Jesse’s Blog

Monday, June 30, 2008

Man vs. Taj

Taj_Corner_PAN

On Saturday I took on the Taj Mahal once again (2006 trip, 2007 trip). This brute refuses to go down! It never fails that someone pays a visit to India in the dead of summer heat and needs to see the damn thing before they leave. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a beautiful monument; after 3 times I’d just rather see other monuments. If that makes me a player than so be it. I’m not a one-monument type of guy!

Taj_III-36 Our trip went horribly. Getting to Agra was easy enough, but due to the abysmal state of that city’s infrastructure combined with recent heavy rains, the exact streets we needed were flooded and traffic was diverted. It started to rain again, and we were backed up for hours. The bright side, besides the sun coming out right at the end of our 7 hour journey, was that we got some great photos!

Taj_III-76 Way too late in the afternoon we finally entered the parking lot for the Taj. If you have never been, the next few hours are the same for everyone who goes:

  1. You are yanked from your vehicle by a mob of “tour guides” and souvenir peddlers.
  2. You politely-at-first-but-ultimately-violently turn them away and make your way to the small electric buses that you assume will take you to the Taj.
  3. You invariably take this bus because a) you have no idea where you are going and b) you are practically running to escape the aforementioned pursuing mob (which appears to be spontaneously multiplying at an accelerating rate).
  4. Approximately 2 minutes later you exit the bus surrendering your 10 rupees, feeling stupid for not having walked.
  5. Somehow the mob from #1 has shown up again, and they have the exact same crap. Maybe your 10 rupees was actually worth it.
  6. At the gate you feel cheated that Indian tourists only have to pay $0.50 and Foreign Nationals have to pay $17.50! Optionally, if you live/work in India and pay Indian taxes, you may engage in a shouting match with the cashier that will get you exactly nowhere. You’re still charged the “white tax”.
  7. You wait in line to get frisked. Security at the Taj appears to rival security at Indian airports, until you realize they barely look sideways at you while waving their magic wand and don’t bother to check your bags. Nevermind, this is exactly what happens at the airport. Did you bring your bomb?
  8. Taj_III-51 Immediately after entering you go through the big gate leading to the Taj Mahal gardens and you take a picture exactly like this one to the right. More photographers than you can count offer to take the same exact picture for you – for a price. Depending on your photography skills and equipment, your photo may already be sufficient/better. The best option is to just steal their camera. That’s right. Just take it. This is India – what are they going to do?
  9. Taj_III-53 You can’t wait to get a closer look, so you move down the path on the right, unless you are left handed (and we all know what happens then). Once you get to the platform in the middle of the gardens where all the water meets you take another closer picture.
  10. Next, you make your way to the Taj itself and put on the weird outer sock things they gave you “complimentary” with your atrocious entry fee. You feel silly, and you look silly. Your friends laugh and take a picture of you looking silly and feeling silly.
  11. Taj_III-60 You go up and walk around the outside of the Taj, or maybe you go inside first. Doesn’t really matter. Inside you respect the “No Photography” signs even though all the Indian tourists completely ignore it and flash pictures like they are at a rock concert.
  12. Finally, you have “free” time. Hang out in the Gardens, go to the Museum, or strike weird poses and take silly pictures! Optionally, get the heck out of there ASAP because it’s way too hot and there are other cooler things to see like Agra Red Fort. Everything is on Wikipedia these days, anyway. Elapsed time: 2 hours.

Taj_III-66

posted by Jesse at 2:26 pm  

Friday, June 27, 2008

Kathmandu – Day 2 (5/10/2008)

Kathmandu-222

Kathmandu-199 We planned for day two the night before. A rooftop cafe breakfast fueled us for our trek to Swayambhunath, or Monkey Temple as it’s commonly called by tourists. The walk took us at least an hour and I got some great shots as we passed through the city. Soon we could see our destination high on a hill in the distance, and I remembered the temple being lit up the previous night. It was exciting to know we were closing in! At the base of the temple we were engulfed by kids trying to get money or food out of us. They were smart little guys; I quizzed them on the capital cities of the world and they got a lot of them right! I don’t think we gave them anything (it’s generally my policy not to), and by the time we reached the really steep steps they had given up on us. We finished our climb and were rewarded with an awesome view of the valley.

Swayambhunath

Swayambhunath Stupa

One of the stark differences between Buddhist and Hindu temples is the way they handle commercial enterprise.Kathmandu-351 Hindu temples seem to shun business in areas of worship, whereas the Buddhist temples fully embrace it. I felt a bit like I was at a theme park instead of a holy shrine. This didn’t seem to affect the locals. They continued worshiping even while the nosy tourists buzzed around them with cameras and guidebooks. At the time I didn’t think twice about how odd that was; later I pondered how much of the worship was genuine versus just-for-show. Do they pay people to worship all day long? Like dressing up as Mickey Mouse at Disney World?? I wonder…

Kathmandu-460 We enjoyed the architecture and atmosphere, but ended up spending a lot of our time monkey watching. There were whole groups (families??) of monkeys all over the temple, interacting with people and just hanging out. We saw everything from little infant monkeys nursing in mama’s arms to old grandpa monkeys lounging lazily in the shade.

