Tuesday, January 12, 2010


We woke up in the dark to the sound of our alarm at 4:30 AM. Our train was still chugging along and we were due to arrive in Bikaner at around 5:00 AM. It ended up being more like 5:30 when we got there, but at least we didn't miss our stop. We found a cheap tuk-tuk to our hotel, which ended up being further than we thought it was. When we presented ourselves in the reception area and announced that we had reservations they seemed to think we were a bit crazy. Apparently they didn't have any record of anyone arriving that day. We told them which website we had booked through and hoped that we wouldn't end up stuck without a place to stay. The hotel was full but for one lone room, which was supposed to have booked out the previous night, but the guests had never showed. I felt bad having arrived so early and taking someone else's room, but the manager very graciously fixed us up in there. First thing we did was sleep some more. Despite having a good sleep on the train we were still tired. Feeling a bit more refreshed, we went back downstairs to get ourselves sorted out a bit better. After talking with the owner a bit and checking my e-mail to find our confirmation number and all that, I finally realized what had happened. The guests who had been a no-show from the night before were us! I had accidentally booked us to arrive the night before, and of course - we were on a train. So the room we were in was the one that was meant for us anyways! It all worked out just as it was supposed to have. Once we figured that out, we were given the grand breakdown of the city and the hotel. The owner of the hotel is a retired Brigadier, and one of the family members won a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics for "shooting" as they put it. He showed us old black and white photos of camel-jumping that was done many, many years ago, and photos of the local gorgeous palaces. He was keen on completely filling us in about the town of Bikaner. We decided to visit the local fort known as Junagarh Fort. The tuk-tuks here were cheaper than New Delhi or Jaipur, and they apparently are happy to pick up multiple passengers at a time. The tuk-tuk we got in already had three people in it! Chuck sat in the small front seat, squished against the driver, and I sat on the metal bar that separates the front sea from the back. I was facing the three other passengers sitting this way - two young ladies and a larger gentleman. I nearly fell over as we pulled out into traffic and the girl right across from me grabbed on and helped me steady myself with a smile. She then asked where I was from. "America," I told her. "Can you take me America?" she asked, in all seriousness I think. Of course, I can't just bring people to America because I'm American, so I decided to tell her "If you come to America I will show you places." She put her hand on my knee and looked up at me with curiosity "Can I get a job there?" I told her that it can be hard to gets a job in America because there can be a lot of paperwork and waiting for foreigners, but that yes, she could get a job. When I later told Chuck about my conversation he pointed out that I might have just ruined all her dreams by making it sound difficult. I'd hate to make someone think it's impossible, but I also don't want to lead people to think that it's easy to find work in the States. I don't think it is easy for foreigners. She asked a few more questions about America, and I had to ask her to repeat just about every one because her accent was so thick and her English not quite spot on. But she was very sweet and I enjoyed talking with her. Our conversation ended rather abruptly when the tuk-tuk driver pulled up to their destination. The girls said goodbye quickly, paid the driver much less money than we've ever paid for a ride, and I never saw them again. I wonder if she'll ever make it to America! The driver continued on to the fort where we got off. Our fort tickets included a mandatory guided tour, which we were a little annoyed about at first. It's no fun if you get a bad tour, or aren't given time to explore the different areas, but our experience ended up being a good one. The tour group was about 20 people big, with four members who spoke no Hindi at all. The guide was very good though, and after delivering the information in Hindi he would take us four (me, Chuck, and two Italians) aside and repeat it in English. That's pretty good service if you ask me! Junagarh Fort was one of the nicest and most beautiful forts we saw. It had delicately carved, sandstone windows and balconies, lavishly decorated bedrooms and audience chambers, and some lovely painted ceilings. One room was covered in intricate gold-painted embellishments and had a large velvet sultan's throne on the floor, while the queens room had a window filled with thick red and blue stained glass. It was actually pretty, rather than being just a fort. We also got a kick out of our tour guide's awesome moustache, so Chuck got a picture with him just so we could admire it later if we so desired. After the fort we went to see the Lalgarh and Laxmi Palaces. They are now