Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Bangalore: Yashu and Harish

In March 1990, I was 21 and had moved from Skokie to Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley just a couple weeks prior.

Other than a cousin who had kindly picked me up from LAX airport but lived about an hour from the apartment I rented in Encino, I knew nobody else in California.

My best pal Jordan and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Erin drove out a car I had bought from another friend--an '81 Chevy Malibu--and due to having worked as a bank teller for 6 months in Evanston I was able to land the same job at Union Bank on Ventura Blvd. in Encino.

We had an interesting mix of employees, with both transplants and native Los Angelenos. I was friendly with several, a couple of with whom I still remain in touch.

One of the other tellers was an East Indian woman named Yashu, who commuted about 15 minutes by bus from Northridge, where she lived with her husband Harish.

They had no kids and were likely old enough to be my parents. Yashu was, and is, much more a friend than a surrogate mother, but we developed a relationship based on me occasionally giving her a ride home from the bank and in return I would enjoy a home cooked dinner with her and Harish.

If this wasn't the first time I had Indian food, it was certainly the first I ate it with any regularity--and homemade to boot.

I don't think it's much of a stretch to trace my fondness for Indian food and a desire to one day visit India to Yashu's cooking and her & Harish's friendship.

Though Yashu and I both left Union Bank within a year, we maintained our friendship--and dinners--until I left LA for a return to Skokie at the end of 1992.

Whenever I would travel back to LA--in 1996, '99, '01 (on my way to Australia), '03, '05--Yashu and Harish would always provide a convenient place to stay and warm hospitality.

In 2003, Yashu came to Chicago and enjoyed dinner on Devon Avenue with me, my mom and sister Allison. Work precluded me from spending much time with her, but Allison accompanied Yashu to the Art Institute and a performance of the musical Chicago.

I haven't had occasion to return to California, but knew that Yashu & Harish planned to retire to India, which they did in 2013.

They settled in Bangalore and my dreams of seeing India always included meeting up with them again.

I am writing this from Bangalore, 5 feet away from Yashu, with Harish in the other room.

They both seem to be doing and well and appear to be as happy hosting me as I am again to be in their company.

In flying to Bangalore from Mumbai, I developed some ear soreness, with the right ear remaining clogged until I slept.

A bit of medication seems to be helping, and it couldn't have happened at a more opportunistic part of me trip.

I know Yashu and Harish will take good care of me.

As they always have.

Mumbai: Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Elephanta Caves and a Walk Through Colaba

I've traveled far and wide, and have availed myself of a wide array of lodging at many different levels.

My days of shared rooms in youth hostels are long past and I don't frequent bed & breakfasts, but I'm usually content with motels & hotels that best combine acceptable quality and desirable location at the lowest price.

Given that a decent bed, clean toilet and working shower are all I really require, on road trips Motel 6 has long been my brand of choice. I've probably stayed in well more than 50 M6 locations and rarely have been displeased.

When I went to Kansas City in April by train, I stayed in a Motel 6 even though it required cabbing & Ubering to & from city sights. This was still cheaper than staying in a downtown hotel.

But often when going to cities where I won't be driving, I try to find a reasonably priced hotel--ideally less than $160/night, pre-tax--that allows easy access to the sights I want to see. (Booking.com has proven quite beneficial in this regard.)

I've found some rather stellar hotels at relative bargains--the Hyatt Regency near the Capitol in Washington, DC comes to mind--but was rather shocked that I could book a night at Mumbai's venerated Taj Mahal Palace Hotel for $163/night with no prepayment (via Booking.com).

As my Delhi/Jaipur/Agra tour package included 7 hotel nights for less than $50 per--assuming the bus rides, tour guide, admission fees and several provided meals comprise about half the total cost--I decided to treat myself for a night in Mumbai.

It worked out phenomenally well.

To begin with, I think it was the nicest hotel I've stayed in, by far. In Manhattan, a room like mine at the Palace probably fetch a grand, easy.

