Coral present: The Andaman and Nicobar islands (part 2)

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Entrance for Radhanagar beach, Havelock island

Our next stop in the Andamans, from Port Blair, was Havelock, a promise of a lot of water activities, snorkeling, coral and colorful fish. Also, the day my mom needed her anti-rabies booster, after being bitten by a feral dog three days before our trip began. Siddharth, our tour manager, had said we would have no complains at the place we stayed in Havelock, and he was right about that.

Transport and accommodation in Havelock island

The nature lodge in Havelock was just pure goldly!! It was TSG Blue Resort, with cabins nesting in tropical flora close to woods, lovely wooden interior. Good food, a little slow in service for snacks or coffee, but hey, its an island. In the island between hotel to port we had a vehicle at our disposal again. Within Havelock you can hire two-wheelers, if you have any license to show, and drive around the island. There is little public transport in the form of buses and I think if you have a week or so in the island, they can be used, but not in a time crunch.

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The restaurant and dining room at TSG blue, Havelock

To get to Havelock island, we took a spiffy big ferry called the Makruzz that takes the shortest time to get there, is air conditioned and was built in Japan, I think. Their repeating video will inform you if it wasn’t made in Japan as it tells you about its features. An impressive boat, but it took us more than an hour of waiting in various places to get on it. It’s a good ride once you are on. They provide you with a seat number and actually check reservation before you board, so make sure you get the seat numbers in a printed form.

A tip for packing:

Swimming gear that is not a pain to change into or out of. A coverall, or kaftan if you don’t want to stand out too much. Most beaches have a changing room including the Elephant beach, but it is wise to be prepared to not having them available. A lot of sunscreen. Not many bugs that I can remember on or around the beaches, if planning a forest hike bug spray would be needed. A daybag- that can fit water, wet clothes, towel, sunscreen and if needed whatever optics you are carrying. A MUST for people with sensitive feet , or who don’t want to have bleeding feet: water shoes.. They are not too expensive, especially in the US, I am not sure how available they are in India, but anything like the Vibrams that are close fitting with good grips will do you wonders. Bring your own snorkeling gear if you have it!!

Our story in paradise

Through the nearly two hours on the Makruzz, we had something else on our minds: I had talked to our tour managers and they had taken her prescription to get her the vaccine, and promised they would get it for her. All we could do was hope they came through..

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White-rumped munia
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Brown shrike

After the ferry ride and transfer to the TSG Blue eco-resort I rested a while in our neat cottage and decided to try and get some birding done. But alas, because of shortage of gas and the absence of a license (or the ability to drive a two-wheeler), I could not make good on the suggestions Nikhil (from Enchanted India.com) had made to go to beach no. 5 to see kingfishers (the beaches there are called by their numbers). I hope someone, some day, does read this and go there or get a tour through them. I did walk around the fields close to the hotel, on the narrow street edges looking for sparrows: white rumped munia, he had said the fields have them and they did, albeit, quite far, so no photos worth anything. I saw swallows swerving pretty close and fast and olive-backed sunbirds. A shrike on the telephone wires. And finally, a rose-breasted parakeet! I think the hiking path to the Elephant beach (instead of taking the boat) is highly recommended for birding as well.

Rose-breasted parakeet
Rose-breasted parakeet

The next morning at Havelock started out great, we went on a short boat ride to a small beach called Elephant beach, where they used to train elephants.  We had met other members of the tour group by then, and my mom had been chatting with some of them, another family visiting with their son from Andhra Pradesh. Then there were two women with a young girl, one of their daughters visiting from Coorg. On the trip to the Elephant beach it was limit 6 people  in a boat and a five minute trial for snorkeling, included in package. So if people liked it, they could go on a longer paid deeper into the ocean, but still quite close to the beach.Andaman and Nicobar islands are of volcanic origin and the corals are fringe corals (as opposed to reef corals, like in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). So, they start pretty much right of the shore. I was set on doing it, even if their equipment, I must say, was not the best. However, they held your hand the entire time if you chose the longer 30 min snorkeling, and made a video and took photos, burnt a CD and gave you for 600 rupees. I did keep getting water in my mouth and needed to take the mask off to tip it. But what I saw in the waters, so clear made it all worth it.  Beautiful, and a variety of,  live coral and wonderful fish, they guy took quite a decent video of the fish and coral, I will upload that at some point (with a premium plan). But HIGHLY recommended.

