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Monday, November 14, 2016

Taj Mahal


Last day in India, and we saved the best for last! Unfortunately the weather didn't fully cooperate - morning smog necessitated use of these lovely masks.





The Taj Mahal mausoleum itself is actually part of a complex with a number of impressive buildings including this mosque. 



Many folks say the Taj Mahal is a tribute to love, but Bhivou says it is also a lesson that too much of anything will kill you. Too much alcohol, too much tobacco or in this case,  too much sex since the wife died giving birth to kid #14 in 17 years. 😜  Regardless, it is a spectacular building and certainly worthy of all its fame.  The marble inlay work is gorgeous. While we didn't get the celebrity solo tour that Kate and Will got, here's the Cmas card photo! 





After the Taj, we went to the fort at Agra where the Moghul emperors, including the one who built the Taj lived. In the case of the Taj builder, it was also his prison when his son overthrew him and he got to gaze out the window at the Taj. The sandstone fort and palaces inside were quite impressive. 



There were an incredible number of tourists from India as well as other countries, many of whom asked to take photos with us. I'm sure I will feature in this family's holiday card. 



I continue to enjoy taking pics of the women in their colorful saris\sarees.






The afternoon was spent on the bus back to Delhi.  Incredibly, I managed to sit on the side where the sun was AGAIN despite having thought I'd finally figured the Southern Hemisphere sun pattern out. Nope. Astronomy is clearly not my gift! We had late lunch on the road - Bhivou provided bananas and Lays potato chips for everyone. Good thing I had my slim jims!  Mid-way we stopped at a public roadside restroom and had an unfortunate bathroom experience. We were politely queued up behind some Indian women waiting for the toilets. Then another group of Indians came up behind us, pushed through on the right and jumped in front of our ladies who were stunned silent. So then a couple of us had to perform another bootie block to keep the line single file and keep it from happening again.  It is an annoying cultural difference. Indians push through that way in other lines as well, at the monuments for example and certainly at the bank, which is really frustrating. It reminds me of China, and I guess in a country of more than 1 billion people, you have to push to get anywhere. But it is hard to reconcile this behavior with the individuals who are just so lovely, polite and peaceful in individual interactions.

The other interesting cultural experience was driving by two cremations happening along the riverside. Bhivou said one of them was likely a child based on the size of the bonfire. Bodies are supposed to be cremated on the same day as a death. 

We got back to Delhi around 6, dropped some folks off at the airport and then went to a nearby hotel for a farewell dinner. Unfortunately we only ate two non-hotel dinners this trip, and that made a big difference in the enjoyment of the Indian food since it was typical hotel food - not great but not awful. The good news is with buffets you get to sample lots of items, so I expanded my palate of items I know I like a little bit beyond chicken tikka! 

After dinner, we hung out in the hotel bar for a while before coming to the airport for our flights. Unfortunately mine isn't until 3:20am and it is only a little after midnight now. So waiting up this long is a killer. 

For the final wrap-up, I'll say that I'm really glad to have come to India. I think it is a fascinating culture - roughly 1/7 of the worlds population lives here, and the civilization has been around for thousands of  years. There is a depth of culture that we just don't have in the USA. At the same time, while India is a emerging global power, this is definitely a third world country which makes life here difficult. The poverty level is deep and omnipresent.  The infrastructure around sanitation is horrendous - there are piles of garbage thrown everywhere, and men regularly urinate publicly such that a walk down any city street smells like Bourbon St on Sunday morning. Women's public toilets aren't much better.  In both the Hindu and Islamic communities, women are second class citizens. There are even gender-segregated X-ray machines at the airport. There is no way I could live here, but I'm still glad to have seen it and happy to be on my way home. 

Oh,  here's how the henna tattoo turned out along with those from some who had a technician with a little lighter touch.  Wonder how long it will last... 




LA



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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Jaipur to Agra

After leaving the hotel in Jaipur this morning, we made a quick stop by the Sulman orphanage. The woman who started it 17 years ago was a fashion designer in Delhi who came home and saw a nearly naked child digging in the garbage for food. "For whom am I going to design fashion when people don't have clothes? I will design lives," she told us. So she started selling paintings to raise money to feed and house children, and it has grown to a program where her family including her 3 biological children live in the orphanage of 105 boys and girls.  "I am the happiest mama in the world with all my children."  They were some cute kiddos.








