Monday, February 27, 2012
Saturday, February 25, 2012
When the shopkeeper in Udaipur found out that Sergey and Olena were from the Ukraine he quoted them a starting price that was 50% more than he had just quoted me for the same miniature painting. When they called him on it he admitted to them, "I could tell from your accent that you are from Russia so I added more to the price because I knew you would be hard bargainers!" That ended the negotiation before it even got started!
There is a vast range of crafts throughout India deriving over the centuries from many ethnic groups as ornamental art for home and body, as well as for utilitarian purposes and religious practice in daily life. We've proven, once again, that India is a treasure trove for handicraft souvenirs especially including ceramics, jewelry, leatherwork, metalwork, stone carving and marble inlay, woodwork, and clothing and carpet textiles of all sorts such as block printing and weaving cotton, wool and silk.
Shopping is typically part of travel in India, even if you are just an observer. Throughout Rajasthan in each city we visited there was a stop at a local workshop and associated store in the particular handicraft that each location is known for. We avoided any shopping emporiums where busloads of tourists frequent. Instead, I really liked the way the artisanal work was presented first by demonstration to see the technique and detail that goes into each piece. You're free to take pictures of the craftsmen and women at work and ask questions. Of course, the more you see and learn the more you're likely be interested in buying, and that's the idea. Although making a sale is the end goal of the workshop presentation, it's nonetheless done with pride and integrity and the choice is up to you. Whether it's beggars or shopkeepers, in India you have to learn to ignore the come on, let go of any guilt, and in the case of shopping just have fun with the interaction.
We visited a marble workshop in Agra where we saw the same techniques used to inlay stone on the Taj Mahal, now used to produce beautiful table tops and other pieces easily shipped home of course! In Jodhpur, known for its textiles and tailors, we all picked up our white pajamas outfits for the men and saris (compliments of Wildland for the special anniversary party previously reported), and in Jaipur it was gems and jewelry. In Udaipur we visited a local miniature painting exhibition which I was leery about before going in, but again we all appreciated the art, our interaction with the painters, and appreciated seeing an art form that dates back centuries depicting scenes of Moguls, life of the ruling maharajahs and maharanis, and the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses. Every one of us bought something somewhere, but in all cases the presentations themselves were revealing of the artistic traditions.
Even on the jeep safaris to the Bishnois villages outside Jodhpur our visit with local families included one association of weavers who have been weaving distinctive carpets in similar style, colors and patterns as the southwestern US for generations; some of our group bought carpets from him as I did two years ago and one of our group commented to me they appreciated the opportunity to buy direct from the village.
Of course, no matter where you shop in India be sure to bargain and the starting offer should be at least 50% of the initial price stated. If you end up at about 30% of the original quote that's usually what the vendor is expecting. It's best going into any bargaining situation with some idea of the value of the item (based on earlier price comparisons at other locations) and a real sense of what the item is worth to you. If you are able to say to yourself, "No, I don't really want it that bad" and you can walk out empty handed that's the best bargaining position to be in. If the shopkeeper comes running after you with a counter offer then you know you are close to the going price. If not, well you might find another one down the road and next time you'll have a better idea of the going rate. But, in any event, you'll be paying more than the local price, so if you like it get it and you'll enjoy it the rest of your life!
Thursday, February 23, 2012
Traveling through India on this 25th anniversary of Wildland Adventures I am reminded of a social science survey presented at an ecotourism conference I attended 30 years ago in which the #1 priority for active American travelers was: "To see and do as much as possible." However, in order to help facilitate the most meaningful travel experiences we often have to help our guests find the right balance of "seeing and doing" that also allows for "experiencing and understanding."
Of course, every country and each trip present a diverse variety of sites and activities, but the deeper understanding and life changing experiences come when we are open to exploring our destination and ourselves more openly, to take time to interact more intimately, allow ourselves to absorb and contemplate, and be prepared to accept the vagaries that life on the road away from home present as unexpected adventures and learning opportunities that will enrich our lives with stories to tell back home.
