Security in Delhi on flights to America is amazingly tight. First I had to get my bag x-rayed and sealed, and get my carry-on tagged. Then I checked in (where I'm sure my bag was x-rayed again), went through immigration, and went through a line to x-ray carry-ons. Then I had to return, stressed, to immigration because the guy who stamped my tickets and forms had forgotten to stamp one particular place. Then, when boarding the plane, all bags were opened and thoroughly searched by another, independent security team. We were required to boot up electronic devices to show they all did what they were supposed to do.
At each of these steps, they checked passports. I must've had mine checked half a dozen times.
Dinner on the flight (American Airlines international) wasn't particularly good, though it's still better than the food one gets on domestic United flights.
Breakfast was good, and sizable. I enjoyed the omelette. The yogurt, though not identical to the one on my flight to India, was similarly bad, tasting sweetened and artificial.
These long flights were marginally easier to cope with than the ones to India. Carrying a six hundred page pulp novel which I bought in Jodhpur, I was a bit more prepared this time. Still, I finished it before the first leg ended. The last few hours, sick of reading, of listening to music or discussion on an iPod, and of watching television, were particularly boring.
In Chicago, I landed, passed quietly through customs, browsed a bookstore briefly, drank water out of a water fountain (quite a change!), and boarded my connection.
Relatively soon I was back in the bay area and safely at home. I was happy to take a long, hot shower.
Security in Delhi on flights to America is amazingly tight. First I had to get my bag x-rayed and sealed, and get my carry-on tagged. Then I checked in (where I'm sure my bag was x-rayed again), went through immigration, and went through a line to x-ray carry-ons. Then I had to return, stressed, to immigration because the guy who stamped my tickets and forms had forgotten to stamp one particular place. Then, when boarding the plane, all bags were opened and thoroughly searched by another, independent security team. We were required to boot up electronic devices to show they all did what they were supposed to do.
Posted by mark at Friday, June 27, 2008
We had a slow morning after a late night. After breakfast at home, we took a rickshaw to the Gandhi Smriti. Or at least we tried to. The rickshaw driver headed, as it turned out, to the Gandhi museum. At one point I noticed him driving through a part of town I didn't expect to be near and discovered his error. He refused to bring us to where we wanted to go and instead dropped us off at random. We refused to pay him. What a waste of time. It must've cost us an hour.
Instead of proceeding directly to the smriti from where we were, we grabbed a rickshaw to Connaught Place so J and N could look into flights for the rest of their trip (after I'd have gone) and so we could all mail postcards.
Finally, we grabbed a rickshaw to the smriti. (I wrote in my notes: "hopefully, smriti next.") I followed our location on the map. Indeed, when we got close to the destination, the driver admitted he also didn't know precisely where it was. He was pretty close--about a block or two away--and we directed him. Oy.
The smriti has a lot about Gandhi, his life, his goals, India's independence, and more. It includes a substantial, enormous museum. I got tired of it before I saw everything. I did see a lot more about British colonization than I expected. I also saw a neat doll exhibit with dioramas of scenes from Gandhi's life. One area of the smriti is obsessed with the last 48 hours of Gandhi's life. It's fairly morbid. All in all, it was definitely a cool place to visit.
After some trouble finding a rickshaw (because the smriti is in a residential neighborhood and they don't really just wander by), we managed to make it to Khan Market for Chokola. We enjoyed our drinks at Chokola so much during our previous visit (old pictures) near the beginning of my trip, we decided to return for a mid-afternoon snack. It didn't disappoint.
In the evening, we joined two of our host's friends and followed their suggestion to go to Drums of Heaven for Chinese food. It wasn't bad, but wasn't particularly good either. Simply fine. The best part of the meal were the starters: fried (unidentifiable) vegetables and a coriander soup (which I'd never seen before). Due to the atmosphere and lighting (very dark) and picture exhaustion, I didn't take any pictures.
Here are the few pictures I did take during the day.
Posted by mark at Thursday, June 26, 2008
Given that it's hard to get a great night's sleep on a overnight train, we had a lazy day as we recovered. Our train arrived in Delhi early in the morning. We headed to our friend's apartment (where we were staying again) to drop our stuff off. We attempted to go to the coffee shop down the street, but it wasn't open! What kind of coffee shop doesn't open until 10am?
Instead, we returned home. I ate some guavas. We'd been carrying these around for days (since Udaipur, I think), waiting for them to ripen. We also ate some very good potato parantha made by our friend's maid/cook/help. It mostly consisted of the filling, with enough dough to keep it together: that's how it should be. And it had just the right amount of salt.
After breakfast, full and bored, I decided to take a nap as my friends planned where to go after I left town.
After I woke, I ate a sweet or two from one of the boxes we'd been carrying for ages, then the three of us took a rickshaw to the Rajpath.
Rajpath is analogous to Washington D.C.'s lawn (a.k.a. National Mall). It runs from a famous monument, India Gate, past many open lawns, past the parliament buildings, to the president's residence.
Walking the Rajpath was quite soothing compared with walking almost any other place in any other city we visited in India: no smells, no honking, and people obeyed the lights. How weird!
Elsewhere in New Delhi
After the Rajpath, we took the metro to Connaught Place (CP). The metro was as efficient and clean as I remembered. It uses what appears to be cheap plastic tokens but are actually RFID chips. The government still searched bags at the entrance, though they waved me right by. I guess I don't look like a terrorist in the eyes of Indian police.
As the metro was new, although the Indian government built a good quality system, the riders still need to get used to it. People need to learn to let others get off before attempting to get on.
In CP, we stopped by a Costa Coffee. There, we met a friendly Pakistani man who quickly told us his life story (he lived in Las Vegas once) and gave us good wishes.
Taking a rickshaw back to our friend's place, I observed rickshaw drivers have no patience at roundabouts. If they enter at one side and want to leave at the exact opposite, they'll usually drive a straight line across the multiple lanes of traffic, pass adjacent to the island, then cut across more lanes of traffic to leave. No one bothers merging and driving the circumference until needing to exit!
In the evening, our friend drove us to Buzz, a hip restaurant known more for its scene and its alcohol license than its food. We met some of his friends there.
After dinner, some people from our group started dancing on the tiny dance floor. Others joined them. The place became hopping. I chilled.
For a few more details on the day, especially sightseeing and dinner, look at these pictures.
Posted by mark at Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Because the overnight train we were to take from Jodhpur back to Delhi was to leave in the early evening, and because we didn't have any other major sites we wanted to see Jodhpur, we spent the day lackadaisically browsing the city and eating. During the day, I took a handful of pictures. It was even hotter than usual and we spent as much time as possible sitting indoors or in the shade.
For lunch, we had a traditional thali (large Indian meal made from many small dishes) at the road-side restaurant attached to a cheap hotel (Hotel Priya). It was a fine but not notable meal. Happily, it was reasonably-sized--we didn't have to overeat. We followed up lunch with a trip to a Cafe Coffee Day.
Once downtown, at the clock tower, we headed to a bookstore (Krishna Book Depot) with a surprisingly good selection of English books. I bought one for the plane ride home. We never would have found this shop without a reference in our guide book. It was one of very few bookstores we saw outside Delhi, and certainly the only one that carried English books. Then, in the same vicinity, we went to an internet cafe, an art shop selling paintings and sketches, a juice stand, and a road-side samosa stand. The last looked fresh enough that this was one of the few times I disregarded the World Health Organization's advice to avoid eating street food. The samosa was good.
By this time, it was mid-afternoon. We walked to our hotel, relaxed for a bit, then rickshawed with our bags to a restaurant across the street from the train station. We had a decent, early dinner at Midtown Vegetarian Restaurant, then boarded our overnight train to Delhi.
This train trip was a bit more pleasant than other ones. Because we were in an AC car, they gave us blankets, sheets, and a pillow. :) Unlike our other overnight trip, the blankets turned out to be unnecessary--our AC car was sealed well (i.e., had no drafts), so everything stayed fairly comfortable.
Before going to bed, I had more sweets from the box we were carrying around since Jaipur.
One neat observation about train travel: Even if your eyes are closed, you know when you stop by a train station because suddenly things smell. (Stations tend to smell more than the countryside, and stopping allows the smell time to intensify.)
Posted by mark at Tuesday, June 24, 2008
This day we made the untraditional decision to see Jodhpur's sites efficiently and implemented it, seeing everything we wanted to see in the city before dinnertime. In fact, we were so efficient we actually had to kill time in the later afternoon before dinner.
The day's rapid adventures are primarily portrayed in these pictures and movies. As you can tell from the pictures, there's a reason Jodhpur's known as the blue city.
Jodhpur, at least the Old Town, has crooked streets like Udaipur. We thought at first that it also had Jaipur's negative of aggressive salesmen and touts, but eventually realized that these were found only in the center plaza where tourists tend to be; in much of the rest of the city we were hassled less than in Jaipur.
We started the day with a walk through Jodhpur's slightly smelly streets to an omelette shop, which turned out to be closed. Instead, we ended up at the Shri Mishrilal Hotel for makhani lassis. They were sweet, like pudding, but more tart.
We grabbed a rickshaw up to Mehrangarh Fort. For efficiency, we arranged to have our driver for the whole day. During the course of the day, we learned a lot about him such as his age (24) and that he worked in stone mines for five years. (I believed him; I don't think it was a story for sympathy.) He also told us about being mailed fifty thousand rupees (about a thousand US dollars) by an American tourist he drove around for a couple of days. (I think it was pretty clear he was hoping we'd be as preposterously generous.) In addition, he told us an Israeli group he drove around mailed him a thank you gift of chocolates and pictures they took of him with his son. Throughout the day, we kept trying to pay him more because we kept him longer than we'd originally agreed. He kept refusing. Yet, at the end of the day, when we paid him what we agreed (plus a small tip roughly corresponding to the bonuses he kept refusing), he asked for more. I think this reflects some interesting cultural/conversational expectations.
At the fort, I paid extra for the audio tour. It was a good investment. Not only was the tour paced well, it was lively and educational. Since my friends didn't pay for the audio tour, we split up, which led to great difficulty meeting up later. Running up and down the fort looking for each other is a lot of work!
On the way down from the fort, we stopped by Jaswant Thada, which is a cenotaph (a tomb built for ceremonial purposes, not to house a body) for a ruler of Jodhpur.
We then had our driver take us to Mandore, a town a bit north of Jodhpur with many temple-like cenotaphs. Interestingly, all these shrines--and there were many--were built and carved by workers paid only with food.
