Well, y’all, I’m back. Back at work, got my luggage back, have gotten (mostly) unpacked, downloaded photos, etc. Herewith, my travelogue–in which I answer the questions y’all sent, talk about the lives of the women I saw, the culture, the religion, the marketplaces, the monkeys, and much more. It’s a long one, but there are pictures!
To answer a question I got from many of you about being a woman traveling in India, I can say that I never felt like I was in any danger. The groping incident pissed me off, but it was not repeated in the two weeks I was there. I took the usual precautions– stuck to long sleeves and pants, kept my money in a money belt around my waist and tied my hair back (I’ve found that long, loose blonde hair tends to attract unwanted attention in many parts of the world.) It helped that I was never alone–I was nearly always with my family, a friend or a guide. Had I been walking around by myself, it might have been worse. More than one of my Indian friends said that in Delhi women–both Indian and Western–are frequently groped and harassed in the streets. This seems to be less of a problem when you’re out of the big cities. But as usual, safety in numbers is your best bet. Here are some teen schoolgirls outside the market in Old Delhi:
As it was, the biggest problem for me were the touts and hawkers in Delhi and Agra. Because we were obviously tourists, the moment we left our hotel or got out of a cab, people would descend on us, trying to sell trinkets, postcards, get you to come into their shop, tell you that the shops down the street were closed, so don’t go there, come to this other shop, hey, hi, where from, madam? etc. It drove me absolutely fucking nuts. There were places where I literally could not walk down the street without two or three people trailing me. In India, this is just entrepreneurialism. Everyone has to make a living, and they’re not hostile–if anything, the touts are good-natured and try to engage you in a friendly way. But when you’re just trying to go to a shop or get back to your hotel, being the target of the never-ending come-ons and sales pitches is exhausting and frustrating.
Every friend and hired guide told me that the key was just to look straight ahead and not to even say “no, thank you” because any kind of interaction on my part would be seen as an opportunity. So I did. It mostly worked. Wearing sunglasses helped. But I felt beseiged, and after a couple days of this, I just wanted to snarl “GOAWAYGOAWAYGOAWAYFUCKOFFFUCKOFF!” every time I saw someone approaching. Walking around is my favorite pastime when I’m in a new place, and that was simply not possible in some parts of India.
Things were better in Jaipur and Udaipur. These small cities–small for northern India, anyway–had somewhat less street traffic and it was possible to walk down the street or in the markets without being hassled. The best part for me, though, was the countryside.
My family stayed at the Amanbagh resort, which is in Alwar, in the foothills of the Arevalli mountains. The resort itself is understated but extremely elegant–built on the grounds of a former royal hunting lodge. The managers are an Indian and his New Zealander wife, both retired diplomats, who are the most charming conversationalists I’ve met in years. If you were inclined to just lie by the pool, get an Ayurvedic spa treatment and eat–the restaurant is so good I was chowing about five meals a day–you can do that. But if, like me and MamaSharper, you would rather get out into the countryside and look around, you can do that too. Both my mother and I are interested in how people live, especially women, and being in the villages in Alwar offered a much more close-up experience than what we’d seen in the cities.
Aside from agriculture, the main industry in the area we visited was marble quarrying and carving. My second-favorite place of the trip–we’ll get to the first in a minute–was the marble carver’s shop we visited. It was a wonderland of pure white stone and painted statues, mostly of Hindu deities:
I bought a 2 foot statue of Ganesha, elephant-headed patron of arts and letters, remover of obstacles, lord of new beginnings and prosperity. On Monday night, after I finally got home, PhDork stopped by with emergency supplies–Cheerios and OJ–and, in a total coincidence, so did a dude with a big metal box marked “Village Post Office, Alwar, Rajasthan.” Inside was Ganesha, slightly worse for the wear–the tip of his trunk had broken off in transit–but looking totally fabulous regardless. He now graces the entryway in my apartment.
We also went to a local rug-weaver’s shop, where young girls make wool carpets on looms, a process which has not changed for hundreds of years. The kids were very outgoing and funny–they were especially cute with former elementary school teacher MamaSharper, who can charm a group of kids in an instant–and let us watch as they worked.