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Our boat driver and snorkeling guide at Elephant beach. The boy on the right took all the photos of the corals below. I only edited them to make them clearer
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Knobby brain coral

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Branching coral

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Coral noir!
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There is a fish in me! boulder brain coral in the background left, branching coral with the fish
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Elephant beach

We went on a glass bottom boat ride too, which I would pass the next time, but since my parents can’t swim (and if the equipment had been ok, they wouldn’t have needed to, as the guides literally take you into the ocean) this was a way to take them to see some coral and fish through the glass bottom. We were back early evening and the trip had begun taking its toll on my mom. It is hot and humid and mom spent a long time in the ocean! Despite the sharp coral in the ocean bed.. She always makes the most of what she has. Always.

On the other hand, there was a communication breakdown somewhere, the vaccine never made it to Havelock and the island hadn’t had a case of rabies for decades. They didn’t have the vaccine at all in stock! After all the time, and emails and phone calls I had made, I had known all along that the exact day ( I forget if it was the 7th day or what) all the doctors said it should be given, my mom won’t be able to get the shot. We were in the middle of nowhere. She is made of strong stuff in general, but no one can conquer stress and high blood pressure and she was a little worried about missing the shot. I asked her to sleep and rest for the rest of the day.

Eventually, one of the managers did indeed buy the vaccine for her when we were back in Port Blair and mom and I walked the roads, looking like desperate urchins, to beg any open clinic to give my mom the shot. We found a small hospital, the doctor was in surgery or somewhere, the nurse reluctant at first, went to check with the doctor after I showed her the picture of the prescription (which at least should have back with me but somehow our manager had got left behind in Havelock and had the actual one in his bag!).  But we had the picture and the nurse was actually nice. She said it would be fine and not to worry. Didn’t charge even. We thanked her heartily, I was close to tears.

Havelock, despite the constant stress about the anti-rabies shot, was still wonderful.

Radhanagar beach backdrop-2Before sunset on that first whole day as mom rested, dad and I decided to walk the 10 min to the Radhanagar beach, the 7th ranked beach in southeast Asia, ranked by TIME magazine. I am not a beach person, but in late evenings, I do like the breeze and the moon, clouds and stars. The beach has white sand and in terms of India, not that many people. And literally all of them leave after sunset. There was a gargantuan Indian Navy ship right by the shore! It was in all my sunset shots and it took me a moment to realize that this, this was the complete shot of an Andaman beach. Gorgeous sunset, an army presence linking the past to the present and lovely waves.. We hung around when everyone had left and sat on a beach log. We had started walking back when I saw mom heading towards the beach. She looked recovered and then, the three of us decided to hang around in the peaceful beach and went back to sit on that log. There was no one else in the world for me, the waves, ma and baba and I. The sand held our shadows, together in a huddle.

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Sunset with an Indian Naval ship close to shore.. The embodiment of Andaman and Nicobar islands, where nature meets military.

sunset color-wmNext day, we spent most of the time getting back to Port Blair. And adventure and luck played its due part, there was a  strike due to looming fuel/ gasoline shortage in the island. Being an island with a lot of cars, the Andamans depend on the mainland for gasoline, and there was something to do with costs and who (which ships) could bring the gasoline to the island and government intervention, that had led to serious shortage in fuel. Our boat drivers had fuel left for only one more ride and that’s their livelihood. People were afraid of some kind of a block on the streets as all the taxi drivers, driving us to the port from the hotel, had been told by the union to stop service. They still drove us as we needed to get to the ferry to head back. We had a superbly professional driver who kept talking on the phone dealing with the crisis as he drove, calming people or leading them as needed. Dad was worried about small riots breaking out. But the Makruzz left normally, the ocean was rough, but we made it back in one piece.

