Monthly Archives: December 2011

Uncover India: New Delhi to Jaipur

We finally arrived in New Delhi. The second I stepped out of the train station, my eyes stung from the smoggy air and the traffic was pure insanity. Sidd and Nilu dropped me off at the hotel where I was to meet my G Adventures tour group. Since I arrived a bit late and missed the initial meeting, I went up to the room and waited for my roommate to come back from sightseeing. The next morning, we were back at a train station to get to…

AHUH

Agra, India

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Ah, the Taj Mahal. The surrounding air was filled with some fog and I kept blinking to make sure I was really there, facing towards something I’ve only seen in a textbook. I read that most people consider the Taj Mahal as one of the best examples of Mughal architecture. Well, I don’t know what Mughal architecture entails but my only opinion was “WOW!”

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The construction of the mausoleum was commissioned by then emperor Shah Jahan for his third (and favorite/most loved) wife Mumtaz Mahal who died during childbirth. He was left so full of grief that the Taj Mahal became regarded as a testament to love. Before entering the realm of the mausoleum, everyone had to place a plastic covering over their shoes. It is definitely a place that calls for respect.

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Afterwards, all of us went back to our respective tuk-tuks to head to lunch, except for me and my roommate Ozlem. We had come with Shimron who, other than the tour guide, was the only guy in our group of 16, guide inclusive, and who was nowhere to be found. We waited for almost an hour only to have him never show up and by the time we arrived at the lunch place, everyone was paying their bills. Ozlem and I were left gobbling down dosa the size of half my torso so that we could catch up. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only time we were left waiting.

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Next stop: Agra Fort, also known as Red Fort for its…um, red color. Made of red sandstone, the fort portrayed religious tolerance with engravings of the Hindu swastika, Star of David, Christian cross and Muslim influences embedded into its architecture.

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I find the image of a monkey drinking orange soda like a normal human a little bit disturbing.

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Our very first group shot (from left to right, top to bottom): Kamaya (running in the back), Katrina (with Batman mask), Ricky (our tour guide), Beth, Vivian, Nicole, Gordana, Christina, Ozlem, Shimron, Natasha, Vanessa, Daisha, Lena, me and Fariba. In more detail (in no particular order) – six Americans who were teaching in the UAE (not all who knew each other), one from Wales, a Jamaican now from Canada, one from Slovenia, one from Denmark, two from California, one from South Africa, one from London, the tour guide from India and me…an American teaching in Spain. I love listing out people’s nationalities and/or ethnicities because it points out how traveling can really bring people together from all over the world and make you feel as if you were all from the same town.

So, 14 girls, 1 guy and the tour guide. A little part of me understood why Shimron disappeared off on his own sometimes and was always late showing up to things. Only a little part.

Jaipur

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We caught a bus the next morning to Jaipur which was probably the craziest bus experience I’ve ever had. Wherever you could fit a person, a person was placed there. There were normal bus seats and then these overhead compartments where people also sat. Only in Asia, huh? After about 6 hours, we finally arrived at the Pink City (that would be Jaipur in case you didn’t catch that).

We first visited the City Palace which, after the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, didn’t seem as spectacular. I think most of us needed a small break from the forts and palaces, like smelling coffee beans after sampling too many perfumes at a store. So, we opted out of seeing other sites like the observatory and the Hawa Mahal, also known as the “Palace of the Winds” and went straight to the markets.

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Whatever you imagined India’s traffic to be like is probably accurate. You’ve got tuk-tuks, motorcycles, bicycles, cars, small trucks and pedestrians in between. Then you’ve got 1 person, 2 people, 3 people, 4 or more on one motorcycle. Honking is so frequent that it begins to just fade as background noise. What’s funny is that tourists find all of this to be surprising life hazards but, to the locals, it’s just daily life.

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The markets sold everything from flowers, vegetables & fruits, grains and tea to bangles, jootis (Indian flats), pashminas and sari’s.

