Sunday, November 29, 2009

The commercialization of religion in Pushkar

We made a pit stop in Pushkar on our drive from Jaipur to my mom's hometown of Beawar. Pushkar is the king of pilgrimage sites in India for Hindus. It is believed that Lord Brahma performed penance here for 60,000 years to have a glimpse of Lord Vishnu, and it's the site of the most famous among the very few temples to Brahma in the world. Pushkar has also become an extremely popular destination for foreign tourists - there's such a huge presence of Israeli tourists that many signs are actually written in Hebrew! Honestly I don't really understand the attraction to foreigners.

Our experience in Pushkar reflected the commercialization of religion much more than any true spirituality. We were accosted from the moment we got out of our car and whisked down to the lakeside for a puja to pray for the long lives of our spouses. My parents, Jay and Tonia, and Kruti and I were split up and were each separately asked to make significant donations to buy food for all of the brahmins in the town in the name of ensuring long lives for each other. We all conceded because none of us wanted to risk the potential karmic effects of a lack of faith. But immediately after we were being coerced to donate more to ensure the peace and happiness of each of our deceased relatives. By the end I was certain these guys were being paid commissions on how much cash they could extract from the poor pilgrims. Anyway, I imagine the universe will sort it out.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


My brother Jay and sister-in-law Tonia made a game-time decision to come to India to attend our cousin Shipra's wedding. They didn't want to miss all the fun so they asked for vacation over the weekend, booked their flights on Sunday, flew to San Francisco to get their visas renewed on Monday (no consular office in Seattle), departed for India on Thursday, and joined us in Jaipur early this morning. Awesome to see them and to have the whole family together!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Jaipur, the Pink City

Next up on the tour: Jaipur, the Pink City, and the capital of Rajasthan. The city is incredibly beautiful and incredibly organized, due to the fact that it was the first planned city in India. While in Jaipur, we maximized our time by sightseeing in the morning (until the markets opened) and shopping all afternoon:-) My favorite sights were the Amber Fort, for its gorgeous architecture and grand scale, and the Galtaji Temple, where we got to feed the monkeys!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The culture of food in Jodhpur

I love the culture of food in Jodhpur. Daily life centers on food and meals more than any other place I've been. Everyone loves to eat, and to talk about what to eat next.

People also take great pleasure in feeding others. There’s a custom in Jodhpur called manvar, in which a host essentially force feeds a guest by hand, usually sweets, in large quantities, particularly at weddings and other special occasions. I love the custom, especially when I’m the one feeding others!

I think the most unique aspect of the food culture in Jodhpur is that people start their meals with sweets. I don’t know another place where dessert comes first. I'm not even sure why dessert comes last everywhere else, except perhaps because people like to "save the best for last." When I asked my relatives, they made the point, why save the best for last when you can have it first? I like it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Welcome to Jodhpur, the Blue City

This is our first trip to Rajasthan together since we got married so we have been meeting/visiting a lot of family, particularly in Jodhpur where most of Vipin’s dad’s family lives. They all gave me such a warm welcome, including planning a fabulously fun party on the rooftop of an old fort-turned-hotel, complete with dancing, drinks and fireworks!

We made some time for sightseeing around the city as well. Jodhpur is called the Blue City because of the blue-tinted whitewash used on most of the houses in the old city - the view of it from Mehrangarh Fort is particularly striking. The museum in the Fort is one of the best we’ve seen with a great collection of palanquins, miniatures, and an amazing collection of traditional royal clothing (which I’d love to have if any of it were for sale). We also visited the Chamunda Devi temple within the Fort, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors on Dussehra, and was the site of a tragic stampede in 2008. The other highlight of our time in Jodhpur was our visit to Vipin’s grandfather’s home (and where his father grew up) in the old city. Check out the photos.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Jaisalmer, the Golden City

I've been to Rajasthan many times and have always wanted to visit Jaisalmer but had never been. It lies in the heart of the Thar Desert and the entire town is built of yellow sandstone which gives the city a honey-gold color. The town is crowned by Jaisalmer Fort, a "living" fort with palaces, temples, houses and havelis and a quarter of the city's population still living inside the fort. Jaisalmer is surrounded by quintessential desert - remote, desolate, stark, austere beauty. We took two camel safaris over the desert dunes, the first at sunset and the second the next morning at sunrise. Kruti absolutely loved her first camel ride and I enjoyed it too but I will say that riding a camel is not very comfortable. See the photos of Kruti dismounting.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Udaipur, City of Lakes

Our first stop on our tour of Rajasthan was Udaipur, “the City of Lakes,” which was ranked the top destination in the world in Travel & Leisure magazine’s World’s Best Awards 2009!

Ashok Mama and Usha Mami joined us in Udaipur to to show us around. Though we saw many beautiful palaces and temples, the highlights of Udaipur our boatride on Lake Pichola, the traditional Rajasthani puppet show we saw, and a visit to Saheliyon-ki-Bari (Garden of the Maids) where we had pictures taken wearing traditional Rajasthani outfits (and were photographed by a busload of European tourists!).

After two days in Udaipur, we drove to Nathdwara known for its famous temple of Shrinathji, an incarnation of Lord Krishna. The town of Nathdwara revolves around this temple, so all the small shops in the surrounding streets sell everything from glittering artwork of Shrinathji for your home to flowers, sweets, incense and other offerings for the temple, all while playing bhajans (religious songs) on loudspeakers all around. The experience inside the temple was unforgettable -- the palpable fervor of worshippers and the shoving and pushing of the crowds were unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Touring the Land of Kings

Vipin’s parents have organized an amazing itinerary especially for me to see their home state of Rajasthan, “the Land of Kings.” I have actually done very little travel in India since most of my extended family now lives in the US and because when we did visit as children we spent most of our time at my grandparents’ homes in Gujarat.

Our tour will take us from Udaipur to Jodhpur, where Vipin’s father’s family is from, stopping in Nathdwara and Ranakpur along the way. From Jodhpur, we’ll visit the desert in Jaisalmer and then head to Jaipur and Pushkar before reaching Beawar, where Vipin’s mother’s family is from and where his cousin Shipra’s wedding festivities will begin.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Meet the newest member of our extended family

My cousin Ritu’s newborn son is eight days old. He doesn’t have a name yet but his 8-year-old sister Saumya and 5-year-old cousin Advik are fighting over naming rights. After much negotiation, Saumya has decided that his name should start with the letter S, after her, and Advik has decided that the second letter of his name should be A, after Advik. Cute.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Namaste India!

We arrived in Bombay early this morning and we'll be in India for the next seven weeks. Spending the first few weeks with my folks and extended family in Rajasthan, giving Kruti a tour of the "Land of Kings" and attending my cousin's wedding, and we're planning to spend the last few weeks of the year hanging out with our friends in Bombay. Excited to be back in the motherland!

Alcoholics in Dubai

Our visit to Dubai was all about catching up with our good friends (and my business school section-mates) Hiran, who lives in Dubai, and Anand, who flew in from NYC to hang out for four days. We also met Hiran’s wonderful girlfriend Nidhi, who did all of the planning for the weekend (Hiran outsourced in true McKinsey fashion). We had an awesome mini-reunion, partying, driving around, overeating, hanging on the beach, and playing poker. And of course, in section tradition, we took turns pouring vodka shots straight from the bottle into each other’s mouths. Still a good time.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Some people look better covered in mud

Truck stop kebabs

The best chicken kebabs I've ever eaten were at this truck stop where we stopped to refuel outside Wadi Rum, Jordan. We had zero luck communicating with the staff so finally we strolled into the kitchen and pointed at what we wanted. Absolutely delicious.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

We loved our trip to Jordan. We only had three days but we packed them chock-full. We started by renting a car at the airport in Amman. I was a bit apprehensive about driving in Jordan just because we’d never been there but the allure of traveling independently and seeing the country on our own terms was too powerful, particularly after our experience in Egypt. The car we rented didn’t shift properly and we had to jam the key into the gearbox to unlock it every time before starting the car. Ominous beginning. But the roads in Jordan are outstanding and the traffic relatively painless. The country is 80% desert and the combination of the beautiful expanse of sand and an empty, open road made us feel like we were in the middle of nowhere. To complete our car rental experience we got pulled over twice during the three days – the first time for what I’m still not sure and the second time for speeding. The police officer asked to see my license, told me I was going 25km/hr over the speed limit, and then demanded, “Give me JD20” (US$28), after which there was an awkward 20-second pause while we were deciding whether to pay the bribe. Suddenly the officer received a call on his radio and abruptly let us go I think because there was another driver speeding more than me. Lucky for us. Nothing like getting pulled over in a foreign country to get the adrenaline flowing a bit.

Our first stop was Petra, the ancient sandstone city built in the third century BC by the Nabataeans, Arabs who controlled the trade routes of the region in pre-Roman times. The abandoned city had escaped the attention of the Western world for hundreds of years until it was rediscovered by accident in 1812 by a Swiss explorer. It also formed the backdrop for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. We spent our first night and the entire next day hiking among the palaces, temples and tombs carved into the sandstone cliffs. Spectacular.

From Petra we drove further south to Wadi Rum, the desert made famous by Lawrence of Arabia. We spent a half-day exploring the sand dunes, sculpted rocks, and Bedouin encampments of Wadi Rum in a 4x4. There’s something about the desert that I love. I think it’s the lack of human life, which always makes me feel like an explorer.

Our last stop was the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, and famous because it has such high salinity that it’s pretty much impossible to sink in it (and extremely fun to float in it). We arrived a bit late from Wadi Rum so we woke up at 5:30am the next morning to play in the sea before we had to race back to the airport. We floated, bathed in Dead Sea mud, floated some more, sat on the water, tried doing some yoga positions, and finally it was time to go. Crazy fun.

Wish we had more time in Jordan. We could easily have spent a week there. Also would have loved to go to Israel, Lebanon and Syria. We hadn't planned to travel much in the Middle East (just a week in transit) because we had prioritized Africa and Asia, but we didn't appreciate how much there is to explore here. Definitely have to make a separate Middle East trip!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Egypt photos

The sites of Egypt were awe-inspiring but the highlight of the trip was seeing our friends, Neeta and Amar, and my sister, Priti. We spent a couple of days in Cairo before meeting up with them to see the Pyramids and heading south down the Nile. Check out the photos below!

Egypt: Tourists, Giants, and Dominoes

Egypt’s massive tourism industry makes having a unique travel experience there a bit difficult. We only had ten days so a fully guided tour was the only realistic option to see all of the historic sites scattered across the length of the country, yet guided tours leach much of the charm and serendipity from a trip. I also prefer the trekking, climbing, scuba, cycling, adventure travel more than the type of sightseeing we did in Egypt where a tour guide drove us in a van from temple to temple and tomb to tomb.

That said, Egypt’s history is fascinating and the scale of its monuments is absolutely magnificent. The structures are so enormous that they look like something left behind by a race of giants.

It was also super fun that Kruti’s sister Priti and our friends Neeta & Amar took vacation and joined us for the week. Amar and Neeta taught us how to play dominoes and we quickly became addicted and spent the last couple evenings on our Nile cruise playing dominoes on the deck of the ship. Who would have guessed? Kruti and I even bought our own set at the Aswan market for the rest of the trip!