Friday, May 29, 2009

Random summary thoughts on India

Food—I pretty much didn’t have a bad meal in India. The thing that makes this even more amazing as that I went about just ordering random things from menus with no idea what they would be, and they were all flavorful and delicious. It’s also amazing because it comes out super fast, even at places where they have 100 items on the menu, and none of it looks like it was simple to make.
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.

Agra and Departure from Delhi/India

My hotel is actually about 20 yards from the entrance to the Taj Mahal, so I woke up early and got to see it when it was relatively uncrowded. There are definitely more western tourists here than anywhere else I’ve been. It looked just like the pictures everyone’s seen, but there are also red standstone mosques built on the grounds, which glowed in the rising morning sun. The whole thing is done in perfect symmetry—the Taj itself, the matching mosques on each side, and the entire grounds. I guess I had always heard about the Taj Mahal and seen pictures, but I realized that I actually had no idea what it was. I always thought the Taj itself was a mosque, but actually it’s a tomb for the emperor’s favorite wife. Inside feels much smaller than you would expect having seen its massive presence from the outside. Apparently the emperor Akbar was going to build a “black Taj” across the river for his own burial, but then his grandson organized a coup and locked him under house arrest in the fort, so there is only a foundation for the other Taj across the river, and Akbar is actually buried next to his wife in the Taj Mahal.

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.


Apparently “sleeper” is the best class available on the local (and only) train from Jaisalmer to Jaipur. There’s no AC, so the windows open to let in a breeze. Now, traveling through the desert (or India at all really) as this local train does, it lets a lot of dirt in with the breeze. The whole train car, and every “bed,” is coated with it. Seeing all this dirt you might think that a ton of breeze comes in, but believe me it’s not nearly sufficient. I’m sweating like mad, basically turning the dirt I’m laying on into a little pile of mud beneath me. Whoever said the desert gets cold at night was dead wrong. The Indian dress is completely insensible for this. I’m dying inside my loose linen pants and long for shorts so at least the breeze can touch my legs. Whenever the train stops, which is frequently, the air becomes heavy and still. I noticed as I passed in and out of sleep that it stopped for an hour and a half in Bikaner, which seemed really unnecessary. Later I saw a map of Rajasthan, which revealed that Bikaner is also way out of the way from Jaipur. When I get to Jaipur 13 hours later, at noon, the dirt is all over me and my luggage. I’m so dirty, my arms look tan…now that’s bad.

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.


As many locals have reminded me as they ask why the heck I would go there at this time of year, Rajasthan is “the desert,” and it has been a rather barren landscape with mostly red-brown mountains and few, scrubby trees. As the (non-AC) bus heads west from Jodhpur, however, I find that we’re now really in the straight up desert—the land turns to sand, greenery aside from cactus disappears, and the homes become thatch huts. The further we go, I see no houses or people, just an occasional goat or camel hiding from the sun under a tiny excuse for a tree. As usual, much longer than the “4 and a half hours” I was quoted passes, and I really begin to doubt we’ll ever find Jaisalmer.

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 fa├žade. 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

Jodhpur (My favorite city)

When I arrived in Jodhpur, an hour late as usual, my hotel was supposed to have sent someone to pick me up at the bus station (kindly arranged by my friends in Udaipur). A man came up and greeted me by name, and I followed him to...his motorcycle. Hmm. I hesitatingly hopped on with my luggage and held on for dear life as we weaved in and out of traffic on narrow, steep streets (see post 1 about Indian roads). Always a new adventure in India.

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

Rajasthan Countryside and People, via Bus

Leaving Udaipur the next afternoon I took a 5hr Rajasthan State bus to Jodhpur. Painfully no AC buses run between the two. Apparently no AC routes exist in Rajasthan to anywhere, despite this being infamously one of the hottest states in India. With no AC, if I left my bag on my lap for security, my lap was too hot. If my arms were too bent, the skin inside my elbows started sweating. If I held a water bottle, my palm was sweating. Pretty much you try not to touch anything. The goal is to make no part of your body touch any other object or any other part of your body in order to maximize the body surface area exposed to the airflow. You want the smallest amount of your body possible to touch the seat, so you're poised on the very edge, but you want your arms and legs not touching your body or the seat either. The balancing act here is a bit tricky. I was sitting in the first seat behind the driver, with an Indian woman, her suitcase, and her 2 children all sharing the window seat next to me, and part of the time with a fat Indian woman standing in the aisle and leaning on me.

