Tuesday, 26 August 2014

India

“Cara, do they have cows in the streets like I have seen in the movies?”

“Not where I was in Delhi, but here in Jaipur where I am today, they are all over the place!”

My mom let out a sigh, I know she was wishing she could be with me, just to see some of the sights for herself. “But I’ll find out why mom, it’s really something to see!” The phone fizzled and the connection went dead as it so often does…one of the many prices of living overseas and calling home.

The following blog is about my experience in India…from the truly sweet to the extreme repugnant. I thought I did just about the craziest thing last year by moving half way across the world to Abu Dhabi, to where I knew no one, and although using my 8 years of professional teaching experience, I would feel like I was starting over. Travelling alone, in a country like India, is a completely different risk in itself.

Each section starts off with a quote from my itinerary from the ITL travel agency located in Abu Dhabi. As days went on before I took off, I would often read the itinerary and get real excited for this experience that was to come. After the daily description from the itinerary, I’ll try and give you the play-by-play and see if it matches up to what was expected. Thank you for your time to read!

“Arrive in Delhi, you will be met and assisted by a Tamarind representative and will be transferred to your hotel. India’s capital and major gateway to the country, Delhi is contemporary and a bustling metropolis which successfully combines in its fold of the ancient and the modern. Its strategic location was one of the prime reasons why successive dynasties chose it as their seat of power. New Delhi also reflects the legacy the British left behind. Overnight in Delhi.”

I felt terrible for the representative that I had met in India. I was told in Abu Dhabi that should anything happen to the flight with respect to delays, that the Tamarind company would be informed. The plane waited in Abu Dhabi an extra hour due to baggage delays and late passengers. I am sure that if I were that late, the plane would take off without me. We have learned here that not all passports are created equal. So…I knew that I was going to be late from the start. Landing in India things seemed fine until I was at passport control. Like the UAE, this country seems to be full of meaningless lineups with no one waiting their turn and every piece of paper is ruled by the ‘rubber stamp’. There was another hour wasted. When I met the representative, I was all smiles to see my name in black in white in the sign that he was holding. Not that it was any of my fault, but I apologized for the delay (he wasn’t informed of any of the delays)…he was more than understanding. I was looking forward to getting in the car. Going outside, the heat hit me. It was almost as hot as Abu Dhabi, but with a very sticky humidity. The driver found us shortly and we were off.

I was taken aback by the driving on the other side of the road. I also noticed that on the large city roads on which we were driving on that there were usually 4 lanes paved. Nothing strange until you grasp that there were 6-7 lanes of active traffic! I knew better than to panic. My driver knew the roads…and he maneuvered with the best of them. I had never seen even so much as a fender bender while I was in the country, I was very surprised! Some wore helmets on their motorcycles while others didn’t. I perhaps didn’t realize that I was really out of my familiar territory until I saw a Sikh gentleman riding his motorcycle with a bandit-like bandanna wrapped around his nose and mouth, while being neatly tucked into his turban.

Around the city streets, you would see the odd cow in the road, apartment dwellings, areas of extreme riches, and areas of extreme poverty. I have been in impoverished countries before, but not quite like this. Even in the city core of Puerto Plata or Santo Domingo, you might seem groups of homeless individuals in varying states of health and clothes on their back. Here, there seemed to be communities of homelessness wherever there was space to be had: out in the open, under bridges, along the river shorelines. If the children had clothes on their backs, they seemed to be lucky compared to others.

I was comfortable…that was until we stopped for a red light. Two women of extreme poverty knocked on my window at different times…they were able to see that 2 Indian men were escorting a white tourist. Not knowing the area…and I wasn’t getting any advice from them…I had to keep the window up. I felt terrible turning them away, but I just froze. I once thought that I came from humble beginnings, now I know that I was born into privilege.  

