Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Taj Mahal

Agra, once the capital for all of India under the Mughal dynasty- today it is still a bustling city.  Situated at the apex of the tourist triangle, for obvious reasons it falls upon almost every foreign visitors itinerary.  No trip to India is complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal.  This sacred wonder of the world is more marvelous in person then any picture gives credit to.  We contemplated lots of different options for visiting.  Our driver talked us into an early morning visit, then a late night visit- explaining low angle light illuminates the marble in various shades and hues.  Upon arrival to Agra we hooked up with Kumar, a local guide.  Kumar is a recent college graduate that usually serves as a certified guide for Russian visitors since he speaks their language fluently.  Lucky for us it was the off season in Moscow and we got Kumar all to our self (his English was also excellent).  Excitedly we found out it was the 356th anniversary of the death of Shah Jahan.  Jahan built the Taj as a tomb to enshrine the love of his life that died in 1631.  Devastated by her death after giving birth to their 14th child, the monument was meant to be a reminder of her beauty and his love for her.  

Normally the entry into the Taj complex costs about 750 rupees, or $17.  Since it was free, thousands of domestic tourists flocked to visit and pay tribute to the Mughal kings death.  Several of the entrances had lines in the hundreds wrapped around the outer perimeter walls.  Luckily with the help of our guide and driver we skirted around multiple entrances to find a western gate with no "que".
Drizzly monsoon rains gave the tomb a somewhat lackluster feeling at first.  Quickly the vastness of its size along with an onslaught of thousands around us transformed it to the majestic appearance I expected. Everyone seemed to be moving towards this megalithic like shrine, as if we had all arrived to a party at exactly the same time.  Who knows how many visitors came that day, it had to be in the tens of thousands.  I was reminded in a country of 1.9 billion it's pretty easy to drum up 10,000+ people for almost any festival.  Unlike some places, people didn't stop to take our picture- they were to busy taking pictures of this gorgeous structure.  

We spent about an hour, just approaching the monument from several directions, taking in the magnificent enormity of the structure.  It had very much the same palatial feeling a lot of marble complexes in India had, but this was just a little different.  Situated above the banks of the Yamuna River with gorgeous gardens on all three sides.  As we walked closer and closer the Taj revealed her real artistry.  Etched in stone everywhere were intricate designs.  Set into the etchings were stones of various color from around Asia.  Against the marble it was spectacular.

The quintessential tourist picture.

Our guide Kumar.

After moving from the red stone patio up onto the same level as the marble photographs were no longer allowed.  You can see the line wrapped around the edge of the upper marble patio.  Here we waited in line only about 30 minutes.  Due to the importance of this holiday extra security was brought in.  Indian Army armed guards moved throughout the crowd carrying machine guns.  Kumar, wanting to provide the best experience possible for his guests continuously tempted fate asking guards permission to cut in line.  Being patient Alaskans we just went with the flow, periodically Kumar would come back, grab us, and push into a better position in line.  I felt a little awkward, but didn't speak the language. So we just sort of played the stupid tourist routine, smiling at all the people we were cutting in front of as Kumar translated some novel story in Hindi.

Waiting in line provided a much better opportunity to gaze upon the amazing marble work.  The Taj Mahal took 20,000 workers 21 years to complete.  Shortly after completion Shah Jahan found his reign overthrown as his son seized control, partially in protest of the debt caused from construction of such a monument.  Along with loosing power was the hopes of building an identical Taj for himself.  Jahan wanted to begin construction of another Taj Mahal directly across the river, but in all black stone.  A black Taj, can you imagine that?

As we got closer and closer to the entrance you could feel the energy building in the crowd.  Quickly we removed our shoes at the entrance as dozens in front of and behind us flowed into the small opening.  It felt like being shot through a narrow slot in a wave of motion.  Kumar grabbed us from the current of hot sweaty people, pulling us off the side.  I got my first chance to look around.  Light was entering the first room through the marble lattice work above the small doorway we entered from.  Most people were pushing down a set of stairs, going to the crypt below.  Our guide explained that area is rarely open, saying "just bodies, lets go look at the center room instead".  In the core of the Taj Mahal light entered on all sides from two levels of marble carved lattice work.  Two coffin shaped slabs of marble lay in the middle of the room,  directly above the lower tombs of this mahal's permanent residents.  Using a flashlight Kumar showed us the impressive intricacies and translucent nature of the stones used in the etchings.  Deep blues and purples laid along side bright fire reds, and gorgeous greens.  After about 10 minutes roaming this chamber we exited out a side door.  
A breath of fresh air and one more chance to gaze at the enormous monument.  This is India.

