Shepherds and (Finally) Leopards

October 30

Set in a dramatic location of ancient craggy outcrops and fields of mustard and wheat bordered by the Lake, Jawai is the perfect area to explore the Indian countryside.  The area is the home of the Rebari tribes, traditionally herders.  The men are known for wearing white offset by bright red turbans and the women for their bright clothes and bangles.

We awaken early today to take a safari, searching for leopards amongst the towering boulders and cliffs. No leopards, but beautiful, rugged countryside, birds, peacocks.And interesting, very friendly people. Such a pleasure to be riding around in the Jeep.After I have breakfast (Carol is waiting for lunch to eat), we set off with our ranger, Ram, and an employee of our hotel who comes from the village we’ll be visiting, first to find and walk with a shepherd and, after we get the hang of shepherding, to give him a few pointers. Some goats go to considerable length to reach their food.

Afterwards, we go into a rather clean and prosperous-looking village, where we meet some villagers, including women with many bangles, climb up to see a temple, busy with Diwali visitors and happen upon men playing a kind of dice game. We are not the only ones interested in taking photos of interesting-looking people; we are often the subject matter.It’s gotten quite hot, so we are happy to return to the camp, where Carol has lunch and I go for a swim, before departing on our 4:30 game drive, once again searching for leopards among the craggy rocks.   As we start out, it begins to drizzle, and Ram considers turning back to camp, but we continue.

Not long after, Ram gets word of a leopard sighting, tells us to hang on, and tear asses over very bumpy roads to the sight, which is full of bushes, trees and large, craggy rocks. Many other jeeps have gathered, in fact eighteen at one point. Ram is able to locate the leopard and cub, well hidden and a long way off. They move from time to time, making it even more difficult to find them. Carol spots them, better than I can, but we’re still barely able to see them. At least we’d be able to tell folks that we’d seen leopards, but not in a very satisfying way.

As the sun is setting, we take off and drive up a stony hill for a spectacular view of Lake Jawai at sunset.

After sunset, Ram says he has an idea and wants to look for the leopards again. It’s pitch dark, but by shining a flashlight (not really cricket), he finds the mother leopard and cub, and we’re able to see them clearly, with no other jeeps around. This is fun and exciting. For the first time on this trip, not having my camera prevents a better photo (though even if I’d had my camera, it wouldn’t have been much). As it is, here’s proof, at least, that we saw a damn leopard.

Not my best leopard photo. For comparison, here’s one taken about fifteen years ago that appears in Carol and my book, No Secret Where Elephants WalkAfter tonight’s sighting, in a stunningly sensible decision, Carol and I decide not to arise at 5:30 tomorrow for a final game drive, but to sleep in, and pack and have breakfast at leisure. Pretty mature, huh?

“Finishing” Jodhpur,and on to Jawai.

October 29

A view from our breakfast table during our final meal at this fabulous palace.And a view of the front of our palace.Of all the many forts in Rajasthan, very few compare to majesty of the Mehrangarh Fort.  The fort is divided into three sections – the public areas, the Maharajas palaces, and the zenana, or queens’ palaces. The zenana is decorated with exquisite sandstone filigree work. Here are views of and from the fort.

Within the fort is the museum, guarded by this colorful fellow,which among its varied exhibits has an excellent collection of royal palanquins and the howdah section which has perhaps the finest collection of old ornate elephant howdahs in the world. Carol and I are blown away by the incredible color, detail and artistry of the miniature paintings.

After the fort, we visit Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, spread over 72 hectares, nearby. The park contains ecologically restored desert and arid land vegetation. Sure nature’s the nuts, but walking around, and up and down, in heat and high humidity for more than an hour is overdoing nature, in my opinion. I use my walking sticks and, while I did okay, don’t expect to see me in the walking stick finals at the Tokyo olympics next year. There are birds, most of whom are sensible enough not to show their beaks in the heat. Here’s my best wildlife shot at the park. Carol, of course, liked the park, though she admitted that it wasn’t exactly comfortable.

After an excellent lunch, at an upscale and nicely air conditioned restaurant we head for Jawai. As we’ve jettisoned our guide, Praveen, after lunch, we are now only with our driver, Manu, who, it turns out, speaks much more English than we’d thought. We detour from the road for fifteen or twenty minutes to visit a village in which a resident (whose foot has been injured by his buffalo) demonstrates making opium tea for us. He offers us a taste and, after accepting, we begin to look like this.Here are photos of the outside and inside of our tea maker’s house.We also stop to see an excellent rug weaver nearby. Carol resists buying any, just because we have no conceivable place to use them. This decision seems to me to lack imagination, but, being the compliant husband that I am, I accede.

Here’s a scene from the back of a truck we get behind in a town not far from Jawai.And here are some folks on a motorcycle, stopped at a railroad crossing, where a crowd has gathered, because a few hours earlier, somebody had been struck and killed by a train.We stay at Hotel Jawai, in African style tents with wonderful views of the grasslands and the landscape. Here’s the backdrop for the camp.

