Archive for the 'India' Category
Friday, September 26, 2008
This will sound odd to many readers, but the highlight of our trip to India was staying at the Jaipur Inn. Someone told us early on in our trip that our greatest memories would be tied with the people we met, not the sites we saw. Sure, the Taj Mahal was beautiful, but we really connected with the hotel and its owners in a way that was truly memorable.
The Lonely Planet guide, in reviewing the Jaipur Inn, noted that free meals could be exchanged for “creative services.” We didn’t know what this meant, nor did we really believe it, But over the course of the week, Maikael helped Ramen, who started the hotel 32 years ago after retiring from the Indian Air Force, with his persistent computer problems, and I developed a few marketing materials for the Inn. In return, Ramen opened up his home to us, and we shared countless cups of tea on his veranda each day. Maikael went jogging in the mornings with Pushpendra, the hotel’s current manager and Ramen’s son, in a local park, where women in saris and sneakers kept pace. We played table tennis with Pushpendra’s son, on a table that was once Ramen’s father’s. One afternoon I made chocolate chip cookies with Zoya, Pushpendra’s daughter, which required some bizarre substitutions (vanilla extract, granulated sugar, and chocolate chips are next to impossible to find in India) and baking on tiny trays in a jumbo sized toaster oven. There were full days where we never left the hotel, choosing to spend our time simply hanging out with this super cool family.
But the apex of the week was our final day at the hotel, when we desperately needed to find an ATM machine (a recurring theme, I know). The thought of braving the touts and the autorickshaw drivers was enough to make our skin crawl, and Ramen graciously offered to drive us himself to the nearest ATM. “But I warn you, sir,” said Ramen, “my car is very old.” We made our way to the carport, where an ancient blue Fiat stood proudly. “My car is thirty five years old,” conceded Ramen. He explained that, when he bought the car, it was one of only two models available in India at that time: the other was the Ambassador, which are now used all over India as ancient white taxis.
We took a seat in the car, where a simple dashboard greeted us. There were no gadgets or radios or LCD displays, just simple gauges measuring mileage, fuel level. and speed. Ramen started the car, which coughed to life as he pulled out the choke, something I have never actually seen in operation. He placed the car into gear, the gear shift not in its typical placement but located adjacent to the steering wheel. Shifting from one gear to another, then, required a series of complicated arm movement, providing a real upper body workout, along with the manual steering.
We gently glided down the driveway and very slowly maneuvered into the onslaught of oncoming traffic. Indians are famous car horn honkers – I have never heard so much honking in my life – and Ramen was no exception. Although we were traveling five miles an hour, Ramen laid on the horn, sounding like something out of a 1950s movie. “Sir, I am asserting my presence.” Given our snail’s place, cars began blasting their horn, but Ramen kept on course. I don’t think we ever came to an actual stop the entire car ride; we just sort of slowed down and weaved through multiple lanes of traffic. I can’t remember a more memorable car ride in my entire life, and you can see by the photo that I haven’t looked happier on this entire trip.
In the end, we received a week’s worth of wireless Internet access gratis, and they let us stay in our room until 1 am when we had to catch our very early train without charge – talk about a late check-out time! But this was just icing on the cake. The goal of our trip was to have a local experience to the greatest extent possible. We never imagined that could be accomplished by staying in a hotel, but we felt completely welcomed by this lovely family in the same way we would hope if we were staying in someone’s home. In fact, I think we were.2 comments
Thursday, September 25, 2008
I was standing bleary-eyes on Platform 4 of the Jaipur train station, waiting for our train to Agra at 1:30 in the morning. Suddenly, I felt something whoosh past my shoulder. Assuming it was a gigantic cockroach, I gasped and began brushing my shoulder manically. I noticed a sinewy trail of white creep down my arm, and looked skywards toward the overhang. “What happened?” asked Maikael. “I think a bird just shit on me,” I said.
For the record, this has never happened to me in my life. But I remember hearing once that a bird pooping on you is a sign of good luck. We’d need it for the day we had planned.
