Vietnam Day 5
We woke up extremely early (around 6:45, which is ghastly for us) in order to make it to the bus for our service visit to Hy Vong Quan 8. HVQ8 is a government sponsored school for deaf children.
The bus drove a half hour before dropping us off outside HVQ8. We walked in and climbed endless stairs to the roof top terrace to greet the kids. They ranged from 4 years old to 18. We sat down and began interacting which was slightly difficult since they couldnt hear and we couldnt speak or write the same language. One of the girls had a notebook full of Vietnamese/English phrases and questions and she would point to the phrase in Vietnamese and we could read the translation and do the same for the answer. It was really neat.
I colored and played tic tac toe with a few youngsters before a group of them did a short dance show for us. It was really cute even though we couldnt understand it.
From there we headed downstairs with the group of students. They told us we could pick a partner. A young girl, about 5, came right up to me and held on to my hand. The teacher said her name was Tong and she had beautiful pigtail braids. She was totally adorable and sat with me on the way to the zoo. She was totally fascinated with the airconditioning was pretty much in love with it as she continuously pointed up to the cold air.
When we arrived at the zoo the teachers told us we would have three hours with the kids. The sweltering heat made that hard to fathom but I was totally excited to spend some time with Tong. We had boxed lunches which we ate immediately in an effort to save ourselves from trekking them with us. Tong was a good eater, although at times she tried to eat the chicken bone, but Brittany was adept at pulling it away from her.
At first I tried to walk around with Brittany and her older groupie (she was about 12), but Tong really wanted to run with her friends so I ended up with a new group of people. We called ourselves the kindergarten counselors and laughed at what a good idea we had to pick the cute little ones. It seemed that they would never tire as they ran through the various exhibits. The animals were in kind of sad shape and very small cages, which was pretty sad to watch, but the kids did enjoy themselves. Tong got very nervous when we went to see the crocodiles (one of the little ones had an imitation lacoste shirt and kept pointing to the emblem to display his want of seeing the animal) and kept grasping my hand, it was very cute!
Eventually I knew we needed a break so I bought Tong some ice cream and she happily sat down while I talked to a fellow SASer (Joe). From there we headed back through the zoo seeing lions, elephants, hippos and more.
The three hours had passed and it was time to head to the bus. I was very sad to leave Tong as we snapped pictures (they really like to hold up peace signs during pictures). I really enjoyed my day at the zoo with her. She was so happy to be there and very sweet. It was a wonderful visit!
I really enjoyed my time in Vietnam. Its funny being the product of the Vietnam Generation, we seem to care so much more about the war then they do. The people in HCMC seemed rather over it and greeted us as Americans much more than individuals in other countries have. For them it is just a blip in their very long history, but to us it has come to symbolize grave failure and government mishaps.
I also enjoyed watching all of the motorbikes go by, as silly as it may sound. For a city with no real public transport (skytrain or subway), its the perfect solution (despite the sadety risks), theyre easy to park, theyre cheap etc.
If you ever get the chance to go to Vietnam I highly suggest it, from the delta to the people, its a wonderful place. Just try to go when its a tinch cooler!
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Vietnam Day 5
Vietnam Day 4
We awoke really early to meet the bus at 8 oclock for our Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi Tunnels trip. I was quite skeptical of the Cao Dai segment of the trip because we had already seen one of their temples, but I was very excited for the Cu Chi segment.
After three hours on the bus we arrive at a restaurant (yep at 11 am) to dine before heading to mass at the temple. We had fantastic (what could go wrong?) fried shrimp and pho before heading back to the bus to go to the temple.
The temple was huge, much larger than the one we had seen days before. We went up to the second story which overlooked the ground floor where the service was taking place. It was obviously set up for tourists (although the praying seemed very legit) and I found myself surrounded by individuals of all ages and nationalities. Below, there were men and women in red, blue, yellow and white were lined up perfectly and spread out evenly, a very choreographed affair. There were probably 150 of them all together grouped in colors and designs. We stood taking pictures and taking in the tranquil music, the colored atmosphere surrounding us. Once again it was very hot and we were all quite sweaty by the time we left and headed back to the sanctuary of our air-conditioned bus. I really did enjoy seeing this relatively new religion during one of their services.
The trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels took us through very rural areas and some veryyyyy rural roads (which was a little intense on the bus lol). I enjoyed taking in the scenery which included many individuals on hammocks trying to take in whatever breeze nature would impart on them.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are located in the Cu Chi district of HCMC. They were a major location of guerilla fighters for the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive in 1968. They were part of a large series of tunnels which served as hiding locations during war. The United States tried several times to destroy the tunnels during Operation Crimp and other campaigns. We even had B-52 bombers try to explode them. During our tour the guides showed us booby traps which they would use to kill Americans.
Visiting the site was kind of odd in terms of their story versus ours. The film that they showed us talked about American Killer Heros and harped on all the bad we did without ever showing anything that the North Vietnamese did wrong. I understand that there are three sides to every story (yours, mine and the truth) but the propaganda was very prevalent.
The guide discussed how the Cu Chi people used their smaller size to their advantage as sometimes the tunnels would be just too small for larger American soldiers to get through. Pretty tricky!
We got a chance to go through one of the tunnels ourselves, which had been slightly enlarged for us to be able to go through. It was very dark and lets just say I was not very happy to be crawling in the dark hot space, I cannot imagine making that my home as many individuals did. They say that most of Cu Chi literally lived in the tunnels, men, women and children. Brittany seemed pretty content however and wanted to go on for more than our guide did! After our tunneling adventure we snapped some pictures of us coming out of it. We also got a chance to see how tiny the true entrance would have been and snap some pictures of us in it.
From there we continued to walk through various booths in the forest which housed animatronical robot people performing various tasks. It was a little hokey, but quite interesting as we saw how they made their own shoes and what they used to eat.
I tried to imagine what it would have been like to have fought in that war: the extreme heat, the dead bodies and the ever prevalent places for the Viet Cong to hide. Those men were sure brave to be dealing with it. I forgot to mention this in my Mekong Delta entry, but John Kerry was a swift boat captain even though they depict him as not a hero or a leader. But leading those boats through that tangled river where you are constantly turning corners and looking out at thick forestry, makes you a pretty brave leader, and a damn good one if you manage to stay alive!
I thought the Cu Chi Tunnels were quite thought provoking a number of levels. First of all it showed the ingenious of the Vietnamese people. They used their native land, their body size and the weapons that we left (they would turn unexploded bomb powder into gun powder) to defeat us. It was really quite humbling. But moreover, the intense propaganda of the place also showed me how distorted views can be, that maybe our view of it is just as distorted as theirs.
Well enough theorizing, back to the story!
After our sweltering afternoon in the jungly forest, we picked up some coconuts (well I got a coconut and Brittany got ice cream) and headed back to the bus for the ride home. I slept most of the journey and was even a little surprised because it felt like we got home rather quickly.
We went upstairs and showered, pretty exhausted. We had promised Matthew and Anish Burtner, two faculty members, that we would watch their three year old son, Barret that night as we knew we would be tired and would want to stay in for a change. He was pretty well behaved and we ended up also watching Luc and Melanies daughter Abby. We went for ice cream at the pool bar and let them run around by the piano lounge while Jonathan played on the piano. Once we figured they were thoroughly tired we took them back to Matthew and Anishs room to watch bootleg Aladdin. Shortly after the movie was over all of the parents arrived to pick up their kids. Matthew and Anish gave us each a little money and a rose, which was very nice of them. We headed back to our rooms to get as much sleep as possible before our service visit the next morning.
Vietnam Day 3
Brittany wakes me up around 9 am, announcing that Erin would be joining us for the day. At 9:45 we headed down to catch the shuttle to the Rex. From the Rex hotel we crossed the street (which is actually quite a feat, you basically walk directly through traffic as motorists swerve to miss you, you cant slow down or stop because the motorists time your pace) to the air-conditioned mall next door. Brittany needed a duffel and I, well, I needed coffee. I ended up finding some perfect gifts while Erin bought a table cloth. After a little bit of shopping we headed to Highlands Coffee for a little break. I had Vietnamese Traditional Coffee, which seemed to be espresso and creamer, but I could be wrong.
Refreshed we headed back to the market (a 15 minute walk) to get more pendants for my mom and other various goods. We stopped back at our favorite Pho counter, this time each ordering our own (such big spenders at 1 USD a pop!). I got a little more adventurous with the spices so mine was very hot and yummy! I took a bunch of pictures of the market before we headed out.
We decided to take a taxi, as we didnt exactly know where the Museum of Vietnamese History was and we didnt want to get separated (cyclos can sometimes be dodgy). After 10 or so minutes in the car we arrived at the History Museum. Created in 1979, it displays artifacts from East Asia back into The Primitive Period. We saw kettles from the 3rd century, urns from the 14th and ceramic plates from the 15th Century amongst other items. Im not sure I would call it a history museum as it seemed more like an ancient art museum with poorly translated signage, however, it was interesting and worth the trip. I really wanted to catch the Water Puppet show, but there werent enough patrons for them to put it on. However, I did get to see the set, which was cool enough. We took pictures in the atrium which was full of lotus flowers and colorful blossoms.
After exploring the various exhibitions we headed back towards the Rex. I picked up my Sari top which came out better than I expected. Erin loved her suit and ordered a matching skirt to be made while Brittany ended up very disappointed. Brittany ordered them to redo the entire top (which was totally necessary) as it was sized inaccurately. (The dress had braided straps, a grey top, flowered belt and black skirt) After the hoopla we returned to the ship (it was almost 4 oclock by then) to shower before dinner.
