Sunday, October 08, 2006

what a weird world

We're sitting in our apartment in Manhattan watching the sun come up -- and we saw the last sunrise from a boat in the middle of the Ganges. It makes my mind tilt a little bit.

So we're home, after a very long day. Sunrise on the Ganges, personal tour of old Varanasi, flight to Delhi, hanging around the horrid Delhi airport for 6 hours, 15-hour flight to Newark (with screaming kids all around, of course), immigration/customs, luggage, shuttle to parking, driving home. A quick run to Starbucks so I can have some strong coffee again, plus a run for ice cream, and now I'm on my bed watching the sunrise out my window while Marc showers some of the long day away. Isn't that a really amazing day?

More to come after some snoozing and unreeling. I plan to go back through all the posts and elaborate where I can; often I was hurrying to get something up before my Internet time ran out, or before it was time to go do something. I'll be adding more photos and stories throughout.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


This ancient city is breathtaking at two specific moments: dawn and dusk. We took a boat out into the middle of the Ganges to see each one.

At the end of the day, every day of the year (including monsoon), there is an enormous ceremony called aarti, which involves prayers and incense, music, light, and clapping. The Ganges is honored, the mother of all, and is put to sleep. The Vedic hymns that are sung are among the very first songs each Hindu child learns.

We were incredibly lucky: the moon was full and the Ganges was mysterious and quiet and beautiful. Really, click each picture to see it full-size, they're really beautiful.

The ceremony involves a great deal of light

and fire

The men on the stage holding the fire are Brahman, and they perform this ritual every evening.

The river was full of boats heavy with tourists, including nearly as many Indian tourists as non-Indian. Our guide explained everything which made it much more interesting, considering neither of us speak Hindi or are very familiar with the rituals. When I get home I will write more about this; for now I just want to get something up here. It was very moving.

Then, this morning we got up at 4:45 and headed to the river at 5:15am for the morning prayers. It was an absolutely incredible dawn:

We saw people coming to the river to bathe and pray, much more to come when I get home.

Last night we went to the main cremation ghat but of course didn't take pictures of the 5 cremations that were taking place. This morning we returned to that ghat -- see all the wood piled up on boats and on the ghats, ready for today's cremations. Our guide took us up to the platform where last night's ashes were still smoking; we saw an untouchable lift a chunk of bone and drop it into the river where it hissed and steamed. We saw bits of bone in the ash too, and learned that the untouchables who clean the ashes go through them to find any gold (fillings, or jewelry) that they keep for themselves before dropping the ashes into the river.

The ghats are a riot of color and busy-ness and tourists and daily routine. And a little advertising here and there.

These experiences in Varanasi were the very best moments for me and Marc in India. I have much more to say, more reflection, but time is short. We're packing to leave for Delhi, where we'll hang around for 6 hours and then get on the plane tonight around 11 to fly for 15 hours. Home Sunday morning at 4:30am.

Friday, October 06, 2006

from Varanasi

We left Jaipur this morning pretty early, and I was hoping to catch a picture of a camel on the way out of town since they're relatively ubiquitous. I took the picture below and then waited awhile -- no more camels, so I put my camera away. Then I saw another one (meh, it's probably the last one) then another one (that's surely the last one) then a whole mess of camels but it was too late to take the picture since we were driving relatively fast. So anyway, here's my one picture of a camel.

They seem to work pretty hard, and as we drove through the old part of Jaipur, I realized that transportation there takes place via manpower (cycle rickshaws and walking), horsepower (real horses), horsepower (cars and buses), donkeypower, elephantpower, and camelpower.

One more elephant shot -- he was hustling down the highway, hard at work:

We flew to Delhi and had a tight connection to Varanasi, but had no problems. It's been difficult for me to think about Varanasi for some reason, I get choked up and cry. It's Marnie's part of India, so it touches me for that reason, but it's something beyond that. This is the most holy city in the world for Hindus, where the physical and spiritual worlds touch, where pebbles and cows and water are sacred. I'm not a religious person, but I think it's the sacred nature of this place that touches me and makes me cry. There's really very little sacred in my everyday life, rushing around my little realm, beyond my love for my family. But this place is anciently sacred and sacredly alive. I think that's what touches me so much. It's a place for purification, as Marc noted, and that also touches me very deeply.