We squeezed into our sleeper car, packing more humans per square inch than I would have ever thought possible. A gentleman was already snoring in one of the four beds in our berth when we boarded the train, the starched white sheet pulled taut over his head. We tiptoed to our beds, securing our luggage to the mesh rope beneath our beds; petty theft is notorious on Indian trains. The train swayed along, but I had a hard time sleeping: there are no calls when you reach stations, so you better know where you’re at and when to get off or you’re liable to find yourself in the middle of nowhere.
We crawled into the Agra Fort train station at 6:15 am, 30 minutes ahead of schedule, and scrambled to gather our belongings before the train departed once again. Next, we negotiated an autorickshaw ride into town so that we could store our backpacks for the day. This left my heart in a lurch: we never leave our backpacks in an unsecure place, and the thought of losing all of my worldly possessions made me nervous. As we puttered down the early morning streets, the Taj loomed in the distance, alongside a twinkling river, a perfect silhouette looking like something out of a fairy tale. When we reached town, the cafe we had selected to store our things was closed but, miraculously, our driver was friends with the owner and rousted him out of bed.
The power of the bird poop was already working.
We raced a few blocks down the street to catch the Taj before the sun and crowds arrived, dodging elephants, golf carts, camels, and electric-powered buses. The Taj’s brilliant white color is slowly fading to a dingy grey, caused by concerns over pollution: no gas-powered vehicles are allowed within a certain radius of the iconic monument. The Taj Mahal is part of a larger property of red sandstone buildings boasting perfectly shaped domes, and as we rounded the corner of one building the Taj suddenly appeared, white and perfect, filling an an entire crimson archway. For the first time on this trip, a chill shivered up my arms as I gazed upon this monument. The Taj Mahal is larger than I ever imagined, but despite its mammoth size it is impossibly intricate: I’ve never seen something so large look so delicate.
We spent a solid two hours admiring the building from its many angles, marveling at the glimmering white marble in the soft morning light. Most people think the Taj Mahal is a palace – I know I always did – but it is actually a mausoleum, built as a monument to one man’s love of his wife, who died while giving birth. While the Taj Mahal is a huge building, it houses only one small room, which contains the marble caskets of the man and his wife.
After visiting the Taj, the day was already growing warm and humid, so we decided to spend some time on the Taj Mahal Nature Walk. I imagined lush green lawns, manicured gardens, and perfect foliage. Instead, we ambled our way over chipped stones, pushed through scraggly bushes, gazed upon rusted and fading artwork, and took in some of the most bizarre sculptures I’ve ever seen. My favorite was the crocodile who had eroded over time, revealing a mass of tangled rebar where his snout should have been. There was a pervasive sense of charming ramshackle that characterized the place – that indeed characterizes India — a stark contrast to the perfect Taj looming in the distance.
Tired, hot, and cranky, we decided to while away the afternoon in the hotel bar of a world-class resort. It was hard to believe that a mere two blocks from the rundown nature reserve sat the world’s sixth best hotel – at least according to Travel + Leisure magazine. As we strode in the front gates the hotel staff, clad in turbans and delightful gossamer gowns, clasped his hands together and bowed slightly to us. We were whisked from person to person as we made our way through the glorious lobby. Marble splashed across every surface. A domed ceiling, painted in a brilliant blue and gold design, housed a gigantic crystal chandelier. It was such a stark contrast to the budget accommodations we have been frequenting that my senses felt completely arrested. I visited the restroom three times just to smell a clean bathroom, use real cloth towels, and admire the real rose in a vase near the basin.
Sometimes you have to do without to truly appreciate something so fine.
