Sunday, February 28, 2010

Amritsar - Golden Temple and Holi

We didn't wake up as early as intended (slept until almost 9am--wow!), and first thing took a cycle-rickshaw down to the Golden Temple, with virtually nothing with us so we could get in faster. Anyway, photos are not allowed in the Temple itself (see yesterday for a representative inlay from elsewhere).

There were already lots of people there, and we waited almost an hour to get out to the Temple, but it was worth it. The inlay work was incredible. It put the Taj Mahal to shame. The Taj has only semi-precious stones. The Baby Taj had only less valuable materials, which have actually quite a bit more depth. Other sites have all had either the one set or the other. The Golden Temple combined both to great effect, along with other materials, including mother of pearl and some we didn't recognize or remember seeing before. Additionally, rather than just flowers, these inlays included animals, people, and fruit. And they were virtually all different from one another. The Taj had a bunch of the same inlays.

This was also where the music from yesterday was coming from. It was more beautiful up close and not through the PA system. There were also some of the biggest most beautiful crystal chandeliers I've ever seen, lit with many small compact fluorescents. Love it. (We rarely see any other kind of bulb here.)

After, we took a cycle-rickshaw back to our hotel and along the way were hit with a goodly number of color-filled water balloons for Holi. We didn't think they did that until the second day of Holi, so we weren't dressed for it. Oh well. We had a quick breakfast back at our hotel, packed up, and headed for our noon-ish bus to Dharamsala and then Mcleod Ganj. Our bus didn't come and we ended up taking 3 buses to get to Mcleod Ganj and had a long wait at the bus station for the first one. Mary had an unhappy ride with lots of motion sickness, but eventually figured out that she had some audio books with her and started listening to "The Highest Tide". Josh was able to read almost the whole way. Lucky duck. The scenery was amazing (post some next time), until it got dark.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Amritsar - Golden Temple, Mata Temple, Silver Temple

Had a glorious sleep-in morning, our first night on a good bed in 4 nights. We are so going to get ourselves a foam bed when we get home. OMG, loving them so much! Then had a leisurely breakfast at our hotel. This is something we need to do more of, both at home and traveling: long leisurely breakfasts. It never seems like there is time, but it makes the day so much better. It reminds me of something at the end of "The Seven Habits" about somebody (Martin Luther?) being quoted saying, "I have so much to accomplish today, I must spend another 2 hours on my knees."

After breakfast, we wandered down to the Golden Temple. We started with visiting the Sikh Museum, which unfortunately left us fully as uninformed about Sikhism as we'd been before. (However, we have since learned on Wikipedia that Sikhism is the 5th largest religion in the world, so we should probably learn about it.) It basically just had a lot of photos, paintings, and information about a lot of Sikh martyrs. Next we took a leisurely walk around the pond surrounding the temple, watching people go for their holy dips in the water, listening to the sacred Sikh texts being quietly sung, along with instrumentals, over the PA system, and as always posing for endless photographs with Indians. We decided to skip, for the time being, going out to the temple itself, as there was a very long line to do that. Silly us, not paying attention to the day of the week and showing up at such a big site on a Saturday afternoon! What were we thinking?

From Drop Box

We went through the Sikh Parliament building, which was incredibly beautiful. Amazing carved wooden doors, chandeliers, and ceilings. The inlays were probably the best we've seen in India (along with those inside the Golden Temple). Here's an example in an area where we were actually allowed to take photos. Note especially the array of materials--most places only use around 3-4 inlay materials (either the more valuable set or the less valuable set), and we've not seen the mother of pearl anywhere else. This is on the floor!

From Drop Box

Also stepped into another little shrine, which was very busy, and spent some time resting in the shade of a 500+-year-old holy tree.

From Drop Box

Then we made our way to the community kitchen for a late lunch.

From Drop Box

This has got to be the most efficient feeding operation on the face of the Earth. This free meal is fed to between 60,000 and 100,000 people per day, depending on your source. They moved us in and out pretty fast, so we didn't get a lot of photos. We saw some of the food being prepared in giant vats, probably 4 feet across. The cook had a ladle the size of half a basketball. Sikh volunteers brought the food out in buckets and large baskets. There were two kinds of dal (bean curry), which were pretty good, and roti. Unlimited seconds seemed to be available. We had intended to help clean up, but after looking at the fast paced hand washing operation, we decided we'd probably just slow them down and decided to stick with giving money. Note the plate in mid air.

From Drop Box

After the Golden Temple we walked back to our hotel. On the way, we ran across a shop that did passport photos and dropped in and paid 100 rupees ($2) for 32 passport photos of each of us. We'll need a bunch of them in Southeast Asia supposedly. We relaxed at our hotel for a bit, then walked in the other direction up to the Mata Temple, which was described as a "cave temple" in Lonely Planet. We thought a temple in a cave sounded pretty cool. The cave part was totally fake and not even underground. However, it was still a good stop. It's a modern temple (dedicated to a 20th century saint), with some incredible mosaics made of some very modern mirrored materials. For those of you who have been to Epic's campus or seen my pictures, it really looked like it belonged there. Someone needs to tell Judy that Epic needs an India themed building. And then they need to send someone to this temple to see what that looks like. There were also some young (maybe middle-school) girls who decided that Mary was their new best friend.