I still hadnt fulfilled my Vietnamese food fix despite my meal the night before, so we decided to get all dressed up for another night on the town. We walked the opposite way of the market and decided to just pick a restaurant that looked good. After a healthy walk we found a gorgeous corner restaurant. We all ordered spring rolls which came out themed in a very Vietnamese way. You see on all the streets in HCMC there are vendors who balance what look like judges scales (two bowls connected on top and crossed over ones shoulders) and that is exactly how these spring rolls came. It was very cool and reminded me of Barton Gs in the states (only this meal was less than 12 USD rather than 50 USD). We chatted with a Canadian couple who sat adjacent from us.
After our relaxing dinner (we needed it, the sun in Vietnam is very draining), we headed back up the street to the tailor. The street was dotted with street vendors trying to sell us counterfeit lonely planets and bottled waters. On the way we ran into Erins roommate Gaby who joined us for the rest of the evening. We stopped in at Art Gallery (Tara and Kys) and I immediately fell in love with a painting. It was done in a calligraphical style with a women dancing. She was surrounded by beautifully stamped imprints and I knew I needed it! After the woman told me it was one of a kind (and reasonably priced!) I decided to make it mine. From there we headed to the tailor once more to see if my Asian top had been fixed. It still wasnt fitting properly and despite the fact that it was inexpensive, I wasnt going to purchase something that was ill fitting. Once more they promised me they would fix and we walked on to see a painting Gabby liked.
She had quite nice taste (the painting was almost 800$) and we all gave it a thumbs up (given the fact that she was ok with spending that amount of money). After glancing at our watches, we realized that it was almost 9 oclock (times flies when youre exploring Vietnam) and that Brittanys tailor (the one with her dress) would be closing shortly.
I went with Gaby back to my tailor while Brittany and Erin ran to get their items. The top ended up fitting perfectly and I happily paid before Gaby and I walked back to Tutti Frutti to meet B and E. Brittany was still slightly unhappy with her dress but decided to suck it up while Erin still needed to wait a day for her skirt.
We decided to head to a Jazz Bar before heading back to the ship. Upon entering the bar our lungs filled with smoke and after seeing the rather pricy menu we decided to leave and catch the bus home, happy with our wonderful day in Vietnam!
Friday, March 27, 2009
Vietnam Day 2
I was very excited to go to the Mekong Delta, since HCMC itself is very urban and not exactly what you might think of when someone says Vietnam. Brittany and I had signed up for the trip through SAS since we thought it would be much easier than organizing it on our own.
We boarded the bus very early and looked out the window sleepily when we heard the giddy tour guide announce that we would also be stopping at a Cao Dai Temple. Cao Dai is a pretty new religion having been established in 1926 in Southern Vietnam. We were slightly confused because the stop had not been published in the Field Program and annoyed that we would be going to another Cao Dai Temple when we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels (it ended up working out perfectly, since the later trip included a mass). Caodaism is sort of a combination of religions, if you will, combining G-d as the Saint, Sage and Buddha.
The temple itself is extremely colorful, decorated in bright blues, yellows and reds. The faded paint in its corners reminds me of India. There are sculpted dragons wrapping themselves around columns and a bright alter in the front of the rectangular building. We snap pictures with the lotus flowers as we take in this new religious movement.
We then follow our tour guide to a bustling market. Much more local and authentic than the Ben Thanh (although the Ben Thanh did have sections meant for locals), the smells of raw meat tangle with the heat and make my head swell, but I remind myself that this was true cultural immersion and trek on. Our tour guide points out various funky fruits including dragon fruit and odd melons. Women in conical hats smile at us and invite us to purchase their goods.
We head back to the bus and my eyes close once more for another hour when we reach a rest stop.
This rest stop was absolutely gorgeous! It had a lake chalk full of lotus flowers, some open, some closed. I had a field day shooting the flowers from every angle before boarding the bus for the Delta.
Our bus stops next to a picturesque scene. The sun is shining, the clouds are sprinkled just right and the water is a crisp, yet slightly murky, blue. We take a long, covered, though open-air long boat up the river. I take my long lens and snap pictures of the rural homes along the water and take in the spring sun.
We stop at restaurant along the river. A woman serves us tea with fresh honey and other various spices while we snack on dried coconut and ginger. She asks us if we want banana or rice wine and I ask for some of the rice variety. Unknowingly, I sip the wine as if it were, well wine, only to be vary surprised when it turns out to taste like hard alcohol. The woman then tells me that it consists of 40% alcohol.
After relaxing for a little bit under the hut like canopy, the owner brings out a very large snake to take pictures with. Brittany hops in for a picture while I timidly pet its smaller counterpart. After pictures, the owner shows us wine that is made with dead snakes (an odd irony), their bodies (as well as scorpions) in the mixture (odd, very, very odd).
From the tea shop, we walk a little more in the swamplands (under a blistering sun) to another shop where we take seats under a fan. We are served pineapple and other fresh foods that we do not recognize. We pick at the food while we watch a traditional band play (one man singing, another on a guitar, a women on a traditional looking string instrument).
After the show we walk to a small bridge and board tiny boats. Four of us hop on, each on our own plank with a man and a women paddling. It was a perfect slice of Vietnam, the palm trees and grass sprouting up all around us, the shallow water beneath our boat as we pass traditional homes and snap, yep, more pictures! We don conical hats and feel as if we could have been in a world that existed 500 years ago.
After a little while we are paddled right up to our original long boat. We board and are greeted with fresh coconuts, from which to drink milk. Coconut milk is one of my favorite things (I had it all over south East Asia) so I delved right in. We enjoyed our snack before heading to another stop (this trip was jam packed!), in which we were taught how coconut candies are made. We tasted the sugary treat and viewed the different stations, from the mixer to the cutter and packager.
From there we went to our last stop by boat once more to have lunch (yep, after all that eating we managed to still have lunch). Britt and I went to the vegetarian table (sometimes the meat can get a little sketchy on these trips), so we viewed the full fried fish from afar (yep, an entire fish, fried and displayed on the table!). Our meal was actually very good, it consisted of pho, veggies, tofu and other very yummy items. Satiated, we headed back to the boat and returned to the bus. This was such a cool trip. I really enjoyed seeing the countryside!
After a couple hours on the bus we head back to the ship to shower before meeting up with Becca, Perri and Mark for dinner.
We take the shuttle back to the Rex Hotel. We decide to walk around the city a little more, stopping to take pictures with a statue of Ho Chi Minh. Perri, Becca and Brittany buy more paintings (of the skinny Buddha) while I give my advice once more. From there we head to another tailor for Becca to get a bowtie made for dad. I end up falling in love with a traditional looking top on the 50% off rack. It doesnt fit perfectly, but they agree to fix it for me, so they take my measurements and we head off to get dinner.
We end up splitting up since Becca really wanted sushi, but Perri wanted traditional Vietnamese. I head off with Perri and Mark, while Brittany stays with Becca.
The restaurant was really yummy and the three of us split five dishes and soda and water for 7 USD each! We had escargot in coconut milk, spicy beef, chicken satay, some sort of a noodle dish and a yummy soup. We meet Becca and Brittany near Tutti Frutti (a tart yogurt place) before heading back on the bus to go home. We had a wonderful day, but were ready to go to sleep (the sun take sit out of you!).
Vietnam Day 1
We had big plans for our first day in Vietnam, which included going to the tailor, the market and a museum or two. As pre-port drags on, our neighbor Erin asks if she can tag along for the day, which we happily agree to. When they announce that the ship has been cleared we dash upstairs to get our shore passes (official documents issued by the Vietnamese government) before swiping out for the day.
SAS supplied a free shuttle from the port to the Rex Hotel, in the middle of downtown Ho Chi Minh City. We acquaint ourselves with the shuttle and hop on, ready for our first stop: the tailor.
I needed to get a top made for my sari (I already had the fabric), Brittany wanted to get a dress made and Erin wanted a suit. Vietnam is famous for cheap tailoring. We dont have a particular shop in mind as we wander through the HCMC streets, walking a few blocks in the sweltering heat (a theme of our trip to Vietnam) before stumbling upon Orchid Silk, an air-conditioned storefront tailor. Greeting the cool air, I find a lady to help me with the top (I had a picture of exactly what I wanted) while Britt and Erin explore the colorful patterns. After a little haggling, I agree to pay 20$ for the handmade top (including the finishing touches on the sari fabric which needed to be stitched) and hangout, approving and denying B and Es various outfit choices. They settle on their designs and we decide to start walking towards the War Remnants Museum.
On our way to the famed museum, we stumble upon the Ben Than Market and like any good tourists we decide to head in. The sights are overwhelming as we explore the tight, boiling hot aisles which are congested by shopkeepers calling out to us. They are more aggressive than many of our previous countries (less so than Morocco, though) and some even pat our shoulders or grab our arms to get our attention. Bargaining was also a little different as the general half price (half of the original quoted price is usually the right price) rule seemed null. Some vendors would drop the price radically, while others held strong to their original offers and would drop 2$ as if it were 20$.
I am determined to find a chopstick set for my new apartment and after a good deal of research (looking and bargaining with shopkeepers); I find the perfect set which contained sea shell holders! It will be great for our international homecoming party!!! Brittany and Erin also purchase chopstick sets and Buddhas. While exploring the huge market we run into two SAS boys who are eating Pho at one of the many counters in the center of the market. We ask them how it is and one of them offers for me to taste it- it was delicious! The three of us sit down and split one huge bowl of the hot noodle soup, sprinkling the various spices on top of it. For two dollars we enjoy the spicy soup and three waters! Yum!
