Saturday, March 19, 2016

Good Horn, Good Brakes, Good Luck

The last day of my trip to India began late.  I met my driver at noon after spending a slow morning around the hotel, reading by the swimming pool, eating a relaxed breakfast, and generally trying to wrap my head around the fact that today, I was leaving.  For real.

Jaipur to Delhi is a fairly long drive, and though I tried to stay awake and take in every last detail that I could, I did fall asleep off and on.  While I was awake, though, I got to speak with the driver more than I had for the rest of the trip, while Hitesh was still with us.  We were driving on an important Shiva holiday, and every Shiva temple we passed was full of worshipers dressed in bright saris other traditional clothing.  I saw more traditional Indian clothes on this one day than during the rest of the trip combined.  It got to the point where I could tell when we were approaching another temple, because all of a sudden we would start passing groups of women and children walking along the side of the road in their brilliant colors.

I finally asked a question which I'd been wondering about for some time--there are so many different varieties of horns in India, do different types of vehicles come with different types of horns?  In answer to this question I received one of the most oddly profound answers I've ever heard.

"There are three things you need to drive in India.  Do you know what they are?" Keshav asked.

"Watch everything around you, listen to what's coming from behind, and don't hit anything?" I guessed.

Keshav smiled and shook his head.  "Good horn.  Good brakes.  Good luck."

The tiny orange Ganesha idol on the dashboard suddenly made a whole lot of sense.

Out of all the things that I learned in India, this may very well be the one that sticks with me the longest.  Not only is it vital advice for surviving Indian roads, it can be understood and interpreted much more broadly.

I did manage to get home without any major incidents, although I almost missed my plane out of Delhi.  The immigration line in the Delhi airport is vast and nearly immobile.  I made it to my gate with five minutes to spare.  After that, the video screen fell out of the seat back in front of mine and was dangling by its wires like the airplane had been shot and had some internal organ hanging from its veins.  This was the last of my major meltdown moments.  The stress of almost missing the flight, along with the plane deciding to fall apart left me standing behind my seat and crying while the engineer attempted to coax the thing back into place.  A nice fellow passenger tried to talk me down, but I'd already decided it was time for some anti-anxiety medication--the only half a pill I used for the entire trip--and by the time we were airborne, I had settled back down into a gently-medicated mellow.

Upon my return home, I promptly caught a cold, and the combination of jet lag and germs have left me fairly wiped out.  And all that time, I've been struggling to come to grips with everything that I experienced.

I have seen some of the most beautiful and monumental architecture in the world.  I have been steeped in history and culture like well-spiced chai.  I've met some of the kindest people I ever hope to know and experienced the kind of luxury travel that I would never have considered I could indulge in.

At the same time, I've seen people sleeping with stray dogs on the side of the road, where cows are happily eating trash.  I've smelled the Yamuna river, which is so polluted it's hard to imagine what it might once have been, clean and full and gliding past the white domes of the Taj Mahal.  I've celebrated my first glimpse of the sky in four days, because until that point all I had seen was a thick yellow-gray haze of smog.

How do I reconcile these two worlds?  And how does it relate to my everyday life?

I haven't been able to answer those questions yet.  All I know is that I am already longing to return.  I want to take my son with me.  I want him to share these experiences, to see how another part of the world lives.  And to my great joy, he wants to come with me.  I don't know when, and I don't know how, but someday, we will make this journey together.

In the meantime, I will try to incorporate my driver's advice into my life.

Good Horn:  Sometimes you have to let people know you're there.  It's easy to let yourself slide into the background, but that's a good way to be accidentally left behind.  If something is important to you, go for it.  Let people know that it's important.  That you are going there.  Sometimes just telling people your goals is the best way to be sure to accomplish them.

Good Brakes:  Have the ability to stop, and don't be afraid to utilize it.  Saying no is an important skill, and one that I have often failed to use, but it's a vital tool for self-preservation.  Be aware of your own limits, and make sure you don't extend yourself beyond them too far.  A buffer zone is a good thing.

Good Luck:  There are times when your good horn and your good brakes aren't enough.  Sometimes you don't get a choice to say no.  You will be faced with challenges that may seem insurmountable.  I don't have a statue of Ganesha, but I do have my own faith to lean on.  I believe that all people do--even if that faith is in themselves rather than a higher power.  Prayer.  Preparation.  Patience.  These are all things that can work together to help to see you through the rough spots.

So thank you, Keshav, for giving me a whole lot to think about, even though I'm sure you weren't aiming for deep thoughts when you shared your insight.  It's helped me to frame my experiences in a way that I will never forget.

To my husband, who made this all possible, thank you.  It astounds me that you love me enough to send me away, and makes me all the more grateful to have you to come home to.