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Everything was so wonderfully colorful that I was extremely close to buying everything. It was a J.Crew catalogue on crack. But, the practical and budget-conscious side of me kept my wallet safe. I remember thinking, when would I ever wear a sari? Well, I could’ve worn it at my Indian friend’s wedding a few years later instead of specially ordering one but, the past is the past. The other girls, on the other hand, went wild and bought blankets, new bedding, wall hangings and several sari’s and salwars (long tunics worn over loose pants or leggings) and had them shipped to their respective countries. I totally shopped vicariously through them.

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The next morning, we visited the Amer (or Amber) Fort which was huge and majestic in its mix of Hindu and Mughal architecture.

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Check out the monkey in the bottom right-hand corner. There were monkeys in Agra but, here, the monkeys hung around the tourists and jumped at the sound of any kind of wrapper.

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I walked into a Monkey Island game (best computer game ever…floppy disks, anyone?). At this point, I just found them to be amusing. Their presence didn’t scare me until later on in the trip.

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The fort has amazing views of the surrounding landscape and the inside just seemed to have a life force of its own, breathing breezes in and out.

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Throughout the fort, the walls were so overwhelmingly ornate, I couldn’t tell where one pattern ended and another one began. If you looked at my eyes after I stared at the walls, you would see the intro to the Twilight Zone. The walls in the above photo are probably the least ornate of the fort. Again, it makes me wonder how long it took to design them all let alone construct and complete it. Mind seriously blown.

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The Ganesh Pol or, the Ganesh Gate, was probably my favorite part of the fort with its beautiful mix of design and color. An entrance to the private palaces of the maharajas overlooked by the god who removes obstacles? Sure, I’ll take that.

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A nice voyeuristic view of the gardens

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We headed to the markets afterwards but, not before a lunch break at…McDonald’s. Yes, McDonald’s. Now, before you argue “How could you eat at an American fast food joint in India when there are so many delicious options…,” I will say that not all McDonald’s places are created the same. I tried their veggie patty which tasted like curry-seasoned falafel and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I feel like McDonald’s food overseas tends to taste better and they offer better options and tastier sauces. I will also tell you that I had my fair share of butter chicken, tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala, curries, paneer, roti and naan and this was the only time I ate McDonald’s 🙂

At the markets, all of us were on a mission. Since it was Christmas Eve, I suggested that we do a white elephant gift exchange later that night. Price limit: 100 rupees (about $2).

The hotel in Jaipur was probably our favorite. Most of the other hotels we’ve stayed at were very basic – nothing really charming, with showers where the “hot” water came out coldish-lukewarm at best and with rooms that had the occasional bug problem. This hotel had a full private courtyard with a ping pong table, a small cafe indoors next to the hotel lobby, a rooftop with a bar and plenty of seating and spacious rooms with balconies. The owner and manager is this cute mid-aged man who was really excited to have us stay during Christmas and whose only request was to have one of us bake a traditional American seasonal cake for the holidays. He even tried to decorate the courtyard for Christmas with a cardboard cut-out of a snowman, tinsel strewn across one or two trees and a large amount of cotton just haphazardly stuffed at the bottom of one tree to mimic snow. It was a cute eyesore. He clearly had never experienced a snowfall before.

When we came back from the markets with our gifts, Nicole (the gracious volunteer baker) came out with an awesome carrot cake and we had a small Christmas party in the courtyard complete with the cake, homemade rum punch and Christmas carols sung by other hotel guests from Nepal. Afterwards, we went up to the rooftop to do our white elephant gift exchange.

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This was my first Christmas away from home and despite the oddness of warmer temperatures, it was still a great Christmas. I ended up with tea cups and chai tea spices. The other gifts included Indian puppets, bangles, a pashmina scarf and other goodies I can no longer remember. It didn’t matter what the gift was really. It was just fun buying and exchanging them. A bit of familiarity and tradition in a foreign land.