We settled into the opulent bar, which offered stunning, unobstructed views of the Taj. After ordered grossly expensive drinks – my Plantar’s Punch cost $10 USD, when the average beer in India costs around $1 – but to drink it in those surroundings was worth every rupee. For the first time in weeks, we had the time and energy to sit and talk for hours, something we really should be doing more of on this trip. We have felt so harassed for so many weeks that we have had little time to contemplate life and our place in the world, which was the whole point of taking this trip in the first place. To spend a quiet afternoon being blasted by air conditioning and escaping the din of the outside world was a gift. Especially before getting on another train that evening back to Delhi.No comments
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
There’s no doubt that northern India has been our toughest travel destination yet. At our trip’s inception, we felt Portugal was a bit tough, though manageable, for the independent traveler who speaks a bit of a Romance language. But as we’ve snaked our way through Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, and, finally, Hindu regions of the world, crescendoing in India, Portugal now looks like a cakewalk.
Upon arriving in Delhi from Bhutan, our first order of business was the procurement of train tickets to travel around the “Golden Triangle” cities of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. Our trusty Lonely Planet guide warns that trains fill days and sometimes weeks in advance, but that the International Tourist Office, located in the New Delhi train station, offers special seats, set aside by the Indian government, that can only be purchased by tourists. Elizabeth was in the throes of a nasty cold, so I set off on my own.
I hired an auto-rickshaw, a three-wheeled scooter that has a golf cart-like appearance, to take me to the train station. We set off, but after a few blocks, the grandfatherly driver pulled over on the side of the road and explained that the International Tourist Office had moved locations to a different part of town and produced an official city map to prove it. Our Lonely Planet guide had made me aware of the existence of scams where auto-rickshaw drivers work with travel agents, hotels, and restaurants, and will lie, misdirect, and confuse in order to get you there, but the map looked legitimate. He graciously offered to take me to the correct location for the same price, as “I reminded him of his son.” The driver was nothing if not charming as we weaved through narrow alleys in who- knows-what direction. We soon pulled up to a narrow store front, with the words “Government of India Tourist Office” printed on the tinted glass windows.
I entered the office, and was soon seated opposite a plain-clothes government worker. After explaining my requirements, he dialed the train station and asked me to speak to the official, who regretfully informed me, in exceedingly good English, that all trains were full for at least the next four days. My heart sunk and a bead of sweat formed on my brow, as our plans for the next week hinged on getting these tickets. Elizabeth was not around to offer her opinion; I felt alone. Before I knew it, the government worker had produced an alternate itinerary for us, including a private car with driver and all accommodations, all for a price of slightly under $700 USD. I felt a pang of uneasiness in my gut, that something was not quite right. Not willing to commit, the government worker became defensive, asking how I could afford my “expensive” Delhi hotel, but not his package deal. Miffed, I shot back with the strong insinuation that his “government” office was bogus. Accompanying me outside, he said something to my rickshaw driver in Hindi, and I began to wonder what their relationship was.
I entered the rickshaw, insisting that the driver now take me to the New Delhi train station. He repeated that the office is closed, but would take me there to prove it. I was deposited in another strange location, but several signs promised the station was nearby. As I walked around, another helpful stranger directed me to the International Tourist Bureau. With much the same feel as the “Government of India Tourist Office,” I immediately felt uneasy, as I was seated across from two tall men who immediately serve up chai. With formulaic delivery, they explained that some of my desired routes were unavailable (though some of the routes from the previous office are now, magically, available). The conversation quickly devolved into the predictable upselling tactics I had encountered in the last location.
My guardian angels came in the form of two English guys who happened into the office around the same time I did. We met outside and they explained that they had spent the entire day looking for the International Tourist Office, being misdirected to strange offices all over Delhi. They were about to give up, but I suggested we form an alliance, much like on Survivor, and look a bit longer. After a half hour, we finally stumbled upon the International Tourist Office, and the sense of relief I felt was probably much akin to what a sailor feels after crossing an ocean and spying that first speck of land. The real office was brimming with nervous-looking tourists deciphering the insane Indian Railway schedule. Otherwise, the office had a laid-back, no pressure feel, a welcome respite from the outside world. In the end, I was able to purchase all of my tickets for us both for under $50 USD. I explained my tale of woe to the real Indian Railways official, who shook his head, but offered a possible explanation. “Those men were just trying to run a business. It will be a long time before the system can change.”
