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What’s it like to stay in one of the world’s top 5 hotels?

It is pretty nice.

So here is how it went down: a few years ago, when I was teaching the class in Peru, we went to Machu Picchu.  There is one hotel up on the mountain beside the sanctuary.  When you stay there, you have non-tourist hours access and other privileges… plus, you’re RIGHT THERE.  But, since it was a ridiculous amount of money ($500 or so a night), Paul and I scoffed.  No way, we said.  That is a ridiculous waste.

And later, we regretted it.  We learned: if you manage to get half-way around the world to see something tremendous, pay the extra to get every bit that you can out of it.

When we went to Agra, we decided to do it right.  So, we stayed in the only hotel in the Green Zone, the only hotel with views of the Taj in every room, the only hotel that every guide says to stay in, even if you have to skimp on other things during your trip.  We stayed at the Oberoi.  Our stay in this property was more than quadruple the total of all our other lodging in India — more than three weeks — plus meals.  In other words, it was pricey.  We felt, as Paul put it, “like we were pretending to be somebody else.”

Here is a collection of photos to give a sense of what it was like…

(There are guards all around the property.  It made us sort of miss the “real” India… the one right beyond the gate!)

(This is the plastic bag that the kids let slip off our balcony while eating the crackers and fruit we’d brought with us… we thought for sure we were going to be asked to leave!)

The view is really incredible.  Both the grounds, and the Taj beyond, are fantastic in all light.

We swam in the pool both days (chilly!)  Because there weren’t many kids at the hotel, and because it is SO DARN SWANKY, we really felt nervous about letting them really let go and play.  A downside of fancy hotels: no COWABUNGA jumping in the pool…

The upside: walking through the blue water through the archways felt like exploring some flooded, undiscovered ancient tomb.  Like something out of an Indiana Jones adventure!

We did let Kate practice her “India dancing” on the patio outside… much to the delight of hotel staff!

Room service was a must.  Plus, kids aren’t allowed in the main dining room!

When the sun sets, torches are lit to prepare for nightly entertainment above the pool deck.

Turn down service is very thorough.  They even clean the bathroom!

More information about the Oberoi here.  In our opinion: it is worth the splurge!

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After exploring the world of block-printing, we went to another part of the little town.  This time, we set off to find where paper is made.

It took a little bit of talking to get in, but once we did, we were given a thorough tour of the process.  Everyone was quite nice, probably because they figured we were so insane, it was better to just play along.

First: bags of recycled fabric are organized and shredded by color.  This is done by hand:

Here are some shreds:

The shredded fabric is piled up, waiting to be further shredded.

Then the piles of fabric are fed through a wood-chipper type machine, that turns the fabric into a fibrous tangle of mess.

It looks like this when it comes out of the machine:

Then this is put in very hot water and turned into pulp.  It is moved through this machine:

Coloring and other additives are put in at this phase (flower petals, glitter, etc.)

Then the watery pulp is moved into these huge vats.  This is what the pulp of blue paper looks like at this phase:

Men, working in the humid. hot room, use screens to flatten and lift the pulp into long sheets.

First, they put the screen in the water, spreading pulp on it.  Then they put a fabric screen on top, to flatten and smooth the pulp.

They are putting a screen on the screen:

With the extra screen on, they flip the board and press hard, letting extra water splash and seep out.

The process moves quickly!

Here they are pressing the pulp into paper through the screen.

They are left with individual sheets with a thin fabric screen in between them.  The paper is still very wet.

The room is filled with pairs of workers toiling on this task in the humid air.

After all the pulp is used, the paper is brought to a drying area.

There is a press to get out more water if necessary.

When it is dry, someone manually removes each protective screen from each sheet.  Paper is born!

The paper is then ironed and stacked for shipment.

There were huge reams just waiting to be sent off.

Much of this will be sold wholesale to distributors to turn it into journals and notebooks.

Viola!  Paper!

