Archive | December, 2010

Not So Lonely at the Top

29 Dec

“You’re going to India’s most romantic city alone?”  my friend asked me over lunch just a few days before I left Mumbai for Udaipur.  “Yeah,” I replied.  “And I was pretty excited about it until you put it that way.”

When I agreed to go with my friend to her cousin’s wedding in Ahmedabad and realized that Udaipur was a 4-5 hour bus ride away, I decided to spend a few days in Udaipur solo.  It would be my first time traveling in India alone, and I was excited, until that conversation at lunch.  I thought about eating dinner alone at a rooftop restaurant, overlooking Lake Pichola and the illuminated Lake Palace Hotel.  Maybe that wouldn’t be as nice as I had imagined.  What if I was surrounded by honeymooning couples everywhere I went?  Would watching the sunset from Monsoon Palace be disappointing because I would be alone in the Venice of India?

One view from the guesthouse

I arrived at Jaiwana Haveli guesthouse before noon and checked in.  The manager was showing another guest a map of the city and suggesting an itinerary for her day.  I thought about asking her if I could tag along, but decided not to.  Maybe she wasn’t by herself; maybe she wanted to sight-see alone.  I didn’t want to impose.  I went to the second floor and put my bags down in the room.  The manager scanned the room, decided the room needed more cleaning, and asked me if I could wait downstairs for a few minutes until housekeeping was done.

I sat on a couch against the far wall of the lobby, so that I could see the stairs leading up to the guestrooms, the entrance, and the front desk.  The same girl that had been at the front desk when I check in was seated on a couch on the other side of the coffee table, looking at the city map.

“Did I hear you say you were going horseback riding tomorrow?” she asked .  She had overheard me at check-in tell the front desk that I would work out my itinerary with them later, since the only thing I had planned was a morning horseback ride the following day.

Erin had arrived at the guesthouse earlier that morning and was waiting for her room to become available.  She was spending a few weeks in India on vacation as was traveling alone until she met up with some friends in Mumbai for Christmas weekend.

“Did you go to Duke?” she asked, looking at my sweatshirt.  I had borrowed the zip-up Duke hoodie from my friend because I packed poorly for India, I explained.  For the first month, I mostly dressed like a hippie, sporting loose blouses and capris or long skirts.  I thought that’s how expats dressed in Mumbai because it was so hot and humid.  Little did I know that I should have come prepared for everything–costume parties, cocktail parties, Sunday brunches, trips to North India.  Thanks to  a friend who let me borrow her clothes until a care package from my mom arrived a month into my stay, I had brunches and cocktail parties covered.  The same friend let me take her Duke hoodie with me to Udaipur, since I failed to request sweaters in my care package.

Erin grew up in New Orleans, had lived on both the East and West coasts of the U.S., and now works in Afghanistan.  By the time our rooms were ready, my fellow Louisianan and I had made plans to tour to the City Palace and take a boat ride on Lake Pichola together. She also called Princess Trails to reserve her spot for horseback riding.

Sure, Udaipur is romantic.  The views from the hotel rooftops are breathtaking, especially at night.  But, Udaipur isn’t Venice.  I haven’t visited the latter, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t cows wandering around the narrow lanes, free to relieve themselves wherever they please.  I would imagine that you could walk down a Venetian street without hearing, “Namaste, madame,” “Come look at my shop, madame,” “Very good prices for you, madame,” “Pashmina, madame?”  Or, maybe they do hassle you in Venice, but it probably sounds romantic in Italian.

Erin and I walked to the City Palace, Udaipur’s most popular attraction.  At $5 per camera, we decided to use hers.  I managed to sneak a few pictures with mine before one of the guards asked to see our passes and, upon providing only one, asked me to put mine back in my purse.

We completed our tour and bought our tickets for the boat ride on Lake Pichola that took us around the Lake Palace Hotel (you can only get off the boat there if you are a guest or have lunch or dinner reservations) and to Jagmandir Island with its stunning views across the lake.

Lake Palace Hotel and City Palace in background

Jagmandir Island

Back in the city, we parted ways for the evening.  Erin had work to do, and I went to Bagore Ki Haveli for a traditional Rajasthani dance show.