From Drop Box

Next we tried to go to dinner at a restaurant with some highly recommended tandoori, but got there much too early for Indian food and decided to move on to the Sri Durgiana Temple, which is also known as the Silver Temple for its silver doors and similar design (temple out on an artificial lake of holy water) to the Golden Temple. There was a Hindu ceremony going on when we got there, and not another tourist to be seen. The ceremony seemed to have some similarities to the one in Varanasi, in the sense that there was a priest doing something with candles or lamps. However, there was also beautiful singing coming from the entire congregation. It felt like a real religious ceremony, and a beautiful one, even though we didn't really understand what was going on. We got pushed forward from where we were standing at the back, just in time to be splashed with holy water. It was great. We think the decorations here are for Holi, which is tomorrow.

From Drop Box

Had we made it out to the Golden Temple itself, today would have been a perfect day. We'll try to do that early tomorrow for less crowds.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Amritsar - Jallianwala Bagh and Pakistan Border Ceremony

We arrived in Amritsar. As usual, we decided to walk to our desired Lonely Planet hotel, and took a couple wrong turns along the way, making for a very long 1.5-km walk. Though we can blame the difficulty finding the place on the construction that we tried to go around instead of walking through. Silly us, we must have forgotten that we were in India. And then when we got there, there didn't seem to be any other hotels nearby to price compare with (in hindsight this was only because of our direction of approach), but we managed to get a decent price anyway. Up until we met that Asian-American couple in Udaipur who explained hotels to us, we thought there had just been a decent bit of price inflation (like 50%-100%), but now that we know how it works we can generally get the Lonely Planet rate, or sometimes, like today, do better.

From Drop Box

After checking in, we walked to the Old City for lunch. We saw paneer tikka masala on the menu for the first time and decided to try it (very spicy) and also decided on some good old palak paneer, which we haven't ordered since Bharatpur. The palak paneer was basically just like back home... which seems to be a source of disappointment at this point, at least to Mary.

After lunch we booked a shared taxi for the Pakistan border ceremony. With a little time to kill, we wandered into the Jallianwala Bagh, a park commemorating the Indians killed by the British military here in 1919. It's a beautiful park now, but you can see the bullet holes in the walls in several places. For those who've seen the Ghandi movie, it's *that* massacre. It was a moving place to visit.

From Drop Box

In the afternoon, we grabbed a shared taxi out to the Pakistan border to see the elaborate ceremony and pre-ceremony. Josh in real time: India has really packed the stands and they are playing music and running flags. The music picks up and now women are dancing in the road. Instant dance party at the border. There are probably 50 women and girls dancing now. I can't tell what Pakistan is doing, but there are fewer people and I can hear music, but the crowd is less animated. Overall the feel is more that of a sports game than anything else. As the guidebook says, it's like a page out of the Ministry of Silly Walks.

From Drop Box

From Drop Box

Pizza for dinner, and apparently Josh can't count to 4, and thus secured the greater 'half' of the pizza for himself. So Mary needed dessert. Bed is comfy, which is more than can be said for the train. Night all.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Train Day

It's been a somewhat boring day on the train today. We're on a 24+-hour train from Varanasi to Amritsar. Mary got some fabric the night before and spent some time making little interior pockets for our small daypack. Josh read pretty much the whole HindustanTimes paper. Also spent some time reading on Kindles, Josh is reading “Frankenstein,” Mary is reading “Around the World in 80 Days.” We've had a couple different Indian traveling companions at different times. The first was a banker, from whom we learned that the Indian trains are all electric, getting their power from overhead like the light rail in Portland. The second is a Jain businessman who runs 4 clothing showrooms in Lucknow and wanted to know all about how much we are spending on our round-the-world trip (for anyone curious State-side, the target budget is $20K, with a drop dead return home early limit of $30K), how much we made back home, what things cost in America, and so forth. He also wanted to play with each electronic gadget we got out, and know how much each costs. We also saw pictures of all his family members, and learned about how Jains are not allowed to eat any meat, not even eggs, and how they are not allowed to eat anything except fruit and milk after sunset, but that that's healthier anyway.

Anyway, we are in 2A accommodations, which is a pretty high class of sleeper. It's very nice, aside from the occasional mini roach. It’s odd seeing them in the higher class and not in the lower class. I wonder if it's all the tourists eating crumbly bread and crackers, compared with the containers of Indian curries brought by Indians on the trains, which probably leave a lot less roach food behind.

Also, the bathroom, while nice and clean, has minimalist plumbing. You can see the tracks going by at the bottom of the toilet bowl. No wonder there is a sign outside saying not to use the toilet at the station!

Note the Sunlight from Drop Box

That was the excitement for the day, and I've been getting a little motion sick (hope it's motion sickness!) if I try to read much, so it's been mostly pretty dull. But dull isn't so bad every now and again.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Varanasi - Local Culture, Aarti, Stuffed Pancake Recipe

We were somewhat skeptical about Varanasi after our bad experience in Mathura, and indeed the day started off poorly when our tuk-tuk driver, after agreeing to take us to the Golden Temple for 20 rupees and driving us away from the train station, told us that he could not take us to the Golden Temple and wanted to know what hotel to take us to (tuk-tuk drivers generally extract "referral" commissions from hotels, even if you were planning to stay there anyway, and this translates to a higher room rate--they do it everywhere in India, but especially badly in Varanasi according to Lonely Planet). After arguing with him for a while, we got out and managed to find a cycle-rickshaw pretty quickly, which was a relief since we had no clue where we were. I am starting to hate tuk-tuk drivers with a passion.

