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Water, Water, Nowhere, and Not A Drop to Drink

Traveling to Jaipur via Fatehpur Sikri

semi-overcast 78 °F

We had a very hearty breakfast at the hotel. We ordered from the menu, and helped ourselves to the buffet table stacked with various pastries, fruit, cereal, cold meats, and...pickled vegetables. The whole spread was delicious, especially the mango yogurt shot (although the glass was too small to get the spoon inside).

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(Left) Breakfast dining area with buffet (Right) Mango yogurt shot.

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(Left) Eggs Benedict (Right) omelette with cripsy bacon

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Extras from the buffet

We took another dip in the heated pool, relaxed some more, and sadly said our farewell to the Amarvilas. One bonus of staying in a fancy hotel is that they don't skimp on the bottled water. We were heading west into the desert and knew water would be more scarce and seldomly complimentary. So we smuggled about 6 one-liter bottles of water into our luggage.

Before we headed out of town, we wanted to make a detour for some shopping. Agra is known for four special items: leather goods from camel or water buffalo skin, a dark semi-precious stone called the 'Black Star of India,' marble carvings inlaid with gemstones, and Kashmiri rugs. You may ask 'Why Agra for Kashmiri goods?'. Simple. Who wants to get blown up for a carpet? Since Kashmir is a disputed region between India and Pakistan, many of the artisans have fled the violence and ended up in Agra since special financial considerations are given there.

Unfortunately, the wife wanted the two big ticket items--the inlaid marble and the carpets. We first stopped at a place called U.P. Handicrafts Palace. First, they demonstrated the technique of transforming the small slivers of semi-precious stones into masterpieces of art in white marble. As expected, their gallery was next. They had three floors containing huge tables, end pieces, and jewelry boxes decorated in this fashion. We decided upon something more manageable--a small decorative plate. The one we purchased actually has better detail work than that of the Taj Mahal. When we finished haggling on the price, Sherri used the ancient Chinese bargaining phrase to seal the deal. "How about throwing in a little gift...something for my daughter." So they added a small ivory elephant with basic inlaid work. While the plate was more than we were planning to spend, we just told ourselves that we cannot get this quality of artistry anywhere else in the world.

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(Left) Our new plate (Right) A little "gift"

The next shop was called the Oriental Heritage which specialized in Kashmiri carpets and textiles. We were hoping to find a small rug that could replace the one we bought off of EBay years ago when we were still in residency. We first got the obligatory demonstration on how these rugs are constructed. Depending on the size and quality, it can take about four months of monotonous knotting. They first showed us a good-sized Pashmina wool carpet which was much less expensive than anything we could get back in the U.S. We picked out a beautiful blue and red one and were ready to pay. Then they dropped the bomb on us. Silk rugs. 'Just to look'. They began showing us some small ones. If you have never seen nor felt one, you have lived a life bereft of beauty. They are gorgeous and extremely soft. The first one was great and still within our range. We gave each other that silent look of 'how about two rugs?' Hook. Line. And Sinker. They were then ready to reel us in with the really good stuff. They showed us a large 'silk on silk on silk' carpet with unparalleled detail and beauty. It was 12k! Still a deal in the U.S, but way out of our league. We eventually settled for one of similar quality but much, much smaller size. Nobody will step on it. It will be a tapestry. After some serious haggling, we purchased the items which will be shipped back home for free. On the way out, my wife added salt to the wounds by purchasing a fully knitted (not embroidered) Pashmina shawl. I have to admit, it is leagues beyond the usual Pashmina's we have seen so far.

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(Left) Artisan knotting a rug. I bet he only "works" when there are tourist around. (Right) $12k Silk rug. Ouch!

Now at this point, you have to be thinking that we are the biggest schmucks for going to the touristy stores with the driver and guide. After all, they are getting a whopping 5% commission that really is coming out of our wallet. You better believe that shopkeeper isn't paying it. It's no big deal for little knickknacks, but for big ticket items, the costs add up. Unfortunately, there are really very few options. You can try leaving the guide and driver behind, but that can lead to an awkward relationship with them. If you go it alone, you may still have a problem actually finding a decent store. It's not like you are going to the mall. There are thousands of small shops of varying quality and reputation. You can go with the guidebook recommendations, but finding those stores can be difficult because India's streets are so poorly marked and nondescript. All of this store searching takes time. Unfortunately, most people like us don't have the time as we are on a tight schedule to see as much of the country as we can in two weeks. So unless you know exactly what you want and where to get it, then you will likely be paying the 5% commission.

We drove the next hour to Fatehpur Sikri, the fort built by Akbar the Great. Apparently, he wanted to move his capital closer to a Sufi saint, Salim Chishti, who had predicted the birth of his son and heir. He then spent the next several years building this giant fortress-palace only to abandon it 14 years later because of lack of ample water supply. Slight oversight.

Prior to arriving there, we had a lengthy chat with our guide Sunil Gupta who had just been married one month earlier. Like most Indians, he had an arranged marriage. Originally, he was set to marry his wife only one month after first meeting her! While this is completely alien to us, it seems pretty much the norm here in India. Sunil said it is probably a good setup for him, because he is too busy working 7 days a week. He wouldn't have time to meet or date women anyway. He showed us a few of his wedding pictures including the special outfits the brides and grooms wear. Just like Western cultures, Indians also spend a fortune on an outfit that they may just wear only once. He was so interesting to converse with that, the next thing we knew, we were at our next destination.

Unlike the Taj Mahal or the Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri is much less crowded. Despite the lack of popularity, it still maintains the same level of grandeur as the other sites.

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The and courtyard and pavillion of the Diwan-i-Aam where public meetings were held. As you can see, only a very few tourists are in sight

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The Diwan-i-Khas, a building used for private audiences with Emperor Akbar. The central Lotus Throne Pillar supported his throne.

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The Ankh Michali is thought to have been the treasury building. It is relatively plain with the exception of mythical beasts at the entryway which guarded the valuables.

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This hop-scotch like grid is actually a life-sized parcheesi board where ladies of the court played the game.

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The Panch Mahal is a breezy multistoryed pavillion where the women of the court would lounge and watch the games.

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The Anoop Talao is the pool where the emperor's favorite musician performed.

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The Khwabgah is the private quarters of Emperor Akbar. (Left) There is an elaborate ventillation system to keep him cool in the hot summer nights. (Right) The bed is elevated off the floor and accessible by a removable ramp. This would limit access from potential assassins.

The palace had separate areas for his three wives.

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His Christian wife Maryam from Goa had the least intricate chambers. Some of the paintings with Christian motifs can still be seen, albeit barely. Once known as the Golden Facade, the fresco's are now in pretty rough shape.

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His Muslim wife had the smallest quarters. However, it has the most intrically-carved walls. In the past, the pillars were plastered with diamonds.

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Akbar's Rajput wife Jodha Bai, his favorite, had, by far, the largest complex which is decorated with Hindu architecture.

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If they had to drink this water, it is no wonder the Mughals went back to Agra.

With the smaller crowds, Fatehpur Sikri is a more relaxing place to visit. It was worth the hourlong stop, especially since it is on the way to our next destination. We said our goodbyes to Sunil who really did a great job as our guide. In contrast to the previous two days, the road to Jaipur was smooth and fast. We arrived much earlier than we had expected.

We checked into our hotel Jas Vilas located outside the old city. It's a former havelli converted to a ~15 bedroom hotel about 10 years ago. Now it would be unfair to compare this to the Amarvilas which is in a completely different price range. The bed was comfortable, the bathroom was clean, and the TV had English channels. On CNN, we sadly watched the aftermath from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a beautiful country that we had just visited 2 years ago.

