Wednesday, May 25, 2011

India Caprice, Part 5

It is already the next-to-last day in India, and I am not sorry to be leaving soon.  I’m glad I decided not to take the Kerala post-trip extension to southern India.  I will try to pick up the sequential thread of impressions and activities.

Palace of the Wind, Jaipur, with stone screen facade.
Women could look out on the street scene and not be seen.

On day 5 of the trip, we again went into the city of Jaipur.  Our hotel was the Hotel Paradise, outside the city.  The air in the hotel and in the city itself was good compared with Delhi, and I was able to walk around without a face mask.  This was probably a mistake;  somebody no doubt sneezed on me during those two days (perhaps it was someone from our own group, since two of the women had been sneezing and coughing from the beginning of the trip), and I came down with a miserable cold a couple of days later in Ranthambore.  I had bought a pack of a dozen disposable face masks before I came over, intending to use them on planes and trains in an effort to avoid the respiratory infections one often picks up in such crowded modes of transportation.  I was glad I had them, because, ironically, they were more useful to me in avoiding the terribly polluted air (dust, smoke, fine sand) hovering over all of the cities we went into except, for some reason, Jaipur.  Even in many areas of the countryside, the air was thick with the smoke of burning cow-patties and the grit from rock-crushing for cement production, and if I didn’t wear a mask, I would go into paroxysms of coughing.  Perhaps the veil or the scarf worn across the face in these cultures serves the same purpose.

Jantar Mantar, eighteenth century astronomical observatory

In Jaipur, we visited the Jantar Mantar, a huge, fascinating astronomical observatory built by (Sawai) Jai Singh in 1716.  Apparently, the ideas of Galileo and Copernicus of a sun-centered system had not yet made it to India, although the Mughals were, by that time, in power over much of the northern part of the country.  The enormous complex looks like it should be a children’s play park.  Afterwards, we went through the City Palace Museum, an elaborate, ostentatious show-piece for the royalty living there.  The rajas of Jaipur somehow seemed able to resist the destruction vested upon much of the rest of the northern part of the country as the Moghuls swept across in three separate waves.  The rajas seemed to exercise a combination of bribery and constant military preparedness that deterred the conquerors and sent them on to more vulnerable targets.

Balloon rising

Seven of us had signed up for a balloon ride.  I had never ridden in a balloon before, so I forked over the $175.00 (less a $75.00 certificate as a frequent OAT traveler) for the ride.  It was on the way to the balloon departure area that my photos somehow got deleted.  I had given my camera to one of the fellows in the group to see if he could figure out how to reduce the number of pixels per photo (that camera uses a lot of memory per photo).  I should have taken it back sooner, when it became clear that he couldn’t figure it out quickly.  When I got it back and opened it up to take photos of the inflating balloon, all my other photos were gone.  Hopefully, one of the other fellows in the group will share some of his photos with us.
The balloon ride was disappointing (certainly not worth $175.00).  I had hoped we would fly over Jaipur or the Amer Fort, but the wind was blowing in the opposite direction.  Our pilot, Carlos, was Spanish, the helpers were Indian, and three of the ladies on the ride (myself included) were heftier than we should have been, so the basket was crowded.  As we drifted over the countryside, we saw “smoke” (dust) from some hillside dynamiting.  According to Carlos, this was illegal mining of Jaipur rock - fine marble and other stones.

Patchwork fields and farms

As we drifted closer to earth, over the patchwork Indian farms – greener and cleaner than others we had seen previously – the frightened animals ran away from the hovering monster-in-the-sky and the excited children ran toward us.  An angry herder shook his staff at us as his panicked goats dispersed across a field.  And a “blue bull” (a type of deer), his consorts and an offspring were flushed from a small copse.