Though I had booked the cheapest room type--in the newer tower, not facing the water (an inlet of the Arabian Sea, I believe )--upon check-in I was provided a free upgrade to an "Ocean View" room in the Palace Wing dating to 1923.

If I had chosen such a room through Booking.com, it would have cost twice as much.

My room was beautifully appointed and I was taken to it by a lovely hotel hostess--Deepika--who I asked to join me for dinner. She seemed to politely consider it (perhaps that's part of her job) but despite saying she'd check her schedule, seemingly ran for the hills.

In addition to overlooking the water, my room looked out upon the Gateway of India monument, which at night was adorned by colored lights as part of an India 70th Independence Day celebration.

My seat at dinner in the Sea Lounge had a similar perspective and the food--a special prix fixe menu for the holiday--was fantastic.

I also enjoyed the restaurant's pianist, singer and sax player playing mostly American music, such as "Summertime," "Blue Moon" and "Come Away with Me," the last by Norah Jones, who happens to be Ravi Shankar's daughter.

I didn't avail myself of the pool or spa, but took a tour of the hotel, had a soda in the Palace Lounge and enjoyed warm hospitality at every turn.

And the hotel was ideally situated for what I wanted to do, especially with only about 8 total hours of touring time. My flight out to Bangalore Wednesday was moved from 8pm to 4:45p, so I basically had Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.

Almost as soon as I'd gotten into my room, I was heading out to the Gateway of India to buy a ferry ticket to Elephanta Island, home of caves with carvings dating back 1500 years or so. 

Buying the ticket and queueing up for the ferry was a bit chaotic, the boat ride took an hour and once on the island, it required about an hour walk and a grueling (for me) 130 steps in stifling humidity. I was quite happy not to have a heart attack.

But the caves themselves were, rather amazingly, worth the effort. That such artwork could have been carved out of mountainous rock somewhere between the 5th & 8th century AD is rather staggering to consider.

This trip has had a number of once in a lifetime sights, but the Elephanta Caves were definitely one of them.

This excursion was followed by hotel tour and then dinner, so I was glad to put my plush bed to use rather early.

Wednesday morning was devoted to a walk around the Colaba area of South Mumbai, close to the hotel.

I saw the Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue and even went inside, a splendid clock tower, the Bombay High Court and several other grand buildings likely dating back to the days of British rule in India.

The grandest of these is the Chhatrapati Shivagi Terminus, a railway station formerly known as Victoria Terminus and one of the world's busiest.

As I had on the ride from the airport, in the cab back I made a point of taking pictures out the world and getting a better sense of the Mumbai I did not see up close, including abundant skyscrapers and slums.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Agra: The Transfixing Wonder of the Taj Mahal...and Other Amazing Sights

I've been fortunate to have visited some of the world's most amazing sights--of the man-made and natural variety.

Some of my favorites prior to this trip to India can be seen on this Seth Saith blog post (sorry that I don't have means to throw in a contextual hyperlink):


Yesterday and again today I saw a sight that would undoubtedly find a place in such a list, perhaps even in the top slot:

The Taj Mahal

I can't recall how early in my childhood I first became aware of the spectacular marble mausoleum in the Indian city of Agra, but my hope to someday see--and photograph--it obviously dates back decades.

And in person, the Taj Mahal was everything I ever dreamed it would be.

Although the inside--where photography is prohibited--was rather dark, quite warm and not nearly as mind-blowing as the exterior, the Taj was truly magnificent from all angles.

Since March, when--as I was about to book my trip to India--I learned that in 2017 the Taj Mahal is undergoing cleaning that had parts sheathed in scaffolding, I was concerned that I might not see it in pristine form.

I decided this wasn't worth postoning my trip indefinitely, but just a couple weeks ago, NBA star Kevin Durant had tweeted pictures of him at the Taj that showed the structure's front and one minaret scaffolded.

This didn't look to terrible, but I was thrilled to arrive at the Taj Mahal with my tour group Sunday morning to find no metal upon it anywhere.

Needless to say, I took TONS of pictures from every angle, and even had a few taken of me with one of the world's greatest backdrops.

