Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Five Minutes at the Taj

Our Spring Break had a rocky start. The plan was to arrive in Delhi, stay the night there, take an early train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, and then depart to Rajasthan. That was, basically, how it went, but much less fun.

I arrived in Delhi Friday evening. I was supposed to go check into our hotel and Crystal and Kelsey would meet me when they landed. I found a cab and eventually found my hotel, the Hotel Metro Tower. To all of you: NEVER STAY THERE!!!!! The Hotel Metro Tower was DISGUSTING!! I got into my room and it was swarming with mosquitoes. In the hour and a half that I was there, I killed about ten mosquitoes and there were still at least a dozen left. There were dead mosquitoes, flies, and some other small flying bugs in the bed. The carpets were stained and nasty. The walls were dirty, smudged, and even had dragged handprints on them. There was a maggot crawling up our curtain and a couple spiders in the corner. I was so creeped out and uncomfortable. I kept thinking of that movie with Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson, where they stay in a hotel where the owners murder the guests.

I wandered around the room for a little while, trying to calm down and killing any mosquitoes that landed. Then Kelsey called. She said that she and Crystal had decided just to stay at the airport instead of coming to the hotel. We only had about six hours until we had to be on the train to Agra, so they didn't want to pay for the hotel. I sure as hell didn't want to stay there by myself, so I checked out and went back to the airport to meet them. Unfortunately, because I had checked in, I had to pay for the hotel room, and then for a cab to take me back to the airport. I should have complained and argued, but I was so creeped out that I just wanted to get out of there. So I ended up paying $40 to stay in a nasty room for an hour and a half. Obviously, I was a little pissed.

I left the hotel and met Crystal and Kelsey at the airport. We ended up hanging out at this restaurant outside the Arrivals section of the airport. It was pretty nice actually. We sat on leather couches and ate pita bread and amazing hummus and yummy french fries. Finally, it hit 5:00. We took a taxi down to the train station and boarded our train to Agra. How was it? Well, there is a reason they call second class seating "the cattle car." There is a basic structure to the seats. Those who buy tickets early enough get seat numbers. However, once those seat numbers run out, they don't stop selling tickets. It becomes general seating. Meaning, at one point during the train ride I had three grown women and two children sitting with me on my three-person bench. It was a cramped and uncomfortable ride and unfortunately, it didn't get much better.

We finally arrived in Agra and, after storing our luggage, went out to find a cab to take us to the Taj Mahal. We realized, however, that because the rest of the group had to catch another train back to Delhi in order to catch a train to Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, our time at the Taj would be short. By the time we reached the Taj, we had 45 minutes to buy tickets, stand in line, run in, take pictures, and run out. We did it and we enjoyed it, but we all wondered whether it was worth it. The thing about the Taj Mahal is: it is truly amazing…and the government knows it. That is why it can get away with charging foreigners Rs. 750 (about $16) to see the Taj. That's right. If you want to see the Taj Mahal, even if you don't want to go inside, you still have to pay Rs. 750. We paid and never made it inside the Taj Mahal. We stood outside, took a bunch of pictures, and ran back to our car. That was the biggest bummer of the trip: We all would have liked to see more of the Taj. However, we have to remind ourselves that we did indeed see the Taj Mahal. Most people cannot say that. India is a crazy place. In order to stay sane, you have to look at the positive of every situation.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mumbai: Day 3

Our third day in Mumbai was pretty quick and not very exciting. We checked out of our hotel and took a cab back down to Colaba, where we had lunch at this little bakery/restaurant called Indigo Delicatessen. I was very disappointed. I got an overpriced hamburger that was not worth it and ended up making one girl sick. Annoying, but hey, it happens. After lunch, the Kelseys and I decided to take a cab down Marine Drive and find some place to shop. Long story short, we never found that place. We ended up wandering around for a couple hours before I decided to just take a rickshaw to the airport early and hang out there. At least it was air conditioned and I knew there was shopping there.

That is when things started to get a little stressful. I found a rickshaw and the driver said he knew where my hotel was so I could go pick up my luggage. In reality, of course, he didn't. He also didn't speak more than 10 words in English. Obviously, we got lost. After about an hour or an hour and a half, we finally managed to find my hotel. I ran inside, grabbed my luggage, and redirected my driver to take me to the airport.