As we were driving through town, I saw this amazing silver coach -- I have no idea what it's for, but it's incredibly ornate:

And lots of these mini-parades of people, don't know if this one is religious or political:

We saw another one in which a man and woman were standing in a flatbed truck, both wearing garlands of orange flowers and holding their hands in namaste, followed by a mini-parade of people. Religion here isn't something you just put on for a couple of hours on Saturday or Sunday, it's not separate from life like that. As we drove along, our taxi driver pointed out a stretcher on the side of the road covered in bright cloth and a growing accumulation of flowers; he said "there's a dead body, they're taking it to the ghat to be cremated." There's a dead body, not someone's dead body. They're taking it to the ghat, not him or her. The person is gone.

So we're in an incredibly beautiful hotel, the Taj Ganges, and we've got our too-brief time in Varanasi worked out. A car will pick us up at 5:30 this afternoon to take us to a ghat where we'll get in a rowboat and a man will row us into the Ganges so we can watch the evening aarti, the daily and very holy ceremony where the Ganges is put to sleep. I can't wait, the river is filled with little candles floating on leaves, there's smoke and music and praying and lights. Pictures to come.

Then we'll wander around, get some dinner, do a little bit of sightseeing. Tomorrow morning a car picks us up at 5:15 to take us back to the ghat, back to a rowboat, where we'll go into the river to watch the morning puja, prayers and rituals, in the early dawn. Then breakfast, more wandering and looking and being overwhelmed, probably.

Pictures to come in a few hours.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Jaipur day 2

Today we wanted to see the things Jaipur is known for. We hired the same taxi driver who brought us from the airport, Sunil, to drive us around for 4 hours. Our original plan was to see the Amber Fort and Jaigarh Fort, both of which are very close to each other, and to our hotel, and then to do some shopping if possible.

The Amber Fort is probably the main thing people come to see in Jaipur; it was the palace of the maharaja of this entire part of Rajasthan, and it's huge. Raja Man Singh started building it in 1592, and Mirza Raja Jai Singh and Sawai Jai Singh continued the contruction over the next 125 years. It was the capital of the Kachhawah Rajputs for centuries, but when the capital shifted to Jaipur in the early 18th century, the fortress was abandoned. There are labyrinthine halls and tiny little windowless rooms that the maharaja's women stayed in; all were connected to the maharaja's room for his nocturnal wanderings.

You get to the fort, which is on a hill, by walking (our approach), by jeep, or by elephant. It's remarkable to stand on the road below and see the zigzagging roads leading up the hill, filled with elephants carrying people. We didn't want to take the elephants because they are treated badly and in poor health from overuse.

elephant jam:

There were a few monkeys around:

The fort is undergoing restoration, in the typical old style way:

It's hot:

We've had a hard time finding people who can take our picture together when we're out and about. There were American tourists in the fort today, but they were mostly in huge tour groups (this group all had matching pins, that one had matching hats) and they were listening to a tour guide when they were stopped, making it hard to ask them to take our picture. We finally found someone, but the whole thing was so rushed so we're a little awkward:

After walking through the Amber Fort for awhile, we were hot and tired of forts, so we decided instead to do some shopping, see if Sunil would just drive us around Jaipur, and then get some lunch. The shopping was a bust, the little mini tour with Sunil was a bust (although I learned a lot: Indira Gandhi is still seen as a wonderful leader; Jains don't eat or wear shoes for one solid month, only drinking boiled water and walking through the streets, and those who die are seen as noble; the Muslims and Hindus don't want to live with each other at all; men who die are carried along the road on a stretcher, covered in flowers, and taken to a spot in the forest for cremation -- 3 days later their ashes are taken to the river). When we saw the funeral procession, Sunil said, "Oh, he is gone." We say "passed away" and they say "he is gone," a kind of interesting thing to think about.

