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Exploring Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert, Part 2

It’s travel blog time! I left off relating my travels in India by talking about Jaisalmer, the Golden City. (Several cities in the state of Rajasthan are named by colour: Jaipur is the Pink City, Jodhpur is the Blue City, and Udaipur is the White City.)

Tourists come to Jaisalmer for two main reasons: to see the beautiful sandstone fort (covered in Part 1), and to use the city as a jumping-off point for camel treks in the Thar Desert.

Camels, Thar Desert, near Jaisalmer

The Prep

It’s possible to do long multi-day camel treks, or ones that last just a few hours. My travel companion and I decided to go for the in-between option: trekking a few hours, sleeping in the desert under the stars, and trekking back the next day.

IMG_1507We researched trekking companies online and with the help of our guidebook (The Rough Guide to India). What our research didn’t tell us was that at least some of the companies use child labour. On our trek, run by a company incongruously named Sahara Travels, a couple of preteen boys helped the adult guides with the cooking and taking care of the camels. Were they learning useful skills? Were they helping to support their families? Was it still uncomfortable? Yes, yes, and yes. Unfortunately, we didn’t know until it was too late.

Camel Trekking

Our trek started with a drive, by jeep, to an abandoned village. We never did get the full story, but it was chock-full of beautiful architecture…

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Your intrepid correspondent

Then we were introduced to our camels. A word of warning: camels are really, really tall. You get on them when they’re lying down, and then they stand up with an awkward lurch (they don’t seem very well put together, somehow) and you think you’re going to fall off. They’re also very bumpy when they walk. (Later in our India trip, I had the chance to try an elephant ride. Also very tall, but a completely different motion.) Having horseback-riding experience might have helped. As it was, I clung on tight the whole way.

Word to the wise: put on your sunscreen before you get on the camel! And you will absolutely need sunscreen. That desert sun is fierce! I also wore a wide-brimmed hat, a scarf to cover my neck (the hat alone didn’t do it because the sun’s rays bounced up off the sand), long sleeves and pants, and closed-toe shoes.

Camping in the Desert

After a few hours, our guides started looking for a spot to camp. Things to know:

  • Tourists want sand dunes.
  • The dunes where we were trekking weren’t actually that extensive–much of the desert in that area was just dried-out soil and scrubby bushes (see top photo).
  • There was a wind-power farm nearby.
  • We were not the only group of trekkers looking for a campsite.

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Hilarity ensued as the various tour guides tried to find camping spots out of sight of one another (and the windmills) so their respective groups could each have that “alone in the desert overnight” feeling.

This was managed eventually. Our overnight group consisted of a retired British couple and a younger group of Brazilians. We chatted over dinner (served by the two preteens), a simple meal of dal (lentil soup) and naan (flatbread) and hot chai (tea). The British guy boasted that he had fallen off his camel, but hadn’t hurt himself because he went limp as he fell. This was not very reassuring.

Sunset came. As you might imagine, the stars were spectacular. SO MANY STARS.

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Unfortunately, as night fell, so did the temperature. Note to the wise: bring layers! Our bed was simply layers of blankets on the sand (we slept in our clothes), and let me tell you, that was not enough. I did not sleep well at all. But I did see lots of stars throughout the night.

(Side note: the bathroom was simply a designated spot behind some bushes. I brought a Shewee, which helped.)

In the morning we woke early, walked about to try and get warm, and congratulated ourselves on sleeping overnight in the desert. I’ll always remember the beauty of the early-morning sunlight on the dunes.

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Then we had a simple breakfast of boiled eggs and toast and some very welcome chai, and got back on the camels. It wasn’t any easier than the day before, and we were just a tad sore by then. Nothing much to report from the return journey, except that I’ve never been so glad to see a jeep.

Also, we had sand everywhere. Thank goodness for hot showers.

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On Day 2, I did manage to let go of the saddle long enough to take a picture from the back of my camel!

Conclusion: my travel companion and I agree that we are not really cut out for this sort of adventure, but we’re both glad for the experience!

Desert Packing List

  • large water bottle
  • sunscreen
  • sunglasses
  • hat, the larger the better
  • scarf for keeping off the sun during the day and for the cold overnight (I used a locally bought pashmina)
  • long sleeves / long pants–the best outfit is either a simple cotton salwar kameez aka “Punjabi suit” (tunic and loose pants) or lightweight quick-dry Western clothing from a travel/outdoor outfitter
  • fleecie or sweater for nighttime
  • camera
  • flashlight
  • SheWee for the female-bodied among you

Have you been on a desert trek? Any tips to share?