Fun fact for you all: Mumbai has two airports. One is international, the other is domestic. I never realized this. In the US, generally anyways, an international airport is just a normal airport that is big enough to have some international flight as well. So when my driver asked, "International Airport?" I thought we were both thinking the same place. I got to the airport, paid my driver, and walked to the door. At the departures door in Indian airports you have to show your passport and e-ticket to the guards first. I did that and the guard gave me a really weird look. He told me that I was at the wrong airport and sent me away. I, having no clue what was going on, stood there for a couple minutes trying to make sense of this information. I finally asked one of the guys who stand at departures and direct people. Luckily, he spoke very good English and was able to explain to me that I was indeed at the wrong airport. He flagged down another rickshaw for me and sent me on my way. Of course, the rickshaw driver waited until we were away from the curb before telling me his ridiculous price for taking me to the airport. He apparently thought I was new here. I was so stressed and confused at that point and I just said, "Fine, but drive as fast as you can." He did just that and I managed to get to the airport in plenty of time and with only a slightly embarrassing story to tell.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Mumbai: Day 2

After I spent the night praying to the porcelain god, I managed to drag myself out of bed the next morning. The Kelseys left early to check out Juhu beach, so Crystal, Jared, and I met up with them to have breakfast. Afterwards, we decided to head south. Now, to any of you who plan on traveling to Mumbai: just take a taxi across town. Yes, it is more expensive, but it is way more comfortable. We did not know that and wanted to be adventurous, so we decided to take the train across town. It is NOT WORTH IT! After taking about twenty minutes to figure out how to buy tickets, we managed to find our platform and get on the train. We spend 50 minutes standing up by the train door. It was so crowded that my nose was smooshed into Jared's back and the guy groping me got away with it for quite some time because I couldn't move enough to figure out who it was. I didn't want to smash the toes of some poor, innocent man. When I finally figured out who it was, I did manage to land a pretty good punch right in the center of his back. I really wish I could have crushed his toes though.

Anyways, we finally got off the train at the Central Station in an area called Fort. That is where the Town Hall, the University of Mumbai, and other major buildings are located. We didn't get to explore much of it, but it was a really neat area. The buildings are all very old and not at all Indian. You can really see the European influence. The architecture reminded me of Westminster Abbey or Notre Dame. Lots of stone, flying buttresses, gargoyles, and ivy. From Fort, we took a taxi to Colaba, which is the southern-most neighborhood in Mumbai. We wanted to see the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Hotel. The Gateway of India is a huge arch made of yellow basalt. It was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. It is an impressive structure. It is not as intricate as some other styles of Indian architecture, but still beautiful. And, of course, because it is a touristy area, we had a whole bunch of people wanting to take our pictures. So we escaped into the Taj Mahal hotel.

The Taj Mahal is one of the most well-known (and most expensive!) hotels in Mumbai. It is where a lot of the rich Americans and Europeans stay. Despite the name, it looks nothing like the actual Taj Mahal in Agra. It has a dome, but that is about it. Instead of pristine white marble, the hotel is brown with white accents around the windows. But still, it was a very pretty building. The ground floor of the hotel is like an incredibly high-end shopping mall. They have a Louis Vuitton and a bunch of other amazing stores. We wandered around for a little while and did some window-shopping. It was a pleasant change from the heat.

From the Taj, we walked north. I'm not sure what we were looking for, but we ended up stumbling upon an outdoor market. It was kind of like a bazaar. The shops were set up on either side of a walkway. Some were just tables, but others were little alcoves that you couldn't even walk into, but they could close them and lock them instead of unpacking and packing everything every day. That was really fun. I bought some gifts (some for family, some for me) and just strolled around looking at all the cool things. The store owners work themselves up into a little frenzy at the sight of white skin. We walked down the sidewalk and all of them started calling, "Madame, pashmina? Pashmina? How 'bout some beautiful bangles?" They are all very pushy. Usually you just say no and keep walking, but if you do want to stop, they push their products hard. I ended up haggling with one owner over a statue of Nataraja that I didn't even want. I glanced at the statue and he caught the glance and tried to sell it to me. I said no, so he lowered the price. I said no again, so he lowered the price again. This went on until the statue was about half the starting price. It would have been a victory if I had actually wanted the statue. I wasn't playing hard to get, I just wasn't interested. I finally had to run into one of the actual stores in the market to get him to stop pestering me.

