Monday, May 30, 2011

Grecian Formula Part 2

Part 2

Sharon loved this pretzel bread
Athens is a vibrant international city and most notably is the high fashion for both men and women. Most of the women sport heels with heights competing with the Ionic columns. Sunglasses, a must accessory, usually with lenses as big as pizza pans and all seemingly from there neighbor across the Adriatic Sea. Athens is  a people watching town because the general public uses public transportation plus the streets are littered with outdoor cafes all full during the peak midday or late night hours. The most fun to watch are the lovely older women who dress to the nines that meet in groups of 4 to 8 at a table. The expressions and body language of these matriarchs could satisfy any film director. These ladies enjoy life to the hilt sharing stories, gossip, ordering food, and drinks. I could never get enough of these shows.

Athens has style...this is the quintessential vespa
Syntagma square is the heart of Athens action whether it be events, charity races, or political protests. On our walk about through parks, museums, and wondering in general we came across many strongly organized protests and some just spur of the moment ones. Greece is experiencing migrant problems as much or more than the United States. The Greeks live life very carefree but the overwhelming numbers of illegal influx is eroding their culture, their economics,, and placing pressure upon the government to create a solution to the massive debt situation we’ve all read about. Reduction of pay and loss of retirement benefits much like our social security is already happening. Sales of assets are being contemplated this week and some even speculate real estate such as the beautiful outlying islands may be sold to corporations or other countries such as Turkey. There is nothing the average Grecian can do other than be Greek and adopt the adage “Who cares”. This is a very critical time for a very proud and important culture. I only hope the EU can come to its senses and defuse such insanity for its people. I’ll tell you a story that parallels this crisis. I asked a person about the seemingly sparse fish population in the Mediterranean Sea. They said it once was teeming with fish but once the Suez Canal was completed and pierced the land between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean the more aggressive fish of the Red Sea began to devour the better tasting schools of fish from the Mediterranean ruining the Greek fishing industry. This didn’t happen right away but very slowly over decades. The same goes for the people of Greece, at first it wasn’t a problem to have some people immigrate but as time moved on, the Greeks are becoming a minority in their own lands.

Part 3

Lots of food and wine...the reason for the lack of focus
Bags were packed, ferry times were checked, and our anticipation to leave Athens for the island of Ios and Crete started to peak. The night before departure we had one more dinner with Irini.  We waited on the sidewalk outside the Metropolis Hotel because as I mentioned before, the lobby holds three people max and the lobby seating are the stairs that lead up to the rooms. The cool night air added to the quick stylish gate of Irini walking up to us with her classic welcoming grin. We gathered in a tight circle as she explained she wanted to take us to a small neighborhood taverna but it was a bit of a walk. Walking is no problem with us and off went dashed past all the very touristy cafes overflowing with plates of Gyros and Moussaka. Down alley ways, over bridges, past ruins, to the back side of………down some more narrow handsome residential streets then a quick turn up a short street to a door  that seemed like someone’s home more than a restaurant. Immediately we were greeted by tables of joyous locals joining in the musical performance of a mixed age of musicians that keep the energy high providing the sustenance for serious dance turned silly much to the joy of everyone.  Irini ordered many dishes, comprising of various meats, fish, and vegetables all complimented with many carafes of local rose wine, yes rose, but not what you think of when you stop your friends from ordering the sweet stuff in the US. Sharon and I couldn’t have wanted for anything else. We ate, discussed everything you can image, listened to the drunken music, and watched the dancing until it was time to wonder back through the lanes all beautifully enriched by classic architecture. Except for a few popular cafes, the streets were quiet as we strolled back to our hotel. This time we said our goodbyes to Irini and thanked her for generosity and hospitality. Once more we peered out our hotel window knowing the next evening we would be on the island of Ios. Where? We’ll discover that tomorrow.

Grecian Formula

In Istanbul we sat at the airport gate waiting for our flight to Athens to board I mentioned to Sharon you would see a huge difference in the attitude of the Greek people than what we experienced in the last couple weeks.