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.

Monday, May 25, 2009


After an afternoon stopover in Dehli, I took a 12hr overnight train to Udaipur in southern Rajasthan. I splurged on the 2nd class AC car, and it was fantastically comfortable (well for a train). On the train I met Aditya, who offered to set me up with a hotel with someone he knew in town. While I was skeptical, I had no better ideas, so I decided to accept while keeping my eye out for anything slightly suspicious in the deal. As it turned out, I got a sweet hotel for budget price, and his friend took me around to all of the tourist sites. They introduced me to all their friends and invited me to dinner and lunch with the group, which was a lovely experience getting to know young Indian people.

Udaipur is the "Venice of India" or something like that-it has 2 large lakes with gardens, palaces, and a hotel "floating" as islands in the lakes. Unfortunately, being that this is Rajasthan (the desert), and it is late-summer pre-rain, the lake was half dry and the palace wasn't really floating anymore. From "sunset point" in a park I watched the sun set across the lake on beautiful red desert mountains, and can only imagine how stunning it would have been had the lake been full. There is also a fantastic City Palace which is a combination of an old fort and an old palace, where the Maharaja of Mewar (Udaipur's region of Rajasthan) still lives today. We got to tour the non-living part, which was fantastically lavish in some spots, with brightly painted walls, mirrors, and tiles. I also went up to a hillside palace overlooking the city, "Monsoon Palace," where the views were fantastic but I was surprised and disappointed to find that the palace was completely run down. India seems to let a lot of its national treasures fall into disrepair, sadly.

In the early morning I woke up on the bus to Dharamshala. We were driving on switchback roads through the mountains, passing through rural areas and tiny towns. It was interesting to watch women going to the well to fetch water, which they carried on their heads back to their homes. By 9am I found myself checked into a hotel in McLeod Ganj, where the balcony from room had a great view of the mountains, and set out to explore the town. We actually weren't nearly as high in the mountains as I expected. The area was forested, and it was still much hotter than I was hoping for, although at least 20 degrees cooler than Delhi, which was still a relief.

McLeod Ganj is a small but bustling Himalayan mountain town, and the current seat of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government, and it had a really strong Tibetan influence. I was surprised to find myself in a town so different from Delhi. I almost felt as though I wasn't in India at all. The shops sold Tibetan goods like thick wool blankets and scarves, the restaurants made Momo, Thenthuk, and traditional Tibetan and Chinese food, and the majority of the residents were clearly of Tibetan rather than Indian heritage. There were also way more western tourists here. I decided to spend the first day exploring the town, and the second hiking. I found a buddhist monastery, which I thought was the Dalai Lama's residence. In the temple I talked for quite a while with a monk there, learning more about how the monastic system works. In the Dalai Lama's complex (it seems he comes out to greet guests on Tues and Sun, so I had just missed seeing him) there was a nice museum about the history of Tibet and the Chinese invasion and occupation. I also caught a photo gallery that's only open 3 days/wk about Tibet's struggle. In the afternoon I decided to do a little hiking toward Dal Lake, apparently a lovely lake in the mountains that was sacred to Buddhism. I was expecting a clear blue lake with snow-capped Himalayan peaks beyond. I set off up the road toward the lake. Although it was only a 4K walk, I was pretty much the only one walking, and cars and motorcycles passing me seemed convinced that I wanted a ride (remember, Indians don't exercise.) When I arrived at the lake, I was disappointed to find a small, muddy pond. Near the pond was a collection of 1950's era carnival rides, including an ancient rusty ferris wheel about 8ft tall that the operator was pushing with his hand, and some of those plastic ponies that kids can sit on that "ride" you put the quarter in, although I think these pre-dated the electric quarter era. It was pretty hilarious.

