We just recently returned from our epic quest to India, bookended or possibly buffered by Hong Kong. I say that because Hong Kong is such a great way to return to the uber-modern world. You would be hard pressed to find two more distinctly different places than Hong Kong and India. There's also a more pragmatic upside to a little stop off before the final Indian push. It's about a 15 hour ride to Hong Kong alone, and then a further five and a half to Delhi. I can bear a long flight like a champ, but I'll take a two day leg stretch if I can get it.
So yeah, Hong Kong. Amazing hotel room, beautiful view. Noodles and egg puffs. Late night Kingfisher flight to Delhi. They served chickpeas, rice and nann on the flight. Very promising.
Upon arrival, we stepped out into the night air of Delhi. I immediately noticed that it was filled with smoke. Not so much smog but that subtly eye stinging smoke of wood fires. I suppose I immediately decided it was funeral pyres, but I knew logically that was just me conjuring up a very stereotypical India and that rather it was somewhat chilly and it was probably just normal fires for keeping warm and cooking. This realization was a definite hit to my hopes for a Temple of Doom-like adventure. Near the van that picked us up we noticed a dog lying just near it. Of course Steph and I thought it must be owned by someone. Then we saw it had a buddy and they were just sort of having a lie down. These were just the first of about a million feral dogs we'd see throughout India. As we got to our hotel, which ended up actually being a pretty fancy hotel, we happened upon what was to be a theme throughout the whole trip. The service at Indian restaurants is awkward at the best of times and downright shit the other times. India would do well to hire some ladies once and a while. There's to much testosterone in the Indian service industry.
We got a bit of a late start on our first day in Delhi. The traffic was mental. People basically make the traffic rules up as they go along. It wasn't as crazy as Cambodian traffic, but definitely nutty. The horn is used much differently in India. We use it as a last resort or in case of emergency. They use it as a turn signal, as an alert to cows and people who just decide to walk out into traffic and whatever other reason they can think of to lay on the horn. Let me just say that our driver was no joke. This dude drove us around for nine days in a large van that he managed to fit through some of the smallest spaces and all sorts of wild traffic without breaking a sweat. He was also quite the practitioner of jib-jab and gabbing. The guy chatted up his driving assistant and our guide for hours on end. The other two barely got a word in edgewise. He must be on top of all the latest gossip and Bollywood goings on. Also, I started to imagine that they had a good shit talking session about their boss and coworkers and maybe a little about how his wife nags him. You don't need to speak the language to know these things. We went to Jama Masjid which is a huge mosque. We had to ditch our shoes and the ladies had to rent a huge shawl to cover themselves up with. Our guide told us the mosque basically divides the Hindu and the Muslim part of old Delhi. He made seem like the two sides never hang out in each other's neighborhood. We also learned this axium: know a Muslim business by the goat hanging out in front. Cultural lesson learned. We had lunch at a Bengali restaurant called Oh Calcutta that I saw on Bizarre Foods. It was tasty but again, awkward service. I really regret not getting to walk around Chandni Chowk and visiting all of it's amazing food stalls (testing my intestianl fortitude) and little shops. Instead we had to go to visit a "factory" to see hand worked Indian crafts. Ok, this is the bullshit part of being on a guided tour and the part I think I hate most. In countries like India, the tour guides all have deals with local shops which dictates that they get the tour group to their shops. This is priority Alpha, and the actual tour is just a build up to the visit to the shop. I experienced this in Thailand and I hated it then and I hate it now. At least in Thailand I was on my own and I could just tell the taxi driver to fuck off. Since we were on a tour I had to roll with it. Fortunately our tour was a private tour with Steph's family and after one visit they weren't into it either. Although we did have to endure it once more. What's more annoying is that if you try to ask the tour guide to take you to or recommend any shop he's not working with he'll either feign ignorance about it or just not want to take you there. Case in point we wanted to shop for raw, bulk spices. He basically said those places don't exist and took us to some little shop that sold some pre-packaged spices and a guy that wanted to sell us baubles and trinkets. Of course as we drove around we saw more than a few spice vendors. Whatevs. We had an amazing dinner at our hotel that night. We ordered way too much food and gorged ourselves. This set up another theme for the rest of the trip. I love Indian food, and I loved it even more in India. But seriously, how much curry can a person eat before hitting the point of saturation. I would say probably about three days, and that goes for Indians too. I came to realize that Indian peeps don't eat Indian restaurant food every day. I wanted to try more day to day cuisine, but hey you eat where you eat sometimes.
