Where I've Been

Thursday, July 01, 2010

India part 10 - Delhi Belhi
Or Delhi belly. Drop your eyebrows. Yes, this is the theme on which the blog is resurrected on the third year (inclusive).

Much has transpired.

But what transpired on those streets of Delhi so long ago?

Ah Delhi! More than a misspelled sandwich shop. It’s a fairly cool place, when you’re well. Join us as we discover how I wasn’t.

If you’ve been anxiously following our travel adventures you’ll note that the misadventures were mainly manifested in the transit. Unlike the eternity of hell that awaits unfortunate westerners with ovens, pits of flames, lakes of fire, Glenn Beck, whips, chains, and pots of burning oil--hell in India has an end, after which you’re reborn in accordance with your karma. Our karmic rebirth after the sin atonement of 25 hours of Indian trains and busses was attended by the arrival of the Shatabdi Express. Like Garuda from the heavens, or Falcor from The Neverending Story, it lifted us from the Agra station and, after a meal, soothing background music, a nap, and 3 hours we were pushed out into the heart of Delhi. I recommend, go ride it.

We stayed in one of the nicer places in our Indian exploration: Connaught place, directly in the heart of the action. We enjoyed an innocuous buffet breakfast at our guesthouse and set out for our final day in India before Steve returned home and the Brians headed to Nepal. This is that slow opening scene to the horror movie, the one where it’s sunny, where the girl with the pastel sweater--later to be possessed--is still kissing her boyfriend before school. Well the boyfriend I kissed was that breakfast, and the demon entered. How I, with the vacation germ wariness of Howard Hughes, kissed that boyfriend’s banana pancake face that morning still fills my body with the thrill of nausea as I write.

We started with the Red Fort, the capital of the Mughal empire under Shah Jahan in the 1600s. The red in the fort matched the color slowly fading from my face as those bananas worked their evil. After having seen Jaipur and especially Agra, the Red Fort was a bit of a letdown. A week before we would have been impressed, now we droned on: “oh Shahjahani style, how very original, Shah Jahan”, and other jaded jibes of the road-weary.

Besides, as you can see, the Red Fort is in a significantly less impressive state of repair than the Taj Mahal with inlaid jewels missing, dirty marble, rusty metal screens, and officers instructing us not to take pictures.

After the fort, we visited Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir, a Jain temple which had the distinction of having a photo display on a certain group of Jains whose devotion to their beliefs matched their distaste for fashion, rendering them completely and utterly nude at all times. So, several dozen old, naked Indians adorned the walls. I was already feeling quite a bit funny in the stomach at that point, so I left. There are no pictures of this, thank me in the comments section.

We then visited Jama Masjid mosque where we were told we could not take pictures or cameras inside, but they could happily hold our cameras for a camera holding fee, which we unhappily paid.

After the mosque, we spilled out into Chandni Chowk, a huge marketplace of everything that has ever been available to buy, ever, gagged and stuffed into about 20 blocks.

We ventured through the streets of the chowk where we marveled at the stalactite-like growth of wires suspended over the roads.
Here are Brian and Steve marveling.

After more meandering we headed down to the National Museum of India. It was quite a museum, especially the bathroom, which I visited several times.
We then strolled along the Rajpath or King’s Way which links Rashtrapati Bhavan (the presidential palace) through India Gate to the National Stadium. It’s essentially like the Mall in Washington DC, or the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Here is the outside of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, after a long walk from the Gate of India.

Though the walk looks relatively short, the demon (growing Poltergeist-like in my stomach) eventually ground me to a halt. Taxi time, now.
And so ended my adventure in Delhi, the rest of it was seen rushing by me as I sprinted to my room and hugged the toilet for the next 6 hours.
At 3 in the morning we all arose, I vomited one last time and we headed to the airport where we found our flight delayed by 4 hours. Luckily, molded plastic seats make marvelous sickbeds for the food-poisoned and I passed merrily in and out of a sweaty, shivery, sleep until our flight to Kathmandu.
When will you hear about Kathmandu? Look for it near the end of the Mayan calendar (the end is near).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Part 9 – Agra and the Taj Mahal

I’m going to pick up as if there hasn’t been a 3 month hiatus.

I’m not a complainer; optimism makes me happy. So I tell this next little bit of travel brilliance for sheer comedic value, which, at the time, was completely lost on us.

