Experiences of a med student with an incurable travel bug.

Archive for July, 2010

Jaipur

The drive to Jaipur that afternoon was relatively uneventful. We stopped at another touristy, over-priced rest stop where I entertained myself and all the salesmen by trying on a sari. By "trying on", of course, I mean "had them dress me in" a sari. Essentially, it’s just one long piece of material, anywhere from 1-7 meters long, that you wrap and fold around yourself until it’s this beautiful, flowing dress. A bit further down the road I had the car pull over so I could grab some drinks and snacks from the roadside stands for 1/6th the price of anything at the rest stop. Well, it was 1/6th the price when you found someone who would give you the Indian prices rather than the tourist ones. As was beginning to be the pattern, it was the stand run by an older man that gave me a fair price, not the ones run by men of younger generation. He even insisted on giving me little samples before I bought something at random.

Along the way, I did have some interesting conversations with the driver. Somehow the driver steered the conversation around to sex and how, according to him, "Indians don’t know anything about sex," it’s the Americans and Europeans who do. Um, excuse me, has he not noticed the hundreds of copies of the Kama Sutra that litter book stands across the country?

Once we arrived in Jaipur, I checked out a few different guest houses before finding one that was willing to give me a room within my budget. From there I walked about 10 minutes to a little cluster of shops where I grabbed some chicken masala (well, I ordered chicken, but got mutton) and roti for dinner once I found I place that looked half clean and was willing to serve me. By now it’s been dark for a few hours, which means there were virtually no women out, anywhere. It was all men. This meant that the normal hassling was amplified 10 fold and more vulgar, but as always, I just tried to ignore it rather than react and give them more to play off of. Usually it’s just incredibly annoying, but every so often it’s actually insulting, like when I walked into a restaurant and the man in charge came out, gave me the once-over, and then shook his head and refused to serve me BECAUSE I WAS A WOMAN. Unreal.

The other obnoxious thing is the driving. Everyone honks as they pass to let you know that "hey! you’re white!" just in case you’ve forgotten or failed to notice. Again, annoying, but not really a problem. What is a problem is that a lot of the drivers will veer toward you on the road, pretty much playing chicken with you so they can get as good a look as possible. This is particularly dangerous at night when they seem to get even more bold and will smash right into you if you’re not careful; I lost count of how many times I actually had to jump out of the way avoid being hit by a motorcycle, rickshaw, or car. It’s one thing when they nearly hit you because the traffic is dense and there are potholes to veer around, but when there’s not another car within 100 meters and no obstructions to avoid in the road, it’s infuriating to literally have to jump out of their way so you don’t get hit. Yes, I’m white, just like hundreds of other people that travel through this city. Please stop trying to hit me with your vehicle just so you can get a good look at me. Thanks.

The next morning I saw the major sites of the city. First was Amber Fort, which housed many beautiful courtyards and rooms, including the Sheesh Mahal, a fantastic hall of mirrors. The great thing about this fort was that they didn’t have everything cordoned off; you could actually go off and explore obscure parts of the fort, even climb up to the top of the parapets to overlook the city. It was quite the maze of passages, and as my friend put it, it would be an awesome place to play hide and seek.

Next were the Jal Mahal (Lake Palace), Hawa (wind) Mahal, and City Mahal, where I just stopped to take a few pictures from the outside as I’d heard they weren’t anything spectacular on the inside. I also stopped at a textiles shop where they showed me how they do the block printing that Jaipur is known for. I also helped my driver navigate the internet for a bit; he’s relatively new to facebook, so he seized the opportunity to have me help him send messages to all his friends.

I met up with Julie and Amber, my friends that I’d run into in Agra, that afternoon. We wandered around the Old City Bazaar looking at all the handicrafts, shoes, saris, bangles, and spices being sold. We stopped and split a Thali, a combination of several different sauce entrees with roti and rice, for a snack and a break after a few hours. Our little rest could not have been timed more perfectly; shortly after we ordered, we looked outside and could see nothing but orange — there was a huge dust storm blowing through the city. I read about in the paper the next day; the whole city virtually shut down for almost an hour, traffic at a stand-still because there was zero visibility. If we’d been out on the streets when it hit, we probably would have ended up huddled in the corner of some shop covering our faces from the gusting sand and dust.