The heat finally gets to us and we head out to catch a cyclo (its hard to describe, but picture a man peddling a baby carriage that you sit in). After some bargaining, they agree to take us for a dollar each. We all get into three different cyclos and clutch our cameras while taking many pictures as we glide through the crowded streets (HCMC is the motorbike capital of the world, there are about 4 million in the city limits alone!). We arrive at the museum only to find that it is closed for the following hour. We decide to explore the immediate area and stumble upon a beauty parlor. Upon our entrance we are served with a menu and figure out that a pedicure is only 4 USD (Vietnam takes dollars almost everywhere)! I cant say that it was the best pedicure Ive ever gotten, but for 4 dollars it was well worth it.
After our pedicures we decide to head back to the museum which we find open and alive with patrons. It was quite depressing as it chronicles (sometimes distorting) United States involvement in the Vietnam War (they call it the American War). I found some of the signs humorous as they referred to the South Vietnamese government in signage as the Puppet Government. However, much of the open air (and very hot) museum depicts the atrocities of Agent Orange and the destruction caused in part by the United States. It was very sobering indeed, but totally necessary when visiting Vietnam. I understand the reasoning behind United States involvement (our belief in The Domino Theory, our fight against communism, etc) but the whole thing seems totally misguided and unnecessary, after all after Saigon fell they went to war with China, the other communist country on their side of the continent. But, enough history, back to our adventures
We decide to take cyclos back to the Rex and revisit the tailor so that Erin can explain some missing details of her suit. I really wanted to see some sort of cultural event while in Vietnam and when we walked past what looked like a theater I knew I had to investigate. After having some language difficulties with the women who was managing the desk, a man walked up and explained to us that it would be 6 USD for tickets that night, but that it was totally in Vietnamese. The three of us discuss the idea of going to a play totally in Vietnamese and after some pleas I manage to convince them to join me.
We stop for Vietnamese fast food on our way back to the Rex (Lotteria?) and then take the shuttle back home. We shower, take a little breather and eat dinner on the ship before heading back out (all dressed up!).
Before heading to the theater we stop in at an art shop which displays painted imitations of famous works from Matisse to Picasso. Brittany purchases a Klimt from the vendor while I check my email (they let me use their internet). From there we walk to the theater.
I make conversation with a Vietnamese family while we wait for the doors to open for the play. He repeatedly asks me why we are there (in a VERY nice, but quizzical manner) as we do not speak the language. I reply that we want to feel the culture and there is no better way than to immerse ourselves with the people (ok, so I said it in planner English than that, but you get the picture). The doors finally open and we are welcomed with Michael Jacksons Bad, but more importantly by cold air-conditioning. The three of us take our seats in the fourth row next to a cheery young couple. The play starts a half hour late (the couple tells us that that is totally normal). The actors are very energized and the couple sporadically translates for us. The gist of the story (from what we could tell) is that there is a man searching for a wife. One women is too short, the other too young, yet another too old. It was quite entertaining, but a little confusing given we couldnt understand what they were saying. The audience cackled often so the comedy was obviously very effective. We left at intermission, knowing that a good night of sleep was imperative before heading to the Mekong Delta. I was very happy that we had gone to theater as I feel that I grasped another aspect to their culture.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
I was really looking forward to this day because of the floating market that we were going to go to in the morning. The alarm sounds early, around 6:30, and we all hurry to shower and get ready for our day. We meet Nat downstairs and follow her out to the car and driver awaiting us. The Floating Market Dummoen Saduak is about 2 hours away from Bangkok and we all take opportunity to catch up on sleep and look lazily out the window as the scenery changes once more from city to countryside.
We arrive at what looks like a large outdoor market and follow Nat in through the crowded stalls towards a long canal where she hires a long brown old fashioned row boat to take us through the market. We all hop in, one to a row, and I look around at amazement at what I am immersed in. Hundreds of shopkeepers on moving or stationary boats of their own, their wares included everything from fresh fruit to spices to souvenirs. As we sailed (or more accurately the man rowed us) through the crowded waterways shop keepers would hold onto our vessel and show us their fresh strawberries or the like, looking for a head nod of offering. Nat purchased some fried bananas which were so fresh and delectable, the women frying them in front of our eyes on her own moveable vessel! As we continued our journey I spotted some Thai Iced Coffee and for 30 baht enjoyed the best coffee of my life. We laughed as we explored, not buying much (I also bought for next to nothing a canvas bag with a women with many limbs to bring to the beach in Hawaii and an elephant tapestry (less than 5$)) but thoroughly enjoying the experience. Nat informed us that in the old days many markets were floating due to the plethora of canals and the fisherman that frequented them. I took a ton of pictures and each one looked like it could have been shot 300 years ago, with women in their conical hats selling cucumber looking veggies and the like.
On our way back to Bangkok I saw some sort of street food wrapped in banana leaves on the side of the road. I asked Nat what it was and she promptly pulled over and bought a whole bag full of them. It turns out that they were sugary coconut jellies and for 20 baht we had enough to last all of us (including the driver) the rest of our lives, another example of how inexpensive Thailand is for foreigners.
We got to Bangkok earlier than we expected so we asked Nat to drop us off near the Bai Pai Cooking School, where we were to have our cooking lessons. We said good bye to Nat who handed us each brightly colored scarves to remember her by. We were sad to see her go and promptly wrapped ourselves in the scarves before saying goodbye. She had dropped us off outside of Tesco, a supermarket building that also housed some smaller shops on the first floor. Brittany and I immediately located a Dunkin Donuts out of the corner of our eyes.
Since I had already had coffee I decided to just get a donut. Their donuts were unlike any I have ever seen before. They were every color and very decorative. The ones we bought were crème filled with chocolate icing and multi-colored sugar balls on top. It was quite a sight. After exploring the supermarket we headed down to the McDonalds to meet the car for our cooking lesson. Outside the restaurant was a Ronald McDonald with his arms in the Thai greeting position (arms inward with palms pressing each other), which we happily took pictures with.
The drive to the cooking school was short. We enter the open air building with wide eyes, eager to learn. It is w ell decorated with a brown wood motif and almost looked like it could be on South Beach. There are about twelve people in total including the four of us. We each take our seats on a long Samurai (the restaurant) style table. We create five courses: Satay Chicken (Gai Satay), Pad Thai, Savory Prawn (Plah Goong), Coconut Sticky Rice (Kao Neaw Moon) and Chicken with Cashew Nuts (Gai Pad Med Ma-Muang). We learned how to stir-fry, marinate, use woks and present our work it appealing way. Each lesson consisted of the two instructors making the dish (we could view it on the tilted mirror) and explaining all of the ingredients. Then we would have tasting time wherein we could sample the delectable dishes before parlaying into our own cooking adventure. I think all of my dishes came out rather well and I only sustained minor burns from the frying, lol.
We were exhausted (and stuffed!) by the time we left the baipai cooking class, but we still managed to stop at a 7-11 for some local beer, Tiger and Singha (dad, you would have liked it!). We laughed and played with makeup as we got ready to go out on the town. We had heard that a lot of SASers were going to go to Khoisan road, so we met up with Nathan and then headed in that direction. After walking around the funky street for a while we decided to head into The Club. It played American music (as is true in most countries so far) and we had a lot of fun dancing and singing along. The people watching was also fun as there were many locals but also a lot of backpackers and travelers from all over. It had a very international feel. We did tire eventually and took a taxi home to shower and have a good night of sleep before our last day.
Feeling like we had seen most of Bangkok and well aware that our shuttle was going to leave at 1pm with or without us, we decide to just sleep in and then head back to the mall (where our shuttle was) in order to be safe. The doorbell rings at 10 am and we hurry to pack and have breakfast. It doesnt take me long (I was the only who didnt have to purchase another bag to fit my newly acquired belongings!) so I run downstairs to take advantage of the free internet before the hotels shuttle drops us off at Central World.
We walk around once more, trying to spend our remaining Baht (its always a little difficult to figure out how much to take out, etc ). I only had 400 baht left (a little over 10 dollars), but luckily I fell in love with a cute Jim Thompson silk neck scarf (so me!) with which to utilize the baht, lol. Unfortunately I didnt remember that I still had to purchase lunch with the baht (many places dont accept credit cards as readily as they do in the states) so Brittany and I had sandwiches at Starbucks (they were only 2$, United States Starbucks need to take notice!) while Becca and Perri had burgers next door. We were quite a sight moving through the mall, Brittany pulling Perris suitcase with her duffle and mine on top (good idea mom, with the small black one!), while I balanced others shopping bags and my camera bag. The drive back was uneventful and I managed to sleep most of the time.
Thailand was a lot of fun. It was not as in your face nor as life changing as some other ports (South Africa, India, etc ), but it was a wonderful experience. From the absolute beauty of the Grand Palace (which I now believe everyone must see once in their lives!) to the funky shopping of the markets I enjoyed every minute of the city life. Even Pad Thai will take on meaning as I will be able to reminisce about learning how to make it by Thai people.
PS. Were currently in the South China Sea which is absolutely gorgeous! The sunsets are unreal and its also very odd (but beautiful!) to see other ships and land masses out my window, rather than endless ocean (not that Im complaining about that ).
