"I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult." E. B. White

Friday, October 18, 2013

All Faiths are Equal

During my time in Nepal and India, I have met people of various religions and beliefs - Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Back at home, I also have friends who are Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, atheist, and probably several other faiths.

I believe that religion should give followers hope and purpose and possibly some moral guidelines. I don't believe that one religion can possibly be the right answer for everyone. During the past month, I have met men and woman with a love of life, service, and others, and I believe that whatever religion they subscribe to is clearly serving them well. 

Anna and I noticed this quote on the wall of the Gandhi memorial museum, and I felt it was appropriate to share in light of our experience here.

All Faiths are Equal
"I believe in [the] fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. I believe that they are god-given and I believe that they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed and I believe that, if only we could read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of followers of those faiths, we should find that they were [in essence] all One and were all helpful to one another."                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          M.K. Gandhi

Our Final Days in India

Over the past two days, our last in India, Anna and I have packed as much as we possibly could into our time. Yesterday, we visited the gorgeous Taj Mahal, and today was another sightseeing adventure in New and Old Delhi.

Our friend Rahul and his cousin, Rajiv, who lives in Delhi ,went to so much effort to help us plan our trip to the Taj Mahal yesterday - and what a great day we had! Rajiv called several times throughout the day to check on us and make sure we were safe and happy. He also worked out how much we owed to the driver at the end of the evening, as our driver didn’t speak any English and we obviously don’t speak Hindi.

With our travel buddy Brian
Rajiv arranged for a driver to pick us up no later than 7:00 a.m. on Thursday to begin our journey to the Taj Mahal. Our new friend, Brian (the guy we met on Wednesday), joined us, which worked out well. He lives in Seattle with his wife and three fluffy dogs and happened to be in India for work for a week as a computer marketing something-or-other. Not only did he split the cost with us, but it was helpful to have a male around while visiting such a busy tourist area.

The drive to Agra, which is estimated at approximately three hours, only took two and half, so we arrived by 9:30 a.m. and were able to start our day early. Rahul had warned us that we would be swarmed by men offering their services as guides, so to just trust our gut and pick one who knows good photo angles at the Taj (as we call it in India).

The first guide to approach us showed us a laminated paper badge, which he easily could have made himself, and claimed to be a “government approved” guide. Of course, this meant he wanted us to pay him 2,000 rupees, when we knew very well that we would only agree pay 200 each. We’ve learned in India that every store, salesman, and guide claims to be “government approved.” I have no idea what that means or why they came up with the idea to say it, but it appears they think they can get more money out of tourists with this ridiculous line. It must work on someone. But it definitely hasn’t worked on us.

The next guy to approach us called himself Bobby. Bobby gave us the feeling that he was legitimate, so we decided to go with him because our feelings were really the only thing to base things on in this situation. Great choice! Bobby agreed to our 200 rupees per person (just over $3 US) and turned out to be an awesome guide.

Here are some of the highlights of our day with Bobby: he forced his way to the front of the line to help us buy our admission tickets; he yelled at random tourists to get out of the way so that he could take our photos without strangers in the shot; he physically shoved a guy who attempted to approach us to take a photo of/with us (we didn’t know we paid for a guide/body guard combo!); and he led us through all of the VIP entrances so that we never waited in line to see anything.

Bobby turned out to be very knowledgeable about the Taj Mahal. He taught us all about the history and reason behind its construction and showed us that every aspect of the Taj Mahal is symmetrical. He knew all of the great angles for photographs, and often instructed us to pose in the most obnoxious, touristy ways...which we did. We joked that most of the photos will never make a frame, but they will most definitely make the blog.

Our guide really was awesome. He was constantly looking out for us, taking our photos, and warning against pickpockets. He even escorted us back to our car at the end of the morning, which was not part of the deal, as there were several parking lots and tourists frequently get lost. I’m honestly not sure that we would have found our way back without him.

