Sunday, July 07, 2019

24 Hours in Agra

“In order to drive in India, you need good  brake, good horn, and good luck.”
-Shiraz, our Guide 

Schedule for Saturday, July 6, 2019
8am leave Delhi
12pm check in to Agra Hotel
2pm Red Fort Tour
4pm view Taj Mahal from gardens
5pm SHEROES cafe 
6pm swim time 
8pm dinner

On the way out of Delhi, we passed over a bridge that had solar panels and green walls (ie plants on the fence). We passed a few monuments and parks. We got on the large Yamuna Expressway to Pune after an hour making our way through Delhi. Out of nowhere, there was a cow on the road, which caused everyone to slow down and swerve. Our guide made a passing comment that animals are safer then people in India. 

We passed a formula 1 track, the cricket stadium, and clumps of expensive high rise apartments. We passed a rest stop with a Starbucks, and the one where we stopped had an American sweet corn stand. I found some peanuts and most of the girls bought Oreos. We passed a camel pulling a cart to everyone’s delight!

Shiraz explained many things to us on our 4 hour drive to Agra: Delhi culture, Hinduism, etc. One thing I didn’t know was that the Swastika symbol is clockwise as a Hindu symbol and counterclockwise for the Nazi symbol; it was a helpful clarification since you see it everywhere here, and in Hinduism it symbolizes prosperity and good fortune. 

He also talked about his family, educating his daughters, and wedding traditions. He told a hilarious story of how a tour of Scottish people told him that a man should drink coffee to make sure he has a son. When he told his wife this story, she suddenly started serving him coffee all the time, and now he has a son. 

When we arrived in Agra, we checked into our hotel first and were thoroughly impressed. The Hotel Royale Regent is new and felt like luxury, especially with the roof top pool. No time for swimming yet! We dumped our stuff and went out for a quick lunch. It was one of the best tasting meals we’ve had, especially the potatoes. 

Our first stop of the day was the Agra Fort. This spectacular building is another blend of red stone and white marble. As Shiraz took us on a tour, he graciously stopped in the shade to talk to us. It was a scorching day, and we were all dripping. The inner garden was especially pretty with its white marble and pretty views of the Taj Mahal. There is some marble inlay work here, but Shiraz just kept saying it was nothing compared to the Taj. 

Soon we were all wilting, and it was time to get on the bus for some AC relief. Thank goodness for this comfortable bus! We then went over to the Mahtab-Bagh (Moon Garden). These pretty orchards have a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal just over the river. We were hot and sweaty, but it didn’t stop us from taking group photos and selfies. 

Whenever we got back on the bus, all the boys and men selling things would come to the door. Shiraz would bargain with them for good deals on items. He would then show it to us and say the price; Ashley would then walk it through the bus and collect money. It was quite a fun ritual, though new things were not seen after awhile. 

After the garden, Shiraz took us to a cafe run by women who are acid attack survivors. They were attacked by husbands, mothers, other family, in-laws, and strangers; they were left to fiend for themselves, and even though it is illegal and the perpetrators get some punishment, the woman’s life is forever changed. They showed us a moving video of their stories, and they gave us free drinks for coming. We all donated to them,  and it was an excellent, but too quick experience. One of their daughters (not attacked) did a cute dance for us. 

Finally, it was time to head back to the hotel for a quick swim before dinner. We enjoyed the pool and the distant view of the Taj. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant, and I had a red curry, which was a nice change. We spent the rest of the evening showering and repacking, as we were leaving early for the Taj tour. 

Sunday, July 7, 2019: Our Final Day

5:30am head to Taj Mahal
8:30 back to the hotel: bfast and pack
10:30 leave hotel and visit marble inlay workshop and other little shops
1:30pm head to elephant conservatory
3-5pm at Wildlife SOS
5pm drive back to Delhi airport
9pm arrive at airport 

At 5:30am, we gathered in the hotel lobby, some in their saris and Punjabis, others in their normal clothes. Half awake but excited, we made our way to the Taj Mahal. They are very strict with what you can bring inside for good reason, I’m sure. We literally could only have our phone and camera. No pencils. No food. The list was very long. We were given bottled water at the gate to bring in. 