Interestingly there is not a culture of foreign adoption here, so these children will stay until they are adults. It was especially touching to see them in a safe place when you could see children in the slum across the road who weren't so lucky.




We spent most of the day in the bus riding to Jaipur. Another random fact I need to figure out is why the sun does not move across the horizon here. I sat on the eastern side of the bus, and we were in the sun all day long.  I swear it never moved up in the sky!

In every town we passed through, we saw lines of people, sometimes hundreds of them, at banks (which were open even though it is Sunday). The currency issues in India are getting worse. Indians are spending 5-7 hours in line at banks every day to get money exchanged.  ATMs get refilled and are out of money in an hour, particularly since they aren't set up to hold lots of singles which is all that the central bank is distributing right now.  We heard stories of children who died when the doctor in one case and ambulance driver in the other refused to accept the old currency for treatment (the doctor was subsequently beaten by a mob).  This is a cash-based economy (almost 85% of transactions done that way), so most of the lower class folks don't have credit cards to use. Thankfully our cards work and some of us brought cash. I will say that while conventional travel wisdom has become "don't bring cash or travelers checks, just use the ATMs", I'll never go abroad without a couple hundred dollars of Uncle Sam's cash again.  Travelers checks would be worthless here since you can't even get into a bank to cash them.

The woman at the orphanage said the positive of the financial situation is eliminating the black market will help curtail child trafficking.

We stopped along the way to Agra at a roadside cafe for lunch, and I had a grilled cheese sandwich. I also love how Lay's offers up locally flavored chips!




On the way into Agra, we stopped at a city and palace one of the Mughal emperors (grandfather of the guy who built the Taj Mahal) built over 10 years, lived in for 10 years and subsequently abandoned. The interesting thing about this guy is he had 3 wives - one Hindu, one Muslim, and one Christian, and he didn't try to convert them to Islam. Rather he took the best of all 3 traditions and tried to apply them to life in his kingdom. Pretty forward thinking stuff.  These palaces are all starting to look alike, but some of the hand carved sandstone in this one was pretty cool.





Bhivou chose today to wear local dress. Check out the toes on the shoes.



We were supposed to go to the Red Fort at Agra but ran out of time. Instead we can back to the hotel and got ready for a nice dinner at a restaurant in town. It was nice to not eat the hotel buffet, and the food was the best we've had this trip. Plus they brought someone in for henna tattoos! The pic below is with the ink still drying on. It will flake off and leave a light brown pattern on the hand for 1-3 weeks.



Tomorrow we'll go to the Taj Mahal and then make our way back to Delhi for dinner and evening flights. Mine isn't until 3am which will be painful. The Agra area air is smoky from the fires plaguing Delhi. Hopefully it doesn't ruin the Taj Mahal Christmas card photo opp!

LA

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Jaipur

As you saw from Facebook, I've reached my saturation point with the Indian food and made a McDonalds run last night with another girl. I've hit the Golden Arches in most places I've visited, usually because that is somewhere you can reliably get a Diet Coke with ice. The ice in India is suspect, so in this case, the trip was more about eating something not served over rice. Here's the menu:


Yesterday morning we toured the old part of Jaipur in then morning, including an observatory built in the 1700s which is notable for how accurate the tools are. The horoscope is big here because it influences things like your chosen wife. You not only have your birth sign like Gemini but also an ascending sign which is what was rising at the exact time you were born and that one changes every two hours. If I'd remembered what time I was born, I would have gotten the guy to do it for kicks (though I guess I could get an Indian friend at home to get that info for me too). Speaking of marriage, we have a Native American girl in our group (Lumbee from Pembroke, NC) and it freaks the local Indians out every time they see her. They can tell she's American by her clothes but she really does look like she blends here. Plus she is fair skinned which is desirable, so Bhivou says she'd get a good marriage contract!

Next stop was City Palace which was the residence of the maharaja of Jaipur. I didn't realize there were lots of difference princely families in all the regions of this area. So interesting to learn about some of that and see their home. The current maharaja is 18 and off in college in Britain.



