Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Fast 28 Days

When my parents first started talking about how long they'd like to come to India, I must admit, I was a little worried. Twenty eight days is a long time. However, after dropping them off at the airport one last time (which my Dad was proud to say was the sixth time he had been there in the past month), it's amazing how quickly those twenty eight days went by.
Sunrise camel ride at Manvar
From all accounts (or at least from what I could tell), they truly enjoyed and appreciated their India experience. India is an odd place; it either endears itself to visitors or chews them up and spits them out. Thankfully, my parents fit into the former category.

It certainly helped that in twenty eight days, they experienced exactly zero travel issues. No delayed flights, no drivers that didn't show, no hotels that had no idea they were coming. The closest thing they came to a travel issue was when I realized that my trusty driver Kailash was visiting his family in Khujaraho and not set to get back on his train until 4:30am when he was supposed to leave at 6:00am to take my parents to Agra. Ashok, Lindsay's driver, without us knowing helped save the day as he picked up Kailash from the train station and got him to our apartment in time. Even Kailash's train was on time. That never happens.
Jain temple at Jaisalmer Fort
In some respects, it will be nice to get back to a "normal" schedule (if such a thing exists here); however, I'm going to admit, I missed it a little this morning when I walked out of my bedroom and they weren't sitting in the living room reading the paper and drinking coffee (I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure they went the full time without actually making a pot of coffee; let's just say they seemed to settle in with the Indian expat level of domestic help without much trouble).
Train platform at Jaipur, yes I wore that blue shirt a lot
On my drive to work this morning, Kailash, who gets more talkative when there are fewer people in the car, lead in with his usual, "Excuse me, sir..." (which is how he gets my attention when he wants to talk). What followed pretty much sums up my parents. "Your mother said she was going to get me some books with English lessons." If you know my Mom, this act wouldn't surprise you. He then said, "And your Dad. He's very much like you. His face looks like you. And he smiles a lot like you too." I'm not so sure I smile THAT much, but months like the last one sure help a person realize how lucky they are to have so much to smile about.

Enough of the sentimental stuff, I'm pretty sure Kailash just liked my Dad, a life-long employee of John Deere, because somehow they had a very in depth and highly developed 90 minute conversation about tractors on the way back from the Taj Mahal. "In depth" as in, Kailash was letting my Dad know what manufacturers were most popular in certain regions of India. Suffice to say, Dad was a little surprised by Kailash's knowledge of farm implements.
It's green and yellow but might not run like a Deere.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Other Side of Holi

Everyone that knows about Holi knows about the fun side of Holi; merrymakers throwing colored powder and water at one another. This is the Holi that Lindsay and I experienced in a tranquil, controlled environment at the resort we were staying between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. It was our third Holi here in India, figured it might be our last one, and decided it was an experience not to be missed. Plus, how many times in life do you get to throw stuff at your wife with no real repercussions and have her do the same?
She looks a little too excited
Unfortunately, Holi has a slightly darker side. It turns children into monsters. Late Saturday afternoon as we walked through the fort and streets of Jaisalmer, we began to see more and more kids already stained with with the deep purple result of mixing the traditional colored powders with water. Kids were stained, goats were stained, even a dog was stained.
Stained dog, though I must admit, he didn't seem to mind
As the day got later, the kids seemed to get a little more aggressive and started to lose their inhibition about approaching or threatening innocent looking foreigners. It seemed like they were taking control of the city. It was all very Lord of the Flies. At one point, we saw them with a pick axe digging a hole in a city street from which to start a bonfire. I mean, at least they were thinking about safety, but I can't say I'd ever seen kids digging up a city street without supervision. Not that I had even seen it with supervision either.
Just another day at the office for the youth of Jaisalmer
On Holi morning, we had a 200 kilometer drive through the Thar Desert. The driver encouraged us to get a late start, but we had plans starting early afternoon for a jeep safari through the desert. Based on what we had heard about drinking and driving on the holiday, I couldn't see why we'd want to start any later than we had to. The villages we drove through were eerily quiet. Very few, if any, people were on the street. Shops were closed; there was no loitering. Empty. If you've been to India, this never happens.

