India Blog: Patiala

The countryside is like the fields you’d see in a Bollywood movie, rural and simple and very green. The people seemed quieter up here, and even more inclined to stare. And of course, animals. I even saw a peacock on the side of the road!

We first visited the village where my great uncle still lives on a small farm, and where my mom used to spend her summers. I saw the house where she was born, although the people who currently live there renovated it. They were very nice though, and even offered us tea if we wanted any. Indian people like to be hospitable.

village

Villagers came out onto their roofs and looked through their doors to get a peek at us, and a couple of children from next door asked me to come over for a few minutes (I assume for tea) because I looked so different. My great uncle recognized me, even though I haven’t seen him in a long time. My great aunt did too. Both of their first remarks were about how tall I’d grown (followed by my great aunt asking if I had a husband, naturally).

It’s very simple living, and the food is delicious. They made us a huge dinner with ingredients fresh from the farm, and I don’t think I’ve had better Indian food in my life. I have been spoiled forever.

I also visited the Gurudwara at the time they were blaring out the evening prayers, a small thing compared to the other ones we’d seen up until then. Cue more people staring. It was a village for sure; small community and small houses and fields surrounding it. There were cows in the street and buffalo in the courtyard. Definitely another way of living.

village 2

When we visited my great aunt at her village, musicians came into the courtyard to play and hopefully earn some money. It was strangely atmospheric.

Then we actually entered the city of Patiala, where I saw the house my mother grew up in, the Gurudwara she visited, where my grandfather worked at a bank, etc. It was great to finally see these places I’d only heard about but could never picture.

house

Of course, it was raining our last full day there. And this was the day we drove back to Delhi. Since the van didn’t have heat or a defrosting option, we had to drive with the windows cracked so that the windshield didn’t fog up, with cold air and rain assaulting us the entire time. Not fun.

But we did get back to Delhi, and my mother and I headed to London the next day. I’ve already been around the block with London, although I was happy as hell to reunite with Big Ben. This time I got to see a couple of things I wasn’t able to see when I studied abroad, like the Harry Potter Studio Tour (amazing). It was also very nice to have toilet paper again.

So that is the condensed version of my India trip. Hopefully I get to return in a few years, when I’m sure it’ll be built up even more. There’s still overwhelming poverty, with a lot of room for improvement and expansion and progression, but hopefully still staying true to the culture and not giving in to Westernization completely. I can only imagine where it goes from here.

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India Blog: Amritsar

The next stop was Amritsar, in the Punjab state. I feel a lot better being in Punjab, since the majority of people here are Sikh, which is what I’m most familiar with (it’s my mother’s/family’s religion and culture). The city itself is nice; not as crowded as Delhi, not as dirty as Agra. There were actually some pretty nice homes here, too.

In the morning we went to the Golden Temple, which is considered the holiest Gurudwara in the world. The actual temple part is a lot smaller than I thought it would be, but the complex as a whole is huge, and has a giant pool of holy water where people go to bathe their feet or their entire bodies.

DSCN1135

 

golden temple

We got our offering of prasad and waited in line in a long corridor leading up to the temple. The temple sits in the middle of the holy water lake, and the water reflections played on the ceiling of the corridor and on the sides of the temple. On the inside, the temple is just as golden as the outside; even the fans were golden. They even have a TV camera for broadcasting the morning prayers, and that was golden too.

After we went inside we walked around and saw how they make chapattis (by hand and by machine) and huge vats of dal to feed the people who come to the temple. All of this is free, by the way. They said they feed up to 45,000 people free per day. The system is so efficient, too. Everyone does their part to serve tea, food, clean the dishes, etc.

free food making

We passed a tree where some women were standing with their scarves outstretched. A parrot up in the branches was throwing down fruit. So my mother stood there as well and waited for the parrot to throw a husk of one of the berries down. I suppose this was another form of offering.

parrot offering

Afterwards we saw a memorial garden where hundreds of Indian people were shot to death by the British. They were having a peaceful protest in 1919, during the British occupation, and the General at that time told his men to open fire with no warnings to the protestors whatsoever. Even children were shot. You could see the bullet holes still in the brick walls, and the huge well where a lot of people jumped inside to escape bullet fire. An Indian man went to London several years later to take revenge, but ended up shooting the wrong guy who had the same last name as the General.

