Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Day 7: Jaipur/Delhi

Upon awakening from our beauty sleep, we were once again struck with the beauty and comfort of our hotel surroundings.

Not only were Dean Paul and Rachel able to finally stretch their limbs on the hotel running track, but everyone was able to enjoy breakfast while listening to the drum and sitar players. Deepa, with her amazing talent in Indian classical singing, was especially able to appreciate the art.

And did I mention the breakfast? The hotel's beautiful spread gave a whole new meaning to the term "continental breakfast." Not only did it feature traditional Indian dishes such as sambar and thin omelets, but even the more western breakfast-minded individuals among us feasted upon pastries, yogurt (multiple varieties, with a billion toppings), fresh fruit, and fresh-squeezed juices that are definitely not endemic to the United States (cucumber juice, anyone?). Understandably, we didn't exactly leave the hotel as soon as we had planned.

We soon boarded the bus for the Amber Fort, but on the way we stopped to take pictures at the lake palace of Jal Mahal and watch random elephants ramble past.
We were also treated to a sample of Indian magic, courtesy of a very cute, very precocious Indian boy and his nimble fingers.

But it was hard to remember these things once we arrived at the Amber Fort. The late 16th-century citadel is absolutely breathtaking, the Great Wall of Rajasthan. Its bastions and walls climb the surrounding hills like a fortified, spiny backbone, but nothing is lost in terms of artistic decoration. At the complex's center is a beautiful geometrically-based garden, and one room in the palace (both on the interior and exterior) is covered with thousands upon thousands of tiny reflective mirrors.

Of course, this all requires attaining the height of the fort, completely inaccessible to even the most adept of Indian bus drivers. So we abandoned the bus at the bottom of the hill and rode up Indian-style: on elephants!! Separated into groups of two, the RLC contingent featured several notable couples, such as the African brigade (Melekot and Olaf), the Swedes (Rachel and Avital, wearing yellow and blue headscarves, respectively), and the Honeymooners (Deepa and Emmett). Divided into our respective groups, we bounced and jostled our way up to the top of the mountain, careful not to put too much weight on one side of the seat (it's a long way down). It was far from a boring ride, for between admiring the spectacular views, purposefully ignoring those selling native turbans and tiny elephants ("All 10 for 100 rupees!"), and taking pictures of those trying to do the same, we found plenty to occupy our minds. If only we weren't troubled by what we imagined to be the brutal treatment of the elephants we were riding (as Manav said, it is hard to imagine those scars on his elephant's head coming from her intentional boredom-induced head banging).

Once we reached the top, we were able to revel in the remarkable view of the whole Jaipur Rajasthan area. How different from the view atop the minaret in Delhi! The complex was extensive, and we didn't even get to view all of the levels. Like the Agra Fort, it is both an impressive fortress and luxurious palace, featuring both Hindu and Moghul elements situated in Amber, the former capital of the region under the Kachwahas (Jaipur became the capital in the 18th century).

After meandering from ornately decorated room to even more ornately decorated room, the jeep ride down to contemporary civilization seems slightly anachronistic. But, lest we thought we were still in the United States, we were greeted at the bus with the sight of two head-butting goats right across the parking lot (let's hope the lady goat was worth it).

Back in the air conditioning, we headed back to Delhi, for the most high-profile of all our Indian interactions: Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the former president of India, known as Indian's "Missile Man" and the "People's President." We had just enough time to stop at the home of Manav's uncle and aunt to change and freshen up before heading to Dr. Kalam's home. The universal opinion was that he was one of the cutest old men we had ever seen, in addition to one of the most engaging. He required our most acute attention, constantly turning us to ask, "You understand?," as he outlined his plan to bring harmony to India and the world. This will require, he said, not simply early education in principles of respect and the recognition of transcendent virtues present amongst all religions, but widespread economic prosperity as well. He presented his plan in a straightforward, logical manner reflective of his scientific background, using a multi-faceted approach to describe his dream of a developed India by 2020.

As usual, we had lots of questions, and, as usual, not enough time to ask them. All too soon, it was time for us to present the Princeton mug, t-shirt, and pen (though this last item--ostensibly the nicest gift--was deemed unnecessary), take the requisite group picture, and board the bus again.

This time, though, would be the last, for this was our final night all together in Delhi. The following day we would be going our separate ways, some staying in Delhi for a few more days, others headed to other parts of India, and the rest taking flights to other parts of the world. The gifts we presented to Manav, Jahnabi, Shivani, and Nikhil later that night as key coordinators of the trip were mere tokens, completely unable to communicate the richness of the incredible adventure we had just experienced.

