Where Were We?

"Where am I?" became the question I would ask myself more than one morning waking up in India. Even when we got home, the first time I woke up in my own bedroom, my mind was insistent I was somewhere else. When you hit 6 cities in about 12 days, this happens.

It was Jaipur, where we actually spent a couple of nights, that started to feel almost familiar. Jaipur is known as the "pink city" as it was painted pink in 1853 to welcome the visiting Prince of Wales. It's also known today for its mischievous monkeys that hop around on the roof lines. So famous in fact, that after a day of touring and in the respite before dinner we turned on the television to the National Geographic channel and stumbled upon a documentary on the monkeys of Jaipur, the melodramatic and kind of sad "Rebel Monkeys." How often does it happen that you find yourself in the city that's the focus of a television show you are watching? (Residents of New York need not reply, since Law & Order is always on at some point in the world.) We made sure to call Dipti and Tushar's hotel room to have them tune in too.

However, it was much larger animals that we had a date with soon: elephants! Elephants are the preferred mode of transport up to Jaipur's Amber Fort. Tourists get up early in the morning to make sure to catch a ride before the elephants hit their daily allowed limit up to the fort. While waiting, you are absolutely thronged by hawkers, some with turbans that they'll put on your head - the only invitation required is momentary eye contact. It makes shopping an entirely different sport, the quickness, the bargaining. The 20 guys in this photo I identified as enthusiastic salesmen. Black Friday is nothing!But the line moves quickly and soon you are atop an elephant. It's a swaying, slow ride and one that could cause motion sickness for the weak-hearted.As you ride up, young men on the rocks vie for your attention, and your photo. Leaving the fort, they'll find you, having already printed out the pictures on portable printers and will offer to sell them to you. The hard bargainers in our group, Dipti and Jason, seemed to compete with each other to see who could get the photos cheaper.

Since there's really no way to look comfortable riding an elephant your first time, I'll just show you my thanking our elephant, Lakshmi, for the ride. India isn't such the untouched wonder that there aren't hundreds of contrived photo ops for the tourists. And yes, we had some fun with it, always in exchange for the small (and expected, sometimes insisted) tip.
This snake charmer wanted Jason to hold this cobra in Britney Spears style, but he (Jason, not the snake) was bashful. Jason was convinced to hold the tail, after the man explained in broken English that it was the end that didn't bite. In one of the funniest moments of our trip, Jason and Tushar stopped to watch another snake charmer. An Asian tourist bent down to touch the hooded cobra from behind. Of course, it whipped its head around, causing the men to break out of the crowd like squealing school boys, an effect emphasized by their back packs swinging from their shoulders and peals of giggles in the escape. I think they may have pushed a few children aside in their haste.

Here are a few photos from the Amber Fort. Traveling in India can make you easily blase about amazing detail, because you get so used to it, everywhere. Our guide, Vansh, encouraged us to imagine the silk curtains swaying in the archways, the colored glass oil lamps blazing and the soft silk rugs underfoot, which became the equivalent of sensory overeating. Instead of my belly, my head was soon full! My eyes blinded to the exquisite detail, over decoration, over more detail.

Make it a Handmade Holiday

With Christmas on our heels, and the malls hot and crowded, it seems a good time to nudge you in the direction of one of my favorite places, Etsy, for your gift-giving decisions. One year, for my birthday, Jason asked what I wanted...I suggested simply, "jewelry from Etsy" and knew it would be both pretty and affordable.

Rather than a gift card or mass-produced item off a fluorescent-lit store shelf, how about handmade for the holidays?

Some suggestions for those you love:

A prim little purse, from London. (Perfect for old-school style Andrea.)

A stunning silk pillow, from San Antonio. (I'm thinking of your living room, Allison.)

A statement adornment, called The Suzanne, from Winston-Salem

A practical-minded but exquisite letterpress calendar, from Seattle. (I've already ordered mine for 2011.)

Shop the world, from your couch, and support the self-employed keeping original arts alive. And tell them that their gift is one-of-a-kind.