We met the next morning for the rickshaw ride to the Princess Trails horse farm outside the city.  We met the owner, drank chai, and mounted our horses.  “I can’t believe you were going to do this alone,” Erin joked along the ride.  The guide was silent, aside from answering his cell phone and telling us to keep our horses separated.  “They aren’t friends,” he warned.  Why, we wondered, with all of the horses available would they put us together with two that don’t get along?  Maybe riding solo would have been a good idea.  On the way back to the farm, we noticed another guide leaving with one blond woman trailing behind him on a horse.  “That would have been you,” Erin said.  Maybe not.

Making samosas

Back in Udaipur, we walked through town in search of street food.  A few samosas and Diet Cokes later, we hailed a rickshaw to take us to Monsoon Palace.  Well, not to the palace, technically.  Since rickshaws are not allowed up the hill (the palace stands around 3,000 feet above sea level and a little over 1,000 above its surroundings), there are only two ways to reach Monsoon Palace:  hike or rent a car and driver.  We opted for the former.

With all of the backpackers in Udaipur, who I assumed were on a a budget, I expected to see several foreigners hiking along the road and forgoing the cost of renting a car.  I was mistaken.  Every couple of a minutes a car passed us by.  After about 20 minutes into the hike, a group of teenage boys making their way down the hill, passed us.  “You have a long way,” one called out.  We ignored him.  “You will need to have a rest at the top.”  The others laughed.  Another car passed.  I considered hitchhiking.

Erin and I laughed at how pleasant the idea of walking up to the palace had been.  We stopped to give our Southern lungs a break.  Kids in other parts of the States go to summer camp, where they kayak, cycle, and hike their little hearts out.  They are conditioned for these sorts of adventures.  In South Louisiana, where summer temperatures approach 100 degrees and humidity nears 100 percent, kids stay inside.

Erin told me that every couple of months she goes hiking with other expats in Afghanistan.  Even though she’s in good shape, she finds the hike more difficult to get through than the Americans from higher altitudes.  Finally.  I met someone who understood why hiking frustrates me.  I can teach fitness classes, run half marathons, and do more push-ups than my 6’3″, 185-pound brother who probably has about 10 percent body fat.  But, get me on a mountain, or hell, just a hill, and I feel worthless.

“Well, we just burned off one samosa,” Erin said at the halfway point, 30 minutes in.  “One more to go.”

Halfway to Monsoon Palace

The top of the hill was in sight.  “We’re making friends at the top,” I said.  There was no way we were doing the walk down the unlit road alone after dark.  And, since we didn’t arrange a car to take us down, our only option was to become chummy-chummy with fellow sunset-watchers.

We arrived at Monsoon Palace half an hour before sunset.  I was sweating and my jeans clung to my legs.  We sat on the palace walls, overlooking the valley below.

“Would one of you mind taking our picture?” a woman asked, standing up from the bench where she and her boyfriend were sitting. I snapped their picture.  “Oh, you’re reading Shantaram too?”  I asked eagerly, noticing the book she left lying on the bench.  I had begun reading Shantaram during the trip, became obsessed, and was happy to talk to anyone reading it as well.  In a matter of minutes, Erin and I were chatting it up with Kate and her boyfriend Steve.

We all sat together and watched the sunset.  I must admit, it lived up to the hype and was well worth the hike. Within 10 minutes, the sun disappeared behind the distant hills, and from the other side of the palace, we saw the moon shining over the lake.

Erin and I gladly accepted Kate and Steve’s offer to ride with them back down the hill and to their guesthouse.  Since theirs was just steps from Erin’s and mine, so we all decided to have dinner together on the rooftop.  The night air was cold, and we were the only ones up there.  The Lake Palace Hotel was illuminated, and there was an extravagant wedding celebration on Jagmandir Island, which had been covered in thousands of strings of multi-colored lights.  The moonlight danced on the water.  Nights in Udaipur are definitely romantic.

We sat there for hours, ordering drinks and food, and finally, when we were all full and exhausted, swapped e-mail addresses and parted ways.

Just the other day, back in Mumbai, I went to the Trident Hotel’s salon for a haircut.  Arun, my stylist, said that he had cut Erin’s hair the other day while she was in town and that she mentioned she knew me.  “Oh, yeah, she’s my friend who I met in Udaipur,” I told him.  I was reminded of what the manager at my guesthouse said one day while I was socializing in the lobby with him and Gary, a lawyer from San Francisco:  “No one travels alone in India.”

View from the entrance to Monsoon Palace

 

View of the city from Monsoon Palace

Lots of Wining

15 Dec

This weekend five of my expat friends and I headed to Nasik, one of India’s holiest cities.  Our plans did not include touring temples, however.  We were there to explore Nasik’s reputation as the Napa Valley of India.

