Archive | November, 2010

I Know Why Celebrities Beat Up Paparazzi

30 Nov

First the first time, probably in my entire life, I want men NOT to notice me.  I began to feel this way not long after arriving in India and my trip to the Taj Mahal only confirmed my new desire to go unnoticed.  There’s no way to be invisible, or at best blend in, when you’re a relatively tall, blond girl in India.  In Mumbai, I’ve learned to deal with the stares, stares that last for what seems like an eternity.  Most of the time, I just ignore it, look the other way, or look at the ground as I walk.  Other times, I want men to know that I know they’re staring, but I don’t want to come across as suggestive,  so I’ll stare back, meet their eyes, tilt my head to the side, and raise my eyebrows, like, “Can I help you?”  But, most of the time I just let it go.

And that’s because, most of the time, staring is all that’s involved.  But, not at the Taj Mahal.

Johnney, our guide. Gotta love the dye job!

I had been looking forward to seeing the Taj Mahal for a while.  I didn’t go there three years ago when I was in India during Semester at Sea, so made up my mind that I would see it this time.  So, I was elated when Kanika’s family planned a day trip from Delhi to Agra.  We met our guide a couple of miles from the entrance, and he took us to the less-crowded East Gate for entry.

After passing through security, we walked into the courtyard and then up to the Great Gateway.  It was a hazy afternoon, but I could still see the Taj Mahal through the archways.  It’s breathtaking.  No picture can ever do the Taj Mahal  justice (especially not the ones I took that day with all of the fog).

While writing this post, I took a break to read what a guidebook that I once worked on had to say about visiting the Taj Mahal: Enter through any of the three gates to the complex and you leave chaos for order.  Not sure who fact-checked that, but, in the words of Shaggy, “It wasn’t me.”  We made our way through the Gateway and into the garden area, where thousands of other visitors were making their way toward the entrance of the Taj Mahal.   There isn’t much order when everyone is clamoring around the same bench in the middle of the garden for a great photo op.   There was no line, just groups of people waiting for others to get off the bench so they could shove their way on to it.  “You’re just going to have to run over there,” Kanika said, as more and more people gathered around.   I waited for a couple to take their last picture, then hurried to sit down just before another couple could.  I went first, then Kanika joined me, then her brother, and finally her parents.  We didn’t rush; we were at the Taj Mahal–we took advantage!

We then made our way to the mausoleum, which houses the tombs of Shah Jahan and his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.  As Kanika and I stopped to take more pictures, her family and I began to notice Indian men taking pictures of me as well.  Sometimes they would stand behind me and try to insert themselves into the shot; other times, they would just stand right by Kanika as she was taking my picture and snap one of their own.  So, Kanika’s family took on the role of bodyguards, forming a little barrier around me, trying to keep the strangers with the cameras away.

Toward the end of the hour  or two we spent there, though, it became annoying.  Some guys would just stand in my path as I was walking or trying to take a picture and hold their cell phone cameras up to my face.  Kanika’s parents, who I have always known to be both cool, calm, and collected, would get so mad and yell at them in Hindi.  I had no idea what they were saying, but the guys with the cell phones surely did.  We would get a few minutes’ reprieve until the next group started following.

These incidents though, no matter how annoying, could not spoil being at the Taj Mahal.  It is, after all, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.  And, our guide Johnney, an energetic Indian man with orange hair dyed with henna, was a font of knowledge about the place.  Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal to honor his third and most beautiful and beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child (ouch!).  On her deathbed, she asked him for three things: 1) That he would build a great monument in her honor that all the world would come to see.  2) That he never marry again.  3) That he look after her children.

She was a little demanding, if you ask me, but he did as she wished, and hired 20,000 workers to build the Taj Mahal,

"No cameras allowed" of the tombs. But, if you ever go, take a picture. Everyone does!

which took 22 years to complete.  And, he did look after her children, but that didn’t turn out too well for him.  Not long after completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan was captured by one of his sons and put under house arrest until his death, as his sons battled for the throne.  After his death, Shah Jahan was laid to rest right next to his wife in the mausoleum.  His tomb, positioned to the left of hers, is the only non-symmetrical element in all of the Taj Mahal complex.