Thank you for everything.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

A Day in Jaipur

I am writing this post from a Starbucks in Shoreline, Washington.  I found that at the end of the tour my heart was too full, and my mind too busy, to try to wrangle thoughts into words.

The last full tour day was spent within the city of Jaipur, known as The Pink City, the capital of the state of Rajasthan.  The story has it that when the Prince of Wales visited Jaipur in 1876, the maharajah had the whole city painted pink to welcome him.  The city is still very pink, although mostly due to the red stone used in the buildings of the old city.  You drive through the old city gates and are immediately wrapped in beautiful red (pink) buildings stretching along both sides of the streets.  The bottom floors are filled with shops selling brilliantly colored fabrics, shoes, apothecary goods, anything you can think of.  The upper levels of the buildings are residences, and many feature detailed facades.  Unlike many other buildings I saw--in Chandni Chowk, for example--these buildings are in nearly universally good repair, at least from the outside.

The most famous facade in the city is known as the Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Wind.  It is several stories tall and reminds me of a cross section of a beautifully layered wedding cake.  It projects out from the buildings on either side, with red arches lined with white stone and elaborate windows and window screens.  Despite its impressive appearance, the Hawa Mahal is very narrow  It was built so that the ladies of the court could observe the happenings in the marketplace without being seen by outsiders.

Our first stop of the morning was at Jantar Mantar, a complex observatory built by Raja Jai Singh in 1728.  Something that must be understood about India is that astrology plays a major part in daily life.  Astrologers are consulted for all major undertakings--marriages, business deals, breaking ground on new construction--the list goes on.  The Jantar Mantar includes many different types of astrological and astronomical instruments.  There are two sundials, one of which is the biggest in the world--I could only get half of it to fit in my camera.  They are incredibly accurate although, due to IST (Indian Standard Time) and something else that I can't recall, it is off by 38 minutes, so if you do the math, you will have the correct time.  The smaller sundial includes markings allowing accuracy to the minute (if memory serves correctly), while the larger is even more accurate.

There are also astrolabes and concave marble bowls with diagrams of the heavens which have a small metal disk that shines on where a day and time fits into the cosmos.  (I was there during Pisces).  Several of these have both the prototypes and the final version.  It is astonishing to think that this degree of astronomical accuracy was available in 1728.

The next stop was the City Palace, the royal residence, a part of which is still the home of the royal family and not open to the public.  As I have come to expect of India, the architecture is astounding.  Jaipur had a strong relationship with the Mughal emperors, due to the marriage of one of its daughters to Emperor Akbar.  The City Palace exhibits both Rajput and Mughal architectural aspects.

There are displays of textiles, with embroidery I cannot even fathom making with a machine, all of which were, of course, made by hand.  Also, weaponry and two giant silver jars, called gangajali, which were made to carry water from the Ganges river when the maharajah went to England, so that he would not pollute himself by drinking anything else.

A highlight of the City Palace are the four "season" doors, spectacularly painted and carved.  Particularly impressive is the peacock door, with lifelike peacocks protruding from the curved roof.

The last sightseeing stop was The Albert Hall Museum.  This is a very British building, designed by Samuel Swinton Jacob, and it includes a large selection of artifacts.  One thing that caught my attention was a grand piano (closed) in an early room.  I took its picture, partly because I missed playing, and partly because it felt oddly out of place.

I was particularly impressed with several paintings in the Persian style, and enjoyed seeing the many other displays.  I will admit, though, that I was starting to get a little overwhelmed by the onslaught of things, and I also had my one slightly uncomfortable moment of the trip.  Hitesh had sent me off to view more of the interior of the museum and was waiting to meet me.  In that period of time, I encountered two men who followed me through the rooms, "Madam?  Madam?  Madam?" and touching me on the shoulder.  I couldn't figure out what they wanted, and wasn't very comfortable with the attention, so I made a quick exit to find Hitesh, though by the time I did, the men had left.  Still, I was pretty much done at that point.

Some time during this day, I also got to learn about carpet making and block printing, and spent some time doing a bit of shopping.

I was returned to my room for a break before dinner, which was at a restaurant in the city.  This was the only time that I was out of my hotel during the evening hours.  It's a different feel on the roads and in the city.  We stopped for a while on the road to allow a religious procession with a brass band and illuminated lamps to pass by.

The food was delicious, but at the end of the evening it would be time to say farewell to Hitesh.  I had come to consider him a friend and it was difficult to say goodbye.  It reminded me a lot of leaving summer camp and saying farewell to my cabinmates and counselors.  I will never forget my brother in India.

I spent the evening obsessively making certain everything was packed, that I had all my carry-on liquids in their single one-quart bag, and that I was otherwise prepared for the long trip home.