Happy Diwali! A Festival of Lights Illuminating Joy & Kindness

Following on our U.S. celebration, it seems appropriate to share how we also celebrated India's holiday of Diwali. Jason and I joked with our travel companions Dipti and Tushar that we were at risk of leaving India with a deep misperception. Ready to declare to all of our friends that India is simply a very festive country; fireworks a nightly routine, the streets filled with holiday lights - EVERYDAY!

This was truly because we happened to be traveling through the country during the five-day festival of lights, Diwali.

For the first few days in Delhi we saw fireworks and statues sold on the roadside and heaps of marigold garlands offered for holiday decorating. Hearing fireworks at night did become a routine, and set our minds at ease to loud unexpected noises, because it was just part of the celebration. We arrived in Jaipur for the biggest night of Diwali, Lakshmi Puja, named for the goddess of wealth. Our hotel gave us a full experience of the festivities, including the lobby floor decorated with rangoli to welcome the goddess inside.Before dinner we were invited to the parking lot for fireworks and sparklers with the staff. Dressed in his recently purchased sherwani, Jason was quickly mistaken for a member of the staff himself when a fellow guest asked him where they could throw away their spent sparkler. Jason was chagrined, but then cheered when the hotel manager's father spotted him and applauded Jason on his wardrobe choice. (Very similar to his own.)We had to tease Tushar, though Indian in heritage, he was out-dressed by his American friend, even after tossing on his wife's pink scarf for a photo. In the heat of our days in India, Jason understood why Indians favor the light cotton pajama-like sherwanis. And I wonder if I may find him lounging around the house this summer in his India pajamas.

Afterwards, dancers performed by the pool. The nearby body of water was reassuring since the traditional Rajastani folk dance involves dancing while balancing lit fire pots on the head. We were later pulled up "on stage" to dance as well, but thankfully without fire. (This felt like one of our goofiest tourist moments, I don't even dance at weddings!) However, in the escape of a vacation we gleefully enjoyed the Diwali night of celebration in Jaipur.

The following day we asked the hotel manager what celebrations there might be in the evening, we understood that Indians celebrate with fireworks every night? She laughed at our feigned cultural innocence.

It was a fun time to be in India, and more sentimental for the intimacy we were privileged to share with our travel companions. We heard Dipti and Tushar talk to their parents and siblings each day with the greeting, "Happy Diwali!" Our driver Kamal introduced us to Diwali sweets by pulling off the road to hop into a sweet shop.

We were enormously touched when, at the end of one day's driving, he sheepishly and quietly handed us four packages in pink foil wrapping. Diwali gifts for us, from his $100/month base salary. It was beyond an English to Hindi translation to try to tell him how overpowered we were by the small gesture of kindness. (Picture frames to hold our travel memories. I confess I haven't even unwrapped one of them yet, because it feels so special and treasured. Like the only way to capture the power of human kindness is pink foil wrapping stamped with elephants.)

Jason later reciprocated with a gift that meant a great deal to him, his Ohio State jacket a gift for dinner on our last night with Kamal, (besides the well-deserved tips he earned for navigating us across Rajasthan, since OSU apparel is not yet a currency recognized outside of Big 10 Country.) It might reflect a universal truth, that sharing the holidays together, can bring you closer to your family, your friends, and even strangers you came to know for just two weeks...and hopefully left considering them a friend.

Detour to Turkey

Interrupting the travel diary is one of our most American traditions, Thanksgiving! So we were thinking of a completely different set of Indians this week, and I was making my first ever Thanksgiving meal.

Remembering the lessons from Oberlin food co-op cooking I first did my "KP" - kitchen prep. Chopping, measuring, and packing my ingredients in labeled Ziplocs in advance, which I hoped would make game day go more smoothly. It did, although I may have inadvertently made my houseguests feel useless, since there wasn't too much for them to do to help.