After we all spent way too much money, we went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner and then stopped at a couple of bars. Leopold's is a very old, apparently well-known bar in Mumbai. It is more of a restaurant downstairs, but a classic bar upstairs. You know: dark, loud, crowded, and pricey. Two of our group members spent 300 rupees each on a shot. They were easily the smallest shots any of us had ever seen. Ultimately, we weren't impressed with Leopold's. It might be old, but it is just like any other bar. So, from there we went to Dome, which is a rooftop lounge on top of the Intercontinental Hotel. Dome was very nice. I liked it a lot. We sat on couches next to a little swimming pool overlooking Marine Drive and the bay. It was pricey. Drink prices were pretty standard for India. My cosmopolitan was about 700 rupees ($12), which is a lot for me. I found that you can tell the atmosphere of a place just by looking at their water prices. Dome charged 150 rupees ($3) for a bottle of Himalayan water when we can get it at a grocery store for 20 rupees. Needless to say, I didn't order any bottled water there. But I digress. We hung out at Dome for a while and had a really good time. It was very relaxed and we had a great view and great techno remixes of '90's hits to keep us happy. Afterwards, I went back to the hotel while the others went to a club. They ended up having such a good time that they stayed out until 6 in the morning, but I still wasn't feeling great and I really didn't want to spend more money. So I went back to the hotel and went to sleep. Thus, my second day in Mumbai was over.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mumbai: Day 1

So, we decided to go to Mumbai for the weekend. We wanted to get out of Bangalore and knew that we needed to see Mumbai before leaving India. We flew over early Friday afternoon. Jared, Crystal, and I got there before the two Kelseys, so we checked into our hotel. First of all, our hotel was very nice. We stayed in the Hotel Highway Residency. It is in a bit of a difficult location, but it was very clean. The beds were so soft and comfortable (actually, they weren't that comfortable, but our beds at NGV are so terrible that these felt wonderful). Secondly, the heat in Mumbai is awful. I'm used to dry heat. In Eastern Washington, we don't get much humidity. Even in Seattle, it is humid, but it is rarely warm enough to be uncomfortable. In Mumbai though, it was about 93° with really high humidity. I don't do too well in heat, so Mumbai was very uncomfortable.

Anyways, after we checked into our hotel, we took a rikshaw to Juhu Beach. Juhu Beach is in Northern Mumbai and is a great place for shopping and has some very nice (and pricey) hotels. It was so nice to see the ocean again. Especially with India getting so hot, the cool ocean air was a nice change. The beach itself though, was interesting. I'm used to Washington beaches, like Moclips or Pacific Beach. They're cold, gray, quiet, and empty. Mumbai beaches are hot, packed, and dirty. I had at least twelve women approach me trying to get me to buy henna. When I kept saying no, one even asked what my problem was. Mumbai? India? Uh, no. I have no problem, I just don't want any freakin' henna!

When we walked down the beach a little ways, the vendors and crowds started to die down a little. They were replaced by groups of boys playing cricket on the beach (instead of beach volleyball, people in India play beach cricket). We wandered around in the water, which is so much warmer than Washington. We found some cool shells, a couple hermit crabs, and a bunch of trash. We also made friends with a really sweet street dog who followed us down the beach. We couldn't touch him, but we took lots of pictures. It was a really nice afternoon.

After the beach, we walked through Juhu until we found a restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel. I ate a chicken kabab that was marinated in cream cheese and cashew paste, garlic naan, and a Tom Collins. It was wonderful. Not so wonderful an hour later though. After dinner, we went back to our hotel to change before going out. Our rikshaw got lost and drove around a bunch of bumpy side roads for a while. I started to feel a bit sick. Luckily we made it to our hotel, because the feeling only got worse. I ended up spending the rest of the night bent over a toilet puking my guts out. That was kind of a horrible ending to what had been a pretty good day.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Traveling Blues

