Saturday, June 14, 2008

around maharashtra in 80 hours

India has turned me into a manic depressive. Sometimes I can't stand this country, with it's touts and crowds and crooks, and sometimes I just can't get over how wonderful it is, with everyone so curious and garrulous and smiley and a culture that's so so different. Happily, very happily, the past few days have been just fantastic.

Getting from Khajuraho to Mumbai in three days isn't really that hard, I guess, but if you don't want to fly and you try to hit up some sights on the way, it requires planning. So here's what I drew up:

6.11 - bus from Khajuraho to Satna (5 hours)
6.11/12 - overnight train from Satna to Jalgaon (12 hours)
6.12 - bus from Jalgaon to Ajanta Caves (2 hours), see Ajanta Caves, bus to Aurangabad (3 hours)
6.13 - from Aurangabad, see Daulatabad Fortress, continue to Ellora Caves, return to Aurangabad
6.13/14 - overnight train from Aurangabad to Mumbai (9 hours)
6.14 - arrive in Mumbai bright and early

Since my flight to Dubai is very early on the 16th, the plan allows a flex day point five, which in India is very required. The overnight train from Satna to Jalgaon was a bit of disaster and I lost a day there, but otherwise the plan went swimmingly, and I've just arrived in Mumbai, and it's the morning of the 15th. Awesome.

Let's start with the Ajanta Caves, which are a series of Buddhist cave/temples cut out of a huge horseshoe-shaped rock cliff. The earliest of the caves are from 200 BC (woah!), and the later group date from 600 AD (woah). Like the Taj, and like Daulatabad and Ellora later, the Ajanta Caves are a popular weekend trip for domestic tourists. I've decided that Indian tourists come to places like the Taj and Ajanta half to see the site, but half to see real live Westerners. So being one of very, very few Westerners at Ajanta, everyone wants to say hi. I'm like a celebrity. People want to introduce themselves, take a photo with me. It's great fun.

Anyway, the first cave was very cool. Flash photography was forbidden, and the caves are awfully dark, so I don't know how well this'll come out:

Huge columns, a flat square courtyard in the middle, and lots of cells off the main courtyard, like oversized telephone booths, that the monks would pray in. And the center cell, directly across from the cave opening, houses a big ol' Buddha statue. How they hollowed out mountains to make cave temples 1400 years ago, I don't know. It's impressive.

Now the second cave made me chuckle. Why? It's exactly like the first. Like, deja vu, where you have to check and make sure you didn't somehow just enter the same cave again. And the third? Identical! 100% perspiration, 0% inspiration, I guess. Usually the cliff was too steep to do anything with the outside of the cave temples, but this one had a cool carved entrance:

The older group of caves, from 200 BC, were a little different from the newer group, but they were also all pretty much copies of each other. So Ajanta didn't demand as much time as I had alloted. On to Aurangabad.

Arriving in Aurangabad, it's a polluted, unattractive, cementy town, and my hopes for a pleasant stay were not high. But the guy at the 4th guesthouse I looked at was so welcoming and affable, and immediately invited me for chai. I'll stay here, thank you! Can you imagine a backpacker hostel worker inviting you in for tea? And he doesn't even know your name yet! This happens in India, often. Just charming. Morning bus to Daulatabad.

Back in the 14th century, Muhammad bin Tughluq was sitting on his throne in Delhi, and decided, "That's it, enough Delhi, let's move this capital to Daulatabad." Then, in what I can only assume will be dismissed in a few years as a mistranslation, Mr. Tughluq supposedly posted signs or something that said "Dear Citizens of Delhi: Pack up your stuff, we're going to Daulatabad. Probably wanna keep your pack light, 'cause it's a long, hot 700 miles." I'm skeptical, but according to the signs and guidebooks, he forcibly marched the entire population of Delhi 700 miles.

Seriously, is that possible? I mean, what if Mayor Daley said "Dear Chicagoans, pack your stuff, we're going to East St. Louis. And we're walking." Um, you're out of your mind, Mayor Crazypants. How does one person have the power to do something like that? Don't the people simply refuse?

Anyway, the fortress was awesome.

I do not understand how anyone took a medieval fortress by anything but siege. There's a huge cliff up to the main tower, surrounded by an enormous moat, and the only way to cross the moat is by this narrow up-and-down steep-staired bridge. And there are half a dozen thick wooden doors that you'd have to break through, and cannons and stuff pointing right where you'd be stuck. It just looks totally, totally impenetrable. And there were monkeys. Probably descendants of the vicious attack monkeys that guarded the outer walls.

When I was climbing the fortress summit (it's built on a hill), one family I passed, after the usual "where from?" and stuff, invited me to join their picnic lunch. Just so welcoming, and so interesting, and so, so Indian. And the tomato chutney was phenomenal.

On the way back through the fortress with the picnic family, we have to walk through lots of pitch-black hallways, and you can hear bats. With a flash photo, you wouldn't know this hall was can't-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark, but when I showed the photo to the daughter, she flipped when she saw how many bats were over our heads.

