Thursday, May 31, 2007

Dubai: Beyond Incredible!

When we first realized this world trip might become a reality, my top destination was Dubai. This in turn influenced our decision to fly Emirates, the national airline, and our entire itinerary. Given my high expectations, there was a danger that I’d be disappointed with what we found. Well, there was no need to worry. While India claims to be ‘incredible’, Dubai is ‘beyond incredible’. As I said to an Australian lady on our initial tour of the city, “Even though I’m sitting here looking at these developments, I still can’t believe what I’m seeing!”

Although we had been planning to come here for years, I didn’t do a very good job of planning our accommodation. Since Wotif doesn’t operate in Dubai, and I didn’t really know where to stay, I put off organizing a hotel until the very last minute. In fact, we arrived at the airport not knowing whether we had a place to stay, or not. But thanks to the efforts of my good friend and SFU colleague W
arren Gill, and his former student Robert Booth, and his assistant Sharon Andrews at Emaar, we soon found ourselves in an Admiral’s room at the Dhou Plaza, a new five star hotel in Bar Dubai.

It was a very impressive yet comfortable hotel, with numerous restaurants and lounges, and a wonderful rooftop pool and s
pa with a sauna and steam bath. I used the steam for a brief time in the hope that it might make it seem cooler outside. Fortunately the rate we paid was less than the rack rate of over 2000 aed (about $650). As both Warren and Robert cautioned me, hotels are expensive in Dubai.

Not only are they expensive, but they can be incredibly deluxe. There are numerous 4 and 5 star hotels, the latter always having bidets in the bathroom. I found the Dubai hotels to be amongst the most extravagant in the world. But it’s not surprising. Dubai has to be the most ‘over the top’ place in the world. It is Monte Carlo and Las Vegas, without the gambling. It is also Los Angeles (in terms of its car culture); New York, Paris or London (in terms of its sophistication); while at the same time part of the Middle East. I think it’s even more international than Singapore and Hong Kong, although it doesn’t yet have the vibrancy of either of these places.

But then, it shouldn’t be surprising that it is so international. 80% of the residents are ex-pats from around the world, living here permanently, or on contracts. While they can never become citizens, they get to enjoy the opportunity to purchase freehold property, and live in a tax free environment, with almost 365 days of sunshine every year. When they go to the grocery store, they can buy virtually anything they want from anywhere in the world. Sally’s poolside hamburger came with small jars of French Dijon mustard, English made ketchup, German mayonnaise, and Southern US tabasco sauce.

There were also a few other surprises. I didn’t realize that Dubai is built around a creek, which serves as part of its port system. Old wooden barges or dhous transport a wide variety of goods to the Dubai and elsewhere in the Middle East. The goods are left on the dock, without being locked up, since anyone caught stealing faces very severe penalties. (Dubai is a very safe and crime fee city.) Visitors can take an afternoon cruise, as we did or a dinner cruise along the creek. They can also travel across it for a 1 d coin (about 30 cents). This is a great way to travel between the old souks or markets that are located around the city.Another surprise was the age of the place. Most of the people visiting Dubai are significantly older than most of the buildings! An excellent display in the Dubai Museum gives a good overview of the rapid growth of the place. Indeed, most of what one sees on the skyline was built since the mid 80’s, and the amount of development currently underway is unprecedented. In fact, it is claimed that between one half and two thirds of all the tower cranes in the world are currently in Dubai! And the rest seem to be in Beijing and Shanghai! While the city is very new, and quite artificial, it is a great place to visit.
Although Sally was somewhat apprehensive about coming here, once she found that it has the second largest Marks & Spencers in the world, grocery stores selling her favourite cereal, and virtually every other major shop in the world selling goods at duty free prices, she realized it was not going to be very difficult enjoying herself. And it goes without saying, but with its spotless crime free streets, inexpensive taxis, air conditioned malls, and impressive buildings, it was a change from India!