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Everybody is cozy here, even this pigeon roosting above the door to our room.

Jas Vilas is a good example that you don't have to pay exorbitant prices to get great service. The staff is mainly non-English speaking Nepalese, but we rarely interacted with them. Instead, most guest interactions were with a polite local man and one fairly-understandable Nepali. We even conversed with the owner and some of his family. If we had any problems, they were taken care of quickly and affably. We had the Indian buffet dinner there that night. The food was fine. I noticed most of the other guests were eating more Western fare such as pizzas and fries.

Jas Vilas has a nice dining area adjacent to the pool. There are beautiful flower beds and ornate walls in the this courtyard.

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(Left) Al fresco dining area. (Right) Decorative walls around the pool.

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A reminder of the hotel name, in case you forget.

Some might argue that the tile work for the swimming pool is a little over-the-top, but I think that it is tastefully done. I bet if Emperor Akbar had a crystal blue pool with 'Fatephur Sikri' spelled out in tiles, he would have never moved his capital back to Agra.

Posted by evilnoah 15:51 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur agra fatehpur jasvilas Comments (0)

Jaipur: The Gem City

Paradise for a shopaholic

sunny 79 °F

Little, shiny rocks. A woman's dream, a man's nightmare. Unfortunately, Jaipur has them. Lots and lots of them. And more. Many of the rubies and sapphires that come out of India are mined nearby. Many diamonds and emeralds from other countries are also imported here to utilize all the craftsmen skilled in cutting gemstones. Hence, Jaipur is one of the better places in India to buy jewelry.

The day started innocuous enough. We met our guide Monika at 9 that morning for a city tour. She is a petite, soft-spoken Indian woman in her twenties from the upper middle-class. So far, she has been the only Indian female that I have seen drive a car. I joked that 'Monika' is not a typical Indian name, thinking that she adopted it to make it easier for her Western clients to remember. She agreed stating that it used to be very popular with as many as six other females in her school sharing that name. Now, nobody wants to give their girl such an old-fashioned name. Not the answer I was expecting.

Jaipur is known as the "pink" city because the buildings are painted to mimic the red sandstone. Fortunately for my testosterone level, the houses really don't look pink, they are more of a natural tone. We spent the morning visiting the expected tourists sites in the old city. Our first destination was a brief stop to photograph the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) built in 1799.

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The 593 screened windows of the Hawa Mahal allowed the women of the harem to spy on the bustling street below without being able to be seen by passersby.

Our next stop was the City Palace. In contrast, to some of the previous palaces we have seen before, the City Palace is in much better condition than the Mughal Forts. The fact that it has been continuously inhabited and never abandoned has meant that it has been maintained properly over the years.

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(Top Two) Colorfully-painted entrances into the City Palace. (Bottom Two) Jaipur was the site of a large cannon foundry during the Mughal Dynasty

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Exterior of the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience)

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Interior of the Diwan-i-Khas

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The walls and ceiling are delicately painted.

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The Diwan-i-Khas is decorated with antique furniture and accessories.

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This large urn is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest silver object. It was made for the Madharaja Madho Singh II who travelled to England in 1901. Since it is considered inauspicious to travel over large bodies of water, he filled these urns with holy water from the Ganges River and brought them with him for luck.

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(Left) Entrance to the Pritam Niwas Chowk (Court of the Beloved). (Middle) Golden Door to the Pritam Chowk. (Right) Delicately constructed peacock on one of the doorways.

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The Pritam Niwas Chowk contains four ornately decorated doorways representing the seasons of the year.

The Maharaja of Jaipur and his family still live in a separate part of the City Palace. In contrast to the attention the English give their Queen, the locals of Jaipur are no longer awestruck at the presence of their royalty. According to Monika, if they were at a store or mall in the city, most people wouldn't even care. They are, more or less, just your average, run-of-the-mill multi-millionaires.

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The seven story Chandra Mahal, the residence of the royal family of Jaipur

We crossed into the last area of the City Palace through the elaborate Rajendra Pol gateway.

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There are two large elephants on each side of the Rajendra Pol. Each is carved from a single block of marble.

This final area contains two small museums where photography is not allowed inside. The Sileh Khana (Armoury) houses an arsenal of interesting Rajput firearms, swords, and daggers from the last 500 years. The collection contains some beautifully-decorated ceremonial swords and a unique katar (punch dagger) with two pistols attached on each side. The Mubarak Mahal (Welcome Palace) now displays a collection of costumes and textiles used over the last several centuries by the royal family. One of the most interesting pieces of clothing belongs to an 18th century Maharajah's who must have weighed 400-500 lbs. His shirt is unbelievably huge.

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(Left) The exterior of the Mubarak Mahal. (Right) Fountain near the Mubarak Mahal.

After finishing the tour of the City Palace, we walked next door to the Jantar Mantar. This area is a collection of 18 instruments built by Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh from 1728 to 1734. He was passionate about astronomy and built five observatories throughout Northern India. He must have had some component of obsessive-compulsive disorder because he built continuously bigger sundials in order to accurately predict the time within a few seconds. Personally, I think I would stick with my small wristwatch that is always off by five minutes.

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(Left and Middle) The Krantivrtta measures latitude and longitude of a celestial object. (Right) Early model of a sundial.

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The Yantra Raj can calculate positions of planets and their rotations as well as the sunrises and sunsets.

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The Narivalaya uses two sundials inclined at 27 degrees to measure time.

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The Laghu Samrat Yantra is also inclined at 27 degrees and can calculate time to within 20 seconds.

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The Jai Prakash Yantra was the last device built. It was used to check the accuracy of all the other instruments.

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The Rashivalaya Yantra is 12 separate instruments that point to each zodiac constellation.

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At 90 feet high, the Samrat Yantra shows the time in Jaipur and is accurate to within 2 seconds.

Jaipur is known for their block print textiles. We visited Anokhi, a popular boutique store that specializes in more contemporary fashions. We also stopped by a much smaller place called Rashid where we picked up a nice king-sized hand-block quilt for 2500 rupees. Prices are non-negotiable at both stores. Monika also took us to a touristy shop called the Satguru Exports. They demonstrated how block prints are made.

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The pattern, carved into wood, is dipped in colored ink and pressed into the cloth. Smaller blocks with the partial pattern are dipped into different inks and carefully lined up on the fabric. This is repeated several times until the whole pattern is fully colored. The excess dye is washed out to reveal the final result. These steps can then be repeated hundreds of times depending on the pattern of the textile.

We then went to lunch at Surabhi, an outdoor restaurant located in an old heritage building of a former prime minister of Jaipur. The place seems popular mainly with tour groups, but as we are finding out in India: Touristy=Clean. Despite the hot sun, the restaurant is comfortable because it is fully shaded. We both ordered the Rajasthani thali which represented several popular dishes from the area. One interesting dish consists of a thin string bean found only in this area of the country. Several musicians worked the tables playing some of the unique instruments found in Rajasthan. Mainly, they were unsuccessful in soliciting tips. We skipped the turban museum adjacent to the restaurant.

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(Left) Al fresco dining area that is frequented by only tour groups. (Right) Man cooking naan in a tandoori.

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Rajasthani thali (clockwise from left) naan, galub jamin, biryani, daal, a vegetable and lentil dumpling, the thin string bean dish unique to Rajasthan, chicken curry, papadum in the center

While we waited for our food, Sherri had her palm read and got our children's fortune told by Mr. Shashi Saurabh Tripathi at a nearby booth. His credentials included astrologer, palmist, tarot reader, face and aurora reader, amulet maker, healer, and Rudraksh Therapist. All I have is a simple M.D. For many Hindus, these fortunes, based upon birth information, are crucial factors in the timing of a wedding ceremony. Sometimes, marriages are even called off because of inauspicious signs. The fortune teller told my wife that her lucky color is green. Great. There's gonna be an emerald in her future. Why couldn't he say black as in onyx.

