Sunday, June 22, 2014

Tigers and crocodiles in Agra and Rajasthan

Over the last few months, Violet and Tyler have each learned about the Taj Mahal in school. Violet’s teacher, for a timeline project, asked her to write about an event between 1600 and 1650. Foregoing the more obvious selection of the Mayflower’s landing at Plymouth Rock, Violet stumbled upon the building of the Taj Mahal. Needing to sketch the event, she was entranced with the symmetry and beauty of the structure and selected this as her timeline entry. In Tyler’s primary curriculum topic "Structures," he drew and reported on the Empire State Building, while his good friend drew and discussed the Taj Mahal. Truth is, the kids knew way more about the Taj Mahal than we did when deciding that our post-wedding time in India needed to include a trip to the Taj.

With seeing the Taj Mahal as an itinerary starting point, we were kinda locked into spending our visit in north India because India is huge. It’s called the Indian subCONTINENT for a reason! Trying to hit sights in both the north and south would have meant a lot of flights. Starting in Delhi, the nearest major city to Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, we put together a pretty standard north India itinerary to visit the “Golden Triangle” highlights. With trusty TripAdvisor as a guide, I booked a car with a locally-owned small company, Ashok's Taxi Tours ( Ashok assured me that since it's the "ultra low season" prices were reduced and hotel bookings would be no problem. Why is it the ultra low season? It's hot. Right, hot is okay; we live in Malaysia. So I booked!

Pune to Delhi is a 2 hour flight. Before leaving Pune, we checked the weather in Delhi. 114 degrees. Excuse me? I thought there was a typo on Not a typo. It was the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark hot (i.e., bad guys' faces melting off).  That's why it's low season. Our trip started off on the right foot. As we were coming in for the landing into Delhi, the overhead speakers on our SpiceJet plane started playing "My Home Town," by Bruce Springsteen! Our lovely driver, Anil, met us as we departed the domestic terminal in Delhi. With the temperature right around 110 degrees, Anil said that our plan was to see sights in the morning and evening and drive during the day (in the air conditioned car).

As we said in our last blog entry, driving from Mumbai to Pune was a wild ride, but the drive from Delhi to Agra was no less a spectacle. First, the traffic in Delhi is a nightmare. It took two hours to get out of Delhi (not even rush hour). Then as we left town, the distances were magnified by the poor road conditions. Anil said, “Anything you might see on a road, you’ll see on a road in India.” He wasn’t kidding. Over the five hour drive we saw so many modes of transit. From ox carts to horse carts. Buses and trucks so packed that more people were on top than inside. Auto-rickshaws stuffed with 16 people. Milk trucks with huge jugs strung on the tailgate. A steamroller (not at a worksite, just cruising down the highway). We try to keep our blog light, but I can’t neglect saying that on our way to Agra we also saw the aftermath of a horrific accident. It appeared someone fell off a vehicle on the road and was hit by another car. It was time again to count our many, many blessings. We were inside a car, buckled in, with a careful and attentive driver guiding us. 

I loved the decked-out trucks. See the black tassels hanging off the sides
and garland on the front. Many also had elaborate scenes printed on the rear.
All the permits and signs are also hand painted. I kinda want to deck out my car like this.
Village traffic calming roadblock

Climbing and jumping off the Fort Agra walls
Approaching Arga, we stopped by the Ackbar mausoleum, the resting place of the grandfather of Shan Jahan (the ruler who built the Taj Mahal). The structure was beautiful but the coolest part of this place was its 300-year-old herd of African antelope wandering the grounds. We continued on to Agra. The evening of our arrival, we visited the Agra Fort. We were fortunate to pick up a wonderful guide who walked us through the vast structure. The huge red stone walls surround a 16th century palace -- the pictures here don't show the scale of the walls at all. The kids latched onto one fact about the fort – the fort had both a wet moat with crocodiles and a dry moat with tigers – and peppered our guide with questions about the advantages and disadvantages of the tiger/crocodile dual defense system. Tyler was particularly struck by the pre-battle strategy of depriving the tigers of food so they would be extra hungry and aggressive for foreign invader meat! Agra Fort looks out over the Taj Mahal, so we saw the sunset on the Taj as the Fort closed for the evening. It was our first real glimpse of one of the most incredible structures we've ever seen.

