2012 in review!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,000 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Last, but certainly not least

At 8:30am Saturday morning, we regrettably said goodbye to the magnificent Rambagh Palace and set out on the 5-hour drive to Agra. En route, we saw some pretty amazing sights, including a herd of nomads carrying all of their possessions on the backs of 40-something camels. Luckily our driver, Mr. Singh, was already driving on the wrong side of the road, so we caught them coming straight towards us. We jumped out of the car and snapped a few pictures of the procession. Along the drive we were enthusiastic about pointing out every camel, wild dog, water buffalo, monkey, cow, and elephant in sight. Mr. Singh must’ve wanted in on the fun because he began pointing out, in broken English, all kinds of animals for us to look at. One time he proclaimed “CROCODILE!” and we nearly jumped out of our seats looking around for it. He excitedly put the car in reverse (on a national highway) so that we could get a better look. Turns out, “crocodile” really meant “turtle laying on its back.” We could not stop laughing. As my dad mentioned in his post about Udaipur, the rules of the road are quite different in India. Our Agra tour guide informed us of the 3 most important things for an Indian driver: “good brakes, a good horn, and good luck,” in that order.

Our guide was also very inquisitive about why we chose to visit Agra, Why’d you come all the way to India to see the Taj? he asked, You have one in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, thanks to Donald Trump! If you can’t tell, he was quite the jokester. He told us that if it wasn’t for the Taj Mahal, nobody would come to Agra. It’s a small city (by Indian standards), 80 square kilometers and a population of 2 million people. Tourism is Agra’s #1 industry, and some houses even have mini replicas of the Taj built on their rooftops. In fact, the Taj is so important not only to the well-being of Agra but also to the country of India as a whole, that many bricklayers found themselves out of a job when pollution proved to affect the Taj’s pearly white marble. The only other attraction in Agra, according to our guide, is its mental hospital, which is the first of its kind in Asia. Apparently telling someone “I’m going to Agra” has a double meaning. Good to know!

Seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time was unreal. My dad built it up all week, calling it “ethereal” and “otherworldly” — it was both of those things, and much more. I struggled with trying to describe the experience of seeing the Taj for the first time, as it really does look like some divine intervention created it out of thin air. It floats on the horizon in perfect symmetry, and I’m told it shines like a starry sky under a full moon (due to the Taj’s inlaid mother of pearl). The Taj is a masoleum built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third (and favorite) wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Its style combines elements from Persian, Islamic, and Indian architectural styles, and is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful and romantic buildings in the world. Truly incredible.

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Let’s get ready to Rambagh!

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That’s what we should’ve said before we arrived at our hotel in Jaipur, The Rambagh Palace. The palace was originally built on a modest scale for the queen’s favorite handmaiden in 1835, and it was later refurbished as a royal guesthouse and hunting lodge. In 1925, Rambagh was converted into a palace, and it became the private residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur. The “Jewel of Jaipur,” as it is fondly called, remained the home of the Jaipur royal family until 1957, when it was first converted into a luxury hotel by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II. It also became home to the fashion icon Gayatri Devi (well-known for her classic beauty and voted one of ‘The Ten Most Beautiful Women in the World’ by Vogue magazine in 1940) through her marriage to the Maharaja in 1939.

With its 47 acres, the majestic palace boasts marbled corridors, intricately painted walls, and scalloped light pink archways (Jaipur’s signature color — it was painted, along with the rest of the city, in 1853 to welcome the Prince of Wales, giving Jaipur the nickname “The Pink City”). The palace is renowned for its elegant gardens filled with a variety of exotic birds and peacocks galore. I was constantly reminded by the staff, who quickly picked up on my affinity for the national bird of India, that the peacocks were strutting around the gardens “just for me.” In fact, we finally figured out what butlers are for. They’re for reading your mind and anticipating your every desire. They somehow knew where we were at all times, as if they had a Marauder’s Map from Harry Potter (counting down til July 15!). We could leave our rooms for only 15 minutes and they’d be spotless by the time we returned. Talk about first class service.