Our final outing was on a boat to the North Bay island, where we were to do some undersea walking: one of those activities that are only there in few parts of the world and for which you wear a heavy helmet attached to a long able bringing you the oxygen to the 10 m depth you go down to. My mom was very excited to walk on the sea bed, but when dad found out that people with high blood pressure are advised not to do this, he didn’t want to take a chance. He was excited for me. Mom has high BP too, but only when we got on the stationary float like thing, their “station” from where we would get in, they said that they do not allow people older than 55 yrs of age doing this. It was a new regulation and mom usually undeterred by such things, reluctantly decided to listen. People other than us were disappointed and wanted to know why the tour managers had not informed us of the fact and not offered an alternative since we had paid for this excursion in the package. My parents decided to go on a Dolphin boat ride with magnifying glass in the bottom, similar but improved tech from the glass bottom. Way more expensive and not worth it if the water is not clear. One advice: Just don’t do it! North bay is not even close to being as clear as the Elephant beach(just like the guides there had told us) and it is not worth the boat ride. The undersea walking was pretty cool, the drivers literally take you down, and I had been a fool to think I wouldn’t be able to clear by ear pressure. I thought something happens to you under that much pressure and you can’t use your own hands to hold your nose and expel air out the ears. But nothing did, brains work under water when there is an experience diver right next to you and with practice even without, I am sure. I am going to scuba dive in normal depths whenever I can. Yay.. We fed the colorful fish and they take tiny nips on the skin, that may have fazed the others, because one of the divers gave me the entire food pack (presumably no one else wanted it) and I was swarmed by those fish, I think it was surgeonfish. He caught a fish and handed it over to me, probably sensing my excitement right through the helmet! I held a live (f)wish in the ocean in my hands! Pretty cool.

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I also did another round of snorkeling, this time, with a guide who pointed out the fish and the sea urchins (that I found out later, are venomous if they sting) and the types of coral. We saw other surgeonfish, sweetlips, and finger coral, soft coral. I touched a soft coral and a clownfish attacked me with a nip! Here is where the water shoes would have come in handy. The walk in the sea till the point I could float in the tube was full of spiky coral. It was wonderful, I wish I remembered the names of all the fish I saw, but that takes repeat viewing. Soon.

Our flight back was not pleasant, note my tip about Indian flights in part 1. Mom was totally out on her feet had serious blood circulation issues once we got back, staying in airplanes for many hours with such poor oxygen levels really did a number on her heart. She has said such long trips are not for her anymore. We will see.  That day on the beach, with us and the waves and the moon, I was sure no one else lived in our world. We can’t hold sand in our hands, but sand has a strong hold on us….

 

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Our huddle in sand
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Somewhere in the Andamans

Rain trance

 

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Young white-necked jacobin. Life’s simple pleasures..
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When they get along for a while..
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Rain, depth and shallow focus
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Rain dance

We went back to Trinidad after 5 yrs and stayed at the Asa wright nature center, Arima, again. A lot of things have changed there in 5 yrs, all of it for the better at the center. One thing hadn’t changed much, the dance of pleasure of the white-necked jacobin, in the rain. I was able to relive and reinvigorate my memories of these hummingbirds dancing and being one with the rain. For them to find a treat in the rain in the oft-rained upon RAINforest, is the very definition of satisfaction for me. Although, their other traits are far less content, they are territorial about their feeders and fight a lot, the rain makes it all go away for them. They even get along.

For this weeks photo challenge, my hummingbirds from Trinidad, who are calling me back…

2 days in Jodhpur for the brave

Jodhpur, the less celebrated of Rajasthan’s cities, founded by the lesser known Rathore king: Rao Jodha (at least, lesser lored) in 1497, still holds its own in the extravagant cultural and historic agglomerate, that is Rajasthan. The most famous of the kings who lived there is Maharaja Man Singh (reign: 1803-1843). It is usually never the primary destination of a Rajasthan tourist, especially an Indian, but many spend a day or so there on the way to Jaisalmer from Jaipur or Udaipur. While Udaipur has its grand palaces and several nearby forts, Jodhpur has only one fort: Mehrangarh. The fort’s presence dominates the ‘old-city’, the older part of Jodhpur and the only part we saw, and can be seen from almost everywhere as it billows out of the igneous hillock  the city is built around. In early days the forts had inner cities inside which the workers for the fort, the soldiers and the caretakers lived. In Jodhpur,  the old houses or havelis as they are called in India, used to be painted a chalky indigo. Just like Jaipur used to be characterized by the pink color of buildings (which is not that prominent anymore), old city Jodhpur still displays its classic blue.

