The Taj Mahal…Check

Ah, the Taj. It’s one of the most recognizable structures in the world, and one that lures millions of tourists every year. You can’t not visit it if you go to India (unless, of course, you end up there on a Friday when it’s closed). This monument to love is sure to impress with its white marble, imposing onions and the builders’ painstaking attention to detail.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Taj2.jpg” title=”Gorgeous” caption=”Gorgeous” position=”center”]

Our visit started after we slept late at our Delhi hotel and had to rush to the railway station. The cabbie took this opportunity to train for a NASCAR race, and sped through the early morning mist going the wrong way down streets, sideswiping sleepy cows and driving alarmingly close to pedestrians. This was one of our more terrifying experiences in India, and the lucky Miss Caroline was there to share it with us. By some miracle we arrived in one piece just in time to catch the Taj Express to Agra.

Hiring a driver for the day only cost us Rs.400 ($7), so we decided to save ourselves some haggling and go with it. This also allowed us to stop by the Agra Fort – a significant landmark in its own right, but often overlooked owing to the proximity of her ostentatious sister.

[ptcPhoto filename=”AgraFort.jpg” title=”The Agra Fort” caption=”The Agra Fort” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FortGate.jpg” title=”The main gate” caption=”The main gate” position=”center”]

Upon arriving at the Taj, we paid the comically inflated fee for foreign tourists (Rs.750/$14 instead of Rs.20/$0.40) and followed the queues for high-value ticket holders onto the pristinely manicured grounds. The security to get in is pretty intense. Make sure to leave laptops, food, and anything that might be deemed dangerous at home or in the cloakroom at the train station. They wouldn’t even let me take my safety whistle inside. If I had a $4m business and one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, I suppose I’d be strict too. But laptops? Honestly? If you do take blacklisted items, there’s a locker room five minutes down from the main entrance. Insist on keeping your locker key (which seems like the whole point of locking things up) and they’ll let you take it with you.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Taj1.jpg” title=”Entering through the West Gate” caption=”Entering through the West Gate” position=”center”]

Pretty as it may be, the Taj is a mausoleum that reflects the deep grief of its builder, Emperor Shah Jahan. The Emperor’s wife Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth of their 14th child, and in 1648 the Taj was completed in her honor. It’s now considered one of the best examples of Muslim art, although it combines elements from Islamic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian architectural styles.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TajDetail.jpg” title=”TajDetail” caption=”Some detailed work of the Taj” position=”center”]

Ending with a Fun Fact: the Taj Mahal isn’t completely symmetrical. The minarets are said to lean slightly outwards, so that in the event of an earthquake they would fall out instead of in and crushing the mausoleum.

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.

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!

PTC Through Southern India: Mumbai

[ptcPhoto filename=”MumbaiMap.png” title=”Mumbai Map” caption=”Mumbai, India” position=”right”]

The final stop on our tour of southern India was the city of Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. Made famous in the western consciousness by the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”, Mumbai is one of the most populated cities in the world. One part Hollywood, one part Europe, and one part complete destitution, Mumbai was certainly a place that challenged our expectations.

Our train arrived in the early morning so again we had the opportunity to see an Indian city slowly awaken from its slumber. It was still dark when we arrived to look for a hotel, and we gingerly stepped over dozens of people sleeping on the sidewalks in the temperate spring air. After finding a place to stay, we headed out for a walking tour of Mumbai.

Mumbai City Walk

Our first impression of Mumbai was that the architecture is amazing. Strongly influenced by its colonial heritage, Mumbai’s architecture fuses Gothic, Victorian and Art Deco styles with the Islamic and Hindu influences of the region. I don’t fully understand what all that means, but I do know the buildings were quite impressive and beautiful. This was a stark contrast from the rather plain utilitarian architecture we’ve witnessed in India so far.

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[ptcPhoto filename=”TajHotel.jpg” title=”Taj Hotel” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”MumbaiStreet.jpg” title=”Mumbai Street” position=”center”]
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A highlight of our walking tour, the Gateway of India is a magnificent Roman triumphal arch that was constructed to commemorate the visit of the King of England in 1911. British dignitaries arrived on the shores of India through this Gateway throughout the occupation. Ironically, the last of the British soldiers to leave India exited through this gate when India gained its independence in 1948.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GatewayIndia.jpg” title=”Gateway of India” position=”center”]

Mumbai is a very cosmopolitan city, but all its conveniences come with very western prices. Our hotel room was very basic and didn’t even have an en-suite bathroom, but it cost $33 – far more than anywhere we’ve stayed so far. While the normal Indian restaurant price for beer is about Rs.100, in Mumbai we found that prices went as high as Rs.300 in the tourist areas, far too much for our measly budget. We did splurge one day and visited the first Starbucks that we’ve seen in India…a frappucchino has never tasted so good.

Mumbai is also known for its cuisine. For the first time we were able to sample some Indian sweets including gulab jamun and julebi. Both are extremely sweet, much more so than a common desert at home. While one of any of the sweets is plenty (they seem to be made of pure sugar even though technically gulab jamun is cheese-based), we did enjoy them.

[ptcPhoto filename=”EricSweets.jpg” title=”Gulab Jamun” caption=”Eric enjoying some gulab jamun” position=”center”]

Bollywood

Mumbai is home to Bollywood, which releases nearly twice the number of films as Hollywood in any given year. The majority of Bollywood films are set and filmed in Mumbai. We think we spotted one film being made while we were in Mumbai, but unfortunately we weren’t casted as extras.

All of the Bollywood films in theaters are in Hindi with no English subtitle options, but we didn’t let this stop us from going to see a film. The movie we chose to see was Himmatwala. The film itself was easy to follow even without being able to speak the language. All Bollywood films have a certain amount of singing and dancing and brightly colored costumes that can keep you entertained, but overall we decided this wasn’t actually a very good movie.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Himmatwala.jpeg” title=”Himmatwala” position=”right”]

As with most things in India, movie tickets are sold on a “class” basis. For more money you get better and/or more comfortable seats in the theater. The least expensive seats are in the back or along the side. It was strange to be forced to sit in assigned seating next to others when 80% of the theater was empty. Also, there is no concept in India of disturbing other people. If you get a phone call while watching a movie it seems to be perfectly acceptable to have a full conversation at whatever voice volume you see fit without regard for other movie-goers. Overall seeing a Bollywood film was a fun experience, but not necessarily one we needed to have more than once.

Dharavi

Outside the glamor of Bollywood lies a darker side of this city. Mumbai is home to one of the largest slums in the world, Dharavi. Dharavi encompasses an area of only 0.67 square miles, but the population is believed to be over 1 million. Studies report that facilities are grim, with only one toilet for every 1,440 residents. Massive sanitation issues have lead to the spread of disease there. If you can believe it, there are travel operators that organize tours into the slums. We decided not to partake as we find the idea of “touring” complete destitution appalling and exploitative. While there’s a (small) chance the tours actually benefit the people who live in these areas, we weren’t comfortable taking the chance.

A Gift for the Road

On our last day in Mumbai, Sam was lucky enough to have another completely disgusting experience. India is full of men that chew this narcotic leaf called paan. From each user’s mouth teems a large amount of dark red-colored saliva that permanently stains their teeth and gums. The men spit everywhere, and the constant sharing of bodily fluids has resulted in increases of Tuberculosis in the country. The problem has gotten so bad in Mumbai that the government has started posting pictures of Hindu gods in places where the spitting is more common (the idea being that they wouldn’t spit on a deity). A very Indian solution to the problem, and one that is unlikely to solve it.

As we were walking back to our hotel to wrap up our visit to Mumbai, someone decided to spit a huge, hot glob of this bright red fluid right onto Sam’s arm. There were too many people around to identify the culprit. We immediately cleaned her arm with a vast quantity of hand sanitizer, and thankfully, once again it does appear she’ll be able to keep her limb.

If you’ve visited other large Indian cities like Delhi and Varanasi, I think Mumbai will surprise you. We found that it offers a modern twist to traditional India, and there’s always something new to see right around the corner. Aside from the spitting, we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.