Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hooray - we are in Barcelona and will be boarding the Adventure of the Seas today for a 14 day transatlantic cruise that ends in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Dec. 12. Yesterday we had a nice sunny, yet crisp day wandering around this fascinating city. This time we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express and discovered that it is a very nice and reasonably priced hotel which is located within 1 block of a small shopping and restaurant area reminiscent of the El Born area we so enjoyed last April when we stayed in an apartment there. There is a metro stop 2 blocks away so it is easy to get just about anywhere fairly quickly. And they have a GREAT breakfast!
Yes, I know that I haven't finished with the India travelogues. While we are on the ship, and have limited internet access, I will finish writing them and post them as I have available internet. There are about 5 port days in the first 6 days on the ship, so perhaps I won't catch up as soon as I think!
Now that we are away from India and eating food we are used to, we are recovered from the various digestive system problems we were having. There is a 4 hour time difference between India and here, so we have been waking up at 4AM. It will only get worse as we travel towards the US and get more hours back. Don't know how we are going to stay up as late as we need to on the ship so we can enjoy the live entertainment each night. Perhaps some naps are in order...
More later from our first port, which is Toulon, FRance, a place we have never been before.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Finally we are at another hotel with WiFi. It is raining heavily and we are glad to be in a nice hotel with TV, WiFi and a nice restaurant. Three days left to go on this tour and we are still enjoying it. I am trying to catch up with the travelogues, so here are two more.

India Travelogue #8
Tuesday 11/16/10

Started out early again and drove a short distance to the town of Munnar, where we stopped to buy some snacks and see some tea shops. They sell lots of tea in these parts, and spices too. As we continued our drive, heading for Periyar, we were still passing lots of tea plantations. Today we noticed that they had tall trees scattered amongst the bushes, trees from Australia. The shade is good for the plants and the roots help keep the soil from eroding, as well as releasing some water to the tea bushes during the dry season. They can use the wood to make plywood also. They are also experimenting with planting orange trees among the tea bushes.
We were very high in the mountains and the road was very narrow. When huge buses came along we had to find a wide spot (sometimes backing up) and get way over and then they would pass us with inches to spare. When we reached Periyar, near the Periyar Tiger Reserve, we entered the gate for Greenwoods, our nicest hotel yet. The grounds were beautiful with a swimming pool, badminton court, lots of trees, some of them with jackfruits on them, a big teahouse built high in the trees on stilts, a weight and exercise room, a theater, and an open-air restaurant. Our room was spacious and had every amenity. This was welcome because Elaine still wasn't feeling tip-top, and there was excellent English TV while she was laying around. Once again we were greeted by the staff with paint on our foreheads, flower leis, and this time a coconut with a straw in it so we could drink the water inside.
Good thing Elaine rested in the afternoon because about 4:30 we went to Mr. Abraham's spice garden. His grandfather planted it in the 1950's and it was amazing how many spices and fruits are planted in such proximity to each other, and how much he told us about them. To name just a few, we saw cardamom, vanilla bean, cocoa pods, nutmeg & mace, ginger, clove, mango, pineapple, breadfruit, basil, many kinds of bananas (23 grow here), and many more that I can't remember. It was starting to rain so we went into his house to have an authentic banana leaf dinner, which was cooked by his wife and we ate with our hands, which is the Kerala custom. We had chicken curry, dal curry, excellent parathas, tapioca mash, fish curry, rice, cooked veggies, and we made a sweet dessert with rice, curd, sugar and mashed small bananas. Afterwards we took pictures of the couple and saw their family pictures and heard about their history. Mr. Abraham and his garden have been written up in a book about the 80 best gardens in the world, and he is very proud of it. Surprisingly enough, he has big black tufts of hair sticking right out of his ears and he is proud of that too! Upon returning to the hotel we went up to a dance performance in the theater by a Tamil Nadu girl which was excellent. Her makeup and costume were very intricate and colorful, yet only 5 people attended this. What a shame. She was better than some of the dancers we saw in Khajuraho at the big dance performance.
Wednesday, 11/17/10 there was an early morning jungle walk in the Periyar reserve but we elected not to go. Shanji had said that there would be lots of mud and leeches and we expected that they wouldn't see much wildlife because he said he has been here 30-40 times and never seen a tiger. Also, Elaine needed the rest. When they got back we were glad that we hadn't gone because mostly they saw trees and leeches, plus a couple of deer. While they were cleaning up and having breakfast, we went into town to change money and go to the internet. Then we decided to walk back to the hotel, missed seeing the gate, and ended up walking way out of town, then back again. So we got some exercise after all. Later we went to a performance of Karala martial arts. It was a very choreographed show of 6 guys fighting with various implements, such as daggers and shields, long sticks, some metal whip-like things, and ending with batons with fire burning ends, and a guy diving through burning hoops. The fumes from all the burning kerosene were overwhelming. It was performed in a pit that looked like an empty swimming pool with a dirt floor. It was packed, and cost about $4 per person, so they were doing well. That was the night that Shanji had a cake to celebrate Anna's birthday after dinner, but we opted out. We are finding that the group dinners take way too long to get service and we aren't enjoying all the Indian food, so we are waiting until we are feeling really fit again before we rejoin the group for meals.