Our lunch was at this famous place called LMB (Laxmi Misthan Bhandar), a vegetarian restaurant that's most famous for their sweets. Marc had a 15-item thali and I had 3 sweets, so good. The front of the menu had this 3 paragraph warning from Krishna about people who like putrid and polluted food. Gets you right into the mood for eating. Marc said it was the first really spicy food he's had here.

We've seen lots of camels in the streets, but I haven't gotten a good picture yet, perhaps tonight. We've seen what we want to see in Jaipur and feel ready to leave tomorrow morning for Varanasi. I feel anxious about it, although it's the place I most want to see, for so many reasons. Marnie went there and it's important to her, so I want to see it for that reason, and it's the most holy city for Hindus, the place where heaven meets earth, so I want to see it for that reason. But it's chaotic and a little bit dangerous and full of people wanting something from you, clutching probably, and noisy. We'll see tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

airports in India

At first, when we arrived in India, I was startled by how frequently you see military men holding rifle-y kinds of guns. They're all over the airports, and it's not uncommon to see them elsewhere. Then I remembered the hostilities between India and Pak, and the bombings and setting-fire-to- trains, and it made sense. They aren't particularly scary or threatening, although they don't smile, and when they're examining your documents there's a moment of pause.

So the airport security here is really tight, no matter if you're flying in or out of a major city like Delhi or Mumbai, or just between two puddle-jumper kinds of places. Your luggage is screened and checked, just like in the US, but here's where it is different. Hand luggage is x-rayed, and every single person is individually frisked and wanded. There's always a line for men and one for women; women step into a booth, the curtains are drawn, and the female attendant frisks you (sometimes quite closely, my butt was seriously groped in Udaipur) and wands you. Then you pick up your hand luggage.

In Udaipur, after we picked up our x-rayed hand luggage, it was searched by hand (everyone's was), then we got to the door to walk outside and it was searched again, then we walked a few feet where we were stopped and it was searched again -- even though the last search spot was within a few feet and visible. It doesn't feel bad, or overly intrusive, especially since they do it to everyone and there's no nasty attitude that suggests they assume you're evil, unlike in the US.

What's really surprising is that, despite this intense scrutiny, the flights still take off within a few minutes of the schedule (or on time). Gate agents will walk through the waiting area calling for an individual, if he or she hasn't come on board yet -- they'll hold the plane -- but still it takes off on time. I don't know how they do it.

Also, on every single flight, even if you're in the air for only 30 minutes, they serve a meal. Before the flight takes off, they bring you a cold wet towel, then serve you fresh lime juice (tastes like salty soap, we don't take it), then they walk through with a big basket of candies. As soon as you're airborne, they come through with a meal. I don't know how they do it.

So today we're off to see the Amber Fort and another one that's full of monkeys, then a little more sightseeing. More later!

day one in the Pink City

That's what everyone says here: "Welcome to the Pink City" because all the buildings (at least in Old Jaipur) are painted pink since it's the color of welcome. So here we are in Jaipur, which is northeast of Udaipur -- an 8-hour drive, or a 45-minute flight. We flew.

We've figured out that there are just 2 kinds of cab drivers/ rickshawallahs. There is the one that's going to scam you, tell you that your hotel burned down and you need to call this number, tell you that it's a national holiday so the stores are all closed but he'll take you to this one that's open, take you way out of the way for any number of reasons. Here's an example, from one autorickshaw trip we had today. In India, this seems to be how you get from point A to point B:
Looks like you could just go straight across, but that's not the Indian way, for the most part. If you can go through an alleyway, around a corner, take a back road, turn left-right-left instead of just left, that's how to get from point A to point B.
That's the old part of Jaipur, bounded by the wall (shown in red). Looks like there are roads that go straight from one side to the other, which is what we wanted to do, but we took the path shown above.

