August 27th, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
After two weeks in India Sean and I craved a break from the terrifying traffic, 100+ degree heat and constant crush of peddlers, beggars and people on the streets. We found respite not at an ashram, on the beach or even in the Himalayas. Instead we ended up decompressing in a completely different country, Malaysia.
A brief work assignment had brought us to the ultra modern and immaculate capital Kuala Lumpur. Although I had been skeptical about the destination — I had hoped to make it not to Southeast Asia but to Nepal on this journey — this city of two million won my heart. With its law-abiding drivers, 90-degree weather and subdued pedestrians KL was a godsend.
On our first day we went to the Perdana Lake Garden. Number of Malays who accosted us on our 15-minute walk to the public park? Zero! Number of times that we jumped out of the path of a deranged driver barreling down the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic? Nil!
Inside the tranquil garden we followed a well-marked, paved path to the KL Bird Park. The world’s largest free flight, walk-in aviary, the KL Bird Park housed over 5,000 birds and 50 different species. Ninety percent were indigenous to Malaysia.
High points of the KL Bird Park? Taking photos of the petite, plump conures and surreal hornbills. Watching Sean feed the lories. Watching a staff person feed fish to the yellow-billed storks. Sitting down at a cafe table and eating ice cream bars in the quiet park. Such a pleasant place!
More bustling but no less fun was the night market on Petaling Street. To reach the open air market, we took the subway to Chinatown and walked one block to the crowded, pedestrian-only area. There we found endless aisles of produce vendors, coffee roasters, clothing salesmen, tchotchke shops and Southeast Asian restaurants. Anything that you could possibly want, including exotic fruits, knock-off Fendi purses and miniature replicas of the Petronas Twin Towers, you could buy at the night market.
We couldn’t visit Kuala Lumpur without seeing the city’s most famous site, the Petronas Twin Towers. Until the Tapei 101 usurped them, the 88-story Petronas Towers were the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Although they’ve lost that title, they still remain the tallest twin towers in existence.
Our first glimpse came courtesy of the KL Tower, the world’s 4th tallest communications tower. From the KL Tower’s observation deck we could take in all of Kuala Lumper, including the nearby Petronas Twin Towers. Our next peek was from a cab during a storm. Tired of all the teasers, we finally took the subway to KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Center) and went into the Towers. As visitors can only travel to the skybridge on the 41st floor and as the Skybridge had reached its limit of visitors for the day, we stuck to the 6-level Suria KLCC shopping mall. Air conditioning, cafes, high-end stores – the Suria KLCC in the Twin Towers had it all.
Other great sites and aspects of KL? The Menara Kuala Lumpur or KL Tower was a neat spot. Situated high on a hill, it appeared taller the the Petronas Towers although, in reality, it’s not. Likewise, we relished the light, delicious cuisine, the iced beverages, clean and efficient railway system and slower pace of Malaysia. Granted, it’s not perfect — take a look at the headlines about the caning of a female, Muslim tourist or the country’s political woes — but for us a few peaceful days in Kuala Lumpur was exactly what we needed.
August 20th, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
Jaipur. The city of 1,001 sites. Because Sean and I ended up here in the middle of August, when temperatures topped 100+, we tried not to cram too much sightseeing into one day. Even so, we managed to hit all the must-see spots and not keel over from sunstroke. (Lugging around bottled water and wearing light clothing did help but not that much.)
Below are a few of our favorite historical sites in Jaipur. All are on the “tourist trail” so be prepared for the multitude of male guides waiting at the entrance gates. In some instances having a guide will benefit you but often you will learn just as much by reading the signs posted around the various objects.
Jantar Mahar – Constructed in 1728 by Jai Singh, this outdoor observatory possesses a vast assortment of over-sized astronomical instruments and the world’s largest sundial. Named Brihat Samrat Yantra or “the King of the Instruments,” the sundial is truly a regal sight.
Amber Fort – This 11th century fortified palace lies 11 kilometers northeast of Jaipur. Situated on a rocky mountainside, Amber (pronounced “Amer”) has magnificent apartments, courtyards, public halls and a small temple. Definitely a top tourist attraction.
