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Around the World in 210 Days

Welcome to India

INDIA | Tuesday, 15 January 2008 | Views [950] | Comments [4]

We landed in India at 4:00 am.  We were now 10 and a half hours ahead of New York time, and our bodies are still on French time.  But we can’t complain, because a couch surfing host offered to pick us up in the middle of the night and offered to take us to his home. 

            The airport we flew into is located in Jaipur, also known as the pink city.  There were probably 200 people on the plane, and another 200 waiting for them at the airport.  We gathered our luggage, called our host, Sanjay, and went to wait outside.  This was the first of many differences from Europe.  There were probably 50 or so homeless people outside, but they weren’t sleeping despite the time, rather they were sitting and standing around talking to each other.  It was fairly quiet, and the few men that asked us if we needed taxis did not pressure us once we told them no thanks.  Soon Sanjay arrived, and recognizing him from his couch surfing picture, we happily piled into his car and were off to his home. There was little traffic, but judging by how he still straddled two lanes all the way home, it was clear that traffic would be interesting here.  (They drive on the left side of the road… most of the time). 

Sanjay’s house is really cool.  There is a courtyard shared with the house below, and Sanjay and Anu (his wife) share the upper level with their four and a half year old daughter.  There is one bedroom attached to the living room, and a second bedroom, the kitchen and bathroom are on the other side of the outdoor patio.  The sink to the bathroom is outdoors between the kitchen and bathroom.  From this and another house we have seen here, it seems common for an outdoor patio to be used as a den of sorts, where people take their morning tea and watch the kites flying.  It makes sense when you realize that they basically live in the desert, and a breeze is welcome pretty much all the time. The houses in this area are only about 30 years old according to Sanjay, but they are very functional, featuring Indian Style showers, which consists of a shower which sprays cold water, and a bucket which is filled and then heated via an electric coil.  So if you opt for the hot shower, you use a pitcher and ladle the water over you.  If you opt for the cold water, you grit your teeth, and try not to breathe, although it can be quite difficult to so anyway. Our bedroom has a queen size bed in it, the refrigerator, and several cupboards.  The mattress is similar to a one inch futon with wood planks underneath, but in actuality pretty comfortable so long as you don’t sleep on one side too long.  

After getting to sleep around 4:30 am, we kept waking up to check the time.  As it was our first day in India, we wanted to get a good start, but were simply exhausted from two nights sleeping in planes.  We finally got up around 11:00, and Anu made us a wonderful cup of tea with biscuits.  We talked with them for awhile, and they served us breakfast, which consisted of egg sandwiches, which were really awesome.  Andrew declared that he liked them, which as you likely know, is no small feat.  We met Sanjay’s friend Arun, and eventually they took us down to a cab stand so that we could go into the old city.  Arun even did the bargaining for us, and got the ride for 35 rupees.  (40 rupees is equivalent to one dollar).  The cabs here are actually motorized rickshaws.  Imagine a three wheeled scooter with a jeep canopy and roll bar.  The cab ride into the old city lasted about 15 minutes, and felt like a video game.  We darted in and out of cars, people, rickshaws, and goats.  The driver would physically push people that were too close to the car to avoid hitting them.  He honked so much that Andrew began to think it might be more efficient for him to equip his car with a horn that blew all the time and had a button to push when you wanted it turned off.  The driver laughed uproariously as we chuckled at his mad honking.  It was really fun, and quite impossible to describe. 

The old city is what gives Jaipur the name the Pink City.  The walls and buildings inside the city walls are almost entirely pink.  The driver let us off right outside the bazaar, let us try to explain.

First, there is litter everywhere, but like little bits of paper, animal feces of all kinds, tons of dirt, and heaps of rotting vegetables which are often being sifted through by a couple of cows or dogs.  But at the same time, there are women and men using brush-fashioned brooms to sweep the trash into piles, the litter is full of brightly colored objects.  In fact, the whole town is colorful, mostly because of the vibrant saris the women wear from lime green to neon orange and electric blue.  There are beautiful pillows, and rugs, and of course the ever-popular Pashmina everywhere. 

