Friday, March 26, 2010

Jack Attack Old Delhi and more

I used the bicycle that I purchased in New Delhi (see previous post) to tool around Old Delhi and around the outskirts of New Delhi the next day. I saw many interesting sights (Old Fort, Red Mosque [Jama Masjid], Lotus Temple and Akshardham Temple - the World's Largest Comprehensive Hindu Temple), but the really interesting thing was the people that I saw in the process. Cycling through the city (and by city, I mean all over all parts of Delhi) gave me a unique perspective on the city that most tourists don't get. I got to travel slow enough (and at my own pace) that I actually got to see things. Police officers, media vans parked by the Central Secretariat [Indian-version of Congress], fellow cyclists, families, small alleys, and street vendors geared toward locals (where I ate breakfast the first morning). The completely crammed city/market streets of Old Delhi were filled, and I mean absolutely filled - it took almost an hour to go about 1/2 mile - with pedestrians, cyclists, cycle-rickshaws, men pulling carts, oxen pulling carts, auto-rickshaws, and actual autos.

The stares definitely got annoying, but the experience was still completely worth it. What a way to see Delhi!

The point of this picture was to capture the man in the bottom right corner, the McDonald's and Purana Qila [Old Fort] in the distance, built in the 16th century.

Notice the security guard

I continued to be inspired by the things I learned about Gandhi and his life and his pursue of ahimsa (non-violence). He basically inspired a nation of millions to passionately resist British rule but to do it non-violently. Can you imagine motivating and recruiting millions of people to non-violently resist horrible, at times murderous rule? It's just awe-inspiring.

Gandhi's Tomb

Lotus Temple

Akshardham Temple

While I crossed the bridge over the Yamuna River, I noticed these two elephants playing

And this elephant was right on the street on the Main Bazaar of Pahar Ganj, the area I was staying

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Jack Attack Holi (Festival of Colors)

Now that I can finally access my photos, I get to finally post the pictures from Holi (the Festival of Colors). I arrived in Delhi around 9pm on February 28, the actual day of Holi, so there were bonfires blazing all over the city as I made my way to Pahar Ganj, the place near the New Delhi Railway Station where most backpackers stay because it is cheap and there is good shopping there along the Main Bazaar (which by the way is an Indian word - hence the double "a")

One of the first signs I saw:

"Hotel Decent" - is it decent in the sense of mediocre, slightly above par accommodation or is there a strong sense of morality and decency? Not sure, but the prices were indecent (in both senses), so I went elsewhere. [Sidenote: Just yesterday, I began a novel set in India where the main character, a railway porter, took a foreign traveller to this very same guest house because the hotel offered a 2.5 rupee commission per guest brought in. I don't know if that's true, but I wouldn't be surprised.]

I found a cheap bed with a shared bathroom (that was just one and a half steps above filthy - which is half a step high enough for me) at Hare Rama. I checked out their rooftop restaurant (open 24 hours a day), unaware that the bazaar below that was so calm and quiet would become such a madhouse of color and noise in little more than 6 hours, on the day after Holi, the actual day of Colors.

The next morning after having breakfast on the roof, I exited in search of the friends I met in Cambodia who were staying at Hotel Regency, which as the name suggests was clearly out of my price range. On my way there I began understanding how pervasive the color really was. Even in the five minute walk, I had numerous strangers (old and young) approach me with color to put some on my face in what ranged from a respectable manner to a wild, mischievous manner, respectively. There were also numerous hoodlums (read: the smart ones) who were on the rooftops dumping buckets of colored liquid onto innocent passersby (especially the foreign-looking ones, whether white, black or east asian - all were equally exciting targets). I arrived at their hotel, but they had just woken up, so I went back out and made two friends (two girls from the US) who showed me where to buy chalk, and we just started walking.

One of the girls was really uncomfortable getting color in certain areas: first it was the hair, then it was the face, then it was the colored crazy foam that bothered her. Basically she helped me learn that the more you resist it, the more joy the children got from neglecting your wishes. I wasn't resistant at all, so I got much less color in my eyes and mouth than she did. While I was waiting for my friends to finish breakfast, I met two guys who told me the story of Holi.

The story conflicted with another, possibly more reliable source (and Wikipedia too, once I checked), but I'll just chalk it up to language barrier. :)
The girls finally finished breakfast and joined me and my two new friends, and we started getting more and more doused in color. The police were very protective of tourists, making sure that those that didn't want color didn't get color, and even separated us from the two Indian friends that I had made (we tried explaining that we weren't being bothered by them but that we were enjoying their company, but the police just started yelling and lightly "tapping" them with their huge sticks, so they went the other way). There was singing and dancing and just wild amounts of joy all day long.

It was an incredible experience to have my first full day in India be a day where smiling strangers touched my forehead and beard and arms and legs with chalk and gave me a handshake, hug or triple hug and a day where I touched smiling strangers with colorful chalk as well. There were no stores open, trying to get my business or taxis trying to get me to take a ride; there was just happiness and color and mischief.

Everyone I met that day was very friendly and warm, but I grabbed lunch with three people with whom I ended up spending quite a bit of time. Helena and Henrik from Sweden and Till from Germany. We had a lot of shared passions and interests and talked for hours on end over chai and good, cheap Indian food.