India Travelogue #7
Saturday 11/13/10
This was our travel day so we had the morning free, but because I was having the runs, we didn't dare go very far from our hotel. During the morning, Elaine watched TV and I worked on the netbook, but there were frequent power outages. At noon we moved out to the lobby to wait for the cars to arrive. There was a young couple out there who were traveling by themselves and who were trying to get plane tickets to go to South India. They had made arrangements with a travel agency in Delhi when they were there and had only just learned that their tickets were bogus and they now had to pay (again) for new ones. Sadly, these kind of travel scams seem to happen often in underdeveloped countries. The cars arrived and we went to the airport, only to learn that our plane was going to be delayed. We all went to the restaurant and had a beer and some food, and then cleared security and entered the waiting room. It was packed because there was another plane that was delayed also. After a 3 hour delay, we finally got on the plane and headed back to Delhi. By the time we got to our hotel in Delhi, it was late and we all were tired, but it was our last night together and our departure dinner was scheduled. Mayur took us to the restaurant on the corner which had been saving a table for us for hours, and which was loaded with Indian families, so it was really noisy. Interestingly, the men were all sitting at one long table and the women and children at another long table. The kids were running all over and making a lot of noise. We ordered drinks and some Indian food, and were served amazingly fast compared to everywhere else we had eaten. David had collected tips for Mayur from everyone and did an eloquent job of presenting it. Mayur has been one of the best guides we have ever had, perhaps THE BEST, and we were all happy to give him a good tip. In this country that means 150 rupees a day (about $4). It was after 11PM when we finally got back to our room, after saying goodbye to the people leaving for the airport early. We will miss them – this has been a great group.
On Sunday, the 14th, we said goodbye to Mayur and took a taxi to the airport with Warren, the only one who will be continuing with us in Cochin. He left from a different terminal, so he got dropped off first. We left from the old domestic terminal because we were flying Spicejet, but quickly learned that this was also a very nice terminal and even has WiFi. Our flight left on time and arrived early in Kochi. A car was there to pick us up and we learned it was usually an hour and a half drive to the hotel in Fort Cochin. On the drive it became immediately obvious that the vegetation is very tropical, the weather is hot and humid, there is much less traffic and garbage strewn about, and the socioeconomic level seems much higher than in the north. It reminded us of being in Bali or Thailand. There were lots of billboards along the highway. Everything is very green because it rains almost everyday by late afternoon or evening.
Because it takes about 1 ½ hours to drive from the airport, by the time we got checked in at the hotel, it was 6:30PM and time for the group meeting. Our new guide was Shanji, from the state we were now in called Kerala. The group is made up of Jasmin & Peter, from Adelaide, Australia, Paul & Allison from Sydney but they now live in Singapore, Anna, from Ireland, Tom, from Melbourne, Ed from London, Warren from Australia, and us. We all had beers during the meeting, and then headed out for dinner. Warren stayed at the hotel and we should have too because by the time everyone ordered and ate, it was very late and we were exhausted. The restaurant specialized in fish which is quite prevalent here because we are on the coast. Elaine had seafood pasta which turned out to be in a sweet sauce, and I had prawns that were in a coconut sauce and would have been good but they had cooked it with capsicums (bell peppers) which I had specifically requested them NOT to use. The food here is different than in north India although there are similarities. Shanji told us that each of the states down in the south have their own language, and when people from northern India come here, they have to communicate in English, the only common language. He also told us that southern Indians are much darker due to different ancestors. In Kerala, there is currently a communist government, the only freely elected communist government in the world. Apparently a long time ago when only a few people owned all the land, the communists promised land reform and when they were elected, they made sure the big estates were broken up and local people got some land. So they have been in power off and on ever since. But Shanji said they currently aren't doing much for the people and they won't be elected in 7 months when they have a new election.
Because there aren't big cities down here, as there are in the north, the people are spread out all over the place, and the best way to get around is by bus. We have a small bus/van for our group and it will stay with us for most of the next 11 days. The driver is John and he is a friendly, helpful guy. We left the next day at about 8 to drive to Munnar. Just as we left we saw a sign that said it was only 118 km to Munnar, yet Shanji said it would take about 5 hours. Quickly we learned that there are no big highways, just convoluted streets to get out of Fort Cochin and narrow roads once we got into the mountains. There were lots of waterfalls and we stopped at one to take some pictures. Then we hit the area where there were tea plantations; the fields were full of small bushes that were very well trimmed. Shaji stopped to explain some things and let us take pictures of the ladies who were working on the tea shrubs, trimming off the tender leaves on top with a shearing device that had a box underneath to catch the cut leaves. Sometimes they pick the leaves off by hand so they can get them whole, but that cuts their production from 150 kg a day to 50 kg a day. They wear something like a tarp around their bodies so the tea branches don't poke them or catch their clothing and they can move easily among the bushes. Tea bushes would grow into a tree if they let them; they trim them every 8 to 21 days to make sure the leaves have the right amount of polyphenols, and they can make lots of different kinds of tea from the same leaves, depending on how they process them. Tea originated in China and then came to India, and it is BIG here. We passed so many areas where tea bushes were planted, sometimes on very steep slopes, and even in very rocky areas.
Finally we reached an area where we had to get out of the van and ride the rest of the way in jeeps because the road was so steep to our hotel. It was a beautiful hotel and we were greeted by the staff, one of whom put a colored marking on our foreheads with red and yellow paint, the next guy put a lei of fragrant flowers around our necks, and a third guy gave us a cold fruit juice drink. We had a light lunch while waiting for our rooms, and then the others went for a short hike while we rested. That evening we met the others in the “bar” where Shanji had a fire going because it was chilly due to the high elevation. He gave us all Indian rum and coke and we learned that India rum is good. The only thing the hotel serves is Kingfisher beer, which tastes good but always seems to give us a headache.
It was a quiet night in a beautiful setting.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dear Blog Readers: Internets have been few and far between so I am posting 3 travelogues tonight. Hope this doesn't overwhelm you. We are currently in southern India and doing well. Hugs from us both.

India Travelogue #6
Thursday 11/11/10
The morning was free to explore Khajuraho but we stayed in the hotel because we were both fighting colds. About noon we drove to the nearby airport for our flight to Varanassi. The airport procedures were different and more intensive than any we have experienced. Mayur collected our checked luggage and got it screened. We all had to put a tag on each of our carry-on bags and these got through the screening machine while we went into a cordoned off area where a woman guard patted us down and inspected every single thing in our pockets. Then they wanted to see everything in our carry-on bags. Once they were satisfied, they stamped our tags on each bag and also our boarding pass. You can't even carry on extra batteries for your camera! Once on board, it was only a 40 minute flight but they quickly served us ½ a veg sandwich and a fruit juice drink. At all the airports they don't have the extension bridges to the planes; you have to be bussed to the plane on the tarmac and then climb the mobile stairs.
When we arrived in Varanassi we were met by 2 cars which transported us to the hotel. Mayur said that Intrepid pays for the very expensive Palace on the Ganges Hotel because there is so much traffic in the old part of the city and especially along the river that it would take too much time to get in and out for the various activities if we stayed anywhere further away. As we traveled in, the streets became more narrow and convoluted and much more impacted. Everywhere there are people walking in the street, every inch alongside the road has a stall or store or someone selling something or even a street side restaurant, and the street itself is clogged with cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, cars and trucks. It is nuts. In about an hour, we reached our hotel which was a very nice one and located within 200 yards of the river – we could see it across the parking area and riverbank right in front. We were greeted by the staff with a flower lei and a tikka was put on our foreheads. We have learned to quickly wash these off because the paint stains your clothes if you smear it. There was a rooftop cafe and viewing platform where we could see a lot in the nearby streets and on the river.
