A Travellerspoint blog

Feb 9th: Jaipur and Elephants

and silk

sunny 78 °F

Jaipur is the capital of the state of Rajasthan. It is a big, metropolitan city with a population of 6.7MM. There are actual stores here, rather than stalls, and there are restaurants rather than stalls and there are coffee shops, – well, tea shops, and they are mostly stalls. The traffic is no different, even without the cows. I am convinced that there are no traffic laws in India. However, there is one pedestrian “law” that will save your life. If you decide to cross the street, do not change your mind, do not slow down, just GO. The drivers won’t slow down for you but they will assume that you will continue on the same trajectory and they will miss you. Otherwise, you’ll be dead.

While we’re on the subject of behavior, I need to talk about the hawkers. All day today, in and around the various sights we saw, we were surrounded by people hawking souvenir crap. They don’t just approach you, they nearly block your path as you try to walk by. They are holding postcards, small brass items, wood carvings, jewelry, blah-blah-blah, and they follow you and talk to you for many steps until they finally give up. But if you so much as acknowledge their existence, you are their official target. It is hard to be so rude as to completely ignore that someone is talking to you, but you really have to. One of the ladies could not bring herself to “be rude” and she insisted that saying “no thank you” is enough. Well, every time there was a swarm of hawkers to walk through, she seemed to attract most of them. Thankfully a few days in India has hardened her. She survived today.

Today I rode an elephant. It was not as bad as riding a camel, but it is still something I don’t ever have to do again. After the ride, one of the ladies cracked me up when she said, “I have never been so happy to get off anything in my life.” The ride was part of getting up to an 11th century fort and palace complex which was the walled capital of Rajasthan ‘back in the day’. Once again we were seeing ruins of what used to be kings’ courts and harems and we discussed the architecture. I am beginning to lose interest in old forts and I can tell by my itinerary that I have a few more to go. However, within this fort is a palace with walls of little mirrors. It is being restored so you can see how beautiful it once was.
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Thank goodness we did not have to ride elephants down the hill. We got in jeeps. That was a much more comfortable. Onward to the carpet and textile showroom where the manufacture of rugs and the dying of cloth is demonstrated and then you are ushered into the sales floor where there are about as many salesmen as there are customers. I knew I wasn’t going to buy a carpet there but I did want to look at the silks. Of course, I was adopted immediately and shown a million patterns and colors. I finally chose, they took my measurements, and they will deliver my custom made silk tunic to my room later this evening. Cool, huh?

After lunch we visited yet another old building, but not as old as the fort. This one is the City Palace – the home of what remains of royalty here. (There really isn’t royalty in India anymore but if your family held the title before royalty was abolished, you are allowed to call yourself royal and you are treated as such.) By this time, we were getting a bit weary and the museum part of the City Palace (mostly containing paintings of old rulers) held little interest. We practically flew through it.

Tomorrow is another travel day. This was a short stay in Jaipur. I would have had fun wandering the streets here for a day, but alas, there is no time.

Posted by Follow Carol 07:38 Archived in India Comments (0)

Feb 8th: Road to Jaipur

and interesting sidetrips

sunny 72 °F

Well crap. I have a cold which kept me up most of the night. I am sure that no one believes me, but I am never sick, at least not at home. But get me on a trip and I almost always catch something. I’m going to blame it on the Mexico busses. (Air India). At least I’m not the only one. I’ve been hearing some sniffing and coughing in our “coach”.

Today we drove from Agra to Jaipur. It’s about a five-hour drive and we made a few stops on the way so it took forever. Our first stop was the abandoned walled city of Fatehpur Sikri. Akbar (remember Akbar?) built the city to be near his Sufi priest after the priest promised him that he would finally have three sons. The city is huge with palaces for his wife and him as well as a large accommodation for his harem. It was founded in 1569 and abandoned in 1585. I guess the water source ran out. (talk about poor planning!) It must have been beautiful in its time but now it is a giant red sandstone complex with very little evidence of the grandeur it must have had.

Have you ever heard of a stepwell? I hadn’t either until we stopped in a small village and looked at the Chand Baori stepwell which is just outside of Jaipur. It’s amazing! The purpose was to conserve water and create a cool gathering place. It is 13 feet deep and along all four sides are 3500 steps. I never knew anything like that existed. After we left the well, we went on a little walk through the village. It was pretty neat, a little middle class burg complete with the town tailor who sits outside on his porch sewing on his treadle Singer.

We finally made it to Jaipur, the location of the Exotic Marigold Hotel. It is a big metropolitan city. There are no cows in the streets and all the shops have electricity and doors. We’re coming up in the world. I am exhausted and going to bed. I am still a happy traveler. . .even with a cold. It is not all that bad, but I am dead.