When we landed we were mobbed by children, and the adult villagers arrived soon afterwards, including a couple of young men on motorcycles.  We must have been surrounded, finally, by close to a hundred people out there in what seemed, from the air, to be fairly empty farmland.  But India does have people, whatever other resources it might or might not have.  It has about a third the square area of the U.S., and contains about three times as many people, so the population density must be an order of magnitude greater than that of the U.S.

Mobbed by children when we landed


Monday, May 23, 2011

India Caprice - Part 4

11/29/09 (evening)

We are staying at a “wilderness camp” in view of ancient mountains, older even than the Appalachians,   in Rajasthan.  The walls of the cabins are stucco and the doors and windows are of wood, so this isn’t as primitive as the brochure made it seem.  However, the roof is of thatch, and a couple of creatures (a cross between squirrels and chipmunks) are chasing each other through the bamboo struts and the thatching above the porch.  The sun is setting gently behind the hill-like mountains.  The others have gone on a camel ride, which I declined.  The last time I took a camel ride (in Egypt), I got saddle-sore.  And I am simply enjoying the quiet of this place, as I did the courtyard of the lovely hotel where we stayed in Ranthambore.
*        *        *
On the third day in India we took the bus from Delhi to Jaipur.  On the way, we stopped at Chomu Palace, which has been turned into a hotel/restaurant.  We had a wonderful lunch beneath the portraits of the rajas Ram Singh II (who painted Jaipur pink) and his grandson, Madho Singh.
After dinner that evening at the hotel, we went to the “Polo Bar” at the Rambaugh Palace, since converted to a tourist complex.  This bar was a favorite watering place of a recent raja (Man Singh II) who was also a famous polo player.  I ordered a non-alcoholic drink called Moksha - largely fruit juice and tonic or soda water - quite good.

Mountain view from the Amber Fort

The following day, we visited the Amber Fort (actually Amer in Hindi – misunderstood by the Brits), or more precisely, the beautiful marble and sandstone structure associated with the fort.  (I lost my photos of this part of the trip; these photos are from Pete, another traveler.)  The wall d├ęcor and paintings are exquisite:  flowers and images (e.g., Ganesha) painted al fresco into wet stucco using a ground stone paste as paint instead of vegetable dyes; it hasn’t faded in three centuries of exposure to the elements.  The palace is high in the hills and the air is dry, so mildew seems not to have affected the exterior or interior walls.  Again, we were mobbed by hawkers, mostly children, outside the gate and in the main courtyard.  We did buy some things once we were back at the bus.

Wall decor, Amber Fort, near Jaipur

In the afternoon, we roamed the shops of central Jaipur in a group, with our guide.  I bought some Masala tea and some spices at the market.  That evening, we had another home-hosted dinner with a lovely family.  He was retired from the Indian military and she is a school teacher.  He and I had a rather lengthy discussion about gurus (“guru” means teacher in Hindi), his (spiritual) guru having recently died.  Their 13-year-old daughter joined us for the meal. 


Thursday, May 19, 2011

India Caprice, Part 3

I am sitting on a bus parked in the center of a country village near Ranthambore.  The others are out walking through the village and visiting a school there, although it is Saturday and school is closed, but (I found out later) the students had been assembled to sing their ABC’s in English for our group.  The bus driver has offered me some tea he picked up locally, and I'm sipping it slowly.  My nose is running, my cough is deep but loose, and I didn’t feel like walking with the others.  I can see enough of village life through the windows of the bus – the eager, shy children, the animals thronging the streets and gullies, foraging through plastic and other debris: the cows, goats, buffalos, peccaries (spiny-bristled pigs); the rocky, dusty, uneven dirt roads, faggots of wood and stacked rows of cow-patties lining the edges of tramped-dirt yards; a buffalo pissing in a yard then walking on; and motorcycles, bikes and jeeps plying the uneven “highway.” This is a one-lane paved road intended to accommodate two-lane traffic, where motorized vehicles move to the dirt shoulder when passing by vehicles coming in the other direction, and where cows meander singly or in groups down the center of the highway.  The women here wear skirts with large head shawls or else Punjabi dresses (pants with a tunic on top), or saris, and they pull the head scarf over their faces if a man is nearby.  Children carry baskets on their heads and sometimes have other children in their arms.