I don't have means to share any in this post, but hopefully you'll be able to see some somehow. (I put several on Facebook and plan to create an online gallery after I return home.)

This morning, with a few hours in Agra outside organized tour activities, I asked the hotel to hire me a driver to take me to Mehtab Bagh, a prime viewing spot--with an admission fee--from which to see & photograph the Taj from across the Yamuna River.

Between a friendly driver and a quite knowledgeable local man whose solicitation to show me prime locations within the Mehtab Bagh garden I accepted and greatly benefited, this too was a phenomenal excursion.

And the Taj Mahal isn't the only wonder to be seen in Agra.

The Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah--aka the Baby Taj and built before it--and the Red Fort are both stunning in their own right.

Though seeing both yesterday afternoon made for a wearying day--we were up at 4:30am to see the Taj at sunrise--but were magnificent.

A group dinner last night at an Agra restaurant featuring an attractive Bollywood style dancer made for a nice end to a pretty staggering day.

After my private riverside Taj experience this morning, we rode from Agra to a hotel near the Delhi airport.

I am writing this lying next to a beautiful outdoor pool, with a final group dinner about an hour away.

In the morning I will catch a flight to Mumbai and head to the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where I'm booked for a single night before heading on to Bangalore.

Unbeknownst to me beforehand tomorrow is India Independence Day, and the 70th anniversary at that. And Paolo, who went to Mumbai for a couple days before the tour started, reported that that city is just as chaotic as Delhi.

So perhaps I won't be able to do all that much, but I'm excited to go there anyway.

Though this trip has been terrific for many sights, experiences and interactions, seeing the Taj Mahal is clearly an experience I'll never forget.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Abhaneri: Some Surprisingly Astonishing Travel Experiences

Sometimes the greatest travel experiences are ones that come as a surprise.

On Gate 1's 9-Day Golden Triangle of India tour from Delhi to Jaipur to Agra, a stop in the village of Abhaneri--between the latter two cities--was only highlighted in the Day 6 itinerary details.

I think it's safe to assume it didn't much factor into anyone's reasons for taking this tour; certainly not a primary one.

As I am writing this, we are back on the bus heading from Abhaneri to Agra, and if not tonight, by early tomorrow morning I shall see the Taj Mahal.

More than any other specific sightseeing location, the Taj is the foremost reason for my traveling to India.

But as some may recall, in the days before booking my trip, I learned that the Taj Mahal is undergoing cleaning and conservation, and part of it will be covered by scaffolding.

I initially expected more of Taj--including its dome--to be obscured than it appears will be the case, but I truly wondered if I should postpone the trip until pristine pictures of this great wonder could be had.

I decided that aside from complete closure of the Taj, any other worst case scenario didn't justify delaying the trip to who knows when.

Much of my reasoning is that it would be silly to put off two weeks of phenomenal sights and experiences for a couple hours of seeing some metal, even if upon the sublime Taj Mahal.

And while seeing Delhi and highlights of Jaipur were fantastic, the past 3-1/2 hours alone have validated my thinking.

There could be thunderstorms tomorrow and I still won't rue having taken this trip.

And though the Chand Baori step well in Abhaneri is one of the coolest sights I've ever seen, remnants of a nearby temple date back a millennium and our tour group just had a delicious and unique lunch at an eco-resort in Abhaneri, even more phenomenal was seeing the smiles of relatively impoverished village schoolchildren.

The school is actually underwritten by Gate 1, whose founder grew up nearby,  so it's assumed the kids were long indoctrinated to American tourists stopping by and photographing them.

But I really loved interacting with the kids, and I can't help but believe the feeling was mutual.

Using a trick I hit on years back, likely in photographing my niece and nephews, whenever I would take pictures of the kids I would then show them the photo on the screen or my camera or iPhone.

This made them giggle exuberantly and clamor for me to take more pictures. Several kids also asked me--and other group members as well--to write my name in their notebooks.

At one point it felt like I was a Broadway star being being beseeched for autographs at the Stage Door.

Truly heartwarming.

I can't wait to see the Taj Mahal, and take photos I will likely treasure for the rest of my life.

