August 28, 2011

the Taj Ma-holy crap, there's a monkey on our car

You would think that the highlight of a trip to see the Taj Mahal would be actually seeing the Taj Mahal, but for me the journey there was just as interesting as the actual monument. The trip to Delhi (in northern India) was a quick trip and our sole mission was to just get to the Taj Mahal and back in one piece...and it's a wonder how we did, in fact, make it back in one piece. 

We walked down the steps of the plane onto the tarmac, I knew we were in for it because at about 10:30pm the outside temperature was 90 degrees and what felt like 100% humidity. I'm not really cut out for heat like that (and hello, my hair is especially not cut our for humidity like that), thanks to my Minnesota upbringing my boiling point is about 80 degrees before I start complaining about the heat. As we were being driven to our hotel and I saw sidewalks full of people sleeping on the pavement, otherwise known as "home" to them, all complaints evacuated my mind as I gained a little perspective. Well in this case, a lot of perspective.

The next morning, we had a 4am wake-up call to start our 4-5 hour drive out to Agra where the Taj Mahal is (...don't worry, we weren't the ones driving!). It's not that Agra is actually that far away from Delhi - in theory it is maybe a 2.5 - 3 hour drive. But with the poor road conditions (there aren't really freeways) and the traffic (on the road at any given time there are mass amounts of cars, trucks, people, cows, bikes, tractors, etc.) nobody is going anywhere very fast. If you watch this, you'll understand why it took so long to get places: 
I was trying to sleep on the way there but I couldn't even close my eyes, there was chaos everywhere for the entire time so I was glued to the window trying to take everything in. The stretch from Delhi to Agra was difficult to see because people were living in very poor conditions; I think it was the worst poverty I've ever seen in real life. A large part of me felt guilty as we were being driven by our personal driver, in our spacious air conditioned van on our way to see a monument that many Indians themselves have never been able to see even though they live relatively close. 

On a lighter of the highlights of my entire trip was on the way to the Taj Mahal where we had to stop for some unknown reason. We were driving along when all of the cars began to slow down and eventually stop at some kind of unmarked checkpoint, not resembling a toll so I'm still not sure what it was. Our driver turns around and says "Stay. I'll be back." My friend Christina apparently had been warned about this but had never experienced it before so she just said "LOCK THE DOORS!" and "Do NOT look at the people". Then we heard a thud up against a window, and thus began one of the most hilarious and semi-terrifying 3 minutes of my life. 

All within about 15 seconds, we had a monkey carrying a tiny baby monkey thrown up against one window clinging on to the car, their faces smashed against the window, men at all four doors tapping on the windows trying to sell various things, all talking to us at the same time and trying to get us to look back at them. Since we were all locked in, I felt (relatively) safe but with the monkeys smashed up against the window, what felt like a million eyes peering in at us, no driver in the front seat - my only regret is that none of this was captured on camera...partially because we were too scared to move and partially because we were laughing uncontrollably wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. After the monkey attack, we kept trucking along and eventually made it to the Taj Mahal somehow. The rain held off just long enough for us to take pictures and then the torrential downpours began (thank you, monsoon season). It was an exhausting trip there and back...later we all agreed that maybe this was a one time thing. I guess I would go again, but it would have to be in the distant future...girl needs some time to gear up for that experience again. 