Posted by Follow Carol 08:00 Archived in India Comments (0)

Feb 7th: The Taj Mahal

pinch me I must be dreaming

sunny 72 °F

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Do you realize that I actually walked through the Taj Mahal this morning? My reactions to the whole experience have been all over the map. First I was stunned by the vastness of the manicured grounds. Then of course, the Taj Mahal itself took my breath away as I walked closer and closer. When you can actually touch the white marble inlayed with many colors of semi-precious stones you can’t believe it. OMG! It is as beautiful as they say.

As you may be aware, the Taj Mahal is a 500 year old mausoleum built by an emperor to honor his beloved deceased wife. When you hear the story, you hear that the Taj is a testament to the incredible love that he felt for her. Per Pardeen, no such love exists in the world today. And when you are walking through there you have to think, “wow, that guy must have been mad with grief”. Well, just wait a minute. Do a little digging and you find that she was just one of his wives, which is not uncommon, but she died giving birth to their 14th child! Dude, could you not see that childbirth hurts? You get your guts torn up 14 times and see if you survive. Ladies, if they tell you they want to build something to commemorate their love for you – run.

All that said, I did graduate to the “shit, I am actually here” emotion and I guess I haven’t “come down” yet. But the Taj is not the only 500-year-old giant edifice around here. The other one is a huge fort, “The Red Fort” located two miles away from the Taj. We toured it this afternoon. It is important because a lot went on there, and it is important for its scale and its architecture. It was built in stages and two of the builders were 1) a great emperor named Akbar and 2) his grandson, Shah Jahan, who is the guy who built the Taj Mahal. Interestingly, Shah Jahan died at the fort when his son imprisoned him there. I’m tellin’ ya, it’s like a soap opera! The fort is interesting, but the two hour history lecture that went along with it left me glassy-eyed. I’m sorry, I am not a history buff. A quick overview of the high points will suffice, thank you. Besides, we have shopping to do.

Well that turned out to be a bust. Our driver delivered us to a place that makes marble inlaid tables, etc. We learned how it was done and then they escorted us into the showroom (of course). “No pressure, no pressure” they say over and over while they’re following you around the store pointing out stuff that they think you should have. I made the mistake of admiring a marble bowl (for a mere $1700) and was immediately adopted by one of the “no pressure” sales clerks. I never really shook him, he was with me the whole time. Three of the ladies bought something, I was not one of them.

The next stop was a store that sells leather goods. Leather is a big industry here so this would be the place to get a good deal. IF they had anything worth buying, that is. At the beginning of the week I exchanged $20 into rupees for small essentials, trinkets, etc. I must still have $10 worth left.

Posted by Follow Carol 07:54 Archived in India Comments (0)

Feb 6th: Agra

a travel day and some initial observations

sunny 75 °F

As I write this I am sitting in the hotel bar, drinking a passable chenin blanc and watching a sitar player and his accompanying percussionist play for the lobby. No I am not kidding. The rest of the group is out to dinner in an upscale hotel restaurant. I chose this evening as the perfect time to escape from the herd. Sometimes I can’t do herd 24/7. Don’t get me wrong – it isn’t the group, it’s me. But I could not be luckier. . . .hardly anyone in the bar, and a couple of guys are serenading me.

Today was a travel day. We are now in Agra, having flown here from Varanasi. Yep, we flew on the Mexico bus again, but it didn’t seem so bad this time. It could easily be that after a couple of days in Varanasi, even Air India looks good. Let me tell you, as exciting as Varanasi was, it was equally as despicably impoverished. I knew that, but when you follow Varanasi with a drive through Agra and the surrounding environs, the comparison is striking. Here you see poverty by our standards but people aren’t living elbow to elbow in a shack or on the street. Plus, there is a lot less trash. The cows, goats and dogs are still roaming free, and there is still the incessant honking of motorcycles and motorized pedi-cabs. But, people are better off.

After we checked in to our hotel, we met in the lobby to be taken to a big park across a river from the Taj Mahal to view it in the sunset. It is stunning. It’s a whole lot bigger than I imagined. We lingered until the sun actually set and the park rangers started shooing us out. Tomorrow we will actually visit the Taj, today was just a photo op.

Before the driver took the group to dinner, we stopped at a really interesting museum which is also a retail establishment selling jewelry and intricate embroidery art. I enjoyed looking at the art and the jewels I would never buy. They actually had a pretty good deal on embroidered evening bags, but I couldn’t see me carrying that kind of bling to Wednesday Night Dinner at the Elks. It was fun but I left there with all my rupees intact.

Next stop, the hotel restaurant where everyone disembarked but me and the driver. He was so kind to navigate the crowded streets in that bus just to drop me off at our own hotel a few blocks away. On the way we drove by a wedding procession. It’s wedding season here because the weather is really nice, kinda like June in California. These processions are huge festivals in the street. The groom was on a white horse, I didn’t see the bride but there were about ten guys holding big, bright, electric lamps that are strung together by one electric cord. They must have a heluva battery. A small van was parked just outside of the commotion and loud music was blaring from it. People were dancing in the street. Somebody’s parents have money (or did).