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Lotus Temple

The Bahá’í House of Worship in Delhi is called the Lotus Temple… for reasons that are quite clear:

It sits in the center of a massive garden in Delhi.  To get to it, you walk down a long brick path (perfect for a quick photo-opt!)

Groups of young men (boys school?  young military units?) were also visiting.  Though we weren’t the only light-skinned tourists, we were the only ones with small children — so, like everywhere else, we drew friendly attention and interest.  Even a salute!

No shoes are allowed!

The temple is surrounded by reflecting pools.

According to Wikipedia:

As with all other Bahá’í Houses of Worship, the Lotus Temple is open to all regardless of religion, or any other distinction, as emphasized in Bahá’í texts.  The Bahá’í laws emphasize that the spirit of the House of Worship be that it is a gathering place where people of all religions may worship God without denominational restrictions.  The Bahá’í laws also stipulate that only the holy scriptures of the Bahá’í Faith and other religions can be read or chanted inside in any language; while readings and prayers can be set to music by choirs, no musical instruments can be played inside. Furthermore no sermons can be delivered, and there can be no ritualistic ceremonies practiced.

No photography is allowed inside the temple, as this man in the center was explaining to the crowd about to enter.  Also, complete silence is mandatory.

Okay — so I’ll level here: Though I consider myself a spiritual person, I don’t believe in God and am not one to worship.  I was expecting to enjoy the architecture of this building and have a few moments of shared peace with the people inside.

I was completely unprepared for how incredibly moving it was inside.  There isn’t anything specific I can put my finger on to describe why, or how, or what — but being in that space?  It moved me to tears.  Whether it was the overwhelming peace of silence, the hundreds of others respecting the prayers of others, or simply the beauty of the building itself, I can’t say.  Even Paul found himself blinking back unexpected emotion.

Afterwards, the kids were asked for more photographs.

(Actually, on this occasion, I was asked for photographs, too.  By different men who posed with me.  Go figure?)

Wikipedia has more about the Bahá’í Faith here, should you want to learn more about it.  This particular religion emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind — and yet its followers are persecuted in modern day.  It is worth a few minutes of investigation; and if one has the opportunity to visit a Bahá’í Temple, I certainly encourage it!

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Agra Fort

Home to the ruling Mughal empire, the Red Fort in Agra (aka: Agra Fort) is considered to be one of the most important Forts in India (which is a big deal since India is a country chalked FULL of forts.)

The Agra Fort is also the other thing you do while in Agra, whenever you’ve got your fill of the Taj Mahal.  Most tour groups hit the Taj in the morning and head the 2.5 kms to the Red Fort in the afternoon.  This means that the Fort is wild in the afternoon, which is exactly when we went.

(This happened a few weeks ago (the 25th of October)… I’m playing catch-up!)

In its infancy, the site was a basic fort with important positioning for the Mughals.  When Akbar drove the Afghans from Agra in the mid 16th century, he chose Agra for the capital and began construction of the current fort in Red Sandstone.  A million and a half workers built a brick base and covered the exteriors with the red sandstone over an 8-year period, completing it in 1573.

Only a small area (roughly 1 km square) of the massive fort is open for tourists.  Significant portions are under study by archeologists and historians as they seek answers to questions about the Mughal Empire.  (Things like: why were they so darn blood-thirsty? YIKES.)

Here is a photo Kate took of the area entering the royal palaces.

We went with a guide who was recommended by our driver, Sodi, who was recommended as a friend of the driver of a friend of ours… which is how things work in India (just like New Orleans).  The guide was okay in the sense that he was a professional in managing tourists.  The issue is that we are not typical tourists.  (It took a few days, and several lengthy conversation with his driver friend, for Sodi to really understand that we weren’t typical tourists.  After he had established that we were crazy, we got on with him quite well.)

