Friday, March 23, 2012

Agra | India | Day 3

We woke up at the crack of dawn to head to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We had originally planned on taking the train (Darjeeling Ltd anyone?) but unfortunately, without posessing an Indian phone number, it was quite impossible to buy tickets. Dave didn't seem to be too happy to be up that early either.
Our first day together, Dave seemed pretty quiet. About an hour outside of Delhi, we figured out that he did indeed like to talk...about his religion. Dave is Sikh. It was a rather interesting conversation. He wasn't trying to convert us, he just seemed like he wanted us to be educated. He told us how Sikhism is similar and at the same time quite different from Hinduism. He also told us the stories of all of his gods and how he also believed in the Hindu gods. His story came to a climax when he pulled off the road so we could see a shrine. It was quite a large shrine for being in the middle of nowhere!

Almost five hours after our departure, we arrived in Agra and went straight to the ticket booth for the Taj Mahal. Again, we paid an outrageous ticket price but were pleasantly suprised when the transportation from the ticket office to the entrance was free! We paused for a cup of coffee before heading to the compound. There was a separate security line for men and women because despite walking through a metal detector, everyone was patted down, which seems to be a trend in Asia.

The Taj Mahal is as magnificent in person as it looks in the photos. After walking through the courtyard, this is the first view you get:

Of course the sheer size, as well as the ammount of white marble is incredible but what astounded me was the symmetry of the entire compound. From the gardens right down to the inner room, everything mirrors its counterpart. The interesting thing, was that the Taj was designed for his deceased wife. When he died, it was decided that he should be burried with her, however, the construction had not accounted for a second casket during construction. In the inner room, the wife's casket lies right at the center, under the dome, while her husband lies to the left, asymmetrically.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

New Delhi | India | Day 2

We met up with our driver for the duration of the trip. We never actually figured out his real name but he told us to call him Dave. We started out the day by going to a monument, because Dave seemed rather perplexed that we had spent the majority of our first day shopping, not sightseeing. He dropped us at Humayun's Tomb. Again, I don't really know the exact history of the thing but it was elaborate and beautiful. The grounds were as magnificent and peaceful as the building itself.

From there, we went to see another monument, which we of course knew nothing about and turned out to be closed anyways. This is the Lotus Temple, aka the  Baha'i house of worship.

After appeasing his desire for us to see the monuments of India, Dave conceded and took us to what I refer to as Aladdin's Cave of Treasures. We were promptly picked up by a salesman when we walked in who led us to the scarves. 

Buying textiles in India is like having a personal shopper. You get seated on a couch while the salesperson stands on a platform and presents items to you of all different qualities (money). 

From the scarves, we were led to the punjabis (tunic shirts), purses, bedspreads, custom fabric and collectibles. It's a good thing we weren't on a schedule because a good hour had passed by the time we actually made our purchases!

After our shoping excursion, Dave took us to Connaught Place which I had read contained some pretty cool specialty stores that export to the US. He dropped us off at a restaurant on a corner and told me to call him when we were finished. Unfortunately, as we sat down to lunch, I realized that I had left my phone in the car. The restaurant was amazing. I had some dry potatoes (meaning not floating in curry) that packed a crazy punch!

We finished lunch and decided to walk around Connaught Place for awhile, which was quite the opposite of what I had read about before the trip. We almost felt as though we were being chased, like in a movie. Everyone stared at us while we were walking down the street and if we paused for a moment, we were assaulted with offers to lead us to the "nearest bazaar". Luckily, we were rescued by Dave, who happened to be circling around. He dropped us off at an English-language bookstore.

It was at this bookstore that I had a horrifying experience with a squatty. Being that most facilities in Indonesia are squatties, I didn't think it would be a problem in India. Boy was I wrong. I asked an employee if they had a restroom I could. He said, yes miss, please follow me and proceeded to lead me out the back of the store to a small shack in the alley. I was not prepared for what I saw when I opened the door. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with squatty potties, they are basically porcelain bowls set down into the ground, where you squat. Usually, they are equipped with a flusher or accompanied by a bucket that you fill up then dump into the squatty.

I opened the door to the shack and was greeted by the unpleasant odor that usually accompanies a squatty. This squatty, however, did not flush. In addition, there was tobacco spit or vomit (I honestly couldn't tell) running down the wall near the mirror. After seeing what I was up against, I suddenly did not have to use the restroom anymore and made a hasty exit through the alley.

Dave obliged and dropped us off at one last market before taking us back to the hotel. We went back to the Paharganj market we had visited the previous night. This time, it was bustling with backpackers who kept disappearing down small dark alleys to find their hostels (which made me all the more grateful that we had not chosen that route). 

