Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘driving’

The roads in India are different...

Driving in India is like playing a large and very real game of chicken. The roads are full of every kind of transportation imaginable: men on foot pushing carts give way to carts being led by buffalo; small pedal bikes are skirted by whole families perched on one motorcycle; small yellow Tata Nano cars get passed by larger Innovas which honk as they go around a gargantuan colorful Goods Carrier. And when they all share a two lane highway the result is like an elaborate dance sequence, with everyone mostly knowing their part until you get to the number that’s a little too complicated and the group hasn’t practiced enough. Two dancers are bound to make a wrong step and crash into each other.

My parents had been shocked throughout their trip by the insanity of the roads. But in Aurangabad the roads were even more precarious.

One of the caves at Ellora

We were in Aurangabad to see the Ajanta and Ellora caves. They’re a full plane ride from any other place worth seeing in India and my dad had been wondering throughout the course of the trip why we were leaving Delhi in order to go see some caves. The answer is very simple: these rock-cut ‘caves’ are magnificant. They are a combination of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain structures (they would be amazing just for detailing the relgious tolerance that existed in this part of India during that period). They all are large rooms, temples, and art carved out of sheer rockface from the 2nd century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. Ajanta, the older group, is renowned for its carvings and well-preserved paintings.

One section of Kailash Temple in Ellora

But Ellora holds the masterpiece: Kailash Temple, built from approximately 600 A.D. to 900 A.D. The temple was created by vertical excavation, meaning 200,000 tons of rocks were slowly chiseled from above to build and form a temple larger than the Parthenon. There are many levels and areas but in the center stands a gargantuan and intricately carved singular temple, made from just the one piece of rock left in the middle.  It is the largest monolithic structure in the world. It would be unbelievable to create today, but to that the whole thing was carved out of a mountain from above with only a chisel and hammer is truly staggering.

One of the ancient paintings of Ajanta

Of course, to get to these staggering, incredible feats of human artistry you have to drive along some pretty small and terrible roads. It was nerve-wracking to say the least. Our driver on the first day was a man with places to go and things to see. He swerved around in his large white Innova, honking to alert everyone in his path that he was going around them. Hairpin turns or traffic jams didn’t stop him. He only slowed down for potholes and cows, deftly braking while moving around them.  On our way to Ajanta – which is a much longer trip from Aurangabad than Ellora – we were secretly quite happy at all the time we had saved.

The infamous goods carrier truck

But on the way back, as the late afternoon sun started to dip towards sunset, he clearly was in a race of his own making. At one juncture in the road we saw a huge Goods Carrier truck trying to make a three point turn. It was stuck: every little motorcycle, every small car was trying to go past it as it turned and in essence it couldn’t move.

“No one is going to let that guy go!” my dad said, as we started approaching. But there was a large gap between the cars that had just passed and our car – and there was clearly the first window for the truck to move back. But our driver decided to make a go for it.

Unfortunately, so did the other driver.

Our sad smushed car

Sitting on the drivers side of the car, I saw it coming like in slow motion. He thought he could make it. He thought he could slickly pass beyond the truck and keep going at the pace to which he was accustomed. But the truck had seen his moment and he wasn’t letting it pass. They both played chicken and they both failed.

The truck came at us with a crunch. I let out a little yelp but thankfully none of us were hurt. The driver jumped out and we rolled down our window to look at the damage. The side of the car was badly dented and it couldn’t even open.

Immediately the conversations started between the truck driver, our driver and a few other men who had materialized out of nowhere to discuss the action. The drivers traded information and then the truck driver left. But our guy kept scheming with the men on the side of the road. We sat there, watching women working in the fields and cars driving by, and it started to seem like something was up.

“Sir? What’s happening?” I asked, even thought I knew he wasn’t listening and didn’t really speak English.
“Ek minute, ek minute,” (one minute, one minute), he replied, ignoring the fact that the sun was going down and we needed to get back to the hotel.

It started to seem like we were part of a cover-up.

After a few more minutes I called my friend D and asked if she could speak with the man in Hindi and get a sense of what was happening. The cover-up became clearer – he was waiting for paint. It was kind of hilarious that he thought paint would cover the big dent in his car. We didn’t want him to lose his job (he worked for our hotel) but on the other hand we didn’t want to be standing on the side of the road in the dark.