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The majestic Mehrangarh fort, Old city Jodhpur

To begin at the beginning, I was going to India for a 3 week trip in which I wanted to go somewhere with my cousins, as finally, it seemed most of them would be in the same place and most of them had time. Like most families who are close and yet perhaps not close enough, I have grown up with my cousins, and they certainly have grown up with me (I am the eldest) and yet we never did any trips together. My cousin closest to my age, also lives in the US now and as it happens the record shows I am still more likely to see him in India than here, even if he does live in Houston, Texas. My other cousins were either on a break from school or work, even if two of them could not make it right at that time. So, in the end, it was the five of us: Samrat, Rinky, Guddu, Romi and I. Those four have lived in the same neighborhood around each other most of their lives. While it is true that I was quite distanced as the youngest two were growing up, I still warrant respect being the eldest (haha) and I used it to light a fire that, in the end, burned down all the various opposition to our trip that you can only understand if you grew up in a middle class household around the 80s and 90s and have almost never flouted your parents. Rinky also picked the destination, as her mentor and friend had recently visited Jodhpur and came back enchanted. The one cousin who is the known renegade was the one not able to come. It turns out, despite being out of home for 12-15 yrs, Samrat and I had still somehow not managed to underscore our independence. He and I prevailed over the various forms of chastisement, which lasted till minutes before we left in the taxi. All heave a sigh of relief!

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A spiral climb

While I may have lit the fire, the real ground work was done by Rinky, assisted by Romi as they found a place to live, a refurbished haveli with its rustic charm and reasonable nightly rates: The Jewel Palace.  A mode of transport that didn’t burn a hole in the pockets of the students and snared the rest of us by being impossibly close to adventure travel. Of course, it was a sticking point with the parents, why would we not take the air-conditioned, well ordained buses to Jodhpur and choose the sleeper buses no one we knew had ever traveled on. Exactly the reason we sort of glazed over these details while making the plans known to our parents, until they absolutely had to be told. The buses seemed fine and clean and non-smelly ( I am told we were lucky to travel in winter). Placing our luggage, and my camera (yet another sore point to my parents as they feared theft) bag on our seats, we still had room to sleep. On being questioned about safety by Rinky, the company had informed her that families traveled with them routinely and we definitely saw one with a small baby get into an adjacent sleeper seat. It all seemed well, until the bus started moving. Or let’s just say, racing the wind, which tried its best to kill us with its chill for the bus driver’s defiance. The windows didn’t close completely. While we had carried light blankets, they were nowhere near sufficient. I had carried my ear plugs, but for the other unfortunates, the blaring music accompanying the freezing wind was enough to preclude any chance for a real slumber. Samrat apparently froze in a folded-knee position and at some point took a tumble as the bus made a sharp turn. I was wearing layers and ear plugs, I think I managed a few winks, as Rinky and I were in a double seat and she was close to the window. At a stop for restroom and tea, we bought big hankerchiefs in the hope of blocking the various holes in the windows. Even worked until the vengeful wind took them off. Romi slept blissfully, he says. Guddu didn’t sleep at all, but seemed quite happy just to for us to be together. This was just the one chapter, later on as the bus made more short stops, passengers kept making their way in, and we had started with a nearly full bus. So, where did these new passengers, who looked like they traveled daily, go, you may ask? Well, underneath our berths (yes, the space between the seats and the floor of the bus, and somehow they fit completely inside so you won’t even see them. At least they were warmer than us! Some slept in the narrow aisle between the two rows of sleeping berths. One or two sat on modas (little stools made of bamboo and jute). I would have been slightly frightened, but since none of us were deeply sleeping, except Romi, I didn’t really worry at all. A real traveler blends in, I thought, and did (or so I imagine).

