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Posts Tagged ‘beauty’

“Can we possibly order three cups of chai, one order of onion pakoras and some firewood?”

That was certainly a phrase I didn’t know I would ever utter.

The road driving up to Munnar

Everything changed after we drove off the red dusty roads of Tamil Nadu and up into the lush mountains of Munnar in Kerala. As we drove, it seemed like the world we had just been in was slowly disappearing – the air started to clear; the language subtly changed from Tamil to Malayalam; the cows and dogs and goats that populated the streets started to look healthier; tropical plants were replaced with tea plantations and rugged trees; and of course, we lost all cell phone service.

The altitude, the dramatic scenery and the windy roads felt like a new world.  Munnar was like no place I’d seen in India – it is truly off the grid in every sense imaginable. In a weird way, the trees and mountains and lakes kind of reminded me of a bizarre version New Hampshire – except it wasn’t snowing in January and everyone was Indian. Except us, of course.

Our hotel

We arrived after a long drive up into the mountains, and then onto a rocky dirt road that we could only get up with the help of an ancient 4-wheel-drive Jeep. Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere- a few houses and farms spotted the area, but otherwise it was just the hotel. Breathing in the clean, crisp air it was hard to remember we were in the same country we’d just come from.

After a night’s rest and the inevitable ordering of firewood (yes, our cabin got quite cold at night!), K and I decided that the only activity for the day could be a hike. So we set off with a guide from the hotel, who instilled a bit of initial fear when he told us to watch out for leeches.

taking a picture half-way up

We climbed and of course I lagged behind – I always love a good reminder of how completely out of shape I am. I was a little bit embarrassed when I saw a chatty group of older women sauntering up the mountain as though it was nothing at all. We had stopped halfway up and I was watching them as they climbed. When they saw us, they giggled and took a moment to gawk at the funny white girls trying to climb up their mountain. One of them offered us a piece of fruit – it was yellow on the outside and looked like a passion-fruit. Our guide said it was okay to eat and I thanked the woman. I stood, catching my breath and eating a piece of delicious fruit- that certainly wasn’t a bad way to spend a day.

As we continued to climb we eventually saw the same group of women heading down – but this time, they weren’t quite as chatty. As they came towards us I noticed they were all carrying huge, long stacks of wood on their heads. Their arms balanced the wood while their bare feet balanced their bodies down the narrowly demarcated path. They were hardly breaking a sweat. I caught the eye of the woman who had given us the fruit, and nodded. She smiled back, completely unfazed by the poundage bearing down on her head.

A view of Munnar

Since moving to India I’ve been endlessly enjoying watching the ways in which people go about their days.  And as I continued to pathetically huff and wheeze my way up the mountain, I couldn’t help but hope that this would be what I’d remember when I’m back in New York and totally caught up in the day-to-day pressures and expectations of my life. It’s amazing how much it feels like none of that matters when you’re so far away from it.

View from the top

But these thoughts dissipated as soon as we reached the top because all I could think of was sky and mountains and clouds. It was really something to see.

I hate to invoke the old cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this instance I don’t even think a thousand words could do justice to the breathtaking views. So I’ll end this post with some photos – and a true appreciation for the little slice of India called Munnar.

The mountain we climbed (in the background)

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“Excuse me sir… sir… SIR!”

The car swerved out of the way, just narrowly missing a group of cows lying casually in the middle of the highway. The driver looked back at me in his rearview mirror as though I was completely insane for being perturbed at his proximity to the animals. This was just everyday life here – cows lie with abandon and drivers go around them at the last moment possible. This was Udaipur, Rajasthan.

Daniel had suggested we do something to get out of Bombay and relax while it was still the low season throughout India. He had found a great monsoon deal at the Lake Palace, which is one of the most famous and unique hotels in India- he had rightfully convinced me that despite still having a bit of jetlag, it would be worth the trip.

India for me had only been Maharastra (the state where Mumbai is located). It was Mumbai and a bit of its environs. I was curious to see my new adopted country in a different light (For a sense of the streets of Udaipur, I’ve attached this video of my ride in a rickshaw, below).


And Rajasthan brings to light the classic India that many imagine. The cow element was something I had come to believe was a myth – while Mumbai has cows tethered to the side of the road I had certainly never experienced the famed cows wandering through the streets. Here it is inescapable – on the side of the road, in the road, crossing paths with trucks and motorbikes, cows just stare at the people who regard them with such awe and piety.

Lake Palace entrance (from a boat)

But beyond that curious Indian stereotype, Udaipur itself is a dream. It is said to be one of the most romantic cities in the world and it’s easy to see why. It’s as though Venice and India from the Raj times collided to create a city on water surrounded by hills and beautiful architecture.

And the Lake Palace is the epicenter – built in the early 18th century for Rajasthan’s King (the Maharana), it is only accessible by boat and once inside it is breathtakingly beautiful. Ceilings and columns with glass mosaics lead down to marble floors. A lily pond and views of the lake come at you from every direction. It is a true testament to the beauty of Indian design and skill.