The Agra guide, however, was worth his salt in how he navigated us through the crowd at the Taj (and helped with those oh-so-important Taj family photos) — AND getting us through the crowds and touts in front of the Red Fort.  A decade or so ago, the effects of Agra-based industry pollutants were noted to be impacting the Taj.  So the Indian government relocated those industries as part of a massive plan to protect the world’s most beautiful building from deterioration.  This left tourism as the biggest (and basically only) industry in the area, with white-skinned tourists as the best cash-cow in the market.  It is not unlike being at Disney World, on one of the rides where you have to walk through a store to get back into the park when the ride is done.  In tourist sites in India, you’ve got to make your way through similar sellers hawking wares — albeit, in a much more direct assault.

Although it was the start of tourist season, we were frequently the only Westerners in tourist monuments.  The majority were Indians.  Families, tour groups, school classes, etc.

The views of the Taj Mahal across the river are wonderful.  The Red Fort is where Shan Jahan (the guy who built the Taj Mahal for his wife) was imprisoned for the last 7 years of his life.  He was held there by his son, Aurangzeb, who, in addition to locking up his Dad in the Red Fort, killed all his brothers and many of their sons.  (To be fair, Shan Jahan did much the same thing in his own quest for the throne.)  Aurangzeb did take things up a notch by sending his Dad a special message while imprisoned: the head of his brother, Dara, with a note: “So you know your son has not forgotten about you.”

I wasn’t kidding.  The Mughals were fierce.

But they did build some pretty buildings.

This is the marble tower, the Muasamman Burj, where Shah Jahan could gaze at his beloved Mumtaz Mahal’s resting place during his final years of life while imprisoned.  It is made from marble, which (as is clear from the Taj Mahal) was a favorite building product of Shah Jahan.

In fact, Shah Jahan liked marble so much that he actually tore down major portions of the interior of the Red Fort while he was Emperor… just to rebuild them with white marble.

The fort is very impressive.

So are Will and Kate.  They are some of the most popular tourist attractions in India.

Each of these men took pictures with the kids.  Each.  Man.  They giggled over the kids (Kate especially) as if they were visiting movie stars on location.

Mughal architecture is the name of the game in the Agra Fort.  They pulled out all the stops: big gates, moat, high arches for elephants, walls 70 feet in the air, and so on.  The Delhi Gate, which was completed for Akbar, was most impressive: it had a drawbridge and a two-gate system between which two elephants and riders stood positioned to crush anyone who happened to get through.  Though that layer of security was probably overkill… getting past the moat and drawbridge, then taking the steep incline and sharp turn up to the gate would have been too much for an attacking army, which would have used elephants on fast approach to break through a standing gate.  The incline and 90-degree turn made the entrance “impregnable.”

The picture below isn’t of the Delhi Gate (I don’t have pictures of it because tourists aren’t allowed there… the Indian military uses it!)  We entered through Amar Singh Gate, which was difficult enough (incline, turn, moat, etc.)  This photo isn’t of that Gate, either (we were walking too fast to get in through the crowd to stop and take photos).

This photo is from the outside of the Jahangiri Mahal, which is where you would have hung out if you were a member of the royal harem.  (The photo above of the Indian tourist family is from the inside of the Jahangiri Mahal.)

Here are the kids in the courtyard outside.  They are walking towards the entrance to the harem area after having yet-another-photo-session.

Once you’re through the harem and palaces of the queen(s) and princess(es), you get to the actual Muasamman Burj.  This is a view of the inside.  The carved depression in the floor was a watering hole where the imprisoned Emperor could have water to bathe, cool the room, or whatever else one could do in a room where water bubbles up from the floor.

Below, my schizophrenic photographs have brought us back into one of the palace rooms.  Carved sandstone everywhere.  Every. Where.

It’s also notable that there are motifs in the design taken from Muslim, Hindu, and Christian icons and imagery.  This was because many of the Mughals (who were Muslim) had the foresight to try and be respectful of other faiths in an effort to unify their Empire of Hindustan.  (This was until Aurangzeb, who was pretty hard-line in his practice of Sharia and came down hard on non-Muslims during his lengthy and bloody rule.)

