Saturday, November 10, 2007


First night, early A.M. Friday

We’re in India. I say that with some pleasure and some fear. We were met at the airport by Krishna from the hotel. When we walked out to find the car, we passed some amazingly dusty motorcycles and Rick said they must have been parked there along while. I didn’t think so because I could see the dust in the air. It was effort to pump the air, laced with dust, urine, smoke and diesel fumes, through to filter out some oxygen.

It was a long ride to the hotel. The road was dismal – lumpy, dusty, rough, clogged with cars, trucks and buses. We came into a busy and rather scruffy part of the city to find out hotel finally getting into our room after 1 am. As Krishna showed us where things were, the cockroaches crawled over the desk and vanity.

We tried to get Internet to say we had arrived but it didn’t work so I went to the lobby to use the public computer. The night clerk was asleep on the sofa but a group of men worked to scrape the wood paneling to refinish it. I used the computer and returned to the room where Rick and I listened, sleepless, through a night of cars beeping, the phone ringing in the hall and then the morning call to prayer before one could really enjoy morning.

Friday evening, end of first full day

The horns beep outside the window non-stop but that masks the noise created by the pigeon living in our air conditioner. Periodically the phone in the hall rings and then there is the emphatic burst of fire crackers. It is the night of Diwali or Deepawali, the Hindu festival of lights. Like Christmas, it has become commercialized. Where once small packets of sweets or fruit were exchanged people now give more lavish gifts and businesses expect sales to swell in the weeks before Diwali.

It is not like Chinese New Year because businesses remain open and taxis still move. It is similar in the constant fire crackers exploding in the street outside our windows on the evening of our first day in New Delhi.

We spent most of the day with Surinder who took us to the Gurudawara Bangle Shaib Sikh temple where there was a free clinic and hospital and food is free to everyone every day and the buildings are created by volunteers and they don’t ask for donations but some people give them. This is Diwali, the last day of the Hindu year, so it was particularly busy and colorful with all the candles put out.

Surinder said he would take us some places and show us things but what he really wanted was for us to buy something and we didn’t. The rugs are beautiful but we bought a beautiful carpet in Hong Kong and they shipped us something else. Luckily we liked it a lot but it just ruins the sense of trust one can have over that we will ship this to you sales line.

I am marginally interested in a Punjabi dress but not for $300 or even for $65. I would wear it just a few times. Also, the number of colors and sparkly things is somewhat past what I can wear at one time. Surinder and the people in the shops said that I should have jewelry just for the pleasure of owning it but I didn’t agree and they didn’t understand. We spent way more time with Surinder than we expected to and we paid him twice what he originally asked for but less than what he wanted.

We drove past government buildings, Nehru’s museum and planetarium as well as a monument to Gandhi and a singularly unattractive Buddhist temple.

After lunch where we shared a table with two Swedish woman and had a great meal of Tandori chicken and masala and garlic tandori bread and then stopped at two more places where we didn’t buy anything but saw beautiful carpets and two of the most ornate and ugliest chairs ever to be fashioned of silver swans we returned to the hotel where we fell asleep.

We were able to rouse ourselves and we went to the roof to look out over things and decide if we could actually manage to go out into the night, the pollution and the fireworks of Diwali. We got our bearings from a map in the hotel and walked to find the market street. It was really near the end of its day but we passed a hotel with a drum circle and several hundred sparkling things. We stayed a while and just after Rick said we should go several ear-splitting fire crackers were tossed into the mix. Good timing.

We walked the streets looking at this and that. I found some $4 Punjabi dresses but would really like to find something a bit better than that. We didn’t walk down any dark alleys but we were surprised by a spark-spitting fire cracker that came from a group of boys and skittered across the road, between our feet and under a car. Back in the hotel, the fireworks batter our windows and the noise of street party has no indication that it will stop before day’s end.

I have, however, ignored cultural guidelines and killed a few cockroaches. When I found one on the bed, it was easy and with the first transgression over, it was short work to get the few that would have prowled about the computer as I typed.

Just now the firecrackers are so furious it sounds like hail beating on a tin roof and goes on and with occasional rockets. The pigeon in the air conditioner sounds restless and I do hope he won’t find a way in. Guess I will try to sleep and feel comfortable in this different city as I look forward to tomorrow.

End of Saturday
The fire works last night went on steadily - faster than I could count - from 8 pm till about 1 am and then slowed down. I expected the streets to be knee deep in burned papers but there's hardly a hint though the paper blames smog on the combination of cool winter weather (it’s 70 something) and no winds.

