Monthly Archives: February 2014

Seven Cities of Delhi

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The “Seven Cities of Delhi” program is an incredible opportunity to explore the history and old monuments in Delhi.  Each spring and fall semester, a group of about 40 expats enroll to take part in this program.  It is led by 2 volunteers who are expats themselves.  One has lived here for 10 years and has led the program for about 3 or 4 years now.

The history of Delhi is extensive.  When Delhi was conquered or taken over by a new ruler, the new ruler most often elected to build a new and better city in his new kingdom, thus the name “Seven Cities of Delhi.”. I had heard such great things about this program before even moving that I knew I wanted to have this experience and it has not disappointed me at all.

The two leaders of the group, Hazel and Olaf, both from different European countries, assign each individual to a group of 4 persons.  Your group then has the task to create a tour based on your area and lead the group on it.  There are 10 tours, with some of the bigger cities given more than one week to cover their size.  To date, there have been 4 tours given, on Wednesday mornings, and my group just completed giving our tour this past Wednesday.

Our first tour was of Qutb Minor.  We got to see the minors that were built to celebrate victories by Mughal Emperors and mosques that dated back to the 1100’s.  We also saw “Smith’s Folly” that was built to replace the original Cupola on the Minor in 1828.

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Qutb Minor

Our second tour was of Tughlaqabad.  The Tughlaq Dynasty went from 1320-1413.  Much of the historic site is just ruins.  We toured areas where some of the rulers’ palace was, the mosque, the grinders and different storage rooms.  Of course with every ruler here in India, I am learning that a tomb must be somewhere, so we also saw the well preserved tomb off one of the leaders, Ghiyasuddin.

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These are pictures from Tughlaqabad.  In the picture below the building at the top with the white dome, is the tomb that is still well preserved and maintained.

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Our third tour took us to Haus Khaz where some of the Tughlaq Dynasty ruled.  We toured an area where there are remains of a mosque and a madras which was one of the foremost institutions of Muslim learning for students all over the world.  And of course, another tomb built by the ruler himself, which was what usually happened.

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These are pictures from Haus Khaz

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My group’s tour was not of a political leader, but of a religious leader, Hazrat Nizamuddin, who outlasted 3 dynasties and 7 rulers in India.  Our tour was unique in that instead of it just being ruins where forgotten people are buried, it is a very living area where thousands of people still visit every week.  There is an active mosque built in 1325 for Muslims and then there is the shrine of the Sufi saint, Nizamuddin himself where people come and pray to him for help in their life.  The area is lined with beggars as the caretakers of the area feed the homeless three times a week still.  Nizamuddin’s legacy was one where he cared for the poor people deeply and often couldn’t eat much himself as he saw all the hunger around him.

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The shrine of Nizamuddin

We were able to coordinate having one of the descendants of Nizamuddin arrange some Qawaali singers to perform for us, as well as allow us in one of the wings of the mosque to give history of the area.

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Just outside the side of the mosque where we presented some history.

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The Qawaali musicians that played and sang songs for us in the courtyard of the Dargah.

My group consisted of myself, Anna from Sweden, Hiromi from Japan and Sumali who was born in India but has lived all over the world and is married to an American.  Our group would meet together at least twice a week and visited the site three times prior to our tour to plan it.  I felt like I took on a part-time job getting it all ready but it was so interesting to study the history of that area and get to know these other women better.  I am so grateful I have had this opportunity.

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My group — Me, Anna, Sumali, Hiromi and a guest speaker we had come that lives in the Nizamuddin village.

Now that our tour is over, we just get to show up every Wednesday to enjoy the six remaining tours.  The group giving the tour must also plan a place for lunch following the tour so it is a great opportunity to get to know other expats from all over the world.  It is also giving me a chance to understand what all these monuments are as I drive around Delhi and look beyond the chaos of today and understand the history of this fascinating area.

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The Beautiful Taj Mahal

On Monday, February 17, the American Embassy School was a teacher planning day so we took advantage of the beautiful weather and the day off to finally visit the Taj Mahal in Agra.  Let me just say that it is a truly beautiful monument.  It was the perfect day to visit — not many people, blue skies and a great temperature.

