Friday, October 27, 2006

India: Chennai, Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur

India was absolutely amazing, at least for me it was. A lot of others on the trip really didn’t like it and were especially disappointed with the Taj trips. I will admit, I don’t know where all the money we spent went because everything is dirt cheap in India, and then our tour guides were absolutely awful. But at least for my trip, the trip it’s self was absolutely amazing. I’ll start from the beginning when we got to Chennai.
It took forever to get off the ship. I was getting really impatient too because I had to be back in the union to meet for my trip at 2:30 but this was going to be the only day I could see Chennai. Rachael, Robbie, Emily, Nathan and I left the ship I’d say around two and as soon as we walked out of the gate we were bombarded by auto rickshaw drivers. This was slightly to our advantage because that was exactly what we wanted to take, but it was still overwhelming. When ended up agreeing to pay 100 rupees each (which is still way to much; 45 rupees= $1). We got two rickshaws because there was no way we were going to all fit into one.
Ok for future reference if you ever ride in an Auto rickshaw in India (which is highly likely if you go) the drivers are not going to take you where you want to go no matter how insistent you are. We asked to go to a flower market but instead were first taken to an overpriced rug/antique/jewelry/fabric store and then to a Sari store. You see, they get commission for taking tourists to these places. Finally after the Sari store we just asked to get taken back to the ship. It was definitely an experience, and afterwards I have to look back on it and smile, but it was slightly frustrating at the time.
The flight up to Delhi was different from any flight I’ve taken in America. The beverage service consisted of a juice box and they played 3 Indian songs in a loop over the intercom system for the entire flight. The Delhi airport was very crude for a major international airport. All planes park out on the tarmac and you have to take a shuttle to the terminal, and the baggage claim carousels are basically a belt covered in slabs of rubber.
The hotel we stayed in the first night, along with all of the other Taj Mahal trips, was REALLY nice. Costumed men opened the door for us and as soon as we walked through there were women to mark our foreheads with Bindis and they gave us flower lays. One thing I’ve noticed in the hotels in the countries we’ve gone to so far is they really give you everything you need. While in America you are lucky to get a small bottle of shampoo and soap in India we were given shampoo, soap, talc, q-tips, sewing kits, band aids, slippers, you name it, it was there.
The second morning we had to be down in the lobby by 4:30 to catch a train to Agra. I was amazed by how dirty the train station was, although, after all I’ve learned about India I really shouldn’t have been. There was garbage all over the ground and homeless people sleeping on every open surface.
Our cabin on the train was first class and air conditioned. I’ve heard about some of the other trips that got stuck in the low class cars with open windows and cow feed. I can only imagine how much that would have sucked. The smell was probably more than they could handle and the heat immense. See, we were lucky enough to go to India during the hottest October in 100 years. It was in the 90’s everyday and shade was hard to come by.
As soon as we got off the train in Agra we were rushed off to our buses and hurried to the Taj Mahal. You can’t actually drive right up to the gate of the Taj. The set up isn’t westernized in any way. There are no parking lots and there was just a single man at the gate collecting “admit one” tickets. We actually had to walk for a good 10 minutes from the bus before we reached the gate. Good news for the hawkers, bad news for us. Literally, as soon as we stepped off the bus we were hounded by men and children selling postcards, jewelry, t-shirts, glass pens, picture books, etc. It was really annoying to have them not leave your side as we walked and walked and walked. They all congregate to me too because I can’t be mean to them. Especially the kids.
The Taj Mahal was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever beheld. For those of you that are confused of the function of the Taj Mahal due to misleading movies such as Aladdin, the Taj Mahal is not a Palace and it is not a mosque, it is a Tomb. The Taj was commissioned by Sha Jahan to be the tomb for is favorite wife Mum Taz Mahal. He had planned on building an identical tomb of black marble across the river for himself but he was imprisoned by his son before the Taj Mahal was even finished. He actually never was able to see the Taj Mahal up close, only from his window in Agra Fort a few miles away. Today both Sha Jahan and Mum Taz have tombs inside of the Taj Mahal.
