Wednesday, July 29, 2009

India - January 1, 2009 - Khajuraho

Happy New Year!

Today I had to be up at 5:00am again, to leave at 6:00 for Khajuraho to see the famous Kamasutra temples. Kyle stayed out till last night's party ended, but she chose cooking school and henna, so she could sleep in.

We drove through fog out into the countryside--a four-hour drive over terrible roads with crazy drivers, motorcycles, bicycles, oxcarts, cattle, goats, dogs, pigs, and children all trying their best to cause an accident. We actually saw two head-on collisions (just the results), one going each direction.

Khajuraho has a number of beautifully preserved Hindu temples from the 9th to 12th centuries, which depict not only aspects of Shiva, but various beasts and other beings, as well as numerous happy married couples. By far the majority of the couples cuddle, kiss, or gaze into one another's eyes, but here and there are the ones this monument is famous for: graphic depictions of sex acts, some common, some athletic, and some downright impossible.

Khajuraho was by far the cleanest outdoor place we have been--Disney quality inside the fence. I didn't see any groundskeepers at work, but considering the apparent Indian attitude toward litter (drop it with the rest of the trash in the streets), there had to be some working constantly.

We enjoyed touring the monuments and seeing the many Indian families there on a New Year's outing, but were dismayed to have well-dressed middle-class children come up to us and beg! I have no idea if their families knew what they were up to, for it was clear that parents thought this a safe place to let their children run as they pleased. Kids dressed up for a day out ran and played in the puddles made by the grass sprinklers.

These children's begging took the form of demanding, "Pencil! Pencil!" I guess they were trying to give the impression they would spend money for school supplies, but when Eric actually gave one of them a pencil, he seemed completely puzzled. At least it stopped that one child from following us around.

Before we left Khajuraho we had another great Indian meal, though the service was terrible. The only place we have been served mediocre food was the hotel in Orccha--otherwise everything has been delicious.

Tonight we're off on the sleeper train to Veranasi.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

December 31, 2008 - New Year's Eve - Orchha

Today began with a train ride through beautiful agricultural countryside as we made our way to Orchha. As our trip progresses, we are seeing more of the India we knew had to be there, but which was invisible the first few days. People in this part of the country do not live like sardines in a tin. There are nice middle-class homes here and there, and at the resort where we are staying there are Indian families on vacation.

Yes, there are still dogs and beggars in the streets, but not in such numbers as we saw in New Delhi and Jaipur. We visited a working temple this evening and saw three or four people sleeping in the courtyard, compared to the scene in the Delhi train station where we had to pick our way through sleeping bodies laid out in ranks like wounded soldiers at the railway in Gone With the Wind.

The main thing we saw in Orchha was a palace--this one not fortified--with a number of surviving magnificent murals. There was no light except what came in through the doorways, and of course no flash photography allowed, but my new Fuji camera performed miracles: my photos look as if I used flash when I didn't. I may not be able to blow them up very large, as I did keep getting a "camera shake" warning, but on the LCD screen they appear to be fine.

We walked past the local laundry--the river. There was the hotel bedding being washed and laid out on the bushes to dry. This is not an isolated case--we saw laundry being done this way everywhere we went.

Then we returned to our "luxury tent." The hotel has two parts, one a building with ordinary hotel rooms and the other a ring of these large strange tents around a green area that today was set up for a New Year's Eve party. They are tents--canvas over pipes--but they have indoor plumbing, air conditioning and TV ... but no hot water. They're supposed to have hot water, of course, but at least today there isn't any. My video is the best way to show how the luxury tents look:

When we got back from the palace, I turned the light over the sink on to get ready for dinner. And"pop!" The bulb burst. No light to wash or comb hair or put makeup on by, as our tent had only dim floor lamps elsewhere. So I called housekeeping (yes, we have a phone in the tent).

Two different people I talked to could not comprehend "burnt out light bulb," "broken lamp," or any variation I could think of, so they sent an electrician who found that it was not just the bulb--the fixture had somehow broken. So he changed the fixture. Kyle and I then got ready for dinner--but there was a knock at the door. The electrician was back, with the newly repaired old light fixture. While we watched in disbelief, he replaced the new fixture he had just installed with the old one!