expensive hotels, but back in the early 1900's the Maharaja of Bikaner would have lived there. The palaces are more beautiful than the fort in the terms of architecture. The detailed carving of the windows and archways is so amazing and impossible to describe in words. And we were there close to sunset which made for deeper and more vibrant colors. We saw peacocks while there too! If you ever wondered, yes they can fly. One flew from the front lawn to the top of the palace rather easily. We didn't get to see any strutting their tail-feathers though. In fact, I think they had been clipped. I only noticed on one peacock, but it looked as though the "eye" at the end of all his feathers had been cut off. As we walked around the buildings we came across a big open door that led to an inner courtyard. We must have looked rather curious because a friendly, older gentleman came up to us and told us we were free to have a look around. He said they were setting up for a wedding that night. It must have been a family with a decent amount of money, because there were maybe three long food tables, a puppet tent, a stage, etc. I can only imagine what the wedding must have been like. And I think they had the actual ceremony was in the yard in front of the Laxmi Palace because when we went over that way we saw tons of chairs set up amongst pretty little pavilions. Must have been quite an affair! Since all we did was wander around the outside of the buildings it wasn't long before we were trying to find a tuk-tuk. Before going back to the hotel for the evening though, we asked if he knew where we could find a bhang shop (if you've been keeping up with my blogs you should know what this is). He says "Yes, yes, ok," and ushers us into his tuk-tuk. Of course, a few minutes down the road and he asks us where we want to go again. No one knows what bhang is, but no one is willing to turn down a ride. We try to explain it to him with hand signals and simple words, but the language barrier was just too much. He finally pulled out a phone and dialed a friend. After a few words he hands the phone to Chuck. "Uh, hello?" He speaks decent English and seems to know what we are looking for! Chuck explains everything to him and then hands the phone back. The driver's face lights with recognition as everything is translated to him. He hangs up and says to us with bright eyes "Bhang, bhang!" I finally see what the problem had been. We'd been asking for "bang" this whole time, when they pronounce it like "bong." He didn't know what "bang" was, but he seemed to know where to get some "bong." We might finally be onto something here! He drives us over to a nearby tobacco stand (these are all over the place in India - people love their red chewing tobacco stuff) and quickly tells the vendor what we're looking for. He pulls out a little brown ball wrapped in clear cellophane with yellow writing on it. Chuck gets four of them at one rupee a piece. On rupee! If this was truly a marijuana product, it was incredibly cheap! So, all of our hard work and persistence in trying to get our hands on this bhang stuff had finally paid off. But we were patient, and still needed to eat dinner. The tuk-tuk driver (the same guy who brought us to the bhang) dropped us off at the restaurant area of town and we chose a place to eat at random. It ended up being pretty good, and there was free entertainment as I watched a cute rat climb all over the empty soda bottles at the back of the restaurant. Ah, India. We grabbed some candies and deodorant quickly - we hadn't had any deodorant for a few weeks actually, and it was getting plain annoying. It was nice to find some. And finally back to the hotel. We cautiously unwrapped one of the little brown balls and inspected it closely. It really looked like a little ball of dung rolled in some sugar crystals. It smelled like it too. I broke it open to take a peek inside, but it was the same. Brown and dung-like through and through. We decided that I would go ahead and try one first. Chuck would wait a while to make sure that it didn't do anything terrible. It would be pretty bad if it ended up being some nasty poison and we were both laid out on the floor unable to call for help. So I worked up my courage and popped my broken bhang ball in my mouth. Bleh, it was not tasty. It not only looked and smelled like crap, but tasted like it too. It crumbled into bits as my mouth dried up with my sudden lack of appetite. I only managed to chew a few times before I decided to just wash it all down with a big swig of water. I tried to get rid of the flavor with a few gummy candies, and then I waited. After half an hour I noticed nothing going on. After a bit, Chuck decided to have one himself. We waited some more. We checked our email, id some facebooking, etc. A few hours later I maybe felt a bit more tired than usual, but I'm really not sure. We both ate a second one since nothing seemed to be happening. By bed time though, I still hadn't noticed any changes. Either it's really subtle stuff, or not strong enough, or not actually marijuana. Who knows! But we had finally managed to try it and we could knock bhang off our list.

