Your browser does not support script India '08 by: Christine Schnell

India '08 by: Christine Schnell

My trip started out very bad and I hoped it wasn't an omen. When I looked at my plane's schedule a few hours before it was scheduled to leave it had been delayed, so much that even with my 3 hour layover the plane would land 5 minutes after the one to Delhi was supposed to take off. Well in a panic I called the airline and managed to get an earlier flight. This caused a little trouble at the airport as everyone else was trying to change their flight there so the line took over an hour to get my boarding pass. By the time I got through security and such I only had about 20 minutes before my plane started boarding. But from there on out everything was smooth.

Well, not quite but it wasn't horrible. The plane to Delhi was delayed 3 hours also (so I might have been ok with the other flight after all) for security reasons and when we finally boarded the man at the desk said there was a problem with my ticket. You can't imagine how upset I was. I mean after all the other fuss there shouldn't be! He came back and said "you've been upgraded." Oh, well... Ok then. So I sat in luxury in business class with my feet stretched out and my thighs comfortably unsquished listening to classical music and eating gourmet food. I slept however on most of both of the flights because I was to arrive at around 6 am in Delhi and had a whole day ahead of me.

My friend found me at the airport as I searched the crowd and led me to the car where I met her husband. The two of them were great and did everything they could to make my trip as safe and comfortable as possible. Even so that first car ride was a crash coarse in life in India. This first drive was very overwhelming as I had to quickly get used to not only them driving on the opposite side of the road, but also the way the cars make their own lanes and weave in and around each other. People walked and stood in the road waiting for busses. Road construction congested traffic. Three wheeled taxies pushed bikes and motorcycles out of their way. Buildings flew by. And of course there were a couple of cows resting in the median.

Arriving at the hotel was almost a blessing because I got to collect myself and absorb what I saw and take a moment to really sit back and talk with my friends whom I've only ever seen over web cam and spoke with a couple times by phone before this.

What you quickly learn is that no matter how different the buildings might look or traffic might be people basically are the same. The three of us got along very well, have much in common, and had a lot to talk about.

Still there was much to see so we didn't stay at the hotel long. We went to the Red Fort which is a fort built by Emperor Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal) to be his capital. Most of it is still intact and in good shape. The place is huge, larger than the mediaeval castles I'd been in, in Europe. Though I'm not sure about the Palace of Versailles. Here there were many individual buildings, the older ones all of an open air architecture. Newer buildings had been added to house soldiers as the for had been used until recently for just that.

We also visited the ISKCON temple, more popularly known here as Hare Krishna's. They worship, of course, Lord Krishna who is quite an interesting deity. He is the blue skinned young looking god you see in many of India's artwork, usually with a flute and a mischievous smile. Maybe it's because of his 16,000 wives or the fact that he could lift a hill with his pinkie. He was also the main focus of the Bhagavad Gita which is the holy book in Hinduism, in it he gives advice on all aspects of life. The temple itself was beautiful on the inside and at night when it's all lit up on the outside. While we were there they were performing one of their rituals and was very moved by the devotion and strong feelings in the air. People threw themselves on the floor, knelt or offered flowers and food to the idols. The chanting (singing), while repetitive was very catchy.

The next temple we visited was the Swaminarayan Akshardham. This one, like many temples, did not concentrate on just one of the deities there were shrines to each of the major ones and also to some I didn't know. But the best thing about this place was the intricateness of the stone carvings inside and out. Each entranceway had hundreds of figures, usually of the gods, carved into their pillars. The centerpiece of the temple is a large golden statue of Bhagwan Swaminarayan (a manifestation of God) and his followers. Around the base of the temple are 148 huge elephants, each very lifelike. Inside all walls and pillars are covered in floral carvings I believe all was marble. Even the ceilings were intricately carved with figures and flowers. The grounds too are beautiful with one area made to resemble a lotus flower and another section that has bronze statues of all the important people of India.

One thing about the temples, and any holy place in India, is you must remove your shoes. There's many reasons, the most obvious is with as many people that pass over the ground, it could easily wear down, but perhaps more importantly is there are religious aspects. Shoes are considered impure, think about how dirty they get. I mean I started my trip with brand new white shoes and came home with grimy, gray and brown ones. This is all fine, except the ground can get really hot, socks which can be worn inside are advisable if you go during the summer. However most of the places are well aware and either have a lot of cool marble or pads which you can walk on to keep your feet cool.

