Jodhpur: What a Joy

February 21-23, 2017

Turns out, despite the way my time here ended, Jodhpur is a love at first sight city. Beginning at the airport, where not a single soul clamors for my taxi dollar, and on the way into Old Town, where traffic is manageable and borderline polite, Jodhpur has a sense of order and civility to it that is surprising considering that it’s the 2nd biggest city in the state of Rajasthan, and that sense of civility extends even into the crowded, narrow streets of the old city itself.

During my research, I had grown somewhat enamored with Jodhpur… visually, she is a photographers dream. Logistically though, I almost gave up trying to get here as the location wasn’t synching well with my plans and timings, but somewhere deep down I had a pull to make it happen, and I’m very glad I did.

Mehrangarh Fort... the view from my window.
Mehrangarh Fort… the view from my window.
The Blue City
The Blue City

The charm here is instantaneous, due in large part to the city’s aesthetic. Known as the “blue city,” it’s predominant, cool-watercolor hue gives maximum appeal as juxtaposed onto the haphazard, timeworn construction of a city this age. Visually mesmerizing, there is so much detail to soak in, but most importantly, this city provides the personal space to enable full absorption.

The tight alleyway-like streets of the city are entirely reminiscent of Varanasi, except without any of the chaotic energy. There is a softness here that is absent in most of the other large Indian cities I’ve been to, and that dramatically alters the way one moves through the streets… particularly as a single, white, female tourist. Refreshingly, as I wander about, no one approaches me, bothers me or engages me in any way, save for the occasional “namaste!” as I walk past a shop or home, or the random smiling child, asking my name, wanting to practice their English. In the busier parts of town, tuk-tuk drivers offer out their services and vendors half-heartedly beckon me into their store, but it’s all very friendly and easy-going, enabling me to take my time, take tons of photographs and just absorb the details… and it is positively delightful.

Afternoon card game
Afternoon card game
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Color contrast
Keeping Shop
Keeping Shop
Lovely ladies on the stairs
Lovely ladies on the stairs

Mehrangarh Fort, as any guide book will tell you, is a Jodhpur must-visit, made easy since it’s situated in town. Luckily for me it’s a short walk from my guest house and an incredible way to spend a few hours learning about the rich history of the city.

The imposing Mehrangarh Fort as seen from its approach.
The imposing Mehrangarh Fort as seen from its approach.
The infamous Handprints of Sati, outside Mehrangarh Fort. Sati was the ancient custom where widowed wives (and concubines) cast themselves upon their deceased husbands funeral pyre out of love and devotion.
The infamous Handprints of Sati, outside Mehrangarh Fort. Sati was the ancient custom where widowed wives (and concubines) cast themselves upon their deceased husbands funeral pyre out of love and devotion. These are the purported prints of the queens who committed sati at this castle.
More handprints around town, although I can't seem to find the history or correlation to those at the Fort.
More handprints around town, although I can’t seem to find the history or correlation to those at the Fort.
Doorways and handprints.
Doorways and handprints.

One of the things I made a point to seek out was the local and rather large baoli, or step-well. These structures, like the ones I visited in Jaipur, are part of Rajasthan’s rich history and I find them to be mesmerizing artifacts of a bygone era. All of the step-wells in Rajasthan (there are reportedly thousands of them) and their historic importance (or lack thereof) vary greatly. Some, like the well known Chand Baori outside of Jaipur which was part of an important temple complex, have been protected by the Archeological Survey of India, a governing entity that oversees conservation of important historic structures, and as a result tourists are restricted on where they can walk and what they can see. Others, like the site outside of Amer Fort in Jaipur, are guarded, but half-heartedly so… we were able to walk down into the well and take photos for awhile before being shooed out.

This site in Jodhpur, Toorji Ka Jhalara, has no boundaries whatsoever, and as such, has become a hang out for the locals. The day I visited, a group of children frolicked and swam in the water below and teenagers hung out, taking selfies (the culture is positively obsessed!) and listening to music, while a few tourists such as myself wander around, taking photos and seeing how far down the steps we dare to go. It was an engaging way to spend a couple of hours.

Swimming
Swimming
Hanging out
Hanging out

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I don’t normally spend much time talking about accommodations, but I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about my guest house, as it had a direct effect on the authenticity and entire feel of my experience here. I am staying in what’s known as a haveli. Haveli’s are old mansions that were generally occupied by large, upper caste families, and this particular haveli, constructed approximately 500 years ago at the same time as the Mehrangarh Fort, was gifted to the Singhvi family by the Maharaja Royalty as a thank you to Shri Akheraj Sa Singhvi, Maharaja’s Commander in Chief.

