Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cheking-in From New Delhi....

I'll have to wait to tell the story of our first day of vacation....the cancelled flight, the mad dash to catch a plane...missing it...and then booking another last-minute flight on another airline.  The travel-agency staff was adaptable and fully on top of the day ended up just perfect!  Delhi/New Delhi - and the hotel we are staying at - The Hotel Shangri-La Eros - simply incredible.  The is truly a world-class capital city...a cool blend of new and old.  No doubt that the British were here...the presidential palace, the parliament building, the government buildings...all built-to-last by the Brits.  We'll have some pics up on Facebook when we get back....unless I figure out how to upload them from Amy Suzanne's computer.  Upper-left is a photo thefamous wonder trhat we toured called  Humayun's Tomb.  In the meantime....more sightseeing in Old Delhi today...the afternoon is free to do what we want...then off to Jaipur, Rajasthan, by car, tomorrow!!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Leaving for our first Indian vacation tomorrow....

Hi, everyone!!  Today we are preparing for our first Indian vacation!!  Beloved the Lhasa Apso will be getting a haircut at Paw Prints in Begumpet - then...tonight after she gets off of work (she's teaching a class all day!)... A. Suzanne and I finally begin packing for our FIRST Indian vacation together.  Actually, to be completely honest...this is our first REAL vacation together in almost 13-years!!  We have never been away on a true vacation (at least one that did not involve some sort of horse-show or Deloitte function!!) since we met each other in 1998!!  Amy, of course, has shown horses all over the country and taken me along, and, thanks to my wonderful wife, I've had the incredible opportunity to golf in Scotland and my yearly Highland Tinkers Triathlon trips.... but it seems we've never been able to "pull the trigger" on just packing our bags and going someplace just for us!!  We go to the Bay Area to be with family for the holidays every other year....but - building and running the mission of St. Barnabas the Apostle (the website is still up for some reason, even though we've been closed now for over a year!!) made it so taking a vacation was next to impossible.  Now that I'm in "semi-retirement" (Priests never really "retire" - hopefully they die at the altar at a ripe old age!) - it's time we started looking after ourselves a - here we go!!

We leave in the morning from Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad - a really nice modern airport to fly in and out of.  Our first stop is the great and ancient city of Delhi - and the Indian capital city of New Delhi, where we will stay for two days seeing the local sights: the India Gate, Humayun's Tomb, the Qutab Minar, the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid.  We have booked a cycle-rickshaw ride through the bazaar....should be a nice blend of new and old!!

Then, the next day, we drive through the countryside (actually, some of my favorite parts of travel in India are the road-trips - - the sights and sounds of the areas outside of the cities are really wonderful breaks from the hustle and traffic of daily life in Hyderabad!!!) and arrive in Jaipur in Rajasthan.  We will go out to Amber (pronounced ""Amer") to see the Amber Fort (where we will be riding an elephant!!!)...and then tour the great palaces and the Hawa Mahal.

On Thanksgiving Day (this should be a memorable T'sgiving, even without the traditional turkey dinner!) - we will drive to Agra - and after we get settled in the hotel...we will get a sunset tour of the Taj Mahal (see photo, above left).  I am going with no expectation, I really thought it might be just some touristy place (and I'm sure that it is, somewhat!) - but - everybody we've talked to says that the Taj is "all that" - - a really magical place that will stay in your memory-banks for a lifetime.  Despite my first opinion....I am actually looking forward to it!!

The second day in Agra we will see the Agra Fort and the Sikandra ("Akbar's Tomb") and have a free afternoon for shopping.  I imaging we can find some first-rate Taj Mahal souvenirs.  No, John Adams - - since the Taj is a Muslim site...I'm pretty sure I won't be able to find a Taj Mahal shot-glass for your collection...however - - I will certainly look!!

