Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Delhi – Back to Delhi and Back to the USA

Our friend Helene welcomes us back to
Amarya Haveli (hotel) in Delhi 
Our flight leaving Jodhpur for Delhi was delayed for over an hour.  Of course, we had no idea what was going on since the announcements were unintelligible and there was no English signage of any kind in the airport.  The flight was a dream when it finally arrived; a flashy new turbo prop high wing ATR-72/500 took us from Jodhpur to Delhi in little more than an hour.  We were so happy to return to Amarya Haveli Hotel in Delhi where we got a warm welcome from the familiar staff who remembered us from our previous visit. 
The next day we revisited the Hauz Khas Village for some final shopping.  And, we visited one last site:  “The Sulabh International Museum of Toilets!”  Seems fitting somehow.  You may wonder how Anne comes up with these sights, but the museum is listed in Lonely Planet.  It was actually quite fascinating, and let’s face it, human waste is a major problem here in India (and around the globe). 
Septic system layout for an Indian squatty potty
We got a tour of several outdoor toilet and septic configurations, all geared to using local materials for construction.  We learned about their efforts to filter polluted water for reuse -- for flushing toilets, irrigation, and other non-drinking purposes.  And how they extract methane gas directly from the outhouse to produce electricity or to cook food on the stove.  We noted that this system is not quite perfected yet, as there is the distinctive smell of methane, which smells strangely like burning poop…  Inside, a small museum room held all kinds of interesting info about the history of toilets along with some hysterical pictures and posters.
Now we are back home – yes, back in the good ‘ol U.S. of A., but the sights and sounds of India continue to dance in our heads.  We started this blog by saying that many people think India stands for “I’ll never do it again.”  We don’t fall into that camp although it will take a while to work up to a return trip (LOL!). 

Instead, we would say that India stands for:
I  = intense
N = needy
D = draining
Holy cow eating trash!
I  = intoxicating
A = astonishing 
India is definitely not a destination for everyone.   It was a challenge even for us who consider ourselves to be seasoned travelers having visited other 3rd world countries.  We thought we’d already encountered a bit of everything, but India proved us wrong.  We would recommend India only to the staunchest and most adaptable of travelers.  First time travelers need not apply. 

And yet, we are so glad that we came.  India is without equal, and without a doubt one of the most unusual, confounding, but alluring places on earth.  Our trip here required us to employ all of our acquired travel skills -- and brought us as close to traveling thru time as anything we have ever done.  

One thing is definitely true: every one of the human senses will be tested to the max by exposure to India.  The colors, the smells, the extreme poverty, the heat, the plethora and variety of animals, the religious anomalies, the traffic, the smiling friendly people, the lack of amenities, and the frenetic passion of the country will stay with us for a long, long time.  Or to steal a phrase from Winston Churchill, India is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Faces of India:

Frank bids farewell to our "ace driver," Rampal

Jodhpur – The Blue City

"The Blue City" of Jodhpur
Jodhpur was a fairly routine (at least routine to us now) 4-hour drive away.  We stayed at Ratan Villas with lovely owners (descendants of a Maharajah) and very spacious accommodations.  Jodhpur is known as the Blue City because of the many blue buildings in the old city.  Interestingly, one of the main industries here in Jodhpur was opium (used only for pharmaceuticals today).  BTW, we are on the edge of the Great Thar Desert, the 10th largest desert in the world.  Ever hear of it?  Neither did we!  Supposedly, one of the reasons Indians like bright colors so much is because of the dull brown colors of the desert.
The bullfight in downtown Jodhpur
Our guide named Ragu (spaghetti anyone?) led us on a walk through the downtown markets that felt a little like “been there, done that” -- until the bullfight.  Two young bulls had literally locked horns right in the center of a pedestrian street.  We didn’t fully understand the danger until Ragu hustled us into one of the shops.  These bulls were raging!  We realized that these thousand pound plus creatures could pin us up against a building or a stone wall in an instant, and that was why we were hustled inside to safety. Finally, some brave soul threw a pail of water on the bulls to cool them off, and they ran after each other down a side street.  Whew!  Almost like running with the bulls in Pamplona LOL!

