Welcome to my first attempt at a blog! I figured now is as good a time as any, having moved halfway around the world to Hubli. While I didn't know anyone on day one, I've since met many wonderful people, both those who have come from out of the country as I have as well as those who are native to India and have been teaching me a lot.

The plan is to update the blog somewhat regularly so that none of the posts get too lengthy (which is the case with the first several, as they were originally mass emails). We'll see how well I do at keeping up. Miss you guys!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

the north

From Bangalore, we flew to Agra, which immediately appeared to be a dingier, rougher Hubli, its streets peppered with camels instead of cows and pedal-ricks in addition to the autos.  Apparently wedding season, we frequently sped by venues decorated for the celebrations, with huge, but temporary, arches draped with colorful cloth and hundreds of white plastic chairs awaiting the hordes of guests invited to every party.  We often passed caravans with horses carrying grooms through the crowded streets or rusted tractors hauling mammoth models of Hindu gods and goddesses toward the ceremonies.

While the city didn't impress, and our hotel wasn't anything special, the Taj made the trip more than worth it.  Agra might be out of the way, but I wouldn’t hesitate to tell anyone flying halfway across the world to India to make one last detour to this incredible structure.  Built starting in 1632(ish) by Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, the mausoleum is buttressed by two mosques on either side (I think they only really used one, but they put in two for the sake of eye-pleasing symmetry).  Later, Shah Jahan's son put him under house arrest in the Red Fort where he could still see the Taj from afar (also worth a visit), where he died, and he was later buried in the Taj with his wife (unless this part of my half-fictional book on the subject was, indeed, fiction).  The interior design is full of precious stones; you're not supposed to take lights inside, but all the tour guides do anyways to make the gems sparkle. 

Next we took what turned out to be a less than pleasant overnight train to Udaipur. The train itself was an hour or more late to begin with, so when it got there, we were worried it would only be in the station but for a few minutes; imagine us frantically searching for our car and finally jumping on something we thought was close, the four of us lugging our bags through narrow, packed walkways.  Oops.  Even in second class (us cheapies are used to traveling in third!), my mom didn't sleep a wink thanks to the creepy man across from her that stared at her all night.  All sites indicated that 2nd class = two-bunk (private) room, but no, sir.  Not the case.

Udaipur, I might add, City of Lakes, was recently rated number one in the World's Best Cities list by Travel and Leisure Magazine.  We checked out the Lake Palace from afar; while non-guests typically can still dine in this palace-turned-Taj Hotel, the Mumbai bombings kept us from getting anywhere close.

Instead, we took a little boat out to Jag Mandir, another island in Lake Pichola, and enjoyed a beautiful night view of the City Palace and Museum, which we later toured in the daylight.  Cool, but not as cool as Mysore Palace, no question.

We also unintelligently trekked out to Shilpgram, a craft village, which we'd been warned was only hopping during a certain time of the year.  I take full responsibility for this decision.  That said, we did come away with a pretty sweet table cloth, and both my mom and I are still mourning two specific purchases we failed to make; me, a bedspread and her, a handspun silk something or other.  Someday, I will be back…

The shopping and markets were huge, boisterous and full of color - no surprise there.  Our driver was getting hungry so led us back to his favorite spot for - what else? - tea and snacks.  My mom couldn't even make it to the end of the alley, she was so disgusted by the swarms of flies flitting around the carts full of fried food, but Kraemer's empty stomach got him to the end.  I eat a lot of things, including a cooked mushroom from my pasta that fell off my plate onto the table at a restaurant in Georgia that he will never let me forget, but there is no way I was going to touch that samosa he downed in three bites, which had certainly been handled by a cook who hadn't washed his hands recently and poked and prodded by a series of passerbys checking for appropriate samosa temperature.  Mmmm, mm! ;)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bangalore revisited

I feel that in my last post, I really didn't do Bangalore justice.  Oh, Bangalore.  The steadfast city of continued respite.  While it may not have the cultural and atmospheric draw of some other regions of the country, Bangalore provided us with what we were looking for every time: a much-needed break, good food and, sometimes, a reminder of home.

