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Monday, August 27, 2012

Jaipur (Part I)

About a week ago we took a two-day trip to Jaipur and it was magical. Being there felt like going back to the time of maharajas (kings) and maharanis (queens) and we loved every minute of it. We saw palaces, forts and temples; we rode an elephant, hung out with monkeys, one of us touched a cobra (while another screamed) and we saw a bunch of camels. It’s very hard to describe Jaipur for it’s crowded and dusty and polluted like any other large city in India but it’s also quaint and beautiful and has so much charm and character that I highly recommend it to anyone visiting India. We are already talking about going back because we liked it so much. We took 700+ pictures and sifting through them and picking out the best has been difficult. I needed to blog about it because I wanted to share our awesome experience but I know I can’t do it justice, for which I apologize. It’s just one of those places that you have to see for yourself.

Everything about the trip was terrific except getting there and back, which was a royal pain in the neck. Jaipur is the capital of the state of Rajasthan. It is about 250 km (160 miles) southwest of Delhi and it took us 7+ hours to get there and 5 1/2 to get back. Yes, you read that right. Of course, the spoiled Americans that we are, we couldn’t possibly imagine it taking us more than 3 hours to drive that distance but we had never been outside Delhi. Now that we have, we know better. Traffic was just horrendous. The fact that we spent almost two hours barely moving at all didn’t help either. And it’s not that the roads are really bad. They were actually better than I expected but they were totally inadequate to handle the crazy number of vehicles (mostly trucks) that were heading in our direction. It looked like this:

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And yes, there were dudes riding on top of trucks – on the highway (not that we were going very fast at this point but still)!

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As wells as trucks pimped out to the gills – inside and out:

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And of course, camels:

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So, anyway, after an excruciatingly long journey, we finally got to Jaipur at 2 p.m., checked in at the hotel, grabbed a quick lunch and met our guide. I should probably mention that this being our first trip outside Delhi, we decided against taking our car and hired a car and driver. Apparently, a guide was included in the deal. At first we thought we’d be fine without a guide because we had our trusty Lonely Planet book but I am so glad we had the guide because without him we wouldn’t have been able to see half the things we did. He knew his city and was friendly and efficient and very good at managing our time.

A few words about the city: Jaipur (city of victory) was built by Maharaja Jai Singh II, ruler of Amber (more about Amber in one of my next posts) and a true Renaissance man. In 1727 he decided to move his capital city from Amber fort to a new location, where present-day Jaipur is. He laid out the new city using rules prescribed in ancient Hindu texts. Jaipur is in fact the first planned city in India. It is also known as the Pink City because  of the characteristic pinkish-orange color used to paint the buildings in the old city. The color dates back to 1876 when the Maharaja Ram Singh II painted the city pink, the color of hospitality, to welcome the prince Wales, who was visiting.

Our first stop was Hava Mahal (the Air Palace). Built in 1799, this five-story-tall but only one-room-deep building was specially designed for the ladies of the royal zenana (harem), so they could observe everyday life and special processions in Jaipur in privacy through its 953 lattice-screen windows. There is a tunnel connecting the City Palace, where the ladies lived, and Hava Mahal and the ladies used it to move between the two buildings undisturbed. The palace gets its name from the cool breeze that flows through all those windows. I loved the windows themselves, which were made of multicolored glass and gave the place a whimsical feel.  I was unable to get a street view of the palace, which would show all five stories but there’s always next time.

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Next, we went to Jantar Mantar (literally “instrument to make calculations,”) an astronomical observatory built between 1728 and 1734 by Maharaja Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur. He was fascinated by science, among other things, and built five similar observatories all over India. The one in Jaipur is the largest and best preserved. It has 18 different instruments measuring the movements of the sun, stars, and moon, calculating time and date, predicting the expected date of arrival, duration and intensity of the monsoons, and the signs of the zodiac.

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Our last stop on day one was Chokri Sarhad (City Palace). It’s a large complex with a lot of beautifully-decorated buildings, some of which are museums. The family of the ex-raja also lives there in their own apartments (top right of the collage below). Our tour ended on a high note with Nia joining a snake charmer on the ground to pet his cobra, which almost gave me a heart attack because at one point the cobra lunged at Nia. I know that the snake charmers remove the fangs of the cobras before they go out in the world and do their thing but I still screamed bloody murder when I saw that snake going for my daughter. Wouldn’t you?

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We saw a lot more cool stuff on our second day in Jaipur, so stay tuned to Part II.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Five Good And Five Not-So-Good Things About Living In New Delhi

Even though we’ve only been here since April, I thought I’d participate in the Foreign Service Blogger Round-Up and share my favorite and not-so-favorite things about living in Delhi. This list may and probably will change as we spend more time here but this is what I have for now.

On the plus side:

1. The History and Culture – If you are into that stuff, you will love India. Delhi itself has so much to see and do that you can be entertained here without leaving the city for quite a while. Not that I recommend it because there’s so much more to India than just Delhi but it’s true. There are 7 cities, with modern New Delhi being the eighth, that were built in this area. Each one has left an indelible print on the city and its inhabitants. The mixture of cultures, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Christian all represented here, is truly amazing.

2.  The Food – We love the food but we understand not everyone is into Indian food. As it turns out, our own daughter is not a fan but we are still hoping she’ll come to her senses. In any case, we find Indian food delicious and are enjoying it almost daily. There are other choices, of course – plenty of restaurants serve Chinese, Thai, Japanese, French, Italian, you name it. Also, it’s very easy to be vegetarian in India. We are not vegetarians but have been eating little meat since we got here and it’s fine. The veggie food is yummy. We do crave meat on occasion but between the commissary and the restaurant on the compound, we can usually find what we have a hankering for pretty quickly.

