Friday, February 11, 2011

On Safari And In The Forts of Ranthambore National Park

Welcome back, as I write this I am sitting in Goa at Anjuna Beach. With the wedding still fresh in my mind, we have moved on and the good times just keep coming:

We woke up the next morning, I did some exercise (I bought a jump rope in Bangkok!), and had breakfast with Sazzy's uncle. I spent the rest of the morning furiously writing the last blog entry and uploading it, then we caught an hour and a half taxi to the train station. On the modern freeway, one of the few pieces of road without potholes (yet) we passed a massive part of town full of very modern buildings from the current Indian economic boom, this is just one of them. The funny thing about the freeway though, is you can still drive down it at 25 miles an hour in a tractor, haha. Also, the lane lines are not rules, just suggestions.

We got to the train station in Delhi headed for Sawai Madhopur where we were going to Ranthambore National Park and Oberoi Hotel & Resort where Sazzy's cousin works as the head chef at a five-star hotel/restaurant. The train station was slightly confusing and smelled like crap (probably all the crap on the train tracks!) but was nice enough and we had no problems.

The train ride was a blast and was my first time riding a train on this trip. I've been in all manors of cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses and airplanes, so it's fun to add yet another transportation method to the list. On the train ride, we got to see some of the countryside on our way south, including many fields, small towns, local cricket games and of course the sunset. Our tickets were in the Third Class AC Sleeper, the lowest of the AC cars but still giving us all kinds of snack/meal services. A very comfortable way to travel I would say.

When we arrived at Sawai Madhopur, thanks to Sazzy's cousin Deep a driver was waiting at the train station to pick us up and bring us to the Oberoi. On the way I realized how big a deal Ranthambore National Park and the tiger reserve are. Between the train station and the hotel we passed countless other safari vehicles, tons of other hotel/resorts and a few weddings as well. Deep has an apartment at the hotel and was very generous in letting us stay with him, as well as organizing the safari, train and air tickets, rides around the area and a number of fantastic meals.

At 5:30am or so we woke up, got dressed and headed off for our safari in the tiger reserve. We had originally been booked for one of the larger buses, but ended up getting an upgrade to a jeep with just two other people who happened to be from New York.

At the entrance to the park, we had to show our passports and sign a release form saying we would not sue if we were attacked by a tiger or something. Given all the adventures and dangerous activities I've been on during this trip this is probably only the second or third form I've actually had to sign, haha.

Upon entering the park at sunrise we drove through some amazing ruins that were up to 1500 years old we immediately began seeing some amazing wildlife and realizing how special this place is. This is a lousy photo, but these are two very large simbar deer.

One of the most common mammals in the park were the white spotted deer, I'd guess these are a common food source of the tigers that roam the area. On the road we saw some tiger tracks in the dust, and the guides did their best to take us to where they may be, but we never saw a tiger. Oh well, it was still great.

The bird life here was wonderful. Not sure what this one is, but we saw eagles, storks, parrots, egrets, vultures babblers, peacocks and even a very large owl! Like the bird sanctuary we visited a week or so ago, this was another place I'd have loved to visit with Brendan because he would have really loved all the bird life.

This is a crocodile sitting out in the sun with it's mouth open. Wrestling one is on my to do list, and I think I could have taken this one, but I figured the guides wouldn't appreciate it so I stayed in the jeep, haha. Oh, we also saw a mongoose walking along a river below us.

As usual, monkeys were all over the place. They mostly sat in the trees above the road but would run around on the ground in many places, flying through the trees and on a steep cliff. Watching the way they move through the environment really is impressive.

After the safari had ended we returned to the hotel and were greeted by Deep, who as you might expect for the head chef of a five star restaurant is a busy man. In the background you can see the building which his apartment is in, and to the right of the building he has an awesome all organic vegetable garden which we were lucky enough to get to eat from.

We then walked past the elephants and through the massive doors into the hotel courtyard for breakfast. Inside there was a musician playing a flute and mouth harp, and we were treated to a (western style) breakfast of pastries, toast, fruit, juice, eggs, bacon and more. As you would expect from such a place, the food and service was top notch.