For my own personal reasons of documentation, and because I always Google restaurant, hotel and trip reviews, I have decided that it is only right here to review here where we ate and stayed.  (Don't laugh at me because I love food!)   Of course, there's Sunny's, close to VC Mall, I believe, an American-type bistro that never let us down from start to finish.  

If you're looking for Indian that isn't a hole-in-the-wall (which I love, but isn't advisable for unIndianized stomachs), check out the tandoor restaurant on MG Road, just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Gateway Hotel - I think it's called Tandoor Restaurant - it's that simple.  Great kabobs.  And speaking of the Taj Gateway … loved it in Mangalore, loved it in Bangalore and wished we'd stayed there in Agra.  Number one through and through.

Sadly, I will have to suggest that you're cautious when it comes to pedicures - they scrub long and hard, and my mom maintains that her pedicure caused her pain for weeks to come.  Be afraid.  (Though I must say - mine was fine.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

the rents visit Hindustan

Since my parents were arriving right after a Monday holiday, Kraemer and I decided to check out of Hubli a little bit early to stop through Mysore on our way to meet my parents in Bangalore.

We took an overnight train from Hubli and, of course, took no time at all in finding an eager driver to cart us to the hotel we'd picked out based on our guidebook suggestion.  The man assured us this one was no good and proceeded to find us two cheaper hotels closer to the Mysore Palace.

Mysore isn’t super big but has a decent amount going on.  We decided to use the energy we had while we had it and take a morning hike up Chamundi Hill, some 700 steps up to the first pit stop with Nandi, the bull, and another 300 steps after that to the market.  Legend has it that when the bull's left knee reaches the ground, it's the end of the world - at least that's what my landlord says.

It wasn’t too long before we figured out that our book was geared toward people with a deep pocket, as everything was a quatrillion miles away and required at least two rickshaws and a bus to get there if you didn't have a taxi.  We wound up at a relatively sub-par garden (granted, we didn't stay for the 7:00pm lit fountain show that everyone had raved about) out in the boonies, which caused us to rethink another trip out that direction, and at a posh hotel restaurant, when we'd been hunting for a hole-in-the-wall.

But my favorite part of Mysore by far?  Mysore palace and my run-in with the popo.  Okay, okay - it was just palace security, but this man meant business.  I PINKY PROMISE I saw NO signs banning photography, but I can't deny that I suspected it … whiiich is why I tried to be sneaky by holding my camera at chest level and pointing it up at the stained glass ceiling I wanted a picture of.

Unfortunately, flashes are not listed in the "sneaky" category.  The man came over and insisted I turn over my entire camera - not just delete the photo (see one of the two the illicit photos here). 

 He threatened to take us to the station.  Not sure whether he would have followed through with that.  After five minutes of pleading ignorance, the man pulled us aside and Kraemer offered him money - just like that, it was as if nothing had ever happened.  The bribe nearly negated the discount I'd received for being a Hubli resident.

Mysore and Bangalore are pretty close, so we took one of many busses down to B-lore to meet my parents, and we all spent a few days in the IT center eating, drinking and being merry. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

So many details that this post doesn't NEED pictures (not to mention that I don't HAVE any - don't think it would have been particularly appropriate)

And ohhhhh, the busride home.  Apparently I don't have any better luck with busses than I do with trains…

First, actually, we DID try the train - no luck.  We had been on the waiting list and unfortunately hadn't inched up at all.  That meant we'd gone out of our way and proceeded to take a bus to another bus station to catch one back to Hubli.  While we waited there for a couple hours, we encountered a rather rowdy family next to us, staring (what's new?) and spitting.  On me (that's new).  Yes, the grandmother was doing something very interesting with her soda, and the rest of the family was either getting a kick out of it or persuading her to quit.

Once on the bus, Kraemer and I deliberately sat near the front to avoid them, even though it meant sitting apart for a while.  The family chatted/yelled cheerfully to one another, breaking into song at random intervals.  Again, not that new.  At a stop about halfway through, the two older boys in the family (early twenties?) chatted us up, asking all the usual questions.

