Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Taj!

So where to begin? It's the Taj Mahal and it IS as spectacular as you might think!

Counting down the days to the trip, this afternoon's itinerary was circled in red ink. But why? I know its one of the most famous buildings in the world so what exactly is it? The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built by Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife Mumtaz Jahan who died during child birth of their 14th child. However, just before she died, he promised to build her the world's most beautiful mausoleum. Well, I think he succeeded!

The security on the site is fairly strict - you're only allowed to enter with a camera and your wallet - no bags, no drinks, etc.  They actually give you one bottle of water with your ticket.  A lady in front of Steph had her small purse checked and the female guards were questioning a little decorated lipstick case.  They kept turning it over and over and looking at it...finally, the lady (a tourist who probably picked that up off a local street vendor) just said the guard could keep it.  They smiled and let her through which is probably what they wanted anyway.

Entering through a huge gate you are welcomed with the view below. As you probably guess the view doesn't usually come built in with a Steph, but in this case, I think she adds something special to it. The first glance of the Taj is just breathtaking and you're so excited that you have to stop here to take a picture...not quite realising that the view will get even better once through the arch.  Shah Jahan - you did well.  How is a modern man supposed to compete...

Anyway, entering through the arch you see the reflection pool at the base and then rising above is the beautiful and perfectly symmetric white marble building.  Its just staggering!  Its much larger than we thought it was and luckily the crowds quickly fade away as you are awe struck (for the second time!) starring at it in disbelief. Am I really here?   I know it sounds crazy and very cliche but its probably one of the best highlights we've had in the last few years.  Its just epic!

Since we were visiting just after the festival it was more busy than normal.  In fact, it was packed!  People were everywhere and the line to get into the mausoleum was long, winding around the building, up the stairs, and around again.  While waiting in line a local family behind us kept trying to sneak around us; well, actually they weren't too sneaky about it - they actually just blatantly kept walking around us!  We struck up a conversation with one of the younger family members, a late teenager probably.  He spoke good English and had fun talking to us.  We thought that making friends with him would have put an end to his family's line jumping, but it kept up.  So, we resorted to sticking out our elbows and shaking our head at them (and walking back around a few of them!).  It was entertaining if in the least!  We ended up having to wait in this line so long that by the time we got in it was dark.  As a result, we didn't see much at all because there aren't any lights inside.  This is one of the few old historic sites across the world that we've run in to that wasn't retrofitted with electricity, but we're not complaining since its original beauty was preserved.  

One interesting thing is that the Taj changes colors throughout the day.  The white marble absorbs the light and shines differently depending on the time of day.  As the sun was going down it had a slight orange glow about it but as dawn hits its supposed to turn a gleaming white.  What a building!

And the Taj is only the main building...there is an entire complex of buildings and water features around it - every building being quite exquisite in and of itself!

When you enter the area to enter the mausoleum, you have to either take your shoes off at the entrance or wear these disposable little red shoe covers.  They are awesome!  Being tourists and having heard the stories of "lost" shoes at the site and knowing we stick out of the crowd anyway, we opted for the red slippers.  You can easily see them in them in the picture of me trying a new angle for my photo.   You know...trying to get the last of the remaining light and the Taj at an interesting angle...

As darkness set in, we started to exit the complex.  We quickly understood why it closed at sunset.  Not only was their no electricity inside the Taj itself, but there was no electricity in the entire complex except for one single light at the central building where we first entered.  As we were walking out, we were instructed to keep any eye on our things.  "Please keep a close eye on your bags and don't encourage the guys selling souvenirs; its just a hassle", said our guide.  It was the last chance of the day and they would be aggressive.  Ah, no worries, we are seasoned annoyance handlers!  Well, the advice soon was forgotten as it was too easy and entertaining to chat with them.  At one point, these guys were selling stone carved turtles with a baby turtle inside which we had seen numerous times since we arrived in Agra. Well, I was joking with one of the guys that we'd only buy one if it had 2 babies inside.  Even though his turtle only had one baby inside, the young man followed us for a good 5 minutes - a half a mile or so to the bus.  He even kept hassling us through the bus window until we pulled away.  They're persistent - that's for sure! And actually, I was a little amazed that he didn't run away to try to find a turtle with 2 babies inside!

