Friday, May 29, 2009
Niruda’s is a fabulous Indian fast food chain that offers Indian food, some burgers (burgers in India are popular despite the fact that they can’t be made with beef) and pizzas, and ice cream. I found it a few times near bus stations, and it was a welcome respite after dealing with the havoc that inevitably defined an experience on a bus or buying a bus ticket. Unlike American fast food, Indian fast food is actually priced out of the budgets of the majority of Indians. It was more expensive than several mid-range restaurants I went to. This means that there would only be a few upper class Indians in there, and there was AC. Beautiful. (It’s hard to get away from people, especially beggars and people selling things, in India.)
The only food that I wasn’t a big fan of, and this is just me not liking most deep-fried things, was the fried stuff they sold on the streets. Everywhere street carts had huge vats of boiling oil to deep-fry anything they could think of. Whatever was fried would end up being one-fourth of the final product; the rest was fried breadedness.
Exercise—as I mentioned a few times, they just don’t do it. Right now they have a lot of people below the poverty line which might be protecting the country from an obesity epidemic, but I estimate they’re right on target to match America, at least in this regard, in the next few decades. Pretty much every man over the age of 20 had a pot belly, even ones who seemed not too well-off. And the large amount of sari fabric couldn’t hide that the women were quite wide. I saw a few public health campaigns, but these were tiny, plain signs lost in a sea of much bigger and bolder product advertisements. One said “Take up jogging. Give Delhi a heartbeat.” For the record, I might have seen 2 joggers in all of India.
Electricity and Computers—Universally unreliable. Power outages happen frequently and are pretty unpredictable, although it happened twice while I was in internet cafes, and the owners seemed to think that if I would just hang around for 5-10 minutes, who knows, maybe it would return. I learned quickly that they were just making up these estimates.
Also when I turned on my iphone back in the states, I realized that the browser on my iphone is actually light-speeds faster and better than any of the computers I saw in India. They all seem to be running Windows 95, and about one-third of the common websites I use daily in the US couldn’t be opened on the ancient browsers, although which of my websites wouldn’t open that day was a variable surprise.
Person-to-Person culture—if you want to get something done in India, you have to know the person who does it and meet with him face to face. If you want a bus ticket, you have to go to the bus station and stand in line to get one. Recently they’ve made some online purchases available, but if you buy a bus ticket online, instead of emailing you the ticket to print out, they actually deliver the ticket to your house, which seems to me to negate the whole benefit of online purchase.
At Niruda’s, the fast food place, I noticed that although they entered my order into a computer at the cash register, the order didn’t get automatically transferred to the kitchen like in the US McDonald’s. Instead the person took your order at a front counter, gave you a paper ticket to retrieve your ice cream from the ice cream counter, and then walked back to the kitchen counter to verbally tell your order to the cooks.
It’s also all about knowing someone, which might be why they’re resistant to automating things. My friends in Udaipur informed me that they don’t go anywhere without first guaranteeing a discount. They call up their friends at whatever restaurant, say they’re coming, and negotiate a discount. Convenient, eh?
Travel—As I’ve pointed out several times, this takes a really long time. Now why when you’re running behind you would still stop and take excessively long breaks every 10 minutes is beyond me.
Stealing—I actually did not feel like anyone was going to steal from me in India. Poor as they are, I don’t think they steal. They may scam you, they may ask you to pay an unfair price, they may try to change the price at the last minute, but they won’t actually reach into your pockets and take your money.
Things that are everywhere in India—dogs, cows, dirt, temples, trash.
Temples. Mini-Hindu shrines and temples were quite literally everywhere. I don’t know how they decide which to visit and leave gifts at. But overall India seems like a very religious country.
Dirt. Walk outside and you’re covered. It blows in through the cracks in the windows. Basically, it’s everywhere. No avoiding it. Sometimes I didn’t even think I had touched anything yet, and there was black dirt all under my fingernails. Gross.
Wild Dogs and Cows. These are running around everywhere. On the streets, inside the historical and holy sites. They pretty much have free reign. Now, I thought cows had free reign because they were sacred, but just because they don’t get killed doesn’t mean everyone respects them. I saw a woman swatting at one, and I also saw a young boy literally hitting some dumb cow as hard as he could in the head over and over again. Yikes.
