Grant Muller

JTTE: Making the Rounds in Delhi II

India-155We spent Saturday afternoon at the Qutub complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with an array of ancient tombs, mosques, and the ruins of temples and a history dating back to at least the 800’s AD. The highlight of the ruins is the Qutub Minar, the world’s highest minaret at 240 feet featuring typical Indo-Islamic architecture. Surrounding the minaret are the ruins of a mosque, a Jain temples, and corrosion proof iron-pillar dating back almost 1700 years.

One of the more interesting sights is the one-story foundation of another minaret. Apparently Allaudin Kilji had aspirations of building a minaret taller than the previous one, but construction was abandoned after his death. I guess he was the only one with such high aspirations. Being able to see the raw form of a minaret in construction is fascinating. It looks like a hut of mud and brick, a subtle reminder that even our most impressive creations may be built on rough foundations.

India-163The site was pleasant, and mostly quiet despite the number of tourists. On the grounds there are a number of well maintained gardens, and strolling along the paths among the ruins is a relaxing reprieve from the streets of Old Delhi. We stayed for several hours, and Cary took a number of pictures (which I will selectively post some of later).

The sun was drooping in the sky when we left Qutub Minar and we decided it was time to check into our hotel for the evening; Cary had only arrived the night before, and I was beat from walking around.

Referring to our accommodations as a hotel, however, does not really do them justice. Cary had booked us in Master Guest House for the night, a 4 bedroom inn, something like a bed and breakfast in America. The proprietors, Avnish and Ushi run the guest house themselves along with some hired help, and as we would find out have a number of returning guests visiting all the time. When we arrived, our bags were rushed away by a teenager and we were ushered into a small dining room, where Avnish and Ushi were preparing afternoon tea to celebrate the birthday of a long-time friend from The Netherlands. Avnish welcomed us warmly and we spent the next hour taking a load off with the other guests, sharing travel stories of India, and enjoying tea and a quick snack. It was delightful, which is a word I never use.

234px-Mutappan-as-ShivaOf the more interesting stories, we heard a tale from a British gentleman who obviously knew Avnish and Ushi very well, about his recent experience with a religious practice called Theyyam in Kerala. He found himself there while in transit to Northern India to visit friends, and met up with a few young men who invited him out to their village to see them dance the Theyyam. It was a twenty-four hour affair, culminating in a dance that represented the victory of of a hero over a demon at the threshold of a door just as dawn arrived. To take part in the dance, the participants dress in costume and paint themselves to look like demons, after which they stare into a mirror and become that demon. I’ve heard of the practice before, and many cultures perform a similar ritual the world over. Celebrating the victory of Spring over Winter and life over death, right around the time of the Spring Equinox as the day’s begin to increase in length is prevalent the world over. Don’t even get me started with Easter.

After a while Ushi asked if we’d like to got to our room, and we took her up on the offer. We laid around for an hour or so in our bedroom, which was immaculate. Master Guest House was a a very bright spot in our trip so far, and I regret not being able to spend more time there. Next trip we will most certainly make sure to spend a day or two there, if only to have tea and hear a few tall tales of India. Finally, it was time to grab a bite to eat and get some sleep.

We dined at The Spice Route, a restaurant in the Imperial Hotel that Conde Naste deemed one of the top ten in the world. Avnish told us that Bill Clinton had spent an evening there, and that he and Ushi stop in when they need a break.

A word about restaurants in India. The locals eat at home almost all of the time. As a result there aren’t that many stand-alone restaurants in India, though there are plenty of dhabas and a lot of "street food". Restaurants tend to pop up where folks who are used to eating in restaurants tend to be, which is in the hotels and offices. In America, at least in my experience, the hotel restaurants aren’t fantastic choices. Safe, sure, but you’re not going to get anything great. In India, don’t be surprised if some of the highest rated restaurants are attached to the lobby of a very expensive hotel.

Spice Route is a concept restaurant. They offer an option that allows you to taste the foods of the old spice route, from the Malabar Coast to Thailand sampling foods from each region on the long trail. For those with smaller stomachs there is a full menu that offers Thai, Indian, and Chinese choices. Cary and I have eaten at a lot of restaurants, and we agree that the food was great, it just wasn’t top ten in the world great. Put another way, if this is one of the top ten in the world, then Atlanta has eight of the other nine.

