Tag: Rajasthan

Indian Food Is Amazing

I’d just like to take a moment here to recognize the utter deliciousness of Indian cuisine. We’ve been big fans of Indian fare for years, and one of the big draws of visiting India was eating the food. And I must say, we were anything but disappointed. While we never fully knew what we were getting, it was nearly always delicious. Our favorite dish was the Thali, which is tray of different curries – kind of like a sampler platter. Each thali would be different, featuring the restaurant’s curries of the day.

Thali from Rajasthan

Our last meal in India - a Varanasi Thali

Other favorites include dosas (super thin pancakes wrapped in a tube and filled with curry), malai kofta, and butter chicken.

Masala Dosa in Delhi

Paneer Dosa

In an effort to learn how to recreate this deliciousness at home, we even took a cooking class. We’ll give it a try when we get back, but I have a feeling we won’t quite be able to capture the rich flavors that burst out of ever bite here.

Giving Indians a 2nd Chance

Arriving in the north after 2 weeks in Rajasthan, I needed to take a step back to re-evaluate my interactions with the people around me. It really disappoints me to say that my overall impression of Indian people was pretty low through Rajasthan. A severe lack of authenticity and genuineness. These outrageously persistent, annoyingly intrusive people have put me not only on the defensive, but on the antagonistic approach going into every new conversation. How is this person going to attempt to take my money? Will he be frank and pushy, or beat around the bush a bit before laying his pitch on hard. They have no qualms about creating super awkward and uncomfortable moments – in fact, this discomfort generally helps their cause, as many people will just pay up to get out of the situation. To some extent, I can understand the competition in this country, and the need to be aggressive just to get by. But, I really dislike who it makes me – a hardened personality that ignores nearly everyone who addresses me, often times pushing people out of my way who stand in front, and really just assuming the worst of anyone who talks to me. That really sucks.

So, now it’s time to take a step back, and give the people of this country a 2nd chance (or perhaps give myself a 2nd chance to be the friendly and trusting traveler I like to be). I’m really hoping that the people troubles we ran into are concentrated in Rajasthan, the country’s biggest tourist area. I’m hoping that now we’re up north, things will be a bit different, more relaxed, more inviting, more genuine. So far, that’s exactly what we’ve found.


Jaisalmer, is known on the traveler circuit for 3 things – camel safaris, the fort, and Havelis. Havelis are private mansions, generally with open courtyards and very intricate stonework and carvings. Elaborate homes of Jaisalmer’s rich merchants, the Havelis here have very impressive sandstone frescoes depicting gods, goddesses, animals, and other Hindu symbolism.


Haveli frescoes


The interiors are also impressively decorated, bursting with color and bling.

Flashy interiors

Colorful and ornate

If we had to pick one thing that consistently blew us away in Rajasthan, it would be the architecture. Forts, city palaces, and Havelis are some of the world’s most impressive structures, and the history surrounding the empires that constructed and destroyed them is fascinating.

Industry Bloggin’

In my latest post for World Nomads, I talk about how Jaisalmer’s famous fort is being loved to death by locals and travelers alike.  Check it out here, or copied below:

How Tourism Conquered India’s Oldest Fort

Jaisalmer Fort, situated along the Thar desert in western Rajasthan, is one of India’s most impressive  historical monuments.  The Fort, built in 1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisala, rises out of Trikuta Hill and is surrounded by golden sandstone walls dotted with 99 bastions that radiate in the desert sunlight.  Jaisalmer Fort is a living museum – claimed by some to be the oldest still-inhabited citadel in the world – with a palace, temples, hundreds of havelis, and over 1/4 of the old city’s population – about 2500 people.  The Fort is also one of the world’s most endangered monuments.

Jaisalmer Fort, from a distance

Bastions lining the Fort's outer walls

Jaisalmer Fort is being destroyed, and the primary culprit is tourism.  One of the most popular attractions in Rajasthan, the Fort has endured an explosion of hotels and restaurants along its narrow cobbled paths.  These water-intensive businesses require the Fort’s aging water system to pump 120 liters of water per person through its pipes – over 12 times its intended capacity.  Exacerbated by poor building practices and overcrowding, these drainage issues are causing the Fort to literally sink into the hill, collapsing buildings, walls, and bastions in the process.  Since 1993, over 250 historic buildings have fully or partially collapsed, including 3 of the 12-century bastions.