Trash. Well, judging from the above entry, it follows that cow dung and dog piss are everywhere. However, generally the culture does not seem to think twice about throwing trash anywhere it lands. There were just piles of it in the streets. Sometimes I saw piles being burned, but mostly I saw cows chewing on newspaper and trash. When people finished something and had trash left over, they just dropped it wherever. Even the railway conductor threw his water bottle out the window of the train. On the bus a man eating a mango just dropped the peels onto the floor of the bus, and worse, on another bus a man was actually spitting onto the floor of the bus. Sick.
Culturally appropriate—What is socially acceptable is different here, as you might expect. Interesting ones that seemed to be perfectly fine were throwing trash anywhere, playing on railroad tracks, picking your nose, and asking strangers for things. People just walk along the railroad tracks, and little kids play on them. Apparently parents don’t teach their kids that trains are dangerous in India. Nose picking was a funny one. I saw people everywhere just full on digging for gold in public. I never wanted to watch long enough to figure out what they did with their boogers, but I probably didn’t want to know. Also weird is that the Indians just ask you for things, like money or presents. They don’t seem to feel like it’s impolite to ask for presents. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to figure out whether they only ask western tourists or if they ask each other too. But it’s a pretty annoying habit, since I feel obligated to try to help people and to give someone something they directly ask for. One thing they wanted was pens. Maybe it’s hard to get pens in India or something. But I don’t travel to India carrying boxes of ballpoint pens with me. I guess next time I will know that this is an essential item for the packing list.
Sex—The sexual life is incredibly repressed. Men live with their parents until they get married, and usually don’t have the opportunity to have sex before they get married in their late 20s. Furthermore, given the style of dress, they don’t even get to see a female’s legs or shoulders. If you think about it, this is like a country full of males stuck at the level of 12 year olds in the US who try to get girls’ attention by snapping their bras or pushing them on the playground. This is a problem for western women, as they see us as a great opportunity to have sex. Umm, sorry. One of the Indian guys I met in Udaipur also felt it necessary to tell me that he and his girlfriend “had sex many times…lots of times” Okay, thanks for sharing. I think the upper class are a little more liberal in this regard, but still.
I also decided to skip the rest of the Agra sites and instead see Fatehpur Sikri, 40km outside of the city (obviously this takes at least 1hr each way to travel). I didn’t know exactly what this was, but had been told by several Indians that it was good to see. Turns out it was a giant mosque (Fatehpur) and palace (Sikri), which took 12 years to build, and was built by Akbar’s grandfather, so it predates the Taj. However, after living there for just 4 years, a drought forced the city to be abandoned as the capitol. Interestingly, this emperor had 3 wives, one Hindu, one Christian, and one Muslim, so the mosque has elements of all three architectures and the palace has a separate mini-palace for each of the wives in completely different styles. A 12 year old boy talked me into letting him be my guide for just 20 rupees, and he actually did a great job. Mostly he just kept all the other scammers in the mosque (yes, there were a lot of them, despite the sign posted outside that clearly stated that “any commercial activity was prohibited within the mosque and punishable”) away from me so I didn’t have to worry whether the “charge” for entering, watching my shoes, getting a head cover, etc., actually needed to be paid or not. They didn’t. Of course, there was a catch to this inexpensive 20 rupee charge. After I had told him over and over that I didn’t want to buy ANYTHING, and was simply not interested in buying anything even if it was so cheap they were giving it away, he took me at the end to a shop selling “his village’s” handicrafts.
I returned to Agra in time for my 2pm train to Delhi. I was planning to get to Delhi in just under 3hrs, and would have plenty of time to use the internet and also shower and change before going to the airport for my flight. I was once again in sleeper class with no AC, but figured it was only 3hrs. However, and this can only happen in India, the 3hr train ride actually took 5 and a half hours! I had to head straight to the airport, dirty and sweaty though I was. The best I’ve been able to figure out is that once a train gets behind schedule, it has lowest priority and has to stop in a place with multiple parallel tracks and wait for other trains that are supposed to be running on the same tracks as it to pass, so it just gets later and later. However, since I only ever took trains that were late, I conclude that all trains are late all the time, so I’m a bit confused as to how the priority gets assigned.