Varanassi is one of the world's oldest cities, dating back to 1400BC, and is situated between 2 tributaries of the Ganga, the Varuna and Assi Rivers. The Ganga, which normally follows a southeasterly course, changes it path here and flows north through the city. This is considered very auspicious. Shiva is said to have poured the river Ganga down from the Himalayas and Buddah gave his first sermon just outside the city. It is the holiest of the 7 sacred cities of Hinuism. To die here is to receive an instant passport to heaven and release from the cycle of reincarnation.
The ghats are the areas of stone steps leading down the riverbank to the river and there are now more than 100, altogether covering 6 km of the river. They pretty much connect with each other all along the riverbank, and from a boat it looks like you are passing a continuous series of stadium seats made of stone. There are huge, tall stone buildings behind them, many of which used to be the homes and palaces of the various maharajas because they had to make a long journey to come here and they needed their household space once they arrived with all the hundreds of people in their retinue. Today a lot of these are hotels or guesthouses. It is one of the commands of Hinduism that at least once in the life of a devotee, they have to bathe in the Ganges at Varanassi. And many people who are old or sick come here to die. It has become quite a center for old people's homes.
Every night at sunset there is a ceremony call a puja at one of the central ghats. Almost as soon as we had checked into the hotel, Mayur hustled us down the muddy riverbank to get in our boat to travel down there to see it. There was still some light so we could see all the activity and buildings along the riverbank as we motored down there. We were told that we could take pictures of everything but not at the cremation ghats. These are platforms right near the water where huge piles of wood are topped by a dead body which is cremated, and then the ashes are pushed into the river. The male family members have their heads shaved in grief, and the eldest son lights the funeral pyre, but the females stay home. There were lots of boats of various sizes going up and down the river but most were heading for the Dasaswamedh Ghat where the main ceremony is held. By the time we got there, there were already lots of boats there and they were all tied together, so we joined them. There were kids selling tea and flowers and candles who walked nimbly across all the boats. Most of the boats were very old looking wooden ones, some were fairly large, like ours, and some were just row boats with 3 or 4 tourists in them. There were not just western tourists here; many of the boats were full of Indian tourists. And the steps of the ghats were absolutely packed with people.
In front of the ghat there were 7 platforms set up and because the water level of the Ganges had dropped recently, these were higher than the boats, so we could see them clearly even though there were lots of people in the boats in front of us. Big floodlights had been set up and also speakers, and we could hear the chanting. Seven priests came out and took their places on the platforms and then with much bell-ringing, singing and chanting went through a series of choreographed movements with candles, metal implements that gave off a lot of smoke, a christmas-tree shaped set of candles, and big fire burners. People were pulling on ropes that rang lots of bells during the whole thing. When it was over, our boat returned us to the hotel and we could see that there was activity at other ghats as well. We all walked around the block to a different hotel called the Haifa, where we ordered dinner. There were some nice choices for middle eastern food here, the best we have had since our trip to Syria.
The next morning we went back out on the river at 5:30AM and this time the boat was rowed along the riverbank so we could observe all the early morning activities. There were thousands of people washing at the ghats, some people were washing clothes as well. Some cremations were also happening, and we could see them more clearly today. Even animals such as goats and water buffalo were brought down to the river or wandered down on their own. There were several areas where we could see dirty water and probably also sewage flowing down the steps and into the river. Later we read in the newspaper that Varanassi produces 350 million liters of sewage a day but their treatment plants can only handle about a third of it; the rest goes untreated into the river. There are new plants being built to change this, but it will take a while. In the meantime, the water is horribly polluted and people are bathing in it by the thousands. Additionally, the cremation ashes are shoved into the river, and there are some bodies that are put into the river without cremation. Our boat brought us partway back and then we walked along the ghat walk and observed some of the groups of people who were worshiping at small shrines, gathering to chant or sing, or other activities. After breakfast at our hotel, we had a cycle rickshaw ride to the bazaars in the central area. What a chaotic ride through very busy and crowded streets, but it was fun! The seat wasn't very roomy either. Elaine and I barely both fit on it, and to think that we see Indian families riding in one! The guys riding these really earn their money. We then walked through part of the bazaar on a narrow sidewalk to a place where they sold silk and wool scarves, pashminas, tailor-made clothing, etc. When our group entered the room, the floor was like a big white mattress with all of the goods on the walls all around us. We sat on the floor and were served tea, Then the owner explained how to tell real silk from fake silk, all about combed cotton and wool, all about Jacquard weaving, etc. and he emphasized each point by throwing out scarves or other items which were examples. Pretty soon there were layers and layers of textiles on every available space on the floor. It was hard to choose a scarf because there were so many beautiful ones, and there was quite a variety of prices as well. We finally settled on 2 colorful silk scarves which only cost 500 rupees each (about $11). They will be useful when we enter temples and mosques and have to cover our heads. Everyone else was taking longer so we left and decided to walk along the ghats back to the hotel.
Since we were now alone, and not with Mayur, we were immediately bombarded by touts and vendors who wanted us to buy their stuff, or just guys who wanted to talk to us. Mayur always told us to just ignore people and not even talk to them, but at one point we had to ask for directions and a boy of about 14 attached himself to us. We tried to get rid of him but he continued to badger us until finally Elaine was very rude to him and told him to just go away. I think he thought we would give him some money just to get rid of him, but we wouldn't. Finally, he left. It is very sad that this happens in some foreign countries because we are forced to be rude to people and then they think all foreigners aren't nice. But if you are ever nice to someone, they either attach themselves to you or want something.
There was some difficulty on part of the walk along the ghats because there has been a big buildup of mud on some of the steps because of the high waters of only a short time ago. They brought in some big hoses and pumper boats and were hosing the mud back into the river. Within a few days, all the ghats will be cleared of mud again. I suppose the cost of this will be paid by the family that has the commission to maintain the ghats by imposing fees on the cremations. Only this one family sets the fees (based on ability to pay) and determines who gets to cremate their loved one there, and who doesn't. We noticed they had a rather ostentatious house right in the middle of the ghats, so all the fees aren't used for ghat maintenance and festival fees.
When we got back to our hotel, it was lunch time so we went to the nearby Aum Cafe. Some other American tourists who knew Mayur had told us about this place and that it was owned and run by a woman from Sonora, CA. On our way there we ran into her in the alleyway and asked her about her life. She has changed her name to Shavita, is in her 60's, has been there for 7 years, has adopted a 4 year old boy, and is running her place in conjunction with an Indian woman and her family. She decided to do this on her first visit to India when she felt this life change calling her. Her cafe serves only organic vegetarian food made with purified water, has wireless internet, and is somewhat of a hangout for young western tourists trying to find themselves. The food was good but kind of boring. She returns to Sonora for 3 months of the year and spends 9 months in Varanassi. Amazing!
That afternoon there were lots of drums and processions of people coming down to the ghats with huge baskets of sweets on their heads, for another special festival. We watched a lot of the activity from the rooftop of the hotel. Later, Mayur took us out on the boat again because he had arranged for a musician who played the sitar, and his drummer, to play for us for an hour. We had to go all the way across the river for this performance because there was so much noise from the festival and the thousands who were gathering. The music was good and being out on the water for the performance was magical. After an hour we returned to the shore to transfer the musicians to another boat and we returned to the middle of the river for the candle ceremony. By now it was dark. About a hundred candles which were nestled into little bowls with flower petals around them, were lit and then we released them onto the river. Mayur said to make a wish and if our candle was still lit when it reached the other end of the ghats, our wish would be granted. With all of them floating down the river together, it was hard to see which ones made it.
India Travelogue #5

