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Rajasthan, India, December 2015

We've been in Mumbai since August, but hadn't traveled as a family around around India very much yet. Rajasthan is one of the more colorful states, and it's close, so we headed there for two weeks. Terrain-wise it's much more of a desert than the tropics that we live in: lots of sand, dust, and cold nights. In terms of history, Rajasthan ('Land of Kings') has had many many rulers, and the royal families and palaces continue into the present.

The plan was to vist 6-7 different places, spending 2-3 nights in each: seeing palaces, tigers, camels, and lakes.


Slideshow (big images)

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   Tigers in Ranthambore
   Camels at work
   Detour for old-time photos in Jaipur
   Train to Jodhpur
   Jodhpur + Xmas
   Camel Camping


A two-hour flight got us to Jaipur. We had a driver for most of the trip, except for one leg where we trained it.
Arriving in Jaipur!

You might not notice the missing car seat, nor did we! But unfortuantely, it's back in Mumbai. A Google search after we realized our predicament brought up web pages with text like "Car seats for children are rarely used in Rajasthan, so it is of course never possible to buy one here."

Fortunately, Heidi is very talented at these sorts of things, and within 10 minutes she located perhaps the only one available in all of Rajasthan. It was the only one this store had, and while it was technically for sale, the staff had never actually ever sold one before.

We parked outside the mall as Heidi went to buy the car seat. Then a camel passed us. I think it is SO COOL that in the largest city in Rajasthan, at the fanciest shopping mall for hundreds of km around, we were still passed by a camel carrying bricks.

Tigers in Ranthambore

And whoa! After a four-hour drive, we reach our... hotel. What a crazy place.
No, it is not a palace. It's about ten years old, and is in the middle of the desert. There are no kings around.
But it is unique!
We're on the high season for tourism -- both Indians and foreigners. A common tourist circuit is the Golden Triangle: Delhi - Agra (Taj Mahal) - Jaipur. Despite skipping two of the three points, we still managed to run into a handful of the same people during different nodes of our trip.
This is essentially a one-string bowed violin, with resonator strings.
Note Astro on the right in her 'cage', lest she roll onto the floor overnight.
The reason why we're at this hotel in the first place is to go tiger-looking. Ranthambore National Park is just around the corner. So in the morning, we head out for the first of our three safaris.
We meet up with our tiger guide.
Ranthambore is known for tigers, sloth bears, and leopards, all identified on this useful sign.

While living in DC, we were just down the street from the National Zoo, and the sloth-bear exhibit was just inside our closest entrance. So we got to see them well in DC, making it particularly exciting to go looking for them here.

Sloth bears are clearly outnumbered by the Rufous Treepie birds, seen here.
I swatted them out of the way. Right into Piper's face, where she got some big scratches. Sorry!!
Ranthambore is a 400-square-km park divided into a dozen or so zones. The exact size depends on how you count buffer areas, but the park has been expanding in recent years, as has its animal population.

Tigers are the big draw here, and there are perhaps 50 of them now in the 400 square km. Each truck gets assigned one zone, so perhaps there are a couple dozen people in each zone at a time. The park is only open for drives for a two-hour morning shift, and again in the afternoon... other than that, animals are allegedly left alone.

Finn is looking for animals.
Astro wants to find something.
And whoa!!! 40 minutes into our first drive of the morning, and we hear someone has found a tiger close by. Sure enough, we pull up to a cliff and search through the brush, and there is it.

"Check out that massive paw!", says Piper.