Along the Ganges from Drop Box

We wondered along the Ganges for a little while trying to find the backpacker part of town. We dropped in at one hotel with rates posted in US dollars, for $125/night. Wow. We declined to actually look at the room as our packs were heavy and Mary needed to pee (having declined to do so on the night train or at the station). Also looked at a couple places that seemed of questionable value. One was 400 Rs with shared squat bathroom, and another with so much shit in the entryway we didn't ask to see rooms. By this time we were starting to see signs for the Brown Bread German Bakery, which we knew from Lonely Planet to be a branch of a Western charity, which also has a guest house with basic cheap rooms (proceeds benefit local schools). We dropped in for a few minutes and got directions to the guesthouse, which we were told was probably full, and set off. The guesthouse was indeed full, so we tried next door at Shankeri Tourist Lodge, where we talked the owner down from 300 Rs to 120 Rs on a very basic room with no screens and a shared Indian bathroom. We are increasingly finding the squat toilets to be okay. Actually, a dirty squatty is vastly superior to a dirty Western toilet, as the only part of you that touches it is the bottoms of your shoes.

Entrance to Our Hotel from Drop Box

We had breakfast there, deposited our laundry, and heard a lot from the owner about Holi, Varanasi, his friend's silk shop, and various things to do in the city that he could arrange for us for a fee. He was a little pushier than we would have liked, but the fees he was suggesting sounded reasonable, and I do appreciate hearing the available options... once. Mary really liked the stuffed "pancakes" (actually parantha). We also talked about family planning--we keep getting asked if we are on our honeymoon, and then how long we have been married. It seems to be absolutely mild boggling to people here that we have been married going on 5 years and don't have any children yet. He told us that in India you must have a baby within 1-2 years, but after that it is socially acceptable to use contraceptives, and have as many or as few additional children as you want, and wait as long or as short as you like to have them.

After breakfast we departed along the Ganges taking in the sights. It was really hot. And there was little to no shade. We stopped for a break near what turned out to be one of the burning ghats, where we saw a small funeral procession and the preparation of a funeral pyre that didn't look big enough (no photos allowed of the funerals). We decided to move on before they lit it. We moved away from the river and into the city for more shade. Josh also bought some sunglasses, having lost the ones he brought from home. We proceeded southward with the intention of going to a museum at the university before lunch, then one with an extensive weapons collection across the river after lunch. We ended up only doing the first museum because we were so tired, and after some difficulty caught a tuk-tuk back to our hotel area, where we purchased a few silk ("silk"?) scarves and a cheap basic daypack (having decided we were sorry we didn't bring one).

Mini Painting at the Museum from Drop Box

We had a very late lunch (3-4pm) at the Brown Bread German Bakery. It was pretty expensive and rich, but also very good. We had fondue and a very cheesy spinach lasagna. The restaurant was, as I said above, part of a Western charity, and it was also a total hippie joint, full of white hippies and supposedly all organic fair trade food. We enjoyed relaxing, stretched out on pillows on the floor at low tables. It's also the first place we've been in India where Lonely Planet suggests that you can get your water bottle refilled with safe-to-drink water, which we did.

After, we went to our hotel room to relax for a while, then went out to see the Aarti ceremony at sunset. It turns out that the lighting and placing of candles on the river is only the smallest part of this ceremony, and there were not that many candles put afloat. The rest for the ceremony, until we got bored, there was a lot of singing, dancing, and drumming by the priests, and a lot of mosquito slapping by the tourists. The whole thing didn't sit quite right with us, I think largely due to being in entirely the wrong mood, having arrived early and spent like a half hour with people trying to sell us candles and boat rides. Can you imagine showing up for Evensong at Salisbury Cathedral and spending the first half hour having the alter boys try to sell you votive candles or a pew with a better view?

From Drop Box

From Drop Box

From Drop Box

From Drop Box

When we got back to our hotel, we chatted with a couple other tourists, a student from Australia and another from Seattle. For dessert (we weren't really hungry again after that lunch), Josh got lassi and Mary got more of the fantastic "pancakes" which the woman of the house allowed her to help make. She used the same parantha dough that we saw in Delhi, ~2 parts wholewheat flour to 1 part water (she just keeps some made up all the time in a closed container). A golf-ball-sized amount was then flattened to about 3 inches across. She stuffed this with broken up Indian Sweet* and sugar (around 1/2 tablespoon each), folded the dough around it, dipped in whole wheat flour and flattened to parantha-size (5 or 6 inches across) and fried in a little bit on oil on a flat pan. Mary didn't use enough oil on hers and they kept trying to inflate like chipati! *Indian Sweet, at least as used here, is made of condensed milk (think Carnation canned stuff), which has been further condensed until it forms a candy which had be readily smashed into a soft powder. Meanwhile, Josh was learning about making curd from fresh raw milk.