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(Left) Mr. Tripathi working his magic. (Right) So what do amputees do?

We interrogated Monika on the role of women in Rajasthan. Their ornate garments with gold trim and colorful jeweled bangles really contrast against the backdrop of dry grassland and dusty desert. But many Hindu women also hide their faces with veils. I had always thought that this is a Muslim custom only. She explained that the Rajputs with close ties to the Mughals had adopted this tradition. Generations after the fall of the Mughal dynasty, this practice still persists in a small fraction of the population. Rajasthani women are considered delicate. They are 'protected' by being concealed from the men of society. Monika told us that traditionally young women are supposed to hide their faces from their future male in-laws until after marriage. Furthermore, women on the bride's side are not even invited to the wedding!

She explained that newer generations of women have deviated from these older customs. The vast majority walk with their faces fully exposed. More younger women have started working--mainly as teachers. However, once they are married (usually in their early 20's), they are expected to quit their jobs and move in with their husband's family. They are then responsible for taking care of the kids and his parents when they are elderly. I asked Monika if women are nervous with all the drastic changes that happen with marriage. She replied 'No. That's all we've ever known.'

After lunch, Sherri and I explored the city on our own. My wife had yet to be groped so far in India, so she was feeling a bit unattractive. There is nothing better than a little sparkly thing to make a woman feel better. The problem is that that the huge number of jewelry stores in Jaipur is quite daunting. There seems to be one at every corner. We asked Mrs. Singh (one of the family members that owns Jas Vilas) about some recommendations for shops in our price range. She was extremely helpful, even calling Mukesh Agrawal, one of the sons of the owner of a store called "The Silver and Art Palace" to let him know we were coming. The staff at Jas Vilas arranged for a radio cab for us with fair set fees so that we could avoid having to haggle with all the tuk-tuks. Although they were not benefitting finically by assisting us, the folks at Jas Vilas really went out of their way to be helpful.

When we arrived at the, they skipped the obligatory 'demonstration' and took us straight to one of the salesmen, Mr. Ashok Sharma, to look at their merchandise. They did not disappoint. They had a beautiful array of rings, necklaces, broaches, bracelets, etc with a kaleidoscope of gems. They had inexpensive pieces such as $15 silver earrings laced with semi-precious stones to enormous necklaces completely encrusted with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires. They were more than happy letting Sherri try on pieces worth a tens of thousands of dollars even though they knew we wouldn't be buying them. We planned on spending an hour there at most. We left over two hours later. My wife was like a kid in a candy store. When negotiating prices, it helped that we did not go with a guide or driver as they would have gotten the usual 5% commission. Also, my wife had done her homework on gemstones and their comparable prices in the U.S. It may not have mattered though as their starting prices alone were significantly better than in the States. Mukesh was even nice enough to have his store's car take us to our next destination.

We finished the day with dinner at Niro's. The service was prompt and the food very good. We were really tired, so we wharfed it down quickly.

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(Left) Rajasthani sula (mutton leg cooked in a tandoori and flavored with smoked ghee). (Right) Aloo Piaz (potatoes and onion curry).

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(Left) Mixed vegetable korma. (Right) Mint sauce and pickled onions and mango were served on the side.

Afterwards, we had to deal with tuk-tuks trying to charge us three times the cost of the journey home. We finally found one who marked up the fare only a little. Although we showed him a map of our hotel's location, he kept getting lost. He had to stop about five times to ask for directions. At one point, we were scared he was heading out of the city where we would be mugged by some unsavory characters. Eventually, he finally figured out the directions and dropped us off at the hotel. After such a long day, we crashed back in our cozy room at Jas Villas, a different sort of gem in the city of Jaipur.

Posted by evilnoah 10:49 Archived in India Tagged india hawa jaipur rajasthan jantar mantar Comments (0)

Dreams of Pooping Pachyderms

More journeys in Jaipur

sunny 79 °F

I believe that it is important for people to have lofty goals in life. Some of my dreams include mastering cold fusion, conquering Russia in the winter time, and eating two of each animal on the planet (and potentially some extraterrestials too...Alf). Sadly, laws against endangered species make this last achievement quite impossible. So if I can't eat 'em, how can I, as Stephen Colbert says, demonstrate my God-given "dominion over the animals." Well, I can think of no better way than to saddle them up and ride them.

After breakfast, we met up with our driver Kishor and our guide Monika for a full day of activities. As we drove through the city, it was clearly evident that the morning commute in Jaipur is much differerent than it is back home.

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Our destination was the Amber (or Amer) Fort located a few miles outside of town. It was constructed in 1592 over the remains of a prior fortification. Over the next 150 years, additions were made to turn it into the fortress that currently stands today. Protected by surrounding hills and a narrow passageway to the entrance, this formidible strongpoint was never beseiged.

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(Left) Amber Fort with a moat in the foreground. (Right) Hot air balloons were available for an aerial view, but we never saw them launch.

The quintessential tourist activity is the 15 minute elephant ride from the base of the fortification up to the main courtyard. Over a hundred elephants are used to make the trip 6-7 times before retiring for the day. The cost is 450 Rs/person with a 50-100 Rs tip for the mahout. Some animal-rights activist would argue that this attraction is cruel to the animals. As we were to find out shortly, it is more cruel to the tourists.

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(Left) Elephants climb the narrow passage up to the fortress. (Right) Elephants wait their turn for passengers.

When we arrived around 9 A.M. there was already a long line in the baking sun. However, it was a relatively fast-moving queue and took about half an hour to reach the front. We boarded our elephant named Leche. As we were both riding on the elephant together, we handed our small camera to our guide to take photos. (If you don't have a guide, there are plenty of locals who will snap your photo...for a price).

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(Left) Our elephant, Leche, and mahout. (Middle) South-bound end of a north-bound elephant. (Right) There's a continuous stream of elephants following each other to the top.

We were initially the second of a group of four elephants led by a driver who walked in front of the first. However, the first animal must have had some Indian curry earlier that morning because he had to stop to do his business. We had a front row seat as greenish, cannonball-sized turds came tumbling out the elephants back side. Try as I might, I could not contort myself enough to take pictures of this spectacle (It's not everyday that you get a front row seat of a crapping pachyderm). Our mahout found this to be pretty funny as he kept laughing and making jokes in unintelligible English. Potty humor transcends all nationalities. The lead elephant then proceeded to empty his bladder. Since we were walking up a steep incline, the urine all flowed back to our poor elephant's feet. By the way, elephants have large bladders. After some time wading in the river of piss, our mahout finally decided to pass the lead elephant. However, we were stopped again once we reached an archway only one elephant wide. We had to yield for a long line of elephants who had already dropped off their passengers and were returning back to the start.

The ride was actually pretty scary. I don't know if there was a problem with our elephant's saddle, but it seemed to rock back and forth pretty dramatically. Unlike everybody else, we were instructed to lean all the way back to keep the saddle stable. We were practically having to lie down on our backs. The ride was very bumpy as elephants don't seem to have shock absorbers. Once we passed the Suraj Pol (Sun Gate) into the main courtyard, we were met with a cacophony of sounds. Men in one of the top balconies were pounding away on drums that were formerly used back in the day to warn the inhabitants of enemy forces.

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(Left) We are hanging on for dear life. (Right) Elephants enter the Suraj Pol which was originally the entrance for royalty.

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We are smiling because we know the ride is over.

