Wednesday, November 30, 2011

India: Jaipur

Wow! We are at the end another day in India. Yesterday, we drove from New Delhi to Jaipur. It was a five and a half hour trip to cover roughly 223 kilometers. Translation: It took more than double the time it takes to go from my door step to my friend, Stacey's, home in Raleigh. However, unlike the drive down I-40, this ride offered sightings of camels! There was also the stop to pay some type of road tax (not to be confused with a toll...there were those, too) where a young man in a woman's sari and red lipstick approached the car window and told Jason that he was a "sexy boy", accompanying his description with a request for ten rupees (the equivalent of twenty cents). Anyway...back to the drive. The length of the trip can be attributed mostly to the condition of the road. Unlike the roads in Costa Rica, there were no potholes the size of small craters to avoid; the roads were really in quite good condition. The problem, it seems, were the "bus" stops and construction along the way. Instead of individuals waiting for their rides in town, the stops were basically in the middle of the highway. So we would drive 5 kilometers or so and then come to a town, slow down, weave our way around people, dogs, cows, and brightly painted trucks (buses), get going 80 kph and then do it again...and again...and again...You get my point.

We did eventually arrive at our hotel in Jaipur, but not before we were shown a beautiful Hindu temple on the outskirts of the city. It was basically a giant white polished marble building with a huge dome and carvings of various Hindu gods. Did you know that there are upwards of 3 MILLION Hindu gods? Inside there was a statue of two of the main gods in the front, which was almost like an alter. There were people there worshiping, and I felt that our presence there was almost intrusive.

On our way to dinner both tonight and last night, we passed wedding processions. Just like in the States, there is a wedding season in India. Here, it is just getting started. Unlike ours, though, their seasons is not based on weather, but on what months are considered to be auspicious. Most marriages here, we are told, are arranged. Parents are responsible for choosing their child's partner because who knows you better than your parents? Based on some of my friends relationships with their parents, I silently chuckled when our guide told us this. Anyway, the weddings we have seen have been those of the wealthy. We have only seen the grooms, who ride on their white horse wearing their sparkling wedding regalia complete with a marching band and giant lights. At some point during the celebration, there are fireworks, too. Big ones. As in Fourth of July quality but not quantity.

Amber Fort

The majority of our day today was spent looking at the palaces and forts constructed by a long line of maharajahs. The first place we went was The Amber Fort, which is at the top of some of the oldest mountains in the world. To get to it, we rode Ronnie, the elephant! It wad awesome! His giant ears had circular creamy white spots and at one point, his trunk and forehead were decorated with brightly painted chalks. Ronnie is 30 years old and has not yet hit middle age. He walks up and down this half mile stretch five times and has the remainder of the day off.

Palace inside Amber Fort

We explored this fort and the remaining palaces for the next several hours. The detail put into these structures would blow you away.

Our guide in Jaipur was great, but it was abundantly clear that part of his earnings come from kick-backs, which I found moderately annoying. The first place is happened was when he took is to this jewelry store. Jaipur is known for their precious and semi-precious gems, so it didn't set of any flags at first. When we walked into the store, a man greeted us and gave a short demonstration of how they polish stones by hand. Then we were led into another room where we were educated on what stones Jaipur is known for mining locally. It was funny because they kept telling you there was no obligation to buy but you could feel the pressure to buy mounting with each passing moment. At one point right before we booked it outta there, the teacher/salesman encouraged me to buy a $500.00 ruby pendant and looked genuinely shocked when I laughed out loud and said that was expensive!

This same demonstration/sales pitch happened with pottery, carpet, and another product that was so memorable I can't think of it right now. Just when we thought we could take a break and eat a nice lunch, we got a waiter who really didn't understand that not all Americans want beer, an extra entree, or dessert! It is unbelievably hard for me to be polite while saying "please leave me alone...I don't want what you're selling and no amount of talking will change my are just annoying me." I'll just have to add that to the list of "Things To Improve Upon" ;)

The tuk tuk driver!
And last but certainly not least was our ride from old Jaipur (The Pink City, so named because the maharajah ordered the city painted pink to welcome his buddy and fellow polo player, Prince Edward, to the city). We normally have one guy who is driving us around, but this time we decided we wanted to walk by ourselves for a bit and then take public transportation. After literally wading our way through the bazaar, we got a tuk tuk (motorized rickshaw) back to the hotel. The first two drivers had no idea where to take us, and we were pretty sure that the third who said yes really didn't either. This was verified when he stopped to "confirm" directions! Other than the abrupt stop that caused the driver to point out a tuk tuk's version of an "oh shit handle," the ride was uneventful.
It was a common sight to see women balancing items on their heads. This was bread; sometimes it was rocks!
Shopping and selling in the market
Bags of multicolored pasta

Tomorrow to the Taj Mahal!