Tired from our previous days in the hot sweltering sun, we decide to have a leisurely morning and head to the airconditioned Central World Mall for some Starbucks and window shopping. I enjoy my Caramel Macchiato (my first in 2 months- Im pretty sure its a record!) and walk through the mall admiring the Thai Boutiques on the first floor as well as the American and British shops on the upper levels. Window shopping turns to actual shopping when I find a long purple shrug, hand-made and less than 20$ dollars (dont worry Mom and Dad-I put it on my Visa Buxx). Brittany and Perri find quite a few fashionably thai items to purchase before we decide to head back to the hotel to meet Perris family friend Phillip as well as our friend Becca who was on an SAS trip.
While Perri frantically BBMs (Blackberry Messages) with Becca, Brittany and I head upstairs to change bags (I got my camera, etc) before returning downstairs to find Perri nervous that Becca is in gridlock traffic. Phillip arrives quickly thereafter in a luxurious town car and proceeds to speak perfect Thai to Beccas cab driver, which was pretty hilarious emanating from his Jewish being. While Phillip jumps out of the car to grab us some fresh fruit (watermelon and pineapple!) from the street vendors, Becca arrives and hops in, a little deshelved from her adventure.
As we drive off, Phillips asks us what we want to do. Brittany had been wanting to see tigers, a rather pricey trip offered by SAS, which we had decided against. When we mentioned it to Phillip he politely offered to take us-despite it being almost two hours away. I was also very excited as I really wanted to get out of the city and see more of the countryside and the way many Thai live.
Beccas tummy was bothering her and after an hour of fast driving (that car could really go!) Phillip pulled over to a rest stop. He treated us all to Dairy Queen (interestingly, the size and the price of the treats were much smaller than in the United States) and pointed out to us the dried fish and other Thai dishes available at small stands along the rest stop.
Another hour of driving on the expressway takes us to the Sri Racha Tiger Zoo. Phillip treats us to our tickets and the sweltering sky turns to clouds and rain drops as we head into the park. The park is nice and reminds me a little bit of fair child tropical gardens. It is not totally up to so called American standards of animal treatment, although it only made me cringe a couple of times. We find a bunch of large pigs in an open cage with numbers on their backs (painted, not tattooed) ready for racing. We pose with the hogs who seem to smile for our cameras before heading in for the big show: pictures with tigers!
We head into a slightly air-conditioned room with a plain wooden bench in front of a decorative Sri Racha Tiger Zoo background. Brittany goes first, the women puts a towel on her lap and gives her a bottle before opening the cage for the tiger (it was rather large for it to be playing with us, when it went on our laps it was almost twice the width of our lap. All goes smoothly as I shoot pictures and she smiles happily. I go next, a little more nervous, as she takes pictures and I pet and feed the teenage tiger. However, on its way back into the cage it gets out and runs to my leg, too quickly for it to really register in my head. The women who worked there quickly run to remove the tiger who only scratched me, but what a story! I was mauled by a tiger in Thailand!!! Becca and Perri decide to feed it together and their faces showed their fright after watching my incident. It made me sad to watch the tigers (there were two) in the cage and I had to remind myself many times that the rest of the world does not think of animals in the same way as we do in America.
Next, we headed to the Elephant show, which was quite entertaining, but again my heart ached for the animals (who did seem well fed and taken care of). The elephants were highly trained and could walk a trapeze, use hoola-hoops and even manage to jump over audience members!
We decided to head back to the car after our tiger and elephant filled adventure. On our way back to the hotel we stopped twice along the highway. First at an authentic Thai Food Market, where there was no English or foreigners. We bought grilled corn (amazing!) and immersed ourselves in the culture as we saw such an array of food such as Chicken knees! The food was all very fresh and cheap, it looked like it had been picked or plucked earlier that morning.
Our second stop was at another rest stop, however this one was more traditional (no dairy queen). Phillip bought us sticky rice in bamboo shoots and pointed out the array of very local (he said every rest stop has completely different items for sale) cuisine. Although the hygiene of everything being left out did make me cringe, it was amazing to see the plethora of fresh items for sale that would never make it in America.
Another hour brings us to our hotel, where Phillip drops us off and tells us where to meet him for dinner. We shower and discuss our exciting afternoon (mauled by a tiger, who does that happen to?) and get dressed for dinner. On our way to dinner we stop at a tailor because Brittany and Perri were thinking of getting something handmade as it is quite inexpensive in Thailand. Although that didnt work out (they didnt have perfect sketches and the women was a little timid about trying), Becca managed to find some cool silk night robes to purchase. From the tailor we follow Phillip to an upscale restaurant on a side street, still very close to the hotel.
After sitting down, he instructs us all to order smoothies, which he said were their specialty. I chose the coconut one and was delighted at its succulent and fresh taste. Then, Phillip asks us if we have any preference for dinner, stating that he would just order a variety of dishes that we could sample many different dishes. We all agree that whatever he wants is fine and proceeds to order about 10 dishes! From delectable chicken satay to coconut milk soup to spicy duck, it felt like a feast! Other dishes include rice cakes with salty miced pork, sweet and sour prawns, and an entire fish! Our taste buds were in heaven as we sampled the delectable array of dishes.
By the end of dinner we were all very full and I headed back to the hotel to rest (and stay away from more shopping, lol), while Becca, Brittany and Perri went to the night market once more.
Friday, March 20, 2009
The door bell rang at 8:30 with our croissant and toast breakfast. We hurried to get ready in preparation for our day of Wat (temple) sight-seeing. I was very excited as I was totally looking forward to seeing the Grand Palace, Bangkoks gem of a temple.
We ran downstairs to meet Nat once more for our day! We originally planned on taking a taxi to the grand palace, but our driver quickly informed us that the streets were just too jammed. Nat asked us if we were comfortable using the canal taxi system (Bangkok is sometimes called the Venice of the East). We happily agreed as it seemed like it would be an adventure. We were sure right! For 8 baht we took our seats on the old style canal boat. The boat had these blue covers from the seats to the roof which they would raise and drop as we sped up and slowed down to shield us from the water. It was just SOOO cool! We were the only tourists on the whole boat and I tried to imagine what it would be like to take it to work everyday. At every stop the individuals would jump onto the rim of the boat and then get off on the port. I could only imagine the law suits if it was in the United States!
The Chao Phraya River takes us all the way to the Grand palace as we pass everything from shopping malls to shacks with their laundry hanging by the murky water. A short walk takes us to a plaza filled with Wats and monuments to the royal family. I marvel at the gold slopes and green gems as I snap a few pictures. From there we take a taxi to the main attraction: The Grand Palace!
The Grand Palace or Phra Bporom Maha Ratcha Wang is the official housing complex for the King of Thailand since the 18th century, although the current King Rama IX does not live there. It was built in 1782 under the King Rama I because he moved the capital from Thonburi to Bangkok. Interestingly, Nat consistently referred to the king as my king and seemed to take him quite seriously. In Thailand it is against the law to slander the king in any way (unlike Britain, etc). One of its main attractions is the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) which is made of solid jade. It is totally breathtaking and is considered the most sacred Wat in Thailand.
We had a lot of fun exploring the Grand Palace. If you have a chance to Google it, you must because my descriptions just cant do it justice.
When we first go there we were greeted by a marching band (I have no idea why), their white suits all in a row. Upon our entrance Brittany and I bought a flower and candle offering to the Gods and proceeded to dip it in holy water and bring it to our temple. Many pictures later we explored the gold, green and red structures. Marveling in their sizes and shapes.
There were huge monkey-like structures with green masked faces and ornate bodies. We mimicked their shapes and treasured their colors. The palace was very impressive but also sweltering with heat and eventually we tired and had to move on (after seeing the gorgeous emerald Buddha). We were astonished that we had spent 2 hours there as it had totally flown by. The amazing colors and breathtaking monuments surrounding our senses.
As we exited we passed the Sanam Luang where the king entertains and looked inside the military supplies room, which housed spears from all over and all ages. We stopped in at a small café where for 20 baht, I ordered a coconut! Seriously! They hacked off the top and we all got to drink the milky water and scrapped off the coconut from the sides. It was a delightful treat!
From there we truly headed out and went to get a bite to eat on the river. It was very yummy and we even met some Australians who work for the Australian Embassy in Bangkok. They were quite chatty and they told us about the night market and the exercise park that we visited that night. After lunch (and the gorgeous view of the Chao Phraya River) we walked to the Wat Pho or Temple of the Reclining Buddha. As that district (Phra Nakhon) is famous for massage lessons (the real kind) there were a ton of stalls lining the road with lotions and ceramic wares. I fell in love with a pair of elephant salt and pepper shakers and a lotus incense holder which I bargained down to less than 10 dollars for both!!! (I loved this country!)
We finally made it to the entrance of Wat Pho, our purchases in hand, where we were instructed by our tour guide to ring the gong three times for good luck. We had a lot of fun trying to bang it as hard as we could before heading into a small part of the temple where we prayed to the day-of-the-week-we-were-born-Gods. After our short prayers we Nat placed little pieces of gold leafing on our foreheads and we headed towards the main part of the temple.
Wat pho has over one thousand Buddha images, but its main attraction, which was made during Rama IIIs restoration, is the Reclining Buddha which is 46 meters long and 15 meters high. It is gold plated and has mother of pearl on its eyes and on the bottom of its feet. It was ginormous and truly breathtaking. After taking in the magnitude of the sight we took another water taxi across the river to The Temple of the Dawn.
The Temple of the Dawn is actually called Wat Arun, It is over 70 meters tall and the main prang (it is Khmer-style) is surrounded by four smaller prangs. Brittany and I admire the decorative prangs with their seashells and porcelain from afar while Perri and Nat ascend the steep steps. The market next-door has handmade paintings and I fall in love with a small sunset one for my apartment next year and manage to score it for 200 baht after some hard bargaining.