Even though the flight was only three and a half hours (not including the delays), I was exhausted and was thrilled to see that my hotel room was similar to the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr (Abu Dhabi) when it came to the style and quality of the bed. Alone in the room, the implications of travelling alone had begun to sink in. I was still high on adrenaline of the venture, but second guessing my choice of destination based on my car ride from the airport. Feeling the need for familiar food, I went down to the coffee shop to order a small dinner. I was thrilled to see that they had all-day breakfast on the menu. To those of you who know me well, this was big. When finished, I was asked if I would like anything else. I asked, “do you have tea available?” “Tea madame? Yes of course I have tea!” Cara, you are in India. It was a bit of a "face-palm" moment. Tomorrow we would be driving to Jaipur. I was happy to be leaving Delhi.

“Today morning drive to Jaipur (252 kms/5.5 hours) check into your hotel. Jaipur is the gateway to the magnificent and vibrant state of Rajasthan. Evening take a stroll in the markets of Jaipur for the traditional dresses and shoes, curio shops, blue pottery, etc. Overnight in Jaipur.”

At exactly 8:30am as planned, my driver was there in front of the hotel lobby to pick me up to travel to Jaipur for the next few days. I was thrilled to have the same driver throughout my whole experience. We were able to build  up a rapport, and I knew I was safe with him. I learned that he had a daughter and a son, as well as “one expensive wife” as he put it. His children were in their teens, and his wife worked in the home. They lived in the countryside. He has an apartment in Delhi so that he can work in the city. His wife has no education or job. Things are very simple still in the countryside.

As we drove on, it was very clear that each area and region of the country can differ greatly from one end to the next. Although being from the simple countryside, my driver, Mr. Palakdhari, knew every inch of his route. If the land was changing in value he would let me know. At the site of industry, it would mean that rent has just risen for the residents. Before long we were in between major cities and in the long path of rural India. Cows of course, are a holy site. I asked about the farmers. Unfortunately, their lives are like farmers elsewhere. They cultivate the land, take care of the livestock, and feed the country. The fruits of their labours are exploited at the market place by clever businessmen and they are left to make ends meet…maybe. This has gone on, and will continue for generations.

We came upon one town that had a monorail system above us as we drove under its bridge. It was as if the area tried to modernize itself, but it left the people behind. Also on our route I discovered the first of many toll booths that we would have to pass. I asked if the tolls collected from passengers were used in any way to help the citizens. Although Mr. Palakdhari had limited English skills, his laughing response told me the answer. I asked the same question later on with one of the tour guides. His answer was more positive, but it felt scripted.

Other than the main roads, there really is nothing around in the country areas. That means that if traffic stops, you are stopped indefinitely. Drivers were stopped within their lanes and in between them. Now…all of these people had to somehow turn around in this mess. It was like watching clever tetris pieces; somehow the drivers were careful around each other and we were able to turn and go back (yes, driving in the opposite direction we should have been driving). On-coming traffic slowed and turned with the rest of us. Off to our right, we noticed a car stuck on a shallow median. The car was trying to cross over onto a slip road to try and get around the traffic. My driver got out and guided the others. Their small sedan was just too small to take it. Sizing up the SUV we were in, my driver got back in his seat and took on the median himself. Slowly and carefully we made it onto the slip road and we were again on our way.

“Look madame, see that milk truck? It says ‘milk not for sale’.”
“Why would there be a milk truck with milk that isn’t for sale?”
“I don’t know madame, it makes no sense to me at all! It’s very strange!”

Looking back, I don’t know why this was so funny to me at the time. Perhaps you had to be there. It was as if Mr. Palakdhari, a lifetime citizen of the country had no idea of some of the logic in his own country. For those of you with me in the UAE, I’m sure you can relate to a number of similar examples here. I just had to share this part.

I was looking forward to this walking of the nearby markets in Jaipur as the itinerary suggested. I was met at the hotel with one of the travel agent’s representatives to make sure that my check-in went okay. I was told that I probably had another hour or so of proper daylight to be out of the gates of the hotel area. After that, I was told to be sure that I was in the hotel. After the long drive and traffic from Delhi, I was happy to stay in the hotel, get on wifi, and call home.