In the afternoon we had thought about doing a second safari to see more wildlife and hopefully see a tiger, but decided against it in favor of visiting the absolutely immense hilltop complex of Ranthambore Fort, which is inside the national park. The fort is said to have been built by Maharaja Jayanta in the fifth century and was one of the strongest forts in India, occupied by various rulers until the 1500s. It houses Muslim, Hindi and Janis religious sites which are active to this day.

A view out into the national park from inside of the fort. Truly beautiful land.

On the road up to the fort, Indians came in every manor possible: walking, motorcycles, tractors, jeeps packed so full the drivers hung out the sides, and normal passenger cars. Apparently white people are not as interested, because in the two and a half hours we spent walking the grounds we were the only white people around. Here in India this can cause quite a stir, and people were constantly looking at us and saying hello. When they saw we had cameras they got even more excited, and a few at a time at first, children came up asking us to take their picture. This drew a crowd, and within about a minute and a half we had two dozen people around us getting in groups for us to photograph.

Here I am standing at one of the countless ruins that are inside the forts walls. One thing I find very interesting, and quite different from our western take on historical sites is how Indians treat them. Rather than our typical stance of preservation and cleanliness, at the temple behind me I saw both a woman in a bright red sari take all her styrofoam plates and other garbage and just toss it down the side, and two kids with their pants down taking dumps right at the base of the temple. Many of the areas were also full of graffiti. Granted there is no entrance fee for the fort to pay for maintenance, no garbage cans, nor bathrooms, and granted all these things happen in the west to some extent (though MUCH less) I couldn't help but find it a bit offensive that such an amazing place is treated in such a way. I guess that's just my western sensibilities.

Due to the huge numbers of buildings in the fort, you can easily walk off the main trail and find smaller but often equally amazing ruins that you have all to yourself. It was nice to do this to get away from the constant attention of the locals, haha.

On the opposite side of the fort from where we had come in, we were greeted by this scene. The pond was full of a red marine plant and was being used by both people and monkeys for bathing, we saw this huge section of wall, full of people, monkeys, and dotted with cooking fired and the cliff behind it. On every walkway, women in bright saris provided an amazing splash of color. I've seen a lot of ancient ruins on this trip so far, and this ranks among the best.

As we left this view point an old man came to us and indicated he wanted to show us something. This area is still a very active religious site for the Indian people and sites of worship are hidden all over the place. He took us down this steep and narrow set of stairs under a small building, hundreds of years old, and maybe 20x12 feet wide. The basement was small and very dark. In it we found a man praying, and a small, dirty nook in the wall that contained a statue draped in gold cloth, an oil lamp and a dish for offerings. It was only a tiny little place and a simple gesture of kindness, but it certainly made an impression.

Another interesting thing done here, is that people make little houses out of rocks, and these foot tall structures dot the ground all over the place. We asked someone why they do it, and was told it is to have a big house in the next life. Naturally we made our own, and as Sazzy was working on his, a man walked past and in Hindi said “Build it five stories!!”

A game of cricket on one of the large grassy fields. Like I said, people here treat ancient ruins differently, haha.

The next thing we did was go to Ganesh Temple, the most visited and one dedicated to mice. We bought plates of offerings which contained a pack of incense, a coconut, a necklace of flowers and ludhu, took off our shoes and went inside. Inside we stood in lines made of iron pipes, wrung the bell above our head and handed our offering to the priests who were sitting in the window. There, they blessed the ludhu and gave us the tika as a blessing.

The three of us with our tekas. Naturally, this managed to attract even more attention to us as we walked out. On our way out, around 5pm, we finally saw other westerners for the first time. It was a tour group of 60 year olds.

A row of monkeys, these guys are everywhere.

When we returned to the room, a delicious meal of Thai curry was waiting for us, cooked by Deep. It was a very late lunch, and a group of cooks from the restaurant were in the kitchen preparing us a dinner as well! Due to time, we took the food to go and headed off to the train station.

Thanks again for the hospitality Deep, it was wonderful.

This time we were riding the train overnight all the way to Mumbai. We had only gotten two confirmed seats, but paid for three tickets, and Hunter was sick. He laid in bed feeling terrible, while Sazzy tried to get us a third bed. He ended up offering an old man some 12-year Jameson Whiskey, and in exchange the old man told his helper that was traveling with him to sleep on the floor and give Sazzy his bed!

