Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Random Thoughts From India

1. Why does the official working the information desk at the airport need to know where we arrived from when we ask if there’s a day room in the terminal? And after inquiring about what time our flight leaves why does he ask us why we arrived here so early? What does it matter!!

2. Why does the woman checking in our bags at a glacier speed then tell me to hurry up?

3. Why did our driver’s car catch fire in the trunk after we got out?

4. Why are the 2 domestic terminals, which exist in the same building, not connected? (Thus making it impossible for us to use the day room???)

5. Why in a country full of help-desks can I not find anyone to explain why the free wi-fi isn’t working?

6. Why do men (and not women) dye their hair with henna, turning it the most ridiculous cherry-apple color of red?

7. Why do street beggers have cell phones… but there is not a garbage collection system in the entire country?

The Taj Mahal

It looks fake.

We’re on a large bus with 13 other people from the wedding, including the bride and groom. I hate bus travel and tours, but this is a special occasion. The traffic to Agra is horrific. Worse than Delhi. Worse than that time I sat with family for one and a half hours at a standstill outside the Lincoln Tunnel on the Friday before Easter AND Passover. THE. WORST. Our four hour drive has taken seven. We’re giddy and tired and stiff and sick of snacking on junk food.

Our bus slowly turns the corner of a narrow street like the Queen Mary II trying to dock. And suddenly I spot it. In the distance. I shout “There it is” and everyone scrambles to the left side of the bus for their first sight of the thing we’ve suffered in traffic to reach.

Your first sight of it is through a gate, although ‘gate’ suggests a white picket fence that your swing open, when in fact this gate is four stories high and decked out with marble and semi-precious stones laid out in flower and plant designs.

Through the archway of the gate the Taj is perfectly framed. Like a mini picture you would see on a coaster or calendar or another of the dozens of items you’ve already seen this famous monument on. Its perfect white dome and four minerates all in perfect symmetry. There are easily two thousand people (at least that we can see) pushing and crowding to get the perfect photograph.

But of course that’s impossible. Because no picture we take captures even half of the soaring structure or the excitement in the air. We pass through the gate and step up to a long pool that reflects the Taj. Another try at a perfect picture. It’s about an hour to sunset and from this distance the snowy white dome looks soft and fuzzy and honestly, like a backdrop that you would stand in front of in Las Vegas.

We snap and snap and snap away. From low vantage points, self-portraits, group shots, from the right, dead-center.

Then the guide tells us we aren’t able to go inside because it’s closing soon and the line is too long.

Sorry? What was that?

I am mad, until I look at Melissa and realize she’s not mad at all. Now, the Taj has been her reason for India. Her crowning moment of the trip (at least until she bought the travel chess set)

“Why aren’t you mad?” I asked. “Just follow me,” she says. Which Amy and I do, only to find ourselves cutting the line and suddenly inside the outer area of the tomb. Now, you must understand that rules are a suggestion in India and everybody is cutting the line. Still, 90% of the tourists are Indian and three very pale white women stand out. Still, we manage to get on the second line to enter the tomb, this one wrapping around the entire building. And we do get inside. But because it’s lit with natural light, and it’s about 10 minutes to sunset, it’s almost pitch black inside. It’s also jammed with people. We link hands and walk around the tomb, which we’ve read is covered in semi-precious stones.

Still, we consider it a victory. Eight-thousand miles to India and NOT enter the Taj Mahel? I don’t think so.

Up close, the outside of the Taj is … well, there really isn’t a word to describe it. The sun is setting on one side, creating an orange-red glow behind mosque that stands to one side. And on the opposite side, the moon is rising in between one of the minerats and another building built to mirror the mosque. (It serves no purpose and was only built to create visual symmetry.) We continue to take pictures that will never measure up to the reality. Close-ups of the carvings that run along the wall, of the soaring double arches, of the masses of people below that didn’t make it inside.

We ask a guy about our age to take a picture of us. He does. And then asks if he can have a picture with us. Before we know it, Indian people are coming at us from all sides, politely requesting photographs with us. It’s strange and funny at the same time. Young girls, mothers with babies, groups of teenage boys snapping pictures with their cell phones. We pose with at least 30 different people before we are able to get away. One group of girls tells us we’re beautiful. Anyone that has seen my air hair-dry knows this is not possible.

We have no idea why they find us interesting enough to take a picture, why we are so popular, why most of them are too shy to ask until they see one brave person take a chance and then they all want to do the same.

This must be what it’s like to be a celebrity; hounded for your picture by people that don’t really know anything about you but think you’re pretty and fantastic. Damn. We should have charged 50 Rupees per photo.

If we’re a bit full of ourselves when we return, you’ll know why.

I'm... Too Sexy for This Sari



Lubna and Pravez are the most wonderful hosts. We spent one hour talking with Pravez about religion of all things. He is a joke teller. What he calls non-vegetarian jokes. And with all people whose first language is NOT English, there is an odd mish-mash of phrases that are funny to hear.
“One should like to investigate the mind and expand a horizon” or “You should put on a very sad and forlorn face like you are lost in the woods and someone is certainly sure to assist you” (Picture it with an Indian accent)

We talk about how a smile is the same in any language, the great equalizer. He offers us both financial advise and why he thinks it’s important to seize the day. We discuss how families in western countries no longer eat meals together or travel together like Indian families do. And then he announces that ’Sex in the City’ is his favorite show and wants to know if that’s really what life is like for the single girl.

We spend the day lounging about the B&B ahead of our pre-wedding party. Lubna and Pravez invite us to join them for lunch. Pravez’s mother (who lives with them) is also there. The food is some of the best we’ve had in India; I fear Indian food is ruined for me back home. We have a dish that looks like a bowl of Thousand Island dressing but the neon orange sauce is savory and cheesy. They make us fresh roti and a curry vegetable dish. Yum!

Lubna helped us into our saris for the party the night before the wedding. Mine is turquoise with fushia, trimmed in glittery sequins; Melissa’s is black and red with silver flowers and trim. We’re thankful for her help, because it involves a lot of wrapping and pleating and tucking. We felt like girls being helped by our mom for our first prom. Once we were properly sari-ed, she determined we didn’t have enough bling and insisted on loaning us her expensive costume jewelry.

The party was at Surbhai’s uncle’s house, which is about a one-hour drive outside of Delhi. It’s an interesting contrast; we turn off the highway onto dirt roads, dirty barefoot kids running around, cows roaming the street. And the house is at the end of the block, red lights strung down the entire front of the house to indicate a marriage in the family. In a park next door an enormous pink tent has been erected. It all has a very Arabian nights feeling. Inside the tent, there are boys doing henna on ladies hands and arms and a traditional Rahjistani band is playing. Guests are removing their shoes and sitting on the cushioned floor to listen to the singers and talk. There are so many different color of dress; orange trimmed in gold sequins, a red and brown quilted design, sheer saris and those made of silk, vibrant pinks and muted greens. I would say it’s like a rainbow but that doesn’t do it justice.

Our palms, wrists and fingers are covered in intricate henna designs. I’m amazed at the boys doing the work; how do they keep so many different designs and patterns in their heads? They do dozens of them, all different from the next, and at lightening speed.

Afterwards we sit waiting for it dry with our hands up in the air to prevent our bangles from sliding down and ruining the henna. It’s unseasonably cold in Delhi and we can see our breath in white puff and our toes are freezing, not to mention our exposed mid-drift which our saris have left open to the elements.

But soon our henna is dry and just in time because the buffet is finally open. It’s set up like Indian street food, serving all the favorites that are sold in markets across India, but at a higher quality level. And it’s all so delicious! The chat is mind-numbingly scrumptious, a scientific blend of a crunchy fried bread thing, spiced yogurt, mint chutney and a mix of foreign spices. It can be made with any number of ingredients, but this is certainly the best I’ve ever had. Dozens of men are standing behind large, metal pan that look like giant woks mixing each order on command.