“Today, enjoy a full-day sightseeing trip of Jaipur, also known as the “Pink City”. The city of Jaipur is the capital of the state of Rajasthan, famous for its colourful culture, forts, palaces, and lakes. Jaipur owes its name to the founder of the city, warrior king Sawai Jai Singh II. Visit the Amber Fort. The best way to explore the fort is to ride up to in on elephant back. Prominent structures inside the fort are Diwan-i-Aam, adorned with latticed galleries, the Ganesh Pol, with a beautiful printed image of Lord Ganesh, and the stunning Sheesh Mahal, a hall decorated with thousands of tiny mirrors. Later, stop to photograph the beautiful Hawa Mahal, also known as the “Palace of the Winds.” This beautiful façade with its ornately carved latticework was designed so the ladies of the palace could look out onto the streets unobserved. Later you will visit the City Palace…again, a synthesis of Rajasthani and Mughal styles. The museums here showcase rare and ancient manuscripts, arms dating back to the 15th century, and costumes of erstwhile royalty. Later, visit the Jantar Mantar Observatory, comprising of geometric devices for measuring time, and tracking stars in their orbits. Evening at leisure. Overnight in Jaipur.”

Elephant ride? Yes please! The driver picked me up at exactly the time he said he would with my tour guide, Smer. The Amber Fort was a truly magnificent sight to see. I was equally impressed with the knowledge of my tour guide, and the way he would make sure he was close enough but without making me feel uncomfortable, in order to show that I was his client, a signal that kept most of the locals selling souvenirs from hassling me. I appreciated it! The queue was long, but soon I was on the back of the elephant that would take me up to the entrance of the fort. I had never heard of the Amber Fort, and I think it’s one of the most underrated sites to see in Northern India. The fort contains numerous examples of Hindu, Islamic, and Turkish architectural styles. The purpose of this was to keep everyone at the time of its construction happy. If something was constructed in only Hindu architecture, it ran the risk of being destroyed by those of opposing faiths, particularly the Moghuls who were Muslim. My favourite parts of the Amber Fort were the animals embedded in the hand carved architecture, and the palace of the mirrors…thousands of tiny mirrors displaced in splendour. Coming out of the fort, things got very crowded. I asked the tour guide to slow down. He was a quick and tiny person! He reminded me that I was his responsibility and that he wouldn’t lose me. I told him he had an easy job as I’m the one who sticks out, and I lose him quickly!

Getting back into the car, we quickly realized we were going nowhere fast. I had come to India during their holidays, so people from all over were coming to see their nation’s beloved wonders. You had the same traffic with the cars as before, but now you have elephants from the tour, cows, dogs, and goats walking among the traffic. They didn’t seem to mind being in between the cars and among the people, and the humans were being just as patient!

If travelling in India (or I assume in many other parts of the world), your tour guide is going to try hard to take interest and get to know  you. Just be cautious. A few moments after I was asked if I liked to read, I found myself within a bookstore. I said I liked the semiprecious stones of the area, I found myself in front of a jeweler. Don’t be afraid to say no. I was happy, however, to find out in the book I purchased just why in the world the cows insist on remaining among traffic! (1. The cow is a sacred animal, the people of India are not allowed to tie them up; should they do so, they have to repent at all temples throughout the country! 2. The exhaust fumes from the traffic act like a bug repellent 3. The exhaust fumes cause them to get high!!!!) I couldn't wait to give my mother these answers on the next phone call.

That day we saw a few other sites including the “Palace of the Winds” and the Observatory. It was incredible to see their instruments from hundreds of years ago being accurate on the time and position of the planets and their orbits. Afterward, we were to see another palace, however, I was beat. My tourguide seemed to have taken a little offense but I was exhausted from the walking and the heat. I thought it must have been close to 4pm..the day felt long and I was getting hungry. When we got back to the car and I saw it was only 12:30pm! It was time to rest in for the day.

“Today, drive to Agra enroute visit Fatehpur Sikri, which was build by Emperor Akbar and is home to many historical buildings. Akar wanted to make Fatehpur Sikri his headquarters; however, he had to abandon it due to shortage of water. The Tomb of Sheik Salim Chisht 1 enshrines the burial place of the Sufi saint who lived a religious life there. Today, Fatehpur Sikri is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After your sightseeing, proceed to Agra (235 kms/5 hours). On arrival in Agra, check in to your hotel. Later visit the Taj Mahal…a mausoleum built as a symbol of Emperor Shah Jehan’s devotion to his beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal. Considered an architectural marvel, its construction took thousands of workers over 21 years to complete. Return to hotel. Overnight in Agra.”