Mehrangarh Fort

The next day, we toured Mehrangarh Fort.  We honestly thought we might be all “forted out,” but we totally enjoyed this marvelous site and the excellent narration on the accompanying audio guide.  The fort was built in 1459 by the founder of Jodhpur, Rao Jodha, who was the original leader of this region called Marwar (Land of Death).  Sounds sinister, but the name is fitting when you hear how many warriors died here in various battles.
From the hilltop where the fort resides, we could see the city of Jodhpur below.  Many of the buildings were colored a light blue, hence the name, the “Blue City”.  The color blue is supposed to make the buildings feel cooler in the extreme heat of the summer, and it also repels the mosquitos. 
Colorful ballroom at Mehrangarh Fort
The fort was a delightful feast of graceful architecture with many colorful rooms like the elaborate dancing hall with giant Christmas balls hanging from the ceiling (we see these everywhere and learned that they were adopted from the British).  The fort also included several museums with displays of howdahs (elephant seats) and palanquins (covered carts to carry royal women so that they remained hidden from view). 
Another museum contained dozens of royal cradles exquisitely decorated – many with guardian angels poised to protect the young royals.  Astrology is extremely important in India and every child must have a chart drawn to know what pitfalls to avoid.  Having an astrological chart drawn is as important here as cutting the umbilical cord!
There were two very tragic sights at the fort.  The first concerned a hermit who was evicted from this site when Rao Jodh decided to build a fort here.  The hermit cursed Rao, and to obviate the curse, Rao required a human sacrifice.  Some guy volunteered and was buried alive in the foundation of the fort (a plaque marks the spot).  To this day, an annual ceremony commemorates his sacrifice and his descendants continue to be honored.
"Sati marks" on the wall of Mehrangarh Fort
The second tragic sight is the “sati” marks, handprints of the Maharajah Man Singh’s many wives who climbed on to his funeral pyre in 1843.  They left their handprints in henna (a colored dye used to decorate the palms of the hands) on the wall of the fort as they passed by in a procession that would lead to their deaths.  Later, the little handprints were carved into orange stone.  They say these women sat calmly as the flames engulfed them, anxious to be reunited with their beloved husband.  Those women must have been doped up on some serious opium!
This is a good time to talk about the status of women in India.  Anne can tell you from personal experience that men are definitely top dogs here.  Every morning, the hotel staff would rush over to Frank saying, “Good morning, sir!”  “How are you, sir?”  “Would you like breakfast, sir?”  Even our driver Rampal constantly opened the car door for Frank leaving Anne to fend for herself.  And when Anne took the lead in a conversation   discussing where we were headed next, or what activities were planned for the day, the Indian men would get a perplexed look on their faces as if they were thinking, “Why is she talking?”  These are small irritations but indicative of how women are viewed here.
For many years, Indians followed a custom called “purdah,” the practice of concealing women to “protect them from the lustful gaze of men -- an idea that came from the Arab invaders.  This is why palace after palace contains stone screens so that women can get a (fractured) glimpse of the world without ever being seen. 
A Maharini once visited London, but she remained hidden from view.  She was always transported in a curtained car and a covered palanquin.  As you can imagine, the English press went wild trying to get a photo of her, but all they got was a glimpse of her ankle.  The Hindu royalty was so furious about this photo of their Maharini’s ankle that they bought and destroyed every single issue of the newspapers that would have exposed her ankle to the world. 
Even today, some of these crazy ideas continue.  Remember Parvati from a previous report of ours - The “Parvati’s Meeta” story?  Parvati  wore several bangle bracelets on her arms and ankle bracelets that tinkled as she walked.  She told Anne that she lived with her extended family, and that the women tended to stay in one part of the house.  Parvati’s bangles and ankle bracelets were noisy enough to warn the men of the house to leave if they heard her coming.  As Parvati explained, “That way I am never alone with my brother-in-law, so there are no problems.”  It’s as if there is an assumption that no man can resist or restrain himself around a woman, so the only answer is complete separation of the sexes. 
Faces of India:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jojawar – Land of the Raj (Landlords)