On Tuesday, the 9th, we got up early and ate breakfast at the hotel before going to the train station in our comfy tourist bus. Sadly the driver and helper were leaving us now. As we got out in the train parking area, a little boy got a hold on Warren's foot and by the time he could protest, the kids was polishing his boots. He asked for 100 rupees, Warren gave him 10, and we all went into the station. This train was a better, faster train than the last one, and we were served tea and coffee too. The terrain was changing to being greener from more vegetation. And we went through an area that was full of ravines, where Mayur said outlaws used to hide. We arrived at a town called Jhansi, where we got off the train and there were 2 cars waiting for us there to drive us to Orchha.
On the way, we stopped at a community development project which is partially supported by Intrepid, called Taragram. They use the small pieces of cotton from a shirt factory which normally would be thrown away to make paper. The women who work here are village women who are very happy to have a chance to make some money for their families. They sort the scraps and a machine cuts them all up, then they are soaked and agitated for a long time until they make a pulp. This is spread into sheets, dried on the lawns, and eventually pressed smooth, cut with a big machine, and made into a variety of products such as university degrees, notebooks, coasters, etc. Intrepid gets all the business cards for leaders here. Profits go towards the training and education of rural and tribal women.
We then drove to Orchha, a medieval town on the banks of the Betwa River, founded in 1531. The fortified cluster of dwellings, temples and shrines is a legacy in stone. It is a fairly small town but there was a lot going on. This was a special festival time for the Hindus and lots of them had come from their villages to be here for this event because there is a special temple here for Lord Rama. There were big carts being towed behind tractors and they were jam packed with people. All along the river people were gathering and bathing and filling little metal vases with water. They take the water to the temple and pour it over the statue of Lord Rama.
We went to the Orchha Resort, which is a beautiful hotel and located right on the banks of the river. The grounds were ample and well kept, with even huge air conditioned tents on the lawn to the side of the hotel for overflow crowds. Mayur told us that usually the groups don't stay here because it is so expensive, but their usual hotel was overbooked. We all went to the restaurant for lunch and then were driven to the old Palace Complex for a tour. Most of the buildings were very old and not in use anymore. The painted frescoes on the ceilings in some of the halls and rooms were from the 16th century and were still in decent shape. Of course, they were mostly about the Hindu gods and goddesses so the guide, and Mayur, explained a lot of that to us. Then we had some free time to climb to the top of one of the palaces and the views were amazing. The air pollution wasn't as bad there so we could actually see some of the countryside. Mayur gave us some free time to walk around in the market but we were being badgered by beggars and vendors, and there wasn't anything we wanted, so we just waited until the others returned.
The late afternoon/evening activity was a cooking class which had been arranged in the home of a middle-class woman named Vandana. She lives in a stucco building with her husband and their 2 small daughters, where there is one bedroom, one living room, and a small kitchen. Chairs had been set up in the living room for us and she sat on a small stool near the floor and in front of the kitchen door with a propane 2 burner stove in front of her. She gave us a printout of the recipes for the things that were going to be prepared, and she explained everything as she did it. Her sister-in-law was in the kitchen, handing her foods and spices which had already been prepped. First she made masala chai tea which we hadn't tried yet, and which was delicious. Then she told us that she used about half the amount of sugar that would normally be used for Indian people. She continued with some other dishes and within a few minutes the power went off. Luckily we had been told to bring a flashlight for the tour of the temples in the afternoon and so lots of our group still had one with them and they shone the beams on her as she proceeded. She also lit some candles. Apparently the power situation is often iffy, because we had noticed in Delhi that all the stores on the main street near our hotel had a big generator in front. Later in the trip we experienced power failures on a regular basis at some of the hotels and they always had a generator. Vandana also offered everyone cold water because she has a nice big refrigerator, something that I'm sure is not a regular fixture in a lot of the homes we have been seeing.
Once Vandana had prepared most of the food, we moved our chairs so we were all sitting around the big kind-sized bed in the bedroom where her husband had placed a big tablecloth on the bed and we used it as a table. Actually, the entrance to the house was in this bedroom too. The meal was served on big metal plates with separated areas, like a cafeteria tray. In a restaurant this kind of meal is called a thali. The food was very good and we all enjoyed it because she had toned down the spiciness. While we were eating, it started to rain quite heavily. Before entering any home, you always remove your shoes. Now our shoes were out there in the entry area on the dirt, possibly getting soaked. Oh well, we continued on. Vandana also is an artist who paints designs on women's hands and feet with henna and she offered this service to our group. Eva and Sandrina wanted to do it. She started on Eva and we all watched but then it became obvious that the process was going to take a while, so some of us went back to the hotel in one of the cars. Someone had moved our shoes, so they weren't wet, but we got our sox muddy when we had to walk outside to put our shoes on.
On Wednesday, the 10th, we had a very nice buffet breakfast at the hotel with lots of choices that made those of us who are getting tired of India food very happy. Before breakfast Elaine and I had walked out to the swimming pool area and climbed the steps on the back wall which overlooked the river. There was lots of activity on the bridge that was several hundred meters away, and also on some rocky areas just down from our hotel. An Israeli man was there taking pictures and told us we had just missed seeing a procession of women who had come to the big rock below the wall and gone out on it to do their ritual bathing and to get the water to take to the temple. We decided to try looking again after breakfast and managed to take lots of pictures of all the people doing their bathing on this rocky projection into the river.
Mayur wanted us to see the temple and he explained a lot of what this festival was all about while we were standing in the front vestibule of it. Again we had to remove our shoes and leave them with a shoe minder. We left our sox on and almost immediately regretted it because the courtyard was full of muddy water from all the rain in the night. There were so many people there that we couldn't really get into the main part of the temple to see the statue of the god or the ceremony, so we left after his explanations. Whenever he gathers us around him and talks to us, there are always people who gather around us and try to listen and also stare at us. Mayur just says something to them in Hindi and they move away.
It was time to head for Khajuraho in the cars and it took over 4 hours to get there. The distance wasn't so much but the roads weren't that good. It is always interesting to drive through the villages because there is so much life out on the streets. There are little stalls selling things, guys repairing cars and bicycles or trucks, men giving haircuts, people preparing food, carts full of vegetables and fruits, carts hauling big propane tanks, carts and bicycles stacked high with goods to be delivered, cars, trucks, rickshaws and mopeds weaving in and out, and people walking everywhere. The roads weren't that good between towns either.
About halfway we all stopped at a restaurant for a toilet stop and refreshments. Some other people were there and when we struck up a conversation with them we were totally blown away when we realized it was Axel and Stella. He is German and she is Romanian and we had spent Christmas with them in 2000 in Baja, California when we were camping with our German friends Wolfie and Ilona. Axel and Stella were just traveling with a car and a driver in the opposite direction we were going, and had also stopped there for a break. We had a nice visit with them for about 15 minutes and then we had to move on. They have a condo in Thailand in Phuket and also a sailboat there, and they have urged us to visit them there during the winter when they stay there. The rest of the time they are traveling.
We arrived in Khajuraho and checked into the Ramada Hotel, It is a flashy place but after a short time of staying there it was pretty obvious that it is not being well maintained. A lot of the amenities didn't work. We left right away to go to the home of a local artist where Mayur had arranged for his wife to cook lunch for us. The artist, Dilip Singh, greeted us and got us seated and we saw a bit of his work and heard his story while the food was being prepared. His father was from Rajasthan and relocated here when there were too many artists there due to increased tourism, Now his son is an artist too. We got to see the kitchen where the wife was cooking and the lunch she prepared was really delicious. Afterwards he gave each of us a small piece of silk with an elephant painted on it which was painted by his 9 year old apprentice. It was beautifully done. Of course, we were urged to visit his studio and shop during our time in his city, and he showed us where it was.
Khajuraho is a city famous for the temples which were built between 950 and 1050AD by the Chandela Raiput kings. In 1838 they were rediscovered by the British and following restoration this site is now on the UNESCO world heritage list. These temples are famed for their erotic sculptures, although they account for less than 10% of the total carvings. The carvings are all over the outside of the temples, which rise several hundred feet, and there are currently 22 temples which have survived. The temples are in several areas of town and we went to the western ones. The grounds are beautifully kept. Here the temples are a superb example of Chandela art and architecture, in sandstone, depicting scenes of everyday life of the people and courts of the 10th and 11th centuries. They include gods, goddesses, warriors, animals and people, sometimes enagaged in acts of love. From the exterior, the temples are a series of towers each higher than the other. Our local guide took us to some of the more interesting carvings and tried to interpret what was going on in each panel. It would have been easy to spend an entire day here, looking at all of the temples and carvings, but we left after 2 hours.
That evening we all went to the Kandariya Dance Show. It was held in a theater and was a performance showcasing an array of cultural dances from 7 different regions of India. They were accompanied by 2 drum players, a keyboard player, and a woman singer who also played some bells and other percussion instruments. The makeup and costuming were very elaborate and colorful, and the dancers were athletic and enthusiastic. We all enjoyed it. Usually these dances are performed at festivals and also religious gatherings in the temples because most of them are about Lord Shiva or other Gods. When it was over, we went out to eat at an Italian Restaurant where we had pizza and beer – a nice change from Indian food but certainly not up to the standards of pizza at home!
India Travelogue #4

