Monday, July 25, 2016

Adventures in India 18: The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was a fitting destination for our last tourist day in India. We had been told we definitely wanted to get there before the buses from New Delhi arrived around 11AM, but that the haze was so strong first thing in the morning that it was difficult to see anything.  Therefore, we met up with our guide at the hotel around 9:00.  I irritatingly left my glasses in the car and the guide declined my request to call the car back for them, which was a major point against him in our book. When the shuttle bus to the Taj wasn't showing up, he asked us if we wanted to walk, so we hoofed it past a long line of shops to the gate. Having paid the 10x extra for tourist passes, we got into the tourist line, which was about 10x shorter. There is a significant security examination before going in (I suspect mostly to weed out implements with which assholes could mark their names into the marble) but the guide won some points back by talking the security supervisor into letting us in with only a quick check from him. My LensPen was an item of interest but when they actually got a look at the soft bristles on the inside everyone agreed it was not going to be capable of damaging the monument.

After clearing security, there were still some lines and gates before being able to see the Taj itself. There are an impressive amount of pictures over on Flickr.

Gate into the Taj inner compound.

 Significant haze was still present, making the edges fuzzy even from inside the compound. 

More lines lead up to the base of the monument itself, where booties were provided by the guide (required) before stepping onto the marble itself. Having seen pictures of the Taj for years, I (maybe this isn't usual) had always thought the Taj was pure white, but in real life it turns out to be intricately inlaid with writing and decoration and it is much more impressive than I expected.

The scaffold around the column is for cleaning - temporary.

You're not allowed to take pictures inside - but what was humorous is that while this entire edifice is intended to commemorate a specific empress (bore the emperor 14 children then died of TB) after the emperor died they also interred him here and made his tomb a lot bigger than hers.

Out the back, the haze over the river was so thick you could hardly see the other bank.

The detail work was pretty incredible.

The inlay is chiseled into the marble, then filled with smoothed semi-precious stones.

Apparently not much room for slips of the chisel when you have to do hundreds of square meters of this kind of stuff.  Guide said it took 50,000 workers 22 years to complete.

Overall I would say this one lived up to its global renown and then some. It's amazing.

After the Taj, the guide suggested a place where they do demonstrations of the inlay process and of course have such goods for sale. While tour guides in India sell you stuff like it's their job, at least in this case the quality was very high. The demonstration included chiseling out the marble for the inlay, shaping stones with a hand wheel to fit the cavity, and the resin used to fix the stones in place. We were initially not feeling the need to buy any for ourselves, but looking at what was for sale we were quite impressed by the quality of the work and ended up buying some (we saw much crappier stuff elsewhere). The marble is actually translucent and if viewed through light the colors of all the stones change - while while not very practical is a neat trick. Didn't really feel like haggling, but this was fairly expensive stuff - basically told the guy if he messed with me too much I was going to walk, gave him a really really low number and then came up a bit to make the deal. As with the weaving from earlier in the trip, I am confident that a US-based producer of such work would have to charge thousands of dollars per piece for comparable work.

Later in the afternoon, we went to the park across the river from the Taj Mahal.

You getting the feeling they don't want people fooling around here?

It was actually possible to get the whole structure in-frame from over here, and it was nice as sunset closed in.

These ladies asked to take a picture with Ana, but she didn't seem to like the fact that I was taking a picture of her taking a picture of them together. I still don't understand the allure of pictures with random foreigners - happened to both of us many times.

Garden itself not particularly spectacular - mostly just plants in lines, few things blossoming, not particularly interesting to look at.

We also observed people gathering reeds and herding animals on the riverbanks. As with other places we'd been, it was clear that very different lifestyles are being lived here.

For dinner, we decided to really mix it up and asked the driver to take us to McDonald's. Now, you might think that McDonald's is not a natural fit for a country that almost never eats beef (and in some places you can get mobs outside for that kind of thing). We were interested to see what was for sale and also to try something we hadn't tried in India so far.

Various veggie, chicken, and fish burgers - note these prices are pretty high for India - you could have a good meal in a non-tourist restaurant for the price of a 'burger' here. Place was jammed with people though - may have been marketed as a high-status place to eat in India? Or else city folk have enough money to pay these prices and don't care?

Vegetarian and meat dishes very clearly segregated in production and sales - makes sense.

The large drinks were American smalls, as might be expected. I got a 'Chicken Maharaja Mac' and Ana got a 'McAloo Tikki Burger', which we took back to the hotel to eat. We watched a heavily censored episode of "Whose Line Is It Anyway" on TV - there were definite cuts within and between skits, and any time tobacco use was mentioned, "SMOKING KILLS" flashed on the screen.