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My camera bag is on our sleeper berth to the left, the aisle was about 1.5 – 2 ft in width. One guy was already under our berth and the man standing was possibly waiting for me to fall asleep to take the aisle bed!

We reached bang on time, takes about 8-9 hours overnight in a bus, in fact we weren’t really prepared to get off when all of a sudden we realized the next stop was likely ours. We got off and counted our bags and people and took two autorickshaws after fixing the price. I was sure they overcharged us, so much for blending in. It did take a while though to get to our unique hotel and during the journey I was recounting the ‘places to see’ in Jodhpur. One of the places was ‘old-city’. As the driver dropped us off he said we should have chosen a hotel in the city instead, we later found out he only about asked for maybe 50% more fare. As we walked through the narrow lanes, where the autos can’t pass to find our hotel, I looked around at all the other havelis in the area. They all seemed to be several generations’ old and many were blue. We were already in the old-city. Our hotel was blue too. They had our rooms almost ready, we later met the very young and hip owner Puneet [sic] who was accomodating as we had some issues with the booking, friendly and for a change, treated the natives with equal if not better attitude than the firangs (uncommon in sycophantic, white skin worshipping Indians in general). I would recommend the hotel to anyone who wishes to get a true Jodhpur experience, but not in the lap of luxury. For the price, I thought the whole arrangement was wonderful, despite minor plumbing issues.

Our server at jewel palace-new wmTo continue with our story: we were chilled to the bone and starving so we headed straight up to their terrace restaurant. The view of the palace and the terraces of other, closeby havelis was a balm to our weary souls and we couldn’t help but celebrate our victory against being controlled, the wind-chill devil and self-doubt. Their ginger-honey tea saved my life. It was glorious and soothed my sore throat, even if I would struggle with it for a while. I am allergic to dust now, it is the height of irony as I have grown up in dust, but these days I can’t cope and get miserable coughing and wheezing so I had brought a face mask. And boy did I use it! The breakfast of paranthas (bread) and indian pickle was perfect, I knew our chef was gold. Our first stop was the fort, visible from the terrace and seemed to be about a 5-10 min walk, which was a pretty good estimate. We made our way there after taking showers and picking our rooms. We had two rooms, and I chose the airier one, Samrat slept on a mattress on the floor and Rinky and Guddu chose one that seemed to have housed the original owners. It had low lying roof and paintings on the doors and the walls, very typical of old havelis in Rajasthan.

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Waiting for breakfast in the terrace restaurant of our hotel

The Mehrangarh fort has been used in many film shootings, including the Dark Knight (the fort behind Christian Bale when he escapes). It is beautiful with a lot of intricately carved windows in the first floor that surround the inner yards or aangans.  Inside it, is the beautiful Moti Mahal with windows of stained glass and Phool Mahal with its ceilings and pillars painted with real gold. There is also a narrow ‘sheesha’ mahal, with thousands of inlaid mirror art in the wall and ceilings. The fort has a small but terrific museum that displays its original artwork, an animal shaped canon and a carriage- palanquins in which the noble women traveled.

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Sheesha mahal, Mehrangarh fort
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Moti Mahal, Mehrangarh fort
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Phool mahal, with its gilted interiors

 

 

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Can(n)on
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A goddess mural in the museum. As some people may note, other than the goddesses and the carriage, there is little feminine detail in the fort..

From the top of the fort you can see the glorious panaromic view of old city Jodhpur. I don’t have much information on the history of the fort, I am sure wikipedia has most of it, as we didn’t hire a guide. I can however point to a few amazing doors by which my gorgeous cousins wanted to pose in the fort and around in a separate post, I know that the people who work for the fort wear traditional attire complete with the turban and there is a museum on types of turbans worn in Rajasthan that was completely delightful! It had the types of patterns: chunari, laheriya, mothara, darbi, khari etc.. to the typical turbans worn by community, like money lenders and soldiers, and turbans worn in different seasons.  Later kings build different doors (or pols as they are called in rajasthani) to commemorate events. The Dedh Kamgra pol has the canon ball marks still. We didn’t realize that the other gateways had names as we went through them, sadly.

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What I believe to be Jai pol, Mehrangarh Fort. Also the entrance from the back

At one end of the fort, at the edge of the hill, is the Nagnecha Mataji (Chamunda devi) temple as she was Rao Jodha’s favored and the royal family’s patron  goddess. White and striking, even seen from the village, its got several flags waving for attention and its immediate courtyard provides a great view of Jodhpur from the top. We headed back to the gate we entered from, that I believe to be Jai pol (close to the old city, less used and farther from the ticket stand). On the way we stopped for snacks at the cafe: samosas, coffee/tea and doughnut (not for me!).

We wound around to get to the other recommended tourist spot: Jaswant Thada, but it turns out that closes around 5 pm and we were well past that. So instead we stuck around the Malani Igneous Suite site that has interesting rock formation, one can use as steps to get to the statue of a rajput on the horse. I saw at least one life bird: black-winged stilt (nbd!) in a nearby creek. Romi pointed out a book on the swifts around the fort, in the rather meagre gift shop. I don’t think we have had time to ever talk about my interest, he is the youngest and even so he knew.

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Black-winged stilt

Then we headed back to our hotel, tried to get some chicken at another restaurant and failed, so returned to our own hotel to a sumptous dinner of more paranthas, paneer chilli pepper and some other vegetable delights! Also our waiter brought us Kingfisher beer (and noted that down as BIG pepsi 😉 we are still not a nation that takes alcohol drinking favorably or even normally in most parts). It could also have something to do with needing a liquor license…

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In the market

Next day our plan was to see the Jodhpur market, the clock tower and some baolis (bathing wells, with staircase like structure also called stepwell). We did see chand baoli, but perhaps the chand baoli was not for the nobility and while we found it after asking a few localites, it looked more like a drain than anything historic. The walk to the market was about 20 min, interrupted by a prolonged session of buying shoes (jutis). Prolonged not by me, as I sat wearing my mask in some discomfort, but, my, the males of our family! I bought a pair for husband, after a size suggestion by the owner of the shop (built in the 1960s, I believe) in 5 min. They fit great! More than I can say about Samrat’s who took no less than what felt like 5 hrs. I gave him a hard time for it, poor thing.

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Us in a narrow lane
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Some of us posed next to every door and others, Guddu here, obliged with photography

On the way to the clock tower I saw one of those tiny speciality shops thats mends things, only found in old parts of cities now, quietly disappearing as we take on the ill-begotten western culture of use and throw. Leading to one of my best shots of Jodhpur. So much so, that when I saw the client of that shop in front of the tower, I quickly took another shot of my model. Spent some time, with help from an unknown friendly lady in getting attention and haggling for a blanket. I had made up my mind not to freeze to death on the way back because I was already battling a severe case of sore throat. Several cups of their honey ginger tea, could abate but not cure the symptoms!

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Clock tower with my model in the foreground and Guddu and Romi in the background

We had a fantabulous lunch at a luxury hotel’s restaurant just next to the clock tower, if you walk out of the courtyard that encloses it: Pal Haveli. Highly recommend their vegetarian (hariali) kabab. They also have a beautiful speciality gift store selling intricately painted rajasthani miniature paintings, by award winning artistes from Rajasthan. We bought a couple of them and I am still entranced at the detailed work.

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The artist signing the elephant painting I bought

Took a cramped autorickshaw back to the hotel as my cousins are not as used to walking in the heat as I am (yeah, the little ones also don’t do their dishes, go figure!). But bonding is best in autos with multidimensional layering of people with their toes and knees touching.

Got the correctly priced ride back to the bus station and boarded our similar bus back to Delhi. Nothing special.. Came back feeling like conquerors, one and all. I kid you not! Jodhpur: we will always have that my beloved cousins. That’s one for history.

 

PS: I have a lot more photos already posted in the blog with the havelis of Jodhpur and other notables.. Havelis of Jodhpur and Colored glass and Rajasthani turban