Once again, my driver was right on time. He would take me from Jaipur to Agra, picking up the next tour guide at Fatephur Sikri. On the way, he asked me if I would like to see how they make carpets in the countryside. I was intrigued, of course! The gentleman in the humble building draped with linens to keep the sun’s strong rays out was on his knees on top of a loom, almost unaware of our presence. He was kind, allowed me to take some pictures and showed me his work. I got to feel the material and ask him questions. Although happy to have been there, I realized I was just taken for a shopping trip. I told the driver that I was sorry, but I wasn’t about to purchase a carpet! Neither man was pushy and I thanked them for their time…I was happy to be on the road again.

We pulled over to the side, and before I knew it, my hand was being shaken by the next tour guide from his seat in the front with the driver. We were very close to the gates of Fatephur Sikri. I was about to discover another wonder of this country. The driver let us off at the main area, and then we had to actually take a shuttle into the inner gates as it was restricted to automobiles. We waited in the heat for a little while before the bus had come. The passengers were numerous coming off. I had some space for about a minute after I got on. All spaces were full, people were standing all along the aisle, and a few were hanging from the door rails. Not uncommon.

My tourguide and I made our way into the gates, and he gave me time on my own to wander about. As I began to step away from him, we were approached by a young gentleman with a camera. He had said that his friends had a wager, that he should try to get his picture taken with me. I was flattered and then found it completely humorous when my tour guide had told me that in the Indian culture, they enjoyed having their picture taken with people of different colours. Whether or not that is true, or he just said that to make me feel better, I wasn’t sure. It was going to happen a few more times along the way. I never minded. All my life these people were exotic to me, and now the tables have turned!

After this tour, we were on our way to the main part of Agra so that I could check into my hotel. It was 4:30pm, and they were going to pick me up an hour later. In the meantime, I needed to check in, charge my phone and camera battery, inquire about the wifi, and manage to eat something. Unlike the other hotels, this one didn’t have a ‘coffee shop’. I needed something fast. I asked the representative and she explained that a Costa coffee shop was near the hotel… “just outside the gate, go straight and go left”. As soon as I passed the guard, four rickshaws, some motarized and some not, stopped to ask me where I was going. I suddenly felt very claustrophobic! I changed my mind as I couldn’t think how I was going to cross a road! I quickly ran back to my room and ordered a small pizza from room service. With 2 minutes to spare, I gobbled down what I could, and met the tour guide and driver for the very anticipated Taj Majhal.

From the gold and semi-precious stones to the finely in-scripted Quar’an verses shining in glory, the Taj Mahal mesmerized myself and thousands of other tourists within moments. I was quiet for most of this tour, taking it in. My tour guide thought there may have been something wrong, lol, but I assured him I was just appreciating the moments. Before we left, I was in a few more photos for other tourists. I have to wonder in all of the social media and networking, if I’ll ever see those pictures!

“This morning after breakfast explore the city of Agra. Visit the Red Fort, which was commissioned in 1565 by Akbar. The beautiful yet forbidding structure is a handsome example of Mughal architecture. You will then visit Sikandra, which is also a mausoleum of the great Emperor Akbar. Akbar designed his own mausoleum as a perfect blend of Hindu, Christian, Islamic, Buddist and Jain designs and motifs, in keeping with his religious tolerance and secular views. Later drive to Delhi (203 kms/5 hours) and check in to your hotel. Overnight in Delhi.”

