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In India it’s my birthday already!

I’m hoping the waking up at 5am thing lasts when I’m back in the states, but I’m skeptical.  I’m watching the Mumbai wake and contemplating the day.  I’d made plans, but as I learned, no plans made back home actually come to fruition here.  I know coffee with a friend here will begin the day and a nice dinner will end it.  We’ll see what happens in between.

Happy Birthday to me!

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I <3 Jaipur

My driver to Jaipur was quick to ask me about Trump.  They all are.  But then he asked me if I liked Mrs. Clinton.  Very much, I said.  Oh, he replied, she is my very good friend.  Then he pulled a photo of her visit to India with Chelsea while she was first lady, and there he was beaming next to her.  If he was a good enough driver for Hilary, he’s good enough for me! (no including the frequent opening his door at 80klm/hour to spit tobacco and his desire to stop every hour extending the drive significantly.).

Jaipur, the Pink City.  Everyone I spoke to who had been to this part of the world raved about Jaipur – how charming it was, how sweet.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but probably Savannah or Charleston or something.  Jaipur is like every city in India – crowded and dirty with street vendors and crazy traffic and animals roaming the streets.  And it is SO charming and sweet!

When we pulled up to a crumbling boarded up building, and Ram, my driver said, your hotel, my heart sunk a bit.  But next door was a small building with an imposing door, and I was bouyed again.

After a quick rest stop, I headed out to the market by tuk tuk.  It was loud and chaotic and every thing I love and fear.  I will not buy anything I repeated in my head.  Of course I wouldn’t. I’d done a little research and learned that a supplier for ABC Carpet was very near my hotel and I’d been saving my holiday spurge for them.   They did not disappoint.

That night I went to the rooftop restaurant in my hotel and was quickly approached by a Texan, already quite drunk who asked to join me.  He was in town for his niece’s wedding to an Indian man and had decided to see a bit of the country.  He proceeded to share a litany of complaints about the food and people and then asked me to give him 500 rupees.  I took my dinner in my room.

The next day I met Sandeep, my guide for Jaipur and he took me to the stunning Amber Fort, where I opted out of the elephant ride and hiked up to the gate instead.  Sandeep gave me lots of time to wonder on my own and around one corner, I waited behind a group of Germans to enter a small  corridor.  A guard watching me waved me his way and headed down a far path beyond a velvet rope.  I followed at first thinking he was bringing me to the same place the germans were headed and then realizing as we started up a tight stairway that I was on my own with him.  We climbed a couple floors and came out to a balcony empty of people and with a stunning view of the city.  I didn’t have any money with which to tip him – it was now clear that’s what we were doing – and I quickly headed down thanking him and telling I had to get back to my group.  I passed a group of japanese tourists and said “go with him – it’s amazing” Hopefully they tipped him well.

The Water Palace is floating in the middle of a man made lake and can only be accessed by boat (but is closed to the public) but the walk along the lake was lovely.  We stopped to watch some men feed the fish.  Sandeep explained it was good karma to feed the fish or cows so often people would do that.  I said it would be better karma to feed all the hungry people on the street.  He looked at me confused and smiled like I hadn’t been snarky at all.

City Palace, where the royal family of Rajasthan live to this day, was opulent and functional.  I saw several folks with whom I’d watched the sunset over the Taj Mahal several days earlier and asked Sandeep to take me away from the tourist area.  First stop shopping, despite my saying I didn’t want to.  He gave me an attitude adjustment by saying that of course they try to sell, that is their job, don’t be angry at them for it.  Very wise.

I looked at the elaborate gemstone jewelry, lovely saris, intricate leatherware and made it out without spending any money.

Lunch was a spice aloo gobhi (my favorite in any New York Indian restaurant and especially at the Bombay Bar and Grill in the Berkshires – the best restaurant in the Berkshires).

I spent the afternoon walking the streets alone and feeling particularly chuffed every time I successfully crossed one.

In the morning, I went for a quick walk before my flight to Mumbai and straight into a wedding procession.  Women with vessels on their heads and yellow robes sang and danced down the street, smiling and waving to me as they went by.  Men followed a bit behind, never looking m way.

An Über to the airport and seat companions from Milton Ma, confirmed the world really is flat.  Now to Mumbai.

