Tuesday, December 30, 2008

India Part 1

Saturday December 20th – My day started early. My flight left Madrid at 5:50 AM so I left my apartment at 2:15 in the morning. The night before I got about and hour and an half of sleep, so needless to say, I was destined to be jetlagged. In order to get to India, I flew KLM, a Dutch airline, to Amsterdam and then flew to Delhi. I was presently surprised by the food on KLM. Everything tasted pretty good and there were enough snacks to keep me happy. The airport in Amsterdam almost felt like a mall. There were large travel stores, chocolate and tobacco stores, in addition to book shops, clothing stores, restaurants. After a 7.5 hour flight from Amsterdam, I arrived in Delhi. After going through customs, I claimed my baggage and then was met by my tour guide and went to the hotel.

Currently, the Delhi airport is undergoing renovations. After leaving the airport, you have to walk about a quarter mile on uneven and sometimes unpaved road to where cars are parked. The second after leaving the airport facility it was quite clear that I was India. By this I mean, on the road (the main highway leaving the airport) there were people walking, people on bicycles, people riding in auto rickshaws (aka as Tutus in Thailand which are small three wheel motorized vehicles), motorcycles with 2 to 4 people riding on one, and regular cars. My driver was constantly weaving in and out of traffic to pass the slow moving bicycles and auto rickshaws that take up one of two lanes on the road.

When I arrived at my hotel, the gate to the hotel was closed and there was security outside. They checked under our car using a mirror to check for bombs, in the trunk of our car, and confirmed my name before letting us onto the premises on the hotel. When checking in, I had to provide my passport information as well. It is clear that many check in procedures have changed since the attacks in Mumbai and one can no longer walk into a hotel at whim. Guests would have to be announced and I think non-western looking guest would have a hard time getting through security.

December 21st
On Sunday morning, we met our tour guide and headed out for the day. First we went tot he Jama Masjid Mosque which is India’s largest mosque. The structure is made of red sand stone. Before going in any mosque, it is necessary to take off your shoes. The mosque was built to hold 900 worshippers with each person taking up one tile square. Muslim mosque are generally adorned with flower patterns because they don’t believe in creating idols which is in contrast to Hindu temples that are decorated with carvings of their gods which often are portrayed as having animal qualities. In order to call the Muslims to prayer, a blind man was employed to climb up the minaret. The reason for using a blind man was to protect everyone’s privacy because the mosque is located on a slight hill and the minaret goes up a couple of stories so they didn’t want anyone looking into people’s homes.

After visiting the mosque, my mom and I took a rickshaw ride through Old Delhi. The roads are very narrow. They were not built to accommodate cars and tour buses. While on the rickshaws, cars narrowly squeezed by us as we weaved our way throughout the traffic of bicycles, motor cycles, and pedestrians. The buildings are close together and there are a lot of stands selling goods on the sidewalk. The power lines hang low down between buildings and twice we saw water buffalo in the middle of the road. This experience really let me see the “real” India which cannot be experienced when riding in a private car. The sights, the sounds, and the smells were overwhelming. Throughout the entire ride, I don’t think my mom loosen her death grip on my leg and I just thought the experience was comical and something my friends and I would have done on term abroad.

candid shots taken during the rickshaw ride, trying to capture the pandemonium

at one point i looked up, and there was a cow blocking our way. i soon learned this quite typical to have cows in the middle of the road.

After the rickshaw ride, we went to see the sight where Gandhi’s ashes were scattered. Hindus believe in cremation so there is no cemetery or burial site. The spot where Gandhi’s ashes were scattered is in a public park. Our tour guide reminded us how incredible Gandhi’s accomplishments were. Much of what Gandhi preached can still be applied today, and the world would probably be a much saner and safer place if we all lived by the principle of non violence.

For lunch, I had my first Indian food in India. The food was really good and similar in taste and flavor to dishes I had in the States. In a way this surprised me because the Chinese food in China is a lot different from Chinese food in the US. One new drink that I enjoy is fresh lime soda in which they bring a glass with fresh lime juice, a smaller pot filled with sugar water, and a bottle of club soda and you add as much soda and sugar as you want. In India, nothing comes with ice because it is recommended for tourists to only drink bottled water. In the major cities, I think the water is safe but our bodies are not used to the bacteria however in rural areas I don’t think the water is even safe for locals.