We capped off the day with a visit to a rooftop cafe in the bazaar. We got up there just as the sun was setting and there were stunning views of the market below.

Monday, March 19, 2012

New Delhi | India

We decided the best way to tackle the huge city of New Delhi was one neighborhood at a time. We hopped in an autorickshaw or tuk-tuk and rode across town to the Red Fort where it quickly became apparent that we were going to be paying a lot of extra money on this trip, simply for being American. They didn't even try to hide it. At the ticket booth, one line marked Indian Tourists: 10rp while another marked Foreigners: 250rp. Being a tourist, I expected to pay more but I didn't expect it to be so blatantly advertised!

I honestly have no idea what the purpose of this fort was (you have to pay extra for "guides") but I believe that it was part of one of the cities of Delhi (there were seven or eight maybe? ). Here's my favorite picture from the Red Fort:

After we walked around the grounds, we decided to do some shopping. Shopping in India has been on my bucket list so I was psyched to have an entire afternoon devoted to that! From our map, Chiandi Chowk, a big shopping street (which we actually figured out was more of a neighborhood) looked pretty close to where we were. We hopped in a rickshaw (the foot pedal kind) and headed to the spice market. 

It was pretty incredible. Shop after shop selling all sorts of things that I recognized and did not, all of which smelled heavenly. We meandered around the market for another hour before heading back to our hotel for lunch. Regrettably, I didn't really document the food that I ate on this trip, but it was all delicious. 

Our hotel arranged a tuk-tuk for us for the afternoon to take us for....more shopping! Here is our driver:

We weren't sure exactly where we wanted to go, so he took us to Khan Market which was filled with shops containing all sorts of exported goodies (such as Tide detergent, Honey Bunches of Oats) that are difficult to find in Indonesia. There was also a bounty of English-language bookstores :) 

From there, he took us to a local market (not so much for tourists) that I cannot remember the name of. It started with an "S". I loved this market. It seemed more like "real" India, not "tourist" India. Here was one of the few places that we saw women walking around. It was a Sunday afternoon and it was crowded. Check it out:

As the day drew to a close, he dropped us by the market near our hotel so that we could pick up some tea at a normal price. We were staying in an area called Paharganj and the main market was just across from the train station. Here, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. There were textile shops all over, filled to the brim with colorful, embroidered, dyed works of art. It took a lot of restraint not to buy one entire store! More on this market later (we went back a few times :)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Incredible !ndia

We made it to India! Our car is picking us up soon, so here are just a few first impressions:

1. Driving. The first thing that struck me straight off, was the traffic. After living and driving in Indonesia, I didn't think anything on the road could suprise me. I was wrong. In Indonesia, motorbikes rule the road and cars are just in the way. Here, traffic is constantly flowing. Everything that moves (cars, motorcycles, cows, bikes, horses, rickshaws and dogs) are all in a race for a very small number of spots on the road.

2. Man-love. I'm sure it's a cultural thing and there's a perfectly logical explanation that I haven't found yet, but guys are pretty close here. Close, as in holding hands while crossing the street.

3. Cleanliness. Travel shows, friends, and guidebooks alike all caution travelers about how dirty this country is. So far, I have been pleasantly suprised. Perhaps, living in Indonesia has altered my perception on what is considered clean.  Don't worry, I'm not going to go drink out of a water faucet or eat anything questionable off the side of the street, but there's not an overabundance of trash litering the streets, the street food stalls all seem to be washing their equipment on a regular basis, and my feet were only a slightly different color at the end of the day.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

International Day Part 1

Each year, Mountainview elementary students temporarily pause their social studies to pick up with their country of choice to learn about art, language, culture and customs. The month-long study culminates in two events: Travel Day and International Day. For our International Day performance, after a unit on France, my students prepared an original Madeleine skit and song.


In an old house in Paris
That was covered in vines
Lived six little girls
In two straight lines

They left the house at half past nine
In two straight lines
In rain or shine
The smallest one was Madeline

In two straight lines
They toured the city
Saw paintings and buildings
And said "How Pretty!"

They went to museums,
Yes they went to a few
The largest of which they saw
Was the Louvre

They admired the arc
And walked through parks

They viewed Notre Dame
Which was almost spoiled 
When the girls turned around
And saw a gargoyle

In the afternoon
At a quarter to three
The girls stopped off
At a bon creperie

With full happy stomachs
The girls walked in rows
Back across town
To their lovely chateau