 

More Musisings

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Mostly because it is free with the room, but also because you never know when you might eat again.  Breakfasts at Indian hotels are not the cold cereal and pancakes on tap fare of US hotels (I love pancakes on tap), but giant spreads of spicy veggies and a western option or two.  So yummy.  I’m about to fill up for seeing all of Jaipur in a day.

Also – I lie when I travel.  A lot it turns out.  I have had my pretend husband for a long time.  In Morocco, I had a pretend baby as well.  It helps make people comfortable.  The first question every single driver I had as asked “So, how many babies you have?”  followed quickly by “how old are you?”  So I tell them what they want to hear.  But I lie to fellow travelers as well.  When asked what I do for a living, I have been a music teacher, a writer, a social worker, and a Hilary campaign worker (that was with the horrible Texan who wore a Make America Great Again t-shirt to the Taj Mahal.)  Its fun to try out different jobs and see how people react.  They like it when I’m a teacher, not so much when I’m a boss.  But I like it.

 

 

Musings about me as a traveler

I don’t blend in.  I’m not quite Vinny bad, or maybe I am, but I am always visible.  I am so sensitive to cultures, or at least I try to be. But I am always spotted as an American.  And worse (or better, who knows) as a middle aged American woman traveling alone.  I’m like the freshest meat possible for vendors.

I’m not very good at saying no, but I’m getting better.  I hate, hate, hate the phrase “free for looking, no obligation to buy,” which I have heard around the world.  And so often I’m drawn into these stores because I happened to catch the eye of the shopkeeper and he (its always a he) goads me in.  Today, I walked the entire market area in old Jaipur just repeating the word no. It was liberating.

I always get a little bit scammed.  Overpaying usually.  In Marrakesh I cave a snake charmer like $20 just to stop following me.  In Delhi I took my change without looking at it after buying something or other.  When I went to use the money I learned it was useless. The currency changed two years ago and someone handed me one of the worthless 500 rupee note.  That was a harsh $8 lesson.

You have to trust someone.  I generally chose to trust whatever guide I have for the day.  They always try to bring me to shops and tell me what is best to buy – commission is a powerful motivator – so that stinks, but alas, as a woman alone, I want to make sure someone has got my back and if that means buying a trinket or two, I’ll do that.  I’ve had guides that I’ve liked better than others, but I’ve never had a bad one (well, maybe once – I’m talking to you Morocco).  And when I do decide to buy something, I have to believe it will all be all right.  Today I had my purchases shipped to New York.  I left the store with a receipt but no tracking number.  I brought all my Christmas presents from one textile shop in Jaipur and if they decide to keep my money and not ship the items, it will be the year without a santa claus.  But I think they will.

I am very tolerant of discomfort, but a little uncomfortable with luxury.  I was bored in my gorgeous Agra hotel and even a bit bored by the fab massage.  But the chaos and confusion of the bazaar rocks my world.  The poverty is real and it is troubling, but I don’t feel like staying home because it bothers me is a good option.  We bear witness and do what we can and really understand what is happening out there.

I really like traveling.  Like I really like it a lot.  I need to do more.

Sunset, Sunrise

I pondered what to do in Agra on my first afternoon, knowing that I had a boat trip to see the sunrise at the Taj Mahal on my second day.  I suggested to the woman checking me in that I might go for a walk and she laughed  “it is not possible to walk.”

I checked into my room and brushed my teeth.  That’s what will ultimately do me in – brushing my teeth.  I have a bottle of water near me at all times, yet I immediately forget and put my toothbrush under the running water.  So far so good, but when it happens, that’ll be why.

Then off for a wonder.  The hotel in Agra is more resort like than I am used to.  On their website they tout that Conde Nast Traveller dubbed them one of the top five hotels with a view of Taj Mahal.  It seems to me that there can only be about 5 hotels here with a view of the Taj Mahal, but it’s not my cocktail party.

I wondered the beautiful marble lobby, watched the preparations for an Indian wedding and dodged the shops selling saris, pashminas, and jewelry and eventually made my way to the in-house travel agent Mr. Rajeev.  “I have a boat trip scheduled for tomorrow to see the sunrise, but what else shall I do?” I asked.  “What boat trip?  There is no water in the river.  Last time there was water was July,” was the reply.  Ok – that’s something do deal with later, I thought.  He probably just doesn’t want me to be booking with someone else.