The airport: I arrived at 8:30pm for my 10:50pm flight. This seemed reasonable. Outside was a huge mass of people, and there were 4 entrances each with separate lines to go into the airport. There was a departure screen outside, but this only had 4 flights listed on it, clearly not all of the international departures of the evening, and I had no idea how to tell which entrance I was supposed to use. I stood in line for one of them, but they wouldn’t let me in (to the check-in area) because I didn’t have my ticket printed. Inside I could see lines of e-ticket machines. They told me I had to go to Continental’s office to get my ticket. After wandering around and being directed in various directions, I finally found Continental’s office in the 2nd building I tried. However, it was closed and locked. I asked the people in another airline office across the hallway what I should do, and one guy came out to lead me to the right place. I skeptically followed him, but was magically taken to a second Continental office in a third building where they printed me a random garbled piece of computer code that would apparently serve as my entry. I was pretty frustrated at this point.
Then as I was being taken back to the guarded entry gates, the guy from the airline, a genuine airport/airline employee mind you, had the nerve to ask me for a tip!! I was livid. I would never dream of asking someone I had helped in the United States for a tip. In fact, on my way home from the airport as I arrived in India I helped an elderly Asian couple that was lost on the T. Did I ask them for a tip? Did I even think about asking them for a tip? Obviously not. This was like the last straw in India. I am not your freaking fairy godmother, here to pass out money and gifts, which is apparently what lots of Indians think I am. What the hell.
Finally I got inside of the airport and actually checked into the flight. I think by this time I was one of the last ones. Security and emigration were also ridiculously inefficient and slow. I guess I should have predicted as much. First I went through security, which involved removing my electronics and putting my items on the conveyor belt for x-ray, then walking through a metal detector, and then having Indian army personnel wave a handheld metal detector over me and pat me down whenever it beeped. They do this double-metal-check for everyone. By the time I got to the other side to retrieve my items, my electronics had been dumped out of their box and my phone and camera were just hanging out unattended. Great. Then, after I went through the gate to board the plane, where I expected to see the jetway leading onto the airplane, instead I saw another line where once again we had to take out all our electronics, run our items through another conveyor belt, and undergo another pat-down before actually getting onto the plane. This seemed a bit over the top. As my Udaipur friends suggested, in India they have so many people that they just make up stupid jobs that don’t actually need to be jobs, like guarding an ATM, just to occupy more people. Although overall my trip was awesome, I was glad to be leaving India. I just don’t have the patience for such inefficiency.
I step off the train into Jaipur: this city freaking sucks. It’s a disgrace to Rajasthan. If I had come here from Delhi, I might have been more impressed, but after my relaxed, pleasant sojourn to the further reaches of Rajasthan, coming here was less than fabulous. The biggest problem is the aggressive rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers chasing you everywhere. “Excuse me, madam, madam, you need auto? Where are you going? Madam, madaaaam, hotel, city palace, any place, I take.” (I shake my head ‘no’ and keep walking, as if I have not heard nor seen these idiots.) “Madam, rickshaw? Yes? YES?” (Now if the answer were yes, don’t you think I would have gotten in the rickshaw by now, or at least acknowledged the drivers??) I can’t tell if this is worse or better since I’m traveling in tourist off-season. On the one hand, I’m the only obviously western foreign tourist, and thus potentially the only chance of the day or week for these people to make their week’s salary all at once by ripping me off. On the other hand, it is off season. I think there are so many people in India trying to take advantage of foreign tourists that even if there were thousands of us all at once, they would still outnumber us so much that every single tourist would receive equally obnoxious hassling.
Fortunately, a few people had already told me that Jaipur was skippable, so I only planned to spend the afternoon here. Upon arrival, I stood in line for over an hour (mind you there were only about 8 people in front of me when I got in the line) while those people in front of me bought tickets for every trip that they or their entire extended family and friend network planned to take in the next 3 months. Due to an unknown reason that can only be explained as another inefficiency of India, each trip purchase took about 5 minutes to process. When it was my turn, I found out that today’s train was full. I walked 1km to the bus station while the rickshaws harassed me and purchased my ticket for 5pm to Agra. I checked my bag at the station and headed toward the Old City for some sightseeing. I finally got there at 2:30 pm. Now granted the last part of the delay (maybe 20-30 min of the 2.5 hrs that had passed) was due to my own stubbornness, as I tried to negotiate with a few rickshaws but just refused to pay 5x the fair price to go what I knew to be a completely walkable 3km further down the very same street I was walking on in a rickshaw that tried to tell me it was “very far,” but the other 2hrs were just spent dealing with Indian travel purchasing.
