36 Hours…..and Counting


I tried not to think about the 33-hour train ride to Gokarna. Although I’ve completed plenty of long distance rides in India now without losing it, anticipation of them still makes me anxious. Even at this age, I find it hard to sit still for any length of time. Granted, trains have an advantage over planes or buses; I can walk up and down the carriage, weaving around people spilling into the aisle – babies underfoot, large men stretching out, and so on. Reaching the end of the carriage, I can stand in front of the door open to the outside; feel the fresh air on my face, and watch the countryside fly by — if there aren’t three other people already standing in the door. When we pull into a station, I can risk jumping off for a few minutes, just time for chai in a paper cup, watching the buzz on the platform.

Much of the time can be spent sleeping, provided crying babies or snoring fellow passengers don’t disturb the fragile slumber. In this case, the 33 hours was spread across two nights and one day, hopefully, plenty of time for sleep.

Things started out well. The train originated in Bikaner, and boarding at 10 pm, we were the only two in our four-person compartment. An empty carriage, no curious Indians wanting to talk late with Gerard. So for the first night, we slept in peace with the compartment to ourselves. The only downside, it was very cold because we were still in the north and there was little heat on the train.

We woke in the morning to breakfast. Thankfully our train had a pantry car, not always a given. So my insecurity around food was not an issue. The boys took our lunch and dinner orders, and the meals turned out to be tastier than the average train food we’ve had. There may have been no real chai on the train, only ‘dip-dip’ tea — a tea bag and powdered milk. (What a disgrace in the land of chai.) But chai wallahs would board the train at major stations. Things were going quite smoothly so far. So what was the angst about?


As we’ve mentioned before, one of the highlights of train travel has always been the people we meet. And this journey was no exception. At Ahmedabad, a young husband and wife with a three-year old daughter joined us. As is often the case, the wife could speak a little more English than the husband, but conversation was still limited. Nevertheless, they were so friendly. Vipin Dass is in the military near the Pakistani border in Gujarat, his family living with him. They were happy to be returning home to Kerala on a month’s leave. The little girl, Vidu, was cute, well behaved and not at all shy. The day passed quickly chatting with them. From time to time the boys from the pantry car would pass through, and the couple bought almost every snack, deep fried vadas (lentil patties), samosas, fried bananas, and then insisted we sample some. By the time the second night arrived, we were as comfortable as family, and they were insisting we come visit them in Kerala on our next trip. After Vidu threw a tantrum, which was not so surprising due to her sugar intake, we all went to sleep.

I woke up at 4 am ready to get off the train. Five more hours to go, but no problem. Breakfast, chai, chit-chat and then get down at 9.30. It had been all clear in my head. A fly in the ointment — we were already behind schedule. Vipin Dass had a printout and had been keeping track of the delay. Indian trains are notoriously late, so it was no surprise, but it fueled my anxiety. This morning the delay had grown to three hours and counting, as the train sat idling on the track. Signal problems, they say.

My latent claustrophobia was also kicking in. I’d had enough of being cramped on a train. When I told Gerard, his remark was, “Cramped? Go back one carriage to general seating and sit there for a while. And then we can talk about cramped. What is your problem?” No support whatsoever. The image came back to me of the scrum at Ahmedabad; people trying to cram into general seating, already full. Not a pretty sight. Maybe he had a point.

Finally, we’d left the last station before ours. We were getting close. But we still had a bus journey of who knows how long before we’d reach Gokarna. And what about lunch? Gerard always well prepared, decided we should stand by the door with our bags ready to get off since it was a small station. We said goodbye to the family but Vipin Dass insisted on coming and standing with us. Twenty minutes later we arrived. Vipin Dass carried my bag onto the platform and shook hands. As the train pulled out, I caught sight of the family waving from the window. We’d arrived. Now how do we get to Gokarna?



Camel Festival in Bikaner


On the map, Bikaner sits on the edge of the Great Indian Desert. I’d built an image of a dusty little town with camels roaming the streets. Little to eat and less to do, especially after the sun went down and the cold night set in. This much was true – the temperatures sank to 3C at night. The town was large and sprawling, but the old walled city was crammed with imposing haveli’s that were built between 1880 and 1920. Our first day we spent mostly lost among the haveli’s; part of the fun. We scanned for a restaurant and found one on the street that was cleanish and pure veg.  The boys also spoke enough English to take our order and were entertaining to watch. The food was good though a little spicier than usual.

