Saturday, May 12, 2012

Indian Wedding first experience

After almost 3 full days of celebrating a real Indian Wedding I feel like I have truly loved the whole experience.

Starting with the foundation established by a large family who really loves each other and built with a very rich culture on top, the wedding has been nothing short of fascinating.

Our first party was an unofficial family get together. Where the groom's family, who find themselves living all around the world, got together for the first time in many years to start catching up. This took place in a farm close to a beach, we took our time meeting each other over pizza and hanging out by (and in) the pool to fight off the heat, while the women in the party got henna tattoos done. That night the bride's family and friends joined us for a fun outside dinner of vegetarian Indian fare. Out of all the wedding celebrations this was the only one where alcohol was served, which as I'm told is very common in south Indian weddings, and completely different from their North Indian brethren. During this first dinner hosted by the groom and his family a lot of family celebrations were highlighted including multiple milestone birthdays of cousins, uncles and grandparents. I should highlight that most of the 40 people I met that morning were cousins of the groom. The celebration was full of funny family moments and a few emotional ones. It was a great introduction to the family we'd be sharing the next few days with.

The second morning there was a very early, solemn ceremony to which the groom recommended I skip since it was fairly long (3 hours approximately), and most of his family would also be skipping since it was completely in Sanskrit and the essence of it would be repeated throughout the next couple of days. So in true form for my family background I went shopping for clothes to wear over the next couple of days. I bought a traditional short sleeve Kortu to wear during the second night for the engagement ceremony and a long Kortu to wear for the main wedding ceremony during the third day.

Traditional South Indian wedding meal
As we arrived in the afternoon to the wedding venue we were welcomed with an "afternoon snack", which was delivered in the traditional South Indian wedding meal format of a bamboo leaf that was used as a plate and place setting and different tasty dishes served directly on top of it by the line of waiters that would keep refilling the dishes until one begged them to stop. The food consisted of some rice and/or noodles, naan (bread) surrounded by different sauces, chutneys or other fixings, which people used their hands to mix and eat. As this was my first time eating this way I was lucky to be handed a spoon to better enjoy my snack.

Welcoming the groom's carriage
During the second day in the afternoon the wedding officially began for us with the traditional engagement ceremony. During this ceremony the groom is welcomed into the wedding hall and in our case Karthik arrived on a horse driven carriage led by all his friends and family dancing in front of him to set the tone for the happy festivities.

Upon the groom's arrival into the wedding hall his bride-to-be is brought out and the go onto the stage together where the ceremony is to take place between the families and the hindu priests. The ceremony is steeped in traditions and there's a long list of activities that took place throughout, to set the stage for the wedding terms. This included gift exchanges between the groom and bride's families and it finished with the announcement of the wedding details including the precise date and time for the marriage ceremony to take place. In this case the time for the ceremony is very specifically defined by the astral charts of the couple, so this is different for every couple who weds.

After the traditional portion of the ceremony we were treated to a beautiful dance show that was put on by Karthik's sister and aunt who had trained for years in dance. As it turns out this was the first time they both danced together, in his aunt's case she hadn't done an actual dance show for 19 years, but the show was so great we couldn't tell.

At the end of the show we proceeded to eat another dinner served on a bamboo leaf, before heading back to our hotel to get a bit of rest, since the 3rd day of the wedding was scheduled to start very early for us in order for the ceremony to take place by the scheduled time...

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Day 4 - Tripping to Goa

Air-travel is never for the faint of heart or the impatient, is something that I've learned over my years of traveling for business, but that is more so when you're doing domestic travel in a country you don't understand the local language. When doing international travel the airlines and authorities try to make as much as possible understandable to foreigners. When traveling domestically there's a feeling that people who submit to it, do so at their own risk.

While I am thankful that English is fairly common in India, the domestic terminal contended with some craziness beyond the regular TSA craziness. For example, my chap stick and listerine pocket packs were submitted to serious scrutiny by the security guard (even using his metal detector wand on them), yet my water bottle and bananas made it through untouched... Awesome!

I flew on a company called Indigo, which is considered one of India's best low cost carriers, and I must admit that they had great service during the smooth 2 hour flight. One thing I'm kicking myself for was not snapping a picture of their job ad seeking stewardess. Politically correct snobs in the US would have had a heart attack at some of the requirements (could actually use less PC snobs, which is why I'm sad I forgot to get a picture of it).

The arrival into the Goa airport went very well, with the exception of the lack of cleans toilets around, which wouldn't have been an issue until I got on the shuttle to the hotel and was told by the driver it would take more than an hour to get to the hotel.

Hotel beach in Goa
The drive to the hotel, for me, was a mix of wanting the driver to speed up and hoping we wouldn't get into an accident. It's a common misconception that people in India drive on the left side of the road, but based on my experience they actually drive on BOTH sides of it while trying to pass other slower vehicles and cows on the road... To make matters scarier I was already warned that if I ever get into a traffic accident in India I should flee the scene immediately by any means necessary... I've been warned that any sort of accident normally develops into a full out riot where people's from the street end up beating up the offending party, even if they're only a passenger... So just in case my first task is to figure out how to escape the taxi or shuttle bus.

