Monday, October 25, 2004

My Jaipur Vacation

The train ride to Jaipur was kinda long -- seven or eight hours long, which was bearable. Our hotel was really cool, with lots of plants in the outdoor terrace that connected all the rooms. It had A/C, television, and private bathrooms -- not much else you can ask for. The staff was really friendly (it was family run, so it was mostly staffed by these two brothers, nice guys). The first night, we had dinner at one of the ten restaurants the Lonely Planet recommended. Now, when we go into these restaurants, there are mostly other tourists there, each with their own Lonely Planet (in their native language, too, lots of French and Germans). So, the Lonely Planet cult sort of did the same things, ate at the same restaurants, etc. I suppose this is unavoidable, seeing as we're all tourists, and we want to eat at the nicer places and visit the tourist sites.

After dinner (chicken korma) we head over to this really amazingly beautiful theatre, where we go to see Dhoom. It was just as good the second time as the first. It was cool explaining this group of kids that, even though we didn't know Hindi, we can still enjoy the Hindi films, especially action movies like Dhoom.

The next day, Anna and I go to a bunch of museums. The Museum of Indology is like this old time museum -- just a bunch of old crap in a building. Lots of old pottery and tools, manuscripts, astrology instruments, etc. There were these really weird currencies -- misprint Rupees, really old Rupees (like an old ten Rupee note that was about 7" x 5"), and some crazy stuff, like money printed by "The Japanese Government", in denominations such as the Yen, the US Dollar, and the Deutchmark. Very... different.

Then we headed to an art museum, and then to Central Museum, which was pretty cool.

Lots of paintings, textiles, and other stuff. We also went to City Palace, which was really pretty, and had lots of cool stuff. A Hall of Arms, where guns and knives were arranged to spell out things, and some of the guns were longer than I am tall. More paintings and old textiles, and some really neat manuscripts which were written really really tiny so that the Moguls couldn't find them when they were sometimes anti-Hindu. We also saw monkeys! A whole big troop, maybe 60 or 70 of them, including lots of baby monkeys! Anna and I went wild.

When we headed back, we heard about Andrea's day, where she bought a bunch of stuff and met some crazy store-owner who she hung out with for part of the day. She was figuring out some stuff over this break, about how we're supposed to interact with people and stuff, so there was lots to talk about during meals and tea and stuff.

In the evening, we drank cheap Indian beer and watched American cartoons (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, number one in the hood, G).

The next day, we went to Amber Fort, which was really amazing. In the mountains outside the city, there are tons of forts and walls and stuff. We went to this main one, where there was a big beautiful room of mirrors and glass and stuff. In this room, there was a 70 year old lady toking up, and a bunch of European tourists. We didn't want a guide, which was good, because we got to roam around the fort, taking pictures and looking at old decrepit walls and stuff. It was really neat, just to wander (and get a little lost) in the tunnels and maze of this old fort.

After the fort part, we went shopping in this semi-government store, where I got some cool souvenirs and stuff. I did some shopping later that day and Friday at this other semi-government store, both of which seemed a lot more easy-going and enjoyable than the bazaars. We called it an early night Thursday.

Friday was spent mostly shopping. Now, I'm not a big shopper, so I shopped a little with Anna and Andrea, and then we split ways. I saw an electronics shop, and knew my calling. I got a power multiplug/adapter, some headphones (my old ones broke), and a video game system. It is so sketch -- the system comes with a pirated Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt / Track and Field / Soccer / Fake Columns Tetris game cartridge. It's the sketchiest NES ripoff I've ever seen, but it did come with two controllers and a light gun, all for Rs. 300 (6 bucks). It's no Gamecube with Mario Kart Double Dash, but it'll do for the time being. I also purchased a VCD with the songs to Dhoom, and some other stuff.

