Snapshot Sunday: Sunrise In the Land of Giants

[ptcPhoto filename=”Annapurna640.jpg” title=”Annapurna Himalayan Range” caption=”Sunrise over the Annapurna Himalayan Range – Tadapani, Nepal” position=”center”]

With peaks soaring nearly twice as high as the tallest mountains in the continental U.S., the peaks of the Annapurna Range in Nepal dominate the skyline. Taken moments before sunrise, this photo captures the holy mountain of Machhapuchhre (aka “Fishtail”) at 22,943 ft, and the great peaks of Annapurna South (23,684 ft.) and Annapurna I (26,545 ft.), the 10th highest mountain in the world.

Click here to view the full panorama.

A Note for Women Traveling to Northern India

It’s been more than a month now since our Holi experience in Jaipur, and I think I’ve simmered down enough to write a nuanced and informative piece about my experiences as a woman traveling in India. Unfortunately, world travel carries with it some inherent risks that have to be weighed when deciding which countries to visit. Women in particular have to carefully consider whether they are putting themselves at risk in countries where they may not have the same status as men, or where locals make false assumptions about female travelers.

I’ll preface this article by stating clearly that I believe the vast majority of Indian men are decent people, and that I had no problems in southern India. There must be half a billion good, respectful men in this country, and I’ve met some of them. I’ve also had the displeasure of encountering dozens who have inappropriately touched my lady parts in broad daylight on the streets of Jaipur and Delhi. I did wear a tank top for Holi (gasp!), but I won’t entertain the idea that my attire somehow prompted these attacks, nor that I’m to blame for what happened.

The “gropings”, as they’ve come to be called, took place during the day in public, with my 6’4” husband and friends nearby. The violations of personal space were physically harmless, but they were infuriating. I can’t understand how these men could possibly derive any sexual pleasure from this behavior – they touch you quickly and then run away, so they can’t be feeling much. I’ve decided it must be about power – they feel good knowing they’ve made women uncomfortable. And if they’re so desperate for power they must feel powerless themselves. It’s easy to look back at the last two months in India and say that these incidents were rare overall (they happened on three or four days out of two months). It’s easy to shrug them off and say it’s not a big deal. But it is a big deal because they reflect a much deeper problem, and a potential safety issue for women traveling there.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Cock.jpg” title=”Cock” caption=”Cock” position=”center”]

Walking the streets of major cities, it’s not difficult to spot the inconsistencies between genders. Almost all servers at restaurants are male, and they address the men at the table instead of the women. The shops, roads, cafés and theaters seem only to be frequented by Indian men and older Indian women. It is less common to see young women out and about in the cities unless their husbands or fathers escort them. When it comes to Holi, women choose not to publicly participate at all, instead preferring the safety of celebrating in their own homes. There are seats reserved for women on many public buses, and the metro in Delhi has special cars designated for them. So the question must be asked: From what (or whom) are they being protected?

To what extent is this partition of the sexes actually discrimination veiled as protection? Perhaps this separation, rather than empowering women or keeping them safe, only serves to exacerbate the issues that cause them to need protection in the first place. By separating them from men they lose status as equals. Men assume the dominate, patriarchal role of guardians and women are automatically subsumed to the opposite role – weak, helpless victims.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TwoWings640.jpg” title=”Two Wings” caption=”Knowledge from the Lotus Temple” position=”center”]

I can refuse to sit in the women’s carriages on trains and the front seats on buses, and up until my experiences in Jaipur and Delhi, this simple act of disengaged tolerance was enough for me. But being repeatedly sexually assaulted in broad daylight has made me feel like so many men seemingly want me to feel: powerless, victimized. I can’t do anything to change the sexism in India, but I do have a voice and I can share my experiences with other travelers. This empowers me, and it empowers other women traveling there because they may be able to make more informed decisions.

Would my experiences prevent me from going there again? Absolutely not. As a female world traveler, do I think you should go? Definitely. We can’t let a bunch of grabassers prevent us from experiencing a place as vivid and awe-inspiring as India. But it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for this sort of thing, since it’s common there – and to consider partnering with other travelers if possible.