To cap off the epic day, we had dinner at a local restaurant where we had some good food.  You can see the thali I enjoyed (spicy pickle, rice, vegetable curry, salad, yogurt, bean stew, and rice pudding).  This restaurant also had some live music that was less than entertaining...apparently the guy had never made it past elementary songs with his violin.  His repertoire consisted of just a few songs, one being Frarajaca - we all got a good laugh out of that!  And instead of taking the simple 10 minute walk down the road to get back to our hotel, we opted for the Indian-style way home - 6 of us crammed in to one single autorickshaw for a great little zip down the road!  The evening made for a good end to a good day!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Auto Rickshaw Race to Sarnath

Today was a free day on the itinerary and one of the suggested optional extras was a trip to Sarnath - where Buddha gave his first sermon to his five disciples.  The trip would about 10km outside Varanasi by Auto Rickshaw.  Most of the group was interested in the trip so we all agreed to share rickshaws and hit the snooze button before meeting mid morning.  With the pace of the trip so far we all relished the idea of sleeping in and having a leisurely breakfast.  In doing so we gave the auto rick shaw drivers a pleasant surprise when all of us left the hotel at once needing 3 tuk tuks.  Tourist Jackpot!

However, we had a plan!  Before leaving the lobby we all agreed on how to negotiate thanks to a little pricing help from our  tour guide.  We all asked for a return journey and successfully negotiated a fair price.

I had it easy because Josh had made friends with a driver yesterday (going to the train station) and that driver was there, smiling and happy to see us as we walked out.  All that we had to do was negotiate a price which was much easier with repeat business.  Since he was the fastest, we had another plan - a race!

Ben and Nora were in another rickshaw and as we left we agreed with the drivers that the race was on.  And race they did!  Our rickshaw was in the lead most of the time but the other driver did his best to pass us, even taking side streets and not stopping for rough patches of road catching a little air.  Quick starts and tight turns kept us all entertained (and a bit scared) throughout.  In the end, we won!  Our driver, as marketed, had a newer, faster auto rickshaw.  Que evil boisterous laugh, Wahhhaahaa....

On site at Sarnath, we set our meet up time with the driver who gave us a few pointers and  directions to the attractions.  The site was very much a ruin - with only footprints of many of the old buildings.  However, the great Dhamek Stupa (DOME) was still intact and impressive.  More interesting however, was the museum at the site.  It has the original sculpture of The Lions at Sarnath - one the national symbols of India.  Neato.

After visiting those two sites, our driver being eager to please, offered to take us to 3 temples nearby as well.  Much like Lumbini, several countries built Buddhist temples in the area - our three were built by Tibet,  Sri Lanka and Japan.  All very unique and stunning.  We had a good time in the Tibetian temple - Josh, Ben and I went in one of the prayer wheel rooms and a nearby monk was saying you had to spin it 7 times.  Now, this is a big wheel maybe two stories tall.  You have to grab hold of the handle and walk it around 7 times.  So, we took off counting each lap 1, 2, ... 6.  For the last lap we kicked things into high gear speeding up and yelling 7 as we went around.  At that very moment something loudly went DING!  In our flurry, we looked at each other stunned!  What was that!?  Hang on what!?  Whoa!  How did, um, it know we went around 7 times?!  We then recruited a friend from our group to do the same.  She took the prayer wheel around and we carefully studied it to see what was happening.  Finally, we realized there was a lever at the top to ring a bell each time it went around.  But you had to be going fast enough to give the lever enough power to fully ring the bell.  We just happened to make it finally go fast enough to ring the bell on the last lap.  Whew!  Mystery solved.