December 21, 2011 – January 4, 2012: Uncover India – Delhi to Goa

“I love my India.” (Honeymoon edition)

Jaisalmer, India

The weddings passed and so had the day of temple-hopping. We stayed at an auntie’s house the night before and after she showed me to my room, she then hurried Sidd and Nilu to another in an obvious attempt to encourage baby-making. It was gross, endearing and funny all at the same time. She had prayed at every temple we visited for them to bear a grandchild. Now, to explain titles very briefly, in a close-knit group of friends and family, the women are addressed as aunties and the men as uncles. Aunties can be like second mothers and your children can be like their grandchildren.

Before we set off to Jaisalmer in the morning, the auntie brought out an entire homemade meal, complete with mater curry (peas in a curry sauce) and roti. I swear I heard an angel playing a harp somewhere at the sight of this food. It was my favorite dish at the time and it was all homemade. I ate with my fingers like a real Indian and licked my fingers at the end. Sidd’s dad caught me doing so and laughed. He said to Sidd in Hindi, “She’s licking her fingers. That’s a sign of true satisfaction. It must’ve been a very good meal.”

We then headed off to Jaisalmer for the sort-of-honeymoon for the three of us. Yes, the three of us. I felt less intrusive on this celebratory occasion since it came after their second wedding ceremony, not the first…ha, ha.

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We stayed in a tent the first night except, it wasn’t really a tent but, a basic hotel room with a tent covering, surrounded by endless sand. Smeagol, they tricksed us! I’m kidding. I have no idea what they advertised since Sidd and Nilu chose the place.

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Clearly, Sidd didn’t have a single worry, as Nilu held onto the camel for both of their dear lives.

I’ve never ridden a horse but, I did ride an elephant, donkey and now, a camel. Although a bit shaky in the beginning, it was really nice riding through the desert just before sunset. The weather wasn’t too hot or too cold. It was just comfortably right.

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Those colorful women to the right approached everyone and immediately began to dance. Afterwards, they demanded/begged for tips. Throughout India, if you give money to one person, dozens more will swarm around you and beg for money. They seem to appear from nowhere and can be a bit scary.

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“I’m a camel and I’m content.”

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After sunset, we were back at the tent hotel for dinner and drinks. A performance was put on for the guests and during the entire time, Sidd, Nilu and I debated on if the performer was really a man or a woman. He/she balanced a bunch of bowls on his/her head and danced around with such ease, then proceeded to stand on these metal cups while continuing to maintain balance. It was all very impressive, although…imagine the bowls were just made of styrofoam? But, the bigger debate here was still about the performer’s gender. The figure was so svelte but the facial structure was masculine. The skin appeared hairless and smooth from afar but, that could just be a simple waxing. In the end, we concluded that he/she was a man. Either way, bravo on the performance.

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The next day, we visited Bada Bagh which houses the cenotaphs of the maharajas of Jaisalmer. It was the first time that I saw admission fees being split into 2 categories – locals and foreigners. Foreigners had to pay a lot more (though when translated into USD, it still was very cheap) and there was also a fee to use your camera. This pretty much existed in every tourist sight. Sidd then came up with the bright idea of telling the ticket sellers that I was from Shillong, a part of India which, being close to Nepal, has more people who look more Southeast Asian. Whenever he bought my tickets, I just stood behind him in silence and acted innocent.

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Next was the Ludarwa Temple, a very ornate Jain temple…which I guess is a redundant description since Jain temples and being ornate go hand-in-hand. Every nook and cranny of this temple was so meticulously carved, I would say that it was the handiwork of the gods.

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Ganesha, one of the most well-known Hindu gods. I used to find the appearance of Hindu gods very strange but, having now seen these gods in the context of history, culture and constant soul-searching, I now see them in the light of admiration. Ganesha is known to be the god of wisdom, knowledge and new beginnings. I can see why he is one of the most popular.

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The Patwon-Ki-Haveli is a combination of 5 small havelis that a wealthy father constructed for his 5 sons. The father was a very successful jewelry trader and was wealthy enough to have the largest haveli constructed. The first of the five, Kothari’s Patwa Haveli, is the most popular. I clearly didn’t stand far enough to capture the entire facade into my photo.

