Saturday, February 27, 2010

Elephants and Peppers

Luckily, whatever bug I got was shortlived, because I was back to normal yesterday. Hurray for mango juice and rest!

We saw our first elephants yesterday, first in the form of an elephantjam on the highway:

Then we took rides on them. And smelled them. Like a lot of India, the succulent is mixed with the pungent, smell-wise, and elephant don’t exactly smell succulent.

The elephants are how tourists get to Fort Amber, outside Jaipur. Fort Amber is the palace of some 16th century king or other. It’s funny how a few measly centuries of American history can barely be fit into a year of school, but Indians have millennia of history to contend with.

Nonetheless, it was a great palace – lots of great nooks and crannies and hallways and fountains and rooms. It made me want to be a 10 year old boy of a minor wife so I could run around the hallways and spy on people.

We also saw monkeys today. Unlike most other primates at the fort, they were not trying to sell us junky tourist merchandise. They just screech until someone gives them food. What it lacks in dignity, it makes up for in effectivness, because, after all, they are monkeys.

Although I'm making jokes about being accosted by people selling us stuff, I do realize it is a small price to pay for our obvious abundance.  I'll try to post something on that aspect of India a bit later.

There's no way to make this transition unclunky, but we did some shopping today. I read that the US has 900K retail outlets, and that India has 15 million. They've specifically not allowed Walmarts and such in, because most of their retail is small mom and pop shops, like this one, where the guy sells only pickles:

It made me think of the old Saturday Night Live skit about the guy who only sells scotch-tape.  He doesn't even branch out into other kinds of tape.  I think this concept could possibly work in India, where small and specialized is the rule.

We contrasted that by going to a western-style mall, which was exactly like a western-style mall.  No pictures, unfortunately, but it was funny how once we stepped into the mall, half the people were wearing jeans.  We also saw a biker dude with a Northern Illinois Law School sweatshirt on (although it was just a shirt to him -- he had no idea where it was).


I think I'm going to be a terrible food reporter, because my meals are not terribly adventurous. First off, my breakfasts have consisted of rolls and fresh papaya and yogurt. There are a number of Indian dishes usually available, but my spice-tolerance is cumulative during the day, so I have to save it up for dinner.

And yesterday, we ate at the equivalent of a Starbucks for lunch and had sandwiches. Not terribly Indian (although note the chili banana chips). We usually do better, but my spinach corn cheese sandwich was quite good a day after being ill.

Finally, last night we went to an "Asian" restaurant, which we weren’t sure what they meant, but it turned out to be Chinese and a little Thai. Some dishes were familiar, like red and green curry, but others, like chili baby corn (below) and crackling spinach were new.

I think the crackling baby spinach was the hit of the night – they figured out a way to fry spinach into a crackly form and then put sugar on it. Why fried, sugary spinach is not yet available to Americans is a capitalist mystery.

The menu had little peppers next to each item to indicate how spicy each was, which we originally thought was very helpful, until we discovered they had no relation to how actually spicy the dish was. I suppose when one's spice tolerance is at 1000, whether a dish is a 5 or 100 is too little precision to care about.

For instance, my dish of broccoli, baby corn and mushrooms was fairly tasteless until it tried to kill me. It had a red pepper hidden in it and when I bit into it my mouth exploded. I couldn't feel my tongue. My lips could have lit a cigerette. I could have warmed an entire village for a month. It was hot, is what I am saying.

Mama Usha is careful not to let us eat anything that might get us sick. Although highly appreciated, it is sometimes painful, as the when the special lassis (a yogurt drink, often mixed with fruit, like mango) of Jaipur are forbidden because they are made with local water. Oh well.

Tomorrow we are off to the desert, where it is unlikely there will be internet access.  We will be in "tents" with bathrooms, so I don't think it will be that rough. After that we have a night in a hotel in the desert, and then it's Usha's place.  So, it might be a few days before I report again.

Friday, February 26, 2010

India Day 3

Yesterday, I spent some quality time here:

I managed to get some kind of low-grade flu and was shivery and achy, had maybe a slight fever and a definite splitting headache. Usually I get sick the 2nd week of trips, so I guess I’m ahead of schedule.

So, I took a nap while everyone else went out shopping. Then I watched some cricket on TV. Cricket seems to be like baseball, except incomprehensible.

We drove from Agra to Jaipur yesterday. It wasn’t wall-to-wall people -- actually it was mostly farms and villages. I continue to be impressed that bright colors are worn everywhere, including while harvesting potatoes:

Brick-making facilities along the way:

We stopped off at Fatehpur Sikri, where there is a cool Mosque. On the walk there, we encountered stone cutters making wheels:

And, a street barbershop:

Thom always makes friends with the kids trying to sell us stuff. They are everywhere we go, and if there was a word that meant something beyond persistent, they would be that word:

My favorite pictures are always of ordinary people on the street just hanging out.  Here are a few from over the last few days:

Unlike, say, poverty and despair, there is just something funny about monks with videocameras:

Ruth and Dannie are asking about the food, and yes, I've been negligent in my food reporting. We've had some wonderful meals, including one at a your-naan-is-your-silverware place.  I also had the sweetest and best chicken makhani I've ever tasted a few nights ago.

Last night we sat on the ground and ate traditional Rajasthani food (Rajasthan is the state we are currently in, where Usha's family originated), complete with a musical accompaniment. Martha has pictures and I'll post them later.

Actually, everyone else had traditional Rajinstani food -- I took it easy with tomato soup and rice, which was very good for tomato soup and rice. I must admit that the best thing I had yesterday was the mango juice from the hotel mini-fridge and some dried mango I brought with me. The flu plays havoc with the taste buds.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

India Day 2

My international experiences thus far have been in Latin America and Europe, so I was curious how different India might be. So far, after a whopping two days, my shallow, superficial reading is that it is an interesting mix of the two. The British influence is still very apparent, with English as the official language, cricket matches on TV, parliamentary government and a thin layer of administrative courtesy on top of the chaos.

On the other hand, the poverty and the disparity is not an order of magnitude different from what exists in Latin America. It is acute here, as elsewhere, but the main difference I’ve noticed so far is the bright colors of the saris and other clothes that even the very poor wear.

And of course, the number or quantity of people. With over a billion people crammed into an area 1/3 the size of the US, there appears to be nowhere in India were there are not lots and lots of people. I was prepared intellectually for this by people who have come here, but it’s a different thing to actually experience it. We drove from New Delhi to Agra yesterday, which is about 120 miles, and it was choked with traffic the whole way. There were very few times that fields were even visible.

It was quite a fun trip. We got to see just about every form of transportation available to humanity, except for Elephant and Segway. I've decided to now describe Indian driving as “efficient.” Where else could you put cars, bikes, semis, camels, motorcycles, motorized rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, ox carts, tractors, cows and pedestrians all on the same road without there being sensational accidents every half mile? And Segways would fit right in, if anyone had one. If someone is in “your” lane, you simply honk and drive around them, onto the side of the street or into oncoming traffic, if necessary. But really, I think the concept of “your” lane is probably seen as quant here.

But the thing is, it works really well. I think it was Thom who described it as “the rhythm” of traffic that everyone seems to know, and allows pedestrians to cross and rickshaws to weave and cars to squeeze through. Americans would largely either die of heart attacks or create 10 accidents per mile if they tried it, but Indians drivers don’t seem to sweat it. I guess when there aren’t rules, no one gets upset since you can’t break them. That’s a very western way to look at it though – I’m certain that there are rules to it, I just can’t figure out what they are. But it doesn’t stress me out – I figure our driver knows what he’s doing, and I’m just enjoying the spectacle.

Sorry to spend so much time on the driving. Although we’ve done a lot of sightseeing, a lot of our time has also been spent in traffic and the show from the car does leave an impression. Usha laughs whenever someone complains about traffic in the states, and I can see why.

Oh yes, we also saw the Taj Mahal yesterday.

The Taj is one of the Wonders of the World, and it delivers as one. The pictures don’t do it justice -- it was magnificent. It was built to honor one of the Mughal king's wives. I had always thought it was a palace, but it is a mausoleum. Jill, just in case you are getting any ideas, you will be honored with much less marble if you go before I do.

Here's the group on the same bench that Bill Clinton sat on to get his picture taken, along with about a billion other people:

The sad story of the Taj is that the king's youngest son killed all the other brothers for the crown, then imprisoned his father under house arrest a few miles away, where he could look at the Taj everyday, but not go there. This underscores to me what a good decision it was to have only one son.

Here is roughly where the king was imprisoned, and what Clark and Cindy's view would be if Hilary assassinated Lara for the crown.

The transcendent Usha:
(Usha questioned why she was “elusive” in yesterday’s post. But she said I could call her anything I want, so I’ve decided that today she is transcendent, especially after shooing away everyone from the Bill Clinton bench so we could get pictures)

The queens of FMC (on the dais where the King granted his audience):

The clowns of FMC:

And, in case there is any lingering doubt that this is all just a photoshop hoax, here is a picture of me being the jolly green giant and lifting the Taj Mahal from it's top, the concept of which I believe has been around since the invention of the camera:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

India Day One

I now have incontrovertible proof that I am either in India, or am very good at photoshopping. I would like to believe that I am in India.

Here is our hotel:

First stop today was a huge Baha'i temple.  We all agreed that it was more glamorous than First Mennonite, but that we could probably kick their butts in a potluck.

We almost lost Thom to the Baha'is when he read their mission statement, but we shunned him till he came back. God loves a good shunning.

Here's a Moghul ruler tomb from many centuries ago:

The elusive Usha Zehr:

Some mafia dons:
Some adorable kids:
We went to the place were Gandhi was assasinated. These were all his possesssions when he died:

Here's Thom trying yet another religion.  We are going to have to watch that guy.
More adorable kids:
A wee spot of traffic:
The Red Fort, where my camera died:

Not pictured is the rickshaw ride we took and the meal we are about to eat, or the sleep I am going to deeply enjoy.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

India Day One Half

We are here. We flew over Canada, frozen tundra, The Urals, skirted around China, went directly over Kabul, and landed without incident in New Delhi, city of the acrid smog and the crazy taxi driver. In Delhi, you drive on top of the highway lines, not beside them, in case you want to switch lanes in a few seconds or right now. And honk your horn. A lot.

Other than the fun ride to the hotel, there’s not much to report, other than exhaustion. I did sleep a bit on the airplane, which surprised me, because I don't sleep well on planes, trains and buses. Luckily, the plane was not very full and there was no one next to me, so I was able to spread out a bit. My window seat was a bust though, since it was only light during our sleep time, and when I peeked outside, I only saw frozen tundra. I did watch “An Education” on the plane ride over, and despite the terrible sound quality and postage size screen I watched it on, it’s definetly deserving of its Oscar nod.

We arrived at 9:15 pm local time and got to our hotel rooms by 11:00 or so, which was 11:30 am Champaign time. Usha highly recommended we stay in bed until morning, no matter how awake we were. I got to sleep pretty easily, then woke up after what I thought for sure was a full night’s rest. It was 2:00 AM. Then 3:00ish, then 3:30is, 4:00ish, 4:48, 5:12, 5:15, 5:28, 5:35 and decided to call it a night, so to speak.

Also, Usha is famous. There’s some kind of dispute between the Indian agriculural and environmental ministers related to seeds her company produces. The prime minister is stepping into mediate. We asked if there was anything that 5 Americans with several hundred dollars in their pockets could do to help her out, but she declined.

Anyway, I’m obviously not in an India frame of mind, since I don't actually have much to say yet. There is no snow here. It’s very hazy. A shower and breakfast awaits. So, I'll post some pictures.
Here’s our group, minus Usha, who was already busy talking to government ministers in India:

Here’s our first mode of transportation: The Breeze van

Here’s our second mode: The Ell

Here’s Thom and I competing to see who is the mode laid back. I win because my eyes are closed.

Not pictured is our airplane, which I forgot to take a picture of. I think Martha is going to be the one with the good pictures on this trip. I’ll have to snag her memory card at some point.

Also not pictured are Cindy and Clark surviving the plane trip in business class. I must admit that their physical comfort was fully erased by their Mennonite emotional discomfort at riding in business class.

Here’s Thom and Martha enjoying the cab ride to the hotel.

I hope to have actual pictures of India tomorrow, to prove that I really am here, and not just typing in my loft making things up.