Bruce & Connie’s India Trip - part 2

 

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Jaipur

On the way to our hotel adjacent to the Amer Fort, we drove through the Pink City of Jaipur.  Built in the early 18th century by Raja Sawai Jai Singh, It was India's first planned city, painted in a sort of coral colour and repainted in 1876 for the visit of Prince Albert.   The Amer Fort, 10 kilometres away, is the main attraction.  It has a large elephant population which is used in large part to transport tourists to the top of the fort.  This was our first exposure to elephants, particularly colourfully painted ones, making a grand procession up the hill.  Like all of our hotels, this was another nicely appointed one in the middle of a dusty and equally colourful residential neighbourhood.  Since we had 2 nights in Jaipur, we spent most of the next day at the Fort enjoying all its treasures.  The consuming memory is of tourist hawkers.  These are truly gifted hucksters, seeming to know as much about the psychology of the hard sell as any car salesman.  My own story is short (and thankfully not expensive).  I was approached with an offer of an attractive package of 10 brightly fabric-covered pens for a mere 1,000 rupees ($20). I bargained mercilessly and got 2 packages for the same price.  Immediately upon paying for these,  I was approached by another hawker offering me 4 packages for the same price.  Later, our guide (who had warned us not to buy things there) took us to a lakeside market where the starting price was 100 rupees for each package.  This salesman also had a box of 12 miniature and equally attractively coloured elephants for 100 rupees, which Ralph and I bought.  The next day at one of the "rip-off" tourist bus stops, I saw the same individual elephants "on sale" for a mere 750 rupees each.   So…those of you who receive these gifts from us will know the sweat and strain we endured to procure them.  We particularly enjoyed Ralph's encounters.  Once he identified himself as a consumer (read - patsy) the hucksters wouldn't leave him alone.  But, you have to understand - Ralph liked the attention.


Jaipur is by reputation the largest centre of gem polishing and setting in the world, so naturally our guide took us to one of the shops/factories.  According to the guide, it was a several-generation family operation and the leading vendor of its type in the city (strange, how they were always several-generation family operations and the leading vendor of their type.)  This sort of demonstration involves a sit down with an offer of tea, and then the hard sell.   Although the manufacturing process was fascinating, we were starting to tire of this type of shopping.  At lunch we enjoyed a lovely luncheon on the lawn with a side lawn full of puppets for sale: big puppets, small puppets, and lascivious puppets (see the video). Our guide took us to yet another city palace, and in spite of our expressed wishes to go back to the hotel, proceeded to take us to yet another "sit down" sale.  We finally put our foot down before the next museum.  Although our guides were generally excellent, this kind of "tail wagging the dog" wore very thin with me over time.


On our way back to the hotel we encountered a street wedding procession.  It was a delightful (and of course colourful) affair in which a brass band leads the procession of revellers followed by the groom on a white horse at the end.  Every now and again, the procession would stop and dance, involving nearby people.  It was a delightful occasion to witness, and Caroline got right in there and danced with them. (see video)  After a nap, we had a particularly wild ride back through rush hour traffic to the Raj Minder, a famous local and particularly well-equipped movie house, to see "Krrish 3"- a Bollywood movie.  The theatre was a wonderful celebration of Indian culture expressed in modern architectural forms, and the movie was a sort of Spiderman meets Jackie Chan meets "Grease".  Even so, it had the Bollywood standard components: the hero/heroin duet and the big dance numbers.  As we had heard, the audience participation was real and raucous, with cheering and oohing and ahhing at the appropriate moments in the plot.  Surprisingly, a large number of people left as soon as it was clear that the hero had saved the heroine - even though it was 15 minutes before the end of the movie.  I guess Indians don't have a firm commitment to "denouement".

 

After the movie, we treated our driver Raj to dinner.  He had gone to a great deal of trouble, not to mention the drive to the theatre, to get us the tickets and we were very grateful.  It was an upscale restaurant.  We really "broke the bank" on this one.   The full meal for the five of us, with lots of beer (of which Raj did not partake), was 3200 rupees ($60 Cdn)


Next stop: safari!  We stayed in a small community that mainly supported maintenance of the Ranthambore National Park and the tours industry surrounding it.   Our hotel was a another very pleasant place with typically large bungalow rooms right next to a pool.  This afternoon, I had time to do some laps and relax in the sun, although I was one of few at this point in November, since pool water is not heated there.  The next day we went on two three-hour safaris.  The morning one was most enjoyable with the beautiful surroundings in a huge 1400 acre gated park.  Riding in a 6 passenger jeep (with raised rear seat), we had great view of everything, and being a jeep, we were able to go any where that there was a hint of road (and some places there was no hint at all).   On the first trip, in addition to three types of deer (Spotted, India and Sambar), we saw lots of birds and an alligator, but Ranthambore is all about the Bengal tiger, of which under 50 remain in protection.  All the other animals in the park are fair game food.  We arrived at the upper plateau to find a partially eaten dead cow - I don't know how that cow got into the park, but I'll bet in her Hindu reincarnation she will look back in regret.  We hung around, hoping to see the tiger coming back to feed with her 2 cubs, but no luck.  The park has 8 large sections and we had just visited #8.  A major feature of this morning's activity was the total silence for long periods of time as the guides listened for bird or animal warning calls of an approaching tiger.  In the afternoon (section #1) we almost immediately encountered a tiger named "Noor" walking beside the road.  The 40+ tigers in the park live each in their own territory and can be identified by the area they're found in.  We were supremely lucky as we were able to follow the tigress for 20 minutes or so, sometimes as close as 20 feet away.  The drivers and guides are excellent and supremely proud to be showing off their park.  They are completely infatuated with their animals.  For once in our trip I felt that our guides were totally committed to their job and not to prying a few more rupees out of the tourist.  As for the tigress, she certainly didn't seem ferocious or aggressive, but rather passive and noncommittal.  This day was definitely a highlight, and we headed back to our hotel feeling privileged to have seen the mighty Bengal.