Unfortunately, things didn’t change much upon our arrival in Jaipur. We were led to the wrong auto-rickshaw at the train station’s prepaid stand, which is supposed to be the most scam-free way to gain transportation. Other times, prices tripled upon arrival at our location. Sometimes tour operators appeared out of nowhere when we reached our final destination. And once, when requesting that we wanted to be taken to the movie theatre, we were driven 15 minutes out of the way to “go shopping,” despite our repeated protests. What makes the cities of the Golden Triangle so exhausting is the level of sophistication and pervasiveness of these scams; one must always be on guard. There’s even a Hindi word, dabbabazi, which refers to “the business of scamming tourists.” The difficulty is that these scams are born out of desperate poverty and fierce competition, a way to scrape out a meager existence. (And please don’t get me wrong — not everyone is crooked, and we met some truly wonderful people during our travels which, unfortunately, was often overshadowed by a few rotten apples in the transportation industry, our major interface.) I thought I was prepared to deal with the scams, but I realized that it’s one thing to read about it, and another to live it.
When I returned to our hotel, exhausted and soaked with sweat, I felt triumphant, as if I had just passed a test of biblical proportions. Elizabeth burst in to tears. “I thought something terrible had happened,” she cried. I asked how long I had been gone. “Four hours.”2 comments
Monday, September 22, 2008
I admit it: I love Bollywood movies. The over-the-top acting, flamboyant costumes, exuberant dance numbers, and saccharine sweet storylines make American musical theatre look like a Chekhov drama. I’ve seen a few Bollywood films in the US, but I knew that nothing would compare to seeing the real deal in India.
Fortunately for us, India’s largest and most famous Bollywood theatre, Raj Mandir, is located in Jaipur. We were warned to purchase tickets well in advance – opening weekend shows can sell out for days. Raj Mandir only screens one movie on one screen; in this case Singh is Kinng (I honestly don’t know why “kinng” is spelled with two “n”s). At the ticket window we were provided with a choice of seating times and ticketing levels, ranging from Diamond to Emerald to Ruby, an appropriate analogy given Jaipur’s long history in the gem trading industry. We chose the best seats in the house for a whopping $2 per ticket, which is bound to be the least amount of money I ever spend on a movie ticket.
Walking into the theatre feels a bit like entering a nightclub: bouncers man the imposing front doors, and we are wanded and warned not to take photographs, even in the lobby. Once inside, the foyer looks more like a grand Broadway theatre than a cineplex. Plush seats line the perimeter of the room, as gigantic lavender ornamentation stretches towards the soaring ceiling. Starving, we make our way towards the snack counter, where we pay about 50 cents for a soft drink and even less for popcorn which are, for once, a human size. (A host of pakora, fried snacks, and pretty white pastries are also available.)
Most people don’t realize that India – not California – sustains the world’s largest film industry, but to see the occupancy of the theatre would have you believing otherwise. We stumble over sardine-packed rows of moviegoers in the darkened theatre, the previews having already started. Instead of advertisements for future movies, we are treated to what amounts to a public service announcement singing the praises of Rajastan, the state in which Jaipur is located. At the 3:30 Sunday seating of a 1,100 seat theatre there is not a single seat available.
The movie starts, and the opening lines are in English. “Happy birthday, king.” Then, the next three hours progress in Hindi, with intermittent words and phrases in English. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to piece together what seems like a very complicated storyline. It’s obviously a love story and a comedy – most Bollywood films follow the same formula – but beyond that we are hopelessly lost. My favorite parts are the decadent dance numbers, as intense hues sashay across the screen. It’s also fun to listen to the audience – sight gags and pratfalls are a huge hit, and certain jokes have the audience in stitches, clapping loudly. There are no separate rooms for babies, who sit happily on their mothers’ laps but cry loudly from time to time. No one glares or rolls their eyes at the disruption; it’s just part of the Indian moviegoing experience.
At intermission the elegant velvet curtain dips down and the lights go up, giving us a chance to admire the opulent theatre. Large white scallop shapes frame the screen; I understand why the Lonely Planet referred to the theatre as “a giant meringue.” Everyone floods the snack counter – we at the Diamond level have our own – while Maikael and I try to figure out the plot of the movie. Neither of us are able to reach any sort of a consensus.
