Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Adventures in India 5: New Dehli Tourism 4

After several long days, we needed a bit of a break (and I needed to submit final grades for my students) so we slept in and caught up on work and the internet before venturing out again in the afternoon. As usual, the full picture set is on Flickr.

And had some sort of lamb burrito-ish things for lunch at a foreign-serving cafe, pretty good!

We then got a ride out of the city to the Baha'i Lotus Temple, which I'm pretty sure I've seen in pictures but never quite knew where it was.

Well Wikipedia says this is one of the most visited buildings in the world and the line was something - more than two hours to get in. There were vendors all up and down it serving the crowd.

Got better views as we got closer. Our Hindi-speaking friend had to repeatedly tell people trying to cut us in line to bug off (maybe 7-10 times), to the point where the people in front of us would notice someone coming in, turn around, and start smiling waiting for the indignant tirade to begin against the interlopers. She really had to stand toe to toe and raise her voice to drive them off. We were clearly seen as soft targets for being foreign here.  

Once through the gates onto the ground, the line continued. At an underground hutch (spanning the line in and the line out) we took off and stored our shoes, as shoes are not allowed in the temple.

Before going in, they gave a little talk about the temple, its construction, and the Baha'i faith. We were also told no talking was allowed inside. When we went inside, it was pretty clear that wasn't being enforced. The inside of the structure is as elaborate as the outside, and we sat for a while appreciating the sight. I am sure there are pictures on the internet, but we honored their request not to take any ourselves.

Coming out, we retrieved our shoes and went to the museum/info center across from the temple. I didn't know anything about Baha'i, but it turns out to be a faith of pretty recent vintage that mashed together mostly the Abrahamic religions and explicitly disallowed some of the more medieval items (slavery, rape, etc.) featured in older, less politically correct religious texts, and added a healthy respect for science. The info center did a pretty good job of introducing the origins and teachings of the Baha'i faith, so it was interesting to learn more.

Caught the sun going down coming out of the info center

Afterward we told the driver we wanted to go to Delhi Haat, a notable textile bazaar. He took us to a small shop named Delhi Haat, telling us he knew exactly where we wanted to go. This was not the correct place, but he got a kickback from taking us there, so we wandered in, looked at a few things, then went back out and told him that it was time to take us to the real Delhi Haat. It was finally time to do some shopping at a place where we actually intended to do some shopping. They were featuring textiles from across India and there was quite an abundance. As with many other places, the vendors tended to be quite aggressive, which I found discouraged me from actually looking at their stuff.

Scarves and wraps and shawls and so on in abundance.  We saw just about every shop in the place.

Afterwards, went for dinner, thali again, different place somewhat classier but pretty much the same deal in terms of the food. This place had waiters coming around refilling, which made it hard to remember what I'd eaten and what I hadn't.

Our friends met up with some family right as we were wrapping up dinner, but the two of us were beat and just went back to the hotel to sleep.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Adventures in India 4: New Dehli Tourism 3

After the exciting morning we returned to the hotel to regroup. One of our friends wasn't feeling very well, so we went out with just three. We went first to the Jantar Mantar which is a big observatory built about 300 years ago. The site was interesting to look at for a bit, but the signage wasn't fantastic - you could do some really good interactive exhibits here with enough money and increase the educational impact of the place and the remaining structures dramatically. We took a good look at everything and moved on. More pictures are on Flickr.

Without the cover of our Hindi-speaking friend to intimidate the drivers, our tuk-tuk somehow arrived at a shop where the driver undoubtedly gets kickbacks instead of our destination. We negotiated a lower fare for looking at the goods before disembarking. Since we hadn't actually done any shopping yet, we weren't too concerned about the diversion. The shop's prices were ridiculous, more many items more than you'd pay after importing them into the US and marking them up for retail I think. They had a couple of camel-pattern silk ties I was moderately interested in, but the quality was not high and they wanted more than $20 for them even after negotiating (I have previously bought a lot of decent ties from Marshall's for $5 and $10 that were nicer) and they wanted like $80 for a cast rhino figure I was interested in - got annoyed at the pricing and high-energy salespeople and didn't buy anything. Ana got a scarf she really liked that wasn't that bad a deal. Would have been a great deal in the US but was probably 25-50% overpriced in India. In addition to bringing us to a shop we didn't ask to go to, our Sikh driver over-shared and got a little too personal. He complained about the local Muslim population, more specifically the number of kids they typically had and therefore the lack of sex education. He told us that he taught his kids how to use condoms, and also said that it was time for us to stop using condoms and have kids already. Not too many, but we're smart people so should have a couple, and we can't wait any longer to do so. Nice guy, but personal boundaries were not his thing!

