Monday, March 12, 2012

Our last few hours in Delhi

We've been taking it easy here...lingering over breakfast each day, exploring Delhi via the very efficient Metro, having lunch at the same dosa (South Indian pancake) shop, and getting ready to come home.

This morning we "made" water for the last time.  We have mostly avoided buying bottle water and have instead filtered and treated our own drinking water (about 200 L during our trip) by using a "SweetWater Microfilter" that I bought at Mountain Equipment Co-op in Vancouver.

At the end of the black hose is a "pre-filter".  Water is pumped from the bucket through a ceramic filter and into a water bottle.  We also add chlorine as an extra precaution.

There is a large bucket in every bathroom which is usually the way Indians bathe--and we have usually done this too because less water is used.  However we've also used the bucket for filtering our water and rinsing laundry.

Our shoes are still holding up, although they're grimy and well-worn as are Lloyd's feet!

Note the hole in Lloyd's sock--he has already thrown out one pair.  I've been very happy with how comfortable my Keens have been.
We visited a very well-maintained park this morning, the site of memorials to Mahatma Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Nehru, Indira Gandhi and other illustrious Indian politicians.  Rajiv Gandhi's memorial was particularly attractive, a large cement platform with swirls etched in it, surrounding a lotus flower:

I think this would be even more effective in the rain.
After lunch today Lloyd went off on his own and found the long-sought-after kitchen tongs (we had admired the ones at Vicky's) and a chai pot--he is all set to experiment with making masala chai at home.

We've already checked in on-line, and our BA flight leaves Indira Gandhi Airport at 7 AM Tuesday morning--that's about 13 1/2 hours from now.  We have about a 5 hour wait in Heathrow before the flight to Calgary, arriving there around 7:30 PM.  Our flight to Kelowna arrives at 9:59PM!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The latest project and other stories

The skein of rainbow rayon yarn being wound into a ball.  I bought this yarn in Kota.
Winding this yarn is what we did while watching Holi celebrations from our hotel window in Agra.  So we had colour in our room too, just a safer variety!

I had an audience of several men and an urchin while sitting on our packs and knitting, waiting for the train from Agra to Delhi.
This is going to be a very loosely knit rectangular shawl.

Today in Delhi we visited the Red Fort which is very similar to the Agra Fort.  It's not in as good condition however because it's been used as army and security forces barracks almost continuously for the past 500 years.  Only fairly recently have the buildings inside been given the same care and attention as those in Agra.

You can see the inner wall and main "Lahore" gate behind me.  For those of you curious about my knitting progress, I'm wearing the triangular shawl made from the Singaporean yarns which I finished during our time in Kota.
Here is an example of some of the restoration in progress:
This man is re-doing the floral paintings in a vaulted ceiling.
There are many examples of "pietra dura", the marble inlay technique that we enjoyed in many Agra monuments, however most of these precious stones were looted about 150 years ago.

There were some good examples of some restored pietra dura:

Look closely at the edges of the flowers and you can see how the marble was damaged by gouging out precious colours.
This was the Royal Baths, three rooms a fountain in the centre.

There would have been water running through this building in the channel.  Look up at the ceiling and see some of the mirror work.
The view from our hotel window at about 7:30 this morning:

Within about an hour there were a few street sweepers with big brooms, pushing the garbage into smaller piles that were then carted away--all done by hand.

The same view in the middle of the afternoon:

This street scene is proving better than television!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Vignettes from Agra and Delhi

Some random observations from the last few days...  This is a joint effort by Lloyd and Janet so that you get to hear Lloyd's opinions too!  (Thanks to Pete for the push...)

Holi--A great example of subtractive colour!!  As you add more and more colour to a person's skin (especially the face and arms and feet) it becomes darker.  There are a lot of very black-faced people at the end of Holi celebrations.  Many people are still using some very toxic dyes, e.g. green is copper sulphate and white is lead.  The favourite colours are very bright yellow, green, red, blue-violet and magenta--all of which combine to make black!

