A Travellerspoint blog

India

Arriving in India


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Our first day in India. It all started in Ayutthaya, Thailand at 6:30 in the morning. We got up, got packed, and caught a minivan back to Bangkok. From here it was into another minivan to the airport. We waited about ½ hour while the van driver crammed in 14 passengers and we set out. The airport was easy enough and before to long we were on our way off to Kolkata! The first odd thing we noticed was that almost every person of Indian decent was checking in with at least one flat screen TV. Perhaps Bangkok is a popular spot for Indians to go TV shopping. We sat on the sweltering tarmac for 30-45 minutes with a bunch of grumpy and fussy passengers and no AC before taking flight and cooling off at higher elevation. When we landed the first order of business was to go through a mandatory check for H1N1 flu. The process was to step in front of a heat sensing camera and if you were “cool” enough you were good to go. Unfortunately both Meghan and I were flagged for being too “hot” and we were sent to a holding area. Not a good start. We were sent to a holding area and started to get a little nervous. Meghan’s Uncle Dave has a lovely story about being quarantined for H1N1 in Chile when he was perfectly healthy and this was all I could think about as we sat unattended in the airport. I figured that I needed to do something before we waited here all night. There were about 5 others in the pen with us and nobody was saying anything to each other. I knew that we were just warm from just walking across the tarmac and being a little nervous about India. There were monitors were we could see what the “health screeners” were looking at and what they were basing their decisions on. I noticed that the people that were getting flagged for further examination were the people who had white spots on the heat sensing camera. When I went through I noticed that the white hot spot was just were my hat was touching my forehead. I grabbed someone who looked official and tried to explain this to them. He seemed to understand what I was saying and told me to go wash my face. It took a second to sink in but then it was plain as day. Splash some water on my face to cool down and go through the screening again. I did this, got Meghan to do the same, and we pushed our way back into the line and had our picture checked a 2nd time. What do you know! Instead of red and white I was nice and orangey yellow! We both were cleared and on our way to customs. Munslers 1, India 0! We had successfully fooled the failsafe immigration health check. We arranged for a pre-paid taxi inside the Airport to avoid the restless touts outside the gates and were whisked away buy a over friendly and chatty cabbie. Outside of the flowing conversation we caught some interesting sights on the 22km ride to our hotel. We saw a cow on the sidewalk in the middle of the city outside a jewelry shop, apparently it was just browsing. We saw an outdoor public urinal (we knew people pissed on the streets in India but we did not think urinals were provided). Families were bathing and doing laundry out of buckets in the sidewalks and when cutting through an ally way we saw people “playing doctor” as the cabbie put it. What he meant was shooting drugs and it was right in our faces in the light of day as we drove by. This was only a few minutes before we got dropped off and were a little wide eyed, paranoid, and on our guard as we shouldered our packs on a crowded street and set out to find a hotel. We passed up an overpriced and grungy spot and got turned away at a full house before settling on a clean little room three flights up a dirty staircase. We were hungry and it was Valentines day so we set out to find a nice place to eat some authentic Indian food. After passing up an offer for hashish on the street we navigated our way without a map to a Northern Indian restaurant a few blocks away. We were greeted at the door by a two men, one being a midget, who were formally dressed in matching outfits. They pointed us upstairs and we walked into a beautiful dining room covered in murals, tiered ceilings, and chandeliers. A team of about 10 waiters, all in uniform attended to us in the fashion of a five star restaurant. This was a Vegetarian restaurant and we had no idea what to order so we asked the waiter to pick out a course of three dishes, which turned out to be 5, and we had one amazing dinner. We started out with some sort of cottage cheese patty that was deep fried and served with a mint sauce. This was followed by a sort of spicy creamed spinach and corn and a thick mixed veggie sauce that we enjoyed with Naan and another interesting bread that I forget the name of. On top of all this we had a rice dish that was baked in an oven with a dough covering. The waiter brought this out and when he cut the dough cover and rolled it back to reveal the treat inside the aroma was overwhelmingly appetizing. I was stuffed from all we had had already but I knew I would devour this rice. Feeling satisfied and $28 dollars poorer (I know… $28 bucks! We splurged! A far larger expense than the $4-$6 meals we usually get) we got up and went downstairs. A huge party was coming in and it was a struggle to get out on the street. While we were dining the already overcrowded and chaotic streets had awakened to the night and people were everywhere. The restaurants that were empty on our way in were past capacity with people waiting outside. On the street right outside the restaurant a man had a trained monkey performing tricks. An adequate nightcap on a truly bizarre and exiting first day in India.