We left Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus on Friday evening on the train bound for Nasik.  We arrived at the station around 10 p.m. and spilt up into two rickshaws.  “Ah, Sai Palace,” the drivers said without hesitation when we told them where we were staying.  I thought it was comforting that we didn’t need to repeat the name, give directions, etc.  Half and hour–if not more–later, we arrived at Sai Palace, after taking what the drivers called a short-cut and what I called a circuitous route down unlit back roads so that the meter would be higher.

At the entrance to the hotel, the drivers told us the cost for the trip would be 250 Rs, but we refused to pay before checking with the hotel to find out why it took so long to get there, when according to the hotel website, they’re located five kilometers from the train station.  So, we stormed up the driveway and into the hotel like a hurricane, and all started talking at the same time.  The drivers followed us in, talking over us to the staff in Hindi.

After the hotel manager explained to us that the hotel is located 10 km from the station, not the advertised 5, we paid the rickshaw drivers.  “You see, we have three hotels,” the manager said.  “And one of them is located 5 km from the station, and the others are a little further.”  Never mind, of course, that all of the hotels have different names and websites.  “You need to update your website then,” one of the girls told them.  We got our keys, checked into our rooms, and met in the downstairs restaurant for a late dinner.

“We’re moving to another room,” Alaina said as she and Kat, her roommate for the weekend, joined us in the booth.  “I pulled back the covers, and there was hair everywhere,” she continued.  “We’ve already talked to the manager and he’s agreed to give us another room for tonight.”   The vineyard tours weren’t until the next day, but wine was necessary at that point.  I wouldn’t be surprised if copies of our passport photos have been posted around Nasik with warnings that we’re complete pains-in-the-ass, and it would be in the hotels’ best interests to never book a room for us.

The next morning, we took advantage of the complimentary breakfast then went to the front desk to arrange a car for the day.  The desk attendant was very pleasant (probably because she did not have to deal with us the previous night) and set the price for us before we left.

York Winery

We arrived at York Winery just a little before noon.  We took in the fresh, cool air and the view of the lake and vineyards before our guide, who goes by Cash–and who we called “Cash Money”–led us to the tasting room and then on a tour.  While the tours are interesting and educational, talking about wine just makes me want to drink it, so I tend to zone out.

We were the only people there and had the whole tasting room to ourselves.  We drank the samples, lounged for a while, purchased a couple of bottles to take with us, then had our driver take us to Sula.

At Sula, we were far from the only visitors.  The place was packed.  Our first priority was to have a late lunch at Little Italy, one of the restaurants at the winery.  The meal was one of the best I’ve had in India, and definitely the best non-Indian meal I’ve had here.  For starters, the pizza sauce was real sauce and not ketchup, as is usually the case.  The salads were light and fresh, and the dessert…

We ordered a tiramisu and a chocolate bomb (molten lava cake with vanilla ice cream) to share among the six of us.When the chocolate bomb arrived, we all grabbed a spoon.  I was lucky enough to be sitting in the middle of the table and had easy access.  The girls on the ends lunged out of their chairs to get a scoop before it was all gone.  Within twenty seconds, there was not a bite left.  “Waiter, another chocolate bomb!”  We sat there, just staring at the empty bowl.  Well, at least I did.  We took a few bites of the tiramisu.  It had tasted much better before we tried the chocolate bomb.  The second one arrived.  More chaos.  A minute later, all gone.  “We really should have ordered six of these,” one of the girls said.  Kat asked for the bill before we turned that idea into reality.

The Sula tasting room was swarming with visitors.  There was a half-hour wait for the next available tour, so we wandered around the vineyard taking pictures to kill time.  At 5:30 we joined the large group for the tour.

Thirty minutes later, our tasting began at the bar.  Halfway into it, Rajeev, the founder and CEO of Sula approached us and introduced himself and his business partners, a couple in town from Napa Valley, to us.  We ordered a few bottles of wine, grabbed a table on the terrace, and invited the three of them to join us.  Multiple bottles of wine later, we headed to the Rajeev’s house for dinner and, of course, more wine.