And yes, there was another incident with a person asking to take a picture together. This time it was a young Indian woman. Clearly this is a cultural thing of which I was unaware.

As for the Taj Mahal, it is as beautiful and breathtaking as expected. I am so glad we made the visit part of our trip.

Did you know that the woman for whom the Taj was built (the third and favorite wife of the emperor) was Persian? And apparently the chief architect was Indian-born of Persian descent. Fun fact of the day.

The beautiful Taj Mahal

Anna and me in front of the monument that leads to the Taj
The photos begin.
Me in a cheesy tourist pose at the instruction of our guide...

...and Anna falling victim to the same fate

The architecture version of "I got your nose!"

So good. Our guide knew exactly where to have us stand!

After our time at the Taj, we drove a few short minutes to the Oberoi Amarvilas, an absolutely gorgeous and glamorous hotel. Rahul had suggested we have lunch there, but the restaurant was full and we didn’t have a reservation. Instead, we sat in the ornate lobby bar and drank ice blended lemonades while staring out the picture windows at the view - the Taj Mahal. It was yet another moment when I felt like I was in a movie.

The grand entrance
Lobby bar
Enjoying the view over lemonade

View from the lobby bar patio
Of course, as we drove away I was struck by the disparity between the people inside the hotel and the people outside. Inside, everyone is rich and clean and well fed. Outside, people are poor, dirty, and living in terrible conditions. It was a very blunt display of the wealth and opportunity gap in this country.

Our drive back to Delhi was...interesting. What took only two and half hours one direction took six heading the other. We sat at almost a dead stop for two straight hours trying to get out of Agra. When we finally made it to Delhi, we got stuck in traffic again and it took an extra hour just getting through city streets. Our driver was constantly driving onto the wrong side of the road trying to go around other cars, but then he would get stuck and it would take even longer.

When we finally arrived at our hotel, our driver talked on the phone to Rajiv and told him the total cost for the trip, based on kilometers. Fortunately, both Rahul and Rajiv had instructed us to document the kilometers when we got in the car in the morning, so we quickly discovered that our driver was over-stating our journey by 100 kilometers. Rajiv was so helpful! He instructed us to pay the driver the amount he asked for, but not to tip him because he was cheating us. If the driver had a problem with it, Rajiv would explain that we would have tipped had the driver not tried to rip us off. But in the end, it wasn’t much money, we had an awesome day, and we made it back safely. And as Rahul told us, “You haven’t really experienced India until you have a crazy driver.”

This morning, our last full day in Delhi, our trusty friend Ajit picked us up from our hotel in his tuk-tuk. We had a full day of sightseeing, during which Anna and I developed a new form of photography, which we call phoTUKraphy. It is basically where I take pictures of random things as we drive by in the moving tuk-tuk.

We had the opportunity to visit Old Delhi today, which is very different to the New Delhi we’ve been seeing. Old Delhi is what I had imagined India looked like. I think it is what most Americans would picture. The streets are busy and crowded, there are as many bikes and rickshaws and cars, and there are street markets on every major road. It was quite the contrast to the newer part of the city, and I’m so glad we had the chance to see it before we go.

I will say that for as much as I have loved India, I have found the poverty to be very upsetting. Everywhere we go, I see homeless young women with babies sleeping under overpasses or squatting in piles of dirt or hovering in the center divider of the road. I see little old men and woman, looking half-starved, wasting away on the side of the street. In the taxi, children (and some adults) approach the windows and tap and scratch at them, begging for money or food. I’m not suggesting that I want to ignore these things or that I wish I hadn’t seen them, I’m just sad that these things exist at all. It is very difficult to see and understand.

