Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year from Singapore!

See all the pics w/o reading the post (like a lazy bum).

Now that we're having a rest at my Uncle's house in Singapore (for both Christmas and New Year's Eve), I've been trying to update the blog with photos (see the three posts below). Unfortunately, I haven't had much time to write about what we've been doing since we left India, so here it goes. Before that, however, I want to say thank you to everyone we've met over the last few months and especially thanks to our amazing travel agent at STA in Los Angeles, Chai V., who continues to be an excellent source of information for us and always gives prompt replies to our numerous questions! I also owe Molly C. from UCLA Chemistry a shout out here on the blog, since I promised her one many months ago before we left. Hi Molly!!

We arrived in Singapore from New Delhi early on Dec. 21. And let me reiterate 2 things about India: (1) Delhi is a great city. It's fun, lively, and nearly hassle free. (2) The rest of what we saw of India is worth skipping except for the Taj Mahal, Fatephur Sikri, and Varanasi. So it was a relief for us to get on that red-eye flight to Singapore.

My uncle met us at the airport early in the morning, and our first few days here were relaxing and refreshing. Do you know how good a nice bed and a clean hot shower feel after 2+ months in Nepal and India? Do you know how nice it is to be able to drink tap water? And not have to worry about power failures? Or grubby guys checking out and grabbing your wife? It's the perfect break for us because Singapore is so cushy (all links in this post are pictures) and there are no touts anywhere!. Plus, we were getting a bit homesick, having been away for so long already, so being with family here for both Christmas and to usher in the new year is a great feeling. Plus, my grandma is cooking excellent vegetarian food for us every day; curries, soups, stews, noodles, and today she's making spring rolls!

We mostly spent the first few days watching movies (Curse of the Golden Flower and Night at the Museum) because it was raining all the time, and in different shopping centers around Singapore, because we needed nice clothes for Christmas and New Year's but only had our grubby travelling gear! But after Christmas (which included a mellow party here at my Uncle's house with amazing home-cooked food!), my cousin took us around a bit and to another Christmas party the next day (26.Dec), and my uncle took us hiking at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (on 29.Dec). We climbed to the peak of Bukit Hill (163.63 m... compared to our trek in Nepal (link to Nepali Treking Post), even our out-of-shape and sluggish bodies could handle that one!). After that, we went out to lunch with him at the Tanglin Club and had some excellent Italian food and amazing fresh salads (do you know what it's like to be vegetarian and not able to eat a salad for 3+ months?!).

Then on the 29th, J and I took a bumboat up to Pulau Ubin, a small island nature reserve off the north east coast of Singapore. There, we rented bikes and rode around observing weird mud skippers (fish that live as much in the water as they do on the land, where they walk around with special pectoral fins!), the rare Oriental horn bill (a bird), tiny crabs with one huge claw, and gigantic spiders amongst an endangered black mangrove swamp. (Justine's note: I also was attacked by the elusive Singaporean mosquito, which ruined my legs for the new skirt I wore for NYE. Drat!!)

Last time I was in Singapore, my days were filled with endless mahjong tournements, where my aunties and grandma robbed my brother, Chris, and I blind! Finally, two days ago (on 30.Dec.), I got my aunt and cousin to play mahjong with Justine and I, but not for real money since we're still novices. It was a great time and Grandma helped Justine climb out of the hole before my cousin took all the chips.

My sister, Lisa arrived yesterday in the morning (31.Dec.) and promptly went shopping with Justine (at least I'm off that duty for a while!) (Justine's note: Puh-leaze! I am on an island of huge shopping malls, haven't seen decent clothes for practically five months, and barely visited any stores here. Of course Lisa is going to the mall with me!) After lunch, we took up another mahjong tourney while Justine napped. I was ready for real money (S$7 buy in), but Lisa insisted on a practice game. Of course, within an hour, she had everyone's chips after she won with a well-played limit hand!! Good thing we didn't go in for real! After taking a nap myself, L, J, and I got ready and took the bus downtown for NYE festivities at the Esplanade (fireworks over the harbor) and had drinks at Harry's bar. Although it was really crowded, it was super fun, we got good seats, and the fireworks were quite nice over the water after the rain cleared up. Note that it's not October, because Justine and I almost went to Thailand before NYE, like we had planned, and we likely would have been in Bangkok last night for these bomb blasts (link goes to news story).