Nearly everybody is aware that one of the world's greatest monuments is in Agra – the Taj Mahal. “The City of Love”, Agra was the capitol of India in 1501 but after while it alternated with Delhi as the Mughal capitol for the next 2 centuries. It is located on the Yamuna River and is heavily industrialized, something the government is trying to deal with to prevent further deterioration of the Taj Mahal from the excessive pollution. There is a zone around the monument where only electric carts or horse-drawn carts are allowed.
The Taj Mahal is Shah Jahan's monument and mausoleum for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. She was 39. Building started the same year and took 20,000 workers 22 years and cost 41 million rupees to build. 500 kilos of gold was used along with other precious stones and white marble.
Before we visited the monument, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant which had an outdoor eating area on the second floor with a huge tree nearby. The food was good and well-priced but the big fun was the little chipmunks running along the branches nearby and then a troop of monkeys came over the roof and launched themselves onto the branches above us. Immediately the staff came running with long poles to chase them away. I suspect that these animals would have joined us for lunch if they had been allowed access.
At the lot where our bus parked, we took an electric vehicle that looked like a long golf cart and which took us down near the east gate of the Taj Mahal entrance. There was a hotel there which was used by the basic Intrepid group and where Mayur told us what to do at the monument, and where they gave us our 750 rupee tickets along with a little bag containing a bottle of water and shoe coverings. Mayur would wait for us at this hotel. Off we went and experienced a very thorough screening process to get in. At most of the monuments we have visited here, we not only have to go through a scanner and send our bags through one, but we are thoroughly patted down by a woman guard. So every place has a women's line and a men's line. You can't even bring extra camera batteries in with you. Once inside, we observed that only foreigners were carrying these little bags and wearing shoe covers. I'm sure the cost of our ticket was much higher than Indian people pay. I think it cost 750 rupees.
Even the gate was impressive, having been built of red sandstone, big and elaborately carved. People were pouring in from other gates and it was getting very crowded very fast. We were with some of the couples from our group long enough to take pictures of each other at the best spot, with the water fountains leading up to the monument behind us and the monument centered behind us as well. As we were taking our first pictures near the best viewing place, Indian families were doing the same and some of them asked us to pose with them. So we got some pictures of them too. The main goal while building was symmetry. Every structure, except the main hall had to have a balancing structure on the other side. The 4 minarets, 2 on each side, are built leaning outward slightly so that if they fall, they will not fall on the monument and damage it. Two red sandstone buildings are on each side, one is a mosque and the other is a guesthouse which was no doubt only used by royalty. The Yamuna River runs right behind these structures. After marveling at the building and the very meticulously tended grounds, we proceeded to the upper level where the entry to the monument is. People have to remove their shoes before going onto the white marble area near the monument and this is where we put our shoe covers on. Probably Intrepid is afraid that if we leave our shoes outside along with the thousands of others, someone will steal our shoes. There was a very long line which went all the way around to the back, so we hurried to get in it. Everywhere were India women wearing incredibly beautiful and colorful saris so we tried to get some pictures of them. While we were in line, a girl of about 12 came up and asked if she could borrow my hat to wear in a picture. Then her mother wore it too. It is just a white Tilley hat with a few pins in it from our South Africa trip, but they were very happy that we let them use it. Then they took a picture of us too. This kind of interchange went on for our entire time at this monument. Eva is a cute young Canadian woman in our group and lots of teenage Indian guys wanted to have a picture taken with her. Finally we got into the monument and it was fairly dark in there. Tip for anyone else visiting – bring a flashlight. In the center there is a carved screen all around the tombs of Shah Jahan and his beloved wife, and this is the mausoleum. There is a big sign asking people not to take pictures but when we entered there were flashes going off everywhere. The tombs are the only thing in this entire complex that aren't symmetrical because her tomb is in the center and his is to the side but higher than hers, of course, because he is the man. This is a very sexist country. There are nice marble carvings in the walls but no depictions of any people or animals because this is a Muslim monument. Outside, we walked around, taking more people pictures and enjoying watching the interactions of the families. We walked back to the river, passing the guesthouse, and enjoyed the grounds a bit more. Happily, it was a beautiful sunny day with the clearest sky we had experienced yet, so perhaps the steps they are taking in Agra to reduce pollution are working.
When we returned to the parking lot area by electric vehicle, we were dropped off in the back, near a whole double row of tables selling stuff, so that we would have to walk through them and possibly buy something. Everyone else was dropped off in front, so I guess only foreigners experience this.
The next stop was the Agra Fort, also called the Red Fort. It was very similar to the one we toured on our own in Delhi. It was built in 1565 and three mogul emperors lived here, including Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. We only toured a very small part of it but it took several hours and we had an excellent guide. The Taj Mahal can be seen in the distance, although the pollution was heavy so it was difficult. After many years of ruling, Shah Jahan was imprisoned in a tower of this fort for 8 years by his son, who took over from him, and who also killed his other 3 brothers. So the irony of it all was that he could see his impressive monument from his prison.
By the time we left it was getting dark but Sandrina wanted to go to a carpet factory so we all stopped there. It turned out to be an informative and enjoyable visit. We have been to carpet places in both Morocco and Turkey and this it was abundantly clear that the carpets made here are vastly superior. The owner explained all the processes and had required some of the workers to stay past quitting time to demonstrate the steps for us. They start with the raw wool or silk and go from there. It is very labor intensive but the finished products were incredible. In the showroom, we were offered a drink or tea while they trotted out various styles and sizes of carpets. Eventually Sandrina and Eva had each bought one. They pack them up into very tiny packages which can be carried on the plane.
From there we went to the Hotel Karawan Grand Casa, which looked very nice from the front and which was very modern and white in the rooms. We all quickly got ready to go out to dinner for David's birthday. When he was planning this trip, he went to a travel agent in the UK and said that he wanted to be at the Taj Mahal on his 50th birthday so find him a trip that was there on Nov. 8 and which also went to Varanassi. The one they found was this trip! The restaurant we went to was outdoors on a big lawn with fancy tables and colored lights and a noisy fountain right behind us. Most of the diners were tourists. The food was good but not great, and it was expensive. Mayur had arranged for a big birthday cake too. The evening was even a bit cool out there. We were all happy to go right to bed afterwards because it had been a big day.