And it's headed toward food - a sambar deer it killed the night before. No one saw the kill, but the timing is about right.
Taking chunks out. The body was already eviscerated, but plenty of meat left.
And there are two tigers! We didn't see both at the same time, but it was a mother, with her son, who Piper says is the one here.
Eventually it started dragging the animal away.
By this point of course everyone in our zone in the park was here watching.
Note the 'Z 2' plate on that jeep -- meaning it can only come into Zone 2 on this drive. New numbers are 'randomly' assigned on every drive.
Tiger is across the water and halfway up the far bank.
Our guide and driver.
After an hour on the tiger, we go off and see if we can find anything else. A few deer.
Looks like Indiana Jones, as we are passing through the Ranthambore Fort -- an 11th-century imperial fort inside the national park.
A few obligatory monkeys are here.
More awesome tunnels.
And the road passes right through the fort.
Usually in South Africa, Astro stayed behind on the morning safari drives, but now at 3 1/2, she does well to come along, at least given a bit of entertainment.
We have three safari drives scheduled over our two days here. This one took us to a neighboring zone, with an old hunting lodge on a large lake.
A few seconds before this photo was taken:

"Look at that warthog! What is it eating?"

"Oh wow! It's eating.... it's another dead warthog!"

"Mommy ewwwww!! That is sooo gross!"

"God, I can't believe it."

"Oh god -- it's kicking! It's not dead yet! It's moving!! Don't look!!"


The peacock is the national bird of India. And if you go on safari here, you see a lot of them.
Don't miss the crocodile in the foreground! Right-hand side, in the water.
Another hunting building, with the fort behind (on the hill).
There is another tiger RIGHT THERE! But our plate doesn't allow us to cross into that zone, so all we can do is watch the people across the swamp in their vehicle.
And look at the (very cool) trees and birds over on our side instead.
One thing I should mention: India's air quality isn't the best, but it's not just an issue in the cities. Rural Rajasthan was a lot hazier than I anticipated. Some is blown dust, and some is smoke from fires (cooking and heating -- mostly of brush, plus trash-burning). This 'Asian brown cloud' is heaviest during the winter, when it's cold and there's no rain.

On top is what we really saw; on the bottom is the same view after applying Lightroom's 'Dehaze' filter (for real), which does a pretty great job of making things look like what they are `supposed' to. I have selectively applied this filter to various photos here...

I think this is a Jacana bird, with huge beautiful green feet.
And there are a lot of parrots too (called parakeets by the locals, so I admit I don't really know the difference).
Go Astro Heidi!

Camels at work

OK, we saw A LOT of camels. I tried to take a picture of every one, since I really love camels. I know there are too many to really enjoy properly, so if you don't like camels that much, just skip to the next section.
The deal with all of these camels is that they are work camels. They're carrying concrete and rocks.
They are also very well decorated.
Another attractive hard-working camel, this one featuring a nice peacock tattoo.

Speaking of native wild birds, on safari two years ago in Sri Lanka we saw a lot of 'Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl' (aka chickens) that our safari guides were stoked to point out to us.

This one is carrying a few tins of what looks like vegetable oil or ghee.


Done with Ranthambore... now we are at Jaipur. This is at the Amber Fort, which is a huge and amazing fort in the hills next to the town. Not any pics of the fort itself, but it's pretty impressive how a 500-1000 year-old sprawling brick tower complex has managed to stay up over the centuries.

Note all that haze in the background... not fog or forward-scatter either. And while it was pretty hazy here, the air quality was still a good deal better than it is in Mumbai much of the time (much less Delhi, which is about the worst in the world in terms of 2.5-micron particulate level).

Here we are again, still at the Amber Fort.
In Jaipur itself, our driver takes the opportunity to drop us off at a workshop where they are doing block-printing. It seemed that maybe he was getting a kickback from taking us there -- which is the norm in India, even though his company denied emphatically that such an arrangement was going on. Anyhow, block printing is how a lot of the Indian textiles are done... not batik, but just an inked wooden stamp.
Wandering around the palace area of Jaipur.
Oh wow. So we're at the Jantar Mantar, which is one of several famous astronomical observatories in India. This one was finished in 1738.
We had a guide here, but he wasn't a whole lot of help. As best I could tell, all of these are basically sundials / celestial spheres, in various different configurations. There are A LOT of them, and they are really impressive and cool. All of them were used for sighting the locations of the moon, sun, stars, and planets.
This one here is the vrihat samrat yantra, the world's largest sundial. The idea here is that the with such a tall tower, the sun's position could be measured more and more accurately, to within a second or two. It's about 60 feet high.