Once the storm had passed we took to the streets again, finding ourselves a few souvenirs along the way. The best find was this great spice shop that had everything you could want. We all walked out with bags full of masala curry, cinnamon, saffron, tumeric, cumin, hot chili, and cashews covered in mango and lychee powder, a surprisingly good little snack. The owner even threw in little bags of figs or something because we were such good customers — it’s the off season here, so everyone is desperate to make a sale; having three of us buy several kilos worth of his goods was a massive sale for this time of year. You see, most people are smart and travel here when it’s NOT the middle of summer and 120 degrees outside, so it’s relatively quiet here right now.

That night we took a rickshaw to the Om Tower to see the revolving restaurant (fyi: it’s not called "revolving" because it has lazy-susans on the table, haha…and it is the floor that spins, not the entire room or building) and then shared paneer tikka, chala (chickpea) masala, and some veg with cashews dish for dinner at a more affordable place. Around 10pm I called my driver for a ride home, but guess who’s too drunk to drive? At least he told me and didn’t just get behind the wheel, but this meant I had to find my own way home. Shouldn’t be a big deal, right?

There are rickshaws and taxis all over the city, so after leaving the restaurant I figured I’d just pick one up at one of the busier areas (that way they compete and you get the real, cheaper price). I’d planned on a getting a rickshaw, so when a car pulled over I just shook my head and said, "No, no ride, no rupees. no. no." — the usual conversation with any taxi driver, since they never actually go away until you’ve said "no" at least a dozen times. This guy was persistent though, and not actually a taxi driver. He was a couple years older than me, owned a few businesses in town (I actually had seen him at one that day, but it wasn’t a place I’d gone in, I just recognized him), and had gotten his masters in business in UK. After talking for a bit, I ended up getting a hookah with him at a local hookah bar. As he put it, hookah is a religion here, so it was all part of the experience.

I actually had a fun night, right up to the drive home. First he asked if he could kiss me, which I declined — several times. His response: "Nothing? Not even a blow job?"

…excuse me??

Boy, did he get an earful the rest of the ride. I asked him if he would ever, EVER ask an Indian woman that — "no, it’s different". No, it’s not. I really don’t understand how in this culture, with the way they are raised to treat and interact with women, they make the jump from being respectful and distant to being harassing and making sexual requests of foreign women. I told him it was disgusting and appalling, among other choice words. ugh.

The next day started with a breakfast of mango, consumed in the juice-box style Amber and Julie showed me. You roll the mango back and forth between your hands, liquefying its contents and then bite off the end and can drink/squeeze out the mango juice. Delicious.

First stop of the day was at the place where Jaipur’s famous Blue Pottery is made; the shopkeeper gave me a little pair of earrings for knowing what color the brown glaze would turn into after it had been fired. From there I went to the Surya Art Emporium, a wholesaler of a variety of sandalwood, camel bone, marble, and metal handicrafts. I found a beautiful brass hookah, red and black finishing with intricate hand-carved gold-brass detailing. I hadn’t planned on getting one, but plans change.

That afternoon I wandered around the market a bit more and checked out a notorious shoe store in town, but didn’t find anything of interest before meeting Julie and Amber for ice cream. We had decided to do things the right way and have our dessert before dinner, thus having the ice cream while it was still sweltering hot outside which made it taste even more amazing. I had the "Honeymoon," which had mango and pistachio ice cream, a cherry, butterscotch topping, mixed fruit…and noodles. It was really good, and the random spaghetti noodles weren’t as bizarre as they sounded, though I don’t feel the need to start throwing them on ice cream all the time.