We are transferred from our van to a Jeep to be transported to the camp, which is a Relais & Chateaux property. We’re greeted by the managers and shown to our tent, which has a separate bathroom area, hot water, electricity, air conditioning and WiFi.

The name of the WiFi network at Jawai is “Ruin my holiday.” In an ultimate irony, I learn that the WiFi is out in our condo at home by reading am email from our building manager while seated by the campfire tonight in the desert in India.

We have an excellent dinner and retire to our tent to prepare for an early safari tomorrow morning.

Jodhpur—Countryside and Villages

Breakfast at the hotel, which, of course, would not be complete without live music.

A bit of history, and myth. The Kingdom of Jodhpur was established by the powerful Rathor clan who claim ancestry as far back as 470 AD.  In the mid 15th century, Rao Jodha, the ruler of Marwar, abandoned his old capital and built a new fort on the rocky cliffs of what is now Jodhpur.  According to legend, in the process of building the fort, he displaced a hermit who was meditating on the site. The hermit placed a curse on the descendents of Rao Jodha saying they would be plagued by famine every year. This is the reason the locals claim that the area has drought every three or four years. The gigantic Umaid Bhavan Palace Where we are staying was built as a result of a project initiated by the Royal family during a famine to provide employment.

Our “safari” today is designed to give us an authentic rural experience to an area that is completely devoid of tourism and commercialization. It gives us the opportunity to see the daily struggles and the joys of the hardy yet very welcoming people of the desert.  We switch to a Jeep to rude on bumpy dirt roads, our driver having to get out frequently to open and close stick gates.We first visit the Bishnoi tribe who are regarded as the first environment conservationists of the world, and have been preserving the flora and fauna for the past 550 years as a sacred tenet of their religion.  They live in a small “Dhani” or settlement of mud and stick huts, one of many that dot the desert region of Marwar.  They are resourceful in storing things in the sticks of their huts for ready access.

most of the men are out visiting friends to wish them a Happy Diwali, but there are some women and children around.We also see the thriving cottage industry in a region where skills of the hands earned more than farming in this inhospitable land.     We stop at small workshops doing pottery embroidered jootis (camel leather shoes), the famous pattu weaving and embroidery 

of these craft visits is that we were not pushed to buy anything. In fact,,nothing was even offered to us for sale. This is in complete distinction from every other craft visit we’ve made any place else in the world.

Of course, there are the inevitable cute little kids.We tour have lunch with the local “Thakur” the equivalent of the village head, Ajai Singh and his wife, a very erudite couple. He shares with us the 200-year history of ownership of the house he now lives in, having restored it from rubble and recently converted it to a lovely 4-room guest house, from which visitors can walk into and almost become part of the village. Very neat. He walks us around the property, pointing out historical remnants. An extra bonus is that his lawyer daughter, Darshika, who works for a large Japanese company in New Delhi, is in for Diwali, so we get to visit with her as well.

We drove back into Jodhpur and stopped at an enormous place that had textile and art of all kinds. Did a little damage, as we succumbed to the smooth presentation of an owner. Avoided any damage at a jewelry store, though.

Returned to the hotel, where I swam and used the hot tub and steam room Well, I mean, I deserved it, didn’t I, after a tough day? Had dinner in the hotel. While the dinner was fine, it wasn’t great. The setting, though, overlooking the lit palace gardens, with Diwali fireworks providing a profusion of color in the distance and flute music wafting up from below, was outstanding. Went back to our room, er, suite, and packed.

Forts, palaces, temples and markets are fine, but I’ll take a day wandering around a village over all of them.

(Headed to the desert, so may be no posts for a couple days. Try to deal with it.)

On to Jodhpur

October 27

We’re picked up to drive to the airport at 4:30, a bit sad to be leaving this amazing hotel. From the center of India we travel west to the desert and town of Jodhpur, flying through Mumbai (Bombay). We are met by a representative of our travel agency in Mumbai and a driver who take us to the new terminal (for our flight to Jodhpur), which opened five years ago and is easily the most beautiful terminal I’ve seen anywhere. The terminal was designed by the Chicago architectural firm, SOM. I’m so proud.

The terminal is so special that I’d encourage a traveler who was in Mumbai, but not flying in or out, to go see it. Except, they couldn’t, because India, being much smarter than we are, requires that you show a ticket and identification before you are allowed to enter the terminal.

Our flight to Jodhpur is an hour late. We are met at the airport and transferred ten minutes or so to our hotel, the Hotel Umaid Bhawan Palace.

