flora: Stylized Indian national flag (india)
Lovebirds and elephants are romantic. But it's great to discover a city with new friends.

We explored the sights, smells, touches, and tastes of Pondicherry--with other Americans! The Fulbright conference wisely gave us some free time in the evenings.  We spent some of the time with another Computer Science lecturer, Clif, and Clif's family--his wife Lane, and their two children. It was delightful to get to know them.  We had an early dinner together with them at a delicious, Italian-style wood fired pizzeria (justly recommended by their guidebook).  We tasted real cheese pizza with tangy tomato sauce and Italian spices. Lane and I commiserated with each other. Lane isn't working; she's been busy being a mom and studying a bit of programming. Their family had originally thought of applying for South Korea, but they're managing okay in Kerala. They're also in an urban area, so it's a bit more exciting there than in rural Gujarat.

Pondicherry was French colonial, unlike most of the rest of India which was British.  The street signs are still bilingual, in French and Tamil. There are little touches of France here and there, like the painted ceramic tiles giving address numbers. The people are definitely Indian though.
An antique store with a sand painting on its doorstep
We admired an elegant sand painting on a doorstep, and followed over the threshold into a lovely little antique store. Michael bought an inexpensive bell that had once hung in a temple.
We also wandered the major city park. The kids played in the playgrounds. Michael and I explored the tropical flowers in the elaborately planted flowerbeds. I picked up a fragrant white temple-flower blossom that had fallen on the sidewalk and put it in my hair temporarily until I could find some jasmine.

We strolled along the promenade, by the rocky beach on the Indian ocean. On the beach, I made out with a parrot.
Lane holding the parrot
The green "fortune-telling" lovebirds, and their handlers, cater to tourists. They normally pick out a little rolled-up scroll with the customer's future, like an interactive fortune cookie. This time, the bird's trainer invited me to let it perch on my finger. From there, the parrot clambered all over me, chirruping and squawking. It climbed all around my shoulders and head and hair, lightly nibbling and tasting me with its tongue the whole time. It probably enjoyed the dried salt from my sweaty walk on the beach. It tickled me as it nibbled its way up my neck and over my face to my mouth. And there it just stayed, chirping and lightly chewing at my lips and teeth. This lovebird was kissing me!  French kissing!  The bird was evidently enjoying it too. I couldn't stop laughing, and it wouldn't stop kissing me. So I kissed back, with my husband looking on and grinning as he snapped pictures [he hasn't uploaded his pictures of me, so here's one of Lane instead; I'll replace it when I can]. We quickly attracted a crowd. After maybe five minutes of parrot mouth-to-mouth, I coaxed it back on my fingers and handed it back to the trainer. Still laughing, we thanked him and gave him a 100-rupee note.  That was totally worth it.

Michael and I also embraced an elephant. The major Hindu temple there has its own elephant. People buy the elephant grass or a length of sugar-cane and feed it, and the elephant blesses them in return by tapping them on the head with its trunk. Lane and Clif had been the night before, and they watched our bags while we fed the elephant. It grabbed the food straight out of our hands; I don't think it actually patted our heads, but we definitely patted it. The prehensile trunk is surprisingly strong and muscular. It snatched the food before we could get many pictures. It was friendly, though, so I hugged its legs: sort of like a big, dry, rubbery tree trunk.
Women at the Puducherry fish market

