Sunday, July 5, 2015

Bonding Time

A couple Saturdays ago I got home from hanging out with some friends and I was immediately pulled into the kitchen to help make dinner. I do not/cannot/don’t enjoy cooking, but I usually at least try to offer to help prepare things for the cooking, although I’m typically refused. Apparently I also cannot satisfactorily chop vegetables and meat. However, on this fine day I found something that I actually can do!
I can fold these!
I put my things away and went back to the kitchen where my family was making buuz, a Mongolian dumpling. My mom showed me how to get a bit of meat and then properly fold the dough around it. You only use your right pointer finger and both thumbs, and fold the dough between your right pointer and thumb as your left thumb shoves the meat into the resulting pocket. I was horrible at it. I was laughed at. I laughed at myself. But I kept trying, because it really didn’t seem all that hard, it was just a matter of getting it right.
We kept making buuz, and my pathetic attempts were kindly put into the steamer alongside the cute folded-pocket ones. After a while, I got better. My first slightly successful attempts were applauded and passed around the kitchen with awe. Finally, I could do something half right. A few buuz later mine were nearly indistinguishable from the rest! I was bonding with my host family! And dinner was delicious!
The following Saturday, my class/sector got together for a Mongolian cooking class, where I was deemed the buuz “expert.” While this is not necessarily true, it was good to know that the skill stuck and I’m somewhat more prepared to feed myself this winter.
On Sunday afternoon, the day after our buuz dinner, my family took me to the countryside. Keep in mind that mine and my family’s communication is incredibly limited, so I was told this by having the word “country” pointed to me in my Mongolian-to-English dictionary with them saying the word “tomorrow” in Mongolian, which I know. Other than that, the details were very unclear.
The packaged product of my demise
So around 5 I was herded into the car with my parents and younger children and we drove about 45minutes to the country. To get there we drove through old Darkhan, where we mysteriously stopped at the train station for about 10minutes, and then a store, where my dad got us all soda and packaged ice cream cones. From the store we drove a bit, including past a river where people were swimming that I desperately want to go to, and then we just pulled off the road onto an unmarked dirt road and went down that for a good while, until the city was no longer in view and we were officially in the country. It was beautiful. I rolled down my window and started taking pictures.
Eventually we pulled off the mysterious dirt road to a ger. I still do not know my family’s relation to these people. Friends? Relatives? I don’t know. But we hung out in their ger for a bit and they gave us milk tea while the adults talked. I’m essentially always part of the “children’s table,” although they don’t talk to me much either. After a while my mom and the other women took me down the hill to the other ger, a smaller, cooking ger, where we made a fire out of cow poop [баас] where we cooked noodle soup. After the soup got going I was basically left to my own devices.
The family’s ger was on a hill that over looked this beautiful, grassy valley where hundreds of cows, goats, and horses were grazing. Off in the distance, mountains enclosed the valley, which must have had a river, because the grass was a deep green. The ger-children took me around to see their family’s cows and goats and down to the valley to take pictures.
I met back with my mom and children at a different ger, where our host disappeared and came back with an adorable baby goat, which I immediately held and smothered in love. My host siblings also wanted to smother him in love, but there was a bit more smothering than loving going on. Eventually, prompted by the screams of the tiny goat, I intervened and declared baby goat-play time over. I asked to ride a horse, and I think they were going to let me, but I was wearing my Rainbows and a skirt, which admittedly, is not ideal riding apparel.