Incredible India: Some Final Observations

Before going to sleep on our last night in the Ashoka Hotel, where we were given exactly the same room that we were given 10 days earlier (a coincidence, I’m sure; their computer system can’t be that sophisticated!), Sally and I discussed our feelings about our 11 days in India. On one hand, it had seemed much longer than 11 days. On the other, there were places that we regretted not getting to see. Initially, when we planned this world trip, we thought we would have sufficient time to travel to the south to see Bangalore and Goa. We still want to go there. We would also like to go further north into the hills, which had been part of an earlier itinerary.

There is no doubt that while we were still disturbed by the poverty, filth and stench of many of the places we visited, we did start to see another side of India during our final days. We really enjoyed Jaisalmer and would recommend it to others, although not in May. I would also recommend Chandigarh to anyone in the design and development world, since it has managed to keep true to Le Corbusier’s original vision, (even if a lot of the buildings and concrete work need attention). We would recommend that visitors try to get to know local residents to get a better glimpse of the true character of the people. There is no doubt that we got a very different impression of the country from the kind and generous people we met on our final train trips. But if India wants to attract more tourists, the government should more closely monitor its Travel Industry. It is simply wrong to allow a private company to get away with using a name that’s almost identical to the government’s own tourism department. Similarly, there is a need to clarify the relationship between the government offices and the private companies that operate out of them. I still don’t understand how Exotic Adventures can operate out of an office with the India Government Tourism’s name on the door. Is the government really getting half of the payment, as one Tour operator suggested to me?

There need to be improvements to the government owned train system. The trains are filthy and the stations are most uncomfortable. Moreover, we weren’t allowed us to reschedule our full fare tickets without having to again pay the full amount, with just a promise that we would be reimbursed! However, we did appreciate the food service on the Chandigarh trip, and a request to fill out a service quality questionnaire! If only they had asked about the condition of the trains and stations!

Delhi Airport needs a lot of improvement. It’s the worst airport we have seen. For example, the business lounge is small, privately operated, with few amenities. There is only one computer, and you can’t use your laptop without going through a complicated payment system. By the time you have figured it out, the plane is leaving. While this may seem like a small thing, I think it is symbolic of the country’s backward attitudes.

On the other hand, our eleven days have convinced us there are thousands of wonderful sites to see, and millions of wonderful people to meet in India. I appreciated the comments of one anonymous visitor to our website who wrote in response to our India postings to say how disappointed she (it sounded like a she) was that we hadn’t had a great experience in India. She had been here 4 times and constantly dreamed of returning.

Well, that’s not us. At least not yet; but we do plan on coming back to visit Bangalore, Goa and some of the southern coastal communities. However, next time, we’ll find another Tour Agency to book our travels. And we will try to not have anything to do with the government, the train system, or Exotic Adventures, if we can help it. Although, in one respect, the latter was true to its name: we certainly had an adventure!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Chandigarh: an experiment in Urban Planning

Our day in Chandigarh began with a wonderful gourmet breakfast, and the morning papers which were full of accounts of the previous day’s troubles. I won’t go into the cause of the disturbance, other than to say it was something that would never happen in Vancouver. We then met our driver for the day, only to discover that once again, the Tour Agency had screwed up, and this driver was being provided by the hotel at our cost. In the end, we set off anyway, and started with a tour of an Architectural Museum that was created solely to tell the story of Chandrigarh. I couldn’t help but think how wonderful it would be if at some time in the future, there is a similar place to tell the story of UniverCity!

Chandigarh is considered one of the most important urban planning experiments of the 20th Century. It was planned by the famous French architect and planner Le Corbusier as a new Capital City for the region, and a place to house thousands of refugees who had been uprooted from West Punjab following India’s independence from England. Although Le Corbusier developed plans for numerous planned cities, this is the only one that was ever implemented. I was surprised to learn that in fact, Le Corbusier was not the original planner selected for the town. Rather, the initial planning was started by an American firm led by Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki that had been personally selected by Nehru, the first Prime Minister. However, Nowicki was tragically killed in a plane crash, and the firm didn’t want to continue.