I try something that looks like a little roll, except it’s fried to be hard and hallow inside and filled with what looks like green pea soup. Actually, it looks gross. But I take a chance and am glad I did because it tastes nothing like it looks. It’s spicy and strangely has a meaty flavor. We eat delicately spiced veggies and fire-hot dosa, which are bread stuffed with all sorts of mouth-watering items.

Next, we have some fried bits of dough filled with potato and veggies and spice. We expect a samosa flavor but it tastes nothing like that.

Enough appetizers. We move to the main course table. Mini naans and roti; dal made of lentils, some kind of cheese cube in a tomato gravy-type sauce.

We are getting some attention from what I can only assume are single boys at the party. They cluster in a large group of about 10 and stare and whisper about us, making no attempt to pretend they are doing otherwise. Nobody else seems to notice they are doing it and like much in India we just take it in stride as they aren’t doing it in a way that is rude or makes us uncomfortable. It’s actually quite funny to be honest.

A DJ has started to play loud dance music, a mix of Indian and Bollywood and Euro trash. We decide to dance with the other girls and young boys despite the stares from our growing fan club.

One of Surbhai’s aunts comes over to tell us how nice we look in our saris and tells Melissa she wears her sari well. It’s a quirky phrase and we love it.

Breakfast the next morning at Lubna and Pravez’s B&B is a full house; an older Israeli man has checked in, as has a Canadian couple. Conversation is flying around the table, vying for space amongst Pravez’s jokes about Hindus, Jews and Muslims.

We take an auto rickshaw into the city to meet Amy for a day of shopping ahead of the wedding later tonight. We had ridden one through the old city, but this was on the highway and quite the adventure. Picture ridding an open cart on the FDR. It was a bit cold. At a traffic light on the entrance ramp we are accosted by young boys selling magazines; Marie Claire, India Today, Fortune. Their arms are stretching into the rickshaw as they babble at us “50 rupee” “you buy?” “what you like madam” before we speed off.

The shopping was great in Delhi. We focus on Connaught Place, which is a giant outer circle in north Delhi surrounding an inner circle, both of which are clogged with traffic. Streets spike out from the circles and we wander on the main one as shop keepers try to lure us inside. We look at scarves and before we know it, we are inside, sitting with cups of tea, haggling with the tall, handsome shop owner who is originally from Kasmir. We don’t leave empty-handed.

Much to our delight (more mine that Melissa’s, who is growing weary of my shopping disease) we happen upon the equivalent of a New York City street fair. Soon we’re weighed down with earrings and glass hanging lights, $2 shirts and elaborately painted metal dishes. The haggling is great fun and we’re getting very good at it. The key it to walk away like you mean it. One man insisted on 500 Rupees for one shirt (which is about $10), I countered with 100 ($2.) He said 400, I said 100. And on it went until I walked away and he ran after me, agreeing to 100 Rupees.

But the coup of the day was Melissa’s travel chess set. The previous day a boy had tried to sell her one outsideof the Red Fort. She doesn’t really play chess. But she likes how compact and convenient it was, the cleverness of the idea. So when a boy offered one up in the market for 650 Rupees, it was game-on. He followed us for half the market but he never stood a chance. Melissa was soon the proud owner of a smart, handmade wood box concealing a travel chess set for 100 rupees!

Afterwards we stumbled onto the food section. First we tried some dumplings from a little cart called Momo’s. Veggies and paneer (cheese) -- both were full of flavor, with a dipping sauce that set my lips on fire and turned them a rosy red. As we were gulping an orange Fanta soda in a vain attempt to cut some of the spiciness we spied two girls eating a large fried ball of something. We held up a finger to order one and paid the equivalent of 50 cents before tearing it apart with our fingers. This definitely makes it into Top Ten Things We Ate in India; fried hard on the outside, doughy on the inside, and filled with a mix of potatoes and spices and veggies. I know, I know -- all the food seems to contain the same ingredients. So, how can it all taste SO different?

One of the mysteries of this strange, dirty country.

Later, as we’re getting ready for the wedding, there’s a knock on the door. It’s Lubna offering to help us with our saris once again. And she’s not empty handed; she has bought us gifts, a set each of the colorful handmade tea cups in her house that we’ve complimented her on. It’s a sweet gesture and another of the long list of reasons why we have warmed to her so much.

Today, I’m swathed in a royal blue sari dotted with silver studs, a flower and bird design laid out on the end part that hangs down my back. Melissa’s sari is Caribbean-sea blue, a mosaic of gold, brown and black flowers running along the bottom and down the back. They are actually quite comfortable, once you get past the fear that they are sure to unravel, leaving you naked in the middle of India.

We feel elegant and exotic and as we pack both saris away that night we vow to have a sari night out when we return to New York.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

2 Days in Delhi

Imagine you’re stuck in traffic on the Grand Central Parkway in front of LaGuardia Airport. You’re slowly inching past a cow munching on garbage to your right. To your left, a man is sitting on a high wooden stool, his head tipped back as another man lathers his face with shaving cream and prepares to scrape it clean of hair.

Welcome to Delhi.

We did have a lovely surprise when we exited the airport: Our driver, C.P., was there! We had asked the tour company if he could be our driver in Delhi as well, and they said since it was such a busy season they weren’t sure he was free. So it was heart-warming to see his friendly smile waiting for us.

And lucky for us, because he’s a agile driver and the traffic here is horrific. Worse than anything anyone has warned us about. The eye candy makes it all worth it though.

We took a chance in Delhi and booked a bed and breakfast stay ourselves (not through the tour company.) We fretted about whether the beds would be ok, if the room would be clean, if the house would smell.

Lubna is our host and she greeted us with tea and small snacks. When she found out we missed lunch, nothing could stop her from rushing to kitchen and returning with a rice that was both fruity and spicy and layered with flavor. We topped it with a little spicy chutney and some chopped cucumbers and tomatoes (hopefully that won’t come back to bite us in the ass.)

Her house is beautiful and reminds me of a Mexican hacienda. There’s a sky light that shines from four floors up all the way down to the foyer. The first floor has a sitting room with low couches sitting on carved legs and a coffee table with elephants for legs. As we climb up to our room on the top floor we pass by the private living area, through a mini outdoor area filled with plants stuffed into interesting planters in the shapes of frogs, cats and camels, up one more flight to our room. And it’s perfect, with comfy beds, a flat screen TV and free wi-fi! Woo-hoo.

The guides on this tour are almost as much fun as the site seeing. Our man in Delhi is called Lileet Kumar and he is the Indian version of John Travolta. Not only does he hav his face and dimples and chin cleft…. But he arrived to show us Delhi wearing tight shiny pants. (And yes, that is a tiger on the back of his sweater.) He walks with the same strut as John does in “Saturday Night Fever.“ We walk several steps behind singing the song under our breath.

He also has an impressive uni-brow that looks like a fuzzy caterpillar about to jump off his face. We chat about dating in India and he tells us his girlfriend married another man this past summer. He looks so sad when he tells us and we once again wonder about how many broken hearts are left behind by the arranged marriages that are the norm in India.

We nickname him The Mayor, because he seems to know everyone. Everywhere we go he shakes hands, with the other guides, with the guard checking passes at each temple and fort, of the hawkers trying to sell us post cards. He is the only guide that talks to the small dirty children that beg. He takes their face in his hands and tickles them under the chin and makes them giggle. It makes us see a different side to this kids that have mostly been aggressive with us, and also a different side to our guides.