After Mandore, we were off to another palace, Umaid Bhawan, and its attached museum. Then we went to the train station to book tickets. Given our experience in Jaipur, we knew trains filled up. We waited in five lines as we were referred from bureaucrat to bureaucrat. At one point we were told there were seats in the tourist quota on the train we wanted. Near the end of the adventure, when we were in the back office finally getting things settled, I got the impression that it turned out they didn't have seats in the tourist quota and had to and did bump other people to seat us (because they told us they could seat us). Also, given how protective we were of our passports during the trip, it was nice N managed to negotiate it so we just showed them our U.S. drivers licenses and orally told them our passport numbers to prove we were not Indians. (I think she did it by bluffing that'd we have to go to our hotel to get our passports, and they frankly didn't want to have to deal with us again.)
To relax from our busy day, we had our driver take us to one of the few restaurant/bars in Jodhpur, On The Rocks. It wasn't yet open--we were too efficient visiting sights! Instead, our driver took us to a sweet shop he recommended, Sbree Kanji Sweets. We bought and ate some snacks, then returned to On The Rocks, which still wasn't open. We thanked and dismissed our driver and browsed nearby stores: clothing, alcohol, antiques/jewelry/trinkets.
Finally, when On The Rocks opened (7pm?), except for shoddy service, we had a pretty pleasing Chinese-Indian meal. It was hard to get the waiter's attention. He got one order wrong. The bill was incorrect. We had to ask twice for water, and never got refills despite asking. I guess I can add to this list that the service was slow, but that's pretty typical for India.
By 9:30pm, when we finished dinner, the atmosphere at the restaurant was festive. We moved to the restaurant's attached bar. It was hopping. The music, however, was pretty bad. The bar remixed songs to have a stronger bass line. Yet, it didn't use good songs to start with and the remixing simply made them worse. At the bar I had a glass of Royal Challenge Indian whiskey, which was not bad at all.
And that's how to do Jodhpur in a day. Obviously, refer to the pictures for details/color commentary.
Posted by mark at Monday, June 23, 2008
We chartered a car to drive us from Udaipur to our next destination, Jodhpur. On the way, we stopped by Ranakpur, an intricately carved Jain temple and one of the highlights of my trip to India, and Kumbhalgarh Fort, an enormous mountain fortress that's also pretty extraordinary. I took many pictures. They illustrate the day much more then the following words ever could.
For breakfast, we quickly tried eating the leftover pakoras we made at our cooking class the previous night. They were sad, soft, and soggy; we threw them away.
Kumbhalgarh was our first destination. En route, J observed that Rajasthan has many buildings perched on hilltops. I imagine it's because of all the wars that occurred in the state.
At Kumbhalgarh, we stopped outside, looked around, headed inside, looked around more, and climbed to the palace-stronghold at the top of the mountain, all the while taking pictures. Some pictures came out great because of the beautiful azure sky. Kumbhalgarh is impressive, not simply because of the mountaintop citadel but because of the size of the fortress itself: the outside wall stretches 22 miles, encompassing 36 square miles of land within the fort's boundary. I thought the palace at the top of the fort was anti-climatic, but N liked its simple design; unlike many other historic complexes we visited, it lacked bright colors, shops, etc. Also, ignoring the few colorful flowerbeds and some spotlights embedded in the ground, one could easily imagine it was, say, the seventeenth century. The fort hasn't changed in ages.
After the fort, our driver had us stop by a mediocre and overpriced roadside buffet. At 200 rupees per person, it was more expensive than most meals we had in India. N and J weren't as down on it as I was: N liked the yogurt and J liked the dal.
In the afternoon we explored the main temple at Ranakpur. I'd read a lot of effusive material about it beforehand. Nevertheless, it met my high expectations -- it was as impressive as I imagined. The combination of the exceptional detail with the size of the temple was nearly inconceivable. Each pillar was unique, and there were many of them. I wonder how long it took how many people to carve everything.
There are many alcoves within the temple, each with a statue of a deity. We weren't supposed to take pictures of the deities; everything else was fair game. I hate to say it, but some statues looked funny because they had glue-on eyeballs. Meanwhile, the doors to some alcoves were closed. I wonder why.
While exploring the temple, a security guard pointed out an interesting sight (see the pictures) and expected me to be amazed (I was not), then asked me for money. Similarly, I received a (sweet) blessing from a priest, complete with colored paint on the forehand, then asked for money. Not too tasteful. And he didn't want a small donation; he asked for a few hundred or a thousand rupees.
After the main temple at Ranakpur, we stuck our head in another temple, then found our driver and continued our journey to Jodhpur.
It was nice to travel in a car for a change. We were traveling in style compared to our past train and bus trips. Nevertheless, the trip wasn't all lollipops and roses. There was a truck traffic accident along what would best be called a one-and-a-half lane road that backed up the road for multiple kilometers. (Yes, multiple kilometers: I looked at the odometer.) We passed two or three hundred trucks! (Yes, I counted.) The accident took up enough of the road that another truck couldn't pass. We could pass, though with dramatic tipping as one pair of wheels drove where the shoulder fell off, because we were in a smaller vehicle. The accident must've happened hours ago to have such a lengthy backup. Or perhaps the road is simply well traveled -- it's the major Bombay-Delhi highway. (Yes, a road that could barely be said to have two lanes is the highway connecting two major cities.) In any case, we were very happy we weren't on a bus.
Because it's cleaner than a bus or train, I might normally have appreciated traveling in a car with the windows rolled up. However, we already got dirty enough from hiking around Kumbhalgarh that this bonus from our method of transportation didn't matter to me.
Sitting in the front seat, I got to watch as the driver signaled to other cars. He honked if he was going to pass someone and wanted them to move over. He honked when going around a blind turn. (Recall that most roads are effectively a single lane.) He flashed his headlights or brights multiple times to indicate here I am; I'm going through. Other cars flashed their lights once to acknowledge the signal. When other cars flashed him multiple times, he also responded and acknowledged. He generally used his turn signal to indicate to oncoming traffic where to go--i.e., get over there. Obviously, he didn't use these signals consistently, and many other drivers had other variations, but the general principles were relatively widely applied.
Once in Jodhpur, we walked around hunting for a hotel. As in Udaipur, per my request we leaned toward heritage hotels. The first we stopped by had strange architecture, including beds in nooks, a green color theme, and a feel that was just plain odd. We didn't take it because the room the proprietress wanted to give us had no air flow. Instead, we ended up at the Shahi Guest House, a different 350-year-old haveli. As you'll see from the next day's pictures, the roof had a good view of the town and especially Jodhpur's fortress.
Incidentally, our driver couldn't bring us from hotel to hotel because the car wouldn't fit down the streets in that (older) part of the city.
While hotel hunting, we saw someone block printing, in effect stamping a pattern on fabric. Neat!
For dinner, we dined outside at Bollygood. It was quite good overall; I liked every dish.
Posted by mark at Sunday, June 22, 2008
Even though we'd exhausted the few major sights in Udaipur, we decided to spend a goodly amount of time there simply because we liked the feel of the place. Thus, this day we didn't do much except run errands, see some minor sights, and take a cooking class! The few pictures I took this day are mainly from the cooking class.
First, we got up. J negotiated to get a suit tailor-made. We had breakfast, then stopped by a travel agency to price various possibilities for how to continue our trip. We then retreated to the hotel for a time, walked across a bridge we'd been eyeing, and caught a rickshaw to some gardens (Saheliyon-ki-Bari).
The gardens were okay. Within them was a science museum with a random assortment of exhibits such as minerals, tangrams, sand, and the atomic structure of hydrogen.
We left the garden and began walking the perimeter, intending to make our way to a lake. It was unpleasantly hot, however, and we were getting hungry, so instead we got someone to point us to a place to eat. (It wasn't a very commercial neighborhood, so eateries were hard to come by.) The place, Chetan, in the back of a small open-air market/convenience store, turned out to be South Indian. Yet, despite us being in North India, my masala dosa was the best I've ever had.
After lunch, we took a rickshaw to the lake (Fateh Sagar) and strolled along it for ten minutes, then continued with the rickshaw back to our hotel. Interestingly, the rickshaw's motor was so weak that it had trouble going up hills--going up to the dam required tacking. Also about the rickshaw ride: this rickshaw driver didn't use his horn. It was awesome! He had as much opportunity as most drivers to use it, yet did not.
We thought we were returning to the hotel to take a cooking class. The instructor (the wife of the owner of the hotel), however, wasn't feeling well. We had also tried to take the class the previous day, but there was a power outage so it was canceled. I guess we were fated not to take her class. Instead, we returned to the woman we'd met two days earlier and convinced her to offer a cooking class for us at the last minute. (We didn't want to leave Udaipur, a town with so many Indian cooking classes, without managing to take one.) She agreed! We were to return in the evening.
We returned to what we now thought of as our cafe (simply because we visited it many times) to kill some time before class. We ordered a fresh lime soda and it was done right, coming with one vial of lime, one vial of sugar-water, and one empty glass. In contrast, many other times we ordered lime soda, we got only two glasses, and the larger one wouldn't fit all the liquid. If we wanted to make a balanced drink, we'd have to pour out some of the liquids before mixing them. (If we mixed them directly, we'd end up with a full glass but not enough of one ingredient in it to balance the flavors. I suppose we could mix everything by pouring back and forth between the glasses, but that does bad things to the carbonation.)
Anyway, while in the coffeeshop, we met again the couple we saw a different evening coming out of the cooking class we were now signed up for. (Yes, they raved about the class.) Or, well, we ran into the wife. The husband was off taking pictures of policemen who were supposed to be on alert but were actually sitting on a bridge, playing cards, and watching the sunset. She said he'll sell the pictures to a newspaper.
We also ran into Raf again.
After sitting in the cafe, we killed some time by chatting again with the tailor. He works in five shops. He said he used to work in a coffeeshop, but that required talking too much and he got tired of it.
Then it was finally time for the cooking class! The class was great: hanging out in a charming Indian's house and learning about her life and food. It was a modest house, consisting of a kitchen and a room that doubled as a living room and bedroom. The latter is where we ate, sitting on the couch after finishing cooking. The house has a small, cunning, almost-pet mouse. It skittered across the kitchen twice while we cooked.
As she taught, our instructor elaborated more on her life than we learned earlier. She's approximately 38. Why approximately? Because she doesn't know when she was born, not even the season. Also, she acts as a second/first mother to the kid who lives next door; his mother died of yellow fever.
Being Brahmin, she is vegetarian (almost vegan), so we only learned to cook vegetarian food. But, as she has a restaurant, she told us stories about having to learn how to cook non-vegetarian food. For instance, the first time she tried to cook an omelet, she dropped the eggs, partially because she was surprised by and disliked the smell. She had trouble flipping omelettes, breaking many in the process.