Le Corbusier’s plan is legendary, as our many of the buildings that he designed throughout the community. His plan is based on four key functions: living, working, circulation, and care of body and spirit. Most of his buildings incorporate strong geometric forms, and raw, exposed concrete. Sally thought that it looked like Arthur Erickson had been here! Many of the buildings are quite timeless in their designs, and one would never guess they were over 50 years old; unless you look closely at the concrete, (that wasn’t that well done in the first place), since it is disintegrating quite badly. (And Lee Gavel at SFU thinks he has problems keeping Erickson’s structures in good shape!)

As we drove around, our tour was greatly enhanced by the company of two young Swedish girls, (one an architectural student studying in Denmark), who we had met in the Architectural Museum. At the age of 24, Karin was on a pilgrimage to India to see some of the great architecture of the past. Somewhat ironically, in 1969 when I was 21, I made a similar trip to Sweden, which was considered a great centre of design at the time. Admittedly, I was also interested in other Swedish things at that age! So was my traveling mate, Eli Harari, who went on to create SanDisk. He eventually married a wonderful Swedish girl, and they are still together in Saratoga, California.

One of the day’s highlights was standing outside the government employees’ housing that was built as part of the first phase. As we were taking pictures, an older turbaned man came out of the townhouse and said to us (and I’m not making this up) “Hello, I’m a Canadian on holiday in India. Can I help you?” It turned out that he had been a government official for many years in Chandigarh, and although he now lived in Windsor Ontario, he and his family had been allowed to continue to rent the place. He invited us in, gave us a tour of his surprisingly large home, and would have kept us for the entire day, had we not finally excused ourselves. The design of his development was most impressive in terms of its contemporary aesthetic, and the manner in which the deep exterior walls managed to keep it quite cool inside.

While books have been written about Chandigarh and its overall approach to community planning, here are just a few of the highlights for me:

  • The city is built up from a series of rectangles, each 1200 by 800 metres, which are fully self sufficient with housing, shops, community and recreational facilities;
  • Careful consideration was given to the hierarchy of roads, so that only slow moving traffic goes through a sector; particular attention was given to pedestrians and cyclists;
  • Le Corbusier developed both a Statute for the Land, and an Edict to help guide the planning process, and help future residents understand the underlying principles of the community plan;
  • The landscaping was considered to be as important as the buildings; the Edict sets out requirements with respect to replacement planting to ensure that the original objectives can be achieved;
  • No personal statues shall ever be permitted. These were seen as representative of a by-gone era and not in keeping with the new spirit of art for the city; ‘commemoration of persons shall be confined to suitably placed bronze plaques’!
  • ‘The truthfulness of materials’ concrete, bricks, stone must be maintained for present and future buildings;
  • Only industrial activities powered by electricity were permitted, so as to avoid polluting the environment;
  • A man-made lake was to be considered as a gift from the creators to the residents, and to ensure its tranquility, there would be a perpetual ban on any noises;
  • Art was considered an integral part of the community design, and was to be provided throughout the community; and
  • Certain areas were designated as worthy of special architectural interest, and a central commercial area was to preserved as a pedestrian only zone.

While some parts of Chandigarh are falling into disrepair and need renovation, there are many new buildings. The overall impression was very different than that which we had seen elsewhere. We were particularly taken with some of the original and newer luxury housing areas, which included the kinds of homes one sees around the west side of Vancouver, including along Southwest Marine Drive. (Although some of it would cause Le Corbusier to turn over in his grave!)

Interestingly, Chandigarh was initially conceived as a city for 150,000 people. This estimate was then increased; however, today the city has exceeded all projections, and it is continuing to grow.

A few final observations. Signs on bus shelters around town encourage residents to grow more trees and to educate their children! The gardens are numerous and impressive, especially the ‘rock garden’ which is built in a most whimsical way with recycled materials, such as broken electrical outlets. The housing, especially the town houses are very well designed, with what we would consider ‘elaborate’ exterior wall construction, However, in the newspaper I saw an ad for a new development on the Chandigarh-Ludhiana Road in nearby Morinda. It features Victorian facades, similar to what one might find in San Francisco or parts of Abbotsford. I just hope Le Corbusier’s edicts will ensure this stuff never creeps into his city. And it is still ‘his’ city!