I'll have one more post to go--a bit on the trip home and some wrap-up on my thoughts and feelings surrounding the whole experience.  It's hard to believe that it's really over.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

All The Stairs! (Or, Adventures at the Amber Fort)

Since we were already in the city we'd be visiting from, I didn't neet to meet my guide until 10:00 this morning, which left me with the odd experience of having some down time in the AM.  I took advantage of this to explore a bit more of the hotel. It has a nice garden out the back, which I enjoyed a pleasant walk in.

Our first stop for the day was the Amber Fort, which is only about 15 minutes from my hotel.  This fort is impressive.  Built by a Rajput Maharajah, the fort perches on the top of a hill, with a wall that stretches something like 23 kilometers along neighboring mountains, with other forts along the way, and watchtowers dotting the skyline.

Elephants convey visitors up the switchbacking road to the front gate.  At the last minute, after watching the guests lurch back and forth atop their elephants, I decided it was better not to risk the extra seasick inducement, and went up the back road in the car, climbing the last bit of the way.  It felt very good to hike up the hill, and in the early morning, with a strong breeze blowing through the mountains, it was the most comfortable--temperature-wise--that I've been outdoors for this entire trip.

There are two sections of the fort that are open to the public.  The more recent section, from the 17th century, is the first to see, since it was built in front of the older, original 16th century fort.  There is a wide courtyard where the elephants come in and desposit their passengers, and in an alcove above there was a very large drum, and some other musicians.  They finished just shortly after we arrived, which I was a bit sad about, but I was glad we heard some of it.

As I'm coming to expect, the fort included a hall of public audience and a hall of private audience.  There were some spectacular bits of architecture, including a room glittering with inlaid glass on all the walls.  What made me the happiest, though, was all the stairs!  Unlike most of the other places we have visited, which either didn't have stairs and back passages, or they were closed to the public, the Amber Fort has stairs everywhere.  Snaking up from the bottom floor to the second, branching here and there, leading to little crannies where you can look out into supremely three-dimensional views of rooms below, archways overlooking other hilltops . . . a smorgasbord of places to explore.

When we were done with the Fort, or at least we needed to move on to the next activity (there were still more stairs to climb!), we drove out of Jaipur to the village of Samode, where we toured the Samode Palace, once the home of a Maharajah, and had a very tasty lunch.  The palace itself was absolutely stunning, in this case not so much for the architecture, but for the spectacular decorations.  Painting or inlay on every wall.  Mirrors that reflected it all back again.  A gentleman led us through and took photographs of me in all the best places. I haven't looked at them yet, but hopefully at least one of them will be good.

After lunch it was back into the city.  By the time we got back it was nearly 3:00 and time to deposit me back at the hotel.  About an hour later, I got to experience my first weather that was not just plain hot and hazy.  A thunderstorm sprang up, and I was so excited to see it that I decided I had to go out on my tiny balcony.  Now, the doors to the balcony are closed, with a nice sign saying to please keep them that way to keep out mosquitoes. Seems reasonable to me, but I figured I could just sneak out there and the close the doors behind me.

It's a good thing, I didn't quite succeed.  The door way almost completely closed when I realized that there is no handle on the outside.  I had to dig my fingers into the small gap in the door and yank, and if I'd gotten the thing all the way closed, I would have gotten to see how long it takes for the hotel staff to check their email, since I had my Kindle with me and nothing else.  I like the balcony.  I like the thunderstorm. I don't like the idea of being stuck out there for a non-end-specified amount of time.  Still, bullet dodged!

Tomorrow will be spent here in the city.  I'll be seing the Hawa Mahal, the City Palace, and the Jantar Mantar, which includes a giant sundial.  It will be my last real tour day, as the one after is the drive back to Delhi and then hang out at the airport for a long time before flying home.

This has all been a whirlwind.  It's hard to believe it's almost over.

Wow.  I've been to India.

Friday, March 4, 2016

On the road to Jaipur

Today was a much slower paced day, after much here and there yesterday.  The drive from Agra to Jaipur is a long one, but it was broken up by two activities.  First, the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri.

Fatehpur Sikri was built by the Mughal emperor Akbar.  Akbar had remained childless, despite having three wives, until someone told him of a holy man living not far from Agra, who would bless him so that he would have a child.  Akbar went to see the man and took blessings, and promised that if he was blessed with a child, he would build a city where the holy man lived, so that he would see the child grow.  Not long after, Akbar's son Jehangir was born.

The city was built and Akbar, his wives, and his court lived there for fourteen years, before moving back again to Agra, leaving Fatehpur Sikri behind.

There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore in Fatehpur Sikri, which appeals to my, "Oo!  Here's a dark room!  I must now explore it!" gene.  In and out through the public and private audience spaces, Akbar's rooms, and the rooms of each of his wives, among others.  The carvings are spectacular and there is even some of the original paint in some of the interior rooms.