She also mentioned a neat tidbit: people get flour (atta) in India by buying grain, taking it to a grinder, and paying two rupees per kilogram. No one buys flour directly.
We learned how to make a lot of dishes: masala chai tea, coriander chutney, potato & onion pakora, aubergine (eggplant) and tomato masala curry, vegetable palau (a.k.a. vegetable biryani), naan with cheese and tomato, chapati, parantha, potato parantha, and sweet parantha. As you can tell, we spent quite a while learning how to deal with dough. She give us a detailed printed sheet of recipes on which I took many additional notes. This sheet had recipes for a few more dishes that we didn't learn how to cook.
Given the length of the list of items we learned to cook, it's no surprise we made too much food. Although she kept asking us to eat, and joking with N in Hindi, we left with many leftovers. When we got back to our hotel, it turned out the owner stayed up late to wait for us.
Later addendum: Even though we spent three days in Udaipur, there are other sights that might be worth seeing should I ever return: Lake Palace (hotel/restaurants) (they don't allow non-guests to visit the island), the crystal gallery, and the sound and light show. Also, in the general vicinity of Udaipur: Mount Abu (only hill station in Rajasthan), Chittorgarh Fort, the temple in Nagda, and the Jagat temple.
Posted by mark at Saturday, June 21, 2008
I took a smattering of pictures at every site we visited this day.
Because we liked Udaipur and decided to remain here several days, we knew we could explore at a lackadaisical pace and still see everything we wanted. We started the day on yet another rooftop terrace eating an okay breakfast at Mewar Haveli. After breakfast, we wandered into Art'o'craft, a good painting/art shop with pieces in a variety of creative styles.
We then took a rickshaw to the Vintage Car Museum. The maharaja has a fondness for classic cars and opened his collection to the public. The curator of the collection opened each garage in turn for us and accompanied us as we explored, telling stories about the cars along the way. Apparently, on a trip to England, an old maharaja was insulted by a salesman who looked at him and thought he couldn't afford a Rolls Royce. The maharaja bought the store's inventory and used all the cars as garbage trucks. Rolls Royce, thinking this use of their vehicles would tarnish the brand, offered to buy them back. The maharaja refused.
The curator also told us a story about the front axle of a Rolls Royce getting broken. It was brought to Rolls Royce for repair and maintenance. Rolls Royce returned the car, fixed, without a bill, instead saying, "our axles don't break."
The curator also told us some interesting facts:
- The Rolls Royce logo changed from red to black when Charles Rolls died.
- Old steering wheels/steering columns previously impaled drivers. This was one of the first impetuses for seat belts.
- Some old cars were built with wooden frames!
After lunch and a brief a detour through Sajjan Niwas Gardens / Gulab Park, we walked to the south entrance of City Palace. We wanted to visit Jag Mandir, an old island-palace (not to be confused with the luxurious, relatively recent construction of the gleaming white Lake Palace).
Visiting Jag Mandir made us angry. First, the price listed at the booth was twice the price printed in the pamphlet (250 rupees), which was supposed to be valid throughout the whole month. Nevertheless, we paid and rode to the island. But, the only accessible part of the island was a large and overpriced restaurant and an absurdly, almost mockingly small museum. The rest of the island, which held some ruins, was under repair/restoration and off-limits. Although the ride across the lake was nice (see the pictures), we felt seriously ripped off. Had we known what it was like, we might not have even bothered going if it was free. When back on the mainland, we complained and were directed to the corporate office.
The corporate office was no good at customer service. They kept trying to explain to us how we were wrong. They told us repeatedly that many people go to the island for (a four thousand rupee) dinner; none of those customers had ever complained about the price of the ride to the island or the lack of things to do there. We didn't think this was relevant. They insisted the trip to the island is worth as much as they charged, and we were wrong in thinking it wasn't worth that much. And, as for the inaccessibility of many places on the island, we should've known. Who cares if we were mislead by their own literature? Furthermore, they have a corporate policy of no refunds.
After venting, we returned to our hotel to pick up the sweets we bought in Jaipur. We ran into the hotel owner and mentioned our negative experience (unexpectedly high price, nothing to see) to him. He commiserated, and explained that in Udaipur and India in general prices have been going up: real estate, stock market, etc. He also took this time to show us some of his paintings. They're very exact. He paints them by copying pictures. In addition to painting, he binds books.
We brought our snacks to a cafe and ate. The tout from yesterday came by and we talked with him for a while. Then we talked to an interesting, entertaining Swiss guy, Raf, who's on his twenty-somethingth trip to India, and his friend Dushan. We'd actually run into them at this cafe multiple times while in Udaipur.
Raf gave lots to advice and told many stories:
- He told us a story about a massive Indian holiday/festival (Kumbh Mela) that he, and 11 million Indians (!), attended. It apparently was visible from space. He bathed in the Ganges, supposedly washing his sins away. Now, he claimed, he could go back to being a "fresh bastard."
- He said if people do their secret things with you, you'll become friends. That's why he said you've got to drink with Muslims and eat meat with Hindus.
- He said that if Indians were trying to be too friendly, simply tell them friendlily to f--- off. It'll be okay.
- He told us stories about traveling in Hungary and meeting gypsies and pickpockets.
- He told many offensive jokes about India, including one about Gandhi and apples, another about Muhammads (yes, plural), and a third about Pakistan ("fill it with water").
- He espoused the virtues of saffron alcohol ("kesan" ?).
We ate a good overall, solid dinner at The Whistling Teal, located in a hotel, Jhadol Haveli. When deciding what to order, someone said (I forget who), "we should try to avoid the familiar culprits." I was amused by this (unintentionally) different way of saying usual suspects.
We chatted with our waiter. It started with talking about the types of flour used in halvas and rice puddings, then spread to the variety of styles/customs in India, and then to how movies affect the way holidays/festivals are observed. We also talked about the difference in food between urban and rural areas. For instance, halva is urban; it's only eaten in rural areas on special occasions. Finally, we got tips from the waiter on what's worth seeing in and near Udaipur.
On the way to our hotel, we saw a party in the streets. Many people, density packed, hit sticks together in time to music. Apparently it was part of a festival called navratri.
Posted by mark at Friday, June 20, 2008
These pictures and videos accompany the day's narrative.
Once in Udaipur, we checked into our hotel. It was nice, like a multistory mansion with rooms organized around a central area of open space. Lots of marble. The window on one side of our hotel room opened into column that opened up to the sky. It provided indirect light into the room all day, just like the similar structure I previously described in Delhi.
One reason we chose our hotel was because it offered Indian cooking classes. In fact, the adjacent building also offered some, as did the restaurant down the street. It seemed like there were cooking classes offered around every corner. It's funny that Udaipur became a cooking class destination, unlike much larger cities such as Jaipur or Delhi. According to one guidebook, it was our hotel's cooking class that started the whole cooking class craze as everyone else saw how successful it was.
We went down the street to Sunrise Restaurant for a decent breakfast. Incidentally, the restaurant also offered cooking classes. The restaurateur there told us a sad story about what happened when her husband died. She spent 45 days in mourning, and remained in the house for a year, following the tenets of her religion. Her husband's family cut her off. To earn money to survive the year at home, she had a kid collect laundry for her to do at home. Later in her life, she met an Irish person who encouraged her to start a restaurant and cooking class, and she did. Some cooking class attendees took notes, went home, typed up her recipes in English, and mailed them to her to give to later attendees.
Despite only being in Udaipur for half a day and only seeing a few blocks, we already had a good feeling about it. It's a cozy town, with a population of 400k versus Jaipur's 2m. And Udaipur clearly cares about how it treats tourists. The restaurateur told us the business association tries to discourage beggars and aggressive shopkeepers. The streets are clean. It must have a low crime rate: during a later day, we noticed a few stores were open and unattended. Likewise, one evening we noticed at least one store still had merchandise stacked out front. Also, I like how dense the town is. Indeed, by the end of the day, although we probably hadn't ventured more than half a dozen blocks from our hotel, even I was happy with the quantity of sights we saw. We saw a French and a German bakery. We repeatedly saw signs for rooftop restaurants. We'd dine at many of them. (I think it would be cool if there were bridges between all the rooftop terraces. I know the idea isn't feasible.) In short, Udaipur is a great tourist city--according to Fodor's, 60% of business is related to tourism--yet lacks the slimy competition and tackiness that is sometimes associated with tourism.
Anyway, after breakfast, we wandered into the Jagdish Temple, examined its intricate carvings, discovered that it's surprisingly comfortable inside--good air flow--, and listened briefly to some atmospheric music (bhajans/Hindu chants).
We then headed to Udaipur's main attraction, the City Palace and City Palace Museum. The City Palace is oddly designed. Courtyards seem placed haphazardly. Passageways are narrow. It's difficult to figure out where one is. We did, at least, often get nice views of the lake. I read that such a confusing design was actually intended as a defensive tactic intended to bewilder invaders. Further, I found the palace's style weird as well. For instance, some chambers are decorated with neon-colored stained glass. Incidentally, like many other Indian tourist sights, the palace complex has shops.
The museum displayed some miniature paintings. These were similar in quality to the ones sold by the artist in the palace complex in Jaipur, confirming our estimate that his were top-notch. Some of these paintings were compressed stories of Krishna.
After the museum, we grabbed a late, light lunch at Jaiwana Haveli's rooftop restaurant. It has great views, like the many other rooftop restaurants we'd eat at over our few days in Udaipur. Service was slow, as is seemingly the norm in Indian restaurants.
After napping--recall we'd taken an overnight train to arrive this day--, we went to "Dharohar," a show of tribal Indian dances and music put together by a local cultural center. The show was so impressive I think I ended up either photographing or recording a movie of every performance! (Thus, I have nothing to add here in writing.)
We ate dinner, another slow-service meal, on another rooftop: Tiger Restaurant. We tried it on a tout's tip and it didn't work out--the food was okay at best. Ah, well.
Posted by mark at Thursday, June 19, 2008
We devoted the day to seeing the last two major sights in Jaipur we wanted to see before needing to board the overnight train to our next destination, Udaipur. These pictures document the day's adventures.
Although this was our third day in Jaipur, I think Jaipur only has about a day and a half of sights. My estimate is, of course, based on my usual speed of exploration in first-world/fully-developed cities (e.g., no need to negotiate for transportation), in weather at reasonable temperatures (i.e., not so hot it makes you want to move slowly), and traveling alone (i.e., I can skip or abbreviate activities that interest me less). Obviously, as these are all counter-factuals, my day-and-a-half estimate really has no basis in fact.
The only sights I didn't get to see during our three days in Jaipur were the forts that overlook the city. I knew J and N have only so much patience for forts, and there were two that we'd run across later in our trip that I wanted to make sure we all had the energy to see.