After escaping the tourist trap shop, we proceeded to the Red Fort.  The scale of this structure should not be understated - it is enormous and in excellent condition, partially because it was in continuous use from construction in the 17th century to today. The British used it as an army base for a while after taking over India and the Indian army had barracks in it into the 2000's. We hired a guide before going in and noted that most tourist sites don't have sandbagged machine gun nests in the entryway, but this one does.

Walking up to the entrance

Entrance gate looking up

We were thinking, oh how tacky, they put in a mall, but the guide says the mall is original (though the signage and goods are modern). The palace ladies wanted things but couldn't just wander around outside for safety, so they set up a bazaar just for the palace inside.

Inside the main walls are a considerable number of structures - that one for audiences with the ruler

Why yes, I would like a an intricately carved marble pavilion inside my elaborately carved sandstone pavilion so I can pavilion while I pavilion, etc.

The guide seemed to know what he was talking about and added a lot of detail beyond the signage. We wished the imperial quarters hadn't been covered by scaffolding and wires and hoses and stuff. By this point the police were starting to close the place up and we were hurrying a little. It was supposed to be open a while longer but somehow I don't see arguing with the small army of police tasked with driving people towards the exits was likely to go well.

The grounds are sprinkled with barracks for the British and Indian armies, which look a bit out of place.

Leaving the Red Fort, we went looking for a ride back to the hotel. Our friend had been charged by his wife to negotiate ferociously for every rupee, even though the amounts of money involved are pretty trivial. We went through a lot of people looking for a good deal, got followed by one very persistent pedal rickshaw driver for a while, and probably spent enough time finding a ride that we could have walked most of the way across the old city towards our hotel by the time we finally got a cab.

It turned out that the reason that people were either refusing to take us to the hotel or asking very high prices was that there was a festival on that side of town and traffic was total gridlock and the roads closest to the hotel were actually closed - had to get out and walk. We spent enough time sitting in traffic that we could have walked back to the hotel from the Red Fort a second time.

A view of the main road leading to the hotel

By this time we were hungry and our friend was feeling better, so we went out to dinner, walking through the crowds again.

I wish I remembered what she was pointing at - it was the Fantasy dessert section here.

I do not recommend the yogurt doughnut.  It was soggy.

Each couple split a thali platter with various things to eat on various flatbreads

This was a considerable amount of food and I was impressed to watch a small French girl at the next table eat one of them by herself. One thing about Indian food that I realized is because you're always dipping and mixing and the mouthfuls tend to be smaller (only so much of something you can hold up on floppy flatbread to get into your mouth) I was definitely eating more slowly and getting full after eating less food. There were some interesting things in this dinner but only a few items that I really liked - it was OK and mostly fun for being with friends in India and less solely as a dining experience. Since we'd been up for an early morning and the bike ride, everyone was ready for sleeping after adding dinner on top of the long day.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Adventures in India 3: New Delhi Tourism 2

We started off the next day in the pre-dawn darkness, which was a little chilly. Our friend planning the trip had signed us up for a bike tour of the old city. I think most people with some idea of what traffic can be in India are at this point a bit concerned for our health. We met up with the guides outside a hotel not that far from our own, arriving early because traffic was light and and then standing around in the cold for a bit. The guides said something along the lines of 'We have to do this early in the day before the traffic gets bad', which made sense but also meant the later we got into the tour the more dynamic the traffic might be. There were about as many guides as people on the tour - it turned out that they basically rode protection around us - trying to create a protective ring of natives around the tourists.

My impression with New Dehli (and maybe India in general) traffic is that if you see a gap you must commit fully and instantly, or someone else will assume you're not going and do the same. You are actually safer when you move faster and dive into and out of traffic. People driving assume you are going to do it. I felt like there was a flow that I could understand - I worked to have very high situational awareness so I could take any opportunity that arose immediately. The group in some cases was not able to stay fully together as a vehicle or cart or something cut off the route, or else you had to detour around it at speed. The cobbles and the weaving weren't that bad - the bikes were well chosen for the venue and well-maintained. I had fun most of the time, visibly more fun than some other members of our party. It may be that the 2000+ miles of road biking done in Japan better prepared me for this challenge than those who have been driving since they turned 16.

I don't have pictures of us actually riding, for obvious reasons. We mostly stuck to very narrow streets in the old city, which still had motorcycles, animals, people brushing their teeth, etc, crowding them despite the early hour. They also tend to have open gutters/sewers on the sides which only sometimes have gratings over them - definitely don't want to fall in. This image is from one of our first stops - look one way and see an ancient mosque.