Pool at Rawla Jojawar
We drove just 2 hours to our next stop, another small out-of-the-way town with another heritage hotel, Rawla Jojawar (Royal Jojawar).  By the way, a heritage hotel is a special property designated as an historical site.  This hotel was more basic that previous hotels, but still walled and insulated somewhat from the bustle of local activity; it was a nice respite from the real world.  (It’s not easy to follow an act like the last place, the Rawla Narlai!)  We got a real Rajasthan welcome from a drummer who announced our arrival with an energetic drum roll.  And, the manager sprinkled flower petals over our heads as we walked thru the arched gates of the hotel.  Anne loved that!
We had two small but fun activities planned in Jojawar: a jeep tour of this rural area, and an old-time train excursion in an old-time train!  The jeep tour was conducted by the owner of the hotel, a genuine Raj (landlord) and landowner of properties all around the area of Jojawar.  We visited a really nice farm where Frank, the former farm boy, got to relive some memories of his youth growing up on the farm.  They grow lots of cotton here and also castor plants (to make castor oil), farm items that Frank was not familiar with.  The land is dry, and it would be desert, were it not for the plethora of wells designated for irrigation.
Oogum, our guide
 ducks when a monkey jumps on our jeep
We saw lots of monkeys here – in fact, one of them jumped right on top of the jeep’s rear roll bar and sat there for several minutes!  We also visited home of some gypsies who travel to wherever work is available.  We also stopped at a temple that was memorable mainly for its large population of rats.  The trees were full of rats as darkness began to take over. 
It was well after dark by the time we drove back to the hotel, and we were amazed how the back roads seem to come to be full of life even after dark.  Lots of cars, motorcycles, and people just sitting along the road in total darkness.  The Raj told us that the people sitting in the dark were “waiting for someone.”  Could be, but sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it?  It is pitch black along these dirt back roads (no electricity), yet people sit there seemingly idle along these roads, or tend cattle there in total darkness, or do who knows what(?).  Can you imagine anyone, much less many dozens of people sitting alone on the edge of a rural, unlit road in America?
Train ride through the countryside near Jojawar
We were driven to a far-away train station to catch our old-time train back to Jojawar.  We were surprised to see how many tourists were waiting for the train with us.  Apparently, this excursion has become quite popular.  The train excursion was fun as we rode through desert-conditions and mountainous terrain on this rickety local train.  We enjoyed the scenery and riding with the locals.  In fact, a group of 4 locals sat with us and we chatted in broken English and Hindi as we sped along. Lots of warm but fuzzy conversation – not sure there was total comprehension with both parties.  But lots of good feelings on a grass roots level.
The train stopped several times for “brake checks,” and once to feed the monkeys who were panhandling along the side of the tracks.  These monkeys know exactly when the trains come thru and gather by the tracks to eat the biscuits everybody throws out the train windows.  All the train windows had bars, and when we saw how aggressive these monkeys were, we knew why.
Monkeys await treats from the tourists onboard the train
We ended our day with a full body ayurvedic massage – a stimulating deep massage to increase circulation and encourage relaxation.  Certainly relaxed us!  Interestingly, we learned that local barbers often do these massages as an income booster in addition to their barber jobs.  Frank’s masseuse was indeed a barber named “Suresh”, who had a little barber hut down in Jojawar.

