Friday, February 25, 2011

India pt.4 - Pushkar

By the time we left Jaipur, we had already completed all three main cities on the popular "Golden Triangle" route. For the last 2 nights of our trip, we decided to head beyond the triangle to the tiny town of Pushkar (see map). This was the part of the trip that made us all nervous. We had read virtually nothing about the city, and what we had read was cryptic. The guidebooks and websites we had read beforehand described the town as the "Holy City of Rajasthan," a place where meat, eggs, and alcohol were prohibited (out of respect to Hindu traditions). The Lonely Planet Guidebook was the most colorful in its description of Pushkar: "A place where people experiment variously with spirituality, marijuana, and facial hair." It seemed like a town that could be either colorful or terrifying.

When we got to the town, our driver had to let us off some blocks from our hotel. You see, in addition to a total prohibition on meat and alcohol, Pushkar also has a visible lack of motorized traffic. Whether this is an attempt at protecting the peace and quiet of the town, or an unintentional side-effect of the city's narrow, pre-modern streets, it certainly does change the atmosphere of the town. In downtown Pushkar, pedestrians don't have to navigate around cars, taxis, or tuk-tuks... just cows, stray dogs, open sewers, and maniacs on motorbikes.
Our hotel was the most pleasant of our entire trip. Our room was spacious and clean, with brightly colored walls and hand-painted floral murals on the ceiling. The rooftop of the hotel had been set up as a restaurant, from which one could look out over the entire town. Also, Pushkar being such a small town, power outages were quite frequent. Our hotel managed this inconvenience by delivering lit candles to our room every night (just in case of a power outage). Not bad for $15 US per night.
The town itself was small and an ambitious traveler could likely see all of the sights in an afternoon. Having 2 nights in Pushkar, we decided to slow things down a bit. We took long strolls through the marketplace (being a bit of a backpackers' destination, there were loads of souveniers on offer: from hand painted kashmiri boxes to scarves to linen pants). It seemed like just about everything was priced at 100-150 Rupees ($2-3 US). We filled our suitcase pretty quickly.
Brad & Rus decided to do some impulse shopping. These shirts were the result.

Aside from the affordable trinkets and relaxed pace of life, Pushkar's main attraction is the "Holy Lake" at the center of town. Hindu mythology claims that the lake was formed when a lotus flower fell from the hand of Brahma (the chief deity of the Hindu pantheon). Hindu pilgrims come from all over to bathe in the sacred lake. "Ghats" or small temples, ring the lake, most of which have stairways leading down to the water's edge:
One of the "Bathing-Ghats"

The Brahma Temple (there are only a couple of these in the world - one's in Pushkar)

If pressed to account for the time we spent in Pushkar, I would have some difficulty. We slept in
a lot. We ate very long meals. We visited one temple. And, we went for a short hike one afternoon to watch the sun set over the town. Other than that, we mostly just wandered around the town, snapping pictures of scenes from Rajasthani life and haggling with shopkeepers over trinkets. We bought a lot of pottery.

Some highlights of our stay in Pushkar:
Taking pictures of small-town life from our hotel's rooftop.
Late afternoon hike to the top of a nearby hill to watch the sun go down:

Long lunches in the company of friends:
Rickshaw rides:
Watching the local wildlife from our balcony:
Ok, this last one could use some explaining...
We went out for Italian food on our last night in town. The sign at the restaurant's entrance said, "Ask for anything you want... ANYTHING." Obviously my curiosity was aroused. So, when we placed our order, I casually said "I'll have the gnocchi and a beer please." The waiter waggled his head in classic Indian style. Five minutes later, I had a mysterious, foil-wrapped can in front of me. When the waiter left, I carefully peeled back a corner of the foil to discover that I had indeed been served a can of Kingfisher (the ubiquitous Indian lager). Eyeing my frosty beverage with envy, Rus exchanged nods with the waiter. The beer was certainly short of spectacular, but the knowledge that we were breaking the rules somehow made it taste much better.

Our flight home from India was scheduled for midnight on a Saturday evening. We checked out of our hotel in Pushkar at around 10 that morning, and made the long (8 hours) drive back to Delhi. The car ride was long but uneventful, and we made it to Delhi at around 7pm. This left 5 hours to kill in the airport (after having spent 8 hours in a car). Boredom set in fairly quickly. To pass the time, our friend Mel grabbed the camera and led us in a little game. She would outline a set of imaginary circumstances, and we would make faces to match that scenario:

As always, feel free to comment on whatever you like. A special challenge for those of you who are having a hard time coming up with a comment: What was the imaginary scenario that caused us to make the faces in the above picture?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

India pt. 3: Jaipur

The "Pink City" of Jaipur, viewed from the Temple of the sun god "Surya"

Most tourists who visit Rajasthan travel a circuit known as the "Golden Triangle." This itinerary includes Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur (usually returning to Delhi). The adjective is confusing, as the only really "golden" portion of our journey was the long drives through blooming fields of mustard (and those were, strictly speaking, more canary than golden). The cities themselves, however, are indisputably arranged in the shape of a triangle. On that point there can be little debate.