Jill with freshly cut hair!
Ten minutes before the flight was scheduled to board, an unofficial looking person made a casual announcement informing us the gate for our flight had changed. Neither of us heard any formal announcement so we rushed to the opposite side of the airport and on the way to the new gate an attractive American woman stopped us and asked if indeed the gate for the flight to Athens had changed. We confirmed the change and she walked with us to the gate and on the way discovered she was our seatmate on our flight. Jill introduced herself and promptly apologized for her haircut she just had in the airport beauty shop was killing time. Our meeting Jill was fortuitous because we shared the cost of a cab into the Plaka section of Athens when we arrived. As normal, we didn’t have a hotel reservation because we usually wonder in and around an area until some place appeals to our tastes and wallet. This time I did try to get an advanced reservation before leaving Istanbul because we would be arriving in the early evening but our reservation was canceled because an elderly sick couple that had to extend their stay occupied our room and there wasn’t another room to be had. Oh well, no problem….oh but that was a problem because it was a Saturday night and all the hotels we checked were full and the only room was at the hotel Jill was at so even though the 120 Euro room was about twice the amount in our budget we didn’t have much of a choice but to take it.  The room was nice but the view out the window looked into another building 20’ away.
The flirtatious inn keeper with Sharon
The Acropolis seems be the same 39 years later

View of Acropolis from our room at the Metropolis Hotel
After getting settled into our room, we met Jill at the street café for some Ouzo before getting a bite to eat. On the way to dinner we checked a number of hotels for a room the next night with no luck. After dinner I noticed a small hotel with an incredibly oversized bougainvillea growing up the five story slender building with an illuminated sign, Metropolis Hotel. At the front desk a gruff elderly gentleman said he had one room for tomorrow but only tomorrow evening and the 71 Euros must be paid tonight. After the transaction he said to ask the morning desk clerk the possibility of staying longer.

After a lovely nights sleep, we checked out of the room and walked a block to our new cheaper room. The jovial day clerk gave us two keys, room 41 and 42, and told us to see the rooms and pick the one we liked. The rooms were similar, 41 was larger, 42 had a wrap around balcony, both had the usual Euro-wet room WC (with the upgrade of a shower curtain!), but to our delight, the view from the windows fell directly upon the Acropolis perched upon the hill. Wow, what a find we both agreed. We chose 41, walked down the five flights of stairs (first floor is floor 0) to the lobby that overflowed if more than two people occupied the space, and checked in. I asked if there was a possibility to extend our stay to four days and the clerk said he already had arranged it and welcomed us with his charming smile and a flirtatious comment directed towards Sharon. We got settled, met Jill and told her of our discovery, and we all journeyed off to visit the Acropolis.  I was tasked with finding our way to the ruins because I had been stuck penniless in Athens 39 years prior but my memory of the streets had long faded, with a few wrong turns we found the entrance to explore the building of this ancient highly advanced civilization with only its bones remaining.

This beginning of our Grecian journey is just how fortuitous our trip to Greece continued throughout our stay.

What can I say...Irini is just too cool!
The next day we had lunch at our favorite little café next to our hotel, said goodbye to Jill who left for one of the Cyclades islands, then made a dinner date at the Archeology Museum Cafe with an Athenian woman, Irini, who became our newest best friend. Our dear friend in Paris, Lisa Wines, an expiate from Carefree, AZ, who happens to be one of the funniest persons I know on this planet, suggested we look up Irini and get some local scoop into what to see, where to eat, and get a primer on contemporary life in Greece. I’ve never been very good at blind dates but once we met at the prearranged time at the café entrance, it was like I knew this charming woman for years. Her knowledge delivered with entertaining animation made our evening thoroughly delightful. We had a great dinner complemented with a fine bottle of wine and shared endless Lisa stories and gained some insight into Greece’s political and economic woes. We ended the evening with taking silly photos with the illuminated Acropolis as a backdrop and a walk together to our hotel room. After showing her our hotel room and the classic view of the Acropolis from our bed, she told us another silly story involving a building across the park about innocent young lovers and dashed off up the narrow boulevard but before leaving, we made one more date to have another dinner together before leaving for the island of Ios.  We dropped into our bed, quickly falling into dreamland looking forward to the splash of morning light on the marble columns perched on the hill just outside our window.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Turkish Delight