The inside of the haveli was, you guessed right, ornate. Everywhere was shimmering with everything. We all joked that the sons, seemingly selfish, fought against each other to see who would end up housing their father. I concluded that they probably had forgone the argument and just sent him to a nursing home instead.

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On the rooftop of the haveli, there is a spectacular view of Jaisalmer Fort. The lines on the ground indicated that the haveli could be taken apart, transported to another place and, unlike Humpty Dumpty, put back together again. Craziness.

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The Nathmal-ki-Haveli was constructed by 2 competing brothers. One brother built one half while the other brother built the other half. Whoever did a better job was rewarded by the king. From a distance, it all looks the same. Closer up…they still look the same. Haha. I only really saw the differences when someone pointed them out.

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There were many little shops around Jaisalmer Fort. I was very easily attracted to the colors like a moth to a flame. Then I would realize it’s too late to get away when the shopkeeper appeared and began to advertise every bit of his/her merchandise and how everything was such a great deal. A lot of head-nodding later, I would apologetically say “No, thanks” and walk away. Bobblehead Christine.

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The view of the Golden City from Jaisalmer Fort. Yea, all forts, palaces, temples and havelis look pretty much the same but, the views of the cities always take my breath away.

Sidd: “I love my India.”
Nilu: “Me too.”

Later that night, we embarked on an 18 hour train ride from Jaisalmer to New Delhi where we were to part ways. Sidd made sure to purchase extra chains and locks to secure our luggage to the bars underneath our seats. Theft is prevalent on trains, especially on overnight rides while you’re sleeping. A fellow Indian passenger then asked in Hindi if Sidd and I were married and Nilu was our daughter. Um, what? I don’t know in what world would a Korean and an Indian produce a very Indian-looking daughter. On top of that, we all look similar in age. Did he think we were very young-looking 40 year old’s with a 20 year old daughter? Actually, I don’t want to know.

Travel tip: I vaguely remember Sidd constantly checking our train reservations. Later on, I realized it is very important to double check because both trains and buses tend to overbook. Also, for local flights, allow sufficient time between layovers as they tend to not run on schedule.

“I love my India.”

I’ve always wanted to go to India even though most people are turned off by the overpopulation, the dirt, the poverty scattered throughout and the possibility of getting Delhi belly. But, I wanted my Wes Anderson directed, three brothers on a soul-finding journey type of experience. And roti. Lots of it.

Then one serendipitous day, I was catching up with a really good Indian friend of mine over GChat while I was living in Madrid and he in New York. He had already gotten married in a very small ceremony a year or so before but, his and his wife’s families were planning a full-blown wedding in India.

Sidd: “Hey, why don’t you come to our wedding in India?”
Me: “Wait, if I can really plan this and go, I can really go??”
Sidd: “Yea, of course!”

We had this conversation a month and a half before the wedding and I had enough time to go get my tourist visa at a visa center not too far from the Indian Embassy. Equipped with my basic Spanish, I managed to apply and get my visa about two weeks later. It was a little nerve-racking leaving my U.S. passport at an Indian visa center in Madrid but, EUR 110 in fees and vacation approval later, I was on my way to INDIAAA!!

Jodhpur, India

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After a long journey from Madrid to London, London to New Delhi, a 7 hour layover, then New Delhi to Jodhpur, I came out of the airport not knowing which relative of Sidd’s or his wife Nilu’s was supposed to come pick me up. So, I stood there awkwardly for a bit then decided to just take a cab. That’s when I finally felt like I was in India. Well, first, it was all the obnoxious cab drivers outside of the airport who were competing against each other and haggling me to take their cab. Then, it was the passing scenery as I stared out the car window – the variety of colors against the rundown storefronts and crowds of people, as well as the swarms of tuk-tuks honking at each other. When I finally arrived at the hotel & wedding venue, it was really great seeing familiar faces, my awesome friends Sudi (Sidd’s brother), Sidd and Nilu.

