Traveling to the joint Indo-US X-ray crystallography conference in Mumbai
I traveled to Mumbai, India, for the first time to attend the joint Indo-US X-ray crystallography conference. This is the eighth blog in a series about the trip. This is the longest blog of the series, but it was a very full day.
In this installment: A trip to Daulatabad Fort and the Ellora Caves; the Guesthouse at ACTREC; Whose underwear?; A discussion about toilet paper
After breakfast we drove toward Ellora caves and stopped at an old fort called Daulatabad. I have to say that this was probably my favorite tour this week. We paid 100 Rs to get in, and we hired a guide for another few hundred rupees. The fort is unlike the British forts where there is a wall surrounding a castle, sometimes with a moat. This place was built for defense, with lots of fake turns, spikes on the doors to kill elephants, and a moat. Apparently, opposing armies would use elephants to break the doors, so the occupants used spikes to kill the elephants. In response, the attacking army would put a layer of camels in front of the doors for the elephants to run into, as a cushion from the spikes.
Whoever designed the fort was brilliant. Elephants apparently need 200 meters or so for ramming speed, so the designer offset the doors from the entrances to the courtyards so that the distance was too small for the elephant to gain enough speed. At some points there are very tall walls cut in very straight lines through a narrow canyon so that the attackers would run through the area. At the end of the wall, the canyon would make a left-hand turn of about 80 degrees into another canyon next to a straight wall. Again, the idea was that the attackers had just come up stairs and through other traps, so they would run very fast through this area. At the bottom of the wall at the turn was placed a “tripping stone”, which is colored the same as the wall but extends about two feet into the walk path (that is, the corner stone at the bottom was slightly larger than the other stones). So the attackers would trip and the army would be ready to attack from the top of the wall.
The outline of the fort was enormous. The fort sits on a very large hill surrounding relatively flat country, and with all the twists and turns and other surprises in the forecourts, attacking armies never made it to the fortress. In many places false entries were placed on the left hand side because the written language here is right to left so people think of “left” as the anchor. In some cases the turns led to courtyards surrounded by tall walls, and in other cases the turns led to the moat, eventually. The guide claimed that the fort was never conquered in war but through siege and subterfuge.
There was one section that was completely dark, where soldiers would hide in small rooms above the walkway and kill attackers as they entered because the attackers couldn’t see in the dark after coming in from the sun. In another area a dividing wall worked to send attacking soldiers in both directions where they would eventually meet, and each group of the opposing army would attack each other. Now, however, the rooms have bats. So, we walked through several rooms with bats above our heads.
When we reached the first outcropping, the guide left us and told us how to get to the top, if we cared. Four hundred and sixty five steps. It took us about an hour to get up and down, but the view was incredible.
After we left Daulatabad, the drive to Ellora was only about an hour, and there wasn’t much traffic on the road, so it was a nice drive. The Ellora caves are something I would expect to see in a Hollywood movie. The carvers started at the top and worked their way down, so most of the caves are monoliths. There are three types of Hindu represented: Hindu gods, Buddhism, and Jainism. The largest caves are dedicated to the Hindu gods, and the carvings were spectacular. Buddhism had a couple of caves, and they were much more reserved than the other two sects.
At one point the guide stood in the middle of the cave in front of a large statue of Buddha and chanted. The acoustics were so good that we could hear his voice for many seconds after he quit. Finally, the Jain caves were very intricate. The stone columns had a number of cutouts and intricate designs. I can’t imagine what tools could be used to do the work they did. We had to walk much more in these caves compared to the Ajanta caves, and after the hike to the top of the fort, we were tired. I did buy a tour book that describes Ajanta, Ellora, and Daulatabad fort, for 200 Rs (after bargaining from 500 Rs) and the pictures are probably better than those I took on my camera.