One problem in the old city is that one of its main “attractions” is its five bazaars, so basically everywhere you go is lined with aggressive shopkeepers. The rickshaws were also up to something here, as every single one wanted to show me a crumpled postcard of the elephant palace, where supposedly it was all free and all better than the city palace, and offer me a really great deal just to drive me there and back. The Jantar Mantar, a collection of enormous ancient sundials and astrological tools to map the stars, was actually really cool and very enjoyable. The Hawa Majal (Wind Palace) looked at least well-preserved from the outside, but as shopowners kept hassling me to come into their shops and telling me there was nothing good to see in the Wind Palace, and I was running short on time, I took their word for it and made the City Palace my last stop. Now the City Palace entry fee was about as high as they get for Indian tourist sites, aside from the Taj Mahal, but once inside I found that this apparently didn’t cover the part of the palace where the Maharajas had lived, which had been the richly-decorated and coolest part of all the other Rajasthani city palaces. It just covered the palace grounds and a tiny museum. The other part, my audio guide enticed me, was a separate(ly paid) tour. Furthermore they actually let shops and even beggars inside of here to harass you! I saw what was cool of this “pink palace” then paid an exorbitant price for a rickshaw back to the bus station, relieved to be getting the heck out of Jaipur ASAP.
As the bus was driving out of town, we passed a much wider, quieter traffic circle where I saw a well-maintained, beautiful and ornate building with a huge, peaceful grassy sculpture park: The Science and Technology Center. Figures.
*Editor’s note: To be fair, I’m sure my image of Jaipur was negatively influenced by the fact that I have now been on the road for 36hrs straight without a private or clean place to change clothes, it is the typical 110 degrees here, and I have never been filthier. I can’t wait for a cold shower and AC in Agra.
I was wrong, fortunately. The “Golden City” made of golden-yellow sandstone is relatively small and quite but still lovely. Here, too, the old houses have an ornate style of intricate stone carving and metalwork. I tour a few havelis (I think this basically means mansion), with wide and ornate facades carved into tiny balconies and windows, with richly painted, mirrored, and otherwise decorated rooms. One was apparently constructed by two brothers, each responsible for one half. At first glance it appears perfectly symmetrical, but when I look more closely I see small differences in design between the left and ride sides of the façade. I went to the Maharaja’s Palace (which, typical of Rajasthan, is half a 5-star heritage hotel where you can actually stay), and into the City Palace within the golden walls of the old fort. There was also an audio guide here, but the fort is smaller than that of Jodhpur and Udaipur, and many of its rooms have not yet been restored. Between this and the palace, I conclude that the Maharaja of Jodhpur must be richer than the Maharaja of Jaisalmer.
Finally, to top off my Jaisalmer experience, I headed out into the Thar desert for a sunset camel ride. The rickshaw driver who took me really outdid himself, singing me Rajasthani songs, and he even let me drive the rickshaw. It’s like driving a motorcycle, except a little car shell is built around you. The camel was fun (although very bumpy, and if you ever get talked into a 3-day camel safari, I would recommend pants of the softest silk to avoid butt-chafage) and I sat and watched the sun set and moon rise over the sand dunes while a musician wearing a turban played folk music on a flute-like local instrument. Pretty sweet.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
He also tried to reconfirm what time I had left Udaipur, and whether in fact I had arrived an hour late. I found this surprising, as after only being in India for 5 days, I knew I would be an hour late, yet this Indian guy seemed confused by the process. I thought he would have had some friend in the bus company or at the bus station to call and give him an update. Actually, now that I think about it, every time I traveled, all the Indian people's cell phones would start ringing about 10 minutes after the scheduled arrival, I assume asking where they were. Slow learners I guess.
My budget hotel was also really cool, and decorated with the same themes as Jodhpur and its Fort/City Palace. It had a rooftop restaurant shaded with patchwork quilts (a local specialty, not your typical patchwork), with cushions on the floor around low tables and a chair-swing overlooking the blue city and the fort; I met some other travelers when I went up for a late-night snack.
I woke up early the next day and found my way to the Meherangarh fort entrance, just a few blocks from the hotel. As suggested by the guidebook and several people, I took advantage of the (included) audio tour, which was packed with information delivered in a great Indian-British accent that I could actually understand (unlike the majority of the tour guides I had met who claim to be English-speaking). Even from the entrance gate I had climbed high enough to get a stunning view of the “blue city.” The majority of the houses that spread out below me were painted in shades of periwinkle-blue. Apparently the history is that the old city is where the priests lived, and the custom was to coat the walls of a priest’s house with indigo.
