Monday, July 29, 2013

A distinct advantage


 Our second week in Delhi, much like the first, was packed with so much sightseeing and exploring that it was a relief to hit the sack every night. I haven't slept so well in a while. It's far too much to tell you about in individual blog posts, and to be honest, I think that would bore you.

Hence, I take you on a whirlwind tour of the rest of Delhi. Consider this a distinct advantage: you get to see all the historical wonders of this ancient city without sweating nearly as much as I did! Or taking two to three hour bus rides!

We begin with Humayun's Tomb, the resting place of a Mughal emperor and the inspiration for the Taj Mahal!


Raj Ghat, site of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation! This was my personal favorite place. An extensive museum traced every aspect of the wizened, saintlike hero's life, and afterward we stood in front of his funeral pyre.


A light breeze was blowing, and we all turned to face it, feeling uplifted. Granted, part of this was due to how hot we all were, but it also seemed fitting with the nature of the place, especially if you closed your eyes.

Qutb Minar, mispronounced and misspelled by me as "QuTUB Minar" on various postcards I sent! This is the whereabouts of centuries-old Hindu-Muslim ruins, hotly contested in ancient times and topped off with a massive tower:


It's also a great place to take goofy pictures with your new friends when you're tired of seeing historical monuments!

The pictures that are actually good are not taken by me, but by my lovely new friend,
the talented Rukmini Choudhury.

Once again, photo credit to Rukmini Choudhury.

And while you're there, you can certainly find six lovable new friends and decide to adopt them:



Feel free to name them Mahatma, Jena, and Nehru after India's first freedom fighters. Don't worry; when the customs officials see how cute they are, their hearts will melt.

The National Parliament, seat of the Indian government! A place of many religions, cultures, and dialects (India has 22 official languages, so interpreters are always needed) united under one national heart. After a tour of the Rajya (upper house) and Lok (lower house) (the Indian Parliament functions much like America's Congress), we attended a private talk with no less than the joint secretary of the houses. "I could get used to this," our SRCC friend Charles whispered as white-gloved waiters served us tea and cake in the Parliament press room.


The Presidential palace! India's president is mainly a figurehead, but he's still a well-respected man (the Kinks, anyone?) here. We toured the state banquet halls and receiving rooms and begged to see the famous palace gardens. Officials hustled us through a series of metal detectors and pat-downs, even though we'd already been searched extensively to enter the palace grounds. We were led up a set of stairs to a magnificent arboretum and topiary--"See, there's the garden"--and then marched back to the bus 30 seconds later. To this day I have no clue what happened. I've given up trying to understand some of the finer points of this country.

Us, not in the garden.
Iskcon, a Hare Krishna temple! We arrived just in time to participate in an evening worship. Lots of chanting-singing, clapping in time, the presentation of sweets and flowers to the gods, and crowding the front of the temple to catch a glimpse of the ornately-dressed statues. It was a singular experience, one of the most unique I've had here, and one I'm not likely to forget.


A nighttime light show at the Old Fort! This was our only evening activity in Delhi, as it's unsafe to go out alone at night, and we needed the SRCC guys with us. (Mom, I can hear you now. This was in a protected park; I was perfectly safe.) The show cleverly used the front of the Old Fort as a backdrop to showcase the history of Delhi, a "city of cities" finally united.

As you can likely tell, this was taken by me, not Rukmini Choudhury.
A really cool concept, artfully executed, except for a few things. First, there have been a lot of murders in the history of Delhi's kings. Whoever designed the light show decided to punctuate each of these murders with a bloodcurdling scream and an accompanying squelch of blood across the "screen." Multiply that scream and splatter by about 20 murders spanning several confusing centuries of Delhi history (in which servants killed kings and kings killed servants for the throne) and you have a lot of giggling among the audience.

