The Wonders of Agra

We feel great about our time travelling in India, partly because we have seen some obscure sights and overlooked experiences as well as really amazing things that make every must-do list, including staying on a houseboat on the backwaters of Kerala and walking the promenade at sunset in Pondicherry. The one thing that everyone around the world wants to see but people in India often don’t quite get to is the Taj Mahal. Melissa went to Agra with her aunties Linda and Sue the month before our visit with Julie and Meagan, but Tom had yet to make the trip. It is really unbelievable that something that has that much hype and sets that high of expectations can actually surpass it all, even on a second visit.

It’s a famous story, but indulge us as we set a little context. The Taj Mahal was built in the years 1632 to 1653 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Its primary purpose is a mausoleum and memorial to his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. As we are to learn in the next few days, he took cues from previous mausoleums built in Agra and in Delhi. He took all of the most awe-inspiring designs from those buildings and cranked them up. In order to do so, he employed great craftsmen from throughout Asia and built it completely out of marble mined just west of Jaipur, where we started this adventure. He also indulged his seeming OCD-inspired love of symmetry, giving every angle, every detail, every element a partner on the other side of the building. As a result, viewing the building is a different experience from every angle, and those experiences change by the moment as the sun moves through the day.

We started the day wishing each other “Happy Taj Mahal Day”, but we really had no idea how true that would be. The Taj would work its way into every thing we did all day long, starting, of course, with our visit to the Taj itself. We had read a lot of advice, confirmed by Melissa’s visit there earlier, that we should get there first thing in the morning for two important reasons: You get the colors of the rising sun on the iridescent marble, and the crowds are more manageable. We bought our tickets online months in advance for the earliest hour available, 6:00 am. In very un-Indian fashion, the website and purchasing process was remarkably smooth, and we got exactly what we were after — until we got to Agra and were told that they didn’t start letting people in until there was actual light, which meant that we wouldn’t be let in until 7:30. In other words, in a very Indian fashion, they were selling tickets for entry times that weren’t actually available.

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None-the-less, the “get there as early as possible” advice was spot on. The place is incredible. Even though they do a masterful job of controlling the number of people on-site, there are some impressive crowds all jockeying for the iconic photos. Those crowds in no way detract from the appreciation of one of the most beautiful objects in the world. The gardens are large and beautiful, allowing people to spread out and do their own thing. We’re not sure what to say about the Taj Mahal itself that hasn’t been written, except that everything that’s been written is true. Every detail is intentional and gorgeous. Even though it is beyond ostentatious, Shah Jahan didn’t cover every inch with something ridiculously beautiful; he balanced those things with the simple beauty of the stone itself. Those gardens are underappreciated, too. They are serene and beautifully cared for and serve to frame the Taj Mahal in breathtaking ways. What a start to a great day.

From there we went back to our hotel for breakfast. We decided that after having slightly more rustic lodgings in Ranthambore and Bundi we would spring for the ITC for Julie’s and Meagan’s last major stop in India. It was beautiful and restful and the food was delicious. It was nice to have a rest before our packed afternoon.

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Our driver Arvind picked us up to take us to the less famous sites around Agra. Agra Fort was originally built in the early 16th century, but as with all of the forts we visited on this vacation, it was destroyed, rebuilt, added to, and conquered any number of times. What exists now is part of the fort as it was when the Mughal capital was shifted from Agra to Delhi in 1638. It contains halls for public audience, a few mosques, and a bazaar in which the women did their shopping. The most remarkable piece is the portion of the fort in which Shah Jahan was “imprisoned” by his son Aurangzeb after Aurangzeb usurped him for draining the treasury in order to build the Taj Mahal. There are stories that part of what inspired the usurping was that Shah Jahan was planning to build a replica of the Taj Mahal in black marble across the river to serve as his own mausoleum. We have also read that those stories are apocryphal. If one has to be in prison, this is the way to be. We had heard that Shah Jahan had a view of his beloved Taj Mahal, and we pictured that meaning that being in prison in a fort looking at the monument to his wife was some form of torture. Not so. He had the run of a good amount of the fort, and the space set aside for his personal space is beautiful, made of similar marble to the Taj Mahal, with much ornamentation that is reflective of the work the craftsmen Shah Jahan hired did on the Taj Mahal. It’s not prison as we would think of as prison.

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From there we visited a couple of other mausoleums. Itimad-ud-Daula’s Tomb is just up river from the Taj Mahal and Agra fort. It is called the Baby Taj for a reason. It has many details that would serve as inspiration for the Taj as we know it. It’s beautiful, and maybe a little over the top in terms of decoration. Every inch seems covered in decorations. Shah Jahan seems to have learned that sometimes less is more in terms of decoration, but he also learned that more is more in terms of size.

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We asked Arvind to help us find Chini ka Rauza, the tomb of Afzal Khan, Shah Jahan’s vizier. Neglected but found on the banks of the River Yamuna, the grounds are a peaceful refuge from the tourist choked sites around town. The remnants of the ceiling paintings are beautiful.