On the 2nd, first thing we did was head out to the market for lunch. We asked that they make it spicy, and it ended up being really spicy. I could hardly eat it. Our request made the waiter happy though. After lunch we walked through the streets checking out what was going on and what was for sale. I knelt to look at some plastic bangles that were amongst the random goods that a dark-skinned woman was selling. She was on me like a shark on a juicy tuna steak! She pushed the bangles into my hands with an air of "you know you want them." The were much too small though. I couldn't possibly get them on my wrist, so I handed them back. This didn't stop her. She grabbed my hand and began forcing the bangles on, three at a time. I was in such shocked amazement that she was actually managing to get them on me that I didn't stop to think about what this would mean when I wanted to take them off. By the time she was done I realized that I was buying the bangles whether I wanted them or not. At least I managed to get them for 50 rupees instead of 100, although I think that was still an awesome deal for her. Oh well - I was in a good enough mood that I was able to laugh it off. She was very good after all! Once I had paid she said something in Hindi and motioned to a baby sleeping in a basket behind her. I had no idea what she wanted - more money maybe? I smiled with embarrassment as I tried to understand her. This went on for a few moments until she finally just laughed and kind of shooed me off. It was certainly an interesting encounter. We found an internet shop and while Chuck printed out some train tickets, I worked at trying to get at least one of the 12 bangles off my wrist. The edges were sharp and scraped against my skin as I tried my best to wiggle it over the bones in my hand. By the time I got just one off, my hand was swollen and red. It looked like I was stuck with the bangles until they broke off... We also met a young guy who lived in Bikaner at the internet shop. He started chatting with us and told us how best to get to the Bhandasar Jain Temple and said we should be sure to see the Havelis. We're so used to suspecting anyone who speaks to us of being a scammer that we weren't sure what his game was. But he never asked us for anything or tried to get us to go to his uncle's textiles shop or anything like that. I think he might have just been a nice guy interested in talking to us. We grabbed a tuk-tuk, asked him to take us to the temple, and agreed on 20 rupees for the ride. We would pass through the Havelis this way, so we would get the chance to see the beautiful architecture. Instead of driving us through the Havelis, our tuk-tuk stopped and had us get out. He made some hand motions at us and tried to tell us something but we didn't understand. He finally had his buddy take off down the road in the tuk-tuk and he walked us through the Havelis, pointing at the lovely buildings. It was very strange really. I don't know why he felt the need to have us walk through there rather than drive. I mean, sure, it would be nice to walk around the area - but not when we're on the way to the temple and not with our random tuk-tuk driver. I suppose he was giving us a little tour? It was a short walk - maybe 30 yards -and at the end was the tuk-tuk, waiting for us. We jumped back in, the driver took over again, and off we went to the temple. We passed through some incredibly narrow alleys that were full of locals and non-touristy shops. We even got in a traffic jam with a slow-moving camel that was hauling a wooden cart. Bikaner had a lot of camels being driven around the whole city, some carrying huge loads on their carts. Loads that would have been too big to fit through the narrow roads we were driving through at the moment. I got the impression that it was a part of town that was actually lived in. It was pretty cool. We did get a lot of stares though, which is always unnerving. Once we reached the temple and started fumbling for our money, the driver said "50 rupees," with a smile on his face. I wasn't really surprised at this, given that he walked us through the Havelis. I've found that people will practically force you into doing something that you figure they are doing out of the goodness of their heart, only to find out that they're coercing you into a state of obligation in order to squeeze more money out of you. We weren't having any of that though. Chuck told him "It's 20 or nothing," and started to walk away. He decided to take the 20. It's all the principle of the matter and not the money itself. I don't like being tricked out of my money. If I agree to a price, then that's what the price needs to be. If I choose to give more because I thought the guy was fabulous or maybe even felt sorry for him, then I'm happy to give extra! But doing extra work and then demanding more money is not okay in my book. I was half inclined to give the guy a bit more until he demanded 50 rupees. As you can tell, I was rather annoyed at the situation. So! We headed towards the gate surrounding the temple only to be told by a group of young guys in marching band outfits that the temple was in the other direction. I clearly saw the sign in front that said "Bhandasar Jain