However, there are still no optics... as someone explained to me later, the Indian astronomers at the time had a philosophy of size-over-everything. So while a 3" telescope lens might changed their world, the local idea was that such a small device could never compete with a 60-foot sundial. Ultimately their observations were very good, but telescopes were all over Europe by this point.

The actual thing is very large, but doesn't look quite as funky as the photo here. I took a dozen shots, and Photoshop stitched them together into this somewhat distorted panorama.

The Indian astronomers definitely had a good knowledge of stellar and planetary positions, out to Saturn.
Inside the Jaipur palace, Piper is doing a bit of weaving.
Oh wow! Heading toward the bazaar, we see an empty lot with goats, and you can feed them.
And this guy will of course happily sell you the goat food. I like that a lot of the goats were wearing sweaters.
Later one, we peruse the bazaars of Jaipur, as the kids look for raw rocks with Heidi.
Piper attempts some bargaining.
Jaipur is a big city (several million). But there is a ton of action centered around the bazaars, with small specialized stalls.

Detour for old-time photos in Jaipur

Downtown Jaipur features many bazaars. As we were walking down one of them, we found this street photographer. He is using a 150-year-old wooden camera with a Zeiss lens. He takes the photos, and develops them on-the-spot using a water bath and silver nitrate.
Setting up for a photo session.
"Sir, sir, I take your photo! It is my grandfather's camera, 1862, Germany, Carl Zeiss. He was photographer in Jaipur, and my father, and now me."
Using that silver powder to develop and fix.
Beautiful camera!
And the photos come out of the developer! That's a bucket of water he's using. I'm sure the beer bottle had some technical function too.
In order to make a positive image, he shoots the picture of us on photographic paper. It develops as a negative. Then he takes a picture of the picture (by placing it on a little wood stand in front of the lens), develops again, and finally gets a positive image out.
It's the business card he gave me. Actually, he only has one, so I could just take a photo of it. And the photo isn't obviously him. But the camera matches!

Train to Jodhpur

We got up at 5 AM for the Jaipur-Jodhpur train.
Here, Heidi 'sleeps' while Astro is wide-awake as she rearranges her animals. I like the guy on top as well. This is the typical arrangement in the '3AC' (3rd class sleeper cars).
Piper may have gotten some sleep, but she was the only one. The triple-high bunk beds convert to hard couches during the day.
Indian porters work hard... one guy, six bags, 200 pounds?

Meanwhile, our driver has driven overnight from Jaipur (in our otherwise empty car) and meets us at the station.

Jodhpur + Xmas

Christmas! Our hotel in Jodhpur is getting ready.

And yes, you may know jodhpurs as an article of clothing... they are riding pants used with horses, made in Rajasthan from the 1800s, and still commonly used.

Santa to Astro: "Baby, do you remember me? I was the one who served you breakfast this morning. I brought your milk to the table! You were very cute! Now I am Santa. Yes happy Christmas baby!"
Piper channels.
Cnristmas morning in our room. The place we are staying is actually a palace -- the royal family of Jodhpur still lives there, although in a different wing than us.
Finn has a gyrosope.
Astro loves her flying things.

Check it out. Astro leans down, picks an illicit flower, AND HIDES IT BEHIND HER BACK! She is apparently enough distracted by something else to not realize that I am right next to her documenting the whole thing.

