Saturday, February 26, 2011

Agra and Off to Amtirsar...

I really do need to catch up on my blogging.... it is hard to believe, but the trip we took up to the Golden Triangle of India took place in November 2010 - - and now the calendar is about to flip-over to March 2011 in just a couple of days!!  I must say that the time we have spent here has flown by like you cannot believe.  On some days it seems like we arrived just last week...but... the calendar does not lie: we are coming up on our tenth month "At Home in Hyderabad"...and it really does seem like home now. 

I am planning a visit to Southern California at the very end of March for the first few weeks of April.  My good friend Fr. William Bower said that I might experience a little bit of "reverse culture shock" upon my return!!

So...when last I wrote, we had arrived in Agra, and we had seen the Taj Mahal ... and we were both completely blown away by it.  As a matter of fact... A. Suzanne was so blown-away, that she decided to take the next day off to do a "spa-day" - and I couldn't blame her !!  I got up and had breakfast on Friday the 26th of November - - and just our guide and I went out and saw whatever it is that was left to see in Agra.  Truth-be-told...once you have seen the Taj Mahal...any other local sights just seem pale by comparison...

We saw the Agra Fort was actually pretty interesting...  It is one of the large fortified residences built at various strategic points of Mughal Empire; it had over five hundred buildings, as mentioned by Abul Fazal in his chronicles. Most of the buildings added later use marble as the chief construction material. At the time of Akbar, River Yamuna touched the fort and thus, a number of ghats were built here. Some of these ghats were meant to load and unload goods transported through river and other covered passages were for use by the harem inmates only.  It was nice to be a Mughal king!!

Then we drove a short way to Sikandra to see the Tomb of Akbar the Great  In may ways, this tomb was like a mini-Taj Mahal.  Akbar's tomb built in a pyramidal shape, with an open terrace covered with carved latticework screens. The actual grave is in the basement and is decorated with paintings in colorful golden, green and blue hues on the stucco walls. There was a man down there who would chant "Allah'hu akbar" (Allah is the greatest) every so often...and the echo was incredible!! While the tomb is not magnificent in the manner of the Taj Mahal, it has a quiet dignity that befits this regal emperor. There are lawns outside the impressive gateway, where deer can be seen. Birds nest in the trees leading to the gate and monkeys, which have got used to visitors, scamper up curiously hoping to be fed.  There was a German guy who tried to pet one of the monkeys on the head...and - the guy almost lost a hand!!  Some tourists are just plain stupid.

After my day of sightseeing, Suzanne and I stayed around the hotel, we went out bu the pool to enjoy the sunshine...and ate a final meal at what had become our favorite restaurant, the Peshawri in the ITC Mughal Sheraton in Agra.  A really great restaurant (and a huge amount of food!!)...and the grounds of the hotel are really stunning...with a "butterfly garden", croquet field, great pools and a truly wonderful spa!  Definitely worth staying there...and - from one of the hotel rooftops, you can see the Taj Mahal in the distance.

We got a good nights' sleep and the next day...we drove to New Delhi to grab a plane to Amritsar and the Sikh Golden Temple.  I didn't think anything could be as impressive as the Taj Mahal....but - stay tuned to this blog for the story of our trip to Amritsar...truly a piece of heaven on earth!

Some pics from Agra...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Beautiful City of Agra....and the Taj Mahal

Fairly-early on Thursday morning, after a great Indian breakfast at the ITC Mughal Sheraton, we left the wonderful city of Jaipur.  We had arranged to have our carpets shipped to the Deloitte office in Hyderabad, and the clothing and other things we had purchased along the way were beginning to make our luggage stretch at the seams...thank God for the invention of the "expandable zipper" function on the modern suitcase!!  Since we arrived in New Delhi, we had been in the capable hands of our driver, "Raj".  He was a real professional at getting around in the craziness of the Northern Indian traffic!  We were travelling by car in a Toyota Innova (think "mini-van") - one of the two "family cars" one sees around the cities in India...the other being the "Scorpio" (think "part Land Cruiser/part Hummer"!) The back of the Innova was pretty well packed...we had some extra bottled water (something you don't want to be without on an Indian road-trip!) but no extra food.  This meant we would have to take our lives in our hands and stop at a roadside diner between Jaipur and Agra.  I have never been overly concerned about the food here.  Amy Suzanne is much more concerned and probably more careful.  But we have both spent our 12-hours kneeling before the "porcelain goddess" in our first nine-months here.  So - - when you eat you takes your chances.  It's worth it.  I think the food here, for the most part, is simply awesome!!

