Archive for January, 2008

January 17th 2008
A Perfect Day in Udaipur

Posted under India

Set on the edge of a sparkling lake and nearly surrounded by mountains, the whimsical, romantic city of Udaipur has a distinctly European feel. From the sunny lakeside patio of Ambrai Restaurant, where we enjoyed our best meal in India, the afternoon sunlight glitters on the tiny ripples of the lake. Local men, women and children bathe and wash clothes at the sun-soaked ghats along the water’s edge. The sound of the women beating the wet clothes clean echoes across the town.

Our first day in Udaipur was blissful and stimulating – one of the best days we’ve had on the trip so far. The morning began with a quiet breakfast on the whitewashed rooftop of our hotel with panoramic views of the lake and the city. When we were sufficiently fueled by hot masala chai, we ventured out to wander the streets of Udaipur. The narrow city streets were lined with vendor stalls selling the usual array of textiles, jewelry, antiques, and miniature paintings; the shopkeepers all greeting us as we walked by and beckoning us inside. We stopped for an impromptu tour of a 350-year-old Jain temple – its interior made almost entirely of glass with many beautiful mosaics. Inside the inner altar, two men were worshipping as we tiptoed around them.

We continued down the road to the immaculate City Palace, one of four residences of the current maharaja of Udaipur, for a guided tour. The palace was elaborately decorated with glass mosaics, colorful stained glass windows, cheerfully painted apartments, tranquil courtyards, windows and entryways carved in traditional Rajasthani style. Rajasthanis have a particular affinity for bright colors and ornate designs, which usually include flower patterns, probably because there are few vivid colors or flowers in the natural desert terrain. From the City Palace balconies, we took in the best views of the city and of the glassy Lake Pichola. The serene lake, only twelve feet deep, surrounds two small islands both of which are entirely encompassed by palaces: the opulent, whitewashed Lake Palace Hotel and the equally magnificent palace on Jagmandir Island, which was built by Maharaja Karan Singh in 1620. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who commissioned the famous Taj Mahal, is said to have gained inspiration for the design of the Taj when he stayed on Jagmandir Island in 1623-24. Our City Palace tour came to an end at a series of government-run souvenir shops, which are said to donate sixty-percent of their profits to the poor citizens of Udaipur. The shops contained more beautiful, expertly-handcrafted, and more expensive versions of the wares available on the streets but we were already entranced by the romance of the city and wanted to wrap ourselves in its exotic rhythm. We walked through the buzzing streets and made our way back to the hotel for a quick siesta; then, in a brief recess from my fantasy, we ended up in a cardboard box-like internet café.

Let me digress for a moment to explain that many small towns in India have yet to comprehend the café aspect of internet café. In these depressing and claustrophobic venues, you walk into a tiny room with four cement walls and a few computer carrels. Not only are they devoid of character but there is ne’er a refreshment to be found. In this particular nameless internet café in Udaipur, the proprietor and his visiting acquaintance proceeded to light cigarettes in the unventilated cell. They were polite enough to leave the room when they noticed that I had covered my nose and mouth (and my disgusted scowl) with a handkerchief. When the proprietor returned later, he asked me if I had an allergy to cigarette smoke to which I replied, “No, I just don’t want to die from lung cancer.” He seemed taken aback by my matter-of-fact response but perhaps he’ll think twice before subjecting someone else to the increased prospects of a slow and painful death. In truth, I’ve probably inhaled enough first-and-secondhand smoke in my indulgent and fearless twenties to do the trick but JUST IN CASE I’ve somehow been spared the ultimate penalty for my smoky indiscretions, I don’t want to push the envelope by allowing unnecessary dirty air into my shrine. There’s enough air pollution on the streets of India already from auto emissions, burning trash and cow patties.

After surviving the internet café, we made our way on foot to the City Palace jetty for a sunset cruise on the lake. The boat departed promptly at five p.m. and glided leisurely along the city’s edge. The sun was beginning its slow descent on the opposite side of the lake, which brushed the majestic sandstone buildings and their watery reflection in a magical, golden luminescence. The boat continued along its course, rounding the beaming white Lake Palace Hotel and cruising toward Jagmandir Island, where we disembarked to explore the palace. Across the lake, the city of Udaipur had taken on a hazy glow and we joined the throngs of tourists snapping numerous photos from the scenic upper terrace. We walked around the palace courtyard with musicians playing soft melodies from one of many intimate, curtained alcoves in the opulent background. Tempted to further indulge in the tranquil ambience by sipping overpriced Indian wine at a candlelit cocktail table overlooking the water, we hurriedly boarded the boat before we had a chance to change our minds. We had plans to attend a musical performance of traditional Rajasthani dances across town. The show was called Dharohar and was performed in the courtyard of an 18th century haveli museum on the water’s edge. Havelis are traditional, ornately decorated, Rajasthani residences, many of which are now used as museums, restaurants and guest houses. We purchased our tickets with about an hour to spare and wandered through a city gate behind the haveli to one of the bathing ghats, where a kind-faced musician in colorful turban was demonstrating his handmade string instrument for a small crowd. In the pale moonlight, his tunes were mesmerizing and I found myself actually considering buying one of his exotic instruments. Thankfully, Aaron’s sweet tooth pulled me away to a small café across from the haveli before I was lured further down the path of almost certain buyer’s remorse.

