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Exploring Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert, Part 1

Today on the blog, we’re exploring the Thar Desert.

Isn’t that an amazing name? It’s a place in the far northwestern corner of India, in the state of Rajasthan, not far from the international border with Pakistan. The major centre is Jaisalmer, a small city that boasts a spectacular fort. Jaisalmer also the jumping-off point for camel treks into the desert — the main reason to come here as a tourist, and the focus of my visit.

The fort at sunset

The fort at sunset

Getting There

First, a note about the weather. As I said, this is a desert. We visited in late February, when the average high is 29 degrees C (84 F) but it gets down close to freezing at night. November is comparable; December and January are a bit cooler. I would not advise visiting in any other month, because that sun is fierce!

Getting to Jaisalmer can be a little tricky, as we found. There’s only one train, a long overnight trek from the nearest city (Jodhpur), and it often books up early. All the dates we wanted were full. Besides, my travelling companion and I had taken trains in India already, but the longest ride was 8 hours (for a supposed 6-hour trip) and that was long enough for us. You can also take a bus to Jaisalmer, but we decided that was definitely too much roughing it. On the other end of the spectrum, you can splurge on a very fancy train tour — the Palace on Wheels — which was out of our price range.

So we ended up hiring a car, which in India comes with a driver. (You do not want to drive yourself on Indian roads, trust me.) It’s not prohibitively expensive for Westerners — we paid about 2500 rupees a day, which sounds like a lot until you realize it’s only $40 USD!

The road to Jaisalmer

Tumbleweeds, anyone?

The road from Jodhpur is a quiet two-lane highway full of potholes, rolling through a dry, dusty landscape. It is not quite desert, more what’s known as “semi-arid”, and reminded me of nothing so much as the Wild West: sparse trees, little ground cover, muted greens and tans, ramshackle roadside shops. The villages we saw were a mix of boxy desert architecture and tiny round thatch-roofed huts — this is a poor area of India, and it shows. But we also spotted “desert haveli resorts” advertising stays in “huts”…and, somewhat less obscene, wind turbines. Animal sightings included a lot of cows with humps on their backs — no, not camels, although we saw those too — plus wild antelope and peacocks (this is their natural habitat…who knew?).

As the cows indicate, Rajasthan is heavily Hindu, with a minority of tribal peoples who live nomadic lifestyles — easily recognizable by their turbans and long robes. The political power was held by city-states ruled by maharajas…until the British came.

Side Note: Women in Rajasthan

If you’re a woman traveller, especially one with light hair, be wary. I’m female and strawberry blonde. My travelling companion was male and we went everywhere together, but I still got many stares and the occasional comment. If travelling without a man, I’d advise being very careful.

Wearing an approximation of local clothing may help somewhat. I often wore loose Indian-style pants and a tunic with a scarf thrown over the shoulders from front to back, an ensemble known as salwar kameez or informally as a “Punjabi suit”. Bonus: the fabrics are very thin and the cut is loose, both ideal for the climate. If you wear Western-style clothing, choose styles that are loose and offer good coverage.

Loose pants and long-sleeved shirt in quick-dry materials. The scarf is local style (normally thrown over the shoulders front to back). You can't see my practical trail-running shoes.

Loose pants and long-sleeved shirt in quick-dry materials. The scarf is local style (normally thrown over the shoulders front to back); the hat is not but is essential for pale skin with sun like this! You can’t see my practical trail-running shoes.

As for the life of a local woman…Rajasthan is not the best place to be female. It’s known as a backwards state even within India, with a high number of child brides and the lowest level of female literacy in the country.

If you start your travels in Delhi, you’ll see women wearing Western clothing, working (but not in customer service jobs that involve interacting with the public), studying, driving their own motor scooters, and walking around freely.

But as you travel farther west in Rajasthan, all of this shifts. Driving through small towns on the highway, we saw very few women out in public, and those few wore sheer veils over their faces (they’re not Muslim, but I guess it’s a similar idea). Even in the Rajasthani cities of Jaipur and Jodhpur, women in Western clothing are rare, and as soon as evening falls there are no women on the streets.

I’m far from an expert, but from what I’ve read and seen, and from conversations I’ve had in India, women’s rights and equality are progressing slowly, unevenly, and with many setbacks…but they are progressing. For example, there’s a new program to recruit women to be firefighters.