Look the other way and see people sleeping outside and in ad-hoc structures and garbage everywhere.

As it got lighter the traffic definitely picked up.  We crossed this one on foot.

At various points in the trip in cars and tuk-tuks we were involved in at least three accidents, all just fender benders. So that's about one a week if you drive regularly in New Dehli and if our sample is representative. This is an example of a less benign crash. We saw a handful of these too.

We went to a wholesale spice market, mostly for the view from the roof. The air was so suffused with hot peppers that we sneezed the whole time. People carrying enormous bags of peppers were everywhere and we tried to stay out of the way.

A large number of merchants and other families live in/above the market. The guide said the men cooking on the small fires here actually have long-term deals with the resident families, serving several specific families as cooks. I think this is because there isn't any space or ventilation for cooking in the individual apartments. This venue did not hide the kind of poverty and filth a lot of people are living in. Having apartments, these folks aren't on the bottom rung either.

And then you go up onto the roof and see an incredible view - I recommend looking at this one on Flickr or otherwise expanded for the detail.

Also there were monkeys - they ignored us and we returned the favor.

The tour takes the subway between two points to avoid traffic. The subway is very clean and modern - I think aside from a security checkpoint and some signs in Hindi it could have been in any major city. The bikes were brought back by guides who stayed behind - didn't bring them with us.

Then tuk-tuks for the next leg

The main guide (I think all of them actually, but I'm not 100% sure) turned out to be Nepalese, and he's based out of a refugee colony for Nepalese people in the city. The tour ends there, with some optional shopping in Nepalese shops and breakfast at a Nepalese coffee house. While 'refugee colony' sounds pretty grim, it was actually much cleaner, quieter, and better put together than nearly anything else we saw in India. It was a relief to walk past the outer walls and hear the traffic sounds fade to nothing. There was also a lot less pressure from shopkeepers, so you could browse without being harassed, though the guide may also have been part of that. I don't think we bought anything as we didn't see anything we needed to have, but it was a nice change of pace.

The coffeehouse would have looked totally in-place in the US. The bread and omelets were tasty and cheap, though the tour price included breakfast. Ana tried yak butter tea - it isn't bad, and kind of tastes like liquid pie dough.

Overall, the bike tour was fairly adventurous in terms of both taking your life in your hands and also going places where you're potentially intruding for the purposes of tourism, which isn't a great feeling. I probably wouldn't do it again having done it once, but I'm glad we did it this time as it was the kind of experience likely to be remembered. 

At the end, our friend who planned the trip said 'I figured you'd say no way and we'd cancel this'. Having seen the traffic in India, I'm not sure I would have signed us up for a bike tour, but it was a very enjoyable way to see the city. More pictures are available on Flickr.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Adventures in India 2: New Dehli Tourism 1

Our first destination was the Mahatma Gandhi Museum, which houses a substantial collection of Gandhi artifacts and writings. More pictures can be seen on Flickr. We were impressed by the focus in his writings on gender equity, and also learned about the industrial exploitation of India by the British Empire that we hadn't really been clear about before. I figured there would have been exploitative resource extraction (mining etc.) but the efforts to dismantle and forbid additional Indian industrial infrastructure so that India would be dependent on imports from Britain was something I hadn't understood. Ana knew a surprising amount because a lot of it was textile-based.

The portable spinning wheel and other tools made it really, really hard for the British Empire to forbid domestic production of fiber and cloth. Apparently Gandhi was a big fan of this form of civil disobedience.

Most signage presented in Hindi and English

Unfortunately, the museum could clearly use more money and more skilled curators. The place was largely deserted and it was clear it wasn't scrupulously taken care of. Artifacts were not always appropriately protected or in situations that would prevent their long-term deterioration. One thing to mention about foreign tourism in India - international tourist tickets into attractions tend to run at about 10x the cost of tickets for Indian citizens. I am perfectly fine with this as I think the most expensive tickets we ever paid for were about $5. I just hope the money makes it back into supporting and preserving the historic items and architecture we went to see.

After the museum we went to Mahatma Gandhi's memorial and resting place. It was a big park with iffy landscaping, but the open space and green things made the air feel cleaner and that was nice.

If you had a limited amount of time in New Dehli, it might not be the end of the world to miss this one. The museum has all the information and context, if that's what you're after.

Third, we went to Humayun's Tomb. For more information on who he was than 'an emperor of most of India' I would recommend checking out Wikipedia's entry. Our pictures on Flickr are better than theirs, though. This was the first place where we experienced the apparent excitement of Indian children in seeing foreigners - we attracted a lot of attention from touring school groups just going up to the ticket counter.

