January 28, 2007

Mousetrap - 89

Click, chop, simmer
CookingByNumbers
Recipes books are all very well, but what about those times you need to knock together a quick meal, and you haven’t the time to go buy all the ingredients? Try this site out. Simply look inside your fridge and your shelves, then come back, and click on all the items that you have in stock, and then hit “Find Recipes.” If you check the “I feel lucky” option as well, you get recipes for which you lack maybe one ingredient; up to you then to decide whether you can live without it. The shortcoming from the average Indian kitchen’s point of view is that the items listed, and the recipes, are from an average western kitchen.

Mouthful
eGullet Society for Culinary Arts and Letters
As the name indicates, this site takes itself seriously. I know a few dedicated foodies who spend a lot of time here, and they speak highly of it, which is good enough for me. The tag line of the site says “Read. Chew. Discuss.” The main deal here is the eGullet forum, where all that discussion takes place. The forums are open to anyone to read, though you’ll have to sign up to join in, naturally. You’ll find sections on culture, on cooking, and on restaurants, cuisine and travel (neatly sorted by region). You should also check out the RecipeGullet section (link right at the top, above the masthead), for RecipeGullet, “a unique repository of recipes -- tested through extensive trial and error, and subjected to thorough discussion. Nowhere else will you find a better collection of clear instructions, illuminating techniques and thoughful ingredient lists.” Burp.

You will feed a hungry columnist
Weird Fortune Cookie Collection
For a minute there, I thought this was going to be one of those totally useful columns. Can’t have that, can we? Here you go: a nice, time-wasting, amusing site, its sole purpose is telegraphed by its name. For those who are wondering what a fortune cookie is, as far as I know, they’re a little gimmick that Chinese restaurants in the USA came up with, inserting personal predictions—rather like the ones we get from railways station weighing machines—into their after-dinner cookies. Much like our Gobi Manchurian, in that it is associated with Chinese cuisine, but isn’t really authentic. Worth a nibble any time, this.

Leftovers
Indian cooking frowns on leftovers, I know, but I love ’em. And I have quiet a few sites on my list, so expect more foodie suff next week. And do mail in your favourites too, hm?

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 28th January, 2007.

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January 26, 2007

We are the web

Activism, says Wikipedia, “can be described as intentional action to bring about social or political change. This action is in support of, or opposition to, one side of an often controversial argument.”

I quote Wikipedia deliberately; because that definition may have changed by the time you see it.

Wikipedia, the encyclopaedia that anyone can edit, is one of the poster children of the new web; the “participatory web” that’s about collaboration and sharing. “Web 2.0,” to distinguish it from the old web, the one controlled by the major information disseminators and portals. Don’t like that definition? Go change it. Of course, someone else may come and change it right back. But if enough people agree with you, your definition will stay there.

Wikis are part of this new web, yes, and so, most emphatically, are blogs, networking sites, social bookmarking services, mashups (sites that are the web equivalent of remixed music) and more. But this is not about the technology. It’s about what these wild new things let you do.

First, do all these virtual shenanigans have any noticeable effect on the “real” world? Let me offer you some examples.

Just after the tsunami, I was part of an impromptu group that put together the South East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog, to filter the vast jumble of available information and organise it for people who, like us, just wanted to help. This group of disparate individuals across the globe took what was essentially a free online publishing tool and turned it into a valuable collaborative resource lauded by many of the world’s leading mass media publications (this newspaper was one of them). Offshoots of that group subsequently remobilised in the face of other disasters: the post-cloudburst Bombay floods, the earthquake in Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina, and, most recently, Bombay’s train blasts. It expanded beyond blogs: wiki software helped present gathered data better; Flickr, a photo-hosting site, was tweaked into a Missing Persons section; Skype, a voice chat application, powered a call centre; chat rooms became war-rooms. And the group solidified—as far as anything virtual can take shape—into the World Wide Help group.

On the other side of the planet, during the run up to the recent elections to the US Senate, an incumbent Republican senator, considered pretty much a sure thing for re-election, made a racist remark about a young Indian-American Democrat who was taping his rally. Footage of that remark rapidly found its way on to YouTube (a video-sharing site), where it was adopted and promoted by some prominent American desi blogs. The wider blogosphere joined in too, as did US media. Digging into the senator’s past revealed more signs of a racist streak. Slowly, the Republican’s lead in the polls began eroding. And come counting day, guess which sure-shot Republican seat backfired and swung a very slim majority the Democrats’ way?