Well, if we anticipated a step down from our Hyderabad hotel, we were mistaken. This place seems equally amazing. The young woman who shows us to our room, er, I mean, suite, says that this was the number one rated hotel in all of India and number three in the world. We are greeted by trumpets blaring and rose petals dropped from above. And I hardly ever get that at home, damn it.The hotel is decked out magnificently for Diwali, with fresh flower arrangements everywhere.

And our suite is not too shabby, either, as you can see from the bedroom part. Later in the afternoon we walk around the blue city, with our guide, Praveen, an enthusiastic Jodhpur native driven there by Mahendra (Manu), who shares the road with Ubers

Praveen talks of the blue city, and certainly there is some blueYou see some blue as you look out over the city, towards the fort that was occupied by the rulers until they built and moved into the palace that is now our hotel.But there also is plenty of trashAnd, one of the “problems” of traveling as much as we do is that when you hear somebody rave about a blue city, you compare it to another blue city, Chefchaouen , that you saw in Morocco and, as blue cities go, the latter wins, hands down.The most interesting part of walking around Jodhpur is seeing people preparing for Diwali, by ironing with a coal iron

Or by decorating their doorsteps.

Or old or young people just being themselves.

We return to the hotel before being picked up and driven to the home of Lokendra and Rama (and their two small children, cousin and nephew, with whom Shonali has arranged that we celebrate Diwali. For Diwali, the festival of lights and one of India’s most beautiful celebrations, oil lamps are lit to decorate homes, and in the evening a “puja” is performed to welcome the Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. People spend more than a week preparing, cleaning and decorating their homes. We are able to experience the celebration, first hand, with Lokendra and Rama, which is a real treat.

Before the puja ceremony, Lokendra tells about his family. Large pictures of his great grandfather, grandfather and father hang in the living room. For bravery in battle his great grandfather was given six cities, from which he received the tax revenues. Though illiterate, he insisted that his son, Lokendra’s grandfather, go to school and now the fourth generation of the family is attending the same college, a fact of which Lokendra is very proud.

Lokendra seems to manage some family real estate and Rama manages the house and children, which she says is living a good life. She seems to have little interest in utilizing her advanced business degree. After the rather long, and very ritual-laden pujah, we have dinner, light fireworks in the back yard (clearly the highlight for the kids) and Carol and look through their thick wedding album from ten years ago.Our guide and driver have waited two and a half hours for us, and now drive us back to the hotel, after our most enjoyable and unusual evening.

Lunch at Home in Hyderabad

October 26

After breakfast, Jonty picks us up at the hotel and we drive to the old city to visit the extraordinarily beautiful Paigah Tombs.  (Whenever I say “we drive” it means that our driver drives our guide and us.). Intricately carved in marble, these are the tombs of the powerful Paigah Nobles who were close to the Nizam. Unlike the tombs we visited yesterday, these are small in stature and not well known. In fact, we are the only ones there and have to rouse a guard to open the gate for us.

We head next for a vegetable market. Jonty explains what we are seeing, how they are used and more. It’s more vegetables than I, personally, need, but Carol enjoys it.

Here’s a creative guide who has built a cash drawer into his seat.

After the market, we head to a private house, where Jonty has arranged for us to have a lunch prepared by the woman who lives there. We first see the altar in the home that they worship at daily. As was true of the vegetable market, Carol likes this far more than I do. She enjoys watching the meal being prepared. Lunch is tasty.

After lunch, we drive to the four palaces of the Chowmahalla Complex.   Jonty tells us numerous stories and intrigues about the seven Nizams (Kings) of Hyderabad whose destinies and decisions shaped the history and culture of this region. The Seventh Nizam was once pictured on the cover of Time Magazine as the richest man in the world. The Sixth is the one who built the palace (hotel) we are staying in. We walk through the imposing Durbar Hall and the various rooms which have recreated a slice of life from the past.

Hyderabad’s charms lie beyond the monuments.  The charm of the city is found wandering the through historic Lad Bazaar. We risk life and limb riding in a tuk-tuk from the palace to the bazaar.We see the iconic four towers structure in the heart of the marketWe walk through the colorful and chaotic market where vendors sell an extraordinary variety of items ranging from mundane household goods, to the colorful bangles for which the city is so well known.  Carol buys a bunch of bangles, with Jonty’s assistance. It is a slice of Hyderabadi life – vibrant, chaotic and absorbing.

After the bangles, we return to the hotel, bid a fond goodbye to Jonty and try the palace tour again with another, understandable guide. This time it’s far better and the quite incredible palace is a treat. These few photos won’t do it justice, but at least they’ll give you some idea.

My favorite is the dining table that seats 101 guests, which we are told is the largest in the world.

We return to our room and find that the two swans who were at the foot of our bed have morphed into an octopus.

We’ve about had it with going to restaurants, so we opt to order into our room. I order–would you believe it–a pizza, and it’s absolutely fantastic. Carol’s minestrone and a paratha are also excellent. We pack and get ready for tomorrow’s very early departure.