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Camels are fun, and so are forts.

We went on a road trip to Jaisalmer Fort and Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Jaisalmer was high on our to-see list. UNESCO ranked Jaisalmer Fort as an Endangered Site due to sewage/drainage problems and changing weather patterns; one big earthquake could seriously damage this ancient fort. It's in the neighboring state of Rajasthan, but it's still pretty far from Gujarat - about a seven-hour drive for us.  We left very early, about 6:30 on Saturday morning.

Professor Hiren Patel and his family came with us.  So Hiren, his wife Chandrika, and their two children (ages 4 and 7) all piled into the SUV with us and our driver, Alkesh.  The car was big enough that it wasn't too cramped.  Chandrika and the kids stayed in the back for most of the trip and slept. Michael and I are absolutely astounded at how well-behaved their kids are. No fussing, no fighting, the whole trip. Amazing.

The domestic animals were interesting. Just outside of Visnagar, we had to wait ten minutes for hundreds of sheep to pass. The sheep are marked with dye on their wool to indicate their owners.  Then it was mainly farmers' fields, with the occasional herds of goats crossing the road. We crossed into Rajasthan and used the National Highway. After a few hours the countryside started looking more like California, with scrubby plants that looked like sagebrush. The number of goats increased, and so did the number of camels.  We occasionally see camels in Visnagar, pulling carts and so on, but they're far outnumbered by the water buffalo and cows (both ox-carts and free-range).  In Rajasthan, the camels are king.  We saw cows every now and then too, but mostly it was camels and goats.  They both like grazing on trees. Camels are natural pruners for those desert trees, and probably contribute to their umbrella shape; the leaves grow high and wide just above where a camel's long neck can reach.

The highway out to Jaisalmer is very well maintained. The road runs parallel to the India-Pakistan border, and India has a large military base there. A caravan of several dozen military trucks passed us. There's still several kilometers of desert between the road and Pakistan, so we weren't too close.

There were numerous herds of goats crossing the road. Mostly they moved out of the way in response to our horn honking. One stubborn little black goat decided to slow down, and it turned its back on us and stopped in the middle of the road. Our driver braked smoothly to a halt but the car still gave it a small push forward--kind of a nudge.  The goat glared at us and trotted away haughtily to the side of the road, and we continued.

Jaisalmer Fort was an outstanding tourist attraction. It's visible from pretty far away, a big yellow-brown fort on a hilltop near the Pakistani border. Jaisalmer is a "living fort," meaning people live in this millenia-old landmark. Jaisalmer is also a tourist attraction, though mainly for Indian pilgrim/tourists.  It's made out of carved yellow sandstone.  There are also several medieval Jain statues on display.  In terms of scale, Jaisalmer is the best historic palace/fort we'd seen yet.

Jaisalmer also has "non-veg" restaurants that serve meat. No beef of course, but they do offer chicken and lamb. Michael and I hadn't had meat in over a month, so we were very happy to eat some chicken. The Patels ate vegetarian dishes, of course. The chicken tikka was delicious, though the tandoori chicken was rolled in some kind of brown salt and it was much too salty. But it was just good to eat meat for a change. They also had some nice ginger tea and sweet milky coffee; we filled my thermos with a pot of their excellent coffee.

We wouldn't stay in a hotel that night.  While at the fort, Hiren found a good "Desert Safari Adventure" complete package deal: about $50 per couple including dinner, a night's lodging, entertainment, and transportation via camel. So we drove out to the sand dunes on the edge of the desert where the road ended, to the start of the camel trail.

Camels are too high to climb. Our camel knelt down in the sand and we climbed right on it.  I nearly fell off at the very beginning. I sat down in the saddle behind Michael, and while we were waiting for the camel-driver I took off my shoe and dumped the sand out of it. The camel stood up suddenly; I grabbed Michael with one arm and my shoe with the other, and somehow managed to not fall off (and even kept hold of the shoe!).  Michael and I rode one camel, and the Patel family rode another.  It was probably about 40 minutes, through the scrubland and into the giant desert sand dunes.