We have an early breakfast on Saturday morning before the drive back to Delhi...where we will catch our flight to Amritsar and the Sikh Golden Temple (one of the few places I told myself I would not leave India without seeing!!)  We will see the Guru Granth ceremony that night...and have most of the next day to explore the temple grounds and see the site called Jallian Wala Bagh - where the infamous "Amritsar Massacre" took place.  If you saw the movie "Gandhi" - this was the horrifying scene where British General Dyer led his troops into the square and indiscriminately shot men, women and children...resulting in the deaths of 379 souls and injured more than 1,200.  We'll see the Ram Bagh....the garden named in tribute to Guru Ram Das - along with the museum there. 

That evening - we will make the short drive to the Wagha Border (with Pakistan) to see the flag-lowering and border-closing ceremony.  This ceremony is another of the things I promised myself I would see while I am in India.  I hope that Amy Suzanne is looking forward to it as much as I am!!

We will certainly have a blog-report.... and many, many photos to share when we return....  Also to come... on 2 December 2010 - we will have been here six whole months!!  I can hardly believe it!!  I'll have my Ten Point Report on our first half-year in Hyderabad.  Amy asked me if it was O.K. for her to ask for an extension and stay for another year (for a total of three years!).  I told her that if she wanted to stay for TEN YEARS, it would be just fine with me!!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Final, Final Mumbai Post...

Amy had one last day of interviews at the India School of Business - - and this was to be the longest day...she figured she would be there the entire day (about 8:15 A.M. until 5:30 P.M.).  There was no way that I was going to spend the entire time sitting in the hotel room - - even though the thought of going back out into Bombay's ridiculous traffic was starting to give me panic attacks!!  Aims got a ride with one of the other Deloitters, so - I had Ganesh, our driver, take me from the hotel back downtown.  There were three things that I wanted to see:  The main train station (at the "end of the line" - a beautiful English masterpiece known as the Victoria Terminus, see photo above left - a building that looks like it belongs in a backdrop for a movie set in London!), Gandhi's House (where he spent much of his time when he was living in Bombay), and the old Prince of Wales Museum.

The traffic began right outside of the hotel.  The biggest trouble with the Mumbai traffic (besides too many cars and too many people!) is the narrowness of the roads.  As you leave the Ramada Powai driveway, you find yourself on a narrow road, which it seems is the only way out!!  I knew from the day before that the main road that takes you south and into downtown Mumbai was not too far away...perhaps 3-4 km.  But that morning, it took us 45-minutes to get to the road.

The actual main-road traffic was not too terrible (that's about the best thing one can say about it!) - - but there was a stalled bus on one of the roads near the Gandhi House.  That'll mess up traffic anywhere...thank God that Ganesh knew what was happening up ahead and he was able to find us a clear(er) route to my destination!

The Gandhi House was really interesting...and quite moving.  Despite it being a museum now, it remains pretty much unchanged from the days when The Mahatma lived there...not to make too much of it, but - you could actually feel his presence there!!  The place was pretty crowded...there was a whole group of school children and their parents there...they were putting on some sort of reenactment/drama.  I wish I had gotten a photo of this...but the room was so packed I couldn't really get a good angle.  The kid who played young Gandhi had a painted-on mustache - - and he was pretty cute, I must say!  Some of the exhibits were hard to see because the kids were using the various rooms as dressing/staging areas - - and - I had to keep moving large stuffed backpacks from in front of signs so I could read them.

It was not air-conditioned in the building...the the higher floors were unbearably I cut my trip short.  There was no admission charge, only a box for I put in Rs. 100.00 and the man behind the desk seemed pleased.  Ganesh had waited outside the gate for me, and it was a good thing...I had attracted a crowd of hawkers and beggars - sort of like running a gauntlet.  I got to the car unscathed, and we took off toward the Victoria Terminus. 

I don't know if it was because of President Obama's impending visit, but there was literally no parking anywhere around the train station.  Ganesh told me that there was a parking lot (sort of - I think they would like to discourage people from bringing their cars downtown!) - but it seemed like a hassle to get to it - - so - I saw this next landmark in "drive-by" fashion.   It's really quite spectacular, but there's no way I could risk an hour of getting stuck in round-a-bout for an hour....

