Thoughts from India

I apologize for the lack of consistent posts, please do not think I have forgotten that this is in fact, the DAILY batch.  I’ll be making my best effort to post regularly, again.  Scouts honor!

As I have previously mentioned Mark and I went to India on September 5 – 12.  The whirlwind adventure was prompted by a terrific deal we saw online and the fact that India is one of the countries that Mark has never traveled to.  He has previously been to 36 countries, so it’s hard to regularly find somewhere new.  On every trip we take as soon as we get home we kick ourselves for not writing a travel journal, so this time, on our new iPad, I did just that.  I chronicled the entire experience.  
Please join me for our trip to India.

Day 1  Flight:  lots of movies on board. I tried to put my seat back and the woman behind me kicked the seat forward with the full force of her body.  This does not appear to be a cultural difference I can overcome on board.  I resign to sit upright for the next 14 hours. 

Day 2  Landing in New Delhi.  The airport is brand new and very clean and surprisingly not crowded at all.  The customs process is significantly easier than I expected and presumably easier than it will be on the return. We notice that visitors to some countries (Japan, Singapore, Switzerland and a few others can get their visas at the airport – interesting to see the list of good guys).

We meet up with our group – 26 people from around the country, a random mix of people and ages.  We are the youngest couple here.  Our guide leads us to our bus outside and immediately we are enveloped in a blanket of steam and muggy heat.  It is hot and heavily polluted in New Delhi.

The city seems to be in a constant state of construction – far different than our concept of construction.  There are young men without shoes and women with their very young children nearby all seemingly working on repairs and renewing the city.  I remarked to Mark that it really seems like they are preparing for something – what that is I am not very sure.

Joining the workers on the side of the street are cows, skinny dogs, goats and lots and lots of cars, motor bikes and bicycles.  On the bus our guide, Jasbir, informs us that in New Delhi there are 14 million people and 2 million cars.  He welcomes us to India and says that traffic is crazy and there are no guarantees and everything changes.  He tells us that India is full of surprises.

We drove through New Delhi on our way to the hotel, it is 5pm Monday India time which is about 7am Monday EST.  Mark is looking and feeling far better rested than me.  We arrive at the Metropolitan Hotel New Delhi.  The hotel is also under construction, but nice.  We are greeted with “nasmaste” everywhere we go.  The hotel staff are very warm and welcoming.  I am exhausted but Mark rallies the troop (me) as he is known to do and we head out for a dinner.

The hotel concierge arranges for us to have a driver and sends us off to a “city center” with shops and restaurants. We learn that our driver will stay with us for the entirety of our trip and wait for us.   This is a relief since the streets seem a bit difficult for a non-native to traverse.  We get to the restaurant, QBA; from the street it looks like a construction site in the stages of demolition.  Through a hallway and up an elevator ride and we are transported to the Indian version of the Hudson Hotel.  Low lighting, lounge music comprised of 80’s top hits and even faux ivy decorate the walls.

Inside we sit and order a chicken tikka masala for Mark and subz punjabi (mixed vegetables and cheese in a tomato gravy) for me. Somehow we have managed to find room in our stomachs for our traditional meal and fresh na’an. Very full and very tired we return to the hotel.

Day 3  We are up early, 5:30 am local time to start the day.  The sun is out, but from the seventh floor of the hotel we cannot see further than maybe a hundred yards because the smog is thick and the sky is cloudy.

We go downstairs to our hotel’s restaurant for breakfast.  And we eat – a lot.  We joke that our surpersized breakfast is an insurance policy against an unknown lunch offering.  The color, vibrancy and aromas of the Indian breakfast are far more intriguing than the bacon, sausage and scrambled eggs of traditional American fare.

After breakfast we returned to our room to prepare for the day.  The water in India is not potable for our Western immune systems. Rumor has it that water at the hotel is fine but for such short journey it really doesn’t seem worth it.  So with that in mind we find ourselves wondering where do we draw the line with the water; if you eat na’an with your hands but you’ve washed your hands with water is this a bad idea?  Long story short we have been brushing our teeth with bottled water.