Dharohar was a dazzling performance of music and dance. We, the gracious audience, sat on blankets in the small square courtyard while a succession of lovely ladies in bright-colored costumes with delicate embroidery and gold embellishments leapt and twirled to the sounds of three faithful musicians. Each dance had a fiery uniqueness: performers spun with potted flames upon their heads; two feisty divas rang out a choreographed tune on small cymbals sewn into unusual places on their costumes; gold glittered from spinning dresses; and, as the grand finale, a dancer pranced, swayed, stood on the edges of a pie plate and walked barefoot on glass with an astonishing stack of nine clay pots stacked on her head. The audience roared with excitement and applause as the show ended and everyone shuffled around in search of their shoes. We felt a natural euphoria in the air – everything seemed to be bathed in an incandescent glow – and we decided that an elegant dinner was in order.

We took a rickshaw across the bridge to a boutique hotel called Udai Kothi and ascended about five flights of dark, narrow stairs to its stunningly beautiful and serene rooftop restaurant. As we skirted the iridescent pool, lined with colorful cushions and low tables, the maitre d’ showed us to a table in the center of the candlelit dining area under a starry sky. Musicians played soft dinner music as we basked in our gorgeous surroundings, drank some of that overpriced Indian wine after all, and dined on saucy paneer and tandoori vegetables. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

Our next two days in Udaipur were lovely. We lingered longer on sunny terraces, checked out a few shops, and kept our activities to a minimum. On day two, we took a rickshaw to see the maharaja’s vintage and classic car collection. Each of the twenty-two splendid automobiles had its own garage and an extraordinarily personable guard opened them, one by one, speaking of each car with pride and affection. Neither Aaron nor I are car buffs but we were awed by the beautifully restored historic vehicles nonetheless. Most impressive was the 1934 Phantom Rolls Royce used in the James Bond film Octopussy, which was partly filmed in Udaipur.

After viewing the cars, we asked our rickshaw driver to drive us to the Spice Box which, according to our guide book, offered recommended cooking classes. Since we are crazy about Indian cuisine and, in our past domestic life, both loved to cook, we thought a cooking class sounded wonderful. The driver dropped us off at a hotel and ushered us inside. “Is this the Spice Box?” I inquired of the proprietor as there was not a sign to be found. “Yes, yes.” he said and pointed us upstairs to the cooking classroom to make arrangements with the instructor personally. Her name was Sushma and we liked her immediately as she began to tell us about the class. Although the class fee was double what we’d expected to pay, we were more or less already sold when she let us sample some of the dishes that we would be learning to make and that definitely sealed the deal. Paneer butter masala – our favorite dish! We would join the cooking class at 3:30 the following afternoon and catch a sleeper bus to Jodhpur that same night at 10:15. We ran into an American couple whom we’d briefly met in Wilderness, South Africa, and told them all about our class and urged them to join.

At some point during the next morning, it suddenly occurred to me that the business card that Sushma had given us read Sushma’s Cooking Classes. It didn’t say anything about the Spice Box. I recalled various warnings in our guide book about rickshaw drivers taking you to a similar place to the one you requested and trying to pass it off as the requested place in order to receive commission from the proprietor. I also recalled our rickshaw driver sticking around the hotel lobby for a suspiciously long time after he’d dropped us off. We ran into the American couple later that day who said that they registered for the afternoon cooking class at the real Spice Box and, after their description confirmed that it was in fact a different place, I explained to them how we had unknowingly been scammed. Despite the hotel proprietor’s role in that deception, we were too excited about making paneer butter masala with Sushma to care.

We were the eager beavers of the cooking class, arriving first and grabbing two seats in the front row, center. We took copious notes throughout the class, took turns stirring, and exchanged delicious glances as we tasted each dish. After class, the ten students sat around a large table on the rooftop and dined on an extravagant meal of the dishes that had just been demonstrated: masala chai tea, paneer butter masala, eggplant bhurta, aloo ghobi (potato with cauliflower), dal makhani, saffron rice, stuffed paratha, and fresh made chapati. We stayed at the table long after dinner had ended, visiting with our classmates. It was a lovely evening and we were sad to go as we hurriedly departed to catch our bus to Jodhpur.

