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Thursday, March 1, 2012

WELCOME TO THE PALACE SIR...

JAISALMER

Well, after a morning of wandering around Jaisalmer, I would say that tourists have 'massively over sold this place'. They use phrases like 'a living fortress' (meaning people still live and work inside it). What 'a living fortress' actually means is that it is stock full of tourists and people trying to sell them shit - all at massively inflated prices. Because this part of the country uses 'copy what someone else has done if it might be working' formula for business in all things, that also seems to go for the prices of the food. Considering how well I can eat in other parts of India I'm not sure paying double or triple for the same shit here (with scenery that is about as interesting to me) is really worth it. I'm thinking 'escape tomorrow' to Bikaner. They have one bus early in the morning at 07:30 hrs. I will get up at 06:00 hrs. The hotel I am in has the very unfriendly guest checkout time of 09:00 hrs so fortunately I will be out well before that.

The place I stayed at was very nice (Prathvi Palace) and treated me very well indeed (see videos and such) but the town itself - hot, dry, dusty, infested with more flies than I've seen elsewhere in India, super aggressive touts and sellers of useless crap. I might have stayed and explored the town longer than I did but the temperature was beginning to crank up. I'd already spent a few months in SE Asia sweating my ass off and didn't want a repeat performance on the edge of a desert here.

The town itself was OK but nothing really special. Looking back to things other travelers told me causes me to wonder if there were two towns with the same name and I went to the wrong one.



RANDOM RANTINGS

So I'm sitting around talking to some Indian guys and a well dressed man (Indian) comes up and says "You had said 'Names-day' (Hindi for 'good day') to me before - but I am use to 'salem malakum' (Arabic for 'peace be with you')." I automatically responded 'Malakum al salam' (Arabic for 'and peace be with you', given as response for the prior phrase). He looked taken aback as I was sitting there in my heavily stained white pants and American t-shirt. I further surprised him by beginning to salt my conversation with more Arabic phrases and such. I could see in his face "WTF". And then I gave them a different Arabic goodbye ('salam', short hand - American equivalent would be along the lines of 'peace -out') as they left. They did tell me I should visit their state in India. I love being in a position to learn bits of other languages. I remember years ago watching the old Roger Moore James Bond movies. It was a happy day when I came to the realization that I spoke more Arabic (etc) than he did. I just wish I was a lot smarter so that I could know all of these languages fluently!! Wanted - brain upgrade.


I've been pondering the questions 'what is my favorite part of India' and 'what is my least favorite part'. My favorite part is the food. Culture, art, architecture - yes, those are wonderful - but the food goes in the belly. Most of it is good. I have been astounded that I've been mostly vegetarian for over a month and haven't minded. I've tried eating vegetarian food in the states and believe me, it tasted like 'over priced crap they tried to make look like meat products'. Here, the food is absolutely delightful. Even things I buy from street vendors are awesome. The price also makes me extremely happy. When you can sit down to an 'all you can eat' banquet for a buck and the food is excellent... Having said that - when I get out of India I'm going to spend some money on a STEAK.

My least favorite part of India are all of the people who view me as a walking ATM. Turkey is tame after this. Here, they are overly aggressive. Grabbing you, crowding you physically, etc. Fortunately, when I am cross after spending hours on a bus my glare has teeth and this usually causes all but the most desperate and stupid to look for easier prey. Unfortunately, India is chockers with desperate and stupid people.



SO, IT'S NOT JUST LOGAN

I was talking to a lady from Poland. Without prompting, she told me that because of the amount of noise Indians make - by horn, cellphone, yelling at each other, etc - she believes they are all partially deaf.



PRATHVI PALACE

Like most places in India, it has good points and bad points.

Good points - pretty clean, the fastest internet I've experienced in all of India, kind and attentive staff. The view from the restaurant of the town and fort is very nice indeed. The food at the restaurant tastes good. It's all fresh made when you order it.

Bad points - The hot water heater is absolutely horrible. They have a tank on the roof that is heated by a wood fire. It will take an hour to get hot water and even then you might not get it. I've been told this may get changed/fixed/modernized in 2013 but for now I'd consider it a 'cold water' place unless you get lucky. I suppose you could always ask them for a bucket of hot water and take a bucket shower. The other bad point is that you will be spending 200-400 RS on a meal. The restaurant is the second most expensive I found in the town. [The winner for the most expensive restaurant I personally went into goes to 'The Trio' who have signs up all over town and prices that made me ask if they were on crack.] Also, there is stuff completely outside of their control that make it a noisy room. I had to contend with an entire night of music from a wedding. Also, there are packs of feral dogs that like to bark all night and howl. (See below for my survival story against the Dogs of Doom!)