Our bed that night was kind of funky, only cots with two thick blankets, sheeted as if we were supposed to just sleep on top of both of them and bring our own blanket to keep warm. Josh found it warm enough to sleep in just his silk travel sack all night, while Mary moved between the blankets in the middle of the night, and found the bed more comfortable that way, the bottom blanket being less lumpy than the top. We also used our bug net, but thanks to being on the 3rd floor, it didn't seem to be needed even without screens in the windows. In spite of the funkiness of the room, I would recommend the establishment on account of liking our hosts so much. Varanasi itself didn't do much for us, but between the bakery, the friendly folk at our hotel, and the stuffed "pancake" recipe it was a good day.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Travel from Khajuraho

Our last morning in Khajuraho we decided we were tired of our peanut butter, nutella, banana breakfasts in our room and returned to Ganesh Restaurant for breakfast. When we don't get up too early, it's nice to sit at a table together eating breakfast, drinking chai, talking, and reading. Earlier we were doing that everyday, but then we got out of the habit as the pace of our sightseeing picked up. (Also places tend not to open for breakfast until 8am, which is often not early enough for us lately.) Over breakfast we enjoyed watching a baby goat through the window and talking about the feasibility of having one ourselves (a goat that is, not a baby--don't get too excited, Mom).

Josh wasn't feeling so hot, so he went back to the hotel to relax while Mary continued on to the little Archeology Museum alone. Lonely Planet said it would be 5 rupees admission, but when Mary got there, they told her it was the same ticket as the Western Group of temples (a 250 rupee ticket!), and it was only valid for the same day admission. No big deal if we'd known this up front, but really annoying since we didn't. Skipped the museum since it didn't sound like it was worth anywhere near $5 to see.

We went to a south Indian restaurant for lunch (yay dosa!) and then got on a bus for Satna, where we plan to catch the night train to Varanasi. We are currently on the wait list, but pretty high on it so we should be fine.

Later - we are at the train station and have confirmed seats. Something a little strange happened on the bus as we were coming into Satna. They tried to get all the tourists to get off somewhere unknown (not the bus station), and made us get all our baggage that had been on top of the bus up to that time. They said this was where we should get off to go to the train station, but we also heard someone say that we were only 10 km from the train station when the bus station is 3 km from the train station. So we thought maybe they were trying to get us to take an expensive tuk-tuk ride to the station. There are so many scams like that in this country, a tourist learns not to stray from her planned course of action or take an alternate destination for stuff like this. Or maybe it really was the right place and the 10 km we heard was for something else. At any rate, we and all the other tourists insisted on staying on until the bus station.

After the tuk-tuk ride to the train station we got our seat assignments, then we went outside and got some popular street food and bananas. I think dinner was 28 rupees outside plus 23 rupees for a soda in the station. We are in class AC3 tonight, which should have the same arrangement as Sleeper Class, plus AC (not that we'll need it), blankets, pillows, reading lights, and wealthier travelers. We're counting on the blankets!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Khajuraho - Raneh Falls

There's not a ton to do in Khajuraho, but we decided to stay a few days because it's cheap and we needed a rest day or two.

In the morning we spent some time on the internet, calling Mary's parents (it was already too late to call Josh's), buying an "Adventure Guide" to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos for the Kindle (which sadly looks like it will turn out to be of limited usefulness... not looking to stay in 4 and 5 star hotels even if they are half the price they would be in the US!), and booking our flight from Mcloed Ganj to Singapore.

For lunch we went back to the pizza place we went to on the first day for dinner (Bella Italia), and while it was amazing for dinner, it ended up being rather disappointing for lunch... like they didn't have the wood-burning pizza stove up to full temperature or something at lunch.

After lunch we took a tuk-tuk to the park 18 km away that was supposed to have a nice waterfall, then took a very hot 3-km walk from the entrance to the falls. We'd imagined the walk would be shady, but it wasn't. Lonely Planet had given me the impression that the water flowed year round, and indeed it seemed to, but there was only a trickle of the waterfall you could see from the observation platform. There seemed to be another channel we could hardly see with the rest of the water in it. The gorge was impressive though.

From Drop Box

From Drop Box

We spent the afternoon reading. Josh finished “Emma,” and we were both disappointed in our new Southeast Asia guide.

For dinner we went out to Ganesh Restaurant, which was cheap but not terribly inspired. And our food came "tourist mild" instead of "Indian mild," which we can hardly hold against a place, but is always disappointing. Mary had a yummy samosa afterward from a street vendor we'd scoped out the night before.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Khajuraho - Erotic Temple Central

Our second day in Khajuraho we got up early and made ourselves peanut butter, Nutella, and banana sandwiches on oat bread, then made our way to the big temples (West Group) right around opening time. It's great being up early in India because most people (especially the touts) are still sleeping and everything is still closed. Well, it's great if you have supplies for breakfast in your room anyway.

The carvings on the temples were incredible, as promised. Khajuraho was built around the 10th and 11th century AD, and then shortly after the area fell into disuse and most of the people moved away, leaving it with a low profile that allowed it to fly under the radar of the Muslim iconoclasts. It was “rediscovered” for the wider world when local guides took an Englishman to it in the 1800s.

The carvings, in addition to being wonderfully crafted and full of life, are also erotic. Now that's really something else. Several big 1000-year-old temples covered in carvings of people engaged in just about every sexual act/position you can imagine, and some that go somewhat beyond imaginable... though if anyone knows how to do the deed sitting cross-legged atop a partner who is standing on his head with his legs similarly folded, we'd be quite interested to know how it's done.