We arrived in Mumbai which we had just entered as a transportation hub because we were going to fly the rest of the way to Goa and took a taxi to the airport. On the way I got to sew a brief look at one of the biggest cities in the world. It was flat, seemed to sprawl forever, and each place you looked, new sky scrapers were being built. Massive billboards for luxury condos, cars, cloths and even horse racing were everywhere. Among all this was still the same slums, sewer smell and terrible smog that seems to persist in every large city in India.

At the airport we had a three hour wait and Hunter was in pain and starting to sweat. He laid down on the airport floor while Sazzy and I ate left-over five star food. Eventually he ate a few bites of rice and began to feel better which was very good. We got on the plane for what was only a 45 minute or so flight, and arrived in Goa around 4pm. The airport was shared by the military, and on the runway we got to see tons of cool aircraft. I saw transports, communications, dual-rotor helicopters and fighter jets. We even saw one of the fighters landing and pulling it's drag chutes to stop.

When we landed at the airport we didn't even know where we were going to go. We picked Anjuna beach mostly on a whim and took an absorbingly expensive taxi ride to get there. We arrived again with no idea what the place was like and needed to find a room. Sazzy walked around by himself speaking Hindi to the various guest houses to get a better deal, and we ended up with a great room for 700 rupees. We watched the sunset relaxed a bit in the room and then headed out to look around.

This is what people mean when they say “Goa isn't India.” It was controlled by the Portuguese for a very long time, has a large (24%) Christian population, speaks a different language, and is know for it's hippie past and it's beach scene. To be honest it feels very much like the beach scene in Thailand, which of course isn't 'real' Thailand either. This is a reggae bar, down the the beach is an bar playing trance music. We plan on staying here a few days before Sazzy and Hunter leave, Hunter back to the States and Sazzy to Thailand, and I will head out into the wider and 'authentic' India on my own. For now it's a few days of relaxing on the beach and I'm certainly looking forward to it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Indian Wedding!

Greetings from Delhi again! After three days, the wedding is finally over and it was a wonderful experience. The music, dancing, food, family, late nights, and the colors were all overwhelming but in the best possible way. This is going to be a long post, haha... I don't know what all the different parts of the ceremony are called, and I don't know what they represent, so some of the pictures will just have to stand on their own without any real explanation from me, sorry about that. Also, I haven't had great internet access so this post (and the last one) are a bit rushed. Anyways, here it is:

I first need to start with a memorial to my flip-flops. They died. I bought them on the first full day of my trip in Manila from an old lady on an overpass. I paid over two dollars for them, about twice what they should have cost, but they have served me well for more than two and a half months. They have been in four countries, taken me up many steep trails, through rivers, down cliffs, across ancient ruins and seen many hard miles. They have been a bit of an icon for this trip to me and it is sad to see them finally die. I'd worn all the way through them in parts, and in parts no yet worn through, they were paper thin. Through them I could feel every bump in the road, feel every inch of land I walked across. They have been on my feet every day of the trip but one and they will be missed.

We woke up in Gurgaon where we ate breakfast and then drove back into Dehli, the first day of the wedding was tonight! I'm still not sure why this elephant and camels were walking down the street, probably part of some party somewhere, but seeing them put a smile on my face. The roads of Dehli are a bit of a free for all, where anything that moves is allowed to use. Granted this causes many problems, and I've seen more than one broken down or crashed vehicle, plus slow ox carts and everything else in the congested, noisy and chaotic roads.

After the usual eating, chatting with the family, and playing with the kids, we headed off to Ghaffar Market via rickshaw. It was rather hard to fit three of us on this and we had initially given up, but the driver insisted three was fine, and Hunter and Sazzy sat in the passenger seat while I sat backwards on the normal bike seat, crushed between my friends and the man peddling. He had obvious difficulty lugging us big Americans around, but it got us there for 40 rupees and was a fun experience.

Our main goal in the market was to get tailored suits for the three of us. This is something I'd really wanted to do while out here due to the the amazingly low price, and was excited for it. I have never owned a suit, nor do I really have the need to, but it is a good thing to own and for 5500 rupees, about $120, how can you go wrong? It's an investment. Luckily we had one of Sazzy's cousins to help us, and she took us to a tailor who had done many suits for the family. We picked materials, had measurements taken and explained our schedules and when we needed them ready by. We also got footwear for the wedding, Hunter bought some sunglasses, and we just took in the sights and smells of the market.