Posted by pmunson 07:27 Archived in India Comments (0)

India takes hold

Kolkata and Varanasi


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We intentionally chose to stay in a touristy area of Kolkata in hopes of a “soft landing” in the country that we expected to be the most difficult for us to travel. This was in vain as the hardships of life in this dirty city of some 14 million people was everywhere. Stepping out of the Cab that first night left us in another world, one that we had not experienced in all of our travels. I am reading a book called Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It is a story about the Bombay Underworld and has a lot of applicable quotes to our first experiences in Kolkata. On that sticks out is “I remember the fear I’d felt, in that smear of air so foul it seamed to poison my lungs with every breath, and stain the very sweat on my skin”. This is an exaggeration but at times the pollution and smells of sewage in the streets were stifling.

We spent two days in Kolkata. We braved the subway system were Meghan found herself the only female on the train. The penetrating stares of the men that we pushed into the train with were unrelenting and incredibly awkward. In the days to come we would find out just how much of an attraction we are with our fair skin and blondish hair. In addition to the constant full on head turning stares, Meghan constantly is having her picture taken and we have been approached for photographs with young and old men, families, and babies.

We decided to go have a look at the Victoria Memorial. I did not know what to expect but it was certainly not the huge marble building we found. Apparently this is one of the finest buildings in all of India behind the Taj Mahal. It was surrounded by marvelous gardens and reflecting pools and we spent a long morning just sitting in the surrounding park. We were not alone. Apparently this is were the love birds go to kanoodle and young Indians were making out in the shade all around us
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Victoria Memorial
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A splash of color in a grey city.
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What is wrong with this picture?

Later that night we pushed our way past thousands of people choking the narrow sidewalks while constant busses, taxies, cars, motorcycles, trishaws, and human pulled rickshaws joined the cows, goats, dogs, and chickens to fill the street and spill out onto the sidewalks. The chaos was intense. The smells (just as many good as bad) and the sounds of constant honking and the yelling of salesmen. The constant touch of people brushing by and being pushed up against you in traffic overwhelmed all of our senses. Everywhere you looked their were destitute amputees and diseased beggars. Their was garbage lining the streets and clogging the gutters were fat rats fed like kings. The sidewalks were in horrible condition and people poured out into the already overcrowded streets and we were amongst it all. You could not go more than a few feet without a “new friend” offering to sell you something or take you on a tour of the city. Here everyone was an “entrepreneur” working out of a small shop, a rolling cart, a basket, their shoes, or just by lying on the street trying to collect rupees. We hired a small but sturdy rickshaw puller who could not have weighed more than 140 pounds to pull us back to our hotel. The man was all muscle and ran the ½ mile or so barefoot through traffic to get us home. All he asked was for 15 rupees, about 33 cents. I guiltily gave him a hundred.
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Kolkata intersection
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Street Art
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Our sturdy hand drawn rickshaw chauffer
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hand drawn rickshaw

I paint a dismal picture that seems far from enjoyable or tolerable but within the chaos lives a spirit that you can feel amongst the people. The people appear to thrive in this mess and do so with a rigor and determination that is absent most other places. Whether or not we will be able handle it for to long still lies to be seen but for now it is exiting, frustrating, overwhelming, and magically intimidating. A whole new experience awaits us in India and we will either sink or swim, only time will tell.

We set out to experience the extensive India railway system and decided to take the 15 hour journey amongst the locals in the lowest class sleeper car. The chaotic cab ride to the train station brought us through a sea of traffic and past a paper plant that caught fire and had been burning for three days. We crossed over the 705m Howrah bridge. A steal relic of the WW2 era that is said to be one of the worlds busiest bridges. The Howrah station itself was a huge building dating back to 1906 that serves over a million of travelers daily. Outside the building was a city of taxies, rickshaws, and porters carrying people and goods off in all directions. After stepping over a dead rat the size of a well fed cat laying in a gutter filled with sewage we found another city of people waiting for their train. There was very limited seating and most sat or slept on the dirty floor. We tossed out bags down and squatted.
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Howrah Train Station
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Pulling out of the Station

