India – Part 1 – Hot Rajasthan

May 20, 2008 at 7:43 am | Posted in India | Leave a comment

March 22 – April 6

We arrived in India from Hong Kong at a pleasant 2:30am. The boys easily bounced out of their cozy airplane seats and were as chipper as usual even at that ungodly hour. They were always very excited to see the next destination. We collected our bags and, as promised by our guesthouse, a taxi was waiting for us amid the rubble that we had to negotiate to reach it. The driver swiftly paid the young man who was guarding his seemingly illegally parked car and off we went. The Prem Sagar guesthouse was listed in our guidebook and we booked it via email as we felt lucky to find a place in the center of the city with four beds, hot water and A/C for a decent price in expensive New Delhi. The taxi let us out onto the everpresent rubble in front of a doorway whose fluorescently-lit bulb attempted to shed light on the dark alcove with scattered piles of garbage nearby and a lying dog or two which we were unable to discern whether they were alive or not. The smell of well-fermented centuries-old dust permeated the air. We are not sure what it is that arms you with the courage to arrive in a place that is so unlike anything that you had imagined it would be and still push forward around the dogs, over the manure, looking over your shoulder and then continue up the stairs hoping that there is a friendly face at some sort of desk up there. Perhaps it is hope or optimism, perhaps it is “We’ve been lucky so far…let’s go for it” or “We wanted an adventure – we asked for it” but whatever it was, we continued up the stairs with the boys not even blinking an eye at the surroundings (they were probably thinking of all of the things they could build with all of this stuff) and indeed, there was a friendly face behind a reception desk. We went right to our room and as Laura inspected the corners, and Peter looked for the right adapter to charge our batteries, the boys were ready for playtime. Every new hotel room was full of new and exciting contraptions to experiment with. After some coercing, and some prayers that India was going to be more exciting than this, we went to sleep until late the next day.

We had our bottled water with us – the boys knew the routine by now as we had trained them on the places where they should never use the tap water for brushing teeth. There was no distinction between the shower and the rest of the bathroom so the shower water would run all over the bathroom floor and slowly make its way to a drain somewhere in the corner. This made for slippery conditions but kept the floor clean! There was room service! We ordered 4 hot chocolates, bowls of corn flakes with cold milk and toast with butter. Little did we know that this would be our breakfast for the next 40 days. All dressed and ready to explore, the receptionist warned us not to go outside – it was dangerous.

We were in danger of getting colored. It was Holi. A religious day where everyone had free reign to protect you from evil by sprinkling, spraying or dousing you with brightly colored powder and it`s considered impolite to say no. After a few questions about the permanent nature of this coloring agent, we stayed in until mid-afternoon when it was supposedly safer. This gave the reception desk ample opportunity to try to sell us a car and driver deal to explore Delhi and outer regions such as Rajasthan. After converting rupees to dollars, it was too much for our wallet and we still were wondering how we were going to explore the country with no car and high temperatures and be able to break through India’s foreboding exterior. We ventured out. For a country with a billion people in it, there was no one on the streets because of the holiday. It was like we were walking onto the set of a disaster film where no one was left but us and the rubble from all of the explosions and the sun beating down on us as a few vultures soared overhead waiting for their feast. OK, there were no vultures. We declined an invitation to get “colored” and we made our way to a recommended taxi service where we may be able to hire a car and driver at a reasonable price. The office was closed. But suddenly, a non-descript man loitering outside chatting with the only other person in sight bounced up and gleefully lured us inside and assumed the position at the desk. The office was the size of a walk-in closet adorned with Hindi religious relics. The boys played with their Lego while we scrutinized this man and his suggested itinerary and his fair price. What kind of car? How big? Who is the driver? Does he speak English? Where will we stay? What is the quality of the hotels? He rustled through a few brochures and made a couple of calls and tried to assure us that we would be happy. It seemed like he was pretending to work there. Nothing seemed right.

But in India, nothing is going to be like other places, no familiar gestures or signs of trustworthiness. It was third world – business was conducted differently. They supposedly had a big fleet of cars, many drivers and years of experience and a recommendation from our guidebook. With not much to lose and plenty of time on our hands since we had canceled our adventures to Tibet and Nepal due to political turmoil, we agreed on a price. Just then the owner came in and splashed some holy water on pictures and sacred statues of Shiva and Vishnu in honor of Holi Day. There was a small gaggle of drivers outside and it was when we emerged from the office, that we met Rajeev. He immediately struck a conversation with the boys and he had a big SUV. We decided to upgrade to an SUV rather than a cramped car and because of that, Rajeev was our assigned driver since he was the driver of that vehicle. Rajeev made all of the difference from that point on. We could have been stuck with a driver who didn’t take pride in his job and who didn’t understand a foreigner’s perspective and who mumbled the minimum number of English phases as necessary. Instead, Rajeev was enthralled with the boys (he lacked children of his own), was eager to teach and our facsination with his country spurred him on to show us as much as he could off the beaten track. What was perceived as horrible became interesting, what was perceived as strange became familiar and what was inaccessible became close enough to experience.