Udaipur was a jewel in the Rajasthani desert; the romantic rooftops, whirling beauties, picturesque cityscapes and sunset cruises collectively made our stay there feel like a second honeymoon. The streets were filled with that endearing Rajasthani chaos of cows, stray dogs, working donkeys, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, beggars and chattering shop owners. So much life happens on the streets of Udaipur that your senses are constantly overloaded by the sights, sounds and smells. Even though the buzz can make you crazy at times, you find yourself strangely addicted to it.

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January 10th 2008
Pants, Panhandlers, and Priests in Pushkar

Posted under India


We left Jaipur by train, headed for Ajmer. From there, we still needed to travel another thirty minutes to Pushkar. For the price of a Starbucks latté, we could have gone by taxi but we wanted to experience the public bus so we took an autorickshaw from the train station to the bus station and inquired about buses to Pushkar. Much like Africa, the buses leave when they are overflowing, rather than according to a schedule. As the bus traversed the winding mountain road to Pushkar, an attendant pushed his way through the standing passengers in the aisle to collect the fares. The bus stopped on the edge of town where a barrage of commission-seekers was eagerly waiting to lure us to their respective hotels. After lugging our backpacks through the narrow, maze-like streets to check out a few places, we settled on the Everest Hotel, a boxy, pastel-green tower with a rooftop restaurant overlooking the city. The enchantment of the town had already taken hold of us; we dropped our bags and immediately dove into the vibrant, glittering activity of the market.

Pushkar is home to about fifteen thousand people. It is nestled in the dry desert mountains of Rajasthan and curves around a holy lake with fifty-two bathing ghats around the perimeter where pilgrims come to bathe in the sacred waters. The population is predominantly Hindu and the devout citizens insist that their conservative practices and religious customs be respected by all visitors. All food in Pushkar is vegetarian. There are no eggs, alcohol, drugs or public displays of affection allowed. The main area of town consists of narrow streets that yield to the curvature of the lake. The streets are lined with vibrant market stalls selling beautiful and inexpensive clothes, tailor-made saris and Rajasthani garments, silver and semi-precious gems, shimmering bangles in every imaginable color, incense and perfume, handicrafts, wall hangings and religious art. The traditional greeting is “Namaste”. The vendors are friendly and not overly aggressive so you can shop leisurely without feeling accosted. There are very few cars in Pushkar but motorcycles carrying as many as FIVE people honk and weave through the crowded market. Cows are everywhere! The beloved bovines roam freely wherever they please, grazing on trash or laying down in the middle of the road for an afternoon nap. There are also an unbelievable number of stray dogs in Pushkar. The locals do not keep dogs as pets but they gently tolerate the mangy street dogs which continue to procreate. They sleep anywhere and everywhere in town and can be heard throughout the night, howling at the moon; their echoes reverberating off the cement buildings and inciting a chorus of responses. Near the ghats, on the rooftops and on the outskirts of town, many families of gray-haired, black-faced monkeys frolic the days away and scrounge for scraps. Animals are a big part of the local culture but not as workers; they simply live in harmony with the people.

Kite flying is a very popular pastime for the children of Pushkar. On windy days, the children can be seen on the rooftops, manipulating their lines and staring up at their brightly colored kites, rising, soaring, darting through the air. There are several kite shops in town and it is easy to see how they stay in business; every tree in Pushkar is heavily ornamented with small plastic kites that became stuck in their branches.

The people of Pushkar, and our ability to interact closely with so many of them, were by far the highlight of our visit. They are vibrant and charming and clad in even brighter and more vivid garments than those we have seen thus far in India. We could literally spend hours photographing each and every fascinating person and many people – especially the elderly panhandlers carrying their shiny collection buckets – are happy to be snapped for a few rupees. Now that we know the game, we always carry small change in our pockets and hand it out like Halloween candy. The elderly panhandlers are docile and entertaining but there are also the nasty little child beggars who are persistent and ruthless. One little girl was begging with a baby in her arms. When we tried to shoo her away, she lifted the baby’s garment to display its back full of red sores. Another boy tried, with average success, to engage us in a whole debate about the value of taking our money to the grave versus giving it all to him. The next day, the same boy followed us again. I told him that he should go to school. He replied, “If I go to school, who will get my Mama chapati?” That made me sad because it was probably true.  So young to have such worries.

We sat inside one very kind artist’s stall for over an hour admiring his silk paintings while he talked to us about the beautiful Hindu religion, meditation, festivals in Pushkar, and education. He said that education in India has changed dramatically in recent decades, due to globalization and Western influence. Traditional education was once provided by gurus in the ashrams where students learned language, religion, culture, and how to prepare weapons for war. Now, Indian education is centered on preparing the student for today’s workforce. In that beautiful, tiny shop in the Pushkar market, the thought of losing old traditions in deference to the earn more, buy more, save more culture seemed a bit depressing. In my own experience, I have found that when culture is diluted over generations, the youngest generation cannot reclaim the beautiful traditions no matter how much they appreciate them. If they are not instilled with love from the very beginning and repeated through faith and love through the years, then they do not become a part of you. They remain forever lost. Still, sacrifices must be made to keep up with the Joneses, I suppose.