It was interesting to me that the hard working head of the kitchen was the 19 year old Panwr Heeraram. He has a lot more focus than I did at age 19 for sure. He has two assistants, age 13 and 14. While Americans may whine about 'child labor', in India if a kid has a job like that, he is one of the lucky ones. Those guys come from really poor families and both are illiterate.

The magic question is 'would I stay there again?' Yeah. If not for the temperature creeping up I might have stayed there longer. The owner and staff did their best to make me feel welcomed and (aside from the shower) the room was comfortable. When I started finding myself falling back into mid day siestas I knew it was time to leave Jaisalmer.



TRAVEL TO BIKANER

For reasons I can't comprehend - or because it has been dropped before - my cheap digital watch bought in the Republic of Georgia completely failed to wake me up. Since I am old, I get up a lot anyway and noticed that it was nearly half an hour after the time I had set my non-functioning alarm to wake me. So, I sprung (slowly) out of bed and - power outage.

Fortunately, I had done most of the packing the night before. And I can pack in the dark. And I have several flashlights. I make that shit work!

The employees of the hotel sleeping in the lobby didn't stir so I let myself out.

Finding a tuk tuk before 7AM was not an easy thing. Fortunately, I had scouted out the area and knew a likely direction to head.

As I wandered around in the pre-dawn light, a pack of perhaps seven feral dogs decided to menace Logan. [Note, if you are looking for Dogs of Doom, this is it.] So, I backed down the lead dog a couple times. It was a pain in the ass because I was in a hurry to find a tuk tuk but trying to hurry while yelling down dogs who are thinking they want a go with Logan is rough. Unfortunately, Hinduism prevents the destruction of these animals that need it so badly. Nor will they let a violent foreigner. Who would do it for free. With a mallet and some road flares.

I had been told that a bus ticket was 200 RS. Since the bus station ticket office wasn't open, I had to purchase a ticket on the bus and it was 227 RS.

Due to the earlier power outage and my forgetfulness, I had forgotten to take the 'pre-game dump'. Always a good idea when taking the buses here in India. Especially since there are no bathrooms on the bus nor do they stop for them. Almost immediately after getting on the bus, my bowels said "You know you fucked up, right?" Not good.

About an hour after we had started, the yeller (ticket taker and guy who yells at people what bus it is) told me we would be stopping for twenty minutes. After chaining my backpack to the 'oh shit' bar in the bus, I searched in vain for a bathroom and got directed to ...an empty field. Fortunately, I had brought my 'travel bag' as everyone should when traveling on a bus or train. The travel bag must include a roll of toilet paper. So, I used the empty field. Not as easy as it sounds. Not by a long shot. Then the TP. Then, the water from the bag. Then, we were off.

Unfortunately, my condition was worse than I thought. Lets just say it was an amazingly uncomfortable six hours with no stops till we got to Bikaner. Very, very uncomfortable.

When we arrived in Bikaner, I paid 5 RS for the privilage of using a filthy squat toilet. I locked up my backpack in another room because I have 'trust issues' and several padlocks.

The oft wrong Lonely Planet didn't list anywhere I was really thrilled about staying in Bikner so I ended up wandering around a bit. Eventually, a guy came to help out. I think he was after a commission. Anyone who wants to call 'their friend' who happens to work at a hotel/guesthouse - you know the deal. But I wasn't finding anything really decent so I figured 'why not'. He called the 'Desert Wind' guesthouse. 500 RS, I was told. My budget is 400 RS and they must have internet for that price, I responded. A call back and suddenly, yes they do. So we go there. After paying a taxi to take me over there the rude guy at the desk informs me that two hours of internet is 110 RS. In a town where 10 RS/hour seems to be the norm, this is extortion. I mentioned he could have said something before we came over. He informed me that it was the other guys fault. I simply turned and left. Once out, I thanked the other guy who had just seen his commission fall through. I wanted to make it clear that I was going off on my own.