On the way out of the Great Gateway, after taking a few more pictures and after Kanika’s parents ran off a few more unwelcome photographers, a group of giddly little girls surrounded me and pointed to me, then to Kanika’s camera.  They wanted a picture with me.  I find it fascinating that Indian children want pictures with me, even though they will never see them.  But, because they were adorable little girls, and not creepy men with camera phones, I happily said yes.

Great Gateway

The minarets were build with a slight lean outward, so that if any natural disaster caused them to fall, they would do so away from the mausoleum.

Artwork surrounding the tombs. 52 different colors within one flower.

archways in the soldiers' quarters

Electric-powered rickshaws that go from parking lots to the entry gates. Gas-powered vehicles are not allowed near the Taj Mahal, in an effort to cut down on air pollution.

Sightseeing at Sunset

29 Nov

Our first day of sightseeing continued with a sunset visit to Delhi’s Lotus Temple.  It’s the most recently-built of the   world’s seven Baha’i Temples.  After depositing our shoes in a bag and leaving them with the attendant, we took a few pictures outside, then lined up to go inside the temple.  Before we went in we were told by a temple volunteer that no talking and picture-taking were allowed inside, as the temple is a place for prayer and reflection.  We went inside, and sat on a bench in the middle of temple.  Aside from the whining child somewhere in the huge space, the temple was completely quiet and peaceful.  I felt like I could have sat still for hours.  After a few minutes, though, we were off.  There was still plenty to do.

Next on our list was to grab a bite to eat.  We headed to Khan Chacha in Khan Market for some kebabs.  We passed  through the unassuming entryway and  took the stairs, arriving at the counter to order.  We then found a place to sit upstairs, and waited for our number to be called.  The kebab rolls were fantastic; the chicken seekh kebabs (which I did not order) were juicy and just the right amount of spicy.  The chicken biryani, which I did order, was also very good; however, I regretted not ordering the kebabs, so a few days later, I took a friend back to Khan Chacha for lunch.

From there, we piled back into the car and headed to India Gate, a war memorial.  Over 13,000 names are inscribed on the monument, honoring soldiers who died during World War I and the Third Afghan War.  Under the arch is  the Amar Jawan Jyoti (the Flame of the Immortal Warrior), which honors those killed in the 1971 Indo-Pak War.

Could they look any more excited about ice cream?

That night, just in front of the monument, the Indian Navy Band was performing.  We got there just in time to hear them play a few songs.  We then walked over to the row of ice cream vendors for a snack.  After we ordered ours, a couple of little girls came up to us with their hands out.  Kanika’s dad asked them if they wanted an ice cream and let them pick what kind they wanted.  They hurried off, and within 10 seconds, at least a dozen kids were swarming him, asking for ice cream.  Like a good sport, he bought some for them all, then we made our way back to the car before another group arrived.

Travel guides will tell you that you shouldn’t give begging children money or gifts, because word will spread, and dozens of children will surround you, expecting you to do the same for them.  But, how can you deny a child ice cream?  Especially when, in India, it costs just cents.

Flame of the Immortal Warrior

Ice cream vendors at India Gate

Kanika's dad buying ice cream for a group of girls

Northern Exposure

26 Nov

On Sunday, I left Mumbai early in the morning, as rain poured down (despite monsoon season being over), for the domestic airport to catch my flight to Delhi.  Two hours later, I landed in the capital city, where it was cool, sunny, and humidity-free.  I knew Delhi and I were going to get along just fine!

Kanika and her family picked me up outside of baggage claim.  It was so good to see them!  I had been pretty homesick for a few days leading up to my Delhi trip, and I was excited to spend time with a friend from home.

From the airport, we went to meet Kanika’s father in a village where he used to live.  We arrived at the house of one of his childhood friends, who is now a politician.  We visited with him and his children in his home, then he offered to drive us to a temple.  This wasn’t just any Hindu temple; it was one that he had built for the community with his own money.  The main temple was a white marble structure, and scattered around the temple complex were 20+-foot statues of Hindu gods and goddesses.  And, that temple was just one of eight he had built.