We spent our two days in Pushkar wandering the streets, indulging in the retail temptations. We’d maintained a solid anti-souvenir mentality until the Pushkar market tempted us with its tantalizing textiles and sparkling trinkets. I have discovered bubble pants! With elastic at the waist and ankles and lots of extra fabric in between, they have a funky, liberating fit that makes me feel like an Asian princess, a yogi, and a martial arts master all at once. I love them and I want more, more, more! None of the locals wear them, of course, but every female tourist, myself included, who is in Pushkar for more than a day is sporting a pair. Bubble pants are the gauchos of India!

We relaxed on rooftop restaurants overlooking the ethereal holy lake, watching the pilgrims and locals bathe at the ghats and make prayer offerings. We have discovered many new vegetarian dishes and swallowed enough Indian milk tea (hot spiced tea with milk and sugar) to fill a bath tub. One of us can easily convince the other to share a steaming pot of it morning, noon or night. Many restaurants in Pushkar serve a cold, refreshing drink, called Lemonana, which is made with mineral water, lemon juice, sugar and lots of pureed fresh mint so that it comes out green. It’s delicious! Note to self: when pregnant and craving a mojito, think Lemonana!

While Pushkar has a very Bohemian feel, the mystical realm of the Hindu religion pervades every street, building and narrow alley. The town boasts hundreds of temples, including one of the few Brahman Temples in the world. On the morning of our last day in Pushkar, we hadn’t toured any of them. The Brahma Temple was located on the edge of the market – we had passed by it at least four times – and, with our opportunities quickly fading into the distance, I sent Aaron in to scope it out while I waited outside with his shoes. He came out about twenty minutes later with some flowers and cardamom, which he said we were supposed to take to the lake. I smelled a tourist trap and said so but he was into it so I followed him down to the ghats and waited at the top for another twenty minutes while he disappeared down an alley toward the water’s edge. When he returned, he had a red smudge between his eyebrows and some grains of rice stuck into the smudge. “How much?” I asked.


I had barely walked ten feet toward the lake with sacrificial flowers in hand when I was accosted by the first of several “priests”. I swiftly dismissed the first and second priests but the third one persistently followed me, directing me to the proper place to leave my shoes and to the proper ghat for prayer. The priests are all plain-clothes men who approach with such fervor and purpose that they could just as easily be mistaken as touts for a camel ride or a budget hotel. As I reached the appropriate entrance to the ghat, I began descending the steps toward the lake where a mat was laid down before me and I was instructed to sit. The priest handed me a plate with an assortment of flowers, rice, spices, and sugar while his assistant took a metal bowl down to the lake to fetch some holy water. I protested more times that I can remember, weighing whether to leave immediately, abandoning my mission of placing my flowers in the lake as a respectful offering to the Hindu Gods, or to “hire” this priest and allow myself the privilege of participating in one of the most sacred and spiritual rituals in Hinduism. I relented and placed the flowers on the plate in front of me.

The priest led me through a series of prayers, alternating in heavily accented English and Hindi, with me repeating after him. I dutifully followed his instructions to wash my hands in the holy water, then place my wet fingers on my forehead, eyes, shoulders, heart and stomach, blessing each with my touch. I prayed for peace and love and good health and a long life and the same for those in my immediate family. At the conclusion of these prayers he dipped his wet thumb in the red powder on my plate, creating a red paste, and gently smeared it on my forehead between the eyes. I was finally allowed to walk to the water’s edge and pour the contents of my plate into the lake. I returned to the mat and the priest informed me that in order for the Gods to answer my prayers, I must make a donation to the poor, solemnly promising to feed no fewer that one thousand of India’s impoverished citizens. He spoke quickly, implying a minimum commitment of “One Food”, or one thousand rupees, about $25. Handing me a coconut and slowly dripping holy water onto it, he asked me repeatedly how many people I intended to feed. “One Food? Two Food? Three Food?” I initially balked at the promise, knowing that I had no intention of donating his asking price, but he would not let me complete my prayers without commitment. He again submerged his hand in the holy water, removing it and once again he let it drip methodically onto the outstretched coconut. “How many food?” His words clamped down like a vise on my conscience. I agreed to “One Food” and moments later, with my prayers official, I was ushered to a small table at the top of the steps where a man waited with an official receipt book.