We are on the bus and begin our morning tour of New Delhi and Old Delhi. This is a very loud city. It is far louder than DC, or NY.  From our bus the only noise is the beeping from the various motorists
around.  The stop and go has made me think of my mom and how much she would not enjoy this part.  During the first part of the drive, before we get to the tour it is hard to not look out the windows. The day is just beginning for us and the people locally. As some people zip off to work there are still many men sleeping in the carriages of their bicycle powered coaches, men on the sidewalks getting shaved, women with their children sitting on their haunches as they beg for money and fathers driving by bike a cartloads of young children to school.  As we look out of our bus windows they look in. Many stare but the children wave and we back to them.

Our tour takes us past alleyways filled with tens of wires that supply the electricity, mounds of garbage and eventually to the site honoring the life and death of Mahatma Gandhi.  We are not able to get out and look around but we are able to see the very manicured grounds from the road.  Our guide talks about Gandhi with a sense of reverence and compares him to “our Abraham Lincoln”. He also talks to
us about Gandhi’s assassination by a “hardliner” who disagreed with Gandhi’s philosophies and tolerance of the Muslim minority.

We stop at Red Fort for some pictures and our first meeting with the ‘hawkers’ – our guide’s term, not ours.   The hawkers are trying to sell maps, postcards, and fans.  Our guide tells us he will broker all of our deals.  We buy nothing.

We also go to India Gate. It is a bit like an Arc do Triomphe meets Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The large structure is a monument to the soldiers killed in WW1.

Our next stop is to a Muslim mosque.  Outside the mosque are more hawkers and local poor.  Being here redefines what we imagine poor to be.  There are children and adults bathing under an unsteady stream of water, a man chipping a way at a large block of ice as a young girl stands by eagerly ready to catch any errant shavings and another man so largely disabled that I find myself very torn.  In these situations I wonder if it is better to not look at all or to at least engage with eye contact.

After the mosque we visit a Hindi temple.  India is a faithful country and the great majority of the nation is Hindi.  We take our shoes off and leave our cameras behind.  The Hindi temple is very large and as Mark pointed our designed entirely differently from any Judaeo/Christian houses of worship.  In Hindi there are 33 million gods and goddesses – so that’s  about 1 for every 30 Indians in India – so the temple is set to give homage to several of the gods at one time instead of what we’re used to with all direction towards the front to nod G-d.

While in the temple our guide very briefly shares the differences between the Hindi, Sikh, Jain, and Krishna faiths.  He then tells us he is a Christian and laughs.  He is very good at sharing religious, political and social commentary with a laugh.

After departing the temple we continue our drive and it takes us through New Delhi.   New Delhi was designed by and for the British.  It is very, very green, there are round- a- bouts instead of traffic jams and the vibe is considerably quieter.  We pass the American Embassy – it is massive, which is to be expected I suppose.  We also go past the President’s quarters and the buildings for Parliament. Very European in layout and political design.

Back on the road we are heading to a local Kashmir retail/expo.  Our guide tells us that the mod beautiful scarves are from Kashmir, the most beautiful rugs are from Kashmir, and the most beautiful women are from the United States.

As our driver works his way through traffic it is hard not to notice what is taking place on the side of the road.  There are four young girls, the oldest is maybe 16 and the youngest perhaps 5.  The older girl is married, as signified by her hair dye, and is beating a drum.  The two younger girls are standing on the median; one is twisting her arms completely around her body over and over again pushing the limits of double jointedness and then springing into a series of cartwheels and her younger and smaller friend is doing somersaults on the concrete and climbing through a dinged up 10″ circle.  They are performing in hopes of a bit of generosity.  It is heartbreaking to watch but at the same time, very difficult to turn away.

We arrive at the Kashmir store and are treated to a lesson in the art of hand woven rugs. Our host unrolls rug after rug in the most beautiful patterns. To prove their quality our Kashmiri host proves he too has seen American infomercials and proceeded to take a flame to the rug and the pointed edge of a very large scissor. Not surprisingly the rug is completely unscathed.  During the demonstration our hosts provide us with fresh samosas, bananas and then a fragrant cinnamon, cardamom and saffron tea.  The aromas fill the room and are intoxicating but not so much as to get us to buy a rug.  These all natural, hand woven silk works of art started at $1200 USD but of course my favorite started at $2200 – $8000.