Once we and Kanika’s father arrived back at his friend’s house, we piled into the car and headed back to Delhi.  It was already after noon and we had plans to do some sightseeing.  Our first stop was Qutb Minar.  Completed in the 13th century, it is India’s tallest brick minaret, standing at 238 feet, only 5 feet shorter than the Taj Mahal. (Photos from Qutb Minar follow.)

Tomorrow, I will have pics from the rest of our day, when we visited the Lotus Temple and India Gate.

Inscriptions on the minaret

Home Invasion

18 Nov

What am I most afraid of?  What sends me into a fit of hysteria at the sight of it?  Go on, take a guess.

Just searching Google images for a picture of one made my stomach turn and almost brought me to tears.

If you said a lizard and/or gecko, you would be correct and know me very well!  So, let me tell you a little story about a now-dead lizard (or gecko, I don’t know.  I didn’t look that closely).

A couple of nights ago, I came home from a weekend at a friend’s place.  I opened the door to my flat, and the light from the entryway spilled into the doorway.  That’s when I saw something scurry across the floor.  I opened the door wider, recognized what it was immediately, saw it run behind the door to my shower, and then I screamed, “Ahhhhhh, shit!”  Then, whispering to myself, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, what do I do? What do I do?  I stood in the doorway of my apartment, frozen in fear.

“Stephanie?  What happened?” I heard Suhas calling from downstairs.  “There’s a lizard in my apartment and I”m totally freaked out and I don’t know what to do how do you get them out of here?”  Phew.  I took a breath.  Silence.  I figured Suhas had ignored me–I mean, really, who is scared of lizards?–and was leaving me to deal with this on my own.  I had to psyche myself up to deal with the problem at hand, especially since the intruder was in the exact location I needed to be–the shower.

I stepped into the apartment and turned on every light.  Then I just stood there.  Psyching myself up was not going well.  I heard Suhas coming upstairs.  Thank God. He carried a can of bug spray and a broom.  “Where is it?” he asked.  “Behind the door to the bathroom…I mean, the shower,” I said, pointing.  He calmly walked in, looked behind the door, and a series of spraying and pounding with the broom ensued.  I was nauseous.  “Did you kill it?  Is it dead?” I asked when the spraying and pounding ceased.  “Yes, yes,” he said, as he disposed of the dead lizard.

“Do you get these in your house downstairs,” I asked.  “Oh, yes,” he said.  “They live here too.”  I laughed nervously.

“Any more intruders?” Suhas asked the next morning as I left the house.  “No, no more.  And, thank you for getting rid of that one last night,” I said.  “I will definitely be getting some bug spray on my way home today.”

“You should let them live,” Suhas said, “They just crawl around.  They’re harmless.”

Harmless.  Arachnophobes, are spiders harmless?  Hemophobes, is a paper cut harmless?  Some of you may say so, but when it comes to lizards, no one is going to convince me they’re harmless.

I am now armed with a 22-oz. can of bug spray but still not the courage to get close enough to one to actually kill it.

One Month India-versary

15 Nov

A month ago today, I arrived in Mumbai.  And, what a difference a few weeks make.  At first, I felt like time was going by so slowly, and now, I couldn’t even tell you how we got to mid-November.  This past week, I even managed to complete my rite of passage as an outsider.  I survived some of the worst intestinal issues of my life.  That little incident in the restaurant was nothing. (And, if you don’t want to read about diarrhea, then skip the next three paragraphs).

This past week, since returning from Goa, I spent most of my time in my room curled up in a little ball.  Let me just say, I’ve had diarrhea before, but I have never experienced anything like this.  I don’t know what labor pains feel like (thankfully), but if they are anything close to what I felt this week–like all of my insides were squished together, knotted up, and set on fire–then I may just have my tubes tied and plan on adopting all of my future children.

