Friday, March 23, 2012

Extreme India

Well, that's it for India. Phase one is complete.

I've just spent the last week or so enjoying the vast extremes India has to offer.  After leaving Rishikesh, I took the train with Deepa and Klara to Ajmer to meet Deepa's family.  They are all wonderful people with good hearts and a lot of love to share.  Her mom was lovely and wow - what a cook!  And though I will always love being fed, I'm even more glad I got the chance to see that family dynamic.  I've been spending a lot of time lately trying to figure out what makes India so special, and I think that's it.  They have an incredibly strong and yet somehow broad sense of what family is, as well as a natural way of showing affection toward their relatives.  It has been wonderful for me to have the chance to experience it.

So while in Ajmer, I finally got myself a saree.  It's beautiful and I can't wait to put it on display this coming Halloween.  We also went to a huge and very sacred Mosque in Ajmer and walked around the Muslim equivalent of the Holy of Holies.  We were told if we wished something upon the covered alter, it would be fulfilled.  Watching everyone move around this thing was probably more fascinating to me than the alter itself.  You could see the fervent nature of their prayers.  There was desperation, faith, and longing in their eyes.  The chaos that ensued from so many people seeking something, was cacophonous, and I was a little confused when Alook (Deepa's 'brother') asked us if we felt the peace he experienced inside.  Peace?  Amongst all that?  Perhaps I could have if I weren't so distracted by the yelling and shoving.  It made me grateful, once again, for modern-day temples.  But besides the craziness and unfamiliarity of everything in the mosque, it was fascinating to see the similarities between this mosque and the Judeaic temples I've learned about previously.  Simply fascinating.

After the Mosque we went to Pushkar with Deepa's other brother Ravi. It's a very small town up in the mountains near Ajmer and is home to the 'only' Brahman temple in the world. I say 'only' because there are others, but legend has it that Brahmas wife cursed him because he created a second wife while she was running late to Puja (sacred ceremony) and he needed a companion.  When she arrived and found him with his second wife, she cursed him that this temple would be the only place where people could worship him for all time. It's not a big temple, but it is built on a bluff that overseas the whole town and surrounding dessert. This is Pushkar - stunning right?

Oh, and before I forget.  Besides temples and scenery, Pushkar is also a great place to go camel back riding.  I can officially say I've ridden a camel, and I must say they are some funny creatures.  Here's mine taking a break - his name was Ram.  And yes, that's my water bottle under his head.  Apparently it makes a decent pillow.

After the camel ride we headed back to Ajmer where we caught a bus to Jaipur.  I wish I had taken a picture of the bus because there is no way to accurately describe what it looks like otherwise.  Lets just say, that between the vomit stains outside the window, the sticky film on everything, and the interesting odor that permeates most of India, I was in bad need of a shower by the time we reached Jaipur.  Thankfully, Deepa also had some friends find us a nice hotel in Jaipur, and shower we did.

The next morning, Ravi joined us again and we went all sorts of touristy on Jaipur.  We rented a taxi for the day (only about $30), and hit up all the major sites in the area.  We saw the Palace of the Winds, the British Museum, Amber fort, Jal Mahal (palace built on the water),  Jantar Mantar, and the Birla Mandir Temple.  Along the way we saw these charming fellows (pun intended).  Yuk.

Jantar Mantar was a very interesting place.  It was built to measure astrological bodies and even Deepa was fascinated at how advanced it all was for the time period it was built in.  Just goes to show that people can do anything well if they invest enough passion into it.  And India is passionate about their astrology.  This is Deepa and I with our statue (Scorpio).  Interesting fact - Deepa and I share a birthday!

Oh, and this is a picture of the GIANT sundial used to track everything.  Because I had already been yelled at for climbing where I wasn't supposed to be, Klara and I resorted to some more...original ways to pose.

To top our our day of tourism, we went shopping for Indian suits and shoes.  Lets just say, I did not leave empty handed.

At 6am the next morning, Klara and I said goodbye to Deepa and caught the train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.  Surprisingly, the train ride was probably one of the best experiences I've had in India.  We were unable to get tickets for the A/C car and the condition of the train was pretty similar to our bus to Jaipur.  It was interesting to see how alive the caste system is in Indian transportation.  I've known it's still a part of Indian culture because of some conversations I've had with Deepa.  Klara was even once asked what caste system she was in.  But seeing that amount of self segregation on such a large scale, such as you do on the train, is heart wrenching.

There's 4 classes of cars.  1st class AC, 2nd class AC, 2nd class non AC, 3rd class (non AC), and general seating.  Of course expense is the difference between them all, but we are only talking about a few rupees difference.  And having traveled now in a few of them, you can tell the people are the ones separating themselves.  For instance, the difference between 2nd class AC and non-AC is drastic, both in population and quality.  The AC car was full of mostly businessmen and wealthier families.  The non-AC car was 10X more dirty, and you could tell the people were much more impoverished.  With that poverty has apparently come with it a certain level isolation, because I've also noticed how many more stares I get from that population. 

