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.