Sunday, August 16, 2009

August 15th - Road Trip to Taj Mahal

On Saturday the 15th we checked out of our lovely hotel in Jaipur and hired a cab to drive us to Agra, which is where the Taj is and then on to Delhi in the same night. We wanted to use our hotel driver that we had grown fond of, but the hotel quoted us a price of $400 US for the trip, and I found a cab agency in Jaipur that quoted us $100 US.

Our driver was a tiny, tiny little man that can fit in the palm of your hand. He has a tiny voice, and his very timid. I was sort of second guessing my choice to go for the cheap option when he picked us up. The suv we had been riding around in was replaced with a stinky, dirty, tiny car. Our driver didn't speak a drop of English, which made communication impossible considering we don't speak hindi! His boss had told him we wanted to go to Taj Mahal in Agra and then on to Delhi, so that is what we got.

The journey to Agra was 4 and a half hours by car. We saw the countryside of India and the small towns. I have never had such an interesting drive before. Normally a 4 hour drive makes me fall asleep, but not on this drive. Driving through India is like driving through people's houses. Since people live outside and by the road, and I mean all up and down the roads, you see people living. I can't count the times we've seen men peeing, naked children playing by the road, women washing up the pans, people putting out their beds to sleep, etc. India is truly a 3rd world country, and I honestly can't imagine a dirtier or poorer place on Earth. You just don't drive out of the poverty, homelessness, and trash. It's always there. It's everywhere. Seeing women carrying everything they own on their head, children playing games with nothing more than sticks, body deformities, and naked babies is not something you drive to see, it's just everywhere.

On our way out of Jaipur we stopped at McDonalds. I left Daniel with our luggage and went in on my own. Imagine going to McDonalds and walking through trashy, muddy, water that you know is full of pee and poop. Imagine having 20 children begging you for money by putting their hands to their mouths when you walk in. Imagine people living on the sidewalks in front of it. I saw two little girls begging for food at the window when I was standing in line. The security guard ran them off. I bought a large fry to give to them on my way out because they were close to our car. On my way to the car those two girls along with a few other were on my feet and surrounding me begging for food. I knew to wait until I got our food and drinks in the car and myself first or else I would have been mobbed. Once I got in I handed the fries out the window to the two little girls. They snatched them up and ran. I looked out and 4 little girls had a death grip on the fries and no one would let go. They were screaming and fighting and the fries were being destroyed. Then a mother or woman came over and grabbed the fries from the kids. Then the tiniest little girl with only one eye started crying hysterically. She was so broken hearted and didn't get one fry out of the deal. I got so mad that the woman took them from her that I lost my better judgement and opened the car and told her to come back to the car. I then gave her a handfull of my fries to put in her mouth. Then the others were beating at the window, so I gave each girl a handfull at a time. They were ripping them out of my hands and stuffing them in their mouths. Then the mean woman came and stuck her hand in the car and things got out of control and the driver scolded me and told roll up the window. Someone had already yanked the fries out of my hand at that point anyway. At least that poor little girl got a few fries. This is what makes it hard to help anyone. If I could just go in and get a shake to hand to a couple of kids that would be great, but it's impossible. It will cause a riot. You just can't help everyone and therefore you can't really help anyone.

Anyway back to our day trip. We arrived in Agra to see the Taj Mahal and upon parking were swamped with people trying to hustle us for business. We were told we needed a driver to get us from the parking lot to the enrance to Taj. A young man told us that he would need to be our guide and help us, and he seemed to be helpful so we allowed it. As we got out of the cab 3 men were yelling "Take this one!" The guide said that we would need to pick between the camel and cart, the rickshaw, and the buggy. They were all so desperate and were yelling over and over again... "Pick me! Pick me!" They had desperate looks in their eyes. I didn't want to make this decision. You would think that a place like the Taj Mahal would be far away from this, but the Taj is right in the middle of the same poverty that covers the rest of India. Only the gates separate it. We didn't need any of the drivers to get us from the cab to the gate, but it only cost about $2 US regardless of which one we chose. I was starting to panic and told Daniel to make the decision and he chose the buggy. The buggy drove us about one football field's distance, LOL, before we had to get out and walk the rest of the way to the gate. Now this stretch of walk was grueling because we were surrounded on all sides by people begging us to buy t-shirts, souveniers, etc. They litterally surround you and talk non stop. It doesn't matter that you ignore them or say no. Finally we bought our tickets and made it inside the gates and away from the crazyness!!!

I regretted the decision to allow the guide to follow us around because he talked too much and wanted to tell us every piece of history and detail of the building, and on and on and on and on. And then every time I tried to take a picture he grabbed the camera and wanted to take it for me. He wasn't even very good, and I like to set my camera up on self timer and take my own pictures of Daniel and me. I do it best, and I don't like to rely on other people. He kept grabbing it and because of him, I don't have any really good pictures of Daniel and me together at the Taj.