He proposed that he could get me a drive to take me to the mini-Taj first and then the gardens behind the Taj Mahal for sunset.  Then tomorrow, I could get a guide and got to sunrise at the Taj, back for breakfast and then the Agra Fort.  I would see there was no water in the river, but if I still wanted a boat trip, I could go at sunset.  Fine – That worked for me.

Booked, he began to share with me the details of what I would see.  First the “mini Taj” a mausoleum built five years before the Taj Mahal.  It is a mughal style temple built by a woman for her father.  She earned the money to build it by selling her knitting.  “That’s incredible!” I exclaimed.  “I know,” Mr. Rajeev replied “a woman!” I let it go and he went on.  The garden would be the perfect place to watch the sunset.  “I think you will be safe there.”  Another one to let go.

Then we began to talk about sunrise at the Taj Mahal.  “What time do you want to get there?” he asked. “What time is sunrise?”  “Well, I don’t know.  Does it really matter if you’re there for sunrise?”  Um YES.  “Ok – I will let you know when you come back.”

I told Mr. Rajeev that I didn’t not want to shop.  Please don’t have them bring me to shops.  “They may just want to show you what Agra is famous for. If you don’t want to buy, no worry.”  “I won’t buy, please tell him no shopping.”

At 3pm I headed out with my driver Lal.  He pointed out large the old city and the preparations for the many weddings that would be taking place through the town.  Young men pushed carts with giant, flower bedecked Ganesha statues and glittering lights.  Women rode on the back of motor bikes in a flurry of pinks and greens.  In the distance, I could see the familiar dome of the Taj Mahal looking like a painting against the sky.

We arrived at the mini Taj and Lal pointed me inside.  It was breathtaking.  The marble inlaid with brightly colored flowers.  Like the Taj and I suspect all Mughal temples, there was perfect symmetry. I wandered to the far side and looked down to the river, or river bed as it were, where children were playing where water once ran.  There is no possible boat ride here.

From there we went to Mehtab Bagh, a garden on the north side of the Taj Mahal.  I followed the crowd to find a mall looking at the great tomb.  I actually caught my breath when I saw it.  I don’t know why it made me teary – Machu Picchu, Angkar Wat didn’t – but this did.  I could feel the tears well up.  I walked to the river bed and sat on what remained of the foundation of a planned black Taj Mahal, that was never completed as the king was sent to prison by his son.  The international crowd was in great spirits as we passed cameras around and compared photo angles.  When the bright orange sun melted into the horizon, the sky turning pink and dark as it did, we all cheered.  There was some hugging and I got teary again.

Back in the car, Lal stopped unexpectedly, opened my door and said come now.  This is what we are famous for and ushered me into a shop selling marble.  The door closed behind me and there was no sight of the outside.  Several men surrounded me telling me about the marble.  “No no, it’s beautiful, but I cannot buy it.”  I moved towards the door and men stopped me, saying “this way out,” and pointed me into another room, this one filled with silks.  I turned to move out of the room and men blocked me, their arms full of pashminas.  The next room was full of trinkets “these are cheap.  You can buy,” they cajoled.

“I WANT TO LEAVE,” I shouted, frustration mixed with fear.  The all moved aside and opened a door for me.  Back on the street Lal said “very nice, no.  you should buy.”  “Thank you, it was lovely. Let’s go back to the hotel now.”  “Yes yes,” he said and stopped at a fabric shop.  “I don’t want to go in.” I said.  Just for a moment, then we will go back. I went in, at least there were windows here.  I looked at a few saris and got back in the car.  Lal stopped driving at a jewelry store.  “I’m not going to buy anything,” I promised him and he finally brought me home.

Mr. Rajeev was there to greet me when we arrived back.  “How was it,” he asked.  “I told you no shopping. You can’t have a woman alone go into a store with many men and no exit.  It is very scary.”  He made many apologies and told me he would fire Lal, and I backed down.  Seriously, do men traveling alone have to deal with this?

Early this morning, I met Manish, my guide for the Taj Mahal.  We got there about 6:30 and waited til they opened the gates about 7.  “So much for sunrise,” I joked to the brits near me, but I was wrong.  The sun was stunning on the mausoleum and I got teary all over again.  A photographer joined us and posed me in all the usual ways.  Any photo you see of someone holding the Taj in their hand, or sitting on the “Diana bench” is, I have now learned, the work of the roaming photographers at work at the site.