The city of Jaipur (today the capital of Rajasthan) was founded in 1727 by Jai Singh II. Unlike our two previous stops, the layout of the city was remarkably well-planned, which speaks to the forward-thinking mindset of its founder. The city is laid out into 6 sectors separated by broad streets (cars hadn’t been invented yet so Jai Singh was clearly planning for the future), and the urban quarters are further divided by networks of gridded streets. We began our tour of Jaipur at Hawa Mahal (meaning “Palace of Winds”), a light pink facade that was used for ladies to watch activities going on in the street. I was especially pleased to find a snake charmer hypnotizing two cobras right beside the palace. See a snake charmer: check!

The wild animal tour continued at our next stop, the Amber Fort. We were given 3 options for how to get to the fort, which, like many other forts we’ve seen, sits atop a very large hill: Option 1) brave the elements and walk, Option 2) take a Jeep ride, Option 3) take an elephant ride. Obviously, we vetoed the first 2 in favor of riding Cheeto, the ginormous 3-year-old baby elephant. Random fact: it takes 20 years to train an elephant. After a brief jewelry demonstration, followed by a fashion show at a local Indian clothing store (definitely see pics), we paid a visit to Jantar Mantar, the largest stone and marble observatory in the world. The primary purpose of the observatory was to compile astronomical tables, and to predict the time and movements of the sun, moon, and planets. It has a giant dial that measures the exact time of day (give or take a half a second). We tested it, just to make sure. Still works!

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Maharajas, etc.

We spent the next day enjoying some of the sights in Udaipur and the surrounding area.  Our tour to the City Palace consumed most of the morning.  The City Palace has been the home of the royal family since the 16th century.  It’s a huge, sprawling complex of palaces constructed over 400 years and perched on a promontory on the shore of the lake, overlooking our hotel just a few hundred yards away. These days, while it is still partially occupied by the current royal family, most of the complex has been converted to a museum, 2 hotels, and a gallery displaying a huge collection of crystal purchased from England (everything from salt shakers to a king-sized bed made entirely from cut crystal glass).  The royal family, not surprisingly, had quite a lifestyle, and a walk through the twisted, narrow corridors; beautiful courtyards; and glittering halls and rooms of the Palace is a walk through the golden age of Maharajas.

Speaking of Maharajas, a little historical context will be helpful now.  Udaipur was the capitol city of the Mewar kingdom.  The Mewars were unique in at least two important respects.  First, the kings of the Mewar kingdom were not called Maharajas, like the other rulers of Rajasthan and some other parts of India were called.  At the time of Indian Independence in 1947, there were 564 “princely” kingdoms in the areas that now encompass India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.  Some were strong and important, some not so strong and important.  The rulers of the minor kingdoms were called Rajas; while the rulers of the larger and more powerful kingdoms were known as Maharajas. The king of Mewar alone carried the title of Maharana, which means King of Warriors.  The Mewars were the only dynasty that was undefeated by the waves of Moghul invaders that began in the 8thcentury and continued into the 19th century. Thus the warrior accolade, Maharana. The second unique attribute of the Mewars is that they enjoyed an unbroken rule of 75 generations, stretching from about 600 AD to 1947.  If you include the current Maharana, who enjoys no political power but retains the honorific position, the streak is 76 generations, believed to be the longest running current dynasty in the world. The Mewar rulers obviously had a lot to be proud about.

And the Maharanas, just like the other major Maharajas, kings, etc, were definitely not shy about letting everybody know just how powerful, rich, and macho they were.  In their day, these kings were some of the richest families in the world.  The British loved these guys and they loved the British (with some exceptions on both sides, of course). In the 19th and first half of the 20th century, the Maharajas, etc. had the best parties, played the best polo, gave the most extravagant gifts, hunted in the grandest style, and generally ruled with some of the greatest élan of any rulers in history.  For most Indians, liberation from British rule in 1947 was a wonderful thing.  Not for the Maharajas, etc.  They had to give up all their property, which generally excluded anything they could squirrel away in Swiss banks but definitely did not exclude their magnificent palaces, forts, hunting lodges, forests, farmlands, holiday pleasure retreats and all the rest of their things that couldn’t easily be moved to a safety deposit box. Of course, the greatest of the kings had enough political skill to find a way to retain some of their properties.  The Maharana, ruler of Mewar, had an enormous number of amazing places to hang out with his family and friends, from the Lake Palace where we were staying, to the Monsoon Palace at the top of a nearby mountain used as a hunting lodge, to the City Palace residence in Udaipur (which we visited the next day), to scores of others that dotted the countryside.  These days, almost all of the palaces have either been converted into museums, “Heritage Hotels,” or nature preserves, and are usually managed by others.  Many other former royal properties have been sold off by the government or are laying vacant awaiting money for restoration into yet another Heritage project.  And many of them—like the Umaid Bhawan in Jodhpur, the Lake Palace in Udaipur, and the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur (our next stop after Udaipur)—are absolutely magnificent.

