Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Sorry it took so long to get this up.  I've been writing it over the past week, Singapore got in the way (new post later on that).  Right now it's 120am, and soon we'll be going up the river into Ho Chi Minh City.  I seem to say this for every country, but in all honestly, since we have fought (and lost) a war here, I can say that I really felt like I was never going to be in Vietnam.  But enjoy my story of India!
I scratched a tiny tiny surface of India.  With 1.1 billion people, its impossible to think that I could find out more than just a tiny part of the country.  It's diverse as can be with 22 different languages and multiple religions, it is probably just as if not more diverse than Europe is.  The caste system (though outlawed) can still be seen throughout the country, especialy outside of the big cities.  We had two interport students this time, both who were very talented and introduced us to the culture of India (I love the music now, very relaxing). 
A majority of my time was spent on an SAS trip, so I was in a kind of protected bubble but did manage to escape that at times.  Six days here in India just made me realize how little Westeners know about India, even though it's been around for 5,000 years.  I don't even know if writing about it will convey much of what it was like to be there.
It was humid and hot in Chennai, southern India whereas up north it wasn't as humid.  The crowds are EVERYWHERE though.  You truly do just have to get use to seeing more people than your use to no matter where you are at.  Hinduism is the dominant religion in India with about 1 billion followers.  We visited several Hindu temples, as well as Buddhist stuppas and such, more on each later in this, including the Hindu wedding that left me sick for 2 days :), but I was at a hindu wedding, which was totally worth being sick after.  Hindu temples come across at first as quite tacky, at least to me, but once you learn more about the religion you find out that all the statues and colors are used to convey the hindu story.  Some people see hinduism as a crazy religion with millions of gods, and while there are many different interpretations of it, our guide put it in one light that I liked.  He mentioned how it started with one supreme god, but seeing that a large majority of Indians at the time were illiterate, the many different gods were created in order to tell different stories and pass on the lessons of Hinduism.  Others think of it as the many gods being different aspects of the one god.  I could be partial to these just to because of my ideas of religion and such.  ANYWHO.....lot of stuff to talk about in one blog post, let's try it though....
Day One
The first day we rolled into Chennai where we were docked.  I counted 15 ships outside of the port waiting for the pilot boat to bring them in!  Tons of little boats around us as well, but we were definitely the only passenger ship pulling in.  Oh and as we headed outside onto the 7th deck to get some views of India, who do we bump into doing his morning walk, shirtless I dare say?  The Arch of course.  Fistbump for Kaeleigh, and just moved on with my day acting like I didn't just nonchalantly fist bump the Chairmen of the Council of Elders.
Once we got off the ship (which took forever here) a group of us rounded up some rickshaws to head out and get lunch.  RICKSHAWS ARE THE GREATEST FORM OF TRANSPORT ON EARTH.  Why these don't exist in the US is beyond me, besides the obvious safety problems.  I can remember many times when I thought I was going to die on one of these.  They're three wheels, and while they are designed to hold 2 passengers in back with the driver in front, we could get usually 4 passengers total, but we definitely saw some Indians who seemed to have 15 people in one rickshaw, it's quite the art.  So we were zooming our way to lunch and realized traffic laws do not exist in India.  We'd go down the wrong side of the road for awhile, then have 6 rickshaws abreast in the same lane, etc etc.  We finally got to some area for lunch.  As soon as we kind of walked into the place, which was an open air cafe type of place, our whiteness gave us away and we were quickly ushered into an air conditioned room in the back for lunch.  It turned out to be really good, nothing too spicy, so a good start to Indian food.  I really cannot remember any of the names of the foods that I ate, so I won't be able to say much about them on here.  All I know is during the whole trip I never had anything I didn't like. 