About halfway through our journey we approached some kids forming a human blockade across the highway in an attempt to collect their self-imposed toll. The driver slowed, rolled down his window, and started yelling. When that didn't seem to work, he left the vehicle and basically chased the kids away. For kids, whom we decided to call bandits, that were tough enough to block a road, they certainly wussed out when faced with a little adversity.
Yes, both my Dad and I capured the human blockade on Flip video
Stained bandits
Celebration after a successful Rs. 10 heist
Shortly after the first blockade we hit a second where the little bandits had dragged brush across the road and then ran away. There seems to be a lot of running away involved in this business. Our fifth and final blockade was the most aggressive of the day. It was the only blockade where the bandits actually through color at the car while one brave soul stood squarely in front of the car. Not exactly the same type of stand made at Tiananmen Square but effective nonetheless. When throwing color didn't work, the bandits turned to stones. That was actually a little scary. Finally the brave little Tiananmen Square reenacter moved aside and we were allowed to pass. Quite a different way to celebrate a holiday. Annoying? Yes. Harmless? Seemingly.

What we experienced was harmless. What some truckers experienced was certainly not. Later that day as we crossed the highway on our jeep safari, we came across what I can only describe as the worst head on collision I've ever seen. Two trucks. Two fatalities. The cause? According to our driver, large rocks placed across the highway the night before as a blockade. The driver likely didn't see them until it was too late, swerved, and had the misfortune and mistiming of a truck coming from the other direction.


The Forts of Rajasthan

I've often said, and I'm probably not the first, that forts in India are a lot like cathedrals in Europe. Once you've seen a couple, they're basically all the same. While there's still some truth to that, last week's spin through Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan helped open my eyes a little wider.

Amber Fort (Jaipur)
The thing that sets Amber Fort apart, without a doubt, is the preferred mode of transport up the hill. Elephant. And while I'm sure there are any number of reasons why it's bad for the pachyderms, if you're looking for a ride on an elephant in India, this is the place to get it. I've been to the fort twice. The first time, in 2004, I saw a painted sign offering elephant rides for Rs. 450. Lindsay and I were so jazzed to take an elephant ride that we would have been willing to pay Rs. 450 per person per direction. Fast forward to 2011 and it now costs Rs. 900 for just a ride up the hill, which still seems reasonable given the experience.

Inflation or animal protection?
Most people (myself included - keep in mind that I had visited the fort before; in other words, I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed) think the fort bears its name from its color. The real reason, as our guide informed us, is that it's located in a village called Amber. On the bright side, I'm still pretty sure Delhi's Red Fort isn't located in a village called Red.
I still say it's amber.
Other than the elephant ride, the fort boasts a grand view of the surrounding mountains and kilometers of walls creating a protective barrier around the perimeter. The interior of the fort is pretty much like any other fort. In other words, the elephant ride is what separates Amber Fort from the others.

Mehrangarh Fort (Jodhpur)
It's impressive. It's massive. It hosted Elizabeth Hurley's wedding reception. It's what every great citadel should be.
Mehrangarh Fort from the royal cenotaph (cremation ground)
Jodhpur is famous for it's indigo hued houses which were first painted that to signify the home of a Brahmin (the priestly caste) and mixed with some sort of mosquito repellent for obvious reasons. These days, many of the homes directly beneath the fort are painted that same blue shade but, as we learned from the guide (yes, it was a guide-intensive trip this time) many of the homes are now just painted that color for effect.
View of the blue city from the fort
Mehrangarh Fort also offers an evening dining option of Rajasthani thali (basically amounts to tapas-sized portions of a cross section of traditional local food) on a terrace with a view of the fort and down into the city. Since we hadn't done a ton of research and didn't want to eat at the hotel, this seemed as good an option as any.
Rajasthani thali
We arrived at the fort and found a number of torches and camels lining the walkway to the main gate. I thought this was quite cool but figured it was just something they did each evening. After entering the main gate, I decided I was wrong. We were quickly whisked through the fort but not before we could see a number of traditionally dressed people getting ready for some sort of performance as well as a second set of camels standing at attention. They weren't there for us. They were there for a very lavish private party. My parents (rightfully so) didn't believe that I had arranged it all.
Camels I didn't arrange to line the fort entrance
We did, however, end up with a private dining terrace and the other two tables with reservations ended up being no-shows. Of course, they may have just ended up joining the lavish private party.

Jaisalmer Fort (Jaisalmer)
Located on the outskirts of India in the That Desert and the last major town before you get to the Pakistani border, sits Jaisalmer. Jaipur is the pink city, Jodhpur is the blue city, so it should come as no surprise that Jaisalmer also has a color. It's the gold city. The city takes its nickname from the sandstone used to build many of the structures in town, including the fort.
The world's largest sand castle, Jaisalmer Fort
Other than the brilliant gold color, what makes this place unique is that the fort is still home to nearly four thousand people. It's the only working fort in Rajasthan. The net effect is that you feel like you're wandering through a medieval European village as you tour the fort.