There were, over the weekend, 220 fires in Delhi and 48 of them were attributed to “crackers”. Apparently people fire them from their roofs. Considering the precarious situation of crowded living and the rat’s nests of wires, it’s a wonder the great Chicago fire episode doesn’t repeat here annually.

We started the day with a car and driver and went toward some of the sights. We stopped along the way to take photos of the changing of the guard – horsemen – at the president’s home.

We went to Alai Minar and Outb Minar which is a burial ground for Mogals. The Outb Minar is the tallest stone tower in India. Built in the 12th century and repaired now and then after lighting strikes it stands 72.5 meters tall. It is covered in ornate stone and is quite striking.

A second stone tower was begun in 1311 and was intended to be twice the size but was never completed. The base is of mortared rubble and was to be covered by finer material but construction stopped when the ruler of the time died. It is amazing to me that this rough material stands still after 700 years. It was meant to be covered in something stronger and more finished so there wasn’t much concern over the durability of the material but it’s still there and used by many for photo back drops.

The driver took us to his friend to look at carpets. We said we didn’t want to go in but he more or less begged us so in we went. The carpets were gorgeous. One was a life time carpet which is that the craftsman gets far enough ahead that he can spend a year making a fine silk rug of great complexity, making his loom unavailable for an extended period and not taking in money over that time. It was 3 x 5 and ornate and gorgeous but at $2400 not in our budget though it was a bargain at the price.

We then went on to Humayuns Tomb, a World Heritage site. At first we weren’t impressed but then realized that we weren’t in the right place. Once we found the tomb we understood why people were so impressed with it. The tomb is the inspiration for the Taj Mahal which I hope we’ll get to see.

Our next stop was to be the Red Fort but when we got there the queue for entry snaked back on itself and held hundreds of people. We went back to the rickshaw driver (the car driver had to stop at a point and we had to go by rickshaw the rest of the way) but he actually found us heading back (how can they always find us in a sea of tourists?) and asked what was wrong. He offered to show us around old Delhi so we figured we were in the area and said yes.

It was great. I have some wonderful photos – the barber shop, the wild wiring system, fruits, crackers and breads. Old Delhi hides behind the main roads in a wild warren of winding narrow roads from which we would never have emerged without our trusty guide.

We went back to the hotel and walked around Market Street and then went to meet our tour group with whom we went into the city. First we walked to the Metro and the guide bought tokens for us. The tokes are blue plastic, about the size of a swollen quarter and somehow encoded for the amount of money paid. We had to go several stops and transfer so he paid about 20 Rupees for each.

The Metro arrived impressively full and so all 16 of us and several dozen other people crowded on. At the next stop more added to the crush and at the next stop more. We all seemed to get off at the same stop to transfer to another line.
We looked at India gate and then walked to a bus stop. When the bus arrived it was packed. I mean it. Limbs were sticking out the doors but about 30 people at the stop got on and the bus spit some soot and left us.

Several minutes later another bus arrived and it wasn’t nearly as full so we got on with all the other locals who had amassed during the wait. We hung on to this and that and rocked and nearly fell as the bus sped over bumps and around curves. This driver was in a hurry and he had no mercy.

We got off downtown near a Metro that would take us back and the tour guide just sort of left us there. He said we’d find restaurants everywhere but we didn’t. Some people ate at a touristy-sort-of restaurant and the rest went wherever. We thought it was unprofessional to dump us like that. It seemed he should know restaurants.

Rick and I took the Metro back toward the hotel after rejecting McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. After making the wrong turn we got straightened around and found our hotel’s neighborhood and a restaurant with good garlic nan. We had eaten breakfast at 8 and dinner at 7 and that was a long stretch for our bellies though the people living under the Metro might have thought it a heavenly day.

On Sunday we were up at 4, out by 5 and rolling on a train to Jaipur by 6. The trip started with vans – 5 people inside and suitcases precariously piled on top. It was a race for the train station weaving through traffic, over bumps, around bikes and people and over more bumps. I watched the back the whole way looking for flying luggage.

The train station. If you are picturing some quaint little place full of signs and advertisements for candy bars and beer you are wrong. The parking lot was packed tighter than the public buses. We had to drag our suitcases through crowds and beggars and various unidentified puddles of noticeable odor across the parking lot and over several foot-high curbs to get inside the building where thousands stood or sat on the floor, their many voices blending into a lilting melody woven through with train whistles and screeching brakes.

