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Friday, October 31, 2003

South Rajasthan
Mt. Abu, India

What a change from Bombay! We're in Mt. Abu now, just on the southern tip of Rajathan. It's a nice town up high in the mountains, with warm days and cool nights. Originally intending to just spend 2 days here, we are probably going to end up staying here for an extra night or two. The family-run Shree Ganesh hotel, is both very affordable and comfortable. Just to give you an example, I'm currently on the PC, in Usha (the daughter)'s room while mom and Usha are napping on the bed just three feet away.

This morning, we went on a trek to the 'secret lake' with Lalit, the son. The trail was very scenic, and Selma, the dog, had a great time running ahead of us. At the lake, Lalit made us Chai tea! We didn't even know that he was carrying a pot, and milk on his back.

We arrived here yesterday afternoon in a taxi from Udaipur. Our driver is a friendly fellow, who actually drove us from the udaipur airport to our hotel on Monday night. We had originally planned on taking the bus, but considering that it will take us 7 hours, instead of 3, we opted for his personal service (very comfortable).

We spent 3 nights in Udaipur, the last 2 were at the Raj Palace Hotel. In a room much bigger than anywhere else we've stayed, we had stained glass windows, window cushion seats, 2 armchairs, a coffee table, and marble floors and furniture. It felt very luxurious indeed. We spent an afternoon touring the City Palace; a beautiful complex full of marble, enamel and stained glass art, miniature paintings, ivory doors, etc. Parts of the palace is now a museum; the current Maharana still has residence in a different building in the back of the complex.

In the evening, we enjoyed a lovely dinner at the terrace of the Lake Palace Hotel. This hotel is situated out in Lake Pichola; we got to the hotel by boat. The entire hotel is very luxurious indeed; if anyone has $450-$2,000 a night to spend, it's definitely quite nice! ;)

It's October 31st now, halloween day at home, but none of that here. Mt. Abu is a very popular place for Indian tourists, and the area is still full of them. With a week's holiday, many Gujarats (the bordering state) spend their vacation here. By Monday, it will be quite peaceful here.

Our plans for the next couple of weeks have changed again; we're spending less time in Pushkar (expensive because of the fair) and Jaipur, and may be adding Jodhpur and Fatehpur Sikri, and dropping Ranthambore N.P. It's always great to meet other travellers and getting advice from locals on a better itinerary. On our trek this morning, we enjoyed sharing stories with Audrey (French) and Christian (French/Australia), and Cornelia and Francesco (Italians). Audrey is also travelling around the world for a year, and she is on the last couple of months. She has already given us great tips on places that she's been, that we'll soon be going to.

We'll share our next steps with you as soon as we have that figured out. It's going to be tricky getting train/bus tickets this weekend because most of the Indians will be travelling as they start work again on Monday. We'll see... this is such a nice place to hang out so we're in no rush.

Happy "trick or treating", to those at home.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Mumbai Musings
Udaipur, India

We've been in India for about five days now, and while we've been taking it relatively easy so far (the first couple of days were basically just getting over jet lag), we've had many impressions and observations to share.

Diwali in Mumbai
Mumbai (many people still use Bombay, some people use Slum-bai) pretty much lived up to its reputation as being a loud, fairly large, pretty dirty, but very vibrant city. We walked by the Gateway to India monument where the bombing occurred earlier this year; we were wary while there, but not spooked enough to not visit. The whole area was still crowded with locals and tourists; if we hadn't been told that that was the place where it had happened, we wouldn't have known.

Our arrival time was fortuitous, because it coincided with Diwali, which is one of the biggest festivals of the year, celebrated all over the country. It's basically the same thing as our Christmas; people get together and eat tons of foods (especially sweets), the stores and streets are decorated in flowers and lights, and there are thousands of firecrackers going off into the wee hours of the morning. Ok, so that last part wasn't too much fun when we were trying to sleep, but it definitely added to the ambience.

There was a very interesting letter written in a local paper, apparently by a Hindu person, that shared an interesting perspective on the Hindu-Muslim relationship. It read:
"A Happy Diwali to all Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis... to ALL Indians. And a message to the Muslims--please don't put is all in the same basket.... [sic] I want peace--for all.
If I need to pray I'll come to your mosque and you're most welcome to pray in my temple. Let us make Diwali a festival of Light, not of Flames."

The Caste System
I don't know much about the caste system, but I do know that it does exist as it is pivotal to the practice of Hinduism; it is possibly a source of much of the poverty that still exists in this country today. Briefly, Hindu society is theoretically divided into four ranks: The brahmin, the priestly and scholarly caste, came from Purusha's mouth; the ksatriya, the warrior-ruler caste, from his arms; the vaishya, or merchants, from his thighs; and the shudra, or laborers, from his feet. I have been interested in observing especially those commonly referred to as "Untouchables" or Dalits (the Opressed), who typically work cleaning toilets or leather tanning, etc.