We took a rickety autorickshaw from our hotel into the old part of Jaipur, to wander around and then find a place to eat dinner. We did our wandering around (and, by the way, the bazaars in Jaipur appear to sell radios, wristwatches, and junk you could buy at any K-Mart in the US, very weird) and then we actually found a great place for dinner. We had mixed tandoori grill and it was delicious.

And here's where the 2nd kind of driver comes in, the crazy one. We already had a crazy one our first night in Udaipur, and tonight we had crazy #2. We've learned to choose a location with a lot of cabs and rickshaws, so we can select one particular cab and approach them ourselves, rather than taking one who approaches us on the street. So we did that, and the guy knew where our hotel was (a real plus) and agreed to take us for the price we stated. Cool, right? Sure, for the first couple of minutes. I didn't know autorickshaws could go that fast. He was speeding, we were holding on, he'd come right up onto a pedestrian, or cyclist, or car, he didn't care. Literally an inch away, it seemed. He'd thread the needle between a crush of vehicles, zooming and lurching and scaring me half to death. As if the speeding weren't bad enough, he appeared to be making a point about how fast his 20-year old autorickshaw went. He was speeding along and he turned around to brag to Marc how old it was. I was thinking, "eyes on the road, eyes on the road!" Anyone involved in a wreck in an autorickshaw is likely to be dead -- there's very little protection. We got to the hotel in record time.

Anyway. I also got to wash off the mehndi paste -- here's my hand today:

It's really pretty, although I keep forgetting about it and am startled when I see my hand.

And one more thing. At that really disgusting restaurant last night (the one Marc and I have to avoid thinking about or we gag), there were several geckos on the wall, all trying to make a run for it:
They were so cute, with those little feet. Every time I turned around there were more of them, but I never saw them coming out from anywhere -- they just appeared and multiplied.

So tomorrow it's a day of sightseeing and then swimming and lounging, and then back to the Old City for wandering and dinner. So far, our favorite place has been Udaipur, but Varanasi is still to come. I'm a little anxious about it, because one thing I've learned is that Hindus are loud, they bang drums much of the day and pray very loudly (though they also pray silently and reverently), and Varanasi is the holiest city for Hindus, cremations all day long, praying, a population the size of Chicago squeezed into a place the size of Amherst, Massachusetts. We'll see.

Udaipur, day 2

One thing I really wanted to do while we're in India is to get mehndi on my hand. I didn't know how to find someone, although I read in one of our books that the best place is to approach the women who do it sitting on a curb. I couldn't see any women doing mehndi sitting on a curb, so I was starting to think I'd have to give up on it. We learned last night that the place to get mehndi is in beauty shops, which are easy to find. So this morning we set out to find a place that was recommended by the manager of the hotel. The door of the shop said "No Men Allowed" and the owner of the shop insisted, so Marc left and I sat down to get my right hand done.

The shop owner sent for her daughter, who arrived 20 minutes later. She was young, maybe 14 or 15, and shy. I sat on a table while she held my hand and painted the henna on my right hand, both sides. It was an extraordinary experience for me. Two other women came into the shop, so the three grown women sat in chairs kind of watching and talking to each other and me, now and then. One brought in a new sari and they all admired it and laughed. At one point in the hand painting, I began to feel like a decorated cake. Marc had been told that the whole thing would take 20 minutes, so he came back and hung out and had his own cool moment (more on that in a sec). About an hour into it, he came to the shop and they allowed him to come in, and they served him snacks and offered us tea.

I was very touched by the experience, for reasons I can't quite explain. There was something about that young girl holding my hand for so long, paying so much attention to decorating me, and being part of that group of women.

Here's the finished product, front and back, with the thick dark paste still on my hand:

So the whole thing took an hour and a half, and we were charged 100 rupees. ~44 rupees = $1. We tried to pay a bit more, but the shop owner was insistent and would not take it.

While Marc was waiting, he sat on the curb opposite the beauty shop and watched all the activity. We were immediately next to the bridge that crosses the lake, so he watched people and cows and goats going back and forth. And then there was an elephant.