After dinner (pasta! how much I miss pasta, and how great it is to get it!), Andrea and I went to see a horror Hindi movie, Vaastu Shastra. It was really great, and by really great I mean incredibly bad. I mean, it was a frightening movie -- I jumped in my seat many times, and screamed like a little schoolgirl more than once. On the other hand, it used every trick in the book -- scary looking kid who sees dead people, girl being killed while having sex with her boyfriend, scary sharp sounds between takes and whenever anything happens.

Oh, and the other highlight of our day: Drag Queens!

A 24-hour train ride to Mumbai, followed by a 2 1/2 hour car ride to our hotel in Pune. 'Nuf said.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Northen India, land of crappy internet access

Hey everyone, I'm alive and well in Jaipur. Agra was amazing, and there are some really great places in Jaipur too. Internet connectivity has been incredibly crappy, to say the least, so that's why no one's heard from me. I will update on all my travels when I get back to Pune, which will be in a couple of days.

Take care, all.

Monday, October 18, 2004

The Taj Mahal and other prettiness

Well, I've done Agra. It was actually quite nice. We got up around 10, had some breakfast, and headed out to the Taj Mahal. It's only a block away, yet we were propositioned by 5 rickshaw drivers (manual and auto) and 25 people selling goods. We get to the gates, and purchase our 'foreigner tickets'. See, for Indian people, the Taj is Rs. 20. For foreign tourists, it is Rs. 750. How fair is that, a gaijin tax. So, we paid our gaijin tax and hopped in.

Man this place is beautiful. It's grand and huge and magnificent, and big. There's a big opening courtyard, so you can get in through three different gates (West, South, East), and then you go through this big arch into the main courtyard. There's a long pool, surrounded by trees, with fountains and grass and paths. And then there's a big pool of marble, which gives a good view of the main attraction. If you go further down the path, you come to the main area. After removing our shoes, we went onto the big marble courtyard, and then into the tomb area, where the Mogul emperor and his wife are buried. It's absolutely beautiful, with all this intricate marble carving and gems inlaid into the wall. Some guide dude shined a flashlight, and parts of the wall are translucent, with the light entering the stone and gems.

Me in front of the Taj. Pretty.

Cool looking mosque on one side of the Taj. There are two, just so the symmetry isn't broken. The two Indian women (guess which ones they are!) were just random people who wanted their picture taken with us.

Most of the time, we just sat around the outside, enjoying the shade and sitting on the cool marble. Lots of Indians wanted our picture, apparently because we're three blonde college kids. I shook a lot of people's hands, listened to people talk in many languages, and just sort of roamed around. It was quite pleasant, and I got some good pictures.

The back of the Taj, where everyone was chilling out.

So, we bailed from the Taj about 2:00 or 2:30, and headed out to get some grub. We went to 'Yash Cafe', which was actually quite good. I had some chicken curry, and ate some of Anna's pineapple and pepper pizza.

A note about Indian food: it is not homogenous. There are two big types: north and south. Because most of the immigrants to the States are from the north, northern cuisine is typically what Americans think of when they think 'Indian'. Pune and Mumbai are sorta in the middle, so they get both types of cuisine, but southern seems to be more indigenous to Pune. Curries and butter chicken and things of this nature are northern, while southern food is more like dosa (big savory crepe type things) and uttapa (potato pancake or something like that) and sambhar (like spicy tomato soup) to dip them in. Of course, in this modern age, most restaurants as a rule serve southern, northern, chinese, and pizza. Go Fig.

For dinner, we ate at this restaurant on a roof, but it was pretty crappy. My butter chicken used all the bad parts of the chicken, and the chinese food Anna and Andrea got wasn't very chinesy or good, even by Indian standards. So, after buying some last-minute souvenirs, we headed back to our hotel, and my companions got banana pancakes while I drank some chai (Rs. 4 for a small glass, this country is insanely cheap).

Our train for Jaipur leaves at half past too-friggin-early, so we called it an early night. I feel almost at home, typing on my computer and listening to music. At the same time, this country is still so foreign to me, even after living here for three weeks. I've built up some cultural unity with India, insomuch as I can read Devnagari script and I know the songs to the movie 'Dhoom'. I think as long as you enjoy Bollywood movies, you can get along in this country.

