Udaipur is easily the prettiest city we’ve seen. We met up with our friends at the airport in Jaipur and caught up with them while we waited over an hour for our delayed plane. Once we had landed, our friend Kunal had arranged for cars to take us to our hotel, the beautiful Trident Hilton, and then on to his family’s home. They could not have been more gracious and wouldn’t stop feeding us - which became a pervasive theme over the next two days. Their home was what I expected, very large and fashionably furnished that sat on top of a hill in an Upaipur suburb. We were lucky enough to observe some of the traditional wedding preparation ceremonies before we all went to the rehearsal dinner. The following day was spent shopping at the market in the morning and having lunch at the family’s house again. All of the men including me had brightly colored turbans wrapped for us by professional turban wrappers, while the girls got henna painted on their hands. The wedding itself was an extravaganza to put it mildly. Our friend rode in on a white horse, while walked along with him and made merry for at least 45 minutes with not one, but two separate bands. We Americans found it a bit strange that no one except the immediate family paid any attention to the ceremony itself. It lasted quite a while and we unfortunately did not have the benefit of an explanation. It was hard to notice since every two minutes someone showed up with more hors’ dourves. They had a curious system, since we are used to chasing after someone a tray as he almost runs from the kitchen to one side of a room and back. At the wedding a woman would ask each individual person in the group if they wanted whatever the man behind her was carrying. This was fine for a while, but the sheer amount of food and wait staff serving everything from fried cheese balls to Indian-style spicy egg rolls, not mention water and fruit juices made it so that it was interrupting our conversations. This was just a warm-up to the main event when the ceremony was completed. The whole wedding took place in an expansive outdoor garden and there were food stations set up every three feet or so serving anything you could imagine. It was really classy and elegant and once again the people went out of their way to welcome us. It was almost a shame we couldn’t eat anymore before going back to the hotel to watch Italy beat France in the World Cup semi-finals. It was a wonderful experience and I’m very glad that we made the trip.
July 18, 2006
Jaipur, the last stop on our guided tour has been nice, but not as enjoyable as Dehli. Maybe it’ because we’ve traveling for some time, and we’re getting a bit tired and homesick. It’s an interesting place, called the Pink City because it was built entirely of sandstone (which is really red-orange in color). Our first night here we were the lone diners in the ‘World’s Largest Turban Museum and Restaurant’. The food was good, but there was too much of it. Our waiter was an extremely friendly man from the city of Agra. He wrapped turbans on us and took pictures while he told us about his family. We toured the incredible Amber Fort and a giant Observatory the next day. The forts architecture was fascinating, and the defensive features were almost superfluous considering we had to ride an elephant up a mountain just to reach the lower tier. I was interested to learn how they made the doorways smaller to force anyone entering to automatically bow their heads in deference to the king. The corridors were also narrower to force only a single armed person at a time as an additional security measure.
The one truly memorable moment here was last night. Since we had time before dinner, our driver took us on a small walking tour of the markets around the restaurant. He saw a traditional wedding just getting underway and led us inside to get a better look. All of the several hundred participants welcomed us with open arms and went out of their way to treat us well. We saw all the different types of food and were offered everything from fried bread to spices wrapped in banana leaves. We finally broke down when we were handed ‘Mulfi’, frozen custard on a stick that our travel book pointed out. It was excellent and a real treat. Afterwards, we went to the decidedly tourist restaurant appropriately named ‘Indiana’. Owned by a former tour guide, it’s well played gimmick is traditional folk dancing every night. The two girls were wonderful dancers and Joy was a good sport when they called her up. The next day we saw the state capital buildings, another beautiful hand carved Hindi temple and toured a specialty paper manufacturing company. We finished the last day here by walking around the market a bit and having some clothes custom made for ‘you only, very special price’.