Back on the road and headed to Agra, children in their clean uniforms are getting out of school and they add to the immensity of the traffic.  Our guide tells us that in India education through high school is free: this includes transportation to school, books and supplies and yet many children, for what I am sure is a variety of reasons, do not attend. 

Some observations from the car window: we’ve seen as many as four people on one small motor bike.  There are no t-shirts in India, men of all ages wear proper shirts; of course as I type that I see someone wearing a t-shirt.  I saw a Pizza Hut delivery man this seems remarkably out of place, but not nearly as much as the Gold’s Gym, International Fitness Center with a sign exclaiming that a “Better body is a happy body!”.  This seems so strangely American and unnecessary in a place where people are so visibly hungry.

We continue our five hour journey to Agra, which according to our guide is the home of the Taj Mahal and not much else.  In an effort to not ruin the monument with pollution and other industrial debris no modern industries have ever been cultivated in this city.  The drive is long and is punctuated with two stops both at a restaurant/rest stop. 

On the road Mark and I are reading his copy of “the Four Hour Work Week” on his kindle app on the iPad.  As a side note when Mark and I flew to the Big Island of Hawaii for another friends’ wedding, we sat side by side reading “the Little History of the World” and the old sea-dog of a man sitting next to us commented that our ability to read together, cooperatively, bodes well for a our future.

We read about a chapter before I fall asleep.  Mark continues to read. To know me is to know that when I can fall asleep on just about any moving vehicle and this motor coach is know different.  As the day turns to night I am fast asleep and am using the repetitive braking motion as a rocker and the horns, toots and whistles as a lullabye.

We arrive at our hotel, a Sheraton, designed in the Mughal architecture style.  After dinner we return to our room for an early nights sleep since we’ll be getting up by 5am for our visit to the Taj Mahal.

Day 4    Unfortunately we both do not sleep well but this especially doesn’t bode well for Mark who wakes up at around 4am with his stomach in his hands.  He is not feeling well and determines the culprit to be a curry overload.  We soldier on and get ready for the day but he is struggling with a lot of aches and pains.  We get to the bus first and wait for the rest of our group.  We are feeling less patient than usual because we are very much in “get the show on the road” mode.

We take a short drive to the Taj Mahal and are told that as expected, and the reason for our earlier than scheduled visit, a dignitary is coming and so the Taj will be closed to the public.  We go through a security line which is considerably more hands-on than we expected.  Inside the walls on the exterior gates we see much of the same; hawkers, men sleeping on the side of the road, women draped in colorful silks and a new addition, monkeys.  There are monkeys everywhere.  As to be expected the monkeys appear to nave attracted flies and we are on their turf so the flies are everywhere.  To stop moving for any period of time is an open invitation for the arrival of flies.

The Taj Mahal is surrounded by four gates made of a dark red sandstone.  The architecture feels very Arabic in inspiration, which makes sense as we later learned that the emperor that built the Taj was originally from Turkey and his wife, who he honors, was Persian.  The Taj Mahal is not a palace; it was built as a tomb for the young bride of the emperor.  As a foot note, she was one of two wives – the first wife is certainly entitled to a chopped liver complex.

We walked though the gardens towards the Taj Mahal that we’ve to date only seen in postcards.  The building is pure white marble and the hope is that it stays that way.  There are no factories around Agra and there are no shoes, or accessories beyond a camera allowed on the grounds.  We don shoe covers and briefly tour the monument.  Mark is feeling beyond sick now and we are stopping every so often so that he can remember to breathe.  Finally, ahead of schedule but not a moment too soon the guards are asking everyone to leave. This is a huge relief for us as Mark has had just about all he can take.  

We are finally back to the hotel at 8:52am India time and 11:21pm EST.

Mark is sleeping. Time to log off.

