Travel: The Other Side

We did something completely off the beaten path today by visiting a slum just north of downtown Mumbai. Nick had helped establish a Pre-K school here about eight years ago, and wanted to check on how it was doing. It’s inspiring to see someone put their heart into something and invest their time and knowledge into helping others, and still care enough to check its well-being so many years later.

You can imagine that I was feeling pretty apprehensive about the experience. While I knew that it would be educational, the opportunity to witness a slum in India first-hand intimidated me.

At first, I didn’t want to face the sadness that would overwhelm me, facing the stark truth that the luxuries I enjoy as an American are just that, unnecessary but expected. As one born in the USA, with opportunities afforded to me by hard-working immigrant parents, its easy to take everything we are given for granted. It’s so simple to think that the small unhappinesses and struggles we may experience are insurmountable, but in the cosmos of things, it’s but a small ripple.

Secondly, I didn’t want to make the locals feel like I was going to visit them as a tourist. My features make it impossible for me to fit in and I knew that not only would they be looking at me in curiosity, but they would also be wondering why I was there. I was concerned that the dwellers would feel like they were on display for a camera-snapping foreigner to watch, like they were in a snow globe village.

In the end, Nick and I went; he even commented that the conditions in the slum were a lot better than he recalled. Rather than propped up shacks made of scaffolding and tarp, I saw brick and mortar buildings, with weighted scaffolding as roofing. Along the paths cutting through the streets, you could see clothes drying on a line; there were vendors for everything from flowers and incense for the temple to little snack shops.

One thing that is different about the poor in India in contrast to other parts of the world is that you can see that the government cares. A lot of slums enjoy the benefits of electricity, cable, and running water. And often, despite springing up illegally on government land, the police do not forcibly remove families to make way for development. Rather, there is a government mandate that requires developers to build apartment-style housing to accommodate the displaced, but only if a majority of the slum community votes for it.

Unfortunately, due to funding issues, Nick was not able to find the school he so lovingly spent hours organizing. He had helped with organizing the lesson plans and worked with the sponsoring company to provide all the classroom essentials the students would need. It made me sad that Nick was not able to witness the longevity or expansion of all his good work. 😦

You may have noted that there are no pictures in this post. This is intentional. Over 2.2 Billion people across the world live in poverty. It is important to Nick and I that we don’t paste more pictures of slums and squalid conditions across the internet. How these people live is not an attraction, it’s not something to be remembered, it’s something, that as a community, and as humans, we work together to put in the past. Rather than something to be framed and on display in an art gallery, this way of life, these conditions, need to end and become a faint memory.

 

 

Travel: Matrimony

Today, I was fortunate enough to garner an invitation to a traditional Hindu wedding as Nick’s plus one. (You may recall the various Saree shopping debacles that we encountered in Jaipur and Jodhpur).

imageUnlike a typical wedding, which tends to be a more serious and understated affair, Indian weddings are loud and energetic. The one we attended, was actually a 3-day affair (we chose to attend only 1 of 3).

It started with a Swagatam “welcome” ceremony. Under the raucous beat of drums, the Baraat “groom’s procession party,” consisting of family and friends, joyously dance into the building. In contrast, the bride’s entrance is a much more solemn affair.

 

The introduction between the families is made, and there is a Jai Mala, a garland exchange between the bridge and groom. During all of this, there is a constant flow of food and drinks circulating the room.

imageHonestly I had no idea what was happening for the majority of the ceremony, and neither did Nick. We had hoped to make the reception, which is when the bride and groom both perform separate choreographed dances to Bollywood music with their bridesmaids and groomsmen, respectively, but apparently that had occurred the day before. Nick’s friends, did however, regale us with some of their drunken stories from the previous night.

imageThe most significant part of the ceremony is the Saptapadi, a 7-step ritual. The bride and groom have a part of their clothing tied together, and they walk around the fire 7 times. The fire, represents Yajna, the divine witness and each circle represents the oaths that they make to each other. It is after this event that the bride and groom are officially considered married.

It was a vibrant affair filled with colorful clothing, diverse sarees, intricate henna, and shiny jewelry. The food selection allowed me to try some curries I’ve never had before. Nick and I even became best friends with the Chai-Man! I do wish, however, that I had known what was going on. Everyone is so busy carrying on conversation during the ceremony, that it was impossible to know what was occurring on the dais. 😦

 

 

 

 

Travel: Colorful India

Since Udaipur is a smaller city and Nick and I have already seen our fair share of ancient temples, palaces, and fortresses, we chose to experience the diversity of India by visiting Shilpgram.

Much like the Dilli Haat in New Delhi, Shilpgram is a heritage village composed of 5 west-zone states. Its purpose is to expose the diversity of tribal cultures to the general public and foster a spirit of collaboration between rural and urban artists. This cultural complex was incredibly large with a total square area of 70 acres!

