Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Shimla: In the lap of the Himalayas

India is by far not only comprised of (sub-)tropical plain-lands and deserts. As you approach the Himalayas, you see the landscape becoming hilly, the roads windy, and the snow-capped peaks appear on the horizon.
Even in the summer, brutally hot in other parts of the country, this region remained cool and inviting. This is why during the British rule, Shimla was chosen to be the summer residence, with the apparatus moving there to escape the heat. Today, Shimla is the capital of Himachal Pradesh (literally "In the lap of the Himalayas").
While three of us decided to visit Agra, the others would like to breath the fresh air of Shimla.
On our six-hour long journey, we visited McDonald's for the first time in India. The company does not offer any beef / pork products: all burgers are either vegetarian or made of chicken meat.

We arrived in Shimla around midnight. Once we entered the hotel, we understood that not all lodging options offer as much comfort as our accommodation in Ludhiana. With the temperature around 0 degrees, there was no centralized heating. The available warming options were a small e-heater, a lot of clothing and a good company. We made use of all three.
The breakfast next morning is worth a special mention. As you can guess from the number of clothing layers, it was pretty cold. Once we have poured in the chai, the steam has covered the table (the picture does not fully convey the atmosphere). However, the food and the hot drink gave us energy for the day.
As we left the hotel, we enjoyed the magnificent view.
And then, we saw the monkeys. Monkeys everywhere! They had a thicker winter fur and were really bold. Their main occupation is to steal something from incautious pedestrians. Glasses, cameras, jackets and, of course, food, regularly change owners because of the little thieves. On the pictures, however, they look so cute...
Shimla itself has a lot of nice places to offer. After visiting the main square, we hiked to the Jakhu temple, dedicated to the Hindu deity Hanuman. In the beginning on the road, a sign challenges the visitors to test their fitness. Although the road was quite steep, we did the hike in 28 minutes!
On the windy streets, we have visited further buildings erected during the British rule as well as a temple.
On the next day, we decided to cover half of our journey on a train which connects Shimla to Kalka, which lies further down in the valley. Being a unique narrow-gauge railway, the train crosses almost a thousand bridges and over 100 tunnels. Sometimes, the cliff starts right outside of the windy tracks. The space inside of the train is quite scarce, but the railway offers a magnificent view on its way to the valley.

 The station signs reminded me of the London subway. 
The weekend ended with a philosophical statement at one of the stations of the Shimla-Kalka railway. 

Time to get back to work!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

You will never leave Punjab hungry

There is a proverb in Punjab that says "You will never leave Punjab hungry". I would add to it "And do not plan to lose weight in this place".

The dinners are an experience for themselves. The Indian hospitality seeks its equal. It makes you feel home while you are far away from your own. At the same time, the food is so delicious that it is almost impossible to stop. 

One of our dinners was at the home of our fellow team, which works or Swabhimaan foundation (they provide education to underprivileged children). Our host, Sanjay and his wife, gave us a really warm welcome.

As the chance would have it, it was the birthday of our colleague from Japan, Kazu. This meant that each of us had to cut off a piece of the cake and to feed the jubilarian. After this experience, he will probably never want to have a big birthday party.

With the delicious dishes and the great company, the time went by really fast. At the end, Sanjay presented us the Maharaj pagdi (turban) which he wore at his wedding, which was passed from one head to the next to take good pictures. 
The other dinner was again at Jaspeet's (our local consultant in Ludhiana) home. It was great to see his family for a second time. We started by watching a famous Bollywood movie called Dil Chahta Hai. How can we not watch a Bollywood movie when being in India?

The entertainment was, of course, accompanied by yummy food. In the middle of the movie, Jaspreet suggested to have a break for dinner. Dinner? We thought we already had dinner. Jaspreet only laughed and said that these were just starters. Again, you will not leave Punjab hungry...
It was another great night, and the second working week was coming to an end. The plan of the weekend has been already prepared. It was time to change Ludhiana's congested air to the fresh and cool one of the former summer residence of the British and today's capital of Himachal Pradesh - the city of Shimla.

Time flies in Ludhiana...

After the intense weekend, it was time to get back to work.

The project at the PAU progresses well. It is a new and different kind of experience to work in India. It is a different business environment, different structure and a different mindset. One of the things that might surprise a German is the fact that people answer calls while in a meeting. There is hardly one where you don't suddenly hear a melody and a conversation in Hindi/Punjabi which is probably saying "In a meeting right now, let me call you later!"

While our "orientation day" is yet to come, we were invited to the annual PAU athletics meeting (not as participants, of course!). We went to the stadium and were even allowed to take a seat in the professor's area. This is where we have also seen the highest authority of the PAU for the first time - the Vice-Chancellor. Needless to mention, that a person like him will be treated with the utmost respect and honor in India. However, when the Chief Guest came (we have never got to know who this person actually is), even the Vice-Chancellor had to stand up and greet him with a bouquet...

Apart from work, small stories happen all the time. Sometimes, we seem to be part of a show, because everything is so new and so different from our home countries. One day, our auto (this is how the three-wheel motor vehicle is called), broke on our way back from PAU. Our driver Jasbir decided to show us the repair station right away. Within one cup of chai, the vehicle was up and running. Who says that the Indians cannot work fast?