Friday, November 12, 2010

India Travelogue #3 11/11/10
This tour has been moving so fast and there have been so many included activities that we have not had a free moment to even think about writing a travelogue. Additionally, there have not been many opportunities for using the internet, so I will have to delay adding any pictures to these travel tales until later.
Today Elaine and I are both having the beginnings of a cold, so on this, our first free morning, we let the others go shopping and exploring in Khajuraho while we rest in our hotel. It is the Ramada, and looks very flash, with lots of amenities such as satellite TV, a hot pot in the room, etc. but apparently they aren't very good at maintenance and we have needed lots of help from the staff to get things working. This is something we are finding almost everywhere in our hotels – they look good but are not up to western standards as far as maintenance. We are very glad that we took a “comfort” trip because it means we are having acceptable places to stay and comfortable modes of travel. When we see how the Indian people are crammed into train cars, buses, auto rickshaws, riding in open carts pulled by tractors or trucks carrying both livestock and people in the back and on the roof, bicycles and mopeds with 4 or 5 people on them, it makes us feel spoiled when we pass them in our air conditioned cars with 6 people in them. They would probably try to cram in at least 12!
In our last message we had just boarded the train to Jaipur. The train journey was fairly smooth and they served us coffee or tea and a pretty bad breakfast, with our choice of veg or non-veg. This is common all over because the Hindus are mostly vegetarian. When we arrived in Jaipur we were met by a very nice tourist bus with a driver and his assistant and they were with us for the next 3 days. They drove us to the Bissau Palace Hotel. This is a heritage property, which means that it is a hotel which has been created in one of the former palaces of the maharajas. The family still lives in part of the property. One anomaly is that it is located in an area just past a local market area where the people are butchering chickens and fish in small stalls right along the side of the street, there are other small stalls as well, and the stench and garbage piles are almost overwhelming. The hotel has walls all around the property and a guarded gate and it is such a surprise to drive through the absolute squalor of the markets and then arrive at the upper class hotel.
The lobby, library, and restaurants are all colorfully painted and there are pictures everywhere of the royal family with world leaders, also displays of weapons and heads of animals that were killed on their hunts. We had a delicious lunch of Indian food in their restaurant and then left for a tour of Jaipur. First we went to the Sakshi block printing factory and showroom. It is world famous for its methods and the quality of their work, and also because it was one of the places that Bill and Hilary Clinton specifically said they wanted to see when they were here during his presidency, but a scheduling conflict prevented it. They sent an apology and photos of themselves which are prominently displayed in the showroom. This factory has artists which cut designs into teak wood and other artists who skillfully mix the paints and dyes in which the cut blocks and dipped and then pressed onto a carefully prepared cotton cloth. They use more than one color on the various figures and the results are colorful and artistic. They then make them into bags, clothing, table cloths, etc. Most of the textiles being sold in the markets are machine made and the guy at the factory emphasized that they are trying to keep these ancient skills alive by training new young artists to do this work. They also claim that the reason their goods are such quality is because of the special water there and also the things they use for the dyes, as well as the process. They make some ceramic pieces their too, and their brilliant blue ceramics are outstanding.
Jaipur was constructed in 1727 by Maharajah Jai Singh as his new capitol. It was one of the first planned cities and was once enclosed within fortified walls 20 feet high and guarded by 7 gates. Today some of the gates remain. It is known as the Pink City, a traditional color of welcome, which was used in 1853 in honor of the visit of Prince Albert, Prince of Wales. It is the capitol of Rajasthan and is in the heart of the Thar desert. Most of the buildings are still painted pink today.
Our bus took us back into the main part of Jaipur and we took pictures of an interesting building called the Hawa Majal or wind palace. It forms part of the east wall of the City Palace complex. There are lots of windows with carved screens in front of them which allowed the ladies of the court to watch the goings-on in the street without being seen themselves. The many windows also allowed a lot of wind to flow through, creating natural air conditioning. We then walked around with Mayur as he showed us various areas and markets and explained about life in Jaipur. Our group was supposed to attend a Bollywood movie at the very large and colorfully lit movie house here, but because it was still holiday time here, all the shows were sold out. Many of the restaurants were closed as well, so we ended up in a very upscale one called Reds, which was very high up in the mall building across the street from the theater. The views were good and the food and drinks were good but it was also mostly filled with westerners and very expensive. We took an auto rickshaw back to the hotel and what an incredible experience that was! They weave in and out going along as fast as they can, depending on the other vehicles to allow them to merge in, pulling out right in front of oncoming traffic. And there is so much other traffic that this is like a thrill ride. You have to negotiate ahead of time with the driver and I suspect that we pay more than locals, but it took 4 of us back for 70 rupees which was less than $2.
On Sunday, our bus took us to the Amber Fort, which is just outside Jaipur. This structure is mostly yellow in color because it was made of sandstone. It dates from 1600 and was used by 28 kings over 6 centuries. It is a national monument today. The gardens and grounds are impressive and well kept, and there is a small lake in front. It is situated high up on the hill requiring quite a bit of stair climbing. The way the rajas got up there was by elephant and many of these animals are still in use today to haul tourists up to the main site. Although there has been some steps taken in recent years to help protect them from overuse and abuse, they are still not being treated right by the men who drive them, because they use an iron poking device which looks like a fireplace tool to poke them on top of their heads when they want them to go faster. Intrepid advised us not to ride them. We had a local guide who took us through the palace and pointed out many of the interesting and important areas and activities of the royal household.
Back in town, we were released by Mayur and our group had a nice lunch in a local restaurant called LMB. The food was good, reasonably priced, and it was frequented by locals as well as tourists. These lunches are affording us the opportunity to learn more about India food, although we are finding it to be spicier than we prefer a lot of the time. When we eat in places which cater to tourists, the food is not highly spiced at all. Then we walked along the street with Kathy and Sandrina and did some shopping. It was fun to go with them because they were buying things and we really didn't need or want anything, and also our bags are so packed that we can't fit anything else in! Sandrina bought nice outfits for herself and her husband to wear for a picture at the Taj Mahal. Rajasthan specializes in leather shoes and sandals, which Kathy bought. Elaine tried some on but they didn't fit right. The items are all reasonably priced and the vendors are always after us to look at their stuff as we pass by.
In the evening, our group had a very nice buffet dinner on the rooftop of the hotel. The weather has been warm and even in the evening it is comfortable to be outside. This was the last night of the Diwali festival so there were still fireworks going off periodically. We tried the local beer called Kingfisher and thought it was good. Our leader, Mayur, swears that the best drink here is rum and coke, using Indian rum, of course.
The next day we had a 5 hour ride in our comfy tourist bus on a fairly decent road to Agra. On the way out of the city we watched as people emerged onto the streets and hardly a minute went by without seeing someone either squatting by the ditch or men relieving themselves on the walls. No wonder we have to be so careful here about not eating any salad or fruits that aren't prepared at good restaurants and we have to use antibacterial gel on our hands often. Mayur won't let us eat any food from street stalls either It was interesting to look out and notice how life was different in the countryside and small villages compared to the cities where we have mostly spent our time so far. There are many fields which clearly are worked by hand, and there are often broken walls and rubble scattered about. There were some ponds with water buffalo wallowing in them, and women working nearby collecting the dung to make small patties which they dry and use for fuel. Periodically there were dusty fields where boys were playing cricket with a stick and small ball. About halfway to Agra we stopped at a roadside motel with a restaurant, toilets, and huge shopping area selling over-priced tourist items. When you use these toilets, there is a lady there who demands 10 rupees, and who is always a member of the untouchable caste. Mayur told us that no one else will clean the toilets, and he explained the whole caste system to us. Even though this system is gradually being eliminated in major cities, it is still rampant in the villages and countryside. It used to be that every boy had to follow the occupation of the family into which he was born. If his father was a butcher, he would be a butcher. Today there is more flexibility but it is still very difficult to do anything outside your clan. People who do not obey this, can be thrown out of the clan and no other clan will accept them. There are also honor killings. If someone disobeys the clan rules, such as the woman and man who did not marry the people they were supposed to in an arranged marriage, and eloped together instead; they were killed by their families and this is accepted. Most marriages are arranged, and always within your own caste but someone from another clan in order to mix up the genes. They have an astrologer do the horoscope of the couple to make sure they will make a good match; it is based on the date and time of birth, as well as place and parents.
Mayur also told us about the health system and said that it is possible for a woman to get birth control or an abortion. They are strongly urged to limit their families to 2 children, and there are various ways they enforce this, such as you can't get government jobs if you have more than 2. They refuse to tell a woman the sex of the child she is carrying because they are afraid that she will abort it if it is a girl, because this is such a male dominated society. He told us about the school system too, which apparently is barely adequate and parents that can afford it send their kids to private school. Children here wear uniforms to school. However, there are many children who are working or begging in the street.
As soon as I get some more internet time, I will continue this travelogue by telling you about one of the highlights of the trip: Agra and the Taj Mahal.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

I am having some internet problems so I will not be able to post any pictures until the next hotel. Check back for these later.
Travelogue #2 from India
As I am typing this, we are sitting on a train to Jaipur. Our group left from the hotel at 5AM so that we could take taxis to the railway station and catch the train at 6:05AM. We will arrive by 10:30. Now that it is getting more light outside, we are wishing that the train windows were a little cleaner and less scratched so we could see the countryside better. Even though we are booked in reserved cars with upscale service, in fact the cars look very old and well-used. Mayur has told us that the railway service in India is huge, employs 1.5 million people, and runs 20,000 trains a day! There are 3 seats on one side of the aisle and two on the other and the seats are OK. There are luggage racks above and we were warned to be careful while putting our bags up there because often people set their small bags or purses on the seat while doing this and then someone comes along the aisle and walks away with the small bags. It seemed very busy in front of the station, and while going through security, yet Mayur, our guide, says that things are very quiet today because it is Diwali, their main holiday. We were well aware of it last night because one of the main ways they celebrate is with fireworks. So from 8PM until after midnight it sounded like we were in a war zone. We didn't dare venture out on the streets, and when I opened the window a crack to look out, the formerly polluted air was now very thick with smoke and sulfur fumes. Today people are home with their families. Mayur is somewhat sad because he had to leave his wife and 2 small children alone in Bundi at this major celebration time.
Yesterday was our initial meeting with Mayur and the rest of our group. There are 11 of us, plus our guide, all from different areas. There is a couple from Australia and also a single man, a couple from England, a couple from Vancouver, Canada, a French couple from Ontario, and we are the only Americans, as usual. This is one thing we enjoy about Intrepid groups – we meet people from all over the world and we don't have to travel with any ugly Americans. The other thing we enjoy about these trips is that we do things that we would never do on our own, get information we would never obtain otherwise, and appreciate the input of the whole group all of whom have had a myriad of experiences. Yesterday was a perfect example of what happens on Intrepid trips that we so appreciate.
After our meeting was over, we took a local bus down to the Old Delhi area to the Jama Masjid mosque. Buses here look very dilapidated and are usually jam packed with people, about 90% of them men. In fact, this is about the percentage that you typically see out on the streets. The only countries where we see fewer women out and about are Muslim countries. Of course, everyone takes one look at our group and knows we are foreign. Getting on the bus was a challenge because we had to squeeze in. But once on, they readily moved aside and made room for us, and as seats became available, insisted that we take them. I was in the back and there was a guy there collecting money from all the people who got on the back. How he could remember who had paid and collect from them while things were so crowded and chaotic was just amazing. I think the bus ride cost about 7 rupees. Looking out the bus windows we could see that there were zillions of people on the streets, many of them doing last minute shopping for Diwali. And here that means shopping in the outdoor stalls and bazaars. Departing from the bus, we got a big wave from the guy in the front who had been collecting money up there.
To get to the Jama Masjid mosque, we had to walk along a wide area called the Jama Masjid Bazaar where there were people selling everything you can imagine. There were people sleeping on the pavement, dogs running here and there, and huge masses of people everywhere.

Then we climbed the steps to to the mosque entrance. It is a red sandstone mosque and it is located not far from the Red Fort. The sandstone comes from a quarry near Agra.