No one blinked or paid the slightest bit of attention, as if elephants walk around all the time, across the bridge. I wish I'd seen it, but luckily Marc took pictures. In the bottom picture, the elephant had raised his trunk and you can see his tusks. We think the elephantwallah was trying to sell Marc a ride, but we're not sure.

Once it cooled down a bit, we decided to take an autorickshaw to the City Palace and wander through the markets once more, and then head to this restaurant we'd heard such good things about. Every time we left our hotel today, this one autorickshawallah approached us and tried to take us where we wanted to go -- we said no to him all day long, so when we left for our shopping and dinner, we decided to go with him. It was a little unsettling when we got in and he was working on the engine; it looked like he was just building the autorickshaw, maybe from scratch. It sputtered and struggled to start, it didn't have anything at all like a muffler, and it didn't always seem certain that it would make it. Maybe it was just a lawnmower motor. The rickshawallah's teeth were red, stained with betel, and his hair was dyed with henna, with lots of roots showing (hey, who am I to talk, my roots are showing a lot!), and he was very enthusiastic about taking us.

Marc made some really great deals bargaining with the shop owners, for shirts and earrings. One reason we are enjoying Udaipur so much is that people will ask you to come to their shops, but they don't grab us and they don't chase us. I don't mind being asked insistently once, so that didn't bother me at all.

And now for dinner. We read about this place on the travel boards, and in Lonely Planet, so we were looking forward to it. After lots of twists and turns and finding ourselves back where we started several times, we finally found it...we thought, it was certainly uninviting and didn't seem like a public entrance, at all. A little door, a dark hallway, only a small sign by the door, but we ventured in. It didn't get better. We crossed a dim courtyard, climbed three flights of stairs, and found ourselves on a rooftop overlooking the lake. That sounds charming, but this place was anything but charming. It was hot and dark, they brought a small candle to the table, and that was all the light we had. And the food was awful, the chicken pakora wasn't as good as McDonald's Chicken McNuggets. We think the dal was just a watery can of beans -- but of course we couldn't be sure because we couldn't see. I think we should count our blessings that we couldn't see. We left after choking down a little of it, and even though it was 205 rupees total ($4.70), that was too much.

One thing that has continually surprised us is the blandness of the real Indian food. We've had some really lovely meals -- the place we ate lunch at both days here in Udaipur was wonderful, kind and sweet waiters, tasty food, beautiful setting. But it's never spicy, even when we ask for spicy. Weird.

Udaipur, day 1

After a lazy morning at the Leela, we left Goa to fly to Udaipur, via Mumbai. Jet Airways is really impressive; our flights have gone perfectly, the flight attendants are great, and we've had no problems at all. So we landed in Udaipur Sunday night around 7pm, and we were supposed to have a driver from the hotel waiting for us. Since no one was there, we decided to hire a pre-paid taxi from inside the airport. We've read enough on various travel boards and in travel books to know that we needed to emphasize and re-emphasize the price issue. We chose a cab driver, an old guy, and Marc told him the price, and asked him to verify that there were no extra charges. The guy laughed and shooed us towards his cab. Marc stopped him and asked him again and again, and finally the guy said no extra charges.

This was the biggest "adventure" we've had so far. The cab driver was nuts. He was ok on the highway heading toward Udaipur, but as we got into town things turned from bad to worse. He turned down a very narrow road into oncoming traffic, and when I say very narrow road I really mean a kind of alley that is a good fit for one vehicle. So all the traffic is coming towards us, and we're going upstream. And the cab driver is yelling and screaming. He says to us that everyone is crazy and that people are bastards, and that everyone else is wrong. As Marc and I sat in the back seat of the taxi, I looked at the people crammed in next to us in the alley and several of them gave me the kind of smile that means "poor you, you're stuck with a crazy cab driver." We weren't sure if we'd make it to the hotel, or if we'd just be out on the street for one reason or another.