That evening was the first night of the wedding. After spending a fair amount of time getting ready at the house, everyone putting on their best cloths, we packed ourselves into the small Hyundai and Suzuki cars that are one of the most common vehicles of the modern middle-class here in India. We climbed the stairs and entered into a large banquet hall filled with tables, food, a stage and a dance floor.

Dancing is a huge part of Indian weddings, and the sound system was booming. It was pretty hilarious actually, because rather than traditional Indian music, a number of the songs I heard was actually songs I'd heard at clubs and bars throughout se-Asia! I was cracking up thinking about how here I was at an Indian wedding, dancing to songs I'd heard in the clubs of the Philippines, in bars in Cambodia and on Khaosan Road in Thailand. That said, Indian music was a part of it, and the dance floor was burning up!

This is Dalbir, the groom and one of those parts I have no idea what it is called or about, haha. Male family members would come up to the stage where he was sitting and give him the mark on his forehead.

And this is the bride Kawaldeep, sitting next to Dalbir. Here, female family members were putting something in her hair.

The first dance of the couple to be.

And the dancing continued all night with varying intensity. Here is a dance with a cup of whiskey balancing on the head. The party continued well into the night with copious amounts of food and dancing, until we finally headed home around 2:30am.

The next morning we slept in a bit and lounged around the house for most of the morning. At this time, a group of men came to the house to do the traditional application of henna on the woman's hands, which I believe I was told has to do with good luck...

The designs were truly beautiful, and amazingly intricate. To aid in the application, lemon juice is also applied, which helps the colors stay brown rather than yellowing.

In the early afternoon, the three of us headed back to Ghaffar Market. Since I am heading south rather than returning to Delhi like Sazzy and Hunter, I needed my suit ready for the first fitting the day after I ordered it. We returned to Royal Tailors, which is really just a 6x8 foot box crammed with fabric in the side of a large row of buildings, and I did my first fitting of the pants and coat. Everything looked fantastic, but the pants were a little tight on the waist and the jacket was a bit long on the sleeves. With the proper notes taken, we went to our next stop.

Our next stop was for more clothing. I wanted to buy a complete outfit, since things are so cheap out here as I have mentioned, and plus I wanted something to wear for night two of the wedding. I bought two shirts, one classic white and one a bold purple, a tie to match, and a pair of cufflinks. I haven't bought this much clothing in years, and while it felt like I was spending a lot of money I was really getting new shirts and ties for pennies on the dollar.

That evening Sazzy, Hunter and I put on our new shirts and were ready for the party! (granted I'm still wearing my North Face zip-off travel pants, but they look alright and work surprisingly well!)

Tonight's party was at the house rather than at a hall, and the ally/parking area below had been transformed into an absolutely wonderful space. The ground was covered in red carpets, walls and a roof were made of sheets and woven fabric, and the place lit up the street like the Fourth of July.

A look inside.

As I keep saying, food is a very important part of Indian life and of celebration. Tonight’s food was amazing as usual, and after filling up on appetizers that were continually brought to me, I had to double down and eat a proper dinner as well! This was not a problem because the food was all so good, and as usual I stuffed my face for hours.

Once again, the sound system was filling the night with energy and the dance floor was filled with a rotating cast of characters.

A video from the dance floor.

Naturally Hunter and I, being the only white people at the wedding attracted our fair share of attention, which was thoroughly amusing. As is the Indian way, everyone was very friendly and happy to have us around, and it was a ton of fun.

At some late hour, the drummers moved out of the tent, and the party entered the street. A large group of us entered the streets, including women carrying jugs of water on their heads, and we did our best to wake the entire neighborhood. We crossed the main road and paraded through alleys, drum core leading the way as we stopped to dance where ever we felt like. I danced up a storm myself, gathering an excited crowd around me and later collecting the comments of how I was a good dancer, haha. I'm not sure about that part, but I think this was my favorite part of the whole three day event!

Back at the house that night was another of the many ceremonies. The groom and the best man, Sazzy, had to cover their hands in henna. After a few other ceremonial bits, they walked up to the top floor and put their hand prints on the wall, putting the end to another very late night.