Jaigarh Fort – One of three forts outside of Jaipur, this 18th century fort has the unique distinction of never being captured. Beyond this unusual aspect Jaigarh boasts of water reservoirs, residential areas, the world’s largest wheeled canon and spectacular views of the Amber Fort and Jaipur below.
Nahargarh Fort – Built in 1734 by Jai Singh, the Nahargarh or “Tiger” Fort displays a lovely assortment of painted apartments and a labyrinth of corridors leading to and from them. It also provides good, albeit hazy, views of Jaipur.
Galta – Known as “The Monkey Temple,” this collection of 250-year-old temples is nestled in the rocky cliff on the outskirts of Jaipur. Two large tanks of spring-fed water draw both the devout and roughly 5,000 monkeys to this site. At Galta they worship, cleanse themselves and, in the case of the monkeys, splash about and beg for snacks.
City Palace – Another Jai Singh creation, City Palace consists of courtyards, gardens, public halls and other buildings exhibiting a successful blend of Mughal and Rajasthani architecture. Today, as in the past, the raj (or king) of Jaipur resides here.
Birla Lakshmi Narayan Temple – Erected by a wealthy industrial, this marble Hindu temple sits at the foot of the Moti Dungri Fort. The intricate carvings and stained glass windows depict events in Hindu scripture. Beautiful!
August 19th, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
Popularly known as the “Pink City,” Jaipur is the capital of India’s sprawling, northwestern state of Rajasthan. Last week Sean and I spent four days here, exploring the wealth of stunning sites while wilting in the hot sun. With a population of over five million this busy city offers a little something for every taste — historical sites, bazaars, temples, art, wildlife, Bollywood movies and the ever-present flavorful cuisine.
We found Jaipur to be equally enchanting and exasperating. The prevalence of cheeky monkeys, loping elephants, camels, kingfisher birds, colorful markets, historic forts, delectable food and beautiful vistas made us fall in love with the region again and again. Yet, the intense heat (when factoring in the heat index, it’s around 115 degrees Fahrenheit) and overabundance of homicidal drivers, pushy vendors and aggressive beggars left both of us aggravated and spent.
Setting aside the annoyances, I’ll share some of the day-to-day pleasures of our time in this mesmerizing, 17th century metropolis. Think of it as a daily things-to-do list should you ever find yourself in Jaipur.
Feeding the pigeons of the East – It will come as no huge surprise to read that we love animals and that I, in particular, have a soft spot for soulful-eyed, furry creatures. Thus, you can imagine our mutual delight whenever we spotted and interacted with the ridiculous number of monkeys in this city. Red-faced macaques were the most common but we also bumped into quite a few easy going, black-faced langur monkeys. So, so cool!
Learning about other religions – While Hinduism is the predominant religion in India, the devout also co-exist with such faiths as Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. While in Jaipur, we had the privilege of visiting several tranquil temples and of learning a bit about what the followers of Hinduism and Sikhism believe. Talk about enriching experiences!
Finding a breathtaking sight/site at literally every corner – I’ll write more about this in another entry but I will say that tooling around Jaipur became a non-stop, jaw-dropping event. Everywhere we looked, we found something new and astonishing to see.
Shopping at the bazaars – You know the stereotype: women love to shop. Well, I defy that stereotype by being a browser. Sadly, I couldn’t do ‘my thing’ and just look around Jaipur’s bazaars. If I slowed down near a stall or was so daring as to pause or even stop, I’d be crushed by boys and men selling trinkets, women telling me to buy them food and the vendors themselves. However, when I knew what I wanted — a copper serving dish — and found a vendor willing to sell one at a fair price, the bustling bazaar seemed pretty darned good to me.
Eating delightful Indian food – Imagine that. Great Indian food in India. Over the course of our stay we indulged in zesty curries, delicate dals, crisp garlic naan, fluffy Basmati rice and so many otherworldly soups. Jaipur was an Indian-food-lover’s heaven. Unfortunately, as we were obsessed with avoiding “Delhi belly,” we steered clear of the street food stalls and stuck with restaurant meals. I’d like to think that we still had a true taste of India. At least I hope that we did.