Add to that a random dance sequence in the middle of the show, complete with whirling dervishes that turn into women and a singer that moans two notes for five minutes straight while swaying in place, and you have an audience who will mock the show the entire way home on the bus. Charles nearly toppled his plastic chair from laughing, which in turn caused me to go into hysterics as stray dogs roamed between our rows of chairs. (Mom: I did not catch rabies. I am fine.) If you're ever tempted to use drugs, just come to the Old Fort light show in Delhi for the exact same experience, sans side effects and risk of death.

Finally, the Lotus Temple! A fairly modern Baha'i temple, but nevertheless an architectural beauty.


There were no shoes allowed in the temple, no pictures, and no talking. For once, we were absolved for not making conversation, for being antisocial. We all filled in our own separate rows. Some people prayed, some people wandered around, examining the building's intricacies. I sat alone, eyes closed, and savored the sound of silence for the first time in two weeks. No horns, no English, no Hindi, no wallahs or rickshaw drivers or peacock calls. Just the Lotus Temple, and inside it me, and outside the rest of Delhi and India.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The magical, the mystical



I think I may have mentioned in a previous post how hot it is here? Allow me to reiterate that. It is hot, and what makes that even more fun is that it’s humid as well. I actually love the heat of summer, but when it’s 95 degrees and the humidity is above 90%, that is too much, people. I’ve been sweating in places on my body where I didn’t know it was possible to sweat. My clothes (and everyone else’s, lest you think something is wrong with me) are soaked by the end of the day. I read a story about India where the narrator described how the roots of her hair were wet. I can now empathize.

I apologize if that was graphic, but now you’ll understand if my face is particularly shiny and gross-looking in these pictures from the hottest day of our trip so far. You may recognize this monument. Oh yes, I’m talking about The One. The one you’ve all been asking about. The Seventh Wonder of the World. (Trying to give appropriate buildup here.)The magical, the mystical…

THE TAAAAAAAAAAJJJJJJJJJ!!!!! (Mahal, that is.)



 Yes, that’s right, folks. After a week in Delhi, we made the four-hour trek to Agra to see the world-famous site. And it did not disappoint:





The Taj Mahal is every bit as awe-inspiring, every bit as beautiful, as it is in the pictures. A quick bit of background, while trying not to bore you. (If you happen to be the world’s leading expert on the Taj Mahal, you may skip this paragraph.) Finished in 1648, the Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a maeusoleum for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. He was supposed to build an identical tomb in black across the river, but he died or ran out of money or something before he could. Today, the Taj is an Islamic holy site, which is why you have to cover your shoes before you enter.

Sexy.
I was most interested to see if the Taj’s appearance is more “real” in person than it is in pictures. Do you know what I’m saying? How, even in photographs, the mausoleum has this slightly unearthly quality of being not an actual building, but painted like a picture? I report back to you now that in person, the Taj Mahal does look like an actual, three-dimensional, very concrete structure. (When I used concrete in that last sentence, I meant the opposite of abstract. The Taj is actually made of inlaid marble.)

Of course, we had to go inside after coming all that way. The interior is surprisingly very small, dark, and crowded, with a sort of latticed marble fence surrounding the tombs of the Shah Jahan and his queen. (Did you know that the emperor’s tomb is the only non-symmetrical part of the building? Am I being annoying enough yet with all these facts?) Plus, it smells musty and funny inside, and people keep trying to make spooky noises, which echo and actually do sound spooky. After one too many sinister-sounding “oooooohs,” I was more than happy to go back outside.


I took way too many pictures, but the weird thing is how many people wanted to take pictures of me. My Uncle Mike, who comes to India often on business, warned me that as a white girl, I would get a lot of stares. The staring doesn’t bother me, but the pictures do. Many Indians, especially men, like to take pictures of or with white people. Apparently it’s a status symbol here, but to me, it’s just creepy. We haven’t seen many races other than Indian here, even at tourist sites like the Taj, so I guess I kind of understand. Kind of. Not really.

The bolder ones silently snap photos of us as we’re walking by (not trying to hide it at all, I might add). For those, I try to cover my face or turn my back. The politer (?) people do at least ask, but when I refuse, they beg: “Please, ma’am! Please!” I’ve stopped trying to be polite. I’m not an animal in a zoo! It’s really disturbing that you want a picture with me! Not to mention, what do you say to your friends and coworkers when you’re showing your pictures? “Oh, here’s me and a random white girl in front of the Taj Mahal.”