After our tour of the City Palace, we drove about an hour out of town to another fort/palace that had been converted to a Heritage hotel, the Devigarh Palace.  The setting reminded us of medieval Italy, with a massive walled fort on a hill, overlooking farms sprawled across the hillsides and separated by low stone walls. We toured the hotel and had lunch, never seeing another paying customer the whole time.

We also visited the 1000-year-old Nagda Temples. The two main temples are small but very well preserved, and sit virtually unnoticed among plowed fields and water buffaloes wallowing in the mud. The temples are constructed of sandstone and feature elaborate carvings of various members of the Hindu pantheon.

On the drive back to Udaipur, Manoj gave us a little lesson in Hindu spirituality.  He is a member of the Brahmin caste and is very knowledgeable on the subject.  There are 3 major Hindu deities, Brahma the creator, Vishnu the protector, and Shiva the destroyer.  Out of those 3, spring about 360 million other gods, all basically either relatives or reincarnations of the Big 3.  Manoj assured us that all 360 million have actually been documented in Hindu texts, should one want to verify that headcount. The Brahmin priests, according to Manoj, now actually think of all of these gods as one, but use the multitude of reincarnations and forms to make the theology more accessible to the common man, whose main concerns throughout history have been to pray for rain, which makes all life possible, to ward off demons and other obstacles to good fortune, and to live life in a good way to assure their reward in the next life.  It’s a wonderfully interesting and beautiful religion.

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Udaipur Style

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Tuesday, June 28th. After collecting our bags at the ultra-modern Udaipur airport, we headed onto Highway 8 for the 40-minute ride into the heart of Udaipur and our hotel.

Highway 8 connects Delhi and Mumbai and is part of the modern highway system that is being built in India.  It’s a 4-lane highway with a median. As we drove along, I casually remarked to the guide about how much I was impressed by their new road.  About 15 seconds after that perceptive comment, we passed a white panel truck heading in the opposite direction, going out of town.  The only problem was that this truck was not on the other side of the median where it should have been; it was on our side, weaving through head-on traffic like a scene from some Hollywood action flick.  Shortly thereafter, we passed an elephant ambling along in the left hand lane. The guide gave us a shrug, and said “best not to notice these things.” Going from point A to B in India is always an adventure—you never know what you’ll see—but the organized chaos of the road system is still anything but modern.

We weaved through the old Udaipur’s medieval maze of alleys and finally reached our destination, a well-guarded boat dock, where we boarded a small launch to take us to our hotel, the amazing Taj Lake Palace Hotel. It’s a gleaming, white marble, 3-story palace that covers entirely a 4-acre island and seems to float on the lake like a huge party barge.  If you’ve ever seen the James Bond movie, Octopussy, you know what I mean. (Most of the film was shot in Udaipur.) The Lake Palace was built by the ruling Maharana of the Mewar dynasty in 1743-45 as a pleasure palace for the royal family.