All of us in one of the Ajanta caves

We finally convinced him to go and we piled back into the car (not using our smashed door, of course), and made our way back to civilization. It was a fitting end to our travels – my parents had seen some of India’s greatest sights, met a lot of great people, gotten a little bit of food poisoning, and now had gotten into a roadside altercation. It doesn’t beat spending a year in the place, but it certainly was a good overview!

 

We’re all back in Mumbai now and it’s going to be very difficult to watch them go, but it’s been so wonderful to have them experience India. And at the very least we all came out unscathed!

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

“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)

Read Full Post »

I always assumed that Sri Lanka was like an extra Indian state, an island country with its own charm but one that would ultimately be reminiscent of the country I now live in.

How naïve I was.

A beautiful Sri Lankan rainbow

Daniel’s parents are here visiting, and for many months now we had planned to go away for a week to Sri Lanka and Kerala. I planned the Kerala portion and they planned Sri Lanka – so I really had no idea what to expect.
Sri Lanka was such a surprise to me – it’s a country that has spent so many years at war and yet from the moment you land it looks so peaceful and tropical that you couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to upset that balance. And it is so unlike India in so many ways – the language, the Buddhist people, and (I hate the say it) the cleanliness that pervades. It reminded me more of South-East Asia than its most immediate neighbor.

 

A temple at Polonnaruwa

But the best part was that even in a few short days you can see an incredible array of varying cultures and sights and history. Sri Lanka is one of the more multi-dimensional places you can imagine.
This was certainly true even on our first day. We spent the morning at Polonnaruwa – an 11th century Buddhist capital that now lies in well-preserved ruins – and the afternoon spotting elephants at a national park. To go from roaming a lost city to riding in a jeep through the jungle was a whirlwind juxtaposition. Luckily, we had success in our elephant adventures- about an hour into the journey, we came across a whole troop of elephants standing at a watering hole. It’s amazing to watch these huge animals as they roamed free and enjoyed their afternoon as much as we did.

 

A slew of elephants

Sigiriya from afar

The next day we ‘conquered’ one of the true highlights of Sri Lanka – Sigiriya. Sigiriya is a rock that formed as the molten core of a volcano. The volcano has eroded but the core remained, and a civilization flourished in the fifth century. It’s an imposing sight – a huge rock with a plateau top – and it’s hard to imagine how anyone was able to scale it so many years ago.
But for this era, we were up to the challenge. You can walk into the fortified area that once was a royal garden and then you climb your way up and up until you reach the top. It’s a combination of original stairs and newly imposed spiral staircases – all frightening but all with an incredible view. Halfway up you can see frescoes that have remained in tact for at least 1,000 years. When we reached the top I think we were all exhausted, but it was victorious. Looking out, we could see across Sri Lanka and no amount of aches could take away from the moment.

 

Cave temples in Dambulla

There is just so much diverse history to take in when you’re visiting Sri Lanka – in Damublla we spent time in the Rock Cave Temples, a series of caves that have dozens of Buddha statues carved starting in the 3rd century BC, and then in the 18th century every inch, from the walls to the ceilings, were painted so that no matter where you look you see a Buddha. In Kandy we went to the home of Buddha’s ‘Tooth Relic,’ where Buddhists come to pray at the resting place of one of Buddha’s teeth (though it’s hidden away view).

 

The winding road up into Hill County - covered with tea

I loved getting immersed in the history – but the real highlight (among highlights!) was when we switched gears, climbed altitudes and indulged my love of tea.
I think its safe to say that I am an avid tea drinker. I can’t remember a day in which I didn’t consume and enjoy at least one cup. So I was quite excited to go to the tea plantations in the world’s second-largest tea-producing country. I just didn’t realize how beautiful the view would be alongside my cup of tea.