Then Ganesh took me to the museum...  also spectacular...but I gotta say, by Indian standards, it was a little pricey for tourists... For Rs. 700.00 you got admission (Indians got in for Rs. 50.00!) and a pretty good audio tour-guide.  The building is four stories...the first story had the coolest stuff - - old carvings of gods and goddesses - of course, taking any photos cost another Rs. 200.00 - so - I was told to put my camera away.  As you went up the stairs, however...the fact that the museum only had electric fans and no A/C became obvious.  By the time I got the the third floor (too bad...this was the floor with an entire collection of paintings of Lord Krishna and his life... ) - it was hot enough to soak my shirt with sweat!

I bailed on the fourth floor.  The time to leave the downtown area was at hand...and - sure enough - the traffic was horrific.  I got back to the hotel and waited for Amy to get back from her long day.  I took a nice shower...knowing that when Amy got home, we would have 2 1/2 hours to get to the airport.  The drive to the domestic airport was supposed to be 45-minutes.  No problem...right??

Sorry.  Wrong again!!  We were stuck in virtual gridlock for an hour and a half.  Even the flyovers were jammed with cars!!  By the time we got near the airport, there were businessmen in suits bailing on their cabs and running for the terminal.  I swear...if we had known where the terminal was, we would have grabbed our bags and run for it, too.  We waited at one signal through six full red-light, green-light cycles!!!  With a little bit of luck the traffic began to move, and the terminal was finally in sight.  We got to the Air India door with five, maybe ten minutes to spare....but there was a long security line (of course!)...and everybody gets a secondary search.  Looking at my watch and the departure-board, I could see that the "boarding" light was not lit.  I got through the men's line (the security lines are segregated by sex!) - - and Amy got stuck.  They ran her carry-on bag through the x-ray machine two times.  I walked over to her...and she was telling the security women that she was going to miss her flight if they did not hurry up!!  We had already called Ganesh back and told him not to leave the airport...we might just be needing a ride to a hotel nearby.  It was looking like we were going to have to spend another night in Bombay!!

Finally she asked a lady who looked like some sort of supervisor...just what the problem was.  They asked her if she had "any wire-cutters" in her bag?"  She said no, of course she didn't - - but they proceeded to take everything out of her bag.  Right about now...Amy looks about as p.o.'d as I have ever seen her in 12+ years of marriage - - especially when they took away the offending item - her nail clippers!!!!  To top it off, they left everything out of the bag and Aims had to put everything back.  She told me to run for the plane and tell them to hold the door!!  I ran down to the gate.  The plane was late!!

Here endeth the tale of our Mumbai trip.  It was my first - - and it shall be my last.  I'm pretty sure that Amy Suzanne feels the same way!!!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Bombay - The Final Episode...(maybe...)

Despite all of the traffic-related trouble getting there...Elephanta Island is a pretty cool place.  I was told by more than one person that the ferry-ride from the Gateway of India docks to the island was "thirty minutes".  Once again, "India Stretchable Time" was at play.  It was almost an hour and a half from dock-to-dock.  It looks like there might be faster boats out there on the journey (I'm sure for a price!) -  I don't think it's even possible to go any slower on a boat and not sink!!

The deck-hands on the ferry sold bottle of chilled Kinley water (bottled by the Coca-Cola Company) and Diet Cokes (there are a lot of American tourists in India!!) and snacks.  They also strictly enforced a "no photos" rule...the Mumbai Harbor is filled with large oil tankers...and I guess that the "no photo" rule has to do with an anti-terrorism campaign.  Evidently, terrorists are fond of posing as tourists for their reconnaissance runs and take picture of their potential targets.  This was the case with the terrorists the took-over, shot-up and set-fire-to the Taj Mahal Palace back in 2008.  If you got caught taking a picture, you got yelled-at.  I have a feeling that if you tried to sneak a second picture after your warning, you might just see your nice digital camera sailing overboard into the harbor waters!!