That evening, we were to be the dinner guests of a local family and learn some of the secrets of Indian cuisine in the process.  We didn’t know what to expect, but Madeleine, wanting to make a good impression, decided to dress up a little bit for dinner.  So, dressed in her medium heels, above-the-knees skirt, tank top, and new scarf draped over her shoulders, Madeleine looked beautiful as we set off with our guide, Manoj, for a short walk through the markets of old Udaipur to pick up some vegetables for the dinner. As usual, we were the only tourists in sight; but we were used to that. Once we plunged into the noisy fray of the market, however, we immediately noticed that something was wrong.  As Madeleine sashayed her way through the busy market, sidestepping trash and puddles, strategically pausing to avoid collisions with motor scooters, bicycles, cows, and vendors pushing carts, the mood of the market changed.  The noise level dropped perceptibly.  All activity and commerce in the shops ceased.  Clusters of women, dressed head to toe in colorful saris, turned their heads in unison, clutched their children to their breasts, and stared at Madeleine with jaws agape.  Men on motor scooters rode past her, their heads on swivels, then surreptitiously turned around and followed behind her like rats following the Pied Piper.  It was if the inhabitants of a crowded jungle had just detected a tiger in their midst.  Madeleine held her head high, ignored the disdain of the women and the approval of the men, calmly picked out some eggplant and okra from a street vendor, carefully assessed the quality of the vegetables by their color and firmness, and confidently strode through the rest of the market to our awaiting car. Now, that’s Udaipur style.

On the way to dinner we drove through a section of town, a roadside along a local lake, where we saw evidence that Udaipur’s ultra-conservatism may be melting, just a little.  In a country where 80% of all marriages are still arranged by the parents without meaningful input from the bride and groom, encounters between girls and boys are highly regulated.  Now that many girls and boys see each other more frequently in high school and college, parents are starting to loosen up some.  The lakeside dive, for example, had become a parent-approved hangout where young people could talk and mingle with members of the opposite sex for a few hours in the evening.

We enjoyed a memorable home-cooked dinner that evening at Devra, the home of major Durgdas and his wife, Ms. Jyodi Jasol.  The stone house was well situated on a hill to the west of Udaipur, affording a great view of the city lights and the thousands of huge fruit bats that streamed overhead on their way to their nightly feeding.  The lady of the house is an expert cook and showed Madeleine how to make curry and masala and whipped up an amazing feast in no time, using a kitchen that, by western standards, would be considered minimalist.  She also explained some of the fine points of the philosophy of Indian cuisine and how it compares to the dietary habits of Americans. Suffice it to say that she has a dim view of how and what we eat. We also had a very interesting conversation with the Major, an ex-military man of regal bearing, about the complicated issues surrounding the large Muslim minority in India (250 million and rising fast) and the need for the 2 largest democracies in the world to work together to solve the world’s problems.  We also met the couple’s 14-year-old daughter and Ms. Jasol’s father, a lively man with an upturned Rajputhan-style mustache who had been the curator of the museum at Mehrangarh Fort (which we had toured in Jodhpur) for 27 years. Aside from a multitude of pesky mosquitoes that singled out Madeleine, the evening was a success.

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Bishnoi Morning

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Before we had to jet off to Udaipur the following afternoon, we stopped by a Bishnoi village to learn about the traditional Bishnoi lifestyle. Bishnois are known to be eco-friendly conservationists; the preservation of animal and vegetable life is their religion, literally. Each family lives in just a few round huts with intricately thatched roofs and mud floors plastered with cow dung (to keep the vermin away). Bishnoi huts are always impeccably clean; they scrub the floors and the common courtyards daily.

The first Bishnoi family we visited specialized in making pottery. Pots of every shape and size were stacked neatly in rows across their courtyard. The Bishnoi woman taught me the art of balancing a clay water pot on my head… Not as easy as it looks. Next, we watched the eldest son work his magic on the potter’s wheel, a skill that had been passed down in his family for generations. I’m not using the word ‘magic’ lightly either — he molded (AND decorated) a water jug, a flower vase, and a piggy bank in seconds, right before our eyes. What’s more, the potter’s wheel wasn’t motorized; he had to spin the wheel by hand with a stick.