Now, I knew Indian weddings were large affairs but, I really had no idea just how large. There are so many rituals involved prior to the actual ceremony and then the actual ceremony itself is so long that I probably could finish reading War & Peace and still catch the end of it. Above was one of those rituals for the bride that occurred before the ceremony. I loved watching the large families interact with each other in their native language, laughing together and feeling so happy that everyone was able to fly from their respective cities/countries to be together in this one spot at this one time. This is why Thanksgiving became my favorite holiday of all time. It’s the one for sure time when all of us come together at my parents’ house and actually spend quality time together, not just for a few hours but involving an overnight stay. It’s hard enough getting the 7 of us together when we all live in the tri-state area. Imagine this wedding when 50+ people came together for the rituals alone. This number multiplied tenfold for the wedding ceremony.

I went to my room to take a shower but, upon entering the bathroom, I ended up standing there for awhile scratching my head. On one side, there was a tub with a shower head and a very questionable shower curtain. On the opposite side, there was a faucet sticking out of the wall, maybe at hips height, over the open floor. Underneath the faucet was a small stool, a large bucket with a smaller bucket inside of it and, a drain. Being a Westerner, I opted for the shower but, when I turned on the water, a stream came out so daintily, I thought the water was coming out of a hamster cage water spout rather than a shower head. I vigorously tried to lather up and ended the shower with a soapy film still on my body. Later on, I asked Sidd what the buckets were for and why the faucet was over an open floor. He laughed and gave me a look that foreigners typically give to Americans (actually, I’m the foreigner here…). “You’re supposed to fill the large bucket with water, and use the smaller bucket to pour that water over your body as you sit on the stool.” Although the thought of placing my cheeks on a stool on which many others have laid upon, the thought of another waterless shower forced me to try the bucket/stool method. The ghosts of butt cheeks past be damned, it was the greatest decision I ever made in my life. For that day.

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During my stay, both families treated me like one of their own and made sure I was well fed and well entertained. I spent most of my time with Nilu’s 3 sisters Neha, Nami and Rashmi while Sidd and Nilu were busy prepping. They explained the rituals to me and were my teachers and translators. I wanted to learn some words in Hindi so at the end of each night, the sisters gave me a challenge to memorize the names of 3 dishes in Hindi. I had plenty of dishes to choose from given that breakfast, lunch and dinner were all buffet style. I still failed miserably. There was even a point where I forgot all of their names. Bah.

So, the girls taught me some words and, before telling me what it meant, they told me to text it to Sidd on a cell phone that he got for me in case of emergencies. Now, the first words in a native language that most people like to teach are none other than some curses and/or “I love you.” Those are the first words I taught my non-Korean friends back in the 6th grade. That and certain foods. They can now go to a Korean restaurant and successfully say “Bitch, two orders of Korean BBQ ribs”…and probably get a nice loogie added into the marinade. So, I texted “Kutte kamine. I ate katori chat.” That was basically my entire Hindi vocabulary by the end. A curse word and a food I ate. What does it mean? I’m not telling you, you greedy dog, but I will tell you that I ate small crispy fried dough bowls filled with chutneys, chickpeas and other assorted goodness which brought chips and dip to a whole new level.

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Each day at the hotel, breakfast, lunch and dinner were always provided. I love Indian food so much that the glutton in me just had to try everything available. Little did I know that food in Rajasthan, especially catered food at weddings, tends to be extra greasy and fatty. And guess what? It was buffet style. Scoop, scoop, scoop…hm, I need a second plate to sample the rest of the buffet table. On top of that, every relative of Sidd and Nilu wanted to make sure that I ate well and, being a courteous Asian, I couldn’t get myself to say no. Eventually, Sidd noticed. “Christine, you know that you’re not obligated to say yes, right? You don’t have to eat all this food.” “Okay,” I said timidly. By the time I started saying no, I couldn’t zip my jeans without lying horizontal on the bed.