Some of you might ask about the red gate photo with what looks to be a dark 20th century symbol.  Its actually highly used in Hinduism and Buddhism dating back to the bronze age but was stolen for other purposes, shown tilted on a 45 degree axis.  This is another example of interesting things you learn while travelling - you really have to keep an open mind because your reaction or understanding is based on what you're exposed to during your lifetime leading up to that moment.  These eye-opening experiences are one of the reason we love to travel.      

After we had our fun, we asked our driver to take us to a grocery store near the hotel.  We were following another auto rickshaw with other friends in it when we went past our hotel, turned right, then left, then right, the straight, then left and stopped at a random unmarked door.  As we were starting to get out we realised they had taken us to a silver shop.  Okay buddy, no, no!  We had to laugh and sternly say no thanks, take us to the grocery.  So, he turned his auto rickshaw around and took us straight down that same road to end up back at our hotel.  Hang on....that was just one road to this shop.  They obviously tried to make the shop seem like a hidden secret but when we showed no interest he just took the easy way out.  haha!!

We bought our driver a Coke for being his friendly self and loaded up on some goodies for our overnight train ride to Agra!  Time to gear up for the train ride...they don't have the best reputation.

The train station was full on!  We all had our big backpacks and had to walk rather briskly through a manic crowd and find our train car.  Due to the trains being quite full, Josh and I were the only ones in a different car than everyone else...but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing as we were actually in a higher class!  Inside the train things settled down.  We had half of a compartment, each getting a fold down bunk with fresh linens - a pillow, 2 sheets and a blanket.

We met a Norwegian couple in the bunk next to us and did a little photo talk.  They were Canon people too!  After hearing them talk about how they rushed to the station without buying any food and watching them eat some random fried thing from a vendor walking through the train - we decided to share one of our hotel take-away pizzas with them (as were actually full anyway from our last Butter Chicken and Paneer Butter Masala lunch, again!).  Shortly thereafter, we called it a night, chained our bags to the bed and pulled the curtain closed to try to enjoy err get a few hours of sleep before Agra!

Sarnath Photos

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Agra Fort

Fresh off the 12 hour overnight train from Varanasi, the sights and sounds of Agra awaited.  You may or may not have heard of Agra may but it is home to 3 World Heritage sites, Fatehpūr Sikrī, Agra Fort and the granddaddy of them all - Tāj Mahal.  Unfortunately, we only had time to see the latter two.  First up, Agra Fort, saving the Taj for an evening visit when its supposedly at its most grand.

The Agra Fort was first mentioned in the history books around 1080 AD and many of the most influential Mughal Emperors ruled from here.  Its a stronghold fort but also a royal palace.  At one stage, the government was even run from the fort.  The fort complex is huge and mainly made out of sandstone.  Two of the bigger names to live here are Akbar The Great and his grandson Shan Jahan (who built the Taj).  Akbar expanded the palace and loved the red sandstone.  Shan Jahan on the other hand favored the white marble which he started using instead.  Later on there was a lot of family drama and Akbar was locked in the fort where he ultimately died.

We hired a local guide to try and get an interesting perspective on the fort.  The name of the game here is haggling.  They quote some huge number and you say no walking away until finally they get reasonable and you choose who you like best.  Our guide would be Aziz, an older gentleman who claimed to have 30 years experience. Touring the site we learned about the various rooms including an air conditioned room that had hallow walls that would be filled with water to cool the room.  The fort has such a mix of Hindu, Moghal, Muslim and other influences.  There are ornate carvings and paintings along with amazing stonework and grand views.  The local guide did give us some good gossip though - telling us that due to the size and complexity of the layout of rooms in the fort, Akbar would play hide and seek with his 300 harem girls!