After lunch we just wanted to walk around and experience the city, which was very difficult to explain to our rickshaw drivers.  They had waited for us to eat lunch and were trying to get us in the rickshaw to take us shopping (they get commission wherever they take us, make our lives just dandy).  Literally the followed us for a several blocks but oh well.  So we went through a train station to lose them.  This was where for myself  I saw some of the first poverty of India.  A little girl was taking a bath in the sink that said drinking water on top of it, and next to the tracks were tons of trash and some tents set up down along the path where people would sleep.  More on all the poverty later. 
We mainly just walked around and took in the sights and the smells of the city that day.  People were overall quite friendly, asking where we were from and welcoming us to India.  English is the language used in school so a lot of people, especially in the cities, speak it.
For dinner that night we went to a restaraunt called Kabul.  It was really good, everyone ended up sharing our dishes with eachother.  Nan is the bread used in India and Indian food, its delicious.  I used it to soak up the sauces, or get really creative and make some sort of wrap with it, putting the meat and sauce on the nan and wrapping it up.  So good.
We headed back and I started getting ready to pack for my SAS trip, called Taj Majal and Varanasi.  The trip was divided into three groups, A, B, and C.  I had thought for the entire trip I was in B, leaving at 930am the next day.  I did a last minute check at about 11pm that night, to find out I was group A, leaving at 4am!  I was that close to missing the biggest SAS trip on my itinerary! 
Day Two
Started so so early.  We were on our bus by about 430am, heading to the Chennai airport.  When we got into there and got my boarding pass I realized that the beer I was drinking at dinner the night before was the airline I was now about to fly on.  Can't say I felt to comfortable about that, think of it as hopping on to the Fly Budweiser Airline.  But it turned out to be really nice, tvs in every headrest, the works, etc.  Another different thing in the airports is that whether in Varanasi or New Delhi or Chennai, the airplane doesn't park at the gate.  When you board at the get, you get on a bus that takes you out to the plane.  It was a different experience, especially to see it at the big airports.
So we landed in New Delhi and boarded our buses.  As we got onto the bus the driver gave us huge leis, which apparently are not just Hawaiin things.  We headed from the airport through New Delhi, and went up the street that has a lot of Embassies along it.  We saw the American embassy and a bunch of other embassies scattered about along the street, on our way to Ghandi's Ghat.  A ghat is a place where someone is cremated, so this was a memorial on the place where Ghandi was cremated a day after he was assasinated.  There was a lot of Indian's there visiting the place, he is called the Father of India after all.  The trees that line the walkway heading up to the memorial have all been planted by different visiting heads of state to pay their respects to Ghandi.  Our guide, V.K., actually showed us the spot where Obama will be planting his tree when he visits India in the next few weeks! 
After being at Ghandi's Ghat, we went to a type of banquet hall to have lunch.  This was of course delicious sauces and such, which was perfect for being soaked up with the nan bread.  After lunch, we went to go check into our hotel, Le Merdian.  By far, the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at in my life.  Hardwood floors in the rooms, modern decor, a 20 story atrium, restaurants and bars, including a chocolate bar.  It was five stars all the way, it in no way gave any credit to the fact that we were in India.  It was great to stay at a place like that, but we all were a little flustered by the fact that we obviously were not in the real India, but oh well. 
After checking in and dropping off our bags, we moved to a few more sites in New Delhi.  Our first stop was the Indian Gateway, a giant arch that was recently constructed to commemorate all the Indians killed in war.  It sat on a large area where the national capitol rested on one end, and museums and such were scattered all along it, basically it was just like our National Mall in Washington, D.C.  A lot of people liked to take pictures with us, usually with their own cameras but sometimes with ours, I guess the just like to have a picture with a white person.  (Sidenote, it's going to be very weird being in the US again and not being a minority, I think I'm going to miss it quite a bit). 
After the India Gateway we moved to Hyumen's Tomb, which we knew nothing about except that it inspired the Taj Majal.  It turned out to be a very beauitful building, and you could easily see the resemblence.  It was set back in a huge garden area, and you could really climb all around it and explore all its spaces.  It was made out of red sandstone so it was great to see it at sundown.  We explored the area for awhile, trying to get as many different views of it as possible.  Some other tombs around the area let us climb up on walls and get some pretty cool views of the sunset over the city of New Delhi.