When my mother asked how old they were when they started weaving, she was told five and six. It was pretty clear that these girls went to school only part-time at best, and we were told that was pretty standard–most children did not get much more than a basic education. Higher education meant that children would have to leave their homes and move to a larger town with a high school, which cost money well beyond the means of rural families. Girls in rural India like the ones I met tend to marry in their late teens and generally do not leave the villages where they were born.
It’s easy to get all Western and feminist in moments like this: She shouldn’t be working! She should be in school! but I tried to silence my inner first-world white person as much as I could. Yes, these girls should be getting a better education. Yes, I would like for them to have more choice as to their life’s work; none of them had the option of saying “No, Mom and Dad, I’d rather not weave carpets.” But this was not some big industrial sweatshop–it was a small business where they were earning a living for themselves and their families. They were not suffering; they appeared happy, healthy, and were working together doing what their families had been doing for centuries.
Here is a typical house in the countryside, where one of these girls might live:
The main occupation of most of the villagers we saw was herding and agriculture. The rural roads were frequently overrun by herds of goats, cows and water buffalos, usually being goaded along by children.
Cows, pigs, goats, dogs and monkeys were everywhere, even in big cities. The monkeys especially were a problem. Hotels have monkey-wranglers whose sole job is to keep them from invading hotel restaurants, gardens and even rooms. They will eat anything, can open doors, and can be aggressive if confronted. One afternoon I was reading on the terrace of our hotel room at the Amanbagh, when I heard my sister gasp. She said, slowly, “Becky, there’s a monkey right above you.” Sure enough, there was:
This big macaque male was sitting on roof above me, checking me out. I had to chase him off with the “monkey stick” that was by the door of each hotel room (I mostly just banged the stick on the walls and waved it at him). Sorry, animal-lovers, but monkeys, especially the macaques, are not cute, and not nice, especially around Hindu temples, where they swarm unoccupied vehicles and even unsuspecting people like some Indian Hitchcock remake of “The Birds.”
Once we left the countryside, we shifted from low-key village life to urban life, much of which centered around shops and markets.
Shopping in northwestern India is an embarrassment of riches. Delhi has gorgeous Kashmiri textiles–wool, silk, cashmere and pashmina–mostly richly embroidered and spangled. Here is a selection of hand-embroidered shawls from Shaw Brothers in New Delhi:
Jaipur is known for its cotton and distinctive block printing decorations, especially paisleys, a pattern that originated in that part of India:
For the best cotton printed housewares and clothes, the place to go to is Anokhi. They support family-run, non-child-labor workshops and traditional artisans, and offer them profit-sharing and education subsidies. Plus, their shop in Jaipur has a cafe with outstanding lattes and cakes. They also have an on-line business in the US, if you’re so inclined.
If bling is your thing, India is probably the best place on earth for it. No Indian woman leaves the house without her bling, be it real or fake. More often than not, it’s real. When Indian women marry, a good part of the her dowry is invested in a trosseau of jewelry. And she doesn’t stick it in a safe for the next 40 years, she wears it with pride. I saw women on the street–going to work, running errands, picking the kids up from school–whose wrists and ears and necks were bedecked with gold, rubies and pearls. Apparently the kind of snatch-and-grab robberies you’d expect where I live are practically non-existant in India. People respect a lady’s jewelry. Even if they opt for fakes, you can guarantee they’ll be brightly colored, rhinestone-y, and co-ordinated with the lady’s outfit.
Jaipur is the center for the gorgeous gem-and-enamel jewelry called minakari. We went to some jewelry stores whose inventory put New York’s Diamond District to shame. Indians don’t go for the ice–they like gold (nearly always 22-karat) and colorful gems. I was positively swooning at some of the pieces I saw. Thing is, even if you could afford to drop a few thousand dollars for that kind of jewelry, it’s so big and bold that there’s really nowhere in the US you could wear it, unless you frequently attend high-society black-tie events. It’s a huge cultural difference–jewelry that seems unusually pricey and gaudy by our standards is something nearly all upper-middle class, and even middle-class, women own. Even some of the women I saw buying vegetables in the marketplace were wearing 22 karat gold pieces that I would consider a bit much for my Manhattan office.