The lay of the train car was cut up into open cabins were to facing bunks were reserved for 6 people to sit. Come night time or whenever your cabin mate decided the backrest of the bunk folded upwards to a bed. There was a third tier above the fold up bed that was high enough to always be down. With this there was 2 sets of three tired bunks. Across from the cabin there was an addition 2 chairs facing each other with a bunk above them. The chairs folded together at night to form a lower bunk. It went like this down the length of each Sleeper car for all of the general sleeper class. We were set with 4 guys in our cabin and Meghan felt a little uneasy as their were not any other females in sight. During the middle of the night I awoke to someone patting me on the head. The window that I had closed earlier was now open and someone who was standing outside at the station we were stopped at was reaching through the bars and patting my head. I tell you sometimes you feel like you are from another planet in India being white and blond. I think the person patting my head or petting me just wanted to feel my silky smooth amber locks. I looked up half awake and without my glasses on and a abstract pastel watercolor lay beyond the railcar window. From what I could see 50 or 60 Indians were huddled together on the cold floor of the platform and all dressed in dazzlingly colored saris. The dim station light that was cast on this from above and the combination of my dreamy mind and fuzzy vision created an ethereal vision. Before I could rub the sleep from my eyes and find my glasses the train was moving again and it was gone.

We arrived Varanasi 20 hours later and 5 hours late. From the moment our weary feat hit the platform we were followed by touts, prospective tour guides, and rickshaw drivers. We overpaid for a taxi and joined an ox cart in the maddening traffic that backed up the streets even more so than what we had witnessed in Kolkata. After we were well away from train station the cabbie informed us he could not bring us to our destination because it was in a no drive zone. I almost had a fit from over-exhaustion but kept my cool and agreed on a spot to be dropped off. We found ourselves checking into a nice room at the friendly Hotel Sonmony exited to eat and take a nap. It did not take us long to realize that we were directly in front of the Harishchandra Ghat, one of the citie’s 2 cremation Ghat’s. The mountains of wood we passed on the street on our way in were waiting for mourning families to purchase and burn their dead relatives, this just outside our river view balcony. The Ganges is considered a holy river and Varanasi is a worldwide Hindu center and one of the holiest cities in India and the world. It is one of the worlds oldest and longest continually habituated city dating back to 1200 BC. People from all over India come to bathe in the Ganges to wash away a lifetime of sin and impurity. They also come to burn their dead on the riverbank and offer the ashes to mother Ganges, this acts provides liberatation from the earthly cycle of life and death. This all takes place out in the open in public and right outside our hotel window. I am not sure what I think of this or if I have even really processed it yet but for now I accept it for what it is, part of a new culture that I am traveling to experience, and we will gladly move hotels after the two nights we pre-paid for.
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Varanasi Traffic
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Funeral Procession as viewed from out balcony.
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Families cremating their loved ones in public at Harishchandra Ghat

After our nap we went out for a walk along the river past the holy Ghats. These were acres of stone steppes descending into the river for people to bathe. The river is low so there is a lot of riverbank exposed and you can walk the steps the entire length of the city waterfront, something you apparently can not do after the monsoon. We found the Dasawamedh Ghat and joined a gathering crowd along the steps to watch the nightly Ganga Aarti Ceremony with puja fire dance. This was about an hour long ceremony with 5 men performing a religious ceremony that paying homage to the river. It was a mixture of music, chanting, and a lot of bells along with a copious amount of burnt incense that filled the night sky. When it was all said an done all the Indians in the crowd descended to the main altar and the river to touch the flower petal offerings, fan smoke on themselves, and release lotus flower candles into the river. The scene was captivating and intense. It was a spiritual moment and with having only limited knowledge of the religion and no real idea about the rituals of the ceremony it was still enchanting. A little dazed and confused we stumbled up the stairs where a fast acting “senior” priest who blessed us by marking our foreheads with ink from flower petals before demanding an exorbitant donation. We paid him ½ of what he asked and moved on feeling a little tainted by the experience. Not sure if the “blessing” would really count at half price (Ha Ha) and if the guy was just a scammer targeting the white folk and looking for handouts. Anyway we spent the evening and a lovely diner with the mark on our foreheads before returning to our room, past another cremation, and fell into a deep sleep after the long night before hand.