That evening we drove to the Indian/Pakistani border, where they have a gate between the two countries and a ceremonial changing of the guard. This is the only safe entry point between the two countries. The two sides were so different; the Indian side had a bunch of people cheering and dancing and partying and having a good time, and the Pakistani side had…nothing. Over there, the women and men had to sit separately, and there was no dancing or anything. It was hilarious.

Oh, and each side tries to drown out the other’s music by blasting it at full volume. I think we won because of the Punjabi drums/bass. Like I said: hilarious.

changing guard

The actual changing of the guard is a drawn-out ceremony with a bunch of guards kicking and marching and throwing the gate open and taking down the Indian and Pakistani flags for the night. Then, of course, they change guards. I like to imagine that the Indian and Pakistani guard just glare at each other the entire time they’re on duty.

Then we went to Chandigarh, which is much spacier/cleaner than the other places we’ve been so far, and I got some Indian suits. I’ve outgrown all my old ones, so it’ll be nice to have authentic suits again.

Next we drive to Patiala, where my mother grew up.

India Blog: Agra

Before we drove to Agra, we spent some time in Delhi with our relatives to look at some of the historical places, like the Lotus Temple and Gandhi’s memorial site where he was shot and cremated. We also visited the largest mosque in India (the women were required to wear mumu-like wraps to cover their bodies) and took a rickshaw ride through the alleyway bazaars. Holy crap, those things are scary but interesting.

rickshaw

And we saw a show that was kind of like an Indian musical, with Bollywood dancing and everything.

I forgot to mention that every car has some sort of idol on the dashboard: Shiva, Ganesh, etc. The car that took us to Agra had these, as well as peacock feathers. Trucks are all painted and decked out with ornamentation. On the road I also spotted these weird car things with huge horns attached to them; they looked like something out of Doctor Suess.

Agra wasn’t how I imagined it. I’m sure it was a little different back in the day, but now it’s downscaled and downtrodden. You can see where they had the old cantonment during the British Raj, but now it’s all scraped out. It’s still called the cantonment area, though.

That afternoon we finally saw the Taj Mahal. Walking through the western gate, it doesn’t look real. At all. You see so many pictures of it, but when you stand before it in real life, it just doesn’t look or feel like it’s actually there.

taj mahal

It’s breathtaking seeing it in person, and it’s huge. For those who don’t know, it was built in the 1600s by Emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his third and last wife. Supposedly her last wishes were for him to treat his children as a father instead of as a king, to build a monument in her honor, and to not take up another wife.

As we were walking around, looking out at the Yamuna River that bends behind the Taj, a family approached me and asked if I could take a picture. I thought they meant for me to take it of them (which has happened a few times now on this trip), but no, they wanted to take a family portrait with me.

This was probably a local family or from a place without many tourists. They saw a tall American and thought I looked exotic, or something. I wanted to be like, um, I am half Indian you know, but I took the picture with them anyway. My father got the same treatment when he visited with my mom a few years ago. As we were walking away, another family wanted a picture. Ugh.

The next day we looked at the Agra fort, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son in the last years of his life. It offers a nice view of the Taj, which we mostly saw through fog, and rolling arches and columns everywhere.

agra fort

agra fort 2

Oh, and we stopped by a McDonald’s here. Naturally, there are no cheeseburgers, but there are lots of chicken sandwiches (my favorite: the Chicken Maharaja Mac), a McPaneer Royale, and aloo (potato) sandwiches. SO WEIRD. And the spicy chicken was really, really spicy. They don’t play around.

We drove back to Delhi the next day, where we took a plane to Amritsar. We’re about to go see the Golden Temple and hopefully do a little shopping.

India Blog: Gwalior

Oh god what a long train ride. But we reached Gwalior in the afternoon of the 19th and stayed at this really beautiful hotel that used to be the guest house for the Maharaja of Gwalior. The actual palace was just across the street, which we toured. The hotel was definitely atmospheric, and we saw parrots all over the place. I heard the cries of peacocks, but never actually saw any.

The palace was an interesting blend of Indian and European. It houses the biggest chandelier in the world! I was very happy.

chandelier

The next day we went up to tour the fort. It’s on a big hill overlooking all of Gwalior, and lining the pass are huge Jain carvings in the rock. Jainism is pretty close to Buddhism, although the Buddhist statues have their eyes closed whereas the Jain ones have their eyes open.

jain carvings

The fort was lovely. We saw the different courtyards they used for singing and dancing, and the Maharaja would stand up on a balcony with a golden umbrella to watch. In the dancing courtyard there used to be mirrors and gems in the walls, reflecting the dancers as the eight queens watched behind their latticework windows.

