FREE BIRD T.V.: Episode 5 (Rajasthan~Land of the Kings)

Here it is–our newest India-inspired video!  Joe and I combed through, trimmed, deleted, re-trimmed, arranged and re-arranged an hour and a half of footage to create this 5+ minute montage of our Rajasthan experience.

Hope you enjoy glimpsing the Land of the Kings–we LOVED our adventure there.


Crumbling Walls + Faded Paint: The Beauty’s in the Buildings

We’ve made it to Gokarna’s Om Beach–land of gold sand, stray dogs, wandering cows (Joe theorizes these are vacationing cows, taking a break from the crowded streets of Varanasi), and run-down beach huts.

While the hoped-for hut I’d envisioned in my mind on the long journey here (two rickshaws, a 9-hour train, and three buses in the heat) included an ocean view, the ones available are tucked away behind the beach’s restaurants, though the sound of the Arabian Sea can still be heard from our doorstep.  Along with monkey calls and birdsong.  And the odd yelp I emit when our resident beetle makes a surprise appearance.

India!  Only four days left in this expanse of emotional and spiritual chaos before we transition to island life in Indo.  But more stories + photos (and videos) from here are in the works, so Free Bird will be bouncing around a little in chronology and countries in the days and weeks ahead.  Hope you’ll stay with me for the ride!

Here’s a new gallery featuring one of my favourite aspects of India–the beautiful crumbling buildings.

~Courtney xo

One of Pushkar's main streets

*Click on a photo to view gallery in full-size

Castles and Temples and Forts, Oh My

Day 5 in Hampi:

Woke up early to watch Lakshmi, the temple elephant, take her 7:30 a.m. bath in the Tungabhadra River.  Sadly, we then witnessed a local man empty three bags of garbage into the water, watch it float downstream, then jump in for a dip.  (One of the bags was all paper materials–he sorts, then pollutes?)  Beautiful bathing elephant to our left, dirty floating garbage to our right.  This is India.

After a breakfast of milk coffee, masala dosa, and fried eggs, we took a fishing boat across the river, walked through a village called Virupapura Gaddi, and stopped for a lassi break (the heat is like an oven here, making time in the shade a necessary pleasure) on a floor-cushioned patio overlooking a rice paddy field.  Lined with palm trees.

One more day and then we’re off on an overnight bus to Gokarna, a temple/beach town on Karnataka‘s west coast.  Beach hut time is calling…

New story with pics and our latest video are coming soon!  In the meantime, hope you enjoy this peek at some of India’s most awe-inspiring architecture–the castles, temples, and forts of Rajasthan.


Desert Dogs (A trek into the Thar)

Riding with the experts--desert grandfather and Abdullah in the middle, boys on either side

(More photos below…)

*As I post this Joe and I are sitting in the back of a wall hanging/bangle shop that also offers Wi Fi in Sawai Madhopur, a tiny town in eastern Rajasthan next to Ranthambore National Park. Tomorrow we will set off at 7 a.m. for a three-hour safari, with hopes of seeing tigers in the wild. 

Internet connections have been inconsistent and very slow in our last two stops (Pushkar and Udaipur), so I am happy to finally post this story from our camel trek in the Thar Desert…hope you enjoy!

~Courtney xo

p.s. I love India.


Abdullah leaned over the flame, warming a stack of chapati. His brown cotton robe hung to his ankles, brushing sand and bits of ash. From his head black hair stuck out in every direction, which in the Thar means toward dunes: north, east, south, west. Dunes. Sand hills. Desert.

Dogs, too, live in the Thar, wild ones who hover near fire and food. Abdullah yelled and chased them off with a stick as they ran, only to return minutes later, snagging chapati in their teeth. Dogs, like cows (and boys, and men; the women remain a whisper here, visible yet mysterious behind sarees and households) are everywhere in Rajasthan. They roam the streets and stations, pawing at trash, barking their stories to each other, surviving.

In the desert the dogs’ stories mingled with ours: a couple from Spain and France who quit their jobs to come to India, escaping the depression that had settled over their countries, they said, since the economic crisis began; a girl from Ontario and her Irish boyfriend, who didn’t have enough proof they’d been living common-law in Korea to apply for his Canadian visa; a young German guy headed for Nepal who respected the work of some well-known architects, he told Joe, who had contributed to the Chicago skyline; a 20 year-old girl from Denmark who spent two months teaching mentally-challenged kids in southern Karnataka and who was now traveling the country on her own.