We bought our bus ticket the night before from Hari Om Travel in Jaipur (never, never, never, never, never, please never go there). Naturally we purchased deluxe tickets for a bus leaving at 6:30 AM.

At 7:30 the next morning the city bus to which we had been directed after showing around our tickets rumbled out of Jaipur with us on it. Our fellow friendly Indians joined us in forced laughter as we explained how we had paid double the price for our ordinary bus ticket to Agra. And, great Brahma’s bull! My unshuttable window from the previous bus had been reincarnated directly beside my assigned seat. Luckily we paid extra to have our bags on board and so with 3 shirts, 2 pants, coat, and knit hat bundled on me, we rumbled on to Agra. We merrily bumped along until a grapefruit-sized stone inexplicably flew through the rear window, shattering shards of glass over everyone. After a short stop to completely knock the glass out of the rear window, we again, somewhat less merrily, continued until reaching Agra to see the famed Taj Mahal.

So, was it worth it?

Take a peek (I mean look at the pictures, they're everywhere).

I’ve been a few places, but after stepping through the portals to see the Taj Mahal my breath caught in my throat. It is the most beautiful piece of architecture I have ever seen. And I say that without equivocation, remorse, shame, or desire that some girl will find me sensitive and end my life of crushing loneliness and interminable yearning.

Quick note for future Taj Mahalers: do not waste your time waiting at the front gate if the line is long. You could be waiting over an hour there to get in. Head to your right from the front gate along the garden wall until you reach the first narrow road you can turn left. Follow that and you will eventually take another left at the next narrow road which will be the side entrance to the Taj Mahal. No wait, same admittance. One tout offered to take us there for $20/person. We eventually talked some guy into getting us there for about $1.50 for the three of us.

The whole of the Taj Mahal looks like it’s carved of finely-chiseled white marble, much like I do with my shirt off. It looks like that because it is. Over 12000 tons of marble was used in the dome alone. The sheer size of the Taj Mahal is mind boggling. I never expected it to be so huge. The plinth the Taj Mahal stands on is 300 square meters alone. Walking inside the structure we viewed the tombs where Shah Jahan’s 3rd wife lies beneath the 44 meter high dome, buried some 350 years ago. There’s no artificial lighting so it’s dim and the caretakers will take small flashlights and press them against the rubies and emeralds embedded in flowering designs in the marble to show how the light reflects and illuminates the whole flower in the dark (just go and see it, you’ll understand what I mean). It seems our caretaker only wanted to do it for us though as he shooed away the Indians that came to see as well. Why? Well the outstretched hand at the end of the 2 minute lightshow explained why.

Besides the Taj Mahal itself there are two red buildings to either side, one is a mosque, and then a couple of gateways, each beautiful alone.

As dusk fell, the dome and minarets turned from the dazzling white of the afternoon to fiery gold, to luminescent sandstone, and then a glowing blue. We left in the same awestruck mood as we entered.

Truly fantastic.

This next installment will finally end the India trip. After which I will talk about Nepal, then Bahrain. Then hopefully my trip to Europe, look for that in about 2012.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Part 8 – Jaipur

Moving from the train to the bus system in India is best likened to a man who, in his desperation to remove his leg caught in a meat grinder, catches the other one as well.

Fearing another train ride, we consulted with a Jaisalmer travel agent who informed us that he sold tickets for a deluxe bus: comfortable beds, restrooms, heat; a thoroughly enjoyable ride. All that was left for us to do was to refund our previously purchased, fully-refundable train tickets and purchase a bus ticket. In his spiel to sell us the ticket, he looked over our train ticket: “Oh, you’re going to have to take the bus anyway, they’re not going to accept this train ticket, it’s ripped!” The rip he referred to was a half inch tear in the upper corner of the ticket, in no way lessening the readability of the ticket. Naturally we laughed him to scorn and chalked it up to another trick of the amoral salesmen we had met. Brian wasn’t laughing, however, when he stepped up to the ticket counter to refund the tickets: “I can’t take that, it’s ripped.” Bear in mind that the paper stock used to print these train tickets is actually 1 ply toilet paper. After arguing for a few minutes, he was ordered to the corner of the room where paper and paste lay ready to reassemble the hopeless rip in the upper corner of the ticket. After doing so, Brian pushed his way back to the front of the line as he had been trained.

Ticket counter man: “You need to wait in line.”

Brian: “No, here’s the ticket, give me my money.”

Ticket counter man (looking over the ticket): “You didn’t do a good job pasting it, go back and do it again.”

Brian: “No, give me my money.”

Ticket counter man: “You’re holding up the line, go back and repaste the ticket.”
Brian: “No, I’m not moving, give me my money.”

Displaying the obdurate immovability of a 3000 year old Buddha statue, Brian finally disgusted the ticket counter man into relinquishing our funds, allowing us to purchase our bus tickets and experience the worst ride of our trip.

The bus was conveniently timed to leave Jaisalmer at 4PM and arrive in Jaipur at 5 AM. We had purchased sleeping bunks with doors that slid closed. The trip began innocuously enough, with us staring out our full length windows as the Jaisalmer desertscape raced away. We had purchased three bunks directly beside each other but the conductor moved me to the front of the bus to accommodate a family sitting together. We quickly discovered the lack of any toilet facilities on the bus, prompting me to immediately impose a moratorium on water drinking. After about an hour, the bus slowed to allow more people on. A few people attempted to get off and use the bathroom, in response “no time, no time!” by the driver and conductor. Pretty soon a tidy knot of passengers had gathered at the front demanding to be let off. We stopped in a little village “Three minutes!” the conductor demanded. After three minutes exactly, the bus began moving again, prompting people to pop out of nearby bushes, pulling and buttoning up pants.

What’s the hurry? You might ask. Turns out the time was needed for the frequent stops to cram more passengers into the already packed bus. Aisle space between seats is actually an excellent source of income for unscrupulous drivers and conductors. Thus it was that within a couple of hours of the 13 hour trip, the aisle was packed with people barely able to stand let alone squat or sit on the floor, spilling over into our narrow berths. Being that I was separated from my fellow travelers and the villagers crammed in beside me spoke precious little English, I took to reading my favorite magazine, The Economist. This lasted about an hour, until darkness fell, both inside and out. Though there were sufficient lights on board, they were inexplicably extinguished in favor of the dim reflection of the headlights from the front of the bus. The question then became: what to do with the remaining 11 hours of darkness spent alongside sweet smelling rural Indian farmers crammed into my berth? The apparent answer: freeze. Being that we were driving through the desert, the temperature dropped from 90 degrees to about 40 degrees within a couple of hours. We were promised heat on the bus right? That’s why all my warm clothes were securely stowed beneath the bottom of the bus right? Yes, the huddled masses yearning to receive cheap bus fare provided some body warm, but the five foot horizontal window that stretched to the side of my berth didn’t…quite…close. And so, the next 11 hours were spent crammed in the fetal position for warmth, teeth chattering and wind whistling around my T-shirt and shorts. All except for the twenty minute dinner stop at 11:30 PM where we desperately attempted to purchase blankets from long closed stores.

And so it was that at 5 in the morning, we arrived in Jaipur in a state of omnidirectional, arbitrary anger that I directed at the first unfortunate rip-off artist who happened to work at the hotel in which we stayed.

What to say about Jaipur itself, one leg of the famed Golden Triangle of India? After sleeping until 10, we ventured to the City Palace for some touring around:

I am very charming

And then on to Jantar Mantar: a wholly impressive array of 18th century instruments of astronomical and astrological calculation. The three of us being engineers, we reveled in archaic, technical delight.

Here are Brian and I with an instrument designed to tell the fortune of fellow cancers (I’m the one with the crab pincer).

Hawa Mahal, where the women in puja watched parades.

And then on to another monkey temple. Here I am in a state of hominid humility.

Monkeys love romantic views

This proves it.

Next on this ever-slowing conveyer belt of blogging: Agra!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


Part 7 – Jaisalmer

As before, I would recommend viewing this blog on the blogger.com website, not on any RSS syndication (like Google Reader) so that the pictures all line up.

Ah the train again, here is Steve, delighting with his fellow passengers at the start of another long ride:

Within hours, the soft blue of Jodhpur had given way to the sandy gold of Jaisalmer.

Jaisalmer is the largest western city on the road to Pakistan; it’s out there. Despite its remoteness, tourists still flock to Jaisalmer for the magic of its dunes, camel tours, fortresses, havelis, and Italian food:

My standing recommendation however, is simply ask to be let off in Italy while on the way to India if you really would like some Italian food.

Jaisalmer is home to a fabulous series of Jain temples, awash in intricate carvings. Jains are notable in that they reject killing of any animals. To enter their temples you must remove all leather items. However, to keep this a family blog, I will refrain from all leather jokes. The most ardent devotees wear face masks and sweep the ground in front of them to avoid harming even microorganisms.

The priests within the temple network gladly tour you through their temples, explaining and showcasing the beautiful carvings, after which they ask for a tip, expressly against the instructions displayed on several placards throughout the temple. Some alternatively ask for a souvenir of an American dollar, preferably a 5 or 10 dollar bill.

Likely the most popular Jaisalmer attraction is the desert camel safari. These come in varying lengths, but most will have an overnight stay. The desert can be a sinister and unforgiving place, as anyone can learn from the movies. To be ready, we decked ourselves out in extreme desert gear.

We were ripped off in our purchase of this hardcore gear, but luckily we were able to recoup our losses by selling the clothes to incoming freshman at the local jihadi training camp.

Here’s me and my ride:

Here’s a video of me in the drivers seat


And here I am making a hand shadow of a camel while riding a camel.

Sunset in the desert is gorgeous, after which the temperature drops “like it’s hot”. Our guides gathered up some scrub wood, built a fire, and cooked a dinner of chapati, daal, rice, and curried vegetables, all seasoned with sand. Afterward, we lay around the campfire listening to the camelman’s songs, staring up at a moonless, star-spangled sky. After several cold hours under thick, camel-musk-scented blankets, we awoke, ate a sandy breakfast and cameled back to town. Recommended, do try it out.

We had the good fortune of being in Jaisalmer over New Years, so we attended a party thrown by our guesthouse. It’s difficult to accurately describe the amount of shock we experienced at this party. The party started out tame enough, but as midnight drew nearer, we noted that something was seriously wrong, and became increasingly more wrong. The assembled crowd started dancing, jumping up on stage and careening about, but without the help of any alcohol. Now I’d been to a few Mormon dance parties in my time, so that part didn’t terribly surprise me. But looking about at the wildly dancing crowd of about 300, it was clear to see that about 98% were men, young men our age and younger. Each was creating a dance out of the thin, cold, Jaisalmer air. One was hopping on one leg like an amputee, another looked like he was guiding a Boeing 777 onto a runway, still another looked like he was waving for a rescue ship after being marooned on an island. The beauty part was each was smiling like a synchronized swimming contestant and intent on convincing each of us that his dance was the coolest on the dance floor. We were constantly being grabbed, and spun around, our limbs gripped and marionetted into the latest extemporaneous dance craze.

Being the hit of the party was tiring, so we left and greeted 2008 from our balcony amid the whoops and fireworks from the rooftops below.

The next morning we set off for our next destination: Jaipur. Until then.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Part 6: Village Tour around Jodhpur

The “village tour” is a popular tourist attraction in many places throughout the world. The idea being that the tour operator helps you escape from the modernity, rush, and grime of the city and takes you “off the beaten path” to small villages where the locals really live as they have for centuries. I had been on a few in various parts of the world previously and was a bit wary of them, but I thought I’d give this one a try.

On the way, we witnessed our only elephant spotting in India. The head and front were all painted but we only had time to grab our cameras and take a picture of the hindquarters as we passed.

Our first stop was the site of the Khejarli massacre where 278 years ago the local maharaja started cutting down trees for a new palace in a neighborhood of Bishnoi people. Bishnois are a separate religious sect characterized by their reverence for nature. To a westerner, the Bishnoi appear to be Hindu, though their religion is significant because of its origins as a dissenter to the Hindu faith. In any event, the Bishnoi decided to start the tree hugger movement by literally hugging trees and getting their head cut off by the Maharaja’s soldiers.

A nearby village housed a community of potters. We were able to squat beside them and be instructed on how to spin the wheel, form clay and set the pots out to dry. The village looks like a Civil War memorial battlefield with its drying pots resembling piles of cannonballs.

UNICEF works on a myriad of projects for children the world over. In this village, they’ve organized a small school.

It seems one of the items of instruction at this school is the knowledge that all foreigners possess pens in bountiful and free flowing quantities. Thus, we received a never ending stream of requests. I was also unaware that elementary photography was taught, alongside the alphabet and names of animals, at the UNICEF school. As proof, here are pictures taken by children after they grabbed our cameras.

And yes, those are my glasses on his face.
Another stop to a small house where an elderly lady was taking care of a cosmeticked baby (that means the baby had makeup on him for some reason).

Each village is composed of a single ethnic/religious group. The diversity of beliefs between groups was quite interesting. The potters village was Muslim, we then visited an Untouchables village, then a Bishnoi village.
Here we are in the Untouchable village.

I asked my friend Jaideep about the caste system while in Bombay. He laughed: “C’mon man, all that Untouchable stuff was gone after Gandhi; nobody cares about that anymore.” Most likely true in Bombay. Positively and completely untrue in the villages of Rajasthan. The lowest caste in Hindu tradition, the Untouchables, or Dalits, have definite restrictions. After visiting the Untouchables we went to the home of this slightly higher caste family for lunch.

When an Untouchable approaches the home, he is not permitted to pass beyond the gate, the homeowners may not touch him, and if the Untouchable eats with them, he must use a separate set of dishes which must then be washed with sand.
Interestingly enough, when we stopped for lunch, we were led to a room and asked to wait and eat our meal there, as our entrance to the kitchen area would make it ceremonially unclean. The status of a Westerner, as one outside the caste system, tends to vary depending with whom you’re speaking. Some say Westerners have no restrictions and are free to interact with any caste, some simply tolerate us, and some find us polluting.

In the Untouchable village, we witnessed some traditional weaving.

In a communal courtyard, villagers dry out cakes of lentils which is eaten as an accompaniment to meals.

Can an Untouchable rise out of their position and become a doctor, engineer, teacher, etc? Absolutely, but to do so they must almost certainly leave their village. In their community, they are constantly under the stigma of who they are and are not permitted to rise above. Moving to a larger city can shed that label, though their surname will betray them if anybody cares. However, it’s often a matter of getting there as Untouchables are almost certainly poor. What is most disheartening however is asking these typse of questions to rural Untouchables. Most simply convey a lack of desire to do anything of that nature, claiming that this is just who they are. It’s a thought repulsive to me as an American, where our culture encourages anybody from any background to rise to the fullness of their potential through ingenuity and hard work.

Over lunch, I spoke with the tour operator and owner, Deepak. I had to commend him for the best village tour I’ve ever taken. Most of these tours tend to whore out the culture of those you would like to see. Take for instance the Karen and Akha tribe tour near Chiang Mai, Thailand where women elongate their neck and limbs with iron coils. The cultural reasons that once prompted these people to follow this practice have now vanished. Now young girls’ lives are hijacked and the aspiration of their next 50 years becomes sitting with a forced smile inside a hut while westerners come and gawk at the sideshow, exclaiming what a “beautiful culture” these people have. This is an extreme example, but the oddity of the culture of some indigenous people has the effect of turning them into beggars as the rich Westerner comes trouncing through. They have little more to do than sit and wait for the next tour to show up as their original diligence and industry vanish.

Deepak ensures that, in exchange for allowing us to visit these people, he provides them with medical treatment and school supplies and does as little as possible otherwise to disrupt their lifestyle. I would highly recommend that if you’re going to Jodhpur, check out Bishnoivillagesafari.com and contact Deepak directly instead of booking through a hotel, which takes a commission. In case you’re wondering, I do not receive any compensation for my endorsement.

To round out our trip, we visited Roop Raj the durrymaker in his village of Salawas. Roop Raj resembles many of the other villagers we saw along our way but when he starts to speak you know he means business, literally. He has gone from being a local weaver to hobnobbing with international clientele and being splashed around on CNN, BBC, and newspapers throughout Asia and Europe. I like people to mistake my house for their local Pier 1 Imports showroom so naturally I picked up one of his fabulous durries. Here is Roop Raj smilingly modeling a durry crafted by his own hand in his village.

Lastly, we visited a traditional opium ceremony. Opium is illegal in India but the locals have special rights preserved for them to continue with their traditional practices much like peyote with American Indians or marijuana with Willie Nelson.

When I return, you’ll be treated to a tour through the fantasyland of Jaisalmer!