Dinner was back at the hotel, which was kind of dissappointing that there was actually no Indian food on the buffet!  It was all western food!  But that was okay, we later found out another one of the groups actually had Domino's pizza delivered to their hotel for them haha.  But like I said, the hotel was rediculously nice and we had a few drinks at the bar (expensive drinks) and tried to crash pretty early since we had an early morning the next day.
Day 3 (Taj!)
Up just as early to grab a few bites of food at what turned out be a delicious continental buffet, we headed off in our bus towards the rail station in Delhi.  The railstations are definitely not modern or anything compared to the airports, and they are full of a variety of people.  Unfortunately you did see a lot of children begging for food around these areas which was hard to see.  We were taking an express train to Agra, luckily it was first class, which meant air conditioning.  It really didn't seem like first class at all, it was pretty basic, but air conditioning means a lot in India.  It was a two hour train ride into the city of Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located.  It was for some time the capitol of India, and is part of the Golden Triange of New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.  We got into the city right around 8am and we got on buses that took us to a hotel where we were served breakfast (again, mainly a western breakfast...boo).  On the way to this hotel our guide told us to look left, and to get ready to look down the small kind of narrow valley that was coming up.  So we did, and that was our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, from a far difference, but I was pumped at that point.
We were to see all three of the UNESCO World Heritage sights that day, so we headed to Fatehpur Sikri, which was about a 30 minute drive outside of Agra.  It was a fort built with all red sand stone, so it was really cool looking, and had a lot of palaces in the complex.  It was from the 16th century, and the fort was built as the capitol of India.  It took about 8 years to construct, and the capitol was only there for 15 years!  They had to move out due to water shortages I think is what our guide said.  It was a cool place to explore, but it was hard totally focus on these places knowing that the Taj Mahal was later in the day!  Seriously, I never expected to be at the Taj Mahal, and it still feels totally surreal that I was there.  So after Fatehpur Sikri we stopped at the marble art shop, where they showed us how the marble in the Taj had been decorated.  It's basically them cutting away parts of the marble and putting carved colored marble into the cuts to make designs and writings.  One tabletop of these costs around $8,000!  After this we went back to the same hotel for a lunch, full of delicious Indian food and even more delicious ice cream.
The next stop was to Agra Fort.  Another 16th century fort, it was also built with red sand stone (sometimes its called Red Fort), but is much more like a fort than Fatehpur Sikri with huge walls, defensive structures, and even a moat around it.  It was another cool place to explore and look around, and part of it is closed to visitors because that is where the Indian army's barracks are located, so the fort is actually still used by the Indian army!  Just like the other place, too, it was where some of the Mughal emperors lived, so it was the capitol of India.  You could get some incredible views of the back of the Taj Mahal, where you could see the river the Taj rests on and the fields all around it.  Finally after what seemed like forever, we got ready to go to the Taj.
The Taj is thought to be one of the top targets for terrorist in the world, so the security was kind of high.  We had to walk for part of the way because most cars are not allowed anywhere near it (probably a pollution thing).  We made it to the Taj around 5pm, and had an hour (only one damn hour!  why did we have to stop at the stupid marble place??!!?).  So we got to see sunset on it.  After you get through security your in a red sandstone building area, so your walking through it, lots of high walls.  Then you come to a giant old gate structure, and you walk through this to see the Taj.  It was amazing to walk through this and suddenly see the famous view of the Taj Mahal, right in front of you, with the pools of water and the Taj Mahal just seeminly floating right there in front of you.  I took a good amount of pictures, no worries.  It was very crowded since it was Sunday night, but I just tried soaking in the experience as much as I could.  We slowly made out way up to it, and walked are way around it.  Unfortunately the line was too long to go inside of it, but I heard the inside is nothing special (I'll be back there someday anyway).  But I made sure to actually go up and touch it several times.  There's two buildings on either side of it, on the left is a mosque, and on the right is just the answer to the mosque, an identical buildin built just to keep everything in symmetry.  It was a great time there, sunset gave an orange glow to the whole building, and I definitely was not ready to leave when we had to.  It really was a beautiful building and grounds area, you can't help but just be in a state of wonder looking at it.  Disney totally used the Taj for the palace in Aladdin, and we realized the city in Aladdin was called Agrabad, so they're not really trying to hide it.