India especially needs this kind of approach to travel. I'm thinking a lot about how we can continue to develop our trips here so you experience this "empire of the soul" at a deeper level. First, you have to manage the assault on your senses and preconceptions of reality—all of the senses like constant honking horns, putrid smells and rich exotic scents of spices and nature's perfumes, dust and grime, demanding touts and shopkeepers asking "Where are you from?" to engage you in conversation and "friendship" to become their best customer, and pitiable beggars most of whom are part of a mafia collecting money for their pimps.
Beyond what your eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, and touch tell you, very little of India is as it appears, and no traveler here returns unmoved. So, how can we experience and understand India more? First, it takes a good guide, not only one familiar with history, architecture, and natural history, but who also engages in conversations about politics (and most are very open to castigating Pakistan), the caste system, gods and goddess that influence daily life, education, women's rights, the legal system, community issues, and using our daily observations as opportunities to expound upon daily life. In one discussion we had with Sanjay about one of many news articles concerning violence against women, he explained that India is trying to change. Section 498A of the law states that if a woman dies within 7 years of marriage the responsibility lies with the family of the husband to prove it was not criminal. In fact, if death was due to violence, all the family goes to jail until innocence is proven. There have been lots of improvements for women in India, but truth be told real change will require generations.
We always try to incorporate a meal or at least tea in a local home where we can experience local family life, sharing ours with theirs, such as one revealing conversation I had about dating, life as a single woman in the US compared to in India, arranged marriages, and raising children in this fast-paced modernizing democracy balancing long-held family values, religious beliefs and cultural traditions with our more familiar material consumer world of the west; at lunch in Amit's uncle's he gave us a tour of the house and in their son's room we saw the ever-so-universal video game Grand Theft Auto and all the gaming accouterments of any middle class teen.
How else can we "experience and understand" more?
Allow time between site visits to relax and absorb the experience of the day. We recommend upgrading rooms or otherwise spending as much as you are willing pay for accommodations on a custom trip because India's luxury properties, especially the palaces, forts and havellis are so characteristic of the cultural heritage and offer a real respite from the hectic life of the day.
We plan a few overnights in a rural community outside of the bustling city where you can walk around to experience local village life. We often visit a social service project or charity revealing social issues pertaining to women, the poor, handicapped, and how they are being addressed. Instead of paying anything to beggars on the street, we often visit a social service charity at a local temple that feeds the poor where you can make a donation.
We prefer heritage hotels and small ecolodges that are locally owned and managed where you can interact with the local staff to learn about their life and local community. At Kanha Jungle Lodge, we met Vinod, the young man from the local community that Wildland and our guests sponsored in a guide training program and who now he leads Wildland guests when they visit the lodge. We changed his life, and now he's a spokesperson in the community for the benefits of tiger tourism and conservation. Also, at Kanha Jungle Lodge, the managers Dimple and Harun with their amazing young 6 year old son Jay, are Amit's cousins who run the lodge is if we are guests in their home—and indeed we are!
There is typically at least one opportunity to learn how to prepare Indian cuisine on a Wildland Adventure in India.
Visits to temples, shrines and mosques not only present opportunities to learn about the diverse religions and associated sects of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam and other religions, but also the nature of worship in daily life, funerary practices, and the relief that the hope of morning puja gives to common Indians with financial, social or other personal struggles.
Music and dance is another way to appreciate any culture, and in the case of India there are many opportunities to appreciate traditional performing arts from classical sitar, the desert sounds of Rasjasthani people, and Kathakali the ancient classical dance from of Kerala which is a mix of dramatics, vocal and instrumental music, dancing and mime.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
There was an air of tension and excitement as the light of day was fading…would we make it in time to see the Taj Mahal at the end of the day after our long, unexpected 24 hour India adventure? It all started in Varanasi after we finished concluded our sunrise boat excursion on the Ganges River. After free time we visited Sarnath in the afternoon where Buddha came to preach his message after reaching nirvana. Today, Sarnath is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists from around the world; we encountered groups of religious travelers from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and Thailand chanting, burning incense and making the five obligatory circumnavigations around the huge stupa with prayer beads in hand.