Next the sounds.  The first sound is the ever present blowing of horns, cars honk to show they are passing, cars honk if they get passed, buses honk at the pedestrians, rickshaws honk at the buses.  Each store has its share of men whose job it is to get you browsing in the shops.  They call out “Hello, would you like to come into my shop?”  “Just to look, you don’t have to buy.”  “Hello, hello, miss?”  “Come see my pashmina, 50 rupees, sir, come see.”  Then woman come up to you holding infants who are only clothed on the top half. We don’t know what they say, but we know they are gesturing for food, and indicating they have a baby.  Then come the little children.  Dressed in many layers of once-bright clothing, rubbing their bellies, they call out making the same gestures their mothers make.  Their faces are dirty, and often they have scabs.  Walking past a mosque as men were exiting, we also saw several people that were skin and bones begging from scraps of card board, the paralytic laying on the ground shaking uncontrollably. 

We were heading towards what is known as the windy palace, a building made of lattice covered windows, constructed so that women of the day, adhering to the strict codes of conduct could watch the ceremonies without being seen.  We reached the exterior first, which had no entrance, and were greeted by more homeless people laying at the foot of the palace, and several children that continuously begged for food.  It was at that point, the chaos of the city became overwhelming and we wanted nothing more than to pay any ticket fee to gain access to a museum, and escape the evidence of the misery outside.  We found the palace entrance and temporary respite from a poverty and desperation we had never comprehended, despite hearing of the stories. 

We kept to the backroads as much as we could as we walked to the City Palace.  We stopped by the observatory, which has sundial-esque star-gazing apparati. The City Palace had an exhibit on ancient textiles, weapons, and an art gallery with miniature paintings and giant rugs.  Our favorite part was in the artists’ market, where every station had demonstrations of what they were selling. A miniature painter (in that he painted tiny pictures, not that he was very small) made an Indian woman on the back of our entry ticket with a squirrel-hair brush, and we watched as an older man wove a rug with impressive speed. A close second favorite in the City Palace was the visit from the monkeys, who crawled along the palace walls, hung from the roofs, and shoved each other in attempt to knock them to the ground.

After leaving the palace, we were ready to call it a day, and took an auto rickshaw back to Sanjay’s. We met up with him and then walked a few houses down to Arun’s place, where we met two American couch surfers who are staying with them (from Iowa). We all rode down to Sanjay’s jewelry shop, which felt suspiciously like we were being pressured to buy something, but two things kept us from being pessimistic. One, this man is letting us stay with his family. Two, we had seen quite a bit of poverty that day, and what is only a few dollars to us can mean so much more to someone here. Anyway, we had a couple beers (actually, it was one rather tall beer), and then went back to Sanjay’s, where his wife had prepared dinner. 

The food here is fantastic. Although the guidebooks go on and on about the dangers of eating and drinking, we are happy to report that if you do get sick here, it won’t be because the food tastes bad. Every meal we have had so far, many of which were home-cooked, have been delicious, and vegetarian, as a matter of fact (Andrew wonders why American Vegetarian is so boring in comparison). After dinner, we retired to our room for the night, but not before brushing our teeth under the stars with a small amount of bottled water.

To our delight, the next day had much less to offer in the way of depressing realizations about the unfairness of life. We started off again with tea on the patio, and then met up with fellow couch surfers Austin and Phil to go to the Amber Fort, a fortress just a few miles north of Jaipur. Aron helped us bargain for a rickshaw driver for the day, and he agreed to take us to three forts, a palace, and the… monkey temple. We were excited about the Amber Fort because we had heard from our friends Tami and Brett that the best way to ascend to the top of the hill was via elephant. We arrived and sure enough, thirty or forty elephants, adorned with shawls, saddles, and painted faces were waiting for us. We mounted one and rode to the top. It was like a lumpy boat, rocking back and forth slowly, stopping once to “relieve” itself before carrying on. Along the way, men with souvenirs did their best to bargain with us before our elephant ambled away. It was a fun, unique experience, but at the same time made us want the elephants to stampede for freedom.

The fort was a labyrinth of stucco covered rooms, with giant steps and ramps leading to the different floors. There was a mirror temple, covered in dyed mirrors, and a nice guard that pointed out for us the structure that the soldiers used to hunt tigers from. After descending (on foot this time) to the rickshaw, we had to hunt for our driver. We split up, and Austin and Phil found him walking down from part of town. The four of us crammed into the back of the cab and he drove us to Naighar Fort, a second castle built on a second hill, that boasts the “largest cannon on wheels.” It was bigger than any we had ever seen anyway. We laughed at part of the description, which explained that it was “test-fired once, but due to good defences and the foresightedness of our leaders, the cannon never had to be used again.”