Before getting our actual dinner, we went looking for somewhere to have henna done. We’d gotten the name of a place and asked a rickshaw to take us; per norm, he dropped us at his friend’s street-side stools instead, which was totally fine by us. I wasn’t going to have anything done, wanting to wait until right before I went home so it would last longer, but after my friends had theirs done, one of the other artist-guys really wanted to give us henna tattoos. Fine, fine, we’ll let you do it for free…and he did. I was expecting some small little silly tattoo, something that would take him two seconds but give him bragging rights amongst his friends that he did henna on three American girls, but it was actually a rather large, detailed tattoo running down my upper arm. Once the guy’s dad came back and realized the "deal" his son had made, he was less than thrilled, and despite not speaking the language, we knew exactly what the conversation was because it’s one that happens in every culture: kid breaks rule, almost gets away with it, gets busted, gets chewed out, but isn’t sorry he did it because he still thinks it was worth it.

Once our henna is mostly dry, we migrate to chairs outside a little cafe to finish drying before we find somewhere for dinner. While here, the owner’s brother, who was temporarily running the shop, came out to chat with us. He asked how much we paid for the henna. My friend told him 150 rupees (~$3), pointing at her arm. He looked around at us — three large tattoos, two forearms, one lower leg — and asks, "For all?"

No need to ask if we’d overpaid, his question made that perfectly clear. turns out that each thing should have cost about 25 rupees at most. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.

Finally, we started looking for a place to have dinner. We tried one little place and actually got as far as placing an order, but we’d been uncomfortable since arriving and completely lost interest when the old man working there came up to us and got right in my friend’s face, spraying her with flecks of spit as he suggested more things we should order. Nope, none of those, and cancel our other order, thanks. Instead we got stuffed tomato (staffed tamato, if you will) from a place just down the road that was half the price and had a much better atmosphere.

I then said my goodbyes and headed to the train station, where I was pleased to find that they had a ladies waiting room for anyone with seats in the upper classes, which meant that I had somewhere to sit for the next hour without getting harassed constantly. I even met two really nice girls there, Gunjen and Ritke (I’m sure I’ve butchered the spelling), both of whom are students here in business and bioinformatics, respectively. It was great to chat with them for a while. It’s interesting, the vast majority of my interactions here have been with men; women are often not around or unavailable, traveling in clusters from one place to another without stopping to chat, so it was nice to finally have a substantial interaction with Indian women.

After a fashion I braved the platforms to try to find my train; of course, there was no board to be found that announced which platform my train would be arriving on. After asking several other passengers who either didn’t know or refused to talk about anything other than my nationality and my relationship status, I tracked down a few security guards who were able to point me in the right direction. Once the train arrived (only 30 minutes late), I found what I thought was my bed and settled in for the journey. About ten minutes into the ride an older man came and asked what number I was supposed to be in, because I was currently in his seat/bed. I told him 36, and pointed to the bed above mine, labeled with a 37, which implied that mine should be 36. as it turns out, there are two numbering systems, one for the daytime when passengers are seated, and one for the night when they use the beds. The numbers are in two different places on the walls of the cabin, and myself and others, including the guy who was already asleep in what turned out to be my actual bed, had been looking at the "sitting" numbers. After a bit of musical beds and assistance from the ticket collector, everyone eventually ended up in the appropriate bed and settled in for the 12 hour journey to Jaisalmer.

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Dehli and Agra — Taj Mahal

My flight to Dehli went smoothly and was much more pleasant that the first part of the journey. There were even food and drinks and board! After a three hour flight, we touched down in Delhi, where at 6pm it was 44 degrees Celcius. Toasty.

I took a bus from the aiport to the train station next to the main market and backpackers area. At least, that’s what was supposed to happen. Even after talking to several airport employees, other bus passengers, and the bus conductor, I still ended up on a bus that took me to the wrong station. Fortunately, one of the passengers I’d been talking with was super helpful (almost too helpful, really); they got off the bus with me, got a rickshaw for the Indian price instead of the white-tourist price, and eventually convinced the driver to actually take me to the guest house I wanted. I finally ended up in a sweltering little room at the top of a place in the heart of the market where I tried to get some sleep.