Off we go in our Fiat
Istanbul (Asia side) skyline

Road Trip Through Turkey

The lush agricultural Turkish countryside
Normally our drop into each country we visit begins with a brief stay after landing in the major city of that particular country such as Bangkok, New Delhi, and Kathmandu. Sharon and I decided after having spent a week in the crowded confines of Indian cities that our plan for Turkey was to change it up a bit by flying into Istanbul, going straight to the rent a car counter, and driving out of the city into the fresh wide open countryside to regain some sense of peace and tranquility, especially after our marathon of travel to reach Turkey which included our 14 hour cab ride to New Delhi, staying up all night and finally boarding the seven hour flight at 4AM.
You can expect this every morning, like it or not

Totally unprepared for the weather
We touched down onto the runway in Istanbul at 9:30 AM, breezed through immigration, grabbed our bags, walked through the arrival greeting area to the car rental office, rented the car, gleaned all the travel info from the map the helpful friendly staff provided us circling in pen what places we should visit. Turkey is quite a large country so we decided to head towards the Aegean Sea coast, which I heard was incredibly beautiful and continue until we rounded the coastline towards the southern coast that borders the Mediterranean Sea. But first things first, such as how to get out of the massive city of Istanbul that spans into two continents and wraps around the Marmara Sea, and then point our Fiat to the western coastline. Our rental car agent suggested we drive our car onto a ferryboat after crossing into Asia saving us four hours of driving through closely linked small towns to Bursa, a mountain city with great beauty. The three other workers in the rental office agreed this would be their choice.

With car keys, bags, rental agreement, and map in hand we trekked out into the parking garage, found our car, loaded in our gear, and then the rental agent accompanying me, checking the condition of the car, looked at the blazing fuel gauge light and with a prefacing ooh!!!, informed me I needed to get to the gas station very quickly. Giving us brief but accurate direction to find the gas station we began our journey into the uber historical countryside of Ottoman, Byzantine, and Roman empires. Leaving the garage was our first look into this massive city being drenched by the rain, wind and cold temperatures but we felt a huge sense of freedom in our warm Italian cocoon heading east to the ferry dock all before 11AM. After fueling up at $8.00 per gallon for diesel fuel, we fell into our responsibilities, Sharon being the navigator and I the pilot, the ferry dock appeared through our windshield hours later, as we got caught in a traffic jam due to a nasty accident, on and off ramps are few and far between so clean up of these situations is nearly impossible.  Arriving at the ferry dock the line up of traffic was light, the rain was threatening and the wind was strong. An entrepreneurial pretzel bread vendor informed us in a combination of rough English and charades that the ferry wasn’t going to sail because of the rough seas. He sold us a couple of his rings of bread, and Sharon was hooked, it would become her daily bread! We retreated from the port and found a lovely little restaurant on the other side of the motorway affording us a refuge to eat, review the map and rethink our route in a warm comfortable setting. This restaurant was our first introduction to the Turkish cuisine of salads and kebabs. It was wonderful! Then a brief stop at a little market next door, for some provisions and we ventured onto the toll ways, taking the long way around towards Bursa. We didn’t feel too bad about not taking the car ferry, especially as Sharon is prone to seasickness. We had time and it allowed us to view all the quaint towns on the way to our first destination, driving through pouring rain.

I will forever get preconceived thoughts about how places on a map should look. In this case it was not only the map but the descriptions from our travel helpers at the rental agency that formed my thoughts of Bursa being a country village so as we entered the city with its streets lined with large box stores emblazing names familiar to our neighborhoods I realized this village is a smaller version of Istanbul with mountains surrounding it. Once we drove past the outskirts of the shopping haven, Bursa’s charm was it’s old town center and later we discovered a beautiful mountainside suburb by the directions given to us by a very helpful woman at a travel agency we were introduced to while searching for a hotel.