Nick and I didn’t intend to stay for so long, but there was so much vibrancy to be seen amongst the artists. I’ve attached a brief collage below to illustrate the range of work.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni and Myself (some are his and some are mine).

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

 

One of the things I enjoyed the most were all of the regional dances that were performed. As someone who studied traditional chinese dance for over 8 years in my youth, folk dancing continues to fascinate me. It is such a rich part of one’s ingrained heritage and it would be a true pity if these arts got lost in the sands of time.

 

 

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

Some of the female dancers kept inviting me to join them! I didn’t, but I did pick up the rhythm and pattern of their movements. At the end of it all, they were really friendly and invited me to take a picture with them.

 

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

Nick and I both hopped on Camels and went for a ride as well.

 

 

 

 

We finished our day with a sunset boat ride on the lake, followed by more famous dances from Rajasthan at the Bagore Ki Haveli.

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

My favorite dance by far was the Teratali dance. Performed by the Kamar tribe while sitting down, the woman balance a pot on their heads and clench a sword between their teeth while they use Manjeeras (cymbals) to acoustically provide thirteen different beats. The sounds made vary by the angles at which the cymbals collide, making this dance one that requires technique and precision.

Unfortunately, the seating area was less than optimal, otherwise I would have provided a video. 😦

 

 

Merry Christmas from Jodhpur!

imageWe all woke up late this morning due to the festivities of last night. The staff had cleaned up the cake (from the glitter firecrackers) and shared some slices with us. Nick didn’t pull his string aggressively enough, so he decided to pour all of his glitter over my head. -_- I may still be sparkling….

Craig, one of the new friends we made last night, was traveling alone so we invited him to explore the city with us. We trekked up the hill at the center of the Jodhpur old city and entered one of the seven gates of Mehrangarh Fort.

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The fort is situated 400 ft above the city and surrounded by thick walls. Within the complex are several palaces known for the intricacy of their carvings and the botanical diversity of their courtyards.

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Legend says that Bhaurcheeria, “The Mountain of Birds,” initially had a single human occupant. In order to build Jodha’s fort, Cheeria Nathji, “Lord of the Birds,” was forced to leave. In his anger, the hermit cursed Jodha:

“Jodha! May your citadel ever suffer a scarcity of water!”

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

Nathji was only marginally appeased by the construction of a house and temple within the fort that was in close proximity to the cave that the hermit had meditated in. However, even to this day,the area is plagued by a drought every 3 to 4 years.

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As an even more extreme measure to ensure his new site was propitious, Jodha buried a man named “Raja Ram Meghwal” alive beneath the foundation. In return, Meghwal’s family was guaranteed to be looked after by the Rathores. Even to this day, his descendants still live in Raj Bagh, an estate beaquethed to them by Jodha.

imageAfter catching a gorgeous view of the “Blue City” from high above, we started our descent on the other side of the hill, and came across some traditionally dressed girls with baskets on their heads. I find it quite fascinating that even in this modern-day and age, a diverse array of traditional clothing can be seen in India as a stark contrast to the more readily adopted Western Clothing.

imageWe then paused by the Jaswant Thada for a breather, before continuing to engage in some aimless traipsing through the streets.

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Travel: Generous Jodhpur

imageShukriya is the first word that I learned in Hindi. It means “Thank You.” This is always the first term I learn when traveling in a foreign country because it allows me to thank all the kind people who help me find my way when I am lost and confused.

 

For me, it tells the locals, ‘Thank you for sharing your culture and heritage with me, Thank you for your generosity, and Thank you for welcoming me.’

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Today, is Christmas Eve, and it seems like an appropriate day to be grateful for the luxury of traveling. Too few people are given the opportunity, or have a passion to explore the world as I do. Let’s be honest, the hobby of adventure requires both capital and time, and such a large portion of the human population enjoy neither.

 

imageA family who can afford this extravagance is the Jodhpur Royal Family, and we visited their private residence, the Umaid Bhawan Palace. Built in 1943, the construction of the palace provided employment to thousands of citizens during a famine. Numbering at a total of 347 rooms, the building serves three purposes. It functions as a home, a hotel, and a museum.

imageLeaving the opulence of the structure behind, we headed back to the Saree store from yesterday for a final fitting. The fit was off, and the design of the blouse was not what we had discussed. Nick and I were both extremely frustrated as we had spent about 2-3 hours at the store yesterday to discuss and hash out all the details to make sure we got what we wanted.