I am so delighted we were able to rearrange our schedule in order to spend a day here.

Back on the Trains: Jaisalmer to Chandigarh

We awoke the next morning, happy not to be in the middle of the desert. After breakfast in the courtyard in front of our cabin, we were taken on a tour of the nearby small desert village. It was quite fascinating and remarkable. Inside one of the small huts, someone had covered the walls with Christmas decorations and pictures torn from magazines. One of them showed a small house set in an English garden. Obviously, this was their dream; but they were a long way away.

At mid morning we left the camp and went back into the town. Again, it was really too hot to do very much, so we returned to our hotel and stayed in the room taking regular showers in an effort to keep cool. It was about 46 degrees outside. Around one o’clock, we went off for lunch, following which we returned to our favourite internet cafĂ© to see if there was any more good news! But after a short while, the power went off (a frequent occurrence), and we returned to the hotel, took another shower, and set off for the train station and the 19 hour trip back to Delhi

We were just getting settled into our seats when we were visited by our ‘neighbours’ from the next compartment. They were part of a large group of families and friends from Delhi and Jaipur, who had been in Jaisalmer to visit a temple and experience an overnight camel safari. Most of them spoke very good English and a few were in the Travel and Tourism business. They too had been out in the desert during the storm, but had managed to keep out of the rain. They told us the storm was an extremely rare event for this time of the year.

They were interested in our travels around India and our experiences with Indian Travel Agencies. They looked at our itinerary, told us we had paid much too much, but noted this was not uncommon. Unfortunately, the close relationship between a few tour agencies and the government tourist bureau is well known, and many other tourists have been fooled and ended up in a similar situation to us. They urged us to follow up with our consulate, since then the Indian Government might pay more attention. We promised to do so, and will.

Over the next few hours, one by one, different members of the group came to sit with us. We enjoyed it immensely. Someone had a bottle of Indian whiskey that didn’t take very long to finish off. We were particularly impressed with three of the children who stayed with us for hours. They were so bright, and interesting, and the time passed surprisingly quickly. This group of elegant, well educated people was so different than most of the other people we had met in India. How different our experiences might have been had we met up with them when we first arrived!

At 11 pm, someone got off the train at Jodhpur and returned with large packaged dinners for everyone, including us. Around midnight Sally said goodnight to her new friend, we popped some pills, and went to sleep, with our baggage secured under our beds. It was a much more enjoyable night than that in the third class sleeper, but it still didn’t compare with the Chinese trains where we had a private, secured compartment and much nicer bedding and fixtures.

We arrived in Delhi around 11, and were picked up at the station by our driver, who gave us our train tickets to Chandigarh. He took us to the India Tourism Office/Exotic Adventures travel agency where we told them about our experience in the desert and our concerns about what we had been promised, and what had been delivered. Jehangir Badyari the Sales and Marketing Director, told us that he had arranged for a car and driver to take us to Chandigarh. We told him it wasn’t necessary since we were too frightened to drive in India, and were happy to take the train. Moreover, we already had our tickets. He then promised a full breakdown of the costs, and a refund on four train tickets that we had to purchase on our return the next day. (Of course we didn’t receive either.)

At 4 pm we were taken to another train station to get the train to Chandigarh. Once again, the station was a zoo with thousands of people all over the platforms. This time we were in a ‘club seat’ and were expecting something quite nice. But once again, it was the same dirty grey vinyl seats and awful toilets. However, this trip was also made most pleasant by our ‘neighbours’.

When they heard why we were going to Chandigarh, one of them went onto the internet and provided me with all sorts of useful background information on the original community plans. We talked about life in India, the growing information technology businesses, in which one was employed. (The other was with KPMG). They also told us there had been some religious insurrections in Chandigarh that day and all the businesses and offices in thecity had been closed. That was why they were on the train and they said we were lucky we weren’t driving, since many of the cars on the highway were being stopped and turned back! When the train arrived in Chandigarh, they escorted us out of the station, fending off the taxi drivers and other touts who were after us, until we found our driver.

On the drive to our hotel, Sally remarked “This place looks normal!” Indeed, the roads were in very good condition; there were painted lane markers, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, beautiful landscaping, and illuminated shops along the route. And there were no cows on the streets. It looked very much like many of Vancouver’s suburban areas.

We arrived at the Taj Chandigarh hotel looking like we had just spent a couple of nights sleeping on trains and in a desert. I felt like the disheveled character in the old American Express TV ad that wanders out of the ocean into a beautiful hotel, with nothing but his Amex credit card, and is looked after very well. We too were looked after by the immaculately dressed staff and shown to one of the best furnished contemporary rooms we have experienced on our trip. We showered, changed and went down to the restaurant for a most enjoyable dinner, elated by the contrast with our previous evenings Again, we got into a conversation with a local resident at the next table who was there with his family. We learned a bit more about Chandigarh, and how it is generally considered, along with Bangalore and Hyderabad, as India’s most educated and livable cities.

We returned to our room to watch more Indian commercials, music videos and situation comedies. Now we knew that that the people we saw on television really did exist in India. We just hadn’t seen them on the streets of Old Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. It was also nice to experience real bedding again. As I tried to go to sleep, I couldn’t wait to tour the city and see how Le Corbusier’s experimental town had turned out.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Jaisalmer: A Day to Remember!

The next morning, we returned to the dining room for breakfast. The waiter confirmed Sally’s suspicion about the birthday boy. He was in fact an Israeli military man, in Jaisalmer to help train the Indian army.

At 9 am our car arrived and took us into the city where we stopped at a small hotel. The travel agent arrived and told us this would be our base for the day, until we left for our camel safari around 4pm. He said there was no point going any earlier since it would be too hot. He hoped everything was alright, and was about to leave when I asked where our guide was. "Do you want a guide?" "Of course," I said, noting that we had paid Exotic Adventures for a guide for the previous night and today. Ten minutes later, a dapper man in an immaculately pressed white linen shirt, grey wool trousers and shiny black shoes appeared. His name was Murli, and if the diamond studs in his ears were real, he wouldn't have to work for a living. He immediately told us that he was a Brahmin and wore a red spot on his forehead to signify it. He led us into the Fort, and in between saying hello to almost every passer by, told us about life in Jaisalmer and India as a whole. He took us to a few of the beautiful temples and old mansions, known as havelis in the town. They were all carved from golden sandstone, and looked quite magnificent. Although Murli told us he had little schooling, he spoke beautiful English and French. He was a delight to be with.

At noon he left us, and we wandered back through the town searching for our hotel. We thought how ridiculous it would be if we couldn’t find it, since our luggage was there. As we passed the shops, we were tempted to buy things since prices were very low and there were few other tourists in town. Sally wanted a blue skirt, but couldn't find one. A charming merchant offered to make her one in 30 minutes for 200 rupees (about $5.50). She agreed, but then he asked if he could change the design a bit, and have more time, and we decided to move on. Eventually we did find our hotel, although by now the temperature was in the mid 40's, and we were both completely soaked in perspiration.

We decided we should eat something. We had been given the name of one of the better restaurants in town, and set off to find it. (The assumption being we were less likely to get sick in a good restaurant!). We found it, but it was really too hot to enjoy the food. As we were leaving, we saw an Internet sign, and having time to kill before heading off for the desert, we decided to check our email and look for hotels in Dubai and Athens. Sally's first email message brought tears of joy to her eyes. It was from Georgia and read "I got in!" Attached was a letter of congratulations from UBC's School of Medicine. It seemed so surreal getting this wonderful news in a tiny, hot internet cafe in Rajasthan.

We returned to the hotel, packed our bags and got into a waiting car. The driver didn’t speak a word of English, and I suddenly thought how amazing it was that we were traveling with a man we didn’t know into the middle of nowhere with all our baggage, without any real idea of where we were going or what was happening. But we didn’t worry too much since we were still on a high over Georgia’s good news.

