India – Day 4 (Pune)

January 18th, 2006

Sometime during the night, Dennis returned to the Mumbai airport to meet Swati (who had been in the city shopping for her lengha) and pick up his mother Gloria, and sister Robin. Thankfully, the rest of us slept.

In the morning, I had my first case of, uh, “the loosies” as Swati would say. I’ll spare you the details, and just say that it could have been a lot worse. Beyond the one major issue, I didn’t have any other symptoms.

Turf Club, PuneAfter a leisurely morning spent reading the newspaper out on the veranda, all six of us went down for a leisurly lunch. We went out for a brief shopping trip on MG Road (MG for Mahatma/Mohandas(?) Gandhi, kind of like MLK Drives in the US, except much more upscale!) Arjan bashed his head into the side of the rickshaw, and the ladies weren’t that interested in the shopping there, so we returned. Of course Tony managed to buy bunch of knicknacks and hand out money to a beggar woman who followed him the entire time we were there.

Swati came by the Turf Club with the driver and we headed out again, first to Jai Hind to pick up the clothes we had ordered a couple of days before. Of course, my suit wasn’t ready, so I’d have to try again later. But at least we wasted a lot of time trying to find out where it was.

0118_172902_T152Then it was into rickshaws and into “The City”, as they call it, which is basically the old part of the city, with a really narrow maze of streets that can only clear a rickshaw if everyone else gets out of the way. It reminded me of the Plaka area in Athens, if the Plaka was not pedestrian-only and was filled with all manner of vehicles, and if all the places were actually working businesses and not just tourist shops. After asking several people, we finally found the turban shop we were looking for. Turns out Dennis’s white-boy head is too fat, so he couldn’t take one off the rack; it would be custom made.

While they got that squared away, Arjan, Tony, and I visited the large temple right across the narrow street. The guys inside were very friendly and showed us around, but before telling us too much, they asked me and Arjan (two tall guys with very short hair, and one with a red-and-yellow scalp wound above his forehead) if we were Hare Krishnas. Somehow I got the feeling that they wouldn’t have been as friendly if we had said yes!

Next, Swati suggested that “Shopper Stop” might be a place that Gloria and Robin would enjoy the shopping more at. They were delighted to find a department store and mall that was just as Western and probably even more upscale than most malls in the U.S. So far we had seen nothing even close to it. The whole time in India I had been wondering where all the Swatis were (you know, the good-looking, Western-clothes-wearing, look-at-me girls) Clearly, they were all visiting this mall. Tony and Arjan picked up a bunch of CDs at a music store there. CDs are relatively cheap, with “imports” from America maxing out at about $10, and a lot of things available for $6 or $7. And they still had a bunch of cassettes for sale too!

Keep in mind that I’m not the biggest fan of shopping in the first place, and then add in my intestinal issues, and you’ll understand that I was completely worn out by the time we returned to the hotel. Swati’s cousin Pankaj came over to take us out for the night, but I just didn’t have the energy so I got some sleep instead. Sounds like they club they ended up at was kinda lame, so at least I didn’t feel like I missed too much.

India – Day 3 (Ajanta)

January 17th, 2006

After four hours of sleep, we’re in the car again, this time driving north a couple more hours to Ajanta.

Random TrafficDriving in India appears to be utter chaos. Lane lines are completely ignored, horns are beeping constantly, and cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, dogs, and anything else you can think of all mix freely.

It’s only after observing for a while that you understand there is actually a method to the madness. The essential rule is that the responsibility for not hitting things is solely up to you. Instead of relying on a passive, lane-based approach where assumptions are made that drivers will not shift left or right as you pass, in India a more active approach is taken. The horn beep means “I’m going to pass you, so please give me room to do so”. As long as no one makes any sudden moves, everything flows quite smoothly. Everyone assumes that everyone else will move in relatively straight lines, and everyone has an uncanny knowledge of the exact dimensions of their vehicle. It is quite common for vehicles to pass within less than an inch of one another, but they almost never touch. If I found myself on a bicycle within an inch of a big truck on the right side, my first instinct would be to flinch left; here that would send me straight into the rickshaw on my left. The people here have overcome that flinching instinct and travel in perfect calmness under such conditions.

The upshot of this system is that traffic is almost always moving. Traffic lights are extremely rare, and stop signs are nonexistent. Most intersections are completely uncontrolled, and traffic constantly flows through them. Given the sheer amount of traffic, and the mix of traffic types, I believe this ends up being a much more efficient system than a more regulated, Western approach. Another nice advantage is that you could close your eyes and wander aimlessly through the busiest intersection, and no one would hit you; in fact, no one would even take notice that something strange was happening.