As instructed, I filled out the form with my name, my father’s name, and my home address. Then the priest told me to write the donation that I had committed to, one thousand rupees, on the form. Nope. I told him that I would not, but that I was prepared to donate 100 rupees. He told me that I was reneging on the commitment that I’d made earlier. I was, in fact, but it was a commitment made under duress and instead of chastising him for using the high pressure tactics of an in-home vacuum cleaner salesman, I simply told him that was all that I could do. After a bit more banter, he agreed to edit the form and immediately demanded that I hand over my “donation”. I obliged and collected my official-looking receipt. Of course the final step in my spiritual journey was the donation to the priest for himself and his family. I pulled out 70 rupees from my pocket and begrudgingly handed it over with a forced smile. About $5 poorer, I walked briskly toward the exit before he could ask for more money.

The experience left me bitter and jaded and it was the second time in as many days. The previous day we had approached one of the ghats along the lake and we were besieged by a priest who would not leave us alone and who constantly said that we had to go down to the lake and place these flowers (the ones in his outstretched hand) as a sign of respect. I knew that he was trying to hit us up for a donation. I simply wanted to admire the beauty of the lake and respectfully participate from the top steps of the ghat. He could not understand my unwillingness to follow up and he continued with an barrage of comments about my lack of respect and my sacrilegious actions. I finally turned to him and asked if, as a priest, he was aware that some people worship in different ways. In the moment of his stunned silence I turned to walk away, clearly disgusted by the encounter.

From the beggars that literally line the street as you enter the Brahman Temple to the many priests offering their blessings for a price, everything about the Hindu sites in Pushkar seemed more human and commercialized than sacred. Since we began our trip around the world, we have had the opportunity to meet people of many different nationalities and religions. And one of the things that we most look forward to is learning more about the history, customs, and nuances of both. But more often than not we’re overcome by the human element which interjects to sour the experience and prematurely abort the lesson.

There are both pros and cons to visiting the heavily touristed destinations like Pushkar. The locals generally speak good English and are tolerant of photo-flashing tourists and eager to help. Unfortunately, many of the locals also become aggressive and demanding when trying to relieve tourists of their money. Many tourists, unaccustomed to such intimidating aggression and out of their element in a foreign country, succumb to the guiles of the touts and beggars. Even with our newly-toughened skins from repeated exposure to the same scams in different countries, we still occasionally re-surface from somewhere with a five dollar red smudge with rice pieces in it. We can only choose to be thankful for the inexpensive lessons. Despite the panhandlers and pushy priests, Pushkar has been one of our favorite stops so far. Hindus believe that Pushkar Lake was formed when Brahma, the holiest of all Hindi deities, dropped a lotus flower. While the concept of multiple gods is still overwhelming to our monotheistic minds, there is something serene and mystical about the iridescent glow of the glassy lake against mother-of-pearl sky. Pushkar is the kind of place where we could easily spend months, communing with the locals, studying yoga, reading the days away on tranquil rooftops, and pondering Pushkar’s magic. After only two nights, we leave with much of the city beyond the dazzling market unexplored but we are thrilled with the richness of our experience.


January 9th 2008
The Pink City

Posted under India

We flew from Mumbai to Jaipur, which is the capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan, and took a taxi to the Hotel Pearl Palace, near the city-center. Our room was not quite ready so we ventured up to the rooftop for a drink. Our room was tastefully decorated with local textiles and modern amenities. After settling in, we set out for a walk to the train station to purchase train tickets to our next few destinations. We only made it a half-block from the hotel before an autorickshaw-wallah convinced us to let him drive us around. Rickshaws are two or four-seater cabs or carts with a single driver’s seat in front. Autorickshaws have motors and can maneuver through traffic like a motorcycle. Bicycle rickshaws are slightly cheaper and good for short distances. We arrived at the train station and booked tickets to Ajmer, Udaipur and Jaisalmer. Our driver, Munna, was so friendly that we took him up on his offer to take us sightseeing around town for the rest of the day.

Jaipur is much smaller than Mumbai but it is still a bustling city. As Munna skillfully maneuvered through the noisy throngs of cars, motorcycles, bicycles, animal carts and rickshaws, we felt almost hypnotized by the whir and hum of the city streets. We began in the Old City, also called the Pink City, which is surrounded by salmon-pink walls. At City Palace, home to the current Maharaja, we wandered through the complex of courtyards, gardens and buildings. We toured the textile room, which houses garments worn by centuries of Maharajas and their royal families, including one ruler who was over seven feet tall and five hundred pounds! He had 108 wives and concubines but no children. Next, we saw the armory with walls and glass cases covered in historic Indian weaponry – bejeweled swords, antique rifles and handguns, battle armor and helmets, knives of every length, curvature and design, a mace, and intricately decorated gunpowder bags. In the courtyard, we caught the end of a puppet show and also saw a snake charmer! His beguiled cobra swayed to the enchanting sound of his flute. The snake’s poison had been removed but it still flared as if about to attack.

Munna recommended a good place for thali and we made a quick lunch stop before moving on. We were the only tourists inside the dim restaurant, which is a good sign. The thali was great, though much less elaborate than Chetana, and it energized us for our next stop: the Royal Gaitor. The royal cenotaphs, or tombs of the Maharajas of Jaipur, were set against dry, rocky mountains. They are beautifully carved monuments with intricate details, carved out of marble from Italy, India and many parts of Asia.