the Mongolian countryside

my host siblings love-smothering the baby goat

I spent most of the afternoon taking pictures, but by the time the sun was beginning to set, around 9ish, I began to feel quite nauseous. I assumed it was just because I’d eaten a lot of sugar that day so I tried to quell it with plenty of water, but that didn’t really work. A sudden dust storm sent us back into the main ger for a while where I was taught Mongolian poker. Apparently my brain was only up for learning one new skill over the weekend, because I had no clue what was going on. Then my dad came over and said “goat,” (in mongolian), and put his finger over his throat in a slicing motion, which, as noted by Star Lord, is the universal symbol for killing someone/thing. It was finally time for the traditional Mongolian goat kill and I was ready. Except that I was nauseous and had cold sweats.
my host parents sniffing snuff during the dust storm
The women led me back outside, past the ram tied up to the ger, and headed toward the cows. Apparently we were gonna milk some cows while the men folk killed the goat. I thought about asking to watch the goat kill, and I probably would have if I had been feeling better, but instead I just went with it and headed toward the cows as well. Thankfully, I later learned that women aren’t actually allowed to watch animals being slaughtered, they’re just expected to prepare it after its been skinned, so my nausea helped me remain culturally appropriate.
I’ve milked a cow before, and I don’t know if its because I wasn’t feeling well, but this time around I wasn’t getting anything from that cow. While my mom and hostess milked several cows I sat around and tried not to be sick, which, while successful, was not tons of fun.
By the time we got back to the ger, complete with a freshly skinned goat carcass, I needed to tell my family that I wasn’t feeling well. We left soon after, but it was a shame to end the day that way. I’m sure everyone thought that the poor white girl got sick after she saw the innards of a goat, therefore bringing shame to my whole family and all of their ancestors.
In conclusion, I spent the next 12hours vomiting and then the proceeding 12hours in bed. While miserable, this did have the continued effect of further endearing me to my host family. They bought me apples and once I was feeling better they let me cook my own egg, which was a big step up.
Since recovering, life has gone back to its Mongolian normalcy.
This past Wednesday the whole Mongolia26 group got back together for several days of continued safety and informational sessions. I didn’t have a great time. It was awesome to see everyone else again, but getting constantly reminded about all the rules and regulations we have to follow is a bit of a downer. Also, going from being surrounded by 12 Americans to 73 Americans is quite overwhelming. But I got back to my host family yesterday afternoon and after processing everything I began to feel better about things again. I had my interview with our country director today, a truly fabulous woman, and it went really well. I’m definitely starting the week with a better mindset.

possibly what my deel will look like,
but hopefully without the pained facial expression
After I got back from my interview, my parents loaded me into the car with my little sister and we went to get fabric for my deel for Nadaam, a holiday coming up this weekend. I’m really excited for it and you’ll never guess what color it is!!....

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Day in the Life

view from my bedroom window
My days here in Mongolia are beginning to follow a pretty consistent schedule. Monday to Friday I go to language class from 9-1. It’s at a local elementary school, so I can walk there pretty easily. I come home for lunch and then go back to the school from 2:30 to 5:30 for our Technical Sessions, which is basically training for working within the health system.
The language is definitely hard, but I’m slowly improving. We got to choose if we wanted to be in the faster paced/advanced class or the slower/regular class, and I quickly chose the slower one. I’ve discovered that the hardest part is listening to people and then actually understanding them, but I think we’ll be working more on that soon. Our technical sessions are taught by two PCVs that are coming up on their 27mo mark this fall and a Mongolian woman who works for the PC.
Every Tuesday afternoon we go to our practicum sites where we meet up with a Mongolian counterpart (CP). My practicum is at the local health department and my CP is a midwife who also teaches prenatal and sex ed classes. It would be a perfect fit, except that she doesn’t speak any English and my Mongolian is basically useless at this point. I can’t even observe her prenatal classes because they’re in the morning during my language sessions, which I can’t miss. I’m not entirely sure how this will work out yet, but at least it’s just supposed to be training for our permanent sites, which will be much more prepared for our arrival.
my house with garden
My host family is still good. I’ve discovered that my house is by far the nicest out of anyone in my group, so I kind of lucked out there. Last weekend their oldest daughter, who lives in Ulan Battaar, came to visit with her two sons, but she went back on Sunday and left her sons here. I think they’re about 4 and 8, so the house has been a lot livelier this past week. I’m pretty sure my mom took time off “inspecting,” because she’s been home all week working in the garden. Communication with them is hard. I rarely know what’s going on, but I guess that’s not too different from usual.
As much as we have to do, I also have a lot of down time. I’m reading a ton, so any book suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I managed to watch the last few episodes of GoT. Next month we’re going into UB for the weekend, where I fully plan on seeing the new Jurassic Park, even if I have to fake sick to carve out an afternoon in our schedule.

room from corner
room from other corner
I feel like this is a boring blog post, haha. I mean, I’m adjusting to Mongolia really well, particularly in my house, where there isn’t much adjusting to be done. Our lack of a planned schedule is bothering some people, but India got me pretty used to that. There are still a ton of rules, but I haven’t managed to break any major ones yet! Covering my arm tattoo is a must for any non-casual situation, which is basically every situation with the PC, so that’s getting a bit old. It’s surprisingly hot here. Since we got to Darkhan it’s been in the 90s most days, but
it’s a dry heat with a good breeze. No rain yet, but this is the desert. So far I’ve consumed horse, but no alcohol of any sort, so it’s kind of surprising that my liver hasn’t gone into shock/withdrawal. Nadaam, a sporting holiday, is during the second week of July and I’ve been told that I’ll probably be able to try some fermented horse milk then.