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We had arranged to meet a tour guide at the Taj Mahal that a friend had referred to us.  He has lived in Agra his whole life and spent his childhood days riding bicycles around the grounds of the Taj Mahal as it has not been that many years since they have placed entrance gates, security, barriers to enter the grounds.  I want to just share a few interesting facts that we learned from our experience:

  • The Taj Mahal is dedicated to Mumtaz Mahal, one of three wives of Shah Jahan who built it.  She died giving birth to their 14th child, although only 6 children survived to become adults.  Of the three wives, she was the only one to bear children and he truly loved her the most.  The other two wives are buried in small monuments outside the grounds of the Taj Mahal.
  • It took 22 years to complete construction and was finished in 1653.  1,000 elephants were employed to help with transportation for construction materials and 20,000 workers were employed there.  Some of the descendants of these workers still live and work there in Agra in the family homes near the Taj doing the same type of specialty work — marble carvings, precious stone work, etc.
  • The Taj is constructed of white marble and has precious stones laid throughout the marble.  No pictures are allowed inside the tomb, but it is truly inside the building that the greatest work is displayed.  Our tour guide had a small flashlight that he held up against the stones, and one of the orange stones that they used glows in the light.  Each flower petal in the designs inside the tomb have many stones cut to create just one petal.  Outside, the stone work is not nearly as intricate.  I hope I get a chance sometime to visit the Taj at moonlight to see how the marble glows and some of these stones in the light of the moon.  I have heard it is impressive.

V__6E4FThis is a sample of the stones placed in the white marble on the outside of the Taj Mahal.

  • The Taj is purely symmetrical.  When you stand in the large gate you enter to get on the grounds surrounding the Taj, the open archway you walk through shows exactly how symmetrical everything was in the building.  There is a mosque on the left of the Taj Mahal that is still functioning.  Thus, the reason it is closed on Fridays, for their holy day of worship.  But there is also another identical mosque built on the right side of the Taj but it is not used because it is not facing the correct way to Mecca for worship.  Shah Jahan knew this but wanted it built anyways for the symmetry.  It stands along the banks of the River Yamina.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the gate we entered to get on the grounds of the Taj Mahal.  One of our drivers, Kanwar, is pictured with our family.  He had never been to the Taj Mahal before so joined us on the tour.

  • Across from the Taj, is a very large fort which is impressive.  One of Shah Jahan’s sons wanted the power of the kingdom, therefore killed his brothers and imprisoned his father.  It was in this fort that Shah Jahan was imprisoned for the remainder of his days.  His one request to his son was to please imprison him somewhere that he could view the Taj Mahal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOf course after seeing and hearing the story of the Taj Mahal, my children asked Tyler, “what type of memorial are you planning for mom?”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur guide knew just the perfect spots to take all the right pictures.  We thought we were just hiring a tour guide but got a great photographer as well.

So, now that you know some of the facts of one of the architectural wonders of the world, we can share the most humorous part of the day for sure — the journey to and from the Taj Mahal.  Agra is a little over 200 kilometers from New Delhi.  We decided to drive it instead of take the train.  In the future, the train is definitely the way that we will travel there.  We ended up taking both of our drivers with us in one car, as our more experienced driver felt it would be good for various reasons.  We left around 7:20 a.m. and as we started our journey, and after going through several small towns, Tyler finally spoke up to Ashok and said, “aren’t we taking the expressway?”  Ashok explained that no, that road is no good because there are too many accidents on it.  Well, after many “cow jams” on the road and several pot holes, Thomas throwing up out the window (yes, Thomas again!) and very slow going, we explained to our driver that we were taking the expressway on the way back.  When our tour guide heard that we had not taken the expressway, he was very surprised.  It took us a little over 4 hours to get to Agra.