There were also a LOT of big, yellow, sting-y insects--wasps, I think.  They lurked in doorways, and snuck up on you in courtyards.  Added more spice to my pokings into dark rooms than I might have wanted.  I've been wearing a scarf over my shoulders for the bulk of the trip, to maintain modesty, although most western women I've seen here do not do so, and in the cities there are also many Indians who do not.  That said, I've found my scarf to be exceedingly comfortable, and also useful.  In this case, I took the thing off my neck and wrapped the whole thing around me.  Less available skin = less opportunities for sharp insects, and the mosquitoes that lurked in clouds in the darkest rooms.

From Fatehpur Sikri, we continued the journey, stopping for lunch at a dhaba.  Since I haven't been eating lunch, and Hitesh apparently worried that my one protein bar wasn't enough, he stopped to pick up oranges and bananas from a roadside vendor, so I added one of each to my repast, and I definitely appreciated having them.  The dhaba was situated in the middle of a millet field.  The Aravalli Hills stretch through this section of Rajasthan, and I spotted two forts on the tops of hills in the distance.

One thing that is difficult to adjust to is restroom attendants.  They meet you at the door, usher you to a stall, and hand you towels after you wash your hands, and of course, you tip them.  Nothing at all wrong with that, but it feels very strange to me.  On the plus side, clean bathroom!

To enter Jaipur, you drive through a tunnel in the hills.  There is always lots of honking--and after observing enough Indian driving, I absolutely understand why everybody is honking all the time--but in the tunnel it just reverberates.  There are all varieties of horns.  Simple horns, horns that go up and down, horns that play music . . . it's astonishing how much of a symphony the roads are.

After exiting the tunnel, you start down the hill into the city.  It's an immediate leap into crowded, urban living, on the edge habitability.  Driving through this section of town only makes arriving at my hotel, the Trident, feel even more surreal.  The vast disparity of wealth in India is evident, and it's impossible not to feel moved and concerned.

One way or another, I made it to my destination. There is a beautiful lake outside my window with a small palace that seems to float on the surface.  There are also, for the first time, mosquitoes in the area.  I haven't seen any inside my room, but have finally broken out the repellent.  Malaria is bad.  Dengue is bad.  Zika is bad.  I would prefer to avoid all of them.

To my surprise, my stomach continues to hold up extremely well.  I've been super-cautious in my eating choices.  Nothing but bottled water or hot tea to drink, and when I make tea in my room, I use my SteriPEN (check these things out, they are so neat) on the water before boiling it twice.  I ignore the tempting cut fruits on the breakfast buffets and have been eating vegetarian since I arrived.  No cold cuts. Definitely no salad.  Indian food in the evenings. I'm getting very good at eating with naan, both because I'm not a giant fan of rice, and also because rice is another place where stomach bugs can hide.  So far, so good.  Fingers crossed that it will continue, and I'm going to go find some wood to knock on.

Tomorrow includes a visit to the Amber Fort and the Samode Palace, where I will apparently be having a fancy Rajasthani feast.  I'm hopeful I can eat more than a little of it.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Day in Agra

Today started with a relatively long drive from Delhi to Agra.  I didn't time it, I'm afraid, and I did fall asleep for part of it.  The early stretches were incredibly surreal.  The perpetual haze was as strong as ever, and the road runs past many high-rise buildings under construction.  They loom out of the gray, these clusters of building skeletons, each crowned with a crane.  On and on.  Some day, I'm sure, they will be completed, and residents will move in, but for the moment, they're oddly creepy ghost towns.

We stopped for a break at a dhaba, a roadside restaurant.  In this case, it included things like Subway and Costas Coffee.  I had a snack bar packed, so I ate that.  I also discovered that sometimes, the western-style toilet just isn't worth it.  Too icky, and the Indian option was just much more appetizing.  Grateful to have packed my own TP, though.  This was one of the few places where I didn't have to pay to use the services.

Agra comes up quickly out of fields of potato crops.  So many potatoes, I almost felt like I should have been in Idaho.  The city is almost as crowded as Delhi, but it has a very different feel to it.  The buildings are generally much lower. One or two stories.  Animals proliferate here.  I finally saw my first water buffalo.  And the next, and next, and WOW, that's a lot of water buffalos meandering down the street!  They like to hang out on the banks of the Yamuna river, along with a lot of people doing their laundry.  Given the smell of the river, the last thing I would want to do is wash my clothes in it.  I take that back.  Drinking it or swimming in it are farther down the list.  But still.

The first site we visited today was what Hitesh calls the "Mini Taj."  It was built by Emperor Jehangir's wife as a memorial to her father.  It is very like the Taj Mahal, in that it is built of white marble worked with inlay, has the square gardens around it, and an entry gate.

