Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Beautiful Gem: Jaipur

I captured this photograph while we were touring a palace in the city of Jaipur. This photograph is a perfect image to describe the people in this country. If I had to pick one word to sum up the people, it would be hospitable. Friendly and kind were other words that came to mind, but the word that describes almost every Indian you encounter is hospitable. People want you to feel welcome wherever you go. You are offered beverages in people's homes and stores. The wait staff at restaurants is so attentive to your every need. The hotel staff will bend over backwards for a simple request. The people go out of there way to make you feel welcome. Even today a group of children ran over towards us and kept saying hello and were grinning at us as they waved us good bye. As we drive the narrow streets throughout the cities, all ages of strangers wave at us with a huge grins on their faces.

The woman here in the photo is wearing bright colored clothing which is typical of the Rajasthan region. The sari she is wearing is absolutely beautiful and if you look at her face, she is smiling. She is sitting on these steps, trying to stay cool, and smiling at a stranger. As a foreigner traveling in this country and seeing extreme poverty with individuals having nothing and wearing almost nothing, it is hard not to feel sorry for them. Indeed, there is so much suffering out there and tackling that as an organization or nation is a daunting task. The book titled, We Are Like That Only, describes the bottom of the pyramid so well in India: "At the bottom of the pyramid there ar 600 million people who earn less than what the World Bank dfines as poverty levels. However, collectively, they account for a market opportunity of US $367 billion (in 2008), which is approximately double that of Singapore."

All the places I have traveled to I have learned that the beauty of the country is not just in the scenery or architecture, but it's the people. The people are what is driving this nation and changing the makeup of this country. People are what get me excited about life. The people here have beautiful hearts and there is a lesson that can be learned from how accepting they are of all different backgrounds. As we toured Bhandari Jewellers, a jewelry store in Jaipur that cuts and designs jewelry within the store, the owner told us that all the men working in front of us were from all various backgrounds. One was muslim, another hindu, and he was catholic. And here they were in front of us coexisting. There is beauty in these people and it's been wonderful to be immersed into this culture.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Painted Window

Outside my window are tall sky rises, shops, and advertisements. Ahmedabad is bustling with activity. Everywhere there is noise and crowdedness except for right outside my window. Directly below my room is a scene that seems it was shipped from the countryside. Nowhere else is there a large plot of grassy land with two shacks. A clothes line holds a few articles of clothing that a cow walked under a couple of hours ago. New to the scene is a man who seemed to have come from the beautiful house next door. He is standing on the roof and talking with another man. I noticed that there is a gate surrounding their plotted land, except the gate is open. Soon after I notice this I see the white skinny cow walk outside the gate and down the street. Is that a wild cow that just roams these streets? Or does that cow know to come back at the end of the day back to where the food supply is. I noticed another baby cow nervously standing by the wall for a long period of time. I could sit here and stare out this window down at this scene for hours. Oh yes, that is what I did.

I keep staring at a woman who is wearing red and want to know her story. How is she living on this plot of land when there are sky rises surrounding her everywhere? How is she living what seems like a poor life when that piece of land is surely worth a great deal in value? Does she like it here? What are her dreams? "We live in society and cannot automatically assume a position above or separated from the gender-based expectations and disabilities that are routine in social interaction." This quote makes we think about this woman 5 stories below me in a different light as I see her cleaning and taking care of this plot of land. Initially I looked out my window and saw the garbage piled behind the house and the poorly constructed buildings and thought, "what a horrible view." But now, I see how neat the inside of there house is, how much pride the people on this property have in clean clothes or making sure there fire wood is neatly piled. This is my favorite view from a window. Instead of a beautiful sunset, building, or ocean in the distant, I have someone's home with layers of a different stories that have painted my window.

Monday, July 11, 2011

India for Elephants

Today I did something I have always wanted to do. Something I had put on my life's bucket list. Today I road an elephant. An elephants has always been one of my favorite animals and I even have an elephant hair ring I purchased in Africa when I first saw the beautiful animals. I not only got to look at these beautiful animals here in India painted with bright colors all on their faces, but go to sit on top of one. An advertisement from the book, Branding India, describes these elephants perfectly: "Just how do you paint a canvas that's 10 feet high, over four tons and does not stand still."

I slide on top of my elephant named Lachea, 45 years old, strapped on my seat belt, which consisted of a metal road hooked in front of me, and road for thirty minutes to the top of a mountain. Naturally, the elephant moves slowly, which was just perfect in order to soak in the views of the beautiful area we were in. We were just outside of Jaipur overlooking green lush mounting and water. My heart sang with joy. Surrounding the area we were in was a wall that looked shockingly similar to the Great Wall of China. As if the view couldn't get any better, we arrived at our final destination: a palace that began construction in the 17th century. Not only was the view incredible on the side of these mountain, but the details inside this palace were amazing.

My favorite part was the mirrored room. The mirrored room had carvings, intricate cutouts, and hundreds of different shapes mirrored. I was told that candles used to hang in this room and the room before me seemed to sparkle as I imagined that scene.

My elephant Lachea took me to the top of an absolutely wonderful morning journey. The more I see this country and the forts and palaces, majority of them constructed in the 17th century, I realize how beautiful the structures in this country used to be and how romantic India is.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Love at First Sight

My alarm went off at 4:30am and I crawled out of bed to meet our group at 5:00am for our excursion departure. There wasn't a tired eye on our bus as we drove to our destination: one of the 7 wonders of the world. The sun was still tucked away on the edge of the earth as we walked down the pathway from our bus. One of the first times thus far I have been out in this country and have not sweated my body weight. The anticipation was building as we walked along the path and our tour guide Madan pointed out to our left the top of a beautiful structure. I gazed through the archway of the entrance and there before my eyes was the perfect, the beautiful, the one and only: the Taj Mahal. As we stood there and listed to Madan telling the story of how and why the Taj was built, the sun started rising and the color of the marble starting to change even in those few minutes.