We did eventually have to leave, and it was sad, but to be honest, I was relieved. We were melting. We had been warned that the Taj tour guides will take you to shops their friends own in return for commission, and ours did not disappoint. I and several other people in my group wanted to see the Agra Fort, but noooooo. Instead, we were ushered into a shop that sells inlaid marble in the same style as the Taj.

I admit, it was beautiful, but I had already bought my inlaid marble souvenir. Plus, I’m turned off by pushy salespeople. Nothing will convince me not to buy your product faster than you pressuring me to buy it, and that’s pretty much the modus operandi here. Bored and a bit skeeved out, I wandered around and giggled and the ridiculous things made of marble that I will never buy.
Seriously, where would I put this?
On the other hand, maybe I just needed a different view of things.

Happy birthday Mom!
Another four-hour trip across the freeway commenced, with our first glimpses of rice paddies and straw huts and people sitting on the side of the busy road. We cooed over the baby monkeys chewing power lines in Agra and, after a rousing and somewhat inexplicable chorus of “Buffalo Soldier”, we were back in Delhi to begin our second week there.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Let's go to the mall!



By Saturday, our dear SRCC students needed a break from herding us around, so we gave them the weekend off while we pressed on. To be honest, I could have used a break, too, but we must continue our tireless expedition so as not to miss anything. Breaks are for the weak, I suppose.

NOIDA, a government-planned expansion of Delhi (NOIDA is an acronym for the government name), was our destination today. A lot more high rises and planned housing projects than the actual city, as well as a $10 million park honoring dalits (untouchables)...that they built instead of using that money to actually help the untouchables. Some things are the same worldwide.

Our main excursion within NOIDA was the Akshardam Temple. Absolutely no cameras were allowed inside, so you'll have to be content with my descriptions and this picture I took from the bus:


Up close, the temple is gorgeous--very intricately carved and actually very new (they only finished building it in 2005). It was built to honor the Bhagwan Swaminarayan, a Hindu visionary, and a name you will hear much more of before this blog post is over! Prepare yourself.

After we surrendered our cameras and bags--pretty much everything--a sign gave us the most detailed list of forbidden items I've never seen, including certain types of sweets (why they didn't just say "no food and drink" is beyond me), and not only alcohol, but drunkards as well. So, being from Penn State, none of us were allowed inside. (Cue cymbals.)

Courtesy Google Images
We had heard this was an interactive temple, not just a space of worship, so we were excited to receive tickets to various "activities" on the grounds. Oh, how little did we know. This is where the story gets...strange.

We were ushered through a set of dark rooms for our first ride, of sorts. I say ride because this was sort of a cross between It's a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney World, only creepier. A set of lifelike Animatronics told us the story of the Bhagwan Swaminarayan by showing scenes of his life. "Come," the voice said each time, urging us to the next room. "Let us see how the Bhagwan Swaminarayan..." and then it would say what he'd be doing in the next room. If you're wondering how I remember such a long and impossible name, it's because the narrator only repeated it about 5,000 times, using the entire name each time.

Looks friendly enough. Courtesy Google Images
Bhagwan Swaminarayan was apparently some sort of Hindu prodigy, reciting the Vedas (holy book) by age five and making animatronic fishermen scream tortured screams when he gave them visions of hell. I had several problems with this presentation:

1) This guy, who was supposed to be no better than anyone else, was shown in several scenes wearing a jeweled turban and sitting on a throne, doling out advice. Even in the childhood scene, he's wearing these perfect clothes while the other children are in rags. So much for practicing what you preach.
The humble Swami on his throne. Courtesy Google Images.
2) The devotion people showed him was kind of absurd. In one scene, a poor couple with no food or possessions is struggling through the desert when they happen upon an expensive silver bangle. Instead of selling that bangle to buy food and a place to live, they bury it in the sand, remembering the lessons of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. "

Remember," said the wife, "how Swaminarayan came to visit us, ate our food, and taught us to be honorable and not take the possessions of others?" Well, there you go! Not only is this jeweled turban guy being a hypocrite by telling others not to seek wealth, he's eating them out of house and home as well! No wonder they're starving! Couldn't he bring them food instead of just praying with them and having them serve him? I'm surprised they didn't tell the Bhagwan Swaminarayan to stick that jeweled turban where the sun don't shine.