Without knowing it, we’d arrived a day before the annual Camel Festival. Again, I pictured a camel fair with a bunch of smelly flea-bitten camels rounded up for inspection. The next day, we trudged off to where a camel procession was said to begin.


We could hardly believe our eyes. Girls parading, holding coconuts or brass pots on their heads,


sword-wielding men on camels,


bagpipe players,


stick fighters…all in traditional dress and interspersed with ornately decorated camels. Pictures will do better justice than words.

I’m always trying to capture a picture of a beautiful Indian woman. Here they were in abundance, catching my eye and smiling for me.



The procession ended at a large stadium where a full two-day of activities began – camel decoration judging, beauty pageant, mud wrestling, fire breathing. For us, these held little attraction… our main event was the folk music and dance in the evening. A group from Jaisalmer was featured; their music an interesting blend of ghazal, folk and pop—but not Bollywood.


Traditional dancers, spinning like dervishes, accompanied the band. The mood of the whole day was jubilant.


The second day was a heritage walk. Even though the people of Rajasthan are known for being friendly, we both had a sneaking suspicion the municipal government had told the locals to be especially friendly toward us.


They smiled, threw rose petals over us, handed out food and drink.


One privately owned haveli even opened its doors to us.


It was a great opportunity to be guided through the old town with loads of enthusiastic bystanders wanting their picture taken. There were plenty of tourists but few of them were westerners. Foreign tourism is down 60% according to our guesthouse owner, obviously because of the money exchange problems. The evening program was less compelling than the first; more a Sunday night local variety show.

We were so lucky to catch this Camel Festival. Virtually all other visitors had come specifically for it.


Junagarh Fort was a focal point of the town though not so immediately impressive, in part because it doesn’t sit on a pinnacle like many other forts in Rajasthan.


But its richly decorated interiors are as magnificent as any we’ve seen. Built toward end of 16th C. the Fort has been progressively extended and embellished by later rulers.

The grandest room, Anup Mahal, was adorned with red and gold filigree painting with a red satin throne framed by an arc of glass and mirrors. Inmates of the local jail made its carpet – a tradition that has only recently ceased.


Overall, Bikaner was a pleasant surprise. The town was unusually clean and the railway station was a beehive of spring-cleaning. Boys were hosing down the platform with soapy water, giving iron fences a fresh coat of paint…they were even painting the railway tracks! Something we’d never witnessed before. When we asked our guesthouse owner if some dignitary like PM Modi was visiting, he said no, the railway had just received its annual maintenance budget.

Last but not least, the hotel we landed in turned out to be probably the nicest place we’ve stayed in India. It was built in 1926 for the last prime minister of Bikaner who was the great grandfather of the thirty-something present owner. He lives there with his wife, parents, and grandmother, all serving us in a Raj-like style.


On the Way to Bikaner

train st by night

On our five-hour journey from Kuchaman to Bikaner, we shared our compartment with several R.R. engineers. One struck up a conversation saying he was teaching himself English and wanted to practice it. He had served 3 years in the paramilitary and said that he found most of the soldiers to be honest and with good morals. He contributed that to the fact that the majority came from the countryside as he did. This branch of Indian government is not corrupt, he said.

He asked us if we were interested in spirituality and was that one of the reasons we came to India. He went on to say that he was doing a meditation that was associated with Osho but was emphatic in saying he was not a follower of Osho. He also liked Eckhart Tolle’s ‘Power of Now.’ But what we found the most interesting was what he had to say about his wife. It was an arranged marriage and even though he was interested in meditating they had never discussed it.

Three years into the marriage, she asked her husband to get permission from his mother, whose house she was now living in, for her to continue her meditation practice. This was the first he’d heard about it. She told him she had meditated on Shiva since she was five years old and he was very pleased to find this out and persuaded his mother to let her do her practice. It also encouraged him to take up mediation again. He said she would leave her body when she meditated and stay in this non-responsive state for four hours or more. After they had a child, the baby would cry for his mother when she meditated. In frustration, he once put the baby in her lap and told her, take care of your baby! But he was inspired by her ability to go within. He hastened to make the point that he was not at that stage himself but found his practice fulfilled something very important in his life.

The system of arranged marriage continues to amaze us. The unseen hand brought them together.