I’m surprised by the number of times I heard the trinity during these tours. In Jainism, for example, there are no gods, but the figures are “teachers.” There are three truths to them: right behavior, right knowledge, and right view. The Hindu gods represent life, destruction, and what’s between, so there are several depictions of gods with three faces or heads. In one case a god had ten heads and twenty arms, which represented knowledge (the heads) and power (the arms). Overall it was very interesting, and I can see where some of the tenets of Christianity could have been influenced by these religions.
After leaving Ellora, we drove back to Aurangabad, which I found out today means the city of riches, or something like that. It is a Muslim community, and has been for many years. Apparently green is the Muslim holy color, so there are lots of things painted green here.
During the drive back to Aurangabad, one of our members recalled that his iPhone could take video, so he took several minutes of video. As he was sitting in the front passenger seat, he got several good examples of the weaving and passing done by the drivers. This video would be an instant hit on YouTube, so I’m hoping he will share it with the rest of the group. This is not his video, but it will give you a good idea of driving in India.
Some of the scientists in our party are also going to China for ten days. In fact, one member has planned five lectures over five days at five different Universities, then five days to tour. I hadn’t considered travel between India and China, but it appears to happen quite frequently among scientists here. China is also putting a lot of money into building their scientific community, and it again reminded me that the US scientists have to start thinking on a global scale and be prepared to include Asian scientist.
We went to a local hotel for a late lunch. We were looking for someplace with air conditioning because we were all hot and tired after so much walking, and a couple of people in our party got sunburned during the trip today. When Ruchi bought our tickets to the Ellora caves, the guide asked her “Why are they so red?” Apparently sunburn is not an issue to Indians.
Anyway, I had egg biryani, which is now my new favorite dish. It has spicy rice with two to three sliced hard-boiled eggs. I asked Ruchi to tell the waiter to make it spicy, and they got it just right this time. In the restaurant at the gateway, previously, I had chicken biryani, which was a bowl of chicken (bone-in) cooked in a sauce with the spicy rice on top. It sort of reminded me of the meat-pie dishes that had meat on the bottom and mashed potatoes on top, at least in presentation, but in this case spicy rice is on top.
The egg biryani was my favorite because the egg gives a milder flavor than the chicken. I also had Kingfisher beer. Kingfisher is an Indian lager that tastes like a Budweiser-sort of beer from the US. Not too exciting, but it was refreshing after being in the heat. The rest of the group had lemon soda. I’m going to have to try this when I get back to the US. Put about 4 oz or so of lemon/lime mix in a glass with salt and sugar, then fill the glass with soda water. I think that this would also work with margarita mix too by adding salt to the mix.
After lunch we drove back to Aurangabad and went to the fake Taj Mahal. I don’t remember the history of this place exactly, but it is a smaller version of the Taj Mahal built by the son of the person who had the original Taj built. He had it built for his wife, I think, but he ran out of money, so there are several faux-marble columns and other short cuts. Overall, it’s impressive as a structure and the grounds are very nice, but it also looks quite fake. It cost us 100 Rs to get in, and we decided that we didn’t need a guide for this tour.
After visiting the fake Taj, the group went back to the hotel and had drinks while waiting to go to the airport. While at the hotel bar, I settled my bill with Ruchi because the rest of the group was planning a trip to Agra tomorrow to see the Taj Mahal. The excursion to Auragabad cost me 7500 rupees, which is about $170, not including the hotel room (about $60). So, for about $230 I got round-trip flights from Mumbai to Aurangabad, entrance to four sites, car and driver for two days, room and all meals. Plus I had two hours of stable internet. Overall, I think that was a very good bargain for what I’ve seen here.
Check-in at the airport was uneventful. But I did find out about having (or not) boarding passes as one enters the terminal. The guards are checking for boarding passes OR proof of ticket purchase, such as an itinerary. Since I didn’t have one I passed my passport along with one of the other travelers and said that we were together. The guard didn’t look too closely, probably since we were foreigners.
The flight was uneventful and very short, about an hour up and down. A driver then took me to ACTREC in Navi Mumbai, which as I’ve said previously means “New Mumbai.” The buildings and roads are a lot more modern here than in Mumbai. The cab ride was about 1.5 hours for about 40 miles distance, and my cab is what Kakoli refers to as an AC cab, where “AC” means “air conditioned.” In reality it is the Meru cab company.
By the time we arrived it was pushing midnight. It seems that all of the universities and research institutes are in secure compounds where visitors have to register and get permission to get in. When the cab driver pulled up to the gate, he passed along my name, but since he didn’t speak English, he had trouble with the alliteration. So, I was asked to get out and sign the register. Another guard inside the guard house also barely spoke English and decided to call the guesthouse (I think, although I’m not sure who he was calling since he kept calling me “Larry”).
Since I was having a hard time communicating my name, I passed along my passport, which apparently one of the other guards thought was quite humorous. Since he did speak English he kept telling me that wasn’t necessary as I tried to explain that the other guy was having a hard time with my name. About this time Kakoli’s student came running into the guard house gesticulating wildly about the treatment. I think that he was supposed to meet me at the guardhouse, but he was playing badminton in the streets and didn’t hear the call. I suspect he will get an ear-full from Kakoli if he tells her the story. I thought it was very humorous.
We then proceeded to the guesthouse, where the manager was waiting, and the room was ready. Overall, the room is very nice. My description below is not a criticism of ACTREC or of my hosts, but I want to give an idea of how different regions of the world think differently than people in the US.
The room is spacious: there is a sink/kitchen area with coffee and tea (thank goodness!) and a refrigerator, there is a wardrobe and desk area, a sitting area with TV and chairs, the bed area, and the bathroom. There are two single beds pushed together to make a double, but each single bed is made independently, and the crack between the two beds would be uncomfortable to sleep on, so I used only one side.
There is little concept of “sheets” here. The mattress is very, very hard and covered by a thin white sheet and green wool blanket. There are no bedbugs or other critters that I could see, and I’m now pretty thorough in my checking after having several conversations with my wife about bedbugs and experiencing sharing a bed with them in South Georgia one time.
Sometime during my checking, I noticed a pair of underwear on the floor near the bed, and I know that the underwear were not on the floor when I arrived. Now, I’ve found this week that it’s best not to be overly concerned about hygiene here in India, and it’s best not to ask too many questions (at least in my own mind) or fret over how things are handled here. So rather than think about where the underwear came from (not to mention to whom they belonged) I kicked them under the bed, where I’m reasonably sure they will stay forever. So, I guess I’m helping the next occupant of the room not have to deal with someone else’s underwear fall out of their supposed clean bed (but I refuse to consider that they fell out of the bed! I’m sure they were in the.… Oh hell, I don’t know where they were but they didn’t fall out of the bed!).
The bathroom is really a shower room with toilet and sink in the shower. Luckily there is a western-style toilet since I’ve heard a lot about Indian toilets this week – mostly they are covered holes in the floor with nothing to sit on. Although there is a holder for toilet paper, there is no toilet paper in the room! What the hell?
I had a discussion with Ruchi on one of our drives about the small toilet paper rolls because one of the female scientists had brought a roll from her room on our trips. Apparently the public women’s bathrooms don’t have toilet paper. Anyway, since Ruchi spent time in the US as a student and post-doc, she requested that we bring paper from the US when we next visit. She was impressed with the size of the rolls in the US. Anyway, I was faced with a choice of not using the toilet for two days or figure out how to use the bidet. It never occurred to me to research how to use a bidet because it’s such a foreign concept to me. So, I’ll just say that I gave it the old college try, and I’ll learn to use it proper for my next trips abroad.
It was a very long and eventful day, and by the time I arrived and got to the room it was about 12:30 am or later. After a quick call to my wife, because there is no internet service once more, I turned in for the night, again not thinking about where those underwear came from.
Next Installment: A tour of the ACTREC campus