This may sound somehow sacrilegious, but I actually prefer the Mini Taj to the big one.  Its small (relative) size is not so overwhelming.  The inlay work is in many brilliant colors, with floral designs and wine bottles and other geometric patterns.  It's also much less crowded.  I enjoyed the serenity and the beautiful colors.  Hitesh calls it a jewel box, and that's just about right.

Next, we moved on to the Red Fort at Agra.  This was built by Emperor Akbar, and is very impressive.  As with many things in the area, the bulk of it is built of red sandstone from Rajasthan.  There are several parts to the fort, including a section built for Jehangir, Akbar's son, and the stunning white marble palace where Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal) lived out the end of his life under house arrest.  He could see the Taj from out of the filigree-edged windows of his prison.

Next I got to learn about the dying art of marble inlay work.  It's amazingly intricate, and the work is being done by people who are direct descendants of those who worked on the Taj.

After learning about the inlay process, I checked into my hotel and then it was on to the Taj Mahal.  Firstly, yes, it is as beautiful as all the photos.  It would be more beautiful if there was any actual sky to see, since the white marble tends to wash out in the haze, but I explored all around.  A large number of domestic tourists come to see the monument, and there are two different lines.  General Value and High Value.  As a foreigner, I had a High Value ticket, which meant shorter lines, and basically going straight in.  Hitesh warned me that if there were a lot of Indians going into the mausoleum itself that I should avoid going in, because it gets very suffocating and he wasn't sure I'd handle it well.  I decided to brave the crowd and go in, and I'm glad I did.  There was quite a crush getting in the door, but once inside there was more than half an inch of breathing room between people, and I was able to see the tombs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan.

In writing this up, I think that I've pinpointed my odd sense of ambivalence about this world wonder.  Its perfection is simply overwhelming. While I can appreciate it on an aesthetic level, I find I'm more comfortable with things that are smaller or less perfect.  I actually spent a decent amount of time walking along the lanes, which are lined with many varieties of native trees, all conveniently labeled so I could know what I was looking at.  Those trees were easier for me to relate to, and I very much enjoyed the opportunity to learn about them.

Please don't take this post to mean that I didn't enjoy the Taj Mahal.  I most certainly did.  But, for me, the quaint Mini Taj and the grand fort were more my speed.

Tomorrow is the longest drive day--from Agra to Jaipur--with a stop at Fatehpur Sikri, a ruined city that was built by Akbar.

And now for bed.  There's been music outside my window for the last several hours.  By far more music here than I've encountered thus far.  Oh, for dinner I had the most delicious dal masala ever.  Super-yummy.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Into the Old City

What a spectacular day.  So many experiences, I hardly know where to begin, so to make things simple, I'll aim for chronological order.

I met my guide at the appointed time.  Well, early actually.  I am pathologically early.  To begin the day, we left the relative spaciousness of New Delhi and drove into old Delhi, stopping first at the Jama Masjid, a mosque built by Shah Jahan, the same man who built the Taj Mahal.  To enter, you must remove your shoes, and all the women were given a slip-on full-body covering, so I found myself swathed in red with tiny white polka dots that was so long I could hardly walk without stepping on the hem.  The architecture is stunning. Apparently, Shah Jahan was a student of architecture himself, and was deeply involved in the planning of his monuments.  The mosque's courtyard is covered with square slabs of red sandstone, each designed to hold one person praying. There are 25,000 squares. That's a LOT of people!

After the masjid came the first true highlight of the day--a bicycle rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk, the ancient market.  Chandni means full moon, and the market originated as a night market, and continues to function quite late into the evening. At the relatively early hour we went through, there were many shops with their metal screens still closed for the day.

I desperately wish that I could transfer the images from my camera to the Kindle.  In the bicycle rickshaw, everything is right there.  I should have thought to take some video footage.  The pedestrians, other rickshaws, carts, motorcycles, and even cars all cram through lanes so narrow I hardly believed that we all fit.  At one point, another rickshaw got its wheel stuck in the one next to mine, but it was quickly sorted and we were back on our way.

Electrical wires hang like spaghetti-inspired kudzu, draping the narrow spaces between buildings and clumped into black-and-gray bouquets of short circuits you can't quite believe aren't happening.  The smells are overwhelming.  This was the first time I had to use my scarf to cover my nose for a few breaths' respite now and then.  Dogs are everywhere.

The chowk is divided into sections by what is sold in them.  We rode through markets of sari trim, chappals (sandals), optometrists, jewelry, and wedding invitation printers.  So many colors everywhere!  At the spice market, we got out and Hitesh took me on a walk among the many spice vendors.  I couldn't begin to recognize most of the merchandise.  I'm so used to spices being jars of ground-up powder.  It was fascinating to see them laid out in open sacks for purchase.  The smells here were overwhelming as well, but in an entirely pleasant way.