Now that I'm finished complaining I will say that when we walked through the arch and got the first glimpse of the Taj Mahal in person it was like walking into Heaven. It literally looked as if it were floating in the blue sky. It's so majestic and beautiful! Because the 15th is India's Independence Day it was the busiest day of the year at the Taj. I finally told the tour guide to just go away for a little bit and let us take it in and enjoy it for awhile. He said he needed to tell me some more stuff first, and I had to be rude and tell him that I really didn't care to know anymore. I tried dropping hints for 30 minutes, so enough was enough already! Then we got to sit together and enjoy our moment at the Taj Mahal:)

After finishing our tour and buying a not so good picture from a photographer that hit us up, we were off to Delhi. The first couple of hours were eventful. Since it is monsoon season there were some detours that made me very nervous for a few moments. We went off road and drove through places that I though we would get stuck in. We were driving through places that seemed dangerous in the way that it would be easy for the town people to hijack us. On that note, I must say that the one thing that fascinates me most is how well behaved the poor are here. It's like there is an understood boundary. The only people that ever touch you while begging are children, but the adults never cross the line. I also want to add that while poor and homeless people are everwhere and beggers are everywhere, the majority of the poor and homeless are not out begging in the street. The majority of them seem accept their way of life and smile at us as we pass, even though we are rich in their eyes and they are eating scraps off the ground, they still have pleasant looks for us.

I don't know if I wrote about Kharma and Dharma yet. The hindus believe in Kharma, meaning if they are poor they believe it is because of the actions of their life or of their past lives and therefore they deserve whatever they get and have no way of getting any better of a life. If you believe you can't have better because you don't deserve and are not allowed it, then you aren't going to try to change anything. Dharma is the belief that you have to accept your Kharma and fate without complaining. If you are to have a better life next time then you have to accept your status in the current one and be good. This is why they don't steal much or fight much or mug much. I'm sure all of these exists, but I have walked down many a street with a purse full of cash looking like the rich in their eyes and they have never made me feel threatened.

Back to the drive... We had to stop on the side of the highway once to pay some sort of state tax. I didn't understand it, but the cab driver was the one that went to the booth to pay. Meanwhile I made a kind of bad decision. An old Indian man that was dressed like a shephard came up and knocked on our window. I looked out and he had two monkeys. I love monkeys! I knew what he wanted. He wanted money in exchange for a pictures. One of the monkeys had a baby on it too. So I got out of the car and went to sit by the monkey, but one of the other poor Indian men told me to get off the road and go to the other side where it was safer. Then I kneeled down and the monkey hit me! Luckily I was wearing sleeves because her claws would have broke skin if I hadn't. This could have been a very bad thing! The cab driver saw what happened and yelled at me to get back in the car. It wasn't that big of a deal really, it's just that once I payed the monkey man, swarms of others came running. I learned my lesson... stay in the car when the cab driver tells you to.
Once when we went through a toll booth our driver tried to cut in front of a huge bus and the bus told him no. The driver tried anyway and the bus ran over us. Fortunately it only smashed in the front right fender and spared the tire.

Now it was getting dark, and the drive became boring and I fell asleep. Then I woke up to loud Indian music, people yelling, cars surrounding us on every side for a long way. We had drove into an Indendence Day festival. The streets were lined with people for as far as you could see and they were all so happy. No matter how poor they were, they were there and they were celebrating! The funny thing is there was nothing going on but people being together and happy. No fireworks, no big shows, just music, horns, laughter, and smiles!

We drove past the festival in a matter of minutes and the rest of the night was misery! It took hours and hours to get to Delhi, and once we finally made it our driver wasn't familiar with Delhi and couldn't find our hotel. He drove around for at least an hour asking one person on the street after another, and even though everyone gave him directions, I don't think anyone really knew. I was about to lose my mind as it was 1:30 am and I hadn't eaten since that morning when we left Jaipur. We had him stop at a McDonalds (for directions, not food) and Daniel went in and got help. We made it to our hotel, and sent our tiny little drive on his way.

Delhi made a terrible first impression because the part of town we were in last night smelled like sewer so badly. When we got to our hotel my heart sank because the lobby smelled like sewer too. We got to our room and my heart sank again. It was tiny, dingy, dirty, and the air conditioning was a window unit. I wouldn't even take a shower without wearing flip flops, so I told Daniel we wouldn't unpack and we'd sleep here and leave first thing in the morning. He wasn't upset like me and was fine with it all, but I wasn't having it. I couldn't get the internet to work in the room and neither could the hotel staff, so I had to use their computer downstairs to book a new hotel for our next two nights in Delhi. I went with a 5 star this time, which is where I am tonight!!!!!!!! WooHoo, it's awesome here:)

August 14th - The Wedding Day

When I decided to go to India and saw pictures of Indian weddings I knew I had to add one to my portfolio. The colors, the customs, the decorations, music, etc. is just so beautiful and different from American weddings. I think I emailed around 20 big name wedding planners in India offering free wedding photography and videography services for any traditional Indian wedding on the dates that we were going to be in India. I posted a link to our portfolio in the email so that they could look at our work. Within only a couple of days I received an email from a wedding planner who had a wedding for us on the 14th. She said it was a high profile wedding and that his Highness of Jaipur would likely be there.