Indian Rules...What rules??!
We're having difficulties figuring out the rules, particularly...
(1) Driving rules. While there are some on paper and in law, they're not enforced and there's no enforcement obvious until after the fact (e.g. an accident).  Example...when there are two marked lanes on the highway, there are 4 or more vehicles taking up the space, with any number in either direction.  This could be motorcycles, bicycles, camel carts, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, cars, trolley tractors hauling loads, trucks ("goods carriers" aka "God's carriers" in Kerala), ox, donkey and horse carts, as well as the occasional cow or bullock or water buffalo, pig, dog, and also bloody great tourist buses.  All complicated by pedestrians!  And no one looks over his/her shoulder or looks before turning onto the road...   The biggest guy wins period...  Horns are used to announce "I'm on your right", "I'm on your left", "Move out of the way", "MOVE YOUR ASS!"  We have been forced off the road in tuk-tuks, taxis, and in buses.  But we're still here!  Thank Ganesh we are coming home.

(2) Negotiating and bargaining for goods and services.  This is supposed to be fun, right?  Well, we've discovered sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't.  Lloyd had a fun time yesterday bargaining for a beautiful marble inlay box, in the exquisite "pietra dura" technique.  The process began with a demonstration and discussion about the technique with the artisans in their workshop which we stumbled upon in a side alley near the Taj.  They realized we might be potential customers and called their younger brother from the store-front shop to bring more small pieces. He arrived on a motorcycle and produced about 12 pieces from his various pockets!  He was a charming young man whose English skills were excellent (thanks to a BA in English Literature).   He was also trained by his father in the craft and was able to explain the process clearly. We had a choice of plates (large and small), coasters, and containers of various sizes, shapes and intricacies. After the discussion of the techniques and the quality of each piece, the prices were stated and ranged from 300 Rs to 5000 Rs.  Janet then left it up to Lloyd to select the piece he wanted (she has enough stuff) and so the bargaining commenced.  The piece he selected was the highest quality and the highest priced...Once selected, the workshop discount (as opposed to show room price) was applied and it dropped to 3500 Rs.  There was about 15 minutes of respectful and colourful negotiation...the price dropped to 2800, then 2500, and Lloyd's final counter was 2000, nudged to 2100 R|s (about $38).  In the process, no tempers were lost and all remained in good humour with much laughing, smiling and warm handshakes.  They were happy and so was Lloyd, and we parted on good terms.  Nobody won or lost and the game was played.

In contrast to this positive story, we have been in situations where tour companies have tried to take huge advantage of us, e.g. charging close to 100% commission for train tickets or 75% premium on car/driver rates for one day.  This is blatant gouging and no engagement in respectful negotiation.  Sometimes the only way to deal with this situation is to get up and leave, and if they really want the business they come running after us.  However this isn't fun and shouldn't be part of the game.

(3)  Poverty:  Especially here in northern India, the beggars are much more obvious.  Today at lunch in New Delhi, there was a young lad (black-faced from Holi) dressed in rags begging at the front door.  It felt awful to be filling our stomachs when he was obviously hungry.  Ironically, when we gave him a 10 Rs note as we left, he tried to give it back and asked for it to be changed to a newer note (the one we gave him was slightly ripped).  We do know that Indians don't like using ripped and torn money, however it is still legal tender.  We waved him off.  This didn't make us feel very good!  We know that 10 Rs will buy him a full meal on the street, and we have been using ripped notes successfully all along.

(4)  Train Travel:  The rail system carries some 10 million passengers per day and has a workforce of over 1.5 million to run and maintain it.  Buying tickets as a foreigner is a real chore because the bureaucracy is immense.  We tried buying on line, but couldn't because we don't have an Indian mobile phone number.  This forced us to use travel agents who try to charge excessive commissions.  Lloyd succeeded in negotiating lesser commissions but the process has been unpleasant.  The trains themselves have been a great way to travel and meet people.  Conversations with young men have ranged from politics to history, geography and social customs.

(5) Auto Rickshaw (tuk-tuk) Travel:  This is a down, dirty and gritty view of Indian streets.  From the back of a rickshaw you can see and smell everything that you pass sewers...big smoky trucks.  We have seen amazing sights from the back of tuk-tuks.  Well, sometimes Lloyd can't see out because he's too tall!  So Janet has to be fill him in on what she's seeing.  "India is too small" is a constant refrain as Lloyd bends double to see out from the tuk-tuk.  He has had to fold himself in/out of the seat...