But quite remarkably I doubt they'll wind up my favorites from this trip.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Jaipur: On an Elephant (and a Rickshaw), Atop a Mountain Fort and in the Pink (City)

Those who perceive a vacation as a chance to sleep in (past 6:30am) and relax a bit each day might find themselves chagrined by the trip I'm on, at least as facilitated by Gate 1 Travel.

Don't get me wrong. My typical idea of a great vacay is one in which I visit three museums in a day followed by a concert, ballgame or some form of theater at night.

I don't go on beach vacations or to resorts in part because I don't enjoy laying out or just sitting around.

So I certainly don't mind a whirlwind of activity and I respect Gate 1's efforts to fit in a lot of sightseeing in a limited number of days in order to keep lodging costs low--and the entire tour package surprisingly reasonable.

Our tour leader Sameer has been terrific in coordinating daily agendas, so I am not seriously kvetching, but even though Thursday was essentially dedicated to the bus ride from Delhi to Jaipur, we had a 6:00am wakeup call ahead of a 7:30 departure (sandwiched around complimentary breakfast). 

Our ride was broken up by a potty break at McDonalds--always interesting in terms of global variances; i.e. no beef in India--and lunch at a homey place midway to Jaipur.

After we got to Jaipur and checked in, 40 minutes later we were back on the bus to hit a local bazaar.

I don't mean to be disparaging to people having to make money any way they can, but the vendors swarmed like bumblebees, and though not dangerous,  their aggressiveness was aggravating.

Paolo and I bought merchandise mainly from a shop where an older, calmer gentleman didn't haggle and was never insistent. 

Depending on the exact environs being counted, Jaipur is a city of 3-5 million people.

To Westerners, it still seems rather ramshackle and chaotic--with cows, camels, elephants, monkeys, goats, sheep, dogs--wandering the streets amid cars, trucks, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles and tourist coaches.

But compared to Delhi, Jaipur seemed relatively organized, modern and calm.

And Friday was rather stuffed--yes, perhaps overstuffed--with superb and unique travel experiences.

Including, before 8:30am, riding an elephant up to the huge Amber Fort.

From a horde of elephants lined up like taxis at the airport, ours was named Mala. And he (or perhaps she) got us where we needed to go.

With a huge complex of building ornately painted or otherwise lavishly adorned, Amber Fort made for some incredible sightseeing and snapshots.

Later we took a rickshaw ride around the part of Jaipur with structures whose pigmentation gave rise to its Pink City moniker.

Especially as the bike peddler charged with lugging Paolo and me around continuously avoided impending collisions, the Hawa Mahal didn't seem quite as luminous as it had in photos.

The afternoon touring continued at Jantar Mantar--a centuries old collection of huge astronomy/astrology apparatus--and ended with a visit to the City Palace complex, which had some attractive buildings without being all that astonishing.

We did get 2 hours of downtime back at our hotel but then were back on the bus for a group dinner excursion. 

This was at a restaurant within an ornate hotel in a posh part of Jaipur, it was a cool choice, it was fun hanging out with our tour mates and we were treated to a woman dancing while balancing 5 bowls on her head.

But a glass of wine made me even more tired and tour weary than I already was, and I felt it best not to indulge too heavily  in the Indian buffet.

That basically covers the last two days. It could probably use some editing or even more writing but it's nearly 11 and of course I have to be up at 6 AM for the ride to Agra.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Chaotic Couple of Days in Delhi

Namaste.

I've visited many of the most populated--and consequentially congested and chaotic--cities in the world:

New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Cairo, Jerusalem, St. Petersburg (Russia), Vienna, Budapest, etc.

But never before have I opted for an air conditioned tour bus as my means of sightseeing.

In Delhi, I'm quite glad to have done so.

I've never been to a city where the streets were more immensely clogged with cars--and tons of tuk-tuks (mini electric vehicles)--and the driving, at least to a foreigner, so completely insane.

After arriving at my hotel on Tuesday afternoon--and the cab ride from the airport was quite an adventure, as I'll explain shortly--just trying to take a brief walk to get my bearings was rather daunting.