When we left Agra, we had already completed one "segment" of our triangle, and Jaipur was up next. We made our way slowly between the two cities, stopping once along the way to buy fruit ("2 rupees per banana?! Are you trying to rip me off?"), once to have a look at Fatehpur Sikri (described briefly in our previous post - refer to the section on the swan dive into the slime-filled pool), and again to enjoy a long (overpriced) lunch in a tourists' roadhouse of sorts. Around 4 in the afternoon, we found ourselves on the outskirts of Jaipur. Rus was riding shotgun with Sumer, and playing the role of navigator.

As we began to approach the city, Rus looked up from our trusty Lonely Planet Guidebook to inform us that there was a temple that we might like to visit on our way into town. The guidebook was cryptic and a little alarming in its description of the place: "Galta Monkey Temple is desolate...barren...evocative.... The macaques converge on the temple by the hundreds.... Prepare to be mobbed." Having recently learned that over 30,000 Indians die of rabies each year, we were a little nervous at the thought of hundreds of (potentially) rabid monkeys "converging" on us. Thus, when we arrived at the temple, we decided it best to hire a guide for about $2US, not so much for informative purposes (he could barely speak English), as to act as our bodyguard (or human shield if you prefer) against the anticipated waves of (possibly) rabid primates.

The temple itself was something out of Indiana Jones. Built into a ravine between two hills, the complex is made up of dozens of abandoned buildings... all of which were swarming with monkeys. Our guide brought with him a small bag of peanuts, which the monkeys immediately recognized. They followed us closely for most of our visit. The guide repeatedly tried to offer us peanuts ("feed monkey - good karma") but we politely declined.

"Feed monkey. Good karma!"

We slowly worked our way up the hill, walking past a number of "sacred" pools (read: stagnant ponds filled with green slime and bits of garbage), in which groups of pilgrims were bathing. We took a number of pictures of these, but upon closer inspection discovered that all but one photo depicted nude or semi-nude pilgrim-bathers. In the interests of propriety, we have included only one photo:At the top of the hill, we came to the Temple of "Surya" (the sun god). The view from the hilltop was magnificent, and we paused for awhile to watch the sun set over the city of Jaipur (and of course to snap a few pictures of the local guru and the "deity" in the temple):

The local guru (I had to pay him 25 cents to take this photo)

The sun god (left) and his wife (right)

Our guide posing in front of the "Surya" Temple (the sun god)

On our way down the hill, I decided to hand Emily the camera so that she could capture my bravery among the monkeys. Here's my best memory of the dialogue that ensued:

"Here Emily, take a picture of me."

"How do you turn the camera on again?"

"The switch on the top. Take the picture. The monkeys are getting closer to me"

"I think the flash is turned off. Do you want the flash on?"

"I'm not worried about the flash - I'm worried about getting rabies. Take the picture."

"Brad, there's a monkey looking at me. I'm nervous."

"There's two dozen of them looking at me. Take the picture."


"Oh. There's a car in the background. Wait a minute, Brad. Let me take another one."

"Take the picture, Emily; the monkeys are re-grouping!"

We spent two nights in Jaipur, at a clean but simple bed-and-breakfast (more white toast and fried eggs, anyone?). At $15US per night, I was completely satisfied with our accommodation.

On our first morning in Jaipur, we explored the Amber fort:

Notice the elephant in the foreground

Followed by Jantar Mantar, an 18th Century observatory filled with wonderful, enormous sun dials:

We ended our visit with a stroll through the Old City marketplace:

An "autorickshaw," the tuk-tuk of India!

Cheap, delicious, and they throw in the hepatitis for free!

...and of course a little shopping:

Jaipur is referred to as the "Pink City," as the old city is nearly all painted a warm terracotta color. While this made for some excellent photographic opportunities, the crushing poverty and dirt of the city wore us down. By dinner time, we were ready to leave. Thankfully, we had only one more night in Jaipur.

As always, we invite your comments to our blog posts. Instead of questions, this week we have a writing challenge for you. See if you can post a comment with at least 3 of these words in it:

"monkeys" "palace" "rabid" "mustard"

Good luck!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

India pt. 2 - Agra, Akbar, and Underpants

In part 1 of our series on India, we introduced you to the "wonders" of Delhi: good food, bad pollution, and a hotel room that will haunt my dreams for years to come. In this post, we'll recount our adventures on the road and our 1 night stay in Agra. As you may or may not know, Agra is home to a million and a half Indians, a couple of really cool forts, and the Taj Mahal. It was the last of these that brought us to the city.
Just after our last breakfast in Delhi (boiled eggs and dry white toast anyone?), our driver showed up (right on time) to begin our driving tour of the "Golden Triangle." His name was "Sumer," and I am sorry to report that I took only one picture of him (above). He was an excellent driver, and made us feel quite safe for most of our trip (this is no small feat when driving in India). He did, however, have one idiosyncrasy that both amused and nauseated us: he liked to use our car as a laundromat. When he first picked us up, our friend Mel very kindly offered to sit by herself in the third row seat (in the back of the car). As we began to buckle ourselves in, we heard Mel start to chuckle. I turned around to see what she was laughing about and she brought my attention to a bit of Sumer's wet laundry which he'd laid out to dry on the seat next to Mel: his underwear. Being the good sport that she is, Mel never once complained about having to share her seat with our driver's unmentionables. Instead, she found herself a piece of newspaper, rolled it up, and proceeded to move the offending garment to a more suitable spot.

This became our daily routine. Every morning for the rest of the trip, Sumer would arrive punctually at our hotels to pick us up, and every morning we would find new evidence of his cleanliness. On one particular morning, I sat in the front passenger seat, just next to Sumer. About 15 minutes into our drive, I suddenly noticed that my jeans and jacket had been soaked through with moisture. At first, I thought that I had been sweating (this was India, after all). In my confusion, I wondered aloud, "Is my seat wet?" Although I hadn't intended to direct the question to him, Sumer replied, "yes sir." "Why?" I asked. "Washing, sir," was his matter-of-fact reply. "I see," was all I could manage to say in response.
Notwithstanding the soggy undies, we found our trips through the Indian countryside to be very enjoyable. Once we got out of the city, we found ourselves driving through endless fields of yellow. Sumer had explained to us earlier that he came from a farming background. I asked him about the yellow fields and his reply was simply "Mustard."

One of our favorite things about India was the brightly colored clothing we saw everywhere.

Agra was about a 5 hour drive from Delhi, which put our arrival at about the middle of the afternoon. On our way into town, we stopped at the tomb of "Akbar" - one of the most powerful Muslim rulers of 16th Century India (bear with me on matters of history - this stuff is actually interesting to me). I was excited to see the burial place of a king that I had recently taught my AP History students about, but I was soon distracted by the wildlife that roamed the grounds (we saw parrots, chipmunks, monkeys, and even a few wild deer):
Parrots at Akbar's tomb

Indian Chipmunk

After only about a half hour at Akbar's tomb, we drove on to the destination that had really brought us to Agra: The Taj Mahal. Having seen pictures of it all my life, I had been expecting the building to be a bit anti-climactic. It wasn't.
It was spectacular.

We had arrived about an hour and a half before sunset, and the warm afternoon light gave the building a rich glow. We hired a guide (for about $4 US), who showed us around the complex. He pointed out the beautiful semi-precious inlaid stones in the building's facade and directed us to the best locations for picture taking. He even took us to the bench that Prince Charles and Princess Di had sat on to take their pictures. Here's Emily's best impression of Lady Di:

And my best attempt to look "princely":
And, of course, the photo that Emily doesn't want me to post:
Agra had been described to us beforehand as a "wretched" place, worthy of no more than a night. On this advice, we stayed only one night (in the cleanest, friendliest bed-and-breakfast of our trip). On our second morning, we visited the Agra Fort...
The apartment in which Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal) was kept prisoner in his later years.

Emily the tour guide

Inlay work - Agra Fort well as Fatehpur Sikri (Akbar's capital city, abandoned shortly after his death), where we watched a brave young man jump into an algae-covered pool, only to have him hassle us for money afterwards (Rus paid him $2, which seemed to satisfy him)...

Perhaps because we followed the advice we'd been given (staying only 1 night), we left Agra feeling good about the city. The people had been very friendly, and the historical sites were unforgettable.

In our next post, we'll be writing about Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan.

If you'd like to comment (and we love to read them!), here's a few possible talking points:
1)How much money would it take you to jump into that green, slimy pool?
2)Who looks more regal in our "Royalty Picture": Emily or Brad?
3)Now that we've shared our favorite building in the whole world, what's yours?