After an hour, we arrived at a somewhat rough looking place with some small cabins, huts, and a central lean-to with a few plastic chairs. Sure enough, it was the resort named on our itinerary. We were welcomed by a young man in a colourful shirt who told us that the camels were ready when we were. Did we want to sleep at the resort or in the desert? We looked at each other, and asked to see the rooms. We were shown a small room, with a tiny window and small bathroom. We then asked about the desert camp. Would there be other people? Yes, there was an English couple who had just set off. Were there toilet facilities? Yes, outside the tent. I wanted to know where most people stayed. “Out in the desert, since it’s a different type of experience” said the young man. “You can always sleep in a room.”

“In for a penny, in for a pound” said Sally. “We’ll sleep in the desert.

The camel ride was surprisingly enjoyable. Sally’s guide was a lovely older man from a nearby village and he was accompanied by a young boy, about 11 or 12. We rode for about an hour, and then stopped for a rest near a small village. Nearby was the other couple; the Englishman who we had seen the day before at the Crematorium and his Australian girlfriend. The guide went and got food for the camels, and we set off. After 45 minutes we stopped. “How about here?” he asked. We were flabbergasted. Were we going to stop here? Where were the tents? Where was the camp?

Sure enough, they removed a tent from Sally’s camel, and the old man and boy tried to assemble it. “Do you know how this goes together?” he asked. “I can’t remember. Most people sleep without a tent.” At this point we just looked at each other and laughed. We had paid a lot of money for this safari, and were expecting one of the wonderful tent set-ups like the Moodies had in Africa, or those illustrated in the Taj Hotel brochure. Fortunately, we were still overjoyed that Georgia had got into medical school, so I wasn’t as agitated as I might otherwise have been. After 20 minutes, it became apparent that the tent wasn’t coming together, and the guide said he would go back to his village and get another tent and our dinner.

And so, as the sun started to set, Sally and I sat on the sand with a young boy who couldn’t speak English, and watched our guide head off on a camel. About 15 minutes later, a young boy appeared, carrying a blue bag. He sat down and asked where we were from. Vancouver”, we said. “Where are you from?” “Khuri, a small nearby village” he responded. I wanted to know where he had learned to speak English so well. “From tourists”, he said. “Do you work with them?” I asked. “Yes” he said. “I sell Pepsis. Do you want one?” “Sure”, I replied, and before I could say another word he opened it. I handed him a 20 rupee note. “ 50” he said. “50 rupees!” I exclaimed. “They are 10 or 15 in town”. “Yes” he said. “But now you are in the desert!”

It was dark when a bright light appeared on the horizon. It was a motorcycle with two men and another tent. They quickly assembled it, and left. By now it was very dark, but we could see some lightening in the distance. “Surely we’re not going to have a storm” I thought. That’s when the wind started to blow. “My God”, I thought, “we’re having a sandstorm!” The next thing we knew, sand was blowing everywhere. We put our backpacks into the tent, but then, with a sudden gust of wind, the tent was lifted into the air, and blew away. “Oh no, our bags are gone”, we thought. But they were still on the blanket. Just the tent was gone.

There was nowhere to take cover and the sand was stinging our skin. We covered our heads to protect ourselves and just sat there looking at the boy. Fortunately, a few minutes later, the guide returned on his camel with our dinner. But the sand was swirling and the thunder and lightening was getting closer. “Don’t worry, they will come and get us in the Jeep” said the guide. “But we’ll have to walk out of the dunes onto firmer ground”. That’s when it started to rain! We couldn’t believe it. It was raining in the desert. Then it started to hail. On the horizon we could hear the Jeep coming, but we were struggling to get through the sand.

Then it really started to downpour. We reached the Jeep and I pushed Sally into the only passenger seat. I was climbing onto the back when she pulled me beside her. The guide and the boy got onto the back, but we couldn’t see a thing. It was raining so hard, the wipers were useless, and the windshield was fogging up. The driver couldn’t find the road, and was swerving all over the place trying to avoid the bushes and small trees. I suddenly thought this can’t really be happening!