3) Finally, the animatronics were just creepy. They were actually high-tech, and I almost screamed when Swaminarayan stood up from his throne and prayed at one point. In another scene where he's practicing yoga, he just kept raising and lowering his arm with a continued, "Ommmmmmmmmmm... ommmmmmmmmm..."

Courtesy Google Images
We managed to escape from the animatronic people alive and were herded to an IMAX movie! About the life of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. I kid you not. We watched a slightly more detailed version of the exact same story (played out by real, live people, thank goodness). The movie focused on the life of the young Swami, this smart-alecky kid named Neelkanth that I wanted to smack for most of the film, and his journeys across dangerous rivers and into the Himalayas to spread his wisdom. I'm sorry, but no. This 11-year- old kid did not climb mountains like Everest and K2 in only a loincloth and live to tell the tale. Also, the slightly-older version of Neelkanth is played by the Indian version of Michael Jackson. I kept expecting him to break out into "Man in the Mirror" when he was stopping the villains from throwing fire.

You thought I was kidding about the Michael Jackson thing, didn't you. Oh, no. No no no. Courtesy Google Images
Also, did I mention that that's all that happens in this movie? The kid walks around. That's it.

After this event mercifully ended, we were ushered to the final setup: a flume ride! I threw up my hands and gave a cheerful, "Woohoo!" as our boat careened down the initial baby hill. With any luck, it would be a mini version of Tidal Force.

Nope. Instead, we sailed around a flat, peaceful canal, learning about how Indian civilization was the first to develop everything in the world. There wasn't even music, just this eerie silence behind the narrator's voice and lifelike statues on the sides writing in Sanskrit and frozen in dancing positions. At least we didn't have to hear anymore about the Bhagwan Swaminarayan.

I even would have been okay with a baby flume ride. Courtesy Google Images
After this whole rigamarole, we did finally get to go inside the temple. I have to admit, it was beautiful. When the doors are open at night, you can see the gold statue of the Swami from the highway half a mile away. But by that point, I would have been perfectly happy never hearing another word about the Bhagwan Swaminarayan.

Perhaps our chaperone sensed this, because our second part of the day was a mall. Indian shopping malls, while not so different from larger American malls, are quite an experience in themselves. There were quite a few restaurants, endless stores, and even a club, throbbing with bass beats at 3 PM:


Before we left, a few of us stopped at the bookstore. Ali--perhaps the most proper member of our group--had the scandalous, yet intriguing, idea to pick up one of India's classic works of literature: the Kama Sutra. I won't say much more, except that there were lots of giggles and some reading aloud on the bus, with Chris, our group's token boy, commenting, "You guys are so base." Among the more innocent tidbits I can share: did you know the Kama Sutra includes a list of 64 things men should learn to make themselves desirable? Number 24 is "making lemonades, sherbets, and drinks." I insist that any potential husband of mine learn this most invaluable skill.

Come! Let us see how the Bhagwan Swaminarayan made his lover a homemade sherbet.


Monday, July 15, 2013

A whole new set of tastebuds


As a self-professed food snob, the biggest question I've gotten since arriving (apart from, "Are you safe?! Are you ok?!) is about the Indian cuisine. "How's the food??" my best friend messaged me. "Is the food good?" asked my mom. Food is one of the things I was looking forward to most about this trip, and I am happy to say that, for the most part, it has not disappointed.

