Friday, February 3, 2012

Warm weather and beautiful scenery

P1020245 by taraleeholmes
P1020245, a photo by taraleeholmes on Flickr.
After leaving Rajasthan we spent a few days in Goa, a tourist destination for both local and international sun-seekers. Lots of middle-aged Europeans on the beaches. Some of the highlights for us were a visit to a spice farm, walking along the beach at sunset and lots of fresh seafood - grilled, cooked tandoori style, in curries and Portuguese style.
We then headed south to Kerala. We arrived in Cochin, which seemed to be a very vibrant city. Lots of new buildings going up - a young engineering graduate we met told us he was hoping to find work in the IT hub where lots of international tech companies are based. We visited some of the historical sites (an early synagogue, Catholic church and "Dutch palace") reflecting the diversity of groups that had settled or colonized the area.
We stayed on a lovely island near Kumurakom in a small resort. The only other guests were a group of families from Agra and some honeymooners from Mumbai.
Then we drove to Aleppey and boarded a houseboat for a leisurely overnight trip along the waterways of the lake/river/canal waterways. We passed many villages and rice farms accessible only by water. The houseboat captain said that some areas regularly flood in the rainy season and families have to take refuge in local schools until the water levels recede.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Week One . . . continued

Travelling by car has given us a chance to see some of the countryside and we've been surprised by the large expanses of open space. From Agra to Jaipur we travelled through wheat and canola fields with small villages dotting the highway. In some places we passed the chimneys of kilns used to bake bricks made from the red clay earth. From Jaipur to Jodpur the landscape became more desert-like. The national highway is well-maintained but local roads are often dirt - which must make travel quite challenging in the rainy season.

In Jaipur we visited the Amber Fort, a classic Moghul walled fortress built in the early 1600's. The walls extend miles up into the neighboring hills and provided an impenetrable defense against invaders. We also visited the City Palace, Hawa Mahal, an ornamental several story facade built in the late 1700's as a royal grandstand where place women could view processions without being seen. Our favorite stop of the day was our visit to Jantar Mantor, a huge observatory built in the early 1600's. The oversized astronomical instruments, including a massive sundial which is accurate to 20 seconds, are still in use today and are used for astrological purposes. Our guide explained that many people, himself included, consult an astrologer when choosing a marriage partner - to ensure compatibility. before marriage. who uses detailed horoscope mapping when selecting a marriage partner.

One of the highlights of our trip so far was a spontaneous visit to a local farm. Our young guide in Jodpur, sensing that we'd seen enough fots and temples and realizing we weren't interested in riding a camel for the afternoon, asked if we'd like to visit a local working vegetable farm (his family farm, it turned out). We said, "Sure," and soon were winding our way out fo the city and backroads through the desert landscape. The farm, sustained by well water, is an oasis in the barren landscape. As we got out of the car, two boys about 8 or 9 years of age quickly appear, curious about the two strangers in their midst. We were the first foreign tourists to visit. Once they realized we were intersted in seeing the farm, they delighted in showing us everything in sight. There are three village families who live on the land and are paid a very nominal amount to work the fields. They have a few animals - a couple of cows, goats and buffalo, but mainly grow eggplants, garlic, cabbage, and their pride - carrots. The father of the boys, pulled two huge red carrots out of the ground and wiped them and offered them to us. Courtesy prevailed over caution and we bit into them. Sweet and delicious! As we walked through the fields we soon had a whole group of small children following us, delighted when we paused to take their pictures and show them to them. When we asked why the older children were not in school, the guide replied that although there are free public schools in the countryside, poorer families often don't want their children to attend. They need them to help work in the family business. Unfortunately the literacy rate in India remains very low - we were told it is somewhere around 65%. One of the women showed us the small dirt dwelling where they lived and offered us tea. We were touched by the hospitality.

The guide shared with us that he is hoping to build a B & B on the farm and serve food cooked from the produce that is grown.

Our last stop in Rajasthan was Udaipur, called the "Venice of the East," because it is built on three artificial lakes. Our hotel, which the owner said was about 200 years old, backed onto Lake Pichola. The deck was a perfect place to sit and read or enjoy morning breakfast and watch and listen to life go by. During the day, we heard the rhythmic slapping sound of women beating laundry at the water's edge across from the hotel. In the evening the lake glimmered with the reflection of lights from the palaces situated in the hills surrounding the lake.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Week One . . .

Here we are just over a week into our trip - but it feels as if we've been here much longer.
We landed in Delhi and were graciously hosted at the home of Ashok Parmer, who helped us plan our trip and put together the details of the itinerary. We were met at the airport by his driver, Prem, and a friend, who despite lack of English made us feel very welome and comfortable. The first morning after preparing breakfast for us Prem took us on a long walk through nearby Kamla Nehru Park and the University of Delhi campus. As we set off, we asked why he was carrying a big white stick. "Monkey" he replied in halting English. Sure enough, as we got close to the park, we noticed street carts loaded with bananas. Once we entered the park, the pathways were lined with clusters of monkeys, busily finishing off the last of the morning's "breakfast." Fortunately the monkeys seemed quite satisfied and the stick was not needed.

On Day 2 we toured a of remnants from the Moghul empire - Jama Masjid, Humaya Tomb and Qutab Minor.

The next day we drove to Agra. We arrived mid-afternoon and set off to visit the Taj Mahal. Despite all the pictures we've seen, northing can compare with the experience of passing through the walled gates and suddenly coming upon the splendor of the whit marble structure standing majestically against the blue sky. Absolutely breathtaking.

After leaving Agra we headed towards Rajasthan where we spent the next six days. We travelled both by plane and car. The drivers were outstanding - which is fortunate considering all they have to negotiate - pedestrians, motorized carts, cows,scooters, transport trucks, more cows, and even the occasional donkey and camel. In the city of Jodpur, which has a population of about 1 1/2 million, the guide boasted that the city only had one stop light!

We became very attached to our first driver, Pawan, who sort of adopted us - he explained in halting English that Amal reminded him of his mother. His stock response to any request we made was, "You are happy, I am happy." When the time came for him to leave us at the Jaipur airport he gave us a big hug, and insisted on lending us a cell phone for the remainder of our trip, telling us to call him if we got into any difficulty. He then called to check up on us.

In Rajasthan we visited more forts and palaces from the Moghul empire. During the Moghul period many of the chief military were from the Hindu Radjut class and their local leaders (maharajahs) were able to amass fortunes and build magnificent palaces in cities such as Jaipur, Jodpur and Udaipur. Nowadays the maharajahs only have ceremonial status but it seems they still have great fortunes. In several of the palaces, part of the palace is still a residence for the maharajah's family, but part has been turned into a museum and is open to the public, and a third section has been converted into a luxury hotel.