Once we settled into our termal Hotel Boyuguzel. The name “termal” is the Turkish term for natural hot springs. Our hotel had a basement level housing very old marble walled bathing rooms where the hot springs water flowed into the tub within each room, Turkish baths! The water temperature was about 104 degrees…just right to soak away the fatigue of my first day of driving. The next day I came down with a bit of illness similar to what Sharon had a few days earlier in India so I laid low in our room while Sharon explored the beautiful flower filled parks and narrow winding streets of our hillside town.
The beautiful quaint fishing village of Foca

After a night of sweats, downing lots of water I awoke feeling much better and we decided to explore the small towns further up the mountain since the weather was still rainy and cold. The scenery up the mountain was lush forest with tiny villages. One very small village we ventured into is where Sharon viewed an old bent over Turkish woman walking along the very narrow lane in the center of the village. We slowed up to safely drive past the large woman draped in a black cloth, she turned her head peering into the drivers window and the image of this woman hasn’t left Sharon’s memory since. The woman’s look and expression lead me to fantasize of her grabbing the bumper of my car, holding it in place while the tires spun trying to break free. It was a little creepy in that respect.

Earlier, further up the mountain we ran into snow and I couldn’t pass up a photo op with Sharon standing in the snow in her sandals. I couldn’t believe we were in snow. Once leaving Nepal after trekking in the Himalaya’s, we sent our cold weather clothes back to the US thinking a lovely spring would greet us for the rest of the trip…oh how wrong we were.

The next day we headed west to the Aegean coastal city of Canakkale, the real first introduction to both the outrageously lush agricultural Turkish countryside bridged with the stunning beautiful fishing towns along the coast. This part of our journey into Turkey started us visiting numerous ancient historical ruins of temples, castles, cities, mosques, and monuments dating as far back as 7000 BC. The historical and ruins sites are extremely fascinating, either we would have to become archeologists or pass on some of the sites because they began looking repetitive and at $20.00 for tickets at each site, Turkey could have the Stetters wipe away their national debt. If you were an ancient civilization buff Turkey would be your nirvana.

Canakkale is a really beautiful city with a long seafront lined with parks, cafes filled with men drinking tea and playing games, and restaurants touting fresh fish dishes. Our only dislike was our room at the Hotel Berlin where spending one night was like smoking a carton of cigarettes. After that experience, we are much more picky about our room and less driven by the cost promising never to repeat a night at the Berlin or any other hotel of its kind.

The next day we decided to go to the city of Foca, a place not mentioned by our travel rental car helpers but I had read it in a blog from a person touring Turkey a year earlier and raved about it being so quaint. We decided to check it out and it proved to be one of the most beautiful places on our trip plus the Hotel Bula Bula Varsi that we tripped upon while winding through the very small streets of this fishing village was one of the most charming hotels we’ve stayed in. The combination of the hotel and the village of Foca ended up being one of the most memorable on our journey.  From Foca other parts of this region were easily accessible so we decided to enjoy ourselves in this town for a few days. First the weather was nice but the gray clouds and pouring rain followed us, though we observed it never rained on us while we explored the ruins or other points of interest. The travel gods seem to be with us always. Most of the areas we visited throughout Turkey had to do with fortification or invasion because this country has been in conflict with one warring group or another for over nine thousand years. The remains of these large cities are indescribable not only in their scale of size but the athletics’ and engineering feats of their very existence.  

Before entering the area of our next choice of sites to visit, we thought it would be better to get off the beaten path and into a small town before the expected tourist towns close by the sites.  So we chose a turnoff to a hillside town called Buldan on the map and looking at it from a distance it seemed like just what we were looking for, to spend the night and get a fresh start in the morning. Cruising through the town we noticed an apparent lack of hotels and soon we were out of this town motoring up the steep winding forest roads. Though very beautiful it didn’t appear to offer anything that resembled a hotel. I turned around on the narrow tarmac pavement and retraced our route through town when a gentleman on a small motorcycle with sidecar caught my attention. He drove up to us, quickly realizing our lack of any Turkish verbiage, waived his arm in an international signal to follow. He drove his motorcycle to the curb in front of a fabric store and came out with the shopkeeper. I got out of the car and told the young shopkeeper I was looking for a hotel. The merchant said nothing but walked to the end of his block and pointed down the intersecting street to a plain four-story building.