Temple," but I thought that perhaps there was a back entrance, so we followed their direction. This led us directly into a playground of some sort where we were immediately set upon by about 10 kids. As soon as they saw us come around the corner they dropped what they were doing and came running towards us as they yelled happily. They all wanted to shake our hands and ask us our names and how we are doing. I could see their minds working to pick out the correct English phrase they were wanting to use, and they would pause to process our answers. But man, they were excited. A few of them didn't take long before asking for money, which we refused with smiles of course. At about this point a man on a bike came around the corner to our rescue. The way he interacted with the kids was interesting. He basically swatted at them and told them in a nasty tone not to touch him. "Don't mind the stupid kids," he told us. Okay... It was very different from how I was used to interacting with children, that's for sure. But he seemed to know where the Bhandasar Jain Temple was, and was more than happy to lead the way. Of course, he led us right back the way we had come, up to the gate that I had been about to walk through earlier. So I guess I had been right to begin with. Marching band members must be trouble all over the world, with their bad directions and crazy hats. We took off our shoes before stepping into the inner courtyard and were greeted by a white haired and moustached man who seemed to be the overseer of the temple. He kindly and calmly walked us around the building pointing out the numerous paintings of heaven and hell, and telling us about how butter was used to mix the cement rather than water. Supposedly the temple sweats greasy butter on a hot day because of this. It seems a farfetched, yet wonderful story to me. He motions us upstairs to look around on our own and shuffles back to the garland-weaving. We emerged from the stairwell to a bird-poo slathered second story, open to the elements. The carved, white "spire" of the temple rose up from the middle of the platform and we were free to walk around it and take in the views of the city. We snapped a few pictures from each vantage point and then headed back downstairs. The temple priest was contentedly working on his garland and seemed quite happy to let us leave without paying the camera fee, but we like to try to be good people and paid him the 30 rupees plus an extra 20 as a tip. It was a nice change to not feel like we were being hounded for our money for once. The next stop was at Savibari Temple, which was closed to my dismay. I couldn't read the sign on the front gate since it was in Hindi, but I deduced from the layout of the numbers that it was open only in the morning and evenings. Just our luck, we were there in the middle of the afternoon. Our tuk-tuk driver was pretty awesome though and ran across the street to a tobacco shop - the only other structure to be found in that barren part of town - and asked them if there was some way we could get in. They must have told him that we could go around the side of the temple and through a construction area, because that's just what he did. He exchanged some words with the workers who, after a few moments, let us through with a shrug. We weren't able to go in the temple itself, but we at least got to walk around the courtyard area and see it from the outside. We could see a bit of the ceiling from the back side of the building and it looked like it was probably quite pretty inside. Oh well! Back to the hotel after that. We ordered in dinner and talked with the manager for a bit - otherwise it was a nice and boring evening.

We got ourselves a private taxi to take us to Deshnok and the local camel research farm on the 3rd. The driver spoke zero English, but he had been briefed by our hotel guy so the only problem was an inability to make conversation. The drive to Deshnok - where the Karni Mata Rat Temple is located - was a 30 minute long stretch of highway bordered by dusty, tan desert sand. It was also quite frightening. I think our driver got a thrill out of seeing us flinch. He swerved quickly around a cow in the middle of the highway at one point, causing Chuck to exclaim out loud. I swear I saw a little smirk cross his face at that moment. He would pass long stretches of cars in one go, and would pull back into the correct lane when the oncoming cars were too close for my comfort. We saw a few camel-drawn carts along the way, trudging slowly along the shoulder of the road. I remember one cart in particular because it was piled, literally, 20 feet high and 10 feet wide with a giant mass of burlap covered goods. It was all tied down with ropes crisscrossing over and under and around the giant package, tying it to the much-too-small cart. It was a comical sight - something you would see in a cartoon rather than real life. But there it was, complete with a smiling camel slowly dragging the massive contraption down the road. Within half an hour we had arrived in the fairly tiny town of Deshnok and were dropped off just outside the Disney-esque plaza that is home to the Karni Mata Rat Temple. I can't pinpoint exactly why we were reminded of Disney, but something