We entered at track 1 and needed to go up and over and up and over many stairs to get to platform 11. The train arrived shortly. What a tiny, messy engine. Little Engine that could had cute going for it. This thing was small, dirty-yellow and looked about a tenth the size of what was needed to pull the train.

We got on at the back of the car and had to push forward to the first 15 seats which meant crawling over dozens of children and not a few locals who seemed not to notice that we were making great effort to get between them and the seats. Remember we were all dragging suitcases and most all of us had backpacks too. It was lovely to find a whole seat of our own though the suitcases were under foot for the next 4 hours.

During the train ride a porter brought newspapers, tea and breakfast which was potato pancakes or omelets.

I spent part of the ride hanging out the door. There were goats, more dogs than there are numbers, garbage dumps, farm fields, vehicles, people, the occasional camel with or without cart and several men peeing calming into the grass.

Our guide, a gruff and uninterested man named Brahm, had us standing with backpacks on for 20 minutes before our stop but we followed him off the train and he arranged for transport to the hotel. The Jaipur train station was interesting. This time there weren’t many people inside of it so it was a great surprise to go out into the parking lot to see thousands of cars, taxis, buses and people.

We piled into a few tuktuks and went to the hotel passing trash and trashy places and worrying just a tiny bit about what kind of hotel would be our home for two days. The worry was wasted. The hotel was a cute, clean place with a restaurant offering good lunches. We settled in and then went to the city and the Hawa Mahal – a palace.

If Brahm was just a bit friendlier or interested I’m sure we’d have seen more but the city was exciting to drive through and he led us across a traffic circle in an oh-my-God tangle of fast-moving vehicles that makes my heart race again just to consider it.

The most interesting thing in the palace was the outfit of the man called the Giant King. He was 7 feet tall and weighed 250 kilos. His outfit was on display and included a shirt that would fit nicely around most of a baseball team. When the royal embroiderers had to work on something for him they must have put in some serious hours.

There was also a display with two large silver jars each with a 400 gallon capacity. When one of the kings went to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation he used these jars to carry water from the Ganges because that’s the only water he would use. I hope he had something akin to our ultraviolet sanitizer.

I liked a painting that looked like an elephant from the distance but up close it was clearly 9 women. The painting is supposed to symbolize that a group of ladies has the power of an elephant. This is probably because women didn’t have any power back in the days of royalty and actually they still don’t. The lead story in today’s paper was that India ranks 128 out of 143 countries in terms of economic power of women.

Brahm also took us to meet “his friend” but the friend was not a person but rather a shop where we were pressured to buy silk and over-priced scarves and items made with less craftsmanship than they deserved. He then took us to a tourist restaurant but some of us came back to the hotel instead since we preferred local food.

On Monday we went on the lam with the police after us though it was only the driver they wanted.

Rayeep was our entertaining and charming criminal driver. He let Monica sit in front with him and Rick, Gordon and I sat in the passenger seat. A police officer saw him and started blowing the whistle and calling him to stop but Rayeep jumped a curb and took off down a few alleys where he stopped and explained that it was not legal for him to drive without his uniform shirt on and he was also wrong to allow Monica in the front seat. A double whammy if caught so Monica went behind the back seat and he put the uniform over his shirt and on we went. It seemed that jumping a curb and running from the police was of no consequence as long as the shirt was correct.

We drove past the palace on the lake (sewage lake would be a better name) and I noticed an elephant on the other side of the road. I was too late to take a photo so Rayeep just turned around and went the wrong way into traffic to get to where I could take the photo.

Traffic seems to work like that here. Red lights and one-way streets and no parking signs are taken as light hearted suggestions to be ignored at will. Horns blow constantly and they are becoming unmanageably annoying. I’ve a life-time of horn beeps between my ears.

We heard a few traditional stories and learned that in Delhi the elephant is a symbol of power while the camel is speed and the horse is victory but here the elephant is good luck, the camel is love (generally it carried a happy couple) and the horse is power.

We also learned about natural dyes for fabrics. Green is made with spinach, yellow comes from turmeric and saffron. Red is made with chilies and tomatoes while sugar cane gives them white and indigo is always blue.

As a large group we went to the Amber Palace Fort in Amber. It’s HUGE but we only saw a bit of it. We went by tuktuk to the base and then got into jeeps to go up the steep, rocky road to the entry.