We went to the mall, yes see it's all the same, to look for souvenirs but didn't really find any, mostly because it is very much the same. I mean they even had a 99 Rupees shop. Which as I explained to them has a little better quality stuff than our 99 cent shop since 99 Rupees comes out to around 3 dollars. One of the guys at a stall tried to convince us that the shawls he had were pure silk. I don't know much about clothes but I knew those weren't, it just surprised me he tried to pull that off when I was with two Indians. I did not go to any of the markets where they sell souvenirs on the street mostly because we all knew how much they mark up the prices. In fact at one of the hotels that had a bunch of stalls there was one that had a wooden carved elephant smaller than one I had bought for about 20x what I paid. We had went to the Delhi Emporium which is kind of like a department store but has several little stores for each section. Because there we got a discount and they're higher quality items.

That is one thing I noticed most stores there are very specific. One sells just handbags, the one next to it might sell wallets. Then there are streets of dozens of different shops that sell just one item. If you want tires, you go to one street and can choose from many different stores.

The reason I went at this time was Holi, but even before I went I had been warned they celebrate it quietly, and don't go out of the house (or hotel room) for safety reasons. I had been fine with this, believing that I'd be able to watch the street from my hotel room. Unfortunately my room didn't have any windows so it wasn't possible for me to get a full experience of this holiday. That doesn't mean that I didn't get any at all. For several days around Holi people are happy and playful. Colors are everywhere and you see children and adults alike running around with powder and water colors all over them. I just wasn't able to get a very good picture of this.

We went to the art history museum, sorry no cameras allowed again. There was so much to see here too. They overloaded my brain a bit and I can't quite remember everything. I learned so much about their main deities, Brahma (creator), Vishnu and Shiva (destroyer). Plus all their wives/consorts and children. On top of that there were the many different names each go by. Each god has had different incarnations (or avatars) and thus different names for each incarnation and many are known by different names in different areas of the country.

For the most part you can tell each one apart by either their appearance; Brahma has three heads, what they carry; Vishnu carries a conch shell, a mace, and a couple other items, or who they're with; Shiva is usually depicted with Pavarti and their children Ganesha and Kartikaya (usually riding a peacock). Still I get confused between them and other gods. There were also many pieces related to Krishna and Budda (the Hindu version not the fat Chinese version).

After which we went to a science museum, which is very much like our discovery museum where you can play with the exhibits to see how they work and understand the science of them. The simple difference here was in some cases they concentrated on the contributions Indian scientists made, for example the concept of 0 was a discovery of India so there were several exhibits that showed the use of 0.

We visited Gandhi's Memorial which was really pleasant. We saw people from all over India here as it is a very popular pilgrimage location. Right in the heart of Delhi which is a very busy and noisy city this park is set aside and is quiet and peaceful, lush and green.

We also visited the Gandhi museum near the memorial where I learned quite a lot about this great man's life. I hadn't known he studied law or that he'd been assassinated let alone by a formally devout follower. He had been handsome in his youth and obviously a charismatic person to have such a following. He'd been arrested countless times and had more fasts than just his famous 24 day one. He also was a weaver using the Charkha (spinning wheel). He popularized spinning not only to give work to the poor but also as a symbol for independence. He made his own clothes by spinning and the wheel has become so much a part of their history that it is prominent on their flag. Another nifty bit of trivia I learnt was he even cleaned toilets of the poor. Since he wished to break the class structure and show that everyone was equal. He'd been cremated like all Hindus.

We visited a small manmade lake in the middle of the town, not as peaceful as Gandhi's Memorial but nice, a lot of birds and paddle boats, though we didn't go on the paddle boats since my friend's not too fond of water.

We visited Chattarpur temple complex next which is a large area with many different temples, each a little different architecture. We only went into one that was dedicated to the goddess durga but there were shrines to others there as well. It was a beautiful and open architecture that gave you the feeling of having a lot of space.

Next we went to Qutb an old complex of ruins. Here there are two main icons for India. The Qutb Minar is one of the images often associated with the country. It is the tallest brick minaret (calls to prayer are often given from the top of them) in the world. There is also an iron pillar that does not rust, it was also used as the basis for their national symbol that has three lions atop a pillar. There's also a legend that it considered it good luck (of the supernatural kind) if you could stand with your back to the pillar and make your hands meet behind it. There is also the tomb of Iltutmish there. And the beginnings of another Minaret that was supposed to be larger and taller than the other but was never finished. Everything that is still standing has so many intricate carvings on them. It really is amazing that the carvings still look so fresh when the buildings are crumbling around them.

We woke early one of the last mornings as we had a long drive. We were taking a trip to Agra where the Taj Mahal is. Before we went to the Taj we stopped at Akbar's tomb. He was the greatest emperor India ever had. It was pretty here, the grounds around the tomb were filled with animals, gazelles, monkeys, and other little critters. But as amazing as the outside is, building and architecture, the tomb itself was rather plain.