To continue the sequential narrative:  The second day in Delhi, we visited the now defunct mosque where the Qutb Minar is located.  This was a mosque and enormous tower built by Muslim invaders using building materials harvested from destroyed Hindu and Jain temples.  The tower, apparently the largest in India, was begun in 1209 by Qutbuddin Aibek, the first Muslim ruler of India, and was completed by his successor.  It is a spectacular, five-tiered structure constructed of different shades of red and pink sandstone.  Also in the courtyard of the complex was the famous Iron Pillar with Sanscrit inscriptions, produced during the 5th or 6th century AD and moved to Delhi after the Mosque was constructed.

Qutb Minar and mosque

Next, we stopped at the Bahai Temple in the outskirts of Delhi, but did not go into the sanctuary.  It is built like a lotus flower and reminds me of the Sydney Opera House.  After that, we went to a Sikh temple and did go into that sanctuary, covering our heads and removing our shoes.  (My feet were very dirty that night when I washed them.)

 Then we went to a place where they sell Kashmiri rugs (made in Kashmir but sold in Delhi because tourists don’t go to Kashmir anymore for fear of terrorism).  Several in the group bought rugs, although I didn’t even look.
We ate a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant near the hotel, then went browsing among the shops nearby.  Others wanted to find out where they could look for necessities, but I just wanted to go back to the hotel and rest.  I don’t exactly remember what we did next, nor even if the order of activities above is accurate.


Friday, May 13, 2011

India Caprice - Part 2

To continue with the chronological narrative.  That first afternoon in Delhi, we visited the site where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated.  It has been turned into a serene park where the beggars and hawkers are apparently forbidden to come.  We also stopped by a fairly recently constructed shrine to Shiva, flanked by smaller shrines to Rama and Krishna (two incarnations of Vishnu) with their consorts.  Apparently, there have been no human incarnations of Brahman or Shiva, but there have been nine incarnations of Vishnu, including the Buddha.  The Hindus are awaiting the tenth incarnation of Vishnu, which will usher in a new age (of peace and tranquility?).

Saris hanging to dry along a chaotic street

At some point, we stopped and took a subway train (the Delhi subway is quite new).  We were required to go through a security check, and there was a sign that said (in Hindi) “no riding on top of the trains” – apparently common practice in above-ground trains.  We got out at Chandra Chowk, a crossroads in the old part of Delhi.  There, we mounted bicycle rickshaws and drove through the narrow, crowded streets of Old Delhi.  The streets were gorged with vendors and foot traffic; electrical wires formed a web-work above the streets, and monkeys sat on balconies and cornices picking fleas or staring at the chaos below.  After a bumpy and uneven ride (the poor, thin rickshaw man struggling to pedal two fat American ladies up some of the inclines), we got off at the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, built by Shah Jahan, who also built the Red Fort, visible from the mosque.  Coming back from the mosque in the bus, we were in a traffic jam caused partly because it was a big market day.  Goats, in particular, were for sale, led by ropes across roadways and highways, bought and sold mostly by Muslims, who now make up nearly a quarter of the population of India.
Wild monkey in the streets of Delhi

That evening, we went to the India gate, lit in a brilliant yellow glow.  A concert was in progress near the gate, and the air was full of noise and lights and smoke and incense and the chaos that seems to be urban India.  My breathing began to deteriorate at that point.  Our group got strung out along a thin pathway going toward the gate, and I felt like the group of us at the tail had gotten lost for awhile, although our leader assured us he had his eye on us at all times.  I, however, felt quite insecure.  We later had dinner at a kitchy restaurant called “Lazeez Affaire” – frenchified but not quite French.  The food was mildly spiced Indian, pretty good.