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Finally, we watched the sunset over the Taj Mahal from across the River Yamuna at Mehtab Bagh. Wow. What an end to an amazing day of appreciating the most beautiful building any of us will ever see. We all agreed that we pretty much did Agra right.

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Our fabulous travel companions Meagan and Julie at our farewell dinner.

Dinner was back at the hotel at Peshawri, the sister restaurant to both where we celebrated Melissa’s father’s birthday in Jaipur and one of our favorite restaurants in Bangalore, The Royal Afghan. As expected, it was delicious. It was an amazing end to a spectacular day, and particularly poignant because the next day we were off to Delhi for our sad farewell to Julie and Meagan and our quick tour of a few of the many sites Delhi has to offer.

 

Beautiful Bundi

We wanted to make sure that we would have a well-rounded experience with our winter travels, which meant hitting the hotspots like Jaipur and Agra, but also venturing a little off the beaten path. Bundi certainly shows up in the guidebooks, but it’s small and attracts few tourists. After seeing the incredible sights there, that seemed remarkable to us! This little town is so charming, with beautifully painted buildings, carved balconies, and stepwells everywhere. We loved it!

We stayed at the delightful Hotel Bundi House, run by two young men who answered every query with, “Anything is possible!” They had a rooftop restaurant with nice omelettes and aloo parathas for breakfast, pakoras for snack, and a full menu for dinner. There was no alcohol on their menu, but when we asked, “Anything is possible!” and we soon had wine and beer available to us. When we asked for an early breakfast the next morning, again, “Anything is possible!” and they opened early for us. Continuing on with the crazy cold theme that we started in Ranthambhore, we were perpetually shivering, but happy.Hotel Bundi House

Meagan was great about eating unaccustomed Indian food for every meal every day, but she had hit her limit by the time we hit Bundi. Surprisingly, there was a well reviewed Italian restaurant in Bundi where we were all pretty happy to eat pasta and pizza for a change. On our way to the restaurant, we wandered around this adorable town for a while, seeing temples, cows, and brightly painted doorways on nearly every block. The open sewers that line every lane are unfortunate, but serve as a reminder that modern conveniences have not yet made it to every corner of India. It’s good to occasionally be reminded just how fortunate we are.

On our first morning in Bundi, our driver Arvind picked us up to go see some of the sights for which we needed a car: the Sukh Mahal, the 84-pillared cenotaph, and the Raniji ki Baori. The Sukh Mahal is a small summer palace on the shores of a large lake, sometimes called the Kipling Mahal because apparently Rudyard Kipling stayed there briefly while writing Kim. There was very little information available about it, but we enjoyed strolling through once we managed to evade the angry little dog who nipped at Tom’s ankle (no broken skin!).

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The 84-pillared cenotaph was truly a sight to behold. It was constructed in 1683 with some stories saying that it was built in honor of the Maharaja’s foster brother and others saying it was in honor of his childhood nurse. All stories claim that it is mysteriously impossible to count all 84 pillars. Tom and Melissa tried and did not get to 84. Is that because of mysterious magic or fewer pillars that claimed? Either way, it’s truly beautiful.84 pillared cenotaph

The Raniji ki Baori is a stunning stepwell built by the queen in 1699. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much of anything, but the inside simply takes your breath away.Raniji ki Baori

After those sights, we asked Arvind to drop us off at the Bundi Palace, an easy walk from our hotel. This palace should truly be on every must-see list. The pillars are beautifully carved and the walls are painted with crushed gem stones so the paintings retain their vibrancy despite the centuries that have passed and the lack of preservation. We had an awkward moment of white privilege when an attendant offered to show us the locked bedchamber of the Maharaja’s second and favored wife, hastily adding that we had to go quickly because he doesn’t take Indians inside because they scratch at the delicate paintings. We really wanted to see this amazing space, but felt really weird about the exclusion of our fellow tourists and the odd accusation that they would scratch the paintings given the chance. Nonetheless, we went inside and were duly awe-struck. A little later in a less patrolled area of the palace, Melissa saw young Indian men scratching at the paintings until a guard came and yelled at them. So strange.

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Meagan and Julie elected to head back to the hotel for a rest while Tom and Melissa climbed the hill behind the palace to get to Taragarh, the 14th century fort at the top. This fort is completely unpatrolled and unmaintained, which seems tragic given how beautiful it still is. The path and foliage are overgrown and aggressive monkeys are all around, but it is completely worth the climb. Plus, you can experience near solitude up there – a true rarity in India where there are usually people all around.Tarhgarh

After seeing the paintings and courtyards of the palace and fort, the painted walls and courtyards of the town made perfect sense. They have replicated the grandeur on a smaller scale throughout the town, clearly for many generations. There is ancient beauty around every corner in this town that deserves far more tourists than it sees.