Patio outside my room
When I reached the Taj holiday village, I was very pleasantly received and checked into the hotel while sitting comfortably on a couch and sipping some watermelon juice. I was told about the extensive facilities in the resort (pools, beaches, restaurants and other great services) and shown to my nice sea facing room/cottage. The Taj in Delhi had communicated with them to let them know about my Delhi belly so throughout the stay most managers have inquired as to how I'm feeling and have tried to ensure the food I'm eating isn't going to upset my stomach.

By 10 pm I was so exhausted I was out like a light, since it was a very full day with all the travel... I also wanted to be ready to enjoy some of Goa on day 5.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Day 3 - Delhi belly crapped me out...

It's funny that I put on paper/blog form what my plans were for each of the segments of the trip, since I'm starting to feel that in hindsight it may not happen like that...

In the end on Tuesday my day went very different than what I had planned, instead of spending most of the day exploring Delhi and its sights, I ended up trying to recover from Delhi belly (also known as travelers diarrhea or moctezumas revenge) in bed. I guess I will never be 100% sure what caused it, but this being India, I'm sure there were a lot of possibilities.

While I won't go into details, I will say that I ended up having to cancel my guide and driver 30 mins. Before we were scheduled to leave because I scared the hell out of the club lounge stuff by looking very pale and ready to pass out. Which does bring me to my next recommendation. If you're going
to contract any sickness while traveling, there's no better place to do so than at a Taj property with a club floor access (ok, maybe home is a better place, but not for me... I don't have a butler at home). During the whole day, the club staff was checking in on me and they send me rehydration salt water, lemonade with salt and other concoctions to speed up my recovery. They even checked with the hotel doctor on ideal steps for me to feel better, since I had by then taken my antibiotics the doctor figured he wouldn't be needed as long as I fought the dehydration.

Overall, day 3 was pretty uneventful, since I just drank water and napped between trips to the bathroom...

I guess now I have a reason to go back to Delhi... To explore all those sights I missed.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Day 2 - Agra and the Taj Mahal

I have to start out by saying that I'm exhausted at this point. I've been awake since 4 am and I walked way too many hours in the sun already. To make matters worse I have at least 5 more hours to make it to the hotel where I plan to very quickly pass out.
With that out of the way, let me explain why I feel so tired. This morning I left the hotel early to board the train known as the Shatabdi Express that makes the daily trip from Delhi to Agra, leaving Delhi at 6 am. This option was recommended to me as the most efficient and fastest, which made sense so I took it. In an effort to control some of the chaos of the day I asked the hotel in Delhi to book me a driver and guide for the day.
After an interesting 2 hour train ride through the Indian countryside I arrived in Agra where I was met by my very nice driver called Bima. We drove to the local hotel to pick up our guide, Mr. Mayank. After picking Mayank up, we proceeded to draw up a plan for the day.

We would first go check out the Taj Mahal, then visit the Agra Fort followed by the baby Taj before stopping for lunch.
First, the Taj Mahal, a monument to love of a woman and love of perfection. The complex took 22 years to complete using thousands of skilled laborers and slaves. Even after 400 years the buildings look pristine thanks to the stone used in its construction. All of the paintings and designs on the rocks are inlaid stones, which make it keep it's color and design through the centuries. I was lucky to walk with Mayank around the site, since or only did he know a lot of interesting facts (the columns outside the main building are actually leaning out, this was done on purpose, in case for an earthquake they wouldn't fall on the main structure) about the place, but also had a lot of experience on what were the best points to take pictures from (will add some soon).
The Agra fort was the emperor's city. It housed him, his family, his armies and many of his cabinet. Currently only 25% is open to the public, since the rest is actually under use by the Indian Army as their barracks. The Agra fort also had its own market and square that served as a kings court to the people.

After a buffet lunch in a local hotel we'd go visit Akbar's tomb. At this point I need to now wait about 3 hours to be driven to the station so I can take the train back to Delhi. Arriving back in the hotel around 10:30 PM.

Let's be very candid and direct, Agra is a very dirty, messed up place. If not for the beautiful monuments it wouldn't make it on a map. But there is something inspiring and amazing about the buildings in this city. The scale of these projects challenges the mind to understand that these were created 400+ years ago, yet they look perfect in almost every way. All without PCs (or Macs)

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Delhi exploring - Day 1

After a great arrival into Delhi (see previous post), this morning kept that theme to the trip.

After pushing myself out of bed at 9:39 am, to ensure I took advantage of the hotel's included breakfast, I was able to set up with, the club concierge the schedule for my next few days of transport and activities in Delhi/Agra.