I also couldn’t resist the constant supply of chai tea. It was very well-sweetened and I just couldn’t get enough of the stuff. This reminded me of my freshman year in college when I became obsessed with Starbucks’ caramel macchiato and drank it several times a week. Yes, I’ll take a 300 calorie grande chipmunk cheek and jiggling tricep, please. The name’s Christine. How much is it? Oh, $5 of my hard-earned cash that I got after assistant teaching on weekends at an SAT prep school? Take it all. Those were the days when I drank a cup of coffee with 6 spoonfuls of sugar and cream, each. I drink it black now.

Being the light packer that I am, I brought a very tiny suitcase filled with only the essentials and only with very American clothes – jeans and tees. But, Nilu and Sudi’s wife Priyanka had already gone out and bought me or let me borrow several outfits – 2 salwars and 1 sari – to wear during various occasions. I was treated like royalty throughout the week. Before the wedding, Neha, Nami and Rashmi invited me into their room, opened up a very large suitcase with shoes and another one filled with jewelry and makeup and began to style me up. Nilu’s mother wrapped me up in the sari with such grace and ease and, without hesitation, the sisters let me wear their earrings, matching bangles and heels. I became one of the sisters in just a matter of 2 days.

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Earlier in the day, Neha was teaching Sidd her choreography for his entrance into the ceremony. I can’t help but laugh at the video clip of his stiff dancing and watching all the girls on the side cracking up. The rest of us also planned a little dance for when we made our entrances also. Think Pam and Jim’s wedding on The Office. I was actually a little nervous about it.

Enter: Sidd on a horse for the baraat. We finally came to the point where we were to perform our dance entrance and in the chaos of the wedding, it never came to fruition. People were scattered about and we were unsure of the timing. Sidd, on the other hand, performed his stiff dance in full and was concentrating so much on remembering each move that, at the end of it, he almost forgot to turn around to welcome his bride. Hahaha.

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It was beautiful being up on the stage with them alongside their families. This was the varmala ceremony during which they exchanged garlands. What makes this wedding so much more special is that these two really fought to be together as they were not from the same religious sect and the families did not approve for a long time. But, when you really want something or really want to be with someone, you persist. That is real love. That is real passion. And, with that, the families eventually came around and the celebration turned out to be that much more amazing.

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Then came the mandap ceremony, the main event of the wedding. It is also when time warped the feeling of 15 hours into 1-2 hours. The only other time(s) this feeling occurred in my life was when my mom forced me to practice an hour of piano/flute per day or do my after-school homework on top of my regular school homework. But, after the lengthiness, Sidd and Nilu were pronounced husband and wife…one more time 🙂

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The next day brought the next wedding…for Sidd’s sister. I was invited by default, although by then, I felt like part of the family. The mehndi (henna) ceremony was probably my favorite part of the wedding festivities. While traditional Rajasthani musicians and dancers were performing on the side, every woman was getting an elaborate design painted on their hands and forearms in henna. It dried quickly but you were supposed to keep the dried henna in place for a few hours before peeling it off. The longer it stayed on, the darker the color would become. Dabbing lemons on the dried henna also helps to darken the color. After resisting the slight itchiness, I finally peeled it off hours later with a satisfaction equivalent to the picking off of a hundred scabs or, dried Elmer’s glue from your fingertips. Glorious.

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I left my phone at the mehndi ceremony and completely forgot about it until later in the day. When I finally remembered, one of Nilu’s sisters called the phone for me and one of the aunties picked up. She had my phone and agreed to return it on one condition – that I give her and another auntie a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I held up my end of the bargain even though I knew they were joking but, for some reason, they found it to be hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing. At least I was entertaining? …though I don’t know why. After the mehndi pah tee came the haldi pah tee, during which family members rubbed turmeric on the bride’s face, hands and feet to bring good luck.