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River Ceremony
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Indians arriving by boat to the river ceremony

Our first full day in Varanasi we set out on foot to explore the narrow galis or alleys of the old city that created an interesting maze along the riverbank. From the river you continuously see staircases that lead to narrow and winding alleyways running away from the water and disappearing into the city. Any one of them leads you into the nooks and crannies of the old city. The idea is that if you become lost you just work your way back to the river and figure out were you are. We did this for a few hours finding all sorts of hidden treasures and passing countless cows, monkeys, and goats. We also saw many old holy men with there faces painted and in their colorful robes out walking. It was a lot of fun and very interesting until we realized we had lost our way and no longer knew were the river was. After two hours of wandering around, a failed rickshaw ride the ended in a never ending traffic jam at road construction (AKA BIG hole in the road), We found ourselves back on the river well past and in the opposite direction of were we started from!

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Alley way veggie salesman
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Mostly Beans and Lentils
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Eat more chicken
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Varanasi River View
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Mysterious and inviting staircases leading up from the river to who knows where
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A nice spot to rest for a bit before getting back to blocking traffic and eating garbage.
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Bright colors for the upcoming Holi Festival
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Ganges River boats and the “wholly” polluted river

We were both exhausted and decided to just take it easy and hang out at the room for the rest of the afternoon. Is was about then that I started feeling the affects off a cold that I must have caught on the train from Kolkata and Meghan started to feel the effects of the Delhi Belly, that is said to be unavoidable on any trip to India. The combined effect kept us in for the evening and only I made out for a small bite of dinner. Despite our illnesses we rose the next day at 5:30 to get out on the river for the mandatory sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. This was an amazing experience the we shared with many other boats on the river. The pre dawn light on the old stone buildings radiated in a purplish glow before the rising sun lit the entire scene up with its golden glory that only exists for a few precious moments shortly after the sun lifts from the horizon. Many Indians were already out bathing and washing clothes as we set out before dawn and their numbers rose as we floated down river past the larger and more interesting Ghats.

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When we got back to shore we moved hotels to get away from the cremation Ghat and its accompanying all night noise. (They burn bodies on the ghat 24 hours a day!) After we had packed and moved we both quickly succumb to the sickness that was polluting our systems. Meghan was worse off than I and remained in the room for the next 36 hours, I did not do too much better with the sinus pressure that was making my head pound and keeping me up at night. We passed two days without much activity and on the day we were going to move on to Khajaharo we ambitiously took a trip out to the Hindi University to see a temple dedicated to Shiva. We were feeling well enough and decided to walk around a bit before heading back to the room. We were scheduled to take the train out at 11:30pm and as soon as we got back to the comfort of the room Meghan’s condition took a downward spiral and we almost did not go. On information that we could bump up to a more comfortable class we decided to go for it. Thus began my nightmare and the lowest point of our journey.
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Colorful Saris drying on the steps of the Ghat’s
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Shiva Temple
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Goat on a ledge
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Monkey, Cow, and old lady. Three’s company in Varanasi.

Posted by pmunson 07:51 Archived in India Comments (4)

The Joy of Travel part 3

Delhi Belly and beyond


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Back in Varanasi Meghan and I are both sick and are leaving to get on an overnight train to Khajuraho…