about the various tourist-focused vendors positioned on the edges of the plaza, the fence surrounding the temple, complete with metal detector, and the loads of white people were reminiscent of a theme park. I think we may be the only ones that would make that association though. So! We took off our shoes and delivered them to the shoe-cubby stand, then made our way through the metal detector (I really think most of the ones in India are non-operational) and to the entrance of the temple. The marble facade that surrounded the front gate was absolutely beautiful! The flowers, leaves, and birds were deeply carved into the white stone, creating a very different atmosphere from the one that we would encounter once inside. Oh, while I was standing in front of the temple having Chuck take my photo a group of three young Indian guys dressed in trendy clothing decided they wanted to be in our photos. They didn't have a camera of their own - they just wanted to be in our pictures. So I got a picture with each of them and then they went on their way, laughing and smiling. Such a strange request to my mind, but cool to have pictures with these random guys! Inside it is immediately apparent why the place is called the Rat Temple. They critters are crawling on and around the door as you come in, scampering about on the tile floor, and lined up around the bowls of thick milk that are set out for them. There were even some resting in the loops of iron that made up the fence that led to the shrine at the back of the temple. The floor was littered with these yellow crumbs of some sort - it must have been some sort of rat food because the rats would occasionally munch a piece. They were definitely well-fed with their big bowls of milk and yellow crumbs. The only real danger for them was each other. We saw a few rat fights as we were walking around, and one apparently dead rat. Ick. I was lucky enough to have a rat scamper across my bare foot as he raced across the room! I heard that it's good luck if that happens. So lucky me, yay. It wasn't so lucky when we went towards the back room where the shrine was though. We followed the crowded line towards the dark doorway at the back of the temple and with everyone laughing or flinching at all of the rats there was a fairly light atmosphere. I stepped over the doorway and wondered what the fellows on the floor were doing with the flowers and bowls and maybe some incense. Suddenly they were shouting and Chuck and me! It took me just a second to realize they were telling us to get out. "Indian only! Indian only!" He stood up and physically shooed us out, forcing us through the crowd behind us. I was so shocked and bewildered by the situation that my mind wasn't able to process anything for a few moments. I just wanted to get out of the crowd and away from the people and figure out what had happened. Indians only. My conclusion, once I was able to think about it all, was that the shrine area at the Rat Temple was sacred enough that you must be Indian to see it. What if you're an albino Indian? Or a white person adopted by an Indian family and raised with all the Indian customs and ways? (I know that situation is probably far-fetched, but you never know). Or what if you're an extremely devout white or black or east asian Hindu? I felt so embarrassed and ashamed, and I hadn't even done anything that was actually wrong! I was "wrong" for reasons I had zero control over. I was respectful - I was wearing an Indian-like top and had my scarf covering my head. But I was still wrong. I have to say, it's one thing to imagine and know that racism or "exclusion based on race" is painful an unpleasant, but it's another to experience it and be shooed out of a place for no reason other than the color of your skin. I can not imagine how it must have felt to be a black person in the American south back in the 1930's, or a Jewish person in England in the 1400's, or a South Asian living in Bahrain or UAE in the 21st century. It was quite an upsetting experience to have, but I'm glad I encountered it in the end. It's always good to get a little taste of the unpleasant things in life. I am quite aware that I did not experience anywhere near the degree of prejudice that some people in the world have to live with on a daily basis, but it was a new and powerful experience for me personally. After that, of course, I wasn't too keen on sticking around at the temple. I put on a brave, unaffected face and we wandered around the last few bits of the temple courtyard and then left. On the way to the car we were accosted by an old-woman beggar who followed us. She was still talking to us as after we had climbed in the vehicle and whatever she was saying made our driver laugh out loud. She was probably calling us dirty names or something! I wish we could have asked him what she said, but the lack of any English on his part and any Hindi on ours made that impossible. Oh well. We took another frightening drive to our next stop: the Camel Research Farm. There was a small charge for the entry and camera, but I thought it was well worth it. The farm is set up like a zoo and research facility combined. I suppose this makes perfect sense since that's exactly what it is. We