The other day, when having a dinner at one of the small street shops, I met an Indian who lives in Munich. And sometimes, you even see an elephant on the street, and a colleague who immediately captures the opportunity to ride it.

And then, there are, of course, the dinners!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Wagah border ceremony: When 10.000 people go to see the flag going down

Amritsar is situated right next to the Indian-Pakistani border. After visiting the temple, we headed 18 km to the west to watch the probably most famous border ceremony in the world - the flag ceremony at the Wagah border.

Some of you (including myself) have probably seen one of the countless YouTube videos, where soldiers dressed in colorful uniforms perform a ritual which reminds some rather of a show than a military exercise. However, the reality is much more impressive than the recording.

Once at the border, we passed quite a few control gates - the security measures are quite high. At the main area, there are tribunes for ~5,000 people - with the same setup at the Pakistani side of the gate.

Since the ceremony itself starts at the sunset, the arriving visitors were entertained with Indian patriotic songs. Some also have the Indian flag painted on the cheek and enjoy the attraction.

The tension and the cheer of the crowd rise constantly. Whatever happens at the Indian side, is being repeated by the Pakistanis and vice versa. After a while, you find yourself amongst loud Indian war songs, thousands of people cheering war slogans ("Hindustan zindabad" and "Bharat mana kim jai") and the soldiers preparing for the ceremony.

The commander gives the signal to start, and the squad rushes to the gate, with everyone making the famous move - the stretched leg is being swung up to the head. With the soldiers up to 2 meters tall (the selection criteria seem to be quite tough), this is quite an astonishing exercise. Exactly the same procedure takes place on the other side. Although the soldiers have serious faces, it does look like a show, and is indeed quite entertaining. However, a somebody who lives in Germany and sees thousands of people cheering nationalist slogans, always feels a bit uncomfortable.

The ceremony ends when the flags are being lowered and carried to the base for the night time. We will cross the gate to India again and head back to Ludhiana.

What a day!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Golden Temple: Lost in translation

Amritsar and its Golden Temple are one of the most important places for the Sikh religion. Since the majority of the Sikhs calls Punjab their home, we could not miss out on the opportunity to visit this sacred place. After 140 km and 2.5 hours on a bumpy road, we arrived in the city.

Embarked on a horse rickshaw, we realized that it is being driven by a 12-year old. I don't think that I should check his driver's license.

On our way to the temple, we had to fulfill two prerequisites: cover our heads and take off the shoes (and socks). While the former does not present a problem, walking on a marble floor barefoot is indeed an interesting experience.

An interesting fact about the Golden Temple that its real name ("Harmandar Sahib") does not really mean "Golden Temple". According to our local consultant, Jaspreet (and various travel guides), when the wife of a British Officer saw the temple, which is indeed covered with gold, she gave it its English name. Literally, Harmandar Sahib means the Temple of God.

The sacred place is a beautiful complex, which has the temple itself in the middle of a pool, surrounded by a square wall which hosts various important and myth-enshrouded buildings.

Amritsar derives its name from this pool (Amrit Sarovar means "The pool of Nektar") and the water of the pool is believed to have miraculous powers.

In order to visit the Golden Temple itself, we needed to queue up for an hour with thousands of Sikhs and curious visitors.
Each Sikh temple has a community kitchen, where one can have food for free and all service (be it washing dishes or cooking food) is voluntary. Since the Golden Temple is visited by thousands of people every day, the community kitchen the community kitchen has the according size. Never in my life have I had lunch with so many people at the same time, and I have to admit that it was quite an experience.
The day had one more exciting event for us - the largely famous flag ceremony at the Wagah border between India and Pakistan.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Ludhiana Daily

The days in Ludhiana are really intense. Every day, there are a lot of new stories, events, experiences. It feels like a "full immersion" into the colorful and diverse Indian life.

We are, of course, spending almost every day at the PAU. Our day mostly starts at this building, where we have an office at the "University Data Centre for Integrated Data, Voice & Video"

During lunchtime, we explore the PAU campus (I think that we will not be done by the time our assignment ends). So far, we found the tractor station, the library and a model of the Himalaya.

After work, we are trying to explore Ludhiana. We are currently in the middle of the wedding season in India - of course, throughout the year, there are enough people who want to get married, but it is the time of the year when the weather is perfect for big parties. At our hotel, there is at least one wedding daily, so that we have enough oppor
tunities to take a picture with beautifully dressed Punjabis.

The other day, we were invited to a dinner at the home of our local consultant, Jaspreet. He and his lovely family gave us a very warm welcome and we had a wonderful night at his place.

Needless to mention, that there was delicious food - in fact, we had to write down the names of the dishes for future records.

Apart from that, shopping is an important activity. For the ladies, it would be a pity if they would go home without a sari. Therefore, we spent a few hours in a colorful sari shop. However, it seems to be a tradition that male sellers try the sari on to show how it looks. Which, of course, somewhat reduces the whole shopping experience. Luckily, after trying on quite a few of the traditional Indian dresses, we were able to find the right one.

And, of course, Ludhiana always has new surprises to offer. Sometimes, they try to load a motorcycle on the roof of a bus.
Sometimes, you see a BVB (famous German football club) fan wearing a turban of matching color.

And it all ends with a nice cup of chai (tea with hot boiled milk) on a busy city street!
Our next destination is the most sacred temple of the Sikh...