The next morning was another set of ceremony and celebration. The white horse and the band arrived early again waking anyone who dared to sleep in. In this ceremony, a red cloth is held above the groom, who is then washed by the women with a mix of turmeric, garbanzo been power and yogurt, as well as plain yogurt in the hair. Messy, but photo gold!

After killing time looking through the 'Grooms Wanted' section of the newspaper, the three of us got dressed in our traditional kurtas and were ready for the final day of the wedding.

As usual, downstairs the music and dancing had begun, and the family was once again gathering to celebrate.

The groom and best man sat in chairs under a gold umbrella, and a veil-type thing was placed over the grooms face by the women.

After more music and dancing, the groom (and his cousin/nephew, not sure the connection) climbed aboard a white horse. Once again, more ceremony was held, including firing a pistol, and the sisters feeding the horse.

At this point the parade down the street begun, and we did our best to disrupt the already messy Dehli traffic, haha! 


 A video of the parade down the street.

The wedding party ambled slowly down the street again stopping to dance whenever the moment felt right, as cars and buses flew past, honking their horns.

After a few blocks, everyone piled into cars and headed for the Gurudwara where the wedding would be finalized. A common part of the dancing at the wedding involved throwing out money and naturally this kind of thing attracts its fair share of beggars, who both ask for money and scramble for it when it is tossed about.


Some of the family, while we dance on the street.

Me in my full outfit with various family members, of whom I am told I am now a part of!

The groom back on the horse for the final stretch.

And of course more dancing!

Upon entering the hall, the yogi (??) said some words, and preformed more rituals. This was then followed by countless family members coming up together, and getting photos taken.

This ceremony, if I understand correctly is the one that finalized the marriage. The yogi reads from the Sikh holy book while musicians play, and the bride and groom walk around the platform four times to show how they will be together forever, sharing everything, good and bad.

Like any wedding, it was photo time, and I felt bad for the groom and bride having to stand on the stage literally for hours while countless photos were taken, including one with us of course.

And like any wedding there is lots of time to kill while people mingle. Having already ate our fill, with the usual service of waiters bringing us food and drinks non-stop (again, we attract attention, haha), we escaped outside for some fresh air and to play with the kids.

At this point one of Sazzy's uncles decided he wanted to give us a tour of this part of Delhi, and I was quite interested to see what he had to show us. This Gurudwara is located in the heart of Indian political life. In the immediate area are the prime ministers house, parliament, the homes of the congress members, head of the military, embassy and more. Despite the power and pomp of the area, slums persisted slightly to my surprise.

After our tour, we headed back to the Gurudwara and got this wonderful view of the building at night time.

After a long day at the Gurudwara, we finally returned home for yet more wedding ceremony! Family members sat in the room while the new couple played some sort of game, one involving picking the rings out of a dish of water. As usual food was had, drums were played, and the night went on until the late hours, marking the end of three amazing days of celebration.

The next day we did our best to sleep in and really had nothing but time to kill. We had hoped to have train tickets to head south on this day, but our plans didn't come through and we had to buy tickets for the next day instead. This made for a lazy day around the house, and not a whole lot happened.

In the evening it was time to say our good byes and to thank the family for the amazing hospitality they have shown us throughout this whole time. Spending time in this house and with the family has been a truly wonderful experience unlike any I have ever had before. I wish I had something to give in return to show my gratitude, but instead, Hunter and I were given gifts!

In the evening we hopped a taxi back to Gurgaon to stay with another uncle before heading out of town. On the way the rain began, and it was the first rain I've seen in about a month. As I said, the air here is awful, a mixture of dust, car exhaust, smoke from cooking/garbage fires and more. At times my eyes have actually burned a bit, so the rain was a welcome refresher of the air.

Upon getting to the home, the power went out, a common occurrence here as rolling blackouts are a part of daily life, and Sazzys great uncle came to chat. He offered a drink which we accepted expecting tea, but he returned with whiskey, and I poured our glasses via headlamp!

So, that was the wedding and I am thrilled to have gotten to experience it. The family has been so kind to Hunter and I that we felt like we belonged from day one. It is now time to head on and get out of the city. We are catching a train south this afternoon where we will visit a tiger reserve, and then on to Goa!