But the adventure, after all, did not end in Delhi. As Rahul read us his plans for a future discussion that time had not permitted us to undertake, we were newly awakened to the realization that our mission as ambassadors extends beyond India back to Princeton itself and beyond. As members of the Religious Life Council, we have committed ourselves to exploring disparate, new ideas and inspiring them in others. This should not only happen in India during our time off from academia. We are Princeton students, "in the nation's service, and in the service of all nations."

Day 6: Jaipur

If the day started early on the day visit to Agra, it was nothing compared to the trip to Jaipur. We were up with the sun--or at least, we would have been if we had been able to see the sun from behind the residency walls. As it was, we crowded onto the bus in order to collapse once again prior to breakfast at one of the campuses of Rai University. Here women get advanced degrees very affordably, and one of the administrator's was kind enough to show us quickly around the building. Few of us had seen such an educational setting, complete with a model of an airplane cabin (for training flight attendants) and video studio, but it was wonderful to hear that graduates are receiving placements already with well-respected companies (yay Jet Airways!). Several of us also invested in the careers of the fashion design students with the purchase of their beautiful jewelry.

But then it was back on the bus! We had a few more hours of travel left, plenty of time to soak in the geographic and cultural changes evinced in the changing landscape. Mountains again appeared on the horizon, in contrast to the all-too-flat Delhi, and curious children smiled and waved eagerly at Miriam's camera. Some of us also were at last able to sink our teeth into the heavenly nirvana known as mangoes, though Rachel wouldn't suggest following Manav's advice: spoons do simply not work as a cleaner means of eating mangoes aboard a moving bus.

Jaipur is known as the "Pink City" because of the city's repainting following the Prince of Wales' visit in 1853 (now really, why pink?). It still retains the color, especially in the old part (Indian's first planned city), augmenting the city's already vivid hues. Jaipur feels, at least to a casual visitor, distinctly different from Delhi, lacking the same level of cosmopolitanism and high tourist ratio. Neha assured us that our comparative knowledge of Delhi was based on an incomplete, touristy acquaintance, but Jaipur's cascading spice stalls and riveting colors were utterly fascinating.

Unfortunately, there wasn't time for us to visit the white and pink sandstone palace of Hawa Mahal, but we drove by it on the way to our incredible hotel, the Taj Rambagh Palace. Manav had decided it would be better to spend a little bit of extra money to assure a comfortable stay in the city, but we had no idea exactly how far $60 would go towards assuring us of beautiful, luxurious accommodations. On entrance, our dusty, sweaty bodies adorned with fresh flower garlands and bindi, the red dot traditionally placed on the forehead of Hindu women (though gaining prominence solely as decoration). The clear, smooth lines of the white marble hall sang out elegance, an attribute which certainly applies to our mango-outfitted, veranda-supplied bedrooms.

No time to dawdle, though, for we had places to explore. Our first stop was City Palace, built by a maharajah in a blend of Rajasthani and Moghul styles. We were able to pace the beautiful pink terraces and museums, each of which highlighted an aspect of Rajastani culture, such as clothing or weaponry. There is even a beautiful throne room featuring portraits of local rulers dating back several hundred years.

One of the wonderful things about this trip was the contributions of the many RLC members with connections to India. In this case, the RLC was treated to the company and hospitality of Nikhil's aunt and uncle, who live and operate a free clinic from their home in Jaipur. While eating delicious pakora and mango that Dean Paul declared the best in his life, they told us about the state of medical care in India, which is basically that there is not enough of it. There are free state-run clinics, but they are terrifically overworked and understaffed, resulting in many poor people not receiving the care they need. Nikhil's relatives are working to counter this, devoting the whole lower story of their house to their clinical practice and surgery. It is mainly the project of Nikhil's aunt, but his uncle, who is a respected surgeon at the hospital in Jaipur, also contributes his time and skills to the poor Indians who come in search of care. With so much suffering (and we only saw an insignificant sample of it), it was wonderful for us to see people devoting their lives to the amelioration of it.

In order for us to see more of Rajasthani culture, Nikhil next brought us to Chokhi Dhani, the Indian equivalent to the United States' living history museums. There were no Amish farmers or pious Pilgrims here, though. Chokhi Dhani is a tourist-designed historical village, but completely unlike anything we had ever experienced. Horse and buggy rides? Try riding on the back of an elephant. Blacksmith demonstrations? Try full body massages and henna application. Square dances? Try drum-accompanied, sari-swirling, audience-participating Indian versions. And one can't forget the human hamster wheel--a Ferris wheel powered by the arms and legs of a native operator inside the wheel itself. Other attractions included a human maze, fortune telling, and camel rides.