In India, technology-aided activism has begun to have an impact. It started with fun stuff, like personal blogs, special interest communities, user-created reviews of restaurants, movies or holiday destinations, budding film-makers and musicians releasing their masterpieces online. Now, advocates of weightier causes and obsessions—poverty, discrimination, reservation (pro or anti), economic reform, child rights, and so many others—are harnessing technology to make themselves heard.

Last year, for rather silly reasons, our government blocked several popular blogging services. Quick as a flash, bloggers, ceased their usual bickering and coalesced into Bloggers Collective, an email newsgroup, and a wiki, Bloggers Against Censorship. Mainstream media joined forces with citizen media, and much dust was raised. Not coincidentally, I think, the ban was soon lifted. (Alarmingly, though, this underlined the fact that our Powers That Be have pretty much given themselves the right to block whatever they want, and have done so for a while.)

Some more examples?

Karmayog, a mailing list and resource centre, promotes dialogue and liases with Bombay’s municipal authorities and NGOs. Delhi-based NGO Project Why canvasses through a blog and a newsgroup. A Bangalore NGO, Esha, which seeks to empower blind people, raises awareness about its innovative income generation methods through a blog.

Of course there’s negativity too. People with conflicting agendas do battle on each other’s blogs, plot campaigns through mailing lists, fight vicious edit wars on Wikipedia, set up hate groups on networking sites that get our judiciary and politicians frothing. And that’s how it should be, really. You can’t have the good without the potential for bad, though our Nanny State appears to think otherwise.

And here’s one sure sign that all this can’t be wished away. Big marketers are lumbering into the party, releasing commercials on YouTube and hoping like hell they go viral, hiring people to blog for them, slapping together special interest communities.

Yes, the entrenched opinion-makers—politicians, marketers, entertainers, media giants—are still trying to control the web.

The wiser ones are listening. Because they’ve realised that the web has begun to talk back.

--------

Peter Griffin is a communications consultant, columnist and travel writer. He also blogs (at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com), co-moderates the writers’ community, Caferati (www.caferati.com), and co-founded the World Wide Help group and Bloggers Collective.

Published in People's Republic, the Indian Express's Republic Day special edition, 26th January, 2007.

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January 21, 2007

Mousetrap - 88

Able
Ouch
One of the many great sites that the BBC hosts, Ouch is about the lives of disabled people. But what separates it from the many—most of them really good—sites out there that seek to do the same? For one, it’s not about helpful hints and tips and the like. Nor does it crusade for rights. What really sets it apart is its attitude: it does not condescend; it does not ask for quarter; it’s in your face. Its many talented columnists and its subject matter focus on “personal stuff, minutiae of everyday life and that fantastic dark sense of humour and inevitable cynicism that we disabled people tend to have. Oh, and we don't shy away from subjects that other people might be a bit wary of.” And that’s the way it should be, no?

This is a test
Skillswise
Oh dear. Another BBC site. Well, it makes a change from Google, doesn’t it? Anyway. Way back when I was young, many people for whom the standard to aspire to when it came to spoken English was the voice of the BBC newsreader. Now, when we’re surrounded by accents of all descriptions, and (as writer friends are fond of declaiming) when English skills seem to have very low priority even with those who earn their living from the use of the language, does the BBC still have a role to play? This microsite thinks so. With a bunch of tutorials, hints, and most fun of all, interactive games — http://www.bbc.co.uk/skillswise/games/ — it makes learning a more fun process. Oh yes. It’s not just English literacy that it covers. Skillwise also helps you with math skills in similar ways. You know where to find me.

All the web’s a computer - II
Thinkfree
Last week this column told you about Google Docs. A friend sent me this site in response. Thinkfree goes one up on Google in terms of what you can do with it. Aside from word-processing and spreadsheets, it also offers you presentation software. All these are compatible with the almost ubiquitous Microsoft apps that serve the same functions (but not, as far as I could see, with Open Office programs), and permit sharing and collaboration online. It also lets you publish your documents to your blog, and to a service called Doc Exchange, which lets you share thoughts and ideas with its community via your documents. (Link courtesy Hemant Suthar.)