We headed back towards the train station then.  We had to eat dinner on the train so we were given boxed dinners, big boxes packed full of food for each one of us.  I can't believe they thought to do it this way, as we all walked up to the station with tons of kids begging for food.  Just about everyone opened their boxes and started handing out most of their food to the kids, but it killed me to see these kids living like that.  Most were not older the 8 years old.  I lose my voice anytime I try to describe what it was like to see the kids violently rip apart a box and start fighting with each other over the contents.  You just felt totally helpless and overwhelmed, it was one of the worst things I've ever had to see in my life.  I didn't open my box to give anything out, I remembered when we got off the train earlier a couple of kids squeezed there was on and grabbed any food trash people left, so I wanted to leave my box there.  I just ate the banana out of it, and felt better about the world when I saw the a kid snatch up the box after we got off the train in New Delhi.
Day 4 (Varanasi)
"Benares (Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of
them put together"  - Mark Twain
Up even earlier this day to catch our flight to Varanasi (again aboard Kingfisher Airlines, aka Budlight Express).  We checked out of the hotel, and the flight took about an hour and a half.  Varanasi was immediately unlike Delhi and Chennai, as it wasn't nearly as developed.  We went our hotel, The Taj Gateway, which was rediculous.  In the middle of this ancient city, another 5 star hotel, this one was in the middle of its own Garden, so there was huge lawns spread out around it, you just didn't feel like you were in India, let alone Varanasi, whatsoever.  Any Indian I had spoke to previous before going to Varanasi said that Indians themselves experienced culture shock at Varanasi.  It's been continually occupied for over 5,000 years!
So after checking in and grabbing lunch, we headed to Sarnath, one of the holiest sites in Buddhism.  The ruins of the very first Buddhist temple and monastery are here, and the Buddhist stupa contains relics of Buddha and marks the site where Buddha gave his very first sermon to the five discpiles.  A lot of Asian tour groups were here, making the pilgrammage stop.  It was cool to see the Buddhist monks as well moving around and about.  The museum near by here was neat as well, it contains the original sculputre of four lions creating a pedastal, and this is what is used as the official symbol of India, and you see it everywhere, associated with anything official or governmental.
We left and made a quick stop at a silk factory, and saw the weavers making the final products, which were pretty elaborate.  Outside of the factory we all hopped into rickshaws, two to one, to make the trip down to the Ganges River to see the evening Aarti, or prayer, on the ghats.  These were not auto rickshaws like from before, but bicycle rickshaws.  We whizzed our way through the heart of Varanasi, dodging traffic and people alike.  Now this time I truly thought death was right around the corner.  But these rides on the rickshaw down towards the river was the best part might have been the best part of trip.  It felt like I was a part of the culture, and I could see the life of the people happening all around me.  So MANY people everywhere.  Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians (though you can't immediately tell these) everywhere.  The city itself truly had this ancient feel to it.  But it wasn't the "old" feeling I'm use to.  I can easily go to Rome or somewhere else in Europe and be like, oh, this is old.  It's hard to describe, but old in India just has a different feeling to it.  I mean, its freakin India!  But anyways, this amazing ride ended and we had to walk down to the ghats.  The ghats in Varansi are large steps that go down into the river, and basically take up the whole bank, as there are tons of temples lining the river, and each has a ghat going down into the river.  The river is considered holy, it stems from the Himalayas where the Hindu gods live.  The river itself is thought to be an extension of the god Shiva's long crazy hair.  For this reason, bathing or drinking the water of the Varansi is done extensively, and since there's no prescribed ritual, everyone does there own thing here.  But we would see all of this the next morning.