After sneaking away from a guard who was showing us the fortress in obvious hopes of getting tipped (we weren’t rude to sneak away, he would take us into a room labeled “dining room” and say “dees ees dining room”), we decided we were getting a little hungry. We made a few last stops in the fort, including the cannon foundry, where we learned they made solid cylinders and then bore out the centers to make the cannon’s barrels. We met back with the driver and unanimously agreed that instead of visiting the third fort on our agenda (popular because of its panorama of Jaipur), we wanted him to take us back into the city for lunch. He finally understood what we were asking, and before going back into town, he took us by the “water palace,” a palace that was apparently built in dry land, and then flooded so that it was only accessible by boat (and included water-locked horse stalls… don’t ask us how the horses got there). The raj and his princess would leave the palace we had previously visited, and come down to the water palace during hot days.  A 10 year old boy impressed us with very good slight of hand magic tricks with a rock, which he was able to procure from Andrew’s nose. After that, we really did need to eat, so the cab driver took us to a location Phil and Austin had eaten at the day before.

We ate another thali (vegetarian sampler), which was delicious (and cost $2.75!). Because our friends were repeat customers, we were treated superbly, and fed refills until sufficiently over-stuffed. As we were packing the last few bites in, a mustached-man began making strange gestures to Austin. Sort of like we would gesture “smoking a cigarette.” Austin laughed him off, but a few minutes later the man walked by quickly and dropped something small, brown, and drug-like on the table. We instantly decided this could be nothing but trouble (aside from not wanting hash, the man could be in cahoots with a cop who would conveniently stop and search us outside the restaurant). Austin flagged down the waiter and asked him to take it away. The waiter confronted the mustached-man and kicked him out. On his way back, he apologized for him, and said that he was an “idiot-man.”

After lunch, we wobbled back to the rickshaw and were barely able to fit in. The next and last stop on our agenda was the monkey temple, a building built for and devoted to the Hindu monkey god. We had read that in the afternoons the priests of the temple feed droves of monkeys there, and needless to say were excited to witness such a thing. As we approached the road to the temple, we came upon bumper to bumper traffic, along with a never-ending row of people marching alongside the road to somewhere ahead. Some of the people carried banners, and loudspeakers along the road were blaring Indian music. We came to a road block and the driver told us there was no way through, we would have to walk four or five kilometers to the temple. We agreed to this and told him we would meet him in an hour and a half. We emerged from the rickshaw to the open-eyed stares of children. As we walked into the throng of people, it became very apparent there was some sort of festival going on. Men were selling cotton-candy-like snacks on long sticks, balloons, and foam parrots. Everyone was dressed in bright colors, and with the music as our soundtrack, it felt very much like walking through a film. We stopped to ask a police officer directions to the temple, and when we looked up, we were surrounded by curious, smiling kids. All of them were saying “hello!” and reaching out to shake our hands. More than we could count, probably 20 to 30, were eager to say hi. One boy who shook Alex’s hand was promptly smacked by his mother and escorted away, apparently the only one in the bunch that was not allowed to talk to strangers. We walked past a huge temple covered in lights, that was the apparent center of the festivities. There was a long, swerving line built outside the entrance, like that of an amusement park ride, and people were waiting, barefoot, to go inside.

It was here that we made the very exciting purchase of “monkey food,” (a plastic bag with nuts and round, white, bumpy things) and the kid that sold it to us pointed us down the road to the monkeys. We walked for a few hundred feet when we realized that we were being followed by two kids on foot, one kid on a bike, and a hobbling dog. The kids all said hello and asked us our names, and then followed a few feet behind us, whispering in Hindi as we walked. (Being followed is not that strange, everywhere we go, we have been primarily the only non-Indian people anywhere.  Children here love to say hello and ask what our name is, the older children have learned enough to ask where we are from.  The adults often smile and offer a friendly hello too.)  When the kids had left us on our own and we came to a fork in the road, we were at a loss, but a few police drove by and pointed us on. We came across trees filled with bright green parrots (and baskets that are periodically filled with seed), other trees filled with large, black and white monkeys (not the ones we were going to see and definitely too big to attempt feeding), and herds of goats, cows, and donkeys. Oh, and one more herd of about six boys, who took turns shaking hands and telling us their names, then followed us to the temple gates.