We ended up walking out of the store unhappy and disgruntled.  Fortunately, my deposit was negotiated down to 500 rupees, so I only lost about $7 on this Saree attempt.

imageWe ended up making a third attempt at buying a Saree at the Sadar Bazaar, and settled on a dark blue Saree of a different style. I already decided that I refuse to buy more shoes or bangles to match this new color, so some clashing may occur. Thankfully, I know that no matter what I wear, I will still stand out of the crowd at the Wedding.

imageAfter dropping off our purchases at the hotel, we started to hike up to the fort before realizing it was closed for the day. On our way back down the streets, Nick started conversing with a young man, around our age, who promptly invited us into his home, which had been in his family for over 100 years. His mother and father were super inviting, and presented us with chai. Granted, much of the conversation was lost on me, but the mother asked to take a photo with me because she thought I was so beautiful. 😀

imageWe bid adieu with the intent to return to our hotel. A group of kids in an alley stopped us and asked for American coins, I felt bad because I didn’t have anything to offer. Their family also proceeded to welcome us with open arms, and we spent some time talking with the kids and their parents while savoring our second cup of Chai. They played a few games on my cell phone, and when the girls wanted to paint my nails, I couldn’t say no. Their future dreams ranged from working in Law Enforcement to being a Doctor. It was incredibly heartwarming to hear about their ambition, and Nick and I encouraged them all to study hard as we left.

Our hotel, the Castle View HomeStay threw all of its lodgers a party for Christmas Eve. We lit a lantern and attempted to let it float up into the sky, but alas, the windy conditions were not in our favor, and the lantern dropped like a rock. It was really funny at the time, and incredibly endearing how much effort the staff had put in. A ‘Santa Claus’ was nominated who gave us small handicraft gifts that are local to the region, and we enjoyed a buffet dinner together with some Gulab Jamun, a sweet milk dessert from a famous bakery in the city.

Travel: Agra Cantonment

We woke up at 4 AM today, because we needed to catch the 6 AM Shatabdi Express – India’s Fastest Train – to Agra for a day trip. Needless to say, it was a long day as our transit time was 2-hours one-way, assuming that everything is executed flawlessly.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Agra, a former cantonment of the British empire, is the home of the Taj Mahal, one of seven wonders of the world. It is an eye-catching structure consisting entirely of white marble and its impossible to miss the light reflecting off of its surface as the sun creeps higher in the sky.

 

Its origin story is one of love, despair, and tragedy.

imageIn the 17th century, Shah Jahan, one of the Mughal Emperors, lost his third wife, a Persian princess named Mumtaz Muhal during the birth of their 14th child in 1631. The following year, construction of the Taj Mahal began. Over the course of 20 years, this project enlisted the labor of over 1,000 elephants to transport building materials from all over India and Asia. In addition to the iconic white marble that the building is known for, 28 other types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the ornate design.

 

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As this was a period of prosperity within the empire, a skilled labour force of twenty-thousand workers were recruited from all across India. A total of 37 men were selected to form the creative unit behind the Taj Mahal.

 

There were sculptors from Bukhara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia, inlayers from southern india, stonecutters from Baluchistan, and individuals who specialized in everything from turrets to the carving of marble flowers.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Not too soon after the Taj Mahal’s completion, the Shah was deposed by his son, Aurangzeb, and imprisoned at Agra Fort. It is said that he was given a cell with a window facing the Taj so that he could gaze at the resting place of his love. Shah Jahan was later buried in the mausoleum next to his wife.

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As a young professional trying to balance the scales of career and ambition between passion and family in the 21st century, it is difficult to imagine the depth of emotion, much less, the hollow shadows that the Shah must have felt on his wife’s passing.

 

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I feel that so much of my generation tends to trivialize the word love, that it’s merely a word to convey feeling, but the term amor speaks volumes more. It means depth of commitment, being willing to compromise, accepting the flaws of your significant other, and most of all, not giving up on your relationship when things get rough. You have to be willing to fight for it.

That’s what Shah Jahan did. Although Mumtaz was long gone from the world, she stayed alive in his memory. He wanted to commemorate her significance in his life, and the empty space left in his world by her departure.

The Taj Mahal was truly a tribute to the joy they shared.

imageNot too far away, is the Agra Fort, a towering fortress where the throne-less shah was held captive. A fort has stood at this location since the 11th century, although the current structure was built by the Mughal Empire. Spanning a total area of 94-Acres, the red sandstone is a staunch guard that dominates the skyline.

As the stories say, Shah Jahan was actually held in the Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony facing the Taj Mahal.

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After our visit to the fort, it was time to catch our train home. This took a large amount of patience as, despite our 6 PM tickets back, our plane was consistently delayed. First it was by 40 mins, and then it was 1-hour. This soon changed to a 2-hour delay, and progressed further to a 3.5-hour delay. Eventually, we bought another set of tickets for the Shatabdi Express (which is always on time), and managed to get back to Delhi around 11:30 PM. Whew!