The last two days have been spent touring two of the most beautiful buildings on the planet. The first one you’ve never heard of, a brand new Hindi temple called Ashokram just outside Delhi. Brand new is a relative term in a country that has structures dating back millennia. But this one really is brand new - it fully opened a few months ago. Imagine a huge area the size of a large theme park literally covered from top to bottom in intricately carved stone. The theme park metaphor isn’t far from reality. It even has a two and half hour animatronic ride that explains the Hindu pantheon of Gods. It turns out it’s not such a small world after all. The sprawling multi million dollar complex was started only five years ago and employed ten thousand craftsman and stonecutters. Our favorite part was the 136 elephants (each carved from a single stone!) depicting various themes and folktales. The money spent and the attention to details was made even clearer by the contrast of poverty and squalor that this country seems to have a monopoly on. We saw this on the drive to the city of Agra, the home of the world famous Taj Mahal. Our new guide in this town was much less friendly, but still quite knowledgeable. He had a peculiar way of apologizing for and insulting his own countrymen. We called him a self-hating Indian. The Taj itself was breathtaking, even though the experience was marred by an overzealous photographer/huckster who insisted on following us around and taking pictures that we would then be obliged to pay for at the end of our time there. The geometry and precision of the building and grounds was truly unreal, considering the only tools they had three hundred years ago was a piece of string. The marble and inlay work was nothing short of stunning. Some interesting facts about the way it’s built was they used huge teak boards between the stone foundation to act as shock absorbers during a potential earthquake. So nervous about earthquakes, that the engineers built the towers at a two degree angle away from the building so that they would fall away not towards the main structure. There is nothing built behind the structure, further adding to it’s magnificence as a world monument. Unlike other places we’ve been, there has been a effort to close the tourist shops around the area to keep its mystique. In the States, these things would be made out of plaster, Styrofoam and chicken wire. They would look grand, but wouldn’t feel grand - like Vegas. Touching solid marble buildings that have stood for centuries is an experience I have only felt in Israel, and it can’t be matched anywhere in America. Overall, it was worth the trip just to see these two wonders.
Our first day in Delhi started with a monsoon-like downpour. It flooded many of the streets and we were ankle deep in water most of the morning. We saw some incredible monuments like the Red Fort and the largest Mosque in the world. The precision and scale of construction is mind boggling, especially in the modern age of computers and motorized cranes. Enormous victory pillars and memorial arches dot the landscape and are just a few of the 1300 recognized monuments in Delhi alone. Many of these were “old” long before anyone stepped foot in the Americas. The history for many of these ruins follows the same themes: beautiful temple/tomb was built by some benevolent ruler and filled with unimaginable material wealth, until some Muslim raider pillaged the thing down to the foundation. We then went to a Government subsidized shop to look at hand-knotted carpets from the Kashmir. The disputed territory has seen some vicious terrorism of late so no tourists are allowed to buy the rugs made by the family artisans there. We had some special saffron and cardamom tea that comes from the region while we watched a demo of the hand-knotting process (we learned that this is much better than simply ‘hand-made’). The quality and style of the silk and wool pieces was nothing short of stunning. We resisted the somewhat hard sell, even with our ’special’ off-season price.
Our guide, Anil told us that there were only 3.5 million foreign tourists last year, something that I find odd considering the size and beauty of this place. He figured that since we wouldn’t be traveling to the South, he would take us to a restaurant specializing in Southern cuisine. He ordered course after course, with several types of delicious bread and what became our favorite dish, Chicken 65, so named after the year it was created. We were plenty full, but not thankfully not stuffed and the whole bill came to a whopping $22. From there we went to see Delhi’s tiny working synagogue that serves mostly foreign diplomats and the nine native Jewish families. We then took a driving tour of Capitol and Parliament buildings, we decided were more impressive than Washington’s because India is a bigger democracy. We were a little beat from there and I even slept in the car a bit on the way back to the hotel. We stayed in the room that evening, not even bothering to go for dinner because of our big lunch. The only thing I could have done without was my phone ringing from 1:30 to 3:30am from people trying to get a hold of me in the States. I really like it here so far and even the abject poverty observed on every corner hasn’t affected me as much as I thought it would.