And us. Nine days into India, three cities past, riding camels called Kalu and Peacock. (Peacock was mine; the smallest of the herd, saddled in red and now resting.)

Where do the desert dogs come from? Were they once city hounds, howling in the streets of Jaisalmer? Or were they born into sand, puppies destined for desert scraps left by desert men?

A boy, I’ll guess 14 (12 and 14-year old boys hustle hard in India, selling rickshaw rides, selling hotel rooms, selling shoe shines, selling samosas, calling out where you from, how long you stay, what you looking for) poured chai, then pointed out the stack of extra blankets between our star-lit cots. His name was Manjit or Masjit or Mahmul, we can’t remember now, ten days and three trains later. He wore a grey button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and dark straight-leg pants. His voice held a pitch caught between boyhood and manhood, but was thickened with the confidence of a soul who knows these skies, these worlds of sand. He collected tin dishes from our hands, chased the dogs away, told us, you are cold, you tell me. You need anything, you tell me.

Did the boy go to school? Was his home in a shelter made of brush, like the ones we saw in a nearby village? Would he always work this desert, these foreigner treks?

Mostly silent, the oldest of our three Indian guides sat before the fire, overseeing as the other two smoked and scrubbed tin and we talked and eyed the dogs. He was a grandfather’s age. He wore a red turban dotted with white and a wool blanket draped across his chest–a companion to an aging body. His moustache was grey, bushy ends twisted up on each side.

The flames shone a window onto his creased face. The blanket was beige like the sand he sat on, had sat and treaded on his whole life, perhaps, impossible for my mind to imagine, but a likely reality. For one night, I would sleep among these dunes, their miles of nothing. But a lifetime?

The spell of his stare, his presence, was broken by the ring of a phone and then his voice: answering it. This desert grandfather, whose name we never learned, owned a cell phone, spoke Hindi into it as the moon continued to rise.

We looked at each other, laughed. Perhaps the man, like the dogs, had a story to tell, told it to whoever listened on the other side of the receiver. But the magic of the Thar, even as it rolled out in the black ahead of us to Pakistan, dissipated. It would take more than a 12-hour trek into this barren expanse to escape technology’s insistence, its link from sand to city.


Arrival in Jaisalmer

Before boarding the 11:45 night train from Jodhpur, I knew just a couple things about Rajasthan’s desert city to the west, Jaisalmer.


1. Its nickname is the Golden City.

2. It has a fort.

3. It borders the Thar Desert, where you can ride out into the dunes on camels and spend the night.

While planning our route back in Korea, we almost cut Jaisalmer from the Rajasthan list: too far west, we thought, with so many other places we wanted to see.  But when we realized the train ride there from Jodhpur was only six hours (and re-read the description in our Rough Guide, which calls Jaisalmer the “quintessential desert town”), it reclaimed its place on our ever-changing itinerary.

At 5:30 a.m. the train station was dark and crowded, men approaching us on the shadowy platformexcuse me sir, where you go, I take you 30 rupees, no problem as we walked on, scanning faces for our hotel’s pick up.  He turned out to be a boy, maybe 14, holding a piece of white paper, COURTNEY written across it in blue ink.

The only bathroom was filthy, doorless, and full of men, so I waited outside it for Joe, standing between the train and the station, people layed out around me under blankets on the concrete.

At the Surja Hotel, the boy led us up a narrow staircase into a room called Star, its name hand painted above the scalloped door frame. (Across the hall: Maharaja.) Inside, a sheer red curtain hung over two windows that opened up onto a tiny sitting balcony, its curved parameter just big enough for two.

It was here, sitting on a red cushion and peering over the balcony as the Call To Prayer began in the morning dark, that we noticed the sandstone towers on either side and realized the fort of Jaisalmer made up a whole section of the city–The Old City–and looked like a castle, and that our hotel was tucked inside it.

We slipped out of our room and walked to the roof.  Three square seats–cushioned in blue pillows–jutted out from the edge and overlooked the city, which had started to sharpen in the lightening dark.  The buildings were brushed in shades of sand: beige, taupe, pale yellow, gold.  Just one wall stood out, a puzzle of pink.

Where Jaisalmer met the horizon a row of windmills turned in the dawn. The air was cold, cutting through my clothes as we descended on the cushions and watched, waiting for the sun to arrive, to cast light on the castle, the landscape of roofs, the oncoming day.

View from our hotel rooftop--only $12/night.

Fort tower and wall

Another part of the fort, behind our hotel

So happy we added Jaisalmer back to our route

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