In the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. It is really, really impressive and cool... a tall monolith with sheer walls, rising over the city.
Piper put up with a lot during the week...
This whole trip was part Indiana Jones, part Tintin. Motorbikes, camels, stands of precariously balanced fruit, shawls and turbans, street dogs, domed temples, twisty narrow streets, big pots of tea boiling... it doesn't get much more surreal. All we need are some opium dens.
Piper tries on a saari (handmade, 100 rupees = $1.50). Later she got 'adjusted' in the street for wearing it incorrectly (free).
Love this photo of Heidi carrying Astro through the market. In any other circumstance Astro would stick out... but here, she almost blends in.
It's December 25, and while Star Wars Episode VII has been open for a week around the rest of the world, tonight is the Indian premier. We head to a theater around the corner from our hotel. Star Wars isn't high enough profile here to displace any of the Bollywood posters featuring the real attractions, but at least we're able to buy tickets.
First he showed me his nine medals from the Indian Army. Then of course I asked about the moustache. "One meter, from longest, finger to finger," stretching out his arms.
Ever wondered where all those Indian tapestries are made? Here's one of innumerable factories, this one with a large bulk shipment going off to Sydney.


After a five-hour drive, we've made it to Jaisalmer. Geographically this is a bizarre place: out of the middle of the dry desert rises a sandstone bluff, more than a mile around. The Jaisalmer Fort was started in 1156, and has been continually inhabited (and built upon) since then.
I was hoping to get some 'child beer' here.
We get picked up for the short trek up to our hotel inside the fort.
How totally unbelievable that places like this actually exist. View from our room in the fort itself, which still survives with a lot of business and houses inside the walls. The rest of the city below is equally old and amazing with tiny twisty streets, many arches, and a whole lots of cows.
Lots and lots of "I Spy" over breakfast from the fort.
The palace (at the center here) is inside the fort. Perched on the wall below, you can see rock balls that were used to drop onto incoming armies. The huge wooden fort doors are also reinforced to resist charging elephants.
Sun dogs
Packing up from our stay in the fort.
Just outside of Jaisalmer, we've hired a guide named Lalit to tour us around to some of the sites. Here we're at the Bada Bagh. It's a royal cemetary, where a lot of the earlier rulers were buried. Apparently a lot of it fell down during an earthquake about 15 years ago, although it's been put back together pretty well.
Archaeologists Piper and Finn try to piece that sign back together.
Very nice cows here.
Kuldhara is a complex of abandoned rural villages, a few km outside of Jaisalmer. They were built up over centuries, and abandoned under unknown circumstances in the 1800s.
Exploring the ruins. A few buildings, like those here, have been reconstructed. But this particular village goes on for at least a kilometer.
Piper and Finn descend from the rooftop.
There are a lot of Rajstahani tourists here... the women typically wear a lot of red, and often a very large fancy golden nose ring.
Another abandoned village, part of the same complex, another 10 km away. Imagine the number of PhD theses waiting to be researched right here...
Our guide Lalit. When driving back to Jaisalmer, we passed the current palace (which is no longer in the fort -- it's on the flatlands of Jaisalmer).
Lalit: And my family does some business with the royal family sometimes. Construction, that kind of thing.
Me: So, have you ever been in the palace?
Lalit: Oh, of course. Maybe one time per month.
Me: And what's it like inside?
Lalit: Oh, it's normal. It's like a palace. You know.
Goat herder.

Camel Camping

From Jaisalmer, we headed to one night on 'camel safari' near Manwar. This was the only part of our whole two weeks that was a little bit painful, in that tour-boat / zoo animal kind of of way. At our first `activity', we were driven around in the back of a jeep, and got out to look at a couple of village blacksmiths making blades. This guy here is turning a bicycle wheel, which is connected to a fan which blows air on the fire.

While our interaction was pretty forced and one-way, this is what rural life is like in Rajasthan, and I have no doubt that these people would be doing the same thing with or without us there.