Day 2-Hiking:
Supposedly there was another town with cold baths and a waterfall 3K up the hill. This was actually super-close, and not a difficult hike at all, so by 10AM I had seen the town and the waterfall, which was pretty small since they haven't had the monsoon rains yet, so I decided to try to keep going toward Triund. Supposedly this was only 7K more, but I wasn't sure how it would be since I had seen adventure travel companies selling 1 and even 2-day "treks to Triund," which made it sound pretty serious, although in theory also worth seeing. I had another night bus to catch at 7:30pm, but decided to walk toward Triund and see how far I got. I figured if it got to be 2-3pm, I would turn around and head back. The first third of the hike was just through the forest, and not very steep at all. Around halfway, I came out above the thicker part of the forest, and the views became outstanding as I walked along really deep valleys. I saw some rain clouds and then heard a bunch of thunder. This looked ominous. I found a large herd of mountain goats with their shepherd which were lazing about and didn't seem concerned, so I felt better. Ahead in the hills I could hear chanting and singing, and I saw a hundred or more people walking together on the trail up ahead. A religious journey, perhaps? I got to a chai shop covered by a blue tarp, where I found the group. Turns out it was about 150 Indian middle school children. They were very curious "which country do I belong?" (USA is the best answer here. America is also okay. For some reason United States has very little recognition in India.) Just as I got to this tarp, it started to pour rain. The goats were wrong. I sat down with a fresh water to wait out what I figured was a brief mountain storm. The guide for the middle schoolers ushered them onward: "Chaleh, chalo"--let's go. They seemed hesitant. Can't say I blame them. About 5 minutes later, the rain slowed down and I started up the mountain again. I made it to Triund, where as I came over the final hill of the hike I found myself on a flat grassy area with a stunning view of the snow-capped Himalayas. Triund was worth seeing, to say the least. It was just 1pm, I had made great time. I figured I'd get some lunch, hang out for 30 min or so, then head back to town to catch my bus. There wasn't actually a town up here, just 3 chai shops under tarps and a bunch of tents set up by various campers and hikers. As I'm eating my lunch, it starts pouring rain again. While waiting it out, I meet a Californian and an Indian doctor, who oddly met while she was his patient in the hospital in Dharamshala (where she was found to have about 3 different bacteria and parasites, and one of which would cause diarrheal illness, in her stool). The rain doesn't let up this time, and it starts to get really cold. For some reason I didn't think to bring the rain jacket I had packed and have been carrying all through India with me on the hike. The wind is really strong, and we watch as the tents start blowing threateningly. Their occupants get up and run for cover at a chai shop. Every few minutes another small group of hikers comes up over the trail, soaking wet, and happily runs into our chai shop. (This is a blue tarp over some sticks in the ground.) I drink chai, mostly for the warmth, and nervously check my watch. A group also has a bus, and they start down the mountain at 3. I decide to hope the storm goes away soon, and keep under the tarp. It actually looks like a death sentence to try to hike down in this weather. It's 4pm, and still storming. Shit. I am never going to make the bus. I also have no warm clothes or camping gear to stay up here with. I might spend the whole night huddled with 20 other people under this chai tarp. Finally, close to 5, the skies clear and we see a huge double rainbow stretching across the Himalayan peaks. It's probably the most beautiful rainbow I've ever seen. I enjoy it for a few minutes, then head down. It was 3hrs up, so I'm hoping for 1-2 down. I'm going as fast as I possibly can, practically jogging, although I figure if I break my ankle, I definitely won't make the bus. This is killer on my knees. I actually made it back into McLeod Ganj at 6:45pm, miraculously with time to pick up my luggage at my hotel, and even get dinner before I catch the bus. As I settle down on my bus, I realize that this had actually been my birthday. What a beautiful way to spend it.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Day 1:

