India, for real this time
Pt 1 Rajastan
Saying goodbye to Bhutan we jetted to Delhi for the start of our extended time in India. We'd spoken to a couple of peoe and they said that he second time you get to India you appreciate it more since you know what to expect and the bananas-craziness isn't so bananas-crazy. So with this in mind we ready ourselves for India redux. Delhi was a brief stop on ou way to explore Rahjistan. Agra, Udipur, Jaipur and Jodhpur are on the agenda for northern India before we head to Kerala and Goa for some beach time before Mumbai and then SE Asia. As a matter of full disclosure I am writing this on my iPhone on an overnight bus from southern Cambodia to Siam Reap so I may not have the sequence in exact order but all the things did happen.
Home of the Taj Mahal and Red Fort and not a whole lot more, but it realy doesn't have to be. Agra is pretty full on but luckily we are ready for it having just been in Delhi and the touts don't really phase us as much. A simple and stern no and they move onto the next lot. The events and trip to the Taj were uneventful but the Taj is jaw-droppingly epic. In the middle of an otherwise typical Indian town stands this testament to love that shames all other mortal's attempts at shows of affection. No matter how many pictures you've seen or shows you've watched walking past the gates and laying eyes on it takes your breath away. I'm not going to bore u with the history of the building, u can google that yourselves, but I will try to convey the sense of awe and solemnity that you feel despite the facts that there are tons of people milling about. The gardens are maticulously groomed and the fountains and waterways lend to the scale and elegance of the place. The marble glows, it litterally glows and your drawn to it like a moth. You have to take off your shoes before u ascend the stairs and it actually helps connect u to where u are. The cool marble soothes you from the heat of the day and each step heightens your senses. Inside the simplicity is elegant and the details and workmanship is unparalleled. Stone mosaic flowers of every color crawl up walls and dance along lattice work. It makes you forget that your actually in a mosoleum. The cavernous chamber has high reaching ceilings that lend a feeling of heavenly calm. The only structure was an enclosure wrapped in lattice that looked over the tombs below. The chambers on either side were similarly decorated and provided small nooks for a number of couples to sit and canoodle. Back outside we sat behind the Taj and just stared. We weren't the only ones staring, but most of the Indian tourists were looking at us! This time they didn't just look they recorded it. We were asked to be in about 10 different groups pictures. Completely random folks all sorts. Young girls, families, random creepy dudes u name it they wanted pictures with us. Nicky was especially popular with the creepy dudes but they usually asked me if it was ok and I'd tell them that they could have a pic with her if I could have one with their wives, that usually ended the request. Apparently they wanted a pic of Nicky so they could go back and tell their friends that they bagged a western girl! Cheeky bastards. With the both of us were to show off their new western best friends. So we are now in a bunch of random peoples memories and scrap books, fair enough. Anyway the Taj was the highlight of Agra, off to Jaipur.
We start in Jaipur the pink city.
So the pink city is the old home for the Raj and his family which has now been turned into a museum and arts and crafts co-op type place that really does have some wonderful artists working there and some not so great ones that create things that belong on dorm room walls. There's a great audio tour that goes along with the tour that explains the significance of the Tajs in Indian history as well as their symbolic present day role. The throne rooms and reception halls are resplendent in their gold, emerald, diamond clad oppulance and the chandeliers are tributes to French craftsmanship and seem to defy gravity by remaining attached to the ceilings. I tried to take a picture of one in the trone room and got chased by a security guard and had to erase it! Damn. Anywayswe were being driven around the pink city and Jaipur by a cool tuk tuk driver that told us we should check out the Amber fort, so off we went. On the long road out he mentioned that I looked awfully Indian and I reassured him that while I am handsome I am not Indian, he got a kick out of that and asked me if I wanted to drive the tuk tuk. Well hell yeah, move over! So I hopped in the front seat and took over. He wouldn't let me go too fast as apparently he wasn't aware that I am an excellent driver. So he let me drive for a while until we got near the fort and then I had to get in the back so he wouldn't get caught by the security around the entrance. The amber fort is a massive Goliath of a building situated on top of a tall ridge with protective walls encircling the land. There isn't a whole lot going on inside the fort in terms of artifacts etc but you do get to tap your inner Indy Jones and explore the halls and staircases that can be found in the most unusual places. While we were exploring we ended up geting a little lost and turned around and eventually found a group of guys in the same situation. We bonded over this and mimed communication to each other and eventually found our way back to the main courtyard and freedom.
On to an overnight train for Udaipur!
Have you seen Octopussy? If u are in a pinch go to any backpacker spot in Ud at 7 and you'll catch a viewing. A majority of the movie was filmed in this lovely town and the charm is still there. Set around a large lake the city spreads up and around the surrounding hills with small winding streets cracking throughout. It reminded us a little of Venice in that way. We made our way to the guesthouse that was recommended in the book and we were really jazzed with the accomodations. We had a great room with pastel plastered walls and a rooftop restaurant with amazing views of the floating palace. This small island is actually a 5 star hotel that glows stark white as it hovers in the water like a low slung cloud. This was Octopussy's lair in the movie. As dusk moved in the first night the mosquitos came out and the deet and ice cold Kingfishers helped them stay away or go unnoticed. And at 7 on the dot the theme music known the world over started, 007 had arrived. We spent the night relishing this town and looking forward to taking a look around. Katy had told Nicky about a great cooking class in town so we went looking for it the next morning. Luckily the place was only a few streets away and we booked a class for the next day. Meanwhile we went and explored the town a bit and took in some sights, monkey temple here, Ganesh temple there really quite enjoyable. We crossed the footbridge and had lunch in a great terraced restaurant seated in a veranda with views of the lake and the city palace, perfect.
In Rajastan there are these paintings that they make that use old stamps as paper. These stamps aren't like the ones we are used to, these are about the size of a sheet of paper and are about 100 years old so they have this great aged quality about them. Well we had been looking for a nice one for a while and as we were waking through some small winding roads found an art school/ co-op. We took a look inside and got to talking to one of the students and he explained how the different levels of skill worked and showed us examples of the work. We found a coue that we liked and started negotiations. Now these pieces weren't particularlly expensive, but once you get used to haggling, buying things becomes sport. Ma, you would be proud of me! I'm actualy a little worried that I won't be able to stop when I get back in the states, I can imagine myself trying to buy some coffee and a cake asking if that really the best they can do. Oh well. So after a couple days of talking with the guy we came to a fair price and off we went.
Besides haggling with art students we took a little boat ride around the lake and got to go to the floating palace. Amazing place, wonderful gardens full of Franjapani trees and orange trees, a little floating paradise. That night we had our ckkoing class and we were really looking forward to finally cooking for ourselves. The owner of the shoo was a pleasant guy that walked us through the basics of Indian cooking. You need yourself a spice box he told us, with that you could prepare any Indian dish. I forget all the spices that were there but it smelt of heaven. While we were preparing the first course 007 came for a visit, the song echoed through the streets and our guys face gave a quick flash of familiar annoyance. I asked if he got tired of the movie and he said that he'd never even seen it! He remembers them filming it 20 odd years ago and says that Roger Moore was a very nice guy, chatty etc but he never bothered to watch it but he could probably recite every line verbatim. Anyway we prepared some curries, chapati, chai, desert and got to ask him a little about Indian life. Chai, chapati, chatting and children the quintessential aspects of indian life. We wanted to know how come there aren't many other cuisines in India and he told us that there were such a variety of Indian food that there wasn't a need. He rattled off a bunch of different curries to give examples Now I like a good curry as much as the next guy but you could only dress up curry so much, it's still curry. We asked about the beer in India and he pointed out that Indians don't drink for pleasure they drink to get drunk so whiskey is their choice. But drinking is frowned upon as it lends to a poor reputation so it is usuall done in private, only in homes and never inter-generationally. So a father and son would never have a drink together and women would most certainly never be caught drinking, you wouldn't be able to marry them off if they got the reputation of a drinker. Stange to us but fair enough this is why we travel. The meals were excellent and we had a great time with our host. Off we went to sleep it off and head to the next town in the morning.
Jodhpur, the blue city
Anchored by a clocktower in the central market this heaving mash up of everything under the sun was same same to the markets we'd seen thus far and since we only had a short time to visit here we had to hit the highlights the Maharajah's palace, this one was in amazing condidltion and was a particularly proud symbol for Jodhpur. The tour was narrated by the current Raj and it added a wonderful touch of hospitality. As we walked up the steep walkways we were told a story about the building of this palace. It seemed that originally a hermit had lived on the spot where the palace was to be built. Now u know hermits as well as I do so he wasn't to thrilled with being told that he had to get up and go. He decided to throw a curse on the building saying that there would never be water available as long as the fort stood. Well this scared the early raj and so he went to consult his priests etc. They told him that a great sacrafice would be needed to break this curse. Well what to do...up steps a brave soul and he says that he would be the sacrafice that they need. So as we are walking up the ramps the guide points to a marker on the wall and tells us that this is the spot where this brave soul was buried alive into the wall. I thought it would be a prize sheep or something, but this guy was in the wall, pretty impressive.
As we walked into the courtyard the raj would tell us about the day that he was crownded. His father had died unexpectadly and at the age of 6 or 7 this young boy was thrust into a very public and important role. Not that there were many political decisions that had to be made, but he was still an important symbol in the city, pretty heady stuff for a little kid. The courtyard is surrounded by tall walls with lattice screens all around. We were told that the screens were where the women used to stand behind and watch the goings on. Since at the time women weren't allowed to be looked upon this allowed them to see and not be seen, how considerate. These screens would pop up all over the palace especially hidden away in meeting rooms. The wives would be allowed to listen in on meetings and would later give their counsel to the Raj, so it was a bit surprising for me that they were valued for their opinions but couldn't actually be seen, but baby steps I guess. That was is for our whirlwind tour of rajastan and we regrettably had to skip a few spots, but that gives us something for next time.