The architecture at City Palace was similar to the Palace of the Winds which the maharaja built on the main square. It is notable for all these covered windows which is where the royal women who weren't allowed to be seen were able to watch the comings and goings downtown. And the other woman in this pic is my roommate Geraldine.


After the touring, we went to a jewelry shop targeted for tourists and then another rug and textiles shop. I didn't think the quality of the stones looked very good at the jewelry place, but I don't know much about rubies, sapphires or emeralds beyond what Mimi had. Several people bought stuff and we spent more than an hour in that store at which point a couple of girls started plotting our escape. We had all done the elephant ride thing elsewhere in Asia, so at the tapestry store, 4 of us got the guide to put us in a taxi and headed off to do our own shopping.  It was really fun. Maricarmen from Mexico (who randomly used to live/work in Arden, NC for a car manufacturer) bought a GORGEOUS dress at one of the nice sari stores. We also found a great pashmina place where the guy helped us understand the different levels of quality. We also bought some cheap crap from the hawkers, so we covered it all.  We are the first large group of Americans that Bhivou has dealt with, and he hasn't understood the ladies fascination with shopping. Maricarmen said she told him shopping is American culture!  It was nice to be able to walk around and just look at things, like the big bags of spices in the grocery store, etc.

We finished the day with our Mickey D'a run and drinks at the hotel. Today we are on a 6 hour bus ride to Agra, so I am going to go fuel up at the breakfast buffet.

Hugs!
LA
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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Making a run on the bank

Anne told me that there has been some coverage in the world news about what is going on here with the banks and money. It is definitely crazy. This was the crowd outside one of the bank branches in Pushkar this morning at 11am.  



Those folks were much, much calmer than the ones at the branch we went to where there was an incredible amount of pushing and shoving. It didn't take long for us to realize that we had to push back if we didn't want to get shoved further back in the line.  One of my trip mates has a funny picture on her phone of me using my plus sized rear end to hold back a couple of the men trying to shove us out of the way. There are some good things about not being petite, and one of them is that I can hold my ground!  It was never scary, mostly just annoying, though my necklace got broken in the process. We waited outside for an hour, but only 5 people from our group got in the branch to get money because they would only serve one foreigner for every two locals. And that makes sense, because as another group member pointed out, "We need to remember this is just our vacation money, but money to feed their family is people's lives." So Bhivou sent us back to the bus, but before we gave up our positions in line, we moved a couple of the non-rude people up ahead of us.  And now I can say I participated in a run on the bank! 

We had a 4 hour drive from Pushkar to Jaipur. Along the way, Bhivou filled us in on stories of Hindu life including how arranged marriages work (men get to be "king for a day, slave for life"). Unfortunately because we were so late leaving, there was no time for a lunch break. I had my trusty snacks in my bag including granola bars and Slim Jims, something that breaks up the vegetarian monotony quite well!! 

Upon arrival, we went straight to the Amber Fort which was the palace of one of the the maharajah's, I think in the 1600s. 

I thought the style of architecture was interesting, and the colors in the frescoes have held up well to the elements. 







It was interesting to hear Bhivou share about how the arrival of the Mhogul emporers who were Muslim influenced the role of women in Hindi society. I'm not sure how conservative Jaipur is yet. We noticed one bank branch had only women in the queue, and at another there was one line for men and one for women. So we'll see what it is like tomorrow afternoon when we are out shopping!

We are in a really, really nice hotel in Jaipur which has a number of perks. This is the first place we have felt safe using ice, and a cold vodka tonic was particularly refreshing upon arrival. The other plus is having a gym. I've got my clothes laid out to work out in the morning. There was no gym at the camp, and it wasn't safe there to be out walking or running solo (plus it was cold!) I wore my sneakers at the camel fair, and now they smell like camel poo, so I had to wear them today as to not contaminate my suitcase. They will not be making the return trip home.

We ate dinner in the hotel restaurant since they had a buffet, a particularly nice option here where you aren't sure what will be tasty and what too spicy.  In addition to the usual vegetarian options, there was some sort of mystery meat, either goat or mutton, as well as chicken, though the chicken was too spicy for moi.  The paneer cheese dish was good though, so I was fine with that and my trusty naan. 