In the afternoon, we went to see Hamayum’s Tomb. This building was built in honor of the Moghul Emperor Humayun by his widow. Many of the architectural principles seen in the Taj Mahal were first used in this building. Great emphasis is placed on symmetry, gardens, the use of arches, and fountains.

To end the day, we went to the Qutub Minar which is known as the 7th wonder of Hinduism. The tower is 234 feet tall. The site is a mix of Hindu and Muslim architecture because the tower commissioned by a Muslim emperor on the site of Hindu temple.

Random facts:
In India, people drive on the left hand side of the road. There are very few traffic lights rather there are some round abouts or triangle interchanges in the road which force you to bear left or right and merge with oncoming traffic.

The poverty is overwhelming and like nothing I have ever seen before. There are a lot of people begging on the streets and children will bang on the window of your car and motion to their mouths that they need something to eat. It is very hard to watch but we have decided to make a donation to a reputable charity when we return instead of giving money to the beggars. Many of the children on the street are part of organized begging units.

Delhi is actually divided into 7 towns. The first Delhi dates back to the 12th century. No one currently lives there. All that is left is the ruins from this period of time. New Delhi got its name around 1850 when the British decided to move the capital of India from Agra to Delhi and thus rechristened the city as New Delhi.

December 22, 2008

On Sunday, we took an early morning train from Delhi to Agra. The train was a high speed train that took two hours. The train station in Delhi is like nothing I have ever seen before. In order to make our way to the train, our car had to fight through a large crowd of beggars, bicyclers, vendors, motorcycles, and other vehicles. There are tons of people everywhere. I don’t think I have ever seen this extreme of poverty before. Children carrying babies would come up and knock on our car window making motions to their mouths indicating that they were hungry and needed food. Many slept outside the station or in the waiting area. They clearly did not have any food and it felt like we were invading their personal space. Porters carried large amounts of goods on their shoulders while others manipulated large hand rickshaws.

The train ride was pretty pleasant but at parts the amount of poverty was quite evident. From the train, I could see people doing a bucket shower, cooking their food in fire outside, and others going to the bathroom. Very few people had any privacy and their houses were merely brick shacks that were falling apart. In many villages, it was obvious that there was no plumbing, electricity, or sewage system. I was quite struck by the number of people I saw walking presumably to school or work and others going to the train station with many carrying large loads with them as they walked.

In Agra, we saw the Taj Mahal. We had a lovely guide who showed us around. She is one of eight female tour guides in Agra out of 1000. The Taj Mahal took 20 years to complete and 22,000 workers. The amount of intricate work is astounding. Not only is the architecture and engineering of the building impressive but so is the fine detail. The Taj was built as a mausoleum to honor the wife of one of the Persian maharajas. On her death bed, while giving birth to her 14th child, she requested that the king build a mausoleum to honor their true and everlasting and unique love. The Taj Mahal is supposed to represent heaven on earth which is why white marble was chosen. The white is supposed to remind people of cloud, peacefulness, and purity. The taj was well designed and engineered, even 350 years after it was built it has not been retrofitted or repaired. The four towers that surround the taj are built at a slight angle so that if anything ever goes wrong, such as an earthquake, they will fall away from the taj.

Luckily, on the day we went, the crowds were not that big. We were able to walk around freely and the weather was nice. I could not imagine doing this tour in the sweltering summer heat where it often reaches 120 degrees.

After visiting the taj we went to Agra fort. Once again, I was impressed by all the intricate detail. The building is made of red sandstone with many columns and screens carved into the stone. Many of the palaces in India do not have walls. Rather there is a series of pillars and from them they used to hang rugs. One interesting thing about the Agra fort is that at one point the builder of the Taj Mahal was under house arrest in there. His son had arrested him after taking the throne from his father because the father wanted to build a replica of the taj across the river in black as mausoleum for himself. However, his son who was now already king refused to spend another 20 years building and wasting tax payer money on a mausoleum for his father. As a result, the son had the former king arrested and placed under house arrest until he died. For this reason the taj mahal is not perfectly symmetrical. Everything on the grounds is symmetrical. There is a temple facing mecca and identical fake temple was built on the opposite side of the grounds in order to maintain the symmetry but the King’s tomb throws the symmetry of the taj off. His wife’s coffin is in the center of the taj mahal and he is buried slightly to the left instead of having the wife and husband’s tomb balanced with one on the left and one on the right.

monkeys outside the red fort, turning over a trash can looking for food

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