(6)  Walking is one of the best ways to get around.  We have poked around back alleys and through crowded bazaars, and snaked our way through wheat fields in our excursions and explorations.  The glimpses we've had into peoples' daily lives have been powerful...we've made eye-contact and exchanged broad smiles and nods, making all of us feel good...from old people with no teeth to little kids on their way to school.  Today in the ride in an auto-rickshaw to the Agra train station, Janet had this experience with a young woman riding on the back of a motorcycle and it set her up for the rest of the day!

We're now at the Cottage Crown Plaza near the New Delhi rail station.  We're in the middle of a big bazaar, and we've already done some more shopping!  We've ordered a shirt and kurta for Lloyd and a Punjabi suit for Janet which will be ready for pick-up Sunday 6 PM, just over 24 hours from the time of ordering.  Lloyd found a barbershop just steps away from the hotel and has had a shave, beard trim and hair cut for less than $2.  Janet's feeling very scruffy but is going to wait until her hair appointment next week in Vernon!

So now we're going out into the busy bazaar again to see what we can find for supper...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


We are in Agra because everyone who comes to India must see the Taj Mahal.  I did that on my last trip, however this is Lloyd's first time.  I've taken 11 pictures in the last couple of days and he's taken over 200!

I had to take this picture quickly because of other tourists vying for the same spot in front of the reflecting pool.
Unfortunately Agra is also an industrial city with lots of pollution so the beautiful white marble doesn't stand out well from the grey horizon.

The setting sun
The Taj closes 1/2 hour after sunset, and it was most disturbing to be hustled along by whistle-blowing police who wanted to make sure we were in and out quickly.  None-the-less, the marble showed up beautifully in this light.  It is a very beautiful complex and well-maintained, absolutely amazing to consider the resources that went into its construction (1631 - 1652) and now to maintain it...all for the love by a king, Shahjahan for his favourite wife who died young.

Yesterday we hired an auto rickshaw (tuk-tuk is not a word commonly used here) and went over to the other side of the river for a back view.
Lloyd's father always wanted to see the Taj Mahal.
 One of the nice things about our hotel room is that we have a bit of a view of the Taj.

The view from our window at about 5:20 PM.
Last time I was here, Wendy and I stayed on the eastern side of the Taj, and didn't venture over to this side.  Lloyd and I have discovered that there is a large park and so it was possible for us to walk about 1.5 km from the Taj western gate to the Agra Fort without being in traffic.  It's a common refrain now for us--where can we go to get away from the traffic??

Agra Fort is an immense complex built mainly of red sandstone in the mid 1500's by the great Mughal Emperor Akbar.  There are many exquisite buildings within, many made of white marble.
This is a beautiful garden laid out like a Persian carpet (the Mughals were Persian in origin.)
The elderly king Shahjehan was held captive in 1666 in this beautiful space while two of his sons were fighting over succession.
He could see his beloved Taj from one of the windows.
Yesterday we also enjoyed visiting the Itmad-ud-daulah or Baby Taj on the other side of the river.  It was built also as a mausoleum in the early 1600's.
The main entrance to the mausoleum.  The jali (screens) are carved from marble.
The exquisite marble inlay or "pietra dura" was first used in this building, foreshadowing its use at the Taj Mahal a few years later.

And I took a knitting break under the shade of a tree while Lloyd went off to explore the building in detail...

I'm now working on my third shawl, this one out of navy crochet cotton that I bought in Singapore.
We hired a car and driver for the 40 km trip to Fatehpur Sikri a marvelous fort again built from red sandstone by the Emperor Akbar in the late 1500's.  Unfortunately, only a few short years after he occupied it with his three queens, numerous concubines, and a massive number of servants, it was abandoned due to a lack of water.  The last time I was there, Wendy and I were besieged by men all clamouring to be our guide..."you'll get lost!"  "You won't know what you're looking at!" etc, etc, so that we didn't hire any of them, and indeed we did get lost and we didn't know what we were looking at!  So, this time, Lloyd and I decided to hire a guide.  We told the driver we wanted an approved government guide.  "No problem, sir, I can arrange that."  He took us to the spot where approved guides were stationed and we were told the price was 400 Rs plus 80 Rs for the tuk-tuk.  So we agreed and off we went (no private cars are allowed up the narrow road to the monument).  At the ticket wicket, I noticed a big sign stating the approved rates for hiring a guide...250 Rs!!  Quite a difference.  We pointed this out to the guide, and after a little big of shrugging on his part, he agreed that it would only cost us 250 provided we paid the tuk-tuk driver. (No problem--we'd expected to do that.)  While we were buying our entrance ticket, he was on his phone to his boss presumably telling him that we had noticed the sign...  None-the-less, he was professional explaining the various rooms to us, and we felt that we had a reasonable experience with him.