But first! Friday was another all-day adventure away from school. In the morning we explored the National Museum, sort of the Indian equivalent of the Smithsonian. This is one of those museums that explores the history of the country through various mediums--art, sculpture, artifacts--and it would take several days to look at it all. You will all be happy to know that I finally found an acceptable souvenir: a bronze elephant, dating from, oh, about 2000 B.C., that I will be stealing from the National Museum in the dead of night and bringing back home. Won't everyone else in my group look silly, with their tapestries and their inlaid marble and their statues of Buddha, when I pull out my bronze elephant!


Other highlights included an ancient skeleton (quite the memento mori for the day), an elephant tusk carved intricately with scenes from the Buddha's life, and various intricate paintings of the Lord Krishna and his lover, Radha. For the benefit of non-Hindus reading this, Lord Krishna is the blue dude you always see in Indian art. Ever wonder why he was blue? Here's your fun fact for the day, explained to me by one of the SRCC girls: painting someone blue was a way to show how dark his or her skin was. Lord Krishna was supposed to be very dark indeed, especially compared to his lover Radha. If you squint, it actually kind of works.

Also, as a side note, Lord Krishna actually had many wives, but his deepest love was always devoted to Radha, who never married him, yet is considered his perfect match. Well, aren't we quite the stud of ancient times!

And then we got bored and started impersonating the Hindu statues. Typical.
After lunch we trekked to Cottage Industries, a fair trade store that pays craftsmen a good price for their wares and sells those items so the craftsmen don't have to bargain on the streets. Did I mention that I am not a shopper? I'm really not a bargainer, so I was very happy to pick up most of my presents and souvenirs here, even if they were slightly more expensive. (They were still pretty darn cheap.) For myself I picked up a sandalwood bracelet that smells insanely good, masala chai so I can get my fix back at home, and a small piece of inlaid marble, one of the treasures of India that my uncle recommended I buy.

Did I mention this place was huge? Five floors. Massive.
Our last stops were an ancient well and Jantar Mantar, an ancient and complex astronomy calculation system designed by one of the ancient emperors. It didn't feel like a scientific complex so much as a scene from a Dr. Seuss book:


You have brains in your head! You have feet in your shoes! You can steer yourself any direction you choose!
Now, back to what I'm sure you all want to know about: THE FOOOOOOOOOD!

(As I typed that, some guy began a singsongy Indian chant outside my window. I'll take that as a good sign.)

From what I can gather, North Indian food is more based in rice and heavy sauces, while South Indian food is lighter and consists of more dips. North Indian food is what we commonly have at Indian restaurants in America: masalas, paneer (a kind of cross between cottage cheese and tofu that is deliciouso), saag, etc. Here it's a bit heavier on the vegetables, which is fine by me.

Between the National Museum and our shopping, we lunched at a restaurant known for its South Indian cuisine. (Here most decent restaurants have security guards at the front doors to keep out the riffraff.)

The SRCC students ordered for us, so we didn't really know what we were getting. Luckily, Singh was joining us for lunch, so we had him to explain everything to us. First was a mysterious white drink that looked creamy and refreshing. A milkshake perhaps? What followed was one of the strangest taste experiences I've ever had: salty and creamy, with the lightest touch of heat somehow permeating the whole thing.


Singh, happily slurping the entire concoction down, told us the contents: yogurt, salt and pepper, and a green chile pepper.

Yeah. We promptly ordered a mango lassi instead.

We may be smiling, but we're crying inside.
The actual food was much more pleasant. This was my favorite. I honestly don't remember the name (I'm a terrible food blogger, I know), but it was a sort of rice pancake with vegetables and various dipping sauces: a lentil dal, a slightly sweet coconut chutney, a savory tomato sauce, a green chile chutney, and a smoky chile paste.



The dosa came with the same sauces. A sort of lightly fried Indian crepe, this was filled with a creamy potato filling that was quite similar to a pierogi. An Indian pierogi, that is.


We finished off our meal with halva, a sort of porridge of sweetened grains that we all really enjoyed (despite its off-putting color):


And finally, the waiter presented us with these mystifying bowls:

Blurry, I know. I never said I was a photographer.
This is the Indian equivalent of an after-dinner mint. You take a small handful of the anise seeds (bottom), add a few cubes of crystallized sugar (above), throw them back in your mouth, and chew. I was apprehensive, but the flavor was really unique and refreshing. "I like this," I said. "The sweetness of the sugar, the surprising flavor of the anise--it really cleanses your palate."