On Wednesday, we toured the large fish-market and flower-market.  The fish market smells of fresh fish. Unlike Visnagar's open-air markets, the Pondicherry bazaar is indoors and open well past sunset. We ducked in between a couple shops, and found ourselves in a warren of little market-stalls underneath the buildings. The area is well-illuminated with big fluorescent lights. Our new friend, Lane, had been there the night before. She navigated us through the maze of sellers with ease, steering her children (and us) in the right direction. There were women hacking heads off fresh fish, merchants and carts with vegetable-wallahs, and smaller shops selling kids clothing or saris. There were more vendors in a single room in that market than the whole street full of vegetable-sellers in Visnagar. And that wasn't the half of it.\
Flower market
Our ultimate destination was the huge flower-market, on the other side of the bazaar.  We smelled the giant garlands of marigolds and roses before we saw them. They're used for weddings, and for decorating temples and shrines. I wanted some jasmine, the fragrant white flowers that South Indian women wear in their hair. There were numerous vendors; I bought a long strand of fresh jasmine from a woman who strung them while I watched. I clipped them to my barrette. Our friends needed to get back and put their kids to bed, so all six of us crammed into a single auto-rickshaw and held on all the way back to the hotel. I stashed my jasmine flowers in the mini-bar fridge, where they kept nice and fresh for the Thanksgiving banquet the next night. Jasmine is a wonderful smell.

Kerala

Nov. 22nd, 2009 01:28 am
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
Kerala is a green paradise in South India.  We flew down to Cochi (Kochin) before the fall Fulbright India conference.  More pictures are here: http://blacks.smugmug.com/India/Kerala

We'd booked a custom tour package through Ebenezer Holiday.  I would highly recommend them to anyone traveling through South India. Everything was prepaid and ready for us in advance.  The travel agent personally picked us up at the airport, with his driver. The car was clean and had working safety belts, even in the back seat--the first car in India we've seen with all seat belts working! 

The first day was sightseeing around Cochin, a port city.  The Chinese fishing nets were very interesting, and surrounded by flotsam. 
Kerala fisherman with the chinese fishing nets

We saw the seventeenth-century Dutch church. About one-third of the population of Kerala is Christian, especially Roman Catholic. Michael, dressed in his all-white kurta lungi, could even pass for a priest (one shopkeeper thought he was "a Father.")

Michael in front of the Jewish synagogue grounds in Jew-Town, Kerala

We also stopped by the local Jewish cemetery and synagogue in "Jew-Town," now an antiques district. The merchants lining the street to the synagogue were on the lookout for rich tourists.  We had to shoo them away constantly.  We decided we didn't want to go back for Shabbat services. We had a fantastic dinner at the Grand Hotel instead--delicious fish and chicken.

The next day, we traveled up to the Kerala backwaters. There are dozens of converted rice barges that now act as luxurious houseboats. We scrambled up the gangplank and spent a leisurely afternoon boating down the river, through palm tree forests and dense floating knots of water hyacinths.  We floated past muddy green fields of rice paddies, which oddly enough are lower than the water level.  Our boat pulled over to a local fisherwoman's hut, and we bought some fish and giant prawns for dinner.  We watched the birds swooping around, and the occasional boat-bus or boat-schoolbus zipping by.  The local people waved at us as they looked up from scrubbing their laundry or bathing in the river.  No nudity inhibitions there.

For the afternoon, the boat pulled over and we relaxed. We dined on succulent ginger-curried fish for lunch, served on banana leaves, of course.  There was a several-hour break for the crew's lunch break.  Michael lounged around and studied Hindi vocabulary, comfortable in his traditional South Indian blue-checked lungi. My husband is so handsome when he dresses up Indian!  I took a little nap. It was so peaceful.

There were many birds, swooping everywhere--and I mean everywhere!  The numerous crows have adapted to living with the people; they followed the women around to filch food scraps from their dishwater.  Three crows even invited themselves to our breakfast the next morning, swooping in as soon as we stood up, and grabbing the toast and eggs while they were still warm. There were plenty of semi-wild ducks and domestic chickens too.  We also saw a kingfisher perching and diving into the water, and some other seabirds that might be terns. I heard lots of frogs, too--bullfrogs, even--but I didn't see them.