We ate at a recommended restaurant nearby and with the English translated menu, we picked some safe options like tandoori chicken and chicken tikka and unleavened buttered bread. The next day Rajeev picked us up and we were now known as “Sir” and “Madam” and he took us to all of the major sights in Delhi. We went to temples, memorials to past kings and leaders and mega-tombs designed by those interred within but the most interesting sights were those outside the van window. Every few feet was another poignant picture of a life so different than ours. Some depicted poverty, some depicted back breaking labor, some depicted smiles, some depicted the hard way to get things done while others depicted simplicity that first world countries have traded for complicated, abstract lives. No matter what the scene, it was always made more magical by the sarees. The women’s sarees were bright, flowing and covered with a tens or hundreds of sequins. Every woman looked like a princess despite how mundane her circumstances were.

After our day in Delhi, we found the truck to be too hot. The air conditioner was weak and with the intense heat, we wondered how we were going to make it for 12 days. When Rajeev lifted the boys out of their seats, he noticed that their shirts were wet with sweat. Being that he would do anything for these boys, he announced that he was going to have the air conditioner repaired before we set out for our trip the next day. We asked how he was going to do it at night but he assured us that in India, anything is possible. Sure enough, he picked us up the next morning and there on the ceiling in the center of the truck was a brand new air conditioning unit that could reach the rear back seat where the boys sat and that we could control ourselves. Turned out that he stayed up all night to get it done.

We spent 12 days touring around the state of Rajasthan. We visited Agra-Jaipur-Pushkar-Udaipur- Ranakpur-Jaisalmer-Bikaner-Mandawar. Rajasthan was famous for its magnificent forts and palaces and the colorful sarees worn by the women. The Taj Mahal was very beautiful and larger than life. The palaces had intricate marblework that was created to make screens to hide the royal women from public view and was unlike anything we had seen before. By the end of our visit, the boys were quite adept in recognizing and naming the ubiquitous gods – Shiva, Ganesh, Krishna and the monkey-faced god whose name we only knew as monkey-faced god.

We had been gawked at in other countries and locals would not hesitate to approach us but in India, the fascination with us with exponentially greater. Indians would unabashedly stare at us with no expression nor words but as soon as we took the first step and looked them straight in the eyes, smiled and boldly said, “Namaste” (Hello), a whole group would be transformed from wary and quizzical to practically a bunch of giggling, shy toddlers. Even grown men. Once the ice was broken it was not unusual for them to form a ring around us and just look and be part of the sudden excitement that we created. Everyday we would feel either like martians or like royalty. They didn’t want anything from us, just wanted to be with us and talk to us but they didn’t know how to approach us. In this country, most people did not speak English so we often just looked and used body language or sometimes relied on a lone English-speaking person or Rajeev to translate. It was very cool. We posed for more pictures for other people’s cameras than for our own. We felt like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and their fascinating children (OK, use your imagination).

Cows – they were everywhere. It was actually amazing how quickly we acclimated to their presence and even their unsightly dung that was splattered all over the walkways. You simply went around it. Somehow it seemed to get cleaned up the next day. Cows were in middle of the road, they were in the alcoves between shops, and they were in the markets. They were like people. In India cows are very sacred because they provide people with so much to live on.

We got used to the perilous driving, sort of. Meaning, we allowed ourselves to be driven and were on the “wrong” side of the road as much as the “right” and drove closer to cars, trucks, cows, dogs, buses, camels, mules, people and rickshaws than we would ever dream of doing ourselves but we watched constantly trying to assess whether we were in danger which was difficult because, according to American standards, we were in danger of an accident 90% of the time but when in Rome…

We decided that we could not apply American standards of living here if we were going to try to explore India and have a positive experience. Rajeev had a sense of anticipation on the road that we never acquired at home – he knew what the other drivers were going to do and how much time he had before we hit head on. He knew which way a cow was going to walk as he nearly skinned its nose with his front bumper before he swerved to the right and the cow sauntered to the left. It was like a roller-coaster, you had to trust that the wheels were going to stay hitched to the track despite the mind-boggling curves. As a parent, we felt that our children were only in harms way if tried to fight what was normal in India. Even walking the narrow lanes to go to shops was risky as there were no sidewalks so you had to look down to avoid the cow dung, look straight to avoid the cows and look behind you to see if a vehicle was coming towards you. The boys never left our side and knew what to watch out for.