Leading up to the Taj from the entrance gate are 2 pools separated in the middle by a large platform, and surrounding them are several green gardens. They were actually cutting the lawn while we were there using two cows pulling the lawn clipper.
This might sound strange but for some reason I thought the Taj would be bigger. Not to confuse you, it’s still enormous, but it was smaller than I thought. Especially from the inside.
To get up to the actual building you have to climb up two platforms. On the second platform you either have to take off your shoes or wear little footies over them. From far away you would never be able to tell but there is a great amount of carving and stone inlay decorating the surface. All around the main entrance is black inlayed Arabic writing (on the inside the entire Koran is inlayed), and then decorating the lower part are multi colored inlayed flowers and carved flowers. It’s incredibly beautiful. Pictures could never do it justice.
We got to spend a grand total of an hour at the Taj. It’s amazing because that is the main reason people paid $1000 to go on this trip. $1000 for a whole hour at the Taj. All of the Delhi/Agra/ Taj Mahal trips actually got to go to the Taj twice, one at sunrise and once at sunset be we only got to go once, while the sun was out.
After leaving the Taj and fending off the Hawkers, one of which seriously followed me for the entire 10 minutes trying to sell me jewelry the he assured me was real marble but I knew wasn’t, we went to Agra fort. The place I mentioned before where Sha Jahan was imprisoned by his son. In fact the Red Fort wasn’t really a prison, Sha Jahan was more of kept under house arrest. It has living quarters and even a mosque. Surrounding the area where the Sha was kept the windows are made out of incredible lattice work carved right out of the sandstone. If you look over the edge you can see a bunch of not so beautiful gardens with bright green a blue parrots flying from tree to tree.
After lunch we took an hour drive to the abandoned city of Fatepur Sikri. I had been the emperors palace for 4 years but it was hard to get water to the top of the hill it was built on so it was abandoned. It was a really incredible complex, made entirely of red sandstone (except for one tomb made out of white marble which I didn’t get to see), I wish I could have seen more of it. We only got 20 minutes and we were forced to follow our tour guide around like cattle the entire time.
My favorite building was the audience hall. There was a single pillar in the middle which had 4 beams about 12 feet up leading to it and the emperor would sit on the top and all those that wanted to talk to him stood on the ground.
All around us there were men chipping away at sandstone. We didn’t know what they were doing until we were leaving. They were making a Fatepur souvenir, little square of sandstone with carvings into them like flowers or elephants. I had to buy one.
After leaving Fatepur Sikri we had a 5 hour drive to Jaipur. It was cramped and bad, but it could have been worse. The scenery all seemed the same after awhile, deserty land punctuated by trees and occasional hills. One thing I never knew was that Rajasthan (the state Jaipur is in) is know for it’s Camels. They’re everywhere. Not roaming free of course, they all have owners, but instead of cows pulling carts there were camels. And there were camels tied to trees or just having people ride them. It was fascinating.
Our hotel was one of the best parts of Jaipur. It was called a 5 star ethnic village resort. We were greeted by a group of men playing traditional instruments and a little girl they gave up bindis on our foreheads. As soon as we walked through the gate the first thing we saw was an enormous painted elephant. I don’t think you see those at every hotel. For hotel rooms we all had mud huts, not mud huts as in really primitive, they were still hotel rooms, but they were like mud bungalows. The first thing I can say is you know your in India when at your 5 star resort the power goes off every half an hour. WE got used to it after awhile.
The night we got to the hotel there was also a wedding going on. The bride was American and the groom was from America but his family and his ethnicity were Indian. I now know that I love Indian weddings, it’s like one big party. The groom rode in on an elephant while all the guests danced to Indian Music, then during the service they let off fire works.
Not quite tired enough after dinner me and Rachel decided to explore the resort, see what kinds of goodies we could find around the corner. Kind of off in the distance we heard some drumming and music so we decided to follow it. We stumbled upon the ethic village part of the resort. Because we were staying in the hotel we got in for free but it was the type of thing Indian families can go to for entertainment at night. We were actually really confused. We didn’t know if we should be there or not and we were the only white people that we could see. There were women dancing with pots on their heads, camel and elephant rides. Magicians, carnival games. We stumbled upon a really bad maze that we found our way through in a few seconds and then we came upon a really big slide that they made look like a tree. I’m 21, but the slide was still so much fun I had to go on it twice. I’m sure the 8 year olds behind me appreciated me taking over their toy. As we were walking back to the resort we saw a lady doing henna. We were tempted to get it right then, but decided to wait until the next day when we had more time to let it dry (it takes over an hour).