21 years over 20,000 men. My ears perked up and I smiled as I heard him tell the story that the Taj was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal. It was one of her last requests from him before she passed away. Talk about an incredible gift for a girl; raises the bar for men and gift giving. There was a great advertisement from the Incredible India campaign that summed the experience up perfectly with an aerial photograph of the Taj Mahal and the text, "And to think these days men get away with giving flowers and chocolates to their wives."

Taj Mahal literally translates to "crown building," and I could see that the word crown is the perfect word for this building as I walked around ever angle of this site. I walked around Taj for about an hour and a half and the only word I could mutter was, "Wow," over and over again. I was dumbfounded by how beautiful the Taj was. Situated on the Ganghes river and later that day seeing the building from another site, the Red Fort, made its beauty even more breathtaking. There was so much detail that went into making the structure: the detailed marble work, the Arab inscriptions on the walls, the four pillars that surround the building that are built at an angle to be a last minute structural protection from the Taj in case there is an earth quake. Beautiful architecture makes my heart flutter. It didn't stop fluttering the entire time I gazed at the white marble structure in front of me. Visiting the Taj Mahal was definitely one of the most incredible buildings I have even seen in this world and I will forever cherish the memory and beauty of today. I continue to be amazed and humbled by so many incredible things in this world.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Scenes from the Road...

We are driving down the crowded street on our way from Delhi to Agra. Car horns of the most unusual noises are a constant. It is the first time we have left the crowded city. My mind is on overload with images that keep flashing by my window. As I sit safely inside our air conditioned coach bus, chaos surrounds me. A man with crippled legs pedals a bike with his hands. Trash is everywhere and continues to pile in the streets and water. For the first time I am starting to comprehend that, "more than 4 billion people live at the bottom of the pyramid on less than $2.00 per day." My mind is slowly grasphing this concept as I see someone filling empty Fanta bottles with well water, men sleeping on wooden beds near the road, children playing naked except for their shoes, and 10 people piled into a small car. My stomach gets queasy at times on our journey as I continue to see scenes I never even comprehended until this trip. Scenes from the road: someone helping another person clean out their ear, dishes being washed near the street, men walking on top of cars, a camel tied up to the side of a store, little children pounding on our bus hoping for us to donate money or buy their souvenir. As much as my heart breaks from some of these images, I keep seeing so many smiles.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Story Begins...

My prediction of being not "out of my comfort zone" but "thrown out of my comfort zone" here in India is the perfect way to describe the time I have thus far spent here. Immediately you are overwhelmed by the large amount of people in the city of Delhi. It is not uncommon to see men showering in the street, auto-rickshaw (taxi) drivers pulling over to the side of the road to urinate against a wall, a barber cutting someone's hair, garbage piled high with someone eating immediately next to it, boys playing cricket, tarps being used as a roof for someone's home on the side of a busy street, motorcycles swerving in between buses and cars, or even babies being held on the back of motorcycle down a busy street. In Delhi alone, there are around 2,000 traffic fatalities a year and now that I have been in this city I understand exactly why. The streets are bustling and bursting with people, unusual smells and energy everywhere. Before I left the States, I read from Santosh Desais' book, Mother Pious Lady, that there are more television sets in India than toilets. As I ride, walk or ride a rickshaw along the streets in Delhi and see tiny shacks on the side of the road with a satellite antenna perched on their roof, I now understand Desais' point. Or as I read in the book, The Bottom of the Pyramid, poverty in India truly has no boundaries.

I've mentioned some things that immediately threw me out of my comfort zone however, there are many incredible things about this culture. Our tour guide started our journey by telling us how cohesive the Indian culture is in religion, faiths, and nationalities. Indeed, about 82% of this country is Hindu, yet there are Islamic cultural centers, Catholic churches, and even Baptist churches nestled around street corners.

One of the most amazing things I have experienced thus far in my time here in India was riding a rickshaw. I lied; it was one of the most incredible 30 minute experience I have had not just India but my entire life. A rickshaw is a man pedaled bicycle with a seat for two passengers on the back and are a common mode of transportation here.

Our tour bus pulled up to a group of anxious rickshaw drivers and were immediately met by anxious beggars. We paired up and hopped on the back of the rickshaw to venture on a 30 minute ride through the side streets of Delhi with an end destination of a mosque. I could not stop grinning the entire time as our driver Shanam pedaled through the crowded streets with peppers on tied to the from of the bicycle with the purpose of bringing us good luck. The first minute you realize that you need all the luck you can get with the cars, motorcycles, vendor carts, and pedestrians walking right next to our rickshaw.

We were immersed in not only the crazy street traffic, but also we saw true snippets of individual's lives. Riding on an air conditioned bus and snapping photographs from inside is great, but this was more than that. It felt like we were a part of the individuals' lives as we got to see real homes that buses can't see or I wouldn't normally venture on foot. As a fair skinned foreigner, I tend to draw a lot of attention to myself, especially in an Asian country. This was what I loved about this rickshaw; I felt like a fly on the wall leading the pact of our rickshaws down the tiny streets with wires dangling everywhere and monkeys lurched on the wires staring down at us. I quickly was in and out of people's lives almost as if I were taking quick photographs of all the scenes going on around me. There were stories there. Each person we passed, vacant house, story front shop, or vendor we passed had a story to tell, and by riding that rickshaw through those streets and seeing what they probably do every single day, I felt like I understood a part of their story. I wish I can walk back down that street some day and sit down over a cup of Marsala tea and have them tell that story. Some day. I can do all the reading I want on this incredible culture, but to me that 30 minutes alone was worth more than any book written on this country.