Jaisalmer Fort is falling down

As a result of tourism’s negative impact, nearly all guidebooks covering Jaisalmer strongly advise against staying within the Fort’s walls, and some ask that travelers do not eat at the Fort restaurants either.  But not all residents feel this boycotting approach is good for the local industry.  Not surprisingly, all of the business owners I spoke with within the Fort adamantly protested against the guidebook advice, claiming that the Fort’s condition is most certainly stable, and without tourism, their livelihoods are in jeopardy.  Outside the Fort’s walls, opinions were mixed – some agreeing that tourism should be controlled within, others more sympathetic to the struggling hotels inside the Fort.

As a responsible traveler, you have to make a choice – support the struggling local businesses who desperately need your rupees for survival, or support the ban on staying within the Fort’s walls to help curb deterioration.  I chose to stay outside the Fort, but after meeting a few locals impacted by the ban, I’m not sure what the most “responsible” choice really is.

For more information on saving Jaisalmer Fort, check out the very impressive accomplishments of the charity, Jaisalmer in Jeopardy.

Getting Pitched in India

Throughout India, everyone is trying to sell you something, all the time. You literally can’t walk 10 ft without someone pitching you a ride in their rickshaw, a look in their shop, a stay at their hotel, a booking on their trips, or a plain and simple ask for money. This is just part of the intensity of India, and while it gets old, you really can’t fault them for it – with over 1 billion people in the country, it’s a cut-throat competitive market for survival. At least these people are motivated and enterprising.

So, let’s say you take the bait, you’re interested in buying some of Rajasthan’s beautiful textiles or art, and you’ve allowed yourself to be pulled into a nice-looking shop. Here is some typical dialogue:

Welcome to my shop! You will not be disappointed! We have the best textiles in all of Rajasthan. Richard Gere and Tom Cruise, whenever they come to India, they come shop in my store. And I export to many stores in Paris, Rome, and New York. I even supply to many famous fashion designers – Armani, Burberry, and Versace!

Now, all of this is likely a lie, as every shop you pass seems to claim Richard Gere’s patronage (why Richard Gere?!?), though we did see a NYTimes article about one of the shops supplying famous boutique stores in NYC.

All store owners start with 3 questions, and they are always the same questions. At first, they may just seem interested in who you are, but each question is really providing them insight into your buying power and naivete:

Where are you from? This gauges whether you are likely to have money. You say America, they see $$

Where are you staying? A more detailed assessment of your financial situation, and what you’re willing to pay for in India, which can be a huge range (rooms from $5 to $500)

How long have you been here? This question determines 2 things: are you going to buy something today, and are you aware of Indian pricing and haggling. If you say, “I’ve been here for a week, and I head home tomorrow,” you’re prime bait – you want to buy souvenirs, and you likely aren’t aware of the true market value of what he’s selling. If you say, “I’ve been in India for 6 months,” that’s bad news, as you likely have seen these products around the country, have learned how to haggle, and know how to call bullshit when they attempt to put a fast one over you. Needless to say, we claimed to have been in the country for way longer than we actually had.

Now that the store owner has a general feel for what you’re willing to spend, it’s time to lay it on thick. And it is a hell of a presentation. Generally you’re taken to a separate room, where an air conditioner is running at full blast. Two or three assistants will unroll, unfold, and properly present to you every color, fabric, and style they have in stock, while the lead salesman describes the origin, material quality, and patterns of each item in the showcase. As soon as you expresses the slightest interest in a particular piece (ie, you touch it or look at it for more than 2 seconds), the presentation is modified to focus on those particular styles. There is no dead space in the conversation – every moment is filled with BS about the amazing quality of the material, craftsmanship, or beauty of the products. These guys act as though they are your best friends, and all they want to do is give you a great deal.