Camel riding was bumpy but easier than expected. The camel saddle was a Western-style saddle with a pommel, well padded in brightly-colored, quilted fabric. There's a little kids song, "This is the way the camel rides (bumpety, bumpety, bump!)" and it was just like that - we went up and down and up and down vertically as the camel strolled forward.  Camels have very looong legs.  Riding them makes you realize how high up they are. At least it didn't move faster than an (unsteady) trot. Our camel's handler walked on foot beside us, lightly switching the camel with a whip if it slowed down.  At the end of the ride, the camel driver asked our names. He laughed out loud when he heard Michael, and told us we must be lucky because our camel is named Michael too!  Michael Jackson!  Did we know Michael Jackson, the famous American star? Um. Michael Jackson has a completely different meaning in the USA. We didn't stick around to explain, but tipped the camel-driver 50 rupees and slipped down the sand dune toward the campground.

Our lodging for the night was a tent.  It wasn't really camping; Sweetie and I are both former scouts and we know what camping is.  These were permanent structures, cabins with cloth walls and roof and even a modern flushing toilet and sink.  We dropped our stuff in the tent and went to the campfire circle.

The dancers knew how to entertain. Several different Rajasthani women alternated, rotating in and out, in full traditional costumes with little bells jingling. The dance moves covered the full range of classical Indian and modern casbah-style dancing. The live band wore turbans, with drummers and musicians playing traditional instruments. At one point they dimmed the lights, and one woman filled a set of small scales with live coals from the campfire. She balanced the glowing coals, then danced with them, whirling the scales faster and faster over her head and around herself like a Harlem Globetrotter wields a basketball. It was just like some of the better parties at Pennsic. The audience applauded, especially the schoolchildren. 

Toward the end, one dancer came over and pulled me in to join her in dancing. She was excellent; she made eye contact and made sure I could follow her, giving me lots of cues as warning when she changed steps. I am not a dancer at all, but I managed to keep up and followed her rhythm and most of the steps. After a few minutes, the other dancers pulled in the girls from the school group, and we all did a circle dance where pairs of women join hands and whirl around. Dinner was rather anticlimatic after that.

The next morning, we stopped by a little lake in Jaisalmer. The local people feed the catfish there twice a day, and over a hundred catfish all lined up at the water's edge to get the food. There's also a nice temple there. All of us rode up and back to the lake in a pretty little camel-carriage. We left soon for the many-hours drive to Jodhpur.

Jodhpur was outstanding, with medieval palanquins and howdahs--elaborate coaches for carrying royalty, on poles by hand or mounted on elephant-back. Some were solid silver. They also had some medieval manuscripts on display, though no medieval illuminations (the artwork was lovely nineteenth-century Moghul). They had plenty of eighteenth-century spears and lances too. Jodhpur also has a collection of musical instruments and turbans, but we didn't see them on display. Unfortunately my cell phone ran out of charge just when we walked into the fort, so I didn't get any pictures in Jodhpur. I would've liked a picture of the breathtaking view of the village below the mountain; I hope Michael's pictures turn out.
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If you don't like crowds, don't go to a major Hindu temple on a festival night of the full moon.

Per our driver's suggestion, we squeezed in Ambaji temple on the way back from Mount Abu. Many shops line the roads around Ambaji temple. The shops sell everything a pilgrim needs to make an offering, including cocumb (sp?), huge piles of the red powder used to mark the heads of religious pilgrims. Our driver bought incense and a coconut.

Ambaji's large temple attracts many Hindu pilgrims to its gold-topped turrets. This was a festival - Sunday night, the night of the full moon after the Navaratri festival. There were long lines of people waiting, winding around like the queues for an amusement park but much more tightly packed. We went through security (metal detectors and armed guards).  The guard took Alkesh's incense away; I'm not sure if it's contraband or if it would be offered later.  We left our phones and camera in the car (photography is prohibited there).

