Not-So-Lazy Sunday in the City

3 Jan

I played tourist yesterday.  I’ve been in Mumbai almost three months and still hadn’t taken my picture at the Gateway of India.  It’s just one of those things.  I lived in D.C. for five years and never walked around the monuments at night.

After seeing my friends for New Year’s then spending Saturday together shopping and going to a Bollywood film, we decided not to let Sunday go to waste.  I wanted to go to India Gate for the photo op and to check out the ferry schedule for next weekend’s trip to Murud.  My friend Andrea wanted to scratch a trip to Chor Bazaar (a.k.a. Thieves’ Market, known for its antique shops) off her must-do list.  And, we all wanted to go to Zaffran, a restaurant near Crawford Market that I’ve been talking up since going there my first week in Mumbai.

In the morning, we text each other and agree to meet at Track 1 in Victoria Terminus.  That should have been simple enough for me.  I hop on the train at the station near my apartment and take the train all the way to VT.  So, at 11:45, I hail a rickshaw to take me to the train station.  I am shocked and pleasantly surprised to see almost no one in line at the ticket counters.  I get closer and realize the windows are boarded up.  The ticket counters are closed.  I walk over to the screen in the waiting area to check the train times.  The board is empty.  I look at the platform.  It’s busy.  People are walking and standing on the platform, socializing, eating.  I’m confused.

“Closed today,” an old man says at me as I wander aimlessly around the ticketing area.
“Closed?”  I ask, frustrated.  “Why?”
I need to stop asking why.  It doesn’t matter why.  Rarely do two or more people give me the same answer to that question anyway.  Don’t ask why.  Just have a plan B.
He wobbles his head.  “Closed.”
“So, no train today?”
“No train,” he says as he sits on a concrete block at the station.

I call Shama, my landlord’s wife.  “Shama, the station is closed today.  Is this because it’s Sunday, or does that just happen?  I am supposed to meet my friends at Victoria Terminus, but a man just told me there’s no train today.”

“Maybe they’re doing repairs,” she says and suggests and alternative route.

Maybe there should be signs at the ticket counter, or on the platform, or at the entry gates to the station.

I call my friends, hoping they have not left Bandra and I can take the train with them from there.  I am in luck.  They are on their way to the station.  “Stay there.  I’m getting in a rickshaw now.”

I ask the dozen-or-so rickshaw drivers gathered around the train station to take me to Bandra.  None of them will go there.  One takes me back to my apartment.  I hop out and immediately hail another one.  The driver takes me to Bandra.

Street bazaar near Crawford Market

Forty-five minutes later, I meet my friends at the station.  They have already bought my ticket.  A train to Churchgate is pulling into the station.  We push our way on the women’s car.  We get off at Marine Lines and walk toward Crawford Market.  Every few blocks, we ask someone to point us in the right direction, since we are winging it.  A quarter mile or so from the market, we don’t even have to ask.  A man comes up to us; he wants to take us to his stall in the market.  We have no intention of going, but we follow him, since we need directions.  We leave him behind at the market and walk up the street to Zaffran.

We order four vegetarian dishes, vowing to save room for dessert–the lava cake there rivals the one at Little Italy in Nasik (for more on that experience, see “Lots of Wining“).  The food arrives.  The portions of bhindi (okra), dal makhani, tofu masala, and peas with cashew gravy are beyond generous.  Full, but not stuffed, we have the servers pack up the leftovers and put in our order for the lava cake, since it takes 20 minutes to bake it.  In the meantime, we order a piece of “Sinful Chocolate Cake” a la mode.  We finish it off just before the lava cake arrives.  It is hot, melting the scoop of ice cream next to it, and when we break into it, the rich, liquid chocolate center oozes on the plate.  I still don’t know how Sarah, Andrea’s roommate, mustered the self-control to resist both desserts.

We pay the bill, take advantage of the clean restroom, and head out.  According to Lonely Planet, Chor Bazaar is part of Crawford Market.  We walk into the covered market, thinking sooner or later we’ll stumble upon Chor Bazaar.  The market is practically empty.  No sign of antiques.  Just fruit vendors.  We walk to the other side and outside.  More fruit vendors.  We keep walking.  Cages.  Cages of birds–pigeons, doves, parakeets–and puppies.  Cute, cuddly, sleeping puppies piled into cages in the market.  I can’t look at dogs in cages.  It makes me sad.  I cry every time I see that Purina commercial advocating pet adoption, in which some Sarah McLaughlin song plays as they zoom in on sad-looking unadopted puppies in cages in a shelter.   Thankfully, my friend Kat feels the same way and gets creeped out by birds, so we make out way out of the market area.  An impromptu cricket game is taking place in the street.  We walk until we get to a main road that we recognize.

“Chor Bazaar,” we ask a cab driver as we snap pictures of the cows in the middle of the road.  “Straight, then two signals, then left.”

Goat in Chor Bazaar

We walk until turning left is an option.  We ask someone else on the street.  “Chor Bazaar.  Straight.”  We keep walking straight.  We continue to ask strangers for directions until we finally arrive at a market, half an hour later.  We see bangles, pots and cooking utensils, more fruit and veggie vendors.  No antiques.  Goats are wandering around the market.  A group of six kids almost knock me over; they are running and staring at the sky.  I look up, wondering what the madness is about.  I feel something on my leg.  I am tangled in clear string.  At the other end is the wayward kite the kids were running after.

“Chor Bazaar?”  we ask two women shopping in the market.  “Straight.”  After walking straight, then taking a couple of turns, we arrive on Mutton Street.  We see gramophones sitting on a table outside of a shop.  Finally!  I make a mental note to write into Lonely Planet:  Chor Bazaar is NOT part of, or even near, Crawford Market.

I am a sucker for antique shopping.  I buy a necklace, a bowl, and a vase.  Andrea gets her Mother India movie poster.  Another thing to check off her list.

We decide to take a cab to the Gateway of India.  It’s 5 p.m. and the sun will set by 6.  “Let’s find a main road,” Kat suggests.  Luckily, with just a short walk and one turn, we make or way out of the maze that is Chor Bazaar and get a cab.  We arrive at the Gateway of India, check on the ferry schedule for next weekend, then proceed through the metal detector to the monument for pictures.  Sarah stands in front of an Indian guy to block his attempt at taking my picture with his cell phone, while Kat snaps the picture with my camera.  “Very rude,” Sarah tells the stranger after we’re done.

We take a couple more photos, then head out.  An Indian woman with young children approaches us and asks if we will take a picture with (not of) them.  I agree, because she has little kids, and the other girls follow suit.  They thank us and we begin to leave.  A group of men ask if they can have a picture of us.  No. Two young women ask us.  “Sorry, no,” I say.  “Just one,” they plead.  “No, because all these men will keep asking us for pictures,” I explain.  We apologize and leave.

We walk back to the Churchgate station through Colaba and Fort.  Sarah tells me how to get to Leopold’s Cafe, a popular expat hangout and one of the sites of the 2008 terror attacks.  Having a drink there is next on my must-do-in-Mumbai list.

On the way to Chor Bazaar

Chor Bazaar

Chor Bazaar

Vintage Bollywood movie posters at Chor Bazaar

Chor Bazaar

Bangles at the market near Chor Bazaar

Cricket at Mumbai's Maidan

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

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