Dinner was challenging.  After a picture-perfect sunset, the crew lowered the thick liners to shut the windows (never mind the wide-open doorways).  Michael noticed a little gecko snapping up clouds of flies next to the overhead lights. On closer look, he saw they were mosquitoes. Thousands of mosquitoes.  We don't want to get malaria; however, we didn't want to stink up our bedroom with curry either.  At first I tried duct-taping our mosquito netting to the boat's ceiling, but it was dusty and the tape wouldn't stick.  So I grabbed a couple of the chairs and set them up on the table, then draped our mosquito netting over them to form a canopy.  So under our improvised mosquito-tent, we ate our dinner in the main cabin of the boat.  They cooked us some delicious prawns in a curry coconut sauce.  We retired to our well-sealed bedroom.  The air conditioner drowned out the night noises, but the tightly-shut windows kept out the mosquitoes.

The next day, we traveled up to Wayanad, Kerala.  We passed through tea plantations, and spent the night in the Green Gates Hotel.  Rather, we slept in a bamboo treehouse made into a hotel room.  Green Gates was by far the cleanest, most comfortable room out of all the hotels we have ever stayed in throughout India.  Never mind that we could see through the cracks between the floorboards to the ground far below; that treehouse was a two-story luxury hotel room, with hot water and a comfy down comforter. After a tasty dinner, we snuggled in for a comfortable night's sleep.
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
There are Jews in India, and they date back centuries. We worshipped on this Yom Kippur with the Bene Israel Jews at the only Jewish temple in Gujarat, Magan Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad. It was an unforgettable experience.

We left Visnagar at 7 AM to try to catch the morning service. Ahmedabad is a two-hour drive away. We didn't know what time they would start or end, nor how long it would take to find it. We arrived at 9, sometime after the Torah reading (it's one of the early parts in their morning service).

It was a little difficult to find the synagogue. The synagogue's website hasn't been updated in several years and the phone numbers on the webpage didn't work for us. What helped us most was another American who had visited two years ago, and his blog entry had enough clues to help us find our way.  You go just beyond the bridges in Ahmedabad to the Khamasa Gate area, and start asking people for the way to the "Yehudi Church." (Most English-speaking Indians know what a church is, but they've never heard of a synagogue.) Our driver first was given directions to the bright magenta Christian church nearby. when we explained that it wasn't the right one, he found someone else who directed us another four or five blocks down the main road going away from the bridges, to the Magen Abraham temple. The temple is on a little side street on the left. We tried to ask passersby the names of the cross streets there, but we couldn't quite communicate well enough.

2009 is the 75th anniversary year of this particular synagogue, as recently reported in the Times of India.  This is the only Jewish community in Gujarat. The people here trace their religious ancestry back for centuries, and prefer to call themselves "Bene Israel" (Children of Israel) rather than "Jews". For today's service, visitors came from all over india and around the world. A couple weeks ago they had a special commemoration service. They commissioned a special siddur (prayer book) with three columns per page: Hebrew, Marathi (the local language spoken in Mumbai/Bombay), and Hebrew transliterated into Marathi. A majority of the members here in Ahmedabad speak Marathi as their first language, with Hindi a close second. The congregation includes a host of other languages too, like Gujarati and English and modern Israeli Hebrew. Services are conducted in traditional Hebrew, of course.

We were nervous about showing up unannounced and late, but they welcomed us warmly. This is a small outpost of Judiasm, the only one for literally hundreds of kilometers.  They're used to visitors. After the morning service, Michael talked with a couple members, and they were especially pleased to hear that he was a computer science professor teaching in Gujarat.  I tried to talk with the women members, but I didn't find many good English speakers among them except the handful of westerners. One member I did talk with a little later proudly told me her nephew is a computer engineer in Mumbai (Bombay). The Ahmedabad Jews are very active in their city, and have businesses and consulting firms. The members here look and dress and sound and work just like their Hindu neighbors. They're totally Indian and completely Jewish at the same time. It's really neat.