We walked through the areas of kings and queens. The ladies were never allowed out of the palace once they married the king. Each king had 12 wives but wife number one had all the power. The rooms were empty so it wasn’t really possible to imagine what they looked like in use with the floors covered in fine Persian carpet littered with cushions and curtains in doorways. The gardens and courtyard are under renovation but nobody was working. It was just torn up and left.

The tile walls and intricate carvings in the marble windows and on the pillars hint that it was once a gorgeous place. All around the fort are walls rather like the Great Wall of China but not as tall and certainly not as wide and long.

We meant to go to part of a Bollywood movie that night at India’s second-largest theater and Brahm said that we could go at 6 and get tickets and go in “No Problem.” (No Problem is a sound heard here nearly as often as beeping horns and I have had a life time of beeping horns already.)

Well, Brahm was wrong. The line for tickets was long and unexpectedly rowdy. Also there were two windows, one for men and one for women so we couldn’t understand if men and women could sit together or not. Men and women can’t buy tickets together unless they are married, apparently though that’s not certain. We heard that the crowd at movies is wild and that they sing and dance along with the actors.

Rick and I left but the others stayed in line but didn't get tickets because they were sold out. They ended up going to McDonalds while Rick and I walked past a clinic offering free first aide to traffic accident victims and then a place that sold firearms, not that we looked for either one. After that we got a little lost but we found our way and ate the spiciest dinner of the entire trip if not our lives and then sat around with others talking and drinking tea and water in the hotel kitchen.

Tuesday brought pain and regret. The dreaded scenario of a stolen bag interrupted our group. The selfish in me hugs my backpack fingering the lump of the camera and the bulky wad of passport and Rupees inside but there is a large sense of loss for Lynn who no longer has photos or camera, passport or plane ticket or the tiny teddy bear that her daughter gave her to carry away on all trips. It’s a mess for her.

Someone simply took her bag. She knew she shouldn’t let it out of her hands but she did and then it was gone. We sat at the train station while she began a police report and then we went on without her to check into the hotel. Brahm warned people about things all the time and I’m sure it is in part that he doesn’t want to help do the paper work of the police report. Still, it happened.

A group member, Jeff, let Lynn use his India cell phone to work on the problems. She had to cancel credit cards, arrange for some money to be sent to her, find out about a new passport, and talk with the airlines about tickets. She worked stoically for hours to make arrangements with not a glint of the misery she said she was mired in.

The worst part was in the police station where officers asked her all kinds of personal questions and when she said she had a 15 year old daughter but no husband they demanded to know why. She said she was divorced and they were angry wanting to know why she hadn’t yet remarried. Lynn said they made her feel like a dog.

Despite Lynn’s situation the trip went on and while we rode the train slowly through a station a goat was unceremoniously lifted by tail and neck to be put out of danger. The goat then went to the water pump for a drink. Other than the stolen bag, that was the most memorable event unless you consider the fact that four little kids walked back and forth the entire 4 hours of the trip or that the train was over an hour late so we stood in a sea of flies and stale urine on the track waiting.

I am developing new and profound definitions for these words: dirt, mess, smell, stench, stink, garbage, trash, crap, sewage, pollution, smoke, crowd, push, disorder, large, disgusting, horrendous, beggar and desperate. People have told me that I would love India but I can’t get my mind off the pollution that burns my throat raw or the smell that drives me away from things or the mess and disorder of piles and piles of trash that is never picked up but only grows and spreads in spite of the constantly nibbling goats. And the cow poo. It’s staggering.

We went to the beautiful Red Fort on the afternoon of our arrival. In the older days the fort had a 12 meter wide moat with crocodiles and a 12 meter drawbridge raised and lowered by elephants. It would have had guards at the door so that if the moat were breached boiling water or oil could be poured onto the invaders.

Anyone making it through the next door would be in a sloped alley with soldiers raining arrows down on them while the guards up hill sent down a huge rolling boulder to crush them.

We also learned about eunuchs. Kings had queens but they also had concubines – as many as 300. The daughters of concubines become concubines and the sons become eunuchs. The kings “enjoyed” the daughters of concubines as if they were totally unrelated since there is no lineage or parenthood recognized. The kings probably never even noticed the eunuchs. Tough life for all.

The mortar for the red sand stone fort was a mixture of ground sand stone, egg white, turmeric and sugar. That reminded me of the egg mortar used on the Charles Bridge in Prague.