But he’s just 29 years old and has the cockiness of youth. He texts his friends a lot when he thinks we’re not looking.

We visit the massive Baha’is Lotus Temple which looks like an enormous lotus flower growing out of the ground and reaching towards the sky.

Then we sit in bumper to bumper cow-rickshaw-car-motorbike for 40 minutes before arriving at Humayun’s Tomb. This Muslim tomb is impressive and looks a bit like a mini Taj Mahal. In an odd twist of irony, the entire building has the star of David carved into it all over the place. They use it as just another geometric form, rather than a symbol of Judiasm. But I’m sure the irony is not lost on anyone Jewish visiting the tomb (or or any Muslims that are against the state of Israel.) It’s imposing and graceful at the same time.

A girl’s school field trip is in progress and hundreds of young teenagers in uniform are swarming the space. Suddenly, a group of about 6 girls come up to us and say “Hello!” It’s the only English they know and they chatter to our guide who desperately tries to keep up with his translating. They ask us where we’re from, how old we are (they guess 25, bless them.) One in particular reminds me of myself when I was 14; even though I don’t understand I word she’s saying I recognize her spunkiness and need to push the envelope. She’s sassy and it comes through despite the language barrier. They are also hyper and giggly and Melissa and I are completely charmed.

We were worried Delhi would swallow us whole. But so far it’s been nothing but kind, if not a bit frantic.

After a fabulous night’s sleep, followed by cold shower. Lubna’s help make us a breakfast feast: scrambled eggs, toast, Indian bread with onions, hot tea, fresh papaya. (All Indian families have help, even middle class families, because labor is so cheap here.) We talk with Lubna about work, Melissa’s boyfriend Dave, and shopping. The same stuff women all over the world talk about. She offers to take us shopping for an outfit for the night before a wedding, either a Saiwerkamz, which are baggy pants and a long shirt that comes below the knees with intricate embroidery, or a Langa, which is a skirt and top that are covered in beading and shiny stuff. She also says we can borrow some of her costume jewelry!

We meet our Travolta guide and C.P. for another day of traffic, forts and shopping. We visit the massive Red Fort which sits on the edge of the old city, as well as Jama Masjid, the second largest mosque in all of Asia. Indian families often travel together and one large group asks if they can take a picture with us. We agree. It’s not the first family of Indians that have asked to be photograph with us. We seem to be more of an attraction than the mosque.

Then we hire bicycle rickshaws and plunge into the maze that is old Delhi. Every narrow alleyway sells different items: one lane for saris, one for ribbons and trim, another for wedding directions, and yet another for desserts. The rickshaw drivers somehow manage to slip around obstacles where there seems to be no way to move forward. The seats are narrow and we both clutch the handle to hold ourselves steady.

Finally we hop off the rickshaw and walk around the old market. Laleet buys us street food; hopefully we won’t get sick later. First a jalebi, which is fried dough that tastes like a donut soaked in syrup, a hot spicy samosa with minty chutney, a treat that tastes like whipped cream with nuts and a foreign spice we can not identify, then a pured carrot mixture -- I know that sounds gross but it was yummy!

We still need something to wear tomorrow for the pre-wedding party. We slip off our shoes and step into a narrow shop selling Langas. But Indian women are smaller than Americans; it’s comical as we try to stuff our busty figures into tiny tops, the process involving a delicate dance of the shop keeper helping us while not touching us, while we try to keep our shirts underneath in place. As we don’t have enough to have one made, we quickly decide that Langas are out.

After a quick conference, we decide that maybe another sari is in order. We had bought saris in the U.S.; Lubna was shocked and appalled at how much we spent on them, so we knew we could get them much cheaper at the source.

We start feeling fabrics that are flapping from the open storefronts and eventually we’re lured into one shop. Nothing happens in India until you are seated and have declined a cup of tea. After we do this, sari after sari comes off the shelf. Azure blue covered in silver studs, hot pink with gold sequin swirls, royal purple with a princely velvet trim. There are so many colors and fabrics and designs that it’s exhausting to look at, let alone decide on just one.

Mr. Travolta looks like he is in physical pain. This is one shared manly trait; hatred of shopping, especially with women.

We finally choose; royal blue with a pretty silver flower pattern for me, turquoise with gold and black sequin flowers for Melissa. A man from the shop walks us down the lane to the tailor who will make our blouses. Just a little random fact for you non-Indians: all saris are the same size - 6 yards. You just wrap them more or less to alter the fit. And they all come with an extra yard to make a blouse, so that it’s the same color match.

The Gandhi museum provides a welcome break from the sari spectacle. We see the bed he slept in and where he was murdered. It’s familiar from the movie. The entire area is very quiet and calm, the opposite of what lays beyond the walls of the museum.

What do we do next? More shopping of course! And what do I buy? Another linen of course! But even Melissa buys something here, so I don’t feel so bad.

It’s dark when we’re dropped off at our hotel. We tip Laleet and C.P. well; not just for their services but for being silent men in a women’s shopping world.

We love Delhi.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dining Like a Queen

Another palace today. This one in Udaipur. The city is actually beautiful, marble buildings surrounding a lake. Two palaces sit on separate islands in the lake. One of the them, The Lake Palace, is not open to tourists unless you’re staying there ($550 US a night.) You used to be able to dine there, but everyone we asked before we arrived in India said after the Mumbai attacks last year they now only allow guests.

Not one to be detered by rules (especially in a country that really doesn’t have any) I ask our guide to call the hotel and make us a reservation. After a fast-paced conversation in Hindi, he tells us dinner reservations are booked for a week, but we can have lunch.

First, we visit an intricately carved marble temple. Every inch is covered in elephants fighting and camels carrying cargo, men wrestling and scenes from the karma sutra, battles and Buddhas.

Then we tour the palace. It’s of course as beautiful as they have all been. The same, yet still different. Peaceful courtyards ringed with graceful white arches, framing glass mosaics, emerald green doors and frescos. I am eagerly looking forward to the museum devoted to Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god of prosperity and good luck that’s part of the palace. It’s suppose to have hundreds of Ganeshes in different sizes and colors and poses. I am crestfallen when we arrive to find it closed. I drag my feet in disappointment to the dock where we need to take the private boat over to the Lake Palace for lunch.

Reception is located on the mainland, and we check in for our lunch reservations and walk down to the jetty to sit on colorful cushioned chairs and wait for the boat.

The palace is a creamy vibrant white surrounded by water. While technically on an island, it’s built to the edge, so it looks as if it’s floating. Our little boat rounds a corner and there are steps leading down to the water, where a man waits to help us from the boat. Another man dressed like an manservant from the Raj period and he’s carrying a large velvet umbrella ringed with fringe and mini pom-poms. He holds it above our heads as we walk up the stairs. It’s really hot here, so thanks for the sun protection. But seriously? We’re trying very hard not to laugh.

At the top of the stairs we approach the glass doors to hotel entrance and rose petals start falling from the roof. There is actually a man up there, gently tossing petals off the roof as guests arrive!

A woman in a sari greets us in the lobby and we put our hands together and say “Namistay.”

We have 30 minutes until our reservation so we decide to wander about. Our guide said they don’t really allow you to walk around the property, but until someone stops us…

Past the lobby is a sitting area with plush purple chairs and wood tables set with chess and checkers and bat gammon pieces. Beyond that is a bar decked out white lounge benches and small sitting areas, which lead out to an outdoor patio. It’s the smoking area, but empty, so we choose a spot under an umbrella to drink in the breathtaking view. It’s quiet here and smells like fruity flowers.

A waiter appears with a think drink menu, spiced almonds and wasabi peas. Melissa orders a mango bellini, I have a lychee martini. Both are delicious and before we know it we’re red-cheeked and flushed with alcohol and giddiness.