That's it for today!
LA

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Camel Festival Day 2

Had a really nice second day at the Camel Fair. Uncle Bob had the perfect analogy for the camel festival - it is like Mule Day!  

We headed into town today around 9. Stop #1 was this sacred lake where Hindu folks do some sort of ritual bathing.  As we were walking to the lake, we went down a street with lots of shops selling touristy junk. What is interesting about this stuff is it is targeted for the Indians who come to town to bathe in the lake or attend the camel fair, not just foreigners. Anyway, shopping was not on Bhivou the tour guide's agenda, but he quickly realized he was going to have a mutiny on his hands with his majority women tour and gave us some shopping time. Miss Betty, you will not be surprised to learn I bought a pink and purple sari! 

While a camel-cart ride was scheduled for this afternoon, there were a number of folks who wanted to ride the camels themselves, so we did that this morning.  The hardest part is not falling off when he comes up first on his front legs, then on his back ones.  But definitely worth the $3.50 it cost for a 20 minute ride (and priceless photo opp). 

After the camel cowgirl moment, we were waiting for the guide to come get us, sitting in plastic chairs at a storefront where we paid $1 for a Coke which would normally cost about $0.20. The shop owner wanted to keep his thirsty Americans happy, so he wouldn't let the hawkers selling their purses, jewelry and assorted made-in-China crap across the threshold. So there were about 10 of them lurking outside the door since a group of 40 foreigners makes for an easy target. I said "they look like lions, watching their prey" but Elizabeth from Sausalito came up with a better line, especially for a non-Southern girl when she said "looks more like hunters, sitting in a duck blind!"

We came back to the camp for lunch and a siesta. This reminds me to share more about the food. Most lunches and dinner involve some sort of rice (lunch today had rice with pomegranate seeds, dinner tonight had rice with lemon) along with some sort of chickpea dish that has a heavy sauce to be served on that rice. There is usually a cooked vegetable of some variety, like roasted cauliflower.  Most buffet meals also seem to include a potato dish of some sort, a pasta dish and tonight we had fried vegetable egg rolls. All of this is served with delicious naan to complete the "no carb left behind" tour. In Delhi, we had some foods that had a small amount of meat in them, but it was largely vegetarian. Breakfast today at the camp was outstanding. There were apple pancakes, homemade hash browns with onion, scrambled eggs with green onion, boiled eggs, and some kind of muffin that I didn't try.  They were making fresh juice from beets, carrots, oranges or apples. My favorite part though is that this place, where we are sleeping in tents and power is only available certain hours, here we have a cappuccino machine! 



After taking a break from the heat of the day, we went back to the festival around 3:30for camel cart rides and more shopping. 


Then back to the campground for showers, watching some Indian dancing and dinner. As I write this, I'm snuggled up in the tent alongside the hot water bottle which mysteriously got placed in our beds during dinner. I could use that treat at home!

Tomorrow morning we are going to be a bit delayed heading to Jaipur as we need to go by the bank to exchange currency, and they don't open until 10. Bhivou is carrying 180,000 rupees in large and now illegal bills to pay for our entrance to the Taj Mahal and other monuments on the rest of the trip, but the govt spots are definitely not taking the big bills. Individuals are only allowed to exchange R4,000, so each of us will be going into the branch to change some of the group's money. He thinks the bank here in the little town will be smaller and less crowded than the cities. Once that is done, which will likely take more than an hour since it involves filling out a form and giving a copy of your passport, we will head out for the 4 hour ride to Jaipur.

Still having a great time!
LA

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Pushkar

Well, we've had a big 24 hours. Amazingly, the horrible US election news has been dwarfed here by the Indian PM's late Tuesday announcement that effective midnight Tuesday, the 500 and 1,000 rupee denominations were no longer valid tender. This is roughly $7.50 US and $15, so it is equivalent to our government taking the $10 and $20 bills off the market. The banks and ATMs were also closed yesterday. The govt said they are doing this in response to counterfeiting by Pakistan as well as the use of the black market. Our guide tells us much business in India is done in cash, which means that it isn't subject to taxes. The 500r and 1,000r can be exchanged at local banks for smaller denominations, but at that point you have to report it.  The issue is that we are all carrying those denominations, and some vendors are refusing to accept them.  Plus we are in the middle of the desert now with no access to a bank for exchanging them. So it is a bit of drama. Most folks also brought some US dollars, so we are paying with those for now if people won't take our rupees.  