The day ended with an incredibly noisy New Year's Eve party right outside our door. Well, we're exhausted, so I expect to sleep despite the throbbing electronic music. Lois and Eric and I have signed up for one of the tour "extras," a trip to the famous Kamasutra temples at Khajuraho tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

December 30, 2008 - Agra - Part Two

[This is a continuation of my journal entry about our very full day in Agra.]

Above you see what should be a grand view of the Taj Mahal from Agra's Red Fort, but today the haze was so bad that we could hardly see that it was there. However, we were soon off to the Taj Mahal itself, this time by horse and buggy. Once again, though, we were dropped off more than a mile from the entrance, so after a long hard walk we arrived hot and tired.

The Taj Mahal is as majestic as promised--perhaps the most beautiful building in the world. We had plenty of time to photograph the exterior before joining the masses of people queued to go inside. I think we were there on one of the busiest days of the year--Christmas and New Year's decorations abounded, and we saw more Indian families than foreigners. Obviously most kids are out of school, although in one of the towns we saw children in school uniforms with backpacks.

While Lois, Kyle, and I went inside, Eric stayed outside and made friends with the site's head gardener. Frankly, the inside of the Taj Mahal is a disappointment--because you can't see anything! The only light is daylight filtering in through tiny windows and one distant doorway. There must be beautiful carvings and inlays, as there are on the outside, but there is not even enough light to prevent stumbling over unexpected shallow steps, let alone appreciate the design.

When we joined Eric outside, the gardener told us about his work, and took our pictures. On our way out, we encountered some of the soldiers who were doing crowd control at the monument, and they were happy to let me take their picture. Note the khaki-colored sari uniforms.

As I said in the previous post, after we had seen India's most famous landmark everyone went their own way, some of us back to the hotel by public transport instead of tired feet, and others to the shops we've been denied time to see up to now. Then a group of us went out to dinner, where I ordered something called a korma, a dish of fruit and vegetables cooked in yogurt with nuts and spices--absolutely delicious.

Thus ended our busiest day thus far.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

December 30, 2008 - Agra - Part One

Up at 4am to be ready to go at 5:15. Of course the train to Agra was then 40 minutes late.

We had four seats reserved in a compartment for six--but it was still made up as a sleeper compartment. Ugh! I am not looking forward to a night in one of those later this week!

No privacy whatsoever. Six bunks on one side of the aisle perpendicular to the window, and two on the other side parallel to it--so in one "compartment" there are actually eight people, not six.

There are no doors--other passengers can use the aisles as they please. There are no curtains. Just bunks that convert to seats for daytime.

Sitting across the aisle this morning was one of the most beautiful young men I've ever seen. He struck up a conversation with us in order to flirt with Kyle, and his adaptation was amusing. First he was an Aryan. Had he stuck to that we probably would have believed him. But then he decided it would be more impressive to be a Sikh, despite being barbered and dressed western style. Bad luck for him--I had not half an hour before read in the newspaper an article about Sikhs being outcast if they ever, even once, trimmed their hair. Couldn't help showing him the article. He did what our guide does when we press him for information he doesn't want to give up: he changed the subject.

In Agra we stayed in a nice, clean, shabby genteel hotel. We are all getting very tired, though, of two or three mile marches to points where we get local transport that we could have boarded right outside our hotel, and then dropped off a mile or more from the attraction we came to see, so we always arrive too hot and tired to enjoy it. When we asked our guide why, his answer was a very annoyed, "Look at what you signed up for. It says all local transport."

But we came back with, "All we want is more local transport! Other people get dropped off at the entry point, and so can we!"

At that he became incensed and told us we had to obey the rules of the tour, and our choices were to go on the excursions or stay in the hotel. Has this guy never guided Yanks, Brits, and Ozzies before? The result of his tantrum was that after we had seen the day's two attractions his tourists scattered instead of marching back to the hotel as he wanted us to do. Those who had been dying to go shopping, and never allowed the time, went shopping. Lois, Eric, and I paid for our own local transport (a tuk-tuk, cheap), rather than senselessly wasting our energy reserves by walking.

