Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Muggle Empire

The eminent Kristian Lau and Ellie Smith were my first visitors in India last week! Okay, so they didn’t actually come to where I live, but they gave me a great opportunity to travel around the tourist spots of north India with them. We spent 10 days trotting around the forts and temples and rooftop cafes of
Rajasthan (the state west of Delhi).

Most of the noteworthy sites in Rajasthan were constructed during the 16th to 19th centuries by rulers of the Mughal Empire, a bunch of Persian imperialists who were patrons of culture and intellect when they weren’t busy imprisoning their own fathers and entertaining their concubines. When Kristian first learn
ed about the Mughals he couldn’t help but wonder aloud why the name sounded so familiar, until he realized it bore a striking resemblance to the non-wizarding communities of Harry Potter fame.

Every city in Rajasthan is different – has its own character, its own type of tourists, even its own color. We spent our first day in
Jodhpur, the “blue city”, named for the use of indigo dye in paint (people thought it was a pesticide). We walked around the beautiful Mehrangarh Fort on the hill overlooking the town (the unfortunate site of the deadly stampede a few days later), and made friends with the sellers of overpriced pashminas at Baba’s Art Emporium, where apparently Richard Gere and Angelina Jolie have also been duped into buying at a 300% markup.

From Jodhpur we went south to Udaipur, the most romantic city in India (a great place for three plutonic friends to visit together). The most remarkable feature of the city, which is reminiscent of Venice except for the rickshaws and cows in the street, is a massive island palace that’s been turned into a hotel and is now accessible only if you stay there or shell out $100 for a meal. Jerks. But we did take a boat ride to a similarly cool island with a similarly enchanting palace. We also toured through the City Palace which has 12 different palaces all with different motifs, saw a sweet traditional dance show where a lady balanced 12 jugs on her head, and hung out with an entrepreneur who had just opened a coffee shop near our hotel.

Next we went to Pushkar, an important city for Hinduism because it houses the only temple to Lord Brahma in all of India. Unfortunately the city has turned into a haven for drug-addicted ravers (a rave was raided and 50 people were arrested a few days before we got there), and the sacred lakes you can visit near the temple are swarming with fake priests who pressure you to give massive amounts of money to pray for the health of your family. It did, however, score us some big bindis (the Hindu marking placed on the forehead during prayer, in this case consisting of red powder and dried rice), which we were still wearing none too gracefully along with our dirty sweaty clothes when we arrived at the 5-star hotel we were staying at in our next stop, Jaipur. It wasn’t too surprising when the receptionist, encountering three grimy young adults claiming a reservation on a platinum card that included a free suite upgrade (Kristian has a lot of hotel points from work travel), asked for ID.

So basically Jaipur consisted of us taking advantage of the free Sheraton. We did manage to find some time between the pool and the steam room to see the “pink city”, one of the three points of the Golden Triangle of India (the other two being Delhi and the Taj Mahal). These included the City Palace (complete with a south Indian movie set), Amber Fort (site of the biggest cannon in India, an unusual tourist attraction), and the largest of five incredibly accurate observatories constructed by the Mughul ruler Jai Singh, called Jantar Mantar.

We left Jaipur a li
ttle later than expected (I blame the swimming pool) and consequently hadn’t quite reached our next destination, a remote tiger reserve, when we ran across a village protest around 10pm. The crowd (who knows what they were protesting) had dragged a tree across the road and weren’t letting any cars through. Our awesome driver, Chain, got tipped off that there was a way around the barricade through some dirt roads, which seemed like a great idea until we found ourselves at a fork with the options of getting our car stuck in some deep rivets or running into sleeping cows. We chose to turn around. Eventually we found our way around the protest though, and stumbled into our hotel (actually luxury tent camp) around 11pm. Which was great since we had a game drive at 6am.

Our trip to Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve was well worth the adventure of getting there, though. On our afternoon drive we had an amazing sighting of a 300kg male tiger, aided by our jeep guide, who was clearly the alpha jeep guide (he tracked the tiger and informed all the other drivers). He also turned down my offer to sacrifice Kristian to the tigers as bait.

We finished our trip in Agra, where we got up at 6am (again) to catch the sunrise sighting of the Taj Mahal. The first clue that this was going to be a good visit was the fact that Kristian, Ellie and all other foreigners had to pay 750 rupees ($17) to get in, but as a “local” with an Indian tax ID card, I got in for 20 rupees. We had expected a crowded, touristy experience to an overhyp
ed monument, but to our surprise this one actually lived up to its reputation. This tomb, built by the Mughal Shah Jahan as a memorial to his favorite wife (imagine how the others must have felt) really did look like the most romantic building in the world. There’s a massive garden with a bunch of reflecting pools leading up to it, and two red marble mosques flanking it that are architectural wonders in their own right. The real thing, beautifully symmetrical and situated picturesquely along the banks of the Yamuna River, naturally took up about 80 photos on my camera.