Now, I wouldn’t want to sound bored at this point…but another fort and another mausoleum. Both in the form of palaces like the rest. A few pieces really came together during these tours. From the Red Fort, you can see the majestic Taj. This fort was of particular interest when it came to its protection from enemies. As we walked across the drawbridge, it was explained that down below in the wet mote, there used to be alligators to warn off enemies…that is, if the lions, tigers and bears from the dry mote didn’t get them first. The Wizard of Oz moment made me giggle, but the tourguide didn’t understand the reference. We continued through the gates after the drawbridge (sorry, no portcullis!). I wish that I could have all of my students I’ve ever had through our medieval times unit come through with me. Once inside, we were on quite the grooved incline. I learned the grooves were there for the horses, or else they would slide (something Tara and I learned the hard way in our tour of Petra, Jordan). The steeper slope along the way was again to ward of enemies. Had they gotten through the lions, tigers, bears, and alligators, the guards would be able to see them from the top and roll large stones down on them, Indiana Jones style!

Almost as intriguing as the Taj, the next mausoleum, Sikandra stood in grandeur of it’s unique blend of the marble and sandstone. Designed by himself, Emperor Akbar, a true example of tolerance with all religions, lays peacefully.

Our last stop was an embroidery museum. I was to be shown masterpieces by a man named Shams (Arabic for sun). He was a master of embroidery, that is for certain. The following link is to my favourite piece. It was said that he had a dream of Jesus as a shepherd with a number of sheep around him. Although he was Muslim, his vision was surely that of Christ. The work took about 9 years to complete, and after doing so, he went blind. No patterns, no instructions. Pure work that was only complete when he was satisfied:

We said goodbye to our tour guide. It turned out that he was originally from Jaipur, so we were able to converse about some of the sights that I had seen. He had moved to Agra 5 years prior and loves it so much more as there are more tourists for his business. Soon, Mr. Palakdhari and I were on our way back to Delhi. Considering my first night in Delhi, I was a little nervous to be spending a full day outside with a tour guide.

“This morning after breakfast, proceed for a full day combined city tour of the Old and New Delhi, the modern capital of India. This fascinating city has been in existence since the 6th century BC. Visit Jama Masjid, which is the largest mosque in India, commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan. The courtyard of the mosque can hold about 25,000 worshippers. Enjoy a rickshaw ride in Chandni Chowk, the busiest market in Old Delhi…noisy, chaotic and uniquely Indian. Drive past Red Fort, President House, India Gate and several other government buildings in Edwin Lutyen’s modern Delhi before you head to Rajghat, the memorial to Mahatma Ghandi that marks the spot where he was cremated in 1948. Later visit Humayun’s Tomb, commissioned by Humayun’s wife Hamida Banu Begum in 1562. It was the first garden tomb built in the Indian sub-continent where the Persian architect used red sandstone on a large scale. Evening at leisure, overnight in Delhi.”

OK, I was surprised. This day was my favourite! I was called over the phone by my guide. It was striking to hear a woman’s voice on the line. Today was going to be much different than I had thought. She spoke to me in such a way that she wanted for me to not only know about her city, but to know her city as a woman. She was dressed in Indian cultural wear, but without a bindi. She explained her family circumstance, and unfortunately, although only 25, she was a widow. Widows were forbidden to wear their bindi. Despite her circumstances, she was cheerful and happy to be working with tourists. We did everything on the itinerary and then some.

First, we visited the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. I shuttered as I walked up to the set of stairs leading into the place. Although intrigued by the mosque as all the other monuments, I was getting tired of the monuments. I was looking forward to getting into the markets with the tour guide. The rickshaw ride was noisy, unbalanced, nerve wracking in traffic…but I loved it just the same. We went through the old market place where you could find just about everything on wholesale. Indians and expats alike were walking the streets and going about their business. There were those who were juicing fresh fruit to customers, while others were strapping new HP printers onto the back of a mo-ped. Some businesses had glorious fabrics for sarees, jewelry glistened in the windows of others.

We drove back into New Delhi. If New Delhi was chaotic, Old Delhi was chaotic with no rules or regulations, and no laws enforced! New Dehli suddenly seemed calm. We drove past numerous government buildings, all under tight security as terrorism is a national threat. Down the main road was the India Gate. The driver offered for me to get out and take a proper picture, but when it is very busy, I’m not one to feel comfortable to get out of the car, so I apologize for many of the in-car pictures. I’m not sure why, but I was surprised for a moment when my tourguide told me that the India Gate was actually a WWI memorial with 85,000 names of Indian men inscribed reflecting their service and sacrifice in the Great War. You don’t read about the Indian contribution from our Canadian textbooks. Of course, I quickly realized; as India was a colony of Britain, the country was very active in making their contributions.

