November 14, 2012

Breaking the Budget, Part II (Mysore, Karnataka, India)

Read Part I of our post about Mysore here.

The next day - we set out to really see Mysore. Our first plan was to tour the inside of the Palace but, as we walked that direction after a quick thali lunch, we were approached by a young, friendly rickshaw driver, Aslam, who told us that it was a bad idea that day because it was too crowded. He offered to drive us up Chamundi Hill to the temple, take us to the Muslim Bazaar, and to the palace for 150 rupees ($3). He was enthusiastic, and this was the kind of experience we were looking for, so we said yes (knowing we'd pay him more than 150r and also knowing he planned to take us to shops where he would get a kickback for taking us…and not minding either). 

First, we visited the temple on Chamundi Hill. (Read about Chamundi here.) On the ride, we learned more about Aslam. He is Muslim and lives in a village outside of Mysore with his parents, two sisters, two brothers-in-law, two brothers, and a niece and a nephew. He never went to school, but spoke perfect English because, he said, "God gave him a good brain." His mom gave him a rickshaw when he was 15 and he's been driving it for 9 years. Each day he drives, no matter how much money he makes, he gives his mom 250 rupees that she puts into savings for him. Most of the rest of the money goes to help support his family, though he uses some of it for new clothes. He's silly and laughs a lot and is, thankfully, a good driver. We both like him a lot.

Beedi Cigarettes
On Chamundi Hill, we walked around the temple, opting not to go in due to the crowds, and had chai at Aslam's friend's stand, where they told us that Aslam's nickname is 'Ding Ding' and Aslam goofed around with his friends in front of us for awhile. It all felt very normal, which was nice. And we visited the God Museum, which was really a lesson in Prajapita Brahma Kumaris Ishawriya Vishwa Viyalaya (Brahma Kumaris, for short) (right?) and Rajyoga meditation and an urging by the sisters there to change our lives. Already have sisters, already have. Then we headed down the hill, back to Mysore and to the Muslim bazaar, where he took us into a rickety building where men worked 12 hour days making beedi cigarettes, and to an aromatherapy shop where one girl works all day making 7,000 incense sticks while sitting on a concrete floor….each day! (Read about our experience at the aromatherapy shop in this post.)
Making incense

Beedi maker sampling the product
Finally, he took us back to the palace grounds before it was lit up and waited until 7pm to see it lit up again. When we asked about touring inside the palace, he assured us there wasn't much to see inside and it wasn't worth the 200 rupees each to see. We were doubtful, and decided to check it out the next day before we met up with Aslam again.

The next day, Aslam picked us up around 11am and we went to his village to meet his family. All of those people lived in a tiny concrete home with 2 rooms and no furniture. Only Aslam spoke English, but everyone was friendly and his little 3 year-old nephew came running out naked to greet us when we arrived. We brought some sweets and snacks for everyone and gave the kids buttons of San Francisco and Aslam's mom made us sweet black tea as we sat on the floor with the old TV blaring Indian MTV in the corner. A 14 year-old girl in the village came over and, before I knew it (and before I remember agreeing to it), my hands and feet were being painted with henna (called mehndi when used to dye the skin). The feet look pretty good, but Tom says the design on my hand looks like something our 4 year-old niece, Zosia, could do with a Magic Marker. I think he's right. I wonder how long this stuff stays on?

Henna applied, we jumped back in the rickshaw (a VERY interesting ride…details to come) to head to a temple that Aslam kept calling the Kama Sutra temple, but what we later learned has nothing to do with Kama Sutra and isn't named that at all. It was the Keshava Temple in Somnathpur, and we were happy to visit, as we'd read about it. It was built in 1268 and has elaborate and intricate carvings in the stone depicting life in those times. It was really beautiful and awe-inspiring. 

After that, we drove the hour back to Mysore and decided to quickly tour the inside of the palace, which was a lesson in patience…let me tell you about it. (And now, a little rant from Stephanie...)