Also, although we saw it as we drove by, I never got to photograph the city center and its pleasing architecture.
When we got up and left the hotel in the morning, we found out one rickshaw driver waited outside our hotel for two hours the previous night and one hour that morning. We didn't feel very guilty about it because we explicitly told him not to wait.
For breakfast, we headed to Lassiwalla. Jaipur is famous for lassis, and Lassiwalla is the most famous place for them in Jaipur. Although I usually don't bother ordering lassis (a yogurt drink), this one I really liked. It was creamy, refreshing, and not too sweet. Now I understand J's and N's fondness for the drink. Even they, copious lassi drinkers who ask for half the usual amount of sugar to be added when they order their lassis, approved of this lassi and its sweetness level.
Along with lassis, we grabbed a small snack from a nearby shop.
Next up: Jantar Mantar, a medieval observatory. It was impressive. Although it looked like a skate park, we were intrigued by the numerous devices used to predict star movements and seasons and to keep time. These builders clearly were smart and very careful about angles and shadows and everything. They found multiple ways to keep time. Sometimes they built grids, which looked exactly like graph paper, with a gnomon in the center. Many contraptions had good explanations of how they worked.
After our sweltering exploration of Jantar Mantar, we walked through the bazaar, passed sections for household goods (e.g., paint), jewelry, auto- (well, scooter-) repair, and pharmaceuticals, to the merchant where J and N bought a pile of clothing the previous day. They felt like they didn't get a good deal and wanted to return some of it. After more bargaining, they walked out with fewer items (though not as many fewer as they intended) and more money in their pockets.
We ended up eating lunch at Surya Mahal, a restaurant not in any of our guidebooks. It had a sign indicating it serves Indo-Chinese food; we'd been looking for an opportunity to try Chinese-Indian fusion for a while. The restaurant also serves lots of other types of food such as Italian and burgers. Our meal was definitely a quality one, just going to show that guides list only a random assortment of restaurants, not all worthwhile ones.
A long rickshaw ride later, we arrived at the Galwar Bagh (a.k.a., Monkey Temple), so nicknamed because of all the tame monkeys living nearby. As the pictures show, we passed many monkeys on the hike to the top. We also passed a snake charmer! I think that was the first time I saw one.
Near the top, I ran into someone who recognized me from my internship at Microsoft eight years earlier. He was an intern at the same time. That's some memory for faces! We caught up, reminisced, remarked on the unlikeliness of the coincidence, and wished each other well.
At the top of the hill near the Monkey Temple, I had a humorous exchange with an Indian. He asked, "Where are you from?" I said "California." He said, "You can never leave the Hotel California." I said, "What a great song." We talked a bit more after that. It turned out his family was on vacation for the month.
On the way down the mountain, we (especially N) acquired a fan club of kids. They kept introducing each other, shaking our hands all around, playing rhyming games with our names and theirs, and stealing our (actually empty) water bottles.
After the monkey temple, we needed to get back to the city proper. As rickshaws were hard to come by in the area, we ended up literally shoving ourselves aboard a packed bus. It was amazingly cheap. I thought rickshaws, when properly negotiated, were cheap; this was a fifth of that cost per person. (Actually, I guess that is the same ratio of cost of public transit to taxis in the United States.)
It was quite a claustrophobic trip and a true Indian experience. It's neat that I was taller than almost everyone else--that's not a feeling I get often. It was hard to know when to get off the bus without understanding the signs or knowing any landmarks. Without N's help we would've been lost! Plus, we had trouble getting off and on due to the crowd, and getting off, even when we knew where, wasn't that easy--the bus didn't really stop, it just slowed down a lot.
N said her mother never let her ride the bus growing up.
Interestingly, the bus didn't honk at all.
Eventually we made it downtown and, because we had time to kill before our train, caught a rickshaw to a Cafe Coffee Day, the other coffeehouse in Jaipur. We took the opportunity to use one benefit of a western-style coffeehouse: clean restrooms. We're always on the lookout for those. After eating and drinking, we caught another rickshaw, picked up our bags from the hotel, and continued on the rickshaw to the train station. As we waited, we tried to ignore the smell of the train tracks. Upon boarding, we learned our seats were near a smelly bathroom. :(
Our train was mostly filled with a group of 9th grade girls from Hyderabad on a multi-week field trip. While I pretended to be asleep, N, and to some extent J, acquired quite a fan club. The girls were infatuated with my traveling companions.
Much of the conversation I overheard was funny, including the commands to N: "You studied psychology? Psychoanalyze me." and "Read my face."
Posted by mark at Wednesday, June 18, 2008
These pictures complement the following description of our sight-seeing adventures. Much of the coolest sites I actually didn't take pictures of; hence, in this entry the narrative is probably more interesting.
After we got up, we had to switch hotel rooms because the one we were in was reserved. The new one wasn't anywhere near as extravagant. We had breakfast, then shopped for a cell phone simcard for J and N in the electronics shopping mall we discovered the previous day. Our day as tourists really started and we found a cycle-rickshaw to take us to the City Palace. Our rickshaw driver was a little kid; I guessed he was twelve years old.
The City Palace houses a few museums. The textile museum had many items with incredibly detailed embroidery, all labeled in English :). Some of the items were old polo uniforms. Apparently Jaipur had the world's best polo team from 1930 to 1938.
The armory museum had guns, though the emphasis was clearly on swords and daggers. Some looked nasty. One was very wide; another twisted; another serrated.
The art gallery was an example of extremes. It had huge Persian rugs hanging from the ceiling, including some 57 feet by 15 feet. At the other extreme were religious books written in minuscule handwriting.
By far the coolest part of the City Palace was the Friends of the Museum section. The artists within this section are among the best in Rajasthan within their respective fields. We saw miniature drawings where the utensil used was a single hair, yielding amazingly fine strokes. Another artist made crisp paintings using metal ore (hence acid free) on acid- and oil-free paper, paper actually recycled from old property deeds.
One artist made intricate rosewood boxes by chiseling cavities, pounding a thin, hard wire (copper, steel, or brass) into the resulting channels, then sanding the resulting box. This is the same trade as his brother and father. We saw some of his father's pieces: they had even more detail and were incredible.
One guy made acid-free paper by hand in various colors. One doesn't see hand-made paper much anymore. His paper felt like fabric.
After seeing everything in the City Palace, we left to continue on our sightseeing route. Our young driver was waiting for us outside the palace. At this time, he told us he was fourteen and had been pedaling a rickshaw since he was eleven. We had him take us to the Hawa Mahal, a mere three blocks away.
Although the Hawa Mahal, the so-called Palace of Wind, was designed to let the wind in through the screens, there wasn't much wind for it to catch (or, if there were, it wasn't very effective about it). The architecture was somewhat neat. Regardless, we explored this site fairly quickly.
After the Hawa Mahal, we embarked on a long, futile, dusty search for the kid, who we thought would wait for us again. Ah, well. We got to see the kitchenware section of the market before we gave up searching and found another rickshaw to take us away. We tried going to Lassiwalla (more on that on another day) but it was sold out. Instead, I indulged J and N as they went textile hunting.
Eventually, they found a booth they liked and spent a while bargaining. It was neat to hear; I learned a lot. Cloth that is 100% cashmir is so soft and thin that it can be pulled through a ring. When cashmir burns, it smells like human hair. The merchant, in demonstrating that his cashmir was real, claimed that this test is better than the ring test.
This particular merchant doesn't bother checking to see if money is counterfeit unless the customer is a black African such as a Nigerian. He said this policy is because he's been burned in the past. Also, he isn't poor--he bragged about a recent American customer who bought thousands of dollars of merchandise earlier in the day (or was it the day before?). He even counted out the U.S. bills for us. Holy crap! For what it's worth, I don't think this helped his bargaining position one iota.
While we were there, a supplier from a village came in to sell him more pieces. He bought them at about a tenth of the price at which he'll end up selling them. Middlemen.
In the end, J and N bought a number of pieces for a goodly chunk of change, and we headed off to dinner.
We ate at a decent place, Natraj Restaurant. I liked how they gave us warm water with lemon with which to wash our hands. It felt like an old ritual.
After dinner, we got a rickshaw to take us to the movie theater. First, however, the driver took us the wrong movie theater. (There are two theaters in Jaipur.) Then, we corrected him and got to the correct theater, which turned out to be only a couple of long blocks away from the restaurant.
Why did we go to a theater? I was convinced by N that we should see a Bollywood movie, naturally over-the-top, in one of the most over-the-top theaters in the country. Although the theater has only two levels, it's huge and has a really wide screen. I found that despite the lack of subtitles, I could follow the movie reasonably well. (I got a few explanations along the way but these weren't actually necessary.)
The movie, though not unusual for a Bollywood film, had more revealing clothes than I expected would be allowed to be shown in Rajasthan, especially given that the lines for movie tickets were segregated by sex. (The seats in the theater--or at least the seats in the part of the theater we were in--were integrated, meaning the three of us got to share popcorn. :) ) While waiting in line (and over dinner), N told us good stories about the soap opera lives of movie stars and about the history of Indian cinema. And the movie was definitely over-the-top. Not only were its colors saturated but the editors even added (clearly intentionally) sparkles in the lead actress's eyes.
Oddly, I don't seem to have written down the name of the movie.
Posted by mark at Tuesday, June 17, 2008
We spent most of the day walking in Jaipur. Jaipur's a much larger city than Agra. We knew this, but we didn't realize quite how large Jaipur was until we tried walking everywhere. For instance, the area inside the original city walls, a.k.a. Old Town, is enormous. We spent multiple days within it, including half of this day, and didn't manage to walk down a tenth of the streets. If you wanted to choose one city that we visited on this trip for shopping, Jaipur would win by a wide margin.
All of Old Town has been converted into markets. It's nicely laid out in orderly rows. There's some housing above the stalls. Most markets are themed. For instance, when we first entered Old Town, we walked past a long array of people carving and selling marble statues. A bit later, we found the spice market. And we found many markets devoted to textiles.
I enjoyed Jaipur's markets much more than Old Delhi's or Agra's. Jaipur's were less crowded, probably due to the quantity of space available, and simply generally more pleasant, at least if you can avoid the people constantly asking you to browse their shop. Jaipur shopkeepers were more aggressive than those in most other towns we visited, with the exception of Jodhpur, whose shopkeepers were comparable. By the end of the day, we realized that although the city is certainly more comfortable than Agra to walk in, the distances are much larger, making it advantageous to take rickshaws often.
In addition to being larger than Agra, Jaipur's much more technologically advanced. For instance, we discovered a high-tech shopping mall selling products as advanced as flat-screen televisions and digital cameras to the fraction of Indians who can afford such products.