As is customary in tourist haunts like Jaipur, Munna drove us around to several local shops where the rickshaw drivers receive hefty commissions on anything you purchase. The proprietors are most accommodating, usually offering tea and a demonstration of how their products are made in an attempt to butter you up for the high pressure sell. We began at a shop that sold beautiful Indian textiles. After a brief demonstration of how block printing is done, we were led into a kaleidoscope of brilliantly colored floor-to-ceiling fabrics. The salesman sat us down and began his presentation of beautiful bed coverings, pulling one after another out of its plastic packaging and flinging it into the air so that it magically unfolded and fell gently to the floor in a swish of multicolor. Each subsequent layer was higher quality, more ornate and more expensive than the last. He was very aggressive in his approach, constantly asking my opinion on the various fabrics, talking over my thoughts, intently listening and intrusively weighing in on my discussions with Aaron. It was quite overwhelming and decidedly annoying. The shop had beautiful things but lost out on our business because of the pushy style of its salesman. We looked next at hand-woven Indian rugs and handicrafts but this simply wasn’t our kind of shopping. We prefer to wander through street bazaars full of haggling vendors. Our sleep schedules were still a bit off from the 11 ½ hour time change; we were waking around 4am and passing out by eight so we retired early to the hotel and scheduled another day with Munna as our guide.

The next morning, we started with Ishwar Minar Swarga Sal, the Heaven Piercing Minaret. Standing 150 feet tall in the middle of the Old City, the tower offered spectacular panoramic views of the entire city. Jaipur’s buildings were boxy and dilapidated, generally two to four stories tall and painted in soft pastels. We stayed at the top just long enough to take in the views and then descended the dark spiral ramp and climbed back into the rickshaw. We rode by Hawa Mahal, Palace of the Winds, on our way out of the Pink City. It was built in 1799 by the Maharaja so that his women could look out over the city from (as described in our guide book) the “extraordinary, fairy-tale, pink-sandstone delicately honeycombed hive” and remain inconspicuous. It is by far the most aesthetically impressive building in Jaipur.

Next stop: Amber Fort. Set on a mountain top about 11km north of Jaipur, the pale pink looks vast enough to encapsulate a small city. We declined offers of jeep and painted elephant transport to traverse the road leading to the fort entrance on foot. The courtyard of the fort was full of activity and, while Aaron waited in line to buy tickets, I was accosted by every variety of trinket-seller. Luckily, my pest-evasion skills are sharp these days and I was able to escape them with minimal effort. As we wandered through the fort’s many buildings, courtyards and labyrinthine hallways (the Maharaja’s passageways to his various wives and concubines), we admired the traditional Rajasthani architecture: elaborate entryways, beautiful city views from corner towers, and the intricate designs in the Hall of Victory and Hall of Pleasure. We could easily envision the Maharaja attending to his amorous desires between royal responsibilities.

The final stop on our sightseeing itinerary was the Temple of the Sun God, also known as the Monkey Palace because of the throngs of monkeys that tumble around the entrance like wire-haired gymnasts, swinging on power lines and wrestling, chasing, and resting on the stone walls leading up to the palace. The temple itself, though beautiful, was unimpressive – the monkeys, cows, pigs, goats and the snake charmer that we passed by on the way up were much more thrilling.

After the Monkey Palace, we asked Munna to drop us off at one of the many bazaars just outside of the Old City. We paid him and wandered around the bazaar for a short while before heading toward our hotel on foot. At a major traffic circle, we spied a McDonalds and decided that ice cream was in order. We were surprised to find McDonalds in India, particularly because Hindis regard cows as sacred animals, symbolic of fertility and nurture, and allow them to roam freely through the city streets. You typically don’t find beef on any menu in India. McDonalds has tackled that dietary hurdle by offering paneer salsa wraps, veggie burgers and curried chicken among other beef-free favorites. Thankfully, McDonald’s ice cream and French fries are pretty much universal.

I had read in our guide book about an award-winning, local artist, well-known for his blue pottery. We found Kripal Singh’s gallery on our map and decided to hire a bicycle rickshaw to take us there. As we walked out of McDonalds, there were four bicycle rickshaws parked outside. I picked the oldest of the four pedalers, thinking that he probably didn’t get as many fares as his more spry competitors, and we agreed on a fare of 40 rupees (about $1). Little did we know that almost the entire distance would be at a slight but constant incline. Only a few minutes into our journey, the pedaler turned to us and clarified that he wanted 40 rupees per person to which we happily agreed, feeling guilty for his obvious struggle, as other rickshaws passed us by. We finally had him drop us off at the end of the residential road on which the gallery was located. An attendant greeted us at the entry and showed us into a small room, where three of the four walls were covered from floor to ceiling with Kripal Singh’s famous blue pottery. After an extensive period of indecision, we selected a pretty floral vase which will undoubtedly cost more to ship home than the original purchase price. Nevertheless, we were excited about our new treasure as we set out down the road.