The most common piece of advice I heard beforehand was, "Be sure to defrost your turkey!" No problem, I thought, a couple of days. Then I read in a magazine, "Frozen turkeys can take up to a week to defrost in the refrigerator." It was already Saturday! When I pointed out the omission of this important detail in my friend's advice he shrugged and admitted, "Yeah, I probably should have told you that." A call to Whole Foods for a fresh turkey helped me out of this dilemma, but I felt a little tangibly close to the death of my bird, since I was specifically making the call for his execution. My friend consoled me, "At least you know he had a happy life."

I brined our turkey, which is a little challenging in a Chicago condo with no extra fridge in the garage or basement to chill a 12 lb turkey in a 3 gallon stockpot filled with salt, sugar and herbs. I counted on putting the turkey outside on our deck, knowing Chicago temps would be cold enough overnight. Checking our local weather center data online (yeah, geeky) the new worry became temps that would be TOO cold. The night before we had dropped below freezing. Waking up to a turkey popsicle on my first thanksgiving was a small fear that crossed my dreams that night, even after wrapping my sleeping bag around the stockpot on the deck. (I should have remembered my science lessons: salt lowers the freezing point of water.)

It was fine and in the morning the bird was ready for its preparations. The same friend, Jorge, offered a trick to put bacon on top of the bird to keep the breast juicy. Sounds good, everything is better with bacon, right? I mentioned the idea to my other friend Luis and he replied nonchalantly, "Oh, yes, that is a very Latin thing." Who knew? I was taking our meal in a Latin (but indeed tasty) direction. Your chef, and her yummy turkey fresh from the oven.(See nervous anxiety subsiding to relief in her eyes!)

For the table, we had to camouflage our deck table with a new (awesome, 70s, floral) Crate & Barrel tablecloth, and elevate it to supplement our usual dining room table's four seats. I'd like to think it made the deck table look like it was dressed in holiday spats (really, furniture sliders I found a couple years ago at Home Depot.)

For place cards, a index card tucked in each guest's napkin, with a quote about gratitude and Thanksgiving.
Like a little Thanksgiving fortune cookie.

Jason's was a Theodore Roosevelt quote: "Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds." ~Theodore Roosevelt

For Jason's electrician grandfather, "Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all." ~William Faulkner

One of my favorites, "Gratitude is the memory of the heart." ~Jean Baptiste Massieu, translated from French (But I have no idea who said it, for all I know they were chopping off people's heads in the French Revolution.)

Putting together my plate, I gleefully grabbed a full turkey leg like I was at a county fair. Success! I can do this!

Thank you to guests Nancy & Dennis for making the drive from Ohio, providing the pies, mashing potatoes, reading the directions for gravy (which we goofed anyway) and carving the bird. It was great to have you, Bob (aka "Granpda") and little terrier, Hank. Although, our cats are unabashed in admitting they are much more relaxed now that the house is all theirs again. Terriers and tabbies are not one of Piper's favorite Thanksgiving recipes.

And More of Agra

It might seem like there could be little left to do in India after the Taj Mahal, but in fact most of our itinerary was still ahead of us, including a few more sites in Agra.
The Red Fort, palace of Shah Jahan, and the beginning of a parade of forts we'd visit over two weeks. By the end of Week 1 Jason would declare that he was "all forted out."Over the entrance, the zig zag stone work represents a garland welcoming guests in, a thoughtful and pleasant detail. The modern day welcome brigade is actually hawkers drawn to arriving tourist vehicles like magnets, shoving their peacock feather fans and jewelry in your face.

Inside, there's more inlaid marble as seen at the Taj Mahal, featured on many another tourist souvenir.And here is also the courtyard where Taj Mahal craftsmen could later come to sell their wares to the emperor's family and friends. The perimeter features round brackets to hold the torches that illuminated the space, a detail that helped me imagine the nights at the Fort.A later guide during our visit to India asked us, "What was your favorite place in India? -- BESIDES the Taj Mahal!" For me, it was Fatehpur Sikri, Emperor Akbar's Palace. An ornately detailed, expansive, sixteenth century complex, which you learn was only occupied for 10 years. The palace tells a good story through its buildings, particularly that Akbar's vision was to unite the religions, as well as create his own form of Unitarianism. Here I am at the Astrologer's Seat, with its bracket supports representing elephants. (Upside down.)Among Akbar's methods was to marry three women, one Muslim, one Christian and one Hindu. Each woman had her own quarters on the property, of different sizes but the same cost to construct, each reflecting her own religion. We toured and compared all three, which began to feel like "House Hunters International - Sixteenth Century." "I love the details, but it's a bit small." Here's a photo from another traveler, and far, far better photographer Stuck in Customs, that captures the amazing details of Fatehpur Sikri.(Two observations: 1. I love the internet because if you forgot to get a photo, inevitably someone else on flickr captured it. 2. I should take a photography class. My pics look so dull compared to a professional's!)