I got cut off at one point and ended up a little behind Hitesh.  When I caught up--he'd noticed I vanished and waited--he told me that I should never come to this place alone.  Because I was with him, people were not pestering me, but by myself I'd draw people very quickly.  I'm sure he's right, but honestly I never felt unsafe at any time.  Of course, I was only on my own for maybe thirty seconds, brave traveler that I am.  Heh.

Despite the chaos, I found myself grinning like a fool for the entirety of the rickshaw ride.  Everything just felt so very alive!

Next on the agenda was a visit to the Raj Ghat--the cremation place of Mahatma Gandhi.  The site is an oasis of calm.  Wide lawns, roses, bougainvillea, and eucalyptus trees.  Once more it was time to take off shoes, and this time I left them with Hitesh and went in to see the ghat on my own.  It's a black marble slab, decked with flowers, with an eternally burning flame.  There are words on the stone written in Hindi, and I was proud to discover I could read them.  Hai Ram.  Gandhi's last words after he was shot.

By now it was getting very hot.  I've been trying not to drink too much water, because bathrooms are a bit sketchy for finding, so I was starting to get a bit overheated.  The AC in the car helped a lot, but when we arrived at our last stop, the Qutub Minar Complex, I was afraid I wouldn't have the stamina to do it much justice.  Turns out, the ruins are spectacular, and I couldn't help myself from exploring them fully, and taking lots of pictures in the process.  The Qutub Minar was apparently the first minaret in the region (dated 1192).  It's very tall and impressive and, like many things in the region, made of red sandstone.

The man who built the mosque there (I've forgotten his name--will ask Hitesh in the morning) was in a large hurry to do so, and as a method for speeding things up, he had many Hindu and Jain temples torn down to use for materials.  Hence, we now have the ruins of an Islamic mosque (wherein iconography is forbidden), filled with pillars carved full of Hindu and Jain imagery.  It's an astonishing thing to see.

The ruins of the mosque, and the associated school and other buildings, including a partially built second minar, are captivating.  So many layers of red walls, casting the next into relief.  The shadows and light, the views of the minar through free-standing archways . . . if I hadn't been so hot and lightheaded I could have kept exploring for a very long time.  As it is, it was the better choice to return to the hotel and drink all the water, and recover for tomorrow, when we leave early to head for Agra.  Taj Mahal coming soon!

Two small things today were special highlights, both involving language.  First, at the Qutub complex, after Hitesh bought the tickets, he came to get me and said, "Chalo."  And, of course, I knew exactly what that meant.  "Let's go."  I appreciate that he is giving me the opportunity to make use of my (minimal) knowledge of Hindi.  (New word for the day--nai, barbershop.  About as useful as goli, bullet.)

Second, at the Raj Ghat, I went to use the washroom. There was a line, and several Indian women.  They were very concerned and wanted to be sure that I understood that there was no commode--in other words, no Western-style toilets.  I was able to tell them, "Teek hai, dhanyavad."  ("It's okay, thank you.")  They wanted to know where I was from and were very friendly.  When I left, they were outside and they waved and smiled, and seemed befuddled by this western woman who spoke a little Hindi and didn't mind having to use the Indian toilets.  Really made me happy.  Success!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Small Group Tour? I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

When I signed up for my "small group tour," one of the reasons I chose the company I did is that they guarantee their departures.  I work for a church and the amount of planning involved in making it possible for me to take extended time off makes flexibility in scheduling a bit of an issue.  Turns out, it was a good thing that I went with the provider that I did.  My small group tour is more of a micro-group tour, as I am the only person on it.  Most companies would cancel the departure with only one person signed up.

Aside from a fairly high guilt factor, in that I'm traveling around India with both a driver and a tour guide, and there's only one of me, this does have certain advantages.  Those who have traveled with me know of my penchant for just sort of wandering off on my own, and that I don't travel well in a herd.  My guide's name is Hitesh, and he's doing a lovely job of giving me the history and important information about the sights I am seeing, then letting me go explore at my own pace.  So, if I want to spend time hanging out with a really cool tree, that's totally okay!  Because the schedules are built around a larger group, it means that I have plenty of time to fully immerse myself in what I'm seeing.

It seems that I'm a bit more well-versed in the history and culture of India than many of the folks who visit, so we're able to spend some time on other things as well.  Since I shared that I've been working on learning Hindi, Hitesh is making sure to introduce me to new vocabulary.  I'm not sure how much of it I'll remember, but one of the new things that I'm seeing everywhere are kites--the raptor variety, not the on-a-string kind--and I now know to call them cheel.

Today, I visited Humayun's Tomb, the Sikh Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, and the National Museum.

