Monday, August 18, 2014

Lucknow: Home of Hidden Gems and Exhausting Adventures

My hosts in Delhi don't have wifi so I am posting this after a few hunting expeditions for wifi and will post photos as soon as possible!

The CLS Urdu 2014 program is finished. Khatam ho gia. How did this happen so quickly? It felt like a blink of an eye. And at the same time it is a relief because I am pretty tired. India is such a beautiful exciting adventure, but it can in equal measure be frustrating and exhausting. Right now I am in Delhi trying to balance my need to relax with my urge to explore. It is my eternal inner battle here in India. I feel a bit better though after sleeping in today and treating myself to some retail therapy. Nevertheless, in this blog post I will give you the top 5 underrated places to visit in Lucknow, explain why I have decided to leave India a week earlier than planned, and write an inevitably sentimental good bye to Lucknow and CLS Urdu. So here it goes...

My top 5 hidden gems of Lucknow (to see the more well-known tourist sites check out my earlier blog post on Lucknow):

I did not know what to expect when my language partner suggested we visit the science center. Any expectations I would have had would have been exceeded though. After you pay for your ticket (less than 1 USD), you enter into a huge “scientific” playground. I did not hesitate to go on the slides or swing on the swings or go on the see-saw. Such bliss to pretend I was five years old again! On the playground there are also a couple of huge cages full of rabbits.

Once you have walked through the playground you can enter into a large two-storey museum. On the first floor is a little aquarium, very scientific representations of “coastal people” (the anthropologist in me cringed), and interactive exhibits focusing on marine biology around the world. Upstairs there are countless exhibits for physics, genetics, chemistry, and psychology, and each exhibit had 10-question quizzes in English with which my language partner and I enjoyed challenging each other. If I had this in my hometown I might have done better in science class! What was especially cool was that kids of all ages were hanging out there, from 10-year olds to girls and boys in their late teens.

Off the second floor you can take a ramp to the dinosaur garden, showing huge papier mache replicas of dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals. The garden is also quite beautiful in my view.

Then there is yet another group of buildings with even more wonderful interactive exhibits, teaching about physics, water issues (I got really excited about that one), and archaeology. In conclusion, it was a really fun way to fill up the three mandatory hours I had to spend with my language partner every week!

My language partner also wanted to show me her university. She studies Business Commerce at Lucknow University, which is a beautiful old campus dating from colonial rule, with crumbling yellow buildings that look more like imambaras to me than school buildings. Goats traverse the campus and inside the classrooms rows of wooden desks with names taped to them face a blackboard. They also have a pretty garden with sculptures.

3.     Lucknow Zoo

I was fearing the worst with Lucknow Zoo but the conditions ended up being not as bad as expected. Of course there are always ethical qualms with keeping wild animals in cages, but these animals didn’t look emaciated and they seemed to have quite large cages. There is also a little toy train riding around the zoo for the people too lazy to walk to see the animals, and as an added bonus you can ride on swan-shaped paddleboats for 40 INR. So much fun to be had!

Welcome to 1857, when the largest offensive in India against the British Empire took place. The British Residency in Lucknow is the site of the final showdown between the British and the local population, full of large crumbling buildings with bullet holes and bleached British grave stones. In the tall grasses growing over the ruins rustles can be heard from clandestine couples meeting for a scandalous rendezvous. Their awkward walk of shame, the woman often two or three steps behind the man, looks comical. The first time I went there I got so excited though by the feeling of history standing still, of the tragic beauty of abodes turned into ruins, the recycling of places for new uses, our cyclical motions in life – a new generation, conceived upon a dying memory. The second time I visited the Residency I was too preoccupied with the mob of 20 men following me and my friend around, constantly snapping pictures. I’ve decided being a celebrity would be awful.

5.     Aminabad

Aminabad is the old part of Lucknow. It is full of narrow lanes and crowded streets and crazy salesmen. It exhausts me and excites me (mainly for the shopping prospects) and even know I think of all the things I should have bought there because I haven’t found better deals since then. Garbar Jallah is THE place to go bangle shopping, and you can bargain hard. I got a full set of copper bangles down from 250 to 150, but apparently if you bargain really hard you could even get them for less. There are also great chikankali (Lucknowi embroidery) shops and much more, that will certainly suit the budget traveler in their search for perfect family gifts.

Ok, well that was Lucknow. Oh, Lucknow, I had a really great time, but in all honesty, you will not be my first destination when I return to India. It is underrated in beauty and sights to offer, but cannot compare with places like Mumbai, Delhi, or Varanasi or even cities I never saw such as Jaipur.

Perhaps I’m just saying this because I spent two months there and my last couple of weeks in the city were especially exhausting and frustrating. So let me fully explain why I shortened my trip in India by a week. I was hoping to go up north to the mountains after my program ended, to get out of the pollution that has given me a deep cough for the past few weeks, and then head down to Rajasthan to visit those desert palaces I have heard so much about. First of all, the few reliable travel companions had to cancel on me. Then after being groped in the Taj Mahal, and stalked by a mob of men at the Residency, and experienced countless of guys taking pictures of me, staring at me, etc. the last straw hit. I was on my way home from dinner with three female friends on the eve before Indian Independence Day when the rickshaw driver flashed me. At 8pm at night, while driving on a busy road, with three of my friends in the back of the rickshaw. I immediately shouted to get off and we were quickly dropped off on a solitary bridge, now terrified of the rickshaw drivers we have to rely on to get home. It was a startling wake up call that if I wasn’t completely safe in a group, I would be in even more danger as a solo traveler. I was shaken and decided that after an exhausting 2 months of learning a new language from scratch, I just wanted to go home rather than spend two weeks struggling to evade inevitable danger. Better safe than sorry. I changed my booking for a week earlier, which actually didn’t cost too much, and decided to just chill out with my hosts in Delhi until my new flight leaves. It was disappointing but at the same time a relief. And Delhi has not dissapointed me. I have been relishing the shopping, the cool cafes, the Mughal and sufi sites such as Qutub Minar, Nazamuddin Dargah, Lodhi Gardens and Purana Qila. 

It is sad that India has this problem. But I also want to say that for every man who has sexually harassed me or made me uncomfortable in India there is an Indian man who has looked out for me, treated me as family, given me his seat in the shared auto rickshaw or on the metro, and made sure I stay safe. The problem of rape stems not from some internal male lack of control, because there are so many admirable and noble men who control themselves every day and respect women. Rather it stems from a deeper social problem, a discourse, a point of view, that many people in India and around the world are trying to challenge. I thank those people in their efforts and wish them the best of luck, and I will do what I can to help solve this global problem, wherever I may be in the future.

Finally, I want to just say a huge thank you the CLS Urdu program. My teachers have been some of the best teachers I’ve had in my life – attentive, passionate, patient, caring, and fun. The students on the program were some of the best people I have ever befriended, their minds as open as their hearts. Without the great environment these people created I wouldn’t have advanced in Urdu as much as I did, or have had as much fun along the way. This summer has been unforgettable, and I am definitely continuing my journey in learning Urdu and understanding the Indian subcontinent. India, you have not seen the last of me!

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