On the way back to his shop, with a limited English vocabulary, he told me his wife was an English teacher and that we should come back to his shop later. I thanked him and said we would return after getting settled in our hotel.  I returned to the car and after navigating the series of one-way small streets we got to the “hotel”.  To reach the hotel lobby you had to walk through a hallway lined with shops of various services and end up at the very end of the walkway, climb four flights of stairs while still not seeing anything that would tell you there is a hotel somewhere up there and finally reaching a platform with metal doors leading into a very simple reception room.  By the width of the hallway and the color scheme leading to our spartan room, Sharon and I agreed this had to be a former hospital. Considering the price and it being the only hotel in town we took it.  At least it was very clean and didn’t reek of cigarette smoke.  After settling in, we went back to the shopkeeper’s establishment and he called his wife to come over to the shop. He called for some tea. I discovered most all the shops have a direct intercom box to their local teashop and can order through directly for “chai”. His wife arrived and they invited us to their home for dinner and to meet their twin boys. The evening provided Sharon and I an insight into how a medium age Turkish family lives. She explained the relationships of family, work, politics, likes, dreams, and hardships. This generous family didn’t have much but opened their home to us for the evening while the twins played endlessly like three-year-old boys would in any other country.  The next morning Sharon assembled a bowl of fresh fruit from the street vendors and we delivered it to the shop before we motored out of Buldan to continue our journey.

Not all of the sites we visited had to do with the remains of empires villages. Though the hot springs of Pamukkale had once soothed the warriors of past conflicts. This collection of turquoise pools cascading down the side of a steep mountain is truly a phenomena and from afar it appears to be a snow covered ski resort but the white covering is lime sediment lining the mountain side and the pools that jet out from it’s face. We removed our shoes, rolled up our pant legs and entered these pools hot water with temperatures ranging from the mid nineties to around 102 degrees.  

After a week of following the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts I became quickly aware of how far we drifted south so we turned north onto a highway equal to that you’d find in any US state that cut through the snow covered mountain passes heading directly towards Istanbul.  Fortunately the roadways permitted me to drive between 110 and 130 (kilometers per hour) cutting the distances down rather rapidly. Halfway to Istanbul I was flagged over by the police to check my driving papers. I wasn’t expecting to be out of the car so when I had to step out into the 3 degree temperature to deliver my information to the officers sitting in their warm car I couldn’t stop shaking. They weren’t happy with my documentation and tried to instruct me as to what they wanted to record in their log, but between my uncontrollable shaking and the breakdown in language, they frustratingly handed back my papers and told me to go. On the second day north we stayed just outside of Istanbul in the rather depressing industrial city of Adapazari.  

Our re-entry into Istanbul was rather awkward but by early afternoon we found a nice hotel within walking distance of the old town on the European side of Istanbul. The city is fast paced with a heavy Islamic veil draped over it.  The highlight of our Istanbul trip was a boat trip up the straits of the Bosphorus, a body of water dividing Europe and Asia, a waterway between access to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Sharon and I boarded the ferryboat along with a planned trip to last most of the day taking us to a small fishing village at the mouth of the Black Sea. All the passengers finally settled on their seat selections as the ferry spun about and headed north, up the busy waterway. I was surprised by how much the banks stretching along this body of water were developed. As we looked out the windows watching the historical buildings drift by a young man with two young ladies sat across from us. This Turkish man was providing troves of information in perfect Queen’s English of buildings and the history of each as they came into view.  We were nicely benefiting from his deep knowledge when Sharon thanked him for his commentary. He introduced himself as Cenk and explained he was Turkish but was schooled in England, traveled all over the world, lived in Germany for a couple years with his German wife (one of the two women with him), but moved back to Turkey because he could not get work in Germany.  Soon we came upon a small village and he explained this village was famous for it’s yoghurt and as a child how his grandmother used to stop here and buy him one. We looked out the window and within minutes he returned with five small cups of this delightful tradition along with packets of powdered sugar just like grandma used to serve.