He turned onto a bridge and nearly ran right into a young father holding a child by the hand and one in his arms. He just turned the car off because he wasn't going to move for that young father, not an inch. The man came to the window and talked to the cab driver, who kept yelling. It was really appalling.

But we finally got to the hotel, and it's beautiful:

Our room is right in the middle, on the front side, on the top floor of rooms.

This is a corner of our room, which has a huge window seat.

Me uploading photos from my camera

One of the great things about our hotel is the rooftop restaurant; people on the travel boards kept recommending it and it was in the travel books, too. So after we settled ourselves a little, we went on the roof for dinner. There was live Indian music (note: this is the first time in the entire trip that we've heard Indian music) and the food was really good too. Our appetites have been nonexistent from the malaria medicine, but we enjoyed our dinner. Pictures of the restaurant to come.

This morning we set out on foot to find the markets. We found them, we got lost and wandered (which is the right thing to do), we bought a few little things, and we took an autorickshaw back to the hotel around noon. While we were wandering through the market, an old guy on a motorcycle came up behind us -- last night's crazy cab driver. He said "I know you don't want to talk to me, but I'm the fellow who took you to your hotel last night." He was right, we didn't want to talk to him, and we didn't.


The main market street, coming down from City Palace. Shiny.

People selling vegetables along the side of the market street

Then we had lunch at Ambrai Restaurant, right on the water overlooking Lake Pichola and the Octopussy hotel, and people bathing and washing their clothes:

The food was great, even better than the rooftop restaurant last night, but not very photogenic.

Our plan was to wander through the markets again after dusk, when it's a little cooler -- do a little more shopping, see more streets and people, and then go to a different restaurant for dinner. As we crossed the bridge into the congested area, we saw dense crowds of people gathering for some kind of event. Most of the men were coated in a dark pink powder, and everyone seemed to be there for a celebration. I wish I'd had my video camera, because it was a multisensory business. Loudspeakers with music, guys with drums, people laughing and talking, some kind of statue in a big wagon. A chorus of women sat under a nearby covered archway:

And as we were standing there on the ghat, children crowded around us asking us to take their pictures. In other parts of India, this was always followed up by a request for money, but these kids really just wanted us to take their pictures. The little girl in green in the lower left side of the photo was the main instigator, and at the last minute the little boy dashed into the frame.

Groups of women were dancing together, with a young tourist in their midst, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. This was just a bigger version of the same thing we'd seen before -- a parade of people meandering through the alleyways with drums and singing and a statue in a wagon, usually accompanied by someone carrying a small pot of fire.

So we felt lucky to be there at the time of this celebration. We learned it was a very important festival celebrating Ram's destruction of evil -- and it was big and loud and crowded with smiling people.

We stayed on the ghat for awhile and then set out for our walk, but people started firing loud explosive fireworks in the alleys and I couldn't take the noise so we went back to our side of the lake. The crowd (or some part of it) came to our side of the lake and seemed to camp in front of our hotel for a very lengthy speech by some unseen (by us) man.

Our hotel has no Internet access at all, so we're stuck with the Internet cafe across the street, which means we're posting a little less. Udaipur is wonderful, and we're both really enjoying it so far. It's the best place we've been, with the friendliest people. Today we finish exploring Udaipur and very early tomorrow we fly to Jaipur for a couple of days. We're staying in a Hilton there, which is more likely to have Internet access in the hotel (and hot water, but that's a different story).

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

silence in Udaipur

We have some great photos and stories, but we don't have internet access in our hotel and getting it in the Internet cafes is a problem with uploading photos. We'll catch up tomorrow, from Jaipur. We're still having a wonderful time, better to be up here than down in Goa.


Saturday, September 30, 2006

snapshots of food and music

The best Indian food we've had on vacation was last year, in Vietnam. We had a couple of good dinners in Delhi, but here in Goa the food has been remarkably unremarkable. Boring, trying too hard to be something for everyone. The "Indian food" has been adapted to be like bland American food, which in fact makes it worse than any Indian food we ever had at home. The Indian menu also includes Chinese stir-fry and Mexican quesadillas. Plus french bread and silly salads. And bad sushi, for good measure. All things to all people = nothing for anyone.