That is, until you say no. And once you say no (and they have accepted that no, so really after you say it about 10 times), it is amazing how quickly their attitude changes. The air conditioner gets shut off, and their smiles have turned to scowls. Suddenly, you’re made to feel guilty for not purchasing, for wasting their valuable time (this is despite the fact that we very specifically would tell them upon entering the shop that we’re not interested in buying anything today, just browsing). Indian salespeople are not scared to make you feel awkward and uncomfortable, and this guilt trip might just make you feel bad enough to change your mind.

Because of situations like this, I didn’t particularly love buying things in India. But that’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable for some. We had some pretty significant limitations – we didn’t have space to carry things, we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on souvenirs, and neither one of us particularly likes to barter. But for people with more room and money, and for those that like to haggle, you can get some amazing things at incredible prices.


The parking lot at Mehrangarh Fort.  You know, cars, motorcycles,…camels?!?  Now that’s sightseeing in style!

Camel transport to Jodhpur's Fort

Fantastic Fort

From Udaipur we headed to Jodphur, known for the impressive Mehrangarh Fort perched on a 400 ft cliff overlooking the city. Calling the Fort merely impressive is a huge understatement – this Fort is incredible. Built in the 1500s by Rao Jodha to house and protect the Maharaja and his family, the Fort was used as recently as 1952 for a modern-day coronation of the living Maharaja, Gaj Singh.  Aged 4 at the day of his coronation, it was this young Maharaja’s foresight, money, and dedication that created the Mehrangarh Museum Trust that is dedicated to preserving and caring for this important part of India’s history.

Meherangarh Fort

The Palace within the Fort

The inside was just as impressive as the outside

The halls within

Neither Ted nor I are history-buffs or museum people in general, but we were hands-down blown away by what we saw and learned. Surprisingly, it was a well-produced and informative audio tour (included in the price of our tickets) which led us from the exterior walls of the fort, through courtyards, into the palaces’ opulent rooms and finally to the tops of the walls where dozens of cannons now sit idle after providing hundreds of years of protection. Some highlights of the day include:

  • Palanquin

    Learning that fort had never been breached or conquered in its 500 year history.

  • Seeing examples of palanquin which were used by the royal family when traveling by elephant.
  • Learning about the intricacies of the window panes that allowed the women of the palace who were observing Islamic purda to see out into the courtyards but did not allow men to see in.
  • Hearing a story about the 21 wives of one Maharaja that threw themselves on to his burning funeral pyre after his death in battle.
  • Seeing extravagant royal baby bassinets and learning the importance placed on astrology for determining that baby’s destiny – everything from their name to their future spouse.

Oh and the stories go on. This fort was by the far our favorite of the sites we visited in Rajasthan. Whether looking up at the fort from town as it towers above you or standing on top of the fort’s walls looking down over Jodphur’s iconic blue buildings, you can’t help but feel its importance to the people of Jodphur, both historically as a great protector and presently as a source of pride and income for their city.

Views from within the Fort

Hookah Man

Views of Jodhpur from the Fort

Picture of the Week

The Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur – by day and by night.  Tomorrow’s post will fill you in on how cool this place is.

By day, from our hotel rooftop

And by night

Ted’s Early Impressions of India

India – well, we’ve been here nearly 2 weeks. At first, I thought, this isn’t nearly as bad as people warned. Staying with Sasank provided a rather comfortable introduction. Sure, the streets of Old Delhi were nuts, but there is a lot of the city that’s relatively chill. And after Africa, we’ve seen some falling-down towns and poor people.

After a week though, it’s starting to wear on me a bit. The problem here is that people don’t understand the word “no”. Whereas in Africa, if I looked at a kid or a tout or a beggar and said “no” with intent, then they’d leave me alone. Here, that’s not the case. From rickshaw drivers, to store owners, to kids begging for money – you literally have to push them away with force. I’ve found completely ignoring people works pretty well too (almost pretending I don’t speak English). And getting anything done is such an effort. I am starting to understand why people come here and stick around one spot for a week or more, rather than trying to see a bunch of stuff. Booking transport has been a pain in the butt (though it has run smoothly), and just walking down the street takes a significant amount of effort. And the non-stop car horns – that’s gotten real old already.