A loud and bumpy rickshaw ride brought across the city to the busy train station. Every inch of floor space was occupied by travelers who had spread out blankets on the cold concrete to sleep. Our 11:30pm train was delayed and re-scheduled to arrive at 12:10am. At 12:15, a train that was not ours pulled up and before it even came to a stop the platform was alive with swarms of people flowing from the 2nd class cars. It was an intense mob scene and where Meghan an I were on the platform was quickly overcome with people. I quickly slung both of our bags over my shoulder and retreated to an empty spot along the back wall of the platform. In the midst of all this our train had been switched to a different platform as it was arriving. I did not hear any of this over the static white noise that pretended to be a loudspeaker. Somehow another foreign tourist from Switzerland spotted us and told us about the switch. We hustled up and over the tracks to the new platform just as our train was arriving. The false promise of bumping up in class quickly fizzled out as the conductor was nowhere to be found. After running the length of the long train we boarded moments before the train departed. Somehow during all of this, the sickness that was still in my body was not affecting me, if it had we may have not made it out of Varanasi that night. We boarded the train to find a party going on in our cabin. In a space set for six there were at least 10 young guys that were all fired up. We waited patiently for them to get settled and when it did not happen I decided to just jump in and make our presence felt. This is one of the benefits of traveling in a country full of small people. When you need to throw your weight around you usually have the most. I pushed my way into the cabin. Cleared about 5 guys out of the way and packed our backpacks under one of the seats. Next it was on to their luggage. I informed them that we were pulling the bed up and to kindly move their crap. This was met with little resistance and before you know it we were both horizontal and hopeful to sleep. This did not come so easy. At first the guys wanted to talk, ask were I was from, the usual routine. Then they wanted to buy American dollars from me. They were all on a visiting Badminton team that had just won a tournament and were loudly celebrating. I gave in and almost forgot about how tired, frustrated, and sick I was while they all passed the one dollar bill around starring at it in wonder. As soon as I laid down my sickness returned and I could hardly breath. As there was not enough headroom to sit up this created a problem. Saliva was filling my mouth, I could not breath through my nose, and I felt like I was going to suffocate. With all this it was very difficult to fall asleep and my mood and health deteriorated. I was able to find sleep until I woke in the middle of the night needing to go to the bathroom I realized that my sandals were missing. While looking all around I noticed the floor was also all wet but did not really think twice about it figuring I had spilled my water bottle or something. Frustrated I gave up and wedged my feat into Meghan’s sandals and went to the restroom. Later that morning when we both finally got out of our beds we realized that my sandals had been stolen in the night and the wetness on the floor was actually vomit from one of the kids on the badminton team. This alone would not have been all that bad if it was not for the fact that our backpacks had absorbed most of the moisture and were dripping wet with stinking vomit. In utter disgust we wrapped up our bags up in the rain covers, something we should have done in the first place, and carried them off the train by the handles, as the harness was soaked. Unfortunately we were still 4 hours by local bus to Khajuraho. Feeling completely worked at this point and at the point of giving in to India, I accepted the first offer for a rickshaw at twice the acceptable price and let the guy carry my filthy bag. Before long we were at the bus station with tickets purchased and ready to go. Little did I know the ordeal that awaited us or I would have laid down whatever the cost of a private car. On the bus we were in the second row which was good for the bumps and the bends but my legs were to long to fit into the seat so I had to sit at an angle with my legs into the aisle. This became a problem as the bus stopped and picked up more and more people. I have been on many overcrowded “chicken” busses in all of our travels and usually I take it for what it is and usually have fun with it. This was unbearable. There was a sense of urgency amongst the passengers when the bus got really full and people were really fighting for position and pushing hard to get on and off. The fact that my legs were stuck out in the aisle in the front of the bus meant that as people shifted around each time the bus stopped, and it stopped a lot, my legs were in the way. Regardless of how little room there was and how crushed I already was people would push harder and harder until they got buy. Combined with the sickness, the night on the train with the puke and stolen sandals, this put me over the edge. When I was about to explode some young girl gets on the bus with an infant maybe a few months old. She is right beside me and is getting crushed in the aisle. The kid is wedged in between indifferent men who don’t notice or don’t care that they are practically suffocating an infant. I got up and offered her my seat when nobody else would and she quickly sat down without a word of thanks or even a smile. At this point some old woman took the opportunity to chisel her way in between me and the seat with every jostle of the bus and bend in the road. I did what I could to fight back, and I really felt like I was fighting back, but I was not going to push some old lady out of my way. After a few minutes the bus stopped and the girl with the baby got off and the old hag threw herself into my seat! She did not give me one look to ask permission, acknowledge she swiped my seat, or thank me for making it available. I always give my seat up to people who need it more than I do but this royally pissed me off. Fortunately we were not that far from Khajuraho and when we got there I immediately laid down and did not leave the room for the rest of the day. Instead I sat in a small room brooding over my frustrating day and night. My suffering was intensified by music that was blaring through the windows and walls from a town fair across the way. This would go on all day and into the night And I was very close to pulling the plug on India and fleeing to the cool wintery embrace of Colorado. Little did I know at that point of almost giving in that India would open up to me and draw me back in the days to come.