Saturday, June 6, 2015


first hotel
I can’t believe that I’ve been in Mongolia for hardly a week. I feel like its been so much longer, but I’m sure that’s because we’ve done so much in just a week. Right now I’m in Darkhan, the second biggest city in Mongolia, at my host family, but we’ve been here since Tuesday.
On Tuesday we left the first hotel outside of UB (Ulaan Baatar) and took a bus to Darkhan. We were split up into two buses, so I was back with the group I was with in San Francisco. We drove through some suburbs, which were surprisingly modern and cute, and through UB. In usual Asian fashion, we stopped in the parking lot of a grocery store for about an hour for no apparent reason, but it gave me plenty of time for a first look around a Mongolian grocery store. It was pretty awesome, but then again, I am weirdly fascinated by non-American grocery stores.
Once we got on our way we drove for about four hours across the northern Mongolian countryside. It was absolutely stunning. I had previously not been feeling too well, as coffee isn’t really a thing here so one could say I was experiencing “withdrawal,” but as soon as I realized what we were passing I opened my window, put my camera around my neck, and stuck my head out. I think someone has pictures. I took about 200 hundred pictures, but deleted about a third of them. For some reason pictures taken from a bus window while careening at 50mph over roughly paved highway doesn’t make for the best picture quality.

We checked into another hotel in Darkhan and spent the next three days at the local college in various orientation and training sessions. Here we got broken up into our sector groups for the first time, so I actually got to get a visual on the rest of the Health people, although there’s only 12 of us. Current PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) are helping with our orientation and continued training, which will last until August, so its nice to have them as an additional resource for questions about our potential jobs and such.
On Friday afternoon we were separated by our sectors and taken to our host family communities. Since Health needs to be close to a city for resources and our practicum sites, we stayed in Darkahn, but other groups are in small communities as far as an hour or more out of the city. We won’t be back together as a group until the beginning of July, which is a shame, but luckily my friend Ophelia (Feebee) is also in Health.
My host family is certainly not what I expected, which isn’t a bad thing. A lot of people are staying gers (yurts) or in houses that don’t have electricity or plumbing, but I’ve got all of that. My house is in a nice area, has three floors, and honestly, is nicer than a lot of houses in America. My room is off the main floor with a window that over looks the fenced in yard that is completely filled by a fruit garden. I can even flush the toilet paper here, which is a real delight since in the rest of the country the plumbing can’t handle it so you have to throw the tissue in a basket by the toilet, which stinks (literally).
I have a host mom, who is an officer (I’m not sure of what), a host dad, who’s a driver, a host brother, who is 25 and works at a gym, and two host sisters, who are 27 and 11. There’s another sister who lives in UB with her family, so I haven’t met her. But everything is really good. I was disappointed that there weren’t any animals or small children, but this is just fine. I’m definitely not roughing it. Although I did just get my hair stuck in my overall strap, so clearly life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
For the next 11weeks I’ll live here and have classes at a local school during the week on the Mongolian language and technical training on health in Mongolia. My little host sister has already tried teaching me all of the vocab she has in her English book for school, but in Mongolian, so at least I know I’ll have a tutor.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Peace Corps- Mongolia

May 31, 2015
Last Tuesday, after living at home in Nashville for nearly a year, I embarked on a plane to San Francisco for two days of Peace Corps Pre-Service Training. I went with three bags and a backpack, the contents of which will allegedly sustain me for two years of Mongolian living, so packing was a bit of a challenge.
I arrived at the hotel in San Francisco about 30min shy of our first meeting, so I immediately went to my room to put down my bags and take off my pants. Luckily, my roommate did not choose this time to appear. I was told to bring plenty of business casual clothes for working in, but I soon learned that dressing in business casual is basically expected at all times. So I changed and went downstairs to fill out more paperwork. Immediately, I had to be social and outgoing, and I somehow managed it because I was able to make a few friends.
my group, so about half of us
On Wednesday and Thursday of Pre-Service Training, all 74 of the Mongolia26 team was split in two and had various sessions from 8:15am to about 5:30pm. Friends were made, presentations were seen, information was leaned.
Friday morning, at 4:30 am, we met in the hotel lobby and made our way to the airport.  Surprisingly, we were not accompanied by anyone from the Peace Corps on our flights, so we were kind of just left to our own devices. Our flight to Seoul didn’t actually leave until 10:30, but with such a large group we were given plenty of time in case things went wrong. 