First I needed to get some cash, so I set off to Kahn Market (one of the fancier outdoor shopping malls) to find an ATM. #1-seemed to be working, I inserted my card, followed all the steps, then nothing happened. I enter the bank to enquire. Just a moment they say, we are fixing it. OK. After waiting 10 minutes while people look at me funny, I notice that an out-of-order sign has appeared on the door to the ATM and decide it will not be working soon. ATM #2-the guard at the door (with a rifle over his shoulder) tells me it's broken. Finally, I get some cash at ATM#3. By this point I'm hungry, so I find a restaurant and point to something I've never heard of before on the menu and wait for the surprise. Finally around 1pm I set off for some sightseeing. Apparently lots of sights are closed on Mondays, but I had a list of the open ones. I went to Humayan's Tomb (ps pictures will have to be added in later). My rickshaw driver seemed to have no idea where this was, but after turning in circles and asking multiple people we found the telling collection of waiting taxis, rickshaws, and tourist vans. Some guy decided to tell me the history of the place. Then he asked for money. I offered 10 rupees. He told me this was such an offensive sum that I might as well keep it. I thought--great, I will. As I wander around this place, I think I am going to die of heatstroke. Like, any second. Exploring the tombs becomes an exercise in walking as quickly as possible between the shaded areas. As I exit I get a cold water at the first touristy stand possible. How much is it? I would pay millions. 50 cents. A bargain for this refreshing liquid gold. As i'm leaving this place a rickshaw driver convinced me to hire him for the afternoon to go to all the tourist hotspots, so I saw Qutab Miner first. Here I starred in my first of what has come to be countless Indian family photos. It seems that all the Indian tourists want to take pictures of me with their families. If they don't have cameras, they also want me to touch their children's hands, as if I'm blessing them or something. It's a bit weird, but seems harmless enough. Next I saw the Bahai temple, which is a modern architectural feat that looks somewhat like the Sydney Opera House, but shaped like a lotus flower. Unfortunately, I had to remove my shoes to show my respect for the temple. There were pools of water below it, and I decided to walk over, leaving the straw mats that were laid across the paths. This was a bad move. The ground was freaking hotttt. I think I actually got 1st degree burns on the soles of my feet before I reached the water (5 feet away). Finally I saw the old English parade area with India gate, the Parliament buildings, and the President's Palace, before meeting up with Christina and Hunt. Some guy kept appearing trying talk to me all over this 2mile long area. Fortunately my rickshaw driver told him to go away and ushered me back into the auto. As he dropped me off to meet Christina, my rickshaw driver tried to tell me that we went to extra places so now the price we negotiated had increased. Mostly these "extra places" were government shops he kept trying to take me to where he would get a kickback if I purchased something, although had no interest in purchasing anything. At dusk, Christina and I walked through the nearby Lodhi gardens. Lots of locals were also strolling about, and a few were engaged in light "exercise." A woman in a sari was bent over this half-circle thing doing I'm not sure what. Stretching? This brings us to another observation--the Indians aren't much into exercise. All in all it was an excellent first day in India.