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Two Independent Travelers Go All-Inclusive in Cuba

IMG_4268THE BACKSTORY

As you know if you’ve been following this blog for a while, my partner and I have a particular traveling style. (To see all the travel posts on the blog, click here.) I tend to take the lead on planning–with lots of discussion and input from my partner, of course. When I’m planning a trip, it goes like this:

  • buy guidebook (my current favorite is Rough Guides) and skim all the important parts
  • read the heck out of the Internet
  • plan a general itinerary/schedule/route
  • look up all the B&Bs, guesthouses, hotels, etc., on TripAdvisor
  • prebook some of the hotels and transportation

…and then spend our actual trip meandering slowly across a country, seeing the sights at maybe half the speed of most tourists, enjoying lots of downtime to relax and acclimatize and explore. We stay in locally-owned guesthouses or B&Bs, use a mix of public transport and taxis, and soak up lots of the culture. Sometimes we’ll book a day trip or a few days on a tour, but most of the time we like being left to our own devices and handling the logistics ourselves.

My partner enjoys this type of travel–we’ve done a lot of it together and adjusted to each other’s pace and preferences–but he’s gotten used to letting me lead the planning. But when we decided to go somewhere warm for a week this winter, I begged off the planning due to time constraints…

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…which is how we ended up booking a vacation at all-inclusive resort in Cuba.

Not only that, we booked a package through an airline. No thinking or logistics required (with a few exceptions I’ll get to later). We were both curious to try out the complete opposite of our usual travel style…and hey, there was a beach, what’s not to like?

PROS

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The beach: Okay, there was a fabulous beach. The sun was great, the beach umbrellas were great, the lounge chairs were great. I could complain about the constant wind and the chilly water (both the ocean and the pools…yes, pools, plural), but really? It beats the hell out of Toronto in March.

The lack of research: As I mentioned, I just didn’t have the bandwidth to spend dozens of hours planning a trip this time around. It was really nice to be able to take a trip anyway and not have to worry about not being prepared. (We did do enough research to know we should bring first-aid supplies, toiletries, sunscreen, and bug spray. But that goes for most places.)

 

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The resort we picked: The research we did do was on resorts (mostly via TripAdvisor, of course)–and this paid off. The one we picked, Melia Las Americas, was not cheap, but Cuba is cheaper overall than other Caribbean islands, so we were okay with the price point. It’s an adults-only resort, and when we were there, it was not crowded at all, as you can see from the pictures. Plenty of lounge chairs, lovely architecture and landscaping, multiple outdoor pools (even if they were chilly). The service was fairly good–a nice change from our usual style of roughing it, relatively speaking.

IMG_4295The food was hit-and-miss, but we’d been warned to expect that of Cuban all-inclusives, and it wasn’t so bad once we figured out how to get the best use out of the buffet and the various à la carte restaurants. (Go for the meats that are grilled as you watch. Take a little of everything, then go back for seconds once you figure out what’s actually good. Arrive early for shorter lineups and fresher food.)

The pace of life at an all-inclusive: So what does one do at an all-inclusive resort? Eat. Drink. (Side note: all the coffees were made with goat’s milk. Took some getting used to.) Go for a dip in the pool or a wade in the ocean. People-watch. Talk. Lie on a lounge chair and stare at the ocean. Read. (My partner got through almost an entire epic fantasy trilogy. If you want a chance to catch up on your reading (and who doesn’t?) I definitely recommend it.) Repeat. Definitely not our usual pace, but it was kinda nice to do absolutely nothing for a week. It was also fun to spend the day in a combination of bikinis, coverups, and long lightweight skirts, then dress up for dinner.

This Canadian can’t get over the crazy spiky trees. The one on the right was in front of our door. Click to enlarge.

CONS

Lack of originality: Once we started talking about the trip, we were taken aback by how many people around us had already been to Cuba this year. An undiscovered location it is not, at least for Europeans and Canadians. (Now that some of the restrictions for Americans have been relaxed, I expect it will slowly become a popular destination for you folks as well.)

IMG_4250Complacency: We were lulled into complacency and forgot to do as much research as we should have. For one thing, we didn’t bring the correct plug adapters for our laptops (we needed a three-prong to two-prong adapter), so one charge and we were done. For another, we had thought it was OK to tip in American dollars at the resort, but judging by the lukewarm reaction we got, we perhaps should have been tipping in pesos. Eventually we gave up tipping altogether. It didn’t make a noticeable difference in service.