See for yourself…


After a few hours, we dropped in at the gift shop on our way out and were pleased to discover that it was a fixed price government store, where we purchased a handle for Mary's sister (she asked for handles from India). Then at one of the stands outside, Mary was emboldened by knowing the gift shop price to offer a street vendor 1/6 his asking price on another handle. The vendor followed us for about two blocks trying to get her to offer him more, so that must not have been too low of a starting offer. At another shop further along she offered the same price on a somewhat less elaborate handle and got it, even after much insistence on the part of the shopkeeper that it was not possible at that price. Can't quite believe the markups and bartering process here.

Next we spent some time enjoying the cool of our hotel room and doing laundry before venturing out to try some street food for lunch. At 2pm the street food options weren't too bad, but we kept seeing them preparing stuff for the locals differently than they prepared it for us when we tried to order it. Maybe we were ordering wrong, but we got the feeling they were trying to cut corners like we wouldn't know the difference.

After lunch we attempted to use the internet at the cheapest place we'd found so far, which turned out to have a slow connection, only USB 1 and Pentium3s running XP. After half an hour, we gave up and tried one of the more expensive places and it was much better.

Toward the end of the day, Josh negotiated us a really cheap bike rental and we went through the quaint old village and visited the Eastern Group of temples, which really didn't old a candle to the ones we'd seen in the morning.

Had chicken and paneer tikka (yum!) for dinner, and then got on the internet again.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Khajuraho or 'Mary Has a Bad Day'

You know it's going to be a bad day when a tuk-tuk driver tries to push you for a fare before you've even left the room you woke up in. But apparently that's how it is in Sleeper Class (actually the 4th class of sleeper cars), and more people are pointing in the window at you in a way that makes you think they want to sell you something. I think I'm starting to understand what it means to be treated differently because of your race, and I think traveling in India would be a lot more fun with darker skin. I know this makes me a bad person, but I want to ride in a higher class not for the amenities, but for the people who are priced out. In the USA, I can pass for a regular person, between my skin color, older car, modest home and jewelry, etc. But here, it seems that all most people can see is dollar signs. I'd like to promise myself that I will not spend any money at any business that sends a tout out after me, but I fear that doing so would result in going to bed hungry on the street.

Anyhow, back to the day... we started with a tuk-tuk ride to Khajuraho from the train station, and toured a whole bunch of hotel rooms. We eventually ended up at the hotel we'd originally wanted from the guidebook, but managed to get a better price than originally quoted us, since I'm sure they could see our confidence in our ability to go elsewhere. In fact, we actually got the very bottom of the price range listed in Lonely Planet for the first time all trip. Tonight's hotel room is only 150 rupees or about $3, and it's decent sized with 24 hour hot water on a quiet street.

After checking in and using the bathroom for the first time since Tibet House, we hit the town... which has some of the most annoying touts we've seen (okay, they were the same as everywhere, but they are the worst everywhere). Josh wanted to get street food for lunch, so we went out looking for a popular seller. Didn't find one, because we were too early. We got some food from a seller with 3 other customers right then. It was good, but not that cheap. Hopefully it won’t make us sick. Then we dropped into a South Indian restaurant for some dosa and chatted with a college student from Australia who is here on summer break.

After lunch we dropped into a shop where we found some nice looking (and very Indian-looking) brass handles, which is something Mary's sister kind of asked us to bring back for her. But he wanted around $15 for one, which seems too high. And Mary doesn't like to haggle any way other than turning around and walking out, which didn't work in this case.

Then we walked over to bus station where we wanted to exchange our ticket from here to Delhi for one from here to Varanasi, which theoretically is allowed. The guy gave us a hard time though, because the ticket wasn't in great shape. Then he demanded that we come up with change for him for the refund. Then when we went to buy the new ticket he apparently didn't anymore have the small bills I'd just given him, and demanded exact change from us, which we no longer had. And he was pretty rude about it. Actually, he was pretty rude to us from the get go.

After that fiasco, we finally went to the Jain temple complex, our sightseeing for the day. By now it is miserable hot with not a cloud in the sky. The temples were nice, though not that exciting. They are not the main attraction in this town, and the touts getting there had been really annoying.

After, Mary wanted to stop and get a soda. The first place we stopped, we asked if they had the kind she wanted and they said yes and sent one of the people working there running across the street toward the other stand that had a sign up saying cold drinks. We asked, "How much?" They responded, "Have a seat." We clarified that we wanted to know the price and again they responded, "Have a seat." I would really like to know if this is a cultural thing, or a trying to rip you off thing, the way the rickshaw drivers respond "don't worry about it" when you ask the price of the ride. I think much of the problem here is that we are honestly not as rich as they think we are. Yes, some Americans will spend $3 on a soda and not think anything of it or wish they'd checked the price first, but if we were people to "not worry about it", we never would have been able to afford to come to India. And if we don't worry about it on the trip we will have to go home early. Anyway, we moved on from that establishment and after a while came across another stand where we purchased a soda and he opened it for us and then said we had to pay him another 5 rupees if we wanted to walk away with it rather than drink it there and return the bottle. In his one chair. In the full direct sun. We were really pissed, and he didn't want to give us a refund (obviously), so we just walked away. I feel a little bad, since maybe he honestly thought it went without saying that we would stand there and drink it. But mostly it just made me angry because it seems like people here are always playing these little mind games with you after services are rendered. Did he really not understand? Or is he just taking me for a ride trying to extract some more money? I certainly don't want to cheat anyone, especially not anyone so much poorer than myself, not even by accident. But at the same time I very strongly don't want to give a red cent to a person who tries to take advantage, and very much regret giving them my business. And then I don't know if I am being horribly rude when I blow off the person who responds with "have a seat" or "don't worry" (maybe it's a cultural thing and many people don't understand that some bad apples have made it impossible for white people to respond politely?), or if they really were working a con and I'm just telling them I'm not that dumb.