Justine and I do leave for Thailand on 3.Jan, going to Bangkok first, then working our way south to meet my sister on Phuket, where she's staying for business. After that, we'll spend time on some of the other islands, like Phi Phi, Ko Samui, and the nature reserves in the south. Sometime in late January, we fly up to Chiang Mai for some more hiking, camping, and elephant riding before crossing into Laos to take a slow boat down the Mekong.

Well, that's all for now, and we wish everyone a really happy and healthy new year! Don't forget to check out the rest of the pictures from Singapore here!


Saturday, December 30, 2006

Pictures of Kolkata, India (aka, Calcutta)

When we left Nepal, I had already been sick for a two days. After that Nepali doctor on the plane told me I probably had malaria, I decided to have my blood checked. Turns out I didn't have malaria, but by the time I was admitted to the hospital with a blinding headache, legs so sore I could hardly walk, a 102-degree fever, and nausea, Justine started to get sick. By the time dinner arrived, she also had a high fever, headache, and was vomiting. It was like an October nightmare all over again (for those not in the know, October is historically a bad month for us!). Anyway, enjoy the pictures of Kolkata, an interesting and diverse city that isn't the Mother Theresan slums you've seen in movies (though there were extremely poor areas).

Here's the pictures.

Pictures of Varanasi and Bodhgaya, India.

Varanasi, the holiest Hindu city in the world, is situated on the River Ganges (or the Ganga River, named after the river goddess, Ganga). It's famous for the river and the fact that Hindus come here to cremate the dead (adults only, no children or pregnant women) at one of the two burning ghats, which are the stairs leading to the shore. Although we saw dozens of bodies burning daily (sometimes as many as 6 pyres at once with a lineup of shrouded bodies), it's not acceptable to take pictures of the ceremony. Hence, the total lack of fires in this album. Varanasi was a 14 hr. train journey west from Kolkata, and it sits roughly in the middle of the northern border of India. Interestingly, one of the four holiest Buddhist sites in the world, the temples and ruins of Sarnath, is only 10 km away from Varanasi. Sarnath is known as the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon in the Deer Park. The place was lost and forgotten to the ages (and pillaged regularly by locals) until it was unearthed by British archeologists over 100 years ago.

Bodhgaya, about a 5 hr. train ride from Varanasi north and east, is the holiest Buddhist site in the world (FYI, the other 2 pilgrimage sights for Buddhists are Lumbini in Nepal, where the Buddha was born, and Kushinagar, India, where the Buddha died). Bodhgaya is the place that the Buddha supposedly achieved enlightenment while sitting under a Bodhi tree. The lineage of that tree are quite well known, and its offspring sits in the place of enlightenment behind the Mahabodhi temple.

Enjoy the pics!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Pictures of India

Enjoy the multitude. I've annotated most of them, and the ones I haven't are self-explanitory. The first 2 sets are:

1) New Delhi


2) Agra/Rajasthan

You'll recall that I blogged a bunch about our drive around Agra and Rajasthan here. Enjoy!

Note that these aren't all of the pictures of India... it's just a few places, but we have so many dang pics that they'll never all get up here, but if you're anxious to see any of the places we've talked about (and haven't posted pictures of), or if you'd like to see more of a place, just let me know and we'll try to put up more pictures.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Whirlwind tour of Rajasthan

The Indian state of Rajasthan is supposed to be this romantic, splendid place in India. This is the state where you'll still see the excellent Rajasthani mustaches, beautifully colored saris and scarves on the women, and romantic palaces in the desert. So, off we went, from Delhi, in a hired car (with driver for way too much money) for an 8-day tour. Here are the details.

Day 1 (13.Dec.06) - Our driver took us around Delhi, which we didn't have time to see earlier, having just arrived late on the 11th and having spent all day on the 12th setting up the trip. He took us around to some excellent places, including Raj Ghat, where M. Gandhi, his daughter I. Gandhi, and her son were all cremated. There is now a big park there with memorials to all of them. Across the street (which was so huge it took us literally 10 minutes to cross!) is the Mahatma's museum, which was both excellent and free! Inside they had The Man's glasses, staff, clothes, pictures, and a history of his life, as well as artistic paintings and drawings. The whole museum was very well done. In the last room of the museum, they have the clothes Gandhi was wearing when he was shot, as well as the bullets they took from his body and the urns they used to carry his ashes to the various parts of India after his cremation.

We also went to the largest mosque in India, Jama Masjid, where they let you climb one of the huge towers to get expansive views of Old and New Delhi, if it weren't so smoggy outside! The place was simply gorgeous, the views stunning, nevertheless, and since we went early in the morning, we basically had the place to ourselves.