We had a few celebrations while we were in India. The Easter Bunny visited us the second day we were there and brought chocolates, jelly beans and Lego and left them at the end of Oliver and Henry’s beds during the night. Jelly bean filled eggs were hidden around our small room. The next day we arrived at the Taj Mahal to celebrate Henry’s 7th birthday. Henry picked out his own chocolate cake at a nice bakery (surprised to find chocolate in India). We decorated it with chocolate-filled eggs from our Easter stash and paper drink umbrellas that Henry picked out. We had carried our wax “7” candle all the way from Greece where a bakery had given it to us at Oliver’s birthday. We always carried paper so that we could make cards and we picked up balloons along the way. Rajeev surprised Henry with a game and a matchbox car set despite only knowing us for a day. We celebrated Peter’s birthday while we were in Udaipur. We had dinner on the lake overlooking the palaces and listened to traditional Indian music. Rajeev covertly obtained a cake and we surprised Peter with it.

Unfortunately, Rajeev did something to his back and was practically a cripple a few days into our trip. He had to contort his body in order to even walk. He consulted with the locals who recommended a “back man” who could possibly help. We drove down a narrow dirt road and from inside a tiny nondescript “office” with a buffalo and a calf outside, Rajeev emerged 5 minutes later. This doctor would accept only what his patients could afford to pay him, usually the equivalent of 25 or 50 cents, and fixed Rajeev`s back 50% of the way at that moment and by the next day, he was 95% cured. If we hadn`t seen this with our own eyes, we wouldn’t have believed it. Rajeev introduced us to all sorts of natural concoctions that would make you feel better, naturally. Anise seeds after a meal to help digestion, rice and lentils for an upset stomach, cold yogurt lassi drinks for diarrhea and most of all, Cadbury chocolate bars once a day so the boys would feel their best!

Despite all of this good advice, we ran straight to a Pizza Hut as soon as we returned to Delhi but in the meantime booked another leg of the trip with Rajeev for 11 days in the mountains so we could get closer to the Himalayas and the hill tribes of pastoral India.

(We found India to be so full of poignant photos that it became a difficult task to pare down. Click picture below for full slideshow (179) or here for only highlights (77).)

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Hong Kong

May 3, 2008 at 1:53 pm | Posted in Hong Kong | Leave a comment

March 18 – March 21

Our three days in Hong Kong were short and sweet. It was so impressive. The airport was so modern and gleaming and organized had every offering you could want. Bright color-coded taxis were neatly queued up and we were whisked across this other-worldly landscape to our hotel that we booked online while in New Zealand.

Seemingly brand new highways wound their way around lush, misty hills with a smattering of beautifully crafted bridges strewn across the interconnected bays like Christmas lights. Everything was so neat and perfect and colorful it was as we had been miniaturized and were driving on a brand new children’s road set. All of the dramatic hills were full of trees and untouched by development while paradoxically soaring mega-apartment complexes were carefully inserted into the scene without disrupting the beauty of the surrounding landscape. There were tens of thousands of apartments – stunning apartment buildings. The whole place was an engineering marvel as giant buildings were stacked higher, higher and higher.

The boys were concerned about the language. They felt that the language would be more foreign than anywhere else they had been. They thought that we would not be able to communicate with anyone. That has never been the case and certainly wasn’t in Hong Kong. It is incredible how prolific the english language is even among the older generation. We are so lucky that we speak English! After a rest in our hotel (oh yes, we forgot how nice a hotel was compared to motels), we ventured out. We had our Lonely Planet guidebook in hand and, as usual, tried to read it as fast as we could before arriving in the next destination. We went to Hong Kong because it was the only way we could get from New Zealand to India and it seemed like a great place for a long weekend. We made our way to the main part of the city by jumping on a city bus and stopped in to see the bird market. This was a market just like any other market except that they sold beautiful, tiny singing birds in carved wooden cages. Hong Kong loves its birds. Next was a visit to the flower market where all of the orchids and bonsai trees where being primped and trimmed.

The bustling streets were very exciting as they were full of signs and stores with everything imaginable for sale including cosmetics, freshly killed ducks, electronics, prickly fruit, pokemon-style toys, shark-fin soup and, as always, Coca-Cola. We made our way to the jade market and bought trinkets. We bought fresh fruit from the outdoor market and had a picnic in the main park next to the aviary containing fantastic large birds. After walking for miles, we finally made our way to the waterfront where all of the action was. Skyscrapers lined the bay and despite their blatant commercialism, it was an incredible sight. Each building was iced in neon piping with colors racing up and down each horizontal and vertical beam and changing colors as they moved. There was something very artistic about Samsung, Panasonic and Sanyo in this venue believe it or not.

We dined on noodles and dim-sum. The boys ate blueberries and sliced bananas and peanut butter sandwiches when the chinese food required too much bravery. We ventured to the highest point in the city by taking a bus, then a ferry, then a double-decker street car, then the longest escalator in the world and then a funicular. We saw most of Hong Kong along the way. It was a great day. We watched the skyline light up for its nightly light and laser show where the already spectacular buildings light up in sync with music.

The next day, we surprised the boys with a trip to Disneyland Hong Kong. It was great fun and we went on all of our favorite rides several times. We headed to the airport straight from Disneyland for late night flight to India.

(click pic for slideshow)

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