So yeah, it was a bad day. Now it's time to go out for dinner and turn in early for bed. Maybe it will be better with a good night's sleep.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Back in Delhi - Cooking Class

Early in the morning we took the one flight per day from Udaipur to Delhi, so we could catch one of the 3 trains per week from Delhi to Khajuraho in the evening. We decided to occupy ourselves by taking a cooking class in Delhi. The other two students were a pair of German women working on an article for a German food magazine. So there was a certain amount of time taken up with staging things just so for taking good photos. It really added to the odd feeling that we were in a cooking show.

We made dal (lentils) in a pressure cooker, surprisingly quick and easy. We made an eggplant dish that started by cooking the eggplant naked on the gas burner until the skin got black and crinkly (said we could do this in the oven on high heat, like 200-250 C, if we don't have gas--turn every 10 minutes). The eggplant was then pealed and somewhat mashed before being added to a simple stir-fry of oil, onion, garlic, ginger, Indian spices, and fresh tomato. We have more detailed recipes of both of these.

From Drop Box

We also made deep fried okra by slicing the okra lengthwise and mixing it with chickpea (gram) flour and salt and chili. Then deep-frying for surprisingly long.

Finally, we made parantha and roti. Both start with dough made from only whole-wheat flour and water, in approximately 2:1 proportions such that you get dough with a nice consistency. For the parantha, we took a golf-ball-sided chunk and made a round circle maybe a 1/8" thick, then added some oil, garlic, and spices on top, spread evenly-ish over the surface. Then make a single cut from the center to the edge and fold it in a circle of little triangles (about 6). Then put what was the middle of the circle on the table and open/flatten it like a rose. Dip in flour so it's not sticky and roll it out again to about 1/8" thick. Then cook on a flat cast iron pan. I think she cooked it for a bit on each side without oil (dough should be dry enough that this isn't a problem), then added some oil and cooked a bit more on each side. When it was done she crinkled it up a bit in her hands to open the layers.

The roti involved taking the same amount of dough rolled to the same size then cooked on both sides on the cast iron pan without oil. Then place it naked on the gas flame such that it fills with air and becomes a ball. Then remove and eat. I imagine it takes some practice to get the amount of cooking on each side just right to form that perfect pocket shape. It's the cooking on both sides that forms the pocket, not anything to do with how you roll it out. I look forward to practicing this, and making all this food again, when we get home. Or maybe before that in the youth hostels in Europe.

The Germans gave us their business card and invited us to email them our contact info so they can send us a copy of the article. And told us that we simply must come to Berlin when we are in Europe next summer, and to contact them when we do so they can show us around. I think our Europe itinerary could end up being 6 weeks of visiting a bunch of the Europeans we meet in Asia. Probably a great way to make Europe more affordable... and more fun!

After, we went to Tibet House because it was close by. We'd planned to go to the museum, but it was closed that day, and instead spent some time reading in the library.

In the evening, we got on our night train for Khajuraho.

From Drop Box

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Upon arrival on the night train to Udaipur, we took a tuk-tuk to a hotel recommended in Lonely Planet and checked into about the cutest little room ever. We were told it was over 200 years old, and we believed it, given the way it compared with all the old buildings from that era we'd been in. It had nice paintings on the wall, a cute window seat, and one room for the toilet/sink and another for the shower, making in the first place we've stayed so far where you could shower without getting the toilet wet. Pretty sweet. It was only 500 rupees, so we happily took it, took showers, and had breakfast (including Nutella toast) at the rooftop restaurant.

Our first site of the day was the City Palace Museum, which at first was very busy, but oddly the crowds petered out over time even though it seemed to be a one-way museum with no options even for an early exit. The first portion of the museum was about local history, with some mediocre art to illustrate important events that we didn't have the historical background to appreciate. Nothing like coming to a place like India to illustrate how Euro-centric our educations were. However, the second half of the museum had nice art, furniture, views, and well-restored mosaics that made us wish we'd paid the 200-rupee camera fee. Oh well.

The museum took us a few hours, so the next stop was lunch at the Lonely Planet recommended restaurant Maxim's Cafe. Service was incredibly slow but we had a good time chatting with a pair of women from Australia and an Asian-American couple. The Asian-American couple are nearing the end of a 6-month tour and had lots of tips to share. They said that as soon as a hotel makes it into Lonely Planet, they double their prices (something we were staring to suspect), and that if you go across the street you can generally find very similar rooms and amenities for half the price. They said that sometimes they leave her with the bags in the lobby of one hotel while he makes an excuse to go out and checks out other hotels in the area. They also said they've had good luck hanging out in the lobbies of the fancy hotels and using their internet. And that the street food is amazing, and around 5 rupees, and that they've been fine eating it at any popular establishment regardless of seeing the food cooked or not. All four spoke highly of Varanasi, so I think we will try to stop there.