Then it was off to enjoy dinner at Sanjay’s family home before boarding the overnight train to Agra to see the Taj. Our travails started when we couldn’t find the smaller vehicles we had intended to hire to get across town to his neighborhood, which happened to be right next to the railroad station. All the smaller vehicles had been rented that day by the government for election monitoring so we ended up taking our bus along a circuitous route through the city on a Friday night full of traffic jams with wedding parties and their horse caravans and marching bands parading through the streets. This is definitely wedding season in India.
We finally made it to Sanjay’s family home much delayed but with plenty of time for our train knowing that it was delayed from 10 PM to midnight. As our bus was wending its way through the narrow neighborhood streets to their house there was a loud crashing sound on the top of the bus —apparently we pulled a low-hanging phone line down causing a raucous in the village. We found out later that once we got settled at Sanjay’s house, he had to go out and settle up with the police who were able to get him to pay up a little more than he otherwise might have been able to get away with since they knew he had a group of foreigners with deep pockets that he needed to attend to!
Sanjay’s family home was a delightful evening meal. Sanjay Ojha, who runs the office in Delhi, is from Varanasi. Today his brother lives in the family house with his wife and their two kids, and their mother. They had to borrow chairs, dinnerware and glasses from neighbors to accommodate this group of 16 travelers but we all managed to sit around one table in the large patio in the back. It was amazing what they were able to prepare for such a large group—apparently the women had been prepping for days, but they made sure that all the pappadam and variations of naan and puris (deep fried stuffed dough) were fresh made right out of the kitchen as we dined. Alcohol is not present in most traditional Indian homes, but after the long day and drive to get to this remote neighborhood outside Varanasi, they were gracious hosts accepting our request to bring our own wine into the home which we all appreciated.
Apparently, this small enclave outside Varanasi is a railroad town; Sanjay’s brother works for the railroad so he checked the train schedule and then we got the unfortunate news that ironically due to installation of a new technology to better manage train schedules, our train was going to be delayed 6 more hours! What to do? Nobody wanted to drive back into Varanasi to find a hotel for a few hours only to have to drive back out to the train station. And there was certainly no hotel on this side of the town that would be sufficient in size or comfort for a group of 16 American travelers. So, tired but in good spirits, the group all agreed that we would be best off to sleep in the bus (better than sprawling out in blankets on the train platform like most Indians do). Now, into our 10th day of the trip we would really got to know each other sleeping together in such close quarters; and with no bathroom facilities we managed to find a quiet back road where the boys went one direction and the girls another.
After about 5 hours of dozing off and on we made our way to the train station to board our first-class reserved cabins which were very comfortable, 4-person compartments with upper bunks and two lower seats that folded down so we had 4 beds in each with a locked door and curtain providing security and privacy from the corridor. We made our beds with the fresh linens and pillows provided by the train and snuggled into our sleeping bag liners we had made especially for our train journey to catch up on sleep. We slept in until Sanjay came around with a perfectly suitable makeshift breakfast of hard boiled eggs and biscuit cookies complimented by hot coffee and tea served by train stewards. There is no dining car on this train so Sanjay came up with the bright idea of calling a hotel down the line to prepare a delicious hot lunch and have it delivered to one of the station stops mid-day en route.
We figured by this point that we would not make our afternoon visit inside the Taj (but we did go at sunrise the next day as planned). But yet again, Sanjay had an idea to make up for that by going directly from the train station to see the Taj from across the river which is the best late afternoon view of the monument. Now the bus driver was doing his best to zip through traffic as we were all watching the sun setting through the windshield of the bus. The tension was palpable, hopes were high, and then Sanjay announced, “Watch on your right, through those trees, you’re about to see the Taj.” Sure enough, after all this adventure was coming to a close, and the sun was setting in Agra, we found ourselves standing on the dry river bank in the calm light of dusk with no other tourists around looking across at the skyline to see what we had come so far to experience and what Rabindranath Tagore described as ‘a tear-drop on the cheek of eternity.” Built by Shah Jahan for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died from giving birth to his 14th child, finally witnessing this symbol of deep love is profoundly moving.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Celebrating our wedding anniversary on Valentine's Day always requires advance planning, but this year I was organizing the big event a year in advance with the help of our friends in far away India. I kept it a secret from Anne and all the members of our group until the day before when I took everyone to a textile shop in Jaipur where all the men were fitted with white linen Indian pajama outfits, and all the women were given a sari. I picked out a dressy black kurta for myself and one of the hotel staff topped it off with a local turban. For Anne, I had measured her in bed months before and sent her dimensions to a tailor here who had an orange wedding dress made for her. The day before I bought Anne a beautiful anniversary ring at a jewelry store in Jaipur. To top off her outfit I presented her with a box of classic Indian jewelry full of sparkling orange glass bracelets and classic Indian earrings and necklace. Her fancy dress was so layered and festooned with sequins and embroidery that it weighed heavily—like the maharanis of past days whose outfits were lined with gold and they could only be carried everywhere in palanquins on such occasions.