Oh, and for completeness, here's "pigging out in Agra":

Trip to Agra

So, I have made my journey from Pune to Agra. It has been... long, to say the least.

5:00 pm
I'm in our hotel in Pune, trying to check out. It takes a long-ass time for me to check out, let alone my traveling companions. We eventually get out of the hotel at 5:30.

6:00 pm
Our train leaves, with us just getting on it four minutes prior. We sit around and chat, eating bread and chocolate we bought earlier that day in Koreagon Park. When we think we should get out, a friendly fellow passenger told us that it actually wasn't the right station; Dadar station was another two stops. This is all confused by the fact that NO ONE MAKES ANNOUNCEMENTS.

My traveling companions: Anna (left) and Andrea (bread). Not the most flattering picture, but it fits the mood.

We get out at Dadar, Mumbai at around 9, and we are accosted by taxi drivers wanting to take us to God-knows-where. We get past them, and head down the road a wee bit till we arrive at a nice all-veg cafe. We get seated in the way way back, and we order tons of snacks for very little money. Notable was the 'Dynamite Pizza', which had jalapenos! The cheese dosa was quite good as well.

11:30 pm
We hop onto our train to Agra, the 'Amritsar Express'. Don't let the name fool you, folks, this was no express. It was a 26 hour train ride. We were served a meal ('lunch', as the meal guy who spoke little English described it), eschewing the other two meals ('omelette' and 'dinner'). I slept a lot, I read a lot, and I did very little else. In some ways it was relaxing, but in others it was unnerving, because we didn't know if the conductor or train personnel would inform us of our stop. We did meet some people: a banker from the south (who spoke Telegu), and a German guy on a whirlwind trip of the world. He was really cool, actually, and had been to places in the States that I have never been to. His favorite place on the trip: New Orleans.

This was our home for 26 hours.

1:30 am, the next day
We stumble out of the train into the station, greeted by many porters ("Porter service?" "No thank you." "Porter service?" "NO!"), and some guy offered to drive us to our hotel for Rs. 200, a service we took him up on. We drove really fast through a bunch of empty streets, till we reached the hotel, which had a locked gate. I rang the doorbell, and eventually a dude with a raspy voice showed us to a room, and then showed me to my room. The guy in the car had bought an Aquafina bottle's worth of gas (or 'petrol') on the way, and his car wasn't working after we got out. At least we got to the hotel safe.

I'm gonna go sleep some more, even though it's been most of what I've been doing on this 33 hour trek. The hotel's kinda shitty, but then again it's pretty amazing for the five bucks it costs (private bath! yeah! no toilet paper, boo)

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Paper is done

So, I wrote my ten page paper for Civ. It's over. It doesn't quite feel like it's over, but it is.

Last weekend was relatively uneventful. On Saturday night, a whole bunch of us went to a club called 'Ola', which was OK. Drinks were reasonable, and there were a ton of people, so I guess that makes it a good place. I didn't really feel like dancing, as it made me miss Catherine. I wanted badly to dance with her, not with the fellow UofC peeps or with the random Indian guys that I met. So, I just hung out, talked to people, danced a little, and went home. I met some guys from London who were doing computer work, and some other guys who were in the army, in an armored tank division. All in all, an OK night, although I don't think clubs are worth all the trouble it is to get there. I mean, the auto-rickshaw rides are like half an hour each way to and from the hotel, and, when going home, the rickshaw drivers always charge a much higher fee than the fee they charge going there (in Indian English, a 'fee' is called a 'tariff').

Sunday was much calmer. I watched a lot of movies on TV (on HBO, Z English, and Star World), and I had lunch at Vaishali, which was good. Got a little planning for my essay done.

Monday was the same-old, but with more naps and dinner at this fabulous restaurant in the Hotel, called Puran da Dhaba. It was really good Indian buffet, with people who grilled swordfish and eggplant right in front of you. Fresh bread, lots of wonderful sauces, and veggies and meats made it a perfect meal.