Posted by pmunson 09:46 Archived in India Comments (2)

“A Teardrop on the Cheek of Eternity”

Khajuraho and the Taj Mahal


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Khajuraho was a nice change of pace. The town was small and easy to negotiate on foot. The reason we visited here was to view the Kama Sutra sculptures and the incredible temple art that covered three groups of world heritage listed temples. The Temples here are over 1,000 years old and are said to have some of the best temple art in the world. Certainly the best I have seen. The temples are covered top to bottom in intricate stonework. The amount of detail from the largest sculptures to the smallest borders and filler pieces is outstanding. The recurring theme here becomes obvious as countless large breasted women and erotic scenes adorn the temple walls. Awestruck we slowly explored the neatly manicured grounds taking in all the temples with plenty of long breaks in the shade of many nice treas. After the day before this was just what the doctor ordered… a nice peaceful and quiet day in a grassy outdoor setting. A stark contrast to our fist week or so in India.

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That evening we checked out the fair that was pumping out the loud music that kept us from enjoying our room. It was not more than a few dusty lanes with market stalls aimed mostly for locals. People were mulling around but there was not much going on. We found the source of the music but there was no band, or stage, or anyone even paying attention. Just a guy with a mike and a loud stereo. On our way out we got talking with two high school kids named Shubham and Ashok. Shubham spoke really good English and was a joy to speak to. He was really smart and in addition to English he knew basic Japanese and some Polish. We spoke with them for a long time and before long actually let our guard down when we realized they were not out to sell us anything. They joined us for dinner and through our conversations they told us that they wanted to know how to use face book. As they had taught us some Hindu, and were the first people who did not try to sell us something, I decided I would get them set up on face book. I am not sure if this is a goof thing or a bad thing but It was fun, and I know that they enjoyed it.

They next day we rented bicycles and they took us around the old part of town that they lived in. This included visiting a few other temples that were outside the main group that we visited before. This gave us a fresh look at a quieter more gentle India. The peaceful little town was surrounded by green fields and dirt tracks were kids played and water buffalo, oxen, and cows roamed. The temples here were not all as well persevered but were easily as enjoyable when combined with our impromptu tour guides and the country setting. Shubham invited us into his home which consisted of an open air room with a dirt floor, a small kitchen, and one living room were the family of six slept. It was about 10x12 at the largest. In the living room we discovered a 5 hour old baby goat that Meghan instantly fell in love with. Shubam’s mother made chai and his father, sister, and mother all sat with us and listened in as we spoke and struggled to use some limited words in Hindu. This was a great experience for us and really put me back on track with India. Just a day before I was hiding in my room ready to book a flight out of the country and here I was the following day In a local home sharing chai with people who are just as interested in me as I am in them.

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Shubham, Ashok, and Meghan check out an ancient Brama Temple
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Two kids help each other take a bath at the water pump
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Gift Shop
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Old houses, old town
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Baby Goat
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Khajuraho Crew

Another overnight train but this time we upped the comfort level and ride in the AC class. Here we found more comfortable seats and much less coming and going as we did in sleeper class. Our train was due to arrive in Agra at 2:00 am so we laid down early and I was actually able to get some sleep. Going with the increased comfort theme, we also scheduled a pickup and a hotel in Agra. The Train pulled in about 2 hours late and just as we were about to give into the rickshaw drivers, figuring that our pickup had split, I heard my name being called out and we were whisked away to the Suraya Guest house just outside the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. It was a little after 4:00am when we finally got into our room and we had about 2 hours to sleep before getting in line for the sunrise rush on the Taj. The Taj Mahal is not open on Fridays so we did not have much choice but to push on through and I am glad we did. After waiting in line to get in at 7:00 we finally made it through the airport security like checkpoint, rounded the corner, and got out first glimpse of this spectacular building.

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Sunrise over Agra
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First Glimpse

The Taj Mahal has been described as a “teardrop on the cheek of eternity”, “the Embodiment of all things pure”, and its own creator said “it made the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes” It is sincerely an impressive architectural masterpiece and deserves the large numbers of tourists it draws every day. It is amazing to think that such an amazing building is a monument to lost love, an grieving husbands memorial to a wife who died in labor. After jockeying for position for the quintessential shot of the reflecting pool we made our way through the gardens and up close.