Soon we’re being lead to the dining room, which is a sumptuous and extravagant with a stand of water in the middle, flowers floating on the top. We’re eating at the tail end of the lunch hour, so we’re able to get a table at the window. Views of the palaces lining the shore. The ridiculously expensive Oberoni hotel with it’s sandstone domes sits on the opposite shore. This is the type of high-end restaurant where the chef sends out free stuff. Ours is some type of grilled bread that smells and tastes faintly of chocolate, pureed beans and chopped apples infused with spices so that it tastes like apple pie filling.

We order a bruchetta sampler that is savory and delicious. We are delirious at the thought of a non-Indian meal. Melissa orders baked eggplant and I get pancetta wrapped chicken stuffed with mushroom. We share our dishes; I think hers is better while she prefers mine. We have a second round of drinks after the waiter insists on escorting first me, then Melissa, to the bathroom. A pecan brownie with cinnamon ice cream is for dessert.

Drunk and stuffed, the umbrella man escorts us back to the boat.

Our guide meets us at the other side with exciting news. The Ganesh museum is open!

We’re tired and have alcohol headaches, but we trudge up the many stairs, through the exit of the palace. And I’m glad. The two tiny rooms are cramped with reclining elephants, art deco elephants, those reading and eating, some sleeping and washing, others walking and meditating. They are made of camel bone, sand stone, marble, metal and plastic. There are book ends and book marks, pictures and magnets, elephants five feet tall and 2 inches high.

I buy one for me, another as a gift, for good luck and prosperity.

Back at our hotel, we stop at the deer park where an older couple is watching two large bucks clashing horns. I’ve never seen that before… not at a zoo, and certainly not in the wild. Their horns banging together is louder than you might expect and as they push against each other you can hear the horns creaking as if they might break. We start chatting with the couple, Gerry and Rita. They’re from California and invite us to join them for dinner.

And we do. They’ve been married 57 years and have traveled through Africa, Asia, South America, Europe. They’ve been to Alaska. They’ve traveled alone, with all and some of their four children and 6 grandchildren. We trade stories about why we all loved Vietnam. Jerry, who is retired but teaches digital photography twice a week, helps Melissa with a camera card issue, then assists me with my card reader. I trade books with Rita; we both agree that we panic a little bit at the idea of being on a flight without sometimes to read. They are beautiful people.

And they remind me why I travel.

Monday, December 21, 2009

There's a Monkey at the Door

We flew to Udaipur today. The city is best known for its white marble palace in the middle of the lake where scenes from the James Bond movie ‘Octopussy’ were shot.

Unfortunately, our tour company representative -- who has already proved herself not to be the brightest kid in class -- had booked us at a hotel outside of the center of town. We vaguely remember her telling us this-- but not that our driver and car weren’t going to be available. This basically means we are going to be stuck out in the boondocks for the night, with no choice but to eat dinner at the hotel, unless we want to pay money for a taxi into town.

Strangely, our representative, who met us at the airport and drove with us to the hotel, kept insisting that we will enjoy some time at the hotel.

(Aside #1: Every time we arrive at the airport, not only does the driver meet us, but a representative from each city greets us, accompanies us to the hotel, checks us in at the front desk, and then calls us from the lobby in our room to make sure everything is to our liking. It’s comical and unnecessary, but apparently how it’s done. We can’t seem to make them stop.)

(Aside #2: Just some background on the area, Rajhastan, that we’ve been traveling through. Each city was ruled by a separate king, or maharaja. They remained in place all through British rule of India, and were removed when India gained independence. Today, they are just ‘kings’ in name (like the queen of England,) although they do have coronations when a son is named king. Some of their properties are now owned by the government for tourists to visit, while others are still owned by the family and operated as hotels. And many of them still live in parts of the properties.)

But I digress.

Our hotel in Udaipur is a former hunting lodge of the king. So, we drive into this valley ringed by tall mountains, up this long, long, long drive and stop in front of a large main cabin-like building. The porters load up our growing luggage count (due to my inability to stop buying linens) and we follow them out of reception and down a path towards our room.

As we turn a corner, one of the porters points to a field that’s about one story down from the path that we’re walking and says ‘deer.’ And spread out before us are about 50 or so large, brown spotted deer. Baby deer, large bucks with spiraling horns at least four feet high. And we realize that this former hunting lodge is now an animal preserve!

Our room looks exactly as you’d expect a former hunting lodge to look: slate stone walls, rocking chair in the corner, plush beds made with blankets that look perfect for snuggling.

And then the porter opens the drapes to reveal a large picture window. Spread below are the deer like a painting in a museum, the yellow of the grass, their brown coats, the mountains beyond clad in shaded purple light.

As a city girl, deer in New Jersey are exciting enough. But these exotic looking deer are even better, especially when they are part of the hotel staff.

We unpack a bit and decide to explore. We open the door… and large peacock that had been perched on the overhang above the door squawks and flies away. We shut the door and burst out laughing.

Let’s try again.

We step through the doorway, lock the door behind us, take a handful of steps down the path… only to be stopped by a monkey. He’s balanced on a tree branch, not more than 10 feet above us. He’s staring at us. And he’s BIG. At least 3 feet fall. We inch slowly past. And there’s another monkey on the wall ringing the property.

Wait a minute. There are monkeys here? And they are just roaming free. Hmmm. The story of that women that had her face ripped off by a baboon ripples across my mind.

We stroll through the grounds. The deer are still munching on tall yellow grass. We’re surrounded by pink light as the sun sets behind lush craggy mountains. This place is also a stud farm and we peek over a stone wall to watch a skinny newborn foal leaning against it’s mother, while another baby walks unsteady on tall wobbly legs. Their brown hair looks soft even from this distance.

The last of the day’s light is fading as we walk back to our room to rest a bit before dinner. And as we turn the corner where our cabin is located, we are confronted by no less than 10 monkeys. Not confronted I guess. They didn’t SEEM like they wanted to spring. But they were sitting there, staring. Some were big. A few smaller babies. Their velvety gray tails all dangling off branches and rooftops and walls like snakes. We ask one hotel worker if they are dangerous. He doesn't speak a lot of English, just smiles and says ‘monkeys’ and then claps his hands, as if to scare them away. They just blink at him. He says 'no door open' ' no banana.' Gee thanks. As if we were going to leave the door open and invite them in for a snack!?

And as the daylight fades away, sounds we’ve never heard before emerge from the dark. Grunting and chattering and squawking. Leaves rustling as the monkeys jump around. We run laughing into our room, shut the door, and look at them through the window.

It’s always been my dream to do a safari in Africa. One day. In the meantime I’m sharing space with dozens of monkeys. That’s not a bad start.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Day I Fell in Love With India

Sadly, I am a product of my culture and upbringing.

I like to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I need to experience other ways of life, see the poverty that affects so much of the world, marvel at how other people live and breathe every day.

But after a while I need order and a soft bed and quiet, a hot shower.

That’s why I love Jodhpur. It’s the cleanest city we’ve been to so far in India.

Very few cows = less shit. There are more jobs for people here, so there’s less poverty and less begging = more pleasant shopping in the markets.

Our guide, Ragesh, wears an ascot. He’s going for his PhD in history and he’s soft spoken and serious. But he starts to get our jokes and New York/Jewish sarcasm before too long and laughs along with us a lot. He’s been married for five years and has a 2 year old son. And he travels with his wife; they’ve been to Sri Lanka. Very different from some of our other guides, one of which told us his wife doesn’t even know that men wear wedding rings in other cultures. (Men don’t wear rings in Hindu culture. Women also used to burn themselves with their husbands when they were cremated, although that custom is mostly gone today.)

