The Big Trip


It Was Just A Boring Highway Until…

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Incredible describes a few of our moments on an otherwise boring highway trip between Delhi and Agra.

The six lane road was opened just two years ago. It’s a massive expanse of concrete running across totally flat farm land as far as the eye can see, broken only by smokestacks of brick kilns spewing dark grey carcinogens into the pale blue sky. There was only light traffic on the highway, but that didn’t mean less potential for accidents. Traffic slowed and then stopped as we approached what looked like a major catastrophe. But one car coming from behind us was driving way too fast and the driver must not have seen the backup.  He swerved just in time to avoid sideswiping us and screeched to a stop an inch from the car ahead of us. Very close call. Our driver jumped out and had a heated finger shaking conversation with the miscreant, who just shrugged it off. The ambulances arrived to haul off the victims and we forged on.

The next event was a road block constructed by a group of disgruntled villagers.

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Do to our lack of understanding Hindi combined with our driver’s scant English we couldn’t quite get the whole story. But it involved the school and some sort of payoff and exams. Traffic backed up behind us as the entire village marched up to and across the highway, dragging branches to form a barrier. Then the police arrived and that was that.

We moved on to the next event which at first looked like a convention taking place in the middle of the highway. Nope, just a bus breakdown. An excuse for the passengers to get out and stretch their legs.

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Incredible India.

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Two Faces of Agra

Four years ago David took did an awesomely romantic thing. He took me to watch the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. Only problem was that the January fog had thrown a wet blanket over most of that part of India and the view of one the of the most famous tourist attractions in the world was considerably dampened. 100,000 people and I were mighty disappointed that day as there’s no lighting inside the Taj, which left us all pretty much in the dark.

Let’s hear it for dogged determination. Today David took me back to the Taj, this time in bright sunlight. That the other 100,000 tourists joined us wasn’t such a big deal. I’ve been in India long enough to push and shove with the best of them. The experience (not included the pushing and shoving) was magical on many levels. That you are actually at the Taj Mahal is an adrenaline rush of major proportions. Seeing that iconic edifice in all it’s gleaming glory just about takes your breath away. Reading that Shah Jahan built it as a mausoleum for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal after she died giving birth to their FOURTEENTH CHILD causes your jaw to drop in astonishment and (if you’ve ever had just one episiotomy) horror.

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The road in and out of Agra presented an entirely different slice of Indian life. Life on the street, while certainly colorful, is no bowl of mangoes.

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Desperately Seeking Ganesh

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In a last ditch attempt to bring back as many Ganesh related gifts as humanly possible for our Ganesh-infatuated grandson Elijah, we made one last stop at a bookstore in Delhi’s upscale Kahn Market. The choices were many, but we had already gone way past the point where anything heavier than a few ounces added to our luggage would cause British Air to tell us to hold a yard sale before we tried checking in. That meant rejecting the hefty Ramayana picture books. Also, even when scaled down to a children’s version there were still plenty of violent drawings depicting people and gods committing all sorts of heinous acts upon each other. Eli is a gentle soul and his parents and grandparents respect his aversion to scary things. So, it was on to the lighter weight Ramayana activity books featuring connect the dots, mazes and word searches.
We left the bookstore intending to walk to our next destination and asked several people to point us in the right direction. The first three told us it was too far to walk but the third, an urbane middle aged gent, said that while it was some distance, it was certainly walkable. When we asked about how far he replied, “About the distance from the Hudson River to the Gansevoort Hotel on Ninth Avenue.” Guess no one will ever confuse us with natives.

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Jaisalmer: A Desert Trading Route Revisited

This post is very much out of sequence (as will be my next one) because they involve places that Sam and I visited in Rajasthan about 6 weeks ago.  Somehow they just never got finished.

Jaisalmer was the place in Rajasthan that Sam was most anxious to visit. It is a small town in the far west of India, in the Great Thar Desert near Pakistan. Located on the trading route between India and Central Asia, it had grown wealthy from camel caravans until transport via ocean shipping and trains in the 19th century made it a dusty forgotten backwater town. Partition of Pakistan and India in 1947 cut the last of the town’s trading role and pushed it into further decline.

The town was “discovered” by tourists about 50 years ago. They were drawn by the massive fort built in the 12th century that still dominates the town, and also by the havelis, magnificent sandstone houses of long gone merchants that have intricately carved exteriors.Jaisalmer Fort at Night
Jaisalmer Haveli

A community of about 3,000 people still lives inside the fort and I decided to spring for a hotel that is actually part of the fort wall. It has only 6 rooms, each overlooking the outermost of four massive gates (shown below) that protect the fort’s single entryway.
Jaisalmer Fort GateThe view from our room’s terrace of the fort, the surrounding town and distant desert. Jaisalmer Hotel Patio Video

Rohet Gahr Peacock
Because Jaisalmer is close to the Pakistani border there is a substantial military presence in the area. The roads into and out of town are lined with army installations, with many clusters of tanks scattered around within sight of the roads. Fighter jets from nearby airbases fly overhead throughout the day and night.

Also, perhaps to provide the military with reliable electricity (while the rest of the country’s population suffers frequent outages) there are massive windfarms spread across the desert landscape. It’s definitely an otherworldly experience to stand in the empty desert among crumbling 500-year-old tombs with nothing else in sight except wind turbines that stretch to the horizon.

The road across the desert between Jaisalmer and Jodhpur proved to be a mini obstacle course as we encountered cows, water buffalo, camels, goats, sheep and peacocks wandering the landscape and ambling across the road with not a glance for passing vehicles. Other than the peacocks, most ignored the blaring horns of the buses and lorries, and almost all vehicles slowed or stopped while the road was blocked. We saw two incidents of why I can only say “almost all.” The first was a buffalo on the roadside that didn’t survive its encounter with a bus.  Having already lost its life on the road, it was in process of losing its hide on the roadside so a farmer could put the leather to good use. The other was a family of three camels, including a baby, lying across the road in front of a lorry whose front end and windshield were also smashed beyond resurrection. The rarity of these fatal encounters surprised us since our own car seemed at peril of colliding with crossing animals dozens of time each day.

Jaisalmer is also the site of a Brody family tradition that Max Brody started more than 20 years.  There is a restaurant called 8 July that consists of a row of tables on a narrow second story balcony overlooking the fort’s main square.  It is a great people-watching place to while away the afternoon drinking mango lassis and eating apple pie. They don’t really go with each other, and the apple pie is not particularly good. But it’s a long-standing tradition that all visiting Brodys must honor.
8 July

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The Perfect Room for a Law Firm Partners’ Meeting

Jodhpur, one of Rajasthan’s larger cities, is home to the Umaid Bhawan, perhaps the largest private residence in the world.

Umaid Bhawan The Maharajah of Jodhpur started building the palace as a home for his family in 1929. He already had a nice home but he created this one to provide employment during hard times caused by a long-lasting drought and famine. It kept more than 3,000 construction workers on the payroll for 15 years. The palace is still the Maharajah’s residence today (actually the grandson of the Maharajah who built it), but portions of it now include a Taj hotel and a museum about the Maharajah and the palace. Mere mortals can gain admittance only to the museum these days.

The museum has a photograph of the Maharajah’s bathroom. The room is as large as the footprint of our Provincetown home (around 40’ x 40’), with walls, floor and tub made of polished black onyx. It’s hard to imagine using those over-the-top surroundings as a “library” for a leisurely read of a good book or magazine.

The museum also describes the construction of the palace. Apparently, some of the stone blocks used in the construction were too large to be set in place with precision using the available equipment. The solution was to place a block of ice on top of the previously set stone block and then to place the new stone block on top of the block of ice. As the ice melted, the new stone could be maneuvered into perfect position on top of the lower stone. Imagine the “eureka” moment when that idea was born.

Another remarkable structure in Jodhpur is the fort that looms more than 400 feet over the city. It was built over a 100-year period starting in 1459. The ramparts are up to 120 feet high and 70 feet wide, and enclose a vast area containing many palaces and other buildings. Here are photos of one of the ramparts and a couple of the palace rooms and galleries. When Sam saw the throne room shown in the first interior photo he suggested that my law firm get such a room for partner meetings. Jodhpur Fort Exterior
Jodhpur Fort Room
Jodhpur Fort Gallery
Jodhpur Fort Ceiing

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How Can You Not Love These People! …

… even though “My [insert the item of your choice] Doesn’t Work”

From David: It’s now three weeks since we left India for Sri Lanka (and now we’re back momentarily to catch our final flight home) and it makes me think once again about one of the big reasons we keep coming back to India. It is impossible to be in the country without interacting personally with the people you encounter on the street or in the shops. At the risk of stereotyping, the personality of the place just doesn’t permit it. Sometimes it can be infuriating, as when some guy walks up to you on the street and asks, “Will you please talk with me because I need to practice my English” and, by the way, “I have a brother who sells [whatever you can be persuaded to buy]. Let me show you his shop”, and he follows you for a hundred yards down the street repeating this mantra. But most times the unavoidable interaction is a pleasure.

An example of the latter. I was traveling with Sam in Jodhpur, one of the big cities in Rajasthan, and he went out to wander by himself the last day before he flew home. When we caught up with each other that evening, he told me he had discovered a stall that sold the best samosas in the world. It was in the street market just beyond the clock tower. I found the place the next day and went to buy one. It was an open air stall with a huge cauldron of canola oil heated by a 787 Dreamliner jet engine, filled with the promised “best in the world” samosas.
Best Samosa Locals on their lunch-break surrounded the place 10-deep. I seemed to be the only tourist in the crowd, and when I finally pushed my way to the counter to buy one (pushing was the only way I could reach the counter), the man behind the counter said “No! Not for you!”

I persisted and pressed my 10 rupees (15¢) across the counter. “No! Not for you!” I persisted again and again, and again and again it was, “No! Not for you!” A few minutes later, the man removed a fresh batch of samosas from the kettle, wrapped one in a piece of newspaper, and handed it to me with a warm smile. “Hot one for you!” I joined the 30 or 40 people sitting on the sidewalk and street pavement around the stall, surrounded by littered newspaper pages saturated with canola oil, and enjoyed the best hot samosa in the world.

A second example. Sam and I were having a beer outside a food stand in a Jodhpur park. Three young Indian men, in their late teens or early 20s, walked over and asked if they could have their picture taken with us. We were willing, and that started a photo shoot in which each of them wanted a photo of us with him alone. Since each wanted his shot taken on multiple cellphone cameras, it was a while before Sam and I could resume enjoyment of our beers. Ten minutes later the three young men reappeared with ice cream cones they had just bought in the food stand, and handed the cones to Sam and me. “Thank you for letting us have our photographs with you.”

A third example. I developed a bronchial cough from the air pollution in the city of Ahmedabad and stepped into a pharmacy – actually a 10 foot-wide street stall filled with shelves bearing boxes of pills, creams, syrups and every other type of medication. I told the man my symptoms and he gave me a cough suppressant, an inhaler and some pills that said they were “Type H” medications that could be dispensed only with a doctor’s prescription. I paid my 150 rupees ($2.50) and he stepped back behind the overloaded shelves, returning after a moment with a hot cup of masala tea that he handed to me. “You are a good customer and sick. This will make your throat feel better.”

And yet another example. I wrote in an earlier post about my visit to the wonderful Jain temple complex at the Rajasthan hill station of Mt. Abu. I was wandering slowly around the temples when a handsome young boy tapped my hand. He was around 8 years old, dressed in a pressed white shirt, white shorts, white socks and polished black shoes, with his hair neatly combed. “Can I show you the temple, please?” I spent the next 20 minutes being led by him around the temple, getting an explanation at every turn. My tour ended only when his father found us and said it time for him to go home. When I thanked him, he answered, “Thank you for letting me show you.”

As I mentioned at the outset, however, there are infuriating experiences as well. One occurred in Goa when we wanted to hire a car and driver to take us from north part of the state where we were staying to a museum in the south. We started out at 8 am, when the temperature was still moderate and we drove with the windows open. By 8:30, when the temperature was reaching the mid-80s, I asked the driver to turn on the AC. “AC is broken.” I tried to stay cool the rest of the way by keeping the window open so a 90° wind could blow in my face. When we got back into the car after visiting the museum something made me ask him again to try the AC. “AC is broken.” I asked again, “Please just try it. Maybe driving over the bumps has jiggled something back into place.” After a few more repetitions of this exchange, he explained that he could not “just try it” because his mechanic had told him that “just trying AC would break the car.” After a few repetitions of this new, expanded dialog he added, “The part won’t be in until tomorrow.” This exchange went on for almost 15 minutes in the museum parking lot, inside the car where the temperature was certainly in the mid-90s. When the driver finally realized I wasn’t going to relent, he “just tried” to turn on the AC, and it worked fine. All I could figure was he was simply trying to save 50¢ by not using the AC.