Snapshot Sunday: Watering Time in the Garden of Dreams

[ptcPhoto filename=”Flowers640.jpg” title=”Garden Flowers” caption=”Bright Flowers in Kathmandu – Nepal” position=”center”]

Inspired by the Edwardian style of some European gardens, the Garden of Dreams showcases pavilions, fountains, and verandahs along winding perimeter paths. Each of the garden’s pavilions is dedicated to one of Nepal’s six distinct seasons. It provides a charming respite from the busy streets of Kathmandu.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Sightseeing in Delhi

Here is a huge city with a storied past and frenetic present. At the heart of north India, Delhi is home to 21 million people and serves as the country’s hub for government, commerce and tourism. It offers many major sights, packed and ancient neighborhoods, street foods galore, and plenty of adventure. Which means that if you’re a backpacker with gumption you’ll never run out of things to do. But as a major urban center, the city is completely unapologetic about its raw, hectic, tremendously overwhelming state, so the faint of heart may elect only to pass through.

[ptcPhoto filename=”OldDelhi.jpg” title=”Old Delhi” caption=”Street scene in Old Delhi” position=”center”]

During our time in Delhi we stayed in the Paharganj neighborhood, which is centrally located and a great starting point for most of the key sights. As a backpacker’s haunt, there are many inexpensive hotels and eateries hidden away in the tiny, winding streets off the main road in Paharganj. This is one area where you should definitely steer clear of the restaurants that Lonely Planet recommends. Our theory is that the moment a place shows up in LP, the prices skyrocket and the quality boards a downward spiral of half-cooked eggs, mushy vegetables, and insipid, spiceless imitations of the local cuisine. Fortunately in the major cities there are always locals, which means there is always good food if you look hard enough. But, I digress. This article is about sightseeing!

[ptcPhoto filename=”paharganj.jpg” title=”Paharganj” caption=”View of the main street in Paharganj” position=”center”]

If you stay in neighborhoods like Paharganj and use the city’s modern and efficient metro, you can absorb much of what Delhi has to offer in a short period of time. The best part is that you can go almost anywhere on a tight budget if you don’t mind a fair bit of walking around and dodging vehicles. Just make sure to continuously look both ways – not only on the roadways, but even on the sidewalks, as drivers don’t always see the distinction. If you absolutely have to cross a major street, it’s best to shadow groups of Indians (preferably women and children) who know how to navigate through the traffic.

New Delhi

Only a short Rs.8 ($0.15) metro ride away from Central Delhi, the Lotus Temple is one of only eight Bahá’í Houses of Worship in the world. The temple is open to all people regardless of religious belief, and it’s free too – they didn’t even ask for fees to store our shoes as we walked around. Like all Bahá’í temples, the building is nine-sided and circular in shape. It is composed of 27 freestanding “petals” arranged in clusters of three to form the nine walls, encircling up to 2,500 worshippers in marble that was brought all the way from Greece.

[ptcPhoto filename=”petals.jpg” title=”Petals” caption=”Petals of the Lotus Temple” position=”center”]

The nine pools and gardens that surround the temple are beautifully maintained, and provide a nice respite from the noise and pollution of the city. Given its splendor and proximity to Delhi, it’s little wonder that the temple is one of the most visited sites in the world, surpassing both the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower in the early 2000’s.

Gandhi Smriti, formerly known as the Birla House, is where Mahatma Gandhi spent the last few months of his life, and where he was assassinated on January 30, 1948. It now serves as a poignant memorial to one of the most compelling figures of the twentieth century, with exhibits detailing Gandhi’s vision and showcasing his few worldly possessions.

[ptcPhoto filename=”spectacles.jpg” title=”Spectacles” caption=”Gandhi’s spectacles” position=”center”]

Visitors are free to wander the building and grounds learning about how Gandhi lived, and to trace his final steps from the house to the courtyard where he met his untimely end.

[ptcPhoto filename=”footsteps.jpg” title=”Footsteps” caption=”A long walk” position=”center”]

Admission to the Birla House is free, and photos are allowed. If you’re in Delhi, this one is a must-see – not only to learn about all that Gandhi did for India, but to remember the man who pioneered nonviolent direct action and influenced other leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. (As a side-note, we watched the 1982 film Gandhi before arriving to Delhi, and it helped us appreciate how special Gandhi Smriti really is).