Jodhpur is also beautiful. It seems we’ve done our route correctly so far, since every city has been more stunning than the last. This city also has the ubiquitous fort and castle combo, each set on cliffs on opposite sides of the city. The maharaja still lives in the palace, which was only completed in 1947-ish. But with it’s large center dome and many soaring towers, it’s stunning up close, as well as from various vantage points around the city.

But it was the fort that really amazed us. It’s the best one we’ve seen so far, clinging to the top of its cliff, with so many arches and carvings, marble and gold leaf, that around every corner a natural frame is already arranged for your photographing pleasure. I must have 100 pictures just of doorways and arches. And the views really do steal your breath. Most of the houses in the old city are painted blue and from so high above they spread out like brightly colored building blocks shinning in the sun.

But it’s the markets here that are a joy. The lack of beggers make it easy to walk around at your leisure and haggle with sellers. We first stopped at a man selling bangles made of glass in every conceivable color. Moss green, tangerine, spirals of plum and butter yellow. We dove right in, declining a cup of chai tea, and tried on dozens and discarded just as many before settling on several. We haggled down the price, he took our money and then gave us six bangles for free anyway. As I tucked my bracelets away, I turned to find Melissa being interviewed by a man in a turban. Apparently he was a local reporter interviewing tourists in the market. We’re keeping an eye out for our debut in the local paper. Perhaps it's all a set-up and staged, but we are charmed by the scene anyway.

Then I bought another bed cover. This one snowy white with chocolate geometric cut out designs. I know. I have an addiction to bedding and sheets.

Next we shop for petticoats to go under the saris we bought in New York to wear at Surb‘s wedding. We followed our guide through one narrow street and then another, side stepping dogs and women clad in orange and turquoise saris, determined to keep walking a straight line as honking scooters zoom around us. The petticoat man operates out of a miniature storefront, so small the entire transaction takes place on the front step. We paid about $1 for it; in Queens they wanted $30 dollars. But he didn’t have a string to cinch it closed. So we’re on the hunt for that still. The markets here remind of those in Asia: lively and chaotic and filled with people and animals and dirt and scooters and unidentifiable smells, but also campfire smoke, which is the scent I’ve come to associate with India.

Back at the hotel, we are on the hunt for a sweet snack. Strangely, there is no store in our hotel. But the man with the swirling mustache who opens the door of arriving cars tells us there is a grocery store open next door. At the empty building being constructed next door? Not possible. Oh yes, he assures us the store is there. Fine. We’ll amuse him. So we walk to the front of this 10 story building still being built, surrounded by bamboo scaffolding, construction men framed inside the empty windows as they complete work inside... and surprise! There IS a supermarket. Well, there’s nothing more interesting than shopping in a foreign food shop, especially when your arrival as two large, tall white women bring the entire store to a silent halt. But once the buzz resumed, we had a blast, snapping up masala tea bags, a strange green fruit that looks like a lime but smells like a grapefruit and pulling packages of cookies with unusual flavors like pineapple from the shelf.

And now we’re spending the rest of our day relaxing for a change. We’re sitting in our hotel’s lovely central courtyard. It’s dry and warm outside but still too cold to take a dip in the freezing pool. Several turbaned attendants are standing just within earshot, you know, in case I need the page in my book turned. (Seriously. They run to you for the slightest thing. It’s both embarrassing and annoying.)

I’ve read that to enjoy India you need to surrender to it.

That’s hard when you are being assaulted by noxious smells and grasping hands and deafening noises. But just when you think you can’t possibly take another moment, you find a quiet, calm spot where you can take a clean, deep breath and feel your body settle.

Stunned and Stunning

Jaisalmer is both beautiful and disgusting.

The smell here is rank, like nothing I’ve ever smelled. Cows and shit and wild pigs and urine and rotting trash and bad body odor. And you’re barely able to walk around it all and keep your shoes clean. Yet, you can turn a corner and the air is clean again.

The mornings are cold and our breath made puffs in the chilly desert air while we ate breakfast in hotel’s rooftop restaurant. We wrapped our hands around hot cups of tea and hunched into our sweatshirts and watched the town come awake while waiting for our eggs. The bent old women unwrapping burlap sacks filled with shirts and sweaters to sell on the street. A young man pushing a cart filled with small cauliflower, dirt covered carrots and tiny shiny eggplant. A group of three dogs barking furiously as they chase two rival dogs away from the territory. And the worst job in the world: the trash collector, a young man who looked like 25 but was probably 16, scooping up cow shit with a metal pan and his hands. We stopped watching that long before our breakfast arrived.

We toured the fort today; it’s the only fort in the world where people are still living. We were glad to have our guide because it was a maze of narrow alleys that we never would have ventured down alone. The entire fort is a warren of intricate carvings, entire facades covered in scrolls and shapes and Jewish stars and swastikas, which were a symbol of peace (and still are) throughout Asia hundreds of years before Hitler stole it to symbolize evil. One building will have a dozen balconies, all chipped away into delicate and symmetrical designs, while down below pigs and cows are eating from a garbage heap.

Our guide, Prakesh, was in tight jeans and a form fitting sweater. I correctly guessed he worked out when later, he told us his dream was to visit World Gym in America and that Arnold Schwarzenegger was his hero. He was helpful and charming and friendly and helped me bargain down the cost of (yet another) bed spread by more than half. He also walked us past where all the other tourists were gathered for their view of the city to his cousin’s hotel, where we had our own spectacular private view from the rooftop. Later, he took us to the private home of a silver jewelry maker who poured out hundreds of earrings and bracelets and necklaces for us to look through. I must say it was the most fun I’ve had shopping for jewelry! But unfortunately, India is turning out to not be as cheap as we had expected, so we only bought one piece of jewelry each. But the jewelry maker’s mother did make us a cup of the best Indian chai tea I‘ve ever tasted, spiced with ginger and masala.

As sunset approached, we dropped off our guide and headed into the dessert with our driver. I was about to see my first real dessert sand dunes, and thoughts of Bedouins and ancient spice routes filled my head. The reality was a bit different. Picture hundred of tourists arriving on camel-back and crowding onto the highest dunes to watch the sun set, gypsy children running from tourist to tourist asking for candy or money to sing and dance, and little boys selling beer and soda and chips like on the beach at Coney Island! I sat on one dune and let my legs hang off the edge, my sunglasses pulled tight against my face and my scarf wrapped around my head and mouth to keep the blowing sand out. Some camels looked bored as they sat on their long, folded legs, slowly blinking with thick eyelashes at least four inches long, while others galloped across the sand, their young turbaned riders bouncing in the seat. It would have been nice to have silence up there for just minute, to just listen to the wind softly blowing and breath an air not polluted with camels (which smell badly and fart a lot!)

Still, we were only 50 miles from the Pakistan border. It was the closest I was probably ever going to get to that part of the world. And with soft sand rolling away from us for miles of golden waves, it was a little scary. But also exciting and thrilling and magical.

100 Miles From Pakistan

Today we leave for Jaisalmer in the Thar desert. Our drive today is also long, but much more interesting than yesterday’s.

The area we’re driving through looks less like the India we’ve seen so far and more like… pictures of Afghanistan that I’ve seen on CNN. Most men wear turbans, because of the wind and sand and the trees continue to give way to bushes, which give way to more empty stretches of sand. There are no towns although we occasionally pass rest stops, most of which we would never consider stopping at. Still, we pass people walking on the road, coming from somewhere and going another place. There are small groups of people squatting on the side of the road; C.P. says they are waiting for the bus and by this I’m sure he means the large trucks that we see piled with dozens of people. Giant trucks bulging with grain and hay and other goods roar past us, their good luck charms of one lime and seven chilies wrapped in black muslin swinging widely from their rear view mirrors.