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Piling in for that perfect shot
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Sleep Deprived Munslers
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More Taj Less Munslers

Up close the fine detail of the inlaid precious stones and the texture of the creamy marble accentuated the raw beauty of the massive structure. The amount of detail work covering the outside and inside was endless. It took 20,000 craftsmen 8 years to finish the main building and the detail work it contains. One item that was particularly impressive both for the amount of skilled carving they must have taken and for the fact that they have survived for 350 years were the window screens. These were 100% marble tablets carved into a fine stone mesh. The patience this must of taken I can not understand.

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Detail Work
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Semi precious stone inlays
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Perspective symmetry
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Long distance close up
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The Gardens

We took our time heading out finding different vantage points to sit and relax. Finally we retreated to the hotel and went in for a much deserved afternoon nap. In the afternoon we explored the Agra Fort. This large fort holds many different palaces and buildings and was a pleasure to explore. For the first time on our trip we decided to go for a tour guide and actually really enjoyed it. The Agra fort is considered one of the finest Mughal Forts in all of India. Within it heavily fortified walls were many different palaces, halls, mosques, and living quarters. Our guide painted a picture of the life of royalty in the 1600’s and brought the fort to life for us. That Evening we found a rooftop restaurant and watched sunset over Agra. The day ended as it began at that tender moment between light and dark with the pastel light of the low lying sun painting the milky white marble features
features of the Taj Mahal..

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Walls Of Agra Fort
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Inside the Fort
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Detailed Carvings on red Sandstone
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Light and Shadows in the Pearl Mosque (Moti Masjid)
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More detail work with semi precious stone inlay as in the Taj Mahal
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Meghan at the Ladies Mosque
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More hand carved window screens. Here in Red sandstone. The ones at the Taj Mahal were Marble and even finer mesh but I did not photograph them.
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Shan Jahan’s view from his prison in the Agra Fort
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Elaborate Ceilings in the public meeting hall
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Rooftop Taj View

Posted by pmunson 09:47 Archived in India Comments (1)

Painted Elephants’ and Purple Indians

Jaipur


View rtw on pmunson's travel map.

The capital city of Rajasthan held our interest longer than we thought it would. We met some really nice people, experienced some Bollywood, took in a fun festival, and celebrated the Indian Festival of Color, Holi. We stayed in a nicer hotel than usual near the old city and were really comfortable. One of the first things we did was set out to explore the old part of the city, or what we thought was the old part of the city. We found ourselves amongst tons of happy kids out in the street brimming with excitement for the upcoming Holi and accompanying Elephant Festival. We were not in the “Old City” but a little neighborhood and when we realized we were lost we grabbed an cycle rickshaw to the city palace were snake charmers rose cobras over hypnotic music all for the tourist rupee. The city palace building was a bit of a let down after the palaces of Agra Fort but we still took the time to explore it all.

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Most Expensive photograph of the trip to date!
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Marble Elephant, City Palace
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Pink Sandstone Walls of the Jaipur City Palace
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Decorative doorways in a courtyard of the City Palace

That night we visited a huge Hindi movie theatre to see the current hit flic, “My Name is Khan” The place had to seat over 1000 people and apparently was the #1 movie theatre in all of India and often used for grand openings of big Bollywood hit films.

We were in Jaipur at the time of an annual Elephant Festival and for the Festival of Color or Holi. A large outdoor area played host to many elephants painted in bright colors for the occasion, a multitude of camels, and a few horses. Their were bands and dancing to go along with the competitions and games. It all took place in a chaotic tangle of spectators and animals as their was nobody keeping the hordes of people in the stands and off the playing fields were all the animals were. At one point Meghan and I found ourselves on the inside edge of a ring of people who had encircled the area were the Elephants were to play football (soccer). All of a sudden the huge animals were running around kicking (mostly just popping) beach balls with only a ring of soft human bodies to keep the animals at bay. All of a sudden their was a breach in one part of the circle and all the Elephants started moving out into the crowd. There was no real panic or mass hysteria but we both had visions of being trampled in a riot of panicked Indians and tourists. The whole thing ended with the Elephants playing Holi. Playing Holi is throwing colored powder and water on your friends, family, and people you meet in the street. It is the Indian festival of color and celebrated with enthusiasm all around northern India. In this case the Elephants made their way in and around a large crowd and their handlers and passengers tossed colored powder by the handful on the reveling crowd below. There is a tradition on the night before Holi to burn fires in the street. During the day people had been building towers of wood and hay in preparation up and down all the streets of the old town. As we exited the arena the lighting parties were just getting started. Men on motorbikes and by foot were swarming the streets with torches igniting all the fires. People were singing and dancing in the street and it was an incredible scene to behold. Had we no prior knowledge of this event it would have been quite a startle but as we were prepared the mob of fire bearing men did not startle us!