The next place we visited was Agra, home of one of the wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. What a shit-hole Agra is. Again, I've been to a very, very poor country before. I'm not as shocked by extreme poverty as I first was. I understand it's how most of the world lives and I'm not disparaging them that. What I mean is that once we crossed into the state Uttar Pradesh I noticed that people's standard of living started to decline and even the already chaotic traffic became utterly chaotic and mass confusion. Of course there was some sort of festival going on that turned a four hour drive into about a seven hour drive. We discovered from our guide that Uttar Pradesh is the most corrupt state in India. Still though, how does the country allow it's main tourist draw to exist within a giant cess pit? The Taj Mahal was everything it was billed to be however. We even had one of those photographers from Slumdog Millionaire take all kinds of tourist pics of us. There are some choice prom style poses of Steph and I that are rather amusing. To sum up, Taj Mahal great, Agra shit.
We then headed to Jaipur in Rajasthan. As soon as we crossed into the arid and somewhat California-like terrain I noticed things started to even out. From the quality of the road to general disposition of the people Rajasthan was a definite improvement. We got into Jaipur in the evening and our hotel turned out to be this old converted palace. There was a wedding in full swing happening on the hotel grounds. It was an incredibly opulent looking affair. So much color everywhere. In fact color is one thing India is not lacking. Even the poorest of poor women manage to have exceptionally brilliantly colored Saris and even some rather shiny gold jewelry. Indian dudes tend to rock a decidedly more Eastern bloc look with their drab casual slacks and button down shirts. Always, button down shirts. One thing I noticed in particular is that Indian men tend to believe it's about 30 degrees colder than it actually is. I noticed a great many sweaters and jackets being worn on 80 plus degree days. As a person who is always hot and avoids the heat of day as much as possible I was suffering for them. Anyway, we visited the Amber fort which is perched atop a large rocky hill just outside the city. It was quite amazing really and it's walls reminded me of the Great Wall the way it seemed to flow up and over the hills like a gigantic wave of stone. Since it was up a steep incline, we of course had to do the tourist thing and ride elephants up the hill. I felt awful for doing it. I hate when animals are used in that manner. I just think it's utterly demeaning to them. I don't condone carriage rides through a park and I certainly don't condone elephant rides. It was getting hot already, and I could sense that our elephant wasn't loving it either. I had this looming Water for Elephants moment, where I could see our Elephant just saying "ugh, I've had it with this shit!" and we end up getting tossed overboard and trampled like a grape in the produce isle. Other than that, the fort itself was amazing. The views from the walls of the fort were picture perfect.
Now for a bit of cultural reprieve. Even though I'm a super history nerd and really enjoy visiting the past I equally enjoy learning about modern culture and the differences between various cultures especially our own. One thing I can say is that Indians are not used to seeing a girl with pink hair nor heavily tattooed people. Steph kept getting stopped by people, especially little girls asking if they could have a picture with her. People were also fascinated with our tattoos. They mostly couldn't grasp the idea of the permanence of them. The most common question we fielded was "is it permanent? Or, "is that under the skin?" I know they do a fair share of Mehndi and Henna work in India, seemingly mostly on white female tourists who just finished reading Eat, Pray Love from what I saw, but those are not permanent. So, the actual idea of getting a tattoo wasn't a big deal it was just the fact that it won't wash off. The next question we often received was "how much does it cost?" This was a question that was very hard for us to answer. In a country where people may make a couple hundred dollars a year it was hard to answer this question truthfully and not feel bad about it or seem like wasteful Americans. We didn't want to rub in the fact that what we paid for our whims of fashion could have probably supported a great many people for a good long while. Again, it's just a cultural difference. I realize that I'm lucky enough to be in a position where I can do that sort of thing and I appreciate it greatly. But, like I said I didn't want to rub it in. So we just politely side-stepped the question. Also, India is rather heavily male-dominated. So much so that you for sure don't see as many women out and about as you do men. I think that is probably not so true in the more modern parts of the country. In fact I watched a lot of Indian TV throughout the trip and I noticed that what I was seeing is country that is not too different from home. Even the mundane commercials for laundry detergent and processed cheese and breakfast cereal all were partly in English and very much like home. The shows all featured very stylish, good looking people just like home actually. But, I saw none of this India and I asked the guide why that was. He of course responded it was because we're tourists and we're seeing old world tourist sites and not the modernized, westernized parts of town. It seems to me that tourists may not mind so much a visit to that side of town as well to sort of get the whole perspective. Otherwise most tourists will just assume India is a land that time forgot based on what they see. Here's a radical prediction for you: I believe India will probably be the next China in the next few decades. And yes I have reasons for this, but they aren't germaine to the story at hand.