Before going to the fort, we had read that we might get our first glimpse of the Taj from a lookout in the fort...if the haze wasn't too heavy.  The haze in Agra can be thick, so said the tourbooks and our guide.  Its a mix of normal haze but getting worse and worse due to the huge pollution problem in the region.  There are numerous factories nearby that are having a detrimental impact.  So much so that it is even damaging the marble on the Taj turning it yellow.  Basically, it turns into acid rain settling on the marble with an unrepairable effect.  To counter act the effect, the government tried to do some refurbishment but with limited effect.  One big change in recent years is that area around the Taj is now restricted to electric powered cars to limit the pollution.  A small step in the right direction, but still clearly not enough!

Below is a photo from the lookout towards the Taj Mahal (first photo on the left) and then the same photo after heavy digital processing.  You can see that, in fact, the Taj is there through the haze!  Lets just hop that burns off later in the day.

While enjoying the "view" we were suddenly swarmed by a big group of Indian tourists.  Nothing out of the ordinary until 3 young guys asked to take a picture with me.  Well that was all it took, one yes from me and 25 minutes later we were still taking photos with other people.  Group photos, kids photos, even adults wanting photos.  I told you we were famous :) Steph found it particularly strange being a woman - as women wanted her to put her arm around their shoulders or when sitting, they would hold her hand or put a hand on her leg.  With men, it was quite the opposite - they wanted a photo with her but when sitting there was a clear divide of space between them! There were a lot of hellos, hand shaking and awkward posing with strangers but hey, its cool to be a celebrity for a few minutes.

One final note about the fort, they had a lot of wild parakeets flying around.  You know the bright green ones we always only see in cages.  They were quite stunning, seen in stark contrast against the subtle red sandstone.  Cool.

After the fort we had some time to kill and wondered down the street to pick up some lunch and hit up an Indian sweet shop.  Walking down the road, being an obvious tourist, can be exhausting!  We were always approached by rickshaw drivers and one even followed us for our whole walk to the sweet shop!  He finally gave up when we went inside.  Having no idea what any of the sweets were, we created our own sampler pack.  We ended up eating half the box and gave the rest away.  Some were yummy but others, eh, not so much.  I think it was the saffron in some of them that turned us off.  Plus some of them are not so sweet.  Oh well - always worth a try! 

We rested in the hotel room for the remainder of the afternoon, awaiting 3pm when we would depart for the Taj!

Agra Fort Photos

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Varanasi and the sacred Ganges

Varanasi is one of the most holy cities in the world for the Hindu people. It sits on the banks of the sacred Ganges (Gunga in Hindi) and is the only place where it flows opposite to its normal flow based on the land geography. People from all over India and other parts of the world come here on pilgrimage to bathe in the water of the holy Ganges. Hinduism is a complex religion with several variations but some core beliefs are Dharma (ethics/duties), Samsāra (The continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and subsequent reaction) and Moksha (liberation from samsara). Bathing in the Ganges is thought to cleanse you of your sins and facilitates liberation from the cycle of life and death.  Being such a historic, religious city - full of pilgrims nearly 24 hours a day with ceremonies occurring daily - Varanasi is a must see!

Up before dawn, we headed to witness the rituals on the river via a simple rowboat. As the sun came up we watched the people make their way down the banks and bathe – clothed – in the waters.  Slowly rowing down the river as the sun came up we took in the sights and sit in awe of India.

Disembarking from the row boat we saw another crematorium and just like Nepal, ending your life here is what every Hindu strives to do.

Now we headed into the small streets and narrow alleys to explore this ancient part of Varanasi...finding the city waking up with people going about their normal lives. Not surprisingly, we found cows and monkeys living in these alleys as well.  The monkeys just carry on like the city is one big playground and the cows are always rummaging through the garbage which is just in piles in random places.  While walking you always have to be on the look out for the "land mines" as our guide called them...but in Kentucky we'd refer to them as cow patties among other things...

The sites and smells were unbelievable as was the way in which they carried out life - eating, sleeping, working, etc.  We even ran into some school children on their way to school.  No big yellow buses here!  It was a big rickshaw!  The walk was just fascinating when compared to the Western lives we lead.