Humayun was the second of the Mughal emperors, and he apparently died by falling down the stairs while reading.  His tomb is a stunning building--it was a major inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  The walls are of red sandstone with white marble decorations.  I learned that what looks a bit like Stars of David are in fact a Hindu design, with two triangles representing the trinities of Bramha, Vishu, and Shiva, and their consorts Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati, and in the center there is a lotus flower.

For such a beautiful location (the gardens and grounds, as well as the tomb itself) there were surprisingly few people.  I think I saw more pigeons (kabootar--though I already knew that one).  This was a highlight of the day.

Among my many bad habits is the one where I bring a camera with me and then promptly forget to use it.  Hitesh is doing a good job of reminding me to do so, so I do have photos, although I can't get them off the camera onto my Kindle, so it will have to wait until I am home to share.

The Bangla Sahib Gurudwara was a lovely experience.  It is a requirement that everyone cover their heads when they enter, as well as take off shoes and socks.  To get inside you walk through a small pool to clean your feet.  Inside the Gurudwara, there are people venerating the book that lives there--it is treated as a god and has its own room it retires to at night.  Men are singing and playing music.  Even in such an old building, I discovered that technology is alive and well.  There was a video screen showing the text of what was being sung (I believe), in both Hindi and English.

The National Museum holds a large collection of artifacts from as far back as the Harappan culture, through the Mauryas, Guptas, Mughals, and on through the present day.  As a musician, I very much appreciated the collection of musical instruments.  So many sitars!  So much artistry in their making!  Other highlights included the arms and armor display and the woodworking room.  It was also interesting to observe the museum's under-construction avatar.  Rooms were closed off, but there were also piles of wood in the open hallways, dust everywhere, and the constant pounding of hammers.  I did not find that this dulled my enjoyment of the museum. Indeed, it was fascination to see, and it's good that care is being taken with the building and the displays.

On the way home, I got to observe more of the parked cars vendors.  While traffic was at a standstill there was a virtual market full of people knocking on windows, selling everything from flowers, to bubble guns (no, that's not a typo), to lumbar supports (I think), to books (including Fifty Shades of Grey!).

I'm still healthy, and appear to have managed to survive the jet lag.  Feeling excited for tomorrow, and ready to learn more things.

All the learning!  So grateful to have this opportunity.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A Drive Through Delhi

Indian traffic.  You can read about it--it's terrible, lines are suggestions, everybody honks all the time, there are all sorts of vehicles, people, and animals in the roads--but until you actually experience it, you don't really understand.

In the good news department, I did my homework, and I knew what to expect, so instead of having ALL THE PANIC as every car, truck, motorcycle, auto-rickshaw, and bicycle delivery vehicle became dancers in a truly intimate tango to the music of blaring car horns, I sat up straight and watched.  There has to be some method to the madness.  Despite having people coming within what had to be an inch of the vehicle on all sides, I saw not a single accident on the way from the airport to the hotel, which took about an hour to get to, since I arrived during rush hour.

People wandered through the mayhem of four "lanes" of drivers all trying to funnel into one.  Drivers just stopped in the middle of the street.  Delivery vehicles drove the wrong way down the road.  A goat meandered into the traffic, only to be herded back to the roadside shop where it lived.  At a point where everyone was stopped, a woman with an infant made the rounds, knocking on car windows, making an eating gesture.  Someone gave her an orange.  She was very insistent when she knocked on my window.  I felt like a very bad person when I did not give her anything.  (The issue of beggars in India is a huge one, and worth an entire separate blog--basically, if you're moved by the plight of the poor, and it's impossible not to be, there are better ways to help. I expect this conflicting sense of guilt to be a continuing struggle during my stay here.)

I spotted at least four men peeing on walls.  The smell of the city is very strong.  According to the CDC, Delhi has the worst air pollution in the world.  I believe it.  I'm very grateful that I don't suffer from asthma, or other respiratory issues.  There is refuse everywhere, although I did see a large number of people sweeping the sides of the roads.

To try to stay awake, I walked out the (guarded) gate of my hotel, into an alleyway, where I shadowed locals to walk among the vehicles to the Select CityWalk, a high end shopping mall full of things like United Colors of Benneton, Forever 21, and Guess.  To get into the mall--and my hotel, for that matter--you have to go through a metal detector, and send your bag through a scanner, or have it looked through manually by a guard.  It's a mixed feeling of security that these measures are taken, and sadness that they appear to be necessary.

I managed to stay awake until 4:45 PM, then gave up and slept. Woke up at 11:00 PM, took Ambien, and then slept right on through until 6:00 AM.  Hoping that I did a good enough job to kick my jet lag away.  That stuff is no joke!