We spent today wandering the city and its sights. The most notable is the Maharana’s other home – The City Palace. In present times the Royal Family rents out the Lake Palace to the Taj Hotel Chain and they have turned the majority of their City Palace into a museum. They still live in one (very, very large) section of the palace. They have also turned another lake structure, Jagmandir, into a place for dinners and weddings. It must be good to be Rajasthani royalty.

Jagmandir lit up at night

In the City Palace

The City Palace is also incredible – Indian marble columns are intricately carved and walls are inlaid with Venetian glass mosaics or Chinese tiles, all from the 18th century. The Palace is so large it was completed over 400 years, beginning in the 16th century and only completed in the 20th century. Elephant fights used to take place in the courtyards, and this practice was only discontinued in the 1950’s.

Lake Palace courtyard

Being in Udaipur is like getting to experience another world in another time. Unlike Mumbai, which is struggling to keep pace and prove its modernity, Udaipur seems to be happily frozen in its glory days (and profiting handsomely from them). It is romantic and tranquil and calming, as though each moment we’ve sat on the boat coming out to our hotel on a lake is something you can capture in time.

This feeling, of course, is a far cry from the moment of terror where we almost hit the cow. It’s almost incongruous. But maybe it all fits – while we were rushing to enter the city perhaps the cow was laying there thinking, “slow down, relax, take in the sights. No one will hit you. Just enjoy Udaipur.”
And we will take that advice – after all, we’re not leaving ‘till Tuesday!

Daniel and Ali with the Lake Palace behind

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There are a lot of things here that take some getting used to – but none more so than adjusting my expectations when it comes to the cost of labor.

In New York, if I ordered a dozen cupcakes from one of the many, many bakeries I frequented the order might cost $30 (don’t get me started on the cost of cupcakes in New York. That’s another tale of adjusting expectations). But to get them delivered usually costs around $15 – increasing my cost by 50%. But you can’t blame the bakery – the cost of a delivery guy loading the cupcakes, getting to my apartment, ringing my doorbell, delivering the cupcakes and getting back to the bakery might actually cost $15.

In India, $15 might be the cost of hiring a person for an entire week. Americans are uniquely aware of this arbitrage – because we’ve all  seen outsourcing in action by this point.  Yet when you COME here with an American frame of reference, the rationality of this understanding is constantly replaced by the sheer amazement at the low cost of anything that needs a human touch.

I bring this all up because today we went furniture shopping. We’d done our basic shop at Hometown, as previously mentioned, but we had been waiting to buy a few nicer items that we could keep forever.  We had been told to go to Bhaghem Bombay – it’s a store you won’t find in any guidebook, but rave reviewers had assured us that this was the place where you’d get a fair price on some of the most amazing furniture you could imagine.

As with anything here, I kept a healthy dose of skepticism with me as we went into the store. How great could it be?

Harry, the man we’d been told to ask for, greeted us with the enthusiasm of a salesman who knows he has what you want and will make you want even the things you didn’t think you wanted. We were taken into the showroom and I knew we’d been steered in the right direction – beautiful intricately designed hand-carved tables, dressers, trunks and chairs surrounded us. We had come with an idea of what kind of items we were looking for — one big table or storage unit for our living room, perhaps a small side table — but we were immediately drawn to the bar.

Close up of one small section of carving

At the back of the room stood a tall teak bar unit. On the top, on the paneling and even on the back, intricate patterns had been delicately whittled into the surface. We could use it as the storage unit for our living room and, of course, it’s intended use as a bar.  When Harry saw my eye move towards it he immediately sprung to life.

“This one of my favorite pieces. It took artisan three solid months to make. Here, you open–”  he opened the front cabinet to reveal wine racks and drawers and leafs that expanded the size of the piece — “This one of a kind. You not find something like this very often.”

I agreed. I had never seen anything like it. But of course, there was that one nagging question. “What is the price of this one of a kind, artisan carved, very large piece of furniture?”

“Because you recommended to me by a friend, it’s 28,000 rupee. Roughly $600.”

Now, I’ll pause the story here for a minute to put this in perspective. I’m clearly not going to argue that $600 of anyone’s money is a small amount. But when Daniel and I moved to New York and bought our furniture from Ikea- the cheapest store imaginable – our ‘Malm’ dressers (which combined used about as much wood as this bar) cost $300 each. They are the worst made pieces of crap (pardon my French) that you could imagine made from the cheapest wood (and plastic). And we still had to put them together with our own bare hands. A bar made with beautiful teak wood that has three months of carving work and an amazingly complex interior has the value of my two dressers that are barely acceptable in a dorm room.

All our new furniture

We decided we would buy it. How could we not? We can ship our items back at the end of the year by sea freight, and this is an item we literally would keep for the rest of our lives. I also got sucked into getting the most comfortable and beautiful wood and wrought iron rocking chair and we additionally purchased two small tables. Again, for perspective, the small table’s base is carved all the way around. The top of the table has inlaid designs. It cost roughly $50.

The flashes of guilt I’d felt early on in my stay tried to crawl back in (how can they pay skilled artists so little for their life’s work?). But my rationality repeated itself: this is what it costs here. This is the price they are asking for.

We walked out with a handshake from Harry and a promised Tuesday delivery once the items were polished. I also walked out with a new Indian frame of reference — one that meant I might just never be able to walk into a Pottery Barn again.

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