wandered towards the back of the complex where an employee approached us to let us know that the camels would be trekking back in from the desert at any moment now. He told us where the best views were and offered a camel ride. We weren't interested in camel rides though - we'd already done that in Egypt. What I really wanted was to see the camels charging in from the desert! While we waited we wandered around the various enclosures at the facility. I love the sounds that the camels make - like an enormous belch from a clogged sink. It's quite a noise and can't really be explained in words. There was a pen where the babies and their mothers were being kept. They were so cute with their messy, fuzzy coats and their awkwardly long legs. We walked by the "stud" pen which must home the most studly of the camels. So attractive that they have to keep them separated from the rest of the crowd for fear they'll be molested by raunchy lady-camels, or attacked by jealous gentleman-camels? Hmmm. Soon enough though, we noticed the first of the camels trotting back from the dusty desert. By the time we positioned ourselves in a good spot they were flooding through the gates and making their way into their pens. Ia was amazed that there was no human herder guiding them and that they just knew exactly where to go. I'm sure the fact that their pens contained trough fulls of food helped though. A few hundred camels came through by my estimation, and we were told that there would be two more herds before the day wads through. They certainly have a lot of camels at that facility. On the way out I had to bravely try a camel-milk ice cream! Let me tell you, it was quite tasty. It had a thick, rich flavor and a very creamy texture. Kind of like the "fudge" of ice cream - so rich you can't eat too much at once. Very good in my opinion. That was it for the Camel Research Farm! We went to the market for dinner after that. We met a nice man while we were out, who showed me a good shop to buy bangles at. He was a well-educated guy who never offered us any textiles or mentioned his brothers shop or anything. That's a rare find in India - someone who's not trying to sell you something. At the shop I picked out a few bangles I liked and attempted to barter. I'm not very good at bartering, so the man we met suggested a starting price to me in Spanish. The shop owner refused to budge on his price at all though, so I ended up leaving bangle-less. I thanked the man who had tried to help and he shrugged, almost apologetically at the stubbornness of the shop keeper. We parted ways and grabbed a tuk-tuk back to the hotel. On the tuk-tuk we were joined by a random young man who seemed quite interested in foreign English-speakers. His English was very good and he seemed to just want to talk with us out of curiosity, or maybe just to practice his English. Bikaner is an interesting place.

On the 4th we packed up and checked out. The hotel manager was nice enough to give us a ride to the train station where we were able to immediately board our train. The train took off in a timely manner and we were on our way to Jodhpur. There were a few families on the train, which included a couple little kids. Once little boy in particular was incredibly adorable. Every time he walked by our bunks he would look over at us with a bit of curiosity. Maybe it's creepy, but we just had to get a picture of his cuteness, so Chuck got out the camera. The kid seemed really interested in the camera and came over to investigate. He ended up taking all sorts of random pictures with our camera, pressing the button and flipping it around in his hands as Chuck kept his hand firmly wrapped around the neck strap. He was pretty interested to see himself show up on the little digital display screen on the back. He was really cute. There was another little girl who liked to pay a game where she would stare at us and then dart back behind the seats when we spotted her. After about five minutes, I have to admit, it got old... But she was having fun I guess. And then there was the father of one of the families. He took an interest in us and sat down to chat. He told us about how he and his 16 family members have lived in Mumbai for 25 years now, and they all work in the same family business. He was from Bikaner originally and they had all recently visited his family that was still living there. He raved about a sweets shop in Bikaner and then promptly disappeared for a few moments. When he came back he was carrying a paper box filled with a mess of orange strings of fried dough. He insisted we try some, so we nervously each took a chunk of the funnel-cake-like, sticky sweet. It was still warm. I took a bite and found that it was pretty tasty! I gobbled down all the rest of it, even though there was the slight possibility that it was poisoned, designed to knock us out so we could be robbed. Ah, how fear-filled the world has become. It turned out to be just regular sweets being shared by a regular, friendly guy. Good train trip.


  1. I wouldn't feel bad about that girl you spoke to about coming to america. It is hard to find a good job even when you are american.

    You 2 be safe. Happy travels

  2. This is very true. Good point.