Anyway, onto the particulars of the day. I took a good number of pictures to document the sights and tastes.
The Morning (Outside Old Town)
We started the day, after being woken by construction at 9:00am, by walking toward the city center. Along the way, we stopped and had a late breakfast. The joint was such a hole-in-the-wall that, had it not been mentioned as acceptable by Lonely Planet, it wouldn't have occurred to us to consider eating there. Inside, we sat upstairs, where they had what they called air conditioning but meant a fan.
Our waiter talked with N for a while, telling his life story. I heard it in translation. Here's some highlights: He grew up in a village and was married at fifteen to an eleven year old. He believes people should get married before they begin flirting. Flirting begets rumors, and rumors in a village are bad because they lead to doubts, and doubts can make it more difficult to arrange or even manage to prevent a marriage.
After breakfast, we stopped in a cybercafe to research our travel options (bus, train, plane) for the rest of the trip, then started exploring Jaipur proper. While walking, we ran into Ali, a rickshaw driver we met the previous night, and chatted with him briefly. We found and looked around the aforementioned electronics shopping street/mall. Then, to fulfill N's and J's needs, we located a coffee shop, Barista, one of the only two coffee shops in the city. (There are two chains of coffee shops in India, both just getting started, and generally no independent ones.) It was clean and cool, a nice escape from the noon heat.
By this point, we were near Old Town. We walked in. Throughout all this walking today, but most especially in this area by the walls, we were offered rickshaw rides. One cycle-rickshaw driver cracked us up by claiming his rickshaw was air-conditioned! (I imagine he simply learned that series of sounds tends to attract tourists.)
Afternoon (Inside Old Town)
We walked parts of Old Town and browsed the markets. J negotiated, very effectively in my opinion, for a pair of sunglasses. Also, while in India, we saw many cows in the road. In Old Town, I saw a cow walking down the raised sidewalk in front of the shops, occasionally stopping and turning its head. I only wish I was faster with my camera so I could have a picture of a browsing cow.
We climbed a minaret. From the top, I took many pictures of the city and its setting. The minaret, surprisingly, didn't have steps to the top, instead having a continuous ramp which wound around the tower many times. On the way down the minaret, J complained that it was too dark to see. Indeed, it was pretty dark, but not that dark--J said, "Oh, I guess I should take off my sunglasses."
We stopped in mid-afternoon for a pretty good, late lunch at Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar (LMB). It's also a sweet shop; we picked up a large box of assorted interesting Indians sweets that we ate gradually over the next week or so.
After "lunch," it was about five p.m. and we returned to the market so J and N could look for / bargain for clothes they wanted. We then took a rickshaw to the train station to book tickets for the next leg of the journey. Our rickshaw driver had style: to avoid making a turn across traffic, he crossed the intersection, drove a hundred feet, made a U-turn (which was easier there), then back at the intersection made the equivalent of a right on red. Pretty slick. (A diagram would make this clear, but I'm not going to bother drawing one.)
At the train station, we learned we'd have to stay in Jaipur a day longer than I'd planned. Not even the tourist quota--the Indian government reserves some seats for foreigners--had seats available on the day we wanted. The following day was also sold out, but the tourist quota managed to get us seats on that train.
From the train station, we walked to our hotel. A kid who happened to drive a cycle rickshaw walked with us and chatted. In general, we got into lots of random conversations with rickshaw drivers. For instance, earlier in the day a different cycle-rickshaw driver--a teenager--walked alongside us for a while. He was sharp and spoke multiple languages but had to work this job to raise money for his family. We encouraged him to use his intelligence for better things. He told us he's making sure his brother stays in school.
Of course, throughout all these evening excursions, I kept taking pictures. Don't forget to look at them!
We washed up and decided to go to a fancy bar at a four-star hotel (Rambagh Palace) for drinks. After negotiating with many rickshaw drivers, a cycle-rickshaw driver agreed to take us at a good price. This was the start of an interesting adventure.
It's a long way to the bar/hotel, and the rickshaw driver made it even longer by meandering for a while in roughly the correct direction before we realized his uncertainty meant he didn't know where we were going.
During this time, he talked. A lot. He wanted to drive us around the following day for free. The deal was that he'd bring us to some merchants, we'd wander around a bit, not necessarily buying anything. He'd get a kickback from the merchants and he'd split that kickback with us. Obviously, we shouldn't tell the merchants the plan.
We declined. He kept pushing. Given that we were going to a fancy hotel for drinks, he probably thought we were wealthy.
In addition to being annoying, he was also cheeky. N had already lied and said she was married. Nevertheless, he asked her out. N berated him, telling him how inappropriate that was. He complained he doesn't meet many women.
Incidentally, he looked sixteen, though claimed he was twenty-two years old. He said all the cycling keeps him looking so young.
Eventually we got to the hotel, where we ran into Ali once again.
The first place we went to for drinks and snacks, with seating available in a railroad car, was aptly named Steam. (Given our late lunch, we didn't want or need a real dinner.) We then went to another lounge in the same hotel complex: Polo Bar. Decorated with polo memorabilia, it was also aptly named. Oddly, it was more expensive than steam. (It's a bit surprising to have a price differential between bars at the same hotel, isn't it? I guess the British decor allows them to bump up the price a bit.) Whereas Steam was happening, Polo Bar was empty, perhaps due to the price differential.
After drinks, we wanted to return to our hotel.
Despite us saying we didn't want our annoying rickshaw driver to wait for us outside the bar/hotel and warning him we'd be there for hours, he did. Honestly, we would've been happier if he wasn't there. Then he took us a long, non-direct way back to our hotel, still pushing his scheme to defraud some merchants.
If there's anything positive that can be said about the ride home, it's that we got to see another aspect of India: some (poor) people sleep in the streets. (The weather actually makes it reasonably comfortable.)
Posted by mark at Monday, June 16, 2008
As it turned out, the whole day was spent traveling to Jaipur.
We got up, had breakfast, and checked out of the hotel. As we did so, I asked the staff member who's given us many good tips and been really helpful to us about how to mail an international postcard. I expected to be able to give him some money and have him do it for me. Apparently not: he said it's effectively impossible to mail a letter from Agra, and that I should try some other city.
A cycle-rickshaw driver watched us as we negotiated with some auto rickshaws to take us to the bus station. We had packs. To explain why we weren't talking to him, we said, "I'm sorry; we can't go with you." He replied, "I can't take you." :)
The previous day we'd asked our hotel's front desk clerk to reserve us a spot on the bus to Jaipur. Although we booked a bus with air conditioning, the bus that arrived to take us did not have it. We got a refund, but had to do without AC. This contributed in a minor way to the unpleasantness of the ride.
A larger contributor to the unpleasantness of the ride was the amount of time it took.
At one point, traffic was delayed and we had to stop for a while (half an hour? an hour?). I still don't understand why we had to stop. A train? A one-lane dirt bridge?
Later, we stopped and the driver found a nail in a tire. He drove a while more, then stopped again to remove the nail. He drove farther and stopped to refill the tire. Eventually, we made it to Jaipur, stopping a few times to add more air to the tire. I guess changing the tire wasn't an option.
Arriving at 5:00pm, the total trip took seven and a half hours instead of the scheduled five and a half.
In retrospect, we should've taken the train. We were told the train usually runs 3+ hours late (both arriving and leaving), and we didn't want to wait at the train station for three hours twiddling our thumbs. As it turned out, the train would've been faster anyway. We vowed to avoid buses as much as possible in the future.
Once in Jaipur, we hunted for a hotel, aiming to stay in a "heritage" property. As I understand it, the term applies pretty much to any building older than fifty years. We ended up staying in a number of these over our time in Rajasthan.
The first hotel we tried was fancy but had no availability for two nights. The second was nice but too expensive. The manager sent us next door to the other half of the property, owned by his brother. (While many times in India we'd get referrals to someone's supposed relative, we believe most of those references were simply commission system referrals. This time, however, we truly believed they were brothers.) Their father divided the property in his will.
Surprisingly, the brother's property had cheaper rooms (1800 rupees compared to the 2700 or 2450/1900 we were quoted at the other places) that were also larger! As the videos show, these rooms were enormous: by far the largest we stayed in during our trip. We took a room in this hotel, the Hotel Meghniwas.
I guess this is a good time to link to my pictures and videos for the day. Mostly they're just pictures from dinner and videos of the hotel room, with only a few scattered comments and pictures from the rest of the day.
Incidentally, while investigating hotels, J or I hung around outside with our bags and chatted with our rickshaw driver, Abdul, and his friend Ali, who also drives a rickshaw. (Ali pulled over when he saw Abdul hanging out with us.) It's neat to chat. Ali is a character. We'd run into both of them again as we explored Jaipur.
Dead from this long day of bus travel, we decided to eat in the hotel. We chatted with the brother/hotel manager over dinner. He "lost his kids to America" (that's how he put it), meaning at some point they visited it (school?) and now they live there.
Our meal at our hotel's restaurant was decent but not notable.
After dinner, we did some laundry by hand. I don't recall ever having to do this before. Of course, we could've sent our clothes off, but this was cheaper and we had time.
Posted by mark at Sunday, June 15, 2008
We got up before dawn in order to see the Taj Mahal as the sun rose. At that time of day, getting a rickshaw was more difficult than usual. Fewer were on the streets and thus we lacked negotiating power. One of the first that stopped for us refused our price, saying, it's "better for you to go on the walk." (That is, take a walk. :> ) Nevertheless, we got one at a reasonable price within ten minutes of leaving the hotel. Competition is good.
As vehicles are prohibited from getting within a quarter of a mile (or so) of the Taj, after our rickshaw driver dropped us off, we had a short walk. It wasn't unpleasant. This surprised us, given our experience walking in Agra the previous day. Some monkeys fought on the path.
I took many pictures today, especially of the Taj Mahal, under the assumption that I probably would never see it again.
After seeing the Taj, we grabbed a cycle-rickshaw back to the hotel, had breakfast, and took naps. Or at least J and N napped. When they awoke, we boarded a bus for a day trip to see Fatehpur Sikri, an old capital palace complex for the Mughals, and its neighboring mosque.
Our bus drove crazily. We nearly had at least one head-on collision. We were happy the ride only lasted an hour.
Once there, the most direct route from the bus station to the mosque and Fatehpur Sikri was up a hill through what appeared to be a garbage dump. N passionately hates how monuments in India and the areas around them are not maintained.
We took off our shoes at the entrance and carried them. Around then, J acquired a fan, by which I mean a person who seemed mesmerized by her. We didn't pay him much heed and he eventually left.
The mosque, mostly open to the air, was filled with people laying around in the shade. Given all the stone, it's probably cooler than elsewhere, and it's also likely the equivalent of a town center.