It was stifling hot with crazy humidity. I couldn't take a step without a street hustler showing up alongside to chat me up. There were dogs lying on sidewalks. The incessant honking of car horns made midtown Manhattan seem like a library. Red lights were apparently mere suggestions and with cars, cabs, tuk-tuks, motorcycles and bicycles all constantly jockeying for position, merely crossing the street--even at a crosswalk--seemed like a game of Frogger I best not play.

Coming after a 15-hour flight on which I didn't sleep nearly enough, a leisurely stroll held considerable theoretical appeal, But it quickly seemed best not to bother with. (I returned to my hotel and had dinner there.)

And this came after a somewhat harrowing, rather exasperating experience on the cab ride from the airport.

I really don't know if the driver was duplicitous, incompetent and/or worse. As recommended, I had prepaid for a taxi at an airport counter and went where I was instructed. But I'm pretty sure the guy who took me was bootleg as he instantly asked me for more money (under the ruse of my only having paid a "parking fee," which is BS).

I told him no, and eventually yelled at him to "just drive the damn car!" He soon stopped to pick up somebody who was said to be his brother.

The brother actually seemed like a better guy than the driver, but between the two of them they couldn't find my hotel--The Park--although I'd given the driver a Google Maps printout. And I'm not sure if I should be impressed or incensed that the driver narrowly missed about a dozen accidents, without a seat belt available for me.

Fortunately, they didn't seem to be taking me to a nefarious lair in the middle of nowhere, but once in the vicinity of the hotel they wouldn't turn where the Maps app locator seemed to suggest they should. 

They took me to a nearby--but steadily further away--shopping area (Connaught Place) under the guise of stopping at a tourist information center for instructions. The brother wanted me to get out of the car with him and I said hell no, not without my suitcases. 

And I then did get out of the car with my suitcases and essentially said, "See ya."

I knew where my hotel should be and was just gonna walk there. I started to do so but then was convinced that a tuk-tuk driver could get me there, which he did.

Though I was dead tired by the time my friend Paolo reached the hotel (he had visited Mumbai first), the time zone difference didn't allow me to fall asleep quickly or much of the night.

So today, Wednesday, I was glad to be reliant on an air conditioned coach with a knowledgeable tour leader named Sameer and nearly 40 tour companions.

Even at 8:30 AM when we started our journey around Delhi, the heat and humidity were rather sauna like.

Though Sameer pointed out several sights, such as the India Gate and Indian Parliament Building, from the bus--not ideal for photography but I can't really complain given the relative comfort amid the heat, a big of brief but heavy rain and the ceaseless mind-boggling traffic crunch--we had five main stops:

- Humayun's Tomb
- Jama Masjid mosque
- Lunch at an Indian restaurant within the Hotel Broadway (adorned with American thester posters)
- Gandhi Smitri - A residence where Mahatma spent the last few months before being shot and killed on the premises
- Gurdwara Bangla Sahib - Sikh temple

All of these rather impressive; I've become too tired to go into detail but you should be able to Wikipedia them. I put a few pix on Facebook.

And though I don't perceive making any lifelong friends, the tour seems filled with nice people. An end-of-day briefing by Sameer included some enjoyable interaction.

Others, including a man from Mexico City, echoed my perception that Delhi seemed more intimidating that other huge cities.

Obviously it's less Western than anywhere I've ever been--literally, excepting Australia--part of the appeal is that it doesn't feel American or European.

Other than the cab driver duo and a few pushy hustlers, I have high regard for people living with dignity in such a chaotic, relatively impoverished place.

If there are sections of Delhi with glass office buildings, stately old museums/theaters or vast tranquil parks, I have not seen them.

So I'm really not sure if a more gentrified, user-friendly Delhi exists (I haven't seen a Starbucks). But without meaning to disparage anyone or suggest that I'm not thrilled to be here, I can't deny the city has seemed more daunting than acutely delectable.

Onto Jaipur in the morning. Another reason I'm glad to have taken a tour.