Kuchaman: From a Sow’s Ear to a Silk Purse

Gerard had read about Kuchaman and an interesting old Fort on an obscure travel site. It sounded a quiet place off the Rajasthani tourist route. The site mentioned an ultra luxurious hotel occupying a large part of the Fort. Not that we were serious about staying there, but we emailed for the price. We got no response. And even though we couldn’t find another hotel with a working phone number — only a reference to Hotel Gorband with no contact info. Still we persevered. All in spite of the fact that whenever we mentioned we were going to Kuchaman, the response was, “Why?” The guesthouse owner in Jaipur said he’d known one guest like us move on to Kuchaman…but that was ten years ago.

As we pulled into the railway station 11 Km outside town, there wasn’t even a platform to step out on, a long way down to the ground. Without a rickshaw in sight, we had to deal with the taxi drivers who crowded around us all talking a mile a minute in Hindi. They didn’t recognize the Hotel Gorband and no one could find a phone number for it. Even the luxury hotel was not an option; it had folded two years ago. Does this mean we can’t even get into the Fort? But that’s what we came for.

Communicating as best we could with sign language, we set out to see what we could find. The sun had now faded and as we approached town, everything looked shut down. Eventually we found Hotel Gorband, sitting above a motorcycle repair shop. It did exist after all but looked far from inviting. Before the taxi could take off, Gerard made the driver understand we wanted him to hang around. It took only one cursory look at the drab room to realize the hotel wasn’t going to work. My mood was sinking at the prospect of having to stay even one night in Kuchaman, let alone four. And when I voiced this to Gerard, he replied, it wasn’t helpful. Another fine mess he’s got us into, I thought. After all, it was his idea to go off the beaten track and come here.

Back in the taxi, the driver now grasped the situation and took us back to the bypass road where there was an innocuous looking roadside stop (restaurant on the ground floor, rooms above) for Indian tourists, with the illustrious title, ‘Sharda Palace Hotel’. The manager, sitting alone in an echoingly empty restaurant, sprang to his feet to welcome us. To our relief he spoke some English and showed us a room, basic but spacious. I tried to visualise myself holed up there for the next four days. It was a struggle.


Throughout the cold night I lay awake buried under two thick blankets listening to the lorries roaring by, with music blasting to keep themselves awake. As we sat at breakfast in the virtually empty restaurant looking out on a windblown highway, it was as if we’d dropped into Baghdad Café or any southwest road stop. Except here, no one spoke English. I could detect that Gerard was also beginning to wonder how we could escape. But we had already purchased our tickets for Bikaner, a good five hours away. Too far to just jump in a taxi and make a hasty exit. So what to do for the next four days?

I had forgotten that change is the inherent nature of the world and things will change here as well. But for the better?


the beautiful girl who swept our room every afternoon

The first day we hung around the ‘Sharda Palace’; there was plenty of time to see the one attraction in town, the Fort. In the afternoon, we walked out into the surrounding countryside, so peaceful after Jaipur. In a small hamlet, a group of women and children were standing in a doorway, watching these odd looking people walk by. I said, “What a great picture!” Gerard urged, “Go ahead and take it.” Pulling out the camera encouraged others to come out and have their picture taken also. How simple and uncluttered they seemed to us. I think they enjoyed having their picture taken as much as I enjoyed taking it. It looked like things were beginning to turn around for us.


The next day, the hotel manager, now introduced himself as Hariprasad. He offered his son to take us to the Fort on his motorbike and act as our Guide. Gerard questioned three on a motorbike with no helmets? But Hariprasad assured us that Kuchaman had no police and there would be no problem. Mohit first stopped at two ATMs – one with no money, the other with interminable long lines, one line of men, another of women. We moved on.


Nearer the Fort, the town became more interesting, with white and blue painted limestone buildings and narrowing old streets. We parked the bike and walked up to the Fort, followed by a friendly dachshund, belonging to the gateman.


The admission included a guide who couldn’t speak one word of English; lucky for us that Mohit’s English was near perfect. Our fortune in Kuchaman was looking up.


The sprawling Fort dates from1635. Built on a pinnacle, it’s a smaller version of the Jodhpur Fort. The Royal family of Kuchaman Province lived there until just after Independence. A large portion of the Fort had been turned into a high-end hotel with dozens of rooms, priced up to 12K Rs. But that was two years ago. A new owner is now renovating toward reopening, no doubt at even higher prices. There were endless rooms of well-preserved frescos,


The Queen’s Boudoir, decorated in mirrors, the glass from Belgium, and a game room surrounded by viewing balconies, with a human chess board laid out in stone on the floor. Last but not least, a karma sutra room with risqué frescos, the locked door opened only for private viewing. Only one other party of Indian tourists arrived at the Fort the whole time we were there.