But back to the topic at hand.

Jaisalmer, The Golden City

Narrow street in Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer is known as the Golden City, for the sandstone that the spectacular central fort and most of the buildings are made of. It’s a small city of 80,000, engaged mostly in the tourism industry. As a Westerner, wandering around the city on foot is quite safe…it has a small-town feel with a medieval flavour. You’ll be dodging mopeds and cows, but the traffic isn’t heavy or fast. Besides, by the time you reach Jaisalmer you’ll already have worked your way through New Delhi and several other cities in Rajasthan, so you’ll be well prepared.

Rajasthani textiles, Jaisalmer

Rajasthan is famous for its rich food and textiles. Another thing you can get in Jaisalmer only: bhang lassis. A lassi is a cold drink akin to a milkshake; in most of northern India it’s based on yogurt (often flavoured with¬† mango), but here it’s based on buttermilk with chopped pistachios on top (recipe here). Bhang is marijuana, prepared in a drink. In Jaisalmer it’s legal to sell to foreigners from a government-authorized shop…and you’ll see a certain brand of traveller come here precisely for that experience.

A few words of warning, though. First, it’s not easy to tell which shop is the government-authorized one (there are several competitors). Second, not long after this lassi experience I got diarrhea that wouldn’t go away and eventually, days later, landed me in hospital for dehydration. I can’t point to the lassi as the culprit — there are too many factors — but I would not be surprised.

The Fort

Jaisalmer Fort 1

The fort itself, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is geared towards tourism, full of restaurants, guesthouses, and textiles stalls catering to Westerners. But unlike the other famous Rajasthani forts, it’s also home to several thousand locals — it’s been more or less continuously occupied since its construction over 800 years ago, though it has changed hands several times and the rajas who built it rule no more.

However, the fort is in danger. Its sewage system is leaking into the foundations, a problem made worse by the increasing number of guesthouses and other establishments within the fort’s walls. Increased rainfall in the region and seismic activity may also be weakening the fort’s already shaky foundations. (For more information, see this article at Smithsonian.com.) So if you want to visit, consider staying at a guesthouse outside the fort, as we did…and consider going sooner rather than later!

The fort includes a museum, which we did not visit because our time in Jaisalmer was so limited — we were there mostly for the camel tour — and because we’d already visited several similar museums in other cities. Instead we poked around the main square and streets nearby, admired the incredibly intricate stonework, and had dinner on a veranda to watch the failing light turn the fort’s walls to gold. I mean, just look at this:

Jaisalmer fort at sunset

Jaisalmer fort detail

The ubiquitous auto-rickshaws (taxis) in front, and textiles for sale behind

This is getting long, so I’ll close here. Tune in next time for the Thar Desert camel trek and sleeping out among the sand dunes!

Looking Back on 2014

Hi, guys, did you miss me? I’m resurrecting the blog because I can never resist a yearly recap!

It’s that time of year again…time to reflect, regroup, and ponder.

Last year, I declared my intention to make more space for my writing (after a very busy 2012 and 2013, where lots of good things happened but writing fell by the wayside). 2014 was going to be the Year of Priorities, AKA Project: Making Space.

What I learned: Be careful how you word your resolutions!

What happened: “Making Space” came to pass in a much more literal way than I had intended. My partner and I started renovating our house (to be clear, we weren’t doing the work ourselves, but it did take up a LOT of brain cycles). We ended up with:

Refinished attic

  • a newly finished room (and revamped hallway and staircase) in the attic, which became an exercise room that’s getting used at least once a week, and also converts to a guest room
  • a functional second-floor kitchen (my partner’s parents live with us and do most of the cooking, but we wanted our own space for weekend food prep…there was already a second kitchen when we bought the house, but it needed appliances and more storage)
  • a landscaped backyard (to replace the former field of weeds), meaning we could enjoy our vegetable garden, add a couple of flower/shrub gardens, and spend time on our new back deck
  • a central air-conditioning system (which, among many other benefits, made the attic usable in summer!)
Deck, shed, Japanese maple to the left...all new! (Lilac to the right is not new.)

Deck, shed, Japanese maple to the left…all new. (Lilac to the right is not new.)

See? Making Space! :-P

This turned out to be good for the soul. We bought a nice set of patio furniture and it’s been wonderful to sit out on the deck — it needs some decor and privacy touches, but already it makes me feel a bit like I’ve got a country cottage in the city. Since I crave nature, the wilder the better, this is an excellent start.