The mansion-turned-guest house is still owned and operated by the Singhvi family today, and the antiquated charm of the property, from the fountained courtyard to the rooftop deck overlooking both city and fort, to the delightfully (and authentically) decorated rooms, is undeniable. The building keeps much of its original construction detail… heavy wooden doors at all the entryways, steep and narrow staircases, ornate archways and the tale-tell lattice-work type architecture that the Mughal Era influence of construction is famous for… all adding to the charm and making this beautifully quirky and historic place an absolute asset and integral part of my time here. As icing on the cake, the family that runs the place was incredibly kind and hospitable, making me feel as if I were an honored guest.

Singhvi's Haveli
Singhvi’s Haveli
Singhvi's Haveli
Singhvi’s Haveli

Evenings here were some of my favorite times. From my central locale, with the imposing fort situated just above me to the East, and the gentle slope of the city rising out in front of me to the West, I feel as if I’m in a lovely oasis amidst the heart of the city. At dusk, an echo of conch horns erupts all around, amplified by distant loudspeakers, commencing the beginning of evening prayers, and a short while later loud bells and chants ricochet off the surrounding hills and fill the city’s airspace with evening worship, giving an even more enchanted feel to the already beautiful dusk. As I sit on the rooftop deck, watching the sun set over this charming city, listening to a ritual that probably hasn’t altered much in the last thousand years, I feel as if I have been transported back to another time. Again, absolutely delightful.

Dusk, overlooking the city.
Dusk, overlooking the city.

This city was without question one of India’s highlights for me, so it’s a little bit ironic that it was here, on the morning of my departure, that I had the most unfortunate occurrence I’ve had to date in all of my travels! (You can read about the event here.) Regardless, this blue city gave me a couple of absolutely delightful days and for that I thank you, Jodhpur… you were a real joy!

Art decorating the walls wherever you look
Art decorating the walls wherever you look
Airing out
Airing out
Bangles for sale. Lot's of them.
Bangles for sale. Lot’s of them.
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Art everywhere
Two elephants at a little make-shift temple on a deserted path.
Discarded toys? Holy symbolism? Art? Hard to tell, at this little makeshift, roadside alter.

Chillin Near China – Northern Vietnam

November 22-24, 2015

As is my prevailing penchant, I wanted to venture far off the beaten path for some of my time in northern Vietnam, and so hired a guide for three days to travel north from Hanoi through the mountainous region of Ba Be Lake and Cao Bang, going as far as the border of China.

While this certainly wasn’t the most economical portion of my trip, it is without question, one of my favorite chapters. The scenery was outrageously beautiful and equally important, it gave me a rich opportunity to dive into the real, rural Vietnam that remains relatively untouched by tourism.

Northern Vietnam.
Northern Vietnam.

En route we stop for tea (a strong, locally grown and mildly bitter green) which is an integral part of the Vietnamese culture, not just in the northern region but the entire country. Throughout the day, tiny teapots and dainty cups await you wherever you go.

While tea is being prepared, I see some activity involving steaming hot water spilling onto the ground around the corner from where we sit, and my guide points for me to go see and says something about what I thought was “giving birth.”

Thinking I would see a litter of pigs coming into the world, or some such thing, I was horrified to turn the corner and see not “giving birth” but “killing birds”… scalding them to death in a large vat, in fact. Good lord… these are the things I would really prefer not to see, and yet I understand this stark, seemingly inhumane reality of food preparation is but an integral part of the Vietnamese culture, and thus part of my experience here. I last for about five seconds before I have to walk away.

He's safe, for now anyway.
He’s safe, for now anyway.

Moving on, we arrive at the perimeter of Ba Be Lake and boat along a lush canal, passing through the Puong grotto, a large float-through cave where we disembark for a bit to explore.

In we go.
In we go.
Local fisherman passing through.
Local fisherman passing through.

The river eventually empties us into the large lake where the landscape changes but the breathtaking beauty does not.

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Overnight is spent at a gorgeous homestay (more of a boutique hotel than authentic homestay, really) on the edge of the quiet lake in the village of Bo Lu, surrounded by mountains and rice fields, and I have a chance to walk through this glorious countryside in the late afternoon, no one around but the locals harvesting their rice.

Field parking.
Parking in the paddy.
Dusk view from the homestay. Magical.
View from the homestay at dusk.
Foggy dawn.
And foggy dawn.