Arhg
Eek, a Typo!
And here’s a fun little blog to round off the show for this week. As the name suggests, this blog points out inadvertent (or ignorant) spelling errors. Not much misses its eye: I saw references to typos on TV subtitles and online message boards. And there’s an a nice little bonus to including it in this column. Now, if you find a typo here, I’ll just claim that it was deliberate, in homage to this site.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 21st January, 2007.

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January 14, 2007

Mousetrap - 87

Take that
Concise Freeware
This piece is a leftover from last week’s column on leftover sites. The irony. It originally made way for another similar site on the 24th December column that featured freebies. Like many other freeware collectors, this one has a mix of services, applications and sites sorted into neat categories. What won me over was some unusual sections: one devoted to Firefox, my favourite browser; others on art and music and a nice set of useful articles with free info. Worth a browse, and it’s sure to get you a few items you need to enhance your PC.

All the web’s a computer
Google Docs
Yes, yes, Google pops into this column yet again. Mea culpa. Some people refer to it as the beginning of the Google Suite, the theory being that Google has its beady eyes on all our computing needs, and that soon the only software we’ll need installed on our own PCs will be a decent browser. Anyway, I like it for the ease of collaboration. At present, you can work with text documents and spreadsheets, collaborating in real time, or merely sharing your stuff with other people. The con, of course, is that you need a peppy, reliable web connection. For safety, I usually back up all docs to my own PC each time I do something major, so that I’m not hostage to a fickle ISP. I’m still hoping they build in a decent photo editor soon, and perhaps video and sound... But until then, this works fine for me. A couple of fellow editors, a designer and I just edited a book online using it, so I can speak from experience. And yes, this column as sent over to the edit desk via the “collaborate” button.

Rectangular meal
Feed A Hungry Child campaign
A friend reminds me that I haven’t featured a blog in this column for a while. And this site is a good one with which to remedy that deficiency. It’s not a blog in the conventional sense of the word (or at least as far as one can use can attribute conventions to a concept that’s less than a decade old). Rather, it uses a blog service to place its idea in front of the world. And that idea is simple. FAHC is looking for people to write and donate “heirloom recipes”—traditional and old favourite recipes that are in danger of extinction—to its cookbook project. Revenues from sales will go towards food for underprivileged kids. Go visit for updates and submission guidelines.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 14th January, 2007.

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January 07, 2007

Mousetrap - 86

After the party season, there are usually a lot of leftovers. Here are a few sites that got dropped from various editions of this column for space reasons.

Ex Libris
Frequent readers of this column will know that I have a bit of a bias towards book- and reading-related sites. I included a few free book sites in the Christmas Eve column. Here are a few more, to keep the spirit of giving alive.
Project Gutenberg
The grand-daddy of all the free books sites, as far as I know. There are over 20,000 titles to choose from.
The Online Books Page
Another 25,000+ books here. Includes “an index to thousands of freely available online books, pointers to significant directories and archives of online texts, and special exhibits of particularly interesting classes of online books”
Universal Library
Hosted at the Carnegie Mellon University, this ambitious site (“The mission is to create a Universal Library which will foster creativity and free access to all human knowledge”) has serious involvement from India and China, who are each providing over 2000 man-years of scanning, indexing and hosting to the cause.
Million Book Project
Not quite a million yet, but there are 10,528 items as of this writing, from the Indian scanning centres of the Universal Library Project.
Digital Library of India
From what I could see, mainly non-fiction and a lot of academic works here. It is a partner of the Million Book Project.

You got rhythm?
SongTapper
(This one got left out from the column three weeks ago that focussed on unusual new ways to find things online.) Got that song bouncing around in your head, but can’t remember the name? Or, perchance, the words? SongTapper invites you to come play the beat on your keyboard and it will help you find the song you want. With links to buy it, of course. Now, while I cheerfully admit to not having even musical cartilege in my body, I did once pride myself on my sense of rhythm. But maybe the years have taken their toll, because I couldn’t get a single song right. You, perhaps, will do better. Write in and tell me about it. I will be practising my dancing.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India / Outlook Traveller, Mumbai edition, 7th January, 2007.

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January 01, 2007

Hope and Glory

“To give on paper any adequate idea of the Boondi-ki-Mahal is impossible. Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it and the spread of the Pichola Lake; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, grey towers on red rock, is the work of giants, but the Palace of Boondi, even in broad daylight, is such a Palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams—the work of goblins rather than of men.”