We were eating dinner a small vegetarian cafe one evening, when the waiter who was collecting our payment dropped a coin accidentally on the floor. Even though it was just at his feet, he didn't pick it up himself, but stood there and called for a disheveled boy who came running, picked up the coin, and gave it back to the waiter. The waiter then kissed the coin and went on about his business, while the little boy hustled back to a corner where he sat huddled with his hands wrapped around his bare feet.

No we have no idea what that was about really, but it was evident that there was some kind of difference in class there. While we're not seeking to understand the caste system, it will be interesting to keep our eyes open for any evidence of differences in behaviour.

Other Newspaper Notes
There are a few observations that come from reading the local newspapers as well, notably:

There was a lot of noise about the evidence of police corruption in Mumbai recently. Apparently there was some fraud guy named Telgi who bought out policemen of all ranks to "slow down" the prosecution of his case, and even to allow him to eat meals at home instead of his jail cell. When I asked a few other people about this, Mumbaikers were obviously pretty embarrassed and uncomfortable. The guidebooks don't even recommend going to the police in some cases, unless you are willing to part with a bit of baksheesh to get things done (i.e. a few rupees to grease a few palms can go a long way). Things work a bit differently here.

The whole fascination with Bollywood and the incredible film industry that is centered in Mumbai is pretty interesting. People follow films stars and their family's movements like you wouldn't believe; there were whole sections in the paper on the latest movie releases and whether they were bombs, hits, ultra-hits, or mega-hits. On TV, there are more movie channels than anything else, most of them showing that uniquely Indian dancing that is common in every Bollywood movie. We enjoyed watching them a bit, they're definitely very entertaining.

The other fascination that people seem to have here is with cricket, the equivalent to football in Turkey for most men, I think. The recent victory of the Indian team over Australia was plastered in every newpaper publication we saw... although they had cricket at my high school, I never picked it up, so am interested to figure out how that game is acually played. Hmm, this might be similar to the typical American's fascination with curling, back during the 2002 Winter Olympics!

Well, we did a city tour in Mumbai, and visited most of the points of interest, the Hanging Gardens, Marine Drive, the Fort Area, Victoria Station, the Prince of Wales Museum, and the Taj Mahal Hotel. We also got some administrative work done with our air tickets at the United Airlines office, and started to put together our itinerary for the next few weeks.

Basically, we've come north up into Rajasthan, where we will be visiting Udaipur, Mount Abu, Jaipur, and Pushkar (for the annual mela, or camel fair). We'll then make our way to Ranthambore National Park, then Agra (Taj Mahal of course), and finally Varanasi, before heading north up into Nepal.

Unfortunately, we cut out many things that we'd like to see that we'll have to save for next time, namely Ajanta and Ellora caves, the massive palace down in Mysore, the towns of Rishikesh and Hardiwar, and the capital city of Delhi (we're not really missing Delhi all THAT much, I think). As usual, too many places to see and not enough time, but we certainly don't want to be rushed, so have picked out just a few places to explore this time.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Deep Thoughts From Turkey
Mumbai, India

Well, we're certainly not in Kansas anymore... it has taken us about three days to adjust from the jet lag of doing Turkey-USA-Germany-India in five days. However, we're now on our feet during regular daylight hours (finally), and have a bit of time to blog. I've been itching to comment on a few last things on Turkey before they slip from my mind; these random thoughts are completely subjective and have no order whatsoever, so please take it all with a grain of salt!

Turkey's Bus System
It's funny, Lonely Planet says that every first-time visitor comments on the busses in Turkey, and well, we're no exception. The bus network there is the most developed that we've ever experienced (not that we can really say we're avid bus users). However, the otogar in Istanbul seemed as massive as JFK in New York, except instead of planes, there were hundreds of coach busses navigating their way through this multi-tiered concrete maze.

We were on busses a LOT in Turkey, and although I wouldn't want to do too many overnight bus trips when I'm 70 years old, I have to admit, they weren't nearly as bad as I thought they'd be. Each clean, modern coach bus had at least one conductor who went up and down the aisle serving coffee, tea, and refreshments. Often he sprinkled rose water on passengers hands, which was curiously refreshing; Jen was so taken with this that she bought a bottle of the stuff herself.

We certainly recommend that you try out the Turkish bus network, and see if you are as impressed with it as we were.

Turkish Language Skills
I think the Turks are great linguists; we encountered all kinds of people who spoke all kinds of different languages. Of course, the usual touts and street salesmen knew the typical "konichiwa" that we're all too familiar with, but we met several Turks who spoke multiple languages, especially German (there seems to be a strong Germany-Turkey relationship, as many Turkish people emmigrated there apparently).