After our city walk and a nice breakfast, we went to a silk cooperative - a group of families that produce silk and silk products.  It was neat to walk through the maze of close-knit houses and observe them in all stages of the process.  Several guys were in the yard stretching out probably 20 yards of raw silk fibers that had just been dyed, in order to straighten them out and prepare them for the silk weaving process.  We also saw men and women both working on old-fashioned punch card weavers, making exotic and intricate patterns in glowing silk (while Josh and Ben played with the kids of the house in the adjoining room!).

We, of course, got the customary free drinks and display of all of their finished products in their salesroom.  After spending about 20 minutes oohing and aweing over bolts of silk fabric while the rest of group was (probably impatiently) waiting downstairs to return to the hotel, we walked away with only one, rather cheesy, silk cushion cover.  It came down to the fact that I had no idea what I would do with the fabric, regardless of how beautiful it was.  Well, at least I know where to go in the future!  

Back to the hotel by midday, we actually took the afternoon off and relaxed in our room ordering room service - a delicious Butter Chicken and Panner Tikka Masala.  (Come to find out after the food arrived, it was actually the Paneer Butter Masala that I loved so much!)  We also spent the time sending off our laundry to be cleaned and organizing our trip to Ranthambore National Park at the end of trip, which included sending the guys off on their own to the train station to buy train tickets!  I'll let Josh tell you about that adventure:
Before arriving in India, a Tuk Tuk ride, err auto rickshaw to the locals, was high on the list.  Until now, I had yet to have an opportunity to ride in one but I was finally going to get the chance.  Exiting the hotel it was like the drivers just knew we needed a ride.  They pounced on us as we opened the door which was unlike other times leaving the hotel.  After acknowledging that I did in fact need a ride and telling them where to go, they both instantly blurted out the same price.  Haggling a little bit I was able to get them both down to the price I wanted.  Starring at them I wasn't sure which one to choose thinking - he seems better dressed or he seems more honest or he speaks better English.  Then in one genius piece of marketing one of them said, "I'm the fastest!"  Instantly I said, "You win, lets go!"  We were off whizzing through the streets honking, swerving, dodging everything in our way.  The chaotic drive was great fun!
One good thing about the drivers is that they will wait for you and take you back if needed which was something I agreed on up front.  There wasn't any reason to go through the process of haggling with drivers again if you could avoid it.  Anyway, he parked and gave us directions to the "foreigner ticket office" which was a separate room off to one side of the station, air conditioned and out of the chaos of the main crowded station.  An hour later we emerged with train tickets in hand.  Finding our driver we took off back to the hotel. He was good fun and I instantly bonded with him by asking questions and egging on his driving, much to his amusement.  We will see him again later in the trip.

Our evening activity was to go back down to the Ganges for the nightly ritual that takes place to honor the sacred river. Again from a rowboat, we watched the show as people on the banks gathered as well. It is hard to describe so hopefully this video will give you some insight in to the events.  It all starts with everyone lighting a candle in a cup with some marigold blooms and letting that float away on the river.  Its a way to give thanks to the river.

To sum up the day, it was a day of amazement, watching the activities of the Hindu followers along the Ganges.  Life revolves around the river here and its fascinating to watch all the goings on along the banks. A couple times I kept thinking, I feel like I'm a part of a travel documentary.

After the great evening rowboat, it was back to the hotel for another awesome dose of Butter Chicken and Paneer Butter Masala!!  (my mom and dad used to always tell me that eating Chef Boyardee ravolis as a kid would turn my stomach orange...well, this very well may do the same thing - but who cares because it tastes so good! haha!)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Timeout for the Holidays

So, home for the holidays and in our normal style we did our best to cram in all we could.  The plan was to visit family in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio before flying to New York to celebrate Steph's big birthday.