From Drop Box

After lunch we went to a cultural museum in an old Palace with its rooms restored and decorated to be representative of life there back when it was new. It was a small but nice museum. After that we wondered the streets for a while, finding a nice little general store with a very helpful owner who helped us find a lens cloth for our camera (something the camera shops didn't have!) at a sunglasses shop. We also purchased a little bottle of hand sanitizer from him (since you can't really trust the tap water for that), something we've been seeking for quite a while with no success. Later in our wanderings we stopped by a used watch shop and Josh picked up a Sandoz automatic (self-winding) watch for 1000 rupies. He is very happy with it.

We returned to the touristy area in time to grab a few bananas before returning to the cultural museum for an evening performance of traditional dances from Rajasthan. We didn't bring our camera as we figured it would be too dark. Big mistake. The dances were really cool. There was one depicting a sword battle between two guys, one riding on a tiger. In another a couple women did an energetic dance with flaming pots on their heads. Another was by puppets, the most amazing marionettes, one with a sexy dance with jiggling boobs and hips, another with a magician who took his head off and did a variety of things with it. Finally, there was a dance by a woman who kept adding pots to her head until she had a stack taller than she was on top of her head!

After the show we stopped to put our shoes on and who should we meet coming out after us but Resy, the Dutch nurse we spent the day with in Fetepur Sikri 10 days previously! We went to dinner together and heard about her trip out to Jaisalmer where she did an overnight camel trip. We'd decided against that before, but she made it sound really nice, and made us wish we'd left time for it and didn't have a flight already booked back to Delhi 36 hours later! We arranged to spend the following afternoon sightseeing with her via tuk-tuk.

In the morning we tried to take the boat ride out to one of the islands on the lake, but arrived too early. When we were walking back to our hotel, another hotelkeeper called out to us to try his rooms. We said we had a hotel already and he said he had rooms for 300 rupees. Remembering what the Asian-American couple had said the day before, we went up and had a look. It was larger, but less cute than the room we already had. He also claimed to have 24-hour hot water, though we didn't check. Josh offered him 250 for it and he took it. So we checked out checked out of our other hotel and moved across the street for a similar room a half the price, just like they said. Of course we're only talking about a $5 savings, but out of a $40-$60/day target budget, that's not bad, and it'll add up.

The boat ride ended up being kind of disappointing: a nice view of the city from the water, but then a little boring. The island had looked cool from the mainland, but when we got there the hotel that owned it would only let us walk around a small boring courtyard and go to their overpriced restaurant, which we declined to do. We wondered around the City Palace grounds for a bit after, until it was time to meet Resy.

Outside Lame Courtyard

Lame Courtyard

Lake Palace Hotel, featured in Octopussy.

City Palace

We found Resy outside our old hotel lobby, excitedly waiting for Nutella toast. We joined her for a tuk-tuk tour of a variety of gardens in the vicinity, including one we took a paddleboat out to. We picnicked on bananas and American Style potato chips and talked about how much better it would be if we also had peanut butter or Nutella. Later, it occurred to me that the guy who was so helpful with the lens cloth and hand sanitizer might know where we could buy such things. Resy agreed to go on such an expedition with us, and when we found him it turned out he actually carried Nutella. We bought his last two containers. He was all out of peanut butter, but said he was getting more the next day. We ended up finding another shop with peanut butter later.

We took a break and got on the internet for a while to print out our boarding passes and try to post to the blog, but had difficulty uploading photos.

We went to dinner at Queen Cafe, which was highly recommended in her guidebook and had the most amazing pumpkin curry. Except we didn't really believe it was pumpkin, it seemed like apples. Either way, it was really good.

When we were almost done, we were joined by a young man from London who was taking a year off between high school and college to teach English. He was taking 2 weeks off from that for some sightseeing. The most incredible thing though was that he was drinking the tap water. The restaurant owner obviously thought he was nuts, just like we did, but he said he'd gotten a cholera vaccine back home that also protects against Delhi Belly. Said he's been drinking the tap water for months with no trouble. I want that vaccine!

Resy gave us her contact info and some details on the cheap European airline that goes to Holland, so that we can visit her when we are in Europe. Sweet.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Upon arriving in Jaipur, we picked out a hotel to try from our book, across the street from the bus stand and less than 1 km from the train station. Since it was so close we decided to walk instead of taking up the touts on their offer of 40 rupies to take us anywhere in the city. Three km later we found directions from someone with decent English and hopped a bus to the bus stand. We then walked all over creation looking for our hotel before again finding directions from someone who pointed out to us that based on the address, out hotel was clearly incorrectly placed on the map. Ugh. We eventually found it and checked in, before taking a cycle-rickshaw (that took forever) to the Jantar Montar. Our rickshaw driver demanded 3x the agreed upon rate when we got there, insisting that we'd misunderstood him.