The following morning, Hariprasad arrived at the hotel saying, “Come quick! There’s no queue at the ATM.” We jumped on his bike and rode back into town to find by now a line had formed. Hariprasad insisted on taking us to the front where he requested we go next. The Indians graciously complied. Thankfully there was still money in the machine and we each managed to draw out the tourist allotment for the day, effectively doubling what we expected. Staying to explore the old part of town, shopkeepers and shoppers alike stopped what they were doing in surprise as we passed. Clearly, Westerners are rare.

That evening, Hariprasad invited us to his home for dinner. I marveled at how things had evolved. Here we were going to the home of a man who three days ago I had bargained with for a room – a room that had seemed sparse and uninviting had now become our home away from home. We were going to meet his wife at their house in a town that I had dismissed as only a huddle of buildings along a highway and had wanted to leave as fast as possible. How quickly things can change in three days! These are the adventures of traveling with Gerard.


It was a perfect ending to our stay. Hariprasad and his wife, Saroj, couldn’t have been more welcoming. They live in a house built by his grandfather eighty years ago in the old fashioned style of rooms around a courtyard. We feasted on a home cooked meal that was prepared jointly by husband and wife, not typical in traditional India. Saroj was as friendly toward us as her husband and son had been.

On the way back to the hotel, Hariprasad told us that he didn’t understand how we had become so close in such a short time. He had never got that friendly with any guest, what to say, about inviting them to his home. And it was true for us too; even with our limited ability to communicate, we felt like he was family.


But this was not quite the end. The following day, while waiting for our evening train, the hotel erupted in activity.

First a meeting of local media executives, and then the rest stop of Sapna, a beautiful young Rajasthani pop singer and her entourage of musicians, bodyguards and bouncers. Granted audience, we were taken to her resting room where she lay under the blankets with her mother.


She got up and greeted us warmly, hugging me as if we were old friends, and posed with us for photos. She looked even younger than her 21 years, but behaved with the poise of a celebrity. At last, Hariprasad had his driver take us to the railway station saying how much he would miss us and that now the hotel would seem empty. For our part, Kuchaman is now an especially pleasant memory.


The Pink City and its Palaces

It’s been twelve years since we first visited Jaipur and it wasn’t one of our favorite destinations. The “Pink” City is famous for its textiles but we’d not been in the mood for shopping and were put off by the noise and chaos of its busy streets. We only managed to visit the Hawa Mahal or Wind Palace. This time, we stopped for a day and a half, primarily to visit the Amber Fort/Palace outside the city. Vinayak Guesthouse, close to the railway station, was comfortable enough with an excellent restaurant on the roof. In the afternoon we decided to brave the clogged streets to visit the City Palace. The grid of the old city lined with pink buildings and shopping arcades, survivors of modernization. Unlike most Indian cities, old Jaipur has not been torn down and rebuilt in concrete.

dsc_0005The City Palace was built in the 1720s, part of which is still occupied today by the family of the once ruling Maharajahs. We could have taken a private tour of their quarters for a mere addition to the entrance fee of 2,500 Rs each. Among the formal rooms open to the public was the Peacock Courtyard with its four painted doorways depicting the four seasons and the Public Hall of Audience, its walls adorned with old photographs of receiving dignitaries, including Lord and Lady Mountbatten.


A textile museum showed elaborate clothing of woven gold and brocaded fabrics from the royal wardrobe.


As Gerard took pictures, I struggled with the manual settings on my new camera. It’s always easier to take automatic but then what’s the point in having a sophisticated digital camera? I could be walking around like everyone else with an iPhone and a ‘selfie’ stick. I imagine them going home with their pictures of Jaipur – each one with a distracting ‘selfie’ in the foreground. Every picture will be of themselves with a slightly altered background.


The next morning we negotiated with the same rickshaw driver to take us 11 km out to the Amber Fort. Sitting high up on a rocky ridge, the Fort is reached by a long winding footpath, swarming with visitors (the more so being Sunday). For those less inclined to walk, the hike could be made precariously balanced on top of elephants. We were both disturbed by the sight of these regal animals, their ears decoratively painted, lumbering up and down all day.


The Fort was amazing. Built in 1727, the architecture is Rajput, although the mirrored mosaics and the Sheesh Mahal private chambers for the Maharajah and Queen are clearly influenced by Mogul ideas.



On the way back we stopped at the Kanak Vindravahan garden, a welcome oasis of peace and quiet after the noisy mob scene at the Fort.