After dinner our driver took us back to Master Guest house, where a different teenager let us in. Both tired from a full day in Delhi, and anticipating a very early 3:30 AM wake-up call, we crashed moments after arriving. Holi was the next day, the festival or colors, and those who don’t celebrate the holiday warned us that 80% of the population would be drunk, so it would be best to stay off the roads if possible. Our driver suggested the 4:00AM departure time, and with all of the warnings, we agreed. Next stop, Agra and the Taj Mahal.

JTTE: Making the rounds in Delhi I

Sunday March 20th 10:05 PM

I found myself stumbling in my boxers to the door of our room in Delhi at 3:45 AM this morning to answer what sounded like the world’s tiniest machine gun. A boy of about 16 entered the room with a tray that he set on our table. "Coffee, sir".

Slack-jawed, I ran my fingers through my hair as I realized that this was our wake-up call. What a whirlwind the past few days have been.

Thursday and Friday I spent working. On Thursday a long-time colleague was kind enough to invite me to dine with him at his home in Noida. I was treated to some of the best food I’ve had in India so far: ultra-thin homemade dosas with chutney, dal, and and a spice mixture that he referred to as "gunpowder". Whether or not this gunpowder contributed to my later illness, I can’t say, but it sure was tasty.

I got off to a rough start on Friday as some sort of minor intestinal ailment had set in. I imagine my total lack of care when it comes to food had a big part to play in that. Suffice it to say that Friday was rough, and I fasted a good part of the morning to try and reset. At 11:30 PM on Friday Cary arrived and the vacation portion of the trip officially started.

Akshardham – Saturday AM

akshardham00fWe both slept like stones on Friday night, and woke Saturday morning ready for our 8:00 AM pickup. First stop: Akshardham.

Akshardham is a temple complex constructed in the modern age to replicate ancient Hindu temple styles. Built by followers of Swaminarayan Hinduism, it is the largest of it’s kind in the world. We actually have a much smaller Akshardham close to my home in Georgia that I intend to visit when I return.

Akshardham is referred to as India’s Spiritual Disneyland by many guidebooks, and in that capacity it doesn’t disappoint. There is a boat ride featuring animatronics that was described by several co-workers as being equivalent to "It’s a small world after all" at Disneyworld. We didn’t see the boat ride, but we did stroll the vast gardens, the outer wall, and of course the temple itself. Following some basic rules regarding an examination of a Hindu temple, we walked clockwise around each of the three levels, taking in first the Elephant plinth around the base. From there we ascended the stairs onto the cool marble floors of the second level (did I mention we were required to go barefoot), examining the sandstone walls of the temple, intricately adorned with hand carved statues of the gods and goddesses, not to mention tight filigrees and hundreds of tiny elephants, all of which are unique. From there we wound our way into the temple itself, which is carved entirely of marble.

elephant10fI really don’t know how to describe the temple. It’s overwhelming. The style of architecture, a mixture Vastu and Pancharatra Shastra is an Ikea designers worst nightmare. It is literally tiring to look at; the enormity of the structure had me straining to see figures carved on every wall and ceiling, and my eyes could not keep up with the visual barrage. The experience was exhausting. To describe it would not do it justice, you would have to make the journey yourself to see what I mean, especially since no cameras are allowed inside.

After leaving the temple we walked the grounds in search of refreshment and instead came across a small temple behind the main temple. Cary encouraged us to step inside, where we found ourselves in the middle of ceremony called Abishehk. The experience lasted about twenty minutes, and involved first having the characteristic "red dot" thumb printed on your forehead. Then, after sitting cross-legged on the floor with a hammered copper bowl of water in front of you, a youth sings a song after which you’re invited to pour your bowl of copper water over the head of a statue in the likeness of Swaminarayan. It was an experience; Cary and I both agreed we left the short ceremony feeling relaxed and ready for our next stop, Jama Masjid.