After my photo shoot, we donned booties over our shoes to protect the site and Manish told me how it was built for the beloved wife of the Mughal, one of four wives, the other three got nothing, who died giving birth to her 14th child.  I looked up at the glowing dome and noted that no one would love me enough to build something like that for me.  “If he really loved her, he wouldn’t have made her have 14 children,” Manish replied.  He is my favorite guide.

We wondered the sit for a while and sat on a bench as he told me of his dream, god willing, to ride a motorbike around the country to raise money to send children to school.  I love him.

Next stop, Agra Fort.  The home base of the Indian army,  as well as a historic part to visit.  There were four palaces available to us of the many that were originally on the site.  The first was the home of a Hindu and his four wives.  “He was a very good politician,” Manish informed me.  “One wife was Muslim, one Hindu, and one Christian, all the people loved him.”  Then he showed me the sex room.  Apparently all palaces of the time had one.

The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort are connected by a 2km garden walk which I suggested we take rather than go shopping.  Manish seemed surprised, but game.  We had to cross a busy intersection, cars and motorbikes zipping everywhere.  On the other side Manish cheered me for my bravery in getting across.  I thought it was fun.

The garden is in a bit of disrepair and is overrun with monkeys and was great.  Devoid of tourists, Manish and I had time to talk about politics (like everyone else I’ve met, he expressed shock and despair that Trump is in office) and the Indian government and pop music.  i was back at the hotel by 1 for lunch, a nap, and some pool time.  Now I am off for an Ayurvedic massage.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Haridwar to Delhi to Agra

As we began the long slog back to Delhi, I was desperate for an ATM.  I’d wiped out all the rupees at the Istanbul airport, but that didn’t result in enough to pay Ajay for the ride (It did before the pashmina).  We stopped in a few in Haridwar, but they were all out of service and I could tell Ajay’s good spirits about it would only last so long.

I’m sure we’ll find plenty in Delhi, I pointed out optimistically, visioning a shiny corporate center (as opposed to the crumbling storefronts in Haridwar).  Ajay nodded / shook his head in the cryptic Indian way and we were off.

As we took to the highway, the UP to the UK, Ajay informed me, it is important to note once again, that the roads in India are as crazy and the movies make them out to be.  Even the highways.  For a brief moment, I had thought to self die this trip, as I have trips in Europe and the US.  If I had, you would never hear from me again.  I’d still be on the side of the road waiting for my moment to merge.  There is a vague left lane goes one way, right goes the other, but that only holds til someone finds an opening to get to where they want.  Cars merge from every direction, motorbikes carrying 2, 3, 4 or more people, generally without helmets whiz through.  Bicyclists and crowded bull-driven carriages as well.  The highways are crowded with festive trucks as well.  The only way to explain these trucks, almost all made by the Tata company of India (which makes cars, trucks, cell phones, luxury goods, you name it).  The best way to explain these trucks is to imagine an elephant decked out for a parade.  Now imagine that elephant is a truck.   They are gorgeous.

The traffic is not.  Soon after leaving Haridwar,  a motorbike directly in front of us, carrying three young men, toppled over spilling the men into the oncoming traffic – specifically us.  Ajay swerved quickly and sped forward as I twisted against the seatbelt to look behind.  They’re ok?  I asked panicked.  Yes, yes.  They are lucky he said, never looking back.  Shouldn’t we stop, I asked.  No! He told me if he stopped he would be in trouble, which didn’t comfort me, but I couldn’t do anything.

After a while, Ajay pointed out a camel on the road and started chatting hesitantly till my heart was beating normally again.  A bull carrying a flat bed with about six sari-garbed women and a teenage boy passed by us.  The boy was pulling new sneakers out of a shoebox to show off to the women.  Boys are the same everywhere.

We stopped for lunch where I offered up my debit card and the result came back rejected.  SHIT! I didn’t tell Bank of America that I was coming to India and the blocked my card.  Ajay will not like this! I risked roaming charges to call and use the phone system to update my travel and hoped that by the time we found a bank, they would have kicked in so I could pay Ajay.