Chicken burger was flavorless. Should have bought one of everything to test.

Ana's potato burger was actually pretty good.

This pretty much wrapped up our tourism - all that was left was the long trip home. We slept in, made liberal use of the hot water and internet at the hotel - our flight wasn't until the middle of the night. The drive to the airport took forever, almost seemed like the driver was dawdling. For once, he didn't know where the tourist eating spots were and as we got close to the airport he was getting kind of desperate and we wound up eating at a local rest stop that actually served up pretty good hot fresh dhosas. When we arrived at the airport we realized why the driver had been dawdling - you can't actually get in until 6 hours before your flight and we were still 10 hours early. We'd known you couldn't go through security that early but didn't think they'd enforce it at the front door. They had a lounge area for people trapped by their flight time, but it looked to be a long several hours. 

Airport purgatory lounge

We sent Ana exploring and she found an in-airport short-term hotel which sounded fantastic to us - for long international travel we really like them as chances to get out of the public eye, get clean, and get sleep. The rest of the trip home was uneventful until we learned that Chicago had changed their parking layout and prices and we'd parked in a lot that used to be cheap but we had to pay a FORTUNE for three week's parking there this trip.

The next and final blog entry on this sequence will do some overall and summing up comments, since there are a lot of individual blog entries here which may have more or less context present.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Adventures in India 17: Transit to Agra

For the first time, we'd be operating in India without the umbrella of our more experienced and Hindi-speaking friend. After a few weeks doing tourism though, and still with dedicated drivers and guides, we knew pretty much what to expect. Our friends were bound for the airport - originally supposed to be with our main driver but apparently he'd gotten sick after going home and they were also with a new driver. We were in a new, smaller car, the 'ETIOS' I think? We didn't need the big one for only two and it felt more spacious than the Innova with four. We headed out on a long drive, past New Delhi, towards Agra and the Taj Mahal. Traffic was pretty heavy and progress was slow. Pictures are on Flickr.

Sign for tourist grade lunch stop - thinking they meant 'cuisine'? We saw neither lakes, nor hotels. 

Apparently all the drivers have the memo to take tourists only to places they're intended to go. The owner or head waiter gave us a little trouble for ordering the cheapest thing on the menu (basically lentils and rice) and splitting it but that's actually what we felt like and it probably still cost 20x what it would at a place for locals. The lentils were a bit odd, they had clovers in them.

Met up with our guide at Fatepur Sikri, one of the older palaces we toured in India. This guide was one of the best on the trip in terms of speaking loudly, clearly

This one didn't have the water running either - nice day though.

Muslim rulers had the faces removed from animals carved into the walls, think there was an issue with idolatry there.

Elaborate stone chambers.

The palace had been built with separate areas for the ruler's three wives, one of whom was Portuguese Catholic up from Goa hundreds of years ago. Paintings from the era were still visible, if degraded, in her chambers.

After the palace there was a major mosque right down the road, which we also visited. The guide thoughtfully gave us options in terms of observing the local religious rituals or patronizing any vendors. In terms of views - these places are nice but not as nice as some other things we'd seen, but the guide was spot on.

A few modern amenities like the electric clocks and lights had been added, which probably could have been done less intrusively or destructively.

Leaving the complex, we stopped at some of the shops - I'd been looking for a rhino carved in a particular style. Found a rhino in a different style - not many rhinos, mostly camels and elephants. There were some other neat things but the guy was kind of annoying me with the prices he was asking so after talking him down for a while I bailed - he followed me out into the street still haggling and gave more ground, eventually got him down to something I was willing to pay. I honestly don't love the figurine, but it is associated with the only time I saw pain in an Indian shopkeeper's eyes when we finished negotiating. For that reason, the rhino is very pleasing to me. I think the guide gave me a 'not bad' look also.

We got into Agra after dark and were a bit disappointed to be staying at a hotel off the main strip, since the center of town visibly had restaurants and shops that could be walked to. Ours was off on a country side road (the driver couldn't find it, we actually picked up a travel agency rep to help us get there and check in) and we did not feel like wandering out into the dark to eat anywhere but a hotel restaurant. The hotel itself was middle of the road for Indian tourist place standards but our room was a bit too close to the smoking area and so smelled like cigarettes and it was pretty loud with the dining room and kitchen beneath us. The hotel food was actually pretty good - figured we should have butter chicken in India at least once, as it is a common dish we make at home, and it was juicy and flavorful. There were musicians at dinner but they didn't harass us while we were eating so we tipped them for that. The next morning we were heading out to see the Taj Mahal as our last major tourist item in India.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Adventures in India 16: Jaipur

We left early headed for Jaipur as our driver would be getting a break to see his family when we were there and the earlier we arrived, the more time he had - recall he'd been on the road with us for most of two weeks. Driving in, it was clear that Jaipur was a much larger and more modern city than others on the tour so far (excluding some parts of New Delhi) and our hotel lived up to that as international-grade accommodations. Hot water 24/7!