Eventually we made it back to our camp. There was no electricity and it was jet black. All of a sudden, I heard a voice say “Michael Geller” and it turned out to be Jaidee, the owner of the operation. He welcomed us, and offered some tea. We sat there in the dark on the wet and dirty plastic chairs, while someone tried to light a candle. The next thing I knew we’re having a heavy discussion about the attitudes of Indian men towards women, while we were soaking wet and very cold! So we went back to our cabin, put on some dry clothes, found our umbrella, and returned to the lean-to for our cold dinner. And there we sat in the pitch black, other than for a single candle, listening to Jaidee pontificating about Indian women, while he programmed his cell phone to play “Hare Krishna”.

We will never forget this day in Jaisalmer.

Jaisalmer: The Golden City

I first heard about Jaisalmer from Mario Pinto, SFU’s VP Research who was born in Southern India. He said I must see it. Tony Lloyd told me the same thing. Unfortunately, the airport was closed due to its proximity to the Pakistani border, and so we had to take the train. I didn’t think this would be a problem since we had enjoyed out train trips in China.

Well, trains in India are quite different. We got to the station at 11, to board an 11:24 train. Unfortunately, we had changed our schedule, and could only get a 3rdnd class AC sleeper. class Air Conditioned sleeper, rather than a 2 The train was late, and the platform was so full of bodies there literally was no where to stand, let alone sit. The stench from human waste was unbelievable. Parents were taking their children onto the tracks so they could ‘go to the toilet’. At 12:30 we were told there would be a further half hour delay. Finally we found a place to sit, but I was falling asleep from the heat and the smell.

Finally the train arrived, and we discovered that one difference between 2nd and 3rd class is a third row of beds, which meant there was nowhere to put our baggage. After much consternation, Sally climbed onto the top berth, and curled herself around her bags. I took the middle berth, since I was more likely to get up in the middle of the night. Next to us were three large Indian men, who removed their socks and started to have dinner. Across the corridor was an Englishman, who we later learned was heading into the desert to fix an oil rig. One of the Indians next to us was his guide.

The best thing about the toilets was that there were two: a regular style and western style. But gone were the amenities than we have become accustomed to find in the Business Class section of Emirates Airlines. There was no cologne, even though it was badly needed; no hand cream; no soap or toothbrushes; not even any toilet paper.

Sally and I did the only reasonable thing under the circumstances. We popped some sleeping pills and hoped for the best. But before doing so, we followed the locals and locked our luggage to the bed frames.

We pulled into Jaisalmer in the afternoon and immediately fell in love with the place. It was, as described by our guidebook, like a giant sandcastle. The entire town, including a 12th century Fort, was constructed out of golden sandstone. A driver and local travel agent greeted us at the station, and took us to our hotel, Fort Rajwada, part of the Taj Hotel chain, which looked old, but in fact was built 7 years ago. We spent the afternoon having lunch and a sleep by the pool. At 5, our driver picked us up and took us to various sites around the town

After visiting a centuries old man-made lake, we were taken to an impressive collection of small structures at the top of a hill to watch the sun set. These charming ‘sand castles’ were marred by a large corrugated metal roofed structure in the middle, which seemed totally out of place. We could tell these were not homes, but weren’t quite sure what they were. We came across some foreign tourists and I asked “Where are we?” “The town crematorium” replied a very English voice. And there’s lots of good kindling over there for the next service.

Of course. How stupid could I be? The metal roof structure was the oven. Fortunately, it was not used while we were there.

We returned to the hotel for dinner. There were only a few people in the dining room, but next to us was an Israeli couple, sitting with some formidable looking Indians. No sooner had they sat down, but with great fanfare the lights were dimmed, and the waiters carried over a birthday cake and bottle of champagne. The Israeli was very nonchalant about the whole thing, and I glanced at the cake. It said “Happy Birthday Jacob Klein”. I tried to offer him birthday greetings in Hebrew, but he ignored me.

Sally discouraged me from trying to strike up a conversion. “I think he’s in the secret service” she said. So we left the dining room, and returned to our room where we watched Indian music videos and commercials on TV. They are wonderful, although what we see on TV seems to bear little similarity to what we see on the streets. But then, one might say the same about North American TV.

We wanted to have a good night’s sleep since tomorrow we were off on our camel safari.