Since it was a "lazy Sunday" I decided to hang out by the pool for an hour before heading out on my initial exploration foray. After a relaxing morning by the pool I realized I was feeling hungry around 1 or 2 pm and after securing some info for the hotel I decided to go check out the Khan market close to the hotel by foot. Ironically enough I didn't make it 50 feet before falling for the great Indian hospitality of a rickshaw driver named Mohan, in the 100+ degree weather, he would save me the walk and show me around the city for a fraction of what I was ready to pay for a metro pass.

My first stop was Khan Chacha (after declining a hotel recommendation for a an Italian restaurant - after explaining to the concierge I didn't come all the way to India to eat Italian fare). My best description of Khan's is what I texted some friends familiar with Austin as "Rudy's in New Delhi". The place was nothing to look at, and the ordering process was very similar to Rudy's. Walk up to a board and order your meal. I had some grilled tika chicken and some mutton to accompany it with.

Mohan and his rickshaw
I was not surprised to find Mohan, my new found brother-from-a-different-mother, waiting for me where he dropped me off, a block from the restaurant. From that point on my real rickshaw tour of Delhi got started.

Mohan took me to the parliament house and prime minister's house, before heading over to the Delhi Gate. After visiting the Delhi gate I was taken to the rickshaw expected "store", that had a huge bounty of silk and trinket items. After the store we visited the Lodi Gardens and got to walk through Sikander Lodi's tomb before heading to a final "store", where I couldn't find a thing to buy and then dropping me off at my hotel again. Since it was relatively early I managed to get a few more hours of sitting by the pool before enjoying the cocktail hour at the hotel and going for an early dinner at one of the restaurants that Mohan suggested... After all, he IS my brother.

Delhi explorer arrival

In an attempt at mock vanity I will quote myself (unless I read this somewhere and forgot where):
"In order to find yourself, you must first get lost" - Mike Totah

Today when writing to family I said that in order to discover true 5 star service, everyone should visit India at least once in their life. On a friend's recommendation I booked a club level room at the Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi. The room included airport pickup amongst other things.

After a very nice long flight I landed in Delhi a bit tired, but in good shape considering that the trip took almost 24 hours and with the time difference I was truly lost in time. I was received outside customs by a very nice uniformed driver who took my suitcase, led me to the hotel's brand new jaguar sedan and gave me a bottle of water before very quickly driving me to the hotel. In my travels I've checked into many hotels all over the world, including supposedly "premier" service, but nothing like my reception at the Taj. When we arrived (after the regular bag examination via X-ray machine) I was received by a concierge who greeted me by name (the taxi driver posted the sign on his windshield after we passed through the gates) and then led me up to my room, where she proceeded to take me through the hotel amenities and had me check in, in my the comfort of my own room. Then she recommended some restaurants for dinner, and even got me a reservation to one of the great hotel restaurants for the same night, and when she found out I was on vacation went to get me several tour and site suggestions for my visit.

The ease and beauty of it all just made me feel very welcome to a great country.

I grant the point that this is not the regular traveler's fare and experience, but it was a very smooth arrival compared to the contrasting description I've received from multiple friends.

On an extra note, the dinner at Varq, the recommended restaurant, was wonderful, given my recent arrival and exhaustion level I decided to do a "tapas" style dinner of multiple appetizers that allowed me to try different local cuisine styles. Everything was delicious and left me wanting for more (though by the third dish I was full).

I will add pictures in the near future, but the menu consisted of grilled tandori-style prawns (grilled seafood), followed by tomato mozzarella samosas (vegetarian menu) and a chicken trio that included grilled chicken (tandori), chicken in creamed sauce and skewered chicken. As an extra surprise I also was given a Guava sorbet in a steaming cup. The sorbet is to cleanse the palate before the main dish, but by that point I couldn't eat anymore, so I took the sorbet as my desert and made a quick visit to the hotel bar for a Kingfisher beer before falling asleep in my room.

Friday, April 27, 2012

India bound

"Where are you going, sir?"
"Delhi in India"
"Oh, for business?"
"Nope, vacation"

I've been part of this or similar conversations for the past month or two since I started sharing my plans to visit India for the first time. As adventuresome as I'd like to believe I am, I wouldn't be making this trip without a bigger reason, which is that of a friend getting married in Chennai. So what better way to discover India and experience a local wedding on the same trip.

Luckily my job gives me enough airline miles that it made getting a decent plane ticket easy. And thanks from some other friends coaching me on destinations I settled on a quick 11 day itinerary to visit Delhi, Goa, and Chennai. Call it my version of eat, pray, love. But instead I'd call it explore, rest, celebrate. I will make that the theme for this trip and this blog post series.

On that note, off I go into the exploration phase. That as every big journey starts with one little step.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Media Mentions

Here are some of the press interviews I've had the opportunity to take part in for work over the past few months and years:

Force 10 Launch Interview in Argentina - April 2012

El Cronista, Argentina - March 2012

ComputerWorld Colombia - September 2011

AETecno in Chile - November 2011