Thus says Kipling Sahib, in From Sea to Sea. And then, of course, he proceeds to do a more than adequate job of describing the place.

Bad joss for every other hack who has to follow that act, I’m thinking, as I perch on the wall of a watchtower in Taragarh fort, looking down over the Garh Palace, which occupies most of the slope down to the town of Bundi. It’s almost sunset, and the breeze, coming in from the Aravallis behind me, is gleefully slicing its way through to my bones. But the view, oh the view! All around me, birds discuss the day as they settle down to roost. Below, the shadows of the surrounding hills have crept across the town. But it’s bright enough to see that the place glows a… pale blue… well, one of those colours that women have names for, but being only a man, I can tell you that it’s a gentle hue, lighter than the lightest blue sky, with a softness about the edges that you see in pearls, and the moon on certain nights. The first lights are coming on, silver and gold dots in the grey. On the other side of the valley, trucks grumble their way up the slope of the road from Kota to Jaipur. A mosque’s call to prayer wafts above the traffic bustle, competing only with the “testing, testing” of a P.A. system getting ready for some festivity. A lone kite soars and swoops above it all Behind me, the air crackles with static—the tower, with its commanding view, is now used as a police lookout point, with a resident guardian of the law manning a radio set—and off to the right, a blood-red sun sinks below the haze on the horizon.

We suddenly remember that we don’t really know our way back down, and that we’d better get moving before it gets really dark. We stride through the gloaming, working our way through thorns that reach out to snag shirts and camera straps, hoping we didn’t step into any dung, and get to the car, parked near the back of the fort, where the ugly concrete and metal spire of a Doordarshan antenna has usurped the watchtower as the highest structure around.

If I had to find smart analogies for the Bundi state of mind, that evening helped define it. The recurring motif is a cheerful jumble of the ancient and the modern-but-not-quite-cutting-edge that, somehow, seems to work.

Bundi’s origins date back to the 12th Century. After Prithviraj Chauhan lost his battle against the invader Mohammed Ghauri, some Chauhan warriors moved base to the banks of the Chambal, defeated the resident Mina and Bhil tribals and set up their own kingdom of Hadoti. The fort itself was built in the 14th Century, and remained pretty much unconquered (as far as my shaky grasp of the history of the place tells me) through the centuries, though there was a certain amount of internecine blood-letting every now and then.

Below the fort, the Garh Palace’s array of buildings, terraces, courtyards, chhatris and domes occupy most of the slope between town and fort. They rise out of the hillside as if carved from the living rock, with various sections added on by monarchs seeking to leave their own stamp on the place, and the overall effect is one that Kipling describes best: “an avalanche of masonry ready to rush down and block the gorge.”

The town has remained off the tourist trail, losing out on the posh trade to the better-known Jaipur, Udaipur and Jodhpur, with the backpackers flocking to Puskhar. Very few Indian tourists find their way here. What little custom that trickles in is largely history buffs, a few others seeking to make their own “find,” family groups, a few middle-aged and elderly people looking for peace and quiet. There are no happening nightspots, so you’ll see very few gap year youngsters, and i could spot no ravers and stoners.

But Bundi wants it tourists. Badly. As word gets around that a travel magazine is checking out the area, doors open, literally and metaphorically. Tour guides give us free information as they shepherd their paying customers through the small section of the palace that is open to visitors; a caretaker opens up a bolted door to show us the little enclosed garden in the zenana, dominated by the huge carved arch built for a jhoola, for the ladies of the palace to enjoy the rains; another caretaker beseeches us to write nice things about the palace, because so few people stump up the entry fee every day that there’s really not enough revenue to restore more of the place. In the five hours we spend wandering around the palace, I count a total of around a dozen visitors. The gatekeeper tells me that on a good day, maybe 20 people come in, mostly foreigners. Everywhere we go, we hear the singsong “Hellllooo” of young men wanting to sell you things, to hire you bikes, to get you to hire them as guides, to eat in their restaurants. Bundi lives on the brink: not enough traffic to make it a total tourist trap, not enough to really keep it in good repair, not too much to overstrain the infrastructure, but just enough to keep everyone optimistic.

The palace had been pretty much abandoned in the 70s, after the death of the last Maharao Raja to rule Bundi. Locals told me that thieves and opportunists spirited away well nigh everything that wasn’t nailed down. At some point along the way, the royal family gave over a part of the palace to the government, but retained ownership of the rest.