Before I continue on to the wonders of Agra and the beauty of the Taj Mahal....I feel a need to say a few words about the wonders and beauty of my incredible wife, Amy...  I don't think I have spent nearly enough time in this blog saying just how much our little family owes to A. Suzzanne Brubaker (there...I spelled it with two "z's" like she does at work!!)  We would not be doing any of these wonderful things if it were not for her!!  It's really a brave thing to do to pick up ones' life and move halfway around the world.  It would be brave for anybody.  But I think more so for Amy.  She had a great position as a Director for Deloitte in the Los Angeles Office...she rode horses competitively all over the country (something it was NOT easy to give up, let me tell you!) - and had the habit of winning no matter what horse she was on, what stable she was with, what hunter-ring she was in! she is, at the age of "forty-something" (this year is a BIG birthday...she was born in 1961 - you do the math!) trusting that God still make all of our lives go smoothly, packing up everything we own, and flying to Hyderabad, India.  A place where five years ago, neither of us had ever even heard of, much less thought about living there!!  She has taken to her new position here like a duck takes to water....although she really had to spend the first few months figuring our where the boundaries of the lake were!  She has done so well here.  I think her Indian professionals are some of her biggest fans, because she really sticks up for them and has become their advocate in so many ways.  She has had to learn the Indian style of communication and doing business (books could and have been written on this very subject!) and I think she's really hitting her stride, career-wise.

And she's a tireless worker, too...her shift is 5:30 A.M. until 2:30 P.M. - Tuesday through Saturday....but she almost always works Mondays and generally has conference-calls until 10:00 or 11:00 P.M most nights.  And she usually does it all with no complaints.  I owe so much to my wonderful wife...she is, as the words to The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi says: "The girl of my dreams."  Thanks, Sweetimus Maximus!!  I love you!

So....on to yet another "monument to love" - the incredible Taj Mahal !!  The drive from Jaipur to Agra was supposed to be 4-5 hours...but with a stop at the ancient (and abandoned - they had no real water supply!!  Kind of like Southern California before William Mulholland!) city of Fatehpur Sikri and a bit of lunch (it was a nice place but we really didn't eat much...) it would be closer to eight-hours and nearly dusk by the time we got to the Taj.  We had picked our guide up at a pre-determined spot on the road to Fatehpur Sikri

We checked into the hotel (The ITC Mughal Palace - there is a view of the Taj Mahal - you have to climb a few stairs to see it - but it's incredible...we didn't go up to the roof until the next day...) and - our guide asked if we wanted to do some sightseeing or see the sunset at the Taj.  We said we wanted to see the Taj now...or maybe both days... but - back in the Innova we went.

We parked the van and got our tickets....the guide was such a professional...he knew all the places to go...all of the things to do.  We boarded a small tram/bus for the short ride to the entrance gate to the Taj Mahal  - the gateways are pretty awesome...made of the same carved red-sandstone you see in I recall there are gates at the North, South, East and West entrances to the actual Taj complex.  It turns our that it really doesn't matter which side you come in on...or what side of the Taj Mahal you see first.  It is a perfectly symmetrical building.  Everybody knows what the Taj Mahal looks like.  There can be no more iconic building in the whole world.  Or, more photographed.

Let me say that there is no photograph you have ever seen of the Taj Mahal that can do it justice.  Even the words "there are no words" fail to say what needs to be said.  It is awe-inspiring, breath-taking.... No.  It's beyond description.  Even though it was a place that I knew we had to see...I really thought I was going to see some touristy place with little marble structure and that would be it.  Not a chance.  First of all...the Taj Mahal is HUGE!!!  And it's perfect!!  I mean...simply...perfect.

The history of the Taj Mahal tells us "why was the Taj Mahal built" and many other myths and facts associated with this wonderful structure. Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan erected the Taj Mahal in the memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan (then Prince Khurram) met Mumtaz Mahal (then Arjumand Banu Begum) at the age of fourteen and fell in love at the first sight. She was a Muslim Persian princess and Shah Jahan was the son of the Mughal Emperor, Jehangir. Five years later, in 1612, they got married. As you read further you will come to know more about the history of the Taj Mahal at Agra…

Mumtaz Mahal, an inseparable companion of Shah Jahan, died in 1631, while giving birth to their 14th child. It is believed that during her last moments, Mumtaz Mahal obtained a promise from Shah Jahan that he will build world's most beautiful monument in her memory. But this has not been proven to be true, till date. However, Shah Jahan did indeed build a magnificent monument as a tribute to her wife, which we today know as the "Taj Mahal". Shah Jahan, himself also, lies entombed in this mausoleum along with his wife.

The construction of Taj Mahal started in the year 1631 and it took approximately 22 years to build it. An epitome of love, it made use of the services of 22,000 laborers and 1,000 elephants. It was built entirely out of white marble, which was brought in from all over India and central Asia. After an expenditure of approximately 32 million rupees (approx US $68,000.00), Taj Mahal was finally completed in the year 1653. However, the history of Taj Mahal of India still has some gaps. For example, there are many theories regarding the architect of this magnificent monument.

As it turned out, the time of dusk was an outstanding time to visit the Taj Mahal.  As the sun began to set, the color of the sky (and the resulting color reflecting the light of the perfect white marble of the dome of the Taj) changed from gray (there was still a lot of leftover cloudiness from the storm that blew through Rajasthan) to orangeish to a bluish color ... just as the sun set for the evening.  It was one of those moments in life where you just have to stand and say "Wow.  Just amazing!" and leave it at that!

