Wednesday, June 24, 2009

December 27, 2008 - New Delhi

[Note: notes in square brackets are being added now, as I post my journal entries. Everything else is simply transcribed from the journal I kept on our trip through India and Nepal.]

We--Lois and Eric Wickstrom, Kyle Zieba, and I--arrived last night at close to midnight. As promised, we were picked up at the airport, where I took the opportunity to acquire 5000 Rupees, about a hundred dollars and the limit allowed at the airport ATM machine. Interestingly, the receipt told me how much money is left in my checking account--in Rupees!

Late at night, we got only a taste of driving in India. Our driver, in deference to foreigners in his care, stopped for red lights. Nobody else did.

At night the air pollution stains everything a sickly red-orange. In the daytime it hangs over the city, blurring the winter sunshine on a cloudless day.

To imagine the experience of New Delhi from the point of view of an American who has never been to India, think of the most crowded bus or subway car you've ever been on. Now imagine that same crowd, just as thick as if they were packed into a confined space, jostling one another outdoors, on foot, on bicycles, on motorcycles, in buses, in cars, in taxis, in bicycle rickshaws, in auto rickshaws, and in carts drawn by brahmin cattle. That's right--on our first night into day we saw none of the famous sacred cattle wandering the streets [note: we saw plenty of them later], but we did see three of them harnessed to carts, earning their living.

Next, imagine dust. Not just a little dust, but a half-inch-thick layer of dust on everything. On the streets. On the cars. On the leaves of the trees. On the houses. On the majestic monuments.

On you.

But there are retreats. Our hotel, the Grand Park Inn (though we never saw a grand park anywhere nearby), is one of them. So is the restaurant where we had lunch today, Mati Mahal. In both cases, you are walking down a filthy crowded street, picking your way through cars pulled up on the sidewalk, food stands of every description, beggars, people selling toys, balloons, andfireworks (it's almost New Year's), so you have to work your way single file over buckled and broken sidewalk with the locals charging about their business and pushing you and everyone else out of their way. All of this is thick with dust...and suddenly you come to a shining clean doorway that welcomes you into a haven where you are cared for with clean sheets and hot water in the case of the hotel, or delicious and exotic hot food in a quiet, uncrowded restaurant.

We came in a day early to acclimate, so we had most of today free. This morning we took a taxi to the Red Fort, a huge place, larger than any European castle we've ever been to. It was built by the Moguls in the 16th century, was later used by the British, and finally by the modern Indian army. After WWII it became the museum we visited today.

After wandering about the fort all morning, we turned to Kyle and her Lonely Planet guidebook to find a restaurant, and took two auto-rickshaws (each one carries only two people) to get there. [Note: we soon learned that while only two westerners can fit into a rickshaw, Indians squeeze, sit on laps, and hang onto the sides to carry as many people as possible in any motorized vehicle.]

After lunch we walked through part of the bazaar to get to the Great Mosque. There we wandered about until 3pm, though as non-Moslems we could not go inside the mosque. It is a magnificent structure with a huge courtyard, but people sleep in the courtyard, which is dirty and sadly neglected. At 3pm we started looking for a taxi to take us back to our hotel for our 4pm tour organization meeting. To our dismay, taxi drivers flatly refused to take us there! So we again hired two auto-rickshaws.

We got separated in the rush-hour traffic (you'd have to be there to believe the congestion), but Kyle and I arrived for the meeting only five minutes late. Both drivers got lost, but Lois and Eric's driver was MORE lost, so they were about half an hour late.

Tomorrow morning we will start off at 5:15am, taking a train to Jaipur. It will be interesting to see how the two cities compare.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

My India Journal--Introduction

Over the next few months I am finally going to transcribe the journal I kept while traveling in India and Nepal last winter. It's my impressions of two countries I had never been to before, and was not knowledgeable about.

If you are from India, or have traveled there and uncritically loved it, I apologize for writing about the poverty, the pollution, and the squalor, along with the beauty, the color, the friendliness, and the majestic monuments. However, it is one of the unique properties of India that these things exist side by side.

Many of the complaints I wrote in my journal are about the tour, not the country--but they are part of the experience I had, and I can only write about my own experience.

There were four of us who decided to see a part of the world none of us had ever been to, so of course we took a tour rather than try to find our way around on our own. Our first--and really only--mistake was to book a GAP tour. We booked through an agent in the United States who had never been on a GAP tour, and hence did not know that when three of the four of us were over 50, he should have steered us to a different tour provider. GAP, we learned when it was too late, is geared to young athletic people with loads of stamina who don't mind starting nearly every day at 6am and ending it after midnight.

What fooled us was the literature GAP provided, listing six levels of tour from 1--little activity, mostly cruises--to 6--hiking, mountain climbing, camping out. Our tour was listed as a 2. Four experienced travelers, we thought that would be easy!

We were all in good health for our age, and certain we could meet the physical requirement of transporting our own luggage for up to half a mile. Boy were WE wrong, as was that description of the most exertion that would be required of us. You see, no one bothered to warn us that the half mile would often be straight up! My small wheeled carry-on became a real drag when I had to get it up forty or fifty steps and down the other side in train stations, in the middle of a rush-hour mob.

I must say, though, that the information about lodgings was spot-on. Except for the sleeper train, the "luxury tents," and the lodge at the nature reserve in Nepal--all listed in our itinerary--we were in modern comfortable hotels with all amenities every night. What we were not warned about was how few hours we would be allowed to spend there!

Twenty years ago, we would have taken the hyperactivity and the sleep deprivation in stride--at least as long as the rest of the group did. As it was, we were the first to complain, but certainly not the last or only. Well before the end of the tour, the young, athletic folk who made up the rest of the tour members were complaining as vociferously as we were about the forced marches, lack of free time, and being immediately dragged away from every interesting shopping area we encountered. By the second week, we were all in active rebellion against our tour director, arranging our own transport and going to see what we wanted to see, buy what we wanted to buy.

Which brings up one really great advantage to traveling in India and Nepal: for westerners, everything is CHEAP! Breakfasts were the only meals included in the tour, but we had no trouble finding great food wherever we went, for astonishingly low prices. Transportation was also cheap, so once we rebelled against walking for miles and arriving exhausted at the sights we had come to see, we could easily afford rickshaws or even taxis (where there were any).

Excellent meals, extra transportation, souvenir shopping, a couple of extra activities, and all--at the end of the trip I was amazed to find that in two weeks I spent less than $300 above the prepaid portion of the tour!

Well, with that as a teaser, the next post will be my journal entry for the first day in India, December 27, 2008.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Different Sort of Post, for Me

This blog entry is a little different from my usual ramblings about
whatever happens to be on my mind. Oh, this is on my mind all right!
It's just a different sort of topic.

Because of the current recession, domain I run with
Jacqueline Lichtenberg--is just like everyone else: trying to meet
the same expenses with less income than in previous years.

If you are in the same position, you may find the information in this
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