Tuesday, we saw this film from 1935 about some great Poet-Saint of the area, a Sant Tukaram. The movie was OK, especially for being 70 years old. We had some lady talk, a scholar on film and especially this movie, but that too was only so-so.

Wednesday, we went to Sant Tukaram's home-town, Dehu. We saw a bunch of temples dedicated to him, and we saw some caves and huts were he composed a lot of his poetry. We had class with this guy, Dilip Chitre, who translated much of Tukaram's poetry. It was pretty nice, and I got to do a bit of hiking on a mountain.

Here's a pic of the one of the shrines in the side of the mountain, and also a photo of some bhakta guys, people who devote their lives to worshiping a god (in this case, Pandarang/Sant Tukaram).

Thursday and Friday were spent worrying about my essay, and then eventually writing it. I think it's good, but I haven't really looked back at all. I'm a little worried, but I'll save my real worrying for right before I get my grade back. One course down, two to go (and the ever-present Hindi).

I leave Pune later this evening. Anna, Andrea and I are taking a train to Mumbai, which will be 3 hours with a 3 or 4 hour layover, and then we go to Agra. The train to Agra will take 21 hours... I've got my sci-fi books that Jono picked out for me, and I have a bunch of Civ reading that I didn't complete, so I think I'll be good. Also, I love sleeping, and we have beds and air conditioning on the train, so I think I'll be a relatively happy camper. We spend a day and a half in Agra, and then we head to Jaipur (only an 8 hour train ride!), where we'll be most of the week. I'll update in Jaipur when I can.

Here is a picture of a cow outside of the German Bakery, some hippie/new-age/ashrum restaurant in Koreagon Park.

Take care, all!

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Just a normal week at the U of C

OK, so I was in Pune all week, and there isn't a whole lot to talk about. I've been going to class every day, practicing my Hindi and trying to keep up with my massive Civ readings. I have an idea of what I'm going to write my paper on --- memetics in Hindu mythology, why stories want to perpetuate themselves within society. It's going to be really cool, but it's going to take a lot of work, and I wanna go out and play!!!

Highlights of my week:
1) Got my tickets and hotel reservations for next week's vacation. I'm going to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur (in Rajastan, in the north, popular tourist destination). We're taking the train (and it's going to be ~ 23 hours to get to the north from Mumbai). Everything is cool. I'm going with Anna and Andrea, and they promised that we could go to tons of cool restaurants, so I am satisfied.

2) Wednesday night I went to a Pub/Club called '10 Downing Street'. It was kinda fun; the big group of us Americans really got the place going though, as we were the first to get up and dance. I like dancing, but I was tired, so I only stayed a couple hours.

3) We went to the National Film Archives, and saw this famous art movie called 'Samskara'. It's a so-so movie (everyone liked the book more), but it was relatively enjoyable, plus the chairs were really comfy. We later met the actor who played the main character, who also wrote the script and was the de-facto director (the director that is listed in the credits didn't actually speak Kannada, the language the film was made in). His name is Girish Karnad, and he's kind of a legend. It's funny -- we got taught by this famous guy, but because we're not Indian, his fame doesn't mean a lot to us. Either way, he is a cool guy, and he taught us some interesting stuff.

4) I saw my first Bollywood film last night, 'Dhoom'. It was amazing. The tickets were only Rs. 100 (like two bucks), the pop and popcorn were cheap, and the seats were really comfy. And, the theater complex is huge, with stores and restaurants, and many things of goodness. The movie itself -- amazing. It was in Hindi, but there was enough English phrases and words that everyone got the basic plot. Dhoom is like a mixture of The Fast and the Furious, The Matrix, a police chase movie and a musical. It was awesome -- the music was great, it was loud, it was huge, and there were great motorcycle chases through Mumbai.

Today, I'm going to research memetics on the internet, try to chill out, and get some more reading done. Wish me luck!

Monday, October 04, 2004

Welcome to Aurangabad, city of mystery, or enchantment, and the finest merchandise!