For the last legs of the trip, as darkness fell, Ajay told me about the other people he’d driven over the years.  Germans, who liked ganja too much, Brits who drank to much, and Spaniards who were vulnerable to the rapists because of their warm spirit.  Apparently, according to Ajay, the rapists don’t like Americans.  I didn’t learn why, but I’m fairly grateful.

In Delhi we stopped at a “plaza,” a dusty collection of buildings housing McDonalds and Subways alongside cheap sari stores.  Teenaged boys and young men gathered together in groups smoking and laughing.  There were few women and they were all on their way somewhere or shopping.  The Bank of India was open for business, and my card worked and all is right with the world.

I bid Ajay goodbye with a big tip (he was awesome, except for maybe leaving the scene of an accident), and got ready for the next big drive.

In the morning my new driver, young Neerij arrived to take me to Agra.  He wove through traffic loudly playing Indian rock music and asking me about New York.  The sun was bright as we headed east, but he had no sunglasses.  I looked around and no one else did either.  Nor regular glasses for that matter.  I realized what a luxury Ray Bans are.  We stopped early at a highway reststop for chai, where Neerij introduced me to shop owners and they showed me their wares despite my protests.  This is common in many developing nations (and probably developed ones) and I’m sure the guides get commissions, but it is very awkward.  I passed on purchases and we were on our way.  Neerij spent the drive trying unsuccessfully to teach me the Indian nod. IT is a beautiful, complicated thing, that I will never master, but maybe will start to understand what the different speeds and angles mean before I leave.

After a fun ride, we pulled up to my Agra hotel and I bid Neerij goodbye.  As I settled into the hotel, my phone buzzed with his Facebook, instagram and whatsapp connection requests. He was delightful, but I didn’t accept.

 

 

 

 

I awoke early in Haridwar, eager to start the day, but there was no breakfast yet, so I decided to take a quick walk outside.  One step out of the gates blocking the hotel from the street and it was clear I was not ready for a walk alone in India.  The streets were crowded with sadhus and bikers.  There were tents lining the road. some with small fires, some selling chips and cokes, and not a cute coffee shop in sight.  Not that I expected one, but still.  I popped back inside, got coffee and breakfast and we were on our way to Rishikesh!

Along the way, we picked up Krishna.  Not that Krishna, a 20 year old business student, who would be my guide for the day.  Ajay (I finally learned his name) dropped us by the Ganges and lit a cigarette as Krishna and I headed for the bridge – a 450 foot suspension over the Ganges and built in the 1920s.  Motorbikes, dogs, and pedestrians going in both directions shared the single lane and every step made the bridge sway, but the views of the mountains – my beloved Himalaya – and the river below us made it worth it.

On the other side of the bridge and river lay temples and ashrams.  This is the birthplace of yoga.  There is an annual yoga summit that brings tens of thousands of people every year.  The few westerners I’d see all day were at the ashram and were easily identifiable as Kripalu types who were taking their practice all the way.

There was a tree that had formed an Om and the face of Genesha (my favorite god) in its trunk and there were signs at every statue saying “give only your spirit.”  It was a very zen place.

As we left, Krishna said do you like pashmina?  No sooner had I said yes then I was sitting in a shop with row after row of delicate scarves being unfurled in front of me.  A rich pink beauty in my bag we got into a boat to take us to the other side of the river.  An older indian woman shoved her phone in my face.  A small child waved from the screen via FaceTime as the woman and her companion laughed.

The trip across the river was no more than 5 minutes, during which I dangled my fingers in the holy river.

Back in Haridwar, one of the seven holiest places for Hindus, we wandered through a crowded parking lot, over a bridge and to Har Ki Pauri, the holy city along the river.  There hundreds of worshipers were ritually bathing and performing prayers for the dead.  Krishna asked if I would perform one for my mother (whom I’d earlier outed as dead when the pashmina salesman tried to up-sell by telling me a blue one would be perfect for my mother).

A practicioner sitting at the ready smudged my forehead with red dye, filled my hands with flowers and asked me to repeat sever Hindi words.  I got Visnu and Om right but that’s about it.  He dipped my forehead in rice and then sent me to the water.  Ankle deep  I tossed the flowers into the river and watched them float away.  Another practitioner tied my wrist with red and saffron threads.  Im not sure the significance, but i like having it.

We dropped Krishna off on a highway overpass to make his way back to Rishikesh and Ajay and I headed back towards Delhi.

More later.  Must sleep