Monday, November 28, 2011

India: And We're Off!

Jama Masjid
After all the planning (mostly by Jason) and preparations, we are finally here! The airport was less daunting than we thought it would be, and actually, we think that the touts in Costa Rica were more obnoxious. Perhaps that is not the case; it is very possible that we are just more seasoned travelers than even just a year ago.

As cliche as it may sound, the first thing that hits you upon exiting the airport is the smell. Unlike what we anticipated, it is neither the smell of excrement nor body odor; it is the smell of smoke. Its tough to determine the source of the smoke, but it is similar to the smell of a wood fire or someone burning a pile of their autumn leaves.

Our first breakfast at the hotel was delicious. There were some sliced deli meats on a plate covered with plastic wrap that we both decided to skip, but the curry and potatoes certainly hit the spot. I also got to drink some of the best chai tea I've ever had. I think the highlight of breakfast, though, was as we were finishing up, a rat scampered across the counter where all the food was sitting. When I informed the man working that a rat was currently hiding under the fridge, he calmly inquired as to the size of the rodent, using mostly hand gestures to gauge the magnitude of the problem. He jiggled the refrigerator around to coax the little guy out, but his efforts were not successful. After some consideration, I think I am glad it did not work - I prefer to live in ignorant bliss not knowing whether the rat met his demise or will enjoy another breakfast with us tomorrow.

Following our breakfast, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll. It is hard to fathom the amount of garbage strewn about the ground. It is as if the roads are the trashcans and the poor with their brooms are the trash collectors. The piles they collect are then put into bags or placed on carts, but I do not know where they are taken. Perhaps the smokey haze is the trash being burned.

After our walk, our guide arrived to show us around Delhi. Probably our favorite part if the day was the morning rickshaw ride through Old Delhi. For about $2.00, a small but strong Indian man showed us the highlights of this old city, pointing to to sites with one word explanations. "Temple." "Haircut." "Mosque." "Hospital." "Fruit." "Dentist." I am sure you could have seen my little brain processing what I was seeing with what I thought he was saying. Sure enough, the man calmly laying on his back with his mouth open was having his tooth pulled out with small pliers.

Starting the tour, being ever careful of the buses, children, and dogs.
Busy side street just within the boundaries of Old Delhi.
Bringing the lemons into Old Delhi's market

The number of people navigating these tiny, narrow streets was impressive. There were people on foot, on mopeds, on rickshaws, in small cars, and on bicycles. While it is easy to assume that there are no rules because there are no lanes, that would be a mistake. There is clearly a rhythm to the horns and the yells and the swerves that develops into a traffic system that works. That being said, you could not pay me to drive here, as the stress would do me in. I am not sure why, but sitting as a passenger is perfectly stress-less; maybe all that yoga is paying off!

At one point while we were sitting in the car we heard a loud thump on my window. Being the easily startled type I jumped and turned to identify the noise. It was a boy about ten years old wearing an old yellow shirt and black shorts, holding up his right leg, only where his calf should have been was a stump. He pointed to his stump and then held out his hand, yelling something in what I presume was Hindi. Later that day we had a similar experience with an old woman at the market who just stood at our car window, alternating forceful and gentle taps. It is interesting and maybe depressing how easily my emotions can shift. At first you feel terrible because there is clearly someone in need whom you are forced to ignore, lest you want to be bombarded by others in their situation. However, after one or two minutes of the persistent knocking, pointing, or yelling, you find yourself becoming frustrated, wishing the car would continue quickly on its way. You must remind yourself that this person's actions are not about putting you out but about putting food in their mouth. Tomorrow, we leave Delhi for Jaipur. If I can manage not to get car sick, I will write more then.

Jason standing in Jama Masjid, the largest Islamic mosque in India.
Preparing for worship

Worshipers often come bus from far away villages and stay until sunset.

Humayun's Tomb
Here, like many of the historic sites, large school groups were present. Most of the kids were in uniform so that it would be harder to distinguish socioeconomic status (aka - castes). It was very common to hear a kid pass by and say "one photo miss?" Our guide told us to ignore them, but they were so sweet that we just couldn't maintain our stony faces. This boy called out to me, so I obliged.

Kelley in front of Qutub Minar, built in the 12th Century.

Shopping for spices at the market. We found several masalas as well as black cardamon.

Us outside the Parliament House