Saturday, June 26, 2010

Snapshots of India

Wendy and I have always wanted to travel to India, but I've always been scared to go.  Looking back, I'm really glad we went, and I was right to be scared.  India's an amazing country and a feast for the eyes, but it's also completely exhausting. This post starts with some of our overall impressions, and then I'll talk about some of the towns that we visited.

Amazing Sights

You can't go to India without seeing the Taj Mahal.  Construction began in 1632 when Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the building as a monument to his favorite wife (who had died the year before giving birth to their 14th child.) It was beautiful and perfect, but the town that surrounds it is squalid, with open gutters and garbage everywhere.

Beyond the monuments and 1,000 year-old forts, everyday life in India is a spectacle. The women dress in beautifully colorful saris -- even when they're working in the fields. There are 20 different sorts of vehicles on any given road, all moving in different directions. I think you could learn a lot about India just by sitting in a coffee shop and watching people go by for an afternoon.


There's no question -- the shopping in India was amazing.  You could buy funky, beautiful clothing, religious statues, knives, books, food, cell phones, knock-off designer goods and spices.  But, there's a huge downside: every interaction is a negotiation. Hard bargaining is fun the first few times, but after a while it's exhausting.  And remember, you're bargaining not only for clothes and memorabilia, but for bottles of water, taxi rides, food on the street, books in a book stall.  Everything.  And, you're from a wealthy country and you have no idea what the actual cost of a product should be.  The one constant is that it probably cost a lot less than you think.  Shopkeepers will swear up and down that there's no way a hand-embroidered shirt could cost less than $2 -- how could someone work for that little?  But, in the end, they'll follow you down the street and sell it at a profit for $.75.

Scams abound -- everyone has an angle to take your money -- some are obvious, some subtle. Without exagerating, I can say that almost every interaction felt like the other person was trying to take money from us.  A Hindu priest in one of the holiest towns in India (Pushkar) kept pushing us to donate $200 - $300 in return for the blessing he gave us.  I gave him $2.50, and he kept pushing.

The Food!

Indian food is second to none, in my humble opinion. From "Family Size" dosas (a South Indian food featuring a big 4-foot-long crunchy crepe-like thing) to North Indian curries, raita and garlic naan -- we ate amazingly well!


Tens of thousands (millions?) of people live in the street.  Highway underpasses are covered with small children, entire families, single men that sleep anywhere they can find space.  I've never seen a place with so much poverty, right out and in your face.  Ethiopia, for example, is much "poorer" than India -- but we only saw a handful of people living on the street in Ethiopia.


I've never been to a country where I'd be more afraid to drive.  Cars mix with tuk-tuks (little 3-wheeled motorized taxis), bicycle rickshaws, buses, camels pulling carts, horses pulling cars, and sacred cows wandering everywhere.  Cars will drive on any side of the road, in whatever direction gets them to where they want to go.  Beggars will walk, hop and drag themselves to your car at every intersection.  You'll see three year old children walking on 4 lane highways, with no adults around to look out for them.

We took a 19-hour overnight train ride from Jaisalmer in the West to Delhi in 120 degree tempatures.  However, the only seats available were in fan-cooled (rather than air-conditioned) compartments.  (Despite the poverty, everyone paid for A/C.)  That has become the single most difficult -- though memorable -- trip of my life.

The dust on the train was amazing -- over the first few hours it literally covered everything.  Aside from the dust and the heat, there was the culture shock.  We bought assigned seats that converted to beds.  However, unbeknownst to us, assigned seats are only assigned (private)  from 6:00 pm - 6:00 am.  The next morning as we began to approach Delhi, the train began to swarm with passengers, all who wanted to sit in our seats.  People were various levels of polite and rude, but it was quite clear that they wanted our seats.  In fact, our six seats were shared with (at times) 12 additional people.

And check out the plumbing system -- guess where this train toilet empties?


We took a "classic" tour around North India -- starting in Delhi, then heading Southeast to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, then turning West towards the state of Rajasthan.  Our final destination (before returning to Delhi) was Jaisalmer, where we wanted to ride camels.  The heat in Rajasthan was incredible -- temperatures were as low as 110 degrees F by noon, and ranged up to 120 degrees every day!  (Luckily, it was a dry, desert heat, which mean that we didn't turn into six spontaneous Brooks puddles.)


Our first stop after the Taj was Jaipur.  This was one of my favorite cities in India -- it had great clothing markets, a great hotel (the Hotel Pearl Palace), and interesting historical sites.  We took a 2-hour tuk-tuk ride around the city and got to feed monkeys (and some very persistent cows) at Jaipur's Monkey Temple.


Pushkar is one of the holiest sites in India, and home to one of the few Brahma temples in the world.  People travel from around the country to bathe in its holy lake -- which, unfortunately, has largely dried up due to global warming.  Some of Ghandi's ashes were spread in Pushkar, and it is one of the quieter towns that we visited.


We saw a 1000 year old fort in Jaisalmer with 99 turrets.  Inside was a maharaja's palace that launched 3 jauhars -- the ritual burning alive of all the royal women so that the men could go out and die in battle when faced with certain defeat.

We also finally rode camels!  We saw the sun set across the dunes 25 miles from Pakistan.

Other Cool and Interesting Things

The Blue City of Jodhpur

This one's for you, Amy M!

Yep, that's a dead body on the street,
and nobody cared.

The new sign I'm going to post outside my home office

Pakistan -- go that way, 25 miles

Views from Jaisalmer Fort

The only King Cobra we saw in India


Mom/Cappa said...

Wow! What an experience both good and difficult. You must have learned so much on this trip. How long will it take for me to hear it all?????? I have time....should you wonder!

Can't wait to see you all. Mom/Cappa

Amanda Neal said...

Chip and Nell's daughter here. I as well went to India, much of the same route you took.Your blog brought back such memories! India is the most different place I have ever traveled, you captured it well. Thanks! It brought me back! Actually I do want to go back and do Southern India.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful and brave thing to do with and for your children.. they will never forget this!Thanks for the amazing shots and the wonderful details!