Once again, the time passed way too quickly before we all congregated at the village's center for a true Rajasthani dining experience. Sitting cross-legged at short tables, we savored local breads, chutneys, and curries on traditional leaf platters and bowls in Manuhaar style.

The village's web site asserts that you won't be able to stop eating, but one thing it doesn't say is that this won't exactly be solely due to the quality of the food: the waiters literally won't let you stop! Hospitality took on a whole new meaning as our servers dodged our outstretched arms and ignored our satiated pleas to put serving after serving of rice, churma, and emarti. Jeff even resorted to throwing his whole body in front of his tray. It didn't work; they gave him emarti anyway.

By this time, it was getting late, and it was finally starting to dawn on us that the trip was coming to a close. In order for us to have our final few hours together be rested and meaningful, we returned to the hotel for a good night's sleep. Of course, this didn't happen right away (what would you expect with talkative, curious college students?), but ensconced in our white comforters and down pillars and dreaming of Indian spices, we eventually drifted off to sleep. Ask Neha who snuggled and who didn't.

Day 5: Delhi

One thing about India: no matter how many sandstone structures one sees, they are still impressive. There is so much ingenuity and beauty in Indian architecture that one’s jaw never tires of dropping in admiration—or at least only after a very long time. Qutab Minar was no exception to this rule. This largest brick minaret in the world was begun in the late twelfth century, but, as often happens with many great architectural projects, was only completed in 1386. The minaret is absolutely huge, and seen as one of the finest examples of pre-Moghul Indian architecture. It is situated among the ruins of Jain temples. Walking among them reminds one of Pompeii or Israel, as the style of buildings are so remarkably different from the Moghul buildings we had seen elsewhere. We also saw the Iron Pillar, but Dean Paul was thwarted in his attempt to get good luck by encircling his arms backwards around it by the fence made to prevent people's sweat from corroding the metal. So much for tangibly profiting from local superstition. Nevertheless, we decided that if Princeton ever constructs a Center for Muslim Life, it should take the form of the Qutab Minar and be situated right in the middle of East Pyne (who says there is no space on Princeton's campus?). It will of course be paid for by the rich Muslim alums that emerge from the RLC.

Don't count on Jahnabi for any Qutab Minar contribution, though. When the RLC Indians' status were questioned (they have cheaper entrance rates), the indignant, assertive Jahnabi was revealed. Manav was getting nowhere with his Hindi protests, but the guards certainly understood Jahnabi's English: "I am an upstanding Indian citizen!"

From there, it was off to Haldiram's! This confectionery and lunch hotspot has its roots in Delhi, but, as we learned, its goodness could not be contained in one outlet, even spreading to the United States! Locals come in for both snacks and meals, little kids leaving hand prints on the glass mercilessly separating them from the silver-laced almond barfi (a diamond-shaped Indian sweet) and women jabbering to get their orders filled. The atmosphere was hectic but exciting, and always alleviated (or made worse, depending on the circumstances) by the constant smell of the Indian spices going into the restaurant's meals and snacks.

We had the pleasure of being treated to the culinary deliciousness of chaat, savory snacks which are often sold from roadside stands (kind of reminiscent of Indian tapas). Nikhil and Manav disappeared with a menu, and hitherto unknown and intriguing dishes soon started pouring onto our cute mini-tables. One of the most fun was panipuri (also known as gol gappa and gup chup), a small, crisp, fried, hollow "puri" into which you make a hole. You then spoon a potato/pea mixture inside and fill it with tamarind and chili sauces. The whole thing is bite-size, and utterly delicious! We also had (if memory serves--correct me if I'm wrong and feel free to add stuff I'm forgetting) bhelpuri, a sweet/savory crunchy puffed rice dish with pomegranate seeds on top, spicy chick peas with bread, a sweet/savory yogurt-based dish with chips, and a savory tomato-based chutney served with buttered bread. Even the most macho men among us were stuffed to the brim, and even Jeff could join us in the party since Haldiram's was completely vegetarian. By the time the desserts which we had been eying from our entrance into Haldiram's arrived, there was little room in our stomachs even for the edible silver-covered barfi, karachi halva (dry fruit cake), and other sweets.

While our lunch was digested, we headed over to Humayun's tomb, a huge 16th century complex of tombs not just of the Moghul Emperor Humayun, but numerous wives and successors. In addition to forging a new trend in mausoleums in the incorporation of gardens and waterworks, Humayun was notable to us Princetonians for the sober reminder of the hazards of Firestone and too much study: Humayun died falling down the steps of his library. Putting aside his ironic death, not only is his tomb another beautiful example of marble and sandstone work, but it had special meaning for Farah, as its restoration was funded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a group which has ties to Ismaili Muslims.

Even the all-too-visited bathrooms (as discovered by Miriam) were not enough to keep us at the tomb forever, however, and we were soon off to Raj Ghat, the memorial to Mahatma Ghandi. Manav had put a lot of thought and energy into making this a memorable visit for all of us, and he certainly succeeded. Reflecting Ghandi's principles, the memorial itself is quite simple: a black marble slab underneath an eternal flame. But situated apart from the rest of the park, it is an ideal place for quiet reflection of the values Ghandi espoused, which was exactly what we did.

Unfortunately, the guards wouldn't allow us to fulfill Manav's dream of placing ourselves immediately in the vicinity of the memorial, but we were able to go right outside to light our individual candles and reflect on the principles of non-violence and peace Ghandi worked so hard to instill in the world. Deepa led a beautiful Hindi song, people said prayers, and we all joined together in singing one of Ghandi's anthems, taken from the American civil rights movement, "We Shall Overcome," in both Hindi and English. Then we processed back into the site, where we placed perfumed flower petals on the memorial and watched while one of the guards laid the RLC's garland on the black marble. As the incense swirled around the orange and pink blossoms, we listened in moved silence to the Indians in our group sing in Ghandi's memory, joined in the Indian national anthem by passers-by. For many of us, it was a profound and deeply moving joy of the trip.

We were rushed back into the grimness of reality, however, immediately upon exiting the memorial. Little boys sounding plastic machine guns were a harsh reminder of the real state of peace in the world, and a challenge to us in the RLC. With such discord present among different cultures and religions, what is our mission as an interfaith dialogue group, and what is our mission as individuals?

While we processed such thoughts, we rushed off on one of our few (abbreviated) shopping excursions. Our knowledgeable RLC guides introduced us to the joys of Fabindia, where Melekot, Emmett, and Jeff discovered in their kurta searches that American sizes have no relation to Indian ones. The most important acquisition for some people, though, was much more digestible: fresh mangoes! Sarah, Dean Paul, and Rachel had asserted early that mangoes were an inarguable necessity on their India trips, a dream that was at last fulfilled (five days into the week).

There was no opportunity to relish the fresh, sweet, orange, juicy flesh, however, as we had to rush off to one of Delhi's premier hotels for what would have been, given more time, a snippet of colonial Indian life. The contrast with the India we had experienced thus far was telling: waiters dressed in safari outfits took our orders from menus divided up by cuisine locale, with the European dishes listed under the heading "Born to Lead" and the Indian dishes under "Indian Safari." There was even a celebrity sighting, as those tuned in to Bollywood squealed at seeing a famous actress (her name, anyone?) grace the gold and marble entrance. Unfortunately, we had little time to soak in the ambiance, as the hotel was a mere jumping off point and changing room prior to dinner with Mr. Rai, our illustrious host, at his beautiful Delhi home.

If we hadn't been already appreciative of Mr. Rai's hospitality, this dinner would have cemented it. We were treated to the best of Indian cuisine (tempered with a few select familiar dishes for the less adventurous) amidst the illuminated fountains and shining Hindu statues of our host's immaculate backyard/garden. He even prepared bowls of freshly cut mangoes, lychees, pineapple, and melon for those keeping kosher (though those who didn't relished the fresh ambrosia as much, if not more). Like any good Indian host, Mr. Rai saw an empty plate as a call for more helpings, and once again our stomachs were fit to burst.

Mr. Rai also provided us with much food for thought, though. Rahul's early discussion with him of the separation (or not) between the physical and spiritual worlds developed by the end of our stay into an impassioned conversation about Truth, religious harmony, and the idea we had already encountered that all religions are the same and reflect aspects of the same Truth. Mr. Rai encouraged us to follow our true natures to find inner enlightenment, but Avital (especially), Rachel, Miriam, Emmett, and others had lots of questions about what that actually meant. By the end of the conversation, Avital might have convinced him that his philosophy and hers were not the same. :)