horrible, no tv plane
The plane for this flight, which was a bit over 12hours, was quite old and didn’t have TVs on the back of each seat, which, honestly, I didn’t even realize was still a possibility for international flights. So once I realized that I couldn’t entertain myself with movies and tv for next half a day, while incased in a metal tube at an absurd altitude while traveling across the Pacific Ocean, saying I was “disappointed” was a bit of an understatement. Obviously I survived, but it was a close call.
We got to Seoul and spent about 5hours at the airport. The Seoul Airport is lovely and should set the standard for airports across the world. I was able to eat, drink, and nap, and the other half of the group took showers. Thankfully, we flew Korean Air to Ulaan Baatar, which was another 3hour trip, but so much more luxurious compared to the United travesty from earlier. I lucked out and didn’t have anyone sitting next to me, so I just laid down and slept the whole flight, which was almost a shame since there was a solid movie selection. 

sign at the UB airport

Finally, we reached Mongolia around 12:30am, very early Sunday morning. So somehow I lost a day in there, but I’m just not going to think about it too hard. We were met at the airport by a lot of staff from the PC Office, and after collecting our bags we loaded onto buses and drove another hour to a large hotel about an hour out of Ulaan Baatar. Absolutely exhausted, I went to bed around 2:30am.
Today, which is Sunday, May 31st, we didn’t have to be at brunch until 10, so we were able to actually get some sleep. After that we went into more info sessions that were more geared towards Mongolia, but still pretty broad. We had some more medical and immigration paperwork, but it got done in alphabetical order, so I got out in pretty good time.
This afternoon a bunch of us went out on a walk around the hotel, which turned into a surprise hike. We went up a big hill with a trail, which ended in a gorgeous overlook. However, Julie (my roommate) just came back into the room and told me that hiking has officially been banned. So there’s that.
Tomorrow we have more info sessions and I think I get a couple more shots. On Tuesday we go to a city called Darkhan where we’ll eventually be sent off into our home stays. Since Health is the smallest sector, my group will stay in a fairly close proximity and stay together for training during the next 11 weeks.
Hopefully I can post again before we get into home stays, because then I really won’t know how frequently I get internet access. I’d also like to apologize for the quality of this post. I haven’t blogged since I left India and apparently it’s a mindset I need to get back into. Until next time!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Rajasthani Holi-day