Then our convoy went to a rural village house... the girls' eyes are decorated with charcoal.
And the grandmother of the family. She got a bit upset when her goat went into the store room and started eating the rice there.
After a few hours bumping around the back of a truck, Astro is out. Finn has just woken up.
And now the camels come!
The camels really are lovely.
We had two of them: Finn and I on one, and the ladies on the other.
We walked about 1 km before we were told that the camels needed to take a break.
So we got off and played while the camels rested. Camels are really cool when they are sleeping -- they stretch their necks out like giant crocodiles of the desert.
"Daddy, look! I is bringing the camel some sand to eat. Here camel, EAT!!"
Astro moves on to other tasks after feeding the camel.
I have never ridden a giraffe, but I could imagine that boarding one is not unlike getting on a camel... it's very bumpy and tilty.

Quick movie of my camel standing up:

And what's this? Not goats in trees being watched by people, but a woman in a tree, watched over by her goats? She is apparently cutting them vegetation.

Nearly always it's the men who are visibly outside herding and harvesting, so it was cool to see her with her animals. In Mumbai as well, women are definitely not as visible... sometimes walking outside here, it seems like 20 guys for every woman.

We're back at the camel camp now. So many beautiful camels!!
I don't know exactly what these guys are saying, but it seemed like they were laughing and pointing at me for something I was doing. Nevertheless, I got to visit their beautiful camel, so it was all good.


OK, two more stops left on our trip. We drive from CamelWorld to Narlai, a very small religious town (4000 people, 135 temples), which doesn't appear in any of our guidebooks. I wasn't quite sure what we were doing here. We came into the hotel (a several-hundred-year old converted hunting lodge), and sat down on the deck. Looking up, we almost immediately saw two leopards walking across the granite dome above the hotel. Holy moly.
Another shot of that granite mountain. This is within a kilometer of our hotel. And there is an amazing Hindu temple sitting there, looking like it is about to be crushed by a falling rock.
In the morning, we head out to find more leopards. Unlike most places we've been to before, the animals here are not in any `wildlife preserve' -- instead, they wander through the village and town.
First we pass through town. I don't know what it was, but I saw more people brushing their teeth this morning than I ever have before.
Heading through town, more temples.
Early morning sunrise... leopards are often on the rocks in the early morning.
Our leopard guide Akshay starts off the search.
Ring-necked parakeets!
Akshay looks for animals.
Our guide Akshay gets the chai ready.

He got married last year, and it was fascinating hearing about it. He had met his wife one time before, for five or six minutes.

"But it is a good marriage. I like her very much. And before we were married, we do the horiscopes, and our families check everything. It was 95%, 99%. So when the marriage proposal arrived, we were sure it would work. Everything was very good, saying the match was very good. She is educated woman too. In the past, we must just do an arranged marriage."

"But this way it was different. That is in the past. This time, she and I talk many times before we were married. The engagement was one year long, and we talk many times. It was all over WhatsApp. So we were sure it was good. Before the engagement, just once, but even then, the horoscopes assure all of us -- both families -- that it is a good match."

Our other guide shows Finn some photos. His english wasn't very good, but this is the senior guide here, and the one who has really turned the local leopard-human interactions around, from being a threat that must be killed, to an animal than the villagers are interested in and want to keep around.
Akshay talks with the local villagers a lot while driving.

"The hard part, the important part, is not that we just find the leopards. But that we engage the villagers with us. For instance, we have teams of people who spot them and track them for us. If they find an animal, they call us. And they know that we will pay them for it. How much? It is about 200... 200 or 300 rupees. And they know also that if they kill the leopard, maybe they can make a small amount of money, thogh it is illegal. But that is one time. And never again But for tourism, to benefit the entire village, we must keep the populations here forever."

"There is very little conflict between the leopards and the people. There is enough wild abandoned oxen here. The leopards eat the babies. Not the animals from the village. In fact, there is rarely ever any problem at all. Never, I think."

"Sometimes here you see the oxen. These oxen, they used to be in a family. But now, the shift is toward other things and away from agriculture. People would prefer to buy milk, not have a cow. So the oxen are here with no owner. And in India of course you may not kill it. So they live here forever."