We still had a full day ahead of us and needed a break from walking in the sun, so we grabbed a taxi and headed off towards our next destination.

Pashupatinath

Kathmandu-526Nepal’s most important Hindu temple reminded me a lot of my trip to Varanasi. Cremations are performed there daily on the banks of the holy Bagmati River. Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple, but there is plenty to see outside the towering walls. We explored the rugged terrain as high as we could go before turning back down and finding some more steps up to Gorakhnath and Vishwarup temples. Kathmandu-546 There is a lot of beautiful architecture packed tightly together up there, and we weren’t quite sure what was what, but we paused to enjoy the cool breeze coming through the trees and flip through the descriptions in our guide book.

Bodhnath

Bodhnath Stupa

We were up for some more walking and made our way around the hill and through the streets to Bodhnath – one of the largest Stupas in the world. Kathmandu-584I was again amazed at how the Buddhist Stupas have such a close tie-in with the surrounding businesses. As with all the sites we visited we had to pay an entry fee of several hundred Nepalese rupees, and past this point there were scores of restaurants and shops catering to tourists. We found a rooftop cafe and indulged in some buffalo momos. They were more expensive and not as good as the street momos from the previous day, but the view was nice and the weather just playful enough to make us want to sit and take it all in. They were also really slow with giving us our check.

The day was growing long and we still had a very important stop to make, so we continued our clockwise walk around the Stupa and headed back out to the street to hail a cab.

Indra Jatra (The Chariot Festival)

Kathmandu-644 We heard about this from the British woman we met at our guest house on the first day. It sounded extremely interesting and we couldn’t pass it up seeing as we just happened to be at the right place at the right time. We headed a short distance outside of Kathmandu to another city (the name escapes me at the moment) and quickly found the chariots. Topped with what looked like Christmas trees standing several stories tall, they were hard to miss. Kathmandu-621 People were mulling around and a crowd was starting to gather, but it seemed nothing was going on just yet. We asked around for some chai and ducked (literally) off the street into a private domicile to be served.

Kathmandu-687 Soon the festivities started and we re-emerged onto the street to watch scores of children and volunteer adults as they pried the immobilized chariots from their night-long slumber. It reminded me of a scene from Lord of the Rings, with huge armies pulling war chariots in to battle. The energy of the festivities was electric, and we wanted to get up on the rooftop to get a better view. As we stepped into the corridor of a building along the street I felt for my wallet. It was gone. I had been so engrossed taking pictures that I absent-mindedly put my wallet in my back pocket after giving Cait a few rupees to pay for the chai. Someone – probably a little street kid – skillfully snagged it from me. Kathmandu-707It only had the equivalent of about $35 in it, but I had to cancel all my U.S. credit cards and apply for a new Indian income tax card.

At the end of the festival we got a rare chance to see Kumari up close! You’re really not allowed to take pictures of her, but I did anyway. They shewed us away and we headed back to Kathmandu to head out for a nice Italian dinner and some crazy local singing and dancing into the wee hours of the morning.

Chariot Festival Video

Right-click and “Save As…” (about 14MB)

posted by Jesse at 1:02 am  

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Shanghai has “Mo fo da money!” – but what’s wrong with India?

Hotel Near Shanghai OfficeSo… I didn’t leave. We had a bit of a network disaster on Friday and I didn’t get enough time to finish everything so I extended my stay through the weekend. I moved to a cheap hotel right across from the office which is only $23 per night instead of $145. It’s convenient, clean, and nice with free internet and breakfast. Takes two minutes to walk from the lobby to our office, and one more minute to get to the cafe in our software park. I will go so far as to say it’s badass. (I really need to learn how to say that in Chinese.)

Shanghai-153 The down side is that I’m working most of the weekend, but we’re still managing to squeeze in some good stuff! Tonight we went to Japanese and got an amazing deal: all you can eat of anything on the menu (sushi, nigiri, sashimi, tempura, soup, beef, cooked fish, chicken, noodles, rice) and all you can drink including beer and sake. Each of us for the same price as a single plate of sashimi in Delhi (about $22). Which brings me to my main point today:

What the heck is wrong with India??

Lately I have been noticing that living a cosmopolitan lifestyle in India’s capital city is increasingly ridiculously expensive. Drinks at clubs are pricier than they are in New York City. Memberships to gyms cost three times as much as gyms in the U.S. that are three times as nice. Eating out regularly sets me back more than it ever did in the States.