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One of the performers caught in town on the way to the festival
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The festival started with a procession of the bands and animals
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We love Camels!
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And Elephants!
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Playing Holi by Elephant
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Igniting the fires in the streets of Jaipur
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The next day was the real celebration. Our new friend Ankit who we had spent the prior day with, a day meant for sight seeing but ended up sipping chai and chatting with locals, had invited us to come and celebrate with him and his friends and family. He lived outside of town so we got up early and hired a rickshaw to where he would pick us up. Ankit showed up after a few moments on his motorcycle and the three of us piled on and sped away to his home. A bunch of his friends were waiting on the street and it was only a few seconds before we were covered in different colored powders and wished a happy Holi by numerous new people. Meghan was pulled into a crowd of young girls covered in purple who were franticly dancing to Hindi music cranked up to 11! Everyone was in high spirits and having so much fun.

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Meghan gets down with the girls
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Holi Hai! - The little dude in front makes me smile!
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Back on the Bikes

Before we knew it we were back on the bikes. This time it was 9 of us on three bikes and Meghan and I got separated. This made me nervous at first but I trusted Ankit and his friends and it turned out that Meghan also felt like he was looking out for her. It quickly became apparent that the women in India do not celebrate the holly with the same intensity as the guys. Meghan was the only girl in our crew and the next few stops we made were spent trying to convince the girls to come out and play using Meghan as bait. We went from one house to another spreading color and holiday greetings before stopping at Ankit’s employers house. He was treated to the “strong color”, a skin dying bath with dye that would leave the skin turned purple for three days. Meghan and I both had fun with the powder but graciously refused offers to be doused in the dye.

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The strong color
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Holi Color
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Meghan Gets covered
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We all loaded up again and made a few more stops before returning to the bosses house. When we did their were drummers out in the driveway and all the guys were dancing to the beat while the timid neighborhood woman peered through window screens, from nearby balconies, and from the safe distances of the neighbors front porches. The men in India are all very affectionate and close in a way that westerners might consider a little weird or queer. It is not uncommon to see guys holding hands while walking the street or showing affection with an arm around a shoulder or something of the like. This carried over to the dance and all the guys we rode with that day jammed out to the drumming in a rainbow (wink wink) of the color we had spread that morning.

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Dancing in the Driveway

From there it was back into the old city were one of the old buildings was the sight for a big dinner together. We climbed to the second floor were we found an open aired courtyard. As a chicken stew cooked over a charcoal fire we all shared stories. A large carpet was set out on the stone floor and we all sat down to eat. It was absolutely delicious and enjoyed by all. As I moped up the last of my stew with the amazing naan bread I knew that on this day we had a completely unique experience. One unlike anything we had experienced in our travels so far and one that can not be duplicated. Our new friends showed us a slice of their life and how they celebrate it.
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Ankit in red at our post Holi diner

The next day we went to the Amber fort near Ankit’s home. We were hoping to meet up but unfortunately we had slept in and he had already gone to work. The fort was as interesting on the inside as it was beautiful on the outside. We wondered the courtyards and passageways exploring the nooks and crannies of the generally all access buildings. On the way out we discovered that you could go down underground and explore the secret passageways. These were really renovated and only a small portion was open to the public but it was still really cool.

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Amber Fort
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Camels outside the fort
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Surviving murals on the main gate
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Looking Down on the town from the fort
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Ornately Appointed Panels and Archways
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Inside the Fort
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I have mentioned how We are constantly the subjects of Indians photos, here Meghan poses with Mom and Baby as Dad snaps away

Posted by pmunson 08:10 Archived in India Comments (2)

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