Onto the Ellora Caves. Now, unfortunately for me, most of the Ellora Caves were the exact same friggin' thing as Ajanta!! I guess they're both Buddhist rock-cut temples from around the 7th century, but c'mon people! But, and this is a HUGE but, Cave #16 was way, WAAAAY different. Better known as the Kailasa Temple, it is wild!

(I tried to put up a video of it, but that did something bad and now some of the photos I wanted to put up won't go either. Whoops.)

Ooooh, and outside Kailasa, there were some very cheeky monkeys. This one's clearly planning something cheeky.

Okay, okay, sorry, this post is getting long (I already wrote this long mailing a package bit, but I moved it to the end). Took an overnight train to Mumbai, got here this morning, and walked around to find a guesthouse.

Just 'cause I was in a silly mood, I couldn't resist walking into Mumbai's fanciest and oldest hotel: The Taj...

Gross clothes I've slept in for the past 2 nights, just coming off an overnight train, backpack with rat-chewed holes (learned in Malaysia not to keep snacks in the outer pockets) and a dangling frisbee, and they're still all opening doors and "good afternoon, sir" and very sophisto. Unfortunately, even their most modest room, at $525 a night, was a wee bit out of my price range. I thanked the kind receptionist and he very politely hoped I would return.

Ahhh, this looks more like my kinda foyer:

That's where I'm staying tonight. It's actually not as bad as you'd think from the stairwell. And yeah, what you barely see at the base of the stairs is a homeless guy I had to step over.

Okay, sorry to add even more to this post, but I wrote this earlier in response to an email from Mom, and it gives you maybe a little flavor or the logistics of long-term travel? Or what I'm actually doing most of the day (when I'm not at a sight, or eating, or on a bus, or writing too-long blog entries, or finding a guesthouse...). But anyway, here it is:


1st trip to the post office
The one coat I didn't give away, a couple tchotchkes I bought, and a book (I annotate, so I keep my books) are nicely packed in an addressed box; all I need is a stamp and we're off! Right? Wrong! Nothing's that easy here! Check this rule out: Every package mailed in India must be sealed in linen. Yup, that's a rule. The post office suggests I find a tailor. Terrific.

The tailor is accustomed to wrapping packages, and for 80 rupees ($2), does a fine job:

2nd trip to the post office
Word is there's a post office is near the bus stand, so I arrive at 1pm -- plenty of time before my 2pm bus. Proudly throw my package, in purdy white linen, on the counter. The seated, plaster-expressioned guy looks up at me and points to the clock: lunchtime. Ooookay, when's lunchtime over? 2:30, 2:45, he says noncomittally. My bus leaves at 2pm, so maybe if I buy your lunch, you could send this during lunchtime? He's totally uninterested. So the package is coming with me on the bus to Satna.

3rd trip to the post office
5 hours later, I'm at the Satna train station, and I have 5 hours before my 11:30pm overnight train to Jalgaon. Surely the post office is closed by now, but what's this, there's a special open-late post office in the train station?! That couldn't be more perfect! Turns out it's a "speed post" only kinda office, and that service isn't offered for parcels over 1kg. So my 2kg box, in no-longer-so-white linen, is coming with me to Jalgaon.

4th trip to the post office
The train is SUPPOSED to arrive at Jalgaon at 11am. Then again, it was SUPPOSED to be at Satna, where I was getting on, at 11:30pm. It showed to Satna at 3am, so we're already 3.5 hours late. (And, and, there are no computer screen thingies to show that your train's delayed, so from 11:30pm to 3am, I had to sit at the station and nervously watch every train that came in, and ask if it was number 2946, while every begger in all of India tugged on my sleeves and pushed at my legs. That's a looooong way to spend 3.5 hours.) By the time we arrive at Jalgaon, we're 6 hours late, so 11am becomes 5pm. Post office is closed.

5th trip to the post office
I'm getting angry at this stupid package. But by now it's become an issue of pride: I'm sending this damn thing. AND, I already lost a day on account of the train. So at 8:30am, I'm already showered and checked out of my pad and at the post office, stupid package in stupid hand. At the post office, there are people there, in the mail room area, but nobody's behind the counter. Someone who speaks English helpfully tells me that the counter won't open 'til 10am. Then, he says the most amazing thing...

Now, a small aside. The seat I got on the train was in the 3AC section, which is the cheapest section to have A/C. This ended up being a godsend NOT because of the A/C, but because if you're in a section that requires reservations, 3 seats means 3 people! Genius! Anyhow, in the 3AC section, one guy and I chatted quite a bit. He was really nice, got me chai (of course), and he thinks most Indians have more money than they realize, but they spread it over too many kids. See, he has one child, so he can afford 2 tickets in the 3AC section. It's less than 7 unreserved-section tickets! I liked him. At one point, I tell him that, in America, a train running 5 hours late would be just unacceptable. He very correctly points out that in America, where people are rich, their time is valuable. In India, money is limiting, and time is in excess. Nobody bats an eye at 5 hours; they don't feel something was "lost."

So, back to the post office. It's 8:30am, and the counter opens at 10am. You know what this guy tells me? It's the most amazing thing! He, get this, he points to a bench, and he says "please, sit."

Please sit?! PLEASE SIT?! You could've knocked me over with a feather! PLEASE SIT?!?! For an hour and half?! That would NEVER happen in the States. Oh, you won't be able to do whatever for an hour and a half? Just sit and wait! FOR AN HOUR AND A HALF!! He really expects me to just sit here with my thumb up my butt for NINETY MINUTES!

You know, I did, of course. I had to send my package, see.

The family that invited me to lunch with them at Daulatabad Fortress, we were chatting. They wanted to know all about my thoughts on India, and how it's different from the States. I told them that story, and they were bemused. Really? In the States, you have to be doing something all the time? Here, it's totally acceptable to do absolutely nothing. To just sit there.

I remember being in Joshua's car, and he was listening to Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About America, and the Indian-born author was describing his shock at coming to America: These stressballs are proactive even in how they'll spend their leisure time! Making appointments at tennis courts, setting alarms to squeeze in early swims! I guess it's just the way we roll.

These posts are getting pretty rambly. Sorry about that.

Tomorrow morning I fly to Dubai. Woah.


Anonymous said...

Sure hope that package had a present for your mom! :)

I want to stay at the Taj. But then I wouldn't have those interesting conversations.

Love you much,

Anonymous said...

Did you ever see the movie Bride and Prejudice, Jake? I picture the opening scenes of crowded Indian streets when you write about India. Cam doesn't like the movie. Probably because it's a Bollywoodish musical. Have you seen any Bollywood movies there? Anyway, hope Dubai is... fascinating, interesting, exotic, out of this world... not really sure what adjective to use. I'm looking forward to your next post! Happy travels!


jdcooper said...

Jake...Good stories again (great, now everyone thinks I'm ideologically aligned with DineshD).

Very cool pics at least of the fortress/caves. How did they do that? Lives of toil. Toil till death. Their retirement plan was to work, and their medical plan was to die.

If only we didn't have 5 hour delays. Remember when you went to Portland alone for Thanksgiving? Or at the Chicago Cup this weekend, the Philaronto girls couldn't get out of Philly (the guys are from Toronto). They were on the tarmac, I understand, for THIRTEEN HOURS. ON THE PLANE! The guys picked up a few women and won the tourney. They're good. I gave up 3 goals all weekend, 2 on corners, and 1 on a penalty stroke (those are very hard to stop). Not one single field, or natural, goal. That's cool.

You have holes in your backpack now? Perhaps REI will take care of that when you get back. Give it a shot.

...and mail wrapped in white linen? Must it also be cold as the clay?

Anonymous said...

"Their retirement plan was to work, and their medical plan was to die." GREAT line, josh did you make that up or is that something i would know if i was a philosophy major or history teacher??


Jeanne said...

i wouldn't survive in india because, as your brother would explain, i like to jam pack my days with all sorts of things to do that i end up stressing myself out and having to take naps. wait, maybe i would fit in india with all the naps i take?

jdcooper said...


I made that up, as far as I know.

love you

I thought you'd get a kick out of the cold as the clay joke, though

Jake Cooper said...

Joshua, your cold as the clay reference was solid, but totally, TOTALLY overshadowed by the line Dad highlighted. That is REALLY a GREAT line.

Leah, you should see the commercials here! Each one is a Bollywood short, I swear. Dancing and parties and silliness all over the screen.

I'm in Dubai, and I'll write all about it later, but UNBELIEVABLE!!! UN, UN, UNBELIEVABLE!!!! I'm being spoiled ROTTEN by one Mr. Ashok Kotecha, a friend and business contact of the Berlins. Spoiled ROTTEN! Unbelievable.

Anonymous said...

i'm sorry that i guess i kinda passed over the "cold as the clay" because it is ALSO SUPERB, REALLY SUPERB

but i think i was working on trying to remember where your other line was from ----- Lenin?, Marx?, Samuel Gompers and the american zionist labor movement? it is REALLY an instant socio-political classic

if you said this in a public forum, you'd be instantly famous

Anonymous said...

p.s. i realize that the line is yours ----- it just sounds like it could have come from the other sources i referenced above


Anonymous said...

Jake - I think your blog's title should be "Around the World - Mostly by Bus"! You have taken some RECORD bus trips! btw, what does chai taste like? It is served with milk, like is often the case here, or is it clear?


Jake Cooper said...

Mrs. Berry, you're right! I didn't realize how slow buses and trains are in India: a 300km journey ran 12-16 hours, easily. The roads aren't exactly American highways. Where's Ike when you need him, huh?

And the chai in India is made half milk half water (boiled together), and is very flavorful and VERY sweet. At first, it's too sweet -- shockingly so -- but I started to like it. And it's served in tiny amounts, like a shot of espresso, so it's just a little tasty sip, not a drink really.

I'm going to try to post a little entry now, but I gotta hurry; want to hit up the buffet before the car comes to pick me up. :)