I was relieved to see that they had a local videographer and photographer working for them when we arrived. Although their equipment was not all that impressive, it took the pressure off of us for group pictures and other things like that, which allowed us to concern ourselves with capturing whatever images we wanted.

It was an inter-religion wedding so the first wedding ceremony was at a Sikh Gurudwara(temple) followed by Lunch at Hotel Rajputana Sheraton Jaipur. Later in the evening there was a cocktail dinner plus Hindu marriage done in grand Royal Rajput Style at Hotel Raj Palace. The Groom belongs to a Sikh family and the bride belongs to a Rajput Family so there were two different styles of weddings in one day.

When we arrived at the first ceremony which started in a hotel room before a march to the temple, we were feeling really out of place...or at least I was. We were clearly the only non Indians, and I felt that we should have dressed in Indian attire, but we were in our western clothing. Everything happened so fast, and before I knew it they were marching out of the hotel and into the street where a decorated white horse was waiting to carry the groom to the temple to meet his bride. Musicians lined the street, the family danced and chanted, the poor people that live on the streets lined up to get a peek, and the whole thing just seemed unreal. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of "how in the world did I get to be here????"

The rich in India are very rich and the poor are very poor. The bride and groom's hotel room at the Hotel Raj Palace cost them $40,000 US for only one night! These families were both insanely rich and act the part. We road from the temple to the Raj Palace with the bride's brother, and he was going to run over any poor person, cow, dog, or car that got in his way. It was clear that he believed he owned the street, and I believe he could have gotten away with whatever he wanted. He even turned on his own car siren a couple of times. He seriously almost killed people!

However, everyone there treated Daniel and I wonderfully from the beginning. Towards the end of the night their curiosity came out after drinking alcohol and they really overwhelmed us with questions, kindness, and offers!

Okay back to the first ceremony. After the march to the temple music was still filling the air and everyone was slowly making their way into the temple. Then a man wearing an awesome orange turban and beard came up to me and told me I couldn't enter the temple without my head being covered. I thought he was scolding me, because he seemed like a really serious Hindu elder that might not like an American girl like me. That's just the thought I had. Instead this was the man who was the most kind to Daniel and me all day and night! After he told me not to enter he came back and handed me a scarf. I put it on top of my head and everyone laughed at me. He then smiled and took it for me and wrapped my head and tied it. That was sweet right? :) Then he did the same for Daniel. Pictures will tell the story of the ceremony, so I won't get into that. It was mainly prayer and offerings at this ceremony.

Next it was time to head the the Raj Palace! Everyone told us that the evening ceremony would be a grand event. I thought the morning ceremony was extremely grand so I couldn't imagine something bigger! This hotel used to be home of royalty, but when India became democratic and the royalty lost their titles they turned their homes into hotels. That's basically what I understood.

When it was time for the bride and groom to enter the palace they each came up the red carpet separately. The bride first and then the groom on his beautifully adorned white horse. Of course there were bands playing triumphant Indian music upon his red carpet arrival. It was so triumphant actually that tears actually came to my eyes! I felt like I was getting a glimpse at royalty from ages ago.

I will let the pictures tell the rest of the wedding story. Now I will talk about how we were treated and who we met! Everyone was kind to us. At the lunch reception the groom's uncle (orange turban) asked me to dance. I said no thank you. He asked again, I said no thank you again. He asked why. I said I'd be embarassed, and then he drug me out onto the floor to dance with all of the other guests. It was a really fast fun Indian song, and I had a blast! We just hopped around and spun in circles and did little waving things with our hands. They dance different over there, so I had to try to adapt. Daniel filmed us dancing and the other videographer filmed him filming me:) The groom was standing beside us off of the dance floor and I made brief eye contact with him while dancing. He had a huge grin on his face! I was glad to see that my dancing was entertaining and not offensive!!!

At the evening event a couple of young men in their twenties developed a fascination with Daniel and I that almost became difficult I guess. They were so sweet and had so many questions. They wanted to know what we thought of India, of the wedding, of them. They talked a lot, but it was hard to understand what they were saying. While almost everyone there could speak English, the accents made it very, very difficult to understand.

