m. Then it was as bright as day almost.

Sleeping under the stars on the sand dunes was excellent but I don’t think Nita enjoyed it that much- she was pretty sore from the riding! You could hear the Camels all night chewing their cud.

The next day we were up early drinking tea and having chapattis with peanut butter, jam and boiled eggs- delicious! We played some Frisbee and helped pack the camels. It was amazing how CJ and the boys were not afraid of these big animals. We stopped for water on our second day and CJ even led his camel to and from the well- all by himself.

We saw antelopes, some cows, goats, and some donkeys in different areas but mostly waste/sand land. Today we hit the big sand dunes as if the Sahara Desert- ridge after ridge of sand as far as the eye could see. The boys played for a good hour before sunset on the dunes- Nita had to strip them bare to get all the sand off of them- in fact we’re still finding sand in our cloths- two weeks and two washes later! They loved to run as fast as they could down the dune until they couldn’t control it anymore and fall face first into the sand. The Sunset was beautiful over the desert!!

On the third day, we rode for 2.5 hours back to where a jeep picked us to take us to town. We had a 4 o’clock train to Jaipur (12 hours) then changed trains for a 24 hour ride to Kolkata. Lots of Rummy (cards) played on this trip with the boys!

What a trip- even for a low budget adventurer like the family and I! The family returned to Bangladesh on 14 Jan- school started 15 Jan. I flew on to Bangalore, India for a weeklong training with Compassion. I returned to Bangladesh on 20 Jan to find 262 good e-mail I needed to take care of from Compassion. It is now 22 January 2007 and I’m down to 142 e-mail. Such is life!