The Taj Mahal, as seen North-West from the Agra Fort.  This photo was taken from the prison suite where Jahan spent the last years of his life.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Delhi: Our Gateway To India

India has a couple major hubs, or ports of embarkation with major airports.  These are Kolkata (or Calcutta) in the East, Mumbai (or Bombay) in the South-West, and Delhi in the North.  Since most of our trip resided in North and Western India, we flew into Delhi's, Indira Gandhi International Airport, at the end of June.  We arrived after 14 hours on an American Airlines 777 from Chicago.  The airport was huge, with only a few actual gates, we walked what felt like mile long corridors just to get to customs and finally baggage claim.  Stepping out of the airport we were immediately overwhelmed by the hot humid monsoon air.  To my surprise a taxi driver was waiting for us at the exit holding a sign with my name on it.  We were ushered through a massive parking garage complex, climbed aboard a typical Tata sedan, and rushed out into the Delhi streets.  My sense of direction was thrown into a state of immediate disorientation from 14 hours on an airplane, new sights, new smells, and careening around the streets of Delhi in the back seat.  An hour later we landed at our hotel, retreated to our room, and hibernated for the night.  Periodically peeking out our 4th story window upon the bustling streets of the Paharganj, one of the many cities within a city.  From this vantage point we could see dozens of men, women, and children sleeping on nearby rooftops.  We could see scooters, buses, cars, bikes, and cows racing along the streets.  This was India, at least the first couple hours of it.

The next morning we remained in the safety of our tiny hotel room and ordered room service.  Slowly introducing every part of our psyche to this new place.  As enticing and addicting as the overwhelming feeling of new culture can be, we opted for slow and steady acclimatization.  Room service came promptly and the breakfast was delicious.  Parantha, pickles, curd, and chai- the usual Indian meal in the A.M.  After filling our belly we went downstairs, planning on taking a walk around the neighborhood in hopes of finding the train station to book tickets for travels onward.  This is where our entire trip changed. We were whisked to a travel desk and bombarded with the pushy salesmanship we would come to know in this country.  The travel agent immediately had us questioning our plans of heading North into the mountains, and instead sold us a complete tour package of Rajasthan.  Including a two day tour of Delhi, and stop at the Taj Mahal in Agra.  We decided this twelve day excursion would be a good way to become more acquainted with this foreign country.

Delhi is several cities within a city, actually the minimum number of larger cities within Delhi is about eight, but within those are dozens more broken into smaller neighborhoods- taking travelers years to fully comprehend the vastness of this ancient city.  Now the capital of India, Delhi can really be simply broken into two parts.  Old Delhi, home to the oldest buildings, fortresses, and temples dating back to the Mughal Empire and before.  With New Delhi built around it.  Largely the result of the downfall of the Mughal Empire and the rise of British Conquest, New Delhi continues to grow at a monstrous rate.  I've seen a couple different figures for the population of Delhi, guidebooks and online sources can't really agree, but most figures put it between 13 and 16 million.  I even found one source that said including all surrounding areas its grown to 22 million people.  Either way its huge, I've never seen so many people in one urban area.  And this is where our tour began.
Gretchen on the steps of the Jama Masjid, the largest Muslim mosque in India.
It was built in the 1600's.  The courtyard is large enough to accommodate 25,000 worshipers in the prostrated prone position.
Next we drove to the governement center of the city.  This part of the city reminded me a lot of Washington D.C.  Largely built up during the time of the British Empire in India, the buildings have a very worldly architecture incorporating not just Indian styles, but British and Roman as well.  The streets were clean and expertly laid out in grid patterns similar to that of our own capital.  It was obvious the ministry wasn't compressed into an existing city, but stragecially laid out as an extension of the existing city for a new capital.
 This is the Prime Minister of India's palace.
Always lots of elephants incorporated into everything.  They are considered a holy animal that brings luck.
Also much like Washington D.C., vast boulevards stretched from a main mall, lined with massive marble and red stone buildings housing all the various departments of Indian government.  Most of these buildings were built by the British, then occupied by India after partition in 1947.  India is the largest secular democracy in the world, and still very young in a lot of ways.

The India Gate.  Originally built by the British in the 1930's to memorialize 90,000 Soldiers killed between World War I, and the Anglo-Afghan Wars.  It has since become the "Amar Jawan Jyoti" or Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Much like Arlington National Cemetery, guards constantly stand watch over the tomb, periodically changing shifts in true military fashion.

Nearby, children and teens beat the heat playing in reflecting pools.

The spectacular Red Fort of Old Delhi

The first Hindu temple we visited in India was Lakshmi Narayan Mandir.  Dedicated to the Hindu god of wealth, Lakshmi.