I also banged my head pretty hard on one of the lower doorways. Apparently the Maharaja was a short guy.

We saw the different temples as well, including one built for the Maharaja’s mother-in-law that used to house an idol of Vishnu. All of the idols, like the one for the Shiva temple, were taken by the Mughals when they invaded—as well as all those mirrors and gems in the old palace. Then the British came and turned the palace into a fort, but at least they preserved whatever statues were left.

temple door

There was a Gurudwara nearby as well, which we visited. My mother is Sikh and I grew up going to these temples, but this was slightly different from the American ones. Same concept and everything, but little touches that were different, such as wading through a small pool of water before you cross the threshold (you have to be barefoot/clean to go into the temple, as well as having your head covered and having an offering). The prasad tasted just the same, though.

gurudwara

That night we took an express train back to Delhi, where we met with our other relatives. Then we go to Agra.

India Blog: Jaipur Part 2

ELEPHANTS.

During our second day in Jaipur, we went to the Amber (Amer) Palace/Fort, where you can ride elephants up to the top. We stood in a long line (it’s a very touristy thing to do) and at the front, we hopped onto our painted elephant and trundled up to the palace.

elephant ride

Riding an elephant is not smooth. I think I rode one once when I was very little, but not sitting sideways like this, jostling back and forth with the animal’s movement. We also got sprayed by water from its trunk quite a few times—a blessing, as the driver called it.

At the top, we explored the ancient palace/fort, which was built in the 16th century by Raja Man Singh I. There are a few different courtyards, one of them leading to the Ganesh Pol (Gate). Above the gate are latticework windows. The women of the court sat at these windows to look at what was happening in the courtyard without having to be seen (seclusion of women was pretty popular).

ganesh gate

We also saw the courtyard for the harem, as well as where their apartments were. There’s also a hall of mirrors, which was really beautiful. The protective wall of the fort extends a huge distance across the mountains, and you can see where they tore a segment down to build the town of Amer. It’s not unlike the Great Wall of China, but on a smaller scale.

Also, there was a snake charmer!

Also, there was a snake charmer!

We had lunch and then sat with an Indian astrologer, since my mother wanted our palms read. Supposedly, my brain line is very long, which indicates high intelligence and a practical nature (hmm). And apparently I will have a very handsome husband and two children. All my mother was focused on was if said handsome husband made good money.

The City Palace of Jaipur was next. There’s a large courtyard, an observatory called the Jantar Mantar, which houses a bunch of large astronomical/timekeeping devices from way back when. One of these is the largest sundial in the world. Also, from here, you can see the Jaipur clock tower. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

jaipur clock

There’s an armory here with a bunch of awesome collections of weaponry and armor from various periods. My personal favorite piece: a dagger with twin pistols attached to either side. You stab someone and then pull both triggers, shooting them twice. Just to make sure they’re really, really dead.

We rounded off the day with some shopping, and I got to see where they cut jewels they mine right here in India. My mother insisted I get an emerald ring, since the astrologer said that would be a lucky stone for me.

Next: a train ride to Gwalior.

India Blog: Jaipur Part 1

Today we drove from Delhi to Jaipur. Horribly car sick. Also experienced the horror of Indian toilets without toilet paper. I will not go into detail.

On the road, I saw so many animals. Goats, pigs, chickens, cows, oxen, monkeys, ELEPHANTS, etc. I also saw a lot of the Indian condition: dilapidated buildings in close proximity to high-rises that are currently undergoing construction; women in bright saris carrying children, laundry, and harvest; and dusty plains across the street from grassy plains.

elephant

A lot of people stared at me, even in the car. When I’m with my mother they assume we’re not related, and when my mother says we’re together or that I’m her daughter I can see their confusion. We get the same thing in America, but it’s more pronounced here, where I’m the minority.

In Jaipur, we got a tour of a textile facility where they make things from scratch. In the first part, they showed us a big kiln where they fire up the ceramics and then sand them down, paint designs, and glaze them.