I digress, back to tourism. The drive from Jaipur to our last stop, Udaipur was to take about eight to ten hours. We had a scheduled stop about halfway to spend the night and break up the drive. It was of much discussion as to what this would end up being like. We exited the highway and ended up on a one lane, barely paved road that took us through little mud hut villages and farms. Very, very rural and very real. I couldn't imagine a hotel of the likes which we had been staying existing out there. I imagined us staying in a tent. After about an hour or so we came to a sizable village whose narrow streets tested our drivers maneuvering skills to the fullest. I still wasn't sure about this endeavor. Would we even have running water? Was there going to be the dreaded Asian squat toilet in our future? At the end of the village a large gate was opened for us and we drove into an incredibly beautiful and pastoral setting. It reminded me right away of my grandparents property in southern Minnesota. The property it turns out was a turn of the century retreat for the royal family and is still owned by the family and is called Shahpura Bagh. The guest house had only six large rooms that were straight out of a J. Peterman catalog. Both the Seinfeld version and the real one. And I quote: "After a couple of Camparis, I notice an emerging pattern. A statistically significant number of men are sporting this shirt, nearly all of them are accompanied by belle regazze." Yes, that's Italy, but you get the idea. There was no TV and no internet. It was meant for relaxation, and I didn't mind at all. The food was amazing. The farm to table idea was taken seriously here. They had their own cows that they milked daily for yogurt and dairy products. There was no menu and you showed up for dinner and they brought an array of dishes. The highlights for me was fresh spinach and the buttermilk curry. It was very rustic and some of the best food I had on the trip. Sadly, I didn't get to do my usual street food adventures. When you're traveling by yourself or with one other person and you get sick, it's no big deal. You can hang around the hotel room until it passes. But, when you're on a highly time sensitive and detailed tour with other people you just can't afford to get sick. Having stomach issues while driving through rural India. Rural anywhere actually, is just a petrifying fear for me. So I had to forgo all of the mouth watering chaat I saw on a daily basis. Besides our guide would have never actually "guided" me to any good ones had I asked. Instead he would have denied there even was such a thing as street food and instead recommended whichever tourist trap restaurant he was in the pocket of. By the way, we ended up eating at several Indian truck stops called Dhabas. Some weren't too bad. The one where I saw a couple of large rats running around the dining area was probably my favorite. I didn't eat there and felt like I picked the perfect time to not have been hungry. I didn't mention it to anyone else. They were already half finished by that point and it only would have caused mass nausea.
Moving on, the last city. Udaipur, the lake city and most importantly, the floating Lake Palace hotel which was the setting for the epic James Bond flick Octopussy. Mind you this was impetus for this entire trip to begin with. Much like me and my dad, Steph's dad is a James Bond nut himself. Anyway, Udaipur was exceptionally picturesque, thus all the pictures we took. The city is situated in the hills and around a large lake. The facades that broached the lake shores were generally very quaint and had a decidedly old world feel to them. You didn't have to squint very hard to imagine how must have looked a few hundred years ago. There were also some very modern, and upscale hotels mixed in as well but they tended to fit right in architecturally speaking. The night at the Palace Lake hotel was awesome. It was every bit the luxury hotel it's billed to be. I still have no idea who is supposed to get tips at places like that and who isn't. The very last thing I deem worth mentioning is that if you ever want a donut with cheese and Italian herbs you can find it at Indira Gandhi International Airport. I didn't partake, but the McVeggie burger at McDonalds is quite a thing to behold. Seriously, it's pretty tasty.
Oh yeah, the pictures. There are quite a few. Also, just an FYI, the dog you'll is just having a sleep. What kind of morbid bastard do you think I am?