Saturday, September 29, 2018

Weekend in Pondicherry

We all know that India was a former British colony, but I never knew there were pockets of the country under French control as late as the 1950s.  One of these is the city of Pondicherry, on the southeastern coast of India.  This seaside city, with its touches of French cuisine, culture, and architecture, is a pleasant getaway from the bustle of Delhi.

I took a walking tour offered by Storytrails.  The tour guide told us fabulous stories about the battles back and forth between England and France for control of the city, the quirks of the various city rulers, and the intrigues as the city developed.  Even though the tour was in the late afternoon, the temperatures were hovering around 90 degrees, so I was grateful for stops in the shade and even more grateful once the sun started to set!

Raj Nivas governor's residence

The tour ended with a farewell drink.  South India is known for its coffee, but since I'm not a coffee drinker, I asked the guide if there were any other options.  She suggested masala milk.  Never having heard of it, I responded:  "Yes, I want to try that!"  Turns out masala milk is milk boiled with ground nuts, saffron, cardamom, and sugar.  It has a bright yellow color, almost like an egg or lemon custard, and a lumpy consistency.  I immediately loved its sweet, creamy wonderfulness!

Erica discovering an Indian treat: masala milk

From Pondicherry, I took a side trip to Auroville, a community that eschews material items, champions hard work, and embraces self-discovery along a path seeking peace, harmony, and human unity.  I will limit myself to that factual description of Auroville's raison d'ĂȘtre and refrain from any further terms that may have positive or negative connotations.

Erica with depiction of Auroville's values

The centerpiece of Auroville is the Matrimandir, which is really hard not to compare visually to Epcot Center or a golden golf ball.  Matrimandir literally means Temple of the Mother and is considered by Aurovilians to be the soul of their city.  This is their place of concentration, introspection, and consciousness.  Visitors may enter only with advance reservations, so I viewed it solely from the outside.

Erica at the Matrimandir

In addition to the above highlights, I ate raw oysters (in India!) and drank a roadside coconut.  It was a weekend full of new adventures!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Old Delhi and Jama Masjid

Modern Delhi is actually the conglomeration of successive cities built by different ruling dynasties over the centuries.  Each ruler wanted to make his mark by building a new capital city, all within the area now known as Delhi.  The neighborhood now called Old Delhi is the former city of Shahjahanabad, built by Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame) in the 1600s.

While others will surely dispute me, I would say that Old Delhi is the historical center of Delhi.  It is a must-do on any tourist circuit of the city, housing important historical, religious, and cultural sights as well as market areas where you can buy everything from electronics to clothing to spices.  And for Westerners, Old Delhi gives you a taste of "real" urban India, with its crowds, colors, smells, sounds, and overall hustle and bustle.

I recently ventured into Old Delhi to visit Jama Masjid, which translates to Friday Mosque.  It is India's largest mosque (some say) and was also built by Shah Jahan.  It has a massive courtyard that can accommodate 25,000 people.  The prayer hall features an exterior hallway designated for worshippers, but curiously, it did not appear to have any entrances, for worshippers or tourists.

Erica in the courtyard of Jama Masjid

The highlight of a visit to Jama Masjid is climbing to the top of the minaret.  The stairway of the minaret is a tight spiral staircase that barely accommodates its two-way traffic.  I also noticed none of the ubiquitous signs in the US warning of a 120-step climb in claustrophobic, dark conditions.  But I reach the top without incident and was treated to a new view of Delhi.  I was struck by the view of tightly-clustered buildings, of roughly similar height, with no significant features to break up the expanse - an urban plain stretching out towards the horizon.

Erica on the minaret's narrow spiral staircase

Delhi - from above

As you may be able to tell from the above picture, a final adventure awaited me.  Just as I exited Jama Masjid, the dark grey skies opened up into a downpour.  I ran towards an auto rickshaw (tuk tuk) but the wily driver quoted an outrageous price, citing the pouring rain.  Refusing to be taken for that kind of ride, I plodded along several blocks to the metro stop, arriving completely soaked to the bone, but triumphant in the experience of my Old Delhi outing.

Saturday, June 23, 2018


Perhaps not well-known to those who haven't been to India, Jaipur is the third city in the popular Golden Triangle tourist circuit, which includes New Delhi and Agra, the location of the Taj Mahal.

While technically outside of Jaipur, Amber Fort is its most popular sight.  The Fort is impressively perched on a mountainside, making it striking to view from the outside while also offering beautiful views of the surrounding countryside - a boon for tourists, but obviously a strategic decision by the maharajas who started construction in the 16th century.