After a tasty lunch in the more casual of the two hotel restaurants we followed up with a nap - if we were scheduling this trip again, we'd probably schedule a bit more down-time into it.

After napping, and knowing we were getting close to the end of the trip and in a city with a lot of shopping, we all went out looking for things on our lists. Our friend was looking for anklets, I bought a t-shirt, picked up more scarves and also three silver bracelets for Ana from a more upscale place that had nice things. Our friend had been giving us a hard time about not negotiating enough and we didn't much feel like it, so we simply sent her in to do the haggling when we wanted something - no hassle for us, saved money, works for me. We were thinking, since we were in town, that we might go see The Force Awakens, since that had just come out in theaters, but we couldn't find an un-dubbed (into Hindi) one in time. Were mostly wanted do to this just for the experience of seeing something in a theater in India, but no special loss.

Being in a big city, we didn't have to rely on the hotel or driver for food recommendations and went to a restaurant recommended in the guidebook that was sort of a diner/coffeehouse.  I think we paid all together for dinner for four what a single entree for one of us at a tourist place would cost (so, about $3). Ana ordered something called 'rose milk' which I believe was flavored with actual roses and she reports it as 'interesting, but wouldn't order again'.

The next morning (our last as a tourist group with our friends before splitting up at the end of the trip) we headed out to the Amber Fort, which originally was part of the protection of the city and is perched on a hill nearby. We were originally scheduled to ride an elephant up to the front gate, but there was a line an hour long and we didn't really feel the need to partake so we simply drove up to the parking lot below the entrance. Our main driver was still with his family so we had a new driver for the day, who skipped the place where you can take pictures of the whole fort both coming and going, despite requests.

The fortifications extended far beyond the fort itself.

Looking down over some of the oldest parts of the city.

Elephant ride up to the main gate. We were told the elephants make a specific limited number of trips per day and are treated well.

Mirrored inlay in the walls of the fort - more attractive than some other places we've seen such work.

We didn't get to explore the one up on the hill - believe it is closed to the public.

Wished that the water had been going - there were dedicated fountains and channels cut into the gardens and surrounding structures that were not turned on.

Maintenance work was ongoing but the garden couldn't be called well-maintained - note the green lagoon and no flowing water.

We were eventually turned loose to explore the open areas of the fort.  This is probably where the water used to come up

The parking lot was a bit more full when we came out.

More shopping was next - went to a place where the driver probably gets a kickback, enjoyed this pro-wrestler public elementary school event billboard. We didn't find a lot we wanted though our friends found more.  Did blow a guy's mind by telling him how much a custom suit costs in the US, though the fabrics this particular place had were not that exciting and we wouldn't have time for shirts or suits to get made anyway. However, one of our friends had had 6 shirts made in Mumbai for cheap and liked them a lot. Ana tore strips off a salesman who tried to make nice about her knitting and suggested that women were better at some crafts and men at others. Did not go the way he wanted it to. I think he also asked for one of the socks she was working on as a gift and said he'd gift her something back, which, uh, no?

Went to the current / active city palace (the flag on top means the ruler is at home, I think).  The palace itself isn't open for tours but the grounds around it have plenty.

Including giant solid silver pots (the biggest in the world according to signage) used by a former ruler to transport Indian water to England on a trip.  There was also a Rolls Royce on display, which was given as a freebie to one of the local rulers. However, the story before that freebie was more interesting - the ruler while in England had gone to a dealership dressed in rather ordinary clothes and was turned away rudely, presumably for being Indian.  He then sent someone to buy every car in that showroom and set them to work hauling trash in Jaipur, never saying a word to Rolls about it. When they eventually found/figured it out, they sent the freebie over to make up for it.

There was an artists' workshop and store in the palace area - you aren't supposed to take pictures in there but we got permission from this gentleman when we bought one of his metal-inlay boxes.

Another major observatory on site, and in better shape with better signs than the one in New Delhi.  If you can see this one, skip that one.