From the Wat we head to the Union Mall so that Brittany and Perri can get more of the T-Shirts they liked from the Weekend Market. The fashion in Thailand is very Urban Outfitters, but at a fraction of the cost. As they shop, I take in the culture of the mall. From the unique stalls to the KFC, this mall offered a real taste of Thailand.
Afterwards we head back to the hotel to drop off our belongings and get a lesson on how to use the subway from Nat. We decide to go Lumpini Park and the Suan Luim Night Bazaar in order to observe more of the culture!
Lumpini Park is a huge public square outfitted with metal exercise equipment. It was out of this world. I am not sure if any of it actually accomplishes much but we had fun playing with the fake elliptical and stretching ourselves on some of the other machines. It was interesting to see the men and women with their ipods working out with such different equipment. The locals laughed at us as we swung on one of the balance machines before retiring towards the Night Bazaar.
The Night Bazaar reminded me of a less intense version of the Weekend Market. As we walked through the over 3,000 booths we ran into a few SASers and discussed our various trips so far. The Bazaar was a little touristy for my taste but we still managed to find some cool items including a trench coat dress for under 15$ and a silver flower pendant for even less. The sweltering heat got to us once more and we retreated to an air-conditioned restaurant, with yummy Pad Thai but lousy service. By the time we exited the establishment we were very worn out from our day and decided to head back. On our walk toward the subway we stumble upon an outdoor arena with a Thai singer entertaining a quaint audience. We stop for a moment to take in the music before taking the subway back.
Our hotel room is welcoming as we slip into sleep once more.
When contrasted with our past adventures and countries, Thailand was pretty tame. The bustling city was reminiscent of New York City or London, but with unique Asian quirks. I hope you enjoy this jaunt!
Our first day begins slowly, with an unnecessarily lengthy wait for our passports. From the ship we take a shuttle (through SAS) to Bangkok. It takes about 2 hours and is dotted by interruptions from the tour agencys representative trying to sell his captive audience tickets, hotel rooms and tours. I stare out the window watching the landscape go from industrial (our port) to rural and then finally to suburbs and city. We are dropped off at Central World, a sprawling foreign mall complete with an Apples Store and department stores. We (Perri, Brittany and I) shy away from the mall in an effort to find our hotel shuttle. Unfortunately we must have missed it (we arrived a little late due to the 3 hour bus ride) so we had to hale a taxi.
Thailand was never colonized (the word Thai is translatable to our word free), which means that English is not particularly prevalent (although there are a lot of Australian tourists) which meant that explaining to our driver where our hotel was located was a little challenging. We have, unfortunately, benefited from British colonization as South Africa and India have large English speaking groups. In order to adjust to our lack of communication skills, we decided (I more reluctantly then they) to hire a tour guide for the rest of the day (fairly cheap, I think 10-15 USD each).
Since we are in such a hurry to meet her (her name is Natalie) we decide to just go for the first taxi we can see. A bright pink Toyota Camry (which was the norm in Thailand except for some Tuk-Tuks) pulls to the side and we quickly ask him if he knows where the hotel is (we had a paper in English). He looks at us reluctantly but nods yes. We decided to just get in (he quoted us 150 Baht or 4$, its about 35 Baht to the dollar and even though that was a little steep at a little more than a dollar each we needed to just get there). The taxi ride is pretty uneventful as we balance our luggage on our laps and stare out at the gridlocked traffic (Bangkok is infamous for) and the colorful street vendors. America is truly lacking on the yummy street food (I can only guess due to sanitation reasons) but Thailand certainly was not!
As the driver turns from Sumkavit and onto Soi 19 we look anxiously for The Key Bangkok, afraid our driver is lost. Finally, Brittany spots the sign on a rather large and built out alleyway and we pull in. Perri checks in and tries to locate our guide, while Brittany and I drop our bags off in the luxurious (although only 30$ each a night!) hotel room, decorated in plush oranges and browns and complete with a flat screen TV!
We meet Nat downstairs and introduce ourselves. She was born and raised in Thailand and has only been a tour guide for a short period of time. Our afternoon plans are to orient us with the citys public transport and to visit the Chatuchak Weekend Market, one of the largest in Thailand! It is home to over 20,000 stalls and sells everything from counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags to home cookware. We take the SkyTrain, which is a nicer, cleaner version of the Miami Metro, to the market, eyeing the locals as we go. I always like to use public transport because it feels like I am experiencing the city the way the locals do and the people watching is always awesome!
We arrive in the sweltering heat at the market as our guide explains to us that most of her clients can only last a half hour. Somehow we managed to last three hours. I chalk it up to lots of cheap bottles of water (10 Baht) and cool items for sale. The market was set up with covered paths between stalls with open breezeways every 50 or so lanes. It was quite chaotic, but in a very good way. There was certainly a mix of individuals, from locals buying fresh fish (they dont have great refrigeration so they must buy their food fresh everyday) to tourists like us looking for cool paintings and souvenirs.
Our hands down favorite section was the Designers District which housed up and coming fashionistas who sold their handmade clothes for next to nothing. I ended up with a few T-Shirts (good news Ilana!) which the others ended up with a new wardrobe. Making our way through the crowded paths was not easy and required a hand across our valuables (my Nikon) at all times. But it certainly was an experience! We sampled some of the local cuisine (chicken and fresh strawberries) which also cost next to nothing. I found some cute flower silhouette earrings that would have been super expensive at Urban, but were less than 10 dollars and I got to see how they made them! Finally, I picked up a turquoise flower ring and after some hard bargaining, I got it for half of the asking price.
Bargaining in Thailand was interesting. They werent aggressive in the same way as those in Israel or Morocco, they dont try to insult you or grab at you, but they sort of whine at you saying give me more or more for me which was off-putting in its own way.
After three hours, our sweat was sticking to us and the sun was setting, so we asked Nat to direct us to a good place to eat. She asked us if we wanted a fancy restaurant or a local dive. When we replied with How much is the fancy restaurant we were fascinated to find the answer being 80 baht for a main dish (or about 2.50 USD). For less than 3 dollars we decided to head to the classier joint and with a quick Skytrain ride and short taxi trip we were on Khoisan Road, the young hip backpackers district of the city.
The streets were flooded with people and the clubs, bars and shops were bright and flashy as we walked towards the restaurant. The restaurant, however, was a quite sanctuary for us to discuss our day. Open-air, yet truly upscale, defined this touristy joint. I ordered Pad Thai and Chicken Skewers, while Brittany and Perri dined on sweet and sour chicken and Masaman Curry.
After dinner we continued to explore the travelers quarters, hearing German, French and Australian English as we went. After finding the same sea-shell earrings I had bought in South Africa (after being reassured by the shopkeeper that they were local), we decided to get our first Thai Massage! For only 7 USD we were bent, twisted and elbowed for an entire, which was actually quite reinvigorating after a tiring day. Afterwards we headed back to the hotel (this time with a taxi with a meter due to Nats Thai!) and grabbed some bottled water at the 7-11 (theyre on every street corner) before falling quickly asleep.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
India, Days 4-5
The morning seems to come quickly and Brittany and I are startled by the wake up call. We pack up our things and head downstairs where we are directed towards The Coffee Shop, which turns out to be a gorgeously decorated breakfast buffet. I get an omelet with mushrooms which were AMAZING, Im not sure exactly what made it so yummy but it was. Over breakfast we discuss once more the contrasts between the impoverishment we see and the ornate breakfast we are participating in. If I were to pick one theme amongst all the countries we have visited it would be wealth dichotomy.
After our luxurious breakfast Britt, Annie and I head to the lobby where we see a sparse number of group members. It seems that the morning is optional and many of our fellow students had been out way too late the night before and would not be joining us. We couldnt believe someone(literally half of our group) would forsake the ability to see everything we were about to experience for one night of partying, but alas to each their own.
Our first stop is to the Bahai House of Worship in Delhi. It is created to look like a lotus flower and is architecturally amazing. It is made of 27 marble petals and can hold up to 2,500 people. It was finished in 1986. It is actually the second Bahai temple I have seen as I visited one in Israel a couple of years ago. It is also outlined with beautiful flowers, including some that looked just like truffela trees from Dr. Suess. Their religion gives prominence to the spiritual unity of individuals. The lotus temple serves as a place of worship for all religions including their own. They believe in a unity of all the worlds religion and utilize prophets from Krishna to Jesus. It was very interesting and we got to go inside for a prayer ceremony. The prayer echoed through the domed interior and it was truly a spiritual time of reflection for all we had seen in the past days.
From the Bahai House we were driven to a Sikh temple. This was particularly cool. The world is home to 25 million Sikhs, 20 million of who reside in India, with the majority in the Punjab region. Sikhism is a relatively new religion, formed in the 17th century. Baptized Sikhs wear turbans and are often times mistaken for Muslims, which is a problem for them in many western countries. The temple we visited was ornately and colorfully decorated. We were instructed to take off our shoes and people literally grimaced as we would be walking outside on our way to the temple and as I have reiterated over and over its dirty! But alas, it is always important to respect other cultures so I untie my tennis shoes, place an orange bandana over my head (they give them to all tourists as it is required to cover ones head) and head out with Brittany trying not to focus on the various diseases I could contract (lol).
On our was up the stairs we encounter a stream of water on two of the steps, we are explained that it is holy water and told that stepping in it is wholly optional. I lightly press my toes into it and keep walking, figuring when at the Sikh temple . As usual the sheer number of individuals around me is enormous, from western looking Sikhs to the baptized turban wearing variety. It was very interesting and cool to be surrounded by such a unique and colorful religion and culture.