Jama Masjid – Saturday AM

jama-masjid-delhiWe climbed through the crowded streets of Old Delhi making our way through and sea of single-speed rickshaws, extremely dangerous electrical junctions, and and tiny shops packed so close together you couldn’t tell where one began and another ended. We arrived at the base of Jama Masjid, just as a half dozen tour buses arrived. The smell of rupees to be made mingled with the scent of smelly feet (you have to take your shoes off to go into Jama Masjid as well), and the site guides were lining up to catch a whiff.

 

A Note about Site Guides
When you arrive at a tourist site in India, there are always "official" guides there, with some sort of credentials ready to walk you through the site, explain historic points of interest or provide anecdotes from a knowledgeable local. They can actually be quite talented. They can handle a crowded bus of foreign tourists, speaking whatever language the group happens to speak (I’ve heard Japanese, French and German in addition to English so far), and they seem to know what they’re talking about. Depending on who you are and how you like to travel, they can come in handy, but it goes without saying that you should know what you’re going to pay this fellow before he tags along with you. We got into what could have been a bad situation at Jama Masjid when a guide, after showing us the site, said he is paid no less than 500Rs. That’s about $11 USD, for less than 15 minutes of work. I know expertise is priceless but when you start to add that up over a full 8-10 hour day that’s quite a bit, and I knew I was being ripped off. So we refused to pay him more than half that amount.

India-55Jama Masjid was quite a site. Sitting at the top of a very crowded street in Old Delhi, you can peer over the ledge and see markets for miles. The mosque itself is still in operation, and several thousand locals visit regularly to wash their feet and face with the original well water, and pray. While we were there the enormous chandelier was being cleaned in expectation of the arrival of a renowned imam, who was to deliver a service from the famous Mosque.

Another observation: There seems to be an obsession with object association in India. This means anything a famous religious figure touched, wore, wrote, or was otherwise attached to during their lifetime. The most benign of these objects might be a page from a book they wrote. There are some real stretches though, and if you want to see such a stretch feel free to have a private look at the small marble treasure trove of artifacts stored at Jama Masjid that are associated with the prophet Muhammad. You’ll be treated to a look at his camel-hide sandals, a marble tile he stood upon, and a hair from his beard. You heard me. At Akshardham we were exposed to similar artifacts related to Swaminarayan, such as skin flakes and nails. I’m not sure what the obsession is, and I certainly hope that nobody boxes up my old nail clippings in order to view them from behind a VIP rope barrier when I die. At least at Akshardham the viewing was free; at Jama Masjid you will be asked to make a "donation", and that donation better not be less than 200 Rs.

Speaking of donations, nothing in India is free. I’ve heard stories about how cheap it is to travel in India, and I assume that these people must have spent their entire vacation in their hotel rooms. Besides the guides and donations to view strange objects, you’ll find yourself being asked for tips for everything from the guys watching your shoes outside a monument to even the smallest tidbits of information about a site. At one point an official guard told me that there was a tunnel that goes from Delhi to the Red Fort in Agra, after which I was asked to pay 50Rs for the information. No, it was not worth $1 for you to tell me something I already know. Thanks though. The warning here is that India appears cheap, and the cost can certainly reduced be if you know how to wave a hand and firmly say "No". If you don’t have the ability to do that before you arrive, or don’t develop it quickly, India will quickly feel like death by a thousand cuts as tourist traps nickel and dime you into bankruptcy.

India-114Cary and I learned some lessons at Jama Masjid, but all irritation aside it was well worth it and a fine site to see. With some experience under our belt we headed over the the India Gate. Our strategy here was simply to take some pictures; There isn’t a whole lot to see on site other than the gate itself. If you time it right and the Delhi haze has burned off, you’ll get some fantastic shots with the president’s house in the background, showing off some of the more modern Indian structures. We took a quick trip to the gates of the president’s house for some more photography, grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant, then headed to Qutub Minar for the afternoon.

Part II cover our Saturday afternoon in Delhi.

JTTE: Wednesday is Cow Day

7:05 AM

I woke at 5:00 am this morning and couldn’t help but catch a quick workout, regardless of the promise to myself not to train during this trip. I argue that it will help keep the jet lag at bay. I don’t foresee a particularly eventful day: work, work, and more work. This could be a long one folks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are no updates until tomorrow.