Not far from Gandhi Smirti is India Gate . Inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, it serves as a war memorial and prominent Delhi landmark.

[ptcPhoto filename=”IndiaGateLegos.jpg” title=”India Gate” caption=”India Gate” position=”center”]

The Red Fort is also close by, although we just snapped photos from outside after the rickshaw incident sapped our energy for the day.

[ptcPhoto filename=”red_fort_640.jpg” title=”Red Fort” caption=”The Red Fort” position=”center”]

Old Delhi

A friend of ours describes Old Delhi (or is it India in general?) as “an assault on all five senses with a new problem every minute,” and perhaps this isn’t far from the truth. The neighborhood is grimy, intimidating and noisy. But no visit to Delhi is complete without a half-day excursion through the clamor and clatter of Chandni Chowk. The area has 2,500 shops, and it’s one of the oldest and most active markets in India. If you visit when it’s busy (which is basically always), be prepared to claw your way through the streets, which are choked with thousands of people and shops with their goods spilling out onto the roads. It makes for terrific window-shopping and people watching. There’s also a great wholesale spice market called Khari Baoli, which has been operating in much the same way for centuries.

[ptcPhoto filename=”spices.jpg” title=”Spices” caption=”Spices in Khari Baoli” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”raj_kachori.jpg” title=”Raj Kachori” caption=”Haldiram’s Raj Kachori” position=”right”]

If you find yourself in Old Delhi, make sure to stop into the original Haldiram’s Restaurant for a dish called Raj Kachori. Classified as a chaat (snack), this treat consists of a puffy hollow fried shell filled with potatoes, curd, chutney and spices. Your taste buds will be simultaneously delighted and confused. My mouth is watering just thinking about the savory, sweet, crispy, delicious combinations that make this dish so glorious. Yummmm.

Even though we spent almost a week there, we definitely only scratched the surface with Delhi. Maybe we’ll be back for more in the future, if we work up the nerve to return!

Missing Elephants and Decency in Jaipur

[ptcPhoto filename=”JaipurMap.png” title=”Jaipur Map” caption=”Jaipur, India” position=”right”]

Our vacation in Goa and our unexpectedly pleasant visit to the megalopolis of Mumbai left us relaxed and ready to take on northern India. We understood when we started this trip that northern India was going to be a test of our patience, nerves, and stamina. We figured that since we eased our way in by starting in the south that we’d be better prepared to handle what was to come, but as we exited into the Jaipur train station we realized it was all for naught.

The Jaipur train station was the most tout-filled area we have experienced in India. Within 3 minutes of exiting our train we had completely lost our cool at the rudeness of the rickshaw drivers who would not take “no” or our ignoring them for an answer. They followed us relentlessly, and when they finally gave up they would insult us and say things like, “Why do you come to India if you don’t like Indians?”

We eventually made our way through the madness of the train station and found our hotel, Hotel Kalyan. Luckily it was a very pleasant hotel with friendly staff and a peaceful rooftop garden that we would need regularly if we were to survive the frustrations of Jaipur.

The Jaipur Elephant Festival Fail

While planning the route to take on this trip there were two activities that we absolutely wanted to make sure that we were at the right place at the right time to enjoy. One is climbing Mt. Fuji in Japan, which can only be done in the months of July and August. The other was being in Jaipur for the annual Elephant Festival. The thought of seeing hundreds of Elephants parading through the streets of Jaipur, fully decorated and painted in all sorts of colors and jewelry, competing in a beauty pageant and silly games of tug-of-war and polo had us giddy with excitement.