As we enter the temple we hear a band playing drums and other instruements and individuals line up to give some sort of an offering (we couldnt figure out what it was). Many Sikhs line the floor, sitting, taking in the music and praying. We walk around the offering table and head back outside. We are offered Holy Food which we were told ahead of time we could refuse but if we accepted we would have to finish it. Brittany, braver than I, tastes the mush looking item and manages to down it, while I set my sights on a large pool to the right of the complex. Hundreds of individuals, with their families, are bathing in the large pool, bring the water right up to their faces and praying. We decide to join in and walk in up to our ankles and touch the water giving ourselves a moment of meditation. We walk around the pool (which is actually quite large) taking in the culture as much as we can! We return back towards the main temple, get our shoes and head out to the bus.
Its an odd sensation being in India. When I was inside anywhere or doing something, I felt oftentimes like I could be anywhere in the world. Yet, the minute I stepped outside it was like India rushed over me. The smells (not so great), the sights (unbelievable, quite literally!) and everything in between instantly reminds one of the uniqueness of the sub-continent.
Our next stop is the Birla Bhavan in New Delhi. It was the site of the untimely assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was killed by a radical Hindu on January 30, 1948. He led Indian in its fight against British colonization and was big proponent of civil disobedience, albeit always non-violent. He is also known as the Father of India. He was actually shot during one of his peace prayer meetings, a very unfortunate irony. The site is now home to museum as well as gardens. Brittany and I stroll through the site, reading all of his amazing quotes and taking in the deeply sad undertones of what had happened as well as the good that his life brought. The museum section of the site chronicled the resistance movement against the British, a topic I find of particular interest. Funneling everything we saw in India through the filter of colonization makes blaming the people for the garbage or the Indian Government for the despair of so many people very questionable. It reminds me once more how the west plays a large legacy-like role in Africa and India, and how our actions can radically change countries destinies for the worse.
We head back to the hotel for the final time where we meet up with the other half of our group. Our last buffet means our last pieces of nan! We savor the spices of India (some yummy masala chicken!) while listening to a man playing drums. Leaving North India was not easy as I truly feel like I am a different person for seeing this nook of the world. Our afternoon is all travel, back to the airport than finally home to the ship. But, India was not over yet! We still had one last day
Nathan had mentioned to us before we left for the Taj that he wanted to go to Mahabalipuram, the sight of 2,000 year old temples about an hour and half away from Chennai. Since he had it all planned and it would only be four dollars for a hop-on hop-off style bus, we figured we might as well! We ate breakfast quickly and headed out for the Tourist Center to get the bus.
Once more we had to hire an auto and to add insult to injury we were in a little bit of a rush to get the first bus. As we get to the gate hundreds of drivers descend upon us. We knew we wanted to only pay 1 USD each and after some looking we were able to find a driver. After reminding him numerous times that we only wanted to go to the Tourist Center he drove for a couple of minutes before pulling over and announcing that road we needed to take was blocked but that for only 20 more rupees he would take us to the proper entrance. Annoyed, we decided to get out and walk by foot, mostly on principle. The 20ish minute walk took us through a political rally! We are constantly warned by SAS to stay away from these as they can get rowdy but it was certainly cool! I dont know what party it was but their candidate was a women! Very cool!!!
After an adventurous walk next to unpredictable traffic we made it to the correct center and get onto the back of the bus. The vehicle takes us through the country side past tiger zoos, Dizzie World (!) and cultural centers. We pass the time discussing our travels (Nathan had gone to Hydrabad) and soon we arrive at Mahabalipuram.
Mahabalipuram was named as a World Heritage Site in 1984. Its monuments date all the way back to the sixth and tenth century AD. They were mostly build under the Pallava ruler, Narasimhavarman I. All of the monuments are right next to sea and even survived the Tsunami!
We walk through a small town on our way to the Shore Temple. It is a prime example of masonry temples that were prevalent during Rajasimhas life. We take a ton of pictures with the bas reliefs. Although not as detailed as they once were, the amazing reliefs of elephants, gods and the like were fascinating! After taking our usual jumping pictures we head down to the hill area and a huge relief known as Arjunas Penance it depicted the hero (Arjuna) in his expedition to impress the deities and it shows his rewards for his journey. It had these really cool elephants on it and was truly amazing! Afterwards we head to the Sisyphus rock which is basically an enormous (10x as tall as we are!) rock which is precariously situated on a steep rock hill. We take atlas like pictures as we deflect hawkers once more. One man even calls us liars when we refuse to purchase a pipe!
On our way back to the bus we stop for some water (I was super dehydrated) and marvel at the numerous street vendors and their various wares from metal bowls that look like they should be sold at Target to cheap necklaces for tourists. I buy a small painting (only 2 dollars!) from a shop and we run back to the bus as it starts to rain.
Another hour and a half later we find ourselves back in Chennai. We ask how far Spencers Mall is as it had been recommended to us by fellow shipmates. The tourguide says it should be a little more than a five minute walk. Thirty minutes later we arrive at Spencers after walking through traffic (the trick is to walk right next to a local, they know what they are doing!), dirt and beggars. We go directly to the grocery store we I buy two six-packs of Diet Coke, while Brittany buys Gatorade. Nathan carries it all in his backpack without complaint as we run through the mall for some last minute shopping (I didnt buy anything ), before heading back to the ship!
India truly was a whirlwind as I think back to all our adventures. If you ever have the opportunity to go there you really must! It will change your world view and make you want to take a stand!
We are more than half way through the journey (today is March 14, yesterday was the half way mark) and I truly cant believe it! I have learned so much and experienced so much; I truly believe I am changed for the better. Tomorrow we leave for Bangkok, Im very excited! Ill tell you all about it soon
Friday, March 13, 2009
India, Day 3, Afternoon
After grabbing another hotel buffet, Brittany, Annie, Shelby and I decided to explore the area a little more. We had heard that some girls had gone to some sort of a festival and Shelby was told that there would be an elephant show. Not knowing what we would be in for we head out towards the shopping street.
After just a couple of minutes of walking we stumble upon an entrance of sorts with a sign in Hindi. We smile politely at the guards and they let us in. Within minutes we are surrounded by what we initially believe is a carnival. A large orange tent dominates the field and throngs of individuals sprinkle the rest of the landscape. Painted elephants can be seen in the distance as well as carriages and ornately decorated band members. A group of Indian children run up to us and pull us towards a booth. A group of Indian women surround a man who is applying henna stamps to them. Thats right stamps. Wood stamps. I quickly ask if he sells them and if so for how much. 200 rupees later (4$) I am the proud owner of two hand carved Indian stamps and am adorned with some funky henna designs. I was thrilled.
We decided to explore the festival, which we soon find out is actually in honor of a wedding! And I thought American weddings were extravagant! A marching band plays and vendors selling goods abound (yep, at a wedding!). The children follow us as we walk around snapping pictures and taking in the fact that we are attending an Indian wedding!!! This was definitely one of the highlights of my entire trip, crashing an Indian Wedding!!
We stayed for as long as we could before heading back to the hotel and the bus, our next stop being Mother Teresas Orphanage. Mother Teresa was a huge advocate of children in Third World Countries. Today there are over 200 of these Orphanages in India alone. I was thrilled that this was on the itinerary as I think it is always imperative as travelers to see as many sides of a country or place as possible. I was taken aback when the sign read Home for Sick and Dying Destitutes, I guess political correctness hasnt reached India quite yet.
We were first brought into the center for orphans. They ranged from just a month old to about 11 (the older ones had severe mental handicaps). Most were orphans, but some were born to single mothers and since it is shunned there the Mother (its catholic) takes them in. Almost all of them have some sort of handicap ranging from mild ones to it being so severe that they have to be literally caged (Ill come back to that). I begin to play with the children, coloring and tickling and snapping pictures. Their spirits seem to be pretty high considering the dirt and dust that fills the walls (although they were painted with Disney characters!). After a while, a couple of us head with the Mother to see the other part of the facility and in order to pass out some t-shirts and donations.
We head to the center where the older individuals are held and I am aghast when we walk past a group of possibly 50 teenagers behind bars. She asks one of them who has the key. The key to what? we ask. She goes on to explain that they can be too psychotic or hyperactive and are locked in for a good part of the day but can come out at night. This totally horrified me. I am not sure how mental hospitals in the United States handle it, but I hope better than that. She goes on to say that most of the older kids and adults are taken off the streets, mostly found with maggots on them or the like and that they are brought to the center to live and die like humans. I think to myself that India sure does have a way to go and I wonder how Catholic Church policy could (or does?) allow this.
Although the visit did alarm me in a pretty profound way, it gave me perspective into the lucky ones in India, since these women, men and children were taken off the street. We in the United States really do lead charmed lives and do to a large part take care of each other, even those with disabilities. Without ADA laws to speak of, India seems to be lacking in the human rights department.
I head back to the original center where a little girl seems adamant about literally climbing up members of our groups. The women in charge said she had pretty severe mental handicaps, but she seemed to be having a ball. We loved her interaction and were sad when we were told it was time to go.
On our way back to the hotel we are dropped off at two stores to do more shopping. The problem is that the shops are way expensive and it is pretty clear that we are there for them to get commission-my only real complaint with the tour company, but I guess that is the way it goes! Brittany and I walk to a shop close by the first one and I find a batik elephant wall hanging, but the shop keeper is not a bargainer and I walk away from the print. The second shop shows us how marble inlays work, which was very cool since that is how parts of the Taj were created. As we go to walk away, the man doing the demonstration holds up a small pendant with the inlays and a sign that says 300 Rupees, I offer him 100R (2$) and he takes it. I marvel in my purchase as the owner goes on to show us 1,000$ tables and the like. The group gets antsy and annoyed quickly and soon we are ushered back to the hotel.
