What I Learned From This Sojourn: Paris Layover Edition

image

1. When I was 20 years old, I climbed the 422 steps to the bell tower of the Notre Dame and was drafted by our eccentric elderly guide to “ring”the biggest bell. He had me stand under the massive dome, placed the clapper in my hand, and guided me in gently rubbing it along the inside. The sound it produced was magnificent, and that moment for me has always retained its wonder and delight. When T climbed the same steps the other day, and I asked about the bells, he told me he didn’t see any bells. Apparently, they’ve all been enclosed. This is an understandable necessity considering the massive crowds, but it also highlights the importance of getting your snapshot of the world as it is while you still can. I’m glad I got to hang out with the gargoyles barrier-free, and I’m blessed to have had that Quasimodo moment because these things are impossible now. That first (ill advised) trip to Paris changed my life; ringing that bell gave me my wings.

2. My French comes rushing back when I need to use it, although I spoke it mostly out of politeness. Everyone here speaks English at least conversationally, from Metro and McDonald’s workers on up. They still appreciate the niceties though, like a “Bonjour”, a “S’il vous plait”, a “Merci”, and a “Pardon” if you happen to step on someone’s toe. I find all this global English fluency a little embarrassing for our monolingual (and proud) culture. Speaking more than one language makes us smarter, more empathetic, better writers and communicators, and invariably leads to all kinds of inter-cultural exchange and understanding.

3. It’s super easy to get around Paris by foot, Metro, ferry–you name it. Very, very easy.

YOU ARE HERE.

YOU ARE HERE.

4. Next visit, and there are seldom return visits for the roaming Sojourners so Paris must be special, we’re staying in an apartment.

5. There’s a store called Picard that has nothing but aisle after aisle of frozen foods. Yup, feel like having moussaka, fajitas, coq au vin, leg of lamb, ice cream galore, and even frozen herbs and spices? It’s all here and it’s all reported to be quite good. So good in fact that there was a big scandal not too long ago alleging that certain menu items at certain restaurants were simply these same Picard foods, reheated and garnished, so caveat emptor at the sit down spots. For those who knowingly choose it however, this is a cool (blatant and unapologetic pun) dining option for those traveling as a family or on a budget, and adds to the value of staying in an apartment instead of a hotel.

6. If there’s something to get to the top of, my husband will get there by hook or by crook. Thanks to him, we have (many, many) panoramic shots of Paris from the tops of Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the clock window at Musee D’Orsay; the list goes on. Here, a carefully curated set of pictures I like to call “Paris is for The Birds.”

Here I am waiting patiently for him to finish his Notre Dame climbing expedition:
Summer 2014 1048

Notice this shot is taken from the bell tower.

Notice this shot is taken from the bell tower.

7. By far, the Palace at Versailles is the center ring of the circus that Paris tourism in high season can be. DH really wanted to go, so we went, but we waited in line for an hour to get in despite museum passes that guaranteed we could skip lines. By the end, we couldn’t wait to leave.

8. A huge percentage of tourists are from the BRIC nations: Brazil, Russia, India, and especially China.

9. I know I whined a little in a previous post about how spit-shined Paris seems now in contrast to my freshman visit back in the day, but despite the proliferation of Sephoras, Subways, and Starbucks, the April freshness is a welcome change. Even the Metro smells decent.

10. Speaking of which, there are Metro Police and they do not play. Hang on to your ticket and produce it when requested or face a 30€ fine. We were stopped on our way to Montmartre, but knowing this in advance, we were ready.

11. Paris Plages is the mayor’s attempt to bring the beach and seashore to the banks of the Seine for those who can’t close up shop in August head south. It’s a resounding success and quite a whimsical sight, complete with sand, beach umbrellas, lounge chairs, even potted palm trees.

Some great activities, such as dance lessons, air hockey tournaments, and yoga are also offered at the “beach.” Here I am, soaking up the atmosphere, if not the sun (we’re talking AM temps in the high 50s):

imageimage

This mini red Eiffel Tower is completely constructed out of metal cafe chairs.