Finally, we saw the ruins of Qtab Minar, a combination mosque, school, and victory tower for a Moghul conqueror who established the city of Delhi in the late 1100's. Then we set off for the city of Agra, which houses the Taj Mahal.

Day 2 - We got up early to visit the Taj before the sun rises, and after a huge hassle with security and "government" lockers (everything in India is a scam... some people, including Justine and a German guy we keep meeting in India, got to carry their backpacks in, but mine was confiscated and I was forced to put it in a locker, which I refused to pay for), we parted ways with a huge sum of money and walked into the courtyard facing the Taj. I know everyone says this, but you really can't believe how huge and gorgeous it is. But really, I couldn't help but think, "what a waste of money... think of all the good things that could have been done instead of building a tomb for yourself and your wife." Of course, everyone knows that the classical story of the Taj is that one of the Moghul rulers as a testament to his love for his favorite wife. Most people don't know that there's also a Mosque built on one side of the tomb (which is easily over 7 stories tall) and an identical structure used for public gatherings on the other side. Most people also don't know that the marble mausoleum (complete with amazing semi-precious-stone inlay work of jade, onyx, etc. from around the world) was completed many many years after her death. Plus, the whole grounds are designed to look like the Koranic description of Paradise (ie, heaven). Most people also probably don't know that the guy who built the place had a huge head and the perfect symmetry of the place, the gorgeous grounds, and the use of waterways to re-create Paradise means that the Shah (who is ALSO buried at the center of the Taj) probably had another idea about what the Taj's meaning really is. Draw your own conclusions... Our guide book also says that the traditional story of how the Shah was inconsolable after his wife's death is totally bogus. Instead, the guy died during a drug-and-alcohol-induced orgy. So, there you go.

After spending about 3 hours at the Taj, we left with our driver (who needs serious night-driving help and glasses, to boot), we went to the ghost city of Fathapur Sikri. One of the Moghul emperors decided to move the capital city from Agra to F.S. during his reign, but when the water situation there didn't pan out, the whole complex had to be abandoned. The two major areas that remain are the palace grounds and the mosque. Both are spectacular. The palace grounds consist of several palaces, one built for each of the emperor's three "official" wives: one Hindu, one Buddhist, and one Christian. Each structure is different and reflects the wife's particular religion. For example, the Christian wife's palace consists of 5 rooms laid out in the shape of a cross. There is some stunning art and architecture in this place, including the secret meeting hall, where a huge building, whose center is supported by a single giant column of red sandstone (actually, everything in F.S. is made from red sandstone, making it's near-uniform color scheme a feast for the eyes) had a place for the king to sit while his 9 ministers could address him from platforms around the walls 10 feet up.

In the mosque area, there's an excellent marble tomb for a famous Muslim cleric. The walls of the tomb are these huge (5 ft. by 5 ft.) marble slabs carved in the most fine, intricate designs that you couldn't believe. The marble is so thin in some places that you can see right through it. Just think of the artisan who was working on these things... one slip up and the whole thing is trash.

After F.S., we drove to the small town of Bharatpur, where there's a bird sanctuary.

Day 3 - We got up early to visit the bird sanctuary, Keoladeo, which was pretty cool, and we rented some really crummy bikes to ride through the place. Unfortunately, Rajasthan is in the midst of a 10-years long drought, so the lake that's supposed to be in the middle of the park was mostly dried up! That's okay, because we still saw tons of cool birds, including kingfishers, spotted owls, and a huge black-necked crane. After lunch, we drove to Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan, and went up to Nahagar fort to watch the sunset over the Pink City. Although it was quite hazy from the hilltop retreat, the sunset was still beautiful. The fort was nothing to crow about, except for the views.

Day 4 - Spent the day touring Jaipur's famous sights within the confines of the Pink City, the ancient walled city, which was painted a uniform color in the 1800's to welcome a British king. Everyone we had met in India said "oh, Jaipur, it's great! You'll love it!" But of course, we have a different idea. First of all, the city isn't pink. It's brick-red or orange. Secondly, the city is a major hassle. Now, you have to understand that everywhere you go in India, "touts" are trying to get your money. People yell and scream at you, throw their goods in front of your face, and demand that you come into their stores or buy whatever cheap crap they have. This is a given, and something you have to learn to deal with if you're going to have a decent time in India. In Jaipur, it was absolutely the worst. There was no sense of friendliness to the city, it was all shove, shout, glare, etc. At least in Varanasi and Kolkata we had a good time looking around, touring, and shopping. I can speak for both of us that Jaipur is the worst Indian city we've visited. Not only was it the most hassle-filled city, it was also super expensive to eat and sleep there (compared to the other cities we've seen), and the sights weren't even that good. The city palace was quite boring and the museums inside were terrible (that is, they had some nice things in them, but the layout was awful and descriptions of textiles, art, artifacts, etc. were non-existent in Hindi or English). The only semi-redeeming sight in Jaipur was the observatory, which was built in the early 1700's. It contains 18 instruments, including a gigantic sundial which has 2-second resolution and a device that allows you to follow stars, zodiac signs, and predict the strength of monsoons!