6:30 PM

After a full day of work I found some time to work around the neighborhood again before dinner, this time taking a different route around the park and into a different “sector”. Wednesday is apparently cow day around here, as I ran into more in my 45 minute stroll than I have the entire time I’ve been here.

India-34

Don’t eat that dirt, dude.

India-40

You lookin’ at my hump?

India-43

Why is this big white dude taking my picture?

India-44

Yeah, we’re eating trash. A cow gets hungry alright.

I also came across what appears to be the local convenience store, a cluster of small open shops selling everything from packaged snacks to eggs.

India-36

 

I finally came in contact with my first “street food” vendor as well, who was frying up some kind of meat in a big dish, and putting it into wraps. I was sorely tempted despite the prohibitions heaped on me by wife and co-worker. I am told that my weak American digestive system will not be able to handle it, but that I may acclimate in time. We’ll see.

India-35

Egg rolls in India? Can my stomach handle it?

I mentioned the smog in my first post, but failed to point out that it seems to “burn off” by the afternoon. Here is the haze in the morning:

India-30

And a much clearer view in the afternoon:

India-31

Dinner will be in the hotel tonight. Tragically we have to be present for a few meetings tonight (you know, in the morning back home), and we won’t have time to go anywhere too far for dinner. There is always tomorrow night.

JTTE: Day One in Delhi

7:45 AM

I awakened feeling surprisingly well-rested at 6:00 am after a grueling 20 hour day of traveling. I still find it amazing that you can shave almost a day off of your life simply sitting on a plane and chasing the sun. I arrived in Delhi late last evening, crashed, and have spent most of the morning getting back in contact with the world at large.

I took some of the extra time I had this morning to roam around the hotel. It’s quite nice, with a rooftop restaurant and pool, small fitness center, and spa. Relatively similar to any upscale hotel you would encounter in any major city. Stepping out onto the rooftop lounge I surveyed the land.

Truth be told, there isn’t much to see. Where I’m staying in Noida looks much like the urban sprawl of Athens, complete with the ever-present smog haze. There are hundreds of squat two story buildings as far as the eye can see; which isn’t far due to the aforementioned smog. I’m always bewildered when people from America complain about how polluted our air is; that is how I know I’m speaking with someone who has never been outside the United States. Indeed, Athens, Delhi and cities of similar size in the old world make Los Angeles look like the poster child for the EPA.

It’s off to the office here shortly, which I’m sure will make the rest of my day feel a lot like home.

5:25 PM

Work wrapped up slightly early today as the jetlag caught up. Under the advice of a resident co-worker, I elected not to take a nap but rather walk around the neighborhood of the hotel, and see what there was to see.

India-8

     Noida is a residential suburb of Delhi. Most of the buildings surround the hotel I was staying at were single of multi family homes. These are build right on top of each other, in the way that inner city homes tend to be constructed in America. That is where the similarity ends. In India they are almost all brightly painted, bearing religious symbols, intricate designs, and shiny gates. Later I would ask the hotel attendant what the relative age of the homes was, and was shocked to find that most have only been constructed in the past five to ten years.

India-7

     I ambled through a nearby park, treading the same brick paths the locals were. Old men smoked marijuana cigarettes and played cards in the grass, while women strolled in pairs, but still for some reason on their cellphones. The dichotomy in gold-trimmed saris and pink cellphones does not elude me. Children, who seem to outnumber adults 100 to 1, played cricket in the fields. By the time I headed back to the hotel I spotted at least 8 separate games being played.

India-21

     In my wanderings I noticed that there were dozens of people walking with aluminum canisters. I wasn’t really sure what they were for until I came upon the Mother’s Dairy stand. Apparently the way to get milk in India is to walk to your local dispenser. I wonder if it’s pasteurized?

India-13

     There are dogs everywhere. I’ve seen herds of cattle wandering the streets, and the occasional mottled white brahman cow munching on some grass by the side of the road, but there are more dogs than anything. Most of them are pregnant. None of them seem to belong to anyone. The dogs in the picture are all very much alive, but I was later treated to my first unpleasant experience in the East when I wandered past a young mutt who had obviously died very recently, as a pack mate was trying in vain to nudge him to his feet. It was terrible.