Amber Fort rising behind us

Inside, the Fort has multiple courtyards and halls, some plain and timeworn, others with well-preserved carvings and decorations.  Our tour guide especially delighted in showing us the women's courtyard, which was designed with secluded walkways and entrances to each bed chamber so the king could visit different wives on different nights without the others knowing!

The Ganesha Gate leads to the king's apartments

Back in Jaipur, I was fascinated by Jantar Mantar, an observatory built in the 18th century by Maharaja Jai Singh II, the founder and namesake of Jaipur.  The site is a collection of massive, stone sundials, calendars, and other instruments for reading the sun and stars.  One of the sundials measures time to an accuracy of mere seconds.  Impressive!!

Jantar Mantar's "small" sundial.  Yes, there's a bigger one!

A final highlight of Jaipur was the Hawa Mahal.  The structure dates to the time in India when women could not be seen uncovered by strangers.  It is a wall with many small windows, built adjacent to the City Palace along the main street of Jaipur, through which the women of the royal household could view the activities and important events of the city.  While the purpose of the Hawa Mahal is unappealing to the modern, Western woman, there's no denying its visual beauty!

Stunning pink facade of the Hawa Mahal

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Defence Colony

My neighborhood in New Delhi is called Defence Colony.  It was created after India gained independence from the British in 1947 to allocate land to Indian soldiers whose former homes were across the border in the new state of Pakistan.  It was carefully planned with a commercial market area, parks, and measured plots of land based on military rank.  Although the neighborhood has changed significantly in 70 years, and new construction continues to change it, the outlines of this original plan are still evident today.

My favorite aspect of Defence Colony is all the parks.  It seems I can't walk more than five minutes without coming across a small park.  My favorite, and the one closest to my house, is called Sukun Park.  It has a walking path around the outside, a playground, a basketball court, lots of park benches...and at this time of year, colorful flowers!  I often detour to walk through it, just to enjoy a bit of beauty and green in the midst of a busy day! 

Enjoying the blooming flowers of Sukun Park

Another fabulous feature of my neighborhood is the Defence Colony market.  The market is more like what we would call a strip mall in the U.S.  But it has basic grocery stores, fresh fruit and veggie sellers, small home appliance/electronics stores, drug stores, book stores with basic office supplies, florists, bakeries with great fresh bread and fancy cakes, coffee shops, cell phone service provider kiosks, dry cleaners, restaurants, bars, and more!  And it's less than a five minute walk from my house, so it's perfect for running quick errands!

Defence Colony Market

Of course, this is still India, so Defence Colony is not all idyllic.  Most streets don't have sidewalks, so I have to walk in the narrow streets and mind the cars, rickshaws, and motorbikes flying past.  This is especially important around the market area where vehicles are moving through, parking, and dropping off passengers, all while I'm trying to look at the store fronts to find the right store without getting run over!  And reminders like the ones below are required to keep the neighborhood moderately orderly and clean.  But I love my apartment, I love my neighborhood, and I wouldn't want to live anywhere other than Defence Colony!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Wagah Border Closing Ceremony

On the India-Pakistan border, between the cities of Attari (Pakistan) and Wagah (India), there is a fascinating daily border closing ceremony.  Each side has public stadium seating where citizens and visitors can watch the spectacle.  On the Indian side, viewers began to arrive more than an hour in advance to claim free seats.

Erica eagerly anticipates the start of the ceremony

When we arrived, the crowd was already in high spirits.  A commentator was leading loud patriotic cheers, and vendors were selling Indian flags and hats.  A crowd of teenagers and young adults were gathered in the central area, jumping up and down to the chants, taking turns waving a huge Indian flag, and dancing to the loud music, which included "Jai Ho" from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack.

Love those hats!!

Once the border guards came out, the crowd just roared.  The small group marched in formation before gathering together at the center.  From there, guards came forward alone or in pairs to high-step toward the gate with Pakistan.  They were swinging their arms so high I worried they might dislocate their shoulders.  They also occasionally paused to kick their leg up high enough to hit the tips of their fabulous red fan hats.  Again I was concerned about bodily harm, this time in the form of pulled hammies.

High arms...

...and high kicks!

I can only imagine the same activity was occurring on the Pakistani side.  But I didn't have a clear view and, honestly, was too fascinated watching the Indian guards to care.  The ceremony was designed to appeal directly to the nationalism and patriotism of each respective crowd, and from the cheering of the Indian spectators around me, it was doing its job.  