As for our day, I’ll let the pictures and captions speak for themselves. There were a few more incidents of people asking to take photos with us, and one very odd interaction where a young guy asked us to take his picture by himself. Glad I have that one for the album…

With our new friend Ajit
At the end of our day, we said our sincere thanks to Ajit, and handed him a 200 percent tip. We paid him just over $20 for spending the entire day with us, driving us around, watching out for our safety, teaching us about his beautiful city, acting as a driver, guide, and restaurant recommender, and planning out every site that we visited. I feel like he deserved so much more, but he seemed genuinely thrilled with his tip and, even more so, that we were happy with his service. He asked that tell our friends and family who visit Delhi to call him if they want a ride (I have his number if you want it!), and sweetly asked if we would be so kind as to mail him the few photographs we took of him. So sweet. How lucky were we that this kind, knowledgeable man found us on the street and became our wonderful guide for all of Delhi?

Anna and I have been so blessed on this trip in India to know and have met so many great people - our friend from home Rahul, his cousin Rajiv, our new buddy Brian, and our guide and friend Ajit. The people really do make the place.

PhoTUKraphy of street vendors

Bike traffic jam, as captured through phoTUKraphy
Our first stop in Old Delhi was a large, beautiful Muslim mosque. Anna and I (and all the other women) were asked to wear these robes to fully cover up.  
I learned today that Muslims make up the second largest religious group in India, while Sikhs (much to my surprise) are only 2% of the population
Prayer rugs at the mosque
Arches inside the mosque. I love this picture because of the two tiny silhouettes 
A visit to the Red Fort, made of red sand stone
The busy streets of Old Delhi
PhoTUKraphy of a boy walking his goat to the nearby goat market
And of men at an outdoor barber shop

And children playing on a swing on the side of a busy road
House of Parliment. Nearby, we saw the President's home.
At the Indira Gandhi memorial and museum, this walkway was installed to show her final path and the last few meters she walked before being assassinated by two guards. The crystals are meant to look like a flowing river, and the glass is the place where she was shot and killed. 
At the Mahatma Gandhi memorial and museum, this monument marks the place where he was assassinated. There are stone footprints along the path leading to this monument to show his final walk. Both the Indira and Mahatma Gandhi memorials are free to the public, which I appreciate for the sake of the many Indian people who could not otherwise enjoy these lovely museums. 
A mausoleum in the lush Lodi Gardens. These giant, green, beautiful gardens are right in the middle of the busy city and are filled with strolling couples, picnicking families, and tourists. 
Another mausoleum in the park. It is believed that these structures were built in the 1400s and it is unknown who is entombed here. 
The intricate stonework is hand-carved with Arabic scripture. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

New Delhi by Tuk-Tuk

Our ride for the day
If there is one thing I am finally coming to terms with on this trip, it is that Anna and I should stop trying to plan things, because nothing ever plays out the way we expected, and it always ends up being so much better than we had planned.

Today was our designated day to tour New Delhi. Again, thanks to the valuable advice of our friend/travel planner extraordinaire Rahul, we had a list of sites to visit. Our plan was to take the metro and walk to the first site, at which time we could find the hop-on/hop-off tourist bus (HoHo as they call it in India) for a tour of the rest of the sites and city.

Did it work out that way? Not even close.

We started our morning braving the metro, which actually was a fairly seamless process and found our way to the proper exit for India Gate. India Gate is a large stone monument that resembles the Arc de Triomphe and is a tribute to fallen Indian servicemembers.  

When we walked out of the metro, several taxi and tuk-tuk drivers (basically a semi-enclosed three-wheeled scooter) yelled at us to get our attention and solicit our business, which we declined. We walked away pretending to know where we were going...when clearly we had absolutely no idea.

As we stood the side of a road trying to get our bearings, another tuk-tuk driver pulled over to offer assistance. But instead of offering to drive us around, he simply offered directions and pointed us to the monument we were seeking.  Liking his friendly and non-aggressive demeanor, we agreed to a 30 rupee tuk-tuk ride to our destination - the equivalent to 50 cents.  

As our driver, Ajit, dropped us off at India Gate, he gave us his card and told us that he would be happy to give us a tour if the bus didn’t work out. He would only charge 50 rupees for an hour.