This weekend, the whole group went to Aurangabad, which is a six-hour bus ride away from Pune. We left early Friday morning, and I felt sick for the first three hours, until we had lunch at some hotel somewhere. After that, my tummy was feeling good, my mind was happy, and we soon arived at our destination -- a resort in Aurangabad.

So, we're at this hotel/resort (the 'Golden Meadows'), and we have pretty nice rooms. The rooms are in these little one-story 'cottages', and they have stone floors and nice A/C units. The hotel has a pool, and a restaurant, and a health spa, and this and that and the other thing. We chill there for the night, preparing for our Saturday adventure.

Bright and early Saturday morning, we hop back onto the bus, for a one-hour ride to Ellora, home of some pretty amazing 'caves'. Now, these caves are not really caves, they are temples cut out of the side of a mountain range. And there are like 47 of these carved temples. In order of oldest to newest, there were temples of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain faiths. It was really interesting to see the similarities and differences, to see the statues of various gods, goddesses, and spiritual beings. I was fascinated by how the different faith traditions borrow and share different ideas, and how evident it is when you see their art.

This guy (Nasir, Nasar, something like that) was following me around all the times I was in between caves (walking down the path to the next cave). He really really wanted me to buy his stuff, and I told him that, while his goods were very nice, I was not interested in buying trinkets. He then appealed to the fact that business has been slow, and that he really needed the money. Eventually, I broke down and bought a coin from the Moghul empire. It was only Rs. 100, and it was kinda cool, especially because I had read so many stories about the Moghuls in my Pakistani Language and Literature class last quarter. I also started up a conversation with a bunch of trinket-dealers, and they said they were all Muslim, and that they all spoke Hindi/Urdu at home. I think that a lot of them are more comfortable in English than they are in the local language of Marathi... very interesting.

After the many, many caves of Ellora, we came home and had civ class, after which I was exhausted. Had some grub and went to sleep. The next day, I went with a much smaller group (there were about eight of us) and we went to some other caves. These caves were also cool, and we had a pretty good tour guide. We also went to what is called 'the poor man's Taj Mahal', which was really beautiful and neat. It was dedicated to Emperor Aurangzeb's wife by his son, and her tomb is there too. Muslims (especially women) come to this monument and throw money at her tomb, which then goes to the historical sights preservation fund or something. Very interesting, historically, architecturally, and sociologically.

I got a mortor and pestil for my roomies, looked at a couple more sights, and then we hit the road back to Pune. Now I'm 'home' in Pune, and things are going back to normal. Had a good lunch at a Chinese restaurant (I'm kind of getting sick of South Indian food, I crave variation in my diet). For an appetizer, I had a bunch of tiny chicken egg-roll wrap things, and for my meal, I had the Indian version of Ma Po Tofu, made with chicken instead of pork. It was pretty good, but the rice wasn't Chinese style rice, rather it was basmati rice (not-so-sticky). Of course, we all had bottles of Fanta, and ice cream at the end. The amazing thing about Indian restaurants -- my share was Rs. 200, or about $4.25.

There are times that I miss the States, but most of the time, I'm just trying to get everything done. We have so much to read (my Civ Prof works us like the devil). We had to read her translation of the Ramayana, which is 800 pages long. She wrote the damn thing, she should know how long it is! And we have to read this and that and this other book, and so on. We're going to have a pop-mid-term, which is so un-cool, and we also have a 10 page paper to write by the end. The topic? Something intellectually engaging about what we've read. Sometimes freedom can be a prison.

Speaking of which, I need to figure out where I'm going in two weeks. I think I need to know by tomorrow afternoon. So far, it looks like I'll probably be going to Jaipur and Agra, and possibly to Dehli/New Dehli for a couple of days. It's a ten-day trip, so I'll be getting to know northern India pretty well before I come back to Pune, in the 'middle' of India. I'm looking forward to the trip, but I also fear the decision making and responsibility of planning this trip.