We probably stood and sat at the West side of the Taj until it was too dark to see anything - maybe 90-minutes.  An interesting fact is that they do not have lights on the Taj Mahal.  The reason being is that light attracts bugs and bugs attract bats and bats make bat-guano (bat poop) by the tons...not something you want to clean off of thousands of square feet of pure white marble every day!!

So that ended our first day in Agra.  Here is a link to our Facebook photo album - which includes most of Jaipur and forward to Amritsar and the Sikh Golden Temple.... Our First Indian Vacation - Part Two

We returned to the hotel to get ready for dinner.  Oh.  Did I forget to mention?  As I mentioned...this was Thursday.  And it was Thanksgiving Day!!  Let me tell you, it was the most memorable Thanksgiving....ever.  Thank You, God.  Thank you, Amy.  And thank YOU, Uncle Deloitte !!!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

TravelBlog....Jaipur Part 2 - the Elephants!

As I said, the ITC Sheraton hotel in Jaipur is really something!!  Modern, very clean...super bar and restaurants.  Everything that you could want.  I could say that everything was perfect....except, during our first night, Jaipur began experiencing the first November rain in anyone's memory...which included the memory of our tour-guide, who had lived there all of his life.  The roof over the lobby of the ITC Sheraton had obviously taken a hammering during this year's monsoon season, because, during the night, it had begun to leak terribly.  One might even call it a "flood", as the staff was having difficulty getting a handle on things to keep the marble floors dry-enough so nobody would slip and break their neck!  As we looked outside of the hotel restaurant, we could see a steady rain falling...and we began to wonder aloud if our elephant ride up to the top of the Amber Fort was going to be cancelled due to the inclement weather.

Walking outside to meet our Jaipur guide (who looks incredibly like Ray Romano from "Everybody Loves Raymond" - check out the photos on our Facebook Album ...) we immediately realized that rain cancels nothing in India.  You just buy a cheap umbrella from one of the many hawkers...and get your day started!!

Amber Fort is actually located in the town of Amber (it's just outside of Jaipur), which used to be the capital of the Kachhwaha clan, until Jaipur was made the official capital in 1727.  As you drive up the hill, raining or not...the Amber Fort looks stunning, all-built in white marble and red sandstone. To add to its charm, Maotha Lake makes its foreground. The crystal mirror image of the Fort, on the still waters of the lake, seems almost to be a beautiful illusion. Amber Fort is usually pronounced as "Amer" Fort. In 1592, construction of the Fort was started by Raja Man Singh I. However, the Amber Fort took its present form during the reign of Raja Jai Singh I.  You learn all of this stuff from your guide...

The line for the elephant ride up the hill was shorter than it usually is (according to "Ray Romano") due to the rain.  You could see that all of the elephants (about fifty of them, I would guess) had fresh paint-jobs (bright, day-glo colors...) - not so much for us - - but - Jaipur is a major destination for weddings and - lots of people evidently like to hire elephants for their wedding!  You walk up a staircase that leads to the "loading platform" for getting on the back of your elephant...Amy Suzanne was thinking that she was just going to hop up on the elephants' back and ride him bareback - but - no such luck.  I think she was a little disappointed, actually! we crested the final stairs and I got my first glimpse of the top-side of the elephant we were to get on top of... and suddenly three things dawn on me...  #1) It's a long way to the ground from an elephants' back (maybe 15-feet?) ... #2) The road up to Amber Fort is made of slippery-looking, very hard-looking stones...and #3) I'm afraid of heights!!! 

We got on the back of the pachyderm and I was in a state of complete panic.  Acrophobia is much like chaustrophobia (which I also suffer from...) - you have no control over it once the waves start.  Thank God the elephant "jockey" got his beast right up to the loading-dock because if there was any distance whatsoever between the edge of the safety of the patio deck...and the platform on the elphants' back - I wouldn't have been able to get on.  I don't think I am actually afraid of "heights" per se - I believe that I am more afraid of falling a long way down to a stone road beneath me !!  Once that I did get on and situated (no seatbelts are provided!) - I am sure that my wife was sure she was going to lose me - I had a death-grip on the metal bar that was all that was between me and a death-fall to the road below!!  She is such a trooper.  She talked me into a state of semi-calmness ("Don't look down, Sweetie...look up!!")  - and I actually began to enjoy the journey.  I'm not that all that happy with the photos of us on the elephants' back because they were taken from a bit of a distance... but - there is photographic proof that I did it!!

The tour of the actual fort was fascinating...and the weather began to break a little and the rain stopped. 

We spent the rest of the day seeing the City Palace and the Jantar Mantar - an observatory that would have been a lot more interesting if the sun was out - - the highlight was a HUGE sundial that they say is extremely accurate.  It was still very cool.  We went to a great carpet and textile factory and and saw how rugs were made and ended up buying three incredible carpets...and I got some traditional Indian clothes made for myself.  We needed a good night's sleep after our busy day... for tomorrow (Thursday - THANKSGIVING!!) we would be heading for Agra and the amazing Taj Mahal!!

Stay tuned for our next TravelBlog: Beautiful Agra

So....does he look like Ray Romano or not???