Before long, we were approached by a group of menacing young boys who persistently demanded rupees. Accustomed to dealing with this kind of despicable behavior, we employed our usual tactics for deflecting the boys. When those attempts failed to shake them, I tried a new one that I had been eager to test. I stopped short, pivoted, and began barking like a dog. They jumped back in surprise at my loud, shrill bark and most vicious dog face but still they continued to follow us. I barked again and I honestly think it might have worked if we had been able to refrain from laughing hysterically. Suddenly, a boy on a bicycle rode straight at me from the right side. Just before he reached me, he pulled up the front tire and hopped off the back of the bike, still holding the handle bars and walking the spinning front tire toward my face. I turned and the tire grazed my arm. It didn’t hurt but it was enough to set Aaron off. He ran at them, angrily screaming, and finally frightening them off. If he hadn’t been holding our fragile new purchase, I think he would have taken at least one of them down.

The reality is that no good result can come of an encounter with these little street urchins, especially when they work in groups. If you give them money, you are rewarding and perpetuating beggar behavior. If you give to one, he tries to get more and you get swarmed by all of his sticky-fingered cohorts. They are experienced enough to be undeterred by threats or shouting. While our instincts scream that a WWE-style body slam is the best recourse, we have so far opted for patience. If we ignore them long enough, they eventually get bored and go away. Still, it’s interesting how our minds work around our normal perceptions of children as innocents to paint these beggar children as vermin. They don’t have the innocent faces of youth; they have faces aged and hardened by the harsh realities of their surroundings. When they’re swarming you as you walk down the street, tugging at your clothes, purposely bumping into you or stepping in front of you, you stop seeing them as children from vulgar beginnings and start seeing them as well-trained, methodical pests that must be expelled from your personal space by whatever means necessary.

Safely back at Pearl Palace, we recounted our Jaipur experiences over dinner on the rooftop. We had enjoyed two action-packed days, which merely allowed us to scratch the surface of a city with so much vitality and colorful culture. Despite the many sights that we toured around Jaipur, the vision that will stay in my memory is one of whizzing through the city streets in the cab of an autorickshaw with the flash and hum of life outside appearing as little more than a time-warped blur.

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January 6th 2008
Magnificent Mumbai

Posted under India

After waiting almost two hours on the tarmac at O’Hare for our plane to be de-iced, we were off on a rather uneventful eighteen-hour journey to Mumbai (formerly Bombay). We enjoyed the spiciest and most delicious Indian airplane food; in one meal, I ate a pepper (which looked like a green bean) that set off a four alarm fire in my mouth. As the plane touched down at Mumbai International Airport, two friendly Indian women gave us homemade chapati (Indian flatbread, similar to a tortilla) after Aaron helped them with their bags. Before we had even set foot on Indian soil, we felt warmly welcomed.

We had decided to use some of our Marriott hotel points to ease our way back into the hostel world. We took a taxi from the airport and checked into the Renaissance Marriott Hotel around 3:00am. The hotel was posh and luxurious – a perfect haven for sleeping off our jet lag. When we re-surfaced two days later, we were ecstatic about exploring Mumbai.

City sidewalks lined with shacks and tents. Streets congested with incessantly honking taxis that look, feel and smell fifty years old; commercial trucks in candy-bright colors, loaded well beyond capacity; bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles (some carrying a husband, wife AND two children) weaving fearlessly through the gridlock. Street vendors selling roasted nuts, fresh squeezed juices, shoes, textiles, cheap jewelry and clothing, perfume, small electronics, toiletries, and flavored tobacco. Women, in colorful saris, conversing on sunny lawns. Homeless families, tattered and filthy, sprawled out on sidewalks and hovering around fires. Men in turbans with unshorn beards. Women in burqa collecting little girls in sleek black braids and school uniforms. Fruit and vegetable stands. Beggar children with desperate faces and practiced persistence. Stray dogs scrounging for food in piles of refuse. Free-roaming sacred cows. Man-powered carts, piled high with boxes. Balloon sellers. Casual cricket matches. Vibrant, bustling markets. Barefoot road workers. An exploding population entangled and entwined in the kaleidoscopic chaos of Mumbai. In the two days that we spent wandering the crowded streets of Colaba in the southern peninsula, our senses were overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of India. We were immediately captivated by its throbbing pulse and found ourselves insatiably drawn toward the magnetic, colorful culture.

