Thursday, March 24, 2011

Holi Cow: India-A Land of Extremes

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We were not really sure what to expect before getting to India. And now, as we leave India, we're not sure exactly what to think about it.

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On the one hand it is dirty, with millions of people living in filth. Children go uneducated and are in the child labor industry, or children take care of their younger sibs while their parents sell fruit on the road side trying to make a few rupees a day.

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Driving is as close to anarchy on the road as you can imagine with people routinely driving against the flow of traffic on the wrong side of the road, crossing lane markings, ignoring stop lights and law enforcement officers are ignored far more often than they're obeyed. The horn is used far more often than the turn signal.

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On the other hand everyone has a mobile phone, the technology industry is booming, the people are warm, and the wealth of historical sites is amazing. The disparity between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, clean and dirty is extremely broad and the government shows little inclination to change those circumstances. Currently the second most populous nation on the planet is set to pass China for the #1 position by 2030. And there are few places as rich in culture, history and diversity.

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But let me back up just a bit. After a late afternoon flight out of Bangkok we arrived fairly late in Delhi where we were met by our friend Anju Chawla's parents; Satish and Purny. This was just the start of the overwhelming hospitality they showered on us! They had brought 2 vehicles and their driver along to haul our clan back to their home in Guragon, just outside of Delhi. At that point they proceeded to spoil our children rotten for the next 8 days straight! Our typical restrictions on soda consumption and snacking were routinely ignored leaving Tamara and myself powerless against the grandparently attacks on our authority! The kids loved every minute of that, I can tell you.

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The next day the Chawla's chauffeured us around Delhi, treated us to lunch and showed us the sites of the city. We were struck at the immensity of the place and just how long it took to get from place to place. Sometimes, even within the city, it would take an hour to get from one site to the next. We enjoyed a tasty Mughal lunch at the Islamic Center, saw the Red Fort, the Quatb Minar and several other interesting sites. The Rajghat (the memorial park where Ghandi was cremated) was strikingly beautiful in its austerity.

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The next day we left for a private guided tour starting in Agra. We left before 6am and I was sure the 140 mile drive wouldn't take more than 3-4 hours. Oh, how wrong I was! Before we'd been on the road for 30 minutes, we ran into a massive traffic jam consisting primarily of dump trucks loaded with recently quarried rock. Much of the next hour or more was spent driving between those same trucks, in the ditches beside those trucks, and at times seemingly under those trucks! There truly was no consistent “lane” or direction at all, sometimes we were on the left side, sometimes the right, and we seemed to be going head on into traffic either way.

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Eventually, some 6 hours after we'd left Delhi, we arrived at Fatepuhr Sikri a very old red sandstone palace and fort about 40km outside of Agra. It was one of our first tastes of the beautiful architecture of India, and we were pretty amazed at the work there. We met our guide, Shoshant, there as well.

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From there we continued on to Agra proper and headed straight to Agra's Red Fort (yes, same name as the one in Delhi) and then Baby Taj (there's a formal name, but we can't remember it).

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After that we did a quick check in at our hotel (a pretty sterile Western style place) before heading to the gardens on the South bank of the river across from the Taj Mahal itself to catch the sunset views and get our first real photos of the Taj. I was quite disappointed that they didn't allow tripods into the gardens and am still pretty angry about it. There were no big crowds, no fragile turf to damage, no apparent reason at all except that someone decided to make it a rule. Still, I think I managed to get some nice 'keeper' shots using a fence post and higher ISO settings to get some low light shots.

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The next day was “Taj Day”--we were up bright and early and managed to be second in line at the gate for the Taj. Again, there was a 'no tripods' rule (more understandable considering the huge crowds and limited space), but it was great being there so early. I managed to shoot over 200 shots in the 90 minutes we stayed at the site, many with few or no people visible at all...that was great. And the Taj itself is a wonder. It's just awe inspiringly beautiful. Any square foot of the place would be beautiful to look at; then you take this immense structure, on a gorgeous setting, with it's surrounding supporting structures and it is just breath taking.

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We parted as the crowds started getting huge, had breakfast, a quick visit to an inlaid marble factory and then it was time for the drive to Jaipur.

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Jaipur is the home of the amazing Amber Fort (more appropriately the Amer Palace). This huge palace is surrounded by a distant wall along the mountain ridges surrounding it—called the Great Wall of Jaipur with good reason. Then an inner wall is the next line of resistance, then a steep climb on narrow winding roads just to get to the main city wall, then a wide courtyard, then another narrow winding passage to get to the palace proper. It's no wonder that this place withstood the attacks of enemies for so long! And what a treasure it protected. While not the artistic beauty of the Alambra, the immensity and subdued beauty of the place is really a wonder. From the use of convex mirrors to both decorate the walls and to allow exceptional lighting with just a handful of candles to gorgeous gardens and hand carved doors the place is truly a site to see.

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Again, going back in time, the day we arrived we first visited a few other city sites including the intriguing Jantar Mantar—a combination scientific observatory and astrologic information area. The founder created a massive sun dial standing some 24 meters high at the peak and with a supposed accuracy to 2 seconds! Then just next to that were 'sun dials' for each astrologic sign where you could get your horoscope.

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Outside the Observatory were some touristy, but fun, snake charmers with the traditional flutes, turbines and cobras (defanged thank you) in a basket.

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We then headed to the nearby City Palace, the traditional home of the Maharajah of Jaipur. It had several small museums and an art/handiwork center we quickly toured.

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We also attended the annual Elephant Festival, but left pretty early on b/c of terrible crowd control and we just couldn't see and didn't feel safe...though what we could see early on was really beautiful.

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We were then taken to our, hotel... Nothing against the hotel itself, which was fabulous. It is actually the home of the current Maharajah of Jaipur who lives in a residence on the top 2 floors with the lower floors and a second building dedicated to an elaborately decorated and exquisitely cared for hotel.

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The problem is that we were in Jaipur during the annual Holi (pronounced like Holy) Celebration. This is a popular Hindu holiday celebrating the victory of good over evil based upon an old fable of a king who was so powerful he claimed to be as powerful as the Gods, his son felt that was wrong and actually sided with the Gods to overcome the power of his father's evil ways. In any case, it was historically celebrated with burning of wood and other important sacrifices as well as “coloring”. In older times this was fairly subdued with small amounts of color being mutually shared with a touch to another person's forehead. Somewhere along the line, however, alcohol became involved, large amounts of color were used and it became a bit of a morning and afternoon of debauchery with people throwing color and water and sometimes more toxic things on random passers by. Our parents—I mean our guides and hotel staff—deemed it too unsafe for us to go out in the streets during any part of this celebration. As it turns out several people ignored that advice, did go out, and had a good time without any adverse events.

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In compensation, the hotel hosted it's own Holi Celebration, for the low cost of about $35/person you were given a pair of white “pajamas”,they provided squirt guns, color, musicians and an area to play Holi. The kids were absolutely thrilled with this. Most of the hotel guests participated so there was a lot of colored powder flying and being smeared on everyone. Water flew everywhere. And everyone had a great time despite the confines of the hotel. We're not 5 days post-Holi as I write this and we're still trying to wash the last remnants of color out of our hair and skin! But for a photographer it provided some wonderful photo ops, and for the kids a chance to get really 'dirty' and have a wonderful time squirting water at grown ups.

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The next day was a 5 hour drive back to the Chawla's home, not quite as wild as the drive down thankfully. We just relaxed that afternoon then went out to a nice North Indian village-style restaurant for a nice dinner. Unfortunately a couple of the kids were starting to not feel to well before then, and by the next morning all 3 boys had a bit of Delhi Belly. We had a slow morning, but were feeling better and decided to check out an Indian McDonalds (no hamburgers b/c of their belief of the cows being sacred!) and then the National Museum. While they had some really interesting objects there the displays were pretty poorly lit and laid out, many exhibits were closed or actively under renovation. Tamara did a bit of shopping at a government bazaar and got a traditional top and pants. We headed back to the Chawla's for a light dinner, and an early bed time since we had to be up at 2:45am to leave for Turkey.

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In summary, I hesitate to give a final opinion on India. I felt a bit sheltered from the 'real India' this trip in part b/c we stayed outside Delhi at a fairly well-to-do family's home rather than in the midst of downtown Delhi. While we toured fabulous architectural works and got a taste of the spirituality of India, we really didn't get out to walk the streets and see the people, and we didn't 'test' any of the street food b/c of fear of Delhi Belly. Also,we were on a guided tour for much of the trip which is a bit out of our norm making us feel more like tourists rather than travelers. We just saw a tiny area of the huge sub-continent so it would be unfair to judge the entire country by just the pin-hole view we saw. That said, I think we felt a bit disappointed that a country with such a long history, so much money in the upper income levels, and so much technological advancement could let its infrastructure and people exist in such a primitive and neglected way. I can't help but believe that unless new leadership does something to improve things, and soon, that India could well degenerate once again and become quite vulnerable to the same type of take overs that have affected Afganistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

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