The monkey temple was like a ghost town, with gates at each end, a small temple with a monkey god statue inside, and a stretch of grass leading up to an old, dilapidated group of buildings. The buildings indeed looked straight out of a western, or perhaps a war film. But these buildings were occupied by one to two foot tall monkeys, brown with small black hands. They were fantastic. They climbed the fences and walls with ease, poked in and out of windows, and were eager to see what we had brought for them. After some hesitation, we finally mustered the courage to bring out the monkey food. We both filled our hands with food and lowered them. It was not long before our hands were empty. Some of the monkeys (the bigger ones) took their time picking each kernel from our hand one at a time. Others, who were afraid of losing their stash, would swipe the entire handful with one motion and scurry away with what they could cram in their mouths. Some also were very gentle, grabbing hold of our hand with one of theirs, and then scooping mouthfuls with the other. One particularly picky monkey ate only the nuts, and left the spiky things for the other, less refined monkeys. There were too many to count, but aside from one moment where they all, for no reason, started grunting, they seemed really friendly. We also met the self-proclaimed “monkey man,” who took care of the temple and absolutely loved all animals. His favorite hobby seemed to be taunting the monkeys that he so loved by offering them a peanut but keeping a firm grasp on one end. Before we left, men and women began arriving with bags full of fresh fruit and vegetables, and the monkey man let us feed roma tomatoes to very eager monkeys. One of them leaped onto Austin’s back, and Austin’s only line of defense was to calmly hand him tomato after tomato until he had his fill. Overall it was an absolutely fantastic, ridiculously fun experience.

We rode back to Arun’s place, said good bye to our driver, and discussed our day with Sanjay and Anu. We showed Anu the food we had fed to the monkeys, and found out that it was not just “monkey food” at all, but a very delicious sweet snack. We tasted it and she was not playing a cruel joke, it really was tasty. The nuts were well, nutty, but the spiky things tasted like the frosting on Frosted Shredded Wheat. Any guesses who was disgruntled that the monkeys had eaten all of his/her snacks? Arun’s mom served us dinner, and afterward, we brought out our playing cards and taught Arun and Sanjay how to play Texas Hold’Em and B.S. Arun taught us their version of Bluff (in Arun’s version, two decks of cards are dealt out, and then one person chooses a number, e.g. Jacks, and puts all his/her jacks face down and says e.g. “three jacks”, then the next person may pass or also put down jacks. Because the cards are face down, it is possible to get 10 “jacks” on the table.  If you think someone is bluffing, you yell out “bluff” and if you are correct they get all the cards, if not, then you get them) and then we rounded out the night by playing some very intense games of Spoons (actually, we played “Peanuts,” as we had some left over from when we used them as betting chips in poker). It was a great end to a great day.

On Sunday, we woke up later than usual, with out only real plan being to book train tickets to our next destination. Although we refused breakfast three or four times, Anu fed us rice and potatoes before we left for the train station. After getting a couple of our tickets (such a relief to be out of Europe and off of the Euro—four tickets worth 20 hours of travel cost us about ten dollars), we stopped by the internet café and then came back to Sanjay’s to start celebrating. You see, the 14th of January is the Kite Festival, Maker Sakranti, where everyone stands on their roofs and flies kites. They call it “Big Kite day,” and the day before, this Sunday, is called “Little Kite day,” so a lot of people get in some early kite-flying. We climbed to Sanjay’s roof and his friend showed us the hilarious true meaning of kite-flying: kite-string-cutting. The kites are small, made out of tissue paper, and cost only a few rupees each. This means that you can afford to lose one or two, and therefore people attack neighboring kites with malice. Sanjay’s friend was so impressively precise that he cut three kites loose, searched the sky for a moment, and then said “now the pink one.” He sliced it free within seconds. The way they do it is by drifting their kites high up and out, and then crossing paths with another kite’s string. At the right moment they begin tugging on their kite so that it twirls rapidly, and the string acts as a saw blade as they pull it in. The result is the other kite’s string is severed. After this impressive mass attack, a pink and blue kite got the best of Sanjay’s friend. Sanjay asked us if we wanted to move to another spot to watch more, but Andrew told Sanjay’s friend that the pink and blue kite was still king of the sky, and with that, one more kite was sent up with a mission. It circled near the pink and blue kite, and then drifted downward, as if it had lost the wind. Suddenly, he yanked on the string hard, the kite soared upward and instantly severed the other’s string. Victory.