Patio retreat in the making...

Patio retreat in the making…

I’ve also had fun adding flowers and shrubs to my repertoire after three years of vegetable gardening (details here and here). And between the deck and the second kitchen, we’ve been able to throw a couple of house parties — new territory for us, and an area we’re not very comfortable in yet, but hey, growth requires stretching, right?

Old-fashioned hydrangea, in memory of my grandmother.

Old-fashioned hydrangea, in memory of my grandmother.

What did not happen: Writing.

Okay, some writing did happen, but nowhere near as much as I’d hoped.

  • Wrote somewhere around 35K words, and almost all of it got edited and/or either published with Turtleduck Press or submitted elsewhere (with no results…yet)
  • Wrote and published the last two installments of Still Waters Run Deep (a fantasy serial) as TDP freebies, and started tweaking the serial to turn it into a coherent 10K story but did not finish
  • Wrote and published “The Raja and the Madman” (a longish fantasy short story) in the Under Her Protection anthology from TDP
  • Wrote 15K on draft 2 of a YA SF novel for NaNoWriMo (but had to quit because of wrist problems — see below) and tried to continue draft 2 of a YA fantasy novel but didn’t get very far
  • Wrote 2 more short stories (one historical fantasy, one Gothic) that haven’t appeared anywhere…yet…and 3 flash fiction pieces — the third of which is now up at TDP
  • Edited two TDP releases, Under Her Protection and Even the Score by KD Sarge

Under Her Protection edited by Siri Paulson

In part, the lack of writing was due to a health scare, with tendonitis in both wrists in September and cropping up again in November. I’ve been doing some preventative stuff, but I have a feeling that’s going to need more focus in January.

In travel/vacation news, I had:

  • a trip to India (again — but just for two weeks this time)
  • a trip to the Canadian Rockies (to go hiking with my siblings, which was fabulous)
  • a couple of lovely staycations
  • some weekends out of town to go contra dancing (as dancing expanded to take on a bigger role in my life…we’ll see where it goes from here!)

Looking ahead…

I’m wondering if the wrist issues are trying to tell me something about writing. More about that in a future post. More about that here (tl;dr I’m thinking very hard about what I want out of writing, because it’s been a struggle for a while). I’m not one for hard deadlines, so I’m still mulling over my intentions for 2015.

Also coming up on the blog: reading roundup for 2014…and maybe an SF&F movie recap, if there’s interest.

Your turn! How did your 2014 go? What’s ahead for you in 2015?

Health Update and Book Sale!

First, a health update: My wrists are still causing trouble, two weeks after this all started. I’ll know more tomorrow, I hope, but in the meantime I’ve been trying to minimize non-job-related computer use. (My job involves being on the computer all day, most days, so that doesn’t help….)

Funny how I spend so much time avoiding writing, and now that I’m avoiding it for health reasons, I’m getting really antsy to start writing again. Oh, brain, why must you be so weird?

In the meantime I’ve been busy with story intake instead of output, if you get my drift. I zoomed through Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown in a week (that’s pretty fast for me these days) and am now making my way through Justin Cronin’s The Passage (which is taking me longer, because that sucker is huge). And I’ve settled down for — finally — some dedicated watching of Doctor Who. So it’s definitely not all bad.

Turtleduck Press book sale 2014

Second, the happy news — Turtleduck Press is having a book sale! All of our books are 99 cents from now until October 7. For details and recommendations, drop by the book sale announcement on our site.

I happen to think everything we’ve published is pretty cool, but if you’d like to support me in particular, pick up our latest anthology,¬†Under Her Protection — or one of our other anthologies. I have stories in each of them, but if you like…

…Gothic steampunk about mad cellists, read my story in The Best of Turtleduck Press, Volume I

…post-apocalyptic steampunk with crash-landing dirigibles, check out Seasons Eternal (which also has a cool premise for the anthology as a whole: each of the authors wrote a story about a different season on a planet where the seasons have stopped turning)

…secondary-world fantasy based on Inuit mythology, try Winter’s Night (all winter-themed stories — and hey, Christmas is coming! *ducks barrage of rotten fruit*)

Enjoy!

We’re back!