After we walked a third of the perimeter, we acquired a friendly Muslim student. Although at first we thought he was a tout a la the characters at the entrance (pay me and I'll give you a tour; if you're with me, you get in for free (note: it's already free)), he kept insisting he didn't want any money. He said the mosque itself asked its students--people studying the Koran seriously for multiple years--to volunteer to give tours to visitors. He was more persuasive and friendly and fluent than many others, and we let him guide us around. His name was "Chand", which he said means moon. Over the course of the interaction with him, we learned he speaks some French, German, and a few other languages.
Under his guidance, he led us into places where we might not have felt comfortable going. For instance, we entered the shrine in the center of the mosque. We took turns going in because, for this, we had give our shoes to someone else else to hold--we couldn't enter while carrying them. The shrine, with many pilgrims asking for blessings, was richly decorated with mother of pearl, colorful shawls, and wish ropes.
He also showed us the main prayer area of the mosque. As he walked us through, he got yelled at by a Muslim kid saying he couldn't do that and we shouldn't even be carrying our shoes there. Our guide was more advanced in his studies and overruled him. The younger student left, muttering something that I believe roughly meant "I'm gonna tell."
It's interesting that the mosque seemed better maintained than some other places we've visited. For instance, the gilded tiles inlaid around the archway hadn't been stolen. On the other hand, there was a huge net above the prayer area to catch pieces of the ceiling in case they fall.
The guide showed us a hollow part of the wall that reverberated nicely when tapped.
Elsewhere, he pointed out the sunken entrance to underground tombs. He claimed a tunnel leads from the tombs/catacombs all the way to Agra. I find that a bit hard to believe. Regardless, the cool air emanating from the steps--effectively an air conditioning unit--was a nice, though brief, relief from the heat.
Our guide wasn't entirely altruistic--at the end of the tour, he led us to a person who sold small carved statues and the like. Obviously, he'd get a cut if we had bought something.
We left the mosque to explore Fatehpur Sikri, the original reason we came to the town. It's an elaborate palace complex that was only briefly inhabited. I don't have anything to add not already in the pictures.
The bus ride back to Agra, though in a bigger and emptier bus than the one we took to Fatehpur Sikri, nevertheless remained traumatic. (Watch the video!) Also, as we drove, we passed industry (mostly stone grinding and construction companies) and billboards on buildings. Parts of this road were being expanded; that's good: it could use it. Furthermore, on the way, we saw some fires burning on the side of the road.
Once near Agra, the bus sometimes hit things (e.g., cycles, awnings) on crowded pre-festival streets. Twice the driver needed to get out of the bus to move things out of the way. Eventually the bus driver decided, due to the gathering crowd because of the festival, he couldn't go any farther. From that location, we needed two rickshaws to get back to our hotel: one to get to the bus station and one from the station to the hotel.
We were happy to be back in the hotel. J said the whole visit to Fatehpur Sikri had as much hassles as Bombay, a statement she said was damning. Given the dirt and bus trip, I can see why some travelers go for high-class hotels and rent drivers (in air-conditioned vehicles with windows) for the day.
We cleaned up for dinner. Oddly, the hotel had HBO but no hot water (which we actually didn't mind given the heat). We saw on the news a report about a bomb in the main temple (dargah) in Ajmer. We had been planning to visit Ajmer to visit its famous dargah, supposedly the most sacred and impressive Islamic site in India. The explosion made us cancel our plans.
For dinner, we went to The Mughal Room, located in a nice hotel, the Clark Shiraz. It was quite formal, as exemplified by incredibly starched napkins. Musicians played throughout dinner: a nice touch. Two of our dishes were quite good. At the end of meal, we filled out a comment card--I don't recall why--and were asked about it by the manager as we left.
Posted by mark at Saturday, June 14, 2008
Our main activity of the day was catching the train to Agra, the town adjacent to the Taj Mahal.
These pictures add color and detail to the day's narrative.
We had to rush to catch the train because I took my time in the morning because no one told me we were in a hurry. (I didn't know we changed the plan of which train we would take.) We made it to the train station in time, a credit due to our host's crazy driving. For this reason, I didn't have time to take any pictures on the way to or of the station.
Once in Agra, we took a rickshaw to our hotel, dropped off our stuff, and then departed to stroll around Agra. Agra's a small town, and intensely smelly. We walked by open sewers to get from our hotel to a market. During the walk, N remarked, "Mombasa was dirty; this is filthy." She also said a statement which I'll paraphrase: "If this is character, I don't need character."
On the way, we passed cows, water buffalo, and a tame elephant being ridden.
After exploring the rustic section of Agra, we returned to our hotel to change for our evening adventures.
First, we negotiated a rickshaw to take us to Amarvilas, one of the most famous, fancy, luxury hotels in the world (and one of the top two in India). We wanted to see it and decided to have drinks there and see its view of the Taj.
We negotiated a price of 20 rupees for the rickshaw ride for the three of us. Our rickshaw driver picked up some locals on the way going in the same direction; they hung off the sides of the rickshaw. As he charged them 5 rupees each, it seems N's negotiation skills must've been fairly good.
As Amarvilas is where high-rolling tourists stay and it's near the Taj, as we got to the area, we were surrounded by touts selling all sorts of a stuff, as well as a few malformed beggars.
Amarvilas is a very fancy, luxurious hotel, located on its own lands well secluded from the dirt and poverty that make up the rest of Agra. There were probably more help/staff, nicely uniformed with turbans, than guests. They can do that because they charge so much; it's extraordinarily expensive even by US standards: $1100 US per night, with most bottles of wine costing $100 US each.
While drinking in Amarvilas, we heard sundown prayers from a mosque a sizable distance away. As we heard the same in Old Delhi the previous night, this was becoming a common experience.
After drinks, we headed to Shankara Vegis for dinner, partially because diners eat outside on a fourth story rooftop. It turned out to be an especially great time to eat above the street: while we ate, the streets filled with a parade in honor of the wedding of Rama (a Hindu deity). Although his wedding was in nine days, for every night approaching the date there was a procession that lasted all night, until 5am. Our rooftop seats allowed us to see a ton and take many pictures and videos.
Not everyone in the restaurant enjoyed its location. Indeed, one woman nearby looked unhappy, stressed, and over-stimulated by the lights, sounds, and scene. (Given my experiences thus far in the bazaars, I can certainly understand the sentiment.) Perhaps it was further exacerbated by the amount of pollution rising from all floats, each with its own generator.
As for dinner itself, all the dishes were soupy, not restaurant quality--more like home cooking. We didn't mind much because we were there for the atmosphere. The most remarkable feature of the experience was that our dinner, at a bit over 100 rupees total, was as expensive as each drink we had at Amarvilas.
After dinner, we went to another nice hotel (though nowhere near as extravagant as Amarvilas), the Taj View Hotel, for dessert in one of its attached restaurants, Aashiyaana.
When we finally returned to our hotel, it was locked. Scary! Yelling got the door opened.
And that's the day.
Posted by mark at Friday, June 13, 2008
Today we took a rickshaw to Connaught Place, the heart of New Delhi, had lunch, then took the metro to Old Delhi. The metro was very clean and very crowded. Everyone had to pass through metal detectors. (I think it's because India had been having some problems with separatist terrorists.)
Sometime during this time J and N told me a story about having to negotiate a tip in Mombasa. I was beginning to get the idea of what regularly negotiating would be like.
Anyway, to continue the story, Old Delhi was really crowded. I can't believe the amount of business being done there. It's insane. The market is enormous. It's hard to absorb everything; the whole experience was overwhelming. We saw only a fraction of it, walking past the paper/book section, and seeing and smelling the spice section. N was awesome and explained many of the spices to us.
I managed to take a reasonable number of pictures in Old Delhi, though the crowd and how much we stood out made me uncomfortable doing so. I'm sure I would've taken more if I could've done so in a more subtle fashion. One thing I noticed while walking around Old Delhi was the different ways women wore burkas. Some covered only lips; others lips and noses; still others covered everything, including a veil over the eyes.
After exploring Old Delhi, we decided to take a rickshaw back to the Metro. The bicycle rickshaw guy ripped us off! He rode for a little while, then stopped and said the Metro's right around the corner. We paid him. It turns out we went practically in a circle and ended up about two blocks from where we started and no closer to the Metro. Still, it wasn't a horrible deal because we rode past Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, and I got to take some pictures en route.
Furthermore, it wasn't so bad because he dropped us off by a food stand that just finished making a batch of jalebi. Jalebi are a fried doughnut shaped like a pretzel. It was good but almost gaggingly sweet.
We walked to the Metro. This time they didn't bother to scan my bag or pat me down. I guess there's some benefit from the special attention/treatment a white person gets in India.
We disembarked at Connaught Place again, and wandered around a little. I noticed Delhi, with few tall buildings, has no skyline to speak of. We grabbed a snack, then headed back to our friend's house.
After relaxing for a bit, we picked up one of his friends and he bought us to dinner at Veda, which happened to be near Connaught Place (funny!). On the drive to the restaurant, we passed the Prime Minister's residence, the part of town with all the embassies, and the parliament buildings. Of course, it being dark, I couldn't see much.
Veda was yet another excellent meal in an incredibly stylishly design space. If, when people visit me, I could be a host half as good as our friend, I'd be elated. In addition, he's introduced us guests to great restaurants.
As always, the pictures describe the day in much more detail and better convey the experience.
Posted by mark at Thursday, June 12, 2008
This was a lazy day as I got acclimated to the timezone and feel of India.
We stayed in a friend's house. Due to the building's design, the only reflected light came in the window, making it appear twilight regardless of the time of day. Partially for this reason and partially due to jet lag, I slept until noon.
I later observed that this architectural structure was not uncommon in Rajasthan. It's a smart technique for coping in hot climates where one doesn't want direct sunlight yet still desires natural indoor lighting.
Once up, we headed to a delightful (non-Indian) place (Chokola) in an upscale shopping district (Khan Market) for lunch and the best chocolate drinks I've had in my life. We liked this place so much we returned to it when we were back in Delhi near the end of my visit.
We then spent a while on this warm afternoon (like all days in India) exploring the very peaceful Humayun's Tomb complex. It's Mughali architecture, in the style that would later become the Taj Mahal.
In the early evening, we had a snack at the friend's house in which we were staying: custard apples! Our friend was an excellent host. In addition to our custard apples, he provided Kingfisher beer, assorted nuts, and lively conversation. Our discussions ranged from living rooms and natural light, and real estate in America, India, and Tanzania, to safety in African cities at night, and a tremendously good and uniquely positioned Italian restaurant in Kilifi, Kenya.