When we arrived back at the guide station, we were obviously persona-non-grata...  We made sure to pay the guide his 250 Rs directly, and while his big boss probably got a cut of that later, our driver's commission was less as well or maybe non-existent.  So the ride back into town was a little quieter with much less conversation!  The driver did make an effort to provide us with another service however--finding a "wine shop" that actually sells wine.  When we parted company and paid the balance owing on the bill, Lloyd explained that his tip would have been larger had he been truthful about the guide fees.  He obviously got our message, and I also reinforced this in my comments in his guest book.

We also visited Sikandara, the mausoleum of Emperor Akbar completed in 1613.  This was another peaceful park with deer grazing the grass!
Another knitting break!
Sikandara is another beautiful complex...

Our defenses are wearing down.  It's definitely time to be home where we understand how business is done.  We're getting tired of having to negotiate fees, and feeling that we're being ripped off.  I'm getting tired of being surrounded by children with their hands out, asking for sweets, pens, or 10 rupees.  I want to sleep in smooth sheets and use a towel that I know is clean!  I want to breathe clean air and get rid of this chronic sinus congestion.

We're taking a break this morning in our room and haven't ventured outside on the street at all.  It's Holi, the Hindu festival of colour.  We had thought we might participate (even going so far as to buy some natural colours) but realized yesterday that the build-up was immense and had the potential to get out of hand.  Indeed the partying started last night with bonfires on the street in the middle of the night, and since early this morning people (mostly boys and men) have been roaming the streets with their coloured powders and dyes in water guns.  We've been watching from our window and there does seem to be some typical action--men hugging each other 3 times (a bit like Europeans kissing the air on each side of the head) and then sprinkling powder either on the feet or rubbing it on the face.
Note the boy in the background with his gun of coloured dye!  He was firing at kids on the rooftop.

 The boys are of course more rambunctous and the last thing we want is to be hit in the face with these toxic powders or dyes.  There are also a lot of very drunk men stumbling around who probably didn't sleep at all last night.

And finally, here is how the two of us have spent the morning--me at the computer and Lloyd at the window with his camera!
Lloyd is holding his camera at waist level and he's reflected in the mirror in front of me.
We leave for Delhi tomorrow, hopefully by train, but that depends on getting confirmed tickets this afternoon.  They've been promised....

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Some respite in the countryside

We're now in Agra for the next few days, having arrived here late on Monday by train from Kota via Jaipur.  The journey was long but much easier than the bus.

We had a wonderful three days and four nights away from the urban hustle and bustle on a Rajasthani dairy farm just outside Kota.  Col. Sudhir Farm is the home of Victoria and VJ Singh.  Vicky picked us up in the farm jeep in Kota after our one hour bus ride from Bundi.  The first event was afternoon tea, and we felt as though we'd been transported to an English drawing room drinking black tea as we're used to with milk (and lots of sugar for Lloyd--VJ commented on how much he had to refill the sugar during our stay, reminiscent of visiting my parents' home...)

The Singhs have three terriers, and one of them, Misty, had puppies on February 25.  Misty is 1/2 German Shepherd and these puppies are 3/4 fox terrier and 1/4 shepherd.
The puppies are wonderfully soft and fat!  This is her first litter and she is a very attentive mother.
On Saturday morning Lloyd and I went for a wonderful walk for about three hours along the canal which is about a kilometre away from the farm.  The dike is dusty but there are mature trees for shade much of the way and there wasn't much traffic, just a few motorcycles and tractors hauling stones and soil.  This was a pleasant change from city streets.
One of the farms along the canal.  We think these fields are being prepared for rice.
Further along, there is a lake on which there is a former summer palace of the Kota royal family.