The next morning it was off to the train and bus stations to get tickets to Agra. Guess what? All tickets are sold out! For real. At least, all the places I tried to get them, including the (supposed) actual ticket offices said so. Everyone warns you about the million different scams they use here — "the ticket office is closed, it moved to ___"; "your hotel burned down, go to ___"; etc. etc. — so of course I’m wary about this being a scam, but at a certain point, there’s just nothing else you can do. I tried what should have been the legitimate places, I talked to a dozen different people, and ultimately had to cave and find a way to Agra through a travel agency if I wanted to stay on track and see everything I wanted to.

After some Hindi lessons and chai with an Indian I’d met that morning, I ended up at a very legitimate-looking "government" travel agency where I booked my transportation for the rest of the trip. It was way more expensive than it should have been, but after the hassle of the morning I was ready to just be done. Besides, the last thing I wanted was to get stuck in the desert because the trains and buses were full and not make to Mumbai on time for my flight, especially not after what happened in Malaysia. Considering that several of the trains I wanted already had 350-person waiting lists for certain compartments, it seemed all too likely that I could end up stuck somewhere for a few days.

I ended up having a taxi for the first few days of the trip since bus seats to my next destinations were supposedly so difficult to come by that day. As I said, it was more expensive than I’d planned, but it meant that I would have guaranteed, safe[r] transportation in Agra and Jaipur, the two bigger and more dangerous cities on my itinerary. As a woman traveling alone in India, especially with the problems they’ve had recently on the trains and buses, I decided that the safety factor was worth it. The nice thing about this was that I could do things completely on my own schedule.

We made two stops before leaving New Delhi. The first was a quick stop at the market around Connaught Place, but it was pretty crazy so I didn’t stick around too long. The other stop was at Lotus Temple, an awesome Baha’i place of worship. The building is in the shape of a lotus (shocking, I know), and is beautiful both inside and out. What I loved about this temple, though, is how welcoming it was. The temple is open to people of all belief systems to meditate or pray to whatever gods they may believe in. Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew…everyone was welcome. In addition to its openness, Baha’i has very progressive attitudes regarding, women, children, and education, to name a few topics, attitudes that seem much less common in many other religons. Between the welcoming, inclusive atmosphere and the progressive philosophies regarding gender equality and education, it was one of the more moving places I’ve been.

From there we drove to Agra, home of one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Taj Mahal. Along the way we stopped at the tomb of a historically important leaders, one which has underground passages between it, Delhi, and the Taj. An interesting part of the tomb’s construction was the "telephone": you could speak into a corner of a wall and someone standing at the opposite corner from you could hear whatever you said, even when whispering. Very strange.

After a dinner of Jeera Aloo (or something) and chapatti in the dark (of course the power was out), I turned in for the night, setting my alarm for before dawn. When it went off at that miserable hour, I hauled myself out of bed to see the Taj Mahal at dawn. Unfortunately, dawn was just as hazy as the rest of the day, so it wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was a bit cooler outside, so that was nice.

The Taj Mahal was positively amazing. It’s this incredible structure of white marble with intricate, inlaid-stone designs of flowers and other patterns. It really is a magnificent structure, nearly impossible to parallel. Later that day I got to see how the marble is being restored; the men who did the original construction have passed the marble-working skills down through the generations, and it is their descendents who continue to chisel patterns in the marble and create designs with stones from across the globe to restore the Taj. I had a go at the chiseling, and really, it’s incredible the amount of fine detail they acheive with such a difficult artistic medium.

The only unimpressive thing about the Taj was the city it rests in: Agra. Agra was possibly the grossest city I visited in India. The fact that one of the wonders of the world is housed in such a derelict city is just baffling. Agra does boast the Red Fort, though, which house 16 different palaces. I was wandering around it later that morning when the unbelieveable happened:

I ran into two of classmates from home.

Ok, so we knew that we would be in India around the same time and going to similar places, but the fact that we managed to be in the exact same location — not just the same city, but the exact same place inside a huge fort — at the exact same time was unreal. Turns out we were all heading to Jaipur that afternoon, so we made plans to meet up there the next day.