As it turned out, one of the young men is the great grandson of the only Sikh president of India. He was the first and the last. I believe he was president from 1982 to 1987. The great grandson never mentioned his grandfather, but later in the evening another man was talking to us and wanted to take a picture with us. Actually, several people wanted to have their pictures taken with us! Anyway, the man I'm speaking of talked to us for awhile and then mentioned that his grandfather was the only Sikh President ever elected in India. How cool right?!

I actually feel kind of bad, because I was so tired by the end of the night that we had to sort of sneak out. Everyone kept trying to get us to drink or to eat or to sit. A couple of people offered to take us for tours on future days in India. The uncle in the orange turban gave us his card and wants us to call him. He is a pilot and has some big position in the army I believe. He said he could take us places that no one else could take us. He reminded us several times to take him up on his offer. Another couple that lives in Delhi offered to pick us up at our hotel when we got to Delhi and take us all around town for the day. It was a great experience, and one that I am so grateful to have had!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

August 13th in India

On the 13th I woke up early with a migraine and after 3 hours and 2 pills I was able to get up and around. Then we got a call of good news! Our luggage had arrived at the local airport. So we hired a driver at 12:30 for an 8 hour day. Hiring a driver in India is the best way to go. Our driver is named Surrender. It's spelled different, but that's exactly the way it is pronounced. He's fabulous. He takes us to the best places to places that we wouldn't find on our own, he stops anytime we want for pictures, he takes pictures and video for us, he helps us in every way. So we can go anywhere and be safe. He doesn't let people take advantage of us either.

After the airport pick up we dropped our luggage off and headed out for an adventure. First stop was City Palace. We had to pay to enter and we were givin an audio tour headset. The City Palace has been home to the rulers of Jaipur since the first half of the 18th century. The complex is a superb blend of Rajput and Mughal architecture, with open, airy Mughal-style public buildings leading to private apartments. Today, part of the complex is open to the public as the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum. Its treasures include miniature paintings, manuscripts, Mughal carpets, musical instruments, royal costumes, weaponry, and provide an introduction to Jaipur's princely past.

Then we were off to shop! We saw camels on the way and ask surrender if we could ride. He said he would get us a better price down the road and he did. I got on first and then Daniel. It was so, so , so fun! The camel raised up and we were in the sky! Everyone on the street smiled real big at us, some laughed, people waved. We passed some people on an elephant and they waved. Everyone that is around the camel helps, from the older men, to the younger, to the children. One helps you in your stirrup, while another takes a picture, and so on. This is to ensure everybody gets a tip. It really is their livelihood, so I was happy to tip. There was a 12 year old boy that asked for a tip after we got in the car to leave that I missed. I rolled down the window and gave him 10 rps. He said "NO, 20 rps, and don't forget my friend." His friend was a small child and so cute!

After the camel ride we took pictures of the famous Jal Mahal. Since we are here during monsoon season when the water fills the Man Sagar lake, it looks like it floats. It was built in the mid 18th century by Madho Singh 1, it is inspired by the Lake Palace at Udaipur, where the kind spent his childhood. It was later used for royal duck shooting parties.

Next Surrender took us to a small 4th generatin family owned jewelry shop in the hills of Jaipur. It was literally in the hills and just awesome! First they gave us a tour of the shop, showing us how the workers (who are also family members) take the rough natural stones and shape them, polish them etc. They they took us inside to look at all of their creations. I had to have something because unlike any other jewelry buying experience, this one was going to mean something. Everyone there was so kind. The had hancho was the one working with me and he showed me a picture of himself with Sting and himself with Stings supermodel girfriend. He said that he is friends with Sting and that Sting visits them often and has one of a kind jewelry pieces made there.

I wanted something simple. So I picked out my own irregular shaped mother of pearl stone and they are mounting it to a silver ring for me and delivering it to my room this morning. I can't wait!

Next he took us to a tailor and fabric shop almost across the street from the jewelry shop. Same kind of personalized attention. We looked through books of Indian clothing and chose two very traditional outfits. One for each of us. Then we picked out fabrics, colors, etc. They measured us and are delivering our Indian clothing this morning. We will possibly wear them to the wedding today.

At this point we are extremely exhausted so we went to eat at McDonalds in the city. Oh my goodness, I had my first veggie burger and it was just a heavenly experience!!! Do they have those at McDonalds in America?

Next and last I went to a massage parlour for an 8:30 pm appointment. Daniel couldn't get one because he didn't want a man to massage him and they don't let women massage men or men massage women. That being said, he waited in the lobby while I got a massage. The room looked like a centuries old parlour. Very dark, old, interesting, and warm. I had to use the restroom and instead of a toilet there was a hole in the ground with a flusher. Not uncommon in India, but the first for me.

Finally, our days journey was over and we were dropped off at our hotel for a good rest.