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But then Agra beckoned with the ancient beauty that everyone sees! On the way, though, we opted to break up the 7 hour drive in the small town of Abanheri with a stop at the Chand Baori, an enormous 10th century stepwell surrounded by a crumbling palace. This stepwell was apparently the inspiration for the prison in the Dark Knight Rises, as well as the set for numerous Indian films. We’d never seen anything like it before.

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This Bundi and Abanheri leg of the trip was unexpectedly wonderful!

 

Christmas in Ranthambhore

Some years as Christmas approaches, you cling to tradition, requiring everything to perfectly reflect your idealized memories of childhood. Other years, you open yourself up to the possibility of new traditions or even just one-off festive notions. And then in other rare years, you just skip the whole deal in favor of other exciting options. We had thought this would be a year of altered traditions, but it turned out to be much more of a skipped Christmas. This was Melissa’s third skipped Christmas – the first when she convinced her mom to run away to Las Vegas with her for a weekend of decadence instead of a holiday she wasn’t feeling in a difficult year, the second when she was newly returned from Australia and eager to start the drive from LA to begin her new life in Portland – so she found the excitement of  safaris to be a reasonable replacement for Christmas. It was more of a challenge for Tom, Julie, and Meagan who missed the comforting, joyful traditions they love. Still, we all had a lovely time in Ranthambhore. We arrived around 1 pm on December 24th and just had time to check in to the Sultan Bagh Jungle Lodge and grab a quick bite to eat before being picked up for a safari at 2pm.

The safari was amazing! We saw spotted deer, sambar, wild boar, peacocks, lots of cool birds, and – drum roll, please – a tiger!

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When we returned to the camp around 5, we noticed that a stage and huge speakers were being set up in the central clearing between the cabins and tents. We had a while before dinner would be served at 8 so we settled in to play a couple rounds of estimation and hearts, while a man wandered around playing jingle bells on his traditional home made instrument.

It all seemed pleasant and charming until the techno music started blasting from the courtyard, loud enough to create an unpleasant, bassy chest rumble while we yelled to hear each other. Tom raced down to reception, only to be told plaintively, “But it’s for Christmas, sir!” In a country where holidays are all celebrated with loud music and bright flashing lights, they were sure that they were honoring our holiday appropriately. They promised to turn off the music by 9 and actually stopped at 8:30, but it made for some noisy card playing.

When booking our accommodations, we were concerned about air conditioning, and marveled at the idea of air conditioned tents. We should have been more concerned about the cold. It was freezing! Ok, not literally freezing, but 42 degrees Fahrenheit feels really cold when you’ve been living in South India for 18 months and don’t own any winter clothes. It also feels pretty darn cold if your relatives who are supposed to be the experts tell you that you just need to bring a light layer with you. Oops. The bonfire in the clearing was tempting enough to brave the blaring techno – oh, the thrill of warm fingertips and thawed toes! – and we enjoyed the chance to chat with our visitors.

We slept in all the layers we had (Melissa was particularly grateful for Tom’s flannel shirt which became her constant companion for the next week) and woke early for safari number two. The 20% of the park that is open to tourists is divided into 9 zones, each large enough to require hours to explore. On the first day, we went to zone 1 and on the second we ventured into zone 3. Zone 3 had three large lakes which were so beautiful, as well as the remnants of the Maharaja’s hunting lodge of yore. Across one of the lakes, we saw another tiger – it was far off, but so amazing!

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The rest of the day was spent relaxing, reading, playing cards, and napping – entirely delightful if not entirely traditional. For dinner we had a simple, but tasty Indian dinner at 8 pm and then went to bed.20181225_165846

Surely next year will come with all the Christmas trappings, but probably none of the thrilling tigers! For now, we’re off to Bundi!

Three Fabulous Days in Jaipur

Jaipur is a truly magical city, steeped in history and filled with beauty. This was Melissa’s second visit to Jaipur, but Tom, Julie, and Meagan got to experience it all for the first time. With so much to see and understand, and a fair amount of distance to traverse, we opted for a driver and guide on our first day. We started off with the impressive Jantar Mantar, an 18th century astronomical/astrological installation created by Maharaja Jai Singh who was also the founder of Jaipur and the creator of four similar Jantar Mantars in other parts of India. These instruments are accurate within 2 seconds and can be used by astrologers when calculating birth charts, very important here in India when people are making major decisions about things like marriage or business opportunities.Jantar Mantar

From there we headed to the nearby City Palace, part of which is still occupied by the royal family and part of which is a lovely museum. It was initially constructed in the early 18th century, but has been expanded by successive generations, each creating their own beautiful courtyards, gardens, or reception halls. It’s truly stunning.City Palace

The City Palace was by no means our only palace of the day! We also stopped at the Water Palace which can only be viewed from afar and the Hawa Mahal – not truly a palace, but a place from which the royal ladies could observe activity on the street while maintaining purdah which requires that women’s faces be hidden from strangers.

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The amazing Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, where women could be concealed while watching the street.