We said our goodbyes and began our morning of sightseeing. Much to our surprise, we ended up being the tourist attraction. After only a few minutes at India Gate, a small group of teenage Indian boys approached and asked, “One picture?” We said “No, thank you” and continued to walk away, assuming they were trying to sell us something. Wrong.

The persisted and indicated with their hands that they wanted a picture with their own camera of Anna and I with one of the boys. We awkwardly agreed, and clutching out purses tightly to avoid possible pick-pockets, smiled for the camera alongside a very happy teen boy.

Suddenly, several other groups of young boys starting running over. I’m not talking about a slightly quickened pace. I mean a full run. They were basically lining up to take pictures with us. When they sensed we were ready to leave, the remaining boys all stood together for a group photo with us.  Anna and I wanted to tell them that we are not celebrities, but they seemed to already know this and still want a photo with white, western women anyway.

As odd as this seemed, it would not be out last experience like it of the day.

India Gate

Anna and me at India Gate. The guy who took this photo who re-enter our lives in a few hours...

Standing guard with two of the tallest people I have seen in a month (I'm amongst my people!)

After India Gate (which we joked took on a new meaning after the photo incident), we walked through the surrounding park in search of the HoHo bus. After an hour of searching and wandering, we gave up. We pulled out Ajit’s card and phone phone number and asked some local securities officers for the Ministry of External Affairs if they would assist us and call him to pick us up. They were kind enough to oblige. Can you imagine the Secret Service doing that?

We decided that the bus cost 600 rupees each, and our new friend was willing to drive us around for far less. Plus, the bus was nowhere to be found and no one seemed to know where to find it or when it would arrive, and Ajit was only a phone call away.

What a great decision! Ajit was a lovely, kind man who has been a driver for over 20 years and knows all about the city. Not only did he tell us about various landmarks that we passed, but he also accompanied us inside several of the sites we visited to act as our guide, share the histories and backgrounds, and be our buffer for the many other drivers and salesman vying for our attention and/or money.

We started our tuk-tuk tour at a large Hindu temple, in which we were obviously the only tourists. Ajit parked the tuk-tuk and accompanied us inside to tell us about the respectful practices, like removing our shoes.

Outside of the Hindu temple. Photos are not permitted anywhere inside the gates

We then carried on our way and visited a huge Sikh temple, our first since our journey began last month.  Ajit is Sikh, and he was obviously happy to show us around and teach us about the customs. We again removed our shoes and were guided around the temple. We walked through a water basin, intended to clean the feet, and were shown into the main temple, where a prayer book is read aloud by holy men 24 hours a day.

Outside of the Sikh temple. Photos are not permitted within the main temple structure.

Everyone is asked to cover their head as a sign of respect. Anna wore her scarf. I was generously offer this lovely orange wrap. 

A Sikh holy bathing pond

Our friend and driver, Ajit, in front of his temple

We were then taken to the temple's community dining room, which hosts meals for 10,000 to 15,000 people a day. People of all religions and castes visit here each day and sit together to take a meal. It is an equalizer - everyone sitting and eating together regardless of religion, sex, caste, etc. Ajit then instructed us to follow him through a door marked “Do Not Enter” and led us into the kitchen, where the enormous meals were in constant production. No one looked twice at us, so I assume the “Do Not Enter” was more of a guideline than a rule. It was very impressive to see the size of this kitchen and that so much of the food was prepared by hand instead of machines.

People of all religions gather in the community kitchen for lunch

The busy kitchen in the Sikh temple

As usual, we were two of the only tourists at the temple. I actually like being the only tourist because it makes the experience more authentic. The only tourist we really encountered was a fellow from Massachusetts right as we were leaving. He asked where we were from, and then asked if he could take our picture. Why? He said, “I wish they all could be California girls!” Clearly India is rubbing off on him.