Rajasthani women are also known throughout India for their brightly colored clothes. The cities and countryside are dotted with splashes of color from women’s saris. These ladies might be working in a field, making fuel from cow patties, or carrying a sack of potatoes to market on their heads, but they’re going to do it in a spangled magenta sari. One of our female guides told me that “hot pink is the navy blue of India”, and she was not kidding. Colors and patterns that would be considered loud or clashing in the US are everywhere, and they work. MamaSharper and I agreed that if we lived in India, we would own a whole wardrobe of sequined, jewel-toned saris and salwar kameezes for everyday wear. The women’s clothes made everyday life so much more beautiful than our American uniforms of jeans and t-shirts.
Here are some ladies rocking the bright colors in the vegetable market in Udaipur, my absolute favorite place I visited.
In general, the street vendors in most of the marketplaces I saw appeared to be women, whereas the shopowners were men. There’s no doubt that individual entrepreneurialism is the engine that drives Indian culture–everyone buys local. Every single town I visited was lined with row after row of little mom-and-pop shops, often no bigger than a stall. Even the highways had rows of small shops pushed right up to the edge of the road. A few of the cities, like Jaipur and Gurgaon (a suburb of New Delhi) had Western-style malls, but they were clearly the exception. Whether it was a restaurant, a cell-phone store or a spice merchant, businesses were nearly all small and independently owned.
Here is another shot of women vendors in the vegetable market. I longed for a kitchen when I saw all that fresh produce:
Here’s a spice vendor’s stall. All those spices…those peppers! Heaven!
These market pictures are from Udaipur, by far my favorite city in India. Dubbed the “Venice of India”, it sits on a series of interconnected man-made lakes. It’s a relatively small city by northern India standards (500,000 residents, vs. Jaipur’s 3.5 million and Delhi’s 15.9 million), and we were able to walk around all day without being hassled or messed with. Here’s a beauty shot of the City Palace, taken from a boat on the lake:
Alongside Lake Pichola were ghats, steps that led directly down to the lake where people who did not have running water at home could bathe and wash their clothes in the lake. There’s a men’s side and a women’s side so that both sexes have some privacy. This is the women’s side:
Guess which movie was filmed in Udaipur?
Outside Udaipur is the Nagda temple complex, which was built in 734 BCE. The temples are mostly dedicated to Lord Shiva, and the carvings are marvelous:
In addition to beautiful, detailed carvings of Hindu deities, mythological creatures and dancing girls, there are a number of kama sutra carvings:
One wonders what US society would be like if images like this were on the walls of our red-state churches.
Strange as the sexy-time carvings might have been, nothing was stranger to me, religious-wise, than all the Christmas stuff I saw in India. Christians constitute 2.4% of India’s population but Christmas is huge–or rather, Christmas stuff is. One of my Indian friends explained that Christmas is seen sort of like Valentine’s Day is in the US, and in an entrepreneurial society like India, it’s a golden opportunity for commercialism. All those Fox News talking heads who squall about taking the Christ out of Christmas should come to India to see their worst fears realized. There did not seem to be any Christ at all in Indian Christmas. No manger scenes, no Virgin Marys, no angels, no Wise Men. Just Santa, gingerbread houses, Christmas trees, poinsettias, snowflakes and presents.
On Christmas day I was in at the Amanbagh resort. Santa dropped in:
Christmas may not really be all that Christian in India, but the casual pluralism of “hey, it’s not our holiday, but who cares?” was cool with me. I saw no churches in India, but I did visit the temple of one of India’s other minority religions, Sikhism, while I was in New Delhi.
The Sikh temple is spare compared to Hindu ones with their richly adorned statues and offerings. The Sikh temple merely had carpeted floors for people to sit on and a big central canopy under which rests an elaborate case containing a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhism’s holy book. It felt kind of familiar to this Jewish girl.
Even better than the temple itself was its massive langar, or communal kitchen. A key part of the Sikh faith is charity work, and the langar in New Delhi dishes out thousands of free meals every week. I was allowed to walk through the langar to see the volunteers at work. It smelled absolutely delicious:
As for the end of my trip, well, y’all heard about that already. This past week has been kind of like recovering from a hangover you got at a fabulous party. I needed to let the headache and nausea of the botched return trip go away and get myself back in working condition before I could really sit down and talk about how terrific the trip was. My friend David, who is from Kerala, in the south of India, is intent on getting me back to the sub-continent for a trip to his home region sometime in the next year or so. So stay tuned. At the moment the most adventurous travel I have planned is going to see my little brother in Fort Lauderdale next month, where it will be warm, sunny and with no chance of monkeys.