The expressway is the closest thing I have seen here that is like an American freeway.  It has a toll of about $5.  Our driver was nervous about taking it, saying that the tires have to be new otherwise with the speed there are a lot of blown tires causing accidents.  As we passed through the toll booth there were signs indicating that high speeds cause tire blowouts on poor tires.  Okay, so we have fairly new tires on our car, and we did not worry a bit about driving 100 kilometers an hour on this open, smooth expressway.  But our driver was worried and did not even go the full speed he could have due to fear of tires exploding.  The road was smooth, fast, and nearly empty.  We loved it and it even cut our travel time by about an hour!  We will laugh about this for years to come as all five of us were crammed in the back with our two drivers deciding that the slow drive through every little town to Agra was a safer route than getting on the new expressway.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADespite the grumblings of spending the majority of the day off in a car, Conner decided it was “pretty cool.”

Soccer in Dubai by Conner

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This is my team at the tournament.  I am on the back row far right.  Yes, notice the Mohawk I got cut just for the tournament.

On Wednesday, February 5, 2014, I traveled from New Delhi to Dubai with my high school soccer team to participate in the MESAC soccer tournament.  Sports at the International schools are different from the United States.  The sport seasons are much shorter.  Practices started for the soccer team in November and the team was decided in December.  Since there are few options to compete nearby, we played a few games on Fridays and Saturdays against some Indian teams (one team was well into their mid twenties) and then six international schools come together at the end of the season to compete in a round robin tournament.  The schools that participate come from New Delhi, Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Muscat.

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When the international schools travel to these other schools for the tournaments, we stay at “host families” of one of the players from that area.  Myself and one other teammate stayed with a student in Dubai who was from Egypt.  We had one evening free where this family took us to the Emirates Mall which has a two-run ski slope inside it.  I told my mom it would take someone a week to discover everything that was in that mall.  In return, our family gets to host two international students coming from Doha this coming weekend for the cross country tournament that our school is hosting.  I also got to visit the tallest building in the world with my team.  It is amazing!

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Dubai would definitely be a fun place for our family to visit for a weekend while we are so close here.  It was a 4 hour plane flight.  It is very different from New Delhi.  I saw lots of nice cars on the roads, the city was clean, and I could enjoy some beef while I was there.  It was an exhausting, but very fun weekend.  I would say that getting an experience like this is one of the benefits of this India experience.

Adventures at Ranthambore by Hailey

On Wednesday, February 5, 2014, the fifth graders at my school got to leave the classroom and head to the Ranthambore Tiger Preserve.  We departed school around lunch time and started our adventure with a 7 hour train ride.  Our school had 2 large train compartments reserved for all of the students so we didn’t have anyone we didn’t know come on.  Our teachers gave us 45 minutes of our time, which means we could go see friends who aren’t right next to us.  Then we had 45 minutes of teacher time, which means we had to do something silently in our assigned seats.

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This is on the train ride with a few of my friends.

On Thursday (day 1), we had breakfast and went off to the fort! The fort is an old palace where a king lived a long time ago.  This “palace” doesn’t have a grand hall or anything.  The “palace” has open walkways with seperate, small buildings. There were lots of monkeys at the fort and let’s just say I have developed a new fear of monkeys because they are so scary.

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The guide told us that there was only one side of the fort that the enemy could attack. There were lots of temples on the fort grounds for many religions.

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After the fort we had a quick lunch and went off on our first safari.

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We drove around in a cantor (pictured above) which was not very fun with the wind.  There was a lot of wildlife to see.  Even though we did not see a tiger on the first safari, it was really cool.  The next morning at 6:00 a.m. we headed out on our second safari.  It was freezing!  We saw lots of wildlife on this safari as well.  A little over halfway through the safari, we finally got to see a tiger!

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We followed the tiger around for a while and he came real close to our cantor but he just carried on his normal business around the cantors.  The tiger we saw was named Sultan.  He is a well known tiger on the preserve and his father is REALLY big, but Sultan is an average sized tiger.  He is about 2 1/2 years old which is about 19 years in tiger years.  If you go to a zoo and see a tiger it is not the same experience as seeing it out in the wild.  Sultan was really beautiful!