I found the architecture really pretty striking, even with some parts of the site in disrepair and the canals not exactly flowing strongly everywhere. This was also the first site where we thought, man, I'd really have loved to see this when it was new. Fortunately, there is evidence of substantial investment and improvement at this site - hopefully they follow through and bring it back to its full impact. I believe they are adding a new museum as well, which would be great.

Entryway / construction site for the new museum

We teased our friend of Indian descent pretty unmercifully for not knowing her way around all these places she'd never been before.

Dump in the park over the wall from a World Heritage site - see a lot of this kind of thing

Shut up, photography is important

Quite a mausoleum - and the closer you get the more intricate the detail work becomes.

I'm not sure the pictures do justice to the scale of it.

Painting on one part of the ceiling of the inside.

If you like elaborate things carved out of single pieces of stone, India has definitely got you covered.

After all this touristing, we were getting pretty hungry and went to a fancy restaurant called Petals recommended by the driver. Our friends were pretty stunned by the prices, which were reasonable for the US, meaning extremely expensive for India. However, it was one of the very best meals we had in India, so I personally can't complain. It was sort of modern/international fusion done with Indian dishes, and their take on tandoori chicken was so good I mentally committed to buying a tandoor at some point and attempting to duplicate the recipe. I need more of that chicken.

Note the bottled water - you don't EVER drink from the tap or eat anything that may have touched tap water in India if you are a foreigner and value your time. Purdue's international travel vaccinations and prep nurse was exceptionally clear on this. We were in possession of powerful antibiotics in case we screwed that up, along with other less drastic measures for more minor stomach/gastrointestinal upsets. Some places do boil or filter their water, but can you trust that no mistakes were made?  

Yeah, that chicken there. It isn't normal.  It is amazing. Those onions and some of the other raw stuff here and elsewhere looked great, super fresh, smelled increasingly tantalizing as time without raw food started adding up. We didn't eat any of it. I wish I could have, here and elsewhere, but the risk was not worth the reward.

Our last tourist destination of the day was the Qutb Minar, which is basically a big damn tower erected by a Muslim ruler of the area 800 years ago (!) out of pieces taken from several dozen temples that had previously been on the site destroyed on his order. Our guide for this one (if you don't have one, prospective guides will not leave you alone - most of ours were vetted ahead of time by our local travel agency for quality) provided a lot of information we definitely would not have gotten from the limited to non-existent signage. Apparently you could go up it until just recently when the inevitable someone doing something incredibly stupid in/off of a priceless monument happened. Now it is locked and you can only see it from the ground.

I really recommend looking at pictures at full size here or on Flickr to see the detail - it is really something. Wikipedia says some of the writing relates details about the construction of the tower, along with passages from the Qur'an.

Guides can also be helpful for taking group photos

The grounds around the Qutb Minar also used to house a university open to Hindu and Muslim students. We think universities are generally good ideas.

Again, would have loved to see these when they were new. Even broken ruins have astonishingly intricate and detailed work done at huge scale.

As engineers, the Iron Pillar was a satisfying curiosity - I'm not 100% on whether the rustproof iron was made deliberately or by accident - but it may be up to around 1600 years old and it doesn't rust due to high phosphorus content in the metal.

After the Qutb closed (we got chased out by security a little bit), we were definitely ready for dinner. Our friends talked to the driver and wrested a lower-cost-but-good dining option out of him. It was related to us that if the foreigners get sick, the drivers are supposed to report it to the government and they bear some sort of responsibility or consequences for bringing foreigners to a place where they got sick. This proved to be an ongoing problem - it was very difficult to get recommendations for places not specifically catering to foreigners - but you also don't want to just walk into places that aren't clean and get super sick either. Places targeting foreigners tend to be expensive and bland, but relatively safe. In this case, we got a recommendation from the driver for a something at the level of a diner near the hotel. The front desk also endorsed it, so off we went.

It proved to be a real find and ten times less expensive than the lunch place. I think it came out to about $3.50 for the four of us for dinner. We did get some looks when we walked in.


The raw veggies looked amazing again, definitely didn't eat them this time either. The cashew chicken with cheese was delicious, and we'd pay more for worse versions of it in the future. I don't recall what that green dish was exactly except that it was quite spicy.

They don't mess around putting ghee on the naan and roti. Eventually got tired of that, but at this point it was still delicious. It is difficult to avoid everything raw - not the cilantro on the rice dish. We figured it had already touched the food and ate it, without severe consequences. This diner was also one of my favorite places that we went. Undeniably cheap and among the best places we ate.