The world's greatest driver takes some time to relaxWe have had several drivers in our time here, and they all have skills that would take us years to learn, but Yasin(?) the driver who took us to and around Aurangabad is the champion of them all. I don’t believe he was ever passed, and he would go flying down narrow country roads at over 60mph; on the same road, I might drive 35 if it was completely empty; of course, these roads were nowhere near empty. His ability to squeeze through the narrowest gap, or get just enough out of the way of oncoming traffic was incredible. Most amazing was that he would drive this way and under these conditions for five hours straight and not be phased at all. Most of us, even if we could drive in such conditions, would be exhausted within half an hour.

Rib-vaulted caveThe caves at Ajanta are in a more beautiful setting than Ellora (a horseshoe-shaped ravine), and they still have remains of paintings covering the walls and ceilings, but the scale of them is a bit smaller. Also since we were working on four hours of sleep, we probably didn’t enjoy them as much as we could have.

Upon our return to Pune that evening, we collected our belongings from the Saxena house and moved out to the Pune Turf Club. We have a row of rooms that open onto a large balcony, with a view of the lawn below and the race track beyond (unfortunately they don’t have horses here until July). In terms of cleanliness and ameneties, the hotel is a bit behind current Western business traveller standards. But I happily trade that for the permeating ambiance of faded luxury that brings us right into the bygone era of the British Raj.

India – Day 2 (Aurangabad)

January 16th, 2006

In the morning, Dennis, Tony, Arjan and myself (and our driver) left for Aurangabad to see the nearby rock-cut cave architecture. The original plan was to see the caves at Ajanta first and then see Ellora the next day, but luckily just before we were to take the road to Ajanta, I discovered in the guidebook that it was closed on Mondays. So we headed for Ellora instead.

The travel guides advertise Ajanta and Ellora as the places to see in the Aurangabad area, and really in the whole state of Maharashtra. However, the Daulatabad FortDaulatabad Fort, which is listed more like a sidetrip, may be equally impressive. It’s an ancient fort built almost Minas Tirith-like, with seven concentric walls surrounding a steep mountainside. We paid for a guide who highlighted all the very intelligent things the designers did to keep invaders out, including fake doors, circular passageways, and unlucky camels used as cushion between a spiked door and charging elephants. Our guide took us about half the way up, and of course we climbed the rest ourselves.

The whole way up, we played the role of celebrities to all the schoolboys. Simply taking a picture would get you mobbed by requests for more, and of course the same litany of questions: “What is your name?” “Your country?” and “Your profession?” Occasionally a blow on a whistle from the teacher would clear them all out. One time they really helped out me and Dennis, because when they surrounded us, they squeezed out all the annoying vendors trying to sell us stuff.

Upper level of Kailash TempleFrom there, it was on to Ellora, which was beautifully lit by the setting sun. The main temple there was hewn out of a solid piece of rock nearly twice the size of the Parthenon. They chipped away rock until a temple shape remained standing, surrounded by the rest of the mountain, and then carved out the inside of that temple as well. The feeling you get when walking there is like you’re living a real-life version of a three-dimensional first-person shooter computer game, such as Tomb Raider. In fact, I’m sure that one of those games must have a level that’s an exact copy of that temple. The rest of the caves were generally much less ambitious, but still amazing in their own right.

We returned to Aurangabad and got rooms at the Rama International, which was a pretty upscale hotel, and quite nice after a day spent driving and tromping up mountains. The bottles of Kingfisher that we drank while eating dinner and playing cards were rather large, and soon we had to move out of the restaurant and into the lobby.

From the lobby, we decided to go outside, at about 2am. Tony wanted to go find a bar, but we were told that everything was closed, so I figured it would just be an aimless walk around the area. The streets were almost empty, which I never thought could happen in India. A little way down from our hotel, Tony chatted up a couple of helpful guys who thought they might have known of a couple places we could go, and even told us how much to pay the rickshaw driver so that we wouldn’t get ripped off. After a very short ride of a few blocks, we come to some darkened storefronts that look just like any other darkened storefronts. Tony finds a way inside, and emerges a few minutes later and tells us to follow. We convince our rickshaw driver to wait for us, then go inside, down some dimly-lit stairs, up some stairs, around a corner, and up some more stairs, and amazingly find ourselves in a small, dingy bar.

Shady Aurangabad bar at 2:30amThere are several people in the place, and it’s difficult to tell who is a worker and who is a patron. Understanding of English was pretty minimal. One notable patron was a large, round man sitting alone against the back wall with a scarf wrapped around his neck. Somehow I was convinced that he was an Afghan warlord, and when Tony shook his hand with his left hand (supposedly a taboo in India), I figured that was the end of it for us. There was another fellow enjoying himself that me and Arjan were trying to talk to for a little while. After some time, I happened to mention something about our rickshaw and our driver. Suddenly, his eyes light up, he points to himself and says “Me, rickshaw driver!” So there we were, sitting and drinking with our driver, and we’d had no idea. Well, at least that meant that he hadn’t left us! Soon after, the landlord of the building showed up and cleared everyone out, so that was the end of that.