Lack of control: We didn’t end up taking any “excursions” (guided tours) beyond the resort. I think it was a little bit due to laziness, but largely a matter of preferring to be in control. A 12-hour guided tour to Havana, including 2 hours on a tour bus each direction, just sounded like too long a day on someone else’s schedule, and too much forced socializing (did I mention we’re both introverts?). Same for the full-day dive tour, with the added difficulty of our both being shade-lovers (giant beach umbrellas made of dried leaves = best thing ever).

In fact, we didn’t leave the resort at all, not even to go into the nearest town (Varadero). I attribute that to a lack of confidence, since we didn’t have our usual experience of landing at an airport, having to immediately navigate to our lodgings, and thus being immersed in the country from the start. Here, we were insulated from the start (we walked out of the airport and immediately boarded a bus owned by our tour company that took us straight to the resort), and it dictated the rest of our stay. Granted, it didn’t help that we were only in Cuba for a week, and we felt obliged to make the most of the resort while we were there.

On the other hand, we did get to look at a lot of palm trees. Canadian, remember? Click to enlarge.

Lack of adventure: When you come back from a trip like that, there are no stories to tell! You can’t complain without sounding whiny. You didn’t do much of anything, and you certainly didn’t do anything different from all the other people you know who’ve been to all-inclusives.

 

Okay, we did have one adventure, and it was in the 30 minutes we spent outside of the resort’s/tour company’s control. On our homeward journey, we took a taxi to the airport due to missing the tour company’s bus…and he got stopped by police for speeding. We were a little worried that the police were up to something more serious, maybe related to noticing the foreigners in the car, but nope, just a speeding ticket. But at least we can say we had an interaction with the Cuban police…?

 

What are your thoughts on all-inclusives? Want more information? I can share my packing list, or talk more about the specific resort we stayed at. Let me know!

 

The Top 5 Most Romantic Places in India

The travel blog returns! In honour of Valentine’s Day, I’m doing a round-up of the most romantic places I encountered during my six weeks in India. If I missed your favourite, please chime in!

5. Taking a houseboat tour in Kumarakom

The state of Kerala, on India’s southwest coast, is known as “God’s Own Country”, and it’s easy to see why. It’s lush and jungly, with a higher quality of life than in the north (as Indians themselves will tell you). If you haven’t travelled in India before, it’s also less intense and overwhelming than the north. It’s not as well known to Western tourists as, say, the state of Rajasthan, but it’s popular among Middle Eastern and domestic travellers, meaning that there’s still decent tourist infrastructure. One of the must-do activities is to rent a houseboat (with crew, which is not prohibitively expensive for a day or a few nights) and putter around what’s known as the “backwaters”, an extensive network of canals lined with palm trees. Especially during the off-season, it’s both serene and luxurious.

Kerala backwaters

4. Exploring Old Kochi

Before the British arrived, the city of Kochi was colonized by the Portuguese, then the Dutch. Today it’s home to a picturesque fusion of architectures and cultures. If you’re up for a splurge, check in to the Old Harbour Hotel–it’s not cheap, but it’s gorgeous, and the food is delicious. There’s even a small swimming pool in the tranquil garden. And it’s located in the heart of Old Kochi, where you can wander down to the harbour to watch the unique fishing nets in operation, or stroll up the narrow streets to admire the beautiful old buildings.

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The Old Harbour Hotel

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3. Camel Trekking in Jaisalmer

Moving up to the northwest part of India, we hit Rajasthan, which I mentioned above. The cities are fascinating, each with its fort towering over the centre of town, but if you’re the adventurous or outdoorsy type, you’ll want to head for Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert (click through for more photos!). It’s much cheaper than the options mentioned above–we stayed in a perfectly respectable hotel for 1500 Rs. (less than $25 USD) per night–and the old fort is fascinating to explore. Except we didn’t stay there long, because we took a camel trek into the desert and slept under the stars. So. many. stars.

Camels, Thar Desert, near Jaisalmer

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How sexy are these curves?

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Sunrise over the desert

2. Exploring Udaipur

Still in Rajasthan, the city of Udaipur is known as the Venice of the East (to be fair, it has plenty of rivals for the name) or the White City. The old part of the city is built of white stone on the shores of a lake, with architecture that tends towards arches and cupolas.

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How much more romantic can you get? Well, actually…

1. Visiting the Taj Mahal

I’ll leave you with this. Okay, it’s a cliche, I’ll admit. But some of the world’s most famous sites are definitely worth visiting, and this is one. The city of Agra is voracious for tourists and skilled at parting you from your money. But I swear the Taj Mahal is worth the visit (click through for more photos!) for the beauty alone, let alone the story behind it. If you want to be ultra-romantic, book a moonlight visit, when it will look even more ethereal than it does below.