Early to bed and early to rise for our sunrise Taj Mahal tour. We met our guide who provided us the context and history of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan as a mausoleum to his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is a structure of symmetry and beauty. The kids were totally impressed with the structure's optical illusions, like the four-sided pillars that looked eight-sided from a distance and the script that seemed condensed at the bottom from far away, but up-close looked in correct scale. Put your worries to rest, the Taj Mahal of glowing white marble with decorative inlay is as beautiful and magnificent in person as it seems from photographs. The scale and placement over the river makes the building seemingly float in the sky. The ultra low season paid off here as we had no lines and wandered around the complex enjoying the calm.

After seeing the Taj, we were in for another long car ride. The ride length was much worse since Brian came down with "Delhi Belly." It is a common occurrence in India, so common in fact that most reviews on TripAdvisor talked about the bathroom facilities at hotels in case you came down with "The Revenge." TripAdvisor unfortunately did not rate the roadside bathrooms on the northern state highways. As the ciprofloxacin, immodium, peptobismol, ibuprofen and oral rehydration salts from our ziplock bag mobile pharmacy worked their magic, we drove into the Indian state of Rajasthan, in India's far northwest. Driving along, we were treated to a picture of life in rural India as we watched the landscape change from pasture to all out desert. Drying cow paddies rested on stucco-decorated mud huts to be later used for fuel. Miles and miles of brick factories sent trucks, tractors, and ox carts filled to the brim with bricks out along the roadway. The scene soon gave way to arid farmlands as ox carts were replaced by camel carts. The many areas we past were a flurry of activity with villagers preparing for the upcoming monsoon season. All along the way people loaded hay into gigantic burlap sacks that hung over the sides of flat bed trucks. As the landscape changed, women's attire shifted to bright orange saffron saris, worn over the head mostly for sun protection.  

Is it a truck stuffed with hay?
The same truck from the front! 
Stopping for cows crossing the road.
Rajasthan is home to Ranthambore National Park, the largest tiger reserve in India, and our destination for this leg of the trip. ( There’s not a lot in this little town outside a strip of hotels and the park. Lacking in places to eat, most hotels provide full board. The park is closed from June 30 until November 1 because monsoons make the park roads impassable, so we were catching the tail end of the season. This has the advantage of uncrowded jeep tours and great prices on hotels. But it is a bit odd staying and eating in a giant hotel with no other guests. Brian was worried it was going to be a hot weather version of The Shining (especially when we learned that the hotel was no longer selling liquor for the season).

Our first sign of a tiger - a massive paw print in the mud.
We went on two rides in Gypsy jeeps which sit six guests, plus a guide and a driver. The reserve is divided into ten regions into which the park rangers randomly assign each tour group. Our first visit was in Region 1. From the onset, everyone set up low expectations. It’s not prime tiger-spotting weather. The rain the night before made the tigers not need to go to the waterhole to drink. Plus it was relatively cool (like 95 degrees), so the tigers did not need to swim to cool down. The rain also made the tigers harder to track since there was less dust to look for tracks. The rocky, arid landscape was beautiful. The pre-monsoon rains were just adding touches of green to the landscape. The park is known for its many birds, most notably the peacock, the national bird of India. Our guide called the peacocks “tiger cupcakes” (looks nice, but not so filling). One nice part of visiting with the approaching rainy season is that the peacocks were in full dancing glory. During the dry season they lose their feathers and just kinda hang out. But with the approaching rainy season, there is love on the peacocks' minds. The feathers grow in and they start putting on a rhythmic circular dance, with a distinct mating call. We also saw male spotted deer fighting for the affections of a doe, several antelopes, and other types of deer. Right as we were giving up the tiger search, we heard from another car that there was a sleeping tiger by the road right at the border of Region 1 and 6. We went into high gear – racing through the jungle to find the tiger. Tyler loved going fast in the open jeep -- up and down the rocky hills. He was definitely airborne a few times. Here’s a picture of the three year old male we found. You most definitely appreciate his massive scale from up that close and how amazing is the tiger's camouflage! Our second safari took us to Region 5. We were fortunate to also see a tiger on this visit, but this time a bit more in the distance. This region has a beautiful watering hole in which we saw all the grazing animals as well as some crocodiles. The kids were pleased to have seen in the wild both animal occupants of the Agra Fort moat.