A note about the Taj. As you already know, it is one of the greatest love monuments ever built. Shah Jahan built it in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and both of them are buried there. (He planned to be buried across the river in a black mausoleum, which he never completed because his son overthrew and imprisoned him.) It took 22 years to build, 20,000 workers, and an impressive amount of other statistics that I don’t remember. 

You walk in through a red sandstone courtyard, and the contrast of green lawn and trees is so peaceful. The sun was just rising, and our glasses and camera lenses were fogging up. Somewhere I lost my camera brush, so I agonized over the smears on my lenses. (I did not come here to take crappy shots on my good camera!)

A photographer is assigned to all groups, and he takes a photo of you as a group and then individually at the “Diana Bench.” I was already sweating in my Punjabi, but I’m glad I didn’t wear my sari; I would have found it hard to walk and take as many photos as I did. Shiraz then walked us to the mausoleum, and on the way we witnessed a Marriage proposal. All the girls started commanding me to take photos, which I was already doing. I then went up and asked them for their email so that I could send some photos. 

We could not take any photos in the mausoleum, but it was spectacular. The marble screen with the marble inlay is a type of craftsmanship I haven’t seen. Shiraz asked one of the guards to hold up his flashlight to the stones in the inlay work, and it was translucent. So so pretty. 

We then took an hour walking around on our own. So many angles to catch. Birds flew in and out of the minarets. The different domes and spires. The gardens, the reflecting pools, the benches. The sky was a pretty blue, and while it was hot outside, it was a good morning to be there. I tried to keep reminding myself to take it all in, not hiding behind my camera. It’s hard for me to do that, but with timed tickets (the max you can spend is two hours, and you will be charged again if you stay longer), there’s only so much time to take it all in. It felt emotional being here, the last day of our trip, almost like a dream. 

Then just as quickly as we arrived, we departed. I kept looking back and taking more shots, not wanting to miss anything. We had breakfast at our hotel then packed up. 

We did a little shopping before we left Agra. First, the marble inlay workshop, where we saw gorgeous pieces of inlay art, such as tabletops. A small 12” round would take two men 20-40 days to complete, depending on the amount of stones used. We quickly realized the small $300 tables were not something we would be affording. So we moved into the small gift room, where our girls had much more luck finding last souvenirs. 

We then did a quick stop at a textile shop and a leather shop, and then it was a quick lunch, which turned more into shakes and drinks. Then, we drove an hour and a half to the elephant conservatory. 

Wildlife SOS was founded over 10 years ago in response to a great need for rescuing bears, elephants, and other animals from abusive conditions working for street vendors, temples, private owners, and the circus. At the location in Mathura, they have 22 elephants that they rescued and now care for: 8 male and 14 female. Many are elderly elephants  who have physical issues as a result of being in chains, having their ears torn from hooks, and other abusive treatment. 

Despite the heat (it was scorching and we all got suitably gross again; our morning showers in the distant past), the girls patiently sat in a hot room, listening to the education director talk about Wildlife SOS, then watching a video. 

The highlight was then going out to the pens where the elephants stay most of the day. Shiva, the education director, talked about each elephant, how they were found, and their personality traits. The elephants have found friends here, something they haven’t had in their lives. When they eat, they have to work for their food, and it’s often hidden in a feeding contraption to help them exercise this function. We saw the food storage area, which is a lot of fresh fruit and veg; a white board documents what each animal likes and eats every day. 

Wildlife SOS bought their land from the local farmers and villagers allow them to use neighboring vacant land for walking the elephants. Their keepers take them out for a long morning walk for 4-5 hours and a short one hour evening walk. We arrived just in time to see them go out for their evening walk. They are such amazing animals, so smart, emotional, and beautiful. However, these animals are still recovering from a lifetime of trauma. 

You can learn more and support Wildlife SOS here:

After two sweaty, educational hours, we hopped back on the bus and started our five hour ride back to the Delhi airport. Our flight was at 4am, so we were not rushed. We stopped for dinner at an oasis type place, where I had my last dosa and samosa of the trip. We all slept on the bus a bit, and soon we were offloading at the airport. 