The women in our group were required to put on a gown covering our clothes which was made of a dowdy flowery fabric and everyone had to remove their shoes. Although entry was free, there was a 200 rupee fee to take pictures inside. Shortly after we entered and looked around a little, there was a call to prayer and we were hustled out of there by some fairly rude Muslim men, so we were glad we had not paid the camera fee. Having been in some fairly spectacular mosques in Morocco , Turkey and Syria, we were only mildly impressed with this one. The courtyard is big enough to hold 20,000 worshippers on special holy days.
Exiting through the opposite gate, we were now in the labyrinthine streets and alleys of Old Dehli. This day there were special decorations for Diwali, so the area looked a little less dirty and dilapidated. They use marigolds, and lots of them, in strings and hang them over the streets and across the fronts of their businesses. Other flowers are also used. Strings of lights are also hung across the roads and hanging down some of the building fronts. It was so crowded in these narrow streets and besides people walking there were many bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, and mopeds that our group had to walk single file and work hard to stay together. Going through here reminded us of exploring the souks in Fez, Morocco. There was very type of business imaginable and the fireworks sellers were especially popular. Mayur showed us a stand where a man was rolling up packets made with a leaf, ground-up lime paste, tobacco, and chopped betel nut. People buy this and chew on it and eventually become addicted to it. Unfortunately, the betel nut causes their teeth to become reddish brown and also to rot after a while. There was also a stand selling whole water chestnuts, many food stalls where they were usually frying something, lots of bead stalls, fabric shops, etc. Just as we were wondering where people lived, we came upon an open door leading to a street of fairly nice houses where a man invited us to step in and take pictures. There were also many people living in the apartments above the stores and stalls.
We continued on to the Gurudwara sis ganj Sikh Temple. Mayur explained a lot about this group which has split off from the Hindu religion. The men never cut their hair, so they keep it rolled up under a turban. We had to remove our shoes and wear something on our heads. I didn't have a scarf so they supplied me with an orange bandana. We went into the temple and sat on the floor on carpets. You have to be careful to never point the bottom of your feet towards anyone or the altar. There was a big gold canopy there which covers their sacred book, and there were three musicians sitting off to the side playing music while another guy sang the verses of the book. People pray for a while, whole families sitting together and not separated men and women, as they do in the mosques. Then they walk up to the altar, and also go down a staircase to the sacred site where one of the prophets was beheaded by the Moghuls a long time ago. Then we toured the kitchens because the Sikhs believe in service to mankind, so they feed thousands of people everyday-even those that are not Sikhs. They have huge woks and kettles and people are cooking all day long. Another nice thing here was that it was permissible to take pictures anywhere, and some of them posed for us.
By now it was getting dark, and as we exited the temple, we admired all the colored lights hanging from the buildings for Diwali. Then we noticed whole troops of monkeys running around on the balconies and rooftops. Mayur took us to the Metro and explained how to get a token, enter through the turnstiles, go through security, and get to the platforms. The cost varies according to how far you are going, but at most it is less than 15 rupees. Even though it was less crowded because of Diwali, we still had to push and shove to get into the car when it arrived. Then we changed to a different line, so the females in our group decided to ride in the front 2 cars which are reserved for women and are much less crowded. Eva, the girl from Vancouver, had been groped on the Metro a few days ago and she told us to always use the women's cars. The men had to stay several cars back and when John, one of the Aussie guys got off, someone had pickpocketed his camera. This is what happens when there are so many people everywhere, something I guess we have to expect from a city of 14 million people.
It was a short walk from the Metro back to our hotel. The English couple went to bed because they had just arrived today and were exhausted, while the rest of us went out to dinner together. The first restaurant was closed because of Diwali so we went to a cafe type place which was strictly vegetarian. We had a combination plate of about 6 different Indian dishes and the food was good; not too spicy. This time we had roti, a type of bread, and discovered we like it better than naan. The food was very inexpensive too – 200 rupees for both of us and we had more food than we could eat. Good thing dinner didn't take long because we all had to pack and get ready for a 4AM wake up call. We heard the loud fireworks, but they didn't disturb our sleep much!
As we reflect on the day we had yesterday we realize that one of the things we most value about these Intrepid trips is that we are much more exposed and immersed in the culture than we would ever achieve if we were here on our own. We are also learning that although this is a “comfort” trip, this just means that we are having a lot more comfort than Indians have but at times it doesn't even meet the standards of ordinary in Westernized countries.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

11/5/07 Hello from Delhi! Our tour starts this afternoon and I wanted to get this blog posted before that. The travelogue that I have written and will attach below will tell you about our journey. What it doesn't cover is the time between my last post and the start of this trip. Besides all the packing and organizing, there was a very nice farewell Happy Hour and dinner around our neighborhood fire pit with our special Park Sierra friends, hosted by Carol Rodely. Because the weather had turned chilly, the new fire pit got a workout and was much appreciated.

Saturday we drove to San Diego and stayed with Darran & Marielle for two nights. They are doing well and very happy now that they are engaged. Here is a picture of them with the Dana Hotel behind them, which is where they will be married next October.

We walked over there with them on a sunny Sunday and had a delicious lunch at the fish restaurant across the street at the marina. Then we all went to Marielle's sister's house for dinner and Halloween. Here is a picture of Meg and Marielle.

The young people all carved some pumpkins. Here is Darran with his:

Two of the couples have little girls, and they were dressed up for the occasion:

There were not too many Trick or Treaters this year so the adults at the party did the most damage to the candy bowl. A good time was had by all thanks to Meg & Ben. Here they are with their "baby", Daisy.

The next day, we got ready for the big adventure, which is described below in our first travelogue. It is rather lengthy, but then we are having so many new experiences that we are enthusiastic!

India Trip Travelogue #1
11/4/10 Thursday
The odyssey began Nov. 1 when we boarded the Amtrak train from San Diego to Union station in Los Angeles, and then caught the Flyaway bus to LAX. This was such a delightful way to get there as over a long distance, the tracks ran right along the oceanside, with wonderful views. And the ticket prices are fairly inexpensive. Our senior discount tickets added up to a bit less than $60 for 2, with the Flyaway bus costing $7 each. At LAX we had several hours to relax after dropping off our bags at British Airways and going through the lengthy security process. Having rarely flown out of LAX, we didn't know that most of the good places to eat and drink are located before you pass through the security check. So we had a very expensive beer and hot sandwich at the one bar/deli near our boarding gate. Our flight to London left at 6:25PM and the plane was packed. There was a large contingent of young girls of various ages and their chaperones who had done quite well at an Irish dancing competition, judging by the numbers of medals hanging around their necks. I was seated next to a very nice young Spanish woman who was a pilot for Iberia Airlines and who had just gotten married in Hawaii. Her husband is a botanist working on an advanced degree in California, so he stayed behind. It turns out that she lives in Palma de Mallorca, one of the islands where our ship will call on the cruise we are taking after the India part of this trip. She gave us her card and told us to call her when we get there. So many nice people with interesting stories are out there which always make even the fairly uncomfortable parts of travel delightful.
The flight was decent, with the very nice flight attendant, Marsha, supplying us with lots of small bottles of wine. It was disconcerting that there were so many movies, TV shows, and other entertainment on offer right on the small screens in front of each seat, but the volume wasn't loud enough to overcome the engine noise. On the next leg of our journey, from Heathrow to Delhi, we were seated in the front part of the plane with better seats and different headsets, which totally blocked out the plane noise, and we happily watched a movie we had been hoping to see. Isobel, the pilot we had met, said that at Heathrow we would not have to go through security again so we took several of the unopened bottles of wine with us off the plane. Unfortunately, she was wrong and we had to endure that unpleasant ordeal once again. And, of course, they confiscated every bottle we had. The plane was not full at Heathrow, and because some people had checked some bags and then not arrived for the flight, we were delayed for an hour while they found those bags and off-loaded them.
Although that delay caused us to be late arriving in Delhi, and despite the fact that it took a long time to go through customs, and then retrieve our bags, as we exited the airport, thankfully there was Sachim waiting for us. He works for Intrepid Travel just picking up people from the airport and helping them check in at the hotels. All the travel books warn about the touts at the airport, ready to convince unwary travelers to go with them on an over-priced ride to a similarly over-priced hotel. They were waiting outside the arrivals hall in their hundreds! Speaking of the airport and the arrivals hall, their terminal is new and gorgeous. Here is a picture of the decorations in the customs area:

Sachim called his driver and off we went on the 25km trip to Karol Bagh, the district of our hotel. While we were off-loading the plane, we had noticed a burning smell and as we exited the airport building we discovered it was from all the air pollution. The air was even worse with smog than we had experienced in China. As we motored along we noticed many of the things we had read about: cows standing on and alongside the road, cement tenement buildings, some people living along the roadside in tents or corrugated metal shelters, motorized rickshaws swerving in and out amongst the many taxis and trucks, areas of broken sidewalks with abundant litter, fields with smoldering garbage, people picking through garbage heaps, and lots of unfinished looking cement buildings.
The area where our hotel is located would be considered a slum in the United States. The front of the hotel looks nice, and the interior is clean and mostly wood and marble, but the buildings all around it look shabby. Here is a picture of the front:

Our room is fairly decent with all the amenities we need: TV with English stations, internet access, bathroom & shower, fridge, coffeemaker, etc. There is a whole row of stalls across the street selling car accessories. People pull up to have upholstery installed or repaired, buy parts, etc.

Just around the corner is one of the main streets although there is not a lot of traffic because the street is so clogged with people selling things off street carts, walking in the street because the sidewalk is so uneven and broken, eating off food carts, and all of this taking place in front of store fronts. We walked down to the McDonalds about 3 blocks away because it was the only restaurant we could find. The menu is very different because they don't eat beef here (Hindu people don't eat meat). So we had a veggie burger and a wrap that was a type of cheese (paneer) with a few veggies and salsa in a flatbread wrap. There were also some chicken choices, but no lamb, as we had been told. The place was packed. Of course, because we hardly slept on the planes, we were exhausted, so we slept for a while and then went back out on the street later. There is a lot going on probably because the Diwali Festival starts Friday. This is kind of like Christmas for the Hindus. There were lots of strings of lights over the street, and several special things are happening, such as women getting elaborate patterns painted on their hands. In other countries this has been done in henna, which lasts about 3 weeks. Here it is just a shiny, brownish paint which lasts a week or so. As we walked around, we could see that there had been quite an accumulation of litter and garbage on the streets as the day progressed, so apparently people here think it is someone else's job to clean up after them.
We tried to find a bank to change money but ended up at the money changer nearby. It was also a travel agency and telegram office. The rate we got was 44 repees per dollar with no commission, which was very good compared to the airport exchange booths which offered 41.3 rupees and a 10% commission. Unfortunately for us, the dollar is dropping, so this trip is getting more expensive as we go along.
Thursday morning we had the complimentary breakfast at our hotel and it was a nice assortment of foods, plus coffee, toast and eggs. Clearly they cater to foreign visitors. We chatted with two Canadian ladies who were just finishing their trip and they warned us about being really careful about only drinking bottled water, not eating salads, washing fruit even before peeling it, using hand sanitizer especially after handling money, etc. There are fruit vendors on the street with beautiful displays of things like pineapple, and it is killing us that we can't eat it!
When we asked the hotel clerk about taking the Metro to see some of the sights, he gave us a good map and some help and then he said he could get us a taxi and driver to use all day (8 hours) for 950 rupees. This was only about $22 and would enable us to get to more of the far-flung sights, so we agreed to do it. He picked us up at 9:30AM and we were immediately glad to have him because several women beggars with small babies were very persistent when w­e went out to get into the car and we literally had to shut the door in their faces. Again we noticed that the air was very bad. We asked the driver, Ramiz, about it, and he said that it wasn't particularly bad at this time of year; May was the worst. It was worth it to take the car just to experience driving around on the streets and be right in the traffic. My God – it is amazing that everyone isn't killed. They swerve and weave into every available opening with no regard for lanes or allowing anyone any stopping space. There are auto rickshaws, small trucks, mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles, buses, cars, horse-­drawn carts, and people all vying for space on the very crowded roads. Here is a picture of an auto rickshaw:

And here is a loaded bicycle with the pusher guy in back:

If there are 2 lanes, they make at least 5 or 6. Many of the bicycles are carrying huge loads of goods, and sometimes have a man riding on the front and one pushing the load from the back as he runs along with the bike. Mopeds are carrying entire families. They leave so little room between vehicles that every car has scratches and dents on the sides and often on the back. And if they didn't get damaged while driving, they would while parked because they leave about 2 inches between cars.
Ramiz drove us first to the Lakshmi Narayan Temple which is a large and impressive temple erected in 1938 by a rich industrialist and dedicated appropriately to Lakshimi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. We merely stopped across the street to take pictures.

He then drove us by the huge and impressive parliament building and the associated congress halls, but again, we just drove by. There was a huge park area near the India gate, but because parking was difficult, we didn't stop to see this monument which is like the Arc d' Triomphe in Paris, but not as big. It is a tribute to the 90,000 soldiers of the British Indian Army who fought in WWI. We could barely make it out because of all the air pollution. At the Mahatma Gandhi last home and assassination site, we found a very peaceful place with beautiful gardens, lots of information, and some exhibits illustrating his life and achievements. It was free and very well maintained. We had again watched the movie “Gandhi” before coming here, which greatly contributed to our understanding of the political situations which influenced his life. The next stop was at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum. She was not related to Mahatma Gandhi but was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. She was India's first woman president and prime minister. The museum was her home, and it was filled with exhibits about all of her achievements in addition to displaying some of her personal effects and furniture. It was interesting to see her office, bedroom, dining room, etc. and the beautiful grounds. There is a glass path across the grass indicating where she was walking when she was shot by one of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, and there is still an honor guard here.

This museum is also free and well kept. In the car park there were men selling peeled cucumbers, with chili sauce of course. This was a unique snack food, we thought, but we didn't dare eat one.
We had a fairly long drive south to the Qutab Minar, the world's tallest brick minaret at over 210 feet and started building in 1139 under India's first Muslim ruler. Because of the smog, we could barely see it and didn't relish the idea of paying 250 rupees each to enter the area and climb it because the views from the top would have been zilch.

The practice here is that Indians pay about 10 rupees and foreigners pay 250, for many of the monuments. Ramiz was quite surprised that we didn't go in. He then drove us to a restaurant for lunch after which we wish we had insisted he take us somewhere else. It was overpriced and clearly existed off feeding foreigners mediocre food. I suppose Ramiz got his meal for free because he took us here, a common practice in many of these countries and one we had experienced before in the Middle East. The last stop of the day was at the Red Fort, one of the main attractions in Delhi. The red sandstone walls are nearly 100 feet tall and form a rough oblong of over 2 km.

Shah Jahan, the same ruler who built the Taj Mahal, started this fort in 1638 and it was completed in 1648. It took us a couple of hours to walk there from the car park and see all the gardens and buildings inside. Once again, we paid 250 rupees each and the locals paid 10. I guess this is only fair because they don't make much money and they wouldn't be able to see and appreciate the monuments of their own country if it cost too much. Even so, there are many parts of it that are under repair or restoration, and a lot more of it is in sad disrepair. There are the usual things you find in a palace complex: a bazaar area for commerce, the bath area or hammams, a pavilion for public audiences, one for private audiences, living quarters, extensive gardens, outdoor pavilions, and servants quarters.
By the time we got back to our hotel, it was nearly 4:30 PM and we were exhausted, even though we had been driven around the whole day. Jet lag is still having its effect, I suspect. After a rather mediocre dinner at the nearby Raffles Restaurant, we hit the sack early. We have noticed that the nearby main street is very busy and crowded, with open stores and shops and then it comes to an abrupt halt at 9PM. There were a lot more sounds of fireworks into the night last night, so the Diwali celebrations have started already.