Monika who had taken the car up the back entrance was there to take some final mugshots of us in our misery. As we dismounted, a security guard rudely shoved her away. I asked her what was the problem. She explained that only one month ago, two elephants got into a scuffle with each other and two tourist were thrown from the elephant, critically injuring one of them. Years before, another person was killed by one of these elephants who was having a bad hair day. Therefore, security is now sensitive about preventing the elephants from lingering around and potentially fighting. Wow, really important information that would have helped BEFORE we got on the elephants.

Monika then proceeded to give us an hour-long tour of the fortress. There were some splendidly ornate rooms as well as some in complete disrepair.

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The Ganesh Pol (Elephant Gate) and views of the ornate decorations on the walls and ceiling.

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(Left) The Aram Bagh (Pleasure Garden). (Right) Sukh Mahal (Pleasure Palace). Flowing water and dampened curtains kept the air cool in the summer months.

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(Left and Middle) Inlaid colored glass and ornate carvings in the white marble of the Sukh Mahal. (Right) Remnants of a tiled door.

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The Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace) was the private quarters of the Maharaja and Maharani. The rooms are covered in small mirrors and reflective glass which are supposed to glitter like a gemstone.

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Stain glass imported from Europe depicting a Hindu scene.

At the very top of the palace, there are some great views of the nearby town of Amer, as well as the adjacent moat and fortifications.

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(Left) The Kesar Kyari Bagh is a flower garden nestled in the moat in front of the fortress. Crocus flowers (saffron) used to be planted here with their scent rising to the palace above.(Right) The Jaigarh Fort overlooks the Amber Fort. The Maharaja's soldiers were housed here, and a passageway connected the two fortresses.

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(Left) View of the main courtyard, Jaleb Chowk, where visitors and elephants first enter the Amber Fort. (Right) Old, decrepit buildings behind the fortress. Some of these are being rebuilt.

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(Left and Middle) Painted walls and ceilings. (Right) These large cauldrons were actually movie props from a Bollywood flick.

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(Left) Faded paintings in one of the concubine's quarters. (Right) A very uncomfortable bed.

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Paintings flank the molding near the top of the walls.

We also saw a snake charmer way down below entertaining some tourists. We thought about checking it out, but decided against it lest we have to make the long walk back up again. Or even worse, take another elephant ride.

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On the way back to the city, we stopped to take pictures of the Jal Mahal (Water Palace) that was built in the 18th century. It is currently closed to the public.

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While we were snapping photos, a parade of worshippers passed by, playing music, and beating drums in anticipation of Holi (Festival of Colors) next week.

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We then drove back to the heart of the city for a tour of the everyday markets. Monika took us around, pointing out several different types of stalls specializing in teas, dried chilies, syrups, legumes, vegetables, etc. We had to dodge the city traffic hopping from street to street to see the different vendors. It would be much easier if they just opened up a Piggly Wiggly.

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(Left) Street intersection near the markets. (Right) Apple salesman.

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(Left) Tea. (Right) Dried chilies.

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(Left) Pickled vegetables. (Right) Dried fruit.

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Dried beans.

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(Left) Tamarind pods. (Right) Dried pasta.

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(Left) Dried legumes. (Right) Dried papadum.

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(Left) Saffron syrup. (Right) Rose syrup.

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(Left) Large vats of fresh milk. (Right) Vegetable market.

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(Left) Flower necklaces for religious use. (Right) Colored powders for the upcoming Holi festival.

We were most interested in the spice shop. Sherri bought two boxes of instant chai masala because she is too lazy to make it the real way. I was more interested in obtaining the good stuff--saffron. They had packaged Kashmiri saffron for 180 Rs/gram (roughly a third of the price back home). I passed on the lesser quality saffron at 150 Rs/gram. I bought four 1 gram packages. I thought about buying even more at this great price but remembered that I have yet to even cook with saffron. Heck, why waste money on the stuff if your paella's gonna taste like Rice-A-Roni anyway. We also had to buy some more shampoo because, surprisingly, most hotels that we have stayed in here have not provided it complimentary.

I didn't want to come all the way to the desert without getting a turban, so we popped into a store to get one. I had my heart set on getting an authentic unrolled turban. The salesman showed me how to tie a real turban. At that point, we all realized that I'm too incompetant to figure out how to do it correctly. Therefore, I settled for a flashy pre-made turban. It will probably end up in a box in the attic.

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If this guy couldn't get a turban to look right on me, then there's no way I can.

We then travelled to the upper middle-class suburbs of Jaipur to have a cooking demonstration with Naleene, a widowed mother who supplements her income this way. She showed us how to prepare several dishes starting with vegetable pakoras served with a mint sauce. We enjoyed them as they had a good kick of spiciness from chile powder. Since she is a Jain, all her dishes were vegetarian. She then began a dish called shimla paneer (peppers with cheese). I was hoping she would show us how to make paneer as my previous attempt a year ago was quite unappetizing. Unfortunately, in India you can buy it ready made which she did. She also prepared a mixed vegetable curry and a yogurt based soup containing boondi (round balls made of chickpea flour). We also helped her make some roti's. For dessert, she made a raisin halva. One thing I especially noticed is that Indian yogurt is much thinner in consistency than the type I can get back home. It is almost as thin as milk. Furthermore, like a modern housewife, she liberally used less traditional cooking means such as a microwave and a pressure cooker. Suprisingly, all the food was cooked on small portable burners even though her kitchen was large and modern. She also showed us how to make chai masala tea. This reinforced to my wife how easy it is to make. Unfortunately, I doubt that she will stop spending $5 at Starbucks to get it anytime soon.

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(Left) Naleene dicing vegetables. I never saw her use a cutting board. (Right) Her masala dabba containing salt, cumin seed, garam masala, chili powder, tumeric powder, mustard seeds and more salt.

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(Left) Vegetable pakoras hot off the fryer. (Right) I strategically removed my retarded-looking roti's for this picture.

We then made a quick visit to the Birla Laxshmi Narayan Temple. Built by a very wealthy family in Jaipur, it is constructed of pure white marble like the Taj Mahal. As it is a Hindu temple, we had to remove our shoes. Despite it being very hot and sunny, the marble was quite comfortable to our bare feet. The temple is mainly for the predominantly Hindu community--there are depictions of Vedic scenes in the stain glass windows. However, it is also welcoming to people of all different religions. On the outside are statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Christian Saints, Buddha, Confucius, and even Zarathustra (for those Parsi's out there). Only the prophet Mohammed is missing because, as any Danish cartoonist can tell you, that would mean a death sentence from the Islamic community.

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We had about 45 minutes to kill before we had to catch our train. The Central Museum located in the Albert Hall was nearby so we decided to check it out. We had read older reviews which had trashed the place, but it has since undergone renovations. The place was pretty good for our short amount of time. The museum actually has a pretty eclectic collection (pottery, muscial instruments, paintings, weapons) from all areas of the British Empire crammed into a small space.

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(Left) An Egyptian mummy, the museum's centerpiece. (Right) A big camel is needed to mount this gun.

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(Left) Large ceremonial shield. (Middle) Collection of several Indian string instruments. (Right) Captions like this will not help the museum's reputation.

We said our goodbyes to Monika and headed to the train station. As expected the train was 30 minutes late. We were sad to depart from our driver Kishor. He had been a reliable and welcoming presence for the past six days.

We rode in the chair car class for the trip to Jodhpur. It was a comfortable trip allowing us to sleep much of the way in. Surprisingly, we arrived at 10:15 P.M., about 30 minutes earlier than scheduled. The train cleared out and everybody eventually exited the platform. Except us. It was just us two standing there in the dimly-lit area thinking 'Where the @*#%! is our guide?'. Ten minutes later, we saw a large young man bounding down the stairs towards us. When he finally reached us he was hyperventilating. He was doubled over, barely able to talk. He had expected the later arrival time and was completely caught off guard. That was my first impression of Harshwerdhan, our tour company representative for Jodhpur. Exhausted from the long day, we checked into our hotel, hoping for some sweet dreams that night.