It is only in the last three or four years that the Raja has opened up small section of the Garh Palace to visitors, at a very reasonable ten bucks a pop for Indian nationals, fifty for foreigners, and an additional Rs 50 per camera. Kumar Ranjit Singh Ji, the current holder of the title, divides his time between Bundi and Delhi, and has begun renovating parts of Moti Mahal (the palace in the city) as well. Soon to open to the public is a small museum, filled mainly with hunting trophies—tigers mainly—and photographs of royalty. Among the trophies are several bagged by Mountbatten, a close pal of the Maharaja, one shot by Errol Flynn, and another by Milton Reynolds, the inventor of the ball-point pen. Singh Ji wasn’t in residence when I visited, but his secretary chatted with me about the restoration work in progress. I get the impression that in the not-too-distant future, Moti Mahal might find itself joining the ranks of India’s palace hotels.

It will be a while, though, before any such plans could extend to the massive Garh Palace.

Which is a pity. Because the little that is open to view leaves you wanting more.
Budget half a day at least to take it in. Before you get to the ticket counter, take a gander at the large sign outside. Amidst the useful historical data, you’ll find the Kipling quote from the beginning of this article. Except that it refers to the “the work of gobblings,” which kind of fits.

The path up from the outer gate is a broad (wide enough for several elephants chest-to-chest), steep zigzag slope paved with stones set in mortar, smoothed over with centuries of traffic.

But before you hit the Palace proper, take the detour that leads you to Chitrashala, part of the Palace complex, but in the government’s care. Admission is free, and it is well worth a few hours of your time. If you are an art or history buff, set aside a much larger slot. Once used to teach artists, it is an open courtyard, with the surrounding corridors covered from floor to ceiling with exquisite murals painted in the unique style known as the Bundi School. All around—even on the ceiling—are colourful scenes from Hindu scriptures, depictions of court life, battles, hunts in which women seemed to play an equal part, wielding the same weapons as the menfolk (though it looked to me like the stock of the musket one lady carried was painted with a floral pattern), gods, rishis, warriors, servants, animals, both prey and domesticated...

Most are much the worse for the years and the extremes of climate, alas, but there seems to be precious little being done to prevent further decay. The caretaker will, if you ask, and if he’s not busy mowing the lawn (which, unlike the rest of the building, is in excellent shape) open up two dark rooms at the far end. The one called Sheesh Mahal has lost most of its mirror-work, but the walls of Rang Mahal are, even in the gloom, alive with vibrant colours and bold lines that give you an inkling of what the walls of the outer court looked like before time had its way with them.

Further up the slope, you enter the Garh Palace via the massive Hathi Pol. Climb up the steep stairway to the Rattan Daulat or Diwan E Aaam, with its marble throne. Pass on to Chatra Mahal, Phool Mahal and Badal Mahal, each built by different rajas, each unique in style and decoration. Closed doors and dim corridors lead off to areas that are out of bounds. One is very conscious of only having skimmed the surface. But I console myself that it isn’t just because the place is unlit, and possibly unsafe. Even in Kipling’s time, he says, no one knew “where the hill begins and where the Palace ends.” He wrote of rumours about underground chambers and passages deep into the hill, with some even extending into Taragarh. For now, you will have to content yourself with the Chitrashala and the Mahals, and every now and then, through a window, from a roof, look longingly at the domes and locked windows rambling up the hill, and letting your imagination take over. It isn’t hard to picture the daily scene, especially after a visit to the Chitrashala. Half-close your eyes, and the place fills up with fiercely moustached warriors and beautiful women, horses trot up the slope, and elephants lumber through the gates. I swear I hear the trace of the sound of ghungroos somewhere.

Yes, if the rest of the Palace opens up, you’ll find me in the line queuing up to take another look. Meanwhile, there’s Kipling.