Then we finished with the Amber Palace, a true marvel. The Amber Palace was constructed from marble and red sandstone during the 16th century, but was then expanded by further generations, as is typical. Sitting high on a hill, it is also called Amber Fort in acknowledgment that palaces were places of protection, occupied by the military as well. It’s easy to see why this location with its sweeping vistas would be selected as an easily defensible location. Inside the walls, though, it is stunning with carved columns, mirror mosaics, and painted ceilings everywhere. We loved it and could easily have spent many hours there is we weren’t so eager for our next stop: Elefantastic.

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Elefantastic was recommended by a friend of Julie’s and we’re so glad we learned about it in time to incorporate it into our visit! It was started by a 4th generation mahout, or elephant tender, whose early years had been spent in the family business of providing elephant transportation up the long hill to Amber Palace. Rahul inherited the elephants from his father and decided that he wanted to do something different. He loved these animals and respected them, and wanted to give them happy lives. Walking up and down a steep hill all day with tourists on one’s backs does not equal a happy life. He instead created an elephant sanctuary where he continues to care for his family elephants as well as elephants that have been adopted from rescue organizations that remove them from abusive circuses and zoos. With 24 animals to care for, tourism is essential – they eat a LOT which requires steady income. As a tourist at Elefantastic, though, you don’t ride the elephants. Rather, you commune with the elephants. We got to hang out for a while with 3 elephants who were very happily enjoying some sugar cane. They were unrestrained in any way and seemed to enjoy being scratched and hugged. As the afternoon light started to fade, we headed out on a walk around the grounds with a huge, gentle 52-year-old elephant. Rahul told us that no one in his family thought it was a good idea to create a sanctuary instead of a transportation business, but it’s working. Our visit was peaceful and awe-inspiring. We love elephants even more now, if that’s possible.

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Our second day was a bit less jam-packed. We started with a visit to the City Museum, which is housed in a stunning building and filled with art and antiquities. We then headed out on a walk through the bustling, chaotic streets of old town, where we got to admire dozens of colorful storefronts always trailed by the cacophony of the vendors: “Hello, Maa’m! Come in, Ma’am!” “Beautiful pashminas, Ma’am!” “Sir, it’s free to look! Come in!” We resisted all invitations, opting to just take it all in, before going on a little shopping spree at Anokhi, full of lovely hand block-printed clothing.Jaipur City museum

Our third day in Jaipur took us out of the city in search of Bhangarh, the ruins of a 16th century town, rumored to be haunted. We encountered no ghosts, but did revel in the palpable history around us, as well as stunning desert scenery.

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We had two delightful dinners in Jaipur – the first at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant at the Hotel Pearl Palace – very tasty food and such a pleasant environment; the second at Peshawri at the ITC Rajputana – a fancy and delicious meal to celebrate Melissa’s dad’s 74th birthday. He would have loved it.

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Jaipur is such a stunning city with so much to see and admire. It might have been hard to leave if we weren’t so excited to move on the Ranthambhore in hope of seeing tigers.

Bihar: The Ancient Center of Buddhism and Learning

We’ve said it many times before: India is a land of contradiction. No where is that more clear than in Bihar, where Melissa has been working one week every month for the past year, which she wrote about last year and will certainly write about again soon. Tom was finally able to visit just after Thanksgiving when her November and December weeks kept her in Patna over a weekend. We were able to do some of the touristy things Melissa has never had the time to do, seeing, experiencing, and learning about the rich and vital history of the region while at the same time witnessing the extraordinary poverty and trying to reconcile Melissa’s experiences in the hospitals and what we all hear about the state with what really should be the pride of all of India.

We had two major goals over the weekend: experience and ponder the Bodhi Tree where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, and tour Nalanda University, thought to be the first residential university in the world. These utterly unique sites illustrate two elements that represent the very best of India: The rich religious tapestry which includes the birth of four of the world’s great religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, an important element in the history of a fifth, Islam, as well as untold numbers of other faiths, from Baha’i on down to very personal, individualized faith communities; and the historical priority placed on education.

The British Raj wreaked havoc on the entire subcontinent, but no where more so than in Bihar. What had once been the bread basket of all of India was ravaged, both by the British insistence that farmers plant indigo and opium to be sold in China and Europe profiting exclusively the  East India Company, and by the British jealousies of Indian products, industrial and agricultural, which inspired the Raj to forbid Indian producers to compete with British products. The result was the death of the soils of Bihar, which led to Bihar now being the poorest state in India, and instead of all Indians taking pride in Bihar’s role in making India what it is, many Indians will say things such as, “India would be better off if Bihar weren’t part of it.”

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All over Bihar, this seems to be just how one rides the bus.