The fort itself is absolutely unreal. It’s massive, and has a series of linked and incredibly impressive courtyards. All of the stone on the buildings is hand-carved into complicated and delicate patterns. Some of the rooms are luxuriously opulent, with the floors, walls, and ceilings all decorated with brightly colored tiles. Even the random rooms where they’re just displaying interesting museum objects have high, arched ceilings with carved pillars. The guards wear traditional white outfits with turbans, and they’re friendly and helpful. Everything is clean and well-kept. As I reached the end and passed through a gift shop selling “meherangarh Fort”-emblazoned purses and fancy scarves and teas, it hit me: what made this place so pleasant to visit is that the current local Maharaja (whose idea it was to preserve and share his history and culture through the fort) actually understood how to do this correctly, and he set the place up like a nice Western museum.
The city of Jodhpur itself is charming. There is one main street actually wide enough for one car to pass, and lined with shops. The rest of the streets take off from here with no rhyme or reason into steep alleyways narrow enough for me to touch both sides if I reach out. These frequently lead to dead ends, and some become so steep the street turns into a staircase. Random gates open into secret courtyards. The colors and architecture of every house are unique and beautiful. Regular homes have intricately-carved facades in the style of the Maharaja’s fort-palace, and they’re painted various shades of blue, complemented by contrasting greens and reds.
As I wander around exploring the city, I am literally overwhelmed by the number of children who run up to say “hello.” So many people are offering smiles and genuine hellos with no hidden motives, it is exhausting and near impossible to smile back at all of them. No shop owners chase me thrusting their goods or demand that I enter their shops. It’s so refreshing.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
During this ride, we experienced another one of the wind-dust-with-a-touch-of-rain storms. We had to close the windows to protect ourselves from the dust. I did this hesitantly, trying to decide whether it was worse to get dust blown into my face, lungs, and eyes, or to die of heatstroke within the closed bus. The 1955 bus we were taking apparently predated windshield wipers, so I watched as our windshield became covered with dust and then flecked with water drops until it was nearly impossible to see anything. This seemed concerning until the bus driver took a bottle of water and reached around through his window to splash it onto the windshield. Perhaps this is what they did before windshield wipers.I was the only non-Indian on every bus I took through Rajasthan. Whenever we would stop to on or offload people (this was very very frequently), people would try to sell water and food through the windows. They were convinced that I wanted these goods 10x more than any Indian person ever would, and therefore inevitably stopped outside my window, banging on it and yelling and trying to thrust their goods inside.
I'll also mention on bus travel that apparently every bus through Rajasthan is 4.5 hrs. This is a lie. There is no 4.5 hr bus to anywhere in India because obviously this would be way too short a time to spend on these magnificently luxurious 1955 buses. My "4.5 hr" bus from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer was 7. Usually 4.5 means 6. I don't know why they try to pretend that this will be a 4.5 hr busride. Why not just make the inevitably later arrival time official?
The style of dress is much different in Rajasthan. Instead of the traditional sari, women wear long skirts with matching long shirts, often in floral patterns, with a huge piece of translucent chiffon-like fabric that they drape around their back and up over their hair, sometimes even pulling it down over their faces like a veil. Apparently this is a tradition in Rajasthan that the women would always stay behind special blinds where they could look out but others could not look in, so they would never be seen. Both men and women put red coloring between their eyebrows. Gold jewelry and piercings are very big--all the men and young boys wear flower-shaped gold stud earrings, and the women and young girls have their noses pierced, sometimes with quarter-sized or larger gold hoops in the nose. The women wear bangles from their wrists up to their shoulders, and very ornate gold earrings that drape over the entire ear. They also have gold headbands in their hair (hidden by the veils). They smudge dark makeup around the eyes of children and babies, both boys and girls. The men wear loose white pants and long white shirts with cloth turbans wrapped around their heads of various shapes and colors, and pointy-toed leather slippers.
Taking the bus by day it was fun to watch all these people get on and off the bus, going about their lives in the towns we were passing. Part of the road also passed through a nature reserve, where mostly I saw a ton of monkeys (the 3rd different type of monkey I have seen in India thus far). The bus driver had brought cookies for the monkeys, and when we saw them he would slow down and the conductor would throw the cookies out the windows for the monkeys.