So far, everyone I've encountered has been unfailingly polite, and I'm settling well.  Today I'll meet my guide (met the driver yesterday), and anybody else who is a member of my tour, then it's off to begin exploring more of New Delhi.


Sunday, February 28, 2016

Learning to Fly

It seems somehow appropriate that the song on the radio when we pulled out to head for the airport was "Learning to Fly," by The Foo Fighters.  I did learn something today.  I learned that it is possible for me to fly halfway around the world with no anti-anxiety medication. I'm not sure how much of that to attribute to being in premium economy, and hence having less claustrophobia, but it was pretty much a revelation.

My flight from Seattle to London-Heathrow was on a Boeing 777, in the bulkhead row of the premium economy section.  This was surprisingly spacious.  You get your own leg-rest, which was a nice bonus.  There is the down side that all of your bags have to go in the overhead bin, so you have to be careful about what you choose to stuff in the magazine holder.

I ordered the low-lactose meal.  My memory of the last time I did that was that the food was the blandest bland that ever blanded.  I was not expecting anything better, so I was pleasantly surprised.  Now, mind, I can't actually tell you what I ate.  The only identifiable ingredients were green beans and water chestnuts.  They were served on noodles, which looked like what would happen if you blew spaghetti up to the size of earthworms.  Aside from the mysterious nature of the food, it was very tasty.  I'd read that airlines have discovered that umami, or savory, flavors perform the best in the sky, and I am pretty sure that's what they were going for, to which I say, success!

Heathrow was a madhouse.  Spending six hours there seemed like it was going to be torturous, but I discovered the "Quiet Area," which had a bunch of recliner seats with power outlets.  Hooray!  Napping was had, and it was glorious!

The flight from London to Delhi was on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  I did notice that it was quieter than the 777, and less dry.  Overall, very nice.

Delhi is a very polluted city.  When we flew in, the smog was so thick, and the sun so bright, that we had to abort the landing about 10 feet above the runway and try again, because the pilots couldn't see the runway.  Thankfully, we did succeed in landing on the second try.

Time for me to try to stay awake until 8:00 PM.  That will be . . . interesting . . . given that I'm now 13.5 hours ahead.  Go, go magic time zone adjustment skills!  (I have those, right?)

More later!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Are We There Yet?

In just over one week, I will be getting on an airplane and flying halfway around the world, from Seattle, WA to New Delhi, India.  Never in my life did I think that I would have this opportunity, but after hearing me say, "Some day, maybe I'll go to India," my husband decided that he was ready to be done.

Leading up to Christmas morning, 2014, he was very, very pleased with himself.  As I opened presents and found maps of India, guidebooks for India, Hindi language-learning software, I began to understand why.  It wasn't until I opened the card in my stocking and found the check and the note--Vacation to India--that I really truly believed this was happening.  There was hand-flapping, and a distinct lack of ability to find words, and maybe some happy-crying.

And then there was panic.

See, I don't consider myself to be a good traveler.  I have to take motion sickness prevention and anti-anxiety medication to fly--and even then, I get super-stressed about it.  And India is not a place that is easy.  Not like, for example, England, my last international destination.  And it's so BIG!  How could I even narrow down where to go?  What to see?

I decided early on that I would travel with a tour group.  My husband is not coming with me, and I'm not comfortable traveling through India as a solo woman, so that decision was easy.  From there, I had to narrow things down.  Due to my limited time available I decided to follow the "classic" tourist route and visit the so-called Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.

Unfortunately, I'll be missing some places that I would dearly have loved to see: Udaipur, Jodhpur, Varanasi, and the southern state of Kerala with its lush backwaters, high among them.  Still, for a quick sampler, this was the best option I found.  I'll see the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, Amer Fort, Chandni Chowk, Fatehpur Sikri, and so many other places.

The CDC recommends several immunizations for travel to India, so I got to have a nice series of shots for Hepatitis A & B and pills to prevent typhoid.  I'll be taking anti-malarials, and bringing along antibiotics and electrolytes, in case I pick up a case of the dreaded "Delhi Belly."

I've purchased an item called a SteriPen to treat any water that isn't bottled, though I plan to stick to bottled water as much as possible.  As a super-paranoid person, I'll be very cautious in my food choices.  Only fruits that I peel myself and food that has been cooked thoroughly.  No street food for me, no matter how tasty it looks.  And since I'm lactose intolerant, I won't be able to have the ubiquitous chai or lassi.

I decided to splurge for my plane flights and booked myself into premium economy.  I'm hoping that the extra legroom and slightly wider seats will make me a little less claustrophobic than I usually am on a plane, and that will make the nearly full day of flying each way a little more tolerable.

Still, I've been preparing for so very long now, I am feeling ready.  I'm not even panicking about the flights!  I'm just ready to take off on a true adventure.

Are we there yet?