The Aarti was beautiful to see.  There was a huge crowd gathered on the ghats to watch it, and a lot of boats full of tourists/pilgrims in the river up close to watch it as well.  There was 6 platforms set up, and each had men on the platforms doing identical rituals, such as burning insense, and eventually having this large christmas tree shaped candle holders with lots of candles on them.  Music was played as well.  We went up to the roof of a nearby building to get the best view, and it really was enchanting to sit and watch this thousands of years prayer happen right in front of us.  We all kind of sat there mystified by the whole ceremony.  Hard to write about it.
After these ended we walked back up towards the street to take another awesome and stunning rickshaw ride back to the buses, where on the way our driver decided to go down the wrong side of the street at one moment, play chicken with an auto rickshaw, which ended up actually tipping towards as it veered out of our way at the very last possible second..  We finally got back to our hotel for dinner.  We walked out of the hotel and across the grounds to this random building in the gardens for a delicious dinner in this beautiful dining room just sitting out in the middle of the gardens.  Just to give you an idea, President Obama will be staying at this hotel when he is Varanasi soon.  I think it's crazy and awesome that he's even coming to Varanasi, I'm sure the secret service cried a little when the started researching this city, or India itself for that matter.  I had some fun later that night chatting with a German tour guide at the hotel bar whose career is taking Germans around India....sounds like something I could get into...hm...
Day 5
Earliest wake-up thus of the whole trip, and longest day.  We got up and immediately headed back towards the river.  The buses took us further than the last time but we had to walk out way towards the ghats.  The evening/night was so much more livelier than the deserted streets were at that moment.  We got down towards the river and immediately saw the people bathing themselves in the river everywhere (not naked).  Everyone had their own rituals, most though just dunked themselves in the water over and over.  We took about an hour and half ride in a row boat up the river and then back down, close to the banks to see the pilgrims and their rituals.  Two old men were our paddlers, and I felt a little bad for all the effort it took them to get us upstream especially.  But it was great to watch the sunrise over the river and see the rituals.  Then we got towards the other end of the river, where the death ghats were located.  Basically some older hindus come here to die, be cremated, and have their ashes put into the river.  The pyres our set up right next to the river, and we could see bodies wrapped with shiny and colorful wrappings waiting to be put on the burning pyres.  At one point, we saw a body actually unwrapped and put onto a pyre.  All of this happening with kids playing in the water and pilgrims praying just a little ways down river.  To have your ashes put into the river is a way for a hindu to transcend out of the cyle of reincarnation.  It was very intense to see this happening right in front of you.
We headed back up to our buses through some narrow alleys and crazy turns that showed again just how old Varanasi was.  At one point some of us had to run back into another alleyway and others hid in door frames as two cows came walking through.  Everyone knows that cows are considered holy in India, so their purpose is unknown to me still.  If one dies on your land or near your home, its considered extremely bad luck.  The cows basically wander where ever, even our bus had to go around a cow or two plenty of times, and walking down the street a cow would just be sitting right in the middle, blocking everything.  No one moves them, no one bother thems.  The don't eat them or drink the milk.  I usually saw them either sitting and starting, or moving between piles of trash and eating all the trash straight from dumpsters or the street.  Weird.
After a quick shower and breakfast at the hotel we headed back to the airport and took the flight back to New Delhi.  In New Delhi we stopped at a Hindu temple where Ghandi laid the cornerstone brick, and was the first temple to let anyone of any caste into it.  It was pretty and huge, still different for me though to see a religion that has all the statues and gods everywhere in the temple.  After this temple we went to a market for shopping, and I actually HAD to go to McDonalds.  It's part of my Anthropology class, comparing the way McDonalds adapts to different cultures.  It was a bummer though when I got yelled at for taking pictures, for some reason they did not allow that inside the restaurant.  The only thing I could think of was the possiblity that was a response to back in the day when McDonalds would get heavily vandalized from anti-globalization groups.  Towards evening we had tea at restaurant with some delicous ice cream, then headed to the airport for flight number two of the day, back to Chennai.
