Chennai Journal
Sunday, December 31, 2006
Travels North
Lia and I returned from several days traveling to Hyderabad, Jaipur, and Jodhpur. She left early this morning for the U.S. She got lots of practice with her Hindi in Rajasthan, where English is not spoken very well especially among the working class--e.g. drivers. It is also pretty unusual for a westerner to speak Hindi, so she attracted attention even among the hotel staff---one enterprising hotel manager took it upon himself to teach her more phrases!

Hyderabad is not really on the main tourist circuit, but it has a number of attractions including the Salar Jung museum, Golconda Fort, and Ramoji Film city, which is both an amusement park and a series of film sets. We visited all three, and spent our nights at the Amrutha Castle Best Western, where I met my first hotel mouse since coming to India. The Amrutha was heavily decked out in Christmas decorations, including a doorman dressed up as Santa-ji. We had a great Hyderabadi meal at a Lonely Planet- recommended restaurant called Gufaa, where Santa-ji was also in attendance (see Flickr above).

Salar Jung museum is one of the highlights of Hyderabad, but to me, it is a very mixed bag. Hyderabad is over 30% Muslim, and the Salar Jung family were nobles during more than 200 year Muslim rule before Independence. The family were veritable collectors of stuff from all over the world, and there are more than 40 rooms, each dedicated to a particular area---e.g. jewel encrusted sabres, clocks, dishes, furniture, textiles, Hindu religious statues and items, etc. The highlight is a clock in the center of the museum, kind of like a cuckoo clock, where a little man with a hammer comes out to chime the hour. People gather in the room and on the balcony up to a half hour before the hour, and the clock's motions are shown on two very washed out video screens --which is about the only way you can see them without being practically on top of the clock. No photography is allowed in the museum.

The Salar Jung collection is amazing---it is toute
d as the largest one man collection in the world--and although the museum contains a number of western items, it is the sheer number and variety of Indian cultural artifacts which is most impressive. Unfortunately, the museum is poorly maintained, and because of this, many parts of the collection appear to be in danger of disintegration in the not- too-distant future. The recently opened western wing of the museum is climate controlled and uses recessed instead of unfiltered fluorescent lighting, but in the older wing which dates from 1951, the most basic conservation techniques are ignored (with the exception of signs everywhere, even on inaccessible items, that warn not to touch). There is no humidity or climate control, silverware is badly tarnished, textiles and jade faded almost beyond recognition---what was described as deep green jade was nearly gray. Of course, this may date from the original state of these items when the museum opened, but the conditions there aren't helping. An article in the local paper described labor unrest at the museum as well---despite the addition of a dozen more rooms in the western wing in 2000, the maintenance staff has been reduced from over 250 to 150. Sad.

In the evening we went to Golconda fort for a light and sound show narrated by the King of Bollywood cinema, Amitabh Bachchan. The history of the fort and Hyderabad is impressive if complicated---I confess to not following more than half of it, and certainly could not have passed a test afterwards! The sound byte version is that the fort was built in the 13th century after a shepherd boy found the spot for the ruling Hindu kings, the Kakatiyas. The fort then passed to the Islamic sultanate and then to the Mughals.

We were among the few foreign tourists at Ramoji Film City, which is located about an hour from Hyderabad. The site, which is supposedly more than 2000 acres, contains a theme park and the rest of the area is film sets--the largest in the world, even larger than Hollywood. Lia is pictured below (with one of her admirers) in one of the sets next to the theme park--you can almost picture the dance numbers, typical in Bollywood films, on the large stage-like area in front of the gardens where Lia is standing.

In truth, Ramoji was a fairly weird place to us--we arrived before noon and the crowds at the entrance were overflowing. Our driver, an enterprising fellow, drove us a couple of kilometres up the road where there was another, "VIP" entrance. The attendant said they were sold out of VIP tickets for the day, but gave us general admission tickets---which everyone else was waiting in
long lines for. Feeling a bit guilty about this but not wanting to miss the action, we hopped a bus and in a few minutes arrived at the theme park main entrance, where we spent a few hours exploring. Gift shops had all manner of chazzerai, but little of it related to the park. A "scary house" located in the hole of a ship consisted primarily of video games. There were long lines for the entertainment, although we did catch one dance and acrobatics show that was only average.

I'll post more on the trip to Rajasthan later....Happy New Year!

Friday, December 22, 2006
Heading Out
Lia and I are headed up to Hyderabad and then to Rajasthan for a few days. Will post when we return. Happy Holidays!
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Dad's Birthday and Lia Arrives

Update: Lia "pre-shopping" for saris at Nalli's in Chennai. We took a tour of Chennai today and checked out some of the main shopping places, and Lia also picked up some VCDs.

Thursday was Dad's 89th birthday. We had a quiet celebration at home. He seemed to know that it was his birthday but could not remember how old he is---and this morning when I asked him, he still didn't have a clue. When I told him he was 89, he paused for a few seconds and said, "Gosh, pretty soon I'll be an old man." It is gratifying that despite all the decline, he has not lost his sense of humor!

In other news, the college aged daughter of friends, Lia, arrived last night at 3 a.m. Lia studies Hindi and recently taught a course on Bollywood at the University of Michigan. After I finish work this week, we are heading to Hyderabad to Ramoji Film City where some of the films are produced and then up to Rajasthan to Jaipur and Jodphur (yes the famous riding clothes are named after this city). She is still sleeping as I write this or I would also post her picture---I forgot to take my camera to the airport last night.

I am still fighting the cough that came with the cold that I got in Darjeeling. This is a typical pattern for me and I expect the cough to hang on for another couple of weeks at least. This is the first cold I've had in India, so I've gotten all kinds of advice on how to deal with it. Both Leela and my admin are carefully monitoring what they will let me eat and drink. No bananas, no cucumbers, no cold water--only hot water. In India it is believed that certain fruits and vegetables are "cold" and others are "warm" ---so when you have a cold you should not consume "cold" foods.

Sunday, December 10, 2006
More on Darjeeling
The stars have not been very well aligned this week-- have a bad, hacking-cough-kind-of-cold, my printer at home has gone on the fritz, and there have been numerous other petty irritations at work and in doing errands--today's crisis was trying to get another SIM card for the spare cell phone used by visitors....I won't bore you with the details. So, let's just head back up to Darjeeling and have some tea, shall we?

I stayed at a little inn called the Shangri-la Regency. I found it on traveladvisor.com, to which I'm a regular contributor. The inn is right near the center of action, the Chowrastra, and got warm and cozy writeups, but the visitors who stayed there before went in October, and I was there in December and it was cold. The
Shangri-la does not have central heating, but they provided a space heater and---sharp knock at the door at 8:00 p.m.----a hot water bottle for my feet. Still, I think the nights in this place probably account for the cold I came down with earlier this week. I hope it doesn't linger too long.

The Shangri-la was not full, but among my fellow travellers was a very
pleasant Australian trio, two men and a woman, who were on a month long sojourn through Nepal and northern India--after Darjeeling, they were headed to Sikkim. One of the men was a student (as opposed to a devotee) of Buddhism, and was visiting some of the more well known monasteries scattered through these parts. They had also caught up with a young woman that he had sponsored years before in Kathmandu--an 8 year old beggar girl whose family he befriended during his time there and he wound up paying for the girl to go to school in Darjeeling. She now is a primary school teacher and has an apartment with a DVD and a microwave--a life she never could have known without his largesse.

Darjeeling is also home to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. It's connected to the zoo, which is one of the better ones in India--red pandas, a couple of different kinds of tigers, leopards, leopard cats, and many other exotic breeds I hadn't seen elsewhere. HMI contains a storehouse of treasures and photos of the great expedition led by Sir Edmund Hillary to reach the summit of Mt.
Everest--accompanied by his trusty sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, resident of Darjeeling. The museum contains all the original gear--right down to the boots, tents and pickaxes--used by the Hillary expedition. His reaching the summit coincided with the very day of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II--no bad omen.

As everywhere, drivers are a great source of local knowledge, and Darjeeling was no exception. One day I took an ill-fated pre-dawn expedition to Tiger Hill, where you are supposed to be able to see the complete mountain range including, on some occasions, the distant peak of Mt. Everest, but this was the only day during my stay when the sky was completely cloud-covered. The driver was a young man named Jason, whose grandfather was employed by a British military man stationed in Darjeeling, and who had been converted to Christianity. When the last of the British left Darjeeling after Independence, the man left his grandfather his house and his 1952 Land Rover, which Jason still owns and maintains. His family also still lives in the house. I am sure there are many other stories like this one---and some not so generous, as well.

Near the Chowrastra, or main square of the town, is a temple up on a hill, called Mahakala Mandir,
which is a place for both Buddhists and Hindus. It was colorful in the morning sun, decorated with thousands of prayer flags. I sat on a bench and watched as people went into the temple and came out and were decorated with a small paste on their forehead. It was a peaceful setting.

Back to the grueling business of getting that SIM card......

Monday, December 04, 2006

Just back from a few relaxing days in Darjeeling, where I experienced the essence of tea... Darjeeling and the surrounding hills produce a quarter of India's tea, and all along the route up the mountains, tea plants are terraced into the hills and valleys. One day, wandering back to the hotel from the Darjeeling train station, I went into Nathmull's, a famous local tea merchant, and had some samples. Tea growing and production is every bit as sophisticated as wine, and I was patiently educated about first, second, and third flush, orthodox, and white, green and black teas not to mention proper brewing---sampling at least half dozen of the myriad varieties that Nathmull's carries. Finally, I went away with some Margaret's Hope and Avondale, both higher end varieties. And for pretty much the rest of the trip, I forsook my usual coffee (which wasn't that good there anyway) for the local brew.

The most well known way to get to Darjeeling is by the toy train, which is a World Heritage site. But it's an arduous eight hour trip, and doesn't coincide with the flight arrival times at Bagdogra airport nearby, so I traveled to Darjeeling by car and settled for the toy train "joy ride" that runs between Darjeeling and the next stop down, Ghoom. Though one hour to cover about 11 kilmeters, it incorporates most of the best scenery of the trip anyway, and they use the old fashioned steam rather than the long haul diesel engine, which is really a hoot (no pun intended). About halfway to Ghoom, they stop for water, and most of the passengers get out to take pictures. I'll post these when my internet connection is a bit faster.

The rail line itself is a veritable beehive of activity during the majority of time that the train doesn't run, with local peddlers setting up shop right on the tracks in places like the war memorial and the Ghoom monastery.

Darjeeling itself is a buzzing little town, clearly geared for tourism. About a quarter of the local residents are Tibetans, exiles or descendants of exiles. Besides the Tibetans, many others are of Nepali or Sikkim extraction, and also bear Asian features and coloring. This is the corner of India that shares common borders with Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal. Foreigners need a permit to enter nearby Sikkim (the usual destinations are Gangtok and Pelling), which is directly on these borders, but they're easy to obtain in Darjeeling and transportation is also simple to organize. If I'd had more time, I definitely would have included at least Gangtok on the itinerary.

The Tibetans run a "self help centre" which incorporates a carpet factory, orphanage and school, and refuge for the elderly of their community. Due to the outpouring of foreign support, as well as their industriousness, the Tibetans here are pretty well off. They are less in need of charity (in my observation) than the traditional poor of India.

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