Imagine a crowd packed more tightly than a Metro train at rush hour, but with the chaos of a mosh pit and the zeal of a Pentecostal church. We were caught in the thick of it. The drums were beating and the Hindu pilgrims were in high religious fervor. We were buffeted forward and almost lifted off our feet in the waves of swaying people pushing forward and pressing behind and all around us. The crowd ebbed and flowed in time to the hypnotic rhythm of the drums. Every so often, the loudspeaker blared chants that were suddenly answered with loud shouts from all the people surrounding us.  Some people near the sides prostrated themselves; most were just standing and slowly moving forward in the crowd, getting as close as they could to see the place where the idol would sit, if there were an idol there. (It's a kind of decorated alcove; the lack of an idol there has religious significance.)  After maybe a half-hour, we somehow were pushed toward the side and out of the surge. We made it out to the cool night air and just breathed.

The beggar-children outside the Ambaji temple spotted us. Visnagar kids may follow us around, but the Ambaji kids were much more aggressive. They physically tapped and poked at us to get our attention. They followed us to our car and tapped on the windows all around us. Our driver actually slapped one child on the cheek when the boy would not let him get to his car.  The driver then somehow maneuvered it away.

We had dinner at a Gujarati dining hall. The waiters must not see Westerners often. They gathered around our table, refilling our dishes, constantly dishing out food so it was hard to actually eat.  The mutter paneer was done a different way than I make it; theirs had a thin rather than a thick creamy sauce, but I liked it.  I also liked the palak (sauteed spinach).

We would've appreciated Ambaji more if we had not gone on a festival day.
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Today we left Gujarat for Mount Abu, and saw a wild crocodile and some elaborate medieval Jain stone-carvings.

We made a day-long excursion north into Rajasthan. Rajasthan is the Indian state just north of Gujarat, the land of innumerable Mughal princes and marble palaces. We visited Mount Abu, in the southern tip of Rajasthan.  We left early in the morning and rode the three-hour drive or so.

State borders are not trivial here.  In the US, or even much of Europe, a border is typically a sign saying "Welcome to So-and-So".  In India, states are organized along language and cultural lines, not just geography. There's an actual border crossing checkpoint to cross between them. Drivers pay a licensing fee to the state. National permits are available, and the brightly painted "Goods Carriage" trucks proudly advertise that status. At the border, the signs all changed instantly from Gujarati to the Hindi alphabet (much easier for us to read).  Transliterated English is common in Hindi too. For instance, the border from Gujarat to Rajasthan has dozens of businesses selling the local building materials, beautiful marble stones, with Hindi signs transliterated from phonetic English "MARBL BILDEN MATARLS."

The road up Mount Abu is very scenic, if you're brave enough to look out the window. The mountains are beautiful, studded with palm trees. The countryside, and the road, looks a lot like Yellowstone National Park--complete with big drop-offs down cliffs. The Indian cement blocks serve as guardrails, but have occasional wide, ragged gaps about the width of a car (hmm).  There are constant hairpin curves.  Many have signs posted with a picture of a horn, to remind you to signal to the hidden, incoming vehicles. Alkesh, our driver, blared the horn at every blind curve; almost constantly. There were several times when we rounded a bend only to see a tourist bus blithely straddling the middle line and hurtling straight toward us. Somehow we made it up to Mount Abu.

Mount Abu is a major tourist attraction and pilgrimage place. There are many Bhramachaya centers there, like the "Center for Universal Peace." There's also a modern Jain temple with mosaics in tiny mirrors and cut glass. You can see what your image must look like to a spider, as you see your reflection in hundreds of little mirrors. There's a large, pretty lake; we walked around it a bit. A couple pilgrims came up, young men dressed all in white. They spoke excellent English and talked to Michael and Alkesh.  They talked and walked with us for over half an hour, and never said one word to me. I don't know if it's because I'm a woman and it would break some religious taboo of theirs, or because they assumed that, as a woman, I'm not worth speaking to. They invited Michael to their temple (we declined), but didn't ask for money. It still reminded Michael of an old Opus cartoon.

The medieval Jain temples at Mount Abu were the best part. There are several of them, two built between a thousand and eight hundred years ago, and other modern ones being added onto today.  Centuries ago, these temples were composed of elaborately carved marble, with dancing girls and figures representing the major Jain religious figures. The temples are free. It's forbidden to take photos, eat or chew. Large signs also warned menstruating women from entering. The temples closed at 6 PM, so we were glad to catch them before the day ended. The temples were relatively quiet, and we easily walked around between the large tour groups that had been bused in.