Faces of India:
Frank's barber-masseuse, "Suresh"

Frank with local boys on the train

Narlai – Our Rajasthan Retreat

Kumbalgarh Fort
We made two major stops after leaving Udaipur: Kumbalgarh Fort and Ranakpur Temple.  Kumbalgarh Fort was the most impressive fort we have visited so far, probably because of its isolated location way up in the mountains, on a mountain top.  The fortress consists of about 25 miles of impregnable walls enclosing hundreds of temples and palaces.  We had no guide here, but we enjoyed wandering around the picturesque site on our own.
Ranakpur Temple

Our second stop was even better – the Jain temple at Ranakpur.  This white marble edifice is a forest of 1,444 pillars all carved with exquisite designs.  The ceilings were even better carved with a delicate, lacy look.  The head priest of the temple latched on to us right away and gave us a brief tour.  He also gave us a lengthy blessing that included the usual Indian wish for wealth and prosperity.  Of course, he was also concerned about his own prosperity and requested an immediate donation.  Anne convinced Frank that $2 for a blessing was a good thing since admission to the temple was free.  And besides, when will we ever have the opportunity to be blessed by a Jain priest? 
Anne’s favorite carvings were a ceiling design that combined the “om” symbol with a half moon, and a figure with one head and 5 bodies.  This sculpture represented the need to control the 5 senses before entering the temple.

Rawla Narlai

Our new hotel, Rawla Narlai is a little bit of heaven – totally luxurious with gorgeous gardens, a rooftop terrace, and a huge pool (perfect for swimming laps).  All situated at the base of a massive rock.  This rock became Frank’s nemesis because he really wanted to climb up to the large white elephant statue sitting tantalizingly on the summit, but we just didn’t have the energy or time.  That night, we ate a candlelit dinner on the roof terrace where waiters fell all over themselves taking care of us, and live music created an eerie-sounding background out there in the middle of nowhere.
Two staff members took a particular liking to us: Umaid and Lala (we are not making these names up).  I think we could have eaten breakfast all day long – they kept offering to bring us more toast, butter, and what about some more tea?  Frank tried to sign on to the netbook while Anne wandered around the gardens. 

Frank "turbanized" with the rock in the background

When Anne looked back, she saw Umaid holding up a cloth napkin trying to reduce the glare from the morning sun on Frank’s netbook.  Later, Frank walked up on the terrace to gaze at that rock above us, and of course, “the boys” were on him in a second.  Soon, Umaid and Lala had goaded Frank into trying on each of their turbans while they took pictures of him.  This is really too much!
The resort offered a complimentary outing to a nearby lake for afternoon tea.  This was a fun ride in an open jeep; it was like a mini-safari.  We saw numerous birds including a turquoise blue Kingfisher, and lots of peacocks in the wild!  The lake was very pretty, especially as the sun started to set, and our jeep driver supplied us with hot masala tea along with muffins and brownies for an added treat.  

Afternoon tea at the Lake Gora Dela
Our favorite Narlai activity was a 2-hour village tour with Lala as our guide.  Our tour began at a temple built inside the huge dome-shaped rock – the rocky mountain actually consists of layers of rock, and this temple was built into a crevice.  The temple contained a metal sculpture of a cobra, and Lala told us that during festivals the people bring in a live cobra, milk it, and drink the cobra milk!  Yuck!
Lala took us into several village homes giving us the opportunity for a closer look at village life.  We met a shoemaker, a seamstress, and a woman who was grinding wheat into flour for the village.  The most memorable home consisted of three rooms -- the middle room designated for the cow!  Lala also pointed out the nicely swept dirt floor that was a mixture of dirt and dried cow dung (these people sure love their dung!).
 Anne’s most memorable moment came when she got to join several local women who had congregated on the front steps of one of the homes.  These women were a trip!  They kept slapping Anne’s leg (hard) – like they couldn’t believe how hefty it was LOL. 

Anne with the women of Narlai
But the main focus of the conversation was on jewelry.  The older woman pointed to the younger woman’s necklace and said something in a stage whisper that Anne assumed must have been the price.  Anne acted suitably impressed, and before she knew it, the old lady had wrapped the necklace around Anne’s neck (and pulled it tight – almost like a garotte!).  Of course, Frank was having a ball taking pictures.  It really was an unforgettable experience.