Two male peacocks showing off with dances!

The next day we left Ranthambore and headed to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. 

Leaving you with a picture of Violet trying to take the Taj Mahal home with us.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Pooja's Big Fat Indian Wedding!

So excited! So excited! We're in India!!! I've had a long-time India crush. It started somewhere in high school with my first dip of naan into palak paneer, which I loved and only later learned that paneer is cheese. The crush grew when wearing a sari for the first time for a friend’s wedding 10 years ago (still can't believe Courtney squeezed me into her blouse!). And here we are -- in India!

A few months ago, a friend invited us to her wedding. Pooja works with Brian in Baltimore, but decided to return home to Pune, India for her wedding. After squealing (yeah, I'm not a squealer -- it just came out), I started planning the trip. Flying from KL to Mumbai is only a 4 1/2 hour ride, so the trip is totally doable. It’s like living in Baltimore and going out to California for a wedding, except you need a visa. Our living in Kuala Lumpur also made wedding prep logistics relatively easy. Kuala Lumpur has a substantial Indian population, so shopping for wedding attire consisted of a trip down to the Brickfields section of town. A big - HUGE - thank you to our friend, Abhi, for spending several hours shopping with us while we labored over wedding clothing selections. Well, we labored - the kids played hide and seek in the enormous fabric shop. Abhi steered us to the right outfits (the dude can totally pick out an awesome sari) and away from not so great options (like strongly advising Brian to just wear slacks and not buy traditional pants). In the end, we each purchased two outfits. I bought a blue silk sari and a purple and gold beaded langa (skirt with a fitted top). While saris are worn in many styles, they are traditionally a long single piece of fabric wrapped around the waist with pleats gathered in the front. Over a cropped blouse, the remainder of fabric is pleated and worn over the left shoulder or up over the head. After selecting a sari, I visited a tailor to get my sari blouse made. This was also an experience since the tailor had limited English, although he was clear in advising me to go with the "sexy back" blouse style. Here I make a confession. I also asked the tailor to pre-sew my sari bottom. The tailor takes the sari and sews in the bottom pleats to a petticoat making it absurdly simple to put on.

Our India trip is divided into two parts, several days of wedding celebrations in Pune and then a tour in the northern part of the country. Since we are relaxing in the hotel tonight with all the amazing wedding experiences wrapped up, Brian and I figured we'd write a blog post about this portion of the trip.

We like to say that everything is an adventure and getting to Pune was certainly no exception. The flight from KL to Mumbai (Bombay) was relatively uneventful, although Brian did have an easy, “Excuse me sir, are you a doctor?” experience. The adventure really started after our arrival in Mumbai. Pooja kindly arranged a driver to pick us up at our 11:00 pm arrival at the Mumbai airport and drive us to Pune. Leaving the airport around midnight, Mumbai was still a rage of activity with crazy traffic and people up walking the streets. It also offered a glimpse at the often-discussed extreme poverty in Mumbai as every overpass housed people seeking shelter while they slept on the streets. Brian asked the driver how long it would take to get to Pune, and we were shocked when he said we'd be driving 3 to 4 hours. We somehow thought it was about a 1 1/2 hour drive. The drive was surreal. It was single handedly the craziest driving experience we've ever had. I made a poor assumption that driving at night would be free of traffic. Wrong. It was prime truck transit time for bringing goods out of Mumbai and up over the hills. I read that India driving is "sound, spectacle, and experience" – I agree. On a winding, four-lane highway (kind of), our driver skillfully threaded our car between passing trucks. For hours. We’d be driving down a highway and then suddenly come to a full stop to go over speed bumps (on a highway?). Throw in some livestock and dogs to dodge, not to mention an occasional curiously placed barrier, and it was like the best video game car race ever. The trucks themselves were painted with vibrant colors, lots of shining chrome, and large signs saying, “Please honk.” And honk we did. With every passing car or truck we’d let out a string of honks. But we arrived in Pune unharmed. Our driver, hopped up on adrenaline and strong tea, bid us farewell and jumped back in the car for his trip back to Mumbai.