If you want to come visit me here and see all these amazing things… too bad, I already saw them, you’ll have to see another part of India with me. Just kidding, but if I do go there again, you have to make sure I fit in an elephant ride.

The Long Road to Reunion

Warning, this is a long one… but, there are pictures at the end of it!

They always say the harder you work towards a goal, the sweeter the victory when you achieve it. The month of August was a poignant reminder of how true that is.

After much debate and reflection upon moving here, I decided to bring my dog to India from Kenya. I had been advised that it was a bad idea, Chennai wasn’t a dog-friendly city, but after seeing the pet I had raised from a puppy living off my Kenyan family’s table scraps (as is the fate of only the lucky dogs in Africa) I decided that her life would be better with me in India than alone in Kenya. I also decided to suck it up and pay the exorbitant cost of hiring an agent to go to my village, get my dog, bring her back to Nairobi, get all the necessary vaccinations and paperwork done, and ship her to India.

It turns out this process was just the tip of the iceberg. To start with, when I called my Kenyan brother up to let him know the agent would be coming to collect my baby, his reaction was “hmm, that might be a problem.” My dog had been in heat the week before, and was now pregnant again! (She had 6 puppies in February.) I got a hint at the panic a mother must feel when she finds out that her teenage daughter has gotten knocked up.

Of course, a pregnant dog can’t travel any more than a pregnant mother can, and neither Kenya nor India need any more puppies that can’t be taken care of. So my agent got her spayed in Nairobi (which also aborted the pregnancy). After a week of recovery, she was ready to go. My agent mentioned that I should check into the clearance procedures for imported animals at the airport, thinking I might have to get a couple forms in advance. Little did I know what a nightmare that would be… India, as it happens, is even more of a bureaucratic nightmare than Kenya.

The quarantine office requires you to produce a bunch of papers (arbitrarily decided depending on the mood of the quarantine officer) in person in order to receive a “no-objection certificate” to collect the dog at customs. However, the quarantine office is located an hour and a half outside the city and is open 10-5 on weekdays. Having recently gone through the process of getting my visa registered at the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office, I had an idea of where this was going. At the FRRO, the list of papers required by a given foreigner changes on a daily basis, is extraordinarily confusing and inefficient, and requires the average foreigner to go and wait in line a minimum of 3 times (10 times is not unusual) in order to get through the whole procedure. The FRRO is only 5 minutes from my office and nearly made me tear my hair out; I had no interest in dealing with the same hassle at an office 1.5 hours from me and subsequently going bald.

After multiple phone arguments with the quarantine officer and consultations with various vets and cargo shippers, I begrudgingly paid another exorbitant fee to hire an agent to get me through the clearance process (ie pay the necessary bribes to the necessary people) on the Indian side. From then I thought I was good to go. How wrong I was.

My Kenyan agent booked the dog on an Air India flight direct from Nairobi to Chennai. We were all surprised that they had direct flights. It turns out they don’t – it was actually a flight from Nairobi to Mumbai. After that annoyance she switched the reservation to Emirates Airlines. Now she was booked to fly through Dubai, which has a good reputation for animal handling. However, the Dubai airport requires three days of processing for a transit permit, and doesn’t do processing on Sundays… and the health certificate they need in order to process the transit permit is only good for four days. On top of this, Dubai requires a dog to have a microchip in order to be held in transit. Neither Kenya export nor India import require a microchip, so shelling out another $75 to ship the dog through Dubai seemed illogical. So a week and many expletives between my Kenyan agent and the Emirates guy later, the dog was back on Air India. This time they gave us the correct flight details, with a 6 hour layover in Mumbai.

This whole process took over a month from when my dog was originally picked up in my village. While I, my Kenyan agent, my Indian agent and multiple airline personnel were developing ulcers and popping blood vessels, my pup was blissfully unaware, hanging out in the kennel with other dogs and working steadily towards fattening herself up on proper dog food. Dogs are also amazingly resilient – so at the beginning of September, she finally arrived at my doorstep, unscathed and none the worse for wear!

Malaika is now a happy member of our apartment family (which for a little while was 6 people and a dog in a 3BR flat). She seems to be adjusting well to the new environment, intrigued by the new smells and only getting mildly sick a couple times (much like humans adjusting to India). She even participated in our housewarming party a couple weeks ago, flirting with all the guys and intimidating the girls. She’s the most international street dog I’ve ever met, having lived on two continents in 1.5 years, and I hadn’t realized how many things would be new to her after growing up in a village (beaches, auto rickshaws, staircases…).

It’s also clear that this dog was meant to come to India someday. When my roommates asked what her name was, I was about to launch into an explanation of what “Malaika” means in Swahili, when they cracked up. “Why did you give her an Indian name??” Malaika means angel in not only Swahili and Luo, but Hindi too. It’s the name of a famous model here, and there’s a song named after her. Clearly this was fate.