Sula

restaurant @ Sula

Sula

Arrived as a Guest; Left as Family

9 Dec

Preparing the curry for the feast

On Sunday, my last day in Delhi, Kanika’s family and I woke up early to head to her father’s village.  When Kanika’s grandfather died last year, he asked his son, Kanika’s dad, to fulfill his wish of hosting a feast for the village.  “You’re going to see how we feed 6,000 people,” Kanika’s dad said as we rode to the village–about an hour outside of Delhi–where he was born and raised.

It was a chilly morning, and the sun had just begun to shine.  The village was quiet; the streets nearly empty except for a few laborers and cows.  We walked into Kanika’s grandmother’s house, where I was introduced to the family.  Her grandmother was the tiniest, sweetest lady.  We talked for a while…Well, the family talked, and Kanika translated for me when it was important.  I didn’t even care that I most of the time I didn’t know what they were talking about; I just enjoyed being around the family.

After a while, Kanika’s grandmother started to tear up.  “She’s sad that not all of the family is here today,” Kanika

Kanika & her grandmother

explained, “and she doesn’t know if she’ll still be around the next time we’re all together.”  Then I got sad.  I was sad for her grandmother and also sad that I wasn’t home with my family.  Thanksgiving had just passed, and I was homesick.  I thought about my grandmother and how every time I call her, she asks me if I’m coming home.  To make matters worse, when old people cry, I cry.  Hell, when old people dance, I cry.  When old people hold hands, I cry.  So, I made myself cough, took a deep breath, and kept myself from being an emotional basket case.

Kanika's grandfather

Around mid-morning, Kanika’s dad and his brother began preparing for a ceremony in remembrance of their father.  A photograph of Kanika’s grandfather was placed on a table outside the house, and strings of flowers were wrapped around it.  A man came over and began to build a fire that would burn all day in to honor Kanika’s grandfather.  When the fire was going, all of the brothers gathered around and so did other family members and men from the village.  They began saying Hindu prayers, chanting, and throwing things into the fire to keep it burning.

The women came out of the house and sat down in the entryway to watch the ceremony.  Then everyone in attendance took turns going to her grandfather’s picture and paying their respects.  When everyone finished, the fire kept burning, and the cooks and servers began setting up the food around the Ganesha statue placed in the middle of a huge tent.

Women sat on one side of the tent, men on the other.  We sat down and the food was brought to us–a lentil curry and a chickpea curry, along with puri (fried bread) and halwa.  After I ate half a dozen pieces of fried bread and curry, I was done.  Kanika and I vegged out on chairs set up around her grandmother’s house.

1:30 p.m.  I had to leave.  Kanika’s driver was going to take her grandfather home (her mom’s father) and then drop me off at the airport in Delhi.  Before I said my goodbyes, Kanika’s aunt pulled me aside and handed me money.   Her grandmother did the same when I said goodbye to her.  “They always give the children gifts,” Kanika’s mom explained.  “You’re Kanika’s friend and Kanika is like a daughter, so you’re a daughter too.”  I was beyond touched.  I had only met them that morning, and they already  had claimed me as one of their own.  Even Kanika’s dad began calling me his second daughter on Day 1 of meeting up with them in Delhi.

I didn’t want to go.  The sky was clear, the sun brighter, and the air warmer.  I said goodbye to Kanika’s dad first, who was busy attending to hundreds of guests that had arrived, and I began to choke up.  I knew I would be sad to leave, but I wasn’t expecting to get super emotional.  Kanika, her mom, and her brother walked me to the car.  I thanked them for a wonderful week, gave them hugs, and then sobbed.  For half and hour of the drive, I just cried and cried and cried.  I missed her family already; I missed my family more.  And, a week later they would be going back to Houma together, and I would still be in India alone.

Prepping food for the feast

Ceremony around the fire

Ganesha & halwa

 

StARI StARI Night

7 Dec

Spending a week in Delhi with an Indian family in India means that not only do I have the perk of being shown around the city by people who know it best, but also that I get invited along to events that I probably would not have otherwise.  Toward the beginning of my week in Delhi, I mentioned to Kanika and her mom that the one thing I want to do while I am in India is attend an Indian wedding.  “Really?  My cousin is getting married next Saturday.  You should come with me,” Kanika says,without skipping a beat.  Giddiness ensues.  “SERIOUSLY?”

“Yes.”

“Does this mean I need a sari?”

I think I may have been more excited about shopping for a sari than going to the wedding.  Kanika, her mom, her aunt, her cousin, and I all head over to a shop in North Delhi.  To say the experience is overwhelming is an understatement.  Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall is nothing but folded saris.  The five of us take a seat on a velvet couch and a salesman starts pulling saris off the shelves and unfolding them in front of me–WHOOSH, WHOOSH, WHOOSH!