Day 5- We were supposed to go to Ranthambore National Park, where people are almost guaranteed sightings of Bengali tigers, but it was closed due to a strike. Instead, we went to Sariska Tiger Reserve, where they haven't had any tigers since 2005 thanks to a corrupt warden who devised a scheme to poison the tigers and sell off their carcases (according to our guide book). Although it was quite expensive to get in, we were anxious to spot some wild-life and hired a jeep, a driver, and a guide to drive us through the giant park looking for crocs, leopards, deer, birds, etc. We saw signs of a leopard, including a female Sambar (a huge deer) making alarm calls and stamping her feet to protect her fawn, but never actually saw one. We did get to see a huge croc, though, and many species of bird and of course, tons of monkeys. But overall, I wouldn't recommend coming here because the layout of the park is crappy, the guides and drivers let people stop to feed the animals, and it's too expensive. Our guide was silent for almost the entire time, never once offering information about the habits of the animals or pointing out any of the marked features that are in the map provided by the booking counter. It was a pretty lousy experience, even though the terrain was nice.

Originally, this was supposed to be an 8-day trip, but since Ranthambore was closed (we were going to spend two days there, skip Sariska, and go to the desert town of Pushkar), we decied to head back to Delhi early, since there was so much there we didn't get to see before.

Day 6 - In the morning, we returned to Sariska to walk through part of the park, but since you're required to have a guide, we had to hire the same lousy guide as yesterday. We walked along a mostly-dry river bed for an hour, spotting no wildlife except the "jungle crow" and a song bird or two. Finally, as we approached a watering hole, several monkeys were searching for food and we saw two kinds of kingfishers and a great eagle. It was a nice spot to stop, but as our time was up, we only got to watch for about 15 minutes before heading back. After the long drive back to Delhi, we found a really crummy guest house which charges too much to stay there (10 bucks for what is one of the two worst rooms we've seen in India... and we've stayed in some real $hi*-holes) and went to sleep. Oh yeah, we also had a really expensive dinner at a place called Ruby Tuesday's (I think this chain exists in the States, but I was really desperate to have something other than Indian food, which actually hasn't been as tasty as we had hoped for... more on that later) which served me a frozen pizza that they microwaved and a 7-dollar Heinekin. Worst money we've spent on this whole trip!

And now here it is, the 19th of December, and it's hot here in Delhi (thou. at night it gets quite cold). I don't know why everyone says "get out of Delhi as fast as you can." Justine and I both find the city quite charming and the least hassle of any Indian city we've been to. People are calm and relaxed here, the facilities are great, and the sights are some of the best we've seen in India (besides Varnasi and the Taj). It's a great town, but to tell the truth, I can't wait to get out of India (we fly to Singapore tomorrow night to celebrate Christmas with my Grandma and my Uncle's family!). I haven't had the experiences here I expected and I've been let down many times and in many places. China was really difficult to travel in, but being there was so rewarding to us. For all the complaining we did on this blog a while back, I had such a good time there that I will surely go back to China before too long. I can not say the same thing about India. India, too, is difficult to travel in. Things are far apart, transportation is difficult (unless you pay huge sums of money to hire a private car, but since we were short-changed by our hospitalization, there was no way we could have seen half of the sights we did in Raj. in even 10 days), and things are mostly really filthy when you're travelling on a budget. These things we can put up with, as we did in China and Nepal, but the experiences I have had here do not even come close to the ones I had in China and Nepal. If I came back to India, I'd like to see Delhi again, because I've liked it here, but I would not visit any of the places I've seen in the last month.

Now, maybe I'm not being fair to India. Maybe we were just in a bad frame of mind, since we did start things off badly in Kolkata. Perhaps we were not mentally prepared. Maybe we're hitting the 4-month lull (Dec. 16 marked 4 months since we left SF). Maybe if we came back again, re-freshed, we'd have a totally different experience. But the fact is, we've been looking forward to leaving for SG for several days now, and I don't think I'd chose to come back to India any time soon.