As the sun set behind our Samode Palace hotel two women arrived to painted henna on the women in our group. Then another woman showed up and help them all put on their saris. The men emerged in their white and as we gathered at the palace gates to depart fireworks fired up coloring the night sky above the lit palace walls. It turns out there was a real wedding in the palace that night and we had to stop aside as the groom arrived by horseback to stroll up the palace steps lined all the way on both sides with yellow and orange marigold flowers.
Our jeeps awaited us at the bottom of the stairway and we drove off into the dark countryside arriving 10 minutes later to an 8-piece band complete with bass drum surrounded by a caravan of awaiting camel carts. We piled into the carts and the band led the way into the desert night lit up by guides carrying torches. Over a low ridge we rode to find a whole festival of tents lit up in the night with torches and colorful tents, chairs around the campfire, and a bar under a tree draped with long strands of marigold blossoms. A Rajasthani music group provided background while dining and traditional songs for a dancing troupe. In the tradition of Indian newlyweds the dancers presented Anne and I with beautiful flower garlands that we each put on each other symbolic of our union.
Wealthy or poor, Indians plan much of their lives and put great resources into wedding ceremonies. We've seen wedding parties everywhere we've been traveling. This night was, for sure, the most spectacular Valentine's Day celebration that any of us could have ever imagined. Only in incredible India!
Monday, February 13, 2012
Let me start with the most visceral sight on my first visit to Varanasi:
While floating on a boat down the mother Ganga River in the early light of dawn, in the smoky haze of fire and smoke from funeral pyres on shore, a dog was chewing on the bone of a human skull.
What life did this skull contain? Who was the person among the masses of Hindus who come here, one of the holist places in India, to be cremated or otherwise to wash away their sins? Perhaps he was the Indian army soldier who fought in the Bangladesh war who came here seeking penance and reparation for those he had killed in his life. Did he come here, like thousands upon thousands of refugees we saw searching for peace of mind? The streets, river banks and funeral ghats are crowded with pilgrims from all over the world who come to sites like Varanasi and Sarnath (where Buddha preached his first sermon and found nirvana) to pray and meditate in an attempt to gain back some of the merit they may have lost in life. Others come to leave the ashes of their loved ones in the Ganges. So many life stories begin and end here. And there were wedding celebrations going on throughout the crowded streets. In the evening we watched Brahmin Hindu priests perform the sacred Arati ceremony on the river banks and then we floated by the fires of funeral pyres prepared by surviving family members.
And after coming from the quiet jungles of the tiger parks we were overwhelmed by the hoards of life all around us. Just getting from our hotel to the river we took our mid-size bus as far as it would carry us through the narrow and crowded streets and then got on bicycle rickshaws to ride through the greatest mass of humanity all moving on foot, bikes, motorcycles, rickshaws, vehicles, anything that transports goods and people and has a loud horn. We moved through this morass of honking horns and dense congestion in a long line of 8 rickshaws getting separated further and further apart. At one moment, Ken and Barbara's rickshaw broke down and they found themselves separated from the rest of the group in the middle of the crowded city not having any idea where they were going or how they would ever get there. But like many things here, especially in tourism, the Indians always have a backup plan when things don't work out as planned, and everyone is glad to help. In this case, the rickshaw driver called a colleague who came right away to take them to our meeting point.
Lonely Planet describes Varanasi best:
"Brace yourself. You're about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners."