Thursday, 29 May 2014

Last Day!!

Apologies for the delay in posting this! I had very limited access to internet during my last week in India.


Thursday, May 22nd 2014

Hello Readers!

I’m sad to say that this is the last blog post for the SWE Overseas 2014 trip! L

Our day began with a quick breakfast at our hotel in Delhi (Colonel’s Retreat). We then travelled to the Jama Masjid  -  a famous mosque in ‘old’ Delhi built by the same Mughal Emperor who built the Taj Mahal (Shah Jahan). We were required to leave our shoes outside and wear funny looking housecoats (these are required for all women visiting the mosque). Here’s a group picture of us in our housecoats:

Standing in front of Jama Masjid in our housecoats.
The mosque gave us a very good view of the Red Fort (which our guide had decided against visiting considering how we had been to 2 forts already).

View of Red Fort from Jama Masjid

Perhaps the highlight of our day today was the ‘cycle rikshaw’ tour that we took around some streets of old Delhi. A cycle rikshaw is a small 2-seater cart that is pulled along by cycler. This tour was a perfect way to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the city, firsthand. Riding through iconic the streets of iconic areas like Chandni Chowk and Delhi 6 was almost surreal. India has mastered the small business model, and this was evident in our cycle tour, as the streets were lined with small stores one after the other (sometimes so small that barely one adult can fit inside). As Naru (our guide) said, these shops may look small, however they make huge profits everyday. Here's a video of the cycle tour for you to enjoy:

video

After the cycle rikshaw tour, we headed to Gandhi Smriti – a house in the British colonial area of Delhi in which Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. The house originally belonged to the Birla family (a very prominent business family of India), but was handed over to the government soon after Gandhi’s assassination, to be turned into a museum. The museum had a photo gallery of Gandhi and his life which explained his philosophy and chronicled the last 48 hours before his assassination. 

By the end of our visit to the museum, we were ready to eat! So, we took a short bus tour around the government buildings of New Delhi (since it is the capital of the country). We were able to see the President and Vice President’s houses, as well as the Prime Minister’s office. We were also able to take a short photo break at the India Gate. The India Gate is a war memorial for all of the Indian soldiers that have fought in various wars. 

Our very last stop on the bus tour was the Lotus Temple. The Lotus Temple is a temple of worship for those of the Bahai Faith. The temple was built in the 80s and was beautifully constructed as a lotus in the middle of water (by adding pools around the temple). The interior of the temple is very simple with rows of seats in which visitors can sit and pray. 
India Gate
Lotus Temple
After the bus tour, we headed to our last meal as a group L - albeit a very good one! By the time we finished lunch it was time to return to the hotel so that we all had time to get ready for our flights. I had to leave the group early, as I am continuing my travels to Bangalore (my home town) - I miss the group already! 

SWE Overseas 2014 has been an outstanding experience through every step of organization, planning and finally travelling these last 2 weeks in India. Conducting the STEM Camp was a very fulfilling experience, and I’m excited to see how the camp will develop in the future. The camp and our travels in the second week gave us a chance to appreciate the perspective of those from a developing nation such as India - be it on education, food, art, etc. We also experienced the duality and contradictions that is so characteristic of India.

And with that, the tale of SWE Overseas 2014 comes to an end. However, not to worry, we'll be back! :) Till then, happy travels!

P.S: As per popular demand, please find elephant pictures below :-) 



Elephant pictures!!

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Taj Mahal!

Hello blog readers! Only one more post left before we return to the U.S.! Today we woke up very early (before 5 am) to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It was very beautiful and we were glad we went to see it so early as there were much fewer tourists.
The Taj was built by Shah Jahan, the same man who added the white marble to the Red Fort. It was built for his favorite wife when she died suddenly at the age of 39. They had married out of love, whereas his previous two marriages had been arranged. She had 14 of his children, but only 7 of them survived. It is likely that her death was due to complications during childbirth. It is said that on her deathbed she asked her husband to make the world aware of their amazing love, and thus he build the Taj Mahal. Both husband and wife are buried there, the tombs that you see when you visit are decorative. The actual tombs are in a secret chamber to prevent their bodies from being plundered if the city was conquered.
We took a horse and buggy ride on the way back from the Taj Mahal. Natalie even got to drive the horse! We returned to the hotel for breakfast and saw a woman we had befriended at the hotel named Mary. She is from Cornwall and visited the Taj at the same time we did. She was very a sweet, old lady and enjoyed hearing about our adventures. We wish her a safe trip back to England today!
At this point we began our 5 hour drive to Delhi. Our drive was uneventful, but as soon as we arrived in Delhi we stopped at Akshardam, the largest contemporary Hindu temple. It was built in 2005 with strict adherence to Hindu architectural principles, the first temple built this way in centuries. It took 7,000 artisans only 5 years to build the temple and the beautiful sculptures and carvings. Jackie was excited to see that the temple had a peacock gate with hundreds of peacocks carved into the stone.
Nearly 70% of tourists who visit Delhi also visit this temple. No photos were allowed, so unfortunately we don’t have pictures within the temple. However the memory of the very thorough frisking we each experienced in order to enter the temple will be engrained in our minds forever.
Once we were settled in the hotel we watched a Bollywood movie, Jodhaa Akbar. Akbar built the Red Fort in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri which we saw on our trip. The story involved Akbar’s marriage to one of his wives and the consolidation of Hindustan. Their marriage was arrange to form an alliance between the Mughals and another ruler, Jodhaa’s father. Akbar was Muslim and Jodhaa was Hindu, however, Akbar did not force Jodhaa to convert and ever built her a small temple within her palace. As the movie progresses he slowly wins over her love and also all of Hindustan. The movie was a little cheesy and we all enjoyed commenting on the hilarious special effects, including people getting stepped on by war elephants.

Tomorrow we will be exploring the many sights of Delhi and heading home at midnight! Stay tuned for our final blog post by our fearless leader, Shobhita.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Day 13: From Jaipur to Agra

Hello, dear readers. Today was another travel day, and now we are safely located in Agra. We left our palace in Jaipur with heavy hearts, but Agra is a new city to be discovered. Agra is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is the largest state by population with 200 million people.

As the trip is about 5 hours by bus, we broke it up by stopping at a palace called Fatehpur Sikri. The palace is a remnant of the Mughal Empire, and was built by Emperor Akbar in the 1500s. The name of the palace shows a combination of influences. “Fateh” is Arabic for “victory,” and “pur” and “sikri” are Hindi for “city” and “mountain,” respectively.

Today was a hot day to be walking around a palace around noon. Our high was 42 C, which is about 107 F. We all made sure to layer on the sunscreen and drink lots of water. The path we walked was dictated almost entirely by the shadows we could stand in. But despite the heat, we were able to see a pretty spectacular palace.

The Hall of Private Audiences
Emperor Akbar was a fairly open-minded guy, so although he was the emperor of a Muslim empire, he was not strict about the influences on his palace. The architecture is a blend of Muslim and Hindu styles. Additionally, he regularly hosted religious debates in his Hall of Private Audiences. The Hall had two levels; on the upper level sat all those who were invited to speak in the debates, with the emperor seated above the center column. The lower level would fill with anyone who wanted to listen, but who were not invited to speak. One of the emperor’s three wives was also Hindu, and she was allowed to practice her religion in the palace.
Inside the Hall of Private Audiences

Next to the palace is a mausoleum and mosque. The walk over and back was treacherous. The entire way we were surrounded by street vendors, shoving their wares in our faces and following us down the road. Even within the courtyard of the mosque, there were blankets set up with all sorts of knick-knacks to be sold. It’s sometimes difficult to focus on what you’re looking at when you’re strategically trying to avoid a vendor.

When you wish upon a mausoleum...?
The mausoleum was a white marble building with a lumpy bed inside, covered in lots of colorful blankets. I could not make up my mind about what I thought might be underneath. When we went inside, we were asked if we wanted to make a wish. Several of us were given red thread, and the wishes were received when one ties the thread with three knots around the marble screen on the side of the mausoleum. We’ll see if they come true.

After another hour drive, we finally made it to Agra, and headed directly for the Red Fort. This fort was also held by the Mughals, and it was built in red sandstone, which give it its name. The fort was less for an army and more for the royal family. The Red Fort gives a clear view of the Taj Mahal, which we will visit tomorrow. The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan, and this man was also responsible for the additions to the fort in white marble. As we were walking through the red sandstone buildings, we ducked through this small, low door, and suddenly all of the buildings were white.
"Prison"
Near the end of his life, Shah Jahan was actually held captive by one of his sons, who wanted the power of the throne. He was kept in his private quarters in the castle, with the best view of the Taj Mahal in the entire fort. His quarters were elaborately decorated, with precious stones inlayed into the white marble. They even used petrified wood to create the decoration. He lived there for 8 years until his death, at which time a boat carried his body from the fort to the Taj Mahal to be buried with his wife.

This fort also originally housed the famous Peacock Throne, which was allegedly captured by the British when they seized the fort, and has never been returned to India.

After a really long, hot day, we relaxed in the hotel and are headed to bed early. We leave tomorrow at 5:15 am to catch the sunrise at the Taj Mahal!
First glimpse of the Taj Mahal
The Red Fort

Monday, 19 May 2014

Jaipur Journey Day 2!

Hi all!

Today was the second and final day of our journey through Jaipur! It was a JAM-PACKED day with plenty of water bottles, walking and most of all— fun! We realized it was going to be a busy day, but after a great night’s sleep and a solid breakfast, we set off for another adventure.

We started the day with a tour through the City Palace led by our dashing tour-guide Naru. Viewing the sweeping arches, beautiful adornments on doorways, and the grand throne room of the Maharaja and Maharina, it is very hard to imagine actual people once living inside palaces of such grandeur. We got to view the royal family’s old clothing, weapons, and portraits, but to me (and perhaps the rest of the group), they still don’t seem real. Still, the royal family actually inhabits part of the palace. We visited the courtyard of their private residence inside the palace grounds, but unfortunately we weren't graced with any royal sightings.

After the City Palace, we took a trip back to the Amber City and visited the Amber Fort. To reach the fort we took a harrowing drive in our tour bus through a winding mountain road. Once we reached the fort we were greeted by monkeys, red walls, and amazing views of the surrounding valleys. About 40 minutes and like 200 pictures later (50 rupee charge per camera still did not discourage us!), we left the fort and took an equally exciting and terrifying journey down the narrow, one-lane, twisty mountain road.


Goofing around within the Amber Fort walls

For lunch we stopped by CafĂ© Coffee Day, a less expensive and quicker version of Starbucks. Afterwards, we quickly visited a block print textile factory. Natalie was able to use her expert artistic skills and fists to help the factory owner stamp a lovely block elephant in 4 different colors for an adorable personalized handkerchief. The group then took to the market to try our hand at bargaining and shopping once again. I must say, with more experience and a mean stink eye, I feel much more confident with my bargaining skills now. From what I’ve heard from the rest of the group, other people have also been exercising their new-found bargaining skills and buying some killer souvenirs as well.

After the hottest part of the day, we then took a walking tour through the artisan and less-tourist populated markets of Jaipur. We had very informational tour guides who educated us on the culture, economics, and history behind the creation of the scarves, jewelry, textiles, and handicrafts that make this city so famous. For instance, we got to see a metal-worker sandcast golden pendants, visited street sweet shops, and had a 20 minute tea break with a very skilled Meena Kari (enameled art) artisan in his house and studio. We walked through crowded markets that were frequented more by Jaipur natives and local residents, rather than the more commercial markets that cater to travelers and tourists. It was a really cool chance to see what happens behind the scenes to create some of the beautiful goods provided in the city.



Examples of some of the goods and the atmosphere of our Jaipur walking tour

The day ended with another delicious and laugh-filled dinner at Niro. But the day didn’t actually end there—when we got back to the hotel, we had a Henna artist make beautiful henna creations on everybody’s hands and feet.

Tomorrow morning it is on to Agra to complete the second leg of our Golden Triangle trip!

Until next time,

Megan 

First day in Jaipur!

Hello Blog Readers!

Today was our first day of sightseeing in the “pink city”, Jaipur. Our day started off on a long drive to the Amber Palace passing the old city section of Jaipur on the way. The old city was the second capital of Jaipur and is the section that is painted “pink”, a terracotta red color. Our destination, Amber Palace and Fort is situated in a protected valley was the first capital. To travel up the steep hills to Amber Palace a ride on elephants was required! This was THE day we had all been waiting for in our lives. The elephants were amazing and skilled - one elephant picked up money when thrown on the ground, while another gave its passengers a quick shower (by picking up water from the lake with its trunk). 
Elephants waiting for passengers


Amber Palace

The palace was huge with multiple sections including the royal apartments. There were 12 sets of apartments for the 12 wives of the Maharaja (King), each with a secret staircase directly to the maharaja’s own apartment. Clearly, the Maharaja knew how to manage his own household as well as his kingdom. ;).




Amber Palace

Amber Palace


On the drive back, we made two stops. The first was at a Hindu temple that was devoted to the Lord Krishna. The second was at a lake. In the middle of the lake was a summer house of the royal family that was accessible only by boat. We thought about striking it out by swimming to the house….somehow the idea was rejected.
Summer house on the lake

Our next destination was the Prince Albert Museum, where our group was turned into the museum display. Sitting at the exit, we could not have been more conspicuous. There was many requests for pictures, especially with our tallest girls, Natalie and Emily. There were many pictures taken without permission and lots of gawking to last a lifetime. Some awkward hugs and many pictures later, we decided that the best way to counteract the attention was to whip out our cameras and start taking pictures of those taking pictures of us. Whatever the local people thought, we thought our strategy was hilarious.
Our Paparazzi
Awkward hugs

Shopping

After Mumbai, this was our first chance to shop for jewelry, clothes, textiles and handicrafts in a city famous for such things. Clearly being a group of foreigners, we attracted some funny interactions.

Natalie went to jail?....for eating a chicken?