Our next stop was lunch, where we coincidentally ran into an American guy from Seattle, Brian, who had kindly agreed to take our photo hours earlier at India Gate (picture above). We sat together and enjoyed some curry before hopping back in our tuk-tuk to continue our random tour.

Lotus Temple
One of the few places we really wanted to see in Delhi was the Lotus Temple, so that is where Ajit took us next. From the outside, the Lotus Temple looks like a giant lotus flower. It also looks a bit like the Sydney Opera House… It really is impressive.

Anna and I had been told by our lunch friend Brian that, while still quite beautiful, the inside was less noteworthy than the outside. This worked out to our advantage, because when we arrived, there was a line several people deep that stretched as far as the eye could see. The line literally would have taken hours, so we enjoyed the view from the outside and continued on our way.

It was at this point that we most appreciated Ajit. Had we been on the tour bus, we would have hopped off in the bus area, not knowing about the crazy line. We then would have been stuck for a good hour, waiting for the next bus and standing in the sun on a crowded street. Instead, Ajit was there and ready to go, so we got to see the temple and still maximize our time.

Our last major tourist site of the day was Humayun Tomb, a series of beautiful tombs for an emperor and other important people. Remember the random teen boys wanting to take photos with us at India gate? And the guy from Massachusetts at the Sikh temple? It happened again. But this time it was a mother out for the afternoon with her son (who looked no older than 10)! She first asked if we would take a picture with him, and then told him to switch so she could be in the picture! I had come to expect teen boys, but the well-dressed Indian mother came as a surprise. Of course, as with India Gate, several teen boys ran over and attempted a group shot with us before we said our goodbyes.

Humayan's Tomb...
Someone else's tomb (my attention at this point was diminished - I can only absorb so much info in one sightseeing excursion. But it is still very pretty)

...and again, this time with us in front of Humayan's Tomb

Anna covered in a pile of pashminas
In between our sightseeing excursions, Ajit would occasionally stop at little bazaars and markets so that we could browse for nicknacks or souvenirs. Unlike the crowded, colorful streets I was envisioning, many of the bazaars are actually air conditioned, indoors, and look more like showrooms than chaotic street fairs.

As Delhi is not safe at night, Ajit repeatedly asked us to be back in the tuk-tuk by 6 p.m., for our sakes. We were back by 5:30 p.m. and headed to the hotel for the evening.  

In the end, we had an excellent day. We saw so much more of the local culture than we may not have seen on the bus and had an attentive, informative driver with us the whole time. He also dropped us off directly at our hotel, which is in the same neighborhood as his home, so we didn’t have to take the metro at dusk. We paid Ajit almost double what he was owed - 600 rupees (or less than $10 for the day!) and still paid only half the cost of the bus.

One of many city parks
One of the many things that surprised me today about Delhi was that it is filled with beautiful parks and gardens. I was expecting a dirty, crowded city, which we did see in some areas, but we also saw a great deal of greenery.  The city is actually quite beautiful.

The other thing that surprised me is how much cleaner Delhi is that Kathmandu. I feel like we have heard and been told several times that India is louder, dirtier, and crazier than Nepal. That is nonsense. Granted, I haven’t traveled extensively in India, but Delhi is a big city. Kathmandu, while filled with very nice people, is the noisiest, craziest, dirtiest place I have ever been.

A little bit of tuk-tuk traffic
As you’ve read on my blog by now, Kathmandu is plagued by constant honking, barking, piles of trash in the street, and cars driving in both directions on both sides of the road, causing terrible traffic. In Delhi, there seems to be an effort to keep trash on the street to a minimum. There is traffic, but the traffic generally stays on the correct side of the road and adheres to traffic lights. There are far less wild dogs than in Nepal, and they bark far less. And the honking in Delhi, while there is a bit, is almost non-existent compared to Kathmandu. Again, I realize Delhi is not representative of the entire country, but so far in my experience, India is way easier to navigate than Nepal.

Tomorrow we are off for another adventure - a trip to the Taj Mahal! Check back soon for photos and stories.