Wednesday, January 28, 2009

WBTPITMOFN--Or Who Build This Place In The Middle Of Fucking Nowhere

The beauty of India: colorful dyes for offerings next to cows eating garbage.

Odd fact: many of the formerly great towns we visited are miles and miles from population centers and show no obvious signs that anyone except the kings, maharajas, or priests ever lived there. Orchha, Sanchi, Khajuraho, and Mandu were all capitals of princely states, or important religious places, and all that's left are the palaces and temples, with a few small streets and a few thousand people who would never have been enough to support the splendor and idle rich who lived there in the past. No sign of "normal people homes". In the case of Sanchi, it's understandable, because the stupas are leftovers from 1000AD or so, but Orccha's palace was inhabited by the Rajas and the Mughals well into the time of British India.

Orchha (pics) was the next stop after Gawilor, and definitely the nicest hotel during the entire trip. An old, renovated royal hunting lodge with only 29 rooms and probably twice as many servants straight out Richard Attenborough's central casting. Even the electrical installation and switchboards were 19th century originals.
Sidenote: Indian electrical systems are a miracle of Rube Goldberg design: Every electrical device has it's own switch. If the room has 5 light bulbs, 3 outlets, and a fan, you have 9 switches, and they are arranged in a single panel or a cluster of panels according to the following rules:
  • Every switch has to be as far away from the device it operates as possible.
  • Neighboring switches cannot have similar functions.
  • Lamps and fans need to be connected to more than one switch, so only combinations turn them on or off.
All in all, it evokes a rat-in-maze feeling in every new hotel.

In a nod to modern India, we visited an EU-sponsored artisan paper factory for single women who would have no other means of supporting the same time uplifting and depressing. But they were definitely better off than without and the place had a wonderful quiet and purposeful vibe.
The second night in Orchha was Christmas Eve and the hotel pulled out all the stops by hiring a illuminated dance floor and a DJ. If you've never celebrated the birth of the savior by rocking out to Who Let The Dogs Out in Hindi, you haven't experienced the true spirit of Christmas. Our tour guide--who wiped out on a motorcycle the night before--greatly enhanced the production value by demonstrating why you shouldn't mix pain meds with alcohol: He break danced through three or four repeats of the one and only 80s dance CD the DJ had handy.

Friday, January 23, 2009


After Delhi and Agra, we dropped off the beaten path with an all day bus trip to Orchha (oh my arching butt) on one of India's main roads. A few hours into the shake rattle and roll, we reached Gwalior (pics), and its incredible fortress. The few other tourists were Indian, and it was manned by only a single hustler. Well, given the road to Gwalior, maybe not so surprising, after all. Just for starters, the walls are 3 miles long and more than 30 feet high on a plateau. The mix of Raja and Mughal architecture is is amazing, and in places incredibly playful. I've never seen a ruler who would voluntarily tile his palace with yellow ducks.Large parts of the palace are unfortunately not open to the public--or in a state where one could count on the ceiling not carving in, but the even the accessible parts on their own were just about my favorite building in India. The staircases into the bowels of the fort not so much, though.
Like all other palaces, there are no glass windows because of the warm climate. Instead, intricate screens are carved out of stone.

Great Indian inventions, part 1: according to the tour guide, one room was set aside for the queens to commit suicide after the kings died. A+ for planning, F for equality of the sexes.

Just outside the main gate, huge Buddha statues are carved into the sheer cliff. I was so into taking pictures that I stepped into a nice, soft, warm cow patty. According to both the guide and the driver a sign of good luck that almost every other member of our tour had experienced by the time we were back in Delhi.
After lunch, we watched the inevitable first bad accident when a car ran into a biker*. From then on, we got one per day which makes me doubt the official number of "only" 12,000 people dying in traffic every year.

Slightly shaken, it was back on the bus for a drive that lasted to just about sunset, and the most amazing hotel on the trip--an old royal hunting "lodge". One thing driving at night might be more dangerous, but since the headlights on the bus weren't really on top of their game, it's less scary.

*He was able to walk least to the side of the road where he was swallowed up by a large circle of onlookers.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Winter on Hwy 1

Winter heat wave in NorCal: 76F on the coast--and waves that make me wonder why they didn't run Mavericks this week.

Monday, January 19, 2009


The first "real" Indian city we went to, Delhi is just so much larger that a number of things don’t apply in the same way. Of course, thanks to the Taj Mahal, it is also the largest or second largest tourist attraction in India, so not all things that apply to similarly sized cities like Bhopal and Indore are also true in Agra.(pictures)

The first two things that stand out are the masses of people, and the comparative lack of infrastructure. Agra has between 1.3 and 3 million people, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the city center which is more like a city of 50000 in most other parts of the world: no buildings over 4 stories, one shopping mall, and many things that are falling down. You also start noticing things that just aren’t there.