India-22

     I rolled back through the park to watch a few cricket matches, then headed back to the hotel. I am probably not going to make it long this evening, but will try to stay up so that tomorrow won’t be unpleasant.

8:38 PM

Dinner was at the Great Kebab Factory. It was a lot of food. I got to try Kulfi, which was fantastic, as well as a killer pistachio ice cream. The kebabs were excellent as well. Highly recommended. The food has been amazing so far, and I assume I will gain at least 5 pounds. Today.

JTTE: Bleary-eyed and Hungry Over the Old Evil Empire

Bleary eyed and hungry I write this somewhere over the old Evil Empire. I had thought my mind better capable of dealing with the stresses of multi-day travel, and pictured in my head hours of reading and writing. I have spent much of this second leg fast asleep, roused only twice so far by the "bursar" (as they’re evidently called on Dutch flights), to be given a headset which I will not use, and to pick at a small meal.

Amsterdam was a blur. I was reminded of the change in pace I should expect to see when coming to any non-American country, as it took me nearly 30 minutes to order an omelet. Watching the chef cook one at a time when she had grill space to cook as many as four was infuriating, but I relaxed. I had a few hours to kill. After this surprisingly long breakfast we roamed around the duty free shops hawking everything from porn frozen herring. One can truly experience it all in Amsterdam. I will have more to say of the place on the return visit, when Cary and I will have time to exit the airport and roam around the city.

India-1

What’s it gonna be traveling DVD buyer? Two copies of Black Snake Moan, or Adult DVD?

I’ll struggle to stay awake as long as possible in order to crash once I reach Delhi, and hopefully wake in the morning (their morning) fresh as a daisy as though I’ve been there for weeks.

JTTE: Aloft over the Atlantic

11:00 PM? – Aloft over the Atlantic, I’m en route to Delhi via Amsterdam. A 20 hour flight doesn’t make a good story, so I’ll spare you the details. There are crying babies. There is fitful and infrequent sleep. There is excessively dry air. It is exactly what a 20 hour flight should be. I occupy myself with books, games, and the aforementioned fitful and infrequent sleep. I hope that a long bout of drowsiness will set in and I will catch some shuteye before landing in Amsterdam.

Journey to the East: A Travelogue of India

290-977289038 (1)Tall tales of India are not in short supply. Herodotus tells a unrolls a fantastic yarn about ants bigger than foxes who dig up gold as a by product of their burrowing. Skilled camel riders, calculating the appropriate time to do so, storm into the desert when the heat is the highest and the ants are in their burrows to snatch this gold up. They must time this precisely, or the ants, who in addition to their absurd size can run faster than a camel, will give chase.

In a tall tale from the even further east, Journey to the West was a 16th century travel adventure in which a monk is sent Westward from his home in China to the far off and exotic land of India to retrieve the sutras. Under the protection of several monsters (the most notable of which is a Monkey named “Aware of Vacuity”),  The monk encounters a series of strange impediments, including avery angry personification of a river, but reaches his destination of Vulture Peak, and brings back the sutras to his homeland.

Even modern folks have tall tales to tell. The Indian culture center is one of the oldest in the world, and there are some (who many call crazy) that think that India may have already experienced a modern age, complete with manned flight, journeys into space, and submarines. The proof they say, is in India’s own Ancient literature, the Vimanas, and that the knowledge of these things was lost to men for tens of thousands of years. There is an old crack that everything ultimately comes from either Greece or China, but this claim certainly has them beat.

In my own journey to the Indian Subcontinent (why do they call it that anyway), I find myself at once prepared for the peculiarities of the place and apprehensive; will the reality, along with the influence of the West in the last few centuries diminish the other-worldly-ness of the experience?  We’ll see, but I’m still going to keep my head on a swivel for giant ants, raging rivers, and ancient rocket ships, just in case.

This is the beginning of a travelogue of India. Posts tagged with JTTE (Short for Journey to the East), are entries in this log. Feel free to follow along.