First, an apology for the long blog silence! Nothing terrible has happened. I just had other things to do with my time over an all-too-short summer, so I went on an unscheduled hiatus. I’m back now and eager to get back into blogging on a regular basis. Look for a report on this year’s FanExpo (Toronto’s Comic-Con) on Monday!

Second, my fellow Turtleduck Press authors and I are doing a blog tour to promote our anthology Under Her Protection: Stories of Women to the Rescue:

  • Aussie fantasy writer Ellen Gregory let me take over her blog with a Q&A about the making of the anthology
  • Another fellow writer, Dianna Bell, featured us on her blog not once but twice — first with an introduction by Turtleduck Press author Erin Zarro and second with a review by Dianna.

Thank you to Ellen and Dianna for helping us spread the word! Stay tuned for more stops on the tour…

Third, I’m over at Turtleduck Press this week talking about gardening (*ahem* again).

And best wishes to all of you for the new year ahead! Okay, I know it’s not January. I haven’t been in school for ages, but I still think of September as the start of the year, and I bet a lot of you do too.

Your turn! How has your summer been? What are you looking forward to this fall? (Translate seasonal references as required…)

 

ROW80: End of Round 2

Aaand that’s it for this Round of Words in 80 days! The next one begins July 7, so until then I will not be updating on Sundays. Instead, maybe I’ll start blogging on a day that is *gasp* not Sunday, about things other than what’s going on with me.

With that said, here’s this week’s recap…

Writing

My short story is now on its third edit. I got the rest of the critiques back on Thursday, so I’m working to incorporate the best of the suggestions and make the story more awesome. This is the last round of content edits — in a few days I’m sending it off for copyediting. A few final tweaks, and it’ll be ready for release as part of the new Turtleduck Press anthology on August 1!

In between, I’ve been doing critiques, and will be busy with that for a while. But I’m not standing still on my own writing — I’m going to submit a story to a contest before the end of June, and we’ll see where that goes.

Exercise

This week I did:

  • 7.3 km (4.5 miles) of walking in 3 sessions
  • 1 session of stair-climbing

Umm…oh dear.

I did discover that my favourite science fiction and fantasy bookstore, Bakka Phoenix, is close enough to my office for a lunch hour walk there and back, if I don’t dawdle too much among the lovely, lovely books. Not only that, but the walk itself is pleasant, with wide sidewalks and lots of shade. I foresee a problem.

Home Improvement

Still waiting to get the shrubs in — they’ll be delivered tomorrow. In the meantime, we’ve bought some patio furniture, which is also getting delivered this week. Still haven’t gone for a load of perennials…tomorrow night, I hope.

In other words, our backyard is going to look a whole lot better in the next week!

The vegetable garden is coming along nicely. We’ve started eating the greens and herbs — arugula, chicory, basil, mint, cilantro — and let me tell you, it feels pretty neat. It’ll be a while until we are harvesting vegetables (northern gardening, you know…), but I’m seeing tiny green tomatoes, and flowers on the bell peppers and acorn squash. Another month or so and things will be very exciting around here.

ROW80 Recap

To go back to the beginning for a minute…

This round my goals included:

  • weekly reports on my Year of Making My Living Space Better
  • weekly reports on exercise progress
  • 1.5 hours a week of writing (broadly defined to include editing and outlining)

The first two goals were easy, and probably helped with mindfulness. The third? I missed it on 3 weeks and hit it on 8 weeks, including several where I blew the goal away — there were two weeks where I hit 6 hours, and three weeks where I passed 3 hours. I set that goal deliberately low, so I’m pleased to have crushed it on multiple weeks.

According to ROW80 rules, you get a break between rounds, so I’m not going to set any goals for between now and July 7. I’ll be busy critiquing anyway. But once those critiques are done, watch out!

And you, my faithful readers…watch this space for a larger variety of blog posts in the coming weeks. I hope you’ll stick around.

Your turn! If you were doing ROW80, how did this round go? If not, well, we’re almost halfway through the year…how is this year going for you?

 

Shrubs, Shorts, and Soccer

Can’t believe this ROW80 is almost over! I’m only checking in once a week, so that means only one more check-in after today. How’d that happen?

So here’s my penultimate update. (Ha. It’s not every day that you get to use the word penultimate….)