Agra's real size only became apparent the next day when it took an hour to reach the outskirts in our bus. But it's in line with the other cities we went to in MP and UP--come to think of it, Delhi's city center and infrastructure is maybe similar to Indianapolis or Springfield, IL.

Or things that are just baffling. For example, I never expected to hear the words "This town’s OTHER ATM is down this street." in a city this size. The town’s main ATM only dispensed 100RS notes--about $2. It’s quite a feeling to take out $100 and ending up with a stack of money you can hardly fold in half.
In general, Indian cities resemble ant hills--and I don’t mean this in an disparaging way. The overwhelming impression is dense masses of people, mostly on foot, and apparent chaos that only slowly shows any apparent order. On the other hand, there are old buildings and places of amazing beauty. It's more crowded than other towns in Asia, except maybe Osaka's train station or Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, but also feels incredibly alive. And strangely peaceful and comforting. Crowds like this in the US would end up in a riot in minutes, here it's just a normal day. Nobody yells, people rush past each other without touching, or they move people out off the way with a slight push with their right hands.

The other thing I’ve never seen before is how close the rich and the poor goes together. Even in Peru, there is usually a block between a "good area" and a bad one. Here the squatter city for the people who do marginal jobs for the guests like taking the laundry to the river and washing it by banging it against flat stones is right on the back of the walled garden of the 6 star Oberoi hotel.

The first place to visit in the morning was the Red Fort, a huge areal of red sandstone and marble with an unbelievable amount of decoration and artisan detail. (Some historians claim that it took 1.4 million laborers 8 years to construct in the 1570s.)It is unlike anything you see in any other part of the world: entire halls made of solid marble and inlaid with semi-precious stones, filigreed windows screens carved out of one piece of marble or sand stone, and much more jaw-droppingly beautiful design.

After the fort, three others and I took our first TukTuk to ride out to the so-called Baby Taj. TukTuks are marginally less terrifying than rickshaws. Due to congestion, they also drive slower than their Thai or Peruvian equivalents, but are prone to more abrupt maneuvers, since Indian traffic is even more unpredictable that Thai. The sights include all kinds of animals, children playing real life Frogger, and the occasional dead body being carried on a stretcher.

At the big traffic circle in front of the main bridge, we ran into a particularly ingenious method of traffic control : a few cops standing in the middle of the road and deciding on the fly which lane should move. If a driver ignores the signals—which commonly happens—they don’t hand out tickets, but just hit the vehicles hard enough with their lathis (5 foot bamboo batons) to put bumps into cars and raise welts on cyclists.

In a sign we overpaid for the TukTuk ride, our drivers were eager to wait for an hour until we finished visiting the Baby Taj.

The Baby Taj is the most singularly beautiful building I have ever seen. It is far smaller than the Taj Mahal, but while the Taj seems pretentious, the baby is of exquisite craftsmanship and impeccable design. It seemed even more improbable after we visited a inlay factory and heard that creating a dinner plate sized piece can take a skilled worker a month—I can’t even calculate how many man hours did go into doing this on a 50 by 50 foot building.

On the other hand, semi-domesticated water buffalo were fording the river right in front of it.
After the Red Fort and the Itmad, the Taj, although much larger and probably Asias most iconic building, was a bit of a letdown. The walls are plain marble inlaid only with some large Koran quotations, and very sterile. No wonder Shah Jahan’s son disposed him soon after the building was finished and nixed the plans for a sister building made of black marble.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


“FOOOOOCK!!!”—Rudely catapulted out of her seat by one of the frequent illegal speed bumps Indian villagers love to put on the main roads, my fellow traveler resumed viciously cursing the Indian roads, the bus’s broken suspension, collapsed upholstery, and the mechanic who removed all the shocks a few decades ago in Flemish, French, and English.

We are on day 3 of our Indian trip, and the first one with a hundred or so miles of Indian highways. It lacks the complete terror of one’s rickshaw cutting off a city bus, the confusion of the same rickshaw weaving through Old Delhi backroads scarcely wider than the vehicle, but adds the extreme discomfort of getting shaken hard enough to dislodge luggage and kidneys. It also goes a long way to explain why the main mode of inter city transportation in India is by train.

Indian trains are slow and crowded, but—except for the last day—more punctual, friendlier, and cleaner than anything Amtrak puts out. You board, settle back in your seat, let the landscape pass by and wait for the chai, coffee, or food wallah to serve you. The food is dirt cheap at about 40cents for breakfast and a dollar for most full meals. Also, when the train stops somewhere out in the open (which happens a lot, because of single lane tracks and no computerized scheduling), it only takes minutes for the kids from the nearest village to grab all available foods, bang on the doors and board the train to sell it until the train starts moving again or they get kicked out by the dozens of railway employees.