***

Information

Places to stay.
Going by the signage, it looks like almost every property on the long street at the base of the palace (which was part of was once the original walled city) is a “heritage property” haveli, even if little of the original structure or décor remains. This section is very handy for its proximity to the palace and the fort, and to the market.
Top of the line here (and also the first to open its doors to guests, some twenty-plus years ago) is the Haveli Braj Bushanjee, whose owners have lavished much care and expense on keeping the place looking and feeling authentic. They have 24 rooms, and rates start at Rs 1200. Their restaurant is vegetarian, and guests are expected to order their meals well in advance. They also frown on alcohol on the premises. Ph: +91 747 2442322 / 2442127; email: res@kiplingsbundi.com; web: www.kiplingsbundi.com
I stayed at Haveli Katkoun, 30 seconds stroll away, a far smaller place, with just six rooms. It is, quite literally, a mom-and-pop show, with the entire family pitching in to cook, wait tables, tot up your bills and so on. Raghundan and Yadunandan, the owner’s sons, are both registered guides who can show you around the city. Katkoun’s garden restaurant serves all the standard fare, including non-vegetarian dishes, and also has beer. But you may want to try a nip of the very unique Kesar Kasturi liqueur, made from saffron and “20 other spices,” and guaranteed to warm you up. It is made from recipes that originated in royal households, and has only recently hit the market for commoners. Rooms rates: Rs 350 (single), Rs 500 (double), Rs 650 (double, with a view of the fort). Ph: +91 747 2444311; email raghunandansingh@yahoo.com; web www.haveli-katkoun.com/
I checked out a few other places; rates start as low as Rs 75 for a small single room with an even tinier toilet/bath (but with hot water), and most hover around the Rs 300 to Rs 500 range.
There is also the Royal Retreat, just inside the Palace’s outer gate, which has a great view. Couldn’t find a manager to show me the place, but I hear tariffs are from Rs 750 to Rs 1250. Ph: 2444426. And, away from the bustle, on the road that skirts Jait Sagar, Rajasthan Tourism runs Vrindawati, with rooms in the Rs 400-800 range. I didn’t look inside, but the building looked out of the uninviting standard-issue government tourism box. Ph: 2442473.
Eating out.
Aside from handcarts selling street food, there are few options available in the old town. Most of the tourist havelis have their own restaurants, though many are open only to their own guests. Cuisine usually includes what I refer to as the Goa Beach Menu—eggs, toast, noodles, pancakes, hot chocolate and the like for the white tourist trade—but many also serve Rajasthani dishes, including the eponymous thali, excellent fish, and the fiery laal maas, and a number of standard North Indian dishes.
Getting around.
Most of Bundi’s streets are too narrow for anything but two-wheeler traffic, but you can get auto- and cycle-rickshaws to ferry you around. Get your hotel to fix this for you, to save on the haggling, but as a general rule of thumb, there’s almost nothing more than thirty rupees away. You can also find cars, motorbikes and scooters for hire. Cars start at Rs 400 per day (Rs 500 with driver), motorbikes at Rs 200 per day. I was told one could hire bicycles as well, but didn’t spot any.
Things to see
Aside from the palace and the fort, you could wander around the old town, which shouldn’t take too long. The newer parts of Bundi are like any small town in India: narrow streets, open gutters, noisy traffic. Bundi was once famous for its Baoris, step wells that functioned as both water reservoirs and cool retreats for socialisation in the summer. Most are now nothing more than rubbish dumps, but the Raniji ki Baori, which is now a protected monument, is worth a short visit despite the stagnant water and the reek of pigeon and bat guano. The much-recommended 84-pillared cenotaph (Chaurasi Khambon ki Chhatri) was a disappointment. Littered, paan-stained, it’s really not worth the detour unless you’re a Shiv bhakt. And I swear it’s short of four pillars. I counted. Twice. Over to the east of the town, on the banks of the Jait Sagar reservoir, sits the lovely Sukh Mahal, where, I am told, Kipling stayed when he visited. In the tender care of the Irrigation department at the moment, it will soon be handed over to Rajasthan Tourism, I am informed. It has a fabulous view of the lake, and its two bedrooms are available to tourists via the appropriate government channels. On the ground floor, in what must surely be criminal idiocy, priceless ancient sculptures are set in concrete, spattered with the cement and paint from the building’s last clean-up. Another ten minutes’ drive away is Shar Bagh, which is full of cenotaphs erected in memory of past royalty. The Rajas’ memorials all have chhatris atop them, while those of the wives are smaller and flat-topped. Even smaller are those in memory of royals who died as children. Collect the caretaker who let you into Shar Bagh and take him along with you to the Shikar Burj (he has the keys to that part of the kingdom too), a royal hunting lodge, that is another ten minutes down the road.
General notes.
Bundi is in the desert state, Rajasthan, so is naturally ferociously hot in the summer. The rocks of the hillside radiate even more heat, and temperatures can approach 50°C. The monsoon brings some relief, but the best time to visit is the winter, where it can get decidedly nippy. Carry warm outerwear and dress in layers, so that you can shed some stuff in the mid-afternoon, when it can get hot, and pack in thermal inners for the nights. Lip balm and moisturiser are essentials, and a pair of sturdy shoes with non-slip soles for wandering around on the slopes. Speaking of which, if you’re short of wind or unsteady of foot, you’re pretty sure not to enjoy the trudge up the steep, cobbled path to the palace or the path up to the fort.
The Palace and most of the tourist sights are open sunrise to sunset, and entertainment after that is limited to the company you have over dinner, unless you have a room with TV or a good book.
Your cellphone should roam comfortably here. Web access is a pain: broadband hasn’t got here yet, and even the cybercafés function on dial-up connections. So if you’re one of those corporate high fliers who just have to be in touch all the time, take your laptop-cellphone combo or your handheld along.
Web
Rudyard Kipling’s take on Bundi
Bundi’s official website