The conversation went like this with a shop owner who, no surprises, asked Natalie about her height.
“How did you get so tall?”
“I ate a lot of chicken.” (Natalie not really knowing how to answer this question)
“Did you go to jail?” he asked. However, Natalie heard “Did you go the gym?”
“Yes, I guess.”

A little bit later, Natalie realized she had said yes to the wrong thing.
The shop owner was very insistent that Natalie did in fact go to jail for killing a chicken, not listening to her multiple attempts to clear up the misconception.

Aggressive Bargaining

Throughout our two hour shopping trip, two of our group emerged to be an aggressive and intimidating pair. Ariana and I have this same thought process and technique, which involved yelling at the shop owners so much that they have to give in. and using illogical reasoning to addle their brains. I also realized that being Indian, if they realized that I wasn’t a foreigner, I would get cheaper prices. This led to inventing some Indian alter egos and if the shop owners compared all the stories I told, not 10% would match up.  The plan for the next day was for Ariana to bargain in a Russian accent as Svetlana.

Thus, our day came to end over a good meal with an even busier day in Jaipur to look forward to tomorrow.



Saturday, 17 May 2014

Jaipur!

Hello blog readers!

Today was a travel day, with a six hour drive from Walchandnagar to Mumbai followed by a very short flight to Jaipur.

Random events of traveling:
Our driver got pulled over for a random security check.
Shobhita and Aditi tried to kill Jackie by keeping her in a hot car.
Aggressive driving is a way of life and road lanes are for the weak.
Car horns have a language.
Our plane was pumped full of some gas. We couldn't tell if it was some sort of air conditioning or just weird gas, but it was freaky. Jackie may have tried to convince us we were going to die and Shobhita wanted us to play dead so they would stop. It turned out to be condensing air, but it made the entire cabin look like it was filled with fog.

All in all, we made it safely to Jaipur. We were picked up by the Enchanting India tour guides and taken to the hotel. The hotel is actually an old palace that the family has turned into a hotel. It may be the most beautiful place I have ever stayed. The rooms are old world luxury with pillars and themes that make us feel like princesses. We ate a candlelit dinner on the roof tonight with an amazing view of the new city. Tomorrow we are taking a tour of the old city (the pink city!) and will see some palaces and visit the bazaars. We also had a surprise from the tour guides. WE GET TO RIDE ELEPHANTS. Apparently the only way to get to the palace is to take elephants up a mountain. The look on our faces was priceless. Natalie may have had a mini heart attack due to pure joy.

Till tomorrow!

Sarah Bonhard

Friday, 16 May 2014

Last Day of Summer Camp!

Hello blog readers!

Today was (sadly) the last day of camp in Walchandnagar.  The activity students completed today was building solar cars.  We taught the students a bit about sustainability, renewable energy, how to build the solar cars, and how to take data and analyze it.  Everyone seemed to really enjoy it, especially racing the cars at the end of the day.

I think my favorite part of the day is lunch time, because we get to sit and chat with the kids and they are super social and always ask us random questions.  I also learned how to introduce myself in Marathi! To say “Hello my name is ____” one says “Maza now Monica.” Turns out Monica (Monika) is an Indian name, so people asked me if I was Indian. Papa and Momma Walker, is there something you’re not telling me? ;)

After the engineering activity, we invited the parents of the students to come and see some of the projects that the students have built throughout the week. During the discussion, our favorite trouble maker, Anchu, snuck in and sat with the parents, which made us all chuckle.  We also got to see some of the students’ science projects that they worked on for school, including a submarine powered by syringes, a robot that picks up dirt, and a motor powered boat.  Then we got to see all of the kids’ art work from throughout the year, in an exhibit set up by the super enthusiastic art teacher.  My favorite were all the drawings of peacocks.

In the late afternoon, we had a musical performance from the students and a few of the teachers of traditional Hindi and Marathi songs.  They were fantastic, and I speak for all of us when I say that the songs gave us chills.  Next we all got up on the stage and sang our alma mater, Yellow and Blue, followed by the Victors.  Then we received a couple wonderful gifts from the school, such as a magazine of the students throughout the year, and a calendar/alarm clock.  The magazine included a page about SWE Overseas from last year, featuring a picture of Dean Munson visiting the school from last year.

Saying goodbye to the kids was really sad. L We would all be totes cool with staying here for another week. Or month. Or year.  We’ve all become really close with the students and this week has been truly life changing.

As I type this blog, we are all piled together on the floor making a thank-you card and present for our marvelous guide Krutika, who has basically been our mom during our stay at Walchandnagar.  We are going to give her a lizard and an ant made out of play-dough as a memory of a couple friendly house pets here. J Yeah we’re pretty weird.

Off to Mumbai and then Jaipur tomorrow morning, early!


~Monica