Helena was incredibly warm and talkative, with impeccable English excepting an occasional switch of the "y" and "j" sounds. She runs an arts cooperative that basically raises money for small arts organizations and independent artists by hosting not-so-legal (in the sense that they don't get permits and everything in Sweden needs permits) underground parties. It sounds like a pretty awesome job!

Henrik sort of looked like a ghost when we first met him with his long whitish hair and color everywhere. Then after he had washed the color off, he still looked somewhat ghostly, and that's when I found out that he'd been sick for basically all 5 weeks of his India trip, and he'd lost like 20 pounds. He was in really decent spirits, considering he was still sick. Quite a bit more reserved than Helena, but equally warm and laidback.

Though German was his first language, Till had a better understanding of English than I. He also knows Hindi, Urdu, Turkish, Persian, Ottoman, and he can read academic articles in French. I kind of secretly hate him. He is getting his doctorate in Indian Studies in Pittsburgh, and his wife is getting her doctorate in Economic Studies with a focus on Welfare Programs. His intelligence dwarfed me, but I learned a lot from him. He was an invaluable resource to me, teaching me much about India and its politics and history, as well as teaching me a lot about American politics and economics. He has also been to India 5 times, so he had lots of good advice about places to go and things to see, etc. When I first met
Till, his forehead had a perfect circle of diverse and contrasting colors:

Helena, as Rudolph

Even the cars got hit!

Helena (middle) and Henrik, after a washing

I was shocked to see these two stickers side by side, until I found out that this swastika goes the different direction from the Nazi one and has a completely separate even beautiful meaning to Hindus.

And yes, even the dogs and cows got color on them!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Jack Attack Agra

You'll have to forgive me for showing SO many pictures of the Taj Mahal, but it's just so effing beautiful. I couldn't exclude any shots. Plus, the Taj Mahal has a special place in my heart ever since I was a kid and I got the 3D puzzle of the Taj Mahal (for Christmas maybe?). It took me a long time to put together, but I love symmetry, and I was in love.

To get to Agra, I got an unreserved train ticket from Delhi, which meant I would be riding in the general coach where they seat somewhere between 150 and 250 people in a coach that has 80 actual seats. It's a madhouse; before the train had even stopped (and before a single passenger had disembarked - a regular practice here I have learned), people were trying to push on and reserve a seat for themselves. I stepped back and let the havoc happen before finally getting on (with my oversized backpack) and finding a spot for my luggage on the luggage rack and then finding a seat for one of my two buttocks. I plopped down and noticed that quite a few of the luggage racks were inhabited by people fully sprawled out, leaving no room for people's luggage. I kept staring up at the man in the overhead luggage compartment across from my seat with a curiosity (and some frustration - who is he that he gets to lay up there and not let anyone put luggage up there) when all of a sudden he invited me to come up there too. Well, of course I couldn't turn down an invite, and look how much leg room I would get comparatively.

That is how I met Bhaskar, the off-duty police officer on vacation for 30 days so he could visit his family and his friend Rahul, also a police officer. There was an 18-year-old student behind us on a different luggage rack who spoke great English and acted as translator between Bhaskar and me since his English was limited and my Hindi is awful (30 words max). We had an awesome time the whole 4 hours to Agra, sharing grapes and channa (roasted chickpeas), and he even shared some of his secret rum with me. He poured it into a Pepsi bottle that had some Pepsi left in it and added some water (my second encounter with water of questionable origin), but how could I turn down a rum and coke in a luggage rack in the general coach of a train from an off-duty police officer?

When I arrived at Agra, I walked past all of the aggressive auto-rickshaws at the train station and about 5 minutes later, I found a nice boy (probably 10 or so) driving a cycle-rickshaw who didn't know too much English and who also didn't know where Lucky Guesthouse was, but we just kept asking until we found it. It was probably about 500 meters or so from the Taj Mahal and had an amazing rooftop view, so I took it. The manager (Harry) looked like an Indian version of Richard Gere and was very nice. He just kept saying, "Don't worry; Be Happy," and he told me about 1967 when he met Bob Marley, at which point we sang "Buffalo Soldier" together. His main worker Mohan and his son Lokehs ran the place, cooking the food and cleaning, etc. Lokehs was very friendly as well and taught me quite a few Hindi words. His English was amazing.

My time at the Taj was great, but it really is much more amazing from far away than it is from up close. However, there was some really intricate jewel patterns encrusted right into the marble. Also - paint me naive, but I didn't know that the man who built the Taj for his deceased wife was Muslim, so the doorway is surrounded by Arabic writing from the Qu'ran. If I haven't said it before, I'm learning a lot about India and its history; for example, its relation with the Mughal Empire.

I borrowed a cycle from Mohan and explored the city a bit, but I got a flat tire. A man on the side of the street fixing bicycles helped fix my tire and give me a general tune-up, so I gave him an orange and 20 rupee. I wasn't sure what to do. I got some really good street food that day, and I even saw the place called Baby Taj.

My view on the train from Delhi to Agra

A camel on the street

The views from Lucky Guesthouse near sunset

Baby Taj

A statue of a woman warrior

Some art by Harry outside of Lucky by the bicycle that I used

Views of Agra Fort just after sunset on my way to the train station

Oh, and this video was also taken from the rooftop of Lucky Guesthouse during the Muslim Call to Prayer. Just a beautiful moment.