Later that afternoon we ran into Cenk on the boat again and we invited him and his two companions for a bottle a wine once we docked.  Over wine Cenk told us we must sample Ottoman cuisine and suggested a great restaurant and afterward if we felt inclined, to stay up and catch a unique music venue funky small club close by the restaurant.

So that night we made our way by train back across the Bosphorus to the Asia side of Istanbul and discovered a much more high end cosmopolitan Istanbul with very pricey shops of every known brand but in the setting of old Istanbul with cobbled streets. The weather didn’t cooperate and while the rain began to drench us, we followed the directions to the restaurant missing one important landmark and having to back track a bit. Eventually we were seated into a warm cozy fanciful restaurant enjoying some fantastic tastes never sampled by either of us.  Dinner ended with rice pudding and then our quest for the “Bronx Club” began. Now the rain was a steady pour and I purchased a one use only umbrella from the number of vendors taking advantage of mother nature’s gift.  We asked in our restaurant, vendors, shopkeepers, and other passer-bys but no one had heard of this club that was to be close by.  After about the twentieth inquiry we started to get snippets of information and within 20 minutes we walked to the end of a dark alley towards the illuminated sign of the Bronx Club. Up three flights of stairs, pay the entry fee, and now we were into the really hip club scene of Istanbul. The band, BaBaZula began at 11:PM performed a mixture of traditional Asian Turk, jazz, rock fusion along with the stage performance an agile exotic belly dancer. We stayed quite awhile but realized we needed to catch our flight to Athens Greece the next day so we said our last goodbye to Asia and caught our cab to Europe. As a parting shot to Turkey, I have to two things to suggest for future visitors to this interesting and beautiful country, be ready to have the same breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, cheese, olives, lunch meat, and instant coffee every morning and take ear plugs to muffle the obnoxious off key call to prayer from the loud speakers from every minaret in the country five times a day.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Udaipur Rajasthan India

The darkening of the cabin and the rhythmic swaying of the bed caused by the train tracks lulled me to sleep within minutes. The dreamlike day of seeing the Taj Mahal was now locked into memory as our train slowly made its way towards Rajasthan and ending at our destination, Udaipur.

Waking up in the middle of the night in strange environments such as a train car in India leaves an indelible mark in your memory. The sounds of the tracks, fumbling to unlock the sliding door, greeted by the fluorescent hall lights, bouncing off a wall or two while walking to the WC, unratcheting the door and being lightly pitched into the total stainless steel cubical, looking about studying your approach to foreign apparatuses and taking command to bring relief to your begging body.

Beautiful woman returning from working in the wheat fields
Daybreak Sharon and I restored our sleeping quarters to the daytime salon, looked out the madly scoured window and realized the train was pulling into a large city, The speed slowed to a crawl slipping by old buildings, rusted out train cars, a myriad of overhead cables and wires strung along the tracks. Residential shacks with families beginning their day closely hugging and encroaching the rails signal us to finish packing our bags anticipating our arrival into the city of Udaipur known for it’s palaces, seven lakes, and Octopussy.  (The James Bond film made in this place.)
Stopping for tea at a villagers farm house

The train gently rested to a complete stop before 7:AM, we hoisted our bags upon our backs and disembarked onto the platform, turned right and walked under the large boldly printed sign, “Udaipur”. Now we need to exit the station, find a tuk tuk driver for a short time to troll the town in search for a hotel. I wasn’t ready for the scene outside the rail station. The mood was as mellow as myself just waking up. This is so unlike India I thought. No throngs of taxi drivers, touts, hustlers, or bag grabbers. A soft-spoken English speaking young man approached us and asked if we needed a ride and we explained what we wanted…”Drive us around for an hour while we look at hotels”. He asked what type of hotel were we interested in? Believe it or not we decided we wanted one with a swimming pool because that would leave out many rough places and give us a look at better than the average hotels. His first suggestion didn’t have a pool so we wound around the narrow streets past parks and many lowrise buildings until we arrived 15 minutes later at the Mahendrah Prakesh Hotel. There we stood in front of a beautiful white hotel with Moorish architecture. We walked through the lovely courtyard, into the spacious lobby, up to the front desk and asked about the possibility of a room for a few nights. The charismatic young lad behind the desk said yes and we went on to inspect the rooms and the incredible swimming pool outside our window of our room. This place had all our needs wrapped into a tidy thirty-three dollars per night nicely fitting into our budget. The Mahendrah  Prakesh was now our home and retreat  from the street chaos for a  wonderful six days.
View from our restaurant of Lake Picholla

Udaipur is a small city surrounded by mountains designed by the Sultans to be a beautiful retreat and safe from marauding warriors. Palaces were built on man made islands in the reservoirs they had designed to maintain water for their communities. This planning is incredible considering it all took place seven hundred years ago. Today the city has sprawl just like other cities but life seems much healthier and the people happier than other places we visited. The restaurants all try to cash in on the beauty of the lakes by providing views from terraces and roof tops which provide incredibly romantic atmosphere. One restaurant, Jagat Niwas,  set on the edge of Lake Picholla, was graced with Moorish design architecture and we were seated on pillows laid on carpets with a low table placed between us for the presenting of our numerous delights from their kitchen. While waiting for our food, we shared a bottle of wine, watched the sun set over the lake with a few boats making destinations before dark and experienced the transformation of the city from colorful blocks to illuminated dots and light washing up against palace walls in the distance. The food, presented at a leisurely pace, allowed us to savor each delightful dish. I have never ever experienced such perfect setting, food so delicious, and a dining partner so beautiful in my life.
Curries and more at our dinner at the Jagat Niwas Restaurant

Our sightseeing comprised of visiting ancient forts, castles, gardens and palaces in and around the city. Our best day was a drive into the countryside to visit  the Khumbal Garh Fort, a stronghold for the State of Rajasthan that boasts having a protective stone wall to be one of the longest just behind the Great Wall of China. Though this fort was certainly impressive, our favorite stop was at a farming family house on the way to the fort. Our guide knew these people in a small village so we stopped to have tea with them and experienced sitting on the floor to have tea in their spotless one room adobe block home by the side of the main road. The son (late twenties) sat with us first with our guide, and the two talked and occasionally answered our questions, then the daughter (mid twenties) came and made us black tea we drank from shallow metal bowls. The mother, who may have been in her fifties, came in from the fields to sit with us while the father continued to grind grain with his oxen in a near field. I sat relaxed and took in the coolness of the dung, blood, and clay floors gazing at the light shafts cutting the darkness and illuminating the neatly organized niches filled with the basic essentials of life. Their lives were simple and healthy; their hearts seemed complacent and filled with happiness, and their days uncomplicated.  Our day ended with a stop at an all white marble Jain Temple. The architectural design took on the appearance of lace. Endless columns supporting the structure invited you to weave in and out around the interior to view the sculpture and wall reliefs. The sun was lowering and our driver/guide reminded us to return to the car before it became to late since the drive back to Udaipur was a couple hours away so we began our drive back to the city. The sun cast a golden glow on the wheat fields and I suddenly saw a magical scene behind the roadside bushes and I commanded our driver to stop. We were now an audience for the single file line of women returning from the fields from a day of work. The brilliant colored back-lit sari’s blowing in the breeze. Bundles and vases balanced on their heads were in a warm contrast to the waving golden fields of wheat.  I snapped a couple quick fotos, returned to the car, sat back and enjoyed our ride home from an incredible day.

Hotel Mahendrah Prakesh in Udaipur
We decided to have a down day so we could read, write, do laundry, do a little forward trip planning and lay by the pool. Our hotel was a quiet comfortable base to recharge our minds and bodies. One day Sharon wasn’t feeling too well and the hotel restaurant waiter took it upon himself to send up some wonderful tea to help her along.  This was the general nature of the hotel staff. The Mahendrah Prakesh proved to be the best hotel so far on our travels.