After a night in Patna, our first stop was Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment. We loved the temple complex that surrounds the Bodhi Tree. Being one of the most important religious sites in the world, and with our experiences with crowds elsewhere in India we expected throngs of people and the chaos that comes with them. What we found instead was indeed a very peaceful spot, with many people paying respects to be sure, but it is so well organized that there were all kinds of peaceful spots to sit and contemplate. People were paying their respects in all kinds of ways, from sitting in meditation and prayerful circumambulation, to one man who made at least two complete circuits while we were there, lying prone on the ground, placing a marigold flower at his head, standing, then stepping forward to the marigold, then lying prone again, and repeating, all the way around the tree and the temple next to it, an act of devotion that was inspiring to watch. According to the story of Buddha’s enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama spent seven weeks in meditation on the site, each week in a different spot before attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. Each one of those places is marked as its own place of reflection.

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Cameras and phones aren’t allowed in the Bodhi Tree temple, so here we are at the nearby Great Buddha Statue.

Surrounding the temple itself are a number of Buddhist seminaries representing sects from around the world as well as monuments constructed by those various sects. The most impressive we experienced was The Great Buddha Statue, erected by the Daijokyo Buddhists of Japan and consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1989. It is surrounded by 10 disciples demonstrating the various mudras, or hand positions. It is stunning.

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Clockwise from upper left: carvings surrounding one of the temples, the feet of the 80 foot standing Buddha statue, the typical courtyard, with monks’ cells around the edges and a platform for addressing them in the middle, and Melissa made Tom pretend he was teaching at the monastery.

After taking in the center of the Buddhist world, it was time to see what used to be the center of the academic world. So central that Siddhartha Gautama himself studied there. The ruins at Nalanda University weren’t from Gautama’s time — they date back to the fifth century CE, while Gautama studied there in the third century BCE. As a result, much of the iconography and temples are dedicated to the Buddha with some shout out to the Vedic texts and traditions (which would later be the foundation of Hinduism) Gautama himself was there to study. At its height in the fifth to twelfth centuries CE, it supported 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers as well as the surrounding community required to sustain such a large institution. The site was excavated starting in 1915, and the result is a complex that includes several temples, the ruins of the living quarters of the monks, and the site of what was once the largest library in the world. It is clear by the number of school groups who were there on a Sunday that it is clearly an important site for those who live nearby. Even with the crowds, our favorite temple was set apart, and therefore had fewer people, where the feet of what had been an 80 foot standing Buddha remains. It was overwhelming.

Across the street from the archaeological site is the Archaeological Museum. It’s a small museum but dedicated entirely to artifacts found in Nalanda, and it was established from the early days of the dig. The pieces run the gamut from Buddhist iconography and Hindu images to coins and other secular pieces. The school groups also took a trip through the museum, meaning we had those moments of being the most interesting thing in the room to these kids who act as if they had never seen people so ghostly pale as we are, even though that room had items thousands of years old representing the roots of their faiths.

We had some time before Tom had to catch his flight back to Bangalore, so we stopped off at the Bihar Museum, a brand new facility whose spaces were still being developed. There were several interesting exhibits on the history of Bihar which, as we’ve said earlier, is the history of India. There were some other interesting exhibits describing traditional crafts of the region. It will be interesting to see how they continue to develop the museum. The building itself is a lot closer to what we in the West expect out of museums than anything we’ve seen in Bangalore, which are often not at all temperature controlled, haphazardly equipped with fans to control air flow, have various levels of light control, and seemingly stuck into pre-existing spaces. The Bihar Museum is made up of intentional spaces with a strong attempt to control the climate for preservation purposes and quite successfully tells the stories they were trying to tell.

The museum is an example of an interesting thing we noticed in Patna in particular: there seemed to be a concerted effort to invest in public spaces. There are beautiful parks and a couple of very interesting museums. However, this is where the India as a land of contradictions thesis plays out. In the context of India, Patna is a small city, about the same population as the Portland Metro area. In addition to the pride one sees in those beautiful spaces, the garbage piles up, the slums are heartbreaking and everywhere, and most buildings seem in some level of disrepair. Melissa is discovering in her work that Bihar doesn’t necessarily need further national investment — it needs a culture shift. Corruption is present throughout India, but until the culture of corruption in Bihar is addressed, more investment will simply mean more corruption.

Bihar deserves better. It is the cradle of Indian culture, and as such Western culture has its roots in this state. The people are kind, and the landscape is breathtaking. We dream, along with our Bihari friends, of a day when all of India looks on Bihar with pride instead of the scorn it faces today.

Travels with Melissa’s Aunties

Linda and Sue arrive!

We love visitors – totally, completely love them. Not only do visitors let us revisit familiar places to see them with new eyes, but they also give us the excuse we need to visit unfamiliar places. Travels with Melissa’s aunts Linda and Sue reminded us just how big and exciting our city is, how gorgeous the Galle Face views are in Colombo, how fantastic the Mahabalipuram rock carvings are, and how delightfully French Pondicherry is. We got to love those places anew, and we got to explore some new places too!

While in Bangalore, Melissa took Linda and Sue to see the central market, Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, the Bangalore Fort and and the Big Bull Temple. All four of us got to enjoy a day in the Nandi Hills at Tipu Sultan’s Summer Fort and the Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple.nandi-hills1

Our first stop out of Bangalore, took us to Colombo, Sri Lanka. We only stayed there for one night, but splurged on the beauty of the Galle Face Hotel, a historic site with beautiful ocean views and spectacular breakfasts.