Though many people opt for Western-style dress, there are enough flowing saris in every color of the rainbow and men in robes equally vibrant to keep my head spinning, as if in a dream, following the wings of butterflies. Many women and some men don the traditional Bindi (colored dot between their eyebrows), which we have learned can symbolize many different things such as beauty, self-sacrifice, a meditative focal point, etc. I think they’re stunning and exotic and I want one! One thing that I find interesting about the saris is that, while India is perceived as a conservatively dressed nation, many saris, particularly those worn my middle-aged women, expose almost the entire midriff, from the top of the ribcage to the waistline. The sari is made of a single piece of cloth, usually five meters in length, and is wrapped around the body. It is worn with a fitted blouse with elbow-length sleeves but all of the blouses stop at the top of the ribcage. Personally, I might opt for a longer blouse, especially if the alternative is flaunting a mid-section that has seen many more chapatis than sit-ups.

We ate enough Indian food in Africa to develop a whirlwind romance with the cuisine and just a few days in India have transformed that romance into a healthy obsession. Much of the Indian population is vegetarian so almost all restaurants cater to the “veggiesaurus”. If you have a plain vanilla palate, you’d be best to pack your power bars and peanut butter and jelly for India. The mouthwatering dishes are loaded with spices (cumin, coriander, saffron), in varying degrees of heat, and slathered in rich, creamy, savory and sweet sauces. They are served with fresh baked flatbread (chapati, roti or naan) and steaming basmati rice and there is plenty of sauce left over for dipping! Our favorite dishes are made with paneer, which is an unfermented cheese with a texture and flavor similar to tofu. Many Indian restaurants serve thali, a sampling of several vegetarian dishes served in individual small bowls or sectioned plates. We first tried it at a restaurant called Chetana in Mumbai. We were presented with a large metal plate and about fifteen small metal bowls. The servers then came, one after another, ladling colorful and aromatic vegetarian stews into each bowl, followed by chapati, rice, sweets, and offers of buttermilk, traditional spiced beverages and fresh squeezed juices. Aaron ordered an indigenous Indian beverage, called Jal Jeera, which is made of lime juice, cumin, mint and rock salt. It was a little chunky for our taste but interesting. We wasted no time in devouring the smorgasbord at our fingertips. Each spoonful was an explosion of flavor that shocked our taste buds with a uniquely spiced pleasure. We felt like royalty with an entire staff fawning over every detail of our experience, enthusiastically describing each dish, recommending delicious combinations, and trying to refill our little bowls with more steaming curries. Thali was amazing and we can’t wait to have more!

The poverty in Mumbai, home to more than 18 million people and Asia’s largest slums, is daunting and it is very much in your face. Major city streets are lined with shacks so tiny that most daily activities are performed in front of the shack for all the world to see. Meals are prepared over small fires. Children bathe in metal basins. Dishes are washed. Handicrafts are made. Services are performed. Elderly people lounge the days away. Everyone is outside! Many of the ramshackle dwellings have small lofts above, no wider than a double bed, which sleep entire families. Laundry is hung to dry on lines between trees on a city sidewalk. Some people have only tents as their shelter – a length of plastic tarp or canvas propped up with poles or attached to a cement wall – while many others sleep on the street, rolled in a blanket among piles of trash. A few of the more disgusting occurrences of public human behavior include spitting (and I mean both women and men hocking up phlegm from the depths of their sinuses) and public urination – we see this daily.

On the first day, we walked by a family – mother, grandmother, two young children around six or seven years of age – sprawled out over the sidewalk on a random street corner. The little boy, stark naked and filthy, squealed and ran crying across the sidewalk to his mother’s arms. The grandmother, lying on her side on the dirty cement, opened her bloodshot eyes and then closed them again. Most startling, however, was the little girl, lying face down, motionless, on a dingy mat, naked from the waist down with flies crawling all over her. The sight of her made me gasp. Everyone just walked by. So did we. I looked for them the next day, planning to give them some money, but we never saw them.

The poverty in Mumbai is heart-wrenching because of its magnitude and its vastness but mostly because, here, poverty has a face and it’s staring right at you on every street. We have encountered many beggars, mostly children and elderly, but the intensity still pales in comparison to Egypt. The children are most aggressive and I always wonder what kind of people those beggar children will grow into. Despite of the dire circumstances of the people, there is absolutely no sense of menace. We have felt completely safe at all times. I have carried my purse and walked with my camera exposed with no fear or apprehension. The Indian people have been warm, friendly and eager to please. We like them very much. Even the taxi drivers have been honest and pleasant. We find the collective madness of this multicultural metropolis both intriguing and addicting. We are so enamored with this fascinating country, in fact, that we are already making arrangements to extend our stay from three weeks to a month and it still won’t be enough. From here, we are headed north to Rajasthan and back to hostels and public transportation, which will undoubtedly inspire new dramas and adventures. Strangely, we actually prefer the crazy hostel world over the sterile, sheltered comfort of fancy hotels. We feel like we get a better sense of average everyday life in a place when we’re not living above it.

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