Posted by evilnoah 17:43 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur rajasthan amber Comments (0)

Armani In India?

Sweating It Out in Jodhpur

sunny 83 °F

We awoke this morning from our hotel, the Ratan Vilas. It is really nice property with spacious rooms, nice seated courtyards, and a pool. It is definitely a good bargain when compared to the ultra-expensive top hotel in Jodhpur, the Umaid Bhawan Palace operated by the Taj Group. In contrast to the Jas Vilas, the staff at Ratan Vilas are much more distant creating less of a bed and breakfast-like atmosphere. Nevertheless, they are extremely polite and accommodating. We had a buffet breakfast and checked out. Since we will be coming there after our trip to Jaisalmer, we stored two of our suitcases for when we come back. Hopefully, they will still be there in a few days.

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Room 209 at the Ratan Vilas

Prior to coming to Jodhpur, we had been told that the Mehrangarh Fort is a must-see attraction. In fact, some people had told us it is the ONLY thing worth seeing in Jodhpur. The fortress, sitting atop a plateau 400 ft above the city, is the largest one in all of Rajasthan. We met up with our new driver, Padam Singh who took us up the long, winding road to the fort.

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View of the Mehrangarh Fort from afar.

The Majarajah of Jodhpur has really done an excellent job of converting the place into a tourist-friendly attraction. An informative audio tour is included in the price of the admission. Without a guide, we were able to see the entire fortress at our own leisurely pace. Because the state of Jodhpur has a violent history, a total of seven gates were built for added protection.

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Beautiful murals flanked the first gate to the fort

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The high walls of the castle have loomed over tourists and attackers alike.

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Cannonball indentions in the walls of one gate, Dedh Kamgra Pol, from a previous siege are highlighted for visitors to see.

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(Left) The narrow corridor of one of the seven gates. (Middle) A small cannon overlooks the rear of the Mehrangarh Fort. (Right) A fragment of a door shows the violent history of the fortress.

We then proceeded up a long, steep incline flanked by high fortress walls (alternatively, they have an elevator if needed). This passage ended in the Loha Pol, the final gate to the city. It is easy to see why the Mehrangarh Fort was never conquered.

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The Loha Pol, studded with large iron spikes, is flanked by high ramparts.

Above us, small swallows whipped back and forth, chirping continously. Looking up, we could see a large nests of them within the ceiling of the Loha Pol.

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Who wants some birds nest soup?

One of the remarkable sites that cannot be missed are the colored handprints next to one of the main gates. These were from the many wives of one of the previous rulers Man Singh. When he died in the mid 19th century, his wives performed the Sati ritual. They all stepped in a large fire, and without a word, burned themselves to death. Fortunately, this ancient Indian practice has long been banned. But then again, how can the law punish you if you do it?

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Handprints from Rajput concubines who perished from Sati. Sadly, many of the handprints come from very small hands, as it was not uncommon for rulers to betrothed to teenage princesses.

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Once safely inside the fortress, the architecture becomes much more ostentatious.

We enterred through the Suraj Pol into the main courtyard of the palace where the main exhibits were on display.

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(Left) Sitting inconspicuously in the corner of the courtyard is the white marble Shringar Chowk,the coronation throne of the Jodhpur rulers. (Right) Hookah on display. According to the audio tour, opium is an integral part of the culture in this area.

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A collection of howdah's, seats mounted on elephants. These look much more comfortable than the ones they used at the Amber Fort.

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Inside the Palki Khana are many palanquins (litters) which were used to carry royalty.

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These palanquins adhere to the concept of purdah (the concealing of women from men). Women of nobility riding inside the litter could peek out of the curtains or screens, but onlookers were not able to see them.

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This elaborate palanquin dating to the 18th century is covered in gold.

Since the Rajputs are of the warrior caste, armaments and armor are an important aspect of their history.

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(Left) Small cannon. (Right) Sword belonging to the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great.

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The hilts of these ceremonial swords are elaborately decorated.

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(Left) Katar (punch dagger). This weapon inflicts increased damage by springing open once an enemy is stabbed. (Middle) Firearm with a axe stock. (Right) Decorative armor plate.

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The Sheesha Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) is lined with...mirrors.

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Built in the mid 18th century, the Phool Mahal (Dancing hall) was mainly used for parties and celebrations.

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The Phool Mahal is the most opulent room in the fort with pillars and a ceiling guilded with gold.

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The Takhat Mahal was built in the mid 1800's by the last Maharaja of Jodhpur who lived in the castle. He used this room to entertain his 30 wives. It is decorated with paintings on eclectic subjects ranging from Hindu gods to European ladies.

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(Left and Middle) The Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace) is one of the oldest rooms in the fort dating back to the 16th century. It was primarly used as a hall of public audiences. (Right) Rocking cradle in the Jhanki Mahal (Peeping Palace), so named for the screens that allowed the Maharaja's wives to observe the courtyard below without being seen.

We climbed up to the ramparts of Meharangarh Fort to get a better view of why Jodhpur is called the "Blue City."

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Jodhpur is like Egypt in the Book of Exodus, but instead of using a lamb, the residents smeared Smurf blood on their houses.

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Several large cannons of different age and size are still positioned on the ramparts.

It was too hot and too far for us to walk the extra 200 foot to the Chamunda Devi Temple, nestled at one end of the fortress walls. As we were leaving, we encountered this couple and their baby near the exit to the fort. While he played music, she sang a Rajasthani tune. I guess I am not a big fan of traditional Indian music, because I thought she sounded like a wailing banshee. I gave them 10 rupees, hoping it would quiet her down. Unfortunately, I think it just encouraged her.

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(Left) The Chamunda Devi Temple the site of a tragic stampede in 2008 that killed 249 Indian pilgrims. (Right) They may not sound great, but at least they are carving out an honest living.

There are a couple of things worth mentioning. First, there are zip lines here operated by a British company called the Flying Fox. I had run across their website months before while researching the fort. We were considering doing it as it looks fun. However, in the end we decided to forego the activity. I cannot imagine spending the two hours it would take in the intense Jodhpur sun. I think the zip lines are probably more popular in the cooler months.

Second, when we purchased our tickets to the Mehragarth Fort, we also paid ~ 60 rupees/person to visit the Palace gardens. Try as we might, we couldn't find it. Only as we were leaving did we realize that the entrance is in the rear of the fort, near the Flying Fox zip lines. By that time, we were too hot and tired to really care about seeing it.

Finally, we got asked again by some random locals to take pictures with them. This was the third time so far in India that we have gotten this odd request. In all of our travels, nobody has ever wanted to photograph us. I guess it is only fair that some of the locals may want a picture of us, when I keep snapping shots of them. However, it makes me feel really self-conscious? Is there something they know that I don't. Is my fly unzipped? Do I have a huge zit on my face? Is there toilet paper stuck to my shoe?

After leaving the top attraction in Jodhpur, we stopped briefly at the Jaswant Thada, a white marble cenotaph built a century ago.

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At this point, nothing in white marble will give my pulse a rise anymore. If I had never seen the Taj Mahal, then maybe I would have been more impressed with this work. On the bright side, the white marble does seem to have a cooling effect on the inside temple.

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(Left and Middle) Poopy pigeons+bare feet=big mess. (Right) The altar inside the Jaswant Thada.

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(Left) Tthere's a good view of the back side of Mehrangarth Fort from the Jaswant Thada. (Right) Although there's a nice layer of slime on the lake, it is still teeming with fish.