This is what I mean — Hindu star shapes, Christian flowers, and Muslim script.  (At least, this is the break-down I scribbled in my notes… but I got something wrong and drew a lot of arrows, so I’m not sure that I’m remembering or noting this correctly.  If someone is a historian/architect/Mughal-guru, please chime in and set me straight!)

… aaaaand we’re back to marble!  This is that marble-obsessed Shah Jhan’s work again.

Sandstone arches!  Carved!

Even though only a small portion of the Fort is open, it is still a huge area to see.  We all got a little punchy by the time we reached the Grape Garden.  Here, 85 little plots were tended to by the Mughal royalty women.

Here is a view of the exterior wall, from inside the Fort.

Below is the beautiful, open, and airy Diwan-i-Am, the public audience of the Empire.  This is where the Emperor and his court could hear cases and make rulings of importance.  On things like whether or not you got to keep your head attached to your body.  A lovely place though.

And back to the garden!  Where we’re still being silly.

And where there are still tourists who want our photographs!

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A Few Images from Diwali

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Hiking in Dharamsala

After a dusty, bumpy, traffic-packed 2-day trip north, we arrived in Dharamsala.  Eight years ago, I lived here as an intern, earning credit towards my MPH by doing a community assessment with local NGOs through a host agency called Cross-Cultural Solutions.  There, I met Raja, the project director, and we quickly became friends.  It was unthinkable to come to India and not get up to Dharamsala and spend time with “Uncle Raja.”

A few years ago, Raja and his fiance, Elise, built a mud house in the Dharamsala village of Gamru.  Like all of Dharamsala, Gamru is a village stretched across the side of a mountain.  It is at about 6000 feet, and the walk is steep.  To get there, you have to use a footpath going around the mountain. It is easy to get winded walking up and down to the market and the house.

The day after we arrived, we took a walk with the kids up the mountain side a bit, along a water diversion path, and then into the valley and back up to the house.  When we set off, we were met by several donkeys, walking unattended down the road.  Elise told me that they make the trek all by themselves: they simply wait at the arrival spot until their owners to load and unload them.

As with most walks, Kate tired out quickly.  Paul and Raja took turns carrying her.  Raja joked that he would have no problem carrying her, as he carries heavy packs on his trekking trips (Raja runs a fantastic trekking company).  Paul warned that unlike a pack, Kate “squirms.”  Raja got to experience this first-hand as Kate directed our walk:

We followed the donkeys for the first part of the walk.  The peaks in the background are the Dhauladhar Range.

Will bounced, flung, jumped, ran, skipped, and stumbled his way — following Raja’s every step.

Except when he stopped to stretch out on a rock.

We passed a group of men working on some water diversion — unclogging the water ways and other water control concerns.  In one area, the wall was being repaired and getting across was a bit difficult (as there was a decent fall on the other side).  One of the men walked through the water (holding his pants up) to give us a hand in getting across.  Very kind.

For the most part, the channel was easy to walk along, though.

This is the view of the valley…

Kate loved the mountain water and stopped often to wash her face.

Here are some examples of the water works…

After climbing up, around, and over… we went off the path and started down.  That’s Paul and Elise far down the side of the mountain.

Here are Raja and the kids headed down.

Down in the valley, huge boulders were strewn in, with water rushing all around.  Will had endless rocks to scramble.

The rocks were all sizes.

The water was cool and fast.  Most areas were shallow, but with the long walk back, we wanted to stay as dry as possible.

Lots of sounds of rushing water — and views of mountains in the distance.

Will loved wading in the water.  He was dry for less than a minute.

Paul tried to relax.

Kate tried to pee and ended up having an accident.  We washed her in the river.  Then she fell in a few times.  So did Will.  In addition to both of them soaking themselves in the river water, they scrambled up and down rocks with enough stumbling and bumping to cause Paul and me at least four episodes of heart failure.