About 3 hours in, C.P. asks if we want to take a 1 miles trip off the main road to see an area where hundreds of birds migrate from Siberia and the Himalayas. We’ve been with him enough days that we trust him not to sell us to gypsies, so we agree. As we head down the road we pass through a handful of dirt clay buildings, more cows, dogs, women with children on their hips, their small heads covered with the end of their bright saris to protect against the wind. We’re starting to wonder if we misjudged C.P. when he pulls up to a small lake where hundreds of large crane-like birds are squawking.

But it’s the small children that really catch our attention. There’s a school across the street where kids are sitting cross-legged outside on a porch. A couple of dirty girls follow us up the hill towards the lake asking for chocolate, then money, then pens. One barefoot girl asks for the bobby pin in my hair and I give it to her. For a while, they mill around hoping for more stuff from us. C.P. says something to them sharply in Hindi, but I tell him it’s ok. I think he doesn’t want them to bother us and imagine it must be hard for him to have what is certainly a respectable job for him and then have people in his country begging from his clients. As we get back to the car I ask him if it’s ok to give them some gum, that I have a lot of packs and enough for all the kids here. He looks a bit uncomfortable but says it’s ok. I should have trusted the look on his face more than the words that came out of his mouth… because when I took the gum out, the dozen kids turned into 30 immediately.

Now, I’ve had kids surround me in Asia and that push for more and more. But these kids were aggressive in a way I’ve never seen. They were pushing at me and trying to grab the gum out of my hand. Melissa just gave hers away and got in the car after a 10 years old girl ripped the pack from her hand. When one pushed at me too hard I had no choice but to push two small little kids back from me. I have to say I was never scared by them, or even uncomfortable. But it certainly wasn’t pleasant. C.P. was yelling the whole time at them to calm down and that there was enough for them all and to step back, but they wouldn’t listen. And even though I had enough for them all, I just gave up and gave them the whole packs, ignoring even the one little boy that started crying, and I just got in the car. The worst part about it is that I didn’t even feel that bad for them. I mean, I feel bad that they are poor and have been taught to be that aggressive to get whatever they can because they have so little. But I realize now why everyone says not to give treats to the beggars in India; that you should give another way like to a school. It’s one of the few countries where they tell you not to give to beggars. If I had never been to a third world country where little kids with such sweet faces cry and beg I would have been really troubled by this. But I was in part prepared for it I guess. Melissa and I used half a bottle of Purel after that incident.

Back on the road, we were only driving for 15 minutes before we hit a train crossing. Everyone was out of their car so I got out also. This definitely garnered a lot of attention as it was all men outside. And the men in India stare. A lot. But I just ignored them. Honestly, it didn’t really make me feel uncomfortable because they weren’t staring in a lewd way. They were just starting because we were different. Suddenly there was a whistle in the distance and everyone’s head craned to the right to watch the train approach. First came a cargo train, about 9 cars loaded high with coal. Then 10 minutes later a dusty blue passenger train with wrinkled faces peering out of windows with no glass. If was amazing to see and impossible to capture with a camera.

Forty minutes later, we were stopped by an accident. Two trucks seemed to have collided, with one turned horizontally across the road and the other tilted off the side, all of it’s lumber and bricks scattered along the dirt. A bus pulled to a stop besides us and the door popped open as all the male passengers hopped off. They joined the other men and our driver walking towards the wreck. A few minutes later the men are pushing this gigantic 18-wheeler truck off the road so that traffic can start moving again. C.P. soon comes trotting back to the car and soon we’re off again.

We arrive in Jaisalmer in the late afternoon. It’s unlike any city I’ve ever been in. It’s feels cramped and like a place where outlaws pass time. People are selling all kinds of things in the street as cows plod slowly around the people and wares and cars. Our hotel is again in a Haveli, a former palace, although far less grand than the ones we’ve stayed in so far. The guy manning the desk makes us write our name, address and passport information in an oversized ledger that looks about 200 years old. The bed is like a rock. Literally. Solid. No give at all. I am certain that I will wake up stiff and unhappy. (Although strangely I do not. Apparently, a rock hard bed and perfect pillow = a great night sleept) There is also no electricity. We’re told it will be back on in an hour and are not surprised because we had heard there are power shortages throughout India all the time. Our room is … interesting. It looks like the inside of a castle, or maybe the wine cellar of a castle, with original stone walls and ancient paintings on the wall. We can also hear everything.

We’re back in the car 30 minutes later and C.P. takes us to the centatophs; tombs containing the ashes of Maharajas. It’s a jumble of sandstone towers and quite awesome. It reminds me a bit of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and has an Indiana Jones feel to it. Afterwards we go to watch the sun set against the massive fort that sits on top of a cliff. We exchange India stories with a Canadian couple and walk back with them to meet our respective drivers in the fading light.

We decide to have dinner in our hotel’s rooftop restaurant. It’s set up under an orange tent and there are a group of kids and one old man wearing a turban playing music. They are really good, especially the young boy who is singing, and I find myself tapping my foot to the beat. One of the smaller boys gets up to dance and invites Melissa to dance with him. It’s hysterical and I have it all on video. As we’re finishing our dinner a group of men come in and sit at the table next to us. They have a mafia-like air about them, and while we’re sure our imaginations are running amok, we also decide it’s time to go. They are about 12 of them, and start drinking whiskey, and they are the most well-dressed Indians we’ve seen since landing in this country… so it makes you wonder where they make that money from in this shitty town, especially living so close to Pakistan.

Road Trip!

We left Jaipur today for the first of three, six-hour drives into the desert. Traffic thins out considerably as we leave the city. It’s just me, Melissa and our driver, C.P. (which stands for Chandra Prakesh) and eventually we all start to chat. We find out he has two sons, ages 5 and 10 and that he does this drive a few times a month. He’s an excellent driver, cool under pressure and he glides around massive trucks piled with goods soaring two stories high, cows and camels. I realize why the Indian taxi drivers in New York are so good; because our traffic is nothing compared to this. He barely speeds up when he passes, just shifts gears and gently glides around the vehicle and slides back into place. I must say that having driven in Asia was a fortunate precursor to India; we barely flinch when he swings into the other lane where a large, mutli-colored bus is barreling toward us, and then neatly slips back in between another car and a camel pulling a wagon. Back home, my heart would be pounding and we would have been jerked to one side as the car was yanked back into its lane. But here, you barely feel the motion. It is surely a skill.

The crumbling buildings end abruptly and suddenly there's just miles and miles of country. No suburbs to ease you into the nothingness. Trees and scrub give way to dirt. We're heading towards my first real desert and I’m pretty excited to get to the part where it’s nothing but huges dunes. But right now, there is still vegetation; although I’m not sure how so much grows in the sand. Every half mile or so we spot a woman walking out in the sand, a large pot or bundle of twigs perched on her head. It seems she is coming from nowhere and going towards nothing. There are also fewer cars and increasingly more camels. They are smaller than the ones you see in the zoo or ride at a fair and are pulling carts on two wheels that seem to be balanced between the pulling and the load on top. Those loads often extend far over the sides of the small cart, but they don’t tip over or dislodge the driver sitting high on top. We watch one driver get off; he simply slides down the side of his load from a height that must be at least two stories, just slides down like he’s on a water park slide and hops lightly to the ground.

When we make a stop three hours into the drive, we’re expecting the worse in bathrooms. But C.P. is watching out for us and they aren’t that bad. I mean, I wouldn’t breathe through my nose or sit on the seat, but they are western toilets and there’s no mess on the floor, and we’re thankful for that. We buy masala magic potato chips for the road and they’re spicy and full of bite.