And then there was the hotel where we had prawns for dinner. They were Rs. 600 on the menu, but were Rs. 800 on the bill presented to us when checking out the next morning. I pointed out the discrepancy and the clerk apologized and corrected the mistake. Then I noticed that our soup was Rs. 270 on the bill but had been only Rs. 170 on the menu. When I questioned that item as well, the clerk decided to correct all the items on the bill and the total amount dropped from Rs. 3,850 to Rs. 2,530. Then the manager came over and, unlike the clerk who had apologized for “our mistake,” he insisted that the original bill had been correct because of taxes, and that I must pay the full amount. I asked how the tax could be 33% on the prawns, 58% on the soup, and 52% on the overall amount. He snarled that I could pay the reduced amount. However, when I handed him my credit card, he said his card reader was broken and that I had to pay in cash. The card reader really wasn’t broken, but we were already late and I wanted to avoid another standoff of “just try it.” So when he said he would accept dollars or rupees I pulled out a US $100 bill and asked for change, either in dollars or rupees. He refused the offer even though he had just said he was happy to be paid in dollars. I repeated the offer three more times while the clerk whispered to Lora that the manager was crazy. After the third repetition the manager told us to get out of the hotel. So we backed out the door, with me offering the credit card in one hand and the $100 bill in the other. He refused both even as we got into the car and drove off. It was a fine hotel and restaurant that I’m sure you’d enjoy. Ask me for the name if you’re sharp-eyed when paying your bill and have endurance with crazy managers.

We had another credit card incident in Hyderabad when paying for our apartment. The rental company sent someone with a credit card reader over to the apartment the morning of our departure to process the payment. The charge was Rs. 7,200 ($115, for 4 nights) but when I started to sign the slip I saw that the person had processed the payment for Rs. 70,200 ($1,135). Unfortunately, “Sir, I am sorry but we are not able to process credits with this card reader, only charges.” I won’t bore you with the details of the conversation that ensued as we ran out the door to catch our flight, but the money ended up in our account, not the rental company’s.

Lora just looked this posting and says that there are not enough photographs for the length of the text. So here are some more photos. They were all taken in Sri Lanka and have nothing to do with the posting, but I’m not sure that’s relevant.
Bodhi Tree Plaque The above plaque is next to a holy Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, said to be grown from a cutting of the tree under which Buddha received enlightenment. It illustrates one of the difficulties I encountered in Sri Lanka – there are two many syllables in most names for me to handle. As with the name of the President of Sri Lanka, whose last name (spelled out in the plaque) has 23 letters. Or the towns of Tissamaharama and Atamasthanadhipathi Anuradhapura. These are not names that come skipping off my tongue.

Little Adams Peak Sign
This sign greets you after a hard climb to the top of Little Adam’s Peak (actually not so little) in the Sri Lanka town of Ella. The 98 Acres Resort that was trying to get our business was back at the base of the peak, so the sign is really just a tease. But it’s a very high-end tease; 98 Acres is a beautiful set of 10 bungalows where we tried to stay. Unfortunately, we were number 11.

Shot Without WarningHere is another Sri Lanka sign, but it is definitely not in the “tease” category. It’s at a reservoir water treatment plant next to the Bundala National Park, a fabulous bird sanctuary. In case you can’t make out the writing, it says: “WARNING. CEB Security Zone. Trespassers Will Be Shot Without Warning.”

Negombo Beach This was the beach outside our bungalow door at the Ice Bear Guest House in Negombo, Sri Lanka. The name of the place is a little strange, but it doesn’t get any better than this.

Fort Printer StairsI’m including this photo because I love the design of the building code-violating staircase. Galle is a town on a peninsula at the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka, about 400 miles north of the equator. The Portuguese settled the peninsula in the 16th century and the Dutch fortified it in the 17th century. We stayed at the Fort Printers Hotel (shown in this photo), an old Dutch mansion that had been used a few hundred years ago for a printing business. It was in all respects – building, staff, food, etc. — the best of the hotels we encountered in our 2 months here and in India. Because the Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site the exterior of the building remains as it was during its printing days. However, as you can see, the hotel has done a beautiful job of creating an elegant contemporary interior at harmony with the 400-year old exterior.

I think these are enough photos to satisfy Lora.

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The Power Of Water

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Ending our time in Sri Lanka with three days at the beach was the cherry on top of an already wildly decadent and delicious hot fudge sundae. The beaches are gorgeous, the sand is baby powder soft, the water is that perfect dreamy blue-green and the temperature is warm as toast. There’s none of the gasp as when your toes hit the surf of the North Atlantic.
The view from the balcony of our hotel was divine. And the sound of the waves lulled us to sleep at night.