Kate stopped to poise for cuteness.

Luckily, Kate’s diarrhea started AFTER this trip.  Will and Paul had been struggling with tummy issues, but Kate’s recently took the prize… resulting me in going to the market to buy her more pants.  Those pants lasted only a few hours.  She is doing well, all things considered, and eating voraciously.  But with all the tummy issues, we’re lying low in the mountains for a few days so the kids can recover in what they consider to be paradise!

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Pink City Street, 9am.


Or “autos.”

Different from Peru’s moto-taxis in that these aren’t built off of motorcycles.  Still, they are an equally fun and exciting way to travel.

Here are a few pictures from near the City Palace, where pigeon pooped all over my head, face, clothes, and hair.  India is a wonderful mix of highs and lows…

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Elephant Ride? CHECK.

No visit to Jaipur is complete without a trip to the Amber Fort!  The kids heard about the elephant ride up to the fort… and once they heard, there was no going back.

As much as we eschew tourist traps, some things you just have to do once.

For the kids.  Of course.

Had the price not been negotiated by locals, I think the ride up would have been more.   We paid 900 rupees total  (roughly US $20) for the experience.

The pricing made me wonder: how much does a handler have to make in a day to feed and care for an elephant (not to mention himself and his family)?

I know folks who refuse to ride an elephant (or camel, for that matter) for reasons of cruelty and mistreatment.  To that end, for a good discussion about the elephant rides, go here.

Here are our Indian friends, waving and laughing at us.  Silly tourists.

They didn’t go up to the fort by elephant… just us.

So, off we go.  On an elephant.  The ride is bumpy.   The elephant must have reminded Kate of our car journeys in India, where she often becomes nauseous from the combination of sitting low in the seat (can’t quite see out of the window) and the rough ride.  When she complains of nausea, we tell her that she is a little “car-sick.”  So, after a few minutes on the elephant, Kate declares: “I am getting a little elephant-sick.”

Many of the elephants are painted and decorated.

The view is excellent.

After a little while, it hit me just how high we were on the elephant… and just how easily he could throw us off if he should wish to rid himself of the extra weight.

We found that it was an elephant rule that they must meet to pass each other in the narrowest areas of the inclined path.  It is also an elephant rule to snort only when the truck is upright, thereby projecting volumes of elephant snot on all downwind riders.

We saw the saffron gardens — this is where Jaipur’s royalty grew saffron in the star-shapes of the garden below.

The lake had been dry for almost a decade, the result of poor monsoon rains.  But this year’s monsoon was very good — hence, a nice lake.  There were birds taking off all around and flying about the lake and the gardens.

Finally, we entered the fort!

Here is a picture Bela took of us all on the elephant, making our way around the entrance.

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At the Bangle Shop

The ultimate purpose of our bazaar trip was to visit the bangle shop… this preferred shop (my friends like this owner) was one of dozens along this particular section of market.

Bangles are first made — as below:

The jewels are added later.  They can be sized — made larger or smaller — with heat applied through skilled hands.  More on that below.

But first, the shop: a narrow strip with walls covered in bangles of all kinds.  You sit on a row of benches while shop attendants put on a show of their wares.   People come in and out.  There is much negotiation, much discussion, much trying on and taking off…

Here is an artist shaping these bangles for Kate’s small wrist.

We tried on MANY bangles!  (Hint: lots of options for Mardi Gras and Saints-wear!)

After we chose what we wanted, the bargaining began.  It was like watching an opera — the banter was musical, dramatic, and intense!  But all in good humor and very respectful.  After deciding on a price, paying, and having wares packed up — we were guests in the shop, and accepted a cold drink (cola), and photographs.

… and viewing of the “Top Shelf” variety of bangles!

I have the information for the shop owner, should someone want to talk about wholesale…!!!!

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A few more from the bazaar…

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