As they wish to preserve the Taj as much as possible they don't want it damaged by pollution so no vehicles are allowed near it. So we road a horse drawn carriage out to it. This was, no big surprise, the most crowded spot we've been to. With the exception of the Swaminarayan Akshardham, it was also the most majestic and impressive. Made completely of marble the white walls stood out against everything in the area. The grounds were green, and the other buildings red sandstone. It was impressively large even though the inside seemed very small. Two crypts were contained within a latticed screen. For those who don't know the Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Outside there is a mosque and a meeting hall in red sandstone on either side of the Taj Mahal, a river behind it, and a garden before it. Really my words can't do it justice.

So that was it. There were a couple days that my friend's husband had to work so my friend and I spent most of the day talking and playing with her son Kuhoo. This was great bonding time for the three of us and it's now to the point where little Kuhoo misses going to my hotel room in the mornings. My flight back was fairly uneventful other than one of my bags was lost and I missed my ride home but it worked out as I took a shuttle that didn't circle the airport for two hours.

Now here are some of my other thoughts on the trip.

During the drive to Agra I was able to get a glimpse of rural India. The small towns almost looked like something out of the old west as they were just a few buildings lined up along the road. The farms were not that sophisticated as it looked like most of the work is done by hand. And it appeared that most people in those farm areas lived in grass (straw?) houses. Like many other places, because it was out in the middle of no where the prices were outrageous. We stopped at a hotel for lunch which had a small bazaar and one glance at a figurine like one I already bout showed a price of about 10x what I paid. The omelet I had there was pretty good though. Even to get into tourist places is that way. For tourists it's much more expensive, for the Taj I paid 750 rupees as a foreigner and as Indians, my friends paid only 40.

The food was all excellent, I didn't have one thing I didn't like. And everything was, of course, distinctly Indian, even the Chinese food and McDonalds (granted it was a veggie burger I had but it had Indian spices in the sauce). The best food I had there my friend cooked; chana (garbonzo beans) two different ways (one with curry and the other I don't quite remember), very tasty even though it was cold by the time we ate it. Roti was the "bread" (I kept confusing her by calling a variety of things bread as I refer to many things made from grains as such) we usually ate with our food and of course rice. Nobody believed me however as I had told them many times that I liked and could handle spicy foods so they tested me with milder dishes and when I ate some of the more spicier ones they were quite surprised and happy. Those were just the right amount of spiciness for me, not too much but just enough to keep the burn going after you finish eating. It was approximately the same as you'll find in most Indian restaurants. I still have yet to try the one restaurant there they say is 10X spicy. Since I know there is such a thing as too spicy I am a little scared only because I want to be able to taste my food, not just burn my mouth.

There's many different animals roaming free there. Birds that you only see in poetasters, eagles flying over the city, large bee hives under almost every arch, cows of course, stray dogs, and monkeys in the more rural areas. I saw a single cat the whole time we were there, apparently they don't like cats very much. Camels, horses, mules, and cows were all used to pull wagons and such.

People everywhere, it was quite crowded on the streets. There were people walking here and there. People standing waiting for busses on the edge of the street. People walking between cars selling their stuff. Poor kids doing dances trying to earn a little money. People selling things at stands. People buying things. People standing and talking. Just people everywhere.

In general everyone there were quite nice, especially the hotel staff. Every person on the staff said hello as you passed and most tried to help as much as they could with anything they could. People at the tourist places were a little pushy with their wares but as long as you are persistent in saying no they generally leave you alone when they see they're not going to make a sale. Then the next guy steps in. I was looked at strangely a few times, mostly by children. When I smiled at them most smiled back, some seemed a little scared though. Of course I have that effect on children here too.

Many people say to expect to get sick while you are there no matter what you do to protect yourself. I did try to drink only sealed bottled water and only ate from the hotel or places my friends ate at not some random kiosk. I had slight upset stomach one day which the pills my doctor gave me worked on quickly, and while at the Taj either because of the water I drank there or the heat, I got a little dizzy and sick. Otherwise I proudly stayed quite healthy. Now, had I not stuck to cities, that might have been a different story.

I avoided taking pictures of some of the differences that would put a bad light on India. There was a lot of poverty there. On many streets one side has nice looking houses and on the other side people are living in tents. I did take one picture of the rural area we passed through where all the houses were made of grass. Seeing some of these things really do make you feel appreciative of what you have. And it also explains to me why celebrities and such always try to help the poor in these other countries instead of our own. It's not that those people are any poorer than we are, it's just that it is there every where you look.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please send me any comments you might have, good or bad. Copyrighted 2009 by Christine Schnell. Go ahead and share it with others just keep my name with it.
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