This semester I knew I wanted to go back to Rajasthan, so when I heard that my friend Maria was hoping to go over Holi, I immediately invited myself  to go with her.
Maria and I
Generally, Maria is a way better person than me. She is friendlier, nicer, a better dancer, actually approachable, and blonde. She's even admitted that one of her favorite hobbies is "church hopping," which would actually be a convincing form of torture for me. However, she's also incredibly sweet, open-minded, and Liberal. And from South Dakota.
So we set out on a Thursday night, on a train bound to Udaipur, a city of beauty and romance! Maria, being type-A and perfect, set up all of our travels with various couchsurfers, so we didn't have to pay for any lodgings, which was great! Our train arrived in Udaipur around 6am and our host had his rickshaw-driving-friend pick us up at the train station fo' free! Our host, according to the Couchsurfing website, lives in Udaipur but owns an apartment in the city for his family and friends to stay when they visit, but when no one is visiting he let couchsurfers use it. We got to the apartment and it was great. It was so close to City Palace that we could throw a rock from our balcony and hit the surrounding wall, and it had a great view of Pichola lake. The apartment itself had one bedroom, a living room with an attached kitchen, and a bathroom with hot water. Basically, we were living first class FOR FREE
So we unpacked our stuff, showered, and went out to explore. Udaipur is beautiful, and people know it. There were tourists everywhere. I mean, I was actually uncomfortable by how many white people I was surrounded by, which was super weird. But due to all the white people, there are a lot of European styled cafes and coffee shops, which was great. We really just spent all day wondering around the city, walking into various temples, and taking pictures.
The City Palace over Lake Pichola
The guy who was hosting us on Couchsurf (I forgot/never knew his name) wanted to meet up with us for dinner at 7pm, so we wandered back to the apartment in time to watch the sunset over the lake and wait for him. Once our host and his friend showed up, I became uncomfortable very quickly. Contrary to what his Couchsurfing profile said, he bought this apartment for the single purpose of hosting couchsurfers. While that may sound harmless enough, and in all fairness it probably is, as it turns out he and his other 30-to-40-something-yr-old friends spend the majority of their free nights hanging out and dining with the various couchsurfers that come through, seemingly leaving their families to their own devices. That, coupled with my acquired distrust of Indian men, led me to be on not quite my best behavior.
Once again, thank god I was traveling with Maria. While I was busy reinforcing my guard with steel and barbed wire, she was being polite, talkative, and generally socially acceptable. I, however, kept my communications to one-word answers and made sure we were always surrounded by other people and always had an escape route. Because I am just that cool.
Unfortunately, midway through the meal Maria got up to use the restroom and never really returned. I did my best to be polite and keep up the conversation, but lets face it, small talk has never been my forte even in the best of situations. Eventually Maria came back, interrupting their conversation that happened to be entirely in Hindi, and announced that she had suddenly become very sick and needed to leave. I immediately ushered her back to the apartment, assuring our host that I would call him if we needed anything, and immediately locked the door behind us.
Did I over react to a seemingly imaginary threat? Absolutely. Would I do it again if the situation were to repeat itself? Absofuckinlutely.
The next day, Sunday I believe, we slept in and wandered out around noon. Maria was up sick most of the previous night, but she was feeling better after sleeping in and resting. We did some more exploring and ended up taking a tranquil boat ride on Lake Pichola. The sun was out and it was nice and hot, but on the boat we were under shade and had a nice breeze off the water. After walking around even more we ended the day by seeing a Rajasthani tribal dance performance (Maria is majoring in theatre/dance) and having dinner on a rooftop restaurant.
The sunset from Monsoon Palace
We spent our final day making purchases, exploring the City Palace, and going along with the general relaxing and lazy Udaipur vibe by hanging out in various coffee shops with wifi. We weren't scheduled to leave until 11pm that night, so our host and his friend offered to drive us up to Monsoon Palace, an abandoned palace some 15km away, to watch the sunset. By this time Maria and I had hashed out the situation, and while neither of us were totally comfortable with our host and his friend, we did agree that they were just trying to be friendly and hospitable. When we met up with them again, I swear, I really did try to be nice and make conversation, but again I am, and always will be me, so that didn't really work out. Eventually they asked Maria why I was "so rude," and she just laughed it off and told them I was just very introverted and not to take it personally. Oh well...
Our host's rickshaw-driver came back to pick us up, once again for free, and we waited for the train to come to whisk us away to Jaipur.
We pulled into Jaipur around 5:45am the next morning and waited for out next Couchsurfer host to come pick us up in his taxi. This time I actually know our host's name, Aslam, who was recommended to us by our friend Connor, who also stayed with him while he was in Jaipur over winter break. So Aslam picked us up and took us back to his house, where he lives with his wife, their daughter, his brother, his brother's wife (who, coincidentally, is his wife's sister), their daughter, and his parents.