PS - Pics to follow soon of India and Nepal when I get to Singapore. Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

From Bodhgaya, India

Seriously... sorry for the severe lack of posting since we got to India. I know you're all desperate to know what adventures we're on now, but I just don't have time to do a full entry now, so once again, here's a shorty. Also, since we haven't done an audio blog in a while, I think we'll record one tonight and I'll try to upload it tomorrow to fill you all in on our fabulous train rides from Kolkata to Varanasi (the holiest Hindu city in the world, where people still bathe in the river Ganga, aka the Ganges river, and still come to be burned on its shores) and from Varanasi to Gaya/Bodhgaya. So check back soon.

Well, as I mentioned in our previous post, we made it safely out of the Kolkata hospital, had a decent time in the city, but mostly spent time recovering our strength and resolve to be in India. Because we lost so much time in Kolkata, our plans for the country had to be really altered. First, we weren't going to go to Varanasi at all, but our friend Lana (whom we met in Nepal... one of our yoga buddies from SF) insisted on it. I'm so glad we did because the Ghats (the stairs on the western shore of the Ganga) are full of celebrations of life and death. Although the Ganga is filthy as all heck (pollution from industrial plants up-river, dead humans and animals, sewage, garbage, etc.), people bathe daily in the water (mostly men and women only on special occasions), make pilgrimages there to die and be burned at the shores (because they believe that the waters are so holy, thanks to their god Shiva, who built the city, that dying in Varanasi takes you instantly into paradise). Nightly, there are also special ritual offerings to the river goddess, Ganga, and to Shiva. These are called a puja ceremony, and it lasts for about 1 hour and is peformed by 10 Brahmin priests. The city was also very lively and although poverty and annoying touts were seemingly endless, Varanasi was totally awesome and inspiring. People living near the Ghats are living as they have for literally thousands of years. That kind of living history can not be found in most places, and Varanasi is highly recommended. Also, they have an excellent silk shop there, where we spent a crazy small amount of money for a bunch of nice stuff that my sister will take home from Singapore! Finally, we saw an awesome animatronic museum/memorial to the Hindu story of the Ramayana built in the 1960's; think: Chuck-E-Cheeze style but worse! It was hilarious but housed in a beautiful white marble building (see right) with Hindi writing on the inside of the entire Ramayana story, along with gorgeous etched and painted mirrors inside depicting scenes from the story.

Okay, so after Varanasi, we took a long terrible train ride over to Gaya, 10 km from Bodhgaya. Bodhgaya is known as the most holy Buddhist site in the world because this is the spot that the Buddha supposedly gained enlightenment 2500 years ago. In fact, they're replanted an offspring of the tree he was sitting under in the spot. The lineage of the tree is quite well-known, appearantly. It goes something like this: An Indian king named Ashoka destroyed the tree when he came across all the monestaries that sprung up around the site after the Buddha started teaching (we also visited the site of his first sermon, called Sarnath, near Varanasi). But, the tree was not destroyed before a Sri Lankan monk had taken a cutting of the tree back to his home monestary in SL. An offspring of that tree was brought back to Bodhgaya by Ashoka after he converted to Buddhism (Ashoka is famous for spreading Buddhism around Asia by force and for builiding many huge temples, monestaries, and pillars that praise Buddhism). The granddaughter of The Tree has since died, and the one here now is a granddaughter of that and has been at the site for over 125 years now. In the last 50 years, Bodhgaya has seen a revitilization as a Buddhist pilgrimage site, with no less than 20 monestaries from around the world being built up here (most of them since the late 80's). It's a beautiful place.

I should also mention that we've met a ton of really cool people in Varanasi and Bodhgaya, both Indians and other travellers. And to be perfectly honest, we don't love India the way we thought we would or the way other people have told us the love it. It's a strangely fascinating country, but I couldn't spend 2 years here like some people we've met.... it's frustrating and tireing. In fact, until recently, we didn't think we'd even get a chance to meet Indians outside of people who wanted our money (those are the most annoying kinds of people, and they're the same in every part of the world, it seems!). But if you eat at local restraunts, ride the trains, and just hang around long enough, the riff-raff starts to ignore you and you get a chance to meet the real people of India, which has been really rewarding.

Well, more on the annoying stuff in the audio blog... 'till then,