Back in the hotel room Mark is wearing the hotel supplied robe and cradling himself like a baby. I am reading “Salt” again.  The book is a history of the salt trade and I have attempted to read it on multiple trips as evidenced by the water curled pages.  Mark is not much for conversation so I head to get some breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. As I sit down I realize this is the first time I have ever eaten in a real (non sandwich shop) restaurant by myself.  At breakfast I take a few pieces of toast and fruit for Mark.  When I return to the room his position is unchanged and he has no appetite.

After some convincing and a bit of doomsday Internet research as to what his symptoms could point to Mark downed some water and a Cipro.  After more convincing Mark acquiesced and took a shower,  and he was starting to feel better.  We went on a short walk and sat outside and got some lunch. Mark had pizza and I had fruit and toast, I also finished most of his pizza.  

As a funny aside, about a week before we left for India Mark made his status on Facebook, “Going to India in a week, can anyone suggest a good Italian restaurant?” The irony of us sharing a pizza in our hotel in India was not lost on us.

After our lunch we came back to our room and proceeded to veg out and watch movies.  I fell asleep again but together we watched HBO, Spanglish, and SATC the movie.  While the day was pretty hit or miss considering how Mark was feeling we ended the end of our day eating grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup in bed, in India.  That’s about as true to us as I can imagine.

Day 5
Today we are up early and will be making the journey from Agra to Jaipur.  Today is also Rosh Hashanah and I speak to my parents very briefly while they are at my cousins’ house for the holiday.  Because I am not observing the holiday in a traditional way this year I take a small comfort in seeing both pomegranate seeds and apples available for breakfast.  I have some bread and honey, for a sweet new year.   After breakfast, where Mark proves he has his appetite back we are on the bus on the way to Red Fort.

The Red Fort is also called Pratepuhr Saikh and is a UNESCO world heritage site.  When we arrive we are greeted by lots of hawkers who are very eagerly trying to sell their wares.  At a certain point this becomes very difficult to ignore and somewhat exhausting.  With that said, I do have to say their salesmanship is quite impressive, they speak Spanish, use American slang and ask for you to promise to remember them on the way out.  After entering we take a shuttle to the main area. It is a royal Mughal compound and each building is covered in intricate carvings that mimic the design we saw on the Kashmiri rugs two days earlier.

Jasbir, our guide, highlights the various buildings and points out who lived where, and why.  The buildings are all designed to maximize utility so the architecture provides privacy, breezeways and a social center.  The compound provided housing for the emperor his wife and their administrators, advisors and staff.

While we were at the compound I kept hearing the bellows of a horn, in the spirit of Rosh Hashanah I thought it was the blowing of a shofar but Jasbir told us it was just a train nearby.  Also nearby was a mosque.  I have never been to a mosque so I didn’t really know what to expect. Our guide Jasbir told us it would be pretty crazy but a worthwhile experience, so on we went.  At the entrance I put on a cardigan and removed my shoes. In sock covered feet, Mark was barefoot, we entered the chaos of the mosque courtyard.  Everything about it was intense: the colors, smells, noise.  In the courtyard hopeful locals would position themselves as guides and advise you to watch your step and also offer you the latest must have.  The hawkers in the courtyard were particularly young and clever.  One boy, maybe 8 years old determined I was from America, the land of Obama and Michael Jackson, “a good dancer”.  True on both accounts.

Also in the mosque courtyard we saw a group of boys and men standing around a charred motorcycle.  Seeing this piqued our interest, and we later learned that the day before a girl had been walking alone in the very near vicinity and was raped.  The motorcycle belonged to her attacker.

After the visit to Pratepuhr we were back in the bus continuing on to Jaipur.   Jaipur was designed by a mathematician so the layout and flow feels more obvious and logical to us.  There are highways, traffic lights, easier flows of traffic.  This city is the second busiest behind Mumbai in all of India. With that as our surrounding Jasbir tells us a bit more about the less modern elements of Indian culture, including village life, the caste system, and family values.