Not being killed in traffic – I know. It sounds as though I’m ending this on a snotty, ugly American note. However, not being clipped, scraped or hit full-on by the non-stop, careening cars and trucks was a constant concern. Consider the fact that in the first hour spent with our cross-country driver JP, he smacked the side of a moving semi, bounced off the truck and then pulled off the guy’s front bumper before screeching to a stop. Thankfully, we weren’t hurt — not even by the angry mob that clustered around our car — but we did get a quick, early lesson in how terrifying traffic here is.
August 17th, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
Imagine a pristine, holy city situated on a clear lake. Imagine that tranquil spot filled with serene followers gathered together to worship and pray at one of 400 temples. Imagine how relaxing, pretty and peaceful such a place would be. Go on. Keep imagining for the sacred Hindu city of Pushkar is nothing like what you’d expect it to be.
After a jaw-clenching, 3-hour drive from Jaipur we arrived in the dusty, trash-strewn town of Pushkar, population 15,000. Here the streets are paved not with gold or even macadam but with tourists and peddlers. The beautiful lake? Thanks to a dry monsoon season, it is muddy and filled with garbage.
Upon our arrival we quickly caught on to the overall tone of Pushkar. Visiting a temple? Buy some marigolds or puffed rice to throw as an offering. Looking for a trinket to sum up your pilgrimage to this hallowed land? Buy my wool pashmina, semi-precious stone bracelet, brass Ganesha, leather sandals or mirrored pillowcase. Just feeling generous? Then buy me a chapati for lunch.
Although surprising to see in such a spiritual site, the constant commerce on the streets did not rile us. Rather, it was the blatant shake-down for money by Pushkar’s brahman priests that left me, in particular, feeling snarky.
Against our polite protestations Sean and I were unwittingly pushed into receiving blessings from two brahman priests. Each of us paired off with a priest, we sat on opposite ends of the same marble steps and listened while the two young men presented highly different versions of their religion. Sean’s priest offered prayers to Sean’s ancestors and tributes to those loved ones recently deceased. My priest discussed how Pushkar’s temples were the result of generous donations from the “English” like me; although I had stated that we were from NY, he repeatedly referred to me as a “Londoner.”
While Sean thought positive thoughts about his family and the planet, I echoed my assigned priest in chants of “Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, I pray to you to give me good job, good fortune, good money so that I can give money to the temple . . ..” When the priest asked me to chant how much money I was donating — all Londoners give between 3000 to 5000 rupees (roughly $60 to $100) — I explained that I did not know the amount for I had no money on me.
I do not lie to holy men, extorting ones or not. I had handed my cash to Sean for safekeeping before arriving in Pushkar. This information did not, however, go over well with my priest.
Rather than play out the ugliness, let’s go back to imagination land. Let’s imagine that you’ve invited two visiting friends of another faith to attend Catholic mass. At the end of mass your friends spend a few minutes chatting with Father O’Leary. After several minutes Father O’Leary turns to your friends and says, “You are both rich. You must each give me $50 for the privilege of speaking with me about Catholicism. You cannot give me less than that or else God will curse you for eternity. Give me the money now and you can go with good will. $50 each.”
Yes, folks. I was threatened with bad karma for not donating at least $50 to this priest. Who knows? Perhaps this is why, two days later, I came down with Delhi belly. Then again, maybe not.
Sean likewise was pressed for a generous donation. He also gave far less than what was demanded. At least, though, he had a more authentic blessing than I. As for a customary cursing, well, I trumped him on that one. Hence, my snarkiness about our time in Pushkar.
I realize that those who have experienced a more heartfelt and sincere time in Pushkar will disagree and perhaps even be outraged by my story. To them, I offer my apologies. Unfortunately, we experienced the commercialized side of this sacred city, one that did not leave a very positive impression.
August 11th, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
Due to a great monsoon rate at our luxurious hotel in Agra, Sean and I decided to spend three nights in this sultry city. The extra time afforded us the rare opportunity to relax, explore a major site per day and return to the Taj Mahal and enjoy it at our leisure.
On our second day in Agra we took a nail-biting, 50 minute drive to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Fatehpur Sikri. Fans of the writer Salman Rushdie may remember Fatehpur Sikri as the setting for his 2008 novel “The Enchantress of Florence.” Others may know it as the Mughal emperor Akbar’s “ghost city.” Due to a water shortage the settlement was abandoned in 1585, only 14 years after its construction and shortly after the death of Akbar. For being uninhabited for over four centuries Fatehpur Sikri remained in spectacular shape.
The Jama Masjid (Dargah Mosque), which we visited first, was completed in 1571. Inside its courtyard rested the marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti, the saint whom the Emperor Akbar had consulted throughout his reign. Childless women now visit the mausoleum and tie colorful strings to the marble lattice screens. Each thread represents a request for the saint to grant children to these women.
From the mosque we walked uphill to the palace complex. There we saw the large and ornate Palace of Jodh Bai, the emperor’s favorite wife and the smaller palaces of his Christian wife Mariam and another unnamed spouse. Other spectacular sandstone structures included the five-story Panch Mahal, a pavilion used by the court ladies, the Hall of Private Audience, the Hall of Public Audience and the 21-meter high Hiran Minar tower. Decorated with stone replicas of elephant tusks, the tower supposedly marked the final resting place of Akbar’s favorite elephant.
Back in Agra we tromped around another Akbar-inspired site, the 16th century Agra Fort. Unlike European forts, Indian forts invariably contained elaborate palaces, gardens, meeting halls and courtyards. They were cities within cities. Agra Fort proved to be no different.
Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, oversaw the completion of the fort. As a result, it displayed an abundance of white marble buildings, decorated in a fashion similar to his masterpiece, the Taj Mahal. It also possessed both Hindu and Moghul architectural influences.
Thanks to his zealous, hardliner son Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan spent his last eight years under house arrest at the fort. From his window he could gaze out at the Taj Mahal on the opposite bank of the Yamuna River. Not much of a consolation for him but it makes a good story for the rest of us.
August 10th, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
You — or at least I — cannot travel to India without seeing the majestic Taj Mahal. One of the seven wonders of the world, this mausoleum was built by the emperor Shah Jahan for his second wife and the love of his life, Mumtaz. She died giving birth to his 14th child in 1631. From the Indian marble mausoleum and red sandstone gates to sandstone and marble mosque and guesthouse the site took 22 years to complete. Time and effort paid off for the Taj is truly an architectural and aesthetic marvel. Believe me, I’ll be dreaming of this jaw-dropping monument for decades.
Since so much has been written and said about the Taj Mahal, I’d like instead to offer tips for visiting this site. This will save me from having to think of something beyond my initial and lingering reaction of “Wow! Wow! Wow!” Plus, it also may provide fellow travelers with a few useful tidbits.
Guides: Your hotel concierge and the hordes of men lining the initial entrance to the Taj will insist that you hire a guide. Without him (it’s always a man) to explain the site and keep the hawkers at the front gate at bay, you won’t get much from your trip to the tomb. Truthfully, if you’ve read about the Taj in a good guidebook beforehand, you’ll have no problem navigating the well-manicured grounds.
Sean and I had the time and luxury of making two trips to the Taj, with and without guide. We were far happier on our own. The reason? Without a guide we could linger for as long as we liked, take as many photos as we desired and just stand, slack-jawed, in awe of the beauty before us. With a guide we felt pressured to keep moving and to listen to his every word, periodically missing what we were there to experience — the Taj Mahal.
More on guides and the whole aggressive, local vendor angle: Likewise, if you are an intrepid, independent traveler — and, let’s face it, you probably are if you’re hanging out in India — you know how to handle the pushy peddlers. In our experiences the touts have been far more hardcore in places such as Turkey, Mexico and Morocco. Here, if you ignore their pleas of “Madame, madame. I have something to show for you,” they leave you alone. And did they not bother us when we had a guide? Nope. Men and boys alike still attempted to sell us trinkets, rickshaw rides and even tour guides for other sites.
Backpacks, bags, paper of any kind: Leave them in your room or car. Otherwise, you’ll wait in the long security line only to be told that you can’t enter the site without first checking your bag. Our “Happy Holidays” sign, used in our annual holiday card, ended up in the trash because I couldn’t bear the thought of queuing up again.
Water bottles and cameras: Both are allowed on the site. Absolutely bring both. Combined, Sean and I took close to 400 photos on our two trips to the Taj. As for the water, I drank a liter each time. It truly is that hot and parching in India.
When to visit: Early morning or an hour before dusk. The crowds are lighter. The temperature is slightly lower (mid to upper 90s). And, perhaps most importantly for us, the lighting is stunning. At night the marble glows in the sunset. Just breathtaking!
August 6th, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
One city. Countless facets. It’s the land of government, commerce, religion, modernity, antiquity, wealth, poverty, lush gardens, dusty streets. Just when you think that you have Delhi pigeon holed, it changes yet again.
Such diversity spawns a wide range of sites and activities. Along with visiting mosques, temples and gardens, Sean and I sweated it out with an afternoon trip to Qutub Minar. An impressive monument from the period of Islamic rule in India, the Minar was constructed in 1193. Today it is surrounded by the remains of Mughal summer palaces.
We also wandered around the grounds of the 16th century Humayun’s Tomb and 18th century Safdarjang’s Tomb. Emperor Humayun’s grand burial site was initiated by his wife, who camped out and oversaw its construction until its completion. Viceroy Safdarjang’s son prompted the creation of his father’s majestic tomb. It is one of the most recent examples of Mughal architecture in India.
A contemporary site that drew in throngs was the memorial for Mahatma Gandhi. Here the brick platform on which his funeral pyre had been built was encased in marble for all to see. An elegant yet understated tribute to the father of modern India.
Although shopping never plays a huge role in our journeys, we did make a stop at the Khan Market. How could we not? It was right next to our hotel. Our driver, Sher-Singh, had described it as a ‘rich person’s place to shop.’ From the buildings’ faded exteriors we wouldn’t have guessed this. However, at Khan Market we found a well-stocked cookware shop, Nike, Reebok and Apple stores, beautiful handcrafted silver jewelry, several bookstores, an upscale pet shop and countless little restaurants.
August 5th, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
Many thought that Sean and I had lost our minds when we announced that we’d be spending much of August in India. Scorching heat. Monsoons. Not to mention all the wonderful diseases, such as Dengue fever, malaria, typhoid and polio, that we could contract. However, by day four we’re both alive, well and, beyond being drenched in sweat, dry each day.
Our sultry journey began in New Delhi, the bustling capital of this exotic land. On our first morning here we strolled over to Lodi Gardens where women in colorful saris and white running shoes jogged alongside men in shorts and T-shirts. As with all of Delhi, Lodi Gardens was dotted with ruins from the region’s Mughal period. Lodi was beautiful but, at 8 a.m., already quite a warm place to be — 90 degrees and climbing.
Following in the footsteps of locals and tourists alike, we rented not a car but a car and driver to take us around the city. Smart move. As in Turkey and Morocco, where Sean drove and I nervously navigated, the traffic is constant and chaotic. Unlike in the aforementioned countries, it’s comprised not only of cars and trucks but overloaded rickshaws, motorbikes, cyclists, pedestrians, 3-wheeled tuk tuks and the rare donkey, horse and elephant.
Our driver, Sher-Singh, carried us in air conditioned comfort to Old Delhi and the country’s largest mosque, Jama Masjid, where the courtyard alone holds 25,000 devotees. Tucked at the end of a lane teeming with people and traffic, the mosque was constructed under the ruler Shah Jahan. It is one of many mosques serving the large Muslim population in Northern India.
Along with mosques we also had the privilege of seeing Jain, Sikh and Hindu temples and, oddly enough, a huge Methodist church. One of the more unusual religious centers was the Akshar Dham Temple. Over 15,000 artisans and volunteers worked on this elaborate Hindu complex. Opened in 2005, Akshar Dham featured “boat” tours on the man-made canals around the temple, movies and an extensive food court.