Friday, October 31, 2008

The Indian Entrepreneur

CNN International is running this hilarious commercial for HSBC. It typifies the entrepreneurial spirit in India. A new way to make lassi - Indian whipped yoghurt shake. I plucked it from YouTube.

New Compared to Old in Delhi

When we stayed at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi at the beginning of our trip, we experienced old, colonial Delhi. The staff was experienced, knowledgeable, and efficient. It should be - The Imperial is one of the finest hotels in the world.

Coming back to Delhi, I cashed in a bunch of Hyatt points and we are staying at the Hyatt Regency Delhi. It is a remarkable contrast. This hotel is the new, modern, hip Delhi. It is located in the newer, southern area of New Delhi. The staff overwhelms you in numbers, but their efficiency is sometimes suspect. The rooms are glass, hardwoods, and marble.

We ate dinner in the signature Chinese restaurant. (I know what you are thinking - the Chinese and Indians fought in a war about 10 years ago, so why is there a Chinese restaurant in Delhi.) There were no fewer than 10 chefs in the glass walled kitchen. There must have been 20+ wait staff, including one fellow who did nothing but do circuits of the restaurant with a Swiffer-type mop to keep footprints off of the modern dark hardwood floors. They had a wine refrigerator that must have cost $50,000. The food was wonderful, but it was one of the more expensive Chinese meals we ever had.

If this is what Delhi is becoming (like many other major cities of the world), then I vote to stay at the Imperial on our next visit.
Anecdotes from the Agra-Delhi Highway

The drive from Agra to Delhi is about 200km. The road is actually pretty good most of the way - or else we are becoming accustomed to the vagaries of travel in India.

Our driver Parveen is great. He manuveurs around other vehicles with ease. I would have dented every door and fender on the car as well as ripping off the side mirrors.

Highway driving in India is unique.
The law says that trucks and buses are supposed to drive in the slow lane on a multilane highway. No one obeys the law. Just the opposite occurs - trucks and buses hang out in the fast lane. To pass, you dodge to their inside and swerve around the autorickshaws, motorbikes, and camel drawn carts. Absolutely crazy!

Anything with at least two legs or two wheels can travel on the roads here.
Trucks, buses, cars, autorickshaws (tuk-tuks), motorbikes, bicycles, tractors, human-powered rickshaws, goat herds, and animal drawn carts. Since the four lane highway is divided, occasionally you need to cross the center median and drive on the wrong side of the highway to get to where you want to go. They don't know from interchanges or exit ramps. This makes traveling an exciting experience. Don't ever think of renting a car in India - you wouldn't survive 10 minutes. You must be born with Indian driving skills in your genes.

As we drove along, we noticed an unusually large number of post high school education buildings. Dozens of them within a stretch of 20km-30km. Institute of Technology and Management Studies. College of Pharmacy. College of Medical Studies. Dental Studies School. All of them seem to be equivalent to trade schools in the U.S.. But many of them are unfinished, empty, or in obvious disrepair. All we can figure is that there must be some government tax incentives to build these schools, but no one ever checks if there are students, teachers, or classes.

Tuk-tuks are a common, inexpensive form of transportation. It is amazing how many people can fit into one of these three-wheeled vehicles. Sometimes there are 2-3 people sitting up front with the driver, 4 people sitting on a small backwards facing bench behind the driver, 4-6 people on a forward facing bench behind that, 4-6 people on a backwards facing bench behind that, and perhaps 2-3 people standing on the running boards and hanging on. All these people riding on a vehicle with about a 35 HP engine. Seat belts - you got to be kidding. Air bags - who needs them. Crash resistant bumpers - never been seen here. Air conditioning - hope that no one has overwhelming body odor.

We love the trucks. The various ways that drivers dress them up are dazzling. Truck art is a competition among long distance goods haulers.

And you quickly get used to the words on the back of every truck - "Horn Please" means honk to let the driver know you are passing. "Use Dipper at Night" means to dim your high beams when approaching at night. Very considerate.

There are roadside stands near every town that sell motorbike helmets. Based upon how much money you want to spend, you can get better protection. The helmets look the same, but the more you pay, the heavier the plastic. Kind of like "you bet your life". There are no government regulations on helmet safety tests. The only government law is that it is compulsory to wear a helmet. Another law that no one obeys. Especially passengers on motorbikes. It is common to see a family of four all riding on the same motorbike.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Photos of Taj Mahal

Caren better not get any ideas - no tomb for her. We visited the Taj Mahal yesterday - the building built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. Completed in 1653, it is one of the wonders of the world. And the crowds sure confirm that. Better be prepared. And bring along lots of film or memory cards for your camera.

More Amusing Musings About India

We are settled into the Oberoi Amarvilas here in Agra (with a view of the Taj Mahal from every room) and I started contemplating recent experiences. Time for some more thoughts and observations.

India is investing huge sums into improving infrastructure, but there are some exceptions. The new airport terminal in Udiapur has capacity for 10x the number of flights they handle every day. Jaipur had a new terminal under construction. Someday they will finish the new domestic and international terminals in Delhi (perhaps before the Commonwealth Games in 2010). They are building beautiful (private) toll roads throughout the country. The problem is that India is trying to do it all at once. The probability is very high that some projects will fail or get seriously delayed. Like what we saw today - we drive along a four lane wide new toll road on our way from Jaipur to Agra. Suddenly the good road ends and you wind up on a two lane road with huge potholes.

Governments exercising emminent domain has a side effect here in India. To acquire the land for the toll roads, the government granted local people the right not to have to pay tolls. Nor do they have to drive on the correct side of the road. Try driving at 60 miles an hour only to spy a camel drawn cart coming at you in your lane.

The entire country is one giant, public urinal. In Jaipur, we actually saw a line of public urinals for men at a street corner. Just walk right up and pee (or if the urinal is not convenient, use the nearest building wall).

I found a new favorite snack food - Masala Munchies. Think Cheetos with masala spice instead of cheddar cheese. These things are addictive. I have to find them somewhere in LA or bring back a case.

Caren started reading "The White Tiger". We passed it around to everyone on our trip and there was unanimity that the book described India perfectly. There is a quote early on that describes the Indian psyche: "Our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them". Buy the book - it's a good read.

Our driver for Jaipur, Agra, and back to Delhi, Parveen, is very nice and a good talker. Most of the time when we have a conversation, we understand each other. Occasionally, it's a situation when we are having two different conversations and nodding at each other to be polite.

GPS is needed here in India, but the government forbids it for security reasons. There are no street signs, and addresses seem to follow no rhyme or reason. You have to ask for directions from the autorickshaw drivers that are always napping in their parked vehicles. Do these guys ever work?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Caren Talks Shop With Her Mahout

For those of you that follow our blog, you may recall that Caren had an experience as a mahout (elephant driver/trainer) when we were in Northern Thailand.

Today, we went out to the Amber Fort north of Jaipur. If you arrive early enough, you get a chance to ride elephants up the hillside to the fort.

Here is a photo of Caren talking shop with our elephant and her mahout. Caren called her the Jewish elephant - you'll see why. She sped past a bunch of other elephants. She should have been given a speeding ticket by the elephant traffic police.

The Amber Fort (palace) was built in the late 1500s on top of an 11th century fort. It follows the contours of a ridge surrounded on three sides by hills for protection. It is an enormous structure with magnificent architecture. It is also one of the most famous (and visited) attractions in Rajasthan. Good thing we arrived early - the packed tour buses of Germans showed up about 30 minutes after us.

On the way back to Jaipur, we stopped at a textile factory/showroom that was recommended. There must be 500 garment factory/showrooms in Jaipur, plus hundreds more shops that sell the production of these places. Caren had a great time with our salesman, D. S. Chauhan (one of the owner's sons), and of course bought a lot of gifts. (Jordan haggled the price and paid the bill.)

Our final stop touring Jaipur was a photo op at Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds). This is one of the most photographed pictures in India (after the Taj Mahal). Built around 1800, its windows and balconies were designed to allow the builder's harem to view processions while staying unnoticed. It is merely a facade to a building one room deep.

(I'll put up a slideshow of Jaipur in another posting.)
Fixing a Traffic Ticket in India

In most Indian cities, there are police at the busy corners to direct traffic (when there is no "roundabout" - a contribution of British colonial rule). Drivers in India rarely pay attention to stop lights, so the traffic police stand in little booths in the center of intersections and try to control the flow of cars, buses, motorcycles, rickshaws (motorized and manual), bicycles, and cows.

There is a joke here that if you are stopped by the traffic police, they tell you the ticket cost 200 rupees. But, if you pay the policeman 100 rupees, no ticket. You can guess pretty quickly how much revenue the government collects from traffic tickets.

I wonder if the LA County Sheriff deputy who patrols PV Drive East near our house would sign up for this program.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Happy Diwali!

Tonight we celebrated Diwali at the Taj Jai Mahal Palace hotel here in Jaipur. (Click here to see blog posting from a few days ago with a description of Diwali.)

We had dinner al fresco, with a light show, Hindu religious ceremony, music, traditional Rajasthani dancers, and lots of fireworks.

What fireworks! Earlier today, we noticed that peddlers were selling fireworks on every street corner. Whenever traffic stopped (which it frequently did), the vendors would rush out in the street and make a sale to a passing car. These were NOT "Safe and Sane" fireworks like we see in the U.S.. I think these were labeled "Dangerous and Crazy".

It sounds like we are in a war zone. Fireworks will probably be going all night. I imagine this is what Baghdad sounded like during "Shock and Awe" in 2003.

The people in Jaipur and throughout India really get into celebrating Diwali. Even Google India changed the logo on their search page to recognize Diwali.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Where is my change?

I've noticed an interesting phenomenon here in India. Whenever you are owed change from your payment for something, you almost never receive it when the balance you're owed is less than 300 or so rupees (US$6 or less). This even happened at one of the hotels we stayed in.

Today, I tried to buy a Snickers bar in the Udaipur airport sundries shop. It was 60 rupees and I handed the man a 100 rupee note. You should have seen him scramble around to find 40 rupees change. He even asked his two cohorts running this tiny shop (yes, three people running a shop the size of a small closet) who turned their pockets inside out and couldn't find 40 rupees change. Finally, I gave up and told him to give me something else worth 40 rupees so we would be even.

I think shopkeepers in India either think they deserve the change as a tip, are trying to take advantage of a tourist, hoarding their small bills and coins, or think it will all balance out evenly for people over the period of a lifetime.

I know some friends of mine in the U.S. would go ballistic if this happened to them. They are tighter than tree bark with their money.
Slideshow of Udaipur

Udaipur is a beautiful city. It may be a bit "touristy" in certain areas as it used to be a popular destination for backpackers, students traveling on a tight budget, and inexpensive tours. Today, with hotels like the Oberoi Udaivilas and the Taj Lake Palace, the city is a destination for the rich, famous, and even people like us. (e.g. Mick Jagger has been here for over a week).

Pichola Lake is man made, created by a dam built in the 1500s by the Maharana at the time. Check out this wikipedia article for info on Udaipur: Udaipur Article

Here is a slideshow of some of the sights and people of Udaipur:

Farewell to Our Bicycling Companions

Today was the last bicycle ride of our trip. A short ride of only 18km from outside of town, back thru the streets of Udaipur, and directly to the hotel.

Caren took a pass on the bicycle ride and did some serious shopping in town. She even had some custom clothes made and they will be delivered tonight. Forget about Hong Kong and Vietnamese tailors - Udaipur can make you a suit in 4-6 hours for a lot less money.

We are about to head to our final dinner with the group and our guides. I'm sure that Karen, our B&R guide, has a few plans to surprise us at dinner here at the Oberoi. As we usually do, we will exchange email addresses with everyone and hopefully encounter them on a future trip.

Tomorrow we head to Jaipur, the shopping paradise of India. It is also the final day of Diwali - the festival of lights. It is the most celebrated holiday here in India, observed by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains as a religious festival. Buildings, streets, and homes are all decorated with lights and fireworks are shot off every night of Diwali. People exchange gifts, but not to the extent of holiday gifting in the U.S. Typical gifts for Diwali are sweets, fruit baskets, and sometimes even wine.

It seems to me like it's a combination of the 4th of July, spring cleaning, and Christmas. Everyone fixes up their house, applies new paint, and goes shopping for gifts.

Here is a website that explains it all: Diwali 2008

Even Barack Obama got into the act of recognizing Diwali:

Press Trust of India, Monday, October 27, 2008 9:20 AM (Washington)
The Democratic White House candidate Barak Obama has wished a "joyous" Diwali to the Indian American community in US, saying the festival provides a "wonderful opportunity" to reflect on the year past and rededicate to spread peace and tolerance in the coming year.

"Thank you for the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you as we near the night of Diwali. In the coming days, Hindus
, Sikhs, Jains and their friends of all faiths will gather across America and around the world to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

"Much has happened in the world since the last Diwali, and this is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the year past and rededicate ourselves for spreading peace and tolerance in the coming year," Obama said in a message dated October 24.

"Last year, I wrote that Diwali's celebration of the triumph of illumination over ignorance had a special meaning for me. At that time,
traveling across America and meeting people of every spiritual and ethnic background showed me that there is much more that unites us than divides us. Now, one year later, I believe this even more strongly," he said.

"Americans, despite our varied backgrounds, believe that all people are created equal, and that each person should be free to practice or not practice religion as they choose," the Illinois Senator added.

"If I'm elected President of the United States, I will work to renew America's moral leadership in the world. This is our time to create change, and I believe that we can and must continue the fight against ignorance and intolerance. I wish you all the best for a joyous Diwali" Obama said.

I did a search on Google News and couldn't find a similar press release by John McCain. Surprise, surprise.

Here is where we are staying in Jaipur.

Jai Mahal Palace

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bicycling to Udaipur

This morning was our next to last bicycle ride of the trip - 35km from the Devi Garh in Delwara to the Oberoi Udaivilas Hotel in Udaipur. This was the best ride yet - we cycled thru a lot of villages, thru a small river valley, past farmland (including some camel herds), and then peddled thru the city streets of Udaipur, directly into the hotel parking lot. Nothing like riding up the driveway of what was voted one of the best hotels in the world by Conde' Nast magazine. The other guests looked at us like we were from another planet.

Weird experience of the day was bicycling thru a small village and suddenly hearing Italian classical music blaring out from what must have been a radio or CD player located in some farmer's house. It was easy to notice it as it struck me as very odd after hearing the usual Rajasthani pop music in most villages.

Check out the hotel at this link: Oberoi Udaivilas

This afternoon we will visit the City Palace, one of the largest and most magnificent structures in India, and then hit the shopping circuit. More details and photos to follow.
Musings from India on a Sunday Morning

We have been in India for 11 days, so it's time for some random observations:

The toilet paper in the hotels is like sandpaper. I will leave it to your imagination to figure out what that causes.

Truck drivers are a strong, crazy breed of Indian. They dress up their trucks in a fashion that would make a lowrider in LA jealous. Then they barrel down the two lane highways (sometimes only one lane) with reckless abandon, passing other vehicles with virtually no room to spare. The accident rate among truck drivers must be astronomical.

Cow dung is a valuable commodity in India. People pick it up from the streets, form it into patties, and leave it in the sun to dry. It is then used as a source of fuel. The ultimate renewable energy resource. Forget about wind, solar, and biofuel. America needs to use cow dung to wean itself from a dependence on foreign oil. India has lots of cow dung to spare.

Electricity is available all over India, but there are 5-6 power outages a day, even in our hotels. I think the manufacturer of power surge protection equipment must bribe the electic company. Or else the outages are due to people plugging 50 appliances into one outlet.

Many Indians have bad teeth. Dental care is supposedly free (if you can find a dentist and he will work on your teeth without paying him baksheesh). I think the causes for poor teeth are 1) Indians put gobs of sugar into their chai tea, and 2) many people chew paan - betel nut. It is sold in every little village shop (the Indian version of 7-11) in foil packets that look like condoms. You tear off a string of 4-5 packets and pay 1 rupee (two cents) a packet. Paan stains your teeth red/brown.

The Sunday paper in Delhi has an entire section dedicated to matrimonial ads. Men looking for women and vice versa. It's a big business. I think India was the home of internet dating services. I think the primary readers are actually parents looking to make arranged marriages for their children.
Up Close in Delwara

This afternoon we took a walking tour of the village of Delwara where Devi Garh Hotel is located. Our guide was Shaheed, a 19 year old Muslim boy. He learned English on his own by talking with tourists. Try that sometime with a foreign language.

Delwara has a large Muslim population - there are 160 million Muslims in India - the second largest population of Muslims in the world after Indonesia.

Here is a slideshow of some pictures of the village and people of Delwara.

No Cheeseburgers or Hot Dogs

I woke up this morning before 6AM for a yoga class. Caren rolled over and went back to sleep. Our instructor, Bti, led a group of five of us thru a series of stretching, breathing, and bending exercises. Once again, I proved to myself that as you get older it is difficult to balance on one foot. And my flexibility is nowhere as good as our instructor and her 20 year old male assistant.

Caren's sciatic nerve was bothering her, so she sat out our 35km bike ride today. She may have had the better of it, sitting by the pool. The ride started out with the temperature in the 80s, but by the time we got halfway along, the sun was beating down and the thermometer was into the 90s. I had a great ride, felt the best I have in days of riding, and made very good time.

We were both dying for a cheeseburger or hot dog for lunch, but no such luck. Instead, we opted for the Indian/Thai buffet which turned out to be one of our best meals yet. Nothing at all like the "all you can eat for $9.99" buffets in Indian restaurants in SoCal.

Afterwards, we went on a walking tour of the village of Delwara with a young man who lives here and served as our local guide. We will post some pictures later. It is very interesting to see how people in villages in India live.
Some good things, some bad things. Definitely, not like the U.S.. Caren even went to visit his house and do some shopping while I went to chill out in the room.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Reconnected to Wi-Fi

We left Rawla Narlai this morning, by bicycle. Went on a 35km ride, ending at Ranakpur Temple. It is unbelievable. A Jain temple built in 1439. The Jains are a minority religion in India (less than 0.5%), but highly respected as it is believed they were the precursor to Buddhism (and then Hinduism). The temple has 1,444 marble columns, all different. It is magnificent and a good preamble to visiting the Taj Mahal in a few days. Below is a brief slideshow of photos we took at Ranakpur Temple.

We then crossed the Aravalli Hills (by van, not bicycle), believed to be the oldest (and at one time the highest) mountain range in the world. It runs southwest from Delhi to Ahmenabad.

We arrived at our amazing hotel for the next two nights, Devi Garh. This was an 18th century fortress that protected the city of Udaipur to the south from the Mughal armies in the north because of its strategic position in a mountain pass. Abandoned for years, a wealthy Indian industrialist bought it and turned it into a fantastic hotel with 39 suites. It is nearly impossible to get a booking here, but our bicycle tour company has reserved it for trips for five years in advance.

We have a suite that is not to be believed. I will upload some photos when I get a chance. They have restored this old fort into a modern, hip hotel with a staff that tends to everything. Well.....maybe not quite everything.

And it is located above the village of Delwara which we will bicycle and walk thru tomorrow.

India Unplugged - for 48 Hours

We were without internet access for our two days at Rawla Narlai, so our posts are a little tardy.

Look below (later on Friday) and see what we did our final day in Jodhpur and our two days in Narlai - totally amazing experiences.
A Few Photos from the Road in Rajasthan

Here we are in the remote areas of Rajasthan with the nearest big city dozens of kilometers away. But, I get cellphone service! I encounter dead spots all over Los Angeles, but here there is service. Go figure.

We took a few memorable pictures from the road today. First is a herder with his goats. A very common encounter. Yes, we had to steer our bikes around the goats or wait for them to pass.

Second is a photo taken by Caren of woman in Narlai carrying her disabled son in a metal bowl on her head. She also has a wheelchair for him.

The third photo is a too common sight in rural India as well as the urban areas - a woman with a young child begging for money.
No Republicans or Democrats

India is a melting pot of political parties and internal dissent. There are dozens of political parties, ruling governments are always a coalition, and political campaigning makes McCain versus Obama look tame.

There is the BJP party - Hindi nationalists that sometimes incite violence against Muslims. There are separatists in Assam (far northeast) fighting the army. In some of the eastern states, there is Hindu-Christian fighting. Islamic terrorists infiltrate the country from Pakistan and Bangladesh (supposedly funded by Gulf states). The Jammu and Kashmir area is still under dispute with the armies from Pakistan and India fighting on an irregular basis in the mountains of the Himalayas. And then there are the Maoists (aka the Naxal group) that attack the army throughout major sections of the country.

On top of all this is the caste system, supposedly eliminated years ago, but still inbred into many cultural areas, especially in the country villages. And government corruption and vote buying is a way of life.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dancing Under the Indian Sky

Tonight we had a magical experience. We usually have at least one of these "special" events on our B&R bicycle trips.

The women in our group were dressed up in saris and had henna applied to their arms or legs. The men were dressed up in traditional salwar kameez and turbans.

Then we were transported in oxcarts to an outdoor theater where we were served dinner and provided with traditional Rajasthani entertainment. Jordan got up and danced with the woman dancers.

Caren thought the "Ganga Man" was a crackup. He played a mean sitar. I think he bears a strong resemblance to Caren's brother Mark.

It was a memorable evening under an Indian sky lit with millions of stars and a new moon.
Rawla Narlai

We are now staying at Rawla Narlai, an Indian Heritage resort. Narlai is a small village about halfway between Jodhpur and Udaipur.

This morning, we left Jodhpur by minibuses and traveled about 40 minutes before getting on our bicycles. We rode about 30km to lunch at the home of the parents of the woman whose house we had dinner at in Jodhpur.

This area of Rajasthan is very dry - the most populated desert in the world as a matter of fact. All those of you who read Kipling and think that India is all jungle, forget it. This area is loaded with the history of India (the Mughals especially) and the weather is a lot like the California and Arizona deserts. I think we are roughly 120km from the Pakastani border here.

From Frommers Travel Guide to India: A 17th-century hunting retreat of the Maharajah of Jodphur, located in the heart of the arid Aravalli Hills halfway between Udaipur and Jodphur, the lovely Rawla Narlai was only opened to paying guests in 1995 (and soon after was featured in numerous glossy magazines charmed by its pretty decor and low prices). The hotel was sensitively renovated to ensure that authenticity wasn't lost in the process of attaching bathrooms and enlarging the spaces. Rooms all differ but on the whole are really charming, featuring touches like sepia photographs of the maharaja's ancestors, cusped window frames, frescoed walls, stained-glass windows, pretty alcoves, colored ceiling baubles, jarokhas, and views of the Shiva temple that rises from the rock "mountain" that can be seen for miles from the surrounding countryside.

Yes, that's an accurate description. This place isn't fancy, but it has tons of charm and culture.

We had a cooking class from the head chef this afternoon. He showed us how to make masala chai tea (very tasty), green chutney, and chicken in red curry sauce. Every good chef in India has his own recipes that are passed down in his family and never given to others. I think we need to cook an Indian dinner when we get home. Some of our friends may not eat any of the dishes though (you know who you are - Steve, Sheriff John).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The World is Definitely Flat

Today, we rode our bicycles about 30km (18 miles) thru the Rajasthan countryside. It is still HOT here. Passed thru what is called Bishnoi Land - area inhabited by the Bishnoi, a group practicing a religion devoted to environmental activism and wildlife protection.

Wound up the ride at a local family's small compound where they served us a traditional Thali lunch - all vegetarian. Ate under a large cloth roof on a patio, sitting on padded mats on the floor.

The man at the head of the family runs a cooperative that manufactures traditional dhurrie rugs. This time Caren, not Jordan, decided to buy two rugs. The owner, Roop Raj, was quite a character. Not a pushy salesman, but very entertaining. Showed us his "CV", a notebook with pictures of magazine articles about him that appeared in Vogue, Elle, India's version of Architectural Digest, and others. Also showed pictures of his former customers - Prince Charles, Richard Gere, U.S. ambassador, and Mick Jagger.

When we completed our transaction, he handed me his business card. He has a website and email! And
solar electric panels on his house. Check him out at

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bicycling in Rajasthan we flew from New Delhi to Jodhpur and began bicycling in Rajasthan. A short 20km (12 mile) ride to start the trip. Only problem was the 100 degree heat. The terrain around here looks like North Scottsdale.

Everyone survived (we had a few early dropouts and one minor injury among the members of our group) and checked in at the Umaid Bhawan Palace. This hotel really is a palace.

Built by the Maharaja of Jodhpur in the 1920s and 30s, some say it was a "WPA-type" project to employ the local people during a period of drought and famine. Others say it was a ostentatious project costing tens of millions of dollars.

This building is immense. It combines architectural elements of ancient Hinduism and the modern functionality of Art Deco. Quite a blend! Click on the link above and check out their website and the photoessay.

Our suite has an enormous bedroom/living room, a dressing room, a bathroom with two vanities, bathtub, toilet/bidet room, and walk in shower big enough for a large Indian family. Oh, I forgot about the balcony/outdoor sitting area. This suite is larger than most apartments in Manhattan.

This is the definition of "over the top".

One more notice - Five days in India and NO DELHI BELLY.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Visual Pollution and Dentists (no connection)

Just as we are getting used to the garbage in the streets, the chaotic traffic, the constant honking of horns, the cows ambling down the road, and the sheer number of people, there is something else we noticed - visual pollution. Advertising is a huge business in India - every storefront, bus, autorickshaw, wall, and street lamp is plastered with advertising. On top of that, there are billboards of all shapes and sizes everywhere. I've never seen so many billboards. I suppose that in a country with an increasing middle class and therefore more disposable income, companies will try to get you to spend it with them.

On a totally unrelated subject, we passed an interesting fellow on the street in Varanasi - the street dentist. Along with his assistant, he can take care of your dental needs on the spot. Forget about sterilized instruments. Rubber gloves to prevent spreading germs and infection? Who needs them. Need a tooth pulled or a new set of dentures? He's your man. Check out the state of dental professional in Varanasi. We didn't ask if he took insurance plans.
The White Tiger, Discount Airlines, and Yoga

Our first day in New Delhi, I picked up a new book in the hotel bookstore. Turned out that the author was awarded the Booker Prize the very next day and now the book is sold out throughout Delhi. "The White Tiger" by Aravind Agida is a novel about how the old traditions of India clash with the new realities of modern India. It is funny, sad, inspirational, and controversial. It is available in the U.S. next week. I recommend reading it.

India has been flooded with discount airlines to compete against the state-owned airline, Air India. Jet Airlines, Kingfisher, GoAir, Indian Airlines, Air Deccan, IndiGo, and several others are all trying to capture the business of the exploding middle class and business travelers. Unfortunately, most of them are going belly up due to high fuel prices and too many players in the market. Looks like only the merging Jet and Kingfisher will survive. And both of them are laying off hundreds of employees and cutting back their schedules. We flew Jet to and from Varanasi. Very comparable to most U.S. airlines, but the airports are totally third world and in need of complete makeovers.

I took an hour long yoga lesson on Friday while Caren did a walking tour of the old city of Varanasi. Went thru a lot of breathing and stretching exercises. This could be very good for my golf game.

It is very difficult to make rational sense of Varanasi. Many people have cellphones, yet a lot of homes lack running water. Political candidates are all promising to provide sewers, fresh water, and better education - but you know what happens to the promises of politicians. There are many people forced to sleep on the street, but the streets are choked with traffic (including numerous cows). Bottom line - Varanasi will likely look the same 10 years from now as it does today.

We are back in Delhi for one night and tomorrow we head to Jodhpur for the start of bicycling.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Controlled Chaos

Saturday morning, we arose at 4:30 so we could go down to the Ganges River here in Varanasi and watch the ritual bathing by devout Hindus and the cremation ceremonies for the dead. This is the heart of Hinduism. Took a lot of great photos, but pictures do not and cannot communicate the essence of this place. Even video can't do it. You must be thrust into the midst of the mayhem to truly experience this place. Even with all our trips to southeast Asia, China, and Africa, this place is unique.

For a short few miles, the Ganges River flows north on its 1500 mile journey from the Himalayas to the delta in the Bay of Bengal. That is where Varanasi was founded. It is supposedly the only river in the northern hemisphere that flows opposite from its headwaters at any place in its flow. (I know you will say "what about the Nile", but its headwaters flow north.)

This city has so many people! And so many cows! You continually need to manage with the throngs of people, rickshaws, tuk tuks, bicycles, the occasional body being carried to the Ganges for cremation, while avoiding the traffic, cow pies, and potholes all in the streets 24X7.

We walked thru the narrow alleyways of the old city where families have operated the same shops in the same stalls for generations. Like the walled medinas of north Africa, every section specializes in different wares - silver street, jewelry street, wedding street, furniture street, shoe street, etc..

We never worried about our safety, but they have a sizeable population of beggars and hawkers here. You must just look forward, say "no" and keep walking.

People who live here must suffer from lots of respiratory diseases. The air quality sucks. When we got back to the hotel, we felt like we were covered with a coat of grime. And we were.

You can wash off the sweat, dust, and dirt off of your body and cow pies off your shoes, but you can not ever wash Varanasi out of your mind. A truly amazing place.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Earplugs Required

Every driver of a car, autorickshaw, minivan, microvan, bus, and truck seems to feel obligated to use their horn every chance they can. The noise pollution is incredible as you travel the streets of India. Anyone traveling to India should pack a set of earplugs if they want to save their hearing.

This morning we flew from Delhi to Varanasi, about 420 miles. India has undergone an explosion in privately held discount airlines just like the U.S. did a few years ago. There is Jet Airways, Kingfisher, Spice Air, GoAir, DeccanAir, and several others. While the quality of their service is better than Air India, they are all having financial problems. Jet and Kingfisher just signed a business alliance (a precursor of merger). Jet tried to layoff 1,500 employees to save money, but demonstrations forced them to cancel the plans (only in India could this happen).

After checking into the Taj Hotel Ganges, we took a rickshaw ride through the city. The rickshaw-wallahs (drivers) work incredibly hard and you feel sorry for them. But the alternative is no work at all, so you realize that what they are doing is earning a living so they can eat. It is better than no job.

The chaos in the cities is unreal, but it is reality. People dump their garbage on the streets and the cows and dogs eat what they want. Cows are everywhere and traffic has to avoid hitting them because they are sacred. Their are thousands of small shops that sell everything imaginable. One Walmart would put them all out of business, but the shop owners would probably demonstrate in the streets and force the government to pay them to stay open.

Pictures to follow tomorrow.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The World's Largest Democracy Up Close

Today, we ventured out on an all day tour of Delhi (New and Old). Caren called it chaos. I suppose we have visited so many Asian countries that I just accepted the tumult, dirt, crowds, traffic, and confusion.

The big thing to realize about Delhi is that it is the capital city for the world's largest democracy. Like the U.S., democracy means a lot of good things, but also has its shortcomings. Getting a consensus on things like city planning and managing population growth is very difficult when everyone has a vote and every group wants to demonstrate in the streets to voice their opinion. Three times the population of the U.S. in an area about 1/3 the U.S..

Considering its huge population of approximately 15 million people, Delhi is relatively compact. The population density is nearly 10,000 people per sq km.

We were able to see a lot in one day. The differences between New Delhi and Old Delhi are very apparent. New Delhi, planned and constructed by the British in the early 20th century has wide, tree lined boulevards and enormous colonial style government buildings. Old Delhi is a mass of humanity, narrow streets, zillions of small shops, and sidewalk businesses. It's like no other city we have ever visited.

Many of the historic sites are from the Mughal dynasties of the 13th-17th centuries that brought Islam to the subcontinent, and the British colonial times of the 18th through mid-20th centuries. India has the second largest population of Muslims in the world - an estimated 150 million people.

We will fill in the details in future postings. For now, enjoy a few of our pictures.

Oh, and neither one of us has yet come down with Delhi Belly.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Take Off to Touch Down - 22 Hours

We arrived in Delhi 22 hours after leaving LA. China Airlines is excellent - strongly recommend it for travel anywhere in Asia.

Our hotel here in Delhi, The Imperial, is the oldest 5 star hotel in India and it is a colonial masterpiece "museum hotel". Famous artwork adorns the hallways and public areas.

We haven't seen much of Delhi yet, but first impressions on the drive from Indira Gandhi International Airport were interesting, chaotic and definitely "developing" world. They are in the midst of building a new set of airport terminals - needed very badly. The current terminal is decrepit and we came in a slow time of the day. Nighttime it is a mob scene here as that's the time most flights arrive from Europe and take off to points east and west.

On top of the airport construction, they are building a new train line from central Delhi to the airport. As a consequence, the airport road is a mess of traffic, construction equipment, and people.

When we stepped outside from the airport terminal, we immediately saw a fleet of three wheeled taxis. They call them auto rickshaws here in India. In southeast Asian countries we have visited, they are called tuk-tuks. The big difference here in India is that they run on CNG - compressed natural gas, instead of kerosene as they do in Thailand. My first thought was that we were going to climb in one to travel to our hotel. No way! We had a nice (albeit 15 year old) minibus.

It is true what they say about the cows being sacred in India; they walk in the street and the cars just navigate around them. There are plenty of beggars who tap on the windows of the taxi when it is stopped, but all in all, so far it has been pretty amazing.
Touring the city tomorrow, pictures to follow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Asian Airlines Have Got It Figured Out

As I predicted, flying over the Pacific to India on an Asian airline is the way to go. The China Airlines flight left LAX on time, landed early in Taipei, and was very comfortable. Try getting that experience with a U.S. airline today.

Currently sitting in the business class lounge in Taipei, awaiting our connecting flight to Delhi. A beautiful, modern, big lounge. Dim sum for breakfast. A food bar where they make noodle dishes to order. Capuccino!! Free wi-fi and public computers.

We are 15 hours ahead of LA right now after our 13 hour flight. I slept for 6 hours and Caren a bit less. With dinner when we took off, they served French and California wines. Caren ate the Chinese breakfast onboard (congee and a steamed bun). I stuck to the Western breakfast (spinach omelet, fruit, yoghurt, croissant, bacon).

Next stop, Delhi. Keep voting in the poll.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bicycling Thru India. Have We Gone Crazy?

Tonight we leave on our next adventure - India. And yes, it is a bicycle trip.

We had a choice of flying to New Delhi with a stop in Europe, over the pole from Chicago, or by crossing the Pacific. We chose the latter because our experiences with Asian airlines and airports has been excellent. So, we are heading over on China Airlines, connecting in Taipei. Business Class of course.

We will spend a couple of nights in Delhi to acclimate to the time change (12-1/2 hours ahead of LA), and do some sightseeing. Then we head to Varanasi on the pre-trip extension to see the Ganges River. Back to Delhi for one night, then off to Rajasthan and bicycling. We start in Jodhpur and head south, winding up in Udaipur. We are then taking a post-trip extension to visit Jaipur and Agra before heading back to Delhi for some shopping before returning home.

The monsoon season has been over for several weeks, but it is still HOT where we will be traveling. Winter is still at least a month away in India. Not looking forward to 95 degree heat. Maybe it will be dry heat like in the SoCal desert. Who are we kidding????

Take a look at the Google Map below to see where we will be.

We will try to update the blog on a regular basis with photos and our usual offbeat stories. All but one of the places we are staying has wireless internet access. And you can leave us a voicemail message by clicking on the GrandCentral widget in the right-hand column. (A Google company) It will call whatever phone number you specify that you are at and you can leave us a message. We will get it when we login to the GrandCentral website.

We have even made the blog interactive for this trip. You can participate in a poll we are conducting. As it is election season in the U.S. and everyone is being polled for how they will vote, we decided to join in. In the right-hand column, you will see a widget where you can vote in a poll for which one of us will come down with "Delhi Belly" first. No need to limit yourself to one vote per household.

Right Click and "Open in New Window" to View Larger Map