On arrival in Charleston, we found ourselves scrambling to find a hotel room when our bags didn't make our flight.  For some reason, "it happens all the time", they would be on the last flight of the night and ready for us to pick up the next morning.  I guess its a good way to hopefully end the travel jinx we've had all year - starting with getting stuck in DC last December due to record snow fall, followed by volcanic ash cloud disruption (April) and canceled flights in both Chicago (June) and Faro (October).  We've had our share of flight problems this past year!  Let's hope 2011 can reverse this trend!

We did use our delay in Charleston to take a few photos of the impressive State Capital building out front that was frosted with a fresh layer of snow.  We really enjoyed seeing the family in West Virginia and then drove on to Kentucky to see the immediate family.  It was a wonderful Christmas - a white Christmas, in fact!  We also took a few photos with the new gear from Santa and tried out a technique we've been reading about (notice the shape of the lights?!).  It was good to be home for the holidays to visit with friends and family!

For Steph's birthday she wanted to celebrate in New York City.  What better place to celebrate New Years Eve than NYC?  After a little Google magic, I was able to surprise her with a personal shopping experience to explore some wholesale warehouses in the Garment District.  I'll let her tell you about it...


Well, as normal, Josh told me to go easy on shopping while I was home for the big surprise there!  But he was so insistent and after having Christmas with both my family and his (and not receiving a crazy mass of clothes from either of them) I had to break down and ask him if something was up....why can't I still go after-Christmas shopping?  That's when he gave me my birthday present - an afternoon with a personal shopper in NYC.  And not just any personal that has access to the designers' showrooms in the Garment District, showrooms not open to the public AND I could buy from them at wholesale!  Wahoo!

So, we started the day by grabbing a couple pastries-to-go from the hotel breakfast and a couple coffees from a nearby cafe.  We got there about 10 minutes early hoping to eat our pastries then but Pilar, the shopper, was already there and I quickly forgot about eating!

The first showroom was a knitwear/scarf designer.  I got some fabulous scarves, a couple nicely structured tops and a great poncho (as well as a couple pairs of leggings from one of the showroom worker's own line - not her boss's).  Then we were off to another knitwear showroom, but a French designer.  The line was very colorful and not completely my style but very interesting all the same.  I found two absolutely great sweaters - one that looked like knit lace!  The French designer was hilarious and shared a lovely box of chocolates with us too!  After another successful visit we were off to a coat designer.  I tried on a flury of coats - my favorite being a fancy bell coat (see picture) although I didn't purchase it.  It was amazing but I couldn't figure out how it fit in to my current lifestyle (I know, I know - sometimes I'm too rational for my own good!).  And last but not least was a business/dress wear designer who had an excellent showroom with huge glass windows overlooking a busy street of the district.  Kevin James got to watch me try everything on!  haha!  This last stop was probably the best - I scored some amazing suits and dresses, as well as some great accessories such as a studded handbag and a scarf - the same two the designer herself was carrying that day.

Pilar also went all out and organized a bottle of champagne for this last visit to make it even more fun!  After I filled three shopping bags worth of the day's finds, Pilar and the designer (Renee) invited us to the local bar for a drink.  It was really an interesting visit with them - finding out all about how they both got started, learning about all the struggles and less glamorous side of the fashion industry as well as just discussing why they both love NYC.  We finally went out separate ways but not without them recommending a pizza joint across the road ($1 a slice) and it was delicious!  All in all, it was a great day!  And amazingly, thanks to carefully rolling and packing the clothes, I didn't have to check an extra bag!  (although we did carry on a bit more!)


She was like a kid in a candy store which I will chalk up to being a successful birthday present.  I want to send out a big thank you to Pilar of who made our shopping trip an experience to remember.  I think she might have even turned us into repeat customers - it was an great way to shop!

Last but not least we celebrated New Year's Eve in a bar just off Times Square.  After reading about the challenges of seeing the ball drop in person in Times Square, we opted to watch it on TV in a nearby bar.  However, as luck would have it, we could see the ball from the sidewalk outside the bar, but only see it drop 1/3 of the way down.  So, at a minute to midnight we dashed outside to see the drop!  It was a fun night and a great ending to 2010.

Happy New Year!