After all that we returned to the hotel. It was New Year's Eve, and our booked tour included a 'Gala' at the hotel that night starting at 7:30. Thankfully no dress code, as we had nothing fancy. We went on time / a little late and the party was absolutely dead. There was music painfully loud (truly honestly actually, loud like a rock concert and maybe a bit beyond) in one room and a thankfully much quieter area with food and an open bar. We needed to eat and drink A LOT to get our money's worth for this event, fortunately the food was pretty good buffet with crispy fried fish and decent chicken and veggies. Since alcohol is expensive in India, that was the way to go in terms of costing them money - tried a few more local whiskeys, some of which were adequate for drinking and some of which were clearly intended for mixing. People started showing up and it got a little crowded given the limited number of tables, and kids started dancing inside which was cute (I would not expose small children to those volumes but at least someone enjoyed it), though the event was supposed to be adults  / couples only according to the tickets and ads. 

Pretty sure they re-used the 2015 sign and put more lights across the bottom of the 5.

We ate and drank and hung out chatting for a while trying to get our money's worth - pretty sure we accomplished it at tourist prices. We didn't bother staying up for midnight itself and there didn't seem to be major fireworks or anything, which was fine with us. The next day, we'd be splitting from our friends and they'd be headed back to the US and we'd go out to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, which they'd visited before we arrived in India. As always, more pictures on Flickr.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Adventures in India 15: Pushkar

The hotel chicken wings at breakfast may have been leftovers from previous night.  We left early from Udaipur to leave time for tourism in Pushkar. Pushkar is one of the holiest places in India. The car overheated on the way - turns out the person who had earlier replaced the clutch had done something to cause a leak in the cooling system. The driver just pulled over and refilled it, so it wasn't nearly as dramatic as we were concerned it might be at first.

Ana also found limited edition gross Oreo when we stopped.

The road went up and got very twisty and narrow - saw buses driving very carefully indeed.

Apparently the hotel was a new one for the driver and he had to try a few different roads before finding the place, which was fairly attractive, though the rooms were a little iffy.

The hotel was on a hill overlooking the city, and that was a nice view. 

After checking in, we still had the late afternoon and evening for tourism.  Pushkar is famous as a holy site, the only holy lake in Hinduism and also the location of the only temple to Brahma. There was talk of why this is, something something a curse - but if I went any further I'd have to Wikipedia it, and in this case that is left as an exercise for the reader since reading it directly will be more efficient.

At any rate, we went to through a market to the temple to Brahma, where cameras are not allowed, and our guide tried to encourage us to cut the entire line.  We waited, since it was only a minute or two and why be jerks in a temple?  I am confident this site has more impact to Hindus than on me - in appearance and effect quite similar to others we had already seen.

After that, we transited through the market to the holy site of the lake itself, where you are also not allowed to take pictures.  There, and without being asked by the guide or anyone, we found ourselves holding a coconut and trying to follow along with our very own Hindi-speaking priest in some kind of blessing which reminded me a little of getting married, and which (SURPRISE) ended with them asking us for money. The priest referred to money in terms of how many hours or days he said it would support the charitable work of the local priesthood, which does not give you a clear understanding of how much they were asking for.  I am sure this was deliberate.  I was gearing up to be difficult about it and either demand more information or offer a small amount of money in a known denomination when Ana picked one. That turned out to be $300, and then we lied a lot about not having it on us, they wanted to do a written IOU, we bailed, and the guide was later asking us for it at the hotel (we wondered if he got a cut).  It was a thing.  Given choice or warning, we could happily have skipped this whole part, which was entirely unnecessary and annoying.

A picture taken of the lake next to the part you're not allowed to take pictures of.

Interestingly, afterward it turned out that our Hindi-speaking friend had accidentally picked the same amount of money, assuming their priest was speaking in rupees and not dollars.  It sounds like their priest switched currencies several times in confusing ways and made it sound like rupees when he meant dollars.  They also declined to follow through, though as someone raised in the Hindu faith our friend decided to make up the $300 in other charitable work at a time and venue less sketchy than this.

After that not very excellent tourism, we went back to the hotel and enjoyed just sitting on the room's little porch and watching the sun go down without anyone bothering us.  We were definitely wearing bug spray (malarial area) and were a little concerned when another American tourist went by with her kids and complained that the all-natural bug spray did not seem to be deterring mosquitoes from biting her kids.  Looking out over the down, we watched children kite-fighting from roof to roof and generally found this much more relaxing than standing by a lake and being hit up for money.

After the sun went down, we had dinner on the front lawn of the hotel, which was pretty nice - good temperature and views and with bug spray the bugs didn't bother us.  The whole city is vegetarian as a Hindu holy site, but we had some tasty okra in gravy and I ordered spring rolls which are probably not authentic to the local cuisine but were delicious anyway and I felt zero guilt by this point in the trip about enjoying things that weren't local cuisine.  So in our opinion, Pushkar is best enjoyed for the views and relaxation if you're not Hindu - might not have been an ideal destination for us but overall it balanced out OK.