Three hours later we arrive in Bikaner, the midway point on our way to Jaisalmer. It’s pretty busy for being the middle of nowhere, with children just out of school running along the road and camels plodding along as they deliver and pick up packages. As we swing into our hotel our mouths drop open. It turns out that we’re staying at the Lallgarh Place, which we had checked off as a sight to see! It’s a magnificent sandstone monstrosity, with wings spreading out in several directions. We climb a grand marble staircase and sit down to check in. There are no fewer than five men waiting to attend to us and it’s a bit awkward for a moment. Two double doors swing open into our room, which sits off a long marble hallway lined with photos of the royal family; the 82-year-old maharani still lives in the back part of the property, confined to the palace as she is a widow and they are often shunning by Hindu society, even if they are a queen. Across from our room is a central courtyard filled with chattering birds and greenery. And the room itself is massive, with soaring ceilings, a separate sitting area and gigantic marble bathroom the size of my entire apartment with a tub that I take full advantage of.

Our guide meets us later in the lobby and he certainly promises to be the highlight of the afternoon. He is wearing knock-off designer jeans, and a tight black blazer with Michael Jackson-esque diamond designs on his lapels. He talks fast and loud and has a lot to say. He brings us to the town’s fabulous fort that we had been tempted to miss and shows us secret passageways filled with stain glass windows and a stairway that leads to a roof surrounded by turrets and intricately carved towers and sweeping views of the city and the desert beyond.

He talks to us about his life, his wife and his two daughters and one son. He says that his daughters are smart, his son not so much. That his daughters will have arranged marriages just like he did, but if they continue to do well in school they can wait to marry and go to university first. Clothing from the royal family is the highlight of the museum, with displays of saris in fiery orange and red, indigo blue and lush greens. One of the museum workers follows us for the last 20 minutes; we can’t tell if he’s listening to the guide to brush up on his English or if he’s watching us.

Later, Michael Jackson (who’s real name is Jeetoo) takes us to an artist’s studio. It’s sometimes annoying to go to these shops where they show you how a local craft is made; we did this in Asia also. But sometimes they are interesting. This guy is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first miniature artist and the world’s smallest painting. He is soft spoken and calm and offers us tea while he shows us how he paints itty bitty landscapes. Some of them you can only see with a magnifying glass. It’s really amazing to watch and my eyes start to hurt as I squint to see the images. He says his eyes don’t hurt; he paints for a while and then takes a break. I buy a tiny painting of the Hindu elephant god, Ganesh. He stands for good luck and prosperity; I think I could use some.

Random Thoughts and Impressions From Jaipur

1) How are you suppose to read when using a squat toilet
2) Always use the pay toilets in India
3) Why do women sweep the dirt road with twig brooms when they are surrounded by garbage and filth

Women sweeping dirt road with sticks, surrounded by piles of garbage and naked children and cows. The storefronts are a jumble of items: sequined skirts, brass bowls, puppets wearing silk pantaloons, umbrellas embroidered in fuschia and turquoise with gold tassels. The hawkers aren’t as aggressive as we expected. Granted, we’ve experienced it in Cambodia. But we had heard that India was worse. And we were followed relentless by men trying to sell wooden carvings of the elephant god Ganesh, and fans made out of peacock feathers. But after many firm “NOs” they go away. There were also beggars, women holding dirty children and little boys pushing their smaller sisters forward to perform back bends and other tricks for us. That was harder. Because you want to give them money. But you can’t because they give the money to someone else. They know you feel bad, and they use that to their advantage; so would I. So it’s hard to look at them, but it’s harder not to look at them, tolook away or over them and pretend they are not there. So you steel yourself and say no, no, no, no. And no again and again until they finally give up and go away.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Call to Relax

I’ve survived my first full day in India. Melissa and I are the only westerners on the puddle jumper from Delhi to Jaipur. Our friendly driver C.P. met us at the baggage claim of yet another new airport just recently completed in India, all marble floors and hushed quiet; a very strange atmosphere for an airport in what is one of the most populated nations on earth. As he navigates the well-paved roads we don’t encounter much traffic; he assures me that’s because of the early hour. We have a few hours at my hotel until he returns with our guide to start siteseeing. Our hotel is one of the hundreds of Havelis in Rajistan-- former palaces turned hotels -- and our room has marble floors and columns and high beds perched atop carved wooden frames. It smells a bit musty and my guess is the recession hasn’t helped the tourist business in this area. Still, the hotel reeks of an old-world elegance, with cream colored walls and red etchings surrounding a grassy courtyard in one area, and a tiled pool fronted by climbing vines in another.

That’s where our guide, Needi, finds us an hour later. We hop into the car and C.P. plows into the growing traffic, which has easily quadrupled since we’d last been on the road. We quickly pass a dozen cows, some munching on garbage along the side of the road, others zoning out in the medium as vehicles zoom past in either direction. Skinny, matted dogs dart in between cars, truck and scooters, all of which are pushing relentlessly forward, unwilling to give the other an inch. We’re all traveling at 20 miles per hour maximum, but if feels much faster when we’re crammed so close together. But C.P. handles it all with ease, never breaking stride, letting some scooters squeeze in ahead of him but ruthlessly cutting off others.

Our first site is City Palace. The current mahrajah still lives in one of wings and while he is in residence he doesn’t make an appearance. One area is painted a vibrant orange, another a buttery yellow, both with intricate, scrolling designs. An inner courtyard honors the four seasons in rich mosaic motifs; one it filled with peacocks and their tails spread wide in rich blues and greens.

Afterwards we head to an antique observatory. The outdoor space is filled with enormous blocks of marble and stone carved into various shapes used to detect constellations and horoscopes, days and months, seasons and weather. The fact that it all still works so accurately is amazing. And while it has a funky Matrix feel to it, there’s also a serenity to the place… it makes you want to spread a blanket on the grassy spaces and read a book or take a nap.

Afterwards, Needi takes us to a government owned shop that the block-print fabrics Jaipur is famous for. The process is interesting; each print has a four-step process and the man doing it has to be precise so that each block is the same. They also show us how they make carpets; one man sits at a loom pulling threads at a fast pace with a sharp knife; I have no idea how he’s able to pull the correct thread so quickly or how he doesn’t cut his hand.

Predictably, we’re taken to the shop next. Carpets first, which neither of us are buying, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The man leading us around is young, handsome and funny. He offers us something to drink, which we decline but Needi gets some tea. Several men emerge from the back and the man orders something in Hindi and they start pulling carpets out. First a large cornflower blue shot with gold thread and made of silk, which the worker pulls left and right to show how the light changes it from indigo to sky blue with subtle movement. Next, one made of yak hair, blood red flowers and moss green stems sitting on a soft gold field. Melissa jokes that it’s the same size as her apartment and he responds seriously by pulling out a smaller version. Carpet after carpet after carpet come out in dramatic flair. They carry each rolled up carpet forward, then drop it to the floor with a loud thud as it rolls open towards us. He tells us he has a magic carpet, and carries forward a small kitchen-mat size silk carpet in a rich eggplant purple and hurls it into the air where is spins three times before sliding across the floor.

But I’m more interested in the block printing, so he takes us upstairs to another shop. My weakness for bed sheets is quickly revealed and I’m quickly presented with dozens of options. Those that know me know… too many options leads to indecision. Melissa and Needi find a seat to chat as I begin my process (or lack there of) to choose one I like best. The slightest interest in any piece results in one of the men yanking it, and any others that looks remotely like it, down from the shelf. The counter is soon covered with too many, and I realize I have to stop being so polite. I tell him nothing with animals, no elephants, no zebras. I want something in red or blue. He finds one with both in a combination that is whimsical and calm, rather than tacky. I somehow also walk away with a gold bed spread trimmed in red, a pile of orange and red flowers littering the center. I can’t wait to spread it on my bed at home.