The movie continues, and we fall further and further behind in our comprehension. There is a woman who sells roses. There are a lot of men in turbans. There is a man who is catatonic. Suddenly they are in some facsimile of Australia. But how these pieces of the puzzle fit together is a complete mystery.
Perhaps the strangest moment of the movie is realizing that the show’s signature dance number, “Singh is Kingg,” is sung by none other than rapper Snoop Dogg. The tune is infectious, and as the movie adjourns, depositing throngs of people into the late afternoon heat, everyone is humming the song.
We make our way into an air conditioned restaurant, where the most bizarre Muzak I’ve ever heard is piped in through the sound system, including an instrumental version of Celine Dion’s “Power of Love.” Over tandoori chicken, vegetable rice, and the world’s fluffiest nan, we discuss the finer points of the movie. Who was that guy? What was the deal with that lady? Why did they go to that place? I finished the meal by taking a chance on a dessert I had never heard of, rasmalai, a Rajastani specialty of delicate balls of light cheese, doused in saffron-scented milk and sprinkled with pistachios. It is delicious, but we reach no grand conclusions about the film.
The next day a 10 year-old girl, who had also seen the movie, tried to explain the plot to me. Even in English it didn’t make a great deal of sense. But the costumes were still gorgeous.2 comments
Sunday, September 21, 2008
We have only one week to experience India, which is a very short time for a very large country, so we decided to concentrate on The Golden Triangle, referring to the shape that is created between the cities of Delhi, Agra (home to the Taj Mahal), and Jaipur. Most people spend a few days in each place, but we quickly determined that Delhi wasn’t for us, and Agra can easily be experienced in a day, so rather than racing around for a week we are spending five nights in Jaipur.
Known as “The Pink City,” Jaipur was painted a dreamy shade of pink in 1876 to welcome the Prince of Whales. The historical center of town is awash in a deep, dusty rose color, providing whimsy to this chaotic, but rather small, city. We chose Jaipur as a place to settle in for a bit because, aside from its tourist attractions, it offered opportunities to engage in a number of quintessential Indian experiences that we were eager to try: visiting an astrologer, seeing a Bollywood movie, and indulging in Ayurvedic treatments.
The moment we stepped onto the train station’s platform, we were bombarded with an onslaught of touts, offering us everything from rickshaw rides to tours to hotel rooms. We desperately searched for the prepaid autorickshaw stand – a system in place at most major transportation hubs to help travelers avoid getting completely scammed. We have learned that the worst thing one can do in northern India is to arrive at a city without plans – having a slip of paper with the name and address of your hotel written that you can hand to the dispatcher at the prepaid autorickshaw stand is critical. We exited the station, where a dense wave of touts washed over us; a security guard poked a long, wooden stick into the mass to help create a path.
We gave the scammers the slip and traversed the jangling streets of Jaipur by autorickshaw, a three-wheeled mini-cab that rattles nosily, belching exhaust as it weaves manically through traffic. After our long journey we were delivered to the Jaipur Inn, an oasis of calm. We were immediately met by the affable manager, Pushpendra, whose father, Ramin, opened the Inn 32 years ago. The property has long been a budget traveler’s favorite, and it’s clear why: truly friendly service; lovely, affordable rooms that scream India; and great food all combine to make for a memorable experience. We felt immediately at home.
Before we knew it, Pashpenbar had invited us to make a New Mexican dinner one evening during our stay, and Ramin was excited to enlist Maikael’s help with a computer problem. We spent a lovely afternoon enjoying tea on Ramin’s airy patio adjoining the Inn, which is something straight out of Monsoon Wedding, with its lush tropical gardens, wrought iron patio furniture, swirling fans, and canvas awnings to keep the rain out. His patio is lined with black and white photos from his time in the Indian Air Force where, as a young man, he is pictured alongside a host of Indian dignitaries, including the then-president! Ramin is one of the most genteel people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. He is Indian Vincent Price, in looks, stature, and voice. He graciously invited us to “a completely Indian dinner” on his patio. We ate like kings, dining on steamed rice, tender dal, steaming chipati bread, chunks of potato with stewed tomatoes, and a medley of sauteed vegetables.