Ah, the splendour of the Galle Face Hotel and the joy of putting your feet in the Indian Ocean for the first time!

While we had visited Galle with Rachel and Laurence last year, we hadn’t actually stayed in that charming old town – this time we spent two nights in the heart of Galle Fort and made the most of it: the sunset views from the wall, the historic buildings, the great shopping, and the kottu (amazing dish made from chopped up paratha and veggies). The Antic Guesthouse was the perfect base from which to relish it all.

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From Galle we headed to Yala National Park where we stayed at Cinnamon Wild, a jungle resort right on the edge of the park. We saw crocodiles in the lake, wild boar wandering around the grounds, and spectacular bird life everywhere. We were warned that leopards and elephants sometimes made their way down the resort’s paths and so were required to have an escort to get from our cabins to the main building where we ate after dark. Sadly, no such exciting thing happened while we were there, though. Our outings took us to the ruins of an ancient buddhist monastery that once housed 10,000 monks and on a safari where we saw many cool animals (but no leopards no matter how hard we tried to will them to appear).  It was all so enjoyable, sitting by the pool, watching the wildlife, sipping wine with a view of the lake, or just relaxing on our decks.

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It’s always hard to leave Sri Lanka, but we knew good times were ahead of us back in India. Last year we lingered in Mahabalipuram, but this year we made it an afternoon’s stop-off on the way to Pondicherry. The carvings are well worth the trip and easily viewed in a few hours, still arriving in Pondicherry in time for the evening promenade.

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Pondicherry was Tom’s last stop since he had to return to work (vacation is never long enough!), but Melissa and her aunties got to carry on to Rajasthan.

We arrived in Jodhpur and checked into our home for the night, although it turned out to be a spot we might not have chosen if we’d had a bit more information – it was far from the part of the city where all of the buildings are painted blue so we never got to see that. More of an issue, though, was the two flights of stairs to the room (not a favorite of Sue’s knee) and the fact that the restaurant didn’t serve anything that was sufficiently spice-free for Linda and Sue to enjoy it. A dinner of nothing but parathas only takes you so far. The next morning, we decided to find somewhere else to eat and discovered The Filos a mere 4 minute drive from our hotel. Such friendly service and delicious food – we highly recommend it for anyone traveling to Jodhpur! With only about 20 hours in Jodhpur, we couldn’t see much, but we did make it to Mehrangarh Fort. Mehrangarh is a 15th century palace carved into the cliffs overlooking the town and is a breath-taking marvel. It was a bit distressing, though, to see the handprints (some of them clearly of young girls) left by the fifteen wives of the Maharaja on their way to throw themselves on his funeral pyre, a practice known as Sati.

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After our delightful Filos breakfast, we were picked up Shayam who drove us 75 minutes into the desert to our next stop at Mihir Garh. Despite our intentions to drive straight there, we couldn’t resist a stop at an incredible place selling gorgeous textiles and other handicrafts of the region. We thought we’d be there for 30 minutes, but it turned into a nearly 2 hour spree. Poor Sue had tolerated as much shopping as she could stand at the end of the first hour and was practically begging Linda and Melissa to leave by the time we finally headed out of the store with plans already in place to return. We all agreed, though, that we found beautiful things. On the return trip, Linda and Melissa both ordered beautiful coats which we hope to see in San Diego along with all the other purchases.Textiles

Mihir Garh was amazing from start the finish. Melissa found a great deal online and proposed it to Linda and Sue, still thinking it might be an excessive splurge, but they were game! Everything about it was beautiful from the grounds to our rooms to our private pool, and everyone there was so kind. When we arrived, we felt like royalty with umbrellas carried by attendants to protect us from the sun as we walked through the entryway. At dinner, we met actual royalty when we were welcomed by the son of the current royal family who built the hotel. Everything there was designed by the family using products, handicrafts, and artisans from the area. This was a magnificent place to relax for a few days, reading books, drawing, and gazing out over the desert in between perfect meals by the pool.

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After a stop at the textiles place on the way back to Jodhpur, we boarded a train to Jaipur – every visit to India needs at least one train trip, right? In truth, sitting in the AC Chair Car is not so different from sitting in a standard Amtrak car back home, but it’s still pretty fun. We arrived in Jaipur after 9pm and were picked up by our hotel, the wonderful Pearl Palace Heritage. We expected to be somewhere a bit rustic, a bit basic, but still charming – well, it was plenty charming, but there nothing rustic or basic about it. Every room is decorated differently, every bit of hallway is ornamented, and we were in heaven. It was just a short walk to their sister property, the Pearl Palace, where Melissa and Linda had dinner at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant the next night. They told us that they will be adding their own rooftop restaurant, swimming pool, and fitness center and I suspect that their prices will double when they’re done. Go now!Jaipur hotel