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Nilu’s sisters and me

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Just when I thought the wedding rituals were completed, there were more, all involving a psychedelic color explosion. In the above, the bride had to hold onto the person’s feet until she was given a gift. I kept myself busy checking out every woman in attendance and studied the patterns on their saris. I wish I could wear one everyday.

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After the two weddings, Sidd’s cousins and I went sightseeing in Jodhpur. So, you know how once you’ve seen one European cathedral, you’ve seen pretty much all? Or, once you’ve seen one Buddhist temple, you’ve seen all? Well, once you’ve seen one Indian palace/fortress, guess what? Yes, chicken butt.

There wasn’t much to see at the museum portion of the Jodhpur Palace but, yay, I saw an elephant with a pink pedi.

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When I watched The Dark Knight Rises months later, I immediately recognized the view when Bruce finally escaped the prison pit. Holy Blue City, Batman! (Above from Mehrangarh Fort).

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Nearby the fort is Jaswant Thada, a mausoleum housing several past Jodhpur rulers. Even after death, these people have more extravagant housing than I do. The details in the architecture of the above mausoleum and all the palaces/forts are so intricate, it makes me wonder how the design was even achieved in execution, especially back then when you didn’t have machines creating your designs.

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We went to see a polo match after the morning sightseeing and sat two rows behind the king of Jodhpur. Say what? Yep. I wasn’t lying when I said I was treated like royalty. All I was missing was a palanquin and a giant leaf fanning servant.

Later on, we went shopping at the Sardar Market for bangles, Indian flats called jootis (joo-ddee’s) and other random accessories. People told me that I should buy the things I instinctually liked. There were so many little shops in the market and everyone was bargaining as if it guaranteed a spot in heaven for them so, there wasn’t really much time to think and go back. I had my eye on a pair of flats but, since I couldn’t bargain it down to the price I wanted, I left to think about it. As expected, we didn’t have time to go back and I couldn’t find a pair of flats I equally liked in the two weeks following. I regretted it at the time but, thinking about it now, about three years later, it obviously doesn’t matter anymore. It’s like Cher in Clueless when the skateboarder Travis apologized for ruining her designer shoes. “Oh, those? They’re so last season!” This market did give me my first taste of bargaining though. I felt bad in the beginning because I know that selling these accessories was their livelihood but, they were overpricing cheaply made goods so much and became so aggressive that I quickly became a master bargainer. “What, 300 rupees ($5) for those flats? No thanks!” Yea, pathetic. For me, that is. When I joined a tour group a few days later and bargained with the other ladies in my group, we all talked about how we were bargaining already cheap prices. In the end, it was hard letting go of the pride.

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The next day was my favorite day in probably the entire three week trip. It was one of the most memorable because for the first time in a long time, Sidd’s family was together in one place and was able to take a day trip to visit all of their ancestral temples. And, I was there to witness their impressionable faith. This was probably one of the beginning moments when I questioned the claims of my own faith. How could these awesome-hearted people end up in “hell” just because they didn’t believe in the same miracle that I believed in? There are murderers out there who repented and started believing in Jesus. Who is to say that these people get to go to “heaven” but, people in other religions who have shown me more kindness than even my own Christian friends don’t? Again, I’m not completely denouncing Christianity but, while I still believe Jesus was a great miracle worker, I no longer believe that he is the only path to God. In my eyes, everyone is a part of God and everyone has a path.

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Priyanka, Nilu and I bought offering to make to the gods at the very first temple, Osiyaji Temple. I awkwardly followed along as I had no idea what to do.

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At each temple, an offering was made and a prayer said. I also prayed alongside them for their happiness and safety, as well as for my own family and friends. Regardless of which god or God was being prayed to, I knew that the universe as a whole was listening.

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Cows, being sacred animals, walked around as part of the pedestrian crowd. I walk through Times Square like it’s no big deal while tourists stop every few seconds in awe of the lights. Here, the locals walked next to the cows as if they were just ordinary human beings and I stood there in awe…and fear. This wasn’t your average pigeon or rat.

After the first temple, we switched from a mini bus to cars. When all the luggage was loaded off the bus, you could see a pile of large dark-colored suitcases and, in the middle of the pile was a very tiny light blue-colored one. That one was mine. Everyone laughed.

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We literally drove all day from temple to temple which, by now, you should know is something I greatly enjoy. Long car rides are my meditative friend. To squeeze in 3 temples into the agenda (they were quite some distance from each other), the driver sped so much that, at one point, we were speeding bumper-to-bumper behind a truck with a sign on the back that read “Keep distance.” Mind you, there was only one lane going in one direction with the adjacent lane going in the opposite direction. The driver, impatient, then swerved into the adjacent lane where a car was speeding towards us and swerved back JUST in time into the correct lane, right in front of the truck we were stuck behind just moments before. After the honking died down, we all calmed down from the shock and started laughing. What just happened? But, when we eventually came across a camel crossing, there was nothing the driver could do but wait. Nature trumps all.

The second temple, the Ramdevra Temple, prohibited any photo-taking. So, you get a photo of camels instead. Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike!!

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The third and last temple was the main and most important temple and, on the way, we stopped in a small town to refuel the car. Sidd and Sudi told their dad that all of us needed a bathroom break and promised to be back quickly. It was evening by then and, if we didn’t rush, the temple would close and we’d miss the highlight of the spiritual road trip. So, Sudi, Priyanka, Sidd, Nilu and I rushed off to a fast food restaurant down the block. I, being completely oblivious, thought this was purely a bathroom break. At the restaurant, everyone did their business and I went last. But, when I came back out, I ran into the others on the line, ordering food. Suddenly, I found myself sitting at a table with plates of basmati/biryani, roti and paneer and everyone stuffing their faces. In the rush to visit these temples, we didn’t have time to stop for dinner and everyone was starving.

Then, out of nowhere, Sidd and Sudi’s dad appeared behind us with a look of sheer anger on his face. We were taking too long and he came to look for us. I have no idea how he even found us in the midst of all the fast food places. Sudi and Priyanka quickly stood up and tried to appease him but, with rantings like “How could you stop to eat dinner when the rest of us are hungry?!? Do you think we’re skipping dinner for fun?? We have to reach this important temple before it closes!!!” there really was no excuse. He continued shouting angrily but, Sidd, determined not to let this all be in vain, crouched down over the table and shoveled food into his mouth, never even coming back up for air. I gave him a look of “What the hell are you doing? Your dad is angry!” But, he shot me a look back that said “What? I’m hungry! We can’t let this go to waste!”

As we filed out of the restaurant, I timidly asked Nilu, “Can I take this roti with me?” “Of course, just take it!” as we rushed behind. Once we got back to the car, we sped off in a mad dash and, thanks be to God, reached the last temple as it was closing. If we had missed this, we wouldn’t have heard the end of Sudi/Sidd’s dad. He was all smiles at the end.

At the temple, Sidd’s family huddled together to make their offerings and say their prayers. I stood on the side and took photos of them in this rare moment. Sidd looked up and I saw that he was reading a sign in Hindi. He then made eye contact with me and shook his head left to right in small, quick movements and I suddenly realized that photos were not allowed in this temple. I silently shut off the camera and thankfully was not caught. Shortly after, Sidd and Sudi went inside a room and came back out minutes later wearing sarongs that showcased their bare sexy legs. I wanted so badly to take a photo but, now knowing that it was forbidden, I just stood there and laughed to myself.

When the dust finally settled, we all looked at each other and broke out into an ab-wrenching laughter and recapped the past couple of hours. Did we, as grown adults, get yelled at like children? Yes. Did Sidd really shove a whole plate of rice into his face while everyone else was trying to appease his dad? Yes. In the midst of all the yelling, did I still ask to take the roti…roti that I gobbled on our run back to the car and didn’t share with the others? Yep. Stomach trumps brain. And, I wonder how I gained about 10 lbs on this trip…