Service is an admirable 24-7, the constant shouts of “chai”, “coffee”, “meal” of the wallahs make sleeping somewhat of an art form, though.

Getting to the train is a completely different experience, though. All the stations we went through have seen minimal changes or improvements since the end of the Raj, and are overflowing with people, cows, and various other animals. When leaving Delhi, some workers were resurfacing the platform right between the passengers. The SOP is:

  1. Lay out some rebar on the current platform
  2. Move in concrete bucket by bucket on donkey trains
  3. Pour said concrete on rebar, donkey droppings and the trash that’s been blown up from the tracks
  4. Move on while cows, dogs, and rushing passengers create intricate patterns of footprints in the wet concrete.

Rinse, lather, repeat.Trains are commonly late, really late, not late like Japan's Shinkansen "annual average of 6 seconds" late. And this being India, obviously nobody in the station hierarchy has any idea when they might finally leave, so many Indians camp out on the platforms. One woman told me that she’s been waiting for 16 hours when I boarded the Super Express train from Veranasi to Delhi. By the time we got to Delhi, the super express delay had balloned to 27 hours, turning what was supposed to be a 12 hour trip into a two night ordeal.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Unpacked, got a haircut, and I'm not smelling of coal anymore. Oh, and I put up the rest of the pictures. Captions and commentary in a few days.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


I put up some pictures from the first day in Delhi. Not many, because I couldn't bring myself to take pictures of beggars, people washing themselves in the gutter, and similar things that are typical of Old Delhi.

Like many Europeans, I had this Rousseau-eske fear that India might be too modern and spoiled by modernism and progress. Well, it took only the drive past people sleeping in the streets to fix that. After a 24 hour flight, the hotel with 15 staff members at the reception was a bit surreal, but I only wanted to go to bed. The next morning, I took the clean and punctual metro to Old Delhi--after being cheated by the token salesperson. Stepping out of the station, I immediately got the stereotypical legless-guy-on-skateboard and cow-on-sidewalk. 10 minutes later outside the Red Fort, I gave up and picked the most fluent rickshaw hawker for a of Old Delhi--vastly overpaying him at $3 for the experience. This motivated, he energetically pulled out into traffic and cut off a city bus...totally normal and you get so washed out on adrenaline that it doesn't feel scary after a few minutes.

Three hours of climbing on and off the rickshaw, up and down rickety unlit stairs, and over partially tiled roofs, I had a ton of pictures, two visits to the driver's relatives stores and a lot of stories to tell. Unfortunately, I had to get back to the hotel for the first group meeting. At least I learned my lesson and--like all the Indians--banged on the bulletproof glass at the Metro until I got correct change.

What I took

Since people keep asking what I had in the backpack:
  1. 2 pairs of ExOfficio Buzz off pants
  2. 3 t-shirts
  3. 2 polo shirts
  4. 4 pairs of underwear
  5. 3 pairs of socks
  6. Patagonia Capilene 2 fleece top
  7. Cabelas Paclite GoreTex jacket
  8. First aid kit (bandages, tape, Excedrin, Cipro, Immodium)
  9. UV light water purifier
  10. 2 books
  11. Canon XSi DSLR with a Sigma 18-200 OS zoom
  12. iPhone, in ear headphones
  13. Chargers, replacement batteries, adapter plugs, 2 8gb SD cards
  14. Slik sleeping bag liner for the overnight trains
  15. Sarong (used as a towel)
  16. sunglasses and case
  17. 27oz Kleen Kanteen
  18. 1 quart zip lock with toiletries (deodorant, sunscreen, shower gel, insect repellent, Braun battery razor, comb, toothbrush, Woolite...)
  19. Small flashlight and headlamp (yes...both...I'm paranoid)
  20. Copies of all my papers and itineraries
  21. Spork
And I bought a chain to lock the pack on the trains in India.

The big advantage was the low weight and no checked luggage. The only downside was that I had to explain to every security person in Newark, SFO, and Delhi that YES, THIS IS ALL MY LUGGAGE!!!!

P.S. Yes, Tyler, you can get clothing washed overnight in Indian hotels, so I didn't wear a pair of pants for a week.

Monday, January 05, 2009

I'm back (in Terminator accent)

Three weeks of bumming around central and northern India ended with a 26 hour train ride (thanks for the 14 hour delay, Indian Railways), three hours of sleep in Delhi, and 24 hours on planes back to the US.

Dirty, utterly alien, and overall awesome is what comes to my lack-of-sleep addled mind. You get so used to it that I didn't notice until I stepped off the plane in Newark that all my belongings (see backpack pick below) REEKED of cheap coal and burned cow patties. Somewhat embarrassing when combined with the slowly abating pseudo-croup from the air pollution. I was worrying the entire flight to SFO that the nice woman in the next seat would call the CDC...

Oh, yeah, it was AWESOME. I'll post more when I've caught up on sleep.