So, I was back to wandering around. I said 'screw it' and went and asked a guy working at a newsstand if he knew of any hotels or guesthouses for 500 RS or less.

This is a tricky question. Not many people who live in a town actually have a clue about how much guesthouses charge - but I figured he could at least point me in the direction of one that he suspected might cost in that area.

Oh, sure he says. Hotel Sagar. Tired of walking, I have a tuk tuk drop me off...

In front of a palace. Literally, a palace.

What...the...fuck...

A simple glance at it said "This is so far out of your price range you would not believe it." Plus, I've seen tourist sites that looked less well maintained. The Hotel Sagar is literally built in some guy's palace.

Screw it. I'm tired. I'll go in and at least price the rooms. Maybe they can tell me where a cheap place is. Or give me a crappy photocopy of a map of the city.

So, I go in and have a conversation with the manager. Who is wearing a suit. So out of my price range. There are several older Indian gentlemen sitting behind the chair I was sitting in talking to the manager. I didn't know it, but one was the owner. And I think he must have given the manager 'the nod'.

What is your budget?
500 RS.
700 RS?
500 RS.
600 RS?
500 RS.
OK. We can give you a room for that.
Does it have WIFI? Must have wifi.
Maybe - lets go take a look at the room, you check your computer.

And it did have wifi.

After doing my normal pay, get receipt thing he hands me the 'tarriff card' which shows prices. The lowest priced room they have - 2000 RS. Highest priced, 5500 RS.

Chatting with the owner, he tells me that people are more important than money. He even offered full board (3 meals a day) for an extra 600 RS. That would put me a bit over my budget. It was tempting. I ended up just negotiating a single meal for 150 RS instead. I can recommend the 'paneer butter masala' as well as the 'pineapple raita' (think thin yogurt with pineapple). I'm happy to be squatting in the trash on the streets sucking down a 5 RS dirty cup of tea with the other natives in the morning rather than eating a 200 RS breakfast.

The shower is nice. Hot and with great water pressure.

So, now I'm staying at a palace.

Dressed like a bum.

I'm not sure why they decided 'hey, lets have this cheap and obviously poor American stay here'. Yeah, it could be that I am a travel writer - or they are just generous people.

My life is very strange sometimes.



WHERE NEXT?

I'm currently in Bikaner trying to figure out what to do. I've got two options that I see. I can either stick with my original plan and head east or deviate and go into the state of Punjab up north. The problem with Punjab is that they seem to have only two real tourist things. One is a 20 minute border ceremony at the Pakistan border. People say it is a neat show. The other thing is the big golden temple. Ironically, it is called 'The Golden Temple'. It has gold plating over the outside. I'd like to see it but word is the town it is in is absolutely insane. I'm not thrilled about that. Other than that, the guide books don't have much to say on the Punjab state.

I am looking forward to eventually taking a break from the constant high pressure of India in Nepal but Matt has pushed back his possible travel date to May. Hence, I'm not sure what I want to do for the next two months. If I go into Nepal, I am stuck there for three months (duration of the visa) or at least barred from India for two months due to their legal mumbo jumbo.



TRAVELER'S TIPS

A lot of Indian businessmen, in an effort to be wily, ask 'What's your name?' as you pass. This is so later, they can try to get your attention. "Hello Logan! You come into my shop?" It is better to give them a name you don't care about and one that is funny at the same time. Such as Godzilla. That way, when you pass their shop in the future, you can have a good laugh. Note, I don't recommend doing this at the place you are actually staying.


How to get a hotel/guesthouse room in India:

1. Walk up to the counter. Be aware of who you are talking to. Older men are the best - you will hardly ever talk to a woman - as they may be the owner or manager. [Note that asking them if they are the owner/manager may result in the 'lie' circuitry being activated. Get good at spotting it. Asking to see the owner or manager may result in more lies along the lines of "I am". You can always try but it fails about half the time. If you are lucky enough to be talking to the owner/manager or someone with actual power, this may work. If it doesn't, go to a different place. Note that this does not work if you are stupid or desperate enough to have arrived in the middle of the night, look like you are ready to collapse from exhaustion and so on.]

2. I am interested in a room. My budget is X. [If you have a big budget, you can just ask the price and try to haggle from there. If, like me, you have a small budget then just tell them what it is. They will either begin negotiating or give you a flat no. If you are talking to someone with no power (ie a lackey), they are generally only authorized to go with a 10%-20% variation in price.

3. At this point, the person behind the counter will try to avoid answering any of your questions (how much is the room, does it have wifi) and want to show you the room. You have two options at this point. You can either lug your heavy pack up god knows how many flights of stairs to see a room well out of your budget or you can start repeating your question and refusing to go with them until you get an answer. Because I do not wish to give up the perception of being in control during the negotiation I usually say "You can grab all of the keys you want but I'm not going anywhere until you answer my question." I recommend saying this with a smile and charm - phrase it how you want. Or you can just plant your feet and repeat your questions until you get answers. Usually the ones who want to 'show you the room' are just wasting your and their time. The answers are usually 'no' and 'way out of your budget'. Don't fall for their shit.

4. Once you go to the room, test everything you want. Do you want hot water? Stand there and run it until it comes out. They will usually say 'You have to wait five minutes'. Stand there and wait five minutes or you can assume (probably correctly) that you will never see warm water. Literally, test everything you want while you are standing there 'seeing' the room. If it doesn't have it, you won't get it later. "Oh, could I have X?" Of course they will answer. You probably won't get it. Once you've tested the room to your satisfaction you can also (if you aren't completely happy or not too dead on your feet) ask if they have other rooms that cost exactly the same. This is important. Being inexact (stupid) and saying "Do you have another room?" Of course they do. It costs double what you thought you'd be paying and they may neglect to mention it.

5. Special note if you want wifi in your room. Ask for the password. People that told me repeatedly there was 'wifi in the room' were suddenly shocked and embarrassed when I asked for the password. They would then point out a crappy computer with lots of viruses and popups on it. "There is the internet! And here are the costs!" They always say it like they didn't think I'd find out. Baffling.

6. Once you are satisfied with your room - or too tired/desperate to leave and find somewhere better go fill out the forms. India has a lot of forms. The more expensive places fill out the forms for you, the cheaper ones make you fill out the useless paperwork. They will make a xerox of your passport. Be sure to get your passport back.

7. Pay for the room - just one night at a time. Get a receipt. They won't want to give you a receipt. They will claim they never had to give anyone else one, that their hotel has never had a single problem in the three hundred years it has been open, that they are honest nice people... All of these things may be true but a receipt is for your protection. If you don't demand one when handing them money you either have too much money or too little brains. If they fail to sway you with their cries of "I am nice man with happy thoughts!", they may say "We will send the receipt to your room later." See number 4 and refuse to leave the manager/desk monkey's side without a receipt. It won't be sent to your room. The amount of time I've been argued with about the receipt usually far exceeds the amount of time it takes them to scribble on a business card or blank piece of paper the date, paid X RS and their name. I personally like to pay for the room one day at a time and get a receipt each and every time. Don't lapse on this simple thing.

8. After your first night in the room, if you think you will be in a place for a prolonged period of time you can negotiate for a better room rate. Always stay at least one night before considering this. You may discover bad things about your room that early tests (see #4) failed to turn up. Like it is infested with rats. [Yes, been there.] Note that it is a rare tourist that will want to stay in one town for enough days to be able to haggle down a room price. The shortest period of time I was able to stay to haggle down a room price was four days.

I realize this looks extremely jaded. With about half of the owners and workers at hotels I don't have a problem. But there are quite a few that make you stay absolutely on your guard at all times. Some are charming and will make you think "I don't need to do Logan's checklist". As you (about half the time) are getting ripped off (or at least not getting what you thought you were going to get or had wanted), just remember my phrase "Either too much money or too little brains."


Why you can't buy bus tickets more than fifteen to thirty minutes before the bus is scheduled to leave:

I spoke to a ticket seller about this. According to him, they have no clue what bus will actually be showing up - and the ticket is made specifically for that bus. When the bus arrives, the driver (or 'yeller') goes to the ticket window and informs him which bus number it is. [Note, if the 'yeller' is over age sixty, they get shot. Just like a different old yeller.]


Understanding the phrase "That bus toes not allow tourists". In some countries, they try to channel tourists onto the more expensive overnight trains and such. It is still possible to get onto the non-tourist ones but it freaks out the people running them and they aren't quite sure what to do with you. In India, the phrase "That bus toes not allow tourists" has a different meaning. The translation is "I am wanting to con you out of money. If you are not stupid, you will leave without another word."



PHILOSOPHY

The only music I like is music I can turn off.



VIDEOS

Prathvi Palace rooftop view
Prathvi Palace room view



PRICES

Travel sized (is there any other size for Logan?) tube of toothpaste, 10 RS.

Roll of 'sturdy' toilet paper, 30 RS.

Jaisalmer to go from one side of the fort to the other - they will say 100 RS but you can pay 20 RS if you know how to bargain.

Pot of coffee from Top Deck Restaurant, 40 RS. Other food from Top Deck ranges in the 100-300 RS but when I was there it looked dirty. It's amazing how the externals of a restaurant can modify your hunger.

Mildly crappy 'Kingfisher' brand beer. Pretty much every restaurant and guesthouse sells it for 150 RS. Or, you can go to an 'alcohol store' and buy it for 80 RS. Unfortunately, only the high end places have fridges in this part of the world. Unlike in Cambodia. I miss my Cambodian fridge...

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PICTURES

{{2011}} London, GB | Rail N Sail | Amsterdam, Netherlands | Prague, Czech Republic | Budapest, Hungary | Sarajevo, Bosnia | Romania | Chisinau, Moldova | Ukraine: Odessa - Sevastopol | Crossed Black Sea by ship | Georgia: Batumi - Tbilisi - Telavi - Sighnaghi - Chabukiani | Turkey: Kars - Lost City of Ani - Goreme - Istanbul | Jordan: Amman - Wadi Rum | Israel | Egypt: Neweiba - Luxor - Karnak - Cairo | Thailand: Bangkok - Pattaya - Chaing Mai - Chaing Rei | Laos: Luang Prabang - Pakse | Cambodia: Phnom Penh | Vietnam: Vung Tau - Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City

{{2012}} Cambodia: Kampot - Sihanoukville - Siem Reap - Angkor Wat | Thailand: Bangkok | India: Rishikesh - Ajmer - Pushkar - Bundi - Udaipur - Jodhpur - Jasalmer - Bikaner - Jaipur - Agra - Varanasi | Nepal: Kathmandu - Chitwan - Pokhara - Bhaktapur - (Rafting) - Dharan | India: Darjeeling - Calcutta Panaji | Thailand: Bangkok - again - Krabi Town | Malaysia, Malaka | Indonesia: Dumas - Bukittinggi - Kuta - Ubud - 'Full Throttle' - Gili Islands - Senggigi | Cambodia: Siem Reap | Thailand: Trat | Turkey: Istanbul | Georgia: Tbilisi

{{2013}} Latvia: Riga | Germany: Berlin | Spain: Malaga - Grenada | Morocco: Marrakech - Essauira - Casablanca - Chefchawen - Fes | Germany: Frankfurt | Logan's Home Invasion USA: Virginia - Michigan - Indiana - Illinois - Illinois - Colorado | Guatemala: Antigua - San Pedro | Honduras: Copan Ruinas - Utila | Nicaragua: Granada | Colombia: Cartagena | Ecuador: Otavalo - Quito - Banos - Samari (a spa outside of Banos) - Puyo - Mera

{{2014}} Peru: Lima - Nasca - Cusco | Dominican Republic | Ukraine: Odessa | Bulgaria: Varna - Plovdiv | Macedonia: Skopje - Bitola - Ohrid - Struga | Albania: Berat - Sarande | Greece: Athens | Italy: Naples - Pompeii - Salerno | Tunisia: Hammamet 1

{{2015}} Hammamet 2 | South Africa: Johnnesburg | Thailand: Hua Hin - Hat Yai | Malaysia: Georgetown | Thailand: Krabi Town | Indonesia:
Sabang Island | Bulgaria: Plovdiv | Romania: Ploiesti - Targu Mures | Poland: Warsaw | Czech Republic: Prague | Germany: Munich | Netherlands: Groningen | England: Slough | Thailand: Ayutthaya - Khon Kaen - Vang Vieng | Cambodia: Siem Reap

{{2016}} Thailand: Kanchanaburi - Chumphon | Malaysia: Ipoh - Kuala Lumpur - Kuching - Miri | Ukraine: Kiev | Romania: Targu Mures - Barsov | Morocco: Tetouan

{{2017}} Portugal: Faro | USA: Virginia | Michigan | Illinois | Colorado |

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