Our invitation to Pooja's wedding activities extended over three days. On Friday after some last minute shopping (Violet needed bangles!), we joined Pooja and her family at the Mehndi Ceremony. This is the ceremony in which the bride is adorned with henna designs on her hands and feet. The women at the celebration can also be hennaed up, so of course we joined in. A bit of a break from tradition, Pooja's fiancé, Akshay, also attended the Mehndi to spend some time and meet Pooja's family and friends. We were so glad to meet him.

While it is mostly women getting the mehndi designs, Tyler wanted a "tattoo" too!

Saturday morning was the Puja Ceremony for Pooja. This is a religious ceremony for only the bride and her family to prepare the bride for marriage. We felt so honored to be invited to attend. We joined the family for a delicious lunch in Pooja’s family home in which it is traditional to serve five sweets. Of course, Violet totally enjoyed this meal! Food crosses culture in so many ways. Just as Brian’s mom overfeeds our friends with Italian food, Pooja’s mother and aunties kept refilling our plates until I thought I’d pop all the beading on my shirt from being stuffed with deliciousness!  We had to announce that we were having seconds (and thirds) so they would actually believe that we had eaten.

After returning to the hotel to relax and research dinner options, we found that a new brewpub recently opened a few minutes ride from the hotel. To get around town, we flagged down an auto-rickshaw (just called an "auto"), India's version of Cambodia's tuk-tuk or Philippines’ tricycle. The autos even have meters, which didn’t stop the drivers from trying to haggle with us as tourists. Traffic in Pune was nowhere near as crazy as driving to Pune, but was still filled with noisy honking. From an auto you see, hear, smell, and just feel a place in a different way than in a car. I really enjoyed these rides. Returning to our hotel we caught some World Cup action at the hotel bar.

Then it was wedding day! The invitation said it was an 11:40 am start, but Pooja explained to us that the family actually arrives at 8:30 am to start the rituals. Again, we were honored to be counted among family. Pooja and her mother were super kind and gave us each a wedding outfit. Several months ago, Pooja asked for our measurements. From getting my blouse made, I had an indiscernible string of 15 numbers, no labels -- just numbers, that I emailed to Pooja. She gave these to her tailor who said that yes, these numbers totally meant something to him. Yep, they must have because the blouse fit amazingly well! However, I panicked when realizing that this sari wasn't pre-sewn. Yikes! How the heck was I supposed to dress myself for the wedding? Answer: YouTube. Thank you “Good Indian Girl” for the easy-to-follow sari how-to videos. And also a thank you to one of the family that pinned me in place after arriving at the wedding.

The wedding was beautiful! The ladies’ saris were a sea of rich and vibrant colors threaded with golds. Pooja’s family made sure we were well fed and also narrated the ceremony, teaching us the significance of the many rituals. Tyler particularly liked the tradition where Pooja’s male cousins gave Akshay’s ear a good pulling – just a way of saying be good to Pooja, 'cause the guys have her back! Congratulations, Pooja and Akshay. And thank you, Pooja for inviting us to your wedding and arranging for all our travel. And a huge thank you to your mother, sister, brother-in-law, and all the many, many family that embraced us and fed us and made us feel at home.

Already, India is all the color, sound, and vibrancy that I imagined. And I can’t help but love a place in which you get decked out in a blue and gold silk dress and a ton of bling then slip on your flip flops. My kind of dress up. Now off to Delhi to begin our tour of north India.

Pooja's family photo. Check out the blond in the bottom right!