Fatehpur Sikri and Agra

The drive to Agra looked more like the Fraser Valley, with rocky bluffs here and there.  En route, we visited Fatehpur Sikri.   Sikri - the 7th century moghul Akbar's residence - was something very different:  all carved stone (no marble, no paint or frescoes).  Another interesting feature of this fort was the mixing of art and architectural symbols between Hindu, Muslim & Christian - the background of Akbar's three main wives.  It has a large group of buildings with a palace for each wife, showing symbols of each heritage. 


Ahead was Agra and the most widely known architectural feature of India.  After all the wonderful things we've seen, how could the Taj Mahal possibly outshine any of these?   As we walked through the entry arch, it became apparent (see video), especially in the misty pre-sunset light.  It is pure white marble sitting on the river bank like a celestial object.  The entry is the perfect view, since it frames the Taj in the most glorious way with a vanishing point perspective which makes the 4 minarets and the dome seem equidistant. I could go on, but the Taj is also most written-about building in the world, so I won't presume……


Since we had to catch an overnight train to Varanasi, we stopped to pick up take-out food at a rather upscale looking restaurant for our meal that night.  On the way to the station (1 hour away) we passed a night-time Hindu wedding procession which was much like the daytime procession, with 2 lines of young men carrying bright chandelier-type lights run by a generator at the rear, which also ran a  bright coloured circle of lights on a board about 6 feet in diameter.

                 

Unlike the modern, spotless airport terminals, the train station is old (colonial) & dingy, with visible rats about and a general urine smell.  As trains go by, we saw incredibly packed passenger cars.  On the platforms we saw families camping out while waiting for their train.  Any poorly-lit train station like this in North America would make me a little nervous about my personal security, but after a while one got comfortable with it, realizing that there's not much of a safety issue here.   We travelled in a first class car with compartments (up/down bunks and curtains).  It was very clean and well organized, with pleasant people.  Connie and I were delighted to hear an Indian woman across the aisle singing her young son sleep (Itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout…). Never being able to resist singing to a child, Connie (and later Caroline & Ralph) joined in and showed the actions that go with the song, much to their delight.  Since our takeout was still warm, we ate dinner, made up our bunks and went to sleep in anticipation of early wakeup.  The train was scheduled to arrive at Varanasi at 4:40 am, so we got up at four and made certain that our luggage was in the vestibule by 4:30.  Unfortunately the train arrived one and a half hours late, so we had to stand there for all that time in the "middle of the night".  One thing that puzzled us was that none of the other passengers in our car were waiting with us.  When one finally showed up just before we arrived, he explained he'd been waiting comfortably on his bunk while periodically checking the status of the train on his iPhone.  This morning didn't play out very well as we had to wait 2 hours for our room and then another 2 hours for the 2nd room.


Varanasi - At 10 am we started off on our activities of the day, including several monuments including the monastery ruins at Sarnath where Buddha preached his first sermon.  By this time, we were very tired of "demonstration shops" (see Jaipur). We told the guide we weren't interest, but he took us anyway.  Although I understand that the guides supplement their fee at least in part by "steering us", I am really unimpressed by the Huckster aspect of many of them. For instance, in the evening,  our guide had us gather at 6pm to "go and see a ceremony" (no other explanation).  We returned to an earlier transportation mode, the rickshaw. and had a most interesting and entertaining ride to the bank of the Ganges (Ganga) call the "ghats".   Not knowing this was where we were going, we were astounded by the breathtaking sight: miles of riverbank with stone steps leading up from the water to large buildings, many of which were ancient temples.  The most striking sight were the burning logs, each one of which was consuming the body of a beloved member of a Hindu family.  Like the Taj Mahal, we've read about it, we've seen movies and documentaries about it, but the first view was astounding.  This was an sight that we weren't scheduled to see until the next morning, but on arrival, our guide called a young fellow up to "pitch" a boat ride on the river.  Since we were to take the same ride (as part of our package) in the morning, Connie and I declined (also the $40 price-tag).  Our visit the next morning before dawn was equally "electrifying" as the number of pilgrims, tourists from all over the world taking a boat ride, bathers and launderers increased exponentially along with the colour and vitality of the place.  This feels more like the center of the world than any place I’ve ever been. 


So.. come to India - if you have an adventurous spirit and are not fixated on neatness and clean streets, and of course if you love love Indian food (hey, who doesn’t eh?), you’ll just love it!


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Part 2. - Jaipur to Varanasi