Archive for December, 2006

Qatab minar complex, Delhi, India

After the speed tour around the Golden Triangle, I spent four days in New Delhi for work. More accurately, my hotel, the Radisson, was in New Delhi, and my office was 3 km (but 1 hour away by car in traffic) away in Gurgaon.Here are a couple of things, in no particular order, that surprised me about my time in New Delhi:

  1. Many of the roads are newly-paved, neat and smooth. However, the roads are so clogged by traffic during rush hour (i.e., 8-9:30 am and 5-7 pm) that it hardly matters how nice the roads are. You’re just not going to get anywhere fast during rush hour.
  2. All the “best” restaurants (as was the case in Agra and Jaipur) are in large, expensive hotels, and cool clubs are sometimes in shopping malls.
  3. Buying imported alcohol (especially wine) is 4 or 5 times more expensive than it is in the US, though Foster’s is considered a “local” beer because it’s brewed in India and therefore counts as a “domestic” drink, resulting in a lower price (allegedly because domestic alcohol isn’t subject to crippling import taxes).
  4. While fancy coffee drinks are available, there are no Starbucks in New Delhi (or in India, period, according to my colleague in India). Considering there is a Starbucks in the Forbidden City in China – need I mention, a communist country – how weird is it that there are none in all of India?

Despite being in New Delhi for work, I did get to visit the Qutb Minar complex (photo at the top of this post), which looked romantic at sunset, but lacked any meaning to me beyond the oh-so-profound sense of “wow, there used to be a big and powerful civilization here and now there isn’t.”) My guidebook was not very handy, and I was uninterested in the series of vague dates and names the guide shared about the complex.

I spent most of my time at the office in Gurgaon, which is to New Delhi as Reston, VA is to Washington, DC, meaning that the NH-8 highway running through Gurgaon is flanked by gleaming office towers wearing the logos of the largest (mostly high-tech) companies in the world.

I was interested to see that most people working in Gurgaon are driven between home and work in employer-provided vans. It’s kind of like riding the school bus to work, except better because it’s door-to-door.

In many ways, my trip to India was very sheltered – private cars, guides – but in a weird way, I think that these sorts of services and sheltering from the noise and touts *is* India. Of course there is the vast majority of the country living in poverty, so I guess the slice of life I’m trying describe is the India that’s on the rise.Cybergreens Tower, Gurgaon, India

Take, for example, the Gurgaon office tower complex I worked in. The office tower (see photo at left) is shiny and new and could be anywhere in the world – say, in Reston, VA.

At lunchtime, you might go downstairs and line up at the Citibank ATM in order to grab some cash for lunch. Then you walk over to the complex’s food court, which includes a McDonald’s and an Indian version of that oddly-always-Chinese-influenced “Cajun Grill,” and while there’s an Indian twist to the food court (chicken korma paninis using white bread instead of ciabatta, or a dosa takeaway joint), the Indian professionals in the food court are having a work day no different from anyone else’s in the US.

For these Indians, life is busy, challenging and comfortable, especially when you consider how, because of low labor costs, a middle-class family doesn’t blink at having full-time staff at home.

One evening, my team had dinner at the house of one of our Indian colleagues, Shilpa. Shilpa still lives with her parents because she’s unmarried, and she went to college in the US, which means that relative to most people in India, she’s wealthy. How else to pay American tuition sans financial aid?

Her parents live in what she calls a “farmhouse,” which is a term used in India the way some people in London talk about country houses in the Lake District.  On the one hand, the house – located in a part of Delhi known as the Defence Colony – was imposing with all sort of columns and marbling and staff. On the other hand, it was so Asian – from the cognac bottles (even in airplane-miniature sizes) on display in the curio in the living room to the glamour-photo family portraits.

Shilpa’s parents seemed to be the sweetest people on earth (we were at their home for a big catered dinner on the night of their 25th wedding anniversary – how’s that for generosity and hospitality?), though I have a feeling I don’t want to be on the other side of a negotiating table from Shilpa’s father, who runs an “import-export” business of Chinese goods.  I loved learning how Shilpa’s father viewed business with China as a lucrative and booming one because I always picture China and India being competitors on the world stage. But maybe the two countries will team together and kick everyone’s ass in the end.

Anyway, I know I’ve gone on a little too long about my trip to India, so here are my closing blurbs on the bits of eating and shopping I managed to do in Delhi. As many of my Indian colleagues and friends repeated to me, all the “best” restaurants in India are in the big hotels and not in holes-in-the-wall. For home cooking, you eat at home, apparently. So with this explanation (read: defensive statement) for why I ate in places like the Sheraton and Radisson, here you go:

The Great Kebab Factory (Radisson Hotel): There’s no a la carte menu – it’s just one prix fixe option, but the food is all you can eat. For Rp 990 ($20 US, but still a small fortune in India), you’re served an endless march of grilled meats (veg option available, but I opted for meat) and outstandingly flaky and buttery parathas and rotis.

It’s surprising how good the food is given that (1) the decor is a little bit Cheesecake Factory-like, (2) the servers wear overalls (it is the Kebab Factory, after all), and (3) all the food sits for a while in chafing dishes in front of the kitchen while the servers run around serving courses of grilled meat one-by-one tableside.

The service was friendly and attentive, and the kebabs were all flavourful (some tangy, some spicy), juicy and smoky. Worth the money.

Bukhara (Mauraya Sheraton Hotel): This restaurant gets all the hype. Even when you’re seated and already eating, servers will remind you: “we are the Number One restaurant in Asia” followed closely by “this is Bill Clinton’s favorite restaurant.” It’s just pure, unadulterated pride on parade, but I guess it’s that pride that keeps the standards so high after all these years.

The decor and menu are identical to those at Peshawri at the Mughal Sheraton in Agra, so I was just really surprised when I walked in and felt as if I’d walked into a “chain.” As was the case at Peshawri, the daal bukhara was deliciously spicy and smooth, the murgh malai kebab (chicken breast) and grilled prawns were juicy and savoury, and the tab was  about $100 a person for appetizers, mains, beers, breads, desserts and coffees.

I have a hard time mustering a lot of enthusiasm for Bukhara – not because of anything there that fell short of delicious – but because I guess I had expected the place to be more elegant and unique, and instead it was exactly the same as Pehsawri restaurant in Agra.

I Ching (Radisson Hotel): My Indian colleagues insisted I try Chinese food while I was in India. So one night, Erica and I checked out the Chinese restaurant in our hotel. It was a disappointment. The decor was plush and quiet, but the Chinese food was just awful – and not because the spicing or flavouring was “Indian” (which is what I was curious to try), but because food came out dry or otherwise badly-cooked.

Shrimp shu mai and fried pork dumplings were particularly bad. Chewy and flavourless.  Avoid.

I didn’t have much time to shop, but here are the two places I visited:

Central Cottage Industries Emporium: This store, in the main shopping district, Connaught Place, is three or four floors packed with rugs, pottery, sculpture, jewelry and textiles handmade in different parts of India. The prices uthappam, south Indian specialtyare relatively high, but they’re fixed (sometimes it’s a relief not having to bargain) and the quality is also high. So said my friend Ruchi, who took a whole group of us there to shop.

For a quick snack after dropping by the Emporium, the South Indian place across the street, Saravana Bhavan, was very no-frills but delicious. It’s apparently a big chain in India, and Ruchi has gotten me hooked. The dosa (crispy crepe filled with potatos, usually) and uthappam (see photo just above – it’s like a giant potato latke – shredded and pan fried onions, potato and rice flour) get a shout out, though I can’t say I was a big Iglifan of the idli (fluffy, spongy disks of rice flour – click thumbnail at left). The idli seemed to be just a healthy medium for eating up all the delicious dipping sauces, so between a savory uthappam and a light idli, I’ll take the uthappam every time.

Dilli Haat: You have to pay Rp 30 to get into the Dilli Haat, which is a gated outdoor market built to look like a traditional Indian village market. The thinking is that the admission fee keeps out the touts and beggars (again with the sheltered theme in India).  Once you get in, there are hundreds of stalls selling all the same handicrafts you can find at the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, except bargaining is part of the picture.

Overall, I didn’t think the quality of the goods was as high as it was at the Emporium, but on the other hand, you’re likely to get lower prices at Dilli Haat, depending your bargaining skills.

And that’s it on India.

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First view of the Taj Mahal, Agra

Everyone tells you to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise because the white marble glows at that hour, and you avoid the busloads of tourists on a daytrip from Delhi.

Well, we didn’t arrive at dawn, but getting there at 8 am wasn’t too shabby. There were no lines to get in – at least, not on the “foreigner” line, where you have the pleasure of spending over 10x more than locals on an admission ticket, though to be fair, Rp 500 to see one of the wonders of the world is a bargain. (I love these wonders of the world lists – it’s like the US News and World Report for random structures – how else does the Hoover Dam end up compared to the Taj Mahal?)

Our guide for the day left much to be desired. His determination to “impress” us relied on repeated lines like: “all this [intricate carving and architecture] was done without computers! Without drills!” After a while, the list of things without which the Taj Mahal was built included protractors and rulers. While I am sure the Taj Mahal really is wondrous for its construction in an age before power tools, I have a feeling protractors and rulers were around.

Most annoyingly, if you asked our guide a question that he didn’t know the answer to, he would give some lame-ass explanation instead of a simple “I don’t know.”  A sample exchange:  Q: Why isn’t the Taj Mahal lit up at night?  A: The heat from the lighting would crack the marble.

Didn’t you know that the rest of the world’s monuments are made of special crack-proof marble?

Closer view of the Taj Mahal

Despite having a guide who just irritated rather than illuminated, I thought the Taj Mahal was a moving place to visit. The symmetry and the gleam of the marble, along with the intricate carvings and graceful Arabic script – I think you could be blind and still feel affected by the calm beauty of the complex.

As for the story that the Taj is the world’s greatest “temple of love” (built by Shah Jahan as a tomb for his favored wife, Mumtaz Mahal), well, I’m sort of into it, and sort of not. I mean, he could have written her a poem or planted a tree in her memory. But instead the guy uses 20,000 laborers (whose hands he allegedly cuts off so they can never duplicate the Taj Mahal for anyone else) to build this stunningly huge and expensive building . . . you have to admit building the Taj is a little like buying a ginormous diamond for your fiancee.  Partly a gesture of love, and partly a statement about the buyer’s buying power.

Well, Erica and I agreed that we could have spent all day just gazing at the Taj Mahal, but hunger got the better of us, so we left the Taj just as all the daytrippers from Delhi were arriving. Walking the 1/2 mile from the Taj Mahal ticket gate to the parking area, we were followed, as always, by people trying to sell us trinkets. One especially persistent (there’s always one) boy started out by offering us “good price” on wooden elephant keychains: “5 for Rp 1000 ($20)!” That cracked us up.  Playing along with our laughter, the kid followed us during our walk. The closer we got to the parking area, the lower his prices became. I guess his jurisdiction ended at the parking lot, so at the end of our walk, he was offering us the same five keychains for Rp 50 ($1 US). Amazing, amusing and sad all at the same time.

Arched walkway at Agra Fort

We spent the rest of the day in Agra visiting various other sites – all of which paled in comparison with the Taj, probably because we didn’t know any of the history behind the other places we visited, and our guide was not helpful. So we visited a palace complex known as the Agra Fort, and the only thing I got out of it is that Shah Jahan was imprisoned there by his own son, who was upset by all the money Shah Jahan had blown on building the Taj Mahal. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be outraged that the son kept the father under house arrest (it was in a palace, after all), or if I was supposed to sympathize with the son’s desire to stop his father from spending more on a Taj-like tomb for himself.

Of course our guide took us to a few shops – a jewelry store called the “Art Gallery” and another shop specializing in inlaid marbles. If my style ran towards marble furniture, I might have been tempted, but sadly, while I can appreciate the beauty and artistry of carving out precious stones and fitting them, puzzle-piece-style, into carved marble, I have no desire for this stuff in my home. But we needed to kill time in Agra, so we figured no harm going to some of these shops.

Our Shatabdi Express train departed Agra for Delhi at around 8:15 pm. It was a quick, painless 2 1/2 hour ride in “AC Chair Class” (the variety of “classes” on the Indian rail system still confuse me), though the Eurostar it was not. The experience was like riding an old Metro North train, except with weirder passengers. One white guy came by to ask us if we wanted to read his newspaper. We thought he was being nice, so we said sure. Then he tried to charge us Rp 10 for the newspaper, which annoyed us, so we said no, and he then tried to sell us his magazines, claiming he worked for the railway. It was bizarre, particularly because it was obvious (for a number of reasons) that he was a  passenger, not a train employee.

We pulled into Delhi train station around 11 pm, and we experienced barely-suppressed panic while trying to find the taxi driver our hotel had sent for us. The train station was madness – it was dark and felt like Penn Station before Thanksgiving. While Erica searched for our driver, Eric and I guarded our luggage while two dozen homeless guys watched us standing around. It was unsettling. Finding our taxi (which cost a pricey Rp 2500, but was a welcome sight that evening), we passed through some depressing cardboard-and-tin slum neighborhoods. I have a feeling that as poor as we thought that neighborhood looked, there’s probably a lot worse in Delhi.

Of course, lazy speed tourists that we are, abject poverty is not something we witnessed except on the fringes of our trip.

Overall, Agra is well worth the trip to see the Taj Mahal, which lived up to its cliched reputation as one of things you have to see before you die. That said, after the Taj, I don’t think lingering in Agra is the way to go.

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Fatepuhr Sikri, Agra

We woke up on Day 2 of our blitz through the Golden Triangle to the sound of pigeons flapping madly. I have no idea why, but the pigeons at the Alsisar Haveli seem to congregate on air conditioning so the noise travels into your room via the air conditioner. It’s not an unpleasant noise, really. Just startling – a little bit of country and city.

Before setting off on the 5-hour drive to Agra, we stopped by a textile shop in Jaipur, Anokhi, which the Lonely Planet described as being high-quality and ethical (i.e., setting aside some money to educate the children of the craftsmakers), so we figured why not try to be a “good” shopper.

As we expected, there was a Ringmaster guy (supposedly named “Lucky”) who did all the talking, selling and bargaining for the store, and he had four or five sidekicks pulling inventory off the (packed) shelves at an overwhelming rate. If you even glanced at a pashmina, suddenly two guys would be pulling a dozen pashminas from the shelves and unwrapping them in front of you.Shopping at Anokhi, Jaipur

At 10:30 in the morning, Eric, Erica and I were the only ones in the store, and by the time we left at around 12:30, it looked like the store had been swamped by a tidal wave of textiles. Tablecloths, quilts, scarves, wall hangings, bedspreads . . . everything was lying on the floor. Erica and I viewed at least three dozen silk and embroidered duvet covers. The fabrics were so gorgeous and colorful that it hardly mattered that brocade is not my thing. I felt like I was in the Great Gatsby shirt scene.

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue.

But back to our story: after picking out five duvets (five, seriously, what were we thinking?), Erica bargained hard with the Ringmaster so that we paid $70 per duvet instead of the initial quoted price of $120 a duvet. Jon’s work colleagues from Jaipur claim we got ripped off, but I think we did as well as a foreigner is going to do, and you know, if the Lonely Planet is to be believed, some of the money goes to kids. Plus, free of charge, the store custom-made two bedspreads into duvet covers and had them couriered to our hotel in Delhi a few days later (i.e., sent one of their guys to drive 6 hours from Jaipur to Delhi), so you have to admit that is some service for the money). Jon replies that this bit of free service should hint at how much we overpaid for our duvets (and the dozen other things we picked up). Damn him and his cynicism. I’ll bet next he’s going to say none of the money goes to kids, either.

The drive to Agra was long and mildly entertaining. The usual livestock-pedestrian-bike-tractor-truck madness, mixed in with dry, hardscrabble scenery. I loved the number of buses that we passed where there were passengers riding on top of the bus (in case it wasn’t obvious yet how different the risk calculation for personal injury is in India). Our driver Manoj expertly used his horn and wove in and out of traffic like the pro he is, and with some quality Govinda Aala playing in the CD player, time passed as fast as it can when you’re on a highway so varying in quality that your average speed is about 30 km/h.

We stopped for a quick lunch at around 3 pm in a town called Mahawat. It was a gorgeous, mild, sunny day, and the Rajastan Motel where we ate was surprisingly green and peaceful. So when on the road between Jaipur and Agra, give this place a try – the food was much better than it had to be considering the lack of options in the area. I was surprised the tandoor chicken was moist and smoky, and the palak paneer (cheese and spinach) was creamy without tasting greasy. An excellent break for the three of us for Rp 1100 ($23 US).

A brief note about how weird it is when we stop for food and Manoj doesn’t eat with us. In this instance, we invited Manoj to lunch with us, but perhaps because we didn’t make clear that it would be our treat, or perhaps because he needs a break from us, Manoj declined.In other cases, it turned out to be much less awkward for everyone if Eric, Erica and I pretended that it was perfectly normal that our driver would take us to nice hotels and restaurants where he would not be eating or sleeping (and instead, we are pretty sure Manoj slept in the car). It’s difficult for me to figure out how much to sympathize because I have no idea how all the money gets passed around. We paid our travel agent $220 for Manoj’s services and those of a guide for two days. The travel agent hired another travel agent who hired Manoj and our various guides. So the question is, how much does Manoj get and how far does that money go in Agra (where he lives)?

Sometime around 5:30 pm, we arrived in the outskirts of Agra and decided to squeeze in a tourist sight at the Fatehpur Sikri. It’s a city built by one of the more successful Mughal emperors, Akbar the Great, in the 1500s to thank a Sufi saint for blessing Akbar so that he would have a son (Shah Jahan, who later built the Taj Mahal). Apparently, the city lacked a good water supply so it had to be abandoned soon after it was built, and now you can visit this “ghost city” and see the tomb of the Sufi saint, Salim Chishti.We arrived too late to see the ghost city part of the complex, so we decided to see the religious portion, which included the tomb of Salim Chishti.

Make a wish upon a string, Fatepuhr Sikri

Things I will always remember about the Fatehpur Sikri: (1) it looks gorgeous at sunset (see photo at top of this post); (2) our guide had waited there for four hours for us to arrive because we hadn’t realized we were supposed to have a guide and therefore we’d taken our sweet old time shopping in the morning at Anokhi; (3) we were the only tourists there and were *swarmed* by dozens of kids trying to sell us junk (jewelry, postcards, scarves, etc.); and (4) Eric and Erica each paid Rp 500 to tie a string inside the Sufi cleric’s tomb, “for wishes to come true.” I will be sure to let you know how that works out for them. : )

We checked into our Agra hotel, the Trident Hilton, at around 8 pm and told Manoj to go home to see his family. Oh, how generous we are.The Hilton, by the way, is nice and has a sleek recently-renovated lobby and pool. But hey, it’s a Hilton. You could be anywhere, and frankly, at $230 a night, it was definitely notwhere near as good a deal as the Alsisar Haveli was. On the other hand, it’s Agra, and there’s a whole lot of demand for hotels by folks who want to see the Taj Mahal, especially during peak season. So what can you do?Auto Rickshaw in Agra

We negotiated with an auto rickshaw driver to take us to the Mughal Sheraton for dinner (for just Rp 40 – less than $1 US). The Sheraton was probably only a km away from our Hilton, but Agra is not a pedestrian-friendly city, and how can you pass up the chance to ride on a busy road in what amounts to a golf cart powered by a lawnmower engine?

According to the front desk at our hotel, Peshawri, the North Indian restaurant at the Mughal Sheraton, was the place to be. So that’s where we ate.

I was surprised by the decor of the restaurant – the color scheme is very brown and there are these log “fences” here and there. The menu is on a huge polished wood tablet that looks like something Fred Flinstone would order from, and instead of napkins, diners wear red-and-white checkered bibs.

Still, the atmosphere was welcoming and the food smelled good, so we were game to try out the place. I am super glad we did. The dal bukhara (lentils in a spicy sauce) were creamy, Dinner at Peshawri at Mughal Sheratonrich and spicy; the murgh malai kabab (yoghurt-marinated chicken roasted in the tandoor) was juicy and flavorful; breads were crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. All very tasty, though if I had to be picky, I’d probably avoid the tandoori aloo (potato and raisins wrapped in a pastry-dough-type skin) and the seekh kebab (ground lamb grilled on skewers in sausage shapes), which was too dry for me (though Eric loved it).

Our meal for three was a relatively pricey Rp 3800, but it was worth every penny.

Ahh, but the night was still young, so after we finished dinner around 11 pm, we hopped in yet another auto rickshaw to check out the famous Amarvilas (owned and operated by the Oberoi Hotel chain).The place is beautiful and who cares if it’s Disneyesque in its perfection? The light shimmers on fountains and glows on marble at night, and the arched passageways invite you to explore and discover where all the guests are hiding away. I was this close to wishing I’d spent the $600 a night it takes to stay there (a colleague of mine stayed there three years ago for just $80 a night, which I suppose is one example of how quickly prices are rising in India).

Amar Villas (Oberoi Hotel), Agra

The bar was closed, but the security guard we spoke to radioed ahead to the bar, which decided to stay open just for us. You don’t get more gracious than that. So we sat on an outdoor patio off the bar, drank in the scene (along with a few cocktails that came with precious ice made from filtered water), and then called it a night so that hopefully the five guys still on staff at the bar could go home. Our server repeatedly declined our large tip, saying that he preferred we complimented his service to his manager, but since we weren’t staying at the hotel and it was late, we ended up (embarrassingly) putting the tip in his hand and apologizing for not being able to stick around to find his manager at that hour. We were certainly the classless ones in this exchange and he the classy one.

And that was our day. I promise to speed up the India narrative in my next two postings – one about the Taj Mahal and Agra, and the other one will summarize my four days in Delhi for work.

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Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

Jaipur, our first stop in India, is known as the Pink City. If you trust the blurb in my guidebook, the city was painted pink (a color that shows hospitality in India) when Prince Albert dropped by for a visit in the late 1800s.

On our way into central Jaipur from the airport (which is also pink, in case you were wondering), we immediately noticed all the honking. Even at 7:30 am, there was a chaotic mix on the road of cars, bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, pedestrians and various livestock, and the key to navigating this jumble of users is liberal use of the horn. The horn in India doesn’t say “I’m pissed off at you” so much as it says “Hey, I’m over here, so watch out.” So the roads may be noisy as all get out, but to the system’s credit, I didn’t see any traffic accidents during my week in India. Given that this is a country where a road intended as two lanes quickly becomes a 4- or 6-lane road, this is saying something.Alsisar Haveli

Our hotel in Jaipur was the Alsisar Haveli, a “heritage hotel,” which means it’s a former palace converted into a hotel and is still owned by (and lived in) by a royal family.

I loved staying here, and after a long journey, the peace and quiet of the hotel were paradise. The hotel was modern and comfortable, but it still had tons of character.

Our rooms were on the top floor with views of the Tiger Fort in the distance. I was a little freaked out by all the guards (who are awake and on patrol 24 hours a day), but because the hotel is in central Jaipur, the guards keep all the touts and assorted riffraff out. For about $80 a night during peak tourist season, this place was a great deal.

Eric, Erica and I decided to push through the fatigue and do a lot of shopping and sightseeing during our first day in Jaipur. With our trusty driver, Manoj, Manoj and our swastika-decorated Innovahis swastika-emblazoned car (the symbol is everywhere in India because in Hinduism, it stands for good luck – how ever did Hitler get his hands on it?), and our private guide, Verma, we set off to see Jaipur.

Our first stop was the Hawa Mahal (“Palace of the Winds”), which is the most photographed building in Jaipur (see photo at the top of this post). The building has 953 windows and was built to allow royal women, who couldn’t be seen by the public, to watch the street scenes below without being seen themselves.

Honestly, all we did was get out of our car, look at the building, take photos, and hop right back into the car. Snake charmers in JaipurYou can’t go inside the building, and the busy traffic passing by the front makes stopping for a while pretty unpleasant. I think we got a lot more entertainment out of the snake charmers nearby – I mean, check this out . . . cobras!

We continued on to see the Amber Fort, which is about 10km outside Jaipur’s city walls.

Overall, I was unimpressed. It’s possible that I was too tired to really appreciate the fort walls and the palace buildings inside, but I think the real reason I wasn’t so into the place is because it’s Amber Fortin such run-down condition. And not in a charming reminds-me-of-the-passage-of-time way. More in a people-come-and-vandalize-a-treasure kind of way. I kept comparing all the intricate carvings and architecture to those at the Alhambra in Granada, and with every comparison, the Amber Fort came out the loser.

The sad-looking elephants dragging tourists up and down a hill to the Amber Fort probably didn’t help my Elephants for hire at the Amber Fortimpression, either. Eric and Erica gamely gave it a try, which was entertaining when Eric noticed that their elephant was so slow it got lapped by another elephant, but otherwise, how could you not feel bad for these animals?

Taking a break from sightseeing, we did some shopping at Rajasthan Small Scale Cottage Industries, Jagat Shiromani Temple Road. Because it’s a government-sponsored store (not sure exactly what this means), all the prices are fixed, so it was a good introduction for us newbie into the price-quality balance for textiles and other crafts. This store was ginormous. The “store manager” immediately took us to see rugs on the top floor of the building.

Our introduction to shopping in Jaipur went something like this: the store manager (aka the Ringmaster) introduces the different types of rugs available while three or four underlyings tirelessly and dramatically unfurl rug after rug until one of us potential buyers (aka the Audience) indicates slight interest in a particular rug. The patter/presentation is a cross between an education lesson and expert sales pitch. We learned that merino wool makes up the cheapest quality rugs available in the store, followed by yak wool (note that the best quality yak wool is taken from the yak chin!), and finally, at the top of the heap is silk, of course. The knots per inch that you get from silk is reportedly unparalleled.

While dozens of rugs are laid out (cleanup has got to be a bitch), the Ringmaster plies the Audience with drinks: teas, sodas, bottled water. The practice seems part hospitality and part attempt to get us to stick around for a while by giving us drinks to keep us busy.

The first half hour was interesting and entertaining. The last half hour was less so, though Eric ended up buying a gorgeous rug that he marked with a permanent marker (on the back of the rug) and which the store promised to ship to his home in Boston asap. I’ll let you know if the rug doesn’t turn up. : )

We spent so much time in the rug section that we didn’t have time to look at all the textiles, carvings, paintings and other goodies for sale at the store. It was important, obviously that we move on to lunch, of course.

Our guide took us to have lunch at Maharaja Foods on the Amer Road, across the street from the Brahmpuri Police Station (ph: Lunch was the first of what would be many odd experiences, because of course the vast majority of people eating in the restaurant were white, and our guide and driver stayed outside in the parking lot while we stuffed ourselves (a recurring theme this trip) with very tasty curries and breads. Despite the gluttony, our total tab for three people was about Rp. 650 ($14), which is pretty amazing, though perhaps still a fortune in the eyes of our driver and guide.

On the other hand, our guide and driver likely got a kickback for bringing us the restaurant. So I guess as long as they win out, too, I should stop feeling so guilty.

Drifting into food coma, we passively followed our guide to the Jantar Mantar – the Jaipur Observatory – World’s largest sundial at Jaipur Observatorybuilt in the 1700s (the Enlightenment found its way to India, I see). There we tried to muster enthusiasm and energy for the world’s largest sundial, but I must admit, we were not the best audience in the world. Long plane travel + heavy Indian meal = extra sluggish tourists.

What I do remember at the Observatory, actually, is that we had a little tiff with the entrance ticket clerk, who refused to give us small bills to break a Rp 100 bill (the entrance fee was Rp 30 or something like that). I mention this because repeatedly during our time in India, I learned that having small bills (Rp 10 and 20) is priceless, and in some bizarre way, the value of the small bill inflates just because of its usefulness. So having arguments with vendors over whether they will give you change/break a bill was more common than I expected.

After the Observatory, we visited Peacock detail at the City Palacethe City Palace (can we say Power Tourist?), which had a forgettable museum of weaponry and of clothing that ranged from enormous pajamas worn by a raj who was allegedly so morbidly obsese that he was four feet wide to the polo outfits worn by one of the more recent raj’s who loved his polo.

The City Palace itself is beautifully decorated still, probably because the royal family of Jaipur still lives there.

The highlights of our visit to the City Palace included: (1) Eric falling asleep while a gentle-Largest silver vessel in the world at City Palacevoiced artist showed us his work (Shyamu Ramdev was his name, for those of you looking for exquisite ink drawings); (2) the world’s largest silver vessels (weighing at 250kg each); and (3) spotting the king of Jaipur getting into an SUV.

We rushed to the Tiger Fort, which overlooks Jaipur, to catch the sunset and then we finally returned to the Alsisar Haveli for the night. Jaipur seems to come alive at night with the pedestrian and vehicle traffic in full force and the shops and stalls open for business, but we were too tired to explore the streets at night.

Instead, we ate dinner at our hotel (the “white chicken” dish of particular interest – chicken cooked in a yogurt-and-wine sauce, I think), went wild and crazy and shared one beer among the three of us, and then fell into bed for some well-deserved sleep.

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Golden Triangle India

Greetings from India!

I arrived in Delhi last Friday at 1:30 am local time, and along with my friends, E and E, I was greeted by a travel agent rep who, in exchange for $1,020 cash, handed us the hotel and travel vouchers we’d need for our three-day weekend around the Golden Triangle: Delhi -> Jaipur -> Agra -> Delhi.

Delhi International (Indira Gandhi) Airport was kind of overwhelming even at 2 am, when the airport is relatively calm and empty. After waiting almost an hour for our luggage (huge plane), we learned that to get to the domestic “terminal” for our flight to Jaipur, we would need to find a taxi because the domestic terminal is 10 km away from the international terminal. Don’t ask me why the terminals are so misleadingly named – why not just call them separate airports and set the right expectations?

Lucky for us the travel agent rep (how much did it suck that he had to hang around the airport at 2 am waiting for us to show up?) directed us to the prepaid taxi line, ordered us a taxi (Rp 300, about $6 US), and then put the three of us into a rusty old car powered by what appeared to be a lawnmower engine.

For reasons I can’t understand, the three of us had to squish into the back seat because clearly the car required a driver and a man in the passenger seat to take us to the domestic terminal. However, if I had to guess the second guy’s purpose, it’d be to push the car in the event of a breakdown on the road.

We arrived at the domestic terminal only to discover that it had been taken over by FedEx and all those other businesses that you Waiting area at Delhi domestic terminalconceptually know use the airports, but that you’ve never actually seen while there. As it was only 2:30 am, we sat at an outdoor Indian fast-food cafe (that, by the way, had its own altar for worship – something you don’t see every day at McDonald’s) until around 5 am.

There was a crush of people waiting with us on the security line to board the 6:15 am Indigo Air flight to Jaipur. The line was long, but luckily No Boreding Passsomeone at Indigo Air had the brilliant idea of including trivia games on the back of the “No Bore-ding Pass” to keep us entertained. (These details are perhaps more entertaining after being awake for 36 hours).

Security was unimpressive, with men and women separated for “modesty” reasons. There’s a big sign listing which people in the country do not have to undergo security screening (e.g., the President of India). I’m sure the President of India will find this sign helpful when next he flies commercial domestic.

The little people mover bus that took us from the gate to the plane actually hit traffic en route to the plane! At 5:30 am, our people mover bus actually had to honk at various other vehicles so we could make it to the plane. I mention this fact as a little bit of foreshadowing about driving habits I observed in India.

Indigo Airlines plane in JaipurThe Indigo Air plane was shiny, new and comfy. It felt just like being on JetBlue, actually. I’d highly recommend it, especially because the one-way ticket cost just $55 US and it saved us a 6-hour train/car ride.

We landed in Jaipur at 7:15 am after a smooth, 30-minute flight, and we were promptly greeted by our driver extraordinaire for the next three days, Manoj.

And here’s where the real adventure begins, so stay tuned for more details on Jaipur, Agra and Delhi.Arriving at Jaipur Airport

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