The next site had my driver and tour guide shocked and disappointed for it was closed. Neither of them had seen it like this and there didn’t appear to be a reason why. It wasn’t busy so we were able to walk along the gateway and took pictures from outside the property. This was the site of where Mahatma Ghandi was cremated. She had asked if I had heard about him. I may not have heard of the Indian contribution in the Great War, I said. But yes, Ghandi I’ve heard of.

Next we were off to lunch. I had asked her to take me to whichever she recommended. There were the odd American restaurants, but nothing like the UAE. I had requested to eat something local as long as she promised to keep it mildly spicy. She had promised that she would protect me from “Delhi Belly”. The butter naan bread and lentils were still spicy to my taste buds but were delicious just the same. I had a mango lassi drink to help put out the flames (it had the consistency of a smoothie). The restaurant was very modern, very air conditioned, and the staff was very pleasant. I had the leftovers wrapped up. There was another monument to see, but she had an alternative for me. She knew my trip was full of monuments and that I was ready to see something a little bit different. Something that I wanted to become more involved in, rather than be an observer.

She had taken me to the 2 most beautiful places of worship that I had ever seen. If you can imagine what it might be like inside Aladdin’s lamp, you could be close to what it was like to be in the Sikh temple of Delhi. Plush carpet welcomed our washed feet, and our eyes were dazzled by the gold plated walls and the luxurious tapestries along the other walls. A service had just ended, and we were welcomed to sit with the other worshipers as the book of the Gurus was still being read aloud. I was stunned. She took me all around. I knew I stuck out even more than before, but it didn't bother me much. Not only being whiter than anyone there, I was also required to wear a bright orange bandanna. We came around to the outside where water was poured into my hands and we were to drink. The Sikh temple and its congregation not only welcomed me, but also my tour guide. She was also a tourist in their temple as she was Hindu. I quickly took a few pictures of the outside (photography was prohibited on the inside) and we were off to our next stop.

Bright, beautiful, and full of life were the idols and worshipers inside the Hindu Temple. Photography of the idols were forbidden. My camera and phone had to be locked up before entering. They were stunning. Each idol’s significance was explained. I was even welcomed to be adorned with a bindi by a kind man in the middle of the temple.
In one day…I was in a mosque, a Sikh temple, and a Hindu temple. The religious historian in me was very happy. Full from lunch and exhausted from walking, we got back in the car and headed toward the hotel. My driver would then pick me up at 1am late into the night. I had a chance to pack, sleep, and shower before taking off again for Abu Dhabi.

“Today you will be met and assisted by our representative to the International airport to board the flight for your onward destination.”
Another representative met me in the hotel in the early morning after check out and we left for the airport. He was able to stay with me until just before check-in. The airport in Delhi is very large and modern. I was thrilled to find out that the kind lady behind the desk upgraded me to business class but loathed the fact that I was stuck in security for an extra 40 minutes waiting for a baggage tag for my purse (NO other airport has EVER requested a baggage tag for my purse). I was thrilled to find a Starbucks but then 3 people took advantage and cut their way in front of me. I didn’t have the strength to mention anything. Business class made up for it. Although the flight was short, I basked in the glory of being able to recline my seat completely into a bed with a nice comforter and supportive pillows. Breakfast was made fresh and a la carte.

Now back in Abu Dhabi and into the routine of school with my colleagues (students start next week), I am able to enjoy my trip to India in photos and in telling stories more than I was while there. I am no longer worried about being on time for the driver or getting lost in the streets on my own. I can tell people how amazing the sites and sounds were, and how invigorating it was to travel as usual. Especially here in the UAE, where many colleagues are not able to travel on their own…anywhere, I am blessed to be able to continue to enjoy the world. Who might join me next?











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