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Out here, it seems life has not changed much over the decades and the old ways are still quite apparent. Life is kept simple… hard work prevails and family has an ever-abundant presence. Babies are still carried around papoose style while the mothers work, be it in the fields or at their roadside food stalls which are simply an extension of the home.

A woman from the Tay ethnic minority group.
A woman from the Tay ethnic minority group with baby on board and blackened teeth… a custom of their ethnicity.
A day's work.
A day’s work.

In the car we pass a roadside stand selling live, dangling rodents of some sort, presumably for cooking. I am curious, but not really wanting to know the answer I decide not to inquire.

About a mile down the road we pull over and I realize I’m about to get my curiosity satiated whether I want to or not, as we approach a stand with several of these creatures hanging upside down by their tail, furiously pawing at the air.

Up close I recognize these creatures from some nature show I once watched and the guide confirms my suspicions. They are ‘bamboo rats’ that live underground and eat only the root of the bamboo tree, and in Vietnam they are considered a delicacy, as they are not frequently available due to the difficulty of finding and capturing them.

Upside-down bamboo rat.
Upside-down captivity. 

Once again, I am both horrified and fascinated, hating to see these creatures suffer but wanting to understand more about a culture so different than my own, particularly where animals and food are concerned.

I find it incredibly interesting that the prolific consumption of every type of meat possible (all the rumors you’ve heard are true) along with the relative disinterest in the welfare of the animal (domestic pets seemingly excluded) is so engrained in a society that is primarily Buddhist.

Song birds in pretty cages, a common sight in this country.
Song birds in pretty cages… not for consumption.

Upon inquiry I find that while Buddhism is in fact the main religion practiced here, like people and their religious practices everywhere, not all Buddhists abide by all of the laws (vegetarianism seeming to be the least observed one) and historically with much of the country poor and living in remote regions, the people have looked for food (and found it) in some unusual places, learning to prepare and eat whatever was available… and these eating habits still have their place in the culture today.

Aside from the shock to my American sensibilities, eating in this region has otherwise been a delight. In true Vietnamese fashion, each meal involves dish after dish being brought to the table and it is above all, a social affair. Aside from the meat-heavy selections (I stuck with beef, pork and chicken, thank you very much) there was also a huge variety of vegetables… bitter melon, kohlrabi (the root, not just the greens, as we seem to do in the states), thick chunks of bamboo shoot, wilted greens in spicy broth and a plethora of other indiscernible vegetables my guide couldn’t translate.

Fungi.
Fungi.
Rice-something or other wrapped in banana leaves.
Rice-something or other wrapped in banana leaves.

At night, the meal always included some of the locally brewed “happy water” … a homemade ‘wine’ that tasted, at least to my palate, more like sake. Mostly made from corn or rice and batched up in the abundant, discarded water bottles, the taste and color varied quite a bit from place to place. Like tea, it is served in tiny cups which is just as well, at about 30% alcohol.

Curious, I asked if each kitchen made their own happy water and it turns out that generally one family in the village makes a batch every few days (fermenting time is only about 2-3 days) and distributes it to all the kitchens in the region.

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Today we visit the remote mountain village of Phuoc Sen, situated about 60km from the China border. Here the Nung people, one of Vietnam’s many ethnic minority groups, practice their age old art of knife-making. The village is small but well known for its craft and thus, where most farmers in the region buy their tools.

Irons in the fire.
Irons in the fire.
In progress.
In progress.

It is here that I get to meet, via my guide, some of the local women who have spent their entire lives tending the surrounding fields and who today, some of them well into their 70’s, still do so. They are astounding in their strength and beauty, epitomizing the strong backbone women provide in this culture.

This 77 year old woman told my guide she couldn't understand why on earth I wanted to take her photo, but warmly posed for me anyway, melting my heart in the process.
This 77 year old woman told my guide she couldn’t understand why on earth I wanted to take her photo, but warmly posed for me anyway, melting my heart in the process.
Washing off the dirt.
Washing off the work.

From here we travel to the Ban Gioc waterfall, the third largest country-dividing waterfall after Niagara and Iguazu.

To our left, Vietnam, and to our right, China.
To our left, Vietnam, and to our right, China.

After an overnight in the town of Cao Bang we begin our long drive back to Hanoi, taking time to absorb all of the luscious scenery along the way, and I say goodbye to this beautiful land and these beautiful people of the north.

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Matriarch of the bamboo rat empire.

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Glorious peaks saying goodnight.
Glorious peaks saying goodnight and goodbye… for now.

~~~~~

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