It's easily a place you can explore on your own, but again we had a guide. Our guide lived in the fort and his family had lived there for something like five centuries (again, I don't pay a lot of attention to the specifics that guides tell me, but I know his family lived there for a long time). Before we entered the fort walls he gave us some words of wisdom. "Prices in the fort can be very high. I tell you that now; however, when we're in the fort, I will tell you that the price is fair. I have to live with these people." I appreciated his honesty.

The other striking thing about this fort was that nearly every establishment seemed to have been recommended by Lonely Planet in one year or another. I've seen this from time to time but never so much in such a small place. I guess if one business uses it, others need to follow suit. Perhaps the Lonely Planet recommendation is a little like the familiar sight of the golden arches in restaurant terms; you're more likely to know what you're going to get.
One of many places recommended by Lonely Planet
The one thing that Lonely Planet won't recommend is that you stay in one of the 28 hotels currently located in the fort. Property rights are passed from generation to generation. There are no written contracts. Until some enterprising folk decided that tourists might want to stay in the fort, the chain seemed to pass relatively unbroken. Until someone sold out. And then another. And then another. You see, the thing about hotels is that they use a lot of water. As anyone that's ever built a sand castle likely knows, water isn't exactly sand's best friend. The net result is that there are serious erosion issues. But hey, at least people get to stay in a fort for the night.

Which fort is the best?
As with most things in life, it's a personal preference kind of thing. In my opinion, each fort I saw last week was better than the last. Maybe it's because I had been to Amber Fort before and the novelty of the elephant ride had worn off. Maybe it's because I think it's cool that people still live in the fort in Jaisalmer. Whatever the reason, I was most surprised I didn't have that "it's just another fort" attitude going by the end of the trip.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Star News Exclusive - Royal Holi Celebration

And to think, all I wanted to do was get a few quick sunset pictures of Jal Mahal, Jaipur's famous Water Palace....

In the spirit of full and self/family-deprecating disclosure, I wanted to share the video clip below sooner rather than later and have yet to have the narration translated (any assistance would be greatly appreciated).What follows is a six minute video that aired on Star News, a national Hindi language news channel here. Included in this clip, at the 4:30 mark, is a segment that includes my mother and wife playing Holi, my wife dancing, and even me getting hit with a little color.

The reporter lured Lindsay in with the promise of an interview; however, goofy white people playing Holi makes for better entertainment than the sham interview the reporter apparently had set up.

For all I know, the reporter is making complete fun of us. To be honest, based on the display, it would be tough to fault him. Regardless, it's safe to say we had a fairly unique and memorable Holi experience (even if this was shot four days before the actual festival).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Other Mr. and Mrs. Luth Go to India

We're nearing the halfway mark of my parents near March-long visit to India. While we're not spending the entire time with them, the wife definitely deserves consideration for some sort of "daughter-in-law of the year" award for agreeing to a 28 day on-again-off-again visit. When all is said and done, they'll get a nice cross section of the country, including trips to Kerala, Agra, and Varanasi on their own and a quick tour through Rajasthan with Lindsay and myself that starts in the morning (Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer). In addition to the travel, we're also attempting to initiate them to our slightly ridiculous lives in Gurgaon.
Our cook Yashoda surprised them with a traditional 5-star hotel welcome.
My biggest worry about their visit was how quickly they might adapt and that they'd feel comfortable moving about Delhi and Gurgaon on their own. That worry has entirely subsided. Not only are they moving freely about the sites and markets of Delhi (with, of course, the assistance of my trusty driver Kailash, whom my mother has yet to pronounce his name the same way twice), but quotes (or slight paraphrases) I've heard include:
  • "I could get pretty used to this driver thing."
  • "This weather is just like San Diego!"
  • "What do you mean we're not planning to go to brunch this Sunday?"
  • "The driver helped bargain for fresh flowers!"
  • "Thanks for the lunch recommendation but there were just too many tourists at the restaurant." (followed by them relocating on their own accord to the Imperial Hotel)
  • "John, you guys are such great hosts, do you think Lindsay would mind if we extended two or three weeks?"
  • "This bag of Dorito's cost ten dollars?!?"
Yep, they seem to have adapted to the expat lifestyle in India just fine.
The "good" Sunday (brunch at Set'z).

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Gloves? Yes, Gloves.

It's not hot in India, at least not yet. In fact, it's actually been quite pleasant. Temperatures the past week have ranged from the low 60's in the morning to right around 80 in the afternoon. That being said, it's obvious that it's going to warm up here in the not to distant future. Highs in the 90's are forecast by mid-next week.