So that morning, we rode 2nd class non-AC.  And while there were a lot of stares in my direction, we actually met some wonderful men.  They spoke very little English, but enough to get by.  Klara was sick, and I was pretty tired, but they made the 5 hour train ride much more fun than it would have been otherwise.  We sang songs for one another, got their life stories (as much as we could understand), and even showed them pictures of our 'husbands.'  They asked if we were married, and because I've learned months ago to always answer 'yes' to that question, they insisted on seeing pictures of both of our husbands.  Luckily, I had this random stalker picture of a guy from a party I went to right before I left Salt Lake.  I only took the picture because I thought he was uncommonly handsome and wanted proof that such a thing existed.  Little did I know how much help that picture would be to me later.  Serendipitous really.  Oh, and here's a video of them singing for us.  I'm telling you, these guys were a riot.

Needless to say, arriving in Agra was a big moment for me and Klara.  We had saved the Taj Mahal for last because - well it's the Taj Mahal.  After checking our bags into a dingy storage cell, we grabbed a taxi and were off.  I can honestly say, though all the hype and expectations, the Taj Mahal does not disappoint.  It is by far the most beautiful building I have ever seen in my life.  The fact that it was built for love is just a nice touch.  Klara and I spent a few hours just touring the grounds and taking pictures.  Every time I turned to look a the Taj it took my breath away.  Stunning.  Simply stunning.

There was one....issue....with our tour though.  This is a big tourist spot for both Indian and foreign visitors.  I could tell that for some of the Indian tourists, I was probably the first white person they've ever seen.  Combine that with my height, my blonde hair, and my blue eyes - and I was getting pestered every 2 minutes to take a picture with somebody.  By now I've gotten rather used to it.  If it's women who ask I usually oblige, but most of the time it's men - and selfish men at that.  Klara took on the role of my bulldog and started shooing them away or telling them it would cost them 100 rupees to take the picture.  Of course that didn't stop them from taking one, but they usually stopped pestering me to be in the picture with them.  Then a school of teenagers showed up and just started following me around constantly asking for 'just one photo.'  Wanting to finally get rid of them, I told them I'd take one picture with everybody.  The boys tried to insist that they take that 'one photo' with them, but I just said "nay nay nay - everybody."  This is the ensuing riot that occurred.

After the shots, everybody started cheering and clapping, and finally dispersed.  I'm still not sure if they think I'm famous or perhaps just a novelty.  Is it racist to wish there were other white people around?  I'm not really sure, but all that picture taking is something I will not miss.

 After the Taj, Klara and I took a taxi back to Delhi and checked into our room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel there.  It was kind of a last minute decision, but where else will I get the chance to stay in such accommodations for $150/night?  It lived up to all of its expectations too.  I declared Klara and I princesses for the day, and proceeded to order room service, spend time at the spa, get my hair done, and do a little shopping in the meantime.

That evening, I was checking on the flight I was supposed to take the next morning, I realized I had written the time incorrectly.  I thought I was flying to Bangkok at 3pm, but apparently, my flight left at 3am.  I realized this about 9pm.  6 hours before my flight.  Yikes.  I attempted to see if I could get a later one, but no luck there.  So I packed up quickly, grabbed something to eat, and headed to the airport.  Though I was very sad to loose 12 hours of my time as a princess, I was glad the Lord was looking out for me and inspired me to look up my ticket before it was too late.  That was a close call.

So here I am, writing this entry from Bangkok, waiting to catch my flight to Chaing Mai this afternoon where I will be trained as a massage therapist.  Though I haven't been here long, I can tell it's a whole different world from India.  For one, everything is clean.  For two, everyone is incredibly friendly, For three, hardly anybody speaks English fluently.  I found this out as I tried to master the public transit system they have here.  It's a great system.  Easy, convenient, and very modern.  As long as I have something with the station name on it, I feel pretty comfortable getting around.  With that confidence, I decided to make up for my time lost as princess and went to a spa last night.  It was one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life.  4 hours of scalp, foot, and thai massage with one of the cutest ladies I've ever met.  She was so sweet and rather hilarious.  At one point, she was helping me get dressed and told me she was my Mama.  At first I thought I misunderstood her, but then she went on to explain that I was her baby because I was so young, and then proceeded to pinch my cheeks.  The maternal nature of the gesture combined with the fact that I am at LEAST a foot taller than her, just endeared her to me completely.  To top it off, she was incredibly skilled and very good at what she does.  It totally geared me up for my massage courses in Chiang Mai.  I think it's pretty safe to say that this is going to be a good month! 

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