Next, we stop at a Hindu temple carved out of white marble and glistening in the middle of the soot-covered city. We take our shoes off to wander inside the huge empty space. There are no chairs or statues except for the alter at the front.

As we’re leaving a young man, maybe 15 years old, starts making eyes at Melissa. His ink black hair is gelled into a Bollywood pompadour and his skinny legs are squeezed into some trashy Euro jeans. Needi seems to think this is very funny and can’t stop laughing. He not-so-subtly begins to take pictures with his friend, trying to get Melissa in some of the shots and posing in what we can only assume he thinks are manly poses, but which are the complete opposite. He follows us at a discreet distance all the way back to the car, and when Melissa finally acknowledges his presence with a wave through the closed window, he blows her a kiss. We crack up at his courage.

The next morning I wake up fully refreshed after a solid 12 hours of sleep. It’s still dark outside, but I can hear the call to prayer. I’m reminded that while India is mostly Hindu it does have a large Muslim population. I suppose as a Jewish person that should make me nervous. But it doesn’t. I find the call to prayer soothing and harmonious sounding, although I suppose that’s partly because I don’t understand the words.

Needi and C.P. are waiting for us when we finish breakfast and we plunge onto the road packed with rickshaws, bikes, cars, cows and people walking. We’re heading to the Amber Fort; the highlight of Jaipur, and my first elephant ride. Apparently, everyone does it. There’s a line of tourists waiting to climb the stairs that provide a perch to get onto the elephant. There are supposedly 196 elephants and each is allowed to give five rides per day. Not a bad gig for an elephant. They are also all female; the males are too aggressive for this line of work. Their trunks are painted in pink, blue and yellow pastels. Melissa and I climb into the seat tied to his back, Needi clips the bar closed behind us, and our elephant driver shouts a command. We both grab the metal edge of the seat as we start lurching and bucking. The elephant is taking slow deliberate steps and while our seat is securely fastened, that doesn’t stop us from being tossed around in the tiny box. Tears are streaming down my face as we laugh uncontrollably. Hawkers are running after our elephant shouting for us to buy something, anything. ‘Miss, please to buy a picture?” “Lady, you like a pen?” How would we even buy anything from them when we are 12 feet above the ground?

As we make a slow turn on the switchback, several young men are sitting in crevices in the wall holding long-lense cameras. “Miss, look here I take nice picture for you later” “Ladies, smile like Georgio Armani.” It’s like at Disney World when you have to pose for a picture at the entrance and pick it up later. We have no idea how they will find us later, but given what we’ve learned about India already we’re certain they will figure it out.

The fort is beautiful, perched atop a cliff with all of Jaipur spread below. There are graceful arches sitting on curving columns. It’s a photographer’s dream, providing perfect shots of towers through doorways and windows that frame the mountaintop. Across from the fort a wall snakes its way up a neighboring mountain for miles; it looks like the Great Wall of China. And our photographer does manage to appear as we exit the fort and we walk away after much fierce bargaining with two pictures of oursleves, bewildered expressions on our faces, and what looks like a mocking smile on the elephant's.

Jaipur is also known for gemstones, and Needi takes us to a jewelry store to show us how they create and cut stones. We wander around the jewelry store followed by no less then three salespeople, and the slightest interest in any piece will have them opening the case and pulling out dozens of pieces before you can say no thank you. But it’s fun to try on the emeralds and rubies even though they are too expensive.

Needi takes us to a local place for a “light” lunch. I use the quotes because there is no such thing in India. We order local lemon soda, a potato and onion dosa for me, a mutter paneer for Melissa. Dosa is an Indian bread made of a type of grain, and mine tasted like home fries you would get in a diner at home. It’s not greasy at all the way Indian food in the U.S. can be. Paneer is also a bread but made of wheat. It came with a curry-type sauce that had peas. Both are simply delicious.

We chat with Needi about life in India. She is our age and used to be a teacher before deciding to become a guide. Tourism is the second biggest industry in India. She lives at home with her parents. She tells us there are five McDonald’s in Jaipur and that they are popular with college kids as party venues. I think we might need to try the fries there, just to see if they taste the same. It’s interesting to me how popular American past times translate in other countries. Needi has never been out of India, or to Mumbai. She says she wants to visit the U.S. and asks us if we have any American coins; she collects foreign change. I also give her a few packs of gum from home. She has two sisters, one lives at home and is studying to enter the tourism field, the other lives in Delhi and works. Her parents are retired; her mother was a teacher, her father was a archiologist (how cool!) Needi is funny and outgoing and a girl. She steered us away from ‘unclean’ bathrooms to the pay toilets that are never in plain view, but she knows we would prefer. She giggled with us over carvings of the karma sutra in one of the palace rooms and when boys looked at our small group. People’s lives are so similar in the world, no matter your customs or religion. That never ceases to amaze me.

It’s only our second day in India, but we are only just finding our stride. Back at our hotel we order chai tea and settle into cushion wicker chairs scattered about the inner courtyard. Exotic birds are chattering and British tourists are expounding on the cricket match playing silently on a TV. It feels like we’ve been transported back to British India as we pass tea time in this former palace turned hotel. Just then, another call of pray sounds out. And it’s just as soothing as the one this morning, this time mixing in with the muted sounds of traffic and honking I can hear from the road. A melody that’s likely unique to India.

Monday, December 14, 2009

On my way

It’s 3am. Or 2:45pm. Depending where in the world you are. I’m sitting in the new Delhi domestic airport waiting for my 6am flight to Jaipur. The airport is so new that there is a film of dust in the bathroom as if they’ve just finished installing the counters.

There are a handful of construction workers attending to the interior roof, perched above us two stories on a crane. The racket doesn’t seem to be disturbing the dozen or so travelers stretched out around a circular cushioned bench, as if they are sleeping around a camp fire, pairs of shoes neatly placed on the floor below each bench.

I’m not tired, despite two seven and a half hour flights. This is probably due to a wonderful discovery made in the Zurich airport called a Day Room. For $27 U.S. you get a semi-private cubicle with a comfortable ‘couch’ (which is really a bed that has the option to recline up) access to a clean shower with incredible water pressure (a rarity in Europe,) and a soft, warm blanket. I set the alarm for two hours, secured my sleep mask and promptly slipped into one of those wonderful dreamless, deep sleeps that are completely restorative. Before the alarm could ring out, I felt a gentle hand on my leg and I peeled back the eye mask to see the older female attendant at the end of my cubicle. “It is time,” she said in a soft voice. I had a feeling of being awakened by a mother for school. What a nice way to spend a layover. Why don’t they have this in every airport? Although I guess in JFK your wake up might sound more like, “It’s time to get up, move it!“ I made my connection feeling completely refreshed and clean, although that didn’t stop me from popping half of an Advil PM and passing out for a few hours.

This is how I have found myself wide awake in the new Delhi domestic airport feeling just a bit discombobulated about the day and time.

The drive from the international airport to this one was … slow. We maxed out at 25 miles per hour. Expecting to step into utter chaos once I cleared customs I was surprised by the calm aura in the receiving and baggage area. However, the overpowering smell of jet fuel permeates the entire airport. Until I step outside with my driver to make our way over to the domestic airport, and realize that that is how the entire city must smell. It would be pitch black outside, except that there’s a slightly brown hue to the night; from polution or construction or something else I’m not entirely sure. It will be interesting to see what the air is like on my return to Delhi in a few days. It’s a good thing I brought my inhaler!

I am still bracing myself for my first horrific bathroom experience. You know you’ve turned a corner when you feel like the last good bathroom you’re going to use is the one on the plane! But the bathrooms in the airports are western and a clean. Crisis averted (so far.)