Our long journey home has begun. Five hours in the airport, a three hour flight (where I napped and gave myself whiplash), a three hour layover in Dubai (where I am as I type this), and then a 14 hour flight to Chicago. Some of the girls have an extra flight and/or drive after we get to Chicago. Before we board our flight, we will do a bridging ceremony for those who are moving to a different Girl Scout level. 

I’ll do a final thoughts blog in a few days. Right now, I’m feeling so satisfied by this trip. Our girls are lovely, and they all got along so well. We didn’t have any problems with anyone. I feel so proud of them and grateful to have done this trip. It’s been 12 years since I chaperones an international Girl Scout trip, but I thoroughly enjoyed not being the lead chaperone (thanks, Ashley) while helping plan the trip. 

Here’s to my 30th country (31 if you count sitting in the Dubai airport), two new airlines (Emirates and Air India). Next stop: Scotland in August!

Friday, July 05, 2019

A Tour of Delhi

“Do not make eye contact with the monkeys.”
-Shiraz, our tour guide 

In preparation for going to Delhi, I watched the “Delhi” episode of “World’s Biggest Cities” on Netflix. Here are some facts: Delhi has 26 million people, more than Australia; the city is the size of Belgium; it will grow another 10 million in the next 10 years; the Fruit and veg market is 80 football fields long. So yeah, this place is big. 

We arrived yesterday late afternoon and were greeted by a friendly man from the tour company. He escorted us to a lovely big coach where all our luggage went underneath (thankfully not in the aisles like our Mumbai bus). As we boarded the bus, we were given a flower garland and a welcome gift (journal and pen). We all felt truly spoiled, especially with extra seats to spread out and AC. it took us about an hour in rush hour traffic to get to our hotel.   

When we arrived at the Bajaj Indian Home Stay, which felt like a palace. Sangam is absolutely lovely, but this was a marble heaven. We were given a rose, the welcome blessing, some boxed mango juice, and our room keys. All of us chaperones unexpectedly got our own en-suite rooms. Talk about luxury. Everyone’s rooms are air conditioned, and in the Delhi heat, it feels great. We decided to have dinner at the hotel, so we took an hour and a half to relax after a long travel day. 

This morning, we were up for breakfast at 8 and a tour of Delhi at 9. Our tour guide for the day, Shiraz, has several history degrees, and he was an excellent source of knowledge today. His big piece of advice was to NOT look the monkeys in the eye if we saw them; they would happily jump on us, which we would not enjoy. (No monkeys were seen in close enough proximity!)

Our fist stop was the Mosque Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque. We came this morning because it would be closed in the afternoon for prayers. We women had to put on robes to walk around, and they were bright colors and very hot. It was 300 rupees to take photos, so I was the group photographer. I took my usual Moe artsy shots and then took a few photos of the girls. It’s a beautiful building with a large courtyard. I bet it’s a stunning sight when it is full for prayers. 

After our tour, we hopped on cycle rickshaws for a tour of Old Delhi and its winding streets full of shops and markets. Our driver worked hard in the heat, and he let us know it was hot. We weaved in and out of people, fruit and veg carts, mopeds, motorcycles, and in larger streets, cars and buses. We went through the Ancient Bazaar Chandni Chowk and the Khari Baoli spice market. It was a very bumpy ride, but I managed to get some photos. 

We then hopped back on the bus and made our way around India Gate on or way to Humayun’s Tomb. The emperor’s tomb was built in 1565 by his wife, and it showcases Persian architecture. (His son is responsible for building the Taj Mahal.) As we got off the bus, the air was thick with humidity and the clouds rumbled. 

The tomb is built out of red sandstone and white marble, and it is beautiful. It has a wide terrace and you can walk in and out of various rooms where different graves are housed (there are about 100 Mughal graves). The building has interesting geometric patterns around it with a large dome. I loved walking around the building and inside, getting unique views of the different doors, the play of light, and the views of green all around it. 

And then it chucked it down. I had my rain jacket but not my poncho. It seems everyone else had finished before me (I wasn’t late!), and got soaked getting to the bus. Kenya waited for me at one of the gates, and we walked back in the rain together. I got soaked but my rain jacket kept my camera and purse dry! 

Shiraz took us to a nearby restaurant, where we enjoyed some hearty appetizers, including spring rolls and naan. The food, the wet clothes, and the humidity began to slow us down. Outside, as we left, there was a snake charmer playing, a little boy trying to sell us bangles, kittens roaming the square, and the sound of horns in the nearby road. 

Back in the car, we drove again past India gate, as well as the massive President’s House. There were lots of security blocking roads, so we couldn’t get too close. It’s an area of Delhi that clearly shows the stamp of the British: wide thoroughfares (similar to London’s Mall), Roundabouts that are pretty mini gardens,  big trees that were planted in 1911 (or so) when this part of he city was built, and lots of English style buildings peppered throughout. It was too difficult to stop, so we just drove past. 

Our last stop of the day was the Sikh shrine Bangla Sahib Gurudwara. Whereas the Mosque and Humayun’s tomb were red sandstone and marble, the Sikh shrine is all white. We went into the foreigners room and took off our shoes; then, everyone had to put on a bandana head covering, but I had my scarf and used that. 

Once inside the grounds, we went into the Kitchen Langar, where 10,000 people are fed each day between 11am-4pm. We watched as one group was leaving, the floor was cleaned, and then another group was seated. They get metal trays and then volunteers come along and fills them up with various things. Everyone eats together in a row, with no designation between anyone, everyone equal. We toured the amazing kitchen where volunteers make everything: vats of food, chapati making areas, and chai. The girls were allowed to join the volunteers to try their hands at making chapatti. 

We then went through the inner temple, where we heard Kirtan, singing of scriptures. The room was bright gold with a pink drape over the main “altar” (I don’t know what it’s called and we couldn’t take photos inside). It was really a beautiful place, and I’m curious to learn more about it. 

We are now back at our hotel with a few hours to nap and chill before 7pm dinner. Tomorrow we head to Agra at 8am!

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

The Pune Challenge

It’s our last full day in Pune! We found out this morning that our evening flight tomorrow was cancelled, so we have a noon flight instead. We are all packing early to make sure we can fit everything. 

Today’s schedule (Wednesday, July 3, 2019):

Pune Challenge
Sari tying lesson
Indian afternoon: Henna, etc
Maharashtion Dinner

Another pretty day in Pune this morning with a yoga class. I love getting up early when everything is still quiet. The only thing we can hear are the birds and an occasional car honk. The WiFi is also the best at 6am with people still sleeping. 

After breakfast, we had a briefing on our Pune Challenge. We split up into groups of three (two of our 18 yr old girls leading their own group), and were given a challenge and a rickshaw bag. We had to visit three places, getting rickshaws along the way. We also had to take specific photos and answer questions about each place on our challenge. For lunch, our goal was to find lunch for 30 rupees each, connecting to the UN goal of decreasing hunger. In India, 50-75% (I’ve seen different numbers) of people live at poverty level ($1/day) or below. 

Our first stop was the Jain Mandir temple. Our rickshaw driver was nice, but he couldn’t quite find it. He asked at least 20 people along the way, most didn’t know where it was, and some just seemed to know a vague direction. Eventually, we pulled up in front. He wanted to take a selfie with us, which we happily obliged. 

The Jain Temple was beautiful. The outside had a white served facade, and the inside was gorgeous marble. All white walls, a beautiful floor pattern, carved ceilings, and altars of silver and gold. It was stunning. We went upstairs, too, where there was a similar room. 

After taking some photos and paying our respects, we went outside and caught another rickshaw. This one literally took us a few blocks, and was only 20 rupees. 

Our second challenge was the Shivaji Market. We saw an amazing bull outside pulling a cart of ice, and we watched a man slide a block of ice into the market with old style ice tongs. The market had a wrap different parts, broken up into fish, chicken, and fruit/veg. My girls weren’t interested in the meat sections, thankfully, so we perused the fruit and veg, trying to find things we’d never seen. There were cats, kittens, and dogs roaming the market, and they all wanted pets from us (which we didn’t give). 

After the market, the third stop was a grocery store, Dorabjees. We came across it the other day, but hadn’t shopped. Today’s challenge was for the girls to find new things and to price the things we normally get at home. They were astounded by how much a box of honey but Cheerios cost ($10 for a small box). Since our task was to only buy lunch for 90 rupees for all of us, we couldn’t find much except maybe a samosa for each from the little stand in the store. 

The girls decided they wanted to see the mall across the street. On our way in, they saw a KFC special, 2 chicken sandwiches for 99 rupees. So they are those, and I are a Clif Bar. We saw one group eating at McDonald’s, admitting that they weren’t doing the challenge. We made our way back in another rickshaw. Back at Sangam, we met up with a few of our other groups; they unloaded all the cookies they bought with their 90 rupees, so it was a lesson in how hard it was to eat healthy on so little.  

This afternoon was Indian afternoon, which started with a Sari tying lesson. Not everyone bought a sari, but they had extra s for everyone to practice. One of the staff members, Priya, showed us all how to do it, then came around and corrected ours. After we were al folded and pinned in, it was photo time. I served as the group photographer, taking individual and group shots. 

Then the girls started doing the other activities, including badmitten, henna, mandela, rangali, etc. The henna women were busy for quite a long time, but all our hands looked beautiful. However, we now had to be very careful with our saris, and I definitely smudged some on my sari. 

Eventually, it was time for our Maharashtion Dinner, a traditional Indian feast. We sat on the floor with banana leaf plates in front of us, already a bit filled with pakoras, papadam, rice, salad, and other things. We also had a mango purée dessert, which was wonderful. The women in the kitchen made such a delicious and beautiful feast for us. 

After the meal, those of us leaving before the closing ceremony were given our Sangam pins, which you can only get by coming to Sangam. It was an emotional moment, as I now have visited all four would centers (haven’t been to the new one, Kusafiri, the Africa traveling center). This is a goal I’ve had since I was a girl first learning about them and beginning to travel. 

We took off our saris and came down to the hall for a final dance session, the garba (I think). I didn’t partake because my little stubbed toe (walking around in saris for the first time is a little challenging), so I just recorded it. 

Now it is Thursday morning, we’ve all had our final breakfast and are waiting to depart. Our bags are all filled to busting (I really didn’t leave enough room for souvenirs and saris). Our flight was cancelled, so now we are on an earlier flight. We are going to partake in laughter yoga and then we are off in the rickshaws to the airport! Delhi heatwave, here we come. 

Namaste, Sangam. 

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Everyone Needs Love

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The monsoon rains were in fine form last night, chucking it down all night. Waking up this morning for yoga, it was as if it hardly rained at all. As a result, we enjoyed a rain free day today. 

So happy to go to yoga this morning. I needed to stretch it out, and the room was slightly emptier with girls sleeping in. 

After a quick run to the ATM across the street (we are all spending more on souvenirs/gifts than we thought), we boarded the bus for the day trip to one of Sangam’s community partners. Traffic was terrible, and the heat and motion lulled many of us to sleep. 

We spent the day at Maher, an organization that looks after abandoned children, disadvantaged and abused women, pregnant unwed women, traumatized or mentally compromised men and women, and the elderly. They have 46 projects with buildings and hundreds of support groups. Right now they have almost 1,000 children that they care for. 

Sister Lucy started this work over twenty years ago. A woman had come to her, asking for help; she was married and seven months pregnant. Her husband said he would kill her that night to take a new wife. Sister Lucy told the woman she couldn’t help her that day, but she should come back tomorrow. That night, the husband poured gasoline over the woman and her child and burned them alive. Since then, Sister Lucy has debited her life to helping those in need. She has a room full of awards that show how much good she and Maher do. 

To paraphrase a man who works for them and who was brought there with his mom when he was six, Here they get food, shelter, and love - most places don’t offer love. Many are traumatized when they come, whether through hunger, homelessness, or violence. Meditation and yoga help the people relax so they can share their story. When they share, they have more space to learn and take on new things.

High school girls welcomed us with a few songs, including a welcome sung to the tune of “happy birthday.” They showed us around and then served us a delicious lunch. Afterwards, they brought us to their shop where they make all their items. After hearing all about their good work, 48 girls and women bought as much as they could. I went Christmas shopping again (just as I did yesterday). These girls and women work hard and have so much hope. A few of the children are studying in colleges in the US, Germany,and the Netherlands. It’s amazingly powerful. 

Please check out and support the work they do. 

We are back at Sangam now, the music is playing, and the girls are having a pool party. I’m off to an hour long massage, Which is perfect after long bus rides today. 

The Sari and Punjabi tailors dropped off our altered pieces, and we will all wear them tomorrow, I think. The girls are talking about wearing the saris at the Taj Majal, but I think it will be way too hot. Only one of our girls bought a cotton Saree, while the rest of us bought the fancier, heavier ones. It may be a Punjabi day through...

The girls are feeling a bit tired and low on money, so they opted to stay in tonight instead of going out for dinner. Tomorrow is our last full day at Sangam. We have been here a week already!

Monday, July 01, 2019

Don’t Step on the Turtle

“Don’t step on the Turtle”

Monday, July 1, 2019 Schedule 
Sleep-in breakfast
Alandi village and Temple
Tulapur - temple where three rivers meet
Ishwari - organization that helps women earn income

July 1st already. We leave in three days, and there is still so much to do! We reminded our girls that if they want laundry done, it has to be done today or tomorrow. We are momming them when we can with little reminders. Sunblock! Do you have your pills? 

Today was a full day out! We had a nice sleep in breakfast, and I enjoyed being a bit lazier this morning. Since people were slow getting up, the WiFi was better. Once we are all up, it slows way down. 

The buses arrived to take us on a three stop tour of two temples and one of Sangam’s community partners. We piled into the buses, and thankfully it was cool enough with the windows open, since this old bus didn’t have AC. In the front seat, I could watch the driver weave in and out of slow cars as we made our way through town. Animals and drivers competed for toad space. Today there were horses and more dogs than usual. A few cows grazing on the side of the road but not stalling traffic. 

The Alandi village lies along the river, and it is a lively village with people visiting the temple, selling sacred wares, and washing clothes in the river. Life was happening all around us. As we walked up the market streets to the temple, a message was passed along: “don’t step on the turtle!” We all expected to see a real turtle on the walkway, but it was one built into the path that led to the temple. Somebody asked later on what the turtle symbolizes: roughly, its hard shell is a place where you can leave your heavy burdens before you go into the temple. 

To enter the temple, we took off our shoes as usual and entered the inner courtyard where a bunch of buildings held different rooms. We walked into the main temple and quietly filed past the altar, bowing with a “namaste.” There were flowers and candles, and incense burned. Once we were back in the courtyard, I took lots of shots of the pretty buildings and architectural details. 

We then made our way back through the market street to the river. We all took photos along the little boardwalk. Kids and adults kept trying to sell us stuff, including a forehead blessing. At the river, everyone wanted to take photos with us, and I saw a few girls say yes. The girls are so much more open to being approached than us older women. One of our girls had her butt grabbed when she was taking a photo with someone, which was a crappy experience for her to have. When we tried to take a group photo, all these men came up to take out photos or to take a selfie with us in the background. I took a great weird photo of all of them looking at us. 

We then went back to the buses and went to Tulapur temple. This was in a more secluded location where three rivers meet. It was a small little temple and much quieter. There was only one little stall there for people to buy things, which made it a bit easier for our girls to look. I watched a woman beautifully arrange her vegetables to sell on a blanket, and I asked her if I could take her photo. 

We then went to our third stop, Ishwari. This organization was started to give women a chance to get out of their homes and make money. They do education courses, sewing classes, and many other opportunities for women. They made us all a delicious lunch of spring rolls, corn soup, rice, Dahl, spiced vegetables, and chapati. It was so so good. They then cleared the table and laid out all the items they made that were for sale. We decimated the table, which I’m sure made them happy. I got quite a few Christmas presents from that visit to Ishwari. 

We got back just in time for the afternoon chai tea break. I then took my first dip in the pool before dinner. Luckily the rain held off. I was also able to check in with Todd before dinner to wish him luck on the first day of his new job. 

After dinner, we had indoor campfire night. Flowers and candles made a small circle in the center of the hall. The girls had signed up to sing/lead different songs, and they really got into it. 

Soon it was bed time, and we were all making our way back to our rooms. Only three more sleeps before we leave. Tomorrow we start with yoga, spend the day at another community partner, and I get a massage (Kenya had hers today, and Ashley and I have ours tomorrow). 

The Essence of India is wonderful!