First, we buy our tickets (40 rupees for Indians, 200 rupees for foreigners) and move with the massive crowds into the palace grounds. We make our way across the large courtyard to the palace and see that you're not allowed to take cameras in. No worries. There's a checkpoint right here to drop your things. Oh, wait…that's just for your shoes (which you also have to leave behind, as you're entering a residence). "Mr. Policeman, where can we leave our camera?" "Oh, that checkpoint is all the way back at the main entrance to the palace grounds." At this point, the palace is supposed to close down to entering visitors in 10 minutes. We race across the grounds and leave our day pack in a locked locker with an attendant. Then we hurry back to the palace to check our shoes. "Not here" and a point to move down the counter. "Not here" and another point to move further down the counter. Third time's a charm. They take our shoes and give us a token and we finally go through the metal detectors to enter the palace. Knowing that the audio guides are free, we follow the signs to pick them up. Except…you must leave either your passport or a $40 deposit (each!) to take a headset. Eighty US dollars is a LOT of money here and we rarely have that much money with us. And even if we actually had that much with us…..umm…..our passports are at the hotel and our money is in a bag with our cameras, AT THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PALACE GROUNDS WHERE YOU MADE US CHECK THEM!!! This is when I kind of lose it with the lack of systems in this place. 

Me: "Seriously? They made us check our bag! We don't have our money with us!"
Guard: "Oooooh...You should have just checked your camera, not your entire bag and your money."
Me: "Oh, thank you for that information NOW!" 
Guard: "How much money DO you have?" 

We check our pockets. 

Me: "We have one US dollar and 100 rupees (about $2 USD)." 
Guard: "No, that's not enough." 

Gah! It's times like these that I want to throttle India. You have a ZILLION people here and NO ONE can come up with a better system? NO ONE suggested, "Hey, since the actual palace is the only place you can't take pictures in the palace grounds, maybe we should have the camera checkpoint nearby and maybe we should have a sign outside the palace letting people know that the audio guide requires a hefty deposit?" Really, India?!?! 

Frustrated by the (lack of) system, we walked through the palace, seeing beautiful paintings and ancient items and having no idea what anything was because there was no sign and we had no audio guide. Coupled with the fact that there were loads of people and we were ushered through the palace, along the red velvet rope like cattle, we concluded that Aslam was right…there really wasn't much to see and it wasn't worth the 200 rupees, or the headache. The (only) highlight of that tour was seeing the Maharaja's throne, made entirely of gold. Even that wasn't as interesting without the handy audio guide to tell you how many kilos of gold it was or when it was made or the significance of the carvings. Harumph.

At this point, we both had colds and I was irritated by everyone and everything, so we went back to the hotel, where we hugged Aslam goodbye, had a meal at the fancier restaurant there and called it a night. The next morning we went to the bus station (another patience lesson….stay tuned for details), and took the (6 hour) bus from Mysore to Mangalore, where we caught another (1 hour) bus to Udupi.

Mysore….honestly? I wanted to love it. I really did. We have friends from Mysore and seeing the palace lit up was amazing. The festival was fun and Aslam has been a highlight of the entire trip so far. But I don't think the cities of India will be our favorite parts of this trip. Mysore isn't nearly as big as Mumbai or Delhi, but it was overwhelming during the festival. In some ways (Aslam and his friends and family, Zabib, and the locals wanting to be Facebook friends with Tom), Mysore was the friendliest place we've been. In other ways (the unwelcome stares, the "accidental" gropes, the chaotic systems and indifference about helping confused foreigners), it was the least friendly place we've been on this trip. Still, I'm happy we got to take part in Dasara, and the JP Palace was the perfect rejuvenator for the many home stays to come.

Check out all our pics from Mysore here. Some of our other favorites are below.

Sticker in Aslam's rickshaw. Also, his phone number in
 case you need an excellent driver in Mysore!

Stopping for lunch outside the Chamundi Temple
We loved the other communities in Mysore supporting Dasara!

Countryside outside of Mysore

Update: We were in Mysore about 3 weeks ago, and the henna is gone now. And I'm looking forward to getting some better henna mehndi soon!

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