At the next Bishnoi farmhouse, we got a good picture of what daily life was like. We saw where they cooked, where they ground their millet (on a hand-powered millstone), where they slept… but the main attraction was brewing and drinking “herbal” tea. The tea is brewed and filtered in an elaborate mechanism that looked like it was about 300 years old. It is customary for the host to offer tea to his guests, but what we didn’t realize was that the tea was supposed to be slurped straight from the host’s palm. No cups necessary. My dad gave it a shot and proclaimed it to be good, so I threw caution to the wind and enjoyed a palm-full myself (my own palm — I wasn’t as adventurous as my dad in that respect). The farmer father, an “herbal” tea addict, lives in the hut with his daughter-in-law, an attractive 40-something woman with a brilliant smile. We snapped several photos with the family and said our goodbyes. Later on that night, when looking at the photos, we noticed that the woman looked very stoic, not at all like we’d remembered her. Amazingly, just 2 days later while I was rummaging through a bookstore at the City Palace in Udaipur, I came across a book with the same woman’s photo on the cover, smiling brilliantly! I doubt she ever knew that she was a minor celebrity (see photos). Smalllll world!

Last but not least, we visited a family that has been making Dhurri rugs for centuries. This man was very intelligent, very outgoing, and he had organized hundreds of weavers around the countryside into a cooperative that shipped rugs around the world. He had been declared a master craftsman by the government of India and proudly displayed pictures of himself with celebrities and politicians who had visited his home, including David Rockefeller and his clan just last month. The craftsmanship was amazing; the amount of work that goes into each of those rugs is truly staggering. We watched the man and one of his daughters work on a rug on a handmade loom, set out under a thatched roof to protect from the sun and the elements. Then, he and his youngest sons spread a dozen rugs out in their courtyard to show the beautiful array of colors and patterns (he has 150 patterns stored in his head) — it looked like a kaleidoscope.

After the Bishnoi village tour, we were off to the airport once again.

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Jodhpur: “The Blue City”

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Our second day in Jodhpur began with a tour of the imposing Mehrangarh Fort, which is situated atop a rocky hill 400 ft above the city, right across from the Umaid Bhawan Palace (our hotel). We had enjoyed a beautiful starlit view of the fort over dinner the previous night, so we were eager to see it up close and personal. The foundations of the fort were laid in 1459, and the fort is enclosed by 7 massive gates, including the Victory Gate, built to commemorate Jodhpur’s victory over Jaipur. The top half of the gates are fitted with thick, menacing spikes, meant to dissuade invaders from driving their elephants into the doors.

Upon entering the fort, we were summoned to take a picture with a man wearing a saffron turban (associated with valor and worn by the warrior caste members) and sporting a very impressive, Santa Claus-esque white beard. His eyes were barely open and he was feeling pretty good… if you catch my drift. We snapped a pretty creepy-looking pic with him (you be the judge — see pic) and went on our merry way.

Jodhpur’s rich history of war, romance, and valor came alive before our eyes as we sauntered through the fort’s thick walls. The maharajas certainly lived an extravagant lifestyle (gross understatement). We marveled at royal palanquins, ostentatious with their golden lions and velvet tassels. We gawked at extravagantly ornate period rooms, with their colorful stained glass windows and painstakingly detailed patterns. We even winced at a few of the ancient Indian weapons, especially the katara, the most famous and characteristic of Indian daggers. The katara has an H-shaped horizontal hand grip, and the blade opens like a pair of scissors after stabbing, releasing poison from within. Seriously twisted.

One of my personal favorite aspects of the Mehrangarh Fort is its view of the city below. It quickly became clear why Jodhpur is known as “The Blue City.” The blue-painted houses clustered below the fort have become one of the city’s signature features. When the fort was built for the royal family, the brahmans (Hindu priests) opted not to live inside because they were passivists. However, they still wanted to live in a place that would appropriately reflect their stature. Therefore, the maharaja set them up in the blue houses directly below the fort and, to this day, the brahmans of Jodhpur continue to paint their houses blue, year after year.

After our visit to the fort, we made a splash at Jodhpur’s bustling evening market. The city is known for its textiles, so we made sure to purchase a few souvenirs. We shopped at Maharani Imports (maharani is actually the term used for the maharaja’s wife), and the salesman quickly assured us that he was friends with lots of Americans. Richard Gere, Bill Murray (who invited him to his house in NYC for a week), Jennifer Aniston, Sting… all your average Americans. Glitz and glamour aside, the prices at Maharani Imports were unbelievable. I’ll just put it this way: expect something Indian for Christmas this year.

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