The Jain temples were covered in ornate stone carvings, made by hundreds of stonemasons over decades. In the center of a temple is a mammoth Buddha-like idol with gemstone eyes, and in front of the idol are a herd of marble cattle and animals. Around the periphery are about 50 or 60 cells, each one with a smaller idol inside.  Every surface is carved with translucent marble flowers, geometric tessellations, and dancing girls clad only in beaded jewelry.  The temples are quiet. Even the busloads of pilgrims walk quietly and pray silently.

We saw the wildlife sanctuary, but only one animal of note. We went on foot, walking for a couple hours, but we still didn't see any animals but one shanty's domestic chicken.  The sounds and sights were still good, though; we heard strange jungle birds calling and saw many beautiful flowers and some giant many-limbed ancient trees.  At the end of the trail was an artificial lake. A good-sized crocodile was lurking at the edge of the water, right under the guardrails. Michael suggested I jump in and wrestle it, and when the croc heard that it must've been scared because it immediately slipped away into the lake. Michael says that's proof that crocodiles must fear me!
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Visiting Vadnagar

The old city of Vadnagar, Gujarat, is nearby and has several historic attractions.  One of the professors, Jagat, grew up there, so on Saturday he showed us around his hometown.  We took an auto-rickshaw there, since the streets of Vadnagar are too small to navigate by car.

Our first stop was an 800-year-old temple. There were carved oxen and a turtle, guarding the god. 
Cow sculptures gaze in awe at the idols of the gods.

The temple's stonework was reminiscent of the Notre Dame cathedral, with chimeras and carved dancing girls.
Exterior view of the temple, showing stonework

The actual city of Vadnagar is pretty neat. The current structurdates at least from the medieval era, and has walls all around it. There are five impressive gates.  When we were taking pictures of one of the gates, one of the nearby citizens invited us over to pet his baby goats and take our picture with them and his family. They were adorable goats. We wouldn't mind having a pet goat or two.
Vadnagar people

Vadnagar family with their goats

We visited a lake Sfiartha(sp?). Legend has it that the lake went dry, and to get the water back, a local girl had to give up her life. In honor of her sacrifice, the lake is named for her.  They also fly a white flag from the center of the lake, symbolizing her innocence and virtue.  There is now a park there, built just in the last two years.  The chief minister of Gujarat is from Vadnagar, so he has an interest in promoting tourism there.

There was a massive Well - a huge, incredibly deep well.  It's so deep we couldn't see the bottom.  We dropped in a stone, and took about six seconds to hit the bottom.  It's dry. It gives new meaning to the term, "when the well runs dry."  At the driveway back to the well, there's a little farm with a camel (who let us pet it, then spit) and water buffalo (who snuffed at Michael and also spit at him).
Me petting a camel

Michael's favorite was a large open-roof bath, with water, with columns stretching down from ground level. We'd seen similar structures to Fatapur Sikri, but this one had water.  Looking from the steps at one end had a gorgeous effect, a hallway of water.  With the carved stonework and the greenery hanging down, it felt like something from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. 
View down the well
As part of the malaria-control program of the Gujarati government, the bath was stocked with tiny mosquito fish - little fish that eat mosquito larvae.  They were schooling about.  Michael also spotted a tiny little frog, the size of a fingernail.  We snapped its picture with the cell phone.

The local people in Vadnagar don't see foreigners often - maybe once every month or two. They're very friendly and everybody wants us to take our picture with them.  Michael was interested in knowing how one of the men tied his dhoti and turban, and when Jagat asked (in Gujarati), he was happy to demonstrate. 
Tying a dhoti on Michael
All day, Jagat was walking up to complete strangers and striking up a conversation, and people were happy to talk with us.

There were some more remote sites.  We saw two 500-year-old arches, like Indian versions of the Arc de Triomphe.  Apparently they were excavated a few years ago, and erected for tourists to see.
Ancient carved stone arches in Vadnagar, Gujarat, India

There was also a garden with the graves of two sisters; I didn't catch the full story. It had a beautiful flower garden and some peacock topiaries.  It was out in the middle of nowhere but quite beautiful to see.

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