I'm definitely struggling right now. I'm feeling left out, disappointed, and defeated. And it doesn't help that I have another cold. I was so excited to get out of town and see the rest of India. I think I just don't like Bangalore that much. It is a nice enough city and good for first-time visitors, but it is so Westernized that it has lost a lot of its original culture. I don't really feel like I'm in India. I was looking forward to the upcoming travel opportunities, hoping that I could see a real part of India. Now it feels like it is all spinning out of control and I don't have the power to stop it. In the beginning, the plan was to go to Kerala for Spring Break and then during our three-week travel period, we would circle around Northern India. My travel companions and I were starting to plan things out and everything seemed great. Suddenly, last week, I find out that they decided instead of going to Kerala for Spring Break, they've decided to go to Delhi and Rajasthan and leave Kerala for after classes, to go along with our North East portion of the trip. Okay, I could deal with that. I was a little annoyed that no one asked me about it, but whatever. But it just keeps getting worse. Now they've decided that they want to spend two days in Delhi/Agra and the rest of the break on a camel safari in Rajasthan. Everyone seems to be ignoring the fact that I would like to see other cities in Rajasthan, and that I don't want to go on a five day camel ride. I would be okay with two days, because it would be an interesting experience and a good story to tell. But what is so appealing about spending five days in the desert, on a camel, in 90 degree heat? But instead of compromising, all they tell me is: "Well, you can find a hotel to stay in and we'll come pick you up when we're done." Why the hell would I want to spend the little money I have to spend five days by myself in a state where it isn't advisable for women to travel alone? That would mean spending the majority of my Spring Break cooped up in a hotel room.

Now they're planning a couple of weekend trips for the next two weekends and the only reason I know about them is because they mentioned something to each other and I asked what they were talking about. The three of them are hunched over books and computers and have never once asked me what I think, or really even if I wanted to go there.

So I don't know what I'm going to do. I might go on the weekend trips. For Spring Break, I might just fly to Delhi with them, travel to Rajasthan, then split up. I'll go see Jaipur for a day or two and then fly back to Bangalore and do some volunteer work or something. It just breaks my heart a little. I was looking so forward to planning out trips with my friends and now it seems like they are planning out trips and I can tag along if I want. There is no compromise; majority rules. I've found myself counting down the days until I get to go home, which isn't how I wanted to remember India. This isn't what I want to tell people when I get back. But what other choice do I have? It isn't safe to travel alone and all the other groups are either planning trips I'm not interested in or I just really don't like the people in the groups.

Well, we'll see what happens. It sounds like Spring Break is going to suck, but I still have hope for our three-week trip. Maybe that will turn out okay. Maybe I'll actually be included in the planning, since portions of it were my idea to begin with. I'm sorry to dump all this bitterness on you all. I'm just having a rough week and all I want to do is go back to Washington and cry. And stop being sick constantly.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Shopaholic's Adventures in Bangalore

Okay, so Julie wanted me to write something about the clothes here. Here you go Julie, this is for you:

One thing I have truly enjoyed about India is the shopping. I spend a lot of money on clothes as it is, but that money can get me so much more here! There are three styles that you will often see in India:

Salwar Kameez- The Salwar Kameez is a three-piece set. There is a salwar, baggy, loose-fitting pants. On top we wear a kurta, which is a tunic that usually goes down to mid-thigh or even the tops of your knees. The third piece is a dupatta, or a long scarf which is draped either on one shoulder or (more often) around your neck so the ends are trailing behind you. I think the dupatta is needed to complete the outfit, but they are usually a big pain in the butt. They tend to fall off or end up dragging on the floor.

Churidar Set- The Churidar set is just like a Salwar-Kameez, except instead of the salwar, you wear a churidar. Churidars are pants that bunch up at the ankles. Most look like ridiculously long leggings. They are tight everywhere and scrunched up at the bottom. Some are loose-fitting on top until just above the knee, when it gets tighter. Those are not very flattering. They tend to be too loose and the stitching is very odd and unflattering. It feels more like wearing long underwear.

Sari/Saree- The style of clothing that most foreigners think of when they think of India is the Sari (or Saree). The Sari is a long piece of cloth, usually about nine yards. It is wrapped around your waist a few times, bunched into a cute little fan shape that is tucked in front, and then thrown over your shoulder. Usually the sari is wrapped so the pallu (the decorative end which is meant to be seen) is behind you. It can also be worn in front, or even as a head covering. Underneath the sari there is an underskirt and a choli, which is a midriff-baring, short-sleeved blouse .