Passing through, and looking for leopards.
Piper remains extremely good at tracking.
And there it is!! On the rocks, at sunset, we finally see a leopard. It was at least 1/2 km away, so we didn't get very close. But it was great to finally see it.
Our guide has taken some great photos of leopards with cubs.
The next morning, we go out on our third leopard safari. He has found one, but it's disappeared before we get over there.
PIPER FOUND SLOTH BEAR HAIR!! No, we didn't find any sloth bears, either in Ranthambore or here. But this hair was left as evidence on some bushes.
Astro has collected a feather from a local wild bird!
Astro managed to come on all the drives, as did her baby.
A bit of bushwacking back to the vechicle.
Pig in the city.
In the time between safaris, we went out with one of the hotel staff on a tour of the town. It's a mellow, clean, friendly place, and worlds apart from Mumbai. Many kids were in the street (they have a year-end school vacation).
Here, she's grinding sesame seeds to make oil.
Astro gets a nice turban!
While I ring the bell in the temple (this one is
We went up the rock steps to the large temple.
And the 'holy man' who runs the temple.
He didn't speak much English, but he was very excited we were there, and asked that I send pictures.
It's really a beautiful temple -- all made of carved rock pillars and inlaid rock floors.
The bell rings hundreds of times every morning and evening, and Astro got to contribute to its impromptu 11:13 AM call.
Traffic jam!
A lot of people in the rural villages around live in small shacks, using wood for heat and cooking.
Firewood for the day, looking a bit like a walking tree from a high-school musical.
In the fields. Agriculture has dropped here, but it's still the largest industry... many fields of mustard and wheat across Rajasthan.
Boss. Our guide has developed good relationships with the people. This woman's grandson has a stiched-up lip -- he got mauled by a dog recently.
Not cows, but water buffalos, walking past a jewelry shop in town.


We're en route to Udaipur -- our final stop. But before that, we pull over to see a couple of cows driving a water wheel.

It's amazing to think that even now, in one of the world's largest countries, it makes economic sense to do this. Two cows and one full-time driver are still apparently cheaper, or at least preferred, over a 1500 W (= 2 HP) electric motor of the size in our blender at home.

OK, I don't know anything about rocks. But Rajasthan is covered by rock quarries, where huge slabs of marble are cut out of the ground and loaded onto very heavy trucks. We must've passed at least a half-dozen large quarries in the last week. This is why the Taj Mahal was built not far from here -- all of the marble was brought from Rajasthan.

But here is one large delivery, prominently labeled 'Made in Italy.' Hmm.

Finally in Udaipur, which is built around seven large lakes. The tall yellowish complex contains the palace. The white building at the center is an island -- the Lake Palace Hotel -- where James Bond had critical scenes in Octopussy.

On an island in one of the lakes is the Udaipur Solar Observatory -- just like solar observatories in the US, the lake water keeps the air stable for good seeing during the day.

After two weeks on the road, it's time for a bit of cleanup, enjoyed by at least 2/3 of all participants.
We head out on boat, and pass these women doing laundry in the lake.
Not the Lake Palace Hotel.
And these men are bathing.
Being New Years Day, the palace was a pretty bruising place with crowds. We made it inside, but quickly left for the relative peace of some of the markets downtown. From the rooftop, we watched these kite-flyers.

And from the same rooftop, Piper also watched the traffic below...

Heidi revisits her past at the Ranginawas near the palace. She spent several months in Rajasthan during college -- much of it in Udaipur in a building adjacent to this hotel, and some in rural Rajasthan.
A quick trip up the Sky Train (aka Udaipur Ropeway) before we leave for the airport.
"Mommy, why are you talking? Here mommy, I close your mouth so you do not talk any more. Mommy, why is your mouth closed? You must open it now! I feed you now mommy. Now chew mommy, chew!"

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Henry Throop

Last modified Wed Jul 6 12:09:15 2016