With temperatures headed north, I was surprised when I saw a street vendor trying to peddle gloves while stopped at a red light in Delhi. It's not uncommon for vendors to walk between cars trying to sell something (ranging from flowers to best selling novels). I immediately made some snarky comment about this vendor not picking the right time of the year for this particular product and how he'd be more profitable selling model airplanes (and yes, you can even purchase a model 747 at any number of intersections in Delhi).

Not ten seconds later, a motorcycle pulled up and the driver and passenger immediately were engrossed with the gloves, trying on a number of different pair before ultimately deciding to purchase. By that point, a swarm of motorcycles had squeezed their way to the front of the light, which is what tends to happen here. Nearly none of them were wearing gloves; nearly all of them paid some level of attention to the glove salesman. Clearly, this vendor, whom I thought was crazy, had found the appropriate target market. He had also found a stoplight that was extraordinarily lengthy. We probably waited at the light for three to four minutes (though it seemed far longer than that). In those three to four minutes, the glove salesman had made a number of sales. He was like a beer vendor at a baseball game right before they cut off alcohol sales. Amazing.
I thought he was crazy for selling gloves in March in Delhi...
I'm not sure if the gloves are an odd fashion statement (unlikely), a way to keep one's hands out of the sun (also unlikely but based on the number of skin whitening products on the market not entirely impossible), or a way to protect or keep one's hands clean while riding a motorcycle through the streets of Delhi regardless the temperature (probably the likely reason). What I do know is that very few motorcyclists were wearing gloves when they pulled up to the red light and that by the time the light turned green, a few of them sped away with nice new gloves to cover their hands from the elements.
...but was once again to be proven a little dense.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

PAN Card Privileges

If you pay taxes in India, you have a personal account number card, which is better and more commonly known as a PAN card. It's basically a social security number to make sure you pay those taxes. With the PAN card come certain privileges, like discounts into certain monuments and sites where they have tiered pricing for foreigners and locals.
Even with my Dad's name on the card, he still paid the foreigner price
After lunch on Saturday when Lindsay had planned to guide my mother through the alleys and boutiques of Khan Market, I was finally able to take a pass and was able to visit one of Delhi's nearby sites, Safdarjung's Tomb, with my Dad. The entrance fee to this monument is Rs. 100 (approximately $2.25) for foreigner's and Rs. 5 for ($0.11) for nationals and residents. I approached the booking office and asked for two tickets. I was told, "200 rupees". I paused, whipped out my PAN card, and the price quickly reduced to Rs. 105. Of course, when I handed the guy Rs. 110 he didn't have change but I still felt the sweet smell of a small victory. He said I could have my change when I exited the tomb, but he and I both knew he wasn't expecting me to come back to the window for my 5 rupees.

After we entered the grounds, I needed to use the restroom. I found the sign to the toilet and noticed it would cost Rs. 2. The price seemed reasonable so I made a quick visit, exited, and was soon approached by the attendant. I handed him a twenty note and he made change with a 10. Not exactly the price I had expected. As a proud card carrying member of the residents of India, I had no intention of paying 10 rupees to use the restroom. He was still holding my 20 in his hand, so I snatched it back and handed over his 10. He responded, "Two rupees." I simply said, "Then give me change". Begrudgingly, he stuffed his hand in his pocket, fished around, and magically found an additional eight rupees in coins. I happily accepted another small victory.
Safdarjung Tomb, one of Delhi's youngest Mughal tombs
While walking around the tomb, which is a nice little site in Delhi and worth a quick visit if you have some extra time during the day, a friendly security guard approached and started telling us the history of the monument. Shockingly, he was a real security guard and wasn't looking for a tip. He was, however, looking for our ticket stubs. We weren't handed stubs. Having no other proof that we belonged where we were, I pulled out my PAN card and said, "I don't have a ticket stub, but I do have one of these." He flashed me a quick smile, nodded, and let me pass.

Yep, the PAN card has some privileges.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Rajasthani Guard

While we've been busy furniture shopping, I decided I needed a "John" item as well. The result? The four foot Rajasthani guard pictured below. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure he's from Rajasthan. However, since I'm fairly ignorant and have always enjoyed my time in Rajasthan, I'm making the blanket assumption that he's Rajasthani.
Regardless of where he's from, the real issue, according to the wife, is that this proud statue has no name. I've heard suggestions, ranging from "Rajji" which has no meaning and makes him sound like a cartoon character to "Rana Sahib" which is a princely title from his supposed region. You can probably tell which one I like better.

That being said, if you have a suggestion for a name, leave a comment. Your reward? Potentially helping educate me, potentially helping make me laugh.

It's in your hands.