When we arrived at the docks on the Western side of the island....there were probably 12-15 almost identical ferry boats lined up at the dock...and they were three-deep!!  Our crew tied-up along side one of the other boats and we had to step gingerly onto the old tires hanging from the port and starboard side of the boat-hulls to walk from boat-to-boat sideways to get onto dry land.  The landing-dock is about 1/2-mile from the actual beginning of the trail up to the "caves" (a series of temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, carved out of the solid stone of the island.  It was never clear to me if the caves were natural or they were carved out of the actual mountain...but the stone-workmanship was amazing whatever the case!!)

Instead of walking...most people opted to pay Rs. 5.00 and ride this old and rickety train to the trail-head.  Before I could reach the ticket-shack, a nice Indian fellow who was born, raised and lives on the island (and his kids go to school there - in the one village on Elephanta Island!) walked up to me and offered to be my guide.  He seemed like the type of guy who would not take "no" for an - I let him do the "guiding" for the rest of the afternoon.  I'll tell you now that at the end of my day on the island, I gave him Rs. 1,000.00 - a little more than $20.00 U.S.D. - - and it was the best twenty-spot I've spent in a long, long time!!

He told me that there is no running-water on the island....electricity only flowed through the primitive wiring during certain daylight hours...and the drinking water that they do have comes from the natural island caves collecting rain-water and other home-based rain collection systems.  My comment to my guide: "For and American, that sounds more like 'camping' than 'living'..."  He also said that his father was raised on the island as well...I can only imagine what THAT must have been like!!

Something that nobody told me about the trip to Elephanta Island is that...after the brief choo-choo train ride....there is a trail/stairway that goes up the side of the hill...probably 150 uneven steps - straight uphill.  You walk past row after row of souvenir stands selling everything from trinkets to bangles to statures of your favorite deity...there are some pics on my Facebook Page Photo Album.  By the time I got to the top...I was a little winded...but the island humidity caused me to sweat so much that it looked like somebody had turned a hose on me!!  I never fully cooled-off until the ferry-ride back to the Bombay mainland where I paid Rs. 10.00 extra to sit up on the upper-deck where the breeze was blowing!

My guide asked me if I wanted to stop at the top...and I said that it was the best idea I had ever heard!!  After I caught my breath, we walked toward the first cave...and I realized how essential having a guide would be toward my enjoying my tour of the island temples.  This fellow (you have probably figured out by now that I have completely forgotten his name!!) knew the details and history of every single temple carving in the caves we explored.  I'm now to the point where I can say that I am pretty well-versed in the Hindu gods-and-goddesses - and that certainly helped me to understand everything.  But the sheer numbers of carvings of idols and Shiva lingam in the caves - not to mention the architecture, engineering and workmanship on the pillars that still support these structures after all these centuries...would be overwhelming if I was to "go it alone"...  Again, the photos tell a better tale than I could do with mere words...

We explored four of the most important cave-temples before we sat down for a break.  Here - the island monkeys were pretty aggressive and - a little scary.  One man was walking by with a plastic souvenir bag...and a fairly large monkey thought there was a snack inside the bag....  The man ran like... well - he ran like a man who had a crazed monkey was chasing him... and it was a good thing that he was a little faster than the sprinting simian!!  I had regained my wind and noticed that the time of the boat I had chosen to take back to shore was going to depart in about a half-hour - - and I still had the small museum to go through.

It was stiflingly hot in the - my tour of the inside was not overly long.  There was an... errr... let's call it an "unfortunate unflushed overflow" in the men's rest-room - so - I was evidently a braver soul than most of the island visitors...I was the only one on the inside!!

My guide walked me as far as the train...then - took the ride down to the boats.  He made sure that I was safely on-board...and I thanked him profusely.  He gave me his mobile number in case I ever came back...but - I really can't imagine wanting to brave Mumbai traffic ever again.  Wild monkeys are one thing...wild auto-rickshaw drivers....that's another thing all together!!

To be continued.  Next edition...The Gandhi House and Museum...and the trip to the airport!!