They tell us that we have about 45 minutes until Pizza Hut (!) will come to deliver us dinner. Brad (our LLC which is basically an RA) asks Brittany and I what we are going to do and we all decide to try to head back to the festival. Others join us as we walk the short blocks back to the site. As we get closer we are passed by two naked men (!?!?), which we later learn are their holy people who need no possessions. Startled we quickly realize that there is a full on parade beginning, the men taking up the front. All of the elephants, floats and horse carriages soon pour out of the gate which we had not so long ago passed through, the individual attendants to the wedding also flooding through. We are soon totally engulfed in Indian culture, our feet surrounded by garbage (as usual), our eyes transfixed on the parade and our ears listening to the bands festive beat.
As the flood of people becomes a trickle, we decide to scurry back into the original fair ground to show Brad the original event and to see if our stamp friend was still there. While Brad stood in fascination of the wedding that was, we ran over to the henna booth. He was still there stamping another throng of women (who were virtually the only ones there). I find another stamp and as I go to count my rupees I realize I am 10(20 cents) short. I had been talking to a woman next to me who spoke a little English and was virtually my age. She insisted on paying the difference, as I tried to protest that I could just get a smaller one, but she was adamant. This may seem trite as 20 cents is nothing in the United States, but in India it is so much more. Interactions with people and women like her are what make my trip. How nice for her to help a total stranger, let alone a young American, to purchase something so frivolous. Happy with our purchases (Brittany bought a smaller one with her last 50 rupees) we find Brad and head out, knowing that our experience at this festival/wedding will remain with us for quite a while.
As we pick up our personal pan pizza (with chicken and some very spicy spices) and Pepsi (spicy too) we discuss our day with delight. We had seen the Taj! We had attended an Indian Wedding! We had had a wonderful time in a country so impoverished yet so beautiful! How lucky we are!
From the hotel we head to train station once more to say goodbye to Agra. Our departure train turns out to be late and as I look around at the families huddled together on blankets and impoverished children begging once more, I am once again overwhelmed by sorrow. It seems every time I see these horrid sights it truly gets to my heart and makes me want to do everything I can to help it. Yet, once more we are reminded not to give to beggars because the money doesnt usually get to be kept by them. It makes me wonder how exactly it is best to help these people. NGOs? Orphanages like Mother Teresas (although the beggar children usually have parents)? I really need to do some research when I get home!
Our train arrives late and is pretty crowded. I sit next to Brad and we pass the time picking out songs on his ipod and reading. The group gets a little rowdy and antsy towards the end, but the four hours go rather quickly. We get to the hotel around 11 and Brittany and I head straight to sleep.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
India Morning of Day 3
The phone rings at 6:30 with our wake up call. I take a quick shower (India likes to cling!) and pack my things before heading down to dinner with Brittany. They have some very scrumptious omelets and I partake happily. We head to the bus for a 10 minute drive to the Taj Mahal!
My head is aflutter as I look out the window. The rest of the group seems just as excited as the bus pulls off to the side of the street at the gate (a long way away from the Taj itself). As we exit the bus we are engulfed in vendors once more. Plastic snow globes, elephant bracelets abound as I wonder about the supplier that seems to send all these hawkers (ranging in age from 5-80!) out on the street. It strikes me that these hawkers are probably highly organized and even seem to have turf as realized when I motion for a man to show me some hand stamps (to make little colorful designs on kids hands-for 100 rupees, I was sold!) and he proceeds to get into a fight with another. Hurrying away from the mess Brittany and I tread on, passing cows (!), monkeys and camels (Im serious, its weird but oh so true!), snapping pictures as we go.
We reach the entrance and are herded into two lines for men and women to go through security. Despite being patted down and putting my goods through a medal detector (but not an X-ray), I feel that the security is relatively light considering the Mumbai Attack.
Some of the girls had brought their Saris and some local women were nice enough to help them tie them up. I decided against bringing mine due in large part to the fact that I was afraid it would get dirty (judging by theirs I was right).
The first building we see is not the Taj, but a huge gateway made of what I think is red sandstone. We snap more pictures and as we walk closer we get our first view of the Taj, mirrored in the archways of the gateway which frames its main dome. My eyes start to tear as the gravity of what I am seeing hits me. I am so lucky to be seeing such a wonderful and famous sight at such a young age.
The Taj Mahal is a large mausoleum which was constructed by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal. It combines Persian, Ottoman, Islamic and Indian artistic styles and is widely thought to be the best example of Mughal architecture. The emperor wrote a poem which describes the Taj:
Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator's glory.
The outside of the Taj was decorated by utilizing stucco, stone inlays and carvings. It is also adorned with thuluth calligraphy which is made by jasper inlay. The interior is less ornate and is actually kept fairly dark to ward off the damaging rays of light. Due to muslim rules against gaudy graves, Mumtaz and the Shah Jahans graves are pretty basic. The outlying gardens are also gorgeous with the long shallow reflective pool dominating the landscape.
Brittany, Annie, Julia and I roam around for about an hour snapping hundreds of pictures. I absolutely loved seeing the taj. It is really unreal looking (as some of our pictures denote!). The feeling one gets is almost like butterflies in your stomach, amazement that you are really seeing such a famous sight (2 to 4 million visitors each year). It is one of the seven wonders of the modern world! From the reflective pool we head into the actual structure and I ask some local women if I can take my picture with them. They get quite excited by the question and pose with me for quite a few snapshots. We continue to walk around the inside (which is not nearly as impressive as the outside) and as we head out our local picture friends ask us for some more pictures, it seems that they liked taking the pictures more than us! Their husbands join us and we take quite a few pictures against a much polluted river which graces the backend of the Taj.
Saying goodbye to the Taj after only an hour was pretty hard. It is such an amazing structure and the nature of it seems to transcend design and culture. I am so thankful (thanks mom and dad!) that I got to see it. The graceful (although polluted) reflective pool in front of the Taj dazzled me. The slopes of the domes glistened in the sun. The gardens which surround the mausoleum are wonderful accessories to balance out the white structure. In sum, I loved it!!
Our walk back to the bus saw even more hawkers and as we took our seats the window shopping commenced. I sort of like a small Lord Ganesh (the elephant headed god in Hindu), but decide against it (dad, youd be proud) as I figured it would just gather dust on my shelf.
We drive what seems like only a few feet to the Agra Fort, another World Heritage Site (the Taj is too). It was the heart of the Mughal Empire for hundreds of years and the whole country was literally governed from it. It is laid out in a semi-circle and some walls are as high as seventy feet. We enter through the Lahore Gate and are quickly brought into a very red world (red sandstone for the most part). The structures within Agra Fort are all gorgeous in very different ways. They cover a spectrum of styles as many were constructed for the wives of different emperors who were different religions. Interestingly the Shah Jahan (the commissioner of the Taj Mahal) was imprisoned there (it was actually quite luxurious but still not so great for an emperor) by his son Aurangzeb. However, from the Muasamman Burj (where he was rumored to have died) you can see the Taj beautiful (we took a ton more pictures, lol). Finally, the fort was also the site for one of the battles of the Indian Rebellion in 1857 which led to direct rule of India by Britain rather than by the British East India Company.
Enough of the history lesson and back to the reflective blog part. Brittany and I spent most of our time exploring the different structures and of course taking pictures. We spent more time taking jumping pictures with a quick shutter (we did the same at the Taj) and basically just tried to immerse ourselves in the different buildings. The fort is also home to a garden and we spent some reflective time taking in all that we had seen that morning still amazed that we had just seen the Taj
Heading back to the hotel was a little anti-climatic as I had been so psyched to see the Taj, little did I know what the afternoon would bring
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
India Day 2
The wake-up call blends into my dream as I pick up the phone sleepily. Getting up at 5:15 was not easy, but when you have India to explore it certainly helps. We gather our belongings and head downstairs for a boxed breakfast on the bus. It drives us to the train station where we are to get on a 7 am departure to Agra. Once more the true poverty of India engulfs us as more hawkers and children run up to us for money. As I look around at the families huddled together on blankets on the platform I remark at just how lucky I am for my charmed life. The vendors are also ever present, I have never seen so many different kinds of fruit being sold in my life, the colors are truly a spectrum. We board our first class seats, which, like most of India (which is truly unfortunate since the culture is so vibrant), are dirty, my mind wanders to think of what the other cabins must look like. As the train begins its slow trek, I marvel to Brittany at the sites out the window. It seems that the train tracks act as a bathroom for many locals and I see quite a few tushies and well, other sites out my window. Lets just say India was a total culture shock.
Eventually the water I drank with breakfast catches up to me and I head to the restroom, which consists of literally a hole in the ground. The adventure never seems to end . The three hours whiz by as I fall asleep on my Freakenomics book.
We arrive in Agra around 10. Agra has a reputation as not that nice of a town, get in, see the taj and go. This was inherently obvious as our Hotel, Yamuna View, was a step down (although still very nice!) but considered a five star joint. We drop off our belongings and head back to the bus, which drives us to Cottage Industries. CI makes carpets and gives us a brief demonstration of the detail which goes into them. They provide our group with tea, beer and water and while some (including Brittany) haggle over the handmade carpets. I head to the other parts of the upscale shop and settle on a silk painting for about 10$, which depicts a herd of elephants! From there we head back to the hotel for lunch.