The next day we got to sleep in. We didn’t have to be up until 5:45 although the front desk decided to give us our wake up call half and hour early. We took the bus about 45 minutes away to Amber Fort. Here we got to ride Elephants from the bottom of the hill up to the fort. That was basically the whole reason people picked our trip over any of the other Taj trips. I know that’s why I did.
Riding an elephant wasn’t actually as scary as I thought it would be, although a few times I did feel like our seat was going to slip right over the side and we would end up riding below the elephant. While riding up there are photographers that stand on the side of the road and take your picture and then make you promise that you’ll only buy pictures from them. Getting pictures from only one photographer was pretty difficult when every photographer on the way up is taking your picture and you have no real control. One of the photographers followed me all the way from the top of the fort to the bus. I knew I could get the pictures for really cheap because If I don’t buy them what else are they going to do with them? Profit is zero.
After we got off the elephants we all groups together to go into the fort. I was amazed at the fearlessness of the monkeys there. At the Taj Mahal they pretty much just sat there and ignored you but at the Amber Fort I watched one monkey chase an entire family away from where they were eating lunch. Later I was amazed at a European woman who tried the pet a monkey. The word idiot was running through my mind the whole time. She didn’t speak English so there was nothing I could say to her.
The Amber fort was really beautiful but reminded me of every other piece of architecture I had already seen. The few was pretty amazing though. The fort was built on the top of a hill and it was surrounded by other hills which all had fortified walls running along the ridges. It really reminded me of the great wall of China.
Just like the rickshaw drivers in Chennai, our tour guides took us to the worst stores because they got commission. The first one was a factory where they made Persian rugs, the smallest and cheapest of which was $200. People actually bought some though. I wish I had that kind of money. In the same complex they had another textile shop which sold stamped scarves, comforters, silk scarves, pillow covers, and sari’s. Nearly every girl on our trip bought a Sari, including myself. The theme for our Ambassadors ball is “A Night in Bollywood” so we’re all going to wear them for that. The sari I bought is made of silk and it’s turquoise with pinkish purple and gold lining the edges. I paid $55 for it which I think was probably still to much. You can get much cheaper and not as nice ones on the street for like $6 months, but it’s beautiful and I can use it as fabric to make a dress or something back in the states.
After the rug shop was an even worse jewelry and antiques shop. No one wanted to be there, we all wanted to go to a street market and our guides would not let us go. Finally it took a group of us and our trip leader ganging up on them to make them change their mind. After the jewelry store we went to the city palace where the Maharaja lives and they gave us the choice to go in the museum or go shopping. Me, Rachael, Michelle and Amber went into the Museum for about 10 minutes, got bored and then went out shopping. At first the shop keepers definitely thought we were dumb and tried to rip us off. 500 rupees for a purse! That’s way to much, eventually we were able to get them down though and it usually involved attempting to leave several times. AS they saw any profit walk out the door they were willing to cave.
After shopping we just went back to the hotel. I honestly was wishing I had gotten henna the night before because the line was crazy. All of the SAS girls wanted it so I waited for over an hour. Then after we got it we had to let it dry for an hour so me and Rachael just went back to our room and turned on the TV. We watched some really interesting Indian Music videos, and when I say really interesting I mean really funny. By the time our henna had dried it was almost 11 and we still wanted to ride a camel so we practically ran back over to the park.
Unlike riding the elephant, riding the camel was scary. When the camel stands up you nearly slide ride off of the back. When he’s walking you tilt from side to side. I was thoroughly convinced that I was going to fall off because all that I had to grab onto was Rachael’s tank top and I had dried crusty henna on my fingertips so it was hard to hold on. Then, when the camel sat down we nearly fell of the front. It was definitely an interesting experience. We got to ride both an elephant and a camel in the same day.