In the second part, they showed us a fabric press room where they do all the designs by hand via blocks. They make natural pigments (for example, using curry powder) and paint them on the etched blocks, then line them all up by hand to add color to the fabric. I got to try it on my own square of cotton and was very happy.

fabricelephant print

The third part was the paper-making plant. The process starts with cut-up bits of cotton, which gets churned and then put into dyed water. Men scoop out the fibers and spread them across a board, put a sheet of cotton over it, and flip it over to drain the water. When it dries, it becomes rough paper that gets pressed into smoother sheets. They had all different colors, designs, and textures. It was so cool to see the behind-the-scenes process, and even see how they folded them into bags for retail use.

ceramic paper

Hindi music was blaring as we walked around. Holi is coming on March 6, which means we’re missing it by a few days, which makes me SO sad. I’ve always wanted to experience Holi in India.

On our way back to the hotel, a group of men crossed the street and everyone stopped for them to go by. One man was carrying a small, white-shrouded bundle, and I knew immediately that it was a child. They were performing a funeral, which we were told is common for someone so young. As fascinating as India is, it knows how to sober you in a heartbeat.

Tomorrow we’re doing elephant rides and looking around the city.

India Blog: Delhi

My first thought upon arriving in Delhi: This place is really hazy. Like, LA hazy. I kept hearing about the smell of the city, but I was too tired and too dazed to think anything of it. Later I would look up and ask, “What’s that burning smell?” and my mother would laugh and say, “That’s Delhi.”

My second thought: I am going to die in a traffic accident.

I know about the roads in India, but to drive on them is something altogether different. There are no traffic rules except for stopping at red lights. Everyone weaves in and out of lanes, rendering them completely pointless. All the cars, buses, motorcycles, and rickshaws are within a centimeter of each other, and you can see all the scratches and dings on their sides from how many times they’ve hit another moving vehicle.

And the honking is constant.

 

marigold

We received necklaces of marigold flowers when we arrived, a welcoming tradition with a religious aspect. Every time I moved I smelled them. Looking out the car window, I was motion sick within a minute, but couldn’t look away from the streets. At the airport I thought, this isn’t so different. And then we drove away from the airport.

Oh lord.

First of all, people pass out in the middle of anywhere to nap; mostly on patches of grass. The streets are an uncanny blend of western consumerism and eastern poverty. Whenever the traffic stops, people—mostly children—come up to the cars and tap on the windows to sell toys, balloons, pieces of coconut. We even passed a dancing boy who smacked the side of the car door for money, which we knew we couldn’t give to him because of how the begging system is rigged in India.

By the time I got to the hotel I was ready to sleep for a million years. In fact, I slept for 12. Or maybe 11; we were woken around 9 by the sound of what I first thought was gunfire, then turned out to be fireworks. Across the street, a wedding was going on, and low-firing fireworks were being set off.

Weddings are a big deal.

Today we are getting over jetlag. We did leave the hotel to go shopping, since my mother wants me to have a few ready-made Indian shirts (I’ve outgrown all my old Indian clothes). Motion sick again, but chewing gum helped. This time I saw goats, cows, and dogs in the streets. Motorcycles are everywhere, and it’s a common sight to see two guys speeding away somewhere with one of them checking his smart phone. For a poverty-stricken country, India loves technology.

Interesting fact about the motorcycles, though: only men are, by law, forced to wear helmets. Women aren’t forced to wear them because it clashes with their hair and outfits. Naturally.

Also, there are pigeons. Everywhere. It’s a Hindu custom to feed pigeons, as it’s believed to cleanse you of sins you may or may not be aware of. However, it does nothing to cleanse the city.

India is called the land of festivals. Today was the festival of Maha Shivratri, when people celebrate the god Shiva and how he danced the tandava, which created the universe, and which he will eventually destroy with the same dance. I was so delighted to hear this, mostly because 1) I’ve always been fascinated by Shiva, and 2) I mention this in the second Timekeeper book.

LOOK. THEY KNOW.

LOOK. THEY KNOW.

At the mall—a newer structure, only ten years old or so—we were bombarded by western stores, but found a few Indian ones. Then, strangely, we ate at an Asian fusion place that had pretty good food. I never expected to find sushi in India (sadly, or wisely, I did not try it).

Security is everywhere. You go through detectors and have your car checked wherever you go. It makes me wonder why no one has set a dystopian novel in India; it’s the perfect setting. (No, I will not write one. Dystopian is not my thing).

Overall: Delhi is exhausting and crazy. Tomorrow we go to Jaipur, where I hear there are historical things and elephants. I’m excited to get out of Delhi and see more historical stuff.

But mostly I’m excited about the elephants.