Oh, I knew it was too good to last. Ravi Shankar stopped playing and now the bar’s music system is playing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. Not exactly my idea of a stereotypical night in India! Perhaps it is time to retire to my room.

Posted by Follow Carol 06:55 Archived in India Comments (0)

Feb 5th: The Ganges

rituals

sunny 75 °F

By the time I got to bed last night, I had convinced myself that I would not get up at 5:00, to meet in the lobby at 6:00, to walk through the crazy streets of Varanasi down to the river to shiver on a boat for an hour. But for some reason, my internal body clock thought better of that stupid decision and I was wide awake at 4:15. I tried to ignore it, tried to tell myself that it is OK if I want to pass on the opportunity of a lifetime for a bit of rest. “Fuck it” I said and got out of bed.

At 6:00, nine of the twelve of us were in the lobby waiting to brave the psychotic chaos that is the city center. The bus took us as far as it could and we then walked the rest of the way to the ghat that we visited last night. I have not defined “ghat”. A ghat is a stairway from the street down to the river. They are usually very wide and are gathering places (often for rituals). Our walk was so different this morning than the loud mob scene of last night because Varanasi had not yet fully awakened.

We boarded a boat with an oarsman and a flutist. Parveen had asked a professor friend to join us and he explained the daily morning ritual of praising and bathing yourself in “Mother Ganga” as the sun rises. As the oarsman quietly maneuvered the boat upstream, the flutist played classical Indian music in honor of the river and the professor discussed the significance of the rituals being performed. At one point we were each handed little bowls made of leaves, inside of which was a group of marigolds and a small candle made of butter which was lit for us. The professor performed a chant and then told us that we can release our little offerings into the river. It was sooo beautiful. One of the ladies said that it was worth the whole trip to experience that.
Of course, with my macabre sense of humor, I was fascinated by the funeral pyers along the river. We encountered a couple of mounds of smoking ashes from old cremations but no real funeral activity. And I was going to sleep in!!!
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The sun was fully up when we disembarked and made our way on foot up through narrow alleyways to our bus. The city was getting busy and the “streets” that we were navigating were no wider than 1½ human wingspans. Yet carts and motorcycles and cows and goats shared the road. We walked by all kinds of little proprietorships selling cream, chai and even marijuana.
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As we approached the main thoroughfare (and our bus) we were met with the sound of drivers honking their way to and from. These people cannot drive without honking.

Back at the hotel, we had breakfast and took off for a road trip to Sarnath which is a holy place for Buddhists because it is believed that he performed his first sermon here. The professor accompanied us and discussed the life of Buddha and then lectured on Buddhism while we sat in a parklike setting surrounded by stupas. A stupa is a shrine to Buddha. These were all made of red brick of various sizes. We used them for seats while the professor taught. Another wonderful experience.

Finally! We go to the silk shop which turned out to be a family owned high-end silk weaving factory where they are proud to show you how it’s done, then brag about the quality and then convince you to buy. The nicest ones are wall hangings. I looked. But I rarely see anything in an India motif that I like enough to look at every day. So I made my way back to the hotel gift shop where I could buy silk scarves for ¼ of the price of the others. And I did.

OK – I have some stuff I gotta talk about. First of all, as we were riding home from the Ganges this morning I did not see all those homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks. According to Parveen, the government office that tests men for their ability to serve in the military is located nearby and they test every Friday morning. So last night (Thursday night) poor men wanting a “government job” slept on the streets near that office because they cannot afford to sleep elsewhere. Well that explains some of it, but the fact remains that there is horrible poverty here. There is very little begging for all that poverty, though. It is because Hindus do not proactively beg. They wait for those who have food to share some of it.

Another thing I have not discussed is the garbage. You have all heard about it and I bet you are wondering if I have gone blind. To be honest, the situation has not really impacted my experience, but let’s talk some trash: It is horrific by our standards. Everywhere, the gutters are six inches deep in trash and the sidewalks have six inch piles of garbage here and there. Someone does come by from time to time and sweep it into a bin and haul it away, but obviously there are not enough someones. This was true in Delhi as well as here, but here in Varanasi you have the added issue of cow shit everywhere. It is absolutely true that cows are sacred and are allowed to roam the streets. They are everywhere and so is the evidence. I really like cows so I don’t mind making way for one but it is a chore to constantly watch where you’re stepping.

Tomorrow we are relocating and I am going to see the Taj Mahal. Perhaps I’ll pick up a few landscaping ideas.

Posted by Follow Carol 05:31 Archived in India Comments (1)

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