The last couple days of our stay in Udaipur we were concerned about returning to New Delhi to catch our plane to Istanbul, Turkey. Our dilemma was our flight left New Delhi at 4AM. The train from Udaipur to New Delhi was the cheapest option but it didn’t arrive into Delhi until 5AM so we would lose a day in Udaipur and it would cost us a hotel in Delhi negating the cost savings while flying again we would lose a day because the flight arrived too early making us hang around the airport for 12 hours. Then a third option was offered by our tuk tuk driver to hire a driver to drive the ten hour trip and get to see the countryside then drop us off at the airport after midnight, reducing our time at the airport waiting for our flight to Turkey and this would save us about $20.00 from flying. Wow…that was the solution! We booked the driver and car to leave around 10AM leaving us enough time to leisurely drive through the countryside and see some sights and enjoy some food along the way. Problem solved…right? Well…let me continue.

The day before I needed to get to an ATM and get more rupees to pay the driver. I left Sharon at the hotel late afternoon. Before leaving, I counted my remaining Indian currency and left it in the room mistakenly. I knew of an ATM a couple blocks away so it shouldn’t be more than a half hour task. Arriving to the ATM I had spied a few days earlier I found it wouldn’t take my card, undaunted I began my quest to find another. I decided not to be thwarted and continued walking and walking the winding streets and soon discovered this task was not as easy as I thought but the main problem I realized was I didn’t know how to find my way back. My determination over road my sense of direction and sensibility and now not only didn’t I find an ATM, I couldn’t find my way back to the hotel. This is a rarity in my travels. To compound the issue, I didn’t have any money to pay a taxi back to the hotel. Fortunately I did have the hotel’s business card so I finally found a tuk tuk driver. This took a while because I was in some very small back streets. This driver looked totally whacked on beetle nut and his machine was pretty beat up but I asked if he knew where an ATM was. If he could do that then I could be flush with funds, with the hotel’s card he could drive me back and life would be good again. We roughly communicated for a few minutes I got my point across and off we went. Tuk tuk drivers are normally crazy drivers to begin with but this guy was way over the top and because his horn didn’t work, he bumped cars and motorcycles with his front tire to aggressively signal them out of his way. I didn’t recognize anywhere we were going but we rounded a corner onto a busy boulevard and sure enough, a series of ATM’s standing at attention awaited my beckoning. Now with plenty of cash in my pocket, my kamikaze driver safely delivered me back to a very concerned Sharon.  

The next morning our driver was out front of the hotel, took our bags to the car, we said our goodbyes to the wonderful hotel staff and began our 600 kilometer drive to New Delhi. The beginning of our drive had us threading through the mountains but quickly the landscape turned to flatlands and continued that way. A little past noon time Sharon and I were getting a bit hungry so we asked the driver to stop at a restaurant for lunch. He acknowledged our request and said it would be about 20 minutes. An hour and twenty minutes later we asked again and we could see he was frustrated but now we decided we would wait until the big city of Jaipur before eating and told him so. Within ten minutes he pulled into a restaurant that didn’t thrill Sharon nor myself and again we told him we want to stop in Jaipur to eat because we also wanted to see a bit of this city as well. Both of us realized this restaurant was most likely a stop where he would most likely get a kickback and so he was not too happy about us not eating there. About an hour and half later we arrived into Jaipur and our driver drove us around the old city which was very crowded and both of us weren’t in the mood to deal with the crowds so we asked to take us to a nice restaurant. He drove us to a below average looking place and we refused to even go inside. Instead we insisted on going further around a corner where we found a nice good restaurant and had a great early dinner. We continued our journey and shortly after leaving Jaipur the roadway became a massive traffic jam caused by road construction. This chaos of weaving, cutting in and out, abrupt stopping and starting, and sucking up diesel fumes lasted a straight six hours 250 kilometers all the way to New Delhi. Our driver dropped us at the airport at 12:45AM and I fell asleep until check in time at 1:30AM. We then went through immigration , security check, and went to a bar and had a glass of wine, spending the last of our rupees. Finally boarding was announced at 4AM and our flight left the ground close to 5AM.

It was a hell of a way to say goodbye to India but we felt thankful to have captured the experiences we had within so little time. The country has its own beauty but one that needs getting used to before you can truly appreciate its offerings. Within a few hours the basic belief system in our host country will change from Hindu/Buddhism to Islam.