The Taj Mahal itself was very pretty and super interesting to hear about how, when and why it was constructed. It was built in the 1600's to be the burial place of the Emperor Shah Jahan's third (and favorite) wife who died during the birth of their 14th child (side note - 14 kids! never in a million years). So it took 22 years and 20,000 workers to complete the mausoleum, the whole thing is in white marble decorated with patterns made of precious stones. When it was finished, the Emperor cut the hands of the workers to ensure that nobody would be able to create such a marvelous monument again. (I hope that last bit doesn't ruin the Taj Mahal for you.)
Gateway to the Taj Mahal
Tiffany, myself and Christina
Finally...the Taj!
Just before the torrential downpour
waiting for the rain to stop
Taj Mahal mosque
coming all the way to the Taj Mahal and not doing this is not an option
After our five hour trip back to Delhi, we were exhausted and ready for a good meal. The most surprising thing for me in Delhi was the polarity within the city - here we were dining in such a nice restaurant and just outside were some of the worst conditions I've ever seen. The city is dirty, so dirty. The amount of homeless people and parents with children begging for food and money surpasses any other city I've visited. Pretty much everything seemed to be in disrepair - the population and the city itself. We definitely stuck out as three white girls walking around the city by ourselves - it seemed as though every other step we took someone new was coming up to us to sell us something or hassle us. It was exhausting to not be able to just walk around in peace and it was really sad for us to see kids working and learning to hassle people at such a young age and know that this will likely be their path for the rest of their lives. One of the drivers in India was telling us about the inner workings of people - including the kids - selling things on the street or coming up to your car in traffic and begging for money. There is a leader orchestrating everything so the money goes to the leader and in exchange for that he will supply the "workers" with food. Another disturbing piece of information he told us is that begging mothers will give their babies and kids a sleeping pill so that they are always sleeping when they circulate traffic or sit on the sidewalk and beg for money. I was devastated to hear things like this and couldn't believe that this is how people live their lives. I'm used to Paris where the most scandalous thing is to be seen in shoes from two seasons ago. My experience in India was really eye opening and my fear is that some people do not travel there (and other third-world countries) because they want to believe that things like this don't exist, or at least they don't want to see them exist. This is very much the mentality I sense in France, especially, where they really stick to the saying "ignorance is bliss". 

We were still able to enjoy Delhi for the short time we were there - taking in the local cuisine and culture.
So to summarize: I went to the Taj Mahal. It was hot, terrifying, amusing, depressing, far away...and totally worth it.

August 2, 2011

greetings from India!

...writing to you today from Bangalore, India!
I left Paris last week and hopped on a plane for 8 hours to come to India to see my friend, Christina. It's amazing here and unlike any other trip I've taken. Paris is overtly beautiful with all of its intricate architecture, pristine public gardens, famous monuments and charming boulevards. I've been in India now for almost a week and I'm finding that India is just as beautiful but in very different ways, it's less superficial. It's beneath the surface living in the people, the culture, the traditions and history. 

My home base is at my friend Christina's place in Bangalore. She's here working for five months so I couldn't pass up an opportunity to come visit her and see what she's been up to in India. I'm very thankful to have her around warning me about things I might not be expecting...which is most things. The drive alone from the airport to her hotel/apartment was surprising enough...they have dotted white lines on the road implying that there are lanes but really you just drive wherever you want, dodging cars, stray dogs and cows on the street. When we arrived at her complex, the car came to a stop and men swarmed the car checking the trunk, underneath the hood of the car as well as underneath the car for bombs. We drove 10 feet and got out at the entrance where my bags were taken from me and whisked away through a security check while I was routed through a metal detector. At first I was shocked and a little concerned as to what was going on and then Christina told me "don't worry, this is normal!" I'm finding that this is, in fact, standard operating procedure - not only at hotels but also monuments, shopping malls and most public places. I turned to Christina when we were waiting for our bags to go through security at the hotel and asked "So you have to do this every day when you leave and come back?!" She laughed and said "every day...every. day." Other interesting things I've come across here: Bangalore has the highest population of stray dogs in the world, dancing is illegal, cows and pigs roam the street and eat the poorly disposed of garbage, electricity comes and goes as it pleases and pubs close at 11:30pm. We're not in Kansas anymore...

It's been an interesting time in Bangalore so far. Since my friend is here for work, she's living a pretty sweet life in a resort style, apartment-sized hotel room. They treat us like royalty here which has been weird to get used to. In Paris nobody knows I exist - the general population ignores me and I ignore them back and that's what I'm used to. Here, it's like you can't do anything without someone watching your every move, making sure you have everything you need, opening every door, stopping whatever task they are in the middle of to say hello and ask how you are when you walk by them, etc. It's like night and day from Paris - I told Christina I think I prefer to be ignored! It's strange to be in such an elegant hotel and simultaneously see poverty on the streets from the balcony. I've gotten a taste of both worlds, though. My first night here we were invited to go to a fashion show to kick off Bangalore fashion week followed by a rooftop party by a pool that strictly ended at 11:30pm. 
In the days following the fashion show, I've been able to walk around Bangalore and see the other side of the coin, so to speak. I roam the uneven sidewalks alongside of the cows, dogs and pigs and soak in the local culture, which is much richer than all of the luxurious things I have at my disposal here at the hotel.
Over the weekend we took a trip to Delhi and Agra to see the Taj Mahal...but that adventure will have to wait for another post!