The color of the day was white. The temple was draped in white, with white sheets completely covering the floors and furniture.  It's a stately Art Deco building, with Indian-style marble accents. The white walls and blue trim inside reminded me a little of an Art Deco version of a Masonic lodge hall.  I wore my navy-and-teal salwar kameez, but every other person wore white. The white may be a traditional Orthodox practice; even our Reform rabbi and cantor back home always wear white on Yom Kippur. The men wore white shirts and trousers or white kurtas and pajama pants. The women were mostly in white salwar kameezes, with the rest in saris.  The women sat in the balcony; the men stayed down below. The men wore white tallits (prayer shawls) with blue stripes. Someone even loaned Michael a tallit and a kippah (yarmulkule/skullcap) when he first came in, to cover his head.  Michael (in his off-white kurta) had procured a Muslim cap, and he used that for the afternoon service after several other men used identical head coverings. Just like entering most Indian houses of worship, we took off our shoes on entering the worship area. (We later learned the people normally keep their shoes on for the weekly Friday night shabbat services, but remove shoes for holidays.)

It wasn't crowded. There were about 40 or 50 women and children throughout the day in the upstairs balcony, and 20 or 30 men in the hall below. I counted only eight obviously foreign women over the course of the day, and five non-Indian men.  Later, I chatted with the three female American students who were studying in Ahmedabad. One was from Baltimore; she was doing a fashion internship making corsets at a ladies' garment factory.  Another was an architecture student from RPI. Another was from New York City, and I didn't catch her name or info. It made me feel a little old when they were talking throughout the service about how they were going to go out of Gujarat to get drunk and celebrate on one of the student's 21st birthday next month. I guess my problem is I didn't come to an Indian synagogue to talk with foreigners.

I did come to worship with Michael. Michael is Jewish. I happen to be Christian (Evangelical Lutheran). But nobody asked me, and I did not mention it; not out of deception, but I didn't want to distract anyone. On a personal level, I feel completely comfortable worshiping God in Jewish synagogues with my husband--especially Reform temples with moving spiritual music. We are both members of a Reform Judiasm congregation. Also, Michael and I plan to raise our future children in the Jewish faith, so I'd better be comfortable wtith it.

It was hard to tell what was going on. The service did have the standard Jewish components, but it was still utterly foreign to me. The entire service was in Hebrew with an Indian accent. I had never been to an Orthodox Jewish service before, so it was difficult to follow; I did recognize and participate in several of the responses. Also, most US services are Ashkenazic (based on the eastern-European liturgical tradition).  This service was Sephardic. The bima (raised altar area) was in the middle of the synagogue, with twinkling miniature Christmas lights and seven fluorescent-bulb candles.  Michael was lucky for the afternoon service; he had a guide (from Australia) who had experience in Reform and Orthodox services and explained him what was going on.  Turns out they follow the siddur exactly, with all the standard components but with some additional emphasis.  For instance, the cantor was standing at the bima reading and swaying and muttering silently to himself except for a spoken word here and there. Turns out they say the Avuot twice; the first silently as individuals, then responsively as a congregation. The responsive prayers are neat, with the cantor's baritone belting out below, and the women and girls in the balcony echoing in Indian-accented chants.

They use handkerchiefs in interesting ways. The most unusual and different part of the service was during the morning, for the Shema, when Indian Jews literally prostrate themselves before God. They take out a white hankerchief, bowing down on their knees with their heads on the floor on the handkerchief.  This happens multiple times during the morning service.  I'd read about this and given Michael a white pillowcase. He didn't end up needing it, since the floors were covered in white sheets anyway. For myself I had a pure white... dishtowel. Not the most elegant way to worship, but I saw at least one other woman with a dishtowel too (and hers even had flowers on it). It's the spirit of the gesture. Later, during the break, we did buy several handkerchiefs at a mall. We each had our own for the borech-hu; though they didn't do it again in the afternoon service. Because I'm female, I took an extra handkerchief, folded it into quarters and put it over my hair in my barette like most of the women there do. It's completely accepted there and much cooler than a full veil; I'd been using my dupatta, and that had been way too hot.

I struggled with the heat all day. The synagogue is not air conditioned, and I was overheated up in the women's balcony. It supposedly started at three; only us foreigners showed up on time. At three-thirty the service was moving along, and by four-thirty the members had started arriving in substantial numbers.  My blood sugar also dropped. It's traditional to fast on Yom Kippur from sundown the night before to the end of the service the next evening.  Michael fasted, but my body just wasn't up to it. I gulped down a liter of mango juice and a handful of snack food that morning, and that was my food for the day.  I also drank plenty of water. The synagogue has a modern, safe drinking water system in the back, with chilled water. I visited it hourly, drinking water and also wetting down my dupatta (cotton scarf) to help keep me cool as it evaporated in the heat.

The service was led by three men: an older rabbi, another assistant who speed-read Hebrew (he may have been another rabbi). There was also a young teenage boy who read out clear Hebrew. At the very end of the service, he also blew the shofar - a magnificent ram's horn a yard long.  Like in Hindu temples, everyone removes their sandals on entering the sanctuary and sits on the floor or the benches. The bimah was decorated with multicolor christmas lights and flower garlands.  Two ten commandments were on the wall, one in Hebrew and one in Hindi, and the siddur was in Hebrew with Marathi translations.  The services, Michael learned, were standard orthodox, with a hazzan speed-chanting in Hebrew, and the members alternatively taking part in the services and chatting with their friends.

At around eight o'clock we all broke the fast with an unfamiliar but tasty, probably hand-pressed grape juice that tasted like raisins. They also passed out raisins that were sweet, but not seedless.  It's traditional there to break the fast with two glasses of grape juice, given the heat.  Many people there refrain from food, but still drink water to avoid dehydration. As one of the members told Michael, "Life and Health come first."

Michael chatted a bit with several of the Indian Jews present about the experience of being Jewish in India.  Although the worship was strictly Orthodox, the congregants he spoke with are not as strictly observant outside of the synagogue as American Orthodox jews.  Most Hindu Indians know of Judaism as a type of Christianity, and Ahmedabadis refer to the synagogue as a "Yhoodi Church".  In a country with over one million different deities, Judaism is just one more local religion.  One of the congregants told Michael that he likes to explain his religion to the Gentiles, but the only ones that are really interested in listening are Christians.  On the other hand, Indians tend to be strongly pro-Israel because they see Israel as anti-Pakistan.

We may go back there for other festivals or Shabbat services in the future.
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
This past weekend we went on a long distance road-trip (10 hours) to extreme western Gujarat.  We saw Gir, Jahdtapur (sp?), Diu, Junagadh, and Somnath.

Unfortunately, Gir was closed for maintenance; it was all under construction. Turns out Gir National Park closes every summer/monsoon season, and it doesn't re-open this year until October 15. They weren't letting anyone in, no matter what. The large signs proclaimed in three languages that it is a point of pride that these public servants do not accept bribes or tipping. So we may go back and try to see the Asiatic lions in November.

We visited the large, famous Hindu temple at Somnath. There has been a temple on this spot continuously since about 300 BC. The site was a frequent target of raiders. Over the centuries, a couple Muslim mosques were also built at the same location. The current temple is about 60 years old, and controversial; they razed the latest mosque to build it. Maybe that's why there are guards with automatic machine guns at the gates. The temple does not allow any kinds of photography or mobile telephones, so we left our cell phones in the car.  As with all temples, you have to take off your shoes to enter. Michael and our driver, Alkesh, were barefoot. I was wearing socks and was just fine, but when the guys stepped on the sun-heated marble in their bare feet, they moved along quickly. Somnath was also my first sight of the Indian Ocean. There's a marker where from that point south, all the way to the South Pole, is completely ocean. Michael speculated that from that point north, all the way to the north pole, might be completely land.  We walked down and dipped our hands in the water.  Farther down the beach was a camel wading in the water and a stray dog playing in the surf.

The road to Diu was okay near Somnath, and then deteriorated. Our car rolled along for a couple hours through rural fields. There were field-worker camps nearby, with tarps propped up as makeshift tents. Part of the road, including a couple bridges, was under construction and our car followed detours diversions down into dry riverbeds and back up again.  There were even a few horses; our car swerved when two of them got away from the teenage boy who was holding them. We passed many auto-rickshaws and the occasional cycle-rickshaw or camel-pulled cart, but most of the traffic was motorcycles, Tata trucks, bullock-carts, and tractors pulling huge heaps of vegetation on trailers. I still can't get used to the traffic here.  When we got into the last town in Gujarat, we were directed along the better of the two roads to Giu.  The land gradually changed, finally becoming marshy estuary.  I smelled the sea air and it reminded me of home and the Chesapeake.   We finally rolled and bumped through the potholes to the checkpoint at Diu. 

Diu is its own independent little district; it's not part of Gujarat. Gujarat is a dry state (no alcohol), and Giu is not. The bars advertised their alcohol in neon lights. But away from the tourist strip, it's a lovely little seaside village with dozens of fishing boats pulled up on land in low tide. The old fort was especially picturesque, with waves crashing on the carved stone blocks. Michael had a cute little brown calf come up to him, as friendly as a puppy, and licked at his pant legs.  We saw the sun set over the old fort.

On the way back that night, we saw some sort of local traditional procession, with men dressed in long garments and covered in red streaks (paint? blood?), all hollering and carrying bamboo sticks. Our driver said he guessed this was some kind of local tradition for Navaratri (the goddess festival). It still felt wild when the traffic stopped and the apparent mob surged through, including directly around our car, with the men shaking their staffs and all shouting some unknown language.  They moved on, then so did we.

We bumped our way back to Junadgadh and stayed a second night at the Hotel Indralok. It's a good Western-style hotel there, with bathtubs and toilet paper. Cost is around 40 dollars a night for a super-deluxe air-conditioned room.  And all the plastic wastebaskets, buckets, pitchers, etc. said "Flora" all over them. :-) We considered driving back, but our driver had been fasting all day, and been up since 6 AM and would have been driving all night.  We found out why our driver had not liked the hotel the first night. He is not normally a driver, and he had to sleep in the driver-room barracks (cramped, with bunk beds). Alkesh is a successful businessman, the owner of his car-rental business. (In India, rental cars always come with a driver.) With the holiday, Alkesh had not been able to have one of his normal employees drive, so he had to take us himself. He didn't mind too much (he likes to travel). But he had not wanted to go back to the hotel and share a room with the other drivers. So we paid for his private hotel room ($14 for a non-AC room) and he was much happier.

The next day we took a longer stroll around Junagadh's historic fort and mosque. Those were beautiful, with elaborate carvings.  Michael went down to the very bottom of the early stepwell there; I was hot and went down part way and rested in the shade.  Michael said the well reminded him of dark caverns he's seen only in dreams.  We also went into the Buddhist caves there. The pigeons were thrumming in deep tones in the underground caverns, and it gave it the right atmosphere. We saw our first cobra, a small yellow snake peeking out of the fort wall. I also saw a lovely big lizard sunning itself in a hole in the rock.

I think my husband is part mountain goat.  After the fort, he insisted we go to the nearby mountain, Girnar. There's a guru there, at the top of a staircase of what locals call 9,999 steps. Both Hindu and Jain believers make pilgrimages there and climb the steps to the top; elderly people included.  It was already afternoon, and there was no way we could even think of climbing it; but Michael went up for about 20 minutes anyway, and came back down. Alkesh marveled at his boundless energy.  I remarked on it later, and Michael says his attitude is, "What would Michael Palin do?" That sounds like the right attitude to have in this country. 
flora: Picture of several lily pads - a lotus blossom surrounded by three green leaves. (lily pad)
Paris was a great place for a layover. As promised, here's the highlights. Some pictures are posted in our SmugMug albums. I'll be adding more photos soon, that Michael took with his iPhone. The pictures aren't tagged at all yet, just mass-uploaded.

hotel gripes - why I do not recommend the Hilton at the Charles de Gaulle airport, or Paris at all for people who are sensitive to cigarette smoke )

Paris is a beautiful city. The old city is like one big park with beautiful architecture everywhere (pictures). Notre Dame cathedral was gorgeous (pictures). We went up to the bell tower and saw the gargoyles and chimeras (chimera = gargoyle-like sculpture but without a water spout). They had a huge "great bell" there and a lot of fascinating chimeras.

We had lunch at a little cafe near the Pont Neuf. My sweetie wolfed down several Grand Mariner crepes and a beer, while I had a tasty croque - a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich with grilled cheese on top.

Our next stop was the Louvre, where we attempted to see everything in a single afternoon. We took lots of pictures of artefacts (permitted but no flash allowed). The Mona Lisa was in one room so crowded with people we couldn't get close. The rest of the museum was much better. I found a Roman sculpture of a lady with buttons down a divided sleeve. Hey [profile] pedropadrao I thought of you when seeing a nifty turquoise hippo from ancient Egypt. The camera auto-focus started to give out part way through, but I'm hoping most of the pictures came out. There was so much to see that I'm looking forward to going through them again.

The next day, we had lunch at a little restaurant near Notre Dame. I cooked my own beef borguignon and sweetie had goat cheese fondue. Yum. No wine though; I didn't want to push it with migraine-triggering smoke all around. We asked the waiters and finally communicated that we wanted to go tour the sewer system, and they told us to go to the Pont d'Almas.

The Paris sewers ("Les Egoutes") were justly made famous in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The sewer system is really quite interesting, and it tells the history of the city and its population growth.  The fact that the sewer museum is inside a living sewer gives it a very rich, if pungent, atmosphere. I can't help drawing comparisons to medieval Paris when I look around the Delhi back streets with their streams of liquid waste running down the side of the roads. The Paris sanitary infrastructure was hailed by Napoleon as one of his greatest achievements.

The bateaux-mouche (Seine river tour boats) were directly across the bridge. So we spent a little over an hour relaxing and taking photos of bridges and the architecture.

Of course, we had to do the Eiffel Tower. It was a stark reminder that we were not in the US anymore, with police with assault rifles standing around the masses of crowds. So we waited about an hour standing in line, and went up to the top in nice big elevators. We didn't stay long due to the crowds (and smoke) but it was a breathtaking view, especially because we went up right at sunset. When we came down it was night and there were strobe-light lights flashing all along the tower.

Nighttime in Paris was the 5 minutes I saw of it between the train and the pub and back. I ate some smoked salmon and Sweetie had even more crepes. We raced past the nightclubbers, every one holding a cigarette. That part of Paris at night reminds me in some ways of DC's Dupont Circle, but smokier and with more tourist attractions.

Paris was quite a trip. And we're just getting started!
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
Getting there is half the trip, right? This post documents our recent time in airlines and airports.

I packed a few critical kitchen utensils, mosquito netting, insect repellent lotion, stainless-steel water bottles; I will try to post a comprehensive packing list at a later point (along with a wish-list of should-have-packed). We checked two big bags each plus 2 carryons apiece, and squeaked by the excess baggage fees. Note for the future: Know the weight/kilo limits for ALL the carriers to be traveled on. 50 pounds is the limit for American carriers. Emirates Airlines charges 30 euros per extra kilogram and the post office isn't always open or convenient. Fortunately the flight wasn't full and the person who checked our bags took pity on us and didn't charge us.

Note for the future: Assume dirty laundry will not fit and leave extra room for it. Also leave extra room for the Darling Spouse (tm) who says "oh, my bag's full, do you have room for this?" and "oh do we have a place for this book?" We were both guilty of these crimes and somehow made it all fit.

Paris gets its own post. Later, once I can link to pictures.

Emirates airlines as a carrier was pretty nice. Comfortable seats. The food was glamorous airline food (dill prawns, truffle-bechamel-sauce pasta) but it didn't really taste good. The best part was the free personal movie/entertainment system. You could view cameras for the front or underside of the plane. We watched a movie and I actually watched a couple episodes of NCIS. The entertainment user interface could've been much better designed though; for instance, it took several screens to simply adjust the volume. Also on the second flight, the screen defaulted to the main movie after only a ten-second-delay. For all the money they apparently spent on it, they could've done more in usability or user studies. Also, it was all in English; our neighbor the next seat over spoke only Arabic and he couldn't make sense of it.

We connected through the Dubai airport. That's not something I ever want to do again. For one thing, prescription sleeping pills (and a lot of other extremely commonly prescribed US drugs) are illegal in Dubai and will get you 4 years in prison. We mailed all our meds from Paris to the Fulbright house in Delhi; it cost $$$ but it sure beats jail time! Dubai had a separate security screening inside the terminal when you transferred planes, and they definitely weren't looking for explosives; didn't have to remove the ziploc of liquids or laptops. They stopped Michael and asked him questions for a couple minutes on where he was going, but they let him go. They let me go.

DBX (Dubai airport) is also a miserable place for anyone with cigarette allergies. The terminal had "smoking rooms" that had single-story glass walls that didn't block the smoke from wafting over; the whole terminal had an undercurrent of cigarette smoke. It gave me a headache but otherwise didn't trigger my cigarette-allergy migraines too badly, as I chugged water and managed to keep my food down. For some reason, the gate was closed until a half-hour before boarding, and the whole terminal aisles for several gates around it were lined with bodies of Indians lying on the floor and sleeping before the flight. We hung out at a little coffee shop that had less smoke in the background. We nibbled pastries and I read Jack Keay's History of India for a couple hours until the gate opened.

The Indian immigration/entry process was very straightforward; much improved from five years ago. For one thing, the waiting area in Indira Gandhi airport is now air conditioned (hooray!) and has its own clean, modern toilets. The airline gave us a single long half-sheet of paper Indian immigration form for use by all people entering India; we didn't have to try to figure out which form to use on our own. They also gave us a photocopied half-sheet of paper with questions on our health for the Swine Flu. We had a line for the health check when entering. The health check line used thermal imaging; the clerk took our papers and stamped them. The immigration line checked our visas and gave arrival stamp. Then we had a very welcome sight of a driver waiting for us. Yay! An enterprising Indian guy loaded up a luggage cart for us and steered us through "nothing to declare" customs. He asked for five dollars in return; we gave him a euro coin and sent him on his way.

Traffic--- well, traffic in Delhi makes me long for the quiet, orderly calm of the DC Beltway during rush hour. From the airport to the hotel, we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic that was somewhat worse than I remember five years ago. Almost all the vehicles were cars or motorcycles, not many auto-rickshaws and only a couple mopeds or Tata trucks. We saw cows on the side of the road, but they stayed out of the main traffic flow. The rules were the same as always though--biggest vehicle gets priority; lanes are a suggestion; honk if you pass by someone, so they don't swerve into you when they're dodging someone else. Lots of people playing pac-man with the lane markers, going down the dividing lines. It might have been worse than normal; this traffic jam was bad enough that a couple of the motorcycles ahead of us crossed the median and went the wrong way down the other side of the boulevard. 'Course that might be normal too.
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
One in a series of Fulbright Orientation notes. Not all these are public yet. It's mainly for my reference when we're in India.

These are my notes from this morning's talk. I'm making this entry public since others might be interested. I will try to hide this behind a cut, but it's cross-posting from DreamWidth so I apologize to LJ friends if the cut doesn't work.

My notes from 26 June 2009 Fulbright Orientation speaker on Safety and Security - Michael O'Neill, former director of safety for Peace Corps, now at Save the Children.

Read more... )
Lots of interesting, practical advice for those going abroad.

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