After some more nan and masala chicken, Brittany and I inquire about the possibility of some local shopping since SAS usually (as evidenced by CI) takes us to very upscale (and sometimes jacked up price wise) places. The woman, in her gorgeous purple sari, gives us directions and says we will be able to walk there. We venture out and after a couple of blocks I get nervous that we are lost. The honking autos, looking for our fare do not help the situation and we decide to turn back. After only a couple of paces we see two guys from SAS that are also looking for the shopping street. Confident in the larger group, we set out once more walking on a dirt laden piece of grass next to the road. After a little more walking, we find the right street! With only about twenty minutes to look we find some small Shiva statues and pendants for gifts. A quick brisk stride finds us safely (it was a little sketch crossing the road) on the bus on our way to Fatehpur Sikri.
Fatehpur Sikri is a deserted city, 25 miles out of Agra which was built by Emperor Akbar as their capital. It was meant to honor the Muslim saint who told him that he would have an heir. It was absolutely humongous. Interestingly, we had to switch from our bus to a smaller natural gas one in an effort to protect the old city. We were all pretty confounded by this, since the omnipresent smog seemed to outweigh any damage done by our bus.
The heat blazed down on our shoulders as we merrily explored the sandstone palaces. The Emperor had built different buildings in honor of his wives, each an ode to her religion. It was abandoned in 1585 due to a lack of water. It is currently a World Heritage Site. The architecture blends Hindu, Jain and Islamic forms. We explore the nooks and crannies of the buildings; taking pictures as we jump off various platforms (love my camera mom and dad (sports mode, quick shutter, continuous shooting)!!!). I marvel at the awesome architecture, from the thick pillars to the grand beams and wonder about how life would have been back in the 1500s before colonization by the British.
Before I know it, it is time to head back and we get on the bus once more. In India, I learned the true definition of window shopping as at every major monument or tourist attraction, hawkers run up to the windows of the bus touting their wares. It is always fun bargaining with the hawkers from our seats and every member of our group participates, passing around the goods and then strategizing about prices as the vendor waves his hands and items into the bus.
We arrive back at the hotel, ready for dinner and bedtime. Another hotel buffet comes and goes (due to the omnipresent threat of Travelers Diarrhea and the like, we basically only ate at hotels). Brittany and I head back to the room in eager anticipation of the Taj in the morning! While she stays awake, the sounds of honking auto drivers somehow soothes me to sleep as our first floor room remains alive with noise.
Wow, its very hard to start this journal entry. India was a whirlwind. Every minute was a total adventure. It was good, bad, scary, beautiful and just about every adjective in between. I have never in my life seen such awesome colors and splendor, but I have also never seen such dirt, poverty or trash. So, as always, lets start at the beginning.
Our first day started off with a bang. Keeping in mind that we had to be back on the ship at 1:30 for our semester at sea sponsored Taj Mahal trip, we (Brittany, Becca, Nathan and I) set out to explore Chennai. We had been warned numerous times that it would be dirty and very overwhelming. I dont think I exactly understood what they meant by dirty (since I was picturing the factory districts in New Jersey), until we arrived. Although I had ideas, since the crew literally covered the ship in cardboard so we wouldnt drag the dirt back onto it.
From the ship we walk a mile to get out of the port. The road was a mix of cement and sludge and the few cars and motorcycles that were on it seem ready to hit us if we stumble off the 12 inch wide side walk. Always an adventure, we walk single file while getting honked at. We brace ourselves as we step out of the port entrance. In pre-port we were told that the most common means of transport in Chennai are Auto-Rickshaws. Google it. Seriously. They look like that. Hundreds (literally, there are just SO many people everywhere in this city) swarm us trying to get us into their Autos. We make the decision that we will wait until we get to the street because Indian Auto Drivers have a bad rep of trying to rip people off and we figure that the ones who target the port are the worst (we were right). As we walk through another swarm of individuals with their various forms of transport (barefoot, with moped, with taxi, with cane) it hits me that we are India! Finally, we flag down an auto driver and agree on a price, 100 rupees (2 dollars, which by United States standards is cheap, but a local would probably pay less than half of that) to drive us to Parrys Corner.
We had been told in pre-port that Parrys Corner had a good array of shopping and since we would be on organized tour for the next three days we wanted to make sure we could all secure some trinkets ;). The four of us pile into the green and white three wheel vehicle and literally melt into each other (its probably 100 degrees and humid out) as we wheel in and out of traffic (India has more of a lets say give and take way of driving rather than the lanes we have). We marvel at the sights around us, from the families lying on dirty blankets sleeping on the beach to beautiful women in sparkling saris riding side saddle on mopeds, while trying not to think about the bus which just flew an inch next to us.
The driver pulls into a lone, albeit nice looking, shop, right off a busy interception. Although it is apparent that it was not Parrys corner, we decide to go along with it (he obviously gets commission for people shopping there) and walk in. They have god statues of all sizes and saris in every color, but we quickly figure out just how overpriced the store is and try to get our auto driver to take us to Parrys, he acts aloof and we decide to just walk. We figure that there must be more stores or that we must indeed be close to our intended destination.
We are wrong, and after a long walk (complete with a stop for water which we vehemently assessed to ensure that it contained its original seal) we decide to try our luck once more, this time to go to a different shopping street (Mount Street). After haggling, we decide on a price and are off once more, weaving in and out of traffic, clutching each other, while simultaneously taking pictures to document the experience.
After 10 or so minutes we are dropped off on the correct street. We proceed to the first shop we see and are instantly satisfied. It is air-conditioned (a plus for me ) and carries a wide range of product. I ask Nathan to help me pick out a Sari for Purim, while Becca and Brittany explore bed covers and wall hangings. I finally settle on a gorgeous blue and pink one (its 7 feet of fabric!) and two pashminas for Ilana and me. After some hardy bargaining, I pay and we join Brittany and Becca to assist in their decisions.
The store attendants are more than happy to aid and drape out literally hundreds of choices for our viewing pleasure. They offer us some yummy Chai (which we accept, figuring since it was boiled it couldnt make us sick). Brittany finally decides on her wares, but explains to the shop owner that she still needs to find a ruby ring for her boyfriends mom. He quickly quips that he can drive us to his other store by the port.
We conduct a short meeting between the four of us wherein we decide he is legit (his store was VERY nice) and that the incentive for him is clear (a big purchase). We follow him out of the store, past the rickshaw touts and into his white compact van. I quickly realize that he is just as aggressive as any of the auto drivers. At one point he even drove into a man (his elbow) and kept driving, citing the man as in the wrong.
All of our worries disappear as we slip through the gate of the port, realizing he has clearance that the auto drivers dont and that he truly is legit. He drives us to his shop which is literally adjacent from the ship. Looking at my watch, I realize that we are cutting the time a little close so Nathan and I head back to the ship, while Becca and Brittany choose a ring. We remark at how amazed we are by the city, its contrasts are truly unreal. It was a wonderful morning, full of adventure, which managed to all work out!
Upon returning to the ship, I grab a quick bite to eat with my friend Carolyn (spaghetti!) in the cafeteria. While washing my hands I realize the true magnitude of the dirt of the city. The brown water runs off my fingers as the water works to try to cleanse me. I put the finishing touches on my packing before Brittany returns and we head to the Union to get on our trip.
At 2 oclock we get onto the bus, me on the window and Brittany on the aisle. It is not air-conditioned, so I open up the window only to get sputtered every so often by dirt, some of which land directly in my eyes. As I gaze out the window I see families huddled in shack-tents on the beach, large buildings, and small tenant houses.
We arrive at the airport after an hour or so. As we march into the building, little children tug at our clothes asking for money. In pre-port we were told not to give to the beggers because it can be almost like organized crime and that we should instead donate to legit charities. I felt like they were tugging at my heart as they motioned towards their mouth indicating that they would use the money for food. I try to look ahead as others, including my friend Wyn (hes from Rhode Island!), get nearly accosted with people asking to shine their shoes.
The front door provides sanctity as we check in and go through the medal detectors. In India, there are separate lines for men and women and women get patted down behind a partition while men are patted down in public. Brittany buys a spicy diet coke, while I purchase a plain water trying not to tempt my stomach. The bus transports us to an upscale plane. I get a window seat complete with TV! The TV had everything from Disney songs to Bollywood movies which kept me entertained the whole ride while Brittany and Justin played Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (a British version, which made it oddly difficult).
After three hours we arrive in Delhi and board a much nicer bus to our hotel, the Astok. We are greeted by an older man playing music and a young boy dancing (with the oddest facial expressions I have ever seen) as well as Sari adorned women with flower necklaces and red ochre to put on our foreheads. We take pictures galore and then go to drop off our bags. The hotel is very nice and we even get to watch a little bit of the news before heading back down for dinner. I enjoy the Nan and Masala Chicken, a big relief since I was nervous about the food selection. We head back upstairs to make it an early night in preparation for a long day of touring.
As usual they totally scared us before India, so I'll put just a handful of questions out before we leave tomorrow (I am SOOOO excited).
Will it be as chaotic as they say? Will I go on an auto-rickshaw? Will the Taj blow me away? Will I pet a monkey? How many cows will I see on the road? Will I buy a tunic or a sari? Will it be cheap (the country/exchange rate)? How will my SAS trip go? Will I encounter a lot of beggars? How will I react? Will security be super tight since the Mumbai incident? How will the airport be? Will I like Agra? Will my stomach get upset from the food? Will I like the food?