After roaming the red fort we crossed wicked traffic to board our tukuks and go to the Taj Mahal. Gorgeous. There just isn’t any other way of saying it. Gorgeous.

There’s an entry hall and inside gardens and the Taj and a mosque and also a guesthouse. Interestingly Rick and I sat on a bench to look at the Taj and an Indian family stopped near us but on a higher level. The dad lowered their younger boy over the wall whereupon he came to sit with us. There was a lot of talking and hand movement and we finally understood that they wanted a photo of him sitting between the two of us so that’s what we did. I took their picture taking our picture and then we introduced ourselves to the boy whose name I can’t remember and we shook hands then his dad lifted him back up again. Why would they want such a photo? If you see it on the Internet, let us know.

Interestingly, there was one small light in the entry gate and the rest of the complex was dark. The sun set and in about 20 minutes it was almost totally dark when we shuffled in a mass of people toward that one light.

Wednesday we left Lynn in Agra waiting for her bank to send her money. She plans to fly to Delhi to get a passport. She may or may not rejoin us in Nepal since she must navigate bureaucracy in India on her own. Oh my.

The train station was the same: flies, people sleeping on the floor under blankets, food wallas, porters, an ice vendor, air ranging from smell to stench, and constant train whistles and car horns. Train stations here are smell soup and endless noise and movement.

The train, however, was on time and not crowded. To make up for that pleasure it rocked from side to side for all 4 hours. The view along the way did not include any goats being rescued or any camels working but the fields were being harvested of some grass. Already cut, it lay in the field where groups of women squatted and walked along like ducks to pull the stalks into small piles and lay them flat where the next group of workers would pick them up and make haystacks.

The other notable scene was of brick yards. These were visible in the distance because of their tall chimneys. One wonders where they found water for brick making since what passes for the local river was a few muddy spots under the bridges.
We were promised a 30 minute ride from the train station to the hotel in large, roomy tuktuks but we got a 45 minute ride in a small tuktuk. Ours stopped to buy gas and we learned why the gas pumps have tall metal pitchers with measuring cups on the pumps. The tuktuks need oil added to the gas. For 2 liters of gas, the attendant added one measure of oil.

Buying gas took time and then there was a bit more time spent waiting while our driver talked with a police officer who made him stop and more time still while about 10 cows meandered through a traffic circle blissfully unaware of traffic or danger.

I missed 3 great photos during the ride. First I saw some beautiful Indian women walking out of the fields carrying haystack-sized bundles of sticks on their heads. Then we passed a man riding his motorcycle while holding a chicken by the neck. The chicken was most displeased. Finally there were people-stuffed vehicles: tuktuks with guys standing on the running boards and holding onto the roof and busses with dozens of people on the roof. How do they get up and how do they manage not to fall off?

We had a snack at the hotel where I very clearly said that they couldn’t put milk in my dhal. We had a long conversation but they added cream and told me after I started eating it so Rick and I left and he helped me disgorge my lunch hopefully before I would suffer too much. It takes true love to participate in therapeutic vomiting.

Thursday dawned with chanting voices and flute playing. This is near the end of a festival when women fast and walk to the river to do a ceremonial cleansing and then carry water back to their husbands so they may drink it and live a long life. Personally I think it was an excuse to get out of the house because the festival lasts a month and involves traveling to many places to dip in the river which means no housework. Fasting means eating only fruit which isn’t bad when coupled with the no housework part of the deal.

We went to a complex with 300-500 year old palaces one of which has been remodeled into the Sheesh Mahal hotel and restaurant. The 400 year old buildings still have colorful frescos on the ceilings and walls. The walls were prepared by first coating them in lime cream. The lime cream is made by constantly grinding limestone mixed with water. Next a coating of boiled tamarind was applied and then the paints which were made with ground minerals and rain water. Most of the paintings were flowers and elephants or scenes of the 9 reincarnations of Vishnu.

Hindus have 336 million gods but the main three are Brahma (the Generator), Rama (the Organizer) and Shiva (the Destroyer).

We stopped in the Sheesh Mahalh for drinks when Jen pecked a bit out of her cup but someone said, “That’s just a tea leaf.”

“Well,” said Jen, “this is coffee not tea and that tea leaf has legs.”

This reminded me of breakfast when Rick was picking through the sugar crystals to choose what he’d put in his tea. I asked him what he was looking for and he said he wanted only white sugar.

It’s all white sugar. We don’t know what the brown or black bits are.

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