Aslam and myself
This is actually a quite typical Indian family unit, but something neither Maria nor I had ever experienced. His family was also Muslim, which made for an interesting situation seeing as I also began my period that day, but everything was fine. His house was also quite typical of India; the ground floor was half a small shop and half his parent's room, the first floor was his family's room (which had the only bathroom) with his brother's family's room across the landing, the second floor was the kitchen and a balcony that served as the dining and living room, and the third floor was a rooftop terrace. In India houses cover very little square feet of ground space, but extend several stories up.
Once we got to his house and met his family we rested for about another hour, then got ready to go sightseeing with Aslam as our guide. He owns his own cab and offers free tours of Jaipur to his couchsurfer guests, which is so great. We left his house at 10 and went to go pick up a European couple who he had also booked for a tour. First we went to this huge tower thing in the middle of Jaipur's Old City. It had a great view of Jaipur, but all Jaipur is is just a typical city with a lot of sprawl. The next place was incredible, even though I had no idea what it was. Since then I've googled it and found out that the Gatore Ki Chhatriyan (where we were) was a royal cremation site for the area's rulers. Each ruler has a different monument, which makes sense since there were so many of them. Basically, it was just this random area, kind of in the middle of no where, where at least 10-15 different "monuments" and "temples"were all clumped together. However, each monument was absolutely beautiful. The carvings were incredible and so unbelievably intricate. We were some of the only people there, and its not listed in the Lonely Planet, so I think it must be fairly unknown by tourists, which was fine by me.
The cobras were unhappy, so I was unhappy
By this time it was still only 11am, so we drove to the Amber Fort, which I had been to last time I was in Jaipur. As we got out of the car some guy in a turban walked up to us, sat down, and started "cobra charming." He had two black, big cobras (obviously defanged) in a basket he was carrying around. This was actually the first time in India that I've seen cobras, wild or "tamed,"so it was kind of cool. I wasn't going to really pay him any attention since I didn't want to give him money or condone the way he was treating his snakes, but then the European girl we were with sat down so I did too. He let me hold one, and christ, those snakes were pissed. They kept hissing and spitting, what I'm assuming was spit, at the handler.
Once we walked up to the Amber Fort, I told Maria to go on ahead without me and sat myself down in the shade for a bit. I was exhausted. We'd had a late night of traveling and quite an early morning. After a bit I got up and walked around, to kind of reacquaint myself with the fort, but then I headed towards the exit. I actually "lol-ed" as I left because, in true American style, there was a Cafe Coffee Day in the fort at the exit. It truly was perfect and, of course, I immediately went in and got myself some water and an Americano, but still. For all the things that globalization ends up affecting, it would have to be incorporating corporate profit at the exit of a top tourist attraction.
Next was lunch, then letting the European couple take an elephant ride, then we stopped Aslam's "friend's" shop to look at blockprinted fabric, which Jaipur is famous for. Maybe this is silly, but last time I was in Jaipur I absolutely fell in love with the blockprint blankets and quilts they sell. Of course, at the time I was backpacking for 3mo and had no way to make such a large purchase, but I swore to myself that if I was ever back in Jaipur I would get myself one. So I did. We stayed in that shop for so long. I had to have looked at every piece of blockprint fabric they had but I finally settled on a beautiful blue, floral patterned one. Of course, nothing in my life is ever simple, and the fabric I chose had to be sent back to the makers to be made into a quilt and then shipped to me in Hyderabad, but I can't wait to have it.
So part of the great part about coming to Jaipur for Holi was the elephant festival that the city puts on every year the day before Holi. However, and quite typically, the night before the festival the whole thing was canceled. Allegedly, the elephant handlers wanted to be paid more since it was such a major tourist attraction for the city, but the government didn't want to pay them more. So then the handlers said they wouldn't "perform" if their pay wasn't increased, so then the government went ahead and canceled the festival. We were all very disappointed, but at least we were already in India and hadn't specifically gone to India to see this festival.
Finally we dropped off the Europeans and went back to Aslam's house. His daughter, who just turned 10, and his niece, who's maybe 7, were adorable so we spent a fair amount of time playing with them before and after dinner. Aslam's wife, Selma, was a fabulous cook and so so sweet. Her English wasn't great, but it didn't really matter. Before bed we were in their room watching tv and I was on the floor with my back against the bed reading. However, his daughter realized that my feet were pointed towards the wall, which was in the direction of Mecca. I quickly moved so my back was against the wall next to the bed and asked, "Is this ok?" Selma looked at me and said, "No," then grabbed a pillow put it behind my back and said, "Now ok."
Our Holi gang