We reached the second bridge where Vicky had suggested we could cross and return along the other side of the canal.  We chose instead to turn down a small road past some houses and try and return across country.  We could see the summer palace in the distance and thought it shouldn't be too difficult...  Well, there were a few obstacles in our way, namely gates and walls, through a cattle yard, and quite often we were walking along the little dikes dividing the fields...
We were going to turn back when we saw this gate made out of thorny acacia branches, but realized it was simply tied closed with a strip of fabric on the right.  So, we went through and then carefully retied it. 
The people in the fields didn't seem to be perturbed about us wandering through, and Vicky said they probably all assumed that we were staying with "that foreign woman" (her) anyway.  We never really got lost because we could see the dike in the distance and knew we just had to keep that on our left.  We did try to get directions to a path a few times, and most people just waved us along.  The very best directions were from an old woman who, when I asked the way to the canal, very assertively instructed us to go left and and then right in her language but with clear hand motions.

We went into Kota with Vicky Saturday afternoon to check out the Chambal Adventure Festival which had an arts and culture component.  We were thrilled to meet up with Kukki again who had been invited to come to the arts centre with his slides of rock paintings and his collection of artifacts.  He greeted us like long lost friends.  I also asked Vicky about yarn shopping...haven't seen any for sale anywhere in India.  Do you know what the secret is?  It's sold at shops which also sell underwear!  The selection was small--mainly acrylic baby yarn and chunky acrylic for sweaters, however there was some rayon and cotton crochet cotton which is similar to what I'm using for my current shawl.  I bought some rayon in bright saturated yellow, pink, green and blue--exactly the colours I see in the saris on the streets.

We went back to the festival on Sunday because Vicky is on the arts and culture committee.  They had a painting workshop planned and were hoping to draw in lots of families to participate.  This kind of activity is fairly new here and the committee didn't know what to expect. They rolled out a long sheet of paper on the floor and set up pots of paint (lots of saturated colours of course--this is India!) with brushes. Within a few hours the place was humming nicely, and there seemed to be an assortment of people with paintbrushes in hand on the floor...everyone from established artists in the community to whole families which arrived on motorcycles, and also some street kids from just up the road.  These grubby little boys were initially sent away by the men at the door, but someone on the committee brought them in and they seemed to have fun too.  Then they suddenly disappeared, only to reappear an hour or so later with several more of their friends.

Lloyd and I were mentioned in the local Hindi press the next day as the foreign artists in attendance!  There were so many people painting that we didn't even try to get near the paper.  I guess we were the foreign colour.

Leaving the farm was a bit of a wrench--we're now back in the urban noise and pollution.  Our patience is wearing thin and we're thinking about home a lot...and feeling very fortunate to live where we do.

We were met at the Agra Fort train station by a driver sent from the hotel, and while we were very grateful that he was still waiting for us at 11 PM (the train was 1/1/2 hours late) he turned out to be a very aggressive young man.  He wanted to know what our plans were, and he would drive us everywhere...we kept saying "no decisions tonight!" and he kept pushing...  We were glad to get to the hotel, and while it was clean and comfortable enough, the room was noisy and hot (being above the kitchen) and we couldn't have any extra pillows because the hotel was full...  Breakfast on the terrace above the road on the 2nd floor was a very noisy affair--it felt like we were eating right on the road.  And then to top all this off, the driver met us as we were leaving the hotel to walk the neighbourhood:  "where are you going?  I'll drive you anywhere!"  With that, we decided we were moving!  We're now at the Rajrani Residency but don't be fooled by the website!  This is definitely a three star hotel, and not as luxurious as portrayed on the site.  The bed is comfortable, and the place is (sort of) clean--our room could do with new paint...  The service has been excellent and there are no pushy drivers outside the front doors.  Dinner last night was excellent and we're just about to have breakfast.  On the down side I was awakened at 5 AM (foolish me not wearing ear plugs like Lloyd) by an Indian tour group being roused out of their rooms, presumably to visit the Taj at sunrise.  There must have been two different groups because an hour and half later--I was up by this time and starting the blog posting--our door handle was rattled.  Of course it was a mistake--the tour leader thought some of his group were in here...

We had a good day of sightseeing yesterday to Agra Fort and to the Taj at sunset.  I'll post images later today.