This mini red Eiffel Tower is completely constructed out of metal cafe chairs.

Tales of Beheaded Bishops and Despondent Divas in Montmartre

    Montmartre is probably best known for its magnificent Sacre Coeur Basilica, and for good reason. It’s gorgeous inside and out, and it affords pilgrims worldwide an absolutely breathtaking view of the city. What I found out today, though is that Montmartrois (residents of Montmartre) really can’t stand the place. Long story, but suffice it to say they liken it to the Disney Castle.

    T and I learned this today on a great pay-what-you-wish Discovery Walks guided tour of the neighborhood. These are young, mostly native Parisian guides who take visitors on quirky, yet educational walks throughout the city. They work solely on tips, and at the end, you can pay them, or not (really). I don’t know how anyone could have the heart to stiff them though; if our guide, Marie, is any indication, they’re more than worth the suggested 10-14 euro gratuity.

    Our Montmartre guide, Marie, hard at work with the Sacre Coeur in the background.

    Our Montmartre guide. Marie, hard at work with the Sacre Coeur in the background.

    Anyway, let’s start with St. Denis, the beheaded first bishop of Paris. Here he is:

    St.  Denis taking "things" into his own hands.

    St. Denis taking “things” into his own hands.


    Sentenced to death by the Romans in the Third Century AD, he requested crucifixion as his mode of execution. According to legend, his executioner was supposed to crucify him high up on Montmartre hill, but he didn’t want to bother with the climb, and instead decided to behead him. Miraculously, St. Denis retrieved his head where it fell (there’s now a church there to mark the spot), carried it up to Montmartre, and crucified himself.

    Another Montmartre legend was Dalida, femme fatale and diva deluxe:
    image
    Any Haitian girl of my generation who grew up in a partially French speaking household probably had a mother like mine who listened regularly to French pop via hi-fi records or 8-track tapes when she did the household chores. Because of this, Dalida is as familiar to me as any American popular artist from the 70s and 80s. Apparently, after having had three husbands who all committed suicide, not to mention a very controversial affair with former French president, Francois Mitterand, Dalida, or “the Black Widow” as people began to call her, committed suicide herself. Her mansion still stands as the most expensive house in Montmartre, and pilgrims stop by pre or post-prayer at Sacre Coeur to rub the bust of her bust for good luck in love. Anyone else notice some irony here?

    Dalida's bronzed boobs polished to a high sheen from all the palming.

    Dalida’s bronzed boobs polished to a high sheen from all the palming.

    Just for fun, here’s my favorite Dalida song:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=b6pIJyfpDZo

    MORE MONTMARTRE PICS:

    Movie poster we saw on the Metro heading to Montmartre. Another one for the "you can't make this stuff up" file.

    Movie poster we saw on the Metro heading to Montmartre. Another one for the “you can’t make this stuff up” file.

    The Sacre Coeur , mocked and maligned as the Disney Castle by Montmartre natives and locals.

    The Sacre Coeur , mocked and maligned as the Disney Castle by Montmartre natives and locals.

    Part of the crowd in front of the Sacre Coeur

    Part of the crowd in front of the Sacre Coeur

    The Moulin Rouge, located at base of Montmartre, hosts cheesy Vegas type shows for 185 euro pp.  We opted for pics out front and Toulouse Lautrec paintings at the Musee D'Orsay.

    The Moulin Rouge, located at base of Montmartre, hosts cheesy Vegas type shows for 185 Euro pp. We opted for pics out front and Toulouse Lautrec paintings at the Musee D’Orsay.

Bonjour, Paris!

image

Our hotel: not fancy, no elevator, no TV, no AC.  Choose it for friendliness, character, price, and location

Our hotel: not fancy, no elevator, no TV, no AC. Choose it for friendliness, character, price, and location.

After the exhilarating intensity of India, Paris welcomed us for our four-day layover with serenity and seventy-degree weather.

Everything was easy, from the overnight nine-hour plane ride, to the train from Charles de Gaulle, to the faithful Hotel St. Andre-des-Arts, to which I’ve returned after a 26 year absence. Of course, with the building having stood on Paris’s left bank since the 17th Century, there was really no chance that it would be going anywhere. When I first came to Paris in 1988, I booked a quad room here, sight unseen for three friends and me, based solely on the bargain $60/night rate. While its charms are largely based on character and its “decor” decidedly rustic, it turned out to be best decision we could have made in terms of location (6th arrondissement, Left Bank). Nearly thirty years later, I still couldn’t find a better deal in this very prime location. Lore also has it that that the hotel used to serve as a barracks for the Bourbon kings’ musketeers; that Henry James wrote Daisy Miller here; that certain African-American expat jazz musicians did their best work here etc. Let’s just say, this place has had a historical following, and manages to thrive in today’s economy without a real website or any other wholesale Internet affiliations.

Our first stop was the Notre Dame for the 10:00 Gregorian Chant mass, which was lovely, if a little disconcerting. I’ll be the first to admit to being a very lapsed Catholic, but houses of worship are houses of worship. Period. Why do hordes of non believing tourists insist on coming in for photo ops ( and I mean planting themselves, cameras in hand, mid-center aisle) during someone else’s spiritual and sacred time?

Also on the subject of tourists, the sheer number of them here is pretty incredible, but then again, the last time I was here, China was still a relative mystery, as was the Internet.

A few hours later, we went looking for this famous falafel place– L’As du Fallafel–in the Marais district, Paris’s traditional Jewish neighborhood which now also boasts a thriving gay community. The neighborhood was great, the falafel though…let’s just say I’ve had better from the grease trucks on Rutgers campus. Big fail. So much for online hype and lines that snake the corner.

I had other plans for Le Marais, which included visiting Victor Hugo’s home which was converted to a (free!) museum, but we took the scenic route and missed it by a few minutes. This was a big disappointment for me because I knew I wouldn’t be able to fit in another stop during our four short days. Summer daylight hours in Paris extend to about 10:30 pm, so it’s pretty easy for the uninitiated to believe it’s much earlier than it is, especially if you throw in a quick nap after a long plane ride.

Generally speaking, the Paris I remember has also mellowed somewhat. When she and I were both a little younger, she was supremely lovely, but with an edge–that little bit of figurative and literal grime every old great city needs as nod to its turbulent history. Now I return to find that student dive bars have been converted to Starbucks, and should I run out of fragrance, no need for the hike to the perfume shops on The Champs Élysées, there’s a Sephora up the block. Sadly, there also aren’t as many mom and pop boulangeries and patisseries as I recall, but I’ll try not to brood too much. After all, I’m in Paris! Tomorrow, we’re heading up to Montmartre which I hope will confirm my suspicion that The City of Light, in her haste to brighten things up, may have missed a spot behind her ear.

On the RER train from Charles de Gaulle

On the RER train from Charles de Gaulle

Summer 2014 929

T at the back of the Notre Dame, his favorite of the many cathedrals we've visited on my worldwide cathedral tour.

T at the back of the Notre Dame, his favorite of the many cathedrals we’ve visited on my worldwide cathedral tour.

Notre Dame de Paris in all her buttressed glory.

Notre Dame de Paris in all her buttressed glory.

First stop after church was the boulangerie for pain chocolat and croissants.  Only our hotel's free breakfast (a Paris rarity) of fresh baguettes and coffee kept me from eating here at least once a day.

First stop after church was the boulangerie for pain chocolat and croissants. Only our hotel’s free breakfast (a Paris rarity) of fresh baguettes and coffee kept me from eating here at least once a day.

Lovers' locks on the banks of the Seine River

Lovers’ locks on the banks of the Seine River

Yes, that IS a mime in a striped shirt in this panoramic shot.  Ok, maybe not but this tourist is trying awfully hard to look like one.  You really cannot make this up!

Yes, there IS a mime in a striped shirt in this panoramic shot. OK, maybe not but this tourist is trying awfully hard to look “Parisian.”

What I Learned from this Sojourn: A Relatively Random Top 10 List

Surgically attached to my iPad on our final morning in India

Surgically attached to my iPad on our final morning in India

Ashok, our driver and constant companion with his immaculate car.

Ashok, our driver and constant companion, with his immaculate car.


1. I write my observations humbly, knowing that I’ve only seen a tiny portion of this huge subcontinent and its myriad cultures and traditions.

2. Eating vegetarian while in India is great idea, and not difficult to do.

3. When in doubt, choose to pack the Imodium.

4. Arranged marriages are no longer uniformly de riguer. According to our Udaipur guide, the statistics for arranged marriages in India are 65% nationwide; however the higher one’s caste, the more likely the arranged match.

5. There really is nothing here to buy if like me, you already have too much jewelry, too many accessories, and don’t need oriental rugs. We found this freeing. This time we’re leaving the stuff behind and taking what really matters–memories and experiences.

6. Muslims and Hindus here share a common heritage, and despite the whole India/Pakistan trouble, seem to respect one another and get along quite well.

7. Never, ever leave home again without something small to give to children like Ahmed at the mosque. I am still haunted by that little face.

8. Even rupees add up.

9. If breakfast was any indication, Indian soil may just produce the mother of all mangoes(and I don’t love mangoes).

10. Smiles, civility, hospitality, more smiles, and “Namastes”cut across all language and cultural barriers.

Like the beloved and ubiquitous Hindu god, Ganesha, India is colorful and beautifully  in its incongruity.

Like the beloved and ubiquitous Hindu god, Ganesha, India is complex, colorful, and beautiful in its incongruity.

Oasis in Udaipur

Our window seat at Jagat Niwas Palace

Our window seat at Jagat Niwas Palace

Morning in Udaipur-- the view from our window seat

Morning in Udaipur– the view from our window seat

The view from the jharokha (window seat) in our room at Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel on Lake Picchola is indescribable, so I’ll let the picture speak for itself.

Udaipur, nicknamed “The Lake City”, or “The White City”, or “The Venice of India” is all of the above. As my title suggests, it is remarkably clean and serene by Indian standards, mostly due to its impressive man-made lake and its protected position among the hills and mountains. We arrived here yesterday in the pouring rain, which is something we’ve come to appreciate in India. Rain means monsoon, and monsoon means relief from the intense heat.

This morning we enjoyed a tour of maharanah’s city palace which stands out on a tour of forts and palaces as the most beautiful and well-maintained. The maharanah and his family live in a residence adjacent to the palace and own the three five-star hotel properties here. He’s clearly invested in his businesses and family legacy, but appears to contribute much to the community at large as well. For instance, there’s a school on the palace grounds and he sponsors another school to train young artists in Udaipur’s style of traditional painting ( with brushes fashioned humanely from camel eyelashes and squirrel tails). Udaipur’s other claims to fame? It was prominently featured in the 007 film, Octopussy, and was gifted the spectacles worn by Ben Kingsley when he played Gandhi in the 1980s biopic. Not surprisingly, Indians are immensely proud of that film.

On a personal note, I think we’re both a little exhausted on this final night, but in a good way. Our nine days here were packed, intense, and awesome–in the old fashioned sense of the word. T has been a real trooper but I know he doesn’t love history the way I do, and probably couldn’t take one more fort. I had to chuckle when he started asking up front at ticket offices yesterday, whether he’d have to take off his shoes. We’ve been in so many temples and mosques, braving hot, dirty concrete under our feet and hot, communal robes on our backs
(okay, just my back) that it had be pretty tough for my husband, the germophobe. That being said, he didn’t skip one shoe-free zone, though he regrets not packing disposable socks:)

UDAIPUR HIGHLIGHTS:

<a

Travel Advisory

Enjoying the rooftop at Alsisar Haveli one last time.

Enjoying the rooftop at Alsisar Haveli one last time.

As we wrap up our stay in Jodhpur, and head to Udaipur, the final leg of our journey, I think I’ve spent enough time here to reflect on some things that make traveling to and through India not for the faint of heart:

1. The heat. I know, I know. I chose to come here during the summer, and would do so again if the alternative was to not come, but sheesh, it’s really, really hot. Visiting Jodhpur’s mountain top fort yesterday in pre-monsoon heat and humidity redefined hot. Although it finally rained there last night, cooling things down just a touch, the humidity lingered like a wet, warm blanket.

2. Navigating the streets and roads. Like I’ve mentioned numerous times, whether driving or walking, India is an obstacle course of cars, trucks, mopeds, animals, and yes, squalor. People are always sweeping and picking up garbage, but their efforts are futile against the mounds of garbage. In spite of this, against this same backdrop, I’ve seen beautifully groomed children and their mothers accompanying them to school in their kaleidoscopic butterfly-wing saris. Somehow India’s contrasts are part of her pulse, and she is alive.

Summer 2014 700

3. I have yet to have a decent cup of coffee.

4. Unless you are truly brave, going off the beaten path, e.g. eating outside the hotel or tourist class restaurants is not recommended. Much of the street food looks and smells good but, spoiled American that I am, I couldn’t wrap my head food preparation in the atmosphere mentioned in #2. We’ve been careful but even we haven’t completely escaped “Delhi belly.”

5. Shopping. With Jodhpur and Udaipur as a notable exceptions, browsing peacefully through stores or market stalls is unheard of. The minute people recognize your status as a foreigner, they start throwing things you absolutely do not want within six inches of your nose. That and the guides who try to get you to sit through captive presentations for oriental rugs, marble, jewelry, textiles–you name it. Getting out of these requires firmness and consistency, as they WILL try to bamboozle you into going.

6. Indian drivers use their car horns the way we use our blinkers, brakes, and car radios collectively. I honestly cannot conceive how one could drive here with a malfunctioning horn. You honk when you intend to pass (and you always intend to pass). In fact, the backs of all trucks are painted with the words “Blow Horn” to let the truck driver know you’re passing, which of course you can do on the right or the left. Honking to pass overhead is only inhibited by the car’s lack of wings. You also honk to shoo away cows, donkeys, sheep herders and their herds; the cacophony is endless.
Summer 2014 866

7. And, if (involuntarily) watching public urination were a drinking game, I’d be in Kingfisher beer induced stupor right now.

Ok, this is NOT a stupor, just me at a rest stop waiting for T to finish this large but very mild bottle of beer.

Ok, this is NOT a stupor, just me at a rest stop waiting for T to finish this large but very mild bottle of beer.

8. Final piece of advice? If you can make it here, come. India is worth the effort.

A herd of camels on the road to Udaipur

A herd of camels on the road to Udaipur

The courtyard at Ranbanka Palace, our hotel in Jodhpur.

The courtyard at Ranbanka Palace, our hotel in Jodhpur.

Jaywalking in Jaipur: Some Final Thoughts on the Pink City

1. We rode our first ( and last) elephant uphill to the maharajah’s amazing hilltop Amber Fort. The elephant was a baby, at just 26 y.o. The engineering that went into building this place 600 years ago is astounding. Let’s just say they lived VERY comfortably, using water strategically to cool the palace in the summer, and a combination of lamps, mirrors, and rugs to heat it in the winter. On a side note, we also spotted some more “flies in the chai”, visiting from Texas.

As lovely as she was, riding Rosebud uphill was little fun, especially not for T who was squished by yours truly the entire time.

As lovely as she was, riding Rosebud uphill was little fun, especially not for T who was squished by yours truly the entire time.


Cleaning elephant dung, one of the many dirty jobs that had to be done.

Cleaning elephant dung, one of the many dirty jobs that had to be done.

2. Certain Indian men tend not to talk directly to women, at least from my experience. Our guides, except of course for Vinnie, tended to direct comments to T., even if the questions came from me.

3. It’s Ramadan and we can hear the calls to prayer from our hotel window. It’s a haunting, beautiful sound.

4. Ashok took us walking briefly through the Old City of Jaipur yesterday. This made driving look positively tame. The narrowest of passageways are deemed suitable thoroughfares for mopeds, cars, even small trucks. It’s every man for himself, and I found myself counting my toes when it was all over. I won’t even get started about crossing the street.

One would never know the chaotic traffic that exists beneath Jaipur's signature Wind Palace by looking at this picture.

One would never know the chaotic traffic that exists beneath Jaipur’s signature Wind Palace by looking at this picture.

More Highlights from Jaipur:

Entrance to the Queen's Palace at Amber Fort

Entrance to the Queen’s Palace at Amber Fort

We saw countless screens like this in the palaces we visited.  They were designed exclusively so women could see out, but strange men could not see in.  Talk about gilded cages.

We saw countless screens like this in the palaces we visited. The were designed exclusively so women could see out, but strange men could not see in. Talk about gilded cages.

I thought these women looked like personified marigolds in their dazzling yellow saris.  They are actually pretty savvy sweepers at the Queen's palace, hiding in this alcove, and offering to pose for pictures for a few rupees.

I thought these women looked like personified marigolds in their dazzling yellow saris. They are actually pretty savvy sweepers at the Queen’s palace, hiding in this alcove and offering to pose for pictures for a few rupees.

Summer 2014 449

These shopkeepers were sweet enough to provide me this sari photo op, even though I was adamant about not buying one.  As I've said before, saris are beautiful but one would be out of context in my life.

These shopkeepers were sweet enough to provide me this sari photo op, even though I was adamant about not buying one. As I’ve said before, saris are beautiful but one would be out of context in my life.

Mosques, Monkeys, and Mansions

We set off on another long (five hour) ride with Ashok from Agra to Jaipur yesterday morning, with a couple of scheduled stops: Fatehpur Sikri and The Monkey Temple just outside of Jaipur. These drives are almost indescribably surreal, and it’s hard to overstate the eye-popping sights on Indian roads. For example, we saw a lady get run over. She seemed disoriented in her sky blue and gold sari, but someone was helping her up when we passed, and she looked okay. BTW, I have to post something later about the saris. They are collectively beyond gorgeous, and I don’t think I’ve seen the same one twice. More often than not, their wearers can be found riding side-saddle on the backs of of mopeds or motorcycles, sometimes while clutching an infant or toddler…or three. Now that we’ve left Delhi, there are also cows on the roads aplenty, along with dogs–all strays, all remarkably chill–and the occasional donkey, sheep, pig, and yes, monkey.

Stop one was Fatehpur Sikri, the first palace complex of the third Mughal Emperor, Akbar. It seems that, while he himself was Muslim, he was very liberal and had three wives of three different faiths: one Muslim, one Hindu, and one Catholic. His impressive palace fort reflects his easygoing, tolerant nature, boasting a separate mini palace for each wife, each embellished with the symbols of her religion. The Hindu wife though, had the biggest palace since she was the mother of his only legitimate son. His utter devotion to these wives however didn’t prevent him from keeping a harem of 300 concubines, faithfully guarded by a regiment of eunuchs. The visit to this palace complex was fascinating and going pretty well until we crossed over into the neighboring, still active mosque Akbar erected on the same site. Then things went sour fast.

Incredibly aggressive touts of all ages started shoving cheap trinkets, toys, souvenirs, and jewelry at us, each invoking the American holy trinity of “Obama, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan.” The guide himself sold us some “tradition” about paying for a cloth and some thread, entering the holy man’s tomb, making a wish, and tying the thread to the openings in a marble screen. We immediately smelled a rat but then we were told that the cloths were donated to poor women and girls. We paid 300rs for the cloth (the “donation” request had begun at 1300) and I entered the mosque to make my so-called wish. Needless to say, I was hassled (unsuccessfully) for more money on my way out. Disgusting.

If this wasn’t bad enough, there were the children. A tiny and tenacious angel-faced one named Ahmed tried to sell me a set of beaded pens from the time I got there to the time I left. While I was sorely tempted to give him more, a smile and conversation is all he got from me. Anyone who’s seen Slumdog Millionaire knows that these kids are being victimized and abused, often by their own parents. He pulled at my heart strings, but I wanted no part of that. In chatting with him I found he was eight, had two siblings in the same line of work, and knew how to butter up tourists in Spanish, German, and French in addition to English. That place so far was the most depressing part of our trip.

The next stop was The Monkey Temple on the border of Agra and Jaipur. Monkeys seriously give me the heebie-jeebies, so agreeing to stop at this place at Ashok’s suggestion was very intrepid on my part. We were met at the gates by Rohit, yet another guide, paid a small camera fee, bought some peanuts, and went off to find some monkeys. Along the way, Rohit gave me feeding lessons and tried to convince me to let one sit on my shoulder. That was NOT gonna happen. T. was worse though; the only thing he was determined to feed was the memory card on our camera. Things were okay for a while, as the mostly female monkeys and their babies gathered rather politely for their nuts. Then, what I can only assume to be the baby daddy of the entire harem showed up, grabbed me by the fringe on my scarf (although not ungently) and decided to plant himself at my feet so he could hog the rest of the nuts. After awhile, Rohit sent off with a swift kick, which was the only way he was going to let me go. I couldn’t help but make connections between this episode to my earlier ones at the palace and mosque. You seriously cannot make this stuff up, but that’s how India is.

We’re now in Jaipur at Alsisar Haveli, the first of our three heritage/haveli hotels. Havelis are colonial era or old maharajah mansions that have been converted into hotels. It’s beautiful here, very much like the hotel featured in the movie, Exotic Marigold Hotel, and a far cry from the chaos just outside the gates. More on that next.

For now check out the hotel pics:

Corridor ceiling outside our room at Alsisar Haveli

Corridor ceiling outside our room at Alsisar Haveli

Courtyard of Alsisar Haveli during monsoon shower

Courtyard of Alsisar Haveli during monsoon shower

Vinnie, Vidi, Vici: Agra and the Taj Mahal

Our day in Agra began with a four hour car trip through India’s spectacular traffic. Cars, buses, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, camel carts, water buffalo. You name it, it’s on the move and on the road in India. Traffic lanes appear to be optional, and the occasional cop directing traffic is like the title character in Where’s Waldo.

Ashok, thankfully, is an incredibly skilled driver, so much so that T. and I were able to doze off a couple of times. He was still very quiet, a little shy about his English I think, but he pointed out things along the way he thought might interest us. What interested other road warriors though was, well, us. Stopping for gas gave some local truck drivers a chance to ogle at us; stopping at a checkpoint produced some enterprising boys who thought they could make a buck. One had a small monkey who leapt onto my window and scared me half to death, and the other was a snake charmer who tried to tempt me with his slithery sidekick. I’m not sure which one of these terrifying creatures was supposed to part me from my cash but I was never so happy to be in a locked car.

We arrived in Agra in what had to be 110 degree heat, and were immediately accosted by our guide, Vinnie. Vinnie is something else. Apparently, he was Oprah’s guide when she visited awhile back, and he’s clearly been holding court as no. 1 Agra guide ever since. He’s also got the hook-up with the Nigerian Embassy and conducts all their tours as well. Apparently, I remind him of his Nigerian friend, Linda. A word about black tourists in India: yes, we’re here ( we saw several groups in Delhi) but we’re still a rare enough sight to inspire the double and triple-take reactions, and the celebrity picture posing requests we got in China. Many of theNigerians, according to Vinnie, come take advantage of India’s doctors, as the medical system at home is far more expensive.

Our first stop in Agra was the impressive, formidable Red Fort, complete with alligator moat, built by the 5th(?) Mughal emperor. The second most interesting part of this excursion was peering out of the window of the “prison” where the king who built the Taj Mahal spent the final years of his life, imprisoned there by his youngest son to keep him from building another crazy expensive tomb, this time one for himself, in black. He was placed under luxurious house arrest in quarters which afforded him a breathtaking view of the white marble homage to his queen. The most interesting part of the Red Fort visit though was the late arrival of the first monsoon rain; never was rain more welcome or more romantic. It doesn’t get any cooler than watching monsoon rain in old Indian fortress. The heavy showers only lasted about 30 minutes, but this was enough to cool things down considerably, which automatically meant improved conditions for our next excursion, the Grande Dame herself.

There are no words for the incredible white marble wedding cake edifice that is the Taj Mahal. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen, and it looks just like all the pictures you’ve seen, you will walk through its gates and gasp. It will look like a gargantuan cheesy backdrop of itself at a carnival, but you won’t be able to find the tell-tale frayed edges of the canvas because it’s real. You will feel the full weight of the love that inspired it, and your tendency towards cynicism will vanish…

BUT, we were there with Vinnie, so my opportunities for reflection were limited. As soon as Ashok parked the car, we found ourselves on an overpriced camel cart, courtesy of Vinnie (paid for by us), which dropped us off at the front gates of the monument. On the camel ride, we found ourselves in the company of a ” government trained” photographer, a 20 year old with a Nikon camera, whom Vinnie recruited as our official photographer. From there, Vinnie, much to my mixture of consternation and grudging relief, led us in cutting every line, with personal paparazzo in tow. We watched haplessly for a good 40 minutes as they managed to clear prime picture taking positions for us, even though people had been patiently waiting for their turn. It was nothing short of surreal. The end result of all this was a set of incredible pictures, so this crazy experience will have to live in memory and on this blog. The pictures won’t say a word.

Click to enlarge images:

 

Why Delhi Isn’t Smelly and Other Interesting Stuff

Humuyan's Tomb Humuyan’s Tomb[/caption]

Replica of the Infamous Steps

After breakfast today, we set out on our day tour of Old and New Delhi.  The difference?  The former is literally the old city, while the latter is the hundred year old legacy of British Colonial India. The contrasts are stark.  Our guide today was Vivek, who was OK, but not great.  He had a tendency to give quick talks, and then stand in the shade while giving us ample opportunity to “explore” on our own in the crazy 100 plus-degree heat.

We visited several sites, most notably Gandhi’s memorial (quietly elegant and understated) and  Humayun’s Tomb (see pictures).  This is the tomb of the great grandfather of the king who built the Taj Mahal; it’s easy to see the similarities in architecture.  What’s really remarkable though is the way he died.  Apparently, he was  high on opium, sitting in his library at the top of the steps (very much like the ones recreated for his tomb in the picture) when he heard the call to prayer.  You guessed it. He runs out to pray, trips on his robe, takes a bad fall and dies.  The monument was built by his wife, complete with the stairs to commemorate his (honorable?) demise.

On another note, I pointed out to Vivek the absence of cows on Delhi’s streets.  I mean we only saw three oxen total, and this was on a rickshaw ride through the back alleys of Old Delhi.  Apparently the cows were removed from the streets of Delhi when India hosted The Commonwealth Games 13 years ago, put out to peaceful pasture, and haven’t been returned.  This IMHO is probably why Delhi is not as smelly as I feared it would be.  So far, no sign of any monkeys either.

Any of this can change tomorrow when we head to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.