Our driver in Pammukale surprised us by yapping out a few phrases in Cantonese... his accent was atrocious (even for me, the non-Chinese speaking guy), but we could totally understand what he was saying. He had us in stitches when he was yelling "fai dee, fai dee!" at the slow drivers in front of him ("faster, faster!" in Cantonese).

Nazar Boncuk - The Evil Eye
The Boncuk is a little magic glass stone that protects you from the "Evil Eye," and was seen everywhere we went in Turkey. The force of the evil eye, or Nazar, seems to be a widely accepted element in daily Turkish life. The word "Nazar" means seeing or looking, and is used in literally translated phrases, e.g. "Nazar touched him," to describe someone who went blind.

At first, we thought the blue glass piece was a bit of tourist debris, but after a while, we came to learn that there was actually some significance to it. There are Nazar Boncuk's hanging everywhere... from taxi rear mirrors, bus windows, store doorframes, bumper stickers, you name it. We did end up picking up a few for souvenirs after all.

Turkey in the European Union
We're fairly ignorant of the details of this whole issue, but I did talk to a few people about it. Turkey has been trying to get into the EU for some time now, and I believe their most recent application was rejected once again. Turkey has apparently made all kinds of changes in previous years in an effort to gain acceptance to the EU, such as abolishing the death penalty, reviewing the Turkish Constitution, ensuring transparency in public finance, etc.

However, from a simple layperson's point of view, it's just as complicated an issue on the ground as it is on paper. If you are standing in the modern office buildings of Istanbul, or in a posh nightclub with people wearing all the latest trendy fashions, or by the eight lane super highway, you might think that you were anywhere in Europe. But if you are standing in Urfa in Eastern Turkey in the middle of the spice bazaar, or in the park among women completely veiled in black, or perhaps just beside a mosque with the call to prayer echoing above you; well... the last place you might think you're in is Europe.

It's a complicated issue; it will be interesting to see how things progress over the next while.

Conversation with Soldiers
We were at a rest stop one day when I chatted with three Turkish soldiers who were also taking a break from transporting their APC's. Turkish men who reach a certain age (19 I think?) are required to put in time for military service. The required time was recently reduced to 15 months, and our guide told us that if you chose to not receive any pay, you could reduce your "military sentence" to six months. He said, because of this rule, Turkey has one of the largest armed forces in the world, second only to China.

The soldiers didn't speak much English, but talking about Turkish football teams certainly broke the ice. I tried to explain to them the concept of hockey... they didn't really get it until I grabbed a nearby broom and started shooting an imaginary puck around.

I asked them what they thought about the recent government decision to send Turkish troops to Iraq, and the answer from one guy was pretty universal: (paraphrased) "We're soldiers, we don't ask about where we're going. If we're told to go somewhere, we go. But if you ask my wife, she will tell you that we should mind our own business, we have enough problems of our own to deal with."

The Stop Sign Man
This isn't really a Turkish anecdote specifically, but a poignant short story nonetheless. As our van took a curve on the way to Mt. Nemrut, our guide told us to look at the man who was standing on the corner. He seemed to be a bit elderly, was slightly stooped, and was carrying a Stop/Go sign in his hand.

All the drivers and guides apprenently knew this man. He was standing there because almost 20 years ago, his son died in a car accident on that very curve in the road. He had been standing there directing traffic and asking people to slow down for every single day since then.

Politics and Effects of the War
Like many of the men we chatted with in Morocco, it seemed that many people we met in Turkey were keen on politics and were pretty up to date with the who's who of Turkish and international politics. It was amusing to see two men sitting at a cafe reading a paper with the picture of Arnold winning the California election; the two men were laughing their heads off.

Just like the other places we've visited, there seems to be a great respect for American people in general, but a distaste for the American government and their current foreign policy (perhaps not as much as North African countries). Our guide pointed out the traffic on the road to Iraq (we were just a few hours away) and to Syria (we were just 10 minutes away at one point) and said that there used to be a lot more traffic on those roads. Since the first Gulf War, there hadn't been as many fuel trucks and lorries carrying goods across the borders (although I wasn't convinced about his side remarks suggesting that Turkish-Iraqi relations were very good).

The Kurdish problems that seemed to exist in Eastern Turkey were apparently gone, according to a few of our guides when the topic was brought up. The capture of the PKK leader Ocalan in 1999 apparently did wonders in terms of stabilizing the region. Another explanation was that there wasn't much trouble with the Kurds who lived in Turkey, but rather the problems were with the Kurds who lived in Syria and Iraq.

In any case, Turkish politics seemed far more "real" and dynamic than what we're used to in North America. With so many neighbours on their borders and an ever-changing political landscape, being the country where East literally meets West is bound to keep you on your toes.


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