It doesn’t end with daily cost-of-living, either. Our office space in Noida is as much as our office space in San Diego. My taxes in India are higher than my taxes in the U.S. My apartment is 1/2 the price of my Westwood apartment in Los Angeles and 1/3 the price of my beach-front apartment in San Diego. In fact, if I had to pay for my own rent, utilities and vehicle, I’d be living paycheck-to-paycheck right now. The kicker? My salary is the same as it was when I first moved to Los Angeles.

My question above was rhetorical. I know what’s wrong with Delhi, and what’s wrong with India. It’s fucked up. The rich are exclusive, and they want to stay that way. They got rich by exploiting their own countrymen, and they’ll stay rich by fighting to keep them down. Here’s an IM convo I just had with my friend:

(12:50:46 AM) Jesse: something is wrong with India
(12:51:42 AM) Laura: there is alot wrong with india!
(12:52:56 AM) Laura: what exactly are you talking about?
(12:53:39 AM) Jesse: cost of living
(12:53:53 AM) Jesse: general social welfare
(12:54:29 AM) Jesse: classism and racism making things generally shitty.
(12:56:12 AM) Jesse: for the majority, while keeping the rich and the luxurious lifestyle (I’m sorry middle class lifestyle anywhere else in the world) out of reach of the common man in India.
(12:56:47 AM) Jesse: I just realized that if I had to pay for my own rent, utilities and vehicle, I’d be broke or living paycheck to paycheck at best
(12:57:57 AM) Laura: yeah i know but china is far more advanced than india…india is developing at a far slower pace…in a few decades though india could be more like china..
(12:58:15 AM) Jesse: china is one thing but I’m comparing directly to the U.S.
(12:58:45 AM) Jesse: My salary right now is about what I was making when I first moved to San Diego.
(1:02:20 AM) Laura: you are right but it is only the rich people in india that can afford eating out and drinking….if you look at the places we eat and drink in in india …they are all in 5 stars hotels…no bar I go to in ireland is equivalent… they only cater for the super rich …so charge super high prices
(1:02:44 AM) Jesse: yep, supply and demand I guess…
(1:04:08 AM) Laura: exactly..there is such a small portion of india that can afford alcohal…they have to charge those prices…if you look at the price of everyday stuff like fruit and veg , water etc. it’s far cheaper than home
(1:04:29 AM) Jesse: they don’t have to charge those prices though
(1:04:34 AM) Jesse: In fact
(1:04:42 AM) Jesse: did you know that 5 stars get alcohol tax-free
(1:04:50 AM) Jesse: it is CHEAPER for them to buy alcohol
(1:04:56 AM) Jesse: than the average establishment in India
(1:05:12 AM) Jesse: they are taking advantage of the few people who are really rich and charging ridiculous prices.
(1:05:43 AM) Laura: I know they don’t but they can so will….it makes it more exclusive …
(1:06:07 AM) Laura: the rich can well afford it and prob makes them feel wealthier
(1:06:19 AM) Jesse: which is fucked up.
(1:06:35 AM) Jesse: Do you know I saw a Lamborghini Murcielago outside of The Park hotel the other night?
(1:06:39 AM) Jesse: FUCKING. RIDICULOUS.
(1:07:07 AM) Jesse: all the problems that country has, and people are wasting money paying 3 times the normal cost for a 1/4 million dollar car.
(1:08:30 AM) Laura: I know…but it’s like a status symbol to them…do you ever see the cars that pull up outside agni ..they are all mercs and bmw’s …hanging out there and buying drinks is like telling everyone hey look at me i’m rich and if you manage to be rich in india …it’s a big thing …if it was ireland or Us it wouldn’t be as big a deal
(1:08:49 AM) Jesse: yeah but look how they got rich
(1:08:57 AM) Jesse: exploiting their own people
(1:09:03 AM) Jesse: It’s borderline slavery
(1:09:14 AM) Jesse: Mumbai is the largest slum in Asia
(1:09:16 AM) Jesse: ASIA
(1:09:22 AM) Jesse: not India
(1:10:24 AM) Laura: I know…I am not justifying it…in fact I can’t stand it…I dated a mega wealthy indian guy for like 2 weeks and couldn’t deal with all the cars, servants, expensive dinners etc……
(1:11:30 AM) Laura: I think I am the only person to dump a guy because he is too rich…and has an attitude
(1:12:05 AM) Jesse: lol
(1:13:52 AM) Jesse: Lately I am just really grumpy about India, and I’m getting really antsy about being there and I think this is why. Everything is so pompous and superficial, and nobody with money seems to care about making anything better.
(1:14:12 AM) Laura: i’d hate to grow up in india…if you are poor…you are screwed and if you are rich you have such a screwed up image of reality …you should hear their opinions….they are obssessed with money and image
(1:15:32 AM) Jesse: God forbid there are more of *them* running around. More people with money. That would be the worst thing for the rich peeps. They wouldn’t be exclusive any more! Keep the peasants from rising up from the slums to a better existence. Where is India’s Robin Hood when you need him!
(1:16:45 AM) Laura: Give me time! It’s funny you should mention robin hood! I just got accepted into nottingham uni…I am doing my masters in human rights law there in september
(1:17:58 AM) Jesse: I’d like to take that guy’s Lamborghini and use it to buy houses, livestock, extra farmland, and a few dowries for a couple villages.
(1:18:49 AM) Jesse: Badass, you can move back to India and steal from the rich and give to the poor – and defend yourself in court!
(1:20:28 AM) Laura: I know…I remember one morning I went for break fast in the taj with this guy and it cost ridiculous money for pancakes..then an hour later i was teaching my class in the slums and just felt so guilty ..they could have so much stuff for that…
(1:20:05 AM) Jesse: Do you mind if I just copy paste this convo into my blog – I don’t feel like formatting my thoughts into something more readable. It’s late. :)
(1:21:03 AM) Laura: no i don’t mind at all…as long as i get some royalties if it’s ever published!
(1:21:08 AM) Jesse: hahah
(1:21:09 AM) Jesse: deal
(1:21:24 AM) Jesse: I’ll paste this part too, so it’s published on record. ;)

Perhaps I’m just a bit biased and bitter. After all, I have been a victim of racism and discrimination by the upper class during my time in India… So what do you think?

posted by Jesse at 11:36 pm  

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Shanghai – Day Six

Shanghai-145

I’m leaving for Delhi tomorrow and realized I hadn’t taken a group shot yet, so I got the team together for a photo in the studio (above). As you can see there are a few clowns in the class! I had some nice spicy beef udon noodle for lunch and a red bean milk tea before we went to check out the hotel directly across the street from our office park. It’s literally 1/4 the price of where I am staying now and, honestly, it’s not that bad. Simple but clean. Better than anything in India aside from 5-star. I could stay there for 30 days with all amenities for the same cost as rent alone in Noida (which doesn’t even include utilities, internet, TV, etc). I’m already making friends and plans.

Shanghai-147 Speaking of which, we went to Korean dinner with some friends of our General Manager. Sam plays guitar and his girlfriend Vivian… speaks really good English. Not only does she speak well, she does so with an American accent she learned from watching Friends. Really. I was so distracted by her artificially (but excellently) tuned accent that I couldn’t focus on what she was saying. We immediately offered her a job teaching English to the Chinese and Mandarin to the Americans at our company (she has taught before – we were calling her O sensei by the end of the night). If all goes well she’ll start in mid-July.

Well, time to pack up my stuff so I can zip right out of here in the morning before my weekly meetings.

posted by Jesse at 10:10 pm  

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Shanghai – Day Five

Change-Face in action!

Tonight we went to an authentic Szechuan restaurant in west Shanghai. The food was spicy and tasty, though not my favorite so far (as if that is really a bad thing). Shanghai-134However, the highlight of the evening was the change-face performance! I just couldn’t believe my eyes. This guy does a dance to some traditional music and quickly changes his mask right before your eyes. I’m talking LIGHTING quick to the point where it is impossible to even catch it on camera. He does this in the middle of a crowd, less than a few feet from everyone, even while people are TOUCHING HIS FACE. It’s completely insane and I can’t figure out how he does it. As if that wasn’t enough, he also blew fire. I’m sure he scored at least three chicks tonight.

Shanghai-138 For some reason we were so pumped that when we left the restaurant we went into martial arts stances for our photo… because it makes complete sense. I will qualify this by saying it was the Asian guys’ idea to do the pose, not the white dude’s. I’m just saying.

Instead of getting dessert at the restaurant we walked a good ten minutes to McDonald’s for ice cream. From authentic Chinese to authentic American! The cones here are pretty much exactly like they are in the States, so no surprises there.

Shanghai-142On our dessert walk we passed some people doing video karaoke. In a park. At night. Proof to the right. I just can’t get over how nice the weather is here. In the afternoon I realized it’s aShanghai-144 lot like Southern California right now. Everything is perfect. We could have continued walking for awhile but one of the guys wanted to get home. We said goodbye to him and decided that we would go for a massage. A real massage! Not one in “quotes”.

My friend seems to be a bit of a massage connoisseur. He told a very funny story at dinner about a Korean massage gone awry, where the masseuse (on her first day) immediately set about igniting him with alcohol and fire (much to the dismay of her co-workers). He asked me what style of massage I wanted, and I didn’t really know except that I didn’t want the Korean one, so he opted for shiatsu. We ended the night with a very good, very long (2 hours) and very cheap ($20 USD) massage!

posted by Jesse at 11:28 pm  
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