We ate lunch at a restaurant called On the Rocks. There is a nice, shaded outdoor eating area that was filled with tourist. Despite the heat, the temperature is actually manageable in the shade. Even though we ordered way too much food, it was so good we actually finished it off. The only problem with the restaurant is that the tree that provides shade continuously sheds leaves onto your table and sometimes into your food.

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(Left) We picked the lesser of two evils--leaves over direct sunlight. (Right) Kesar and pista (saffron and cardamom) shake, aka "Ambrosia"--the nectar of the Gods.

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(Left) Chicken kathia roll. (Right) Gobi matar (cauliflower and peas)

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(Left) Awadhi gosht korma (traditional mutton curry with yogurt and Lucknow masala). (Right) Kashmiri pulao (rice pilaf with dry fruits).

We then visited the Umaid Bhawan Palace, or really just a small fraction of it. The palace is the newest of the main Rajasthani forts, having been built in the early 20th century. The majority is used as a hotel. The royal family uses another small fraction as their residence, and the last amount is open to the public as a museum. For 50 Rs/ person, we saw displays which just seemed like a big tribute to the royal family. As Harshwerdhan explained to us, the Majarajah of Jodhpur and his family have helped the locals both politically, serving in the Parliament, as well as economically, providing jobs for the poor. Unlike their counterpart in Jaipur, it seems that the royal family of Jodhpur are bigger celebrities to their people. From our unbiased perspective, all the memorabilia of model airplanes, polo equipment, antique cars, and old knickknacks were not very interesting.

I did, however, enjoy seeing how the actual rooms compare to the original blueprints on display. A fun fact that they reveal is that the original furniture for the fort was lost when the ship from England carrying it was sunk by a German U-boat in World War I. Serves them right, trying to build such an extravagant palace during a time of war. I do have to admit that the front lawn of the palace looks impressive. However, it was roped off to keep lowly elements like me away.

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(Left) The majority of the Umaid Bhawan Palace is now a five-star Taj Group hotel. (Right) Guests to the hotel are brought to the lobby in an uncovered horse-drawn carriage. With the expensive cost of the hotel, they could at least get a surrey with a fringe on top.

We took a quick tour of the Clock Tower and surrounding Sadar Market. The sun was becoming too unbearable to walk around in such an unshaded area.

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The Clock Tower and scenes around Sadar Market.

Before coming to Jodhpur, we came across a store called the Maharani Art Emporium. A quick google search will show several posts either extolling their great products or debunking their many "lies." Not surprisingly, Harshwerdhan brought us there during our tour of the market. The salesman gave us the usual spiel that all their textiles are hand-made by women in local tribes. He then proceeded to throw out bed cover after bed cover, extolling their great handiwork and feel. The traditional stuff didn't look any better than anything you can find elsewhere in Rajasthan. Ten minutes into his presentation I was beginning to worry that he hadn't started dropping names of famous fashion houses. Maybe we looked so low rent and dirty that we were not worth the effort. It was relieving to finally hear him mention that he is exporting his modern (and better looking) textiles to Armani, Hermes, Etro, and Kenzo. Yay, we still got it!

I have to admit, he does have a pretty good pitch, albeit most of it is probably B.S. He would say "this bed cover sells for $1500 at Armani, but we will sell it for only $250," and so on. Prices are non-negotiable. Most people would consider these to be a steal because, frankly, they ARE beautiful fabrics. But every piece of cloth in India is a superb deal when compared to the price in the U.S. or Europe. I think that he is cleverly capitalizing on the psyche of people who think they are getting an even extra deal because they think that very same scarf is destined for a Hermes boutique. We've heard stories of people ordering thousands of dollars of product here to be shipped home. I can guarantee that they would not spend like this at any other tourist shop. I have no idea whether any of the products are designed by a big-time fashion house or not, but as the Romans say caveat emptor.

We decided to base our buying decision on the quality of the products alone. Sherri really did like the "Hermes" bed cover. At the 15 minute mark, the salesman cued up the obligatory remark "Richard Gere bought 108 pieces here." I tried to ask him if he had heard the gerbil rumor before Sherri punched me in the arm. The guy even produced a thank you letter from some former American ambassador. We ended up buying that bed cover which was probably overpriced for India, but good for us. She just hasn't seen anybody else carrying that particular one.

At the end, he tried to sell us some Vicuna scarfs. He told us that the Vicuna threads are imported from Peru and can be weaved even cheaper in India. He even went on to state that Vicuna's are protected in Peru and only one Italian fashion house is licensed to produce Vicuna goods there. I then proceeded to tell him that we were in Peru last June and the major Peruvian clothing company Kuna sells Vicuna. It is expensive and rare but definitely on the market. Crickets. I do have to admit that the scarfs are extremely soft and even passed the water test. We may have even bought one except the designs were so damn fugly.

Despite our tepid response towards shopping, we were taken to yet another touristy store, this one selling jewelry. We did not even try to politely fake interest. I was acting even more cranky and obnoxious than usual because it was unbearably hot and sunny. At this point we still had several hours before we were ready to board our overnight train to Jaisalmer. Bless him for trying so hard, Harshwerdhan kept making unhelpful suggestions. "Do you want to see anymore stores?" Do we enjoy getting ripped off? "Do you want to see a cinema?" We don't understand Hindi. "Do you want to come to my house?" Is that an invite for a play date?

Finally we asked him to take us back to the Ratan Vilas. They were great at offering the use of their facilities despite having already checked out. We decided to lounge by the pool with some lime sodas. This was one of the best swims of my life. All my crankiness and evil dissipated once the sun set.

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The best antidote to the Jodhpur heat.

We grabbed dinner at On the Rocks again. Harshwerdhan had no other suggestions for alternative restaurants. During lunch, I had this placed pegged as a typical, nicely-decorated establishment that catered only to tourists. I was surprised to see that half of the diners were Indian (they seemed predominately upper middle-class). The ambience was disturbed by the gratuitously-loud techno music at the restaurant's bar.

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(Left) Chicken "On the Rocks" special. It tasted better than it looks. (Right) Mixed tandoori.

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(Left) Aloo bukhara (potatoes with peas in a mixed nut stuffing). (Right) Mughlai naan.

Sherri especially liked the naan as it was fairly busy with different spices. The mixed tandoori was a carnivore's dream. Previously full from lunch, we couldn't finish all of it.

Harshwerdhan joined us for awhile while we ate, so we got a good chance to get to know him. He is really just a kid of 19 years of age, having done tourism for a mere six months. It kind of explained why he just was not you typical smooth-talking tour guide. He acts pretty nervous and repeatedly checks to see if we are happy. He did not check his phone messages every five minutes, an annoying behavior that every other guide seemed to do. His uncle (his boss) did seem to call him hourly, I think, to make sure he wasn't screwing up.

He had some funny and bumbling answers to some of our questions. Are you interested in studying at a university? No, I'm not so smart in the head. What are some of your favorite non-vegetarian dishes when you go out to eat? I never eat meat outside my home. It is unsafe. (As I was devouring the tandoori mystery meat). It was actually refreshing to get a chance to speak with someone who was "real". He gave us a pretty good idea what it is like growing up in a town like Jodhpur. No drugs (except for the occasional opium tea at ceremonies), no violent crimes, no dating anxiety (arranged marriages), no fragmented families (males never move out of the house). Harshwerdhan and Jodhpur exemplify a simpler, more naive life.