For the first two days, I was completely stubborn and didn’t take medicine.  On day three, I began taking Lomotil, assuming a prescription-strength anti-diarrhea medicine should take care of things.  WRONG.   By day four, after a friend told me that she had the same problems for two weeks after arriving in India, I began taking Cipro, a super-strong antibiotic that kicked diarrhea’s ass.  Seriously, a word of advice to anyone traveling abroad: Make sure you get a supply of  antibiotics from your doctor back home to bring on your trip in case something like this happens.

By the weekend, I was ready to honor my social commitments, and I must say, I really enjoy that the expats here are not shy about swapping stories of diarrhea over glasses of wine.

On another note, I have a few things I’d like to share with all of you before I call it a night.  First of all, a list of things (in no particular order) I miss about living in the U.S. (aside from the most important– being close to my family and friends):

1) Body Pump/ teaching exercise classes
2) a clothes dryer
3) public restrooms equipped with toilet paper
3) Target
4) Jif peanut butter (extra crunchy, preferably)
5) hamburgers
6) the ability to wear a short skirt without enduring an unbearable amount of stares

Secondly, a few things I have yet to get used to:

1) The head bobble.  Hey, rickshaw driver, will you take me to the Jain Temple? (Head bobble).  Is it a yes? Is it a no?  I don’t know.  Tonight, I asked a rickshaw driver to take me home, got the head bobble, assumed it meant yes, and hopped in the backseat.  He proceeded to drive a few feet, asked me again where I wanted to go, then stopped the rickshaw.  “Deonar?” he yelled.  “Yes, yes,” I said,  “No, no Deonar.”

Watch this six-second video, and you’ll see what I mean about how confusing the head bobble can be (even Indians have admitted that can be hard to interpret, so I give up on trying to figure this one out).

 

2) Hand holding.  I rarely see men and women holding hands or having any physical contact in public.  But, it is extremely common to see men walking around with their arms on each others’ shoulders or holding hands.  It’s not a sexual thing; it’s a sign of friendship .  Women are also very affectionate with each other in public.  But, in the States, if I saw two men holding hands, I would assume they  were a homosexual couple.  So, I hope you can see why this is weird for me, even though I am trying to be culturally sensitive.  I understand the cultural difference, but I am still taken aback a bit every time I encounter it.

3) Traffic.  I am amazed that I have yet to witness or be involved in a traffic accident here. “The traffic just has a rhythm here,” one of my expat friends said to me once.  I guess I just haven’t gotten in tune with that rhythm yet.  Somehow, a road with three marked lanes becomes a six-lane highway.  Rickshaws squeeze between buses, motorcycles weave in and out the cars, ricks, and buses, and everyone cuts each other off, coming within just millimeters of hitting something but somehow avoiding it.  I probably do most of my praying in the back of a rickshaw.

For the most part, though, this city is growing on me.  It’s so high-energy and forces me to be alert, aware ,and in the moment all the time.  In D.C., I would listen to my ipod on the metro and as I walked down the street; I never bring my ipod on the trains or buses here or use it while walking around.  Believe me, even when I want to, there’s no drowning India out.  She won’t have any of it!

 

Back to Reality

12 Nov

A Facebook status update my one of my friends: “Back from Goa, unfortunately.  Was Mumbai really this crazy?”
A reply: “Coming back from Goa is like having a week full of Mondays.”

I must admit, one of the best things about being in Palolem, Goa, was eing treated like royalty.  I don’t know if some of my expat friends had the same experience in north Goa, but in the south, we were spoiled.  On our first night at the Palolem Beach Resort, we made ourselves at home at the beachside restaurant.  When undecided about what to order, the servers brought out platters of the fresh catches-of-the-day.  They then agreed to marinate our selections for a couple of hours and have it ready for when the rest of the group joined us for dinner.  In the meantime, we lounged at the table with drinks in hand as the sun set over the Arabian Sea.

The next day, a group of us walked down the beach to find a suitable spot to park ourselves for the day.  Some people wanted direct sunlight for the optimum tanning experience, while others (myself included)  wanted chairs and umbrellas to avoid direct sunlight at all costs.  We got to Cafe del Mar, threw our towels on some chairs, and headed to the bar to order drinks.  We noticed that there were men still doing construction on the bar and tables and working to get the bar ready for the beginning of beach season.  Kennedy, the manager of Cafe del Mar, assured us that construction would be complete by the time the evening crowd arrived (it wasn’t).