Frank and the "Barber of Narlai"

As we strolled about town, Frank’s big moment came later when he spotted a tiny barber shop; really, it was just a small, outhouse-sized metal box on the edge of a busy street that was big enough for the barber to stand, a customer to sit, and some primitive barber tools.  From a distance, Frank carefully watched this “Edward Scissorhand operation” for a while, and decided it was a good time to cast fate to the wind, and get his hair cut.  This barber seemed to be a very meticulous gent, and Frank trusted his hair to this barber who also trimmed his beard and moustache, and topped it all off with a lengthy head massage -- all for $2.  Actually he only wanted $1 for his troubles, but Frank doubled it since the barber was so relatively inexpensive.  What a deal, and it was excellently executed, despite the fact that neither Frank nor the barber could communicate the exact nuances of the requested haircut!

Faces of India:

Shoemaker in Narlai

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Udaipur – City of Romance

Our "jharokha" in our room overlooking the lake
Touted as the most romantic city in India, Udaipur enjoys a marvelous location on the edge of a manmade lake (another Maharajah project) surrounded by the ancient Aravalli hills.  With a sparkling white Lake Palace that “floats” in the middle of the lake (the James Bond movie, “Octopussy” was filmed here).  Our hotel room was a stunner with a “jharokha,” a fancy, cushioned window seat jutting out over the water that Anne immediately fell in love with.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to tell you about a stop we made on the way to Udaipur at Chittorgarh Fort.  The guidebooks call it the greatest fort in Rajasthan (Rajasthan is the largest province in India), even though it was sacked three times.  Each time all the men died in battle, and the women self-immolated themselves “to avoid losing their purity,” making this place more tragic than great in our minds.  
Padmini's floating palace at Chittorgarh Fort

The fort included the ruins of the palace complex (sacked, according to our guide, by “the Arab fanatics”), an artificial lake where the royal ladies once swam (accessible by a private passageway), a temple with some more erotic sculpture, and an interesting 37 m. victory tower that is actually wider in the middle that at either end.  Plus, another floating palace where the beautiful Maharini Padmini (try saying that 5 times fast) once drove a Sultan crazy with desire for her love.  This Sultan was obsessed by stories he had heard about her beauty, so finally Padmini agreed to let him have a glimpse of her reflection in a mirror, hoping that would satisfy him.  However, the sight of her only inflamed him more, and the Sultan captured the fort and killed all the men.  Of course, he never did get his hands on Padmimi -- she self-immolated herself too, along with the other women of the palace.
Our guide at Chittorgarh was a lovely young Indian woman by the name of Parvati, and we ate lunch at her family’s “haveli” (bed and breakfast) along with a French couple who were also touring the fort.  The French couple were very friendly, and we were thrilled to practice speaking some of our “rusty” French with them.  But the real story about this lunch is a tale we like to call “Parvati’s Meeta” (meeta is the Hindu word for sweets).
Lunch at Parvati's B&B.  Note her naked son
with the infamous "meeta."

Lunch was a simple affair, but the real pleasure was the experience of being a guest in Parvati’s home.  We met her little boy who was running around naked, wearing nothing other than a narrow leather cord tied around his waist (typical of little Indian boys).  Remember the Jains – the extreme religious group that even gave up wearing clothes? When her little boy first appeared, Parvati quipped, “He’s like the Jains!”

Her son carried a box of “meeta” (sweets) – 2 cruller-like pastries and 2 candy rolls – and he was fingering the treats (and himself as little boys do).  We just figured they were his box of goodies.  Imagine our surprise when the exact same box of sweets appeared on our luncheon table for dessert.  Anne looked over at the French couple (she couldn’t risk looking at Frank), but no one said a word.  And NO ONE touched the “meeta!”