3. The Shopping – Yes, the shopping is to die for. That said, there are different types of shopping here. There’s your usual mall shopping, which is like being in the US – air-conditioned and hassle-free. It’s great for when you need an escape. But there’s also shopping Indian-style, where you go to the various bazaars, bargain with the shop sellers until you are blue in the face and you never know what treasures (or trash) you may find. I love any kind of shopping but have been hanging out at the bazaars a lot lately. I’ve been buying fabric and getting clothes made, which can be very affordable and fun but you may or may not always get exactly what you wanted. That’s a topic that deserves it’s own post though, so stay tuned.

4. The help – I never imagined that I would ever have help but here I am the employer of a housekeeper/nanny, driver and a part-time gardener. I am obviously new to this help thing and it’s still very strange to me but as people say, When in Rome India, you do as the Romans Indians, so we did. Because having help is very much part of Indian culture and society. If you are middle-class here, you have help. And it’s not that we couldn’t possibly live without help here. We could. But it would not be easy. India is a complicated society with rules and customs that seem strange to us. It’s nice to have someone who can help you navigate all that when you are new in town and you don’t know where to go for simple things. Getting things done here takes a while. You often have to make multiple trips to the same place to get what you need done. The city is not stroller friendly. It’s hot. It’s dusty. Traffic is crazy. And on the wrong other side of the street. People like to take advantage of the tall pale lady with the cute chubby baby. Our help makes life easier for us and we are so glad to have them. I know some people frown upon the whole help thing but I have come to realize that if our housekeeper/nanny, driver and gardener weren’t working for us, they’d be doing the same thing for someone else. (And if it’s outside the US community, probably for less money.) That’s because there are a lot of people here who don’t have a lot of skills or education (there are also a lot of people who do but that’s a whole other topic) and for them there aren’t a lot of job options. Working for us helps our housekeeper/nanny, driver and gardener put food on their tables and send their kids to school. So, it’s kind of a win-win.

5. Last but not least, Bollywood – the movies, the music, the costumes, the gossip. Love all of it! A lot of it is over the top but I can’t get enough of it. Bollywood churns more movies each year than Hollywood. It’s a huge industry with a lot of stars and millions of fans. Of course, not all of the movies are good but sometimes even a bad movie has good music and you can hear Bollywood music everywhere. Movie stars are plastered on billboards all over town as well. It’s also a great way to keep your Hindi from going into oblivion.

On the minus side:

1. The crushing poverty – The Indian economy has been growing pretty steadily for the last 20 years, which is pretty amazing really, and it has produced many millionaires.  Unfortunately, there are still millions and millions of people that live in abject poverty. You see many of them driving around town and it’s very hard to come face to face with that. There are many shanty towns in various parts of Delhi and there are beggars, homeless people and peddlers everywhere. It can be overwhelming at times. Giving money directly doesn’t usually work because there are often crime organizations involved but there are many non-profit organizations that target different disadvantaged groups and try to help with whatever they can. The US Embassy works with quite a few such organizations. There is a Thrift Store on the US Embassy Compound and the proceeds of its sales as well as many donated items support a variety of organizations. I have decided that this is my way to help. I also give a lot of things that we no longer need to our help as well as the help of friends. I like to think that it’s making a difference in these people’s lives.

2. The traffic – as I mentioned before, traffic is crazy and on the wrong other side of the street. Imagine your usual cars, trucks, motorcycles on the roads but in insane numbers, add to them rickshaws, cows, camels, goats, pigs and the occasional elephant on the street or monkeys on the side of the street and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about.  Thankfully, we live on the Embassy Compound, so we don’t have to commute to work but I think it would probably get to me, if we did. As it is, we do get stuck in traffic on occasion but I don’t terribly mind because I get to people-watch and haven’t gotten tired of that yet.

3. The pollution – Delhi is a huge city. 22 million people call it home at last count (as of the 2011 census) and that doesn’t even include the suburbs. It’s hard to keep a city of this size clean. There are efforts to clean it up but the pollution is obvious and you just have to deal with it.

4. The weather – We have yet to experience the nicest part of the year, the cool season, so this is not the full story but so far the weather has been hot, ungodly hot and dusty, and hot and humid. I hear it gets better in the fall and I hope, I’ll be back in November to enjoy it.

5. Dengue – Yes, there’s Dengue Fever here and there’s no vaccine for it, so you just have to make sure you don’t get bit by a Dengue mosquito. The bad part is that the Dengue mosquitos are smart – they hang out around people’s homes and they bite during the day unlike other mosquitos. So we have to be careful and/or use a lot of bug spray.

There are more things I can add to either side but it’s probably better that I leave it at this for now as I am still new and have a lot more to see and learn.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Offer Accepted

Just a quick note to let you all know that after thinking about it and mulling it over for a few days with my husband, I have accepted the offer to join the Foreign Service. We are aware that separation is possible but we felt we’d be foolish not to take the offer and try to make the best of it.

So, now I have about a month to tie loose ends here and fill out a bajillion forms before Chutney and I meet my Mom back in the US for A-100. I do not look forward to leaving without my husband and Her Cuteness but here’s hoping that on Flag Day I get to waive the Indian flag, in which case, I’d be gone for about 6 weeks. That’s the best case scenario.

Of course that’s not the only scenario but why worry about the others now? I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it, right?

 
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