"It tastes like a portapotty," said Ana.

Honestly, I haven't hated almost anything I've tried here--no, not even the salty yogurt drink. It's just all so very different from the flavors I've had all my life. I don't know what to make of new foods like tamarinds and pickled vegetables at breakfast. It's like my tongue is discovering a whole new set of tastebuds I never knew I had.

Demolished. I may become the first obese person in India.
This was also the first part of our trip where we encountered pushy beggars. Outside the restaurant, waiting for our bus, a girl of no more than six years old with a shaved head shoved some cheap necklaces in our faces--or as close to our faces as she could reach. "Ten rupees!" she said, and when we shook our heads and said no, she kept insisting. Even when we crossed the street, even when one of the SRCC girls yelled at her in Hindi, she kept following us. When she finally left, a man approached us. "I give you good price," he said, showing us some trinket, and when we said no, he walked away, defeated. We watched his retreating back.

"I wonder," said Sharmila, "if this is a recent thing, or if he began as young as that girl...? Has this been his whole life?"

We were all quiet. It was something to think about.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

They're the greatest


Our days here in Delhi have assumed a sort of pleasant, relaxed routine, and if you know me at all, you know that I love routines. As I've never mentioned before on this blog, "we" consists of a group of 12 students from the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State. We're being hosted for this leg of our cross-cultural experience by students from the University of Delhi, namely the Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC). This is the most elite business school in the country, taking only the top 1% of India's high school students.

In case you were wondering, yes, we feel terribly inadequate by comparison.

Anyway! We're up for breakfast at the guest house, to SRCC by 9 (or a little after), and in the mornings we work on our assigned group presentations and papers--yes, we're doing actual schoolwork here! My group is tackling "Water." I'll leave that up to you to interpret. As you can see from the short video below, our work sessions are intense and productive:

video

After work session, we have a lecture from one of several professors at the college, on everything from business ethics to multiculturalism to child rights. All are quite good--the professors here are really stellar--but my favorite was the talk given by Sanjay Kumar, an English and theatre professor (what a surprise, I know). He helps traumatized and poor children write and produce their own plays about their experiences and the world around them. They're not all sad, either--the one he showed us about gender stereotypes included two boys courting a female traffic cop with a Bollywood song.

As a writer, I was all in for how he was actively using creativity to combat social problems. In fact, my playwriting professor at Penn State conducts the same kind of work with abused children. It was affirming to know that they're using the same kind of right-brain therapy all over the world.


After lunch, we take a bus or rickshaws and head out to explore Delhi. The SRCC students have become not only our friends, but our guardians and saviors. Doubtless one of us would have gotten scammed or run over by a bus by now without them helping us to cross the street, bargain with the vendors, and tell us what is and isn't safe to eat. They're the greatest, and that's an understatement.

Thursday was one such day of work and play. After--ahem!--hard work in the morning, accompanied by Professor Kumar's lecture, we were off to the Center for Social Research. This is an NGO devoted to gender equality and women's rights from birth to death and everything in between. We were introduced to the founder, "one of the best public speakers in India" (she didn't disappoint), and listened to another excellent lecture about the changing perspective of women in India.


We rounded off our day with a trip to Delli Haat, an open marketplace with pavilions representing each of India's 28 states. Think Epcot, but with shopping instead of passport stamps and rides. I'm not really a shopper, but I had fun taking pictures with my new friend Rukmini. We stopped at a food stand, where she had me sample local delicacies like crystallized ginger and tamarinds.


There have been exceptions, such as our day visiting temples, but for the most part, we've stuck to this loose schedule. I'm probably the only girl in the world who enjoys lectures and projects more than shopping, but... actually, I have nothing more to add to that. I'm probably the only girl in the world who's like that.

Rest assured, shopping was done. But that's a story for another blog post.