Since it was late in the day, and they didn't allow photography inside the temple we opted to remain outside and explore the surrounding gardens while admiring the bright color of the temple.

 The cobra, another sacred animal of India.

A family enjoys the gardens and tranquility around the temple.
We would come and go through Delhi four times over the 40 days we were India. On our last 12 hours in Delhi we took a taxi down to the Baha'i Lotus Temple.  One of the newest houses of worship in Delhi, and a modern architectural marvel of the world- the temple was completed in the late 1980's.

I knew little about the Baha'i faith before visiting the information center.  Its actually a fairly young religion that has absorbed beliefs and practices from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, along with a couple other lesser known monotheistic faiths.  They basically believe there are many paths to salvation through one God and nobody is really wrong... Or so I comprehended.  The temple was marvelous with 27 white marble lotus pedals encompassing one central hall of worship.  

So, how do you get around in Delhi.  There are many ways.
This is a cycle rickshaw.
This is a auto rickshaw or "tuktuk".
This is an old ambassador taxi cab, they also have modern Tata sedan taxi's and Toyota minivans.
Along with a couple India specific brands like Tata, they also have every other car brand of the world.
A lot of people opt for scooters or motorbikes and use them for a variety of multi-purposes.
India has a very modern metro subway system, both above and below ground.  This is one of the new stations.  We rode the airport express metro from the city center several times.
I think the record for people I saw on a scooter was four, that's a family of four.  With plenty of room for the kids to ride in front of Dad straddling the gas tank.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Two Months Without Jack!

Today as we rushed around Fairbanks, preparing to fly out of Alaska for the rest of the summer Jack seemed to know something was going to happen.  He has been busy traveling in the White Mountains, through Denali State Park and down to Homer.  He has spent countless hours riding around in the truck (although who knows how many of these hours he remembers because I am pretty sure he gets in some good naps riding in the back of the truck.)  Today we dropped Jack off at a friend's house in Fairbanks where he will get to hang-out in one place while we travel all over.  When he got there he walked right in and laid down for a nap!  I think he is going to have a blast living with a cute female dog and two super dog lovers, but what are we going to do without him?  Have a fun summer Jack Jack, we'll miss you!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kayaking Tutka Bay

Our next adventure began on the docks of Homer. We caught a ride with a water taxi from True North Kayak Adventures over to Yukon Island, across the bay from Homer.
We rode in a handmade wooden boat designed and made locally in Homer. It was over 20 years old, but still a seaworthy vessel.

Our friends from Eagle River, Shane and Sara joined us as well as Scott, a fellow YFSD teacher.

Boat is packed, ready to hit the water! It has been awhile since we've been out in sea kayaks!

Gretchen on the water. Paddling a kayak is like riding a bicycle, you never forget how.

Our first stop was at Kayakers Beach, where we found this really funny little outhouse!

Scott paddles across the Bay, wind in his hair, the spray of sea water splashing up with each paddle.

Shane found a giant starfish. We saw lots of these as we paddle through small coves and rocky crags. We also saw an amazing amount of jellyfish, eagles, porpoises, sea otters and even a stellar sea lion. The other animals were a lot faster than starfish and hard to catch in a photo.

Sam checks out the starfish too.

Sara and Shane paddled a double kayak, which was quickly nicknamed, "the mini-van."

After fighting some rough water and the tides, we paddled into Tutka Lagoon for the night. It may not look like it by the light, but it was after 7pm when we paddled to our campsite. Sara and Shane cooked a delicious feast of wild Alaskan salmon and good old Mac and Cheese! We worried we would attract bears with such a tasty dinner, but we kept a clean camp and had no problems.

The gourmet cooking did not end with dinner. For breakfast Shane whipped up some egg and cheese muffins. Hands down better than McDonalds!

Gretchen helps pack up the boats. Kayaks can hold a lot of gear, but it is like tetris trying to make everything fit!

A view of Sam's boat from the shore. Great views!

We paddled into Tutka lagoon at high tide, but left at low tide. We didn't have to drag our boats for too long, but it is amazing the difference the tides make in Alaska!

Gretchen and Sam, "We love Summer Vacation!"

Sam was our trip planner, making arrangements, plotting our course and keeping us all from getting lost!

Check out Sam in action!

Shane poses in the rocks as we wait for our ride back to Homer

The water taxi we took back to Homer was great!
The captain even brought his dog along to greet us!

Footnote to our adventure: While we were across the bay we left Jack at a well reputed Dog Spa, where he snuck out and took an adventure of his own. Apparently he took off after a moose while out for a walk with the rest of the dogs, but thankfully he came back awhile later, no harm done. I guess walks along the beach and Kong treats were not enough of an adventure for Jack!