On the way traffic comes to a slow as we come up to a processional of women dancing, clapping and singing in bright orange saris.  They are beginning a celebration for a Hindi festival.

We finally make it to Jaipur.  At the entrance of our hotel we are greeted by a woman in an elegant sari who imprints a fragrant powder on our foreheads.  I’m still not really sure what it meant, but when in India you have to experience India.

After a short reprieve at the hotel we are back on the bus and touring Old Jaipur City.  It is messy, loud, colorful, flavorful, busy and exactly what I thought India would be like.  There are of course more hawkers but there are also shops, and food stands.  When the old city was designed it was intended for the bottom floor to be all retail with the homes on the second and third floors.  To ensure that the retail spaces were all given away for free many many years ago. The vendors have displays of vegetables, spices, and grains that would fit right in at the most resplendent farmers’ markets back home.

Jasbir does a terrific job on guiding us through the traffic maze and also warns against indulging our sense of adventure with the street food.   We are lead through a building that is inhabited by a few very old men, and where admission is a few boxes of tea.  On the rooftop you can see all of the old city.  At this height and from this vantage point we are in an oasis from the commotion.

That evening we go see the sparkle of India.  Jaipur is known for it’s jewelry so at a local jewelry shop Mark and I window shopped while admiring the beautiful diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds. After dinner we went to a local restaurant, Nero’s, for a refined and delicious dinner. With our new friends we shared several very yummy dishes.

Day 6  This is the day I was most excited for; we are going on an elephant ride!  We wait in line for the elephants in a sea of hawkers.  This was the ultimate test of our resilience to ignore their salesmanship.  We rode side saddle on the back of an elephant through the corridors and up the ramps of the Amber Fort. The elephant ride was really fun and the animals are beautiful.   The hardest part of the elephant ride is seeing how the elephants are treated; we repeatedly saw them hit with bars and whips.

After the elephant ride we explored the very large Amber fort.  It is in parts a palace, in parts a maze, but in all parts amazing.  The walls feature beautiful inlaid marble and beautiful intricate paintings.  That afternoon we went to the Jaipur Castle and to see the astronomy/astrology park that features the world’s largest sun dial. Our guide also gave us astrology reports based on our birthdate and time, turns out I was fated to be bossy, oh well.

 This afternoon we also visited a textile mart to see beautiful silks, cottons and wovens.  I got a tunic, Mark got three custom shirts made and we bought lots of pashminas as gifts.

After a short rest at the hotel we cleaned up for our last group dinner.   We were going to a traditional Indian restaurant owned by a man who went to school at Purdue in Indiana, and so named his restaurant Indiana.  The show that accompanied dinner was wild; a combination of sensual belly dancing and circus side show.  This is where the trip turned for me; dinner did not agree with me and we (my dinner and stomach) continued to fight for the rest of the night.

Day 7
 This was a long travel day.  We drove on the bus from Jaipur to Delhi – a six hour ish long bus ride.  Every bus ride is four, five, six hour ish. It is a part of the surprises of India. Included in
those surprises are the variety of animals we saw, (elephants, cows, water buffalo, goats, pigs, dogs, wild boars, peacocks, and camels), the colors, the commerce, the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, the strive to survive, the traffic and the noise.

India is a unique experience.  It takes you in and overwhelms you, from the first Namaste to the last security check before boarding the plane (four security checks!).  On most trips we’ve taken I feel bittersweet, and sometimes even sad when leaving, this time I was ready to come home. That’s a part of the story.  It is a lot to take in, and I am still working on it mentally and emotionally.  But I wouldn’t have had this experience with anyone but my husband, he pushes us to travel, to go further, to see the world and live life to the fullest.


3 responses to “Thoughts from India

  1. >The length of this article taxed my Internet Era attention span……but the content was so well-articulated that I read every word, and felt vicariously cosmopolitan by the end.Well done!

  2. >I know, I broke every Internet rule by posting something so lengthy. Believe it or not, this is the edited version. Thank you for reading it – maybe I saved you trip!

  3. Pingback: Wedding Advice: Planning Marriage | The Daily Batch

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