The next day was Holi, India's festival of colors, which everyone was really looking forward to. Since Aslam's family is Mulsim they don't celebrate Holi, but he asked his friend, who is Hindu, if Maria and I could go and play with his family. I'd heard some "horror stories" about Holi from a girl who was here last fall, who was also here last spring, and she said that everyone gets incredibly drunk so she and her friends ended up getting groped and harassed and such, so as much as I wanted a  full Holi experience, I also didn't want to get molested. So Aslam took Maria and I to his friend's house and we "played" Holi with him, his wife, and his brother and children and such. His house was at the end of a dead end street and there were about 10 of us playing, so it didn't get out of control and we all had a lot of fun. What you don't really think about as being part of Holi is the after effects, like the stains. Since Indians have such dark skin and hair, they don't really get stained from the colors, but us whities, we get real colorful for real long. Mine and Maria's skin was dyed pink and purple for the rest of the day and we had a tough time getting it out. My hair became a dark purple (which I was very unhappy about) and Maria's hair is still several shades of purple. For the next few days everywhere we went people would look at us and ask, "Oh! You play Holi?" I let Maria reply for the both of us, lest they get a snarky come back.
After Holi we just went back to Aslam's house and hung out with his family until we needed to get to the train station. Our train to Agra didn't leave until 2am, but we got Aslam to drop us off around 11pm so he wouldn't be out too late. We had a really great time with him and his family and we're hoping to send them a "thank you" gift before we leave.
On Thursday, we got into Agra about 7am. We planned our trip to Agra around the full moon so we could see the Taj Mahal under the full moon, which, allegedly, is when its most beautiful. However, you have to buy the special "Full Moon Viewing" tickets at an office thats quite far away from the Taj area and even if you're there right when the office opens, at 10am, then you're not even guaranteed to get them. So we went ahead and got a hotel room for just the day (we left Agra that night/next morning at 2am) to leave our things and shower and we decided to not bother with the special tickets. To get the tickets, assuming that you actually got them, you had to pay another Rs.750, which is a bit pricey, and you had to get there at a specific time and only had 30min. We looked in the Lonely Planet and decided that instead we'd go to a park that was directly across the river from the Taj and watch the sunset from there and stay until the moon came. Luckily, this was a very smart decision.
We grabbed a quick coffee and breakfast at the hotel and began the 10min walk to the Agra Fort about 9am. Even though I'd been to both the Agra Fort and the Taj before, it was nearly four years ago and I was really looking forward to going back. The Agra Fort is really fascinating, or at least it is to me, probably since I've read so many books about the Mughals that lived there. I've heard other people say that they haven't been too impressed by it, and a good portion of it is restricted to public access, but I definitely still think it's worth a trip.
The Baby Taj
(I'm sure it has an actual name)
We were done with it by about 11am, so we grabbed a rickshaw and went to another mausoleum, one I had never been to, that's known as the Baby Taj. This mausoleum was built by Emperor Jahangir's favorite wife for her father (who was the Mughal treasurer and got caught embezzling a lot of money from the emperor). Later on it was this tomb that inspired the design that Emperor Shah Jahan built for his wife, which of course, is the Taj Mahal. This mausoleum was also incredibly beautiful and very well maintained. It wasn't as crowded as the fort, or the Taj, so we stayed there for quite a bit. Most of the designs are painted directly onto the marble, and its amazing to think that they've stayed so intact for the past several hundred years.
After this we got lunch at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Taj and then went on a quest for coffee and wifi. We hung out at a small cafe that had free wifi for a few hours, then meandered on over to the Taj. We planned to go to the Taj in the afternoon so we could maybe stay for sunset, although we later decided not to.
Security in India is so perfunctory. Most places have you walk through a metal detector before you enter, but every single person sets off the metal detector and no one is really bothered by it. The Taj had some pretty advanced security measures though, meaning that after you proceeded to walk through, and then set off, the metal detector everyone was herded into gender-designated lines to be briefly patted down and have their bags checked. I generally always carry my Swiss Army knife on my person and it never occurred to me that they would check bags, much less have restricted items, at the Taj. Not surprisingly, I was told that knives weren't allowed in the Taj, so I would either have to surrender my knife, go to another entrance (roughly 5km away) to get a locker for my things, or go back outside and ask a vendor to hold it for me.
Well none of those choices were particularly appealing, but after arguing with the guards for a few minutes it became clear that I wasn't going to be able to circumvent this little snafu. I handed Maria my bag and walked back outside, contemplating what to do. No way in hell was I going to surrender another pocket knife to security and I definitely didn't have any desire to walk to another entrance and then pay for a locker. I also highly doubted that I would be able to let a vendor "hold" my knife for me without having to compensate them with some rupees. Obviously, my only option was to sneak my knife back in hidden somewhere on my body. I was wearing a dress, so my underwear was a no go, so Gladys kindly lent a hand and I stuck it in my cleavage. Five minutes later I was back through security and Maria and I were walking towards the main gate.