The colors and beading and threading flash and sparkle under the lights in the shop.  Some must weigh five pounds with all of the bead work.  After seeing about 20, I narrow down my choices and decide to try on five.  I am torn between two–a bright turquoise with heavy silver beading and a sheer purple with lots of gold details.  Then, while Kanika tries on one, I begin scanning the shelves.  That’s the problem with too many choices.  I am in like with the ones I tried on, but I am not in love.  I mean, I love the idea of wearing ANY sari, but I want that instant connection with one, that feeling people tell you that you will have when you try on the perfect wedding dress or you meet “the one.”

At this point, I know I have a short amount of time to do a lot of digging, since we have been there for a while.  So, I begin to scan the shelves for colors that catch my eye, since the saris are folded and I have no idea what they actually look like.  I rummage through the piles behind the salesman as he helps Kanika with her sari.  I had been eyeing this deep blue one with gold and silver threading since we first walked in.  The salesman unfolds it for me, and I just know I am going to take it home with me.  It’s much simpler than the ones I had tried on earlier, but it’s just what I want.

Because I have no desire or patience to learn how to fold a sari properly and make the perfect pleats, I decide to have it stitched so that I will only have to wrap it around me, hook it, and call it a day.  Kanika and I take our saris to a tailor to have the tops made.  We pick the designs we want–I go for a sweetheart neckline and short sleeves–and have our measurements taken.  I instantly regret the copious amounts of butter naan and butter chicken and dal makhani (butter dal) that I had consumed over the last week.  Ok, who are we kidding?  Since I arrived in India.

henna

By the night of the wedding, I have bangles, a necklace, earrings, and shoes to complete the look.  I even had henna put on my hands and forearms.

We arrive at the wedding as the groom’s and his family makes their way down the road toward the venue.  Fireworks are going off all around, as there are several weddings takin

g place in the same area due to the auspicious date.  We enter the venue through a walkway of gold and red fabric into a large open space.  On three sides, food and drink stalls line the lawn.  In the front, is the stage, where the ceremony will take place and to the right, a dance floor and DJ, who is spinning India’s Top-20 tunes.

I don’t even feel like I’m at a wedding, but more like a holiday party.  No one is seated.  The 1,000+ guests are mingling, eating, and dancing.  There is no sense of anticipation.  After Kanika’s grandfather introduces us to his brothers, sisters, and friends, we head over to the food stalls.  There is no way I’m going to pass on Aloo Tikki.

I discovered Aloo Tikki earlier in the week at a street vendor near the tailor and made it a point to have some every time I could.  It’s a fried potato patty smothered with various masalas and topped with chopped radish.  It’s completely messy, and I just hoped that I could eat it gracefully enough to not get masala on my sari.

Groom's procession

About an hour later, we hear drums.  The groom, who rides in on a horse-drawn carriage, and his family enter the venue.  He takes a seat on the stage and waits for his bride.  It’s about another hour before she arrives.  In the meantime, he’s up there, chilling with his buddies, while waiters bring him food and drinks.

When the group of drummers arrive later, this time the bride and her brothers are coming in.  She is dressed in a beautiful red and gold sari (I can’t even imagine how much it weighs) and wears lots of bling.  She takes a seat next to the groom, a few minutes later they exchange garlands, and that’s it.  Then they take a seat and all of the wedding guests take turns going onto the stage to pose for pictures with the couple.  This lasts for hours.  I reluctantly join Kanika and her grandfather on stage to take a picture with the bride and groom.  I am sure they are thinking, “Who the hell is this white girl trying to be Indian?”  But, then again, when you have over a thousand guests at your wedding, you probably don’t know most of them.

And, my favorite part is that the whole time–even as the drummers play and garlands are exchanged–the DJ continues to play Top-20 hits. It’s comparable to having a Rihanna song playing while the bride and groom exchange vows during an American ceremony. 

We leave a little after midnight.  The couple and their families will be there all night, with one more ceremony taking place in the middle of the night.  The ceremonies themselves are all very anticlimactic and there is no need to stay through the night.  It’s just as Kanika’s grandfather told me on the way over, “Indian weddings are all about the production.”

T-12 days ’til I go to my next one!

Bride enters

picture time!

The venue