In keeping track of the news, however, we learned that PETA had been making some complaints on behalf of the elephants. The Jaipur government had assured everyone that the animals were treated humanely but to appease PETA they agreed to cancel the tug-of-war and elephant polo games. Fair enough, we were still plenty excited just to see the elephants and we could understand that those types of games could be harmful for the animals.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HoliSign.jpg” title=”Holi Festival” caption=”Where are the Elephants?” position=”right”]

The morning of the festival something was amiss. We learned that the festival would take place at a different location in the city this year than it had in the past. Instead of being at the large stadium in town, the day’s events would take place at a fancy 5-star hotel’s polo grounds. When we arrived, we found ourselves in a sea of white tourists. We thought this festival was enjoyed by locals as well, but there were none to be found. We noticed the name of the festival had been changed from the Elephant Festival to Holi Festival, but we were still hopeful.

We found some seats but didn’t see, hear, nor smell any elephants. There was an aura of confusion emanating from all the spectators as an announcer came on and described the day’s events, including competitions for turban tying and carrying buckets of water on one’s head, but there was no mention of elephants. Instead we got…

[ptcPhoto filename=”HanumanMan.jpg” title=”Ummmm” caption=”Ummmmm” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HoliDrag.jpg” title=”Hmmm” caption=”Hmmm?” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”HoliShiva.jpg” title=”What?” caption=”What?” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”HoliHorse2.jpg” title=”Yeah…no” caption=”Yeah…no” position=”center”]

By this point we knew something was very wrong and got on our phone internet and started searching. Apparently some 12 hours before the festival, the Jaipur government decided to announce that it had canceled all elephant activities. We were crushed. Why can’t they just be nice to the elephants? The show was embarrassingly bad and we felt gross just being there, so we left shortly after.

Had we known there wasn’t going to be an elephant festival, we wouldn’t have gone to Jaipur at all. The organizers knew this, which is why there was no announcement earlier. So Jaipur was off to a bad start.

Holi

The day after the non-existent Elephant Festival is the Indian holiday of Holi. Holi is celebrated across the country as a festival of color that ushers in spring. To “play Holi” is to buy fine powdered chalk and go around the city greeting people with “Happy Holi!” and smearing some powder onto their head and across their face. This is genuinely very fun. The people you meet seem in good spirits and every person you pass greets you with a big smile.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HoliPowder.jpg” title=”Holi Powder” caption=”Holi Powder” position=”center”]

The event is unique to the subcontinent and would never be acceptable in America because people invade your personal space all day. You inhale heaps of the powder, which probably isn’t very good for you, and whatever clothes you wear that day will be ruined. As white tourists everyone wants to cover you in powder. People will be driving down the street and pull over just to wish you a happy Holi. We joined up with a couple new friends and headed into the old city where the locals tend to congregate in celebration.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PostHoli.jpg” title=”Post Holi” caption=”After an hour playing Holi” position=”center”]

Many expect hugs, especially from the women, which is where things went horribly, horribly wrong. Indian women seem not to leave the house on Holi, this is an event celebrated only by Indian men and tourists of both genders. The reason is that many Indian men see this as an excuse to fondle women. Hugging is generally accepted and most people are just genuinely having a good time, but perhaps 30% or so want something a little extra. Sam and our friend Becky were repeatedly groped by a large number of Indian men. Typically it would happen when a crowd of 8 or 10 men would surround us yelling “Happy Holi” and doing the typical spreading of chalk on our faces. They’d start giving hugs and all would be fine, until one of them would decide to grab a little extra of one of the girls. It would be very quick and the loser would disappear into the crowd before you could even identify who they were.

The police know that this happens every Holi. We heard a story from another traveler that after being groped one too many times she noticed there was a police officer nearby and she started yelling at the culprit to stop. Two police officers heard this, caught the guilty guy and dealt out the punishment immediately by beating the guy bloody with their nightsticks and kicking him after he fell down. Can’t say I really feel bad, these men are cowards and they deserve what they have coming.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HoliDog.jpg” title=”Post Holi” caption=”He felt violated too” position=”center”]

An hour of playing Holi and we’d had enough. We celebrated the rest of the day at the hotel’s rooftop garden with other guests that had similar experiences to our own. Despite all of the above, we did have fun in Jaipur. We don’t highly recommend the city itself, but we met a lot of great people there. As for Holi, it’s enjoyable if taken in small doses. Just make sure not to stray too far from your hotel, as things can go downhill quickly!