And the food in Goa is only outdone by the music:

Last night the live music accompaniment for dinner was a guy with a teeny-geenie organ, playing "Imagine" by John Lennon, alternating with two other songs of similar oddness for this place. Tonight: guys who appeared to be Mexican, one with a guitar and one with a mandolin, wearing hats and silly Mexican costumes, singing (badly) "Blowing in the Wind." At least the waiters appeared enthralled.

Weird, right?

Oh, and another off-putting thing about dinner is that, literally the second you put the last bite of food into your mouth, waiters swoop in from both sides to remove the dishes. They walk past us and we flinch, and guard our plates. It's just more of the same, really, pushing pushing pushing.

I hope that we find better food in Udaipur, and Jaipur. We probably will. This is a schmoozy resort, after all, and very little about it is Indian except for the people who work here. While this post and the last one may sound crabby and intolerant, we are having loads of fun being that way with each other. So tomorrow we return to real India.

Friday, September 29, 2006

lazing in the sun

All we did yesterday was lounge. It was great. We've been in the middle of everything the previous days of our vacation, in the midst of crushes of people, being grabbed at and having things shoved on us, and I really needed the day of peace. I've been having nightmares of being torn apart by dogs, of being unable to get away from being torn apart, which I think stem from the constant experience of having hordes of people swarming around me clutching at me shoving things onto me not letting go. So a day of lounging was so perfect, and the weather was wonderful.

We spent the afternoon at the pool and the evening on the beach. Marc has olive skin so he lightly burned and is turning tan, but since I'm so pale I got a bright pink burn that will probably not turn tan. It feels good, though. The resort was fairly empty until last night, when two conferences brought busloads of conference folks in, so it's now bustling with people wearing matching shirts and carrying notebooks. But yesterday, the pool was relatively empty and quiet, and we swam and lounged in the chairs and talked and laughed. It was lovely.

Then, near dusk, we wandered down to the beach to see the sunset. We have a western horizon, here on the Arabian Sea, but there was a pretty large cloudbank building up so we didn't know if the sunset would be spectacular, or not very visible. There were moments of both.

The two women in the top photo are always on the beach, with a small group of other women and always one man with a duffel bag. When you head down to the beach, they swarm around you trying to sell you cheap, flimsy saris and scarves -- transparent, nearly, the cloth is so thin. They stand there on the beach, letting the breeze blow the fabric out, and it's really beautiful until they surround you. The top photo (you can click on them to see them better) also shows the reflection of the sun at the edge of the water.

We finally found someone to take our picture together, in front of the sunset. Unfortunately the wind was whipping our hair around, covering our faces, so the picture up at the right (under "Who are the travelers") is the best one we got so far.

Maintenance of the grounds of this hotel is really done on a minute scale; there is a woman who walks the sidewalks all day with a scrub brush in one hand and a watering can in the other. She walks along, sprinkles some water on a stain on the sidewalk and scrubs it, then continues walking. We see her all day long. And this morning, people were squatting around a tiled sidewalk, painstakingly inserting new blades of grass between the tiles. There are people who walk the lawns all day with small brooms of twigs and branches, sweeping the leaves and fallen flower blossoms away.

For the most part, except for the people who are trying to sell us something, people do not smile or engage us in any way. It's kind of surprising, especially at this fancy resort, where part of the whole deal is that you are (or usually are) pampered and your needs anticipated. At the Ana Mandara, everyone who worked there made us feel like we were being taken care of (note, this isn't always good -- I didn't need my glasses cleaned for me at the pool!). They smiled at us and made us feel welcome, and for the most part they weren't intrusive about it. Here we feel like everyone dislikes us, or is irritated with us. It's really weird.

So today, our mission is more lounging, and tomorrow we leave for Udaipur, in Rajasthan. There, my sweet friend C, we may see more elephants and we'll be sure to take pictures. We may also see camels, so if we do, so will you. The wildlife we see here in our resort comprises birds, lizards, and crabs. And fish in the reflecting ponds around the lobby.