India Gate, New Delhi

After going to bed, very jet-lagged and temporally disoriented, trying to fall asleep, I heard a wailing of brass instruments and an insistent heart-beat-cadenced drumming, interspersed with random explosions, and I thought perhaps some attack was imminent.  I looked out the window and saw cones of tiered lights being waved around and puffs of smoke from explosions, and it all felt rather threatening.  Finally, a man on horseback rode through the gate, and I realized that it was some sort of ritual or celebration and the explosions were obviously fireworks.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

India Caprice - Part 1

“…so the word bamboozle was my one preparation for the rich, noisy, functioning madness of India.”  Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

Taj Mahal

In India more than four days, and this is the first chance I’ve had to sit still and write about the experience of India – the places we’ve visited and my impressions of the country and its people.  We’ve been on the move steadily since our arrival in the middle of the night (early AM) in New Delhi, jet-lagged, exhausted, confused, overwhelmed by the crowds.  Fortunately, there were three other OAT passengers seated near me on the plane and we helped each other to fill out forms in the airport.

Rathambore-Nahargarh Hotel

I’m writing in the spacious, elegant courtyard of the Ranthambore-Nahargarh Hotel, built like a Raja’s palace, white on the outside with pointed-bubble domes and elaborate wall fretwork (Indo-Islamic architecture).  Inside, the facades facing the courtyard are a deep cream color accented with white trim and yellow panels and pillars in a mauve-tan, lighter than the pink sandstone paving the courtyard and veranda steps.  Bougainvillea in brilliant red and purple grow lush in pots around the courtyard, and frangipani trees hang over its four corners.  A fountain drips softly into a shallow, eight-pointed star-shaped pool, and birds (pigeons and other smaller birds) fly down to drink, then fly away again.  It’s a peaceful idyll after the rush and chaos of the first few days of the trip. 
Impressions so far have been a jumble of images - crowded streets and ostentatious buildings - both Mughul and British Colonial - garish gods and temples, blurred by fatigue and overstimulation.  I haven’t taken very good notes, and I’ve lost half my pictures.  They were on a camera I let someone try to find a function on and when I got it back, all my pictures were gone!  I read through the instructions this afternoon and am afraid those photos are gone for good, but I learned how to protect the ones I’ve taken since.  Fortunately, I brought two cameras, each with a new memory card, so I should be able to take plenty of photos.  I have been alternating them, so I’ve lost photos of days one and three, but not of days two and four (I hope).  I’m still jet-lagged and feel like I may be coming down with something – cold sores, scratchy throat.
On the first day in India (Delhi), we woke up “late” (~9:30 AM), ate a quick breakfast, and went out to explore the hotel neighborhood.  The local market place was crowded and dirty, and we were thronged/hounded by beggars and curious, unkempt children.  This has been my experience throughout the trip so far:  being mobbed by the curious, the beggars and the hawkers.  Our leader, Ghopal Singh, has a very good way of handling the hawkers.  The bus is our refuge and, after we get into the bus, he brings in wares from the hawkers, one-by-one, gives us the fair price and, if we would like to buy something, we give him money to give to the hawkers.
And now I have developed a cold.  It started yesterday evening (or perhaps the night before with a scratchy throat) but last night, my head was stuffy and I felt exhausted and finally slept through the night for the first time on this trip.  I did awaken a couple of times, but was able to go back to sleep, which I wasn’t able to do previously.
This morning, we got up at 5:30 AM, had a quick breakfast, and went out to the Ranthambhore Park early in the morning.  We saw a lot of magnificent wildlife:  peacocks, monkeys, spotted deer, antelope, the “blue bull” (I didn’t realize that antelope don’t lose their horns each year whereas deer do), wild boars, several species of birds and a magnificent young female tiger, who just sauntered across the roadway behind us!  Perhaps we were scaring up game for her...