 

Tea pickers in the fields

As we drove around the winding roads up into the hill country of Sri Lanka I was reminded of the phrase many use when describing Kerala: “Gods country.” It seemed apt for Sri Lanka as well. Up and up we went and with each turn we saw a better view – short tea plants covering the entire sides of mountains that led down into valleys and up into the sky. We got up so high eventually that we were in the clouds – if a cloud was passing through we could barely see more than a few feet in front of us.
Of course, we had to stop at one of the plantations so I could understand how they took the lush green leaves and somehow turned them into the loose tea I am so familiar with. It’s amazing- tea pickers (mostly woeful underpaid Tamils) go through the fields each day plucking the top leaves from each branch of the tea bush. They are dried, rolled and then fermented. The tips of the leaves are made into a special tea, called ‘silver tips,’ and the size of the remaining leaves determines the lightness or strength of the ‘regular’ tea. It was thrilling for me to see my favorite beverage created from start to finish. It was even more thrilling to sit outside with a cup of the finished tea and a chocolate cake while looking out onto the mountains continuing to grow more and more tea leaves. It was certainly a moment of perfection for me.

 

Inside the drying area of the tea factory

Less thrilling for me was Daniel’s suggestion that we wake up at 4:30am the next day in order to go hiking. I am not a hiker – I am a person who describes perfection as sitting, drinking tea, eating cake and looking out at a nice view. But I wanted to be a sport and go along with the plan – so I hiked.
There was, admittedly, a good reason for the early rise- Daniel wanted to hike to a point known as ‘World’s End’ in Horton Plains national park. It gets its name from its stunning view and 800 meter drop. But starting at about 9am the clouds come in and the view is obscured. So in order to drive to the park and then get to World’s End in time, we needed a brutal start-time.
So we woke up and went on the way – my outfit consisted of skinny jeans (the only long pants I’d brought) and three sweaters to try and keep out the early morning cold. I looked ridiculous and I felt like a hiker fraud – on the rough and wet terrain I stumbled and bumbled my way up the mountain.

 

Me and Daniel at 'Worlds End'

But we got to World’s End just in time – as I stood panting and completely winded I started to understand the place’s dramatic name. Huge mountains led down to lakes and waterfalls and a valley. And just as quickly as we had arrived, so did the clouds- it was incredible, they came up from below the mountain, like a rising force and soon the entire view was completely obscured. It would have been breathtaking if I had any breath left.

 

It was a lot to take in in five days – a lot of history, a lot of culture and a lot of changing altitudes. But Sri Lanka is a place one should go if you want to find yourself marveling at the world. It’s incredible to me that cave sculptures and structures and frescos have survived for hundreds and even thousands of years here. It’s jaw-dropping to see an animal whose weight is in tonnage sauntering around and kicking up grass right in front of you. And it’s hard to tear your eyes away from stunning views, whether from the top of a molten core, out the window of a car on a winding road or on the vista of a conquered mountain.
But hopefully Kerala can give us a run for our money.

Read Full Post »

“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

Read Full Post »

One of the most interesting effects of the monsoon is how it can stop anything in an instant. And in a city as vibrant and full of life as Bombay, that truly is something.

Rickshaw in water

You can be driving along a road at a normal speed in normal traffic when suddenly the rain comes out of nowhere. It only takes a moment sometimes; clear-looking skies and dry weather are overtaken first by small drops, then persistent rain, then a heavy downpour, then rain so thick you can’t see your hand in front of you. And that whole shift can take place in a matter of seconds.

In that instant, the traffic snarls to a halt. Windshield wipers are practically useless in the deluge. Hazard lights are turned on just so that each car will know where the cars around them are basically located. A trip that could take 30 minutes suddenly takes two hours.

You can always spot a few victims once the rain lets up enough to let you see out. Usually in heavily flooded areas you’ll see abandoned rickshaws, not strong enough to get out of a flooded area.  Parts of roads will remain flooded for hours afterwards, since the water has nowhere to drain.

I’ve gotten sort of used to living this daily rainy existence – there’s never a full day respite, but some days aren’t so heavy or often it’s just a light drizzle. And I know what to expect once heavy rains start to fall.

But the one thing I can’t get used to is our internet connection.

Our high-tech cable running from our roof to our neighbor's roof

It was installed as soon as we moved in, and the process itself was humorous. A cable was run from a few buildings over – over and around and up the side of our apartment building the cable went. It’s not underground, it’s not through a wall, it’s just across some buildings and drilled neatly into our wall.  But it’s a cable and it seemed simple enough. We bought a wireless router and thought that that would be that.