Bitching aside, this place is fascinating, and the food is SO delicious. Into our second week, we’re starting to understand the India vibe and flow, and this is most certainly a special place. We’ve met some really cool people (this has been the highest density of travelers we’ve encountered so far, overall), getting some advice on how to navigate the transport, hotels, what to order at restaurants, etc. After 3 months in Africa, with a much less developed traveler infrastructure and network (and really just a lot less travelers), India has been a nice reintroduction back to the backpacker scene.

The diversity of this country is also amazing – this is a continent within a country (and its population mirrors that analogy). There are individual states here that have over 80 million people, and have histories, religions, and customs that are drastically different than other parts of the country. So in many ways, the states are almost like individual countries. Such rich history here as well (and beautiful remnants of it everywhere in the forms of forts, temples, old cities, and palaces), and we’re just now starting to learn about the different rulers and the legacies they’ve left behind. Fascinating.

People are initially much friendlier and much more forward than we’ve encountered before, always saying hello, and asking where we’re from (and immediately upon learning, shouting “Obama!”). But so far, I’ve encountered a lack of genuineness – everyone who starts a conversation with me eventually gets to what they want from me – either a ride in their rickshaw, or a browse in their shop, or to go to their friend’s tourist agency, or to stay in their brother’s hotel. I’ve not had one conversation with an Indian person that wasn’t driven by their self-interest, and that’s kind of disheartening. I know (hope) that will change.

So, those are India first impressions. Living up to its reputation of a land of contrasts.

The Venice of India

Our first and last overnight bus ride in India got us to Udaipur just in time for sunrise. Our guidebook called Udaipur the “Venice of India”, and though that is quite a stretch, the city is centered around the water – a beautiful and impressive lake that is lined with palaces, forts, and guesthouses. Wonderfully, nearly all the restaurants and guesthouses in the area have rooftop balconies for taking in this fabulous view.

Floating Palace

Rooftop sunsets

Rooftop view from our hotel

Udaipur waterfront

Udaipur was a treat. Yes, it is still full of aggressive Indian salesmen, noisy rickshaws and smelly cows however, it is such a small place that it all feels more manageable. Anytime the chaos is too much, you are never more than a couple minutes stroll from your hotel or another equally welcoming rooftop with this breathtaking view – perfect for sipping on chai and admiring the floating palace, the whitewashed guesthouses lining the lake, and the mountains that hover in the distance. We took a boat ride on the lake, we visited a temple in town, we watched sunsets from our rooftop, we recuperated from being “foiled by India”, but our favorite and most memorable activity in Udaipur was an Indian cooking class.

Neither of us had ever taken a cooking class before, but we were excited as we obviously love Indian food and wanted to learn how to cook it better at home. Our instructor, Shashi, was a widow who had lost her husband when her sons were young. The Indian caste system did not allow her to remarry, but she had no way to support herself without her late husband’s income (and family members did not come to her rescue). After working for years doing laundry and sewing projects for the many hotels and tourists in town, she came up with the idea to start a cooking class. Through trial and error and her many international customers, she learned English and she now operates one of the most successful courses in town. Her class is so popular, it has surpassed the floating palace as the #1 activity in Udaipur according to TripAdvisor! She was a very fun and inspirational lady and the day we were in class, her oldest son was off to take his exams for university admission so she has obviously done well for herself and her family.

Indian spices!

Mashing away

Mix and stir


Our group mates were a couple from The Netherlands. They were wonderful partners in crime as we worked our way through Shashi’s recipe book. We sliced and diced veggies; we deep-fried pakora; we hand-rolled naan and roti; we simmered curries; we watched Shashi in action; we took notes; and we had a wonderful time. The course was topped off with an over-the-top meal that we couldn’t find the room to finish (thanks to all the snacking along the way). Our first cooking class was a roaring success and we look forward to trying to recreate Shashi’s masterpieces when we get home.

Look Ma - we can cook Indian food!

Shashi, her pupils, and deliciousness

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