Day 2:
First I went to morning spinning class with Christina and Hunt at a tiny gym in the neighborhood, which was great fun. It was actually a pretty American-style class, with mostly American rap music being played. However, the funny part was watching the other Indians exercise. The instructor was great, and there was 1 other relatively fit Indian guy, but at the front there were 3 slightly overweight Indian women wearing long pants and long sleeves (what else to exercise in this boiling-hot room?).
Next I set off for Old Delhi to see the major tourist highlights that had been closed on Monday. I started with the Red Fort, then checked out Chondi Chowk, the bazaar in Old Delhi. In these narrow alleyways I was groped for the first time, but just a light little pat on my butt. Fortunately by now I am well-practiced in how to pretend that Indian men, people selling things, and beggars, do not exist, so I continued walking in my own little bubble, apparently oblivious to what had occured. The bazaar was interesting-they were selling everything imaginable: watches, electronics, tires, and bikes. Every stand had a specialty. The most intersting though were the clothing stands, which appeared to be selling goods from the Salvation Army in the US. One booth had 100s of different used men's white dress shirts. Next I decided to find my way down to the bus station nearby to get a ticket for the bus I wanted to take that night. By now it was boiling hot, so I broke down and got into a bike rickshaw. The bus station turned out to be about a quarter-half a mile up the road, as I figured, but watching this poor rickshaw driver pedal me up the hill in the heat, I felt super bad and decided to give him 50 rupees ($1) instead of the 10 he said he'd do it for. He was so happy he pulled his rickshaw over a median, put me back into it again, and rode me the last 100 yards inside the station. Now, I didn't have enough cash for the bus ticket, so after confirming that the bus I wanted was available, I had to go find an ATM. Unfortunately, the ticket window was also closing for lunch in 15min, so I figured I'd go find the ATM and get some lunch of my own in the meantime. When I returned 40 min later, instead of walking straight up to the window as I had earlier, I found a lengthy line had formed. The goal of the people joining this line then became to cut in front of the white girl, who clearly either has no concept of how a line works or can tell no difference between one Indian guy and another in front of her. At the window, the guy offered me the 5pm bus. I asked about the 7:30 one, which I had read arrived at the same time as the 5pm one but had AC. Oh, this one is an extra 150 rupees, he told me, as though this was a ridiculous frivolity. Umm, in this boiling heat, you're telling me it's an extra $3 to travel in AC and get there 2 hrs faster? Yah, I think I'll take it. Finally, ticket in hand, I set off for Rama Masjid, a huge mosque in the area. Here they really had the tourist scam running. They covered me up in a huge robe to make me mosque-appropriate, and charged 100 for the dress. After again burning my feet on the concrete, I decided to climb the tower for another 100. At the tower I received an unofficial guide, although I don't think I had a choice on whether to accept him, for another 100. Unfortunately manipulating the 2 long skirts I was now wearing made it nearly impossible to climb the old spiral staircase, but I made it to the top and got a breathtaking view of Delhi which made it all worthwhile. However, by the time I came down from here, I was hot and exhausted of dealing with all the tourist hassle in Old Delhi. I decided all i wanted to do was go back to Christina's for a cold shower and a nice nap in the A/C before my bus. Unfortunately, when I finally arrived, I was disappointed to find that the power was out. Welcome to India.

At 6pm I headed out to get a rickshaw to go to the bus station to catch my overnight bus to Dharamshala. Apparently some weird storm had materialized. There were a few drops of rain, but mostly there was just wind, causing dust to swirl everywhere. Dust was now in pretty much every orifice of my body. So much for my nice clean shower.

Initial Impressions

I have a ton to say about my trip to India thus far, and have decided to try blogging a little, although I have much less internet time than I have things to say. Today is day 5, and I'm in Udaipur, but I will start the blog from day 1 and hopefully eventually catch up to the present.

The Delhi Airport was much calmer than expected. However, being very concerned about the Swine Flu, they had set up a station of persons in white coats, presumably doctors, to screen the passengers coming from the U.S. This basically involved them wearing masks and taking our special declaration form stating that we had no contact with Swine Flu cases. They did not wear gloves or wash their hands, however, and I think I was the only person who took advantage of the instant Purell at the station. Next I found that both of the ATMs in the airport were out of order (this seems to happen very frequently in India). Fortunately the prepaid cabs took credit cards, so I got my cab set up and went out to see Delhi.

Delhi Roads: The roads are very modern, well-paved with signals, medians, overpasses, lanes painted, just like a 6-8 lane highway in the US. However, imagine your local interstate as one big crowd of constantly moving large buses, cars, motorcycles with women wearing saris seated side-saddle behind their husbands and sometimes holding their babies, ox and horse-drawn carts, and pedestrians all negotiating for their space and going whichever way. These are Indian roads. Also alongside the roads you see women working in construction, wearing saris. It seems they wear these for everything, housework, hard labor, shopping. The saris it.

Next I had to get a rickshaw from Defence Colony, where Christina's key was, to Christina's apartment in GK1. This was a 10min ride, tops. Now, when we arrived, I knew I was being overcharged, but honestly I was tired and didn't care. I figured it was supposed to be 150 rupees and when I gave the guy 500 he only gave me 50 change. However, it turns out this was supposed to be a 20 rupee ride. Now I've learned my lesson--always negotiate the price before getting in.

One other thing to appreciate about India at this point. My plane landed at 8:15pm, and it was probably 9:30 by the time I got to Christina's. I was drenched in sweat. Drenched. This was a bad sign for noontime tomorrow.