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The Taj Mahal at dawn

If you liked this post, you might be interested in my short story “The Raja and the Madman”, set in a fantasy version of Rajasthan. You can read about it here and buy the anthology it appears in, Under Her Protection, from Turtleduck Press.

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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!

Autumn in Montreal

If you’re looking for a fall vacation, Montreal is a great place to go, and here’s why…

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Trees on Mount Royal

It’s close to everywhere — a short plane hop from NYC and the northeastern states, and a totally doable — and picturesque — train ride from Ottawa (1 hour) and even Toronto (4 and a half hours, if you play your cards right). The province of Quebec borders New York State, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, so you can even drive there if you’re lucky. It makes a great weekend getaway.

On the train between Toronto and Montreal

On the train between Montreal and Toronto

But it makes you feel like you’ve been somewhere else. There’s the prevalence of French, of course (though you can certainly get by without it), but not only that — Montreal has its own distinctive architecture, fashion, and cultural scene. And good public transit, too.

(Hit the jump to see more fall foliage photos and more reasons to go…)

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A Fantasy Short Story Inspired by Rajasthan, India

Last month, Turtleduck Press released this anthology:

Under Her Protection edited by Siri Paulson

My contribution (besides editing the anthology) was a story about a maidservant and an inventor, set in a fantasy/clockpunk version of Mughal-era India. I spent six weeks in India last year and fell in love with…well, many things, but especially the historical architecture. So writing about it was a no-brainer. And as a bonus, that means I can put up related photos…

The story opens at Amber Fort (also called Amer Fort), a fortified palace in Rajasthan, which looks like this. Click to enlarge any of the photos (all copyright 2013 Siri Paulson).

Amber or Amer Fort

Amber or Amer Fort

Gateway in Amer Fort

Gateway in Amber Fort

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Exploring Jodhpur, The Blue City

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The Blue City. Click to enlarge!

It’s time for another travel post! I love sharing these with you because it means I get to go over my photos and reminisce. Hope you guys enjoy them too.

Today I’m revisiting Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. It’s known as the Blue City…for obvious reasons. (The state of Rajasthan also has a Pink City (Jaipur), a Golden City (Jaisalmer), and unofficially a White City (Udaipur).) And yes, the riding pants are named after the city.

My travelling companion and I took the train from Jaipur, sharing a compartment with an elderly woman, her daughter-in-law, and her young grandson. We were glad to be with them because the stop announcements were nonexistent, even in Hindi. Signs in the stations are generally in both Hindi and English, so you can get on the right train at the right platform, you just can’t necessarily get off at the right stop unless you happen to spot the sign going by.

View from the train

View of rural Rajasthan from the train — looks pretty dry, doesn’t it?

A man from our hotel met us at the train station. We almost walked right past him because we’d gotten so used to ignoring people trying to sell us stuff. (Later, back in New Delhi, we projected such an air of being experienced travellers, or something, that nobody at the station even bothered to approach us.)

We’d been travelling through some very intense places for the past week, so we spent our first day in the Blue City just relaxing at the hotel. Like many hotels in Rajasthan, it had an open-air restaurant on the roof — obviously this is a place that doesn’t get rained on much!

Both our room and the restaurant had nice wicker furniture, but the hotel wifi was stronger in the restaurant, so we spent a lot of time upstairs, hiding in the shade from the intense semi-desert sun.

We did leave the hotel to go to dinner down the street. On the way we found dodgy sidewalks, lots of motorbikes, and the alarming fact that after dark, all the local women disappear off the streets. I didn’t notice at first, but every single person we interacted with in public throughout northern India — at hotels, at restaurants, in stores — was male.

(Rajasthan is known as a backwards state, even for India…and it gets more so the farther in you go. Just as a surface example, we hadn’t seen any women in Western clothing after leaving New Delhi and Agra, larger cities where women have more freedom. In fact, we started seeing women with veils over their faces — not opaque veils but sheer ones that matched their saris. This part of India is heavily Hindu and partly tribal, so it’s not a Muslim thing, but I bet it comes from the same impulses.)

The next day we set out to explore the fort (of course). Jodhpur is dominated by Mehrangargh Fort, dating to the 15th century and every inch a fortress. I mean, just look at this:

Mehrangarh Fort, Jaipur

(Lots more pictures behind the jump!)

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