Carefully orchestrated flag lowering

Eventually, the marching stopped and we turned our attention to the large Indian and Pakistani flags hoisted directly above the border gate.  In unison, the flags were slowly lowered, maintaining the same height until they reached the bottom, were removed, and carefully folded.  The guards marched out with the flags, the gate was closed, and another day of Indian-Pakistani rivalry ended.

Jim and Emily cheer for India

Enjoy this short video I took for a taste of the marching and high-stepping:

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Tiger Safari

When I learned that tiger safaris were available in India, I knew it was something I had to do.  So I jumped on the opportunity to join a group trip earlier this month.  Although everyone was pumped to see tigers, we also saw lots of other interesting animals along the way.

One was the rufous treepie.  These orange and black birds were bold and fearless around us.  We first encountered them when our vehicle was stopped and one of them landed on our vehicle's side-view mirror and then hopped over to the window sill.  He peered inside as if he was inspecting the dashboard guages.  Maybe he should have looked harder because the driver had to try several times to get the engine to turn over when we were ready to move along.  Later that morning, we took a rest stop and I pulled out some coins to pay for the toilet.  Suddenly I felt something on my head.  It was a rufuous treepie who mistook the coins in my hand for food!

The perfect perch for a hungry rufous treepie

I had learned during my safaris in Africa that although everyone gets excited about the big cats, the most common type of animal to see is antelope.  This didn't bother me because I think they are graceful creatures and I enjoyed using my safari eyes to distinguish among the various types of antelope.  True to form, we saw several different antelopes on this trip.  The most common was the spotted deer.  Our guide joked they are called that because they are so populous that everywhere you look you can spot one.  Hardy-har-har.

Spotted deer grazing under the trees

We also saw several groups of grey langurs.  Thankfully, these monkeys weren't as friendly as the rufuous treepie so we didn't have any close encounters.  But we did get to watch them chase each other and hang out in the trees.  

Love this langur's perfectly straight l-o-n-g tail!

When we set out on our afternoon safari ride, we had barely entered the reserve when we saw a group of vehicles stopped on the road ahead of us.  We pulled up and looked out excitedly as the guide told us there was a tiger!  We watched as the tiger appeared and walked through the trees alongside our vehicle.  Our driver executed a three-point turn and followed her, stopping so that we could again wait for her to approach and snap photos as the tiger walked past.  We did this again until we encountered more vehicles on the road.  Those drivers didn't have space to turn around, so they ended up driving backwards as our growing convoy continued to follow alongside the tiger.  I would guess the tiger came as close as 25 yards at one point!  We followed the tiger for close to 30 minutes before she hunkered down in the brush and we got tired of waiting for her to start walking again.

Tiger sighting!!

We were so excited about the tiger, but our safari ride had only just begun, so we continued our drive.  We saw more rufous treepies, spotted deer and langur, as well as peacocks, crocodiles, and other birds and antelopes.  And as we were leaving a few hours later, we saw the tiger again!  Our guide said it was the same tiger, who had continued on her walk.  How lucky we were...not only to see a tiger at all, but to see one up close multiple times!!

Erica and Karime with the beautiful Rajastan landscape

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Adventures in Transportation - Moto

Sometimes in Delhi, getting to your destination is half the adventure.  Recently, a friend and I decided to check out a new restaurant.  We found the location in Uber and set off.  As we neared it, we found ourselves in a busy market district, so we hopped out of the car, figuring it would be easier to search for it on foot.  We walked up and down the street, and down a back alley, but found no sign of the restaurant.  We asked some shopkeepers with no success.  Eventually we called the restaurant, and embarked on a fruitless conversation of trying to explain where we were with very few landmarks to go from.  Finally, we looked up the restaurant in Google Maps and discovered it was 1/2 kilometer away on a different street!  It was a nice enough night, so we decided to walk.

After a couple blocks, the restaurant called back.  We said we were now next to a metro station.  The restaurant said "Stay there, we will send someone."  Not sure who we should be on the lookout for, or how they would identify us, we stayed put until we saw a guy approach on a moto, looking like he was searching for someone.  He was our ride!  The two of us gingerly climbed on the back.  The driver s-l-o-w-l-y turned the bike around, but lost his balance and nearly tipped us over on the side!  Now pointed in the right direction, he again s-l-o-w-ly accelerated, and as we reached cruising speed and left the side access road, followed the shoulder directly into busy oncoming traffic!

This feels perfectly safe!

Luckily we only traveled like that a couple blocks before turning off onto a quiet street and pulling up to the restaurant.  Our fearless driver humored us with a photo.  Then we enjoyed a nice meal, which was uneventful after the journey of getting there!  

Driver and chariot