Posted by evilnoah 20:44 Archived in India Tagged india jodhpur meharangarh Comments (0)

Dodo's in the Desert

A side trip to Jaisalmer

sunny 86 °F

Picture yourself as a Dutch sailor in 17th century Mauritius, taking a nice leisurely stroll in the countryside. Hark! What is it that? What a surprise! You have stumbled on the last Dodo in existence. That large flightless bird just standing there, unafraid and naive, not realizing that people like you have wiped out every last one of its kin. The dilemma ensues. Do you peacefully observe this forsaken creature allowing it to quietly slip away into the annals of history, never to walk the Earth again? Or do you take a club and bash its head in? And then gut it, roast it, and relish in the knowledge that you are the last person to ever taste the Dodo's tough, unsavory flesh. Me, I would choose the latter.

That is the question we faced when we decided to visit Jaisalmer. Like the dodo bird 300 years ago, the fortress of Jaisalmer is on the path of extinction. It has lasted for over 900 years despite several battles and sieges. However, in the past several decades, it has shown signs of deterioration. Unlike other Rajasthani palaces, it is a 'living fort'--a good portion of the the town still lives inside its walls. This was not a problem with only ten thousand inhabitants, but with the influx of tourism the fort has started to crumble. In fact, a section of the wall came down in 1998, killing several people.

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With the end of the spice route, tourism is now the lifeblood of the city. There is not enough water to farm, and there are no major industries. Experts have blamed the excess water used to accommodate the many tourist staying at the hotels inside the fortress. That water is eroding the foundation of the sandstone walls. Eventually, if no solution is found, the fort will come down, tourists will stop coming, and the town will likely die out. Of course the fort can be maintained by halting tourism, but that will destroy the local economy too. It's a bit of a Catch-22.

The short term answer is limiting the tourist hotels within the walls of the fort. Many guidebooks have recommended to their readers to stay at havelli's outside of their fort. Our tour company strongly dissuaded us from staying inside as well, telling us that we would have to make the arrangements ourselves as they didn't think it was ethical to contribute to the fort's demise. Personally, I think it would be really cool to stay inside what is essentially a medieval sandcastle. If that fortress is coming down, I want to get my punches in too. I want to be one of the last people to eat that Dodo too.

However, my conscience (aka the wife) piped in and used the Jedi mind trick on me. I DO want the Jaisalmer Fort to exist indefinitely. I want this fortress to be around for my children, my children's children, and my children's children's children (okay, maybe not the last since I will be long dead and never get to know them anyway). Maybe someone will devise a plan to fix the water and foundation problem before it is too late. A lot of scientists, NGO's, and corporations are already trying. The least we could do is not speed up the process of degradation. Therefore, we decided to stay at the Hotel Fifu, a 10-year old havelli outside of the fort.

Our overnight train arrived in Jaisalmer a bit past 5 A.M. The journey in AC3 class was miserable. We shared a room with an Indian couple and their two children. Nobody in the room said a word during the duration of the ride. The cabin was so hot and stuffy that I essentially had to sleep with my head in the aisle to feel the overhead fan. Sherri got less than an hour of sleep. We curse the person who recommended the train rather than driving.

On the upside, we did enjoy a delicious dessert that we got in Jodhpur right before boarding the train.

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Raismalai is a sweetened paneer soaked in saffron-flavored milk

The folks at Hotel Fifu were really nice. They gave us our room when we arrived (a good 6 hours before check-in time). The facilities are nice with modern amenities and a comfortable bed. The family that runs the havelli are thoughtful of their guests' comfort. They had a small army of young men (most of whom spoke very little English) available to help us with any problem. We napped until 10 A.M. as we were exhausted. We were then taken for a tour of the fortress.

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View of the Jaisalmer fortress from the Fifu Hotel.

Twice in the fortress' history it has been besieged. Twice it has fallen, but never surrendered. In the proud Rajput tradition, the inhabitants of the fort chose death over dishonor. The men adorned their armor, mounted their horses, and proudly sallied forth through the open gates to their certain deaths. Many of the women committed Sati (fire suicide), their handprints in the wall as evidence. Others chose to jump to their deaths from the high ramparts.

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These handprints of women who committed Sati are a grim reminder of the "no surrender" mentality of the Rajputs.

Sadly, the only thing falling down from the city's walls now is trash.

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The base of the Jaisalmer Fort is littered with detritus.

Despite the litter marring the fort's grandeur, we could see the beautiful architecture of the buildings and towers that peeked over the high walls.

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Our guide took us through the four gates of the fortress.

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The main gate of the Jaisalmer Fort.

Immediately, I was glad we had decided to stay outside the fort. Motorcycles and scooters sped through the narrow alleys. Trash and cow dung clung to the streets. And hawkers peddled their wares. The whole fort is just one large tourist trap. The old, stately havelli's have been converted to hotels or shops selling the usual junk.

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Inside the fort, the passageways--gates, tunnels, and stairs--are narrow.

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Streets are easily blocked by all sorts of obstacles.

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(Left) Colorful carpets and bedcovers are prominently displayed outside of shops. (Middle) Camel saddle. (Right) Depictions of Ganesh are frequently painted on walls by those seeking prosperity.

We stopped off at a small store run by a Mr. Kanu Swami, an artist who paints miniature paintings. They are called "miniature" not necessarily for the size of the paintings, but because of the attention to the intricate details of the subject matter. Often, the artists will use brushes with only a few fine hairs to paint such miniscule features. The colors are often vibrant with pigments made of crushed minerals, vegetables, gemstones, silver, and gold. We purchased a few paintings and found that to our dismay that Mr. Swami doesn't take credit cards. Small towns like Jaisalmer are mainly cash-only. In order to pay with plastic, we had to go outside the fort and use a third party financial institution to finish the transaction.

Onnce we finished exploring the city-fort, we took the audio tour of the Maharaja's palace. The tour is not on the same level of the Mehrangarh Fort, but it is still worthwhile.

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Meticuously carved balconies overlook the palace's courtyards.

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(Left) Golden throne. (Middle) Palace bedroom. (Right) Model used to teach young children how to ride a horse.

At the very top of the palace, there is a very nice view of the fortress and the surrounding town.

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These buildings are occupied by the townspeople. Most are used in a tourist capacity, whether they be hotels, shops, or restaurants.

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These stone balls date back to more violent times. They would be dropped onto the heads of invaders.

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(Left) This shaded bench overlooks the newer houses of Jaisalmer. (Right) Window screen carved into rock allows a discreet view of activities below.

It was hard to appreciate the attractions as the sun is even more unbearable here than in Jodhpur. I wish we could have made this trip in December when it is cooler. An interesting tidbit from the tour is that the land is so dry that a child can go seven years without ever seeing rain. On the bright side, that makes it much easier for parents to plan outdoor birthday parties in April.

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(Left) This water gutter gets very little action. (Right) This hook is used to hang wet curtains. Evaporating water cools the surrounding air.

We went to the restaurant July 8th strategically located next to the palace. The balcony seats overlooking the main square is a good place for people watching. Unlike other Rajathani women, the lady running the place is a bit vociferous. But she seems nice enough and helpful. We ordered the tawa tamancha (organic vegetables and spices with rice), navratan korma, kaju mawa korma (cashew nuts, paneer, and mawa cooked in red gravy, and a special radish parantha that we were told is only made in Jaisalmer. Those dishes were all pretty good.

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However, we were more interested in the sweets. The owner had really good specials for the day--a black currant smoothie and freshly-squeezed Alphonso mango juice. Unfortunately, she would not let us buy any of her Alphonso mangoes which she had imported from Mumbai. We finished with two refreshing ice creams. Although she recommended the honey ice cream with toasted sesame seeds, we actually enjoyed the rose ice cream better. You can really taste the essence of the rose in the sauce. I am cursing myself for not pulling the trigger on the rose syrup that I had seen earlier in Jaipur.