The last time I was at the Taj we got there right when it opened at sunrise. This time it was about 3:30pm and it was hot and crowded, however, the majority of the tourists were Indians. As usual, the Taj was breathtakingly beautiful, but the crowds did prove a challenge when trying to take a picture with it, especially since Indians have this delightful tendency to not give a fuck if someone is clearly trying to aim a camera. But we got a few good ones and made our way up to the platform and inside to see the tombs.
Maria has come to describe this experience as similar to pushing cattle through a factory (again, she's from South Dakota). Guards are in front of the entrance, kind of getting people inside in an "orderly" fashion. However, once the line passes the guards all order goes out the window. The huge mass of crowd just pushes you through the circular surrounding of the tomb, which is blocked off by marble latices. The few guards that are actually in the tomb area were constantly blowing their whistles at various rule-breakers, but taking no further action to stop the violations. Taking pictures inside the tomb area is "strictly prohibited," but since everybody else was doing it, I quickly joined the mob mentality and started clicking away, elbows flying to get people out of my frame.
After departing from that trauma, we continued to walk around the Taj and take pictures and people watch. The day had been fairly cloudy and it was raining on and off, which was super weird having come from Hyderabad, so we went ahead and left to get a rickshaw to the gardens, where we planned to watch the sunset. Maria went ahead and got a cycle rickshaw, which is where someone is biking a little two-seater carriage. I knew it was kind of far away since we had to go a bit out of the way to get to the bridge that would get us over the river (we could've easily walked to the gardens if the river wasn't in the way), but the cycler agreed to take us so we got on in.
Predictably, it took quite a while to get there and by the time we arrived the garden was about to close. However, the cycler told us about a place a little way down the road where we could get the same view but without having to pay to get in the garden AND we wouldn't have a time limit. So we walked on down the road and settled ourselves in for sunset. After about 45min the sunset was complete, but it became quite apparent that the moon wasn't going to be making a showing. There were just too many clouds, which was disappointing, especially since we had such clear nights in Jaipur and Udaipur, but at least we didn't pay for the special full moon ticket. We went on back to the Taj area and got dinner and a beer at a rooftop restaurant with a fabulous view of the Taj (you couldn't really see it in the dark, but the outline was just visible), and then went on back to the hotel.
We were taking another 2am train, and this time we were headed back to Hyderabad, so the journey was nearly 30hrs, but we had a rickshaw coming to get us at 11pm to ensure that there would still be rickshaws actually running. We tidied up and I took a shower and Maria made friends with a hotel worker who, I swear, had the exact mannerisms and speech of Mr. Bean. It was strange and hilarious, although probably more so since we were both so sleep deprived.
Despite the hour of our departure, we were both ready to get back to Hyderabad. We'd had a great week, but traveling is exhausting. I think we were mostly just ready to get out of Agra, which is a disgusting city. You'd expect it to be more of a "backpacker" community considering the immense amount of backpacking traffic that comes through, but really its just filthy and loud and smelly. There's running, open sewage in the streets and the general vibe is almost hostile rather than accommodating. Really, there's no need to be in Agra for more than a day unless your sightseeing takes longer than that. By the time we left, both Maria and I had scratchy throats from the pollution and were blowing black stuff out our noses. I even wondered if rather than the sky being "cloudy" all day, if it was actually smog, although I really hope not.
In usual Indian fashion, the train got in around 2:30am rather than 2am and there was some sort of screw-up with the seating, so Maria and I ended up having to share a bunk for the trip. Thank god that we are both so small and were utterly exhausted. We were only able to fit on our little bed by having our feet in each other's face and by laying on our sides. However, we were both able to sleep for the majority of the ride, which just proves how positively worn out we both were.
We pulled into Hyderabad about 4:45am Saturday morning and stepped onto the platform, immediately engulfed by 90degree heat. Apparently, while we were gone the city got even hotter and reached over 100degrees every day. We got to Tagore by 6am, and even though I attempted to stay awake until breakfast, at 8am, I did not succeed. But I did make it to tea time at 4pm.
I've been pretty busy with school and stuff this week. I've been expecting two packages in the mail, one from my parents and the other from my friend Emily, but neither have made it here yet, despite being sent some weeks ago. Strangely enough, on Tuesday, April 2nd, I got a surprise package from Sybil and she had only sent it off a week earlier, on March 25th. I'd say I was surprised, but then I'd be lying.

Crying cow in Udaipur

Temple carving

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Sunset behind our apartment

Udaipur City Palace

Monsoon Palace
View from Monsoon Palace

City Palace at night

not thrilled with being a tourist in Jaipur

The crematorium thing in Jaipur


Wall painting in the Baby Taj

Stone inlay on the latice inside the Taj
Mumtaz's tomb

The Taj at sunset
The Taj at night from the rooftop restaurant