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[edit: youtube link fixed, thanks to mike]
[edit2: and duly messed up. fixed again]
The desert city of Jaipur with 3 forts, at least two two big palaces, a bunch of smaller palaces (many of them now hotels) and lots of fun shopping and “life”.
Arguably my favourite city in India (Ranakpur and Jaisalmer are the other two contenders here).
All the photos from jaipur are at http://tinyurl.com/radoshi-jaipur
Sunrise and sunset are the most common times to take a boat ride on the Ganges. During the evening you get to see the aarti (evening prayer) – quite a spectacle, a complete light and sound show if you will. During the mornings, you get to see people coming to the banks for their morning prayers, cleaning, washing clothes, doing yoga and who knows what else. I think I preferred the evening, but regardless, any visitor to Varanasi needs to go to both.
Varanasi, located on the banks of the river Ganga, is considered among the holiest cities for the Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. It is also among the oldest inhabited cities on the planet (~2000 years).
All that being said, it is also one of the dirtiest cities I have ever been to. Walking in Varanasi is difficult – even if you are Indian and are mostly used to how traffic and things work in the country.
The picture above is of a funeral pyre at a ghat on the river. Ghats are essentially steps that go down to the river. People use these for various purposes ranging from bathing and cleaning to ritual prayer and cremation. There are two cremation ghats in Varanasi – both in extremely high demand because of the holyness in being cremated here. As a result, at least one of the ghats has a body being cremated 24/7. Both the ghats can serve about 4-6 bodies and there is an electric crematorium nearby for more. Bodies are dressed prior to cremation and the pyre itself is piled with wood and various other things including ghee (clarified butter). The high flames as seen in the picture are probably because of an excess of ghee in the flames.
There are times when we get rather cynical about people helping each other out without anything to gain. Sometimes people prove us wrong – a most pleasant surprise.
We got lost getting into Agra. Our driver was from Jaipur and did not know Agra quite as well: he was positively scared of the city. Small wonder that he got lost – there was some sort of diversion on the main "highway" and we were way into the dregs of Agra, little clue about where to go next.
First we asked some random dude on the street, who immediately started the usual Agra scam of "let me take you to a better hotel". No thanks.
Then we asked another person and he said "if you give me a couple of minutes to run an errand, I'll take you all the way there". Uhh, sure, but sounds suspect. Is he going to come in our car (in which case he could lead us anywhere). No, apparently not. He was going to drive his little scooter and we were supposed to follow him through the hell that is Agra traffic. We waited for him – his errand was getting pani puris for his family – and then followed him while he rode his scooter.
He was really good. He waited for us at every junction and fork in the road. He took us *all* the way to the gate of the hotel. He didn't expect money or anything in return and just waved us bye. Quite a difference from what you would expect and leaves you feeling good about the whole thing.
Mumbai is a city of extremes – lots of poverty on the street (though people are not starving afaik) and opulence in the 5 star resorts and restaurants. Even amongst the restaurants, the variability is very high – the excellent (but cheap) dosa place next to my parents' place costs Rs. 25 for a dosa ($0.5) and the Taj charges Rs. 250 for the same. Drink disparity is even worse. At a fancy restaurant last night, we paid $5-7 per main – quite allright for the place we were at. But my martini was $15 and a bottle of Fosters (it was the best thing they had) was $6. And its not even super good liquor. So I'm not entirely sure what explains this (its not a sin tax). I guess it makes sense to get pre-drunk before going out drinking 🙂
My strategy on the Jaipur-Agra-Benares trip was to not take my mac and instead use only my G1 to write short blog entries, post some pics etc. In my idealized world, there would be reasonable free wi-fi access (this is India, and so many people work in tech). Uh, big mistake. The wi-fi was available only in the hotels and at exhorbitant rates ($6/hour). I didn't bother. But we did write down a whole bunch of interesting stories so we'd remember and be able to post them here once we were back (and we are). So stay tuned.
We have been so busy meeting family that we have not had the time to blog. Indians tend to "party" until late (party = eat food) and given our jetlag, we are usually exhausted by the time we get home and have little time for email let alone updating the blog. This is a bit unfortunate because we have a lot to write about.
So here is the quick update (stech will post pictures at some later point):
Gateway of India – disappointment because its all under renovation and has scaffolding all over the place.
Taj Mahal Hotel – feels strange with all the locked doors and guards everywhere.
National Gallery of Modern Art – quite excellent and much bigger than I expected it to be. First time I've been here even though I've lived in Mumbai for years. Lots of prints available at really cheap prices.
Jehangir Art Gallery – this is a common space that local artists rent out to exhibit and sell their work. Really cool stuff, originals ranging from $80 – $400 ish. Almost bought one but didn't (I don't regret it).
Cream Center (lunch) – best chole-bhatura in town.
In the evening, we went to Linking Road – a common shopping area in northish mumbai – chaotic fun and bargaining for everything and us getting ripped off (I think we overpaid by a dollar, but we'll live). This was possibly the awesomest part of the day. Kristin has a lot of pictures and videos of the chaos for later.
Elephanta Island: Caves with sculptures from 450AD ish off the coast of Mumbai, about and hour's ferry ride. Haven't been here since I was a kid. The caves thing is a misnomer because its just *one* cave that has everything. All the other caves are meaningless. We went here in the afternoon, so it was a bit hot. But still, a reasonably good excursion I think. A bit of shopping on the way back and then off to (extended) family's home for dinner.
We are off to Jaipur this morning. Carrying my G1 around so hopefully I'll be able to post more via random wifi networks out there.