All three styles come in a variety of fabrics and styles. Usually the Salwar-kameez and the churidar sets are cotton and the saris are usually cotton or silk. They can range from incredibly plain, to the most exquisite, intricate craftsmanship you have ever seen. India is known for their textiles and there is a reason for that: they are amazing.

Thanks to Kelsey for the wonderful pictures.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

So Fresh and So Clean(ish)

Anthony requested that I write about my experiences in Indian markets, so here goes:

A couple weekends ago, the USAC group took a little field trip to some major religious spots in Bangalore. Our first stop was at St. Mary's Basilica. Across the street was a large market. After we finished taking pictures of the church, we decided to explore the market.

In the beginning, it was just a normal market. People set up little stands with fruits, vegetables, and flowers to sell to the public. Nothing too special. The only odd thing was that we became a sort of tourist attraction. Many of the students were taking pictures of all the little stands, and we noticed that there was a scattered crowd of people around us and they were using their cell phones to take pictures of us while we were taking pictures. That was new, and odd, but nothing too scary. We moved on and walked deeper into the market. In the beginning, it actually reminded me a lot of Pike Place Market. There were big stands of fish and when you walked down the street, you could smell them long before you saw them. It was a nice reminder of home. I kept waiting for someone to throw a fish, but was disappointed.

Something I noticed about Indian markets is that while their meats might be fresh, they won't stay fresh for long. We rarely saw any ice or ways to refrigerate the fish and meat. That accounts for some of the smell and doesn't exactly make my mouth water.

Next, we went into the meat market. We were told it is best to just leave our cameras in our bags for that stretch. Parts of the meat market are fine, but if you pass anyone selling beef, they get really pissy about people taking pictures of them. They have been known to throw a bone or two at nosy tourists with cameras. So I kept my camera in my bag. I don't think it is anything any of you would want to see anyways. We walked in and saw rows and rows of what looked like sheep. They were skinned and gutted, and the corpses were left hanging off of hooks on a conveyor belt. Again, no refrigeration, no covers, the workers didn't even wear hair nets or booties. Not very appetizing. I'm pretty sure they don't slaughter the goats and sheep there and it is illegal to slaughter cows in Karnataka, so we didn't have to see that part of the whole process. We did see a few shops selling chicken and duck though. There are dozens of cages outside the shops, each one packed with chickens, ducks, and even the occasional goose. They slaughter, pluck, and gut the birds right there. If you don't watch out, your shoes will get a little dirty. The vegetarians were, of course, indignant. The rest of us were just a bit grossed out. I am well aware of where meat comes from, I just don't want to see it.

When we left the meat market, we were greeted by the sweet relief of the produce market. The flower stands are beautiful. Huge flower garlands hang from the ceiling and you can see almost every kind of flower. The owners kept handing us little flowers to put in our hair. The fruit stands are so nice. Everything looks perfect and smells so good. There are piles of melons, apples, oranges, kiwis, bananas, and the more exotic fruits of India. Even thinking about it makes me crave fruit.

I think the part of the market that disturbed me most was not the meat market or the poultry shops. It was the pet shop. When we first walked up, I saw birds and thought it was a more exotic poultry shop. Our resident director told us it was a pet shop, but Americans would call it a pet mill. Wire cages were stacked on top of each other, each holding multiple cats, dogs, rabbits, or birds. One cage had six or seven puppies that weren't even old enough to open their eyes yet. They were all crying and yelping and I didn't know how to feel. Part of me loved seeing so many cute little faces, but the other part of me knew that this wasn't right. None of those animals were living in proper conditions. I also noticed that they were all babies. There wasn't a single adult cat or dog in the group. What happens when these animals grow up and aren't sold? Part of me was happy that these animals were being given a chance at a good life. There are so many animals on the streets here that it is good to see that maybe these animals will find a home and a family to love them. The other part of me wonders if growing up crowded in those cages is any better than growing up on the street. All I know is that I want to go back and buy a kitten and/or a puppy just to get them out of the cage and stop them from crying.

So, Indian markets are not necessarily the delight that you might have thought they were, Anthony. They are an interesting experience and show the Indian mind-set when it comes to food. Indians tend to prefer freshness while Americans prefer to be in the dark when it comes to where their food comes from.