In the meantime, though, we had other adventures. Early in the day, after we had walked a couple of miles, we were put in bicycle rickshaws to go to Fort Agra. The poor man driving (pedaling) the one Kyle and I were put into was scrawny, and his bicycle was not geared. We did not realize that the order our guide had given was "Follow us," so at first we were not worried when all the other tuk-tuks passed us and then disappeared into the distance. We were sympathizing with the driver, who, we thought, knew he was taking us to another red fort.

But the ride went on and on, and soon we were off into side streets of a shopping district. When our driver stopped at another tuk-tuk rank to ask directions, we knew we were lost. But, we still did not know that our driver didn't know where we were going till one of the other drivers, who had a bit of broken English, asked if we wanted one hour or two.

"No, no," we said. "Not hours. Red Fort. Fort Agra."

There was consultation in Hindi, and we started off again, hoping our driver now knew where we were supposed to go.

It had to happen, of course, on the day we were going to the Taj Mahal. We had been warned that if we did not want to stand in hour-long lines to check bags before we went in and again after the visit, we could take only what was allowed inside: money, passport, keys, camera, water.

So--there we were without either a cell phone or the card with our guide's cell phone number on it!

Kyle and I started planning how to get to Fort Agra--dump the current tuk-tuk the next time we saw a stand of them, and see if we could find a driver who could understand that we wanted to go to Fort Agra. But just then one of the other tuk-tuk drivers from our group pulled up beside us and spoke to our driver in Hindi. He then turned to us with a big grin and said, "Fort Agra!"

Ummm...why had he been unable to hear those words from us for the past half hour?

Then our tour guide pulled up in an auto-rickshaw, we transferred to that, and we were whisked off to the fort.

All the forts we are seeing are really fortified castle/palace complexes. Agra's Red Fort is important as the home of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal. A local guide took us around, pointing out things like the double moat--first a ring of water, with crocodiles, and inside that an actual jungle, with tigers. The water and the jungle are still there, but although monkeys live in the jungle, the crocodiles and tigers are long departed.

The Emperor Shah Jahan, though, was not conquered by an enemy from outside. His son decided his father was not getting out of his way soon enough, and imprisoned him in his own palace. He was able to look out over the magnificent tomb he had built for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, but he never did get to build the matching black monument for himself.

(To be continued. Next post, the Taj Mahal.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

December 29, 2008 - Jaipur, India

[Comments in square brackets are added now. Everything else is from my journal written during the trip. This is the fourth post about my trip to India and Nepal--the earlier ones can be found via the index on the right side of the page.]

Today was extremely...interesting.

Our guide told us to be ready to leave the hotel at 7:45. Everyone rushed around madly, getting ready while the hotel staff delayed and delayed our breakfasts. Still, at 7:45 everyone was gathered in the garden except for our guide and one girl whose roommate was distraught because she had not come in the night before. We tried calling the guide's room. No answer. So the girl upset that her roommate had disappeared went to pound on his door. It was unlocked, and opened when she knocked.

You guessed it--she found her roommate in bed with the tour guide, both fast asleep.

By the time our guide found his way to the garden, the cars that were supposed to take us to the Amber Fort had gone. Instead we took tuk-tuks, this time the auto-rickshaws, out of town and half way up the mountain, where we shifted to jeeps for the rest of the steep climb.

The Amber Fort is huge, even bigger than the Red Fort in Delhi. It affords magnificent views of the surrounding country, so I was able to make videos of elephants climbing the path up to the fort, of monkeys living there--a nice day's collection, along with numerous stills.

From the fort we were supposed to go out of town to a village with a textile factory, but everyone was more interested in going out to dinner, so we went to a factory in town instead.

They showed us the block printing process, and then fed us samosas, bananas, and chai while they showed us the most gorgeous rugs we had ever seen. I fell in love with one made of yak wool, and after some bargaining I bought it and had them ship it home. [It's now in my living room, where my cat Dudley absolutely loves it.] Then I bought a few gifts in their shop, as this tour is very short on opportunities for shopping.