However, nothing is so simple. It stops working at best for an hour a day. Sometimes, like now, it stops working for a few days at a time. And every time Daniel calls up the company they say “nothing works right in the monsoon.”  If the power goes out in one of the buildings along our one cable line, no one has internet (At least, this is what they say. I don’t know if I actually believe that this is the real reason).

Now, I understand why our cable dish doesn’t always work in the monsoon. We get a message on our tv saying something is wrong and I think of the small dish trying to get a signal through the deluge. But a cable? What could be so wrong with this cable every day? How can the monsoon be an excuse for constant failure of an entire product?

Our television during heavy monsoon...

Yet it’s everyone’s excuse here – our carpenter was late because of the monsoon (what exactly about the monsoon, we don’t know), people are always late to dinners and meetings because of the monsoon, our shipment was late, items can’t be delivered because of the monsoon. Doesn’t this happen every year? Don’t you think by now people could have figured out how to work around it? It’s a bad rain, but its just rain.   It apparently is also a great excuse.

So today I am only connected to the wider world via a wireless card Daniel can plug into his computer. It’s slow but it’s a useful backup – after all, there’s still another month of monsoon. Who knows when our internet will come back on again.

Read Full Post »

As our dinner wound down we were warned, “Make sure you leave before midnight. That’s when the bandh will start and you don’t know what kind of protests there will be.”

We’d been lucky enough to be invited to the home of a friend who lives with her family in South Bombay. Being in a home around a family made Mumbai feel like my own safe home. But we had to escape the previously safe roads before the city turned into the proverbial pumpkin at midnight.

No one knew what the scale of the bandh would be – but we didn’t want to be out and about to find out.

A bandh, as I had learned earlier, is the Indian version of a strike. This one was called by the opposition parties over rising fuel prices and the end to some fuel subsidies.

Unlike any strike we see in the US, this bandh was stopping a billion people from working, shopping, going to school or safely traversing their streets. And even more unlike the US, while the opposition parties sponsor the bandh, it doesn’t just effect the supporters who decide to come out and rally– it shuts the whole country down. It would be as if the Republican Party declared a strike against the health care bill and every person across every state in the nation stayed home for an entire day.

It doesn’t mean that the whole country was necessarily in agreement with the bandh or that every part of India was massively affected. Some cities saw much more active protests and riots. Other cities didn’t appear to participate on any large scale. And even on a more individual level, most of the people we spoke to here in Mumbai were closing shop or staying home more out of a fear for safety than a sign of solidarity with the protesters.

News coverage of the bandh in Mumbai

Then again, there were reports of protests turning violent even in Mumbai, so there clearly was anger over the issue for some segments of the population.

We’d been warned that if we did go out, we should wait until the afternoon, since the protests usually were more active in the morning in order to catch the news cycle and get coverage (some things NEVER change wherever you are).

Last night was our final evening in the guesthouse, since our furniture had arrived and we could officially move in – so our plan was to head over to the apartment in the morning. We figured since we live in suburban Bandra (and most of the municipal buildings and transport centers are in South Bombay) the likelihood of the protesters reaching us seemed slim. But as we watched news coverage in the morning of some of the protests across the country and in Mumbai we decided to heed the warning of the native Mumbaikers we’d spoken to and wait until the afternoon to gather our suitcases and make the short 5 minute drive to our apartment.

An empty Turner Rd - one of the main streets near us

When we left the guesthouse, the street was as empty as if it were 3am – but the sunny skies turned the scene upside-down. Shops were closed and very few cars drove in the streets. The frenetic soul of Mumbai seemed to have vanished and all that was left was the city’s shell.

But the emptiness didn’t seem fearful. Our gut instinct about our portion of Bandra not being a target appeared correct, and we made it easily over to our apartment (so much easier than normal, in fact, since we had no insane traffic to contend with).
We lived out the rest of the bandh in our own oblivious unpacking mode. By the evening both the traffic and the monsoon had returned – all was back to normal. It’s yet to be seen whether the bandh has any political impact. But whatever the outcome, I have to admit that I, at least, was impressed by the massive feat of stopping approximately one out of every six people in the world in their tracks for a day.

Read Full Post »