With only one full day to enjoy Jaipur, we hired a guide. We headed straight toward the Amber Palace, stopping off at the foot of its hill to admire an ancient stepwell before continuing on. It was a bit of a walk in a bit of a crowd, but with lots to look at. All was going well until we noticed that Sue was suddenly a bit green. The infamous Delhi belly had struck! She thought she’d be ok waiting for us in the first of the four levels so we found her a shady spot and Melissa and Linda continued on with the guide to see it all before leaving.Amber Fort

It was stunning, but our delay made for a stressful ride back to the hotel for Sue. Once she was safely in bed with the hotel staff racing around town to find ginger ale (so kind!), Linda and Melissa headed back out with the guide visit the Jaipur city palace and museum, the Jantar Mantar (18th century astronomical instruments built by the Maharaja in five sites around the region – Melissa and Jesse visited them in Delhi), view the water palace, and stop at yet another handicraft place where we saw gorgeous handmade carpets, among other things.

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The next morning, with Sue feeling a bit better, we started the drive to Agra, meeting up with a guide to take us to the Agra Fort. Although the Taj Mahal gets most of the Agra hype, the Agra Fort is pretty amazing. It’s huge and intricately ornamented (particularly the rooms built to house/imprison Shah Jehan who built the Taj Mahal, but was deposed by his son who wanted to protect the royal coffers from the plan to build a second Taj Mahal in black marble). From there, we got our first views of the Taj Mahal in the slightly hazy distance. In Agra, we opted for a charming homestay called the Coral Court, relatively close to the Taj Mahal which we planned to visit the next day for sunrise. On the downside, again two flights of stairs up to our room; on the upside, the kind staff served us dinner on the rooftop and we got mehendi (henna) on our hands!

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The next morning, Sue stayed at the hotel to continue her recovery (much to our sad dismay) while Linda and Melissa went to the Taj Mahal. Melissa was prepared to be underwhelmed after hearing so much hype for so many years, and was then completely awe-struck. Once you start taking pictures at the Taj Mahal, you can’t stop – every angle, every detail, every inch seems to warrant another photo, and then you need a few more because you know your photos simply aren’t doing it justice. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? We’ll let the photos speak for themselves, even knowing that they undersell it.

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From there, all that remained was a drive to the airport in Delhi. No visit to India is ever long enough to see it all, but Linda and Sue certainly tried!

 

Dussehra 2018: Wine Weekend!

Back in the beginning of this adventure, back when we really had no idea what was in store for us, we made little games of thinking about the things we love doing back in Portland and whether or not we’d be able to do something similar in India. One of the first things Melissa found and said, “I want to go there!” was Nashik, the closest thing India has to a wine region, complete with the largest winery in India (Sula), the oldest winery in India (Grover Zampa, which we have visited in Bangalore), and a good number of small, up-coming wineries. After last year’s exciting and overwhelming Dussehra in Mysore, we thought it would be good to do something relaxing and low key, like finally going to Nashik.

Tom has been resistant to spending a lot of time in the big cities in India. We live in one, he says. I want my vacations to be different, he says. He finally relented and agreed to start our Dussehra vacation in Mumbai. We spent two days simply being in awe of a beautiful city. At the urging of our friends Aaron and Tamara, we sprang for a luxury hotel right in the heart of old Mumbai, the Taj Mahal Tower Hotel. It helped that our home base for the short stay was somewhere we never wanted to leave. After arriving, we had wine by the pool (where we discovered, again at the urging of a friend, this time Angelina, York winery and their delicious Arros, but more on that later). We had incredible breakfasts in the now-standard Indian fancy hotel breakfast buffet style. We ate dinner at Souk, which billed itself as “Lebanese” but was really all kinds of Eastern and Southern Mediterranean, and was AMAZING. We had a room that looked over the Gateway to India (more on that later, too). The staff couldn’t have been nicer, the room couldn’t have been more comfortable, and the setting couldn’t have been more beautiful. We are very very lucky.

The hotel is beautiful, but we were particularly impressed by its history. Aside from being the site of the 2008 terrorist attack, it has a really interesting story. Jamsetji Tata started a company, Tata, which is now India’s version of American corporations that have their hands in every bit of American life. Tata owns everything from Starbucks India and Tetley Tea to a huge car company and chemical companies. When, as an already-dominant industrialist, he was refused service at the fancy all-white hotels in the city then known as Bombay, he decided to open a hotel that was worthy of his great city, and wow did he ever. He put those damn Brits to shame. Like much of Mumbai, it takes from Hindu and Muslim design influences. I can’t find confirmation of it, but part of their story is that the Quit India Campaign worked out of the hotel.

For our one full day in Mumbai, we went on a bit of a self-guided, spontaneous walking tour of the fort and nearby waterfront neighborhoods. We started at the Gateway of India. This was completed in 1924 on a working pier in recognition of King George V and Queen Mary’s visit in 1911. Say what you will about the damage the Raj did to this country (and Tom will have a lot to say when he finishes the book he’s reading), but this is beautiful. It combines influences from Muslim, Hindu, and other faith traditions along with the European arch concept.