We then went for dinner to the circular restaurant at the Om Hotel. We ordered a variety of dishes and shared--delicious food for prices you would pay at Appleby's, for a world-class restaurant with Jaipur slowly turning below us as the sun set.

Tonight it's early to bed, as we have to be ready to go at 5:15(!) in the morning to catch the train to Agra, home of the famous Taj Mahal. I assume our guide will be up and ready to go with us!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

December 28, 2008 - Jaipur

[Notes in square brackets are added as I transcribe my journal for publishing. Everything else is what I wrote in my journal during the trip itself.]

Up at 4:00am, picked up at 5:15 for the train station. People were sleeping all over the station floor--the homeless seeking to sleep under a roof. We had a hard time not stepping on anyone as we maneuvered our luggage to the platform. It's December, the coldest part of the year, yet people who can't get into a place like the train station are sleeping outside.

The train was crowded, but we had reserved seats in 2nd class. Shabby old train cars, but our tickets included a newspaper and a hot breakfast, delivered to our seats. I have discovered masala chai, a form of tea mixed with spices and hot milk, served in small cups. Delicious. [So far, I have not been able to duplicate the flavor at home with recipes to be found on the web.]

The heavy pollution disappeared as we rode out into the country--thriving farms, every square inch of land put to use. At this time of year fields of mustard were in bloom, while rice paddies were only beginning to sprout green shoots. [This was the only area in which we saw rice paddies.]

In Jaipur, a city that appears to be one giant market, we are staying at another of those little havens away from the madding crowd. This one is called Jai Nivas, a luxury guest house. It has a garden with a koi pond, where we sat and were served juice while they got our rooms ready.

Except that there is less colorful air pollution, Jaipur is a smaller version of Delhi: dirty, crowded, and crazy. We walked into the Pink City through neighborhoods of grinding poverty. Here the sacred cows do wander freely, while goats are raised right in the city. Cute baby goats gambol in the filth. At one corner a family of pigs blocked our way.

Our guide clearly wants us to see everything, but he is exhausting us. We visited the City Palace, a textile museum, and street after street of open market. Along the way, Lois got the opportunity to see snake charmers, something she had wanted to see. But I don't think she expected to see them this up close and personal!

Then our guide had us get into tuk-tuks (bicycle rickshaws), which carried us for blocks and then suddenly, for no discernible reason, set us down in front of McDonald's. [That was the only McDonald's we saw in India.] Our guide promptly disappeared into the insane traffic. We looked at one another and tried to figure out what was going on.

Just as we were about to try to call our guide's cell phone, he reappeared and led us across a roundabout and up a street to a gem exchange. Lois, Eric, Kyle, and I had no interest in expensive baubles, so collapsed onto couches in the lobby to wait for our tour mates. To our amazement we were brought chai and treated as welcome guests, even though we were clearly not there to buy.

After that welcome break, we walked the rest of the way back to our lodging. Lois, Eric, and I elected not to go out to a restaurant, as we needed to rest and do some laundry.

On our second day and second city, India continues to show us havens of comfort and hospitality, beauty and charm, in the midst of poverty and filth, beggars and thieves. One thief--an able-bodied young man--tried to take my walking stick right out of my hands today, but backed off when I threatened to hit him with it. Goodness knows what cultural rules I broke doing that, but I carry it for foreign travel for good reason: ancient walkways are uneven, as are steps, and there are often no handrails. It also gives me something to lean on when standing in queues.

My stick is not expensive--around $15 at Wal-Mart--but it collapses to go through airport security, extends to the length of a cane for strolling through cities, and extends to walking stick height for hiking. [See my upcoming Dec. 29 post with the photo of the steep climb to the Amber Fort for the obvious reason I cannot let go of a walking aid just because someone who doesn't need it wants it. I would not be able to buy another till I got home.]

Having passed some laundries in which people wash clothing by banging it with bricks in water we have been warned not to drink, we chose to wash our own clothes in India. [In later posts I'll have photos of people doing laundry that will show you why we were leery of sending our laundry out.] So we did that, then had a very nice dinner at our lodgings, where we are getting the finest service I have ever experienced.

So far, we have seen India as a land of great contrasts--but we've only been here for two days.