Not too long after everyone boarded again, a loud commotion broke out at the front of the bus - new.  The taller of the two boys had another young man by his throat, shouting Kannada words I couldn't understand.  But we got the drift: this man was NOT his favorite person and had clearly done something to upset the guy.  That said, the guy didn't fight back and hardly looked like he'd hurt a fly.  I think at one point the father slapped his son around a good bit, but that could have come later.  You'll see.  The conductor broke them apart and we resumed our relatively quiet bus ride. 

Not for long.  I was jolted from my favorite bus pastime - keeping tabs on all the wild, weaving oncoming traffic - with our favorite family as the starring characters.  The Muslim woman behind me, who appeared to be traveling only with her baby of less than a year, started WAILING.  And I mean, she probably woke up people in Pakistan.

Apparently, the woman had lost her earrings.  At least, that's the impression we got at first, and Kraemer couldn't wait for her to pipe down, thinking the jewelry couldn't have been that valuable.  Not so in India.  Many people here wear their wealth, and this must have been hers.

The brothers got up to search, using their cell phones and my headlamp to peek around the luggage on top and people's legs and feet.  People tried to be as helpful as possible, slightly raising their bums and peering around their seats.  Still no luck, and the woman continued to sob.  She'd completely disregarded her little girl at this point and was tearing through her purse.

Shortly thereafter, we pulled over at a police station - we were less than an hour away from home, and it must have been 11pm by now.  A police officer started a search of his own, which turned up one of the big, gold flower earrings, stuck into the crevice of a seat.  Now it was clear these were stolen and not just lost.  The woman hadn't been wearing the earrings; she'd only been transporting them, and they'd been tucked carefully in her purse in a little plastic baggy. 

The officer called some of the men from the back and started patting them down right in front of us, requiring to strip off their shirts and pull up their pants.  They didn't have much on underneath, but I pointed out to Kraemer that they'd failed to search the rolled-up cuffs of the shorter brother. 

With that, a plain-clothed investigator cleared the men off the back of the bus and really went to town. He quickly found a huge wad of money at the very back where all the women had been sitting, which started a huge uprising, with the women in tears as they were all ushered off as well.

The next thing we know, the boys are being walked gruffly toward the building.  Through the open windows, we can see them being thrown up against the wall and interrogated - or at least shouted at.  We later learn that they found the other earring on them - in his rolled up cuff.

Oh, and the boy they were threatening earlier?  They were upset because he'd gone to the back of the bus to lay down in some empty seats, which were, in their mind, simply too close to the women in their family.  Thought the guy was trying to be sneaky.

Not your everyday return trip!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Taking Kraemer to the Beach

And why not?

Kraemer is not a man who likes to stay put, so I figured I better hightail it out of Hubli if I wanted to keep him around. ;)  

We decided to celebrate Valentine's Day a weekend early, and with Aparna and Lesley, all stayed in a cute house (with stained glass) tucked behind some shops and a bar on the main road, owned by a sweet man named Maurice.

Only there for the weekend, we did our best to make the most of our time and hunkered down for a morning at the Tibetan market, a huge tent where Tibetan-only vendors set out their wares daily, mostly jewelry, but also clothing, singing bowls, incense burners and more.  Every one we walked up to wanted to give us "best price, morning price," as we were potentially their first customers, and it's in their best interest to give the first buyer a deal so that the rest of the day brings good luck.  In the end, I cleaned up with a couple of nice pendants and chains plus some awesome silver fish earrings that all Kraemer's doing.  (thank you!)

The rest of our time included walking, running, eating and beaching, where we met a ridiculous amount of British tourists, many of whom came to Goa for weeks or months at a time, every year.  Not many Americans.

As usual, Lesley did best in the shopping department throughout the course of the trip, but this time she came home a few days later than the rest of us with something else … a boyfriend!  The guy she'd spotted at the nightclub turned out to be a keeper.

Friday, April 17, 2009

By the Way…

I've got this other blog I contribute to, one with entries written by all the Sandbox Fellows and that specifies a topic per month.