Yesterday morning we got up at 4am and took a  6 hour train ride to come to Pushkar for their annual camel festival. Farmers from across the area come here to buy and sell horses and camels. Unfortunately, activity has been diminished by the currency freeze and a number of vendors reportedly left yesterday.  Still, it was really neat to walk around the market yesterday afternoon. The vivid colors of the camel costumes against the desert background are striking, and I'm still really enjoying photographing the people. 






We are "glamping" in tents which have an AC hookup as well as bathrooms. 



It got pretty warm here yesterday afternoon (80s) but temps dropped into the high 50s/ low 60s overnight. They even brought a hot water bottle by for our beds, and I enjoyed snuggling with that thing. I slept like a champ - I was asleep by 9 and woke up around 6. That part feels the most like vacation! 

This area is largely Muslim, and food is vegetarian and in the Ayurveda tradition which keeps you super regular! Thankfully no Delhi belli yet.  

Today we are heading back to the camel festival. I want to ride a camel, and hopefully 
we'll have more time for exploring on our own. 

LA

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Delhi Day 2

Woke up early this morning and got a workout in at the hotel gym which helped me feel better about sitting on the bus all day.  Had my first experience with the sexism for which Indian men are known with the man who just stepped right in front of me at the weight machine I was clearly using. At least I got a chuckle out of the fact that he had to take some of the weight off to use it!  When I walked to the mall last night to buy some water, I also got some uncomfortable glares from some of the men there. While I don't love traveling with 40 people, there is safety in numbers which I am grateful for! The group itself is largely women - only about 5 men. There are a couple of other folks around my age, and then the oldest is probably a guy in his 70s. My roommate is a Haitian-born woman from Boston in her 30s. She's very nice and super quiet. 

We left the hotel at 8:30. Delhi traffic is crazy, and it took us about 90 minutes to get to old Delhi. This was the driver's view for most of the way. 


Lots to see out of the windows including 10 people crammed into an SUV and several instances of 6 in a regular small car. We also passed several of the holy cows munching on garbage along the road side. Other animal spotting included monkeys, mongoose, pigs and goats. 

Stop #1 was a Muslim temple in old Delhi where we also learned a little more about the history between Muslims and Hindus.  We had to remove our shoes for the visit, and all the women had to wear these charming coverups. 




The mosque tour was followed by a rickshaw ride through the goat paths that make up the old part of town. An electrician's nightmare but definitely cool to see. This part of Delhi reminds me a lot of Hanoi. I would have liked to have gotten out and walked around, but the rickshaw was a good way to cover a lot of ground (and avoid getting run over by crazy drivers on mopeds). 








Next stop was my least favorite part of traveling with a big group. We went to one of those "artists collectives" which prey on buses of tourists and make their money selling several thousand dollar hand knotted rugs from Kashmir, pashminas made from the chin hair of the goat, etc. They provided a free lunch of a fried chickpea pastry, cheese sandwich, banana and a Coca Cola and more than made their money back since several folks other than cheap ole me bought stuff.  

Next stop was Humayuns tomb, a UNESCO world heritage site. He was the second of the Mogul emperors from Afghanistan who ruled India in the 1500s, and the temple supposedly is what the Taj Mahal was based upon. 



We followed that up with a trip to a Sikh temple. Sikhs are the men with the turbans, and they require everyone to cover their head in the temple complex.  I found another good use for the CSS bandanna! 




The good news is the air quality is much better today. Still a haze, but it hasn't been as hard to be outside.  This city itself is definitely not one of my favorites - smog plus a general 3rd world state of disrepair, but I really enjoy looking at the people.  There is something really lovely about the women in their brightly colored tunics, and I also really enjoy seeing the wizened faces of the older people.  They are just so at peace. It is an interesting culture for sure! 

Traffic on the other hand sucks, and we had a two hour bus ride back to the hotel. Tonight we have to pack our bags early and give them to the bus driver since we are leaving at 4:30am tomorrow for a 6 hour train ride to Pushkar where we are going to the camel festival. We are staying in tents, and I'm not sure that they will have internet access there. Will send another update when I can! 

LA

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