The exterior of the kitchen building features a motif of women's earrings. Amongst the pastiche of other crazy details! It might have been mostly women who lived here, since we also later passed the dorm-like quarters for Akbar's 300 concubines. Among their duties was to lift Akbar to his eight-foot-high bed every night! A story Jason and Tushar enjoyed immensely. That was also when the court's women weren't being used as game pieces on the outdoor Parcheesi board. Now, just another drowsy dog mans the game board.

Wonder-ful India

Somewhere along the line I adopted the notion that the Taj Mahal was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. While it is magnificent, I guess it's not considered that wonderful (or that ancient) since it's not one of the wonders of the ancient world. There are a few similar lists, but they also include some sites I consider a little ordinary like the Golden Gate Bridge.

However, when we arrived in Agra I was ready to see something marvelous. Sure, enough, that is the Taj Mahal. For all the hype, I did prepare myself that maybe it would look smaller in person, or dingier maybe?

You begin with a little tourist shuttle ride, then through a somewhat bizarre security screening that takes away video cameras, computers, and even e-readers and cashews in your pocket like Jason had. Beginning in a rusty orange courtyard, the tour guide explains it took 22 years to complete the monument that Mughal (favorite word!) emperor Shah Jahan built in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Learning that she was one of three does put a little dent in the modern notion of "most romantic place in the world" story, however you learn that the Taj Mahal was just one of her three requests from her deathbed. One of the others was that Shah Jahan never marry again. (And that he take care of her kids.)

The two gates each carry 11 domes, representing together the twenty two years of construction. You walk through the darkness of this gate and on the other side is the Taj Mahal. For all that you expect, it is true! It seems like the Taj Mahal is shrouded in a magical cloud of exalted air. Peaceful and exquisite. Oh yes, and crowded too. Our guide, Rajeev, helped us manage the crowds like an expert. (He explained that he'd been to the Taj three times already just that day before meeting us.) He patiently got us a spot on Princess Diana's bench for this photo op. He also showed us his tricks for fool-the-eye photography, which drew the curiosity of visiting school children as well. We thought it was maybe a little corny, but went for it with gusto.Yes, Jason really is just held in the palm of my hand. Those gym workouts have helped a lot with my lifting strength!We walked around for probably over an hour, but it seemed so short. There was so much to absorb! The details of the Taj Mahal were extraordinary. Intricate inlaid marble designs, which almost seem surprising to have only taken twenty two years.

(And it's a myth that the laborers had their hands cut off at the completion of the construction to prevent them from replicating the art. Instead they were actually invited to Shah Jahan's palace to sell their wares at regular scheduled bazaars.)

Rajeev shared that he also taught math and physics, and his teaching skills were apparent as he sat us down on a bench and explained the ingenuity behind the Taj's construction, including four corner towers weighing down the platform upon which the main masoleum sits, and each tilting barely perceptively. Sorry Juliet, that's a very brief amateur's description of what he was saying. I confess I was more drawn to the romantic stories behind the architecture, like the dome topped by an inverted lotus design, a symbol of life's desire fulfilled.The visit to the Taj Mahal was certainly one of my desire's fulfilled!
Rajeev noted that they may begin selling timed tickets to the Taj, perhaps a diplomatic hint to us as we were tarrying at the exit. Gazing back at the vista and taking deep breaths to soak that special place in before leaving.
 

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