Finally, we braved the craziness in Old Delhi for another amazing meal (Indian this time) at Karim's. Karim's was one of the best meals I had in India. The saucing on all the dishes was complex.
Old Delhi at night was intense and crowded. The streets smelled like a bathroom. People slept in the streets. Old Delhi is a conservative part of town, and Muslim. Women work black burkas. Beggars begged at the windows of cars (though that happened everywhere in India, not just here).
After a brief stop to see India Gate, we returned to our friend's apartment and chilled. I stayed up later than everyone else chatting with one of our host's housemates about Indian governance. (She's a solicitor doing public policy work.) (I couldn't go to sleep for a while because I wasn't supposed to lie down too soon after taking my anti-malaria medication.)
I took many pictures during this day; they provide many more details.
Posted by mark at Wednesday, June 11, 2008
In anticipation of my trip to India and the dramatic time shift (eleven and a half hours), I intentionally only slept four and a half hours the night before I left, thus allowing me to sleep on the plane during California's afternoon/India's wee hours of the night. As an added bonus, staying up late let me get a lot done that I wanted to finish before leaving.
Getting to the airport was a little dicey. I'd planned to take the bus which I've taken previously that runs right by my apartment directly to the airport. But, it turned out they closed some roads around the bus stop to do roadwork. I wasn't sure where the other stops on this route were nor did I know (or could find a sign about) how the bus was being rerouted. Instead, I used my backup plan and took the Caltrain. (Luckily, during the night I'd checked the schedule and made a backup plan.) But Caltrain was six minutes late, making me miss my connection to the BART. I had to wait nearly twenty minutes for the next train. Finally I got to the airport, in the end with still ninety minutes before my flight. (As you can tell, I left myself a lot of time to get to the airport.)
I checked in, grabbed a snack, waited for, and boarded my plane. While waiting for my plane to take-off, I tried to ignore American Airlines horrendous easy listening music. It made me miss United's Gershwin.
On the first leg of my flight, I enjoyed an empty middle seat despite the flight being nearly full.
I chatted with my seatmate. He works for HP Labs, building radiation-hardened circuity. The circuity is built via etching then imprinting, not lithography. I originally started talking to him because I saw him reading some papers from NASA Ames. He was reading those for research, though it turns out he actually did work for Ames in a dramatically different area: virtual reality.
Partially because I was interested and partially because I wanted something that I didn't care too much about that'd help me sleep, I read some of the papers he had. I made it through a paper about fault tolerance and some of one about solar radiation before attempting and succeeding falling asleep.
In Chicago, where I grabbed another snack, I ran into an ex-coworker/ex-boss, who was on the same flight as mine to India! What a coincidence. I knew he was traveling to India the same day I was, but I didn't think we'd be on the same flight with any sort of plausible probability.
On this flight, from Chicago to Delhi, they gave the evacuation instructions in Hindi as well as English, the first real evidence I was leaving the country. Also, of course, they fed me multiple times on the flight. The meal choices provided the second piece of evidence I was leaving the country.
Each seat had a screen in front of it providing maps of where the plane was. I enjoyed trying to see if I recognized the names of countries and cities that we were flying over.
They kept the plane cold! Really cold. I wore everything I had and a blanket, and I was still cold. On my return flight, I brought more clothes on board to alleviate the situation. The action was unnecessary, as the temperature on that flight turned out to be perfectly comfortable.
The only reason I survived the roughly twenty hours of travel time to India was a book. I wasn't planning on bringing one because I didn't want to have to carry the weight around the entire trip. But, a close friend smartly photocopied one for me and suggested I simply throw away the pages as I finished them, thus only carrying what I needed. Brilliant.
Of course, I finished most of the book on the plane--I tried to read slowly to savor it--so the weight thing didn't matter much. And, I actually never bothered throwing away pages I read, instead giving the book after I was done to the friends with whom I traveled. Nonetheless, the idea was ingenious and, without the book, I likely would've lost my sanity on the plane.
Incidentally, someone once mentioned to me that they thought paperbacks were originally meant to be in that style, disposing of pages as one reads. However, I can't find any confirmation of this theory on the web.
Throughout the flight, like the last one, I tried to block light and see light at appropriate times for Delhi. I wish I could've had better control of lighting to affect my circadian rhythms. The flight itself and most people on it stayed on Pacific time, meaning most of cabin's lights were out when I wanted to stay awake.
Finally, we landed. It was happily warm (in contrast to the flight). I went through customs, which was surprisingly easy, then waited only a short time for my friends to pick me up from the airport. Although nevertheless short, several Indians still offered to help me with whatever I needed. Obviously, I turned them down.
My first experience with Indian traffic made me note "crazy traffic laws. Red lights don't matter. Lanes don't matter."
As my compatriots hadn't eaten dinner, we tried stopping for food in a very nice hotel, but found its restaurant closed for renovations. Instead, we ended up at a joint, Al Kauser, in a market near the road. We shared assorted parantha, other breads, spinach mutton, various kebabs, and more. Since I already had dinner, I didn't eat much. I also didn't eat much since it was time for me to take my anti-malaria medication, which was supposed to be taken on an empty stomach.
Some of the little food that I tried was good. Some was weird.
I took a few pictures of what I ate on the airplane and in transit. Sorry I didn't take any pictures of Al Kauser. I didn't bother bringing my backpack to the restaurant and found I felt naked without it. Even if I had it, I wouldn't have taken pictures: I wasn't yet in the travel mindset, nor had I yet learned the Indian camera etiquette, nor did I feel comfortable doing flash photography (because we ate al fresco at night) at a place like this.
Posted by mark at Tuesday, June 10, 2008
I was in India (specifically, Delhi, Agra, and the state of Rajasthan) from October 7th to October 23rd 2007. I traveled with two friends, N and J. N speaks Hindi. They were spending much longer in India than I was, arriving a week before me and leaving more than a month later.
India was an experience and I'm glad I went to it. It was substantially different than any other place to which I've traveled, sometimes in ways I expected and sometimes not. Here are some general, pretty unorganized observations:
A white person in India gets treated differently than an Indian person in a variety of ways.
One gets a lot of unwanted attention (undue attention?). Often this simply entailed many people being interested in us and asking us many questions. Frequently, "where are you from?" is asked before "hello." Indeed, being white walking down the street, we'd be asked this question by random passersby. By one week into the trip, I jotted in my notebook, "so f***ing sick of getting all this attention and having to talk to people just because I'm white."
Other times, this undue attention entailed people staring at us. If we noticed it, sometimes we stared back at them. In America, social rules are such that most people quickly turn away when confronted, but social rules in India are different and staring back didn't do anything. Once in a while, it even got the starer to say something to his friends and then they all stared at us.
One time, while waiting for a train, we decided to have a little fun with the other passengers. We all stood on one leg; the other knee bent slightly so the other foot stayed a few inches above the ground. (This wasn't that easy, as we were wearing packs at the time.) I'm sure the effect was definitely odd, though probably a bit subtle. The rules of the game were to switch which foot we were standing on when it was clear someone was staring at us. Let's just say neither foot ended up exhausted, as we must've switched feet a dozen times within five minutes.
Being white also made us the target of price discrimination. Pretty much everyone--rickshaw drivers, salespeople, etc.--would start negotiations at a higher price when they saw us around. Even the government discriminated, charging Indian nationals one rate to enter tourist sites and foreigners another rate, often a factor of twenty larger. Clearly they're attempting to segment based on ability to and willingness to pay, but I'd be much more comfortable if they tried to do it in a more subtle way, say, by pricing the differential entirely into the fee for the right to use a camera.
In a few negotiations, N, the Indian in our group, got scolded by people with whom she was negotiating. She was told that, in effect, given that she's traveling with white people, she shouldn't negotiate so hard but rather help out other Indians. One rickshaw driver said, "you should be watching out for me." And, he added, she shouldn't listen to the white people when they insist they can get a better deal.
Being white and therefore tourists made us an obvious target for marketers/touts. While walking or even standing around, we received many offers of help, countless invitations to enter stores, and constant streams of people trying to sell us items we didn't want (puppets, chess boards, poster-sized maps of India). After a while, I started telling people I didn't know how to play chess and didn't like puppets. I'd get strange looks but would then be left alone.
Surprisingly, I encountered few beggars. Despite developing nations being known for rampant poverty, I rarely got asked for anything. Walking around San Francisco or Berkeley, I get asked at least an order magnitude more often. I only was asked for food a handful of times over my couple week trip, and was never asked for money from an adult. (I was asked for money from little kids, but then little kids also asked me, surprisingly, for pens, so I can't take these requests that seriously.)
Shopping & Negotiating
Negotiating is often a pain. I say that without having done much of it. (N did most.) Virtually everything in India seems to be negotiable, with the notable exception of restaurants and long distance transportation. We mostly found ourselves negotiating for hotel rooms, rickshaw rides, and, to some extent, drinks and snacks from food stands.
It seems like some manufacturers are trying to sell fixed price goods in a climate of bargaining. For example, water bottles and snacks often had M.R.P. labels, which identified the maximum retail price the item was supposed to be sold for. Nevertheless, some shops still tried to put one over on us. A rare few even argued with us when we refused to pay more than MRP, claiming that their costs were too high. In the end, I think the sneakiest behavior is when stores put a MRP sticker on an item that already had an official, lower MRP printed on the label by the manufacturer. We saw this at least once.
Maybe it's the economist in me that made me find myself analyzing the idea of negotiation. Not only does it take time--indeed, as such it can be seen as trading off time against money--, but it's philosophically challenging. I want to pay what's fair. Yet, how should one define fairness? Is fairness paying the legitimate going rate (i.e., pay the same as everybody else for the same product)? Or is fairness paying proportional to the amount of work? If so, then one should pay cycle-rickshaw drivers more than auto-rickshaws, despite autos being faster and more comfortable, simply because the cycle-rickshaw driver exerts more effort. Or should one pay one's true utility for a service? If so, then I should be paying at least an order of magnitude more than the going rate, simply because the value to me of getting to, say, a particular temple, given that I won't likely be back in this part of India, is very high and, since I'm wealthy by local standards, my incremental value of money is small.
Also regarding shopping, I found it interesting that India generally doesn't have any grocery stores. I don't think I saw a single one. Foodstuffs are sold from stands on the street a la a farmers market. Obviously, this requires repeated bargaining--it's not like one can walk into a store, pick up everything one needs, and bargain all at once.
Interestingly, trademark law isn't enforced. Sometimes we encountered nearby establishments with nearly identical names; the only way we knew which was the reputable/authentic/good one was because of the description or directions in our guidebook.