Published in Outlook Traveller, January 2007.

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Mousetrap - 85

2006: The year of the social web. Be warned, this is a personal list. Your mileage may differ.

The contenders

Flickr
Flickr’s been around a while, and its basic level, it’s a pretty cool photo-sharing site where you can put your pictures up, and give permission to various groups that you define to see them. It also permits embedding on other sites. But the big deal was being able to tag your shots, which made the site easily searchable, letting you discover other takes on the subject, the place, the event, whatever. Its rise was made possible with the ubiquity of cheap digital cameras, cellphone cameras and the like, and, of course, broadband and the web2.0 buzz. One groans at the memory of scanning each print, resizing and optimising and uploading one by one, back in the day.

Del.icio.us
Not as obvious a choice, I know, but it’s certainly made my life a lot easier. Since I travel often, and also use more than one PC on a regular basis, keeping a list of the sites I line up to feature here as a bit of a chore, mailing myself links so I could access them elsewhere, and so on. I now use Del.icio.us almost exclusively (take a look at http://del.icio.us/zigzackly/). The social aspect also rocks: friends and readers who also use the service can simply tag a site “for:zigzackly”and it appears on my list; and I can root around through other people’s tags to find buzzing topics and more stuff for you.


And the winner!

YouTube
When this column featured YouTube way back in March, it was already white hot. It lets you upload, store, tag and share your videos, and view and comment on videos by other members. You can also embed video from YouTube on personal sites and blogs. Over the year, we’ve seen the site coopted by vital marketers, small film makers, bootleggers and the like to get their video out to the world, and its popularity levels zoom to insane levels. After Google acquired it for a billion and a half plus some change, it’s really no contest as to what the biggest online star of 2006 was. It’s a success story born of broadband access (can you imagine downloading that stuff on dialup?), yes, but it’s also a child of the social web, or web 2.0, as some like to call it, the web that people like you and me create with our content. Yay us!

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 1st January, 2007.

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Siteseeing 3

Map My India

This site has improved considerably since I first saw it, but it still needs a halfway competent sub-editor to correct the dodgy grammar, and the interface needs a heckuva lot of work before it can compare with the ease of use of a Mapquest or the maps utilities from Google and Yahoo. But it scores for us in this country because of its India focus. It can help you find places down to the street level in the major metros, and can even help you locate villages. It seems to be work in progress, though: except for Delhi, no other place lets you view maps at the top zoom level; most stop a couple of notches lower down. But there are a few useful features. Custom “e-locations” which let you mark a point on a map (you’ll need to sign up to do that) for which you can get a link which you can send to friends. And a Points of Interest search lets you find stuff in a variety of categories, including hotels, restaurants, tourist spots, banks and ATMs, hospitals, malls, embassies, and so on. I particularly liked Driving Directions: mark a start point and an end, and you get the route marked for you on a map. Overall, I’ll hold the verdict for now, but venture to say that it should, hopefully, turn into a very useful site given time. Provided, of course, that they work harder at the interface, or at least make just make it a wee bit less irritating...


(This column used to be called Cybertrack,.)

Published in Outlook Traveller, January 2007.

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