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.