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What I couldn’t quite get out of my head was the fact that on December 26, 2001, a 50 foot wave generated by the epic earthquake off Ache, Indonesia roared in and devastated most of Sri Lanka’s coastline, killing more than 50,000 people. Our driver told us that before that terrible morning no one is Sri Lanka had ever heard the word tsunami.
There’s almost no obvious evidence of the devastation. As I walked around town (frantically dodging homicidal buses) I noticed how many new hotels were going up – right on the beach. People had built new homes and shops to replace those that had been destroyed – in virtually the same place where the old ones had been washed away. I began to look for any remaining evidence of the tidal wave. While I don’t know the real story of what happened to this house, my imagination painted a full-color picture.

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That’s what I thought of as the waves lulled me to sleep.

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Saffron Is the New Black

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We were fortunate to be in Sri Lanka and especially in Anuradhapura during a full moon festival (Siuru Pujawa) when many of the temples are decorated with saffron bolts of cloth, wound around the stupa or dagoba, as it’s called here. It makes for a stunning sight against the white bell-shaped structure. It seems that the biggest celebration is held at the enormous Runwanvallysayaa Temple where locals and visitors walk two-by-two in lines stretching more than 100 yards, each dressed in white and carrying a section of the unfurled bolt of cloth above their heads. When the procession reached the dagoba, monks and workers took the material and did the wrapping. The procession and the process made for some good pictures. David captured the essence on video.

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Rising to New Heights

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After climbing the 3,750-odd steps to see the mountain-top Jain temple complex in Palitana, India, I was hoping that would be the last of the ‘stairway to heaven’ adventures for us. That hope extended to Sigiriya, a place in Sri Lanka’s central “Cultural Triangle” that we had read about in Lonely Planet. It’s a 660 foot granite monolith that rises up from the jungle. A king of Ceylon had made the area his capital in the 5th century and built his palace on the top of the monolith. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

There were all sorts of red flags we saw, as in “Don’t go if you’re afraid of heights! Or if you’re afraid of wasps or crowds or sunstroke.” There was another red flag when we learned we were there during the full moon festival and a 3-day holiday weekend. That meant the place was crawling with hordes of people and most of them would be making the Masada-like ascent in the morning’s shade. In an effort to avoid the mob scene, we reversed the order of our day and planned to visit the site around 4 pm, when we could survey how much of the pillar was still in the sun, and how much of the holiday crowd was still trying to make the climb.

I had just about convinced myself that, at least for me, Sigiriya was too hard, too hot and too dangerous. And I hate wasps. I was worried that if I tried the climb I would end up on someone’s endangered list. “It says in the book that there’s a lovely garden at the base of the rock. How about we just go there for a few hours instead of doing the climb?” I ventured. David agreed so fast that I could tell that without any prompting from me, he had arrived at the same conclusion.

As we entered the site, the monolith towered over us, baking in the scorching afternoon sunlight. The garden, looking cool and green in the dappled shade, was up a short flight of stairs. Ahead were a series of steep, long flights of steps rising to the base of a rickety circular staircase fastened to the side of the sheer rock wall. There was a large sign advising people to keep their voices low so as not to disturb the wasps but no one else paid any attention to the sign. The sign also warned that we should stand still and not run if attacked by a swarm of wasps.

We stood for a few moments in the shade, catching our breath, watching people begin the ascent. People carrying infants walked past us, small children literally skipped past us, and several old women in sarees seemed to float past us. Embarrassed to watch these people do something we were about to back out of, we ventured up several more flights and found ourselves at the base of the rickety spiral staircase. “What’s up there,” we asked the guard who stamped our passes. “Painted caves. Very beautiful.” The crowd around us surged forward and next thing we knew we were trudging up the stairs. “Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Don’t look down,” was my mantra. I did actually look down once. The view was stupendous and terrifying.

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The caves were decidedly worth the effort.

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We arrived at a wide open area and faced the final stage of the climb, up through the “Lion’s Paw Gate”. “How much farther could it be?” I asked David, adding with great hope, “In fact, I think I see the top.” “I think you see what you wish was the top,” he answered. At least there was a fairly solid hand rail on the next set of stairs. Up we went.

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Finally we reached the top. I’m not exactly sure how we went from “We’re not doing this” to “Here we are!” But we did and here we are:

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