In the meantime, some European women came back for their chairs that we had since claimed.  We gave them up, and before we could decide what to do, the staff from the bar began pulling more chairs and umbrellas out of storage and setting them up for us on the beach.  And, when the rest of the group joined us later, chairs and umbrellas were set up for them as well.  We spent the whole day there (and the next day too), made friends with Kennedy, and requested to have a table reserved for us later, promising we’d return after a couple of hours for dinner, drinks, and hookah.

Cafe del Mar

Let me explain that making reservations isn’t as easy at it sounds.  When I called to reserve the room at the Palolem Beach Resort three weeks ago, the receptionist told me to call back two days before my arrival to confirm the booking.  “But, I will have the room, right?”  I asked.  “Oh, yes, but just call to confirm.”  Sometimes, or most times, certain processes in India don’t make any sense, but I decided to go with it.  I called the next week to inquire about airport pickup (which I knew we wouldn’t use), then double checked that the reservation was still on file.  Then, I called two days before arrival to make sure there would be enough towels in the room and to confirm the reservation.  So, I didn’t understand, why, five minutes before boarding the plane to Goa, I received a call from the receptionist asking me if I’d be checking in that day. UMMM, YES!!

So, you can understand why, when Kennedy promised to hold a table for us while we went back to our rooms to shower and change for dinner, I was skeptical that he would follow through.  But, he did, and we kept our end of the deal, ordering plenty of  food, drinks, and hookah before moving on to the only other club we could find on the beach.

***

Tonight, I met up with a friend who had gone to north Goa the same time I was in Palolem.  We didn’t go into specific details of our trips, but we both agreed on one thing:  Maybe we shouldn’t have gone to Goa so soon after arriving in Mumbai.  Going to Goa for a weekend just makes coming back to the city so dreadful.  Before Goa, the madness of Mumbai was the norm.  We had learned to sleep through the constant honking; we were used to pushing ourselves, or getting pushed, onto buses and trains; we’d come to expect to have our cell phone service shut off once a week for no reason.

But, now, being pushed onto a crowded train is frustrating, and, in the last 24 hours,  I’ve yelled at six customer service representatives with Vodafone for “screwing me over.”  After a serene weekend in Goa, all of these norms just seem like major inconveniences.

Druv's Kitchen at the Palolem Beach Resort

 

On the way to the Goa airport

No trip is complete without a little hiccup: tire blowout on the way to the airport

Goa: An Expat’s (and Cows’) Paradise

8 Nov

I had only been here in Bombay for three weeks, but the getaway to Goa was much needed.   Indians and non-Indians who had visited Goa told me that a trip there was a must.  So, what else was I supposed to do when, during my first week here, a couple of expats invited me to join them for the Goan weekend that they had planned?  I booked my flight and room immediately.

We spent Thursday to Sunday in Palolem, a beach in southern Goa, known for being a bit more relaxed and low-key compared to the more developed beach areas in the north famous for the party scene.  Don’t get me wrong, there was no shortage of partying this weekend.  I don’t think I ever paid more than $2 for a drink, and no, that wasn’t a special.  That’s how cheap drinks are in Goa!  In Bombay, a rum & Diet Coke would cost me at least $5; Jack Daniels, at least $10.  NOT IN GOA!

Our group of 10 sprawled out under umbrellas on the beach all day, taking a break only to eat the fantastic local food.  By night, we partied at the only bar on the beach that we could find, along with hundreds of other expats and the handful of Indians vacationing there too.

For now, check out some photos from the weekend.  More stories to come later.

Rickshaws at the entrance to the Palolem Beach Resort

The beach at Palolem

To quote Vince Vaughan in Wedding Crashers, "Tattoo on the lower back--might as well be a bull's eye."

The usual daytime activity

Palolem Beach Resort

Cows on the beach - yep!

Goan sunset from our boat ride

Goan sunset