Further along, was an esplanade with a grand view of a Lake Palace, alive with a fun fair atmosphere. We watched three little boys clowning around while half-heartedly making dough balls for feeding to the fish, a favorite lakeside activity.


We returned to the guesthouse for an excellent thali and then walked back to the railway station to catch the afternoon train to Kuchaman. An extended family crammed into our compartment, making it seem like general seating rather than reserved 3AC. We were initially annoyed at all these people pushing their way in with no regard for reserved seating. But like many times in India, things turned themselves around.

A young saried woman slid in opposite us dragging a boy who was obviously mentally disabled. She kept one arm constantly across to hold him back. The other side of her was a slightly younger boy absorbed in his iPhone. She spoke good English and introduced her two brothers accompanied by their wives and children. The woman explained they were from Bikaner and had all been visiting her husband who lived in Jaipur. Her nine-year-old son (his size made him seem much older) was born with cerebral palsy. “He is 99% disabled,” she said. “This is why I don’t live with my husband in Jaipur. Back in Bikaner, I have my parents and my in-laws to help take care of my son. I cannot leave him for a moment.” I noticed a large burn on the boy’s hand. I tried to contemplate that kind of constant care. And she’d been doing it for nine years, not to mention caring for her other son, only one year younger. Within a short time, we were all friends and she insisted that we visit her home in Bikaner where we were headed after Kuchaman.

Money Exchange Fiasco Disrupts Indian Economy and Inconveniences Tourists

Even after spending eight winters here, India still manages to deliver the unexpected. Shortly before we left, we heard rumblings about the government’s effort to eliminate black money. Their strategy was to remove the large bills in circulation and replace them with new ones. This would flush out anyone hoarding large sums with the purpose of buying and selling off the grid. Reportedly only 2% of the population pays taxes. Prime Minister, Modi, felt the strategy had to be implemented overnight in order to catch out the hoarders. The intention is laudable; the implementation a disaster. “Black” money has long been a way of life; hiding the actual selling price. With any large purchase, for example, a house, there’s always a part of it that’s paid for with black money, reducing the taxes.

People rushed to banks to exchange old notes. But unfortunately, the government hadn’t printed anywhere near enough new bills to meet demand. Over a two month period reported 107 people throughout India died waiting in the long lines for the new currency. Now, two months later, there is still a severe scarcity of new money and limitations are imposed – Indians can only withdraw 24,000 rupees from their bank account per week. But often times it takes numerous visits to the bank, either because the queue is too long or the bank has run out of currency. For the poor it’s even worse; many peasants don’t have an ID to open up a bank account, meaning they can’t make the exchange. And the few banks that will do the exchange without an account are only in the major cities.


But there are far broader ramifications. Because of the scarcity of currency, building projects may be on hold; clients can’t pay the contractor who in turn can’t pay his laborers. In rural areas, there was difficulty making change for a 500 Rs not in previous years, now the new 2,000 rupee note is four times the problem. And the root of the problem is not destroyed; corruption continues as people begin to hoard the new currency. It’s a one-time fix only.

It has been a disaster for the tourist industry. Foreigners can only withdraw (4,000Rs)  $75 a week. Even though for most that is adequate, going to the bank on a nearly daily basis is a huge hassle — and what about the small towns that don’t have banks? The ATMs have dried up and most of the small businesses don’t take credit or debit. We read a report in the newspaper that said tourism in Goa (the largest tourist area) has been severely impacted. Our trip this year could have turned into a nightmare if it hadn’t been for the guidance of our Indian family who has walked us through the process. We’re hoping that within the next month or so the situation will have improved and the ATMs will be functioning more normally.

Like the explosion of cellphones in India, which took off much faster than the West mainly due to lack of landlines, scarcity of cash is driving demonetization. Not just greater use of plastic, but also e-payment applications. PayTM on cellphones has rocketed. This is all fine for the technical savvy young middle class, but what about the rest of us? The older population, tourists and Indians alike, struggle with the technology. Someone in the family who used PayTM at the local grocery store, inadvertently was charged three times! Fortunately, the owner was an honest man and alerted her to the error. And again the poor, who don’t have a smartphone or a bank account to load money on PayTM, are left high and dry.

The move away from a cash economy is less appealing to us. Gerard actually likes handling cash. It’s another shift from actual to virtual and anyone that knows Gerard can guess how he feels about that.p1020672p1020678

To end on a positive note, the weather is warmer than normal for January, and we received our usual heartfelt warm greeting from our adopted family. We are most fortunate.