Writing

That short story I finished last week has come back from its first two readers with good reviews (and good suggestions for improvement). I’m running it by my critique group this week, so I’ll shortly have lots more good suggestions to think about and incorporate as appropriate.

Other than that, the rest of this month will be all about critiquing other people’s stuff — I have several lined up. That’ll keep me busy on the writing front. I don’t expect to get much further on my own stuff until July, but maybe I’ll blog more to compensate. That storytelling addiction, you know….

Exercise

This week I did:

  • 1 hour of yoga
  • 2 hours of contra dancing
  • 1 general workout session (half an hour)
  • 2 sessions of stair-climbing
  • 7.1 km (4.4 miles) of walking (3 sessions)
  • and a little bit of gardening, not really enough to count

Okay, still not where I need to be for hiking in the Rockies, but better than last week, and getting closer!

Home Improvement

We finally bought shrubs! Hydrangeas, yellow “carpet” roses, blue hibiscus, and a white pearl bush. And one tree, a Japanese maple — LOVE those, can’t quite believe I get to own one. Still awaiting delivery from the garden centre, though, so it’ll be another week or so before they get in the ground. I can’t wait. I’ve spent so much time over the last few weeks looking at gorgeous plants, it’ll be great to finally have some.

We also planted a few more vegetables:

  • raspberries (two kinds, red and black) — they won’t produce fruit this year though
  • hot peppers
  • and more bell peppers (apparently MIL didn’t realize we had four plants already…good thing we all like bell peppers!)

Grow, little vegetables, grow! Yes, I’ve started talking to my plants. I guess I’ve got the gardening bug, haven’t I?

Now I’m mulling over perennials, with the help of the landscaping program. Any recommendations? I like blue and purple, and maybe something to complement the dark red leaves of the Japanese maple….

In other news, it’s World Cup season (soccer to us North Americans, AKA football in the rest of the world). In our neighbourhood, that means much honking and cheering. I’m not much of a sports fan — hell, Canada doesn’t even have a team playing — but I can always tell when the game’s over and who won!

Finally, Happy Father’s Day to all you dads out there. Mine is no longer with us, so last year I wrote this for him: Watching Movies With My Dad. If you’re near your dad, and on good terms with him, give him a hug for me?

How about you? Are you watching the World Cup? What’s your favourite tree? Where is your dad today?

ROW80: All the Things are Moving

Here’s this week’s ROW80 update!

Writing

This week I was racing to finish a short story, and it’s done! 6 hours this week, which is a rarity these days. The second draft is 6500 words, up 1500 from the first draft, and I’m finally happy with it.

It’s slated to be published in a new Turtleduck Press anthology. A few people will be reading it this month, but the rest of you will have to wait until the anthology is published on August 1. *evil grin*

Exercise

I’m continuing to ease back into my exercise regime, such as it is. This week I did 1 hour of yoga, one session of stair climbing, and some gardening, and walked 4.6 km (not counting the bits of walking I do during my commute, 5 or 10 minutes at a time).

I’ve gotta step it up, though. My goal is to go hiking in the Rockies in August with my (fitter) siblings, and I’m a long way from being fit enough for that. Two months to go….

Home Improvement

This week I’ve been doing a lot of research on shrubs and trees (because, uh, that’s how I roll). We have several garden beds that are blank slates, which is a bit daunting because I’ve never tried flower gardening before. So I bought some books, visited a garden centre and took notes, bought a landscaping program to play with help with designing, and have been doing a ton of Internet research.

(Researching plants, it turns out, is like fractals — it opens out infinitely. I know Internet research is like that normally, but this is even more so. Why? Because you do all this research, finally pick a plant that you like and that seems to fit your needs, and then you discover that it has 10 million varieties of different sizes, colours, and growing habits, so you have to research all those too. Or is that just me?)

 

We still have no actual plants in the ground, but that should change shortly. Once we’ve got the shrubs in, then we can get on to the perennials…!

Here’s what we’ve put in the vegetable garden:

  • tomatoes
  • bell peppers
  • acorn squash
  • basil
  • several other herbs (not sure exactly what, my MIL planted them)
  • zucchini (seeds)
  • carrots (seeds)
  • cucumber (seeds — just planted today)
  • arugula (seeds — accidentally planted the zucchini over top, but the arugula have a head start and are already coming up…)

…and we still have a bit more space, so we might add a few more things before calling it quits.

How was your week?