The beautiful lake at Udaipur

As lovely as it was, Udaipur was a difficult place for us because Frank was sick with the “Delhi belly,” and Anne was heartsick over her Dad, who we just learned had died several days before.  As a result, we took it easy with more down time than usual.  However, we did take some prearranged tours beginning with the City Palace.
The City Palace is Rajasthan’s largest palace, built over time by 20 some Maharanas .  The terms are confusing but here in Udaipur they prefer the title Maharana which means warrior king (supposedly even better than Maharajah).  The palace was made up of colorful, sumptuous rooms (in typical Maharana fashion).  We even bumped into the current Maharana as we exited an elevator there in the palace!  We didn’t recognize him but knew something was up because our guide looked like he was going to faint when he doubled over into a major bow.  We saw an official portrait of the Maharana later, and verified that it was definitely him.  The glory days of the Maharanas may be over, but these guys still get tremendous respect.
Garden at the City Palace
Anne’s favorite palace sights were the mosaic peacocks, each one made from 3,000 pieces of glass, and the Crystal Gallery.  This gallery displayed the never-used crystal furniture purchased by a Maharani in 1877 from the renowned English cut glass manufacturer F & C Osler.  The Maharani died before the stuff arrived, and it was never even removed from the packing boxes for 110 years.  What a decadent display this was (unfortunately no photography allowed) – sofas and chairs (all with crystal frames and deep red cushions), a foot stool that looked like a giant prism, and a bed with an amazing crystal headboard.
Making chapati at our cooking class
Another highlight of our stay was a cooking class at “The Spice Box.”  Shakti, the owner and teacher, spoke decent English, had a good sense of humor, and did a remarkable job of instructing the class.  This class was only partially hands-on, but each of us got to do some of the cooking.  Shakti clearly explained each step, especially the preparation of the spices that required boiling the spices in oil and water until the water evaporated.  Spices are the key to Indian cooking and superheating the spices enriches the flavor.  Our only problem with Shakti was that he also operates a spice shop, and naturally, we all needed to buy a bunch of overpriced spices from him at the end of class.
Grungy backstreet complete with streaming sewage
and rats in Udaipur
One of the things we missed most in India was the ability to wander around.  As you know, we are accustomed to walking 6-8 miles a day when we travel, and in India, we were lucky to get in 3 miles per day!  So, we decided to take a walk through the backstreets of Udaipur.  Well, as lovely as Udaipur looks down by the lake, the rest of the city is typical India.  Raw sewage was running through water channels in the backstreets, and several rats ran across our path.  We walked only about 3 blocks, and that was enough of a walk for us! 
Anne gets her palm read
Anne had her palm read by our guide, and she is still trying to figure out if it was worthwhile or just a hoax.  Some of the comments were insightful, but others were just plain wrong.  Like everything in India, nothing is clear.
View of our hotel from across the lake
On the last night of our stay in Udaipur, we ate our best meal of the trip at “Ambrai,” a wonderful restaurant on the far side of the lake where we had an incredible view of our hotel, the City Palace, and the “floating” Lake Palace.  Unfortunately, Frank was still on the bland food diet, but Anne ate a fabulous meal of paneer (condensed cottage cheese cubes) served in three different sauces.  We even drank a small bottle of Sula Sauvignon Blanc, the leading (and probably only) name in Indian wine; of course, we drank multiple toasts to the man of the hour, Anne’s recently deceased dad, Harold Gross.
India's sole beer

A few notes on booze in India.  As stated, much to our chagrin, there is only one wine brand name that we ever saw.  That is a wine called “Sulu”, which thankfully seems to come in both white and red.  If you like choices, we think you need to visit a different country.  But also, the same is true for beer.  There is but one beer in this country that we were able to uncover; it is “Kingfisher” beer.  It’s a lager beer, and not bad at all, but no other options.  This was a bit surprising to us since some research turned up the fact that India is the 3rd largest user of liquor in the world, right behind the United States and Russia.  Go figure (?).

Faces of India: