August 20, 2008

Weekend Excursions

I couldn't let myself leave India without hitting up that big white onion, the Taj Mahal, if only because it's maybe the most famous building in Asia and it's relatively close to where I'm living (seven hours by train, that is). When my friends and I got to the entrance gate, though, we were saddened to discover that the visitor's for foreigners was roughly $18, while Indians got in for just fifty cents. The Indian-American guy with us waltzed in with the lower price despite his SoCal accent. Us whities who paid the full fare made it our goal make the most of it, which included taking as many pictures as possible. These are some of my favorites...

Also the kickboxing version...
And the happy frolicking...

I sweat so much in India (even when I'm not leaping in front of the Taj) that one of my favorite pastimes has become blowing beads of sweat off my nose and seeing how far they can go. The next weekend after seeing the Taj, I decided that I had had enough with India's summer heatwave and I needed to escape to the Himalayas up north. So my friends and I journeyed to Shimla, which, it turns out, is where all the British used to flee to escape Delhi's summer heat. Sometimes us white folk can be so predictable. The British actually relocated the entire colonial government during the summer months from Delhi up to Shimla, which is a tiny resort town that sits on the top of a ridge and could only be reached by winding mountain roads. These imperialists really couldn't take the heat.

The spires of the Anglican cathedral stick up on the bottom right.

Traces of the Brits are everywhere in Shimla - it actually feels like a charming European village, and the only things reminding you that you're in India are the packs of monkeys trying to jump into your hotel room window and swipe your camera.

Nature decided to rain the entire time we were there and envelop us in a very British fog, except for the few minutes that it let up and I was able to snap some photos. Not to be deterred, my friends and I still went on a horse ride up to the top of Shimla ridge in the downpour. Fun fact: my horse was named Moti, which you may recall was also the name of my camel. Coincidence? I think giving me creatures named "Fatty" is India's way of saying I'm gaining serious weight thanks to all the naan and chai. When we reached the end of our harrowing uphill journey into the Himalayan wilderness, we amusement park, featuring go-karts and a ferris wheel. Now that's connecting with nature. We definitely would have taken a go-kart spin, but our legs were completely drenched from wet horse torso. We retreated back to our hotel room for the rest of the day, where we took tea and complained about the dour weather in as British a manner as possible.

August 12, 2008

Life Without Bob Costas

I’m an Olympics junkie. I get all misty-eyed when countries like Djibouti walk their two or three athletes out during the Opening Ceremony, and I’ll cheer for any athlete of any sport that’s on TV, even if it’s speed-walking. I’m especially a sucker for the underdog—I’ll just shrug if Michael Phelps wins his eight golds, but I’ll probably do a little victory dance if, say, Kyrgyzstan stages an upset in handball. So I may be enjoying the Olympics more than ever before here in India, which is arguably the biggest underdog in the world. It may have a sixth of the world’s population, but Indians readily admit that they’re not the sportiest people, nor does the country have the funding to train its athletes. There are only 56 Indian Olympians in Beijing, and the country’s not competing in a single team sport. Its national sport, cricket, isn’t in the Olympics, and though it once boasted a medal-winning field hockey team back in the 1970s, this year’s team didn’t even pass the preliminaries.

Yet despite the country’s low profile, the Indian media is Olympics-crazy. TV channels have repeated India’s entrance into the stadium at the Opening Ceremony over and over, and one newspaper printed a huge blow-up photo and labeled each team member. Every single athlete’s performance is monitored by the press, no matter what their odds of a medal is. Monday was a particularly depressing day: “Indian archer off the mark”… “Indian judoka disappoints” … “Indian swimmer finishes last”…

So when on Tuesday an Indian rifleman shot his way to a gold medal, the entire country exploded. This is India’s first-ever individual Olympic gold, and it seems like all one million people here are celebrating. The national newspaper not only devoted their entire front page to the champion, but filled a full three more pages with additional coverage (e.g., interviews with his parents, coaches, the Prime Minister, and probably his dentist). His mug is on every single TV channel, under headlines like “Believe in India.” The paper claims, “No individual gold has mattered so much to so many people in the history of the Olympics.” As for the medallist himself, he’s a bespectacled little guy who quietly explains to cameras that shooting is a very unpredictable sport, and he could have just as easily finished 10th or 20th. I’d imagine he’s a little overwhelmed by the fact that he just went from a nobody to a national icon.

Abhinav Bindra, overnight hero

Gold medal winner Abhinav Bindra of India on the podium following men's 10m air rifle shooting finals, 11 Aug 2008

Sure, there’s something a little laughable about all this. I mean, before now, who cared about the sport of shooting? Now newspapers are filling space by analyzing Abhinav Bindra’s technique or detailing his career history. Whether one dude’s ace shooting can really symbolize a whole country’s athleticism is definitely debatable. But for me, partying with the rest of India about their new Olympic status is way more fun than rooting America’s pampered swimmers and gymnasts on to their expected glory. An added perk is that Bindra is from Chandigarh, the town I’m living in, so when I go to the town’s Independence Day parade this Friday, I have a hunch it will turn into a big Abhinav Bindra pep rally. I can’t wait.

Wyoming Wedding

Last week saw Kuldeep travel back to the US to celebrate Joe and Kim's wedding. I also had the honor of performing groomsman and groomsbrother duties. Joe amazingly let me slip some Punjabi dance hits into the reception dance mix, so I got to teach my family some Bhangra moves and make my Indian teachers proud. And I'm stoked to welcome my pabi (that's "older brother's wife") into the family.

That's me, next to the groom

Pops and Schmudd looking "smart" (that's a bit of Indian English for you)

July 24, 2008

In the Land of Kings

Welcome to Cole's new and improved India blog! Trying to figure out a site name on Blogger showed me just how small I am in this gigantic world. Turns out was already taken (even though it's a white page titled "Never Writing Here," which is apparently true), as was (That Cole has also failed to post ANYTHING on his blog). So although I may not be unique, my goal is to be a Cole in India who will actually write here and keep you all informed.

My recent adventures took me to Rajasthan, "Land of Kings," the desert state in western India with a rich history of medieval kingdoms and where maharajas still hold their honorary thrones.

Jal Mahal, a lake palace

Arriving in Jaipur, the capital, my travel companions and I had the fortune of hiring perhaps the happiest man in India as our driver. Blasting his theme song, "Happy in My Heart," over and over again, Abdullah requires only that his passengers dance along. "You don't dance, get out of my car." Whenever any of us paused from bopping our heads obligingly, he'd ask, "Why are you so unhappy? Are you tired?"

We took a break from our grooving to hike to the top of a hill where a small Hindu temple looks over the whole city. The trail to the temple is populated by an estimated 600 monkeys, all of whom know that humans are an excellent source of snacks. Monkeys are disturbingly clever and mischievous - I've heard stories of them snatching sunglasses off tourists' faces and holding them for ransom, finally giving them up in exchange for a banana. Other, more dim chimps mistake cameras for foodstuffs and steal them away to take bites out of. These monkeys fortunately knew their manners, and they politely took peanuts and crackers out of our hands when we offered.

We also checked out Jantar Mantar, an 18th-century observatory built by Hindu scientists to prove their mastery of astronomy. Suggesting that science reflects the art in nature, today the site looks like a modern art playground, full of geometric triangles and spheres that measure the positioning of the Earth, sun, and stars. A bit less scientific are twelve horoscope towers, one for each sign of the Zodiac, that supposedly use the positioning of the stars in conjunction with birth date information to produce horoscope readings.

Jantar Mantar also boasts the largest sundial in the world, with a gigantic staircase that can be spotted in the recent indie hit "The Fall." (Which you should all rush to see for some astounding cinematography of Indian landmarks.)

Next up was Amber Fort, a monstrous hilltop palace that once housed the rulers of Jaipur kingdom. A spine-like defensive wall traces the ridges of all the surrounding hillsides, and I could have sworn I was in China looking at the Great Wall.

The coolest thing about Amber Fort is that tourists are given virtually free rein to explore every nook and cranny of the place. My comrades and I can't pass up a dark and creepy staircase, so somehow we found ourselves deep in a basement where a batch of bats was peacefully snoozing, at least until we showed up. Flock of bats? Swarm? Terrifying maelstrom of black beating wings? Whatever the collective noun is, the point is that my friends and I had never raced back up a dark and creepy staircase at such an impressive speed before.

The next morning we took a bus to Pushkar, a quiet town that is a holy pilgrimage site for millions of Hindus. It's said that Brahma dropped a lotus from the heavens here, and Pushkar sprang out from where it landed. Dozens of Hindu temples surround a small lake in the town, and pilgrims walk down the ghat staircases to bathe in the holy water. Gandhi's ashes were also strewn here. Brahma, the creation god, is one of the most important Hindu deities, and Pushkar is home to the only existing Brahma temple. I fell in line with the stream of pilgrims coming to worship there, first removing my shoes, cell phone, and camera. Worshippers ring a bell upon entering the temple to alert Brahma to their presence, then offer a gift to a Brahma idol. An old man in front of me saw I had come empty-handed, so he gave me all the flower petals he had brought as offering, then walked me through the process of taking prashad, the sweet snack we receive as a farewell blessing. (For being the counter-culture religion, Sikh worship is surprisingly similar to the Hindu version, complete with a processional of an offering and prashad, only the Hindu idol is replaced with the Sikh holy scriptures. It's clear that Sikhism inherited plenty of cultural traditions.)

Down by the ghats

Now for the part where I get really excited - from Pushkar, we embarked on a desert camel trek. After five weeks of putting up with pushy crowds and persistent salesmen and way more humanity than we're used to, we were all ready to escape to the middle of nowhere, and taking a camel seemed like the coolest way to get there. The most amazing thing? An overnight trip, complete with two cooked meals, only costs an American $10. That's a ridiculous price to ride perhaps the coolest animal ever. Camels are gigantic beasts easily as tall as elephants, and they're even more alien-like. I really shouldn't admit this, but I just kept being reminded of those lumbering Imperial Walkers or whatever they're called in Stars Wars that, I'm well aware, were probably based on camels to begin with. But they move just as slowly, and they're just as robotic. To sit down, they first lower their front legs, making the rider think he's about to fall on his face, then their back. Observe the diagram:

We rode three hours outside of Pushkar before setting up camp. My camel's name was Moti, which either means "Pearl" or "Fatty." I never really got a straight answer, but the fact that he was the slowest of the pack who was always getting left behind might be an indicator. Our guides cooked us dinner, which included balls of bread cooked over a pile of simmering cow dung. A Rajasthani classic - delicious, seriously.

Good grief, if anyone's actually still reading at this point, I commend you. I'd encourage you to just look at all the pretty pictures and skim the commentary, but chances are you're probably already doing so and won't see this anyhow. I have dozens more stories from the trip to share (I really haven't mentioned any of the most bizarre ones), and if I get my way I'll write about them soon. But I'll finish with a darned impressive photo of a Rajasthani folk dancer who we happened upon at a Jaipuri restaurant on our last day. Watching a woman put seven ceramic urns on her head and dance around is nice from a distance, but when she comes over to dance right next to you it becomes a life-or-death thrill ride; one misstep and the audience meets shard-filled deaths, at least according to my grisly imagination.

After the urn stunt, the dancers besieged our table and convinced us all to stand up and dance with them. Doing an Indian-style conga line with these ladies through the restaurant probably ranks among the most fun minutes of my life, even if all the other diners in the restaurant stuck their noses in their menus trying to block out the annoying young tourists. Halfway through a dance step the dancers abruptly stopped, turned and instructed, "Okay, now you give money." See, that's what I like about Indians. No beating around the bush, they just tell you how it's done. And hey, they definitely deserved a tip.

Now I have to prepare for my biggest adventure yet - going to my brother's wedding on the other side of the world. My auntie-ji told me I should just get Joe and Kim to fly to India so she can throw them a proper Indian wedding. And the darndest thing is I think she was serious.