Although meat supposedly plays a larger role in northern Indian cooking than in the south, the majority of restaurants we found ourselves in were nevertheless vegetarian. Apparently, having a larger emphasis on meat doesn't eradicate the fact that many Indians are vegetarian. It certainly has more vegetarians than the United States.
We always tried to go to Indian restaurants and to order dishes we couldn't get in the states, especially those we couldn't get at other restaurants in India (i.e., local specialties of the house or of the region). Occasionally, we branched out and tried Indian-Chinese, which is also generally hard to find in the states. We ended up trying a wide variety of items over the course of our trip. Some were pretty exotic. In one dish, even the Indian I was with didn't know the kind of tuber (potato family vegetable) they used. I certainly hadn't seen it before and she’d only seen it rarely and didn't know its name or where to get it.
Overall, the quality was a mixed bag, not much better or worse in quality than eating in random Indian restaurants in the states all the time. Sometimes it’s great; sometimes it's decent; and sometimes it's none too exciting.
An interesting aspect of restaurants is that they all make their own yogurt, paneer, cheese, milk, cream, etc. Indians are particular about their dairy products, especially given the alleged inconsistency of refrigeration.
As for the highlights, we had better luck with restaurants in Delhi. I really liked Karim’s and Veda. I also liked Bollygood in Jodhpur. We also happened into a roadside South Indian joint in Udaipur which was terrific. (We generally avoided South Indian, as we were in North India.) In addition, Chokola, a cafe in Delhi specializing in chocolate and chocolate drinks, was eye opening. Finally, Lassiwalla, in Jaipur, taught me, one who generally doesn't drink lassis, what they’re meant to be. It inspired me to order two later in the trip, neither of which appealed to me enough for me to even bother finishing them.
Two destinations easily top the list of most distinctive, don't miss sights: the intricately carved temples at Ranakpur and the elegant architecture of the Taj Mahal. Perhaps Jantar Mantar, an old astronomy center in Jaipur, also deserves to be on this list simply because it's so different than anything else I've ever seen. Of course, Rajasthan is filled with countless other temples/mosques/guradwaras/etc. and large, impressive, multi-walled fortresses, but none of these stand out far enough above the others for me to call out a particular one.
To me, the most unexpected aspect of Indian tourist sites was how run-down some were. Some seemingly had never been renovated. Most were simply unclean. It’s as if the officials running each site don’t realize how, if we have to walk through dirt and ramshackle streets to get to the site, we’re likely to be in a less pleasant mood while we’re there.
Another thing that surprised me was that many sites allowed booths, often selling highly-marked-up kitsch to tourists, within their walls. Seems like poor taste to me.
Though not a tourist destination, another notably interesting sight I saw in India was the performance of Indian music and dance in Udaipur.
By far, however, the most memorable aspects of the trip were not the individual sights but rather experiencing life in India:
- the chaotic bazaars such as those in Old Delhi
- the vast markets and never-ending invitations to enter shops, especially notable in Jaipur
- the constant negotiating
- traveling the roads, especially by rickshaw
- the aimlessly wandering cows, dogs (yes, they were wild but not feral), and even, in some places, monkeys and baboons. And the occasional, not-aimlessly-wandering pack animals, like donkeys, camels, and elephants.
- hearing people's stories about their lives and hardships. Cycle-rickshaw drivers are especially talkative because their vehicles are quiet and travel slowly.
Of all cities we visited (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur), we found Udaipur the most pleasant. Except for Agra, it's smaller than the rest, meaning it felt cozier. That also meant we ran into some other interesting travelers multiple times (a plus). Udaipur's crooked streets generally have a European feel and it even has some European cafes/bakeries. Its many rooftop restaurants make for pleasant dining. The shopkeepers are less pushy than at other cities. And it's certainly cleaner and better smelling than Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Agra. Unlike those three cities, we weren't in a hurry to leave it.
Health & Medicine
I'm happy to report I didn't get sick. Sure, I took precautions. I only ate from a street vendor when I saw the food cooked, fresh, before my eyes. I was conscious about where my water came from and whether it was filtered. I carried bottles of water constantly, always checking the seal before opening and crushing them after finishing. I wonder if carrying water bottles constantly made me drink more or less than at home. Sometimes when we stayed in nice hotels, I almost made the mistake of rinsing my toothbrush under the tap--in clean, quality places, it's easy to forget that not everything that enters the room, such as water via pipes, is clean.
We had to be conscious about bathrooms. Although bathrooms in hotels and fancy restaurants were usually fine, we avoided going near the bathroom in average eateries.
In a similar vein, I’ll note I only got one bug bite the entire trip, despite not using any insect repellent. (I didn't use insect repellent because I wore long sleeve shirts and pants, so effectively my only exposed skin was my face and hands, two places one normally doesn't put insect repellent.) I also didn't get sunburned. I used sunscreen most days. (Some days I forgot or was too lazy.) I probably escaped burning because on most days it was too hot to be outside in the mid-day sun for too long. Yet, by the end of the trip, my lips were peeling. I wonder if it was the dry air or if my lips somehow became sunburned.
Indeed, the fact that I visited an arid region during the driest season meant there was lots of dirt and dust in the air. More than once I wrote in my notes that I can't wait until I'm home and truly clean. Even if I left my hotel, pleasantly showered, by the time my rickshaw arrived at my destination, I was fairly dirty again.
If I had gotten sick, I'll note that one can get medicine over the counter (at stores Indians call chemists, not pharmacies) that normally requires a prescription in America.
I’ll also note that people don’t seem to workout in the sense they do in the states. I guess it’s due to the heat (why exercise when roasting?), the lack of time (must work to eat and live--why do anything that costs extra energy, when calories cost money?), and the absence of a cultural pressure to look physically fit. Or, maybe working out is unnecessary. In general, except for a few sari-enshrouded women, Indians are skinny.
Another cultural phenomenon that I only consciously noticed halfway through the trip was that, aside from J and N, I interacted with practically no women. Shopkeepers were men. Wait-staff were men. Rickshaw drivers were men. Guards were men. Ticket booth people were men. The only time I think I spotted women were, rarely, at some vegetable stands, and, somewhat more frequently, behind the desk at hotels for tourists.
There are few road rules in India. It's a thrill ride! The two big rules are:
- Use your horn all the time.
- Big vehicles rule.
In cities, scooters are very popular, as are rickshaws. (Rickshaws are small, green-and-yellow, three-wheeled vehicles without doors often used as taxis. The driver sits in the front in the middle.) Different cities seem to have slightly different scooter and rickshaw designs. I think the popularity of these two types of vehicles stem from their price and their size—they can fit into small streets that regular cars cannot.
I'm not sure where else to put this comment, so I'll put it here: pollution was pretty bad. Most cities we were in had smog/haze, likely due to all the diesel engines. This made traveling in open vehicles--our usual method of transit--less pleasant than it could've been. Delhi, surprisingly, seemed to have some of the cleaner air we encountered. I thought the air there was better than that in Los Angeles. I'd expected worse.
I'm also not sure where else to put this comment, so I'll put it here: it's impossible to get anywhere quickly. Walking is slow because we end up talking to people, whether touts or rickshaw drivers. They're attracted to us like ore to a magnet. Rickshaws are slow, partially because negotiating takes a while. They are also slow because we often end up hearing life stories. (While the driver concentrates on story-telling, he tends to slow down.) And cycle rickshaws are just generally slow.
I suppose if we were willing to spend more money, just as better-off Indians could, we could have our own designated vehicle, thereby skipping the extra conversations and negotiations. Wealthy Indians owned their own scooters or other vehicle. Yet, even in this case, our speed would be limited to 35 miles per hour at most simply due to the poor road conditions and lack of traffic rules.
There are striking disparities in wealth. Many people earn the equivalent of two or three US dollars a day, while others make hundreds in a day. From the Taj Mahal, we saw people bathing in a river; meanwhile, the entrance free for foreigners at the Taj was roughly two weeks salary for many of them. Later, in Jaipur, a shopkeeper we were negotiating with bragged that he made a deal for hundreds (or is it a thousand?) dollars that day, and showed us the US bills to prove it. Many rich people feel no qualms about spending the money they have, such as at a fancy hotel or a restaurant. We had our own proclivities: we negotiated for things that normally require negotiation; we stayed in inexpensive hotels; yet, we didn't blink much of at eye at paying substantially for quality meals or drinks (which tend to be steep). By substantially, I mean sometimes we'd have meals that cost the same as a night's stay in our hotel.
Perhaps more striking, given the quantity of poverty, is that there's little begging. Although touts often tried to convince us to go somewhere or buy something we didn't want, we rarely got asked for anything directly. Furthermore, the rare times we encountered beggars, they invariably asked for food, not money.
For some reason, many people think of non-first-world countries as being unsafe. (I didn't have this preconception and was surprised after I returned and people asked me about safety.) I felt quite safe traveling in India, whether getting in rickshaws driven by people I didn't know who I'm not sure knew where they were going, or simply walking the streets of various cities at night. Sure, sometimes I made sure I was aware of my surroundings, but I never really felt unsafe. In particular, I usually have my guard up when walking in Berkeley or many parts of San Francisco at night. Yet, nowhere in India did I feel as nervous or unsafe. I suppose it could be because I wasn't attuned to the danger signals in India, but I truly believe it's simply because there's less crime.
Usually, when I travel, I try to run around and see as much as possible. J and N, meanwhile, have a significantly different philosophy. They like taking it slow, experiencing a place, sitting and sipping coffee or lassis, and maybe seeing a sight or two a day. As soon as I understood and got used to their philosophy, things worked out pretty well. We both compromised somewhat. I'm sure they ended up seeing more than they would have had I not been there. And I know I ended up sitting in cafes more than I would have otherwise. Nevertheless, I feel as if I didn't miss much. We generally stayed in each place long enough that'd we still end up seeing mostly everything even at the slower pace. (Of course, had I been on my own, presuming I was able to speak Hindi (!), I'd have been able to see everything more efficiently. But that's no big deal.) And for the few destinations I missed, I simply had to realize that, for instance, I'd naturally be seeing enough fortresses on this trip and thus it wasn't necessary to see a particular one.
This trip made me wonder what makes a city/place comfortable to visit alone? Given that I didn't speak the language, there were definitely activities we did as a group that I wouldn't have attempted arranging on my own. I'm not sure what factors come into play for me. Is it simply the language? Is it the difference between first- and third-world? Is it the need to negotiate so frequently? Is it the lack of good maps? Is it the annoying presence of touts, who are presumably more aggressive if one is traveling alone? Is it the question of general safety? Does it have to do with the amount of pre-planning done? I wish I better knew what affects me, as it would help me plan trips in the future.
Posted by mark at Monday, June 09, 2008