We continued onwards towards the railway station in search of more adventure. On the way, Tony tried to drive the rickshaw for a bit. And then somehow the driver turned on a radio or something, and the rickshaw started pumping out some groovin’ Hindi music. In every rickshaw I’ve been in since, I’ve checked if they have speakers, and so far I haven’t found another one. Just more proof that we had found a magic rickshaw.

Somehow we ended up stopped at a vacant lot/garbage dump. There were several cows there, so Tony got the grand idea in his head that he wanted to ride one. The group of guys hanging out there (who knows what they were doing there at 4am?) were quite happy to assist. Once they rounded one up, Tony awkwardly leaped aboard, hung there for a second or two, and then was promptly dropped to the ground. Luckily for him, his fall was cushioned. Unluckily, the cushion he used happened to be a big pile of cow shit. The helpful guys came over with some water and attempted to clean the stuff off his pants, but that really only made the situation worse. So we got back into the rickshaw and headed back to the hotel with Tony in his boxers.

But before we made it to our hotel, our driver stopped in front of another darkened building. We could hear music inside, so Tony went to investigate. When he didn’t come out after several minutes, the rest of us went in afterwards. This place was completely pitch black, and felt about as shady as shady can get. When we were led to an upstairs room where we saw a few women hanging out, we all immediately decided “yeah, we’re getting out of here”. They wouldn’t exactly tell us where Tony was, so we had to go find him by ourselves in the dark, and finally we found him sitting in the basement. We hauled him out and returned towards our hotel.

The rickshaw driver was really having a good time by this point, and was amusing himself by driving towards stray animals. Really no more dangerous than normal traffic, where you’re constantly avoiding collisions by the slimmest of margins, but a littly jerky when there’s no traffic. Despite that lack of coolness at the end, he still got hugs all around and probably more money that night than he makes in a month.

So that was quite a night, and I have to give credit to Tony’s magical powers to find an adventure even when we were told that that was impossible. Although the whole thing probably sounds a bit risky or unsafe, the general feeling that we took away was how helpful and friendly most people are, and how even halfway around the world, there are probably more things that make us similar than different. “Local color” doesn’t get any more genuine than that, and you sure won’t get in touch with it on any sort of package tour!

India – Day 1 (Arrival)

January 15th, 2006

On the latest edition of ABC’s ‘The Bachelor’, the eponymous Bachelor kept thanking all the American women for travelling “halfway around the world” to meet him in Paris. Uh, no dude. That’s not even a quarter of the way. If you want to see what halfway is like, try India.

But if you’re going to be travelling halfway around the world in coach class, British Airways is probably about the best choice to do it with. Adjustable headrests that you can lean your head against while sleeping is about all it takes.

Vibrant bouganvilla!After a somewhat late arrival, followed by quite some time waiting for two pieces of luggage that never appeared, followed by a two-hour drive from Mumbai with a stop in the middle at a roadside diner, it was nearly dawn when we were welcomed to the Saxena house.

A pleasant early morning stroll to see the neighborhood with Mr. Saxena was a good way to keep us awake. Then some breakfast, and time spent out on the back porch. Weather is perfect; the temperatures allow all the doors to remain open, and moving from inside to outside is almost unnoticed.

Then it was time for some shopping. We drove in towards the center of Pune, and after taking a walk through Swati’s old college, we went to a Western clothing store to find a suit for Dennis. Then it was on to an Indian clothing store. Dennis got decked out in the full regalia for the wedding ceremony. Tony couldn’t pass up a turban-styled hat, which somehow makes him look a bit more like a Russian than an Indian. And I got a 3-piece suit, Indian style. Overall it was quite an impressive show of shopping fortitude by five guys (and Swati) who were working on hardly any sleep.

Between the two stores, we had our first auto-rickshaw ride. That’s one of those three-wheeled, open-sided, lawn-mower engine powered vehicles that are ubitquitious on all city streets. The ride (with 3 of us inside) cost about 30 cents; in the US they could set up the same situtation (roads, insane traffic, noise) call it an amusement park thrill ride, and easily charge $20 for it. It’s quite a rush, and in the non-thrill ride version, is actually really good at getting you from place to place.

We had lunch at Pizza Hut, and on the way back to the house were involved in a minor fender-bender. I figured that was going a little farther than necessary to show us the true Indian experience, but appreciated the opportunity anyhow!

While Dennis and Tony wussed out and fell asleep, Arjan and I accompanied Swati and her mother back into Pune where they went looking for wedding dress. As we were driving back, we nearly ran into a giant elephant crossing the street in front of us. Then a minute later, we saw someone riding a horse down the street, and a minute after that, a couple of camels. And no, I don’t think the circus was in town.

Finally, a dinner with everyone at the Pune Club wound down the very long day(s). Arjan had been awake for at least 36 hours at that point, and I had gotten probably 10 hours of sleep in the previous 72 hours. The good news is after that effort, we were left with very little jet lag.