On our walk from there, one of our recurring bits of amazement was how different from Bangalore it felt. In particular, there is real care taken in how buildings look from the street. One of the first really sage and unexpected bits of advice we received when we first moved to Bangalore was to not judge a building or the businesses inside on the facade. People just don’t put energy in to the exteriors of most buildings, and there seems to be no effort (except in a couple of exceptional parts of town) put in to any kind of neighborhood look. There might be a blah, dirty, a little bit crumbling looking building on the outside housing a crazy fancy mall or restaurant. That’s not so in the parts of Mumbai through which we walked. Buildings are beautiful, and even modern buildings seem to respect the history of the place. The market is clean and organized. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (a vast museum) had an incredible variety of well-curated collections. We could have done without the thick pollution, and our timing at the waterfront could have been better (we hit it in the middle of a sun-soaked day), but it was an enlightening and fun day in a beautiful city.

Then we were off to Nashik. In addition to Angelina’s insistence that we try York winery, we also had advice from our friend Ashi, a native of the region. The result of all of the advice was a pretty much perfect weekend. Even the bit that we didn’t plan turned out to be lovely. Melissa booked us at a Sula property called Beyond, but we got word that we were going to be bumped for the first of the three nights to their larger, more popular property nearby, The Source. The room was disappointing, but we had a lovely dinner at Little Italy, and a tour of the winery was included. Two things jumped out at us at Sula. It is the most popular wine in India, but we had never been excited about it. Melissa likes their Dindori, but Tom isn’t in love with it. We had some really tasty wines. In particular, the Rasa Cabernet Sauvignon and the Brut Tropicale. Yummy. Also, it struck us that, as the largest winery in India, it was comparable in size to the small, family-owned wineries we toured in Rioja this past summer. It’s just another reminder how young and emerging the wine industry is in India.

A Sula driver took us to Beyond, where we intended to stay all along. We had kind of left the details of how extensively we’d tour wineries until we got there, depending on how much time we might want to spend lounging. The moment we got there, we realized that lounging would be a priority. It is a small property in the middle of farms, looking out over a lake, with only nine or ten units. It was quiet and lovely and private. We arrived early enough on Friday that we decided we’d walk to the near-by wineries and spend all day Saturday decompressing, Tom from 3 months working in Bangalore and Melissa from her very busy recent travel schedule.

20181019_144506Beyond is situated at what felt like the end of an idyllic little country road with a couple of wineries interspersed along the way. On the way in, we spotted a little cheese maker, too. We walked the 3 km to the farthest stop, York Winery, the wine that Angelina suggested and we discovered our first night in Mumbai. It was perfect. Lovely setting, comfortable tasting room, charming fellow pouring the tastes, and delicious wine. Unfortunately, because of the state-by-state nature of taxation rules in India, they have yet to sell in Karnataka, Bangalore’s state. But wow. Fabulous. They are doing something a little different than other wineries here. We keep mentioning how young the wine industry here is. Most young wineries here grow their own grapes and develop their wines as their grapes mature. This often means that they’re making wine from vines that haven’t had enough time to develop the complexity that makes a really great wine. York is also growing their own grapes, but they are mastering the wine making process using grapes they know are good. As a result, they are making really really good wine, and by the time their grapes are ready for production, they will know how to bring out the best in them.

Then we walked back to Beyond making two more stops. First was the little cheesemaker we spotted near York. They made cheese that was ok, nothing we got excited about, but the experience was a kick. The tasting was done in the living room of the cheesemaker, and he was so excited about the cheese he made. We shared the experience with a nice couple that had been on the wine tour at Sula, making it all that more pleasant.

Our last stop was at Soma, unrelated to the Soma Vineyards near Bangalore we have written about. The best part of this visit was our conversation with the owner and winemaker. The wines he made were definitely not our thing. He also was so excited about his wines and to talk to us. Unfortunately, we believe he is making a very important mistake. He was most excited about the new wines he was introducing every year. This year, it is a pinot noir, which confirmed for us that pinots don’t grow in this very hot, crazy wet when it’s wet and crazy dry when it’s dry climate. We very much wanted to implore him to master a single grape. Find the one that grows the best in Nashik (we are more and more convinced that Cabernet Sauvignon is it — if India could make itself into the Cab Sauv center as the Willamette Valley has done with pinot, they’d be on their way), master it, shape the Indian wine palate accordingly, then start branching off. Instead, he’s making a dozen different wines, none of which did anything for us.

Then the rest of the weekend was spent reading, writing, and playing at Beyond. Fine meals, tasty wines, nice staff. We couldn’t have asked for more. It was exactly what we wanted. The only final hiccup was a cancelled train to Mumbai and getting overcharged by the cab we hired to get us to the plane, but that stuff happens. Because India. Also, we saw beautiful things, met wonderful people, and relaxed hard. Because India.