What is this strange thing I'm feeling? Oh......relaxed.

Around the palace

Today we're just hanging out, swimming and reading and walking and lounging. It's nice, for a honeymooney vacation. Sightseeing and going here and there is fun, but a day like this is wonderful, too. So here's a collage of our shots of the resort. Click on the picture for a bigger view:


Thursday, September 28, 2006

Spices and Old Goa

We're waking up so early -- 3am most nights, and by 5am we just can't keep trying to sleep. We get up and walk around the grounds, so beautiful. So we did that, and had this delicious breakfast:

I've been trying unsuccessfully to get a photo of this beautiful life-sized statue in the hotel lobby. Because it's dimly lit, and I don't want to use a flash, the shutter speed is slow and my pictures end up blurry. Finally this morning I got it: the walls are red raw silk, and the statue has a spotlight on either side and behind it. It's so striking, in the low-lit lobby.

After that, our mission was to go exploring Old Goa, and to visit a spice plantation. We hired yesterday's taxi driver again today, to drive us around for half a day. Of course, his name is Neville. And the tour guides at the spice plantation were named Cyril and Cedric. Anyway, Old Goa is the center of Portugal's entry into India, and the only reason you go there is to see the old churches. They are perfect characterizations of Portugese architecture:

And, by the way, see those big blue skies? For two weeks before we left, we checked the weather in Goa every day, since it's on the beach and we wanted to do some lounging in the sun. Every day the weather report said rain, thunder showers, cloudy. And every day we've been here, the skies are bright and sunny, with no rain. Hot, steamy, but sunny skies.

One more thing about Old Goa. On the grounds of these huge churches are enormous trees of some unknown kind, the ubiquitous palm trees, and these pine trees:

Weird, the way they're bent. We have no idea why, and our taxi driver had never noticed it before. We wonder if they're bent by monsoon winds when they're small and just grow like this.

After Old Goa, Neville drove us to the spice plantation, Sahakari Spice Farm. It's a generations-old plantation, organic farming. When we arrived, they draped flower garlands around our necks and gave us the red dot on our foreheads. The entry was lush and tropical, with red hibiscus:

And on the grounds, in addition to cattle and crocodiles and spiders and frogs and lizards, live two elephants. This one is only 10 years old.

We later saw this boy bathing the elephant in the river, and it looked so happy.

Cyril, our tour guide, showed us betel nuts (they're harvested by boys who climb to the top of one extraordinarily tall tree, knock down the ripe nuts, and then swing to the next tree), coffee, vanilla beans, pepper corns, cardamom, nutmet, cinnamon, cashews, turmeric, and ginger.

Oh -- yesterday as we were driving around, we passed a string of bulls (like you do, here), and Neville said "those are the fighting bulls." I sat there a minute, kind of confused (fighting bulls? like cock fights?) when Marc said "oh, you have bull fighting here!" I felt so dumb, although I'd never have thought of bull fighting in India, would you?

We've been extraordinarily surprised by the absence of American and European tourists in India. We've seen only a small handful, altogether, even at The Leela. One waiter told us that Americans don't come this far, they only go to Africa (! really?). The primary tourists are Australian (makes sense), German (they're nearby, too), and Russian. It's weird to be driving along in India and see billboards in Cyrillic. We've also had a more difficult time communicating than we were expecting. Of course, it's much easier than in Vietnam, but really so often, either the person we're trying to talk to speaks no English, or their vocabularies are limited -- note, of course, that they know more English than we know Hindi! We've tried to get someone to take a picture of us together but (a) there's a communication problem, and (b) my fancy 35mm camera is a bit complicated. We'll keep trying.

We have two more days here in Goa and no more specific plans here -- just lots of lying about, walking around, swimming, beach-walking, and enjoying ourselves. After that, we're off to Udaipur (or maybe Jaipur, I can't remember). It feels like we've been gone forever.