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We retired to the hotel for the afternoon and then did a camel safari later that evening. We elected for the "non-touristy" sunset camel ride for about 700 Rs/person. We were driven about 45 minutes into the desert where we encountered a large camp of camels and guides waiting along the side of the road for clients.

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Camel jockeys ready their animals for evening rides.

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As a camel stands up, the rider is lurched forward violently. If able to hang on, he or she will fall comfortably backwards into the saddle.

Our guide led the camels about half-an hour out towards some "empty" sand dunes. The ride was bumpy when the camels lazily sauntered on the road. Once they started galloping across the fields, it was pure torture on our derrieres. After we disembarked from the camels, we were beset by locals who seemed to appear from nowhere. After much prodding, I bought two 30 Rs. Mountain Dews--one for us, and one for the guide. Ours must have been sitting out in the hot sun for several days, because it was pretty skunky.

The next we knew, there were some musicians playing songs near us while a little 4 year-old girl all decked in traditional garb danced.

Precious? Or Pitiful?

I am okay with adults trying to hustle a living by these methods, but bringing a child into this type of business is sad. Teaching a child that young to pander just propagates the cycle of poverty. Reluctantly, I did tip them some money knowing full well that I was just encouraging their behavior. Eventually, the hawkers left us alone to enjoy the peaceful sunset.

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It's hard to see how these camels can stand being near each other as they were continuously passing gas.

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(Left) The soft sand of the Thar Desert is just like that of the beach. (Right) I enjoyed a nice, romantic desert sunset with a smelly camel.

At the end of our camel safari, I tipped the driver 200 Rs. I was surprised when he had the gall to ask for more money. It's a GRATUITY! Disgusted as I was with him, I didn't want to argue with a stranger out in the middle of the desert. I gave him another 100 Rs ($2.50) and went our separate ways.

We were glad we just did the sunset ride rather than an overnight journey. It was worth the experience since we were already in the Thar Desert, but those several issues really soured the trip. Needless to say, I am in no hurry to ride a camel again.

We ate dinner back at the Fifu Hotel. Their fare is vegetarian only. I can't begin to tell you what the dishes were.

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(Left) Maharaja thali. (Right) Rajasthani thali.

The food was good and the prices are very reasonable. Overall, compared to many of the other cities we have visited so far, Jaisalmer was the least expensive. A 300ml soda here is ~20-25 Rs compared to up to 100-125 Rs at some tourist dumps elsewhere.

During our dinner, six Indian Air Force jets did annoying flyby's over the town. We would see the jets first way overhead and then hear their sonic booms a few seconds later. The military's presence is a constant reminder that the Pakistani border is a mere 35 miles away. In the event of war, this city is toast.

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View of the illuminated fort.

We slept in the next morning as we had practically hit all of the highlights that the city offered. After breakfast at Fifu, we headed to see two havelli's. The first one is the Nathmalji Ki Havelli that was built by two brothers. One did the right side, the other the left without looking at each other's work. Surprisingly, the sides match up pretty well with only slight differences easily missed on a cursory glance. Trust me, it is not worth going inside. There is only a lame tourist shop within.

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We then proceeded to the Patwon Ki Havelli which is actually five houses originally built for one family. Currently, only a few are inhabited.

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Our guide recommended us to go to the government-owned one as its interior still contains the original craftsmanship. After paying 50 Rs/person, we entered the poorly-kept building.

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We climbed up to the second floor which had more of the painted frescos.

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I kept hearing a bunch of chirping from above. There are so many small birds and pigeons fluttering around the city that I figured it must be some bird nests up there. I looked up to take a picture and, to my surprise, discovered that the ceiling was covered with little bats. I informed my wife who beat a hasty retreat outside. As I exited the havelli, I told our guide about the bats. He nonchalantly said 'It is okay, they usually do not bite'. I guess that he usually does not worry about rabies.

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Our guide then took us to his "cousin's" shop near the Patwa Haveli which distributes locally-made textiles. Deep down, we were both thinking 'Not this s__t again!'. The owner, Amit Kumar Singh, did the usual spiel that we have heard about a billion times so far. Please look, no pressure to buy. Hand-made. Supports local craftswomen. Blah. Blah. Blah. At this point we just told him to cut to the chase. How much. After an outrageously high initial price, we haggled him down to a decent level for a table runner. His assistant took the fabric next door to make some modifications.

While we waited, we made conversation with the storekeeper. He seemed like a pretty nice guy. Amit showed us some old photographs of Rajasthan which he said his grandfather took. They were for sale, but he never even offered to sell to us. Amit told us that people here are always the unfortunate ones. Delhi gets the carpets. Agra gets the marble. Jaipur gets the jewelry. Jodhpur has nothing else so they sell the textiles. He said that most of those fabrics are really produced right outside Jaisalmer. By the time people reach the city they have either done all of their shopping or are broke. We were both.

We told him that he really needs to get a fresh sales pitch because everybody has heard it 50 times before they even step foot in Jaisalmer. We mentioned that there is a shop in Jodhpur that tells everybody they export to big name fashion houses. At that point, he blurted out 'Maharani Art Emporium'. He then proceeded to whip out the 'Kenzo' bed covering from his back store room. He said it is machine made. He said he would not sell it for more than 1500 Rs ($35). The guys in Jodhpur were selling it for a whopping $200+. We got a good laugh about that.

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Amit inside his shop.

He then invited us into his home which is actually connected to his shop. He lives there with his wife, son, and brother's family. Despite all the dirt and filth on the streets, the middle class home is clean and neat. His kitchen is spotless. His pots and pans are much cleaner than mine back home. Although the place is not huge, it is more than ample for both families.

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(Left) Amit's wife and son. (Middle) Kitchen. (Right) Living room.

He then went into great detail with my wife about the eating habits of the Brahmin caste. Tea for breakfast, bread and potatoes for lunch, no curds for dinner, and never any meat. No wonder they can stay thin. I think I have already gained 10 pounds on the ghee-rich Indian diet. We were honored to get a brief glimpse into his private life.

We ate lunch at The Trio, overlooking Gandhi Chowk market. Three of the dishes were fine, but the ker sangri was too sour. We had a few hours to kill before our train was to leave. After eating there an hour, we were given the subtle hint to leave when the manager slipped a 'reserved' placard on our table. It was not as if the restaurant was close to being full, and we were still ordering drinks too.

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(Left) Mugh E-subz - boneless chicken stir fried with vegetables. (Right) Ker sangri - desert beans and capers.

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(Left) Barvan tamatar - tomatos stuffed with vegetables, potatoes and coconuts served with gravy. (Right) Pudina paratha - flatbread seasoned with mint.

We headed back to the Fifu Hotel. We were craving ice cream which they did not have on their menu. However, in true Fifu style, they insisted upon us being perfectly happy. One of their workers went to the market and bought up some of the kesar and pista kulfi within ten minutes.

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We spent the next two hours lying on the 'couches' at their rooftop restaurant/lounge watching the slow pace of the townspeople. The fort in the distance provided a great backdrop to a relaxing afternoon.

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We caught the train back to Jodhpur and checked back into the Ratan Vilas. Our side trip to Jaisalmer burned up two days in our already tight schedule. It was scorching hot to being almost unbearable at midday. There really isn't much to see besides the fort, the ornate havelli's, and the camel safari which can all really be done in a few hours. So was it worth it? Probably. It was a chance to see a 900 year-old fort and meet friendly and interesting people like Amit the shopkeeper and the folks at Fifu. Who knows if we would have gotten that chance in the future? Someday, they may all go the way of the Dodo.

Posted by evilnoah 19:09 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan jaisalmer Comments (0)

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