After a bit more kite-watching, Alex departed with Anu to get a facial and eyebrow threading at the “family beauty parlor.” When she returned, Sanjay drove the four of us to another festival that always happens on the 13th with the Punjab caste, when they celebrate recent or pending marriages as well as new babies. The festival consists of music and a bonfire, and the one we went to was sponsored by the city, so it had a nicely sized pyre in the intersection of a street and an “up and coming Indian pop star” named Mahek (we think). She had what we could only describe as a musician’s worst nightmare. The mic would cut out, give feedback, or be too quiet, and more than once they would shut off the music in the middle of a song. Then came the flowers. For the festival, the area was decorated with plush yellow flowers on long strings. At first, people showered Mahek with flower petals and the occasional bud, almost like one would at the end of a great performance. Then people started pelting her with entire strings of flowers, more like tomatoes at the end of a horrible performance. She really stood her ground though, and was able to sing while dodging and batting down flowers, many times retreating to the back of the stage to avoid the onslaught. We felt terrible for her, and concluded that had this been an American singer, she would have walked away during the second song. On top of this, the event coordinators routinely walked on stage, one time while talking on a cell phone, one of the backup dancers almost picked a fight with a crowd member, and the news photographers kept stepping up on stage directly in front of her to take pictures of the crowd and the bonfire. One of our favorite parts was the group of kids that sidled up beside us. We later learned that the kids had apparently been goading each other to be the first to talk to us, and it was the littlest girl who mustered the courage first. They all said hello and we exchanged names (Although “Andrew” seems to be very hard for them to pronounce, so next time we’ll probably just go with “Skeeter”). Before we left, the little girl gave Alex a pink rosebud, and an older guy who called himself the “Indian Superhero” offered us the official snack of the festival; peanuts and popcorn.

We picked up a few beers on the way home, and spent the rest of the evening discussing the festivals and eating more of Anu’s fantastic cooking. The train ticket we bought in the morning is for a trip to Suwai Madhopur, where Ranthambore National Park stands. There is, we have read, the best chance to see the last of the wild tigers in India. No word yet whether or not they sell Tiger Food at the gate, but odds are that if there is Andrew will taste it before giving it away. 

Tags: Culture

Comments

1

It is becoming increasingly evident that I am not going to be able to top the stories you two have to tell.

I am going to start making stuff up.
My stories will have intergalactic monkeys.

  Richard Jan 16, 2008 3:21 AM

2

my heart goes out to you both as i know first hand how hard it is to see just how bad life can be for others, it is so hard to walk on by and not give everything you have. this sounds like a wonderful place, and i cannot belive you are playing with monkeys, you did not get the monkey shot! and i will tell you now you most definetly did not get a tiger shot so no you cannot play with the tigers. but i do expect wonderful pictures, and if you do well enough and get a front and side shot i will carve you a tiger or maybe keep it for myself. i really do wish i were with you. so since i'm not you two behave so we can all go back to these places together. the food sounds wonderful and i am impressed that andrew ate an egg. as on sunday my grandkids were making jokes about them for andrew. can you guys get skype or not, i have had it on everyday but have not connected with you. will go back to hobbs today and will be back on friday nite. also would like to see some pictures as it has been a really long time, shannon have andrew take a picture of your eyebrows for me i want to see what they look like threaded. the story of the kites was great, made me remember the kite flyer you had me read. really miss you two and truly miss hearing your voices. love to you both, have a wonderful time. mom hahaha richard beat you to first place.

  mardi Jan 16, 2008 3:51 AM

3

this isso wrong, it took mine foreever to post and i know why, my post was a little longer so yours got in first, not fair. i am a sore loser. mardi

  mardi Jan 16, 2008 3:53 AM

4

If I may borrow a quote from Daniel:
"tee hee hee"

  Richard Jan 16, 2008 10:00 AM

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