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Tigers are poached a lot for their skin and also in China they believe that the tiger’s bones and blood have magical healing powers.  In the US, they have studied this and found nothing that proves there is anything magical in them.  Probably the most famous tigress in the world, Muchli, went missing for a few days on the preserve and so people assumed that she was either dead from natural causes or the poachers but a recent tour group saw her and she is still alive.  Some people think that a famous tiger or tigress would be sold for more money if they were poached but really poachers don’t care if it’s a famous tiger or not, because they get the same amount of money for them.  Deaths of tigers do not go in vain because there are a lot of people in India and around the world who want to help save the tigers.

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You can tell that camouflage is a big thing at Ranthambore.  Try to find the baby crocodile in the above picture I took.

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Deer is one of the tiger’s favorite food sources.

We left Ranthambore on Friday evening and took an overnight train home to Delhi.  I arrived at the school at 6:30 a.m. ready to go home and sleep a little more.  It was an experience that I will never forget!

The Indian Toilet

The Indian people call our toilet a “western toilet” — one where you can properly sit.  Well the Indian toilet is a bit different.  A “squat” position is necessary to take care of business with the Indian toilet.  If traveling around India, it is one of those dreaded things to encounter as a westerner.

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This is the toilet that our drivers and guards use that is in the back of our building complex.

Let me explain how it works:

  1. Pour a little water down the hole before you begin  It helps with the cleanup afterwards.
  2. Place both feet firmly on the grated section of the toilet.
  3. Squat over the hole.
  4. There is no toilet paper.  A water hose or bucket is usually nearby to help with the cleaning process.  According to what I have read about the process, it is claimed that using the water is much more sanitary than using toilet paper.
  5. This toilet has a flushing handle available.  In some toilets, it is just the hose you use to spray the remains down the hole.
  6. If you are lucky, you might find a sink to rinse your hands, but I have yet to see one with soap and towels available.

Up until this point, I have been fortunate enough to not have to use one, but I have had to help Hailey use one when we were at Nai Disha a few months back.  She and I had a really good laugh at it and I wonder how either of us would really ever be able to do it without someone to help us steady our self during the “squat”.  It was an experience that Hailey does not look forward to ever having to repeat.  Fortunately, I had a few tissues that helped with the cleanup.

Sanitation facilities are a huge issue here in India.  That became evident to us the first hour after arrival as we drove from the airport.  According to a government census done a couple of years ago, nearly half of India’s households do not have a toilet.  It is not that they do not want to have a toilet, it is merely that there are no sewer pipes available to install the toilets.  India does not have many sewage treatment plants (of the 7,935 towns in India, only 162 have sewage treatment plants, according to WHO) and they lack the infrastructure to make it possible for more toilets to be placed.  To put it in perspective, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) two years ago, 53% of Indians have mobile phones but only 46% have toilet facilities.  As you drive past slum housing, you can see the satellite dishes all over the tops of these areas, but they lack sanitation facilities.

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This was taken while driving home from school in the car.  It is such a commonplace thing to see, someone relieving themselves, but one that I will never get used to.

So what does an Indian do if there is no toilet option?  Well for the millions (estimated 625 million to be exact according to WHO), open areas are the only toilet option.  Thus the reason that every road you drive down, you see a man urinating.  It is a constant reminder of the lack of sanitation facilities here in India.  I recently read an article in the newspaper here about how the lack of public facilities for women is even greater.  According to the article, Delhi has 4,000 odd public toilets, but less than 350 were for women.  Now, I don’t know about you, but for me it’s always the women’s restrooms that have the line coming out the door.  I would have thought it would have been a little more even in numbers.

There are some great non-profit organizations that continue to work in bringing toilet facilities to so many people here.  Until you have visited here, to understand just the pure numbers of people that live here is hard to comprehend but what better thing to provide to a community than sanitary waste facilities.  The amount of health issues that arrive from this, must be very large.

As for me, I am dreading the day that I do need to use that “squat” toilet.  I prefer the “western toilet” by far, including the toilet paper, soap and water that accompany it.