We got a tour of the Jantar Mantar as recommended by Lonely Planet, and he showed us all the stuff, including the largest sundial in the world, lots of smaller sundials, and a few instruments for determining the precise location of the sun in the zodiac, and the altitude and azimuth of the sun. The whole thing was geared very strongly toward astrology and our guide did not like that we don't believe in astrology, and Josh didn't like that our guide did. Mary hadn't properly read up on the site ahead of time and was disappointed that it was all so new (1700s) and didn't feel like it really had much bearing on navigation, early astronomy, mathematics, or old records. So she found it kind of disappointing too. The Indians were great mathematicians and astronomers way back in the day (after all, they are the ones the Arabs learned "Arabic" Numerals from), but other than a passing mention of this in the museum at Akshardham, you wouldn't know it now. At least you wouldn’t as a western tourist. They should put together a museum on these ancient roots. Maybe someday.

(This is the big one)

Anyway, after that slightly disappointing stop we went to the expensive and highly recommended LMB restaurant nearby. We decided to get the Rajasthani Thali because it was so highly recommended. It was like a $7/person 12 course meal (compare with spending less than $10/day for all meals for both of us most of the time). We asked for it less spicy when they said we had a choice, but it was still exceedingly spicy... though not too spicy for Josh, or even for Mary these days (all you folks who used to go out to spicy food with us would be impressed by what Mary can eat these days). However, Josh found he could hardly eat it because his stomach was upset, though he ordered milk and was able to drink that. Mary also had to stop eating early due to an upset stomach.

We now think that the upset stomachs, abdominal cramps, and lack of ability to eat much of the spicy food lately actually had nothing to do with travelers diarrhea, but instead is just our digestive tracks not being able to handle spicy Indian food 3 meals per day, 7 days per week. Disappointing, but eating boring Western food a couple meals per day has cleared up the problems beautifully and quickly.

Our hotel keeper convinced us that the bus (all day) was not a good way to get from Jaipur to our next destination (Udaipur) and that we should take the train (all night) instead... Giving us a second day in Jaipur.

Next morning, we started out eating roasted cashews (from LMB) and bananas in our hotel room, and then went to the City Palace to see a bunch of maharaja stuff. Josh especially liked the armory where we got to see lots of exotic weapons that we have been hearing Jamie refer to in D&D for a while, but have not been totally able to picture. We also really liked the way they spelled out words with the weapons in some displays. No photos allowed, unfortunately. Mary especially liked the fancy audience chamber with its enormous chandelier and exquisite gold, red, and blue floral paintwork still in excellent condition. Unfortunately this was another no-photo zone. Possibly the coolest thing about City Palace the day we were there, however, was that there were elaborate decorations going up all over for the wedding that evening of one of the relatives of the maharaja. Normally at these sites it is up to you to imagine what it was like back when it was in use and had it's wood/fabric/whatever that isn't there anymore because it doesn't stand up to the elements. So it was really cool seeing the wedding prep work.

We ate what turned out to be a crazy-expensive (for what it was) meal of bad/boring American food at the museum and went into the "friends of the museum" section, which claimed to be a place where you could see local artisans doing their traditional work. Yeah, not so much. Pretty much your regular street vendor trash and trinkets.

After, we climbed the iconic Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Winds, a strangely thin, wide, and tall building.

From the Hawa Mahal, we caught a very full bus up to the Amber Palace on the hill. From the road we walked up the last bit of steep hill to the palace. According to Lonely Planet, there was also the option of taking a jeep or riding an elephant, though we didn't see these. Perhaps they were ways to go from the city to the beginning of the walk, since that's where we saw the elephants. Anyway, we weren't going to take either option since we are too cheep to spend $3 on a jeep ride, and while the $11 elephant ride sounded like a bargain, Lonely Planet urged us not to do it on account of the poor treatment of the elephants.

We skipped the guides and audio tour since we weren't in the mood, though in hindsight it seemed like a good place for such a thing. We enjoyed poking around on our own (it's quite a maze!), and found part of the old water system to bring lake water up to the Palace, in addition to a lot of beautiful buildings. We snacked on some western style pastries (brownie and nut cake) and had a milkshake at the cafe. It was expensive, but worth it.

Part of Water System from Trip of a Lifetime 3 - 102PENTX

Amber Palace from Trip of a Lifetime 3 - 102PENTX

The bus back to Jaipur was exciting. It was full in a way that made the full buses we've been on before seem roomy. The conductor was often riding practically outside the bus, holding the rest of us in. He ended up taking Josh's bag from him and storing it in the "trunk" of the bus. If we'd known that was going to happen, we probably would have spent the 3 dollars on a tuk-tuk. But it was totally fine.

In the evening we dropped into a couple watch shops, including the World of Titan show room. Titan is a big name in watches here in India and Josh is looking for a nice watch.

Finally we started looking for dinner and were tempted by some amazing looking kabobs on the street, but refrained. Instead we found our way to one of the Lonely Planet recommended restaurants, Handi, which turned out to be associated with one of the kabob sellers we'd been salivating over. We split a big sampler plate of varied tandoori and kabobs--our first meat in 2 weeks! And after all the boring food from earlier in the day we were even able to eat it. It was incredible.

After, we walked back to our hotel, picked up our luggage, and went to the train station for our overnight train to Udaipur. We were in an AC chair car, but it was not the same as the AC chair car we took to Agra. It seemed to be a second-class AC chair car, something we hadn't realized existed. It was a long night.