Jaipur had already won me over, but there was more to come.
The next morning we awoke to clear blue skies and decided to make our way to the City Palace at the heart of Jaipur. A fascinating collection of buildings from different eras of maharaja rule in Rajastan, including the current maharaja, City Palace is the perfect introduction to the city. We ambled through the Textiles Museum, which houses a fascinating collection of royal garments and a dizzying array of turbans, explaining the significance of different sizes, shapes, and colors. My favorite part of the collection was a royal polo uniform, a sport, I learned, that originated in India, not England. I’m not really into weaponry, but the Armory houses a collection of signs with the letters created by various weapons: the “Welcome” sign is spelled out in daggers. But the centerpiece of City Palace is Sarvatobhadra, an open courtyard lined with pink buildings. The gallery in the center houses massive silver vessels, the largest sterling-silver objects in the world, which were made for the Maharaja Madho Singh II to transport holy water from the Ganges River on his trip to England in 1902.
We made our way around the block to keep our appointment with a renowned astrologer to have our horoscope read. Greeting us at the entry of the dim office was a faded, wooden, hand-lettered sign that simply read “Dr. Vinod Shastri, Astrologer and Palmist.” Soon the man himself greeted us, a soft-spoken, smiling person clad in a gauzy white shift. His bowl cut of jet black hair and Coke-bottle glasses intimated not at a guru but at a regular Joe with impish charm. After taking down our exact time and location of birth, his assistant plugged the information into a computer – I was expecting parchment paper and complex star charts, not printer paper.
He called us in one by one into his cluttered office. By simply glancing at a diamond-shaped chart filled with a series of numbers, he was able to interpret the complex results of a 30 page report! Dr. Shastri proceeded to poke at my palms with great intensity, finally concluding, “Your palm and astrology are very similar.” He revealed pretty specific information from my past (after graduating college I was faced with two career paths – one of which involved pursuing a helping profession) and also gave me some insights into the next five years (I can look forward to a career change in October 2009, and maybe a child in 2010 or 2011).
True or not, it was a quintessentially Indian experience. Astrology is a huge part of Indian culture; marriages are sometimes waged by horoscopic compatibility. By the time our readings were over the office was brimming with others like us who wanted a peak into our futures.No comments
Saturday, September 20, 2008
If you had any doubts that American Idol has reached total world domination, I am here to prove you wrong. The franchise has extended its tentacles to India, where the (apparently) wildly popular Indian Idol debuted last night. We’ve seen advertisements posted everywhere, from train stations to airports, and Maikael and I were lucky enough to catch some of the program. While the formula is basically the same, there is a definite Indian flare to the whole affair.
- There are a panel of Indian judges who are dopalgangers of the US crew: the beautiful young woman (Paula Abdul), the lovable curmudgeon who speaks alternately in Hindi and English (Simon Cowell), and the plump and eccentric one with crazy eyebrows (Randy Jackson).
- Rather than going to Hollywood, contestants are provided The Golden Ticket while one of the judges shouts, “You’re going to Mumbaaaaaaaai!”
- The producers still make visits to contestants’ hometowns, but the stories are way more tragic.
- Contestants still beg, plead, and make terrible song selections. The only difference is that the song are usually from popular Bollywood movies and therefore way more entertaining and over-the-top than any Whitney Houston selection.
- Family members still wait on tenterhooks while their son/daughter audition in the next room, but the delivery of the good news is much more dramatic. Indian-style editing effects are employed (slow motion and dramatic music are very popular), making Spanish telenovelas look like CSPAN.
We’ve decided to reduce our television watching upon returning home to the States; we have watched very little TV the past two months and don’t really miss it. But if Indian Idol aired in the US, I’m not sure that I could bear the sacrifice.1 comment