The next morning was our earliest wake up call yet, 3:00. It was hard, I must admit, then when we got to the train station it was completely crowded, and we were the only white people so all of the Indian men were staring at us.
This time we ended up on a second class air conditioned sleeper train. Sleeper sounds nice right? You can sleep. Well, if we hadn’t been extremely conscious of anything that could be living in the blankets pillows and sheets it may have been really comfortable, but because we were we took everything off of the beds and slept on the blue vinyl mattresses using our bags as pillows and shawls as blankets. It was extremely uncomfortable, and boy was I surprised when I found out it wasn’t a 3 hour ride like I had thought, but a 6.5 hour ride. It was Ok while we were tired and laying down, but when we weren’t tired any more there was no place to sit up.
Our tour of Delhi was disappointing. It mostly consisted of our guide pointing out things to us through the window. We did actually stop at the Gandhi museum. It was really cool, like being in history. The museum is housed in Gandhi’s actual house and out on the grounds is where he was assassinated. The actually have an entire path with fake footsteps leading up to the spot where he was killed which was commemorated with a marker. The item which I was most excited to see was Gandhi’s glasses. When I think of Gandhi I picture glasses so it was really exciting to see them in person.
We got back to the ship at 12:30 that night. I was so beat but I had to meet at 6:40 am for another SAS trip in the morning to Kancheepuram and Mammalapuram.
Kancheepuram is a town about 2 hours south of Chennai. It’s known for it’s silk but e went to see it’s Hindu temples. The first place we went was a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. Outside of the doorway are two statues of Nandi the bull which is Shiva’s transport.
Of all religions I’ve encountered so far Hinduism is the most strange. How anyone can follow it is beyond me. And I mean this litterally and physically. It's very confusing. As soon as we walked into the building I felt an evil presence. It felt wrong. To my left were dozens of Hindu priests chanting into a microphone which was announced outward trough loudspeakers around the complex, and to my right was an alter where flowers and fruit were placed. Straight in front of me was the womb chamber where the main statue of Shiva is housed and no non-Hindus are allowed inside. As we walked around the temple there was literally dozens of statues of Shiva, mostly in lingam form but one was a dancing Shiva. I will say, I was happy to leave.
Afterwards we visited two older temples which were still in use, but not to the same degree as the first. The second one was dedicated to Vishnu and the third one I believe was also dedicated to Shiva.
After lunch we drove an hour and a half out to the coast to Mamalapuram. Unlike Kancheepuram, I really liked mamalapuram. It’s a world heritage sites and all of the structures are not in use. The carvings were crazy at the first part we stopped at. I had seen pictures of this wall of relief’s before, but I thought the entire wall was maybe my height not that the elephant alone was life sized.
The hawkers were particularly made at Mamalapuram. I would say more so than anywhere else in India I went to. Me and Emily were literally running away from them and they ran after us. They REALLY wanted our money.
The second part of Mamalapuram we stopped at was a series of temples and statues all carved out of a single rock. It was incredible, and a great photo opportunity. Me, Laura, and Emily took pictures in the temples, under the elephant, riding the bull, jumping into the air. It was a lot of fun.
Our last stop was the shore temple. A lot of new pieces were unearthed in the sand at this site when the Tsunami hit a year and a half ago, nothing really spectacular though. By this time me, Emily and Laura were so templed out we decided to skip the temple (we could see it from a distance) and go down on the beach instead.
Touching the Bay of Bengal felt so great. It was really warm. We were surrounded by Indian families, but none of them were going in the water. The farthest in they would go is their feet.

Overall I really liked India. I would go back, it think…..


At 1:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 12:38 PM, Blogger Manda said...

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At 5:33 PM, Blogger kyle said...

Hey Amanda! What an incredible journey! You are such a great blogger too. I always have to make sure that I have enough time to sit down and read them, often with a cup of Starbucks! Looking forward to seeing you when you get back and seeing the photos with the stories!

Kyle Moffit

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At 6:49 PM, Blogger Manda said...

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