Finally at about 2 in the morning, we were back on to the ship, exhausted.  But I still had one more day in India, so I knew sleeping in was not going to be an option, so I set my alarm for 8am, which turned out to be.....
Day 6
....the best idea ever.  I grabbed breakfast on the ship, and a group of friends decided we wanted to head out and go to the Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva.  It was different than the one in New Delhi, as southern temples are different from the temples in the north of India.  Going on right in front of us there was three weddings however!  We continued watching one, and the guests kept trying to push us closer and closer and giving us the best of views.  It was crazy since eventually we were clearly being told to take the place of family, which we wouldn't do, shaking our heads and saying no with a smile, then trying to put the family members back in their rightful places!  Some people helped us understand what was happening, and a few of us befriended the bride's brother. 
The bride and groom were fully decked out with many flowers, and we could catch onto some of the rituals and the jokes and games the priest was playing with the two of them.  They actually changed outfits halfway through the ceremony as well.  One of my friends asked the grandma of the groom to dress her with Sarri she had just bought, which is the traditional clothes Indian women wear.  So a group of about 10 girls it seemed all took her back behind a part of the temple and dressed in the Sarri, one lady even gave, and refused to accept back, a pearl necklace for her to wear with it!  Honestly everyone in the wedding kept welcoming us, so glad to have us there and watching.  My friend took photos with her huge SLR camera, basically becoming the wedding photographer (she's sending the photos she took to them).  Many of them had their own cameras and someone was videotaping the whole ceremony (he kept pointing the camera at us, we'd point towards the bride and groom ha).  We even found out that this was an arranged marriage, and this was the first time the bride and groom had ever seen each other.  The girls found this particularly crazy, but on the ship we had been talking about this for awhile.  Outside of western culture, marraige is an economic and sexual union, love is not a part of the factor, it's expected to develop over time.  While arranged marriages are fading in India, it's still not uncommon.
Finally at the end the brother invited all 9 of us to the wedding reception for lunch!  We quickly accepted, and ended up walking (still barefoot since shoes are not allowed in the temple and we didn't want to lose this opportunity) towards a nearby hotel.  Once at the hotel, we hung out with the family a little more (the bride and groom were still at the temple) and then went in to eat.  The room wasn't big enough for everyone to eat at once, so rotations were made.  We sat down, and a giant palm leaf was put down and the food started getting put onto it.  The food was delicious!  I tried taking my cues from the guy sitting next to me, who tried helping me and show me how to eat with my hands, but ended up laughing mostly at my attempts, and then again at my watering eyes due to the spices.    He was cool though, and like I said, the food was delicious!  One minute the brother of the bride would tell me I was eating too fast, the next he'd say I'm eating too slow!  Finally we finished, folded up our palm leaf, and headed out to wash our hands.  We took a few last minute pictures with the family, who refused to take any payment for the lunch, and seemed to be truly honored to have us join them.  I'm now thoroughly convinced hospitality does not exist in Western culture! 
We left the hotel to ge tour shoes completely stuffed and ready for the rest of the day.  We did some shopping here and there, I picked up some pirated DVDs for a few bucks (movies that I didn't even know existed yet in theaters are already here for 2 bucks).  Little did I know that was my last meal for a few days, that I was going to have an awesome fever, and that nothing solid would be coming out of me for the next two days.  But I will say without a doubt it was totally worth getting TD for that experience :)
So that was India.  Like I said, I feel like going there for six days just exposed me to how completely ignorant I am of life on that subcontinent.  I feel like I now just know there is more that I do not know, if that makes any sense ha.  I think my next great adventure could be backpacking through India (no more 5 star hotels).  Who knows.  I can say that I had 6 full days, and I think that it will take me a lot longer than the few days I've had to digest what I saw their.  Stay tuned for Singapore!